Thanks once more for all the kind, encouraging comments but most of all taking the time to read my story! The most exciting thing of all for me is that you seem to be genuinely intrigued and interested by it. I plan to post all five of the complete chapters up steadily. Here’s chapter 3 for now and I hope it continues to interest you!
The dust made me sneeze. Wilting herbs strung up in the kitchen, half-gone soap in grimy dishes and curtains hanging half-shut painted an image of a house in an unpleasant denial. I itched to start sorting. The loss of the previous day grated on me.
The steam from the shower curling against the bathroom ceiling became smoke in my mind’s eye, throbbing from a bonfire at the bottom of the orchard, a great, hot fire roaring up from battered wardrobes, linen boxes, bedsteads, Mum’s dressing table…
“Come on, Stef,” Lewis’s voice floated up from downstairs. “I’m hungry.”
I sighed, climbed out of the shower and made my way down the corridor to my room. Light poured in the hall windows, the day rising grey outside. I stepped past the shut door of Dad’s room.
Lewis’s door was open. His travel bag lay on the bed and he’d balanced his keys, wallet, passport and bits of paper awkwardly on the bedside table amidst a couple of dusty old matchbox cars and a run-down alarm clock. Through the window I could see more of the allotment that spread out behind the house. An ancient greenhouse, rotting and cracked, teetered at the bottom. The end of the large brewing house shouldered up against the edge of the view. There were trees beyond and then hills and then the inevitable sea, looking like a trick of the light.
I moved to return to my own room, wondering whether Lewis would finally throw out the things he left behind, when I caught sight of the bedside table again. Lewis’s ferry ticket lay in a pile of crumpled papers and under a packet of chewing gum. I frowned at it. My fingers tightened on the towel.
“Stefan Bridgeman,” I heard Lewis’s footsteps, “will you hurry up?” I straightened and left the room just as he reached the top of the stairs. “What were you doing?”
My skin was rippling with goosebumps and my hair dripped down my neck but I stood up straight, looked at him. “Nothing. Wanted to see the view.”
He frowned and I turned and headed back to my own room, past the stairs, past more shut doors. When I got there I dressed hurriedly.
Lewis was waiting in the hall, expensive overcoat buttoned up to the top and a cashmere scarf woven tightly around his neck. “Right, shall we go?”
“What time did you get into Oldport this morning?” I kept my voice flat.
“What?” He looked at me quickly then away. “About nine. I know, early. It was a smooth crossing.” He headed to the front door.
“It’s just your ferry ticket’s stamped with yesterday’s date.”
He stopped and turned back to me. His frown was heavy. “Have you been going through my things? Thought you’d have grown out of that by now.” I just looked at him, a patter of nervousness fluttering in my stomach. His frown melted and he shrugged. “Stef, the conductor let me use the same ticket. He stamped it with yesterday’s date so he wouldn’t get into trouble when they saw it on the return journey. Satisfied?”
I dropped my gaze, grabbed my jacket. Lewis laughed, a little louder than I thought necessary. I felt a hot blush creep up my neck as I climbed into my coat. We stepped out into the pale light and I breathed the breezy winter in deep. It was fresh and lively and stripped at my skin, making me feel pleasantly raw. Fingers already stinging, I turned the key in the front door behind us. My breath silvered out and vanished. I stepped out onto the gravel and looked about.
“Ah, there you are,” Lewis said, looking above my head. I followed his gaze and saw Grendel perched above the door. His yellow eyes peered, unblinking and the end of his tail twitched. “I wondered where you’d got to.” Lewis stretched up but Grendel skipped out of reach. “He looks good.”
“I fed him last night,” I said as I rubbed my hands together, “but he must have been looking after himself before I got here.”
Grendel turned away, trotted along the guttering before jumping off into a tree and disappearing around the other side of it.
Lewis walked past his car, crouched like a black beetle against the gravel, and set off down the drive, his feet crunching.
“So we’re not going to Oldport then?” I said, skipping to catch up.
He shook his head. “Long way to go for lunch when the Witch is just at the bottom of the hill.”
A hot flush rippled up from my belly. “Can’t we go somewhere else?”
He narrowed his eyes at me. “Why?”
The breeze picked up, tugged at my damp hair and made me shiver. “The Witch…” I looked at him, raised my eyebrows. He just shrugged. I let out an exasperated noise. “Eve, Lewis.”
I frowned. “You know so. It’s not unreasonable. I’d just rather not see her.”
He chuckled. “If all that is in another lifetime like you say it is, then it shouldn’t bother you.”
I held his gaze coolly then turned and looked ahead to the road. Ignore the memories, I told myself. Let them stiffen, wilt and crumble like plants caught in the snow.
We stepped onto the tarmac of the road. Lewis moved on at a clipped pace, the white light shining in his dark hair. I ran a hand through mine, tucked the straying ends behind my ears and wished once again I’d taken the time to shave. The village crept closer. The church spire poked up against the sky at the bottom of the road. The slate roof of the Water Witch piled up on the opposite side. The square spread out beyond the pub, almost as still and silent as it was last night. The daylight showed the patchwork stone of the shops and buildings, leaning and jumbled together. A few human shapes, small and mismatched as the buildings, ambled about in big coats amongst the grocer’s, butcher’s and the Post Office. The newsagent was the only one with a new sign that I could see.
The girl, Melanie, appeared from the grocer’s, scribbling something in her notebook. The grocer came to his door to watch her walk across the square and into the Post Office.
The sign of the Witch creaked above us in a slight, salty wind. It had been repainted at some point in the last decade but I still found it hard to look at. The artist had muted his pallet, all greys and blues. The Water Witch sat on a rock, one corner of her grey mouth smiling. The yawning waters of Ercall Pool were daubed in blacks and blues behind her. The look on the witch’s (or the mermaid, depending on which legend you preferred) face was hungry, narrow and the water behind her was rippled and angry-looking.
Lewis led the way in, ducking under the low lintel. I felt my muscles and joints loosen as we were wrapped in a close, thick warmth. I blinked in the gloom, trying to figure out what I was actually looking at. The stained red carpet had been replaced by a wooden floor, some years ago by the look of the scratches of stools and feet in the varnish. What little of the walls was visible from in between crowds of framed pictures was now a dark blue. All the exposed timbers in the ceiling had been done over in black and the bar was polished pine. A large fire burned in the same big grate but the mantle was a light wood and was crowded with yet more pictures.
There was a single human shape propped against the bar. He looked back over his shoulder at us, a slow, creaking movement like an old oak in the wind. I could feel his gaze rake up and down me before he went back to his glass, turning his hunched shoulders and elbowing himself further onto the bar. There was something in his shape and movements that I recognised but could put no name to. An aging ghost from another life.
There were clanks and chatter from the kitchen and the smells of cooking hung heavy in the air but no one was serving. No Evelyn. I let go a breath I didn’t realise I’d been holding and the smell of food made me realise how hungry I was. Lewis might have brought me down here to try and remind me of some of the things I had run away from, but I stood up straight and smiled inwardly, neatly packing thoughts of Evelyn away and wandered up to the chalkboard menu, stomach grumbling. It was only after I’d decided on the steak sandwich that I realised Lewis hadn’t moved. He was staring at the walls and had gone very pale. I frowned, followed his gaze.
Every single one of the pictures was Ercall Pool, some with and some without the figure of the witch. Different sizes, shapes, styles from different times, different artists. Some looked more like the real thing than others, but all were dark, black, gaping mouths. I swallowed, feeling the blood drain from my own face.
Lewis shook himself and came to my side, eyes still wide and twitching, though he pretended to look at the menu. “What are you going to have then?” His voice had an edge he tried to hide.
“Lewis,” I kept my voice low. The man at the bar continued sitting still, part of the woodwork. “Don’t pretend.”
“I know.” He shrugged, stiffer than before. “They obviously had a refurbish for the tourists; revisited the history and all that.”
“Yes, but…the new pictures. Don’t you think it’s a bit tasteless? After what happened to Theo’s dad?”
Lewis hushed me, whiter than ever. “Quiet, Stef. People drown all over the place all the time. Doesn’t stop people owning pictures of rivers and ponds and whatever. Besides, that was over a decade ago, like you said. Now, come on, choose. I’m hungry and I want to get back. This heat’s making me dizzy.”
“I wonder what Theo would think,” I said, glancing round, aware of a coldness under my stomach.
“Come on, will you.”
We stood at the bar in silence, staring straight ahead. I was still hungry and the smell that drifted over from the lone man’s glass made me ache for an ale but I felt the walls watching me and wanted to get back out into the light. I tried to concentrate on the idea of food and the afternoon’s work but my mind wasn’t listening.
In yet another lifetime we stalked the thin woods around Ercall Pool, daring each other closer to the water. Even in the summer the peaty soil made the water still and opaque as treacle. The reflection of David Braithwaite’s cottage was always perfectly copied in the waters, down to the smoke pulsing from the chimney.
Then they weren’t games any more. Adults began gathering at the pool’s edges with dry sticks and old books. I went to a Branch Burning with Lewis and the water of Ercall danced in shapes of reflected fire. Sinclare House watched from on top of the hill but Theo never came down for the Burnings.
Theo Warren. Wild hair, an echoing laugh. The widest smile I knew. Invincible. I rubbed my eyes against the image of him stooped and drawn at his father’s funeral. At the wake, Eve stood as far away from me as she could.
I shook my head, staring into the whorls of the bar surface. Pine now, not battered redwood. Redwood was from another time. A dead time. I shook my head and straightened myself, concentrated on my rumbling stomach.
The door into the kitchen opened and smells, sounds and a person dressed in black came out, talking over her shoulder and wiping long hands on a tea towel.
“Hello there, how can I help you?” She threw the towel over her shoulder and smiled. She was thinner. Her cheekbones were almost violent angles in her face. Her hair was chopped short and symmetrical, framing her face and making it look like a mask.
“Hello, Evelyn.” It was Lewis who said that, not me. My throat was very dry. Lewis beamed at her and there was a different edge to it, an edge I felt but couldn’t bring to the surface.
Evelyn blinked. I remembered how she used to line her eyes thickly in black. They stared naked from her face now, looking even paler for the lack of paint. She started to speak, shaking her head then stared at him, recognition washing over her face. “Holy Christ. Lewis?”
“In the flesh.”
“My God,” she swore again looking at me. “And Stef.”
The cold that had been lying under my belly was now swamped with a heat that flooded up my body into my face. I pushed at it, pushed it all down. “Hello, Eve,” I managed. “Long time.”
She nodded very slightly. I’d never been able to read her eyes terribly well and the years had hardened their surface further. The tiniest of smiles tugged at the corners of her mouth and I wondered what particular memories were being pulled to the front of her mind. “What brings you here, then?” She asked it quietly but there seemed to be a whole weight of volume riding in it. Or maybe not. I couldn’t tell if it was my mind putting it there.
For once in his life, Lewis was quiet. I looked to him but he just smiled again, rather nastily and gestured for me to carry on. I coughed. “Just for lunch. We’re sorting Dad’s house.”
She nodded again, looking away. “Of course. I’m…yes. What would you like?”
Lewis ordered our food and two pints of Dad’s ale. She pulled our pints in silence and disappeared out the back without looking up.
We chose a table against the very furthest wall. I stared into the darkness of my drink, willing the food to hurry so I could get back out and away. I refused to leave now, as much as I wanted to, because I would not let Lewis be proved right. As soon as I was back outside the wind and the air would scrub away the heat of anxiety in me and I could re-bury things like Ercall Pool, Branch Burnings and Eve.
A couple more people drifted in, bringing in the fresh of outside. Evelyn appearing again to serve and I stared into the darkness of my drink. It smelt like the cellar and the brewing house. I took a sip, willing it to help. It tasted of summers and winters with wind and grass. It tasted like ten years ago. It was a lonely taste, of stinking barrels in the darkened outbuildings and of the moss from the salty standing stones and the wide, naked air of another time.
“So you haven’t seen Theo, then?”
Lewis’s question cut in through my musings as we trudged back up the hill, bellies full and my nerves and mind pleasantly fogged with ale. The fresh air was already beginning to calm me. My mind was wandering in more pleasant directions so Lewis had to repeat the question.
“Theo? You haven’t seen him? I thought that would be one of the first things you did.”
“Talk sense, Lewis. I haven’t seen Theo since Marcus’s funeral. He lives on the mainland somewhere.”
“Not any more. He moved back when he graduated university.”
“He did?” I tried to keep my voice neutral.
“Didn’t he tell you?”
I shook my head.
“Dad told me. Sinclaire House passed to him when he turned twenty-one. I saw him about a couple of times when I visited.”
I found that I’d stopped walking. “Theo’s here?” I saw Lewis nod out the corner of my eye but I was staring at the road.
“I invited him to Dad’s funeral,” he said, “but he didn’t reply.”