For a reputedly haunted house, number 6 Mercy Lane was very beguiling indeed. The moment Damien opened the door to them Lisa and Mandy were literally flooded with a warm light from the hallway, seemingly reaching out into the early twilight haze like a welcoming embrace.
Damien also proved himself a host with great flourish and a kind of old school elan, bowing to them and bidding that they ‘enter my humble abode, dear friends’ which made Mandy giggle lightly as she crossed the threshold and he nodded, grateful, as Lisa handed him the box of chocolates.
Maddy’s laughter made him pause for a moment and regard her, a warmth sparking in his eyes.
‘So full of life,’ he said approvingly, the looked to Lisa, ‘You must be proud.’
Under normal circumstances Lisa might have been slightly bemused by this description of her often withdrawn and quiet child, but looking back to her in this moment, seeing her young face break into the broadest of smiles, she felt mixed emotions. Pride, yes, indeed, and dismay, but something else also ran underneath it all. Something that almost had a taste, like copper on the tongue, vague and even unpleasant in some indefinable way. But whatever this strange cocktail of conflicting emotions, reality rose above them all and Lisa could only marvel in the moment at how beautiful her daughter suddenly looked, basking as she did in the approval of their new, mysterious friend.
Careful, or she will get a crush, Lisa thought suddenly, and looked back at Damien with slight horror, seeing him meet her daughter’s gaze with amusement.
‘I’m Mandy,’ her daughter said, as though she felt her mother had missed an important social requirement and she was making up for that with charm. Her voice had with an unfamiliar lilt and for Lisa for just a second the world seemed to totally stand still.
It was the briefest and most tenuous of exchanges, but even in those seconds something rose in Lisa, something unfamiliar. It seemed old, something from years before, even something from when she might have been her daughter’s age. That response to who had the attention of the man – or the boy as it would have been in those days. It felt, though she dared not admit this to herself, a little like jealousy.
A thought rippled through her, an unwelcome snake slithering across her heart. Was she so damaged by the wreckage of her marriage she would feel the need to compete with her daughter for the attention of a man?
But then the thought passed, and the world righted itself, once more rotating on its appointed axis.
Of course, how could she be jealous of her daughter, it was absurd. They had only just met Damien and he was far too old to be of real interest to Mandy.
Or if he was of interest to her, a young girl with a crush on an older man, then certainly she was far too young to be of interest to him.
But each of these thoughts also proved ephemeral. They fled from her as quickly as they came, unwelcome guests vanishing into the night.
Damien shut the door and the night behind them and ushered them down the hallway. All the walls were a uniform creamy pale colour, glowing slightly yellow from the numerous lamps along the passageway, but looking far more modern and stark as they entered a dining area illuminated by more contemporary wall lighting.
The room, rather like the gracious host, seemed almost an exercise in irony. Modern light fittings and a large entertainment system to the right of the table clashed with a very elegant, traditional and possibly antique full dining ensemble. It would be like stepping from one century to another just by sitting or raising yourself from the table.
Damien seemed to understand the reaction. Perhaps he always furnished his homes this way and was familiar with the vague disorientation such traditional splendour mixed with the clinical coldness of modern technology could inspire.
‘The dining table and much of the furniture are family heirlooms,’ he explained, ‘Whereas the rest of the renovation work I had done here, and my rather distinct addiction to all things electronic, is more a reflection of me.’
Lisa looked at Damien and smiled, ‘I think it’s charming,’ she said, ‘So individual.’
‘So confused,’ Damien replied and they laughed gently together. In the meantime Mandy was transfixed by the entertainment system. She had gravitated to it immediately and was now regarding it with awe.
‘Wow,’ she said.
Damien was amused. He laughed and looked at the girl again in the way that caused Lisa’s stomach to slightly constrict, turn upon itself. There was nothing prurient in his gaze, nothing that suggested an inappropriate threat.
No, the threat, if one existed, wasn’t coming from him.
Mandy looked back at him. She’d just discovered the expansive and well stocked drawers of DVDs below the huge television screen. ‘You have so many films and tv series!’ she said, in awe.
‘Addict I’m afraid, probably given away by the fact that the system is in the dining room. I confess, I do that thing no-one is ever supposed to do. When I’m alone I watch TV while I eat! ’ he admitted, then he looked at Lisa, ‘It would be less tragic by far if I had company of course. You must come over and watch some with me if any run to your taste.’
A real sliver of pleasure ran through Lisa suddenly. ‘I’d like that,’ she said, ‘Sometime, perhaps. I could bring the popcorn.’
‘It’s a deal,’ he said, ‘Very neighbourly of you.’
Mandy cut across the reverie with a squeal of pure joy. ‘You have Twin Peaks!’ she said, ‘I’ve read so much about it. And mother always said it was wonderful.’
Damien turned to her. ‘It was, especially the first series,’ he agreed.
‘I was too young to see it when it aired’ Mandy continued, and something under the words irritated Lisa, making her feel old by comparison. She had little time to try to analyse why she would react this way as Damien turned immediately back to her and continued, ‘Though it seems two of us here have already seen it, otherwise we could have even watched an episode or two after dinner. Twin Peaks has a sensibility that fits quiet well with how our street, and this house in particular, are viewed by the community.’
‘So true,’ Lisa agreed.
‘I’d like to see it!’ Mandy half-whined, and Damien turned to her as Lisa shook her head at the teenager antics she was displaying. Then she saw something else in Mandy. It wasn’t her usual morose and frankly self-pitying stance. This was something else. She stood with her head half bowed, looking up at Damien through lashes made too long by too much mascara, her legs half bent with one foot awkwardly ahead of the other balancing as her hips slightly swayed. It wasn’t petulance. It was coy.
‘Well, you are welcome to come over and just watch them at your leisure,’ he offered, ‘I can give you a key if you like.’
‘I don’t really think we should presume on your hospitality that much!’ Lisa said sharply, part alarmed that a grown man was offering this to her teenage daughter, and part something else she couldn’t – or wouldn’t – quite name.
‘It’s fine if it is alright with your mother,’ Damien continued, still looking at the delighted girl before him, “I meant you could have the key as I am often not here, my work takes me away frequently, so you would have the place to yourself, but only during the day of course. If I am here I’ll ask you to choose another time. I am sometimes work here, and when I do I need peace and quiet. But otherwise, either of you are welcome to use these facilities any time you choose. Mi casa, su casa.”
And with this, he turned back and looked intensely at Lisa, relaying a much deeper message than just the offer. A message that said the invitation is for both, not just a girl, and she will be safe, and with a myriad of other implications beneath it that made Lisa feel suddenly afraid she had been offensive. Damien had been nothing but an excellent host and a friendly neighbour. To even imply anything less wholesome was insulting at the least.
‘That’s very kind,’ she said quickly, ‘Perhaps we might take you up on it but overall, it would be far more enjoyable to do this together with you, when it suits everyone’s dairies.’
‘As you wish,’ he agreed, amiably. ‘I confess, for a moment part of me thought having the place habituated a bit more than I can offer it might chase away the ghosts they say are here.’
And he laughed half with them and half to himself at this thought.
‘Unless, of course, they want company,’ he finished, with a faint trace of irony, ‘In which case it won’t work at all.’
The storm seemed to have passed as quickly as it had come. He smiled and nodded again then asked them to take seats at the table while he brought food in from his kitchen. Lisa felt her equilibrium settle as she sat at the beautiful table and lightly touched the elegant cutlery before her. She looked up at her daughter, finally remembering she was there too, and for a moment was chilled. For just before her daughter saw her gaze and smiled, re-arranging her heavy, almost lush features into something warm, she held a very, very different expression. It was chilled, and seemed older than her years, and it was dark.
It looked, for just a second, like hate.
(c) Helen M Valentina 2015, All Rights Reserved