A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

Moore's short fiction has been published in Best British Short Stories anthologies and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra. This story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'

Alison Moore
Sunday 21 December 2014 01:00 GMT

When Connor died at the age of 13, his sister got his bike. It was a racer and better than her old one. Claire wrote in her diary that she preferred being an only child.

She left the bike and everything else behind when she went to Australia, living there for years until her fiancé broke off the engagement and her widowed father died, leaving her the family home.

She parks her hire car where her parents used to park the family car, the Austin Allegro with its square steering wheel. She feels as if she is intruding.

The house has a date chiselled into the stone above the front door. When Claire was little, she always wanted to know what it said. Her mother told her "1741", but her father would squint up at the stonework and tell her something different every time.

The house is not far from the river that runs through the village. Her mother had become obsessed with the possibility that the river might flood. The emails she sent to Claire in Australia mentioned sandbags. But we don't know how many to get, she wrote. How many will be enough?

There is a spit of rain in the air, and a chill. During her first year in Australia, it seemed strange to spend Christmas Day on the beach, in a bikini, barbecuing the Christmas dinner. Now, with summer left behind on the far side of the world, it is the prospect of a cold Christmas Day that will take some getting used to.

She gets out of the car with her suitcase and leftover food from the funeral that her aunt arranged and at which Claire was like a distant relative, a stranger. She had to keep explaining about her fiancé, and overheard someone using the word "abandoned", which made her sound like a building heading for dereliction.

The bony hedge pokes at Claire as she walks to the front door. She eyes the numbers chiselled into the stone as she passes beneath them, as if not entirely trusting that they will not change.

The hallway is cold. Even in the kitchen, the heart of the home, she can see her breath. She puts the cling film-covered food down near the sink. It is the middle of December but the heating has not been on for a while.

The kitchen radio is on, though. She does not like to think of it having been on with no one to hear it, murmuring away in an empty house. It is tuned to a foreign station. She twists the dial but keeps coming back to this same station, this foreign language – French? She studied French at school, has been to France on holiday many times and can ask for what she wants in French shops and cafés, but standing in her parents' house, listening to what her guts tell her is French, she finds that she cannot understand a word that is being said.

She and her brother used to take turns sitting in the front seat of the Austin Allegro. Connor always wanted the radio on; they had hours and hours of Radio Nostalgie during drives through France. In amongst the unfamiliar French songs were some in English – classics to which Connor knew all the words. Claire remembers him filling his lungs and blasting out "My Way" and her being unable to get him to shut up, however much she yelled and screamed at him, their parents shouting, "Both of you, just stop it!" When Claire was in the front, she turned the radio off and played her cassettes, and Connor complained but there was nothing he could do while it was her turn.

It is surprising that the radio in the kitchen is able to pick up a French station, and that it is unable to pick up anything else.

She puts the kettle on but then finds that the only coffee in the cupboard is decaffeinated and has gone solid in the jar; and there is no milk – everything in the fridge is out of date. She cannot drink black coffee; she needs it milky and sweet. Apart from the funeral food, she has not brought any supplies with her. There are tins in the cupboard but when she tries to use the tin opener it comes apart in her hands, the tiny cogs falling to the floor and getting lost between and behind the units. Standing there in the middle of the kitchen holding on to that unbreached tin, she feels like the blind woman in The Day of the Triffids, clutching a tin of beans that she cannot get into.

Claire turns the radio off and looks out of the window. There used to be a scarecrow in the strawberry patch. Despite being little more than two big sticks lashed together, like a crucifix for warding off vampires or keeping demons at bay, the scarecrow was effective. It is no longer there, though. There are birds on the fence. The swallows and wheatears and chiffchaffs that ought to be long gone by now are still hanging around, in the middle of winter. It isn't right.

"I think," she says to herself, "I shall go for a shower."

Upstairs, in the bathroom, she locks the door even though she is alone in the house. She stands under the drizzling water, which is cold even though the knob is turned to hot. There is shampoo – for dry, damaged hair – but no conditioner, and she hasn't thought to bring her own. Her hair will be hard to untangle; it will dry in knots.

Claire has not worn pyjamas since she was a child, even in winter, but she is finding the house so cold that she regrets not having some with her. She has not been able to get the heating to come on, and has no idea why. She will have to call someone. She digs out one of her mother's old-fashioned nighties and puts that on. Its thin, off-white cotton reaches down to her ankles.

The sheets on her bed are probably clean but she hasn't slept there in so long that she changes them anyway. Her bedroom is long and narrow, like a corridor, no wider than the span of her arms, and next to it is Connor's, which is just the same. They are two halves of what was once one big room, divided down the middle so that Claire and Connor would not have to share. Claire once read an article about spite houses – skinny, ugly constructions built by people holding grudges, people wanting to spoil the view or block the light or otherwise ruin the life of a hated neighbour, often a sibling. Some of them are hundreds of years old and still standing. These narrow and poorly lit rooms are just like that. In hers, now, she feels like Alice grown large in Wonderland, where nothing is quite right.

She tries the door to Connor's room but finds it locked or stuck. She goes back to her own room and gets into bed. On the nightstand, there is a book that she must have been reading when she was last home. She picks it up, puts on her glasses and reads an Edgar Allan Poe story about a dead man whose heart seems still to beat beneath the floorboards. When she turns off the lamp, she remembers how she used to hate this long, dark room at night. She used to call her mother to put the hallway light on. Her bedroom door is ajar but the hallway light is off. Her funeral outfit, hanging on the back of the door, looks like someone standing in the shadows – it looks like herself standing there.

She can't get to sleep. She supposes that she is out of sync, still on Australian time, although she has been awake all day – according to her body clock, the funeral took place in the middle of the night – and she feels tired. When she was younger, she suffered from insomnia and volunteered as a subject in a sleep laboratory. She knows from this experience that she might swear she's been awake all night when in fact she's been asleep. Here, now, she cannot be certain because no one has been watching her sleep.

She becomes aware of the sound of a man talking downstairs. "It's not Dad," she says to herself. Then she catches the French and hears music and understands that it is just the radio, which she thought she had switched off but must not have done. She does not go downstairs; she pulls the covers up to her throat and lies there listening until the room grows light. When she gets up, she feels the way a lack of sleep always makes her feel – a bit thin and unreal.

Author Alison Moore was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 (David Sandison)

Today, she will unpack and then she will begin to feel at home; she will go shopping for fresh food and make a start on the work she has brought with her; and she will start to make the house ready for Christmas. She takes an outfit out of her suitcase and puts it on. Both the top and the trousers are the beige of the sandbags her parents acquired, hoping to hold back the flood. (Where do we have to put them? What should we do about the cat flap?) Her top has a hole in it. She thinks of wet sand seeping out.

She goes downstairs and into the kitchen, where there is still no milk. The kitchen smells wrong. It smells of the river, of water thick with weeds, water in which a sheep once drowned. She empties the bin and clears out the fridge, throwing away the small, uneaten portions, finding nothing that explains that mouldering smell. She checks the cupboards and the utility room which houses the washing machine, the ladder, some tools and her bike, the racer, which has grown rusty. She investigates the washing machine, expecting to find it full of dirty water, but that is not it. She moves the bike and some of the tools, looking for a leak, some rot, but she cannot for the life of her find the source of that smell, the smell of the outside being inside.

Walking into the living room, she finds that she has in her hand the lump hammer from the utility room. She places it on the coffee table and sits down at the piano, which she played as a child – not as well as Connor, but she got more certificates in the end. For a long time, Connor was confined to his bed and, when Claire practised, there was always the worry that she would wake him and then there would be trouble. Now, she lifts her hands to the old ivories, spreads her fingers so that she is poised above a chord, and presses down, but the keys are dead, something inside stuck or broken.

The work she has brought with her is the manuscript of a novel that is pretty much finished, almost ready to be sent out to agents; it is just in need of a final read-through. It is bright outside but dim in the house so she switches on a lamp before sitting down and beginning to read. She has read her novel through on many occasions, making small changes here and there. She is surprised to find that now, perhaps aided by her change of environment, she is seeing all sorts of things that she has never noticed before. Her first page alone is one dreary line after another. With a red pen in her hand, she begins scoring through lines and paragraphs, sometimes whole pages.

In the middle of the afternoon, she goes to look at the funeral food, before returning to her manuscript without having touched a thing. The man in her novel is bothering her. He reminds her of her fiancé, with whom she was going to have children but who, quite suddenly it seemed, had a change of heart.

She works into the evening, yawning as the sky goes dark, making her notes in the margins – cut all this, NO, doesn't work…, doesn't make sense. She throws an entire chapter into the bin and stands up, stretching, pleased to have cut out so much rot. There is more, though, she is sure, which will have to be dealt with another day. Looking at her watch, she sees how late it is and heads to the stairs. On the landing, she realises she is carrying the lump hammer with her.

Despite being so tired, Claire does not sleep well that night, or perhaps she does and only dreams that she is lying awake listening to all the French she seems to have forgotten; lying awake feeling terribly cold; lying awake thinking about her fiancé, her ex, who lives where it is warm and where it is not the middle of the night; lying awake listening to what sounds like birds in the loft, scratching at the floor as if they are trying to burrow through. Just before dawn, she says to the ceiling, "Don't you ever sleep?"

In the morning, Claire walks down to the local shop. But where it ought to be, she finds a housing estate. She is standing staring at the row of private front doors when it starts to rain. She isn't wearing a coat and returns home – eyeing the "1741" as she passes beneath it to enter the house – with her jumper heavy with rainwater, a damp smell rising from her as she stands in the hallway. She smells like the sheep field, as if a gate has been left open and a sheep has got out, got into the house.

Upstairs, Claire peels off her wet jumper. The rain has seeped through to the top she has on underneath, like damp through layers of wallpaper. Her bare forearms are stippled with goose pimples. Standing between the too-narrow walls of this house that feels all wrong, she has a vision, suddenly, of how it should be, of what she will do. Instead of these dark, partitioned rooms, there will be light and space. She has seen it done on television, on the old episodes of Homes Under the Hammer that they show in Australia – an archway knocked through here, a dividing wall knocked down there. She will start now, to make the house ready for Christmas. The lump hammer is on her bedside table. She picks it up, swings it to feel its weight, and then aims it at the partition wall. She thinks of her ex and what he would say if he could see her now. He says things like drongo, gone troppo; he speaks a different language.

This wall dividing her space from Connor's is surprisingly insubstantial; in no time at all, it is nothing but broken plasterboard at her feet. The room is twice the size and full of light now. Connor's bed, standing in one corner, looks bigger than hers, or maybe not bigger but just somehow imposing, as if this room were really his.

But still, there could be more space, more light. She crosses to the far side of the room, where it adjoins the master bedroom, and swings the hammer.

By the time it has grown too dark to see, she is standing by her parents' bed, looking at the wall that separates the bedroom from the bathroom. She has always wanted an en suite. She knows that she should stop. She should eat – she is hungry and wonders if she ate anything the day before; she can't remember. She should sleep. But she can't stop until it is finished; she is a woman possessed.

When she finally rests and looks around, she is astonished by how much she has done. Where there was carpet, there is now rubble and debris, which she has to negotiate to get to the door.

Downstairs, she roots about in the understairs cupboard, looking for the Christmas decorations, finding them at the back, next to a boxed-up, 100-piece train track that Connor would have liked and which was very likely purchased for him but given to her instead. She never played with it much.

She carries the decorations into the living room. She has not yet got a tree but she hangs some tinsel over the mirror and puts some fairy lights around the door. Her mother spent hours shut away in the kitchen every Christmas, cooking so much food it could never all be eaten. Claire has always liked the idea of an open-plan kitchen-living room.

The nights here are long but eventually, from the living room, Claire sees daylight seeping in through the kitchen window.

She puts down the hammer and picks up her manuscript. Leafing through it, she can see that it still needs work. She sits down and takes the lid off her scratchy red biro.

When she finally stops, she is surprised by the amount of red ink on the pages (get rid of this character altogether). Parallel lines slash through her paragraphs like bloody gashes, scoring through the paper itself, taking out three pages in one go.

I'm starving, she thinks. Her stomach aches for food. In the kitchen, the funeral sandwiches and funeral vol-au-vents are still out on the side, but the cling film has been breached by flying shards and the food is covered in plaster dust. She looks at it, at this much-wanted meal that she cannot eat. The radio is on. She turns it off.

It seems to her that she has been awake for days. She goes up to the bedroom. The way it looks reminds her of those houses you sometimes see mid-demolition, with walls missing, the wallpaper in one room clashing with the wallpaper in the next, Connor's 1980s décor jarring between the adjacent rooms' neutral shades, and there is the moss-green, weed-green bathroom showing through that gaping hole she has made. She catches sight of herself in the mirror and is alarmed. Thin, and as dusty as the funeral leftovers, she looks like an exhumed corpse. She runs a bath, but it is cold and leaves her colder than ever. She gets into her bed but, despite her exhaustion, she cannot sleep. Her bedding is scratchy, and she is too hungry, and it is too light. In the end, she climbs wearily out of bed and goes downstairs again.

On the table, there is just the lone title page of her novel. She looks at it and scores a red line through it. In the hallway, she puts on her coat. She will drive to a big supermarket to stock up, and to a DIY superstore for lily-white paint.

She stands on the doorstep, blinking in the weak, winter sunlight. It is snowing. When she and Connor were little, he was always, always the first awake, the one to make footprints in fresh snow. In her teens, though, she was the one to make those marks, the one to leave her footprints. She walks to her hire car and, as she gets in, she glances back at the house and sees that the snow is already settling where she has stepped.

The snowy streets along which she drives are deserted. She doesn't see another soul until she pulls up in front of the 24-hour supermarket. An elderly woman is walking a dog across the empty car park. Claire looks at the lowered shutters and winds down her window, calling out, "Is the supermarket shut?" The woman, concentrating on the slippery tarmac, doesn't hear her and Claire has to raise her voice.

The woman, startled, turns and stares at Claire. "Of course," she says. "Everything's closed for Christmas."

"But it's not Christmas today, is it?" asks Claire. "Yes, dear," says the woman, looking at Claire as if she is mad. "It's Christmas Day."

Claire shakes her head, at the woman, at the supermarket, as if it is the world, rather than herself, that is wrong. She drives back home. It is Christmas and she has no turkey or potatoes to roast, no sprouts or plum pudding to steam. She will have to try again to get into the tins – the soup and the beans. She will have to drink her coffee black, decaffeinated.

She rounds the final bend and brings the car to a standstill in the middle of the road, gaping. Half the house has collapsed. What used to be the living room is just a pile of bricks, burying the tinsel and the fairy lights. She can see the purple of Connor's bedroom wall. Even as she watches, part of the roof comes down. The kitchen has somehow survived, though. The radio is on – she can hear "My Way" blasting out.

This story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales' (curious-tales.com/poor-souls-light.html). Alison Moore's short fiction has been published in Best British Short Stories anthologies and broadcast on BBC Radio 4 Extra. Her first novel, 'The Lighthouse', was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize 2012 and the National Book Awards 2012 (New Writer of the Year), winning the McKitterick Prize 2013. Her second novel, 'He Wants', was published in August

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