Writer’s Note: I set out to write a flash about a quiet teenager who seems more mature than her parents’ generation. I wanted to use the first person which I thought would work well, but disliked the result: it needed the distance the third person could give it. As I wrote, a memory of the haunted house presented itself to round out the story.
1. Mr Dupont’s skin was pockmarked in a way that added character and dark wavy hair to go with it. Helena had always thought him gorgeous.
2. Mr Dupont may have sensed Helena’s interest whenever he came to the house, which he did often. He and his wife, both vets, had been friends of Helena’s parents since they’d all worked together in Europe and North Africa before settling in Normandy. The Duponts ran a stud farm. Helena was the kind of girl who sat in a corner listening and watching while they all drank and smoked, which people were still doing at the time.
3. On one of those occasions, Mr Dupont, as she always called him, suggested to Helena that she come over some day and learn to ride a horse. Helena blushed and eyed her mother. The next day her mother said, Not a snowball’s chance in hell. Thoroughbreds are extremely dangerous creatures. It would be years before Helena realized that her mother wasn’t referring to horses.
4. When Mr Dupont’s wife died and he married again (another vet, this one a lot younger), Helena cried. She was in a phase when she cried about any person or animal who died. She was obsessed with dead bodies and what happened to them after they went in the ground. Then she forgot all about it and got on with working for her Baccalaureate.
5. Late one afternoon in her final year, Helena found Mr Dupont waiting in his car as she came out of school. He rolled down the window. Would she like a lift home? Actually it was cold and she wanted to have hot chocolate with her friends in the cafe, but she didn’t say so. In the end they didn’t go anywhere, just sat there. He kept the engine running for the heater. He never looked at her directly, just stared through the windscreen. She followed his lead and did the same. When he propositioned her to have an affair with him, in all discretion, explaining how they could meet regularly and no one would know, Helena pretended to think about it for a minute, then refused. Politely. She doesn’t remember how she felt, or the rest of the conversation, or getting out of the car, or walking away from it (which would normally have made her terribly self-conscious). Her memory only retains the dull winter afternoon, the red brick buildings, and the car which these days would be considered a beautiful antique.
6. Although Helena mentioned the incident to no one, it threw a different light on a story Helena’s mother later heard from Mr Dupont – whom her mother called Roland – a story about a haunted house where he’d lived with his first wife. They’d known the house was reputed to be haunted, but his wife got the priest to exorcise whatever was haunting it before they moved in together with all the religious paraphernalia she favored. And while they lived there nothing in the house bothered them at all. When finally they were moving to the stud farm, Dupont spent the last night alone in the house on a mattress on the floor after his family had left. All their personal belongings had been moved. ‘What Roland meant,’ said Helena’s mother, ‘is that all signs and tokens of religion had also vanished from the house.’ He’d put an old pistol, dating from his time abroad, beside the bed. Just as he was dropping off to sleep he heard footsteps approach along the corridor. He didn’t move. The footsteps came into the bedroom. They stopped, he told Helena’s attentive mother, at the foot of the mattress. It was too dark to see. At first he was too paralyzed with fear to reach for the pistol. But after a pause, he pulled himself together and shouted. He threatened whoever – or whatever – the intruder was: with God, and with his pistol. There was a pause before he heard the footsteps walk away again.
7. Before Helena left for university in Rennes, where she would study veterinary, she didn’t tell her mother how surprised she was that Mr Dupont could express such a show of grace, or belief, or even faith, or whatever one liked to call it.
Mary Byrne is the author of the short fiction collection Plugging the Causal Breach (available from Regal House, Amazon, Book Depository, etc.).
Short fiction published, broadcast and anthologized widely. Writes the odd poem. Born in Ireland, she lives in France. Tweets at @BrigitteLOignon.