To  Rest  in  Peace

by Hilary Hladky



Though not a superstitious woman, Betty Harmer had to admit her luck seemed to change when she broke the mirror in the dining room. "Old Well Cottage, full of eighteenth century charm ..." ran the estate agent's advert and charmed she had been to the tune of £500,000; more money than she had ever dreamed of paying for a house. But there was no question about it, she did not like that mirror. It had to go.

            It was certainly old, possibly as old as the house itself, and hung on a brass chain from the picture rail above the fireplace. Betty hated to see her reflection, blurred and distorted in the tarnished glass, whenever she entered the room. What's more - though she would never have admitted this to anyone - she felt it was spying on her. Complete nonsense of course. Nonetheless, the day she moved in, she stood on a chair and lifted the mirror down from the wall by its chain. Not anticipating the enormous weight, she felt the chain slip hopelessley through her fingers and braced herself for the impact. The mirror jarred briefly against the mantel shelf then toppled to the floor. Slivers of ancient glass burst out of the centre, with a halo of cracks radiating to the edges. A puff of dust, forced out from behind the glass, drifted to the floor to be caught up again in the draught from the chimney and swirled around the room in little, dancing eddies. Betty didn't see any of this, being more concerned with keeping the rest of the glass intact as she struggled to slide the mirror across the floor and into the yard. By the time she returned to the dining room, the dust had dispersed, wafting the floor and skimming the walls, as it went, stroking the windows and nudging the door.

            Two days later, while planting spring bulbs, Betty found a blackened, brass sundial and the remains of an old, iron pump lying under a tangle of ivy. With great care and considerable excitement, she brushed them off and laid them on the garden path until she decided what to do with them. The rest of the day was spent trimming, planting and planning until the autumn sun sank behind the mossy slates.

            Next morning the pump and sundial had disappeared from the path. Betty found them at lunch time on her way to the compost heap with a bowl of vegetable peelings. The sundial was resting neatly on top of a stone plinth in the lawn. Betty had wondered why that plinth was there, now it seemed obvious. As for the pump, it was balanced incongruously on a paving slab in the middle of the kitchen yard.

            "One of the locals giving me a history lesson, I suppose," muttered Betty, surprised at how little she resented the interference.

            She was less resilient next morning to find that the Picasso prints she collected whenever she had the money had been taken down and stacked with their faces to the wall behind the sofa. Pinned in their places were a Gainsborough and a Reynolds; pages torn from the art book she had been reading at bedtime.

            "This is taking history lessons too far." Betty's hands were shaking as she leafed through the Yellow Pages. She needed a locksmith now, that very morning, no delay. By sunset, Old Well Cottage was secure as a prison, every door and window double bolted.

            At sunrise, two dead rabbits were hanging by their back legs from a beam in the kitchen, their necks dripping into the sink and on the draining board was a bowl of wild mushrooms. Betty was standing fingering the velvety skin of the mushrooms with tears of fear and frustration in her eyes. "What can I do?" she breathed.

            She did what she always did when upset. She picked up a biro and pad from the dresser and sat down at the kitchen table to write to her sister who ran a dairy farm in Wales and could cope with anything.

            The door creaked on its hinges and blew open slightly in the draught, disturbing Betty's thoughts. She swivelled in her chair to get a view of it. It rested ajar. Betty pulled the chair round to the other side of the table so the door would be in front of her. That was better. She could see the handle and the strip of sunlight from the hall. But the window was behind her now and someone was watching. She swung round again, half rising from her chair and with her heart clamouring at her ribs. "Where are they?" she whimpered, looking at the empty, mullioned window with its tiny, grimy panes. She flung down her pen and made for the back door and the open air. "And who are they?" she sobbed as she struggled with bolts and locks, her back exposed and vulnerable to the rest of the house. Flinging the door open with a last, frantic glance over her shoulder, she burst out into the yard, blundering against the pump in her headlong flight.

            "You idiot!" Betty berated herself. "What do you expect from an old house full of creaks and draughts? It's a bit late now to decide you don't like it, having paid over the odds for a ramshackle piece of history. For heaven sake, get back in there and have some breakfast. That'll make you feel better. Then ring the police and ask their advice. They'll know what to do."

            Betty bullied herself loudly as she marched back into the kitchen, put the kettle on and brought a loaf and butter to the table. As she pushed aside her pen and note paper to make more room, her face froze to a staring mask.

            The paper was filled with squiggles and little pictures and around the edge, in ever decreasing rectangles, was a continuous line which ended in a word. Just one word, tiny and shy but meticulously neat. Moll is what it looked like to Betty but in such old fashioned script that it was hard to be sure. She sat down heavily on the chair and pulled the paper towards her. It could have been the doodles of a child, except no child would write in such an elaborate hand.

            Betty bowed her head over the word. "Moll," she whispered, "who are you?" A heavy silence hung in the kitchen and waited.

            Later that morning Moll revealed her talents. Having finally resolved to contact the police, Betty had just picked up the phone when her eye was caught by a late-blooming, yellow rosebud lying on an old envelope. Was this a gift from Moll? The thought made Betty feel foolish and yet she raised the bud to her nose in acceptance. On the envelope, under the rose, was a sketch of a young woman, smiling shyly. She was dressed in a simple, long gown, her dark hair held back by a frilly, white cap. Betty stared at the picture in astonishment. In the bottom corner, below the left foot and in the same tiny, neat script, she read Moll.

            "Moll, is this you?" Betty's voice shook with emotion and she no longer felt afraid. She put the phone back in its cradle. "Can you hear me, Moll? Who are you? This is your house, isn't it?" Betty wanted to keep Moll there. She wanted answers but didn't know how to ask the questions. "It's my house now. I bought it for a lot of money. Do you mind me living here? Draw more pictures for me, Moll. Tell me who you are."

            Betty hurried to find a pad of paper, pens and pencils which she laid out carefully on the dining room table. The atmosphere grew tense like an animal at bay. Betty crept out of the room.

            It was several days before she dared to enter the dining room again. When she finally opened the door, it was with curiosity and fear in equal measure. The table was empty. Betty was stung by a moment of dismay which turned in an instant to enchantment. Spread out across the floor, page by page, picture by picture, was Moll's life.

            In bewitching detail the sketches depicted her childhood: fetching a pail of water from the pump in the kitchen yard; resting against the sun dial, sewing. That little name Moll running through all the drawings, again and again, until Will is added under the picture of a wiry haired youth who holds her hand and leads her to the church door. Sheets of paper follow, dotted with  drawings of Will and Moll talking, walking, kissing, until the page when Tom is born and his mother dies; the same page, the same day. Moll is laid in her grave but cannot rest until she has held her child and nursed him. The floor is strewn with page after page of the baby Tom in the arms of his mother's spirit. Moll, Tom, Tom, Moll, the names repeated over and over in an outpouring of desire that makes Betty's eyes prickle with tears. Then Will steps in to protect his child, fearful of these occult attentions. He pleads with a priest who drives Moll's poor spirit away from her baby and traps it. At the last drawing, Betty's tears overflow. It shows Moll's face pinned inside glass, shrieking unheard and pushing to get out; out of the mirror over the fireplace.

            "Tom isn't here any more, Moll, and neither is Will," said Betty to the silent room. "They died long ago and they won't come back."

            A gale blew round the room, shaking the windows and tearing at the curtains. The papers on the floor were whisked up into a furious flurry as though driven by the power of a storm.

            "Moll, don't! Stop it! I think I can help you." The pages drifted down and settled in disarray around the room but the curtains still swayed on their rails. "Come with me, Moll, to the churchyard."

            The curtains fell still. Betty could feel the pain and the longing press in upon her. She picked up the yellow rosebud. "Let's go now."

            Finding the grave was no easy matter. Many of the old stones had fallen and were badly eroded. She might have given up but a breeze chided her at every bend, hurrying her on in her search, turning her back to look again and again until finally she came upon them; three gravestones, side by side in an overgrown corner against the hedge.

            They recorded their messages in faint, mossy letters. In loving memory of Mary Parsons who died in the year of Our Lord 1779, aged twenty-seven years; and of William Parsons, who departed this world in 1790, aged forty-one; and a tiny stone for Thomas, dearly beloved, aged three.

            "This one is yours, Moll," said Betty, laying the yellow rose on the middle grave, "and here are Will and Tom next to you."

            The breeze fluttered back and forth across the graves, stroking the grass and ruffling the litter of fallen leaves. The oppression in the air became tangible and for one breathless moment Betty felt a cool touch brush her cheek, like a petal falling past her face or baby's soft, inquisitive hand. Then it sank and slid away like a sigh, "Goodbye, goodbye."

©2010 Hilary Hladky

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