by Gillian Wills
In a real dark night of the soul it is always three o’clock in the morning, day after day. — F. Scott Fitzgerald
8 August 2019
Remi was the only man I’d ever known who cried out ‘no, no, no!’ at the point of orgasm. When I found out he’d been awarded a one-year fellowship at a university in Melbourne without him even telling me he’d submitted an application, I was furious but hardly surprised; there was something skewed, back to front, about his worldview. When the bickering petered out, I slowly came to terms with our departure from Brisbane for a year down south.
In Melbourne, we searched high and low for a place to rent. But the accommodation was either too far from the university or the exorbitant rent was enough to make my toes curl. Before long, I’d spiralled into a black funk, when a Victorian, renovated weatherboard in the heart of Fitzroy fell out of a clear blue sky.
Tom and Cressida, Remi’s colleagues, owned the house and, if we looked after Suzie, a hessian-hued great dane, and a trio of street-fighting cats, we didn’t have to pay any rent. As a huge fan of the four-legged, my spirits lifted. We couldn’t believe our luck. At first.
We dined with Tom and Cressida in a Greek restaurant the night before we moved in. The couple detailed the idiosyncrasies of each pet and their dwelling while we tucked into taramasalata, baba ganoush and oven-crisped pita bread.
‘By the way, we sleep in the spare room,’ Cressida said.
‘But the first, the master,’ Remi chipped in, ‘has a great bookcase. Like you, we have a mountain of books.’
‘Either is livable,’ Tom shrugged, spooning hummus onto his plate.
Next morning, we moved in. Sounds taxing, but the only items we shifted, apart from our boxes of books, were two large and one medium-sized suitcase jammed full of clothes. After roughing it in a friend’s cramped, spare room for weeks, I couldn’t wait to settle in and unpack.
I remember the first time it happened.
Remi and I were happy. I liked the area. Morning and afternoon, I walked Suzie in the local park. She had the sweetest nature, but her intimidating height, muscular carriage and habit of slobbering prompted pedestrians to flee to the other side of the road. The marmalade, black and tabby cats made me sneeze, so Remi took them on.
Suzie followed me everywhere during the day, but I couldn’t complain, because at night, she steered clear of our bedroom. I enjoyed the companionship of the animals, but the house’s deficiency in natural light, the living area’s austere mahogany furniture and the weatherboard’s curt silence intimidated me.
The house was not without baffling contradictions. The front garden boasted English cottage plants: a riot of sweet peas, lupins, foxgloves, cosmos, daisies and lobelia-fired flamboyance. Passersby stopped and took pictures of the front’s flowery profusion. But the back garden was its alter ego: unkempt, choked by barrelling weeds and feral cherry tomatoes.
After Remi set off for work, I quickly unpacked our clothes and hung them in the roomy cupboard. I was pleased by how much space we had. I put Remi’s stuff on one side and mine on the other. I was motivated enough to stash our academic tomes, novels and memoirs on the bookcase, too. But I began to shiver in the chilled room despite the hot, summery day. Victorian houses were designed to stay cool in high temperatures, I reminded myself.
In the country-styled kitchen, I cradled a hot coffee in my hands but, when Suzie whimpered at the back door, I went outside, a grateful dog in tow. The air was congested with minute flies, mosquitoes, butterflies and clusters of bees. To say Tom and Cressida were politically correct is an understatement and, as Fitzroy is known for its social conscience and promotion of environmental health, I assumed the garden was an intended wilderness, a safe harbour for insects, frogs and birds.
Suzie scratched, gnawed at her skin. I slapped at my arms and my head as gnats needled my skull. I didn’t want to go in, but the backyard was congested with airborne creatures. The flying insects had doubled, trebled in minutes. Ants rushed in, bristling loops and circles at my feet.
I grabbed the door and went inside, Suzie close behind. I attempted to read and drowsed on the living room’s chaise longue briefly, but I was fidgety and self-conscious like a child in a parents’ best room. I told myself I’d get used to the house and Melbourne in time, and I decided to make a start on the books.
The bookcase looked accommodating before I began, but I soon realised there wasn’t enough room even after I’d double-stacked the books. I stowed the rest in the emptied medium case. With Remi’s assistance, we’d haul it on top of the deep, big cupboard pressed against the wall opposite the wrought iron bed.
I rolled up the threadbare green rug and put it in the empty cupboard. With a gleaming jarrah floor instead of a rangy mat, it looked smarter.
I realise what I’m about to say makes me sound like a chop short of a mixed grill, but the house disapproved of me. And the unease I experienced when Remi went to work led me to walk Suzie for longer and longer stretches. I’d tie her up outside with a decent bowl of water while I idled in cafes, browsed in shops I couldn’t afford and, every other day, outstayed my welcome in the local bookshop.
Thankfully, when Remi came back from work, the interior’s hostility and my anxiety waned.
A week after the move, we endured a tedious University function. Too many speeches, asinine grins, bland mini-quiches and posturing academics made Remi and me drink too much wine. After an expensive, taxi ride home, we fed our charges and collapsed into bed. Soon, we were dead to the world in a wine-sated slumber.
I was surprised to find Remi at 3:00 a.m. bolt upright, arms crossed, fully awake. Remi could fall asleep mid-conversation, during turbulence on a plane, in a dentist’s waiting room, anywhere. When asleep, he didn’t stir easily, but that was all before we moved in.
‘Yes?’ I egged him on.
‘I woke up convinced someone had broken in.’
‘I heard footsteps in the hall.’ He sighed.
‘Old houses are pretty vocal.’ I slid my arms around Remi trying to console myself as much as him. ‘These old dames chorus creaks and cracks with every alteration in the weather. Hot, cold, dry or wet, each has a creepy syntax.’
‘Yes, how true.’
‘Did Suzie bark?’
‘Nope. If she’s a guard dog I’m Brad Pitt.’
‘Yep, I can see it,’ I moved his head to the right and the left as I jokingly eyeballed his profile.
* * *
The next night we stayed up late, watching TV in the living room, providing companionship for Suzie and the moggies. When we got into bed, I was drowsy as soon as we turned the lights off but, in the early hours, Remi’s twists and turns disturbed me because the bed squeaked in protest at every move. Wearily, I fumbled for the bedside lamp.
‘Me. But there’s no need to fuss. You should go back to sleep.’
‘When you’re this restless? I can’t. What was it this time?’
‘Stomping feet. A door banging.’
‘Could Suzie be the culprit?’
‘That occurred to me too, but when I peeped into the kitchen, she was asleep on her futon under the window, snoring.’
‘Yep and very loudly too,’ Remi chuckled and covered his ears. His happier mood made me confess I wanted to organise a party, a house-warmer.
‘We can invite your uni friends, and it can double as a send-off for Tom and Cress. They’ve been so kind. What d’you reckon?’
‘I’ve no objection, but it’ll be lots of work.’
‘Not if we keep it low-key, and you make your divine veggie paella?’
* * *
For the next ten days, Remi continued to wake around 3:00 a.m. But, thankfully, his broken nights stopped disturbing mine. Eventually, the squeaky bed meshed with the thrum of traffic, a hooting owl and caterwauling drunks. It was merely a strand in the soundscape.
One night, it was my turn to lie there, too tired to get up but too wired to sleep. I gave up and decided to get a drink but found Remi rummaging under the bed, his hair dripping dust. I checked the phone: 3:00 a.m. yet again.
‘What are you doing under there?’
‘I thought I heard a cat.’
‘Never known them to come in here.’
Soon he snored and I half-snoozed when an enormous bang, the sound of a bomb going off, shook me to the core. My heart pounded. The reverberation resonated in my ears. I couldn’t move. My hand reached for Remi.
‘Don’t put the light on,’ I whispered.
‘We have to.’
In the low wattage, yellowy light, we were astonished to see the suitcase, several hours ago filled with books and planted securely on top of a deep cupboard, on the floor; still closed, facing us, the right way up.
‘Wow,’ exclaimed Remi.
‘Could it have been a possum?’
‘Cesca, please, our window’s locked, nothing can get in. Besides, a possum would have to be on anabolic steroids because that thing weighs a ton.’
Remi checked the cupboard to see if it had leaned forward or a leg had collapsed under the weight of the books, but it was snug and square on level ground.
‘Could it have been an earthquake?’ I suggested. Remi rolled his eyes, shook his head wearily.
‘Shall we put it back?’ I said.
‘And risk a replay?’
‘How could it have—’
‘Weird happens, Cesca. Could be there’s no explanation.’
Remi’s interrupted sleep had taken its toll: dark shadows deepened under his eyes. I hadn’t told him about the prickling sensation on the back of my neck as if someone were standing behind me or how Suzie’s ears pricked up, and she’d stop in her tracks and stare at an empty corner, or how the temperature nose-dived. We left the ceiling and the bedside light on and crept out in unison, closing the door behind us with a whispered click.
* * *
The next night, Remi slept soundly. I was the anxious one and, when he turned towards my back, I wrapped his arms around me. But, I tensed. There was a presence. Beside me. I wanted to run. But froze, lumpen, immovable. I was stricken. Paralysed by fear.
‘Leave. Us. Alone. Go. Away,’ I said husky-throated, short of breath, my eyes stung by tears. After this, Remi and I tiptoed from the room. I was shaking. Remi draped a blanket around my shoulders and held me until I stopped. Eventually, we dozed fitfully, a brace of fugitives on the living room’s burgundy couch. My eyes alternated between three pre-Raphaelite paintings on the wall and the recently installed cast-iron fireplace with its ceramic William Morris tiles.
* * *
‘I’m going to ring and invite Tom and Cressida to the party.”
‘Then remember to raise the matter of the phantom Foley artist, too,’ said Remi. ‘See what he says.’
‘He’ll think I’m an hysteric.’
‘Who cares? We both know you aren’t.’
I keyed in the numbers on my phone. Tom picked up instantly and confirmed he and Cressida were coming.
‘Why did you reject the master bedroom?’ I asked.
‘Because Cressy insisted it was too musty.’
‘Is that code for “haunted”?’
Tom laughed. ‘Has something happened?’
‘Look, I’m a sceptic. Cressy doesn’t talk supernatural with me. Talk to her at the party.’
I gave Tom’s feedback to Remi.
‘Please, let’s migrate down the hall.’
‘No, we must stand up to bullies, be they dead or alive.’
‘I didn’t want to tell you this,’ I began, ‘but yesterday I was looking in the wardrobe for something to wear at the party...’
‘I tried on the black slinky number with the low back.’
‘Bet you looked great in it, too.’
‘Listen, Remi please. I didn’t see it at first. When I moved closer to the mirror, I saw a nasty, powdery green, mould-like facial acne on the skirt. I retched at the sight.’
‘Where are you going with this?’
‘I took the dress, tossed it in the wash and flicked through the hangers again.’
‘Everything I own was blighted by mould.’
‘We need to buy something to absorb the damp.’
‘The thing is—’
‘Cesca are you okay? You’re deathly pale.’
‘What scared me—’
‘Your stuff is fine. No mould, No discoloration.’
‘Just luck. I’ll help you wash your clothes.’
‘Luck has nothing to do with it. I want to move.’
‘And toss a rent-free house away?’
‘Maybe,’ I hedged. Although I didn’t see how it could be done with three cats and an enormous dog.
‘Mould is triggered by damp. Nothing sinister,’ he said.
‘We have to get out of here.’
‘What about the creatures?’
‘We’ll take them.’
‘I won’t be bullied.’
‘Remi, haven’t you noticed we already are. How much sleep do you get these days?’
* * *
The doorbell rang. Whoever it was had arrived half an hour early for the party. Luckily, we were ahead of ourselves. Remi got the door. It was Rick and Lily apparently, even though I had no idea who they were.
‘This house is haunted,’ I blurted.
A pointed silence eddied around our feet.
‘Mind if we take a look in there?’ Lily gestured towards our room and walked in, Rick in her wake.
‘How long have they been in there?’ Remi asked.
‘Ten, fifteen minutes.’
‘Long enough isn’t it?’
‘How would I know? I don’t hang with wraiths,’ I said, trying to keep it light. But I was edgy, fretting about the arrival of other guests.
I poked my head around the door.
‘Can we come in?’
‘Yes,’ Rick said.
Remi said, ‘Whatever it is, just say it.’
‘An old couple owned this house for 45 years. In the late 70s, Fitzroy was a drab area ruled by crims and gangs. Unemployment was rife, houses dirt-cheap.’
‘The wife died in here,’ Lily added.
‘Did Tom and Cressida buy the house as part of a deceased estate?’ I asked.
‘I’ve no idea. We don’t actually know them. We’re from the Music faculty.’ I wondered who had invited them.
‘Basically, they don’t want you in here. Remi, you’ve been hearing footsteps. Am I right?’ Lily glanced at her phone.
‘Yes.’ He chewed on his lip and scratched the back of his neck.
‘Have you heard other sounds?’
We nodded in unison.
‘The woman is stooped and wears a patterned head scarf tied at the chin, and a black coat. The image of the man is blurry, but it’s crystal-clear he’s pissed off.’
‘A few nights ago’ — Remi glanced at the cupboard — ‘that suitcase crashed to the floor and landed spirit-level-straight. Excuse the pun.’
‘Cesca isn’t as susceptible as you. They’ve cranked things up to get both of you to pay attention.’
‘Don’t use this room. That’s my advice,’ Rick chipped in.
‘Yes, hosting uninvited spectres for sleepovers isn’t my idea of fun,’ I said.
‘You’ll shift?’ Rick enquired.
‘No question.’ I said. ‘But supposing they want us out of the house altogether?’
‘Wait and see,’ said Lily. ‘It seems to me it’s just this room.’
All of us ignored Remi’s sullen scowl.
I threw myself into party mode, doing introductions, serving drinks, refilling bowls with savouries, but when Remi placed the enormous paella on the table, my hosting was done. All I could think about was the hunched elderly woman. I slipped out, grabbed fresh linen and made up the bed in the spare room. I would be sleeping in there with or without Remi.
* * *
I woke up warm and refreshed. Ribbons of sunlight striped the bedspread, a purring cat lay on Remi’s pillow and Suzie stood beside me, her head lolling on the bed.
‘How did you sleep, Remi?’
‘Let’s give it another week, see if things calm down and then decide what to do. Did you find out why Rick and Lily came?’
‘They’re spiritists, friends of one of the doctoral students,’
‘Spiritists encourage incorporeal beings stuck in the world of the living to move on.’
Copyright © 2020 by Gillian Wills