Dart Valley Writers U3A
I've always detested this big mausoleum of a house, with its draughty corridors and creepy, creaky old floorboards. I particularly hate this narrow back staircase up from the kitchen - so chilly and dim, especially the twisty bit halfway up where watchful eyes seem to be hiding in the shadows and I'm nervous that someone might suddenly appear, catch me and scream blue murder enough to wake the whole house. The old stairway seems even dimmer now than when I was living here, more threatening somehow with so many shady doorways and darkly curtained windows that I'd somehow never noticed before.
I'd never felt at peace here and would have left in a heartbeat, but I knew Duncan would never have let me take Jade and Alice - the only two good things to come of this disastrous marriage. I also knew full well that he would never give up what he was proud to call 'the family inheritance'. In fact, even though the house was practically falling down around our ears, he seemed downright proud that folks around here had dubbed it Haunted House, and took great pleasure in regaling anyone with the patience or inclination to listen with tales of some famous ancestral wraith or other - said to walk the cold attic rooms on moonless nights.
I'd endured my life here for nearly seven years - anxious day and nights filled with dark secrets and buried memories - so in some ways I wasn't sorry to be the one who had to go. In the end, it turned out I had no choice. It was desperately hard to accept and adapt to this new way of life, but if the only way I can get to see my babies is to slip in the back way after midnight whenever I can, then that's just how it has to be. I've got away with it so far but I know Duncan would raise merry hell if he ever caught me, so I have to be extra careful and keep my wits about me.
So here I am now, creeping along the dark and musty corridor. I am as silent as a cloud passing across the moon as with a shuddery sigh of relief I slip into Alice's room. I don't want to disturb her, just need to stand by her bed and watch her gently breathing as she dreams. She's looking so peaceful tonight in the dull glow of her nightlight - five years' worth of gorgeousness with her curls tumbled about her pillow and her little thumb just falling wetly out of her mouth. She's really too old to still be sucking her thumb - I hope Duncan doesn't scold her about it too much. As I kneel close to the side of the bed, cool fingers hovering over her flushed cheek, she turns and half sighs. I quickly pull back into the shadows at the end of the bed - I know it would only upset her if she was to wake and see me now.
"Night night, darling" I call softly from the doorway, a silent kiss on the tips of my fingers.
I head gingerly along the dusty corridor, feeling the customary unease as I pass the gaping black alcove that leads to the attic rooms. I can feel an icy draught whistling briskly under the rickety attic door. I suddenly become aware of a loud creak overhead and I freeze. Was that the famed tortured soul pacing the ancient floorboards above? Or perhaps it was just the wind in the rafters - I never did believe in all Duncan's 'Family Ghost' rubbish anyway.
I listen for a few moments more but all is still, so with a swift glance over my shoulder toward Duncan's room along the corridor I pass quietly into Jade's bedroom. No nightlight for Jade - a big girl now, with her eighth birthday coming up next month. I'm devastated to have to miss it but I'm sure she'll know I'll be thinking about her. We were always very close, my Jade and I.
I tiptoe over to her bedside and smile to myself. So she did finally get the pink princess duvet cover with matching pillowcases that she'd coveted for so long - Duncan must have relented, or more likely she'd worn him down.
"That's my girl, Jade!" I whisper as I bend closer, longing to be able to tuck the duvet warmly over her chilly arms. My frigid fingers reach out and stroke her hand - I know I shouldn't risk it but the temptation to feel the soft skin once again is just too much to resist. To my horror, she stirs and yawns. Her sleepy eyes focus on me and before I can move she struggles up in bed with a cry.
I quickly step away and pass out of the room.
"Mummy! Come back...please come back Mummy!"
I hear her tearfully calling me as I scurry away, back down the corridor, stumbling down the back stairs as her frightened little voice fades. I know she will be crying now but there's nothing I can do to comfort her and it tears me apart.
As I tumble into the kitchen I'm suddenly taken back in time, to the night nearly two years ago. To the tears and the shouting. To Duncan's heavy fists gripping my arms, shaking, ripping my shirt - his angry eyes raking my face as he shoves me away. To the searing pain as my head and neck connects with the iron grate around the old kitchen fireplace.
To Jade's horrified six-year old eyes in the kitchen doorway, her little-girl voice high and trembling.
"Mummy! Come back...please come back Mummy...
Her pleading, terrified voice - getting fainter and fainter, until it gradually fades away into a greyish sort of mist and unending silence.
I listen for her crying now and am relieved beyond belief to hear no sound. I pray that she will by now have settled back down. Hopefully, if Duncan even heard her cries at all, he will assume it was just another one of her bad 'Mummy' nightmares and go back to sleep next to his unsuspecting new wife.
I pass soundlessly through the locked and bolted back door - out into the cold night air and the murky shadows where I now dwell.
I know it was wrong to touch Jade tonight. I know it was against all the rules and I promise her, Alice and myself that it will never happen again.
But it won't stop me coming back. I will just keep returning, night after lonely night, for as long as I can, so I can watch over them, keep them safe and see them grow.
I will keep coming back until they don't need me any more. Until to them I will just be a fading memory of a hazy sort of someone - someone who used to visit them in their dreams. Someone who loved them very much. Someone who just couldn't let go.
One last look up at the blank bedroom windows before I raise a cold hand and melt back into the grey nothingness that has become my home. Sweet dreams, my darlings.