After his sudden death Dr Fleming’s house in Risk Street had lain empty for a number of years. That was surprising because it could have been classified by the estate agents as green belt. Oak leaves fell, on schedule, and were the requisite size of dinner plates. The average sized garages in the surrounding suburban streets, were being converted into deluxe residences and auctioned off for ridiculous amounts. Then again Dr Fleming’s house did not have a garage. Perhaps because he never felt the need for one. The ground in front of the house was covered in prison grey monoblock slabs, shunted together with powdery grey cement and was large enough to comfortably park a bus fleet. Slabs also ran around the sides past the Victorian sandstone and the red Cumberland brick of the extension and out into the back like train tracks and ended abruptly, snaggled up in long grass and trees of the orchard garden. The property had gone through a number of adaptations. It dated back from the time when the house was a Children’s Home, before the fire. Fir trees had been planted, away from the back of the gable end, as a boundary marker, but in the thirty years since they had been planted as dwarves, they had grown into giants. The more conventional green privet hedging had also grown up and over the wall so that Dr Fleming’s house had the feel of an isolated island on the urban shores of Glendevon’s long windy and stormy nights.
The vast high-ceilinged rooms seemed to still ring with the shouts of long gone children, particularly in the entrance hall, where they were first brought, for assessment. The cool rooms and high windows to let in as much natural light as possible, were added to by Dr Fleming and were like eyes dotted all over the house. The house was more, or less, derelict, after the accident, so he’d gotten it for practically nothing. It helped, of course, that he knew the right type of people and that the house and grounds that stretched out, past the school yard, beyond the boundaries of the parish had once all been Fleming land.
His friend the Provost Archibald Fraser, of course, designed Dr Fleming’s library. Shelf after shelf of books, first editions, or last editions, leather and cloth, parchment thick, old enough to make him sneeze and wheeze. He needed a ladder to retrieve them, but enjoyed the all the dead languages of modern life: Latin, Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, Egyptian hieroglyphics. He placed them highest in his heart and he liked to touch and caress those vellum-covered books, like a newborn child, in the half light of the lamp side table and keep them close at hand. And he talked to them, strange mutterings, which few men would hear and fewer still understand. More modern languages and mythology sat below the ancients, overseen by a statue the size of a cat, on a plinth, of the Sacred Ibis with a scimitar for a beak, red rubies for eyes and gold brocade covering its body like armour, perched on wading bird long legs. Philosophy and Psycology vied with Economics and Physics for space. Curiously, for a General Practioner, there were no books on medicine, with the exception of his daughter’s old undergraduate edition of Tortora.
The next generation of kids shrilly shouted that Dr Fleming's house was haunted and dared each other to run up from the cover of the crab apple trees and touch its cold walls. The task grew easier, summer after summer of neglect. First the lead flashing around the roof of the house went. Then the windows were poked out and the house seemed to fall in on itself.
Moira Forsyth never found the courage to run up and touch the walls, but when her little sister replaced her in the long grass, the kind of dares that were being asked were the same as her older generation. Boys still delighted in daring girls like Helen Forsyth to show them her knickers. Running up and touching Dr Fleming’s house was no longer a big deal. Helen and her pal Angela had simply walked through the front door. Their plimsolled feet crunched on broken glass like fragments of seashells on an urban beach, as they climbed the stairs. They had taken turns hitting walls under the plaster buckled and smacking ceilings with sticks, until Gyprock snow fell on their unguarded heads.
‘I bet you don’t stay the night here.’ Angela Tilby had finally plucked up the courage to make a dare. She didn’t say it to anyone in particular, but Helen Forsyth had taken time out from beating the bejesus out of a section of the corner unit of a patch of the upstairs landing to catch her words.
‘Nah,’ she replied, turning back to her work and banging enough holes in the plasterwork to create a collapsible colander. ‘My ma would kill me.’
‘I wouldn’t stay either.’ Angela had on a yellow cheesecloth top and little red shorts, which she thought was kinda cute, but she shivered, rocked back and forth her freckly arms flung around herself for comfort, even though it was about eighty degrees.
‘I didn’t say that I said I couldn’t.’ Helen turned back to her whacking and watched with the satisfaction of a demolition foreman the last of the wall caving in, leaving the studded panels. The thud had aged her short black hair grey and covered her red Queen’s t-shirt with dust. Only her Levis were unaffected. They always looked smudged blue.
‘I’m getting out of here. It’s kind of creepy.’ Only when she’d said it did Angela notice the goose bumps on her arm. She looked about her. Everything looked the same, but she felt different, as if something or someone was watching them. She rubbed at her arms as she tromped towards the opening. It was no longer a door. Someone had jemmied the frame away from the door. She briefly wondered if she would have been scared if she hadn’t spoken.
‘Wait, I’ll just finish this bit.’ Helen spoke as if she was on pricework, but it was getting darker and Angela was already half way down the stairs. ‘Wait,’ she shouted down to her, whacking one of the boards one last time, ‘I think I see something glistening.’
‘Why didn’t you wait?’ Helen asked Angela when she caught up with her.
‘Because I was bored, bored, bored.’ That was Angela’s favourite word. And as they edged through the tickly long grass and the sunshine, that seemed to make sense.
It was single file, all the way, down the short-cut and they were almost home before Helen spoke. ‘I thought I saw something’.
‘What was it?’ Angela crinkled up her nose as if she could smell it.
‘Nothing, nothing.’ Helen shook her head as if shaking the thought out. ‘Something red,’ she said finally.
‘I was scared too,’ said Angela turning to go.
‘I didn’t say that I was scared.’ Helen caught up with her on the pavement. They no longer had to walk single file. She put her arm though her friends. She might not ever be as pretty as her, but she could show that she was as good as her in other ways. She could show that she wasn’t scared of anything.