My ex-husband wasn’t stupid when I married him, but he became so through dogged determination and years of practice. I have no idea why he chose such a project, unless it was because he knew he could succeed. He was always in a hurry to get to the end of a problem. Why do people beg on the streets, for instance? Because they are lazy. Game, set, match. End of. Moving on. Or at least, he did. In the end, he blamed our failed marriage on a haunted house.
I suppose it was inevitable that he would find a church with all the answers. Why won’t my wife make love to me? Because she is infected with the spirit of feminism. Why is my marriage unhappy? Because Satanists are praying to destroy it. Why do men kill themselves? Because there is a suicide demon on the Tasman bridge. And, finally, why are we both so miserable? Because Big Pharma are lying to sell you poisons. Your government is controlling you. We are engaged in spiritual warfare. Your house is haunted.
I had different answers. They were, in order: the smell of your beard; because you’re acting like a dickhead; untreated mental illness, and, well, I could write a book on that last one, but I won’t. He never asked.
I was the one who moved out. The pernicious spirit of feminism with which I was infected had moved me to put half my wages in a separate account and, when it grew to the size of a deposit, to purchase a property of my own; a tiny weatherboard with a crooked veranda a hour’s drive out of town. As I packed up the framed copies of my degrees, I wondered aloud whether I had caught the spirit, like polio, from inhaling as I passed a feminist on the street, or whether it had hitched a ride with the spirit of lust that time I had an affair with the woman whose skin, I remembered loudly, was the warmest, smoothest, most supple thing I had ever touched and whose body pushed itself into my hands insistently until we were moving like one thing, together, in a way I had never experienced before or since. He slammed the door. I’d won. I was petty like that. After all, I was leaving him alone in a haunted house.
The first night in my new place was silent. Moonlight shone through empty windows onto piles of boxes, and, in the corner, my make-shift mattress-and-cushion bed. Financial necessity had taken me far away from streetlights, parties, traffic. Also, from insulation, central heating, wifi and hot water. Emergency services. Other human beings. The silence hummed like tinnitus in my ears. Any noise I made gathered in a tight penumbra around me, highlighting the quietness the way a torch intensifies the dark. There was wind, sometimes. A scuffling of small things. Silence. I had expected to sleep soundly without him, but I lay awake for a long time, listening. Eventually I drifted off into an uneasy dream.
I woke in the dark to the sound of footsteps on the veranda and sat straight up in alarm, heart pounding. The moon had slipped behind the clouds; it was pitch black outside. The footsteps stopped outside my window. I could not see so much as a shadow. For long moments nothing moved. I sat there barely breathing until, unaccountably, I slept again, and the next thing I was aware of was daylight, and I was alone. I walked around the house checking the windows and locks. Wallabies bounded away across the paddock when I approached. The windows were stiff and shut fast. The two doors, front and back, were locked. I drove to the nearest town to get coffee and then spent the rest of the day indoors, hanging blinds and filling gaps between the floorboards with newspaper and string. I hung sheets over the top of the blinds to keep out prying eyes. I would make pretty curtains another day.
That night the footsteps came again. I was prepared this time. I rose carefully, back against the wall, and peered through the crack I had left between window and blind. Nothing. I crept into the next room, opened the blind and looked boldly up and down the length of the veranda. Moonlight burst, silver, through a cloud. Nothing. Nobody. The place was empty. I settled down, cursing my over-active imagination. On the edge of sleep, I dreamed the creak of my bedroom door opening. A presence watching me, silently, until dawn.
My ex called the next day. He wanted me to know that he forgave me and that I could come back. God had revealed to him in a vision that we were meant to be together. He still had plans for our lives. We should have children. I could stay at home, thus restoring balance, and we would be happy. I pointed out that we had had this conversation before. I asked him how the haunted house was. He said he’d slept like a baby, actually. His faith had dispelled the ghosts. After the call, I went for a short walk around the parameter of my property, in gumboots. The fencing could do with some work. If I could keep out the wild-life I might be able to perch a garden on top of the shallow, mossy soil. The house looked disarmingly simple from the outside; even charming. Some paint, some roofing iron, a few replaced weatherboards – nothing I couldn’t do. There was no sign of anyone else; no hint of a track, no footprints in the mud. I was safely alone.
That night I drank a bottle of wine and went to sleep listening to a meditation app. The piled boxes were beginning to feel familiar, almost homely. My bed was warm. The app filled the silence with soothing sounds from a distant rainforest. I intended to sleep all night; if he could do it, so could I. So I barely woke when the door opened. The footsteps could have been the creaking of wind in the gumtrees outside. The presence by my bed, a dream conjured from loneliness. When I woke the next morning, it was to the sound of my alarm. No self-respecting ghost, I told myself, would enjoy that. I chose to ignore the open bedroom door.