Variations on a Haunting Theme, page 25
‘But that was months ago and I felt perfectly fit at the time.’
‘Well if you’re sure I’ll call around three.’
I released my hand thinking he’d never let go. ‘Three o’clock on Boxing Day. I’ll look forward to it,’ I said and strolled back to the cottage crunching over the gravel path where only a few of the candles still flickered.
Happily the vicar’s concerns about my health had no dampening effect on the elation I felt in the warm aftermath of that beautiful service. The vicar was known to be over-concerned with others’ well-being. I recalled how the locals had laughed at his morbid obsession with health when Wendy and I went to church. ‘Don’t expect the vicar to call if you’ve got the sniffles,’ they’d said, ‘he’s scared stiff of catching anything going around.’ Back in those days he was known as a fitness fanatic, one of the first in village to take up regular jogging. He often preached on the body as being God’s temple and the need to refrain from anything that might harm or defile it. If he harboured the slightest suspicion of me being ill his caution about a visit was not surprising. Back at the cottage I felt for my keys but had trouble locating the door lock in the dark. Another job, I thought, resolving to visit the shops after Boxing Day to purchase an outside light and arrange for a local handyman to put it up. There was sure to be someone in the village who could see to it.
After a good night’s sleep I rose at midday with only the vaguest memory of hearing the church bells strike for the two early Sunday morning services. Still inspired by the Midnight Mass and filled with goodwill towards men I ate a hearty breakfast and wondered how I should spend the day. I even considered going that night to the club to meet up with the gang and tell them about my move. It had been remiss of me not to tell them before but after the break with Priscilla and everything else I hadn’t the courage to face them. Uncertain of the reception I’d get after all this time I thought it best to put it off for a while.
Glancing out of the window towards the mead I decided a brisk walk was needed. The weather looked perfect, cold but sunny with clear blue skies and hardly a breath of wind. Wrapped up in my coat and scarf I left the cottage, crossed the road, mounted the bank and climbed over the stile. The grass on the mead was wet with the thawing frost glittering in the sunlight. I made my way to the river and walked for some distance along the bank with a thousand thoughts on my mind. I reminisced about walks with Wendy, considered what kind of outside light I should buy and whether or not it should be something rustic to match the knocker. I relived the Midnight Mass recalling the carols and closing music. I pictured Priscilla and wondered how she would be spending Christmas Day and whether or not she’d be thinking of me. Lost in such random reveries I hardly noticed how far I’d walked and how little I’d seen. I turned about and retraced my steps with these haphazard thoughts still coming and going like butterflies flitting about refusing to be netted. As I reached the stile I thought of Mrs. Davies again. What was it about her that bothered so? I knew the name from somewhere before I’d even met her. Had she been someone Howard had mentioned? I remembered the notes I’d been typing. I would look through them later to see if Mrs. Davies’ name appeared in one of Howard’s stories but not today. It was Christmas Day and I fully intended to keep it as such. There was lunch to prepare. At three o’clock I’d watch the Queen’s speech, have a nap before tea and enjoy an evening of television. By then I’d be ready for bed and a long morning lie-in before getting up to tidy the cottage and greet the vicar.
At three o’clock on Boxing Day the vicar arrived. The conversation was stilted at first. ‘Can I offer you coffee or something stronger?’ I asked.
‘How kind, perhaps a fruit juice if you have any.’
‘Of course, orange or lime?’
‘Lime would be excellent.’ I filled his glass and poured myself a large whisky. We sat for a moment smiling at each other wondering what to say next.
The vicar spoke first. ‘I was delighted when I discovered you were moving into the cottage, especially as it’s been on the market for such a long time. What made you decide to come and join us?’
I kept it short and told him I’d lost a close friend, felt depressed and had made the decision to move on.
‘I’m pleased you did,’ said the vicar. ‘We thought the cottage would never sell after the previous owner’s tragic experience.’
‘Oh, what happened?’
He sipped his lime. ‘It’s a long story, much of it exaggerated I’m sure. I won’t repeat the gory gossip. Suffice to say that Mrs. Davies lost her husband in a holiday incident. There were all kinds of distasteful rumours surrounding his death which might have dissuaded people from buying the cottage but, as I say, it was in my view an unfortunate though undoubtedly tragic accident. Nevertheless it seemed to put people off buying.’
I was keen to hear more but the vicar was not to be drawn. He changed the subject and wanted to know what I’d done to the cottage and if I had any plans to change it in any way. I explained that I had nothing major in mind other than fixing an outside lamp over the door. He told me about its history and confirmed it had once been two homes knocked into one. We laughed about such a humble dwelling possessing the two staircases and the need for the bed to be propped up with books where the different floor levels met. I offered to show him round but he looked at his watch and told me he had more visits to make. Leaving most of the lime in his glass he shook hands and left me with what was becoming an all too familiar valediction, ‘Do take care!’
Taking care was low on my list of priorities. As soon as the vicar had gone I drank the remains of my whisky and refilled the glass to the brim. The news of Mrs. Davies and her husband’s misfortune had put me into a panic. The name I couldn’t get out of my head loomed ever larger. It must have belonged to someone Howard had mentioned. The only way to be certain was to look through the notes I’d written to date.
There were still two boxes of inessentials I hadn’t unpacked in one of the small bedrooms. Hoping the notes might be there I raced upstairs spilling some whisky in my rush. I rummaged through the boxes and found what I was looking for. My hand shook as I leafed through the pages and came across the opening sentence of Gary’s story: ‘It was the day after their Boxing Day wedding when Gary Davies began to have ...’ I read no further.
Stunned by knowing I’d purchased the house once lived in by Gary a train of disquieting thoughts ran through my head. I recalled Priscilla’s warning about how everyone who’d come into contact with Howard was doomed in some way and that through me she might be too. I sat on the floor gulping down the whisky in fear of the future and what it might bring if Priscilla’s predictions held true. Thankfully the panic passed. I pulled myself together and went downstairs to consider my plight in a calm and rational way. That I’d bought this cottage had nothing to do with Gary’s accident on Exmoor. I’d simply chosen a way to move on. I lit the wood burner, settled into my chair and turned my thoughts to less troublesome matters - what I should have for tea, where to buy an outside lamp and who I could get to fix it and wire it up. By putting all thoughts of Gary and Barbara behind me and dwelling solely on trivial affairs I managed to keep my misgivings at bay and pass the rest of the day in relative composure.
Next morning I walked to the village shop. The short plump woman behind the counter I now knew as Mrs. Trott. Although I would never be accepted as a local, she treated me civilly as newcomer to the village and was happy to take my order for the daily and weekly papers. Our conversation was always brief and to the point.
‘Daily Mail in the rack, Mr. Hall. Is there anything else?’
‘There is, as happens. Do you know of anyone in the village who could fix an outside lamp for me?’
‘You could try Jack Mumford, Jasmine Cottage, next to the pub. He does all sorts of handy work.’
On my way home I called on Jack Mumford who agreed do it that after
As the months passed I grew to feel more at home and threw myself into village life. I made new friends in the pub, joined the dart team and did what I could for the church, clearing paths, clipping hedges and tidying the grounds. In the spring I was invited to put myself forward for the PCC and was duly elected. I would like to have sung in the choir but lacking musical skills I settled for bell ringing instead and joined the small band of campanologists - Jack Mumford with Tom, Fred and Nancy Parker, two brothers and their sister who all worked on their parents’ farm. Charged with the lightest of the five bells I quickly learned the ropes and joined the others at the pub after practises. I threw myself into the Summer Fete and offered to run the bookstall. The vicar as always prayed for a warm, sunny day and his prayers were duly answered. People from far and near flocked to the vicarage garden, spent their cash and enjoyed the games and activities. Autumn arrived with the harvest festival and annual harvest supper in the village hall. Content with my new life the old was all but forgotten. I rarely gave any thought to the club or to Priscilla. Irrational fears about living where Gary had once lived or what hold on me Harold might have disappeared. As far as I could see nothing terrible would happen to alter things but as autumn gave way to winter all that was to change.
The dramatic event which would alter the course of my life occurred at the end of November. The fog on that Friday morning was denser than I’d ever known it. Making my way up the hill to the shop was like walking into an impenetrable shroud so thick I could barely see the pavement beneath my feet. By counting my footsteps and judging how far I’d walked I reached the shop and went in trailing swirls of fog behind me. Mrs. Trott was behind the counter engrossed in subdued conversation with another woman. All I could catch was the odd, whispered phrase. ‘So sudden,’ Mrs. Trott sighed but I couldn’t hear what was said in reply. Not wanting to interrupt I retrieved my daily along with the local weekly Gazette from the newspaper rack, gave the women an unacknowledged nod and left.
I’d planned to spend the morning clearing leaves from the churchyard but as it was foggy I brewed some coffee and sat down to read the news. As is common for people of my age I opened the local paper first and automatically turned to the births marriages and deaths to see if I recognised any names. What I didn’t expect was to read the following:
Hall, William (Bill) died suddenly on 26th November, beloved husband of the late Wendy Hall. The funeral will be at St Mary’s Church, Mudford on a day to be announced. All donations to St. Mary’s Church for restoration of the tenor bell.
My immediate reaction was to laugh out loud. I knew an error had been made but I couldn’t think how. Someone must have mistakenly informed the Gazette or they wouldn’t have had my personal details. Perhaps a false rumour of my death had prompted someone to notify the paper believing it was true. Or it could have been a malicious prank played by somebody with a grudge. As far as I knew I’d upset no one but then I remembered the club members. They had every reason to feel aggrieved by the way I’d abandoned them. I remembered promising Arthur Dawes that I’d call in soon but never had. Any one of the group could have taken umbrage at the way I’d forsaken them. The only other person who might bear malice was Priscilla. All I could do was contact the paper and sort it out. I found the number and picked up the phone. Put on hold after choosing from endless options I waited impatiently and was about to replace the handset when a voice said, ‘Gazette office, how can I help?’
I was tempted to ask how an office could possibly be of any help but I bit my tongue and tried to stay calm. ‘William Hall speaking,’ I said and conveyed my concerns in a firm but polite tone of voice. I explained how I’d read my obituary and supposed a mistake had been made or I wouldn’t be phoning them now. Expecting a shamefaced apology all I heard was the same response, ‘Gazette office, how can I help?’
I cleared my throat and raising my voice with the handset held close to my mouth I repeated word for word what I’d already told them. I explained that although I was sure they were not to blame the unfortunate error had caused me considerable distress. I was going to ask if they ever made any checks on the authenticity of their reports but was interrupted once again with the same reply, ‘Gazette office, how can I help? Is anyone there?’ Assuming there must be a fault on the line I abandoned the call and wondered what to do next. The fog was thickening but feeling restless I made the decision to drive into town and resolve the issue once and for all. I groped my way through the fog to the car, climbed in and turned the ignition key. The engine briefly spluttered then died. After several attempts I abandoned all hope of it starting and walked to the garage across the road. Afraid to intrude on the workshop I entered the showroom where one of the salesmen was showing a car to a client. Neither he nor his customer took any notice of me so I waited twiddling my thumbs while they did their business. Loosing patience I interrupted. ‘Excuse me,’ I said, ‘but I wonder if someone could help.’ Perhaps I’d upset the salesman by butting in at a crucial point. Whatever the reason the man ignored me completely. I spoke again but I might have been talking to the wall as far as he was concerned. After one last attempt to attract his attention and getting nowhere I turned on my heels and walked away. Intent on getting into town I tried again to start the car but the battery was dead. There was nothing to do but catch the bus if the buses were still running in fog. Back at the cottage I thumbed through the timetable. One was due in twenty minutes. In weather like this it was bound to be late but I couldn’t risk taking chances. The bus stop was halfway up the hill so I wrapped up warm and tucking the paper under my arm set off to catch it.
Shivering and stamping my feet I stood alone at the bus stop for several minutes shrouded in fog. High overhead the watery disc of the sun was just about visible piercing the gloom, pale as the face of a ghost. As I stood looking up a man and a woman joined me. Realising it was Jack Mumford and his wife I said hello but neither answered. Both seemed unwilling to talk to each other let alone me. I ignored them assuming they’d had a row and weren’t in the mood for small talk. We all stood in silence as slow-moving cars emerged from and disappeared into the fog. I thought the bus would never come but at last it appeared. I stood aside for the Mumfords to board and followed them on to the bus. Before I had chance to speak to the driver and tender my fare he pulled away. Grabbing a handrail I stood at his side and coughed to get his attention. He took no notice. I coughed once more but his eyes were fixed on the road ahead as we trundled up the hill. I was never a person to cheat but if he wasn’t bothered then neither was I. Stumbling down the gangway I found a seat and stared at the fog through the steamed-up window rehearsing what I would say when I reached the Gazette.
As we entered the outskirts of town at the top of the hill by the Hundredstone gardens we drove momentarily into dazzling sunlight before descending back down into fog. The Mumfords alighted before my stop. I thought they might give me a wave as they left but neither did. When my turn came to get off I made a point of thanking the driver who drove off without a word. I thought it rude but at least had the satisfaction of knowing I’d had a free ride.
Being a Friday with Christmas approaching the town was busy. Young mothers were trailing their wailing toddlers. The elderly wandered along in a daze and suddenly stopped without any warning. Invalids drove their mobility scooters at speed treating the pav
Feeling disgruntled I finally reached my destination and stood for a moment gazing up at the newspaper’s headquarters taking deep breaths to calm myself down. It was, indeed, an imposing façade or as Howard might say, a splendid example of late Victorian opulence. Occupying a corner site the curved frontage, three stories high, was covered with small-paned windows. In the centre of the building a flight of steps led up to the large oak doors set beneath a vast arch shaped like a scallop shell. High above the entrance on the top floor a complementary smaller arch housed the majestic clock face with its gilded hands pointing to Roman numerals.
It was just gone eleven and ready for action I mounted the steps, walked into the foyer and marched across to the hatch. From where I was standing I had a clear view through the glass of an open-plan office crammed with desks and people going about their business, holding phones, filing papers, typing, talking and staring at monitor screens. I tapped on the window gently at first then louder and louder until I was hammering away with enough force to shatter the glass. Accepting that no one would come I made my way up to the first floor. Trailing through countless corridors I discovered a room marked Editor and having learned it was better to seek the man at the top than his minions I knocked the door and stepped inside.
I was met with a deathly hush. A small group was sitting on tubular chairs arranged in a semicircle facing a grey-haired man in a white shirt with rolled-up sleeves who stood at the front with his back towards me. No one noticed my entrance. Their eyes were fixed on the man at the front. ‘Are there any questions?’ he asked. Nobody answered. ‘Right, let’s get to it.’
A mad rush ensued as everyone barged straight past me out of the door leaving me alone in the room with the grey haired man whom I guessed was the editor. Without even glancing at me he scratched his head, went to his desk and sifting through a pile of papers found what he wanted and started reading. Thinking he hadn’t seen me I went to the desk and stood in front of him waiting for him to look up. He took no notice and scrawled notes on the script before him. ‘Idiot,’ he muttered to himself.