Rose Villa by Sam Priestley
Rose Villa has held a curse in its bricks since 1843, and the Yorkshire village has held the secret of a murder since 1987. In 2007, Jonathan and Kirsty meet on Facebook twenty years after they last saw each other and Kirsty visits Jonathan in his home, Rose Villa, only to find the house has affected him and he’s no longer the person she once knew.
In 1843 in a Yorkshire village two gypsy women are evicted from their home by men planning to build new houses. The youngest gypsy, Matilda, curses the land, anything built on it, and those who live there.
In 2007 Jonathan is coming to terms with his girlfriend leaving him and Kirsty is facing the break-up of her marriage. Old school friends, and former boyfriend and girlfriend, the two meet again on Facebook and Jonathan invites Kirsty to his house, Rose Villa. Rose Villa was built on the cursed land and has caused its inhabitants over the years to go mad and become violent.
When Kirsty goes to Jonathan’s house he talks about his girlfriend in an increasingly resentful way. Kirsty begins to remember the last time she was in this village, 20 years ago, when she came to find her grandmother’s grave. That day she saw a girl crying over a letter down behind the church, and she met an older woman in the graveyard who seemed to know Kirsty.
Kirsty is finding Jonathan’s behaviour more and more erratic and he doesn’t seem like the same person she knew twenty years ago. She asks his neighbour, Mrs Daniels, what she knows about Kirsty’s family, and she receives a shock, and a warning.
Back in 1987 violence lay beneath the surface in Rose Villa and on the day Kirsty was in the village all those years ago, it finally found its way out.
Jonathan is getting more unstable and as Rose Villa takes over completely, dark secrets emerge from its walls and from Jonathan.
The church sat proudly on the brow of the hill above them, its pale sandstone the colour of the skin the people wore here in the north of England, its tower high in the sky like they held their heads. The wind had blown the small back door at the church open and shut five times that morning already. The little green gate that led to the drop of steps on the land behind the church, steep as a leaned ladder, rattled on its hinges. The land in this northern village was as unpredictable as a cliff face. It swooped around houses, a school, an inn, like the buildings were here first and the earth moulded itself around them. And down here, behind the church, it bobbed in the shape of sand dunes and then fell away dramatically where the line of steps led precariously down to the bottom lane. The patch of land between the church and the steps was where Matilda and her mother lived.
Matilda didn’t know how long they’d been living here in this run-down old barn on this piece of land down behind the church, but she knew her mother didn’t want to leave. Matilda’s mother said that she had found a place she would die in. Her mother was old now, the skin on her dark face loose and deeply lined, her small pebble eyes often closed and most of her teeth long gone. She insisted she would die soon, and who was Matilda to argue?
The men had left. Matilda didn’t know how long since. Her father had gone first, years ago, saying he couldn’t stay, it wasn’t right, it wasn’t what they did, it wasn’t the way his heart lay. And the women didn’t know where he was now. Though Matilda’s mother swore he would be there at the end and she would see him again. Then Matilda’s own husband had gone. She felt the lack of a child keenly and, so her mother said, this was something to make him wander. But truth be told, Matilda knew he would go anyway. There was no reason for him to stay.
So the two women lived in the old barn alone. They made and sold things and kept a few chickens they’d received in payment for telling fortunes, their bony fingers travelling the lines on palms and their dark eyes gazing into the mystery of left behind tea leaves in chipped china cups. The minister in the church encouraged them to stay and brought them food when they had none, a spare lump of bread as big as a rock, cheese and if they were lucky, cooked meat they had to chew on with their worn-out teeth. Matilda heard people in the village call them his pets and it stung her more than when the people turned their eyes away from them or crossed the path to avoid them. But even he couldn’t help them when the man from Hawthorne Lodge came and knocked at the door of the old barn.
On the days the man from Hawthorne Lodge, flanked by other smart men from the village, started coming to the barn to speak to the two women, Matilda’s mother had the beginning of a sickness. Matilda told the men and they looked at her with a mixture of fear and cold suspicion, and they went away. But they came back.
“I’m sorry your mother is sick,” the man from Hawthorne Lodge said. “But we do need to speak with you both as a matter of urgency.”
“What’s it about?”
“It’s about the land, Mrs Boswell,” the man said. “This land does not belong to you, nor this barn you live in. We understand you have lived here for some time, but it is not yours and…”
Matilda had folded her arms over and frowned at the man. “And?” she said.
“And now we need this land.”
“What are you saying?”
“We are saying you and your mother must leave, Mrs. Boswell. Perhaps you could join your husbands at their new places of living.”
“My mother has a sickness.”
“Of course,” the man said. “We understand that and there will be time enough for your mother to recover from her current illness, but…”
“But then you must leave.”
Matilda had gone back inside that day and thought about what could be done. She told her mother and received the answer she expected. “We shan’t leave.”
Matilda had breathed sharply. “Perhaps we could go to father.”
Her mother shook her old head. “I won’t go anywhere. I’ll die here, Matilda. Your father is coming back, I know he is, I feel it my bones. I’ll wait for him and I’ll die on this spot. I won’t be moved now.”
It was a situation Matilda had never thought to find herself in. It was in their blood to move, to travel. They purposefully moved. And now she and her mother were purposefully not moving. She knew her father wasn’t coming back, no matter how much her mother insisted she could feel his presence getting closer on the wind. But she couldn’t tell her mother. You can’t change the way things will be. That’s what she believed.
The man from Hawthorne Lodge came back to the barn. The people in this village had held their suspicion of the gypsy family close to their chests. They had always been civil and never invited argument, preferring to let the family live here like they would let a stray cat sleep in their outhouses, but the difference between them and the gypsies was always felt. Matilda had always felt it. Something unspoken. Something loosely caged.
Matilda stood and looked at the men at the barn door and knew she would never be more than something they tolerated here.
“Why do you want this?” Matilda asked.
“We will build houses here,” the man said. “We need more houses in the village now and this is a good place to build.”
“But this is where we live. You don’t need to build anything new, we already live here.”
“This doesn’t belong to you,” the man insisted. “You can’t stay. Besides,” he looked around at the old barn with its holes in the roof and its broken timber, the rat nibbled corners and the damp floor where the rain had dripped in. “it’s not safe to live in.”
“It’s safe enough. We live here.”
Matilda’s mother said the men couldn’t make them move. But of course, they could. It was easy enough to make anybody move, but them, the gypsies, the outcasts who no one spoke to and everyone was suspicious of, were even easier to move.
The day it happened, Matilda thought, was the day that finally finished her mother. She didn’t die on that day, but Matilda knew that was the day she had decided she would die.
The men dismantled the barn around Matilda’s mother. Matilda had stayed by her side for as long as she could, but the timber fell on to her and made her fear for her own life. She grabbed her things, a few items of clothing, what food she had, and she tried to make her mother move. She watched in amazement as her mother held fast and sat it out amongst the debris and the dust.
When it was over and their home was gone, Matilda stood on the land and closed her eyes. She didn’t care who heard her and who didn’t. She felt the anger rise inside her body and a bitterness take over all other feelings. It was the fact that they thought they could just do this. They thought they could just turn them out, onto the land, with no help and no kindness. They thought they were only as good as animals and should be treated the same. They thought there was nothing these two wandering women could do about it. Matilda would make them think again. Matilda would do something about it. These men who had done this, she knew, sought only to make money for themselves. Matilda would do something about that. But as she stood there and closed her eyes and felt the words untangle in her brain and appear in her throat, she didn’t say it for the men who’d done this or for the villagers who had gathered to watch the spectacle. She said it for her mother who was dying and wanted nothing more than to die in the place she now called home. A wandering woman who had paused her journey to let death take her.
“Let all who dwell here suffer ill tempers and find no happiness. Let the building on this land be full of anger and never see calm.”