The large, yellow, JCB digger raised its claw-like arm, and brought it crashing down through the roof of the house, sending tiles flying into the air. It looked as if birds were taking flight. The operator adjusted some levers in his cab, and the claw rose and fell again, into the hole that had been made, but this time hooking over the front wall of the house, and pulling it outwards. The wall collapsed in an explosion of crumbling brickwork.
The noise was extraordinary, as bricks fell, and windows shattered. It was like a primeval beast exacting revenge on an ancient enemy: loud, remorseless and final.
Beth Alvarini pressed her hands over her ears, feeling the sounds as an almost physical pain.
James stood behind her, his hand resting reassuringly on her shoulder. “You didn’t have to come here today.”
She laid her hand on his, squeezing softly. “I needed to come. I had to be sure it was finally coming down.”
Edward Falmer appeared at their side. “Well, an exciting day. Building work starts once they’ve cleared the site. The Stillwater Development.” There was a note of triumph in his voice. “I never thought I’d see the day. Bernard Franklin came good in the end.”
Beth winced. She had mixed feelings about the owner’s sudden decision to demolish the house. “Congratulations,” she said. “James tells me that most of the houses are pre-sold off plan.” A small housing development on the site of what was once a very attractive yellow brick-built house, with green-painted windows, and a grey slate roof, flecked with patches of lichen and moss. Plenty of land, of course, and a lot of unsavory history. She just wished she had been able to solve the mystery at the heart of the house, and its pain.
“Indeed they are. Though I must admit I was surprised when James said you wouldn’t be going in for one of them. I’d have thought a place here would have been perfect for you two.”
“We’re happy with the house we’ve bid on,” James said. “And you never know, we might not be staying there too long. Beth’s TV series in the States seems to be a ratings success.”
“And the money is going to start pouring in,” Falmer said, with a hint of envy. “You lucky buggers. You’re not thinking of moving out there, are you Beth? Falmer and Bartlett needs both James and I for it to work. I wouldn’t want to lose him.”
Beth smiled at the old man. “No,” she said. “I think you’re safe enough. I’ve no plans to leave the country. But we might buy somewhere bigger — still in the area though.” She had come to feel a bond with the general location, though her pleasure at the destruction of the house was complete. Almost.
Falmer smiled. “Good, good. And thanks once again for the invitation to your wedding. I should think you’re up to your ears in preparations.”
“I’m coping,” Beth said, and squeezed James’s hand harder.
“It’s going well,” James said. “Just the flowers to arrange. Isn’t that right, Beth?”
Beth rolled her eyes, as if to say, ‘not quite’. “Yes, nearly there…apart from cake, flowers, dress. Nearly there.” Then she laughed. “I’m not nearly as stressed as that sounds. Honestly.”
“Well, I’m looking forward to it,” Falmer said. “So is the wife. She doesn’t often get the chance to buy a new hat. It’s just the excuse she needed.”
A few yards away the Lathams watched the demolition with ill-concealed delight. Arthur Latham caught Beth’s eye, and gave her a mock-salute; Gwen just watched the destruction. She was smiling. There was smugness about her stance that wasn’t attractive.
Another wall fell in a clatter of bricks, splintered woodwork, and shattered glass, and as dust started to billow in a cloud towards them, James took hold of Beth’s wheelchair. “Let’s pull back, before we’re covered,” he said.
She looked up into his eyes. “I love you, Mr. Bartlett.”
“Likewise,” he said.
“It feels strange.”
“You’ll get used to it, after about twenty years or so.”
Beth shook her head. “No, not that. I’m comfortable with that, I’m comfortable with you.”
“What then? What’s strange?”
“It seems weird that this house, that was so destructive in so many ways, has brought us together.”
“I think Jessica Franklin might have seen a kind of closure in that.”
Away from the house, standing at the tree line, in the lee of a plantation of silver birch, and not seen by anyone, a small figure watched the demolition of the house that had been called Stillwater. Her unhappy home.
Dressed only in a stained, white-cotton shift, with pondweed threaded through her lank, dark hair, she watched, as tears poured down her cheeks. As the third wall fell, and more dust stretched from the site, she turned and ran back through the trees, sobbing.
She reached the lake, and slipped into the water, parting the weeds with her body, causing ripples that moved the water like breathing, and then she was swimming out to the center, where she disappeared beneath the surface.
For a few seconds the lake boiled, bubbling and hissing, before it calmed, and the water became still once more.
Beth found it difficult to articulate when she changed her mind about leaving the area around Stillwater Lake. As soon as she saw the house being killed she knew she couldn’t leave.
James, as an estate agent, should be able to find, had in fact found, a perfect house some miles away, but close enough for his work, and for Beth not to feel isolated. Her writing was done at a desk, and a computer, that could be set up anywhere. It was access for her wheelchair, and mobility to the amenities of a house, that needed careful consideration.
The house James sourced would be an easy one for the modifications needed. If anything, they could model their requirements on those that had been made at Stillwater when she first rented it.
She was a paraplegic, and she believed she always would be, a cripple, both physically and emotionally. Even on her honeymoon she was conscious of her status. Even as she finalized the last details of the wedding, she was regularly reminded of the events of almost two years ago.
“I’m afraid your spine is badly traumatized, Mrs. Alvarini.” The doctor’s words reverberated around the sterile hospital room.
“I can’t feel my legs.” Her voice was weak and tremulous, and sounded like the voice of a stranger.
“You may get the feeling back one day, but it would be wrong of me to offer false hope.”
How many times she had picked over the carcass of her ill-starred marriage to Milo Alvarini until there was no meat left on the bones. The marriage was a huge mistake, and a major regret. If Beth could turn the clock back she would. And, indirectly, it was Milo’s fault she was in the wheelchair.
He’d summoned her to his solicitor’s office in Holborn, where a very urbane man, called Clarkson, laid down the terms of the divorce settlement. Milo was taking her for everything he could get, including the house in Crystal Palace — her family home. She would never forgive him for that.
It was this final insult that was playing on her mind as she drove home from the solicitor’s office. She was distracted, didn’t notice the red light at the junction, and drove straight through it. The truck that ploughed into the side of her was given no chance of stopping. The impact lifted her Peugeot into the air, and sent the car rolling over and over across the junction, like a child’s toy, until it finally smashed it into a lamppost, and came to a halt.
The doctor’s devastating words changed her life forever. Hope, false or otherwise, had been a part of her life for as long as she could remember. Now, it had been taken away from her, and she struggled to find something to replace it. Confined to a wheelchair wasn’t how she wanted to define herself, but it was how most people saw her. For many of them it was all they saw; a woman in a wheelchair, therefore not a full, whole, person.
The accident hadn’t just taken away her mobility, it had removed her identity.
How grateful she was, pathetically so she chided herself, that James had fallen in love with her. He saw the wheelchair, knew the disability, but loved the person beneath it all.
And now she was to be Mrs. Bartlett, and the only link to her past relationship was the surname her publisher insisted she retain for her bestselling books. Not that she had written much recently; far too busy. That would have to change, but she wasn’t quite sure when.
As they drove away from the demolition site, heading for a meeting with the photographer, Beth couldn’t help glancing back at the JCB, and the dust of memories.
“Mixed feelings?” James said.
Beth stared out of the window, as the trees flashed past. “I have no idea why, but I feel sad.”
She felt his hand grip her forearm, and give a gentle squeeze.
“That place was nearly the death of you,” he said. “I’m glad it’s gone.”
“It’s not though, is it?”
James slowed the car, braked, and swung it around in the lane, so they could both see the site, just as the final wall of the house fell slowly to the ground.
“Looks like it has to me.”
She swiveled in her seat so she was facing him. “It’s still here.” She tapped the side of her head.
“So the sooner we get away from it the better.”
“I don’t think so.”
“What are you trying to say?”
Beth shook her head. “I know it makes no sense to stay, to go back. I know you think I’m getting paranoid with the… with Jessica.”
James gave a snort of disgust. It wasn’t an attractive sound. “Jessica was a damaged soul. Hardly surprising with Dolores Franklin as a step-mother. If Bernard Franklin had been more of a man, and stood up to his second wife, there may have been some hope for her. As it was, Jessica died unhappy, believing she was unloved. I’m glad the house that hid her suffering for so long has gone.”
“I want us to buy the large house, the one closest to the lake.”
“That’s got to be the worst…”
“When I’m writing a book,” Beth said. “There comes a point in the story when I can go in one of several different ways. The plot I mean, where the characters can lead me. That’s how I feel about Stillwater…”
“Stillwater has gone.”
“The house has, yes, but the, I don’t know what you’d call it, the legacy? That seems to be something I can’t shake off. No matter how hard I try.”
James turned the steering wheel, and began to drive along the lane.
“So, you want us to buy the house on the development?”
“I have to.”
“Edward will be pleased.”
“He’ll have no problems with the alterations I’ll need?”
“None at all. It will be the most wheelchair accessible house ever built. After all it won’t be an existing house that has to be modified. You can tell them what you want before a single brick is laid.”
The wedding day was wonderful. Her father held her hand so tightly in the car on the way to the church that she ended up reassuring him that everything was going to be all right. She was sure it was supposed to be the other way round. As they walked up the aisle together — or to be accurate, as her father pushed her wheelchair — the look of pride on his face made Beth smile.
She didn’t stop smiling, it seemed, all day. From the moment at the altar next to James, her future husband, to the interminable amount of time the photographer took over the staged shots of the newly married couple, and every array of family and friends grouping imaginable. From the drinks and canapés on the lawn of the country house hotel, through the meal, and the glorious speeches.
Even her mother was on her best behavior. Not once did she mutter her eternal condemnation — “Writing stories is all well and good, Elizabeth, but it’s not like it’s a real job, is it?” She was the only person to ever call her by her full name, even on the rare occasions when she was being affectionate. She never once, that day, compared Beth to her sister, Katherine, who worked in banking. A comparison that was generally unfavorable, conveniently forgetting that it was money earned from Beth’s books that not only bought her mother her bungalow, but also kept her sister’s children at their private school when Katherine lost her real job in the economic crash.
But the day was not for recriminations, nor regret. And certainly not for the memories of what had caused Stillwater to be sold and knocked down. It wasn’t a day for the legacies of the past. It was a time to look forward. A new life.
She argued with James about inviting the Lathams, but to her it was a necessary gesture. Underlining that it was all over, the stories and the whispers, the rumors and the emotions. It was time to start again, with nothing left behind to haunt them.
Beth turned the chair around to see Arthur Latham beaming down at her, glass of beer in hand, and cheeks red enough to indicate that he had made good use of the free bar.
She craned her neck to meet his lips on her cheek, as he awkwardly leaned forward, seemingly in danger of toppling altogether.
“There you are.” Gwen Latham caught hold her of husband’s jacket, and yanked him upright.
“Thanks both for coming,” Beth said.
“We hope you’ll be very happy, Ms. Alv… sorry, Mrs. Bartlett.”
“I think we can stick to Beth don’t you?”
A look passed between the pair of them that didn’t escape Beth. She was tired of secrets and lies. “Anything wrong?”
Arthur drained some of his beer.
Gwen sniffed, but she was made of stern stuff. “Falmer is telling people you’re moving into one the new houses.”
“Ah, yes, we are.”
“Is that wise?” Arthur said. There was genuine concern in his voice.
“Is what wise?” James joined them, unheard, and immediately grasped Beth’s hand. “Apparently we have to have the first dance.”
Beth laughed, and indicated the wheelchair.
“We’ll manage,” James said. “Anyway, what were you talking about?”
Beth swiveled the chair. “Concern about the new house.”
“After everything that’s happened,” Gwen said.
“All in the past,” Beth said. “It happened, and much of it was horrible, but the new house is our new beginning. And we’ll still be neighbors.”
James started to maneuver them away and towards the dance floor. “Once Edward showed me the additions he wanted to put in, the ramps, the grab rails, it made so much more sense than the other house we were going to move into.”
Then they were on the wooden floor, the DJ announcing, “And now the newly married couple are going to have their first dance,” and James span the wheelchair around, Beth forgot about the Lathams, and the grotesque Dolores, Jessica, and their obsessive grip on the present.
And Mrs. Falmer’s hat was lovely.
It was on the honeymoon that some sensation started to seep slowly into her legs, and lower body.
She had experienced a small amount of response over the months since she had met James. They were able to conduct a relatively successful, and mutually satisfying, physical relationship, but fundamentally Beth was numb from the waist down.
All that seemed to alter one night in Funchal. They were staying at the Cliff Bay Hotel in Madeira’s capital. Quiet, restful, and perfectly accessible for Beth. The linen curtains billowed in from the balcony as a warm breeze wafted into their large room.
They lay on the wide bed. Both naked.
“I felt that.”
James’ immediate response was to apologize, imagining he had caused her some pain, and then he realized what she meant.
“The doctors said I would never have any sensation below the waist.”
“You have had some feelings before though?”
“Yes, a little, but nothing like this.”
“But you did? Feel what I was doing I mean.”
“Oh yes, couldn’t you tell?”
He nodded. “But if you felt…do you think you might regain the use of your legs?”
That was her dream. The specialists were so adamant, so definite.
“I don’t know, but I’m going to find out.” She smiled. “I’ve heard of healing hands but…” She entwined her fingers with his.
James sat upright. “You read about medical diagnoses being proved wrong all the time. Doctors are wonderful, but they can’t see into the future. Maybe…”
Beth held up her hand. “Let’s not get carried away.” She laughed suddenly and richly. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if…”
The house was completed ahead of schedule, the specifications overseen by Beth were easily incorporated into the plans, and she and James were able to move in sooner than anticipated.
Edward Falmer insisted on a small ceremony, as theirs was the first of the six houses to be built. The others were all sold off plans.
Falmer was nothing if he wasn’t PR savvy. The press and local radio were invited, and as he flicked on the microphone to make his speech, (“just a few well chosen words, honestly,”) there was a reasonably sized crowd gathered to see what the developer had made of the place.
“Like many of you, I can embrace the new, whilst respecting the past.”
Beth was conscious of several pairs of eyes watching her. They may have been listening to the estate agent waxing lyrical about “green” and “conservation,” but they were staring at her. The woman in the wheelchair who had disturbed things that were best left alone. The woman who couldn’t walk, but who had managed to meet, and marry, the handsome man who stood at her side.
“The remaining houses will be completed shortly…”
As Beth gazed at the crowd she was able to recognize a few faces. The Lathams were there, of course, grim faced and disapproving. The landlord of the local pub, keen to drum up trade from the incomers.
Then she saw her.
Tall and slender, with a mane of wild, dark hair, and almost aristocratic features, lips clamped shut, the full-lipped sensual mouth making no attempt at a smile. If anything, the haunting eyes in the beautiful face looked positively hostile.
Beth reached up and grasped James’s hand.
The woman was in the center of the crowd, but seemed to be apart from it.
She had flowing hair, pale alabaster skin, and wore a diaphanous, floating dress that looked like silk. It was a vivid shade of blue, and as she breathed, it moved as if it was water cascading down her body.
“And so it gives me great pleasure to hand the keys of house number one…”
Beth felt the loss of the hand as James moved away from her to shake hands with Falmer, and accept a set of keys, ostentatiously adorned with red ribbon.
The woman began to fade away. At first Beth thought she must be moving out from the crowd, but she wasn’t. She was melting, as if she had never been there. No one seemed to be aware of her apart from Beth. The eyes were dark and impenetrable as they locked onto Beth’s. Then the lips smiled. They pulled back from the teeth in a hungry smile that wasn’t inviting, it was threatening.
As Beth stared into Dolores Franklin’s eyes, a chill passed through her body, and she shivered. For all the woman’s beauty and sensuality, there was something repulsive about her.
“Are you sure you didn’t see her?” Beth asked for the hundredth time as they moved around the ground floor of their new house, being shown the details, yet again, by Falmer and his team.
“There were a lot of people there…”
“Yes,” Falmer said. “A good turnout. Further interest even in the houses already sold. Looks like we may have to find some more land for another development, James.”
Beth gave up, and wheeled herself to the wide, tall, bi-fold doors that graced one whole wall of the living room. The view was stunning.
Trees had been cleared, not all of them by any means, but sufficient so that the lake could be glimpsed through the branches and the hedging that outlined the edges of their garden. It was a bright sunny day, and Beth watched as a heron swooped over the still surface of the water, and emerged with something that looked like a human leg in its beak.
Getting over-imaginative, she chided herself. It must have been a pike or a perch. The lake was heavily populated with all manner of life.
Seeing Dolores had shaken her. It wasn’t the first time she had been faced with the woman, but Beth thought she had moved away, for good this time. Her being here, watching the new house, was unsettling. Yet it couldn’t have been her, not actually in person. The manner in which she melted away, and the fact that no one else was aware of her presence, all of it suggested that it had been in Beth’s imagination.
Finally they were alone. Falmer and everyone had left. It was just her and James.
“I’m sorry,” James said. “I’d like to say I saw her but I didn’t.”
Beth took the saucepan of boiling water off the gas to add the pasta, before sliding it back across the specially lowered hob.
“I didn’t think she’d still be around here, that’s all.” It was more than that, but she didn’t want to spend the first night in their new home raking over the past.
“I’ll ask around. Maybe go and see the Lathams.”
“I’ll do that. It’s a good idea. If anyone knows about her whereabouts it’ll be them. Let’s eat.”
James laid the table in the corner of the kitchen, overlooking the lawn, and the newly constructed flower borders. As the sun set on the horizon they ate their meal and drank Rose wine. After clearing up they decided on an early night.
“This is the best feature of the house for me,” Beth said, as she maneuvered her wheelchair up the undulating ramps that the builders had inserted in place of a staircase.
“Really good isn’t it? The whole house is wonderful.”
“We’re going to be happy here.”
She may have been sleeping for minutes or hours. When she awoke it was dark, but the moonlight that whispered in through the open doors of the balcony in their bedroom provided sufficient light to be able to show her that she was alone in the bed.
There was no reply.
She edged off the mattress and into her chair. The bedroom door was open, and she moved across to the landing. She could hear voices. One of them was James. The other was female.
Her approach was silent.
As she wheeled herself down the ramp the voices grew louder.
She could hear snatches of the conversation.
“…can’t come here again.” That was James.
“…home destroyed.” That was the female voice. It was quite young.
By the time Beth reached the ground floor she knew who the female voice belonged to.
Jessica Franklin stood in the kitchen. She was dressed in a white, sleeveless, cotton dress. Wheals striped her arms, along with deeper cuts, from which blood trickled down her skin. The long dark hair was wet and plastered to her scalp. Threaded through the damp, tangled tresses, were green fibrous strands of pondweed. Her face was gaunt, the skin pale to the point of translucency, and her eyes were sunken into dark-ringed sockets.
James looked as if he was asleep, and yet he was speaking.
“We can’t see each other again.”
He was oblivious to Beth’s entrance, but Jessica wasn’t.
A bitter smile flicked across her face, like a shadow of cloud in front of the sun. Only this face hadn’t felt the warmth of the sun for a long time.
With a sudden explosion of movement, she leapt onto the work counter, and perched like an animal about to pounce.
James continued talking, as if he hadn’t seen the girl move. He was staring directly ahead, to where she had been. Beth gradually realized that, despite appearances, he was actually asleep. He must have been unaware of what he was doing. Surely that was it.
She was distracted for only a moment, but in the time it took to stare at her husband, Beth missed what Jessica was doing.
She was grasping a kitchen knife in her left hand. With it she was cutting shallow fissures in the skin of her arm. The blood that seeped out was green.
Beth’s knowledge of sleepwalking was narrow, but the one thing she thought she knew for certain was that it was dangerous to wake the walker. As she watched Jessica slicing her pale skin, she decided some things were more dangerous than others.
“James,” she shouted. “Wake up.”
At the same time she wheeled over to him, grabbed his wrist, and pulled at it hard.
Instantaneously he was awake. His knees crumpled, and he sagged to the floor.
Beth wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly.
She glanced at the work surface, and wasn’t surprised to see it was empty. Jessica had gone.
On the polished stone floor was one of her new kitchen knives. It lay in a pool of dank, green liquid.
“James.” She spoke quietly. “Are you okay?”
“My head hurts.”
“Let’s get you back upstairs.”
When they were in their bedroom, under the covers, Beth said, “Can you remember anything?”
James still appeared dazed. His confusion was genuine; Beth had no doubts about that. He was staring straight ahead, as if he was finding it difficult to focus.
“I heard a noise,” he said. “Downstairs. I was sure it was a voice, someone singing. I must have been dreaming, but the next thing I know I’m downstairs.”
“Who was with you?”
“With me?” His reaction was bafflement. “There wasn’t anyone there.”
“You were talking to someone. Can you remember who it was?”
He shook his head. “I must have been dreaming.”
Did sleepwalkers do so in a deep sleep? Beth wasn’t sure, but she would check it out. Did they dream as they “walked,” was that the reason for their actions? Were they acting out what they were dreaming about? If that was the case, then James must have been dreaming about Jessica.
But Beth had seen her. And she wasn’t dreaming; asleep or otherwise.
Maynard Sims is the pen name of lifelong friends Len Maynard and Mick Sims, who met in 1964 at the age of eleven, and have been writing together since 1972. Their bibliography includes numerous novels, novellas, screenplays and short stories. They worked as editors on the nine volumes of Darkness Rising anthologies, ran Enigmatic Press in the UK, and continue to edit a variety of projects.
Malignant Ghosts extends the story of their novel Stillwater. Cemetery Dance is proud to offer a new e-book edition of Stillwater, along with several more Maynard Sims novels listed below: