Keep It Clean
I was there the night it burned. A ritual gone wrong.
A fine old house, the only one for what seemed miles around, even though there was a town secretly tucked away behind it over the hill. God knows how long it had stood there.
We played around it a lot when we were kids because the owners were often away. The woman who lived there had some kind of trouble with her lungs – she and the old man always seemed to be abroad somewhere warmer
No one seemed sure if the old man was her husband or her father. Or if she worked for him as a secretary – it was thought he was some kind of writer. But no-one ever spoke to them so we never knew for sure. They didn’t wear wedding rings which made some folk inclined to think they were related, but they also didn’t go to church which made others think there was something untoward about them. And I suppose those were the rumours that stuck. Some would said that Henry Price had a lot to do with that, always had his eye on that house – it’s said he was gazumped by the odd couple, though he claims he never dreamt of making an offer.
That’s what we all thought as kids anyway, made up rhymes about them, followed them across the fields hiding in bushes and whispering rude things just loud enough for them to hear, too quick for them to catch us.
They realised they were unpopular. I remember they tried once to come out for a drink, someone’s birthday round a bonfire, with fireworks. No-one talked to them, in fact no-one talked at all when they were there, just stared. After that night, Henry upped the whispering campaign and in the end, the couple sold the house and moved to whichever part of the world her lungs liked.
Henry bought the house. Of course he did. For a fraction, he kept telling everyone, just a smidge of what it was worth.
It was Helen’s idea. Henry’s daughter. They were weirdos, the place stank – and no wonder, the stuff they got up to. She showed us round while it was empty, before Henry moved his family’s belongings in. It smelt fine to me, just musty like unlived in houses do. I told her so. No, she said, it was a spiritual stink, a moral dirt that she could smell and we had to get rid of it.
She came up with a ritual, reckoned she’d got it out of an old book in the library. We had to wait until midnight, wear white nighties and dance around the house together while sage bonfires burnt in all the rooms.
It was a right old chore getting everything we needed together, and the sage was wet and wouldn’t burn so Helen got hold of some petrol to sprinkle over. The fires got out of control almost immediately and there was nothing we could do except flee from the house, our hair streaming wild, white ghosts running and running and running.
I go up there sometimes to look at the ruin. If I managed to catch it in October, when the sun sets, the orange sky flares through the empty windowframes and the house burns, over and over again.