When I was a child we used to go on holiday to Ireland a lot. My Grandmother and countless aunts and uncles lived there in a fishing village on the west coast. The North Atlantic acted as a backdrop to every outdoor scene. The sea was always so choppy it appeared to be full of jagged edges of glass rather than waves. The air was so thick with brine that at night, sitting in front of an open fire, thousands of tiny crystals of salt formed in your hair, your eyelashes and on your lips.
There was a house by the beach where seabirds roosted in the rotted thatch, the front door creaked back and forth in heavy winds, and most of the windows were cracked or boarded up. My cousin Patrick used to call it The Witch’s House, he said he had seen the lady who lived there come out one night and dance in the moonlight, her long hair touching the ground, her clothes in rags, her hands smeared with blood. At 10 years old I was still too young to scoff at such tales and I grew terrified of that house.
On one particular holiday I found that Patrick had hooked up with some of the boys in the village. He changed when he was with them, becoming reckless, troublesome, compromising his sense of humour and kind heart to be part of the group. On that holiday I found a little kitten abandoned in the fields near my Grandmother’s house. She was grey, black and white and all alone. I smuggled her into my room, feeding her bits of fish from dinner, letting her sleep on my pillow.
Patrick found my kitten and put her in The Witch’s House so the village boys would laugh. I could hear her mewling half way down the road. She was afraid. I couldn’t leave her there by herself. Even though it was growing dark, I strode up to the front door, flinging it open with a bravado I certainly didn’t feel as Patrick and the village boys sniggered behind me.
My heart was beating so fast I was giddy but I moved inside the house. Patrick could see how scared I was and relented, calling out :”Leave the kitten. I’ll get her” but I wasn’t prepared to give him a chance to redeem himself. “Don’t bother yourself,” I shouted, plunging into the grimy dark.
The house contained no furniture, but paintings adorned the walls – people, animals, fishing boats. A print of the sacred heart of Jesus hung above the doorway leading to a room that must have once been the kitchen. I heard scuffling as if something was moving in there. I prayed it was the kitten and not the remains of the witch, summoning a false confidence with every step forward.
My kitten was there, playing with a large ball of grey dust. A draught blew in under the back door, thrusting the dust under the stove. The window panes rattled, abrasive as bones in a bag. I scooped up the kitten and tried the back door. It was locked.
There was a creak overhead like someone was walking in a room upstairs and I ran, sliding on the miry slate floors, to the front door. It was closed. Jammed shut. The boys had locked me in. “Patrick!” I cried out. “Don’t leave me here.” There was nothing outside but silence.
Patrick came back for me an hour later but I could have sworn I had been there all night. I was in such a semi-hysterical state that as we rounded the bend for home and I looked back at the house I thought I saw the witch dancing in glee on the roof.
Patrick was punished for what he had done. He was forbidden to play with the boys from the village, had to attend Mass twice a day, and made to clean out the vestry in the church. He apologised to me five times a day, buying me sweets and my favourite comics, but I wouldn’t be swayed. I felt like I had been betrayed.
As the years passed a salve was placed upon my memory of the house, I grew to regard it almost fondly as one does an oft-repeated piece of folklore. It held no threat for me anymore. I was able to laugh at my childhood fears of it being inhabited by a witch. Until the day several years ago when Patrick was found dead inside it, a victim of a heroin overdose.
His mother had moved back to Ireland when she retired and he had been staying with her as the bite of his addiction took hold. He had been using the house as a place to paint, to acknowledge the scarring of his psyche. I was sent one of his paintings after his death. It lies at the back of the garden shed in its original brown paper packaging. I am not able to open it.
I cursed The Witch’s House from the other end of the world, so grief-stricken, I couldn’t even travel to the funeral. Even now, years later, I cannot begin to comprehend the significance of Patrick dying in that house. It is something I shy away from at all costs. I am terrified of what it means.
My fear is internalised, squeezed into the smallest of fists at the back of my mind, breaking free only under duress, where gasping and directionless, it forms itself into a recurring dream. In the dream I am in The Witch’s House. Patrick is trapped behind a door I can’t open. We are children again. A cackle follows me wherever I go, discordant as an untuned piano. I try everything to open the door but it won’t budge.
When I finally get the door open the witch is there, squeezing the life out of Patrick. His eyes are pleading with me to help but I can’t move. I am terrified. I stand there, useless, as he falls to the floor. “You’re next,” says the witch, and then I wake up.
I have been having this dream every night since Alfie’s heart attack. It is a dream which has cropped up again and again over the years when I am stressed. Grappling with life and death in dreams is almost as exhausting as grappling with it in reality. I am governed by that dream.
My mother says I should speak to someone. That it is time for relinquishment. I think that maybe she is right. Perhaps it is only a psychologist who can burn The Witch’s House to the ground.