Here I am again with my free short stories! This is the entire version of my new ghost story ‘Keeping Time’ for your delectation and delight. The story can also be downloaded as a pdf:
That was the week my watch began to keep time. A week when we thought the roof might cave in: the hostel groaning and creaking like a rheumatic old man as wind bit vicious chunks from seventeenth century tiles and hurled them into the grass. It was a week when the power was plucked out by a sudden thunderbolt…act of god…whatever, which hit overhead cables down in Chenton and plunged us into a series of dark, rain besmattered nights. When the cellars and the games room flooded: playing cards and copies of the Reader’s Digest floating like flotsam around the legs of the pool table. And as the water rose around our feet and dripped through crumbling chinks in a fretted ceiling that Clayre Trust had described as ‘unique to the region,’ my watch ticked into life.
Lidia said I should never have bought the bloody thing in the first place. We’d been down into Chenton the morning before the storm began, mooching through the shit that passes for antiques in the Emporium: tired, chipped dinner services, porcelain dolls with serial killer stares and lame or armless hat stands. But having watched endless repeats of The Antiques Roadshow* when too lazy to turn off the TV, I’d convinced myself that there was a quattrocento triptych waiting there for me somewhere. And when I saw the watch, I was convinced that, if not worth a fortune, it might at least get me back my reserve at auction.
Lying amongst a dusty stack of Edwardian newspapers, it was one of those old time-pieces a man would have worn in his waistcoat pocket, drawing it out ostentatiously on a golden chain. Obviously, the chain was gone and its face was cracked. When I put it to my ear and shook it, I could hear the cogs sliding around inside, loosened with age. It was clearly broken, probably beyond repair. But I could still make out a worn layer of filigree around the rim. Blowing off the dust revealed copperplate Roman numerals and two slim, exquisite arrows which still recorded the time at ten past two.
I thought of its former owner flipping it over in a large, hair-dusted hand, cigar poised as he studied the dial, a glass of port and a copy of The Times on the table beside him. Lid was rifling through an old stack of 1970s Good Housekeeping annuals, too absorbed to notice what I was looking at. Seizing my chance, I slipped downstairs and bought the watch.
An hour later, I slid it sheepishly across the table towards her as we enjoyed an afternoon pint in The Red Lion.
“Oh, Helen, why?” She slumped, despairing, almost knocking over her lager. Nothing like the excited response I’d anticipated.
“But it must be really old!”
“How much?” She raised her head just enough to savage what remained of my enthusiasm with an amber-eyed glare. “How much, Lara fucking Croft?”
“Fifty,” I muttered into my beer.
“Fifty? Helen, that’s almost our weekly housekeeping budget! You just squandered fifty hard-earned quid on a piece of junk?”
“It’s clearly ancient, Lid,” I protested weakly. “I could get it estimated.”
“Helen, I have a pair of knickers which date back to 2001. Perhaps you’d like to get an estimation of them too?”
“You want to put your pants up for auction?”
“Yes, but…that’s not the point. The point is, you just blew our budget on a pile of broken cogs. Which means you’re getting the next round.”
“And the next one.”
Several hours later we swerved our way back up the lane towards the hostel on our bikes, panniers packed with bread and eggs for the next day. The chimney stacks and gabled roof of Clayre Hall – now Clayre Hall Hostel – hove into view over the creases of nearby hills, the sun a blister ready to pop in a heat-heavy August sky. But no mid-week tourists hovered outside the doors on our return in the hope of a bed and our Shropshire renowned ‘better than sex’ breakfast. So Lidia stormed back to the warden’s cottage for a nap, making it very clear that it was a nap she would be taking alone. And I settled in behind the hatch in reception for an afternoon of boredom.
Our office was really no more than a glorified cupboard, panelled in dark, time-stained oak. It was windowless, but the hatch opened onto the stone-flagged porch, and through a door on the other side of that I could see into the Great Hall with its trestles, high, mullioned windows and massive old fireplace. To my right, a door hidden in the panelling fed through to the pantry and beyond that, the kitchen – Lid’s preserve.
Lid is an incredible cook. On our first date, back when we were students, she slammed together what looked like a random selection of leftovers from her fridge, transforming them into the most delicious paella I’d ever eaten. To be fair, it was the only paella I’d ever eaten. The most exotic culinary experience I’d had up to then was a tub of periwinkles on a family holiday to the Isle of Man. And there I was, dining by candlelight with Lid and her Iberian good looks. She’s tall and svelte, with olive toned skin and thick, cropped dark hair. I’m short, mousy-haired and freckled. Her dad’s a Spanish chef, her mother runs a London restaurant. My parents are retired social workers from Sale. It should never have worked. Somehow, twelve years later, it still does.
Pissed off and already bored, I rolled a cigarette and slipped out of the office. A kind of moat runs around the back of Clayre Hall, with the walls of the hostel rising steeply from it on one side and a grassy bank on the other. Crouched down below the bank, praying against the appearance of any stray hostellers, I lit the cig, closed my eyes and inhaled. Tobacco smoke curled, plunged and hit my lungs with a sweet, woody sharpness. For a few seconds I held it in, listening to the distant thrum of traffic on the A49, the desultory bleats of sheep in neighbouring fields. Then, in a single explosive breath, I released the smoke: my brain flooding with nicotine. I swayed slightly, slumping down on the grass with my back to the wall, and looked up to a sky that was brewing and breaking with clouds, only a few scraps of summer blue remaining. The humidity was building, swelling at ground level and rising in wet, suffocating layers, making the air thick, dank and stifling. After a few more drags I stubbed out the cigarette, ground out the ashes beneath the sole of my trainer and went back inside to perform a few circuits of reception on the office chair. And that was when I heard the watch.
It had been shoved into one of the shopping bags which lay, unpacked and crumpled beneath the desk. Ashamed at my extravagance, I’d hoped to wait until Lid had cooled off before googling a few sites to get an idea of its value. Frowning, I tried to tune out the buzz of the fridges next door, the hum of our overheated PC with its furred up fan. The sound was faint, but it was there: a steady flicking through of cogs.
Jumping off the chair, I grabbed the bags, throwing several loaves of bread onto the floor. The watch was lying face down amongst some discarded receipts. I pulled it out and peered at the hands, now certain that they had moved. At the Emporium, they had pointed at ten past two – yes, ten past two. The computer’s monitor told me it was now five. And the watch…it could have been a coincidence, of course. Perhaps the hands had been shaken in transport. But when I put it to my ear, there was a steady, insistent tick and whirr.
A door slammed in one of the dormitories on the floor above. I froze, rested the watch down on the desk and stared through into the Great Hall. Nothing. And the air was still, almost solid – there was no chance of a draft. But still, the hostel was four hundred years old, and full of surprises. Floorboards creaked and settled, there were rustlings in the roof which bats had made their home. Kids on school trips from Birmingham or Leicester were always trying to convince each other they’d heard footsteps pacing the dorms at night, heard whispering or even voices. But Lid and I had lived and worked at Clayre for over a year and not seen or heard a thing. It was just inner-city innocents freaked out by their first experiences of the countryside, we always told each other.
There was a moan of hinges as the entrance door jerked open. I clenched my stomach, held my breath.
“Babe? Babe are you alright?” Lid was peering through the hatch, her hair mussed from sleeping.
“Yes. Yes, fine.”
“Why…why are there loaves of bread on the floor?”
“I was unpacking?”
“Yes. Got…got sidetracked.”
“Ah.” Yawning and rubbing her eyes, she padded into the office in flip-flops, baggy shorts and a vest top. “No hostellers?”
“No one yet.”
“And won’t be. I just flicked the TV on. Big storm on its way.” Perching on the desk, she cupped my face between her hands. “You look pale.”
“I always look pale compared to you.”
“Yes. Pale. British. Anaemic. Only one cure for that.”
She smiled. “Chorizo and chicken casserole, idiot.”
“Almost as good.”
*As I’m not sure if The Antiques Roadshow ever infiltrated other parts of the globe, here’s a brief explanation – basically, it’s a programme fronted by foxy fifty something Fiona Bruce, in which people dig up stuff they’ve found in their attics and get antiques experts to estimate them. This is normally qualifed with the statement ‘I only want to know the value for insurance purposes.’ After this, they’re generally told that what they thought was a long lost Rubens is in fact a fake and only worth ten pounds. At which point, being British, they put a brave face on it and say, ‘well it still has sentimental value.’ Of course, I only know this because my dad watches it 😉
I woke that night to a chaos of sound and light: the bay and growl of distant thunder followed by a sudden stab of brightness. Undisturbed by the storm, Lid merely dragged a pillow over her head and continued sleeping. I wrapped my arms around her waist, buried my head between her shoulder blades, but she shrugged me off.
As it grew closer, wind tore in ever more violent gusts through Wenbury Woods behind the hostel. There was a splintering crash as the milk bottles I’d left at the door to the warden’s house shed like skittles across the path. And then another atomic level scream ushered in first rain and then hail, thousands of icy bullets pelting the roof and windows.
“Lid!” I whispered.
“Go back to sleep,” she slurred, her voice smothered by the pillow.
“But it’s ripping the hostel apart!”
“We can’t do anything now. Go back to sleep. If there’s damage, I’ll call Nigel in the morning. It’ll be alright.”
I tried to sleep. I tried hard. But nothing could block out the visions of destruction: the windows of the hostel shattered, the moat filling, ground water swelling. And so eventually I pulled on my T-shirt, shorts and slippers and trudged downstairs. Because nothing can catapult the mind into utter vacancy like cheap vodka and 3am T.V.
The warden’s cottage is an old farm building which The Trust had converted into very basic accommodation: a tiny bedroom and bathroom, a kitchen/living room below, and a flight of stairs connecting them that were so steep that I had to feel for the rungs with my feet, clinging to the banister as if navigating the death zone on Everest.
Once downstairs, I opened the fridge to darkness. The storm had knocked out the power. But an obliging flash of lightning revealed the vodka which I seized, opened and swigged. It carried an aftertaste of rancid fire, and I clung to the fridge door, hand pressed to my mouth to keep the vile stuff down, before returning the bottle and scrabbling around the kitchen for my tobacco and lighter.
While I’m not much use at times of panic, I do possess the ability to produce roll-ups under even the most pressing of circumstances. With a reassuring hiss, the Rizla sparked and my cigarette revealed itself in the darkness, like a tiny red eye.
I threw myself back onto the sofa, drawing in smoke each time the thunder roared, releasing it in explosive mouthfuls when lightning struck. And only then did I admit to myself that I could hear something else in the room, and that I had been listening to it ever since I came downstairs. For, during lulls in the storm, when wind briefly whipped the rain in a different direction, I could hear the watch ticking. Which was impossible. Because I’d left it at the hostel.
I remembered deliberately sliding it into a drawer beneath the desk before I’d followed Lid into the kitchen. Something had made me decide that I didn’t want it with me in the cottage. And yet here it was. Somewhere, ticking away and taunting me in the darkness.
The room felt cold and damp, as if the storm had seeped through the walls, wringing the air with its fury. Sitting up, I dragged a blanket around my shoulders, aware of goose pimples rising on my bare arms and legs. Perhaps Lid had found the watch and brought it up here? Perhaps it was lying discarded on the coffee table? But the dying light of my cigarette revealed nothing. I clawed around the sofa, wedging my hand between the cushions, but produced no more than a few stray coins.
The cigarette died – I stubbed it out in the ashtray, sat back down, arms wrapped around my legs and listened intently. There it was – a steady click and grind of cogs. And it seemed not to be coming from any particular place at all, but rather from the air itself, as if the entire room were somehow measuring out time. Unable to bear it any longer, I struggled off the sofa, now desperate for Lid’s warmth and the security of our bed, but froze with one foot on the stairs. Someone was outside – in the storm! I was sure of it. There had been a definite crunch of gravel beneath the sole of a shoe or boot. The footsteps continued, steady, unhurried despite the weather, up the path towards the cottage. Perhaps…perhaps Nigel had come to check on us. Unlikely, but… I crossed over to the window, its deep set panes of glass now awash with rain. The watch continued to whirr, unseen, to tick out the seconds of the storm. I clutched the sill which was wet with condensation, and peered out into the night, just as thunder shook the cottage with such force that the door rattled, its handle shaking violently.
I sucked in my smoke-stale breath and counted: 1, 2…lightning flooded the valley with all the blinding intensity of daylight. If anyone had been out there, I would have seen them. Certain of that fact, partly relieved, I turned once more to head upstairs. And as I went, so did the footsteps – leaving the back door, crunching on the shards of milk bottles, heading back down the path and into the night.
The blanket slipped from my shoulders. I seized, it, hugging it close, blood thudding in my ears and blocking out all other sounds. And then I ran, or rather scrambled, up the stairs on all fours, my shins making painful contact with the wood until I was at the top, in bed, my body twisted around Lid’s like a vine.
“Christ, Helen!” she said, her voice still muffled. “You’re freezing!” Pushing aside the pillow, she sniffed the air. “Have you been smoking?”
“You might have cleaned your teeth.”
“I know. Sorry.” I buried my head into the small of her back and clung to her as if I were drowning and she were a piece of passing driftwood. And around us, the storm growled and bit and chewed and gnawed at the cottage.
By next morning the storm had passed over, but left in its wake rain that was so intense as to feel solid. It gushed down gutters and tore rifts in the lane to the hostel, releasing a rush of gravel, broken branches and random debris. Dressed in sodden sandals, shorts and waterproofs, we trudged over to Clayre Hall, fractious and ill-tempered after the disturbances of the night.
As the power was still out, I brewed up water in a pan on the gas hob for tea while Lid explored. She returned grimfaced, some minutes later with news of the flooded games room and the ceiling leaking in the third dorm.
“Well what do we do now?”
“I don’t bloody know, do I Helen?” she snapped. “Advertise our new indoor swimming facilities?”
“I said we should have checked the place during the night.”
“And what good would that have done? It’s not in our remit to hold back the fucking forces of nature, is it?”
Too tired to argue, I huffed off with my mug of tea to the office, slid a sly glance back through to the kitchen and then opened a drawer. There lay the watch, its hands no longer ticking through the hours but rather stammering through them: flicking back and forth, moth-like. Swallowing hard, I slammed the drawer. Clearly the storm had wrung havoc with my nerves. The watch had been here all along. And the footsteps? Perhaps, after all, I’d drifted off while lying on the sofa.
“We’ll have to call Nigel now.” Lid entered the office, nursing her tea. “What the hell’s the matter with you?”
“Nothing.” I picked up the receiver and put it to my ear. No buzzing or pips – just pointless silence. “Landline’s down, too.”
Her sour expression grew sourer. “Great. We’ll have to use the mobile. Come on. Let’s call Señor Nigel.”
There was no reception in the valley. It was only possible to make a call by clambering up a wet slope at the front of the hostel and waving the handset around as if divining for water. This we now did, accompanied by the disgruntled bleats of damp sheep, Clayre Hall somewhere below us, obscured by rain.
“Perhaps we should call the contractors directly,” I yelled to Lid as she performed a mad dance around the field, an ancient Nokia raised to the heavens. “We need to deal with it now before more damage is done.”
“Well you can explain to Nigel why we didn’t consult him first, in that case,” she snarled back.
Nigel Tenford, our first and only point of contact with that band of bigots, Clayre Hall Trust. Nigel, who had employed us two years previously with the reluctance of a man staring down the barrel of a discrimination claim.
“But you stated in your job ad that you required a couple to run the hostel,” I’d protested.
So we did. So we did indeed.” He’d run nervous, nicotine stained fingers through a finely maintained comb-over, his eyes brewing with contempt and alarm behind thick-rimmed glasses. “But we were thinking along the lines of…”
“What were you thinking, Mr. Tenford?” Lid had leaned forwards, one eyebrow raised in pointed question. He rolled his loose, blubberish lips together and backed away.
“I’m a very liberal guy.” He stammered the word ‘guy’ as if for the first time: as if he’d learned it for precisely this occasion. “But other members of the Trust might…”
“Might what? Might not welcome a pair of lesbians running Clayre Hall?” Lid suppressed a snort. “Let me remind you of what your advertisement states, Mr. Tenford. It says that you need someone with good management skills. I’ve spent the last three years helping my mother to run Micah’s restaurant in London.”
“The Micah’s?” He folded his arms over the chest of his grey, knitted sweater.
“Yes. Which means I also happen to be an excellent cook. A skill also requested in your advert.”
“And I’m – I was – a history teacher,” I cut in. “And you also state you need someone with a passion for the subject.”
“And you stated a couple,” Lid reminded him again before I could show off my recently acquired knowledge of Clayre Hall. “I’d say we’re a bit over qualified, quite frankly. At least, I’m sure that’s how equal opportunities will see it.”
His round, conceited face fell. “The matter is out of my hands, ladies,” he blustered. “It’s for the Trust to decide.”
“And as we understand it, Mr. Tenford, the only way for Clayre to remain in the Trust’s hands is to convert it into a tourist facility. Hence your hostel.”
He nodded sullenly, a tiny speck of spit flecking his fat lower lip.
“And a hostel requires wardens. Do you have any other interested couples with our level of competency?”
“I’ll be in touch.”
I knew we’d won. Lid and I went back to London, packed our few belongings and waited. Three days later, the phone rang: Nigel.
“I, er, I talked the Trust round, Helen.”
“Did you, Mr. Tenford? That’s good of you.” I blew a smoke ring at LId and winked at her. She screamed, running five laps of our flat in delight.
“Yes,” he continued. “I, er, I told them that you and Lidia were good friends.”
“You did what?’
Lid froze, mid cartwheel, and stared.
“Helen, you and Lidia are more than suited to managing Clayre Hall. But you know, the Trust….”
Yes, I knew the Trust. Or at least I imagined I did, with their blue rinses and their green wellingtons, their Range Rovers and their sense of entitlement.
“Well, Nigel,” I said, deciding then and there that there would be no more Mr. Tenford, “we’ll take the job. Just make sure you lock up your daughters.” And with that, I hung up.
So here we now were, in a field in the middle of Shropshire, half drowning and trying to make contact with Nigel. Or at least, Lid was. I was attempting to roll a dry cigarette.
“Yes. Yes, Nigel, it’s me. Lidia. Yes. We’re alright, except…no. No, Nigel. It’s not alright. The games room is flooded, and the ceiling in dorm three is leaking. No….no we couldn’t have done anything. What did you expect us to do? Walk around with our mouths open to catch the rain?…No…I’m not being facetious, but really. Nigel…fuck…Nigel!”
She almost dropped the phone in rage, plucked the cigarette from my mouth, took a drag and blew a vicious stream of smoke into the wet air. “He hung up.”
“I got that impression.”
“Yes. The self-righteous provincial little prick. He hung up the fucking phone!”
“Well what now?” I sank down onto the wet grass and realised I’d squashed my Rizlas.
“We’ll have to take a trip down into Chenton,” she said, waving the cig around with murderous intent. “Because if he wants to see his precious seventeenth century stucco again, he’d better do something about it.”
We trudged back down to the hall, fingers and toes now purple with cold, teeth chattering.
“I’ll lock up,” I said trembling. “You fire up old blue.”
Old blue, our twenty-year-old joke of a Fiat Uno was prone to fits of serious unreliability. Particularly at times when its services were most required.
“Fine.” She stormed off in the direction of the cottage while I squelched my way along the moat, climbed up the bank and crossed the footbridge, keys at the ready.
And that was when I saw him.
At least, I thought I saw him. Even to this day, I can’t quite be sure of what or who it was that had slipped past the door as I opened it. I caught a blur of pale skin, a crop of wiry, dark brown hair, what might have been a white, woollen sweater. The head turned to me as I peered in: eyes deep set- questioning, surprised, the lips blood red, almost effeminate, pursed as if on the verge of speech. And then it was gone – passing across the porch and into the main hall.
My breath stalled in my throat. And part of me – the rational ten percent – thought, damn. A hosteller. On a day like this. Must have sneaked in somehow. I stepped inside. The hostel smelt damp and earthy, like a dog after a wet walk. But there was something else, another scent – more exotic, brighter, reminding me of olive trees and the sea and the holidays we’d take at Lid’s Dad’s place in Spain.
I closed the door quietly behind me, my thoughts feverish and buzzing like a nest of angry wasps. When I looked into the hall, there was no one there – no water on the floor or soaked rucksack to indicate a walker in search of a hot mug of tea, or a warm bed for the night.
“Hello?” I called out to the air. No response – just the continual pounding of the rain against the windows and from somewhere in the office, the steady tick of my watch, which had clearly sprung back into life again.
“Hello?” I stumbled back towards the office, willing Lid to come down. But then, crossing the threshold, I froze. For the watch now lay in the very middle of the desk. And around it, as if flung from a jack-in-the-box, papers lay discarded, crumpled, in some places torn. Edging forwards, I stifled a moan. The watch hands were ticking round. Backwards.
Once again, a door slammed on the floor above. This time, it slapped against its frame several times with violent thuds. I pocketed the watch. Why, I can’t say. Perhaps I thought that, left alone down there by itself in the office, it might somehow unleash more damage. It sounds stupid, I know. It was a watch: a useless bundle of cogs and metal strips. But then, common sense was never my strongest asset.
The great hall at Clayre is long and draughty room, opening onto a kind of lounge for guests with a spiral oaken flight of stairs to its left. These I now climbed, my fingers tracing the whitewashed walls as if to reassure myself they were real, until I reached the first floor. Here, the long gallery had been converted into washrooms and then a series of dormitories, each still floored with gnarled wooden boards, their walls panelled, only the skeletons of bunk beds and wardrobes indicating how time and necessity had altered the building.
I passed through the first room, aware of the watch ticking patiently in the pocket of my shorts, and of that light aroma of sunshine and olives, so incongruous on such a day as this. There was no sign that anyone had passed this way, and the doors were all wide open.
“Hello?” I asked again, this time in a half-whisper. Nothing.
My stomach burned. I sensed my pulse racing ahead of the watch’s ticking hands. “Hello?” Again, no reply. And why should there be? No one was here! Lid would have walked straight through, snorting at my hopelessness. Instead, I crept through the second dorm, before halting outside the third, pushing at the grainy timber of its door and then stepping inside. Again, nothing. Nothing but the wind’s whistle, the rain’s hiss, the ticking watch. And in a corner, a steady drip, drip, drip of water into the plastic bucket that Lid had set beneath the ceiling.
I stared up at the engraved border of vines and flowers which had already begun to yellow around the crack, as rain worked its way through centuries of ancient plasterwork, surprised at how little I cared. Helen Winters: a woman who, from childhood had always obsessed over wrecks of bricks and mortar, over time-stained books, rusty suits of armour or fading, paint-peeled portraits. They were an echo of lives long lost; the residue of attitudes and beliefs now washed away by technology, by politics, wars, emotions or mere chance. But when I stared at that crack in the ceiling, I suddenly felt in a strange way that time was perhaps more porous than I had imagined; that the past was shaping us, that we in our turn shape the past, that at any moment those boundaries might crumble, break and crash.
I glanced once more around the room to reassure myself, taking in the beds with their peeled-back quilts, a moth eaten old rug stretched across the floorboards, and in the corner a washstand. I caught my reflection in the mirror above it: my green waterproof still dripping, wet, lank strands of hair plastered to my forehead, my eyes shadowy and drained. I stared and stared, imagining it dissolve, how I might slip my hand through it like Alice and step into another world.
There was a sudden crack, like the sound a frozen puddle makes when you step on it. A fault line had split the glass, running just below my reflected forehead. Then another crack opened up, severing one eye from my head. As if in a dream, when you want to run but find yourself glued to the ground, I found that I couldn’t look away as the mirror splintered, my face fragmenting into a thousand shining pieces, before the whole thing dropped, shattering to the floor.
For a brief moment I crouched, arms folded around my head as shards of glass resembling shrapnel or crystal bullets ricocheted off the walls, skidded across floorboards. Then there was only the ring of silence and the continued clatter of the rain. I rose, turned and ran, just as the door slammed shut in my face.
I grabbed the wooden handle and pulled. It wouldn’t budge. Breathless, I seized it again, dragging it back an inch, before something on the other side tugged it away from me. One foot on the wall, I tore at the door, screaming for Lid and aware, in the intervals when I drew breath, of someone or something walking in steady, unhurried steps around the dormitory on the other side.
The world had contracted into this single room, with its bare walls and glass strewn floor. It was spinning, pulsing as if alive, as if it were real and I an intruder it wished to expel. Exhausted, my grip on the door handle weakening, I slid downwards to the floor, arms knitted around my knees, my face wet with rain and tears, my voice hoarse from screaming.
The door flew open. I screwed shut my eyes, buried my head in the folds of my coat, refusing to look, to have to respond in some way to whatever was now in the room with me.
“Helen?” It was Lid’s hands which peeled away the layers of waterproof. She crouched opposite me, pushing a few stray locks of hair from my eyes. “Helen, what happened?”
“There was something here.”
“What?” she gestured towards the bright square of paint on the wall where the mirror had hung, the floor now shining with broken glass. “Helen, don’t tell me you’re tipping back again, darling. Because…I don’t think I could handle that.”
She pivoted around to sit beside me, our backs resting against the wall, and we sat in silence for a few moments. I fought back a swelling tide of memory: of glass breaking at another time and in another place, of screams, flashing lights and the wail of sirens.
“It’s not that,” I said at last. “I’m better now.”
“You do remember why we came here, don’t you? Why I gave up working in Mum’s restaurant…so you could get out of London? Recover?”
“I said I’m better!” I saw…I saw someone.” I struggled to my feet, biting back tears.
“Who, Helen? Who did you see? There’s no one here. Who…who broke that mirror? Was it you?”
“No!” I shouted then. “No! Of course I didn’t do it.”
I stopped there. I knew she wouldn’t believe me. Lid, so rational; so strong. Lid who’d spent a night at A&E waiting to be told I was still alive. Why would she believe me, now?
“Look…” I rubbed away tears and stretched out a hand. She was shaking, I felt it. “I’m still here.” I dragged her into my arms. “I’m not going anywhere. I’m not slipping back again. And there is something here, I swear. But I know you don’t believe me. So just…just have a little faith. Alright?”
She held me at arm’s length and studied my face. “Alright, Winters.” Her smile was crooked. She sighed. “You’re on probation. We’ll clean this mess up later. Doesn’t really matter, given the devastation downstairs anyway. Right now, I need to speak to Nigel. Are you coming?”
I nodded, and let her lead me from the room.
An old teak grandfather clock beat out time in Nigel’s office, no doubt salvaged from Clayre before the Trust decided to make the place a hostel. Couldn’t possibly have the hoi polloi sullying such treasures.
We sat at his desk waiting for him to return, water dripping from our sodden clothes and trainers and pooling around us on the floor. Outside, the rain had faded to a drizzle, and from time to time a faint light broke through the thinner stretches of cloud.
At last he came back, bearing a thin smile and two mugs of tea, a few documents tucked beneath his right arm. He set down the mugs.
“Luckily, our insurance should just about cover the damage, providing we can prove no negligence.” He peered at us through the thick lenses of his glasses, his eyes dense and dark.
“Nigel,” Lid said, “I believe insurance companies call this kind of thing an ‘act of God,’ don’t they? Negligence doesn’t even come into it. And if there were any structural issues with Clayre, that’s surely the Trust’s responsibility.”
“Yes, yes, well…be that as it may.” He slid a slim, liverish slice of tongue across his lips. “We can’t possibly keep the hostel open in its present state. And that means no income during peak season, which means…”
“Yes, we know what it means, Nigel,” I cut in. “We may lose our jobs. We’re well aware of that.” I took a long slurp of my tea, which seemed to annoy him.
“Well, you young people now. Used to flitting from one job to the next. I’m sure you’ll find something better to do than managing an old place like Clayre.” His smile was ragged, revealing an uneven assortment of yellowing teeth.
“I’m sure we will,” Lid said. “We’ll survive. Let’s just hope Clayre does, too. Anyway, that’s up to the Trust now, not us.” She took a few sips of tea. “We’d better go. It may still be possible to salvage a few things. Of course, if we’d been able to sort all of this out over the ‘phone, we’d have had a better chance.”
Nigel rose and opened the door, as if only too glad to be rid of us. We saw ourselves out, traipsing back along the musty smelling corridor which passed for the Trust’s museum: odds and sods they’d found around the hall, like clay pipes, books from the library, and photographs from the place in better days. I glanced at a few as I passed: a Victorian winter, the gables and windowsills of Clayre caked in snow. Tennis parties on the front lawn: all hampers, hats and stiff upper lips. And a few pictures of the various families who, through wealth or accident had acquired the old hall and made it their home: men with slicked down hair and outrageous beards, standing proudly beside their crinolined wives and a brood of sickly looking kids. The last picture looked to have been taken in the 1930s. Three young men peered back at me through the camera’s eye. One was in cricket whites, a bat tucked beneath his arm, his cap sliding off his head. The other two wore Sunday suits and smiles, arms draped around each other’s shoulders, looking clean shaven and wholesome. One held a trilby to his breast, while the other…I looked long and hard, until my nose was almost pressed against the picture frame.
Tightly curled locks of hair framed a taut, angular face; a slight melancholia to the eyes belied the frozen smile. And his fingers dipped into the pocket of a pinstriped waistcoat, on the verge of pulling out a watch. I could just see its chain, and the rim. But I had already convinced myself.
“Helen, come on. We’ve work to do.” Lid tugged at my arm.
“Just a minute. Nigel!” I called through to the office.
“Yes?” His voice filtered back, tight and irate.
“Who…who are these men?”
“These ones. In this picture.”
“Let me see.” He rose with pointed effort and sighed his way down the corridor. “Ah,” he said, standing behind me. “The Kendall brothers.”
“Their father bought Clayre in the early 1930s. Couldn’t hold on to it, though. Too many debts.”
“And what…do you know what happened to them? The brothers?”
“Very little. After the house was sold, they went their separate ways I imagine. Except for this chap. He’d already left before his old man had sold up.” Nigel’s pink stub of an index finger fell on the boy with the watch.
“Oh, really?” I said, ignoring the tightness in my throat. “What…what happened to him?”
“That would be Steven. Youngest of the brothers. Bit of an idealist. Not content with stepping into the family business.”
“Which was?” Lid asked, now interested.
Nigel shrugged. “I don’t know exactly. Owned a couple of factories up north, I think. Anyway, young Stevie disappeared off to Spain in 1937. Wrote a few letters back to his parents explaining that he was fighting Franco’s fascists and…never came back.”
“You mean he was killed?”
“Well, yes. We assume so,” Nigel said, now clearly tiring of the subject. “As far as I know, they never found his body. Why do you ask?”
“Because…because,” and before I could help myself, the watch was out of his pocket. “I, er, I found this in the hostel the other day.”
“Helen!” Lid’s expression was a perfect blend of confusion and anger.
“Well it looks a bit like the one Stevie is pulling out of his pocket. Doesn’t it, Nigel?” I thrust it into his hands. He peered down at, adjusting his glasses.
“Yes, well. I suppose it’s possible. Unlikely, though.”
“So,” I said, attempting to sound casual and generous and cheerful, but failing miserably. “There you go. Perhaps you’d like to put it in your museum, Nigel. If you can get it to work, that is.”
“Well that’s very good of you, Helen,” he said, grudgingly.
“You’re welcome.” I looped my arm through Lid’s. “As you said, Lid, we’ve got work to do.” I half dragged her down the corridor, and as we turned the corner, I saw him turning the watch over in his hands. He held it to his ear and shook it, before shuffling back to the office shaking his head.
“What did you do that for?” Lid rounded on me once we were back out on the street. “You were crazy about the bloody thing a moment ago!” Over head, the clouds continued to brew and break, a few fat drops of rain hitting the pavement.
“Oh, I don’t know.” I shrugged, suddenly feeling lighter, freer, as if I’d slipped a heavy rucksack off my shoulders. “Parting gift, I suppose.”
She continued to stare.
“Don’t worry about it, babe.” I kissed her, then, in the middle of the high street. “And don’t worry about me either.” I smiled. “I’ll be alright. Let’s get back to Clayre.”
“And from there?”
I thought for a moment. “Home,” I said at last. “Wherever that is.”