by Sal Page

‘This vehicle is reversing.’

Mary-Anne was in the scullery when she first heard those words. She wondered were they in her head?

Now she heard them again, floating past her in the drawing room, distinct as anything. Clearing the tea things, she folded the last triangle of bread and butter and popped it into her mouth. No point taking that back to Cook. There was one Florentine too, a present from her ladyship, whose appetite was small. She tucked it into her apron pocket. She would eat it later lying on her bed and dreaming of her future husband, wherever and whoever he might be. All she knew was the fortune-teller on the seafront had said he would travel a long way to get here. All very mysterious. Mary-Anne carefully stacked the delicate cups and saucers, so as not to make a noise and wake her ladyship.

’This vehicle is reversing.’

She turned in what she thought was the direction of the voice. Was there an unannounced visitor out in the hallway? Had the voice emanated from the fireplace? Or from behind the dark wooden panelling? Mary-Anne shivered. Goose pimples crept across her upper arms. She bent to the fireplace, carefully positioned a few more pieces of coal, and grasped the poker. She twisted her head, looking up into the darkness of the chimney.

‘This vehicle is reversing.’

It was louder this time, and closer. Mary-Anne knelt completely still. A snore from her ladyship made her jump. Her heart pounded. She felt jittery. A strange oily smell, like nothing she’d ever smelt before, wafted through from somewhere and her stomach turned.

She stabbed at the embers, watching orange sparks burst into life. She stood up and, wiping her hand on her apron, decided these dreadful words weren’t uttered by a human being at all. A speech from another world. Yes, that’s what it was. The voice of a tormented spirit, a ghost or a goblin or something. Whichever it was it was giving her a bad case of the collywobbles.

It seemed as if it were right behind her now. From somewhere close by a warm rush of air released itself like a huge angry sigh. Then that smell again and a loud crunching noise.

‘This vehicle is reversing.’

What on earth could it mean? What was this voice trying to tell her?

Sal Page won the Calderdale Short Story Prize in 2011, and has written a novel called Queen of the World.

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