Sorry again for the gap in posting. But here is the fifth and last of the presently completed chapters. It will give me the incentive to finish off the novel. I might manage to post a few more up, though maybe in a rougher state than these ones have been, but the rest of it will, hopefully, be available to buy in the shops! I will be seeking publication once I have finished writing it and aim to be done with my manuscript by early next year. Wish me luck!
I will keep my progress updated here and I wish to give a massive thanks to everyone that has taken the time to read and work with me up until now. It is all of you that will get this book written, even more than me!
The moody silence that took over Lewis for the rest of the day was not enough to lessen the brightness filling me as more and more of the attic room was emptied. We had to stop when the light failed but I could already feel and see the stretching expanse of the attic, filling with light and air. Sinclare folded away from either window in the greying evening and my fingers itched for pencils.
When I finally went to bed it felt like some of the heaviness of the house had been lifted. Turning out the light, I lay down in the dark. Even the smell of my room seemed fresher. I breathed it in and out and felt the tiredness etch itself over my muscles and behind my eyes. I lay still, feeling the exhaustion soaking through me, but sleep wouldn’t come. Lying still and looking into the dark, my mind started pasting images onto the night. I scrunched my eyes tight against the pictures rising in front of them, sketchy, grainy pictures with lots of shading and very strong outlines.
It was a group portrait, up on Stonehill. A shadowy palette, but here and there specks of stark colour picked out in torchlight. There was a delicate blue, expertly mixed and touched into Evelyn’s eyes with the finest of fine brushes. The red of Theo’s overcoat seemed to hold a heat. The scruffy mop of my hair as a torch shone at me was not much different from the night surrounding the stones. Tiny, fire-points of cigarette ends glowed in the dark and reflected in Eve’s eyes.
She sat next to me, cigarette smoke twisting from her mouth. Theo leant against one of the tall stones, staring off into the dark, his torch beam an idle angle of light shining on the crispy grass. “Wouldn’t it be great if we never had to go back home?” His smile was white and wreathed with smoke in the torchlight.
I laughed. “What, never?”
“Yeah, never.” He crouched down, grabbed my knees. “Let’s never go back. We wouldn’t have to listen to our parents ever again or sit any bloody exams.”
“That would be great.” Eve sighed, her eyes shadowed blotches when she looked away from the light. “I’m going to do shit at them anyway. Don’t know why I bother trying.”
“It’s worth a try…” I rubbed her chilled hand between mine. She had problems with her circulation and I kept urging her to wear gloves but she never listened. “It’ll give us a chance to get away.”
“Get away?” Even in the dark I could see her frown was heavy.
“Away…” I said carefully. “To the mainland, like Lewis…college, university. Getting a job somewhere away from here. I always thought…”
Eve chuckled. Theo crouched quietly.
“Theo’s pulling your leg, you silly sod,” Eve said, shaking her head. “We’re not going anywhere. We can’t.” Eve pulled her hand back to ruffle her hair. “It’s too much hassle. Dad’s already said he’ll pay me to help him run the Witch. I won’t even have to move out.”
“But I thought you’d want to,” I said quietly, questioningly, the cold of the night seeping a little deeper into me. “I always thought we were all going to try and…you know…”
Eve stubbed out her cigarette in the grass, took a box out of my pocket to get another. “I know we laugh about it, but I never meant it for real. I can earn what I need at the pub. Theo doesn’t even have to worry about a job. He can mooch off Daddy Marcus in the big house the rest of his life.”
“No, no, no!” Theo got to his feet with a flourish, his torch beam swiping through the dark air. “Let’s all leave. We’ll get a ship and sail away. Somewhere hot. Let’s just fuck off. Goodbye to Dad and goodbye to Sinclare.”
Eve was laughing. I sat in silence.
“It’ll be easy,” he repeated, grinning. “We’ll fix up the Jenny. It’s only been rusting there for like fifty years, right? It’ll be a doddle. We’ll catch fish to eat and find buried treasure to trade for beer. It’ll be great.”
Theo’s voice echoed in my head. I opened my eyes again on the blank of my room and sighed. I’d daydreamed about the three of us sailing off together more and more as I saw less and less of them.
I thought about Eve’s naked eyes from yesterday, pale and silent like a windswept hill. And Theo. Theodore. Lewis had seen him. He was back, had been living again in the big house outside Hoodwin since he turned twenty-one. Three of us had wanted to escape. Three of us were here again.
I held up my hands in the air as if trying to feel Theo’s presence in the night. I wondered if he still laughed the same. I tried to imagine him living in Sinclare House all alone, wondering listlessly from room to room in silence, staring up at the high ceilings.
Refusing to think, I got out of bed, pulled on jumper and trousers and shoes without socks and crept downstairs. Pulling on Lewis’s coat I headed out the door, torch in hand.
The night air chewed at the exposed flesh of my face. I kept my head down and my pace up and crunched along the drive and hurried down the road and was soon crossing the cobbles of Hoodwin, shoes clicking. It was again still as death, the cobbles bathed in little snow-caps of white streetlight like dozens of tiny hills. The square and its light faded behind me as I paced along the north road out of the village. Clouds blotted out the stars. My breaths wheezed into the silence and I clicked the torch on, not trusting my memory on this road.
My torch picked out a battered wooden sign nailed to a post in the verge, partially hidden by the hedge: Sinclare House and an arrow off to my left. I turned off the road and felt frozen mud under my shoes. A slight breeze blew up from the great emptiness on either side of me. The meagre light of my torch picked out the track but the house itself stood shrouded in shadows far ahead.
Off to the left a white scrap of a lighted window sat glowing in the blackness. The smell of wood smoke was on the air, despite the hour. The light disappeared and then reappeared as invisible trees passed between it and me. I swallowed. David Braithwaite used to watch us from those windows in summer, when we still played on the banks of Ercall Pool. I pressed on, deliberately not thinking of the pool that lay in the quiet and the dark just beyond the square of light. I wondered how Theo could bare to look out of his windows and see the pool where his father died every day.
The mud gave way to gravel under my shoes and the dim circle of my torch shone on broad, stone steps. Tilting it higher I could see the great wooden doors, shut tight. Urns of overgrown, evergreen shrubs stood on either side of it. I cast the beam further up and the house piled up above me, all white stone and blank windows. The breeze had dropped again and the silence was smothering.
The guttering above the front door was hanging off the wall, a rusty bleed smeared down the stone from its end. The paint was coming away on some of the window frames. Ivy had begun to twine up a drainpipe and the gravel from the drive lay strewn across the barren flowerbeds and the front step.
Very aware of the noise my feet were making, I went towards the door. I laid my numb hand flat on the wood, like Theo’s presence would make them hum. They were still and chilled. Taking a deep breath, I banged my fist, three times. The noise cracked the silence around me and I heard it throb through the wide entrance hall on the other side. I stood with my breath misting. I counted to sixty, banged again and pushed on the little button of the doorbell but still nothing.
Swallowing, I stepped back onto the gravel, casting the beam of light up again at the house. I felt Theo’s name on my lips but no sound came out. I went to one of the windows. The light of the torch showed the backs of heavy curtains. I tried the next window along. The same. I went round the whole house, checking every ground-floor window. I wanted to see something, anything, but every window was blank with backs of curtains and blinds.
I was shivering violently by now. I sighed, about to give up when something whispered out of the dark nearby. I slow, quiet crunch, like a foot carefully stepping on gravel. Not knowing why, I shut off my torch and held my breath. It came again, once. The night was an unrelieved black blanket around my eyes. No more sound reached my ears except the tiniest breath of breeze in the tops of nearby trees.
Still holding my breath, I began to edge back round the building toward the drive, one hand out against the wall of the house, the other held just in front of me. I felt the corner of the house under my fingertips and took a tentative step out from it, stood still. Still nothing. Calmed, I switched on the torch.
“Hoi!” A gruff yell off to my right, a rapid crunching of feet running towards me. A spark of panic. I ran, clumsily, feet shifting on the gravel and a hand grabbed my coat. “Just stop there, you. What do you think you’re doing?”
Another torch flicked on, shone in my face.
“I…I was just calling at the house.” I blinked into the light, held my hands up to shade my eyes. The grip on the shoulder of my coat was iron.
“At this time of night?” The voice was dark, anger giving it a heated edge. “I should call the police…wait, hang on. Mr. Stefan?” I stammered, tried to bring my own torch up but his arm was in the way. “What on earth are you doing here?”
The grip disappeared. I lifted my light and David Braithwaite was staring at me with watery eyes. “I…” I blinked, lowered my torch out of his eyes. “I’m sorry if I disturbed you,” I mumbled stupidly. “I’m here to see Theo.”
“At four o’clock in the morning?”
A shaky laugh escaped me. “I wasn’t really thinking.”
“Well, I must say you’re the last person I expected to see.” His voice was thin and it cracked slightly but I could still hear the resonance that had used to make my neck-hair stand on end. His moustache still held some brown but from the temples outwards he was white. His face sagged a little more around the smile, which was still broad but slightly yellow. He was a lot smaller than I remembered and stooped, like he was hanging off his frame. I had an idea he’d been at Dad’s funeral but had been kind enough not to try and speak to me
“I came to see Theo,” I repeated, hearing how stupid the words sounded. “I’ve just found out he’s here and couldn’t get it out of my head so I…well, but anyway. He doesn’t seem to be answering so maybe I’ll come back tomorrow.”
His face had fallen out of its smile, brows drawing together slightly. “You came to see Master Warren?”
I frowned. We berated Theo endlessly about the fact his father called himself ‘Master Warren’. Theo had laughed along with us.
“Dad likes playing the Lord of the Manor,” Theo’s tone would arch into high English. “Master this and Sir that – when we all know he’s just a bloody farmhand playing it up in the big house. Still got shit under his nails, for Christ’s sake, whilst getting his tea served in the drawing room. Such a joke.”
As little as the title had suited Marcus, I couldn’t imagine it suiting Theo at all. “Master Warren?” I repeated, carefully. I was shivering so violently the words came out in bites.“I’m after Theodore. Marcus Warren’s son?”
David nodded, face still blank. “Indeed. Yes. But…dear Lord, we’re both shivering here. Let’s get into the warm.” He turned back in the direction of his cottage.
“No, really,” I said. “I should be heading back.”
“You should get warm first,” he said. “You should know better than to come out without gloves and scarf at this time of year. Come on, come and have a cup of tea.”
Cold and embarrassed, I wanted to get home, but the thought of hot tea and a warm room was too much to turn down. And if anyone knew what kind of life Theo had now, his groundskeeper would.
Shivering and clutching myself, I followed the shape of Braithwaite a little way down the frozen drive. He soon turned off onto a narrow, well-trodden track leading down the hill. The only sound apart from our feet in the frozen grass was the rasping of my breath. The ground levelled out. A few paces further and we were moving in through a little wooden gate in a low brick wall. I followed him up a neat garden path and then heard him fiddling with keys.
I shone the torch down the path behind me. The thin beam picked out the garden wall and some grey grass beyond. The grass stopped a few feet from the gate and the light died beyond it. I couldn’t see the water; Ercall Pool was just a still blackness past the grass.
“Here we go.”
I turned back to a rush of warmth sweeping from the opening door. I hurried in after him and felt my limbs melt in relief in the close, quiet warmth. The smell of burning wood hung in the air.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen you properly, Stefan.” He was shrugging out of his thick overcoat. “I remember how your brother used to visit me, often. That was a long time ago, too. But all significant times are long ago, don’t you find? What is history but another time a long way away from now.”
I nodded. “Yes, Mr. Braithwaite – ”
“What brings you back to Sinclare then? Thought we’d seen the last of you many years ago.” He smiled at me, took my coat and hung it next to his.
“I’m sorting Dad’s house.”
“Oh yes, of course.” He laid a heavy hand on my shoulder, watery eyes looked into mine. “I am sorry, Stefan. Elliot was a good man.”
I nodded whilst staring at the carpet.
He motioned me through to the kitchen. “How does it feel being back? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“It feels good.” I listened to the words and decided it was true. “I’m moving back.”
“Really? Well, that would be wonderful. It’s always good to support the community that brought you up.”
. The kitchen had a curious, sharp smell that hung under the smell of old cooking and wood. It snagged in my mind. The floor was flagged in heavy stones the colour of rust. An aga dominated one side. The walls were bare brick but crowded with dozens of pictures. It brought the Witch back to mind along with the claustrophobic feeling of being watched by dozens of frozen eyes. They were strange pictures of strange things, mermaids and silkies and hinkey-punks and then portraits of people with faces full of stories and landscapes that made me wonder what was just outside the frame. I frowned as Braithwaite moved about the kitchen amongst them all. I stiffened slightly when, again and again, what was clearly the mermaid of Ercall Pool appeared with hands reached out toward me.
“I don’t sleep too well these days, I’m afraid. The cold affects me badly,” he prattled on in a low voice, like he was talking to himself. “I keep my curtains open to watch for the dawn, so couldn’t help but spot your light…”
His voice was so different now. I remembered him shouting. Always shouting. Stefan Bridgeman, your father shall hear of this, waving his cane as I scuttled back into the trees with Theo, clutching something pulled from his garden.
It hadn’t just been his voice. His shoulders, his height, the big coats and boots he wore, not to mention the whispers that he did hit people with that stick. We’d constantly dared each other into his front garden and around the back of his cottage, sniggering in the trees. He’ll set the witch on you. If spotted, we ran fast and weren’t able to laugh about it until hours later.
He chattered on about the weather and the harvest and tourists from Oldport and my gaze landed on the kitchen table. I recognised the notebook from the logo stamped in the corner of it.
“Mr. Braithwaite,” I began, reaching out for the notebook, but he came forward and stood in between me and the table.
“Yes, a young girl came calling, asking for information. Research, I think. She left that by mistake but I’m sure she’ll be back when she realises. Why don’t we move through to the sitting room?” He handed me a steaming mug that smelt tangy and bitter but tasted deliciously warm and smooth. “A little recipe of my own invention. Perfect for winter. Warms you up and should help you sleep. Come, it’s just through here.” He led me back out of the kitchen and across the hall, into the lighted living room. Pictures hung everywhere, dozens of doors to different places and times. The dim light of a few mismatched lamps threw strange shadows around the frames and amongst the jumble of worn and over-sized furniture that crowded the little room.
A large fireplace was set in the middle of one wall, a pile of embers pulsing in the grate. The mantle held a large carriage clock that filled the room with its soft clicking. Above the mantle hung the largest of the paintings. Biblical Eve and her serpent twisted in a frozen dance. The gloom of the shadows and the firelight spread darkness across its corners and Eve’s eyes hung heavy in her face. Even in that light I could see it was laid out in fine, fine oils, so fleshy I could almost taste her. There was something in the moulding of the flesh, in the use of shadow and in the gaze…
“Who painted that one, Mr Braithwaite?” I tried to keep my voice steady.
“You like that one, do you? It’s not one of my favourites, but it is one of the oldest in my little collection. A Sinclare painter, that. Arthur Bulmer. Was quite famous in his day.”
“Who was he?”
Braithwaite eased himself into a massive, battered chair and seemed to shrink as he sat. “He worked a lot on commission for the Sinclare family in the 1700s, when Bartholomew rose the family to status and success and renamed the island. He’s rumoured to have painted many of the family’s portraits but so few of them survive to this day.”
“Was there a Charlotte Sinclare around that time?”
Braithwaite blinked his watery eyes. “Yes, as a matter of fact. Barthlomew’s daughter by his first wife. But she died in infancy. That’s a very obscure bit of knowledge, Stefan. Where did you hear it?”
I was staring hard into the eyes of the painted Eve and he had to ask me again before I heard him. “I found…” I began, but then noticed the way he was looking at me. I swallowed and said, “I found a book. In Dad’s attic. I saw the name when I flicked through it.”
“Do you remember the name of this book?” He was now focussing on the tea in his cup and wouldn’t look at me.
I could feel myself blushing. “Um, no. I don’t remember. I threw it away.”
I sat on the edge of a high-backed wooden chair and sipped at my drink. Everything started to fuzz pleasantly at the edges and I suppressed a yawn. My gaze kept returning to Eve and shining snake, writhing as they did in their stone-still-motion under a tree laden with unidentifiable fruit, on grass so lush-looking I half-expected it to sway in the heat rising from the fire. “He had an incredible talent.”
Braithwaite nodded heavily, looked up from his cup, one eyebrow lifted. “That he did.” He examined me for a minute or so before turning his head back toward the picture above the mantle. “There were of course, as with anything from that time, wild tales and superstitions floating around the nature of his extraordinary skill. It’s amazing what people will say to deliberately mislead about such things, isn’t it, Stefan?”
I swallowed some tea, taking my eyes off the painting. “It’s an…impressive…collection.”
“Thank you. Sinclare can’t seem to help but inspire artists, though not a lot of the work is widely known. This is only some of my collection. I donated some to the Water Witch when they were refurbishing. Makes you feel safe, somehow, doesn’t it? All this great beings watching over you.” Watching him look around I saw him sink a little further into the chair, a slight smile around the edges of his mouth. “Although I do wish they had changed the pub’s name to The Mermaid,” he continued. “Much nicer. And, obviously, more true to the actual myth.”
He took a long swallow of tea and I did the same. I felt my eyes drooping. The pictures around me throbbed in and out of focus. I rubbed at them, forcing my mind back on track. “So, Mr. Braith – sorry, David. Theo…”
“Ah, yes, yes.” He shuffled, leaning forward to me. “Master Warren. You came to see him?”
“Well, my brother told me he’d moved back. About five years ago? I only found out yesterday…”
“Well, yes, that’s true, he did. He moved back into Sinclare House when it defaulted to him at twenty-one. He was living there quite happily it seemed to me.” He was frowning. “I’m surprised you didn’t know already. I remember you two being very close. Both your fathers commented on it frequently.”
I was too sleepy to fully decide whether there was anything implied in the way he said it. “No, I haven’t spoken to him since Marcus’s…the late Master Warren’s funeral. Theo was moved away a few days later. I was hoping to see him again. I know I picked an odd time to visit, but…”
Braithwaite shook his large head, rather sadly. “You won’t find him at the house at any time.”
“No one’s seen or heard from him months.”
“He’s shut himself away?”
He shook his head again, frown deepening. “No. He’s not there at all. I noticed the curtains hadn’t been opened in a few days and went to check but no one was in.”
“Are you sure?”
He laughed a little, a laugh like the creaking of an old tree. “I’m the groundskeeper, Stefan. I have spare keys to everything for just this kind of situation. He wasn’t in the house and it looked like some of his clothes were gone.”
“Didn’t anyone look for him?”
He sighed, leant back in the chair, drained the rest of his mug. “Master Warren’s his own man, Stefan. None of our business should he choose to lift off and leave, for whatever reason.”
Something slumped in me. “Do you know if he’s coming back?”
Another cracking laugh. “I’m not his father, young Stefan. I’m his groundskeeper, certainly, but the Sinclare House Foundation pays me, not him. We keep ourselves to ourselves, me and Master Warren. I was close to the late Master Warren, it’s true. But not Theodore. He never tells me anything, I’m afraid. He could return any second, or never. It’s his house. If he wants to let it fall in on itself and rot away that’s his affair, as much as I would rather it were different.”
I followed his heavy stare out the window, off in the direction of the hill and the house.
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