I Used to Live Here Once by Jean Rhys

A short ghost story by that Caribbean master of atmosphere, Dominica's Jean Rhys

  • Illustration by Stuart Hahn

She was standing by the river looking at the stepping stones and remembering each one. There was the round unsteady stone, the pointed one, the flat one in the middle — the safe stone where you could stand and look around. The next one wasn’t so safe for when the river was full the water flowed over it and even when it showed dry it was slippery. But after that it was easy and soon she was standing on the other side.

The road was much wider than it used to be but the work had been done carelessly. The felled trees had not been cleared away and the bushes looked trampled. Yet it was the same road and she walked along feeling extraordinarily happy.

It was a fine day, a blue day. The only thing was that the sky had a glassy look that she didn’t remember. That was the only word she could think of. Glassy. She turned the corner, saw that what had been the old pave had been taken up, and there too the road was much wider, but it had the same unfinished look.

She came to the worn stone steps that led up to the house and her heart began to beat. The screw pine was gone, so was the mock summer house called the ajoupa, but the clove tree was still there and at the top of the steps the rough lawn stretched away, just as she remembered it. She stopped and looked towards the house that had been added to and painted white. It was strange to see a car standing in front of it.

There were two children under the big mango tree, a boy and a little girl, and she waved to them and called “Hello” but they didn’t answer her or turn their heads. Very fair children, as Europeans in the West Indies so often are: as if the white blood is asserting itself against all odds.

The grass was yellow in the hot sunlight as she walked towards them. When she was quite close she called again, shyly: “Hello.” Then, “I used to live here once,” she said.

Still they didn’t answer. When she said for the third time “Hello” she was quite near them. Her arms went out instinctively with the longing to touch them.

It was the boy who turned. His grey eyes looked straight into hers. His expression didn’t change. He said: “Hasn’t it gone cold all of a sudden. D’you notice? Let’s go in.”

“Yes, let’s,” said the girl.

Her arms fell to her sides as she watched them running across the grass to the house.

That was the first time she knew.

© Jean Rhys 1976. From Sleep It Off, Lady (André Deutsch 1976, Penguin Books 1979). Reproduced by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.

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