Several months have passed since I stood at Anastasia’s coffin in my black lace dress. Things about her are sprinkled in my memory. The last time I saw Anastasia alive she seemed inhabited by folklore. Her nose drooped to meet her chin, giving her an almost witch-like appearance. Her once long, brown hair had turned white. She walked toward me slowly, in a crouching manner.
“Susan, Susan is that you?” she called out in a dry, fragile voice. I imagined it to be what my mother would have wanted – for me to visit Anastasia, I mean. She was my mother’s younger sister. I felt momentarily a little ashamed that I had not re-established contact earlier. But, even so, I visited her just once before her death.
The day before my visit, I had picked up the phone to a stranger’s voice. I was told Anastasia was confused and had to be taken into a home for her own good. It transpired that she had been going off into the woods near her home, sometimes dressed only in her night things. A report had been made to Social Services. The voice explained that Anastasia believed she was receiving some sort of communication.
“Communication?” I said.
“Yes, from her daughter.”
I wanted to say that there was nothing anomalous about Anastasia thinking she received communications from the dead, but I did not.
I caught the train from the tiny station near my flat. I looked at my own reflection in the misted window, nibbling my nails. When I sat opposite Anastasia in the lounge of her nursing home, she studied my expression as if she were searching for something. The heat from the glowing gas fire scorched our faces, but the air behind us was icy. I recognised the little silver skull pin on her cardigan. A memento mori that had once belonged to my father. For a few seconds I watched the orange flames from the fire reflected in it.
The momentary spell was broken when Anastasia’s bony-knuckled hand shook toward her handbag. I picked up the bag and passed it to her. She took out a faded, spotted photograph of Sadie, my cousin. I recognised it immediately as one I had taken. Sadie, with her blonde coils like a nest of snakes, wearing her best crimson dress, smiling, showing her little teeth like a porcelain doll. It was taken in the weak sunlight of a stark December, the year we both turned ten. I held the photograph up and looked at it, making a pretence of light-heartedness. I cleared my throat.
“I remember Sadie’s instant camera. It was all the more glamorous to me because my mother thought it a wholly unsuitable present for a child.”
I gave a little laugh. I felt my heart lurch and my throat was dry.
What I was looking at was long gone. I did not want a reminder.
I put the photograph face down on my lap as the door opened behind us and a tray was brought in.
“Ah, tea,” I said, lightly clapping my hands together, avoiding a return to the subject of the photograph. As I drank my tea I spoke about this and that. How I was now divorced. When I looked across at Anastasia she was smiling. Her nose, hooked, beak-like, seemed almost to meet her chin. Suddenly her eyes glittered and she said,
“I still hear from her, you know”.
I didn’t respond but instead put my cup and saucer down with an accidental clatter.
When I left I saw Anastasia, hunched, looking out of the window at me as I crunched away down the gravel drive.
Some weeks after Anastasia’s funeral, I received a copperplate letter from her solicitor on cream vellum. It said Anastasia’s house had been left to me. I was not surprised, being her only surviving relative. I had no intention of visiting the old house, even though it was less than two miles away in Acomb. Just as my parents had done, I lived in classier Mapleforth. I asked simply that Anastasia’s house be emptied and sold on my behalf. The money didn’t bother me. Following Anastasia’s death, I had been sent a bundle of her belongings; within it was a small, crushed, cardboard box containing the silver skull pin. It meant more to me than the house.
Toward the end of the month, as I was preparing for work, another letter arrived with a copy of the estate agent’s sales pamphlet. I unfolded it. On the front was a picture of Anastasia’s house. It seemed to have changed little from the smoke-blurred pile that I recollected. But now it reminded me of a gaunt, crooked personification of Anastasia herself. It sat shoddily in a hollow at the end of a dirt track, near an acre of knotted trees known locally in Acomb as the Upper Wood. Whatever the time of year, Anastasia seemed always to have a fire burning in the lounge. The room would be filled with the smell of dried flowers on the mantel and the curious fragrance of charred paper and wood smoke. There was always the soft, milky scent of Anastasia herself. At that moment, as I stood holding the pamphlet, I felt something sad invading the room. A lingering presence; memories I didn’t really know.
Thoughts came and went across my mind as I made coffee.
Anastasia had waist-length brunette hair as a young woman. She would brush it out sitting by the hearth, telling stories to Sadie and me. Her tales always had a magic ingredient that kept us spellbound. Sometimes, she told us about ghosts in the Upper Wood. A favourite was a tale about a child who lulled visitors to follow her into a particularly vine-tangled part of the wood. Once there, the child would turn on her prey with empty black pits for eyes, flying at them with sharp teeth. At the end of the story, Anastasia would pretend to jump out of the armchair, teeth bared, as if to grab us. Sadie and I would shriek, partly in fear, partly in delight. At other times, Anastasia sat looking into the fire, chanting softly to herself.
My mother disapproved of her sister, speaking about Anastasia as if she were some sort of devil or trickster. Occasionally, she tried to stop my father taking me round.
“Filling their heads with half-wicked stories,” she said to him one day, elbowing me out of the way as I was putting on my coat.
“Sadie is your niece and the girls love each other,” my father replied.
I realise now that what I saw in my mother’s eyes was the force of her love for my father, but I did not recognise it then. At the time, I just felt I would suffer greatly if I was not allowed to see Sadie. We were like twin spirits. Both elfin, with hair the colour of sun-bleached grass. Sadie was rather studious at times, whereas I wound my mischievousness about her, pulling us tightly together.
I have no pictures of the time I spent in Upper Wood with my cousin. What pictures I have reside in my memory. I remember my father used to walk Sadie and me into the summer cool of the beeches and oaks. He would lift us up on his shoulders like a giant and we would put our hands in his fair hair, the green leaves brushing our heads. Or we would hold his hands and pull him along through the winter trees, snow-wild and stark. Sometimes, the birds’ calls sounded like human cries. At regular intervals the train from Mapleforth screamed through the woods, leaving behind an almost eerie vacancy in its wake.
Increasingly, my father stayed with Anastasia whilst Sadie and I ran off into the wood on our own. I would tell Sadie that I was the black-eyed child. I would put my hands inside my coat to make a ghostly shroud and run after her. I would catch her and we would both fall over, laughing, out of breath. Other times, Sadie just wanted to sit with her chin on her knees watching the trains and I knew I had to be quiet. When we returned, often my father would be sitting next to Anastasia, their faces close together.
I folded the pamphlet and put it away. A few moments later, I took a call from a good friend called David. I looked out at the bright winter sunshine as he talked about some bar or other recently done up, near his home on the Causeway.
“Sounds very chic,” I said.
“Oh, come on, it’s been ages.”
As I got ready that evening, I took the silver skull pin and held it to the light, squinting at the detail. It had tiny little ivory teeth. Through the eye sockets you could see the stick pin behind. I decided to wear it and threaded it through the pocket of my purple silk shirt. I turned from side to side, looking at it sparkle on my breast. I thought about Anastasia for a moment, the way she had looked at me at the nursing home with a glittering, hidden spirit.
On the short journey over to meet David, the train slowed momentarily next to a familiar column of tall trees on an embankment. I looked up at a group of magpies circling overhead.
“Seven for a secret never to be told,” I said to myself.
Or were they pieces of charred paper caught in the thermals of a fire? I could see a column of smoke rising above the crown of trees. In the quiet carriage at the opposite side of the aisle there was a girl sleeping, covered over with a black mac so that only a few curls of hair were on show. I looked away again out of the window. The sun was setting, large and orange.
As it turned out, David and I were both preoccupied in our own ways and conversation didn’t flow. The bar was an old Victorian place called The Railway; done out all wood-clad and hip. There were black and white framed pictures on the wall, showing the saloon as it was formerly, as if the place were haunting itself.
David kissed me hello.
“Hey,” he said.
We both ordered scotch, the crowd jostling us. A group of people began hooleying at the other end of the bar, singing loudly to Jack White’s Trash Tongue Talker. I hollered over the noise.
“Tell me about this guy of yours.”
David had mentioned someone. Instead of answering, he brushed a wisp of my blonde hair from my shoulder and studied the skull pin. In the low bar lights his hazel eyes seemed almost black.
“Cool,” he said.
I looked at the silver stud that shone under David’s bottom lip, as he smiled. Preferring not to talk about Anastasia or the inheritance, I returned to the subject of his new man. He leaned toward me as the pub grew rowdier.
“Already married,” he said in my ear.
There was a flicker of sadness but he finished his drink, slapped his glass down and pulled me up to dance. Eventually we drifted out toward the street at about eleven.
“Are you sure you’re OK?” he asked.
“Course.” I hugged him.
I was dropped home that evening by a taxi, David feeling that, after several whiskies, it was the better option. As I climbed the steps up to my door, I hesitated. I once saw a film where the heroine returned from a night’s drinking to find a face looking out at her from her own front window. Cupping my hands round my eyes, I looked through the bay into the dimly-lit room. The lounge was empty, familiar. I let myself in and the door closed gently behind me. There was an envelope on the mat. It had only my name written on the front in black letters. I just started at it at first. My head swam a little with the whiskey.
The hall lamp was on. I opened the envelope under its yellow circle of light. There were three Polaroid photographs inside but no note or letter. At first, I was not sure what I was seeing. One photo was of Anastasia staring into the camera with a curious express on her face, lying in bed with the blankets up to her chin. In the second one, she was wearing a black, shapeless overcoat, her long grey hair caught untidily in the wind. She was clearly at the entrance to the Upper Wood, taken at night. The flash had bleached out her face.
As I looked at the third photograph, I dropped my handbag with a clank onto the hall table. It was the photograph of Sadie that Anastasia had shown me at the nursing home. I began to cry. I felt I was being preyed on. My head ached. Who would want to send these to me? I tried to think rationally. Was it the house clearance people dealing with Anastasia’s property? That didn’t make any sense. I did not want these pictures, they were marked only by death.
I scrabbled around in my bag and telephoned David. Just hearing his voice and imagining his kindly smile helped a lot. As I held my mobile to my ear, all my anguish welled up and I decided to tell him about Sadie and Anastasia and how a photograph can cause so much destruction.
The grounds of Anastasia’s old house climb steeply to the edge of Upper Wood. It was the Christmas Sadie had been given the instant camera. We ran up through the garden toward the wood. Sadie snapped a picture. I was beside myself with excitement when we peeled away the paper from the snap to see a fully-realised photograph. She took several more, sometimes catching a tree branch or a bird perfectly, other times only a blurring of movement. Sadie had her coils tied up on top of her head and wore her crimson dress. I remember she was very proud of it. I’d begged to be allowed to use the camera and she agreed to let me take one picture of her. She posed and smiled.
Later, Sadie wanted to draw trees in her room. She had several of the photographs laid out on the floor. I swung my legs on the end of the bed, a little bored, and then I took Sadie’s camera without asking her. I crept downstairs and out of the kitchen door and looked about the garden. I decided to pop up at the window to take a surprise photograph of Anastasia and my father.
I stopped with the camera halfway to my eye. In the living room, Anastasia was holding the little skull pin and looking at it. She suddenly threw her head back in pleasure, smiling at something my father said. My father pulled Anastasia to him. They both had their arms around each other and they turned a little as if dancing. They began kissing in the orange firelight. I held my breath, pointed the camera and pressed the button. Like a thief, I crouched down again under the window. I waited for the picture to develop. I peeled away the top film and peered at the image. My father, his arms wrapped around Anastasia, his lips sealing hers.
I went back inside through the kitchen and up the stairs to Sadie’s room. I remember I taunted her for a few moments, saying that I had a secret. I ran around the room flapping the photograph.
“What is it? Show me, show me,” she said. “I never said you could borrow the camera.”
She went quite red and her eyes flared. Sadie got hold of me and half pushed, half pulled me until she had the photograph out of my hand. I fell back on the bedside table, knocking a jug spinning.
Sadie looked at the photograph and then at me, wild-eyed, not speaking. She ran past Anastasia, who had begun to climb the stairs to investigate the commotion. I ran behind Sadie shouting for her to stop. She ran out of the house and into the Upper Wood. I ran behind her but could not catch her. I saw an orange setting sun and her crimson dress as she leapt through the tangled vines down the railway embankment. And then her arms were flailing and she fell into the cutting and into the path of the Mapleforth train. After that, I only remember turning to a piercing scream as Anastasia scrambled down the embankment with my father trying to grab her.
“I would give anything now for it never to have happened.” By then I had stopped shaking and I had sat down in the lounge. Listening to my friend’s voice was quietly hypnotic.
“Susan, you were a child,” David answered, sounding a little choked. He paused and then said firmly, “Look, I’m sending a taxi.”
“Ok.” I whispered and clicked off the phone.
I rested my head back on the armchair and closed my eyes. I heard my breath deepen as I grew quite sleepy, almost tranquil. After a few minutes, I was roused by the sound of a car pulling up to the front. I opened my eyes with some struggle. My mouth half-opened and then froze. Sadie’s face hovered over mine, staring at me with gleaming black eyes. I leapt from the chair and frantically clutched at the empty air in front of me.
The next moment, I half-fell out of the house and down the steps. The driver turned in surprise as I tumbled into his cab, my hair messy, my face pale.
“The Causeway, isn’t it?” he said.
“Acomb,” I replied, trying to steady my voice. “Acomb.”
We drove. I could see the black tracery of the trees like a child’s drawing. I could hear a distant train making a flick-flick sound, like the end of a film reel. I jumped out of the taxi and ran toward the teeth of the Upper Wood, my coat flying out behind me like wings.