THE HAUNTED SHEETS
I once had rather a large house, and took in lodgers to make ends meet. I needed the cash, and sometimes I needed the company. The lodgers were a mixed bunch: some of them ran off with my keys, some of them never paid, some of them became my lovers. One of them caused me trouble, more trouble than I had ever known before or since.
Her name was Vera and she came from Droitwich. She was scrawny and aimed above her intellectual station, and I never managed to establish what she had done for a living. Sometimes she seemed to have been a copy-editor, sometimes a seamstress, sometimes a nanny. She certainly knew how to work a mangle.
When she arrived, her belongings were stowed in an enormous laundry-basket, so huge that two Veras could have been hidden in there. She suborned three of the other lodgers to lug it up to her room. They groaned, it creaked, and finally it was plumped down in the centre of her room. “Look” said Vera, with a disturbing glint in her eye: “now I’m going to show you something really special.”
She threw the contents of the basket pell-mell over her shoulder: feather boas, muffs, lace stoles, books with ripped covers, pink directoire knickers. At the bottom of the basket something nestled and rustled in tissue paper. She pulled it out and shook it loose: linen sheets. These had, she said, been her grandmother’s: “look at the sheen on that! Real Irish linen! The finest in the world!” And indeed they were smooth and creamy, with a damask-like patina, and an air of importance: “better than the Queen sleeps on, I’ll be bound.”
Robing the bed with the linen sheets was a ritual we were all forced to witness. Every night we were told they were about to welcome her warmly: every morning they were reported to have held her in a cool but firm embrace. No duvets for Vera, not she. She had two sets of the linen sheets, and every couple of weeks she washed one set by hand. In the kitchen I had an antique mangle, which I had intended to be purely decorative: but Vera pulled it out for use, and she draped the damp sheets round the Aga. They steamed a little: and in my fanciful way, I fancied the steam looked wraith-like.
Gradually, over a period of some months, Vera became convinced that the linen sheets had been bewitched. They had taken on the personality of her grandmother, she thought: costive, peevish, mischievous. Blood started to appear on the bottom sheet, right in the middle. One day the blot looked like a heart: the next day it had the shape of a star: and by the third day two horns stained the pristine surface. Diffidently I advanced the obvious biological explanation, to which she retorted: “my Grand Climacteric is dead and gone. No, the Devil has taken Granny, for sure.”
Soon Vera began to clamour for an exorcism of some sort, to rescue both Granny and the sheets. She could be very persuasive. The other lodgers were keen for something to disrupt the monotony of their days, and began to plan an event. There was no Bible in the house, but they found a prayer-book which might serve just as well. Two of them had old university gowns which they fancied might lend a morbid tone to events, and they re-enacted a scene from The Devil Rides Out in which the protagonists lie in a circle and ward off the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It did not work; or rather, it made matters worse, in that the blot of blood became much, much larger.
I had watched all this aslant, and realised that something more radical was needed - a more powerful ritual, with real juice. While Vera was out, I cut my finger onto the sheet, and smeared some of my own semen on top of the blood. I then sprinkled some river-water around that, and called for Granny to come: to tell the truth and shame the Devil.
Vera always went to bed in the dark. All was quiet for a while, and then in the dead of night I smelled smoke and heard a crackling. I rushed into the room to find Vera’s bed ablaze, with someone lying unharmed in the centre. I lifted the body out. It had an old, desiccated face, which bore an unmistakable resemblance to Vera. It was not her, but Granny. She was the lodger now.
Actually it all worked out quite well in the end. Granny was more biddable and less chatty than Vera, and had interesting tales to tell about the past and Purgatory. She didn’t eat a lot. The best thing was that she never wanted to sleep in the linen sheets: “I want a nice counterpane, dear, with a winceyette bottom. Let’s cut the other stuff up for dusters.”