She waits by the window. Behind her, the kitchen clock beats out the time. Seconds slip away into minutes; minutes pile up into hours. Strangers’ voices fill the room: the pips, the news, The Archers, drama, more news. She listens. Easier to listen than to think. Even today. Especially today.
Sometime after three she makes coffee. Drinks it, standing by the window, watching the last leaves tumble from the apple tree and a blackbird searching the leaf mould at its foot. The day lingers, sour and sad, a dull, grey afternoon as so many in that year. With the unabashed self-interest of his kind, Jeoffry saunters in in search of chicken. She points him to his bowl where the giblets are waiting. He eats, then twists himself around her ankles, leaps mewing to the windowsill demanding to be stroked. She obliges, and his purr fills the kitchen. His fur is soft beneath her curving fingers. So warm. So vital. So alive.
The light is thicker now. She checks her watch: half an hour until the sunset. She fills it with another coffee. The radio drones on and on, its empty words a counterpoint to Jeoffry’s purr.
She looks around. All is in order. The house is clean, the food prepared, the beds made up, fresh towels in the bathroom, fresh flowers on the table. Chrysanthemums: red and gold and yellow, each a splash of colour against the November day. All is ready. The house is waiting to be filled.
Jeoffry, sated, satisfied, slips away. She checks the clock. Ten minutes left; nine. She reaches for her cup but her hands are shaking too much to hold it.
No colour in the world beyond the window. No pomp or glory in this sunset. Merely the thickening light, the silent fall of rain upon the garden. So had her tears fallen, she thinks in a moment of fancy, salt rain falling down to water the cold clay.
The car stops at the gate at the appointed time. Exactly to the minute, she marks, passing the hall clock as she hastens to the door. She throws it wide to the dreich evening and stands, heart racing, on her threshold.
The driver gets out and walks around the car. It is the man she’d met in the kirkyard, dressed now, as then, in black. He opens the rear door and three boys – her three boys – pile out onto the pavement. The driver touches the eldest on the arm and stoops to whisper in his ear. Will glances at his brothers, nods, answers. She is too far away to catch his words. And then there is no need to think at all. Three boys come charging up the path to throw themselves into her waiting arms and all at once the world is as it should be.
Despite the rain. Despite the falling rain.
The house is full of noise and light. Coats and boots lie discarded by the door but even so they have left clods of damp earth on the carpet, and a litter of yellow birch leaves. As she picks up coats more leaves drift from their pockets. She shivers, shaking her thoughts away. They have come home, and that is all that matters. They charge about upstairs from room to room, dragging out old toys, scuffling upon the landing, setting the telly to full blast. She smiles and locks the door, draws the curtains fast against the night.
Jeoffry streaks down the stairs, eight pounds of furious tabby blown up into a tiger. She takes a step towards him, holding out her hand to soothe and stroke. He hisses, ears flat against his head, a wild thing at bay. She steps back and he hurls himself into the night, leaving the flap swinging behind him.
‘Boys,’ she calls upstairs, ‘boys – what did you do to Jeoffry?’
‘Nothing, Mum,’ comes back the chorus. ‘Nothing.’
She pauses a minute in the hall, wondering whether to pursue it. No need, she thinks, he’s a grown cat now, used to a quiet life. He has forgotten them, that’s all.
‘Supper in an hour,’ she calls.
No answer. Unless you can count the distant sound of Adam’s drums an answer.
Back in the kitchen she sets the final touches to the meal. The chicken waits, crisped skin brown and glistening. Mashed potatoes yellow with butter, heavy with cream; carrots glazed with sugar; peas dressed with chopped mint; chocolate fudge near an inch deep on the cake. Food to tempt their appetites.
The youngest drifts in, clutching a toy dog.
‘I can’t find Teddy,’ he says.
Cold fingers clutch at her heart. ‘Oh, Tom.’
She puts down the spatula and wipes chocolate from her fingers. Gathering him into her arms, settling him upon her lap, she breathes in the smell of him. Woodland. Leaf mould.
He presses his face into her shoulder, small hands clinging tight. So familiar this feel, small boy curling himself into her heart. He’s wearing the top she’d laid out for him: his favourite, red, blazoned with dinosaurs; its colour had burned in a world turned all to grey and halflight.
‘Kiss,’ he demands, turning up his face.
She obliges, laughing. She wraps her arms around him, does not realise how tightly she is holding him until she feels him struggle.
She lets him go. ‘Tell your brothers supper’s ready.’
He skips out, dragging the dog by its ear behind him.
Beyond the window, the night is full of rain. Within the warm kitchen, she carves and spoons and dollops, fills plates with chicken, mounds of potatoes, carrots, peas, pouring glasses full of fizzy drink – the kind often begged for, seldom granted – a treat to mark the day. They talk and squabble round the table, her three boys, her flesh, her blood, her children. Before she takes her place she puts down a plate for Jeoffry.
She eats and talks, polices bickering, settles an argument between Tom and Adam over who would win: T. rex or ten – no, twenty! – ’raptors?
The food is good, she is hungry. It’s been a long time since last she took such pleasure in her cooking. The chicken was a gift from next door; well-set urbanites retiring to play the rural good life, their little flock the bane of weekend lie-ins. There have been many such gifts, these last months, from friends, from neighbours, from people who will hold her hand but not, quite, look her in the eye. Looking around the table at her sons’ faces, the months before this night are as a dream from which she has now woken.
She stands to help herself to more. Jeoffry’s food remains untouched. No sign of him, despite the rain.
A clatter behind her. The eldest, carefully, is clearing plates, scraping unwanted food into the bin. He smiles, reassuring, suddenly so much older than his years. ‘It was lovely, Mum. Really. It’s just, we cannot eat.’
She smiles brightly, pouring flattened drinks away. ‘It’s the excitement, I expect. I could never eat after a journey.’
Will lays his hand on her arm. ‘Mum, you know. He explained it.’
Her mind flicks to the driver; their meeting in the kirkyard. She’d thought him first a minister in his black garb, holding his black book, and had hurried past, avoiding his gaze. Even so, he’d come to stand beside her beneath the birken trees, besides the stone, and she’d seen his book no Bible but The Tragedie of HAMLET, Prince of Denmarke. He’d tapped its spine and told her, ‘There are ways, you know. He’d not tell you,’ a wave of his white hand to the minister’s house, ‘but I can.’
So she had listened.
She thinks, now, of the milk in the ’fridge, the bacon, the eggs, the unopened boxes of cereal, the pancakes she has planned for breakfast. She thinks of the man beneath the trees, of all he told her. Of her promise and her fingers, crooked behind her back. The door is locked. The windows fastened.
‘He is not here,’ she says. It comes out more sharply than she means. ‘Only we are here.’
Will nods, biting his lip, turning away without an answer. She cuts the cake and gives each boy a slice. Tom looks from brother to brother, and shakes his head.
‘How about a little bit?’ she asks. ‘A mouthful?’
He shakes his head again, lips wobbling, a tear just spilling from his eye.
‘Never mind,’ she says with a bright, forced smile. ‘It will keep until you’re hungry. Run away and play.’
The evening draws on into night. The eldest plays on the PS with his brother whilst the youngest has his bath. The house is filled with the crackle of gunfire, the crash and blast of heavy shells, with boys’ voices cheering on destruction. Tom sings and splashes, soaking the bathroom floor just as he’s always done. She looks out of his bedroom window, watching the rain run down the glass. Unlike Jeoffry to be without on such a night. He is a one for creature comforts. Ah well, she thinks, it’s his look out. He has a catflap, and knows well how to use it.
Tom comes in, sweet and small in blue pyjamas. His pale, bright hair, towel-dried, stands up fluffy around his face. He picks his way through the litter of toys strewn across his floor – How do boys wreak such havoc in so short a time? – and pulls book after book from the shelf until he finds the one he wants.
‘Read it!’ he demands, and so she does, snuggling up with him under the duvet. He smells of soap now; his neck has the milky smell she remembers from his babyhood. After a while there is a ceasefire beyond the door. His brothers wander in and settle themselves, Will resting against the pillow beside Tom, Adam lounging at the bedfoot.
‘Not too old for stories, then?’
They pull disgusted faces at such sentiment, but neither moves away.
The world dwindles down to this small room, bounded by the circle of lamplight; the only sounds beyond her voice the tick-ticking of the dinosaur clock upon the wall and the rain against the window.
‘I want Teddy.’ Tom’s voice is scarce more than a whisper, conjuring a flash of earth clodding down upon worn fur. Her heart turns over in her breast.
Will puts an arm around Tom’s shoulders. ‘You’ll have Teddy again tomorrow.’
‘Promise,’ Will answers.
The door is locked, she thinks to calm her racing heart, the door is locked and bolted. They are mine again, forever and for always.
‘Go on, Mum,’ Will says. ‘You’re coming to the good bit.’
She reads on, late into the night. Tom relaxes into sleep beside her, his slight body becoming a deadweight on her arm. The others yawn and stretch themselves. She wonders if she should turn them out, make them wash, send them to sleep in their own rooms. But it is late and she as tired as they. And besides, now they are here, she cannot bear to have them leave her.
Will’s head lolls against her shoulder and she too drifts into sleep, the patter-pat of rain running through her dreams.
At cockcrow, she wakes all of a start to darkness and finds the space in the bed empty beside her. She snaps on the light and three boys look around with wide, dark eyes. Will is crouching down by Tom, the red top ready in his hands to pull over his brother’s tousled head.
‘What are you doing?’ she asks.
Adam points to the clock. Half-past seven. ‘He’ll be here soon, Mum.’
Less than fifteen minutes, she thinks; the time of sunrise written ’cross her mind, for all there is no sign of dawn beyond the window, only the rattle of rain against the glass.
She shakes her head. ‘I’ll make breakfast. What shall we do today?’
‘Mum,’ Will says, quietly, ‘you know we can’t stay. A night. You agreed.’
‘The door is locked,’ she says. ‘He can’t come in.’
‘No, but if we’re missed –’ Adam begins. A glance from Will reduces him to silence. Wide-eyed, fearful, Tom looks between his brothers and then to her. She wants to run to him, to catch him up into her arms and hold him tight and never, ever let him go.
‘Please,’ Will says, ‘don’t make it harder than it is.’
‘Will,’ she holds out her hands to her sons, ‘Adam, Tom, this is your home.’
Will shakes his head and continues, carefully, gently, to get Tom dressed. Next door, the cock crows again, heralding the day. The clock ticks on, conscienceless, relentless, measuring out the minutes.
Downstairs, the door is locked; the key is heavy in her hand, memories of other mornings heavy in her memory: the rush to leave before the bus, the scrabble for forgotten books, for rugby boots and pencil cases, the nags and niggles over unfinished prep and untucked shirts. Today, they wait quietly for the door to be opened, washed, brushed, ready. So had they been last time she saw them, still-faced and silent, so clean and combed they had scarce seemed her sons. Only Adam’s tapping foot betrays impatience.
‘Adam,’ she has to ask, seeing him glance to the clock, ‘it wasn’t just me? This is what you wanted?’
For a moment, only for a moment, she sees in the depths of his eyes something that should be in no child’s face, something more than she has ever dreamt of. She could have stood against the world, she thinks, kept the door locked fast, broken all her promises to the black-clad man, but for that. Will holds out his hand and she gives him what he needs.
Will turns the key and draws back the bolt. He kisses her good bye, then Adam takes his place, cold arms about her neck, cold lips against her cheek. She crouches down and buttons Tom’s coat, pulling up his hood against the rain. He is again clutching the toy dog.
Holding Tom’s face between her hands, she kisses him, then stands back to let them pass her by. Hand in hand, her sons step out into the rain and the halflight before dawn. The car is waiting at the gate, the black-clad driver by its open door.
As the car pulls away, as she crouches, weeping, just inside the door, Jeoffry stalks in, tail held high, heading for his bowl.
The Wife of Usher’s Well (Child Ballad no. 79) is a ghost story. It’s not a scary story – well, not in the obvious way – but a very, very sad one. You’ve just read my version: here’s Karine Polwart singing another.