Inheritance

i.

There’s a bench in the back garden which points away from the house, overlooking the poplar trees and scrub. On a good day, if you peel your ears back, you can hear the chuckle of a river. Today, right now, all Margaret can hear is her slow, steady breath.

She’s spent countless hours here over the years, planting herbs in the spring, stringing fairy lights around the patio in time for Christmas. It’s funny, she never would have guessed herself for a green thumb. When they lived in the city, she was barely able to keep a cactus alive. Now she tends to – if she does say so herself – a beautifully manicured lawn and flowerbeds. The hydrangea bush which had just been planted when they moved in now blooms wide, its petals having gradually turned from pink to blue. Anthony had wanted to tile over most of the garden, certain that neither of them would be up to maintaining it, but that had felt wrong to Margaret. The previous owners had clearly loved spending time here, just the way it was. They could love it too.

Despite it being October, there’s still a whiff of summer in the air. Margaret is wearing a cardigan over her dress but could almost do without it. She nurses a cup of coffee, thumb stroking the warm ceramic. She’s in one of those sentimental moods today, consumed with thoughts of everything that came before. Inside, on the dining room table, are several photo albums flicked to various pages; of holidays to the seaside, old family pets, candids of people laughing. Margaret clings to these memories even though they are not her own.

ii.

They moved in three years ago, though it may as well have been thirty considering how familiar she and the house were with each other.

Truthfully, they’d been in a tight spot financially. Anthony’s Christmas bonus hadn’t been generous that year, and their landlord had finally made the decision to sell up to some townie who wanted to convert their block of flats into office space. Margaret remembered those sleepless nights well, trembling under the blankets, staring at the darkness and wondering, is this it?

And then Anthony’s co-worker Nigel told them he was selling up and moving to Spain. His wife, Elizabeth, had passed away quite suddenly, and he was struggling to be in the house without her. I walk down the corridor and I’m certain she’s waiting around the corner, just out of sight. I feel it the way you feel the cold.

Margaret wasn’t sure at first. ‘He’s just lost his wife,’ she told Anthony. ‘I’m worried he’s not thinking clearly.’

‘He’s adamant about going,’ Anthony replied. ‘And he’s offered the house at a sodding good price. If we don’t take it, someone else will snap it up.’

‘But what if he changes his mind?’

‘Do you think he will?’

‘No. No, I don’t think so.’

‘Well then, what’s the harm? Come on Maggie, we could never afford to live somewhere like this.’

There was one condition with the sale. Nigel wanted to pack his things and go right away, no mucking around. They’d have to take the house exactly as it was, with his wife’s things still tucked neatly into the corners. Anthony thought it would be inconvenient but not much more than that. Margaret was quietly horrified. Touching someone else’s things felt impolite, but to pilfer through a dead person’s possessions, and not even someone she knew? How could she sort through this woman’s books and clothes and toiletries, ascribing her idea of worth to it all? What if the old typewriter she found tucked at the back of a cupboard was a treasured possession, given to Elizabeth by her mother? What if the crushed velvet jacket hanging in the closet was worn to a best friend’s wedding? She asked Nigel if she might make a list of things she found for him to check. That way, if there was something he wanted to keep, she could arrange for it to be shipped to him. He never got back to her.

‘Keep anything you think is valuable, and give the rest to charity,’ Anthony said, already making plans to convert the third bedroom into an office space.

The problem was, Margaret thought it was all valuable. And it hurt her, that a person’s life could so easily be erased. Is this what would happen when she died? Some stranger going through her things, pocketing what they fancied the look of and chucking the rest? It’s not like she’s coming back for any of it, she tried to remind herself. But still. It just didn’t feel right getting rid of Elizabeth’s things without her permission, and as that wouldn’t be forthcoming any time soon, Margaret moved everything into the attic for safekeeping.

‘Do you not think this is a bit odd?’ Anthony asked.

‘I just don’t feel comfortable getting rid of her things.’

‘But you didn’t know her.’

‘It doesn’t matter. Besides, if Nigel decides he wants it all back and we’ve already carted it off, he’ll be distraught.’

‘Not sure we’ll be hearing from him any time soon.’

‘Anthony…’

Anthony turned his palms up in a defeated gesture. ‘Fine. I just…want to make sure you’re okay with everything.’

‘I’m okay.’

Anthony took a week off to help with the unpacking, hoisting the heavier furniture into place. Margaret was certain he took great pleasure in announcing to his co-workers why he was booking time off - that he was a property owner now, and there were many things that needed doing to the house which he had bought with his own money, never mind the seller having been desperate to leave the country. And really, Margaret couldn’t begrudge him for his pride. He worked hard, he was good.

Every evening that week, they sat at their kitchen table – one of the only things they’d bought new – and wearily shovelled food into their mouths, bodies heavy after a day’s labouring. It was the good kind of tired, the honest kind, and they would look up from their ready meals and smile at each other. Home. They were home.

Still, Margaret couldn’t help but feel lonely when Anthony went back to work. She was used to their little apartment, sandwiched between a Spanish couple who were always fighting and an eccentric bachelor who blared classical music well into the night. But the house was quiet. No, not quiet. Still. There was a difference.

There were plenty of chores to fill the day. Nigel had clearly not picked up the cleaning since his wife died, and mould had begun to creep into the crevices of every room. Margaret filled a bucket with lemon juice and vinegar and doused the windows and floors with it, until the fumes scorched her nostrils. By the end of the first month, practically every surface gleamed. That was the easy part. It was the garden which worried her. This at least was something Nigel had seen fit not to neglect; but she’d never mowed a lawn before and had no clue how often to feed the shrubs. A frantic foray into town paid off with a visit to one of the small charity shops, where she found a couple of battered books on gardening. Of course, Nigel had left the house untouched, so she didn’t need to buy gloves or shears, or any of the other accoutrement that went with ground keeping. Anthony was always saying she needed to find a hobby or pastime – this could be it.

She started off slowly, getting to the grips with the lawn mower and strimmer, before moving onto the more daunting tasks such as pruning the hydrangea and transplanting the chilli plant when it began to outgrow its original pot. Margaret soon developed a taste for being in the garden. What’s more, it all began to feel very familiar to her. It was as if she’d planted the runner beans and tomatoes herself, had been there to guide the ivy on the patio up its trellis from the beginning. The garden, the house, felt like hers in a way she never could have anticipated. They understood one another.

‘You’re doing a fine job.’

The trowel fell from Margaret’s hands, heart squeezing. She spun around and saw a young woman standing there, hands on hips, beaming.

‘How did you get in?’ she demanded.

‘Through the gate,’ the young woman replied, pointing vaguely over her shoulder.

‘Oh.’

‘I’m Bea. I love what you’ve done with the shed. It needed a lick of paint, huh?’

Margaret dusted her hands and knees, and stood. ‘Are you a neighbour?’

‘I live nearby. Blue was definitely the right choice. Everyone else paints theirs brown or black, don’t they? It looks so dreary.’ Bea walked a slow perimeter around the garden, crouching next to the hydrangea. She pinched one of the petals between her delicate fingers, then plucked it. Put it in her pocket.

‘You knew Elizabeth and Nigel?’ Margaret asked, feeling at a disadvantage in her own home and disliking it.

‘Yes, very well. Or at least I thought so. Where did Nigel say he was off to?’

‘Spain. Catalonia, I believe.’

‘I hear it’s lovely.’

‘Me too.’

Bea was still smiling, her cheeks dimpling. She was beautiful, the kind of beauty that youth affords, with skin the colour of tea. Margaret found she was immediately jealous of the younger woman, though decided she didn’t dislike her.

‘My husband, Anthony, and I bought the house nearly four months ago. Nigel wanted a quick sale. He was distraught without Elizabeth, just wanted to leave. We couldn’t blame him, it must be so hard when you’ve been married that long.’

Bea chewed her bottom lip. ‘I can’t imagine what he must have felt.’

They lapsed into silence, finally broken when Margaret coloured and clapped a hand to her mouth. ‘I’m being rude. Would you like a cup of tea?’

The other woman glanced past Margaret’s shoulder at the kitchen window. ‘No,’ she said. ‘I better be off. Just wanted to stop by and say what a grand job I think you’re doing.’ She stuck out her hand to shake.

‘Thank you,’ Margaret smiled, taking it. ‘I’m trying.’

‘You’re perfect for this place,’ Bea told her. ‘Truly. I can’t think of anyone better to take over.’

She didn’t sleep well that night. She should have. After puttering about in the garden for a while longer, she went inside to start on dinner. She’d bought a leg of lamb from the butcher that morning, which was just as well because Anthony brought home two of his work friends, and boy could they eat. It had gone midnight by the time they finally left – add another hour on for how long it took to clean up after them. She’d barely managed to shoehorn a word in during that time; not that she minded after such a full day, though hearing story after story of how sales and marketing didn’t get on in Anthony’s company did lose its charm after a short while.

So, yes. She’d earned a good night’s rest.

It wasn’t that she couldn’t fall asleep. In fact, when her head hit the pillow it was lights out almost right away. The problem was when she dreamed.

They began as every dream should, shivers of the mundane woven together. She dreamed of sitting at the kitchen table, looking out into the garden. Curls of steam drifted towards the ceiling from a cup of tea set next to her elbow. She knew, as you can only know something so certainly in a dream, that it had sugar in it. Odd. Neither she nor Anthony took sugar in their tea.

And then the kitchen table was wrong. It wasn’t the one they’d bought brand new, but the one that had been here before. Round, not square, with old coffee rings stained into the cheap pine. That was a shame because she loved their new dining table, it was one of the only pieces of furniture they owned that wasn’t second hand. They must have decided they preferred the old one after all.

Anthony was sat next to her. But it wasn’t Anthony. It was Nigel. Margaret looked at him, wanting to ask why he was here, why he’d come back, but her mouth wouldn’t move. Had he changed his mind about the sale? Did he want the house back? Panic welled in her gut. Where would they go? This was their home now, they couldn’t afford to leave. And she loved it here. He knew that. Why was he trying to hurt her like this?

Nigel sipped the cup of tea. Licked his lips, and turned his head to look at her. Margaret couldn’t move. She wanted to, but the more she tried to flex her muscles, the more rigid they became. Nigel was staring at her and she knew he was getting ready to say something, and she didn’t want to hear it, she wanted to leave, to go, but she couldn’t move and the panic of it was choking her.

His mouth opened. Wide, wider. And what came out was a baby’s scream.

iii.

Anthony wanted to take her out. ‘You’ve been cooped up in the house too long,’ he told her, ‘let’s do something fun, stretch our legs.’

The day was a bright one, a clandestine breeze carrying with it the promise of warmer weather. Although spring had been a biting one, it hadn’t really affected her; when she wasn’t nesting indoors, her chores in the garden kept her cheeks rosy. Still, Margaret couldn’t wait for summer, to see the garden truly come alive in a paint splash of colour.

‘Where are we going?’ she asked after they’d been driving a while.

‘Thought we’d go for a pub lunch somewhere. Maybe a walk afterwards. What do you think?’

Margaret made a noise that could have been agreement or indifference. It didn’t feel...comfortable, being away from home. She wondered what the house was doing now, if it stirred. Did the walls come alive with mites and beetles? A mouse casting furtive glances around the corner before making a dash for the pantry.

‘Work has been so busy lately,’ Anthony was saying. ‘Not that I’m complaining about the extra cash, but it has meant leaving you alone. I was hoping you would have had more visitors by now.’

Her two closest friends - she supposed that’s what they were, in the most general of senses - Catherine and Mary, had offered, more than once, to come and visit her at the new home, but she’d politely declined. The thought of seeing them had been paralysing, like taking a step into wet mud. She didn’t want to get bogged down in her life before moving. It just seemed easier doing without them.

‘Bea’s been keeping me company,’ she replied.

‘Ah. One of the neighbours, you said?’

‘Yes. She’s like a hurricane. You know she’s coming, but you can never quite prepare for her.’

‘You should invite her and her husband over for dinner,’ Anthony said.

‘I will. It’s hard pinning her down, though.’

They found a country pub called The Good Intent, a pokey but warm establishment with hops hanging from the ceiling and an ageing springer spaniel trailing after patrons, her rheumy eyes still optimistic for a treat. Anthony picked a table by the window and fetched them some menus. The usual fare was on offer, nothing she particularly fancied. Eventually Anthony got tired of her indecision and ordered them both scampi, peas and chips. When their food arrived, Margaret squeezed her lemon wedge over her chips, until every last drop was gone, and then immediately regretted it when the juice turned everything bitter and soggy.

‘Excuse me,’ a woman crooned. ‘Can I take this?’ She was already lifting one of the spare chairs from their table. ‘They don’t have any high chairs. Ridiculous, isn’t it?’

Margaret gazed past the woman at what must have been her family. A man held a struggling toddler in his arms, who was more interested in the spaniel than anything else.

‘Sure,’ Anthony said.

She kept watching as mother and father negotiated their toddler onto the chair, their spines and shoulders going rigid as it tipped its head back and began to scream, eyes screwed tight and a mouth with only a few milk teeth showing.

‘Okay?’ Anthony asked, not paying attention to anything other than his food.

‘I don’t think I’ll fancy a walk after all this food,’ she replied.

The house hadn’t moved while they were gone. Had she really thought it would without her there for ballast?

‘We should do that more often.’ Anthony opened the car door for her. ‘Although I’m fit to burst now, I really shouldn’t have finished your chips.’

Margaret hurried up the front garden path, handbag clutched to her chest. She fumbled for her keys, panic rising in her throat. It was as if she’d been holding her breath underwater, and her lungs were fit to burst. She practically stumbled through the front door, Anthony catching her shoulder before she could topple over. ‘One too many G&Ts?’ he chuckled.

Everything seemed the same. The shoe rack with its loafers lined neatly, the grandfather clock which once belonged to Anthony’s great uncle relentlessly ticking away; even the sulphurous whiff of the scrambled eggs she’d made for breakfast still clung to the air. And yet...something had changed. She was sure of it, the same way you know when someone is waiting around the corner to frighten you.

Anthony shuffled past her, hanging his coat and scarf up. ‘I’m going to have a shower,’ he declared on his way to the stairs. And then, ‘Ah. New painting? Or old, should I say.’

Margaret felt her heart constrict. This is what she had been waiting for, a perverted sense of vindication taking her. She walked, dazed, to the bottom of the stairs, where Anthony was inspecting a painting of a lavender field.

‘Oh,’ Margaret breathed.

‘I didn’t realise you liked it so much,’ he remarked before treading upstairs.

Margaret remained fixed in place, staring at the picture which she hadn’t touched since the day she put it in the attic.

iv.

The garden flourished in summer. Flowers grew, petals peeling towards the citrus sun. It wasn’t the best time to learn she suffered from allergies. Bea mixed together for her a glass of warm apple cider vinegar and honey, a remedy she swore by.

‘What a drag,’ she simpered. ‘You’ve done all this hard work in the garden and now you can’t even enjoy it.’

‘Oh, no, I’m still loving it,’ Margaret protested through sips of her disgusting tonic. ‘You couldn’t pay me to leave.’

Margaret leaned back in her striped deck chair and closed her eyes. She felt sleep encroach, and nearly fell out of her chair trying to pull back from it.

‘Don’t mind me if you fancy a kip,’ Bea said, adjusting her sunglasses.

‘To be perfectly honest with you, I’d rather not.’

‘Not been sleeping well?’

‘Not really.’

Bea reached over, laying a cool hand on Margaret’s arm. ‘What is it, sweetheart?’

She didn’t want to say. It wasn’t even something she’d told Anthony about. He would only worry about her, think she was becoming unwell again. It wouldn’t be fair to him. And anyway, they were just dreams. Margaret turned her head to look at Bea. It was difficult resisting such an open face.

‘Well, it sounds silly saying it out loud, but I’ve been having these bizarre dreams.’

‘What sort of bizarre are we talking about?’ Bea asked.

‘They’re…about Elizabeth.’

‘I thought you’d never met Elizabeth.’

‘I haven’t.’ Margaret licked her lips. She must sound mad. ‘When I dream, it’s as if I am Elizabeth.’

Bea sat up in her chair. ‘Tell me.’

‘I dream about being in the house. Sitting at the kitchen table, drinking a cup of tea, and…’

‘And?’

‘And I dream about Nigel. About him hurting me. Well, hurting Elizabeth.’ Margaret glanced shyly at Bea, expecting the younger woman to break into laughter, give her that you’re mad look. But she just stared thoughtfully, stroking the temple of her glasses thoughtfully.

‘What does he do to her?’ she asked.

‘I can’t…’

‘Tell me, Margaret. It’s okay. I’ll believe you.’

‘He hits her. With something heavy, like an iron, or pan, I’m not sure.’

They fell into a heavy silence, watching each other, promising something, though neither was quite sure what.

‘It’s just a dream though, isn’t it?’ Margaret said, a girlish giggle chasing the words. ‘Just madness.’

‘Yes,’ Bea replied, finally turning away. ‘A little madness.’

v.

‘Maggie?’

Anthony. He must be back from work already. Looking around her, Margaret realised the sun had almost set; she could hardly see to the end of the garden. Dusting herself off, she struggled to stand, acutely aware all at once how stiff her body was. How long had she been out here?

‘How was work?’ she asked him, though the answer was written over his face. He looked tired, worried. For the first time, Margaret noticed how the hair around his temples had turned almost entirely white, the crow’s feet walking deeper across his eyes.

‘Maggie,’ he said again. ‘Are you alright?’

‘Of course I am,’ she said, smiling. ‘How was work?’

‘What have you been doing?’

‘What do you mean?’ Margaret asked, kissing his cheek.

‘The house,’ Anthony said. ‘Why did you do that?’

‘Anthony, what are you talking about?’ Her skin began to prickle with irritation.

‘The fucking house!’ Anthony gripped her arm and shook her. ‘Maggie, why did you do that?’

Margaret snatched herself back, angry now. ‘Either tell me what you mean or leave me alone!’

He glared at her, his mouth curling into a bear trap. ‘Let’s go inside.’ Anthony held out a hand for Margaret to take. They walked hand in hand down the garden path, back towards the house. The kitchen light was on, welcoming them back. Margaret squeezed Anthony, snatching a sideways glance at him, and now she realised it wasn’t just exhaustion in his face: it was fear.

Inside, the house was different. It took Margaret a moment to realise why. She blinked rapidly, as if trying to shake a shroud covering her eyes, desperate to catch up to whatever Anthony had discovered.

And then there it was.

Margaret stepped into the living room, one hand nervously clenching and unfurling. All the furniture that she and Anthony had carefully selected for their house – the curtains, coffee table, the aloe vera plan given to them by Anthony’s mother; even the smart television set they’d only just paid off last month – it was all gone. And in their place were Elizabeth’s things.

It was like stepping back in time to when Nigel first showed them the house. It even smelt the same, like lily of the valley and talcum powder. All the things she’d stored in the attic for safekeeping, they’d crept back into their rightful place.

Vertigo swept over Margaret, peeling her to the right.

‘Why did you do this?’ Anthony demanded.

‘I…didn’t. I don’t remember-’

‘How long did this take? Where are all our things, Margaret?’

‘I don’t know how this happened.’

‘Please tell me you didn’t throw anything out. Where’s the bloody TV?’

‘I was just out in the garden, I have no idea…’

‘I can’t even find my shoes!’

Before she could say anything else, Anthony ran upstairs. A beat later the bedroom door slammed open, and she heard a muffled cry of ‘Christ!’ Margaret crept towards the stairs as Anthony emerged onto the landing. ‘All our stuff is gone! It’s all…theirs!’

She stumbled into the kitchen - also relapsed into its former décor – and sat down heavily. There was no explanation for any of this, and yet something about it felt…right. A natural progression to an ending she couldn’t quite see yet.

Anthony followed her into the kitchen. After glancing around, taking in his surroundings, he put the kettle onto boil.

‘We can’t stay here anymore.’ he said, pulling his hair.

‘Anthony, I swear, I don’t know how this happened. I’ve been in the garden all day.’

‘All this time on your own,’ he continued, ‘it’s not good for you.’

‘I haven’t been on my own,’ Margaret snapped. ‘I’ve had Bea to keep me company.’

‘At least back in the flat, we had neighbours, friends. Out here, there’s nothing for you. I could take some time off work, I suppose.’

‘I don’t need you to, Anthony. I’m fine.’

‘Then how do you explain this?’ he asked, waving a hand around the room.

‘I know it sounds like madness.’ Margaret grabbed his arm, looking up into his face, a patient face made tired. ‘I know it does, Anthony. But I think the house is trying to tell me something. I’ve been having these dreams, about Elizabeth, and I think something happened here, something bad.’

‘Listen to yourself!’ Anthony cried. ‘The house is talking to you? Really, Maggie? Your mind is running a hundred miles off a cliff. You need to stop it. Maybe some time away, at your mother’s or something…’

‘No!’ Margaret felt panic bolt through her. It was clear now that Elizabeth was trying to tell her something. She needed to listen. There was no way she could help if she left. And what if Nigel…what if Anthony wasn’t safe? Whatever was happening, Margaret knew she was the only one who could make it stop.

‘I’m calling your mother,’ Anthony said, the note in his voice bridging no room for argument. ‘A week or so of tender loving care, I think it’s what you need. I can sort the house out, get it back in shape. You just need to take some time. Okay?’ Margaret nodded, unable to meet her husband’s gaze.

The kitchen radiator moaned, squeezing the room tight with heat.

vi.

‘Chilly today. Although not if you’re indoors, huh?’

‘I didn’t hear you coming,’ Margaret says. Of course, no one ever does.

‘Feeling better?’ Bea asks with a peppy smile.

Margaret inhales, and coughs. She digs a hand into her cardigan pocket, glad to have worn it after all, and retrieves a handkerchief. Bea waits patiently while she blows her nose.

‘Yes,’ she says eventually. ‘I suppose I do.’

There is a pair of crows fighting in a tree. The noise they make is abrasive, mocking. It seems to mute everything else, cutting further towards her until Margaret feels her chest tightening. She shakes her head, pressing her handkerchief against her eyes.

‘Stop that!’ Bea shouts, picking up a pebble and lobbing it as high as she can at the birds. It hits the branch to their left, but it’s enough to startle them into flight. ‘What can they be fighting over that’s so important?’ she asks Margaret. ‘I mean, really.’

Margaret says nothing.

‘I’m sorry.’ Bea sidles closer to Margaret on the bench, until their shoulders are touching. ‘I haven’t asked how you are, after…well.’

‘I’m fine,’ Margaret says. ‘A little shaken, perhaps, but…better than I thought I’d be feeling.’

‘Tell me what happened,’ Bea whispers.

‘You know. You saw.’

‘Yes, but it might feel good to say it out loud. Don’t you think?’

Margaret shrugs. ‘Everything happened just as you said it would. I was in the kitchen making dinner, and I turned around, and he was just…standing there.’

‘Nigel?’

‘Nigel.’

‘What happened then?’

‘I told him I knew what he’d done. That he was terrible.’

‘I bet he loved that. What did he say?’

‘He told me he didn’t know what I was talking about.’

‘Coward.’

‘Then he grabbed my arm, and it all just…happened.’

It had been easier than she could have ever imagined. Yes, her arm had trembled as she grabbed the kitchen knife from the counter, its edge already coated with meat. And yes, the contents of her stomach turned to paste as she thrust her arm forward, punching the knife into Nigel’s belly. But his body gave no resistance. The blade slipped into him seamlessly, like plunging through soft butter. It ripped through his shirt like tissue paper, doing all the work for her.

The sound of his body crashing to the floor was obscene.

Margaret swipes a hand across her mouth. ‘It’s not like in the movies,’ she says. ‘It’s…louder. You can hear yourself, your body. Blood rushing in your ears. Bubbles in your stomach. And it smells. It smells animal. Sweat, you know. Like you’ve run for miles, but you’re standing still.’

‘Oh, sweetheart.’ Bea shakes her head sympathetically. ‘You’ve had such a time of it.’

‘These past few months,’ Margaret continues, ‘I knew the house was trying to tell me something. That I was in danger, just like Elizabeth. I just didn’t think it would come to this.’

Bea gets up and kneels next to the hydrangeas. ‘Done a rather good job on these, haven’t I?’ she says. ‘Not that I planted them. But you know what I mean.’ Her delicate hand reaches out to pinch a petal, now bright blue, and plucks it. Puts it in her pocket.

‘He would have done it to you too,’ Bea tells Margaret. ‘You know that, don’t you? They’re all the same. You mustn’t feel bad.’

‘I don’t know,’ Margaret mutters. ‘I suppose you’re right.’

‘I couldn’t bear it,’ the younger woman continues, ‘if he did it to you too. You’ve been so good for this place.’ Bea crawls on her hands and knees towards Margaret, settling at her feet. She rests her chin on Margaret’s knee, gazing up at her with eyes as bright as pennies. ‘He was a bad man.’

‘Yes,’ she agrees.

‘And it hurt, what he did to me. A man like that doesn’t deserve to have a life.’

‘No.’

Bea kisses Margaret’s leg. ‘Thank you,’ she says softly. ‘I can’t tell you how much…better, I feel now. It’s been like having an itch beneath your skin. And then you came, and you understood. You didn’t try to erase me like Nigel. You helped me, Margaret.’

Margaret peers down at Bea, and nods. ‘You’re welcome.’

‘Well, I better be off.’ The younger woman dusts herself off as she climbs to her feet. ‘Don’t sit out here too long, huh? You’ll catch a chill.’

‘I won’t,’ Margaret says with a tired smile. She watches as Bea walks back over to the hydrangea bush and begins pushing her feet into the earth. The ground parts for her, until she’s up to her knees, her waist, in dirt. Her slender fingers begin digging, and now she’s up to her breast, flecks of soil spraying the hydrangea, fallen petals catching in her hair. Bea smiles at Margaret as the ground finally swallows her up.

Alone again, Margaret exhales slowly. She’ll have to go soon. It’s getting darker, and the cold will finally show itself. But five more minutes won’t hurt. She’s inherited such love for this garden. She doesn’t want to leave it just yet.

Behind her, the house burns, and screams of ‘Maggie!’ are lost to October’s winds.