Variations on a haunting.., p.12

Variations on a Haunting Theme, page 12

 

Variations on a Haunting Theme
 


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  After he’d gone Emma took hold of Audrey’s hand. ‘Try not to worry,’ she said. ‘It’s probably for the best. When nothing happens he’ll come to his senses and realise how stupid he’s been.’

  ‘Shouldn’t we try to stop him?’ Audrey was desperate to do something.

  ‘There’s no point. He wouldn’t listen. I’ll stay with you until he comes back and he will, I promise.’

  ‘You’re probably right,’ said Audrey. ‘If twenty four hours in a freezing cave doesn’t make him see sense nothing will.’

  For the first time in weeks the clouds had cleared and the sun was shining when they woke on the following morning. Audrey’s first thoughts were of Tom. She wanted to go to the cave to see if he was all right but Emma dissuaded her. ‘What do you usually do on Saturdays?’ she asked.

  ‘We normally go to Weston for the shopping.’

  ‘Then we’ll go there today. We might as well be enjoying ourselves by the sea when the world explodes or whatever it’s going to do.’

  Audrey looked doubtful for a moment then burst out laughing. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘shopping it is. Tom will be wanting something to eat when he gets in after midnight won’t he?’

  ‘He certainly will,’ said Emma, ‘Now where does he keep the car keys? He won’t be needing the car today will he?’

  It was already dark when they returned from their day out at Weston. After a meal and a long chat they went to bed expecting Tom to come home soon after midnight or later that morning. Audrey listened in bed for as long as she could stay awake.

  As soon as she woke next day Audrey went into Tom’s room expecting to see him laid out on the bed. On finding his room empty she woke Emma who dressed as fast as she could and found Audrey wandering back and forth in the kitchen distraught. After doing her best to calm her down Emma set off for the cave telling Audrey to stay in the cottage in case Tom returned. Running all the way she eventually reached the path to the peak and began climbing. At the spot above the cave she looked over and called out. She called several times and was about to climb down when two joggers came running along the path from the Peak and stopped realising something was wrong.

  ‘We heard you shouting,’ said one. ‘Is there anything we can do?’

  Emma explained that she thought someone might be in trouble and without hesitating they both scrambled down to the cave. When they reached the bottom one of them called back. ‘We can’t get into the entrance. It’s blocked. It looks as though there’s been a rock fall.’

  More than three weeks had passed when Emma pulled up at the church and saw Audrey dressed in black standing alone in the porch with an urn in one hand and a trowel in the other. After the embraces and the tears they walked around to the grave where Emma took the trowel and lifted a sod of earth which came away with surprising ease. She dug a hole and taking the urn from Audrey poured Tom’s ashes into the hole.

  ‘Mrs. Kandinsky was right after all wasn’t she?’ Audrey said as Emma replaced the soil.

  ‘How do you mean?’

  ‘The world did come to an end, just as she said it would or, at least, Tom’s world did.’

  ***

  Howard was already lighting the fire when I finally came to after picturing the sorry scene in the graveyard and imagining the horror of being crushed to death under the weight of falling rocks. We neither of us spoke for a while as we sat and watched the fire take hold. We gazed in silence as the initial burst of flames from the tightly-rolled paper ignited the fir cones before spreading up through the carefully criss-crossed sticks and setting the logs alight.

  ‘Would like a cup of tea?’ Howard asked. ‘I’m afraid I only have green. I’m told it’s better for you.’

  ‘Green would be fine,’ I said not having tasted it before. Howard left me to sit while he went to the kitchen.

  The tea arrived on a silver tray bearing two bone china cups and saucers, a sugar bole complete with tongs, a jug of milk and a plate of assorted biscuits. ‘We’ll have something stronger a little later,’ Howard promised. ‘Help yourself while I play you another tune.’

  ‘You mean a variation!’ I said with more than a little pride at using the correct terminology. By now I was getting used to the pieces and beginning to like them. I closed my eyes to listen and prepare myself for the inevitable question which I knew would follow.

  ‘Variation 9,’ said Howard. ‘What did you make of it?’

  ‘Beautiful,’ I told him and I meant it. It was soft but not particularly slow. The higher notes flowed quietly along in an unobtrusive way while the lower notes sang out here and there with a plaintive, pleading quality. ‘Quite beautiful,’ I repeated, ‘but slightly sad, almost regretful.’

  ‘An admirable interpretation,’ Howard conceded. ‘I can see you really do have a sensitive ear. Bach is often accused of being mathematical and mechanical but as you’ve discerned, his music is full of emotion and feeling. I have to agree with you that this piece is filled with a longing for what cannot be or as T.S. Eliot put it, regrets for the passage we did not take, towards the door we never opened into the rose garden.’

  ‘Indeed,’ I said, not really wanting to grapple with Eliot as well as Bach.

  ‘And the music,’ Howard went on, ‘echoes the regrets Trevor felt though not so much for the path he never took but sadly for the path he did take. He told me his story on one of my occasional prison visits. If you’re ready I’ll tell it to you.’

  The fire by now was lambent. I was feeling warm and comfortable and ready to listen. ‘Please do.’ I said.

  6: Variation 9 - Trevor

  Despite having been disturbed by its piercing bleeps for as long as he cared to remember, Trevor Golding was always surprised by the sudden shock of his misnamed “silent alarm” blasting him into consciousness. It wasn’t so bad in the summer months when already half-stirred to life by the early sunlight and dawn chorus he was primed to reach for the switch and turn it off. But now in the dead of winter when even the resident garden blackbird was still asleep it seemed an unnatural intrusion. On this particular Friday its ear-splitting din sounded even more urgent. Today he recalled as he opened his eyes and fumbled for the switch was his second wedding anniversary. Sophie who till then had been turned towards him with one arm draped over him murmured something he couldn’t quite catch then turned away to resettle herself. Not wanting to disturb her he eased himself out of bed and slipped quietly into the bathroom to wash and dress before creeping downstairs.

  Trevor was dark haired, clean-shaven, ruggedly handsome and remarkably fit for his age. Every night on arriving home he’d ask Sophie about her day then spend twenty minutes toning up on his rowing machine and another ten peddling his exercise bike. On weekends in all weathers he and Sophie took countryside walks and enjoyed being together. They’d met by chance in London where Sophie’s parents still lived. For Trevor and Sophie it really had been love at first sight. Since then their affection for each other had grown even stronger. Now after two years of marriage Trevor could hardly believe his luck in having found the perfect partner. There was nothing he wouldn’t do to please her.

  As soon as he’d finished breakfast and cleared away he reset the table for Sophie so that everything she’d need when she woke would be ready at hand. He then retrieved a dozen red roses from the shed where he’d hidden them in water overnight. Arranging them carefully in a vase, he left them along with an anniversary card on the breakfast table. Before setting off he wrote a note and placed it beside the card: Darling Sophie, Happy second anniversary! I’ll be home as soon as I possibly can be tonight. I love you so much, Trevor, xxx. Surveying his efforts with satisfaction he collected his briefcase and left for work.

  To live where they did was worth every inch of the eighteen miles Trevor had to travel each day to work. He normally drove the longer route on the main roads although sometim
es in summer on fine days he took the short cut on narrow lanes which climbed through the woods to the Stone Tower, a sombre folly built on a whim by a wealthy landowner. Standing proud of the trees at the hill’s highest point the tower stood out as a prominent landmark for miles around. Few people attempted to find it. If ever there had been a path it had long-since disappeared beneath the undergrowth and thorn bushes which made the climb from the road all but impassable. He and Sophie promised themselves that one day they’d make the effort to reach it.

  The sky was beginning to lighten when Trevor turned into the firm’s car park at the back of the building. Only the two remaining directors had spaces reserved at the front. Hoskins, Dyer and Blake occupied the premises of what originally had been a Georgian manor house. Set back from the road its imposing façade displayed all the typical period features. At the centre of the brick-built building a flight of stone steps led up to the front door set beneath an impressive portico with its triangular pediment supported on two Ionic pillars. On the ground-floor, four multi- paned windows were spaced symmetrically, two on either side of the entrance. Above them were five smaller windows and three dormers set into the slate roof. Two large chimney stacks crowned each end of the roof and the building’s corners were finished with limestone quoits.

  The ground floor interior bore no resemblance to the dwelling’s exterior. There were still remnants of the original wood panelling but the ornate plasterwork ceiling had been replaced with polystyrene tiles and the various rooms had been knocked into a single open-plan area filled with desks and computers. The directors’ offices were separated from the main area by a plain glass partition. On the floor above the alterations were not so extensive and the rooms were much as they’d always been. A back staircase led to the room Trevor shared with Liz who dealt with accounts. She enjoyed teasing her male colleagues. Petite and slim with short-cropped hair, a cheeky face and freckled, retrousse nose, she wore a white blouse and short black skirt. Liz was extremely attractive to most of the men in the office which might have been why she’d been moved upstairs away from them. Although she flirted with Trevor she knew he was head over heels in love with his wife and would never be tempted to fall for anyone else.

  ‘Late today, aren’t you,’ she gloated. ‘Usual excuse, held up in traffic?’

  Trevor removed his coat and switched on his computer. ‘No,’ he said, ‘I was late leaving. It’s my wedding anniversary and there were things to do.’

  ‘Really? What sort of things - an extra cuddle in bed?’

  ‘No, nothing like that. You’ll know when you find the right partner.’

  ‘No chance, not if it means being tied down for life like you.’

  ‘Not complaining, am I?’

  ‘No, you never do.’ Liz gave up on further attempts to get more out of Trevor.

  ‘Have you got anything interesting on today apart from what you’re planning to do tonight?’

  ‘No, just more of the same.’

  They were just getting down to work when Ken Barnes, Trevor’s immediate boss and a stickler for getting things done on time, barged into the room. ‘Any chance of getting those drawings finished by Wednesday?’ he asked.

  ‘I can try. It isn’t that simple.’

  ‘Nothing ever is. I’ve got another job lined up that needs doing as soon as you’ve finished so pull your finger out lad!’

  ‘That’s right lad. Pull your finger out!’ said Liz mimicking Ken Barnes as soon as he’d gone. ‘Why don’t you ever give back as good as you get? I would.’

  ‘That’s easy to say when nobody ever ruffles your feathers.’

  ‘Only because they wouldn’t dare.’

  ‘Or because you don’t have anyone like Barnes looking over your shoulder all the time.’

  ‘He’s always very civil to me.’

  ‘Only because you flutter your eyebrows whenever he turns up. Besides, he’s not your boss. You’re lucky. You only have to answer to Hoskins and Dyer, not that either one of them bothers you much.’

  ‘That’s because they always get what they want on time.’

  Trevor let Liz have the last word. For the next ten minutes they knuckled down to work until Liz got up and went to the window. She enjoyed looking down on the street below which had once been the main road into town before the bypass was built. Since then there was little to see apart from the odd pedestrian strolling by. There were two buildings across the road, an ugly Job Centre built in the sixties and an eighteenth century Coach House currently used by the town council as storage space. ‘Did you know they once held Spiritualist meetings in the Coach House?’ she said.

  ‘How did you come by that little nugget of information?’

  ‘My granddad went there after granny died. Do you believe in ghosts?’

  ‘As much as I believe in Father Christmas and little green Martians.’

  ‘Well I do. Granddad did as well. He told me that his dead parents had spoken to him through the medium about things nobody else could have known. They had different mediums every week. Granddad had several messages from people who’d passed on.’

  ‘They make it all up, bland things like a happy holiday memory or someone being ill in the family - things that could apply to anyone.’

  ‘Well I believe what he told me even if you don’t.’

  ‘Anyway, what made you think about ghosts? Was it looking at the Coach House?’

  ‘No, but that’s why I came to the window. While I was typing I had this weird sensation as though somebody else was in the room trying to tell me something and pleading for help. It’s hard to explain, you know, like somebody’s ghost.’

  ‘It was probably a draught. There’s always a rational explanation.’

  ‘Is there?’ Liz took a deep breath. ‘I hope you’re right.’ She cut him off abruptly and returned to her desk.

  Trevor wondered if he’d been too dismissive. ‘Just because I don’t believe in ghosts it doesn’t mean they don’t exist.’

  ‘Well something happened. Anyway, let’s forget it!’ He did, but not Liz.

  As the morning passed Liz returned to her old self. It was almost eleven when she got up again and went to the drinks machine. ‘Fancy a coffee?’

  ‘Thanks. I’d would.’ He stood and stretched his arms before joining her at the window.

  ‘How did you come to meet and marry Sophie?’ she asked.

  Trevor was surprised by the question. Liz had never before asked about his personal life. ‘We met on the Piccadilly line,’ he said. ‘I was in London for a reunion with three of my old university mates. We weren’t meeting until the evening. With time to kill I squeezed on to the tube at Knightsbridge and went to Covent Garden just for something to do. Sophie boarded at Piccadilly by which time all the seats were taken. She was hanging on to the handrail right next to me so I stood up and offered her my seat. Had she been a feminist she might have been offended but she gave me a beautiful smile and was happy to accept the offer. She took my seat while I stood clinging on to the handrail. Our eyes met every now and again. I thought she was quite something so instead of getting off at Covent Garden I decided to stay where I was and see where she was going.

  At Holborn the seat next to her became available so I commandeered it before anyone else could. She thanked me again for my act of chivalry and breaking the Underground rule of silence we began chatting. She told me she was on her way home to Oakwood so I lied and said I was going there too to meet up with a friend. As soon as we reached Oakwood I offered to buy her a cup of coffee in the café next to the station. We began talking. It was comfortable and relaxed from the start. She gave me a potted version of her life - born in Cockfosters, studied Performing Arts at university, one older sister who was nursing, father some sort of business middle man though she wasn’t sure what kind of business, mother at home and so on. I told
her about myself - born in Somerset, studied Architecture at Bath, youngest of four kids, father and electrician and mother a part-time pique maker before the gloving industry collapsed.

  Worried that I might be late for the friend I was supposed to be meeting she gently brought the conversation to a close. I asked where she lived which happened to be in the road almost opposite so I walked her home. I could easily have kissed her in broad daylight at the gate but I didn’t. We exchanged phone numbers and promised to keep in touch. I took the tube back to London and met up for the reunion. I can’t remember much about that night apart from thinking about Sophie. I drank too much and caught the milk train home. We kept in contact and began meeting in London whenever she was free.’

  ‘And that’s where the kissing and cuddling started!’

  ‘It did whenever we got the chance which wasn’t often enough. We usually went to Hyde Park, played tennis, fooled about on the exercise equipment, sat by the Serpentine and soon came to realise we were serious about each other. Sophie suggested I should meet her parents. A date was duly fixed and on a sunny spring weekend I found myself standing in Sophie’s porch ringing the bell. Sophie’s father came to the door, shook me firmly by the hand and ushered me in. I felt nervous about meeting everyone but I needn’t have worried. Sophie’s mother welcomed me into the house as though I were one of the family and in no time at all we were sitting around the table eating together and talking as though we’d known each other for years.

  Whether by accident or design Sophie’s sister had taken the weekend off and was entertaining us over lunch with spicy hospital stories. After we’d eaten Sophie and I went out for a walk.’

  ‘Where did you go?’

  ‘She took me to Trent Park, a large country estate with a beautiful mansion at the centre where Sir Philip Sassoon once lived. I hadn’t imagined that the lane leading into a country park could be so long. From the entrance opposite Oakwood station we walked a short distance to the first bend and from there downhill in the shadow of trees to the bottom where the lane levelled out before climbing again. I mentioned to Sophie that I wouldn’t care to be walking there on a dark night. She told me that the park had once been a Teacher’s Training College and that students returning at night had often seen the ghost of a man hanging from a tree at the bottom of the lane.’

 
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