Sorry there’s been such a gap since the last posting. But here’s Chapter 4!
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Lewis helped me light the massive wood burner in the front room. The wood caught easily and the room, so suddenly, smelt and felt different. I closed my eyes and I could almost hear Dad’s knees creak and crack as he straightened from the hearthrug and the soft clapping as he dusted ash from his large hands.
The kitchen had taken most of the previous afternoon after we got back from the Witch. Grendel watched everything from a distance, skittering away whenever Lewis tried to stroke him. He watched us pile bin bags outside the back door, filled to bursting with ageing food, tins, crockery, cookware, books, pens, kettles, irons. They were all things that had sat in their places for years. The kitchen looked strange and cavernous without them but I kept reminding myself that this was my house now. That’s what Dad wanted, surely.
I ventured into the front room early the next morning, the night only just starting to give up to the day. I’d spent the night concentrating on not thinking about Theo. I’d stopped myself at six in the morning, one hand on the front door handle, about to march out to Sinclare House.
The door to the living room was very stiff and the room was pitch and stuffy, the drapes pulled tight against the last night Dad saw.I wrestled them open, coughing in the dust. The morning rising outside, weak and white as it was, was clean and alive and unmistakably winter. So much of the house had always been shut behind doors or curtains that were rarely ever opened. I wanted it to breathe a little.
Lewis joined me, fresh and awake, as I was half way through packing Mum’s books, faded and neatly sorted by author, into boxes. He didn’t say anything as he came beside me and started helping.
We lit the fire to stop our teeth chattering and worked on in silence. I rubbed at my eyes, damp and sore with lack of sleep and floating dust. The only reason I was aware of time passing was the voice of the clock on the mantle, steadily ticking away the seconds. The room gradually emptied itself into boxes and bags, space gathering on shelves and in cupboards.
“Stefan, look,” Lewis said. It might have been five minutes or two hours later. He was stood by the mantle, holding something out something to me. “I found it behind the clock.”
I took it from him, laid it flat on my palm. A small key, old, quite heavy for its size. “What’s it for?”
Lewis leaned over and looked at it. “For the attic, I think. I never knew where Dad kept it. Trust him to keep it right here under our noses.”
“The attic?” I closed my hand over the little bit of metal and made for the stairs. The floorboards of the landing creaked loudly the further down I went. I had to duck through the low doorway at the end, into the darkened room. I blinked in the gloom, felt my way to another pair of heavy curtains that hung across the window. I opened them and spluttered in another great flurry of dust. I grabbed a chair from under the window and dragged it underneath the hatch in the ceiling. Lewis stood with his arms folded, watching me. I stared up at it.“What do you think is up there?” I squeezed the key tighter in my hand.
“Junk, Stef. Another massive room of junk. I don’t understand why you’re so excited.”
“Aren’t you curious?”
Lewis’s face had once again fallen into a heavy frown. “I was done with this house a long time ago. I thought you were too.”
“So did I. Running away didn’t achieve anything though, did it? And I’m tired of being angry with this place.”
Breathing deeply, I stepped up onto the creaky chair and reached up. It was an awkward angle to turn the key from. Finally, the lock clicked and the weight of the door pushed down. I lowered it gently and thick clots of wood dust billowed down. After I’d finished coughing and wiping at my eyes I reached up and grabbed the end of a battered collapsible ladder. I juggled it down, the old metal screeching in protest, the feet fitting into faint grooves in the carpet. I shook it and it held. With one more deep breath I started up into the black mouth.
Coming up out of the light, the darkness seemed complete. The air had a stale taste. The light shining up from below died weakly around me, falling on wooden flooring. I tested it with my foot and stepped off the top rung of the ladder, the floor creaking quietly. I bounced a little, cautiously.
“Well?” Lewis’s face tilted up below me.
“Is there a light?”
“I don’t know, do I? I – ” He cut off. Looking down I saw he was staring off back down the corridor.
I frowned. “Did you hear something?”
He didn’t answer. I shook my head and tried a few more steps into the dark. My toes cracked against something solid. “Wasn’t there a light up here? I’m sure I’ve seen Dad turn on a light. Lewis?”
I peered back down the ladder but he was gone.
As I blinked my eyes into adjusting to the dark, shapes began to form in the gloom, large and hunkered like giant, misshapen beetles. Feeling about along the closest wall I found a switch that produced a click but nothing else. Peering around again, I saw the room on my right was somehow lighter than the rest. I stumbled forwards and found a slice of thin daylight falling across the far end of the room, disturbed flecks drifting in and out of the beam. The end of the beam fell across the middle of one of the heavy mounds and two eyes, wide and black, stared right through me from the strip of light. I flailed, stumbled back but came up short against a pile of junk.
Breathing heavily, I saw the eyes weren’t moving. Fumbling my way towards it, I reached out and my fingertips brushed against rough canvas. The painted eyes gazed up between my fingers. I felt the outline of a frame and pulled it out of its pile, angled it in the light. I saw bits of dark hair, a silver necklace, a white neck.
With one hand clutching the painting and the other outstretched I edged my way across the crowded and creaking floor, towards the source of the thin finger of daylight. After a few more crashes and some dusty dead ends I laid my fingers on what I’d thought would be nailed shutters but found were curtains. They were extremely thick and heavy, even slightly velvety and, of course, belched out great clouds of dust when I heaved them apart. The white winter sun flooded the room.
She stared up out of her wooden frame with silent, black eyes. There was no smile on her mouth and her chin was tilted up slightly, to look me right in the eye. Her black hair was pulled back tight from her brow, held down with a jewelled pin that the artist had expertly pricked out with light and shadow. The silver necklace was rendered in the same exquisite detail. It was draped delicately under the tsiff collar of her plain dress. Charlotte swirled in black lettering across the solid pendent.
I searched the corners and the shadows of the picture but couldn’t find an artist’s signature. She was in eighteenth century costume, but the style was of no artist I was aware of from that time. She was almost a photograph, but warmer. I felt that if I reached out and touched it I would feel the soft black of her hair and the heat of her expertly-blushed skin. Even holding it right to my face I found it hard to see actual brushstrokes.
“Lewis,” I called, my voice deadened by the silent mounds and dust floating around me. “Lewis, come and look at this.”
He didn’t answer. I called again, starting to clamber back but still nothing. Only now did I look up and around at the rest of the room. I stopped and stared. One pathetic, dead bulb hung from the angle in the ceiling but even when it worked I couldn’t imagine it would have been able to light the whole room. It stretched out in front of me, under the whole length of the roof. At the other end I could just make out in the remaining shadows another window behind drawn curtains.
Carefully propping the painting on the windowsill I scrambled across the length of the room to the other window and threw open the curtains. The icy winter sun flooded the whole place. The window frame had been painted over but with some creaks and splinters I shouldered it open, let the cold freshness come tumbling in to ease the thick and mouldering air. Leaning out I could see further out across the island than from any of the bedroom windows. The drive stretched away from the house on one side under its thin elms. The fields spread out from it on either side, grey under their skin of frost. The finger of the church spire down in Hoodwin clawed black against the backdrop of pale hills. Leaning out still further and squinting I thought I could see the top of Stonehill. I fancied I could even pick out the black fragments of the ring of standing stones on its top.
I didn’t understand how either of my parents could bare to have this room shut up and curtained off. A quick bitterness rose in me. I might have understood Dad locking it away, but not Mum. With the large windows opening up onto the sky like this I felt I was at the top of the whole of the island. The pieces I could have produced from up here…
I pushed the habitual regret away. I was letting go of all that. Lewis was wrong. It was all gone, the bitterness and fear. It was another time. The only way it would spoil anything else was if I let it. After all, Theo had come back. And he had it worse than the rest of us.
I leaned out as far as I dared to see if I could see Sinclare House, perched on its hill north of Hoodwin. I could make out the north road but it disappeared off into trees.
A shiver rippled my skin from the outside air and I was just ducking back in when a movement caught my eye. I leaned out again and squinted at the end of the drive just in time to see a figure duck away behind the hedges of the road. I frowned. The person had definitely been on the drive, not just passing in the road. I hung there until my fingers were numbing but they didn’t come back.
Shaking my head I turned back into the room, rubbing my arms and teeth chattering. The sheeted mounds lay silent around me in the pale light. I felt my excitement wither a little as I took in the sheer expanse of it. I was just trying to decide where on earth to start sorting it all when there was a metallic creaking from the direction of the obscured entrance hatch.
“Where on earth have you been?”
Lewis ascended, coughing in the dust and looking pale in the wan winter light. “Nowhere, I just thought I heard something.”
“Did someone come to the door?”
“What? No.” He gazed around the room, dusting his hands. “It was Grendel. He’d knocked over a pile of books in the living room.”
“I thought I saw someone on the drive.”
He shook his head, not looking at me. “A lost tourist, maybe.” He stared around at the room with his hands on his hips but it didn’t look like he was seeing any of it. “I’m going to get some bin bags,” he said, turning back to the ladder.
“Was he ok?”
“Grendel,” I prompted.
“Oh. Yes, of course he was.” He disappeared and I chewed my lip, watching the space where he’d gone.
Shaking my head, I turned back to the room and started pulling the dustsheets off everything. There were wooden chests, pieces of old furniture, more chairs of more different types than I had though imaginable in various stages of disrepair. Piles of folded and unidentifiable linen, holed by moths and mice. Chests and buckets, piles and piles of boxes, wooden, plastic, cardboard, locked and open, brimming and bursting with anything and everything people collect over their lifetimes. Books, pictures, toys, stacks of newspapers and magazines, long-unused brewing barrels that, even now, smelt of moss and malt. Photo albums with crumbling spines and records packed away in paper sleeves and the broken record player next to them.
“Most of it’ll burn,” I said to Lewis’s worried look when he came back up with bin bags. “And there’s a skip coming from Oldport tomorrow.”
“You’re more organised than I thought.” I didn’t like the way he said it but couldn’t think of any way to reply. I ignored him and bent to start loading magazines into a bin bag.
I looked up and followed Lewis’s gaze. Charlotte stared back at him impassively from where I’d propped her. “I found it near the window.”
“What, it was up here?” He looked pale again.
I nodded. “I don’t recognise the artist. It’s old. She must have belonged to Mum.”
“Why?” The word came out bluntly.
I shrugged. “I…I don’t know. I thought Mum must have got it from her mainland family. Why?”
Lewis shrugged deliberately. “Nothing…it’s probably worth a fair amount, right?”
“I imagine so…”
“I know a good auctioneer for that kind of thing. On the mainland. No one around here would be interested.” He was almost glaring.
“Well, I don’t know, I haven’t decided yet.” He ignored me and tore a bin bag from the roll. “Have you seen it before?”
“Of course not.” He began shoving old linen into the bag. “I’ve never been up here before, have I?”
I frowned, first at my brother and then at the picture. “Do you not like it because it looks a bit like Mum?”
Lewis’s movements took on a more deliberate force. “It would raise a fair whack, Stef,” he reiterated. “I wouldn’t want to pass that up, especially if I wasn’t selling the house.”
“Look, Lewis. You got his savings, I got his house. I’m just choosing to spend my inheritance in a different way. Why is that such a problem to you?”
He paused. I could see him breathing. He clutched at the bin bag but didn’t look up. “I really thought you’d managed it, Stef. Left this bloody place behind. Like me. But it looks like it’s too late for you as well as Dad.”