A ghost story for Halloween

Today, as it’s Halloween, I thought I’d republish one of my ghost stories, Restless. Inspired by a creepy dream, it was first published in Aurealis magazine in June 2013.  As it’s quite long, there’s a ‘Read More’ for you to read beyond the line. Enjoy!

Restless

by Sophie Masson

The worst nightmares aren’t of blood and monsters and darkness. The worst are the ones that creep up on you, that start so quietly and lull you into a false sense of security, and then..

It was that kind of a dream. Oh, I’d had it only once, and months ago at that. And you could say nothing really had happened to account for the chilling sense of dread I’d woken up with. It went like this: I was in a house I did not recognise. A smallish house, a cottage, really. It was quiet. Sunny. Sparsely furnished with rather shabby furniture. But there seemed to be no one there. I walked into the next room. There were dishes on a table, untouched. Chairs pushed back, as if the people had just left. But still no sign of anyone. And then I came to the back room. It was dim in there. But I could see someone, sitting facing away from me, in a high-backed armchair. Male or female, I couldn’t tell, for all that could be seen above the chair back was a gleam of blond hair under a dark-coloured beret. The person didn’t move. He or she just sat, silently staring at the opposite wall.

That was it. But somehow I knew that I must not make a sound or move a muscle or else the figure would turn around. And if they did, then I was lost.

I had no idea why. I just knew deep in my dream-self that it was so. That the person sitting there so quietly was pure evil. And that if they discovered I was there, I was done for. I had to get away. But how?

I managed to wake myself up then. Switching on the light, I lay there while my heartbeat returned to normal and my skin no longer puckered with gooseflesh. Sometimes, after waking from a really bad dream, I’ve tried to think up a happy ending for it, so that its power to scare me is taken away. Sometimes, I’ve tried to understand what it was trying to tell me. And sometimes, I’ve just tried to airbrush it from my mind.

That’s what I did with this one. Airbrush it away, I mean, because the other options meant that somehow or other that figure in the chair had to turn around and that was just unthinkable. And though that first day I felt as though the nagging memory would never leave me, and hardly dared to close my eyes that night in case the dream returned, little by little the dread left me. Partly of course that was because the dream never returned. Partly because I told no-one about it. Not my parents, not my twin brother Jamie, and not my friends. Not even my diary.

But whatever the reason, soon I had just about forgotten about it. Until that Saturday three weeks ago..

 

When Jamie and I were little, we used to be very close. We aren’t identical twins, because I’m a girl and he’s a boy, and when we went to school we still hung around together a lot. It wasn’t until mid-primary that being a twin became less important than being girl or boy. We began to move in different circles and to like very different sorts of things. I read a lot, Jamie never. Jamie’s brilliant at art, I’m hopeless. I had lots of on-and-off friends, Jamie only a couple of long-standing close ones. In high school it was even more that way. It was only this last year, our last year of school, that we were slowly drifting back to our old closeness, and to enjoy being in each other’s company again.

That was why that rainy Saturday morning, Jamie had persuaded me to go with him to the big art museum in the city. He couldn’t spend the morning painting in his studio as he usually did, for he had an important assignment to do, about how and why people react to art. I was to be an interview subject. Now, normally art galleries aren’t my thing. It’s not that I don’t like art: it’s just that when there’s a lot of it together and you have to trudge kilometres across hard floors and you can’t talk except under your breath because if you do people frown at you as though you were chatting through a film, it gets to be a bit of an ordeal. And I hate how you’re meant to stand in front of the artworks, especially those by famous artists, and pretend you’re thinking deep thoughts about the meaning of it all. Plus normally the kinds of paintings I like—the kind with people in them, the sort that tell a story—are not Jamie’s thing. He prefers abstracts and landscapes, which I find mostly boring.

However, to my pleased surprise, Jamie took me not to the modern art section but to a dimly-lit exhibition hall full of ancient African and Central American sculptures. They were actually pretty cool: weird and even sinister at times but powerful and interesting. We sat on a padded bench in front of one of the display cases, where spooky masks with wide open mouths and blank eyes stared sightlessly at us, and Jamie asked me questions, and typed what I said into his Ipad.

After a while I ran out of things to say and left Jamie to finish entering it all in while I went in search of the toilet. It was a bit of a trek. Then I had to find my way back. I must have taken a wrong turn or something because suddenly I had no idea where I was, and I couldn’t even call Jamie because I’d left my phone at home.

I couldn’t see any maps. Still I kept going. Down one corridor, up another, round a corner into another. That’s how I found myself in an annexe which was a rather newer part of the gallery than the grand exhibition halls. Here it was all white plasterboard walls and recessed ceiling lights and impersonal corridors like those in hospitals. There were doors up and down them but they were  locked, with ‘No Access to Public’ written on them. It struck me how empty this annexe was. No guards. No guides. No art lovers. No tourist groups. No bored kids trailing behind parents. No random people sheltering from the weather.

Nobody at all. Except me.

Even then, I wasn’t scared. Not even uneasy. Only a bit puzzled and fed-up. But then I saw an open door down the end of the corridor, and light coming from it. And so I headed for it and straight into my nightmare..

It was a small room, and a little shabby, unlike the pristine corridors outside. A clutter of things sat on a small table to one side. But I hardly noticed the details. Because there, sitting unmoving in an armchair with their back to me, was a figure in a dark coat, whose blond hair gleamed under a black beret. Only the person wasn’t staring at an empty dark wall, as in my dream, but at a picture, hanging on that wall.

It was a beautiful landscape painting, glowing with colour, showing a peaceful, sunlit rural scene. In the background, a shadowed belt of trees and lush green grass. In the foreground, a small lake. A bench beside it. And a swing, hanging between two trees. Like I said, I’m not a fan of landscapes generally but this one was truly special. And so realistic that you could even imagine that the swing’s rope was moving, slightly, as if someone had just got off the swing. The artist had painted their initials in the bottom right-hand corner. J.S. But that was all. Nothing to explain the intensity of the figure’s gaze. Or the dread that held me fast as a fly in amber.

Suddenly the figure got up and moved towards the picture. Now I realised two things: first that it was a woman. Second, that she held something in her hand, something that gleamed in the light.

A sharp knife.

She did not make a sound. But as I watched in horror, she plunged the knife into the painting, shredding it mercilessly so that soon the canvas was in ribbons, the beauty destroyed, the glowing colour swallowed by the jagged darkness of the cuts. In less time than it takes to write it, the picture was destroyed. And then—then she turned around and saw me.

I don’t even remember doing it but I was fleeing down the corridors as fast as my legs could carry me, sobbing, panting. I was sure she’d be behind me, knife in hand, ready to shred me like she’d shredded that picture. The expression on her face as she looked at me–it was dreadful. I’ve never seen anything like it, even in the worst nightmare. It was a face out of hell, that’s the only way I can describe it.

Earlier, I’d tried so hard before to find my way back to Jamie but now it was as if terror had shown me the way. Suddenly I was back in an area I recognised, and saw the sign pointing to ‘Ancient Africa and Central America’ . Only then did I look behind me. There was no sign of the blond woman. I should have felt relieved but I was much too scared.

Bursting into the exhibition hall, I saw Jamie was still there, serenely typing into his Ipad.

I hurried over. ‘Jamie, let’s go.’

He frowned. ‘What’s the big rush, Marsha? ‘

‘Let’s go,’ I repeated, and looked over my shoulder. No sign of the blonde.

‘What’s up, though? You look–‘

I swallowed. ‘I’ve just got to—got to go. I’ll–I’ll explain outside. Please, Jamie.’

My brother looked searchingly at me; then he nodded. ‘OK. Lunch break coming up anyway.’

We went out. It had stopped raining, the sun had even come out. I began to feel a little better, but we didn’t talk about what had happened, not until we were sitting down in the cheerfully noisy cafe and we’d ordered our food.

Then Jamie said, ‘OK, Marsha. Spill.’

‘You won’t believe it.’

‘Try me.’

I explained, haltingly.

When I finished, he was silent a moment, and then he said, ‘We’ve got to go back, you know.’

‘What?’

‘You’ve got to tell the art gallery people that someone’s destroyed one of their paintings.’

I stared at him. ‘But..but I can’t go back there. ‘

‘Sure you can.  And I’ll go with you.’

‘But what if she..’

‘She’ll have made herself scarce. And I doubt she really would have wanted to hurt you anyway. Her feelings were all for the painting. Not for you.’

‘How do you know that? ‘ I snapped. ‘You weren’t there.’

‘It’s just the conclusion anyone would reach,’ he said calmly. ‘From what you’ve described.’

Yes, but..’ I struggled to express what I’d felt, both in the dream and in reality.’She’s..she’s evil, Jamie. I know she is.’

‘Don’t be silly,’ he said briskly. ‘She’s cracked, sure—but evil? Look, I’m an artist and it scares me  that some loony can come in and destroy art like that—but let’s remember, she didn’t murder anyone. And she didn’t attack you even though you’d caught her shredding the painting.’

‘No, but..’ What Jamie was saying was reasonable. It made sense. But my experience made no sense. It disturbed me deeply. I said, ‘What about the dream?’

‘It’s weird, sure, but you know, the world’s weird. ‘ He smiled. ‘Maybe you are really psychic after all, Marsh.’ When we were kids, we used to play this game where we’d try to guess each other’s thoughts. Jamie was always better at it than me, so I’d try and cheat. But he’d always see through it.

I shrugged. ‘Yeah, right, I’m a psychic. I’ll tell your fortune next.’

He grinned. ‘Better not, might be too depressing. Look, Marsh, seriously, relax. You had a premonition dream. It happens, even to sceptics. For some reason you got a vision of something that was going to happen. And then you saw it in real life. That’s got to mean something.’

‘Sure, but what?’

‘Don’t shout. I think it means you’ve got to go and tell the people at the art museum what happened. You saw the woman. You can describe her. They might be able to track her down and get her charged with it. ‘

‘So what? The painting’s gone.’

‘Marsha–you can’t just let her get away with it. You said it was a lovely painting. You said it made you feel sick to see her destroying it. ‘

 

After lunch we went back to the art museum and Jamie spoke to a lady at the reception desk, telling her only that I’d seen a security breach. She looked  alarmed and told us to wait a moment. A security guy came then and took us to someone higher up in his department.

I hadn’t till then actually told what I’d seen. But when I told the security chief, he looked puzzled rather than anxious. ‘We don’t have any exhibition rooms in that annexe,’ he said. ‘Just storage rooms. Are you sure about this?’

‘Of course she is,’ said Jamie. ‘This isn’t a joke.’

The man shrugged. ‘OK. Let’s have a look then.’  He led the way to the annexe. It was definitely the place. Those long white corridors, the feeling of being in a maze, the locked doors with ‘No Public Access.’ But though we went up and down the corridors, though we combed every inch of that place, and looked into each locked room, we did not find the room where I’d seen the woman destroying the painting.

I could see what the security man was thinking. A crazy. A hoax. A waste of time. That didn’t bother me. What did was the look of puzzled anxiety that was growing on Jamie’s face. I should have walked out then. I should have left well alone. But I was getting pretty riled and that made me forget about being scared. No way was I just going to be written off as some sort of attention seeker who’d made up a cock and bull story. So I said, ‘Was this place always an art gallery?’

‘Yep,’  said the security man, shooting me a baffled glance. ‘It was built in the nineteenth century and..’

‘I don’t mean the main part. I mean this annexe.’

‘Oh that was built about thirty years ago.’

‘What was there before?’

‘Look, Miss,’ he said, ‘you want that sort of info, you need to ask the archivist. Ms Gilchrist. She has an office down in the basement if you..’

I didn’t wait to hear the end of his sentence. I hurried to the lifts and Jamie came puffing after me. ‘What’s the big idea?’ he said as he caught up.

‘If it didn’t happen today—then it must have happened sometime,’ I said, quietly.

He stared at me. ‘You mean—you think you saw a ghost?’

‘I know I saw something,’ I said, ‘and whatever it was, it was real, Jamie. I wasn’t making it up.’

‘I believe you,’ he said, gently, as we stepped into the lift. ‘It’s just that I—well I was thinking of that possibility myself before only I didn’t want to mention it to you in case.’

‘In case I got scared,’ I finished for him.

‘And—and you’re not?’

I shook my head. I was more scared of the idea that I might be having a hallucination, going mad, cracking up. A ghost was far preferable. Plus if it was a ghost—then it hadn’t seen me. Not really.

I’ve read somewhere that a ghostly happening is like a scene in a video that keeps playing over and over, that’s got stuck and disjointed from the rest of the story. If that’s the case then ghosts can no more see you than the actors in a stuck video scene can see you. And so I was safe. But why did I see it? And why did I have the dream? That was different.

 

Ms Gilchrist turned out to look like you’d expect an archivist to look like: thin and small and grey-haired with spectacles, surrounded by dusty boxes of stuff. But her voice was bright and her gaze was sharp. She didn’t make fun of my story. She listened carefully and when I’d finished, she sighed, and looked at me.

‘You know, dear, you aren’t the first person to report such a thing.’

Jamie and I exchanged a look.

‘Last time was about six or seven years ago, ‘ she went on.

‘But who—what..’ I stammered.

‘The annexe was built on land that used to have several houses on it,’ she said. ‘One of the residents was an artist who had a studio that stood on the very spot where you saw your ghostly woman. He was young when he died but he could have been a great painter, if he’d lived. We have a couple of his early pictures here. Jacob Steen was his name.’

The back of my neck prickled.  I whispered, ‘Jacob Steen. J.S.’

‘Yes,’ she said, quietly. ‘It’s a tragic story. Jacob and his sister Esme had lost their parents at an early age and Esme, being the eldest, had pretty much brought Jacob up herself. He was very talented and his work was noticed very early, when he was only 18 or 19. And then a couple of years later he fell madly in love with a beautiful but flighty girl who in the end left him for a rich man. Shortly after she drowned in a boating accident. Jacob fell into a deep depression. He didn’t paint any more. And then one day he began again. But instead of his previous striking abstracts, he started painting landscapes, but always the same one, with..’

‘A lake and trees and a swing,’ I said, hollowly.

‘Yes. They weren’t fashionable. Nobody bought them. Jacob didn’t care. He was obsessed by his work. One night, he wandered down to the river and drowned. The police said it was an accident. But who knows if it that was true or if he meant to do it. ‘ She paused. ‘When Esme heard, she went berserk. Destroyed every one of those landscape paintings. Slashed them to shreds. When they found her she was surrounded by ripped canvas and spilt paint and she kept shouting that she was to blame. Everyone thought that was just a confession of the obvious. But I think she meant something else.’

I couldn’t speak. I kept thinking of the blond woman, of Esme Steen, and the look on her face.

But Jamie said, quietly, ‘The painting—it was of the place where his ex-girlfriend had drowned, wasn’t it?’

Ms Gilchrist shook her head. ‘Julia—that was her name—she died on a cruise. Fell overboard. That scene—it was of the place where Jacob had first met her, on her uncle’s property. Where they’d been happy. ‘ She paused. ‘Poor Esme—I knew her a little, she’d been in the same university class as me. I know she hated Julia for how she’d treated her brother. And those paintings—she thought he was trying to actually bring Julia back. And that’s what Esme was trying to say, when she was found. She meant that the effort had killed her brother, and that Julia was responsible for it. Had killed him, in fact.’

‘But how could she? Poor thing, she’d died..’ Jamie said.

‘Yes. Of course. But poor Esme—she wasn’t rational. She couldn’t think straight.’

‘What happened  to her?’ I said.

Ms Gilchrist sighed. ‘She never recovered. She was taken to the asylum and died there a year or so later.’ She looked at me. ‘I think she might have told herself Julia was responsible because she  blamed herself, deep down, for saving her brother. And maybe she hated herself for destroying his work, which was all that was left of him. That’s why she is still restless. Why every so often, someone sees her.’

 

On the way home, Jamie and I were both pretty quiet. There was so much to say and yet nothing that could be sensibly said. But just as we got off the train and walked down our street, Jamie turned to me and said, ‘That painting of Jacob Steen’s—can you describe it to me really carefully?’

I looked at him. ‘I could. But why?’

‘I just had a thought that it could be something I do for my major work. Recreate it I mean, in my own style. Much more interesting than boring interviews,’ he said, grinning at me.

I grinned back. ‘Hey, didn’t you like my words of wisdom? ‘

So I sat down with Jamie and described the painting and it seemed to live again in my mind’s eye. I could see the shining waters of the lake and the trees with their leaves waving in the breeze and the wildflowers, and the iron lace of the bench, and the thick rope that held the swing and seemed almost to move gently as if someone had just got off it. I spoke of the beautiful colours, and the way the artist had made it seem so alive, and Jamie listened attentively.

He said, ‘I’m going to start today. Tonight. ‘ He squeezed my hand. Oh, Marsha! I have such a good feeling about this! I know it’ll work. I just can’t wait to start.’

His excitement was contagious. I said, quickly, ‘You’re going to need more information, like about the place where it was painted, all that sort of thing. I can find out all that stuff for you if you like.’

‘Oh, yes, please,’ he said, smiling.’This belongs to both of us and I really want you to be involved. I’d never have had the idea if it hadn’t been for what you saw.’

I started researching straight away. I Googled Jacob Steen and his work first. None of it said  more than what Ms Gilchrist had told us. There was a brief mention of his ‘tragic death’ and an even briefer mention of Esme ‘losing the plot,’ as Jamie put it. But most of it was an appreciation of his work—the stuff that was still around and not already in collections was fetching a pretty good price, but nothing huge or anything. And none of the Google images of his paintings showed anything like what I’d seen. Just like Ms Gilchrist had said, he’d made his name in abstracts.

I then Googled ‘Jacob Steen and Julia’ but got nowhere. I called Ms Gilchrist at the museum and asked her if she knew Julia’s surname. No, she said, she didn’t, but she did vaguely remember that the property Julia’s uncle owned, where she and Jacob had met, was called something like Willow Creek or Windy Creek. I said I’d google it and she gave a little laugh and said, ‘I know people your age don’t believe it, but not everything in the world is on Google. You might try the newspaper archives. ‘

I googled it anyway and as you might expect got millions of hits referring to properties with those names but had no idea at all which one was right.

So I took Ms Gilchrist’s advice and the next afternoon took myself off to the newspaper office and asked to see their archives of thirty years ago. They were on reels called ‘microfilm’ which you had to look at on this ancient machine. I trawled through masses of boring stuff, hurting my eyes squinting at the little print, before finally hitting first on a mention of a ‘disturbance at the house of tragic local artist Jacob Steen,’ which in very careful sentences described the police being called to the house when Esme had gone on the rampage, and then a little earlier, a short article on the inquest into Jacob’s death, which had concluded it was accident, definitely not suicide. Despite what his sister had claimed, other witnesses said that just before his death, Jacob Steen was not depressed but actually happy. He had told one witness that ‘it’s all right now,’ and that ‘she really did love me, not him, I know that for sure.’ This referred to a broken relationship, the article went on, which had indeed depressed Mr Steen. But it seemed that he had got back on his feet and was getting on with his life when the accident occurred.

Infuriatingly, the article did not mention who the relationship was with—and it was sheer chance that I finally fell on the answer–not in a piece about Julia’s death, but an advertisement for a stock sale at her uncle’s property. Willow Creek, it was. And Allingham was his name.

I had no idea if he was her uncle on her father’s or mother’s side, but I was determined now not to give up. And then soon after, I  finally nailed it! It was an item about the funeral of Julia Allingham, ‘from a prominent local family’, who, recently engaged to be married to a chain-store millionaire, had drowned while on an island cruise. ‘Death by misadventure’ had been the finding of the coroner,it stated baldly, nothing more. It was clearly a big funeral, but though I strained to look for Jacob’s face amongst the crowd(I’d seen pictures of him on Google Images)I could not see him at all.

What I did see though was a photo of Julia herself, taken a few months before. She’d been lovely, small and fairy-like with a cloud of dark curly hair, and eyes that looked of some light colour(you couldn’t tell for sure as the picture was black and white).Oddly, as I stared down through the microfilmed past into her eyes, unease filled me. I can’t really explain it—only say that all at once I got this weird feeling. It was only for an instant though and then I’d brushed it aside and pressed the ‘copy’ button on the machine and out popped a copy of the article and all the others I’d found, including the stock sale ad. Now I knew the exact location, I’d easily be able to find pictures of the property, for Jamie. He’d be so excited!

And so he was. Until I found it all, he had been running up against a brick wall, he said,as if something in his mind had been locked and hindering his inspiration. Now he had the key, and he could step in through the door.

 

That was two weeks ago. Every day after school for the first week he went straight down to the shed he uses as a studio and worked on the painting. The first day, he let me in to see the sketch he’d made. The second day, I  found him staring at it with a dissatisfied look on his face. But the third day, when I went to the shed, I found the door was locked. And the next, and the next.

I didn’t really worry about it at first—he can be shy about a work in progress and in fact I thought it was amazing he’d let me have a look at his first sketches. So that first week went by and then Mum and Dad went off on their yearly ski-ing holiday, and there was just the two of us at home.

At first I didn’t notice what was going on. He left for school with me every morning as usual and he was usually home before me, also as usual, painting in his locked studio. I was a little puzzled when he wouldn’t even stop for meals—Jamie loves his food–but he just said he’d order some pizza, so still I didn’t twig. I saw the light in the studio past midnight and knew he was hardly sleeping, yet still I didn’t realise what was happening.

But this morning I discovered that he’s been wagging school all week. He turned up for roll-call but then left straight after. I only found out because one of his friends asked me what was going on. Like I said his friends and mine are very different and we don’t mix much so that’s why I didn’t know before. I left after lunch and went straight home. The studio was locked. I knocked, but there was no answer. I knocked again. Still no answer. I called his mobile. No answer. I grabbed one of the garden chairs and stretched up to peek through the studio window. I looked in.

Jamie was standing there, perfectly still, in front of the completed painting. It was big. Amazing. Beautiful. And so frightening it almost stopped my breath.

There was the lake, and the trees and the swing, which looked as though they were slightly moving. It was so real that even from where I was, I felt as though I could hear the creak of the swing and see the small clouds scooting across the sky and smell the wildflowers blooming by the side of the lake.

No, it wasn’t an exact replica of the picture I saw in the annexe. And that’s what really scared me. Because the thing thas was different—there was someone in the shadow of the trees. Someone whose face I couldn’t see because she was walking away from view, but whose form I recognised.A slight, slim figure, fairylike, graceful, and with long dark curly hair tumbling down her back. So pretty, so fragile—so why was I gripped with a bone-deep terror? Why did my blood run cold and every hair seem to be standing on end?

I pounded at the window. I shouted Jamie’s name. But he didn’t hear and didn’t see and didn’t move. He stood there, looking, just looking and I knew as surely as though he’d told me, that he was waiting for something. I don’t know what but I realised suddenly how thin he was looking, how gaunt, his eyes feverish hollows in the drawn grey mask of his face. It’s as if the painting had sucked the life-force from him.

And I knew that Esme saw the same thing in her brother Jacob Steen. But not in time. She couldn’t save her brother—and it sent her mad.

I ran for the woodshed. I grabbed the axe. I planned to break down the door. Destroy the painting before it’s too late. I chopped at the door. Again. Crack! The wood began to splinter. I screamed Jamie’s name. Crack! It splintered again. I chopped an opening into the room beyond. And through the opening I see–

A familiar back, the back I first saw in my nightmare. A girl dressed in dark-coloured clothes, a dark beret on her blond hair; every line of her body expressed not evil, as I’d thought in the dream, but helplessness and grief and despair. The ghost of Esme.

But that’s not what made the axe drop from my nerveless hands.

What made me crumple to my knees and turned my whole world upside down was that Julia Allingham no longer stood in the shadow of the trees. She still faced away from me—from Esme—from us—but she was in the centre of the painting, by the swing, and though I could not see her face, I knew she was smiling.

And Jamie—Jamie was by her side, holding her hand.

 

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