It’s been my pleasure to work with the Communal Writing for Improvers students over the last half term and together they have produced this wonderful ghost story set in 1949.
The authors are: Mo Abu-Bakra, Paul Bieniek, John Demetriou, Heather Dyson, Janet Foster, Mihaela Marinova, Inga Oake, Ingrid Oake and Maria Petrova
FALLING FOR GRACE
December 1949: it’s cold and the day is full of grey foreboding. Winter drizzle fills a mournful sky; the kind of drizzle that chills to the bone. The rocks that stretch for miles are black with cold. The locals nickname them ‘the weeping rocks’ because of their year-round bleakness.
Old man Ben is on the beach with his faithful Labrador. From a distance, it’s hard to tell who is enjoying the walk less, Ben or the dog. Suddenly, the old lab barks and races forward. A flock of seagulls scatter, and the dog explores something heaped among the sand and seaweed.
Ben approaches the rocks yelling, ‘Get back! Back! What’s got into you, Teddy?’
In horror, he realizes what must have happened. Teddy is standing next to a body which has been mangled beyond recognition.
Ben grabs his dog and regrets it instantly. With incredible boldness a seagull swoops onto the body and pecks out an eye like an oyster from a shell. The defiant bird stares with a look of triumph as if to say, It belongs to me now. There’s absolutely nothing to be done. All dead things belong to us …
The gull screeches and flies away.
The local police and ambulance arrive an hour later.
Grace watches from a short distance. The body looks like nothing other than a heap of discarded clothes. For such a young woman, she seems remarkably indifferent to what’s happening. The dog is still barking.
She wants to say, Calm down Teddy … but she just carries on watching instead.
The walk back up the cliff happens in what seems like an instant and then she’s back at Asquith Manor.
She walks into her sister’s bedroom.
‘Good morning, sleepy head!’ she whispers. ‘It’s a bright sunny day. We’ll have breakfast in the study!’
Her sister, Dolores, opens her eyes. She doesn’t look well; her deathly pale face is half-hidden under the covers.
When Dolores eventually stirs, Grace has gone …
Charles is half looking forward to and half dreading going back to Asquith Manor.
How has the place changed since my youth? he wonders as he drives through the country lanes. The North Sea is to his right and he can feel its chill creeping into his bones.
Rumour suggests the house is in disrepair and has been badly managed since its sale and conversion to a hotel.
The place will be cold and deserted this time of year …
Charles is a handsome young man with wavy shoulder-length dark locks and brown-black eyes. He looks like he’s just walked out of an eighteenth century portrait or a period drama. He’s definitely not a child of his time. His interests in painting and poetry, and fencing and horse riding, are not the contemporary pursuits of his peers in London.
However, he’s glad to get away from his mother and older brother.
Why is my brother such a bullying ass, and why does my mother always insist I be more like him? I’m not like him or anybody else … Everyone is more successful than me. Maybe Mother is right. I’m wasting my life away. I should have studied Maths and Finance at university like my brother. I would now have a nice city job just like him … If only my ‘Paintings of Venice’ exhibition had done better!
I’m not a postcard painter. The ‘Art Review’ wouldn’t know real talent if it slapped them in the face …
The thoughts churn through Charles’s mind and he thinks back to the day when he picked up his brushes and realised that he was unable to paint anymore. He felt like a twig under heavy snow. He’d break if he tried to paint another view of Venice. His mother had dragged him to the doctor. With all the interest of a dodo, the doctor asked about his health and, after a brief explanation, suggested that Charles was suffering from depression and should be treated with some pills and a change of scenery.
A dip and sharp curve to the right on the wet road brings him back to reality. Turning again he arrives at Asquith Manor and stops at the gate of the house he’d visited as a child when it’d belonged to some distant relatives of his father’s.
A ‘No Vacancies’ sign on the wall is hidden by a sweep of ivy and last year’s brambles. Breathing in the cold December air, Charles looks around. The house and grounds are in disrepair. The grandeur and splendor of the place he remembers as a boy has gone.
I used to hide in that old rockery. There’s the pond where I caught newts; ah, there’s the bench where I first started painting … what a mess …
Charles knocks at the door. No answer. He knocks and then knocks again.
Is there anybody here? They should be expecting me.
And then with a rattle, bang and creak the huge door is opened by a thin, wiry woman who looks pale and ill. She could be sixty or eighty, he thinks. In any case, she’s too old to be working and, in her frumpy clothes and with no make-up on, she looks as bad as I feel.
‘Good morning Mr. Asquith. I’m terribly sorry for keeping you waiting.’
The woman spoke without enthusiasm. A lop-sided name tag on her cardigan read, ‘Dolores Avery – Manager’.
‘Come in,’ she continues. ‘I’m afraid we really aren’t set up for guests. Perhaps you would prefer to stay in the village?’
Charles shakes his head. ‘I’ll be fine here, thank you …’
‘Watch your step on the stairs. Not many people visit this time of year. Just you really. You will be lonely. Your family hasn’t visited in years I believe, although I’ve only just returned here myself. I used to …’ She pauses, sighs and takes a step back to allow Charles to enter the hall. ‘I used to live here, well, work here really but we, I mean I, had to leave. I came back earlier this year; the only thing I brought with me was the portrait …’
‘Portrait?’ Charles asks.
‘Oh, it doesn’t matter,’ she says and then in an obvious attempt to change the subject adds, ‘There’ll be more people here from the village tomorrow though. A Christmas party, you know. Ah, here’s your room.’
‘Yes, Mother told me there might be a party … Thank you!’
They stare at each other for a moment, and then at the dilapidated room at the top of the staircase to which she has taken him.
Dolores nods and says quietly, ‘Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer to stay in the village?’
Charles doesn’t reply and so she leaves, closing the door behind her.
Charles sits for a while looking out of the window.
What’s that in the garden?
Something is moving. A young woman in a black cloak and long red dress is walking amongst the trees. Her lovely long blond hair is cascading down her back.
She looks like a Renaissance maiden. I can’t see her face … Charles stands and moves closer to the window in order to see her better, but she’s disappeared.
Charles sighs and decides to go for a walk.
The daylight is fading but even in the dimness he can see that not much has changed. The drawing room remains as he remembers except that now there are buckets into which water is dripping from the ceiling. The gold leaf and plaster work looks tired and, all is dusty and damp and unheated.
I would have taken better care of you!
The drawing room leads out into the garden. He looks for the young woman but can’t see her in the murky darkness and so heads back to his room.
He spots a ‘MANAGER’ sign on a half-open door and, curious, looks in.
A portrait of a stunning young woman catches his eye. He is transfixed by the surprisingly life-like girl whose blue eyes seem to be pulling him towards the picture. The magic he feels is like summer sunshine.
She is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen. I would walk to the ends of the Earth for those eyes …
Charles continues to stare. Time passes, but Charles has no idea how long.
‘Can I help you Mr. Asquith?’ Dolores is standing in the doorway blocking the light to the portrait. The magic instantly disappears.
‘Whose portrait is it?’ Is this the one you brought with you?
Dolores looks at the floor and then up at him. Her eyes are hooded; her skin pale and etched with worry lines.
‘Yes.’ She hesitates and takes a deep breath; it’s obvious she doesn’t want to talk about the picture. ‘How’s your room,’ she asks.
But Charles perseveres. ‘The style is dated,’ he says, ‘but it looks like it’s been done relatively recently. It’s not an antique.’
He looks at the picture again: the same beautiful face but now somewhat changed; as if the life and colour has drained away from it.
‘One more thing, Ms. Avery, I saw somebody walking in the garden a little earlier?’
‘I really do not know who it could be Sir. Children from the village often play in the grounds.’
‘It was a young woman in a red dress.’
‘Well, we don’t have visitors this time of year. Perhaps it was our receptionist. She often wears red. Would you like to meet her?’
‘That’s OK, but no thank you, Ms. Avery.’
Out of the corner of his eye Charles glimpses a figure with lustrous blonde hair and wearing a red dress disappearing up the stairs. He turns to look but there is nobody there.
I must be dreaming. My pills are playing with my mind.
Dolores shuffles out of the way so Charles can leave. She closes the door behind him but, as he walks up the stairs, Charles thinks he can hear her talking to someone on the phone. She’s saying, ‘He should go to the village. He shouldn’t stay here.’
He sits on his bed again. Outside, the sky is now completely dark. Cold sleet slashes against the window. He’s tired.
’I think I’ll take a nap,’ he says to no-one in particular.
The morning sun is shining through the window. Charles has no idea how long he’s been asleep but he feels happy and rested.
I can probably spend the day sketching, he thinks.
By his bedside is an invitation to this evening’s party.
I guess I should go …
A little later Charles sits with his easel below the grand staircase. After a slow start, the house seems to come to life as he sketches it. The grotesques and gargoyles on the wood panelling look as if they are whispering to each other. One grotesque, in particular, attracts his attention. It’s not a Green Man but a Green Woman. Her eyes are closed but it is unmistakably the same bewitching face from the portrait he saw yesterday.
She is everywhere, he thinks.
As evening approaches, Charles walks into the red-wallpapered dining room, crimson curtains hang at the windows and it seems like he’s walking into a painting. People have already started to gather and, as he mingles, he is surprised by how sociable he’s suddenly become; everyone is familiar, but yet he hasn’t met any of them before.
‘We haven’t met.’ An old man is sitting by the fire staring at Charles. His dog is at his feet. ‘I’m Ben,’ the old man continues. ‘I used to work here, for a great uncle of yours. I was a servant and errand boy. The Master’s name was Charles too. You remind me of him.’
‘Yes! It’s surprising how the family genes pass down.’ Charles reaches down and pets the dog. ‘And who’s this?’
‘Ah, this is Teddy! I’ve always had a dog; ever since your great uncle gave me a stray dog to take care of. It was when he first took me in. He said the dog would keep the crows out of the fields. I walked the fields every morning. Teddy would sleep with me at night. Crows and sea-gulls Teddy hates them both. He chases them for hours.’
‘Talking about my son, Charles, are we Ben?’ An ancient woman approaches and joins the conversation. Charles reckons she must be well into her nineties. ‘He died in South Africa fighting the Boers. My brave, brave boy …’
‘This is Lady Asquith; your distant aunt.’ Ben explains. ‘She knows everything about the place …’
‘Can either of you tell me about this strange woman that I keep seeing all the time? I think there’s a painting of her in the Manager’s office,’ Charles asks.
Lady Asquith staggers slightly, her face blanched of all colour. She looks across at Dolores who’s standing nearby and who’s obviously listening to the conversation. There is an awkward silence. There’s something going on here, but Charles does not understand what.
Dolores laughs unconvincingly. ‘Perhaps we have a ghost …’ she says; her glib tone failing to hide her emotion.
Eventually, the gathering begins to thin and the guests leave. As the house empties, the temperature inside it plummets like a stone.
The imposing long-case clock in the hall strikes midnight and its chimes echo around the wood panelling. The wind howls like a banshee as it snakes around the chimney stacks and slides down to emit its eerie cry taunting smouldering embers in the fireplace of the dining room.
In Dolores’s office an open window swings in the wind and crashes against the frame. Dolores shuffles across the room to secure it, then draws the large heavy drapes across to reduce the draught and dampen the sound. She puts another log on the fire which squeals and crackles and spits sparks up the chimney. She then settles into her rocking chair to enjoy the warmth. She spreads a blanket over her lap for extra comfort and stares at the painting on the wall above the fire.
‘It’s going to be a long night,’ she says out loud.
The rejuvenated fire sends fingers of light dancing on the walls of the room to break the darkness and illuminate Grace’s features. Dolores is captivated by its pattern and the fire’s warmth and her eyelids begin to feel heavy. The strobing firelight catches Grace’s eyes looking at her, and she drifts off to sleep.
Grace watches her sister sleep and, as she watches, her thoughts turn back to her earliest memories.
I loved my father. He was a kindly man. Good with the creatures of the forest. He imitated the birds, and could sneak up on the rabbits.
My mother was kind and gentle too. She always had a herbal remedy available in times of need. Why did Jesus let an evil spirit into her body? Why did she have to die?
And why did Father marry Valerie? She’s was a horrible woman. Why did the villagers talk so unkindly about my mother and why do they hate me? Jesus must be punishing me!
Dolores’ explanation that their father had married Valerie because he could not manage the two of them alone did not help, and village gossip about their mother being what it was, the girls became yet more isolated.
Their lives turned out to be even more unbearable when Valerie gave birth to their half-brother, Benjamin. All of her attention and their meagre family resources went on him; the girls were mostly ignored and left to fend for themselves.
Grace’s world was a small one; she had no knowledge of the ways of men. And then one day Dolores looked at Grace pleadingly. ‘We can’t live here anymore Grace. Not while Father is away trying to get work in the City. The rabbits I catch and the berries we gather are not enough. We’ll starve soon. And no-one in the village is prepared to help. They say an evil spirit is in our house.
‘Lord Asquith has seen you in the woods. He likes you. Ben says that if you spend the night with him he’ll let you stay at the Manor House. We can work in the courtyard kitchen. We’ll have plenty of food. Think Grace! It’s just one night, and then we can get away from here.’
Grace had been frightened at first, but she soon grew used to her uniform and her duties. Every day at sunrise she’d serve the bread or sometimes oats and milk to the farm-workers. Dolores cleaned up after everyone. Ben came by the kitchen later in the morning after chasing the crows. Sometimes Grace had collected eggs to go with their morning bread.
Days turned into weeks and weeks into months.
Why did things have to change?
In another part of the Manor House Charles was trying to enjoy his full, robust English breakfast, but his mother was lecturing him.
‘That liberal Harcourt keeps raising our estate taxes,’ she said. ‘No-one wants to buy our wheat anymore, at least not at a reasonable price, and now we have taxes to pay for the workhouse. We have to let everyone go. We can’t afford to live here anymore …’
Charles rolled his eyes. He’d heard this story many times before.
In frustration his mother continued, ‘What’s wrong with you? You should be in South Africa, with your brother, fighting the Boers. Your brother is serving our Queen and the Empire. You are serving your belly …’
Lady Asquith sat down in the chair opposite and stared directly at Charles. ‘I’ve seen your painting of that kitchen harlot too,’ she said. ‘They say she is expecting. I want her, her bastard and that painting out of my house, and then stay away from her. Don’t defy me or I will disown you.’
‘But I love her Mother. I always have and I always will.’
It was amazing how quickly the life they’d known at the Asquith House changed. Grace stared blankly at the kitchen table. The hot black stove kept the severe winter cold from penetrating the thick stone walls. The normal hustle and bustle of morning kitchen activities had ceased. The farm workers were nowhere to be seen.
Ben came into the kitchen and threw his gun and sack on the floor. ‘Here!’ he said, ‘The Master wants you to have these.’
Under one arm was a painting. Under the other, the red dress Grace would wear on her evening visits to the Manor House.
Grace and Dolores stared, but said nothing …
Ben interrupted the silence. ‘What are you going to do?’ he asked. ‘He will not take care of you. You don’t even belong here at the Manor. The Master has his position and reputation to think about.’
Of course Grace knew this. She’d never held any hope that it would be other than this.
‘We can go back to Father,’ Dolores suggested.
Grace looked at her in disbelief; tears spilling down her face. ‘What would Father think of me?’ she asked. ‘I’ve been disgraced.’
‘We have to go back. We can’t go to the workhouse. There’s nothing else for us to do. No matter what happens, I promise Grace, I will take care of you …’ Dolores’ voice was thick with pity and remorse.
But Grace was not listening. She sat in silent futility, her mind blocked and despair surrounding her …
That evening, in the heavy wintry coldness, Lady Asquith and her son left the estate. Their carriage bounced across the cliff road. From the window Charles could see a slender figure on the beach in the distance jostling in the wind.
Who would be out there on an evening like this?
‘Stop the horses … Stop …’ Charles shouted, banging on the carriage roof.
The carriage slowed and then stopped and his mother grabbed his arm as he struggled to get out. Once out, he ran to the cliff’s edge and gazed at the beach below.
The figure had followed the black cinder path down to the beach. She’d walked with intent and pushed herself forward against the wind.
She could hear a dog barking.
‘Go back, Teddy. You don’t belong on the beach in this weather.’
The water was freezing. The swirling grey currents dragged her down until eventually she disappeared into the cold depths…
On the cliff’s edge, Charles was struggling to keep his balance. He stared and stared across the wind-swept bay but could see nothing but water.
The morning after the party Charles wakens with a start and is immediately aware of his throbbing head and dry mouth as sunlight floods into the room. Someone must have entered to open the blinds, cruelly exposing him to the brightness.
What bizarre dreams I’ve been having. I dreamed of a time long ago and I found the girl in the red dress from the portrait. I dreamed I was her lover, our love consumed us and we never wanted to be apart. Somehow we were in this house, but it was so strange and different and I had a feeling of evil and the presence of death. And that other woman was in the dream too, Dolores, but she also was a young woman, plain and pallid while her sister was exotic, like a gorgeous rose.
He forces himself up from the bed, splashes water over his face and dresses quickly, unexpectedly determined to face the day and make sense of his feelings.
I must discover more about the history of the house and my family, I’ve heard hints about the reckless behaviour of relatives from the past, and surely these old stories must have some connection with my beautiful lady.
Instinctively this leads him to Dolores; after breakfast he steels himself to approach her.
Dolores scowls at Charles as he enters the office. It looks like she’s busy filing invoices. In her crumpled skirt and brown cardigan, she appears drab and lifeless and he feels something approaching pity as he begins to question her. How old must she be he wonders again; her face is wrinkled and wizened, she is like a dried-out husk.
‘How long have you lived at the Manor?’ he asks.
Dolores doesn’t reply immediately but her face darkens. Eventually she answers reluctantly, ‘Many years, if you must know. I was in service here before the Great War when this place was part of a large estate. Your great Uncle, Lord Asquith, was Master here then, his name was Charles too. My sister and I worked in the kitchens and my brother Ben worked on the farm.’
This last piece of information is imparted with something like a sneer.
‘The girl in the picture, who is she, surely you must know?’ Charles cannot contain his excitement as he continues his inquisition.
Dolores steps away from her filing and gives him a wary glance. He watches her eyes flicker and her mouth tremble as though she is wrestling with her own demons and desires.
Suddenly she seems to relent and sighs deeply before answering him.
‘Yes, that’s my sister Grace, you may as well know the truth, and it seems that no one in the family is going to tell you what went on all those years ago. Grace was really bonny, as beautiful as the picture shows. She had a lovely nature too, kind and giving, she would do anything for anybody. But she was ruined and disgraced; they drove her to her death.’
Charles is stunned and, as he digests this information, a deep silence descends upon the room, only broken by the faint sound of a clock chiming the hour in the hall.
‘So what happened to her?’ he asks, now totally focussed on discovering the truth.
Dolores continues, her gnarled hands twisting a handkerchief as she speaks.
‘Lord Asquith fell in love with Grace when she was a serving maid in the house here. Or rather he claimed he loved her and then took advantage of her, just like they all did in those days. He was after her continually, wouldn’t leave her alone until she gave in to him and then, of course, she fell pregnant and Lady Asquith threw her out. She was desperate, she had nowhere to go; I couldn’t help her. Our mother was dead, our father miles away searching for work; her only option would have been the workhouse. In the end Grace walked into the sea out there.’ She points to the window and says, ‘She and her unborn child died on a wild December evening nearly fifty years ago.’
Charles gasps. So the woman in the red dress must be Grace. It looks as though I’ve fallen in love with a ghost, he thinks.
‘Does her spirit haunt the grounds?’ he demands. He moves into the room a fraction and reaches out to steady himself, his hands gripping tightly around the frame of a chair in front of him.
‘She appears here in December every year, near the anniversary of her suicide on the twenty first of the month – today’s date,’ Dolores continues, her face chalk white. ‘Not everyone can see her though. They say that she wishes to take her revenge on the family. It’s only then will she be able to rest.’
Exhausted by the effort of telling the story, Dolores sinks into a chair next to the fireplace.
‘Please go now, I have said enough,’ she says. ‘Grace is always with me, I treasure her presence. But you, you must beware the darkness.’
Charles stumbles from the office and spends the rest of the day pondering on what he’s been told. An eerie silence descends upon the house once the party guests have departed; dark clouds begin to build and the sun is shrouded from view.
Nightfall will come early on this shortest and most melancholy day of the year.
Charles sits in the library and gazes into the fire, the tongues of flame form wild phantoms in the hearth, twisting and contorting into grotesque shapes as he tries to order his tortured thoughts.
Suddenly he hears a soft tapping at the window. He jumps up but there’s no one there. He returns to his seat with a sense of foreboding. Tap, tap, tap; the noise is more persistent this time. Through the leaded panes he discerns two intensely blue eyes, staring from a luminous face, framed by a dark hooded cape. He blinks momentarily and sees the flash of a red dress. Charles knows he must follow as the spectre beckons him to leave the house and go out into the gathering darkness.
It is Grace, I must follow her; she is my destiny. I have no life, no existence if I do not find my love.
Charles rushes from the house, oblivious to the freezing wind and the sleet that is whirling around the desolate building. He catches glimpses of red as he crashes through the woods while briars and ferns scratch his limbs, slap and tear at his flesh and clothes. His lungs are bursting but he cannot catch Grace, if it is indeed her, the beautiful apparition, enticing him ever onwards.
Unaware of the danger his blundering steps though the forest and thorny undergrowth lead him ever closer to the sea. As he breaks into the open a fitful moonlight illuminates the hooded figure swaying near the cliff’s edge; this time, waiting for him to join her near the deadly drop onto the jagged rocks below. The phantom extends a pale white hand and beckons to him one last time. Too late, he remembers Dolores’ words, ‘She wishes to take revenge on the family … You must beware the darkness …’
Charles knows he is suspended between life and death; he lies immobile on a hospital bed. A portrait hangs on the wall, a beautiful young girl in a red dress. He cannot move his limbs or remember how he came to be here; the only thing he feels is an intense sense of anguish and loss.
He’d thought he had found Grace when they embraced on the cliff’s edge, but then the blackness had come.
Somewhere in the distance he hears muffled voices and phrases – ‘intense depression’, ‘suicidal tendencies’ ‘delusions’.
He feels someone is watching him and opens his eyes in terror. In front of his bed the woman he knows as Dolores is wearing a nurse’s uniform. She’s standing and looking down on him smiling broadly and holding a large syringe. She begins to move implacably towards him.