Variations on a Haunting Theme, page 2
‘Nothing I can put my finger on, just a weird feeling.’
‘What sort of weird feeling?’
‘Just weird that’s all. It came on last night after you’d put the children to bed, a sense that something awful would happen while we were here and I haven’t been able to shake it off.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me before?’ he asked not really wanting to her to talk about feelings. ‘Nothing nasty is going to happen. We’ve arrived without having an accident on the way, neither of the ferries sank and it looks as though the weather’s on the up so ...’
‘So cheer up, I know’. Rebecca had been with him long enough to understand when he’d rather to not hear any more. ‘Don’t worry! I’ll be all right.’
‘Good,’ said Marcus choosing to believe her. From the café they strolled down to the quay and gazed across the Solent to the flat, dull shoreline enveloped in haze on the other side. ‘Strange isn’t it?’ said Marcus. ‘The island looks so much more exciting from the mainland than the mainland does from the Island.’
‘That’s because islands are magical,’ Laura explained.
‘Exactly Laura and there’s more to see. Come on! Let’s get back to the car.’
After their long day’s travel the relatively short journey to the cottage seemed endless by comparison. Thankfully there were a few distractions to occupy the children including glimpses of the prison. Acting in character Marcus invented fictitious tales of the wicked deeds the offenders had committed and how careful they would have to be especially at night when escaped convicts would be on the prowl. Michael took it all with a pinch of salt but Laura took it to heart and was unusually silent for several minutes.
Rebecca sensed her anxiety. ‘Don’t worry Laura, Daddy was only joking.’
‘You’re mother’s right,’ said Marcus knowing he’d overstepped the mark, ‘besides, you’ve always got me to protect you if anything happens.’
‘What none of them realised,’ said Howard, ‘was that later that day something stranger than anything Marcus could have invented would trigger events that would alter the course of their lives for ever.’
Until that point I was so engrossed in the tale that the only voices in my head were those of the family. Howard’s voice took me away from them back to the present. I was drifting between two worlds. The Island had vanished and in its place was Howard’s cavernous room which felt darker and colder now in spite of the glow from the fire.
Howard poked the embers and threw on another log. ‘I’m sorry, did I disturb you? Let me top up your glass.’
Moments later I was back on the island travelling with the family to wherever the tale was leading.
The cottage when they arrived looked more like a converted cowshed than comfortable holiday accommodation. ‘Here’s where we’ll be staying’, said Marcus as everyone stared at their holiday home standing on the side of a rutted drive leading down to a farmhouse where the owners lived. They drove in and piled out of the car. Just as Marcus was about to lift the knocker the door was opened by a tall, lean-looking man wearing rimless glasses. ‘You must be the Blakes,’ he smiled. ‘I’m John. Pleased to meet you.’ He called out to his wife in the gentlest of voices, ‘Margot dear, the Blakes have arrived.’
Margot was several years younger than John. She was tall and willowy with long dark hair and lively intelligent eyes. She welcomed them all but took a particular interest in the children and asked if they’d been to the island before. Laura adoring her on sight explained that although she’d never been to the island her father had told her all about it.
Knowing Laura would want to enlarge at length Rebecca stepped in and changed the subject. She asked Margot about the keys, the dustbins, provisions for washing and drying, the whereabouts of nearest shops and all the other domestic questions that nobody else would have thought of asking. With everything settled they said their farewells and started unloading the Land Rover bundling everything into the holiday home.
The sun was still high in the sky and the afternoon heat was building rapidly. Not ready to unpack and wanting to get into the holiday mood, Marcus uncorked a bottle. ‘We can do all this later,’ he said. ‘Why don’t we have a drink, chill out and go for a walk?’
‘You go with the children,’ Rebecca said, ‘I’ll stay and sort things out.’
Guessing she was still apprehensive and wanting some time on her own Marcus drank his wine and with no idea where he’d take them set off with the children.
Still feeling apprehensive Rebecca was glad to see them go. They were miles from the nearest shop, miles from anywhere. The journey down had been a nightmare and her anxieties showed no signs of lifting. She wished she could force herself to board a plane. Marcus was happy enough wherever he went and so were the children but she would prefer to have been somewhere more exotic. She pictured the Taj Mahal in the Indian sun and wondered if anywhere on the Island could even begin to match it. Although they were high on the downs there was nothing to see but flat fields, hedgerows and makeshift outbuildings. She was yet to discover that not far away an overgrown path would lead to a place which, if not quite as grand as the Taj Mahal, would intrigue her and set her thinking about its possibilities. But for now there were clothes to be sorted, empty drawers and wardrobes to be filled, food to be stored in the fridge and a meal to be thought about before the family returned. With no more than a passing thought as to where Marcus and the children were or what they’d be doing she set to work determined to make the place as comfortable as possible.
Michael and Laura meanwhile were trailing behind their father along a concrete track through open farmland. The wind had dropped and the dusty fields were barren apart from a scattering of empty barns and the odd black crow pecking at the soil in the sultry heat.
‘When are we going back?’ whined Laura who’d already had enough and was starting to doubt that the island was all her father had said it would be.
‘See that little copse? We’ll go as far as there and then turn back,’ Marcus promised.
‘They’re only trees,’ groaned Michael. ‘We can see trees at home.’
‘Ah but these will be different. They’re island trees.’
Michael shrugged but Laura believed the extra mile would be worth the effort. They carried on until they reached the copse which looked more like a forest close up. ‘What’s that?’ said Marcus, feigning surprise and pointing at a fallen tree trunk entangled in brambles barring the way to an overgrown path through the woods. ‘Let’s take a closer look.’
The fallen trunk could only be reached by crossing a ditch full of nettles and climbing over a barbed wire fence. Laura was having second thoughts but egged on by the others she scrambled across and gazed at a half-concealed notice beside the path bearing the words, KEEP OUT!
‘Where do you think it goes?’ asked Michael. He’d clambered over the trunk and was busy beating a passage towards the notice with a stick.
‘Do you know daddy?’ Laura was frightened but nonetheless curious.
The questions were all Marcus needed to feed their imaginations with fanciful tales. Adopting a grave expression and lowering his voice he said it would lead to somewhere secretive and exciting where no one had dared to go for a very long time which was why the track was so overgrown. The only way to know where it led was to follow the track.
‘Let’s go,’ said Michael.
‘We can’t,’ cried Laura resisting more from fear than respect for the law. ‘The sign says KEEP OUT!’
‘Don’t be silly. There are lots of places at home with signs telling you to keep out and when you go in there’s nobody there.’
‘Well there might be somebody here.’
‘Scaredy-cat! Anyway I’ve got a stick if anyone tries to stop us.’
Laura was petrified. ‘Someone might live there. Let’s go back’.
Michael had no such fears. ‘Don’t be silly it’s empty. Nobody’s lived there for years.’
It certainly looked deserted though not entirely derelict and to Marcus’s trained eye the building aroused his professional interest. More of a mansion than a house it appeared to be late Victorian Gothic with rooftop finials, pointed arches and dormer windows staring down like malevolent eyes as they flashed in the sunlight. And just for a moment, or so Marcus thought, a curtain in one of them twitched and a face appeared. Assuming it must be a trick of the light he chose not to mention it to the children.
Away from the shelter of trees the heat of the sun burned stronger than ever. They followed the path towards the arch and pausing beneath it noticed a sudden drop in temperature which disappeared as soon as they moved on.
‘Nothing to worry about, just a cold spot,’ said Marcus. They walked through a gap in the hedge to an open-air swimming pool covered with green slime. A water slide perched on top of the hedge dropped down with its free end suspended above the water. Michael and Laura followed their father around the pool afraid of what might be hidden below the murk. Compelled by some irresistible force they walked in a line towards the house where a flight of steps led up to the peeling front door with its stained-glass windows. The children stood back while Marcus peered through the glass.
Adjusting his eyes to the tinted darkness all he could see inside was a narrow hallway with stairs ascending to the first-floor landing where much to his horror an empty rocking chair swayed back and forth like a scene from a Hitchcock film.
‘What’s there?’ asked Michael.
‘Nothing you’d want to see, I think we should make our way back. Your mother will be wondering where we are.’ Neither of the children objected. They’d already seen enough and were eager to go though they couldn’t resist stopping beneath the arch to see if the chill was still there which it was. Keeping close together they hurried back through the woods to the concrete track.
‘Do you think mum would like to see it?’ Michael asked.
‘Not tonight. We’ll see how she feels tomorrow.’
After breakfast the following morning Michael asked his mother if she’d like to see the house and Rebecca surprised them all by saying she would. Just as they were about to leave there was a knock at the door. It was Margot who wanted to see how they’d settled in. While she was there Marcus described the house asked if she knew anything about its history.
‘Malham House, oh yes,’ she said, ‘but John knows more than I do. Why don’t you come round for a drink tonight and he can tell you all about it. Shall we say seven thirty for eight?’
‘We’d love to,’ beamed Marcus.
‘Then we’ll see you later.’
‘We’d love to,’ mocked Rebecca mimicking his obsequious tone. ‘You could have asked me before answering for the rest of us. Fancy her do you?’
‘Not nearly as much as you.’ He sounded as though he meant it and gave her a kiss. Rebecca smiled for the first time in days. She was beginning to feel better and was looking forward to getting out.
The leisurely walk down to the copse seemed shorter than before. Rebecca was suitably dressed in denims and crossed the ditch and barbed wire fence with ease. The trek through the trees with Michael’s beaten-down pathway still intact was not in the least unpleasant. There were no clacking magpies or startled pigeons. All they heard was the twitter of songbirds. Shafts of sunlight broke through the canopy. Laura felt more relaxed while Michael dealt with incongruous feelings of disappointment mixed with relief. When they reached the clearing Marcus looked up at the dormer window half expecting to see the face. Nothing was there. As soon as they reached the metal archway Michael stood for a moment almost willing the temperature to drop but nothing happened. Once through the gap in the hedge they stopped to look at the stagnant pool and the broken slide but the menace had gone. Rebecca spoke first. ‘What a beautiful house,’ she said. ‘Imagine how it would look done up! Perfect as a holiday home.’
‘You wouldn’t want to come back to the same place every year would you?’
‘If it were restored I might be tempted.’
‘Well don’t get too excited,’ said Marcus, ‘there’s more to see,’ He was thinking about the rocking chair, the sight he’d kept from the children. ‘You two stay here and keep away from the pool. I’ll just let mum have a peep inside.’ He took Rebecca to the door and waited while she looked through one of the panes.
‘It’s lovely,’ she said, ‘especially with the sun shining through the stained glass. The stairs are a bit steep but I’m sure an inspired architect would find ways around that. Have a look!’
Marcus looked. The light from the sun shining through the coloured glass created a rainbow effect and gave the hallway a warm, inviting feel. He raised his eyes to the top of the stairs. The rocking chair had gone. Like the face in the window he must have imagined it being there. He looked at Rebecca and asked if she was serious about wanting a place like this as a holiday home.
‘Of course,’ she said, ‘if you restored it.’
A seed had been sown in his mind which would later take root. Having seen enough they went back to the cottage and spent the rest of the day looking at leaflets for places to visit and making plans for the week ahead. At quarter to eight they made their way to the farmhouse. John opened the door and ushered them into the lounge, a cluttered but homely room where they soon felt at ease. They discovered John was a retired lecturer who spent his time upholstering chairs in his workshop and working part-time in the prison teaching the basics of reading and writing to those who’d missed out in their school days. Margot had studied at the Slade and supplemented their income supplying the local gift shops with paintings of island scenes and hand-made items of jewellery. She showed them a bracelet she’d made. Rebecca and Laura were impressed. Wanting to see her work Rebecca and Laura followed her out of the room leaving the men to themselves.
John wasted no time in raising the subject he knew was on Marcus’s mind. ‘I hear you’ve been down to Malham House.’
‘Twice now,’ said Marcus. ‘Do you know who owns it?’
‘No one as far as I know. The original owner disappeared years ago. He was some kind of entrepreneur though no one knew how he’d made his fortune. He designed the house himself and moved in with his wife and daughter as soon as it was built. The daughter was eight or nine when she drowned in the pool. His wife never got over it and committed suicide a year after the event. Soon afterwards her husband had some sort of breakdown. I’m told he left the house one morning and took to the downs where he lived as a hermit in a wooden hut. He never went back to the house and presumably died leaving no heirs.’
‘So what will happen to it now?’
‘Who knows? I imagine someone will purchase the place, demolish what’s left of it and build a small estate or business park - anything to make a profit.’
They talked some more about the possible development opportunities for the house and its grounds until Margot returned with Rebecca and Laura. Noticing John was looking tired Rebecca signalled it was time to go.
‘Are you ready for afters? Nothing exciting I’m afraid. There’s lemon cheese cake, yoghurt or Christmas pudding.’ Howard’s voice was calling me back to the present again. The candles were half spent but the fire still had a healthy glow. It took me a moment to gather my thoughts.
‘A little later perhaps, I’m still quite full. Why don’t you finish the story?’ I already knew how it would end - that Marcus having gone mad would be committed to an institution. I also guessed Malham House would play a part in his downfall. But I wasn’t sure how and was eager to know. Harold resumed where he’d left off while I drifted back, not to the island but now to Dorset where Marcus’s scheme began to take shape.
With all that Marcus was planning being an architect would have its advantages. Rebecca was used to him being away for days on end when a job in some distant location required his presence. Projects in various parts of the country were always ongoing and sometimes she wouldn’t remember or care where he was as long as he phoned each night. The renovations to Malham House wouldn’t come cheap but money was never a serious problem even without Rebecca’s input. Her parent’s had died within weeks of each other a few years back and had left her a tidy sum. And Marcus was far from short of money. Even if he retired at once, there’d be more than enough to keep them in comfort.
It transpired that Malham House was owned by a relative living abroad who was happy to sell the house and its grounds to someone prepared to restore the place to its former glory. Marcus’s plan was to buy and restore it within the year without telling anyone what he was doing. He would then take his family back to the Island. He’d book somewhere else, suggest they re-visit the house and shock them with all he’d achieved. He could picture their faces on finding a virtual palace and second home instead of a derelict ruin.