He has long stopped seeing me, my last love. At first, when I would brush his cheek, he would shiver and swear I was there. And when I would call for him, he might turn. It has been too long now, and he is so sure that he is mad that he no longer hears the real me, though he still jumps at sounds and embraces the breeze. I suppose he should. The creak and draught from the broken window in the third floor guest room can be heard, felt, experienced, and I cannot.
There is a new person in the house today, a plain young woman with a serious brow that suggests experience beyond her years. She is to replace the last governess, who left. I am not sure what hand I had in that. I often watch my daughter Adaline in her room, but I did not think it troubled her last tutor. She said she was leaving to be married, and perhaps that is true. My husband is showing the new governess to her room now, and carries her case.
“It is simple, but I hope it is to your liking,” he says, gesturing her into the suite down the corridor from Adaline’s.
“Very much so,” the woman replies promptly. He sets down her case and leaves her to settle in, warning her before he goes not to disturb the third floor guest room. He does not tell her it is because he believes I reside there. Does not tell her that he used to keep the room empty so he could not be caught telling his woes to me, of his loneliness in this great empty house, and the friends he could not bear to visit because of how they remind him of me.
The governess flips open the lid of her case and begins to remove her dresses to the wardrobe, but then stops, shakily, her hands braced against the open trunk. She sobs too quietly to be heard outside the room, not even if my husband were still waiting by the door. But I am here, and so I hear.
I am not sure what is wrong, and not sure how to ask – but I cannot simply leave her like this. I extend a hand and hover it gently against her shoulder. I do not know if she feels it, but her quivering chest begins to still.
When she returns to unpacking her case I drift down the corridor to Adaline’s room. I kiss her on the forehead as she snores in her cot. She does not wake. It is already dark outside, and the child shall likely lie peacefully until morning. Though I do not sleep, I find myself falling into torpor when the majority of the house is in slumber. Sometimes I rest in my husband’s bed, sometimes another, sometimes the attic or the servants’ quarters. Sometimes, I rest in my tomb. Tonight, I decide, I shall rest beside my daughter. In my hazy, scattered state I can almost believe that I am merely, truly asleep, dozing in the armchair next to where she dreams.
The governess takes Adaline down to breakfast, and I follow. She is terse, but not unloving. Adaline is still wary of her, as she is of any new companion. My husband sternly guides the governess away from sitting in my old seat at the opposite end of the table.
“Miss Aitkin,” he calls her, “how is your room?”
She hesitates, and from the look on her face I think she is going to talk about what happened while she was opening her case, but her expression quickly changes. Whatever her sorrows and whatever she sensed of me, neither are for my husband’s consumption.
“There is plenty of storage,” she replies reassuringly.
I follow my husband until the clock strikes noon, when he will leave for town. Unable to stray too far from my tomb, I cannot follow him there. He is in a cheerful mood, and plays piano in the drawing room while I recline in an unused chair. He does not play music as frequently as he did when I first passed, and what he chooses to entertain himself with now is far less sombre. I sink back to the sound of spring melodies, the blissful tune drawing me into an almost restful state, as if I am being carried away in a breeze beat by beat. I snap back to alertness with the shut of the piano lid, and silence.
After he has left, I flit up to the schoolroom where Miss Aitkin is testing Adaline’s French with a chalk and slate. Adaline’s fingers rest on a neatly-drawn cat as she tries to recall le chat to her tongue. They pay no notice to me, as I suppose they shouldn’t. A young girl bonding with her new governess should not be distracted by shades and shapes in the wallpaper. But as I am about to leave them be, the governess looks up and catches my eye. All colour drains from her face.
Tonight, I find myself in the dream of another. I play the role of some spectre, and am in Adaline’s room, as before. My hair is lighter in this guise, my skin more tan than my own.
“Catherine,” the governess murmurs, kneeling and shaking on the floor.
I feel I should say something, but I find myself simply shaking my head.
Miss Aitkin is quieter than usual this morning, and tutors Adaline at the dining table rather than in the schoolroom. I am careful to stay out of sight as I watch her lessons, in case I should frighten Miss Aitkin again. My daughter has finally remembered le chat, and the governess smiles at her genuinely, though not without a distracted glaze in her eye. My husband does not notice, instead busying himself with his notebook.
Her sorrow does not lighten after lunch. I remove myself to the third floor guest room, this time to hide rather than to be needed. It is quite empty. It has a lamp, a shelf, and a bed, of course, but as it has not truly been a room for guests in years, it has been slowly emptied of its other contents; the books, the rugs, the toys borrowed to other parts of the house and never returned.
Not that these things are of use to me. When one cannot read a book or hold a cross-stitch, one becomes adept at living in one’s own head, and so when I am alone I pass my time absorbed in the imagined melodrama of a fictional medieval court. I am brought out only as I hear footsteps, then quiet voices, and look towards the door.
“That’s where father says mother lives,” I hear Adaline say faintly, before the footsteps pass and continue on along the corridor.
I can usually tell when someone is speaking about me, and much as I may sometimes wish otherwise my instinct is to be drawn towards them. I imagine I should have little purpose as a ghost were I to ignore those who think of me. As I sneak into the dining room, I catch the tail end of my husband recounting the story of my consumption, looking mournfully towards my vacant chair as he speaks to Miss Aitkin of still hearing my voice on occasion. It still pains him to speak of losing me, but it will never again burn with the rawness and hurt of a fresh wound. I do not let the governess see me as I slip out.
Though I have been trying not to disturb her further, I find myself entangled in the governess’ restless mind again tonight. This time, the blonde spectre is separate from myself, and pursues her. She runs to me for aid and I pull her close, but my black hair turns light before her eyes, and she screams, and screams, and wakes.
The governess is white-faced throughout breakfast. My husband asks if she was disturbed during the night, and she brushes him off with a terse smile and pleasant talk of the comfort of the mattress he has provided for her. Adaline asks of her also, as they go to her room, but Miss Aitkin shushes her, settling her for her nap. She turns to walk upstairs. I take myself to where I need to be.
I am in the armchair of the third floor room when she opens the door, and she looks straight to me. She appears relieved, almost, and crosses to sit on the bed. This is the closest I have been to her since that first day, and I can make out in better detail the point of her nose and the press of her thin, sensible lips.
“Who is Catherine?” I ask.
The governess’s gaze drops. “She was a scullery girl around my age at the first house I was employed at, until she passed of pneumonia in the winter.”
“You were close,” I say. It has been so long since I have been able to have a conversation that I struggle with where to put my eyes, where to focus.
The governess pauses. “Closer than friends,” she eventually replies.
“I understand.” I turn my head to find that she is studying me, and attempt to observe her in return. Her blouse is embroidered with flower-like details that trace and loop and twirl across her shoulder, and I follow them.
“As she was passing, I told her I wished she would never leave my side. And so she didn’t. Or at least, something which appeared to be her didn’t.”
I suppose her hair is lighter, and her skin more tan than mine. “And you thought I was that imitation of her, returned?” I suggest.
I break my gaze from her clothing, and settle on her face for long enough to catch her nodding.
“Yes. Though I gather you are someone else’s spectre.” Her water-blue eyes glisten with what I can only describe as longing.
“None but yours, today,” I reply, in a way I hope is pleasant. When I was alive, it would be a careful choice to unburden myself to a stranger such as Miss Aitkin. Now that I can scarcely be heard, any connection is one I must trust. She has already put her trust in me, after all, with all that she has shared. “My husband sees me less and less these days. I seem to no longer pain him this way, so I suppose it is for the best.”
“I see.” She places her palms together in her lap, fingers pointing to the floor. “Can you be touched?” she asks hesitantly.
“You are welcome to try,” I reply, holding out a hand. She rises slowly, then tentatively reaches out. She is not truly solid to me, as I must not be to her, but I feel a vague warmth as she probes with her fingertips where she likely feels a cold.
“It was you that was in my room the first night,” she says matter-of-factly.
“Thank you for what you did,” she says, her hand lingering in mine. “It is good to be cared for.”
Before I can respond, her eyes dart away.
“Adaline will be waking soon.”
“Then go to her,” I reply. She looks back to me as she leaves, holding my gaze, then departs. I feel my hand where she touched it, now cold on cold, but the warmth in my chest lingers for a few minutes longer.
My husband takes Adaline into town in the morning. I expect Miss Aitkin to have gone with him, but I find her sitting at the breakfast table.
“Was that your seat?” she asks, nodding at the chair I stand behind. I nod in reply. She quietly returns to her porridge and book, and does not stir again until she has finished eating.
“Do you have plans for the day?” I ask her.
“I suppose not,” she replies.
“Would you like to visit my tomb?”
She looks at me warily, then nods.
“He said it has been two years,” she comments as we wind through the gardens. They were considered beautiful at one time, but I have been drawn along this path so many times that I barely notice them.
“Has it?” I have trouble telling a week from a month, which is perhaps a sign that it has indeed been that long. I can scarcely even remember my passing. I rested in bed for a while, and the next time I walked I was not alive.
My tomb lies within the family mausoleum, a squat cylinder with a domed roof, built of cool granite. I am drawn to hover by my body, and from my niche I watch the governess. She turns her head from side to side in wonder, examining the pillars and peering at the light filtering in through the twin windows; the stately, illuminated dance of dust motes and dandelion spores.
“It’s beautiful,” she says as she joins me, and glances down at my coffin.
“You look at lot like yourself,” she adds, gesturing at the miniature; a circular profile of myself built into the lid as if it were a window. I am unsure if she is simply saying this to be polite. I feel more a vague blur than a person, most days.
“Was it Catherine you were upset over on your first night here?” I ask.
She nods. “It was hard to leave that place. Each time I thought things were changing, she returned to me in some way.”
“As in your dreams,” I note. She does not seem disturbed by this comment, merely accepts it with a dip of her head as she has all things concerning my existence.
“Perhaps it is as with yourself and your husband,” she replies, “and I was jumping at shadows by the end. Or perhaps not.” She pauses, and leans against the mausoleum wall. “The days we had together when she was alive, I shall never forget. But by the end, I feared her shade more than I loved it, and even that was beginning to wear. One can only fear so much before collapsing.”
Miss Aitkin looks up and meets my eye, smiling faintly. “With you here… Well, I do not believe a house can hold more than one spirit, especially if the second has never visited the place in question. I am remembering what it feels like to be comfortable.”
Her eyes travel further, to examine the inscriptions on the ceiling. I explain a little of my family tree to her, surprising myself with my memory of it, and she seems delighted to learn. It is only when we hear clattering hooves at the front gate that we decide it is time to leave. She leads me back down the path to the house at a gentle pace, and I force myself to see as her eyes do, to observe the freshly blooming wildflowers and admire the statues.
Miss Aitkin is teaching Adaline numbers this afternoon, and I am invited to lounge on the armchair in her room and observe. Sometimes, when I was alive, I would watch her like this, with some embroidery or a book in my lap, and she would look up to me with a smile when she wanted me to note a particularly clever answer.
While practicing her multiplication, Adaline knocks over a block that tumbles to my feet. I reach down as if I might hope to retrieve it, but my hand passes through. Adaline scurries to the foot of the armchair to take it back without a glance at me. I lower my eyes from them and gaze into the folds of my dress until Miss Aitkin sends Adaline to ask when my husband wishes them down for dinner. I hear pacing, and Miss Aitkin shutting the door.
“Does Adaline usually respond to you?” she asks.
My eyes remain lowered. Miss Aitkin does not prompt. She simply waits, her deft hands clearing away the clutter of the lesson.
I sigh as if I had lungs, as if putting off what I must say will hide it. “In truth, Adaline has never responded to me in a way that cannot be mistaken for some other distraction,” I eventually reply.
Miss Aitkin pauses her tidying, and moves to kneel at my feet. “She speaks of you with fondness,” she says firmly.
As thoughts come to my mind, I find myself sharing them. “I fear that perhaps she speaks of the idea of me rather than the person.” I pause, but Miss Aitkin’s bright eyes encourage me onwards. “She may even be too young to remember me. When I am near her, she simply looks to the window, or the chair, and I happen to be between her and the object of her gaze.”
Miss Aitkin takes only a moment to think. “Even if she cannot see you, I do not doubt that she still loves you, in the way the living do. As your husband does you, or I Catherine – with true warmth and care when they think of you, even if you are not present to them every day.” She takes hold of my palm again, and I move my second hand to cup hers in gratitude.
I do not wish Adaline to be forever chasing my shadow, but still I want to be with her, to speak with her and see her grow. I know why Miss Aitkin probes me. I cannot be a mother to this child any longer, and that I cannot bear. “Thank you,” I reply. “I—”
Adaline returns as I am about to continue, and I am comforted that Miss Aitkin does not throw my hand from hers in guilt. Instead, she lowers it carefully, and makes a motion as if to suggest that she is adjusting the chair. Adaline informs Miss Aitkin that her father would like them down in an hour, and Miss Aitkin smoothes the front of her pinafore and takes the opportunity to grill Adaline on her telling of the time. I slide through the wall, and know that even if Adaline does not see me, Miss Aitkin’s eyes follow me keenly. I retreat to the guest room, and my mind takes me away. Lady Veritus has come to court again, bringing scandal and intrigue…
It is dark when Miss Aitkin comes to me next. I did not notice the sun setting, or indeed perhaps the days passing. She is wearing an outfit I have not seen her in before, a rare blue dress among her greys, and brings the sound of spring melodies drifting through the door with her.
“I am glad you are here tonight,” she whispers, “though I cannot speak here long, lest your husband notice I have escaped the gathering in the drawing room.” She rubs her lips together, glances behind her, her face illuminated by the lamp she holds. “I wanted you to know that I care for you. Not as a memory, but as… a companion.” She meets my eyes briefly. “As if you were alive, or I were dead.”
Words do not spring to me, but I feel my way to producing a smile across my questionably visible mouth. She nods in acknowledgement and slips away into the corridor, the door batting shut in the draught.
In my loneliness I am as if asleep, and as if asleep I dream, and though the vision is mine it feels much less real than the dreams I have seen of Miss Aitkin’s. It is a pink and red dream, and in it I am sure I dream in senses, of real hands on my waist and the smell of the garden after the rain and the sharp, acid taste of lemon and ginger. When I stir, I know I must see her again.
I stumble through the corridors, not stopping and barely seeing until I find my hands upon a door and know that it is hers.
The governess sits on her bed, though she is now wearing a night-gown rather than her blue dress. She acknowledges me with a glance, and I set myself down next to her.
“Do you want me to tell you of how the gathering went?” she asks, releasing her hair from its pins.
“You don’t need to,” I reply. I feel as if I am shaking, as if I am coming apart. I must keep myself together with the concrete, with speech. “I came to see you, to thank you for visiting me earlier.”
“I’m glad,” she says simply, face flushing in gratitude. I feel the heady physical pull of the red dream, and avert my eyes from her. I am afraid she would think me like Catherine, another ghost that will not let her live. We are in silence, though I am not sure what kind, until I feel her warm hand turn my face and kiss me with all the vagaries of her mouth. I put my hands on her shoulders and feel her, more firm, more real, the warmth of her skin through her gown and the lavender scent of her perfume. I can be seen. I can be touched. I can be heard.
I am not sure if torpor takes me that night. In lying awake, or dreaming as if I am, I feel the scratchiness of the thick winter sheets, smell the once familiar mustiness of the house, can reach out with my cold hand and feel the expanding and contracting of Miss Aitkin’s lungs through her back. Only in the morning am I dead again.
Miss Aitkin is not there when I stir. I flit to the window and see her in the garden, playing with Adaline in the freshly cut grass. Smiling, I drift down the corridor, heading for the ground floor study, where as expected I find my husband sitting at his desk, spindly hands smudged with ink from letter-writing. I perch on the rickety chair by the bookcase and observe him as he works.
“I shall always love you,” I say, “in the way the dead do. With a love caught in my heart of you as you were when last I was alive. I have found my way to love another, and perhaps you shall too. But know that should you ever need me, I shall be here to listen.”
He pauses, scratches out a word then pulls another sheaf of paper to begin his letter anew. He does not respond, but in my heart I feel he understands.
I think I am in the garden again. Miss Aitkin is running with Adaline, and when she looks to me I feel like I am becoming a sunbeam, lovely and translucent. She sends Adaline to hide, and informs the girl that she will count to a hundred. As the child disappears into the wildflowers, Miss Aitkin draws me close. For a hundred beats.
“How do you feel?” she asks.
I realise I do not know.
“I feel…” I begin. I feel as I should not feel. I have found another love, and made my peace with my husband, but now all I feel is… a sickness.
“It’s a beautiful day,” I respond. “And I am here with you.”
She smiles acceptingly, and kisses my forehead as if it is real to her. I feel a faint clamminess, which I can only connect to her touch from seeing it.
“Seventy-six,” she announces.
“Seventy-seven, seventy-eight, seventy-nine,” I continue.
I know what that feeling is now. I have bid farewell to being a mother to my daughter, accepted that my husband will move on, and brought comfort and joy to the governess’ sad heart.
All my tasks are done.
There is no sorrow holding me here.
I am loose and free as the housebird, flitting through the garden trees without a flock.
I dream again, or perhaps experience a different kind of sense. To say I was in the darkness, hearing voices, would be to impose my imagination upon the experience. I simply am, and know that words are occurring. My husband wonders if there was some purpose he missed in my visits to him. The governess knows I am a good person. I am not sure if this is said aloud, if this is some conversation, or only their feelings, imaginary or otherwise. The words fade, and I am alone for some time.
I am in Miss Aitkin’s room, sitting on the bed, and snap awake as she enters, becoming aware that I have been waiting for her to return.
“I was beginning to worry I would not see you again,” she says, her hurt papered over with relief. “It has been weeks since I saw you last.
“I’m afraid it has only been hours for me.” I take her hands. “I am not as youngly dead as I used to be.”
“I miss you when you are gone,” Miss Aitkin says quietly, and in that moment I almost feel her again, a sorrowful warmth pressing into my palm. “But I am glad you returned today,” she says, her eyes raising and the pain passing. “It has been quite a week, and I could not imagine speaking of it with anyone else.”
I grip her as best I can, unsure how long I will be able to hold her. I take a deep pause, and try to assemble my voice in its coyest, warmest tone. “Oh, please share…”
I can scarcely pay attention as she speaks, saying something about Adaline and a party and the new cleaner. My hands shake in hers, fearing that each sentence will be her last, that some disturbance will take her from me and in doing so remove me from being needed here.
“…Are you alright?” she asks, words drawing me into solid shapes again. I watch the blush of her cheeks, the soft quivering of breath passing her lips.
“I feel faint,” I reply.
In her expression, I do see love, I do see some kind of need. But still I am slipping. Perhaps I have strained myself too much, being there for her in the way I have. Perhaps I just need to rest.
I close my eyes. In the grey, she reaches out, and repeats my name. Her tears are a lighthouse, drawing me back home. And I am anchored, for now.
Lady Veritus clings to her chambermaid’s hand as she dangles above the vast, empty ocean. Do not let me go, she asks, the storm whipping beneath her. The chambermaid swears that she won’t. They strain in pendulum until their hearts both accept – if she does not let go, they both will drown.
My Last Love was first published in 2016 in Thirty Years of Rain.