The Inheritance

She didn’t want it. She had had no time for her grandfather when he was alive and so, from the first, her inclination had been to say no. But her sycophantic family, anxious that she be seen to do the right thing, persuaded her otherwise. She mustn’t rock the boat, of course, create an incident, send it over the edge and down into the icy depths only to be dredged up and inspected every Christmas forever after. So she smiled and graciously said that yes, she would be delighted to take the place and of course she would accept the conditions, whatever they might be.

Seven months later, in the heart of winter and when she didn’t feel she could put it off any longer, Mary Black took a train up to Yorkshire. Back to Yorkshire. Of course, she should have done it in the summer, when the nights didn’t fall so fast and she had more time to spare. There was always a reason to put it off. She knew why old Bonkers Bertie had left her the bloody old ruin. He’d never forgiven her for leaving Yorkshire, running away when she was fifteen, going down south to that bloody London.

‘Think tha’sel’ better than fam’ly?’

‘Yes, I am! And I’m going! I’m going where there’s lights and money and people who know how to enjoy themselves.’

‘I’ll show thee, bloody lass! I’ll bring tha bones back, won’t I just!’

She had never been to Hamilton Hall. Her grandfather had told her of it during his visits to the family home in Leeds, but even he rarely stayed there and the rest of them never spoke of it. When she ran away, it was to get as far as possible from everything her grandfather represented. As far as possible from Yorkshire. And here she was, back again, thanks to the cuddleless old curmudgeon and his bloody will, wet through already, in her boots and Barbour jacket, in the train and then the taxi that wasn’t there and then the walk up the sodding hillside to what was left of it, the family pile. Pile of bleeding shit.

Hamilton Hall stood high on the hill a few miles outside of Hamilton itself. The house was a ruin, but the land it was on was prime real estate. The approach to the property was a sweeping, winding driveway through overgrown private grounds. The mullion windows, smashed glass framing large link dormers like pairs of sightless eyes, faced down their sullen visitor, dared her to enter, winked their acquiescence. Mary, rooted and staring open-mouthed, breathed it in. Somewhere in the wind was the noise of rain-soaked boys kicking a ball about on the hillside. She wondered if the broken glass was their fault. She wore the night upon her skin like a bruise.

She was met in the hallway by Baxter, a reanimated corpse from the Yorkshire office. He led her by candlelight over splintered floorboards and past window ledges thick with dust, apologising all the way for the state of disrepair. When he stopped to catch his breath, the candle cast a pool of light upon the floor and Mary gazed down. At her feet was carved the sign of a cross. ‘What’s this for?’ she asked but the light had already moved on only to stop again a few feet further along the corridor. Mary stepped over the carving, one resistant board creaking beneath her tread, a squeal of pain in the flickering light.

At the noise, Baxter swung the candle around with such violence that Mary wondered the flame was not extinguished. In the brief arc she saw first a bathroom then a kitchen. Straight ahead, three worn steps led up to a closed wooden door. With some difficulty, Baxter turned the handle and beckoned her inside. He reached around the corner of the door to a switch and, for the first time, they were bathed in electric light.

‘He called it The Church, Miss. A sacred place. The Lady Chapel, Chapel of the Blessed Martyr, and the altar.’

They were standing in what had been Grandpa Albert’s bedroom. Baxter had arranged for Mrs Morris from the village to give the place a bit of a makeover: fresh-laundered bedding on the weary four-poster, floor swept and tidied, the antique chest of drawers and armoire polished. This was where Mary was to spend the night.

Back in the entrance hall, Baxter handed over the keys. ‘There won’t be anything else, will there, Miss?’

‘Actually….Do you know why my grandfather made that stipulation in his will?’

Baxter stared at his feet. He seemed to be thinking of something else. After a pause of some length, he spoke without looking up at her. ‘All I know is, if you take on this house, you take on its history. That comes along with it.’ Another pause, then his eyes met hers. ‘If you need company, Miss, Hamilton is thirty minutes’ walk that way. Make sure you’re back by midnight, though, or it won’t count as spending the whole night here. You don’t want to have to do it all again tomorrow night, do you?’

********

 The Greedy Head was the local pub, just outside the village. The sounds were of private laughter muffled by bottle-glass windows. Mary reached for the door, her face tightened against the wind, the skin of her cheeks sliced open like a peach. When she stepped inside, the place grew silent, everyone stopped and stared at her. It was like the old movie she had running in her head. Then a red-faced man at the bar, in a tweed coat and battered farmer’s hat, turned and said, in a voice that rang out like a wild bell, ‘Aye up, lass. Put wood in th’ole, wilt thee?’ Mary turned and pulled shut the heavy door behind her. Noise returned to the room as she fought her way through the laughing drinkers and the drunken singers to order a vodka and tonic. A double. As she waited, the red-faced man, who was now propping up the bar next to her, turned and smiled through a haze of beer. She ignored him, ordered her drink and looked for a quiet corner to get quietly drunk in.

‘I wouldn’t worry about the locals,’ said a voice at her elbow. ‘It’s just an act we do for tourists.’ The speaker was male, tall, well-built, mid-thirties, sleeked-back hair, ubiquitous Yorkshire beer belly, the true Yorkshire pudding.

‘I’m not worried,’ she smiled at him. ‘I used to live here. Leeds, anyway. But my grandfather owned Hamilton Hall.’

‘You’re Bertie’s granddaughter? Pleased to meet you.’ The stranger introduced himself as Bernard Macintosh from Macintosh and Turner, the local estate agents, rivals to Baxter’s outfit. He paid for their drinks and found them both a table in a corner. It was a little quieter here and they found they could talk quite easily. It was cosy too, not far from the fire. Macintosh was, as she thought he would be, forthright and direct in expressing his opinions.

‘If you take my advice, you’ll put Hamilton Hall on the market straightaway. Some developer will take it off your hands and build a Country House Hotel. It’s too expensive for any individual to manage.’

‘That’s exactly what I’m going to do, first thing tomorrow. I just have to spend the night in the old shit-heap.’

‘You’re bloody joking, aren’t you? You’re not really going to sleep there?’

‘Part of the old man’s will. I only officially inherit the place if I stay a night there alone.’

Macintosh was serious. ‘What happens if you don’t inherit? Public auction, I suppose. I wonder why he made that a condition.’

‘I was wondering that myself. I thought first of all it was just a way of making sure I came back to Yorkshire. I ran away to London when I was a kid’

‘Who’s going to handle the sale?’

‘You. Maybe.’ Mary laughed. It felt good, the release of tension, like the smack in the face of an unfaithful lover. ‘I bloody hate Yorkshire,’ she confided.

‘It’s not just Yorkshire, though, is it? It’s Hamilton Hall. You know the history of the place?’

‘The guidebook? Sure. The oldest part eleventh century, in the Hetherington family for generations, fell into disrepair, eventually purchased by a man named Illingworth, my grandfather won it in a card game.’

‘No, that’s not it.’

‘It’s what he always said.’

‘Yes, but there’s so much more. Why did it fall into disrepair, for instance?’

Mary shrugged her indifference. ‘The cost of the upkeep, I suppose.’

‘Right then. There’s something I’ve got to tell you, something you need to hear. Better get a drink in first.’

‘What is it?’

‘I’ll tell you when I come back with the drinks.’

Mary stared into the middle distance. It was her round, she thought, but such ideas had little currency here. She sat as still as a wax doll, stripped of her independence, complicit despite herself in the northern mess. By the fire lay a large Labrador, its eyes closed, teeth bared like prison bars.

‘Bit of a ghost story actually,’ said Macintosh, slamming down a double vodka on the table. He stood erect while sinking the remains of his first pint then supped rigidly at the second. She had a close view of his belly as it strained against the buttons of his shirt. Strands of dark, wiry hair poked out at her through the gaps between the buttons. He sat down at last and she waited for him to begin.

‘Well, the story is that a couple of hundred years ago, the place was home to Sir Mortimer Hetherington, part of the Hetherington family inheritance. He had a wife, I forget her name, and a brother, Robert. Now this brother was a simple sort, what they’d call ‘feeble-minded’ in those days. Mortimer was the jealous type, never trusted another man with his wife, that sort of thing. He came to believe that Robert was slipping it to her ladyship.’

‘The feeble-minded brother?’

‘Absolutely! Screwing the arse off her. Of course, Big Mort was way off target, Robert was an imbecile, couldn’t stick it to anyone, probably didn’t even know what to do with it. But Mortimer couldn’t help himself - jealous type, you see, and his wife was fond of her little brother-in-law, felt sorry for him, you know. She used to read him stories from the family bible. It didn’t take much for Mortimer to put two and two together and make all sorts of dirty numbers.

‘Anyway, Hetherington decided to set a trap for his brother. He told him that Lady W was a bit poorly and would be spending the night in one of the guest bedrooms, a place they called the priest’s chamber on account of it having an old priest hole concealed behind a door in the wall. Then he left a note, supposedly from her ladyship, for Robert to find. The note said, ‘I shall be alone all night in the priest’s chamber. Come and comfort me.’ Sure enough, Bobby read the note, all innocent of course, and turned up at midnight with his bible. Of course, it was really Mortimer who was waiting for him and, taking his arrival as proof of the wife’s infidelity, he grabbed the bible off his brother and bashed him unconscious with it. Then he dragged him over to the priest hole, forced him inside and bolted the door shut. After which, he started bricking the place up.’

‘He buried him alive?’

‘The story goes that Bobby woke up just as his brother was closing the door on him. He tried to force his way back out, of course, but Mortimer cut him with a knife. After he had walled him in and left him, Mortimer went back to his own bed and slept like a baby. Robert spent the rest of the night screaming for help and was dead by morning.’

‘What happened next? Did they find the body?’

‘Not a bit of it. Hetherington put out a story that his brother had run off to London to seek his fortune and nobody questioned it because he’s the local landowner so his word is pretty much law. Then Mortimer started to have bad dreams. He wakes up unable to breathe, says someone is trying to kill him. His brother’s ghost starts walking the corridors, screaming in the night and crying for help. The servants search the whole building, but no one ever finds anything. Eventually, Big Mort starts to lose his mind. His hair turns white overnight, exactly one year after the murder. He goes to a priest and confesses the whole thing, but the priest thinks the old codger’s lost his marbles so he doesn’t pay any attention. Next morning, Mortimer’s found dead in his bed. Died of fright, it’s said.’

Macintosh took a deep draught of his beer. Mary let the silence hang between them. She couldn’t tell if he was trying to frighten her or play a joke. The wind howled in the chimney and rattled the eaves and gables of the old public house. Macintosh wiped the flecks of foam from his mouth with the back of a hairy hand. ‘So anyway,’ he said, ‘every one of Mortimer’s descendants that took ownership of that property died insane. The locals call it the curse of the Hetheringtons.’

‘Yes, or hereditary insanity! Anyway, I should be alright, I’m not a descendant.’

Macintosh shook his head. ‘The Hetherington line died out and the house was abandoned. But, as you know, sometimes in the seventies a property speculator named Illingworth bought the place. He couldn’t wait to unload it onto your poor grandfather. He said every time he tried to spend the night there, his sleep was troubled – bad dreams, howling, crying, you name it. Bobby’s ghost still stalks those corridors – your grandfather claimed to have seen it too, you know. Many have tried to find Robert’s last resting-place, but none have been successful. Whatever the priest’s chamber was, it’s never been found. Illingworth brought in exorcists, all sorts of experts, to rid the house of its ghost. Never made any difference. Sorry to be the one to tell you, but I really thought you should know.’

‘So you’re trying to warn me off?’

‘I just think you should be prepared. You’re going to be in for a rough time, I reckon. You’re a big girl, you can do what you want, but I wouldn’t spend the night alone there, not even if my reward was to inherit the place.’

********

Outside, the fierce air slammed into her face like a fist. In her palm, closed up against the cold, was the torn-off scrap of a beer coaster. Macintosh’s number. Taking it was the only way she could convince him to let her leave unaccompanied. It was just in case of emergency, he told her. You never know. Mary was pretty sure the landline wouldn’t have any connection and there was no chance of a mobile signal, but she took the number anyway. She thought the whole story was just a clumsy attempt to pick her up and wasn’t inclined to give it any credence, but if it was just a line it was a pretty elaborate one. That wasn’t the Yorkshire way. Maybe he was desperate. Right now all she wanted was to get out of the wind and go to sleep.

The four-poster turned out to be surprisingly comfortable. The three rooms Baxter had shown her seemed to be the only ones in use. The rest of the place, as far as she could tell, was uninhabitable, but here at least was comfort. Mary’s eyes closed easily as she sank her head onto the pillow, her mind swimming with the alcohol and the cold air of the Dales. It had been a difficult walk back up the hillside and her calves ached with the effort. The earth was unresponsive. She was grateful for the yield of the mattress and the soft warmth of the room. He called it The Church, she remembered.

Some hours later, her eyes snapped open. It was the dead of night. No sound came from the Dales. Yet something had woken her. A noise. Something inside the house. Her left arm reached across her body, grabbed the edge of the counterpane and pulled it back, almost without her realising what was happening. She gave a slight involuntary shiver, dived down with her right hand into the bottom of the bag next her bed, and pulled out a torch. The harsh yellow beam illuminated the far wall, dull wallpaper roses washed out by the fierceness of the light. She quickly rose and pulled her dressing-gown around her body, eased her slippers onto her feet and, with the torch held out before her like a talisman, rose to open the door.

The noise came again. She remembered it from her sleep, a high-pitched whine, brief but shrill in the darkness. The following silence gave her no clue to its identity. Maybe an animal was trapped somewhere, whimpering; or the wind was complaining as it was forced through some tiny aperture. She thought of the pained squeal of the floorboard and gave a gasp, despite herself. Directing the torch beam downwards, she edged along the corridor to where she had seen the sign of the cross. Nothing. Then her ears pricked up, her head jerked forward, she stood still as stone. There was a sound now like a murmuring voice, laughter or low chatter somewhere in the distance, but intimate, like an underground cave, or the Whispering Gallery at St Paul’s.

Mary thought of the kids she’d heard playing football and the broken windows. Were they back? Was this the nocturnal playground for wanton teenagers? It was the kind of place she might have found enticing at fourteen, familiar yet frightening enough to need a boy holding her close. It could perhaps be Bernard Macintosh trying to scare her, though for what motive she couldn’t say. Perhaps he was just making sure she disliked the place enough to sell it in the morning. Was he so desperate for commission? Maybe the competition from Baxter was greater than she thought. Macintosh and Turner was certainly not a firm she’d heard of. They had no London office. The noise came again.

It was definitely a low murmur, carried somehow from the end of the corridor, she thought. The words were indistinct but it was someone talking. Baxter? A thief? Her mind whirled but her feet were steady, their silent tread advancing to the hallway. Then the direction the sound was coming from seemed to change. She swung the torch around to her right and saw another corridor. Pursing her lips in determination, Mary headed towards the sound. Another turn took her to the left, then another off to the right again. She did not know where she was, what part of the house or how far she needed to go. Still, at every turn the murmur seemed a little louder, and she was sure she was headed towards its source.

The muttering carried no threat or urgency. It was more like a priest saying his prayers, reciting a rosary or something like that. She had been taught to do all those things when at school. She had said the Hail Mary countless times as a child. Charlie Heslake always used to snigger if you said ‘virgin’. Yorkshire boys.

She stubbed her foot against something, shone the torch down. There were three steps in front of her, just like the ones leading up to her bedroom. At the top of the third step, a wooden door. The muttering was coming from behind the door. Slowly, gently, she reached out her right hand to turn the door handle. It opened easily, but not inwards. She had to step down, back to floor level and pull the door towards her. It was a storage cupboard of some kind, empty except for one thing. The fresh corpse of a man sat slumped against the back wall. He could not have been dead for more than a few hours at most. The man sat with his head bowed down to the floor, his right arm draped across his body, resting on his left shoulder. On the back of his hand was a fresh wound, like the slash of a knife. The blood was congealed; it glistened in the torchlight. She reached out to touch him. As she did so, his body dissolved into liquid and collapsed in a pool at her feet. The impact splashed her from head to foot. She gasped, barely able to breathe, and woke up.

Mary sat up rigid in the bed then sprang out of it. Her throat felt constricted, paralysed. She had to fight for every breath. The vividness of her dream and the difficulty of breathing conspired against her, but eventually, by calming her heaving chest with one hand and standing bent over with her mouth open, she managed to take in oxygen again, gradually her heat rate settled and she was able to sit on the edge of the bed. A few minutes later, she turned on the light. All was calm and still in her room. There was only silence now. From outside, she heard nothing. She told herself this was definitely the last time she was drinking double vodkas.

Mary put on her dressing-gown, took her book from her bag and settled down to read. The story was dull and within a few minutes she felt her eyelids droop. She yawned and got up to switch off the light. And then she heard it. No dream this time, no indistinct murmur either. This was plainly the cry of someone in trouble, a deep-throated man’s cry, a yell for help. She thought straightaway of Bernard, took the torch and pocketed the knife from her bag and ventured into the corridor.

None of the light switches worked along the walls back to the entrance hall, as she had supposed. When she was near to the front door, she heard the cry again, much louder this time, off to her right. Trying not to think of her dream, she followed. ‘I’m coming!’ she called. There was no reply. Whether he had heard her and had no more reason to call out, or had been silenced, she could not tell. The corridor twisted and turned with no other option for her but to follow. Eventually, she came to a wooden door, raised from ground level by three worn steps. Her heart in her mouth, Mary climbed the steps. ‘Hello!’ she called out. ‘Is anybody in there?’ Silence. The door was bolted at top and bottom and she slowly drew back each bolt in turn, the metal cold and heavy against her skin. Then gingerly she folded her hand around the door handle, twisted it and pulled. The door opened outwards and she had to step down onto the floor to open it.

‘Aargh!’ Mary screamed and dropped the torch.

It fell with a thud and the light went out. In the flash before the darkness, she had seen a face leering at her from the doorway, a thin, ragged visage with grey teeth and streaks of red down its hollow cheeks. Lanky, white hair hung dishevelled from its skeletal head, eyes of black and red sat sunken in its skull. But worse than this, it had reached out a shrivelled arm and grabbed her by the wrist. Its grip was strong. Taut, bony fingers squeezed her wrist, sharp nails dug into her flesh. Struggling to break free, Mary remembered the pocket knife and reached for it, snapping it open with ease and slashing wildly in the direction she imagined the arm must be.

A sudden cry of pain pierced the air and she felt the grip removed. Stepping back, she kicked the torch by accident, stunning it back into life. Ahead of her, the corpse-like figure stood revealed in the open doorway, grabbing and staring at his injured hand. He wore shreds of clothes like a Halloween scarecrow and for the first time Mary became aware of the foul, putrid smell that came from him. Without thinking, she stared at him and he glanced quickly towards her, a look of pure hatred in his eyes, black foam oozing from his mouth. Quickly, she kicked out against the door, slamming it shut, then she leaned her whole weight against it and pulled shut the bolts. Without waiting to see if this contained the creature, she retrieved the torch, turned and fled back to her room. Only then did she dare to breathe again.

The telephone was by the bed. To her surprise and considerable relief, it emitted a low dial tone as soon as she picked up the receiver. Bernard’s number was just legible on the screwed-up coaster and she heard the phone ring at the other end just four times before he picked it up. She had no idea what time it was, but it was late. He knew it was her straightaway. ‘Something’s happening,’ she told him.

‘What is it? Voices? Sounds?’

‘More than that. I was dreaming and then I – There’s something in the house, Bernard, something – unnatural.’

‘I’m on my way over. Sit tight. Whatever you hear, whatever happens, don’t open the door until I get there, OK?’

‘I’ll have to come to let you in.’

‘I’ll get in through one of the broken windows. Don’t worry, I know my way around the place.’

‘Just hurry up, will you?’

‘I’m leaving right now. Stay exactly where you are.’

As soon as she put the phone down, she heard the sound again. A human cry, unmistakable and distant, but a cry for help. She was half-inclined to reach for the door and had to hold herself in check. The cry continued, growing louder…Was it getting nearer? It seemed to be.

‘It’s just your imagination,’ she told herself, but she knew that wasn’t true. ‘It can’t hurt you,’ she said. ‘What’s dead can’t hurt the living.’ She had seen a TV show once about psychics and people who claimed near-death experiences. There was someone who said ghosts were like recordings, like taping a TV show. When you saw a ghost, that was all it was, a playback of something that had already happened. It wasn’t in the real world. It couldn’t hurt you.

The crying was definitely coming nearer. It sounded like more of a moan now, an agonised shriek of defeat. It went right through her bones.

Mary climbed into bed and pulled the covers over her. As a child, she would hide under the covers when she had done something wrong, thinking no one would find her there. Her mother or father would stand over her, saying, ‘I know you’re under there, Mary Black. You’ll have to come out sooner or later.’ Once it had been her grandfather who had found her. Why did they always use her second name, she wondered? Why was she only ‘Mary Black’ when she had done something wrong?

She stayed under the bedclothes as long as she could. She didn’t know how long. She didn’t know what noises she could hear, how close they were or how prolonged. She was focusing only on the voices of her past – her parents scolding her, reassuring, warning her. Why had she ever left home anyway? What she wouldn’t give, she realised, to be back there now, in the bedroom of her teenage years, with the stolen cigarettes she kept hidden in the corner of the chimney, behind the brick that wobbled. Her secret hideaway. She didn’t care about the inheritance now. She just wanted to get out of there.

Suddenly, she became aware of a different noise in the house. Beneath the wailing, which had become constant, a high wind building into a tempest, there was a regular pattering sound, like someone tapping a nail, or a succession of nails – nails into wood, a coffin maybe. Then she realised what it was: footsteps along the corridor, rapid-fire footsteps. And a voice! A real human voice, calling her name. ‘Mary! Mary! Mary Black!’ Footsteps and her name! It was Bernard, it had to be. He had climbed through the broken window and was hurrying along to where he knew she’d be. He knew the layout of the place, knew that Grandpa Bertie’s was the only functioning bedroom in the house. He knew where she was! He was coming to get her!

‘Mary Black!’ came the voice. It was here now. It was at her door. She leaped out of bed and ran towards it, her heart flooded with relief. Fumbling with the door handle, she pulled and pulled but it wouldn’t open. ‘Sorry!’ she called. ‘I forgot, the doors here open outwards!’ and she pushed against it with all her might. The door flung open and she put her hand out to take Bernard’s, to draw him in, to tell him everything.

‘Aargh!’ Mary screamed and pulled back her arm.

Something had hurt her. It had cut her. She looked down at her hand. A deep wound was etched across her knuckles. Blood was beginning to pour across her skin. She looked up enquiringly at the figure in the doorway but, as she did so, the door slammed shut against her and she heard bolts being drawn across at the top and bottom. Bolts? She hadn’t noticed any bolts on the outside of her door. She looked around her. The walls were closing in. The brick walls. Her mind was spinning again.

Mary reached down deep inside herself and drew out a mighty scream, a cry for help that contained all of her desperation, her panic and regret. It was the very soul of her. The scream echoed through the chamber, through the house, through the windows and the walls. It ranged over the hillside and across the Dales. Finally, it rang out through all of Yorkshire for every man to savour, like the cry of the wind complaining as it was forced through some tiny aperture, the narrowest of gaps in a wall.