As she listened to her parents fighting on the other side of the door, it seemed to Rachel that everywhere she went people were assailing each other with bitter words. Even the kids in the street seemed to delight in using obscenities to attack their so-called friends. And she was no exception. She had bolted from the house in the middle of a bitter argument with
There was a certain morbid pleasure in eavesdropping. Rachel sat on the step listening to Toby loudly cross-examining his wife. She heard him shout, ‘And where were you the other night?’
‘Mind your own damned business,’ screamed Amy, and then changed her mind about telling him. ‘If you must know, I was with Eve.’
A crash ensued, like something hard hitting the sink.
‘You've got to stop seeing her. She's destroying our marriage.’
Rachel thought: just like
Her father's voice rose again, even more pronounced than before. He thundered a strong warning: that if Amy set foot inside Wildacre House again he would drag her out.
At the far end of the house, the exit door slammed to.
Rachel tiptoed down the entry and arrived on the pavement in time to see her mother running towards the Boar's Head. She followed, keeping close to the dense privet hedges; into the car park, screened by beer barrels and cars, and out the other side; past the field, keeping clear of the rings of light beneath the street lamps. It looked as if her mother was about to defy her husband and visit the forbidden place. Suddenly she made a right turn and promptly disappeared from view. Rachel ran to the corner and surveyed the entire length of the road, but her mother had completely vanished.
HUDDLED against the wind, defeated in her quest to discover her mother's destination, Rachel journeyed home. Her toes tingled inside her boots; her hands, thrust deep in her pockets, were like blocks of ice. She rounded the bend, then quickly came to a standstill, unable to believe the sight ahead.
Wildacre House had been uplifted from its own obscurity. Smoke spiralled from one chimney pot. The door was ajar, the void beyond it seeming to beckon. Two lights flickered in an upstairs room: joining, then separating, as intimate as lovers. Rachel felt she was encroaching on a ghostly retreat. The frolicking phantoms were awesome. Beautiful, yet unnerving!
Stifling an apprehensive shiver, she moved on until she reached the dilapidated gate. There was no latch. It opened easily, without a sound. Timidly, she advanced up the path. Even at close quarters the glass in the windows gleamed jet black, yet still she sensed the presence of cobwebs hanging in thick, invisible drapes. She stood perfectly still, half expecting to see the fluttering lights in a lower room. But there was no sign of life. Only death. Spinning on her heel, she dashed back to the gate, censuring her madness for penetrating the cursed territory.
Rex had been shut in the kitchen. Rachel was instantly set upon when she opened the door, her pet rising on his hind legs to rest his paws on her shoulders. Devotedly he licked her face. ‘You're a dog, Rexie,’ she told him. ‘It's your master I need.’ Still in her outdoor coat, she dropped to the floor and blubbered unceasingly into his neck.
SHE was quite drunk when she rang Eric, having no idea of the time. He readily acceded to her request for solace and, at , he turned up with two hefty portions of fish and chips.
‘I was lucky to get them,’ he said, slipping out of his overcoat. ‘The shop was closing when I got there but the little Greek succumbed when I said I had a starving waif to feed. Now, dear girl, show me where the plates are.’
‘Couldn't we eat from the paper?’
‘What? Well, I suppose so, if you would prefer it, though it would be greasy on the old fingers. You know, in all my life I have never eaten chips from the bag.’
‘You haven't lived, Eric.’
‘No, dear girl, I don't expect I have. Come on, let's get stuck in.’
Rachel picked up the bottle to refill her glass, but Eric put out a restraining hand. ‘Eat first, Rachel, and then we'll talk. You might find you don't need it, after all.’
Conversation as they ate was sometimes laboured, sometimes quite lively. Eric encouraged Rachel to start at the beginning and work through. Consequently, by the time she had eaten the ultimate chip, they were chuckling over her exaggerated account of the spectral dancing party. She was less drunk and less despondent, but when Eric screwed the papers into a ball and suggested it was time to go she was less inclined to be left alone, possessed as she was by an odd sensation of macabre deeds over which she had no control.
Eric stayed until morning, bedding down happily on the couch, covered by
In the morning, Rachel was beset by torpor, though her only affliction was a delicate tummy. Rex bounded to her, wagging his tail, agog to get downstairs for the first onslaught on food. Rachel moaned. ‘You'll have to wait a sec,’ she said, sliding her legs out of bed. And then she saw the note, propped between the alarm clock and her jewellery box.
Dear Rachel, she read. I am compelled by family commitments to leave. I will ring later; although I am satisfied you are sufficiently recovered to cope with the morning rush. Love Eric.
A trifle dangerous, she thought, writing a note.
After feeding Rex and sending him to attend to his morning mission, Rachel hung her exceedingly creased coat in the hall, and tidied the living room, removing the neatly folded travel rug and eiderdown. She was horrified to see the neck of the whisky bottle protruding from under the couch and quickly dumped it in the pedal-bin before
But he won't see it, you stupid woman.
She held the kettle under the running tap water.
He probably won't ever come home again.
Last night's dolefulness, however, didn’t return, no doubt due to Eric's friendship and his endless good sense and the fact that she was growing accustomed to
IN view of her early rising, even after a leisurely breakfast of toast and strong tea, Rachel had plenty of time before needing to get ready for work. ‘What do you say to a good long walk,’ she asked Rex, who was sitting on his haunches in front of her. Without being told, he departed to fetch his lead, while she pulled on her boots, donned the crumpled coat, and wrapped a yellow scarf round her head.
They walked to the field, going in by the gate at the far end. A man and his Alsatian were leaving by the hole in the fence that was disguised by a hawthorn hedge. She removed the lead to let Rex wander free and followed at her own brisk pace, making her scarf more secure as she walked. It was exceptionally cold. The bushes were adorned with necklaces of iced cobwebs crisscrossing from twig to twig, far prettier than the ones in Wildacre's windows.
She ran down the field in search of Rex, going towards the old grass-covered, underground shelters, now used for storing Hodder’s outdated factory equipment. Rachel stopped at the entrance to the first one. There was scuffling inside, and an occasional frustrated snarl. Cautiously, she went down the stone steps. The dank smell knocked her back, and she produced a handkerchief to cover her nose.
Rex was worrying at a polythene bag in the corner, trying to tear it apart to get at the contents. ‘Leave it,’ she commanded. She picked up the torn bag, intending to move it out of reach but, before ascending the steps, she could not resist peering into the gloomy interior, remembering those times when she and her friends played there, reckless games with the neighbourhood boys.
Momentarily lost in recall, she leaned on the foul smelling wall which, in summer, oozed so much condensation it created muddy puddles on the soil floor. She had often been smacked by her mother for getting the filthy substance on her clothes, but she never stopped playing there.
Rex's yap brought her attention back to the present, and she made to leave. Now that her eyes were acclimatised, she could see quite clearly something white on the floor. She ordered Rex to stay and went to investigate. A sheet: a resting place, if the indentations were anything to go by. Shoving it to one side with her foot, she saw a well-worn camping mattress underneath. Tramps, she thought, with nowhere else to spend the night.
Responding to Rex's exuberant barking, she hurried up the steps to fresh air and daylight. Harry Bentine's dachshund, having the advantage of residing by the field and allowed to roam free, was cavorting around Rex as if imploring him to give chase. That is, until the scent of food reached his nostrils. Then he jumped up, trying to latch its muzzle on the polythene bag, connecting instead with Rachel's sheepskin glove. ‘You're all the same, you dogs,’ she said, lifting the bag out of the way. For the first time, it occurred to her to look inside, and she laughed when she saw the squashed sandwiches, pink ham spilling beyond the crusts. No wonder they were agitated. It wasn't every day they found bags of sandwiches on their walks.
At this hour?
(to be continued)