By Laura Yates
3PM: I have arrived at Chapel House. It is exactly as the advert described. A remote, quiet and picturesque former chapel. My mother would have thought this place creepy – evil. The kind of place where the devil lives and bad things happen. She would never have approved of me being here – told me I couldn’t cope – that I would be too afraid.
Honeysuckle runs down the sides of the door frame; alert, fragrant blossoms drip from tendrils and stare at me as I walk to ring the bell. I hesitate. Something tells me that there is something very wrong with this place – but I tell myself it is merely the mounds of earth in the adjacent field, no doubt remnants of what would have been a graveyard to accompany this place, making me feel uneasy. I am brave; I am capable and it is time to move on.
Barbara answers the door. Her hair is shockingly white, and frames a face which is almost as colourless, and pale, nervous eyes that do not meet mine, instead looking at the floor or just behind me. She is wearing a crisp, white blouse with criss-cross stitching and a long skirt, as if ready for a church service. There is a crucifix hanging from her neck which she rubs at absent-mindedly with the pad of her thumb. I may previously have been wary of her, wondering about her evasiveness – but not now – I will not be scared of her, as a child may be scared of a witch in a story.
We walk across the parquet floor, which she explains is the original floor of the chapel. Vases of fresh, deep red peonies sit on dark wooden sideboards; petals clot together in huge blooms. They smell of funerals, and I wonder how many have taken place here, and how this woman comes to be here alone. I voice my thoughts – how is she here in such an isolated place, proprietor of this retreat? She says she wanted quiet – that she could not bear the noise of the town. She leaves it at that as she begins to walk up the staircase, which I notice makes no noise under her feet. I glance out of a small window off the staircase, and see miles and miles of land; green earth and trees. Peace. Silence. It dawns on me that a person could scream for one’s life, and there would be no one at all to hear it. I suppress a shudder. I am resolute – I will not be scared.
I hold onto this resolution as she opens the door to my room. I immediately see a round window high above the head of what will be my bed, too high to look out of but through which light pours. I slowly realise that my room would be situated at the very top of the building were it not for an attic space, the hatch to which is above my bed. It has no bolt which I can see. I look from the hatch to Barbara and note her eyes dropping to the floor, and her hand rising to that cross again. As if sensing my thoughts, she asks if I might better go to another establishment, one less quiet. There is something of this that reminds me of my mother and my determination to be strong increases. I tell her I will stay as planned – that this is the perfect place to spend time while recovering from the loss of my mother. To this, she says nothing.
As my temporary custodian leaves I notice her stare move towards the side of the room, at some shelves containing benign decorative items – then I see on the edge of the shelves a pair of Punch and Judy dolls, with serious faces which stare heavily back at Barbara. I go to ask about them, but the door is already closing behind her. When it shuts I look more around my lodgings. Sparse yet comfortable. This should be an ideal place to relax and be at peace. I go to walk towards the dolls on the shelf – funny little things they are. It is an oddity that whenever one is in a room with a pair of eyes on a picture say, or stuffed animal –those eyes seem in a way to follow one. The dolls seem to look right at me – wide, black eyes with no lids or expression. I go no closer to them.
I blame my mother for this feeling of unease. When I was a little girl I was never allowed dolls. Or teddy bears. Nothing with eyes. My mother believed there is something sinister about any un-living thing with eyes. A place for a dead soul to sit, and to watch, as if looking into a window.
Poor me! I should wonder why I am given to such queer thoughts, with an upbringing such as mine! I resolve not to think about my mother anymore, or her superstitions, and I head out for an afternoon walk in this beautiful surrounding country.
8pm: I am returned. I feel I have been gone but thirty minutes at most, yet the clock says longer than four good hours. I am standing in my room, looking again at those dolls. It is the strangest thing. I am sure they are moved. Nothing else in my room appears disturbed. Only them. I cannot say how even, just that they seem not as they were. As I scrutinise them more closely, from across the other side of the bed, I hear raised voices coming from downstairs, and I make to investigate.
I open the door to find Barbara alone in a silent kitchen. I see I have startled her, and motion to calm her, yet she backs away. Who was she talking to? Herself, she answers, as one is inclined to do when there is a dearth of any other company. She tells me she talks to the cats, although I see no evidence of such beasts. If this is some ploy of hers to frighten me, it will not work. Determined not to be cowed, I ask whether she visited my room in my absence, and moved the dolls for any reason. This would be fine, I assure her, but please would she tell me so I am aware. She resumes her usual stare at the floor and tells me no, that she has not been into my room and has not touched my belongings nor anything else in there. I feel a compulsion to move toward her and ask again for a truer answer, then stop myself. It may indeed be that this woman is not being honest, that she wishes to cause me to mistrust my thoughts, yet I will not rise to this; I will not be intimidated here.
9pm: I lie atop my bed. I have opened one of the windows within my reach so that I may let in the evening air and remains of the fading light. For some minutes now I have fancied I can hear a low growling noise, and eventually go to see what is making the sound. I can see what appears to be a pig out in the garden. A shadow crosses my mind as I recall stories from my youth that these creatures carry the devil with them, and I am quick to close the window and draw the curtains, returning to my bed where I endeavour not to be frightened.
It is then that my eyes are drawn to the loft hatch above my head.
No one is there. No one is there. There is no one there.
I tell myself over and over. I also tell myself that I am imagining a barely perceptible scraping noise, that can be heard if I slow my breath and try to relax the rush of my heart. My mother would say that she told me so. That I do not belong here and I should gather my things and leave now, heading down the lane while there is still light enough to see by. I must get out of here. I will be safer outside, away from here. She would say.
For half a second – less than half a second – my imagination gets the better of me, and as I look up I find the loft hatch cover gone, revealing a black square of darkness and the shadowy profile of a very heavily set person, who sits still and stares down at me. As I blink this vision is gone, and the loft cover is safely back again. I bring my hand absent-mindedly to my chest to search for a pendant or similar to sooth my nerves – a ridiculous thing considering I have never been one for jewellery of any kind.
I take a drink from the glass beside my bed and regard the dolls once more. They stare resolutely back at me.
10pm: The strangest thing. Upon returning from the bathroom I found the dolls to have been moved. Definitely moved. Not a large amount – they are in the same place, they look the same way – yet they are absolutely moved, in such a way as to make me question my sanity. Then I know, I know that I hear voices again from the kitchen, raised and laughing together. I take my leave of my room and fly down the stairs, heaving the door open to catch them in the act of mocking me – yet I am faced very suddenly with Barbara, standing quietly in the doorway of a dark and empty kitchen.
I will not be made afraid, and I will not be laughed at! Why is she doing this, I ask, taking her by her small shoulders and trying to shake some wits into her. Why had she moved them? Who was she talking to? She shook her head and clasped that ridiculous cross of hers again. I suddenly become bewildered, and shove her away from me. What does she want me to do? What is her plan for me? It is too dark now to think of leaving, so I steel myself and head back to my room to await the dawn.
MIDNIGHT: I am in bed, yet sleep eludes me. I have churned today’s events over and over in my head. Different ideas burst through my brain and flow through my mind, then congeal into blackness. She is driven mad, this woman, with so much time alone and now attempts to drag me with her. She is the only evil one around here – no devils in fields or beings hiding in the attic. I will not be made to be afraid of her. I have taken the dolls and placed them outside the door, and I have driven a nail through the hatch, rendering it unopenable for the time being. Somewhere in a field far away, the pig cries out as if stabbed suddenly. I put my head under my pillow, and count 10 seconds for each in breath and out breath, waiting for the night to end.
1am: I am not sure whether I have slept at all. Moonlight shines in through my circular window, casting the long shadow of a cross on the floor. I notice that in the corner of the room, sitting on the floor with their backs to me, are the two dolls. My mind swims. I am sedated from leaping up in rage, by some distant memory of going to find the dolls from where I had placed them out on the landing, although I cannot say for why I did this. I am very tired, and do not want to go and find Barbara again at any rate, so decide that they can stay there till morning.
I neglect at this point to scrutinise the state of the hatch.
3.33am: She is saying she came in because she heard me screaming. Her insistence is maddening to me. She says she is here to calm me down – that everything is okay and she understands. I will not have this – her – this woman entering my room uninvited, trying to terrorise me under the guise of kindness. I stand on my bed and reach up to the hatch. Finding the nail bent I shove the board to one side and with my fingertips find a knife, clean and sharp.
I look at her in the lamp light. Her eyes are the eyes of the dolls, empty and dead.
Strength surges through me. For the first time I am truly without fear.
Against the pure white of her shirt, a flower of blood blossoms. Beginning with a dark centre, radiating out, drawn by the stitches into the crisp cotton. The material is weighed down by the thick liquid, with a heaviness unlike water or milk. It is sticky on my fingers, under my nails. It is everywhere, with a smell that hits the back of my throat till I wretch. And then there is absolute silence.
10am: There is another mound in the graveyard, and soil and clay are mixed with the blood and skin under my nails.
I have made a thorough exploration of the old chapel and its grounds. It really is a wonderful place, so peaceful and perfect. People can scream here and no one would ever hear them. I throw some old scraps I found in the kitchen out to the pig who accompanied me on my dig this morning. He seems happy enough, as do the throngs of cats which seem to have taken a liking to me. I finger my crucifix and wonder why I have never worn jewellery before as my mind wanders to the bedroom. Sparse yet comfortable. It will have to be cleaned scrupulously. I have no idea when to expect my first guest, but I anticipate them with excitement. There was a time when I would have been nervous about such an event – about being here, alone.
I will never be afraid again.
© Laura Yates 2016