ESL Reading Texts – ‘The Rivals’

Reading in English is an excellent way of improving your vocabulary, as well as maintaining your level. The story below is a short story called ‘The Rivals‘ written by Vivien Alcock. It is a story about a young boy who moves to a new house and discovers that one of the houses next to his home is haunted. But the boy doesn’t believe in ghosts.

Definitions for some of the words you might not recognise are written below. Use a dictionary for any others you don’t understand, or try to understand the meaning from context.


blinking: to shut and open your eyes quickly (lampeggiante)
eager hands: enthusiastic or maybe impatient hands (Mani impazienti)
Dover soles: a type of flat fish
smell fishy: to smell similar to a fish
praise: express warm approval or admiration (lodare)
milkman: the man who delivers milk to your house
haunted: a place inhabited by ghosts
lace curtains: a type of curtain (Tende di pizzo)
gothic windows: (Finestre gotiche)
had changed hands: has been sold
screaming: (urlando)
wailing: (vagito)
dirt cheap: very cheap / for a low price
pale: (pallido / chiaro)
aphids: (afidi)
tree stump: the bottom part of a tree that has been cut down (tronco d’albero)
lawn: (prato inglese)
daisies and dandelions: types of flower
trunk of a chestnut tree: (tronco d’albero)
his joke fell flat: his joke was not appreciated
giggled: (ridacchiò)
thickhead: a stupid person
glumly: unhappily
studious: (studioso)
pond life: (La vita del stagno)
candlelight: (lume di candela)


humorously: (umoristicamente)
draughts: movement of air in a house or room
sulky: (imbronciato)
mumbled: (borbottò)
sniffed: (annusato)
scowled: (accigliò)
a lily: a flower (giglio)
wriggling: (svicolare)
tiptoed: to walk on your toes, silently
despairing: (disperato)
unearthly: (soprannaturale)
gaunt: (scarno)
gown: an item of clothing, like a dress
wringing its hands: (Stringendo le mani)
ashen face: (cinereo)
dreadful: terrible
cowering: (rannicchiati / accasciarsi)
gullible: (ingenuo)
hollow eyes: (occhi vuoti)
ravaged: (devastato)
the apparition: the ghost
chilling: making something cold
melting: (dissolversi / sciogliersi)
dripping: (gocciolante)
prints: marks made by your feet (impronte)
gloatingly: (gongolare)

The Rivals

by Vivien Alcock

JOHN PEARCE was a clever boy. Every Speech Day at school would find him, blinking behind his thick spectacles, walking nervously up to the platform to receive prize after prize in his thin, eager hands.

rivals - the house

Everyone said he would go far, but probably not on his feet, which were flat as Dover soles, and inclined to smell fishy in hot weather. His English teacher, the only one not full of praise, said he had no imagination, but this was not quite fair. John believed in many things he had not seen: atoms and molecules, microbes and magnetic fields. He did not however believe in ghosts. So when the milkman told them the morning after he and his parents had moved into their new home, that the house next door was haunted, he laughed and said, ‘Rubbish! I don’t believe in ghosts.’

‘John is so sensible,’ her mother said. She stepped outside and looked at the houses on either side. ‘Which one?’ she asked , with a little excitement.

It was of course, the one on the left, the sinister side: a dark house, the colour of old cat food, it’s tiny gothic windows masked with heavy lace curtains. No clear light or reason could penetrate the house through those greying curtains. Put in some modern windows, and clean curtains, John thought, and there’d be no more talk of ghosts.

The house had changed hands six times in the last three years, the milkman told them, handing over two bottles of milk. No one could stand it any longer. All that screaming and wailing, footsteps and icy draughts of air. It cost the owners a fortune just trying to keep it warm! The present owners had been there only five weeks. ‘Got it dirt cheap,’ he said. ‘Thought they were getting a bargain, poor devils. I give them six months….’

After breakfast, Mrs Pearce sent John out into the garden, saying she could manage better on her own. No, he was not to go up to his room and stick his nose in to a book. He worked too hard at his studies. The sunlight and fresh air would do him good. He was looking pale.

John wandered down the neat concrete path, examined the aphids on the roses with a critical eye, murmured the Latin names of all the plants he recognized, and made a note to look up those he did not. Then, with nothing left to do, he climbed onto a tree stump and looked over the high wall into the garden next door. There, on a neglected lawn, ankle-deep in daisies and dandelions, a young girl was standing, bouncing a ball against the thick trunk of a chestnut tree. A pretty girl, with a face like a flower and long dark curling hair. His heart sank a little: he could have wished she were plain. It was not that he liked pretty girls, far from it, but he knew from experience that they did not like him. His learning did not impress them.

His clever remarks, his carefully prepared jokes, fell flat. They giggled behind their hands, called him Four Eyes and yawned in his face when he tried to share his knowledge. All the time he was speaking to them, he could see their eyes looking across the classroom to some good-looking thickhead on the other side. Pretty girls, he thought glumly, were always stupid. Yet he was so lonely.

He would have liked a friend. Perhaps she had brothers? He thought hopefully of a quiet ,studious boy, like himself. They could go round the Science Museum together, not just rushing around pressing buttons to make things light up, but slowly and seriously. They could collect pond life in jam jars and study it under his microscope. They could have picnics in his room, discussing the theories of Pythagoras by candlelight. If only she had such a brother. ‘Hello,’ he called.

The girl dropped her ball, which vanished in the long grass. Then she smiled and came towards him. ‘Hello,’ she said.

‘I’m John Pierce. We’ve just moved in.’

‘Yes, I know.’

‘What’s your name?’

‘Lucy Wilkins.’

There was a little silence. She seemed shy. He studied her. Her eyes were remarkable: a pale sparkling blue, cool as water, and fringed with long black lashes. Her voice was clear and sweet, and rather posh. Perhaps she went to a boarding school and was lonely in the holidays. Perhaps she too would be glad of a friend. It was pity she was pretty, and bound to be stupid. He asked her if she had any brothers or sisters, and was disappointed when she shook her head.

‘I’m an only child too,’ he said. And for a moment, because she was so pretty, he hoped (foolishly he knew) that she would say ‘Let’s be friends . I have always wanted a brother. It’s lonely on your own.’ But she did not, of course. She simply smiled and said nothing.

the rivals - girl playing

Already she was looking bored and her eyes were sliding away from him, glancing back at the dark house as if even its gloomy privacy would be better than his company. Any moment she would make an excuse -she had to help with the dishes or the dusting or wash her hair. He wished he could think of something to say to keep her there…

‘Have you seen any good ghosts recently?’ he asked humorously.

‘Oh you’ve heard already!’ she said crossly. ‘Who told you that?’

‘That your house was supposed to be haunted? The milkman. Icy draughts, strange wailings, footsteps in the night; all the usual old rubbish… You don’t mean you believe in it, do you?’ he asked.

She stared back at the dark house and shivered. ‘Yes.’

Poor silly girl, he thought. He explained to her kindly that there were no such things as ghosts. Icy draughts in an old house were only to be expected ‘You should buy some plastic filler and seal up the cracks.’

She looked sulky and mumbled. ‘You don’t know what it is like.’

She sniffed and stuck out her lower lip. And the wailing, he said that would be wind in the chimneys. It was funny. You would think people would be glad to have their fears and worries explained away in a rational manner, but they never were. He was not surprised when, instead of looking grateful, she merely scowled.
‘ıt’s haunted! It is. I know it is.’ She said stubbornly.

He laughed. ‘Have you ever seen a ghost. Actually seen one?’


The little liar! ‘What did it look like?’

She hesitated. Caught her there. She got no more imagination than I have, John thought with satisfaction. ‘Oh, horrible, horrible,’ she muttered at last, obviously unable to think of anything better. ‘Wicked!’ ‘and it’s me it’s after, I know it is. It wants to drive me out… Oh, it’s easy for you to laugh. You’re safe next door.’

‘ I suppose it walks when the moon is full?’ he asked.

She nodded. ‘In that room,’ she said, pointing to a top window overlooking the garden. ‘At midnight , that’s when it comes. Searching looking for me!’

‘Why don’t you just lock the door and shut it in?’

‘There is no key,’ she said, and her voice trembled, ‘for a door like that.’

Poor silly, pretty little fool. She really was frightened, he thought, and his heart filled with a warm protective love that he had only felt once before, when he had seen a little white mouse in his mother’s laboratory.

Wanting to comfort her, he wanted to stay all the night in the haunted room.

‘I’m not afraid,’ he said, and she looked at him with huge eyes, as if unable to believe anyone could be so brave. Or so foolish.

‘The moon is full tonight,’ she whispered.

They decided not to tell their parents. Parents, John informed her, could never be relied on not to produce objections to the most innocent and harmless schemes…. At ten to midnight, John knocked softly on the side door of the haunted house. It opened immediately. She must have been waiting behind it. Her face was as pale as a lily in the shadows. ‘come,’ she whispered and led the way upstairs. Softly though he trod, the stairboards creaked and groaned beneath his feet. If anyone hears, John thought, they’ll take us for ghosts. But he didn’t want to be caught. It might be difficult to explain…

‘Have your parents gone to bed yet?’ he whispered.

‘Yes, a long time ago..’

They went up two flights of stairs, along a narrow passage, and then Lucy opened a door. It creaked. The hinges need oiling, he thought. Now they were in a large room. Bright moonlight struggled through the thick lace curtains, patterning the floor with wriggling little worms of light. John tiptoed across to the window and pushed them back.

‘That’s better,’ he said, and looked round. There was no furniture, and the floor was carpeted only with dust. The wallpaper was dark. Opposite the window, a large mottled mirror, in a heavy frame, gleamed dully in the moonlight. On the left, there was a pale marble fireplace, an empty grate, and two cupboards in the alcoves on either side. He opened each door in turn and shone his torch inside. Empty. Dirty. Dusty.

‘No wonder your ghost only visits once a month,’ he whispered, grinning, ‘if this is the room you give it.’

Lucy did not answer. She was sitting in a corner, with her arms wrapped nervously from the door to the window and back again. In the garden, an owl hooted. It was very cold. Strangely cold for a summer night.

‘That’s because it’s a corner house,’ John explained. It catches the wind both ways. Draughty.’ And he told her about air currents and wind velocity. He did not know if she was listening. Her eyes still moved from the door to the window and back again.

A clock began to strike twelve. The curtains flared wildly at the window. The house creaked and shuddered. There was a thin wailing from the garden below.

‘The wind is coming up,’ John said. ‘They said on the radio the weather was going to change.’

Now there were screams, wild, despairing, unearthly.

‘Cats,’ John said, and began to tell Lucy about the mating habits and aggressive displays of cats.

‘Look!’ she whispered.

The door was opening, slowly, slowly. A figure appeared. Thin as a candle, it flickered into the moonlight. Its face was grey and gaunt, its white gown all spattered and splashed with blood.

rivals - the ghost

‘How do you do?’ John said, getting to his feet and blinking at it short-sightedly. ‘Are you Lucy’s mother?’

It drifted towards him, moaning, and wringing its hands. Its eyes were burning like coals in its ashen face.

‘Aren’t you feeling well?’ john asked, uneasily. He took off his glasses and wiped them on his handkerchief. But when he put them on again, there was no improvement. The lady (for it appeared to be female) looked dreadful.

‘Can we get you anything? An aspirin?’ He looked towards Lucy for help, but she was cowering in her dark corner, and did not move.

‘Oh I am murdered, murdered!’ the lady wailed. ‘Murdered in my bed!’

A joke! A practical joke. They had planned it together to make a fool of him.

‘Ha, ha, ha, very funny,’ he said, furious that they should have thought him so gullible. ‘But I’m sorry. It’s wasted on me. I don’t believe in ghosts. And I’m afraid its time I was getting back. I promised to help Mum in the morning.’

‘Murdered’ the lady repeated, staring at him with hollow eyes, ‘Murdered in my bed, the wicked devils.’

He stared back at her stolidly, refusing to be frightened, and a look of impatience came into her ravaged face. ‘Murdered,’ she repeated slowly, as if to a backward child. ‘October the second, it was, in the year of disgrace, 1872’

‘That’s a long time ago. I should forget it if I were you,’ John said, and was surprised how high his voice sounded, almost like a scream. It seemed a long way to take a practical joke. It occurred to him that perhaps the lady was mad.

‘Don’t you believe me?’ the apparition asked, her icy breath chilling his cheek.

‘No, he said. His pulse was racing now. He was burning and shivering. It wasn’t fear, he told himself.

‘Look at me!’ she came nearer and John backed away until he was against the wall. He did not want to look at her. His glasses must be misting up in the freezing air, and that was why her face seemed to be melting, dripping from her bones like candle wax.

‘Oh, please! You must believe in me, you must.’ The lady moaned. ‘Even the gods die for want of faith. I need your fear. I can only exist in your mind. Oh please believe in me, or I am lost.’

‘ I am sorry,’ John said stubbornly, his teeth chattering. ‘I don’t believe in ghosts. I don’t and I won’t.’

The figure seemed to dwindle, fading away like smoke. ‘please,’ it wailed faintly. ‘Oh , please believe in me!’

John was shaking all over now, but he managed to say ‘No.’

‘Oh I am murdered, murdered!’ sighed the ghost, its voice failing. Then it was gone. The boy, his back to the wall, slid slowly down till he was sitting on the floor. His face was white, fixed, terrified.

‘She’s gone! She’s gone. You did it.’ The girl cried, smiling and clapping her hands together.

‘It –it was a trick!’ he babbled. ‘I know it was! You had a hidden projector. A video tape! It’s just a trick. You had something up your sleeve!’

The girl was dancing on the floor. Her feet made no sound on the bare boards. They left no prints in the dust. Now she danced in front of mirror and there was no reflection. Her eyes were shining, literally shining like twin lamps.

As john watched her in terror, she cried gloatingly, ‘It’s mine, all mine now, the whole house! She’s gone that horrible creature. All mine now. The whole house. Always scolding, always criticizing. Saying I shouldn’t walk in the sun. Saying I didn’t know how to haunt properly , just because she s been dead longer than I have. Why should I care for her silly rules? I’ll show her! Oh, I will be ghastly!’

She came dancing towards him and she was all moonlight. ‘Thank you, thank you’ she whispered. ‘I love you.’

rivals - the ghost dances

And she vanished. As he sat staring at the empty room, he felt an icy touch on his lips as soft and wet as a snow flake. He never saw her again. The two houses were sold within the year, and a block of flats built where they had stood. John and his parents moved to the other side of the town. He grew up, won more prizes and became rich and famous, and happy enough. But he never married. Sometimes, on a summer night he would stand by his window and sniff the sweet smell of night-scented stocks, and see the pale roses glimmering in the moonlight. Then he would smile and say, ‘A pretty girl once loved me.’

Did you understand?

If you would like to see how much you understood, try answering these questions….


  1. Can you describe John’s physical appearance and his personality?
  2. Who told John that the house was haunted?
  3. How did John react to this information?
  4. What made people believe that the house was haunted?
  5. What did John think caused these things?
  6. How did John meet Lucy?
  7. How often did Lucy say the ghost appeared?
  8. What did she say the ghost wanted?
  9. Why did John offer to stay in the haunted room with Lucy?
  10. Describe the ghost that appeared at midnight.
  11. What did the ghost want John to do?
  12. Why did the ghost eventually disappear?
  13. How did John feel after the ghost disappeared?
  14. How did John know that Lucy was also a ghost?
  15. What happened to John after Lucy vanished?