Laurel awoke with a start, sat up, and stared around the darkened room. Where was she? A furry lump at the bottom of the bed made a snuffling sound in its throat, did a quick turn, then settled back to snoring.
Laurel lay back down. Of course—she was in Great Aunt Maggie's bedroom. The noise that awakened her must have been the dog. Aunt Maggie's King Charles spaniel woke Laurel every night since she moved in here a week ago. She glanced at the bedside clock. Three ten.
A tingling up her spine alerted her to the presence of someone or something. The sensation didn't unduly worry her—she'd experienced such feelings since she first felt the presence of a spirit at the age of five. What did worry her was that she couldn't recognise this visitor or its reason for demanding her attention. Well, it didn't exactly worry her—more like confused her. Usually her spirit visitors made themselves known straight away.
The cat was sitting up now and staring at the door. But then the other cat jumped onto the bed and Laurel sighed. That's what had drawn its interest.
The dog whimpered again. Perhaps it was unkind of her to leave the animal downstairs in the kitchen—but two cats sharing her bed was more than considerate as far as she could see. Never in her life had she allowed pets to share a room with her, let alone a bed. Both cats jumped off the bed and as they moved out of the bedroom in unison Laurel saw by the shaft of moonlight streaming in through the window that their hackles were raised.
Then she heard what she realised must have startled the cats. It sounded like a child singing—softly chanting a nursery rhyme Laurel didn't recognise. Laurel put her feet to the floor and pulled on her dressing gown. The cats came back into the room as she switched on the bedside light, and stayed close to her as she went into the hallway.
Laurel opened the doors to the other bedrooms, switching on the light in each. One was sparsely furnished, containing a narrow bed, bedside chest and cupboard. The other two were cramped with odd bits of furniture but no beds were made up. That's why, when Laurel visited Aunt Maggie in the nursing home, the old lady insisted Laurel sleep in her large comfy bed in the main bedroom overlooking the rambling front garden.
Lord knows what possessed her great aunt to buy such a large house. Although Laurel admitted it certainly possessed charm. Probably built in the thirties, the large high-ceilinged rooms were splendid for hot summers in Australia, with cornices and ornamental roses surrounding the ceiling lighting rarely seen in modern houses. The flowery wallpaper was certainly not to her taste but obviously suited Aunt Maggie to a tee.
The singing definitely hadn’t come from these rooms. As Laurel switched off the light and closed the door of the last room at the far end of the hallway she glanced down over the balcony that ran along the upper floor of the house. The singing must have come from downstairs. It was quiet now, so whoever insisted on gaining her attention must be satisfied it had achieved its goal.
The cats returned to the bedroom, probably once again already curled up and comfy—but the dog still whimpered, so Laurel went downstairs. She might as well get a drink, it was unlikely she would get any more sleep tonight.
The aptly named dog, Charlie, greeted her exuberantly, and then stared past Laurel, her ears pricked. "Looking for Maggie are you?" Laurel patted the little dog.
Never a great animal lover, it took a deal of persuasion on the part of Great Aunt Maggie's friend and neighbour to encourage Laurel to move in once her aunt was taken off to the nursing home that would no doubt be where she would now stay till she died. After all, when one reached the ripe old age of eighty seven and had a badly fractured leg it was likely you wouldn't be moving around a lot in the future.
Although it had to be said, her great aunt didn’t go without a fight. But even she had to finally admit that when your leg is broken in two places it would be nigh on impossible to manage living alone. She fretted so much about her pets that Laurel considered it might be best to move in—until she decided on the best course of action for the dog and the cats, Marmalade and Plum. The cats were named according to their colors so it was easy to tell them apart. Great Aunt Maggie was what most people would call a character. What Laurel called her, perhaps ungraciously, was eccentric.
After making her cup of tea she sat at the kitchen table, sipping it thoughtfully. The cats had come searching for her and all three animals now sat watching her as if waiting on her next move. "I haven't a clue," she said, then shook her head. What had she come to? Telling a bunch of animals her thoughts. She glanced up at the clock on the mantelshelf. This being such an old house, like many others of that period it sported a magnificent fireplace in the huge kitchen.
Her mother would be up and about in her small house just outside London. Laurel went to the phone and dialed the number. When her mother answered, she said, "Hello Mum, hope I didn't disturb you."
"No, of course you didn't. What's up? Nothing else gone wrong is there?"
"No, it’s the middle of the night and I couldn't sleep so thought I'd give you a ring. I don't know what to do about these animals. I really should go back to work within a few days—but I don't like to leave them."
In Australia a year, Laurel loved her job in one of Victoria’s larger magazine’s editorial office. Always having a flair for fashion as fashion editor she was in her element. Her boss, Ben, didn’t quibble about her taking a couple of weeks off, perhaps because she hadn't taken a day off since starting the job. Or it could be because she was sleeping with him. That might have something to do with it, but doubtless it wouldn't be long before he was angling for her return. Ben was on the phone every evening. He was getting lonely, he said. And in addition to that, he wasn’t enamored of the woman standing in for Laurel in her absence.
Poor Ben. His ex-wife had remarried, and taken his ten year old son and nine year old daughter to the other side of the country. He'd only seen his kids once in the past year since they settled in Geraldton, where her new husband was born and raised.
"What about Maggie's friend, her neighbour?” her mother asked. “Isn't there any chance she might take them?"
Laurel sighed. "None. She’s got a menagerie of her own that includes a couple of birds. That would have been the best solution but Aunt Maggie was absolutely insistent I stay here with them. She got quite flustered when I said I needed to return to work, and was thinking it might be best to hire a live-in housekeeper to care for the place and animals.” Laurel rubbed her temple. “And she said something strange when I visited her yesterday, Mum. She inferred that I was needed in the house as much as I was needed by the animals."
There was a long silence at the other end of the line. Then her mother said, "You know your great aunt has the same odd powers as you, don't you, Laurel?"
Her mother was the only person who knew about Laurel's visions and insights. Since the time as a child she told her mother about seeing angels and ghosts, her mother decided it would be best to keep it to themselves, saying people tended to shun those who professed to be out of the ordinary. Which was true.
"No I didn't." Laurel glanced down to the dog, whose ears were pricked again, as if it could hear something she couldn't. "I think there's a child in the house."
Her mother made a small sound of distress. Why she'd been given these strange powers and not her mother Laurel had no idea. It never sat comfortably with her parent though. And they'd always kept the truth from Laurel's father right to his death a couple of years ago.
Laurel thought that odd, sure she would tell her husband—if she ever got round to marrying anyone. She'd reached twenty six without coming close to ‘taking the plunge’ as her English friends called it. Ben did tentatively ask her to move into his apartment in Melbourne, but no mention so far was made of matrimony. Laurel had a sneaky feeling he was wary of commitment after the debacle of his marriage and wasn't yet ready to try again.
Did that worry her? Often she thought not.
"Oh no!" Her mother couldn't come to terms with her sightings even after all these years.
"It's all right, Mum. Don't worry yourself. After all this time I've learned to live with it."
“Oh Laurel.” A wealth of sadness filled those two words.
After a few minutes of small talk Laurel rang off. She shouldn't have mentioned the child. It always upset her mother, and Laurel hadn’t mentioned seeing or hearing spirits for the past couple of years. You'd have thought by now her mother would have grown accustomed to Laurel's talent—or curse—depending on how you looked at it. But she often made Laurel feel like the witches of old probably felt before they were hounded and burned at the stake. So Laurel began to keep it to herself—which grew burdensome at times. It would be lovely to share something that was so much a part of her life with someone who understood.
About six years ago she went to see a renowned psychic, who almost had a heart attack at what she saw in Laurel, who had the feeling she must have been the first genuine case the woman had come across. It was likely she’d never really contacted a spirit before—despite claims she regularly spoke to people from the 'other side'. About that time Laurel was having regular contact with a lost soul; a girl of about fourteen who lost her baby after delivering it alone in a deserted warehouse. Somehow she’d been found out by her parents and her brute of a father killed her in a fit of rage. Laurel helped her make the transition to the other side—and the peace she yearned for.
Laurel sighed, got up and put her empty cup in the sink. The dog appeared restless, her eyes following Laurel's every move, while the cats prowled around the kitchen like caged lions.
"What is it about you lot," Laurel grumbled. "You'll have to get used to life without your mistress, and I can't stay with you forever."
The dog whined as if it truly understood what she said. The cats ran ahead of her as she left the kitchen. The dog continued to whine behind the closed door. Laurel ignored it and went along the passage, pausing by the door to the basement. She shrugged. No doubt sleep would evade her now, so why not go and look down there? It was the only room left that she hadn’t checked since being awakened. In fact she hadn’t bothered giving the lower room a lot of thought before now.
When she glanced in there on her first day here all she saw was a lot of furniture covered with dust sheets. Not necessarily a very adventurous person, she hadn’t felt like investigating—and since she held no intentions of staying on permanently anyway it was of no great interest what was stored there. Why her great aunt owned and kept so much furniture she couldn’t understand, but nothing would surprise her anymore about the old lady. It was heart wrenching to see a lady who'd been so agile until recently, bedridden.
The cats watched her with interest, and when she opened the door they sat like a pair of bookends, their tails curled about their bodies.
Laurel peered into the dark space beyond. Feeling around, she found a light switch on the wall, then went down the short flight of steps. No doubt Great Aunt Maggie brought furniture from her previous property, which was stored here—but who knows what or who for. It seemed possible that a lot of the current furnishings might have come with the house. But Laurel found that as people got older they did have a habit of collecting things they hated to part with. There were also some wooden crates and large cardboard boxes lined up neatly along one wall. She stood looking around. Dust made her sneeze a few times. The cats now stood at the door, peering down at her but not crossing the threshold.
Fully expecting to see the child who disturbed her sleep, she was surprised when nothing presented itself. No sound, no, sign, nothing. “Show yourself,” Laurel said, but silence met her demand.
She was unsure how long Great Aunt Maggie had lived here. Since her arrival in Australia last year Laurel’s time was taken up with finding an apartment, a job, then settling into both. Then there'd been Ben taking up her weekends and evenings for the past couple of months. Guilt made her squirm. As the only relative of the old lady here in Australia she should have been more attentive. Living alone tended to make one selfish. But Great Aunt Maggie always seemed so independent—until this dreadful accident. Just what did she do to break bones? Laurel didn't even know. And Maggie wasn’t the type to plead with Laurel to move in with her, so likely also preferred her single state.
Everything was dust laden so it was a good thing the furniture was covered by sheets. No doubt some of the pieces were priceless. There were piles of books, and magazines. Laurel idly glanced at the top of a couple of piles and saw that some of the magazines dated back about twenty years. Were they Maggie's or left behind by a previous tenant of the house? They were yellowed with age, the corners bent and pages crumpled.
Tired of the expedition for this night, and sure the child was not about to show itself now, Laurel was about to turn back to the steps when a cardboard box sitting on a trunk caught her eye. She went over and ran a finger across the top of the box. Why had it caught her attention over the others stacked around? She dusted its top with a scrap of rag she found lying beside it. Like all the other boxes it was yellowed and time-worn. She tested its weight and as it was not too heavy, tucked it under one arm. Ascending the steps, she smiled as both cats meowed a welcome as if she’d been gone for hours and they’d missed her. They followed her back upstairs, in a race to see who could make the bed first. It was a dead heat between them.
Laurel went into the bathroom and washed the dust from her hands. The cats were fast asleep at the bottom of the bed when she came out. She thought of leaving the box closed until the morning, but once beneath the covers curiosity got the better of her, and she lifted the box onto her knee.
There was another smaller wooden container inside. The lid lifted easily. Disappointment filled her, as all it seemed to contain was a child’s old school scribble book, tatty around its edges, and some sheets of yellowed paper with lists of things like furniture and household stuff. What had she expected to find?
Unfortunately time and use had taken its toll on the notebook and she could just make out the letters G l and n and then an H with a few gaps after it and then an x on the front cover. When she opened it she saw that most of the words on the first page were also illegible. Laurel closed the book carefully. She would take a closer look at it tomorrow. At the bottom of the box were some photos, so she lifted them with care. The first one was in sepia and not too clear. It showed a boy and a girl. She turned it over and barely made out the scribbling on the back. January 1939. The boy looked to be about four, the girl slightly younger. Doing a quick add and subtract she reasoned if they were still alive they would be in about their late seventies or even eighty.
About to add the photo to the pile she’d put aside, something caught Laurel’s eye. She turned sideways so the bedside lamp shone fully on the photo, and her insides did a flip. There was another shape in the photo—in the background and barely decipherable. She opened the drawer in the bedside chest where Maggie kept a myriad of useful and useless bits and pieces, and rummaged around until she found a magnifying glass.
Yes, she was right; there was a shadow behind the children. It was unclear if it was a girl or boy, but it seemed to be taller than the boy. Laurel knew instantly that it was a spirit. It was unbelievable the camera picked it up so many years ago when the camera equipment could not have been exactly accurate.
Was it a boy or a girl she heard earlier? Could have been either—young children tended to sound the same when they were reciting or singing. Laurel admitted she didn't know a lot about children. She pressed her palm flat on the photograph, endeavouring to get a message from the child. Oddly the spirit still didn't present itself in any shape or form.
Placing the photo on the bedside chest, she picked up the notebook again, her curiosity now peaked. The pages were thin with age, their corners tattered. With extreme care she turned to the second page. Although the writing was faded, some words hard to decipher, what could be read looked to be penned in a childish scrawl. Using the magnifier again Laurel just made out that the writer was aware of someone else in the house. Someone their parents hadn’t told them about, obviously, for Mummy and Daddy never say anything, so it’s our secret, was written at the bottom. Could that have been the spirit? If so, then at least one of the children was well aware they shared their home with a ghost. Or, it could have just been a child’s overactive imagination. A lot of children had imaginary friends.
The next page bore the words, why doesn’t Mummy let us out to play with the other kids? I want to play with my school friend but she won’t let me. This must have been written a few years later. What was wrong with the parents to isolate their children? The sadness in that plaintive plea touched Laurel’s heart. No wonder they seemed so sad in the photo, they weren’t allowed to mix with kids their own age, except at school.
The next few pages contained nothing but more figures and scribbles, and some were so disintegrated that the words were completely faded. Now intrigued, Laurel picked up another photo. This one must have been taken soon after the first as the children were in the garden again, but looked about the same age. The shadow still lurked in the background. It was a warm day as the girl had a short sleeved dress on, and the boy’s chest was bare.
March 1944 was scribbled on the back of the next photo—5 years on. They were now about 8 and 9, and the boy had overtaken the girl and was now about three inches taller. Both were gangly but good looking children. Poor kids, they were not laughing in this one either. The spirit was absent from this photo.
The next photo showed adults. On the back was the date 1956 and beside that she could just make out D 21 today. And below that, No party for him. Goodness, where did all the intervening photos go? What a miserable childhood they’d had and even as adults were denied friends. They were attractive, with fair hair, but the girl’s long sleeved dress was plain and very unfashionable for the fifties.
When Laurel reached the last photo it was dated 1960, so D was 25. The shadow of the child, which she could just make out was a girl, was back again in the background. With a sigh, Laurel placed it with the others and picked up the notebook again. She turned to the last page and with difficulty made out the words, leaving today—Valentine’s day. Below that she read, Mum is pleased to be going. I think if Dad was still here he would not want to be leaving, but for some reason she was never happy here. Said she wants to make a fresh start. We don’t want to leave. The next paragraph was unreadable, so that was it, nothing more.
So apparently the spirit had lingered on in the house since then. But why? Was the girl looking to Laurel to help her cross over? Could that be the reason for her attracting attention? Laurel frowned down at the page. And why had this box and its contents been left behind?
The notebook was obviously kept by the daughter, so why did she not take it with her when they moved? Also, Mothers had a habit of keeping scrapbooks and photos of their children for ever. Could the girl have secreted the box away somewhere, where it lay hidden for years? Or could they have left in a hurry and the box plus its contents accidentally got left behind?
Laurel yawned. There was nothing else in the box. If the spirit did decide to show itself, perhaps Laurel could learn a few answers to the riddle. Going by the journal entries the girl was sad to be leaving, so could obviously have taken a few cherished memories with her.
Why was their mother never happy in the house? Looked as if their father died and she considered it best to start afresh elsewhere. It seemed strange that the twenty-four or five year olds were obviously still bound to their mother and were going with her wherever she chose to relocate. At their age it would have been more feasible for them to be starting out lives of their own. Perhaps they did.
What moral issues abounded in the 60s? Laurel had no idea, but felt sure it was the time of the Rolling Stones, drugs and free love. These two must have led very sheltered lives. How she would like to know what the boy worked at—or if he did in fact have a job. The girl probably never had to go out and find employment. Did either of them marry? Did the parents own this house or was it rented? Renting seemed more likely, as this house would have cost a lot even back then. Could they have been wealthy? Was the father a business man worth a fortune?
A hundred questions whirled and niggled about in Laurel’s brain. Closing the box, she placed it on the floor beside the bed, leaving the photos on the bedside chest.
Perhaps Great Aunt Maggie would have some answers, although that seemed unlikely.
* * *
Something tickled her nose. Laurel brushed it away, but when it persisted she opened her eyes. The golden cat lay across her chest, its paw suspended. "Go away," she mumbled. The clock said ten past nine. Goodness, she hadn’t stayed in bed till this late hour in a long time. She must have fallen asleep after looking at the photos, and obviously nothing else disturbed the remainder of her night.
When Laurel put her feet to the floor, the cat hopped down. The other cat joined it as it left the bedroom. Both seemed to move in rhythmic unison, as if dancing to the same tune, tails aloft, the bells Aunt Maggie must have put around their necks to warn birds of their approach jangling a merry tune. The dog was howling as expected. Laurel donned her dressing gown and hurried to the bathroom. The dog was a regular pain in the neck, but she did sympathise with it. Great Aunt Maggie possibly rose at the crack of dawn each day, and more than likely never left it shut downstairs all night.
As Laurel entered the kitchen the dog went wild, so she let it out to the back yard and both cats shot past her to join it. Just as she switched the kettle on the telephone rang.
It was Ben. What he said jolted her out of her lethargy. "Happy Valentine's Day, darling."
Speechless, Laurel stared at the vase of plastic flowers in the middle of the kitchen table.
"Laurel, are you there?" Ben sounded faintly worried.
"Yes, yes, are you sure?"
"Sure? Of what? Of you being my Valentine?" Now he sounded amused.
"No, that it’s February the fourteenth?" There had to be a mistake.
"Well, the calendar on my desk says it's that date—so unless my PA is slipping, and I don't think she is, yes, it's the fourteenth all right. Are you okay? You don't sound right."
"Yes, I'm fine, it's just that…" She left it unfinished. How to explain the odd coincidence? Ben had no idea she was different to any other English career woman who came to Australia for adventure and a change of lifestyle. And it would probably scare the pants off him if he ever found out about her special abilities. To date no man had been important enough in her life for her to explain how she was different to others. Which was sad. And probably why she never came close to marrying—she would only consider that step with a man who knew all about her and accepted it.
The bell on the main door rang. "I have to go, Ben. There's someone at the door."
"Any idea when you'll be coming back?"
Laurel put the phone down without answering that query. She went along to the entrance hall. A delivery man stood on the porch with a huge bouquet of roses. Of course they were from Ben and she cringed. What an insensitive person she was. She'd cut him off rudely, yet he'd sent her these beautiful flowers.
* * *
After parking the car, Laurel went to the nursing home entrance. The receptionist smiled in welcome, saying, "Your aunt is in great spirits this afternoon."
"That's good." One thing about Great Aunt Maggie, she was invariably cheerful.
Laurel went along to her room, where the old lady sat in bed, propped up on about half a dozen pillows, a lilac crocheted shawl about her shoulders. Her face brightened the instant Laurel entered.
"Hello my dear, how are my children?" she asked.
"They're all fine." What else could she say? "I overslept this morning and Charlie was a bit annoyed with me for not being there to let her out early."
"That's not like you to oversleep. None of the females in our family are that tardy. Something keep you awake?"
Laurel peered closely at her aunt. Was there a motive behind that innocent sounding query? "Actually I didn't sleep too well."
Pulling a chair over beside the bed, Laurel sat. Great Aunt Maggie's veined hands were linked on the bedspread over her stomach. For a woman of her advanced years her skin was incredibly good. In fact it was hard to tell her age until you looked at her blue-veined hands. They gave it away.
"No? I hope my darling cats didn't keep you awake." She chuckled. "I've spoiled them, I know, but they've been my children. I've always had pets—less trouble than human babies." She looked intently at Laurel, her eyes seeming to peer into Laurel’s brain. "Didn't you want babies?"
So taken aback by the blunt question, Laurel said slowly, "It's not so much that I didn't want them—more that the man I would want to have them with hasn’t come along yet." She always felt slightly indignant when people presumed because she’d never had a long-lasting relationship and having reached her age without ever being engaged, had given up all idea of having children. Anyone would think she dangled one foot in the grave.