Amy Finlay – Fiction

Child of the earth

People who are well read are often called book smart. But there is a wisdom not acquired from conventional sources rarely deciphered in a person. Ethel Stewart was soon to encounter the latter. Hailing from the countryside in Newtownards she had excelled in her nursing studies. Two brief years at Belfast Jubilee Maternity Hospital followed where nurse Steward birthed precisely 1762 babies in total. Precision was one of Ethel’s key strengths and one greatly admired in a minister’s wife. Ethel Caithness became Ethel Stewart on a windy day in October 1959. Her husband, the mild-mannered cleric ten years her senior, the Rev Dr Kenneth Stewart was book smart and kept an imposing library that included his prized collection of ancient Greek texts, the hieroglyphics intimidating to the lesser educated members of the Caithness family. When a vacancy arose in the Anglican parish in Waterfoot, the Rev Dr envisioned the chance of expand his library away from the dusty and cramped conditions of East Belfast. There was only one hospital in Waterfoot run by the Sisters, so Ethel birthed her last baby at the Jubilee and turned to the task of creating her own.

The manse in Waterfoot was a large stony building attached to the church. Secluded and anchored by fields with the hint of the sea in the distance, no matter how many fires were lit there was always a hint of winter in the air that refused to submit to the warmth. Growing up on a farm meant Ethel was accustomed to space and initially revelled in the seclusion, cultivating a garden and tending to the vegetable patch. Shortly after arriving in Waterfoot, Kenneth Stewart senior suffered a stroke and as his only son, Kenneth was required to look after the running of the family business back in Antrim until a suitably qualified replacement could be found. This meant that the Rev Stewart was gone long hours every day. Not one to indulge in dull moods, Ethel spent the waking hours of the day perfecting household tasks and tending her garden.  If she had time she would sneak into her husband’s library and attempt to read something enlightening, before eventually giving up and going back knitting clothes for the child she so longed.

Winters in Waterfoot were cold and hard. The icy wind affronted Ethel every time she took her afternoon walk on the beach. The Sisters of Mercy scowled at Ethel when they passed her by. She wondered what they looked like under their vast layers of dark clothing. Were they jealous of her flesh and blood husband compared to their intangible mate? Then she chastised herself for thinking such coarse thoughts. Every month fresh blood on the bedsheets heralded Ethel’s disappointment. Without the anticipated baby the void in Ethel’s heart grew bigger as did her despair. Rev Steward assured her that the Lord would provide and he nearly did. Baby John was born dead at four months and the words spoken at his funeral ‘The Lord giveth and taketh away’ seemed more prophetic than comforting.

One day in the village Ethel was vacantly queuing in the Butcher’s shop when she noticed a strange old looking woman shuffling up the street. The woman was wearing a long dark purple coat and had peacock feathers in her hair. She looked theatrical, not like the normal residents of the village.

“That’s Nuala Cahill,” said the woman from behind the counter.

“She’s a strange one. I’d stay away from the likes of her. Lives near you mid, on the coast road, up the glen.”

Ethel thanked the woman, took her sausages and went home.

Sunday morning came and the Rev Steward preached on Saul and the witch of Endor. That night Ethel dreamed of the witch. She dreamt the witch was reaching out to touch her but woke up startled before she could. Startled, she burnt her husband’s sausages at breakfast.

A trip to Bangor at Easter would cheer her up, her husband suggested.

It was St Bridget’s day, the first day of Spring. St Bridget’s crosses were proudly displayed in windows in the village. Ethel busied herself in her abundant garden which yielded a vast array of flowers, an insult to her own womb. A shadow was cast over and Ethel saw the strange woman standing on her path looking at her.

“What a lovely garden,” the old woman said.

Ethel stood up and slowly took the old woman in. Small, fail, slightly stooped over but she had big, kind eyes.

“Thank you, I always enjoyed having a nice garden.”

“Gives the mind something to focus on.”

“Idle hands are the devil’s playthings.” Ethel retorted, too quickly, a habit.

“Wise words indeed, Mrs?”

“Mrs Ethel Stewart. Please call me Ethel.” Ethel extended her hand.

“Oh yes, the minister’s wife. The talk of the town. I’m not religious myself but I have such respect for belief. I’m Nuala Cahill. I live up on the glen. I‘ve been admiring your garden on my walk into town. Please call on me someday if you have the time.”

At dinner that evening Ethel relayed the meeting to her husband.

She invited me over for tea. I should bring her a fruit loaf. Ethel said.

That would be the Christian thing to do indeed, said the Rev Stewart, not looking up from his newspaper.

The following Friday Ethel prepared the fruit loaf and set off over the glen. It was a warm spring day and she enjoyed the walk. In truth Ethel was excited to break the routine and have someone to talk too, even if people in the town considered her strange. Hadn’t Jesus dined with tax collectors and other non-socially acceptable sorts? Ethel picked the nicest flowers from her garden and arrived at Nuala’s shabby little outhouse.


Amy Finlay – Fiction

Lady in Red

Like many well-meaning people, Felicity and Roy Williams thought moving to a new town would signify a fresh start. But they were to discover, as everyone eventually does, that troubles are rarely left behind. Felicity, a well-respected heart surgeon and Roy, a mediocre dentist, had just celebrated their pearl anniversary when Felicity detected the scent of cheap perfume on one of her husband’s shirts. This wasn’t the first of Roy’s indiscretions and it wouldn’t be the last. Her mother had warned her about marrying a man of such character but ironic as it is for someone in her profession, Dr Williams was naïve in matters of the proverbial heart.

They had paid little heed to the realtor’s warnings and local gossip that said their new home was apparently haunted.

‘It can have one hundred ghosts at that price,’ Roy had laughed handing over a cheque.

There had been reports of a woman in red, objects levitating, things that had been reported missing had turned up mysteriously in the town lake. The previous owners had packed up and moved out after a month.

‘Their loss is our gain,’ they toasted over champagne on their first night in the house. The hope that things would be different hung in the air.

It took one month for the ghost to show itself. A plump, corseted woman with drop pearl earrings in a blood red dress appeared in the doorway when Felicity was doing the laundry.

‘You’ll want to check those shirts for lipstick stains,’ the ghost said with a smirk. Then she disappeared into the thin air, not showing herself again for quite some time.

The strange thing was that far from being scared, Felicity felt oddly comforted by the ghost. The woman in red proved to be helpful, even. When Felicity misplaced something, it would randomly appear when she mentioned it. One day when running late, the ghost located her car keys and in so doing saved the life of Tony Parsons, a local barber who had gone into cardiac arrest. When Roy fell asleep with the TV on whilst nursing a bottle of whisky the ghost would turn it off. A ghost could have her uses.

‘You know this used to be a whore house, right?’ her friend Sally informed Felicity one evening over their monthly game of bridge.

‘They say the mistress of the house killed a man in cold blooded rage.’

‘Don’t believe everything you hear,’ said Felicity. ‘I’ve had no trouble.’

One-day Felicity found a receipt from a jewellery shop for a gold heart shaped necklace in Roy’s trouser pocket. Her birthday came and went and her neck remained unadorned. Christmas yielded nothing but new gloves and bath salts. She could feel that sickening but all too familiar feeling returning to the pit of her stomach. A lingering glance was observed between Roy and Debbie, his dental nurse when Felicity surprised him at this work with lunch on her day off. Debbie who wore too much make up and had one of those Chinese symbol tattoos on her wrist. Felicity noticed a gold heart necklace lie between her ample cleavage. She was reminded of that Bible verse about casting pearls before swine.

As with Vanessa, Susan and Julia before her, Debbie and Roy’s fling was short lived. Dr and Mr Williams played the usual routine of confrontation, frostiness and eventual forgiveness, a dance well-rehearsed at this stage. One night when Roy was out, the ghost, whom Felicity had come to regard as a celestial housekeeper, placed Roy’s laptop on the kitchen table. His emails were open.

Felicity read the screen. It was an email sent from Roy to Debbie.


Amy Finlay – fiction

The Recital


My name is Vincent Roberts and I am recounting to you the events that happened several years ago in the summer of 1998. My psychiatrist says that if I write it all down things might begin to make sense – as though I haven’t replayed it in my head hundreds, even thousands of times before. Oh and by the way, in case you are wondering, no, I am not crazy. My test results show that I have no signs of psychosis. I have been recommended several doctors, neurologists and mental health experts over the years and they all conclude I am certifiably in sound mind. No one believes my story – heck I wouldn’t either. Because it defies belief. I wish it were a lie, an elaborate fabrication, but those who know me best know I have no flair for imagination. I am committing my story to paper and I will be as detailed as I can. I invite you to judge for yourself the events that took place that strange summer of 98.

I had recently moved from Boston to the small town of Falmouth, Massachusetts. I have, had, been a classical pianist with the Boston symphony orchestra but an unfortunate repetitive back injury meant I had to take a period of leave to recover properly. This was a short-term arrangement, a sabbatical of sorts. I was annoyed. I had worked ceaselessly for several years and I am not being boastful when I say I had a growing reputation as a celebrated classical pianist. My injury however required time for recovery. Wanting a fresh start following a recent break up with my girlfriend Susan, I decided I needed a change of scenery so I asked around and before I knew it I had accepted a job as a professor at the Falmouth musical conservatoire. So that July I packed up my tiny apartment and headed to the cape, to the picturesque town of Falmouth.

I settled into life in Falmouth quickly. My colleagues were mostly like me, ex orchestral musicians, easy to get on with, the job undemanding. Sure, it wasn’t ground breaking work, I wasn’t teaching musical protegees, but I enjoyed this new pace of life compared to the demands of the orchestra back in the big city. I was beginning to see the appeal of the cape. On my free days I went swimming and surfing, heck I even started composing my own music with ambitions to record an album. A change is as good as a rest so they say. Life was good. That was until a phone call from Susan. We had split up a while back so I was surprised to hear from her. Her mother was sick. Very sick. She needed to see a cancer specialist in Canada but her health insurance wouldn’t cover it. In short Susan needed money and I knew it was serious because she was a proud woman who wouldn’t ask unless absolutely necessary. I wasn’t wealthy by any means but I told her I would do what I could. So when I saw a notice requiring a piano tutor for an eight grade student in the college one day I did not hesitate to apply. What I would give to turn back the clock and not apply for the job.

That evening I called the number on the advert and after a few rings a husky voice answered. It was a strange voice, unlike one I had ever heard before, female, raspy. She sounded old, perhaps retired. I said: ‘Hi my name is Vincent Roberts and I saw your advert for music tuition in the music school. I am a piano professor there and am interested in the position.’ There was a strangely long pause and finally the voice said ‘Mr Roberts, I am so glad you called. My name is Mrs Hale. I require a teacher for my niece – she is nine years old and plays at a level exception for her years.’

We discussed the details. Mrs Hale and her niece lived half an hour away in a house called ‘The Rectory’, on the other side of the cape where I had not been before. I was to come and meet them that Friday after work. Being new to town I didn’t exactly have a thriving social life so I didn’t mind working on the weekend. So off I set for The Rectory. Having lived in the city for so long I didn’t have a car so I resolved to get a bus after work. Packing up my desk around 6, the janitor Karl asked me what I was doing this weekend. He was polite, feigning an interest in me, a newcomer.

‘I got a tutoring job at The Rectory, west side of the cape,’ I replied.

With hindsight Karl’s reaction should have alerted me. His friendly face seemed to suddenly stiffen as though he had seen a ghost.

‘I thought that house was empty after the accident.’

‘What happened?’ I said, my interest piqued.