27# The Lovers

Photo: Sira Anamwong. Freedigitalphotos.net

mermaid

“If you come any closer I’ll drown you,” she said from the rocks.

“If I pull you out of the water you’ll die,” he said, reciting the line as he always did when he came too close to her.

The man and the woman from their separate vantage points stood sadly surveying each other from a distance, as they had done, year after year. The man had kept a weekly vigil by the lake for so long now, that people had stopped asking him when he would settle down and take a wife. Now the local people avoided him because they had watched him grow into someone strange. “Handsome, but witch-touched,” the old women would say about him as he walked alone down the street.

Tonight, a lilac moon hung over the heads of the lovers; the last pink of day mingling with the black of night over the dark waters and the sloping pines to the east. The man’s back was to the pine forest, he faced the water’s edge and felt in the pocket of his woollen coat for the gift he had brought.

“I have something for you,” he said, producing a wooden box. It was small, made of dark wood like mahogany, and criss-crossed with a lattice filigree of darting silver lines. It glinted in the moonlight as he held it out to the woman in the water.

“What is it?” She asked.

“Would you like to see it?” He stepped closer, somewhat timidly holding it out towards her. Seeing her reaction he cried,

“No don’t go back, you won’t hurt me!” but she was afraid. “My family will be watching,” she said, and made as if to swim away, but then he opened the box with a click, and laid it on the ground between them.

“What do you wish, more than anything?” He asked.

She looked up at him, blinking her wide iridescent eyes, then answered plainly, “for us to never be apart.”

The man smiled, and a light caught like a spark inside the box. It soon became a glow which spread into the air like smoke, and was sweet smelling, and made a noise like chimes as it floated above them.

“You can drown me now,” he said, and held out his arms.

“You have made magic!” She cried, feeling the smoke tingle as it settled upon her skin, each contact blazing like a star.

“Love makes even ordinary men magicians,” he said, as she gave in at last to her nature, leaning in to grasp him with soft, wet, ivory arms.

At last embracing, with a kiss they froze, and became two stone lovers. The box which had lain between them closed with a click. The waters lapped ferociously at the rocks, and cries filled the air like bleating gulls. A dark hand grasped out to grab the box, and pull it beneath the waves.

Years passed, but no one came back to the lake. It seemed as if the Lovers had been forgotten.

* * * * *

Centuries later, a young couple wandered down to the lakeside. The man was a stranger, but he held the hand of a local girl.

“That’s a funny sort of bridge isn’t it?” he said, pointing to a misshapen stone edifice by the rocks.

“Oh,” the girl shrugged. “Those are the Lovers.” Seeing his blank look she continued with a playful glance back at him. “A man, and a mermaid, it’s an old folktale – oh never mind.” They were quiet for a moment, and both stood surveying the huddle of weatherworn stone which now resembled a little bridge from the land to the water.

“My Grandfather thought there were really mermaids in the lake, so he would never let me come here.” She said. “I once had a joke with him – said that mermaids only drown boys, but he insisted that the mer-people had been very angry about their daughter getting seduced and turned to stone, and that they would likely try to do me a mischief anyway.”

She picked up a stone and hurled it towards the lake. It hit the surface, then seemed to hang right on the edge for a moment, before slowly sinking below the waters. The girl rubbed her eyes, there were ripples spreading all over the surface of the lake like a shudder.

“Let’s go,” she grabbed the boys’ hand and pulled him away from the water, but he said “wait a moment,” and dashed off towards the rocks. He had darted down towards the stone bridge snatching something up from the water’s edge, it was a box. The couple set off back the way they had come, as behind them, a green hand slunk back down below the water.

“Where did you find that?” The girl’s voice could be heard to say.

“I saw it just sitting there, on the rocks.”

“That’s funny, I don’t remember seeing it. What’s inside do you think?”

“Don’t know, I can’t open it.”

“Wait until we get back, we can use my brother’s tools.”

“But I don’t want to break it,”

“Then take it to the Friday market,” Her voice was barely audible now,

“There’s an old man I’ve seen down there who sells things like that…”

Soon they were gone, and the forest had swallowed up the sound of their voices. In time a light rain began to fall, washing over the faces, hands and bodies of the stone lovers, now merged together, indistinguishable from each other, half in, and half out of the water.

22: The Guest. Part Two.

Image Simon Howden, freedigitalphotos.net

ID-10025542

Julie eventually called the police.

To be honest I was surprised that none of the other guests had, but then really we were the last of the immediate family, I suppose everyone just assumed I would do it.

When they came they asked the usual questions, and we all sat in the ballroom and drank tea and answered them in bewilderment. No one knew anything. No one knew Uncle enough to know anything.

“He was something of an enigma you see.” Julie said. I just laughed at her.

“He wanted everybody to think he was an enigma,” I corrected her. He was just an arrogant prick I was thinking to myself. The letter my grandfather had written to him was etched into my mind. I hated that there were family secrets that my uncle had withheld from us, that he might have gone against Grandfather’s wishes on anything.

“Are you alright, do you want to head back to the city?” Julie asked me anxiously after the police had left to search the grounds.

“No, of course not. We can’t leave not knowing a thing.”

“But you look so tired, and I’m tired, it’s this place, it’s so–I don’t know…”

“You go. I can take care of things from here.”

Julie looked up at me through pink-tinged eyes.

“Are you sure?I really don’t want to abandon you here.” She was desperate to leave.

I told her to go home and she was gone that afternoon. As if taking that as their cue, most of the others abandoned ship too. In the end there was only myself, Marshall and Frank. Frank stayed as he and I went back a long way, to university, he was a friend of the family, Marshall stayed I think because my uncle owed him money. I don’t blame him one bit, but he never got a penny of it back.

We, the three of us, spent the evening discussing events in minute details. When was the last time anyone had seen or heard from Uncle? What correspondence had we had with him? What had we discovered in our searches of the house? Most of it was fruitless chat that led nowhere, I got the distinct impression that all of us knew things about my Uncle that they didn’t want to discuss with the others. Enemies? Of course he had none.

The police found nothing on the first sweep round. They said some officers would come round in the morning to continue the hunt.

“What are you looking for exactly?” Frank asked them. Marshall and I exchanged a look between ourselves and the officer he addressed shifted awkwardly.

Frank cleared his throat. “I mean, you don’t think they’ll be bodies do you?”

That night I dreamt I heard the sound again, that bellowing. I dreamt I was being hunted down by something I could never fully see. It was like a whirling mass of dark hair, sticky with blood which glinted where the moonlight struck it whenever I happened to turn to see the thing advance upon me. I ran until I stumbled, I cried out for my grandfather and I thought I could hear him shouting to me from somewhere through the mist. I called for him, but even in the dream I was still searching for my uncle. The beast was right up behind me and I felt like it would catch me at any minute, I felt myself slowing, and as I did so, it did too. It hunted my steps and drove me forwards. I looked up and saw, illuminated by a ghostly glow, the copse. The mists parted and I saw it clearly; there was a little chapel with a light in the window nestled right in its heart. But something moved and suddenly the light was extinguished. I looked again and the chapel was a ruin. I ran towards it, but it appeared to crumble away to rubble as I advanced. When I reached the copse, I saw that it was as I had always known it, nothing but straggles of overgrowth and mournful, barren trees. I turned then, and looked for the beast, but it had completely vanished. I woke, thinking I heard a howling, and could not get back to sleep.

The police found the room my uncle had been sleeping in. Frank owned up and said he had thought it was just a storage room on the ground floor, and I can’t say I blamed him. It was filled with junk. There were mops and ruined towels covered in paint; some broken cabinets and a couple of pieces of awful wall art. The bed had been almost totally obscured by boxes. Over in the corner, tucked under a mass of bed linen, they found a suitcase.

I don’t know why, but something about seeing that suitcase filled with my uncle’s possessions finally made me feel something. Perhaps I had only ever seen him as a caricature, now, gazing at the open case I saw his life encapsulated in the few things he treasured and had chosen to hide. The police showed it to me, they asked if I could identify it as belonging to my uncle. His name wasn’t on anything. There was a diary, his shaving things, a newspaper clipping from the restaurant he had owned many years ago. There was a battered copy of Hemmingway’s The Sun Also Rises, and tucked away within it, a photograph of a woman.

I shan’t go into the rest. I don’t like to think about it. There was a diary too which the police showed to me. I immediately recognised my uncle’s handwriting. How badly I wanted to get out of there! I didn’t want to read his words, but I was suddenly gripped with a desire to find him as I did, to put an end to all the mystery and the waiting. As my eyes scanned the scrawled paragraphs, brief passages about minutiae seemed to me to be obscuring something. I read on a little more and then stopped short.

“Anything in there you think relates to his disappearance?” The officer asked me, waiting.

“No, not a thing,” I lied to him. I didn’t tell him how scared my uncle must have been, to write some of those things. They would find out for themselves.

Kristen has just reminded me to check the blue bathroom on the ground floor, she thinks there might be rats. She says she can hear them scurrying about near her room and thinks they may be nesting in there. I think she’s being jumpy but I’ll check now anyway. I could leave it til tonight but I hate turning my back on that window that looks out onto the lawn. I keep thinking I can see a light in the copse…

It’s 6am. I had that dream again. Every time it’s like I feel the thing’s breath on my neck. I keep waking thinking it’s tearing me apart.

As soon as I read those final lines, I put the diary back and stepped away. They took what remained of my uncle away in that suitcase and I never saw it again. Julie kept it. I wouldn’t have it anywhere near me.

I told Frank and Marshall that it was pointless to stay. The police would do everything they could. Frank being the affable soul that he was offered to stay but I convinced him to go, Marshall packed up in a hurry, with a face like thunder. The last I saw of him was his bent frame hunched over a telephone in the reception area, speaking to someone in hushed, irritated tones. “This is all some ploy of his, I know it is,” he was saying.

I could have gone then and there, just taken my things and left. But I told the police I would stay one more night and then leave in the morning. A mad idea perhaps, perhaps I should have just left with the others. But for whatever reason, I stayed. I think it was this fading hope that my uncle would return once the police left. I kept looking out for him, listening for the door.

As I watched the others drive away I was greeted with a sunset like a bleeding wound, a red light spilling onto the grounds and a bitter wind. I made a dinner of sorts in the kitchen, and then resolved to head straight to my room, but as I turned the corner on the landing I thought I heard something, a rustling, like rats. Remembering the diary entry I followed the sounds to the blue bathroom and peered inside. The light illuminated a huge bath tub and the usual toiletries, but no rats. I was about to turn to leave when I saw, tucked down behind the bath, a pamphlet. I managed to extract it from where it lay nestled in amongst the pipes and flicked through it. It listed the history of the area, and several pages in, I saw an etching of the old copse as it had once been, complete with the little chapel. The page had been folded over at the corner, as if the reader had specifically marked that spot.

There was a brief paragraph detailing the history of the chapel and its uses, and it remarked how the site had fallen into disrepair generations ago. There was even a little legend about the place, about some goings on between the lady of the house, and a local man of the cloth. It was pretty standard fayre for the most part; the head of the house was rumoured to be involved with the occult, several servants deserted their posts due to strange noises and visions. It was all the usual stuff they put in those sorts of amateur guides, but right at the end there was something odd, about how they had found the two clandestine lovers horrifically mauled inside the chapel.

This part of the pamphlet had gotten wet and was wrinkled enough to make reading difficult. Someone had scribbled something in pen, which had bled in the damp, all I could make out were the words: “- guest”

I resolved to take the pamphlet with me to bed, and scrutinize it further. As I stood up I felt a cold chill on the back of my neck and turned around to see the window, and a light in the copse.

Without thinking I ran out to it. I was afraid and I stumbled as I ran but some vain hope made me think that it might be my uncle. That he might still be alive. I couldn’t stop thinking about that suitcase, about the fragmented life that it contained. We had never seen eye to eye but he was still my uncle, in spite of it all.

As I rushed out to meet the light I never once looked back, I could see, in my minds eye the beast from my dreams at my heels. I thought of the passage in my uncle’s diary and knew that he was haunted by a similar monster. Real or imaginary, it didn’t matter. I arrived at the ruins, panting, fog had descended and made the air painfully cold as it entered my lungs. The grass was squeaky with dew and the ground muddy underfoot, Up ahead the trees loomed, thin and miserable. I hunted for the light, I pushed my way in and trod on jutting gravestones as I did so, but I saw nothing, just the last rays of the sun going down. That was all I had seen.

I had no nightmares that night, not that I slept much. The house was eerily silent, as if it was finished with me, as if it had toyed with us all enough and was now dormant again. I closed the heavy door and locked it, wondering if I would ever return to that place. I’d persuade Julie to sell it; if uncle was really gone then it would pass to one of us, surely. In the cold light of day it seemed plausible that he had simply abandoned the place, that he had run off with that woman, Kristen, determined to leave it all behind. I told myself that as I walked towards the car. Before I could get in, something caught my eye. A man was walking towards me from the grounds, he was waving and I had to stop, frustrated, and wait for him.

“You’re his nephew aren’t you?” The man said, his accent thick, his clothes muddy. I nodded and waited for him to continue.

“Are you for the off then?” Was all he said. “Yes,” I said. “Did you know my uncle?”

He seemed to find this amusing, “Lord no. Spoke to him once maybe, that’s about it.”

I made as if to go but he stopped me.

“They won’t find him.” He raised a bushy eyebrow at me as he said it, and it made me pause.

“Why, exactly?”

“Do you want to know where he is?” He asked.

I nodded. I’ll admit I was a little afraid, but looking at the man I decided that he was too old and slight to be a murderer, so I followed him across the fields in the damp morning.

“You know the place.” He said, we were heading towards the copse.

“Yes. But the police searched in there.”

The man snorted. “Police!” He said and shook his head.

We came upon the copse, it looked a lot meeker, and smaller in daylight. Last night it had seemed so infinite, sprawling, almost alive with menace.

“He tried to get them to dig it up, all this ground, he said he wanted to build a, what do they call it? A spa. That was it. It was gonna be a small, heated shed, something like that, that’s what they told me.” The man gestured to where the sunken tombstones protruded through the grass like parts of a spine.

“A sauna for the hotel?” He nodded. “Why didn’t they? Why didn’t he build it.”

“Ah.” The man wiped his head. “Well I know why. I mean, they were local boys. But officially, they said it was because the ground wasn’t right. That it would be take too long and cost too much and your uncle didn’t want to listen to all that so he sent them away and tried to clear a lot of the rubble by himself, with the woman.”

We wandered into the heart of the copse, scattered remains of fallen masonry littered the ground under our feet.

“Not far now, though I hope I’m wrong.” The man took me to a spot, bordered by trees and stones.

“The police won’t have looked in here.” He said. I went over to him, and watched him kneel and pull back a covering of thick branches which disguised a hole in the ground, like a rabbit warren big enough for an average man to crawl through.

“Do you want to go or shall I?” He asked.

“What is it?” I didn’t move. I didn’t want to look like a coward but I trembled at the thought of going into that dark tunnel alone.

The man sighed, “It’s a grave, it’s where they buried it, long ago, and they built the chapel over it. But one of the masters got wind of that and tried to bring it back, then when that all went wrong, instead of blocking it in, they just built a trapdoor over the grave and threw away the key. Stupid, foolish thing to do. Your uncle must have found the spot, see how the door’s rotted clean away-” He pointed to the hole. I tried to digest the information he had rattled off at me.

“I don’t understand, what did they bury?” But the man just looked at me as if I was an idiot.

“Do you think my uncle might have fallen down there, is that what you’re saying?” I felt panic mounting, it was looking as if I might have to go down into the dark after all.

The man just pointed to hole, “see for yourself” he said, and handed me a little pack of matches. “For when you get to them,” he said, without optimism.

I got down on my knees and stared into it. I steeled myself and inched forward into the hole. The cloying smell of the earth was rancid, and the air in the tunnel, unusually warm. I pulled myself forward a little way, until I felt the passage begin to slope downwards. I called out my uncle’s name, but the earthen walls deadened the sound of my voice almost immediately. I scrambled along, my heart pounding, desperate to turn back, but compelled by pride and morbid curiosity to keep going.

My hands touched something cold. A stone floor. In that instant I could smell it, that cloying scent stronger, mixed with something foul. My hands shook as I tried to light a match but when the flame ignited I had to struggle not to blow it out. In front of me lay the bodies, a mess of bones and flesh atop a mound of collapsed rubble. I closed my eyes and clapped a hand to my mouth to keep from retching. When I opened my eyes again I saw the same scene of guts and spilled blood, and on the floor, line after line of carvings into the stone. They might have bee words, or just patterns, I only caught a glimpse of them, I can’t be sure what they were exactly, but they encircled the room. A few feet away from me the carvings were disturbed by a hole in the stone, a pick axe lay nearby. It looked relatively modern.

I scrambled out of that hole as fast as I could go backwards. I didn’t dare turn my back on that place. The man took hold of my legs and pulled me out onto the grass, his face pale and etched with concern.

I had no idea what to say to him, I couldn’t erase from my mind the image of those eviscerated bodies.

“Did you not know.” The man said, with pitying eyes. He produced something from his pocket and handed it to me, pointing to a page, on paper I recognised.

“That’s my wife’s handiwork. I gave the woman a copy when I saw her out here, hunting around, I thought it might help but they just laughed of course.”

I looked down at the pamphlet, the same as I had found in the bathroom. I realised that it had been in my jacket pocket since last night.

I brought it out to show him.

“Aah yes, that’s my writing there too,” he pointed to where the words had faded in the water.

“The missing letters, they should be B…A…R.”

The name came back to me, from stories of my youth of black dogs on the moors. I saw again the image on the book my uncle had sent me.

“Barguest.” I said, and the old man nodded.

“I saw the bodies, they were lying on broken stones.” I found it hard to tell him what I had just seen, but he appeared unsurprised, his weathered face long and forlorn.

“Broken stones,” he said, and tutted. “It’ll rise again. Have you had the dreams?”

I stared at him terrified, because I knew what he meant.

“Yes, yes a few times.”

His face grew even darker, “then you best be off. Sell the house, but before you do, send some men to fill in that hole. Cement, anything solid. I don’t know if it will make a difference but it might stop someone new from tampering with it. Your grandfather knew all about it from my father, that’s why he didn’t go poking around, you don’t want to risk the same happening to some other poor fool who thinks you can ignore these things.”

“What do I tell them police?” I asked.

“Not a damn thing.” He said, and he began to walk off. “You must never come back here, never, none of your family can.”

“But what if it’s not them?”

He motioned me to follow him, “what do you think,” I knew in my heart he was right, and that it was my uncle and that women who had been so brutally annihilated.

I followed him out of the copse, and I did as he said. I still have the dreams.

 

 

21: The Swan Man

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I know this way into the woods.

I heard the blacksmith’s daughter say that he lives here still, even after we all thought he had gone long ago. She had seen him once, the Swan Man, picking up wood for to make a fire.

“For why else would you need wood?” She asked, “and if there’s a fire there’s a hearth, and if there’s a hearth then he isn’t gone at all.”

When I was a child I thought about the stories told about him. Late at night when we were bold and wouldn’t sleep, and cried out to be up and running again, not laying in our beds, that’s when my grandmother would tell us these tales.

Afterwords I would still lie awake but pretend to be sleeping. I would stare at the ceiling and imagine him.

“The Swan Man is a sorcerer,” grandmother would say. “He got his powers from the dark one. He steals the girls and leaves the boys and no one knows what he does with them.”

“But when does he come?”

“At night dear, when the moon is hidden behind a wreath of cloud, or there is no moon at all to show him up. He swoops down and pecks at the window pane, tap tap, and you must not get up to let him in! Oh no. For he steals little girls who stay awake.”

“I don’t believe in magic” I told my grandmother one night. I ran outside and I shouted it at her from the gate. She clasped her hands as if in prayer and cried and it was only my sister who convinced me to come back, to apologise, to go without supper and not run off into the woods like the wild thing my grandmother said I was.

I grew up and thought no more about the Swan Man.

People sometimes spoke of him but sure don’t they always talk about those things when night falls and cups are filled and the long walk home needs company and company needs tales to entertain them.

Now here I am at the entrance to the woods. The Swan Man is real, and I know it. I too saw him because I waited, I waited in the spot where the blacksmith’s daughter told me to wait and I saw the thin figure of man flit by. It seemed he was nothing but a long shadow, he came and then was gone, but I know his way.

Now none of the others will so much as glance at me. My sister and her husband are gone and left the cottage gaping, empty.

“Why could you not have married?” My sister had called at me as the gate swung shut. But John pulled her away down the lane and he would not look back.

“Oh why did you have to interfere?” She had said to me when Wedlow’s boy got sick and died.

“He says you cursed his name! How could you be so foolish? Did we not take you in, and were we not kind to you? This is a poor way to repay your only family.”

It was Wedlow’s cottage and I couldn’t sit in it anymore on my own after they had gone. I knew he would come for it. I had been tired of his interfering, of complaining that we didn’t look after the land as we should. I told him what I thought of him and that might have been that, but his hag of a wife saw me. She saw me at the edge of the woods, waiting for the Swan Man. Soon after his boy died, everyone knew where I had been.

I have no option now but to let the Swan Man take me in. I have no money put by, but I am fit and can work. Perhaps he will find a use for me. The journey to the nearest town is too far, and no one will take me. I’ll press on then, and by nightfall I should reach him. I wonder will I know him? Will I see the Swan, or the Man? Or nothing?

The trees are closing in but I can still see a path. Faintly I can trace a way through these grasping branches, though my feet are caught by thorns, and mired in sodden leaves. Creatures scurry past my ankles and I can feel the wind at my back, and the air growing moist, and cold.

I see no light up ahead yet, no dwelling, but he if he needs wood then he must have a hearth…

There, a clearing, a hovel in the rock, a fire. There he is, the thin shape, dark as a shadow; his face is pale like the moon but he is no swan. What a sorrowful face! Such beautiful eyes! Why is he so young, still? He must truly be a magician.

We are watching each other now across the fire. He beckons me over to where the cages are; where he is standing there are many cages, many wings held up over faces. There are furs on the ground, and he has burrs in his hair.

“There are only sleeping,” he says, “I don’t harm them.”

But I don’t look down at the cages. I ask him if he will help me. He agrees.

“I’ll make you like the others,” he says, “if you have no other option.” I don’t know what he means, but I nod my head.

He makes me stand in a circle he has made with stones, and dead bird’s beaks. He goes into the cave and fetches things I cannot see.

“Put your arms up,” he says, “no higher, all the way up.” I comply and as I do, I say:

“They saw me at the edge of the woods,” he shakes his head.

“You should never have come looking for me,” he answers, scattering bones at my feet.

“They think I’m a witch, that I’m just like you.”

He stops what he is doing at this to look at me sideways.

“I thought you didn’t believe in magic?” He asks. He knows!

“I don’t.” I say,

“You’re lying,” he replies, and carries on about his work. “Open your mouth.”

I open my mouth, and in it he places a long, white feather.

“I never came for children,” he says as he stands outside the circle, now motionless, and yet so full of purpose.

“One day I will die, and you must tell them that. You’ll have no master then.” I nod my head again, and wait, afraid.

He was right, perhaps I always have believed in magic.

Now I turn my eyes to creatures in the cages slumbering. For an instant I think I can see faces flash underneath white feathers, but they are just the faces of birds. White swans; big beasts in bigger cages.

He says the words.

For a moment I remember being small and crawling up to see the moon peeking at my window, and hearing a tap tapping on the pane.

The world is ablaze with light and I am floating in white feathers. He must have let the birds out, I think for an instant. Then I am doubled over, the blaze is in my head and limbs. I cry out and extend my arms only to see wings before my eyes, and the voice of a bird calling.

“They’ll never catch you now,” the Swan Man says, as I arch and flap and ache and feel a joy to reach up for the sky.

He throws his hands to the air and I am aloft.

I am going to fly over the village. I’m flying to the old cottage, so I can watch them break down the door and find no one there.

Somewhere in the woods, the Swan Man is building me a new cage.

**************

20: The Guest. Part One.

Image Simon Howden, freedigitalphotos.net

ID-10025542

When we arrived at the the hotel of course there was no one there.

My uncle was nowhere to be seen. The sign hung half-on, half-off the rail; swinging in the wind like a body on a gallows.

We checked the premises thoroughly. Honestly, there was no corner we did not excavate, no corridor not stalked down or bedroom not searched from top to bottom for clues as to the whereabouts of my uncle or his guests. The hotel had been in the family for centuries. Of course, it hadn’t always been open to the paying public. It had been a very grand residence that few saw the interior of when many longed to be admitted. No, it was only my uncle’s folly to try and renovate the place and make it turn a profit at last, when it had “eaten away at the family for years,” those were his words.

Now we stared at the place and wondered if we had ever really known it. Had we felt at home there? At Christmas visits there had been many roaring fires, many carols sung and wreaths hung everywhere so as we never noticed the decay, the maudlin. Now it was overwhelmingly apparent, that aching emptiness, and in the midst of that lay something else. I tried to put my finger on that sensation in particular, but always it eluded me, and slunk back out of sight. Now that I come to think about it, perhaps there had always been something about that house that wasn’t right. It was after our Grandfather died that I remembered feeling unease creep in about the place. “No more jolly winters” Julie had said at the time. I knew exactly what she meant, now.

I don’t know why Julie insisted on eating all our meals in the ballroom, it was dire. Surely we would have been just as happy in the kitchen. When I say ballroom, it wasn’t as grand as all that. It was a very spacious room to be sure, with chandeliers and several tables scattered about with table cloths and flowers, and cutlery gleaming. But it was dire to me, because of that. Because of the expectation of all the guests who would never eat there.

You know I never liked my uncle. Never liked him. I thought he was a empty man. He talked a lot about the great plans he had for this and that, and he was always running from place to place, to do great things, to see great people, but he would never sit down and have lunch with you. You simply could never get hold of him. The letters he sent on special occasions were always written by his secretary. I remember vividly, now, the last correspondence I had with him because it had been a present, and in his own hand writing. It was a diary. On the front was the head of a creature, like a dog, or a lion, I’m not sure which. My uncle explained in the letter attached to it, that this was to be the new hotel’s emblem. He had had the diaries commissioned and sent around as gifts to everyone of note. This one was slightly torn I noticed, one of the corners looked somewhat chewed. A reject I suspect.

Apparently the design had been taken from an etching my uncle had discovered in one of the rooms. He described how he had been “getting the place ready” which seemed to amount to him foraging in drawers more than doing actual renovations. The image had at once caught his eye. I thought it was more off-putting than anything. It was a beast, an amalgamation, not a proud lion or a faithful hound, but a hybrid, possessing neither the good qualities of either. I still have the diary but I try not to look at it. I too, keep it locked in a drawer.

Julie, of course, being possessed of a particularly morbid curiosity, insisted on staying at the hotel in the hope that Uncle would return and explain everything. Maybe, she supposed, this was all a game for him. Maybe he was planning on surprising us, maybe it was a publicity stunt, after all it was autumn, and isn’t that the perfect time for mysteries? I wondered that she didn’t know Uncle better. Why would he go to all that trouble and only invite a handful of relatives and old friends? I had assumed he had invited us so that he could, yet again, prove to us what a blazing success he was. After all, hadn’t we voiced our concern at his plans for the old place? Still, we held off phoning the police. Just in case. In a way I’m glad now.

So some of us stayed and waited. The longer we remained, the more it suggested to me that he was never coming back, and had never meant to leave.

Our rooms had been allocated to us before hand, we found the sheet with each of our names on and the room number written beside. It was left on the reception desk weighed down with a glass of white wine. We each retrieved our keys and had gone to inspect the rooms. Ours was beautifully furnished, but had no soap, no towels. There was no note, no fresh cut flowers. No outward signs of ostentation. The other rooms were the same. The first two nights we stayed I slept alright. Julie slept in the other bed and tossed and turned constantly. She had been having nightmares she said, about our uncle, and about some other people she had never met. I didn’t think twice about it until the third night when I was awoken out of a fitful dream by a strange sound. The dream had been so hazy that upon waking I only had vague suggestions of it. My uncle had been in it, a women, and several men. They were all walking away from the hotel and off into the grounds. But the whole image was obscured by a kind of fog. As I said, I woke up with a start anyway, and so most of the dream was lost to me, but that part I remember.

What I am not sure of, is what exactly caused me to wake. I know it was a sound, I had the sensation of it still ringing in my ears but it was nothing I could place. I had the idea that it might have been an fox, you know how unnatural their cries can sound, but it was lower than that. It was almost like a fog horn, a strange bellowing. But we were so far now from the sea.

That night I got up and I went to my grandfather’s old study. It was the oddest thing to do, I know. But I felt such a strong compulsion to go there again, to see it, when I had not been in that room in years. I knew that Uncle had left it mostly untouched, he had said so himself in his letter; that he couldn’t bear to disturb the sanctity of the place when his father had spent so many happy hours there. I found the door unlocked, moonlight came streaming in the windows illuminating the old desk, my grandfather’s chair, all the bursting bookcases. I went forward into the room in the half-darkness in my slippers and pyjamas. I crept forward even though I felt utterly foolish. It was as if I feared being discovered, or being observed by anyone, or anything, even though I knew that that was a ridiculous idea.

I sat down at the desk, and only then did I turn on the lamp. Someone had evidently searched the room earlier, I have a vague memory of Julie saying she would do it, certainly the drawers had been emptied and papers set here and there, neatly and methodically stacked. I sat there for a few moments not knowing what to look at, when a piece of paper caught my eye. It had been set apart, left on the ledge of one of the tall windows. I got up and fetched it. It was a letter from my grandfather to my uncle, which evidently had found its way back there. It was dated not long before my grandfather’s death. So much so that a chill tingled along my spine as I read it. It must have been one of the last things he’d ever written. Most of the letter contained a sad account of my grandfather’s ill health and arrangements to be made in the event of his death. Right at the end, he began to talk about the old house, and what should be done about it. My uncle would of course inherit, being the last surviving boy, but the next lines puzzled me. The hand was shaky but the words were still legible.

“I have, I know, told you often enough of my desire for you to keep this as your home. Your sister has informed me of your plans though, and if money is your concern then that is understandable. I only wish you would not alter the place too much, as it would pain me greatly (and your grandmother were she alive) to have the house gutted, or something awful like that, and made modern, as it were.

One thing I do wish to impress upon you, and this is vital – leave the copse as it is. You know the patch I mean. That little wood at the ground’s edge. You must promise me not to dig any of that up or disturb it in any way. Really it would be best if you had it partitioned off. Now you must agree with me on this, no matter what you think about it. I do not wish to have to repeat the story I told to you last Christmas. You can scoff at me all you want, but it may be my last request to you.”

That was the last line. The letter was signed affectionately enough, but that was it. I did not know what to make of it at all, and I tried to recall our visit to the house that last Christmas but if stories were told regarding the copse, then I knew nothing of it. My uncle and grandfather, as far as I could have told, had given no indication of any pact between them.

I took the letter with me and left the study, and as I was passing through the room I glanced out of the window and onto the long lawn I had seen in my dream. A mist was gathering somewhere at its edge, for an instance I thought I could make out a dark shape creeping through the trees, scattering the moonbeams, but I turned away. It was only the letter and the dream and my Uncle’s disappearance. I told myself that I was being fooled by it all, and went straight back to bed.

To be continued…

 

National Poetry Day: For My Friend, the Dragon.

Image cbenjasuwan, freedigitalphotos.net

ID-100133355

Since it’s National Poetry Day in the UK, I decided to publish this short poem I wrote earlier, whilst looking at the moon outside our university library. I hope you enjoy it.

For My Friend, The Dragon.

The moon has been cut in half,

I can only see the head of the dragon.

This fabled dark side a ghost,

Only visible to those who look for it,

Desiring to see where the wings, the tail, are hidden.

Because we, such upward dreamers,

Could not, even for a second,

Bear to believe that half the moon

Could ever possibly be missing.

These moonbeams we bury our face in nightly

Greet us

And we are, in that instant only,

like long-lost lovers, kissing.

Looking up, I feel the age-old tingling returning,

Remembering now,

That I was bequeathed so long ago,

To my friend, the dragon.