Ah man, my blog’s got weeds growing out of it. Yuck.
Anyway, recent life hasn’t all been work and lying listlessly on my sofa watching unhinged movies. I have also been taking a creative writing class in an attempt to get my fiction writing jump-started.
Writing fiction is awful. You’ve got to make up all kinds of crazy crap. Of the stories I have written so far this one, as a yardstick, is the least calamitously bad and outright risible one. The only instruction we had was to take the plot of something well known and use it to our own ends.
See if you can spot what I stole…
The Scratching in the Walls
Ursula knew it was the right place as soon as she saw it. The cottage had a slightly lopsided ramshackle air, but it also had solidity. Permanence. An abiding sense of rectitude that she found utterly enchanting. It looked as though it had settled into its place over centuries.
The grounds were lush and green, overgrown perhaps, but to her eyes ripe with life and promising so much. The structural stone was an enduring grey. The glass in the windows was distorted with age and had begun to bulge low in the panes. Inside it was bare. Whoever the previous resident had been there was not a single trace of them now.
As soon as she got back to the flat she’d never quite felt at home in Ursula rang the estate agent.
There was no problem with mortgage finance. She was able to pay cash with a wedge of the lump sum that Graham had had to hand over following the divorce. Graham. She rarely used his name now. Conniving, whoring little shit-weasel. That was what she called him these days.
And then there she was a scant two weeks later, in the cottage, far from the corruption, the filth and the din of the town. Just herself and Charlie No-Balls the cat. A mismatched couple in the pastoral peace she had fantasised about since she was a child.
She settled in with a speed that was almost indecent. Twenty-three years she had been married but there was little left of that now. Just ashy recriminations.
The first thing she got used to was the silence. The lack of clatter, traffic noise and human hubbub was a blessed relief. She even stopped leaving the radio on, a habit she had slipped into after the separation and divorce. Out here in the country she didn’t need the blithe distraction of Home Counties accents on Radio 4. She could luxuriate in the pure silence.
Later she became aware that under the silence, there was a more subtle noise at work. The susurration of plants moving in the breeze. The scrabbling of creatures in the dense undergrowth. The arrhythmic percussion of the rain in the woods battering down through the leaves.
She loved it.
In the dark she would find comfort in the hootings and cries of the creatures of the night. She knew she had owls. Semi-regularly she would find the gory remains of disembowelled rodents scattered over the bonnet of her car like a pagan offering.
And then, under the noise of the silence she began to sense something else that she couldn’t quite find words for. An intimation of life from the cottage perhaps. A hugely decelerated heartbeat, pulse and respiration that was part of the building’s organism. She felt comfortably subsumed. Accepted by a building that, as far as she could tell, was old when her grandparents were born.
The only thing that troubled Ursula slightly was that Charlie No-Balls seemed to be having difficulty settling in.
In town he had been fearless and urban, a street cat.
Out here in the wilds he seemed subdued. He rarely left the cottage despite the wealth of prey on offer in the garden. Indeed he spent most of his day sitting in the cottage’s kitchen looking into the dark corner of the room where the sunlight never reached, feline head cocked to one side. He made no sound. He just sat there neither tense nor relaxed, observing.
Two months into her new life Ursula found herself at her nearest neighbour’s house a mile and a half up the single-track road for a party. There were only half a dozen folk there, but she felt ill at ease, only really engaging when the subject of her cottage came up in the conversation.
“No problems then?” leered one of the guests, an unfocused car salesman whose obnoxiousness seemed to be related to his thirst.
“Problems?” said Ursula with what she hoped was a winning smile. “No, none at all, why…”
“Ignore Hector,” said Hector’s wife, whose role as apologist seemed to be well rehearsed. “He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”
But Hector leaned forward. There was whisky vapour on his breath and, up close, a fine tracery of broken capillaries across his nose and cheeks.
“Aye trouble. You know. After what happened to the previous owner.”
“I’m afraid I have no idea what happened to my predecessor,” said Ursula. She was a little askance at the idea that anything worth mentioning with this degree of melodrama had happened, but her curiosity drove her on.
“I don’t even know who used to have the place before I moved in.”
Hector leaned back and, with the tiresome air of someone who thinks himself a fine raconteur he began his story.
There wasn’t too much to it really. Shorn of embellishments it was the sad tale of an elderly woman who had lived alone, estranged from her family and tangled in depression. Being of a traditional, stoical nature she let her depression go untreated and died by her own hand.
“Hanged herself in the kitchen,” concluded Hector. “They never found the body for weeks. Electric man, come to read the meter, I think it was eventually.”
Ursula would have been keen to learn more of the woman, but her hosts steered the conversation away somewhat clumsily. There was talk of depression and isolation in rural communities. And then abruptly everyone was discussing plotlines from The Archers.
Finding her interest waning Ursula excused herself and headed home. She was the first to leave.
Back in the cottage it felt as though something had changed. Her knowledge of the building’s recent history seemed to unblock something and she felt suddenly insanely sensitive to the atmosphere.
Over the next few days she noticed new sounds.
As Charlie No-Balls maintained his kitchen vigil she started hearing scratching, scrabbling noises that sounded as though they were coming from the next room. Each time she tried to find the source though she couldn’t.
She would run through to the room where the sound seemed to originate, but there would be nothing there. The scratching was still audible though, but now it seemed to be coming from the room she had just left.
Whatever side of the wall she was on, the insistent scrabbling was on the other.
This was unsettling, but Ursula, pragmatic and hard of head, was sure that there was an explanation.
After a few days she decided that it would be best to summon a builder or a pest exterminator to have a look, but before she got a chance to do this events got ahead of her.
It was moonlessly dark, and she was in bed, fast asleep and dreaming of the early days of her marriage to Graham. The dream was so vivid that she could feel his body next to her, curling round her as though they were speech marks. In her dream his dry hand held hers.
The transition to shocked wakefulness was immediate.
This was not a dream.
Someone was in the bed next to her.
Someone was holding her hand.
“Jesus Fuck!” Adrenalin raced through her as she scrambled out of the bed. The quilt tangled itself round her. “Leave me alone!” she screamed. And then she was at the light switch by the door.
In the glow of the bulb. She could see she was alone. Mouth dry, heart hammering she moved back to the bed and ran her hand over the sheet. Were there two indentations in the mattress?
She didn’t get dressed. She just threw a heavy coat on over her nightdress, stepped into her wellies by the door and drove straight into town, her childhood faith beckoning her.
There were two Catholic churches in town.
At the first she couldn’t get any response. The building was dark and devoid of humanity.
At the second, despite it being past two in the morning she saw lights in the adjoining house. She knocked frantically and, miraculously, the door was opened by an absurdly young looking priest still wearing his dog collar in defiance of the lateness of the hour.
The young priest took one shocked look at her and said, “My child, come in. How can I help?”
After clearing a space for her to sit amid the sermon notes he had been working on, Father Tadeusz listened to her story without comment, judgment or criticism. When she had finished he just said, “I see.” Then he went into the kitchen to make more tea. Both of their cups had gone cold in the half hour it had taken her to tell her tale.
When he came back in with the tray he sat down and was silent for a few more minutes before saying, “I think I may be able to help.”
He went on to explain that the church, particularly in these strange secular times, has a realistic attitude to the supernatural. “Basically, at the level of human experience,” he summarised, “the Church no longer believes in spiritual manifestations like ghosts and demonic possessions. The Church believes in an infinitely loving God, and the unknowable nature of human psychology.” He grinned, and this human gesture calmed Ursula.
“We could still prevail on the Archbishop to get the Vatican to perform an exorcism,” he continued. “They’d do it, but it would take time and nobody involved would really believe in what they were doing. It would be for your psychological benefit only. I feel as if that wouldn’t be any use to you.”
“No,” Ursula replied. “This is a real thing. She’s still there. The depressed old woman. I’m sure of it.”
“I’m from Poland originally,” Father Tadeusz said, slightly unnecessarily Ursula thought. “I was brought up in a small village by my mother and my grandmother. I have seen things that we weren’t taught about at the seminary. I’m sure I can help. Let me gather a few things together. We go now.”
And they did, driving in convoy out to her cottage where he began his ritual.
She wasn’t sure what it was he was doing, but it involved the sprinkling of a herby-smelling liquid, and some low muttering in a language that wasn’t Latin, but didn’t sound Polish to Ursula either. Father Tadeusz progressed from room to room, and after a complete circuit of the cottage he stopped, lifted his head and rotated his shoulder blades as though ridding himself of a crick.
“That is all,” he said, and so convinced was Ursula that she burst unexpectedly into tears.
“Oh God, thank you,” she sobbed. “Thank you so much.” She embraced Father Tadeusz, but he didn’t join in. He seemed uncomfortable with the human contact in fact.
Ursula reached inside her coat pocket for her purse.
Opening it she said, “Can I…”
But Father Tadeusz cut her short with his grin again. “No money,” he said. “Absolutely no money. But if you would like to repay the deed it would be wonderful to see you at mass on Sundays. The congregation is dwindling.”
“Oh yes,” she replied. “Anything.”
“Just so,” he said. “I look forward to seeing you.”
After the priest had left Ursula took herself, warily, back to bed. Instantly she fell asleep, and she was drowsily aware of sleeping all through the next day and the next night. There were dreams of apocalyptic thunderstorms and drunken car salesmen and her cat. But when she finally awoke the world seemed fresh and new.
Charlie No-Balls had vacated his sentry position in the kitchen. Through the window she could see him prowling through the long grass in the garden. There was a light airy feeling in the kitchen.
There was no more scratching.
Six months later a horrible sulky autumn was turning into winter when there was an unexpected knock at Ursula’s door.
She opened it and guilt engulfed her.
“Father Tadeusz. What a surprise. How lovely to see you. Please come in.”
He was pleasant as they chatted, but a little distant. When, inevitably, the conversation turned to why he had not seen her at church at all she fumbled out some excuses. Even to her ears they sounded pathetic and evasive.
He left soon after that, tea undrunk, Hobnobs uneaten, and with him, imagined Ursula, went some of the life out of the cottage.
Over the next year things deteriorated.
Charlie No-Balls disappeared without a trace.
The wiring in the cottage developed an intermittent, untraceable fault.
Plants withered and died.
Ursula took to drink.
A meter reader found her body.
(Copyright John Feetenby 2010)