Now I wandered between the graves for a bit, thinking about dead people, whether it was better to be buried and moulder away, leave some fragments of yourself, or disappear up a crematorium chimney, but then the cloud built up, grew darker and veiled the moon, a vague, silvery disc making it hard to see without the torch. I had no sense of threat from the hundreds of cadavers around me. Like the man (or maybe woman) said: ‘ Such as I am, so will you be.’ Life, death, no mystery, we’re here, we’re gone. Nothing before, nothing after. I felt secure, protected by my power of reason, immune to fables of dark forces, satanic powers, visitations from the un-dead, the occult, the whole gamut of nightmarish cobblers dispensed by shamans, sorcerers, mystics, madmen, crooks and crackpots, tellers of tales, spinners of yarns and not forgetting vicars. But inwardly, hardly admitted to myself, I was aware of a tiny grain of inbred superstition, some throwback to a long-lost Doyle capering round a bunch of stones on Salisbury Plain or somewhere, a Doyle believing that fairies could steal a baby, a Doyle watching an old woman burn, believing she was a witch. The vision passed. I dared the Looker to appear, and prove me wrong.
I’d left the lights on in the church and there was a cosy glow through the stained glass windows. It was cold out here I realised, so cold a shiver ran through me that came up from my feet, passed through my body and into my brain like an electric current. In that moment I felt it contained everything there was to know, good and evil, and yet the key to that knowledge was just beyond my grasp. The sensation faded as I walked towards the church, stumbling a little over wreaths of decaying flowers and overturned funerary urns, but when I reached the porch my hands were prickling and wet with sweat. I looked at my watch. It was a quarter to midnight.
I didn’t think the Looker would appreciate electric lights so I went over to the panel of switches by the front door of the church and turned them off. It gave my eyes a chance to adjust to the gloom, although from time to time the moonlight broke through and washed over the tombs. I’d decided to wait for him outside, leaning against the wall of the porch. It gave me a good view of the graveyard and I’d hear any movement, any slight rustle of that long black cloak, any shuffle of those talon-like feet. My watch said it was a minute to twelve. I realised that my pulse rate was fast, that my stomach was contracted, that I was taking deep breaths, breathing in oxygen as though I was preparing for some
kind of action. Adrenalin in my veins. Nothing to be done about it. It was out of
my control. I’d gone back a thousand years, a murmur from deep time saying maybe, just maybe…
Midnight passed. I began to smile. Then something moved. Fifty feet away, by the great cedar. My mouth went dry. An outline of a form. It moved again,
towards me, slowly, step by step. I was frozen, unable to move, my jaw set,
my eyes wide open, staring, staring.
‘ Peter,’ said a woman’s voice. ‘ Is that you?’ The tone was joyous but
disbelieving, full of hope and doubt.
My fear, consuming, primitive fear was gone. I stepped forward and flicked on my torch, aiming the beam down. ‘ It’s all right. I’m sorry I startled you. It’s not Peter I’m afraid.’
The woman was closer now. She was slight, her face pale, her eyes as wide as mine. She wore some sort of greatcoat with epaulettes across her shoulders, not buttoned up, as though she had not come very far. Had left her house just now, quite close.
‘No, how could it be?’ she said. Her voice was sad now, resigned.
‘Perhaps he’ll turn up soon,’ I said. ‘ I’m terribly sorry. You must be wondering what I’m doing here.’
She didn’t reply at once. She stared at me hard. ‘ You’re very like him, you see. This time I really thought…’ She smiled and when she smiled I thought, my God, so this is beauty. ‘ How could it be?’ she said again. ‘Ridiculous of course.’
‘Perhaps he’s been delayed,’ I said.
‘No, he won’t be coming, he never does.’
I shook my head, not understanding. ‘It’s warmer in the church. I’ve got a flask of coffee. Perhaps you’d like to wait in there.’
‘That’s very sweet.’ She moved past me into the porch and waited for me to switch on the lights. ‘ Who did you think I was?’ she said. ‘ You looked as
though you’d seen a ghost.’
‘It’s a long story. You’ll read a short version in next week’s Echo.’ I hesitated. ‘ Do you mind if I ask? Who did you think I was?’
‘I thought I’d seen a ghost as well,’ she said.
She wasn’t as young as I’d thought. Outside, she’d appeared not much older
than me but I could see she was more Mum’s age although they were nothing
alike. It was something to do with the way she held herself, upright and graceful and confident, and also her clothes. Under what looked like an old RAF greatcoat she was wearing a pale blue cashmere sweater, a tweed skirt and brogues. Round her neck were two strings of pearls, on the fingers of both hands rings that caught the light.
We sat down in a pew and I poured her a coffee. ‘It’s black I’m afraid, and instant. No milk, no sugar.’
‘Perfect. My name’s Catherine FitzNeville by the way, but my friends call me Cat.’ She sipped the coffee slowly, staring at me as if I was familiar, as if we knew each other already. As if we shared memories.
I told her about my Looker feature. It sounded ridiculous now. My heart wasn’t in it any more. Just a feeble little filler for a local rag. And why make myself look like an idiot, waiting for a spook I knew would never come? Not news, just baloney like Paul said.
She sat quietly, still with that absorbed look, as if she was studying me, working something out, hardly listening. Then she came back to me. ‘Oh, the Looker.’ She glanced across at the wall painting with a smile. ‘ We used to dare ourselves as children to touch that horror’s image and sniff our fingers to see if they smelt of fire and brimstone. Delicious shivers.’
‘You live here then?’
‘Oh yes, quite close. The family’s worshipped here for yonks.’ She stood up and handed me back the cup from the thermos. ‘I’d like to show you something. It’s in the north aisle.’
It was a stained glass window showing a pilot in flying gear. Helmet, goggles,
Mae West, flying boots. Behind him, an eagle with spread wings against bars of
gold like the rays of the sun, Heaven I supposed. At the top, the RAF crest,
below, in a panel: To the glory of God and in proud and loving memory, Peter
Odo FitzNeville, 1916-1940. This window endowed by his family.
I felt her hand on my arm. ‘This will tell you a little more.’ Nearby, a memorial plaque, also with the RAF crest:
In memory of
Flight Lieutenant Peter Odo FitzNeville DFC
No.600 Squadron RAF Manston
who gave his life on active service
31 October 1940
and has no known grave
Lest we forget
‘ It’s hateful,,’ she said. ‘ when you don’t have a body. It means you’re in a kind of limbo. You wish for the impossible, half hope he might walk through the door at any moment, restored to you, just as he was. He was my husband, you see.’ She put a hand to her mouth as though to hide emotion but she couldn’t conceal what was in her eyes. ‘ I’m sorry. It’s just that every year I come here on the date of the night he died to remember, to talk to him, to show I never forget. Foolish of course. Sometimes I find it hard to picture his face and I feel so guilty, as if I’m betraying his memory. Photos never quite catch the essence of a person, do they? And I try so hard to see him when I’m sitting here, willing him to appear to me, even for a moment, in my sub-consciousness or any way at all. And then when I saw you outside, waiting, I thought waiting for me, it was as if, well, you know.’ She touched my cheek lightly. ‘ You must think I’m mad. You’re so awfully like him, you see. And I remember him very clearly now. I’m grateful to you for that.’
We walked out of the church together. The sky was cloudless and the graveyard was washed with silver light.
‘ After we were married,’ she said, ‘ we had six months together and then he was gone. We’d waited and waited, thinking we had so many years to come.
Then, with the war, everything began to happen so fast. The time you thought you had wasn’t there any more. You had to seize whatever you could in case it vanished.’ She caught herself. ‘ I’m sorry, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.’
‘ Please,’ I said, ‘ go on.’ I felt confused myself, aware that she was talking to a shadow of the man she’d lost.
‘ We grew up together. Our families, theTallatons and the FitzNevilles, were always close, so of course they hoped…’ She stopped and looked back at the church. I’d left the lights on. I’d have to go back. ‘ We’d never thought of each other in that way,’ she said. ‘ We were just natural together. Until we began to realise it was more than just friendship. Even then we were so young, so very young, with no experience to speak of, knowing nothing of the world. Without the war I suppose things would have taken a more natural course. But for a time it was wonderful. Peter was in the RAF by then, he’d finished his pilot training and been posted to Hawkinge. The wedding was in a little church near the base and his chums from the squadron formed a guard of honour outside, best blues, crossed swords, such fun.’
I glanced at her, then looked down. ‘ I’m going into the RAF soon.’ Why had I said that, so jarring, as if I hadn’t been listening? So at odds with the Air Force she was talking about where men flew aeroplanes, went up to fight invaders, did battle over the white cliffs and green fields of…
‘ Really?’ she said. ‘ Do you expect to fly?’
‘ Hardly. I’m being called up. National Service. More likely I’ll be cleaning dustbins.’
‘ Oh, surely they’ll find you something more interesting to do than that?’
I suspected it was beyond her comprehension, an airman who wasn’t to be a pilot. The mood was ruined. I’d shown her the man I was, or wasn’t. Nothing like her lost flier. But she didn’t seem to notice. Her thoughts were still with
Flight Lieutenant Peter Odo FitzNeville DFC. I felt vaguely jealous.
She gathered the greatcoat round her shoulders and shivered. ‘ I realise I don’t know your name. Forgive me, I’ve been talking too much.’
‘ Tom Doyle,’ I said.
‘ You must visit us, Tom. Tell us all about your quest for the Looker. I’d like you to meet Alice and my father. We still live in the old house. Do say you’ll come. Where can I reach you? Do you have a card?’
I’d given my last one to Mr Padgham. It seemed an age away. He’d completed his walk to Clacton without ending up dead. Better still, he’d found his wife’s wheelchair folded up in the greenhouse and pushed it all the way, with a sack of potatoes to allow for her the weight on the original trip. It made a nice human interest piece. Even O’Brien said so.
‘ Sorry,’ I said. ‘ An old chap in the village had my last.’
‘ Not George Padgham?’
‘ That’s right. Of course, you’d know him.’
‘ Did you write that funny report?’
‘ It wasn’t meant to be funny.’
‘ Oh, come now. It was hilarious. No need to be defensive. He’s always been quite barmy. My father had innumerable run-ins with him over the years, mostly to do with poaching on our estate. Once he even claimed he had the right to ramble through our grounds. Daddy soon saw him off.’ She began to fasten the top few buttons on her coat, suddenly brisk. ‘ No doubt the Looker came into your conversation. Not for publication of course but on occasions Mr Padgham and the Looker were one and the same when he was prowling about our
woodlands. Jolly useful ploy, giving the more credulous of our grounds staff the
She finished her buttoning.‘ It’s been lovely to meet you, Tom. My apologies if I took you aback. It was a shock at first but delightful after. I’ll find you at the
Echo. And I really do insist you’ll come to see us. I’m firm on such matters.’
I couldn’t think why, but I said I would. I watched her walk away, fade into the shadows, vanish. Then I heard her voice, faintly now. ‘ I’m holding you to your promise, mind. Don’t let me down.’
I’d overdone it. I knew I’d overdone it. I’d tried too hard, tried to make waiting for the Looker more than it was, an empty stunt. When the string-bound bundles of that week’s issue thumped onto the office counter I took a copy away with me into the toilet and turned to my story. I read the copy, my face burning.
‘ MY HALLOWE’EN APPOINTMENT WITH FEAR’
Echo man’s account of phantom that failed to show
After a brief summary of the Looker legend I’d let myself go. I read on, feeling sick.
It was a weird experience. Intelligence tells you that such things
cannot exist. But alert as I was to every sound it was hard to
suspend my disbelief. Trees sighed to one another in the chilly
breeze, their branches outlined starkly against the night sky. And
the gravestones-ugh! It was not the breeze alone that set the shivers
going. Would the Looker rise up before me and…’
I stopped reading. I knew every word. I’d worked hard at it, trying to make it good, and it was over-blown twaddle. The sub-editors had added my initials to the piece. To achieve T.D in bold at the end of a column was the nearest the
Echo got to a by-line. It was something we aspired to. But this I suspected was
some kind of tongue-in-cheek private joke cooked up by O’Brien and his friends on the subs desk at head office. Or was it to make it plain, mostly to our rivals, that I was the mug responsible? I heard laughter in the front office. Paul
was there with Max and when Viv saw me she pretended to be checking the
petty cash but her shoulders were moving.
‘ I particularly like the sighing trees,’ said Max, pretending not to notice me.’
‘ Why were they sighing, do you think?’
Paul pointed to the paragraph. ‘ Read it properly, you chump. Because there was a chilly breeze.’ He looked across at me. ‘ Don’t take any notice, Tom. We know fine writing when we see it.’
‘ This ugh,’ said Max, ‘ this expression of fear and disgust about the gravestones. That’s going to go down well with the bereaved. Watch for a drop in your obit notices, Viv.’
O’Brien had joined us. ‘ I thought it was a pretty good little item in a thin week. Ignore them, Tom.’
Perhaps he’d been genuine, tried to do me favour, adding my initials for showing a bit of initiative. ‘ Thanks,’ I said. ‘ Thanks very much.’ Viv put her hands together as if in prayer and mouthed sorry to me.
‘ We’re off to the George for a jar,’ said Paul. ‘ Care to join us, Tom? Give us a few tips about literary style, the techniques you use to build suspense, how to enhance our descriptive powers?’
‘ An interview in The Paris Review might be in order,’ said Max at the door.
‘ The genius of Edgar Allan Doyle.’
When they’d gone O’Brien said: ‘ I forgot. This came for you this morning. I didn’t leave it on your desk. Paul’s got the devil in him today.’
‘ Can we not mention the devil?’ I said. I took the envelope and went into the reporters room, lit a Gauloise, put my feet up on the desk and slit open the
envelope with the edge of my old school ruler. The letter was on pale blue
water-marked paper with the address embossed in dark blue at the top. The
handwriting, in dark blue ink, was large, almost a scrawl, and there were scatters of tiny blots here and there as though the writer had whipped the nib off
the page with a flourish.
Dear Tom Doyle,
It was a pleasure to encounter you, if that is the right word, in
St.Alfege’s last week. I am so sorry your spook did not make an
appearance but at least he provided us with an opportunity to
meet. I look forward keenly to reading the article that may result.
The purpose of this letter is to invite you to join us to tell us a
little more about your research into this fascinating example of
local folk-lore. As a family we have always been interested and we
are sure you have uncovered much fresh material to add to that we
already possess. Please telephone me on the number above to arrange
a time convenient to you. By the way, I mentioned you to my father and
your impending period of service in the RAF. He is a mine of information
about the Air Force, serving as he did in the Royal Flying Corps and
when it was formed, the RAF itself and has numbers of contacts among
serving officers that you may find useful.
I look forward to hearing from you very soon,
With warm regards,
I was reading the letter again when O’Brien came into the reporters room. He had a habit of holding his right fist to his mouth and biting his knuckles. It was a sign he was going through a bad time. ‘ What else have you got lined up today?’
He checked the big diary by the telephone. ‘ You doing the inquest then?’ he said over his shoulder. ‘ I thought Paul was covering it.’
‘ No, you said me.’
‘ Might be a bit grim, mother and kid on the Brixworth level crossing.’
‘ That’s all right.’
‘ Sure?’ He shrugged and turned towards me. I was slipping the letter back in
its’ envelope. ‘ Looks a bit flash. Anything interesting? Or is it private?’
‘ Have you heard of a family round here called the FitzNevilles?’ I said.
‘ No, I’m from Croydon.’
We were following the faint track that led across the level pastures, our feet disturbing shingle left over from a far time when this land was under the sea. Then, ahead, we saw a smudge of woodland, a rise in the ground, a hillock that stood out oddly against the flatness of the marsh. If this was Castle Malfaire it was a let-down, just a mound of earth, its sides dense with undergrowth, the rim topped by a few wind-bent trees. But closer to it seemed more substantial and looked like a stiff climb. Alice knew the easiest route, a straggling track winding towards the top of the mound between tussocks of coarse grass, too narrow for human feet. I dropped back a little, angling my shoes against the steepness of the slope, stretching out an arm to steady myself. I could hear Alice somewhere ahead of me, surefooted, moving swiftly and easily. Underfoot the soil was fine-grained and very soft, pierced by deep holes obscured by bracken, rabbits maybe, or badgers, or foxes because the smell of fox was strong. I wondered how it would be, out here and alone, if you stumbled in a burrow or tripped on one of the rash of molehills and broke an ankle? How long before you were found, lying injured, waiting, listening, with darkness coming on. Before someone came by. Or something.
I broke through the last few clumps of brushwood and stumbled into the sunshine where Alice was waiting, looking small in a broad open space as big as a football pitch, the level turf broken in places with gorse and bramble, enclosed by a worn-down earth rampart.
‘So this is Castle Malfaire,’ I said. It sounded dismissive but I hadn’t meant it that way..
‘What did you expect?’ said Alice. ‘Camelot?’ She was irritated suddenly.
‘Of course this place means nothing to you. Why should it?’
‘Well, what does it mean to you?’
‘Everything. I know every nook and cranny. I was happiest here. I once told you that when we were small we used to…’
‘Yes, I remember you saying how your mother let you run wild in the countryside like a little gypsy. How you got into all sorts of pranks with chums from the village until your grandfather put a stop to it.’
‘Gosh, your memory must come in jolly useful in your job.’
‘So you used to come here? Weren’t you scared of the ghosts and ghoulies? That the Looker might materialise?’
‘We hoped he would. Oh, we so hoped for that. We thought we were a match for anyone or anything, from this world or the next.’
‘So nothing then, no hideous apparitions rising from the lake, no footsteps behind you, a touch on the shoulder from a creature that wasn’t there?’
‘We played at monsters but they never joined in worse luck.’ Brisk now she said: ‘Come on. Let me give you the guided tour. Then we can get back to Hugo.’
We walked round the perimeter, the ramparts that once stood as tall as a man, now eroded by time and barely waist-high. Our hands touched but she pulled hers away. I wanted to please her but didn’t know what to say. I felt nothing, my imagination refusing to people the place with shades from the past, the men of the garrison probably bored by waiting for something to happen that rarely did, or peasants seeking shelter from their settlement at the foot of the mound when rumours spread that raiders were advancing from the coast or squabbles broke out with awkward neighbours or floods encroached on their huts or crops failed so they came begging for food. No romance there, just lives endured in constant fear and danger of violent death. And just in case there wasn’t enough fear and danger in the real world always some crackpot handy to conjure up a host of imaginary ones from the realms of fantasy, superstition and religion.
Alice had moved away, towards a gap in the ramparts that looked like the main entrance to the fort. A narrow causeway spanned a deep ditch running to right and left. On the other side we hesitated. Ahead an overgrown path dropped towards a thicket of stunted trees that leaned in on each other forming a dark tunnel. It was quite steep, our feet slipping on wet grass leaving smear-marks in the soil; to right and left were areas of rotting fungi as big as plates, slimy and rank with odour, and above our heads in the overhanging branches, came an occasional beating of wings. My senses were alert to any sound and something, some primitive instinct, suggested we were not alone. I felt a prickling of my scalp. A blundering movement away to our right, deeper into the tangle of trees and scrub, made me certain. Alice had paused now, further down the path, staring back at me, her face expressionless.
‘Didn’t you hear that?’ I said. ‘Something crashing about?’
She shrugged but her face was pale. ‘Probably the Looker. Pretend not to notice. It only encourages him.’
I stayed where I was, listening. Whatever it was had stopped with me. I waited until I heard it again, the slight sound of something adjusting its weight, taking a step, moving away. ‘All right,’ I called out. ‘We know you’re there. Just shove off, right? Just leave us alone.’ I tried to make my voice deep and brisk, like Hugo’s, like old man Tallaton’s, like Jack Cleaver’s; come out if you dare and then you’ll see the sort of chap you’re dealing with. Behind the bravado a smaller voice was suggesting there might be someone or something very nasty lurking there, poised to come rushing out.
Alice was with me, holding my arm. ‘Come on, Tom. There’s nothing there, I promise you. It’s this place, it does things to you.’
I shook away her hand and without knowing why, apart from challenging my yellow streak, found myself pushing between the trees, my face stung by branches, thorn bushes snatching at my legs. It was clearer here and I began to run until a root snagged my foot and I went face-down on the bare earth, winded, hearing Alice’s voice as if from a long way off. It seemed to bring me to my senses. I rolled onto my back gulping in air, sat up and took a moment to look around. At first I could see very little, just a dark mass of twisted and spindly trees, some canted over, uprooted by gales, others fallen flat and rotting on the woodland floor. Alice had stopped calling now and there was unbroken silence, not even birdsong or the growl of a distant tractor or the drone of a plane. Until twenty yards away, partly covered by foliage, I could make out the
outline of a rough shelter, a tarpaulin stretched over a framework of branches. It was carefully concealed, would have passed unnoticed by anyone walking by. I pushed myself up and went to take a closer look. It was lived in, lived in now, but no-one was home if you could call it home, just a sleeping bag, a few food tins, a half-finished loaf of bread, bottles of beer and cider, a camping stove, an empty pack of Woodbines. I stayed there for three or four minutes but nobody showed up. I was braver now, quite the hero, thinking Alice might be
impressed by my spring into action. After all it was probably just a tramp, someone living rough, down on his luck. Unless (the thought hit me) it was something more sinister, an escaped prisoner say from Maidstone Jail (hadn’t there been a recent report?), or a killer on the run, the kind that cropped up in B-films, a psychopath, twitching, ruthless, giggling as he committed his next brutal act, the type police warned members of the public not to approach.
It was as I moved back towards the edge of the wood, compelling myself to walk slowly, that I heard voices or at least Alice’s voice, distinct and low. At first I put it down to the keening of the wind but as I got closer it was unmistakeable although I couldn’t make out what she was saying. Still in the shadow of the trees I moved some branches aside but she was standing there alone. Then to my left, on the slope below the castle, I caught a slight movement as if someone was brushing through the undergrowth, but that was all. I waited for a few minutes and then went back to Alice and told her I hadn’t come across anything in the wood, that it must have been a rabbit, a fox, a badger, some unknown creature. I didn’t mention the shelter. She wasn’t really listening anyway, biting her lip and looking over her shoulder towards the castle.
‘Are you all right?’ I said.
‘Why wouldn’t I be?’
‘I don’t know. I thought I heard voices.’
‘You know what they say about people who hear voices.’
I could see she’d deny everything. ‘I must have imagined it then.’
‘You must have.’
‘If you say so.’
‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’ I looked around. ‘Eerie, this place.’ I said it because I felt it was expected but I didn’t feel it particularly, not any more. That
sensation had gone when I came across the tent.
‘This was the main settlement,’ she was saying. ‘All those people living their lives. People like us.’
‘Not so like. Living with fear, threatened with hell and damnation, haunted by what might lie round the corner.’
She shrugged. ‘I suppose they needed their beliefs, that there was a better world waiting for them because the one they were in was so beastly.’
I tried to lighten things. ‘What a life.’
She wasn’t ready to let it go. ‘Things aren’t so different now. I mean, those people in the church. Christian, pagan, all muddled up.’
‘They’re hedging their bets,’ I said. ‘It’s probably in the blood. There’s a lot of in-breeding round here.’
She reddened. ‘That’s a horrible thing to say. I suppose you think you’re being clever. What gives you the right to pass judgement on what people believe or don’t believe, as if you’re all-knowing yourself?’
‘Okay, I spoke carelessly. I’m sorry.’
‘You thought it was so amusing, didn’t you, when I told you about that spell I tried to free my family from debt? You said it was like sending a note up the chimney to Father Christmas.’
‘Like I say, a careless remark. I didn’t realise you take this stuff so seriously.’
‘I just keep an open mind but yours is closed. Everything’s a joke.’
‘Not everything. You’re being a bit hard on me. Can’t we start again?’
‘Get back to being friends.’
‘Is that what we are?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t know what we are.’
‘You seemed to have some idea about it when you came to my room last night.’
‘Things have happened since then. I’m not so sure we’re right together. You don’t share…’
‘Not those beliefs again.’
‘We don’t share very much, when you think about it, do we?’
‘You mean the family you belong to, people who know people, the Tallaton heritage, all of that?’
‘I don’t care about that, Tom. It’s what I learned here that’s important me, all those years ago, when life seemed perfect. No-one thought more or less of you whatever your background, whoever your parents were. You were just you, with like-minded people, small people who hadn’t been changed by the way the adults thought, by the way you were expected to behave. By the world outside. If you’d been with us then you wouldn’t have fitted in. You would have spoiled it. You’ve always been outside, outside of everyone. I think you still are.’
‘Well,’ I said, ‘I think I’ll just go and drown myself in your precious lake.’
She smiled reluctantly. ‘You see, for you everything’s a joke.’
‘Not everything. I’m serious about you.’
‘Why? We’re chalk and cheese. It’s just curiosity, trying to work me out. You’ll soon get bored.’
‘And return to the world outside?’
‘You’ve never left it, Tom. That’s the trouble.’ She shivered. ‘It doesn’t matter. I have the feeling we’re not going to know each other very long anyway.’
‘And last night?’
‘More curiosity, just trying out my feminine wiles.’
‘Is that all it was?’
‘Oh, this is all getting a bit deep isn’t it?’ she said. ‘Come on now, let me show you the lake.’
‘Talking of deep,’ I said. ‘You can stand on the bank and watch me go down for the third time.’
At first, after following her along another meandering track between decaying woodland, it was hard to make out any sign of the lake but then, between the trunks of the closely packed trees, an area of water became visible. Except it wasn’t like water, more like smoked glass, an intense black and almost still, overlaid with an oily film marked in places by the trails of unknown creatures. It looked poisoned, as if dense with decomposing vegetation and dead drowned things, so polluted it seemed impossible it could sustain any kind of life. And yet as I watched there was a dull plop and a swirl as something moved just below the surface and circles radiated out, rippling the patches of broken film before they drifted back together like healing skin.
‘There are whoppers in there,’ Alice said. She took a step forward, close to the edge of the bank, her eyes fixed on the circles that were fading and then finally gone. ‘No-one’s ever seen them. We tried to catch one once but it was far too cunning for us.’
‘You and your like-minded friends?’
She seemed not to hear. ‘I wonder what we’d have done if we had hooked it? I was very afraid we might.’
‘Because it would have spoilt everything. You know, the monster in the lake,
Looker I suppose, turning out to be a plain old fish.’
It reminded me of Jack Prest in the Shearers, him fearful cold aged ten,
standing where I stood now, seeing something moving, swirling, as I had done a moment ago, but different, something big he’d said and coming towards him. How he’d run, brave little bugger or not, hearing behind him a sucking sound like something climbing out of the water. The way he’d told it had the ring of truth but probably he’d had made it all up, a bar-room yarn, recounted so often he’d come to believe it himself. Instead, no monster here, just plain old fish like Alice said. More likely young Prest had been unnerved by the atmosphere of the place. Despite everything I felt it now, a sense of unease, of being marooned in time, somewhere far back before the Normans or the Romans came, as if those unknown generations had left some remnant of their passing that hung about the place like a whisper in the trees.
There was no more movement in the water. Alice was leaning back against a
silver birch, taking in the sun as it filtered through the leaves. She looked as she
as she had the first time I’d seen her in the Morgan, her pale face framed by coils of red-gold hair, green eyes dreamy, long fingers resting on her neck. I thought I’d try to remember her like this, with the wild wood behind her and the soft-edged bank of the lake at her feet, imprint it on my mind like a painting, one of Mum’s Florentine beauties maybe or something I’d seen on a school trip to the galleries in London, a painting by Millais, unfashionable now, scoffed at by the art master Mr Brent, but that I rather liked for the story it told.
The lake curved away to left and right. Once part of the moat that circled the castle it was deep because here I’d read the Normans had dug out the soil for the mound. Not much survived, just this stretch and a few isolated ponds, so the fish, if fish they were, had been trapped for centuries.
Without looking across at me Alice said slowly: ‘Tom, you know you thought you heard voices back there?’
I could tell it was still troubling her. ‘You told me I imagined it,’ I said. I assumed she was about to admit it, to explain. But after a deep breath she seemed to change her mind, as if she wasn’t ready to confide in me after all.
‘It’s this place, ‘she said, trying to be casual. ‘You told me so yourself, how eerie it is, how it makes you imagine things. Hear things.’
‘I said it was eerie, that’s all. But whatever you say, Alice. Why don’t we drop it? It’s time we were heading back anyway.’
She opened her mouth to reply when, away to our left, out of sight beyond the bend in the lake, there was a cry of something in pain. No, more than a cry and more than pain, a shriek of agony that rose and rose, ringing round the wooded slopes until, abruptly, it was cut off. We heard a heavy object hit the water, still out of sight, and then saw ripples fanning out and rounding the bend towards us disturbing the oily film, pushing it back to reveal the black depths of the lake below, except it was no longer black but gradually stained with a rich and vivid red, billowing and expanding like clouds in a summer sky.
I went down to the water’s edge, my feet slipping on the sparse turf of the bank. Behind me Alice hadn’t moved, still leaning against the silver birch, her face expressionless, uncurious it seemed to me, accepting whatever might be happening before our eyes.
A shape was drifting towards me, slowly rotating on the surface, a creature in the throes of death, spasms contorting its head and legs as the last traces of life left its body. I headed towards it along the bank, trying to shield Alice from the horror, trying all the time to make sense of what I could see. Motionless now, surrounded by a halo of rich red blood, it was the corpse of a sheep floating on its side, its head slightly raised, mouth gaping open, gums drawn back from yellow teeth in a final grimace, the throat sliced half through, the incision so deep the neck bones showed.
As I stood there taking it in, the enormity of it, what it might mean, I heard a movement behind me and a sudden weight on my shoulder, a hand, the fingers digging in like claws and I wavered for a moment, off-balance, desperate not to slip into the water, to find myself close to the carcass, to find myself swimming in gore.
It was Alice, leaning on me a little, peering round my shoulder to see what floated motionless a few feet away.
‘For heaven’s sake, Alice,’ I said, ‘you almost had me in.’
She smiled and it struck me as odd to smile. ‘Sorry to make you jump. It’s only me. I mean, who else would it be?’ Her voice was mild, her face composed, as if the sight of the slaughtered beast came as no surprise. I sensed she felt she should say something appropriate as if she was more interested in my reaction than in her own but her only comment was: ‘Oh, poor creature. What does it mean?’
‘It means someone cut its throat as a threat. ’
‘Well, hardly for fun.’
‘To make us leave this place before it happens to one of us.’
Alice shook her head. ‘You can’t be right. Who would do such a thing?’ She stared more closely at the dead animal. ‘I think it’s been dead for ages. It probably got caught up in a thorn bush and injured itself that way. They do you know, it happens all the time, anyone will tell you.’
‘No, when I saw it first it was still alive. The blood is fresh. This was a deliberate act.’
Then, above us somewhere, high in the woods, there came a prolonged and unwavering howl, not of agony this time, of something close to triumph but triumph over what? A chill swept through me.
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