Variations on a Haunting Theme, page 10
Emma was convinced by now that Mrs. Kandinsky was the instigator of this nonsense but before she could say anything Audrey reappeared. ‘Well,’ she sighed, ‘if you must show Emma the Chapter House we’d better get a move on.’
There was nothing else Tom wanted to say. He’d raised the subject, planted the thought in Emma’s mind. She would think about it and not be surprised when he finally spelled out the day the end would come and what he intended to do about it.
As soon as they reached the Chapter House Tom drew their attention to the alcoves with their stone seats set into the circular wall, one for each parish. He pointed to the one marked Compton Bishop. ‘The church at Compton Bishop,’ he said, ‘comes under the care of the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Strange he should care for such an insignificant village don’t you think?’
‘Is it?’ said Audrey admiring the fan vaulting. Emma said nothing wondering what bizarre thoughts he was entertaining now.
‘Yes,’ he continued, ‘it’s as though there might be some special reason for one of the smallest places in the county coming under the church’s protection.’ He said no more having made his point. Emma commented on the worn steps as they made their way down from the Chapter House. ‘Worn by countless feet over the centuries,’ said Tom, ‘but not for centuries to come. If I’m right they’ll be gone in a few months.’
‘What on earth are you on about?’ scoffed Audrey. ‘You do talk nonsense at times.’ Without saying so Emma agreed though she wondered why Tom was talking in riddles.
None of the houses they saw that day or on their subsequent visits was right for Audrey or Tom. It was not until their fifth attempt that they finally found what they were looking for. The whitewashed cottage at Compton Bishop stood in the lane leading up to the church and commanded views of St. Andrew’s tower against the backdrop of Crook Peak. The garden was small but neatly laid out and large enough for Audrey to manage. The north-facing wall overlooking Wavering Down was without a window. ‘We’ll put one in,’ Tom promised. ‘Views like that are not to be missed.’
After a brief inspection Tom took Emma into the garden while Audrey revisited every room deciding what would go where and what needed changing, ‘So,’ said Emma, ‘you really are set on moving aren’t you? I’ll miss your mother.’
‘You could always join us,’ Tom was assuming she’d miss him too. ‘There are three bedrooms.’
Mentioning three bedrooms suggested he’d no intention of sleeping with her.
She wondered again what Tom wanted from her. Shivering at the thought she remembered the cave. How could he think she’d want to spend a night with him there? There were other questions. Why had he acted so strangely at Wells Cathedral with his talk of disaster and everything ending? He was holding something back. ‘You know I can’t join you when you move don’t you?’ she said. ‘I enjoy my work, I like my friends and I don’t want to leave home until...’
‘Until you find someone to marry?’ he said as a matter of fact. ‘Would you come for weekends if I came down to fetched you?’
‘Not every weekend but I’d come now and again. I’d want to know how you and Audrey were getting on.’
‘Fine, that’s what I wanted to know. Let’s see what mother’s been up to.’
For Emma the matter was far from fine. Back at work she was bombarded with questions about how often she’d see him after he’d moved and what long-term plans they had. She said they’d be keeping in touch but when she insisted they were just good friends no one believed her. The only unanswered question in Emma’s and everyone’s mind was why she wanted to stay in touch with Tom. Was she still hoping for something more? Emma remembered the warmth of his hand when they went to the cave and the thrill of him lifting her down when they reached the bottom. Apart from Tom she was fond of Audrey who was like a second mother without the expectations of her real mother. Audrey liked her unconditionally which was reason enough for her wanting to stay in touch.
The process of selling and buying was completed with surprising ease. It was late at night in mid-December, a month before they were due to move, that Tom and his mother were startled by a sudden flash of winter lighting so bright it was visible through the drawn curtains. The strike was followed by a deafening crack of thunder which rumbled on for more than a minute, sufficiently long and loud to unsettle Audrey. Heavy rain had been falling all day and seemed as though it would never stop. ‘Don’t worry,’ said Tom, ‘it’s only the clearing-up storm. It often happens at this time of year.’
‘Well it doesn’t seem to be clearing up. Look at the lightning!’
Tom looked. ‘That’s not lightning,’ he said jumping out of his chair and darting across to the window where a pulsing blue light was flashing. Opening the curtains he peered through the rain beating against the glass. ‘My God,’ he cried, ‘it’s an ambulance outside Mrs. Kandinsky’s house.’ He threw on a coat and ran out into the rain. Two paramedics, a man and a woman, were struggling with the door.
‘Can I help?’ Tom asked. ‘I’m her neighbour.’
‘Only if you have a key,’ said the male paramedic. ‘The door’s locked.’
‘I doubt it,’ said Tom. ‘Leave it to me.’ He pushed on the spot where it always jammed and followed the paramedics into the room. Mrs Kandinsky was slumped in her chair with her eyes wide open and her mouth gaping. The black cat ran from the room as soon as they entered. Dangling on its cord the telephone hung at her side with the ring tone still buzzing. A ball tipped pen lay at her feet and a sheet of paper was sitting on her lap.
The paramedics did what they could before turning to Tom. ‘I’m sorry,’ they said, ‘she’s dead.’
Tom stared in disbelief. ‘She can’t be dead. I was with her today.’
‘Were you close?’ asked the female paramedic.
‘I’m sorry. Is there anything we can do?’
‘Can I read the note?’
‘I’m afraid we can’t touch it. It’s a matter for the police.’ The note was facing upwards on her lap and was clearly addressed, Dear Tom.
‘I’m Tom,’ he explained, kneeling down at her side. ‘Can I read it as long as I don’t touch it?’
The paramedics looked at each other. ‘Make sure you don’t,’ said the female. The words on the note were scrawled but legible. Tom bent his head as close to the note as he could and read, Dear Tom, After you left this afternoon I saw it all again only this time clearer than before. I saw every detail. It was terrifying, truly horrendous, but you, you Tom, WILL be safe if you do exactly as I told you. When I see you tomorrow I shall...
Slowly Tom rose to his feet. ‘There won’t be any tomorrow will there?’ he murmured to himself.
‘Will you be all right?’ asked the female paramedic. ‘Would you like us to see you home?’
Tom walked blindly towards the door. ‘No, I’ll be fine.’
Audrey was in her dressing gown when Tom came back soaked. ‘Here let me take your jacket. What’s happened?’ she asked.
Tom’s face was expressionless. ‘Mrs. Kandinsky’s dead.’
‘Dead? She can’t be. Surely the ambulance men...’
‘They were too late. She must have phoned just before she died.’
‘I’m so sorry,’ said Audrey comforting him as best she could in spite of her mixed feelings for Mrs. Kandinsky. ‘At least she had a good innings.’
Tom ignored the cliché. ‘It’s probably as well,’ he said. ‘She only had a couple of months to live anyway. It will save her from what’s to come.’
‘What do mean?’
‘It doesn’t matter. Forget it. You’ll soon know, everyone will.’
Audrey had no idea what he was talking about. ‘You’re not thinking straight, you’re in shock. Come on. Get out of those wet clothes. I’ll make you a hot drink.’
Tom did as she said. They talked for a while then went to bed.
More than a week later after several restless nights, Tom had finally fallen asleep in the early hours when he was woken by his mother. ‘It’s ten o’clock but there’s no need to rush,’ she said, ‘I’ll make some toast when you come down.’
Tom lay in bed reliving the night of Mrs. Kandinsky’s death. He wandered downstairs and was still in his dressing gown when the doorbell rang. He opened the door to a dull, grey morning and two plainclothes police officers holding out warrant cards. The tall woman spoke first. ‘DI Potter,’ she said, ‘and this is DC Grant.’ She glanced at the shorter man standing beside her. Tom noticed his shoulders were covered in dandruff. ‘Can we come in?’ They were in before Tom could answer.
‘Mrs. Kandinsky was your neighbour I understand,’ said the inspector. ‘We believe you were the recipient of this.’ She held out the bagged note bearing his name. ‘You were with the paramedics when they found the deceased.’
‘Who’s that Tom?’ called Audrey rushing in from the kitchen with a plate of buttered toast.
DI Potter introduced herself. ‘And you are?’
‘I’m Tom’s mother. Is something wrong?’
‘Nothing to worry about madam. We wanted to talk to your son about a note your neighbour wrote before her death.’
She handed Tom the note and he read it as though for the first time. Not wanting his mother or the police to know what Mrs. Kandinsky had meant by the message he did his best to explain it away. ‘She was always anxious about dying,’ he said. ‘When she mentions the horror of seeing it all again she was probably imagining how she would die.’
‘That’s true,’ said Audrey, butting in. ‘I’m afraid our neighbour had a rather morbid imagination.’
‘And what would she have meant by saying you would be all right if you did exactly as she told you?’ asked DC Grant looking directly at Tom.
‘I suppose she meant I’d be all right if I looked after myself. She was always telling me to take care.’
Audrey again sprang to his defence. ‘She was very fond of Tom.’
‘I see,’ said DI Potter, ‘and there’s nothing more you can tell us?’
‘Not that I can think of.’
‘She was in her nineties you know,’ said Audrey. ‘I expect she had a heart attack.’
The detective made no comment. ‘Well, thank you for your time. We may have more questions for you later. Will you be here for the foreseeable future?’
‘Over Christmas we shall,’ said Tom, ‘but we’ll be moving soon after.’ DC Grant made a note of the new address and left in the wake of his superior.
Christmas came and went. On the day after Boxing Day Tom began packing. Ever since Mrs Kandinsky’s death he’d been restless, unable to settle to anything. The packing came as a welcome distraction and within a week was completed. There were no further calls from the police. On the day before they were due to leave Tom called at the local station and asked to see DI Potter. The duty sergeant pointed to a seat and after a long wait DC Grant appeared from a side-door and invited him into an interview room. Tom explained that they’d be leaving on the following day and confirmed their new address. His real reason for the visit was to ask if there’d been any further developments. He was told that Mrs Kandinsky appeared to have died from natural causes and that in all probability there would be no need for him to be contacted again. He was told that the body would be released within the next few days to the local Funeral Director and that he could obtain the funeral arrangements from them in due course. Tom thanked him and left. He would ring the funeral directors from their new home. If there were no other family members the burial arrangements would fall to him in which case he would ensure that her ashes were taken to Compton Bishop and interred in the family grave which would be of some comfort to him.
On the day of the move Tom and his mother left at the same time as the removal van and arrived at Compton nearly an hour before the van caught up with them. It was a cold, miserable morning. ‘I don’t remember it being so dark or so musty,’ said Audrey as they entered the lounge and looked around at the bare walls and the empty space. ‘Even my voice echoes. It feels more like being in a cave than a cottage.’
Tom was tempted to say that she’d better get used to being in a cave. ‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘The echo will vanish as soon as we get the furniture in and the curtains are up. I’ll light a fire later. That should get rid of the damp. There isn’t much we can do at the moment. Why don’t we go for a stroll up the lane?’
There was no one about in the lane leading up to the church. ‘I hope it isn’t always as deserted as this,’ said Audrey. ‘I won’t be making many friends if it is.’
Tom noticed a flicker of fear in her eyes and hoped she wasn’t already regretting the move. ‘You’ll be fine,’ he said. ‘The church will probably run all kinds of groups, Mother’s Union, Knit and Natter, lunch clubs and so on. You’ll make plenty of friends.’ He knew she wouldn’t. Apart from their brief visits to St. Andrew’s when they came to tend the grave Audrey kept well away from church. The last time she’d been to a service was when his father was buried. They never discussed religion. He sensed that as far as she was concerned the subject was taboo. As for joining clubs and meeting people, the only people she spoke to back at home were the local shopkeepers. Now there’d be no more shopping trips unless they travelled to Bristol or Wells. But what did it matter? By the end of February there wouldn’t be any shops or shopkeepers.
They walked as far as the corner and were just yards from the church when they decided to turn back in case the van had arrived. It hadn’t. ‘What do we do now?’ Audrey said.
‘We’ll go inside and have a nice cup of tea. I brought all we’d need in the car.’ He unloaded everything, put some cold food in the fridge and was just about to boil the kettle when the van arrived. ‘There’s nowhere to park,’ the driver complained, ‘We’ll be blocking the road.’ He called to the young lad sitting in the lorry reading the paper. ‘Come on Bobby, get a move on!’
For the next hour they traipsed in and out with their awkward cargos while Audrey issued instructions. Unlike their previous house the doors here were narrower and the staircase steeper which made things difficult. When the work was finished the men drove off leaving Audrey and Tom to sort things out before bedtime.
After a good night’s sleep Tom woke first. One day more and one day less was the first thought that came to mind as he climbed out of bed and made his way to the bathroom. As yet the telephone line hadn’t been reconnected. Never having bought a mobile phone his first problem was how to get in touch with the funeral directors. There was no telephone kiosk in the village. He would have to discover the whereabouts of the nearest one. He was already dressed and downstairs when Audrey appeared. After breakfast her mind turned to the practical problem of shopping. ‘Where will the nearest shops be?’ she asked.
Tom had no idea but the answer came from a woman who was arranging flowers in the church when they visited during the morning. They were told that Wells and Weston-Super-Mare were the nearest places for a proper shop but that Cheddar had a Tesco Express which kept most things for emergencies.
‘We’re miles from anywhere,’ Audrey moaned as they drove to Cheddar later that morning.
‘It’s not that far,’ said Tom. ‘Cheddar will do for the essentials and we can always stock up once a week from one of the other places. It’s a small price to pay for living in the country.’
On their way back to the cottage they passed the New Inn at Cross where Tom suggested they should stop for a drink.
‘Doesn’t look very new to me,’ said Audrey as they entered the bar.
‘What would like?’ Tom asked knowing in advance what she’d say. Having received the answer he expected he went to bar to order a glass of white
‘No problem. You can use ours anytime.’
Tom thanked him and was tempted to ring then and there but decided he’d come back later. He hadn’t mentioned Mrs. Kandinsky’s funeral to his mother or his plans for the ashes. Knowing she’d disapprove it was wiser to say nothing. They had their drink and returned to the cottage. After lunch Audrey took herself off to bed for her afternoon nap. Tom pretended he needed petrol and drove back to the inn to use the phone.
The funeral he discovered would be at the town’s crematorium on the following Monday at 11 o’clock. The directors said they’d be happy for Tom to have Mrs Kandinsky’s ashes if no one else claimed them.
His next call was to Hoskins, Dyer and Blake. ‘It’s Tom Gray,’ he said to the girl who answered. ‘Can I speak to Emma?’ After a short wait Emma came to the phone.
‘Tom? Is everything all right?’
‘Everything’s fine. We’re settling in. Mother sends her love and wonders if you’d like to come and stay this weekend. I could pick you up on Saturday and get you back in time for work on Monday morning.’
There was a long pause. ‘Monday? Why not Sunday night?’
‘It’s just that I need to be there on Monday. It’s Mrs. Kandinsky’s funeral and I’d like to be at the crematorium. I’ll probably be the only one there apart from the priest.’
‘Tom, that’s awful. Would you like me to come with you? I’ve got time owing. I could easily take the day off.’
‘Yes, that would be good but...’
‘Well you know how my mother feels about Mrs. Kandinsky. I don’t really want her to know about the funeral. Would you mind if we kept it to ourselves?’