Variations on a Haunting Theme, page 1
Variations on a Haunting Theme
First published in 2017 by
Digital edition converted and distributed by
Andrews UK Limited
© Copyright 2017 Alan Millard
The right of Alan Millard to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998.
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. Any person who does so may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.
All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
I suppose I should have been flattered. Though Howard and I had been members of the same club for several years I knew little about him apart from the fact that he was a retired architect, unmarried and uncommunicative. He’d never spoken to me or any of my companions until that dark winter’s night when just as I was leaving he stopped me at the door and asked if I’d come to dinner with him on December the twenty ninth. Taken aback but being too slow to come up with any excuses I agreed. And so it was on the following week I found myself climbing the flight of stone steps to the Gothic-arched doorway of Slade House, a large, rambling dwelling built from granite as grey as the cloud that covered the late afternoon sky.
Standing under the porch I heard piano music coming from somewhere inside. I remember how calming it sounded and but for the bitter cold I’d have listened for longer. As it was I tugged at the bell pull and waited. Almost at once the music stopped and the figure of Howard appeared in the doorway. At first he stared at me as though he had no idea who I was or why I was there but then with a look of half-recognition he gestured for me to enter.
‘Howard,’ I smiled, ‘good to see you. You’d not forgotten, had you?’
‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘Come in! Come in! You look chilled to the bone. Here, let me take your coat. I’ll bank up the fire.’
Reluctantly I removed my coat and without being asked settled myself in a leather arm chair in front of the inglenook fireplace. While Howard rummaged for logs in the hearth I glanced around the room. Apart from the glow of the fire the only other source of light came from a candle on top of the grand piano. The room was sparsely furnished with two leather chairs, a long wooden chest, a bookcase, a dining table and a grand piano which filled most of the space. The grey walls were discoloured by smoke from the fire.
I looked at Howard who stood gazing into space as if in a trance. Tall and slightly bent I imagined him to be in his late sixties. His face was gaunt and with bony cheeks, a prominent forehead and deep-set eyes there was something distinctly reptilian about him. His shabby, tweed trousers and oversized sweater hung from rather than clung to his frame. Nothing about him appealed to me and yet here I was wondering now more than ever what madness had brought me here.
Suddenly stirring from his reverie as though he’d just remembered I was still in the room he turned towards me. ‘William,’ he said, ‘it is William isn’t it? What can I get you?’
‘Whatever you’re having,’ I answered, ‘and please call me Bill. Everyone does.’
‘Yes, I’d noticed. One of my old work colleagues was nicknamed Bill though I much preferred to call him William. Do you mind if I call you William?’
‘Not at all.’
‘Excellent, William it is. Would whisky suit?’
‘Sounds good to me.’ I was eager for anything alcoholic to relieve the formality. I dreaded an evening of small talk but as things turned out I needn’t have worried. Later that night I would learn more than any sane man would care to know.
While Howard was fetching the whisky a number of questions sprang to mind. Why had I been invited here and none of the other club members? Knowing so little about him why had I agreed to come? Who was Howard and what was his background? Did he know more about me than I knew of him? My train of thought was suddenly interrupted by the sounds of spitting and hissing. The logs had caught light and the fire was ablaze. I should like to have said I was cheered by the sight but in spite of the dancing flames the fire gave little warmth. If anything the room felt colder than when I’d arrived. Filled with a sense of unease I was pleased to see Howard appear with two large glasses and a bottle of single malt.
‘There’s plenty more where this came from,’ he said, pouring the whisky and raising his glass. ‘Here’s wishing you an eventful new year.’
‘And here’s wishing you the same,’ I replied although being a retired widower living alone I couldn’t imagine the coming year being more eventful than any other. Since my wife’s death I’d become a recluse, set in my ways. Most days were the same - a stroll into town, the walk back home, perfunctory nods to passing acquaintances, coffee, the crossword, lunch, the News, an afternoon’s nap and a few hours in front of the tele before setting off to the club. There were people there I’d known for years and we’d spend most nights talking over old times and putting the world to rights. Others mixed in similar groups. Only Howard kept himself to himself sitting alone in a corner observing everyone without making any effort to get involved. Yet here I was away from my normal circle of friends having dinner with a virtual stranger.
‘Is it too dark for you?’ Howard asked downing his drink in a single gulp and refilling his glass.
‘A little,’ I admitted, thinking he’d switch on the lights.
‘I thought it might be. I’ll fetch some more candles. I won’t be long.’ And so for the second time I was left to look at the room and wait for what seemed like an age before he reappeared with two candles. Placing one on the table and the other on the wooden chest he returned to his chair. The flickering light from the candles produced a weird display of shadows dancing over the walls transforming the place into how I imagined Hell might look. It was disconcerting to say the least and increased my already growing sense of foreboding.
Howard seemed happy enough. ‘That’s better,’ he said. ‘I’ve never liked electric lights. Candles add to the ambiance don’t you think?’ I gave him a non-committal smile. ‘I expect you’re wondering why I invited you here tonight and none of the others.’
‘I suppose I am,’ I admitted. ‘The invitation was something of a surprise.’
Howard topped up our glasses. ‘I’ve noticed the way you look at me no doubt wondering why I sit alone at the club never mixing with anyone.’
‘Not at all,’ I replied, untruthfully. ‘You seemed contented with your own company and why not? There are times when we all prefer to be left alone.’
‘True, though I wasn’t exactly alone. I was more engaged with each of you than you might have realised.’
‘Oh, in what way?’
‘Watching, taking everything in, getting the measure of each of you. I too needed someone to talk to you see but it had to be the right person.’
‘And you thought that might be me?’
‘Yes, but only after observing your friends.’
Describing each one he summarised their main characteristics with perceptive accuracy: Eric Short, the retired clerk who was only interested in talking about himself; Arthur Daw
Although I felt annoyed that he should be criticising friends of mine he’d never met I had to admit he had them off to a tee. ‘So what were your thoughts about me?’ I asked.
‘Ah, you were different. You listened to the others attentively noticing subtle nuances, seeing through their words to the meaning behind them. There was something about you, a certain susceptibility and vulnerability marking you out as someone receptive and understanding, someone I could talk to.’
‘And you had something you wanted to share with me?’
‘I did, but that’s for later.’
By now I was feeling light-headed and was pleased to hear Howard mention food. ‘I was never much of a cook,’ he said, ‘but there’s a beef stew on the stove. I’d better see how it’s coming along. Join me in the kitchen if you’d like.’
I followed him to the kitchen door and paused by the wooden chest where the candlelight fell on a collection of framed photographs of various individuals whose features were obscured in shadow.
‘Has something caught your eye?’ Howard asked.
‘Only these photos. Are they friends of yours?’
‘I thought you might ask. Yes friends or acquaintances. They were colleagues at work.’ He lifted the candle and taking each photo in turn he described their subjects and what had happened to each: Marcus, once a director but now in an institution, mad as a hatter; Simon and Matthew who wrongly believed they were inseparable; Gary who met with an untimely death; Tom whose obsession with the occult led to tragic consequences; Trevor who was wrongly imprisoned for life through no fault of his own and Paul, missing presumed dead. ‘But this,’ he sighed, picking up the last of the photos and pausing to catch his breath, ‘this is a woman I hardly knew but as you’ll discover, a woman whose tale is the strangest of all and my main reason for asking you here.’
By now I was intrigued and eager to know all about them but Howard was already leading me into the kitchen with its oak-beamed ceiling and oil-fired range on which the stew was slowly simmering.
‘There’s home-made bread in the oven,’ he said. After he’d sampled the stew and checked the oven we returned to our chairs.
Wondering what to talk about next I mentioned the music. ‘That piece I heard when I was standing in the porch, was it you playing?’
‘It was. Did you like it?’
‘Very much. I should like to hear it again sometime.’
‘Then I’ll play it for you now. It’s the Aria from Bach’s Goldberg Variations, an architectural masterpiece!’
Whatever it was or whoever had written the piece, it sounded extremely restful. The melody drifted along like a slow-running river rising and falling with intricate twiddles like eddies all timed to perfection. And listening as a child might to a lilting lullaby I drifted into a state of complete relaxation. His fingers caressed every note as though each was a long-lost friend he’d known and was now remembering. Completely entranced I sat back in that old, leather chair wanting the music to last for ever when Howard suddenly paused just as the piece was about to end.
‘Is there more to come?’ I asked.
‘Oh yes,’ he said letting his little finger fall belatedly on the final note. ‘There’s far more to come but first we must eat.’ He served up the stew with the homemade bread and we sat to eat.
2: Variation 5 - Marcus
I enjoyed every mouthful of what turned out to be a simple yet nourishing meal. After we’d finished I gladly accepted another glass of single malt. ‘That music,’ I reminded him, ‘you said there was more to come.’
‘Indeed there is.’ He went back to the piano. ‘What do you think of this?’ Suddenly his hands thundered across the keyboard at lightning speed performing a piece which was deafeningly loud and not particularly restful. ‘Well?’ he said. ‘What did you make of that?’
‘It was... different from the first piece, a little frenetic but certainly full of vitality,’ I suggested diplomatically.
‘Vitality, exactly - and that was Marcus - exuberant, spirited, energetic and irrepressible, just like that fifth variation.’
‘Ah yes, Marcus. Wasn’t he the senior architect in the first photograph you showed me, the one who...’
‘Went completely off his rocker and ended up in a madhouse? Yes, that was Marcus. Quite a story! Why don’t we sit in front of the fire and I’ll tell you all about it.’
In a tastefully converted barn on a wooded hillside near Sherborne, Rebecca Blake was getting the children ready for bed. Never an easy task it was proving to be more difficult than usual on this particular night since Michael, a boisterous ten year-old and his younger sister Laura, were over-excited. Tomorrow would be the first day of their annual family holiday.
‘Can we stay up till dad gets home?’ Michael asked.
‘Only if you get into your pyjamas ready for bed.’
Eight miles away her husband Marcus stood on the porch steps of the office and glanced at the brass plaque screwed to the wall - Hoskins, Dyer and Blake - Architects. Being an enthusiast who enjoyed his work he wasn’t sure whether to be pleased or not about taking time off for a holiday on the Isle of Wight. He would rather be flying to somewhere more exciting. Two weeks in a self-catering cottage seemed dull by comparison. Sadly foreign holidays were out of the question. Rebecca suffered from claustrophobia and would never be tempted to board a plane. And Marcus who’d always lived in the fast lane would never agree to travel abroad by coach or car. But what did it matter, Costa Rica or Cowes? Being positive by nature he’d enjoy himself wherever they went. With one last glance at the plaque he climbed into the Land Rover and headed for home.
Later that night Marcus tucked the children up and answered their endless questions about the Isle of Wight in his own inventive and spellbinding way. He filled their minds with fantastic images of an island more mysterious and magical than any dreamt up by Arthur Ransome or Enid Blyton.
‘Do you think it’s wise to be building up their expectations with stories like that? They’ll only be disappointed when they get there and discover it’s no different from anywhere else.’ Rebecca had overheard everything and was sipping a glass of wine as they sat to eat. Earlier in their relationship Marcus’s ability to spin silly yarns had amused her but over time she’d come to regard them as tiresome and infantile.
‘Don’t worry. They won’t. I’ll make sure of that.’
‘I hope you’re right.’ Rebecca’s only experience of the island was a vague childhood memory of a day trip to Ryde and of being dragged up a steep hill to look at a church with a steeple. She expected this holiday to be an equally forgettable experience and in retrospect would wish that it had been.
It was nearly noon on the following day when the car ferry docked at Fishbourne after a choppy crossing in weather more like March than June. With everyone glad to be out of the wind and back in the car Marcus started the engine and inched his way towards the gangway. ‘That’s one small drive for a car and one giant island to explore,’ he said in his best Neil Armstrong drawl as the wheels moved on to the tarmac.
‘I wonder what language they’ll speak.’ Laura was convinced that by crossing the Solent they’d landed on foreign soil.
‘English stupid,’ sneered Michael crushing his sister’s curiosity and prompting a sharp rebuke from his mother which dampened everyone’s spirits. As they headed for Cowes there was little to see but hedges and trees on either side of the road. It wasn’t until they crossed the creek at Wootton Bridge that the landscape opened out and with it the c
Soon after the creek a roundabout came into view with two possible exits. ‘Which way now?’ shrieked Marcus pretending to panic. ‘Newport or East Cowes? ’
‘You choose, daddy!’ said Laura never doubting her father always knew what to do for the best.
‘East Cowes it is then!’ Marcus had long since pre-planned the journey knowing the East Cowes route with its floating bridge would excite the children.
The wind had dropped when they reached the river Medina glistening ahead with its odd assortment of quayside buildings lining the banks of Cowes on the opposite shore.
‘Wow!’ squealed Michael staring ahead in disbelief at the strange contraption attached to its heavy chains. ‘Are we crossing on that?’
Marcus was right. The children were overwhelmed as the ferry moved away from the shore. The Isle of Wight would be full of surprises just as he’d promised them.
Since it was only two o’clock and they weren’t expected at the cottage till four they decided to park the car and stretch their legs. In need of refreshment they found a café. Once seated Marcus turned his attention to Rebecca. Shorter than Marcus, her dark, shoulder-length hair was beginning to silver in places. A little tubby (or cuddly as Marcus described her) she’d given up a promising career as a solicitor in order to care for the family. As an active member of the PTA and parent representative on the school governing body it had been Rebecca who’d involved herself with the everyday lives of the children sorting out squabbles and laying down the rules. Marcus was more like a friendly uncle, happy to play the good guy leaving Rebecca to deal with the bad stuff. Noticing the shadows under her eyes and her anxious expression he wondered what she was thinking. ‘Is everything all right?’
‘Yes, why shouldn’t it be?’
‘Just that you look tired.’
‘It’s been a long journey.’
‘And there’s nothing else bothering you?’