A black cat almost tripped her before she'd even crossed the threshold, winding around her shins in enthusiastic greeting, no doubt hoping for food. Auntie Imogen had always collected cats. China cats, to begin with. Cloth cats, carved wooden cats, cats of every workable material. Later on, after her mother's death had closely coincided with the death of the family cat, and the last of the small band of servants who'd tended the house and family had gone, leaving Auntie Imogen alone in the house, she'd bought a kitten to keep her company. Soon the kitten Marmalade was a grown cat, spawning Marmalades II, III and IV. When friends and neighbours had likewise been surprised with litters or furry little bundles of joy, they turned them over to Auntie Imogen, who was always too softhearted to refuse them, for fear they might otherwise be drowned. She happily shared chicken and sardines with them, and nursed sick and injured strays back to health if she could. This extended feline family, stabilising at a population of thirty or forty, filled a void in Auntie Imogen's life that some people said ought to have been filled by children and grandchildren.
The cats didn't appreciate visitors coming to Lockwood House, and though they had seen Olivia before, they found her presence scandalous. Whenever she moved, they stared, they bolted, and one or two of them hissed at her. They made her feel more alone than ever, without Auntie Imogen tutting, clucking and baby-talking to her darlings. The black cat alone followed close at Olivia's heels. Doubt crept after her too, as she wandered from silent room to silent room. Back home, far from the run-down reality of the house, she'd been eager to convince her parents that she was old enough to manage this last gift from Auntie Imogen. After all, Auntie Imogen had looked after the house from a relatively young age, hadn't she? Olivia had set out on the train that morning with a head full of plans to make Auntie Imogen proud. Now she looked around the sitting room, dismayed at the mess. Auntie Imogen's house had never been neat and tidy, and over the years it had only deteriorated. It looked as if some strange tide had washed through the house, leaving books and other detritus piled in drifts against the walls, under the tables, around armchairs and cabinets. The odours of cat urine and mould were much worse than Olivia remembered. She collapsed onto the sofa, displacing a rather irritated cat and a pile of books as she did so. The books went crashing to the floor, and cats stared at her, in assorted shades of horror and disgust.
"Sorry," said Olivia as she picked up the books, wondering why she felt the need to apologise to cats. She leafed through the book on the top of the pile - some tedious romance - and put it down again. Further careless movement in any direction risked toppling the stacks of books that populated every surface of the sitting room. The books Olivia craved were the ones on local history and legends, but for that she suspected she'd have to face the house's vast chaotic library.
First, though, she had to move the sofa. It stood right in the middle of the sitting room, so that from it she had a perfect view of the overgrown garden through the French windows, but the door to the hallway was behind her. She'd never liked that, but never before had she felt such an overwhelming presence of someone or something behind her, watching. She turned instinctively to look over her shoulder, just in time to see a huge tiger-striped tomcat launch himself towards her. He landed with dusty thump on the back of the sofa, inches from her face, bristling and with his ears pinned flat back as growled. Olivia leaned back nervously. She'd been clawed by cats before, and they had no qualms about going for the eyes… Then the cat's demeanour changed: his ears pricked up and he stared fascinatedly into space, before jumping back down off the sofa and disappearing in the direction of the kitchen. Olivia reminded herself to breathe. She knew the tabby, if she could trust her memory for feline faces: Tiger, who did his best to live up to his namesake. She'd have to find new homes for some of the cats (she'd promised her mother not to keep them all) much as it would weigh on her conscience to inflict Tiger on some unsuspecting kindly stranger.
Kicking off her uncomfortable shoes, Olivia got up, threw her weight against the end of the sofa, and with some effort pushed it as close up against the wall as she could get it. There, one job done. One step at a time, she'd restore this house to a beautiful home, something that Auntie Imogen would have been proud of.
The kitchen wouldn't take too much work. In her youth, Auntie Imogen had rarely cooked, and certainly not if she could charm somebody into inviting her to a restaurant or a dinner party. She'd never had much of an appetite either, watching her already slim figure, and in her elder years she'd barely eaten enough to keep a sparrow alive. The pantry might have been completely empty, were it not for the necessity of feeding those thirty or forty cats. Olivia would have to make a trip to the village store first thing in the morning. She could breakfast on tinned sardines if she had to, but what then would the cats eat? Olivia dragged her suitcases up the grand staircase in the front hall, dumping them in the same small bedroom where she'd slept during childhood visits in the summer holidays. Like knocking on the front door, it had been an act of habit, but the room had been kept tidier than most others in the house, and Olivia immediately sensed it might be a welcome retreat at some stage. She steeled herself to go and see what, in the most secret selfish corner of her heart, she'd come for.
What had once been the family's library had become the final resting place of fifty thousand books, and Olivia moved uneasily through the forest of dead wood. Like the rest of the house, paths wound between the stacks, arcane as animal tracks, but here more than anywhere else she feared collapse. She'd always envied Auntie Imogen the library. There was more she wanted to do here than restore the house to its former glory. She touched the dry leather of the nearest spine, whispered 'thank you' to the house. This was Auntie Imogen's real gift, the core of it wrapped in bricks and timber. The tears spilled over again, and Olivia walked hastily from the room. She had to do justice to the rest of Auntie Imogen's beloved but dilapidated house before she could claim the prize of the library.
In the half-light of dusk, from underneath the heavy branches of the old yew tree, Imogen gazed as if in a trance at the familiar silhouette of the house where she'd lived all her life. Lights brightened and dimmed in the windows as Olivia moved from room to room. After the funeral, Imogen had loitered around the house for a while, watching, but in short order she'd been forced to either get out or succumb to gnawing hungry jealousy. MY house, MY cats, MY books. She fretted continually over what Olivia would do with it all.
Imogen checked her wristwatch. It ticked, and the hands moved, but she wasn't remotely convinced it kept the time. It was only a memory of a physical object, as Verity had explained. Imogen had taken it off twice and discarded it as useless, but both times it had reappeared on her wrist without her noticing. Imogen supposed that time shouldn't matter to her all that much now that she was dead, but she felt that she'd been waiting for Verity's return. Just as she resolved to go back to the house and check a clock, she caught sight of a small dark figure picking its way daintily through the tombstones. A tall man followed after.
"Hello," said Verity, taking her usual place perched on the tombstone. Imogen had noticed whilst waiting that the name carved into the stone was indeed 'Verity', although lichen and weathering obscured the surname. It could be seen, however, that Verity had died in 1852.
"You've met Eli, haven't you?" said Verity, indicating the tall man.
Imogen looked long and hard at Eli. "We've met before."
Verity raised her eyebrows at Imogen's icy tone, but Eli appeared not to have noticed.
"And where did you dig him up?" said Imogen.
Verity looked appalled. "I didn't dig him up - I found him wandering around the churchyard. He can't stay long."
"I didn't see you at the funeral," Imogen said to him. "It was quite a service, though. Lots of people, and such lovely flowers!" She had to admit, she'd felt proud to see what a crowd her funeral had drawn. Not only begrudgingly dutiful relatives, in the end, but so many of her friends and neighbours.
"I don't like it," muttered Verity, kicking her heels against the face of her lichen-covered tombstone.
"You didn't?" said Imogen, taken aback. "But why?"
"Him. I don't like him. The vicar." Verity forced the word out like some revolting swearword, and pointed towards the pretty vicarage, its windows bright in the dusk. "Goodness only knows what he's up to."
Imogen craned her neck to see, although across the full distance of the churchyard, she hadn't a hope of seeing into the vicarage's cosy sitting room. "He seemed rather a nice young man, to me," she said. She'd very much enjoyed his sermon at her graveside… or what she'd heard of it. She hadn't wanted to get too close to the coffin again, but it had drawn her attention ruthlessly as she listened for the vicar's words amongst the rush of long grass in the wind. "He's only been here a couple of months, but he came to visit one day, and we had tea and biscuits. His services are charming - not too long - and he seemed… a nice young man."
"So you said. By the way, I passed on your message earlier." Verity looked irritated at the memory of it.
"Oh, thank you very much for -"
"I shan't be doing that again. It was absolutely humiliating. I blame that vicar as much as anybody. He got to her first, and no doubt he's poisoned her against me."
"Don't be like that, dear. You're both bright, lovely girls and I'm sure you'd make good friends if you just -"
"I doubt she'll ever speak to me again," Verity butted in. "It really was horribly, horribly embarrassing. Do you see why we don't mix with the living now?"
Imogen sighed, gazing at the looming shadows of the house. "I only hoped there might be an easier way."
Verity shook her head. "It won't be easy at all, but we've come up with a plan to make everything right. Just leave it to us."
 Note for American readers: 'biscuits' in this story refers to cookies.