Jacinta Driscombe tapped a rhythm on the cover of a ‘Country Life’ that had settled on a corner of her Queen Anne table, turned a page or two with indolent, scarlet-tipped fingers. They were pages she had read not once, but a dozen times. Sighing, she flicked them closed, stepped elegantly to a cocktail cabinet by the blue drawing-room window, where she poured herself a generous measure of gin. Sauntering in a rhythmic, gliding sequence akin to a dance Jacintha settled upon a long velvet settee in the centre of the room, draping herself over its blue cushions and allowing gravity to arrange her burgundy organza dress however it would. She sipped her drink carefully, mindful of red lipstick that must not be smudged.
Footsteps emanating from the bare boards of the adjacent Music Room had never sounded more welcome – she called out in plaintive tones.
“Staffy darling, where in god’s name have you been? Did I not insist we had to be there by eight? Weren’t you even listening to me?”
Stafford Driscombe paused in his approach to observe from the doorway the woman he had taken as his wife, now a dozen years ago. It was, as far as he could recall, the last time he had seen her sober. “I see you’ve begun early.” He said dryly.
“Well, you’re so bloody late, Staffy, aren’t you?” Jacinta sniffed. “You stink of dead rats or something, darling, and oh my heavens, what are you wearing? You can’t possibly go dressed like that?”
Stafford looked down at himself. His casual attire was the worse for harbouring little stringers of mud in its corduroy folds. “No, I suppose I can’t. It’s simply pouring down out there now. Have to change. I’ll just be a jiffy, old thing.”
Jacinta dismissed him with a shrug. “Well hurry up!” And she raised her voice sufficiently to be heard by his retreating back. “What were you doing, anyway?”
“Something I had to attend to, dear, the new apple tree saplings for the upper garden; Bramleys, don’t y’know? Tell Giles we want the car, will you? I’ll be back before you know it.”
Jacinta raised herself from the couch gracefully, revisiting the decanter for a top-up before, on a whim, covering the distance to the east window and the telephone in a series of dance steps, a part of a routine she had learned in her West End run of ‘Salad Days’.
To be with Jacinta was to stand in awe of her flawless beauty: watching her decorous fluidity of movement, her faultless poise you could not imagine she was anything other than an aristocrat; a daughter of one of the old families, born to privilege. There was nothing that might suggest she was the youngest of seven children born to a London Docks crane operative who raised her in Shoreditch. Her early years were a well-buried mystery, allowed to remain so by a circle of society that might privately be aware her husband fell for her upon seeing one of her stage performances but would keep the knowledge to itself. The Driscombes had considerable wealth, which brought influence of a kind that rendered such gossip dangerous if allowed to flourish.
As an actress, Jacinta Peyton had ability quite aside from her personal charms; enough, perhaps, to have supported a glittering stage career. Hollywood had expressed interest in the young actress who had worked for twelve hours a day and then five hours every night to earn her fees for RADA. She was among the youngest ever to gain membership of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and her Desdemona at the Old Vic displayed artistic maturity that belied her age.
So why, at twenty-seven or twenty eight (the exact figure was uncertain; Jacinta never discussed her age) she elected to turn her back on the glamour of her West End life was never really explained: Stafford Driscombe was heir to the Driscombe fortunes, but otherwise an unremarkable young man, with a rather undershot jaw and big teeth that gave him a pronounced overbite. He was tall, he had the assurance that his status gave, but it was difficult to believe Jacinta’s motive was true love. Perhaps she was tired. Perhaps she had that inner insecurity all true artists suffer, that she might not be equal to the image she portrayed. Or perhaps she saw the prospect of her part as a gentlewoman in the highest echelons of society as the greatest acting challenge of them all?
Whatever the truth, it was certain she was always on stage. Her bearing was impeccable, her accent impregnable. Only once (Marvin, Stafford’s personal servant, swore in the privacy of the servants’ wing) was she heard to unleash a string of cockney invective. That was at night and in the imagined sanctity of her bedroom, on the occasion of one of Stafford’s ‘visits’.
“Whatever he asked her to do, I don’t think she liked it.”
At most social gatherings Jacinta could rely upon an invitation to sing. She might accept once in a while, though not too often, because she did not want to be thought of as ‘a common entertainer’, but when she did agree she had the voice of an angel. Then, in lowered tones, one or two of those present might murmur the word ‘professional’, though no-one would expand upon their definition.
Tonight, despite Stafford’s distaste for her drinking, she would play her part flawlessly as usual. Even though the gathering she was committed to attend was no more than a party for the Conservative members of Caleybridge Council, she would be at her best, as always. And by gradual, tedious degrees she was raising her husband’s very moderate political profile to a day when she foresaw she might become a Prime Minister’s wife; and only from those giddy heights might she, at last, freely confess to her humble background.
Jacinta stared moodily out of the East Window as she raised the receiver from its cradle. She had to press the sixth intercom button three times before she heard the click of a response.
“We need a car; I think the Bentley. Bring it round, will you, Giles? In uniform this time, please.”
Rain beat upon the east window, a muffled tattoo not without its own music, be it as it may in a minor key. Beyond the glass, out in a grey world that might have forgotten springtime for a day, wind ruffled the obedient biennial soldiers in their flowerbeds, and seeing a threat of trespass, stirred the ensign beeches into waving semaphore: only the three great oaks, their mighty generals, remained impassive. A single intruder was of no interest to them.
Jacinta’s gaze picked him out; the figure of a man who stood alone upon the river’s further bank, huddled against the rain. Through the distortion of raindrops upon the glass it was difficult to distinguish detail at such a distance, but she thought his eyes were raised in her direction.
“Staffy?” She heard footsteps behind her. “Staffy darling, there’s someone down by the water. Just standing there in this weather! What does he want, do you think?”
The footsteps didn’t yield a reply, so Jacinta turned. “Oh, it’s you.” She said.
Patrick, having discovered his father’s damaged Jaguar parked outside Karen’s apartment, wanted nothing more than to continue his hunt for Karen. Instead, he was forced to kick his heels standing guard over the car until Jackson could be ferried into Caleybridge by Gwendoline. There was no question of leaving the precious machine because its security had already been compromised by his girlfriend’s skilful manipulation of its ignition, and a couple of teenage boys were showing particular interest in it. Their questions seemed perfectly innocent but it was evident they had enough knowledge to resume where Karen had left off, and Patrick was afraid the temptation might prove too much.
Neither was Jackson as prompt as his son might have wished. He seemed to have his reasons for delay – there had been further conversations with the police, discussions with the vet that were necessary for Petra’s recovery, Amanda, who had taken the opportunity afforded by her expulsion to make herself scarce needed to be found and stuffed very reluctantly into the back of Gwendoline’s Citroen for the journey, and so on. But Patrick suspected his father was using the situation to punish him a little, and maybe saw the hunt for Karen as less urgent than he. Perhaps the police officer’s scepticism had placed a seed of doubt about Karen’s honesty in Jackson’s mind – could he really believe she had absconded?
Once reunited with his Jaguar, Patrick’s father demanded he assist in a roadside repair, dispatching Gwendoline and the ranting Amanda back to home and tea. Then he was required to follow Jackson back to Radley Court in his own car, in case the Jaguar should break down or run out of fuel, which was very low.
The father was dismissive of his son’s manifest impatience: “The girl’s got her reasons for doing what she has, boy. Running around like a headless chicken won’t achieve anything. Leave the searching to the police.”
Much of the day had passed before the headless chicken was finally able to get running; as soon as he could Patrick returned to Caleybridge; first to Karen’s office, just to ensure she was not there, then to a turning from some traffic lights in the West Town that became the Pegram road. He drove fast on a road now almost deserted in the lea of the evening rush, knowing the start Karen had over him, and melting the miles beneath his Daimler’s eager wheels, but still twenty minutes would elapse before he was forced to slow, probing overgrown hedges for that inconspicuous finger which pointed into Nowhere Lane and Boulter’s Green.
The way was muddied from a day of intermittent rain. If anything, the hedges were even more intrusive, the lane even stonier. Patrick winced at every scrape from a straggling branch, every protest from his car’s suspension, each bang as a rock hit the car floor. He nevertheless persisted for all of the first mile until he reached the place where Karen had parked when they visited the lane together, electing to walk the last, steeper mile of track down to the old gate where it ended, and a wild meadow separated him from the ruins of Boulter’s Green.
In the gloom and the rain he almost missed Karen’s car. It had been driven hard against the hedge very near to the foot of the hill, not a hundred yards from the gate. Then it had been smeared with mud and overgrowth from the hedge dragged across it, as though someone had intentionally tried to conceal it. For ten minutes he struggled to part the festoons of beech and bramble to reach the handle of the nearside door, only to find that, like the driver’s door, it was locked. The windows were clear enough to see within, but nothing had been left on its seats or floor to tell a story.
Patrick’s guess, or perhaps no more than a hope, was that Karen had left it here on a similar quest to his own, and she might return for the car later. It was a slim chance, but enough to encourage him. With rain blowing in his face he climbed the gate and set out through the wet grass, feeling the chill of its moisture weighing down his clothes and creeping through the leather of his shoes.
Did he expect to find Karen hiding here, crouched cold and miserable in the shadow of the ruins, waiting for him to rescue her? He paused before the tumbled walls to call her name, then again upon the upper meadow at their further side, to be answered only by silence. The wet stones stared blandly back at him: he was an interloper, a disturbance to their aged peace. He did not belong.
After several minutes during which he searched, fruitlessly, for any trace of Karen, he returned to the gap between the ruins, looking back to where her car was still parked, still waiting. From this advantage he could see the trails that human feet had beaten through the grass – two trails: one, of course, would be his own; the other…
So: he knew, now, she had been here, had walked across that meadow! Had she gone further? There were no tell-tale trails of trampled vegetation in any other direction, either across the fields into open country or towards the river, but he reasoned with himself that the grass was shorter, that it maybe kept its secrets the better for that, and set off towards the line where the river formed the boundary of the Driscombe estate.
The rain was a driving, relentless force. It soaked Patrick’s clothes until they hugged his flesh in an embrace as cold and clinging as the earth of a grave. He felt heavy with the over-bearing weight of it: rivulets that cascaded down his face, ran from his nose, from his chin. The river ran red and angry with that same water. The river roared. Across its rushing, forbidding breadth, the bank on the further side was steep; cut intentionally to discourage; whoever had enough audacity to breach its waters might easily slide back into their embrace if they tried to mount the muddy slope, but no-one would cross that torrent. At least for the last several days, no-one had tried. The virgin grass that clung there had not been crushed or scored by human feet. It was intact.
Upon the hill beyond the river the Driscombe Great House stood, its host of ancient chimneys proud and tall and its windows glowing with warmth and light. A slender figure of a woman, tall and graceful, was standing behind a large mullioned frame of glass with something, a drink perhaps, clasped in her hand. For a moment Patrick’s gaze was drawn to her, and he had a fancy that their eyes met.
She was not Karen. But Karen had come back, as she had promised she would, to Boulter’s Green. And she had gone no further, it seemed. She was no longer there, and though he called her name again and again, she made no answer. Reluctantly, unable to do more, Patrick returned through the wet meadow to where Karen’s car stood waiting. There, saturated by the rain, he kept vigil until the dark and the cold overcame him. Karen did not return.
Dark as night? No, night was not dark enough. Dark as blindness? Again, no. For blindness has no weight: it deprives, yet has no substance. Not like this dark. Not like this blackness. Not like the knowing, the certainty, the heavy, cold, sweat-excretive dread. And the stench in the breathing air – an intense aroma not unknown to her. A smell of age and something other. Something near – very near.
This blackness hid the fingers from the hand, the hand from the arm; the arm from the eye. But there were fingers out there, Karen was certain. Other fingers; another hand. The hand of something, or someone. It was – where? Behind her? Beside her? Worse – was it even now just before her face, reaching, clawing: would it touch her? Would it touch her now?
Karen bit back the scream. There was no logic in this, no reason why she should be afraid – was there? No reason to think she was other than alone? If she sat quite still she might hear…
Very gradually, her senses attuned to the silence, the musty odour of earth. Her shivering stopped. Her quick, gulping sobs of breath began to steady. Piece by careful piece, like unfired crocks she might array within a kiln, or dried flowers pressed in the leaves of a book, the past was returning to her. She had followed a lead, a desperate strand that might bring her salvation – but when? All so long ago; long, long ago. She would never remember the hand that pressed a pad across her mouth or the precipitous drop into sleep. And so she was here. A couch, or a bed. She had awakened, raised herself to a sitting position. An inventory of herself would tell her she was alright, she was unhurt; so now, perhaps, she might try to move, to stand up. But then, where would she move? Forward? Why not back? What if that something, or someone, was behind her now?
Oh, if only she could SEE! Her eyes struggled helplessly against a wall of absolute deprivation. But at least she could hear, at least touch. And here in the emptiness there must be some border, some wall or surface she could find. You have legs to move Karen – move them! She strove for co-operation from limbs which seemed no longer hers. She stretched forward with a shaking, tentative hand…to nothing. There was nothing. Empty space. Her hand paddled pointlessly at dank air. A step then – there must be a wall there, or somewhere – a contour she could follow. Get on your feet, Karen!
Memories flooding back. She shifted her weight, balanced to stand up, shaking with apprehension and terrified to lose that small comfort of contact beneath her. Gently, so gently, her fingers probed outwards – outwards – and forwards – and touched. Touched flesh. Oh shit! Oh fuck! Oh Jesus! Frantically, she fell back, struggling against the alarm that had overset her.
She cried aloud: “Don’t! Don’t touch me!”
Above her a lance of light flickered as an angry wasp of a starter compelled an illuminated strip into life; and suddenly she was in a room with bare walls, a chair. And a man. The man. The grey man.
He towered above her with his angry face glaring down. A wet sneer drooled from his lips.
“Oh you’re mine now, Ducky, aren’t you? So good of you to visit us. So glad you came!” He spoke like a wood rasp, grinding, cutting. And his hand came across her face like a horsewhip, cracking. Her head exploded in a thousand coloured lights. Karen screamed. She kept on screaming.
© Frederick Anderson 2018. All rights reserved. Each chapter of this book is a work of fiction. All names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and events in the story or stories are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, places or events is entirely coincidental. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from the author is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Frederick Anderson with specific direction to the original content