Climbing gingerly out of bed to avoid waking Mark, Stacey pulled on her dressing gown and stumbled downstairs to the kitchen. She filled the kettle and looked down at the turkey tray soaking in cold greasy water. Feeling relieved that she had remembered to load the dishwasher and so at least all the plates, glasses and cutlery were done, she turned to the table and was surprised to see it laid up for breakfast. Mark? Had he done it whilst she was getting ready for bed? Unlikely. Although sometimes he did surprise her with small thoughtful gestures, last night he’d been just as tired as her. It must have been Annette then.
Christmas day had gone pretty well, she thought. They’d kept the energy levels up by having a brisk walk mid-afternoon and then a few rounds of Give us a Clue which after an awkward start had become noisy and boisterous and fun. Then there was all the kitchen prep’ for dinner. Annette, Stacey knew, was always easier to cope with when there was plenty to do. Today however would be more of a challenge. She had planned for old friends, Sophie and David, to join them, but Sophie’s mother had been taken ill on Christmas Eve and, so it would once again be just the three of them. Guiltily brushing the thought aside that it was only for one more night; Stacey sat at the table and sipped her tea.
Nothing lasts, the woman thought bitterly. How careful of them she had always been. No one else had been allowed to handle them. And on the few occasions when they had been used, Mother’s birthdays, she remembered, and Christmas, exceptional care had been taken. Cook had known better than to warm them on the range for fear of cracking the glaze and Rudd had been given strict instructions that only two at a time were to be brought through on a tray from the kitchen. Even after Father died when the house had had to be sold and she had moved in with Cynthia, she had supervised the packing and unpacking of them herself. They had been precious to her. They were precious to her. It pained her to see a chip defacing the gilt edging to one of the plates and the painted violets fading on the saucers. Would this new woman sitting drinking tea at the table, slovenly in a robe and with her hair unkempt, treat them with respect? As if in answer she tightened her lips.
“How hungry are you?” Stacey greeted Annette.
“Just toast or are you up for the whole catastrophe? Mark’s doing bacon, sausage, egg and…”
“Fried bread” added Mark, head bent over the frying pan “Its Christmas and everyone knows that it’s compulsory to fur up the arteries with as much saturated fat as possible. It soaks up the alcohol.”
He smiled at his sister-in-law “Morning Annette. Sleep ok?”
“Fine thanks and just toast please.”
Annette sat down at the table and examined a tea cup painted with faded violets.
“Lovely isn’t it? I’m so pleased you like them. The minute I saw them I thought they’d be perfect even though the set’s not complete. I never know what to get you” There was a slight pause before she added “You have everything”
“Not everything” Stacey wondered just how it was that her elder sister managed to make it sound like an accusation “And I love them. You know I’m mad for anything vintage”
She stretched for the butter and began slathering her toast “Oh by the way thanks for laying the table”
“But I didn’t…”
“Mind your backs” Mark interrupted as he laid down two loaded plates “Man carrying serious carbs coming through”
“Ok” said Stacey between mouthfuls “What do you fancy doing today?”
The house was quiet now. Their noisy world with its machines grated upon the woman. And their voices; so strident. So coarse. Even as children Mother had insisted that she and Cynthia regulate their tone.
“Ladies do not run. They do not shout. They laugh… but in moderation” Cynthia had developed a tinkling laugh that men had found so attractive and was, she claimed, what first had led Herbert to fall in love with her and then to propose. Some years later when she herself went to live with them she could not help but notice that Cynthia’s musical laugh was much less in evidence. Perhaps that was an inevitable consequence of the married state? She had not had the opportunity to find out.
“I’m going to ache all over tomorrow” laughed Stacey.
“Well you did fall over twice as many times as Annette” said Mark opening the front door and ushering them in.
“That’s because she’s heavier than me” said Annette shrugging off her coat “You need to be light on your feet to skate with any grace”
Suppressing a sigh Stacey responded brightly
“Drink anyone?” and headed for the kitchen.
Mark, close behind her, heard her intake of breath.
“What is it love?”
“That’s funny. I didn’t see you lay the table. I could have sworn I was the last one in here”
They both stared. The table had been set for three with the new china: dinner and side plates, knives and forks.
Annette joined them and shrugged “Well don’t look at me”
“A burglar with a thing for Downton Abbey?” joked Mark “I’ll go tour the rest of the estate!”
Stacey turned to her sister “That’s so weird.”
How disconcerted they had all been. The woman had listened, at first amused, as they had discussed how it could have happened. Had Mark locked the back door? Did anyone have a spare key? Was there any sign of forced entry? But quickly she had become bored as they endlessly rehashed the central question: why would someone want to break into their house only to lay a table?
Annette hadn’t wanted to use the china. It was spooky she said. It gave her the creeps. Well that she had relished. She didn’t care for any of them but disliked the sister, in particular. Which was singular because, she supposed, that she should in fact be grateful to her. It was Annette who had purchased the china from a cheap bric-a-brac shop where they had lain, still in their original box and having passed through many hands over the years, in a forgotten corner for some months before Annette had happened upon them. And so here she and they were. In another new home.
Stacey couldn’t sleep. She lay in the dark staring up at the ceiling, her mind going over and over it. Nothing made sense. Shifting position, she adjusted the pillows, her neck aching but still she couldn’t get comfortable. Her nerves jangled, her skin felt itchy. It was no good. She would have to get up. Her restlessness was disturbing Mark. She’d go downstairs, make a hot drink and see if there was a late film on. It didn’t matter what it was. She just needed something, anything to distract her from the one unwanted treacherous thought that throbbed insistently through her brain. Could Annette be playing some spiteful and elaborate game? Was she capable of that? The last few years had been difficult for her, Stacey knew that. Still angry and resentful at being dumped by her long-term partner she’d become increasingly sour and discontented with her life. Her self pity and her blank refusal to acknowledge that, with change, sometimes something new and hopeful could emerge, had made her hard to be around… hard to like.
Stacey slipped out of bed. Not wanting to turn on the landing lights for fear of waking the others she made her way slowly down the stairs in the dark. And it was only when she reached the bottom where she could safely turn on the hall light that she realised she’d been holding her breath. Stop being silly she told herself. There’s nothing to worry about. There was a perfectly rational explanation for the whole thing, it was just that they hadn’t thought of it yet, that was all. Nevertheless, she was aware of a strong disinclination to open the kitchen door. Steeling herself, she turned the handle, fumbled for the light switch and then stood gazing in horror at the table. Before going to bed they had stripped it completely bare. Now it was draped in a white linen cloth and was laid with the new china. Breakfast for three.
Her first instinct was to scream. But even as she opened her mouth fear gave way to a new sensation. Anger fizzed inside her, she felt it flame through her chest and up into her throat where it resulted in a croaking herrumping sound and a need for action. She stomped across to the back door. Yes, it was locked. Of course, it was. She had watched Mark double check it last night. She shook her head trying to calm the thumping of her heart. Slowly she took in the whole room. Everything looked as normal. Everything except the table.
“That’s enough” she said aloud.
She had no idea who she was talking to, herself most likely. But somehow, she couldn’t help, it. This was her house. This was her kitchen and whatever the hell was going on had to stop. And to stop now.
Angrily she started to gather up the cups and saucers. She didn’t want to look at them. They could go in the back of the cupboard that held all the kitchen stuff they rarely used. Reaching to open its door she stopped abruptly. Had she heard something? She listened intently, her spine rigid. No, it’s nothing she told herself, just her imagination gone into overdrive. She relaxed her shoulders, then immediately tensed up again. There it was again. Her skin prickled. Yes… no… yes… this time she was certain… it was the sound of breathing. Somebody was in the room with her. She felt it. She was sure of it. Masking a sob, the cups still in her hand, she swung sharply around to find herself looking directly into the eyes of a woman standing across from her on the opposite side of the table.
Impossible to scream. Her throat felt constricted. The power of speech had completely deserted her. She could only stare in horror at the tall figure clad in a long old-fashioned dress and lace cap.
Agonising minutes passed as the women continued to regard each other but still neither spoke. And after a while as her first stab of fear began to recede Stacey found the silence to be rather uncomfortable and couldn’t help but think that perhaps, given the circumstances, something really should be said. After all, if this was an actual ghost and really, she couldn’t think what else it could be, then what a waste of an opportunity not to get into conversation. How often does one get chance to communicate with the dead? She could find out all kinds of things, like…well…like … did God really exist? And if there was such a place as Heaven? This woman, this spectre, could impart knowledge to her that no one else possessed. She’d be famous. Perhaps she’d write a book? Give lectures on TV?
This was crazy. She was becoming hysterical. Blinking hard she blurted out
“Is that a bustle?”
The woman looked surprised. And as well she might, thought Stacey. She is no doubt here for a reason and that reason has probably nothing whatsoever to do with fashion.
She tried again.
“Can I help you with something?”
That was better, but it still didn’t provoke a response. They continued to study each other.
The woman was about forty, Stacey guessed although it was difficult to be sure because that cap was so ageing and the black of her dress had leached all the colour from her skin, but then her skin would probably look grey anyway, she supposed, what with her being dead and all.
“Look, are we going to stand about staring at each other all day? I mean all night” she corrected herself “Because if you won’t tell me what you want, then, and I don’t mean this to sound unwelcoming, but perhaps you should leave”
Then added lamely “This is my house you know”
Just then an awful thought struck her “It is isn’t it? You didn’t live here… well, before, did you?”
The woman raised an eyebrow.
“Here?” her voice although rusty, as if it had not been used for a very a long time, was unmistakably haughty
“I?….. Here? We lived in Belgravia. I would not consider a dwelling such as this worthy of….
“Well why not go back there?” Snapped Stacey thinking that there was no reason for the woman to insult her.
“I’m quite sure that wherever you lived and whomever you lived with must be missing you by now!”
A shadow crossed the woman’s face.
“I can’t” she said simply “They are all dead”
“Well” Stacey retorted “And I hope you won’t take this personally, but aren’t you also dead?
“Technically yes…. but it’s all a question of degrees”
“Degrees?” Stacey repeated shrilly, feeling that the conversation was getting away from her.
“A person is either dead or they’re not. And if you’re not, that means you’re alive and you can’t be alive because if you were… you’d know that…” She groped for something suitably convincing but failed “You’d know that… that… black isn’t your colour!”
The woman seemed to consider the point.
“Cynthia always said that it didn’t suit me but naturally I took no notice of her and besides how could a widow consider wearing anything else?”
“So” Stacey cut in “If your husband’s dead then …”
The woman looked surprised.
“Your husband of course”
“I wasn’t married”
“But you just said that you were a widow”
“Well, technically I wasn’t but…”
“Here you go with your technically again. Either you were, or you weren’t married. How is that a matter for debate?”
“I was betrothed. Affianced” said the woman.
“Ohhhhh” said Stacey sympathetic now “And he ditched you and so the widow’s weeds were more symbolic than… well it happens. The trick is to get back out there and… not that that would be easy for you because, again no disrespect intended, but you’re dead”
“Well I know that!” Stacey’s voice rose in exasperation “You told me they all died”
“Would you please stop interrupting!” The woman was beginning to sound a little tetchy herself “Listen and I’ll tell you”
That sounded reasonable to Stacey. “Ok. So?”
“Philip and I were due to be married. Then a month before the wedding he was taken ill with a fever from which he never recovered”
“Ah!” Stacey was contrite “I see”
“No, you don’t see. How could you?”
“Alright then, so I don’t but what does this have to do with you hanging around here… being…well… a… ghost?”
The woman looked down at the cups that were still in Stacey’s hand and was silent.
“A wedding gift delivered early” The woman’s sadness seemed to envelop the whole room. “A gift that I chose not to return. They should have graced our table”
“And you have been attached to them ever since?”
“Yes, Cynthia could never understand my feelings… but then she was not blessed with penetration”
“Sounds like you two had some issues”
The woman eyed her.
“And you don’t with your sister?”
”That’s totally different…” Stacey trailed off uncomfortably.
Stacey shifted her gaze and then placed the cups gently down upon the table.
There was a long pause before the woman spoke again.
“I presume you, like Cynthia, consider my feeling the way I do to be ridiculous”
“No” said Stacey cautiously “I think I get it. You loved Philip. He died. The china was all you had of him and if you let it go, it’s like you’ve nothing to connect you to him anymore”
The woman’s shoulders slumped.
“That is exactly how I feel. How curious that you should understand that.”
“But” reasoned Stacey on a swell of sympathy now “Aren’t you tired? You must be. I mean, how long has it been?”
“One hundred and thirty-seven years. And yes, I long to lay down the burden of this life amongst shadows”
”I bet you do and surely this is the time to…”
Suddenly the woman leant forward and locked her in a burning glance.
“Would you look after them for me? Keep them in your family? Treasure them but also use them as they were meant to be used. For times of joy and times of celebration. Would you use them with love? If you would do that for me then I think I could leave”
Stacey felt tears start in her eyes.
“I’ll do it. I promise. I really do”
A look of infinite relief crossed the woman’s face and she smiled for the first time.
“Then I bid you farewell. And I thank you”
And as Stacey looked on in fascination the figure before her started immediately to lose its definition. The black of the dress fading and becoming hazy, the bloodless face translucent now as the woman prepared to leave this world forever.
“Goodbye” called Stacey “Goodbye”
But then just as the last traces of the woman shimmered and dimmed, with a start Stacey remembered
“Wait! Come back! I meant to ask……. Does heaven exist?…….. Is there a God?”
In the silence of the room her questions went answered.