House on Parchment Street, The – McKillip, Patricia A.
CAROL CHRISTOPHER PUFFED HER CHEEKS, SIGHED, and sat down on her suitcases in the middle of Parchment Street. The street was old and worn; it ended abruptly, running into a broad empty field in front of her. On one side of the street was a graveyard. On the other side was a high stone wall with a closed gate. Old trees arched over the wall; their leaves whispered softly against the stones. The long windblown grass in the graveyard played the iron railing like a harp. The warm summer wind swooped unexpectedly across the field, opened the gate, and set it creaking aimlessly a moment. A massive square house sat firm and ancient beyond the wall, stone-grey beneath a beard of ivy. Carol caught a glimpse of it before the gate slammed shut again. The street was empty, the field was empty, and the only sound on Parchment Street was the wind, agile as a cat, leaping over the old stone wall. Carol stood up to get at the back pocket of her jeans and pulled out a letter. She sat down and smoothed it flat on her knee, her eyes flickering over it until she found the part she wanted: "… There is no ordinary street address; the House is well known in Middleton, being something of a historical monument. There are no other houses on the street anyway, except for Emily Raison's house, which is cheerful and modest and on the graveyard side… ." She looked up. A small white house with a sharply pointed roof faced the graveyard, half-hidden in apple trees. Her head turned slowly toward the closed gate and the grey house hidden behind it. She sighed again, softly, and folded the letter. Six boys floated out of the graveyard on their bicycles. They skidded to a halt at the sight of her, colliding gently with each other. For a moment they were quiet with surprise. She stared back at them, motionless on her suitcases. And then, as though someone had pulled a string that set them in order, they flowed into a neat circle around her, spokes winking under the sun.
"Coo, look at that hair."
"No, it's more like fire. I wonder what she combs it with. Should think a rake."
"Look at those dirty jeans."
"And bare feet. I wonder if she's an orphan. I say, are you an orphan?" Carol stood up slowly. Her hands clenched, the letter crumpled between her fingers. Faces spun around her, curious, distant, mocking. "She must be an orphan—she's nothing but skin and bones."
"She can't talk, either."
"Of course she can't. You won't let her get a word in. Shut up, the lot of you, and let her talk."
The street was silent again but for the ceaseless click-click of bicycle
wheels. Carol's mouth clamped tight. She bent and picked up her suitcases.
"She doesn't want to talk."
She took a step forward. The circle melted forward with her. Somebody snickered.
"Matchstick. That's what she is: a walking match-stick, lit." Carol took a firmer grip on her suitcases. She swung them in front of her, and in three long quick steps broke the circle, leaving one bicycle wobbling perilously. Another, jolted by a suitcase, smacked against the curb and fell.
She whirled, her face flaming. "Well, it's your own fault! I am not an orphan, and I'm sick of being told I'm skinny, and I hope your spokes are bent, and as soon as I can write a note to my aunt, I'm going home, and I'm not ever coming back to this country! Ever!"
There was a little silence. "Coo. She's American." The boy beneath the bicycle pulled himself free and sat up, rubbing an elbow. He was big, fair-haired, with a slow even voice that bore no malice.
"Are you Bruce's cousin from California? Wait—" His hand went out as
she turned. "What's your name?"
She stepped across his bicycle wheel and kicked the gate open with her foot. She heard his voice, slightly plaintive, before she kicked it closed again. "He told me her name—I've forgotten—" There was a fishpond
in front of the house. Great orange fish nibbling on the leaves of golden water lilies made startled dives at her approach. The house, solid and square, had two rows of long windows and two dormer windows jutting out from its high roof. Two great chimneys rose cold, motionless against the sky. The stone wall stretched far toward the field, then angled to encompass a vast sweep of side yard.
Carol set her suitcases on the porch and pounded on the door. She waited a moment, flicking her long hair out of her eyes, and she noticed then how quietly the stones rose upward before her, and how the thin curtains breathed in and out of soundless rooms. She shifted impatiently on the steps, the anger quivering in her. She lifted her fists to pound again. There was a muffled voice shouting from the other side. "Why can't you go round to the back? I can't— open—"
The door creaked again, moving a fraction of an inch. The voice belonged to a boy. Carol set her shoulder against the door and shoved. It sprang open in a chorus of noises: a wild garbled cry; the deep curly sound of a loosened spring; the rapid beat of a clock bell counting hours. Carol caught her balance, clinging to the doorknob. For a second, she did not move. Then she peered around the door in time to see her dark-haired cousin disentangling himself from a grandfather clock. "Of all the stupid things to do—Will you shut up?" He pounded on the
grandfather clock. It whined to a silence; the sound hummed a moment, golden, dying in the air. Bruce was silent, blinking in the dim hall. He reached up, massaging his shoulder. "What are you doing here?" "Don't worry. I'm not staying long." "Are you Carol?" His eyes, narrowed a little against the light, moved slowly over her. He dropped his hand, leaving behind a shadow of grease on his shirt. He moved, looking behind her." Where's my parents?" "How should I know?"
His eyes came back to her. "What are you angry about? It's me who should be angry, having people push me into clocks when I have to get my bicycle fixed."
"I didn't mean to push you into a clock. I don't see why you have a front door if you don't want people coming through it."
"Every house has a front door. I can't help it if this one is three hundred years old and has trouble opening. I'd rather live in a modem house with a doorbell anyway." He stopped abruptly. His mouth pulled downward at the corners, then twitched tight. "What —How did you get
here? Mum and Dad went to pick you up at the airport in London." Carol was silent. She swallowed suddenly and sat down again on a suitcase. "Oh, no." Her hands rose slowly, covering her mouth.
"Didn't your mother tell you?"
"I think so, but … there were so many people, and it was so much fun
being by myself, doing things for myself … I just forgot. I took a bus to the station in London and then I took a train to Welling-borough and then a bus to here. Then I asked where Parchment Street was and I walked here, only I thought I was lost because I couldn't remember that there were supposed to be graves. And then… ." Color washed into her face; her hands closed beneath her chin into fists.
"And then what?"
She stood up. "And then I decided to go back home. I have a round-trip ticket and I'm going. At home they don't tease me. Much." Bruce's mouth opened slightly. It curved, after a moment, into a soft, noiseless "Oh… ." He drew a breath. "They just aren't used to people who are— different. This is a little town."
"Do they do that to everybody who looks different?" He nodded, his eyes steady, aloof on her face. "Mm. And most of the time, I'm there to help. Only I wasn't, today, because I've been fixing a flat."
In the silence, the clock started ticking again, after a soft inner click, as though some piece had fallen into place. Carol picked up her suitcases. "Well." Her voice shook on the word; she paused to steady it. "Tell Aunt Catherine I'm sorry she had to go to London for noth- "It's just what Dad would call facts. About me. He's a historian. After all, we don't have to like each other. You came over for a month to get cultured. To see how people in a different country live. You might as well stay for that, now you're here. You would just upset everyone
if you went back home."
"Everybody here has upset me."
"People naturally upset each other. Perhaps in California, people all go barefoot with their hair in their faces, but not in Middleton. People don't — people don't like strange things." He bent down, reaching for her suitcases, and for a moment she could not see his face. Her voice came unfamiliar, distinct and needle-sharp.
"You surprised me, too. I thought you would at least be nice." His face, pink and white in the summer sunlight, flushed to the color of an even sunburn. For a moment his eyes lost their aloofness, flicked uncertainly to her
face. Then his dark brows melted together into a scowl. He took the suitcases from her and turned to the staircase. "I used to be," he said. "Your bedroom is upstairs. I'll show you, and then I have to fix my bicycle. You can look around by yourself." The stairs, red-carpeted, creaked under their feet. "That's my room, round the corner. Yours is on the main landing." They turned a corner and went up a few more steps. He nudged a door open with his foot. "Bathroom's next door." The room was small and sunlit, with a dark ancient wardrobe twice as big as the bed. There was a full-length mirror in the door of it; she saw herself suddenly in it, tall as Bruce, her hair vivid, tangled from the wind, her worn jeans doubled-patched at the knees. She turned away and went to look out the window.
It faced Parchment Street. Across the rows of gravestones half-hidden in the trees, she saw a great grey church, its spire drifting in the moving clouds. As she opened the window, bells played a familiar four-tone melody, then tolled the hour.
"Four o'clock. Does it bother you, living across the street from a graveyard?"
He did not answer. She turned and found him standing behind her, his hands in his pockets, staring down at the graves with narrowed eyes. The color had come into his face again.
"I hate it," he said softly. "Dad likes it. He likes old things. I do, too, when they're—when they're beautiful. Like the church. But I hate this house."
He turned abruptly, restlessly. Then he turned back, leaning out the window, and shouted back at a chorus of staccato shouts and whistles that broke the mellow silence on Parchment Street.
"Hoy! I'm coming! I'm coming!"
A chain of bicycle riders poured through the gate, began to rotate around the fishpond. Carol stepped back from the window. Bruce jerked himself back in. Somewhere below a phone rang.
"That'll be Mum and Dad, I expect. Phone's in the kitchen." He vanished. She stood a moment, listening to the pound of his feet on the stairs,
to the slam of the back door. She went down slowly, following the sound of the phone down the dim hall, into a big cheerful kitchen. A woman's voice said before she could speak, "Bruce? I tried to call earlier, but you weren't there. Is Carol there? We can't find her anywhere; we think she might have gotten mislaid between here and California. Your father is checking on that, and I'm trying to think how to tell Anne that her daughter is somewhere on earth but we're not sure where—"
The smile began somewhere inside Carol before it touched her face. "Hello, Aunt Catherine," she said.
She opened the door for them two hours later, and Aunt Catherine hugged her. Then she held Carol at arm's length to look at her, and Carol, who was taller
than her mother, only came up to Aunt Catherine's eyes.
"Look at that, Harold," Aunt Catherine said. "She's got my hair. Her mother's is black as a stovepipe. And such lovely green eyes. I wonder where those came from. Have you eaten yet? We stopped for fish and chips. This is your Uncle Harold."
Carol turned. A tall man with Bruce's dark hair, and smiling eyes, took the pipe out of his mouth and held out his hand.
"How do you do. Where is Bruce? Have you met him yet?"
Carol nodded. "Yes." She cleared her throat. "I pushed him in the clock." Uncle Harold's face smoothed. He looked down at her quizzically, the pipe smoke curling upward from his fingers. "He wasn't rude to you, I hope."
"Oh—It wasn't because of that. He couldn't get the door open and I pushed. And he fell in the clock and it started banging and it wouldn't stop. But it's all right now, I think."
"Well," Aunt Catherine said briskly. "I'm sure that clock has survived worse than Bruce climbing in and out of it. Where is he?" Carol's hand crept upward to the top of her head. "Bike riding, I think… . I'm sorry that you had to go to London for nothing. My mother told me you were picking me up, but I forgot. Some days—some days are like that.
I forget to do what I'm supposed to,
and I push people into clocks instead. I can't get coordinated. I usually end up breaking something. So now you know what you're getting for a month."
They were silent a moment. Uncle Harold said gravely, "I should think it required a definite amount of coordination to travel halfway across the world by yourself, and still manage to catch the proper train out of London. What do you think of the house?"
"Bruce said it's three hundred years old. I thought it would be more like a castle."
"It's as cold as one," Aunt Catherine said,
"Houses," Uncle Harold said, "are generally built with some degree of practicality. This used to be a vicarage, a place where the parish priests lived, and they had neither the need nor the money for a castle. Parts of it have been rebuilt from time to time, but other parts, like this stone floor and the great broad beam above the fireplace, suggest that the house was not built three hundred years ago, but rather rebuilt from an even older foundation."
Carol looked down at her feet. The worn grey stone swept unbroken toward the kitchen. She curled her toes. "No wonder it's so cold." Uncle Harold smiled. "There. I didn't mean to begin a lecture on architecture." He turned to Aunt Catherine. "Where's the chips?" "Here," Aunt Catherine said, "under my elbow." She shifted a roll of newspaper that smelled of hot fish into one hand, and dropped the other hand lightly on
Carol's shoulder. "Come and eat, and tell me how the American side of my family is doing."
They ate fish and chips out of warm greasy newspapers on the kitchen table as they talked. When Aunt Catherine finished asking about the relatives she had not seen in fifteen years, Uncle Harold poured himself a cup of tea and settled back for a discussion of American politics and education. Carol interrupted him before he got too far. "What kind of stove is that?"
"It's a trial," Aunt Catherine said. Uncle Harold blinked, as though his thoughts were reordering themselves. Aunt Catherine stood up and lifted the two large smooth domes that covered the burners. "It's Mrs. Brewster's stove. Mrs. Brewster is the woman we rent the house from. She probably has a nice gas stove. This one runs on coal, and it has two speeds: hot and very hot. Which reminds me—I should put Bruce's
dinner in to warm." She got the newspapers full of Bruce's fish and chips and opened one of the heavy oven doors. Uncle Harold looked at his watch.
"He should have been home an hour ago."
"I wonder sometimes if he doesn't think he is living in a hotel. Is basic courtesy too much to ask of a boy his age, or is communication totally impossible?"
"Perhaps he forgot," Aunt Catherine said gently. "Why don't you show Carol the house while I do the breakfast dishes."
Uncle Harold looked at Carol. "Would you like that?" he asked, and she nodded, smiling. Then they heard the click of bicycle wheels and the slam of the porch door.
"Bruce!" Uncle Harold shouted.
He opened the kitchen door and stuck his head in. "I've got to wash up—I'm all over grease."
"Come here, please."
Bruce's hand dropped from the doorknob. He came in slowly. His eyes moved once to Carol's face in a stranger's impersonal glance. Then they dropped. "Yes, sir?"
Uncle Harold sighed. "Your mother is not a hired cook. She cooks because she loves us, and it would pain her to see us starve. I've had to tell you that too many times before."
Bruce's shoulders twitched. "Yes, sir. I'm sorry I'm late. Is that all?" "No. Look at me."
Bruce's eyes rose slowly. They looked at each other, their eyes alike, dark and aloof. Uncle Harold said, "Mrs. Brewster disturbed me this morning with a phone call. She said she thought I should know that you spent yesterday evening sitting in a tree in the square smoking. I am not sure whether she was concerned with your health or the possibility that you and your friends might have set the town square on fire." Bruce's mouth dropped slightly. "Was that her with the flashlight? We couldn't think who it was. She
didn't say anything. She usually does."
"I imagine she does," Uncle Harold said. "I don't enjoy being bothered with phone calls like that before I am properly awake, and I wish you would refrain from troubling Mrs. Brewster. I am not going to lecture you on smoking, because you are old enough to make your own decision about that. But what has been troubling me is something different. I saw a ring of boys on bicycles tormenting Mrs. Simmons' boy on his way to his cello lesson, and I was disturbed to realize that they formed a perfect, orderly circle as they rode, as though they had practiced it many times before. I was never so ashamed of you in my life." He was quiet. Aunt Catherine's hands had stilled among the dishes. Bruce stared down at the table. Then his head lifted abruptly, his eyes going to Carol's face.
She sat startled a moment by what she read in them, and then her face blazed. "I didn't tell," she snapped. "I can fight for myself." Uncle Harold looked at them bewilderedly a moment. Then his hand hit the table with a little smack.
"Not Carol, too—"
"He wasn't with them."
"It doesn't matter that I wasn't," Bruce said. "I probably would have done it, if I didn't know who you
"That's a marvelous welcome to give to guests in your own country," Aunt Catherine said tartly. "It's a
wonder she didn't turn around and go home." "She wanted to." "I was going to." "Well, what stopped you?" "Bruce!"
"I'm not being rude, I'm being curious. I would have gone."
"Well, I don't like running away from things. Or people." Uncle Harold said distinctly, "Will you please apologize to her." "I'm sorry," Bruce said tightly. He looked at Uncle Harold. "If you see that circle again, there won't be me in it. Ever."
He turned and left. Uncle Harold dropped his head into one hand. Aunt Catherine washed dishes with a harsh, rhythmic clatter. Then she slowed and turned to Carol, sitting mute in her chair with her hair hiding her face. Aunt Catherine wiped her hands on her apron. She sat down beside Carol. "I'm glad you didn't go," she said softly. Carol's shoulders moved in a little shrug. "I'm used to being teased. I'm skinny, and I'm taller than half the boys in my class, and my hair looks like a haystack on fire, and I can't walk up to the blackboard at school without stepping on somebody's lunch. But most of the time, I don't let people bother me. I can't fight all of them." "Well, you're wiser than I was at your age. I
couldn't go down the aisle either without tripping over my big bony feet."
Uncle Harold dropped his hand. "Your feet aren't big and bony." His voice was tired.
"They were then," Aunt Catherine said. "I don't know what's troubling Bruce these days. He rarely talks to us, and we can't read his mind. The only thing I can do is leave his fish and chips in the oven for him and remember that once he had a very sweet smile."
Uncle Harold's mouth relaxed. He looked at Carol. "Well," he said gently, "are you still in the mood for a guided tour?"
Carol sighed. "Yes. If I wake up hungry in the middle of the night, I don't want to get lost."
There were four large rooms on the ground floor: the kitchen; a room across from it that Uncle Harold said had been the morning room where the vicars had once eaten their breakfast, but which was now Aunt Catherine's laundry room; the living room connected to the kitchen, with a great, fat-legged round table, and a fireplace built of huge squares of grey stone and dark, heavy, smoke-blackened beams; and the room across from it, Uncle Harold's study, with his desk and papers and endless shelves of books. Upstairs were four bedrooms. "It's a bit big for us," Uncle Harold said, "but I like old things. Most of the furniture belongs to Mrs. Brewster. She was born in the house. Her father bought it when the church across the way turned Catholic
again after four hundred years, and the new priests decided they didn't want to support a large, rather chilly historical monument. Mrs. Brewster lived here until her husband died, and then she began to rent the house. I've had my eye on this house for several years, but it wasn't until last winter that we were able to rent it from her."
"Why did the church turn Catholic? I didn't know churches did that." "The old Protestant parishioners died or moved away until there weren't enough people to support the church. Sometimes, when that happens, the church is destroyed to make room for something else. But the Catholic population in the town had grown out of its own little modern church, so they bought this one instead of building a new one. It was Catholic, of course, when it was built first, because it is nearly eight hundred years old."
Carol drew a slow breath. They were climbing the last part of the stairway, that led to the rooms beneath the roof. "My father gave me a silver dollar once that was made in 1887. That was old, to me."
Uncle Harold smiled. "You live in a young country." They reached the landing. There were two small rooms, one on each side of the hall. "This is where the maid and the cook would sleep, if we had them. Now they're Mrs. Brewster's storage rooms."
Carol went into one. She knelt down on the window-seat between the thick walls, and looked out. Uncle
Harold unlatched the window and opened it. The scent of cool grass mingled with his sweet pipe smoke. A single star hung beyond the high dark tower of the church.
"It's so quiet… ."
"At home, there's a freeway running near our house. I can hear trucks on it even late at night." She looked down. "I wonder how Emily Raison can stand living in a graveyard."
"It doesn't seem to bother her. She doesn't like dogs, or cows in fields when she goes blackberry picking, but she's not afraid of graves. There's no reason to be. The people in them lived in the same world you and I live in, and often their thoughts about it were not very different from ours. Well. You've seen everything except the cellar and the gardener's shed and—" Carol turned. "There's a cellar? I've never been in one."
"Good heavens. Come along, then. I should go
down anyway and get coal to feed the stove tonight."
"Do you leave it on all night?"
"Oh, yes. It would take hours to heat it up properly
every morning." He switched on the hall light as they
went downstairs, and said meditatively, "I can't decide
which Catherine hates most: the stove or the stone
floor in the hall. It is dreadfully cold during winter."
He stopped in the kitchen to get the coal bucket,
then led her to a little door behind the main staircase.
She smelted cold stones and damp earth as he opened it. He switched on the light, and she saw narrow, worn stone steps leading to a great
black mountain of coal at the bottom. She followed him down and looked around as he cracked coal bricks with the edge of the can. There were two rooms beyond the coal room; in the first one she found a freezer and a water tank and a cat licking itself on a pile of rags. Its eyes caught light from the coal room and blazed at her like cut amber. Then they vanished as the cat turned and slipped silently into the third room. Carol followed it.
"I didn't know you had a cat." She crouched at the doorway and called it softly. "We don't."
"There's one down here."
"Is there? They slip in, sometimes, through the broken windows. Emily Raison's cat Geraldine had a litter of six down here once. Is it calico?" "No. It's black. It's male." She called it again, her voice high, coaxing, and it moved across a table of old china and fragile figurines so smoothly it seemed only a shadow. It faded imperceptibly into the shadows, and she blinked, suddenly finding nothing to call. She moved into the room, looking behind stacks of boxes of books, old picture frames, more china. The grey cellar stones in the twilight were thick and old as the stones of the outer wall of the house. She saw a movement out of the comer of her eye, and turned toward the window. She saw beneath it the slow fading of a man walking into the wall.
The touch of Uncle Harold's hand on her shoulder jolted her. She shivered.
"I called you," he said gently. "You didn't hear me."
She looked up at him. His face was calm, familiar behind his pipe. The full coal bucket was in his hand.
"You're frightened. What's the matter?"
Her mouth was too dry for speaking. She swallowed. And then she laughed, drawing a little jerky breath. "It was your shadow, going across the wall. It scared me. I thought—it looked like—it looked like somebody
walking into the wall."
"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to frighten you. Don't let the house trouble you. It creaks quite a bit, but I doubt if there are ghosts wandering through the walls."
He followed her back up, switching the lights off behind him. She turned suddenly at the top of the stairs and looked down into the dark rooms. Uncle Harold waited patiently. Her brows crept together. She looked at him puzzledly.
"But I wonder where that cat went."
IN THE LIVING ROOM THEY FOUND AUNT CATHERINE
knitting in a rocking chair beside the fireplace. The fireplace, built of red brick with a mantel of dark rich paneling, was enclosed in a deep alcove of thick stone from which unfamiliar things hung, gleaming