Jane Wright hated her house. It was a big, useless, cluttered mishmash of things. There was so much that everything had to be crammed, stuffed and shoved into every nook and cranny. She often thought of hiring a skip to take all of it away, but every time this thought arrived in her busy mind she found that she just couldn’t bear to part with all of the house’s things.
All of the memories, bleak as they were.
Yet for all the sheer amount of items in her large house, the place felt absolutely empty. The house was situated in the woods, miles away from the city. It had been under her family’s ownership for over two hundred years and in that time it had been shaped and reshaped in many different ways. Extensions had been built both on ground level and above, and the house had ended up three floors high with new rooms jutting outwards here and there giving the place a mad, untidy look. Jane had once thought of it as a fairytale castle, but no tale happy enough to be thought of in such a way had ever taken place here.
She lived alone now, but it hadn’t always been this way. At its busiest time the house had been home to seven Wrights and one other. Jane had inherited her home from her parents. She had lived in the house for her entire life, birth to now, an elderly woman with too may sad memories. She had met Hugh in her early twenties and by the time they’d married, Jane’s mother had passed away and the couple moved in with Jane’s father, Edward.
The look on his face!
Jane was startled. ‘Hello? Who’s there?’
Oh, sorry. You can hear me?
Jane had been sitting in her bedroom thinking about Hugh moving in with her and her father when suddenly she’d heard a whisper. The look on his face…
‘Yes, I can hear you,’ Jane said, voice shaking slightly. She looked around her room. ‘Who are you?’
Oh, you won’t see me. You can stop looking around. I’ve been with you for your entire life.
Jane trembled but tried not to let the fear show in her voice when she spoke. ‘What do you mean?’
It’s okay. Ah, go back to the memories. This place is full of them. Where did we get to? Yes! The look on his face! Hugh’s, I mean. When you told him you weren’t leaving the family home and neither was your father, Edward. So if he wanted to live with you he’d have to live with him too. It was almost as good as when you told him you wouldn’t take his surname, and that he’d have to take yours!
‘Leave me alone!’ Jane wailed, and she stood up and moved out of her bedroom as quickly as she could, slamming the door behind her. Dust fell from the door frame and lay next to all the rest of the debris on the carpet below.
Her bedroom was on the third floor and in her old age it had begun to burden her. She’d have moved into a bedroom on the second floor but three of her four children had occupied bedrooms there, and she dared not go in there. Those memories would sting like a poisoned arrow aimed consciously at what was left of her fractured heart.
She moved instead into the study. In here was a large bookshelf filled to the brim with academic books on the subject of everything from science to the study of classical music. More books lay strewn across the floor, sprawled next to a desk with an old PC which looked slightly out of place among the more traditional look of the room. Several pictures hung on the wall. They had been there, Jane thought, for as long as she had lived in the house and they looked to be original artwork. Scenes of beautiful countrysides, vast oceans and blizzardy mountain ranges in places of the world she’d only ever dreamed of.
She sat at the desk with the computer and tried to regain her composure.
You can’t outrun me, Jane.
She jumped when she heard it. Worried that her voice would disclose her fright, she said nothing.
Let’s talk, you and I. How long has it been now? Since you were left alone in this house? Twenty years? And not once in that time have you thought about pruning the hedges? Planting flowers to replace the ones that died because you never watered them? When are you planning on weeding? The gardens are horrible. They used to be so beautiful, back in the day. Don’t you remember? Everything was so neatly trimmed and the residents used to love walking the pathways and sitting out on the benches to read in the summer. You could have at least cut down the rope swing after…
‘Enough!’ Jane shouted, and with all her effort she stood, fury-filled eyes darting around the room looking for any clue as to where this (Person? Ghost?) was.
I’m sorry. I struck a nerve there, didn’t I? Truly, I’m sorry. These painful memories you have – they plague me too. Tell me something Jane. You’re planning on leaving, aren’t you?
Jane caught her breath and slowly lowered herself back on to the chair. ‘Yes,’ she whispered. ‘Tomorrow.’
Ah. You haven’t packed a thing.
‘No.’ Because how could she? What would she pack? Every last cursed thing in this house held so much despair.
She supposed it had all come to boiling point when her fourth child, Jacob, was born.
Ah, yes, Jacob. He was a good boy. Poor, sweet soul.
‘You’re really able to listen in to my thoughts?’ Jane asked aloud, finding it strange that she had chosen to do so given what they were discussing.
Of course I can. Please, just continue your thoughts. Pretend I’m not here.
(Like you’ve done your entire life.)
Jacob… When Jane had found out she was pregnant with him, she and Hugh had decided that this would be their last child. Jane hadn’t planned on it being the last straw in a struggling marriage. Hugh had been wonderful at first; almost the perfect husband. He’d worked very hard and had been promoted to a high position in his company, but still found time for Jane and looked after the house as though it had been in his own family for centuries.
A few months after their marriage Jane fell pregnant with their first child, a boy they named Malcolm. Malcolm had been a boisterous child but had grown up with a loving and supportive mother, father and grandfather. Edward had relaxed somehow when Malcolm was born. Jane thought he was probably relieved to see another Wright in the family house. More blood that could inherit the old place and pass it on to new generations down the line.
Five years later Jane and Hugh had twin girls, Agnes and Elise. It was then that the first signs of trouble began.
What! Because of the girls? You don’t mean that, surely? What a fine pair they were!
They were, of course they were. Sweet little things who could do no harm. But they weren’t the problem.
No. You had two problems then.
Edward and Hugh.
Which one do you want to talk about first?
Edward. Dad… He fell very ill. His mind wasn’t what it was before. He started forgetting things. Little things at first. Things that we all do from time to time. He misplaced his house keys, he forgot about appointments. But Jane had become most concerned when he started forgetting things like which bedroom was his, and what the name of his first grandchild was. Naturally, she went to Hugh for support and comfort in this time, only…
Only he didn’t seem to care, did he? He’d been drinking. Coming home at night in a state that caused you so much concern. This house being where it is, he’d have driven too. You fought him about it, afraid your father would hear the squabbles. But then, what if he did? Would he have even had the sense to know that you were fighting?
‘Stop it!’ Jane spat. ‘What a horrible, nasty thing to say!’
Oh. I’m sorry. I’m not used to speaking to people. I’ve been alone longer than you have.
‘What are you? A ghost? A spirit of some kind?’
No, I’m not dead. I was never truly alive to begin with. And I’ve never been what you’d describe as a person.
‘What then?’ Jane demanded.
That would take a long time to explain. It’s complicated. A story for another time perhaps. I interrupted you and it’s very much your story. Your thoughts that you should get out before you leave this place. Please, continue.
Hugh became more distant as the years drew on, and Edward became more ill. He was often locked inside his own room for entire days before Jane would practically force him out to spend some time with his family. Despite the problematic relationship she had with Hugh, Jane was able to find moments of joy with him, sparse as they were. She believed that if she just didn’t lose hope, Hugh would come around and be the man she loved again. She waited, but nothing changed for many years.
Malcolm was nine and the girls were four when Rebecca came into their lives.
Rebecca. My goodness, Jane. I can feel you spit out that name like a foul parasite that’s somehow crept its way into your mouth.
‘Can you blame me for that?’ Jane asked without anger.
Thinking about the sob story that Hugh had presented at the time made Jane feel foolish. Rebecca had been a young woman who worked with Jane’s husband, and Hugh had claimed that she had suddenly found herself with nowhere to go. Something about an abusive relationship and how she had found herself with no family to go to and no friends to rely on. Jane had eventually been convinced to allow her one of the spare rooms until she could get herself back on her feet.
It had been the first time, Edward claimed, that a person without the surname of Wright had lived in the house for nearly one hundred and fifty years. Jane had caught Hugh rolling his eyes at this, but she’d decided not to make an argument out of it.
Rebecca stayed in the house for six years. She had…
Sorry. I’m sorry for interrupting again, but six years! How did you let it happen? Why didn’t you do something about it?
‘Oh, Hugh and I had our fights about it. Of course, I never suspected anything was going on between them until much later.’
‘Excuse me!?’ Jane didn’t try to conceal the anger in her voice.
Oh, come on Jane! You’re thinking it too. You’re calling yourself an idiot in your own mind. Have done for years. I’m sorry if I’ve offended you but…
‘You’re having to make an awful lot of apologies tonight,’ Jane pointed out.
Yes. Six long years though. My goodness.
At the end of those six years, Jacob was born and things went really badly. Malcolm, being fifteen at this point was able to show a level of maturity, and Agnes and Elise were always pleasant enough about it. But nobody could stop staring.
Yourself included. What was it called again? Jacob’s condition?
Yes, polymelia. It affected people in slightly different ways but it always means the same thing: at least one extra limb. In Jacob’s case it was an extra leg, shrunken and deformed, jutting awkwardly outwards in a position which Jane thought looked uncomfortable. On the day of his birth Jane had held him tightly and couldn’t stop pondering about his future and what the kids at school would say. She had thousands arguments with thousands of imaginary children in preparation for what she foresaw in Jacob’s life. She was ready to take them all on. What she hadn’t planned for was a fight with his own father.
Hugh couldn’t accept it. He’d looked down on his son with a revulsion which turned Jane’s stomach and twisted her heart. He consistently made flippant, appalling remarks about his son and this was the final straw for Jane.
You were waiting at the front door that night, with a bag full of Hugh’s clothes. Your wedding ring was missing from your finger and your heart thumped so loudly against your chest I could hear it. I remember that evening very well.
Not least because of what happened before Hugh had had the chance to arrive home.
‘Mum! Mum!’ Jane could still hear the heartbreak in Malcolm’s voice as he tugged at her arm, leading her into the living room where Edward was asleep by the fire.
No. Not asleep.
It had been expected of course, but Jane hadn’t dreamed that one of her own children might find their grandfather dead in his favourite chair. A loved one’s impending death may loom for several years, but the hurt is still real when the time comes.
Hugh reacted with just enough empathy to delay Jane’s request that he leave the home, but the wedding ring stayed off and Hugh was made to sleep in another room in the house.
And we know which one he ended up in the most.
‘She played with our children!’ Jane exclaimed in the study. ‘She laughed with them! Did homework with them! Treated them as though they were her own!’
Yes. I know. And one day, not long after the funeral, you finally made your move.
She said nothing to Hugh but she deleted his phone number, changed the locks to the house, and boarded up the spare room that Rebecca had been using. Hugh stayed at the front door for three hours that night but neither Jane nor the children said anything to him as they sat in Agnes’ bedroom playing a board game together. Surprisingly, Hugh got the message and was never seen again.
Neither was Rebecca.
‘No,’ Jane said. ‘Of course not. Why would you say that?’
The spare room Rebecca was using… It was the far away one on the top floor, wasn’t it?
‘Yes,’ Jane said, puzzled.
That’s the “quiet room”. The one you wouldn’t hear a peep from. Three flights up and only the one door. I’ve always meant to ask you. Did you ever think to check inside before you boarded it up?
Jane said nothing. Her thoughts drifted to almost nothing for a few moments.
Alright then. Where did we get to?
Two years went by faster than Jane would have liked them to. Malcolm had begun to struggle with emotions and was incredibly distant. He would refuse to talk about his father and Jane suspected difficulties at school. He was coming to the end of his studies there and he had no clear idea of what he was going to do with his life when it was all over. He spent a lot of time outside the house when he could, but being so far away from everything else he was forced to spend more time there than he would like. He took to spending long hours in the garden, away from everyone else.
Then one day he just up and left.
‘No,’ Jane corrected.
No? Oh, of course not! How silly of me to forget the order of things!
‘Don’t you have an ounce of empathy!?’
Sorry… Truly, I am.
It had happened on the windiest day Jane could remember for a long time. Agnes and Elise had been playing together. Elise had made a kite and was excited to see such a windy day. The girls took the kite out to the back garden and Jane remembered hearing the excited laughter and being cheered by the sound of it. The sound of sheer horror and heartbreak that followed was something that would haunt Jane’s sleepless nights for years to come.
A kite. Who would have thought a kite could be so dangerous? Elise had been flying it when the wind had a dramatic change of mind and sent it flying to the earth. It found the side of Agnes’ head instead.
It wasn’t your fault.
‘No?’ Jane enquired. ‘It wasn’t Elise’s fault either but that didn’t stop her from falling into a state of irreparable mental ill health, did it? Do you know I haven’t even spoken to her for… what? Sixteen, seventeen years now? I have no idea where she lives, whether she’s single or has a partner, what kind of person she is. Nothing! I have nothing!’
Just like all your other children then.
‘Oh, I hate you! I hate you!’
I know. You always have. Come now, finish the story. What ever happened to Jacob?
Jacob lived in the city now. Jane had clung on to him and he was the last to leave the family house by a long stretch. Elise had left aged eighteen, Jacob was thirty-three by the time his mother felt able to let go of him. The house had felt empty ever since and had allowed Jane’s mind to perpetually ask all the what ifs that it could think of.
What if she had picked a better man than Hugh?
What if you had never chosen to live in this house and let it fade, the wilderness around it finally enveloping it and hiding it from the world?
What if she had stood her ground and never allowed Rebecca a room?
What if your children could forgive themselves, and you?
‘I know who you are now,’ Jane mumbled, almost to herself.
Do you now? Good. Yes, that’s good.
What if she needn’t be forever haunted by the ghost of a life unlived?