The Haunt

Free The Haunt by A. L. Barker

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Authors: A. L. Barker
already old, sitting up in the hammock with a stock of grey hair and yellow eyes like a tiger’s.
    He turned and ran. She called after him, ‘Come back tomorrow and we’ll talk about it.’
    They never did talk about it, though Ernie went back next day and the next and many days after. There was nothing else to do. She had been a schoolteacher, he could just see her chalking on the blackboard. In the village they resented her living in a big house, setting herself up as a fine lady. People said she had plenty of money but she dispensed no charity, allowed her property to go to rack and ruin, made no friends and few contacts. Ernie came up against hard feelings if he mentioned her. It was easier to keep quiet. He didn’t himself know what to make of her.
    When she started calling him Ernest, he said, ‘Don’t call me that.’
    ‘Why not?’
    ‘It’s cissy.’
    ‘If it was good enough for Hemingway it’s good enough for you.’
    Perhaps there was something toffee-nosed about her, but he liked talking to her, he was beginning to find his voice and was agreeably surprised by the strength and variety of his convictions. She came alive listening to him airing them. Her eyes weren’t yellow, they were sort of amber and glowed when she laughed. She didn’t laugh at him, he wouldn’t have stood for that; he was able to join in, even when the laugh was on himself.
    She never asked him into the house, she watched from the window and came to him in the garden. One day she said, ‘How do you get into the garden?’
    ‘Over the wall.’
    ‘But it’s so high.’
    ‘I climb into the tree and drop down.’
    ‘Tree? What tree?’
    ‘The big oak that hangs over the wall.’
    ‘I’d rather you didn’t.’
    ‘You must stop climbing that tree!’
    ‘I shan’t hurt it.’
    ‘Hurt it? Oh my God!’ She rocked, laughing; it was one time he couldn’t join in.
    He said stoutly, ‘What’s up then? It’s only an old tree.’
    ‘There’s a gate in the wall. I’ll give you the key and you can come in that way.’
    ‘I like climbing in. No problem.’
    ‘I want you to promise never to get into that tree again.’
    ‘Oh sure.’
    ‘On your word of honour. If you have one.’
    Ernie drew a finger across his neck. After that he made a point of looking closely at the tree. There was nothing to see – no more, anyway, than was to be expected: leaves and branches and a hole in the trunk where owls or something lived. She probably thought he would fall. He would show her what a climber he was. Meantime he accepted the key and used the door. There was a name painted on it – ‘Bellechasse’. He asked her what it meant. She said it was French for good hunting.
    One day he came and found her lying in the hammock. It was the middle of a heatwave, the hottest day of the year. ‘The wireless says there’s a storm coming.’ She had her eyes shut, like the first time he saw her. But now the fine lines inher face had drawn together, making it a mask. She looked a million years old. Ernie felt a twinge of disquiet. He said, ‘Storm makes the wireless crackle. Atmospherics.’
    One of her hands was draped out of the hammock and something she had been holding fell to the ground. Ernie picked up a small leather-covered book.
    ‘Give that to me!’ Suddenly she was wide awake.
    ‘What is it?’
    He was actually handing it over when she pushed it back into his hand. ‘Let’s see what you can make of it.’ The way she spoke, taunting, put his back up.
    The book had a bitter smell. He opened it on pages dog-eared and brown at the edges, covered with spidery writing. The words were foreign, nightmarish. Every few pages carried a heading, he guessed it was the date. On some were diagrams and rows of numbers.
    ‘Well? What do you suppose it is?’
    ‘Could be a diary.’
    ‘That’s clever of you.’ She took the book from him, clasped it prayerwise between her palms. ‘It’s the diary of a fighter pilot during the

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