Authors: Morgan Kelly
For Neil, the hero of my real-life love story
aura Dearborn dreamed about Stonecross Hall long before she ever saw it.
It had haunted her dreams ever since she was a child and her uncanny gifts began to strengthen. The house she dreamed of so often was more than just a house—it was like a person, with a character and personality so strong and overwhelming, Laura often felt as though it was
her, even during her waking hours. After she had learned more about her psychic gifts and the power of the subconscious mind, she believed that the house of which she dreamed—looming, foreboding, and in many ways terribly, achingly sad—was some sort of dark personification of herself, her own deep and shadowed places. She had no idea then that the place was all too real, and that she
to it, and it to her.
Though she had been born with her powers, it wasn’t until after the Great War that Laura finally allowed herself to use them. Before then, she had always been afraid. Afraid of everything, really. But then the world had gone mad, and Laura, like most people, lost everything, and nothing much seemed worth being afraid over anymore. The horrors she had witnessed in the medical tents on the Western Front were so much worse than anything she could encounter through the palm of some poor soul’s hand, or in the tea leaves swirling at the bottom of a china cup. Her powers were all Laura had left of her former life. When she came back to England, she put her uniform away, bobbed her hair, took a flat in Piccadilly, and set up shop with her deck of tarot cards and spirit board at her kitchen table. Women flocked to her in droves. Before she knew what had happened, she had a reputation all over London as a girl who knew what she was about—a girl with a gift.
It had all begun with the other nurses, of course, girls who had lost their sweethearts, cousins, brothers, and friends in the trenches. After the war, they started coming to her, for some reassurance, a way of forging a link forever severed, a chance to move on and make new lives for themselves with the men England still had left to offer. Laura found she had quite a knack for communing with the dead. Even after the cards had been put away and the planchette stilled, she felt the way the dead clamored around her, clinging to her, trying to come through. The dead, like the living, were desperate to make a connection, to hold on to what remained of them on the earthly plane. They were so thick in the air around her that Laura sometimes felt as though she was breathing not air but ghosts.
Laura did her best to comfort them, to send them on their way to whatever rest awaited them. She wasn’t sure if she believed in an afterlife, though the men who had died so horribly on both sides of the war had certainly earned a sweet release. She was certain that clinging to a life that had been ripped from them was not in any way a good thing. She didn’t want the dead to stay, though they were her bread and butter. And she was the last person who should be counseling other souls about moving on. She certainly had not done so. She lived in a limbo of her own, had made it far too comfortable. She was afraid that there was nothing else out there for her, that her life had already been lived, the barrel well and truly scraped clean. Truth be told, though she claimed to aid the living, it was the dead she wanted to help. After all, she had more in common with them, for all that her heart still beat and ached and fluttered, as any living heart should.
It was a lonely life. Laura had never had many friends, except for the other nurses she had served with on the Front. None of her particular friends lived anywhere near her, and many of them had their own concerns, the remnants of their families to hold together as best they could as they struggled to make a life for themselves in the aftermath. England was not the same. The whole world had changed, and not for the better, despite the victory they had won at such great cost. Perhaps that was the problem. The cost had been far too great for the survivors to feel much like rejoicing. At best, they managed a cautious contentment. At worst, their lives were an utter ruin. Laura’s generation drank and danced and took strangers to bed, struggling to find a place in the world, a context for their lives—but they were lost, like children left behind in the woods to forage for themselves, alone. It was like some terrible cautionary tale in which the moral made no sense.
Laura had been luckier than most. She had lost her brother, Charles, who, though he was her whole family, was only one person. Some women lost every man they had ever known. Although heartbroken by the loss of her brother, Laura had no sweetheart or husband to lose, and likely never would have, now that the male populace of England had been so greatly depleted. Those left were the walking wounded, never to be the same strapping, joyful boys again, sauntering about the boroughs of London as if the entire city was their own. It was as though London had become half-peopled with ghosts. Which was a good business for people like Laura, and for those who pretended to be like her—the charlatans and the opportunists who rapped tables and rattled spoons and swallowed gauze they later retched up, claiming it to be the ectoplasmic residue of the beloved dead.
Laura didn’t go in for such parlor tricks, which disappointed some of her potential clients, who wanted the full theatrical show for their shillings. Instead, she told them the truth, firmly and clearly, with no hysterics. Those who looked for the comfort of reality came to her, and came again, and told everyone they knew. Laura was busy from sunup to sundown, when she finally locked her door, turned her lamps down low, and ate her small supper alone with the cat, who never asked her for a thing, cats being unconcerned with the state of their dead. Felines were very practical that way, which was why Laura liked them. She knew her cat would have done very well without her and needed nothing she could give him, not even the saucer of milk set on the windowsill. He stayed with her because he wanted to, and consequently, he was the nicest thing in her life.
Laura went to bed tired every night, and a few pounds richer than she had been when she woke up—all of her uneasy lucre locked up in an old money box that had belonged to her grandfather, who had once been a greengrocer. She took money for what she did because it was the sort of transaction that needed to be balanced. People did not like her for what she did for them. They felt beholden to her. Paying her a set fee assuaged the feeling that they owed her for something more than could be bought. Even so, Laura’s clients never felt fully caught up on their bill. They scurried away as fast as they could, after she had told them what she could and communicated what was possible to the dead. Laura often went to bed sick at heart because the only people she could really talk to were on the other side of the dark river all must cross in their time.
Despite this, Laura had invitations from people she didn’t know well, to parties thrown by the bohemian social elite, many of whom were her new clients. They threw lavish soirees in the jazz clubs of Piccadilly, some of which lasted for days. The tabloid papers called them the Bright Young Things, but it was a terrible irony. There was nothing bright nor particularly youthful in their haggard, glazed expressions, addled with drink and opium. Still, sometimes Laura longed to join them, and on a rare occasion, she slipped down the stairs in a cheap synthetic-silk frock to dance and drink among them in the club below, fierce as any of the lost girls and boys who had found their way back out of the forest only to find their country half-deserted. Dancing didn’t make her happy. She didn’t think it made any of them happy. It was more like a ritual bloodletting, a catharsis no one else needed or understood. Sometimes, Laura danced alone in her flat, the music thrumming up through the floorboards, vibrating through her whole body until she was slick with sweat and her heart beat against the cage of her ribs, frenetic and wild, as though impaling itself on the music, on her body’s need to escape her mind.
And then, inevitably, almost nightly, she dreamed of the house that had haunted her all of her remembered life.
It was a large house—massive, even. The sort of house the very rich had built for themselves as country retreats in the past century: decadent, sprawling, monumental. Like a tomb, a mausoleum ready-made for the future generations of the rich. Many such houses had been turned into convalescent homes for the wounded during the war, and some of them had stayed that way for a time after. Laura herself had worked in one of them in Kent for a while, before being discharged and returning to London. She had never much liked the house she had worked in. It was stuffy and smug, far too ostentatious. She always felt as though all the portraits of the great family’s ancestors were watching every movement, every single thing she did as she moved through the illustrious rooms with her basins of blood, vomit, and night soil, and as though they were wrinkling up their noses.
They died for you!
she wanted to shout.
For your children! For your bloody England that will never thank them, could never thank them enough, for what they have done, all they have sacrificed.
But it was no more good shouting at the portraits than it ever was shouting at the dead, or those who tried so desperately to cling to them.
The house she dreamed of was not like the house in which she had worked. While her dream house was little more than an abandoned shell, the house in which she had been a nurse was still living, still had life in it. There was a sense that its life was, in a way, greater than any that had been lived in its walls, that its vitality would go on and on forever. The house in her dreams was very much dead. It was the skeleton of a house, with the wind blowing through it, scattered with the dead leaves of many decades past. It clung to rocky cliffs above a vast and tumultuous sea that licked up at it, as if to pull it down. It was the ghost of a house only, and Laura knew what to do with ghosts. At least, she
did. But this house wasn’t real. There was no exorcising it with a gentle incantation, a few candles, and an exhortation to move on. This house was a part of her, a part of her own mind. To be rid of it was to be rid of some part of herself she didn’t really recognize or understand.