Already the trip to Hope House was not going well.
“Mrs Shaw left no instruction in the matter.”
Paul had asked only one question, and this was the answer. The housekeeper’s blank tone confused him. He looked to Karen hoping for some feminine translation but she was wafting down the corridor looking at the family portraits. Paul was certain that the housekeeper was being sarcastic. No. Mocking? Was that a sneer doing battle with the muscles round her mouth? It was. His heart sank and her unblinking stare watched it do so. She drew herself up a little, restless, her hands clasped where the piped border of her floral pinny tied around her middle.
“I’m sorry,” he said, unapologetic, “I’ve forgotten your name.” That set his marker. The Housekeeper did not react, only took in a breath to say, “The kitchen is this way,” and stepped to the left as Karen returned from her wanderings.
“Oh, Mrs Massey,” Karen gushed, and Paul felt his neck prickle beneath the housekeeper’s sliding sideways glance. “Mrs Massey this place is an absolute jewel. So old. So… untouched.” Karen gave a deep sigh, tracing her slim fingers over the elaborately carved back of a chair resting by the doorway. “You mentioned the kitchen?” she beamed, her head tilting so that the curtain of wheat blonde hair swished back over her shoulder. Mrs Massey and Karen stepped ahead, Paul sulked behind.
The kitchen was a temple of damp, old soot and gadgetry left over from the Norman conquest. It was unimportant as far as Paul could see. In their shortish acquaintance Karen had not proved much of a cook. Generally they ate out at the bistro on the High Street nearest to her tiny town house. They were so familiar there they had their own table in the corner beneath the stairs, candle-lit and quiet.
“Colin comes up from Kingham in the van of a Thursday, with the groceries. You must make him a list. Here.”
Mrs Massey’s workman’s hands placed a pencil and a small floral bordered notebook onto the table. “Stuart and his boy bring the milk Tuesdays. Sometimes his wife.” Mrs Massey’s face flickered disapproval of this wife. “Welcome to Hope House.”
The tour, it appeared, was concluded.
Mrs Massey left them a cold collation in the dining room, a vast, dark, panelled rectangle of a place at the rear of the house. The french doors, some of the panes cracked or chipped, opened out onto the formal garden where a tangle of ivy and hemlock edged the unmowed meadow of a lawn. The flower beds had gone over in the baking heat, everything knotted and fallen and the yew hedges were towered over in the near distance by the beginnings of the nearby wood.
Karen ate an apple and stood, barefoot, in the farthest window as dusk ravelled the garden further, shadows netting across the few paths. Paul helped himself to the feast of meat and cheese.
“Wine?” he picked up the bottle, keen to pour himself a glass. He looked up, the french doors nudged slightly in the evening breeze. There was no sign of Karen.
He began his search with an amused enthusiasm, taking the bottle with him. It was a game, her dress strung on a branch here, her slip there. A splash in the lake, just visible now at the point where the garden met the wood.
She was in the water, skimming across its surface. He sat down on the bank and watched her swim. An owl hooted in the dark trees as he lugged at the wine. She was still swimming away, to the far bank. Was she after a certificate? Wait, where was she going?
“Karen?” he called out, his voice echoed and he knew at once that the noise was too loud, too brash, that calling out to her was a bad idea. He was unsettled by the way she did not look back. He drank, sips at first, then each swig emptying the bottle a little faster. He watched until she rose from the water at the far side of the lake and disappeared into the deeper darkness of the trees.
He made to follow, stumbling part way around the lake but, out here in the rural edge of the county, night fell fast, shadows and the wine conspiring to hide hazards. He tripped, his brief adventure ended with a plunge into the weed-choked sluice pond.
The wine soured inside him, and he dragged himself, teeth chattering, back to the house. He dripped into bed, a wine headache nagged at him, pushed thoughts of Karen aside as he fell into a deep pit of sleep. He awoke to the sound of Mrs Massey preparing breakfast. A clash of pans, a scent of black pudding.
This morning he recalled he had not pursued ‘the matter’ for which Mrs Shaw, absentee landlady, had ‘not left instruction’. He jogged Mrs Massey’s memory.
“Mrs Shaw has now left word. She says to say that the car is out of service and therefore will not be available.”
She served his breakfast in the dining room as Karen strolled in from the garden, still barefoot, her footwear of choice, this morning wearing a fusty frilled white nightgown which she must have pilfered from a Hope House wardrobe.
“The use of a car was in the advert.” Paul persisted, “I was told on the phone. We discussed it, unlimited use of the Hillman Hunter.”
Mrs Massey stared him down.
“We don’t need a car.” Karen picked at his scrambled eggs, “We can walk anywhere we choose.” She took a rasher of his bacon.
“We need a car to get to the station.” He was irritated. He’d forked out for this getaway and he’d left his own Austin in the parking garage back in the city after Karen had insisted on a romantic train journey.
“Not for a week or so.” She shrugged and ate a piece of his toast.
“Colin can run you back in the van,” Mrs Massey said and assured his defeat.
They walked out into the wood. Daylight, it seemed, did not penetrate the pitted canopy of leaves and branches. Karen, barefoot once more, walked ahead of him, impervious to the ruts and roots that knocked and snaggled at his Veldtschoen. He could not keep up, losing sight of her amongst the trees, her white dress, still another from the musty Hope House collection, making her look like a wraith wandering. His breath caught in his throat, panic making a bongo drum of his heart. This was not what he had had in mind. He had envisioned summer days spent in the bedroom, only leaving to make use of the long dining table or the green baize of the billiard table in what Mrs Massey had billed as ‘The Games Room’.
He was scuffed and scratched at and by the time he returned to the house his hair was snarled with twigs, jutting like antlers from his skull, carrying spiders that tiptoed ticklishly down his neck. Karen was already back, chatting in the kitchen with Mrs Massey, whose hands were bloodied as she gutted a rabbit at the table.
“Wasn’t it wonderful today?” Karen greeted him as behind her Mrs Massey pulled the skin from the rabbit as though it were nothing more than a furry jumper. “We’re so close to the wild here, you can touch it.”
She glowed where Paul sweated.
They spent the rest of the afternoon in the library. She glowed. He sweated.
The stew was rich. The dining room garden doors were opened once more, the outdoor scents mingling with the flavour of the meal. Paul’s fork clashed and jammed, the glistening nut brown liquid offered up a hollow crunching. What the—? He lifted the fork with its treasure. The tine was jammed into the eye socket of a small skull.
“It’s the rabbit.” Karen giggled “That’s lucky.”
“I thought that was its feet.” Paul found he had no appetite. The stew, looking shiny with grease, gave off an odd, gamey aroma. He looked up as she picked the meat from the leg bones, licking her fingers “You’re squeamish. You’re too used to minced meat. The obliteration of the animal.”
“I thought you were a vegetarian.” Paul sneered, recalling the surprise of this morning’s bacon theft.
He had no notion which of the many bedrooms she chose to sleep in later, only that whichever one it was it did not contain him.
His sleep was fitful, jarred with dreams, Karen strolling the long gallery, the portraits of all the Hope House matriarchs turned towards her. Karen, wearing a black cape made of something that might have been feathers, which shivered, giving the illusion of life. She wore nothing else and the effect ought to have been erotic but as she lifted an antlered stag’s skull onto her head, Paul started awake in a sweat of fear.
It was dark and no amount of clicking the switch of the bedside lamp would turn it on. Damn it. What had Mrs Massey said about the fuses? He needed a glass of water. There was no sink in the room and, subsequently, no glass in the bathroom. Paul began to feel he needed water with some whisky in it.
He was on the first turn of the half moonlit stairs when he heard laughter and a faint skirl of music. It reminded him of one of those whistly flutes that Andrew Garr played on Folk Night at the Greyhound. The sound was sinuous and dark, a tune Paul could not name and which compelled him to listen. The song wound itself into his head, he knew it, from long ago, his boyhood spent in the confines of his grandmother’s rose garden. Thorns. Hard clods of earth. He thought of his grandmother’s bungalow, the drinks cabinet carrying its sniff of caramel from the sherry decanted there. No. This was not a familiar tune from the oak veneer radiogram. Older than that. Farther away than that.
He was beginning to question if he was even awake when the creature flew at him. Feathers flapped across his face, claws scratched into his temple. It was not a bat. He cowered, saw the creature alight on the vast broken chandelier that teetered above the hall. An owl, its eyes watching him with a familiar disdain.
He needed a whisky, bugger the water. As he made his way down the stairs, crouched, beside the heavy turned oak balusters, the owl swooped at him again before gliding off into the darkness of the kitchen corridor.
Paul made a run for the games room, slamming the door shut behind him. As he lifted the decanter there was a shuffling sound. Woodlice swarmed over his knuckles. The whisky tasted of dust. He stood for several moments in the darkness, letting the taste dry his mouth. There was no way he was stumbling down into the cellar to fix the fusebox, let Mrs Massey earn her keep. The music drifted like a whisper once more, just at the edge of earshot.
Emboldened by the alcohol and the shifting shafts of moonlight, he took the stairs two at a time. On the east corridor he opened door after door to a maze of empty dust-sheeted ghost rooms. There were more spaces than seemed possible from the outside geography of the place. Where did this staircase lead? It was steep, cutting into the upper floor, more dark wood blotted his vision.
The music wheedled down at him, a drum now, a slow beat quickening, a candle light flickered from beneath the closed door that had the effect of making the dark planed wood look alive, shadowy limbs and boughs that creaked against him.
Paul did not care now where the staircase led. He cared about the walls he fumbled past, feeling for the door to his own room and there, the key he could turn in the lock. As he leaned back against its safety, he had no time to catch his breath before great wings unfurled with a stealthy sound. The bird slashed through the air at him, and a primal instinct shoved him forwards. He threw open the window and with a shriek the owl skimmed over his skull, soaring out into the darkness.
Paul shut the casement, pinching his finger in the metal hasp. Despite the summer heat he hid under the blankets and lay there, panting. From every corner of the house random sounds burst and faded. At two came a sudden rattle at the doorknob, nasty laughter and a sound of breaking wood as if they had found their way in. He waited, breathless for the nothing that happened. He peeked out to find the door still locked, the lights still out.
The music drifted on and away as though the players moved around the house, now above him serenading the attics, below him in the games room, the dining room, the percussive sounds of the kitchen; wooden spoon beating on wooden table, the rushing of taps.
Paul was exhausted in the morning, his meagre fits of sleep pecked at by owls and trampled by a stag which he hunted through the house, cornering it at last in a bathroom before he woke, his neck stiff with cold.
In the kitchen, when he came down, there were pans bubbling furiously on the ancient stove. At first glance it looked like blood but the scent was raspberry, strawberry, sugar.
“Jam?” he snapped after Karen began her paeon to the preserved. “Are you serious?”
“Jam making is serious. It’s a survival skill. Preserving the summer’s bounty for the harsh winter which may lie ahead.”
There was chutney too, a sharp vinegar scent and Mrs Massey was taking a tray loaded with rows of jars out of the oven, freshly sterilised.
“I thought we could take a wander, head off to the moors over at Hartsease.” Paul was annoyed to find Karen still mesmerised by her jam. Mrs Massey also did not turn from her task.
“You’ll not be wanting to go there.” She stated it as the baldest fact. Paul felt a keener interest in the moor.
“I very much want to go there.” He tried to stare her down. “I’m interested in the flora and fauna. The Pease Starwort and the Gloved Mole.” He’d had no idea that that tedious lecture from Pimm in accounts would prove a weapon. Pimm, a man never without his binoculars and the Observer Book of Birds.
“You don’t want to be trailing over Hartsease. Not in this heat.” Mrs Massey did not even shake her head, she was so certain. Paul glanced out at the grey and overcast morning.
It burned off of course, to a heat that might have ravaged a stranded Martian. Paul was too stubborn to turn back and be greeted by Mrs Massey’s sly grin and her array of glistening chutneys. He was also too far off course. He had thought he was following a track but the soil was dry and friable, the plants scrubby and he was soon far out of sight of familiar landmarks. There was only a distant line of thin trees on what passed for a hilltop.
The gnarled and skinny limbs of the heathers snatched at his ankles as a buzzard keened overhead, vulture like, waiting for him to drop dead. Paul knew the bird would have to fight Mrs Massey who would, no doubt, scavenge his corpse for casserole.
Daisies, or something like, he wasn’t Pimm after all, strewed the tummocks of dry grass. He recalled meeting Karen that first time. She was at the end desk in the typing bureau, barefoot, her legs trailing into the walkway so that he tripped over her feet. He had been dazzled by the daisies on her dress, the white of the peter pan collar, the chiffon of the sleeves. She was new and utterly unlike the others, a frivolous bouquet amidst their A-line crimplene skirts and cardigans.
The Rabbit’s Foot pub looked shut but, as Paul approached, a woman emerged from the door to shake a teatowel free of its crumbs, and she ushered him inside.
“You look almost melted,” she commented as she stepped behind the bar, “what can I get you?”
He recalled the local ruby ale he’d sampled in Highbury at their lunch after stepping off the train. It seemed a century ago.
“I’ll have a pint of Fair Pretender.”
There was laughter from the three men behind him who were playing cards.
“You won’t since they grounded the dray lorry on Stoat’s Back Bridge this morning.” The first man spoke, none of them looked up at Paul, concentrating instead on their cards.
“Stoat’s Back Bridge?”
He watched their play. It was unlike any card game he’d witnessed, the lowest card won at the first trick, highest at the second before the third man put in a card painted with an image of a man hanging upside down from a wayside tree.
“Wild man,” he barked, and with a snicker, snatched up the deck.
“The bridge outside.” The landlady pointed through the window on the opposite side of the building and Paul saw the steep hump in the road just beyond the pub. He watched as the third man dealt another hand.
“On account of it looking like a…”
“Stoat’s back.” Paul could see the vicious and athletic undulation and wondered how anyone walked up it without a ladder, never mind tried to get a couple of axles over it.
“Terrible mess it was. In light of which,” the landlady began, “I’ve got some bottles of Harsh Winter left over and I have the last of the Blind Man’s Glory on tap if you’d care.”
Paul sipped Harsh Winter from the freshly opened bottle and felt the strong brew seep into him.
“So, is this the only pub on Hartsease Moor?” He felt a need to make small talk. The third man at the card table threw in the Hanged Man once again. It was an odd deck, the cards foxed and dog-eared. Moons and stars, ships and stone circles. Paul guessed it was some odd kind of child’s deck, like Happy Families but with a tinge of murder.
“Now that’s a question…” The first card man ranged his gaze around the almost empty room. The landlady wiped a glass in thought.
“There’s The Thrown Shoe. That’s a way further on,” she gave a vague nod window-wards, “to the east, more’n ten mile.”
The card men were shaking their heads and dealing out the Tower, the Priestess, The Riders and yes, the last card, a black cloak raised above a corpse-white figure, definitely Death. Possibly not a child’s deck then.
“East? It’s West if it’s half a mile up and over,” the first card man declared. The second waved his fan of cards in the opposite direction.
“What? It’s over down to the South. Give it over.”
“It’s North. Up by Stim Cross. Half a league an’ more past Gibbet Nook.”
It appeared that The Thrown Shoe lay in every direction. Paul took another sip of Harsh Winter. Beneath the window a younger man was filling in a crossword puzzle with a patchworked colour scheme of felt-tip pens.
“Gimmer trolled over there last Yule.” The sound of his voice, though dull and matter of fact, halted everyone.
“Oh yes. I recall.” The landlady stared eastward into the middle distance. “And he isn’t back yet, neither.”
Paul understood that his next question was foolhardy, but he asked it anyway.
“Could anyone give me directions back to Hope House?”
At the name, a tiny bent old woman sitting in the corner stopped her knitting and piped up.
“Hope House? She marrying out again then?”
The landlady turned to her.
“Shush up, you. Look, you’ve dropped a stitch.” The old lady began to search her tangled knitting for holes. The landlady turned her attention back to Paul. “How d’you want to get back to Hope House then? As the crow flies?”
Several routes were offered, each more confused than the last. From this confusion came argument and amidst the worst of the shouting, knitting needle stabbery and broken bottles, Paul headed out.
Darkness fell as if it was trying to kidnap him, a cloak blanking out his vision. He headed, in the brief winks of clouded moonlight, towards a stand of trees in the far distance, the shape of which looked familiar, possibly the back edge of the Hope House wood.
He could see the house lights winking through the trunks and branches and here, he was certain, the shimmering ghost of Karen in her white slip dress. She was dancing in the garden. Or was that Mrs Massey’s washing on the line? Was that Mrs Massey at the kitchen door with a loaded gun? No. Only the playing shadows of the sycamore tree.
As he walked he became aware that he was not alone. His eyes strained into the striated darkness, the moon casting silver light here and there to show him his way. A bridle chinked, equine breath fogged and nickered. At the edge of the moonlight, the flank of a horse, many hands high, in the darkness ahead of him. He turned away, his aching, blistered feet finding the trodden path, the one leading to the library and the rickety garden windows. He slept like the dead under the piano, hidden beneath a rug.
The next morning, Karen, seated at a spinning wheel in the drawing room, reeled off skeins of a black yarn. Paul had no desire to see the sheep that the kinked wool had been shorn from, heavy with its scent of lanolin and damp ditch.
Had he been able to recall the location of The Rabbit’s Foot or, indeed, The Thrown Shoe, Paul would have run there rather than brave the kitchen but his hunger growled and since there was no alternative he headed downstairs.
The kitchen dresser was a jewel box of jam jars; ruby and garnet glittered with daylight, beside them the emerald of green tomato chutney. The table was bare so he moved to the fridge. It was empty save for a pig’s head which grinned at him from its bloodstained tin plate. In the larder trotters steeped in their own jelly and the rest of the pig carcass hung from a hook.
“Mrs Massey is going to teach me pork butchery.” Karen abandoned her spinning for a moment to enlighten him. “We’re going to cure bacon.”
Paul saw a cheap joke but kept silent. He had no desire to end up on that larder hook.
He took the bus into Highbury where the castle proved dry and hot, the tall walls giving no shade, the few rooms offering dull displays. At the pub the ale on offer made his head ache, a dull thrum not alleviated by a stroll in the public park where a large black dog pursued him, sniffing his every footstep. The heavy air began to crackle.
He missed the last bus at three o’clock and walked along the high road as the air thickened. The rain hung back, a drop here, a splash there, uncertain, waiting.
He did not question whether Karen would spend the night with him, but headed to bed feeling hot and ill, with Hope House almost silent around him, save for the music playing in the kitchen. That damned music. Didn’t that whistling idiot know another tune?
In the night thunder cracked the sky, lightning searing the landscape, making Hartsease look lunar and alien. Paul stood in the window looking out. As he did so he was not surprised to see Karen, once more in her thin-strapped slip, gliding barefoot through the garden.
This time she was heading through the shrubbery. Where was she going?
As he asked the question he saw the three riders gathered by the stables, the horses, even from his vantage point heavy flanked, hands high. Lightning cracked, picking out the riders clad in sooty-looking swagger coats. The leader, his hair like black fingers around a stark white face, reached down, his arm catching at Karen’s slight, fleet figure and raising her into the saddle before him.
Paul did not cry out. He took a step back, unwilling to be seen, as the lightning flared across the sky.
The next morning he was determined to leave.
“But Mrs Massey and I haven’t finished our knitting.” Karen held up an amorphous black thing that might have been a blanket. “And there’s the brawn to press.”
Paul was going home. He was going back to the office tomorrow and he was going up to the technical drawing office to see Gillian. Normal Gillian in her cardigan and her A-line skirt and her lace-up shoes.
He found the car keys in the small cupboard in the laundry room. The car itself was not out of service at all, starting on the second turn of the key and without a word of farewell Paul drove off. There was a faint whiff of fox from the back seat but other than that the car seemed fine. Paul imagined Mrs Massey in hunting garb chasing down Reynard at Hartsease and as he glanced in the rear view he saw her at the scullery door, hands clasped in front of her floral pinny, watching him go. He tooted the horn.
Seven and a half hours later he was brought back in ignominy, the Hunter, with a flattened tyre and dented bumper, towed behind Jammer Gann’s tractor. Paul had been pulled out of the ditch at the side of Stoat’s Back Bridge and required to help with some haymaking and the shearing of several sheep before Jammer had a chance to escort him back to Hope House.
What a homecoming. No one cared. Karen emerged from the scullery door, barefoot and trailing the hideous black blanket.
“It is done!” she declared lifting it above her head, her hands reaching as if offering the smelly knitted creature to the skies, her head tilting into the hot sun.
Hungry, Paul shoved by her and into the kitchen where the pig’s head was now being sliced at by chief culinary surgeon, Mrs Massey.
“Enjoy your drive?” she asked without sarcasm.
“Is there anything to eat?” he demanded. Mrs Massey opened her mouth to say, “There’s brawn…” but Paul stopped her with a raised hand.
There was a packet of crisps in the bottom of his overnight bag and a box of Toffifee coagulated by the summer heat into a volcanic nugget of caramel and chocolate.
For the rest of the afternoon he hid under the piano in the library looking at atlases of all the places he could be. He fell into an uncomfortable sleep and woke to a tapping sound. The garden doors at the far end of the library were open, blowing in the wind, the brass handle knocking against the folded shutters making a tap, tapping sound like someone’s knuckles, persistent, determined. Paul hunkered, not breathing, not moving. He shut his eyes. The door stopped tapping. Paul breathed out at last just as behind him the hall door blew open with sudden violence, the wind whistled in wild and hard, snatching at him. He would not leave through the garden doors. He could not. The wind pushed at him, he felt himself sliding across the broken parquet of the library flooring. The garden door cracked wide open.
Paul ran. Ahead he glimpsed Karen, her skin white in the high moonlight, heading into the wood. He was not in control, not of his feet, his breath, his heartbeat. On and on he raced, leaping over a fallen trunk, dashing, rushing. Before him, in a small clearing, she halted, raised the black kinked yarn cloak above her head, turned towards him and vanished.
The shock halted him. Where? What? The world tilted trees for earth, earth for sky before the stag’s carcass rushed up at him from the damp ground, the tine of the first antler punctured his stomach, his gut unfurling like fleshy ribbon, another tine pierced his heart, pricking at its beat, one thud more so that he could witness where Karen, in her black cloak, fell back out of the night, the Riders, her cohort, behind.
Paul rose up out of the ribs of the dead deer, wind blowing through the ventricles of his enlarged heart, the bellow sounding from him, vibrating as he ran. Like the wind. A wild man.