Liah S Thorley - Writer

The Stone Girl

The scent of roses and fresh grass remind Eleanor that summer is finally here. She sets down the laundry basket and pulls down the washing line. As it lowers she glances over her shoulder. One of next doors children is playing in the garden. He is kicking his football against the back wall of his house. Eleanor flinches each time the ball connects. She can’t see him over the privet hedge but the sound is even and repetitive and he sniffs back his hay-fever in an equally rhythmic pattern. Eleanor shakes her head and reaches into her basket to retrieve a towel. Something in her back twinges. She ignores it and continues. Her skin begins to tingle and she looks up. It has been more than a week since there was any blue in the sky, but now it is a clear and perfect as stained glass. The sun has gained heat since she last felt it. She considers the date and realizes it is the first of June. A memory stirs. She puts it aside along with the back pain and pins on the last peg.
Eleanor picks up the empty basket and makes her way back to the house. A sudden breeze catches her unawares and almost takes her breath. She looks back at the washing on the line; four towels and two king size sheets. They are billowing nicely. ‘Good’, she thinks. ‘They’ll dry quickly.’ Just as she turns away, something catches in the corner of her eye, a dark shape behind one of the sheets, but when she looks back again, nothing is there except the laundry masking the lower end of the garden. A twig snaps nearby and a blackbird hops out from under the hedge. Eleanor smiles and goes back indoors.
As she waits for the kettle to boil she flips over the wall calendar and glances over the month to see whose birthdays she must remember. For a moment she doesn’t register the new picture and then it strikes her. It is pretty, ethereal even. Delicate green fronds of what looks like moss draping over trees and statues. Sunlight glinting through leaves and casting light over the stone face of a beautiful young girl as she look sorrowfully down at the ground below. But then Eleanor sees the statues is resting on something. She looks closer and realizes it is a grave. She looks for the description; Bonaventure Cemetery. ‘Why would anyone put a grave yard on a calendar?’ she muses. She almost turns the calendar over then decides she is being silly and leaves it.
The kettle boils and she pours a cup of tea. She opens the biscuit tin but when she takes out a bourbon it has gone soft. She could swear she only bought them a couple of days ago. She decides it is still edible and puts it on the side of her saucer and heads for the study.
Graham is away at a conference all week and the house seems cold and empty despite the summer warmth. She pulls a fleece throw from the back of the chair and lays it over her legs. The leather squeaks as she sinks down and the high wings block out her peripheral vision. She closes her eyes for a moment but the image of the grave girl is imprinted on the inside of her eyelids. She opens them again and picks up her book. She has been reading ‘Northanger Abbey.’ She finds Catherine Morland’s naivety irritating but she is enjoying Austen’s wit nevertheless. She slides in her finger to replace the bookmark and presses open the pages. She is greeted by Catherine and her own namesake Eleanor, creeping about the abbey in the dead of night. For a while she is gripped. Walking through dark corridors and exploring dusty abandoned rooms. Candlelight casting eerie shadows across austere walls and dramatic portraits. A noise filters in to her subconscious. At first it is a part of the plot and then it is not. Hammering hard, fist on wood. Eleanor leaps from her chair sending the book tumbling to the floor, clamping shut so her page is lost. The tea cup rattles in the saucer as the table at her side shudders with her exertion. She scurries to the front door.
There is a small silhouette peering in through the panel of glass.
“Who is it?” She calls though the door.
“Its Ricky from next door Mrs. Can I get my ball back.” He adds a ‘Please?” as an afterthought.
Eleanor’s pounding heart has begun to regulate. She unhooks the chain and unbolts the door. As she opens it the child on the step sinks back down from his tip toes and grins up sheepishly.
“Sorry Mrs, It went over by mistake.”
Eleanor sighs.
“Come on through then.” She leads the child down the hall and in to the kitchen. She watches him go out in to the garden. For a moment he is searching the lawn then he stops. Something has caught his eye. Eleanor goes closer to the window and watches him. He tilts his head like a curious puppy and takes a tentative step towards the washing line. He is the younger of her neighbour’s boys, about six or seven years old. She can’t quite remember. She recalls when his mother first brought him home. A tiny wriggling little thing wrapped tightly in a winter blanket. She wonders at how quickly time passes. She remembers her own child, perpetually the same age. She tries not to let her mind go there but she cannot stop it. She looks over at the calendar and at the smooth timeless face of the stone girl. Twenty years to the day since she last saw Livy. A cold fist seems to clench tight around her chest and a sickly lump rises in her throat. She turns back to the window but the boy is gone. Goose bumps prickle up her back and down her arms. A comb of ice runs through her hair. She is out the back door and running before she can rationalize.
“Ricky?”
Sheets are blowing violently as she tries to push her way through. They flap around her, clinging and grasping like long white arms. He will be at the other side collecting his ball, of course he is. But then she sees he is not.
“Ricky?”
Her cry is urgent now, anguished and familiar. She has screamed out a child’s name like that once before.
“Livy” she screams then slaps her hand over her mouth.
Another cry now. Not her voice but another woman.
“Ricky, where are you?”
Eleanor tries to steady her breath. The child is gone. Not a trace, no ball, no shoe prints, not a crumpled flower or trampled blade of grass. There is nowhere he could have gone. The end of the garden is hemmed in by a high wooden fence and behind it is another garden from the next street over. In the corner, hanging from the tree since before they moved in, is an old wooden swing. Eleanor looks at it, expecting to see the boy merrily swinging back and forth, giggling away, just as her daughter had once done. The bar is creaking back and forth on its rotten old ropes but the child is not there.
“Eleanor, did Ricky come round to collect his ball?”
Eleanor is startled. She runs to the hedge, face white as her laundry and coated in sweat.
“Oh, Grace. Yes he did. He was here a moment ago but then he ran off. He must have gone by me and in to the house.
“Send him home,” Grace replies. There is a wariness in her tone that makes Eleanor hesitate.
“Of course,” she tries to force a smile but she knows that it is more a grimace.
She can feel Grace watching her as she hurries back to the house. She leaves the door open and begins to look for the boy. She calls his name and searches the house.
“This is no place to play hide and seek,” she chastises the empty rooms. “Your Mum is looking for you. You need to go home.” With each room she enters she grows more frantic. In the bedrooms she opens wardrobes and cupboards. She looks under beds and behind sofas. Finally, exhausted and she runs back through the kitchen and out to the garden. Grace is still there, waiting, arms folded and ready to tell the boy off. Eleanor runs towards the washing line and stops short. Right at the bottom corner of one of the sheets are two left hand prints, one a little larger than the other.
“Is Aiden at home?” Eleanor wonders. Grace looks at her for a moment.
“No, he’s at school. Ricky is home with an ear infection.”
“Of course.” Eleanor has long since forgotten term dates and school hours.
“Eleanor,” Grace’s expression is shifting from anger to concern, “Where's Ricky?”
Eleanor lowers her eyes. Her chest is so tight she feels she will feint. The floor beings to move and the sky seems to darken. She leans against the hedge.
“I can’t find him. I’ve been right through the house. Maybe you should come round.” This is not a question but a plea and the other woman feels it.
Moments later Grace and Eleanor are hunting again. Each room is turned over, the garden fully searched. They stop by the washing line. The swing is still blowing in the breeze, squeaking on its hinges like an invisible child is driving it back and forth with even precision. There is no trace of Ricky. Only the hand prints on the sheet. Grace decides the boy must have somehow got past them both and is probably at home hiding in his bedroom laughing at his own ingenuity. Grace goes home.
Eleanor checks the laundry but it is not quite dry. She decides to leave it out and goes inside. It is mid-afternoon and she has missed lunch. She makes a sandwich and turns on the TV to watch the afternoon movie. It has barely begun when there is another knock on the door. ‘What now,’ she whispers under her breath. It is Grace again.
“He’s not home either.” Grace is looking pale and clammy. Her hands are shaking and Eleanor needs no explanation. It is a feeling she knew well once and one that lives in her still when she lets it. “Should I call the police?”
“Is there a friend he might have called on?” Just because Eleanor didn’t see a second child, didn’t mean there wasn’t one there.
“I already called around.” Grace looks as though she might be sick. Eleanor invites her in and makes her a sweet tea. She tries to think rationally for her friend but there is nothing rational anyone can say to her right now. They are sitting in the living room. Eleanor watches as Grace’s eyes gravitate to the photograph on the bookcase.
“How old was Olivia?”
Eleanor hates this conversation. The Grants only moved in eleven years ago, long after Livy. There had been no need to ask about the incident, it had been in all the papers back then and any neighbourhood discussions tend to stay behind Eleanor’s back. She prefers it that way.
“Nine.” Her reply is flat and icy. She doesn’t mean it to be but Grace hears the chill and looks down at her tea.
“Sorry,” Grace is saying. “I just…” She lets the thought die.
“No, it’s fine. I just find it hard. And today of all days.”
“Why today? Oh! It’s the anniversary.” There is an odd silence as both women register the coincidence. “I think I should call the police.”
Eleanor nods and fetches the handset. As she gives it to Grace their hands touch and for a moment Eleanor finds comfort in a solidarity that she has never had before. There were support groups of course, and grief councillors, but no one had ever really made her feel understood.
*
It is late evening now. The police have been and gone. Two uniformed women sat in her living room for some time taking notes, though they had seemed more interested in Eleanor than little Ricky. They had asked where Graham was and checked with the hotel and his company. They has asked far too many questions about Livy that had infuriated Eleanor as much as it had Grace. Finally Peter had returned from work and took Grace home, and then the police left.
Now Eleanor is sitting in bed with her book. The bedside light is mellow and her eyes are beginning to droop. Her mind has not stopped all day. She pities Grace and her family and yet her thoughts are not of Ricky but for her daughter. She remembers Livy’s long red hair flowing out behind her as she used to play on the swing. The ring or her laughter and the soft tone of her young voice. She remembers the smell of her skin and how she used to bite the side of her thumb when she was nervous. As her eyes close Eleanor is sure she can hear Livy giggling. She sits up sharp and looks around but the sound is gone.
She turns off the light and puffs up her pillow. As she settles down she hears it again. The light goes back on and Eleanor’s heart is crashing against her ribcage. Perhaps Ricky is hiding in the house after all. She calls out but there is silence. Deciding she must be going crazy after such a traumatic day she leaves the light on and tries to get some sleep.
*
Eleanor is dreaming of Northanger Abbey. She has taken Eleanor Tilney’s place and Grace has become Catherine. She is showing her around the house, only it is this house, not the abbey. She opens cupboards and searches wardrobes. Someone seems to be crying but it is neither she nor her companion. The rooms are dark and louring. Shadows hang from every piece of furniture and moonlight is dancing sliver patterns over the floor. Something scuffles behind her. Eleanor spins around in her Georgian nightgown but nothing is there. Someone calls her name from outside. She rushes to the window. Down on the lawn, the laundry still flaps. She had forgotten to go back out to fetch it. Now the white sheets shimmer and flutter like great ghosts and the towels jump about like lively children. Behind a sheet she catches the glimpse of a shape. A child stands, feet visible but the body masked. A flash of red hair flows out sideways.
“Livy,” she calls. The child laughs and runs away. A cold chill drops over Eleanor like a heavy wet blanket. She begins to shiver as she runs after her child slowly, as though running through water. Livy is too fast, she vanishes through the fence into the garden behind. Now they are in the park where Eleanor last saw her alive. The red-haired girl is on the roundabout, spinning it faster and faster. Another child is with her. He is crying for his mum but Livy won’t stop spinning him. Then she is on the swings. Just as she had been that day. The sun is out and the day is hot. Really hot. Eleanor had forgotten that. She is sitting on a bench reading while her daughter plays. Her head is down and she is lost in the pages. When she looks up her child is gone. Eleanor groans in her sleep but there is no one there to comfort her. There is frantic searching just like today at the house. But Livy is not found.
Something crashes in the room and Eleanor is awake. She cries out but Graham isn’t there. Downstairs there is a creak and Eleanor doesn’t know whether to run down to see what it is or shut herself in. She holds her breath. Nothing happens. She wants to call out, to see if it is Ricky still hiding in her house, despite the police search. But she cannot find her voice. She glances at the clock. Quarter past three. She considers calling Graham, it would only be ten pm in New York, but there is no phone in the bedroom and she left her mobile in the kitchen. Instead she gets up and goes to the window. Their room is at the back off the house. She can see the garden. The laundry is still there but the wind has dropped. Everything is still, except in the far corner. From here she can see over the sheets, right to the back fence. Something is moving beneath the tree. She listens and she can hear the gentle creak of the swing as is eases back and forth. For a moment she can swear she sees a pair of legs and pushing forward then back and small hands gripping the ropes. She cups her hands around her face to block out the light in the room. She goes to open the window, to call out to Ricky, but then she sees the swing is not moving after all. There is just the big white cat from two doors down on a mouse hunt. He pounces on his catch and Eleanor goes back to bed.
This time when she closes her eyes, she sees the stone girl from the calendar. Her face is an older version of Livy’s. Eleanor stares up at the ceiling. At the far end of the room something moves. A muffled sound like whimpering. Then the dirty laundry basket tips on its side and Eleanor screams. She keeps on screaming as it rolls towards her. A Mufflesd sob from somewhere inside it. The lid flips open and a pair of Graham trousers tip out. Her heart pounds. Then she sees his little hands reaching out.
“Ricky’ she is crying for joy now. She pulls the confused, sleepy child out from the tall container and hugs him tight. He screams at first, then throws his arms around her neck when he recognizes her. He buries his tears in her shoulder. They had looked in the laundry basket on their search but no one had thought to pull the clothes out and look underneath. He must have climbed in and fallen asleep. Without hesitation Eleanor picks him up, carries him down stairs and is banging on her neighbours front door until the hall light flicks on and a tear stained Grace pulls it open. As her friend scoops her child into her arms and falls to her knees, Eleanor feels a hard stab of jealousy cut right through her. Why did she never find her child?
“Where was he?” Peter asks.
Eleanor tells them and the child looks up at her, shaking his head.
“I only got in there coz she told me to.”
Eleanor tries to understand. “Who told you to?”
Grace is eyeing Eleanor with something that is uncomfortably like suspicion.
“Livy,” he say. “She was playing in the garden when I went to get my ball. She wanted to play hide and seek but then there were lots of people and she said I should get in the basket and stay still ‘til everyone had gone again.”
"And then you fell asleep. Peter has not made the connection. Ricky nods, his eyes beginning to well with tears again.
Eleanor feels as though all her blood is draining from her body and pooling on the floor.
“How do you know that name?” Her voice sounds so sharp it could cut glass.
“She told me.”
Eleanor tries to swallow.
“What does she look like?”
The boy shrugs and looks up at her warily.
“Bigger than me and has long hair that’s orang
Eleanor grips the wall.
“How dare you child!” she says through gritted teeth. “He must have heard about her from someone. Cruel boy.” She hisses and turns and walks away. Behind her she can hear Ricky protesting to his parents and Grace chastising him. She goes back into her house closing the door and shutting them out.
*
In the morning she goes out to collect the washing, making plans to call Graham just as soon as he is awake. Her mind is churning over and over the anger at her neighbour’s cruel trick when she tugs down one of the sheets from the line. She sees the hand prints in the corner and curses the child again for making her need to rewash. Then she looks again at the different sized prints, clearly not from the same child and both the left hand. In the corner of the garden the swing begins to creak back and forth and she can swear she can hear bright familiar laughter.