Growing up in the 60s and 70s, Fiona Marshall’s country village had secrets, gossip, and that spooky woman’s voice on the telephone line. To be clear: this is no morality tale.
Table of Contents
Part 1: Ice Creams Lost to the Dusty Road
Part 2: Like Grimes Was Set to Sweep a Crater of Ash
Part 3: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby
Part 1: Ice Creams Lost to the Dusty Road
The evolution of the telephone is a remarkable one. You all know about cell phones and landlines. You would have seen that evolution. I marvel at the technology sitting in my pocket.
Back when I was a kid, living out in a country village in the 60s and 70s, we had something called a “party line” telephone. This line was no party, so you know. It was a damn nuisance – most of the time, at least. Sometimes it was a way to hear some juicy local gossip.
By the way, they also ran the phone line through our barbed wire fences in places. Sounds nuts, but it’s efficient – I mean, there was already a wire there, why not use it? Sometimes you got some funny noises when a bird perched on a wire or one of our cows desired a scratch.
The way a party line telephone works is you’ve got several different houses on the same phone number, essentially – like a landline with multiple extensions. If you want to ring out, you have to make sure the line is clear (no one else chatting on it), then make a long crank to call the operator and tell them the number you’re trying to reach. Our phone had no buttons or dial. All it had was a receiver and a crank that sent an electric signal down the wire.
When someone calls in, the phones in all of the houses on the party line rings. The way you figure out if it’s your house being called is by the ring.
In our house, we were two long rings, three shorts. So that’s: brrrrriiiiiinnnngggg… brrrrriiiiiinnnngggg…bring…bring…bring, to demonstrate. You hear the first ring, and you run like mad through the house to get to your home’s only phone before the call dies. Sometimes it’s worth it and the call was actually for you. Other times you skid to a stop in the hallway by the big old wooden telephone mounted on the wall and the ring is one long, two shorts, two longs – as in, you wasted that run, ‘cause it’s not you being called.
If the telephone company wanted us not listening in to each other’s calls, they wouldn’t have done it that way. Because when you’re standing there, in the socks you’ve just skidded to a stop in, beside the telephone… Well, you made the effort, didn’t you? Might as well pick up, carefully and quietly, to hear whether Mrs Prentis down the road has found out about her cheating husband yet.
My sister and I did this here and there. We learned the technique from our mother, a shameless gossip. What you do is hold the metal lever down as you pick up the receiver, then slowly release the leaver while you breathe as quietly as you can. If you do it right, there will be no click, and the people on the call won’t notice someone else is listening in.
The first time I can remember of something being not quite right on the phone was when I was about eight. My mother had done the sprint into the hallway. We watched her from the kitchen as she realised the ring wasn’t for us, then did the sneaky pick-up anyway. My younger sister, Marne, and I shared a look, then tiptoed up the hallway to try to glean some idea of the conversation by watching our mom.
For several moments, mom’s face gave nothing away. She was just listening as though trying to work out whether she cared enough to stay on the line. Then, I’ll never forget it: her face completely drained of colour. Until that point, I’d never seen my mom look like that. She spun around and hung the phone up abruptly. Though we asked, she didn’t tell us what she’d heard.
That night, I heard her talking to dad.
‘The place is a health hazard, Bert!’ she complained over her darning. ‘We’re just going to let that be?’
Dad was smoking his pipe. He pulled it from between his lips and let the mouthpiece rest on his chin.
‘It’s their house,’ he said calmly. ‘They just want to be left alone.’
Right then, with an ‘Oh – Fiona Elizabeth Marshall!’ I was noticed out of bed and listening in, and was soundly marched back to my bedroom. My sister Marne and I worked out a probable answer for who they were talking about, though.
The Nesbitt brothers, down the road, were the oddballs of the street. You just about never saw them out of the house, and if you did it was the older brother, who had to be about as old as my grandparents, and he never ventured beyond their property. The Nesbitts paid someone to deliver their food, and, though they were on our party line, they were rarely on the phone. The younger brother could’ve died years ago, for all the people of our village saw of him. I’d heard about him, but never seen him.
The Nesbitt place was a big old farmhouse (sans functioning farm) with clapboard siding painted brown and slate grey wooden roof shingles. The Nesbitts’ had been in the area probably before anyone else, and it had long been the village’s assumption that they didn’t like having neighbours. If you knocked on their door to invite the brothers to anything, they wouldn’t answer. And if you stayed too long on their property, the older brother would come out to stare you down.
We weren’t allowed to play near the Nesbitt house. Mom and dad had told us not to bug them. When pushed for why, my mother said it was because she didn’t trust them around kids, and my dad said it was because they wanted to be left alone.
Why my mom considered the house a “health hazard”, though, my sister and I weren’t sure. It wasn’t like it was overrun with animals or there was much junk piled up outside. If the inside was a mess, what did it really matter to neighbours? It wasn’t like anyone was ever allowed inside, and all the curtains were always down.
And what, if anything, the Nesbitt brothers had to do with whatever my mom heard on the phone, Marne and I couldn’t work out. We theorised, back then, that she’d heard over the phone about some massive rat seen crawling in under the Nesbitt house. Mom hated rats. At eight, I thought that explained mom’s face going white and her view that the Nesbitt house was a health hazard.
As we got older, we and the other kids in the village got bored of riding bikes or playing chalk on the driveway. There wasn’t all that much to do for fun out here in the country. So we got mischievous; pushing boundaries.
It was the start of summer, and the first good hot day since school had ended. We were sprawled about, soaked to our skins after a vigorous water fight, when Ben gave us a grin, shouted something about finding a proper opponent to fight, and took off running towards the Nesbitt house.
Marne, me, and Remy raced after him, shouting for him to stop, our wet shoes becoming caked with the mud of street-side dust.
‘What?’ Ben shouted back at us, keeping just out of our reach. ‘What do you think I’m going to do?’
Ben, the oldest kid on the street at twelve and two years older than me, thought he was what amounted to a jokester and a bad boy out here. He danced about, laughing and dodging us.
‘I’m not gonna do anything!’ he laughed, right before he bent down, picked up a rock, and hurled it at the front of the Nesbitt house. It pinged off the clapboard siding.
‘Come on out!’ Ben shouted at the house, as the rest of us stopped dead in our tracks, staring at the house with wide eyes. ‘Hey? Come on out and fight me!’
He scooped up another rock and chucked that at the house as well. This one hit the front door.
Ben was laughing, but he shut up when the door was yanked open and the older Nesbitt brother glowered out.
The four of us took off, sprinting in our wet shoes right back up the street, leaving only dust behind.
A week later, walking with a treat of ice creams and trying to work out what to do with our afternoon, I saw Ben pick up a stick up ahead of us. Marne and Remy, the youngest two of our group, were debating the merits of truth or dare. We were passing the Nesbitt house. I eyed Ben.
‘Don’t Ben,’ I warned, watching him walk towards the Nesbitt house.
He turned to face me, a wide grin on his face, walking backwards.
‘Don’t what?’ he challenged.
‘You know we’re not supposed to!’ I shot back.
Ben pulled a big shrug.
‘So what?’ he said. ‘Maybe I’ll get the ghoul out of the phone line,’ he taunted, changing direction for the barbed wire fence. ‘Bet you anything it comes from old Nesbitt’s house!’
Remy and Marne had gone silent. None of us three were bold enough to follow Ben and try to make him stop when we were this close to the Nesbitt place.
‘What ghoul?’ Marne asked.
Ben hefted his stick, showing off his skinny muscles.
‘Haven’t you heard?’ he said. ‘There’s a ghoul on the phone line – at night it goes OOOOWWWoooohhhh!’ Ben wiggled ghoulish fingers at us around his ice cream cone. ‘OOOWWWoooohhhh – all night long through the phone.’
‘That’s just the wind making the wires move,’ she said, crossing her arms.
Ben shrugged again, took a lick of his ice cream, and, right beside the barbed wire fence now, lifted his stick. He brought it down, hard, on the top wire. It made the fence posts shake.
‘Ben, don’t!’ Remy cried, backing away. She shot a look up at the Nesbitt house, looming above us. ‘My mom says they steal children!’
Ben laughed, and brought the stick down on the wire again. A fence post wobbled, not well seated in the ground. Ben did it again as we all shouted for him to stop. It was Remy who noticed the older Nesbitt first. Her eyes went huge and she pointed. I followed her finger just in time to see the old man pull back an arm, and then a stone was flying right at us.
It didn’t hit us, but it freaked us out. Remy screamed, Ben chucked the stick aside in a panic and got snagged on the barbs as he tried to flee, Marne tripped over, and I started squealing like a terrified pig.
The old man, his face pulled into a horrible scowl – gaunt and mean – didn’t say a word. But he did hurl another stone at us as we panicked, Remy and Ben racing off, me trying to drag Marne along.
Needless to say, we all lost our ice creams to the dusty road. Ben had a cut on his arm, Marne’s knees were skinned, and that was enough damage for our parents.
All four of us were grounded, and very – very – banned from going near the Nesbitt house.
It wasn’t so bad for Marne and me. We were only 18 months apart in age, and we were good at playing together. Remy had it worse. She was about Marne’s age, just a little older, and her siblings were two toddler brothers, twins, who annoyed her to the end of the world. And none of us girls were talking to Ben right then, for reasons I’m sure you can guess.
That’s when we first started really using the phone. Our grounding didn’t extend to denial of phone privileges – I don’t think our parents had thought of that punishment yet. And it didn’t cost them anything.
You see, one thing the phone company probably hadn’t wanted included in the party line design was the ability to talk to our neighbours free of charge. We were all on the same line. All you needed was to know your neighbour’s ring, and you could crank it out yourself, bypassing the operator.
Remy wanted to chat every day, often twice a day. It only started to bug the adults on the street when they wanted to use the phone and we were on the line. Mrs Prentis up the road and Mr Abercrombie got pretty used to telling us to get off. So we’d apologise, hang up, and, following etiquette, give the line a single short crank, letting the other houses know the line was clear.
It was in those two weeks we were grounded that we started to notice there really was something weird on the phone line. The ghoul sounds Ben had mocked at us did just sound like the wind playing with the exposed barbed wires that were used as telephone lines. That wasn’t what we heard, anyway.
The first time I heard something odd on the phone was picking it up to call Remy in the middle of the day. I hadn’t heard it ring since hours before, earlier that morning, when Mrs Prentis, according to mom, had learned that her tubal ligation was scheduled for tomorrow (like I said, ma was a shameless gossip). Mrs Prentis had done the short crank to let us know her call was finished, and no one else had cranked to call the operator. So I’d thought the line was completely clear when I picked up the receiver.
The moment I put the receiver to my ear, though, I heard quiet talking. It didn’t quite sound like a phone conversation – not a normal one at least:
‘I gave you your warning then. But you gave it yourself a thousand times before and since. Every bad word that you said—every cruel and mean thing that you did—every time that you got tipsy—every day that you went dirty—you were disobeying me, whether you knew it or not.’
Huh? I thought. Breathing quietly, I listened on. It was a woman’s voice, no one responding to her, paced as though she was reading a story aloud – but the story didn’t make much sense. It wasn’t just the convoluted language. The woman seemed to jump around to different parts of some strange novel, going from whatever I’d first heard, to a person, Tom, who was eager to help a man called Grimes, to a description of Grimes stuck in a chimney being battered by hail that was really his mother’s tears… and some person called Mrs Be-Done-By-As-You-Did…
And the voice of the woman reading was weird. All voices are tinny over the phone, especially when some of your phone lines are barbed wire fences, but this one sounded… Well, I suppose the best way to describe it is that it sounded like when someone talks to you under water, just clearer than that usually is, and not involving any bubbles.
I kept on listening, just getting more and more confused. What in the world was I listening to? And why was I hearing it over the phone? A grandmother telling a grandkid far away a story, maybe? Only the woman’s voice didn’t sound like an old person’s, there were no noises from anyone else on the line, and this story… wasn’t what I thought kids should listen to. I was a kid – ten years old – and this story was buckets of nuts.
For who the woman might be… She didn’t sound like anyone I knew on the street, or in the village. I’d never heard her voice before.
‘Fiona?’ Marne called from upstairs, her feet pounding down to join me in the hallway. ‘You got onto Remy yet?’
Instinctively, I hung up the phone. Back then, the instinct was the result of many previous experiences with telephone eavesdropping: I didn’t want the woman to know I was listening in. Especially not by her hearing Marne call my name.
Marne had reminded me of why I’d picked up the phone in the first place. I told her we should leave it for a while before calling Remy, as someone was on the line. And then I told her all about the weird story and the woman.
That first time I wasn’t actually scared, I don’t think, of what I’d heard. Weirded out, but not scared so much.
Mom wasn’t usually secretive over the phone, so when Marne and I heard her speaking quietly in the hallway downstairs a couple days later, we snuck to the landing at the top of the stairs to listen in. We hadn’t heard a ring, so we assumed mom had rang out to the operator.
‘I don’t care who looks after him!’ she hissed over the phone, keeping her voice low. ‘That man threw rocks at my children!’
Marne and I could just see mom if we peeked past the bannisters. She had an elbow on the little wooden ledge the phone had for writing things down, the receiver to her ear. The fingers of her other hand played in her hair, fidgeting as she listened to the response.
‘Oh that’s ridiculous!’ mom griped, starting to forget she was trying to keep her voice down. ‘What – are they paying the police station? Giving you guys a bonus for leaving them be? You’re truly telling me you’re not going to follow up? He threw rocks at children!’
Mom listened to the person on the other end of the line, but she didn’t like what she was hearing. She made irritated noises and clicked her tongue. Her fingers started drumming on the wooden side of the telephone.
I shared a look with Marne. We hadn’t known mom had reported the incident to the police.
As mom wasn’t trying to keep her voice down so much anymore, Marne and I stopped trying to hide. We went down to stand in the hallway with mom. She shot a look at us, but just clenched her jaw and went back to focusing on what the police officer was saying.
‘Would you like,’ mom said sweetly, after a moment, ‘my husband to call you instead?’
Marne and I grimaced. We’d known mom to do that voice before. It meant she was furious and Mr Prentis had better move his fence back onto what was actually his property before steam started pouring out of mom’s ears.
The police officer’s response was obviously even less to mom’s taste than the previous had been. We watched her cheeks hollow and her eyes flash.
‘You can doubt my word all you like!’ she shouted down the line. ‘But don’t you dare suggest my children are lying!’
I waited for a proper haranguing. My ten-year-old heart both kinda loved and was kinda terrified by the idea of mom turning that sort of telling-off on a police officer.
But mom didn’t. Instead, she startled, pulled the receiver away, frowned at it, then pressed it back to her ear.
‘Hello?’ she said, testy. ‘Hello?’ Her lips pressed together. ‘If you’ve hung up on –‘
She didn’t finish her sentence. For the second time in my life, I watched mom’s face drain of colour.
It was a strange thing for me, the child, to see. In our house mom’s rule was absolute, and her ire was the disciplinary force that kept Marne and me in line – along with any neighbours that trod on mom’s toes. Mom was never done with her anger until she’d reached a satisfactory result from it. The only person I’d ever known who could mellow that anger just a bit was dad. Yet, as far as I’d seen, no one – not even dad – had ever stopped mom’s ire in its tracks quite like this.
But whatever mom had heard over the phone, it evaporated her anger on the spot, and turned her face pale. Her mouth pressed tightly shut, she hung up the phone without a word, and wouldn’t tell us, despite our pressuring, what she’d heard.
I picked up the receiver once mom had busied herself weeding the vegetable garden. The woman was there again, on the phone, and she seemed to be reading from the same book:
‘“Keep a civil tongue, and attend!” said the truncheon; and popped up just like Punch, hitting Grimes such a crack over the head with itself, that his brains rattled inside like a dried walnut in its shell. He tried to get his hands out, and rub the place, but he could not, for they were stuck fast in the chimney.’
I listened on a short while longer, trying to make sense of what I was hearing, but it was as nonsensical as last time. Just as I was about to hang up, not sure I wanted to hear this, the woman’s voice got louder.
‘You knew well enough that you were disobeying something,’ she said menacingly – and like she knew I was there and was talking straight to me, ‘though you did not know it was me!’
A little shaky, I hung up the receiver as quietly as I’d picked it up.
Though Marne and I were on the phone with Remy a good few times over the next several days, I didn’t hear the woman on those occasions. The next time I did hear her was worse.
Marne, Remy, and I had arranged to have a call at eleven at night. It was after our parents would be in bed, and we could all sneak down to our telephones to tell each other ghost stories in what was, to us then, the dead of night. We’d arranged the time in an earlier phone call, so that me and Marne, and Remy in her house, could just pick up the phone and talk to each other without sending out a ring that would wake people up or, worse, alert our parents to the fact that we were up and out of bed.
Trying to not make a sound, Marne and I tip-toed out of our rooms and down the stairs. We didn’t turn on any lights, standing by the big wooden phone in the hallway in the complete dark.
I picked up the receiver, found the line unsurprisingly quiet, and whispered, ‘Remy? You there?’
She was, as she giggled on the other end, then gushed about how excited she was to do this. We spent a bit of time, Marne and me standing with the receiver between our heads, sniggering over how cleverly we’d fooled our parents by pretending to go to sleep, before getting down to it. Me, the oldest, was the one expected to be the first with a story.
‘You heard the one about the dollhouse in the attic?’ I murmured.
Marne had, but she grinned and didn’t speak up, happy to hear it again in the dark and silent house. Remy hadn’t. Evoking my most spooky voice, I told the story of the dolls. I got into it, enjoying Marne’s fingers digging into my arm and Remy’s gasps of fear and horror. The story wasn’t without spooked giggles. There’s a thrilling pleasure in sharing scary stories, as kids, in the middle of the night.
‘And then?’ Remy hissed over the phone when I left a dramatic pause near the end of the story. ‘What happened?’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘no one ever lived in that house again. A couple people tried. People who hadn’t heard the…‘
I trailed off. There was a new sound on the line. It began with a very distant voice, then a sound like waves in the sea. I fell silent, listening, as the strange voice got louder.
‘…and he is now a great man of science, and can plan railroads, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth; and knows everything about everything…’
Marne cast me a wide-eyed look, her eyes gleaming in her shadowed face.
‘What?’ I heard Remy whisper over the line. I didn’t respond. Marne and I had mentioned the weird voice on the line to Remy. She stayed silent after her question.
‘And one night, when all the other children were asleep, and Tom could not sleep for thinking of lollipops, he crept away among the rocks, and got to the cabinet, and behold, it was open…
‘…And began gobbling them down so fast that he did not taste them, or have any pleasure in them; and then he felt sick, and would have only one more; and then only one more again; and so on till he had eaten them all up…’
Marne and I were listening in close. We shared a look of eyes wide and stunned.
‘…And Tom looked at himself, and he was all over prickles, just like a sea-egg,’ the woman’s voice carried on, reciting the strangest of bedtime stories over the phone in the middle of the night. ‘Which was quite natural, for you must know and believe that people’s souls make their bodies just as a snail makes its shell. And therefore, when Tom’s soul grew all prickly with naughty tempers, his body could not help growing prickly, too, so that nobody would cuddle him, or play with him, or even like to look at him…
I started. The woman’s voice shouting out my name, as I was standing in the dark corridor in my pyjamas, made my blood turn to ice. But I managed to keep silent.
‘Fiona!’ the woman’s voice repeated, as though speaking straight at me. ‘I know you’re there!’
Marne had started tugging at my sleeve. I shook where I stood, my mouth opening and closing without sound.
‘Fiona!’ the woman’s voice hissed, furious. ‘You’ll grow prickles just like Tom! Up and out of bed and a heartless gossip just like your moth–‘
I didn’t wait to hear the end of it. Like the receiver was burning in my hand, standing there with Marne breathing fast beside me, I hung up.
Though Marne, Remy, and I talked about it, none of us knew who the woman was. Her voice was a mystery to all of us. That may not sound odd to those of you who live in bigger towns and cities, but out in that small country village, everyone knew everyone, and if we didn’t recognise the voice on the party line, that was something strange.
Part 2: Like Grimes was Set to Sweep a Crater of Ash
Thankfully, our grounding was up a day later. For the rest of the summer, we had no need to use the phone. Nor did we have much need to for a while after that. Which I was glad for, because the phone had freaked me out, and I didn’t want to pick up that receiver again for a while.
But, as time does, it dwindled my fear. Not hearing her again for a while, I largely forgot about the woman on the phone by the next year, then the one after that.
I did notice, though, that the parents in our town, including my mother, used the phone less after that, then less again around the time Mrs Prentis did finally find out her husband was cheating on her. She stayed with him, but where my older memories of my mother with juicy gossip would place her in the hallway having a good chat with her friends in the village over the phone, she no longer did that. Instead, she’d stand in groups with her friends, telling them what she knew face-to-face. Gossip, I learned over those years, was best shared in person. Never over the phone.
Nothing came of my mother’s police call. Two years later, though, the older Mr Nesbitt reportedly tried to hit a kid. We suspected it was, as you too might suspect, Ben. It was around that time that Mrs Prentis finally learned about her husband’s cheating, and around that time that the parents completely stopped making any phone calls but those that were completely necessary and, preferably, impersonal.
For why, Marne, Remy, and I guessed.
‘It was the woman on the phone line who told her,’ Remy told Marne and me in hushed tones the weekend after the news about Mrs Prentis had broken. ‘My mom told me…’ Remy looked around, as though scared someone may be listening in. We were sitting in a circle in Remy’s garden. No one was near. ‘Mom told me,’ Remy began again, keeping her voice quiet, ‘Mrs Prentis was on the telephone when the woman cut in and said Mr Prentis was… you know, with that lady from the dentist’s over in Renwick.’
We sat in silence for a long moment, Marne and me absorbing the new information, Remy nodding as though she knew exactly what we were thinking.
‘How would she know?’ Remy hissed.
That was the salient question. How would the mysterious voice on the phone line know? For the past two years, I’d been thinking I’d imagined the woman. Yet, just like she’d known my name that night we’d been out of bed late to share scary stories, the woman had known about Mr Prentis.
‘She listens in,’ I whispered back. ‘She’s a gossip just like everyone else. She heard it over the phone line. That’s how she knew my name – she heard Marne call me it.’
‘But she told you off for being a gossip,’ Remy pointed out. ‘Remember?’
I did. And it annoyed me.
‘Well she’s a hypocrite,’ I said.
‘I thought…’ Marne said slowly. ‘I thought she’d gone? We haven’t heard her for ages.’
‘She’s back,’ Remy hissed, spooked. ‘Haven’t you heard the parents talking about it?’
We hadn’t. We had, though, been warned off listening in on the phone by our mother. It had rung for Mr Abercrombie’s house about a week ago, and mom had snapped at Marne and me to not pick up.
‘She’s been back just over a week!’ said Remy.
Just over a week… I put it together later that just over a week before had been when the older Mr Nesbitt had tried to hit Ben. Just over a week before, on a rainy day that kept us inside, was also the last time I ever saw my mother gossiping over the phone, condemning the Nesbitts.
‘But…’ Marne was frowning hard. ‘Who is she?’
No one knew. Our party line only served our street. And we knew everyone on the street.
Who the woman was became a hushed topic of conversation. But, like fear, time diminishes intrigue. Mrs Prentis got on with her life, and so did the rest of us. Though I didn’t forget about it again, for a time the woman’s voice on the party line just became a thing. A thing that made you hang up the phone if you heard her, tell your friends about it, and then get back on with your life.
Because this time, the voice on the party line didn’t go completely silent. Every once in a while I’d hear the woman on the phone, reading out her strange story. It was a rare occurrence, and, thankfully, the woman didn’t address me in person on those occasions.
The only creepy time I remember from then, hearing the woman on the phone, was when I picked up the receiver right after someone had done the short ring to let us know the line was clear. I picked up, and when I put the receiver to my ear, I heard the most inhuman laugh. It was like a cackle over the ocean, long, drawn out – distant but right there in my ear. The woman didn’t read or recite anything. She just laughed and laughed, until I hung up the phone.
Marne, Remy, and I saw less and less of Ben over the years. First it was because he’d gotten us grounded, then it was because he went away to board at a high school in the big town. There was a small primary school in our village, but no high school. The same fate, thus, faced me, the summer after my fourteenth birthday. I felt I had only the summer before I wasn’t a kid anymore – before my entire life changed and I’d have to board away from home and make new friends, only seeing Marne and Remy when I came home for weekends and holidays. Maybe that doesn’t sound like such a big change, but to my fourteen year old self, it was massive.
I think that was why I wanted to spend a bit more time with Ben when he first came home for the summer. To get a sense of high school – or, maybe, to try to make myself feel like the big teenager I was supposed to be.
Ben, though, wasn’t someone I found easy to like, and Marne and Remy liked him even less. He still thought he was “the shit”, and, as the loudest and most confident sixteen year old in our village, a lot of kids treated him like it. For about a week, just chatting to him casually here and there if I saw him on the street or was hanging around while he played soccer with the boys in the village, it was as though I could think I liked him while I was with him, agreeing with whatever blustery opinion he had and laughing at his jokes. Then, going back to hanging out with Remy and Marne, it was like I shifted back into the me I was familiar with.
But I kept at it, spending time with Ben, up until an afternoon when I’d gone with him to get milkshakes in the village. He’d invited me, and, flattered and wondering if I had a crush on him, I’d agreed. Remy and Marne hadn’t wanted to come, so Ben and I set off together, my young self wondering if this counted as a date – you know, that thing big teenagers did.
We chatted about everything Ben wanted to talk about for the entire walk to Mr Jones’s café, and all the way back. Nearing the Nesbitt house, I noticed Ben eyeing it. He had a gleam in his eye that looked like he so wanted to pick a fight with the old man.
‘Yeah,’ I said, agreeing with Ben’s latest opinion. I spoke louder and more emphatically as he continued to eye the Nesbitt house, hoping to distract him. ‘It is stupid that they make you play sports you don’t want to at school. It should just be soccer and basketball – no one likes lacrosse.’
It was really just me parroting what he’d been banging on about. But, despite me giving him exactly the response he’d want me to, Ben didn’t acknowledge it. He didn’t even nod.
‘They shouldn’t be allowed to live here,’ he said instead, his stare at the Nesbitt house getting dark. ‘They’re criminals. The people here are just such pussies they won’t drive them out of town.’
And, before I could work out a response, Ben was charging up to the house.
‘Come out Nesbitt!’ he shouted. ‘You’re a – a fucking criminal!’
The profanity – a big no-no in my house – startled me. What Ben said next startled me more.
‘YOU KILLED YOUR OWN MOTHER!’ Ben yelled at the house. ‘MURDERER! EVERYONE KNOWS IT! YOU CAN’T HIDE IN THERE FOREVER MURDERER!’
I hadn’t heard that gossip. The whole thing made me uncomfortable. It was right then and there that I realised I didn’t want to continue agreeing with every one of Ben’s opinions. Not because I wanted to defend old Nesbitt, but just because murder was a level of dark well beyond the old man throwing rocks at us. When Ben grabbed a stick and stormed up the porch stairs to the Nesbitt’s front door, I took off, running headlong for home.
When I got there, I told Marne and Remy about the whole thing, gushing it in breathless gasps. Remy hurried to the door to look out and up the road toward the Nesbitt house. Marne and I hung back, my heart pounding and Marne’s eyes wide.
‘It’s okay!’ Remy hissed a moment later. ‘Ben’s just walking away!’ She gasped a second later as the sound of shattering glass reached our ears. Marne and I rushed over to join her peeking out. ‘He threw the stick at the window!’ Remy cried, pointing.
She was right. Ben had paused some paces away from the house. One of the side windows of the Nesbitt house was in shards. We stared as the front door slammed open and the older Mr Nesbitt came storming out, a shotgun in his hands. Ben turned on his heel and ran.
It was a big deal. We heard Ben got in big trouble for that, and the rumour was Mr Nesbitt had even called the cops on him. I didn’t say anything to anyone but Marne and Remy about having been there. I didn’t want to get grounded on my last summer before high school.
Neither Remy nor Marne had heard any rumour about the Nesbitts killing their mother. In fact, none of us had ever heard anything at all about their mother. As far as we were aware, it was just the two Nesbitt brothers, who’d lived there, it seemed, since the dawn of time.
I took the chance, the next morning as I helped dad load hay onto the wagon, to ask him. Out of him and mom, it was dad who might actually tell me.
‘Dad…’ I said cautiously, dusting my hands on my shorts, ‘you know the Nesbitt brothers?’
Dad’s expression didn’t change. It was like his neutral look got stuck on his face. He didn’t respond straight away. He grabbed the hay bale I’d dragged over and threw it up onto the wagon.
‘Get up there and shift ‘em,’ he said to me.
I wanted to ask again, though I was sure he had heard. Keeping my mouth shut, I hopped up onto the wagon and dragged the hay bale he’d tossed onto it into position. I worked in silence, shifting the next bale into place, then the next, before dad finally spoke again.
‘You leave ‘em alone, you hear?’ Dad said, his blue eyes stern, looking up at me. ‘The Nesbitt brothers want to be left alone.’
I’d never done anything to them. I had left them alone. I didn’t speak that defence aloud – parents never listened anyway – but I thought it angrily.
Another two bales of hay before, swallowing my anger, I dared to try again.
‘Ben said they killed their mother…’
Now dad’s eyes flashed. He gave me that blue-eyed stare again, like I shouldn’t be talking about it and I was naughty to do so.
He looked away, grunting as he hefted the latest bale onto the wagon.
‘That Ben will get himself into big trouble one of these days,’ he said.
My jaw clenched. I felt shut down and summarily silenced. But dad didn’t leave it there. He stood straight and stretched his back.
‘Their mother died of old age,’ he told me. ‘She was in her nineties. They buried her in the plot behind their house ‘bout twenty years ago. John Faver might think they killed her, but John Faver is an angry drunk.’
John Faver was Ben’s dad. It was a revelation to me. I’d heard John Faver be called similar things over the years, but it was always hushed and beating around the bush. Dad had said it like it was fact. And it made me feel like he’d tell me more.
‘So you… know the brothers?’ I asked.
Dad considered me. He bent and hauled the next bale over.
‘My father knew the brothers,’ he said. ‘I’m not that old, chicken.’
The pet name put me at ease. Dad didn’t often use it, but when he did he was being fun.
‘Why do they hide away, then?’ I pressed. ‘Did they ever come out?’
Dad took a second to decide, tossing the bale up to me, then answered, ‘They did, a long time ago. They were boys in this village once.’
Dad rubbed his nose, getting the hay dust out of it.
‘The younger brother,’ he went on, ‘was born a cripple. People weren’t kind to him – even his own father saw him as a blight on the household. He could barely walk. They hid him away in the house and the mother tried to shield him. When she died, the older brother took over, protecting him in that house.’
‘Oh…’ It was all I could think of to say. It made Ben’s actions seem even more reprehensible, learning that.
‘So leave ‘em alone,’ dad repeated, with finality.
I agreed in a silent nod. I’d avoid Ben as well.
‘Now move it,’ dad said, gesturing to the hay bale by my feet, ‘or the cows will have nothing to eat.’
I eyed the Nesbitt house, visible from our north paddock, on my walk over sunburnt grass and dust back to the house. I could just see, right behind the house, a small family burial plot. There were about six headstones in it.
‘Do you think the younger brother’s still alive?’ Remy asked when I told her and Marne what dad had said. ‘No one’s seen him for ages!’
I shrugged. That didn’t necessarily mean he’d died, if he’d been hidden away for decades. But I supposed no one would know if he had died.
The mysterious Nesbitt brothers faded into the background as mutters about the voice on the phone line started up again. We saw mom hang the phone up hastily when she went to listen in on a neighbour’s conversation later that day, and that gave us the first warning the woman on the phone was back.
The party line saw more use over the next couple days. We heard it from Remy, whose mother was more open with telling her stuff, that Ben’s parents had told the police about Mr Nesbitt pulling a gun on him. Mr and Mrs Faver were furious about it.
I did the sneaky pick up once when I heard a call come in for the Favers’ house.
‘It’s destruction of property, Mr Faver,’ a man I assumed was a police officer was saying. ‘Your son’s not clear of –‘
‘Destruction of property?’ Mr Faver blustered, cutting the officer off. ‘The old coot pulled a gun on him! What’s the greater crime here, I ask you!’
‘The gun wasn’t fired,’ the officer said patiently. ‘You testified to that.’
‘Oh – well –‘ Mr Faver spluttered. ‘That what you want to wait for? For a kid to get shot? The bastard’s got a rap sheet a mile long of attackin’ kids – he’s more than capable of it! And what do you lot do abou–‘
Mr Faver broke off. I heard why. The hairs all over my body stood, abruptly, to attention. Distant but getting louder, cackling along the phone line, was the chilling laugh of a furious woman.
‘John Faver!’ she shrieked, the sound ringing in my ear. ‘You miserable drunk! You’ll go down like Grimes and nothing to save you!’ she warned, her voice dropping low and menacing. ‘Pain forever more – and your son with you! The pain of all those you’ve harmed, come back to haunt you!’
I heard Mr Faver blustering, whatever he was trying to say inarticulate as the woman began cackling again.
‘This is a private phone call, ma’am,’ the police officer tried. ‘I must ask you…’ But his words were drowned out as the woman cackled louder.
‘Like Grimes was set to sweep a crater of ash,’ the woman warned, her laughs dying away, ‘you, John Faver, will spend forevermore shovelling the shit of a thousand cows – for you cannot be redeemed. And the tears of your poor wife will batter your head with hail!’
‘Oh – well –‘ Mr Faver stuttered. He didn’t go any further. I heard the loud clunk of him hanging up his phone. He didn’t give a short crank to indicate the line was clear. A moment later, I heard the police officer hang up as well.
I stayed on the line, though I was covered in goosebumps; my breathing coming in tiny, silent pants. I wanted to hear. My curiosity was bad enough for that. I did not, however, want to be heard by the woman.
There was a beat of silence, then the woman’s voice started up again.
‘“Get him to sweep out the crater of Etna,’ she said, no longer warning, but as though she was reading that weird story again. ‘He will find some very steady men working out their time there, who will teach him his business. But mind, if that crater gets choked again, and there is an earthquake in consequence, bring them all to me, and I shall investigate the case very severely.”
‘So the truncheon marched off Mr. Grimes, looking as meek as a drowned worm.
‘And for aught I know, or do not know, he is sweeping the crater of Etna to this very day.’
I’d thought I was spooked enough. But as the woman trailed off from her recitation of some strange story another mysterious voice became audible on the line. It was a laugh, filled with glee, high-pitched, and sounding like a child. The small child laughed and laughed, until, shaken, I very carefully hung up the receiver.
A few days later, Remy broke the news to Marne and me that she and her little brothers were being sent to visit with their grandparents in Renwick for a couple weeks. It was a small thing, something Remy and her brothers had done a few times over the years, but in my last summer before I had to go away to high school, it seemed like a devastating blow to not have her around when all I wanted was to hang on to the normalcy I’d known for fourteen years.
‘We’ll talk on the phone,’ Remy promised me. ‘Every day!’
I nodded. I knew, though, that we wouldn’t be able to talk as long as usual. Calls did cost money when they weren’t over the same party line.
‘So long as she’s not on the line…’ Marne said, less optimistically. It made Remy’s eyes grow wide. She agreed with the sort of unsettled reverence the voice on the phone line had earned.
We’d already discussed the child I’d heard laughing. The only children on the street that were about the same age as the laughing kid had sounded were Remy’s two six year old brothers. Remy had sworn to us, without a shadow of a doubt, that they hadn’t been on the phone at the time I’d heard the child’s laugh.
A week later, Remy and her brothers left for Renwick. Remy was true to her word. She called us the first day, and we found enough to chat about that we still had more to say when her grandparents told her she needed to hang up before it got too expensive.
That first time, the woman wasn’t on the line. It was Marne’s and my turn to call Remy the next day. As the older one, I took point to call the operator, Remy’s grandparents’ telephone number written down and propped on the phone’s writing ledge before me. We hadn’t heard any incoming or outgoing calls, but I still picked the phone up cautiously, listening hard in case the phone line was occupied.
It was. She was there. I shot Marne a look. She took it with lips she sucked in and tiptoed towards me to hear as well.
‘…“You may take him home with you now on Sundays, Ellie. He has won his spurs in the great battle, and become fit to go with you and be a man; because he has done the thing he did not like.”’
Marne was the taller sister, already my height though younger. We stood head to head with the phone receiver between our ears, listening silently.
‘So Tom went home with Ellie on Sundays,’ the woman carried on, ‘and sometimes on weekdays, too. And he is now a great man of science, and can plan railroads, and steam-engines, and electric telegraphs, and rifled guns, and so forth; and knows everything about everything, except why a hen’s egg don’t turn into a crocodile, and two or three other little things which no one will know till the coming of the Cocqcigrues. And all this from what he learnt when he was a water baby, underneath the sea.’
It was a longer form of the bit I’d heard the voice recite over the party line before. Hearing more of it didn’t make it any less nonsensical, though.
‘“And of course Tom married Ellie?”
‘My dear child, what a silly notion!’ the woman recited emphatically, as though giving a punchline. ‘Don’t you know that no one ever marries in a fairy tale, under the rank of a prince or a princess?’
The laugh, pure and innocent, of a child took over the line, tinkling suddenly through wires to our ears like some eerie ghost child. The child found it hilarious, laughing and laughing without reserve in that way delighted little kids do. After a moment, the woman chuckled with them. Marne and I exchanged a wide-eyed look. The hairs on my neck rose.
The child stopped laughing.
‘Like Tom!’ he said, excited. His voice sounded just as odd as the woman’s – like a voice coming from far away and under water. ‘I’m like Tom!’
‘Yes you are, Reggie,’ the woman’s voice responded, smooth and reassuring. ‘Yes you are my sweet. You’re a water baby now, just like Tom. And you will be reborn – bright and beautiful onto the land!’
The woman gave us a moment, as the child laughed with delight, to try to process this new development.
Then, her tone sing-song, she called, ‘Fiona.’
I nearly jumped out of my skin. Marne gripped my arm hard, her fingernails biting into my skin.
‘Fiona,’ the woman sang again. ‘I know you’re there, listening in. Have you no shame!’
I just about tossed the receiver onto the phone, hanging it up with haste and dancing away from the old wooden telephone, jittering from head to toe; Marne staring at me, her eyes huge.
Part 3: A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby
Marne and I talked about it. We came to the conclusion we were sure the little boy we’d heard wasn’t one of Remy’s little brothers. They weren’t even nearby. They were miles away, in the big town. There was no way either of them could be there on our party line with the woman. It didn’t sound like either of them either. And that left no one else on the street who could be the new voice on the telephone line.
Not to mention, we knew no one, child or otherwise, called Reggie.
We did wonder whether the child could be on another line, somewhere else. Maybe the first time I’d heard the kid it could have been a child at the police station who’d picked up an extension. The second time, though, there was no call to or from the police station. We hadn’t heard a single incoming or outgoing call that day.
We didn’t mention it over the phone to Remy. When Marne, taking over, called Remy later that day – once we’d gotten up the courage to try again – we kept our conversation to light topics. Just in case she was listening in.
And she was on the phone a lot over those two weeks Remy was away. I always did the sneaky pick up now, even when Marne and I were calling out. So I could hear if the woman was on the line, and hang up immediately if she was. It wasn’t a perfect system, however:
‘Went to see my aunt and uncle today,’ Remy was saying over the line. ‘My aunt makes the best meringue…’
She trailed off, and the three of us shut our mouths as the woman’s voice drifted into the conversation.
‘…Ah, now comes the most wonderful part of this wonderful story. Tom, when he woke, for of course he woke—children always wake after they have slept exactly as long as is good for them—found himself swimming about in the stream –‘
There was an ‘Ooohhh….’ from young Reggie, like he was pleased to be reaching the good part of the story.
‘…being about four inches,’ the woman’s voice carried on, ‘or—that I may be accurate—3.87902 inches long and having round the parotid region of his fauces a set of external gills… I hope you understand all the big words… just like those of a sucking eft…’
Marne and I heard the click of Remy hanging up the phone. Shivery and far from interested in being condemned for listening in by the woman – even if it was she who’d hijacked our call – I followed suit.
Wary of the voices on the phone line and with only two days until Remy was back, Marne and I didn’t call her the next day. We spent the time we would have called crouched down behind a bench on our front porch, watching what unfolded out the front of the Nesbitt house.
It was Ben’s shouting that had had us coming out to look. We watched him stomp up to the Nesbitt house, a rock, bigger than the ones he’d thrown in the past, in his hand. He was acting like a madman, screaming about the Nesbitts being criminals – about how they should be run out of the village. And then he threw the rock right through one of the Nesbitts’ front windows.
Marne and I gasped and ducked down behind the bench. We peeked back up to see Ben heft another rock. He aimed that one at another window. The window fell in shattering shards around the foundations of the old brown farmhouse.
And then the older Mr Nesbitt came out. With bated breath, Marne and I stared, seeing Ben yelling, the front door slamming open, and the gun being raised in Mr Nesbitt’s hands –
‘What?’ Ben yelled. ‘You gonna shoot me, bastard?’ He spread his arms like he was making himself a target. ‘YOU’RE THE CRIMINAL – THINK YOU CAN LOCK ME AWAY? WHAT’D I DO TO YOU? BASTARD! MURDERER!’
‘He’s gone mad!’ Marne hissed, wide-eyed to me. ‘What –‘
But I shushed her, staring – sure I was about to see Ben be hit by rabbit shot. The adults were coming now. I could hear my dad’s shouting from the field – could see him come running. Mrs Faver, shoving out of her front door, was screeching for her husband.
There was the cock of the gun, maybe more imagined by me than heard. I did hear the gunshot though, the sound ricocheting off all the house fronts in the street. Marne and I gasped. I slapped my hands to my mouth.
‘You stay away!’ a voice I’d never heard before screamed, old and croaky, sounding shredded by the loudness of his own voice. Mr Nesbitt prepped the gun again, and another shot rang out. ‘Stay away!’ he screamed a second time.
Marne and I had ducked right down behind the bench. My hands shaking, I eased up slowly to look, the silence in the wake of the gunshot making my ears ring.
Mr Nesbitt was lowering the gun. His face gaunt and pale, he glowered out for a second, before retreating to his front door and slamming it shut.
With wary eyes – my hands gripping the seat cushion of the bench – I lowered my gaze. Ben was there, and I didn’t see any blood. But he was on his backside on the street – his mother running out to him, my father hurrying up the road.
It was a whirlwind of sound in the street, my father barking out orders, Mrs Faver wailing – shrieking hysterically at her husband, who’d appeared on their doorstep: telling him how useless he was – how it was all his fault. And then Ben started blubbering.
Our mother dragged Marne and me back inside. Sat us in the kitchen with tea and strict orders to stay there while she went out into the street.
What exactly happened, Marne and I didn’t learn. Our parents wouldn’t tell us anything more than that Ben would be all right. That he’d caught just one bit of birdshot, and it was fine.
Later that day, a police car drove up the street. The officers spoke to both the Favers, being invited inside, and to Mr Nesbitt on his front porch. They didn’t take either Ben or Mr Nesbitt anywhere, and drove off as the sun started to set.
Mom had forbidden us from answering the telephone, no exceptions, the evening after Mr Nesbitt had fired at Ben. She told us it was because she didn’t want us listening in to other peoples’ conversations right now, while the police were involved. But that didn’t explain why we weren’t even allowed to answer if it was our own house that was being called.
I suspected mom forbidding us had to do with the woman on the phone line. The afternoon before Remy returned, when mom was out in the vegetable garden, I took my chance to see if my suspicion was right. The call had come in for the Nesbitt house. Marne wary beside me, I hurried on tip-toes to do the sneaky pick up and listen in.
‘You discharged your weapon, Ronald,’ the same police officer Mr Faver had shouted at was saying. ‘You’re going to have to come down to the station.’
There was a couple seconds of wheezy breathing, heard over the line, before Mr Nesbitt, his old voice croaky, said, ‘Don’t make me, sir… Please.’
The police officer sighed.
‘I’m sorry Ronald. I know you have carers duties –‘
It was the woman’s voice. I stiffened, Marne watching me for an explanation.
‘Know about caring for family, do you, Officer Kenilworth?’ the woman went on, snide. ‘Better than your father did, I hope!’
There was a small intake of breath, then:
‘I will be in touch, Mr Nesbitt,’ the officer said, and he hung up.
I stayed on the line, Marne moving in to listen with me. I could still hear the older Mr Nesbitt, Ronald, breathing on the line. The woman laughed; a mean cackle.
‘Don’t you worry, Ronnie,’ she said. ‘All will be well.’
‘It’s okay, Ronnie,’ the little boy, Reggie, chipped in. It made Marne grab my arm and hang on. ‘We can both be water babies! Can you do it from the beginning, ma?’
The woman gave a pleased hum.
‘Ah…’ she said, ‘from the beginning…
‘Once upon a time,’ she began, ‘there was a little chimney-sweep, and his name was Tom. That is a short name, and you have heard it before, so you will not have much trouble in remembering it. He lived in a great town in the North country, where there were plenty of chimneys to sweep, and plenty of money for Tom to earn and his master to spend. He could not read nor write, and did not care to do either; and he never washed himself, for there was no water up the court where he lived. He had never been taught to say his prayers…’
While the woman and Reggie’s voice sounded distant and under water, Ronald Nesbitt’s sounded like just a neighbour on the phone. He’d started to cry softly. It took me a moment to realise that’s what he was doing, hearing the soft huffs and sniffs. I got the sense that I shouldn’t be hearing this for reasons other than the naughtiness of snooping. Very carefully, I hung up the receiver.
‘Sorry we didn’t call you!’ Marne apologised as we hurried with Remy into her room. ‘We were worried about her – and then mom forbade us from being on the phone…’
It was the day Remy got back. We were only allowed to see her if we stayed inside, so we’d gone straight over to Remy’s house the moment we saw her dad’s car pull into the driveway.
Remy wasn’t upset with us. She shut her bedroom door and listened, agog, as we told her about Ben and what we’d heard on the phone.
She absorbed what we told her, then shook her head as though getting herself back on track.
‘I’ve got something to show you!’ she said eagerly, hurrying over to the bag she’d taken to her grandparents’. ‘I didn’t want to tell you over the phone either – didn’t want her hearing.’
From her bag, Remy pulled out a book. She beckoned us over, dropping down to her knees beside her bed with the book propped on top of it. On the front cover, set into an illustration of a cherubic naked little boy riding a massive fish underwater, was the title The Water Babies, and, below that, “A Fairy Tale for a Land Baby”.
‘My grandparents had it!’ Remy explained. ‘They read it to my brothers – it’s the story! The one she reads over the phone! Look – here!’
Opening the book and flipping through pages, Remy pointed out the names of Tom and Grimes. She flipped right to the end and showed us, as well, Grimes getting stuck in a chimney and being hit by truncheons.
‘This is it!’ Remy said, turning huge eyes on me. ‘This is what she’s reading!’
Remy let Marne and me take the book home to read. The Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley, is an absurdly long, convoluted, dark, condescending, and tedious Victorian children’s story. It also, rather than really being a nice story about a poor and abused young chimneysweep finding happiness, seems to suggest because little Tom had never had opportunity to have a bath, he must learn how naughty a child he is – but that’s me simplifying with cynicism a tale I hate.
So you never have to read it, I’ll summarise it here:
Young Tom is a poor child chimneysweep who is abused by his master, Mr Grimes – Grimes being a man who drank heavily, beat Tom, and denied him any simple comfort. One day, Tom ends up in a river and becomes a “water baby” who lives in a fairy-tale world underwater, and there he is slowly taught how to be a good boy by two fairies: Mrs Do-As-You-Would-Be-Done-By, and Mrs Be-Done-By-As-You-Did (so you know, they eventually turn out to be the same person).
Tom has many adventures, told by a narrator who repeatedly inserts himself like a patronising guardian into the story, until, at the end of the book, Tom’s last adventure is to help his horrible old master Mr Grimes. Mr Grimes is now in Tom’s water baby fairy-tale land, and he’s facing retribution for all his drinking and misdeeds by being stuck in a chimney, beaten by personified truncheons, and hailed on by his mother’s tears. When Grimes finally gets out of the chimney, it’s to a sentence of unknown duration spent sweeping soot out of a crater.
In the end of the story, young Tom, having started his life so poorly treated and without prospects, has redeemed himself by showing a kind heart and by following the Golden Rule: doing unto others as he would have done unto him. As a result of his time underwater as a water baby, he is returned to the world of the land as a young man who is nothing like how he was born. He is very learned, smart, and simply an all-round perfect person with every prospect imaginable open to him.
The book ends on the line “But remember always, as I told you at first, that this is all a fairy tale, and only fun and pretence: and, therefore, you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true.”
There was no doubt The Water Babies was the book the woman’s voice had been reading over the telephone. It wasn’t just that Tom and Grimes were in the story, and that I’d heard her mention the water babies. Whole passages I read in the book, from the very start of it, were ones I’d heard recited word-for-word over the phone line.
Despite our distaste for the story, Marne and I read voraciously. The story kept me awake at night over the two days we read through it, my mind churning over what I’d read and everything I’d heard the voice on the phone say over the past four years. The theme of being punished for anything you did wrong… my angry young brain comparing and finding equivalent the punishment Grimes received for how horribly he’d abused Tom to Tom’s punishment for small things like when he, having never had sweets before, ate all the lollipops…
And that idea, in the book and voiced by the woman on the party line, that becoming a water baby and facing your lessons to learn the Golden Rule can mean you are reborn into the world as a person far better off than the one you were first born as.
And from there, my mind went to the Nesbitts, and the woman’s hypocrisy over listening in on the phone and gossiping. Being young, then, I got lost in annoyance over adults who gave you rules or punished you and never bothered to listen to your views or side of the story.
Marne and Remy got me back on track, though.
‘You said,’ Remy whispered to me as we sat in Marne’s room, the book open beside us, ‘that this… Reggie kid was talking about being like Tom? Like a water baby?’
I nodded. Marne and I had both heard it. She nodded too. I think we both hoped Remy would have a point to make after confirming that, but she didn’t. She just stared thoughtfully at the book.
‘And that…’ Remy said, breaking the ruminating silence, ‘she threatened Mr Faver with a fate like Grimes?’
‘That he’d be shovelling cow dung forever more,’ I confirmed. ‘That he’d never be able to make up for his wrongdoings – I don’t think she threatened him, exactly, though. It was more like she… foretold it.’
Remy and Marne nodded, considering. They were thoughts with no answers, just put out there for us to churn over.
‘I think,’ said Marne, ‘she’s on the phone more after things happen with the Nesbitts. Haven’t you noticed that?’
I had. I’d noticed, too, that as the attitude neighbours had towards the Nesbitts had soured more and more over the years, the woman had been absent less from the phone.
‘Mom says she can hardly get on the phone now without hearing her,’ said Remy. ‘She’s almost always on. And the Nesbitts have never been in more trouble…’
‘What I want to know,’ I said, ‘is where the little boy came from – Reggie. He wasn’t ever there before, was he?’
Not as far as Remy or Marne knew. We lapsed back into silence, Remy flicking through the book, Marne staring off at nothing, thinking. Or, I’d thought she was staring off at nothing. I looked up when she grabbed my arm.
‘Look!’ Marne hissed, pointing. I followed her finger with my eyes.
She was pointing out the window. We couldn’t see much from Marne’s bedroom window. The angle was wrong. But we could just see the police car parked out the front of the old Nesbitt house.
We tumbled out of the room, only remembering it’d be best to be quiet on the stairs, and hurried down to the living room. It didn’t look like our parents were in the house to notice and drag us away, but we stayed quiet and cautious all the same as we eased the front door open and filed out onto the porch.
It didn’t seem it was the Favers the police wanted to talk to this time. The officer was standing on Mr Nesbitt’s porch with old Ronald Nesbitt. Marne, Remy, and I crouched down behind the bench, peeking over it to see.
The conversation the officer and Mr Nesbitt were having didn’t look like a pleasant one. The officer reasoned something, and Mr Nesbitt argued back. Nesbitt hadn’t pulled a gun, though, so that was something. Eventually, his shoulders slumping, Mr Nesbitt appeared to give in. We watched him walk down his porch steps behind the officer and get into the back seat of the car. The car drove off and, astounded, Marne, Remy, and I stood up from behind the bench, following the car with our eyes until we couldn’t see it any longer.
Never, in any of our lives, had we known Mr Nesbitt to walk off his property.
‘Are they going to lock him up?’ Remy breathed.
‘He didn’t look arrested,’ I said. ‘Maybe just… going to question him at the station?’
‘What about the younger brother?’ said Marne. ‘Doesn’t he need looking after?’
‘I donno…’ I said absently. Maybe it was the lingering sense that I should be some big teenager now. Or maybe it was just that years of the mystery of the Nesbitt house had my curiosity dialled up to eleven. But now, for the first time ever, Mr Nesbitt wasn’t there.
‘We might never get another chance… to go have a look,’ I whispered.
Their heads turning sharply, Marne and Remy stared at me.
‘We’re not supposed to play outside!’ Marne hissed. ‘Mom said!’
‘Well I’m pretty sure that was because she didn’t want us getting shot by old Nesbitt,’ I whispered back. I gestured to the Nesbitt house. ‘He’s not there.’
Remy was chewing her lip. We seemed to decide on it in looks, and then we were hurrying, treading lightly, down the stairs of our own porch and up the road, eyes peeled for any adult that might stymie us.
We’d have to pass the Favers’ house to reach the front door of the Nesbitts’. Generalised fear of adults getting us in trouble for being out without permission had us circling around, off the road and over our north paddock, heading instead for the back of the Nesbitt house.
A barbed wire fence separated our paddock from their overgrown field. We scaled it by the posts, hopping over and taking off through the long grass, running outright now.
The small grave plot behind the house did have only six headstones. Slowing to a walk, we skirted it. One of the headstones, the one that looked the newest – made of polished marble – bore the name Amelia Nesbitt. She’d died about five years before I was born. Next to her grave was a headstone made of simpler sandstone. That one marked the final resting place of a man, probably Amelia’s husband, who’d predeceased her by nearly three decades.
We started to get cold feet at the stairs to the back porch. The large old house was built in a similar style to our own, but it looked so much more intimidating. Up close, you could see the wear and tear of time and poor maintenance. The brown paint bubbled on the clapboard siding; the few porch chairs set up by a door covered in dust and cobwebs, the two pot plants very long dead. It didn’t smell great, either. Maybe the place did have a rat problem – dead rats.
Marne and Remy waiting for me to take point, I decided we’d come this far. Steeling myself and scrunching up my nose, I tiptoed up the steps. They creaked and sagged under me, and when I grabbed the handrail, it rocked under my hand.
Keeping to the wooden boards I thought safest to stand on, I crept over the porch toward a window, Remy and Marne following me. The window had its curtain drawn inside, but not fully. There was a gap between the curtains near the bottom of the window.
My breath held, I hunched down, took a moment, then looked.
It was dimmer inside than out, but Mr Nesbitt had left the light on. Two old-fashioned tasselled ceiling lamps, decorated with cobwebs, cast a dim glow down on what must be thousands of stacked newspapers. They were piled up against the wall, dumped over an antique settee, and covering the surface of a billiards table. Piled in with the papers was all manner of stuff: an old rubbish bin, a barbecue half rusted through, patio chairs, pot planters, metal buckets, broken clocks – you name it. In between all the stuff, the Nesbitts had left narrow passages to walk through.
It was like a trashed museum. The décor looked straight out of the Victorian era, most of the stuff inside likely antique; the place looking like it hadn’t been cleaned since then, and the wallpaper peeling and carpet threadbare.
‘What can you see?’ Remy breathed in my ear.
‘Just…’ I breathed back. ‘Stuff…’
As far as I could see – though I could only see half of it – there wasn’t anyone in the room. There wasn’t anything that looked like it’d be used for a crippled brother, either. No broken wheelchair stuck on top of the newspapers or crutches leant against the wall. I shifted to try to see the other side of the room, Marne backing out of my way.
That part was darker, the lamp above it out. There was something large taking up most of the space. Boxy and about shoulder height, I thought. Most of it was murky. In two main spots, though, and, dimmer, in a couple others, it glinted as though reflecting the lamplight.
I put my hands to the window on either side of my face, blocking out the light to see better, and squinted.
It was a sizeable aquarium, looking long forgotten. Something about it sent a shiver down my spine and made my breathing come fast and shallow.
Remy and Marne wanted to see. Backing away, I let them at the window and cast a look around for anyone who may have noticed us snooping. My eyes landed on a window that would be nearer the aquarium. It was too much to hope it would be left open a gap as well, but as I edged towards it, I spotted a moth eaten hole in the curtain.
Once again, I put my face to the dusty glass and shielded the light from my view, looking in.
There was something in the aquarium. I blinked and squinted. It took me a little while to get my eyes to make it out, and when I did I staggered back from the window, gaping.
Laying on the bottom of the tank was a skeleton, its old fashioned dress drifting around it. Piled right on top of it was a man, still in vest and trousers, its body bloated and creepy looking – like misshapen dough. His arms were weirdly thin, curled into his body like they’d stuck that way, his wasted legs bent up, knock-kneed and Pidgeon-toed.
Remy, hearing my squeak, had a look for herself. Marne only needed to take my word for it. We were out of there twice as fast as we’d run in, bolting over barbed wire fences and careening, pell-mell – this time not trying to avoid adults, but looking to find one.
It was my mother we found. She heard our story with pinched lips, furious, and grounded us on the spot. But, after Remy had been sent home and Marne and I were sent upstairs, we heard her get on the phone.
She’d called the police. They were there the next day. We watched from the living room window as they entered Mr Nesbitt’s house. We watched later that week as well, as contract cleaners came in to empty the Nesbitt place out. We never saw them haul out the bodies – they may have been in the large white bags – but we did see them carry out the emptied tank.
Mr Nesbitt himself hadn’t returned from the police station, and we never did see him again. Maybe they sent him to a nursing home, or maybe they found him guilty enough of something to put him in prison. No one ever told us what happened to him.
What we did hear, from Remy when we were allowed to see her again, was that the tank had held two bodies, just as I’d seen. One nothing more than a skeleton. The other, much more recently deceased, had been quickly identified as the younger brother, Reginald Nesbitt.
And, one other thing, according to Remy’s mom, when the contractors cleaned out the tank, they found an old telephone in it – older than ours. It hadn’t been connected to anything, and the guess was that it had fallen in there sometime years ago, maybe unsettled from one of the stacks of stuff. If a phone had fallen into a tank with a dead body in it, I wouldn’t dig in to retrieve it either.
For the woman’s voice on the party line, she was on there when mom called the police. We know because mom started talking louder and louder, as though speaking over someone she was trying to ignore. By the end of the week though, when Marne and I went to call Remy, there was nothing. We never heard the woman’s voice, or the young boy’s, again after that.
I still, decades later now, have no idea what morality lesson to take from this experience – if there ever really was one. The woman on the phone seemed to think there was, but all she did was use it for her own ends. Marne, Remy, and I have long come to assume the woman was Amelia Nesbitt, trying to protect her sons. Even after death.
And maybe a part of that… after years of keeping Reginald locked inside, even her own husband hating him, turned and twisted Amelia into an obsessive focus on an old and bizarre children’s story. Maybe she thought her disabled son could be reborn as a bright young man, learned and capable, if, one day, he could become a water baby guided by the fairies of the Golden Rule.