On the veranda, Stella’s heart was racing and tiny beads of moisture were running down her spine. A long forgotten fear, still familiar, was racing up her chest. She swallowed the uncertainty, repeatedly flipping the door key in her hands, tracing the shape of the cold metal as it burnt into her fingertips.
The afternoon sun was climbing, rising slowly along the weatherboards. The chasing ivy somehow more vibrant and yet more constricting as the sun wove its way through the vines. She looked back at the road, almost empty, just a small child, a girl of about seven or eight sitting across the street on a set of wooden steps. A ragged doll clutched to her chest, the girl looked up and cocked her head slightly. She didn’t smile, just looked and then opened her mouth as if to say something before closing it again just as quickly and then lowered her head back down. Stella felt a weak smile lift the corners of her mouth.
She remembered the child she was, at that age; the same blonde curls and deep curious eyes. She even had a doll just like that. Stella named her Jemima. She’d had pretty yellow daisies on her dress and a red ruby ribbon in her hair. Her mother bought the doll when they’d first moved into Rosemont Avenue and said Jemima would be her best friend until all the other little girls found out just how special Stella was and then she’d have a ton of best friends. Throughout her childhood, Jemima had been her only friend.
She shuddered herself back into reality, shook off the melancholy stalling her feet and opened the door. The eerie silence immediately stole her breath and she swayed back against the doorframe. The smell of damp hit her nose, a humid stench of decay and old age. But then something else, a scent she recognised; stale cigarettes and whisky, sweat and cheap cologne mixing with the dust and the confined air. Stella could almost taste the rye at the back of her throat and couldn’t help herself gagging at the memory.
Looking round the empty hall, it was dimly lit, just the light from outside spanning the stairwell; the colour from the glass door pane skipping across the peeling balustrade. Four rooms came off the central space. The two at the front were the biggest. The one to the left had been the family room, although its name had never fit. Through the open doorway Stella could see the huge bay window that had dominated the room. On the right, her step- father Bob’s study. Always locked. Stella felt an involuntary shiver as she quickly moved her eyes away from the still closed door. To the back were the kitchen and the dining room. These were her mother’s demine. Weaving magic out of scraps and left overs, cheap butchers cuts and the flour and sugar she got free from the back door of the mill when Bob had pissed his pay packet against the wall.
Memories came flooding back. When Stella was eight her mother died. Bob had found her at the bottom of the stairs when he came home early from his club. Her neck was broken and her body contorted and bruised. The police had said it was a tragic accident. Stella never knew why Bob came home early that day or why he’d hidden her mother’s packed suitcase in the attic. Thirty years later, she still didn’t know the truth. Stella bit back the tears burning her eyes; she knew if she let them go they’d never stop. She thought of the child she’d seen across the way and then thought of her own childhood. A childhood that died the day her mother did.
Bob’s grief was all consuming. That’s what he told Stella every time he dragged her into his study, stinking of whisky and his ten year old cologne. He needed to feel her mum, needed to be close to her. He loved her so much, too much to let her go. Stella had cried, she’d kicked and she’d bitten. But still Bob came for her. At school she was free, free to read, free to imagine herself anywhere but home. In a class of many, one small dark eyed child, struggling with the loss of her mother, was all but forgotten. She had hated the looks and the whispered comments, “Poor Bob and Stella” “Oh Bob’s so good to keep her on; she’s such a handful, never speaking, running off”. So she’d sat at the back and wept hidden tears. Nobody had ever bothered her.
When the letter came from the lawyers with a copy of Bob’s will, Stella had physically thrown up. She hadn’t thought of Bob or Rosemont Avenue since the day she turned fourteen and had packed a bag with her mother’s locket, a spare pair of track pants and enough money for a train ticket to anywhere. In the months that followed she’d slept rough and lived off the streets, until Child Correctional Services had picked her up and set her life back on track. Her mother’s sister, Louisa, had been contacted, taken her in and given her hope. She’d repaid that hope with a Masters then a PHD before becoming the youngest attorney McMillan & Partners had ever had. The piece in the Telegraph had ended her self-imposed anonymity.
The contractor called through the letter box startling Stella back into reality. She cleared her throat, shook the dust from her jacket and let him in.
“It’s a fine house, are you sure you want to do this?” he asked as his eyes flittered around the empty shell.
In his will Bob had left her the house, in a small hand written note he’d said it was his pride and joy, just like her and her mother. He wanted her to have it and then she would always have a small part of him, just as he’d had a small part of her. It was that last sentence that had made her run to the bathroom and throw up; she hadn’t stopped for four hours.
Stella lifted her hands to the tiny silver locket she always wore and nodded.
“Yes, tear it down. Tear it to the ground” she cast a glance at his mystified face, walked out of the door and back to her car.
The child on the steps opposite stood up, smiled across at her and nodded. Stella blinked then looked back but the child had disappeared. Shocked and a little fazed Stella walked across the road to the empty house opposite and climbed the front steps. Lying across the top step was a small ragged doll. Stella could just make out a few faded daisies on her dress and the remnants of a ruby red ribbon still in her hair.
“Jemima” she whispered, as the tears finally fell unabashed.