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The house had been empty for a long while. The first time she stepped across the threshold, dragging her suitcase behind her, Jennifer was overcome by the musty smell and her eyes watered from the thick dust coating the walls.
‘Oh shit,’ she murmured into the dark hallway. ‘What have I done?’
But she was not a person to give up easily. The little cottage had found its way into her ownership two years ago via the will of an eccentric uncle and she had never set foot there before. Nonetheless, she was determined to make this new start work, so she pushed her dark hair back from her forehead, hauled in her meagre possessions, and set about cleaning.
Wet cloths, dusters and polish in hand, she got stuck in. She could not believe the amount of dust. It was worse than clearing out her old dad’s flat before the sale. The electrics had been installed maybe five years before, but nothing else appeared to have been done to the property. The furniture that came with the house was covered in dirt and too rickety to withstand movement.
There were five rooms. Two were bedrooms. One was empty; the other contained a beautiful brass bedstead in excellent condition. Jennifer ordered a new mattress and polished the brass until it shone. There was a pokey little kitchen with a fantastic view over the valley. It would need to be completely refitted once she had the money. For now, she could manage with the old stove. The bathroom was basic but functional.
The fifth room was a sitting room. From the marks on the creaky wooden floor, it had once contained a sofa and chairs, all facing the stunning sea view through the bay windows. Jennifer knew the view was there, though she couldn’t see it for the grime covering the glass. In one corner was a beautiful ebonised pear-wood upright piano with ivory keys. It was in perfect condition and had clearly been cared for. But the dust had not left it alone. And when she sat down to pick out a little tune, the keys clanged discordantly.
At the end of her first day, Jennifer clicked through the day’s photographs on her digital camera. Her photos chronicled her life, recording the sights she saw and the things she experienced. She smiled as she looked through the story of her journey. She’d arrived at the little train station that afternoon with as much packed into her suitcase as she could. Her furniture, what little she owned, would follow the next day. She couldn’t wait to have her computer and upload her photographs.
Her first photograph was of the station. There was only one platform; one train in and out per day. It felt a long way away from the hubbub of London Euston.
The camera played back in stills her walk from the station, wheeling her suitcase behind her. She’d stopped many times along the way, unable to resist shots of the cliffs towering alongside the main road into Cilfachglas.
Her second morning, she climbed up on the windowsill with a bucket of hot soapy water and set about washing the dirt from the windows. As the grey came away on her bright yellow sponge, the blue of the sea shone back at her. Below her little house was a steep slope, then sheer cliff, the sea lapping at the rocks. The harbour was just visible beyond the overgrown trees and bushes.
Jennifer put down her sponge and regarded the view with an artist’s eye. She could imagine the composition, the colours she would use, which shapes would capture the sight before her. She smiled. She’d have plenty of time for painting the views from her very own cottage once the place was habitable.
On her third night there, she climbed into the brass bed for the first time.
The new mattress was comfortable but she got the strangest feeling lying there; a gentle echo. It was almost as though she could feel the previous occupant of the bed watching her as she slept. Yet it wasn’t a threatening gaze. Jennifer felt calm beneath it. She closed her eyes and went to sleep.
That night, she dreamed about the piano.
She’d never really learned to play, only Chopsticks and Frère Jacques at school. But now she dreamed about playing it, her fingers flying over ivory keys, creating beautiful music. It fluttered around her head and set her thoughts on fire. She could hear the melody in her dreams as clearly as if it were playing in the Royal Albert Hall: a concert just for her.
She woke breathless, hot and fluttering all over, as though she’d just awoken from a deeply erotic dream. Her entire body tingled and her mind was a buzz of soft music. She lay still in bed, savouring the glow before she had to get up and get on with the day’s work.
Yet even as she cleaned, her mind was on her dream and the melancholy piano music still playing in her head.
The shining ivory piano keys sing under Arianwen’s fingers. She does not think anymore. She just feels the music.
She is happy here. She has no worries. Peace fills her up inside. Her piano is her only escape.
‘Arianwen, I need you to go to town and buy some fish for supper,’ calls her mother.
Arianwen’s fingers still, reluctantly. She fights not to roll her eyes but instead rises demurely to her feet, closes her piano and goes to do as she is told.
Wicker shopping basket over one arm, she climbs the steep hill from her house, into town. She passes the chapel at the top of the hill. A candle flickers in the window and she knows that inside her Da, the minister, is preparing for the evening service. Tonight, she does not have to go. She attended this morning.
The shops will shut soon but the fishmonger’s will wait for her, for who would deprive the minister of his supper? Though the bakery may shut before she gets there. That is the only shop Arianwen wishes to visit. Blodwyn will be there. She will smile at Arianwen and her pretty, white face will light up at her visitor. If Arianwen thinks this, it will be.
She reaches the bakery. Mrs Evans is locking the door. Arianwen hurries closer, wishing she was wearing something more practical than her layers of petticoat, underskirt and bustle. She wishes she could be without the corset pinching her in. She envies the men their ease of movement.
Blodwyn is there, holding Mrs Evan’s basket for her. Arianwen smiles at Blodwyn and bids her good evening.
‘Noswaith dda,’ she says in her most pleasant voice.
Blodwyn sends her a cursory look. ‘Good evening.’ She does not sound like she means it. Arianwen gazes longingly at her, imagining what they could do.
Hands in her pale blonde hair. Eyes trailing over smooth skin. Bodies sliding against one another.
Mrs Evan’s son is courting Blodwyn. They’ll be married soon.
‘I’m on my way to the fishmonger’s,’ she says.
‘You ought to hurry before he closes,’ Blodwyn replies, turning away.
Arianwen nods. ‘Nos da,’ she says and walks away, not looking back.
Jennifer ventured from her house into the bright sunlight. The sun was hot on her skin but a cool breeze drifted over to her from the sea. She breathed in. She could smell the brine.
She walked up the steep hill away from the harbour and towards Cilfachglas town centre. She needed to stock up. The house was really beginning to feel like her own. Now she had to make the town feel like home too.
She carried one reusable shopping bag, her handbag and her camera. Officially, she was going out to buy a few essential food items: fresh vegetables, some things to make proper meals. But she was hoping to get in a few good shots whilst she was out. She’d already spoken to the owner of the tiny gallery about hosting an exhibition of some of her photographs: a portrait of the town. She was already creating in her head.
At the top of the hill was the chapel. She stopped and looked at it. It was an old stone building with a large round glass window. The window wasn’t ornate, like she was used to seeing on Catholic churches. There was a simple pattern of thin arches on the glass and the rest was clear, to let light into the chapel. The peaked roof was topped with a simple cross, and carved boldly into the stone below the window were the words Yr Eglwys Fethodistaidd yng Nghymru. Jennifer wasn’t an expert on the Welsh language but she knew it was a Methodist chapel so she supposed the writing proclaimed that to the Welsh speakers. On one side of the chapel was a notice board. A poster was pinned to it:
Neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Jennifer smiled. She wasn’t religious in the slightest but she liked the idea of holding onto one’s faith through whatever came along.
What was faith without trials?
She took out her camera and took some pictures, lining up her shots carefully. She photographed the cross; she used her wide-angle lens for the whole chapel; she zoomed in on the notice board. Then she moved on, still smiling.
Cilfachglas was a tiny town. The tourists hadn’t reached it and there wasn’t even a supermarket. There was a butcher’s, a fishmonger’s, a bakery and a General Store but very little else. She enjoyed the peace and quiet. Here, there was no pressure on her to be anybody at all.
‘Hello,’ said a singsong Welsh voice behind her.
She turned and saw a small girl with pale brown plaits looking at her.
‘I haven’t seen you here before,’ said the girl, looking curiously at her.
‘I’ve just moved in. The house on the hill.’
‘It’s called Bryn y Môr,’ the girl said brightly. ‘My mam says it’s haunted.’
‘I don’t believe in ghosts.’
The little girl bounced on her heels. ‘I’ve seen the ghost. She goes up and down the hill with her shopping.’
‘You’ve got a good imagination,’ Jennifer said kindly.
The little girl giggled, shaking her head. ‘She’s real. And she plays her piano all day long!’ she added, then turned and ran away down the street before Jennifer could say anything else.
Arianwen lies still on her brass bed and gazes up at her ceiling. The moon shines in through the gap in her curtains and she feels relaxed. But her breathing is quickening. She closes her eyes, feels a flush across her cheeks.
She can see Blodwyn’s white face before her, smiling down at her. She reaches out, strokes her cheek.
Hot skin beneath her fingers. Long blonde hair falling over smooth white breasts.
Arianwen strokes downwards, exploring her own body, exploring Blodwyn’s in her mind.
Soft flesh of breasts, fingers trailing lower, finding dimpled skin. It roughens under her touch. She cups both breasts, feeling the points harden to press against her palms. Their bellies rub together as they find their rhythm.
She gasps into the silence of her room, fighting hard to keep the scene in her head.
Blodwyn smiles at her. It does not feel real. Her fingers brush Arianwen between her legs. Her hand should be soft but it is not. It feels like Arianwen’s own hand.
It is Arianwen’s own hand. Her eyes open. She is alone in her bed, alone in her room. She is always alone.
She turns over, presses her face into her pillow and lets out a long, unsteady breath.
Jennifer was in the kitchen, halfway up a stepladder cleaning windows. As she scrubbed, light filled the room. She began to hum as she worked, oblivious to her surroundings and focused on her work.
She didn’t notice the piano playing along with her humming.
She stepped back from the window and grinned. The kitchen window was only small but, clean, it filled the whole room with light. She hummed along with the piano.
Then she stopped humming.
She was definitely hearing music this time. She wasn’t imagining it.
Jennifer whirled around and strode towards the sitting room. She burst inside. There was the piano, standing alone against the wall. There was nobody there and the lid was closed, covering the keys.
Yet she could still hear the music. Soft, sad and slow. Jennifer stared intently at the piano stool. There was nobody there. Nobody at all. Yet the music kept playing.
She squeezed her eyes shut. ‘I’m not scared,’ she murmured. ‘This isn’t real. My house is not haunted.’
The music stopped. Jennifer opened her eyes and knew she was alone.