He had known by her choice of words that the view would be spectacular. Incredibly stunning was the way she described it and now he saw for himself that it was. Fully expecting to see a horse and cart enter from the far end of the lane Mike kept close to the hedge on the opposite side of the house. A blackbird hopped away with a soft squawk. In the distance he heard a rumble of thunder but knew that rain would not appear that day.
The smells and sounds of the country were comforting. Not since he’d left home had he felt so lighthearted. He could breathe here, unlike his mother’s house where every cluttered room produced feelings of hysteria. Feeling suddenly carefree, he hobbled across the narrow lane and sat on the kerbstone, surprising himself by a childish display of defiance against his mother. ‘Don’t sit in the road wearing a hole in your pants,’ she’d shout from the garden gate. ‘D’ya think I’m made of money?’
Mike Simmonds had grown up fretting about what mother would say about everything he did. Not for him the carefree childhood his friends had, boys whose mothers joined in their fun, laughed with them, and fought ongoing battles with neighbours. But his life was put in perspective with that first letter from Yvette.
They were both aged fourteen when they became pen pals through a scheme started by their respective schools. It was an endeavour to cross the language barrier which in their case didn’t work. Yvette might have been a French girl but her command of the English language was better than Mike’s so all her letters were written in English. It suited Mike, him being a bit of a lazy scholar.
Yvette Dessen was born in her English grandmother’s house in Yorkshire, the house he was now looking at. The way she had described it Mike had spent his teenage years believing it to be haunted and even now he wasn’t sure. When she moved to France the yarns about friendly ghosts and spirits ceased but Mike never forgot them. One in particular had obsessed him, about a spirit’s playfulness when it moved Yvette’s toys to another room and returned them when it thought she was tired of searching. How would it know, he thought, determined that one day he would seek the answer. However as the years went by the need to know lessened and his early life was taken up with more sporting activities.
The exchange of letters continued. Mike was told about Yvette’s courtship with a handsome French student; he heard about the break-up of the relationship, consoled her through her sorrow, encouraged a new ambition to be a writer, and gave an opinion on a first draft. In return he described a love of cricket, his pride at being picked for the local team, and his despair over a car accident in which he had broken a leg.
Neither of them married though each had many lovers. Their letters were unwisely descriptive of their respective affairs but the knowledge helped them understand the pain being suffered on termination. Mike and Yvette were on the brink of getting together, planning a future neither of them had hitherto envisaged.
The plan was that they would live in her grandmother’s house. It had been empty since the old lady died and now belonged to Yvette, that is until fate stepped in to thwart the idea. It was strange how fate had organised their lives, giving both of them parents who needed the attention of their offspring. Yvette’s widowed mother suffered from an early onset of Alzheimer’s while both of Mike’s parents were stricken with paralysing arthritis. They passed away peacefully within seven months of each other and Yvette’s Mom shortly after that.
Two years on Yvette herself died of a massive heart attack. Mike was informed by solicitor’s letter in which it was also stated that she had left him the house in her will. Mike was brokenhearted. Although they never met Yvette had been his friend for more than forty years, she had been his lifeline when things were going bad, his saviour when in the depths of despair. He couldn’t imagine a future without her.
It had been a long journey from his home in Devon. He wasn’t used to driving such long distances. He had left the car at the end of the lane, little realising how long the walk would be to the house. In the event it had been the right thing to do since there wasn’t much room for a parked car.
He looked up at the sky, smiling at the sudden appearance of the sun. Yvette’s kind of day. How many times had she written rejoicing when summer arrived? Mike fingered the keys in his jacket pocket, took them out, gazed at them, put them back again, hearing the clunk as they touched his mobile phone. The keys had been in his possession for a whole week but he had put off visiting the house, actually in two minds about coming here at all. Several nights had been spent tossing from side to side in his bed, wondering if he could face the prospect of going inside a house he should have lived in with Yvette.
The appearance of a well cared for white cat convinced him that he should venture forth. The animal wore a red collar, reminding him of the one he’d sent to Yvette when she acquired her beloved Spirit. He had thought it a strange name but it wasn’t his place to criticise the naming of her pet. He had, though, offered the opinion that he thought it was a little unusual.
‘Unusual?’ she wrote. ‘How can you say it’s unusual when you named your dog Coal.’
Mike had no answer to that but he considered naming a black dog Coal was a mite better than calling a white cat Spirit. It reminded him, he wrote, of cleaning fluid. Grinning at the memory he leaned down to stroke the creature, hearing the little bell tinkle as the animal moved its head to accommodate his scratching fingers. The cat looked up with what Mike could only describe as knowing eyes.
Once again he took out the keys, only this time he kept them out. After a brief check he selected what he assumed to be the key to the front door. Closely followed by the cat, he crossed the lane and walked towards the house, stopping only briefly to look over the wall at the view beyond. He saw gardens brimming with colour, jagged paths running between lush green lawns, and a goldfish pond with lily pads on the surface. The cat scaled the wall, disappeared under a hydrangea bush. Probably got his eye on some fish, thought Mike, as he took the final step to the front door of the house.
The front door opened onto a large living room. The wallpaper was heavy with beige coloured flowers and the furnishings looked sadly dated. The room contained a sturdy three piece leather suite neatly arranged to get full benefit of a fire that once would have roared in the blackened grate set beneath a wooden mantelpiece with tiled surrounds. There were no ornaments on the shelf, just a big round faced wooden clock that had stopped ticking at nine minutes past one. Mike wondered which half of which day that was.
Putting the bunch of keys beside the clock Mike crossed the room and opened the door to the next room. There was no hall, one room just led into another. Here he saw a highly polished table and four chairs with upholstered seats the same russet colour as the heavy curtains. The table was laid for two people that Mike thought very strange. He was sure Yvette’s grandmother had lived alone? There was another fireplace, laid ready to light with wood and coals. At the side of the hearth was a brass bucket filled with more wood and coal and a brass jug of tapers. All ready to light. Looking round Mike imagined that the room would have looked very cosy when lived in.
Slowly he walked to the window, looked out at a small garden and the same colourful flowers he’d seen earlier. If he was to live here he would have great pleasure tending the garden.
Hearing a noise behind him Mike quickly turned. He stood quite still, trying to determine what it was he had heard. For the first time he sensed an atmosphere. As would be expected in a house solely occupied by an old lady the furnishings and décor were old, yet there was an air of youthfulness he couldn’t place. Would it be possible for Yvette’s childish influence to have remained all these years? Marking that down as absurd he continued his tour of the house.
Going through a second door leading from the dining room he found himself facing a steep staircase, lit only by a skylight at the top. Mike’s arm brushed against a light switch. He pressed it and a shiver of thankfulness passed through him as the stairs were flooded with light. It wasn’t in his character to be scared of the dark but there was something about being enclosed in a narrow place, in semi dark, that made him slightly fearful.
Telling himself not to be silly, he began what seemed like an interminable climb. As he neared the top he noticed two doors either side of the staircase. Obviously bedrooms, he thought as he stepped onto the small landing then entered the room on the right.
It was a complete contrast to the rest of the house. Judging by the deep pink eiderdown, floral pillowcases, and feminine knick-knacks on a three-mirrored dressing table, he knew that this was a young lady’s room. Perhaps her grandmother had kept it in readiness for Yvette. He remembered the tale she told him about two ornamental lambs that were painted with fluorescent paint, how they were each placed in front of two mirrors, and how scared she was of the four lambs that glowed in the dark. He recalled that she mentioned putting the ornaments in the drawer and out of curiosity he opened one of the drawers on the right. They were there, lying side by side. Marvelling that they were still there after so many years he picked one up to admire it when he heard a noise behind him. He whirled round, and stopped in amazement when he saw the cat sitting on the bed. It was definitely the cat he had seen outside, the same red collar, identical markings on its face, and the same knowing eyes.
‘Hello, puss,’ he said, putting out a hand to stroke it’s head. ‘Now how did you get in?’ Mike was certain he had closed the front door when he came in.
The cat purred loudly, a contented sort of noise, then jumped off the bed and scampered through the door. Thinking it wrong for the cat to be here at all, Mike followed.
Cat had gone into a second bedroom. Mike was just in time to see it jump onto a rattan chair that had been painted white. The chair was by another dressing table, similar in style to the one in the other room, but there were no adornments, just a bulky envelope. He picked it up and saw his name printed on it in black ink … Mike Underhill. Sitting on the bed he quickly opened it and drew out a set of keys, identical it seemed to the ones given to him by the solicitor. He felt in his pocket but the keys weren’t there. Thinking he must have put them down somewhere he rushed out of the room, closely followed by the white cat.
Mike searched the house but the search proved fruitless. He was mystified. He looked at the keys again and wondered: if these are mine how did they get into the envelope? As the cat brushed against his legs Mike had a weird feeling that the damn animal knew more about it than he did.
Remembering that he had dropped the keys by the clock Mike went again to the front room to look on the mantelshelf. It was a half hearted move because he’d looked there before and knew they wouldn’t be there. Pondering over the mystery he sat on the settee to think it through.
The cat jumped on Mike’s knees, settled, put it’s head on his thigh. And that’s when Mike remembered Yvette’s yarns about ghosts and playful spirits. ‘Spirits!’ he said aloud. The cat moved its head to look at him. ‘Spirit,’ whispered Mike. ‘Is that you, cat? Recalling that the keys had been tidily placed in an envelope, he went on, ‘Or were you known as Yvette in real life?’
The cat gave a contented meow and settled back down.