You might suppose that I wrote this story in its entirety before posting it in brief installments. You would be wrong. I come to it fresh each day, except that I do think about it in the hours following each post. Different possibilities are examined but the detail does not appear until I sit down with the laptop after breakfast each day. I write off-line, polishing until I’m satisfied with what I have written before pasting the result here. Those of you who watch James Martin‘s daily program each afternoon on BBC 1 may recognize the influence of the episode broadcast yesterday on the details in today’s episode of my serial. For those who have not read the story so far, you need to start here, then follow the links at the end of each episode.
It is smaller than I had expected. My torch reveals a short row of coat hooks at head height on our right. When I turn and shine the torch to our left it reveals more coat hooks and my own face reflected in a cracked and dusty mirror. Moments ago the vision of a pale face staring back at me would have scared the bejasus out of me. How wonderful is the comfort of companionship!
Ahead of us are three further doors: one in the center of the end wall and one at the end of each side wall. There is nothing ornate about either of them. Just plain timber doors with cracked and peeling paint. Something draws me to the door that faces us, but my companion is already pushing at the door on the right. I follow him into a space dimly illuminated by a cobweb veiled narrow window high up in the far wall. The center of the room is dominated by a stone slab raised to waist height on timber trestles. Why is my head filled at once with visions of animal or human sacrifice?
“A salting table,” my friend says, offering a less fanciful explanation for the presence of this altar-like object. He runs a finger along a deep groove cut into the stone surface and holds it up to the light from my torch. Salt crystals reflect back the pure white of the LEDs.
I shine the torch into the dark space beneath the salting table. I tell myself the stains on the flagstone floor are the residue of a traditional process for the preservation of meat, not the consequence of some evil ceremony involving the letting of human blood.
It takes but two paces to cross to the other side of the first room which I now recognize as a vestibule, a space in which servants not resident in the household entered and changed from their outdoor clothing into garments more suitable for domestic pursuits.
My companion stands aside in a silent invitation for me to precede him into the second room. I look towards his eyes, invisible in the dim light, and return his smile. As I push open the door I know exactly what to expect: a kitchen range, one or more scrubbed pine surfaces for preparing food, an array of closed cupboards and open shelving. I am surprised, however, by the presence of a steep wooden stairway leading to a door high up on the right hand wall that is flanked by a window.
It is my ever practical companion who offers the explanation. “That’s where the head chef would supervise his minions, ensuring they followed his instructions to the letter.”
We turn back to the vestibule. We look into each others’ eyes. Which of us will lead the way into the third room?