Variations on a Haunting Theme, page 6
Cars rushed by as they made their way home. The brass plaque flashed in the afternoon sun but neither noticed it. ‘What did you wish for?’ Simon asked.
‘If I tell you it won’t come true.’
‘Just give me a hint.’
‘It was something to do with Lynmouth. I’m starting to like the idea of spending a week away. If my wish comes true it’ll a week to remember.’
June came quicker than expected and soon after breakfast they left for Lynmouth. The journey to Taunton was uninspiring but after that the scenery changed. ‘Enjoy the views!’ said Simon after they’d reached the top of Porlock hill and cruised over the moor. ‘Somewhere down there is Oare church where Lorna Doone was shot. If you’re lucky you might catch a glimpse of the sea and the Welsh Coast on the other side.’
They were driving down from the moor to Lynmouth when Simon noticed Matthew’s change of mood. ‘Are you worried about the road?’ he asked. ‘It’s fairly steep but not as bad as Porlock.’
It wasn’t the road. As they drove down the hill the moors towered above them. The open vistas disappeared. The trees closed in on either side shutting out the light. It wasn’t any better when they emerged from the shade at the foot of the hill and were back into sunlight. Matthew was feeling claustrophobic, hemmed in and trapped by something more than just the surrounding hills.
‘Here’s Lynmouth,’ said Matthew, ‘and that’s where we’re staying.’ He pointed to a cottage on a wooded hillside. ‘It’s halfway up a small gorge looking down on the town and the harbour. You’ll love it.’ He turned into a narrow entrance, drove up the steep drive and parked the car in front of the cottage. ‘This is where it all begins,’ he said.
Matthew noticed the brook tumbling down over the rocks only yards from where they’d be sleeping. He wasn’t sure that he liked the place but after several cans of beer he was ready for bed.
In the morning Matthew woke him with a cup of coffee and a couple of biscuits. ‘It’s a beautiful day. Did you sleep well?’
Matthew heaved himself up from the pillow and stretched. ‘No. That bloody waterfall kept me awake for most of the night.’ He dunked one of the biscuits and popped it into his mouth. ‘So what are the plans for today? Nothing too strenuous I hope.’
‘No nothing strenuous. I thought we could take a stroll down to the harbour and maybe pop up to Lynton. We can talk about it over breakfast. I’ll see to it while you get dressed.’
Setting off as soon as they’d eaten they paused by the falls and watched the water cascading over the rocks. ‘Wasn’t there some sort of flood here once?’ asked Matthew tossing a broken stick into the torrent.
Simon watched the stick as it disappeared. ‘Yes, back in the early fifties. Several houses were washed away. Twenty eight people died. My parents remember it well. They were listening to the radio on the night it happened. They came down afterwards and said it looked as though the place had been bombed. One building had the whole of its side washed away. They said it looked like a doll’s house. You could see into all of the rooms.’
Matthew pictured the scene. ‘Let’s get away from the water. It’s giving me the creeps.’
The main street was filled with gift shops and cafes. They stopped to look at the trinkets and thought about buying sun hats but didn’t. From there they strolled to the harbour where they sat on a wall and gazed out to sea. Matthew picked up a stone and tossed it on to the rocky foreshore. ‘So is that it? Not a lot to keep us amused for a whole week is there?’
‘There’s still Lynton,’ said Simon.
‘So how do we get there?’
‘By magic! We passed the place on our way but you didn’t notice. It’s just back there around the corner. When we’re at Lynton we’ll walk to the Valley of Rocks. It isn’t far and it’s really weird, just like a scene from the Wild West. You’re in for a treat!’
Moments later with tickets in hand they were gazing up at the track of the Lynmouth and Lynton Cliff Railway. ‘Beats Porlock!’ said Simon, keen get Matthew’s reaction. ‘What do you think - awesome or what?’
‘Definitely awesome.’ Matthew’s eyes were fixed on the two carriages about to pass each other at the halfway point. Each had a small outside platform where passengers could stand in the open watching Lynmouth approach or recede depending on whether they were going up or down. Matthew was fascinated. ‘So how does it work? I’m guessing it’s not by magic.’
‘By gravity. There are two carriages, one at the top and one at the bottom.’
‘Don’t you mean boxes on wheels?’
‘Okay, boxes on wheels with tanks underneath. The one at the top takes on water while the bottom one is emptied.’
‘So the heavier carriage coming down pulls the bottom one up.’
‘Yes. Clever isn’t it?’
‘Brilliant! Bright people those Victorians. Might be an idea for an eco-friendly lift in a modern high-rise. Should impress the boss. I’ll have to work on it.’
Simon, in retrospect, would have argued with Matthew’s insistence on standing outside on the platform rather than sitting inside when they boarded. Nor would he ever forget the look of horror on Matthew’s face as the carriages passed at the halfway point. As far as Simon could see there was no one outside on the other carriage but when they got off at Lynton Matthew was just as he’d been when he’d rushed from the grotto after their first visit to Ninesprings.
The other passengers told their children to look away as Matthew gripped Simon’s arm and started screaming, ‘It was him leaning towards me. He tried to grab me. You must have seen him.’
Unlike Ninesprings there was nowhere to sit and wait for Matthew to calm down. Simon’s only option was to keep him walking until they were somewhere out of the way. Simon whisked him through the town and along the road to the Valley of Rocks where the bizarre setting distracted Matthew. Sitting together on top of a craggy outcrop overlooking the sea he began to relax. ‘Did you really see no one?’ he asked.
‘I didn’t,’ said Simon, wrapping his arm around Matthew, ‘there was nobody there.’
‘Then I must have imagined it?’
‘Yes but it’s not surprising.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Looking at railway lines again. It brought things back.’
They sat in silence gazing out at the view each lost in thought. Simon wondered how they would get back to Lynmouth. It was a long way to walk but the railway was out. He asked Matthew if he’d like to go back by taxi or bus. Matthew delayed answering.
‘You remember suggesting once that I could be mad,’ he said.
‘Not mad, just that you might need help,’
‘Well perhaps I am crazy, seeing things that aren’t there.’
‘After all you went through as a kid I’m amazed you’ve coped as well as you have.’
‘Then I’ll have to get over it somehow won’t I? Face my fears as they say. So we’re not going back by bus or taxi. We’ll go back the way we came.’
‘Are you sure?’
‘I am. If I see him again I’ll tell myself he isn’t there and that I must be hallucinating. I can’t spend the rest of my life believing in a ghost can I?’
‘If you’re really certain...’
Simon would always remember their slow walk back as a time when he’d never felt closer to Matthew. Scrambling down over the rocks and ploughing their way through a forest of ferns they finally reached the road now claimed by a flock of sheep. Having picked their way through them they strolled along the narrow road comfortable in each other’s company, talking and taking everything in. It was too much to hope that Matthew would never be troubled again by his father’s ghost but that was how it seemed for the moment. Admitting he needed help was a start. Hardly aware of where they were they arrived back at Lynton and stopped to look in t
‘Speaking of which are you sure you wouldn’t rather walk back?’
‘No!’ Matthew was smiling. He pointed at the logo. ‘No one, not even a non-existent ghost would dare to tackle me wearing this.’
Back at the station Matthew insisted on standing outside believing he had no choice if he really wanted to lay his father’s ghost. On the downward ride Simon’s eyes were fixed on him looking for any signs of anxiety though he seemed quite relaxed. When they reached the halfway point everything changed. With a wild look in his eyes Matthew grabbed hold of the barrier rail and heaved himself up. Leaning over he reached out towards the ascending carriage. As the carriages passed he lunged towards the other platform. He was reaching for someone though no one was there. ‘You bastard, I’ll get you!’ he shouted waving his arms and loosing his balance. Unable to save himself he toppled and fell headfirst down on to the rails. With a hideous screeching of brakes the carriage juddered to a halt. Simon leaned over the barrier rail and looked down. He would never forget the sickening sight of Matthew’s mangled body staring up at him.
‘Good god!’ I exclaimed taking a large gulp of brandy. ‘So Matthew really had seen his father.’
‘Only if you believe in ghosts,’ said Howard.
‘And you don’t?’
‘I am simply repeating what Simon told me and Simon swears there was no one outside on the other carriage. As to whether or not I believe in ghosts is something you must decide for yourself when you’ve heard the other stories. But not tonight. Would you like another drink before we turn in?’
The fire was almost out. I was tired and ready for bed though I didn’t expect to sleep after all I’d heard. ‘No, nothing more,’ I said.
‘Then I’ll take you up and show you your room.’ The stairway was steep and creaked as we climbed to the landing above. We passed several doors before Howard opened one. ‘This should suit you,’ he said. ‘You’ll find some spare blankets in the wardrobe and clean pyjamas in one of the drawers. The bathroom’s next door. There’s a spare toothbrush still in its wrapping and the towels are in the airing cupboard. Help yourself to whatever you need.’
I left him and switched on the light. The room was cold and the ice-blue paint on the walls did little to warm it up. I helped myself to several blankets but not the pyjamas. Deciding vest and pants would do I undressed and climbed into bed huddling the blankets around me. The last thing I heard was creaking treads as Howard not ready for bed crept back downstairs.
I must have fallen asleep almost immediately but fitfully. For the next few hours I woke from dreadful dreams of express trains racing through the downs on the Isle of Wight and of Lorna Doone being shot by a crazy pastor aboard a cliff railway. According to Howard’s clock on the bedside table it was four in the morning before I finally sank into dreamless, unbroken sleep. When I woke bright daylight was filtering into the room though the flimsy curtains. Uncertain at first as to my whereabouts I heard the piano being played and remembered where I was. My head pounded as I listened to the music. He was playing another frenetically fast piece. I wanted to drift back to sleep but as it was almost eleven I thought better of it. I forced myself out of bed, splashed some cold water over my face and made my way downstairs.
‘Ah, there you are,’ said Howard. ‘I was just about to make breakfast. Are you ready to eat?’
All I really wanted was a mug of strong black coffee but I accepted the offer. ‘What were you were playing?’ I asked when I was halfway through a slice of toast and enjoying it more than I expected.
Howard seemed pleased I’d taken the trouble to ask. ‘Another of the Goldberg variations,’ he said, ‘number 23.’ Not one of the easiest pieces to play. Did you enjoy it?’
‘I found it - interesting,’ I said not wanting to mislead him into thinking I was over keen on his type of music. Having been brought up in the fifties with Family Favourites, Mantovani and the Light programme I preferred something simple and melodic, music with a catchy tune that I could hum or whistle after hearing it once or twice.
‘Interesting in what way?’ Howard was determined to get a sensible answer.
‘Well,’ I said, searching for some intelligent response, ‘as you say it was obviously fiendishly difficult. How you manage to make your fingers fly all over the notes with one hand chasing after the other I can’t imagine. It made me think of catch-me-if-you-can!’
‘Catch-me-if-you-can - how very intriguing.’
‘And why should that be?’
‘You’ll see. After breakfast I’ll make some more coffee and tell you another story that shows how perceptive you are. One hand after the other and catch me if you can! Very apt as you’ll realise when you hear what happened to Gary.’
With breakfast over and replenished cups in our hands we retired to our chairs where Howard commenced on the next of his unsettling tales.
4: Variation 23 - Gary
On the day after their Boxing Day wedding Gary Davies was having second thoughts wondering what on earth made him marry Barbara. They were facing each other over a table for two in their honeymoon guest house at Brixham which was empty apart from an elderly resident gentleman and a mother (no father in sight) forcing her two precocious children to write their Christmas thank-you letters under protest at the breakfast table.
Gary was studying Barbara’s sharp features wondering how he’d ever found them attractive. They’d met at University and cohabited for three years but now she seemed like a total stranger with whom he had nothing in common. The relationship had been consummated soon after they’d met and the coupling on their wedding night had been little more than an obligatory act which hadn’t gone well. Saying nothing he watched as Barbara poured milk over her cornflakes and waited for her to speak. Anyone listening to their conversation might have mistaken them for a bored, middle-aged couple rather than a pair of newly-weds. Barbara wiped her mouth with the napkin. ‘Did you sleep well?’ she asked.
‘Apart from that recurring dream I did.’
Gary’s dreams were a source of irritation to Barbara who had no interest in his obsession with Freudian concepts and his belief that dreams were significant. ‘Oh, and which one was that?’ she asked not really wanting to know.
‘The one about the cornfield. It’s as though I’m really there. I can see it so clearly, every detail - the combine harvester standing in the middle of the field and beyond it against the hills, the farm with its outbuildings and equipment - open barns stacked to the rafters with bales of hay, the combine harvester, a vicious-looking harrow and a tall cylindrical tower. It’s always the same place. And then something terrible happens but I always wake up before I know what it is. It must mean something. I remember reading in The Interpretation of Dreams that if you take each of the dream’s elements - the field, the harvester and so on - as representing a part of yourself, you can begin to piece it all together and work out what it’s trying to tell you.’
Barbara wasn’t listening. ‘What are we going to do with ourselves today?’ she asked.
And so it was that the honeymoon passed along with the following six months spent living in and renovating the dilapidated cottage next to the village church which they’d bought at a snip and intended to sell at a handsome profit when the work was done.
It was late August when Gary, sick of painting, pointing and plastering, suggested a break. ‘We could take a few days off,’ he said, ‘go on a short holiday and recharge the batteries.’
‘That’s where the vicar comes in. No point living next door to a vicar if we don’t tap the church’s resources. We could borrow a scout tent and take off in the car. I was thinking about a few days on Exmoor. How would fancy it?’
Barbara had never camped in a tent before but the thought of getting away from the mess in the cottage was enough to win her over. ‘I wouldn’t say no to a break,’ she admitted.
‘Great! I’ll pop around to the vicarage in the morning and get things moving.’
The vicar was more than happy to lend them a tent and so, with the canvas packed in the boot and the tent poles laid lengthways between them, they set off on the following afternoon under a leaden sky. The first drops of rain fell soon after they’d started and before long turned into a downpour that stayed with them throughout the entire journey. At the top of Porlock Hill they drove into dense mist. With dusk beginning to fall and the mist growing ever thicker, the road ahead was barely visible. Catching sight of a signpost Gary turned off eager to leave the main road and find somewhere to stop. The narrow lane dropped steeply down through a tunnel of trees and eventually levelled out into a valley.
Spotting a wide grass verge at the side of the road Gary stopped. ‘This’ll do,’ he said.
‘We can’t stop here, it’s in the middle of nowhere,’ said Barbara.
Taking no notice, Gary got out of the car and looked around at the stunted trees, a fast-flowing brook and the purple moors rising into the mist. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘there’s room for a tent. It’ll do for tonight.’
Barbara bristled and sat in the car while Gary erected the tent in the heavy drizzle and deepening gloom. When it was done they transferred the contents of the car into the ridge tent, laid out their sleeping bags and squeezed inside. Fortunately Barbara had thought to pack all they’d need in an emergency and soon found a space for the headache pills, plasters, candles, matches, sandwiches, teabags, tin of coffee and flasks of hot water. She lit a candle, poured out the drinks and moaned about the lack of facilities. Gary’s response was upbeat. ‘We’ve got all we need. We’re out of the rain and there’s a brook to wash in when we wake up. What more could we want?’