Renting a remote house for the holidays sounds idyllic, but not in The Stone Gods author Jeanette Winterson's haunting tale...
Highfallen House stood on an eminence overlooking the sea. It was a square Victorian gentleman's residence. The large bay windows looked down through the pines towards the shore. Six stone steps led the visitor up to the double front door where a gothic bell-pull released a loud mournful clang deep into the distances of the house.
Laurel lined the drive. The stable block was disused. The walled garden had been locked up in 1914 when the gardeners went to war. Only one had returned. I had been warned that the high brick wall enclosing the garden was unsafe. As I passed it slowly in the car, I saw a faded notice falling off the paint-peeled door. DO NOT ENTER.
I was the first to arrive. My friends were following by train and I was to collect them the next day and then we would settle down to Christmas.
I had driven from Bristol and I was tired. There was a Christmas tree roped on the top of my 4x4 and a trunk-load of provisions. We were not near any town. But the housekeeper had left stacked wood to build a fire and I had brought a shepherd's pie and a bottle of rioja for my first night.
The kitchen was cheerful enough once I had got the fire going and the radio playing while I unpacked our festive supplies. I checked my phone – no signal. Still, I knew the time of the train tomorrow and it was a relief to feel that the world had gone away. I put my food in the oven to heat up, poured a glass of wine, and went upstairs to find myself a bedroom.
The first landing had three bedrooms leading off it. Each had a moth-eaten rug, a metal bed and a mahogany chest of drawers. At the far end of the landing was a second set of stairs up to the attic floor.
I am not romantic about maids' rooms or nurseries, and there was something about that second set of stairs that made me hesitate. The landing was bright in the sudden way of late sun on a winter's afternoon. Yet the light ended abruptly at the foot of the stairs as though it couldn't go any farther. I didn't want to be near that set of stairs, so I chose the room at the front of the house.
As I went to bring up my bag, the house bell started to ring, its jerky metallic hammers sounding somewhere in the guts of the house. I was surprised but not alarmed. I expected the housekeeper. I opened the door. There was no one there. I went down the steps and looked round. I admit I was frightened. The night was clear and soundless. There was no car in the distance. No footsteps walking away. Determined to conquer my fear, I walked round a little. Then, turning back to the house, I saw it; the bell wire ran along the side of the house under a sheltering gutter. Perhaps 30 or 40 bats were dangling upside down on the vibrating wire. The same number swooped and swerved in a dark mass. Obviously their movement on the wire had set off the bell. I like bats. Clever bats. Good. Now supper.
I ate. I drank. I wondered why love is so hard and life is so short. I went to bed. The room was warmer now and I was ready to sleep. The sound of the sea ebbed into the flow of my dreams.
I woke from a dead sleep in dead darkness to hear… what? What can I hear? It sounded like a ball bearing or a marble rolling on the bare floor above my head. It rolled hard on hard then hit the wall. Then it rolled again in the other direction. This might not have mattered except that the other direction was upwards. Things can come loose and roll downwards, but they cannot come loose and roll up. Unless someone…
That thought was so unwelcome that I dismissed it along with the law of gravity. Whatever was rolling over my head must be a natural dislodging. The house was draughty and unused. The attics were under the eaves where any kind of weather might get in. Weather or an animal. Remember the bats. I pulled the covers up to my eyebrows and pretended not to listen.
There it was again: hard on hard on hit on pause on roll.
I waited for sleep, waiting for daylight.
We are lucky, even the worst of us, because daylight comes.
It was a brooding day that 21st of December. The shortest day of the year. Coffee, coat on, car keys. Shouldn't I just check the attic?
The second set of stairs was narrow – a servants' staircase. It led to a lath and plaster corridor barely a shoulder-width wide. I started coughing. Breathing was difficult. Damp had dropped the plaster in thick, crumbling heaps on the floorboards. As below, there were three doors. Two were closed. The door to the room above my room was ajar. I made myself go forward.
The room was under the eaves as I had guessed. The floor was rough. There was no bed, only a washstand and a clothes rail.
What surprised me was the nativity scene in the corner.
Standing about two feet tall, it was more like a doll's house than a Christmas decoration. Inside the open-fronted stable stood the animals, the shepherds, the crib, Joseph. Above the roof, on a bit of wire, was a battered star. It was old, handmade in a workmanlike but not craftsmanlike sort of way, the painted wood now rubbed and faded like pigments of time.
I thought I would carry it downstairs and put it by our Christmas tree. It must have been made for the children when there were children here. I stuffed my pockets with the figures and animals, and left quickly, leaving the door open. I had to set off for the station. Stephen and Susie could help me with the rest later.
As soon as I was out of the house, my lungs felt clear again. It must be the plaster dust.
The drive to the station was along the coast road. Lonely and unyielding, the road turned in a series of blind bends and tight corners. I met no one and I saw no one. Gulls circled over the sea.
The station itself was a simple shelter on a long single track. There were no information boards. I checked my phone. No signal.
At last the train appeared distantly down the track. I was excited. Memories of visiting my father as a child when he was stationed at his RAF base give me a rush of pleasure whenever I travel by train or come to meet one.
The train slowed and halted. The guard stood down for a moment. I watched the doors – it wasn't a big train, this branch line train – but none of the doors opened. I waved at the guard who came over.
"I am meeting my friends."
He shook his head. "Train's empty. Next stop is the end of the line."
I was confused. Had they got off at the earlier stop? I described them. The guard shook his head again. "I notice strangers. They would have boarded at Carlisle, asked me where to get off – always do."
"Is there another train before tomorrow?'
"One a day and that's your lot, and more than anybody needs in a place like this. Where are you staying?"
"Highfallen House. Do you know it?"
"Oh aye. We all know it." He looked as if he were about to say something else. Instead, he blew his whistle. The empty train pulled away, leaving me staring down the long track watching the red light like a warning.
I needed to get a signal on my phone.
I drove on past the station, following the steep hill, hoping some height would connect me to the rest of the world. At the top of the hill I stopped the car and got out, pulling up the collar of my coat. The first snow hit my face with insect insistence. Sharp and spiteful, like little bites.
I looked out across the whitening bay. That must be Highfallen House. But what's that? Two figures walking on the beach. Is it Stephen and Susie? Had they driven here after all? Then, as I strained my eyes against the deceit of distance, I realised that the second figure was much smaller than the first. They were walking purposefully towards the house.
When I arrived back, it was nearly dark.
I put on the lights, blew the fire into a blaze. There was no sign of the mysterious couple I had seen from the hill. Perhaps it had been the housekeeper and her daughter come to make sure that everything was all right. I had a telephone number for Mrs Wormwood, but without a signal I could not call her.
The snow was thickening in windy swirls. Relax. Have a whisky.
I leaned on the warm kitchen range with my whisky in my hand. The wooden figures I had brought down from the attic were lying on the kitchen table. I should go up and get the stable.
I don't want to.
I bounded up the first set of stairs using energy to force out unease. At my bedroom I put on the light. That felt better. The second set of stairs stood in shadow at the end of the long landing. I felt that constriction in my lungs again. Why am I holding on to the handrail like an old man?
I could see that the only light to the attic was at the top of the stairs. I found the round brown Bakelite switch. I flicked down the nipple. A single bulb lit up reluctantly. The room was straight ahead. The door was closed. Hadn't I left it open?
I turned the handle and stood in the doorway, the room dimly lit by the light from the stairs. Washstand. Nativity. Clothes rail. On the clothes rail was a child's dress. I hadn't noticed that before. I suppose I had been in a hurry. Pushing aside my misgivings, I went in purposefully and bent down to pick up the wooden nativity. It was heavy and I had just got it secure in my arms when the light on the landing went out.
Hello? Who's there?
There's someone breathing like they can barely breathe. Not faint. Struggling for breath. I mustn't turn round, because whoever or whatever it is, is behind me.
I stood still for a minute, steadying my nerve. Then I shuffled forward towards the edge of light coming up from downstairs. At the doorway I heard a step behind me, lost my balance and put out a hand to steady myself. My hand gripped something wet. The clothes rail. It must be the dress.
My heart was over-beating. Don't panic. Bakelite. Bad wiring. Strange house. Darkness. Aloneness.
But you're not alone, are you?
Back in the kitchen with whisky, Radio 4 and pasta boiling, I examined the dress. It was for a small child and it was hand-knitted. The wool was smelly and sopping. I washed it out and left it hanging over the sink to drip. I guessed there must be a hole in the roof and the dress had been soaking up the rain for a long time.
I ate my supper, tried to read, told myself it had been nothing, nothing at all. It was only 8pm. I didn't want to go to bed, though the snow outside was like a quilt.
I decided to arrange the nativity. Donkey, sheep, camels, wise men, shepherds, star, Joseph. The crib was there, but it was empty. There was no Christ child. And there was no Mary. Had I dropped them in the dark room? I hadn't heard anything fall and these wooden figures were six inches tall.
Joseph was wearing a woollen tunic, but his wooden legs had painted puttees. I pulled off the tunic. Underneath, wooden Joseph wore a painted uniform. First world war.
When I turned him round, I saw there was a gash in his back like a stab wound.
My phone beeped.
I dropped Joseph, grabbed the phone. It was a text message from Susie. TRYING 2 CALL U. LEAVE 2MORO.
I pressed CALL. Nothing. I tried to send a text. Nothing. But what did it matter? Suddenly I felt relief and calm. They had been delayed, that was all. Tomorrow they would be here.
I sat down again with the nativity. Perhaps the missing figures were inside. I put in my hand. My fingers closed round a metal object. It was a small iron key with a hoop top. Maybe it was the key to the attic door.
Outside, snow had fallen snow on snow. The sky had cleared. The moon sped above the sea.
I had gone to bed and I was deep asleep when I heard it clearly. Above me. Footsteps. Pacing. Down the room. Hesitate. Turn. Return.
I lay in bed, eyes staring blindly at the blind ceiling. Why do we open our eyes when we can't see anything? And what was there to see? I don't believe in ghosts.
I wanted to put on the light, but what if the light didn't come on? Why would it be worse to be in darkness I had not chosen than darkness I was choosing? But it would be worse. I sat up in bed and pulled back the curtain a little. The moon had been so bright tonight, surely there would be light?
There was light. Outside the house, hand in hand, stood the still and silent figures of a mother and child.
I did not sleep again till daylight, and when I slept and woke again, it was almost midday and already the light was lowering.
Hurrying to get coffee, I saw that the dress was gone. I had left it dripping over the sink and it was gone. Get out of the house.
I set off for the station. There was an air frost that had coated the trees in glittering white. It was beautiful and deathly. The world held in ice.
On the road there were no car tracks. No noise but the roar and drop of the sea.
I moved slowly and saw no one. In the white, unmoving landscape, I wondered if there was anyone else left alive?
At the station, I waited. I waited some time past the time until the train whistled on the track. The train stopped. The guard got down and saw me. He shook his head. "There's no one," he said. "No one at all."
I thought I would cry. I took out my mute phone. I flashed up the message. TRYING TO CALL U. LEAVE 2MORO.
The guard looked at it. "Happen it's you who should be leaving," he said. "There's no more trains past Carlisle now till the 27th. Tomorrow was the last and that's been cancelled. Weather."
I wrote down a number and gave it to the guard. "Will you phone my friends and tell them I am on my way home?"
On the slow journey back to Highfallen House, I filled my mind with my departure. It would be slow and dangerous to travel at night, but I could not consider another night alone. Or not alone.
All I had to do was manage 40 miles to Inchbarn. There was a pub and a guesthouse and remote but normal life.
The text message kept playing in my head. Had it really meant that I should leave? And why? Because Susie and Stephen couldn't come? Weather? Illness? It's all a guessing game. The fact is, I have to go.
The house seemed subdued when I returned. I had left the lights on and I went straight upstairs to pack my bag. At once I saw that the light to the attic was on. I paused. Breathed. Of course it's on. I never switched it off. That proves it's a wiring fault. I must tell the housekeeper.
My bag packed, I threw the food into a box and put everything back in the car. I had the whisky in the front, a blanket I stole from the bed, and I made a hot-water bottle, just in case.
It was only five o'clock. At worst I'd be in Inchbarn by 9pm.
I got in the car and turned the key. The radio came on for a second, died, and as the ignition clicked and clicked, I knew that the battery was flat. Two hours ago at the station, the car had started first time. Even if I had left the lights on… But I hadn't left the lights on. A cold panic hit me. I took a swig of the whisky. I couldn't sleep in the car all night. I would die.
I don't want to die.
Back in the house, I wondered what I was going to do all night. I must not fall asleep. I had noticed some old books and volumes when I had explored downstairs yesterday – assorted dusty adventure stories and tales of empire. As I sorted through them, I came across a faded velvet photograph album. In the cold, deserted sitting room, I began to discover the past.
Highfallen House 1910. The women in long skirts with miraculous waists. The men in shooting tweeds. The stable boys in waistcoats, the gardening boys wearing flat caps. The maids in starched aprons. And here they are again in their Sunday best: a wedding photograph. Joseph and Mary Lock. 1912. He was a gardener. She was a maid. In the back of the album, loose and unsorted, were further photographs and newspaper cuttings. 1914. The men in uniform. There was Joseph.
I took the album back into the kitchen and put it next to my wooden solider. I had on my coat and scarf. I propped myself up in two chairs by the wood-fired range and dozed and waited and waited and dozed.
It was perhaps two o'clock when I heard a child crying. Not a child who has scraped his knee, or lost a toy, but an abandoned child. A child whose own voice is his last hold on life. A child who cries and knows that no one will come.
The sound was not above me – it was above the above me. I knew where it was coming from.
I put my hands over my ears and my head between my knees. I could not shut out the sound; a locked-up child, a hungry child, a child who is cold and wet and frightened.
Twice I got up and went to the door. Twice I sat down again.
The crying stopped. Silence. A dreadful silence.
I raised my head. Footsteps were coming down the stairs. Not one foot in front of the other, but one foot dragging slightly, then the other joining it, steadying, stepping again.
At the bottom of the stairs, the footsteps paused. Then they did what I knew they would do with all the terror in my body. The footsteps came towards the kitchen door. Whatever was out there was standing 12 feet away on the other side of the door. I stood behind the table and picked up a knife.
The door swung open with violent force that rammed the brass doorknob into the plaster of the wall. Wind and snow blew into the kitchen, whirling up the photographs and cuttings on the table. I saw that the front door itself was wide open, the entrance hall like a wind tunnel.
Holding the knife, I went forward into the hall to shut the door. The pendant metal lantern that hung from the ceiling was swinging wildly on its long chain. A sudden gust lurched it forward like a child's swing pushed too high. It fell back at force against the large semi-circular fanlight over the front door. The fanlight shattered and fell round my shoulders in shards of sharp rain. Flicker. Buzz. Darkness. The house lights were out. No wind now. No cries. Silence again.
Glass-hit in the snow-lit hall, I walked out of the front door and into the night. At the drive, I turned left and I saw them: the mother and child.
The child was wearing the woollen dress. She had no shoes. She held up her arms piteously to her mother, who stood like stone.
I ran forward. I grabbed the child in my arms.
There was no child. I had fallen face down in the snow.
Help me. That's not my voice.
I'm on my feet again. The mother is ahead of me. I follow her. She's going towards the walled garden. She seems to pass through the door, leaving me on the other side.
DO NOT ENTER
I tried the rusty hoop handle. It broke off, taking a piece of door with it. I kicked the door open. It fell off its hinges. The ruined and abandoned garden lay before me. A walled garden of one acre used to feed 20 people. But that was a long time ago.
There were footprints in the snow. I followed them. They led me to the bothy, its roof patched with corrugated iron. There was no door, but the inside seemed dry and sound. There was a tear-off calendar still on the wall: 22 December 1916.
I put my hand in my pocket and I realised that the key from the nativity was there. At the same time, I heard a chair scrape on the floor in the room beyond. I had no fear any more. As the body first shivers and then numbs with cold, my feelings were frozen. I was moving through shadows as one who dreams.
In the room beyond there was a low fire lit in the tiny tin fireplace. On either side of the fire sat the mother and child. The child was absorbed playing with a marble. Her bare feet were blue, but she did not seem to feel the cold any more than I did.
Are we dead then?
The woman with the shawl over her head looked at me with deep expressionless eyes. I recognised her. It was Mary Lock. She nodded at me, or at not me, at some other me in some other time, I do not know. Her gaze went to a tall cupboard. I knew that my key fitted this cupboard and that I must open it. I did so.
A dusty uniform fell out, crumpling like a puppet. The uniform was not quite empty of its occupant. The back of the faded wool jacket had a long slash where the lungs would have been.
I looked at the knife in my hand.
"Open the door! Are you in there? Open the door!"
I woke to blinding white. Where am I? Something's rocking. It's the car. I am in my car. A heavy glove was brushing off the snow. I sat up, found my keys, pressed the unlock button. It was morning. Outside was the guard from the train and a woman who announced herself as Mrs Wormwood.
"Fine mess you've made here," she said.
We went into the kitchen. I was shivering so much that Mrs Wormwood relented and began to make coffee.
"Alfie fetched me," she said, "after he spoke to your friends."
"There's a body," I said. "In the walled garden."
"Is that where it is?" said Mrs Wormwood.
At Christmas 1914, Joseph Lock had gone to war. Before he left for Flanders, he had made a nativity scene for his little girl. When he came back in 1916, he had been gassed. They heard him, climbing the stairs, gasping for breath through froth-corrupted lungs.
His mind had gone, they said. At night in the attic where he slept with his wife and child, he leaned vacantly against the wall, rolling the child's marbles up and down, down and up, pacing, pacing, pacing. One night, just before Christmas, he strangled his wife and daughter. He left them for dead in the bed and went out. But his wife was not dead. She followed him. In the morning, they found her sitting by the nativity, her dress dark with blood, his fingermarks livid at her throat. She was singing a lullaby and pushing the point of the knife into the back of the wooden figure. Joseph was never found.
"Are you going to call the police?" I said.
"What for?" said Mrs Wormwood. "Let the dead bury the dead."
Alfie the guard went out to see to my car. It started first time, the exhaust blue in the white air. I left them clearing up and was about to set off when I remembered I had left my radio in the kitchen. I went back inside. The kitchen was empty. I could hear the two of them up in the attic. I picked up the radio. The nativity was on the table as I had left it.
But it wasn't as I had left it.
Joseph was there and the animals and the shepherds and the worn-out star. And in the centre was the crib. Next to the crib were the wooden figures of a mother and child.