Short Story of the Month
'Where the Mithrasians Gather' by Nadine Black
"I think my house is haunted; no, I don’t think my house is haunted. I know my house is haunted and the ghost, whoever it is, lives in my kitchen."
A week ago, Phyllis' kitchen was invaded by a ghost. Now she and her friendly neighbour Marj resolve to take matters into their own hands, but will any of their remedies work and who or what is haunting her kitchen?
Nadine Black is a writer of speculative fiction. She graduated from Warwick university with a Masters degree in Writing and has written several short stories. Her short story, 'Where the Mithrasians Gather' is her first published work. When she's not writing, you can find her entertaining the elderly with her pink guitar at various Care Homes around the West Midlands, where she lives with her cat, Stinkers.
I think my house is haunted; no, I don’t think my house is haunted. I know my house is haunted and the ghost, whoever it is, lives in my kitchen. The weather-lady on my bedroom telly says to expect a band of rain and clouds today, her bright green suit and manic smile making a cheerful mockery of the gloomy day, daring it to dampen her joy.
I wish I could mimic her bright smile and no doubt, ghost-free life; that I could get out of my stress-rumpled bed and head down to my kitchen without my heart pounding and my knees weak. I clutch the small black Bible close to my heart, its glossy cover announcing its recent home at the bookshop shelf before I purchased it yesterday. My next-door neighbour, Marjorie – I call her Marj – says to always sleep with the Bible under my pillow, to ensure my safety should the ghost prove malevolent. Marj never misses morning mass at the Holy Family Catholic Church and says Psalm 23 in the Bible should keep me safe from the unholy intruder in my kitchen.
Marj says it doesn’t matter that I’m not a religious person, or that I’ve never stepped foot in any place of worship except for weddings, baptisms and funerals. She says the power is in the book, not in the person sleeping with it. How I wish it were true and Psalm 23 has finally chased that wretched ghost away from my kitchen. What if it has? I think. What if I go downstairs and the door leading to my kitchen from the living room is blissfully shut? There’s only one way to find out.
Slowly, I drag myself out of my bed. My early morning arthritic joints creak painfully, reminding me that they hate winter just as I do. I remind them it’s a good thing we’re no longer forced to trudge outside in the dreary weather every blasted day, delivering mail and parcels at offices and homes for her majesty’s royal mail. Then it’d really have summat to complain about. We’re now gracefully retired with a free bus pass and taxed pension to keep us functioning with the rest of the working population. I don’t think my joints give a jot about our good fortune and I suppress a groan as I reach for my morning painkillers by my bedside cabinet.
Across the room, I catch a glimpse of my early morning reflection in the wardrobe door mirror. It’s not the worst sight ever but then, it’s not the best sight either. My silver strands and creased skin remind me that I’ll never see sixty-five again. I had my chance with that age last year and what did I do with it? Waste my time crying, that’s what; crying and helping George pack up his stuff so he could go off and sort out his midlife crises with his chiropodist, who’s almost the same age as our daughter, Kelly. This year would’ve been our fortieth year together as husband and wife but for his crises. I’m hoping he’ll be over his madness by our anniversary next month, not to mention it being Christmas as well. I truly don’t want to have another Christmas like the one I had last year without George. He’s promised me he’ll not seek a divorce, that he’ll come back to me if things don’t work out between him and his little tart. He’s even left all his man-stuff in our garage to prove he’s not gone for good. He pops in now and then to collect his mail and tinker inside the garage, before sharing a chat and a cuppa from his favourite Spurs mug, which I still hang for him on the mug tree. Please God, let George’s mug be hanging where I last saw it last night; please….
I shuffle into my dressing gown and comfy slippers and segue into the toilet, my eyes darting around, searching for signs of the other, the invisible other that somehow manages to make its presence so horribly visible in my kitchen. Relief rushes through my veins as the water flushes my loo, flushing away some of my terror; not all, but some. There’s reassurance in the sound of the flushing toilet, the normal sounds of the living. I take a long while brushing my teeth while brushing away my fears and filling my heart with courage. Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil; for thou art with me….
The stairs creak as I walk downstairs. My chanting voice drowns their insidious sounds as I continue to recite Psalm 23. The terror is building once more in my heart and I’m almost tempted to shut my eyes as I push open the living room door.
I wish I had – shut my eyes, that is. Because now, there’s nowhere to hide and the kitchen door is wide open, the same door I shut so carefully last night, checked and rechecked to ensure it was properly shut before I went up to sleep. Now, the French door is so wide I can see the glossy black worktop and white shelves that define my ultra-modern kitchen, the expensive treat I gifted myself for my sixty-sixth birthday a couple of months ago. And I know, just know, that Marj’s remedy has failed and all the Bibles and Psalm 23s in the world will not prevent what’s waiting for me inside my bright, white and accursed kitchen.
The Bible drops from my limp fingers, hitting the living room’s laminate flooring with a loud thump which breaks the terrifying silence in the house. My heart is pounding as I grab the remote control and flick on the telly, raising the volume till the newscaster’s deep voice almost drowns out my gasping breath. I don’t want to go into my kitchen…don’t want to enter the kitchen. I’m thinking I could do what I’ve been doing all week ever since the visitation started and head off to the Morrisons Café for breakfast and some desperately-needed human company. I’m also thinking I should keep my high blood pressure medication upstairs from now, to ensure my exile from that kitchen of terror is permanent.
Slowly, with dragging feet, I force my steps into the kitchen. I know exactly where to look, the places that wear the stamp of the supernatural visitation. With weary resignation, my eyes take in the two mugs of tea lined up on the worktop, next to the white kettle. One of the mugs is George’s Spurs mug, the one that has the legend written on it “Eat, Sleep, Drink Spurs”. From its transparent gauge, I see that the kettle is filled almost to the brim, despite my having emptied it last night. I know without looking into the two mugs that there’ll be two bags of tea in each mug. I also know that the Spurs mug will have two cubes of sugar in it, just the way George likes his tea and his sugar.
My eyes leave the mugs for the wall clock, the round kitchen clock that shows the needle stuck at 3:10am. The last time I looked at that clock last night, it was almost 10:00pm and I had replaced the battery in the morning, just as I’d been doing every morning for the last seven days since the haunting started. Yet again, I try to figure out why the ghost feels the need to remove my clock battery at around 3:00am every morning, why it continues to set out the tea mugs with the filled kettle with bloody-minded persistence.
The first time it happened, that first morning I awoke to the open kitchen door and laid-out mugs, I assumed I’d somehow fallen victim to absent-mindedness or summat. I’d laughed at myself with derisive humour as I replaced the clock battery and put away the mugs. The next morning when the same thing happened, I suspected George this time, thinking he must’ve used his housekeys to get in after I’d slept and forgot to put away the mugs. George has a habit of wandering in and out of the house whenever the whim catches him, as if he still lives here with me. So I called him and asked if he’d visited.
He hadn’t; and he was shocked when I told him what I’d seen. He told me to change the locks immediately, just in case some intruder had somehow devised a way to break in. He asked me to check his precious tools were still safe in the garage and to let him know once I’d changed the locks, so he’ll come over and collect his own set of keys. He also said I should call the police and report a break-in even though I told him there was no sign of forcible entry.
Like George, the police advised that I change the locks and report back any further suspicious activities. They left me with a pamphlet on how to keep my house safe before leaving. Their extra kindness told me they didn’t take my complaint seriously; that in their eyes, I was nothing more than a foggy, old dear having flights of fancy, especially after they learned I was living alone.
It was only after I’d changed the locks later that afternoon and was drinking a much-needed mug of tea, that it dawned on me that George hadn’t even asked how I was feeling. His concern had been more for his wretched tools than for my welfare. Had he asked, I might have told him that I was terrified witless, that I felt violated at the thought of someone invading my home, that I was still quaking at the thought that I could’ve easily been killed in my sleep by the intruder, something one reads every day in the news and never expects to be their own reality till it happens. I might’ve also told George that I hated being alone in this silent house and that I desperately wanted him back. I would have told him that I wanted our thirty-nine years together given back to me, that I’ll do anything to ensure I never wake up alone inside this three-bedroom house where we raised our only child, Kelly, and built so many beautiful memories together. I might even have told him that the daily phone calls from Kelly across a hundred miles distance, weren’t enough to ward off the loneliness, because Kelly has her own family to care for without being burdened with her mother’s desperate isolation.
But George never asked, and I never told him. In a way, I’m glad I kept mum because now I know the cause of my troubles, it would be too humiliating to voice such a thing to him. George isn’t one to waste his time on such superstitious drivel and I used to think I was of the same ilk till this ghost thing happened.
With a feeling of revulsion and fear, I lift the mugs and empty the bags of tea into the bin. I also chuck away the smaller mug, the sixth mug in a week I’ve chucked away since this haunting business started. I wish I could also get rid of George’s football mug but it’s a bloody Spurs mug and George will strangle me if anything happens to his beloved club’s mug. How can I explain to him that my skin crawls at the thought of touching the same mugs held by the ghost, that even being inside my kitchen where it’s made its permanent residence sends my blood pressure dangerously high every morning?
I take down the wall clock from the wall, yet again, and look behind. And sure enough, the battery’s missing as I already expect. I don’t need to pull open the knick-knack drawer, the one that holds everything from spare batteries to screwdrivers, to know that the discarded battery will be lying inside, waiting for me to replace it again. Once again, just as I’ve done with the mug, I chuck away the battery and remind myself to purchase another pack of AA . I’m wondering how long this will go on, how soon it’ll be before the extra expenses start denting my savings.
As I drink my tea from my favourite chair in the living room, I wish I could share my plight with Kelly. Kelly will know what to do. She’s such a bright girl and already a manager in a top energy firm. But she’s coping with two young twins who are a handful, even if I say so myself, proud Nan I am and all. The boys keep her on her toes all week and with her husband a long-haul driver, the bulk of the childcare responsibilities falls on her poor shoulders. I know Kelly is still worried about me, that she still won’t speak to her father and blames him for the high blood pressure I developed after he left. If I mention this latest trouble, the poor girl may well develop her own high blood pressure and I’d never live down the guilt. Thank heavens for Marj, my next-door neighbour and great friend. Without her, I’ll probably be looking at checking myself into a psychiatric unit by now.
As if right on cue, my mobile phone rings from inside my dressing gown pocket. I put down my mug and reach for it. It’s Marj and my heart soars.
‘Hello Marj; I thought it was you,’ I give a little laugh, one that reflects my relief while acting as my default nerves-pacifier. It’s something that’s baffled me for as long as I can remember, this silly habit of mine to laugh when my heart is crying. I remember I even gave the same stupid laugh on the day George drove away to his little tart, leaving me alone to cry underneath my duvet for almost three days, until Kelly arrived with her vibrant fury and dragged me out therapy-shopping at Debenhams.
‘I was just thinking it’s such a horrible day to be outside and wondered how you’re getting on with, you know…’ Marj’s voice trails off. She’s never been able to call the ghost by its name and always refers to it as “you know”. I’m happy with “you know”; it’s a name that isn’t scary, one that doesn’t give solidity to the entity that haunts my kitchen and my life.
‘I put the Bible under my pillow and recited Psalm 23, but it still came,’ I say, my voice almost a whisper. I quickly glance behind me to make sure it’s not listening; not that I can see it, but I know it’s with me, lurking somewhere in the house, biding its time till nightfall.
‘Oh dear,’ Marj drips sympathy. ‘This really won’t do. If you’re not too busy, I’ll pop around right away with some special Holy Water I got from Father Gary at morning mass today. I thought about you all day and something said to me, “Marjorie Flanagan, get a bottle of Holy Water for Phillis”. I just knew it would come in handy. I’ll get my coat on and be with you in a sec,’
Marj hangs up before I can tell her I’m still in my nightgown. Not that it makes any difference. I’ll welcome a visit from the devil himself. The last thing I need is my own company, alone all day with the ghost, especially with the weather forecast too dire for outside pursuits. Soon, the bell squeals and Marj bustles in with her habitual loud charm. In her plump robustness, she’s a reassuring presence to my frayed nerves. In no time, we’re inside my kitchen and she’s squirting water from the tiny plastic bottle of Holy Water, which she says is from Lourdes. She sprays the four corners of my kitchen with the ghost-repellent and says a couple of Hail Mary’s and The Lord’s Prayer. I find her actions calming and soothing and my soul desperately wishes her magic will work this time.
When she’s done, I make her a cup of tea and add some slices of coffee cake I bought at Morrisons while taking refuge from the ghost. Normally, I’d bake my own cakes, but since the ghost arrived, I can’t get myself to spend the least time in the kitchen. And as I nibble on my cake slice while watching Judge Judy with Marj, I wonder how my night will fare and if the Holy Water from Lourdes will do the magic that has so far eluded me.
When the next morning dawns with the wretched kitchen door ajar, the wall clock stuck at 3:16am, and the filled kettle and tea-ready mugs on ubiquitous display, I know with a sense of despair that my fate is sealed. This ghost is determined to share my kitchen with me. I’m thinking I should be grateful it’s restricted itself to the kitchen. At least, I’ll have the rest of my house to myself and give up my kitchen to it, rent-free and all. It’s not as if I have a choice.
Marj is as stunned as I am by the spectacular failure of the Holy Water from Lourdes. She tells me she suspects we’re dealing with something more powerful than a mere “you know”. I like the way she says “we” when she talks about the ghost. It makes me feel I have someone at my side fighting the battle with me. For, it is a battle I’m fighting; a battle with a fascist ghost intent on territorial expansion and kitchen acquisition.
‘If you don’t mind me suggesting this, Phillis, I think it’s time we consider speaking to a psychic,’ Marj says, her homely face furrowed with worry. I’m thinking she’s been around me so much she’s starting to feel as haunted as I am. ‘If you like, we can look in the yellow pages and see if there’re any good ones around,’
‘Why not?’ I give a wry smile. ‘We’ve tried everything else, so might as well try a psychic. What’s the worst that can happen, eh?’ We both give nervous laughs, equally embarrassed by the unchartered path we’re embarking upon. Soon, we’re flicking through the yellow pages till we stumble across some psychics. We select one psychic at random, summat to do with her name. Anyone whose name starts with “madame”, is bound to know their stuff, I think. Madame Lula sounds like just the kind of person I’d like to chat with about my kitchen ghost.
I put the mobile on speakerphone so Marj can hear everything. I think she’s even more curious than I am to find out the truth. Her eyes gleam with anticipation and she leans so close to the phone I can smell her deodorant.
Madame Lula comes on the line with the first ring after I make a payment with my credit card for a 20 minutes reading. Her voice is deep, warm, and just as mysterious as I expect. In no time, I’m telling her all about the ghost and everything I’ve done to exorcise it. Marj, whispers that I forgot to mention Psalm 23. I duly comply. When I’m done, Madame Lula tells me she’ll cast summat called Runes, as that’s where her energy lies. She asks me if I’m okay with the Runes and I give my consent even though I haven’t the foggiest idea what they are. I wouldn’t give a fig about any tools she opts to use as long as I get answers from her.
What she says floors me. Marj gasps and presses her hand on her heart, her eyes terror-filled. Madame Lula tells me that my house used to be the meeting place for a secret religious sect, an ancient sect dating back the Roman times. I tell her my house was built after the war, WW2 to be exact. But she tells me there was another house standing on the very soil where my kitchen is located and that’s why the ghosts are drawn back to my kitchen. Yes; ghosts. That’s what she says. Not one ghost as I’ve thought, but several ghosts. I feel a cold shiver sliver my skin.
I ask Madame Lula if she knows the name of the sect, if their ghosts are benign or malevolent. She takes a deep breath, pauses, then in a solemn voice, tells me they’re the cult of Mithras. Mithras? Who in heaven’s name is Mithras? I feel my terror growing with every word Madame Lula says. She tells me Mithras is the pagan god whose birthday was by the Christians and given to Jesus instead – December 25th. She says his followers held many secret rituals in my kitchen all those centuries ago and killed a lot of bulls because Mithras likes killing bulls for some reason. Madame Lula ends the reading by telling me my house is drenched in the blood of bulls and that’s why the ghosts keep coming for their twilight feast, a ritual that involved drinking the bulls’ blood. Then Madame Lula says something that curdles my blood. She says that the demonic Mithrasians used to gather for their secret ritual every Sabbath, around 3:00am!
Both Marj and I gasp when we hear this, our eyes goggled behind our identical glasses. I ask Madame Lula how we can exorcise these unsavoury ghosts from my kitchen. She says they’re very powerful and the only way to exorcise them is to either leave my house or get rid of all cooking utensils, especially mugs, so the bloodthirsty ghosts will have nothing to feast with.
Marj doesn’t have any second thoughts. She tells me I must leave immediately for her house until we can figure out what to do. There’s no way she’s leaving me alone with the demonic Mithras ghosts in this house drenched with bulls’ blood. I have a better idea though. I finally do the one thing I swore never to do and call my daughter, Kelly. Kelly is very sharp up there; she would know what to do.
I spend a tiring and miserable night at Marj’s house, sneezing non-stop from the cat-infested air of her house. Kelly arrives just before midday, armed with determination, anger and an electrician. Within an hour, she has the entire house and the outside wired up with surveillance cameras.
‘There! Don’t you worry, Mum. We’ll soon sort out the blasted Mithras buggers, trust me,’ Kelly looks angry enough to slay a thousand Mithrasians, not to mention Madame Lula, whom she hasn’t stopped cursing. She scolds me gently for not calling her immediately the haunting started and makes me swear by her twins that I’ll never use the psychic line again. That night, with Kelly in the house with me, I sleep the best sleep in a long time, though my terror of what the cameras will catch keeps me awake into the wee hours.
The next morning, Kelly and I make our way downstairs and low and behold, the kitchen door, which she shut herself, is wide open and the tea mugs are set out, with the clock again stuck at 3:18am. Kelly’s mouth hangs open and her eyes stare with disbelief, first at me, then at the mugs. I’m unable to stop myself from saying, “I told you”, feeling vindicated for the first time, happy Kelly now believes me.
‘We’ll soon see,’ Kelly mutters, heading back to the living room. The next thing I know, she turns on the telly and selects summat she calls the AV Input. And immediately, the cameras start to transmit the images they trapped as we slept.
And there it is, in horrifying, shameful colour; me in my zombie state, sleepwalking my way down the stairs, through the Livingroom and into the kitchen.
‘Oh my god! Oh my god!’ I repeat the words over and over, my hand covering my mouth in horror, as I watch myself setting out the mugs, mumbling summat about getting a nice cuppa for George, shaking my head at the clock and mumbling about the wrong time while removing the battery, before heading back upstairs to my bedroom with the same mechanical precision.
Kelly is sobbing softly, as she reaches over to engulf me in her arms.
‘It’s alright, Mum,’ she keeps repeating, rocking me as if I’m one of her twins. ‘It’s alright. You’ll be fine, I promise. I’ll arrange for you to come down to Nottingham and live with us, alright?’
But I’m shaking my head vehemently, loving my daughter with an intensity that’s as powerful as the rage I feel at myself. Seeing my daughter cry, knowing Kelly’s hard sobs are from pity and guilt, makes me loathe myself even more. I can’t believe that I’ve allowed myself to degenerate into the pathetic creature on the telly, a lost and mindless limpet still clinging on to a marriage that’s been long dead, even right into her dreamland. It’s as if a lightbulb has exploded in my head and I suddenly see George for the selfish, pathetic little man he is. I also see myself for the fool I’ve been, and the tears I cry are from shame and rage.
That same morning, I change the locks to the doors and call my solicitor. Even without the benefit of a divorce, I remove the two rings that have enslaved me to my unworthy husband, my emerald engagement ring and the gold wedding band. Then, like a woman possessed, I start packing up all George’s tools and clearing my house of every vestige of him. With manic glee, I chuck the blasted Spurs mug into the bin, feeling the emotional chains of forty years drop from my shoulders. I know George will be furious, even shocked by my audacity. But for the first time in my life, I feel truly fearless. Now that my kitchen has ceased to be where the blasted Mithrasians gather, I feel ready to fight. The only ghost that’ll be haunting this house in future will be me. Come to think of it, I even believe I can become a bull fighter if I put my mind to it.