As Emily walks the darkness, flashing her torchlight into each vacant room, she realises that, yes, a house can be haunted. Not just the old, neglected buildings, the ones with overgrown gardens and broken windows, but also neat, well-maintained, detached holiday homes like this one. She’d never given it much thought before. Now, sneaking around in the dark, she can’t stop thinking about it. She feels like a child again, a child on a dare, though she’s gone further than creep up to touch the front door: she’s let herself inside. Not so much a child on a dare, then, but a burglar, making her way around the house by torchlight, treading carefully as if the neighbours are right in the next room. Not that she’ll take anything, she’s just looking. And not that she’d broken in. Not technically. The door was already broken.
In the living room, cast over the sofa, is the tatty throw her sister has owned since university. A patchwork of primary colours stitched with felt animals, bright silhouettes of camels, elephants, lizards. On the coffee table, a scattering of open books and the candle holder Claire made years ago when sculpture was her thing. Lumpy lines of dribbled wax have hardened, running down to smooth puddles set as sickly yellow circles. On the walls, prints Claire has possessed since her teens. The Lady of Shalott drifting away from the quiet Nighthawks diner towards Dali’s long-legged beasts in the desert. Familiar favourites. There are newer pictures too, of course, just as there are ornaments and cushions and hanging displays Emily hasn’t seen before, but the room is certainly Claire’s. She can feel her presence as if she’d only left moments ago, a trace of her left lingering like perfume.
From the living room, into the kitchen. Again, signs of Claire in a brass plate clock, a comedy coffee mug, an array of crystals arranged at the window. By day the crystals would probably catch and cast the light around in bright sparkles but now the window is a large rectangle of night’s darkness. A sweep of the torch shows Emily her own reflection there, ghostlike itself in the room, a non-presence quickly gone as she directs the beam at other things. A row of empty wine bottles by the recycling, but nothing excessive. An ashtray that needs emptying but isn’t overflowing. Dishes waiting to be washed.
“At least you’re eating properly,” Emily says to what there is of Claire in the room. “That’s good.”
A brief gust of wind rattles the window in its frame. Emily can hear the faint hush of the sea below as it sweeps ashore, retreats, and repeats the process. There’s no traffic noise. She doubts there’s much even at a more conventional hour. And none of the drunken ruckus Emily associates with two o’clock in the morning, either. Little wonder Claire liked it here. Nevermind the wonderful light, the peace and quiet must’ve been a tremendously welcome relief. Artists need that as much as light, don’t they?
Emily’s phone buzzes in her pocket, startling her in the quiet she’d been appreciating. She’d left her bag at the hotel but the phone went everywhere with her, even late night trespassing.
It’s a message from Tom. U still awake?
She tucks the torch into her armpit and thumbs back a reply. Yeah, went to Claire’s.
How is it?
Haunted, she wants to say, but types: It’s fine. After a moment’s thought she adds: It’s nice.
She had text Tom earlier, unable to sleep. She misses him and their comfortable bed and their comfortable life, even the humdrum noise of the city. He’d been awake as well, and after some messages back and forth about Claire they’d exchanged a few dirty texts but Emily couldn’t focus and so they’d said their goodnights again. And now here she is, sneaking around Claire’s place at two in the morning and wondering where it all went wrong for her little sister.
Another buzz: Badly damaged?
Nothing so far, she taps back, but most of the damage is upstairs I think. I can smell the petrol though.
There’s been a tinge of it in the air since she’d first come in but now, heading away from the kitchen towards the conservatory extension, the smell has become more potent. Sharp, but not unpleasant. Until you consider why it’s there.
The conservatory was one of the reasons Claire had taken the house in the first place. The conservatory and the bedroom upstairs, because they both caught so much of the famous St Ives light. “The house floods with it,” Claire had written in one of her letters (never a text or even an email, oh no, Claire didn’t do technology), “and those two rooms become bright suntraps for endless hours. I should have moved here years ago.”
Years ago you weren’t interested in painting. It was acting, or poetry, or learning some faraway foreign language. Or all of the above, all at the same time.
Her phone buzzes and flashes to show Tom asking, Is it safe?
Yes, don’t worry.
She tells him she loves him and sends a kiss as well. Sincere, but also an indication she’s done texting for now. Tom understands. He loves her too, kiss kiss.
Emily opens the door onto the conservatory and the overpowering smell of petrol wafts into the kitchen. The windows had been left open in here, just the small ones at the top of each pane, but a lot of the smell has still been contained. It’ll be quite a while before it goes away, Emily thinks, though she’s no expert. She covers her nose and mouth with one hand and steps inside.
A folding table has been collapsed and it leans against one of the walls, draped with a paint-stained sheet that doesn’t quite cover it. Rows of tabletop flowerbeds have been covered with boards to make temporary shelves for pots and jars and canvases. The wood has absorbed much of the petrol. They’ll probably need replacing, Emily thinks, wondering if they’re still dangerously flammable—the conservatory no doubt gets very warm in the day. The floor is stone, but right now it looks as though the beach has invaded, a carpet of sand covering most of the slabs. Soaking up petrol puddles, she supposes.
This was where Claire had been seen by the neighbours, “acting peculiar”. Although the house is detached it still presses close to the neighbouring properties. Mr or Mrs Neighbour had already called for help by then. They were also the ones to call the fire service, which was about as much as Emily had been told over the phone.
She looks at a few of the canvases to see if any can be saved but each is a mess of solvent-washed colours running in ruined lines. Unless they’re meant to look that way. One looks like it had been a person once, maybe two figures entwined and blurring together, but now it twists and melts, slipping down the canvas in streaks of yellow and green.
“Claire, honey,” Emily says to the empty room. “What happened?”
Emily had arrived in St Ives in the late afternoon, the light bright but beginning to fade. Her first impression was that it was prettier than many seaside towns but she wasn’t as impressed by its beauty as others had been over the years. She suspected her reason for being there had sullied the view. Plus her journey down had been an ordeal. Four beaches and an oceanic climate made St Ives a very popular town in the summer and it seemed all of its visitors were using the same roads as Emily to get there. Finding a place to stay had been difficult, too. Using Claire’s house was out of the question and all of the quaint places in St Ives were fully booked, so after a drive of nearly seven hours, most of that on the M4, Emily checked into a bland chain hotel just off the A30. She stayed long enough to dump her bag and splash her face then headed into town, wanting to see the place that had drawn Claire so many miles from home.
She walked the narrow streets, all shops and galleries, and then each of the beaches where St Ives was dazzling blue sky, bright sands, and a sparkling clean green sea. Cornwall, almost entirely surrounded by coastline, belonged more to the sea than it did the rest of the country. Britain’s tentative foot dipping its toe towards the North Atlantic. Perhaps that was what had had drawn Claire, ever the rolling stone. The idea of escape. Breaking free from whatever binds you. Maybe that was what she liked about painting.
Emily had arrived late but still she saw many artists at work around the town. St Ives was an international cultural centre and even had its own Tate but she wouldn’t have time to visit. It would have seemed too much like a holiday anyway if she’d done that, though she did treat herself to fish and chips. She ate her early dinner leaning against the rails at the lifeboat slipway, paper warm in her hands as she looked at the lighthouse on the end of Smeaton’s Pier. She wondered if it was a working lighthouse or simply one of history’s leftovers. Claire would know. She’d have looked it up in the local library, visited the museum, all of that. She’d have swam in the sea and strolled the beaches and walked each and every one of the coastal paths by now, storing the views away to paint later in some abstract fashion of hers, all of which was very well, good for her, until six months or so later when she gave it all up to move somewhere new, do something new, follow her latest artistic passion.
Fifteen. Emily had counted fifteen artists on her walk around town, sketching in pads or sitting at easels near or on the beach. They recreated that beach and the bay and the boats, everything, over and over again with sweeping strokes of their pastels or brushes, sketching bright lines or spreading vibrant water colours. It was a pretty place, of course it was, but so was all of Cornwall, wasn’t it? Weren’t most coastal places? She didn’t understand why Claire needed to come all this way, to this particular town. But then when was the last time she’d really understood her little sister?
One time, when they were children, they had been playing on one of the broken swings in the park. The rubber seat had been split, both halves dangling from the chains, so they’d pretended to be lady-Tarzans, jungle-calling to and fro. Claire, though, at the highest point of one of her swings, decided to let go. For a moment she had been a beautiful gliding figure, hair streaming, body straight, and then she’d landed with a crack that broke her leg. Later, after the cast had been put on, Emily had asked why she’d done it. Why she’d let go. Claire had shrugged and said, “Seemed like a good idea at the time.” Their parents had blamed Emily because Emily was the oldest and was supposed to look after her little sister. Claire had gotten away with a lot back then. Got a lot of attention, too, and with a cast on her leg she’d got even more. Emily hated that cast more than Claire did.
There were too many chips for Emily to finish so she wrapped what was left and pushed the paper deep into a nearby bin so the gulls couldn’t get at them. Claire would have fed the birds, probably. Would have ignored the sign that urged otherwise and thrown chips at her feet, laughing at the feathered chaos.
With the smell of the sea in her hair and clothes, the sharp tang of salt and vinegar on her lips and fingers, Emily checked her watch and saw there was still an hour to go before visiting hours. She spent all of it waiting on the pier as a woman nearby sketched seagulls spiralling the lighthouse opposite. The light was bright on the glass. The birds looked like wind-blown ash rising from a high fire.
If the house is haunted it’s not just by Claire. Her presence is everywhere, but there are also traces of the owners, or perhaps previous tenants. The kitchen units, for example, would never have been Claire’s choice and no amount of handle-hung bells or crystals or animal chimes was about to change that. The wallpaper coming up the stairs is definitely not Claire either, though a large picture of scattered flowers certainly has a Claire-esque feel to it. Maybe because she’s strung fairy lights around the frame. There are photographs too, but they’re local landscapes and too generic to be anything Claire might have taken or bought herself. A beached boat, leaning in the sand. The smashed-splash of waves against weed-strewn rocks. The lighthouse on the pier, a stone perch for seagulls. ‘Holiday birds’ Claire used to call them. Family holidays had often been to the seaside because Claire loved the sea and the sand and the holiday birds.
Seems she can even haunt the things that aren’t hers.
Emily’s torchlight bounces back from a mirror on the small landing where the stairs turn right. Again she’s a ghostly figure, face shadowed, but this time it startles her because there, in the gloomy night glass, someone stands behind her. She turns, torch in both hands slashing a beam of light through the darkness. A human lighthouse sweeping the monsters away. But there’s nothing behind her. Only the stairs back down.
At the top of the stairs is a short hallway with three doors. Or rather two, and a doorway where one used to be. The smell of smoke is much stronger here. The upstairs of the house wears the odour like a stain, haunted by the fire that had almost consumed it.
She opens the first door onto what was supposed to be a spare room, though from the look of the bed sheets and the clothes strewn everywhere (Claire had always been more ‘floordrobe’ than wardrobe) it’s being used as the main bedroom. It’s positioned at the front of the house whereas the main bedroom at the back faces the wonderful sea views and all that magical St Ives light. Claire would be using that one as a studio.
Emily isn’t sure what she’s looking for, only that she’ll know it when she sees it. She draws the curtains closed so she can risk the main light but nothing happens when she flicks the switch. She directs her torch at the ceiling. There’s a colourful glass bead lampshade, very Claire, but the bulb has been removed.
On the wall are a couple of prints. One of them Emily knows well because Claire’s owned it since childhood. Two sisters holding each other in a picture for the poem Goblin Market. There are canvases, too, stacks of them, all piled against a chest of drawers. Emily might not really understand art, but she usually recognised her sister’s style. Claire tended to use stark, striking colours, rendering objects and scenery down to the most simple of shapes. Even people would be little more than smears of fleshy colour, expressionless and yet somehow expressive. There are few like that here, though. One of them shows a crowd of shapes, upright yellow-flesh tones seeming to emerge from a background of black, one figure standing separate, arms to the sky. Another canvas is aswirl with blacks and greens and yellows, a universe in birth or some bleak horrific whirlpool, and Emily wonders why Claire needs the famous light of St Ives so much if she’s only going to paint the dark.
But there are others. Brighter, more colourful. Hard to make out in the torchlight though, unless they really are just panels of colour. Yellow again, and green. Some are bisected, half and half, while others use the entire canvas to transition gradually from one colour to the other. Some are entirely green, dark shades shifting into pale, others are shining gold fading to the lightest tones of something sepia.
Claire trying something new. For a change.
And there she is now, smiling from the bedside table. Beaded necklaces have been draped over one corner of the photo frame but Emily can see enough of the picture to recognise it. Both of them as children, clutched together in a smiling hug at some beach or another. Emily’s struck by how fierce their embrace seems, bodies pulled tight, one to the other, faces touching as they grin at the camera. Claire grips Emily with both arms. Emily returns the hug with one, her other arm up so she can shield her face from sunlight making her squint.
“Looking good, sis,” Emily tells the picture.
This time it’s true.
Emily had greeted her sister the usual way at the hospital but the truth was Claire didn’t look good at all. She was only in for observation now that her burns had been treated but to Emily she looked seriously ill. Her long blonde hair, usually so beautifully cared for, was lank and oily. Her skin was sallow. Shadows around her eyes spoke of little sleep. There was a black crust at the corners of her eyes.
“Looking good? Think you might need glasses, Em.” Her voice was husky.
Emily filled a cup with water from a nearby jug but Claire shook her head. “Hug first.”
Emily hooked one arm around her sister and held the water away to avoid a spill while Claire squeezed her briefly with both arms. She took the drink with, “Don’t suppose you have anything stronger?”
Emily smiled. “Drank it all on the drive down.”
“Selfish. How about a cigarette?”
“Not allowed to give you anything flammable.”
Claire coughed up some of the water when she laughed. She wiped her mouth and said, “Bitch.”
Emily glanced around the room but no one seemed offended. Two old women sat up in bed, one reading, the other watching a soundless TV.
“I saw your new friend outside,” Emily said. She was referring to the policeman sitting in the corridor. “Seriously, Claire-bear, what the hell?”
Claire shrugged. Emily thought of the time when they were children at the park. Claire flying, Claire landing, a good idea at the time.
Claire coughed again, this time without humour. “Smoke inhalation’s a bitch, too.”
“Gives you a sexy voice,” Emily said. “You could do one of those call-in things. Phone sex.”
“Yeah, like that.”
Emily sat in a bedside chair but found she was too low and too far away so she stood again and took her sister’s hand. They both stared at their hands instead of each other. One of Claire’s wrists was bandaged, wrapping her arm as far as her elbow. The other was wrapped in something like cling film, the skin bright pink beneath. Claire picked at an exposed fingertip and Emily was horrified to see tiny flakes of black stripped away. Paint, she realised. Not skin, not fingernail. Paint.
“You’re lucky to be alive.”
“Yeah. I’ve always thought that.”
“Seriously. You’re lucky all you got was those splashes on your arms.”
That shrug again.
“Your neighbours said you—”
“They’re going to commit me,” Claire said.
“Hey, no. They can’t. Not just like that.”
Claire squeezed Emily’s hand and said, “They probably should commit me.”
“Come on,” Emily said, “Who hasn’t tried to burn down a house?”
Claire tried to smile.
“We’ve all done it,” Emily said, smiling back.
The smile Claire had struggled with dropped away, replaced by sudden tears. “All done it,” she repeated.
Before Emily could ask what was wrong, Claire said, “Anyway, it wasn’t the house. It was the stupid paintings.”
“The paintings? Your paintings?”
Claire nodded and wiped her eyes, smudging lines of black from each corner. Soot, Emily supposed. “They couldn’t have been that bad,” she said.
“The light was wrong.”
“I tried to fix it.”
“Hmm. Didn’t exactly think that through.”
Claire was crying again. Maybe she hadn’t quite stopped.
“Hey, honey, no.” Emily stroked her sister’s upper arm and shoulder. When Claire leaned to Emily’s body she stroked her hair and said quiet things to calm her until, “You’ve got paint in your hair,” drew a muffled response from Claire.
“What was that?”
Claire leaned away and wiped her eyes. “Naples yellow?” she said. “Or misty grey green?”
“Fucking yellow or green?”
Emily was quick to try hushing her. The other patients were looking over and Emily tried to smile them away.
“They seep into everything, Em, everything. Seeping colours. Fucking seeping colours, everywhere!”
Claire began clawing at the coverings on her arms and a bandage around her chest. “Look!”
By this time a nurse was in the room, either alerted by Claire’s outburst or summoned by one of the others. He hurried to Claire, taking Emily’s side of the bed. The police officer came in as well. Emily had to step back to free some space.
“Now Claire, we need you to stay calm, remember?” the nurse said. “We talked about this.”
Emily watched as Claire fought against even gentle restraint. “What’s wrong with her?”
The nurse only glanced at her, a brief turn of the head, before returning his attention to Claire.
“What’s wrong with her?”
The policeman said, “Come on,” and placed a hand on Emily’s back to guide her from the room but she shrugged herself away. Claire was crying.
“They seep,” she said. “They seep.” She held eye contact with her sister. “Naples yellow,” she said. “Misty grey green.”
Another nurse had arrived and the police officer again urged Emily to wait outside, steering her more firmly this time.
“You’ll see,” Claire said. “Yellow and—Emily? Emily?”
“Yellow and green. Seeping.”
The main bedroom is black with smoke damage. Colourless. An absence in the house like a cavity. The carpet, where any remains, is the sodden black of trampled ash. Beneath, blackened boards. Emily wonders if it’s safe. The walls wear permanent shadows. Blackened paper peels away from them in scabby curls or rises in blistered lumps yet to split. The window is a glassless opening taped over with a sheet of plastic that flutters at one corner where it’s come unstuck. Whatever curtains or blinds had been there are gone. The ceiling is a single night-cloud of soot except where a light fitting droops in a malformed melted shape. The bed had been stood upon its side to allow more room for canvases and a vague shape of it remains, though the wooden slats are charred stumps and the mattress has slumped away from them, a collapsed heap little more than fused and twisted springs. Easels have been reduced to charcoal. Canvases are blackened square frames, if that. Emily’s torch only seems to emphasise all the darkness in trying to sweep it away. The room is a black box, recording what had been done to it and speaking it back in a language of ash.
“Shit, Claire. Good job.”
Where had Claire stood? Did she watch from the doorway as smoke fattened and rolled in the room? Did she stand in the middle of it all, flames licking the walls around her? Would there have been a blast, like in the movies, throwing her out into the hall? She’d been found unconscious but surely she would have had more serious injuries if that were the case. And besides, she’d only used a bottle of white spirit to get the fire started, only downstairs got the full petrol treatment. Emily imagines her sister standing with her arms open, proud of her latest work, fire burning, bathing her with its heat and colour. Flickering reds, oranges, yellows. Naples yellow? Emily imagines her glistening with sweat and reflected light, arms afire from where she’d splashed herself from the bottle, shadows dancing over her body as the flames flickered and licked everything it was to devour. What was that term for light and shadow in art? Chiaroscuro? Claire would have been a Chiaroscuro sculpture of flesh, watching her conflagration as it destroyed everything else she had made.
Emily bends and picks up an angle of wooden frame, intending . . . she doesn’t know what. To tidy? She drops the charred wood and dusts the ash from her fingers, wiping them on her jeans.
Did all artists go mad? Was that like an occupational hazard, the price paid for creativity? Or was the crazy artist thing just a cliché?
Emily doesn’t have a fucking clue.
Her voice is little more than a sigh. Her sister had always been a bit crazy but not crazy crazy. Emily decides she’ll talk to Tom about letting Claire stay with them again for a while. If the doctors say she can, and if the police allow it. Emily will take care of her little sister. It’s what Mum and Dad would have wanted.
A sudden gust of wind tears against the plastic at the window, a loud abrupt sound and then a series of them, like a flock of startled birds flying away in haste. Emily makes her way carefully to where the window used to be. Patches of carpet squelch underfoot, still wet from the efforts of the fire brigade. She holds the thrumming plastic, stills it, and looks out from a torn corner at the night coast. She thinks of the sand down in the conservatory, spread across the stone floor, and the way the ashy carpet here puddles under her feet. The seaside of St Ives expanding into the house. She stands in a burnt dark sea over a petrol-soaked shore.
Emily returns to the spare room. She picks up the photo of her and Claire, wanting it for when she goes back to the hospital. Her fingers are black, and her palm. Soot, she realises. Ash. Not paint. But she’s thinking of what the doctor told her when she wipes it off her hand.
“Self portrait,” she says, shaking her head.
While the nurse calmed Claire, one of the doctors spoke to Emily in the visitor’s room. This is the room where they break the bad news, she thought, and waited for it.
“As I said on the phone, her burns aren’t too serious. She’ll have scars, but we can do something about minimising those.”
Emily nodded, waiting for him to get to it, and here it was, the awkward pause. The “but.” And then . . .
“Considering the reason for her burns, and some of her behaviour since, I’m recommending a psychiatric assessment.” He raised his hands against a protest that didn’t come. “Just to see where we stand. To decide the next steps in whatever treatment your sister needs to get better.”
Emily nodded. This was okay. She could deal with this. “I understand she was quite distressed when she was admitted?”
Ah, the formal tones of her coping mechanisms.
The doctor seemed to relax a little hearing it, Emily noticed. The gulf between her and Claire widened just a little bit more, but in this situation it was useful.
“Well there were the burns. She would have been in quite some pain. And the duress of a house fire,” the doctor explained. “But I believe there may have been some concerns prior to this. Leading to this, in fact.”
“When Claire was admitted to us, she . . . When she first came in, her . . . Some of the staff thought her burns were far worse than they really were. It was quite a shock to them. She was almost entirely black, you see.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Before she came to us, before the fire, your sister painted herself.”
“What, like a self portrait?”
“No. I mean, she’d painted her body. Black paint, all over herself from head to toe. Her skin, but not her clothes. Her hair as well.”
Emily nodded. She didn’t know what to say, so she nodded. Like it was a perfectly acceptable thing for the doctor to say. Painted herself? Must have been for a creative project or something, some new expressive art.
“When can I go back in to see her?”
“She’s just being moved to a more private room. For her comfort.”
“And so she won’t disturb the other patients.”
The doctor gave her a tight-lipped smile and stood. Emily copied him so he wouldn’t be standing over her. “She’s been sedated but you can see her for a few minutes.”
Sedated, definitely, Emily thought, seeing how Claire fumbled with a pillow. She was slowly plumping it into a more comfortable shape, or trying to. When she saw Emily she said, “Heyyyy,” long and drawn out, then slurred three syllables into two with, “Emly.”
“Looking good, sis.” She smiled and said, “The room, I mean. Nice upgrade. No other patients to cough their germs all over you. Even got a picture on the wall. What is that, Picasso?”
“Yeah, Van Gogh. Picasso did that weird woman one, didn’t he? Weeping into her hanky with both eyes on one side of her face.”
Claire’s eyes were trying to close but she kept blinking them and opening them extra wide in her struggle to stay awake.
“What’s this one called, I wonder?” Emily said, trying sarcasm to draw her sister out from whatever drugs she struggled in.
Claire smiled a loose smile. “Sunflowers.”
“No . . . ” Claire dismissed the picture with an exaggerated sweep of her bandaged hand. “Just a print.”
The joke surprised Emily into laughter. “Yeah,” she said. “You’re getting better already.” She stood beside her and stroked her hair. Claire said something but it was too low, too slurred. “What was that, hun? You want a nurse?”
Claire shook her head. “Feel . . . worse.”
“Free drugs, honey.”
Emily stroked Claire’s hair, trying not to see the paint in it. She stroked until Claire slept and gave her sister’s question
more thought than she was probably meant to.
Emily wakes to a slice of light streaming between almost-drawn curtains. She’s still holding the framed photo of her and Claire as children, had fallen asleep with it clutched to her chest. A corner has pressed an angle into the skin of her left breast to form an arrowhead pointing heartward. Emily rubs at it, rubs at her sleep-crusted eyes, and realises with sudden surprise that she’s still in Claire’s rented house. She sits up in panic and fumbles for her phone to check the time, relieved to see it’s probably too early for anyone official to discover her trespassing. She doesn’t know if the police or fire specialists still have to investigate the scene but she doesn’t want to be around if they do.
In the bright light of day she sees the room differently.
In the bright sunshine, Emily sees the room is a hideous shade of yellow. A sickly hue has been painted directly over the patterned wallpaper—she can still see some of the floral designs beneath, flowering buds and dark lines of vine held as shadows under slap-dashed strokes of paint. Claire hadn’t moved the furniture to do it, either. Paint stains the quilt, the sheets, and the pillows in blood-splatter patterns to show where Claire had simply painted around the bed. Emily pulls the mattress away from the wall to reveal a large clean area of paper.
“Missed a bit.”
The canvases stored against the wall are more striking in the natural light as well. Panel after panel, more than she’d thought, of misty grey-greens lean with a matching number of yellows. Sometimes the colours are together on one canvas, mixing
into each other, but mostly they’re separate.
Emily retrieves her torch and casts a final look around to check she hasn’t left anything behind. The bright colour of the room reflects on the glass of the photo frame to give Claire’s skin a jaundiced tinge. It makes her toothy smile seem like a grimace of pain. Emily tucks it under her arm on her way to the burnt bedroom. She’s left nothing there, either. It would be easy to spot amongst the black. The brightening sunshine of early morning makes the room even more ghastly, makes the room its own shadow despite the light streaming in at the plastic window. A coastal breeze stirs the covering but any fresh salty tang it may carry is lost beneath the lingering smell of smoke.
She goes to the window frame, treading squelches from a carpet of sodden-cinders. On the beach, even at this hour, an array of artists have already set up to work. Before them, the dazzling sand and sun-dappled sea.
The first time Claire ran away Emily had gone with her. Their intention was to get to the seaside, any seaside. They’d stuffed a backpack with a change of underwear each and two bananas and fled from some petty or imagined slight they blamed their parents for. Waiting at a bus stop, they’d counted their collected coppers to find they only had enough for a single ticket. Rather than address who should go they’d decided to eat, only to fight over whose banana was whose because one was a ripe yellow, barely spotted, and the other was still pale green.
Yellow and green, Emily thinks, wondering if that’s why the memory has resurfaced. Colours seeping from the present into the past, or from the past into the present.
She pauses on the stairs, thinking she hears something. Someone. Moving in the house. She stands silent and turns her head to listen. She even holds her breath.
Their parents hadn’t even considered Emily missing that time they’d run away. Hadn’t worried about her at all. When she’d returned home, all the concern was for Claire. They’d assumed Emily was out looking for her.
In the mirror, her reflection is held in open-mouthed pause. There’s a green tint to her skin.
It was the wrong word, but to have corrected her, to have said envious, would have been to admit it was true. For all her fickleness, Claire was always living her life while Emily only managed hers, and if it all went wrong—when it all went wrong—someone was always there to pick up the pieces. To traipse around burnt buildings and sit around in hospitals . . .
Emily touches her skin, wipes at her eyes, but the green remains. The pasty grey green of somebody dead.
“It’s the light.”
Claire’s voice startles her. She sees her in the mirror, her reflection’s twin standing at the bottom of the stairs, and suddenly she’s afraid to turn around. In case she’s not really there.
“The light’s different here,” Claire says. “Cleaner. Purer. Shows you everything for what it really is.”
“What are you doing here, Claire?”
“I came because of the light.”
“I mean, here. At the house.”
Emily turns around to look at her properly. She’s changed from her hospital gown into clothes black with old fire and paint, her bandage stark white in contrast. On her wrist she still wears the hospital band with her name on. She’s run away, Emily realises. Again.
“I have to see,” Claire says. She squats to pick up two cans at her feet and for a horrible moment Emily thinks she’s come back with more petrol, that she’s here to finish what she’s started (for a change), but the cans are just paint cans.
“It’s going to take more than a coat of paint to get your deposit back, sis.”
Claire shakes her head but instead of whatever she was going to say, asks, “How is it?”
“Medium to well done. If you mean the main room. Yours is a lovely bright yellow, if a bit slap-dash.”
“Not like your paintings. Which are good, by the way. Same colour, some of them, but with way better control in the brushstrokes. Abstracty, but in a commercial way. You could easily sell them. Back in London.”
“What are you talking about, Em?”
“If you come home—”
“No, I mean, the paintings. I painted over those.”
“Well, not all of them.”
Claire’s movement up the stairs is so sudden and so fast that Emily is startled back against the mirror. She moves aside as her sister hurries past, “I know I did,” and glances at herself in the glass. The green tinge has gone, if it was ever really there. Just a trick of the light.
Claire’s cry from the bedroom is so mournful that Emily covers her own mouth to stop from joining her. Then she cries again, this time a sharper, frustrated sound, and Emily hears the noise of things being thrown.
Emily rushes to the room to see it already strewn with canvases.
“I painted over them,” Claire says, throwing one after the other aside. “I painted them black. All of them, black. And the fucking wall.” She throws one of the paintings at the wall. The wooden frame splits but the canvas holds it together in a broken shape and Claire slumps to the floor. She sobs in a sea of yellows and greens.
Emily sits beside her and holds her, careful to avoid Claire’s injuries. “I’m here, Claire. What is it? Hmm? What’s wrong?”
Claire leans into her. “The colours,” she says.
Emily pulls her closer. “Hey, honey.” Holds her with both arms. “Hey.”
“They’ve come back.”
“Who, Claire-bear? Who’s come back?”
“The colours.” She pulls away from Emily and grips her arms. She holds her so fiercely that it hurts, and Emily wonders how Claire can bear it herself. The sensitive skin of her burnt arms must be tight with pain.
“Will you help me?”
Emily remembers again the time they’d ran away. Why had it not crossed their minds to stick together? Why did they need to decide who got the bus fare when they could’ve just walked, together? Share the fucking bananas?
Emily nods. “Yes,” she says. “Yes, of course I’ll help you.”
Claire sweeps aside canvases, flips them over, until she finds what she’s looking for. Some sort of pallet knife of paint spreader tool. She sets one of the cans upright and levers its lid. Emily picks up the other can and stands it beside her sister’s. Both are large cans from a DIY shop. Black emulsion. Well, whatever. If it helps Claire she’ll happily take up a brush, paint the whole house. Paint herself as well if she has to, slap on coat after coat of the stuff. Do like The Rolling Stones said and paint it black, paint it all black, if that’s what she wants.
“With you here it’ll be better,” Claire says. “You’re sensible and—”
The lid pops free from the first can.
“What is it?”
Claire leans over it to reach the other one.
“What’s wrong, sis?”
Claire gets the other lid off as well—“No!”—and slaps the can away. It falls before Emily’s able to catch it and spills its contents over the floor. Not black, but yellow. Naples yellow, Emily assumes. The paint is thick and slow to spill so Emily reaches to turn the can upright but Claire strikes her hands away from it and knocks the other one over as well, grey-green paint glooping free to mix with the yellow.
They watch the spreading puddle of colours seep into the carpet. Seep into their clothes.
Seep into everything.
Originally published in Terror Tales of Cornwall, edited by Paul Finch.