Variations on a haunting.., p.17

Variations on a Haunting Theme, page 17

 

Variations on a Haunting Theme
 


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  ‘It was but I ate too much.’ Paul took one hand from the steering wheel and patted his stomach. He sensed an opportunity. ‘Look at my paunch!’ he said. ‘Maybe I should start walking again, not like before, just short ones once or twice round the block each day. What do you think?’

  ***

  ‘I think Paul’s problems might be starting again,’ I said to Howard. We had walked a considerable distance and I was beginning to feel tired.’ We had reached the bottom of the hill and travelled some way along the flat. Spotting a low stone wall I suggested we should sit.

  ‘Of course, I hadn’t noticed how far we’d come.’ We found one of the flatter stones capping the wall and sat. The mist had almost disappeared and the sun offered a hint of warmth. ‘What do you make of the story, so far?’ Howard asked.

  ‘Rather like my interpretation of the variation,’ I said, ‘plodding along with no clear destination in sight. Lots of walking with no idea where it will lead.’

  ‘Well I know where ours is leading.’ Howard pointed to the only landmark for miles. ‘Just before those woods there’s a turning on the left which will take us back up the hill to home.’

  ‘A circular walk like Paul’s,’ I said.

  ‘Yes, though not like the circular route he would be taking later.’

  I wasn’t sure what he meant but after our rest Howard went on with the story.

  ***

  Anne was worried when Paul began walking again but he kept his promise by being out for no more than twenty minutes and returning in time to read to the children and tuck them in. In bed he made a point of cuddling and kissing Anne before they slept but made love only if Anne initiated the process. He still believed she’d slept with Martin and making love for him had become a duty. He pretended to give himself wholly but always kept something back.

  With Anne’s reluctant consent he was given permission to take longer walks and was often out for an hour or more especially on weekends. It was on such a walk one Saturday in mid November under a cold, wintry sky that he contemplated the week ahead in the caravan. After their trip to Lulworth Cove Anne hadn’t mentioned the break. He hoped she’d forgotten it but she’d made the arrangements without his knowing and told him when they’d be going. He dreaded the thought of being confined for a week surrounded by fields and moorland with nothing to do and nowhere to go. He resented being told they needed to talk when she was the one with the pressing need.

  Walking along through the dreary landscape he felt his depression descending again. They hadn’t been happy at work to hear he’d be taking time off during one of their busiest times. Given the choice he’d rather be working than going away with Anne. Lost in such thoughts he passed a line of poplar trees which prompted the memory of a haunting verse from a poem by Conrad Aiken.

  While the blue moon above us arches

  And the poplar sheds disconsolate leaves,

  Tell me again why love bewitches

  And what love gives.

  He repeated the words like a mantra slowing his pace to match the rhythm. He’d forgotten the following verses but remembered the last one:

  Rock meeting rock can know love better

  Than eyes that stare or lips that touch.

  All that we know of love is bitter,

  And it is not much.

  What a perfect word bitter was he thought. So far as he knew Anne hadn’t noticed his returning depression. He was adept at hiding his feelings, at acting the part of the newly-changed man. Would it really matter if she left him? He tried to recapture the panic he’d felt when she threatened to go. At the time it had been so real and unthinkable but not anymore. Time had deadened the memory and the feelings. Would he care if she left? He couldn’t sink any lower than he was or that’s how it seemed as he walked along on that dull day savouring the poem and marvelling that anyone could express something so closely in tune with his own experience of love.

  This bleak frame of mind stayed with him until he arrived home.

  ‘Did you have a good walk?’ Anne asked.

  ‘Wonderful, very enjoyable.’

  ‘See anything interesting?’

  ‘Lots of things. It’s a beautiful time of year.’

  ‘Good. I’ve started packing. I wasn’t sure what you’d want to take so you’d better check. Mum and dad will be here for dinner. If we get things sorted before they arrive we can leave first thing in the morning and make the most of the week.’

  ‘No problem. I’ll check now.’

  Anne’s parents arrived well before dinner. There were lots of instructions about the caravan and various arrangements. The site owner, Mr. Parsons, was expecting them around noon. They could get their milk and bread from the site shop. They’d be the only ones there but Mr. Parsons would open the bar for them in the evenings. Paul adopted his merry little face and thanked them. They were all in bed earlier than usual and Anne made no romantic overtures.

  As planned they left soon after breakfast and arrived at the caravan an hour earlier than expected. The weather was calm, cold and depressingly grey just as it had been for more than a week. They were unpacking when they heard a rap at the door. It was Mr. Parsons, a short, thick-set man scruffily dressed in an open-necked shirt rammed into his corduroy trousers. His fierce, heavily jowled face resembled that of a bulldog.

  ‘Everything all right?’ he barked, gruffly. ‘Yer early in’t you?’

  ‘Yes. There wasn’t much traffic on the road,’ Anne said.

  ‘Give a knock on the house door if you want anything from the shop.’

  ‘Thanks but I’ve brought enough for today.’ Mr. Parsons didn’t stop to listen. He was already marching back to the house.

  ‘What a lovely man,’ said Paul, sarcastically.

  ‘Well mum and dad like him.’

  ‘Should be fun talking to him over the bar at night.’

  ‘We aren’t here to talk to him, are we? We’re here to talk to each other.’

  ‘I know,’ sighed Paul, ‘but we can’t talk all the time can we? What are we going to do for the rest of the day apart from talking?’

  ‘I’ve no idea. Let’s have something to eat and then decide.’

  After they’d eaten Anne suggested a short stroll up the lane to the moor. Although there’d been no rain for days the lane was stubbornly wet and covered with soggy leaves. The moorland was nothing more than a rising expanse covered with dead bracken and a few stunted trees. Paul wanted to reach the ridge in the hope of seeing further but Anne was wearing the wrong shoes so they went back to the van. Paul expected the in-depth talk but Anne was happy to sit and read all afternoon. For dinner they had a cold chicken salad which saved the bother of struggling with the primitive gas grill and tiny oven. ‘This’ll do for tonight,’ Anne said, ‘We’ll find somewhere to eat out during the week.’

  ‘Shall I put the tele on?’ Paul asked when they’d finished eating. ‘It’s time for Countryfile, very appropriate in the circumstances don’t you think?’ The portable television was perched on a high shelf. Paul reached up to switch it on but the tiny screen showed nothing but ghost-like shadows moving through a snow-storm. He fiddled with the knobs but could do nothing to improve the reception. Giving up he turned it off and prepared for a long dull evening.

  ‘I wonder how mum and dad are getting on with the children.’ Anne said.

  Paul hadn’t given them a moment’s thought but pretended to be interested. ‘They’ll be fine. Your dad’s got a way with the girls hasn’t he?’ It was the right thing to say and saved him from having to talk any more. All he had to do was keep quiet and smile in agreement every now and then while Anne reminisced about the happy times they’d had together over the years. By the time she’d finished they were ready to convert the bench seats into beds and settle down for the night. One day over, thought Pa
ul as he dozed off. Only six to go!

  The beginning of the week passed without incident. On Monday they drove to the Market in Tavistock but as it was closed they went to Plymouth. The blanket of cloud showed no signs of lifting but they made the best of things. They walked up to the Hoe then down to the Barbican where they had lunch in a pub on the waterfront. On Tuesday the market was open. Anne spent most of day inspecting the antiques and collectibles. In the evening they went to Mr. Parsons’ bar which was just inside the house. After a few drinks he revealed his more amiable side. Paul asked if there were any interesting walks in the area and was fascinated to hear about the Burrator Reservoir. ‘Sounds interesting,’ he said.

  ‘Certainly is. ’Tis a very popular walk. Startin’ from the dam ’tis three or four mile all the way round the reservoir.’

  Paul asked how to get there and would have asked more but Anne changed the subject. ‘Mum tells me you have a new electric organ.’

  Mr. Parsons perked up. ‘I do. Wouldee like to see ’n?’ The new organ was his pride and joy, more of an acquisition than an instrument to play although he could manage a few tunes with one finger by ear. He knew from her parents that Anne was a talented musician. ‘Come on in the lounge. You can ’ave a go on ’n if you like.’ It was an honour for anyone to be invited into the lounge where the organ took pride of place in the bay window. They were treated to a demonstration of its various functions and vast variety of sound effects. ‘Go on, ’ave a go,’ he insisted believing if Anne could play the cello she’d know all about electric organs.

  Anne explained that she’d only had a few piano lessons as a child but seeing how keen he was for her to play she obliged him with a few of the tunes she remembered from childhood. Mr. Parsons was highly impressed. He opened a bottle of whisky and for the next hour the organ took centre stage.

  They were late getting back to the caravan. Anne had stayed on fruit juice all night whereas Paul had made the most of Mr. Parsons’ bottle of whisky and fell asleep the moment he hit the pillow.

  The cloud had thinned sufficiently on Wednesday to allow brief glimpses of the sun so they drove across the moor and stopped at Princetown to look at the prison and visit the gift shops. Anne bought a few trinkets to take back for the girls and her parents including a mug with Property of HM Prison printed on it which she knew would amuse her father. They had coffee at The Old Police Station café then drove to Postbridge where Paul showed Anne the ancient clapper bridge and lectured her on its architectural importance as a forerunner of the modern beam bridge.

  On Thursday it rained all day and they stayed in the caravan. Paul suspected the time for getting to know each other had finally arrived. He was right.

  ‘Your feelings have changed since we came back from Lulworth, haven’t they?’ Anne said.

  ‘How do you mean?’ he asked, playing for time.

  ‘You know what I mean.’

  ‘I’m not a mind reader am I?’

  ‘You promised you’d change.’

  ‘And I have.’ He was on the defensive. ‘I’ve spent more time with the children and with you. I didn’t argue about coming down here even though we’re snowed under at work and I met your friends.’

  ‘My friends!’ Anne raised her voice in sheer frustration. ‘Perhaps they’d be your friends too if you acted more like a normal husband and we did things together.’

  ‘We have been. We’ve been making love more often haven’t we?’

  ‘Is that what you call it?’ Anne shook her head in disbelief. ‘You never touch me unless I make the first move and even then I feel as though I’m making love to someone who isn’t there.’

  ‘Of course I’m there though I often wonder if you’re wishing it was someone other than me.’

  Anne flew at him. ‘Oh no, not Martin again. Nothing happened between us.’

  ‘So you say.’

  ‘And you still don’t believe me?’

  ‘I’m saying it didn’t look that way when I caught you both at home, him larking around with the kids and you whispering sweet nothings in the doorway. And it didn’t look that way when we went to dinner, me saddled with his wife while you and he giggled together as if we weren’t there.’

  They were getting nowhere but the arguments went on. Accusations were made and countered and long-forgotten incidents raked up from the past. Incriminations on both sides were hurled at each other with ever increasing acrimony.

  The rain by now was hammering down on the caravan roof. ‘I’m going out for a walk,’ Paul snapped.

  ‘Fine. Do what you always do. Walk away!’

  Paul put on his bright red anorak. ‘I’ll be taking the car,’ he said as he stormed out into the rain.

  Anne let him go not knowing or caring when he’d be back. She closed her eyes in relief as the sound of the car engine faded into the distance. Exhausted from all that had happened she fell asleep. It wasn’t until it was dark that she started to worry and wonder where Paul might be. She was used to him taking long walks but never this long. She considered phoning her parents but knew it would only worry them. She picked up a book and tried to read but none of the words made sense. All she could do was listen out for the car and wait for Paul to return.

  By eight o’clock she could wait no longer. She made her way across the grass between the deserted caravans to Mr. Parsons’ house. The rain had stopped and a brilliant moon was casting an eerie luminescence over the site. She reached the house, knocked on the door and spoke so quickly when Mr. Parsons appeared that he ushered her inside and calmed her down with a glass of whisky which she drank straight down as easily as water. Her second attempt at speaking was more controlled and coherent. Taking a deep breath she poured it all out: how Paul had been depressed for months, how they’d argued that morning and how Paul had disappeared in a rage and hadn’t returned. Mr. Parsons listened as she rambled on and afterwards did his best to reassure her. Rather than call the police he suggested they should wait until morning. From what she’d told him he thought Paul had probably gone for a walk and still feeling angry had decided to sleep in the car. Men often sulked when they knew they were in the wrong he explained. Paul probably wanted to scare her by staying away. He’d come to his senses and be back in the morning just like a dog with its tail between its legs begging forgiveness. His words or the whisky eased her anxiety. Anne felt better and stayed for long time drinking more than was good for her. It was nearly midnight when Mr. Parsons escorted her back to the van. Getting undressed took longer than usual and when she finally fell into bed and the room stopped spinning she was out for the count.

  It was almost noon when she woke next day with a throbbing head. Remembering what had happened and realising Paul wasn’t back she heaved herself up to the window to see if the car was parked in its usual place. Seeing it wasn’t her panic returned. Something awful had happened and she had no idea what to do.

  ***

  We were some way along the lane which would lead to the left turning for the last leg of our journey. ‘So what had happened?’ I asked.

  ‘We shall probably never know,’ said Howard. ‘Anne’s parents came down with the girls as soon as they heard Paul was missing. The police were called out and within a few hours his car was located parked at the Burrator reservoir near the dam. In the end they presumed he’d drowned himself or jumped from the landward side of the dam into the wooded valley below. They searched water’s edge and combed the undergrowth in the valley but to no avail. After several days the search was abandoned.’

  ‘So the body was never found?’

  ‘No, though on several occasions ramblers claimed to have seen a man walking ahead in a red anorak. Some tried to catch up with him but when they followed him around a bend he’d disappeared.’

  ‘What about Anne? Was Paul right in believing she’d been unfaithful?’

 
No, she and Martin were only ever good friends and they still are.’

  ‘Is that the end of the story?’ I asked.

  Howard searched in his jacket pocket for something he wanted to show me. ‘Not quite,’ he said unfolding a wad of paper. ‘This is a copy of a letter Anne gave me. It was found hidden behind a stone in a wall wrapped up in a red, waterproof hood. It’s as well that he always carried a notebook and pencil for sketching buildings that caught his eye or he might not have written this. The letter is headed with his home address. Make of it what you will.’ Howard read it aloud.

  To whom it may concern. If you find this letter, please see that it reaches my wife, Mrs Anne Bryant (address above).

  My name is Paul Bryant, or perhaps I should say, was Paul Bryant. I’m not sure if I’m living or dead - or as Keats once wrote, “...do I wake or sleep?” There are times when I think I must have walked into the afterlife which for me means having to walk for ever never reaching the end of the road. Unbelievable as it seems I swear that what follows is a true account of the position in which I find myself.

  I don’t remember when I arrived at this godforsaken place and parked by the dam which no longer appears to exist. The rain had stopped when I left the car and stared down into the depths below. I was angry believing my wife had betrayed me. I considered ending it all by jumping into the water but I lacked the courage. All I could do to ease my pain was what I’ve always done - go for a walk.

  I set off intending to circle the reservoir in a clockwise direction which, if my calculations were right, would bring me back to the dam in little more than an hour or two. I soon settled into my stride and distracted myself by looking around at whatever there was to see. As it happened there wasn’t much apart from trees to my left and right with fleeting glimpses of water. The road was narrow and quite deserted. The first building I saw was a small, stone-blasted, flat-roofed hut on the water’s edge. It had a plain, wooden door which looked as though it had never been opened. There were two, whitewashed windows, one at each end. I stopped for a moment then carried on through the trees. Other than trees, the next thing I passed was a small layby with nothing on it but a flat horizontal stone slab balanced on two upright stones like a crude seat. It reminded me of the clapper bridge I’d seen the previous day.

 
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