Edition 14: Eleanor Atkins is Dead and Her House is Boarded Up by Kaaron Warren
Eleanor Atkins lives in a house with the Others, and has for her entire adult life. Looking back, she starts to ask herself questions about her life that don’t have easy answers. SY
When Eleanor Atkins dreams, it is of ordinary things. Going to church and organising the woollens for the jumble sale. Sorting the tins in her cupboard and finding too much pineapple and beetroot, not enough peaches. Small and ordinary things she misses terribly. Once she was the Queen of her street, knowing all, seeing all from her kitchen at Number Two. Who is late out, late in, how much shopping, who has a visitor in the daytime, who Should Not Be There.
Eleanor misses these things.
She’s always inside. She feels as if she’s been inside all her life, although she does know the smell of a wet dog so surely? Once? She was out.
Of course she used to go outside. Hadn’t she and her husband spent a year travelling the country in a caravan for their honeymoon? Jindabyne, Ballarat, Coober Pedy, Rockingham. She collected coasters from every pub.
And they ate at every Chinese restaurant from Ming’s Palace to Ming’s Garden, from Dragon’s Garden to Golden Dragon, honeyed prawns with their fingers.
That was when they were wild and free.
That was a long gone time, long ago, far away and much beloved, much missed and lost.
She wonders if she is in limbo, eternally waiting, but a trip out for groceries always brings her back to reality. She does go out! People would miss her if she didn’t. Limbo is a place you can live out your fantasies, and while she is happy, very happy, at home, there are many fantasies unfulfilled. She’d wanted to be a fashion designer. She’d wanted to travel the world but they’d never managed that. The trip around Australia for their honeymoon and the rare weekend to Berry or to Newcastle was all.
She’d wanted to live on a cliff top.
She’d wanted to learn to dance, and to meet famous authors.
She had done none of those things.
But she was happy.
She was happy. Music played for her all day, exactly suiting her mood and there were magazines to read and she didn’t have to hide her romance novels now Charles was dead.
She was happy in the house.
They were always happy.
Her husband Charles had parked the caravan in the driveway after their honeymoon and there it sat for many years. It was a Godsend, a place for her to escape, find peace and quiet for a while before the children were at her again.
Children. She never told Charles she didn’t want any. He had a disinterest in sexual relations she found disappointing. He went about it methodically, dutifully, kindly asking each time if she was all right afterwards. It seemed a shame. In her romance novels, the ones she kept in the kitchen cupboard in the caravan, the physical side was exciting. Uplifting.
It was the ghosts who showed her such.
She’d been aware of something within a week of moving in. She thought it was the memory of the woman who’d died there. Her smells, and an echo of her habitual movements through the house (you could set your clock by her, the neighbours said. Out to shop every morning at 9.15. Clothes and children always in by 4. Watering the garden at 4.30 in the afternoon unless it was raining in which case the vacuum cleaner would be heard. Eleanor didn’t want to be such a person.)
There were hints of Others. The water running cold when she was in the shower, alone in the house. The smell of toast when none was cooking. The sound of toenails being clipped. And sometimes, murmured voices. Strangely, all this gave her comfort, although it meant that her niece refused to sleep over, with or without indulgent hot cocoa at bedtime.
She remembered on their trip around the country, how sometimes she thought she saw people by the side of the road, or in the creeks, and yet nothing was there. Sometimes Charles agreed. Certainly he never dismissed her out of hand and she loved him for that.
She began to see them when she’d lived in the house a year.
By then they had settled into something of a routine. Charles wasn’t keen on visitors but was willing to do his duty, so there were subdued dinner parties once a month.
“Such a happy feeling in this house,” people always said, and somehow there was. Towels seemed to straighten themselves, and the fruit never rotted, and there was always a sweet scent in the air. Eleanor wondered if there was soap or pot pourri in secret compartments in the house and would sometimes search.
Charles ensured they performed their marital duties in a timely way as well. She found a pamphlet in his bedside table entitled “Using the Rhythm Method to Encourage Pregnancy”. She felt guilty about the contraception she secretly used but not guilty enough to stop it.
Even these dutiful interactions began to lessen and she wasn’t sure she missed it. One neighbour confided that she took four aspirin before ‘the act’ and while Eleanor had never felt that way, there was a certain tedium about it.
Until one afternoon. She’d been out shopping, came back with armloads of food for the new freezer. She was bent over, stacking it in, when she felt something press against her.
She turned, surprised, thinking perhaps a dog had snuck in. Next door had a very cheeky Labrador.
Eleanor looked for the dog in the house, thinking to shoo him outside.
Her bedroom door stood open and she thought it had been closed. It happened often, like the towels, the toast. Mr and Mrs Nobody, she and Charles joked.
Mr Nobody stood between the twin beds. Naked, his skin smooth, feathered with light red hair. She had never seen a man naked, front or back. Charles slid under the covers and removed his underwear that way.
The fascination outdid horror for a moment. Then she gasped, stepped back, thinking to run outside and call the police next door, not from here because….he turned.
She felt a burn from head to toe. Lost all terror. He smiled, genuine, gentle. His penis rose, hard, smooth, to his stomach and she could not help but wonder what it felt like to touch. He stepped toward her and she could smell him, like cinnamon, warm, spicy, and he pressed up against her for such a brief moment before he disappeared she thought she must be dreaming.
That pressure against her pelvis.
It felt like she needed to go to the toilet but she didn’t. This was something else.
That night, she gave Charles a large glass of whiskey and at bedtime, slipped into his bed determinedly.
They both enjoyed themselves very much, although he was shame-faced in the morning.
For him, sex was about procreation. God made it pleasurable for the sake of the human race, not for the sake of pleasure. He told her this when they got engaged so that she would understand he would not be making demands.
She did not confess the other, that she had no desire for children, did not want.
They did not speak of the night, yet he gave her shy looks. She liked that.
Eleanor didn’t think of herself as suggestible. She went out to work because she wanted her own life, and no one could say she was a doormat. She told her work friends about being childless by choice and felt proud of that.
But she started to hear the sweetest baby noises in the house. Cooing, laughing, “Mama” and it made her clucky. She caught Charles looking at the “Famous Baby” special pictorial in one of her women’s magazines, and he had tears in his eyes.
“I hope it’s not my fault,” he said. “But I know it can’t be yours. You are too perfect.”
She hadn’t seen the red-haired lover again for a while, but he appeared that night, pressing hard against her in the bathroom until she gasped in pleasure.
And the babies cooing.
And each night he came to her and she was such a character of routine (how had that happened? How had she become that?) that she was thrown off and did not take her pill, and each night she climbed in with Charles and made him play in the dark, because light would make it too real.
And she did fall pregnant.
The house became happier with each new child.
There were three. A girl and two boys.
Always children in the house, although mostly outside, no matter how welcome inside Eleanor tried to make them.
In the end she gave up and had Charles build a cubby house out the back and all the neighbourhood children loved that.
Still, one of them spoke to the priest. He invited himself for a visit, a rare thing indeed.
“I’ve heard words about an evil presence here,” the priest said. “What have you seen?”
They both shook their heads, but Eleanor wondered: What had Charles seen? Did he have a female version of her ginger lover?
“Still,” the priest said, “It won’t hurt to run a blessing through the house. It can only help!”
The children played peacefully outside. She cooked two batches of Anzac Biscuits, one for them, one for the priest. He did like a biscuit and you wouldn’t dare give him a packet one.
The priest said over his cup of tea, “I admit I am surprised by this. Your home has always seemed one of the happiest in the congregation. It’s hard to imagine there are evil spirits here.”
“Are all spirits evil?” Eleanor asked.
“Some of them seem benign,” he said. “But they are feeding off your soul.”
She felt unable to bear the priest’s voice. And worried for her ghosts.
She stood with her arms wide and they came to cling to her. It was awful, far worse than the wet and muddy children. She felt as if flesh fused.
She pushed open the wire door (it always stuck) and walked into the backyard, where she picked up the gardening shears and went to work on the rosebushes.
“Good idea,” the priest called. “You’re better off out there.”
She watched him through the windows. He moved from room to room, candles, incense, wailing. Charles followed, and some parishioners there, nasty old ladies who’d shifted churches because the new priest over there let the aboriginals in, and the homeless. He called it a Community Church and they were so offended they left in droves, over to this priest, who loved to be spoilt, as priests should, and believed in the opulence of the church and that there must be a separation of us and them, that birds of a feather should flock together.
The priest was sure he’d removed them all. She’d asked him (and they were still clinging to her. They didn’t want to let go),“Who were they? Can you tell?”
“We can’t know. Perhaps past tenants, or spirits simply drawn to this place. Unfinished business may keep them here, or perhaps a great terror of the afterlife. This is why we should not sin. If we pass without sin, we have no fear of death but welcome the blessed relief of the Lord’s arms.”
“Amen,” Charles said. He was pink in the face, excited but calm. He made them all a hot chocolate and gave her two lamingtons, although they usually watched her weight.
She had a miscarriage, which was devastating, but as everyone said, it was God’s way. The baby was deformed and would only have lived a short while. Maybe five years. Or ten. They would not be happy years. Everyone said that.
Still they wept and Charles wondered what they had done. What SIN they had committed to deserve that. He was a good man, and he blamed himself, really. He thought he had not been good enough.
He thought it was because they had lied to the priest about the ghosts, pretending they saw nothing.
The priest never properly answered her question about the evil of ghosts. Certainly they didn’t seem that way. They were so needy, for one thing. Can evil be needy? When they’d gone to Queensland for a holiday while the neighbours came in and cleared away all the baby stuff so she wouldn’t be reminded, on return, life was so sweet they forgot the trauma. “Life is like a marshmallow,” one of the boys said.
The ghosts loved company. If she left it too long before inviting people over, they’d somehow fill her with loneliness, and soon the house would be full again.
She did wish she could talk to them, the spirits that kept her happy. She saw them sometimes (oh, her beautiful red-haired man) and of course she heard them, but she wished for conversation. “Who are you?” she’d ask.
Charles gave up on the priest and the church (How could a loving god, was his reason) and they enjoyed many years of soirees, and parties. He was a freer man without religion, and sometimes they would watch travel shows and actually contemplate living elsewhere, but that night bed would be warmed, even without an electric blanket, and gentle singing lulled them to sleep, and thoughts of departure left.
Once the children moved out, they rarely came home again. Christmas and birthdays, but somehow always slept elsewhere and set up the trestle tables outside for meals, “Your beautiful garden,” so that Eleanor and Charles were happy when they’d left, although they’d never admit this. Eleanor didn’t ask them if they saw the ghosts. She assumed they must and were jealous.
Grandchildren. They had four (or was it five? Sometimes the facts eluded Eleanor) when Charles fell ill. Eleanor and the ghosts cared for him for some time, but then her daughter came and quite forcibly removed him to the hospital.
It was a week before Eleanor visited and even then she was reluctant. The house had filled his gap like treacle.
It was strange to be so far from home.
He was tiny in the hospital bed, a shrunken nothing of a man. He cried when he saw her and she did the same. How long had it been since she wept? It felt good, very good.
He said, “Not long for me, Eleanor. That’s pretty clear. The kids have sorted out all the boring stuff. They’re good kids.”
She didn’t want to hear it. She felt anxious, wanting to be home to check on the house plants. “Let’s go home, then. You can’t die here. You just can’t. Don’t you want to come home?”
“No,” he said. “And I want you to stay here. Never go back.”
“Eleanor, the scales have fallen. That isn’t such a good place. We should sell up. Move you into a nice apartment anywhere you like, Eleanor. Anywhere at all. The kids will help.”
They were there, all three at her, at her, Mum, you should do it, please, but she’d seen on TV buildings collapsing. Robberies. Murders.
She didn’t want any of that.
Charles seemed like a stranger. It felt odd they had been married 50 years. She felt as if she barely knew him.
They had her sign his will and she hated them all. “How dare you?” she said, but it was true.
He did pass away.
Her daughter said, stay with us. We’ll buy you all new things, something beautiful for Dad’s funeral. But she had been gone five days. Already she felt loss, just being away that long.
They wouldn’t drive her so she got a taxi. There was always plenty of money. She’d find banknotes hidden in books. Piles of change at the front door.
The moment she walked in she felt safe and happy and not lonely at all. The air was fresh, as if some kind person had kept it open.
Her ghosts kept her safe. The phone would ring and it was her daughter, who said her own phone had rung. “How are you, anyway?” her daughter would say. Any time she came to visit, Eleanor thought she was sizing up the place. Deciding what walls to knock down. Where the dining table might go.
She thought Eleanor should go into a village, for the company.
“I have plenty of company,” Eleanor said. They played cards some nights, she and the ghosts or they’d all sit together on the couch and watch love stories. She liked the ones with a little bit of cheekiness, she called it.
Eleanor Atkins dreamt of ordinary things. She wasn’t sure how long it had been. A long time, now.
There was a knock at the door. Joan from across the road calling out, “Coo-eee, Eleanor Atkins!” as she always did.
Eleanor liked Joan and was keen to catch up. They spent an afternoon at the kitchen table, where they had spent many hours in the past.
“How is your home?” Eleanor asked. “Is it still happy?” She wondered who it was who kept the other happy houses that way. Every happy home must have ghosts.
As she left, Joan said, “I’m glad you’re back, anyway. We were worried. How to set our clocks each day without you and your routine!”
It was a joke, but it startled Eleanor. After Joan left, she sat in the darkening house.
She hadn’t meant to be that person, the one of routines.
She was going to be a fashion designer and still had a trunk full of beautiful material.
She’d done some time at the technical college, before they moved in to this house, and she had identified her individual style; Aussie Country Swish. Clothing to wear to the country races, with a skirt that could be lifted high off the filthy toilet floor and out of the mud.
She sat on the floor and touched the material, drawing pieces together, some vague spark reminding her of who she used to be.
It was silken and soft, although marred with silverfish holes and the faint smell of mold. She realised she had not opened this box in decades.
She dreams of ordinary things.
Eleanor Atkins is dead and her house is boarded up. She left it to a distant relative, long-forgotten, hard to find; that was the paper her husband had her sign. The relative could not be found, not in the short-term, so they boarded the house up. None of the children wanted to live there.
Squatters did. A group of six, of eight, of four.
They were very happy there.
Very happy indeed.
Bram Stoker Nominee and Shirley Jackson Award winner Kaaron Warren has lived in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Fiji. She’s sold many short stories, three novels (the multi-award-winning Slights, Walking the Tree and Mistification) and four short story collections. Through Splintered Walls, won a Canberra Critic’s Circle Award for Fiction, two Ditmar Awards, two Australian Shadows Awards and a Shirley Jackson Award. Her story “Air, Water and the Grove” will appear in Paula Guran’s Year’s Best Dark Fantasy and Horror. Her latest collection is The Gate Theory.
You can find her at http://kaaronwarren.wordpress.com/ and she Tweets @KaaronWarren