Short Stories

A Place of One’s Own

Highly Commended Award through the Ghostly Stringybark Short Story Competition and published in the Ghostly Stringybark Anthology (2015)

 

A daylight haunting was the last thing he expected although he shouldn’t have been that surprised. Not after he’d seen Mrs McGinty’s cat sitting on the veranda and washing itself two weeks after it’d been scraped off the main road.

But he smelt this one first. Not smelt the actual ghost itself you understand, but what it was doing. Which was stoking a fire. A fire in an old chimney that was the only remnant of a stone cottage long tumbled down and forgotten; it stood erect, the trees and shrubs growing up and around it like walls. The sharp tang of smoke had caught at his nostrils as he’d climbed the hill to the small clearing; surrounded by loose rocks and gum trees it was the perfect place for the cubby he wanted to build. For he’d had enough of home; the demands of homework, his tired mother fussing over the younger children and the fact that there wasn’t a room in the house free of human noise. Nowhere to go to, nowhere to escape all that kafuffle except up here.

He was surprised when he first smelt it, thought that perhaps someone else had gotten here first. A tramp? But when he arrived at the clearing he saw nothing but the usual fireplace. At least that was all he saw initially. The smell of smoke hung heavily in the air but, actually, he couldn’t see any smoke come to think of it. So where was the smell coming from? He stepped in closer to the fireplace to explore. The sandstone blocks were still in place and within the grate lay the remnants of fires past, logs half burnt, now interspersed with tufts of green growing up through the cracks in the stonework. Aside from that though, nothing new. Certainly not a fire that had just been doused at the sound of intruding footsteps.

He was about to walk away when he realised he was cold. And it was a funny sort of realisation to have; for one minute he was warm and puffing from the climb uphill, then the next he was freezing and his ears burned. The sun was still shining and there wasn’t any wind so why was he so terribly cold all of a sudden?

He kicked the logs in the grate and bent down to scrounge around in the ashes. It was then that he felt a hard poke in the back. He turned around and lost his feet, falling forward onto the grass. What the hell was that? He stood up and looked around for the tell-tale snigger of his siblings. Sneaky little buggers, had one followed him up here? Nope. Nothing. But the poke in the back had hurt; his skin still throbbed from the pressure. He didn’t, he hadn’t imagined it.

The coldness now crept around his mind; what if it was something else? Like what? Another ghostly cat? More likely to be a disgruntled wombat with a sharp claw than a ghost. But wombats didn’t move that fast, nor did they give solid jabs in peoples backs. No, this was different. It felt different. It was a poke; an unfriendly poke meant to move him on, get him out of the way. But why?

He turned around again and looked into the ashes; bent over to stir them with his feet. Then he heard it, a distinct clearing of the throat. An impatient sound made by a man who was getting ready to growl. He spun around and this time his skin reacted quicker than his mind as goose-bumps gabbled up over his body.

“Who’s there?” he said, into the trees and shrubs which twittered with mocking birds. Silence. Of a sort. Noises of everyday bush things of course but nothing else. But now he stood his ground. Something was going on here. But what? Was it to do with the fireplace?

He backed closer up against it and felt something. Warmth. A slow steady warmth that soon spread through his calves and then up his back thighs. But he daren’t turn around. For he knew that the fire wasn’t lit, and that the smell and sensation of it therefore were not real. Not happening. Not actually believable unless of course it was…well, could a fire be a ghost?

It was then that he saw the shimmer; accompanied by a gravelly cough and the sound of boots shifting on floorboards. Then slowly, with the gums as wallpaper, he saw the figure of an old man sitting in a chair; grizzled beard, a shabby hat and dirty trousers with a kerchief around his neck. And, most importantly of all, a whopping big stick in his hand which he now passed right through Tom and used to poke the embers.

Tom hurriedly stepped out of the way.

“Who invited you?” the old man growled, and his form became distinct with his speech.

“Um, no one…I just…I just…”

“Stop snivelling and spit it out,” said the old man, and withdrew his stick from the fire and pointed it menacingly at Tom, the end of it glowing red. ‘Whose boy are you?’

“No-one’s boy,” stammered Tom. “I mean my name is Tom and I live down-“

“Down the hill. Yeah, I know that bit already,” said the old man. “Seen you up here before.”

“Oh,” said Tom, and felt a thrill of something make his heart beat faster still. To have been watched when you didn’t know it was quite unsettling. Especially if the eyes watching were dead.

“So now you come prying around here, disturbing my fire and rest. Wot for?”

“I just wanted to look,” said Tom, a little defensively.

“Why?” said the old man.

“Wanna be by myself,” said Tom, in a rush of honesty.

“And you think my hearth is the place fer you?” said the old man, leaning forward and peering intently at Tom.

“I didn’t exactly know it was your hearth,” said Tom.

“You’ve got eyes in your head. And a nose. This place is mine. And I’m not the sharing type.”

“But you’re…well, don’t mean to be rude, but you’re dead.”

“So?” snapped the old man.

“So it’s not like you really own it anymore. Or need it,” said Tom.

“And what do you know about being dead?” said the old man. “In case it hasn’t occurred to you, there’s more of us dead than living.”

Tom looked at him in confusion. “So…”

“What I’m trying to tell you boy, is that it’s crowded here.”

“Crowded?”

“Yes you dunderhead. Crowded. And I can’t stand it. The complaining, the sulking about missing families and the like. Too much for a man to bear. That’s why I’ve come back. And that,” said the old man, raising the stick and pointing it again at Tom, “is why you’re not going to stay. It’s not your place, it’s mine. And peace and quiet’s what I want. So be off.”

Tom looked at the old man for a moment; studied the lines on his face and the dirtiness of his clothes. Bet he’s got stories to tell, Tom thought. And probably had adventures too. Bet he knows how to cut wood, carve it even, and build things.

“Did you build this chimney?” asked Tom.

The old man snorted. “Course I did. Built the whole dammed cottage. Think I’d let another man make it for me?”

Tom’s brow furrowed as an idea slowly took shape.

“Could you show me?”

“Show you what?”

“How to build my own cubby.”

“And why would I do that?” said the old man, but his eyes twitched sideways with interest.

“Because,” said Tom simply. “I like quiet and I like being on my own as well. Too much noise at home.”

“Noise from who?” said the old man, lowering his stick.

“Brothers and sisters. Five of them.”

“Five,” breathed the old man, staring back into the fire. ‘Enough to send a man around the bend.”

“You’re not wrong,” said Tom, and edged closer. “So, what do you say? You help me make a hideout here and I’ll-“

“You’ll what?” said the old man.

“I’ll promise not to interrupt when you’re telling stories,” said Tom.

“Who said I’d be telling stories?” said the old man, and despite his striving not too, the corners of his mouth turned slightly up.

“Of course you’re going to tell me stories,” replied Tom. “You’re obviously not into wailing like other ghosts.”

The old man looked into the fire which had now thoroughly warmed Tom’s bottom.

“C’mon,” said Tom. “I really want to know how you died.”

The old man’s grin now spread across his face revealing missing teeth. “Like a bit of gore hey?” he said, and shifted his weight in the chair to get comfortable. “All right. I’ll do it.”

Tom inwardly smiled.

“Now, you listen real good and I’ll tell you a tale. Drunk and drowsy in front of the fire with a kerosene can at my feet. It was never going to end well eh?”

Tom sat down cross legged on the grass. Mrs McGinty’s cat had nothing on this.

 

 

 

Copyright © Belinda Lyons-Lee 2014