Variations on a Haunting Theme, page 11
In spite of her misgivings Emma agreed and the Saturday pick-up time was arranged. Tom replaced the handset and left a generous contribution by the telephone to cover the cost of the call. He thanked the landlord and left.
His mother was up reading a magazine she’d bought in Cheddar when he arrived back at the cottage. ‘Did you get the petrol?’ she asked.
‘I did. By the way, before we moved I arranged for Emma to come this Saturday for the weekend. Will that be all right?’
Audrey’s face lit up immediately. ‘Of course it will. I can’t wait to see her but we’ll have to go for a proper shop. Can we go to Weston? I haven’t seen the place for years.’
Tom was pleased to see his mother smile for the first time since they’d moved and promised she could go wherever she wanted and buy as much as she liked. His plans were beginning to take shape. All he had to do was to find the right moment to explain the true reason for the move to Compton Bishop and convince both his mother and Emma that they’d have to spend the last day of February with him in the cave if they wanted to survive.
The rest of the week passed uneventfully. Audrey spent her time knitting, reading and watching day-time television while Tom went out walking. Each day he took the same circular route climbing to the peak, striding over the ridge to Wavering Down and returning to the village by way of a steep track leading down from the hill. He usually called at St. Andrew’s to look at the churchyard. He intended to bury Mrs. Kandinsky’s ashes in the family grave and wondered about asking the vicar for permission but decided against it in case he refused. He would bury the ashes when no was about. On Friday they shopped at Weston as he’d promised. What he didn’t expect was his mother’s insistence on coming with him to fetch Emma on the Saturday but he was happy to oblige. It would save him from having to think of things to say to Emma on the journey.
The weekend was a success especially for Audrey who enjoyed having someone to talk to. Emma made use of her machine-sewing skills and took up the curtains from their last house to fit the considerably smaller cottage windows. On the Saturday afternoon they went again to Weston where she and Emma looked in shops while Tom sat in the gardens considering if this weekend might be the time to reveal his intentions. After some thought he decided that nearer the day might be better. The imminence of the event might convince them to believe him.
On Sunday Tom suggested a trip to Burrington Combe. He remembered the place from childhood trips with his father who, unlike his mother, had vague religious beliefs and liked the hymn Rock of Ages. On arriving there was no escaping the café which Audrey spotted immediately. She insisted on treating them all to tea and scones. They sat at a window overlooking the rock and as soon as they’d finished eating Tom took Emma across the road for a closer inspection.
‘Impressive, isn’t it?’ he said gazing up at the grey rock with its slanting fissures gaping like wide open wounds rising up from the base. ‘Come on! Let’s climb up.’ Just as he had on Crook Peak, he once again took hold of Emma’s hand to help her up the shallow bank and she felt the same burning excitement when they touched. They reached the rock and squeezed together into the cleft with their bodies pressed tightly against each other. Emma wondered if this were the only way he felt able to get close to her. If only he knew how much she wanted to hold him at that moment. She looked up hoping to make eye contact but he was staring upwards. ‘Do you know the story of the rock?’ he said easing her out of the cleft back on to the bank and letting go of her hand.
‘Why it’s called the Rock of Ages.’ He related the tale of how the Reverend Toplady caught in a storm was said to have sheltered where they’d been standing. Seeing the cleft as a symbol of God’s protection he’d written the hymn, Rock of Ages. ‘It’s strange how rocks can protect isn’t it?’ he said.
‘Or kill, Emma thought. She was suddenly feeling uncomfortable. He was talking as he had at Wells and in the cave. Why was he obsessed with rocks and protection? Only moments before she’d longed to be close to him. Now the distance between them felt unbridgeable and she was glad to get back to the car.
Their journey to Yeovil early on the following Monday passed in awkward silence. The downpour started soon after they left and it was still pouring when they arrived at Emma’s house. ‘I’m just popping in to change,’ she said. ‘Would you like to come in? Mum and dad are always asking about you.’
‘No, I’ll wait in the car.’
Emma pulled her coat around her and disappeared into the house. After a short time she reappeared at the door with her mother standing beside her. After kissing Emma her mother looked directly at Tom and gave him a smile and a wave. Not sure how to react Tom gave her a half-hearted smile in return and sped off as soon as Emma was in the car.
They arrived at the crematorium twenty minutes early and waited outside under the covered entrance. The rain showed no signs of clearing. If anything it was getting worse. A long line of mourners emerged from the previous service and strolled in silence around the side of the building to gaze solemnly at the wreaths and flowers laid out along the cloistered corridor. Soon afterwards the hearse bearing Mrs. Kandinsky’s coffin drew up. As the occupants climbed out a white-haired priest appeared and walked over to Tom and Emma. He introduced himself as the Reverend Porter and asked if they were Mr. and Mrs. Gray. Emma blushed. Tom didn’t bother to correct him. He decided the vicar was only there to supplement his paltry pension and would have no more interest in them or Mrs. Kandinsky than a duty solicitor would have for his unfortunate client.
Ignoring Emma the priest spoke quietly and apologetically to Tom. ‘I’m afraid I know very little about the departed,’ he confided. ‘Is there anything in particular you would like me to say about her?’ Having been told there wasn’t he led them into the crematorium. Tom scanned the empty rows of seats and chose to sit at the front with Emma at his side. As soon as they’d settled the subdued notes of a pipe organ recording sounded from the speakers. The bearers carried the coffin to the front of the chapel and left discreetly. When they’d gone the Reverend Porter began chanting the words of the service. Tom wondered how he’d react if he’d known that within a short time everyone would be dying with no one to bury them.
When he’d finished the priest explained that as there was no one to speak about the life of the departed he would proceed directly to the Commendation and Committal. At that point Tom stood up and announced in loud voice that he did have something to say after all. Looking confused the priest stepped aside as Tom marched to the front and turned to face the empty room as though he were about to address a packed congregation. Emma sank into her seat feeling as embarrassed as Tom was confident.
‘Mrs. Kandinsky,’ he said, ‘was more than a friend to me. She was my soulmate and in many ways more precious to me than...’ He paused and fought back a wave of intense grief, the first time Emma had ever seen him act with any sign of emotion. Regaining his composure he drew himself up and continued with the eulogy, ‘... more precious to me than even my own mother. We have heard,’ he said, now getting into his stride and looking around the room as if he were speaking to an enthralled assembly eager to hear his every word, ‘we have heard from the priest many wise words but nothing to match the wisdom and knowledge that came from Mrs. Kandinsky’s lips. She could see into the deepest secrets of the cosmos. Blessed with the gifts of divination and prophesy she could look into the heart of the universe and understand its workings and meanings. And I was a witness to her incredible insights and revelations, the only one with whom she could share what she saw, indeed the only witness she ever had. Before she died,’ and here again he paused to hold back tears, ‘before she died she told me something I’ve never shared but which in all to too short a time will be known to all. I can hear her now...’
What happened next astonished both the priest and Emma. Tom suddenly stopped and stared towards the back o
‘What on earth happened?’ asked Emma as they made their way through the rain back to the car.
‘You won’t believe me if I tell you but she was there, Emma, she was there at the back of the chapel. She was looking at me with her index finger raised to her lips just as I was about to tell everyone what she’d told me days before she died.’
‘What do you mean, everyone?’
‘Didn’t you see them? The chapel was packed when I stood to speak.’
‘‘No I didn’t see them. I was looking at you all the time though I don’t doubt you believe you saw them.’
The only thing Emma didn’t doubt was that Tom had imagined it all. Not wanting to believe he was mad she put it down to grief. As to whatever Tom was about to share with his non-existent audience she didn’t ask. All she wanted was to be taken home as soon as possible. When or if she would see him again she didn’t know and didn’t much care.
As soon as he’d dropped her off Tom drove to the Funeral Directors to arrange for the ashes to be sent to the New Inn at Cross where he could collect them without his mother knowing. Having settled the bill for the funeral and pre-paid the postage for the ashes he set off for home. The rain had stopped by the time he reached Cross where he called at the New Inn. He explained to the landlord that he was expecting a parcel, a birthday gift for his mother which he wanted to keep as a surprise in case it arrived before her birthday. The landlord agreed to accept the parcel and Tom returned to the cottage.
There were many more walks in the days that followed. Apart from Saturday’s when they went to Weston for the week’s shopping Tom’s time was his own. In the mornings he took his usual walk and in the afternoons went the mile or so down the lane to see if the ashes had arrived. After several days of disappointment they finally came.
‘That’s a sizeable birthday gift,’ said the landlord handing the parcel to Tom. ‘Something special for your mother, is it?’
‘Nothing exciting, just a vase she saw at Wells and liked.’
‘Well wish her a happy birthday from me when it comes.’
With the parcel tucked under his arm he walked back to the village. Instead of taking the road to the cottage and risk being seen by his mother he took a different route to St. Andrew’s. There appeared to be no one about. To be sure he was on his own he popped his head inside the door. Finding the church empty he crept around to his father’s grave. Fortunately the rain had softened the soil. With a sharp-edged stone and a stout stick he lifted a sod and scooped out sufficient soil to make a hole large enough to accommodate the ashes. He then removed the plastic urn from the parcel, unscrewed the lid and tipped the remains of Mrs Kandinsky into the hole. Staring down at the grey grit he muttered a few appropriate words and replaced the sod treading it firmly into position with the sole of his foot. After ditching the urn in a hedge he strolled back to the cottage.
‘You’ve been a long time,’ Audrey said. ‘It’s already dark.’
‘Yes it is dark, very dark,’ Tom replied.
‘Since you’ve been gone they’ve got the telephone working. You’ll be able to phone Emma won’t you?’
‘Yes I will.’
February arrived bringing with it a bitterly cold spell. The days were dry but overcast. For most of the month the lights in the cottage were permanently switched on. As luck would have it the twenty ninth would fall on a Saturday. If Emma could be persuaded to come that weekend he would have the chance to convince both her and his mother that Saturday really would be their last and only chance to save themselves. He would tell them in detail what Mrs. Kandinsky had foreseen and implore them to join him in the cave where they’d be spared from the coming catastrophe. The only detail Mrs. Kandinsky had kept from him was the time of day the event would occur. To be safe they would have to be in the cave from Friday midnight until midnight on Saturday. On the first of March they would need no further proof of Mrs. Kandinsky’s prophesy. Whatever bleakness they faced after that they could face together.
On the weekend before the twenty ninth he went to the New Inn and phoned Emma. Her response was distinctly cool. ‘I don’t think I can make it,’ she said.
‘But you haven’t been for ages.’
‘I know. It’s been hectic at work and weekends are the only time I get to myself.’
Tom was prepared for this and played his trump card. ‘It’s my mother you see. She made me swear not to tell you.’
‘Tell me what?’ sighed Emma sounding more exasperated than concerned.
‘That she doesn’t have long to live.’
There was a long silence. ‘Are you telling me the truth Tom?’
‘I am and she’s desperate to see you before it happens.’
‘What’s wrong with her?’
‘She won’t say but she is dying Emma. She doesn’t have long and she’s asking to see you.’
‘All right I’ll come. Can you pick me up on Saturday?’
‘Saturday might be too late. Is there any chance of you getting Friday afternoon off? I could pick you up at about two.’
‘Is it really that imminent?’
‘Oh yes,’ said Tom knowing that for once he was being completely truthful.
‘All right. There shouldn’t be any trouble getting time off. I’ll see you on Friday at two o’clock.’
Tom thanked her and hung up. Everything was going to plan.
On the Friday before the event Tom collected her. There were lots of questions from Emma on the journey. Had Tom guessed what was wrong with his mother? Had she lost weight? Was she in pain? Was it cancer or something to do with her heart? Exactly how long did she have to live? What was Tom going to do when she died? Would he still live in the cottage or move away?
Tom’s answers were vague. He told her she hadn’t lost weight and wasn’t showing that she was in pain. As to what was wrong she refused to say. All he knew for certain was that she only had days at most and that Emma was not to mention anything about her knowing to Audrey.
Emma’s suspicions aroused by Tom’s evasive answers grew even stronger when Audrey rushed to the door on their arrival looking radiantly happy and as healthy as she’d ever looked. Keeping her promise Emma said nothing about the illness as they sat together and chatted. Uncharacteristically Tom stayed with them and joined in the conversation. He even insisted on making and serving tea and showed no signs of tiring of their company. When it was time to eat he offered to cook the meal. It wasn’t till after they’d eaten that he made the first of the moves he’d planned. Knowing that actions speak louder than words, rather than tell them what he was going to do he would set about doing it. If he told them what he was up to they wouldn’t listen. If he did it without saying anything the questions would come from them. When they asked he would tell them what he was doing and why. After clearing away the dishes he went upstairs to his bedroom without saying a word.
Emma was now more concerned about Tom than she was about Audrey. ‘Is Tom all right?’ she asked.
‘I thought he was,’ said Audrey, ‘but after the way he’s been acting today I’m beginning to wonder.’
Expecting Tom to come down at any moment they changed the subject. It wasn’t until they’d been talking for at least half an hour that Tom’s absence prompted Audrey to call him. ‘Tom, what are you doing up there?’
The first of the questions had come as Tom expected. ‘
When he finally appeared he was dressed in a heavy overcoat and carrying a bulging back-pack. ‘Time to go,’ he said. ‘I’ve packed everything we’ll want.’
Audrey looked at him in amazement. ‘Go where? What on earth are you talking about?’
‘I’m talking about the earth, or rather its end. I know you won’t want to hear what I have to say but tomorrow is the twenty ninth and something terrible is going to happen. We will survive but only if you do what I tell you. I tried to warn you on several occasions. Even after Mrs. Kandinsky’s undeniable evidence there were other signs - the pillar at Wells, the chapter house with the Compton Bishop seat and the rock at Burrington Coomb. Emma will remember the day when I showed her the cave. I knew it was important the first time I came across it and that was before Mrs. Kandinsky’s revelations. Why do you think I gave up my job and moved? It wasn’t because I wanted to resign. I enjoyed my work. I was happy where we were but I had to come here. Everything Mrs Kandinsky saw pointed to Compton Bishop and the cave as the only place to escape annihilation. I don’t what time it will happen. All I know is that it will be tomorrow and the only way to be saved is to be in the cave by midnight.’
Emma and Audrey sat open-mouthed until Tom had finished. ‘I can see now why you lied to get me here,’ said Emma looking furious.
‘I had to. You wouldn’t have come otherwise.’
Audrey at last found her voice. ‘You’re insane Tom. I knew I should have kept you away from that crazy woman.’
‘Are you going to join me or not?’
‘How do you expect your mother to get down to the cave in the pitch dark?’ said Emma. ‘Get real Tom!’
‘I’ve got a torch. I’ll help both of you down.’ In spite of his entreaties he was getting nowhere. He glanced at his watch. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but I have to go’. Unable to bear any final goodbyes he turned his back on them and left.