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This post was suggested by The Writing Reader’s prompt #1753, the first line of Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.
Last night I dreamed I was back in Urishay, a small community of farms and cottages in the hills above the Golden Valley, close to the Black Mountains that mark the border between England and Wales. I was a babe in arms when I first arrived there with my mother and grandmother. It was to be my home for the next 14 years.
Our cottage had thick walls of local stone. A stream ran in a deep ravine with two waterfalls behind it. Cattle grazed the surrounding fields for a large part of the year. In summer sweet smelling hay was harvested to provide winter feed for these animals. It is a place full of memories of warm summer days spent roaming the lanes and hedgerows. There was an orchard with ancient apple and pear trees. I remember well the delicious, golf-ball-sized, pears that grew in abundance on two or three of these gnarled trees, fruit that were as attractive to wasps as to us children.
Home is a strange concept. I have lived in many other places since, but that cottage in Urishay will always be ‘home’ to me. So, too, will the boarding school at which I resided for 40 weeks of every one of the six years between the ages of 11 and 17. I have been back a number of times recently and it fills me with memories of my youth, as do the many exchanges between myself and other former pupils on a Google forum created for the purpose.
The city of Hereford, Coventry, Cleethorpes and a small village in East Yorkshire have all been home to my wife and I at various times during the 50+ years of our marriage. Over the past few years we have created a home with a beautiful garden in a lovely part of the Irish Midlands. One of the new friends I have made here in Ireland recently published a book entitled Home. His experience of home is very different to mine. He remained in the same small town throughout his life, apart from a brief period in university. Now retired from a teaching career in the town in which he was born, he has spent the past few years researching the history of the town. He created a website filled with photographs of the town’s buildings, each one accompanied by details obtained from census returns of the various inhabitants and their trades.
Home contains much of this same fascinating information that documents the life of an Irish market town from its inception as a defensive fort at the time of the Tudor plantation of Ireland to the meteoric expansion of the ‘tiger’ years and their accompanying construction boom.
But in his book my friend has preceded the historical facts and anecdotes with eleven delightful short stories about fictional characters and their lives in the town in the 1960s and ’70s.
It is this fascination with the way life was lived in one’s youth that, perhaps, most accurately defines the real sense of ‘home’. For me it is the rural backwater in the Welsh Marches and the boarding school among the heathland of Surrey. For my friend it is the market town with its music, its shops, its prison and its small cinema. My friend’s home town is not merely the backdrop to his short stories but a solid character whose history shapes its inhabitants, creating that unique quality that makes them different from the citizens of any other place.
The castles and hills of the Welsh Marches mirror those to be found around my new home in Ireland. The same people built both sets of castles. A few years ago my own research centred on these people and their involvement in the history of both places. This led to the creation of the Hereford and Ireland History section of this website and Strongbow’s Wife, my novel about the young woman who became the wife of the man who answered her father’s call for assistance in his ambition to become High King.
Urishay features as the setting for my own second novel, Summer Day, in which a boy believes himself to be responsible for his father’s death. Many of the characters who feature in various ways in the tragic events of the day that follows are loosely based on the real people who inhabited the district when I was growing up there. And I’m guessing the characters in my friend’s short stories are based on real people and events he experienced in his formative years.
Home is available from http://www.portlaoisepictures.com/purtockpress.htm
Strongbow’s Wife can be purchased from Amazon. A soft cover version is also available via this link: https://www.feedaread.com/books/Strongbows-Wife-9781786109910.aspx
Summer Day can be purchased from Amazon via this link: https://www.amazon.com/Summer-Day-Frank-Parker-ebook/dp/B007ZBK4UI?ie=UTF8&ref_=asap_bc
The writers’ group set the prompt “The flashing blue light”. Here is my take on that, a tale of someone waiting for the proverbial ‘tap on the shoulder’, the fear that his crime will be discovered.
The flashing blue light penetrated the fabric of the blind and bounced around the walls of the small room. I felt a shiver run down my back. Something hard rose in my gut. Sweat prickled my brow. It was stupid, I knew, but I could not help it. No matter how hard I tried, the memory would not leave me. And whenever I saw a blue flashing light, or heard the wail of a siren, I experienced the same reaction.
I took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. I raised the window blind a few inches and looked out at the street in time to see the ambulance disappear over the brow of the hill.
I wished that I had been able to anticipate the effect on me of my actions before I’d taken them. The nightmares, this involuntary response to the appearance of an emergency vehicle, both symptoms of guilt, and the ever-present fear that I would one day be found out.
On reflection, ever-present is overstating the situation a bit. There are times when I am able to forget. Reading is the best. Burying myself in a good book, immersing myself in someone else’s world, can take me away from the reality of my life since I did it. Television, too, can provide an escape. Only through wildlife programmes and home improvement shows, though. Not crime dramas. Not even soap operas. These days they have a tendency to include criminals in the cast of characters. But even the ordinary events of a soap opera, reflecting, as they do, real life, often necessitate the appearance of an ambulance, fire tender or police vehicle. So I avoid them, alongside the medical dramas.
I have to leave the house now and then, to get essential supplies. But even that is getting harder. I have to take a round about route that doesn’t bring me too close to the police station or the hospital. The other day someone collapsed in the mini-market where I shop. I had to skulk in the corner where they keep the wines until the para-medics had finished treating her and left. I pretended to study the labels on the backs of the bottles. You would be amazed how much cheap plonk promises ‘a fruity nose’ or ‘flavours of cherry and black currant with a hint of spice’. Only when the blues and twos faded completely was I able to steel myself to approach the check-out with my basket of groceries.
I’m seriously thinking of doing my shopping on the internet. That way I wouldn’t have to go out at all. The more I think about it, the more I come to realise that it’s either that or give myself up; admit that she did not die of natural causes as the coroner said. Would anyone believe me? I’d done such a good job. The poison administered in small doses over a long period so that it built up in her system. The pathologist was a friend of mine and owed me a favour. It wasn’t too difficult to persuade him that an autopsy would be unnecessary.
I put up a good show of grief at the funeral. Heaved a sigh of relief as the coffin disappeared behind the curtain. Cremation meant there would be no possibility of an exhumation if anyone decided to re-investigate years later. I was home safe.
That night I awoke shaking. My pyjamas clammy with sweat, the sheet in a knot that matched the knot of fear in my stomach. And it’s been like that every night since. I ordered sleeping pills from a dodgy website. I couldn’t go to the doctor, he’d want to refer me to a psychiatrist and who knows what secrets I might reveal to him?
I get my books from the internet, too. Download them to my Kindle. That’s really all I do now. Sitting here in this small room at the back of the house reading. Usually it’s safe from the intrusion of the outside world. The main road is at the front, but there is a side street just two doors down, and once in a while, like tonight, an emergency vehicle takes a short cut that way, bringing with it those nightmare visions.
There is another option. I’m looking at the bottle of pills and wondering, how many would it take?
I wanted to finish the story with this episode. I could have had the main character’s trust in her companion turn out to be misplaced. But I couldn’t introduce anything unsuitable for a readership that could include minors. Your comments on the conclusion I finally arrived at would be most welcome. New readers start here.
Unlike the others, this door opens outwards. My friend tugs it until it jams against the uneven flags. He stands back, bows and gestures with a hand, inviting me to go ahead. My torch reveals a bare wooden staircase leading up. I step back.
“It’s a staircase. Probably leading up to the main rooms.”
“Makes sense. It would have been the way the servants took food to the diners.”
“I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen enough. Shall we get on with our painting?”
He shoulders the door back into place and we exit the vestibule. As we walk towards our cars he places an arm across my shoulders.
“Are you okay? You seemed nervous when I arrived.”
“It was the bats. When I got the door open they flew straight at me.” I don’t tell him how I ran in terror.
“But you are alright now?”
“Alright now,” I confirm, looking up into his smiling face.
He draws me closer to him and lowers his head as if to kiss me. We are by the cars. I pull away, placing the little tool box into the still open trunk of my vehicle.
He makes no move to open his own trunk. “What were you doing with the tool box?”
“The door was locked. I picked it.”
His eyes crinkle in puzzlement. “You picked it? I didn’t have you down as a sneak thief.”
He’s laughing but I can see he’s worried, too.
“There’s a lot you don’t know about me. Does the fact I can pick locks mean I can’t be your friend?”
He doesn’t answer at once. I carry on gathering my painting materials, my easel and portfolio of sketching and water-color paper. My hands are shaking, I can hardly breathe as I await his response.
“Have you ever done anything like this before?”
How will I tell him the truth? But there is no need, as his next sentence shows he is changing the subject.
“Have you thought that with this breeze none of our potential subjects will stay still long enough? It would be much better to collect a few specimens and take them back to paint at home.”
I can see the sense of that, but I also see a problem. “How will we keep them fresh?”
“I thought of that.” He is opening his trunk now. He turns and I see he is holding up four jam jars, one finger of his left hand in each, gripping them against his palm. In his right hand is a plastic container. I assume it holds water. I return my equipment to the trunk, close and lock it.
“How clever of you. Can I help? Carry something?”
“You can bring these,” he says, pointing to a bunch of brown paper bags threaded on a piece of white cord.
As we walk towards the small copse at the bottom of a gentle slope I feel a sensation I have not experienced in a very long time. Afraid that my past will destroy any relationship I might form, I have avoided getting too close to anyone. At last I can dare to think I have someone who is prepared to take me as I am, not probe too deeply into those dark days that I do not care to recall.
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?
I glimpse a pair of tiny bright red dots gleaming in the torch’s white light before their owner scuttles off into the dark. I hear the scrunch of feet on gravel and someone calls my name. At first I stiffen with shock. Then laugh inwardly at my stupidity. In the heightened state of my emotions I have forgotten the purpose for my visit to the old house. With a friend, I had planned to spend an afternoon of plein-air painting. The neglected garden seemed like the perfect setting for botanical studies in water color.
I had arrived early, having left sufficient time for my journey to cater for heavy traffic, only to find none. I sat in the car for a few minutes then got out and took a stroll around the periphery of the house, in search of a suitable site to set up my easel. My discovery of the door concealed behind the shrubbery had aroused my curiosity.
Now my friend has arrived. The presence of my car, the trunk still open from when I retrieved the toolbox, will have told him I’m here. I have been so distracted by my interest in the concealed door, and the room beyond, that his sudden appearance has taken me by surprise.
I switch off the torch and duck my head round the door. “Down here,” I shout.
I can see his head, wisps of sandy colored hair lifted by a gentle breeze as he stands beyond the shrubbery. I watch, amused, as he turns, head swiveling, unable to see me. “Behind the shrubbery.” I climb to the second step from the bottom. Now he looks down and I observe puzzlement change to recognition and relief on his thin features. He walks towards the top of the stairway.
“Come and look,” I say. “There’s a cellar. But you must look at the door first. It’s quite ornate.”
I stand aside and, as he brushes my cheek with his lips, I catch the scent of his cologne. He bends to examine the elaborate carving on the pull-ring.
“Unusual for a tradesman’s entrance, don’t you think?” He says nothing.
“Celtic?” I suggest when he looks up.
“I don’t think so. I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything like it before.” I can see he has already lost interest. “What have you found inside?”
“A couple of bats and a rat so far. I’d barely shone my light into the space when I heard your call.”
Together we turn and enter the room.
To be continued.
Yes, it was a cliff-hanger. Quite literally. If you haven’t read part one yet I suggest you do so here, now.
The ha-ha stops me. I saw it just in time. That’s the thing about a ha-ha: you are not meant to see it. You see a green vista extending all the way to the multiplicity of tree species in the arboretum. A ten foot drop hides a gravel path and a weed encrusted lake. I pull up, bend down, my hands on my knees, breath rasping as I gulp air into my lungs. There is no sign or sound of pursuit. What I saw, the thing that sent my legs and lungs racing, did I imagine it? Was it, is it, like the view past the ha-ha, an illusion?
I straighten and turn towards the house. The turrets and domes, patinated with verdigris like the escutcheon plate on the door, catch the last rays of the sun as it sinks below the castellated parapet that hides the roof ridge. More illusions. The hidden ridge, the hint of gold on the copper domes.
This is the rear of the house but its facade is a copy of the front. Not quite a copy. The front has steps leading up to a front entrance whose ornateness is real, not illusory like that of the door I thrust open. This door is at the end of a flight of stairs that descend. It provides access to the basement. It is the door used in the house’s heyday by tradesmen.
As I approach I begin to think again about the accessibility of this entrance. Concealed at the rear of the house, barely visible behind a clump of over-grown shrubs that mask the top of the stair well, it would be easy for someone to come and go unseen, to gain access to parts of the house never visited by its lordly owners. Now I wonder about my supposition that the reason for subterfuge was to do with romantic assignations. Perhaps it was for some more sinister purpose. This is, after all, a country that, less than a century ago, was at war with itself and, before that, at war with its rulers. People like the house’s occupants.
Is it possible that revolutionaries met here, under the noses, or, at least, beneath the feet, of the men and women against whom they were plotting? Did they store weapons in this basement room? Stash explosives among the cobweb coated wine bottles of the cellar? If so, what treachery, on the part of their allies, prevented them from completing their project?
I descend the steps a second time. The door is still as I left it, partially ajar. I smile inwardly at the memory of a childhood joke gleaned from a Christmas cracker or The Beano. When is a door not a door? I force down the hysterical giggles that threaten to overtake me. The room beyond is dark. The odors, now they have had time to dissipate, are less over-powering. If there ever was anything to cast terror into an intruder it has gone. Vanished, with the odors, into the shrubbery and the air above the weed infested former lawn.
I feel foolish now. There was something. I think back, replaying the moment when I stopped pushing the door and turned to stumble up the steps and run headlong away from the terror I felt. A flapping? Something dark and dangerous? Dark, yes. Flapping, yes. Dangerous? No. Just a pair of tiny pipistrel bats. I can see now that the sudden appearance of light and noise would have filled them with a terror as great as that their rapidly fulfilled urge to escape had engendered in me.
I take my torch from the pocket of my coat.
To be continued.
I have been subscribing to The Writing Reader’s daily prompts for quite a while now. I tweet them regularly. This is the first time I have used one as the starting point for a piece of my own writing.
Ornate. Ornate and inviting. The oxidation of the copper plate and the heads of the rivets securing it to the body of the door. The bolt that can be slid back from the outside thanks to the elaborately carved pull-ring. And the key left in the keyhole so that it can easily be turned from outside by any half competent lock-pick.
Temptation. Do I enter at once, or stop and study the intricacies of the exterior? Wonder about the person who created it? What was his life like all those years ago? Centuries, even? And it was a ‘he’. Back then women knew their place. But, by the same logic, it was surely a woman who commissioned the construction of this door with its pretense at security. Was the carpenter-locksmith she employed aware of the purpose for which his craftsmanship was purchased? Did she pay with her husband’s money or by some other means? Either way, it is clear that she was betraying his trust.
Who was the suitor for whom the door’s lack of security was intended? Did her husband discover the truth of her barely concealed subterfuge? Did he challenge her lover to a duel? What weapons did these rivals for milady’s favors choose? Foils? Or pistols at dawn? Which of them died? Which claimed her for his own? Was it the one she would have chosen?
So many questions and I haven’t begun to consider what lies beyond the door. A prison cell? A boudoir? A larder, full of oriental spices and dried fruits from distant lands?
I stoop, insert the bent wire into the keyhole. The key is, after all, not easy to turn. Years of neglect, the same passage of time that has allowed the formation of verdigris on the copper escutcheon has caused the lock to stiffen like the rheumatic joints of an old man. I withdraw the bent wire. From my toolbox I take a can of lubricant. The interior of the can is pressurized and the nozzle has a long thin plastic tube attached. I insert the tube into the keyhole and press the red button releasing a jet of lubricant into the mechanism.
I wait for the magic fluid to do its work. To dissolve the cobwebs, disperse the damp and rust, flush away the dust. Minutes pass. I turn to my right and inspect the hinges. They, too, will benefit from a short burst of magic from the end of that translucent tube.
Once more I turn my attention to the lock. This time the key responds to the pressure of my bent wire and moves jerkily, gratingly. I grasp the pull-ring, marveling at the feel of those intricate carvings. The bolt moves easily. Now I push. Gently at first then with increased pressure, my shoulder thrusting the door forward, grinding ancient timber against even older stone. I am greeted by a pungency of odors, mold, rotting timber, decaying drapes. My eyes adjust to the dim light. At first I am transfixed. Unable to believe what I am seeing. Seconds pass as my mind grapples with the reality of what my eyes perceive. Then I am running. Are those screams coming from my throat or just in my head?
Intrigued? Now read part 2