The estate agent was pleasant and chatted comfortably on the short journey. He parked by the garden gate and leapt out with the keys. Martha followed more slowly, taking in the warm red brick, the buzzing of insects and the flowers beside the path. Before she had entered she knew this was to be her home. The hall had stairs leading to the bedrooms, a door to the kitchen and another to the lounge. They began with the lounge with its chintzy curtains, pine easy chairs and log burning stove in a brick hearth.
‘The vendor is willing to sell with all furniture and fittings, for very little extra.’ Martha nodded disinterestedly but she was completely smitten. They moved to the kitchen. It had been tastefully modernised and lost none of its original charm. Finally the two bedrooms and bathroom had all she could desire.
‘So what do you think, Miss Parks? Are you interested?’
‘I’m considering it and would like to know the cost of the furniture and why the owner wants a quick sale?’
He shrugged. ‘Probably needs the money. Between you and me there have been other people interested and they have done all the necessary checks. The cottage is perfect.’
‘If it is so perfect why did the other people back out?’
‘They all had different reasons, personal, you know.’ She knew he was lying but she also knew the cottage had to be hers. The agent looked pointedly at his watch. Martha took the hint and moved towards the door. As he locked it behind them there was an audible sigh from the cottage. It sounded sad, as if it didn’t want her to go. The agent gave no sign of having heard anything and they returned to his office. An hour later she walked out with a smile curling her lips. The cottage would soon be hers.
Moving can be a stressful experience but for Martha it was exciting. The first night in the cottage was blissful. Although her personal possessions were few, and she had taken the offer of the furniture, it had still been hard work. She awoke on Sunday morning, eager to go to church to offer a prayer of thanks. The sound of the bells made her hurry but she arrived in good time, joining the half a dozen already in the congregation. They stared at her and she returned with her most dazzling smile. After the service the vicar stood at the door and Martha waited to be the last so she could speak to him.
‘Welcome to our Church. I’m John Bowles,’ He held out his hand and she shook it.
’Martha Parks. I’ve just moved into Lilac Cottage.’
She saw a shadow flicker across his face and the smile dimmed. He quickly recovered, smiled and said, ‘Well, Martha, I hope we’ll see you every Sunday. Let me give you a leaflet with dates and times of events. We have,‘Discover the Bible’ on Wednesday evenings and if you sing we would love to have you in the choir. They rehearse on Thursday nights with our organist, George. Does any of this sound your sort of thing?”
‘It all sounds lovely, thank you, and when I have got the cottage straight I’ll join the Bible class, at least. I must go now, lots to do.’ They parted and Martha felt like a little girl, tempted to skip along the path home. Her first task was to finish unpacking and then work on the back garden. The grass needed cutting and the shed had revealed all the necessary equipment. She wondered if the vendor had gone abroad to live. That would explain why he had been willing to part with so many possessions.
That evening she relaxed in the armchair and almost fell asleep but was jolted awake by a voice.‘Are you sitting comfortably Martha? Then I’ll begin.’
She sat up in alarm but could see no-one. The drawer in the writing bureau opened slowly and then slammed shut making her jump. The voice giggled. The curtains opened and shut vigorously and then, as if bored with that game, the paper rack rose into the air tipping the contents onto the floor. Martha had watched all of this with terror but then she got angry.
She stood up. ‘What do you think you’re doing? I’ve just got everything tidy in here. Put that back!’
The voice chuckled again. ‘Pick it up yourself.’
She folded her arms defiantly. ‘Now I know why people don’t want to stay here. You spoil if for them.’
‘It’s my house, my house, my house.’ The voice tailed off into a sigh, as if he’d gone.
Martha cleared up the mess, made some drinking chocolate and took it up to bed. She was worried but felt strong in her faith. Nothing was going to frighten her into moving.
Her sleep was undisturbed until four o’clock in the morning. Then there was a heavy knocking on the front door. Martha struggled out of bed, put on her dressing gown, hoping the visitor would realise they had got the wrong house. The knocking became louder so she opened the door with the safety chain on. A gale whistled through and around her but there was no person on the front step. She tried to close the door but the wind was so strong she had to push with all her strength. Then the wind dropped and she fell.
‘That was mean. You’ve ruined my sleep. I’m not frightened, just angry.’ She stomped back upstairs and decided to read, in the hope of feeling sleepy eyed. When she was engrossed in her book and comfortably relaxed, he appeared as a skeletal form, draped in white, wispy rags. He accompanied this with loud, echoing laughter and came closer. Martha steeled herself to be nonchalant as the smell of decay and mould wafted towards her.
‘What do you want? I told you I’m here to stay.’
The hideous face approached within inches of hers and the foetid breath made her turn her head away. ‘You will go. They all do.’
He glided back a little and she took that chance to produce her Bible from the bedside cabinet. She held it against her chest with the silver cross towards the ghost. He would have paled if her could but he did diminish, just a little in size. Martha began to sing a hymn,
‘My faith it is an oaken staff,
The trav’llers well loved aid;
My faith it is a weapon stout…..’
She increased her volume as the ghost attempted to drown out her voice with his.
‘Onward Christian soldiers…….’ She stopped and he continued, then faded, but his form was still there.
‘I can’t believe you sang that hymn. Were you a Christian? If you were I don’t understand why you’re not in Heaven, or the other place.’
‘I can’t talk, the dawn is nigh. Spirits like me hide from the sun.’
He disappeared and Martha decided to get up and start her day. Perhaps she could have a snooze in an afternoon if her nights were to be so disrupted.
Later that morning she went to the village shop. Mrs Best served her and it quickly became obvious she knew everything about everybody. Martha realised the villagers probably knew Lilac Cottage was haunted. When asked how she was settling in she beamed and said how lovely it was. Mrs Best tried to fish for more information but Martha insisted everything was wonderful.
As evening approached she was ready for the war of wills armed with a crucifix, her Bible and a prayer book. She was determined to win. When it was completely dark he arrived with a flash and a bang that shook the windows in their frames. His clothing was dirty rags and his flesh decaying, stinking and oozing pus.
‘I see you’ve made great efforts to look your worst tonight,’ she said calmly. He shook, himself, dropping bits of flesh on the floor. They wriggled and she saw they were maggots. Taking a deep breath she held out her crucifix to ward him off.
‘You can put that away. I’m a ghost not a vampire. Crosses don’t scare me.’
‘You do. I’m scared I can’t scare you.’
Martha laughed. and the ghost shrunk to half his size. Martha took advantage of his discomfort.
‘You can save yourself the effort because I’m not scared of you but I have a proposal. We can share this house if we can agree some rules. You can play downstairs all night but you let me sleep. If you are lonely and want to chat you can come when it’s dark, looking and smelling better than you do now. I’m lonely sometimes and would be happy to see you.’
‘Can you play chess or canasta?’
‘Yes. I like both of those games.’
‘In that case we have a deal. My name’s Archie.’
He held out his hand but she kept hers firmly on her lap. Let’s shake hands when you’re in better form Archie.’