There was no keening moan of wind through the exposed rafters, no shuddering of plate glass, no banging of a front door long-abandoned. The house was silent, its bay windows looking out onto the overgrown lawns like the bulbous eyes of a toad.
Paint peeled of course. Crows nested. The ragged gaps in the roof tiles grew wider. No sound escaped from the old place, though. Not that the locals went near enough to hear anything. They knew that the faded grey boards lay nailed tight over more that tattered insulation and cold copper piping.
The house had been empty since Minister Yorke and his family had moved out in the winter of 1984. The minister was not soon forgotten: fingers gripping the sides of his lectern, his voice reaching into the recesses of the stark pine pews, spittle scum collecting at the corners of his mouth as he denounced the seven sins and more. A dwindling congregation did not deter the minister. In contrast, browbeaten townsfolk who had retreated to the Wheatsheaf Inn for respite had muttered that this was a triumph for the preacher – a sinful congregation weeded and threshed until only the dourest, most scripture-scrubbed parishioners remained.
Minister Yorke would have continued to lecture and lambast had it not been for the events of a late summer evening in ’84. There had been lights on in the house far later than was usual. Curtains had moved as though in an ill-wind, restless and finger-twitched. When the hackney had finally crunched over the gravel in the early hours, it was met with an austere reception party.
The Yorkes were not the only residents who had been curtain twitching. Those within sight of the rectory hardly even troubled to turn off their bedroom lights as they watched, whilst those not lucky enough to view the spectacle were nevertheless kept up to date via telephone, their fingers twisting curled wires in mute frustration. They were transfixed by the drama played out in the hackney’s yellow interior lights.
The minister and his wife had marched over to the cab. When its black door opened they found their daughter slithering out onto the gravel in front of them, her skirt hiking up around her waist during the ungainly manoeuvre. Either the look on the Yorke’s faces or the much-diminished chance of collecting a fare convinced the driver that his time was best spent elsewhere. He sped down the drive with the girl’s suitor still in the back seat. Little Rachael Yorke was dragged indoors, her tongue loosened by the drink and the fall and ranting about all manner of things.
The shouting and the recriminations continued as the night edged towards dawn. Those with a view between the kitchen curtains saw the girl’s father screaming into her face in a most un-ministerly manner. They saw Rachael stepping back from the tirade, her hand clasped protectively around her belly and delivering a sermon of her own. At this, the girl’s mother found her voice and used it to withering effect. Her wails pierced where the minister’s had seemed only to prod; Rachael was left retching on the flagstones, her hand still curled around her midriff as the curtains were tugged shut.
Tongues did not stop tattling over the next few days, outside the rectory at least. In the house silence reigned, all the more profound after the hubbub that had preceded it. Minister Yorke did not appear for matins, nor evensong, nor for any service thereafter. It was three days before the churchwarden dared to check on the family. He found the rectory empty, every door locked, every cupboard locked, as though the house was pursing its lips shut after an unwise outburst.
Detectives questioned, forensics teams combed, but never a trace of the Yorkes was found. The weight of all those sermons, all that judgement, focussed upon a single devastating indiscretion. A shame so intense that not even the people inside the house could escape those grey boards and frost-cracked bricks. Broken window and tattered roof notwithstanding, it holds its secrets still.
Matthew Richardson is a writer of short stories. His work has featured in Gold Dust magazine, Literally Stories, Close to the Bone, McStorytellers, Penny Shorts, Soft Cartel, Whatever Keeps the Lights On, Flashback Fiction, Cafelit, and Shooter magazine. He is a doctoral student at the University of Dundee, a lucky husband, and a proud father.
Not necessarily in that order.