The Truth About My Old Haunts | Elizabeth Collis
I lived in this house between the ages of four and seven.
For the past fifty-four years, I have not been near this area of England.
I’m sixty-one, which means I haven’t seen this house since my family moved from it.
I visit this place often. These visits are involuntary.
As childhood things always seem to, the house has shrunk since I was seven.
These features are smaller than when I was a child (from what I can glimpse from the road—I dare not step on the property—there’s a barking guard dog and security cameras and ‘Private Property’ notices):
Apple orchard, neatly rowed vegetable garden, riotous flower beds, juice green lawns, bitter-lemon privet hedges, sentinel poplar trees, fish pond circled with a low brick wall.
Menace pressures the inside of the house’s three doors, ready to burst out: the fortress front door we never used, the back one on the shady side, also never used, the black kitchen door warmed by the West sun, always used, always open, to release a girl from house to garden.
The house is riddled with evil.
The garden is heavenly, sweet-pea fragrant with joy.
The house is haunted.
Or the house haunts.
Or I haunt the house.
The garden is a refuge.
Or the garden protected child me from the house.
Or I was a child with a vivid imagination.
The house name, ‘Inverarnold’, has peppered my consciousness awake and dreaming this past half century, but I don’t know the exact address, only that it was two or three orchards away from the village of Leeds in Southern England, in the rural county of Kent. So my husband and I, on a nostalgia visit from Canada, park our rental car on the narrow road twisting through Leeds village, opposite a residence named ‘The Old Store’. It used to be a shop where I bought my penny sweets with Saturday pocket money. There’s a pub, playing field, stone church. Low, black-beamed Elizabethan cottages. It’s peaceful, bucolic.
Once I find the former store, I know how to get to the house.
“Across the road, up there,” I say, pointing to a field with a wooden fence and a border of sycamore trees, “there’s a footpath on the other side of that hedge.”
I’m right. A narrow passage tucked between empty meadows, canopied by rustling branches and delineated by thick hedgerow dotted with white cowslips, pink-red campions balanced on downy stems, and purple woundwort. Same path, same wildflowers, same trees. All as it used to be. I laugh at the familiarity, at the wonder of my adult feet connecting to the same path my child feet skipped along so long ago.
Except the orchards have changed. They grow cherries now, not apples. The trees are small, in tight rows, shrouded with bird netting wrapped on metal hoops. Umbilical cords of water and nutrition lines connect each sapling with the earth. We reach the far side of the last orchard, and an informational sign headed ‘Arnold Farms’ explains that modern fruit farming is very different from traditional cultivation. The information doesn’t lessen my disappointment, which settles, aching, in my arthritic toes. I spent a lot of happy childhood time in the old orchards.
The Arnolds were wealthy landowners long before my family lived in their house. They’d built the home on a corner of their farmland, where country lanes between villages formed a crossroads. In all four directions—agriculture. Apple, cherry and plum orchards, strawberry and hop fields, a chicken farm, beyond them grazing fields for sheep, then villages.
Inverarnold, a mock-Tudor house built in the nineteen twenties or thirties, still scowls beneath a heavy roof, still looks clandestine when we reach it on foot. Three storeys high, dark-timbered, white-walled, sharp-gabled, it sits enclosed with tall hedges and borders of giant whispering poplar trees in the middle of nowhere. In 1965, it was nowhere anyone wanted to live.
My father signed a three-year lease for the house at a ridiculously low rate.
Mrs. Arnold was killed when her car crashed into the ditch in front of Inverarnold returning from a party a few months before we moved in. Neck broken, snap.
No local would rent the place, no babysitter babysit, no cleaner help my mother. Only the ancient gardener, Mr. Sears, too near haunting himself to bother about ghosts, tended the enormous vegetable garden twice a week. He rarely entered the house, and with his liver-spotted hands, bent back, and shabby brown gardening coat, he was more flora than a person who lived under a roof.
The house was fully equipped with the Arnold’s furniture, linens and decorations. Mrs. Arnold’s adult son had locked some things in the study, but otherwise rented the place as it was the day his mother died.
There were portraits of Mrs. Arnold dressed in ball gowns on the walls and in desk drawers.
Her hair was incendiary red, her eyes forget-me-not blue.
When a landlord locks things in a ground-floor room but doesn’t draw the curtains, the tenant children will haul themselves up on the windowsill, peer through the dirty diamond-paned window, and believe they see ghosts.
The portraits of the dead house owner were good enough that her eyes followed us.
The man driving the car was her lover.
The man driving the car was her ex-husband.
The man driving the car was her murderer.
Fear, misery, love, desire for vengeance are emotions strong enough to worm their way into the bowels of a house, coil into the walls, lurk in the long dim corridor shadows, fester at the back of musty cupboards and bedroom dresser drawers, secret themselves in the Gothic folds of blood-red velvet curtains.
Or a curious child can let the malignancy out through the conduit of her mind.
Or instead of being passively haunted by ghosts, a house can be the active haunter.
Forbidden to explore outside the garden boundary alone, I did anyway. I hated being in the house, needed to be outside. My rubber boots squished into cool soil as I navigated the clumpy ridges of plowed fields. My tramping disturbed the thrushes, pretty yellowhammers and trilling linnets profiting from insects upturned by the plow.
The area was so rural I never met anyone unless it was harvest time. Then, I’d stay out of the orchards with their cidery scent of fermenting apples for fear of the fruit pickers; quick-moving gypsies and coarse-mouthed East-End Londoners. They were unsettling, alien, their Cockney and traveller accents impossible to follow. In the heat of late August, their scruffy children played on the orchard peripheries, around the Beatles declaring “She loves you yeah yeah yeah” through tinny transistor radios and their prone parents taking beer-softened lunch breaks in the shade of a hedge.
Safely on Inverarnold territory, I was summer barefoot. Springy moss under the weeping willow tree cushioned my skinny backside. Its sinewy roots became walls, its canopy the roof. I played houses, fairies, collected sweet dog rose petals to make sticky perfume in jam jars, climbed the old chestnut trees, scraped my legs on their fissured bark, got stuck, got rescued at dusk. My mother didn’t bother looking for me before then, she’d have at least five acres of land to cover. I never returned to the house until I had to.
My eight-year-old sister heard a party going on downstairs one Saturday night, right under her bedroom. Clinking glasses, chatter, laughter, the never-used front door opening and closing, Jerry Lee Lewis sending ‘Great Balls of Fire’ among the guests dancing the Twist, up through the dark wooden ceiling beams, vibrating the legs of her bed.
I imagine she crept along the landing to spy, expecting to see grownups flourishing martini glasses and jiving through whirling cigarette smoke. Instead she found my parents huddled round the living room fireplace, the only source of warmth in the house except the massive cooking range in the kitchen. A damp smudge smell emanated from their woollen sweaters and heavy socks. Pops from the burning fire wood accented the shush-shush sound of them turning the pages of their books.
In the linoleum which loosely covered the stone kitchen floor, Mrs. Arnold’s stiletto heels had left pock marks.
It was me who started the mass panic at my elementary school at age five when I declared the sports pavilion was haunted by a headless monk and led my screaming classmates running to barricade ourselves in our classroom.
My parents never entertained at the house because all invitations were refused.
I learned to read at four and discovered stories, made friends at school (but never had play dates at my house, only theirs), made up outrageous fictions. My mother had been on oxygen in hospital, gravely ill, when my father lit a cigarette and blew them both up. Tragically (I wept as I waited for my mother to pick me up from school), I was now an orphan trapped in a terrifying house. There wasn’t a wicked witch imprisoning me there, the house was the witch. No wonder the other parents didn’t want to make the twelve-mile round trip so their children could interact with me and my crazy home.
The dreams came for me after we moved away, tethering me to the house ever since. I was a middle child by then; my younger sister was born in 1967. My family was three daughters widely spaced in age, one budgerigar, two Dutch rabbits, a father often away for work, and a lonely, scared, exhausted forty-year-old mother who slept with a shotgun under her bed in case of burglars and was convinced the phone was tapped by the Russians. (It was the Cold War era, my father was a nuclear engineer, so she was probably right.) She didn’t hide her distress from my older sister and me.
My Inverarnold dreams are not nightmares. I’m talking in the present; the dreams still infiltrate my sleep. They’re not blissful either—more a hybrid. Years later, I discovered my mother and older sister also dream about the house. But they’ve never described their dreams. I don’t know if we have the same one.
If we all dream about the house, is the house the instigator?
If we all dream about the house, am I to blame?
By their nature, dreams cannot be false.
In my dream, the garden is a living being. It gives me freedom like it’s handing me the keys to the city. I can wander wherever I want, unlock pleasing secrets and have them rock me in their arms, wander under dappled foliage, touch the waxy white trumpets of woodbine flowers, let them sound out their triumphant news across Kent that this child is at liberty, she may explore wherever she pleases in total security.
Popular trees keep vigil at my side, the tendrils of climbing clematis and trailing honeysuckle soothe me. I nibble nasturtium leaves; they taste of pepper and innocence. While I’m burrowed in tall grass, ladybugs tickle me to giggles. The wild rabbits who feed in the quiet evening ignore me, flip up their white tails and hop away. I am no threat in the garden, nor am I threatened.
In the dream, the house is a living being. At the start, I’m at a cold, unused door. Entering cool grey passageways on the periphery of the house, a palpable beat draws me inward. In my mouth, bitter almond and metal. Threading my hair, cool wisps of air, ephemeral ghost breath.
As I’m pulled to its centre, the house changes colour and temperature like an infrared heat image. The quasar blues and steel greys shift to apple green as I pass through shapeshifting rooms, passageways, tunnels which dimple and adapt to my form. I’m travelling through the house’s limbs, its sinews and arteries. I glimpse buttercup yellow round a corner, and my tongue is clogged with soft egg yolk, my nose filled with sulphur.
Now weak from heat, I wipe sweat from my eyes, but I can’t see for the burnt orange haze around viscous, churning organs which squeeze me forward until I enter with a roar the pulsing blood-red chamber of Inverarnold’s heart.
A door-to-door salesman cursed my pregnant mother when she refused to buy a broom. He was Indian, she thought. He said:
“Curses on you and your unborn child.”
My mother told my older sister and I this in the kitchen after school, a small glass of sherry balanced on her taught baby bump, her one-a-day cigarette held out the open door. Her smoking hand shook. The baby kicked and the sherry sloshed. My father was absent, doing something secret.
The next morning, she told us that her mother (alive and well in Canada) had come to her in a dream that night, and told her not to worry, everything would be alright with the birth, the baby and her.
Mothers are always somewhere near your heart.
Why would a door-to-door salesman travel on foot in an area where the houses are one mile apart?
It’s my heart I’m entering in the house dream.
My heart is an inferno.
I am evil at heart because I make up tales and tell them.
The house is sentient.
Or I’m still working out what is heaven and what is hell.
Compelled to see my old home despite the dog, I step off the road onto the driveway. To the right of the garage there’s a new stone wall and then a tennis court replaces the old kennels and garden sheds. Behind the garage, all that is visible of the house is a chimney and third floor dormer windows, the old maids’ quarters where my older sister and I slept in summer.
To the left, a hedge as high as the garage hides the side garden, which I remember being carpeted every year in February with white snowdrops, in March with purple crocuses, then bluebells; like a lava lamp changing hues. I can just glimpse some of the big trees shielding the house: copper birches, ash and oak. Clearly, the house owners still guard their privacy. No wonder the place had a reputation for mystery.
When a dog barks, I scuttle back to the road and follow the line of poplar trees to the orchard, but sights of the property are blocked by greenery.
“I know,” I tell my husband, “there’s another public footpath along the other side. Come on.” I have no idea how I know that—I don’t remember using it. But again, I’m right. At last, we’re able to get views of the house by pushing aside the hedge. I feel furtive, as if I’m on a spy operation.
The house is the same. A familiar excitement-fear makes my heart go pop-pop in my chest. The place is built wicked, badness in its bones. I can’t look away. I want to crouch behind a tree in the garden and do surveillance, like a stalker.
Stalking is a lot like haunting.
A house has a heart.
I don’t want the dreams to stop.
Or this house haunts me.
Or this house is haunted by me.
Or I once lived in a haunted house.
About the Author:
Elizabeth Collis (she/her) is a writer based in Nova Scotia, Canada. Her work has appeared in Progenitor Art and Literary Journal, Tangled Locks Journal, Flash Fiction Magazine, The South Shore Review, and elsewhere. Find more online at www.elizabethcollis.com and on Twitter @ElizabethCollis