My ghost story, Grace, is a winner in the Daily Telegraph Ghost Story competition.
The painting slides out from between the folded yellowing sheets in my mother’s linen chest. I recognise it immediately – the house, I mean, not my father’s painting, which isn’t very good. He’s written the name and address on the back: Le Mas Fontblanche. Ventabren. Near Aix. But I would have known it anywhere.
Strange how I haven’t thought about it in all these years. Tracing the outline of the water-coloured stones, I try to remember. My finger comes to rest on a shutter, half-open and bleached to the colour of sun-dried lavender. My throat constricts with a long-forgotten panic. What’s this? A figure peering from the window: a pale wisp of a creature, hardly more than a smudge really.
It’s her - I know it’s her…
We went to France the summer I was twelve. My mother was French and the house belonged to her cousin, René. He was going to meet us at the station.
I stepped off the train in Aix-en-Provence, gasping at the heat. I remember the smell of dust and burnt earth and a sound like sandpaper rubbing together. “Cigales,” Mum said, smiling. Cicadas. My mother was happy - I think she had missed coming home. Dad picked up the cases and we walked through the brief coolness of the station building and I could tell he was happy for her too.
The car wound its way through narrow streets and out into the country. A stark, white mountain was etched into the brilliant sky. “Look, Angela, Sainte Victoire,” said my mother. I’d seen it in a painting by Cézanne - maybe Dad would try to paint it.
The car window was open and the air was thick with the smell of rosemary and thyme and so heavy with heat it was like breathing honey. My bare legs stuck to the leather seat and my hair was damp around my shoulders. It seemed to take an age to get there.
When my father died, I came home and then my mother fell ill, so I stayed to look after her. They have a new word for it now: carer. I didn’t mind. Caring is what I do best - after all, I used to be a nurse. Anyway, I always felt safer at home.
But in this empty, silent house, I feel bereft. Not lonely exactly: I have enough memories to keep me company and no great need for friends. I simply feel, as I have often felt, that life has eluded me.
I close the lid of the chest and take the painting downstairs, hugging it close.
I know exactly what I’m going to do.
There was a hand-painted sign pinned to a tree. It said: “Le Mas Fontblanche” and we turned up a rough, dry track through dusty fields. “The House of the White Fountain,” said my father, pleased to have understood something at last. Mum laughed and said there had been a spring there, years ago, but it had long since dried up. Looking around at the arid landscape, it seemed to me that everything had dried up.
Then the mas was there in front of us, a huge, L-shaped farmhouse of pale grey stone. We climbed out of the car and followed René into the dark, cool house. My bedroom was at the top of the stone staircase and down a small corridor. I could see the Sainte Victoire from the window, beyond the dry, rock-strewn fields.
I saw another door, in the far wall of the room. René said it led to a part of the house that wasn’t used anymore and that it had been locked for as long as he could remember. The short stroke of the “L”, I thought.
I hadn’t realised plane tickets were so cheap. The young man in the travel agency even found me this hotel right in the centre of Aix at a reasonable price. I managed to get here without mishap and I feel quite daring. Who would have thought it?
The Tourist Office is just around the corner so I get myself a guidebook then I sit at a café on the Cours Mirabeau, sipping Perrier-menthe and thinking about the painting. I’ve come to the conclusion that my father was merely recording a memory: a sort of morbid holiday souvenir. After all – and this much I do remember – the incident was responsible for the panic attacks that blighted the rest of my childhood.
My father could not possibly have seen her, could he?
One day, I opened the door. My parents had gone down to the village and I was alone. I don’t know what made me try, as I knew it was locked. Only it wasn’t: I turned the handle and it opened easily. I went in, and found myself in a bedroom. From somewhere came the sound of piano music, melancholy notes drifting through the house like strands of gossamer. The shutters were open, which puzzled me. Didn’t René tell us this part of the house wasn’t used anymore? The window was on the same side of the house as my own yet, moving towards it, I realised that the view was different. I could see rooftops where there should have been only fields. It was raining hard outside and the sky was the shade of a swollen bruise, but I knew that here, thunderstorms could take you by surprise.
I turned from the window, just as she came into the room.
I had a bad night. It may have been the heat or the noisy air-conditioning but I couldn’t sleep. And now I stand at the window looking up at the blue, blue sky and wondering why on earth I came. On a whim? That would be a first.
I don’t want to go to Ventabren. I don’t have to. I’m on holiday, I could go anywhere: Avignon, Marseille, Manosque…Besides, what could I hope to achieve by going back? The house might not even be standing and certainly, I have no idea where it is. I was only twelve.
The bus to Ventabren leaves at nine forty-five. As it winds towards the village I find myself scanning the countryside, just in case. The driver drops me outside a supermarket and, swinging my rucksack on to my back, I start to walk towards the village.
No. Not this way.
I turn around and head into the hills.
She was a girl of about my own age, tall and thin with long, black hair. It was her eyes that startled me: the palest of grey, like an icy lake in winter. She closed the door and leant against it, staring straight ahead.
“Hello,” I said.
She turned those beautiful, strange eyes to the window, looking straight through me. Then she started to cry.
“Are you all right?” I asked. I wanted to reach out to her but I felt awkward, being caught in her room like that. She didn’t answer, but ran past me as if I wasn’t there and fell sobbing on to the bed. I didn’t know what to do, so I stood and watched her for a moment and then slipped quietly out, back into my sunlit bedroom.
There was no sign that it had been raining at all.
The heat seems to have eased off, for which I’m thankful. I’ve been walking over half an hour with no clear idea of where I am. What does surprise me is the number of modern villas with swimming pools and landscaped gardens. Such a pity.
And then I spot it. Not the same sign, of course, but still pinned to the tree: “Le Mas Fontblanche”.
My heart is thudding. Oh for goodness’ sake, it’s just a house! I take a deep breath and begin to walk. They’ve put tarmac on the road and fenced off the fields on either side but wildness still lingers about the place.
The house looms up before me, against a darkening sky. I feel suddenly weak. A woman is in the garden, unpegging a line of billowing sheets. She stops when she sees me approaching.
Mum and Dad didn’t believe me, so I made them come upstairs and see for themselves. The door was locked and wouldn’t open, even when my father rammed it with his shoulder. My mother thought I must be suffering from the heat and insisted on taking my temperature. When I checked outside, later that afternoon, the shutters on that part of the house were indeed closed.
A few days later, I tried to open the door again, but it really was locked. I began to think I must have fallen asleep that afternoon and dreamt the whole thing. Yet that night, I couldn’t sleep at all. She troubled me, that sad girl with her ice-grey eyes. I wanted to be her friend, to help her maybe. I didn’t even know her name… I sat up and saw a strip of yellow light underneath the door, so I got out of bed and turned the handle.
It was open.
The woman is wondering who I am. I explain why I am here and it must sound to her as is does to me - sentimental nonsense. I tell her that my parents are both dead and that this house represented the last happy moments of my childhood. If only she knew.
“When we stayed here,” I say, “that part of the house was closed up.” I can see that the short stroke of the ‘L’ is lived in now. There are curtains at the windows.
“Ah,” she says, frowning, as the first drops of rain begin to fall, “let me finish this and I’ll show you around.”
She starts to fold the sheets.
I pushed the door gently, not wanting to startle her. She was lying on the bed, her black hair spread over the pillow. I moved closer and saw that her eyes were open, lifeless, frozen. One arm hung over the side of the bed, the thin, white hand dangling like a broken wing. I watched helplessly as the steady trickle of blood crept in scarlet rivulets across the floor.
Outside, the rain was lashing against the window. Was it already daylight? Surely I had only been in the room for a few minutes? I rushed out, shouting for help. As I flung open the door of my own room, my father was running down the corridor towards me.
Only then did I scream…
The house has been modernised and I can barely recognise it inside. It has a great deal of black ash furniture and an enormous television set in the sitting room. I have to be patient while the woman shows me her streamlined kitchen and the new patio door and then I ask her if I could see my old bedroom.
“Of course, madame,” she says, leading the way up the stone staircase. “It is empty now. My daughter Grace has the room next to it.”
I can’t understand why I am trembling so hard. The room is bare but familiar all the same. I look out of the window at the Sainte Victoire that rises beyond a new housing estate. A memory flickers: Rooftops where once there were only fields. The rain is lashing against the window now; the sky is the shade of a swollen bruise. And someone is playing Chopin.
I turn as a door opens. The young girl is standing there, watching me, pale as a ghost. She pushes back her long, black hair with a thin, white hand. She doesn’t smile and, of course, she can’t recognise me, but as I meet her gaze, I feel the blood rushing to my head. Because her eyes are like lakes of ice and fathoms deep with all hope drowned, and suddenly, I know. It isn’t too late. It never was too late. I know why I had to come back.
“Grace,” I say, as I reach out to her at last.