Variations on a Haunting Theme, page 3
It was late September when he returned to the Island. He covered his tracks by telling Rebecca he’d be working in the Midlands for a few days. She never checked with office as to his whereabouts and his partners rarely bothered about each other’s movements since any one of them could be called away at a moment’s notice.
The purchase of the house was resolved with relative ease. The owner turned out to be the hermit’s only surviving sibling, an aging spinster sister who was now living in Australia and was more than happy to exchange her interest in the property for a large cheque. The real work would involve decisions on how the interior was to be altered and what should be done to the grounds. Marcus’s task was made easier by the solicitor in Newport who dealt with the conveyance and was able to recommend a number of reliable building contractors with all the specialisms he required.
By early November the renovations were well underway. The pool was drained and repaired, the old slide removed, a new spiral flume installed and expensive tiles laid around the pool’s perimeter in place of the old, broken slabs. The surrounding grounds were to be transformed by a local firm of landscape gardeners who would re-lay the lawns, create colourful flowerbeds, plant new hedges and replace the rusty metal arch with an elaborately-designed wrought-iron one which would eventually be covered with climbing roses. Inside anything old and decayed including the hallway stairs was to be ripped out and replaced with modern fitments. There’d be open staircases, en-suite bathrooms and all the latest mod cons. The exterior of the building would remain unchanged apart from replacement windows and doors made to replicate the originals in every detail including the stained glass in the front door. Marcus’s role was to supervise the contractors, select the materials and visit periodically to review progress and advise where necessary. By May of the following year the dream was becoming a reality. After seeing the progress Marcus came home unable to hide his excitement and pride. The children had long been in bed and were fast asleep. Margot immediately noticed something different about him, a certain confidence and ebullience over and above his usual enthusiastic self. Wanting to know why he looked so pleased with himself she asked what the smug look was about.
‘Smug? How do you mean?’
‘You look like a cat with the cream. You’re hiding something. What have you been up to today?’
‘Nothing unusual, a lot of travelling.’
‘Cardiff if you must know - looking at the site for a new conference centre. Why?’
Nothing would have pleased him more than to tell her exactly where he’d been and what he’d seen. Malham House and its grounds had taken on a new lease of life.
The gardens were spectacular, the interior was stunning and the pool with the May sunlight sparkling on the surface was the jewel in the crown. Keeping everything secret had been the most difficult part of the entire enterprise. But soon enough the secret would be out. He couldn’t wait for the time when he led his family along the woodland track which he’d purposely left as it was and saw their startled reactions when they reached the clearing. He thrilled at the thought of them seeing the house completely transformed and discovering it belonged to them.
Their plans for summer had been settled soon after Christmas. They’d booked what they hoped would turn out to be a proper holiday cottage in the Lake District and would be away for the last week in July and the first week of August. Malham House was due to be completed by the end of June when the children would still be at school. How and when the family could be enticed to revisit the Island was the only problem for Marcus to solve. In the meantime there was still work to be done before the renovations were finally completed.
His penultimate visit to the island was planned for the end of May. As the firm was re-developing an industrial site near Warwick it was easy enough to convince Rebecca he’d be there and, because of the distance, would stay overnight. On previous visits to the Island he’d discovered a hotel in Freshwater Bay which was where he intended to stay.
Not needing to be on the island at any particular time he waited until Rebecca had left with the children for school before setting off. As soon as he reached Fishbourne he drove to the house and stopped to admire the transformation. Apart from a few skips filled with rubble waiting to be removed and temporarily spoiling the view he was more than happy with what he saw. Only he would know how much work and imagination had gone into the project. To Rebecca and the children it would seem as though someone like Cinderella’s fairy godmother had a waved a magic wand and instantly turned a ruin into a palace.
As soon as his business with the various contractors was completed he left for Freshwater Bay. After checking in he decided to take some exercise. He began by climbing up to Tennyson Down and surprised himself by walking as far as the Needles.
Back at the hotel he enjoyed a refreshing shower and settled himself in the lounge. Having been assured the house would be ready on time he began to plan when and how he could bring the family down to reveal his secret. He decided on the last week in August. Two weeks would have passed since their holiday in the Lakes. The children would be bored wanting something to do. Rebecca would probably welcome another break and with any luck there might be an Indian summer. The important thing was to keep them away from the Blakes who were sure to know about the conversion and might spoil the surprise. Marcus had been careful to avoid them throughout the year and had told the contractors never to mention his name but he realised how quickly news on a small island travels. In the end he decided to tell Rebecca he’d booked hotel rooms for a week when in fact he would only book them for one night. The rest of the week would be spent in their new island home with Michael and Laura enjoying the outdoor pool while he and Rebecca relaxed in the landscaped gardens.
On the following day he booked rooms for the last Sunday in August and arranged for provisions to be delivered to Malham House the day after. Pleased with his his planning he set off for the ferry and home.
Their holiday in the Lake District was not a success. It rained every day. They managed to survive by taking boat trips and frequenting gift shops or crowded cafes to shelter from the regular downpours. No one was sorry when the holiday ended and everyone was relieved to be back in Dorset where the sun had been shining throughout their time away and was set to continue shining for the foreseeable future if the forecast was right.
Fortunately the weather held throughout August and the family was delighted when Marcus broke the news of his plans for a week on the Island before the children returned to school. Surprisingly neither Michael nor Laura mentioned Malham House. Michael was looking forward to scouring the south coast cliffs in the hope of discovering some hitherto unknown species of dinosaur while Laura seemed more excited at the prospect of meeting the Blakes again, especially Margot. ‘Will we be staying in the same place,’ she asked, ‘and can we have another look at Margot’s things?’
‘We’ll be staying in a hotel but don’t worry,’ her father answered. ‘I’ll make sure we visit the Blakes.’ It was Marcus more than Laura who couldn’t wait to call on the Blakes and see their jaws drop when they learned who’d bought and restored Malham House. But that would have to wait until after he’d introduced the family to their new home.
The warm weather continued and no one was more excited than Marcus as they all piled into the Land Rover bound for the island and Freshwater Bay. As soon as they’d settled into their hotel rooms Marcus suggested a stroll before dinner and took them on the same route that he walked before. In the afternoon sunshine they climbed the steep rise to Tennyson Downs and continued walking as far as the Needles. The views were spectacular but nothing compared with what they’d be seeing on the following day.
They returned to the hotel in time for dinner and after the tiring walk slept soundly. It was over breakfast when Marcus broke the news that he’d only booke
‘Of course I am but I’m sure we’ll be able to find somewhere else to stay.’
Rebecca had played this game before. She knew his Wagnerian tactic of ratcheting up the tension and delaying the resolution before reaching the final cadence at the very last moment. ‘So what do we do now?’ she said.
‘I guess we’d better load up the car and see where it takes us.’
As soon as the luggage was packed they set off. Rebecca was tired of game-playing and wanted to know the truth. ‘Do you know where we’re going?’
‘I’ve no idea,’ he said but as soon as they’d driven through Newport and found themselves climbing the Downs on familiar roads Laura perked up now certain of where they were going. But Marcus surprised them all when he drove past the Blake’s house without slowing down and made for the concrete drive and the woods where he stopped the car. ‘You remember that old house,’ he said, ‘I thought we could go there again just to take a peek and see if it looks the same.’ Their unenthusiastic response was what he expected.
No one seemed keen but Rebecca surprised him by not protesting. ‘All right,’ she said, ‘but on one condition.’
‘That you promise me you’ve already booked a place for the rest of the week.’
‘I have and I promise you won’t be disappointed.’
‘Then lead the way.’
After a year of being intentionally left to itself the scramble over the nettle-filled ditch, barbed-wire fence and fallen tree trunk was more difficult than before. Only the KEEP OUT sign still stood proud of the rampant bracken and undergrowth as if to display its warning more clearly than ever. Laura clung to Rebecca while Michael broke off a stick believing this time he really might have to defend himself and the others from some unwanted presence. There was no need for Marcus to fill their minds with frightening thoughts. Even he was disturbed by the sinister atmosphere as they fought their way through the tangle of branches. Just as on their first visit the only sounds were the clap of wings from startled pigeons and clacking of beady-eyed magpies. As they went deeper into the woodland the darker it grew. It was only the thought of what they would find when they reached the clearing that kept Marcus urging them on. He couldn’t wait to see the astounded expressions on their faces when they finally saw why he’d brought them here and realised the beautiful building that met their eyes belonged to them and would be the place where they’d spend the rest of the week.
Slowly but surely the thicket thinned with glimpses of sunlight overhead. ‘Prepare yourselves for a shock!’ he said as he followed them into the clearing not yet guessing the shock would be his alone. The house was there but not the refurbished mansion in its glorious grounds he expected to see. For a moment he thought he was having a flash-back remembering the place as it was and not as he’d last seen it. He rubbed his eyes and looked again but nothing had changed. Everything was the same as it had been before the renovations. His legs turned to jelly and began to give way. Michael was running towards the rusty arch with Rebecca and Laura following close behind. ‘It’s just like it was,’ Michael shouted standing beneath it. ‘Come and feel! It’s freezing.’
Not knowing what he was doing but desperate to make some sense of what he was seeing Marcus stumbled towards the arch. As he did so he caught sight of a curtain being twitched in one of the dormer windows and an old man’s face staring down at him. In a state of utter confusion he followed the others under the arch and through the gap in the hedge to the stagnant pool with its broken slide. Staggering on towards the steps leading up to the porch he reached the peeling door and stood for a moment staring in disbelief as he looked through the stained glass and saw the rocking chair swinging wildly backwards and forwards on the landing. Shaking uncontrollably his legs gave way and he sank to the ground gibbering like a madman.
‘He never recovered of course and was put away,’ said Howard.
I stared at the fire attempting to take it all in. ‘Was he mad?’ I asked. ‘Had he somehow imagined it all?’
‘If only he’d pretended that he had he might not be locked up now. But I’m told in his rare lucid moments he still insists that he really did transform the house. On several occasions he gave his psychiatrist details of all the contractors he’d used. Rebecca was given their names and addresses but after checking each one she discovered that none corresponded to anyone living or dead who had lived on the Island. Needless to say only Marcus and I believed in the truth of his story unless you believe it too.’
The framed photo of Marcus was still on the table between us. I picked it up and looked at it carefully once again. I would have asked more questions but Howard was once more at the piano. ‘Variation 12,’ he said as his fingers raced over the keyboard. ‘What do you make of it?’
Thankfully the piece was comparatively short. Not having Howard’s knowledge of music I wasn’t sure what to say. ‘Very jolly,’ I ventured, ‘all up and down so to speak.’
‘All up and down! How very perceptive and apt as you shall hear when I tell you my next story. But first we must eat if you’re ready now. Cheesecake, yogurt or Christmas pudding? Take your pick.’
I chose Christmas pudding. I’m not especially fond of it but thought it wise to eat something filling to counteract the effects of the whisky. All up and down, how very perceptive and apt! What did he mean and where were we going next?
3: Variation 12 - Matthew
The antique percolator Howard produced after we’d eaten had more in common with Kipp’s apparatus than a modern electric coffee maker. He brought it across to the small table and sat down. Feeling bloated and ready to sink back into my comfy chair I joined him. With meticulous care that reminded me of a priest lifting and lowering the chalice in preparation for the Eucharist he began to assemble the various components. With practised precision he poured methylated spirits into the spirit lamp, filled the flask above it with water and spooned the ground coffee into the glass container. Lighting the wick he warned me the process would take some time and handed me the next framed photo. ‘This was Matthew,’ he said, ‘a harrowing tale. Are you ready to hear it?’ I assured him I was and closed my eyes half aware of Howard throwing more logs on the fire.
Simon Barnes and Matthew Clarke joined the firm as junior assistants within a week of each other and quickly became close friends. Neither was married. Although there was speculation as to the nature of their relationship nothing was known for certain. It was generally assumed that they’d moved into the same flat to share the cost of renting.
Simon, Scandinavian in appearance, was instantly likeable. He was tall and lean with pale skin, fair hair and bright blue eyes. He saw only the best in others and his friendly, straightforward nature won their trust.
His parents farmed in the Mendips hills. They encouraged his interest in architecture even though they’d have preferred him to join the family business. His younger sister Claire adored him and everyone was delighted when he tossed his mortar board into the air having won a First Class Honours degree from Cardiff and joined Hoskins, Dyer and Blake.
Matthew, shorter and overweight with a mop of dark hair, differed from Simon in every respect. Unlike his flat mate whose wide-open eyes hid nothing, Matthew’s perception was warped by a permanent squint which distorted his view of the world and everyone in it including his colleagues who thinking he was suspicious of them were wary of him. Apart from the fact that he’d also acquired a first class honours degree, in his case from Oxford, quite how such a surly character had managed to secure a job with any successful architect’s firm was a mystery to everyone.
It was over a few cans of beer one night that Matthew t
Matthew recounted to Simon his memories of being dragged to those weekly meetings when Jacob preached of the narrow road and the small gate that led to salvation and cursed to eternal damnation all who foolishly favoured the broad gate and the wide road which deservedly led to destruction. ‘I was made to sit at the front with my mother,’ said Matthew, evoking the childhood scene as if he were there at that very moment reliving the fear and the shame.
Moved by the passion and venom in Matthew’s voice, Simon tried to console him. ‘I can’t imagine the Servants of Sinai lasted for more than a month,’ he said.
‘A month? They lasted for years! His congregation grew by the week. Every chair was filled except for two at the front, reserved for mother and me. Whenever he preached his eyes would wander around the hall and fix themselves in a threatening way on everyone there including me especially me on a night I shall never forget.