Lisa stopped her scrubbing, her head cocked, straining to hear. Her heart thumped. She stood up slowly, fighting the urge to run, and wiped her hands down the sides of her trousers. She walked from the room, along the passage and out onto the front verandah. She stood, her back against the wall, and took slow deep breaths, counting to ten each time before she exhaled. It was so quiet, the only noise the harsh intermittent cry of a crow.
It was all in her head – the shrill voices of children, the whispered croak of an old woman, and screaming, just at the edge of her hearing. The cause was obvious – stupid anxiety attacks, head games she played with herself. But she had got the better of them, she hadn’t needed the pills since she had moved here a year ago. She sighed heavily. Life wasn’t as stressful in a small country town but there was less money too.
Lisa walked back into the house. She turned sharply as the wire door flapped shut, expecting to see a small stooped woman behind her. She gave a humourless laugh. She must get a grip on herself. It was probably the thought of cleaning that kitchen that was sending her off.
* * *
It had looked so picturesque when Roger Hanson had shown her through. He had driven her out in his shiny BMW – estate agencying seemed to pay well even in small towns. They had parked on the road. With old-fashioned charm, he had opened the car door for her, stood back and let her walk up the path ahead of him. The garden was overgrown, a riot of flowers and creepers struggling against each other. The house was weatherboard, unpainted but in good repair.
Roger had been businesslike. He had unlocked the front door and said, ‘All I want is the walls and floors swept and scrubbed. Then a single coat of paint on the walls. Don’t worry much about preparation. Forget the skirting boards and the windows.’ Lisa had fought the urge to laugh. Roger was quickly falling into the stereotype of the estate agent after a quick buck.
He continued talking, oblivious to the twinkle in her eyes and the twitch at the corners of her mouth.
‘Just make the place look fresh and clean. Electricity isn’t on so you’ll have to light the wood heater in the laundry if you want hot water.’
‘Do you know how it works?’ she asked.
Roger shrugged. ‘I’m sure you can work it out.’
‘As long as I don’t burn the whole place down,’ Lisa laughed lightly.
Roger scowled, ‘Why would you do that?’
‘Sorry. Just a joke.’ She made a mental note: no jokes. ‘The house will be hard to let if there’s no electricity.’
‘Haven’t had it reconnected yet. Don’t want squatters moving in while my back is turned.’
Lisa looked around. ‘Funny, I’ve ridden along this road so often and I’ve never noticed the place before.’
‘Everyone seems to overlook it. To my advantage though. Probably why it hasn’t been taken over by squatters.’
She gazed back at the garden. ‘Did your grandmother live here?’
Roger had glared at Lisa. She made another mental note: don’t ask personal questions.
She looked at him with blue-eyed innocence. ‘I’m not prying. This house is a lot like my grandmother’s.’
He stared hard at her then answered, his voice gruff. ‘Been in the family a while.’
He led the way into the house. There were two bedrooms at the front, a sitting room and another bedroom behind, then the kitchen with a porch and bathroom-cum-laundry. Paint tins and brushes and rollers were stacked in the porch under a tarp. Lisa popped her head around the door but Roger made no move to enter the kitchen. He stood in the porch staring out along the brick path that led from the back of the house to the woodshed and the toilet and more overgrown garden beds. ‘I’ll get someone to do the garden while you are working on the house.’
Lisa took a quick look around the kitchen. It was a big room dominated by a large black range. She could imagine the room furnished with a heavy wooden dresser and a large table surrounded by high-backed chairs, a fire burning in the range, the smell of baking filling the room.
* * *
Lisa had started the cleaning with the laundry but had put off going into the kitchen. If she thought about it, which she tried not to, it gave her the creeps and that didn’t do when she was out here by herself. She had to get on with the cleaning and be home before nightfall. Her pushbike didn’t have lights and she didn’t want to be squashed by some careless driver or, worse, fined by Constable Pike trying to fill his quota. He’d be sure to somehow insinuate that there were ways around it without saying as much. She shuddered. He was divorced, Betty, her elderly neighbour, had said. His wife couldn’t take to the country life but Lisa was sure that it had more to do with Constable ‘call me Derek, love’ Pike himself.
* * *
Lisa unlocked the door to her own house and parked her bike in the brightly-lit passage. She walked into the lounge room. A boy in his early teens sat, his eyes glued to the television screen, as he pressed buttons on the X-box controller in his hands.
‘Mum what’s for tea?’ he asked without looking away from the screen.
‘Chris! You could say hello to Mum first.’ His older sister, Ruby, uncurled from the couch where she was reading. She smiled up at her mother.
‘Hello Mum, what’s for tea?’ Chris said, still intent on his game.
Lisa sighed, ‘Scrambled eggs.’ And two glasses of Chateau Cardboard for me.
‘Again,’ Chris groaned.
‘Can’t we have takeaway?’ Ruby asked.
‘Next week. When I get paid.’ Lisa moved through the room and into the kitchen. She washed her hands then opened the fridge and took out a carton of eggs.
‘Mum.’ Ruby stood at the door. ‘Roger Hanson rang. He wants you to ring him back.’
Lisa felt panic rising again. ‘Did he say what he wanted?’
Ruby shook her head, ‘No.’
He’s not going to pay me Lisa thought. ‘I’d better ring straight away.’
She walked to the kitchen bench and picked up her phone – she must remember to take it with her tomorrow. It was answered after a single ring.
‘Hi Roger. It’s Lisa Murray.’
‘Ah Lisa.’ He plunged straight into business. ‘Would you be willing to clean up the garden as well?’
‘Oh!’ Lisa paused. She was looking forward to the thought of company while she was working in the house.
‘How much more time do you need in the house?’
‘One more day at least. I still have the kitchen to do.’
Roger was brisk. ‘You can leave that ‘til last.’
‘There’s a lot to be done in the garden,’ Lisa said, trying to keep her voice even. ‘Wouldn’t it be better to get a proper gardener in?’
‘Can’t at such short notice. Look, how much do I owe you so far?’
‘I’ve done three days work there. You said you’d pay me a hundred a day so $300.’
‘OK. I’d say there are another three days work left, allowing a day for the kitchen.’
‘I don’t know Roger.’
‘How about I pay you double for the next three days if you can get it all done by Saturday evening?’
‘Let’s make it a round thousand.’
Lisa was speechless – she was already running through what she could spend this windfall on.
‘Lisa you’d be doing me an enormous favour. If you can get the garden done by Friday I’ll send someone over to take the rubbish away on Saturday. I’ll come by around six on Saturday and pay you. Cash – no need to declare it. Even drive you home.’
‘If you put it like that…’
‘Got some potential buyers coming down on Sunday. Want to show them over. They’re pretty keen. With any luck I’ll get a sale straight away. The sooner I get this place off my hands the better.’
Lisa went to say, but I though you were going to rent it but thought better of it. She wouldn’t be totally by herself with someone coming for the rubbish and she wouldn’t have to go into the house until Saturday.
‘Please Lisa.’ His voice took on a different tone: warm, cajoling. ‘If I get the sale, I’ll take you out to dinner.’
Lisa flushed. Roger Hanson was attractive – dark, regular good looks, solid muscular build. Her dealings with him so far had been businesslike. He seemed to be someone who kept work and pleasure well apart. She wondered how he would change in a social situation. She forced herself to say, ‘Roger that’s not necessary.’
‘It’d be a pleasure. You’ll have played a part in clinching the sale.’
‘But I don’t know if I can get the garden done in two days. There’s the back and the front.’
‘Don’t worry too much about the back. That’s settled then. See you Saturday.’ He hung up with out giving Lisa time to answer.
Lisa sat down heavily on a kitchen chair.
Ruby poked her head around the door. ‘What’s the matter Mum?’
‘I feel like I’ve just been run over by a train.’
Ruby stared, a crease between her eyebrows.
‘Roger Hanson wants me to do the garden. He’s giving me $1000 for the whole week if I can get it all done by Saturday.’
‘Wow! That’s great Mum. You’re nearly finished anyway.’
‘But there’s a lot of work in the garden.’
‘You’ll get it done.’
Lisa smiled at Ruby. ‘I know. I’m just being stupid. Do you want to give me a hand? I’ll pay you, I’m rich now.’
‘Sorry Mum I’m going around to Anna’s tomorrow. Maybe on Friday.’
* * *
Lisa went to bed early but her sleep was troubled by children shrieking, a bent frail woman whispering. She woke more tired than she was when she went to bed. Still, she could sleep in on Sunday and she would be $1000 richer.
She hung the washing out before she left.
‘You’re up early,’ Betty called over the fence.
‘Yes, I’m cleaning a house for Roger Hanson out along the Reedsdale Road.
Betty frowned. ‘But there are no houses along there.’
‘I’ve spent the last three days there, Betty. It’s a bit hard to see from the road though.’
‘On the left side, about two miles out.’
‘There was a fire there when I was a girl. I thought the house burnt down.’
‘There’s a house there. And it’s in reasonable condition. Perhaps it’s a different place.’
Betty folded her arms across her ample bosom, thoughtful. She shook her head as she spoke. ‘There was only ever one house along there. I’ll have to ask old Mary Wright, she’ll know for sure.’
Lisa smiled to herself. Mary Wright looked to be a few years younger than Betty .‘It’s definitely there. Roger is paying me good money to clean it up.’
Betty frowned. ‘Yes, well, you be careful with that Roger Hanson.’
Lisa gaped, ‘Oh, he’s always been a perfect gentleman. And we got this house through him.’ Her eyes shone. ‘He’s always been very helpful.’
Betty’s lined face broke into a gentle smile. ‘It’s alright dear. I didn’t mean that sort of thing. Funny family though. Pretty secretive. I suppose they had their reasons. They changed their surname during the War. It was something German.’ She screwed up her eyes trying to remember. ‘Can’t remember what it was.’
‘My mother said quite a few did that even though they had been here for a couple of generations.’ Lisa moved closer to the fence. ‘But what happened with the fire?’
‘I can’t remember the whole story,’ Betty replied. ‘It was something about an old woman. Took in a couple of neglected children. They used to take them away from their parents back then. She fell in the fire, used to happen with those open fires. There were whispers that the children pushed her. I thought they burnt the house down but I was only a girl and everyone was pretty tight lipped about it.’
Lisa shivered. ‘That’s horrible.’
Betty grimaced over the fence at Lisa. ‘Look it was all years ago and I’m getting old and a bit muddled. It was probably something about an old couple burning the dinner. You know how stories change. Come in for a cuppa when you’ve finished out there and I’ll tell you the real story after I get it from Mary Wright.’
‘I’ll do that Betty.’
Betty watched Lisa walk back into the house, concern on her face.
* * *
The garden looked as if it had been years since anyone had pulled a single weed. Lisa hacked away at the creeper that covered half the garden. Once all the creeper had been removed the garden was not as disorderly as she had at first thought. She cut and pruned and pulled weeds. There was a row of rose bushes each side of the path. By late Friday morning Lisa had finished the front garden and started on the back. Although this was better than working in the house, the silence, broken only by the desolate cries of the crows, still unnerved her. Her breath caught and her heart raced as she heard, every so often, screams and whisperings at the edge of her hearing.
When the back garden was in reasonable order Lisa turned and looked at the house. There was time to make a start on the kitchen. The sky was overcast. Perhaps she should go home before it started to rain.
But the air was still warm and Lisa doubted that it would rain. She was making excuses. Better to get on with it. She walked through the house and opened all the doors and windows. The new paint smell was overpowering. She squared her shoulders and opened the kitchen door. The air was stale, with a faint smell of charcoal. She threw up the window and turned back to the room.
Get the dirty job over first, start with the range. Lisa made a mental note to buy some stove black before she came out tomorrow. The old general store in Main Street was sure to have some – it even sold ancient blue bags. Lisa laughed realizing that she was actually talking aloud to herself.
She started with the firebox, sweeping the ashes into a large tin she had found in the woodshed. Then she opened the oven. There was something in there.
Lisa peered in close. The sky had darkened, there was a chill in the air now. Rain seemed certain. She would go home as soon as she finished the stove. Lisa stared harder. It was probably some poor animal that had crawled in and died. She grimaced and stuck the brush in to drag out what ever it was. The contents clatter to the floor. A sudden blast of the wind shuddered the house. Doors slammed. Thunder clapped overhead; the room was lit bright by a flash of lightning. Lisa sprang back as charred bones clattered to the floor; a human skull bounced off her foot. She screamed and bolted from the room. She stood in the porch gasping. Rain pelted down, drumming on the roof.
She stood, her eyes shut, trying to control her panic. What should she do? She had to be sure of her facts. She couldn’t face Constable ‘call me Derek, love’ with a garbled story. Lisa squared her shoulders and looked around the door. The light was still poor but she could see well enough. On the hearth there was nothing but the ash she had swept from the firebox. Her heart was still thudding, she walked slowly to the hearth and picked up the brush. She poked it gingerly back into the oven. Nothing except a small amount of brittle ash.
Lisa locked the house and rode home careless of the teeming rain.
* * *
A frail stooped figure trailed through Lisa’s dreams that night, fading as dawn approached. Lisa forced herself back to the house. The bright morning sunlight poured into the kitchen. She walked in and stared around. She felt nothing of yesterday’s fears. She’d have to get a grip on herself or she’d be back on the pills. Lisa swept and scrubbed and slapped a coat of paint on the kitchen walls. About ten o’clock a cheerful red-faced man in his fifties arrived with a truck to take the garden rubbish away. He accepted Lisa’s offer of coffee from her thermos and chatted about the football.
Late in the afternoon, when she was finished Lisa she walked through the house. She was pleased with the job she had done. A magpie carrolled in a tree down by the road.
Roger was as good as his word. He drove up at six in his shiny car and walked through the house nodding.
He stood on the back porch, smiling broadly. ‘You’ve done a great job Lisa. If the sale comes off I will take you out to dinner.’
She smiled back at him. ‘That’d be lovely.’ Dinner wouldn’t hurt. She had assumed that he wasn’t married but she’d check with Betty first.
He handed over the money, a wad of fifties.
Lisa grinned as she took it. ‘Thanks Mr Hansel.’
He scowled. ‘I’m sick of it. Sick of those stupid stories. My grandfather got this place fair and square, paid the back rates.’
Lisa took a step back. ‘I’m sorry,’ she stuttered, frightened by the sudden change in him. ‘I was just being formal. I won’t call you mister again if you don’t like it. It was just a silly joke – master-servant thing.’
‘That’s not what I meant,’ he snarled. ‘It’s the other name.’
‘Hanson? It’s your name isn’t it?’
‘Yes it is. No matter what any of those old busybodies say.’
©Catherine Merrick 2016