The House on Fox Hill by Parineeta Singh
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Let’s face it. Life as a writer was hard. Which is why after publishing two unsuccessful gumshoe thrillers (neither of which managed to recover its cost of production) I decided to switch careers. Being a writer was never going to make me any money, but investing the research I had done for those books, into a commercial business venture might just yield some results. With this thought in mind, I painted a board and hung it outside my house. Splendid Detective Agency Ltd., it announced in big bold letters. Satisfaction guaranteed, it said in smaller script beneath.

 

The day after I hung this board. It got many gawkers, I could see. The boy who took the sheep to graze on the upper mountains, stood a long time before it trying to decipher the script. Schoolchildren coming down the road with fluffy strawberry ice-cream in wafer cones paused before it, intoning the words to each other. At around noon, Kamini knocked on my door. A luscious pretty girl and my neighbour, spying on her was what had revealed to me that I would make a splendid private eye in the first place. I would snoop, binoculars in my hand, trying to look through her window, as she changed her clothes before getting into bed. I never got myself caught, and this revealed to me my exceptional skills at surveillance. She knocked on my door peremptorily, but I did not hurry to the door as I would have had, in normal circumstances. I was a busy man now, and it would do her no harm to find that out.

 

She held a handful of flowers in her cupped palms. That meant that she was going to the shrine further down the road. She went regularly, either with flowers, or a pitcher full of milk. She would pour the milk over the linga. ‘So that I pass my exams,’ she had said when I asked her about the reason for this devotion to the shrine.

 

‘Why have you put up that board outside your house?’ she questioned, walking straight into my living room without even asking for permission. ‘I am in the process of switching careers,’ I said. ‘My uncle says that you are a good-for-nothing layabout. A loafer, an idler. You don’t have a career,’ she contradicted. ‘Well, then I am in the process of getting myself one,’ I said, agreeably, determined that Kamini’s unfeeling comments would not spoil this auspicious day. She still looked suspicious. ‘What does it involve, this new career?’ she asked slowly, and with hesitation, as if afraid of what I might divulge. ‘Well, I shall track down missing people, catch spouses cheating on each other, do background checks,’ I began. ‘But you are known as the laziest slob in town, nobody would rely on you to do all those things for them. They don’t expect it of you, and shall certainly not pay ready money simply for you claiming to do all these things on their behalf,’ she interrupted. I was about to lose my temper and was about to tell her to get out of my house if she didn’t like my business plan when she asked me whether she could borrow some milk for that was what she had come by for. ‘No, you may not borrow any milk,’ I said irritably. ‘Suit yourself,’ she said, as if by refusing to let her use my milk I was missing out on an opportunity of a lifetime, and breezed out of the house. I ground my teeth in frustration.

 

*

 

The next day, I decided to spring-clean the house. My premises might not be upscale, but that was certainly no reason to have them looking as shabby as they did. There were certain things I could do nothing about. The corrugated tin roof on which the raindrops drummed so loud (on rainy nights) that sleep proved impossible, the crack running across the ceiling which lent, during the monsoons, a pervasive sense of dampness and moisture, the flaky plaster which started peeling off the walls at the lightest touch. All these were things I could do nothing about. But the living room, which was now to be my office, I could definitely spruce that room up. I decided to start with the floor. The faded bottle-green carpet, which had holes in it, I rolled up and put out in one of those big bins next to the compound wall. I bought a bucket full of water and a big mop and cleaned the entire floor. I even cleaned up the fireplace, which I hadn’t touched in ages.

 

A flock of dead pigeons, covered in copious soot, fell out of the chimney. I thanked my lucky stars that Kamini was not here to see this; ever since reading Wings of the Dove at her school, she harboured a fierce passion for these birds whom she couldn’t distinguish from the white dove referenced in James’s book. The Onida TV which didn’t work but still claimed pride of place in the living room, I put out next to the green carpet. I worked with such industry and method that Kamini’s father came out on his balcony to watch. I waved to him cheerily, but he grunted and turned away. At around four in the evening, I went into the market to the local newspaper office where my friend Hamish worked. I had written down a few sentences on a scrap of paper. I handed him the paper. ‘I am starting a detective agency. I want to place an ad in the classifieds,’ I told him. He did not argue with me, or try to change my mind; he simply quoted the standard fee which he charged for placing a six line advertisement in his paper. I shuffled through the notes in my wallet and took so long in handing over the money, that he guessed that I hadn’t enough and gave me a discount for old times’ sake.

 

Three further days passed but no clients came to my doorstep. I decided that the time had come for a more aggressive marketing campaign. I walked down to the bazaar to Billu’s tea-shop. Billu had a printer, scanner and a photocopier at the back of his shop. During examinations he made a big profit off students who flocked to his shop to buy bundles of photocopied notes. I handed Billu a small memory-stick and told Billu to make fifty copies of the notice, and help me put it up all over the bazaar. Bored with his monotonous duties and keen to take part in a novel enterprise, Billu agreed readily. We spent the day pasting the notice on paan-stained walls and slender lamp-posts. By the evening our work was done and we retreated to his tea-shop. I sat at the main counter handing the leaflet, along with the menu-card, to everyone who entered the shop.

 

I could see the notice pasted on to the lamp-post opposite the shop, its edges fluttering in the light breeze. It attracted the eyes of a few passer-by’s but as the lights came on, it mainly attracted moths and other flying insects. At half-past eleven Billu announced that he was shutting up the shop, and I had no choice but to take myself off home.

 

*

 

A few days later I got my first case. A woman knocked on my door, and when I didn’t hear her (I was sleeping on the couch) she rapped at the window panes. I got up in a hurry, flustered, and opened the door. ‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Didn’t hear you. I keep late hours, you see.’

 

She did not seem impressed and asked if she could come in. ‘I want you to follow my ex-husband. Keep a track of all his movements. Where he goes, what he does, whom he meets and report to me faithfully all his activities. I want evidence against him to show that he is an unfit parent so that I can reclaim the custody of my child,’ she said. ‘No problem-o’, I said expansively. ‘Fear not, it shall be done. All I ask for is an advance deposit.’ I grinned at her. She refused to grin back.

 

The next day I took my post opposite her husband’s house. He was a doctor, and had a private practice which meant that he worked from home. All day long people visited his clinic, downcast faces when they arrived, relieved and clutching packets of medicines when they left. At five the doctor’s assistant flipped over the sign which had hung from the door. It now flashed the words ‘closed.’ Soon after the doctor’s son returned from his tuition classes (the notebooks he carried had the stamp of the tuition company he attended) and stowed his bicycle away near the porch. The doctor came out and both of them had tea on the porch, served by the maidservant. The doctor read the newspaper while his son heedlessly chattered. After a while they played a game of badminton in their garden, and then went inside. I, who was masquerading as a peanut seller for the day (having borrowed a cart from Billu and a stock of peanuts from an actual vendor) pushed the cart down the road in the direction of the bazaar.

 

At night when I was boiling some water in a kettle, to make myself a cup of tea, Kamini knocked on my door. She wanted to know how the day had gone for me, and I told her that I didn’t think I would find anything against the woman’s husband. She told me to give it time and placed a hand against my forehead. ‘How hard you have been working!’ she said appreciatively, and I sighed with happiness.

 

*

 

That night there was a storm. The lightning crackled overhead and split a neem tree into two halves. This I knew was a propitious omen. And sure enough, that day there was another client. ‘I fear my house is haunted,’ this woman said. ‘I want to put it up for rent, but I can’t find a tenant. I want you to spend the night at the house and debunk claims of paranormal activity,’ she said. ‘Is that the house on Fox Hill?’ I asked. ‘Yes, I am the owner,’ she said. ‘It is my family home.’

 

The house on Fox Hill was long known in the region as being haunted. The sound of a woman weeping was heard at odd hours of the night which spooked any prospective tenant and sent them off packing. I did not believe in ghosts though, and accepted the case. That night I filled a thermos with tea and a tin full of hard-boiled eggs and set up camp in one of the spare rooms of the house. I borrowed a mattress and blanket from Kamini’s brother who lent them to me grudgingly. ‘Stay away from my sister,’ he told me. I thought it not quite a fair exchange but refrained from saying anything to him. I also borrowed a book on palmistry from Kamini’s father (something to read during my night-time vigil) who gave it to me very willingly, glad that more people were taking an interest in a subject which had long interested him.

 

I was in an upbeat mood, and whistling to myself when Kamini appeared on her balcony. ‘Do not whistle like this when at the house,’ she instructed. ‘Why not?’ I asked. ‘Whistling attracts ghosts,’ she replied, with a straight face.

 

Starlight was shining on the moss and the periwinkle as I opened the garden gate and walked up the moss-covered cobblestones of the house. My client had given me a key to the house, but it turned in the keyhole with difficulty as if rusted. There was a fireplace in the living room and I decided to collect some twigs from the garden and light a fire. The garden was strewn with fallen branches because of the storm which had lashed last night. I collected some of the less damp branches and some dry twigs which were scattered on the porch of the house. I set up camp near the fire, checked my torch for batteries, took out my book on palmistry and settled down to read.

 

*

 

Soon I felt myself getting drowsy and my eyes started to close by themselves. In my dreams, scenes from a story that I had heard regarding the history of the house played themselves out. My client’s uncle, to whom the house belonged, had taken a mistress at the ripe old age of forty-five and had left his wife. He had simply walked out of the house to start afresh in another town. He had informed his wife about his decision and his intention to send her a monthly stipend, by letter. The day the letter came, Hasheeda, my client’s aunt, wept all day and in the evening threw herself out of the window onto the rocks below. Since then her restless spirit was believed to haunt the house, doomed to wail eternally for her lost lover. In my dreams I dreamt the knock of the postman and Hasheeda rushing to open the door to that ill-fated letter.

 

I woke irritable and realised that the knocking I heard in my dream was the banging of a rocking chair against the wooden mantelpiece of the fireplace. I got up and moved a vase from the mantelpiece and put it on the chair to still its movement. I again settled down to read. It was a calm, still night with none of the wind of the previous night. The moonlight shone clear and bright on the grass of the lawn outside and filtered through the windows lighting most of the room up except the far corners. The cry of the foxes, which give the area its name, could be heard occasionally, sounding like someone getting strangled.

 

I dozed off again and dreamt of Hasheeda reading the letter at the table. For some reason I pictured a vase full of roses by her elbow in my dream. I woke up again, as if startled or shocked awake by something important. The air was totally clear of any menace, or foreboding traditionally associated with haunted spaces, and it was well past midnight. I resolved that I would keep awake no longer to witness this non-existent ghost and burrowed deep under my blanket.

 

I woke up after a while because of the cold. The fire has probably gone out, I thought to myself, realising that the hair on my arms were standing straight up. I rubbed my arms and threw off the blanket, resolving to make up the fire, when I saw that it was still burning. Why was I so cold then? Spasms of shivering overtook me and I could barely keep my teeth from chattering. Suddenly, as if from far away, I heard the sound of someone sniffling. It was the weeping woman, I realised. My client’s wife. Hasheeda. I turned around, to look at the table near the window, at the opposite end of the room, where she is thought to have sat while reading her letter, but saw no one. I heaved a sigh of relief, I really don’t think I could have borne meeting a ghost in person. Soon the weeping stopped. It had only lasted a few minutes. Though I was stiff with fear, and did not dare move, my eyes must have closed automatically as I was soon fast asleep. I woke again, conscious that somebody was watching me intently from the opposite end of the room. I opened my eyes and recognised immediately my client’s aunt whose photograph I had seen. She was sitting as if perfectly at peace and watching me steadily. I thought of opening my mouth to ask her what she wanted, but though I could feel my lips moving, no sound came out of my mouth. Soon, even as I was looking at her, she became faint and fainter until she disappeared entirely. The air was full of the scent of roses. I felt as if I had had a revelation. Dawn was breaking on the hills outside, and I felt an onrush of resplendent new energy. As if my nerves were supercharged with some sort of a tonic. As if I had swallowed a few doses of glucose, the energy booster. I knew what to do. I rolled up my mattress, stuffed my book, torch, and empty food containers back into my backpack and set off home.

 

I had always been shy of Kamini, content to spy on her from afar, and to gossip about her endlessly to my mother on the phone, narrating every detail about her till my mother threatened to put down the phone. I trekked down Fox Hill, and took the road which I knew wound down to Kamini’s shrine and then to the bazaar. She was at the shrine with her pitcher of milk, as I knew she would be. She looked a bit pale, but started affecting nonchalance when she saw me. ‘So you are back safe? Any visions from the other world?’ she asked. ‘No, but I have a declaration to make,’ I said. She must have noticed something different about me for she looked a bit startled. ‘I don’t want to hear it,’ she said and put her hands on her ears giggling with pleasure all the while.

 

*

 

We walked back hand in hand from her shrine and she put her head on my shoulder, once, during the walk. ‘I don’t know what I will tell Mrs Rautela. I shall have to say that far from discounting paranormal activity, I might just have to confirm it,’ I worried. ‘It will break her heart,’ Kamini said. ‘How will she ever get this house off her hands.’ ‘I have decided to switch careers. This private-eye business is more difficult than I anticipated,’ I informed her. ‘What will you do instead?’ Kamini asked with a frown. ‘I have decided to become a palmist,’ I answered. Kamini’s laughter was blown away on a gust of wind which bought a scent of water in it. It started raining softly, a light drizzle, which fell on the wildflowers by the side of the road, and on Kamini’s dupatta, which sparkled, as befitted its owner, as if dotted with newly-sewn twenty-four carat diamonds.

 

*


Parineeta Singh has been published in many magazines and anthologies around the world. She holds a MA in Creative Writing from the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Surrey.