There was no need to be frightened, she said, the ghost never left the landing. It limped from the window to the top step and back, it wept on wet days ,it groaned during storms, it opened doors but never went inside. This landing was her’s, the middle floor of the house, we had to cross it to get up to our new bedrooms. The ghost had been here since she was a child, she told us, probably long before that. Her mother had named it Henry, just like the kings, but without a number. Once we thought we heard his limp, like a heavy empty box being rolled across the floorboards, but never his voice.
‘She shouldn’t be telling them that stupid story’, my father told my mother, ‘They used to terrify me with it when I was small’.
‘They know its not real ‘, she answered, ‘it will do them no harm to know how to tell the difference’.
We moved in after her uncle died, he had been only two years older than her, she said, more like a brother or cousin. I had seen him once on a visit, he had stood at the sink in a shirt and tie shaving. The mirror was not fogged up like when my father shaved.
‘Cold water’, he said to my mother on the drive home. ‘Vincent never spent a penny he didn’t have to, maybe we should search the house when he goes’.
‘ We would have more luck with the coffin’ , my mother said. ‘If anyone could take their money with them, it would be him’, they both laughed.
Her name was Lily, she was one of four girls all named for flowers, she told us. We called her Auntie Lily, even though she was our great aunt, it was different than grandparents my mother said. I questioned her on who made these rules, and how they enforced them. My mother said that was just the way things were, all sorts of matters were dealt with this way. She used Auntie Lily herself, even though she was really only my fathers aunt. It was funny and strange for us to hear an adult speak to another one that way. My father never used her name, his tone changed when he spoke to her, so we always knew who he meant.
Her sisters were all gone, Heather to London, Betony to Chicago, Rose to illness. She told us stories about them all, described them so well it was easy to pick each one from the leather bound photo album she showed us. The pictures were black and white mostly, communions and cofirmations, taken in the front garden, on the upper level between the rose bush and the baywindow. Their father smiled in every picture, his face round , his hairline gone except for a dark snarl that curled across his forehead ,like a flattened horn. Their mother stared at the camera from behind heavy glasses, she stood straight in most ,her arms tight to her sides, like the Irish dancers we saw at the parade. The only boy in the pictures was our grandfather, he died before I was born, when my father was still very young. He looked guilty of some minor wrong, like our father does sometimes, I could not see any other resemblance. My father didn’t answer when Auntie Lilly told him he is the spit of Andrew, that is the first time I heard his name.
She blessed herself when she spoke about him and the other dead people she knew. My father said to my mother that she must know more of the dead than the living now. My mother answered that we might be so lucky to live that long. She blessed herself at six oclock, when the Angelus came on television, and when she dipped her fingers in the plastic font at the halldoor. She walked to mass every day, came with us in the car on Sundays, we always sat on the right hand side, halfway from the altar to the door. We sat in the front row on the day of her uncles funeral, Auntie Lilly at the aisle, closest to the coffin. The priest spoke, said he was with his family now, my father read a prayer. He wore a grey suit with a black tie, hooked the collar with his finger, stopped when my mother told him it would leave a stain.
They had sat in the kitchen and discussed what the uncle should wear for his funeral, my mother and father ,and Auntie Lily. He had never asked for anything in paticular, as far as anyone could remember. A new suit was the outcome, when Auntie Lily insisted the dead should have the best, and no one seemed to know what else to say.
‘The ghost will be delighted anyway’, my father said in the car, ‘Vincent was probably
charging him rent’.
My mother laughed and punched him lightly in the thigh.
Not many people came to the church, Auntie Lily shook their hands as they left. An old man, older than even her maybe, held her hand and elbow, said she was the last of the old guard now. He walked away hunched over and stiff, like he was wearing wet clothes. She was quiet after that.
She blessed herself when we had dinner too. The first night we moved in she said grace when my mother had called us into the kitchen and we had all sat down. We looked towards her for a moment ,until my father began to eat and we followed. After that she would bless herself and close her eyes for a moment, her lips moving silently. She would stay in her seat after our meal, after my mother had refused her offer of help. They would talk while my mother cleaned, my father would go into the other room to smoke. She asked my mother questions about her family, what were their names, what did they do, who had they married. I had assumed she would know all of this. I wondered why she had never married, why she had no children.
Her room held a single bed with a green head board, padded and studded with fabric covered buttons. The blanket was fringed with tassels that dangled just above the carpet, a candlewick my mother called it. By the window was an armchair of brown leather, it had timber shins and fists ,these made it look like a huge child who had outgrown their clothes.
The twins and me would race to get into it first when Aunt Lily called us to her room. The losers would sit on her bed while she showed us her china dolls and souvenirs from her trips abroad. The twins would grow bored before me and run off to play. She showed me more photographs when we were alone. One was the sisters in a sunny garden, all bunched together under an umbrella. Three were in summer dresses, heads tilted ,hands climbing. Rose was just slightly to one side, but looked alone to me. She was wearing a heavy pale jumper, her hair tied back, her cheekbones sharp. Later I showed it to my father, he looked for a moment then handed it back, as if it were some news or claim he didn’t quite believe.
Aunt Lily said I reminded her of Rose, when she was young, before she had gotten sick, she brushed my hair back off my face , like Roses in the picture, I liked the soft tug and pull of the brush. Her own hair was shorter than my mother’s, she patted it into place with cupped palms, like a sand castle or mudpie, then sprayed it with lacquer she pumped from a bottle.
I never asked about Rose’s sickness, at first I imagined her in bed with a runny nose and high temperature, but it didn’t fit with the idea of her being dead. Next I thought of her sitting up in a hospital bed like my mother when she had the twins, but that had been a happy place, with flowers and choclates and clean busy nurses. I decided to ask her, but then overheard her talking to my mother in the kitchen after dinner.
‘They didn’t understand it back then’, she said. ‘they didn’t have a name for it like they do now. Our father thought it was just a case of sitting with her through meal times, we all took turns, but you couldn’t be guarding her all the time’.
‘ It must have been very hard to watch that ‘, my mother said.
‘ It was ‘Auntie Lilly said, nodding slowly, ‘It wasn’t something you could really tell people about either, it was …
My mother realised I was there then and interrupted her, changed the subject to the coming school year. She had told us moving in the summer would give us plenty of time to make new friends, but there were no children on this street. The twins cried to move back home, I felt sad as well but considered myself too old for crying. My father burst this notion when he told me I was too young to understand how Rose had died. I had asked my mother next day when Auntie Lilly was out. They argued after that. My father told my mother to tell Auntie Lilly not to be talking about stuff like that in front of the kids. My mother told him to tell her himself,and that it had been his idea to move here , not hers. At bedtime my mother made me promise not to ask auntie Lilly what had happened to Rose, because it would make her too sad.
It was soon after that Aunt Lilly began to complain about things going missing. Small things she spent hours looking for around the house. A glass broach shaped like a flower that she wore on the lapel of her coat, a silver pen she kept in her handbag, that opened by twisting it’s halves in opposite directions. A small cloth she used to clean her glasses , this was red and silky and always felt cold to touch. My mother would help her look, cleaning and tidying as she went, stopping sometimes to look at old photographs on the sideboards and walls. My father was less helpful, he would roll his eyes, look under his plate or in his pockets.
‘Maybe it was the ghost’, he would say when she had left the room. He had taken to blaming the ghost for all unclaimed accidents or acts of mischief around the house.
‘But the ghost never leaves the landing’, one of the twins would remind him.
‘Of course, of course’, he would say,’ I forgot about that, but if it wasn’t him, it must have been one of you pair!. My mother would try to hush their screams and laughter as he chased them through the house.
Auntie Lilly missed the pen most of all. She had used it to write me notes for the shop, she would read them aloud when she had finished, stopping now and then to make repairs to her handwriting. She picked coins from her purse, it was old and grey with steel jaws like a trap ,and flattened lips that snapped together like clicking fingers. One day she called me alone to her room, the twins had asked her when she was going to die, like all the other old people. I told them not to be rude, they just laughed and ran away. She said she didn’t mind dying it was being forgotten that bothered her. I thought she meant as she had no kids of her own. I told her that I would remember her, I thought this would make her feel better.
‘I mean when you are gone as well’ , she said. This was the first time it occured to me that I would die too , just like everyone else. I didn’t sleep that night thinking of how I would be forgotten eventually, even if I had kids and grandkids of my own. My father asked me a few days later why I was being so quiet. I didn’t tell him what was really wrong.
Auntie Lilly died a few weeks later, just before we went back to school. The same old man came to her funeral, he shook my father’s hand at the door where she had stood, shuffled away in his wet dry clothes.
I put her things back in her room, under the bed , at the bottom of a drawer, the pen I left in the pocket of her coat. My mother gave it back to me when she cleared out the room, she said it would be nice to have something to help me to remember.