MAGDALENA'S GHOST: THE HAUNTING OF THE HOUSE IN GALLOWS LANE (6 page)

“That’s all anybody’s interested in these days, money, always money. People don’t matter anymore, just money, that’s all, just money,” he continually repeated. He lifted his glass to his lips and finished the beer.

Anton continued to remain silent, as he had now cottoned on that the old man would open up more if
he
kept quiet. And he was right.

“She got her comeuppance though, that she did, but it was a long time coming. She was a good-for-nothing, an old witch, but it all rebounded on her in the end,” he mumbled to himself before retreating into silence again.

Anton had no idea who, or what he was referring to.

The barman was continually drying the same glass with a tea-towel, as he looked on with a perturbed expression on his face. He was the first to break the silence.

“Go back where you came from and leave him alone. Forget about the place and leave it be! Take heed of what I’m saying, because no good will come of it.” His voice was angry and his manner harsh. “You’ll regret the day you ever saw it!”

As for the old man, he was rambling to himself having seemingly forgotten about Anton at his side.

Anton had more sense than to ask him anything else. He felt sorry for him and there was something about him that he couldn’t fathom. Although he looked like a tramp, or a vagrant, something in his speech, his manner, and his tone, gave the impression that he may have once enjoyed a more cultured lifestyle. For a man with such a dishevelled appearance, and worn out face, he had meticulously manicured nails. His fingers, which showed obvious signs of arthritis, were long and narrow and his nails neatly trimmed. An earlier glimpse at his feet showed him to be wearing a pair of well-polished shoes, which were in total contrast to the rest of his attire. He was a contradiction of sorts, and had an air of mystery about him which intrigued Anton. Perhaps life hadn’t been too kind to him over the years and he had finally succumbed to age. Maybe he was a war veteran - who knows! Or maybe he reminded him of his old granddad, who had died when Anton was still young but had left a strong impression on him. Maybe he was just being nostalgic – or maybe the old man was just a vagrant after all and his melancholy mood was clouding Anton’s judgement of him. They were all maybe’s, but he couldn’t deny he was curious about him. He knew he wasn’t going to get to know anything more, either about him, or the house, or its former occupants. And what he had heard up to now hadn’t made much sense either, and it had all sounded a bit bizarre.

It was clear that the old man had clammed up and so Anton left it at that. He returned to where Lucy was sitting and sat down beside her.

“Did you hear all that?” he whispered.

“Sure,” was her response, but she added nothing to it. She too seemed to be deep in thought.

“I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with these keys, but it means we can go back and explore it more whenever we like.” Anton’s mood seemed somewhat subdued.

“Don’t you think you’ve managed to be conned into keeping an eye on the place as key-holder, now you’re stuck with them?” she hissed at an astonished Anton. “What if the police hear of an incident and call upon the key holder to open up for them? You’ll have a long way to come to do just that, won’t you?”

He couldn’t understand her lack of interest. Here he was hoping to negotiate with the authorities to purchase a property for less than a song, knowing she would love it once he’d restored it. She could have the business she’d always craved for, which was to open a B&B and holiday lets. The extra land which he had surveyed whilst walking around the grounds, would be ideal for nightly pull-ins. The potential was huge and he knew he was capable of doing most of the work himself. He’d weighed it up carefully. Granted, they would have to give up their nights and week-ends for a while, but it was worth it. No pain without gain after all. And he knew they would gain a lot. Unperturbed by Lucy’s attitude, he mapped out his plans to her.

“We’ll have to wait until Monday before I can contact the authorities. Just think Luce, in a month or two we may well find ourselves living in Juniper House.” He leaned over and gave her a squeeze. “You’re going to love it, really you are. You can choose how you want it all to look and you’ll love designing the interior decorations. You know that’s what you’re good at. Please tell me you’re excited about it, please,” he pleaded. “We can even have a dog or maybe two. You’ve always said you’d like dogs – and maybe cats, the grounds are perfect for cats too. Perhaps some chickens?” he said, trying to tempt her. “We’ll never be able to have anything so long as we live in the flat. And we can park the van at the door – just think how easy that will be when unloading the shopping, then we can sell it when the house is ready.”

Lucy, meanwhile, had been staring at him in astonishment, but his last remark prompted an outburst which he wasn’t prepared for.

“Sell it?” Lucy gasped. She was dismayed. “Why should we sell it?”

“Because we won’t have time for it once the house is finished and we’ll need something more practical anyway. We’ll be busy setting up the business to get it up and running for starters, that’s going to be a full-time job. Eventually both of us can work together permanently, once you’ve got it established. Just think about it Luce, it’ll be great.”

He was brimming with enthusiasm at his grand ideas, but Lucy was feeling worried. She suddenly had a sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach. She had never thought about them selling the van, they both loved it. They had only just started going places with it and they had talked and planned the next year and the next. Why was everything changing? She was feeling very disturbed. And she sure as hell didn’t want to live in that awful house!

6
BEFORE

Over the next few weeks Beryl tried to get some heat into the old place by lighting the fires in each room. She managed to rustle up plenty of old wood from the garden and the old stores outside, and it didn’t take long to warm the place up. The Yorkshire range was used for boiling water and cooking just as they’d done when she was young, and some cheeriness was brought back into the house. Her mother continued her daily vigil of waiting for Billy to come home, wondering where he had got to as she sat and waited in her old rocking chair. She pottered around too in a fashion, and Beryl kept her happy by making her regular cups of tea which perked her up no end. She was, of course, being lulled into a false sense of security with the notion that her daughter was back to care for her, which was as far from the truth as one could get.

Magdalena had reached a stage in her life whereby normality had become what she had become. A sense of hope and longing began each day, as she waited in vain for Billy. She no longer knew what the past meant, because to her time did not exist. It ceased from the day she discovered that her husband had disappeared and taken Billy with him. She became unaware of any changes that were taking place in her solitary existence, and Beryl’s presence became part of that normality. Her mind was suffering the decline that solitude condemns it to, which made Beryl’s cruel plans so much easier to execute.

They dined on tins of soup, bread, and potatoes from stock, as Beryl had chosen not to venture out and risk meeting any of the villagers until absolutely necessary. It was important that she remain invisible, after all, she hadn’t existed to the residents of Judge Fields up to now and she intended it to stay that way. And so she shared her mother’s reclusive and frugal lifestyle and remained firmly indoors for the winter months – and no-one was the wiser.

Each and every night as Beryl slept soundly in her make-shift bed from the mattress on the floor, she would be awakened suddenly by the sound of the creaking floorboards as her mother crept towards the bedroom door, with the cat in tow mewing constantly. She would hesitate outside, a lone and solitary figure, as if listening for signs of life before calling in her frail voice: “Are we having a cup of tea?”

This would continue until Beryl finally jumped out of bed in defeat and impatiently followed her mother downstairs to make a drink. She would join her mother in front of the range drawing what little heat there was to be had from the burning embers, and drink cups of tea whilst listening to her ramblings about Billy coming home soon. Beryl put up with her ageing and wandering mind for the time being, by compensating herself that it wouldn’t be for much longer.

Over the months that followed, Beryl began to put her plans in motion. There was only one thing that she had inherited from her talented and beautiful mother and that was her handwriting. They were both left-handed – the only trait they shared, therefore Beryl was able to sign any papers or documents that belonged to her, including cheque books, because their signatures were identical. Gaining power of attorney was easy, so everything went according to her devious and cruel plans. All the while her mother was oblivious to what was happening, as she was enjoying the warmth, the food, the regular cups of tea, as well as having some company in the house. Beryl’s return had also strengthened her conviction that Billy too was due to come home.

And so she continued to wait, her mood somewhat more cheerful as she looked forward to her six–year-old son walking through the door to play her favourite piece of music on the piano. The music sheet and the piano stool had both remained in place, undisturbed, since the day he’d been taken, and everything still looked the same to Magdalena. Her own advancing years had not registered in her mind either, as time had stood still and her age with it. She waited, comforted by her own joy and belief in the impossible. Beryl avoided saying anything that would shatter her happiness, as she led her to believe that things were just as she thought they were. The more she drifted into her own world, the easier it was for Beryl to finalise her plans.

Some weeks later the peace, which for a while had calmed the atmosphere of Juniper House, was shattered. A vehicle turned up at the house, and two men wearing white coats entered the front door. They marched down the long hallway, across the main hall, and through the sitting room, to the scullery where the old woman dozed as she rocked in her chair. Beryl nodded to them, and without giving the old lady any warning they ruthlessly yanked her by the arms and dragged her screaming in terror from the house.

Beryl bolted the door behind them, and her mother’s final pleas as she screamed for Billy disappeared into the distance. Mother and daughter never saw each other again – at least not whilst the mother was alive.

Beryl soon adopted her new role as owner of Juniper House with glee. Now she was rid of the old bat, she could relax knowing she was secure for the rest of her days. She knew her mother had always had a plot reserved in the church graveyard across the way for her burial when her time came, but Beryl made sure the authorities were instructed to have her cremated, regardless of her mother’s religious views. So Beryl was able to inherit the plot reserved by the church, for when her own time came; after all there wasn’t anyone else to care for her remains once she’d gone. Her cruel cunning appeared to have worked to perfection.

Several years passed and she’d heard that her mother had died in her late nineties. She had rigorously held on to life at the asylum in York, regardless of its cruel regime, firm in her belief that Billy would be coming soon. And so, year after long year, she would sit and watch from the window of her room expectantly; watching and waiting and never faltering in her conviction that one day he would appear.

Beryl continued to live the same reclusive and frugal life which she had become accustomed to in that short period with her mother. But life had not been kind to her, as arthritis made her less and less mobile. And as infirmity began to descend upon her, things began to happen – strange things, sinister things, things which made her start to fear her own shadow.

One night she mounted the stairs as usual, carrying a candle to light the way. She had never had the electricity connected, as she managed with the range for most of her needs in respect of boiling water, cooking and heat, which no doubt had exacerbated the oncome of arthritis. Climbing the stairs was becoming more difficult, and she was relieved to reach her bed and practically fall into it after blowing out the candle.

She fell into a deep sleep but was abruptly wakened by the sound of creaking floorboards, as if someone was walking along them. Then the sound stopped outside her bedroom door. She presumed the wind must be causing the old house to creak and groan, and thought nothing of it at first as she buried her head under the bedding once more. And then a shiver ran down her spine as she heard the familiar words outside her door: “Are we having a cup of tea?”

Her heart pounded fiercely against the walls of her chest and she sat bolt upright in bed and listened.

“Are we having a cup of tea?”

She was unable to think clearly, she must be dreaming – yet she knew she was wide awake. But this was no dream. She knew she had heard that familiar voice repeating those tiresome, irritating words which had kept her awake, night after night, during her mother’s wanderings. Each night her mother had climbed the stairs and walked along the floorboards which creaked with every footstep, before stopping outside the bedroom door and repeating those exact words.

“Are we having a cup of tea?” the frail voice whispered again. It was undeniably her mother.

The words were repeated over and over until finally Beryl got out of bed, the terror etched in her aged face. She hobbled over to the door, pinned her ear to it, and listened. She was afraid to open it, but she knew she must. She flung the door open and was greeted by the mewing of her old and failing cat, which was standing there looking bemused. Beryl shooed it away, angry that it had disturbed her, and angry that she had imagined something as ridiculous as her dead mother calling her as she once used to. She settled back down and it didn’t take long for her to go back to sleep, once the palpitations had stopped. She let the incident steal away from her memory, and it was soon forgotten.

Several weeks later, Beryl awoke from a deep sleep to the sound of a melancholy tune being played on the old piano. She knew that tune well, as it was the one that Billy had first learnt to play as a young child. She recalled the many times he had played it for his mother, and how she had stood at his side marvelling at his musical talents which he had clearly inherited from her. Her senses were in turmoil, what was it, who was it? For a brief moment, albeit irrational, she thought Billy must have returned. He must be playing, he must have come back. She climbed stealthily off the bed, lit the candle, moved over to the door and opened it slowly. The music played louder and louder, until there was no mistaking that someone was down there. She hobbled down the stairs with great difficulty, her old bones creaking and groaning with pain. She crossed the dismal and dreary hall and looked hesitantly into the sitting room, but the music had stopped and no-one was there. She looked around, aided only by the dim light reflected by the candle. For a moment she was convinced that the music sheets had been moved from their normal place on the piano rest. But before she could make sense of it, she heard the sound of the rocking chair creaking as it moved back and forth on its old frame. Her heartbeat rose in volume as it thumped aggressively in her chest and seemed to echo in her ears. She headed apprehensively for the scullery, terrified of what she might see. But as she peered into the room she saw that the chair was empty – but it was rocking to a standstill as if someone had just got out of it. A shiver ran down her spine and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.

In the dim light of the flickering candle, everything looked sinister and unnerving. It was a big empty house for one person to be alone in, apart from the cat, and sounds had a tendency to echo in the night through the silence which penetrated the large empty spaces. There was only one answer, it was the cat that had been on the chair and had just jumped off. Probably the cat had been walking along the keys of the piano as well, and that was the sound she’d heard, not the familiar tune she remembered. Content with that explanation and convinced there was no-one else in the room apart from herself and the cat, she made her way back upstairs and into bed. She buried her head under the bedclothes and tried to settle, but once again she heard the eerie sound of the piano playing. This time she knew for certain that it was that same haunting tune which Billy had first learnt to play, and the sound seemed to magnify in the hollowness of the building. She began to tremble with fear, and shiver with cold at the same time, and her whole body began to shake from the aftermath, her bones aching with the strain. She buried herself more and more under the bedding in order to shut out the noise. But when the floorboards began to creak and stop right outside her door, she began to shake uncontrollably. Silence followed for one arduous minute after another. And then the horror began again.

“Are we having a cup of tea?” echoed the eerie voice; the sound gaining momentum as Beryl’s heart-rate gained speed.

Convinced she was having a heart attack when a sharp pain tugged at her chest, she clutched at it in desperation. Her breathing was becoming difficult and she began to gasp for air. She rolled out of the makeshift bed and onto the floor, the cold penetrating her arthritic bones and causing unimaginable pain as she lay there in the darkness paralysed with fear and unable to move.

“Are we having a cup of tea?”

“Go away!” Beryl managed to call out, the pain in her chest becoming more severe and her breathing becoming more intolerable.

The cat screeched alarmingly from somewhere in the empty rooms on the top floor. She heard a door open and close, followed by a loud thud and then the creaking of the floorboards.

She was mortified!

The build-up of dread and anxiety in her mind, and the tension in her body made the pain more unbearable, and she had now come to the conclusion that these were her final moments. She was convinced that her mother had come to get her; a meeting she didn’t want to have to face. But within a few seconds the sound of the music stopped, and at the same time her chest pains disappeared as well as the pain from her aching bones. Everything was silent until she heard her cat mewing outside the door. She dragged herself up from the floor and lit the candle. She waited for the flame to light up the room before going to the door and opening it fearfully. The cat was sitting there waiting patiently for her to let it in. Everything felt normal and there was neither sight nor sound of anyone else. She made her way downstairs and rejuvenated the dying embers of the fire so that she could make herself a cup of tea. She didn’t feel like going back to bed, she’d had a terrible fright and one which would be hard to erase from her mind.

Several weeks passed by and there was no further unexplained activity going on in the house, and so Beryl soon settled back into her life of solitude. The incidents of that evening had been completely erased from her memory once more and she carried on as normal as if nothing had ever happened.

But it wasn’t long before further events took over her mind, and her sanity was beginning to be questionable.

Beryl had gone to bed early because the evening had grown cold and her bones ached. She had taken a hot water bottle with her and wrapped her arms around it in bed, and soon she was sound asleep. But before long she was wakened from her slumber by the sound of haunting music. She lay there in the darkness listening to the mournful tune. The floorboards began to creak one by one, and she could hear the sound of doors opening and closing upstairs. Footsteps could be heard walking along the empty corridors, and the noises were amplified in the open spaces of the large and soulless house. Beryl clung onto the hot water bottle and hid under the bedclothes hoping she could blank out the sounds. Moments later the old, familiar voice spoke in a low, frail tone outside her door:

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