Christmas ghost stories: Stairs by Penelope Lively
An exclusive short story by the Booker-winning veteran author
Sunday 22 December 2013
Here we go, she thought: "Ripe for renovation." Of course. Another one.
Tim was turning off the main road, responding to the satnav. They left the traffic, forged through a mesh of suburban streets, arrived at the heart of what had once been a rural village, now digested by later development. Row of old cottages, a pub, the church.
"Should be just along here," he said.
"An irresistible wreck?"
He laughed. Patted her knee. "Trust me."
"No way. Medieval barn, is it?"
"If only. Thirties, I think. Ah – must be this."
He pulled up. They studied the house. Undistinguished. Plain, thought Laura. Basic house. Bit like a child's drawing: front door, window each side, three above. And yes, crack in the brickwork, roof tiles missing, window-frames haven't seen a splash of paint in years. Right up Tim's street.
There had been the murky basement flat in Kentish Town. A gleaming space by the time he had done with it, all wood floors and halogen lights and clever cupboards. And the two-up, two-down in Croydon, to which he had given a loft and a conservatory extension. She had never lived other than surrounded by tools and timber and drums of paint. Oh well – he's worth it.
He had the key from the agent, unlocked the door.
"Nice and damp," she said, sniffing.
"Empty for ages, apparently. The price is good. Very good. And we'd get it down." He was diving into the rooms at either side of the hallway. She heard him banging across the boarded floors, throwing open a window.
Staircase to the side of the hall, up to the floor above, where there was a small landing, with rooms opening off. Steep staircase, surprisingly steep, not well designed.
He had flung open the door at the back of the hall. Kitchen, she saw. Well, sort of kitchen, once.
She joined him. "Just what I've always wanted – granite worktops, cabinet lighting, carving trolley."
He put his arm round her. "You'll get all that. Let's have a look upstairs."
"It's a good thing I love you," she said. "Most women would be out of here and into the car by now."
They climbed the stairs. The wood of the banister was splintered and there were balusters missing. The landing above had a loose plank that lurched when stepped on. Tim opened doors to rooms. "Ah. You'd do an en suite here. Maybe knock another window in this one – a bit dark."
He was inspecting floorboards. "Sand them throughout. Possibly slate flags in the kitchen. Oh …" He had spotted a dead bird in the corner of what she now grimly knew would be their bedroom. He picked it up by one desiccated wing and dropped it out of the window.
"Dead birds I can do," she said. "A passing inconvenience. I'm more interested in damp, and that dysfunctional roof, and a funny smell in what is supposed to be a bathroom, and that crack up there, and those over there."
He was leaning out of the window. "Old orchard at the end of the garden. You'd make a paved area – perhaps steps up from it to the lawn. Come and look." She looked. Shaggy grass. Nettles. Remains of a bonfire. Various plastic bags. The carcass of a child's buggy.
"No one could ever accuse you of lack of imagination," she said.
He grinned. That confiding grin that had first won her, at some party she'd nearly not gone to, aeons ago, or so it now seemed. Six years, actually.
"You're on board, then?" he said.
"What choice do I have?"
"You'll love it. Eventually. You see."
"Ah. You mean we're going to settle here?"
"Oh, well…" He shrugged. "Let's have another poke around the kitchen area."
Down those stairs. Cold, she thought. Extraordinarily cold in here. June day, sun outside, and so cold.
Central heating installation one of his specialities. Just as well.
He was a local government official. Not a builder. He worked in an office, amid computers and filing cabinets, and escaped to his power drill, his saws, his hammers, his larder of screws and nuts and bolts and intricate ironmongery, his drawing-board, his pencils and set-squares and compasses. Then, he took flight.
Laura taught. She taught six-to seven-year-olds. One day they would have one of these of their own. Two, maybe. Nice. When he had banged his way through enough decayed properties.
She could stand it – the dust, the dishevelment. In a curious way, she quite liked it, because this was essence of Tim – his energy, his beguiling enthusiasm, the way he flung himself into a new project, on a high with schemes, his eyes alight with power showers and quarry tiles and fitted cupboards. Weekends, she supplied endless cups of tea and coffee, admired, consoled when something went awry. Their outings were to Homebase and builders merchants. Once, contemplating fireplaces in a reclamation yard, he said, "When you can't put up with any more of this you must say so."
She smiled. "Seriously? And then what will you do with yourself?"
"Crosswords? Sudoku? Learn to play the violin. Take up judo. You are a saint. I know that. You indulge me."
"I suppose it could be said that I am climbing the property ladder. We both are."
"Never thought of it like that. It's the doing it. Do you like this one? Lovely marble surround."
"Exactly. And that's why I indulge you. And no, marble is not appropriate for a small Croydon terrace house."
She loved the intensity of his application, his ability to concentrate for hours on the exact construction of a shelf. He had made a wrought-iron spiral stair for that basement, an exquisite tiled bathroom for the Croydon terrace, squeezed into an extension. Once she had suggested to him quite seriously that he should think of packing in office life and go into business as a builder.
He laughed. "But it's exactly because it's not work. That's the joy of it."
And now, she saw, there would be this somewhat unlovely, seriously dilapidated and enticingly cheap house in an outer London suburb. Oh, well. And it was worth it for his soaring good spirits – always so when on the brink of a new undertaking.
"This is going to be really good. Huge potential. The only thing is, it could take years."
"I shan't complain," she said. "Who knows – you might decide to live in it."
It was autumn when they took possession. Within weeks the ground floor was piled high with his equipment; weekends were spent sourcing materials. Radiators, piping – he was making central heating a priority, thank goodness – timber, tiles. They both had further to travel to work from here, but even so he would set to each evening, if only to sit staring at squared paper on his clipboard, working out how he would deal with some particular space in the house. He was happy, and she with him. They made love a lot.
The neighbour appeared when they had been there about a month. Elderly woman – 80-plus – coming up the front path, eyeing things as she went: timber under a tarpaulin, that sagging gutter. Laura saw her out of the window and went to the door.
"I've tried you before but you're gone a lot. Sheila Bates. I live down there." The visitor waved towards the nearest housing – a little 19th-century terrace beyond the scrubby field that separated their own house from the rest of the sprawling nearby development. Tim was a touch concerned about this field: likely to be built on, at some point. "I see you've builders in. High time someone did some work on the place."
Laura smiled. "The builder isn't a professional, I'm afraid." She hesitated. "I'd suggest a cup of tea, but it's an awful mess in here."
"That'll be all right." Sheila Bates had both feet on the doormat by now anyway: stumpy woman, stick in one hand, Asda carrier bag in the other. "I've not been in here for years. The last people weren't what you'd call matey, and they're long gone anyway."
Laura took her into the kitchen, put the kettle on.
The visitor inspected the room. "Well, he'll have his hands full with this. Dry rot, I shouldn't be surprised. And that roof… Nobody's much stayed, and then it's left empty. Children?"
"No," said Laura. "Milk?" Oh, dear. Well, maybe there are other neighbours.
"Yes, and one sugar. Both at work, are you?"
"We are. Have you lived here long?"
Sheila Bates became more expansive. Since childhood, it seemed. Born here, left for elsewhere to marry, husband died. Parents also, 20 years ago. "And then I thought I'd sooner end up here than in Manchester where we'd gone. So I'm back where I began." She fished in the Asda bag. "Here – green tomato chutney. Made it last week."
Laura took the jar, thanking effusively. There, heart of gold after all.
"Doing heating, is he? Those radiators out there? You'll need it. That him outside?"
Tim could be seen through the open kitchen door sawing timber.
"We're not married," said Laura firmly, and at once regretted this. "We – we're partners."
"That's all right with me," said Sheila Bates. "It's the way nowadays, I know. Makes sense, really. Marriages come unstuck." She looked down the garden at Tim. "Big chap. Needs to be – into DIY on this scale. Reminds me a bit of…" She broke off. "Do something about the garden, will you?"
"Oh, yes. In time."
"You've got apples down there at the end. A nice Russet, I remember. I can use any you don't want."
An exchange economy, thought Laura, When Sheila Bates had – eventually – left. Fair enough.
She told Tim about their neighbour.
"So long as barter doesn't include me fixing her plumbing."
"Come on, we should be neighbourly."
Autumn segued into winter; he had the heating up and running, and basic remedial work done on the kitchen. He was sanding floors now – dust everywhere.
She had never known him so absorbed in a new project, immersed in it each evening, every weekend. It was as though he were possessed. He sanded, he replaced rotten floorboards, in fine weather he got up on the roof and started to tackle the slipped and broken tiles. He set about the creation of the en suite bathroom next to their bedroom to replace the original dank facility at the end of the landing.
Winter now in full control. Icy mornings. Snow that came, melted, lay around as slush. The house could not be called warm, despite the radiators, the state-of-the-art boiler.
Intermittently warm. She said, "The heating works in an odd way, have you noticed? There are cold patches. Here and there."
He grunted, dismissive, short with her. "It's fine. Just that the house has been empty."
He could be like that these days.
Laura cooked a lot, surprising herself. She had always been a rather lazy cook, favouring easy things, short cuts; now she found herself making hefty stews, doing complex bakery. And it passed the time – her rather solitary time; there is only so much tea and coffee you can supply.
She went for walks, too – not that the neighbourhood came up with much by way of an interesting route. Too built up. On one of these she met Sheila Bates, heading for her house, dragging a shopping trolley.
"How's he doing, then? Got your heating in?"
"He has," said Laura. "He's got masses done."
Sheila parked her trolley, nodded. This was not to be a fleeting exchange, it would seem. "You know, it's maybe as well you've not got children. There was a child fell down those stairs. Wasn't all right after. The family left quite soon."
"They are quite steep, I suppose," said Laura. Right, let's have all the bad news.
"Ages ago. In my parents' time. There's been people since, several lots, but no children, I think. You hadn't Russets to spare, then?"
Oh, heavens – the apples. I forgot entirely. Black, black mark. "Do you know – there weren't that many. A bad year, perhaps. I'm sorry. But… but can I bring you a cake next weekend? I always bake then."
Sheila Bates looked interested. "Into cooking, are you? That's unusual, with younger people, I've noticed. It's all takeaway and that. All right, then. I won't say no."
There had not been much intercourse with other neighbours. A couple at the end of Sheila's terrace occasionally passed the time of day, a few faces had become familiar. Sheila seemed vaguely to be valued, as some kind of tether to this place.
Actually, Laura thought, I'm not at all sure I'd want to stay here. Something… oh, I don't know, something not right. Well, staying put is not likely to happen, with Tim's track record.
Sheila was saying something about the house, their house. "…new back then. Not far off new. Built just before the war."
"Sorry? Oh, our house. Yes, I suppose. To me it feels old."
"Well, it's not been cared for, has it? My parents never liked it."
"I must get back," said Laura briskly. "Tim will be wanting his tea." And what does it matter whether your parents liked it or not? They didn't live there. "I'll remember the cake, next weekend."
Laura found Tim sitting in the kitchen, in a state of exasperation because the wrong tiles had been delivered. She tried to cheer him up with an embellished account of Sheila Bates – the archetypal crusty old neighbour – and merely provoked irritation.
"Look – without those tiles I'm set right back this weekend. Can't get ahead with the bathroom."
"So? There's no deadline. So it takes a bit longer… You know, you're a bit obsessive, this time. This house… I don't know… it seems to consume you."
No reply. He was examining his plan of the bathroom, and did not look at her.
"I watch telly on my own every evening," she said.
"For Christ's sake, Laura, stop being so pathetic." He stood up, and slammed out of the room.
Later he had calmed down, appeared to have forgotten the exchange. She was relieved but disturbed. What is this? Tim, who was always so agreeable? Never a cross word.
At Christmas her mother came to stay, a visit proposed by Laura with the notion that some kind of family Christmas would tame the dishevelled house, normalise it. Her father had died a couple of years before and her mother, Susan Harper, was glad to come. She was gallant about the various deficiencies: "No, really, it's not that cold… I've coped with worse bathrooms, I promise you… The kitchen's going to be lovely eventually, I can see." There was a frenzy of cooking: the full-scale Christmas dinner, Laura made an iced cake, Susan an array of mince pies. The house smelled rich, seemed to mellow.
"Really warm now," said Susan. "Mostly, anyway. Just chill places. Draughts, is it? Feels like that. Does Tim need to do something with the windows?"
"Nothing wrong with the windows," he snapped. Tense, annoyed. Busy with his clipboard, the squared paper. Susan fell silent, abashed. They had got on fine in the past. She said as much to Laura.
"He can be tetchy these days. Sorry."
Susan took herself off to the shops, being tactful, perhaps, on the pretext of some need. Tim was now tiling in the bathroom. Laura brought him coffee, stood for a moment. "You did rather squash my mum, you know."
He said nothing, intent upon placing a tile. Then he turned, looked at her. A look of pure hostility that shocked her. She went downstairs, so fast that at one point she nearly tripped, her stomach lurching.
Susan returned from her excursion, with a placatory bottle of wine. She and Laura had tea in the kitchen, Tim still immersed in bathroom fittings overhead.
"I was pounced on by one of your neighbours – saw me leaving the house. Old. Asks questions."
Laura pulled a face. "I know. Her. Yes, she does."
"Checking me out. Then – how was Tim getting on? Saw him up on the roof, hopes he takes care, you don't want another accident. Went on and on… funny place, that, nobody stays that long, wonders why you two wanted it…"
Oh, someone's wife – way back when old Mrs Thing was a child. She didn't elaborate. Offered to walk me to the shops but I escaped."
"I'm in the market for a different neighbour," said Laura. "No one's come forward so far."
She made a curry with the remains of the turkey. Tim drank most of the wine, opened another bottle, became more congenial. They made love that night. No, Laura thought, after – we had sex. Love wasn't what we were making. He had been cursory, rather rough. He felt, indeed, almost unfamiliar, as though a stranger took over the bed.
On the day that Laura's mother left she said, "Will you actually live in this house?"
Laura laughed. "You mean, unlike Tim's other projects? Maybe. Maybe not."
"Would you like to?"
There was a silence. Laura's mother became brisk. "We'd better get going if you're going to run me to the station."
In the car, she said, "If you really don't like the house, when he's done, you must say, Laura."
Laura sighed. "Of course I would, Mum."
After Christmas it got a bit warmer. Tim was doing some decorating now, in the new bathroom and elsewhere. The heating seemed to have become more effective lately, and Laura would leave an upstairs window open for a while to clear the smell of paint. The Christmas break had given Tim a spell of concentrated work on the house but it was now back to routine – the daily stint at their jobs for both of them. For Laura, this was something of a relief. At least she had company at work. Conversation. Laughter.
Everything we used to have. Before we came here.
Thoughts fermented on those winter evenings, cleaning up after supper in the kitchen, watching television later. On one of those nights, restless and suddenly resentful, she took him up a mug of coffee. He was in the spare bedroom, plastering a wall.
"I suppose I can't persuade you to join me for Have I Got News For You?"
He did not look at her. "No. I've gone off it, anyway." "You used to love it.We did."
He glanced at her. "You seem to assume that everything always stays the same." Exasperation in his voice.
She left the room, slamming the door. Ran down the stairs.
Halfway down, she felt it. A hand on her back. Between the shoulder blades. Pushing. A sharp push. Then it was gone. She had clutched the banister.
She looked back up the stairs. The door she had slammed was still shut, Tim inside that room. It had been cold, the hand. Cold through her sweater.
A draught, of course. A chilly draught from that window on the landing – must have been left open. She went into the kitchen, got herself a glass of wine, sat down in front of the television and applied herself to a programme that no longer seemed particularly entertaining.
They coexisted now, she and Tim. That was how it felt. They lived together, under the same roof, but their lives were quite separate. They ate together in the evenings and at weekends and there might be desultory exchanges. But we never have a conversation, she thought, we never talk. It was as though the Tim she had known for six years had retreated, subsumed into some other persona. Sometimes he was short with her; most of the time he simply paid her little attention. She began to wonder if perhaps he had depression. What are the symptoms of depression?
And she sensed changes in herself. Anxiety, instability. Well, no wonder – with Tim like this. But it was more than that; she was conscious of some deep unrest. Of wanting… to get away, it felt like. Get away from what? From Tim? No, no. From this place? Perhaps. She never returned from work in the evening with any sense of coming home. The surroundings seemed forever alien, a place that was not hers. And the house… Yes, the house too. At weekends she found herself going out as much as possible – shopping excursions that were barely necessary.
On one of these she met Sheila Bates, not seen for some weeks.
"Your mother gone, has she?"
"Some while ago," said Laura.
"Pity. You'll miss her. We had a chat."
"So I heard."
"She was saying she didn't feel you were really settled in."
She did, did she? A bit previous of you, Mum.
"No wonder, with all that building work. I said as much. He's got going on the roof again, I saw. Up there yesterday."
"He's taking advantage of this break in the weather," said Laura. "And he's not going to fall off. You said something to my mother about an accident."
"No one ever fell off the roof, that I know of. It was a woman. Young woman."
I don't think I want to know about this, thought Laura. And that's enough neighbourly exchange. "I must get on – shopping to do."
"Him that lived there before the war. I was a child so I hardly remember. Big man, like yours. And the wife had an accident. Bad accident. People didn't care for him. There was talk he'd had something to do with it. Then he went."
"A long time ago," said Laura irritably. "And nothing to do with us, is it?"
Sheila Bates shrugged. "Long time ago, that's right. Neither here nor there now, I suppose. And you'll have the place all done up to the nines before long, I don't doubt."
"Well, made habitable, at least. Anyway, I must be off."
"My mother wouldn't walk past the house. She said he'd never really left," said Sheila Bates.
Laura stared at her. Turned and walked away. She's an old bat. I really have to find myself another neighbour.
She bought some salmon for supper, a favourite of Tim's. Wine, a piece of stilton. It was almost dark when she got back, still those raw winter afternoons, the light draining by five. Tim was up on the roof.
"Come down," she said. "You can't see, up there."
No answer. "Well, be careful then."
Soon, from the kitchen, she heard the front door slam, his feet on the stairs. He would be plastering now, on the landing.
She did things in the kitchen. A sauce for the salmon, vegetables. A salad for starters. Presently the salmon went into the oven.
She called up the stairs. "Supper in 20 minutes – OK?"
A reply, after a moment or two. "I'd rather have it later – I'm in the middle of something."
"I've put it in the oven. It's salmon."
Plastering sounds. "I said later."
She glared up at his back. "If you wanted late supper you should have told me earlier."
No response. Then, "Just keep mine."
Laura took a breath. She ran up the stairs. Halfway up. Stopped.
"Look, Tim – I've bothered. I've taken trouble over the meal. The least you can do is eat it with me."
He paused. Noticed her now, it seemed. Looked down at her.
"Just fuck off, would you Laura," he said. A cold voice. A note in it she had never heard before.
She froze, there on the stair. Then she turned. And as she did so she was snatching at the banister, clinging on, almost flung off her feet.
Hand on her back. Push. Violent push.
Tim up above on the landing still, plastering.
She ran down. She grabbed her coat. She fetched her bag from the kitchen. Where's my phone? The car keys? She spun from room to room, shrugged on her coat.
She stood in the hall. "I'm going," she said. He was watching. Up there, watching.
"I'm going, Tim."
He laughed. No, someone else laughed. Tim standing looking at her, but the laugh was someone else's.