Chloe Masson died a hundred years ago – and she’s lonely as hell with nobody to haunt a house with. Can she persuade Kate to join her in eternity? (Winner of the Margaret Oliver Award, 1999 Fellowship of Australian Writers Short Story Competition, Moocooboola Chapter)
My name is Chloe Masson. I died one hundred years ago in the Lane Cove River, and I live in Trebeurden, the wonderful stone house my husband Jules built for me in the French Village.
Yes, I still live. I exist for those who can see me, when there a fissure between the dimensions of time, or, sometimes, when my loneliness becomes unbearable and I struggle with all my might to be recognised, to be whole again.
I was twenty five and married eight years when my sister Beatrice, in a jealous rage, pushed me into the river and held my head under the clean water. Coughing, thrashing, I heard her words above my own terror. Jules should have been mine, she hissed, Trebeurden should have been mine! Jules would never have loved you, I tried to shout, but the water filled my mouth and lungs, and when I could shout again I was standing beside her, shouting it loud, and shaking her shoulders, but my fingers went straight through her flesh and the satisfied smirk on her thin-lipped face told me she couldn’t see me. Disbelieving, I watched her compose her face into one of distress and cry to Jules that Chloe had fallen in the river and couldn’t swim.
That’s one of the ways you become a spirit. Dying in denial or anger or despair. There are countless others but mortals don’t need to know them. It’s better to find out for yourself, when the time comes.
My corpse, clad in its summer muslin frock, was duly found, blessed and buried, but I wasn’t near the burial site and wasn’t relieved of my duties in that dimension that is earthly but not really of earth.
If I had caught Beatrice in one of those passing dimensional gaps, I would have taken my revenge, and I would be at rest. But I never did. Beatrice was careful when she visited Trebeurden. Careless enough to sleep in my husband’s bed but careful on the stairs, and especially careful near the river. She died of pneumonia in her own house, further down the point near Woolwich, and I have never heard of her again.
So I am sentenced to immortality. I stand on the terrace and look across the changing river and visualise dinners at Potsdam, with the Jouberts and other French families who made Hunters Hill the unique French Village. Laughing picnics at the Pleasure Grounds, sipping icy lemonade and waving at the ferries as they chug by, shrieking cheerfully from their funnels. Rowing on the river, Jules trying to look the part in a boater hat, me with my hand trailing lazily in the sparkling water, never dreaming it would be my nemesis. Riding with my friends, our smart hacks polished and prancing as we trot past the Garibaldi Inn, seemingly ignoring the calls from the men swilling ale at the door but giggling like schoolgirls as we push to a canter along Ferry Street. Stopping at the orchards and farms that were part of the big estates, buying fruit and eating it while it is still warm and sunkissed. And Trebeurden, always Trebeurden, the house built for me out of sandstone that, like I, looks as young as it did one hundred years ago.
It’s Kate’s house now, and has been for the last year. She is, like I, a second wife. Married to a man twice her age she wanders the house in what I perceive to be disbelief. Can all this be hers, this house she has swiftly grown to love? These beautiful French windows leading to the unsurpassable terraced river view? These solid, lovely doors big enough for a chateau? These high, ornate ceilings? That staircase with its wonderful carved rails? The dining room big enough to accommodate a family of ten? Oh Kate, my dear, it’s not all yours, it’s mine too, and I think you, more than all the women I’ve seen live in my house, know it.
Kate has married her boss and is now expected to be a wife instead of a secretary. He has the money for her to stay home and care for him and Trebeurden, which she does admirably. She has restored some of my home to its original glory and has absorbed herself in history, hunting down the original dining table and sideboard at great cost, and finding old photographs of Trebeurden and, to my joy, the Masson family.
I fascinate her. She has found the history of the Massons written, quite libellously it seems, by a later family member. Its one truth appears to be the revelation that the ghost of poor, barren Chloe Masson haunts Trebeurden. So Kate wanders from room to room, whispering, Chloe, are you there? Of course I respond, but the dimensional fissure usually isn’t big enough for her to hear.
I see her gazing at the picture in the hall, the one of Trebeurden when it was first built. That’s me, second from the left, in the exquisite white lacy dress with the matching parasol. What a tiny waist, she marvels aloud, staring hard at my image. Corsets, I say, but she can’t hear me.
Sometimes Kate and I stand by the river, she with her head thrown back to the sun in delight, her brown arms stretched wide as if to embrace her home, the river and all she can see. She sits on the jetty and dangles her legs in the water, waving, as I used to, to passing boats. My legs dangle too, but I cannot feel the water and it flows through them. I look at my transparent, shimmering legs and wonder if Kate sometimes sees them from the corner of her eyes.
She has become both wife and child to her husband. He adores her, but has three children from his previous marriage. He ensured during that marriage he cannot have any more, but he is sly and hasn’t told her this. I can see it in his face as he comforts her month after month in her despair at being barren, can feel it when his body sometimes brushes through me. He hugs her and calls her baby, and says, Don’t worry, I’m sure there’s nothing wrong with us, we’re both just trying too hard. Let’s just be happy with each other for now, hmm? And he pulls her towards the bedroom that once was Jules’ and mine.
His children visit and turn Trebeurden into a family home again. The two eldest are in their teens, rebellious, angry, noisy and resentful of Kate. Boy and girl, they spend most of their time on the telephone or shouting at each other. Their father, important in the business world and important to himself, loses patience and shouts back. It is left to Kate to amuse them and she tries her best.
The little one is the shy product of an attempt to save a failed marriage. Just school age, she cries at first when staying at Trebeurden, but has come to cling to Kate and love her. Kate revels in the mother role, unknowing it is the nearest she will get. She, rather than the father, is the person who comforts the little one at night when there are monsters. Or when it’s only me, wandering through the room and catching her unawares. From time to time the girl sees me, as children with open minds and hearts do. Mostly she is intrigued rather than afraid, and I smile to show I mean her no harm. She speaks to Kate of The Lady but Kate thinks only that the little one has an imaginary friend. Kate and the little one explore the gardens and catch butterflies. If the dimensions are kind to me the little one laughs as she sees butterflies fly straight through my hands. With long curls and Sunday best dresses, she looks at home in Trebeurden, sitting on the stone steps and playing with her dolls. These days she cries sometimes when she has to leave and go to her home, and Kate is wistful afterwards. Kate sits in the window seat that was my favourite haven too, and stares at the river.
* * *
It is springtime, and the dimensions are changing in my favour. They do, every so often. I know now the secrets of the stars but it’s not for mortals. I have the opportunity for Kate to see me, even speak to me if she has enough will and enough acceptance that all things are not just material. I can show her my Trebeurden, talk to her of our house, let our existences mingle on her plane.
Now Kate sits busying herself in the study I once used as a sewing room. I stand at the window, amused, and watch her hum along to the radio as she sorts through the mess of her own historical investigations and her husband’s work. From time to time she dances energetically to the peculiar music that is popular these days, gyrating like a native, her dark hair tossing from side to side. I merely used to waltz by myself.
Occasionally she looks in my direction, as if sensing I’m there, but then shakes her head and gets back to work.
The crumpled paper she has pulled from the back of the desk has been stuck behind the drawer. She smooths it out. She stops humming now, and her body stiffens and her face pales. The bastard, she whispers, the bastard. Kate sits on the floor and cries like the little one she tries to be a mother to. I drift my hand through her and feel utter desolation and a wish, fleetingly, for death. Leaning over her, I read the offending document. It is a bill from a doctor to Kate’s husband for the operation to ensure his sterility. Is the husband careless or just stupid? Had he meant to destroy the bill and thought he had?
Kate, I say, please Kate, stop crying. I try to comfort her but my hug passes through her and we both end up uncomfortable, Kate suddenly alert and looking around with blurry eyes.
Perceiving this I, Chloe Masson, cursedly immortal, feel a kindred spirit. If you will pardon the pun. People who want to live forever should try it. No sleeping, no food good or otherwise, no touching and caressing, just a ringside view of a changing world. It’s interesting in its way, but terribly lonely. I see the occasional spirit dog or cat but I’ve never shared Trebeurden with another human spirit. I’ve had a hundred years by myself. Suddenly I am closer to contacting, even recruiting, another human than I’ve ever been – including the little one.
Kate, I plead, join me. Come to the river and join me. What have you got to lose? Trebeurden can be yours forever.
I project myself as strongly as I can: comfort and warmth and knowledge.
Kate is staring around her, bewildered, shocked. Her heart is thudding and her breathing ragged.
She sniffs and rubs the tears from her cheeks. Chloe, she says questioningly.
Yes, it’s me, Chloe, I reply, excited. I kneel in front of her, arranging my muslin frock politely over my knees, and look into her stricken face.
She’s still bemused, doesn’t know if she’s imagining things. Where are you? she says.
Here, in front of you, I reply, frustrated.
The dimensions still aren’t quite aligned. I can see the sewing machine I used superimposed over the husband’s masculine desk, but it’s transparent. Come with me, Kate, I plead. Stand up and come with me.
How did you cope, Chloe, she whispers. How did you cope when you knew there wouldn’t be any children? Her eyes fill with tears again.
There isn’t time now, I reply. Come with me.
She still can’t hear, but she knows I’m there and she isn’t afraid. She looks at the paper, says Bastard, and stumbles to her feet. I follow her as she trips blindly along the hall and out through the terrace to the lawn. I touch her arm and despite the warm sunshine she shivers. She walks as if she doesn’t know where she’s going and doesn’t know why.
She stops at the river’s edge, standing on the sandstone wall and looking over. Come with me, Kate, I urge. There’s no pain, no heartache where I am. Just Trebeurden. Yours forever. Share it with me.
I brush against her and she’s thinking of the children she won’t have, the children her husband very obviously doesn’t want.
Death doesn’t hurt, I say gently. You stay young forever. Look over the edge, look into the water.
She looks into the murky depths of the Lane Cove River, and gasps: Is that you, standing next to me? Chloe?
I smile. That’s me, I say. I toss my hair and reach a hand up to touch Kate’s. She sees it in the water but doesn’t see me beside her.
I put an arm around her waist, and she feels it. Close your eyes and jump, my dear, I suggest quietly. I’ll be with you all the way.
She’s tempted. She feels betrayed and cheated by her husband on the one thing she really wants in the mortal world. She sways, and I project kindness and warmth with everything I’ve got. I feel, for a moment, acceptance and peace and trust of me within her. But the human instinct to fight is still in there, too. After all, it was in me when Beatrice held my head down until I drowned.
I can’t, she whispers, Chloe, I can’t.
But the intrigue is in her, too, to find out what lies beyond.
She’s weighing her choices, her life, staring at my watery image, not noticing the aircraft overhead or the powerboat roaring past. I gaze back. Come on, Kate, my dear, I say.
The real world is our undoing. The wake from the powerboat reaches our reflections, shatters them, and I realise she can’t see me any more.
She shakes her head as if she’s been dreaming and looks firstly at the water then around her. I brush through her and feel a strength and resolution to fight for her desires mixed in with the despair. She’ll stay at Trebeurden and find a solution, she’s sure.
My dimension starts to fade from hers again but I’m still available to her, just.
And deep inside Kate, there remains that spark of interest in living in the world after hers, a spark I’ll nurture over the years.
Chloe? She says. Did I just imagine you or were you here?
I was here, Kate, I say, knowing she probably can’t hear me. I’m still here. I’ll be here at Trebeurden eternally.
The fissure closes. I am left standing on my lawn, out of Kate’s reach. And she out of mine.
I smile to myself. There are many years and many opportunities left ahead of me, and Kate’s memory of today will return every time she thinks of that doctor’s bill. Her intrigue with me and my dimension gives her a delicious vulnerability, one I will shamelessly play on at every chance until the cool water slips its silken arms around her.
I touch her shoulder and whisper: Till next time, my dear.
© Copyright 1999 Caroline Sully
Reproduction without the author’s permission strictly prohibited