Repentence placed them as before,
Forgiveness join’d her gentle name
So fair the inscription seem’d once more
That Friendship thought it still the same
Although it’s broad daylight, Mad Bess Wood is dark; the trees clustered together so tightly it seems they are joined and their tops crowd together to block out the bright sunlight of the day. I am not thinking about Thomas, or Jem, none of that concerns me now, only the job in hand which I must do well but now, now a sound from behind me, the sharp crack of a twig. I am rooted to the spot, the fear of who – what – may be after me rendering me motionless. I can hear them now. They think they're being quiet but still I hear them, behind me in the underwood. I should hide - I know these woods well but so do they and they will find me. Find me with nought but a billhook to protect myself. And how many are they? I told Mary that I did not care for Jem Bray, that I was not afraid but I am - I am afraid; and they will find me.
Any movie buff will tell you that certain things in life are a given: The girl being chased by the madman will run up the stairs rather than out the front door, dying people always have time for one last thought-provoking statement and, the phone call delivering bad news always comes in the middle of the night. My life has never been worthy of a movie and so it was that my phone call, when it came, arrived at three o’clock in the afternoon while I was sipping ginger tea in the sunny kitchen of my apartment. Until that call, I had always assumed that when poets and rock stars spoke about a heart being broken it was merely prose - I could never have guessed at the all-consuming physical pain as I realised that it was over; all the late night phone calls, the loans that would never be repaid - all the hoping and praying that Lizzie would be OK this time, now all over. Gone. Lizzie was gone.
The man on the telephone whose name I couldn’t remember had given me the address of a hospital in Connecticut and so I fired up my laptop and bought a train ticket, silently thanking Lizzie for not ending her days in China or Los Angeles or anywhere else that would require me to get on an aeroplane. I drank a glass of water very slowly and then shoved everything I needed into my pocketbook but before I could go downstairs and hail a cab there was a call I had to make. I knew that Lizzie’s mother was still in Manhattan, living in one of those godawful assisted living centres and I dialled her number with a hand that wasn’t quite steady,
‘Oh Gus,’ she breathed before I had spoken a word, as though she had simply been sitting there waiting for this call for some time, so sure, as we all were, that it was all but inevitable. Offering to call back when I had more information than the scant few facts that I had shared with her, I hung up and, running down the stairs, jumped in a cab to Grand Central.
As I had expected, by the time I arrived at Bradley Memorial in Southington, the young man who had called me was long gone – over the years I’d met many of Lizzie’s nameless, faceless men - transient men who brought danger but were forgotten within months.
After spending fifteen minutes explaining that there was no family apart from an ailing eighty year old mother, and no spouse which meant that, essentially, I was It, I was led down a long dingy corridor by a sympathetic but harassed hospital employee. At the end of the corridor was ‘the viewing room’ and I took a long shaky breath, still not quite able to believe that all the years of laughter, confidences and crying on each other’s shoulders had come to this. My companion asked if I was ready and, at my nod, pushed a button which made a TV screen on the wall jerk into life. There was a moment or two of static and then there was Lizzie, pale – so pale – but still beautiful and I fought back more tears as the orderly asked
‘Is this Elizabeth Holmes?’ and I replied in the affirmative.
The last time I had spoken to Lizzie had been about a fortnight before when she called to wish me a happy birthday, starting, in true Lizzie style by singing happy birthday to me in a horribly out of key but enthusiastic voice. She told me she was staying with ‘a friend’ in Jersey so the story of how she ended up in Southington was a mystery and not one I had much hope of solving without the help of the gallant gentleman who had brought her here, stopped long enough to call me and then split and so, leaving my details with the hospital, I had no option other than to call a cab to the station and hop on the next train back to the city. I reached my apartment at just after eleven and drank two very large scotches before calling my Mother then falling into bed and into a deep sleep.
I woke at six the next morning, mouth dry from the whiskey and with the taste of grief coating the back of my throat. I made a pot of strong coffee and called the college to ask if somebody else could teach my three times weekly evening class on the poetry of Lord Byron and then curled up on the sofa with the thoughts of everything that would need to be done - the energy for which was proving to be elusive. The first unpleasant task was to call anybody and everybody who may have known and cared for Lizzie – the first list was short, the second even shorter. The response from most was a vague ‘Gee, I’m real sorry to hear that!’ followed immediately by a gleeful request for the details which I would have declined even if I had such information to give. Resisting the urge to fortify my coffee with a shot of scotch, I picked up the phone to make the last call – to Oliver. As always, the phone rang and rang until Oliver picked up, just a second or
two before the answering service took over.
Oliver was a Professor at NYU, one of the youngest there had ever been when he first landed the post at the age of thirty – something that he was never shy about telling people, including those that he’d been introduced to just thirty seconds before.
‘Hey Gus, what’s wrong?’ The distance between us could be measured in the fact that Oliver would assume that the only reason I would call was if something had happened – he was right, we had spoken maybe twice a year in the seven years since the divorce and most of those calls had ended badly.
‘It’s Lizzie.’ With those two words, the composure that had served me so well through thirteen calls to friends and acquaintances deserted me and I broke down, unable to articulate any sounds other than sobs. Oliver didn’t speak for a good minute and a half and then,
‘I’m on my way.’
When my ex-husband arrived at my apartment thirty five minutes later, he insisted on lacing my coffee with the whiskey that I had denied myself and then got to work. In less than an hour he had tracked down the friends that Lizzie had been staying with and arranged for her pitifully small collection of belongings to be returned to her mother; he also spoke to Bradley Memorial who told him what I already knew, that, due to the circumstances of my best friend’s death, there was now nothing that they could tell us. I’ve never been one of these women who needs to always have a man and have, in fact, always valued my independence but, my God it felt good to let Oliver take over at that moment. Our marriage had not been a good one and was filled with more tears than laughter. For seven years I lived in Oliver’s shadow; it was always Oliver and Gus, never Gus and Oliver, wondering when it would start to feel comfortable – to feel right. Oh and there were other women, too many to count and, for the first five years or so I turned a blind eye, remembering my Grandmother’s “Expect little, forgive often” attitude to marriage. At around five feet ten (an inch or so shorter than I am which made it a good thing that I’ve never been one for high heels), Oliver’s dissatisfaction with his height was counteracted by Cary Grant style good looks and charm by the bucket load. He was, needless to say, the subject of adoration for many of his young students who clung to every word he uttered on the subject of sonnets and rhyme. This was to be expected and was not a problem for me, it only became a problem when one of his students became pregnant at twenty one years of age and claimed that my husband was the father. It became a bigger problem when a paternity test proved that her claim was true. For eight long months I stood by Oliver while he vehemently denied ever having anything to do with Charlotte Hart other than in the classroom and I continued to stand by him after a doctor’s test proved conclusively that he was the father of her son. For me, the end came after watching just how skilfully Oliver manipulated Charlotte, NYU and our bank account in order to ensure that his actions did not, God forbid, tarnish his precious career and even more precious reputation.
For six months I watched as startling amounts of cash left our joint bank account and watched the smug look return to my husband’s face as the troublesome Charlotte Hart left NYU and returned to her parents in Wisconsin. Then one evening the phone rang and I answered to hear a very young female voice asking for my husband by his first name – not only had he not learnt anything from what happened but he was now giving his girl-friends our home telephone number. I packed a bag and got a cab to a cruddy apartment in Hell’s Kitchen where Lizzie was staying with a friend and six months later I was divorced.
For the first time in over seven years, Oliver sat beside me on the sofa and tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear; hair that was a mess of unruly curls and, these days, was more grey than red.
‘I’m really so sorry Gus,’ he cleared his throat, ‘I know how much she meant to you but…..’ He stopped and I was grateful, I didn’t need to hear somebody tell me about Lizzie’s lifestyle or life choices He moved as though to hold me and I think I probably would have let him but, at that moment, the phone rang again and, when I answered, a frail voice asked to speak to Augusta Traherne.
I first met Agnes when I was fifteen and Lizzie and I were in high school. With the same straight black hair and blue eyes the two of them were almost identical apart from the twenty years that separated them, a line that became more blurred as the years went by.
A thin and serious woman she had introduced herself formally and shook my hand – when I asked her to please call me Gus she instantly replied “I most certainly will not; that is a man’s name and not the one that your mother gave you” and, true to form, she had never called me anything but Augusta in all the years since and it appeared that the death of her daughter had not changed that.
And she was right about my mother. A devotee of Byron’s work from her early teens, I was named after the ill-fated Lord’s half-sister Augusta Leigh. When not working in the local library, Mom could usually be found curled up in her armchair, a cup of strong black coffee by her side and a copy of Byron’s romantic poems in her hands. When she was held in his thrall, I would usually have to call her two or three times before she would hear me – after an extended session, she would occasionally, much to my father’s and my amusement, speak in a British accent despite having never left the state of New York in her life. Her passion for his work was passed on to me along with untameable red curls and a long thin boyish frame but, unlike my mother, I was fortunate enough to be able to both study his work at university and then go on to teach what I had learnt.
‘Do you think that you may be able to come to visit me?’ This was a question which I would hear every morning for the next seven days but I wasn’t to know that when I received that first call from Agnes.
Taking the time only to have a quick shower and throw on a pair of jeans and a white shirt, I asked Oliver if he would drive me to the old folks home.
‘Why does she want to see you?’ Just typical of Oliver to answer a question with a question.
‘Why does it matter, will you take me?’ I immediately regretted the harsh tone that had crept into my voice, one which I instantly recognised from the days when our divorce was going through and our only conversations centred around who would be keeping assorted sticks of furniture, ornaments, books and records, ‘I’m sorry – I’m tired. If it’s going to be a problem I can get a cab.’ Oliver shrugged,
‘It’s not going to be a problem, it’s on my way anyway.’ I stared at him,
‘It’s the opposite direction to the university, how can it be on your way?’
‘Well, I’m not going straight back to the university, I…I’m meeting somebody for lunch on Bleecker Street.’
I snorted, ‘Since when do any of your intellectual buddies hang around Bleecker Street?’ He shifted uncomfortably, picked up a magazine from the table and then put it down again,
‘It’s not one of my buddies. The thing is, Gus, I’m getting married!’
She was, of course, another student – or rather, an ex student as she was now all of twenty six (to Oliver’s forty five) who worked at a fashion magazine and came from the sort of family who summer in the Hamptons.
And it didn’t matter, it really didn’t. With a start, I realised that this news did not provoke a single reaction from me, not even derision at the ludicrous age gap, it was as though I was simply filled with a massive emptiness – a vacuum that couldn’t be touched by anything, not even my grief for Lizzie or that of her mother who had taken to calling me two or three times a day, wanting to talk about Lizzie over the phone; ‘Do you remember when the two of you cried for days at the thought of being separated for college?’ or wanting me to visit with her in order to talk about Lizzie in person. The thing is, the Elizabeth that Agnes usually wanted to talk about was the seven year old in knee socks, the ten year old horse-rider and the fourteen year old cheerleader – not the complex, maddening and incredible woman that she had become whereas, for me, there simply could not be one without the other.
For the next week, my routine for the most part involved waking up, reading the papers and pottering until around two o’clock when I would get dressed and take the subway to Lafayette Street in order to spend an hour with Agnes. My days were full, but felt empty and my nights were vast caverns of time spent drinking too much and thinking too much, mainly about Lizzie lying there alone in the dark.
The visits to Agnes took place in the dreary and cramped room which had been her home for the past ten years – a single, surgical looking bed with a utilitarian night-stand.and a dresser on which photographs in ornate frames jostled for attention; there was Agnes on her wedding day, radiant and hopeful; photographs of Lizzie missing front teeth, Lizzie cheerleading and then finally Lizzie on her graduation day, as though her life had stopped then and not some twenty years later.
In the corner of the room was a small combined television and DVD unit on a shelf with a cluster of DVDs of old black and white movies.
Sometimes during these visits, Agnes seemed content just to have company and we would sit in an amicable silence watching one of her movies or something on TV. Other times, she would want to talk endlessly about Lizzie, searching for a reason – anything to explain why her beautiful and super-smart daughter had led a turbulent and often miserable life which ended with her lying in a refrigerated drawer in Connecticut at the age of forty three.
Sometimes she would seem to zone out for a while, coming to again ten or fifteen minutes later, having been so deep into her own thoughts that she would look momentarily surprised to see me there.
By the time that a week had gone by, Agnes had begun to complain if I arrived later than I had promised and once when I mentioned, tentatively, that I may be unable to visit the following day, her reaction was a hurt stare and a clipped ‘That’s fine, I realise you have other things to do.’
One day I woke to the sound of rain battering the windows and I suddenly realised that there was once a time when I would wake and wonder what this new day would bring, whereas I now knew that today, the same as yesterday and the day before that would be a drudge of moving from one drab, airless place to another – meals spent alone at home in my small apartment, visits with Agnes in the room that bore no resemblance to the home that she had lovingly tended for forty years and then my classroom, a sterile white box, filled with my students whose only real interest in Byron’s work was that it might net them an extra qualification for the working world. The idea that this was the way it was going to be, week after month after year was the one that made me burrow deeper into the duvet, unable to get out of bed and face hundreds of identical, grey and monotonous days ahead. Although I was aware that it was partly grief that was clouding my thinking, it was still true that the past five years had carried me along without, for the most part, my participating in them to any great extent. Worse still, had it not been for a visit with a lawyer at the end of that week, the rest of my days would have slithered by un-noticed and unremarkable. At forty three, a change in career was out of the question and I wasn’t going to be doing ‘good work’ in some far flung corner of the globe or writing a masterpiece – certainly not the book about Byron’s life which had sat only one-third finished on my desk for the past half year. As I lay there, the feeling of being trapped in this mundane existence made me want to run away from my life but with nowhere to run to.
When I visited Agnes that day, I was surprised when I arrived to discover an elderly lady with rigidly permed grey hair and wearing an old fashioned floral tea-dress sitting in the seat that I normally occupied. I hovered for a moment at the door as Agnes and the mystery lady were deep in conversation but then I was spotted and Agnes verbally ushered me into the room,
‘Dorothy, this is my daughter, Elizabeth,’ she beamed at me, ‘We were just talking about you!’
‘No Agnes, I…..’ my sentence drifted away as I registered an almost imperceptible shake of the head from her friend, Dorothy, and I smiled too brightly and pulled up a chair. ‘It’s lovely to meet you Dorothy, do you live here too?’ At this, Dorothy laughed heartily,
‘Well, sometimes I think I may as well – Resident Liaison Officer here for thirty two years now!’ I blushed, mortified at my mistake,
‘I’m so sorry, I…..’ She waved away my apology,
‘Nonsense, you see an old lady in a home for “Senior Citizens”, the assumption that you made is a perfectly reasonable one! I should have retired years ago but I can’t bear the thought of sitting around knitting – not when I can be of some use to the folks here.’ I glanced back at Agnes who was watching us both eagerly like a dinner party host who had just introduced her two favourite singles and was confident that it was all going swimmingly.
Suddenly, it became clear – all the elongated silences and the odd, disjointed conversations. I had started to think that Agnes now relied on me whereas, in reality, she didn’t even know who I was for much of the time that I was with her. Lizzie had never mentioned her mother’s Alzheimers and I wondered if she had even known – In the last few years, Lizzie’s life had been a constant whirl of her own dramas and anxieties, to the point where her mother’s illness may not even have registered during her all too rare visits.
Dorothy picked up her tea-cup and stood up, ‘I know what, shall we get some more tea? Elizabeth, would you be a dear and give me a hand?’ I stood and followed her out into the corridor, as I looked back I noted that Agnes’s position and expression hadn’t changed.
‘It’s Augusta isn’t it?’ I nodded and followed as she marched briskly down the corridor, now that we were away from Agnes’s room, her tone lost the “Gosh aren’t we having fun” tone and became firm and business-like,
‘I’m afraid your visits have been very confusing for Mrs Holmes.’
‘How long has she been this way – Lizzie never mentioned anything?’
She dismissed my question with another wave, ‘Oh for years now. We control it with medication but there is no cure and so she will only get worse rather than better. It was terribly difficult trying to explain to her that her daughter was gone, particularly when we don’t yet know the circumstances, but it becomes even more difficult after your visits, you see…..’
She gestured toward a kitchen the size of a broom cupboard, ‘She gets terribly upset as a part of her understands that her daughter is dead but then, on days like today, she will be convinced that Elizabeth has just visited.’ She began stacking tea paraphernalia onto a tray, including an old fashioned floral tea-pot,
‘I’m not one of those people who believe in keeping patients “docile” but, as far as possible, I do believe in protecting them from unnecessary trauma.’ I blinked at her,
“Are you telling me not to visit any more? I – I thought she needed me, she’s been very clingy in this past week.’ Dorothy chuckled,
‘I’m sure she has during your visits but, give it a couple of days, and she most likely won’t remember that you’ve been here. I’m not telling you not to come but maybe somewhat less often.’ I picked up the tea-tray,
‘I understand,’ I was aware of – and hated – the clipped tone that had crept into my voice, ‘But I would like to keep in touch with Agnes – she was like a second mother to me as I was growing up and not doing so would feel a little like abandonment.' Dorothy nodded brusquely,
‘As you wish.’ Then she led me back down the corridor to Agnes’s room.
‘Goodness Augusta, I thought you were never going to get here!’ As though to make a mockery of everything that Dorothy had said, when we returned to her room, Agnes was alert and bright-eyed, ‘You really ought to get yourself a car you know, it would get you here so much quicker,’ her face broke into a beaming smile, ‘Plus, you could take me for outings if you had a car – I haven’t been on an outing in simply ages!’
Dorothy arranged the tea tray on Agnes’s bedside table and then excused herself at the sound of a discreet beeper on her belt.
‘She’s part German you know, ‘ Agnes gestured toward Dorothy’s retreating back, ‘Do you know, I think if they’d had more like her during the war, Hitler may have had a little more luck!’ Startled, I burst out laughing – on returning to her room, I hadn’t expected lucidity, let alone the ascerbic wit that had always been part of her DNA as a younger woman and I began to think that, for whatever reason, Dorothy had exaggerated the severity of Agnes’s condition but then, within ten minutes, the light began to leave her eyes and she once again sat un-moving, staring at something only she could see on the slightly yellowed white wall opposite her chair.
Although the news that Agnes did not in fact rely on me should have been a relief, I travelled home feeling more empty than ever – Agnes didn’t need me, my ex-husband sure as hell didn’t need me and Lizzie was never going to need me again. Even the college at which I had taught for fifteen years didn’t really need me – when I called to say that I would be missing another couple of classes, the reply from the college secretary had been cheerful indifference with an absent-minded “Sorry to hear about your Grandmother”. I didn’t bother correcting her, it just seemed like too much effort for very little point.
On entering my apartment, I found a hand-delivered envelope in my pigeon-hole, the stationery was from a law firm downtown and my first instinct was to panic – When we divorced, Oliver had (with much self-congratulation) given me the apartment which we had bought more or less outright with an inheritance from his father.
But now he was getting re-married and I became convinced that he had enlisted a lawyer to take the apartment back for him (God forbid that he would deal with such unpleasantness himself). On reaching the apartment, I placed the unopened letter on the coffee table and then went and stood under the shower for a long long time. My three classes a week at the college paid my bills and the (very) occasional social event but it most certainly wouldn’t cover full rent on an apartment as well and my mind whirled with the implications – I was qualified to tell people about the poetry of Lord Byron and not much else; to teach English full-time I would need to re-train which I couldn’t afford and, even if I could, competition was so fierce that it could take years to find a position. I could not – would not – consider moving back in with my parents, the disapproval and disappointment of this on top of a lacklustre career and a d.i.v.o.r.c.e would just be too high a price. Whenever the subject of my ‘circumstances’ of living in a tiny apartment and eking out an existence were brought up, my mother would pat my hand and assure me that it was ‘Just until you meet someone.’ By the time I returned to my sitting room, dressed in PJs with a towel wrapped around my hair, I had almost accepted the fact that in order to continue living in any circumstances, let alone my current ones, there would be no option other than to take on a series of mind-numbingly mundane jobs on top of my teaching commitments and this, as much as anything, was enough to find me reaching again for the whisky bottle, pouring and downing a generous shot before reaching for and opening the hateful letter.
To my astonishment, the contents of the letter bore no reference to Oliver or to my apartment; I had convinced myself that this was the case to such an extent that at first I had trouble understanding the words, though they were written in plain English. Taking a deep breath, I sat down and re-read the single page document which stated simply that a Miss Harriet Jones would like to meet with me in order to discuss the contents of the last will and testament of one Elizabeth Holmes. I couldn’t help but smile – I had seen the heart-breakingly small and tatty carrier bag of Lizzie’s personal effects when it was delivered to Agnes – I hadn’t, of course, looked inside and Agnes had never mentioned it but I had seen, protruding from the top, a tired looking pair of high tops and a dog eared copy of Wuthering Heights. The only jewellery I ever saw her wear was a silver Tiffany bracelet which had been an eighteenth birthday gift from her Mom and Dad and I wondered which of these worthless but precious objects she had decided would be mine. I also wondered morbidly what, should our positions have been reversed, I would have bequeathed to my best friend and the simple answer was everything. I picked up the phone and made an appointment to visit the firm of Allerton and Wood the following morning and then channel surfed until I fell asleep on the couch, waking in the middle of the night from a dream in which Lizzie and I were walking in a darkened wood. Although the dream should have been scary, I remembered feeling calm and happy as the wood was scented with lavender and my best friend was there beside me, holding my hand.
I closed my eyes and took deep lung-filling breaths as the aeroplane began to gather speed along the runway. My first ever flight after a life-long fear was about to begin and the doctor-prescribed valium was washing around my stomach with a couple of stiff airport-lounge drinks. My head pounded and the metallic taste of panic rose into my throat but I swallowed it audibly, determined not to catch the attention of one of the stewards who would ask, in a robotic but saccharine voice, if I was OK. I had kept the appointment with Miss Jones from Allerton and Wood two weeks before; the meeting lasted almost an hour during which it turned out that I hadn’t inherited Lizzie’s sneakers but the sum of twenty thousand dollars. I actually laughed out loud when I was told this amount; it simply wasn’t possible - Lizzie had been many things but thrifty certainly wasn’t one of them and I struggled to get my head around the idea that she’d actually saved so much. When I pointed this out to Miss Jones, she gave me a tight-lipped smile,
‘I’m afraid that, even if I knew, I would be unable to divulge information on where your friend’s capital came from.’
‘I understand, it just….it just doesn’t make any sense!’ She frowned at me as though puzzled by my reaction, and then glanced around the empty room needlessly before continuing in a voice softer than the professional one used throughout our meeting,
‘Ms Holmes must have thought an awful lot of you as this is the only substantial cash gift that she has bequeathed. Oh…’ she glanced down at the sheaf of paperwork which was, apparently, all concerned with Lizzie’s effects, ‘There was just one other thing – Ms Holmes also asked that you be given a silver Tiffany bracelet although..’ the frown again, ‘I’m not entirely sure where it would be at this time.’ I smiled at her,
‘Don’t worry – that is the one question, probably the only one in all of this that I do know the answer to!’
As we were propelled down the runway with increasing speed, the aeroplane began to rattle until I thought that the bags in the overhead lockers would soon start to be tossed out like nylon projectiles – through my terror, I glanced around at my fellow passengers, to my amazement they were all; apart from one cranky toddler; calm and serene, some were even reading books and magazines or chatting with their companions as though this were no more terrifying or even note-worthy than a trip to the corner store.
As the wheels lifted from the ground, I had a moment of pure animal panic and it took everything I had not to rip off my seat belt and start yelling that I’d changed my mind and we had to stop but then, once again, I looked around at the people surrounding me, all of whom were still quietly occupying themselves and a strange serenity came over me. After all, this was, I was sure, where I was supposed to be. I had gone straight home from my appointment with Miss Jones, travelling the subway in a daze. When I was first told about the money, my first reaction was that it really ought to be going to Agnes but the lawyer had informed me that ‘Our client’s mother is taken care of,’ which was, of course, all that she would tell me and, again, I had wondered how on Earth Lizzie had owned such a large amount of cash and I did briefly (and a little guiltily) wonder if the money had come from a less than legal source. Still, as I opened my front door and landed on the sofa, I reasoned that I would probably never know where the funds had come from and so I began to let my mind wander over what I could do with such a windfall; my entire apartment could do with an over-haul – the wallpaper was shabby and most of the furniture out of date. I’ve never been what is known as a ‘fashionista’ and my wardrobe could certainly do with updating or, I could – as Agnes had suggested – buy myself a car.
I almost laughed aloud as I realised that I would never have dreamt that I would be sitting there wondering what to do with twenty thousand dollars and then, although the door and all the windows were firmly locked, there came a breeze, icy cold as it rushed past me to the desk where it rustled the loosely bound papers of my manuscript – my book about Byron which I had never gotten close to finishing as, despite my passion for the subject, I didn’t see how I could compete on the subject with other authors who had actually been to England and had seen where he had lived, gone to school and died.
Whether it was the valium, or the fact that once you’ve been in the air for a number of hours, tedium tends to overtake any fear, I relaxed enough to eat the dreadful meal that I was served and even watched a movie. I suddenly remembered that Lizzie had always wanted to fly an aeroplane – this was typical of the difference between us that, whereas I was terrified of being a passenger in one, Lizzie wanted to fly the damn thing – and I realised that this was just one more thing that my beloved friend was never going to get to do. The thing about grief is that it can sneak up on you when you’re least expecting it and here, as I sat thirty thousand feet above the earth, I was hit by the overwhelming sadness of everything Lizzie would be missing out on, but then, as we began our descent into London Heathrow airport, I suddenly felt a hand holding mine and a strange peace came over me. If Lizzie wasn’t able to do these things, then I was just going to have to do them for the both of us.
My first stop on arriving in London was a swanky hotel in the West End where I spent two days drinking in all the beautiful, incredible sights that I had never seen before due to my fear of flying and lack of funds. Armed with a map, I discovered that I could reach most land-marks by foot although, on my second day, I became horribly lost in the maze of tiny ancient streets in Soho. I ate fish and chips and took a ride on the London Eye, taking in the magnificent Houses Of Parliament and the strange office building which Londoners call ‘The Gherkin’, although to me it looked more like a rocket ship. After my two days as a tourist I took an alarmingly over-crowded and – it has to be said – smelly - train to a city called Nottingham where I took a room in the Park Plaza which is directly opposite Nottingham Castle with good views of the city which, while pretty was not as majestic as London, although this was balanced out by the fact that I didn’t have to compete with surging crowds of people just to get to one end of the street to the other.
I ate alone in the hotel that evening and, the following morning when the sun was barely awake, I took the charmingly entitled ‘Robin Hood Line’ train to Newstead Abbey where Byron lived, on and off, for much of his life. My first sight of the huge medieval style house took my breath away and I had to pinch myself – I was really going to go inside the house that Lord George Gordon Byron had lived in! For the next four hours I toured the house and gardens, viewing the desk at which he wrote and the magnificent Giltwood bed that he had slept in. I did, however, decline the opportunity to play dress up which appeared to involve trying on replica outfits of the era in the ‘Dressing Up Room’.
The hotel had, very obligingly, made me a packed lunch and I ate this sitting on my jacket in one of the immaculately kept gardens, marvelling at the thought that this was what Byron would have seen when he woke up in the mornings!
The rest of the afternoon I spent shopping – on arrival in London, I had been embarrassed to discover that, compared to the colourful (and sometimes downright bizarre) outfits that I saw on the streets, my standard uniform of black trousers or jeans with white shirts made me look – and feel – like a waitress, somebody on the outskirts of the action rather than a participant and so I bought blouses in jewel colours and a beautiful bright red coat which, although eye-wateringly expensive, made me feel like an old style movie star. Before going out to eat that evening, I dropped the wardrobe from my old life outside a thrift shop in the town centre.
The following morning I took a train from Nottingham to the ancient city of Cambridge, a picturesque place which is almost like travelling back in time as most of the city centre is dominated by the thirty one colleges of Cambridge University which have been educating the great and the famous since their founding in 1231. The one that interested me, Trinity College which had housed and educated Byron in 1805 is in front of an area called The Backs – a large, flower filled field, and is both imposing and beautiful and several light years from the utilitarian block that I studied in for three years. It was almost dark when I booked into a local B&B so I quickly showered and then headed out to find somewhere to eat.
Walking down Jesus Lane onto Bridge Street I came across an unimposing pub with the curious name of ‘Baron Of Beef’ and, as the board outside advertised food, decided to go inside. The interior was dark with a long bar that ran almost the length of the pub and I bought a bottle of spring water and sat at a table in order to peruse the menu. I ordered a burger and chips and took out the paperpack that I’d brought with me.
‘Excuse me, you’re a New Yorker aren’t you?’ I glanced over to the next table and discovered that the plummy accented voice belonged to a young man of around eighteen who was sitting with two others of the same age – students of one of the colleges I guessed, correctly as it turned out.
‘Yes, how did you know? Did you recognise the accent?’ He grinned,
‘Absolutely – that and your total suspicion of a stranger speaking to you!’ He introduced himself as Henry and his companions as Patrick and Miles, all second year students at Trinity College.
‘So, what brings a native New Yorker to Cambridge of all places ?’ He asked with a raised eyebrow and, for the first time of many I explained my Byron mission and a wicked smile lit up his face,
‘Cool ! Want to see where he slept ?’
If you’d told me a month earlier that I would find myself sneaking into one of the most famous universities in the world, I would have laughed but there I was – Henry led me to a window through Neville’s Court and, with a few sharp tugs, the window was open and we were climbing through, landing in a bare hallway.
Putting a finger to his lips, he led the way through a myriad of corridors and halls until finally, we were in a room which looked to be two rooms adjoined by an archway and appeared to be some form of office or study but this, Henry told me reverently, was where my idol had spent his spare hours – and also where, as legend has it, he kept a bear as a pet for some time. I was wandering around the rooms, taking photographs with my cell phone whilst feeling euphoria at being able to stand where the man himself had stood when we heard a distant step outside the door and Henry grabbed my arm and pulled me behind a chair in the second room. The steps increased in volume until they must have been directly outside the room and then, thankfully, began to fade again. My heart was hammering as I considered what it was I may be guilty of, trespassing certainly, and possibly also some weird English law I’d never heard of but then I was overcome with an attack of the giggles which transferred to Henry and for two or three minutes we were unable to move until, finally, we crept through the same corridors as before, out of the window and, still giggling, back onto the streets of Cambridge.
Byron may have described Trinity College as wretched - "A villainous chaos of din and drunkenness!” but to me it was magnificent. The following morning I returned to take a ninety minute tour, led by one of the students of the university – a young girl called Abigail with waist length blonde hair and an infectious laugh, and was this time able to view in daylight the halls, libraries and dining rooms.
Afterwards, I collected my suitcase from the bed and breakfast I had stayed at and got on another train, this time back to London. It turned out that Henry was from a town called Ruislip on the outskirts of London and, when I told him that the next stop on my Byron tour was Harrow School, he arranged for me to stay at a pub called The Six Bells near Ruislip Common which was run by friends of his family, explaining that this location was only a few tube stops to Harrow and so it was that, after three hours on a train, two tube trains and a taxi, I found myself in a town that would haunt my dreams for many years to come.
The Six Bells turned out to be a low-slung whitewashed building standing only a breath away from a busy road called Ducks Hill Road. I was enchanted from the moment that I stepped out of the taxi and walked into the pub - just another insufferable American cooing over the English 'quaintness' of the place but the guy behind the bar was friendly as he poured me a diet Coke and fed my credit card into a machine to pay for a room for a week. Within minutes he had informed me that it was in this very pub that Jet Harris and Hank Marvin came up with the name The Shadows and I dutifully marvelled over this information although the names didn't really mean a lot to me. On finishing my soda, I was shown to a room that was so tiny that the single bed and dressing table pretty much took up the whole room but it was clean and bright and boasted it's own doll-sized bathroom; I was beginning to understand that I would need to get used to the reduced dimensions of all things in this country and decided that I could learn to do this and be comfortable here. I checked my phone, guiltily noting several missed calls from Agnes and one strange message from her where she whispered 'He's underneath Gus, find him' before her already frail voice seemed to fade and then cut off abruptly as the message ended. Unpacking my stuff and putting my clothes into the two drawers in the dressing table, I was grateful that I had decided to travel light on this trip. Voices from outside drew me to the small window which looked out onto a small outdoor drinking area with benches and heat lamps and, beyond that a glimpse of what looked like woodland. Two men were sitting on the benches smoking and drinking large glasses of some murky beer and I realised that I could hear their conversation and I guiltily moved away from the window as though I had been eavesdropping deliberately. After showering quickly, I threw on a denim shirt and cargo pants and made my way downstairs to grab a bite to eat - although I had seen a few intriguing looking nearby restaurants from the taxi, I was exhausted and happy to order a sandwich and a glass of wine from the bar and I ate at a rustic corner table which looked out onto Ducks Hill Road. Despite the busy road, there was a village atmosphere to the place which seemed a million light years from the frenzy of London town although, in reality, it was only about fifteen miles away; the few customers that arrived and left during my meal all seemed to know, or at least be familiar with one another and the staff knew them all by name. I was just about to go back up to my room when a couple around my age blew into the bar and took a table in the opposite corner to mine with a proprietary air, waiting for the barmaid to bring drinks to them rather than waiting at the bar like the other customers. As the newcomers went through the rituals of removing jackets, greeting locals and generally settling in, I studied them covertly; she was make-up free with short graying blonde hair and spoke in a clipped accent. Her companion was tall and thin with dark brown hair which I suspected was no longer completely natural and he looked the older of the two despite his attempts to disguise the ravages of time. As they settled into a conversation about a dinner party they were invited to I couldn't help but wonder what it must be like to be in a marriage like theirs, one which seemed so easy and uncomplicated - comfortable; the very opposite of the marriage that I had endured and, for a second, I felt a stab of envy so sharp that it stole my breath. Draining the last of my wine, I made my way through the small bar feeling absurdly self-conscious, convinced that I was followed by the eyes of all the local drinkers, including the couple whose presence had sent me scuttling from the room. Back in my quarters, I undressed and gave my teeth a perfunctory brush before climbing into the narrow bed with a paperback that I barely read two pages of before I succumbed to exhaustion. When I was woken several hours later, I felt horribly disorientated, my heart pounding with the shock of whatever had woken me until I realised that it was just a rain storm, the massive drops lashing the window inches away from my head.
The following morning I was still tired, lethargic and fuzzy headed from being woken in the night so I decided to confine my day's adventures to the local area. The day was warm and, already, all traces of the night's heavy rainfall had disappeared so I put on jeans and a t.shirt and threw a cardigan in my bag just in case. Walking down Ducks Hill Road, the ludicrously narrow sidewalk making me gasp every time a car zoomed past, I passed a gaggle of high school kids, all in uniform which I took to mean that they attended a private school until, some days later, Stella would explain to me that all high school students in England wear them. They were loud and shrill but politely fell into single file in order to let me pass them and, when I did, I realised that I had reached the parade of shops that I had seen from the cab and, spotting a coffee shop, I went inside and gratefully ordered a large cappuccino. As it turned out, this small strip mall was pretty much it for the 'local area', apart from the woods which I wasn't about to venture into for the moment, imagining the earth to have been turned into a shoe-sucking quagmire after last night's storm so, after picking up a few provisions from a mini-market next door, I headed back to the Six Bells. Walking into the bar which I expected to be deserted, I was surprised to see the couple from the night before sitting in what I would come to realise was their usual place, a pint of beer and a gin and tonic on the table in front of them. I was yet to learn that lunchtime drinking was a common and perfectly acceptable thing in England and I wondered uneasily if the couple that I had so envied were in fact hopeless alcoholics. Something of this must have shown in my expression as the woman looked at me and smiled,
'Well, hello there! You were in here last night weren't you?' Without waiting for me to answer, she patted the seat next to her, 'Do join us - we're the only ones here - and one of us is a dreadful bore!' The amused look that passed between them told me that this was part of their regular patter and I hesitated, not sure that I wanted to play the adoring audience to their Homer and Marge but the Marge half was still patting the bench,' Come on, don't be shy.' As I sat down she craned her neck towards the bar, 'What are you having?' I glanced at the clock which showed that it was just shy of one o'clock,
'Erm, a diet Coke would be great.' She tore her attention away from the bar long enough to give me a long look,
'Don't be ridiculous, you're not driving anywhere are you?' I admitted that I wasn't and mumbled that I would have a glass of red wine, figuring that I would be able to nurse it for a while without having to actually drink so early in the day. 'Matt! she yelled in the direction of the bar, her cut glass vowels piercing the quiet room, 'Another round over here and a large red wine. And..' she added as the barman turned to fetch the drinks, 'The good stuff mind - none of that rubbish that you serve to the Uni lot.' While Matt prepared our drinks, the couple introduced themselves as Stella and Will, owners of a chain of party shops and I gave them a brief precis of the reason for my trip,
'Ooh, you'll be going to see Harrow School then?' Stella asked and I nodded,
'That's certainly the plan, is it far?' They both shook their heads as Stella announced,
'Not far at all, we'll take you - how are you fixed for tomorrow?'
'Oh no,' I demurred, 'I couldn't possibly ask.....'
'Well, you're not asking are you?' She replied with a smile, 'We're offering.' And then, as though the matter were now settled, 'It'll be fun - and there's a charming pub close by where we can have lunch.' Despite my original misgivings, Stella and Will were fun and full of local knowledge which I soaked up like a sponge - unfortunately I found myself doing the same with the wine which turned out to be a very good Rioja and I was amazed to realise as I took a bleary look at the pub clock that three hours - and three glasses - had passed since I had returned and, pleading exhaustion, I told the couple that I was going to head to my room for a nap.
'You're not staying here?' Stella cried, 'In one of those tiny little rooms?' I nodded,
'Sure am - it's very nice.' She shook her head,
'But so small - and no double glazing, how on earth do you sleep?' I shrugged, the pull of the cosy room and it's comfortable bed suddenly more appealing than more conversation,
'Just fine - apart from last night's rain storm which woke me in the early hours,'
'But,' she shook her head, 'Gus, there was no rain last night!'
The next morning was bright and sunny and I woke early, showering and dressing quickly and grabbing breakfast from the coffee shop down the road before returning to the pub to restlessly wait for Stella and Will to arrive, the good weather and the excitement of the trip making me so buoyant that I practically wore a groove in the wooden floor of the lounge bar as I paced up and down. After what seemed like an eternity I heard the screech of brakes outside and I hurried out of the pub to find a sleek black Jaguar parked out front, Stella's blonde hair just visible through the tinted side window. Most of the journey was unremarkable, suburban streets broken up by the occasional short row of shops and eateries but, then, we turned into a steep tree-lined road, dark and winding and suddenly we emerged onto a scene that belonged to a previous century - beautiful little cottages snuggled together either side of a small square, all over-looked by the imposing spectre of the school. Here and there were signs of the modern world; restaurants, shops and a bank but, even these were tastefully designed to fit in with the olde worlde theme. We parked in a side street and then walked back up the hill to the school which seemed far too quiet to be full of boys and I longed to explore every inch of it,
'It's such a shame that the only part we can look at is the Old Speech Room Gallery,' I complained as we approached the huge gates and Stella gave me an amused look,
'Well, that would be the case for mere tourists,' she smirked, 'but not for those of us who have a son here!' I gaped at her - the day before, they had mentioned Hugh, their son, but not where he went to school,
'Hugh is a student here?' I asked breathlessly and they both laughed,
'Indeed,' said Will, 'but we won't see him as he's off on a rugby trip with the team as one of us' he cast a dark look at Stella, 'thinks that it's important that he "bond" with his peers.'
'It is important,' said Stella archly and, tight-faced, Will responded,
'Even if these particular peers are thugs and bullies - thirty three grand a year to bond with a bunch of savages.' I silently balked at the kind of money that made my windfall look like a barman's tip and at the fact that, unlike their playful banter the day before, the discord between them now was very real and I rushed to change the subject,
'Imagine getting to study in such beautiful surroundings!' I gushed, staring up at the handsome red and cream bricks
'Yeah,' Will agreed, his voice softer now, 'there is that.' His voice was almost wistful and I looked at him,
'Did you go here too?' For a moment, he just stared at me, his mouth open in comical wonder and then he let out a great braying laugh that seemed to reverberate through the hush of our surroundings,
'God no! No posh schools - or university for me!' He shook his head, still laughing at the absurdity of the idea and then, with more than a tinge of pride,
'Self-made man, I am!' he announced earning a snort from Stella but this time there was affection in her derision,
'That you are my love,' she said plucking a sleek mobile phone out of her bag and pressing a combination of buttons before announcing 'John? Stella Longstaffe here - Will and I are outside now, with our guest.'
As I had imagined, the building was just as spectacular inside, all muted colours and intricate architecture that seemed to belong to another time; an illusion that was only added to by the
occasional glimpse of a student hurrying along corridors in formal uniforms with white scarves and straw hats which I was told must not be referred to as 'boaters'. I was so entranced by these uniforms that Stella promised that she would bring me back to 'the hill' one Sunday so that I could see the boys in their tailcoats and tophats. I, of course, assumed that she was pulling my leg, much to the consternation of our host, John Cullen. After our tour (during which I was allowed to take only a few select photographs), the Longstaffes made good on their promise to take me for lunch at The Castle, a pub found at the bottom of a very steep hill and which served very good food and wine at eye-watering prices and we settled in the pub's garden which was reached by climbing a set of death-defyingly wonky stone steps but from where you could see the peaks and spires of Central London.
'I can't begin to thank you enough for bringing me here,' I began as we sipped our drinks and Stella waved a hand at me dismissively,
'Nonsense, our pleasure - nothing nicer than showing off the places you love to somebody new.' I knew this to be true and idly tried to imagine showing Stella and Will around Manhattan but, somehow, the image just wouldn't solidify. 'Now,' Stella continued, 'what's next on the mighty Byron list?'
'Birth and the church where he was Christened,' I answered promptly, 'Both apparently in a place called Marylebone.' I took note of the way both of their mouths twitched and laughed,
'OK, I guess my pronunciation wasn't too hot there?' Will gently told me the correct way to say it whilst Stella rooted around in her bag, eventually pulling out a well-used diary and flicking through it before announcing,
'Right, Saturday then for Marylebone? There's a marvellous place we can go for lunch - just about half way up Baker Street! Jolly decent Beaujolais there.’'
The journey back to Ruislip seemed long and dull without the anticipation of seeing Byron's seat of learning and, when we pulled up outside The Six Bells I declined the offer to join Stella and Will for another drink, stating that I had calls to make which, although true was only part of the reason - the other being that I could already see how easy it would be to fritter away my precious days in England in a boozy haze with the two of them, wasting opportunities that would horrify my mother who had never been given them. And it was my mother that I had to call first. The day before I flew out of Newark I had, like a coward, waited until I knew she would be out at her bridge club and had then left a brief and vague message on the answerphone telling her that I would be away for a couple of weeks and now I was steeling myself for the full force of her disapproval at the irresponsibility of throwing away a steady job for some silly adventure. I couldn't have been more wrong; after explaining where I was and why, her only admonishment was 'I just wish you had waited until I could have saved up and come with you!'
'We'll do it again, together,' I promised and at the time I meant it as, at the time, England was still a place of charm and harmless wonder for me.
After placing another call, this time to Dorothy at the nursing home to check up on Agnes' progress (no change) I decided to get a cup of coffee from the bar and take it outside to the garden area, reasoning that the unseasonal good weather was just too good to waste so, quickly brushing my hair I grabbed my bag and opened the door to my room. Stepping into the gloomy hallway on which mine was the sole room, my mind was occupied with the conversation with my Mother so I almost screamed when I crossed the threshold to find a
young man standing outside the room. Feeling foolish, I laughed self-conciously,
'Oh, hello there, you scared me!' The young man - a boy I saw now as he couldn't have been more than about sixteen, backed away from the door, a strange smile on his face which revealed that he was missing his front teeth, although he was far too old to be growing new ones. When he didn't answer, I made a move to pass him, 'If you're here to turn down the room, there's really no need as I only just arrived really.' At that, he turned without a word and walked down the stairs and, following, I wondered if he were maybe simple. When we reached the bottom, I watched as he turned away from the bar and made his way to the huge wooden door that led to the cellar where he turned once more to look at me before disappearing into the depths of the building. As I walked into the bar I noticed, with a guilty relief that Stella and Will were no longer there - as much as I enjoyed their company I was looking forward to an hour or so in the sunshine by myself. I waited while Matt served a pint of beer to a local who looked to be in his eighties and then ordered my coffee.
'I just bumped into your cellar boy,' I said to make conversation, 'he gave me quite a fright as I came out of my room!' Matt glanced at me as he wrestled with the coffee machine which sounded like it may take off at any moment,
'Cellar boy, sure. You didn't happen to see my butler or the chauffeur as well did you?' Puzzled, I shook my head and paid him for the coffee; I'd been warned about the English sense of huour but wasn't sure I would ever get used to it or, for that matter, understand it. Outside, the benches were deserted apart from one twenty-something woman conducting an intense and aggressive conversation on her mobile phone so I took the bench furthest from her and tipped my face up to the sun and closed my eyes, luxuriating in being able to empty my mind and just enjoy the moment. When I opened my eyes again a few seconds later, my coffee mug which had been half full was now over-flowing with crushed and muddy leaves.
The leaves under my feet were wet from the rain but some still crackled out their fall song as I ran through them, the hornbeam and birch stuttering past like old cine film as the sunlight penetrated only slivers of the wood now and again before disappearing once more behind the clouds. I could sense, rather than hear something behind me as I ran, unable to see who or what it was, only knowing that it was gaining on me by the second. I looked for somewhere to hide, realising too late that I had slowed down, not much but too much and they were on me and I was on the ground, staring up at the aspen, birch and oak'
'Lavender!' I gasped out loud as I abruptly woke, the bed sheets tangled round my legs and, for a moment in my confusion, the cotton sheets were gnarled branches then the dream receded and began to dissolve the way dreams do. Outside my window, the first signs of light were showing in the cracks between the curtains - during the night Ducks Hill Road achieved an almost complete darkness that doesn't exist in Manhattan - or in Central London as I discovered during the couple of nights that I stayed there. Unwilling to go back to sleep, should the dream recur, I made a cup of tea from the mini kettle provided to the room and watched the curtain-crack lighten from murky grey to pale blue.
Although it was early, I was feeling restless and so hastily showered and dressed and made my way to West Ruislip station via the coffee shop which had somehow become my local. Studying my map of the underground I had discovered that I could reach Notting Hill Gate
in one long but uninterrupted journey and I relished the idea of an hour on the train accompanied only by my music and my thoughts. I knew nothing about Notting Hill apart from what I'd seen in the movie starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts but I was immediately enchanted by the stalls and the multi-coloured buildings that run down Portobello Road and I ended up spending way too much on a couple of gypsy style tops and a large loaf of bread which was, apparently, artisan. I had been toying with the idea of jotting down notes on my stay in England and so I bought a pretty paisley patterned notebook from a stall-holder then spent an hour in a rooftop cafe recording my adventures so far. By the time I returned to The Six Bells it was four o'clock and I saw through the window that Stella and Will were sitting at their usual table, this time joined by a local woman that I recognised vaguely from my first night in the pub. I later learned that the couple were creatures of habit and that they would be in the Six Bells shortly after finishing their work at around three o'clock on weekdays and would be safely ensconced by about one o'clock at weekends and I formed the impression that they were able to maintain their easy relationship only by spending as little time alone together as possible. As I approached their table, the woman was already leaving, heading toward the door whilst muttering angrily to herself,
'Problems?' I asked, gesturing with my head to the woman's departing head and Stella shrugged, one hand already raised to order a new round of drinks,
'With that bitch? Always.' Matt had raised his hand in acknowledgement and Stella now lowered hers in order to pick up her glass and drain the last of her gin, 'Every year she hires us to supply party stuff for her precious Jem's birthday and, every year there's a problem.' She rattled the ice cubes in her glass and Will took over,
'This time, one of the little monsters burnt a hole in the bouncy castle with a sparkler and, not only is she refusing to pay for the damage but she actually has the gall to ask us for a part refund as the castle was un-useable for the rest of the party!' I wondered privately why they would still agree to do business with the woman but kept it to myself, sure that I had a lot to learn about both business and living in a small town. As Matt arrived with the drinks I waved Will's hand away as he picked up his wallet and I handed a twenty pound note to Matt; Stella and Will had been extremely generous toward me from our first meeting and I was grateful - and also a little uneasy about this, although I wasn't sure why.
'Anyway,' Stella continued, 'Enough of that. I want to hear about what you've been up to today; we were going to call up to you but Matt told us that you'd gone out.' Again, that seed of uneasiness pricked at me and I suspected that it's root lay in the feeling that I had become some kind of a pet for the couple.
As the evening wore on I found myself suddenly missing Lizzie with an intensity that surprised me and I wished desperately that she were there with me; a partner in crime against the couple whose banter I now realised only barely masked a long-standing dislike of one another. I once heard that, at Kurt Cobain's funeral, his wife incited the congregation to hurl abuse at her husband's coffin and, at that moment in The Six Bells I suddenly understood that anger toward somebody who had gone on ahead, leaving only grief and unanswered questions for those who were left. Lizzie's funeral had been a horribly sad affair in every sense of the word; Attended only by myself, Agnes and a small group of misfits who had presumably been in Lizzie's life to some degree, the eulogy was brief and perfunctory and nowhere near what Lizzie deserved and, afterward, I was anxious only to get back to Agnes who had endured the service with a brittle but fragile stoicism and get her home as soon as was decently possible. As we were leaving, the pastor asked Agnes if she would like to take any of the flowers and we dutifully walked back to the chapel to appraise the wreaths which were arranged on a small pedestal at the front. One of the floral arrangements was from me and one from Agnes and I noticed that there was no card on the third but then, as Agnes pointed towards her own offering and I leant to pick it up for her, I saw that there was a card on the floor, having seemingly fallen from the bouquet in transit. I initially wondered if the flowers were from a lover, as unlikely as that seemed, but there was no name on the card at all just a small picture in the corner of what looked like a short curved knife, not quite a scythe but I still found myself recoiling and hastily put the card in my bag before Agnes could see it.
I zoned back into the present just as Will was ordering a fresh round of drinks and I hastily called over to Matt to count me out of the round - thoughts of Lizzie had left me feeling down and less than sociable and I couldn’t face another hour in the company of others. Claiming the start of a headache I excused myself and was released by Stella and Will with strict instructions to get a good night’s sleep and a reminder that they would collect me at one o’clock the following day for our visit to Marylebone. By the time I got up to my room, I really did have a headache and, when my phone rang I was tempted to simply ignore it and climb into bed but something compelled me to fish it out of my bag and then answer it to my Mom who was full of questions about my trip - so much so that my headache was soon forgotten as I lost myself in describing everything that I had seen so far.
‘And have you seen the Queen yet ?’ She teased and I admitted that I had not yet been invited round for tea but expected to receive the call at any moment.
‘You’d love it here though Mom,’ I added, suddenly home-sick for her if not for Manhattan, ‘This trip is kind of research for my book but, next time we’ll do a vacation here together and stay in some swanky hotel in the West End.’ She chuckled,
‘That sounds fantastic but don’t you be worrying about me; I just want you to enjoy every second of your time there, you’ve waited long enough for something like this!’
‘I know, Mom and it’s great, it really is. And I’ve met some really nice people but, you know, I’ve just been missing Lizzie so much.’
‘I know honey. It’s great that you’re making friends though.’
‘It is,’ I agreed, ‘You’d like them. Listen, can I give you a call in a day or two, I’m completely exhausted - or “knackered” as they say here?’
‘Sure you can,’ she replied, ‘You take care - and honey, stay out of the woods!’ I ended the call with a smile which faded as I realised that I hadn’t mentioned to my mother that I was staying anywhere near any woods.
Even before my Mother’s warning I had every intention of leaving the woods alone but, it seemed, that they weren’t prepared to leave me alone and I dreamt of them again that night. This time I was alone and felt Lizzie’s absence deeply as I wandered further and further into the dense dark woodland. At first I was puzzled to find myself there but, as the darkness grew, I could hear somebody calling to me and I moved automatically toward the voice although it wasn’t one that I recognised. Suddenly I could make out the shape of somebody in a small clearing ahead of me and I hurried my pace, realising only when I was nearly upon him that he was urging me to go, to get out of the woods rather than to come to him. Although it didn’t make sense to keep venturing further into the woods without knowing where they might lead and what may be hidden in their depths, I continued forward, briefly losing sight of my companion and then finding him again as we entered a small clearing, at which point I could see that it was a boy of no more than fifteen or sixteen years of age and the dream was of a clarity that I was able to wonder what he was doing out there alone in the dark. As I struggled to keep up with the boy, a mass of black cloud drifted across the moon and, for a moment, it was like somebody had turned out the lights and the wood was pitched into complete darkness then, as the cloud passed, I saw that the boy had disappeared and in front of me was a large tree from which hung a boy’s tattered cap. I thought I could still hear the boy’s thudding footsteps but then, as consciousness slowly reclaimed me, I realised that the sound I was hearing was not from a spooky old wood but was the sound of somebody laboriously dragging something up the stairs. A quick peek around the door revealed a middle aged lady pulling a vacuum cleaner behind her that was almost as big as she was and I hastily washed and dressed in order to allow her uninterrupted access to my room. As it was barely past seven thirty there was nobody else around and so I let myself out of the pub and made my way down to the coffee shop where they now knew me by name and vice versa, something that gave me a complicated feeling of belonging in a place that still seemed hopelessly alien and I ordered my usual cappuccino and a croissant having already grabbed a newspaper from the little shop next door. The news in The Sun achieved a predictable balance of depressing and titillating and I wished that I had, instead, picked up the local paper which I had discovered a couple of days before was more light-hearted and, often, unintentionally amusing. Still, the young day was brightening and it felt good to have the luxury of enjoying a leisurely breakfast alone, knowing that my afternoon would be spent with the irrepressible Stella and Will. I wondered again at the animosity which seemed to exist between them with respect to their son’s education; I couldn’t imagine how either of them could be anything other than delighted about their son’s schooling, particularly in comparison to some of the grotty looking public schools that I had seen since arriving in England. As I walked back to the pub along the narrow sidewalk an elderly gentleman wearing an old-fashioned cap brought my dream back to me and, on impulse, on reaching The Six Bells I kept on walking until, a few moments later, I was at the entrance to the woodland which began with a circular car park area. Not being anything of a nature buff I quickly scanned the information regarding the trees and fauna without much interest and then, zipping my jacket up against the chill caused by the shade of the trees, I took my first few tentative steps into Mad Bess Wood.
Although I was happy to know that these woods were free of any creatures intent on eating humans, I soon discovered that what they lacked in bears and wolves, they made up for a hundred-fold in insects which buzzed and whined around my ears and I resigned myself to finishing my adventure covered in itching bites. Despite the early hour, I passed a couple of people walking their dogs and they nodded politely but briskly before continuing on their way and, emboldened by the presence of other human beings, I ventured further into the trees. Although the wood was deep, it wasn’t wide and I was relieved to discover that, most of the time, I could either see the field that ran alongside it or, at least, could hear the cows that grazed in the field; a handy compass that reassured me that I wouldn’t get lost and end up being eaten alive by the ravenous mosquitos which had been feasting on me for the past fifteen minutes. A few minutes further into the wood erased the traffic noise from the busy road and I stood still for a moment, relishing the sense of peace that came from being surrounded only by nature. As I sat down on the stump of a fallen tree, I began to wonder why it had taken me so long to visit the wood which, now, seemed to be the ideal place to stop and think amidst the frantic pace of everyday life. As I sat, I closed my eyes and let the subtle soundtrack of my surroundings wash over me, gentle chirps and the rustling of leaves providing a soothing lullaby and soon I was drifting, the real world forgotten. And I dreamed - or at least that’s what I thought for, soon the wood began to change; some of the trees which had towered above the skyline were now barely eight feet tall and the sky was clearer, the air sweeter. Despite the oddness of these things, I found myself mostly disinterested in them, content just to be still, to just breathe and I closed my eyes again, determined to cling on to the feeling. I felt myself begin to drift again and I welcomed it - all the things that had happened in the last few months were still there but distant, unimportant and of no more importance than something heard about some far-flung place on the nightly news. I pulled my cardigan tighter around me as a draft waved it’s way through the clearing but the comfort was short-lived and soon my teeth were chattering as though the day had dropped several degrees in the space of less than a minute. Opening my eyes, I suddenly felt confused, disoriented as I saw that a lace of frost clung to the trees nearest to me and I shivered as my t.shirt and cardigan now seemed woefully inadequate and my new-found sense of contentment disappeared without trace. As I stood, I found that I was feeling woozy, not sick exactly but fragile like after a long illness and I took a couple of tentative steps in the direction that I had come. At first it seemed like none of it was familiar and the trees seemed to cluster closer and closer together as though unwilling to let me leave but then, as I was about to shout to anybody who may be around, a clearing opened up in front of me and I recognised the path that would lead me back to the car-park and then back onto Ducks Hill Road. As I stumbled along the path something caught my eye and I glanced up to see what, at first, looked like a tattered piece of cloth hanging from a tree and I tiptoed closer to get a better look. The cold that had seeped into my bones only minutes earlier had evaporated and now, standing beneath the tree, I began to sweat as I gazed up at what could only be an old fashioned boy’s cap hanging from a low branch.
Afterwards I was able to tell the police the exact time that it happened as I checked my watch as I emerged from the car park, breathing heavily as I tried to make sense of the past two hours which had seemed to me only about thirty minutes. With every step that I took along Ducks Hill Road toward the Six Bells I felt the mental images become more and more blurred as though they were being rubbed out around the edges until they were no more than echoes and, by the time I reached the pub, the experience had taken on the quality of a barely remembered dream. I now realised that I had no time to change before Stella and Will were due to arrive and I ran up to my room and hastily freshened up ready for the day’s adventure of seeing where Lord Byron was baptised in 1788. As I checked that I had all that I needed I was grateful for the fact that I had thought to buy and bring a second memory card for my camera as I had been alarmed to discover a day or so earlier that the one currently in the camera was almost done although I had been sure that I had plenty of space left. I packed the camera, my wallet and a light cardigan into my bag and, locking the door behind me, made my way downstairs to the bar. I chatted briefly with Matt behind the bar - I have no recollection now what we talked about, probably the weather or some such thing - and then, hearing the distant but familiar hum of Will’s Jag, I waved goodbye and walked out onto Duck’s Hill Road. I waved as the car drew to a halt outside the pub and I remember that Stella raised a hand in a kind of half wave half salute, smiling broadly as she opened the car door and stepped out into the road. We later found out that the lorry had exited Reservoir Road too quickly, a problem with the brakes which would mystify the mechanics, but none of the specifics would make any difference to Stella as the lorry barrelled down the road and ploughed into her at such a speed that she was first thrown roughly into the air only to return to earth to be dragged under the wheels as the driver frantically tried to either stop the vehicle or at least divert it’s course. The squeal of engine and tyres filled my head - seemed to fill the world - and a terrible symphony was created as it was joined by my screams and Will’s anguished howl as the gigantic vehicle veered crazily from one side of the road to the other until, finally, it came to a stop with it’s front wheels resting inches from the front window of the pub and it’s trunk slanted across the road. The only one who wasn’t screaming was Stella; I caught only a glance before Matt, panic lining his young face, turned me away but it was enough to know that there was no hope. My brain struggled to comprehend the fact that Stella, who only moments before had been waving cheerily to me from the car, was now gone and I felt my legs turn to jelly, grateful that Matt was still holding onto me and more grateful still when he led me inside the pub and sat me down as far away from the window as possible. As Matt poured brandies for us both, the door opened and Will was led into the room by two policemen and I belatedly registered the blue flashing lights on the street outside, their harsh brightness filtered by the thick pub windows. Spotting me, Will said something to the officers and they all made their way to where I was sitting in the far corner and Matt rose to fetch more brandy, this time opting to simply leave the bottle on the table. As Will sat down beside me he seemed to have aged ten years in a few short minutes - his skin was grey and seemed to hang from his cheekbones in blotchy lumps and his eyes which switched rapidly from me to the police officer and then back again were unfocused and white with shock. And there was simply nothing to say - Several times I opened my mouth to offer something, anything but then realised that the concept of comforting this man was ridiculous, obscene even and, instead, I took another large swig of brandy.
‘I really am sorry to have to do this now,’ one of the policemen started, ‘but if we could just ask you a few questions Mr Longstaffe. Can you tell me what time it was when you pulled up outside the Six Bells ?’ Will suddenly sat upright, his eyes wide and focused but it wasn’t the policeman’s question that had electrified him and he half rose as if to leave as he wailed,
‘Oh God, Hugh! He’s going to have to be told - I need to go to the school, now!’ The other police officer, a short solidly built man with thinning hair who, up until now, had remained silent, gently placed a hand on Will’s arm, settling him back into his seat,
‘An officer will take you wherever you need to go very soon Mr Longstaffe but, in the meantime, it really would be helpful if we could just get a little bit of information from you.’
‘It was five after one,’ I stated, inappropriately happy at being able to help even in some ridiculously small way, ‘I was meeting Will and Stella outside the pub and had just come back from a walk and checked my watch just as the car pulled up.’ The first policeman peered over the top of his bifocals,
‘And you are?’
‘Gus Freeman. I’m staying at The Six Bells and, well, I’m friends with Will and Stella - we were going to go out for the day.’
‘Did you see the incident yourself?’ I nodded quickly,
‘Yes, I was standing on the pavement outside the pub when Will and Stella pulled up. Stella started to get out of the car and the lorry just….’ I began to shake and I wrapped my hands around my glass as though for ballast, ‘it just seemed to come from nowhere.’ At that moment, a couple of young police officers came inside and asked Matt for some buckets of soapy water and I wondered briefly why they would want such things and then the sickening realisation struck me - they had finished their business and Stella’s poor broken body had been removed and, now they would be washing away the unsightly evidence of her death. I felt the brandy surge back into my throat and excused myself hastily, only just making it to the bathroom in time and, shaking, I hugged the ceramic bowl, grateful that I hadn’t added to the awfulness of the day by vomiting in the bar room. I didn’t know if the police would want to speak to me more but, as I hauled myself up from the restroom floor, my trembling legs automatically led me to the stairs and then into my tiny, comforting room - a space that, to my traumatised mind, had been untouched by the horror of the last couple of hours and I sank gratefully onto the single bed. Unbelievably, as I lay there, I felt sleep begin to tug at me despite the thoughts and images whirling through my head and I would have succumbed had it not been for the sound of my phone. Wearily, I dragged myself off the bed to retrieve the phone from my bag and, for a moment, could only stare at it in disbelief as I registered that the name on the screen was Stella but then, realising that it must be Will or one of the police officers I hit the green button,
‘Hello ? Will ?’ On the other end was only smooth silence but the call hadn’t disconnected so I waited a few seconds and then repeated my greeting in case there had been a brief lapse in service but still the nothingness persisted and so, ending the call I then switched the phone off and, easing myself back onto the bed, surrendered to the relief of sleep.
My return to consciousness was a gradual one; fragments of dream wove in and out of recent memories until I could no longer tell which was which and I struggled to wake myself up. My first realisation on waking was that I was sticky with cooling sweat - I hadn’t closed the thin curtains before climbing onto the bed and the sun had been pouring through the window leaving me sweaty and dry-mouthed. I shuffled to the bathroom and had a perfunctory luke-warm shower then dressed quickly and unfussily in jeans and a sweater. As I was dressing, my second realisation was that everything was quiet - too quiet. I couldn’t hear any customers in the beer garden below my window or muffled conversation from the bar or, in fact, any of the other small noises that are only noticeable once they stop. I made my way downstairs to find that the pub was deserted and dark, the kitchen was locked and the heavy drapes had been pulled across all of the windows in the bar. Of course, I admonished myself, I should have guessed that Matt wouldn’t just simply carry on with the day as though nothing had happened but, even so, it seemed odd and depressing. I had a brief stab of anxiety that all of the doors would be locked and I wouldn’t be able to get out and I suddenly felt stifled and breathless but then I discovered with relief that the kitchen door didn’t need to be unlocked with a key. My relief was, however, short-lived when I realised that although I could get out, I would have no way of getting back in and I was just about to give up and return to my room when I spotted a few sets of keys hanging from a hook just to the side of the door. The second set that I tried were the right ones and, feeling only a slight pang of guilt, I slipped them into my bag and let myself out into the beer garden which was cold and deserted, the tables still littered with empty glasses and full ash-trays.
Once outside I realised that I had no plan other than escaping the tragic and oppressive atmosphere that now surrounded the pub and I began to walk with no destination in mind until I found myself, again, at the entrance to the wood. Suddenly it made sense that this was where I should be and I quickened my pace, crossing the car park in long brisk steps until I was once more among the trees and the deep, quiet peace of Mad Bess Wood. I gasped as a dog ran at me from behind a tree, heading straight toward me with it’s teeth bared and I was about to turn tail when I heard a deep male voice calling it back and then, a moment later, the owner of the voice appeared, a stout ruddy faced man wearing an old fashioned tweed cap and carrying a wicked looking curved knife. I glanced around nervously, suddenly aware that I was alone in the middle of a wood but the man gave me a pleasant but harried smile,
‘Sorry if he scared you Miss, too much energy this one but he’s harmless.’ I somehow doubted that but returned the stranger’s smile,
‘No problem - I was a million miles away; trying to clear my head as something awful’s happened, it was…...’ he nodded briskly as he interrupted,
‘Don’t you worry Miss, we’ll find him. I was raised in these woods and know every inch of ‘em. Me and Archie here will find young John.’
‘John?’ I asked, confused, but the man was already striding away, his dog - Archie - now following instead of leading and soon they were both out of sight. After the scare that the man had given me I was tempted to turn round and head back to the pub but, finding that I couldn’t yet face the aftermath of Stella’s death I decided to press on a little further into the wood, relishing the peace and quiet as I knew that before long the world that I had only just settled into would be consumed by post-mortems, both figurative and literal. Mostly, I was uncomfortable at the prospect of seeing Will - although we had become friends in a fashion, we were by no means close and I struggled with the uncomfortable prospect of comforting somebody I barely knew over something as intimate as the loss of his wife. For a brief moment, I was tempted to simply grab my things from The Six Bells and flee, to save myself the awkwardness of the situation but then I was immediately ashamed - close or not, Will deserved my respect at least after the kindnesses that he and Stella had showed me and I vowed to reach out to him in some way on my return. As these thoughts put themselves in order in my head, my pace had quickened and I belatedly realised that this was due to the fact that I was cold - suddenly teeth-chatteringly cold and I wrapped my arms around myself in an unsuccessful attempt to warm up. Assuming that the sudden drop in temperature was down to rogue cloud I looked up at the sky through the long tunnel of tree trunks and was puzzled to see that the bright wintry sunshine was still as bright as ever As my gaze travelled back down the trees, I noticed a cap hanging from one of the branches and I remembered seeing it on my previous visit, although I was surprised that it was still there after so much time had passed. Still shivering, I was just about to turn back when I spotted a movement behind the nearest cluster of trees and I shielded my eyes in order to see better. As I watched, a boy emerged from behind one of the trees, tall, with the gangly limbs of a teenager he stared at me in silence for a moment and then turned and began to walk deeper into the wood,
‘Hey!’ I called out and the boy stopped but didn’t turn around, ‘Are you John?’ and then, when he didn’t reply, ‘They’re looking for you, you know - they must be worried about you!’ I took a step toward him and, oddly, he also took a step forward but still didn’t turn back to face me. ‘If you’re worried that you’ll be in trouble, you shouldn’t,’ I tried, ‘It’s really never as bad as it seems!’ Then he did turn around, slowly, deliberately showing me the left side of his head and face which was dented and bloodied, the eye almost completely hidden from view. I gasped and reflexively rushed toward him, ‘You’re hurt!’ I said, trying to keep my voice as calm as possible, ‘Let me help you!’ Turning to face me properly, he smiled, a thing made grotesque by his injuries and it was all I could do not to turn and flee from that smile as he nodded once and said,
‘Yes. Help me Gus!’
They arrived slowly, just one or two at first and then more and more until, everywhere I looked, the wood was a moving, living thing. Almost all of them were men, some old, some only boys and they called to one another as they scoured the landscape, some carrying tools with which they hacked at the undergrowth and some led by dogs which sniffed and whined as they searched. I turned back to the boy who was quietly watching the searchers as they teemed around him.
‘They already found you, didn’t they?’ I asked and the sorrow in the boy’s eyes as he turned to face me was almost more than I could bear.
‘Help me Gus,’ he repeated and I took a step toward him,
‘How?’ I pleaded, ‘Tell me what I can do to help you!’ He backed away from my reaching hand, shaking his head as he moved,
‘They won’t let me,’
He continued to back away from me and suddenly I could barely see him as a series of images began to rapidly cloud my vision; a family sitting round a fire, a courtroom, sunshine filtering through the wood and then dark shapes and heavy footsteps. I shook my head to clear it and began to run, not wanting to see what happened next and, as I made for the entrance of the wood, the images began to fade and disintegrate until they were gone completely as I sat shaking and gasping for breath in the car park. For a few long moments I thought I would pass out and I would have greeted that welcome oblivion gladly but the world slowly returned to it’s usual clarity and so, on legs that were far from steady, I stood and began to walk back to The Six Bells intending to quietly let myself back in before helping myself to a brandy and retreating once more to the haven of my room. I have a friend who’s a therapist - an old college pal who now lives in California - and, as I trudged down the road I heard her voice in my head telling me that what just happened was simply my subconscious trying to give me a second chance as I no doubt felt that I failed to save Lizzie. And I wanted to believe that voice with all my heart. I wanted to take the intended comfort, maybe take a valium and then climb under the covers and sleep but I knew that I would be denied any such escape as, even if I could bring myself to disbelieve what my eyes had seen, the object in my pocket that my fingers played like a rosary would not allow me to find any peace.
As I approached the pub, I saw that the police were back and for a moment i was paralysed with weariness at the thought of having to talk to them again but still I dragged myself through the front door which was now open. I immediately recognised the officer who was now sat with Matt at the corner table (Will and Stella’s table, my mind insisted) and I made my way over to them.
‘Hi Matt, DCI Robinson,’ I said, unsure of whether the conversation was private or they would want me to join them.
‘Ah, Ms Freeman isn’t it?’ the policeman asked as he gestured to a free chair, however, Matt stayed silent, barely glancing at me as I took a seat. ‘We’re just going over a few things regarding Stella Longstaffe’s death.’ I nodded quickly,
‘Sure, is there anything I can help with?’ He flipped a few pages of his notebook and cleared his throat,
‘You say that you and the Longstaffes were planning to go off out for the day, do you mind my asking where you were going?’ I shrugged and explained a little about my Byron pilgrimage and that I had planned to visit Marylebone with Stella and Will and the officer squinted,
‘You say you only met the couple a few days ago, yet you’d already taken one trip with them and had another planned?’
‘Yes,’ I replied, feeling oddly defensive, ‘I guess you could say that they kind of took me under their wing when I arrived here, would you say that was about right Matt?’ The barman nodded stiffly,
‘That’s about the size of it - very friendly people, talk to anyone.’ I recoiled slightly at the new coldness that I heard in Matt’s voice but continued,
‘They asked me to join them on my first night here and we got talking. I don’t know anybody in London so I was real grateful to spend time with them.’ I suddenly remembered Will’s anguish over his son, ‘Can I ask - How’s Hugh doing?’ DCI Robinson snapped his notebook closed and stood,
‘I’m afraid I couldn’t tell you - an Officer took Mr Longstaffe to Harrow yesterday to break the news to his son who then chose to stay at the school rather than return to Ruislip with his father.’ If he found this strange - which I certainly did - he didn’t let on and a moment later he was gone, opening the door to let in a draught that wasn’t nearly as icy as the atmosphere in the bar.
‘Matt, is everything Ok?’ I asked tentatively, ‘I’m really sorry that I took the key from the kitchen, I just really really needed to get some air for a while.’ He stood and took a rag from his pocket and bagan wiping the already spotless table,
‘It’s absolutely no problem for you to take the key - we have a couple of spares but,’ he briefly made eye contact and stuffed the rag back into his pocket, ‘It would be appreciated if you would refrain from having any more guests in your room - if your friend wants to stay here, we do have another room that she can book.’
When I was eighteen and separated from Lizzie by college and about two and a half thousand miles, we devised a way of keeping in touch. Being impoverished students, we could only afford to speak on the telephone once a week - particularly as these calls would tend to be epics lasting at least two hours at a time - and so we came up with a plan whereby we would send each other postcards throughout the week. The rule was that we would only write one word on these cards, a kind of cryptic clue to topics that would be discussed during our weekly call and we would then spend the week trying to guess the topic from this one clue. Normally it would be easy; the word would relate to a new boyfriend or hated professor but occasionally the clues would be obscure and we would gleefully spend hours trying to decipher them. I’ve still got most of these cards (those that weren’t destroyed during dorm parties or simply lost in the careless way that we lose things when we think that their source is infinite. My favourite is a bright pink card with the word ‘star’ printed on it. I puzzled over this card for days until finally admitting defeat during our call, at which point Lizzie simply explained, ‘No deep meaning, I just think you’re a star!’
When I got to my room, she was everywhere. As I opened the door, the draught brought with it a whiff of her perfume, making me light-headed with memories and sadness and the force of it brought with it an echo of her laugh. For a few seconds, the sensory overload was so strong that my tired brain refused to believe that Lizzie was not in the room and I whirled around, checking every corner and shadow before sitting down heavily on the bed. As I sat, I felt something crackle beneath me and, with a dull lack of surprise, I reached behind me and pulled out the card. The writing was, without a doubt, Lizzie’s - I would have defied any hand-writing expert in the world to contest this but, for the first time, there was no name or address printed on the front just the word ‘Lavender’ printed on the back. I read it over twice, first panicked with the frustration of not understanding and then almost laughing out loud at the fact that my beloved friend had, seemingly, reached out from the beyond only to send me one nonsensical word - and this time there would be no end-of-the-week call during which all would be revealed. I needed to talk to somebody and even picked up the phone to call my Mom but put it down before dialling the number, realising that the events of the last twenty four hours would lose form as they jumbled from my head to my mouth and would only be received as the rantings of a madwoman. I drank a glass of water and then lay down on the bed, willing my mind to quieten enough for me to compile a kind of mental incident board of everything that had happened. I had come to England, in part, to vanquish my demons but it seemed that, rather than going quietly, they were more present than ever - and had made some friends along the way! You see, I knew more about Lizzie than anybody else ever had, or ever would - things that I hadn’t told Agnes or the police; I hadn’t betrayed Lizzie’s secrets while she was alive and I sure as hell wasn’t going to once she was gone. And now they were mine. I closed my eyes and the mattress beneath me became a bed of leaves that crunched under my head and the white emulsion ceiling of my room became a narrow slice of blue sky atop a cluster of tall trees. The boy was there again. John. I tried to follow again but the woods began to close in on me, green veined leaves becoming hands that clung to my wrists and ankles and I began to despair of losing sight of the boy as I struggled to tear my limbs from their fibrous but strong grip. Finally free, I began to run, knowing only that he needed my help but then he was gone, slipping lithely between two trees. Still, I gave chase, my boots sliding on late autumn leaves which were turning to slime and then, suddenly, I stopped dead as I saw two youths appear in front of me wielding shotguns. I tried to call out to John, to warn him that the men meant him harm but no words came; in the tradition of nightmares, I was shouting and screaming but making no sound at all and then I stopped as a deer ran across the path and I realised that it was this beautiful creature and not the boy that was being targeted by these thugs. Helplessly I watched as one of the youths cocked the trigger of his gun and pointed, yelling as he fired and terror drew it’s icy fingers down my spine as I realised that it was my name that he was calling. For a few moments, the dream clung to me and I could still see the barrel of the gun and the boy’s eyes as he turned and called my name and then these images faded but I realised that I could still hear the voice calling to me and it took me another few seconds to realise that the voice was coming from outside of my room, not directly outside the door but close and I brushed a hand quickly through my hair and rushed to open the door. At first I could only see the dark landing and staircase but then, as my eyes adjusted,
I realised that the man calling my name was standing at the bottom of the stairs. He was the last person I wanted to see at that moment and it was instantly clear that he was horribly and desperately drunk.
At the sight of me at the top of the stairs, Will threw his arms wide and cried,
‘And thou art dead as young and fair as…...as..’
‘As naught of mortal birth’, I finished for him, hurrying down the stairs before he could decide to come up, a prospect that somehow alarmed and appalled me, a vague feeling that having him in my space would somehow make it less comforting - less mine.
‘We were going to go to Marylebone!’ Will exclaimed apropos of nothing and I nodded, gently leading him into the bar although this was possibly the worst place for him to be in his current state. I saw him glance at his and Stella’s table and firmly led him to a seat that was neither close to there or to the window. Risking adding to the list of Matt’s grievances, I grabbed a couple of cokes from the fridge behind the bar and opened them before returning to the table.
‘Will, shouldn’t you be at home, or with Hugh?’ He squinted at me and a shudder ran through him,
‘I had to identify her you know. This morning, I had to go to the hospital and….and,’ I stared at him, appalled,
‘Oh Will, why? I mean, surely they didn’t need that when you were with her when it happened?’
‘It had to be official,’ he said in a voice thickened by booze and the prospect of tears, ‘Always has to be official now, doesn’t it? Course it does so yes, I had to go there and I had to tell them that the…...the thing on their table was my wife. She really liked you, you know? She’d never been to America’ I poured coke into glasses, trying to keep up with the change in conversation,
‘I really liked her too, Will. She was very kind to me at a time when I could really use a friend.’ He nodded and then smiled briefly,
‘I even had a bit of an idea about us going to New York and you showing us around the place, statue of liberty and all that’
‘Me too,’ I replied, not adding that my thought on the subject hadn’t been one that was entirely flattering to either Will or Stella and for a moment I felt ashamed at my lack of charity toward them.
‘I loved her very much.’ He said quietly, ‘I loved her for twenty six years.’ I put my hand over his,
‘Of course you did, anybody could see that.’ He grinned,
‘Of course, she annoyed the hell out of me most of the time - is it terrible to say that?’ I returned his grin,
‘No. I think most husbands and wives, if they’re honest, would say the same. I, on the other hand, would probably use much much stronger language with reference to my ex-husband.’ He looked at me and his expression was sly and slightly unpleasant,
‘Speaking of stronger - why don’t we see if we can scare up some whisky to liven up these cokes,’ he looked around in a parody of somebody searching for something, ‘I reckon there must be a bottle around here somewhere!’
‘Will, I’m not sure if that’s a good….’
‘Oh come on Gus,’ his voice was louder now, harsher, ‘My wife is dead, therefore I think a drink or two is, quite frankly, a fucking excellent idea!’ I hastily weighed up my options - if I refused to have a drink with him and returned to my room, he would no doubt try to follow me, a scenario that I saw no good end to whereas, another drink or two would probably send him to sleep whereby I could enlist help (probably from the ever suffering Matt, I thought miserably) in getting him home where he could look forward to a decent night’s sleep and an almighty headache in the morning. With a sigh, I stood and walked over to the bar and poured a couple of scotches, keeping a mental tally of everything that I had so far purloined from the bar and returned to our table where Will was greedily watching my progress and immediately taking one of the glasses from me downed the contents without so much as a nod to the soda already in front of him.
‘How’s Hugh coping?’ I asked, hoping that the mention of his son might bring him back to a more mellow state but instead, Will became more agitated,
‘I have no idea - he won’t talk, won’t come home. I asked the Head to try to get him to talk to the school counsellor if he won’t talk to me but he hasn’t done so as yet.’
‘I’m sure he will when he’s ready,’ I said, not knowing if this was true or not but wanting to offer some kind of comfort , ‘It’s a lot for a kid to process.’ He tossed back the rest of his drink, his eyes already sliding again towards the bar,
‘It’s a lot for me to process too, Gus. I need to think about what I’m going to do now. I’m not sure I have the heart to carry on with the business - it was Stella’s baby really, not mine. I’ve been thinking maybe I’ll move back to Surrey.’
‘It’s probably best not to make any major decisions straight away,’ I said feeling slightly hypocritical, after all, I had made a decision to fly three and a half thousand miles in the wake of Lizzie’s death but still, making such a permanent decision seemed unwise.
‘Are your family there, in Surrey?’ He glanced up at me, surprised,
‘Family? No. Well, there aren’t any really anymore but our families are both originally from here in Ruislip but moved away a few generations back. Stella’s ended up in Kent and mine in Surrey and Stella moved to be with me. We loved Cookham but moved back here when Stella was pregnant with Hugh. By the time we moved back here, our names didn’t mean much.’ I squinted at him,
‘What do you mean, your names?’ His gaze slid again to the bar and this time his feet followed and he walked over and poured another couple of whiskies,
‘I’m drunk dear,’ he said amiably as he returned, ‘I am drunk and talking bollocks. Ignore me.’ I shrugged,
‘No family left at all?’ I asked, ‘Kind of unusual at your age isn’t it?’ He laughed,
‘Well, maybe,’ he took a sip of his drink, ‘Stella’s parents died young - cancer and an industrial accident. No siblings and no other significant relatives so she was pretty much an orphan by twenty five.’ I nodded and took a tiny sip of my scotch which was taking effect despite my having drunk nowhere near as much as Will had,
‘And your family?’ He stared at me for a long moment and then,
‘Ah, well. I’m afraid I can’t tell you much about what became of those good folks as I haven’t seen hide nor hair, nor spoken to them in nearly thirty years.’ I raised an eyebrow,
‘Wow, that sounds pretty damn major. What did you do - loot the family silver ?’ He laughed, a short humourless sound that seemed to echo in the empty bar,
‘Nothing so glamorous I’m afraid - although by that time there was, for the first time, family silver to be had; after the move, my family made something of a fortune in paper. Unfortunately that was where the problem lay as, with the family moving into different circles, it was expected that I would mate with somebody from this new, elevated, society. I’m afraid that the last person my parents were going to allow me to marry was one Stella Elizabeth Lavender and so,’ he drained his glass, ‘That was that - we married without our families in attendance and then ran off to Ruislip where we belonged. I had a brother…….’ Although Will continued to speak, his speech becoming elongated and fuzzy as the last drink took effect, I barely heard his words as one word in all that he had said began to circle my brain. - Lavender - and I felt my fingers crush the lavender bud in my pocket.
'Wait, Will. You said Stella's name was Lavender?' To my annoyance, he was beginning to nod off - the exact outcome that I had hoped for earlier but now I wanted answers and I nudged his arm gently, 'Will, you still there?' With surprising speed and strength, his hand locked onto mine,
'I'm always here dear, you know that now.' His eyes began to droop again, 'So long ago,' he whispered and then, just before sleep claimed him completely, 'he'll be coming for Hugh next.' I stared at him, my mind racing as I tried to make sense of any of it and so it was a few minutes before I realised that we were not alone. The dimming light had thrown long dark shadows across the bar and I suddenly realised that one of the shadows was alive and had been watching us - for how long I had no idea but, as Matt stepped into the ilght I suddenly became aware of how it must look; the newly bereaved man holding hands with the foreign visitor amid a stash of stolen hooch and I quickly released my hand from Will's.
'Good God, Matt you scared the hell out of me - how long have you been standing there?' Instead of replying he began gathering up the glasses, Will's empty, mine barely touched,
'The pub's closed,' he muttered tonelessly as he placed the glasses on the bar and then, 'I think it's time that Will went home.' Although his words were innocent enough, the accusation was there and I felt myself redden,
'It's past time. He arrived drunk and I was trying to figure out how to get him out of here and home where he belongs.' He looked at me for a moment and then nodded,
'I'll take him. Will you help me get him into the car?'
'Of course,' I replied immediately and then looked dubiously at Will who was now slumped sideways on the bench; Matt laughed at the look on my face,
'Don't worry - I'm a barman - removing comatose people from pubs is on my CV! The trick,' he said as he sat down on the bench next to Will, 'is to get them to help you rather than actually carrying them.' He picked up Will's arm and slung it around his own neck before slowly starting to stand up.
'What should I do?' I asked and he gestured toward the door with his chin,
'Probably best if you go ahead of us and open the door.' He jutted a hip toward me, making Will fall across him in a way that would have been comical in other circumstances, 'my car keys are in my pocket, grab them and open the car doors once we're outside.' I did as he said and, between us, we somehow managed to wrestle Will into the back seat of the car. I closed the car door and was about to step back into the pub when Matt smiled and raised an eyebrow, 'You coming?' I have to admit, it was curiosity rather than concern for Will's welfare that made me climb into Matt's car; apart from the day trip to Harrow I hadn't really seen much of the area surrounding The Six Bells and I was suddenly keen to take a drive - and to see where Will and Stella lived.
We drove to the end of Ducks Hill Road and then joined another seemingly endless one which wound through a suburban landscape of houses, shops and schools. At first we travelled in an amiable silence, interrupted only by soft jazz coming from the CD player but then, as we turned onto a smaller street near an area with the curious name of Bathend Clump, I chuckled and Matt glanced at me, startled,
'What?' I shook my head,
'Nothing, it's just that you know exactly where we're going - I'm guessing this isn't the first time you've done this?' He grimaced,
'Not by a long shot unfortunately. He glanced into the rearview, checking that Will was still asleep and then, 'Will and Stella are not fans of our local taxi firms which sadly means that they developed something of a habit of driving to the pub and then attempting to drive home after having a skinful and so,' he sighed, 'I kind of got into a bad habit of driving them home a couple of times a week.'
'That's so nice of you!' I said and he shrugged,
'It's not far - and better that than them getting arrested. Or worse.' He laughed, 'they do give me a good Christmas box though!'
'Christmas box?' I asked as we took another corner and barely heard his reply over my own gasp as he pulled up in front of an electronic gate, through which I could see what looked, to my eyes, like a mansion! 'Good God!' I breathed and Matt smiled as he entered the code which would open the gate,
'Yeah, not too shabby eh?
'Not too shabby?' I mimicked, 'It's like goddamn Graceland!' I gawped as Matt drove us up the long driveway and parked in front of the house which, although huge, was elegant and, in it's way, understated. We got out of the car and manhandled the still sleeping Will out of the back seat, propping him up by the entrance as Matt fished his keys out of his pocket and then deactivated the complicated looking alarm system inside. Matt half-carried Will into a spacious sitting room and, with a grunt, deposited him on a plush wine-coloured sofa, tugging off his shoes as I looked around me. The room was painted a subtle egg-shell colour and, apart from one side which was dominated by huge french windows, the walls were covered in expertly framed photographs. Moving closer, I saw pictures of an impossibly young Will and Stella - no wedding photos which, from what Will had told me of their wedding, was hardly surprising - but many holiday snaps and some professional studio pictures that looked to have been taken about ten years before. Half of one wall had been dedicated exclusively to Hugh and included images of him in his various school uniforms as well as ones where he was much younger, always smiling awkwardly as though he was posing for the photograph under duress - which he probably was. My eye was drawn to a section of wall which boasted a series of black and white shots and I moved closer to get a better look. Several were very stiffly posed studio shots showing men and women in their best clothes staring at the camera with formal expressions but the two that caught my eye were more relaxed group shots, the largest of which seemed to have been taken at a village fair. As I stared at the picture, the ground seemed to dissolve underneath me as I recognised the boy from the wood, John. He was standing along at the edge of the photograph with a girl whose remarkable likeness to him suggested a sister or very close relative.
‘You ok?’ I jumped at the sound of Matt’s voice having not heard him step up behind me, so close that I could feel his breath on my neck,
‘That boy,’ I poked a finger towards John’s image, ‘Who was he?’ Matt shrugged and the frosty tone was back as he said,
‘No idea. I drive the Longstaffes home from the pub, I don’t research their family tree.’ I could see the lie in his face as well as the fact that he hadn’t even bothered to hide it in his voice but I said nothing, not wanting to ruin our new found truce so when he gestured stiffly towards the door with his chin and said ‘We’d best be going’, I didn’t argue but followed him meekly outside to the car. The journey back to The Six Bells was a silent one and, on our return, I excused myself and made my way up to my room. The day had been long and strange and all I really wanted was a hot bath and a nap and so I turned off my phone and ran the water until the tub was almost full before climbing in and laying down with a contented sigh, grateful for the alone time. Although I had welcomed Will and Stella’s friendship and the easy rapport with Matt and the other bar staff, these relationships now seemed strained, inappropriate even and I realised, as I was processing this, that I was thinking about going home. The money Lizzie had left me wasn’t endless but I knew that I could afford to pay a charge to change my flight back to New York - even to buy a new ticket if necessary and, suddenly, the longing to be back in Manhattan was inexorable. I opened my eyes, ready to get out of the bath and start making my arrangements and heard myself cry out as I saw that the bath-water which, moments ago was clear and scented with vanilla was now brown and filled with clots of mud and leaves. I scrambled out of the tub, yanking out the plug as I went and was just climbing into my sweats when my phone started ringing. The screen showed Will’s number and I was tempted to just let it go to voicemail but then I reasoned that he was no doubt embarrassed at my having seen him in his drunken state or, more importantly, just needed a friend and so I stabbed the green button and said,
‘Hi Will.’ At first there was nothing but silence and then I thought I could hear laboured breathing from the other end and I repeated my greeting.
‘You saw the photograph and it saw you!’ The voice was raspy and wheezing but unmistakably Will’s and, realising that I’d been holding my breath, I gave a shaky laugh.
‘What did you say Will?’ I asked, even though the words had been clear enough,
‘Gus, is that you? You woke me!’ my brain stuttered as I attempted to follow and he continued, ‘Sorry but it’s not a great time at the moment - to be perfectly honest I’m feeling like shit and really need to go back to sleep. Why are you calling?’
‘I wasn’t…..’ I began and then started again, ‘Will, you called me What did you say about the photograph?’ I waited a moment as the only sound from the other end of the line was a long and caprylic sounding cough and, by the time he was able to speak again it was clear that conversation was not at the top of his list of priorities as he mumbled,
‘Going to bed now Gus. I’ll see you soon.’ With a sigh, I ended the call and climbed into bed and it was only as I was drifting off to a much welcome sleep that I realised that when Will’s call came through, my phone had been switched off.
They’re here again, I can hear them. Why? Why must they always come here, trying to take what’s not theirs? Day after day, I hear their footsteps trampling the leaves, hear their voices laughing and joking, shaking the branches of the hornbeam and birch as they sneak and steal. Sometimes there are only one or two of them with shifty eyes and canvas bags to hold all that we work so hard for; then other times there are more, like with the boy when there were near on twenty of them all told, shouting and hollerin’ in my wood and trampling the underwood with their heavy boots. How long? How long have they been coming here, tormenting me? I’m so tired but every day I go out there with my gun and, every day, they come - you scare two of them away, another four come to take their place like rats, dirty filthy rats! They say I’m wrong in the head, mad, but I’m not. I’m not! I’m just protecting what’s mine. And all of this here is mine.
The morning of Stella’s funeral was a Friday, the air so crisp and bright that it felt as though you could snap a piece off and, as we all filed grimly into St Martin’s, it seemed wrong to swap such a beautiful day for the dour inside of the church. I’ve never understood why some people have a fondness for churches, always finding them to be cold, damp and depressing with no sign of the euphoric joy one is supposed to feel in such sacred places but, for Stella’s funeral, Will had of course spared no expense. As I looked around, I saw that the large interior was swathed with flowers; large arrangements of lillies adorned the sides of each pew, seeming more appropriate to a wedding and giant wreaths flanked Stella’s coffin at the front of the church. The place was filled almost to capacity and I recognised many of the congregation from the pub but most were well-dressed but slightly bored looking strangers and I wondered if these people were customers of Will and Stella’s rather than friends.
The day after Matt and I took Will home, he arrived at the pub to collect his car; uncharacteristically having only one drink before rising to put his jacket on he was quiet and seemed preoccupied as he told me the arrangements for the service and gave Matt a discreet card to place on the bar to alert the locals of the same. I think now that, had I not seen Will that day, I may still have gone through with my plan to return early to the States, sneaking out of the pub and Ruislip to avoid explanations and goodbyes but, that day, there was something so sad and defeated about him that I felt that the least I could do was to attend the funeral and be there for him if he needed me. With Will absent from the pub and Matt back to being frosty and uncommunicative I felt alone and out of sorts; it was surprising how quickly I had come to feel like part of this small community and the sudden retraction of these friendships made me feel restless. On a whim, I decided to make the trip to Marylebone which had been so ill-fated before and managed to successfully navigate the London underground to make my way along a traffic and noise filled Euston Road until I was eventually standing outside the St Marylebone Parish church where Byron was baptised. The building itself was imposing but not as grand as I had expected and the steps were littered with teenage tourists and their backpacks, maps and coffee cups but the inside was glorious, all shining wood and muted stained glass and I lingered awhile just relishing the peace and sense of history. On leaving the church, I began to wander and soon found myself on Baker Street, a chic and bustling road full of cafes and expensive looking stores and, finding myself outside the oddly named Everyman Cinema decided to lose myself for a couple of hours in a piece of frothy Hollywood nonsense that I forgot about almost the moment that the movie ended and, feeling more relaxed than I had for some time, I made my way back to Ruislip and my temporary home in The Six Bells.
It was a little past six o’clock in the evening when I arrived back at the pub and it seemed that it was business as usual again as the main bar was almost full and buzzing with conversation. Looking around I didn’t see anybody that I recognised and so I bought a glass of wine to take up to my room, anticipating a quiet evening with a good book. The staircase was dark as I approached and I groped for the light switch, pressing it several times before realising that it wasn’t working. I was about to start my dark ascent when a movement caught my eye and I swung around to see a figure in the shadows,
‘Hey!’ I called and the figure, which I now saw was that of a boy or young man, began to retreat toward the back door. Setting my glass down on a side table I followed and called out again, ‘Wait! John?’
‘What?’ The boy stopped and turned around, frozen for a moment before walking toward me into the light, ‘Who’s John?’ Feeling slightly foolish, I shook my head,
‘Sorry, doesn’t matter. I thought you were someone else. What are you doing back here?’ It was his turn to shrug, the sullen gesture of every teenager,
‘Nothing. What are you doing?’ As we were now only inches away from one another I belatedly saw that he was hiding something behind his back and as the light caught the bottle I could make out the label of a well known brand of cider. I briefly wondered how the pub survived with the amount of alcohol theft that seemed to go on but was immediately distracted as the boy moved fully out of the shadows and I recognised the dark eyes and slightly pointed chin,
‘Hugh?’ At the sound of his name he started and looked guiltily around before sulkily asking,
‘Have we met?’ I shook my head,
‘Not until now, no. But I know your Mom and Dad.’ The silence hung between us as my use of present tense circled and I quickly continued, ‘Does your Dad know that you’re here?’ He rolled his eyes and turned to leave and I felt that I had somehow failed a test that I didn’t even know that I was taking,
‘Wait,’ I strode ahead of him and snagged two glasses from the counter in the kitchen and beckoned for him to follow me out into the beer garden. For a moment, he didn’t move, torn, I guessed, between the manners that were no doubt ingrained in his upbringing and schooling, and the desire to leave. Eventually he followed and I led us to the table furthest from the building and, beckoning for him to give me the bottle, poured us both a small glass of cider (an experiment that I wouldn’t be repeating anytime soon!). ‘I’m really sorry about your Mom,’ I said, realising how inadequate it was but unable to come up with anything else. Again, the shrug and then a surly,
‘Thanks. You said you knew her?’ I nodded,
‘Not well, I’ve only been here a week or so, but I liked her. She and your Dad took me to your school, you know.’ He glanced up sharply,
‘To Harrow? When?’ I paused, surprised that Will and Stella hadn’t told him about our trip,
‘Few days ago.’ I explained briefly about my Byron pilgrimage and was surprised at how interested he seemed as he asked about the trip and my outing with his parents. Feeling like I was stepping into somewhat dangerous territory, I asked him why he lived at the school when his parents were only a short tube ride away and he shrugged,
‘I wanted to. They’re always drinking - and talking about the past; shit that happened before they were born - before their parents were born even. Boring.’
‘What things?’ I asked and he dismissed my question with a wave of his hand,
‘Just boring history.’ He stood and stretched, ‘Suppose I’d best be off,’ he glanced at the bottle of cider then seemed to think better of it,
‘Where? To your Dad?’
‘Nah,’ he smiled briefly, ‘Back to Harrow. It was nice to meet you.’ I returned his smile,
‘Sure, it was nice to meet you too Hugh!’
The next time that I saw Hugh was at his mother’s funeral; I first spotted him sitting at the front of the church with Will, shoulders stiff as he stared resolutely ahead during the service which was simple and heartfelt. After the service we all trooped back to The Six Bells for a reception and I chatted with Hugh briefly about his mother and he thanked me for not telling his Dad about his bunking off school a few days before. Shortly afterward I made my excuses and escaped upstairs before the wake reached it’s inevitable drunkenly strained conclusion. Hugh went missing the following day.
The day after Stella's funeral was grey and oppressive and I stayed in bed late, resulting in my feeling slow and fuzzy headed and I had to force myself to make the walk down to the coffee shop, having neither the energy or the desire but feeling that I needed to do it as it could be for the last time. I was planning on phoning the airline and changing my flight and so, all of a sudden, everything was feeling like the last time, like a goodbye. I had already packed most of my things the night before, carefully folding clothes and placing them in my suitcase as the voices from the pub downstairs continued well into the night and so I was ready to flee, part of me hoping that there would be a flight which would require me to jump into a taxi immediately and hide in the blankness of Heathrow airport where there were no ghosts, new or old, to hold me captive. I picked up my phone and dialled the number for the airline and, after being on hold for what seemed like a lifetime, I was connected with a lady who informed me that, for a reasonable charge, I could be on a flight to Newark at five o'clock that evening. I agreed and asked her to change my booking but was interrupted by a sharp burst of static over the line and I tried again, raising my voice - and my panic levels - as I feared being cut off and having to start all over again but then the line cleared and the lady confirmed that the change was made. I disconnected the call with a shaky sigh, not realising that I had been holding my breath until I had stopped. It was done, and it was time. Whatever I had hoped to achieve from my visit to England had been over-shadowed by sadness and downright strangeness and, although I was happy to have come, I was once more yearning for Manhattan. When I had walked through the pub earlier to go to the coffee shop, I had noticed that most of the tables were still strewn with glasses and other detritus from Stella's wake and, having a couple hours before I needed to call a taxi, I decided to go downstairs and clear up as a kind of apology for helping myself to booze and for the fact that I was planning on leaving without saying goodbye. I walked down the gloomy staircase, conciously averting my gaze from the shadows and into the bar where I proceeded to load glasses into the dishwasher before wiping down the sticky tables. As I worked I opened the windows, hoping to refresh the air inside the pub which was stale with an overlay of sharp, spilled alcohol. When I was finished, I helped myself to a Coke (Hell, why not?) and sat by the window, gazing out onto Ducks Hill Road - another last time, another goodbye. Although I was longing for home, I wondered just what I would do when I got there; I couldn't imagine going back to the college, despite the fact that my Byron teachings would no doubt have more depth now that I had walked in his footsteps and I pondered on what other options might now be available to me. I thought that I might at least now finish the book that I was writing, figuring that now being able to pepper it with photographs and anecdotes might provide me with the motivation that had so escaped me in the past and I resolved to start straight away by making notes on the seven hour flight back to to the States. Just having some kind of a plan renewed my energy and I washed my glass and headed back upstairs to ready myself for the journey ahead. Back in my room I packed the last of my things, at the same time loading my pocketbook with anything that I didn't want to be without for the rest of the day and then I called a taxi to take me to the airport. Looking back, I feel giddy when I realise how close I came to making it - how so very close I came to being on a plane and leaving Ruislip and it's secrets behind - another five minutes and I would have been in the back of a taxi fighting it's way through traffic which would try and fail to match the hysteria levels of New York roads but, as I dragged my case downstairs to the bar my phone rang, followed before I could answer it, by a sharp rapping on the door of the pub.
I briefly considered ignoring both the door and my phone but then the rapping became more insistent and so, with a sigh, I put my bag on the floor and unlatched the door. Opening the door I blinked at the sight of the two police officers standing on the other side,
'Are you Gus Freeman?' The older of the two asked and I nodded,belatedly realising that I was still holding onto the door as he asked 'May we come in?' I let go of the door and the officers followed me into the bar, where we all sat, both policemen eyeing my case which sat abandoned by the door. 'Going somewhere Ms Freeman?' It was the older office again, a reed thin red-head who would later introduce himself as Tom John and, again, I nodded,
'Yes. I'm going home to New York, I have a taxi arriving at any moment so can you tell me what this is about?' Officer John glanced at his notebook although I suspected that this was more theatre than necessity and then put it down on the table, 'I believe that you know a young man by the name of Hugh Longstaffe, is this correct?' I processed the name and nodded,
'Sure, Hugh is Will and Stella's son,' I said, wincing again at my use of the present tense for both names. Officer John glanced at me and then back at his notebook,
'And, would you say that yourself and Hugh Longstaffe are close?' He asked and I gave a confused laugh,
'Of course not, Hugh is fifteen years old!' The policeman didn't miss a beat,
'So, Hugh Longstaffe is not currently on the premises?' he asked and I gaped at him,
'On the.....these premises? No, of course not...' I stopped, took a breath, 'Wait - Why would you think that Hugh might be here, is he not at home with his father?' He began to answer but was interrupted by a loud banging on the pub door. I rose to answer it but the younger officer held up a hand and got up to go himself, opening the door and standing aside as Will blew into the bar on a wave of cold air and urgency.
'Gus' he gasped, 'I've been trying to call you!' Officer John stood and looked at Will disapprovingly
'Mr Longstaffe, we did ask you to stay at home and contact us if there is any news.' Will snorted and dismissed the policeman with a flap of his hand
'Stay at home? My son is missing and you want me to sit at home while you incompetents interrogate my friends rather than looking for him?'
'Mr Longstaffe, please......' I ignored Tom John and stared at Will,
'Hugh is missing? Since when?' Will let out a breath which seemed to deflate him and slumped into a chair,
'Since last night. I last spoke to him at about nine and then,' he reddened slightly, 'Well, I had a bit to drink and kind of lost track of time. When Matt - my old partner in crime - was ready to take me home - about eleven, we couldn't find him. I thought maybe he'd gone for a walk or something but he wasn't there when I got home, nor this morning when I woke up.' John rapped his notebook on the table, clearly wanting to get back in control of things,
'Ms Freeman, I believe that you were seeing talking to Hugh at approximately ten o'clock last night?' I met his glare,
'That sounds about right Officer,' he nodded,
'Can I ask what the two of you talked about?' he asked and I hesitated before answering,
'I offered him my condolences on the death of his mother,' I said, a sense of self-preservation making me reluctant to discuss drinking cider with Hugh on the day that he bunked off school and besides, I justified to myself, it couldn't possibly be relevant to Hugh being missing now. 'And,' I added, 'He was asking me about New York, just chatter you know?' As Pepperill jotted these essentially useless facts in his little book a set of headlights briefly washed the bar with light and I realised that my taxi had arrived. The officers watched my gaze move to the window and Pepperill stood, all arms and legs at his full height that had to be over six feet,
'That'll be your taxi will it?' he asked,
'Yes,' I replied, 'I need t get to the airport.' He gazed down at his feet for a moment and when he looked at me again his expression had softened and so I was completely unprepared when he shook his head and said,
'I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to stay local for the time being.' He gestured toward the window and the taxi the other side of it, 'I'll deal with this.' Stunned, I looked at the other officer who had yet to contribute to the conversation,
'This is crazy,' I yelled, 'Are you seriously accusing me of having something to do with Hugh's disappearance?' The officer shrugged,
'Ms Freeman, we're simply following procedure with regards to a case of a missing youth. As one of the last people to speak to Hugh, you may know something - or remember something - which turns out to be vital to our investigation.' Which all sounded reasonable until Pepperill returned from despatching the taxi driver and announced,
'Right, Ms Freeman and Mr Longstaffe; I'm going to ask you both to stay here in the bar while I search the premises.'
'Is that really necessary...?' Will began and I cut him off,
'This is preposterous - Will is right, you ought to be out there now looking for him.' I glared at John, 'I intend to be on that plane Officer, I'm calling my lawyer right now.' Ignoring me, John marched off in the direction of the kitchen and Will raised an eyebrow at me and I managed a weak smile,
'Yeah, Americans and lawyers, right?' I took a breath and leaned back in the seat, willing myself to relax. 'Will, you have to know that I have absolutely no idea where Hugh is.' He nodded once,
'Of course I know that. What I didn't know was that you were planning on sneaking off back to America without saying goodbye.' I sighed,
'I know, and I'm sorry. It's just that so much has happened and I just felt that it was time.' He took my hand,
'It's not time Gus, I need you now,' I had to lean closer as he mumbled, 'Please don't go.' Feeling uncomfortable with this sudden intimacy, particularly in front of a police officer, I glanced at my watch, moving slightly away from him at the same time,
'I can't make any promises Will but, it looks like I'm not going anywhere today at least!' We sat in silence for a moment and then I heard Pepperill call my name,
'Coming,' I yelled and hurried to the stairs to find him perched at the top,
'Ms Freeman, can I ask you to let me into your room?' I rolled my eyes but climbed the stairs and opened the door, standing back to let him enter ahead of me. As small as the room was,the search didn't take long and soon he was back in the hallway, thanking me curtly before moving down the corridor and I ambled back down the stairs. As I neared the bottom, the shadows began to shift and I briefly saw the figure that I now knew as John as it stood looking at me for a moment before disappearing down the stairs toward the cellar. Although I only saw him for a matter of seconds, I registered that he was smiling. I walked back into the bar where Will was nursing a brandy and my heart sank as I noted that Matt had arrived for work and he gave me a look that could have curdled milk as I re-took my seat beside Will. Soon, Pepperill returned to the bar, slightly red in the face from navigating all the stairs,
'Nothing,' he reported to his colleague and Will grunted,
'Well, I could have told you that - in fact I did!' So could I, I thought, heartsick as I somehow knew that the sight of John - and the smile - meant that Hugh was not just missing but lost. The police again asked me not to leave the local area and then they were gone and, as customers began to file into the pub, I dragged my case back upstairs, promising to see Will for dinner in the bar by which time, I could tell, he expected Hugh to be either in his house or back in Harrow. Before then there was somebody else that I needed to talk to and so, once I saw Will's car heading out of the car park I pulled on a thick sweater, grabbed my bag and, ignoring the torqued look from Matt, swung open the door and headed once again to Mad Bess Wood.
As I walked down Ducks Hill Road I somehow knew that I was crossing a line without knowing what was on the other side - or if I would be able to return and yet still I walked, each step leading me not just to the wood but to a future that was uncertain. As I reached the threshold of the wood I hesitated, knowing that I was still in the territory of everything I had ever believed and then, with a deep breath, I took the next step. And he was waiting for me on the other side. When he was sure that I had seen him, he started to retreat, beckoning me into the woods and I followed at a steady pace knowing that, this time, he wouldn't let me lose sight of him. As we entered the wood, a cloud drifted across pitching us into a temporary twilight but I could still see John clearly as he moved through the trees, looking back occasionally to make sure that I was following. As my vision became accustomed to the dark I realised that the wood was changing; some trees were shorter and the quality of the air cleaner and suddenly I knew without a doubt that we were no longer in my time, we were in his. I also knew that whether or not I would make it back again to mine was entirely up to him. As I travelled deeper into the dense woodland I thought about my life, about all the things and the people who would be left alone if I was never able to leave these woods and a strange peace came over me as I accepted that whatever would be would be. My thoughts were shattered by a piercingly white light which turned the temporary night into a sharp black and white reality like a photograph negative and I shielded my eyes against it's glare.
'I want to show you.' The voice seemed to come from beside me and inside my head at the same time and I fought against a faintness that came over me and I found a strength that I didn't know that I possessed. I opened my eyes, realising that the light had faded to a soft glow which illuminated only the part of the wood that we were standing in and it was then that the real line was crossed - then that I saw what could never be unseen. I watched as John strolled through the woods, stopping occasionally to hack at brushwood with a strange curved axe, at one point removing his cap and hanging it from a nearby branch. As he worked, he whistled a tune that I didn't recognise, seemingly entirely engrossed in his work and happily so and then suddenly he stopped, frozen as he looked intently around him before continuing with his labour. A moment later he stopped again, this time abandoning his work and holding his axe (billhook, a voice whispered in my head) like a weapon but it was too late. As I watched helplessly, two figures emerged from the wood behind John, their stealth and position leaving no doubt that this was not a chance encounter. Before John had a chance to react, they were on him, landing a blow to the head that caused him to drop his weapon as he fell to the ground. Unable to look away, I became witness to something that happened almost a century and a half before I was born and I fought the urge to vomit as the two young men calmly finished what they had started, checking that John's young life had been extinguished before moving quickly back into the woods. The glow faded and, once again, John was standing in front of me, watching me calmly as his murderers escaped back to their world.
'I'm sorry.....' I began and he shook his head impatiently; although he was standing in front of me, his broken body was still lying beneath the tree and, as he raised his arm and pointed behind me I realised that we were not finished. Not wanting to but powerless to stop myself I slowly turned around to a new view of old trees and shadows, nothing but the woods I thought but then I saw him. As my eyes adjusted, I realised that I could see a figure hiding in the trees and, as I watched, he emerged from his cover, striding over to stare down at John's poor body. The grim set of his face was somehow familiar and, as I realised that he couldn't see me, I moved closer in order to see him more clearly, this man who had just stood by and watched the cold-blooded murder of a boy. Under my unseen scrutiny he calmly studied the scene, reaching up to snap off a large, thick branch and placing it beside the body and I somehow understood that this was an attempt to make it look like John had been climbing the tree and had fallen, a tragic accident rather than a heinous murder. With a growing sense of frustration I watched as the man, seemingly satisfied with his work, turned and headed off into the woods. What good was it for me to see this if I couldn't even identify the murderers or the witness? Then, with a skill to rival the most celebrated film director, John changed the perspective, allowing me to watch as the man made his way through the wood and through vastly changed streets until he stopped at a small cottage and opened the door and, although my vision remained outside the cottage, I heard the man shout a greeting and then a woman's voice call back, 'Oh Wally, thank God you're home, something terrible has happened!'
And so I had a name. A name for a man who witnessed a murder. A man who would never be arrested for the crime because he had now been so long dead that he was surely no more than dust amid the rotted remains of a coffin. I stared helplessly at John,
'What can I do? Tell me!' He shook his head,
'No more time.' He began to back away and I reached out a hand to him,
'Don't go. I can help, I can....' I struggled, 'I can tell somebody!' He smiled and it was the sweetest - and saddest smile I had ever seen.
'Yes. Soon Gus. In the other place,' He turned and watched as the body underneath the tree faded and then disappeared entirely then he turned back to look at me, 'It's nearly over.' He smiled again, this time full of mischief and for a moment I could see the kind of boy that he must have been as he reached up to pull his cap off the branch, planting it firmly on his head before turning and vanishing into the woods, whistling as he went and, before he was gone completely, a voice in my head whispered, 'the name of the song is "Long long ago".'
For a few minutes, I stayed where I was and then, for some reason, I decided to mark the spot and, searching around, I found a small cluster of purple flowers and, picking them all, I placed them beneath the tree; an inadequate memorial to a boy who would never become a man. As I stood, I realised that I could now see smoke from nearby factories and could hear the distant sound of traffic and, at once, I knew that I was back. I took a moment to get my bearings and then began to walk quickly through the wood which was still dark and strangely unfamiliar as I had become accustomed to the way it was in John's time. The sound of the traffic was becoming louder and I could just about make out the shape of the clearing when I felt a hand grip my arm from behind and I shrieked, wrenching my arm free and whirling around to face my attacker and to fight as much as I was able if needed.
'Jesus Gus, what the hell are you doing here?' I took a step back, almost stumbling and Will reached out a hand to steady me,
'Will! what.......how did you know I was here?' He stared at me for a moment and then shook his head as though to clear it,
'I didn't! I,' he shrugged, 'I often walk here. It's kind of an old tradition.' He waved a hand in the direction from which I had just come, 'Walk with me?' I nodded and didn't object when he took my hand, the need for human contact temporarily greater than the need for propriety. For a few minutes we walked in an amiable silence and, before long, we were back at 'John's tree'. I suddenly felt Will's grip on my hand tighten painfully and I was about to cry out when I glanced at his face and his expression was enough to silence me. He was staring at the flowers that I had just placed under the tree and a vein pulsed in his forehead as he turned to face me and, mercifully, let go of my hand.
'Will, I......' he held up a hand and, without a word, turned and strode off toward the car park, leaving me back where I always seemed to end up. I let him go to begin with; I desperately wanted to explain everything but knew that he needed to work through whatever had upset him and, besides, once I was ready I was almost certain that I knew where to find him. I walked out of the woods and down the road to the coffee shop that I was sure I had seen for the last time that morning and I bought a cappuccino and sat in the window, willing my mind to clear for a time as I sipped and people-watched. I forced myself to sit for almost forty minutes, even though I was desperate to get to the Six Bells to talk to Will - there was no doubt that that particular tree was his intended destination; a truth that was evident in his reaction when he saw my flowers and I was giddy with the idea that somebody else knew about John; somebody I could talk to about everything that had happened. It was only as I was walking back to the pub that I suddenly remembered what Will had said the night he passed out in the pub; although much of his rambling had been incoherent, I remembered him talking about it all being 'so long ago' and about family connections and my pace slowed as a cold finger of doubt made it's way down my spine. He had said that his family were originally from Ruislip; was it possible that an ancestor of Will's had been involved in John's murder? By the time I reached the pub, my elation had turned to dread and I was relieved when I discovered that Will wasn't there, although I felt a stab of guilt as I realised that he was probably out searching for his missing son. I glanced at my watch which showed six thirty and wondered if I should assume that, after this afternoon, mine and Will's dinner plans were off and, I was about to go on a search for a sandwich and a glass of wine when my phone rang and, seeing Will's name, I answered quickly, my Hello lost as he said,
'I'm in the car in the woods car park,' I hesitated for a moment and then replied,
'I'll be with you in five.'
As promised, Will was waiting in the car at the mouth of Mad Bess Wood and, with only a slight hesitation, I opened the passenger side door and climbed in, thinking that we would be talking in the car and grateful for the warmth once I got inside but, as soon as I had my seat belt on, Will started the engine and pulled out onto Ducks Hill Road without a word. Minutes later we were parking in front of a large pub which, as it turned out, housed a branch of a chain of French restaurants and my stomach growled at the smells emanating from the kitchen.
‘Hope this is OK,’ Will said drily and I smiled weakly, ‘I just wanted us to be able to talk somewhere away from all the prying eyes in The Six Bells.’
‘I think this will do just fine!’ I waited until we were seated and had ordered some wine and then said, ‘I was surprised when you called - I’d kind of assumed that our dinner plans were off after this afternoon.’ He sighed and stared at his menu, absently flicking the corner of the plastic with his thumb-nail.
‘Yes. I’m sorry about that...’ I waved his apology away but he continued, ‘This has been a very stressful time for me, I mean, with Stella and now Hugh,’
‘Has there been any news?’ I asked and he shook his head,
‘Nothing. I’ve tried all the locals and the Dean in Harrow has spoken to all of his school-mates and…….nothing. It’s like he’s vanished into thin air.’
‘He hasn’t though,’ I said softly, ‘I’m sure he’s just hiding out somewhere, working through his grief for his Mom.’
‘No,’ Will said and smiled briefly, ‘You’re very kind but I don’t think so. I think he’s gone. It’s...’ he hesitated, ‘It’s all to do with ancient history and you’d think I was mad if I told you about it but, I’m just finding it really hard to believe that he’s coming back. It’s partly why I was so upset this afternoon.’ We were interrupted by the waitress arriving and we ordered mussels with fries (which, incidentally were divine) and more wine as the bottle we already had appeared to be disappearing rapidly. Once the waitress had left, I reached over to put my hand over his,
‘Will, whatever you tell me I won’t think you’re mad. Will, I know about John.’ For a moment or two he didn’t move and I worried that he didn’t understand and so I added,
‘John - the boy who was murdered in the woods.’
‘Oh, you do do you?’ His voice was sharp and I recoiled slightly, ‘Just what is it that you think you know Gus? Is this something that was covered in your guide book - England for Beginner Yanks ?’
‘No,’ I said quietly, ‘It wasn’t in any book but I do know what happened to him.’
‘I’m sorry,’ his voice was weary now, ‘You’ve been a very good friend to me and I keep biting your head off. It’s just,’ he paused, ‘It’s just a very sore subject, even after all these years. We should have stayed away really, in fact,’ he wiped a hand across his face, making a slight rasping sound on the stubble that had been allowed to form, ‘We should have just carried on, to the other side of the fucking world if necessary. Coming back here was a mistake.’ Our food arrived and we were silent for a moment and then, cautiously, I said,
‘Will, None of this is your fault,’ I hesitated and then decided that I’d long since reached the point of no return, ‘I mean, I can see how you would maybe feel the way you do,’ he looked up, gazing at me intently as I continued, ‘They were your ancestors weren’t they? The men who killed John?’ For a moment he froze and then, shockingly, he laughed,
‘Bray and Lavender? God no!’ He laughed again, a little shakily, ‘No, that’s not it Gus.’
‘Bray and Lavender,’ I repeated and he squinted at me in mock suspicion,
‘Hey, I thought you knew all about this stuff?’ I shrugged,
‘I said I knew about it - not all of it. Will you tell me?’ He sighed,
‘I suppose I’m going to have to aren’t I?’ I didn’t answer and he continued,
‘James Bray, Thomas Lavender and Charles Lamb were poachers; all ne’er do wells by all accounts and, it would seem, not very competent at their chosen careers as criminals.’ I took a sip of wine and sat back, my meal forgotten for the moment as he continued, ‘The three of them were charged with poaching back in the 1800s and John, who worked in the woods, was called upon to testify against them which he did.’ He paused to push his almost empty plate away from him, ‘All three were apparently heard to make threats of vengeance against John,’ he paused to look at me, ‘Vengeance on a fifteen year old kid - same age as Hugh.’ I nodded, this thought having not been lost on me,
‘He was just doing the right thing by his employer.’ Will nodded,
‘They were all arrested for John’s murder but released. Only Lamb stood trial for it having, apparently, confessed to a fellow inmate during one of the many prison terms during his illustrious career.’ He sighed, ‘Nobody was ever imprisoned for the murder,’ he looked at me, ‘Can you imagine what that must have done to his parents?’ I shook my head and answered honestly,
‘No, I can’t but Will,’ I stopped, trying to order my thoughts,
‘You said the other night that he’ll be coming for Hugh next. If your ancestors weren’t involved in the murder, why would your family be targeted?’ He shrugged,
‘Don’t know - have never known. On her deathbed my Grandmother told me that in the eighteen hundreds, John’s sister married and that that particular line of the family has been plagued with tragedy ever since. I’ve looked into it of course but, for the life of me, haven’t been able to find a connection. She didn’t marry a Bray, Lavender or Lamb, just some local boy from what I gather. Do you know,’ he paused to sip his wine, ‘I’ve even thought, at times, of telling Hugh not to have children thinking, I don’t know, that the sacrifice would be worth it to stop all the sadness but,’ he swiped a hand across his eyes, ‘Looks like I don’t have to worry about that now doesn’t it ?’
‘But,’ I was about to tell him everything that had happened, everything I had seen since arriving in Ruislip but something stopped me, a feeling that I needed to do this alone. John had said that it was nearly over and I felt a surge of hope that I would then find answers, not just for myself but maybe for Will as well and so I stayed quiet as we finished our wine and Will paid the bill. As we got into our coats I started again,
‘So Will, are there any of those ancestors left in Ruislip - I mean those of Bray, Lavender and Lamb, or were they run out of town even on the accusations?’ He froze and then gave me a strange sideways look and I thought maybe he was becoming exasperated with all my questions on the subject but then he said, very quietly,
‘Yes Gus, there are some still here. One of them serves you at the bar of The Six Bells every day.
Matt. Matthew Lavender. I had never known his second name - never needed to - but there it was; a distant ancestor of two men who had hunted and murdered a fifteen year old boy. When Will dropped me off at the pub I knew I wouldn’t be able to meet Matt’s eye and, beside which I had already had enough to drink so I chose to escape quietly up to my room, drinking a large glass of water before falling exhausted into bed and into a deep sleep. And I dreamt. In my dream, I was with John in the woods by the tree (John’s tree, my mind whispered) and, again, he was pointing to something behind me but, then, it wasn’t John it was Lizzie and she was pointing the same way but more urgently and her voice was high and urgent as she cried,
‘See him Gus. See him and then find John,’ she began to fade but not before shouting again, ‘You must find John!’ Then both John and Lizzie were gone and I was alone in the wood and without turning round I waited and, moments later, I felt a figure brush past me and then he was there in front of me again, bending to examine the body on the ground and making an attempt to stage a scene. Moving forward as I had before, I stepped in front of the man in order to see him better but this time he saw me too and his pale blue eyes flashed a warning,
‘You best run now Gus,’ he said, ‘Back to where you came.’
‘I can’t do that,’ I said and he moved closer so that our faces were almost touching and this time his voice was softer, his tone pleading,
‘I couldn’t tell Gus. I couldn’t tell or they’d get me like they got John,’ he gripped my arm, his eyes despairing, ‘But we got got anyway didn’t we? They got us.’ He let go of my arm and began to back away, ‘They got us and they’ll get you. They’ll get you Gus if you tell!’ He turned and ran, disappearing into the cover of the woods within seconds and once again I was alone.
I woke with a start and bolted upright causing a dizzy spell that sent me back to the pillow but I rested only for a moment before jumping out of bed and, after a hasty shower, pulling on my clothes from the night before. Because now I knew. When I was in the woods with John, the watching man had seemed familiar and I now realised why. I grabbed a hasty coffee from the bar downstairs (thankfully Matt didn’t work the morning shift) and then called for a taxi, dredging my brain for Will’s address having only been there the once with Matt. Twenty minutes later I was knocking on Will’s door, first lightly and then hammering when there was no response. Eventually I heard shuffling feet and throat-clearing sounds and the door was opened,
‘Gus! What are you doing here at this unholy hour?’ I glanced at my watch; it was ten o’clock but Will looked as though our last glass of wine in the restaurant hadn’t been his last of the evening and with another throat-clearing that turned into a rattling cough, he ushered me inside and mumbled something about putting some coffee on and so, while he made the drinks, I invited myself into his living room and found myself drawn again to the wall of black and white photographs and to one in particular. It was him. The watcher. I was staring so intently at the photograph that I didn’t hear Will come into the room and almost jumped out of my skin at the sound of him putting the tray down on the glass coffee table.
‘Milk and sugar?’ he asked and I ignored him, jabbing a finger at the photograph,
‘Will, I know now, I know!’ He squinted at me and with a groan lowered himself into a seat,
‘Fraid you’re going to have to slow down a bit for me, Gus,’ he smiled slightly bashfully, ‘Feeling a bit delicate this morning.’ I took a breath and then walked over to take a seat opposite him, automatically taking the cup that he handed to me although I didn’t want or need it,
‘That man,’ I said, ‘The one in the photograph there. He was there, Will, he was there when John was killed.’
‘I told you….’ Will began and I held up a hand,
‘No, I’m not saying that he did it, or was involved, but he was there and he saw what happened and he didn’t tell anyone.’ Despite his hangover Will now looked amused,
‘Ok. And you would know this how exactly?’ And that was the difficult part. In the taxi on the way over i had wracked my brain for the best way to do this and had, in the end, settled upon the wacky American approach.
‘I have dreams Will. Very realistic dreams that often turn out to be predictive and sometimes show me things that have happened in the past.’ I paused and took a sip of the coffee which was strong and expensive tasting, ‘I’ve dreamt about him twice now - the man in the photograph - and each time he’s there, hiding in the trees and watching two men attack and kill John.’
‘Dreams,’ he repeated slowly, ‘You have dreams that tell you that my Great Grandfather witnessed the murder of a child and neglected to report the crime?’ I nodded, ignoring his sarcastic tone,
‘That’s right.’ I leaned forward, ‘He was scared. Your Great Grandfather?’ I asked and he nodded and I almost laughed out loud, inappropriate as that would have been, ‘Don’t you see, Will? This explains it,’
‘Explains it?’ he asked and I wanted to shake him,
‘Yes. It explains why your family have suffered so much. John is angry that your Great Grandfather chose to protect himself rather than doing the right thing and identifying the murderers to the police or,’ I paused, ‘Confronting the men before they could kill him.’
‘John’s angry?’ This time Will’s amusement had a hard edge to it and I proceeded with caution,
‘Yes. In my dream. In my dreams he is sad and angry; a perfectly normal response from a teenager whose life has been cut short.’
‘Well,’ he replied in clipped tones and drained his cup, ‘If your dream is in fact correct, I presume that the fact that you’ve come here to tell me means that you feel that I should do something about this. What do you suggest?’ He cocked his head to one side, ‘Shall I go tell the police so that they can dig up Great Grandpa’s skeleton and haul it into the dock?’ He stood, both knees cracking as he did so, ‘Or maybe, next time you dream about him, you can tell John that I’m terribly sorry and all that. Think that will do it?’ I stood and pulled on my jacket,
‘I don’t know Will, I honestly don’t. I just thought that you might want to know why your family has such dreadful luck - and why your son is now missing.’
‘Oh yes, my son!’ he shouted as I walked down the hall to the front door, ‘I’d forgotten about him! Do me a favour will you and ask John where he is,’ he followed me to the door,
‘Maybe while you’re at it you can ask him where Uncle Cecil hid all the loot?’ Without replying I opened the door and strode down the drive, angry and embarrassed - What had I been expecting? I honestly didn’t know. As I reached the end of the driveway I realised that I didn't have the number of the taxi company and so decided to walk, figuring that I could find the way and that I could use the time to cool down. I was embarrassed that I had seemingly over-estimated my friendship with Will, allowing myself to believe that we were close enough for me to share with him what really was pure craziness. As I left the driveway and turned into the road I heard my phone ring and decided to ignore it, certain that it would be Will calling to either apologise or to pour further derision onto my rantings. At least, I consoled myself, I was glad that I had gone with the 'dream' idea - from Will's reaction, I suspected that the men in the white coats would have been waiting for me had I told the truth. Despite the cold, I enjoyed the walk; relishing being able to stretch my muscles for the first time in ages and within twenty minutes I was turning onto Ducks Hill Road. As I neared the entrance to the wood, I slowed, some impulse making me turn and walk into the car park despite the fact that my fingers were numb and I longed for the warmth and comfort of my room. As I crossed the car park I heard a sound, faint at first and then growing louder and I slowed, puzzled. As the sound continued, it grew from a low hum to a whine and I pulled my phone out of my bag, convinced that it must be the culprit; although the noise was coming from the phone, it was, impossibly, also coming from all around me and, as I reached the mouth of the wood, it grew to a shriek, seeming to bounce from the trees directly into my brain and I fled. I was almost back onto the road before the sound wound down and eventually stopped altogether and I stood, catching my breath and willing away the piercing headache that had begun to form. With one last glance at the wood, I turned and hurried toward The Six Bells but not before noticing the figure watching me from the trees, the flash of a red jacket giving away their location as effectively as a flashlight. Back in my room I used the miniature kettle provided in order to make myself a cup of tea, relishing the heat as the steam rose to my face. Although I had no way of knowing it, I was sure that the screaming in the woods had been John, warning me away from a danger therein and I felt a strange kind of peace that he was looking out for me. The question of who it was he was protecting me from in the woods was a different matter altogether and one that planted a seed of unease that I decide to put aside for another time. I had just about thawed out when the temperature in the room suddenly plummeted; within seconds my teeth were chattering and the bed and side table were icy to the touch. Throwing on my jacket, I yanked open the door and hurried out into the corridor, thinking only to escape the frigid atmosphere as soon as possible and so I was unable to suppress the scream that escaped me as I turned on the stairwell light and found John waiting for me. Seemingly unperturbed by my reaction, he whispered 'It's time,' and took my hand, leading me down the stairs. At the bottom,we turned left instead of right into the bar and then left again bringing us to the top of the stairs which led down to the cellar. As we descended, my heart was beating so hard that I could feel the pulse in my head and throat and I knew that nothing would ever be the same again once I had seen whatever it was that John intended to show me and still I continued down the stairs, waiting as he pulled back the heavy wooden trap door and leading down a narrow ladder until we were in the cellar. Although I hadn't turned on the light I could see perfectly and the cellar looked exactly as I expected it to; large and square with stone walls, the space was filled either side with boxes and barrels stacked neatly with their dates clearly shown. However, John had not brought me down here to check the stock levels and, letting go of my hand, he moved quickly to the far end of the cellar, impatiently moving aside a couple of boxes until, finally, he stood back, silently inviting me to look. Sorrow overwhelmed me as I stepped forward and looked at what he needed me to see. The stone floor in that corner of the cellar was a slightly darker stone than the rest of the room and I wondered first if there had been some kind of spillage years before but then, as I looked closer, I realised that the stone was entirely different and had obviously been added at a different time. Moving closer still, I noticed that the far corner had crumbled away completely leaving a large hole and I took a breath and peered into the space beneath. At first my brain rejected what I was seeing, so dreadful and sad that it refused acknowledgement but then, despite the tears that clouded my vision, I saw it. There was nothing left of the coffin save for a few rotted fragments through which the white of bone could be seen in various places. Although horribly sad, these remains were abstract enough not to provoke an emotional response but, the thing that was anything but vague was the piece of rough stone that had been inexpertly carved over a hundred years ago and said only 'John Brill, February 1837'. I sat down heavily on the nearest box; this was what he had wanted me to see - a life cruelly cut short with not even the dignity of a proper grave, somewhere for his family to visit, to bring flowers and to mourn his loss. I looked at John and nodded,
'I'm sorry John. I'll get you out of here.' He smiled and another figure emerged from the darkness behind him, formless and ethereal at first and then taking form until finally I could see Lizzie standing behind John, her arm around his shoulder as she smiled at me and suddenly I understood.
Until then I hadn't been able to comprehend why Lizzie was here with me and I had assumed that my friend was simply looking out for me since there was no other reason, no possible connection between Lizzie and John, Lizzie and this place but now I understood that there was. Separated by thousands of miles and almost two hundred years, Lizzie and John were united in being the forgotten. Although Lizzie would never be far from my thoughts, like John there was no place to mourn her - at least nowhere that was accessible to the public. The only indication that my beloved friend was honoured was a small star on a wall in Washington DC. Although I had organised a memorial service to mourn her daughter, there wasn't a coffin to bury, the CIA having despatched her remains with their usual ruthless efficiency. I had told Agnes only what she needed to know; that her daughter had been involved in an accidental shooting at a party. There was no need for her to spend the rest of her life hating the agency that got her killed, I would be doing that enough for the both of us. Lizzie always knew the score, knew when she signed on the dotted line as a CIA Agent that she was agreeing to devote her life to the firm and to give up various rights, including the right to an identity in death. And she had been outstanding at her job, an ability to blend and empathise with even the worst of humanity making making her the obvious choice when it came to assignments like her last one; infiltrating a gang who had started out shipping heroin into the States and then had graduated to women and then children. The assignment was nearing it's end - Lizzie, having gained the trust of the gang leaders, was due to be involved in a shipment being received; would be privy to details which would allow her to lead a team in to intercept them quickly and cleanly and soon her job would be done. Instead, the gang leaders got greedy, muscling into another dealer's territory and then bragging about it. On the night that she died, Lizzie was in the bathroom when the shooting began and she could have, in fact should have, gotten herself out of there through a window or a back door but instead she pulled her gun and joined the fray, protecting the people she was hoping to eventually bury. The way that the agency operates, I might never have known what happened to her, or even that she was gone but from assignment to assignment there was one rule that Lizzie would always break, one last thing that she could do for me. Although vigilant in not carrying any personal items with her on a job, Lizzie carried a small laminated card which bore only my first name and telephone number. Being careful to make it a quirk of each character she played, she would impress upon people that, should anything happen to her, this was the only number that should be called, allowing me the one small cold comfort of being able to say goodbye before the CIA machine rolled in and erased her existence. As soon as I had said my goodbyes I had changed my telephone number, unwilling to be contactable by the surviving members of the gang, of which there were only two, both of whom were currently incarcerated but I knew that Lizzie would insist that I protect myself and remove this final link. I didn't need a plot or a headstone to remember Lizzie but it saddened me to think that there was no special place for her and so, shortly before I left the States, I had planted a rose tree in a pot in my apartment hoping that, by the time it got too big for the pot, I would have somewhere I could give it a permanent home.
My thoughts were dragged away from Lizzie as I realised that I could hear footsteps from upstairs, and heard muted greetings signalling that another member of staff had arrived and I stood quickly, not wanting to be caught if somebody decided to change a barrel or fetch a box of mixers. I reeled slightly, woozy from standing up too suddenly and John reached for my hand, a sense of urgency suddenly evident in his face as he part-dragged me back up through the door and up the stairs and then again until I was in the hallway outside my room with only moments to spare before I saw Matt emerge from the direction of the bar, still talking to somebody in there, and hang his red jacket from a hook by the kitchen door. When I turned round a second later John was gone. I needed to think but there was nowhere to go but back to my room. How was I supposed to finish this when I didn’t have the first clue as to what to do? I heard soft laughter, a sound that I would have known anywhere and I froze, willing Lizzie to appear but the laughter was both nearby and maddeningly distant and with a sudden rush of inspiration I ran up the stairs to my room, grabbing my camera from my bag before heading back down to the cellar Interestingly, the cellar was actually more creepy when I was there alone than when I had been accompanied by a ghost or two and I shivered in the cold, damp room before returning to John’s make-shift grave and snapping off a dozen photographs. Tucking the camera into my pocket I hurried away and yanked the handle of the cellar door. Nothing happened. I tried again, unable to believe what my brain told me had happened; and again until my hand began to ache and I finally had to acknowledge one simple fact; the door was locked - and had been locked deliberately.
I felt the crackle of leaves beneath me and smelled earth and smoke and, without opening my eyes I knew that Mad Bess had claimed me once again. For a moment I simply lay there not wanting to move or think or do anything that might disturb the screaming demon that seemed to have taken up residence in my head. As consciousness returned slowly and painfully, the not thinking part stopped being an option and so I started with a word that had just drifted through my brain; smoke and then as though a floodgate - or trapdoor - had been opened, it all came flooding back.
The first fact was that Matt had locked me in the cellar at The Six Bells and the question was, had he known that I was in there when he bolted the door and, if so, what did that mean? On first realising that the door was locked I had tried pounding on it but the thickness of the wood and the awkward angle made my efforts ineffective and, with scraped knuckles, I soon gave up. Forcing myself to keep calm I had taken a seat amongst the alcohol supplies and the grave of a fifteen year old boy and worked through my options which, it quickly became evident, were virtually zero. Sitting snugly beneath the main bar the cellar had no window and just the one door which I had established was impenetrable and was certainly soundproof. I had a camera but no phone as mine was sitting smugly upstairs in my bag which was back in my room and, I reflected, even if I had it with me I probably wouldn't have gotten much in the way of reception down there. I paced the room looking for anything I could use to attract the attention of those upstairs and was about to give up again when I spotted a pipe in the corner and grabbing a thick cider bottle from a crate of empties and wrapping it in my cardigan I began systematically tapping it against the pipe, testing it's strength before hitting harder. If I was right about the layout of the pub, the reverberations would travel up to the kitchen and, with a bit of luck, would be too loud to be ignored. As I began this rudimentary communication John returned to the cellar but faint and flickering like old cinefilm and I thought ruefully that it was too bad that he had the power to transcend time and death but not to unbolt a wooden door. After five minutes or so I was just about to give my aching arm a rest when I heard footsteps on the stairs above the door and, crying out in relief, I hurried across the room and up the ladder.
I slowly opened one eye and then the other. I remembered the door beginning to open but no further. Every time I tried to visualise climbing out of the cellar, or the face of the person who unlocked the trapdoor I came up blank. As I slowly sat upright, I remembered a blinding flash, a blow to the head that, like the locking of the door, was almost certainly no accident. Getting shakily to my feet I realised again that I could smell smoke and I shook my head to clear it in case it was an illusion caused by concussion but the smell was still there and now I could see it, coming from a few yards away and I gingerly took a few steps toward it, my heart sinking as I realised that I at least now had my phone. Panicked, I realised that I must have been out for some time - long enough for somebody to transport me to a remote part of the wood and, also, to gather together all my belongings and to dig a pit for them before setting them on fire. I quickly stamped on the smoking pile, desperately hoping to salvage at least something from the wreckage and was relieved to see that the small bag containing my passport and some emergency dollars had escaped almost intact. Unfortunately most of my clothes were beyond saving, including the beautiful red coat which I had bought when I first arrived in London about a thousand years ago. I fished my charred phone out of the pit and realised that the camera and, inside it, the pictures of John's grave were gone and I cried out in exasperation, startling some birds out of the branches above me. I dusted myself off and, with a surge of defiance, gathered up the least barbecued of my possessions and set out to find my way out of the wood and, once I'd done that, I intended to keep going, hitching all the way to Heathrow if necessary and camping there until they put me on a plane. As I fought my way through the undergrowth the heavens suddenly opened and within seconds I was drenched and I could hear the sizzling as the rain quenched the last of the fire. Twice I slipped on leaves that had immediately turned slimy and I wondered what I must look like with hair dripping in my face and mud splattered across my clothes but I picked myself up and carried on. I slowed down, unwilling to stop but no longer able to see more than a couple of feet ahead of me as the rain increased until it had formed a shimmering curtain in front of me. As I watched, dim figures began to appear behind the curtain, first one or two and then more until there were too many to count. And then they were everywhere. Everywhere I turned, they were there behind the wall of water, some alone but in other cases whole families, all clamouring for my attention, for help and I closed my eyes, certain that I would go mad if I had to listen to them all. As soon as I closed my eyes, the clamouring faded and then stopped altogether and, when I opened them again, all those long gone souls had gone, returned to their restless graves and for a moment I was once again alone. As suddenly as it had started, the rain stopped and the sun came out and steam rose from the woods as dense as a London fog and then, from the false mist, a now familiar figure,
'We're nearly finished here Gus,' John whispered and I nodded,
'I'm going to take you from that place,' I said, 'Will that give you peace?'
'This will give me peace,' he said and smiled a terrible smile as a figure appeared behind him, then another, and another. As I watched, I realised that they all resembled one another, each displaying a tell tale narrow chin or pale brown eyes and my horrified suspicions were confirmed as the the final figure stepped forward to stand beside John. Hugh.
Peace. That was what he said but what he meant was revenge. I understood his anger; he was a child and had been robbed of the chance to be a man, to live independently, to get married and to have children but, as I looked with dismay at all the faces before me I hardened my heart against him. He was a child and a child needs to be taught right from wrong. As I looked on, I realised that Hugh was somehow more there than the others and as I met his eyes he began to call to me - From the way his face contorted he was yelling or screaming at the top of his voice but no sound was heard and John gave him a brief look of indulgence before turning back to me. Making sure that he had my attention, John waved a hand and the line of Will and Matt's ancestors, men, women and children, began to trudge past him, fading and then disappearing back into the woods behind him. The last two were the two men I had watched commit murder and, as they crossed in front of John, blood began to stream from his body, steady streams that vanished into thin air as they left his body. I would later read that the two accused, when in court, had requested to visit John's body, using, as a measure of their innocence, an old wive's tale that blood will burst from a body in the presence of his murderer. The two men vanished like others and then it was just the three of us. John had said that it was nearly over and I suddenly thought I understood as I remembered Will's words from the night Matt and I took him home. He had said “He’ll be coming for Hugh next” and, at the time I had dismissed it as drunken rantings but now it made sense - Hugh was the end; the last descendant of the men who had robbed John of his life and the man who had seen but not told. My head swam; all those people who I had just watched file past this restless spirit - had he really ended all of their lives to avenge his own? As though reading my mind - because that's exactly what he was doing - he shook his head solemnly and, from behind him, came the figure of a woman in her mid-thirties,
'My mother,' he said simply, 'Developed a nervous disposition after her only son was murdered. Died aged thirty eight.' The woman disappeared to be replaced by a man of about the same age,
'My father. Took to drink, blaming himself. Dead at forty.'
'No more,' I protested and he ignored me as a younger woman emerged from the shadows,
'My sister Mary, lost a child because of the nightmares that plagued her night after night.' As the young woman joined her parents and then, mercifully disappeared, I hung my head. I thought about the people who had killed Lizzie without even knowing or caring who she was and I had a momentary flash of sympathy for John and his need for revenge but I couldn't let that show. If I was right - and I thought I was - then there was still a chance for Hugh; still a chance to end this without finishing it.
'Did it help?' He stared at me impassively and I pushed a little further, 'Did it bring your parents back? Did it fill the void left by the lost child?'
'Does this make you feel better?' he asked and, suddenly, shimmering beside him was the face of one of the men responsible for the shooting, the angle of his neck and the shoelace dangling from it suggesting a prison suicide. And it did - God help me it did. I would deny it to John but couldn't deny to myself the stab of satisfaction at knowing that at least one of the pieces of scum had been removed from the planet and so I decided to take a different approach.
'It's all up to you, you know,' I stepped cautiously toward him, 'It could be a gift you know?' He gave me a quizzical look and I gestured toward Hugh, 'His life. It could be your gift and,' I glanced at Hugh, 'Together we'll put things right - like it should have been all along!' For the first time he looked uncertain and it made him look like the child that he was and I realised with a pang that the two boys in front of me could have been friends in another life - I just hoped that it wasn't going to be this one.
'You promise you'll help me?' he whispered and I breathed a silent sigh of relief. And I was about to tell him that, yes, we would help - that I intended to go to the police, to have his remains reinterred and to tell anybody who would listen about the man who murdered by inaction but, before I got the chance, I heard the sudden sound of an almost inhuman roar followed by my name being called and footsteps crashing through the wood.
Fear came not too much later but, for the moment, frustration was my first reaction; I had been so close - I had seen that John was beginning to waver, beginning to doubt and I had begun to hope that I would be able to leave this place taking Hugh with me and now this. The man's voice seemed to echo all around as the wood played it's strange acoustics and I couldn't tell how far - or close - he was until he was almost upon us. As the footsteps became louder and were so close that I could hear the snapping of twigs underneath them, I looked around helplessly for something, anything, that I could use as a weapon. Frantically, I snapped a long thick branch from the nearest tree but John gently took it from me, discarding it as he shook his head,
'We finish this now.' Not understanding, I glanced at Hugh who was cowering behind John. He too had recognised the voice and, from his expression, recognised that there would be no happy conclusion to this endgame. As he burst from the trees and into the clearing, his eyes feverish and as wicked as the blade that he held I remember thinking; this is it, there are no more secrets buried here - it would turn out that I was wrong about that but wouldn't know this until much later. Until it was over. He was so intent on me that, at first he didn't notice the tableau in front of us but as he did, he stumbled to a halt, mouth gaping in a way that would have been comical under other circumstances. Unfortunately his inertia was short lived and then he swung around to face me, advancing menacingly so he didn't see, as I did, the others beginning to return to take their places beside John and Hugh.
'You should have left it alone Gus, this is nothing to do with you' he snarled and I shrugged, feigning an apathy that I didn't feel,
'He came to me,' I said, 'Not the other way round. So now I am involved - and I'm going to end this!' Ignoring me, he turned back with no more than a slight flicker of surprise at the fact that, where only moments ago there was just John and Hugh, now in front of him was an army.
'Dad! It's OK - I'm OK!' I watched as Will's glance flickered over to Hugh and when he looked at me again, his eyes were pleading,
'This has to end Gus, can't you see that?' Forcing my eyes from the huge knife that he carried and to meet his eyes I took a step toward him,
'He's your son, Will.' He nodded vigorously as though I had just agreed with everything that was saying,
'Yes! The last one!' He moved closer still and I could smell the sour tang of whiskey on his breath, 'Peace, Gus,' he whispered and I heard the distant echo from when John had used the same word not so long ago. 'That's all. When this is done, I'll finally be able to get some peace.' Filicide. The word used for the killing of one's own child. Of course Will didn't intend to do the deed himself, but still, I wondered about how much peace he thought would be had once it was done - and how much scotch would be needed to drive Hugh's face out of his mind so that he could sleep each night. He turned back to John, head cocked to one side as though studying him,
'So, here we are,' he breathed and John's impassive gazed stayed on him as he moved closer, 'Take him,' he hissed, jerking a shoulder towards Hugh but not looking at him, not taking his eyes from John. 'This is my offering,' he continued, 'and then you and I are quits, right?' His tone had become wheedling and a note of contempt crossed John's face as he studied the wreck of a man in front of him.
'My father drank because he blamed himself for the loss of his only son,' John said, 'And you,' the word 'you' was almost spat at Will, 'Drink and gladly sacrifice yours.No,' he cast a cool gaze over the shadow figures behind him, 'Gus is right, this is enough.' He reached out a hand to Hugh who immediately took it and, before our eyes, began to grow more solid in form, to become more here than there and I automatically reached or him so that, for a moment or two, the three of us were linked and then John let go, releasing him into my care.
As Will rushed towards us our eyes met briefly and I saw only madness there; I didn't know if it was the booze, Stella's death or seeing John but, whatever it was had driven the last rational thought from him and now he charged at his son as though he had never seen him before. Even in the dark of the wood there was a flash as he raised the knife high, ready to attack and time seemed to stand still as I watched the arc of descent, the blade flying toward Hugh with what would almost certainly prove to be deadly force. I gathered every ounce of strength that I had left, intending to aim a kick at Will's elbow as his arm lowered in the hope that the pain would make him reflexively drop the knife. I knew that this wouldn't stop him but it might just buy a few precious seconds to formulate a new plan. As a game plan, it was anything but fool-proof and, luckily, it turned out that I didn't need to put it to the test. I was poised and ready to act when, all of a sudden, I saw the knife slow and then stop, it's trajectory frozen only inches away from Hugh's chest and, as it dropped to the ground, I turned toward Will and my first was thought was "of course". Will's face was a frozen mask of shock and agony, two hectic spots of colour burned in his cheeks but, otherwise, his skin was grey and developing a waxy sheen as the pressure of Stella's dead hand caused his heart to burst inside his chest. I watched - and John and all the others watched - as, finally, with one last rattling breath, Will slowly sank to the ground before falling face first into the mud. Without another glance at Will, Stella came towards us - or rather toward Hugh, who was beside me breathing heavily, a screamy sound suggestive of asthma accompanying each breath and I began to worry that danger hadn't been averted, just side-swiped by a different kind. My worries were, however, thankfully ungrounded as it transpired that, among many other useful gifts which had just been demonstrated, the recently deceased have the power to tame inflammatory diseases and I stood aside as Stella placed her hand on Hugh's cheek, relief flooding through me as his breathing slowed and quietened and the colour returned to his face. She gazed into his face as though drinking him in and then, kissing his forehead, turned away from us and walked slowly back to John and his gang of the dear departed.
'Stella, wait!' I called and she slowly turned around, her expression a mixture of questioning and mocking - a Stella look if ever there was one, 'Tell me,' I glanced helplessly at Will's body, 'I don't know what to do about this!' Face impassive, she stared down at him
'He always wanted to be buried you know,' she said, 'Proper grave, headstone - all the pomp and circumstance so...' she looked at me then and winked before finishing,
'So, do me a favour Gus - cremate the fucker and put him in a jam jar.'
Slowly, the group, led by John began to retreat and fade and I felt a strange sense of dismay as I watched them go - I was a stranger in a strange land and I knew that I had been too quick to grab onto any human (or otherwise) contact that was offered; and too slow to let go. It was hard to believe that I had only been in England less than two weeks; so many strange things had happened (not least, hearing a ghost use the 'F' word) and, as the group finally vanished from sight I felt a childish urge to stamp my feet and to insist that I wouldn't do it anymore - not on my own. But I had to and I would.
'What'll we tell everyone?' I looked at Hugh who had voiced the question that hadn't yet even entered my mind. What I really wanted to do was to just run, from the woods, from Ruislip and from England - Will would be found in time by some dog walker and I was reasonably confident that an autopsy would simply show a massive heart attack which nobody would be shocked about given Will's lifestyle. Unfortunately though, the part of the wood that we stood in was littered with DNA, our footprints, hair and other human debris, not to mention the bonfire of my possessions which was still smouldering away behind us.
'Well, we can't tell them the truth,' I said and he rolled his eyes,
'Well, I'm trying to!' I replied smartly and then looked at him closely, his hands were still shaking slightly but the colour had returned to his cheeks and his eyes were focussed, 'How you doing there hon?' He shrugged,
'I'm alright,' then in a small voice, 'What will happen to me now? I mean, where will I go, like, in the school holidays and that?' I considered the question, hoping that he wasn't looking for promises that I was unable to make; Will had told me that there was no family and I didn't know if Will and Stella had had the kind of friends who are willing to take in a fifteen year old.
'Hey!' Brightening, he stood up, cocking his head to one side in the same way as was his father's habit, 'Maybe Matt will take me in, make me an apprentice!' He mimicked pouring a pint and I grimaced,
'Sure, that would be a great use of that fancy education of yours - pouring beer and wiping tables in the........' I stuttered to a halt as the synapses in my brain finally started firing at full throttle and questions came one after another,
'Matt!' I yelled in alarm and began to gather up the few things that weren't completely ruined,
'What? What? Is Matt OK?' It seemed that my sudden panic had reignited Hugh's and he now stood defiantly in front of me, presumably in order to stop me moving until I'd answered his questions. I didn't have time for this. The thought that had galvanised me into action was now running on a loop in my brain as the pieces fell into place; I was sure that it was Matt that had locked me in the cellar but it was Will who had unlocked the door, brained me with something and then taken me to Mad Bess. (At the thought, I felt the lump on my head which, although tender, had thankfully not led to a permanent lights out as I believe had been Will's plan). How had Will managed to do all that without attracting Matt's attention? The answer was that he hadn't. I stepped nimbly to the side of Hugh, snagging his arm as I passed and started to run, ignoring the stitch that immediately appeared in my side the same way that I avoided Hugh's protestations; dumb stubbornness. I had no idea how long it had been since Will had unlocked the cellar door and I knew that there was a very real possibility that it was too late for Matt but I kept going, knowing that I at least had to try to help him the way that he tried to help me. Because that, I was now sure, was what had happened. Matt had locked me in the cellar to protect me from Will - with all the rides home, he must have seen that Will was becoming unhinged and feared that desperation would soon drive him to drastic action. I had no doubt that Matt had paid for the decision to protect me and could only hope that it hadn't been the ultimate price. I barely heard Hugh's complaints as twigs and branches seemed to reach out for us, leaving scratches and bruises on our arms and faces and, although my lungs were burning, I kept running and, finally, Mad Bess loosened her grip on us and we found ourselves spilling onto the concrete of the car park. Picking ourselves up, I forced myself to downgrade to a fast walk, knowing that we must already look quite a sight without drawing further attention to ourselves by thundering down the road in full view of every driver and pedestrian passing. After what seemed like an eternity, we were at The Six Bells and, as I pushed the front door, it came as no surprise to me that it was locked. Quickly, I hurried round the back, followed by Hugh, and i asked him to grab one of the big decorative rocks from the beer garden which I then hurled unceremoniously through the glass window of the kitchen door before reaching inside and unlocking it.
'Matt?' I called as soon as we were inside, not really expecting an answer but wanting to do anything to disturb the thick silence which felt utterly wrong particularly at, I glanced at the clock on the wall, five thirty in the afternoon. Making our way into the bar, I saw that the tables hadn't been cleared and that some drinks had been knocked over as though customers had left quickly but not necessarily in a panic. With a burst of intuition I stepped into the hallway in order to confirm my suspicions - my subconscious had registered broken glass underfoot as we hurried from kitchen to bar and now I saw that somebody had broken the glass on the fire alarm causing the alarm to be activated and, no doubt, sending the few lunchtime customers grumbling out of the front door and back to their jobs or homes.
I glanced up the stairs but didn't bother following up on that idea; there was really only one place that Matt was going to be if he was still in the pub and it was a repeating pattern. Taking a deep breath and signalling to Hugh to stay put, I climbed the few shallow stairs down to the cellar, straining to hear a sound, anything that might mean that there was life down here. After drawing back the heavy bolt, I put my shoulder to the door and pushed, wincing as the hinges screeched in protest. Inside the cellar, the air was cold and damp and I hugged myself for warmth - and for comfort. The room was empty. Racking my brain for another idea, I could only think of four places that Matt could be - The Six Bells, his flat, Will's house or, of course, Mad Bess Wood. In dismay, I turned to see that, despite my instruction, Hugh had followed me down the stairs and, for a moment, I was relieved that there was nothing to see, figuring that the poor kid had been through more than enough for one day but then, just as we were leaving and I was about to close the door behind us, I heard the sound that I had been hoping for. Puzzled, I turned and (for what good it would do), told Hugh not to move before re-entering the cellar,
'Hello?' I heard it again, so faint that it was almost drowned by the echo of my voice but it was definitely there and I hurried across the room as I suddenly realised where he was. Kneeling on the floor by the corner of the room, I peered into the hole that had served as John's grave for nearly two hundred years and peered down inside where I immediately saw that Matt was there, barely concious but alive amid John's dust and bones.
‘Matt!’ Hugh yelled and I hushed him, still peering down into the hole,
‘He’s OK I think, but we need an ambulance,’ I glanced at him, ‘Can you do that?’ He rolled his eyes,
‘Duh, yeah - I think I can manage that, what with my expensive education and all!’ I was happy to see that Hugh was more or less himself again but knew that he would have a long road ahead of him and would need a lot of help in navigating that road. He disappeared back up the stairs and I called softly down into the hole,
‘Matt, can you hear me?’ There was a grunt and then a scraping sound that I took to mean that he was moving and I called again, more urgently, ‘Please don’t move, Matt. An ambulance is on the way, just stay still until they get here OK?’ I wasn’t sure if he would be able to respond at all but, after a few seconds, a weak
‘kay,’ filtered up from the depths and I relaxed a little, knowing that, for now, I had done all that I possibly could for him. Within minutes I heard sounds from upstairs and could almost imagine Duck’s Hll Road once again washed in the blue light from an emergency vehicle and could see in my mind the faces of the neighbours as they all came out to see what was going on at The Six Bells this time. Hearing footsteps on the stairs, I stood quickly, both knees cracking in the quiet of the cellar and I suddenly realised just how bone-achingly tired I was and I thought longingly of the long sleep I had promised myself on the flight back to New York.
‘Down here!’ I called and seconds later, the two paramedics, one male, one female, clattered into the cellar dragging a portable stretcher between them and, in a few efficient and impressively practiced moves, they had Matt out of the hole and onto the stretcher. Although his face was pale to the point of being gray, I was relieved to see that his eyes were open and apart from a few thin trickles of blood that ran down his right temple, he seemed to be otherwise uninjured.
‘Gus, I…...’ he began and I shook my head, placing a finger on his lips,
‘Hush now, let’s get you to the hospital then we’ll talk.’ Impatiently, he wiped my finger away, shaking his head,
‘No. Now. Will….’
‘Will’s gone,’ I said interrupting him again, ‘He’s gone Matt, it’s over.’ This time, he grabbed my arm, eyes blazing as he tried to sit up on the stretcher and when he spoke again, flecks of spit flew from his mouth to land on my already filthy clothes. ‘Listen to me!’ he hissed then, as the medics administered something by hypodermic, his eyes began to close but, before the lights went out completely, he whispered ‘Not over. She sees you now Gus!’
‘What did he mean, “she sees you” ?’ Hugh asked, ‘Who sees you?’ I put a hand on his arm, noting the exhaustion showing in dark patches under his eyes,
‘Nothing, Hugh. He’s hurt and confused but,’ I forced a cheery smile, ‘The ambulance will take him to the hospital and they’ll soon have him right as rain.’ I took a plastic sheet and carefully placed it over the hole (John’s grave) and walked Hugh back to the door and up the stairs, ‘We’ll go see him later today but there are a few things I have to do first.’ The boy stopped and looked at me, accusation clear in his stare,
‘You’re leaving aren’t you? Back to America.’
‘Yes,’ I replied without hesitation, still unwilling to give the kid any false hope that I was going to be his new Mom, ‘But not just yet - after we know that Matt’s going to be OK and we’ve got you squared away.’ He searched my face for signs that I was lying and then, seemingly satisfied that I wasn’t, he nodded,
‘So, can I help?’ I squeezed his shoulder,
‘Sure, why don’t you start clearing up in the bar while I make a few phone calls?’
The first call I made was to Hugh’s school to let the Master know that he was safe and well and would be returning to his studies before too long - As it turned out, I was wrong about this as it transpired that most of Will and Stella’s network of wealth was based on smoke and mirrors and not only were there no funds for the next few years of Hugh’s schooling but the couple were in fact in debt to the eyeballs and beyond. The second call was a little trickier and, before I made it, I helped myself (in for a penny and all that) to a glass of wine from the bar before dialling. Over the next ten minutes I was passed from one person to another, told to try a different number and put on hold several times but I had a promise to keep and so I persevered. Finally, I was connected to the Vicar of St Martin’s church in Ruislip who told me to sit tight and that he would be with me shortly. Shortly turned out to be about fifty minutes, during which time I finished my wine, had a quick shower and helped Hugh to finish clearing up and, by the time, I heard a tap on the door of the pub, the bar - and myself and Hugh - were looking clean and respectable.
‘Ms Freeman? I’m Colin Benson, we spoke on the phone.’
‘Of course, thank you for coming so quickly,’ I led him into the bar area, ‘Can I get you something to drink?’ The vicar was a short, round fellow of about sixty and, at the mention of a drink, he gave an impish smile,
‘Well, a small port and lemon would certainly oil the wheels,’ he said and when I looked at him blankly, he laughed, ‘Crushed Ice, Port, fresh lemon juice, and Soda Water, but let me - after all these years, I’m something of an expert!’ Opening the hinged lid at the end of the bar, he squeezed himself through the opening and began to gather ingredients before efficiently fixing us both a drink and returning to sit opposite me at the side table (Will and Stella’s table, my mind insisted). To my surprise, the vicar didn’t immediately ask to see John’s grave (I had been preparing myself for the somewhat awkward question of how I had found the burial site in the first place) but instead focused on the particulars of how the remains would be removed from the pub cellar and into a permanent grave. ‘Of course, I had heard the rumours,’ he mused, ‘But everybody thought they were just that. Unthinkable that the poor child has been here all this time.’ He patted my hand, a paternal gesture that, for some reason, brought tears to my eyes and added, ‘Of course, he’ll be given a proper service - I’m assuming that you would like to be there?’
‘We both will!’ Hugh stated before I had a chance to answer - I hadn’t even seen him come back into the bar, having left him taking a nap in my room but he now stood belligerently in the doorway, defying me to contradict him.
‘How soon can this be done?’ I asked, ignoring the scowl that darkened Hugh’s features and Colin gave a shrug that seemed to shift his entire frame,
‘I’d need to check for surviving family members,’ he said, ‘but, from what I gather, the Brills left the area decades ago and so I don’t see that we’ll have a problem there.’ He drained his glass and stood, ‘Let me make some calls and see what can be done. Just one thing,’ he began to fiddle with the strap of his watch, ‘There will of course be a requirement for some, ah, things…..’ I waited a moment for him to continue and then suddenly understood,
‘Oh, you mean, a coffin and such?’ I stood and followed as he made his way to the door and added (mentally calculating the cash that I had left in my account), ‘I will, of course, meet the cost of those things.’ His smile returned and he shook my hand warmly,
‘Very generous of you Ms Freeman, I’m sure it would mean a lot to the boy. I, ah, as I say, will make some calls and get back to you - I’m assuming that I can contact you here?’
‘Yes,’ I replied with grim resign, ‘I can be contacted here.’
Later that afternoon, Hugh and I made our way on the tube to Hillingdon Hospital, a huge modern glass and white brick building which seemed to be directly on a flight path from Heathrow judging by the number of jets that roared overhead as we made one false turn after another before finally finding Matt in a long ward at the end of a longer corridor. As was the case with three of the other patients in the ward, his head had been bandaged giving him a cartoon look but his face was grim as he spotted us and we made our way over to his bed. As we got closer, I saw that the whole left hand side of his face was bruised giving the strange effect that one half of his face was permanently in shadow but, despite the bruising his eyes were clear and alert. Feeling slightly silly I handed over the grapes that Hugh had insisted on us bringing and took a seat next to Matt’s bed,
‘How are you feeling now?’ I asked and he gave a lopsided smile that turned into a grimace,
‘I’ll live, you should see the other guy.’ The smile vanished completely as we both contemplated the significance behind that statement and I glanced nervously at Hugh who, I knew, was listening to every word.
‘Hey Hugh, why don’t you go get us a couple of cokes from the machine?’ I asked and he pulled a face,
‘What you mean is, why don’t I make myself scarce so the two of you can talk about what to do about my dead Dad!’ I paused and then nodded firmly,
‘Yep, that’s exactly what I mean so, how about it ?’ With the kind of attitude that only a teenager can muster, Hugh reluctantly went, the dragging of his heels signifying to us just what he thought of the plan and I rolled my eyes at Matt, no doubt giving my own passable impression of a stroppy teenager.
‘I told the police that some kids broke into the pub after the alarm went off,’ Matt said in a voice devoid of emotion, ‘and that they followed me down to the cellar and attacked me - nicked a couple of boxes of Magners and then did one.’ The lack of inflection in his voice worried me more than his physical injuries did and I moved closer to avoid being overheard by the other patients.
‘Hugh’s right about one thing, Matt, we’re going to have to talk about what we’re going to do about Will - they’re gonna find him sooner rather than later, they…..’ Matt shook his head briskly even though it looked like doing so caused him pain,
‘They’re not going to find him.’ He turned to face me full on so that, again, I got that strange effect that half of his face was in shadow, ‘She’ll have him by now and she won’t rest. I told you Gus, she sees you now!’ I threw up my hands in exasperation,
‘You’ve had a nasty knock to the head Matt, you’re not making sense. What are you talking about? Who sees me ?’ He continued to look at me and now his smile was both hopeless and terrible as he said,
‘Mad Bess of course - she sees you now; and she doesn’t unsee.’
That night I became a barkeep for the first time in my life - On instruction from Matt, and with the help of Gemma, a student from the local college who usually only worked at weekends, I opened The Six Bells and managed to keep the locals watered until it was time to ring the bell to signal last orders. For most of the evening, whispers ran through the bar like a low current, local drinkers speculating on what may or may not have happened between Will and Matt and it did nothing to diminish my suspected co-starring role when, at about nine o’clock, Colin walked into the bar and headed straight for me.
‘Port and lemon vicar?’ I asked in my best British accent and he laughed,
‘Thank you but one a day’s about my limit these days dear,’ he motioned to the one small table in the bar that was currently empty, ‘do you have a moment?’ Checking that Gemma was doing OK, I nodded and followed him to the table, grateful to be seated if only for a few minutes after standing behind the bar for more than two hours. As we sat, he explained that there was to be a complicated blessing procedure to be performed over John’s remains; first in the cellar and then again when he was interred in St Martin’s. As there was no necessity for a full sized coffin, the vicar had ordered a smaller casket for the purpose and discreetly left the bill on the table when he left. Although the vicar was discreet, the numbers on the bill were not and I was shocked at the cost of a box which would, essentially, just be immediately buried underground for the worms to feast on. I was also shocked to learn that none of this would take place for almost a week - I had more or less promised Hugh that the two of us would attend John’s re-internment service which meant that I would be remaining in England for at least another seven days. Seven more days of my nerves being stretched to breaking point, I thought, as I brooded on the fact that, sooner rather than later, Will’s body would be found by a hiker or dog walker and then the police would be back, asking their questions and, quite possibly, like last time, asking me not to make any plans to leave town. At the idea that I may not be allowed to leave I suddenly felt suffocated, as though the walls were closing in on me and, excusing myself, I ran outside into the beer garden in the hope that a bit of fresh air, or what passed for it, would help. It didn’t. When I reached the smoking area (little more than a makeshift roof over one corner of the garden), I realised that somebody was already out there, the tip of her cigarette glowing red aganst the darkness and casting a bloody glow over her frozen helmet of blonde hair.
‘Still here then?’ she drawled around a long drag of her cigarette, ‘Long holiday.’
‘Uh huh,’ I stepped closer so that we could see one another better, ‘longer than expected, that’s for sure. Things…..things have happened.’ She nodded, amused,
‘You could say that! Not good things for the most part, either.’ I stayed quiet, feeling that her comment needed no confirmation and she sniffed, ‘It’s no secret that there was no love lost between myself and Stella Longstaffe but,’ she stubbed her cigarette into the rusty tin provided, ‘I never would have wished any of this you know.’ I nodded, I had witnessed one fight between Stella and Margaret Trotter - something about a bouncy castle - and understood that this had simply been the first of many such incidents between the two women and, as I looked at the woman’s unhappy face I wondered, not the first time, why people allow their differences to reach such epic proportions when, in the end, such trivial spats are always regretted.
‘Of course you wouldn’t,’ I said, ‘Nobody could have possibly seen this coming. Just a horrible horrible accident.’
‘An accident,’ Margaret repeated tonelessly and uttered a short bark of a laugh, ‘No such thing around here but we were doing OK really, for quite a long time and then,’ she fixed me with a stare that belied the friendly tone of her voice, ‘Something started it all up again.’ I took a step back, determined to meet her gaze head on,
‘Hang on a minute - are you trying to say that this - Stella - is somehow my fault?’ I was aware that I was raising my voice but she only looked at me calmly, a second cigarette between her lips until finally she said, not unkindly,
‘It seems that not only are you digging up our ghosts but you have also been waking them up.’ She tossed the butt at the tin, missing by a country mile, and began to walk back toward the pub. Just before she disappeared through the door, she turned again to face me, the steel in her eyes evident even in the darkness, ‘As I said, we were fine for a long time. You started this dear, you find that bitch and finish it.’
She will come again. The new one - the one not of the village - She will come again because they always do. But this one doesn’t belong here; this one doesn’t steal wood, she steals secrets and they’re not hers, THEY’RE NOT HERS! She frightens me. And she’s not alone. There’s the boy, the wretched boy that they all looked for, the one that caused all the trouble and then there’s another - this one an other-worlder and she too is from another place and she follows the new one and so, soon, they will all follow and the trouble will start again. Why won’t they leave me be? Just go away and leave me. I can make them - I can and I will but Lord, I’m so tired, so very tired but I know she will come again.
That night I barely slept and instead tossed and turned as the light behind the curtain turned from black to grey to a dull approximation of daylight. Although I had longed for sleep I suspected that any dreams would not be pleasant ones and so the insomnia was no doubt a blessing, although one very much in disguise. Despite Margaret’s words I had no intention of ever setting foot in Mad Bess Wood again and, besides, Matt was due to be discharged that day and I felt that I ought to be there to help him home. After that, I would see to it that John’s remains were respectfully re-buried and then I would put this place so far behind me that I would need a map and a flashlight to find my way back. I had finally persuaded Hugh to return to Harrow (little knowing that in less than a month he would be transplanted to the local comprehensive school) and so I set off alone to Hillingdon and, when I arrived, Matt was smoking a cigarette in a wheelchair outside the hospital and was clearly ready to go. At first I was horrified, visions of trying to manoeuvre the wheelchair on and off the tubes running through my head but it turned out that the chair was just hospital procedure until the patient left the premises (or ass-covering as we call it in the States!). Matt said very little as we made our way back to the tube station and even less on the tube where surrounding chatter and the clattering of the tracks made conversation all but impossible and it was only as we were walking up Ducks Hill Road that I tentatively brought up recent events, namely what should be done about Will,
'I mean,' I explained, 'Somebody is bound to find him soon, I was thinking maybe we should go take a look.' Matt shook his head and, without breaking stride said,
'No, we can't,' and then, sounding eerily like John, 'Soon, it's not time yet.' I slowed my pace, forcing him to slow his,
'You're not thinking straight Matt,' somebody's going to find him soon - and there are likely to be questions for both us but you in particular, due to your recent injuries. The police are likely to take another look at your "kids breaking in" story and...' He stopped suddenly and gripped my arm hard enough to leave marks,
'I told you, nobody is going to find him, he's gone, Gus. Now we need to wait a little longer and then we finish this.' Again, words that I had heard before and not too long ago and I sighed in exasperation.
'Right, Mad Bess yeah?' Matt didn't say anything, just started walking up the hill again,
'Matt, after some of the weird shit I've seen in the last few days, I'm not disputing that there are certain....forces at work around here but,' I threw my hands in the air, 'You're asking me to do nothing because "the wood" knows who I am?'
'No,' he raised a hand in a half-wave to an elderly man passing us, 'Not the wood - Mad Bess.'
Folklore is a strange thing. Stories are passed down from friend to friend and from generation to generation, gaining embellishment and variation as they go but somewhere way back, right back at the beginning is a grain of truth that feeds the myth and keeps it going until, suddenly, a tall tale is a truth and nothing is as it seems. As we parted at the pub, Matt told me that I didn't believe because I didn't want to believe, and he was partly right - I wanted nothing more than to get on a plane and go back to New York, my new-found wanderlust sated for the time being but, also, I knew that believing this time would mean accepting and I didn't think I was ready to do that. As it turned out, the choice wasn't mine to make.
When I got inside the pub, Gemma was already setting up for the lunchtime shift and, as we chatted, I mused on how quickly things return to normal, even in the face of tragedy. She asked if Matt would be returning to work that evening, a question I couldn’t even begin to answer and so I made a vague response about it depending on how he was feeling. Giving me a sunny smile, she shrugged and said,
‘No worries - if not, we’ll manage won’t we?’ and, for a moment, I envied her her youth and blissful ignorance to all that had happened in such a short space of time. ‘She’ll be coming now,’ she stated cheerily and I stared at her,
‘What did you say?’
‘I said she’ll be coming soon - Margaret Trotter. She said she’d give us a hand for an hour with cleaning and that,’ she squinted at me, ‘You alright?’ I gave a shaky laugh,
‘Fine, just a little tired,’ she nodded, the subject already forgotten as she focussed on her duties then,
‘Oh, I also called somebody to change the locks - thought it would be best after those kids got in the other day - who knows what else they got up to after attacking poor Matt.’ I nodded, silently thinking that no amount of locks in the world would keep out the intruders we really needed to be worried about,
‘Good thinking. I’m going upstairs for a bit but yell if you need me to help,’
‘OK, thanks, but it should be fine.’ For this I was grateful as I was desperately craving a little alone time and, also, I had no desire to be downstairs when Margaret Trotter arrived with her scourers and acid tongue. My feet felt like they were made of lead as I dragged myself up the stairs to my room and I was reminded of the summer I turned seventeen when I was struck by glandular fever and spent over a week in a strange fog of tiredness and feverish unreality. Back then there had been a sensible medical explanation and medication to be taken to combat the symptoms but now, all I could think to do was to sleep, the only way of shutting out this particular fever, if only for a little while. As I turned the key in the lock, I thought wryly that at least, thanks to Will, my packing would be a much easier task. With a sigh of relief, I let myself into the room and closed the door behind me, relishing the solitude and quiet. Kicking off my shoes, I threw my bag onto the bed and went into the doll’s house bathroom to wash my face idly wondering, as I ran the hot water, when it was that I last ate. I didn’t think that there would be food being served in the pub this lunchtime due to the current staff shortages but figured that I could probably raid the kitchen for the ingredients to make myself a sandwich, hey - just add it to the bill! It was as these mundane musings were circling my brain that the voice came, so shockingly loud and shrill that I stumbled and fell, catching my head on the corner of the sink. Stars bloomed in my vision and I covered my ears to try to block out the sound, a gesture that had no effect as the voice was coming from inside my head and I hauled myself to my feet and staggered into the bedroom where, for a moment, I could do nothing but stare, all rational thought forgotten. The word that was being screamed inside my head also screamed at me from every wall, from the window and from the ceiling. ‘Thief!’ scrawled in red paint on every available surface, the work of a prolific and deranged graffiti artist from Hell and I ran for the door, throwing it open with enough force that it cracked against the adjacent wall, ready to run into the corridor and down the stairs. But they were no longer there.
‘Thief! Leave me be!’ The voice was howling now, a banshee caught in a trap and I took a step forward and fell into the dark, the black nothingness that had once been the cosy corridor of The Six Bells. As my head cleared, I felt a dull lack of surprise to discover that I was, once more, back in the wood which, for the moment, was still and quiet. Taking a first, hesitant, step I felt sure that, this time, I wouldn’t be leaving and and was curious to find that this thought brought with it no more than a mild sense of regret. “She sees you”, Matt had warned and he was right, only this time I saw her too.
‘Thief! You leave us be!’ The voice was still shrill but was no longer just inside my head and she screamed it again as I stepped toward her, the words echoing from the trees as what seemed like a million birds took flight at the sound. She was old, older, it seemed, than the wood itself; a harridan with ravaged features and rotting rags for clothes, a product of the madness that must have eaten her alive in her earthly years.
‘What do you want?’ I asked, barely recognising my own voice, ‘Who are you?’The latter question defunct as I did, of course, know who the hag was - this was Mad Bess, the tortured game-keeper’s wife of local folklore; the woman who had prowled the woods for centuries searching for poachers, both real and imaginary. Under her arm was a long thin gun and, suddenly, she cocked it and fired a shot into the sky, scaring up any birds that hadn’t already fled at the sound of her voice,
‘These woods are mine, you hear, you…..’ she pointed a gnarled and rotted finger, ‘You are trespassing - trying to steal what’s mine! Thief!’ I didn’t move, couldn’t have done if I’d tried and I understood that running wouldn’t be a possibility - as Matt had predicted, this would be finished now and on Bess’s terms.
‘No,’ I yelled, ‘You leave me be - I’ve stolen nothing from you. Nothing!’ She gazed at me and a sly smile spread slowly over her ruined face,
‘Secrets, Augusta. they were ours and you took them. They’re ours, mine and the wood’s,’ the smile faded, ‘They’re all that we’ve got and you stole them!’ I shook my head,
‘I didn’t mean to. These secrets of yours, they came to me, I didn’t come looking for them. If I could give them back, I would.’ She seemed to consider this for a moment, her thought processes impossible to follow as her expression ranged from anger to confusion and then back again,
‘Give them back?’ she hissed, ‘You can’t give them back, you have them now - You, from elsewhere, no,’ she shook her head, lumps of grey matted hair flying from side to side, ‘You have to pay for them, that’s the only way, you pay for what you’ve taken. Everybody steals what’s mine’. As though on cue, the wood seemed to come to life as people, men mainly, passed by and, sometimes, through the old woman, expressions watchful and furtive and now her voice was filled with despair as she cried,
‘Why won’t they leave me be?’ It was difficult to feel anything but pity for this woman, this creature who had been driven insane by the need to protect her livelihood and I wondered if there had been no children to help lighten the load.
‘Children,’ she sneered, although I hadn’t spoken aloud, ‘Oh, there were children - it was the children who put me in that place!’ Unbidden, an image came into my mind, a picture of a filthy room in a large building, some kind of hospital I guessed from the stark furnishings and the anguished shrieks that accompanied the image. ‘Put me in that place and stole my cottage and my livestock. Left me to rot they did and then buried me in these woods in a pauper’s grave, but they paid!’ The sly smile was back, exposing black teeth and gums, and another image came into my head, this time a young woman wading into a pond, crying hysterically as she tries to reach a small child who is sinking into the depths and then another, a middle aged man hanging a “for sale” sign on a cottage, this last overlapped by an image of John’s body being removed from the woods and I found myself gaping stupidly as the meaning of these last two images began to clarify.
‘Charles Churchill - John’s employer - he was your son?’
‘Grandson,’ she spat, ‘Lost everything and ended up swallowing lead’, the smug satisfaction in her voice was hideous and I felt my head spinning; so much death and sorrow here that it hung over the woods like a dark viscous curtain,all in the name of revenge and I wondered if this place could ever be clean again.
‘You’ve worked so hard,’ I said, ‘You must be tired.’
‘Tired,’ she agreed and the desolation in her voice was hard to hear, ‘And so alone now he’s gone. You see, he understood and he forgave me but now he’s gone. My John, gone from me and you,’ flinty sparks turned her eyes to mirrors as she spat ‘You took him from me, thief!’
‘I had to help him, Bess. He needs peace now - and so do you.’
‘No!’ She waved a hand and the dark shadows of long gone poachers began to whirl and scream around us, shooting down blue sparks like lightning as they collided ‘You pay for what you took from me - you took my John away from me so now you have to stay,’ her voice took on a wheedling tone, ‘I’m so alone Augusta, you will stay with me won’t you?’ I stepped back from her reaching hand which, in the blue light, was nothing more than grey bones, somehow knowing that if I allowed her to touch me I would be lost.
‘I won’t come with you Bess,’ I said, dread turning my voice into no more than a whisper, ‘You said yourself, I don’t belong here. There are others.’
‘There are others,’ she repeated in a grotesque sing song tone, ‘but he trusted you - he was my family and he trusted you then you stole him.’ As she got closer and her hand came ever nearer to mine it was as though I could actually see the madness inside of her, a black twisting shape behind the silver of her eyes and I was hers. I closed my eyes, waiting for that first touch of her hand brushing and then gripping mine and, for a moment, I saw us, Mad Bess and Sad Gus, the two of us side by side stalking these woods year after year, never finding solace. I hadn’t realised how far I had gone towards accepting this fate until I heard her voice and, snatching my hand away, I turned as though in a dream, certain that I would find nothing behind me but trees, the voice nothing but my subconscious trying to comfort me in my last moments but, when I opened my eyes, there she was. Tears rolled down my face unbidden as I stared, she was beautiful and the one thought that I had time for was that, if this was the last thing that I would see then I would go willingly.
‘Lizzie, how…..’ She smiled and it was like the sun coming out, dispersing the black cloud that blanketed the wood. She walked past me, toward Bess and I yelled for her to stop,
‘Lizzie, no - she’s dangerous, come back!’ When she turned back to me, her smile was gentle but her eyes carried the steely determination that I remembered so well.
‘It’s alright now Gus, remember, “The truth shall set you free” This is my job now.’ As I watched helplessly, she walked up to Mad Bess and took her hand and then, with a little half-wave that was one hundred percent Lizzie, began to lead the old crone away from me and they began to fade until first they were just one more shadow amongst the trees and then they were gone.
Three days later we buried what remained of a fifteen year old boy called John Brill in a small grave in the churchyard at St Martin’s. The congregation was small, just myself, Matt, Hugh and Margaret Trotter who had insisted on coming along, although we never spoke again. Colin gave a touching eulogy and said some kind words about my involvement, about which he had been given only the vaguest of explanations. The day before the service, the police had, once again, come to The Six Bells as Will was now an official missing person but, to my relief, the fact that he was an alcoholic who was now known to have had crippling debts meant that suspicion fell on neither myself or Matt, the assumption being that, after his recent tragedy, Will had simply decided to flee the area and start anew elsewhere. Elsewhere, that’s what she had said - “the one from Elsewhere” and that’s exactly how I felt in the days that followed. Suddenly, I had the quiet that I had longed for - in spades; when I returned my room at The Six Bells was, once again, the haven that it had been and I had no more visits from anybody whose name could be preceded by the words ‘the late’. That evening I went down to the bar to find Matt changing the bottles on the optics, his bandage now gone but the bruises just as vivid as they had been in the hospital. Without a word, he poured me a glass of the ‘good’ red wine and, after looking at me for a moment, gave a satisfied nod and said,
‘So. It’s done then.’ And I suppose it was - the next morning I went to Mad Bess Wood for the last time. I spent an hour walking through the wood and sitting by the tree (John’s tree) and encountered nothing more sinister than a spider that tried to crawl up my trouser leg as I sat in the hazy sunshine. And so it was over and I was glad or, at least, most of me was, making room for the one small part of me that whispered that now I was back where I started - nobody needed me now and that was something that I would need to address in the coming months.
After the small coffin was lowered into the ground, Matt, Hugh and myself each laid a white rose on top of it and then our small gathering decamped to the pub - The Six Bells of course - where we drank too much and ate slightly wilted sandwiches that Matt had prepared that morning and, after all the sadness that this place had seen, it seemed almost prophetic when Margaret Trotter received a message announcing the birth of a grand-child and so, of course, we drank more. Although it was my last night in England, I had an early flight in the morning and so retired early but sought out the vicar before leaving the bar,
‘Colin!’ As I approached, I saw from the rosy glow in his cheeks that the clergyman was a drink or two past merry and I nodded at his glass, ‘Port and lemon?’
‘Certainly is,’ he chuckled, ‘Have you developed a taste for it yet?’ I wrinkled my nose,
‘Not just yet but I guess some things take a bit more “acquiring” than others. I shall be trying out the recipe on a few people back in New York though,’ I said, silently predicting that the drink was not going to be a hit in the smart bars of Manhattan anytime soon.
‘So, you’re leaving us!’ I nodded,
‘Yep, tomorrow morning - I just wanted to thank you again for everything you’ve done. He’s……..I feel that John is at peace now.’ He nodded, the slightly loose gesture of the inebriated,
‘I’m sure you’re right. Well, my dear, you must keep in touch from time to time, let me know how things are in the Big Apple!’
‘Of course,’ I replied immediately, ‘How? Shall I write to you at the church, or maybe the vicarage?’ He chuckled again, a little more raucously this time,
‘No need to waste money on postage, us God-Squadders have email now!’ He fished around in his pocket for a moment and produced a slightly tattered business card which did, indeed, include an email address. I hastily said the rest of my goodbyes, saving Hugh until last; to my surprise, Matt had agreed to become the boy’s legal guardian and he would indeed become an employee of The Six Bells - but only on a part time basis while he was finishing his education. More email addresses were swapped and I was, finally, able to escape to my room where, on opening the door, I laughed out loud to find that, sometime during the day, somebody had snuck in and attached a large gaudy ‘Farewell’ poster to the wall. I was just about to slip into bed when I spotted the postcard on the bedside table and, with trembling hands, picked it up and read the two words that were written on it in my best friend’s hand-writing. “Not Alone”.
The following morning, with a pang of sadness, I closed the door to my room for the last time and left the keys on a hook behind the bar before going outside to meet my taxi. To my surprise, Matt was outside waiting as I dragged my new suitcase through the door, an expression on his face that said that he liked goodbyes just about as much as I did.
‘So, this is it!’ I said and he pulled a face,
‘Nah, you’ll be back, where else are you going to get such a peaceful, relaxing holiday?’ I laughed and gave him the kind of awkward hug that makes you cringe for days afterwards and then got into the car and onto a plane to New York, home. Leaving behind new friends, but not alone.
Today is a year to the day since I first set foot in Mad Bess Wood and, true to their word, I regularly receive emails from the friends that I made in Ruislip - Colin regularly updates me on gossip from the church and from the pub (apparently Gemma is expecting and refuses to name the father which has caused quite the furore in the village!) Henry from Cambridge graduated with a two one which, from the tone of his email, I assume is a good thing! On arriving back at my apartment, I had gathered up my mail and felt my heart began to race as I spied a plain white envelope lurking in the pile - and then laughed until tears rolled down my face as I read Henry’s one line inscription - ‘Byron used to have terrible flatulence.’
After an amount of soul searching, I decided to tell Agnes the truth about her daughter and was glad that I did as Agnes died less than a month later. The doctors told me that it’s likely that she didn’t understand but I think she did; I know she did.
Two months ago, I finally finished my book - ‘In Byron’s Footsteps’ and, to my surprise, was accepted by the first publisher that I approached. Last week I spoke to them about publishing this account of my time in England but they said it was just too far fetched. Luckily, I received a decent advance for Byron and now also work a couple of evenings a week in a local bar but not today, today I’m headed again to JFK airport to meet Matt and Hugh’s plane, ready to play Manhattan tour guide for the next week or so and then, who knows?
Just The Facts
Fifteen year old John Brill was working on James Churchill’s farm in Mad Bess Wood on Thursday 16th February 1837, filling gaps in a hedge and ensuring that underwood should not be stolen. When he failed to return home that day, a search party was organised which went on until Sunday morning when his body was found and a murder investigation instigated. The previous year, John had given evidence against two poachers, Thomas Lavender and James Bray Jnr - both men were convicted and threatened John with a violent revenge. Although both men were prosecuted for John’s murder, both were acquitted and a conviction for the crime was never made.
Folklore has it that the wood was named after Bess, the demented wife of an eighteenth century gamekeeper who would roam the woods looking for poachers.
The rest of this novel ‘Mad Bess Wood’ is a work of ficition and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead (or undead) is purely coincidental.
© Nicci Rae, 2014
Also by Nicci Rae
Leave Me Cold