Ruth has laid an assortment of clothes across the chairs and sofas in the living room, silks and velvets in pinks and peaches, browns and blues, vintage dresses she has picked up from various markets, which are pulled out for parties or games. The children jump at them, picking up various items, which they hold against themselves, while they attempt to find the mirrors. Once dressed, they stand on tables and chairs, jump to the ground and attack each other with pretend swords.
‘Settle down,’ Ruth urges. ‘I want to tell you a story.’ The kids scramble onto the large sofa, still chattering and comparing clothes. ‘It’s a ghost story,’ Ruth says, and they settle. ‘But it’s also a story about Mary-Anne.’ They fall silent, staring up at her with wide eyes. They are utterly still.
Ruth, in her element with an audience, stands tall like an orator. ‘Rigby never left this place,’ she says slowly, dramatically. ‘Not in all his years did he walk away. He told people many stories: that he loved his home; that he didn’t want to live anywhere else. But he must have been lonely in this strange house, isolated on this headland surrounded by the sea. He was alone. People believed he stayed in the hope that his one love, Mary-Anne, would return.’
‘And she did!’ Tim shouts excitedly.
‘Well, perhaps,’ Ruth says. ‘It was many years after her death and, Rigby, no longer a seaman, was old and tired, worn out by the weather and the hard work of this place: the long hot summers, the never-ending winters, the relentless wind and rain. It was a terrible dark winter, with ferocious storms, a dastardly northwesterly wind. He was in the kitchen one night, feeding the stove, when he heard a scream.’
Eliza jumps, clings onto her sister.
‘He looked out of the window but it was too dark to see, so he took his lantern. He struggled to open the door against the wind, had to shield his flame. The rain came in from the sea, which was as black as ink, glowing bright despite the uncertain moon, and he listened, but heard nothing but the keening wind: Wooo,’ she says. ‘Wooo.’
The children giggle.
‘Then he noticed movement in the bracken. He knew about the wild horses who visited from time to time and protected themselves in the paths that had been cut out of the bush. He could only think that they were sleeping there, trying to get away from the wind.’ She pauses. ‘But that wouldn’t explain the scream.’
‘Who was it?’ shouts Eliza.
‘It’s the Sea Queen,’ Rose whispers.
‘He decided to go back in,’ Ruth says. ‘Put the sound down to a fox somewhere, the cry of a lone wolf, and he closed the door to the night, felt the silence cover him. The kitchen glowed with the newly-lit fire, and all was peaceful. He made his supper and sat down to eat.’
As Ruth tells her story, she paces, up and down the room, the children following her with their eyes. Then she stops, turns suddenly, pounces with her hands like claws. ‘That’s when he heard the second scream,’ she says.
‘He was aware that he could be seen from outside, lit up in the glow of the kitchen, so he pulled closed the curtain. Then he heard it,’ she says. ‘Knock Knock.’ Ruth knocks the table with her fist. And again. ‘Knock Knock.’
‘He stops halfway through a mouthful, his fork poised in his hand. His mouth is so dry that his food has formed a ball, leaden in his mouth. His heart beats wildly in his throat, and he spits the ball out, turns, and again – knock, knock. He goes to the window and peers around the curtain, and there he sees a pair of eyes.
‘He gets such a fright that he shouts out, “AGGGH,”
‘AAAGH’ they scream.
‘He stiffens, drops the curtain, runs to the hallway, to the stairs, but he stops with a thought. It was a woman. Two eyes, wide and frightened, as crazed as a startled cat. He hopes that she will leave, but the knock comes again: knock, knock.
‘The woman is mad, he thinks. She has come to kill me. She has a knife. She has a gun. He runs to the bedroom and launches across the bed. As he struggles to get a grip of his gun he sees the portrait of his love, lit up by candlelight. Mary-Anne. He puts the gun in his trousers and takes the stairs back down, slowly, holding on, trying to calm the fury of his heart. He faces the door, and in one brave movement, opens it to the ferocious wind. He peers around, his gun to the ready. He sees her.
She is there, waiting at the window. She is short, he thinks. Slight. She is poor in her ripped dirty skirts, he thinks, as she turns. She is thin. As she stares back at him, he sees traces of prettiness in her face, a delicacy, ruined now by the wind and the rain, the sea, and with an acute sickness, he realises who it is–’
‘Mary-Anne.’ gasps Tim.
‘It’s been twenty-odd years since she walked out of his life, and now he is an old man, but the woman standing before him is as young as the day that she disappeared. He sees her–’
Rose puts her hands together and sighs, ‘United at last,’ she says.
‘But then he smells her,’ Ruth says sinisterly. ‘She smells of the sea, but it’s not fresh water. It smells old, of rotten bodies, of dishwater left in the sink for too long. She walks towards him and holds out her arms, and he sees that her hair is no longer rich and bountiful, it is tangled like tendrils of seaweed. As she walks her boots slosh with water, squelch, squelch, squelch. She opens her mouth and small creatures escape from it, curling around her teeth, from her tongue. “My husband,” she says, and her voice is strangled by the waves and the wind. “You never came to find me.”