“What a cool house, Joe!” cried Tom.
I smiled, not really knowing what to say. I’d lived in the old manor house for so long that I guess I took its size and lavish gardens for granted. My father is the warden of Farley Manor and I am his only son. I don’t know my mother – she died when I was very little, my father says of cancer. I have a picture of her: a beautiful, slender young woman with sad eyes and I imagine those eyes knowing that she wouldn’t see me grow up and being sad because of it, but that’s silly, I know. My father is an earnest man of few words, and has been as long as I can remember. He is tall, lean, with cold grey eyes that leave one with no doubt as to who is in charge. I suppose I love my father, but it is a strange sort of love; kind of a mixture between awe, respect and fear. He never hugs me and I sometimes feel he thinks I’m a nuisance, a left over part of my mother.
Tom is my only friend from school, Pembury Grammar School for boys – a “serious establishment” our headmaster always tells us – and his being here at my house is a rare treat indeed because father is not keen on people visiting. He says its because he has to look after the place and doesn’t want any of my hooligan friends damaging anything – it took me weeks of nagging to get permission.
I like Tom. He is serious like me, but like me has a wickedly fun streak and the two of us get along famously. Father had allowed use to roam around the whole gardens, so we were engaged in a very splendid game of hide and seek, too young for our teenage years, but who cares? I had just found him hiding in the maze and we were sitting resting on the edge of the fountain, looking back at the house.
“Really cool, Joe. You are so lucky.”
“I suppose, Tom, but it gets a bit lonely sometimes without anyone to hang out with.”
“You have me.”
“Yes, but that’s hardly ever. I wish father would let you visit more.”
Tom nodded, staring vacantly into the distance.
“Hey, what’s that?” he shouted suddenly, pointing towards the house.
I looked to see what he was pointing at. “What?”
“There! The attic window. A face!”
I looked but couldn’t see anything. “There’s nobody up there.”
“I tell you, there was someone, a girl with black hair. Very pale.”
“Woooooo… a ghooost…” I teased.
“Stop it!” he said, getting annoyed, “I saw someone!”
“Sorry.” I replied. “We do actually have a ghost, you know?”
“Yes. Father says it is a young woman who was murdered here long ago. She was locked up in the attic by her father and left to die.”
“Ugh. That’s horrible.”
“Definitely. Do you believe in ghosts?”
“So shall we go have a look then?”
“Oh come one. Be a sport!”
“I would but my father doesn’t allow me to go up there.”
“He says there are precious vases up there and I’m not to go there.”
I could sense the disappointment and really did want to be a good sport. “Listen … well … my father is doing his rounds of the estate so we could take a quick look.”
Tom’s face brightened immediately. “Cool let’s go” and ran off towards the house with me in hot pursuit.
We reached the house at the same time and stopped, listening. Its weird how something can be a home one minute and a source of thrilling terror the next. I did actually believe in ghosts, despite what I’d told Tom. From earliest childhood the house had been full of creaks and distant noises, and sometimes when I lay in my bed trying to fall asleep I imagined I heard crying coming from the attic two floors above me. I’d asked my father about it and that is when he told me about the ghost, the girl called Isabelle who didn’t listen to her father and was horribly punished for it. It was a cruel story to tell a little boy, but he was like that, my father: very tough, and he expected the same from me I guess.
We climbed the flights of stairs quietly, listening both to the house and for my father, who I knew would skin me alive if he caught us. We soon reached the top floor and crossed the landing towards the final set of stairs that led up to the attic. I looked over towards Tom and could see that he was not looking as brave as he’d done before. “You OK?” I asked. He looked at me and nodded grimly. This was serious business.
We were about to start our ascent when I remembered that we would need a key to get into the attic. I once before had “explored” this area and found the way into the attic barred by a very solid, locked door. My courage had left me then and I had not returned, at least not until today. I did however look for the key and found it finally in a box at the back of my father’s cupboard. I told Tom to wait for me while I retrieved it and returned within a few minutes.
We paused before the final leg of our adventure, listening for the ghost, and for my father. I’m not sure who I was more terrified of, but I lead the way, quickly climbing the stairs. We stood at the door, ears pressed to its ancient panels, listening. Nothing. Just the wind sighing sadly as it drew its breath through the cracks.
I put the key into the keyhole and turned it slowly. I was surprised to find that it actually turned very easily. I thought nobody, including my father, ever went into the attic. My heart pounded in my throat as the door creaked open slowly, revealing a vast dimly lit space littered with clutter from yesteryear. Cobwebs hung everywhere between the clouds of ancient dust. In the middle of the attic was an old four poster bed bedecked with a thick veil. Tom nudged me and nodded towards the bed. I’d seen it too: the outline of a person, sleeping or perhaps worse, dead. It took all my courage to take a step forward rather than run for my life. Here at last was the answer to the question that had been burning in my subconscious for most of my life, the source of that presence I had always sensed and sometimes heard.
We reached the bed and with trembling hands slowly drew the veil back.
Before us lay, not a child, not a ghost, but a dead woman dressed in a long, faded red dress. She must have been dead a long time because the skin hung tautly on gaunt bones and her fingernails extended grotesquely beyond their usual boundaries.
“Ugh!” hissed Tom. “Who do you think she is?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, “but she’s got something in her hand.”
We leaned forward, expecting her to leap at any minute, and inspected the item in her hand, a gold locket. I reached and took it from the wizened fingers, then opened it to find two pictures, one of a woman, the other of a little child. The child was I, and the eyes of the woman were sadly familiar; this was my mother.
I stood staring at the photographs, unable to move, struggling to comprehend the awful horror of what lay before me. Tom hissed impatiently “What is it?”
Suddenly behind us the floorboards creaked and we turned to find my father standing, cold fury in his eyes. “So you found her.”
We looked at him fearfully.
“I told you not to come up her, Joseph. You should have listened to me.”
“Sorry Father” I mumbled.
“Yes, very, very sorry Mr Brands,” offered Tom hopefully.
“Sorry, doesn’t cut it. Joseph I’ve told you so many times what happens to the disobedient, haven’t I?”
I nodded mutely.
He lunged forward angrily. “Give me that key!”
I managed to step to one side, causing my father to fall forward on his face. Tom shouted, “Let’s get out of here!”
We ran for our lives, fleeing from the attic, pausing a moment to lock the attic door, sprinting down the flights of stairs out into the glorious sunshine and freedom from the nightmare. We kept on running, even though I knew my father would not be in pursuit – the attic was used to confining its occupants.
We reached the front gate and I turned to look at the house one final time, and saw my father at the barred attic window, shouting noiselessly, pointlessly, while behind him I saw the sad familiar eyes fade into oblivion with a gentle smile.