At Granny Marge’s request, and expense, the black limo, that matched her dress and her mood, had waited. It drove the Gates family back to Bridge House. Solemn wipers flicked water from the windscreen as it reflected skeletal trees.
The crooked, half-timbered building looked the same from the outside. But once they shuffled in through the heavy oak door, the floors creaked more loudly, the clock ticked more slowly, and the living room fire refused to light.
“It feels different somehow.” Granny Marge lifted her silver-rimmed glasses and wiped away another tear from her soft, grey eyes. "Less like home." Her breath was short.
“Let me make you a cuppa, Gran. Why don’t you take a seat?” Josephine pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and filled the kettle. She was careful not to chip her mint green nails, though even Grandad's favourite colour seemed to dim in the new shadows of the old house.
“You know, your Grandad Billy made this table and chairs." Marge tucked a balled-up tissue inside her cardigan cuff.
“I know Gran, I know."
“I bet you don’t know what’s underneath them.” She stared at the hessian rug. “He always said he’d get it out for me before anything happened to him. But you should be careful what you promise.” She lowered herself into her seat and placed one hand over her chest.
Josephine’s eyes searched her grandmother’s face. “Are you alright Gran? Do you need your pills?”
“Where’s your mum and dad?”
“Mum’s in the bathroom and Dad’s on the phone to cousin Lucy. She’s very upset.”
“Get them in here. I want my soapstone chess set.”
“I’m not sure what you mean, Gran. Water's nearly boiled. I’ll go and find them.”
Josephine knocked on the bathroom door. “Mum, you ok? Can I come in?”
“It’s open, I’m just doing my hair. Everything alright?” Tina was fixated on the mirror. “If I find one more grey…” She plucked an offender from her brunette fringe with her finger and thumb and consigned it to the pedal bin. “My mother didn’t dye her hair ‘til she was well into her seventies and I’ll be damned if I can’t be the same way. Funerals don’t help. Dead people in general don’t help. The last thing I need is to look like I’ve seen a ghost! I refuse to grow old gracefully.”
“I’m looking for Gran’s pills, she’s holding her chest again.”
“Another thing that doesn’t help with my stress.” Tina opened the bathroom cabinet and rummaged for a small brown bottle. “Here they are, I’ll take them to her. Maybe you can find your father?”
Brian was just finished on his call, his weary eyes downcast. “Can’t you bring your Gran into the living room, Josephine? The kitchen's always cold and creepy.”
“She’s all set up in there now, and I don’t want to move her. She doesn’t seem quite well. Besides, the fire in here won't light, and I’m making tea. The AGA's on in the kitchen.”
“OK, but let’s not stay too long. As soon as your Gran is properly settled, we should go. I want to get home before dark." He looked towards the kitchen door and a shiver crossed his shoulders. "Especially with this filthy weather.”
The family gathered, one by one, round Grandad’s oval table. Tendrils of steam wisped from porcelain mugs as hands began to warm.
Josephine broke the silence.
“What did you mean, Gran? About the soapstone chess set?”
“Did I say that? I didn’t mean to bother anyone. Forget I spoke.” Marge pulled her thick tights straight with her bony fingers.
“I’m sure you had one, Mum. When I was a kid,” said Brian. “Black and blue pieces on a circular board with the squares marked on. Yeah, what happened to that?”
“It’s in the cellar...” Marge’s eyes widened, and she covered her mouth with her hand. “Forget I spoke. Forget I spoke.” Her face raised towards the ceiling, and she pretended to take great interest in a spider crawling along the central beam.
“What cellar? Brian grew up in this house and never mentioned a cellar.” Tina’s neatly plucked eyebrows knitted as she glanced at her husband. “But Grandad Billy, when he got sick, started talking about something precious hidden under the house. Does anyone know what he meant?”
“Is there a cellar under the kitchen table, Gran?” asked Josephine. “Under this rug?” She looked down and ran the pointed toe of her black stiletto along the edge of the hessian.
Granny Marge sipped her tea and took a long, deep breath. She turned her wedding ring around her finger a couple of times. Then she lifted her hand to her lips and kissed the gold band. “I promised I’d never tell, but I don't know why. My memory isn’t what it was. And now he’s gone, and no one will get my chess set.”
“We’ll get your chess set, Mum.” Brian put a hand on her shoulder. “What did you promise?”
“Oh, I can’t really remember. But I know I’m not supposed to move this rug.”
There were puzzled glances round the table. Without further discussion, Brian and Tina stood and gestured to Josephine to do the same.
A few minutes later, they had pushed the table and chairs against one wall and rolled up the hessian rug. There, in the centre of the kitchen floor, was a wooden hatch with a curved metal handle folded into a groove along one edge.
Brian bent down and pulled the handle proud of the trapdoor. After a few firm tugs, the hatchway lifted. It was hinged at the back and opened onto a set of grey stone steps that descended into darkness. Brian laid the wooden hatch back against the boards, fully open, and peered into the gloom.
Tina stepped forward, the disgusting stench of stale rot catching in her nostrils. She held her nose with one hand and fingered her gold locket with the other as she cast her mind back. Now, what had Grandad Billy said? About something precious under the house? Maybe he wasn’t quite so crazy after all. "Golden as the dawn," he’d said. "Golden as the dawn."
But, she reminded herself, this is Bridge House. It backs right on to the river. The basement must flood every time there’s heavy rain. She stared out of the window. The heavens had truly opened and there was a torrent against the pane. It was probably ankle deep down there already. What item of value would anyone keep in those conditions? And why would there be a chess set under the house?
One thing was certain, no one was going down there to get wet and filthy today. It had been quite stressful enough and they were all in smart clothes. Being married to Brian Gates was aging her like nothing else. For fear of further wrinkles or grey hairs, the chess set, and any other family secrets, would have to wait until they were more sensibly dressed.
Brian stopped dead at the opening to the hatch, skin crawling, eyes watering. Hit hard by déjà vu. He had to take a breath to keep his balance. He’d been down those steps before. Many times, as a kid. Clutching a torch and a blanket. Shivering and scared. It was always damp and cold, and the walls were slimy to the touch.
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled, and a chill rattled his spine.
“Cellared. Like a good wine,” his dad would say, a sharp whiff of liquor on his breath. “You’ll age better this way.”
And then the door would close, shut tight, blocking out the light, leaving Brian alone. For hours. Until his Mum took pity on him and he'd emerge, blinking into the kitchen. She’d clean him up and sneak him to his bed while his dad lay in a whisky-induced slumber on the living room settee.
When he’d spoken to his mum about it as a teenager, she’d said it was dreams and an over-active imagination. His dad had dismissed the stories as “poppycock.” But it was true. It was all true.
Memories clawed their way to the bubbling surface of Brian’s mind. Pungent, mouldy smells. Cold that ate at his bones. Feet so wet, they wrinkled.
The only object down there was a black and blue soapstone chess set he’d found on a rotting shelf as he'd passed the beam of his torch around in desperation.
Thing. . .
He’d played with that chess set. And not alone. There was another boy, with golden hair that shone in the rays of the flashlight. Taller than Brian, and skinnier. Gaunt, pale, sickly. He hardly spoke, but he knew how to move the pieces. He was always blue; Brian was always black.
Brian clenched his fists and fought back the tears. He could not recall the boy’s face and did not want to. Recollection of any further details today would open the flood gates. He’d held it together at his own father’s funeral. He had vowed that his daughter would only see him cry if she was graduating or getting married. He could wait, and weep for the other boy later, as long as he wasn’t reminded of his face.
Josephine gasped as a rush of cold air escaped the hatch, wrapping itself around her bare calves. It took her a moment to process, but unwelcome memories kicked in. The fear came back from the first time she’d seen him. She'd been wearing a black skirt that day too, but it had been her school uniform.
She was about seven, coming in from the rain to get warm by the AGA. A very blond boy she could almost see through, flickered into view by the opposite wall. He crossed the kitchen, passing right through to the centre of the breakfast table. Then he bent down before sinking into the floor, out of sight. And then there was screaming. And that awful smell. This awful smell! It was damp, from the cellar, and from his clothes. Whenever she’d seen him, his denim jeans and red striped t-shirt had been wet, but he left no drips on the floor.
The apparition had appeared to her several times, but not since she was about thirteen. She'd never mentioned it to anyone for fear they’d think she was mad. But she wasn’t mad. The ghostly boy had been going into the cellar.
Josephine swept her eyes around the kitchen, furtively checking for any sign of the child. The chills and tension she had felt at age seven were rising through her bones. If she saw him one more time, she was certain that she would turn and run and never be able to enter Gran’s house again.
Granny Marge, unsteady on her feet at the best of times, watched the trapdoor open and then sank right back down into a chair at the side of the room. Her family had gone very quiet, and she wasn’t sure why. Tina had brought her pills. Was Brian going to get her chess set or not?
Maybe he needed a torch. It was a bit creepy down there, from what she remembered. She’d always given Brian and his brother a square-bodied torch with a chunky handle to go down the steps when they were kids. Where might that be?
Brian and his brother.
Jim was still down there after that terrible flood in 1969.
They'd told everyone he’d run away. The police had looked for him for weeks.
She knew the cellar was supposed to be a secret. Her chest was starting to feel tight again.
Eight-year-old Jim stirred in the darkness as the chilling water swirled around his knees. It was nearly time for his gruelling walk. The same gruelling walk he was doomed to repeat every time the cellar flooded, until someone discovered his river-polished bones and put him to his final rest.
As soon as he had to fight to keep his mouth and nose above the waterline, he would be transported, he knew not how, to the kitchen. He would cross the boards until he found himself at the cellar hatch. He’d cry as he opened it and took the first few steps down into the gloom. By the time he reached the basement floor, he’d be screaming.
He'd continue to scream as he panicked in the muddy water. Gasping for breath, scrabbling against the slimy steps. He'd keep his head clear of the flood until he tired in the darkness, and his lungs filled with cold, murky sludge.
The first time it happened there was nothing for a while. He just waited, alone, in seeming obscurity. For days perhaps, or years, how could he tell?
Then, for a time, the cellar door would open occasionally. He'd be joined by another boy who had a square bodied torch and a blanket, and played chess with him. But that boy had stopped coming long ago. Sometimes he sensed a girl in the kitchen, perhaps young enough and open enough to sense him too. But for a while now he couldn’t summon enough anger to make anyone aware of his presence.
Today the hatch was open again. He shielded his eyes against the light to see, and there were people peering in. Perhaps this would be the final day he would relive the echo of his death.
Perhaps he could make them see him one last time.