Hilda Morgan opened the bedroom door and waited while her daughter dumped her suitcase inside. An older version of her offspring, she looked worn and tired
“Mum, It’s a bit damp in here, isn’t it?” Bella said, clasping her arms round her body.
“It’s been shut up since we moved in: I keep most of the doors closed while your father is away; it’s easier to keep the rest of the house warm.”
“This house is awful. Why did you ever move to this God forsaken place? You had such a nice house in Cambridge.”
“Well, when your father failed to get tenure we had to move out. He wanted a big place in the countryside, so he could store all his books and artefacts. Take your coat off and come downstairs; there’s a nice fire burning in the lounge. I’ll put the kettle on.”
Bella shrugged, hefted her suitcase onto the bed and opened the lid.
“Right-o. I just want to unpack a few things first, then I’ll be down.”
The younger woman listened until her mother’s footsteps reached the bottom of the stairs before taking off her coat.
This was the first time she had been inside the house, recently purchased by her parents in anticipation of their retirement. Situated in the Sussex countryside, it had once been a vicarage. It was a Georgian building, adjacent to the village church, and probably built on the site of an earlier living.
The bedroom was dark and dingy, like the rest of the house, which was crammed with old furniture and a jumble of artefacts gleaned by her father from all over the world. Professor Morgan was presently on a field trip to Anatolia and it had been almost three years since they had seen each other.
The room contained an iron bedstead with brass fittings, and an old marble topped washstand, replete with water pitcher and bowl, which had once belonged to her maternal grandmother. A large mahogany wardrobe with bevelled glass mirrors stood in the corner, by the sash window. An engraving, in a battered gilt frame, hung in the shadow of the wardrobe, opposite the bed. It seemed to depict a well build young lady, lying half out of bed with her arms thrown back in an ecstatic trance. She couldn’t see the rest of it very clearly, but there seemed to be a horse’s head looking down on the scene.
Bella felt grubby after the long train journey from the city and rummaged in the suitcase for her spongebag and a towel.
“Bella!” she heard her mother call from below. “Your tea’s ready.”
She didn’t feel like having a long distance conversation so she went out to the landing, leaned over the banisters and shouted, “I’m just having a quick wash, don’t pour mine out yet.”
The bathroom was even worse than the bedroom. There was a battered enamel bathtub with claw feet, a decrepit basin with iron stains and a big copper geyser with a conical top, which smelt of gas. The doctor had prescribed sedatives after the breakdown and she swallowed two tablets now, with a palm-full of water. The hot tap squeaked when she turned it, releasing a tepid flow of water into the cramped hand basin. After a perfunctory wash, she went downstairs to face the inevitable interrogation about what had gone wrong with her life this time.
“Now dear, sit down and have your tea, two sugars, isn’t it, and tell me what’s happened. I was really worried when you rang, you sounded so upset. I suppose it’s that person you were with. Stephen something was it?”
“Stephen Leacock,” Bella said curtly, “he turned out to be a lying creep.”
“But what about the other one, the one you had before?”
“Brian, you mean? We broke it off long ago.”
“Well, you don’t want to leave things much longer dear, you’re not getting any younger. At this rate I won’t live to see my grandchildren.”
“That’s supposed to make me feel better, is it? I’m not prepared to discuss it. I just want to get away from all that. The doctor said I was to have a complete break. If you don’t want me here, say so. I know you’ve never loved me, especially since Douglas died, but I thought the least you could do was put me up for a bit until I can get back on my feet.”
“Don’t be silly, dear, of course I’m pleased to see you, it’s been such a long time. It is a bit lonely here now while your father is away.”
“It’s all right Mum, I just need to lie down quietly somewhere. The doctor gave me some pills but I’m still a bit jumpy. I’ve just taken two, so I might have a quick nap until they take effect.”
Hilda Morgan stood up and began to clear the teacups away.
“I have to pop down to the local shop for a few things. Is there anything you want, dear?”
“Yes, there is, as a matter of fact. I’ve used my last tampon, could you get me a pack, please.”
She didn’t wait for a reply but went upstairs to unpack.
The bedroom door opened with a creak. Bella froze with fear as a dark shape leaped off the clothes in her suitcase and fled past her onto the landing. A dark grey cat, its fur bristling, stood at the foot of the stairs and looked at her with an almost human face, before rushing down the steps. Her heart raced madly as she went back into the room. She didn’t know her mother had a cat and wondered if it was a stray that had taken refuge in the house.
Bella switched on the light; a dim sixty-watt globe hanging inside a hexagonal wax-paper shade, festooned in cobwebs. Not wanting the local yeomanry to see her undress, she closed the curtains.
Despite her weariness, she forced herself to unpack and store her clothes in the cavernous wardrobe. She put the empty case under the bed and saw that a chamber pot, matching the wash- basin set, had been placed in readiness for visitors. She was thankful that it was empty.
The room felt very cold. She undressed quickly and put on a long, unflattering nightgown.
“At least it’s warm,” she thought, catching sight of her statuesque figure in the long mirrors of the wardrobe. “I’m still beautiful,” she murmured, admiring her shoulder length hair and the dark, liquid eyes, set in the pale flesh of her well-proportioned features.
“Figure’s still good, too, even if I am well past thirty.”
As if to prove the point, she pulled down the top of her nightdress to expose the soft globes of her breasts. She fondled herself for a moment, but then remembered the way Stephen used to touch her there.
“Bastard,” she said out loud, “miserable bastard.”
Bella didn’t want to think about him; couldn’t bear the thought of him fondling another woman.
She suddenly felt very weak and tired. Pulling up her nightdress, she turned back the covers and slid into bed. It was hard and uncomfortable, with a bolster as hard as a rock. She stared at the print on the wall. The light falling on the distorted glass made strange patterns, bringing the picture alive somehow. She reached up for the bedside switch, extinguished the light and was soon asleep.
Bella woke up, not realising where she was at first. Hearing the front door slam, she realised that her mother had returned home from the shop. She felt refreshed and wondered what time it was. She jumped out of bed and pulled the curtains aside. The clouds had broken up and a weak October sun dipped towards the ragged stand of elms that stood behind the crouching shape of the old church. Feeling guilty, she got dressed quickly and went downstairs to find her mother unpacking a couple of carrier bags in the kitchen.
“I saw the vicar down the road,” her mother volunteered. “This house belonged to the old vicar. When he died the church put it up for sale and built a new vicarage on the other side of the church.”
“How come you and dad bought the place then?”
“We got it cheap, the roof needed fixing and no-one from the village wanted to live here.”
“Ghosts, I suppose. I really don’t see how you can live in this gloomy hole; it’s quite unsuitable. Dad must be mad to leave you here alone by yourself.”
“It’s not so bad, dear, I do have the odd visitor and there’s the Women’s Institute meetings and Church on Sunday, if I feel like company.”
“Christ,” thought Bella, “if that’s all I had to look forward to, I’d kill myself right away.”
Mrs Morgan cooked up a lamb stew and served it on trays in the lounge. They ate in silence, in front of a television set that had seen better days. Bella couldn’t face any more arguments, and sat through all the awful programmes that her mother wanted to watch. By ten o’clock she was bored witless and headed off to bed.
“Let me get you a cup of hot chocolate to take with you, it’ll keep you warm,” her mother said.
“Thanks, that would be nice. Have you got anything decent to read?” Bella replied.
“There’s a new Women’s Weekly on the table. “
“No, books I mean.”
“You know your father has hundreds of books in his study. It’s down the end of the hallway, you can’t miss it.”
Bella went down the dim passage, past a grandfather clock, ticking ominously. The floor was uneven, paved with medieval tiles. It seemed that the house had been built on the foundation of an earlier building. The study door was crowned by a stag’s head, which cast long shadows on the walls. Inside, the ceiling lamp revealed a long room lined with bookshelves on either side of an ornamental fireplace. There was a desk at one end, by the window and a long table covered with a litter of broken pottery, bones, and artefacts of flint and bronze.
Most of the books were works of history, anthropology or archaeology. However, quite a few of the older tomes had Latin Titles. Bella recognised ‘De Anima’ by Aristotle but could not make much of ‘Tractatus de Striobius et Lamiis’ or ‘Melleus Maleficarum.’ There was a number of theological works too, left by the previous tenant, she supposed. She marvelled at the tenacity of the male mind to endure such a heap of arid lore. “It looks like the Women’s Weekly will have to do,” she thought, leaving the study in disgust.
Bella returned to the kitchen empty handed, picked up the now tepid chocolate and said goodnight to her mother, who was snoring in front of the dying fire. Upstairs, her room seemed even more dank. It was cold outside and condensation had formed on the windowpanes. The full moon, now risen over the leafless trees, shed its baleful light into the room. She put down the cup on a rickety bedside table and switched on the sidelight. The Art Nouveau shade cast multicoloured lights round the room, mixing eerily with the moonlight.
Shivering, Bella undressed and donned her nightdress as quickly as she could. Feeling a cramp in her tummy, she realised she had forgotten to get the tampons from her mother. Reaching under the nightdress, she felt the sticky dampness of blood. When she looked at her hand, it glistened faintly in the moonlight.
“Damn,” she said to herself, “I hope I don’t stain the sheets.”
Bella found a wad of tissues in her handbag and stuffed them in the crotch of her knickers before getting into bed. She sipped the chocolate, which had formed a skin, and listened to the random creaking of the house. She could even hear the heavy tick of the grandfather clock and the whirring of the mechanism as the lead weight descended inside the wooden case. Her heart leapt suddenly at the sound of caterwauling beneath the window, presumably from the creature she had seen sitting on her clothes. She put out the light at last, feeling depressed and miserable; she eventually drifted into an uneasy sleep.
Bella woke with a start; she was icy cold. A great weight pressed down on her chest, like a two Hundredweight sack of grain. It was pitch dark in the room, as if the moon had set already. She couldn’t breathe and felt as if she were dying. She tried to move but was completely paralysed.
“It’s just a bad dream,” she thought, and struggled to wake up. There was a twittering sound, like a pigeon taking sudden flight, or maybe more like purring, she thought. Something was tickling her thighs, feeling its way blindly in the darkness. She screamed silently as a tremendous pain rose from her groin to her belly. Her whole body was aflame. The terrible pain increased until it became a raging ecstasy, such as she could never have imagined possible. Her entire being became swamped with a terrible desire. At first, she prayed that it would abate then prayed that the burning pleasure would never end. Something terrible lay upon her, like the body of an iron god, tearing her open; splitting her asunder; crushing her tender woman’s flesh.
It ended with a brilliant flash of light, illuminating the whole room; then darkness. She saw a face of inexpressible beauty hovering over her.
“What are you?” she heard herself say, in a choking voice.
There seemed to be an eternal silence before the answer came.
“Asmodeus – worship me and I shall return to you.”
Bella squinted into the lights shining in her eyes. Blurred figures in green caps moved purposely above her.
“Just breathe normally, Ms Morgan,” she heard a man say, “its all over now.”
She felt nauseous and afraid as the nurses wheeled her to the ward. She could see a tag on her left wrist with the message, ‘Bella Morgan - 31/10/70’ in blue biro.
When they had lifted her into a bed, she managed to ask, “Why am I here?”
“You’ve had a bad attack of appendicitis, I’m afraid, but there’s nothing to worry about now. You can go home in a day or two, if the doctor is satisfied with your progress. Swallow these tablets and you’ll feel a lot better in the morning.”
Bella didn’t want to sleep. Most of all, she didn’t want to return to the vicarage.
Hilda Morgan turned up the next day with a bunch of flowers left over from the Church decorations.
“What’s the date,” Bella managed to ask, “I’m all doped up, I can’t remember.”
“It’s the first of November, dear. You gave me such a fright; I had to ring the ambulance. You were in a terrible state last night, raving and screaming about I don’t know what. Anyway, we’ll soon have you home and tucked up safe in bed again.”
Bella sat up quickly, her face screwed up with pain.
“I can’t go back there, Mum, I can’t. You have to try and understand what happened to me.”
“There’s no need to upset yourself, dear. I know you’ve had a bad time lately, but the doctors have all sorts of drugs to make you well. I know our country ways seem strange at first, but you’ll get used to them after a while.”
“For Christ’s sake, you silly old woman; you’ve no idea what happened to me in that room. There’s something horrible in there, something unspeakable,” she sobbed.
“The first time is always the worst, dear. If you don’t come back to us, you’ll never find any rest. No man could ever satisfy you like he can. Anyway, summer is a good time to have a baby. I’m so looking forward to having a child in the house again.”