At the moment I am working on my portfolio for my MA in Creative Writing which is due in on the first of September. The first few chapters of my full-length project ‘Hoodwin’ are going into this portfolio and so are now edited and polished. (NB: I intend to make a short post with a synopsis and a few more details about the project in the near future for anyone who wants to know a little more about it before they start reading: will keep you informed) The rest of the book is on-going but over the coming weeks I intend to publish the first few chapters as they are now.
Here is Chapter 1 and I sincerely hope you enjoy!
My fingers itched to sketch the whole shipwreck. I could bring up the spread of the wind-battered hills and scrublands with my eyes closed. The pencil pulled the land from the paper without me needing to look up. The circle of stone stood around me in silence, watching. The only real problem was scale. How could any of Sinclare Island ever fit on a piece of paper?
I had only seen the whole of the wreck of the Jennifer Green once before. I peered off to the west, narrowing me eyes in the watery November sunlight. The battered skin of the hills stretched for miles before shouldering down into the sea. The water was just visible, a slate smudge beneath the ice sky. The very top of the ship’s rusted spires clawed against the horizon, beyond the furthest hill. The last thing between the land and the sea. I needed to knife the pencil to a needle-point to detail the far-off fingers into the picture.
The next gust of wind brought the broad smell of the coast: wet, ageless. Salt and damp and weed and rust. Scratching stubborn, three-day-old stubble, I chewed my pencil and squinted at the distant point. They never fenced the wreck off or shut the cove. Never campaigned to have her removed. People just told children ‘ward away’. ‘Ward away from the Jenny’, ‘ward away from the cliffs’, ‘ward away from Ercall Pool’.
The one time I had been down to Lovers’ Cove and seen her, impossibly propped against the cliff, her skin of rust only just holding her together and the breeze pulling about the tang of dying iron, the warning had been ringing in my mind. Theo had dared me to climb with him and we made up a story about tripping on old fencing to explain the ragged cuts on our arms and fingers.
The cove was two hours hike from Stonehill. I decided that by the time I got there the light would be too poor for any sketching. The winter evening drew in quickly, shading in the pale sky with broad strokes of cloud. A shiver rippled over my skin and I stood, dusting grass and moss from my damp trouser seat. The lights of Hoodwin poked holes in the shadow of the next hill. Tucking my sketchbook under one arm I set off through the watching stones. I found it hard to look at them now.
My feet found the sheep track even in the dying light and settled into a steady rhythm, taking me down into the thicker evening clinging between the trees. Even here, surrounded by frosting leaf mould and peeling bark, the smell of the ocean laced itself about me. It felt good against my skin and in my lungs, this air, scrubbed clean by the sea.
With the stones retreating behind me it was easier to ignore the scraps of memory being blown about like leaves in my brain. When I let them go, being back here was like breathing again for the first time after being stuffed into a windowless room for years. In the silence of the gathering night, in the wild air between the trees, my blood pumped and my lungs pulled in the fresh tastes. With Lewis’s help, the house could be sorted in a few determined days. Just a few days and the house would feel like mine.
That was assuming Lewis turned up. It was too dark to see my watch and my phone was back at the house (on the windowsill of my old bedroom, the only place there was reception), so I didn’t know exactly what time it was but I knew he was late. Hours late.
The earth started rising gently beneath my feet. Turning sharp left and ducking through a gap in a hedge, I stepped up onto tarmac. I tottered along at the very edge of the road, the darkness gathering thicker around me. Small, stone houses shut up tight against the night passed on either side, tiny front gardens pruned bald against the winter. A car’s headlights spilled my shadow out in front of me. It rumbled past and into the village and out of sight and all was silent again. The road opened out into the broad square, stout buildings facing inwards onto cobbles. Off to my right, between the church and the pub, the cobbles died again and the tarmac road rose out beyond the streetlight. I’d have to walk right past the Water Witch, now with its curtains and door open and lights falling out in pools.
I stood in the shadow of the statue of Bartholomew Sinclare, watching. It took until I was numb nearly all over before I worked up the courage to move. I passed in and out of the lights from the windows of the Witch, heard the chatter and music. I hurried on, head down. As soon as I was away from the last streetlight I breathed again and slowed my pace. I carried on up through the dark, the last of the evening falling into pitchy night around me. My nose and throat ached with the cold but my blood was bright and fresh, enjoying the chill.
I sensed the break in the tall hedge and turned down it, gravel crunching beneath my feet. The shape of the house was hunched ahead, above the shadows of its surrounding trees, a stain under the stars. No lights were on.
No Lewis, then.
A spark of annoyance. He said he’d be catching the midday ferry and would arrive that afternoon. He promised. It would all have to be put off now. One day lost.
Something clutched onto my elbow in the dark, sending a burst of pulse up my throat that almost choked me. I gibbered, pulling away.
“Hush yourself, silly boy.”
A torch clicked on, shone right in my face.
I swore. “What the…? Jesus Christ, you scared the hell out of me.”
“Don’t be stupid, lad. I’m not going to hurt you, am I?” She lowered the light, let go of my elbow. “Just wanted to see you.”
I smelled her more than I could see her. The stale bitterness of different sorts of smoke, spices, unwashed hair and the shockingly familiar odour of her ancient, patchwork coat. With the light lowered I could make out some of the coat’s patches, the basket she carried on one elbow and some of her face. Bristling hair was pulled into a plait over one shoulder and there was a very toothy smile under a blank shadow where her eyes hid.
I couldn’t find anything to say, hoped she wouldn’t speak but just couldn’t find the balls to turn and leave her in the lane.
“Ten years?” Her voice was the same, though she kept it low.
I blinked. “About that.”
“A long time. The island’s missed you.”
“Has it, now.” I nervously glanced up the drive.
“Oh, yes. And you’ve missed it. Though not it’s people. Don’t blame you.” She gave a strange noise, like a hiss.
“Did you want me for something, May? It’s very cold and getting late…”
She laughed, one single, sharp note. “Saw you head off towards Stonehill earlier, lad. Knew you’d be coming back this way. I’m out for acorns anyways. Just wanted to see your face, like I said. See how you turned out. You need a shave but you still look like your mum. Nothing of your dad in you. Good.” I frowned into the blank of her face. “It’s safe for you to move back now, lad. The water’s just about clean. All the Sinclares are gone, finally.”
“I think you should go home, May.” I managed to turn away and hurry off, shaking my head.
“I’ll come again, lad,” I heard her mutter. I continued up the drive and with a wash of relief I didn’t hear her follow. The light vanished. She needed a torch around here even less than I did. Her footsteps crunched away.
My fingers were marble-stiff with cold as I shouldered the door shut behind me, jamming it into its warped frame, throwing home every bolt, locking the night away. Grendel separated from the gloom and rubbed himself between my legs, purring. Staggering over him, I dropped my sketchbook on the table and switched on the kitchen light Dust motes swirled under the bulb in great swarms, making me sneeze. I had switched the kettle on and was just pulling myself out of my ragged jacket when I heard my mobile whining from upstairs. Grendel glowered at me as I left him in the kitchen by his bowl.
I just managed to get to the phone before it stopped ringing. “Hello? Lewis? Where the hell are you?”
“I’m sorry, Stefan,” Lewis’s voice was tinny and tired. “I’ve been delayed.”
“I’d gathered that.”
“There was a big accident. The roads were jammed, I missed the ferry. I’ve been trying to reach you all afternoon. I’ll pitch up in this harbour hotel for the night, get the eight o’clock ferry tomorrow morning, ok?”
I made an effort to suppress the frustration. “Fine, fine. How long have you got?”
“I took a week’s leave. I’ll be with you until Saturday.”
“Good. Thank you,” I added as an afterthought.
“No worries. Good to get it all done in one go. Bumped into anyone?”
“No, I’ve been way out in the hills all day. Oh, I did see May.”
“It was strange.” I frowned out into the night beyond my bedroom window. “She was lurking about on the drive, waiting for me. Properly frightened me.” I shut the curtains against the dark.
“What did she want?”
“Jesus, I don’t know. What does she ever want? She was babbling some nonsense about wanting to see what I looked like.”
“Did she say anything else?” Lewis’s voice was a bit thin.
“I can’t remember. Does it really matter?” I was still shivering and I could hear the kettle click downstairs and Grendel’s yowling.
“Just wondering,” he stated. “I can’t believe she’s still allowed to just wander about.”
I told him I’d see him tomorrow and rang off. It was silent again. Grendel had come to the top of the stairs to stare at me. I made my way back down behind him. I watched my hand find the smears on the paint of fingertips forever having been put out for balance against the wall. The bare wood creaked with the same voices I remembered. From frames hung above the banister, my parents and my grandparents smiled at me. They had been little more that coloured patches in the paint to me for years, but now I looked at them knowing none of the people in them were alive.
Lewis and I weren’t pictured until further down the hall: gummy, fat babies and then gap-toothed and grinning in posed infant school photos. Lewis grinned out of his graduation photo, his back straight and his perfect smile wide and white.
Grendel mewed and pawed at my trouser leg. I shook my head and turned away. I managed to find a single tin of cat food in the back of one of the cupboards that was still within its use-by dates. I spooned some out into a clean saucer, having thrown the unwashed cat bowl away, and Grendel went at it, mouthing at great chunks and purring as he ate.
My own belly had started to rumble. I opened cupboard after cupboard in despair. The kitchen was a jumble of occupation, as if Dad had just this second left to go to bed, except that almost everything was out of date. The house had stood empty for weeks but it was still Dad’s house, filled with his things, arranged how he’d always had them. I swallowed at a lump in my throat.
If Lewis had inherited the place it would all be sorted and sold by now. The whole mess of solicitors, funeral arrangements, death duties and all the reams and reams of forms and certificates had sent my last few weeks into a spiral of time distortion and myopia. Lewis had taken the lion’s share of the paperwork but there was naturally a lot that needed us both. The whole thing had made my head spin in on itself and back and forth.
I still hadn’t entirely decided how I felt but finally, weeks later, I’d managed to cobble together a plan of my own, sparked solely from a dream of an idea of a fantasy that had misted through my mind when I’d stepped off the ferry into Oldport on the east coast and smelt the air of Sinclare. I came for the funeral but left still feeling I wanted something more from the island. It owed me.
So I had a sort of plan, more of an instinct. I was still working on not thinking about it too hard.
It was the postman that found him, on the kitchen floor. The door was open and the paper had been left from the week before.
I tried to busy myself with baked beans and some tinned peaches, but I was more than ever aware of the quiet. Different to the wood; this was an empty, dead quiet. A closer look showed a fine layer of dust on the counters and everything fresh had succumbed to mould, giving the whole kitchen a fuggy edge, like a rubbish bin. It was like the house was grieving, silent and still and letting itself decay. All the things that were Dad and could only be Dad had to be laid to rest, including what he’d kept of Mum. Once that was done, I might be able to feel at home again.