Nina Allan’s stories have featured in the anthologies Best Horror of the Year #2, Year’s Best SF #28, and The Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2012. She has stories forthcoming in several anthologies during 2013, including the Mammoth Book of Best British Crime #10 and the Year's Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2013. Her story cycle The Silver Wind was published by Eibonvale Press in 2011 and was named as one of that year's Top Ten book choices by the editors of the British Science Fiction Association's critical journal Vector. Her most recent book of stories, Stardust, will be available shortly from PS Publishing, while a brand new novella inspired by the Arachne myth,
Spin, is also due out this spring from TTA Press. Nina lives and works by the sea in Hastings, East Sussex.
I'll ne'er blame my partial fancy;
Naething could resist my Nancy;
But to see her was to love her,
Love but her, and love for ever.
(Robert Burns Ae Fond Kiss)
I liked the house as soon as I saw it: a narrow 1930s villa at the end of a long cul-de-sac with allotments on one side and a former Methodist chapel on the other. The chapel had fallen out of use in the eighties. It stood derelict for a while, then someone had bought it up and converted it into a music studio. From the outside it still looked like a church and I liked that, too.
The house had pointed gables, and was painted yellow.
“It’s perfect, isn’t it?” Roy said. “Don’t you just love it?”
“Yes,” I said. “I love it.” Our offer was accepted the same day. By the time contracts were actually exchanged, though, Roy was back in Helmand, and I had to organize the removals myself. I didn’t mind. Roy had no patience for things like that. It was something we had joked about in the early days; the ATO with a short fuse, the trained perfectionist who was fine with roadside bombs but who would lose his rag completely if the van with our stuff in it got held up in traffic.
I knew his rages were just a safety valve and in the beginning I found no problem in tolerating them. I even felt a kind of pride, that I was the only person who could calm him down. In time that changed. I came to feel that I had been tricked somehow, that the man I married was not the man I ended up living with, although I knew myself that this wasn’t entirely fair. The problems had been there all along, and I had chosen to close my eyes to them. I had tricked myself.
He was granted an extended leave after his second tour but if anything his flare-ups were worse. I knew he had seen someone killed, a soldier from his own unit, but he never told me any details of what happened and I knew better by then than to ask.
He seemed to have lost all interest in the house. He moved through its rooms like a ghost, not commenting on the changes I had made, never expressing an opinion one way or the other. Sometimes I would find him in the upstairs room we had planned to set aside as his photography studio, sitting cross-legged on the bare boards and sorting through a cardboard folder of snapshots. The photos were of men on the base, young recruits mainly, soldiers ten years younger than him or even more.
They fooled around for the camera, snatching each others’ berets and making rude gestures.
“Is one of these the lad who died?” I once tried asking. Roy stared up at me, blankly at first and then with an expression of such rage I thought he was about to hit me.
Go on, do it, I thought. Then I can leave. I was lonelier by then than I had ever been. I was single for some years before meeting Roy and had grown accustomed to living alone. But sharing a house with a man who had become a stranger was something different and awful because I was forced to keep up a pretence that there was nothing wrong.
Worst of all was that I had no one to talk to. There were friends of mine, people who had warned me against marrying Roy in the first place and who would have been only too happy to meet for coffee and a round of sympathetic bitching, but the thought of such disloyalty sickened me. I knew deep down that those friends who disparaged Roy were less interested in helping me than in being proved right. I would probably have felt the same in their position.
The only person I wanted to talk to was Roy, the Roy I had met and married and who I now missed terribly. Sometimes in the pale grey hours around dawn I found it easy to imagine that the old Roy was still out there somewhere, longing for me as I longed for him. The man in the bed beside me was someone else. I wondered if he dreamed of hurting me, or of simply packing his things and walking away.
I told myself he would come out of it eventually and when he did we would talk and everything would get back to normal. But in the meantime it was like being in prison. Later that made me think of Allison Rand, the bars across the windows in the hospital canteen.
I tried to concentrate on the new book, but could not get started. It was not just the problems with Roy. The move had disrupted my routine, and what I was now faced with was a kind of mental blankness. I had lost touch with myself, with the things that interested me. The sense of dislocation was profoundly unsettling. I suppose it was a kind of writer’s block, something I had never suffered from before. I took to sitting on a wooden bench up on the allotments, staring across at the yellow walls of my own house and trying to make up a story about the people who lived there.
I liked the allotments, and quickly came to recognise the people who tended them. They were creased and faded, characters from pre-war novels, figures in the landscape of a sepia postcard. There was a Polish woman in a red kerchief, a pair of elderly Oxford spinsters, a man with a Jack Russell terrier, rake thin and with two fingers missing from his right hand. I used to think about him a lot, wondering if he had been injured in World War Two and if talking to him might help Roy.
I dreamed up various schemes for bringing them together but knew I would not dare try any of them. It was all too easy to imagine things going wrong, Roy’s rage and contempt for me afterwards if it turned out, after all, that the man had lost his fingers in an accident at work.
As well as the Polish woman and the Oxford spinsters I often saw a girl in a grey skirt and a button-up green cardigan, shapeless, too-big clothes, hand-me-downs no doubt from an elder sister. She stood out on the allotments because she was so much younger than the other people who went there. She had a curious way of walking, heel-to-toe along the narrow pathways as if she were on a tightrope. Sometimes she picked up stones and put them in her pockets. She was always by herself. The other allotment regulars appeared to ignore her.
She was eight years old perhaps, ten at the most. She seemed young to be there all alone. She should have been in school, though I supposed lots of children truanted. I wondered if she had problems at home.
One day she came and sat beside me. She sidled up, squinting at me from the corner of her eye then plumping herself down on the bench, squarely and decisively, as if carrying out a dare she had made with herself.
She drew her legs up beneath her, and began tapping together two stones I had watched her grub up from the soil of the Polish woman’s allotment. It was only then that I noticed how pretty she was. It was not just the snub nose and freckles, the youthful glow that haunts all children, even the plainest. There was a life in her, an animated curiosity that seemed to light her features from within.
She banged her stones, skewbald flints, and darted her eyes to where mine had been looking, up towards the first floor of my house.
“There was a murder there,” she said. “Right there in that house. Do you know about it?”
She had a Scots accent. I felt surprised by this without knowing why. I wondered if she had been watching me, noticing my presence over the weeks as I had hers.
“A murder?” I said. “Aren’t you a bit young to know about things like that?”
She looked at me as if I were stupid, which I suppose I was. “It happened ages ago,” she said. “There’s nothing there now.” She gave her stones another bash then dropped them in the dirt at her feet.
“I’m there,” I said. “That’s my house.”
She turned and gawped at me. Her eyes were bright with amazement, as if what I’d just told her was the most incredible thing she’d heard in her short life.
“No way!” she said.
I nodded. “There aren’t any ghosts, though, it’s just an ordinary house.”
“Do you believe in ghosts, then? I mean really?” She edged towards me along the bench. I felt her hand brush the seam of my jeans. Roy and I had discussed having children once or twice but it seemed a long time now since we’d had a proper conversation about anything. I remembered Roy had been keen on having kids, though. I was less sure.
“I don’t know,” I said. “But I know I’ve never seen one.” I thought of Roy and me, the remnants of our past that stalked us daily. But these were not the kind of ghosts the child was after.
“Here, ghosty-ghosty,” she cried. She raised her hand and waved up at my window, her fingers spread like the limbs of a small white starfish. Then suddenly and without warning she jumped off the bench and ran away down the main path, that cut down through the allotments and then joined the road. The man with the Jack Russell was coming. I watched the girl circle the dog, then dart in to pat its chocolate-coloured head. The man with the missing fingers did not look up.
A sheet of newspaper flapped across the ground by my feet. Rig Disaster Claims More Lives.
That story was three weeks old. For the people who made the papers it was already over.
When I looked back down the hill the Jack Russell man was still there but the girl was gone.
What she said though, that preyed on my mind. I knew children made up stories constantly but I knew also that these rarely came out of nowhere and I wondered if there might be some truth in it. If she had not known where I lived when she first spoke to me, why would she invent things about my house?
No one had said anything about a murder when we first bought the place, but it’s hardly the kind of thing an estate agent is likely to advertise. I felt a flicker of something, a stir of interest like a piece of string uncoiling deep in my gut.
I thought I finally might have found my next book.
(C) Nina Allan 2012