The Intruder – a short story

When a house is fifty or more years old it has many secrets locked within its structure. There are happy times, births, new babies, children’s voices, family gatherings, laughter, dinners, general everyday living and celebrations of good news. Inevitably there are also sad times, accidents, sicknesses, losses, commiseration of bad news and deaths. Each event is absorbed into the fabric of the house; into the walls and doors, into the stair treads and risers, into the newel posts, into the floor and roof beams, and even into the window frames and glass. At night, when every-day events of the present are hushed, the astute awake insomniac may hear whisperings of these memories; a door slams shut, a stair creaks, a strange noise emanates from the attic, a shadow flits across the glass, the musty smell of age morphs into the odor of fresh bread wafting from the kitchen. In this respect, the house, named Hilltop, was no different; so that when Lilly and her family bought it in 1955 they had no false expectations. Indeed Lilly privately thought that what the house lacked in aesthetics might be made up for by ample stored character. She was un-phased, indeed fascinated by the occult, and longed to discover Hilltop’s secrets.

Lilly’s desire was unspoken and she, along with the rest of the family of five professed to be drawn to the house because of its size which trumped its lack of beauty. The size was impressive, spread between two high-ceiling floors and an attic, it had five bedrooms, one-and-a-half bathrooms, and five main floor ‘living rooms’. These spaces were neatly encased in an almost featureless red brick cube, which, contrary to its name, was not on the top of the hill. When it had been built it probably had been the highest structure in the area, but over the years every available space on the hill was sub-divided into lots, so that houses sprang up to quietly make a mockery of Hilltop’s name. Hilltop scorned the newcomers, luxuriating in expansive gardens which unfurled down the hillside and in a magnificent view across the valley to Durham Cathedral.

The seller told Lilly that Hilltop had been built, in 1901, by a builder for himself. Although the builder must have been able to see the beauty of the Cathedral’s architecture he, being immersed in construction, was more interested in its longevity and stability. He had the materials at hand and so he made the house’s exterior walls in fifteen inch solid masonry, and the roof and floor timbers from six-inch wide lumber with depths varying up to twenty-four inches.

Lilly and her family moved-in in late December. The house groaned with an impenetrable icy cold. The little family discovered that walls without insulation, even walls of fifteen inch solid masonry are not good insulators. Lilly had the coal cellar stocked with local coal and built fires in the fireplaces, happy that there was one in all the major rooms. Over Christmas they began to redecorate the interior. In one of the front rooms, which they planned make their library, they found five layers of wallpaper, a layer for each decade of the house’s existence. When they exposed the original plaster they found a name and date scribbled on the surface. In two lines it read:

1900
Joe (45)

Lilly’s family was delighted, each child asking permission to add their inscriptions, which they did. Each added their age, starting with the oldest:

1955
Mary (12)

Lilly and her husband added theirs, although Lilly, always coy about her age, only thought that she inscribed:

1955
Lilly

The next day when the painters arrived, and Lilly showed them the wall, she was astonished to see that all the names now had ages after them starting with:

1900
Joe (100)

And ending with herself:

1955
Lilly (45)

No-one in the family admitted to having touched the wall since their initial signing session, so Lilly eventually became convinced that perhaps she had, in a rash moment, included her age. In her rationalization she thought that she could have been mistaken about Joe’s inscription; she just wasn’t sure what she wanted to believe. When she inspected the writing she was almost thought that she could see a faint 45 below the 100. It didn’t escape her that the original 45 plus the intervening 55 gives 100. Could this inscription be part of the house’s stored history or was Lilly merely forgetful and overly imaginative? She instructed the painters to paint the wall and the mysterious notations were rapidly covered by light green paint.

Neighbors came to call to welcome the newcomers. Lilly struck up a friendship with Helen who lived in a house further up the hill and directly across the street. In addition to her welcoming role Helen was on a mission. She was heavily involved in a number of philanthropic enterprises. She dearly wished to recruit Lilly. There were many options, ranging from, ‘Meals on Wheels’, hospital and prison visits, to a ‘Big Brother’ youth program. Lilly selected ‘Meals on Wheels’ and also undertook to ‘adopt’ an old person to visit in the old people’s home / hospital. Every time that the women met Helen talked of the many needs that she was trying to meet. She was especially proud on Julian, an eleven year-old youth whom she had befriended and who spent occasional weekends at their home. Each time that the subject was raised Lilly demurred on getting involved with youth; after all she pointed out, she had three children of her own to worry about.

Over the next years Lilly occasionally noticed strange unexplained nocturnal noises; a rustle in the attic, a creak of the stairs, a moan of wind around the eaves, or was it the wind? One 1960 autumn Sunday morning, her attention was grabbed in a new way, for she came downstairs to the distinct smell of smoke wafting from the library. As an ex-smoker she determined that it was a not the smell of coal burning but the distinctive odor of cigarette. She breathed in deeply to savor its hidden pleasure, and waited for her husband to come down ready for work. When he did she calmly approached him:

“John, do you smell cigarette in the library?”

He gave her an odd look and went into the library, “It does smell of cigarette,” he agreed. “But it’s not me.” His rejoinder was emphatic as he shook his head. A moment later he paled and turned to face his wife, “The smell is one thing, but now I suggest that something very odd is going on for my drink cabinet door is ajar and,” he reached and opened the cabinet, “and, yes it almost looks as though someone has been taking a swig of my whisky. The cap is off.” His hand trembled as he reached and screwed on the cap, “I never leave the cap off.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes I’m sure.’ Then, seeing his wife’s amazed, almost frightened stare he added, “Well, perhaps I did leave the cap off last night, very odd, it would be a first.”

“Let’s check to see if someone could have got in – a loose window an unlocked door.”

They checked but found nothing unusual so they gently approached their children and their cleaning lady. After a few days they became convinced that the whole thing was reasonably explained by natural events.

A Sunday morning three weeks later they again smelt cigarette smoke, this time accompanied by a cigarette butt in the grate and a dirty whisky glass on the mantel. They both suspected an intruder but the doors and windows were all secure and why would someone merely smoke and drink and not steal anything? This was when Lilly voiced her growing private concern,

“Do you think? Do you think, that maybe, well maybe, our nocturnal visitor is some-one from Hilltop’s past?”

“Are you suggesting a ghost? Surely you aren’t suggesting that are you?’ John looked quizzical and then added, “It can’t be a ghost; for surely ghosts don’t drink or smoke. I thought that they, if they exist, are ethereal – like smoke themselves.”

“Well who knows, maybe this one does smoke and drink. Certainly he seems harmless enough, but I don’t like the thought that, even if he is harmless, he is in here drinking and smoking while you and I and the children are upstairs asleep. And then there is the issue of the writing on the wall. I’ve never been fully convinced that someone or something didn’t change the wall overnight.”

‘Well, do you want to stay up and watch?”

“No not really, but I suppose that we ought to.”

Over the next two weeks Lilly and John took turns sitting in the great reading chair in the library watching overnight. They saw nothing. Everything remained peaceful. Eventually fatigue and realism checked in and they abandoned their wake, to return to their normal routine. On the Saturday morning after their abandoned watch John was in his garden pruning dead-heads off the roses. Over the fence he watched Helen escorting a young man into their house. She had her arm around his shoulders. John mentioned his almost scandalized observation to Lilly. She responded with an explanation that the young man was not Helen’s lover but an ‘at risk’ youth whom she had befriended through the ‘Big Brother’ program. He occasionally spent the weekend at Helen’s.

The following Sunday morning they came downstairs to a library which had obviously been used by someone during the night. There were several cigarette butts in the grate, an empty whisky glass on the mantel and a couple of automobile magazines lying on the floor. As usual there was no evidence of forced entry. This time Lilly called the police. They arrived in two squad cars and powdered surfaces to take finger-prints. Lily said nothing although she privately wondered whether ghosts leave fingerprints. In this case there was an ample supply of good ones. The police suggested that they change the lock on the front door to a dead bolt. The existing lock, they explained, could be easily bypassed by anyone using a plastic card.

During a follow-up interview with the police John had an epiphany.

“Haven’t all our visitations been on Saturday nights?’ he asked.

“Well, yes, it has always been Sunday mornings when we found things amiss. You are right it is always on Saturday nights. So?”

“So, don’t you see? Helen’s troubled youth visits on occasional weekends spending Saturday night in their home – or maybe, more accurately, a large part of Saturday night in ours.

© Jane Stansfeld March 2015

The Poltergeist – a short story

Nowadays few people have heard of poltergeists, and if they have, they probably know of them by the Wikipedia definition or perhaps from movies or TV dramas. Here we learn that poltergeists are troublesome spirits, akin to ghosts, who haunt particular persons rather than places. We learn that poltergeist manifestations generally include; moving objects, pinching and biting, hitting, odd noises without explanation, and strange, apparently one-sided, conversations.

This may be all good and proper but when I was a child my mother gave me an entirely different explanation – one which appeals to me far more than the present popular accounts. In fact, after you have heard her description you may well realize that your home also hosts a poltergeist.

Mother began with a picture. I remember her drawing to this day; a dark black blob-like being with disproportionately large eyes and the lower portion of its body squeezed into the bath tub drain. The image which she drew in 1955 illustrated its ability to morph into a semi-fluid state. This is an image adopted by the “Terminator II” and other movies in which we encounter beings that can flow like mercury and then reassemble into recognizable forms.

We lived in a large house dating from 1901 and Mother went on explain that it was not unusual to have a poltergeist in a house of that age. She introduced me to some of our poltergeist’s mischievous, and tell-tale goings-on.  According to her the first, most common poltergeist activity is the theft of socks. If you house one he probably has the same attraction for them. The problem, according to Mother, is that poltergeists go for single socks leaving an orphan behind, she never explained why they only remove one, perhaps she didn’t know or perhaps I never asked. I even wonder if this is because poltergeists only have one foot or because they use the socks for other purposes. Maybe they use them as bedding or food or some other mysterious function only known to them. Mother kept the orphan socks in a special drawer always hoping that pairings would occur– they never did.

Mother went on to blame any odd occurrence in our home on the luckless poltergeist. Such things included lost keys, mislaid letters, books and items, the occasional strange breakages and even odd nocturnal noises and movements. Generally the manifestations were in secret and we never actually saw objects levitate and did not experience any biting, nipping or shoving. From this I deduce that ours was a very nice poltergeist, although I am convinced that he ate Santa’s cookies on Christmas Eve!

It is strange but I now believe that we have a poltergeist in our modern sealed air-conditioned ten-year old home. At first the realization didn’t bother me unduly as I can handle a few mismatched socks, indeed, like my mother before me, I have an orphan sock drawer, and when it gets too full I make some of them into dusters.  But, of course, it didn’t stop with socks, and we began to hear strange noises in the walls – an uncanny gnawing, rasping sound, always at night and always when my husband or I had been woken by some strange force.

The next manifestation was the moving of objects. Now here I have to be honest, and explain that we never saw an object moving, only the results of its motion. The car keys, for example, which my husband always puts on the hall table, ended up in our bedroom; or my cell phone on the back patio; or a book moved from bedside table to the bench in the garage. Such instances might be explained by our getting older and more forgetful, however, the increased frequency seemed disproportionate to the speed of our aging and so I knew that our poltergeist was getting braver and more mischievous.

The limits of my tolerance were reached when my visiting daughter, carrying her baby, tripped on the stairs for no apparent reason. She managed to catch herself and to keep hold of the baby although she was severely bruised.  She was convinced that her mishap had something to do with the slick surface of the treads and her socks. Oh no, socks again as the root of the problem! I thought to myself – if it looks like poltergeist, and acts like poltergeist, then it is a poltergeist. Yes it carried the marks of poltergeist activity and I was worried as our being seemed to have abandoned mischievous in favor of malicious.

My concern drove me back to the internet to search for a poltergeist whisperer or exorcist. After all there are whisperers ranging from husband whisperer to horse whisperer and a cat whisperer, so, I thought, why not poltergeists whisperer? I found no one, no web site, devoted to poltergeist whispering or exorcism.

Then I remembered mother’s drawing and decided to purge our drains. My logic was that if the poltergeist could go down a drain perhaps this was his means of access to the socks in the washing machine and perhaps the drains served as his habitat. I called Roto-Rooter and had all the drains de-clogged. I even insisted that every p-trap be disassembled and thoroughly cleaned. For a while I was lulled into a belief that the poltergeist had departed. But just as I was starting to celebrate another sock went missing and I knew that I had accomplished nothing.

At about this time the gnawing noises in the walls increased. I wondered whether this was because the poltergeist had changed habitat from drain to wall. But, when I talked to our neighbor over the fence, he suggested that our problem was a rat infestation. I called in an exterminator who confirmed my neighbor’s theory. He gave us a two headed line of attack. First, that we seal the eaves and second that poison and traps be placed in opportune places. I had my husband do the sealing and the exterminator place the poison and traps. This approach netted some dead rats and the gnawing noises ceased, but I was no closer to solving my poltergeist.

One evening, about a month later, when my husband was away on a business trip, I answered the front door bell to an odd looking character. He was a slight man of indeterminate middle age wearing a starched white shirt, pressed blue jeans and loafers. If it weren’t for the loafers and lack of a hat I’d have guessed him to be associated with the rodeo. Normally I wouldn’t give a stranger on our porch the time of day but there was something about his stance which lulled me into acceptance. He didn’t step too close and yet he didn’t step back as so many unwanted solicitors do; he kept just the right distance to suit my sensitivity. As we spoke I waved, across the yard, to our neighbor, who was outside cleaning his car; whereupon my visitor mumbled something about his acquaintance with them. He smiled pleasantly, a beguiling sweet smile across his stubble face and mentioned that he was there on my stoop because he had heard that I was looking for a poltergeist whisperer. Looking back it sounds stupid but I was so surprised and pleased that I invited this total stranger into my home.

We sat down at the breakfast room table and I poured us both a coke and brought out a plate of oatmeal raisin cookies. I told him about the drains and he nodded as if he already knew about this fruitless exercise; then I went on to tell him about the rats. He nodded and remarked, in his soft masculine voice, that the rats were probably an annoyance to my poltergeist and that their extermination was a good thing. I showed Mother’s drawing to him. He smiled merrily as he fondled it in his hands and eventually he looked at me and commented,

“You mother knew a lot. This is a good likeness. I do not advise its general circulation.” He shifted so that his body was bathed in sunlight giving him an ethereal aura and went on, “I’m sure that this image is treasured by you but ask if I may keep it?”

I hesitated before answering for I liked the drawing but his look was most beguiling, “OK,” I said, “you may keep it but only if you can communicate with my poltergeist and make sure that we have no more accidents on the stairs.”

“That should be possible” he murmured.

I was getting a little frustrated by his sleepy demeanor siting in the sunlight enjoying my cookies and so I asked “What will you do, how can you communicate and whisper to my poltergeist?”

“We communicate,” he said evasively, “but apart from no more accidents what do you wish to achieve, and what will you give in return? You realize that total exorcism is futile but we can modify activity.”

“So, you can’t get him to leave?”

“Nope, and even if I could another would move in. You are best off pursuing a modification of behavior.”

At that moment I realized that I liked our poltergeist and didn’t want total exorcism. I certainly didn’t want to have to learn to live with a new comer. “No more accidents.” I said “If you can’t totally exorcise my poltergeist then I ask for no more accidents and a reduction in moved objects. I need assurance that there will be no more escalation of activity.”

My visitor reached for another cookie. “I can fix it so that all you need to do is to stop fretting and to weekly leave out a plate of these cookies. Your poltergeist will be happy and there will be no more negative activity.”

“How, how will you accomplish this?”

“Our discussion is enough,” he replied, “and now I need to return.”

I showed him to the front door and watched him walk away his body becoming more and more difficult to distinguish in the play of sun and shadow up our front garden steps. As I watched I noticed his socks to be decidedly mismatched. On his left foot was a striped tan and on his right a black and white harlequin pattern. Surely, I thought, those are my two most recently missing socks.

A little unsettled, I turned to look at my neighbor who was putting a final polish on his car. I waved and asked, “Did the gentleman who just left also talk to you?”

“Which gentleman?” was his unnerving reply, “weren’t you talking to yourself?”

That’s when it hit me. It is me, I am the whisperer. I’ll have to set up a website tomorrow.

Copyright © Jane Stansfeld 2013

The Muse – a short story

Even though Brad had been failing at work before his official retirement, his entire office went to his funeral. He was too young to die, and to go in such an accident seemed a cruel twist of fate to one who had already endured much. Even as they arrived at the church each of them looked at the handicapped spaces with an additional twinge of remorse. They reminded so poignantly of this man who had had three unlucky episodes in his life.

For yes, Brad had a handicapped sticker on his car although he seldom parked in handicapped spaces rationalizing that he was ambulatory and needed exercise. He was right on both scores. However, no one begrudged him a close-in parking space for, surely, missing one hand needed some compensation. He had managed to overcome his handicap with remarkable stoicism and could drive, type, draw and complete his daily duties as quickly as people with two hands.

He lost his right hand in a freak accident when he was four years old. An inquisitive child, sitting on a butcher’s counter assisting his grandfather make sausages, he put his little right hand into the meat grinder along with the meat. Those were the days before elaborate prostheses and so Brad learned to cope with a stump on his right. He did well, passing through school with honors and then on to university to become an architect. He was successful in his profession and eventually fell in love with, and married, a colleague interior designer. At that point in his life things looked rosy.

His second blow of bad luck was his wife’s inability to conceive and their joint sadness. Brad faced his sorrow with nicotine and alcohol, which drove his wife to ask for a divorce. After the divorce he threw himself into a bachelor life, revolving around architecture, cigarettes, and alcohol. The three worked together like waves in the ocean. At times one eclipsed the others, at times they worked in unison. Unfortunately the waves were part of a spiraling eddy, and as they whirled around each other, they became increasingly intense until Brad, caught in their action, began to suffer.

He entered the ‘black” phase of his life. Each night he drank enough to dull his pain and took to his bed thinking about the futility of life. Sometimes he saw dark shadows looming over him. Sometimes the shadows were his own thoughts channeled into alternate ways of ending his misery. There were so many options: a high place, a gun, a gas oven, a bath and razor, starvation. At these times he admitted to himself that his present self-destructive path, laced with cigarettes and alcohol, was probably on the right track. Gradually the alcohol eclipsed architecture and Brad took what he euphemistically called an ‘early retirement’.

His lack of employment had many side effects. With less to live on he moved into a slummy apartment, but with decreased obligations he could concentrate more seriously on drinking himself into oblivion. His dark shadows were frequent nocturnal visitors whom he greeted with mixed emotion.

One night when he retired to bed sad and sodden, just as he finished his last cigarette of the day he heard a soft female voice call his name. He drowsily turned towards the voice and saw her shadow moving across the room. Her movement was so smooth that he wondered if she was floating. He took a deep breath and pondered who his beautiful visitor could be. She didn’t scowl, as his demons of earlier nights had menaced, she simply smiled at him. Then she was standing beside his bed and her cold hand touched his. He felt a wave of desire like an electric shock. He swung his feet to the ground and sat up. He stared into her face and noticed that her eyes were so dark that he couldn’t distinguish her pupils. He shifted his gaze to behold the rest of her face. The moonlight gave the room light and shadow; he saw her countenance to be pale and very beautiful while her dark hair was braided into an elaborate seeping style to expose her long, Modigliani, white neck.

She gently, very gently, drew him onto his feet. That was when the music started. The Blue Danube floated through the open window on soft night air and they were dancing. He was in perfect control; his right hand held her back and guided her movements, his left touched hers. Her flowing black dress, which hung from her shoulders, floated and swayed as they danced.

They danced on a highly polished wood floor in a room of mirrors. He kept catching glimpses of themselves; a flawless matched pair moving as one across the floor. Fred and Ginger could not have been more perfect. Their harmonious movements were synchronized with the music. They waltzed until he felt dizzy and his right hand on her back was beginning to throb with the heat of contact. Then she led him back to his bed and kissed him; a soft brush of her lips on his. Trembling, he lit a cigarette. She shook her head to indicate that, no, she didn’t smoke, and was gone.

The next morning he arose earlier than his norm and ate food. His encounter of the previous night haunted him; he could see her, feel her body, and his every movement was set to the Blue Danube. He went to the mall, still floating on his cloud of content. Uncharacteristically, he parked in the best handicapped spot. As he walked inside he stared at that nonexistent hand which had throbbed so much the previous night. He went to a men’s department and bought himself the most elegant black silk pajamas that he could find.

That evening he drank less and, instead of collapsing into bed, he bathed and dressed in his new pajamas before retiring. He lay in bed reading and smoking until drowsiness began to overtake him, then he turned off the light and smoked in the moonlight. No sooner had he extinguished his last cigarette than she appeared. She was wearing a short low-cut silk dress which swished as she moved. Again she touched him and he rose. Vito Disalvo’s “Tango in the Park” began to play and they tangoed.

They danced on a decorated mosaic floor in a tall rotunda. She matched his every motion, or was he matching hers? He swung her around with both hands as they looped, curled, and swayed to the music. His whole body tingled with pleasure at the excitement of their exotic dance. At each extraordinary step he heard applause from the balconies above. It reinforced his exquisite joy. Just when he thought that exhaustion would overtake him, she led him back to his bed and kissed him with the same brush of soft lips. Trembling, he lit a cigarette, again she shook her head indicating that she didn’t smoke, and was gone.

He greeted dawn with only one thought on how fast he could make the day pass; how quickly he could trick night into coming. He drowned his anticipation in alcohol but not so much that he couldn’t still prepare meticulously for bed. On this night he stumbled a little for he was drunk both with alcohol and anticipation. Just as on the previous nights, she came to him as he finished his cigarette. Even in the moonlight he could see that her dress was fiery red. She had one strap over her left shoulder and wore matching long red gloves. Her touch was soft, so very soft. As he rose he dropped his lighted cigarette on the bedding, which began to smolder. He didn’t notice for the music was a foxtrot, and he was already lulled into her aura.

They were on the beach, the warm sand was hard enough for dancing and a mist enveloped them. They were the couple in the Jack Vettriano’s painting ‘The Singing Butler”. All movement centered on them and oh, how they danced. His right hand guided her on her bare skin exposed by her backless dress; slow, slow, quick, quick, slow. The tempo gradually increased as they danced in unison. His ecstasy amplified until he blended into her essence and was gone.