Ashen grey as the world had become, the old, crooked house stood on the hill-top, view towards the forest to the north, and view towards the village in the south. In between there was nothing but the marsh surrounding the hill-top where grass had been kindly allowed to survive through time. Poppies, daisies and violets scattered the rough ground which had only one road going from and to the house and through the marsh to the main road. Practically, the road ended before the marshland, but patient souls had spent days, weeks and months making a path, throwing sand and gravel across a narrow belt which then reached the old house.
The sky was always grey, the Scottish weather was of an unpleasantly predictable structure, and people wondered when the erosion would cause the hill to slant, the house to slide and the entire foundation to collapse.
Except from Paula Mulligan. Paula would be very sad indeed, because this was the house where she lived and worked tirelessly for Mary Bell. Day in and day out. She was an elderly lady, a nurse who had attended the great battleships during World War II and had now returned to carry out simple chores for weak and disabled people.
Mary Bell was her patient whom she now, for the last two decades had consulted daily, and in the end she skipped her other patients and moved in to settle with Mary Bell as her private nurse. There was a family fortune of which she got a monthly fee, and she did not complain, even though the fee rate was lower compared to all the chores she had in the house. The creaky floors and the rickety stairs had to be mopped, the panels and half empty bookcases dusted and the cobwebs removed from the corners and the tainted windows. The plaster was peeling from the walls; the house was literally giving up and it was only a matter of time before it would fall in on itself.
There was a grey sepia tone which clung to the house. Even the flowers she brought in from outside became tarnished by the darkness behind the drawn curtains; the candles blazed dimly and the fire in the fireplace or the stove was shrouded from becoming a fully-fledged orange hue.
The house was narrow, not many rooms on each floor, and most of them were rarely used by anyone else than herself and the mice scattering across the floor whenever she entered. There was the ground floor with the dining hall and the parlour and beyond the little kitchen. The next floor had three bedrooms and a bathroom as well as a small study. From this floor there was a long, slender staircase with only a small light at the top and the bottom. It reached a narrow landing with a single door. Beyond this door, Mary Bell’s chambers lay.
It was a spartaneous furnished room, the floorboards’ lacquer worn off by years of walking, splinters protruding from them like the nails, hazardous to step upon without wearing crocks. There were windows turned north, three of them side by side, and the room was open to the roof where the rafters hung almost dismantled from the original place, spiders’ and mice nests huddled close against the roof tiles. An old unstable hospital bed stood with the bed head against the left wall, below a faded portrait of the beauty that Mary Bell had once been. Cherry blossom cheeks, red haired and radiant violet eyes gazing under a pearl adorned veil. A fair bride. Beside her stood the shape of a tall man, but he was faded so that even the facial expression had become a hazy mist. The only thing one could discern from the picture was the lily in his breast pocket, abloom and almost radiant compared to the rest of the painting’s colours.
But now, what was left of the once gorgeous young woman was practically already a corpse. She lay in the bed, her feeble hands grey against the white linen, the veins curling up like the rivers of central Europe and the drop stuck under the skin. The face was sunken and gaunt, the skin basically parchment. The lace visible by her neck was neatly done and pressed, like all her other dresses that Paula ironed in the evening and laid out in the morning. She could not bear Mary being clad in the simple uniform that was required by her bureau when she attended her patients. Now that she had become a resident in her patient’s own home, she would treat her patient like a human being and not an object. She had come to realize how the procedures she had had to follow in the past objectified people and stripped them from the last dignity they would have in life, before death took them into his embrace.
When Paula had first had the assignment, it stated nothing else than Mary Bell being old, needing help to do chores in her house and to medicate herself properly. She was on morphine and diazepam and a hoard of other drugs. She picked up the prescription, went to the pharmacy and got what she needed, once a month. She did this without really thinking that things could be different. But now she wasn’t so sure anymore.
Mary Bell had been in a wheel chair when she first got to the house. She had been kind, smiling, still some of her old vigor and her skin not as dry as it was now. She told about the house as she showed Paula around, how it had been in the family for ages. She halted by the doorways, placing her hand on the frames like she felt the tremor of memories through the wood, resembling the images that she described to Paula. The golden days with laughter, flowing gowns, golden light from the chandeliers and red wine in torrents from the now dusty crystal decanters in the cabinets. It had been marvelous times, she had said, her eyes dreamy with remembrance.
But gradually she had needed more and more help and then finally she never left bed. Paula had a hard time just getting her into the wheel chair to drive her to the shower. She saw the woman slowly crumble, destabilizing into the old woman she had now become. Paula was sick from watching her patient dying in front of her eyes. She couldn’t take it much longer, and sure Mary Bell would also die off one day with nothing left for the world but the house already falling apart. Once, though, a young man in a suit had come by. She hadn’t even got his name before he was up the stairs to the next floor and out of sight. She did not want to bother if it was a private matter, but she never saw the man again and his visit was the one that had started the downward spiral for Mary Bell’s health.
Whatever had happened, whether he was the family lawyer, a son or a grandson, she had not given it a second thought. To be honest she remembered very few of his features seeing that he had been a whirlwind through the entrance hall when she had opened the door to let him in. So whether he was a relative, she could not tell. She had tried to find some family photographs but none depicted a man his height and slender built. Children were there, true, but they had to be older by now than he had been. But then on the other hand, she could not even remember when he had visited. A few years into her service, maybe?
For the last few months the visit had haunted her often in her sleep. A faceless man and Mary Bell’s increasing illness in his wake. A curse of some kind. She imagined him standing by her bed, shrouded in the darkness of the late afternoon gloom. The darkness would stretch out towards her, embracing her and rendering her of her last life force, leaving her like the corpse she had now been for the last many years. The man would then straighten up and walk towards the door, his motions graceful and smooth, like a dolphin swirling in the ocean. Paula watched from the sideline but somehow the man would know she was there. He would reach for the handle and turn to look at her with eyes that weren’t there but still he saw her, he looked straight at her, such a piercing gaze that she would wake up in an instant, panting with fear.
Now she had frequently glanced to the road, through the shimmery curtain of rain drawn across the window panes, expecting him to return one day. Either for herself or for Mary Bell. Paula was not young anymore, she herself was beginning to feel the pressure of old age building. And where would she go when Mary Bell was no more? She had no other homes and only distant cousins with literally no idea where she was and what she had been doing. Her dedication to the old and dying woman in the attic had taken away her life. When she had come back from the war and peace had finally settled, she had had a dream about moving to one of the big cities, going to college and maybe studying at the university, finding herself a nice boyfriend, buying a house, having kids and a car, maybe even a puppy to raise.
But the dream had never come true. She felt the bitterness swelling up once in a while, a sickening taste of bile threatening her cleft. And when she felt it, she looked to the road, somehow wishing for the man to return and take her and Mary Bell away, ending their tiresome existence, alone in the big old house, the entire structure creaking and churning whenever a storm hit up; even when the wind was a mere breeze, drafts would make doors slam and curtains quiver.
But she could not predict the end just as little as she could predict the weather. It was late autumn 1978, and the wind was gaining across the plains. In the distance the cattails rustled like a choir and the trees wavered forth and back, a black mass pulsating against the leaden sky. Whatever day it was, she had no clue as a matter of fact. It could have been a Friday or a Tuesday. It would not have mattered much. This was the day the burden lifted from her heart and made it skip like it had not skipped since being aboard a ship during a firefight.
She saw him.
It was a short glimpse that day, but it was enough for her to make her legs shaky and force her down into one of the dining table chairs staring out of the window where she had seen him. He had been there, on the road, like a glitch. There was no rain to trick her eyes through the window pane, no shrubbery to block her view. He had been there. Nicely dressed in a suit and, with a red tie and a hat. His face had been turned to the house but too far away for her to make out any distinct features.
But he was there in the blink of an eye, and then he vanished. Gone for good. She thought for a moment that her mind had deceived her, that her hopes were getting too high, but in her heart she knew that she was right. The rest of the day she kept her eyes to the windows but nothing showed up. Rain came in and washed the air clean. She opened the windows in the entrance hall to let it all in, like a cleansing potion through the old house. Dust rose and hurled itself through the corridors, making her cough violently.
But somehow the air helped. The grey layers thinned and revealed the colours of the plaster and the wood. Deep auburn rosewood with carvings now recognizable, the plaster a faded blue with green leaves in an ornate pattern. Cobwebs disappeared places she had never been able to reach. Even the chandeliers regained their former glory. She almost laughed as she stood in the entrance hall and saw everything anew. Although weathered, it was all there. The memories that Mary Bell had spoken about. Her laughter almost revived them, flowed through her as she imagined everything come alive. The prehistoric guests going forth and back, glasses shimmering in their hands, jewelry tinkling and voices floating down the hallways.
She put Mary Bell to sleep around nine o’clock. After that she sat in the parlour with a well-earned drink before she left for her bedroom upstairs. As she lay down, she felt as lighthearted as she had not felt for a long time. Things would be better in the future. There was hope.
Then for a week she saw nothing. The house returned to its gloom and her hopes sizzled away until one evening when she, once again sat in the parlour. The grandfather clock ticked and tocked as it had always done. Then, in a heartbeat, there was a knock on the front door. The sound sent shivers down her spine. There had not been any visitors for the past six months. Not even the doctor had been around to check on Mary Bell, her next checkup would be in two weeks.
The knock startled her. Especially because it was just once. Not the expectant two or three knocks. Just one single sound breaking the monotone cycle of the clock’s ticking. She sat still a while before grabbing her cane and shuffling to the entrance hall. She halted midway through the room and listened. Her heart was galloping.
“Hello?” she called. She was amazed at her croaking voice. When had she spoken last? She hummed tunes when cleaning and she occasionally talked to soothe Mary Bell while dressing her or bathing her. But it was a while now that she had done so. Forgetting herself. Forgetting how to speak.
Seeing that there was no reply, she approached the door cautiously, unlocked it and slid it open just a few inches to peer out into the dark. She fumbled for the switch on the inside to light the porch but the lamp had gone out apparently. But against the light reflected on the ground and the sky, she could see the silhouette of a man on the doorstep. The light from inside did not hit anything else than his chest where the satin tie shimmered nobly.
“I’m here to see Mrs. Bell.”
The voice was just as cold as the air that came in from outside.
“Who shall I present?” Paula asked.
“She knows me.” The man moved forward, the light hinting the chin but still no light on the face. Paula resisted with only the door as her force against him.
“I’m sorry, sir. No visitors unless you’re a relative,” she insisted, but so did he, not budging his foot between the door and the frame.
“I’m here to see Mrs. Bell,” he repeated. The voice almost knocked her off her feet and she lost her grip and stumbled backwards as he opened the door, forcefully but without violence. He strode past her, once again succeeding in hiding his face from her. She tried to catch up with him.
“Sir? SIR!” she called and humped as well as she could up the stair. A draft shut the front door behind her, making her jump out of her skin, but she kept a steady pace, as steady as it could be, while making her way through the house. She could hear the footsteps ahead of her.
“Sir? Sir, you’re trespassing!” she called. “I’m going to call the police!”
She came to a halt at the stairway going up to the attic. The door was ajar and she began ascending, cautious not to make too much noise but the floorboards were not in her favour. Straining her ears, she tried to listen for anything upstairs but no sound came down to greet her. She continued, struggling with a sudden death-weight in her entire body. Lifting the cane was harder than usual and her feet were glued to the floor.
She fought bravely but in the end, at the last step, her knees gave way and she fell over, half-way across the landing. She struggled to get onto her feet but not even her cane could sustain her. It broke in two when she tried to stand with it. She crawled on her stomach towards the door and pushed it up to peek around the corner. She heard the beeping from the heart monitor speeding up as she saw the man by the bed. She was too low to see what actually happened but just like her dreams had depicted it, the darkness surrounded the bed, however from it was a glow emitting from probably where Mary Bell’s face was.
But gradually it faded as the heart monitor slowed down to the tune of the dead. In the same second the man turned around. Only now did she see his face. The eyes were astonishingly green, the lush green of spring, but the pupil was narrow like that of a snake. His face was keen with marked cheekbones and a thin lipped smile. As he turned she felt a blow against her face, like a wind pulsating against her, warm, like a caress on her cheek and brow. Her body felt heavier and heavier, her eyelids as well. The last thing she remembered was his outstretched arms as he bent over to reach her, his lips split in a smile revealing a toothless mouth, black like night, opening up, welcoming her into the last intake of breath that she would take. And as he embraced her, she heard the pulse still residing within him, the pulse which had once been Mary Bell’s.