Her father had died inside the spindles of a threshing machine. It was sudden, they said, like that was some sort of comfort. Molly didn’t want to leave her home, but her mother said they had no choice. The house had come with her father’s labouring job, and the land owners had to replace him which meant they had to leave. The small terrace house on Sycamore Street was waiting patiently for them as they pulled up. They entered through the green door of number 23 and Molly quickly marked her new home as “dark, dull, and depressing,” and she certainly didn’t want to be there. The long ride from the fresh, open countryside into the murky, claustrophobic city had worn them both out, and then they had to unpack the cart. Sleep that night was made more than welcome.
The next afternoon there were still cloth bags and chests blocking the scant hallway as Molly climbed the creaky wooden staircase to her bedroom. Her mother was still frantically cleaning every crevice of the house, almost oblivious to her surroundings. Molly spent the day putting together her toy theatre made of paper and card that her Aunt Sal had got her last Christmas. She played with the paper figures, defining their characters and imagining new scenes until she was called for supper. Her mother looked tired as they sat down to bread, butter, jam and a full pot of tea in front of the freshly blackened stove. Molly piled her slice of bread with homemade blackcurrant jam and couldn’t fit enough of it in her mouth at once. Her mother told her to wipe her jam encrusted face, and handed Molly one of her hand embroidered napkins. It smelled of tea chests and past times.
Tucked up in her bed that night, Molly shut her eyes and imagined herself back in her old room, small and cosy, with the smell of open fields outside. She drifted off as she remembered the old barn down the track, how she used to help her dad pile up the hay, then leap into its soft, crackly bosom. Her dad laughing at her, trying to maintain his authority whist secretly wishing he could do the same. She leapt into his arms and hugged him so tightly, enough so he wouldn’t leave her again. But then his grip loosened. She held on. What was he doing? She opened her eyes, looking for his smiling face. But it wasn’t there. It was ridged, cold, lifeless. She was on the cold floor of a white room, her father lying there, limp. A jolt went through her making her arms fling themselves away from this body, pulling her further and further away. The dark stranger lay there. Molly sobbed. That wasn’t her father! It wasn’t! She woke bolt upright, sobbing as she was in her dream. Her mother rushed to her side and cradled her within her soft shawl.
“It’s okay, Molly, I’m here,” she whispered.
The next morning Molly was wrapped up in her best coat and made to put on her black gloves.
“It’s getting cold out there, love. Warm hands, warm heart.”
Molly held her mother’s hand very tightly as they walked across the road to the bustling open market. They stopped at the fruit stall for a pound of apples.
“Sweet enough for the best apple pie in the county, ma’am,” said the round man as he poured the autumn gems into her mother’s bag. “I’m sure the young lady will test my claim, won’t you miss?” Molly gingerly looked at the flushed stallholder and wrapped herself round her mother’s arm. They walked through the market, stopping occasionally as her mother eyed the local produce. Molly wasn’t interested. She felt dizzy, her eyes kept open by the bitter breeze that whipped at the stall covers every now and then. She heard a rasping voice, children laughing, then a huge cheer. The colours bounced off her eyes like a bright sunrise. Mr Punch was cracking his truncheon, warning the alligator to keep away.
“That’s the way to do it!” bellowed the raspy voice.
There were a dozen or so children gathered in front of the makeshift theatre with rosy smiles. They cheered as Mr Punch waged a final blow to the alligator which bounced off the stripy stage. Molly laughed. The breeze whipped at her elbow, then she realised her mother wasn’t there. Panic began to rise in her gut. She turned, wide eyed, looking for the familiar figure…
“Hello, my name’s Arabella. What’s yours?”
A girl in a white pinafore with pink flowers stood in front of Molly. She had long black hair and the biggest blue eyes Molly had ever seen. A pink ribbon held her hair away from her face, the breeze trying it’s hardest to dislodge as many wisps as possible. Molly realised her mouth was gaping and forced herself into a kind smile. “I’m Molly. We’ve just moved here.”
“Thought I hadn’t seen you before.” said Arabella, her eyes perusing every detail of this new girl.
Molly looked down at her old grey coat that her dad had bought her last year for her birthday. It was grey and warm, and reached her knees. “Do you live round here then?”
“My dad owns the bakery on Compton Road, just round the back there.” She directed Molly’s gaze with her eyes. “I’ve been told to fetch salt, but I do love Mr Punch, don’t you?”
Molly smiled. “Yes, I love the theatre. My Aunt Sal took me at Christmas last year. I’ve got my own theatre at home.”
“Your own theatre! How do you fit it into your house?” Arabella’s cheeky face warmed Molly as they both giggled at the silly thought.
“You can come and see it if you like. I live over there, number 23,” Molly pointed at the house with the green door. “My mother won’t mind.”
“Number 23?” Arabella exclaimed with such disbelief that Molly’s brow wrinkled quizzically.
“Yes. Why? Don’t you believe me?”
Arabella realised her expression and smiled broadly, almost too broadly. “Oh no, of course I do, silly. It’s just it’s been empty for a while. Didn’t think anyone was ever going to take it.”
“Why wouldn’t they?” said Molly apprehensively.
“Oh, no reason.” Arabella paused, like she was weighing up something in her mind. “It’s just the man that was there before, he … well, he was a bit of a … my mother said he drank too much and I was to keep away from him. Something about war. I don’t know really.”
“Did he live there on his own?” asked Molly.
“No, he had a wife, but I only saw her once, on the market buying a big bunch of comfrey leaves. She must have left him ‘cos she wasn’t with him on the cart when he left. Just him. No one’s lived there since. Must be nearly a whole year now.”
Molly took in the information, but didn’t respond.
“Oh,” Arabella said, breaking the silence, “I’d better get back to the shop. Dad will be annoyed I’ve taken so long.”
“Oh, yes,” stuttered Molly, breaking her thoughts. “It was really nice to meet you. Will you come over to see my paper theatre? Maybe tomorrow?”
“I’d love to. I have to work until four. My dad says I’m the only one who can sweep the floor properly,” Arabella said proudly. “But I could come over after tea if you like.”
“See you then.” Molly’s eyes smiled as Arabella ran towards her shop waving. Had she just made her first friend? A hand on her shoulder made her jump and she whipped round to see her mother’s relieved eyes.
“I thought I’d lost you,” she sighed.
Molly swung on her mother’s hand as they made their way across the street to number 23. She felt warm. The breeze didn’t bother her any more.
Through the green door the smell of the unfamiliar house greeted them.
“Now, go and find me the pie dish,” said her mother, “I’ve got an apple pie to make for tea. It’s in the cellar in one of the tea chests.” Molly smiled at the thought of her mum’s apple pie. She slipped off her coat and took a candle from the mantle. Her mother lit it for her. Molly opened the old wooden cellar door. The black patchy latch was cold. The musty smell filled her nostrils and the damp air settled on her face. She walked into the gloomy darkness, the candle lighting a hazy circle of mottled bricks and spider webs as she turned the corner and felt for the stairs. Her hand passed over the coarse brickwork, prickling at her fingers. She descended the stone steps, her shoes crushing the sand like dust with each step. As she got further down something felt different. She stopped and held the candle upwards into the emerging room. The dark space glimmered dully in the circle of light. There was nothing there, just the old tea chests. She got to the bottom of the steps and shivered. It made her spine rattle, like all the nerves had jumped inside her at once. She walked over to the tea chests and put her hand inside one, scrabbling around in the inky newspapers.
Suddenly she couldn’t breathe. Her body went numb, and her knees left her. She fell, crumpled to the floor, the candle clunked to the ground and she was in darkness. She tried to shout out but no sound would emerge. She pushed at the floor but she couldn’t stand. Something was holding her there, holding her down. Her ears were screaming at her, a desperate, begging scream. She closed her eyes trying to block out the sound. The weight round her throat constricted further. Her eyes bulged open with fear. She wanted so desperately to scream, just scream. The wailing in her ears pierced the darkness; she pleaded with herself to do the same. Frantic, her voice escaped in explosive terror.
She lurched up, springing through the black air. Away. Away from there. Her feet found the stairs – she didn’t know how – and she scrambled up, feeling the gritty ground beneath her splayed hands, grasping for the top, for the door, the latch, away from the pursuing dark.
The cellar door burst open into the kitchen. Molly hung there holding the latch, breathing hard, gasping at the stewed apple air. Throwing down the cutlery in her hands, her mother rushed to her. Molly could feel her mother’s tight grip on her shoulders, but it was like they weren’t really there. No. It was like she wasn’t really here. She sobbed hard as her mother guided her to a chair and sat her down, unable to answer the questions through her uncontrolled breath. Eventually her mother held Molly’s blotchy cheeks in her warm hands, feeling the cold sweat on her terrified daughter’s face.
“Tell me!” her mother urged.
Molly sobbed as she spoke. “Something grabbed me, mother. Something’s down there. It held onto me. It screamed in my ears. I couldn’t breathe. Something’s down there.” She sobbed into her mother’s neck, her body convulsing with fear and relief.
That night Molly got into bed. As her mother drew the curtains in her bedroom, Molly slipped into her cold bed and drew the covers round her shoulders. Her mother sat beside her and stroked her mousey fringe.
“My beautiful girl,” said her mum, as her eyes searched Molly’s face. “We’ll be all right here, you know,” she said reassuringly. “Just you and me.” Her mother’s kiss was warm on her forehead. She smelled of apple pie, cosy and safe. Sleep took over quickly.
Molly woke again to the sound of the dark groaning house, cracking and creeping with corner of your eye noises. Alone. Only the street lamp shadow of her room was watching her. She hid under her covers until morning peeped through the drapes.
At four o’clock the next day Arabella was standing on the doorstep of number 23, the house she was always told to keep away from. Molly let her in and introduced her to her mother. They went up to Molly’s bedroom and set up the toy theatre.
“Where did you live before?” said Arabella.
Molly placed the main character into one of the side slots of the tiny theatre. “On a farm. My dad worked there.” She stopped. She had to. “Let’s do The Miller’s Maid. Do you know it?”
“Not really. But you can direct me, like I’m a proper actress.” Arabella knelt closer to the side of the theatre and picked up a stick with a paper lady stuck on the end. “Can I be this one?” she asked.
“You’re the leading lady then. I’ll be the man.” Arabella giggled at the thought. Molly smiled as she pulled the red curtain up from the front slot of the theatre making the sounds of a triumphant fanfare as she did so. “Ladies and gentlemen,” said Molly in her grandest voice, “Welcome to this evening’s performance of The Miller’s Maid.” Molly positioned her leading man centre stage. “My Lords,” said Molly in gruff voice, which made Arabella giggle again. “I welcome you to my humble home here in the land of…” Molly broke off in fits of laughter, mirroring Arabella. They enacted a play far from any ever seen before and made their paper people take a bow as the stiff red screen lowered.
“I know,” said Arabella, “let’s make a den.” “Yes!” said Molly excitedly, grabbing the covers off her bed. “Have you got any boxes we can use?” asked Arabella. “Only ones in the cellar,” said Molly, “but …”
“Well let’s go get them then.” Arabella said as she got up. Molly hesitated. She looked at Arabella, stuck between wanting to please her new friend and not wanting to go into that cellar again.
“What’s wrong?” said Arabella, looking into Molly’s worried face. “Nothing. I just don’t like it down there,” said Molly. “Why? It’s only a dusty old cellar with a few spiders. You’re not afraid of tiny spiders are you?” Arabella’s eyes smiled and she held out her hand to Molly, eager to get going. “Come on.”
Molly felt silly. She couldn’t tell Arabella what had happened, it would make her look like a baby. She got up and took Arabella’s hand. They clambered down the stairs into the kitchen. Her mother was hanging washing in the back yard. Molly stopped at the cellar door, unsure.
“Silly,” said Arabella, who pushed past her and undid the latch. The cold air hit Molly in the face as she watched her friend descend the steps. “Got a candle? It’s dark down here,” Arabella’s voice floated from nowhere. Molly grabbed a candle from the mantelpiece and lit it from the embers of the stove. She followed Arabella’s footsteps and found her in the middle of the stone stairs, the candle flickering at her pale features. They tiptoed down to the dark expanse of the cellar, lighting up the boxes as before. Something wisped at Molly’s neck and she turned abruptly, holding back a squeak as she did so.
“You really don’t like it down here do you?” said Arabella. “It is a bit spooky I suppose.”
“Something strange happened down here yesterday, that’s all. It was nothing though,” said Molly unconvincingly while she drew the dust covers off some of the old tea chests, hunting for a suitable box for their den.
“Look, what’s that?” said Arabella stood by the far wall staring at the brickwork. Molly brought the candle closer and looked where Arabella’s gaze was locked. Within the mess of cement encasing the red bricks there was a hole.
“Looks like the brick’s broken in half or crumbled,” said Arabella as she crouched to the floor. “But there’s nothing down here.” Arabella stood and ran her hand over the rough mortar. “Strange. Give me the candle.”
Molly handed the candle over, glad to let her friend investigate. Arabella held the candle to the hole and stood on her toes, straining for a better view. “It’s a hole!” she cried. “There’s a big cave on the other side.” Arabella poked the candle into the small hole trying to light up whatever was beyond it. “I can’t see anything. It’s too dark. Here, take this.”
Molly took the candle back. “Just leave it, come on, let’s go,” she said.
“No, I want to see what’s behind here.” Arabella stuck her small hand through the hole and into the dense blackness beyond. “Ooh, it’s cold,” she giggled. Then, suddenly, eyes wide, Arabella grabbed at her own hand. “Molly, help!” she cried, “help me!”
Molly pulled at her friend’s arm. It was stuck. They both pulled and pulled, but something pulled back. “Help me!” cried Arabella, tears streaming down her pale face.
“Push away, Arabella. Push!” Molly kept on pulling, unsure what to do. She was about to run for her mother when Arabella was freed. They both landed in a heap on the cold cellar floor. They shared a shocked look and both jumped up and scrambled to the top of the stairs. Molly pulled at the latch but it wouldn’t budge. Arabella joined in, they pulled and pulled. Molly screamed for her mother, but nothing. Something was coming at them from the stairs. It was dark. The candle extinguished in the flurry to escape. Something was there, getting closer.
“Mum! Mum!” screamed Molly at the locked door. Arabella clung to Molly, shaking, sobbing. The thick blackness was nearly to them. Just another step and it would be on them. The girls backed further into the corner of the door frame, willing there to be more room for them to escape, both scraping breath from the musty air. It was there! In front of them. It was there!
The door opened and the girls fell into the kitchen. Molly’s mother stared in disbelief at the heap of sweaty sobbing piles of dirty clothes at her feet. “What on earth are you both doing?”
“Mum, it’s down there, something, that thing, whatever it is. I don’t know. Something behind the wall. There’s something there. Mum, please.” Molly garbled. Arabella was clinging to Molly’s dress, her face buried in the dirty white cloth, shuddering shoulders and cobwebbed hair.
Molly’s mum shut the cellar door. “From now on you’re not to go down there, do you hear?”
“But mum, there’s something down there. We can’t stay here. Please get it out!” Then she noticed it, the black figure in the kitchen door. Slowly it turned as it entered the room. Molly got up from the floor ridged with fear. Arabella, still attached to Molly’s dress, followed her ascent. They both stared.
“Well, I’m sure I’ve never heard of such a fuss,” said the figure.
“Molly, this is Mrs Aston, our neighbour.” Molly’s mum shot a look that said ‘be polite.’ Molly didn’t say anything, but wiped her face with the cuff of her dusty dress. Arabella stood, staring at the kitchen floor where she’d just been.
Mrs Aston’s crumpled face studied Molly. “Well child, pleased to make your acquaintance, I’m sure.” Molly remembered herself, partly due to her mother’s look which said everything.
“Pleased to meet you Mrs Aston,” said Molly, curtsying. She’d never curtseyed before, but she felt this looming presence warranted it. Mrs Aston’s face crawled into a smile, her wrinkles making way for her yellowing teeth. She walked further into the kitchen, her stiff dress crinkling as she whooshed with every slow step. She sniffed the air, like there was something there, but she wasn’t sure what. “I just wanted to introduce myself, seeing as we’re neighbours now. It’s nice to have someone next door at last.”
Molly’s mum fussed into action.
“Can I offer you some tea, Mrs Aston? Please, sit down.” Mrs Aston gracefully took to a seat while Molly’s mum sorted the tea things.
“I do hope I’m not imposing,” said the old woman as she leaned her black gilded walking stick against the kitchen table. “I saw you in the yard and thought it a good opportunity.”
“Of course,” Molly’s mother said graciously. “We are neighbours after all, you should call any time.”
“You are kind. It is hard sometimes, on my own for so long in that house, since my husband died. Not much to do nowadays. Not much I can do,” the old woman smiled, then turned to Molly. “And you, young lady, and your friend there,” Arabella was still staring at the kitchen floor. Molly was stuck rigidly, not knowing if she was allowed to move, or if she dare. “What game has got you in such a tiz, hmm?”
“Oh,” Molly hid a shiver. She saw her mother’s monitory glance towards her. “Nothing. We just … saw a spider is all.”
“Oh, spiders won’t hurt you. More scared of you than you are of them.” The old woman chuckled once, like it was stuck in her throat.
“How long have you lived her, Mrs Austin?” asked Molly’s mother.
“Oh, for as long as is long,” replied Mrs Austin. “I moved here when I married. My husband has been gone for ten years now. But we still talk.”
Molly caught her mother’s gaze as the tea things were placed on the table with precision. “Sit down, both of you.” She said. Both girls obeyed.
“You still talk to your dead husband?” said Molly. “How?”
“Molly!” said her mother.
“No, no, it’s all right dear. No, we still talk. He visits me every so often and we catch up round the table.”
“Oh.” Molly said, unsure how to respond to such an explanation.
“Yes, my gift has spared some of my grief, for which I am grateful. You must attend one of my evenings, dear.”
Molly’s mother shifted uneasily, but busied herself with pouring tea. “Oh, thank you. I’m not sure …”
“Oh nonsense, dear. It’s nothing to be scared of. Spirits are just echoes of the past. You should see them as comforting.”
Molly could see her mother’s eyes glisten as she drew a napkin to her face. “My husband is not long passed and I don’t think it best to …” she stopped abruptly, hiding her face in her napkin. Molly went to her and cradled her shoulders.
“I’m so sorry, my dear. I didn’t realise. How terribly insensitive of me. And I claim to be a psychic! Ha!”
“No, please, you weren’t to know,” said her mother, stroking Molly’s arm. “We are getting on aren’t we Mol?”
Molly nodded, then stared at the old woman who’d upset her mother.
“It’s okay,” said her mother.
“Did you know your previous neighbours well, Mrs Austin?”
“Oh no. Well, not really. Not like this. They never had anyone in to entertain. No children. Hardly saw them. My husband used to see him stumbling back from the ale house, The Alma down the road there, every night. Hardly saw his wife, except at the market sometimes. Timid girl. Didn’t say much. You heard her at night though. My God, you heard her.” The old woman stopped, lost in a memory, her eyes saddened by the thought. “Anyway, he left on a cart a few months ago. She must have gone ahead of him. Or she left him. I didn’t see her to say goodbye either way.”
Mrs Austin finished her tea and collected her walking stick before rising. Molly’s mother followed. “I mustn’t hold you up any longer, dear. Thank you so much for the tea, and you really must visit whenever you like.” The woman moved towards the back door. Molly stood in front of her mother. “And you, girl, keep out of that cellar, away from those spiders.” She bent forward to Molly’s ear, her musty smell intensifying as she got closer, and whispered “Some things are best left unexplained to those that believe, child.” Molly’s nerves shivered. Mrs Austin’s foreboding eyes told more than her words. The dark figure turned and left for the gate in the back yard.
“What a nice woman,” said her mother.
Molly shuffled down the pavement, slowly but determined. Her old feet hadn’t given up on her yet and she was adamant they wouldn’t either. Her daily walk to the Compton Road shops kept them in check, and the steps in her modern apartment block made sure they worked hard. She walked past the market hall and remembered when it was all open air, no fancy roof, and the Punch and Judy shows she so used to enjoy when she was a girl. Her primary school class weren’t as impressed when she’d taken them to Blackpool for the day. Still, they’d all be in their 30s now and might appreciate it if only for historical reference. As she approached the newsagents on the corner she spied her old street, Sycamore Street, marked for demolition three years ago. Finally they were reducing it to rubble in front of her eyes. She remembered her mother always cleaning that step below the green door, proud as she was. In the newsagents Molly picked up a pint of milk and a local paper and stepped towards Mr Singh. “Morning Mrs Brown, lovely day.”
“Oh yes. It seems to cheer the pigeons anyway. Had one on my windowsill this morning, pure white he was, looking for crumbs.”
“Cheeky beggar!” said Mr Singh. “I hope you told him where to go, young miss.”
Molly brushed off the shop keeper’s sly blandishment with her hand. “Oh I don’t mind. He was quite beautiful actually. Had a story in his eyes, I could tell.”
Mr Singh fed the cash register some numbers and it rang out in a song of fiscal pride. “Not much in there,” he pointed to the Star Gazette on the counter. “All doom and gloom. Best not to bother with it if you want to keep that rosy smile.”
“I don’t really read it. I only get it for the crossword, and that usually takes me all week!”
Molly bid her local friend good morning. Leaving the shop, milk and newspaper safely in her red shopping bag, she gazed one last time at old Sycamore Street, nearly all gone. “Things move on I suppose.”