Mary was thoughtful as she pulled the threadbare coat over her thin shoulders.
The doctor had been kind. He had explained in words she could understand and had shown her some anatomical drawings to illustrate the salient points. And when she had shaken her head, more in disbelief than in misunderstanding, the doctor had carefully gone over it all again.
Mary hunched her shoulders against the icy wind, she pushed the stray wisps of hair into her knitted hat. She was rightly proud of the hat; red it was, done in cable stitch with a neat little bow on the front. It had been knitted by Mark, same as the Fair Isle jumper that she wore under her coat.
A thin smile touched her lips as an image of Mark flickered into her mind while she waited at the kerb for the road to clear.
The late afternoon was dark, the heavy winter clouds hastened the onset of night, as Mary fumbled for the door key in her handbag.
She accidentally banged the front door back against the hall wall, the sound echoed throughout the empty house and rattled the sagging leadlight in the door. She sighed with the resignation reserved for those who expect only the worse, she forced an ironic chuckle and turned her eyes upwards and shook her head as she voiced her feelings. “Any more kicks?” She whispered. “I know that I haven’t been the best of people God, but how about something good happening for a change?”
The kettle seemed to be taking forever to boil, Mary lifted the lid for the fifth time and was pleasantly surprised to see a few stray bubbles rising. She poured a little of the water into the teapot and swilled it around to warm it up, she winced as some of it splashed onto her fingers.
Mary liked to drink her tea hot, very hot. She loved to sip at the cup when the tea was far too hot to drink. she loved to test herself by seeing just how close she could get her lips to the cup before the heat forced her away. It was a ritual to Mary, and if she could feel the burning sensation right down to her stomach she felt a kind of triumph. But today the tea was almost cold before it reached her lips. Lips that immediately rejected it.
The house was cold beyond belief; Mary’s coat, the jumper and the blanket she had wrapped around her meagre frame were barely enough. She shivered as the wind rattled the ill-fitting window frames, tears of frustration coursed down her withered cheeks. “Why me? Why me?” She sobbed into the night.
Morning came slowly. Too cold to move and too warm not to move, Mary at last succumbed to the urgency of the situation and left the comfort of the floor to find the relief of the icy bathroom tiles beneath her feet. The cold was too cold to be cold, her feet were burning with the ecstasy of the pain. Pain that told her that she was alive. ALIVE!
“Alive.” How good the word sounded. “I’m alive.” Mary shouted the words, not caring who banged on her door.
Mary cocked her head, straining to listen to other sounds beyond the noise of the refilling cistern. It had certainly sounded like the front door banging. The same sound it always made when it banged against the wall. Something to do with the door not being hung properly, Mark had once told her.
She walked to the top of the stairs and leaned over the banister, she could just see the bottom of the front door if she leaned far enough. But this morning her old bones were not supple, and she had to descend three stairs before she could see the object of her curiosity. The door was firmly shut.
As Mary turned to go back up the stairs she felt the lightest touch on her hair, as though she had brushed against a cobweb. She lifted her hand, but feeling nothing but her wispy hair, she continued her journey towards the kitchen.
The matches weren’t where she had left them last night, she was sure the box had been put in its usual spot on the gas stove. As she looked around the room she felt, rather than saw a shadow moving across the window. A minuscule change in the brightness of the room which lasted just the merest fraction of a second.
She rubbed her eyes and winced at the touch of her own icy fingers, she put her hands to her mouth and gently blew on to the tips of her fingers, but gave up when the cold air caught in the back of her throat. The coughing rasped deep in her lungs as she held on to her sides, the pressure of her hands lessening the pain to just manageable proportions.
As Mary’s breathing gradually returned to normal she thought that she heard a tinkle of quiet laughter coming from somewhere just beyond her hearing range. Or was it just the wheezing in her chest? She held her breath for a few moments.
Yes! She was sure. There was a noise, somewhere.
Mary called out. “Who’s there?” She didn’t feel afraid, or even slightly nervous. Just curious. “Who is it?” She shouted again as she walked to the top of the stairs.
Although the creaking floorboard startled her, Mary had a smile of expectation on her face when she turned to greet her visitor, but was not too disappointed to find the staircase empty, as was the landing and the passage.
Mary pulled on her old coat, she looked in the hall mirror and smiled to herself as she tried to push the recalcitrant curls under the red hat. Mark always used to laugh at her shock of hair, “`a hairdresser’s nightmare.’ Was what he used to say,” Mary said to the mirror.
For a change the front door was behaving itself and did not bang when it was opened, or closed.
She nodded a greeting to the man who was talking to the young couple on the pavement, but wasn’t too concerned when she got no response. She didn’t hear what the man was saying to the couple as she hurried on her way to the doctors. She didn’t see the young lady shudder as if an icy blast had just chilled her spine. And she certainly didn’t hear the young man’s comments, she far too deep in thoughts of Mark for outside interruptions.
“Are you certain that it will work?” asked the young man.
“I am assured by no less than the good Father himself that the ceremony will work,” replied the house salesman. “In fact, he said after today’s house blessing the ghost of Mary McCaulay will at last find peace.”
“Gone forever?” asked the young lady.
“Even after thirty years of haunting?” asked the young man.
“Mary’s ghost will not be coming back. Ever.” The salesman stood to one side as Father O’Riordan walked up the short flight of steps to the front door, he smiled a greeting at the young couple.
“Today old Mary’s spirit will be laid to rest and she will find the peace she deserves,” said the priest, as he stood at the front door with the bottle of holy water in his hand.

© Peter Ryan 15/07/1997

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