Authors: Treadwell, James
First published in Great Britain in 2012 by Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © 2012 James Treadwell
The right of James Treadwell to be identified as the Author of the
Work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright,
Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced,
stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any
means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be
otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that
in which it is published and without a similar condition being
imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance
to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
ISBN 978 1 444 72848 4
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
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London NW1 3BH
If a man could pass through Paradise in a dream, and have a flower presented to him as a pledge that his soul had really been there, and if he found that flower in his hand when he awoke – Aye! and what then?
in the notebooks of S.T. Coleridge
About the author
A December night 1537
On a wild night in deep winter in the year 1537, the greatest magus in the world gathered together and dismissed his household servants, wrapped himself in his travelling cloak, took his staff in one hand and in the other a small wooden box sealed with pitch and clasped with silver, and stepped out into the whirling sleet, bound for the harbour and – so he expected – immortality.
All but the city’s most utterly forlorn inhabitants had been driven from the streets by the bitter weather. The remaining beggars and strays were fully occupied with their struggle to survive until dawn, so the magus walked uninterrupted through alleys of filthy slush. Nobody so much as saw him; any lifted eyes would have been stung by the icy rain, which felt as if it blew from every direction at once. Nobody but one.
Some thirty paces behind him, a figure followed, bone-thin as the stray dogs and ragged as the beggars. It looked like little more than a jumble of sticks and scraps of cloth that should have been scattered at once by the ferocious wind; but seen more closely (though nobody saw), it was a woman, gaunt, weather-beaten, but steady. Her eyes were fixed on the man’s back and never turned away no matter how the sleet blew.
Beneath his cloak the magus kept a tight grip on the box. Inside it, padded around with wool, was a calfskin pouch pricked out with marks of warding and asylum. Inside the pouch were two things: a small oval mirror in a velvet sheath, and a ring that appeared to be carved of wood, though it was not.
Inside the mirror was a share of the magus’s soul. Inside the ring was all the magic in the world.
He came out of the alleys and hurried as best he could along a broader thoroughfare by a frozen canal, where the wind was at last able to settle on a single direction and roar at full force. He was not afraid, exactly. Since mastering his art, he had seen far more than any other living man, and outgrown faint-heartedness. Still, the things he carried were infinitely precious to him, and he was eager to be away, across the sea in England.
Even in the foulest weather, a falling tide and a wind blowing seawards kept the wharves from being entirely deserted. He had to break stride to pick his way through the lantern-lit clusters of carters and watermen clumped alongside creaking hulls. That was what made him glance around and so for the first time notice his pursuer.
His fingers closed tighter on the box.
Her voice made a space for itself in the air, slicing between the weather’s din and the clattering and flapping of the ships. He halted, his back to her.
The moment she caught up with him, the wind stopped. Instead of sleet, snowflakes fell, gathering on his hood and shoulders. In the abrupt silence he felt in his ears the guilty hammering of his heart. The rest of the world around them had gone still. The two of them stood as if alone in the snow, as they would again, long, long afterwards, in their last winter.
He sighed and closed his eyes. ‘How do you come to be here?’
‘Johannes, turn.’ She spoke in Latin, as he had.
‘I know what I will see.’
‘Then face me.’
He neither turned nor answered.
‘What you took from me,’ the woman said, ‘you must now return.’
At this his eyes blinked open. He pressed the box tight to his heart.
She stretched out an arm towards his back, hand open, and held it still. ‘You cannot bear it,’ she said. ‘Save yourself.’
Still without facing her, the magus raised his voice. ‘I did not look for you to be here. Let me go.’
‘Look for me?’ He had never heard her angry before. He had not thought her capable of common passions. The ice in her voice cut as keen as winter. ‘You never looked for me. No more can you dismiss me. But if you do not turn back, I will go, Johannes, and the end you fear will have arrived.’
For a few seconds neither spoke. The snowflakes made white shadows on the trimming of his cloak and thawed into cold drops on her upturned face.
He set his lips tight and took a step forward.
She gave a despairing cry, instantly drowned out by the return of the wind. In an eye-blink it hurled away the flecks of snow and spun them into the freezing murk. He looked around, but the ragged woman was nowhere to be seen. She at least had kept her word and was gone.
A voice bellowed, ‘Master John Fiste!’
It was how he had given the captain his name. The vessel and its crew were English. He shifted round to put the wind at his back and saw a mariner beckoning and, beyond that, the harbour light glowing through a sparkling curtain of sleet.
Still holding the box tightly concealed under his cloak, he followed the man aboard.
Some hours later the wet abated, and because he had urged haste and paid them extravagantly, the ship put out to sea. The wind was strong but steady, and the crew made light of it. But as dawn approached it grew into a storm. All that day it swept the carrack unrelentingly westwards, far past the port where Master John Fiste had expected to begin his life again. When at last they were close to being propelled altogether out of sight of land, with no sign of the storm relenting, the captain resolved to risk an approach to the lee of the English coast, hoping to enter the great harbour at Penryn. As they neared the estuary, the wind squalled capriciously, the ship was blown onto reefs, and captain, crew and passengers were drowned, Master John Fiste and the rest.
For all anyone knew, the greatest magus in the world had stepped out of his house alone one winter night and vanished. In time, most came to say that he had sold his soul for his art and been called to a reckoning by the devil, snatched off without a trace. It made a good cautionary tale for a more sceptical age. Believing Johannes in hell where he and his practices belonged, even wise men barely troubled themselves with the fact that all the magic in the world had gone with him.
Gavin Stokes fidgetedin his seat and willed the train to move. Outside the window his mother stood on the platform, waving and smiling weakly. He was worried she was about to cry.
He didn’t mind the actual crying; he was mostly used to it. What he was afraid of was that if she fell apart right at this moment, she might change her mind about letting him go. His father had taken their trolley and was already heading off towards the Heathrow Express platform. Gavin saw him turn his head and say something to her over his shoulder, something that made the corners of her mouth tremble even more, and just at that moment, soundlessly, the world outside the window twitched and began to slide away.
‘Take care of yourself, Gav, love,’ he just about heard her shout. She took a few steps along the platform, but she couldn’t catch him now. ‘I love you!’
‘Love you, Mum,’ he mouthed back, without saying it. His father was out of sight already. A moment later and she was gone as well. The train was leaving them behind, gathering speed as if it too couldn’t wait to get away from them and all the rest: home, school, London. It was taking him about as far away as you could go without leaving England altogether.
He pulled his bag down onto the table and dug through it until he found the envelope he’d taken that morning from his mother’s desk. The night before, he’d dreamed that he’d gone into her room, opened a drawer, dug around and pulled it out. That was how he’d known where to find it.
She had torn it open. He unfolded the two sheets of paper, briefly surprised to see the tiny, thread-like handwriting. But of course Auntie Gwen wouldn’t use a printer; she wouldn’t have one.
My dear Iz,[there was no date or anything]
Hope you can still make sense of my writing, I know it’s been a while. I’m truly sorry to hear about your troubles, but so, so glad you wrote to me! I think about you all the time, believe it or not, really I do. Being able to help now is like a gift to me. I’m really sorry I just can’t come to London for a whole week with work and things herebutI have another idea, please listen, I really want to do this for you and Nigel and for Gavin too. Why doesn’t he come to stay with me down here while you two are away? Think about it. Please! He’s nearly grown up now, probably more nearly than I am (guessed what you’re thinking didn’t I Iz?)[Here she’d drawn a little smiley face, and drawn it very well: it had Auntie Gwen’s rather long chin and longer hair, and was winking.]
I’m sure he’ll manage the journey down. You said he seems just the same as always so there can’t be anything to worry about for a few hours on a train. I can meet him at the station in Truro so he won’t even have to tune in enough to do the change.
I’d be just so delighted to have him stay here and maybe it will do him good to get away for a bit.[He grinned. Neither Mum nor Auntie Gwen could have begun to imagine exactly how good he was feeling.]This is the kind of place that really might be perfect for him. And he and I always got on well. I know it’s been a while since I’ve been up but I still send him those postcards sometimes so he won’t have forgotten all about me.[The grin turned to a frown. He’d never had a postcard from Auntie Gwen, or not for years anyway.]It’s not the ends of the earth here, there are good people around to help if anything happens. I know how much you and Nigel must be looking forward to your trip, really, why not let me do this and you can just not worry for a few days?
To be honest there may not be anything to worry about anyway, you and I know what Gav is like, it’s probably just something the school people hadn’t seen before but for us it would just be Gav being Gav! Wish they’d told you what it was though, that seems so unfair, it makes it so much harder for you. Iz I really wish I could be there and just give you a big hug. Please try not to get upset, I know, easy for me to say, but I’ve always known there was something special about your boy, in a good way, the best.[Gav paused and for a while thought of nothing at all, while the city’s weed-strewn margins swished by.]Anyway, please think about it, no I mean pleasedoit, give yourself a rest and me the pleasure of seeing my nephew and Gavin a break too. It’s a bit short notice but it’ll work, all you have to do is write back to let me know and just tell Gav I’ll meet him on Monday at 16.48 at Truro station. It really isn’t that easy for me to get to a phone – you and Nigel must find it hard to believe – but anyway, the postdoeswork fine[here the writing reached the end of the second sheet and had to cramp itself even more and turn up the side of the page.]oops no room, I love you Iz, peace to N and G, write back quickly! XO G
The cross-stroke of the last ‘G’ was lengthened out into something like a tiny dragon’s tail, its arrowheaded tip just squeezed into the top corner of the sheet. He was staring at it but not seeing it.
It had taken him a lot longer than weird Aunt Gwen to work out that there was ‘something special’ about him. For all but the last few of his fifteen years he’d had no idea. The special thing, it turned out, was that some of the things that happened to him weren’t supposed to happen. Some bits of his life were allowed – nobody minded them. Others weren’t.
Learning the difference between them had been a miserable experience. He’d had no idea there was anything wrong until everyone started telling him about it, and even then it didn’t really make any sense to him. Distressingly, it was apparently the parts of his life he liked best that shouldn’t actually have been happening. He’d begun finding out about this a few years ago, around the time he’d switched schools. The first symptoms of the change were in the way his parents talked to him. Instead of ‘Oh, really?’ (with a smile), it became ‘Oh, come on, Gav’ (with a frown). Then it was ‘Gavin, I think you’re too old for this now.’ (For what? he’d asked himself. For what?) Then it was ‘Look, Gav, you’ve got to stop all this’, and then ‘I don’t want to hear about this rubbish and frankly neither does anyone else’, and then worse, until the night he’d thought his father was actually going to hurt someone. That night was when he’d finally grasped that the rules of his life had changed for good, without warning, without anyone asking him or telling him why.
He’d got up that night and gone along to his parents’ room because Miss Grey had told him Mum was dead.
Miss Grey hardly ever said anything at all. Never, really, unless you counted when he was asleep, and even then the things she said were a bit strange and confusing and hard to get hold of, the way dreams are, though he always felt he understood what she meant. But that night, for once, the words had been quite clear:The sun rises on your mother’s grave. He woke up straight away, worried. He knew his mother couldn’t actually be dead or have a grave because she’d been listening to the radio as he dozed off – he’d heard it downstairs – but he couldn’t help feeling anxious. He sometimes dreamed things before they happened, and those dreams always had Miss Grey in them. So he went along to their bedroom and opened the door.
Rustling bedclothes and then Dad’s head popped up abruptly. ‘Gavin? What the bloody hell are you doing?’
‘Is Mum OK?’
‘What? Christ, what time is it?’
‘Mum?’ But his mother hadn’t answered, and he couldn’t hear her breathing. All he could see was a dark lump in the duvet, like a mound of earth. He panicked and switched the light on.
‘Ow! What are you . . . ?’ Bleary and blotchy, his father cringed from the light, but for a horrible few moments Mum hadn’t moved at all and Gav had been utterly certain he’d dreamed the truth again. His first thought was that now he’d be living alone in the house with Dad, an idea of such deadly horror it made him screech.
And then of course the lump had moved and she had pushed herself up, messy and fogged with the confusion of sudden waking. ‘Gavin? What’s wrong?’
He started to cry.
His mother sat up and beckoned him, smoothing her hair. He climbed over the bed to her. ‘Oh, for God’s sake,’ his father grumbled, and she kept saying, ‘What’s wrong?’ halfway between anxious and exasperated. ‘What’s wrong now?’
‘I thought you were dead.’
‘Jesus Christ.’ His father fumbled for the bedside clock, pulled it to his eyes, groaned.
‘What? Gav, Gav! Silly boy. Whatever gave you such a horrible idea?’
And because this had all been four or five years back, and he hadn’t yet learned what he wasn’t allowed to say, and also because he’d been scared witless for the awful seconds before she’d woken up, the truth came out.
‘Miss Grey said. She said my mother was dead.’
His father slammed the alarm clock down on his bedside table hard enough to break it and shouted, ‘I’ve fucking had enough!’ which was terrifying because until then Gav had thought swearing was just a naughty joke. Even more terrifying was his mother’s reaction. She’d frozen, gone white like someone caught in a searchlight, and then instead of holding her arms out to Gavin, she sort of shrank in on herself, her eyes inexplicably fearful. His father was bellowing at him to get out, bellowing and swearing and thumping the table, and as Gav scrambled back to his own room he heard the shouting go on behind him beyond the slammed door, until in the end Mum shrieked, ‘I haven’t! I haven’t!’ so loudly that they must have realised the racket they were making because they stopped, leaving Gav sitting bolt upright in his bed, perched stiff as if trying not to fall.
Even before that night he’d begun to understand that his parents didn’t like him talking about Miss Grey. It annoyed them that they couldn’t see her. That was fair enough once he thought about it, though they needn’t have felt bad since no one else could see her either, as far as he could tell; but then that had always been true, so he didn’t see why it should bother them all of a sudden. When he’d been smaller, he’d often listened to them laughingly explaining about his imaginary friend, if he’d happened to mention her to someone. ‘Oh, that’s his imaginary friend.’ It was, he learned, the proper term for someone like Miss Grey. Other children had imaginary friends, or at least some of them presumably did, although he soon found out that he didn’t know any. Also, none of the kids he did know liked being asked about the subject, though that made sense to him because he didn’t like being asked about Miss Grey either.
It was a bit tricky explaining about her since she didn’t behave at all like other people. He guessed this was probably the point about imaginary friends. They were secret, special. The only person he’d ever known who really liked to talk about her was Auntie Gwen, and Auntie Gwen liked it so much Gavin found her eagerness a bit embarrassing, and usually tried to change the subject.
‘Is Miss Grey her real name?’
Um, it’s just what I always call her, you know, like the people who look after you instead of Mummy at the school were called Miss Sandra or Miss Mara so I thought she was like that, except she didn’t say her name so I made up Miss Grey ’cos she’s quite grey.
‘What games do you like to play with her?’
Um we don’t really play games, we just sort of—
‘Does she tell you stories?’
Oh yes! Well, sort of.
You know. Funny things. Um anyway it’s not really like telling stories. Can we get an ice cream before we go home?
‘Can you see her now?’ (Miss Grey smiled a little and shook her head.) No. I like plain Magnums.
After the horrible night with the shouting and banging, Gavin became much more wary of mentioning her to anyone. He was angry with her, for the first time. He thought she’d lied to him about Mum, which made the shouting her fault, not his. It was weird and disturbing, anyway, because he was used to her being right about everything. Also, something had happened between his parents, not just the screaming. Even the next morning he could feel it wasn’t right. When they spoke to each other the silences between had a funny crackle to them.
His mother sat him down the next day for one of her serious conversations. Did he understand that he couldn’t say things like that? Didn’t he realise that it upset people? Mummy and Daddy love you very much. And: ‘Gavin, you do understand that Miss Grey isn’t real, don’t you?’
‘Yes, Mum.’ Yes, he did. ‘Real’ meant the things Mum and Dad were interested in: newspapers and cricket and the carpet and money and all that. ‘Not real’ were the things they couldn’t see and didn’t really have any interest in, like stories and Miss Grey and the inside birds and the funny people he sometimes caught glimpses of. He’d learned this distinction early on and accepted it, like the difference between red and blue.
‘Well, then, do you think maybe it’s time to say goodbye to Miss Grey?’
Gav was old enough to know immediately that Mum meant something more than what she’d said. Obviously her question was stupid, since you only said goodbye to someone when they were going away, but he didn’t say that out loud. As always with the serious conversations that you had to sit down for, she was actually talking about something completely different, some other unspoken issue involving mysterious unhappiness and blame. He knew from experience that if he made the wrong guess as to what the real subject was, she’d either start crying or send him off in that particular way that made him feel like he’d done something horrible.
‘I just think you’re too old now to spend so much time playing a game like that.’
He got it in a flash. He was supposed to become a different person. She wanted him to get more excited about carpets and newspapers and money. She wanted him to be more like Dad. She was telling him to ‘grow up’.
‘So, can you try not to talk about her any more? All right? Gavin? Would it help if we wrote her a goodbye letter? Perhaps we can think of all the adventures she’s going to have now. Places she can go instead. She might like not being stuck in London.’
He nodded, because silent agreement was the best way to end the serious conversations as quickly as possible, but secretly he thought this whole plan ridiculous. Miss Grey wasn’t at all the type to go on adventures. She wasn’t like someone in a book.
‘You’re not going away, are you?’ he asked her, the next time he saw her. They were standing on the railway footbridge he crossed on his way back from school, in a sullen drizzle. She looked at him with her almost-sad face and held her hands out, cupped, gathering a puddle of rainwater. She bent and blew gently on the water, then opened her hands a fraction, letting it trickle away onto the tracks.
‘Please don’t,’ he said, feeling sick. ‘Please don’t leave me with Mum and Dad.’
She made the cup again, but this time held it up over his head. He leaned back to see what she was doing and flinched as she dribbled the rain over his mouth. When he licked his lips there was a dark taste, a lonely taste, but despite that he was reassured. Though she never said a word except in dreams, he understood what she meant most of the time, like he understood some other things that didn’t speak, and he knew that she was promising he wouldn’t have to ‘grow up’ at home without her, even if the darkness and loneliness were coming.
Unfortunately the growing-up happened all by itself, whether he liked it or (as was the case) not.
As the months and years went by, Gavin stopped pleading with her not to leave him. He stopped speaking to her at all. He stayed away from the empty quiet corners, the lanes behind back-garden fences and the mud and scrub of the towpath along the river, those untended nooks and crannies of the city where the things that weren’t supposed to happen most often seemed to happen. He was learning, rapidly, that they weren’t just against his parents’ rules, but broke some other set of rules as well, some huge body of law that didn’t only apply at home but was mysteriously in place everywhere else too: school, on holiday, parties, anywhere that people gathered. He had a feeling the regulations would have been relaxed if Auntie Gwen had been around, but Auntie Gwen never came to stay any more, because, he gradually discovered, she wasn’t invited. Perhaps she was as illegal as Miss Grey. He couldn’t guess. No one ever explained the system to him.
The imaginary-friend idea had to be discarded. Apparently that was just a silly thing little kids did, on a level with Mum’s stupid idea about writing Miss Grey a letter. What was she, then? A ghost? Boys at school talked about ghosts. There were stories about them, lots of them: he read all the ones he could find. None of the things in the stories sounded anything like Miss Grey.
‘How do you know ghosts don’t exist?’ he asked one evening at dinner.
His father put his glass down and went very still. Gav had thought he was being clever, finding a way to talk about Miss Grey without actually mentioning her, but it was immediately evident that Dad had sussed him out, and Mum knew it too. The funny crackle appeared in the air over the table.
‘Well,’ said his mother carefully, ‘it’s science, I suppose, isn’t it? I mean, we know the world works a certain way. There’s all those ways you can prove that certain things must be true and so you know ghosts can’t be. Like going through walls. Appearing and disappearing. They’re just not possible.’
‘Derek says he’s seen one.’
‘Lots of people say they’ve seen one,’ his father said.
‘So they’re just wrong?’
‘They’re just idiots,’ said Dad, at the same time as Mum said, ‘People can think they’ve seen something, but we know they actually can’t have. Not what they think they saw. So perhaps Derek imagined something or, I don’t know, saw something in a weird light or—’
‘Or he’s an idiot.’
‘Nigel, please. Or maybe he likes telling stories.’
‘Oh yes, I forgot that one. He could be a liar instead of an idiot.’
‘For God’s sake, Nigel.’
The crackle got so loud Gavin thought he could actually hear it in his ears, as well as in his fingertips and stomach and the skin of his cheeks.
‘Anyway,’ his mother went on, fiddling with the stem of her wine glass, ‘people only believed in things like that because they didn’t know better.’
‘So how do they know better?’
‘By going to expensive schools,’ said his father. ‘Though it’s obviously not working for Derek.’
‘I give up,’ she said.
Gavin sat and ate until the crackle got so bad it was hurting and then went to his room.
The next time he saw Miss Grey – it was three or four days later, at school; she was standing holding her drab cloak tight around her, in a far corner of the visitors’ car park, watching him – he tried knowing better. Even though he could see perfectly clearly that she was there, as usual, he decided to know that she wasn’t. It was like trying to know the cars weren’t there, or the trees behind them. It was like persuading himself that he didn’t exist.
So that was how Gavin began to realise that there was something special about himself.
At the same time that the real things – home, school, his mother and father, being eleven and then twelve and then thirteen – got worse, the things that weren’t real got worse too. His dreams started to change, in confusing ways. Sometimes he longed for Miss Grey to come back into them, because in dreams he thought she could touch him as well as say things to him, but sometimes he dreaded it because the darkness and loneliness had come closer. He still occasionally had the sensation of dreaming things that were going to happen, but now instead of simple things like a fox in the garden or a hailstorm or Mum losing her glasses, the dreams were full of dark birds with beaks the colour of fire, or smoke hanging over a city, or an Eskimo girl tending a dying whale on a cold beach: things that couldn’t happen, and yet the feeling that they were real and waiting for him was even stronger than in the old come-true-tomorrow dreams. There was a change in Miss Grey too. It was like she knew he was trying to get rid of her and now it was her turn to plead with him not to leave. He found it harder and harder to remember on waking the words she’d spoken in his dreams, but at the same time it felt more and more urgent that he listen. The more he tried to ignore or forget whatever it was that was different about himself, the tighter it pressed in on him.
‘Go away,’ he said to Miss Grey, one February afternoon. It was twilight. She was squatting on the concrete coping at the edge of the towpath, trailing her fingers in the river: the tide was very high. He’d planned to just walk past, but instead he marched right up to her. He saw the way the silty water eddied around her hand, making little whorls and troughs, just the way science said it should.
‘Just go away. OK? Leave me alone.’
Without looking at him, she picked up a twig and lowered it gently into the water. The falling tide was running steadily, sucking its burden of leaves and litter downstream, but the twig did not move. Tiny wavelets broke over its tip, as if it was anchored. Miss Grey picked up another, longer stick. She turned to look up at Gavin as she placed the second twig beside the first. Then she spread her fingers wide above the river as the current took hold of them both and carried them away together.
‘I don’t care,’ Gav said. ‘Forget it. I don’t want to go with you. I don’t care any more. I just want you to get out of my life.’
A dog sniffed at his trousers. He jerked round and saw the jogger who went with the dog. She stared for a second as she splashed past.
‘Why are you doing this to me?’ he hissed, when the jogger was out of earshot. ‘Why me? Why can’t I be like everyone else?’
She lifted her hands from the water and shuffled round to the muddy earth where Gav stood. He watched as she began to stroke the mud, erasing the mess of footprints, her small, rough hands quickly becoming caked black. When she’d made a smooth patch as wide as a sycamore leaf, she picked up another twig and dug a little curved furrow in the mud.
‘Forget it,’ Gav said, and walked past and went home.
But he couldn’t forget it. That was his whole problem. Try as he might, he couldn’t know better. So the next time he went down to the towpath, a day or two later, he stopped at the place where she’d squatted. There, among the churned mud and gravel, was the tablet of smoothed earth, and in it a word had been engraved, like writing in the sand on a beach.
Gavin stared at it for a long time. Then he stamped his shoe into it.
Time weighed on him. He no longer spoke to her at all, ever. His dreams were a whirl of turbid darkness lit by fire, full of prophetic voices clamouring in alien speech. He was fourteen and miserable. The expensive school did its work and he at last knew that Miss Grey should not exist, that she was impossible, that the fact that he kept on seeing her was like an error in a calculation, a tear in the canvas of a painting, a misprint. He understood that if he tried to explain his life to anyone, the only thing they’d be able to think was that there was something seriously wrong with him. There was, surely, something seriously wrong with him. But because it had always been there, it was impossible for him to imagine how it was wrong.
And as for these things happeningin a good way, the best. . . Gavin pushed his aunt’s letter back into its envelope and scrunched his eyes shut for a moment, wincing at the memory of his conversation with Mr Bushy the week before last.
He’d eventually decided to ask someone what he was doing wrong, someone as unlike his father as he could find.
It had not gone well and now here he was.
The train, he realised, was slowing.
He tossed his bag onto the seat next to him, stretched his legs under the table as far as he could in the hope of obstructing the opposite seat too and pretended to be asleep. He felt the stop. Big doors clicked open and clunked shut; voices filled the carriage; luggage slithered into overhead racks. The sounds all seemed to pass him by, and once they were thrumming along again at full speed, he opened his eyes.
To his irritation, an old woman had managed to sit down in the window seat opposite, not put off by his protruding shoes. She was leaning her chin in her hand and gazing out of the window, but she caught his look reflected there and gave a very brief smile, enough to make him feel like he had to sit up and pull his legs out of the way. This was a kind of defeat, which irritated him even more. She wasn’t actually an old woman, he now saw – middle-aged (to Gavin, at fifteen, this meant anything between three and four times his age), but with old-fashioned-looking hair that was all grey, and a floppy brown jumper. The smile had been quick and sharp.
Better get the earphones in, he thought, and reached into his bag. The woman didn’t have a paperback or knitting or photos of her grandchildren or any of the other things Gavin imagined middle-aged ladies occupying themselves with on trains – no luggage at all, he noticed, let’s hope that means she’s not going far – so it seemed best not to leave open any possibility of conversation. He fitted the earphones, slumped in his seat again and stared out of the window, adopting the hard and indifferent face that he used on the way to and from school.
Used to use.
Nothing that might have belonged to home was in sight. No streetlights, no houses, no people. A low, dull sky lay over winter fields and stubbly hedges. As the dour landscape rolled past, he began trying to imagine how far he was from his parents. He checked his watch every half-hour or so until he guessed he’d come to the exact moment when they were being lifted off the earth, no longer attached at all to the country where he was. They’d probably be almost as relieved as him to have escaped. Mum would be worrying, but she’d never be able to say so, not for a single moment of the whole week. (‘I amnotgoing to let that boy spoil our time together.’) Auntie Gwen didn’t have a computer or even a phone. She lived in one of those knobbly green fingers at the very outer limits of the map. The most his mother had been able to make him promise was to find somewhere he could get reception every day or two and leave messages back at home. He pictured her having to slip away from Dad, smuggling her mobile into a bathroom so she could ring to check them. A couple of years ago that kind of thought would have upset him. Now he just let it go, sent it away with his parents. Once he’d realised they didn’t want to know about his unhappiness, he’d stopped caring much about theirs.
The landscape grew rougher at the edges as the journey wore on. The track passed under hillsides where the fields ran out near the top and patches of scrubby brown rose above them. This was nothing like what his family called the countryside, which meant the bit around where his other aunt – Dad’s sister – lived, just far enough away that going there for Sunday lunch took absolutely all day, but near enough that they thought it was reasonable to keep doing it. The country around there looked as if it had been assembled out of accessories from Gav’s old train set: barn, fence, tree, cow, telephone box, placed indiscriminately over a green cloth with a few ripples in it. What Gav saw out of the window now couldn’t ever be shrunk into plastic miniatures. London felt very far away, and now, for certain, his parents were in the air and gone (he looked at his watch again to make sure, but it had stopped), and his week of freedom was properly under way.
After a long while they came to another station. He thought about faking sleep again, but the woman opposite had pulled a book out of her handbag by now, some sort of nature guide, and was safely absorbed in it. More people left the carriage than joined. Gavin knew from the maps that he was reaching the point where England began to taper out, thinning into the sea.
And there it was: the sea. It took him by surprise. It was suddenly right by the tracks. There was a narrow strand of beach, where a few well-wrapped people had stopped their walk to watch the train go past, and beyond that, nothing: a huge, calm, open plain of emptiness mirroring the underside of pencil-grey clouds. On the other side of the train, cliffs the colour of grimy brick rose like walls.
For the first time since he’d been on the train, he thought about having to make the return journey, in just a week’s time; having to go back to it all.
The train swooshed into a tunnel and, abruptly, Gavin was staring at the inside of the carriage in the window. He’d been captivated by the sea, his guard was down, and he realised too late that his eyes were accidentally directed straight at the reflection of the woman opposite, and hers, reflected, were directed back at him.
‘It always makes me jump,’ she said.
He cursed inwardly. He’d made it this far without getting trapped in some pointless conversation with a stranger and didn’t want to spoil the rest of his precious time on his own by starting one now.
‘Mmm.’ He didn’t know what she was talking about and didn’t care. He looked down at his lap.
‘It’s the best bit of the journey, though. The sea and all the tunnels. I always remember thinking that once you got past here you were properly in the southwest.’
‘Oh yeah?’ He made himself sound as uninterested as possible and reached across into his bag to fiddle ostentatiously with his phone, but it didn’t stop her.
‘I used to love those journeys on my own when I was a girl. Just watching out of the window. There was nothing worse than when some old bore opposite wanted to talk.’
He reddened, more angry than embarrassed. ‘Hah,’ he grunted, with a forced smile.
‘Are you going to Cornwall?’
A direct question. No way he could brush it off.
‘Ah! My stop too.’
Great. ‘Oh right.’ He was stuck with her the whole way. He opened a game on his phone, in the hope of demonstrating that he had better things to do than listen to her chatter, but it made no difference. She pulled a tube of mints out of her handbag and picked off the foil.
‘Are you on your way home, then? Polo?’
‘Er, no, thanks. Nah, I live in London.’ He cursed himself again. That might have been his last chance to cut this conversation off before it really got going and he’d said more than he needed to. He’d blown it.
‘Hmm. It hasn’t been home for me since I was a girl, but I suppose it is now. I’m going native, as you see.’ She tapped the cover of her book. It was calledA Field Guide to Cornwall’s Wildlife. He didn’t understand and didn’t want to. ‘You’ve been before? Family in Truro?’
If she’d obviously just been making small talk, he might have kept on grunting rudely and then clammed up, but there was a patient curiosity in her questions that he couldn’t seem to escape. ‘Nah, not properly. When I was a baby, once. Think we went to a beach somewhere.’
‘Oh well, this is better really. Summer has its uses, but a beach is a beach is a beach. I always try to come back in autumn or winter. The wind and the rain. It’s not the holidays yet, though, is it?’
The possibility of a reprieve flashed in front of him. Perhaps the truth would do the trick and put her off. He met her eyes and tried to look belligerent.
‘Not yet. I got kicked out of school.’
For a moment it looked as if he’d succeeded. ‘Oh,’ she said, looking down and up quickly. Then she sat back with a huge smile. ‘How funny! Me too.’
He must have gawped. She leaned forward, right across the table, grinning a grin that belonged on the face of a conspiratorial teenager. ‘Never mind. I’ll shut up now. Good luck to you.’ She patted the back of his hand and, still smiling, picked up her book and sucked her mint.
He looked around the carriage, wondering about switching to another seat. She didn’t look like a crazy person. Quite the opposite, in fact: there was a brightness in her expression that made her look younger than the rest of her appearance suggested she was, and an air of subdued amusement that reminded him slightly of Mr Bushy, who was the cleverest person Gav knew. Maybe that was what stopped him from getting up and moving, though he told himself he was being an idiot, that she might start up again at any moment. But there weren’t lots of empty seats. He might end up stuck next to someone just as bad.
He’d just about managed to relax again when she blinked up from her book and looked out at the hills, frowning slightly.
‘We’re still a while from Plymouth, aren’t we?’ she said, apparently to herself.
Taking no chances, Gavin slumped right back in his seat and half closed his eyes.
She craned her neck to peer up and down the line. ‘I’m sure I haven’t seen Ivybridge go by . . .’
The train was slowing; that was what had bothered her. As it braked to a crawl, the noise of its passage grew suddenly louder, and the windows went black. They eased deeper into the tunnel and stopped.
A group of kids at the far end of the carriage did a mock-spooky wail, ‘Oooo-ooooo.’ Gav turned up the volume on his music.
He didn’t hear the details of the driver’s apologetic announcement. Something about a temporary electrical problem. The kids groaned in chorus.
Abruptly the lights in the carriage all went out. At the same instant the music in Gav’s ears stopped dead.
There was an instant of complete darkness and silence, and then the carriage filled with little shrieks and giggles and conversations starting up too loudly. There was no light at all, not the slightest glimmer. Gav felt across to his bag, wondering if his earphones had come unplugged. They hadn’t. He pulled them out of his ears. His hands felt sweaty.
A hideous cry erupted out of the dark.
Gavin cringed, his raised arms invisible in front of his face. The scream had been right on top of him.
Otototoi! Otototoi! Popoi! Popoi!
He was nauseous with terror. The hum of nervous chatter in the carriage continued, though the appalling shouts ought to have crushed it. He jammed his hands over his ears and cowered. At that moment someone further down the carriage switched on a torch. There was a massAhhhhas the wobbly white light appeared.
The woman opposite was staring at him, her face in shadow.
In the seat next to her another woman was sitting, and Gavin knew at once that it was Miss Grey. He knew her by the silhouette of her tangled hair and by the shape of her cloaked shoulders and her thin arms braced on the table in front of her. He knew her by something else as well, the intimacy of fifteen years; he felt her close to him like his own reflection. But he’d never seen her indoors before, and beyond his dreams he had never seen a word come out of her mouth, barely even a breath, let alone the full-throated inhuman howl of madness that she threw out again.
Gavin couldn’t stop himself flinching. He was acutely aware of the eyes of the woman opposite. Shame burned him. He tried to shift round in his seat and fold his arms, as if all he’d been doing was getting comfortable. It was plain that no one else had heard Miss Grey’s deranged howling. No one but him was haunted; no one but him was cursed. He had no idea what he’d done to earn this new punishment, or why she now had the power to pursue him inside and scream in his ear. He glimpsed a terrible future in which she wouldn’t stop until she’d driven him out of his mind, properly crazy, as Mr Bushy obviously thought he already was.
He hugged himself tight and screwed his eyes shut.
The carriage lights came on.
Gavin tried to focus on his breathing. Don’t look up, don’t say anything, don’t meet anyone’s eyes. He was afraid that if the nosy woman asked him what was wrong, he might slap her.
‘Ladies’n’gennlmun,’ began an announcement, ‘thizzizr driver speakin, we dopologise for ’zshor’delay, uh faulznowbin fixt’n’ we’ll beyonrway veryshor’y than’you.’
The train crept into motion.
It was Miss Grey’s voice. He recognised it from his dreams and yet he’d never properly heard it before, not the actual sound, the disturbance of the air. ‘Come.’ A woman’s voice, as rough and grey as she was, yet with a strength to it, the way her stillness always seemed alarmingly strong. It wanted to prise his eyelids open.
‘He comes. They come.’
Oh God, he thought. Not now, not here. Don’t look up, he told himself, clenching his teeth. Just don’t look.
‘The feasters gather.’
He didn’t dare move or scream. He was sitting at one end of a train carriage with people all around him, ordinary people, the other kind. There was nothing he could do.
‘The destroyer and his gift. It has begun.’ The words sounded like they were being spat out of her throat. As the train picked up speed, they seemed to rhyme with the clackety-clack of the rails, insistent drumming gibberish. ‘An open door. A closed circle. The sky is open. Drop down, drop down. His mother’s sister is flown. His mother’s sister is gone. His father is named destroyer. He will bear no child. He will bear my burden. It hurts. It hurts!Otototoi!’ Now it was not a rattling scream, but part of the babble. ‘He comes, he comes. The gift, the burden. Truth hurts.Iew, iew, ohh ohh kakka.Come. Come.’
There was a clumsy rustle opposite. The irritating woman was getting up. Gavin stole a look to be sure and out of the corner of his eye saw her squeezing past the seat in which Miss Grey had appeared. Miss Grey pulled her knees up out of the way, under her cloak. No one was looking at him. Gav raised his eyes cautiously and saw that the woman’s eyes were red and her face drained of colour. She stumbled past the luggage racks and out of the carriage.
Miss Grey stared at him, arms round her shins, mouth open but emptied of its freight of meaningless words.
‘Come,’ she said.
He couldn’t make himself accept that he was seeing her here, under bland electric light, her calloused and filthy bare feet perched on the edge of an upholstered seat. She looked like an escaped extra from a mediaeval costume drama. Under her dark grey cloak she wore shapeless rags. Her bird’s-nest hair was grimy, soot-black. Only in her face was there something vividly, terribly actual, something unfeigned.
‘Come,’ she said again.
Gav glanced around. No one seemed to be looking his way. The couple across the aisle were absorbed in a crossword. He leaned across the table.
‘Go away,’ he said, between his teeth. His cheeks were burning.
‘Come,’ she repeated. She was like a bird. Her eyes had that opaque glitter. The word sounded meaningless when she uttered it: just a squawk.
‘Please,’ he said. He stared into her face, between the shrouding curtains of her hair. He was afraid he was going to cry. ‘Leave me alone. I can’t take it.’
Her head jutted forward. ‘You must take it,’ she said. ‘You must take it. Come to me. Take it.’
The sliding door hissed. Without taking her eyes off him, Miss Grey leaned right back and pulled her knees tight, and the nosy woman wriggled back across in front of her to the window seat.
Gavin didn’t know where to look. For a moment he’d been sure Miss Grey really had been talking to him, telling him something, when he’d least expected it. In his turmoil of stifled misery he’d barely taken in the words. He turned to the window, cradling his head in his hands, and saw dismal terraced suburbs beginning to appear on the lower slopes of the hills. Get a grip, he told himself. Get a grip.
The train was slowing again, coming into a larger town. A few people stood up and began putting on coats, gathering by the end of the carriage. Their chatter and commotion made him feel fractionally safer and he risked a glance around. To his surprise and relief, he saw Miss Grey getting up from her seat.
‘He comes,’ he heard her murmur. ‘He comes. They gather. This night you go free.’
She eased among the small crowd waiting to get off. The train pulled in. He watched as the press of people carried her out of the carriage. No one was aware of her; she slipped like water into the spaces among them. He pressed his face to the glass to see if he could spot her coming out onto the platform, but she’d disappeared.
He felt himself calming down.
The carriage was much emptier as they left the station behind. Outside, daylight was fading. There couldn’t be too much more of the journey to go. It occurred to Gav that he could probably find a pair of seats to himself now, where he could sit alone and try to get himself back together.
He was just about to act on this thought when he felt fingers on his wrist. The middle-aged woman had leaned across close to him. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said in a low voice. ‘I know I said I wouldn’t bother you, but there’s a little thing I feel I should do and it ought to have a witness. It’s rather embarrassing. I’m not usually this batty, I promise.’
He was too dumbfounded to answer at all.
‘It has to be just here, as we go over the bridge. It’ll only take a second.’
He looked out of the window, helplessly following her gaze. They were riding on a viaduct above the streets, leaving the station behind. The winter afternoon, already dim, was darkening fast. Clouds had sunk and were becoming a fog.
‘I’d like you to hear a promise I’m going to make myself. It makes it more official. Bad luck for you that I happened to take this particular seat, hmm? Or something.’ She was talking too rapidly for him to agree to this aloud. ‘Anyway, I hope you don’t mind. I really will shut up after this.’ She extracted a small bottle from her pocket, unscrewing it as she spoke, and poured a little of something that smelled almost but not quite like whisky into the upturned cap. ‘Ah, here we are.’ The town fell away and the train began passing between bulbous steel girders. Gav saw a broad river far below. ‘Right. Here goes. Are you listening?’
He couldn’t think of anything to do but nod.
‘Right. Good. I, Hester Lightfoot, earnestly and solemnly swear never to cross back over this river again so long as I live.’ She swigged the contents of the cap. ‘On pain of death. There, that should do it. Thank you. If you ever happen to see me east of here again, please feel free to . . . oh I don’t know, push me under a bus or something. Would you like a sip?’
The train began to pick up speed, burrowing through the fog.
‘No . . . thanks.’
She screwed the cap back on. ‘Thank you for putting up with that. That was the Tamar. That river. West of it is all Cornwall. I’m coming home, you see, so I thought I’d make it ceremonial.’ She tapped the open page of the book in her lap. ‘Like the choughs. We’re coming back, for good. I’m Hester, by the way, obviously enough.’ She stuck out her hand.
The chuffs? Now Gavin was certain he was sitting at the same table as a lunatic. Grab your bag and move, he told himself, but with her hand right there in front of him he couldn’t.
‘Gavin,’ he said, shaking, furious with himself.
‘Nice to meet you. They say King Arthur’s soul went into a chough after he died.’ She lifted the book onto the table and pointed. ‘For a long time they left. I think people assumed they were gone for ever, but they returned to Cornwall a few years ago. I’m taking them as a good omen.’
Gavin looked down. His vision swam.
The picture Hester had her finger on showed a black bird with a beak the colour of embers and legs of the same vivid ruddy orange. He felt suddenly dizzy. The image was an echo of his dreams, the terrible ones of darkness spotted and streaked with fire and alive with battering wings, a piece of his night world torn out of him and thrust under his eyes. Hester’s words rang weirdly in his head:Good omen, good omen.
‘Are you all right?’
She had closed the book. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes.
‘I’m sorry. I—’
‘’s OK. Forget it.’
She studied him with disconcertingly steady interest. ‘All right, then. And now no more madwoman business. I promise.’ She put one finger to her lips and leaned back in her seat.
Gavin wasn’t sure how far he could trust that promise, so he closed his eyes, inwardly swearing all the while that if ever he was blessed enough to find himself on another long journey by himself, he’d take a fat book to bury his head in. She was as good as her word, though, which was fortunate, because he found it hard to do a convincing impression of going to sleep. He was so afraid Miss Grey might reappear on the train while his eyes were closed that he couldn’t relax at all. After a while he stopped trying. His phone appeared to have run out of power, like his watch, though he’d charged it that morning. There was nothing to do but gaze out of the window, nowhere else to look.
Tight valleys ghosted past in the darkening fog. They stopped at stations that seemed almost abandoned, platforms sunk down in a bank of wet slates and brambles or overlooked by the backs of dreary houses. After a while he heard the announcement that Truro would be the next stop. Most of the few remaining people in the carriage were gathering up belongings. He took his bag and went to stand by the door. Someone had pushed the window down. The wheels hissed loudly and the chill air smelled of wet bark. There was almost no light left in the sky.
He saw Hester Lightfoot join the queue by the door, but she seemed to have lost interest in him. In fact, there was an oddly blank look on her face, as if she’d lost interest in everything. Her lips moved a little; she was talking to herself soundlessly. When the train stopped with a slight jerk, she nearly fell over, muttering as she grabbed the luggage rack.
Gavin stepped down to the platform, looking around quickly for Auntie Gwen. The station clock showed they were only a couple of minutes late. People hurried, mostly silently, towards the exit, on their way to somewhere more welcoming. He didn’t see his aunt, so he followed the flow out through a ticket hall to the street.
A few cars idled in front of the station, but none of them contained Auntie Gwen. The mist that swallowed headlights and rear lights up and down the road might as well have marked the edge of the world.
He went back to check the platform again. A clump of people had formed at the far end, most of them school kids, though he noticed Hester Lightfoot there as well. He wanted to avoid the other kids almost as much as he wanted to be out of sight of her, so he sat on the least illuminated bench he could find and waited until the last of the passengers had scurried away.
Minutes passed. No Auntie Gwen.
The night and the cold closed around him.
Gavin had madetwo more trips out of the station to check the road when he returned to the bench to find the crazy woman standing beside it.
‘You look like you’ve been stood up,’ she said.
He was about to slip behind his usual no-it’s-OK-I’m-fine routine, until it occurred to him that when she was so obviously right, denying it would sound stupid. Besides, he’d been waiting for more than twenty minutes and was beginning to wonder what he was going to do.
‘Looks like it, yeah. It’s my aunt. Being late, it’s her thing.’
‘Your aunt, did you say?’ An odd frown wrinkled her face for a moment.
‘May I ask . . . is she a maternal or paternal aunt?’
Gavin hesitated, suspecting some sort of odd joke, but Hester seemed to mean it.
‘My mum’s sister. Maternal aunt.’
‘Ah. Idle curiosity only. Is she coming a long way, then?’
‘Not sure. I’ve never been around here before. Dunno where her place is. It’s, um . . .’ and he unzipped his bag and dug out the letter again. ‘Here,’ he said, holding the back of the envelope under one of the grimy platform lights so they could see the scribbled address.
‘Pendurra! Goodness me, how very grand.’
Grand? he thought. Auntie Gwen?
‘That’s a bit of a journey. Mind you, most places are a bit of a journey from there. Are you related to the Urens, then? How inexcusably nosy of me, I am sorry, but then after badgering you on the train I’ve already made an idiot of myself so I might as well keep at it.’
‘No, no, I’m not . . . Er, Aunt Gwen’s not from here, she came to live here a while ago. I think she’s like a housekeeper there or something.’
Hester Lightfoot looked past his shoulder for a moment and then her eyes widened. ‘Oh yes! Yes, someone told me once that her name was Guinivere. Small woman, always dresses in black, lots of bangles, rather . . . distinctive character?’ Gavin was nodding. ‘I should say I don’t know her myself,’ Hester went on. ‘Everyone says she’s very nice, just not the norm for that corner of the county, it’s a little more predictable . . . But anyway! Isn’t that odd? I know your aunt, almost. I don’t think anyone knew she even had a family.’
He’d wished her away over and over on the train, but now Gavin found himself quite relieved to be talking to her.
‘Looks like she forgot about her family this evening, at least,’ he said.
She was obviously so amazed to hear him make even half a joke that she examined him doubtfully before chuckling.
‘Hmm. Well, I’m sure you won’t mind me saying, but she does have a bit of a reputation. It’s probably entirely undeserved. I suspect the locals think she’s unreliable just because they’ve seen her wearing purple lipstick. Did you try ringing her?’
‘Nah. She hasn’t got a phone.’
‘Of course not. Have you checked to see if she left a message?’
It would never have occurred to him, and he admitted it.
She went into the ticket hall, and he heard her talking through a partition to the one person on duty. She took longer about it than he expected and eventually he went in after her.
‘. . . So if she does show up you can let her know that I’ve given him a lift already? . . . Hester Lightfoot. Here – I’ll write it down’ – she found a pen on a string and the back of an abandoned ticket – ‘and my number too, but if she comes, you can just tell her Professor Lightfoot picked him up. All right? . . . Thanks very much.’ She pushed the ticket through the window and turned back to Gavin. ‘No message for you, and I don’t see why you should have to hang about here in the cold when I’m going the same direction anyway. I hope you don’t mind. We just have to take the branch line a few stops and then I can drive you round to Pendurra. It’s only a little further for me, and I know the very house where your aunt lives. Quite a coincidence. I’m not sure I haven’t even been inside it, ages ago. Anyway, it sounds as if my train has finally arrived. Do come with me. It’ll save you having to wait who knows how long.’ She led him back along the platform.
The school kids were noisily pushing inside a still noisier train that had just chugged in. Hester took a few more steps that way, then saw that Gav had stopped following. She turned back until she was peering intently at him from rather too close. Her expression had become startlingly earnest again, full of something that he hadn’t expected to see there and couldn’t fathom.
‘It’s all a bit peculiar, I know. To say the least. But do let me give you a lift. Please. Fellow travellers.’
Caught off-guard, and used to enforced consent, he mumbled some kind of incoherent agreement.
‘Good, wonderful!’ she said, snapping back into the bright and unembarrassed mode he’d assumed was her natural state. ‘The branch-line train doesn’t leave for another few minutes. If you want to let anyone know . . .’
Gavin had completely forgotten promising Mum he’d leave a message from the station. He reddened, realising what he’d have to say.
‘Oh yeah, good thought, thanks. Oh wait, is there a payphone or something? Mine’s not charged.’
‘I think there’s one in the café.’
‘Ah, thanks. I’ll catch you up?’
The station café was empty of everyone but a couple of well-wrapped pensioners, morbidly stirring their tea. Gav stared at the phone. He paused for only a few seconds. That other train would be leaving soon. There was no time to worry about what he was doing.
The past few years of trying to bury his secret life had turned Gavin into a practised liar. By the time his father’s voice had finished reciting its message, he knew what to say.
‘Hi, Mum. I’m calling from the station . . . Got here fine. Auntie Gwen was a bit late, but she just came so, um, we’re leaving now for her place. Ah, oh, by the way, it may be a couple of days before I can leave another message, my phone’s run out and . . . I must have left the charger at home. Apparently Auntie Gwen knows a place I can charge it, but she won’t be going there for a bit. Anyway, whatever, she said not to worry, OK, Mum? So I’m fine, hope you’re having a good time. OK. Bye Mum.’
He ran out of the café, only just remembering his bag. Two minutes later he was squeezed in among the school kids as the train clattered and growled away from the town into the night.
Once or twice in the next half-hour Gavin wondered whether he was about to become the victim in the kind of story you read about in the newspapers. All the pieces were in place. He’d left a message for Mum telling her not to expect to hear from him. He’d gone off with a total stranger. She was, obviously, a nutter. He imagined some old snapshot of himself smiling out from the paper, beside an article detailing the mutilations he’d suffered before his body had been found abandoned in the woods. Nevertheless he kept following. He followed Hester off the train at a tiny station on a hillside above a town. He followed her into a boxy old car, barely listening to her apologies for the clutter and the smell – ‘Oh dear, the mice must have made their way in while I was away’ – and the encouraging monologue she kept up – ‘It really isn’t all that far as the crow flies, hardly any distance at all, but we have to wend our way round the river. Probably half an hour or so. You can’t get much speed up in the lanes and even less when it’s foggy. Who knows, we might run into your aunt coming the other way . . .’ The only time he properly panicked was when the passenger door had clicked shut beside him in the station car park. His hands had balled into fists in his pockets and for a few moments he was convinced that this time he’d made a seriously stupid mistake. As she banged the gearstick into reverse, he was about to throw the door open and jump out, when a phrase she’d used popped into his head:fellow travellers.
By the end of the few seconds it took him to dismiss it as just another of her meaningless oddities, it was too late; they were out on the road and moving.
It was like being driven along a narrow trough at the bottom of the sea. High rough hedges closed in on both sides of the car and the headlights picked out nothing beyond the next winding of the road. Sometimes trees bent over them and the trough became a tunnel, a circle of white mist enclosed in a frame of skeletal branches. Occasionally they would pass a house stranded in the dark, the sight of its solitary windows only making Gav feel more like he was entering a labyrinthine wilderness. Hester, though, seemed sure that this tangle of sunken alleys was taking them somewhere: Pendurra. The way she was talking about it made it sound as if she was pleased to have an excuse to drive that way.
‘. . . same family living there since who knows when. That’s very unusual these days. The old estates, the grand houses with land around them, they’re ruinously expensive, needless to say, and the land doesn’t make money any more. No one knows how they’ve managed to keep it going. Though I gather he did something in the navy. It’s not as if he’s out and about drumming up business opportunities like some of them are. A sight of Tristram Uren these days is rarer than spotting one of those choughs.’
What? he thought, before remembering the illustration from her book.
‘Of course, this being the country, there’s gossip instead. Maybe folklore would be a better word for it. I have at least one near neighbour who’s quite certain there are vaults of pirate gold under the house at Pendurra. In fact that’s probably one of the more plausible rumours I’ve heard. Still, it’s a curious old place. Rather lost in time, if you know what I mean. I’m sure your aunt’s told you all about it? See, now I’m being nosy again. It must be something to do with coming home. I told you I was going native.’
She hadn’t put any kind of question to him for a while, so he reacted slowly.
‘What? Oh no, Aunt Gwen’s not in touch much.’ For an unpleasant moment he remembered the way his father liked to tell stories about her to embarrass his mother. ‘I thought she just sort of helped look after the place.’
Without warning they were under a few scattered streetlights, and the hedges had given way to houses walling in the narrow road. Passing through the village, Gavin saw a cluster of masts.
‘Here, we’re turning round the end of the river now . . . Just have to wiggle along the other side for a few miles. Then you know as much as anyone else does. When your aunt first came to live here – what is it, ten, twelve years ago? – a few people got very overexcited. New and unusual happenings at Pendurra. Or at least something to talk about. It’s all quietened down since then, as it tends to. Once it turned out she did shopping and grew petunias like the rest of us. Though that neighbour, the pirate gold one, still thinks she’s a witch.’
‘She is a witch,’ Gav said. ‘Or says she is. At least she said it to me once.’
‘Oh, is she? Well, it’s the trendy thing, I suppose. I ought to talk to her myself, perhaps she . . .’ The sentence trailed off and left an uncomfortable pause. When Hester got herself going again, a few twists of the road later, she’d relapsed into merely pointing things out as they drove by. To Gavin, it was all just patches of dark, and anyway, he was remembering Auntie Gwen, how she solemnly explained to him as they walked in the park one weekend that she didn’t believe in God but worshipped rowan trees and someone called the Mother. At the time – it had been during the last of her few visits to London, a number of years ago, before the world had turned against him – he’d been happy to listen. He liked the stories she told about animals and trees and the weather, and most of all he liked the feeling of sharing a secret with her. But he’d been confused by the way that whenever the two of them were alone together, she’d start asking him what he saw everywhere, bending down to him with an impossibly eager look in her eyes and whispering things about visible energies. (At first he’d thought she was saying ‘vegetable energies’ and it was to do with giving up meat like she had.) After she’d gone, his parents sat him down and explained that Auntie Gwen was weird, so he forgot about it. Then a bit later on they began telling him –Oh come on Gav– that he was weird too, and he wished he could talk to her, but she wasn’t invited any more.
Now his father and mother were hundreds and hundreds of miles away and he was winding through the night towards her home. The hedges shrunk beside them, the road broadened enough to let two cars pass, and they drove up out of the thin fog. A field of brilliant stars spread overhead, smudged with cloud.
‘Nearly there,’ Hester was saying (as she had been for a good fifteen minutes), but Gavin didn’t care. He didn’t care that he was lost in the dark with a total stranger; he didn’t care that Miss Grey had turned crazy and started screaming nonsense at him on trains. Unutterable joy was consuming him. It seemed to be flooding down from the sky, and each breath he took sucked more of it inside him. It was the feeling he knew from the end of his flying dreams, the moment just before you remember that you have to wake up, but it was as if this one time some kindly lord of the dream had told him the alarm would never go off.
‘. . . and here we are!’
Gav blinked and looked around. He couldn’t recall arriving. He’d missed the last few . . . seconds? Minutes? The car was pulled over by a tall hedge. The headlights showed a straight lane that sloped down ahead. At the fringes of their beam he saw a bare field to the right. To the left, two tall, flat-topped pine trees were shadowed against the faintly lesser dark of the sky. Beneath them, a pair of rough stone posts flanked a driveway leading off into wooded blackness. Beside the driveway, a little way beyond the gateposts, was a house.
Hester Lightfoot had cut off the engine and was getting out. Feeling slightly dizzy, Gavin followed.
A gusting wind blew about. There was nothing to hinder it. In all directions the land fell away gently. Gav thought he knew now what it had been like for the first man on the moon, his foot touching down on the rim of another world, suspended in empty space. He saw a word carved in the nearer gatepost: PENDURRA.
‘Watch out – there’s a cattle grid at the entrance. Tricky in the dark.’ Hester felt her way over the bars without a backwards look. He had no choice but to keep following, until they were on the driveway, staring together at the house. With its cosy eaves and its little latticed windows, it could have modelled for a gingerbread cottage. Though every window was curtained, there were lights on inside, upstairs and down, and under the tiny pointed roof of a porch. Bare, twiggy stems climbed up over this shelter and along the guttering above.
‘There’s a car here,’ Hester said, peering round the far side. ‘And you can smell the woodsmoke. I’m afraid your train just slipped her mind. Or perhaps she got the wrong day. Shall we knock?’ She stepped under the porch, banged on the door and called out, ‘Hello? Ms Clifton? . . . This’ll give her a jump. I doubt she gets too many knocks on the door all the way out here. Still, it’s her fault for forgetting . . . Hello?’ – more banging – ‘Hello?’ Gav went to fetch his bag from the car, suddenly shy about arriving like this, not wanting to witness Aunt Gwen’s surprise and embarrassment.
But Hester was still standing under the porch light when he got back.
‘I suppose we’d better try the door.’ There was an iron latch below the keyhole. She lifted it and pushed. A crack of warm light appeared and brought with it a puff of air heavily scented with smoke.
‘Hello?’ she called again, more tentatively. ‘Ms Clifton? It’s your nephew. I’ve brought him from the station.’ She opened the door wider.
Gav looked over her shoulder into a low-ceilinged room glimmering all over with spots and shards of firelight. If any of its numerous candles had been lit as well as the fire, it would have sparkled like a gem. It was decked out with coloured and translucent stones, strung on lines and hung along the tops of the walls, dangling from sconces. Each of them caught some reflection of the embers. On a grand-looking dining table of dark wood, pillars of scintillating glass held coloured candles, red and purple and cream. On the wall nearest the door there hung what looked like a circular stained-glass window in a frame. Beneath it was a shallow side table covered in burned-out tealights.
Hester’s eyebrows had lifted slightly. ‘Well, at least we can be confident it’s the right house . . . Hello?’ She leaned inside the door and called more loudly. ‘Ms Clifton? Your nephew’s here!’
The draught from the door stirred some of the trailing ornaments. Spots of light pricked over them. Nothing else moved.
‘Oh dear. I’m much too British to go into someone else’s house uninvited . . . Hello? . . . It doesn’t look as if she’s here, does it? But she can’t have gone far. That must be her car outside, and the fire’s lit . . .’ She fiddled with her chunky necklace. ‘Perhaps she had to go down to the main house for a moment. I wonder if we should check. I don’t like to leave you here all alone.’
The words woke Gav from the half-trance he’d fallen into on the journey. Since waving goodbye to his mother, the afternoon had gathered a bizarre momentum of its own, carrying him along with it. Now, though, it had come to rest where he wanted to be. Time to take over.
‘Oh, it’s fine. Don’t worry, I’ll be totally fine now. Aunt Gwen’ll be along in a minute. Fire’s on and everything. I’ll . . . I can just wait for her. No problem. Thanks.’
‘Are you sure? You’ve never been here before, and I think you said there’s no phone. I’d really be very happy to wait with you. God knows I’m not busy, and that way if she doesn’t come for a while I can drive you somewhere to—’
‘No, really. Thanks. It’s OK. And thanks for the ride, that was great, I can’t believe she forgot to pick me up but then I sort of can believe it too if you see what I mean. I’ll be OK now.’ He could see the doubt in her face and began to feel desperate again. ‘I can get myself unpacked while I wait, sort my stuff out.’
‘Well, at least let me come in and make sure there’s food. Or I could give you a ride down to the village. There’s a shop there that stays open lateish, in case you needed anything. She’ll probably be back by the time we return, and I’d certainly feel better—’
Very clearly, another woman’s voice said, ‘Let the boy go in.’
Hester stopped in the middle of her sentence, with her mouth open. There was no one else there. The voice had been close by, soft but rough, just like Miss Grey’s. Gavin looked around for her before he could stop himself, forgetting that Hester was watching him. Then he noticed Hester gaping silently.
She stared back at him as if he’d sprouted an extra head.
‘A-and,’ she stammered, ‘and better if there was someone here, but . . . but all right. If you’re sure. All right, then. I’ll . . . ah,’ and she looked back towards the car in confusion. She turned to go, stopped and faced Gav again. ‘What did you . . . ?’
‘I didn’t say anything. I thought . . .’ He was seized by the urge to get inside and shut the door. Had Hester heard the voice? What else could have startled her like that? ‘Thanks again. Thanks. Bye now.’
‘Well.’ She made a visible effort to recover her composure. ‘Goodbye, then. Tell you what – I’ll come back tomorrow, around this time, just to set my mind at rest.’ He protested distractedly as he picked up his bag and stepped into the house, but she was leaving and he was about to shut Miss Grey out and that was all that mattered now. ‘There, that’s the second time I’ve broken my promise not to bother you any more.’ He was just closing the door behind him when she called over the noise of the wind, ‘And, Gavin? It was a great pleasure to meet you. Good night.’
‘Thanks. Night,’ he answered hurriedly, shutting the door.
No father, no mother. No screaming, no babble, no chatter. No one at all.
He began to hear what there was to be heard.
His own breath, still rapid after he’d been startled by the voice that was surely Miss Grey’s. The wind in the branches outside, now comfortingly muffled. The steady hiss of the fire. He heard a car engine start, rise and fall – Hester must be turning round – and then rev up and quickly fade.
He eyed the door behind him warily, listening. He couldn’t hear anything moving outside, but there was so much darkness around the house; he hadn’t seen a single other light from its porch.Let the boy go in.Who else could Miss Grey have been speaking to? What was she doing out there? Pursuing him? How could someone else possibly have heard her?
The door had sliding bolts at the top and bottom. He pushed them across. In another room a tinny clock struck six. It made him check his own watch: still not working.
He dropped his bag on the stone floor and emptied his pockets on top of it: ticket, keys, wallet, phone. He dropped the watch too.
Further in the house, behind the wall where the round glass picture thing hung, he saw the bottom of a narrow staircase, carpeted in threadbare green. Opposite the foot of the stairs a heavy curtain hung across a doorway. The room he was in bent round the stairwell. It felt ridiculous to tiptoe, but he did anyway, passing in front of the glass circle; he now saw that its mosaic pieces portrayed a woman’s face (high cheekbones and dreamy eyes) seen head-on, with wild hair flowing out behind, in a lurid array of colours. The Mother, maybe? The table beneath with the tealights did look a bit like a makeshift shrine. He looked around the corner. At the far end of the dining room an open doorway led to a kitchen. Branches of something that bore red-orange berries and slender, feathery leaves had been tacked up in bunches over the door.
There were a couple of dirty plates and saucepans by the sink, but no other sign of Auntie Gwen. Nor was she in any of the upstairs rooms, though an oddly intimate smell lingered in what was obviously her bedroom, in a way that made Gav a bit uncomfortable, as if he’d burst in on her in her pyjamas. The ceiling there sloped down almost to the floor, and an indecipherable jumble of stuff had been pushed into both corners. The only light in the room was a small lamp with a heavy red shade. He felt sure she wouldn’t have left the light on if she’d gone far. There was a bathroom next door, the inhospitably chilly, unmodern kind, and at the end of the upstairs hallway another bedroom, which also had bunches of the orange-berried branches tied over the lintel. Pinned to the door itself was something he thought must be mistletoe. It looked like the stuff on Christmas-card pictures, though he’d never actually seen it before. The bedroom beyond was unlit, neat, odourless and anonymously orderly.
His room. She must have made an effort to leave a space cleared of her personality, somewhere his parents would approve of their only child occupying for a week.
Going back down, he hesitated before pushing through the drape at the bottom of the stairs. It turned out he needn’t have.
He couldn’t suppress a smile as he surveyed the benign chaos of his aunt’s living room. Here was the real Auntie Gwen, the exact visual equivalent of what he remembered her conversation being like: a picture of enthusiastic untidy muddle. Over it all hung the scent of something woody and spicy, conjuring up her presence immediately, almost as if she were sitting in one of the chairs across by the fire. The same aroma used to arrive with her whenever she visited. Dad liked to make a show of sniffing the air when he got home from work and (as long as Mum was in earshot) mutter, ‘Ah yes, that new fragrance, Imbecility by Dior,’ or, ‘Mmm,eau de mented.’ She’d once shown Gavin how you dripped the drops of oil onto the little clay dish and then set it over the pot where the candle burned. She did it reverently, like she did most things, especially things involving candles. He looked around and spotted the pot on a huge heavy desk, surrounded by papers and scattered books. There were piles of books on the carpeted floor, books stuffed into odd pieces of dark and bulky furniture that were never intended to be shelves, books dropped in the corners of the chairs and resting, open, over the back of the long sofa that stood between him and the fireplace. Among the books were so many loose sheets of paper that it looked as if a couple more volumes had been systematically shredded and scattered like seed. Perhaps she hoped they’d take root in the mess and grow into new books. There was, he noted with a sinking heart, no TV.
A framed black-and-white photograph on the desk caught his eye, and after a moment’s hesitation – the room was so obviously a repository of everything Auntie Gwen was thinking and doing, and its messiness so perfectly matched her own cheerful incoherence, that walking through it felt like snooping into her head – he picked it up.
It was a portrait, very faintly blurry, of an unconventionally beautiful woman with unblemished skin and a round mouth and hair that glistened. She was turning away from the camera, and her eyes were closed. It didn’t look like a family picture, but it was the only one in sight. He put it back where it had stood, at the edge of the desk, under the room’s single standing lamp.
Most of the desk was covered by an unfolded map, a proper detailed one at a scale that showed every twist of every track and each border of every field. It was so heavily marked with lines and circles and tiny pencil scribblings that Gav could barely make out the features it charted, but in the top corner he recognised the name of the station where Hester had left her car. Near the middle of the sheet was an area where many of the straight pencil lines converged on a number of small circles, and although any names had been obliterated under Auntie Gwen’s graffiti, it was obvious that this was where he was. The pattern was like spokes on a wheel, leading into the centre: Pendurra. He examined the map for a while, trying to imagine the open sea out there in the night, the river with its narrow branchings fingering their way into valleys somewhere down beneath him.
The book lying face down and open on one corner of the map had a picture of Stonehenge on its cover and was calledGeomancy. Stacked nearby, interleaved with torn yellow Post-its shelving out of them like fungi on the trunks of old trees, wereMysteries of Stone Age Britain,The Ley-Hunter’s Field Guide,Antiques of—no,Antiquities of Devon and Cornwall,The Track of the Wild Hunt. . . Around and beneath the map, sheets of paper written over in Aunt Gwen’s cuneiform handwriting spread chaotically. A few appeared to be diagrams with labels; some looked like lists with multiple crossings-out and insertions; most were chunks of written notes he didn’t want to look at too closely. He had a strong feeling that visible energies would feature heavily in them.
Each time he stopped to look at anything, the silence became oppressively thick. The thought of Miss Grey wandering in the night outside, watching the house, was like a pair of eyes on his back. He made sure all the curtains were drawn tight.
The best way to keep busy while he waited, he decided, was to get himself something to eat. He went back to the kitchen and found a stocky fridge with a big blunt handle, which turned out to hold bowlfuls of what his father liked to call ‘chicken feed’: grainy, persistently brown salads. There was an open packet of biscuits on a counter by the sink, so he took a few of those instead and, spotting a carton of instant hot chocolate, lit a burner on the stove under a battered metal kettle. The clankings and clatterings in the kitchen dropped into the stillness of the house like pebbles in a pond, and were as quickly swallowed.
What did she want from him?
He meant to take his mug of hot chocolate back to the messy living room, sit down by the fire with any book he could find that didn’t look too forbiddingly weird, and get comfortable. As soon as he passed the front door on his way back, he knew it wouldn’t work.
He leaned an ear to the door, held his breath and listened. The only sounds outside were the bodiless sighs of a gusting wind.
He slid the bolts back, listened again, then pushed the door open a crack.
‘Are you there?’ he said. It came out as a whisper.
He swung the door wide and faced the dark.
‘Miss Grey?’ he said, louder.
The light under the porch was still on, and beyond that the curtained windows illuminated faint swatches of the grassy verge in front of the house, but all the rest was nothing. Hester had said the place where they’d got off the train was only a few miles away. If so, those miles had to be constructed of solid night. There was not even an inkling of the underglow that lit every night sky Gavin had ever seen, the electric afterimage of the city.
‘Just go away,’ he said. ‘OK? I don’t want to see you. I don’t want to listen to you. This is my holiday. Leave me alone, all right?’
He nearly jumped out of his skin as a swift, small shadow darted out of the blackness towards his feet. A cat. Just a cat, speeding inside the house. He turned almost as fast, pulse racing, and bolted the door behind him.
The cat, a scruffy tortoiseshell, sized him up from under the table. He tried to laugh at himself for having been so startled by it. Actually, he should have expected it: he’d seen boxes of cat food in the kitchen cupboards. It looked like it was hungry now. It yowled at him, tail stiff, and followed him to the kitchen. He tipped some dry food into a bowl, but it only nosed at it and then chirruped again, twisting round his legs.
‘Fine, then,’ he said. ‘Suit yourself. I’m eating.’
The company of another living thing was enough to diminish the eerie feeling that gathered in the silence of the house. Despite the various signs of Auntie Gwen’s weirdness – the hanging crystals, the candles, the shrine, the mistletoe, the mess – Gav had to admit the firelight and the low ceilings and the mismatched, used-looking furniture made it cosy. He took his mug and a plate of biscuits and pushed back through the heavy green drape into the living room. He sat down in the chair nearest the fire. Half a second later the cat appeared, jumped into his lap and began kneading his legs.
Next to the arm of the chair was a box covered in a scarlet blanket, doing duty as a side table. This too was piled with Auntie Gwen’s reading. He picked through the books, not very hopefully.Wicca Almanac. He thought he recognised that one; it must have come with her to London once.The White Goddess.Moon Magic. Et cetera. There was also a big, expensive-looking photo album.Treasured Memories, it said on the cover, embossed in gold. Slightly guiltily, Gav picked it up. He felt like Mum, poking around someone else’s things, but he needed something to look at while he waited, and he was curious about what kind of photos Auntie Gwen kept. He couldn’t think of anytime he’d seen her holding a camera.
But it wasn’t a photo album; it was a scrapbook.
There were quite a few newspaper cuttings, some fading to sepia brittleness. There were photocopies of pages from books, and more bits of paper in her writing. She’d made notes on the pages of the album in many places. There were a few photos, all with a note written beneath them recording the date they were taken. There were a couple of postcards as well, carefully glued in. With a start, Gavin saw among the scraps a sheet in his own handwriting, in a scrawly version from years ago. It was a letter he’d sent her, just a couple of lines, with a bad scribbled drawing beneath them. He’d completely forgotten it. Why had she kept it, stuck in here with everything else?
Thank you for the picture. That is not what she looks like at all. You have made her much too smooth. Here is my drawing of Miss Gray though I am not too good at drawing, I only got a 63 in art.
Love from Gavin
On the facing page was the picture Auntie Gwen had sent him. He remembered it now. Memory jogged, he glanced across at the framed photo on the desk. It was the same face. Auntie Gwen had more or less copied the photo. Her drawing showed the same head in the same pose, but with eyes open, the lips tighter, the cheekbones sharper, the whole face rendered more elfin and fantastical. She’d sent it to him as a present, with a note asking if it looked anything like Miss Grey. It was embarrassing to see his reply again, his childish handwriting, his fixation with marks, and beneath the message the even more comically childish pencil drawing representing the best Miss Grey he could do at the age of ten.
On the next page of the album another letter was stuck in. Above it Auntie Gwen had again pencilled the date, two weeks later than the previous letter.
Thank you for the postcard. That is much more like Miss gray, though she looks a lot nicer. And she isnt made out of wood or her name would be Miss brown. I am much too busy to write any more letters now.[That came straight from Dad. He chewed his lip in shame as he read it.]How are you.
Love from Gavin
And there it was, the postcard she’d sent, or at least another copy of the same picture, pasted in next to the letter. A picture of a wooden statue, a woman’s head and raised hands, angular and grotesquely emaciated. It was supposed to be a bit like his own crude drawing; he could see that now. But it didn’t actually look much like Miss Grey; he must only have said it did to stop Auntie Gwen sending him any more pictures. It occurred to him that maybe this had been the last postcard he’d had from her. Years ago – five years.
Under the postcard she had written, neatly,Donatello, Maddalena. The name, or names, didn’t mean anything to him. He couldn’t remember Auntie Gwen ever talking about anyone Italian.
Gavin began to flip through the album.
Then he wasn’t flipping at all, but reading.
He read some of the pages over and over again.
He didn’t look up until he was startled by the wheezing and chiming of the clock on the mantelpiece. Seven o’clock. He probably should have been wondering seriously about where his aunt had gone, but instead he was wondering what she’d been doing in this house all these years, whether there really was some point to all the mysteries she’d collected in this book.
He was also thinking about Hester Lightfoot.
The very last items in the scrapbook were two small clippings from newspapers. Over the first Auntie Gwen had written,Oxford Mail, 18 November. It read:
Professor Hester Lightfoot has resigned her position as fellow in anthropology at Magdalen College.
Professor Lightfoot became a controversial figure earlier this year when she admitted on a radio programme that she had cause to doubt her own mental health. Despite the support of colleagues and students, who maintained that her remarks had been taken out of context, there were calls for her to be suspended from teaching. TheMailhas now learned that she has resigned voluntarily. Neither Professor Lightfoot nor Magdalen College is making any comment, although sources at the college privately insist that it continues to support the professor and that the decision is entirely her own. Barry Squibb (19), a student of
And there the column ended. The second clipping was labelled,Western Cornishman, 21 November. This time the headline was included:
‘NUTTY PROFESSOR’ RESIGNS
Falmouth-born Hester Lightfoot, a professor at Oxford University, has resigned. Dubbed ‘the Nutty Professor’ after she made public reference to her mental-health problems, Lightfoot has surrendered her prestigious post before the end of the university term. No one so far has commented on the reasons for her decision. In a BBC programme broadcast in April, Lightfoot confessed that she sometimes ‘heard voices’ but claimed she was not delusional because she knew the voices were not real. She owns a house in Mawnan Smith, where villagers describe her as a regular visitor.
Beneath this article Auntie Gwen had written,Hester Lightfoot, born Falmouth 29/11/62. Grandniece of John Nicholls. Authority on shamanism. And John Nicholls had his own page, earlier in the album. Gav flipped back to check and found two photocopies of the same signature and a sheet of paper on which she’d transcribed some sentences from somewhere else: he’d been a local eccentric of some sort, back in the 1920s. Something about pagan rites and taking a vow of silence.Never heard to utter a syllable, it said.
The whole album was in the same vein. Almost all of it consisted of records of exotic or weird things connected, however distantly, to this part of the world. Some of them were legends Auntie Gwen had discovered in old books. There were summaries of theories about standing stones, and pictures of field patterns that, seen from high above, made the shapes of dragons. There were accounts of witchcraft trials, holy wells and saints’ apparitions. Some were relatively recent stories, like the ones about the ghost of a small girl spotted in the woods at the edge of the river (accompanied by fuzzy magnified photos), or the man whose terminal cancer had been cured by a local priest, or UFO sightings out at sea. It all began to blend together into an indiscriminate fog, names and places that Gavin didn’t know, many of them sharp with the sounds of a remote world: Coverack, St Keverne, Manaccan. But then he was there too, and Hester. Whose birthday was tomorrow. Who told him she’d been kicked out of ‘school’. Who’d apparently said something a bit like what he’d said to Mr Bushy.
Who’d heard the voice out in the dark; surely she had. Miss Grey’s voice, telling him to go in.
He needed more light. His hands were shaking slightly as he took a thick log, scabbed with dry lichen, from the box beside the fireplace and dropped it onto the embers. He needed more food too, but suddenly the thought of pushing through the curtain to leave the room was more than he could face. He lowered himself back into the chair and pulled down a thick blanket that had been draped over its back. He would sit and wait for Auntie Gwen. He’d ignore the books, the papers, the treasured memories. He’d ignore his hunger. She couldn’t be much longer.
Exhaustion caught up with him very quickly. He was asleep before the new log began to burn. He shifted when the cat decided to occupy the space between his curled-up legs and the arm of the chair, but didn’t wake. He slept through the chiming of the clock and the rising of the wind. The rain didn’t disturb him; it began gently, and as it grew steady and persistent, its thrumming on the windows blended smoothly with the popping of the fire.
What woke him was the cat abruptly leaping off his lap. For a few bewildered seconds he had no idea where he was. Then the clock struck twelve, and just as it finished there was a violent hammering at the door.
A December day 1537
From the highestwindow of the tallest house in the Jeruzalemstraat, the greatest magus in the world surveyed the city’s steaming chimneys and stinking thoroughfares. All of it lay below the level of his eye, all but the church pinnacles and spires. They pointed up from the rabble and filth below, towards heaven.
The uppermost room of his house was his observatory. Ordinarily he would not have unlocked it during the day. Ordinarily he had no interest in examining the mundane panorama spread out beneath him. He came here on clear nights to watch the stars.
It was mid-morning, many hours before the sun would descend and unveil them, and with ominous swags of cloud piling in from the sea, it was unlikely the upper sky would be visible even then. No matter. By dark he expected to be abroad and on his way. This was not an ordinary day. He had ascended to the observatory only to take a last view of the city.
By dark he expected to have left other things behind him too. He gazed at the lofty white tower of the Vrouwekerk, symmetrical, harmonious, pure, a chorale in stone, and felt himself ascending with it, leaving the streets and canals and dwellings and people far beneath.
An uneasy thought intruded on his contemplations. Its burden was another farewell, one he very much wanted to avoid.
Best, then, to set to work, without delay.
He locked his observatory for the last time and went down through the house to the cellar. Glancing over his shoulder – since the autumn the suspicious reflex had become his unconscious habit whenever he entered his laboratory – he opened a room crowded with stoppered jars and chained volumes and caskets and boxes and dishes of magnificently bewildering variety.
Near the middle of the room was one large table, scratched and singed. In contrast to the racks and shelves around the walls, profuse with containers almost as rich and rare as the materials they stored, the table presented a scene of ascetic simplicity. A pentagram had been marked out on its surface in something that looked like chalk, though in no other way did it bear any resemblance to the humble substance of earth. At each of the diagram’s five points was an unlit taper in a plain pewter stick. In its enclosed centre lay a hand mirror, its palm’s width of coated glass reflecting the beams of the low ceiling. The table was otherwise bare.
The magus took a candle from the wall, peered once more up the stairs against imaginary intruders and then entered the laboratory, bolting the door behind him.
As always over these last three months his glance strayed first towards a wooden box with a silver clasp, sharing a shelf with a crowd of flasks and cases.
No visitor would have singled out this one box as being any more interesting than the scores of others spread around the magus’s laboratory. It was far less rich and fine than the silver bowls with their lids of ebony, or the ivory caskets whose sides had been carved so that beasts seemed to chase each other around them, or the porcelain hexagons glazed in peacock colours with orient script. In fact, should the visitor have for some idle reason considered showing an interest in this box, they would have found that without realising it their attention had slipped elsewhere, for among the many, many enchantments the magus had used in its making was one that had the virtue of evading thought, of retiring unnoticed to the back of the mind. And should the visitor not be an honest visitor at all but a thief who had somehow learned of the existence of this particular box and what lay within it, and had strength of intention enough to overcome the enchantment and keep his mind steadily bent to the task of opening it (as, after a long pause, the magus was now doing), they would lift the clasp, look inside and see . . . nothing. For the pouch inside was warded not only from earth, air, water, fire, spirits, scrying and thought, but also from sight. Only a greater magus than Master John Fiste (as from now on he had determined to call himself) would have been able to see by a light brighter and purer than the light of the eyes and so look past his wards, and Master John Fiste was the greatest magus in the world.
He withdrew a plain brown ring from the pouch, holding it thoughtfully between thumb and forefinger. Memories overwhelmed him.
For an instant an unexpected expression crossed his face. A painter might have borrowed it to portray a defeated emperor, one who had seen his whole kingdom lost.
He laid the ring on the table and crossed the room. Extracting a key from a pouch looped to his jerkin, he unlocked a long, low chest and drew out his staff, a length of wood almost as thick as his wrist, marked with sigils.
Thus armed, he knelt and prayed.
It was his custom to spend some minutes in devotion before he set to work. Ordinarily he offered thanks for the glimpses of the living universe that had been allowed him, praising the great Author by whose generative spirit the world was inhabited, sustained and moved. What was magic after all, he would remind himself at these times, but the commerce and the interchange between mankind and the rest of the living creation? It was a simple truth, though many thought it occult: the world was alive, a body filled with spirit like Adam himself. In ancient days those who understood this were acknowledged and revered as the holiest of men, prophets and hierophants. He gave thanks that he had been permitted to achieve such a station.
Though it hardly seemed like a blessing, in these fallen times. Now, those who called themselves pious looked askance at him. The magus pressed his lips tight as he knelt. He lived in a degraded age, a pygmy age. The new heresy preached that God’s creation and everything in it was fallen and corrupt. Everywhere people flocked to its banner. Educated men weighed and measured the world around them like the new anatomists, who thought they could explain human life by slicing open corpses and prodding the empty flesh. The clerk of Frombork studied the gleaming volume of the heavens and determined that the Earth itself, the whole sphere of God’s substantial creation, was a vast ball of dead rock spinning madly like a child’s top, hurtling through oceans of emptiness. Amid this dark theatre where ignorance masqueraded as philosophy, the magus felt himself utterly alone, blowing on the last fading embers of knowledge in the hope that some future day the fire might blaze up again. He had students once, but they were gone. Mankind had turned its back on him.
Well, then. He was ready to turn his back on them.
His eyes opened and twitched towards the ring. The greatest gift in the history of the world had come into his possession (that was how he put it to himself, ‘had come into his possession’, while he meant to pray, though on this morning his heart and mouth were equally empty of devotion) and he would safeguard it and, through it, himself. For ever.
If he died, the gift and his art (which were, after all, one and the same) might be lost to the world. Mankind would forget that the universe was alive. No one would hear the echoes of the divine word that had spoken it into being. Adam’s descendants would eat dust and ashes.
Therefore he had decided he would not die.
It was indeed not an ordinary day. He was on the verge of the greatest triumph of his life, a magic that had not been done since the world’s long-departed golden age. He ought to have been exalted by wonder and reverent awe, but instead the thing he was trying not to remember, the farewell he so desired to avoid, nagged at his meditations, urging him to hurry, to seal the bargain and then be away, across the sea to England, where he could begin a new life.
He opened his eyes to check the ring again, as though it might have been removed while he prayed. It lay on the table still: a gift, a burden.
Prayer forgotten, he rose slowly to his feet.
He picked up his staff and, with a motion swift and imperious as a swordsman executing a salute, raised it high and traced a circle in the air. He spoke three words and then rapped the floor with its heel.
For a second the cellar room was flooded with a fiery light. It had no source, but seemed to stir with a restless motion of its own. Indistinct faces with lidless and pupilless eyes, smooth lips silently moving, flowed among it and then vanished, though strange reflections continued to flicker around the room: the curve of a silver bowl for a moment became a coppery cheek, the glass of a bottle caught the image of a stony gaze.
He gripped the staff tightly in his left hand. The feel of the familiar instrument of his authority went some way to refreshing his wavering confidence. The business was begun. Now he could show no weakness, no hesitation at all, or he might be lost for ever.
‘Spirit!’ he called, in a strong voice.
The answer was a faint, directionless whisper in the air and a red-orange gleam, as if the light of a smoky sunset had fallen into the windowless room.
‘I require something of you. Remember your promise of service, as I come before you!’
He dared say no more. Always command, never entreat: it was the first rule, learned long ago, when he had begun to conjure with the inferior spirits. He steeled himself, remembering his mastery, and reached with his right hand for the ring.
It would only fit on the small finger. He eased it on, felt for its power and opened the passage wide.
Flame surrounded him. He stood in a livid column, licking and streaming upwards, thronged with faces. The fire swam with them, mask-like faces, empty, interchangeable, implacably dire. They dissolved and reappeared among tongues of orange and crimson too fast for the eye to catch. When the fire spoke, its voice was like a consort of many voices united, but all of them dry and thin and very far away, whispers of pages turning.
‘Welcome, Magister. Are we paid at last?’
The magus reeled with surprise and sudden fear. He groped for an answer. Each instant of silence sounded like a weakness he could not admit.
‘Your promise was to serve, willingly.’ He held the staff tight, his hands sweating. ‘I have not released you. I do not choose to release you now.’
‘We serve.’ There was something in its rustling chorus that always sounded like mockery. Its unexpected question had surely been meant to unsettle him. He steadied his resolve, growing angry.
‘You will obey me now as you have before. You will not speak of payment. Nothing is owed.’
‘Your bond is to serve, even until the last extremity. Is it not so?’
‘It is so. Has the last come?’
‘No.’ The magus shuddered involuntarily. The ring seemed to burn with cold fire round his finger. ‘No.’
‘What do you require?’
Now, no hesitation. The decision was made. He raised the staff, feeling the phantom flames whirl about it, tethered.
‘I require you,’ he said, holding his voice steady, ‘to safeguard a thing for me.’
‘We have no power over things.’
‘It is no corporeal thing.’
The voice emitted a long, hissing sigh.
‘Yes,’ the magus said. His throat was very dry.
‘Of what station?’
There was an awful pause and then it sighed again. It was laughing at him.
‘Do you dare mock me?’
‘No. We welcome you. Only will it and you may dwell as we do. It is an easy matter.’
‘Silence!’ The insidious taunting revolted him. ‘Silence! You dream that I would give you my soul unconstrained? There is a bargain, Spirit. I have made it ready and I will bind you to it.’
‘A bargain.’ The voice seemed to savour the word with a chilling luxury.
‘It is here.’ He clenched his jaw, breathed carefully. ‘Before me.’
The angry sound began as a low hiss, the scrape of receding waves on a sandy beach. It gathered, rose, filling with airless breath, until it became the roar of a consuming fire. Gripping the staff firmly in both hands, the magus ignored it and began to speak. The words he spoke were in no language known to men living or dead. It was a tongue he had striven over decades to learn, each syllable and particle of it costing immense labour in the discovery, its rudiments pieced together from tiny scraps scattered in the darkest corners of the great library of the invisible world. It was never meant for human lips, and he sweated until his face appeared to be washed by a river of fire. The effort twisted his eyes closed. He felt resistance, protest, howling fury, but his will was stronger, and the authority embedded in his staff unbreakable. At his halting command the glow in the room began to gather, the impression of movement taking shape as a whirling orbit. It tightened around the tip of the staff until it was compacted into a blazing ball, as if he had thrust the wood like a spear into the lake of the heavens and lanced a comet.
The tip hovered over the table, above the polished silver mirror. Arms steady, he lowered the staff to the surface of the mirror.
He felt again for the power of the ring and commanded the spirit through the passage.
There was a soundless eruption of light. The magus threw up his hands to protect his eyes, dropping the staff to the floor. The moment it left his grip the air filled with fugitive whispers and strange cries, swiftly fading beyond the corners of the room. Streaks of fiery light followed them and vanished as quickly. He felt that he was caught in a shower of burning hailstones and cried out.
The room fell quiet.
Blinking to restore his sight, he saw the same five candles on the table, the same shadowed racks and shelves around the walls, the heavy door barred against thieves. Only one thing had changed.
The silk-smooth oval on the table, no bigger than the palm of his hand, was tinged with vaporous orange-red.
The magus stared at it, recovering his breath.
The mirror had, quite clearly, ceased to reflect the beams of the ceiling above. It had gained depths of its own. Somewhere down in them, a fire burned.
He fingered the ring. Triumph stirred in him. The ring had not betrayed him, then, despite her warning. The passage had opened at his will. He had been foolish to doubt himself. Was he not the greatest of the magi?
He averted his eyes carefully as he leaned over the table.
‘Are you confined?’ he demanded. ‘Speak!’
The dry voice came as if from a coffin buried under the house. ‘Why punish, Magister?’
‘Answer. Are you confined?’
‘Have you power to leave the place I have bound you?’
‘We have not. Release us, Magister, to work your bidding.’
‘You may not change your place until I release you?’
‘We may not.’
His fingers closed around the mirror. To his flesh it felt like the same chill artefact of quicksilver and stannum and glass and magic it had been moments before. He lifted it into the palm of the hand that wore the ring and raised it.
‘Then show yourself,’ he said.
The mist cleared. He saw his own face, greying beard dark with sweat. The weariness of his expression shocked him. He had grown haggard.
His eyes burst into fire.
The mirror slipped out of his hand. Trembling, he fumbled after it. It eluded his unsteady hands and clinked down on the table. His fingers clutched at his face.
‘As you wish,’ said the voice.
No more than an illusion in the mirror. Of course not. He began to grow angry. Was he a child, to be terrified by a reflection? Was he a novice, to be shocked by a spirit’s tricks?
He took up his staff. With the instrument of his authority over the fiery spirit in his hand, he reached once again for the mirror and raised it before his eyes as steadily as he could.
Within it his image gazed steadily back at him, the wall of his laboratory behind, apparatus glinting by candlelight; but the picture of him in the mirror had eyes that were circles of dancing flame, and its mouth curled with a joyless smile even as his own lips parted in revulsion.
The reflection of his mouth spoke to him. ‘Do you see us?’
His image raised a finger – his finger – to its lips and smiled again. The hand it lifted was the right. The magus saw that in the mirror it was not wearing the ring. Gripped by doubt, he glanced down and saw his treasure there on the small finger of his own right hand. It was his; it was not lost. She had spoken wrongly: it belonged to him. The mere sight of it restored some of his self-possession. It also reminded him not to lose time. It was unwise for him to wear the ring long.
He faced the infernal copy of himself as bravely as he could, reminding himself that he had seen worse.
‘Hear the conditions I make,’ he said, forcing authority into his voice. ‘If you keep safe what I will give you, you will be freed. You will keep it until such time as another looks deep in this mirror. Then you will surrender it to them, and in that moment you also will be unconfined.’
The hideous parody of his face sneered. ‘It is insufficient.’
It was fortunate for the magus – so he believed, at least – that he had expected this. He knew how the lower beings loved to kick against the pricks whenever they could, and he was prepared accordingly to bargain in return for the task he was imposing on it. If he had not already considered the means, he doubted he could have maintained the presence of mind to converse with the awful image facing him.
‘Very well. Then I offer you flesh.’
The myriad voice sighed once more, a drawn-out, wordless, hungry groan.
‘When you are free I will allow you substantial form. You will be my familiar. You will be more than spirit. Is this sufficient?’
There was a long pause. Then the reflected lips tightened in a deadly smile and whispered, ‘It is.’
The smile made the yellow bile rise to his throat. He felt a powerful urge to be rid of the sight in the mirror. He laid it down quickly and fetched a small knife.
‘Very well.’ He had rehearsed these words, which, along with the act of putting aside the mirror, made it easier to speak calmly again. ‘As I am man, made in God’s image, my living soul belonging to myself alone and incorporate in this mortal body, so I will put into your keeping a part of myself, making that part spirit only as you are spirit.’ He held the blade of the knife in one of the candles. The flame forked around it. ‘When another looks deep into this mirror, you will surrender up that spirit to flesh again, and at that time you will also be free and may seek corporeal form.’
In the silence that followed he withdrew the blade, letting it cool.
‘You may speak,’ he said.
‘By what power?’ The voice was nowhere. The shadows in the corners of the room seemed to utter it.
He raised his right hand in front of his face. ‘I hold the key that opens the passage between your world and mine.’
‘It is not yours to hold.’
‘Be silent!’ the magus shouted. ‘May your utterance be cursed! Go from—’ He choked back his rage, horrified at how close he had come to finishing the sentence and so releasing the spirit from its service. He closed his eyes and let his heart subside. He could no more afford fury than fear. His decision was made, he reminded himself. There could be no contradiction.
Reining his passion tight, pushing the whispered words out of his thoughts, he put down the staff and held his hands above the mirror. He pressed the point of the knife against the skin of one finger, just below the nail, and pricked. A single drop of blood beaded out and fell on the surface of the glass. It spread like oil over water.
The voice made a long, wordless, whispering sound.
He picked up the mirror again. The glass was dry and smooth, and showed nothing but a cloudy red expanse, as if he were cradling a fragment of the dawn. He brought it close to his mouth.
Once again he felt for the power of the ring.
world around him sang with life. A dawn sky was scarlet, portending a terrible day. He was hurtling towards disaster. Its mists cleared suddenly and in the mirror a face that was nothing like his own returned his stare, eyelids peeled back with measureless, insane terror. It was an unknown face, a woman’s face. It saw him as surely as he saw it. They saw each other’s fates, the same fate, more dreadful than death
The magus had meant to breathe gently over the mirror, joining the air and water of his living spirit to the blood that was its earth and fire. But the vision dragged the air out of him. Instead of exhaling, he cried out. The glass fogged over and then blazed. An invisible wind howled through the ring, tossing him like a dead leaf, thundering in his ears. He heard the woman scream, with his own voice.
Then he crumpled to the floor.
The small mirror fell beside him, face up, blank with the dimness of the room.
Outside, dusk had come early. Fat storm clouds erased the day. Their load of sleet had begun to scour people out of the streets. While the greatest magus in the world lay in a dead faint, the storm grew fiercer. An angry demon was riding it, people muttered to themselves.
It was some hours before he at last emerged from his laboratory, the box with its immeasurably precious talismans tucked inside his travelling cloak. His servants knew better than to ask questions, even when they saw him as deathly pale as now. When, though, he called them before him, paid them all nine times what they had from him in a year and dismissed them, they went away telling each other – and, later, everyone else – that this night, surely, his final reckoning had fallen due.
The hammering atthe door wouldn’t stop. Gavin clutched the arms of the chair, rigid with fright.
The bolts juddered. He’d been jolted awake and couldn’t get hold of where he was or what was going on. Someone was outside. Someone wanted to get in.
He remembered thinking Miss Grey was out there, but he couldn’t connect the thought with the relentless noise. Not the calm, withdrawn Miss Grey he knew, always so grave. Quiet as the grave.
There was a voice, faint, bleak. He could scarcely hear it at all over the rain and the hammering. It came from somewhere outside, beyond the curtained windows. It sounded like a cross between a person’s voice and a keening animal, or merely the wind.
What if it was Auntie Gwen, coming home to find her own front door bolted? Could the rain and the night make even scatty, peaceable Auntie Gwen so frenzied that she’d batter and moan?
Could she have met something outside that had driven her to this?
All he had to do was get up and look.
When he saw things he didn’t want to see, Gavin’s habit was to stand still, put his head down and wait. As often as not they’d be gone by the time he counted to twenty. The green face would have gone back to being only an arrangement of shadows in the leaves; the stony-eyed crow twisting its neck to look down from the curtain rail would vanish into the pattern of the wallpaper.
He counted to fifty. By the time he finished his eyes were squeezed shut and his hands were over his ears, and still the banging went on.
The fire had faded to a pocketful of embers. He shivered as he pushed himself out of the armchair. His legs felt numb. He dropped to his knees, crawled across the carpet to the window and put his eye to the crack between the curtains.
There was a dead girl outside, trying to get in.
She was barefoot in the sheeting rain, thin and pale as paper, wearing something white and filthy and shroud-like which clung to her, sodden nearly to transparency. Her eyes were closed and her face was slack. Her legs were splattered with mud, as if she’d just dragged herself out of her hole in the ground. Rain bounced off her nose and lips and shoulders and streamed down her arms. One arm hung beside her like part of a carcass; the other was still beating at the door.
She moaned with her ghost of a voice, the same words over and over. ‘Come back,’ it sounded like. ‘Come back, come back,’ as if she’d been abandoned in her grave and was pleading with him to join her there.
Gavin curled up on the floor and started counting again. He tried to think of a big number to count to, but he couldn’t. He was too terrified to think anything at all.
The banging stopped.
In its wake came a silence so absolute it made his ears sing. After as much of that as he could bear he uncurled himself and made himself look out again, knowing he’d never move from this spot on the floor until he was sure the zombie had gone.
She was not gone, but the arm that had been raised now dangled at her side, and the head – strewn with lank wet hair, a bony nose and chin poking out between them – had lowered itself. The cries stopped. She’d turned back into an upright corpse, motionless. The downpour rinsed mud from it.
She turned away from the house and shuffled off into the dark.
Gavin slumped to the floor.
The clock caught his eye: a few minutes past midnight. The witching hour. How had he let himself be lured here? No one lived here. It didn’t feel like a house at all. It was a tiny island of light in a sea of ghastly dark. Waves lapped at its edges, threatening to swamp him. He sat as still as he could, listening for any movement, dreading the next sight, the next sound.
The clock was ticking on, which was a small reassurance, as he wouldn’t have been surprised to see its hands whirl backwards or hear it strike thirteen. There was a scratchy rustle by the draped entrance and the cat nosed through the curtain into the room, looking at Gav as if disappointed that he should have found a corpse at the door at all out of the ordinary. He began to wonder whether it had actually happened, though he’d never learned what that meant,actually happened. It was a phrase his parents liked a lot.
But Hester Lightfoot had heard Miss Grey, out in front of the house. Or at least heard the same voice. It wasn’t just him. She heard voices; the paper said so.
Perhaps she’d heard Miss Grey on the train as well. Hadn’t she run out of the carriage suddenly, looking shocked and weepy?
When five cold and silent minutes had passed without anything happening except the cat treading carefully around the room looking for somewhere to sleep, he decided it was probably safe to move. He thought about getting the fire going. Light and warmth, and something to do. It looked ash-grey and cold, but when he knelt down to sweep the hearth clear he was surprised to feel warmth on his hands. Prodding with a shovel, he found embers. He dropped a sheet of old newspaper among them. A curl of smoke snaked up the chimney and then it was ablaze. Gav watched in astonishment. He’d expected a long struggle. They had a coal fire at home, and his father always insisted that no one else understood the mysteries of laying and lighting it.
The cat had occupied a basket in front of the fire and was curled up, tail over its nose. Its slow breathing, and the rising crackle of the fire, made the house much less creepy. Nevertheless he went on tiptoe across the room and held his ear to the green curtain for a long time before he dared go past it, and then the first thing he did in the dining room was drag a chair to the front door and wedge it under the handle. Then he went around the house switching on every light he could find.
He looked in Auntie Gwen’s bedroom to see if she’d left a message or some other clue to where she’d gone. All he found was a wreck of clothes and spangly jewellery and towels and indeterminate wispy things. There was nothing odd about it, except in the way that everything about Auntie Gwen was odd.
He was beginning to feel the disorienting fuzziness that always went with being awake in the middle of the night. If he stopped moving he imagined he’d probably fall asleep on the spot, but he couldn’t cope with the thought of what might happen if he closed his eyes. He went back downstairs to make himself tea. The kitchen window was uncovered – the only bare window in the house – and he felt horribly exposed in front of it, but he made himself put the kettle on. While it was heating up he got the fire going in the dining room, coaxing it back to life as surprisingly effortlessly as he’d managed with the other one. He lit all the candles beneath the glass hanging as well. If the luxuriantly soulful face that looked out from it was the household goddess, he thought he might as well tend her shrine. Maybe she’d help keep the zombies away and bring Auntie Gwen back.
Mug of tea clasped between his hands for warmth, he went back into the living room, surveying its chaos of paper and print. No doubt there were all sorts of clues about what she might be up to lying in plain sight, but there was no way of guessing where to start, and he shied away from the prospect of sifting through her scatterings the same way he’d always tried to steer her away from the topic of Miss Grey, or the naked girl in the pool in the park, or the crow in his bedroom, or everything else that used to get her so excited.
He checked the clock again. It was a very long time until dawn.
Putting his tea down on a pile of loose sheets and jottings, he settled back into the armchair. His eyelids felt heavy at once. To keep himself occupied, he picked up the scrapbook again. He went through it more thoughtfully.
He was leaning over the arm of the chair, having just picked up his mug, when he saw his name.
The base of the mug had left a circular tea stain on the piece of paper beneath. It was the back of an envelope, scribbled on like every other scrap. Gav hadn’t been looking when he’d put down his tea, but now he saw that the ring had appeared round a single word, written in prominent capitals in Auntie Gwen’s narrow handwriting. The word was caught perfectly, in the centre of the circle, underlined twice:
His first thought was that Auntie Gwen had left him a message. He hadn’t noticed it before – the papers must have shifted around a bit when he put the mug down – but when he flipped the envelope over it turned out to be only some letter addressed to her, the address typed on the front: a PO box number in a place called Falmouth, a postcode. She’d jotted some kind of telegraphic list on the back. It must have been the nearest scrap of paper to hand.
The last thing she’d scribbled was his name. He frowned at the smaller notes above it:
key chap Joshua Acres
Then a bigger space and, in overexcited capitals:
Jess? Joshua Acres? Not much more incomprehensible than any other bits of her writing he’d glanced at. And yet there was his name at the end, as if it was the conclusion to the rest.
He flipped the envelope over again to check the postmark. Posted from London, last Thursday. The letter must have just arrived. She’d jotted this down very recently.
He thought for a moment, then went and got her letter to his mother out of his bag, sitting by the fire to reread it.
It struck him that she’d practically begged Mum to send him down to stay with her. Something about the way she’d crammed the words onto the two sheets of paper. And how overexcited she’d sounded about seeing him again. Why? They hadn’t spoken for years.
Where was she?
Miss Grey wanted him to be here.Let the boy go in. She’d found her voice.Come, she told him. And here he was, and someone else could hear her, and one of those things that couldn’tactually happenhad been right outside the door, making the house shake with its dead white fist.
He sat and stared at nothing. The heaviness washed over his eyes. The fire whispered to him quietly, and more quietly. He began dreaming even before he fell asleep.
Morning crept through the house like disenchantment. Gavin woke with a stiff neck and a groggy head. There were sounds in the house, ordinary domestic noises: a scraping plate, a cupboard door closing. Auntie Gwen must have got up before him. He rubbed his eyes, not quite recognising where he was. The room had changed its character completely by daylight, as strange rooms do. The dullness of a cloudy morning had got inside it. It looked tired, safe. Birds sang outside.
Something in the kitchen got knocked over. Auntie Gwen had always been clumsy. Dad had jokes about her magnetic hands that repelled everything. Gav wondered when she’d got back.
He stretched and got up.
The cat miaowed from another room.
There was no one in the kitchen. The cat had been nosing its bowl around on the floor. As he watched, it jumped to the countertop and tried to push open the handle of a cupboard, then sprang down again, leaning against his shins, demanding food. He found the right box in the cupboard and left the cat crunching and purring while he went upstairs.
He looked in every room, heart sinking as his memories of the night started to come back clearly and the brief comfort of the dawn drained away. The air of sudden abandonment in the house had been a bit creepy in the dark. Now it only made the place dreary.
She still wasn’t home.
He opened all the curtains as he went, at last seeing the landscape the house sat in. It took a small effort of courage when he got to the living-room windows and thought of what he’d seen outside them in the night, but he opened those curtains too, looking out onto nothing more sinister than a patch of muddy lawn, the driveway, a simple iron fence beyond and then an empty field sloping down, just grass and the sky, with a faint concentration of cloudy brightness low and to the right suggesting that the sun might be rising. On the other side of the house, through the kitchen window, the view was blocked after a few feet by a tall hedge of something evergreen and glossy, shaded by taller trees behind. There was the edge of a clothesline, and under it one corner of a vegetable patch. Nearby sprawled a rosebush, in full flower, pink saucers defying the morning dullness. From the upstairs windows he could trace the passage of the driveway, starting at the gateposts where Hester had pulled up her car, past the front of the house, and then away to the left down the slope of a hill, where it disappeared into a brown and crooked wood.
He’d read about this kind of house. They built them at the entrance to fancy estates, like a guardhouse. Aunt Gwen was the estate’s gatekeeper.
Or had been.
While Gav made himself toast and tea, he wondered what to do. He’d spent most of the last four years desperately wanting to be left alone. Now he’d got his wish. It wasn’t exactly what he’d hoped for. He’d always imagined himself making Pot Noodles every couple of hours and otherwise alternating between computer games, reading and naps. Not once had it occurred to him that isolation would be so unsettling. He tried to picture himself staying and waiting for Auntie Gwen to show up. The hours chiming away, staring out of the windows, the unease gathering quietly at his back, growing. No. It would be awful.
So if he wasn’t staying in, he’d have to go out.
The bathroom upstairs was too cold for anything beyond the most cursory splash, but he changed out of the clothes he’d slept in. He removed the chair wedged against the front door. It felt now like a stupid thing to have done, but still he had to go twice around all the windows to make sure there was no one or nothing anywhere near the house before he could slide the bolts back, and his heart was pounding as he opened the door.
He stepped out into a wide, quiet, chilly nowhere, crossed only by the neglected driveway. Somewhere in the middle distance there was the sound of a tractor chugging. It felt as if the farm machine must be on a different continent. Around to his left Auntie Gwen’s car was pulled up on a patch of ground off the track. Out here it looked more like an incongruous piece of garden sculpture than a vehicle. Gav couldn’t picture an engine shrinking the big green-grey world around him, collapsing its miles to scant minutes, carrying him back to towns and timetables. He was on his feet, and there were only two ways to go: right, out the gate into the lane, or left, down the driveway under the trees. Right would mean starting back the way he came, in the direction of the little station, and then the big one, and then home. Jamming his hands down in his trouser pockets, he turned left.
As soon as he stepped onto the driveway he heard a skitter of feet. Down in the shadows under the trees, someone had run round the curve of the drive out of sight. Someone small, smaller than Gav. He’d seen no more than a vanishing blur of dark clothes when he’d looked up. He was going to shout, but the stillness made him shy; he couldn’t break it. The footsteps faded quickly.
He waited a short while, watching, then shrugged and followed on down the road. Experience had long since taught him to do his uncomfortable best to ignore things that came and went around him.
He walked into a wood. It smelled secret and autumnal, the musk of a thick layer of leaf mould sodden by the night’s rain. There were still brown and withered leaves on the branches above, obscuring the day. In among the trees some tangly evergreen shrub had spread and grown over head height. The driveway curved and descended, shutting out the light behind. For the first stretch it was pitted and mossy; then the paving gave out and it became a pair of gravel tracks overgrown with grass. There was no sign of whoever had run down here a minute earlier, if anyone had.Oh come on Gav.The track he followed felt increasingly like it led nowhere at all, as though he was the first person to set foot on it for years and years.
The long curve soon brought him in sight of the lower end of the wood. When he saw the corner of a building, he stopped.
Ahead, the overgrown track ran out from the trees into a wide clearing, on the far side of which Gav could now see a garden border, and immediately behind that the wall of a very old house: sea-grey stone, punctured seemingly at random by narrow arched windows that looked as if they were barred against daylight, and a slate roof streaked by rain.
It didn’t look like it wanted him anywhere near it. He felt ridiculously out of place. The thought of explaining himself to whoever lived here was more alarming to Gavin than facing disembodied voices and dead girls and whatever else Auntie Gwen’s home might throw his way. The point where adults got involved was, he’d finally confirmed (thanks to Mr Bushy), always the point where everything fell apart.
Still, he had to ask someone about Auntie Gwen.
As more of the house came into view, though, he wondered whether there’d even be anyone to ask. He came out from under the trees into a scene of profound desertion. The buildings ahead seemed as dormant as the garden in front of them, winter-stiff. The driveway ran through a wet lawn of ankle-high grass to the front of an ancient, sullen building; heavy gables, small mismatched casemented windows on upper floors, chimneystacks jutting up like solitary reefs. It was nothing like a ruin, but even in a partial glimpse it gave the impression that whoever might once have lived there had long since covered all the furniture in dustsheets, locked the doors behind them and left the place to see out the decades on its own.
Woodland spread away on either side like arms opening wide to embrace the house; left, down the slope, which began to descend more steeply, and right, along the flank of the hill. In the broad space bordered on each side by the sweep of the trees was a garden of dry stems, bare branches, brown seed heads left as relics of the last summer, and patches of evergreen. It looked as big as a small park to Gav, while the house was a manor, almost a castle. Except that – like the garden – it felt out of season, its romance faded.
The front doors were dead ahead. They were dark wood banded with iron, and if they’d been taller they wouldn’t have looked out of place barring the entrance to a prison. The prospect of approaching them suddenly seemed unthinkable: scrunching over the gravel beneath the blank windows, climbing the single step, knocking. He felt like a boy in a fairy tale. He’d taken a wrong turn in the forest and ended up at the gates of an enchanted palace no one was supposed to find.
Stuck for a moment, unable to turn back or go on, he was rescued by the sight of the door opening. A man was coming out, half backwards, waving goodbye to someone inside. Gav stifled the urge to bolt out of sight. Better to look like he knew where he was than to be spotted disappearing behind a bush. The man looked up at him in surprise, squinting slightly through little round glasses. Gav felt his face settling into its habitual rigidly indifferent mask, his reflex when being squinted at by strangers. He made an effort to look less hostile.
The man’s appearance helped. Everything about him exuded unthreatening friendliness, from his unaffected smile as he approached to his stripy sweater and his scuffed corduroy trousers. He was shortish, a bit stocky, neither young nor old and had the kind of unremarkably pleasant face that you find hard to remember afterwards. His presence completely changed the character of the house and grounds. All at once it just looked like a big old place in the country. For the first time that day Gav thought that maybe Auntie Gwen would turn up in a minute, falling over herself with apologies at having forgotten to pick him up, and they’d have a week’s holiday together just as he’d been expecting when he got on the train.
He was just beginning to wonder why this thought made him achingly, unbearably sad when the man hailed him.
‘You must be Gavin, Gwen’s nephew. Hello, welcome!’
‘Uh, yeah. Hi.’
It was an unspeakable relief not to have to explain who he was. In fact, he apparently didn’t have to explain anything. The man shook his hand and smiled as if meeting him here was the most natural thing in the world.
‘It’s good to meet you. Quite a place, isn’t it? I wish I could say I live here, but I’m just on my way home. I only stopped in to see Mr Uren. I’m Owen. Friend of the family. I live just up in the village. I’m the priest, for my sins.’
‘Nice to meet you.’
‘They’ve been looking forward to your arrival.’ He nodded back in the direction of the front doors. ‘Were you on your way to the house? I can introduce you, if you like. Since you’re here. A bit less intimidating that way. Not that there’s actually anything to be intimidated by. What do you think?’
Gav couldn’t see an obvious way to mention Auntie Gwen and found that he was utterly unprepared to say anything else.
‘Tristram wouldn’t mind you knocking on the door yourself – they’re expecting you – but since we met . . . Gwen’ll be along in a bit, anyway, won’t she.’ Gav couldn’t tell whether this was a guess or whether Owen knew it for a fact, and the confusion threw him off still further. ‘But why don’t I show you in now? That way you won’t have to feel like a trespasser if you want to go on exploring on your own. It’s that kind of place, isn’t it,’ he finished, motioning around encouragingly.
‘Um, yeah.’ Gav felt himself being shepherded towards the grim doors, but had no idea how to stop.
Owen seemed determined to put him at his ease no matter how long he had to go on. ‘Mr Uren can seem a bit distant when you first meet him. Like his house, I suppose. They’re both very different from what you or I are used to. At least I assume you don’t live anywhere like this? London, wasn’t it? But you’ll feel right at home with him very soon, I promise you. Anyway, I needn’t tell you – your aunt’s known the place almost as long as I have. And she tells a good story, doesn’t she?’ Gav opened his mouth and tried to take the chance to say something, but Owen misinterpreted his stall as shyness and kept moving, encouraging Gav to follow. They’d reached the front door; Owen pushed it open. ‘In we go. Tristram?’
The first impression was a brown dimness, like the inside of a chest. As in Gwen’s house, the smell of woodsmoke came at once, but here it seemed part of the walls, the floor; the air was saturated with it. It was mixed with something else Gav couldn’t put a name to, except that it smelledold. Not musty or fetid, but old as if from another age: odours of stone and straw and cloth, materials and fabrics that time had outgrown. Or perhaps it was just the effect of what he could see, which was nothing like any house he had ever been inside before, except maybe some old historic place near his other aunt’s, which they’d all gone to visit one Sunday after lunch, years ago, because his mother had wanted to. There was no everyday household stuff in sight. He faced a hallway that stretched back through the house, wood on all sides including the ceiling. There was no light except the illumination from a triple-arched window at the far end.
‘Tristram? Your guest is here.’
The hall darkened even more as a tall, bent figure stepped in front of the window.
In silhouette, Tristram Uren looked like an emaciated wizard. He leaned on a walking stick, a strong jaw jutting from a shaggy head that braced itself against the stoop of his back and shoulders. His clothes didn’t seem to fit very well. A jacket hung around him like a half-finished cloak. Gavin felt as if he’d been admitted into the presence of Merlin, just escaped from the tomb where the stories said he’d been trapped since Arthur’s time.
‘Ahh.’ The voice was full of effort. ‘Come in, come in.’
‘We met outside,’ Owen explained, raising his voice a bit. ‘Gavin here must be an early riser. He was walking down on his own.’
‘Up with the sun, like me. But not, I imagine, down with it.’ He came slowly forward, switched his stick to his left hand and extended his right. ‘Hello, Gavin.’
Even stooping, he was much the taller. Gav looked up into a face of outcrops and shadows: the bones broad and strong, hollows between them. He had the oldest eyes Gav had ever seen apart from Miss Grey’s. Their light had gone out. His hair was bone-white, though there was plenty of it, reaching almost to his shoulders. Gav saw what Owen had meant, now. It was hard to imagine this man making conversation. The Merlin thought stayed in his head. Mr Uren did look as if he’d spent a very long time shut away by himself.
‘Hi. Sorry – I hope you didn’t mind me wandering around?’
‘Not at all. You shall have the freedom of Pendurra, while you’re here.’ He turned and waved towards the window with his stick. ‘Do come in. Come and see your domain.’
‘Actually, I was just coming to tell you something.’ He blurted it out to stop anyone taking him further inside and now found himself groping for words. ‘I mean, I thought I ought to tell someone. Aunt Gwen, she’s . . .’ Missing? Vanished? Gone? ‘She’s not around. I haven’t seen her yet.’
They both looked at him. Mr Uren’s brow creased into a slow frown.
‘Perhaps she didn’t expect you up this early. She often walks down to the river in the mornings.’ At first Gav didn’t understand and only stared at his toes, wishing as usual that he hadn’t spoken.
Owen chipped in to relieve an embarrassing silence: ‘You might run into her if you go on down that way. It’s a lovely walk. Through the oldest woods.’
‘Or make yourself comfortable here,’ Mr Uren added. ‘There’s bacon. Guinivere will follow soon.’
‘Probably wondering where you got to,’ Owen said.
The dimness hid Gav’s embarrassed flush. Two people had now told him that Auntie Gwen was about to turn up. He felt stupid, as if he’d made some obvious mistake about what she was doing. ‘No, I mean I haven’t seen her at all yet. Not just today.’ Had he gone to the wrong place? He’d had no control at all over his journey. He’d got caught up in it somehow, like a stowaway. The thought reminded him of the one fact he was sure of. ‘She was going to meet me at the station but she never turned up.’
Now both men were looking puzzled: Mr Uren blank, Owen slightly concerned.
‘But then how did you get here?’ Owen asked.
Gav’s mouth dried. There was no way he was going to tell them that he’d got a lift from a woman he’d met on the train, especially one nationally known as ‘the Nutty Professor’.
‘Taxi,’ he mumbled. ‘I waited ages, then got a taxi.’
Fortunately they didn’t seem interested. ‘And there was no one at the lodge?’
Just in time to prevent another idiotic silence, he remembered that those gatehouse places on the fancy estates were called lodges. ‘No, the lights were on and everything, and the door was open. Unlocked, I mean. So I just went in.’ He didn’t know whether he sounded more like a criminal or a halfwit. There were things that had happened yesterday that he couldn’t possibly tell anyone.I don’t want to hear it, Gavin, do you understand?
‘And no one was there?’ Owen was asking all the questions. Tristram Uren might as well have turned to stone.
‘Well, there was a fire lit and . . . So I thought, you know, with the taxi gone’ – he felt a little tingle of relief at this plausible-sounding detail – ‘I’d just go in and wait. But no. No one.’
‘The car was there,’ Owen said to Mr Uren. ‘I saw it when I came past earlier. Did you happen to notice it when you arrived, Gavin? When was this?’
In his memory the clock chimed. ‘About six. Yeah, it was – the car, I mean. I saw it. And everything looked, you know, like she was there. The lights and the fires, and everything was just lying around, like normal. I mean it looked normal. So I just thought . . . I’d wait.’ Don’t try and explain, he told himself furiously. Never try and explain. It only makes everything worse.
‘And you haven’t seen her since?’
‘Well, that’s odd. I wish someone had known.’ He and Mr Uren were looking at each other now, something unreadable passing between them. ‘It must have been a lonely night for you. Not a proper welcome at all! How strange. Tristram?’
‘I haven’t seen Guinivere since yesterday afternoon.’ He spoke slowly. ‘Though I wasn’t expecting to. She did tell Marina she was going to the station, I believe.’
‘She sent that message for me yesterday,’ Owen said. He rubbed his chin. ‘Wanted to see me today. I’d wait for her if I could, but I need to be going. I got the message from Caleb. I gather she sent him up to the village to look for me.’
‘Yes. I was at the parish meeting. Poor chap had to go round the houses a bit. I’m not sure what Gwen thought she was doing sending him off like that. Maybe I should go and ask him about it.’
‘If you would,’ Tristram said. ‘Gavin, I’m sorry. You must be hungry at the least, and worried too. Here we were assuming you’d already had your introduction to Pendurra. Please come in, sit down.’ His manner had become very deliberately courteous, almost too deliberately, as if the courtesy was meant to conceal the fact that his attention was on something else.
Owen had put on his appealing smile again. ‘Your aunt does have a bit of a reputation,’ he said, ‘if you don’t mind me saying so. Easily distracted, let’s put it that way. Though she was so looking forward to your arrival, I must say I’m surprised she managed to get distracted from that. It’s all she’s been talking about these last few days. Especially the last day or two. I thought she was going to explode with excitement. I must go. I’ll find Caleb on my way out, shall I?’
‘Thank you,’ Mr Uren answered, over his shoulder. He was leading Gavin slowly down the hall, past pictures whose faces and figures were lost in the gloom, around unnecessary chairs jutting out from the walls like rocks in a shipping lane. ‘I will take care of my guest.’
Owen nodded at Gav encouragingly. ‘Then I’ll see what else I can do. Gavin, good to meet you. I’m sure I’ll see you again. I’m the local bad penny, I keep turning up. Don’t worry about Gwen – she won’t have gone far.’ He headed back towards daylight. ‘Tell Marina I’m sorry I missed her,’ he called.
Mr Uren answered only with a wave of his stick. The door thunked shut.
‘You were lucky to meet Reverend Jeffrey first,’ Tristram said. He seemed to be choosing his words carefully. ‘He’s a . . . reassuring presence.’
No one would have said the same about Tristram Uren. Gav remembered a photo from Auntie Gwen’s scrapbook. A formal portrait, black and white, in uniform, the picture of a dashing war hero. Its old-fashioned glamour had stuck in his mind. Not a trace of the confidence and energy of the handsome man in the old photo remained in Mr Uren now. He looked more akin to the inhabitants of the portraits hanging in the hallway, nameless faces captured looking hollow and remote and then forgotten, left to their inheritance of dust and soot. He addressed Gavin kindly, but still as if he was forcing himself to mind his manners.
‘We can at least warm you up. There’s a fire in the front room.’
Gav couldn’t see what else to do or where else to go.
‘You managed all right last night, on your own?’
‘Yeah, yeah, I was fine.’ Well, apart from the corpse moaning and banging on the door outside. ‘Aunt Gwen had everything set up.’
‘That’s something at least. She is an immensely capable woman.’
Gav was about to give a sarcastic snort when it struck him, first, that Mr Uren had meant the comment completely seriously, and second, that he had never in his life heard anyone say anything nice about Auntie Gwen before, let alone call her ‘capable’. He was ashamed of his first reaction and took a moment to weigh his reply, so he could say what he was really thinking.
‘She’s great. Always been my favourite relative, by far.’
Mr Uren must have registered the sincerity in his tone. He stopped and looked round at Gavin again. It was a bit like watching a tree bend in a strong wind.
‘She speaks very highly of you too, Gavin. You should have seen her when the letter from your mother arrived. I was almost offended to find out that she isn’t exclusively devoted to us.’
This sounded like it ought to have been a joke, though nothing in Mr Uren’s expression suggested that it was; it was a face drained of levity. Gavin must have looked uneasy, and Mr Uren misunderstood his discomfort.
‘There’s no need to be anxious,’ he went on. ‘If she’s on the estate, my friend Caleb will find her, and if she isn’t, Reverend Jeffrey will track her down, or start the right people looking. We’re all used to her ways here, as she is to ours. Come and see some of what she wanted you to see, while we wait.’
The hall widened at the other side of the house, at the foot of an uneven but grand staircase. Following Mr Uren’s gesture, a couple more steps brought Gav to the window and now at last he saw what the house saw.
Pendurra looked down across an open field and a long wood below to the mouth of a river and beyond it, glimpsed as a horizon of luminous grey laid over the green humps and folds, the sea.
Though he was a city child, Gavin wasn’t totally unfamiliar with trees and grass and water. Even around his home he knew where to find them. He knew they meant space, quiet space, places to escape into, and so he’d already learned to like them. This, though, was something altogether different. It was as if the little secret havens of nettle and bramble, the patches of unbuilt or overgrown cityscape he’d known all his life, were seedpods, and here, now, they had burst open, their tentative promise of solitude blossoming into a whole world of stillness. There was a rhythm and a completeness to the landscape: a pattern of wild and tame, the patch fields and the pockets of woodland dipping and rising around the riverbanks, the river itself closed among them, almost out of sight but still threading the land and the ocean together. He barely took in the details of what he saw. He was feeling like he’d discovered the magic wardrobe in the spare room, the rusty gate in the untrodden back alley that opened into another world.
‘A rather dreary morning, I’m afraid,’ Mr Uren said quietly. He too was staring out towards the sea. ‘I had hoped last night’s rain would clear it all away.’ He sighed and beckoned Gav towards an open door across the hall.
The room they entered looked slightly less like something you’d have to pay to go and see, although only slightly. It was recognisably a living room, one that people actually lived in. Though it was big and (like everything else Gavin had seen in the house) impressive in an old-fashioned way, it was also shabby with use and age, corners dusty, surfaces dull. It stretched along the back of the house, the side that looked down towards the sea. Three deep windows let in the daylight. On the opposite wall a fire burned in a stone hearth big enough for Gav to have comfortably sat inside. In between was an assortment of the kind of furniture he associated with those fancy antique shops that never had any people inside: big, ornate, mismatched, dull-coloured things that had been made, by hand, solidly enough to endure even when they started to look decrepit, as these did. Mr Uren invited Gavin to sit at a table in front of the middle window, where two people had obviously just finished eating. He left him there while he went out through a door by the fireplace, promising to come back with more food. Gav didn’t much want to sit, or to eat, but to his surprise he wasn’t starting to feel trapped. All he did was stare out of the window. Nothing was moving but the occasional seagull.
Mr Uren had barely returned, rather shakily carrying a brown teapot which gave off a smell that didn’t seem much like tea, when he looked up from under his heavy brows, over Gav’s shoulder.
‘Ah, here we are at last!’
His face lit up. Actually lit up: the light was rekindled in his eyes, and a mass of shadow somehow disappeared in an instant from his expression.
‘Here I am, Daddy,’ said a voice behind Gav.
The dead girl had just walked in.
There was nomistaking her. Though her hair was dry and her eyes were open and her fingers were fiddling absently with the strings of her entirely unsinister pink pyjamas, he recognised her straight away, with such certainty that his heart gave a sickening leap of surprise at the sight of her come to life. He now saw that her beaky face was a softer echo of Tristram’s, and though she didn’t look older than twelve or thirteen, there was already a gawky, bony awkwardness about her that she’d also inherited from him, a slender child’s version of his tall stoop. He was sure he could see traces of earth and grime on her finger and toenails. It was her. She had wailed and clattered outside his door at midnight and now here she was, looking at him with a brightly curious expression and a funny lopsided smile.
‘You’re Gavin,’ she said.
Despite the pink pyjamas, the image of her as a walking corpse was taking a while to clear out of his head and he couldn’t answer.
‘Gwen says that because I’m like a daughter to her, that makes us sort of cousins.’ She came and sat down next to him, picked up a crust of someone else’s cold toast and began chewing, leaning into her father as he bent to kiss the top of her head. Abruptly her expression turned anxious. ‘Should I have said that?’ she asked, through a mouthful of food. ‘You don’t mind?’
‘Sounds good to me,’ Gav said, and was rewarded by a visible outbreak of relief on her face. Her features seemed to catch and magnify every expression, like a much younger child’s. That was what had made her appear so lifeless in the night. Her face had been not just unmoving but entirely empty, switched off as thoroughly as it was now switched on.
‘I haven’t got a family, mostly,’ she went on, licking a fingertip to dab at crumbs on the plate. Gav saw that Tristram, who had started back towards the kitchen, stiffened. ‘Do you have lots of cousins already?’
‘Er, no.’ She appeared not to know what shyness was. This was an idea so extraordinary to Gav that he forgot to be surly himself. ‘Not a single one, in fact.’
‘Like me, then. Gwen said you mostly didn’t have a family too, but—’
She dropped her eyes to the plate.
‘My daughter has a rather solitary life here, Gavin.’ Once again, Tristram seemed to be picking his words very deliberately. ‘Please excuse her manners. She’s very young for her age.’
‘No, it’s OK.’ He saw that she was chewing her lip. ‘No offence at all. Anyway, you’re right,’ and as he spoke he realised it was true. He took defiant pride in saying it. ‘I don’t really. Not a proper one. So, yeah, cousins, I like that.’ She brightened instantly, raising her thin eyebrows and wordlessly mouthingsorryto him. He tried to think of something harmless to say, but he had no practice at it. He’d spent the past couple of years learning to stop conversations, not start them.
Tristram let his hand rest on her shoulder and then frowned and peered downwards. ‘You should wash your hands, treasure. Look at your nails.’
She did, spreading them all in front of her face. ‘I already did. What’s wrong with them?’ Now Gav could see that her left hand – the one that had been battering Auntie Gwen’s door – was bruised along the side. Tristram noticed it too: he took her hand in his and turned it gently in the light. His brow wrinkled again as he let it go, but he said nothing. Gav was quite relieved to see him shuffle back towards the kitchen, since Marina now reached down and pulled one of her feet up onto the table, looking at it quizzically.
‘I did get pretty filthy, didn’t I,’ she said. Gav had to agree. Her toenails were even more stained than her fingers. The skin on the sole of her foot was like an adult’s, hard and calloused. She stole a look over her shoulder and leaned closer to Gav, earnestly. ‘I go wandering out of bed when I’m asleep sometimes, and when I wake up, I don’t remember it. So they tell me.’
Gavin lowered his voice to a whisper. ‘Hey, me too.’
Her eyes went huge. They were grey-blue, like the patches of clearer sky above the horizon.
‘At least I used to,’ he went on, ‘when I was a kid, I mean, when I was younger. How old are you?’
‘Gwen says I’m thirteen.’
He ignored the odd answer. ‘Yeah, that’s about how old I was when I sleepwalked. It’s fine. Won’t hurt you.’
She looked over her shoulder again to be sure her father was still in the other room and leaned even further forward; floppy blonde hair fell over her nose. ‘My hand’s sore. And I got unbelievably wet. That’s why I’m late this morning. I’ve been trying to dry out my room before Gwen comes.’
Something began to sizzle in the next room.
‘Did you ever go outside?’ she asked. ‘When it happened to you?’
‘Yeah, I did.’ Gav remembered with horrible vividness the plummeting of his heart when he woke to smudges on the sheets and the carpet of his bedroom, and his impotent efforts to hide them: remaking his bed as quietly as he could, dropping clothes on the floor to cover the stains. During one bad spell he’d got in the habit of sneaking a damp cloth into his room before he went to sleep, so he could scrub away any evidence in the morning.Gavin, for God’s sake, what are you doing in there?
‘I don’t think I’ve ever gone out of the house before. I’m afraid to tell anyone.’
‘You’re telling me.’
‘You’re not a grown-up. Are you? How old are you?’
‘Is that grown up?’
She wasn’t teasing. The seriousness was plain on her face.
‘No, course not.’ Her eyes dropped again and her mouth scrunched up. ‘Well,’ he added hurriedly, ‘I mean, I’m still growing. Like, getting taller. But I’m not a kid, so . . .’
When people spoke to each other at school, it was all about trying to make each other laugh, and at the same time making sure you weren’t the one being laughed at. Even with friends, when you wanted to be serious, you kept your guard up. Marina was already making him think of the time before his world had turned against him, when all you had to do was say what was happening, and that was fine.
‘The grown-ups keep an eye on me,’ she mumbled, not looking up. ‘You don’t have to, though, so it’s different.’
‘Yeah, that’s right,’ Gav said, though he didn’t know what she meant. ‘So Aunt Gwen’s kind of like an extra parent here?’
‘Ever since I was a baby, she says, and until I’m a woman. I wonder where she’s got to.’ An odd frown twitched over her face, as if she’d surprised herself by remembering something. Gav suddenly didn’t want to be the person to tell her that Auntie Gwen was gone, but fortunately it didn’t occur to Marina to ask him about it. She peered vaguely out of the window. ‘Do you wish she’d looked after you instead?’
‘What?’ he said, and immediately wished he hadn’t. Her eyes went anxious again.
‘Gwen told me . . . or maybe I’m not supposed to say this.’
‘No, no, it’s fine. I know what you mean, actually. Actually, yes, I do. Wish she had. And’ – he started blushing with the effort of saying it – ‘you know, it’s OK – you can ask anything you like. Most people don’t bother.’
‘Gwen said that too. She said I have hardly anyone to talk to, but at least they listen, but you have lots of people but they don’t listen, which makes me better off.’
Gav was pretty sure he remembered what thirteen-year-olds were supposed to be like, and this wasn’t it. But then, wasn’t Mum always worrying that he wasn’t acting like what she called a ‘normal teenager’? Was this what it was like for adults when they met Gav? No, it couldn’t be, because although Marina didn’t make very much sense, he knew straight away that he liked her company, and adults didn’t like his company. Not any more.
‘Yeah, you probably are,’ he answered. And all at once he could just say what he was thinking. It seemed simple, as natural as breathing, but he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to reach into himself and pluck out the words as easily as picking berries from brambles. ‘My mum and dad don’t like me much, especially Dad. I’d have loved it if Aunt Gwen had been around. But then, she was happier here, you know?’
‘She told you she liked looking after me better?’
‘No. I mean, I just know. Actually, she never told me anything about—’ He was going to say ‘you’ but could see her face falling already. ‘This place.’
‘Really? Odd. What do you think, then? Do you like it?’
‘It’s . . . amazing. Living here, I can’t imagine that.’
‘Gwenny’s always saying it’s better than anywhere else.’ She stared out of the window, into the grey distance. ‘Though sometimes I think she just says it to make me not mind.’
Her father was coming back, a plate of bacon and fried bread tilting in his hand. She skipped quickly out of her chair and took the plate to the table, where she picked up a piece of bacon in her fingers before putting it back quickly with a muttered ‘Whoops’ and a nervous smile.
‘Gavin has explained about Guinivere?’ Tristram settled creakily into a chair. ‘No? Well, sweetheart, it appears she may be a little late this morning.’ He poured out some greeny-brown version of tea; it smelled suspiciously like grass. Gav was immediately much less hungry than he thought.
‘Where’s she gone?’
Tristram looked at Gavin; Gavin looked at his plate.
‘No one seems to know yet. Ah, Caleb.’
Again Gav had to turn round to see who had come in.
Standing in the doorway was a man who looked at first sight like a cross between a gardener and a pirate. The gardener half had gnarled hands and wellies and muddy clothes and an obvious discomfort at finding himself inside the house. The pirate half was dark-eyed and dangerous-looking, with very long, very straggly black hair, and a general impression of belonging somewhere far away and lawless. He glanced at Gav and nodded awkwardly, without smiling.
‘This is Guinivere’s nephew, Gavin.’
‘Hi.’ Gav thought about standing up, twitched stupidly and stopped. Caleb did not look welcoming.
‘Gavin, my friend Caleb, without whom we would all be lost. And speaking of lost . . .’
‘She isn’t here,’ Caleb said. He had a strong West Country accent, which chimed perfectly with both halves, the gardener and the brigand.
‘I thought not,’ said Tristram. He obviously felt that Caleb had settled the question. ‘Well, Gavin, your aunt must have been caught up in one of her outside interests. There’s nothing to be concerned about. She’ll be back later today, I’m certain. Perhaps she remembered too late that she was supposed to meet you and is looking for you in Truro.’
Oh God, no, Gavin thought. It hadn’t occurred to him. What if she hadn’t got Hester’s message? What if she tried to call Mum and Dad?
‘Do you know when she left, Caleb?’ Tristram asked.
‘’fore dark yesterday.’
‘Did you see her go?’
‘No.’ Caleb shook his head.
If Gav had been paying attention he might have found this exchange odd, but he wasn’t. Sick to his stomach again, he was imagining his parents cutting their holiday short, getting a flight home. His father wouldn’t say anything at all. He wouldn’t need to; his silence would just make Mum feel worse, which would be all he’d want. When they found him and brought him home, he’d be able to enjoy weeks of twisting her guilt tighter anytime he felt like it.
‘But she told you she wanted to see Reverend Jeffrey today?’
‘Ah,’ Caleb muttered, a curt affirmative. ‘Asked me yesterday to find him an’ let him know. Took a while to track him down.’
‘She didn’t say what she wanted to see him about?’
‘No. Don’t mind, though. Good walk.’ Caleb was clearly edgy. His glance flickered around the room.
‘And you told her when you got back?’
‘Didn’t see her. Still here, though.’
‘Thank you,’ Tristram said quietly. ‘Then we must leave Reverend Jeffrey to sort it all out.’
‘Alrigh’y.’ Clearly relieved to be going, Caleb nodded. ‘Morning, Marina.’ He winked at her, piratically, an unexpected puncture in his surliness; she blew him back a kiss as he disappeared into the hallway.
Despite Mr Uren’s reassurances, they all looked uneasy. Reassurance wouldn’t have come naturally to him, anyway. Marina concentrated on eating; he watched her silently, oblivious to Gavin, who had the feeling that Tristram’s dulled eyes were taking in nothing at all.
Marina looked up, holding her knife in mid-air. ‘If Gwen’s not coming till later, why don’t I take Gavin out to the point?’
Tristram blinked. ‘Why, yes, my sweet. Or wherever you wish, if he agrees. I had hoped you would. As long as you’re careful.’
‘Yes, of course.’
The knot in Gav’s stomach loosened. Thinking about his parents had suddenly made him dread the coming day, as if a phone might ring somewhere in the house at any moment, summoning him back. The exchanges between Owen and Tristram and Caleb had made it worse. He couldn’t help feeling there was something they weren’t saying in front of him. He’d vaguely assumed Marina would go off to school, leaving him adrift in the dark old house. The prospect of getting outside – Gav had no idea where or what the ‘point’ was, but she’d said ‘out’ – made everything a little better. He certainly wasn’t going to ask why she wasn’t going to school. No one had put the same question to him; the least he could do was return the courtesy. Plus, whatever kind of place this was, he could tell – he could feel – that it wasn’t meant for questions from outside. It held its secrets, as he held his. He understood what that was like.
‘That’d be great,’ he said.
‘Good!’ She hopped out of her chair, dropping her knife so that it clattered on the plate. ‘Then let’s—’
‘Marina! Let Gavin finish, please.’
‘No, it’s OK,’ Gav said quickly, taking a last bite and pushing back his chair. ‘Thanks very much, but I’ve had plenty. I had some toast at . . .’ and he realised he didn’t want to say Auntie Gwen’s name in case it made them solemn again ‘. . . at, um, earlier. Thanks anyway.’
Marina bounced on her tiptoes and spun behind her father’s chair. ‘I should get clothes, shouldn’t I?’
‘Yes, you should.’
She leaned round to kiss his cheek. ‘Just a minute, then,’ and she ran out. Gav heard her feet on the stairs.
She was back in the time it took Tristram to wave away Gavin’s perfunctory offer to help tidy up breakfast and direct him to a bathroom. He’d somehow expected the kitchen and bathroom to be different from the rest of the house, like when you visited a cathedral or a castle and found a modern toilet block hiding inside stone walls and arched doors, next to a café where everything was plastic and stainless steel. But the kitchen was completely in keeping with the rest of what he’d seen, thick with smoky warmth and streaked on its rough white walls with soot. There was wood stacked against a wall between great antique stoves of blackened bricks; iron pans and kettles hung above. It looked more like a historical recreation of a kitchen than a place where anyone could actually cook food, and, alarmingly, the same kind of surprise met him in the bathroom, although after a period of embarrassing indecision Gav had found a handle that made something a bit like flushing happen. Better than anywhere else? Was that really what Auntie Gwen thought? It was a useful reminder that she was in fact crazy.
Marina was waiting at the foot of the stairs. Her father had vanished. Gav got the impression that he’d been transferred to someone else’s care, and Mr Uren, released from his slow courtesy, was now free to ignore him. It wasn’t a resentful feeling. The man had been polite enough, but Gav was much happier with him gone. What was it he’d said?You shall have the freedom of Pendurra. While you’re here, but Gav was determined not to think about the end of his freedom, for as long as he could get away with it.
‘All right?’ Marina smiled. She’d tied most of her blonde hair back behind her head with a ribbon, but quite a few bits had been missed and were falling in random tufts around her ears and eyes. It made her look even younger, as did the brown jumper that was a size or two too big for her. She also appeared to be wearing slippers or moccasins; whatever they were, they were leathery and soft and didn’t look right for going outside. Nevertheless she led him down the dim hallway to the door and, lifting an iron latch – the grey daylight briefly dazzled him – stepped out onto the gravel.
Crows drifted in and out of the fringes of the wood. Marina led him through a gap in a low stone wall and into an enclosed area of the garden where paths of unkempt grass ran between mostly barren flowerbeds. She chatted happily as they went, always halting to make sure he was right behind her; he felt like she’d trip over her own legs at any moment. He’d have liked to slow down and look around, or at least have a chance to take in the strangely antiquated scene in silence, but trying both to keep up and not to bump into her as she started and stopped used up most of his concentration, and whatever was left over he needed just to pretend to follow her enthusiastic chatter. She seemed to want to show him and tell him everything at once. She named each clump of green or brown and each tangle of sticks as they passed, with the manner of a museum guide introducing much-loved paintings. The botanical names meant nothing to him, though he quickly realised that everything in her world meant everything to her, so he did his best to nod and ‘uh-huh’ on cue. As far as he could see, the garden was just a rather sad mess of droopy green and dead brown. There were other things he wished she’d start explaining, but she seemed to get stuck on whatever was nearest. He didn’t want to sound bored, though, so he made an effort to think of something he could contribute involving gardening. He remembered looking out of Auntie Gwen’s kitchen window into her little garden plot and seeing that bush with its incongruously luxuriant pink flowers.
‘Oh yeah. What about—’
‘What?’ she said, stopping abruptly on a narrow path; he nearly lost his balance pulling up short behind her.
‘I just remembered. You know in the garden at Aunt Gwen’s house? There’s a really nice something I saw there. Some kind of rose maybe?’
‘Yes! I know the one you mean. It is a rose. It’s called Madeleine. It’s got these outrageously pink flowers in summer. Pinker than pink.’
In the summer.
She must have seen something in his face, because she stopped talking. They’d come to the far end of the walled garden, where an overgrown iron gate led out to a path between one side of the house and the edge of the wood.
What she saw in his face was not belated surprise at a rosebush blossoming on one of the shortest days of the year. No: the thing that stopped her short was the mingled fear and astonishment in his eyes as he realised he was about to tell her something; the unfamiliar effort of choosing to talk instead of keeping silent.
‘Is everything all right?’ Her oddly lopsided jaw had fallen half open.
‘That rose, it’s got flowers now. All over. I saw it this morning.’
She looked at him, head tilted.
‘But it’s winter,’ she said, in a tone of voice Gav knew all too well.But there’s no one there, Gav. But that’s impossible, Gav. Don’t be stupid, Gavin.He remembered again why he didn’t tell people things.
‘Oh yeah.’ He looked up at the sky. ‘So it is. Must have missed that somehow.’
‘Roses don’t flower in winter,’ she said reasonably.
‘No.’ Apparently she was as immune to irony as shyness. ‘None of the bushes do. They need it to be warmer. They eat the sun, sort of.’
He watched her face, looking for veiled mockery, but she appeared to have been born without those veils. It was part of what made her look so much younger.
‘Oh right,’ he said.
‘So it can’t—’
‘I’ll show you.’
Anywhere else, with anyone else, he’d have let it go. Forget it. My mistake. Clam up. Silently add it to the long list of small humiliations with which he recorded his days.
But Marina didn’t seem to think he was stupid, or ridiculous, or lying. She just seemed mildly confused, as if she was in the middle of working out a not very complicated sum. To his surprise, he discovered that he wasn’t afraid of what she might say.
It occurred to him that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d felt that about any conversation with anyone.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘I’ll show you. See for yourself.’
Her eyes twitched anxiously back to the house. ‘But I said I’d take you to the point.’
‘OK, we can do whatever afterwards. It’s just up the drive.’ It was an impossible thing, of course. He could only have missed realising it because he got so many other things wrong, all the time. Roses didn’t flower like that in the last days of November. But he’d seen it, it was there, and he was suddenly sure that Marina was also different enough from everyone else he knew that she ought to see it too. ‘It’ll only take a minute. Yeah?’
‘I’m not really supposed to go that way,’ she mumbled.
‘What? Why not?’
‘It’s not good for me.’
‘Going, you know. By the gate.’ The word ‘gate’ came out with a tiny clutch in the throat, as if she’d said ‘graveyard’ or ‘quicksand’.
‘You mean you never go to the lodge? Aunt Gwen’s house?’
Her hands fidgeted. ‘Yes, I’ve been there a few times, but I’m not supposed—’
‘You did last night.’
‘Last night, when you were sleepwalking. I saw you.’
She stared wide-eyed. Her voice fell to a guilty whisper. ‘Did you? Where?’
‘Come on.’ He started back towards the path and after a few moments she followed. ‘I was in the room downstairs and I heard this banging on the door and I looked out of the window and it was you.’
‘Look at your hand. No, the other one. See that bruise on the side?’
She turned her wrists as if wringing out an invisible towel, so he took the right one in his hand, feeling as he did so a strange blush that seemed to go down from his face into his chest rather than the other way around. Her hand was very small and very alive. He twisted it over gently and pointed out the mark.
‘There. See? That’s from banging the door. Aunt Gwen’s.’
Then he was holding her hand up close to both their faces, the two of them leaning together, and she was looking up at him with her unnervingly defenceless expression, and nothing else was happening at all as the distended seconds passed by. He dropped her hand. The blush turned round and started going in the normal direction. He set off again, to conceal it.
She scurried beside him. ‘What else did you see me do?’
‘Not much. You stood there whacking the door for a while. Then it was like you gave up and sort of slunk off. You scared me shitless, actually.’
‘You were frightened? Why?’
Once more he glanced at her sharply, trying to catch something that would expose her innocent-sounding question as a trick. Once again he found nothing.
‘Well, OK, I had no idea who you were or anything, I just heard this banging in the middle of the night—’
‘The middle of the night?’
‘Yeah. Actually it was almost exactly midnight. And so I look out the window and there’s someone I never set eyes on in my life, wearing like a sheet or something, and you’re hammering and shouting at—’
Her voice had shrunk with sudden fear. For a confused moment he wondered if it would help if he stopped and held her hand again, but the moment passed, as such moments do.
‘OK, not shouting really, just talking.’
‘What did I say?’
‘Not sure.’ He tried not to think about the eerie moan.Come back, come back. ‘I couldn’t really tell.’
‘I had a dream.’ They were in under the trees. It couldn’t have been an hour since Gavin had walked the other way down this same path, but already it felt as if that journey had taken him into a new country, a new world, like the night passage in Hester’s car. ‘I definitely did, but I can’t remember it at all. Did you ever have that feeling when you went out in your sleep? Like something happened it was incredibly important to remember, but you couldn’t?’
‘Kind of the opposite, actually.’ He could hardly believe he was saying it, putting into words something he would never have said aloud even to himself. ‘Most of my dreams it’s really really important to try and forget.’
He waited for her to ask what she meant, but for once she was quiet. Perhaps he’d finally said something in her language, something that didn’t need translating.
‘Anyway,’ he went on, ‘let me show you that rose, OK? I know you don’t believe me about it, but it’s there.’
‘Hey! I never said I didn’t believe you!’
‘Yeah, well, I could tell. I’ve had a lot of practice.’
‘With people not believing me.’
‘You have? OK, try me again.’
‘Try again. See if you can tell.’
‘Um . . .’
‘Tell me something and then tell me if I believe you or not. It’s a test. A what-do-you-call-it? It’s how you find things out. An expedient.’
‘That’s it! Go on, then.’
She appeared to be completely serious. He was going to tell her that it wasn’t a game, that it was actually the whole story of his miserable life, but she was looking at him with such an air of earnest anticipation that he didn’t have the heart.
‘Er. OK. So. There’s this rose in Aunt Gwen’s garden and it’s flowering. Now, today. Even though it’s winter and everything. How’s that?’
She was shaking her head. ‘Useless. Do a new one.’
‘Why? That’s not unbelievable enough for you?’
‘Just for fun. Otherwise it’s boring.’
He felt a twist of anger. Boring? Fun? How could she have any idea what it was like for him?
‘Right, then.’ He stopped on the driveway. They were under the trees at the edge of the wood, the lodge beyond. His face felt hot and he spoke too fast. ‘Try this one. There’s a woman nobody except me can see. She’s followed me around my whole life, but she doesn’t actually exist. I was sitting on the train down here yesterday and she got on and shouted at me. How’s that? Believe me?’
Something odd happened to Marina’s face. Her hands went slowly to cover her open mouth, and her eyes opened wide. He braced himself for whatever she was about to say.Oh come on Gav. But he never found out what it was, because in the stunned silence that followed his confession the door of the lodge opened. The gardener-pirate Caleb emerged, looked down the track and saw them.
‘Hoi!’ He waved as if to shoo them back into the woods. Still tingling with the adrenaline fizz of having told Marina – told anyone – what he just had, Gavin stood his ground. Shut up, he hissed silently at himself. Stop letting all this stuff out. It’ll only make it worse. But he was still wondering why doing it had felt almost like a relief when Caleb strode down to them.
‘Hey.’ He propped his hands on his hips. ‘Where’re you two off to?’
Marina looked at Gav. ‘We were just going to look at something in Gwen’s garden.’
‘Whose idea was that, then?’
‘Gavin’s. He thought—’
‘You can’t go up by the gate.’ He straddled the track like a sentry, barring their way. ‘You know that.’
‘We weren’t going to. Just to the lodge.’
He glared at them as if he thought Gavin might have been trying to abduct her. ‘Thought you were heading out the other way.’
‘We’re going to. Right after Gavin shows me something.’
Gav stared at his toes, cheeks burning again. Now Marina was making him sound like some kind of pervert.
‘Nothing to see in there,’ Caleb said, with a finality even she couldn’t miss.
‘Oh. All right.’
‘Don’t want you wandering around this morning, OK?’
This was how it always was with adults, Gav told himself bitterly. How could he have thought Pendurra would be any different? He’d hardly met this bloke and already it was obvious that Caleb thought he’d done something wrong.
‘What do you mean? Why not?’
Caleb twisted the lanky hair behind his neck. His look kept straying over their shoulders, as if something might be lurking there. ‘Jus’ don’t want you to. There’s a good lass. All right?’
‘But Daddy said—’
‘’s only for an hour or two. Couple of things I want to check on first. All right?’
‘Is everything OK?’
‘Course.’ Even to Gavin, who’d only met Caleb that morning, this sounded totally unconvincing, but Marina apparently accepted it at once.
‘Well,’ she said meekly, ‘OK.’
‘Good lass. You could show your friend here round the house.’
‘Actually Gavin’s my cousin.’
‘Cousin, then. Lots to see indoors.’
‘But we can do that when it gets dark! I want to—’
‘Jus’ this morning. Promise?’
‘OK, then.’ She crossed her arms over her chest. ‘Is something wrong?’
‘Course not. ’s only . . .’ He stared down into the sombre mass of winter trees. ‘Might be someone poking around. Jus’ like to keep an eye on things.’
Gav remembered the small figure he’d glimpsed for a moment as he’d left the lodge that morning, but there was no way he was going to say anything. At least half of Caleb’s surliness felt like it was directed at him, and his only defence was the old one: tight-lipped silence.
‘Someone’s come in?’ Marina sounded disproportionately alarmed by the idea.
‘Dunno. Let me worry about that, all right? Anyway, you promised now.’ He cracked a grim smile and prodded her arm.
‘But what about the garden? Gavin—’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ Gav said. ‘Come on.’ He started back towards the house without waiting for her. What would be the point, anyway? he thought. Even if they went to see that rose, he knew it would be dry and dead.You’re imagining things. Oh come on Gav.No need to go looking for humiliation when it seemed to be able to find him all by itself.
‘Good lass,’ Caleb said from behind him. ‘You and your friend go enjoy yourselves. Inside, though.’
‘Cousin,’ Marina corrected.
‘Cousin,’ he echoed, but the tone said,Stranger, outsider. Enemy. Gav quickened his stride.
She trotted to catch up, her peculiar shoes swishing through the grass and damp leaves that cracked through the decayed driveway. ‘Hey! Wait for me.’
‘Sorry if I got us into trouble,’ he said glumly, as she came alongside.
‘We’re not in trouble. Caleb said everything’s fine.’
Gav looked back. The man had already disappeared from sight.
‘He didn’t seem too happy.’
‘Oh, that’s how Caleb always looks.’
‘Yeah. Well, I don’t think he likes me being here.’
‘You? Don’t be silly.’
‘Oh yeah? Didn’t exactly seem like he wanted to be friendly, did he? I’ve had warmer welcomes. Well, maybe I haven’t, actually.’
She looked at him curiously for a few quickened strides, skipping to keep up.
‘You’re unhappy, aren’t you,’ she said matter-of-factly.
‘Nah. This is how I always look.’
Again she missed his irony completely. ‘No, it’s not. You wanted to talk to me, back in the house. When you told me about sleepwalking. That was good. Now you’re being growly, like Caleb.’
He stopped and faced her, about to snap something, anything that would shut her up and drive her away, make her leave him alone. She watched him, head tilted, quizzical. Something about her look held him back. After a few moments he realised what it was. She was examining him without contempt, or anxiety, or bewilderment. It struck him that he couldn’t remember the last time he’d seen a look like that directed at him.
So he said, ‘Sorry.’
‘That’s OK. Gwen told me most people don’t understand you. She said it makes you sad.’
He snorted. ‘She got that right.’
‘She says the things that happen when you’re young mark you on the outside. The same way you can make trees grow in weird shapes if you bend them when they’re still soft. Like with Caleb, that’s why he always looks like that. Gwen calls him Grumplestiltskin. Well, not to his face; that would be a bit harsh. She says it’s because he ran away from home. No one was ever kind to him before Daddy and by then it was too late.’
‘What about me then? Do I look pissed off?’
‘What does that mean?’
Again, there wasn’t the slightest sign that she was teasing.
‘Oh. Sorry.’ She stepped alarmingly close to examine his face. Her glassy eyes darted from side to side, full of restless life. ‘No,’ she said at last. ‘You look . . . what’s that word? Like glum, but a bit more serious.’
His humour was obviously too black for her to see. ‘No, not that. Sort of in between. Morbose?’
‘I look morose. Cool. Thanks.’
Now her face fell. ‘Sorry.’
‘Never mind. It’s totally fair enough. My life is shit. I just never knew it was so obvious.’
He could only stare. The tenor of the stare must have been obvious even to her.
‘I didn’t mean you don’t look nice,’ she mumbled apologetically, looking away.
‘It’s OK. Nice things don’t happen to me.’
‘Not your fault. I should have done what he did. Caleb. Run away from home. Ages ago.’
She looked sideways at him, shyly, hesitating to ask, but eventually her curiosity won out.
‘So why didn’t you?’
‘Why didn’t I run away?’
He looked around at the snagging undergrowth on either side, the decrepit track running between. In the last couple of years he’d thought about it often enough. Seriously thought about it, not just indulging vengeful childish dreams. He’d lain in bed carefully planning it out. Every time he came to the same dead end in the plan. Stealing the money, OK; packing and leaving and buying a ticket, OK; and then going . . . where? That was the problem. The first few parts were wonderful to imagine – the triumphant ecstasy of escaping from his parents, cutting loose and leaving it all behind him – but then came the realisation that wherever he tried to go instead, he’d still be himself. There was no escape from that.
‘I didn’t have anywhere to go,’ he said.
‘You should have come here, like Caleb did.’
Easy for you to say, he was about to retort, but he could tell she’d meant it honestly. A shiver of wind stirred the last leaves overhead, and at the sound he gazed up and around, into the spaces full of calm shadow, the subtle unobtrusive browns of bark and litter and earth.
‘You’re right, you know. I should have.’
This won him a vivid smile.
‘Well, now you’re here, it’s not a problem any more, is it? You can just stay.’
She said this the way she said almost everything else: as if it were obvious. Gav wondered for a moment whether it was worth trying to explain to her what the real world was like. It was plain to him by now that she was some kind of little rich girl with a silver spoon in her mouth and no idea how everyone else lived. Least of all him. Maybe, he thought, it would just be easier to say, ‘Never mind,’ and go back to the house and play hide-and-seek or whatever it was you did with kids who had a social age somewhere around eight.
Then it occurred to him that he wasn’t the most reliable authority on how the real world worked either.
An odd feeling stirred in him with that thought. He looked at Marina, bright, untroubled, weirdly innocent. So innocent that she’d apparently just invited him to live with her, here, for ever.
The idea hung in front of him like a glimpse of paradise. Forbidden, out of reach, but almost unbearably beautiful.
He sighed. ‘It doesn’t work like that.’
‘I can’t just . . . move.’
‘There’s loads of room in the house.’
‘Yeah, I’m sure there is. That’s not the point. You can’t just . . . There’s school and home and stuff.’ Even the words felt like descending weights. ‘I’m only here ’cos Mum and Dad had a holiday booked already and no one who could be around in the day so they needed somewhere to send me when I got— when I couldn’t go to school for a bit. As soon as they’re back I have to go home.’
‘Do you really?’
‘Course. Not everyone gets to live like this all the time.’
‘I know that. But didn’t you say they don’t like you, your parents?’
‘Yeah, I did.’
‘So why go back there? Gwen likes you a lot. I do too, even though you look whatever it is. Morose.’ She grinned an unexpectedly sly grin.
‘Yeah, yeah, yeah. You’d be the same if you lived in my house.’
‘Then don’t. Stay here. We could talk. Gwen says you probably know what it’s like for me better than anyone. You already did, about the sleepwalking, remember?’
Why can’t I?
‘Mum and Dad would never let me.’
‘I don’t get that. If they don’t like you, why wouldn’t they let you come and live here instead?’
Because that’s not how things work. Because that’s not how the real world works. Oh, come on, Marina.
He took a deep breath. What had got into him that he was suddenly sounding like Dad?
He made himself think seriously about her question. It wasn’t as stupid as it sounded, really. It was all too obvious that he and his parents had been making each other miserable for a couple of years now. What was it, actually, that made them all keep going?
‘It’s ’cos they think they do,’ he said at last. ‘They don’t actually like me, but they think they do. Or at least Mum thinks she does.’Take care of yourself, Gav love. I love you!‘Dad’s stopped even trying to pretend.’
‘So why don’t they like you? I can tell you’re nice.’
I don’t know, he thought, with a surprising ache of misery. I really don’t know. I don’t know what I did wrong. It’s not my fault. But of course he did know, really.
They were deep under the trees. He’d never been anywhere like this before in his life. It seemed untouched by time and the outside world. For all he knew it might have always been the same messy tangle of wet wood and silence since before people, before history. It was the forest where trees fell and there was no one to hear them. The real answer to her question burned on the tip of his tongue. He could grit his teeth and swallow it and go on being burned up inside, or he could spit it out.
‘It’s because I’m different,’ he said.
She looked puzzled. ‘Everyone’s different, aren’t they? That what Gwen always says.’
‘Yeah, well, actually she’s wrong.’ His cheeks were burning. He’d never rehearsed this. He didn’t know how to begin to say who he was, and it frustrated him that she couldn’t even grasp the first principle. ‘Everyone’s the same. Everyone except me. Everyone else has one set of rules. I don’t. I see things that aren’t there.’
His heart was hammering and his mouth was dry as he said it. It was as far as he could go. He stared at her, waiting for a response: laughter, incomprehension. He couldn’t believe what he was doing. Only eleven days ago he’d tried saying this in front of Mr Bushy. Eleven days ago. Friday lunch break. He’d sworn he’d never be so utterly stupid again.
What she said was, ‘You too?’
To experience themoment that consummates a life’s work: how many men are so blessed, in the ordinary run of things? But then the magus had always known he was very far from being an ordinary man.
For some thirty years, beginning when he was barely old enough to rub bristles on his chin, he had studied the unseen world, venturing among its secrets like a traveller in the ruins of an ancient city. In the halls where Moses and Pythagoras and the thrice-great Hermes once ruled, he took what light there was to find and made his way, passageway by dusty passageway. By patience and discipline he grew adept in his art. He learned the virtues of leaf, stone and star. He laboured at the forms of conjuration and compulsion that allowed him to converse with insubstantial beings. Over months and years of study he uncovered their names and taught himself the rudiments of the immortal language in which those names were pronounced. He bound spirits to serve him, and by their power loosened the warp and weft of time and space. His eyes strained through nights of study. His beard turned grey. He toiled for decades, until his name was famous throughout the palaces of Europe and he was as far beyond every other alchemist or magician or conjurer as the princes of those palaces were beyond the servants that swept their floors.
But all along he knew that his highest achievements were little more than fugitive glimpses of the true architecture and harmony of creation. Despite his fame, despite his lifetime’s labour, he had done no more than creep like an uninvited guest around the humblest antechambers of the courts of wisdom, peering at fragments by rushlight – until the moment he first put on the ring.
That night, in his observatory, it was in one instant as if every door was unlocked, every casement opened, and the ruin made alive with light and pageantry and solemn music. He saw and heard the life all around him as it must have been in the infancy of the Earth, the golden age, when the breath of creation blew fresh everywhere, and men and spirits walked as neighbours beside each other. The ring’s small circle was a vent through which that breath blew in on him. It was a crack in the wall that separated the mortal sphere from the realms of the undying. Through it he saw living spirits dance before him like figures in a gilded landscape, their music celestial harmony.
He tore the ring off the small finger of his right hand, his heart throbbing like the watchmen’s drum.
His very first thought was: What have I won?
He tried to thank her the next time they met. Summer had ripened the fields ready for autumn to mow them down, and the evenings were becoming cool. They walked by the sea less often. She was as indifferent to the sharp offshore wind as to every other mundane concern, but he felt it keenly, down to his bones. Age was catching up with him. He could not suppress twinges of unruly resentment when he felt her hand in his, thinner and rougher than his own, and noticed that though she was all skin and bones, she never shivered beneath her plain cloak. At first he’d found her hardiness magnificent, a reminder of how miraculously different she was from everyday women, and loved her for it. But now, as the evenings darkened, it seemed to reflect badly on his own frailty.
Her silence had begun to grate on him too. When once he’d walked beside her in contented quiet, he now found that her paucity of words irritated him. It struck him as a kind of stubbornness. At the beginning of the year, when he’d first found her again, he’d thrown questions at her like a wild boy throwing stones at roosting birds. He’d been so perfectly entranced by the miracle that he’d somehow not minded how rarely she answered, how often she only turned her solemn look on him and said, ‘I don’t know, Johannes.’
As the year waned, he wondered how he of all people could have been content with such nothings for so long.
It was the same when he tried to thank her. His head was spinning with wonder, his heart brimmed with gratitude, and yet she seemed as unmoved by the gift she’d placed in his keeping as if the ring were no more than the modest hoop of wood it appeared to be.
They were in the rutted roads among fields south of the city, the ditches brown and stinking with a summer’s worth of drowning weeds. She walked barefoot as always, the hem of her cloak soiled. It was harder by the week for him to see her for what he knew she was, no more an ordinary woman than he was an ordinary man. Still, he tried to remember whose love he had earned as he spoke. He was, after all, acknowledging a gift whose value could not be measured by the treasuries of all the kings and emperors of the world.
But despite his sincerity she only walked on, unsmiling. He felt rebuffed.
‘I know now what the gift is worth.’ His right hand clenched and unclenched. ‘I wore it last night. Perhaps,’ he went on, not entirely managing to quell the impatience in his voice, ‘you did not fully understand it yourself when you presented it to me.’
At this she stopped, looked at him and gave him an answer at last. It was not one he had looked for.
‘I made you no present, Johannes.’ She took his hand. ‘I gave you no gift. I offered you my burden and you accepted it. It is a heavy burden, heavier than you know.’ Embarrassed, he looked away, to the long horizon. He felt her fingers tighten. ‘If you cannot bear it, you must return it to me.’
At this he forced his face into a smile and said, ‘For your sake, I would bear anything.’ But for the very first time he knew he was dissembling before her.
The truth was that he treasured the ring for his own sake, not hers. Had he not devoted himself with unexampled constancy to seeking out the world’s hidden truths? Was he not the greatest magus since the ancient days? Her ring, he understood, was his reward.
That evening, at the window of his observatory, watching the hunter heave his starry bulk above the eastern horizon, turning the ring between his fingers, he contemplated the worth of that prize.
He thought of the years he had sacrificed to earn his station. He thought of the strength he had lost in solitary study, the pleasures of life willingly foregone. He watched the stars in their fixed and highest sphere, far above time and decay and death. When he put on the ring, he could feel their sweet influence all around him, wasted on the uncaring city beneath. He was the only one who revered their crystalline glory. In a meagre study in Frombork the canon Copernik readied his hammer, preparing to smash the celestial spheres into nothing. The magus knew of his work. All educated men seemed to know it. All over Europe those who called themselves wise ranged themselves alongside the vandal, eager to slay the universe so they could pick over its broken pieces like so many watchmakers. And meanwhile the rabble shouted the name of the monk Luther, who preached that God was not to be found anywhere in His creation. His followers broke images and painted walls white so they could bring themselves as near as possible to the condition of blindness, and proclaimed their cause a holy crusade.
In such a world, was it not his duty to bear the gift of the living creation? And to go on bearing it, as she had? On and on?
For many years now he had worried about what would happen after his death. His own pupils had turned out as venial as common apprentices. Their interest in magic extended as far as transmuting base metal into gold and conjuring obedient spirits who promised buried treasure or maidens’ hearts. He knew of no one to whom he could entrust his art.
Surely, then, this was the burden he willingly accepted: to defy time and decay and death, like the stars.
She had endured through inconceivable expanses of time with the ring on her finger. Why should not he?
He sought her out less often as autumn drew on. Each time he encountered her his heart would lurch. He hardly knew what to say to her any more, and she had never been afraid of silence. Sometimes they did no more than stand mutely together, hands clasped, reluctance in his face and the same abyssal darkness in hers. She never complained about his reticence. Reproach was not in her nature, any more than any other self-tormenting frailty. Still, where her gaze once exhilarated him, it now caused him discomfort. Those prophetic eyes seemed to look inside him.
One late afternoon he was returning from some business outside the city, riding slowly along a straight road under a greenish sky, when he saw her standing ahead, waiting for him. When she pushed back her hood, there was a look of strange disquiet in her face. It reminded him unexpectedly of the first time he had seen her – how beautiful she had been then, how marvellous. He dismounted and embraced her.
‘Johannes.’ Her coarse fingers traced the shape of his cheekbones beneath the skin. ‘I have seen you drowned.’
He stiffened, then eased her hand away, smiling. ‘No,carissima.’
‘All that touches me suffers.’ Her mouth was tense as if pulled tight by pain. ‘A woman drowns but death escapes her. It was you I saw, Johannes.’
So this was what the surrender of her gift had left her, the magus thought sadly: a driveller. She seemed all of a sudden very frail and small. He stroked the tangled knots of her hair.
‘Do not fear for me,’ he said, as he would have reassured any fretful old woman.
A cart’s wheels creaked on the road behind him. He looked over his shoulder and saw the plodding ox approaching, bringing another load of hay into the city. Its hooves rose and fell . . . and then rose but did not fall; the world around the magus and the woman went still, the green-tinted light suddenly luminous and clear like the heart of a gem. He turned back and saw that time had fallen away from her as well. Her face was the same, but now proud, fierce, full of fiery life, the face he had first fallen in love with: the face of a princess. Enraptured, he leaned to kiss her. She stopped him with a finger to his lips.
‘You cannot bear what I have offered you,’ she said.
It was in that exact instant that the magus determined to escape her.
He did not know it at the time, not consciously. All he knew was the rude shock those words gave, but that recoil was the seed that would grow over the next months into his hurried flight on the English vessel. His pride was wounded, and it stung. So suddenly and surprisingly and completely that it was like an emotion felt by another person, he felt a bitter determination to keep what he had won, to keep it for ever.
‘You judged me wrongly, then?’ he muttered.
‘I do not judge, Johannes. You came to me and did not turn away. You heard me. For that I waited for you and for that I love you. Because of that I asked you to take my burden from me. But it is not lifted. It is still mine. I saw the woman in the water. I saw her drown and not die. Her fate was yours. A terrible fate. You must return what I gave you.’
Whatever the magus might have thought of the rest of her speech – and he had rarely heard her speak so many words at once – the final sentence drove every other consideration out of his head. He forgot who she was, her ill-fated name. He forgot what gift had been laid on her. He forgot the idyll of the spring and summer, when he had loved her with his whole soul. The only thought left to him was terror of losing the ring.
‘I have accepted your burden,carissima,’ he said soothingly, and was astonished at how false his own words sounded. But surely it was the truth, the noble truth? ‘I have considered it and comprehended it.’ No other man alive or dead these thousand years could have said the same; was that not so? ‘I take it upon myself.’
‘It will destroy you,’ she said, and now he was equally astonished at how true those two words rang.Te delebit, a peal of fateful syllables, even though he knew she was exactly wrong: the ring was his guarantee against destruction. He had seen how. It would open his path to immortality.
‘It has sustained you,’ he retorted. And what was she after all but a woman, the weaker vessel? He was stronger as well as wiser.
‘Do you envy that, Johannes? Do you envy what I endured?’
‘No, certainly.’ The lies had got hold of his tongue. Everything he said to her was the opposite of the truth, though he believed it.
‘Then let me suffer again. Spare yourself. Return my gift.’
‘It is not with me,’ he said feebly, as if he was a boy caught thieving.
She clutched at his hand. ‘You listen, but you do not hear.’
‘Calm yourself.’ He disentangled his fingers from hers and looked towards the city, hoping the lateness of the hour would rescue him. ‘The gate will close. Let me consider this.’
‘The gate will close,’ she echoed. Her eyelids flickered and an unseasonal shiver ran through her. He doubted she had the city gate in mind. ‘The gate will close. The gate will close.’
A straining creak came from behind him, and the splotch of the ox’s hoof into muddy earth. He mounted and rode back to the city, leaving her whispering inaudibly to herself as the evening sky turned sickly yellow.
He sat awake all that night.
By morning he had determined to cross the sea, to England. It was an outpost remote enough not to be touched by the chaos and bloodshed the planets warned of. There were letters to be written and monies to be raised. He planned it all out while the stars turned, in feverish haste. Despite the sleepless night he began to work at his usual hour the next day, but now he locked and barred the door of his laboratory behind him. He put aside everything he had been studying before that morning, all the instruments of the baser alchemy. A new course consumed him. He unchained tomes he would once have hesitated even to touch, within whose bindings were the shunned and buried secrets of the pagan magicians. Ignorant of heaven, they had devoted themselves to the wisdom of Pythagoras and the Egyptians, who believed that souls might travel from body to body. He began to exhume the most ancient foundation of his art, the forgotten palaces of wisdom, whose only visible remains, like the wave-worn and barnacled spires of a sunken city making strange shapes above the ocean’s surface, were the alchemists’ fraudulent phantoms – the philosopher’s stone, the elixir of youth, grotesque distortions of truths that had been lost since the time of Hermes Trismegistus.
Hermes had lived for nearly a thousand years, and so had Mahalalel and Methuselah the ancestors of Noah.
With the ring in his grasp, he dreamed of a magic that would preserve his soul from bodily death.
All the time he was haunted by the fear of losing it. The gift given in love had become a prize, a treasure, and like anyone else in possession of a treasure the magus became tormented by the need to guard it. It was his own; it belonged to him; it had to be shut away from thieves.
So he made the pouch and spent two weeks warding it, first from common sight and then, gradually, from all other harms and devices that he knew. The only thing he did not know how to protect it from was time: for, powerful as his wards were, they were nevertheless no more than sorceries, barely worth the name of art, and in themselves no more enduring than anything else made by men.
So he made the box to hold the pouch. He built it out of ash and alder, sovereign against fire and water, and then he made its clasp from silver, the moon’s metal, receptive to charms.
Into the clasp he worked a spell of closure and endurance. It was a full day’s labour. Even to call it a spell was demeaning. It was as far above the common magics inscribed on the bag as the magus himself was above a village witch. It drew down the virtue of Saturn, the most secret and lasting of all changeable things, whose station was proximate to eternity, whose meanings were hiddenness and permanence, and it laid that virtue upon the box. Not for ever: even the planets were ruled by time. But the measures of the spheres stretched inconceivably beyond the span of men, and it was only against men that the magus wished to guard his treasure. So he spoke into the clasp a potency measured by the circle of Saturn, and then he spoke it again, to double it. The spell was punishing to pronounce even once, but he could not stop. He had staked his life to his prize. He spoke the charm again, to double it once more, and then again, and then a fifth time. He reached the limit of his strength, but he had made a vault for his treasure that would endure for centuries.
Yet no wards could protect it from the thing he feared most, which was that she might raise an open palm to him again and take back what she had given. If his conscience had been clear, he would have understood the significance of this fear. She had told him plainly enough that the prize he planned to steal away to England did not truly belong to him, but he closed his ears and believed what he wanted to believe: an ordinary man, after all.
As autumn faded into winter, he rarely left the house, and never ventured outside the city. Two or three times he thought he saw her in the streets, as a man might think he sees his doppelgänger, and swerved away, forcing his protesting limbs into an undignified run. He set his servants to watch the door of the house day and night. In that manner, hiding from the truth, the greatest magus in the world prepared himself for his passage to immortality.
‘I’ve never toldanyone this before,’ Marina said, her voice very small.
Gavin could only stare. He’d been ready for bafflement. He’d been ready to be dismissed, or ignored, or even laughed at. He wasn’t even the slightest bit prepared for trust. He had no defence against it.
‘It’s only sometimes,’ she went on. Her skinny hands twisted at the sleeves of her too-big jumper. ‘Promise you won’t tell anyone else.’
He blinked. ‘Um . . .’
‘I’m not supposed to let people see me. I have to be careful.’ She hunched her shoulders. ‘I know you think that’s stupid, but I’m not supposed to. Anyway, she’s never there for long, and I can’t help it, unless I never went near the river at all and I couldn’t give that up. I couldn’t!’
She looked up at him so suddenly and passionately that he had to answer. ‘No,’ he said. ‘Course not. But—’
‘Promise you won’t tell anyone? Not even Daddy. Please don’t.’
His mouth worked without a sound for a while and then at last he managed to say, ‘Tell him what?’
‘You know. Like you said. The woman no one else sees. At least I don’t think anyone else does. I asked Horace about it once. Carefully, obviously, not actually saying about her, I just asked whether there were people living in the river like that, and he said no, that was just stories.’ The sentences tripped over each other in nervous haste. ‘Anyway she always dives away if there’s a boat coming.’
‘And I was reading this book once and there was a picture, so I showed it to Gwen and she said it was something the sailors used to imagine because they’d been away at sea so long. She said maybe once long ago there had been people like that but the world had changed. I think that’s what she said. Or was that something else? I—’
‘Marina, hang on.’
Her hand went to cover her mouth, a comically artless gesture.
‘What?’ she said.
Gav’s head was buzzing. He felt that if he shook it and waited a moment longer, all the words she’d just spoken would turn out to have been hallucinations, and what she’d actually said would have beenDon’t be stupid. Oh come on. That’s impossible. You don’t expect me to believe that do you?But it wasn’t a hallucination, and the reason he knew it wasn’t was that he could see the back of her hand, the slight curve of her fingers, the funny twist of her open mouth behind it, and he’d never in all his life seen anything more completely real and true than those tiny details.
‘What are you talking about?’ he said.
She drew in a breath, opened her mouth, stood there for a second gaping like a fish, then closed it again.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘I’ll show you. This way.’
And instead of carrying on towards the house, Marina stepped off the track into the woods on the downhill side. Her soft shoes sank into leaf mould up to her ankles, but she headed off round boughs and brambles as unhesitatingly as she’d walked on the driveway. The obstacles only made her gait a little gawkier than usual. ‘Come on,’ she repeated.
Gavin stepped gingerly into the carpeted mud. ‘Wait. Weren’t we going back to the house?’
‘It’s not too far.’ Her voice came muffled by the damp woods. ‘Anyway, Caleb said everything was all right.’
‘What’s not too far?’
‘The lookout. Oh, of course, you don’t know about it. It’s a place where you can see through a gap in the trees to the river. It’s just a couple of minutes. I sometimes see her there.’
‘The woman you were talking about.’
‘Miss Grey?’ Gav said, half under his breath. He was completely confused now, his bearings lost as thoroughly as his steps in the trackless wood.
Was it as simple as that? Had he suffered years of misery just because he’d been in the wrong place, talking to the wrong people all along? Was everything that was impossibly obvious to him just as obvious to this one strange girl? It was such an extraordinary thought that he didn’t know what to do with it.
‘Nothing,’ he said. Then, ‘Wait. Who’s Horace?’
She spun round. ‘How do you know Horace?’
‘I don’t. You said something . . . Just now, you said you asked Horace something.’
‘Oh, did I? Sorry. He’s my friend.’ She almost made it sound like a job description, as if she’d saidHe’s my yoga teacher. ‘Come on, we should be quick. I did promise Caleb.’
‘You know what I said, back there on the driveway? What I told you?’
‘Weren’t you . . .’ Surprised? Horrified? Embarrassed? ‘You didn’t think I was making it up?’
She turned back to him again, her face transformed by an enormous teasing smile.
‘I thought you said you could tell when I didn’t believe you.’
Before he could think of how to answer she was off again. ‘There’s a path just ahead,’ she said, gesturing towards what appeared to be more tangled wet brown. ‘After that it’s not far.’
He jogged a few steps to catch up. Was she really taking him to see Miss Grey, the way Mum and Dad took him to visit the boring aunt in the country? They came to a narrow track, no more than a furrow in the rotting leaves. Off to their left was what appeared to be the edge of the wood. The snaking path continued downhill, the slope beginning to descend more steeply. Marina had begun chatting again, as if nothing they’d just said to each other was surprising, as if the secret that had haunted Gavin and shut him up in years of bitter silence was after all just as innocent and harmless as she was.
‘There’s a path for other people over that way. Along the edge of the wood. For walking. Hardly anyone ever uses it, but Caleb says you could get through the fence there if you really wanted to. This one only goes as far as the lookout, then the slope becomes too steep. It’s all right for me to sit there, there’s a footpath below but it’s hidden. Hardly anyone’s about at this time of year anyway. In the summer quite a few people go walking there, but then the leaves are out of course, no one can see. It’s one of my favourite places. You see boats going past. Or just the tide going in and out, like breathing.’
He always seemed to be at least a few sentences behind her, no matter how hard he tried to keep up. ‘What’s wrong with people seeing you?’
‘Oh, they’re just not supposed to. Not you, though. Obviously. Come on, we ought to be quick. I think Caleb thought there might be other people around.’
‘You mean like trespassers?’
‘People who aren’t supposed to be here. You know, sneaking in.’
‘Oh. Yes, that happens sometimes. You’ll have to teach me all these words you know. What was that one for being cross? Pist?’
‘Never mind. So Caleb’s a bit paranoid about it, is he?’
‘That’s another one.’
‘What? Oh. OK. I mean, he’s always thinking there’s people trying to break in?’ Did they have to hide Marina away? Was that why her father had seemed so distant and Caleb so unfriendly? Because the girl was as haunted as he was and they had to protect her?
She frowned. ‘No, I don’t think so. But sometimes people do, by accident. From one of the paths. He has to go and steer them away.’
‘Must be a bit difficult in a place this size.’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Well, you can’t keep an eye on all of it at once. No wonder he’s a bit para— A bit worried about it.’
It was a few steps before she said anything, as if she hadn’t understood him. He concentrated on following, ducking among the glossy leaves of a stand of tall evergreen bushes.
‘Oh!’ She sounded like she’d just worked something out. ‘No, he doesn’t have to see everywhere.’
‘Caleb knows whenever anyone’s here.’
‘’cept me!’ said a boy, stepping out onto the path from an evergreen recess.
Gavin jumped so violently he lost his balance and lurched into the wet boughs.
Marina had all but sprung out of her shoes in surprise; now she whirled to face the newcomer, half breathless, half laughing. ‘Horace!’ she shouted.
‘Bet you never saw me.’
‘Of course we didn’t!’
At the word ‘we’ the triumphant grin vanished from the boy’s face. He flicked a suspicious look at Gavin, who was still busy righting himself, brushing his hands on his trousers and kicking clods of wet leaves from his shoes. Though the boy was small, Gav guessed he was not far off Marina’s age, just a couple of years younger than himself. Unlike her (and unlike him) he’d grown into his body. Gav recognised his type from school: a neat, self-possessed, wiry kid. Give him a football and within minutes he’d have been impressing or embarrassing his elders. Noticing how deftly he slipped among the web of curving boughs, Gav thought of the slight figure he’d glimpsed running down the path into the woods as he left Auntie Gwen’s house. It was obvious from his manner that he didn’t want to be seen by anyone else. He had a dark cap pulled low over his forehead. He was an Asian kid – Gav thought maybe Chinese or Japanese. His eyes looked keen. When they met Gavin’s, there was a mixture of curiosity and defiance in them, the boy’s challenge to another, bigger boy.
‘So who’s this then?’
‘Oh, say hi to Gavin. Gavin’s my cousin. Well, close enough. He’s visiting.’
‘Saw you before, didn’t I? Walking down from the lodge earlier on. Bet you’d no idea I was there neither.’
Gavin closed his eyes. It had only been half an hour since he’d felt himself stepping out of his shell, speaking to Marina, but the sudden intrusion of this kid was already making him want to crawl right back in again.
‘No one ever sees you when you’re sneaking around, Horace,’ Marina said admiringly.
‘Followed him all the way down to the house. Bet you never saw a thing.’ Gav was pretty sure he had, for an instant, but it wasn’t worth mentioning. ‘Come to visit then?’ It sounded like an accusation.
Marina answered instead. ‘I just told you that. Anyway, what areyoudoing here this morning? Shouldn’t you be in your school instead of following us around?’
‘I weren’t following!’
‘You just said you followed me,’ Gav put in.
‘Yeah, well, that’s different.’ Horace glared at him before appealing to Marina. ‘Never seen him before in my life, have I? I see some bloke I never heard of coming out of Miss Clifton’s, walking down the drive, what am I supposed to do?’
‘Gavin is Gwenny’s nephew. That means his mother’s her sister. He’s allowed.’
‘Nice to meet you,’ Gav said, and this time he had the small satisfaction of seeing his sarcastic tone hitting its intended target, though Marina remained happily oblivious to the tension between the two boys.
‘I wish you wouldn’t jump out of the rhododendrons like that. You gave us a fright. Whatareyou doing here today? Are you going to come exploring?’
‘Just on my way out,’ Horace muttered.
‘You weren’t going to stay? What’s wrong? You don’t look pleased to see me.’
The boy took off his cap and ran his fingers through his short hair. ‘Course I am. Got to go, though.’
She pouted. ‘Why? We were going down towards the lookout. Can’t you come for a bit?’
‘No. Not today, OK?’
‘Oh all right then. How about at the weekend? Gavin will still be here then. We can explore together.’
‘Yeah, maybe.’ Horace looked about as pleased with the suggestion as Gav was. He jammed his cap back on.
‘Good. So is today one of those holidays? Or are you being bad again?’
Horace blushed. ‘Course not.’ Now he was doing his best to pretend Gavin wasn’t even there. ‘Anyway, I got to go, innit.’
‘You’re acting very funny, Horace. What is it?’
The boy opened his mouth to dismiss the question, but stopped himself. He was, indeed, very fidgety; even Marina had noticed. He eyed Gavin, who thought it was pretty obvious what was wrong with the kid but certainly wasn’t going to try and explain concepts like competitiveness and jealousy to Marina.
Nothing in Horace’s look prepared him for the boy’s question.
‘You here with your mum then?’
‘Your mum. Miss Clifton’s sister, yeah? She staying here too?’
‘Er—’ Gav began, just as Marina chimed in, ‘No. Actually, Gavin’s mother doesn’t like him. It’s because he’s different. They sent him away on his own – was that it?’ Gav had no idea how to shut her up. ‘He told me earlier. That’s why—’
Fortunately Horace rescued him. ‘So there’s no one else staying?’
‘No. Horace? What’s wrong?’
It wasn’t just the grey light. The boy did look slightly pale.
‘Nothing’s wrong. Seen Miss Clifton this morning?’
Gav and Marina looked at each other. Her breeziness deserted her, all at once.
‘Why?’ he asked.
Marina gave no sign of answering, so, ‘She’s gone off somewhere,’ he said. ‘No one’s sure where.’
‘Yeah, well, I know, don’t I? Saw her down on the rocks just now.’
Gav’s heart lurched. Marina was stung too. ‘What? You can’t have. Where?’
‘Yeah, I did. Don’t tell me what I saw. On them rocks by the cove. Where that ledge is, going out in the water.’
‘No, I told you! Don’t you listen? Just this morning. Earlier on. I just come across, I tied the boat up, I was coming up the path by the shore and I saw her out there.’
‘You can’t have.’
Horace obviously didn’t take contradiction well. ‘Oh yeah? Why not?’
‘Caleb said she’s not here.’
This was the wrong thing to say. Horace threw his hands in the air, fists smacking against branches. ‘Caleb! Bloody hell, what does he know about it?’
‘Caleb knows whenever someone’s here.’
‘Don’t be stupid! Doesn’t know when I’m here, does he?’
‘Of course he does, Horace.’
‘Oh yeah? Well in that case why—’
Gav interrupted. ‘Is that why you asked about my mum?’ A faintly uneasy feeling was stirring in him. Horace and Marina stopped arguing. The antagonism slowly drained out of the kid’s expression.
‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘That’s right.’
‘I don’t understand,’ Marina said.
‘You saw someone who might have been Aunt Gwen or might have been someone who looked a lot like her.’
‘Yeah,’ Horace said, suddenly grateful. ‘See, that’s what’s weird. I was sure it was her . . .’
‘It can’t have been,’ Marina put in.
Horace ignored her. ‘. . . but then she didn’t look quite right, know what I mean? And she was . . .’ The sentence trailed off. Horace looked back and forth between Marina and Gavin, unsure now which of them was his ally.
‘She was what?’ Gav prompted.
‘It wasn’t her!’
But Horace had made his choice. Something was weighing on him and he’d decided to confide in Gavin.
‘I dunno. It was weird. She was like . . . bending over the river.’ Horace mimed the action, crouching low and forwards, his hands waving strangely near his feet. ‘Like she’d dropped something in the water and was looking for it, but in slow motion. And then . . . Yeah. Well.’ Gav must have failed to look sufficiently impressed by whatever the kid wanted to tell him. Horace swept his cap off again and rubbed his head. ‘Look, I got to get going.’
‘I know,’ Marina said. ‘You must have seen someone else who looks a bit like Gwen. Anyone can go along that bit by the shore. And whoever it was dropped something by accident and was looking for it, and that’s what you saw.’
‘You think I’m stupid or something?’
‘You think I don’t know what I’m looking at? I got perfect eyes, me. And I know everyone round here. And OK.’ His temper was up. He straightened his shoulders belligerently, as if he was now coming out with something he hadn’t meant to say but could no longer hold back. ‘I know Miss Clifton’s been acting weird recently. Yeah? Really weird. Bet you never noticed, did you? You never notice stuff like that.’
‘Hey,’ Gav said. Marina’s head hung so low her chin looked like it might bruise her breastbone.
Horace now ignored him, talking fast and angrily. ‘SaturdayandSunday she asked me to go see her. Bet you never realised, did you? You don’t know everything goes on here. You nor Caleb. Something weird’s going on with her, I’m telling you. You need to keep your eyes open like I do. I know lots more than anyone thinks. Lots more.’
‘I know you do, Horace,’ Marina mumbled from her chest.
Only seconds earlier Gav had been about to tell him to shut up and leave her alone, but now he was thinking of the empty house, the voice outside in the dark, the room littered with crackpot books and demented notes. The winter rose.
‘What do you mean, something weird?’
‘Dunno,’ he began, sulky but superior. ‘Hard to describe, innit.’ He waited a moment to be sure he had their attention. ‘But, OK, couple of days ago, Sunday. She said would I stop at the lodge before I went home. And when I did, she’s, like, mental. Really mental. I mean, nice and everything, friendly, like usual, but she’s so excited she can’t hardly speak. Really wound up. I thought she was pretty freaky in the morning, but by the time I went up to say bye—’
‘Wait,’ Marina interrupted. ‘In the morning?’
‘Yeah. I stopped in at hers before I come and see you, and then on the way back as well in the afternoon.’
‘You never told me you’d done that.’
‘Yeah, well, you don’t know everything I do, do you? And anyway, she’s, like, all secretive. Kept smiling at me and going like this,’ and he touched a finger to his lips. ‘Weird. She wouldn’t say why she wanted me to do all that stuff for her, but she—’
He looked at her exasperatedly. ‘Let me finish, all right?’
Gav would have been happy to point out that Horace hadn’t even started, at least not to any intelligible purpose, but he wanted to hear about Auntie Gwen.
‘So look, on Saturday, the day before, yeah? She grabs me before I go home and says will I go check the post for her in Falmouth.’
‘Yeah, she’s got that mailbox there. Gave me the key and all. She said she’s expecting a letter and it’s really important. And she wants me to bring it when I come Sunday, the next day. She said that like fifteen times, like I’m some kind of moron. So anyway, she gives me the key to the box, yeah, and that evening I go and check for her and there’s her letter. So I bring it over for her Sunday morning, like she asked.’ Marina was nodding. ‘I stop by there before I come down to see you, like I said. And when I give her the letter she . . .’ He shrugged exaggeratedly as if lost for words. ‘She looks at it like she’s almost afraid to open it. Like it’s a bomb. And then like I told you, OK, she says will I come by again in the afternoon before I go. So I did, and as soon as I open the door, she gives me this big hug and kiss and she’s, like, totally off her head. Asking crazy questions. Over and over again. Mental.’
‘Like what?’ Marina said, when Horace’s incoherent narrative showed no sign of resuming. Gav hadn’t made much of an effort to keep up with whatever the boy was talking about, but he did find himself wondering about Auntie Gwen waiting to receive a letter. Which day was it Mum had got her letter, the letter he’d stolen and read on the train? Last Thursday? Would Mum have written back to tell her he was coming? Was he the thing she’d been so excited about?
‘I dunno. It was just weird, OK? Like first she was asking about my mum. Like, was she going to that church meeting thing on Monday. All about it. She must have asked, like, five times. “What time is it? Is the priest always there? How long does it usually last?” How was I supposed to know all that stuff? But she’s going on and on about it. On and on. “It’s at lunchtime, isn’t it?” Lunchtime, lunchtime, like that. Then she kept asking where we’d been, like she was my mum. “What were you doing all day? Where did you go?” Asking if we’d been to the chapel. Did your dad go with us? Or Caleb? “Are you sure? Are you sure?” It was like she was too off her head to listen.’
Marina evidently couldn’t find anything in what Horace said to get worried about, though for his sake she tried her best to. ‘Oh,’ she ventured, after a pause. ‘Yes, that does sound a bit odd.’
In all his life Gavin had never met a worse liar. Even that polite half-truth came out of her mouth blaring its insincerity.
‘You don’t get it.’
‘No, Horace, I—’
‘All right, then, forget it. Forget I spoke.’
‘Just forget it. I got to go anyway. Oh, and something else.’ His face had darkened with sulky resentment. ‘You won’t believe this either. Someone was singing. Yeah, I know, I’m making it up. Well I’m not. I heard it.’
Determined to have the last word, Horace was already ducking away. He moved amazingly deftly, barely stirring the glossy leaves. ‘Yeah. Heard it in the woods near the chapel. Just now. Knew you wouldn’t believe me.’
‘Wait, Horace, I—’
‘See you, then.’
But the small figure was already hard to make out among the twisted shadows. They stared after him, Marina stricken, Gavin just happy to see the back of him.
‘Don’t forget the weekend!’ Marina shouted after him. The boy bobbed away and vanished altogether in the undergrowth, heading for the edge of the woods.
‘I think he decided to make an exit,’ Gav said.
Gav suspected that Marina had no experience with displays of temper. In fact she didn’t seem to have much experience of anything. She was the only person he’d ever met beside whom he felt positively worldly.
‘He’s upset. Wants to make it clear to us. So what was all that about?’
‘I don’t know.’ She was still watching the direction he’d gone, as if she expected him to pop back out of the bushes any second. Gavin waited a while in silence in case she was right.
‘But where’s he from?’ he asked, when he was sure the kid had gone. He couldn’t get his head round the idea of an ordinary schoolboy popping up in these woods like that. ‘I mean, where does he live?’
‘Across the river somewhere.’ She sounded distracted. ‘Gwen says his mother’s a kind of housekeeper for people there. She’s from China, which is all the way on the other side of the world, past the sunrise.’
OK, Gav thought.
‘So he just comes to . . .’ He was going to say ‘play’, but the word didn’t fit Pendurra. ‘Um, visit sometimes?’
‘Yes. He has his own boat. I’ve seen it. It doesn’t have a name. I think that’s wrong, but he won’t listen to my suggestions.’
‘So what was he on about? All that stuff about Aunt Gwen?’
‘I’m not sure. He’s not usually like that.’
She was pinching her lip unhappily. ‘He just ran off. Normally he likes talking to me. Gwenny didn’t tell me anything about seeing him this weekend either.’
‘Well, at least we know she’s here now, right?’
‘Well . . . wherever he said he saw her. By the river.’
‘Oh. No, he can’t have.’
‘Because Caleb said she’s not here.’
Gav stared at her, but she gave no sign that there might be anything strange or surprising about what she’d just said.
‘So even if someone else says they’ve actually seen her, he just knows.’
‘Yes,’ she said absently, looking around the woods.
‘That’s a bit hard to—’Believe, he was going to finish, but stopped himself. He’d had this conversation before, over and over again, when he was a bit younger than Marina. Except that he’d always been on the other side of it. The wrong side. So why was he trying to sound like his parents again?
‘I think we should go back to the house,’ she said.
‘Huh? Why? What’s wrong?’
‘I don’t know. Things aren’t like they usually are this morning. I don’t like it.’
‘Shouldn’t we go see if we can find Aunt Gwen?’
‘We don’t know where she is.’
‘No, I mean check out whatever Horace saw. Wherever that is.’
‘Oh.’ She shook her head. ‘Down by the cove past the chapel? No. I don’t want to go that far. I promised Caleb.’ She fingered her neck, exactly as if an invisible lead were attached to an invisible collar and she was checking whether it was tight.
‘What’s this chapel place?’
‘It’s a house all made out of stone. Just one room. It’s off by itself in the woods, out towards the head. No one ever lived there, people used to use it to think about God. That’s an imaginary person who some people think made the world. It’s very old, nearly as old as the old parts of the house. Maybe we can go tomorrow.’
Gav just watched her worried expression until he’d confirmed to himself that she was again perfectly serious. ‘You don’t do much RS, do you?’
Her head drooped. ‘You know all about chapels already.’
‘No, really, I just . . . Sorry. So, this place is on your land somewhere? Like private?’
‘That’s right. Along that way.’ She pointed, though one direction looked exactly the same as another to Gav.
Something was nagging at Gav’s memory, but he couldn’t pin it down. ‘So why was Horace talking about it like that? All that stuff about Aunt Gwen being excited?’
‘I already told you, I don’t understand. Come on, let’s get going back.’
‘No. Wait.’ He was beginning to find Marina’s nervousness a bit irritating. Or maybe it was that he really didn’t want to end up back with the adults, stammering and looking at his feet. ‘We ought to try and help figure out what Aunt Gwen’s doing, right?’
‘Let’s just go and tell Caleb.’
Gav found himself wanting to postpone another conversation with Caleb for as long as possible. Perhaps this time he’d be blamed for making Marina break her promise to go back to the house. ‘Look, how far is it to that chapel? That could have been her Horace heard, right? That singing. Maybe, I don’t know, something’s happened to her.’ Maybe she’s finally gone completely mad.But how would you tell?his father’s voice sneered in his head. ‘Couldn’t we just go and check quickly?’
‘You can’t get down to that path from here. This way ends at the lookout.’
There was something about Auntie Gwen and a chapel, Gav thought. That was what was bugging him, at the back of his thoughts, somewhere. But how could he possibly have known anything about it? He tried to remember whether there’d been a mention in the scrapbook. ‘So what’s inside it? Is it just like a mini church?’
She frowned as if even talking about it made her unhappy. ‘I don’t know. It’s always kept locked. It’s too important to be left open.’
‘What’s important about it?’
‘It just is. No one’s supposed to go there. Someone tried once, a long time ago. Gwen told me the story. They were in terrible pain or something. There was someone else too, more recently. After that Daddy hid the key in the old office.’
Gav was reminded of the rumours Hester had mentioned. ‘Is there treasure in there or something?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘You’ve never been?’
‘Not inside. Well, not since I was a baby, but that doesn’t count. There’s a kind of pool where they took me.’
‘A pool? Water?’
‘Yes, there’s a hollow with a spring. They built the chapel where the spring comes out. That’s the water that makes you well.’ Makesawell? Gav thought. But Marina’s voice was clear as birdsong; he knew what she’d said. ‘We’ll go and look this afternoon. If Daddy says it’s all right. Come on.’ She made to squeeze past him, back the way they’d come.
He sighed. ‘Can’t we at least go to the whatsit? Lookout. Hey, you were going to show me something.’
She pulled herself up short as if someone had yanked her invisible lead. ‘Oh! I forgot.’
‘Please? It’s right here, isn’t it?’
She ran her hands through her hair, raising damp tufts. ‘All right, then. Just quickly.’ But her mood had clouded over. Whatever confidence she’d been about to share with him seemed to have disappeared. Gav couldn’t help catching some of her disquiet. The weird appearance of the boy with his mysterious apprehensions and nonsensical story had unsettled him, reminding him that Auntie Gwen was still missing. It had been a long time now, almost a whole day. Even she didn’t forget things for that long, did she?
They went on in silence together, treading carefully as they traversed the slope. The land was slanting more sharply, right to left, and the track itself was little more than scars of mud. Looking up for an unwise moment to make sure he didn’t lose sight of her ahead, Gav slipped and fell with a squeak of surprise into the wet leaf mould and earth.
‘Gavin!’ He stumbled as he tried to push himself up. By the time he was upright again he was almost coated in fragments of twigs and strips of sodden leaves.
She laughed, a smothered giggle that made her fold in on herself as if she were trying to disappear inside her oversized jumper. ‘You look like a woodwose. I should draw a picture. Are you all right?’
He didn’t think she’d really said he looked like a woodlouse, but he wasn’t going to ask. He was so relieved to have lightened her mood again that he didn’t much care either way. ‘Fine. Just slipped.’
‘Hold my hand,’ she said. ‘Just for this last bit.’
So he did. He blushed at being helped along by a girl two years younger than him and probably half his weight, or maybe for another reason, but she kept her eyes ahead as they negotiated a small upwards slope, and didn’t see. There was an odd stab of disappointment when she let go of his hand as the track levelled out again. He wondered whether maybe she’d felt it too, because she stopped, and they stood a few moments, just the sound of their breath together under the winter branches. Only when he looked around did he realise that they’d reached the spot.
The ‘lookout’ was no more than a shoulder of bedrock sticking out from the roots and earth, a miniature cliff, its top barely wide enough for two small people to sit close together. A tiny stream dribbled down a cleft below it, and along the line of that cleft there was indeed a break in the mass of the trees, opening a narrow slice of the outside world to their view.
Gav had managed to forget how close that world was. Being under the trees was as good as being behind a wall. Pendurra had felt like a separate country. Now he was looking across a wide river, rippled and silvery and tarnished. It was more like an arm of the sea than the sluggish silty water that was what the word ‘river’ meant to him, the river he knew from home. The far bank was a slope of green, stunted trees by the water, a field above.
‘You can see a lot more from the head,’ she said, ‘but out towards the sea. I like this view. It’s like looking through a window. More happens here.’
There were mooring buoys in the river. The tide gently tugged at them. A cormorant perched on one, crooked wings open to dry. A breeze too slight to disturb the trees made patterns on the water like feathers.
‘It’s beautiful,’ said Gav, more than half to himself.
There was no one to call him inside, no one to disturb him. He thought suddenly of Marina’s naïve invitation:You can just stay.The idea of it welled up inside him with such terrible impossibility that his eyes misted. He sat down, wiping his cheek quickly on his sleeve.
‘Are you all right?’
She squatted down beside him, surprisingly close. He turned his head away.
‘I didn’t mean to upset you,’ she said.
To his utter surprise, he had to make a real effort to fight away another trickle of tears. He turned his shaky breath into a pretend gasp of sardonic laughter.
‘You haven’t,’ he said. ‘Trust me.’
‘Gwen did say you were very unhappy underneath.’
He bit his lip and bowed his head. A gust of chill air stirred the trees above them into unsympathetic whispers.
‘We should go back now,’ she said, after a while.
‘What I told you before? About being different?’
‘Yes,’ she said cautiously.
‘I never told anyone else that either. That’s the first time I’ve ever told the truth about myself.’
There was another long pause. When she answered at last, she sounded strangled with embarrassment.
‘Remind me what it was again?’
Gav let out a slow breath, then shook his head. He couldn’t stop himself chuckling bleakly as he pushed himself to his feet. ‘Never mind.’
‘No. Wait, sorry, I got in a muddle with Horace and everything. Sorry!’ She stood up beside him. ‘It was . . . That’s right, that special woman you see. I do remember.’
‘Doesn’t matter. Let’s go back.’
‘Now I really have upset you. Please, I’m sorry.’
‘Nah.’ He looked around for the muddy track and began scrambling back without waiting for her. ‘Some things you just can’t really talk about.’
‘No. You can. Or you and I can. I was going to show you, but I forgot that too.’ He heard her slipping along behind, but he kept striding as best he could. Back to the adults, back to the real world, back to normal. She pursued him like the memory of everything he’d spent the past four years trying not to say. ‘Sometimes when I go and sit there she comes out of the river and watches me. At least I think she’s watching me. No, I’m sure she is. So I was hoping she’d come today and I could show you. Gavin!’
Was there any point even asking her what she was talking about? She was just weird, a weird girl who didn’t know where China was and had never heard of swear words. Auntie Gwen was weird and had got herself lost somewhere. There was some weird Chinese kid wandering around in the woods. All just pointless, nothing to do with him, nothing to do with the nightmare he was locked in.
‘Slow down a bit! Please don’t be cross. I was listening, I swear. Maybe it’s the same. I mean, the same woman. Gavin? We’re like cousins, aren’t we? So it could be the same. Sort of white, with greeny hair? Gavin, wait for me, please.’
Gav stopped and spun round.
‘She’s nothing to do with you. She’s nothing to do with anyone else. She just follows me around.’ Her jaw hung open and her eyes were round with shock; he might as well have been shouting and jabbing a finger at her like an angry teacher. ‘She’s not sort of white and she doesn’t have greeny hair. She doesn’t have anything or look like anything because she’s not real. Get it? She’s not real. She doesn’t exist. She’s nothing. She’s just the curse of my fucking life, that’s all she is. That’s it.’
And now I’m shouting at Marina, he thought to himself, in the horrible silence that followed. The one person I’ve ever met who looked like she might have listened to me and I’m swearing at her. Nice one, Gav.
Marina swallowed and looked down.
‘I don’t think that’s right,’ she said.
What he would normally have done was turn round and march away. He didn’t.
‘You were telling the truth before,’ she told his toes, in a barely audible mumble. ‘But now you aren’t.’
When she looked up again, he was the one who had to look aside.
‘I’d better go first,’ she said after a bit. She slipped round him. ‘Come on,’ she called over her shoulder, and led on through the wood, her stick-thin arms waving like antennae to balance herself, her leather slippers skidding on the wet ground.
He followed in silence. After a few minutes he’d decided he ought to say sorry again, but he didn’t know how. He opened his mouth a few times to try it and failed each time. She didn’t look back until the path returned them to the edge of the garden, its alleys of limp grass and its tumbledown borders, its stranded barren trees. The house loomed up behind it like an antique prison.
‘You should probably get yourself tidied up a bit,’ she said.
He looked down at his filthy clothes and hands.
‘Yeah. Um, Marina . . .’
He saw the words in his head and said them aloud, like a line from a play. ‘Sorry I shouted at you.’
‘That’s OK. Horace does too, sometimes.’
‘I didn’t mean . . .’
But he couldn’t say what he didn’t mean, or did mean. That was his problem. He’d lost the power to say what he meant.
‘Do you have some other clothes?’
‘Yeah. Up at Aunt Gwen’s house.’
‘I’ll wait for you here, then.’
‘OK.’ And to his shame he found he was glad of the excuse to jog away without another word.
He had aquick look behind the lodge before he went in, to check the rosebush. Its flowers were still shockingly pink among the withered greens and browns. He traced them with a fingertip, feeling the night’s rain lingering on the petals’ impossible softness. He thought for a moment about plucking a bloom and taking it to show Marina, but what was he trying to prove? He’d had his chance to tell her about himself, about Miss Grey, to unburden himself, and he’d blown it.
His bag was right inside the door where he’d left it, which was a good thing: the silence of the house had become eerie and he had no wish to go further in. He dropped his damp clothes on the floor and changed as quickly as he could. The only other motion within came from the tealights he’d lit that morning. They were failing now. One sent up a sooty curl as he watched and guttered.
Marina was waiting for him in front of the old house. She examined him, arms folded. To his relief, she seemed to have cheered up. He’d noticed that his absence tended to have that effect on people.
‘Now you look like a dressed-up woodwose. You know, you can tell that you and Gwenny are in the same family. Bits of your face are the same as hers.’
‘She always used to say I take after my mum.’ He remembered (a memory he’d forgotten he had, until that moment) Dad scowling at her once when she mentioned it. As if there were some competition over which of them Gav resembled more, and he’d lost. ‘Her sister. Good thing too. Dad’s side all look like hippos with freckles.’
‘I know hippos. I’ve seen a picture.’
He decided that it was time to stop sneering at Marina’s bizarre conversational habits the way his father would have. ‘Good for you.’
‘I’m more half and half. Gwen says my mother was the most beautiful creature she’s ever seen.’
‘Oh. That’s, um—’
‘Don’t talk about it with Daddy around, though. Gwen says it hurts him too much to remember. OK?’
‘No, right. So where is she now?’
‘She died a long time ago.’
‘Oh. Oh, I’m sorry.’
‘I don’t remember.’ She sounded perfectly untroubled. ‘I was just a baby.’
He looked around for a way to change the subject. ‘So, how long has your dad lived here?’
She cocked her head. ‘Always, I think. My mother did too, before she died.’
‘Ah. You mean . . . your family’s always owned all this?’
‘I’m not sure. You could ask Daddy. He knows all about it. He’s interested in history. I know he went away for a while. He was on a ship. He was in some kind of battle. They said he could come back and stay for ever.’
‘That’s great,’ Gav said, a little bitterly despite himself. He couldn’t help wondering what it would be like to be fond of one’s parents.
‘Gwen says he and Mummy were more in love than anyone. You know what that means? It’s when—’
‘Yeah,’ he interrupted hurriedly. ‘I know. So, um, what’s a woodwose?’
‘You don’t know? It’s a wild man who lives in the woods. Not near here. Other woods. I’ll dig out a picture of that for you too. We’ve got one somewhere.’ She bounced on her heels and scrunched over the gravel towards the rain-streaked front door.
The only child of a place like this ought to have been pale and silent, Gav thought, as he followed her inside. Flitting around like a ghost. Her mother dead, her father an aged recluse. But instead she’d come out as implausibly bright and shiny as the pink rose in the dead vegetable patch. He wondered what she’d be like in a couple of years, whether the discrepancy between her world and everyone else’s would catch up with her, as it had him, and crush the colour out of her and tarnish the shine.
He wondered when he’d see her again after this week, or if he ever would.
Her father was standing at the far end of the hallway. His back was to them. He was gazing out of the window Gav had looked through before, still leaning on his walking stick. You could easily imagine he’d been there since they’d left.
‘Ah,’ he said, turning stiffly. ‘There you are.’
Gav hung back as Marina slid out of her weird shoes and trotted down the dim hall. The presence of another person instantly made him want to avoid having to make any sort of conversation.
‘Where did you get to? Caleb said you were coming straight back.’
‘I wanted to show Gavin the lookout. Sorry.’
‘As long as you’re here now.’
‘What’s wrong? Where’s Caleb?’
‘Wrong? Goodness me, nothing.’ Her father touched her shoulder. Gav thought he didn’t sound very convincing, but perhaps that was just his manner. ‘Caleb has gone out for a while.’
‘Where’s he gone?’
‘I’m not certain. Would you like anything to drink, Gavin?’
‘I would,’ Marina announced.
She took him through to the kitchen. He looked around more thoughtfully this time, now that he felt less like an intruder. In almost every detail the room failed to correspond to any meaning of the word ‘kitchen’ he recognised. There was no fridge. There was no cooker. There were no right angles at all, no ambience of whiteness and stainless steel and order. There was no kettle or toaster. There were no spaces in which such things could have gone, or sockets to which they could have been attached. There weren’t even any lights, he realised. In the high and vaulted ceiling, narrow iron-framed windows opened by arrangements of pulleys and dangling ropes. Their sooty panes grimed the already grey daylight. Marina ducked through an arched opening and returned with a bottle of some sort of juice. She’d pulled the sleeves of her sweater over her hands, as if the bottle were hot to the touch. She got a couple of glasses down from a shelf and twisted off the cap, still with muffled fingers.
They went back to the table where he’d sat before. The fire had been stoked into a big, raw, crackling thing, for heat rather than show. He thought he recognised the drink as elderflower juice, in some cloudy and bitter version, slightly unpleasant in the way expensive organic things always were. It wasn’t hot, of course.
‘Are you hungry?’
He was, but he remembered the peculiar stuff in the teapot and shook his head, promising himself handfuls of Auntie Gwen’s biscuits later on.
Her father was still out in the hall, by the big window at the foot of the stairs. ‘Yes, my love?’
‘Have you found out when Gwenny’s coming yet?’
‘Oh.’ An unhappy little sigh. Gav recognised the signs by now – the droop of her head, the wrinkle of her thin eyebrows – and tried to think of a way to change the subject, but Mr Uren continued, coming into the room.
‘There’s a good chance that Reverend Jeffrey will track her down soon.’ The reassurance was directed at both of them. ‘It sounds as if she was looking for him for some reason. That’s probably where she went, up to the village. I’m sure something’ – and he gestured vaguely with the hand that wasn’t holding the stick – ‘must have held her up.’
‘I told you she wasn’t here,’ Marina murmured to Gav, leaning across the table.
‘It hardly excuses her failure to meet your train, Gavin, but no doubt she’ll tell the whole story when she arrives.’
‘No problem,’ Gav said. ‘Least I got here.’
Mr Uren nodded pensively. ‘Perhaps you should stay in the house until she comes. She’ll be anxious to see you as soon as she arrives.’
Gav was sure her father had another reason for his suggestion, though he couldn’t have said why. Maybe it was just that he’d spoken a little more firmly than usual. Marina, of course, didn’t notice anything.
‘Oh yes. Yes. I was going to show Gavin around later, but we should stay in, shouldn’t we?’
‘I think so.’ He smiled half-heartedly. ‘We’ll find you some lunch in a while. I shall read quietly in my study and keep out of your way.’ Gav cheered up at once. ‘Come and get me if you need me.’
‘All right, Daddy. Caleb thought we should stay indoors too.’
Something unreadable flickered over Mr Uren’s expression, a deepening of the shadows of his face. ‘He has a habit of caution, but . . . Never mind.’ He picked up a book from the edge of the table. His hand was deeply wrinkled, an old man’s hand. Much more like a grandfather than a father, Gav thought. He was certainly old enough.
‘You don’t mind staying here till Gwen comes, do you?’ Marina asked him, as her father left the room through a door on the far side. ‘I was going to show you around the house anyway.’
He found her simple certainty that Auntie Gwen was about to show up almost more peculiar than anything else about her, but he wasn’t going to spoil her improved mood by mentioning it, so, ‘No,’ he said. ‘Course not.’ He wished he felt the same way. Some guardedness in Tristram Uren’s manner had made him as certain as he could be that the old man wasn’t telling them something. And it was obvious to Gav that he’d been waiting for them to get back. He kept thinking of the kid Horace and his weird story, his incomprehensible fidgety nervousness.
But Marina was affected by none of this, and he was determined not to puncture her cheerfulness again. She wasn’t worried, so why should he be? What was there to be worried about? He tried to make himself stop thinking about it.
It was surprisingly easy. As soon as Marina began conducting him behind the house’s doors, along its crooked passages, up its stairs, it became impossible to wonder about anything else.
Gavin had unconsciously assumed that there was a real house hidden out of sight somewhere behind the historic façade. A private family home, where he’d see the fitted carpets, the electric sockets, the radiators, the TV. But the house grew darker and stranger and colder the further Marina led him into it. Its bones and joints kept appearing, the things he’d thought houses always kept out of sight. It was almost like the building was determined to prove to him that it concealed nothing. He saw great slabs of swelling wood embedded in the ceilings or branching from the eaves. He saw bare patches of grey stone anchoring places where walls met, and crosses and curves of iron studding those walls like giant rivets. The walls themselves were uneven, like landscapes – contours of stone behind whitewashed plaster. Except where the rooms had been panelled in dark wood, there were no smooth planes anywhere, no neat, flat, anonymous surfaces behind which all those things that made up a proper house could be hiding, the wires and pipes, the invisible water and heat and light. Everything was in plain sight, rough, used-looking and – most of all – nakedly ancient. Every door was a gate of wood. He could see the nails that held them together, each one a little different from the others. They creaked. He saw and heard the rings of metal that formed their hinges turning as she opened them. Each wall advertised its solidity; Gav kept reaching out his fingers to touch the stipples in the whitewash, the seams of the panelling, the knots in the wood, astonished at how explicit they all were. Even the glass in the windows was visible, full of minuscule waves and bubbles.
Above all the house wasold, old with that sense of foreignness, forgottenness, that he’d caught as a smell the moment he’d stepped inside, old like the sounds of a dead language. It wasn’t anything like a museum. Next to this, all the historic houses he could remember being dragged around were just like costume dramas on the telly. There was no pretence here, no masquerade. As Marina guided him through its dim passages and its mysteriously purposeless rooms, he felt like a visitor from another world. The idea that she actually lived here – that she sat in the strange-shaped chairs with the uneven legs, that she looked out of the distorting windows or warmed herself at the blackened fireplaces, that she kept things in the massive chests like sarcophagi – was simply inconceivable. But he knew better than to say so; he of all people knew better than that. He was never going to gape and blurt outBut there’s no electricity! But there’s no taps! But what do you do all day!He followed, and listened, and tried his best to think of this impossible place as her home.
‘Gwen says there probably isn’t another house like it in the world.’ Marina had stopped by the top of the stairs. A pair of keyhole-shaped windows looked out towards the headland and the sea. Adjacent was a niche in the wall that looked like it had once been a window too, but was now closed up and filled, like much of the house, with books. A lot of them were children’s books with gaudy covers, looking startlingly unlikely in this setting.
‘I’d say she’s probably right.’
‘What do you think? Do you like it?’
‘It’s . . .’ He shrugged. ‘Incredible. Must have stayed like this for hundreds of years.’
‘Bits of it are older and bits are newer, actually. We haven’t got to the oldest bit yet.’
‘Yeah, but . . .’ He chose his words carefully, remembering that a lot of what was obvious to him wasn’t obvious to her. ‘Even the new bits must be way older than most houses. Like Aunt Gwen’s house. A lot of people would say that was quite old, but it’s nothing compared to this.’
‘Oh. Well, that’s because people have been living here for longer. Come and see my room.’
There were clothes on the floor, and bits and pieces scattered everywhere else – scruffy-looking stuffed animals with a faintly tragic homemade air, scratchy clothes in muted colours, chess pieces, paper and pencils and playing cards and trading cards and kids’ magazines. There was a rocking horse, its paint worn away in places to the bare wood. Apart from those things the room was as comprehensively unlike a teenage girl’s room as Gavin could have imagined, not that he’d ever been in one. The bed, for a start, was a four-poster. It had heavy drapes of dark green. There was a large tub of stained metal – maybe copper – resting on a rug in one corner, a porcelain jug beside it, and a folding screen painted with crude flowers leaning against the wall nearby. Despite everything he’d seen so far, Gav refused for a long time to admit to himself that the tub really was a bath.
‘I painted that myself,’ she said. He realised she meant the screen, and made complimentary noises. ‘Well, Gwen helped. We had to make the paints together and work out the mixes for the colours, but I did all the actual flowers.’
‘I might try the fireplace next.’ Like almost every other room he’d seen, Marina’s had a big fireplace with an iron grate and a heap of ash and a basket of scabby logs, obviously used every day. Well, how else would they keep the place warm? Its surround was of reddish wood carved into bunches of berries and leaves. ‘I was going to do reds and browns for autumn. What do you think?’
‘Gwen and I draw a lot.’ She gestured shyly at the paper on the floor.
Course you do, he thought. What else is there for you to do? Thirteen years living like it was still the Dark Ages. No wonder she was a bit different.
‘Daddy’s rooms are just next door but we shouldn’t go in there without asking. I’ll show you the best bit next. I saved it for last.’
Timbers in the floor popped softly as they passed. Centuries of traffic had worn the wood glossy, and where the daylight fell on it from deep-set windows it shone as if they were skimming through puddles of dark water. The passage turned an angle and up a couple of irregular steps, gained a higher ceiling and ended in a doorway of arched stone.
‘You go first,’ Marina said.
He pushed at the door rather nervously and stepped through onto the gallery of a high-vaulted hall flooded with chilly winter light. Huge beams of blackened oak spanned the ceiling at his eye level, still bearing the contours of the trees they’d been hewn from half a millennium ago. To his left was a whitewashed wall with three tall latticed windows that looked like they ought to be in a church. The gallery ran round the other three walls, a simple course of wood railed with thick posts and resting on the ends of beams that stuck out from the wall, except at the end where he and Marina had come in: here it was stone, carved in columns and arches.
‘This is the oldest bit,’ she said, unnecessarily.
Gavin had never seen a room like it. It was grand, but its grandeur was crude, almost primitive. He looked down over the balcony and saw a massive long table, high-backed chairs, a stone floor. Between pieces of furniture Gav had no names for, unexpected things leaned against the walls: a very old bicycle, a wooden ladder, a pair of brooms, an easel, a guitar.
‘We don’t play in here much in the winter. The big windows make it too cold.’ Marina leaned over beside him, her arms propped on the pitted stone. ‘But in the summer you can do all sorts of stuff. We got sheets once and made a longhouse under the table. Or we have races on top. This summer Gwen and I got enough paper to cover the whole of it and we invented our own world and drew a map. I might be able to find that. I could show you.’
‘Sounds good.’ He’d never seen a less likely setting for playing kids’ games. And the prospect of hanging out with a thirteen-year-old girl who still wanted to play house wasn’t exactly his idea of what to do with his unexpected week away from home, but he remembered his new determination to keep her happy. ‘Oh, and you know what? This must be the best house ever for playing hide-and-seek.’
‘Oh yes! I haven’t done that for years. Gwen and I know everywhere now, but you could try and find me. That reminds me, I have to show you the hidden door.’
‘I might have guessed there’d be one.’
She led him round the gallery. It was narrower on the long side of the room, only its low railing of wooden posts guarding the drop. Gav stuck tight to the wall. He almost bumped into her when she stopped abruptly, pointing across the room to the far side. ‘See, if you look over there from here, you’d never— Oh!’
Where she was pointing, on the opposite side of the gallery from where they’d come in, the wall was hung with tapestries, though age and soot had obliterated all but vestiges of whatever scenes they’d once displayed. A break in the fabric appeared as a dark slit, and out of that slit poked the edge of a door.
‘It’s open,’ said Marina, puzzled.
‘Ah. Yeah, but I can see how usually it’d be hidden behind those things. Cool. Even now you can only just see it.’
‘But someone must have gone through.’
‘Well, yeah, presumably.’
‘No one usually goes in there.’
‘Where’s it go?’
‘I suppose it’s fine to look,’ she said, out loud but to herself. ‘If it’s open anyway.’
He followed her around, concentrating on not looking down. She stopped by the gap, pinching her lip. The door behind the tapestries was slightly ajar. A dry and dusty smell leaked out of it.
‘So,’ Gav said, wondering why Marina was now so uncertain, having been so excited about showing him everything else, ‘what’s in there that’s so secret?’
‘Nothing. It’s not very interesting, just piles of old books and things. Not storybooks. Stuff nobody uses any more.’
‘It’s just that Gwen and I were exploring in there once and Daddy came along and got a bit cross. He said it wasn’t a good place to be poking around. Perhaps we should ask him before we look.’
‘We’re not going to poke around, are we?’ He wasn’t going to let meek Marina take over from happy Marina, not if he could help it. ‘You’re only showing me. Come on then.’ He reached over her shoulder to push the tapestry back. It was much heavier than he’d expected. Half the weight was probably dust.
‘Well, all right. It’s only for a moment anyway. There isn’t much to see.’
But there was.
Everywhere else she’d shown him, there really hadn’t been much to see, in the literal sense. The house long predated the Age of Stuff; it was spare, rich only in emptiness. This room was piled with clutter. The door opened onto a rickety landing at the top of a small, steep flight of stairs, built into the room almost like a scaffold. They’d come in right under the ceiling. All around them, reaching down nearly to the floor, were tall cases like old-fashioned library shelves, and all the shelves were loaded with heavy leather-bound things too big to be called books. Ledgers, he thought, though he didn’t know what it properly meant. Each one bore a label, a scrap of paper marked by antique handwriting in faded ink.
Every other room he’d seen had felt too big for what it contained, but this was the opposite. Though the ceiling was high enough to accommodate the staircase, and the outside wall wide enough for two tall windows, it was crammed, like an attic or a closet. The layer of dust was visible as a soft chalky fur. The windows were different too: sash windows, the only ones Gav had seen, and probably, he guessed, the only rectangles he’d seen either. The whole room was squarer, more organised even in its untidiness, a little more familiar. Clearly not as old as the rest of the house, despite dust and mouldering paper. It made him think of an old-fashioned bank, the kind prowled by sinister black-suited men with fob watches and whiskery sideburns. There were wooden desks with lots of drawers built into them, their brass handles speckled with tarnish. On the walls above the desks were big maps, printed, their palette faded pinks and greens and browns. On and around and between the desks was an extraordinary variety of boxes, everything from plain cardboard packing boxes to toolboxes and clunky ribbed suitcases and coloured gift boxes from shops whose names he was sure he’d not have recognised even if he wiped away enough dust to read them clearly. There were lots of framed pictures stacked on the floor, leaning face to face. This, at last, was what he expected an old house to look like: crowded and outdated and quietly desolate, full of unwanted things lapsing slowly into oblivion.
‘Thank you. It tickles my nose.’
‘Hey, look.’ He pointed at the stairs below them.
‘Someone went down the stairs. See? Look at the way the dust is scuffed.’
‘Oh, you’re right.’
‘Where does that door go?’ Gav pointed down across the room.
‘That one? It comes out in the stables. Where there used to be horses. They were rebuilt at the same time as this room. Sort of stuck onto the side.’
‘Well, it looks like whoever it was went out that way. See the bar?’ A thick post of wood had been leaned up against the boxes. The brackets where it normally rested across the door were obvious.
‘I see. It must have been Caleb. He lives in rooms at the top of the stables. He likes it better than being in the house.’
Gav wasn’t surprised. ‘Ah right. Can we go down?’
She sneezed again and wiped her nose on her sleeve. ‘I suppose so. If you want to.’
‘Just quickly.’ Gav could make more sense of this room than anywhere else he’d been, abandoned though it was. He could guess what it had been before it became merely a place to forget things in. The ledgers must be records of some sort, and the maps looked like they might be charts of Pendurra. Perhaps the history of the house was stored here.
Marina stayed on the landing while he went down the stairs.
‘What are you doing? We mustn’t poke around, remember.’
‘No poking. Got it. I just want to have a look at these maps. Is that OK?’
He squeezed round a stack of things like small shipping crates from the age of tea clippers. He was about to lean over the elaborate desk built into one side of the room to wipe the glass on one of the maps when a small gleam caught his eye. He bent down.
‘I think Caleb opened one of these drawers.’
The brass of a handle shone out dully through finger-wide furrows in the dust. Someone had obviously lifted that handle, presumably the same person who’d made the prints on the stairs.
‘Oh,’ Marina said, without much interest, and sneezed again.
The racks of drawers filled most of the space under the desk. Like the ledgers, they were labelled: strips of paper inserted into neat metal slots, handwritten in a slanted curly script that made Gav think of top hats and horse-drawn carriages. A filing cabinet, from before there were filing cabinets. Records of parts of the estate maybe, judging by the labels. Their careful writing was still legible.Higher Wood,South West Wood,Menakey Hide.Johnston’s Acres.East Pasture.Guneal Acres.
Squatting, Gavin went very still.
Beech Copse.Spring Acres.
The next one down, where the dust on the handle had been brushed away:Joshua Acres.
Something clicked in his head. Then, one after another like dominoes, a whole array of things fell into place together.
He opened the drawer. There was nothing inside. He knew there wouldn’t be, not now. He pushed it shut again and stood up.
‘What is it?’
He felt as if he’d been walking around all morning with his eyes half closed, wilfully ignoring the worried looks around him, the things unsaid, the missing person.
‘It wasn’t Caleb,’ he said.
‘Who came here. It wasn’t Caleb. It was Auntie Gwen.’
‘No,’ she said, with a shake of her head. ‘It can’t have been.’
‘This is the old office, isn’t it?’
‘What? Yes, it is.’
‘Where you said your dad hid the key to the chapel. You said something about it. Someone tried to get into the chapel, so your dad hid the key. In here.’
‘Yes. Do you mean—’
‘Hang on.’ He scrunched his eyes shut, trying to concentrate. ‘When your dad found you and Aunt Gwen in here, and didn’t like it. When was that?’
‘I don’t know. Less than a month. Not very long. Why?’
‘OK. Did— Do you know where your dad put that key?’
‘The key to the chapel?’ She was beginning to sound nervy.
Auntie Gwen’s senseless scribbled list, the one he’d seen his name on when he’d put his mug of tea down on it:key chap Joshua Acres. It was the thing that had been nagging at his memory all along, ever since Horace had stammered out his mishmash of a story.Key chap. Nothing to do with a person. The key to the chapel.
‘I told you. In here.’
‘Did Aunt Gwen know?’
‘That the key was in here?’
‘I—’ He saw her starting to panic.