A dysfunctional British nuclear family seek a new life away from the big city in the sleepy Somerset countryside.
At first their new home, The Hollow, seems to embrace them, creating a rare peace and harmony within the family. But when the house turns on them, it seems to know just how to hurt them the most—threatening to destroy them from the inside out.
An English Ghost Story—available now from Titan Books—is a stand-alone novel from acclaimed author Kim Newman. Read an excerpt from the haunted house tale below!
As weeks passed, the family settled, explored, discovered. They filled the Hollow, fit in nicely.
They lost their city pallor and began to tan. They ate healthily and never got tired of apples. They were not bothered by insects, even at dusk. Midges swarmed in pestilential clouds across the moor but turned aside at the ditch-moat of the property.
In tune with their surroundings, the family were at last in tune with each other. They listened, they cared, they were tolerant, they loved and were loved.
They were constantly surprised, but never shocked.
For the first time in their lives, they felt perfectly safe. In learning to live in a new place, they learned to live with each other, to appreciate each other’s mysteries.
The Hollow, they decided, was a happy place.
In the octagonal room, Steven experimented with seven different positions for his desk before realising Louise Teazle was right all along. He set up his computer in exactly the spot hers had been. Kirsty and Tim were off foraging at the County Stores in Taunton, which left Jordan at home to help arrange his office.
‘Sit in your chair,’ said his daughter. ‘Give it a whirl.’
He pulled his chair close to the desk and sat down, getting the feel of the position. A significant chunk of his life would be spent here. He stretched fingers to touch his keyboard. Jordan adjusted the back of the chair.
‘You have to watch out for repetitive stress injury,’ Jordan warned.
In London, he had felt the beginnings of back-pain and semi-arthritic aches in his finger-joints. What with everything else, he’d never even mentioned it to anyone but Tatum. A few twinges didn’t count for anything set beside the rest of the problems.
In the Hollow, it all cleared up. It had probably been psychosomatic.
‘In Computer Studies, we had a whole lesson on setting up a work station,’ said Jordan.
She measured the distance between his chair and the desk with finger-spans, and did mental calculations. She took a ruler and sized him up, as if for a sitting-down suit. When thinking, she looked younger than she was.
‘I’ll tape an X on the floor,’ she said, ‘to show where your chair should be. It’s what we had to do. After a couple of months, you can pull up the mark. By then, you’ll be settled. Where do you keep your masking tape?’
‘It’s in one of those.’
She looked at a stack of cardboard boxes. ‘Shouldn’t they have been unpacked weeks ago?’
She was almost funny, trying to be strict.
He ummed and ahhed about having been busy. She put hands on her hips and tutted. Her navel winked at him above her jeans waistline. Before her Audrey Hepburn craze set in, she had agitated for permission to get her belly button pierced.
Steven saw an opportunity. He tickled her. She screamed
(not the old kind of screaming)
with laughter, and hauled his chair off its X spot, then spun him around.
He laughed too.
It struck Steven that he couldn’t remember the last time he had been alone with Jordan. He and Tim were together often, doing Dad-son things with tools. When the homefront was at its worst, the only cause that united him with Kirsty was worrying about Jordan. As a trio, they had been through several, hideous sessions, more like an encounter group than a family argument.
That was another life.
He stopped spinning.
‘Dad,’ Jordan said, ‘has Mum heard from Veronica?’
The name still turned him cold.
‘Not since we moved,’ he said.
(She hadn’t, had she? The new Kirsty would have said something.)
‘Good,’ she replied, kissing his forehead. ‘Veronica used to frighten me.’
‘Me too,’ he confessed. ‘But she was Kirst’s friend. Your Mum needed a friend.’
(Veronica called herself a healer)
‘She wasn’t anyone’s friend, not really.’
Jordan was sharp about people. It was one of her problems, actually. When she was in her darkest self, she always knew the worst thing to say. The truth.
‘I think you’re right,’ he said.
This bright, sunny, funny girl was a delight and a wonder. One of the great discoveries of the Hollow. He had to think hard to remember the old Jordan.
‘There’s something wrong with Veronica, isn’t there?’
‘Yes, Jord,’ he admitted. ‘I don’t know what it is or how she gets her hold over people, but she’s not like us. Not like the way we are now.’
‘Does Mum miss her?’
Steven thought hard. ‘No,’ he decided. ‘Mum has us. It was the choice she made. The choice we all made. To come here, and be a family.’
(what did the witch think about Kirsty’s choice?)
‘I’m glad,’ Jordan said. ‘I can’t imagine how it would have been if we hadn’t found the Hollow.’
‘What makes you think the Hollow didn’t find us?’
He had to say that. It had been in his mind from the first sight of the place.
Jordan sat in a window-nook, sunlight on her hair, and got comfortable. Steven was impressed at how relaxed his daughter was. She had always been intensely self-conscious, but that was gone.
‘Dad, have you noticed?’
She was looking at him, light behind her. He knew what she meant, what she wanted to talk about. He was excited but a little anxious. It was enormous, when he thought about it. He had a sense of privilege that Jordan had chosen to raise it with him, not Kirsty.
‘Little things,’ she said. ‘When you go into a room, it’s as if someone has just stepped out. I keep thinking it’s Mum or you, but it can’t be. There’s a rocking chair in my room. Sometimes, it rocks by itself.’
‘Does it frighten you?’
She shook her head. ‘Not at all. I don’t think it should.’
‘It’s a mystery,’ he said. ‘I’ve come across them too. Things change when you’re not looking, rearrange themselves. Always for the better. I was thinking of opening those boxes, and letting the fairies do the unpacking but I think that’s not in the program. We have to make an effort, or it doesn’t count. But let’s start a Mystery Collection. Mum and Tim can join in. In the end, we’ll get to the bottom of it.’
‘I suppose,’ she said, doubtful.
‘The fun of mysteries isn’t the explanation,’ he said, tweaking her nose. ‘It’s the wondering.’
His computer came on, by itself. Startled, he pantomimed fear, with ridiculously exaggerated face-pulling and contorted limbs.
‘Spooo-ooooky,’ he said.
Jordan laughed and launched a cushion at him.
‘One for the collection,’ he said, glancing at his screen.
HH, it flashed at him. HH HH HH, filling the screen. Then his file manager was there, neat as it could be.
‘Did you see that?’ he asked Jordan.
‘Nothing. It was for me.’
After supper, Jordan sat in her rocking chair, examining the book. It was something she had found, or which—to pick up on Dad’s thinking—had found her. Running her fingers along a row of shelved spines, this was where she had stopped. The Haunting of Drearcliff Grange was a hardback with an unfaded jacket. The cover showed a wood-panelled corridor after dark, lit by a single candle. Four alarmed girls in straw hats and school blazers cowered away from a see-through knight in armour who was raising a solid-seeming battle-axe.
The book was yellow and dusty at the top edge, but good as new. If this was Louise Teazle’s own copy it had probably never been read. Having written it, she knew how the story came out. From the flap copy, Jordan learned it was the fifth of the Drearcliff Grange School books. A first edition, from 1944. Had either of her dead grandmothers read it then, during the War? Mum said girls still read Louise Teazle when she was at school.
On the first page, a girl called Gillian Gilchrist (’Gill-Gil’) was up late at night on a dare, alone in a disused part of the school. To get into a secret club, the After Lights-Out Gang, she had to creep out of her dorm (what did that mean? a shared room? something like a hospital ward?) and spend a whole night in the West Wing. The rest of the gang—Angela the Boss, Catty Korner and Sarah-Suzanne Symmes—had told her the wing was haunted.
Knowing what to expect, Jordan read the rest of the chapter. Phantoms appeared, but Gillian was ready for them. ‘Stow the rot, fillies,’ she sneered. ‘Can’t fool I with a sheet dipped in chem-lab phosphor. That bloodstain is most unbecoming, Angela. And try to clank your chain with a little more spirit, Sarah-Suzanne.’ After several more or less alarming apparitions, Gillian was grabbed by a sinister shadow-figure. It turned out to be the new gym mistress, Miss Ilse Haller.
In the next chapter, it transpired that the After Lights-Out Gang had indeed intended to sneak into the West Wing and terrify Gillian, but were detained by a snap air raid drill. With Gillian missing at head-count, a search was carried out for her. Now, the gang was in hot water with Miss Beeke, the fearsome headmistress. Also, Gill-Gil was worried that the spooks might have been real.
Jordan assumed that the ghosts would be spies or smugglers in disguise. Miss Haller, who was supposed to be a Czech refugee, was most likely a Nazi spy.
Still, she read on.
The old slang was stranger even than the Rat Pack hipster talk she loved and tried to affect but had its own appeal. An all-girls boarding school was as bizarre to Jordan as a nunnery, but she recognised character types among the staff and pupils from the schools she had been at. She wasn’t sure how many of odd turns of phrase were deliberately comical, but got a sense that Louise Teazle sometimes slyly pulled her readers’ legs. Gillian, an evacuee from ‘reduced circumstances’, suffered the other girls’ snobbery, but showed courage (’spunk’, not a word Jordan had heard with that meaning) and won acceptance. Sarah-Suzanne, surprisingly clearly a femme lesbian, nurtured a terrific crush on Gillian, which the heroine tried to deal with kindly.
Spies did appear, posing as members of a hockey team from a rival school, and plotted to kidnap Miss Haller, whose father was a scientist Hitler hadn’t been able to force to work on a poison gas rocket. But the ghosts were real, the spirits of Englishmen who had died defending their country in foreign wars, called up by Gillian herself, unconsciously wishing on a potent magic stone (part of the wall in the West Wing), to defend Miss Haller from the Nazis.
In the final chapter, the ghosts saw off the spies and word came through that Miss Haller’s father had been smuggled out of Germany. Gillian said goodbye to the ghosts, who treated her with strange respect since it is subtly implied that she was destined to die for England in a future war when women will be front-line troops. She was finally initiated into the After Lights-Out Gang, with a midnight feast and a masked ritual.
The book didn’t take long to read. Jordan was left with a sense of having understood only the surface. It was a fast adventure, with a lot of comedy and broad social comment, but she suspected depths. The only men in the book were absent fathers or ghosts. Even the Nazi spies were teenage girls. Whenever Gillian argued with Miss Haller or the After Lights-Out Gang, it was as if Louise Teazle were talking to herself.
The world of the book seemed real to her. An evening had slipped away as she read. It was dark outside her window. She looked at the West Tower of the Hollow. The light was on in her parents’ room but Tim was already asleep.
Ghosts, she wondered. Were there ghosts?
’Someone to see you, Mum,’ her daughter announced.
Kirsty looked up at Jordan. She was filling out her simple summer dress a little more. Her bare arms and legs had lost the anatomy-diagram stringiness that had been cause for concern. Her skin was the pale gold of not-yet-ripe eating apples.
A set of white filigree lawn furniture had been discovered in one of the spare rooms. Steven had put the tables and chairs out on the crazy paving where Kirsty liked to sit.
Jordan stepped to one side and let the visitor come through the French windows.
‘You must be Mr Wing-Godfrey?’
The President of the Louise Magellan Teazle Society was a middle-aged brown man. Brown hair, eyes, suit, shoes and socks. And brown skin, though he wasn’t Indian or Middle Eastern. He was just a brown Englishman.
‘Would you care for some tea, Mr Wing-Godfrey?’ asked Jordan, a perfect miniature hostess.
‘As for nectar, my dear.’
‘I’ll fetch some, then. Mum?’
Kirsty declined. She had been drinking iced lemon tea all morning.
‘What a lovely girl you have, Mrs Naremore,’ said Bernard. ‘Shows the Drearcliff spirit, I’ll be bound. I see you’ve been doing your homework.’
Books were piled on the lattice table, the Weezie stories and the first of the school series, A New Girl at Drearcliff Grange.
‘I’ve been cataloguing the library.’
Bernard’s eyes gleamed as if Kirsty had mentioned treasure trove. For him, Louise Teazle’s library must seem a pirate’s cave: first editions of all her books, of course, along with foreign and reprint editions—Kirsty couldn’t recognise all the languages Louise had been published in—and the books she had loved herself. If there were unpublished manuscripts, early drafts or personal journals, they had not showed up so far. Kirsty expected real treasures would be hidden, perhaps guarded. When the Hollow wanted her to find anything, she would be led to it.
‘And I’ve been reading again, refreshing my memory.’
‘You read Teazle as a girl?’ asked Bernard.
Kirsty shrugged. ‘Didn’t everyone?’
‘Most girls, a few boys, until, say, twenty years ago. Even since then, there has been a great deal of interest. She has always been in print. Specialist presses keep her work alive. I have been on television, several times, talking about the Society. Our members are very active.’
Jordan came back with tea and withdrew into the house.
Bernard let out a satisfied ahhh with his first swallow.
‘Didn’t your schoolfriends give you a hard time for liking Louise?’ asked Kirsty ‘I’d have thought boys even then thought she was soppy.’
‘I came to Teazle late in life, Mrs Naremore. She meant a great deal to me at a trying time. I was confined, against my will, far from home. Her books were, quite literally, my lifeline.’
Kirsty wasn’t fazed by Bernard’s odd admission. She felt she understood this man.
‘Have you been here before?’ she asked. ‘When Louise was alive?’
‘It was not my place to impose on Teazle.’
Even Bernard’s fingernails were brown. Not dirt, not bad health, not even stain. ‘Only now have I, as it were, plucked up the necessary courage.’
‘I hope you’re not disappointed.’
He looked at the orchard. Tim was hidden in there somewhere, as green as Bernard Wing-Godfrey was brown.
‘Our members are most envious that you invited me to the Hollow. It is sacred turf to us, of course. The Avalon of Teazle.’
Kirsty didn’t know how to take that. She ought be made uncomfortable by this odd fellow, but was at her ease. He was reverent of the Hollow. She should extend him a welcome.
‘We were wondering whether you would be adverse to opening your home to a select number of us, on a strictly limited basis of course. We would not want to invade or swamp you. We should winnow out the applicants. Only the most presentable would pass. The Society is not without funds. We would of course reimburse you any expenses, and indeed be prepared to pay a fee for the privilege of access. I am empowered to gift you with quite a substantial figure. To help with the restoration. We could also provide advice. Some of us have made a deep study of Teazle. We know where everything goes, you see. We know how things should be.’
‘I don’t follow you.’
‘This table and these four chairs, for instance. You have them at the wrong end of the Puzzle Patio.’
The Puzzle Patio was in Weezie and the Hopscotch Hobgoblin. It was also, Kirsty realised, this crazy-paved stretch outside the French windows.
‘They should be over by the tower, near the kitchen door. So Katie the Cook can hand Weezie apple juice through the sink window. More importantly so, when she stands on a chair, she can see through the tree telescope and over the moor to the standing stones.’
‘I’m not sure the stones are real. I think Louise made them up. She was probably thinking of Glastonbury Tor. We can see that from the picture window.’
Bernard was saddened, not by an imperfection but by Kirsty’s lack of trust in Teazle. He put down his tea and stood, then tugged Kirsty across the lawn towards the kitchen door. She did not resist.
He turned her round and pointed, between the trees, putting a hand on the small of her back to encourage her to stand on tip-toes. She became as tall as a child standing on a chair.
‘The branches of that tree make a fork, a sight-line. The tree telescope. See the mump with the stones.’
Kirsty felt light, as if she might drift upwards. From just this spot, looking through a tunnel-like curl of branches, she saw, miles off across the moor, a hillock with five upright stones around an altar-piece.
She leaned to one side and tried to look around the tree. Another tree was in the way. She leaned to the other and the side of the barn cut off the view. She walked out on the lawn, past the tower, almost to the ditch. The land sloped slightly and a far-off copse blocked view of the stones.
It was remarkable.
‘Here is where the table should be,’ said Bernard.
She went back to the patio and found herself agreeing with him.
‘The full resources of the Society are available, Mrs Naremore. Kirsty, may I call you? We feel you have been chosen by Dame Fortune to be custodians of this place that is so special to us all. We owe you our support, our help, our labour.’
He kissed her on both cheeks and left.
If she didn’t hear the cough of his car leaving the drive or see his empty cup on that wrongly-placed table, she wouldn’t have been surprised to learn he had never been there.
By now, she knew a ghost when she saw—or sensed—one.
On the long table in the Summer Room, Mum had laid out an array of oddments she had found in the store rooms. Jordan supposed the stuff ought to be called Teazleiana. Mum had brought the collection out to show her visitor. Colouring books and diaries, cuddly Weezie dolls, a spinning top with Weezie’s ghost friends painted on it, Weezie and Drearcliff Grange jigsaws, a Gloomy Ghost money-box, Drearcliff badges and boaters, a Weezie whistle. The playthings of her grandparents’ generation. No game cartridges, action figures, boxer shorts, videos, pogs, graphic novels, collectible cards, temporary tattoos.
She picked up a stereo-opticon, a device like a set of plastic binoculars with a slot for a rectangular card. Holding it to her eyes, she saw Weezie dancing with the stones in sharp, unmoving 3-D relief. There was a set of cards, showing other scenes from the books. Another item struck her; a circular picture under glass, an illustration of the After-Lights Out Gang, four girls in askew boaters. When she picked it up, the faces fell away, leaving blanks.
It was one of those hand-held games, not like Tim’s beep-beep-beep Game Boy (not heard from so much these days) but an old-fashioned puzzle. The girls’ features—eyes and smiles—were on loose pellets which had to be rolled just so to plop into their proper places, dimples in the blanks. Getting features on faces was easy, but usually with mismatched eyes or a smile in an eyesocket. The four friends—Gillian, Angela, Catty and Sarah-Suzanne—had differing eye colours and smiles, naturally.
Having rearranged the faces in comic strangeness, Jordan shook the game and tried again. This time, almost without trying, she set everything right. She put the game down, quitting while she was ahead.
She went outside. The brown man was gone. For someone obsessed with Louise Teazle, he hadn’t lingered. It was a shame he hadn’t seen the toy and tie-in collection. Perhaps he intended to come back for a closer look, to stay longer.
Mum was preoccupied with something else, a new project.
‘Help me carry the table across the lawn, Jordan. I think it’ll be happier over by the kitchen door.’
Jordan knew she was right.
The garden table wasn’t heavy, but awkward. Jordan walked backwards and Mum edged forwards. They got a rhythm going and the job was done in no time. When set down, the table found grooves in the grass, like the features had found the dimples in the girls’ faces. It might almost have taken roots.
There were four chairs to shift too. Jordan and Mum walked over to the crazy paving, where the table had been, and picked up a chair apiece. When they were back at the table’s proper place, the other two chairs were waiting for them.
They looked at each other, and all around, smiling.
After several LRPs, Tim had determined the IP were friendlies. Each time he trailed back to Green Base, fresh tribute was laid out, a token of gratitude for his vigilance in protecting this little patch. Five apples piled like a pyramid of cannonballs, a circle of wild flowers threaded stem to bud like a necklace, a chipped stone arrowhead. This morning, it was a bird’s nest with three pale blue pebbles he took at first for eggs.
He whistled with admiration.
The IP were good, better than he could hope to be. Part of the scenery, they never showed themselves outright. They could stand against a tree or the side of the garage, or even lie flat on the green grass, and seem to be entirely natural, a stain on the wood or a low hillock. He was winning their hearts and minds but wasn’t sure they’d ever step into the open. They had long memories. Not everyone who had occupied this position had been as careful as Tim, as well-disposed towards the locals. Battles had been fought. He found old shrew-skulls and flattened cartridge cases, even burn-marks on the trees. The IP were wary of any new forces on the big board.
He squirmed around inside the main dug-out, which was shaped like an overturned canoe. Its opening was netted over with strands of ivy he was careful to shift aside but never break. Inside Green Base was more room than anyone would suspect. He looked up inside the hollow trunk and saw green-filtered daylight pouring through holes among the branches.
Making his way upwards, he climbed twice his height before he could go no further. He would have to carve hand- and foot-holds if he wanted to scale the inside of the tree all the way to the high plateau. He planned to make his command post there. Being small meant he could go where few others could, but a certain amount of hacking with an entrenching tool was needed to make the narrow chimney passable.
A peaty abscess under the roots was just big enough to curl up in. He should enlarge and shore up the space into a burrow for supplies. He had a list: bottled water, dried fruit, chocolate, biscuits, salt tablets, comics, his Swiss army knife, a flannel, toothpaste, sticking plasters, a torch. Already, he had scouted several Fall-Back Positions (in the hay-loft, under the bridge). Soon, he would be ready for all eventualities.
From inside the tree, he looked out, green-streaked face fitting a face-sized knothole. His eyes should seem like highlights on leaves.
The MP and the BS had moved the lawn furniture to a spot by the kitchen door, where they were laughing at nothing in particular. He watched them a while, keeping an eye out for hostiles. The women were in no danger presently. It was an all-clear situation.
He took his head out of the hole and slipped silently down to ground level. He could manage that manoeuvre in under five seconds, though it took a full half-minute to ascend to the look-out point.
A new tribute waited for him.
He picked up a Y-shaped forked stick, stripped of bark and sanded smooth. Between the tines was a strip of rubber with a leather patch threaded on it. Tim took the patch and pulled back. The rubber wasn’t perished. A catapult.
Now he knew what the pebbles in the nest were.
That the IP had issued him with such a thing was a sign of trust. The weapon put him on a level with them, as if he had joined the Doomsday Club.
He slipped a pebble into the leather grip and pulled back, feeling the strength of the rubber in his forearm. He sighted upwards, on one of the sky-holes up in the tree-top, and let go. The pebble flew upwards, just clipped the edge of the hole, and shot out into the world beyond.
‘Kewl,’ Tim said to himself.
He was fit to survive.
’How was the Louise looney?’ Steven asked.
‘Surprisingly sweet,’ said Kirsty.
He slipped an arm around his wife’s waist and snogged her, not minding his embarrassed daughter. They were outside, in the early evening. They would share the long summer evening hours before nightfall.
‘The man was brown, Mum,’ said Jordan.
‘Touch of the sun-lamp?’
‘No, not burned. Brown.’
‘He implied that he had spent a lot of his life overseas,’ said Kirsty.
‘He didn’t say anything outright, but mentioned he’d spent a time far from home. “Confined”, was his expression.’
‘So he’s an escapee from Devil’s Island? Inherited his collection of Teazle books from a guillotined poisoner, read them over and over in the Hole, between whippings and leprosy outbreaks? Only Sneezy Weezie and her blessed spooks kept him sane.’
‘HH,’ said Jordan, but Kirsty was thoughtful.
‘You might not be that far from the truth. There’s something about the name. Bernard Wing-Godfrey. I’ve come across it before.’
‘I can check him out on the net.’
Steven had spent the day online, doing background checks on an oil-surveying company that seemed dodgy on the surface but might have hidden strengths. The dial-up connection was more reliable here than in London, where his modem often cut out in the middle of a research session. He enjoyed the detail-work, reading between the columns of dense figures scrolling across the screen.
He liked finding out trivial things sometimes, to keep his fingers flexible.
‘Why’ve you moved the lawn furniture?’
Jordan looked archly at Kirsty.
‘If you laugh,’ Kirsty said, ‘I’ll leave you for a bass player.’
That was an old joke between them. It hadn’t come up for ten years or so, and he was surprised—delighted, even—that it didn’t hurt. At times, too recently for comfort, it would not only not have been funny but would have been the height of intramarital cruelty.
‘I’d advise you not to press this point, Dad.’
‘Fair enough, Jordy. I withdraw the question.’
A pebble fell out of nowhere and bounced off the table, flaking a patch of white paint from the filigree. They all looked up at the tower.
‘It’s a mystery,’ Steven said. ‘One for the collection.’
Things happened when he turned his back, or was in the next room, or while he was nodding off. Nothing sinister, but often interesting. It was as if everyone were preparing a huge surprise party for him, though his birthday had been four months ago. Three of their birthdays fell in two-week cluster. Only Tim had managed a party this year, and that had been a foaming disaster. Steven was torn between wanting to forget things as they were before the Hollow and needing to remember so they never happened ever again.
Before the Hollow, things had been dire. Coming here meant pulling back from the edge.
Somehow, he wasn’t worried any more. He was working on never being worried again.
The Mystery Collection was growing, though.
First was that girl in the straw hat, as mentioned by the removal men. She hadn’t shown up since, though Steven noted that Louise Teazle heroines always wore straw hats. He would have joked that the sensitive shifters had seen Weezie’s ghost, but fictional characters didn’t leave ghosts. Miss Teazle had lived to be 83, so she should have left an old lady ghost. Unless you could pick which age you were as a phantom.
Kirsty insisted Miss Teazle was gone.
Then there were other things. Feelings, half-heard sounds, fortuitous circumstances, items that came to hand when they were wanted, apples that fell when you were hungry (and were ripe well before the greengrocer’s), phone calls that came just when you needed them.
It was as if the Hollow adjusted to suit them.
At first, he always bumped his head on a lampshade in the secret passage. Now he could walk under it and just barely brush the fringe. The cord didn’t seem to be shorter and the flagstone floor certainly wasn’t lower. As if the passage, and the whole house, changed minutely, to make him comfortable.
The Mystery Collection was growing steadily. Phenomena that two or more of them could bear witness to were admitted. Like the falling pebble. It was a Dad-Jordan thing, though. Tim kept mum about whatever he saw, like a good soldier. Kirsty added her few contributions reluctantly. She shared the way Steven felt, but was wary of speaking out loud about it, as if that would break the magic.
‘Show him your Mystery, Mum,’ Jordan said.
Steven raised eyebrows and opened his hands.
‘It’s not a Mystery, dear. It’s a circumstance. If you stand just so, you can see a stone circle.’
‘Brown Godfrey showed her, Dad. He got it from Weezie.’
Kirsty manipulated him into a certain position. He saw she had marked it with a heel-mark in the turf.
‘I have to tip-toe,’ she said. ‘You have to scrunch.’
He let his knees sag a little. Kirsty held his head and pointed at the fallen tree.
‘No,’ she said, ‘look through the tree.’
There was nothing. No circle of stones.
He didn’t say he didn’t see it.
‘I tried looking from our window,’ Kirsty said. ‘And Tim’s attic room. The top of the tree gets in the way.’
He walked out into the orchard, Kirsty and Jordan trailing him. Kirsty was smiling broadly now.
‘It won’t work,’ she said, ‘only from this spot.’
‘The tree can’t be in the way if the tree is behind you.’
But leaning against the tree-trunk, he still saw nothing.
‘I vote this goes in the Collection,’ he said, puzzled.
‘It’s not a Mystery,’ insisted Kirsty. ‘It’s just that there’s only one place you can see the circle from. It’s geography.’
‘And your Louise Loon knew this from reading a book? A book that’s sixty years old?’
Kirsty shrugged. She looked almost as young as Jordan.
‘So, you’re telling me the tree had fallen down already, back then, when Louise was writing?’
‘I suppose so. It could be hundreds of years old.’
‘It hasn’t grown since, nor any of the other trees? The view hasn’t changed? What about drainage schemes and Dutch Elm Disease? The moor is a living landscape. It shouldn’t stay exactly the same from one year to the next. This, my darling, is a Mystery.’
‘It goes in the Collection, Mum. Along with the chairs.’
Kirsty looked at them and agreed. Steven wondered what the mystery of the chairs might be.
‘I’ll bet if we cut down the tree, the circle would vanish,’ Jordan said. ‘You wouldn’t be able to see it from here.’
A small green pixie emerged from the tree-trunk and made them all jump and laugh.
‘Don’t cut down the tree,’ said Tim.
‘That’s not in the big plan, son,’ said Steven.
Tim, relieved, saluted. Steven noticed the boy had a new catapult. His soldier would have to listen to a thorough briefing on the uses and abuses of the device. Some weapons were too terrible ever to be used outside strictly-controlled test conditions, especially with the huge panes of the picture windows in shot distance.
‘Reporting for rations, Marm,’ said Tim.
‘Tea is just coming,’ said Kirsty.
Kirsty was sparing with the Chest of Drawers. She had an idea that, like many magical things, it only worked if she was alone with it. She didn’t want to enter it into Steven and Jordan’s Collection, not yet. She worried that to label something a Mystery was to impose a meaning which was also a limitation. This was not an experiment, this was life. It was too important to risk.
She used the top drawer occasionally, to get rid of make-up smudged tissues or rubber bands, but stayed away from the middle drawer. She was not sure that, at this point in her life, she needed a jumble of surprises. Vron had shown her she had a problem with order and chaos, see-sawing from one extreme to the other. A jumble was too much like real chaos, the stuff that had seemed so much of a threat and a promise and a danger and a delight.
The temptation was the bottom drawer.
She thought of the things she found there as Cinderella gifts. She was scrupulous about using them only for a brief time, disposing of them before dawn by putting them into the top drawer, the drawer that was always empty, the drawer that was always the same, the drawer that made things disappear.
Thus far, apart from the glove, she had found a garter, a single earring (the drawer never gave matched pairs of anything), a hand-mirror without glass, a modern plastic toothbrush which dislodged a tiny string of beef which had been caught between her molars for a day and a half, a china doll whose torn dress she had repaired with a few neat stitches.
Today, she found the last five pages of an Agatha Christie novel she had taken out of the library when she was Jordan’s age. That copy had been missing these pages. The pages had been sliced out cleanly so she hadn’t discovered the vandalism until she reached the end of the penultimate chapter. Reading the solution now, after twenty years, she found the details of the unsolved murder had lingered in her memory more vividly than those of dozens of whodunits she had finished. Knowing the answer satisfied in a way she would never have imagined. Why hadn’t she just gone into a shop and read the last chapter before now? Had she been waiting for this magic gift?
She posted the pages, one by one, into the top drawer, then pulled it out. They were gone.
Steven came up, curly hair wet from his bath, and sat on the edge of the bed.
‘One mystery solved,’ he said.
She turned, afraid he had noticed something about the chest of drawers.
‘Wing-Godfrey’s all over the net,’ Steven said. ‘I’ve book-marked all the Louise Magellan Teazle sites for you. There’s one with old photographs of the Hollow, from before the War. Wing-Godfrey’s society has a really crap web-designer. You might tell him that.’
‘HH,’ she said, wondering whether to bean Steven with a pillow.
‘After the Louise sites I found more mentions, in newspaper archives. He was a hostage in Lebanon, ten years ago. He was with a textiles company. Some fringe fundamentalist group chained him to a wall, kept him in a cellar for years, threatened to chop his head off. It was a big story. Like Terry Waite and John What’s-His-Name.’
Kirsty was struck with sympathy. ‘The poor man.’
‘The kidnappers gave him the only English books they had. Can you guess?’
She beaned him with the pillow, which he was too slow to dodge.
‘Got it in one,’ he said.
She imagined the brown man in his cell (how had he got so brown indoors? oughtn’t he to have been pale?) with only Weezie for company. No wonder he had come out of it a bit of a fanatic. The business with the lawn furniture suggested he was something of a fundamentalist himself.
‘Think of it,’ Steven said. ‘All those years without sight of a real woman. He must have worn out those schoolgirl books. Which do you think were his favourite illustrations? Gymslip scenes, probably. Are there any canings at Drearcliff Grange? Rosy third-form buttocks taking six of the best.’
‘HH,’ she said, not thinking him funny.
He crawled back on the bed and waited for her. His fantasy had got him going. A half-erection was rising through his bathrobe.
‘Come into my study, girl,’ he said, in a low, funny voice. ‘You’ve been naughtier than any nymphet it has ever been my unpleasant duty to chastise. Matron will not been the same again since that disgusting affair with the school hamster and the curry powder. And Prefect Jemima reports that you have been smoking crack behind the bicycle sheds with the baker’s boy.’
Kirsty swivelled on her stool, amused despite herself.
Since coming to the Hollow, the sex had been a constant double-plus gold star bonus. Vron would never have believed it. She and Steven had rediscovered and renewed themselves.
‘Pull down your navy blue knickers and come here, wicked minx. You are about to suffer the soundest seeing-to any Head Girl at Drearcliff has ever received. Come morning assembly, every part of your lithe young body will be a-throb with unspeakable pleasures.’
On impulse, she edged open the bottom drawer and reached inside. She found a limp length of cloth and pulled it out. A school tie, in the colours of Drearcliff Grange. She snapped it like a whip and Steven yelped.
‘I’m going to bind you fast, sir,’ she said. ‘Then we shall see if you can take punishment with as much relish as you hand it out.’
She held the tie between her fists, like a garrotte, and walked slowly across the room.
Steven laughed in terror.
On the telephone, Jordan remembered to be cool. She shrugged and pouted as expected, and was non-committal. As soon as Rick rang off, she yowled with glee.
He was coming to the Hollow!
Next weekend. Then, everything would be perfect. Rick was going to love the place and they would explore it together. She had been holding back, not joining Tim or Mum in their expeditions, promising herself she would discover the territory alongside her boyfriend. She was saving some of the surprises to share with him.
He had no news from the city. College was over for the year. For Rick, it was over for good. He had to wait for his results. She was sure he would get the grades he needed for UWE. She did her girlfriend bit and fed him support.
Rick said he had run into Mum’s strange friend near the old flat. Mention of Veronica was like a black claw in a cream cake. Jordan called her the Wild Witch, and Dad had far worse names for her. Jordan was surprised Rick only vaguely remembered who the woman was. She must have bored him with horror stories of the Wild Witch’s malign influence. When he had tentatively said Veronica didn’t seem so bad, Jordan had seriously wanted to strangle him.
Here, at the Hollow, they were safe from Wild Witches.
When he was here, Rick would be safe too.
She realised she was the only one up. Tim’s bedtime was eight and Mum and Dad had taken to going to bed earlier and earlier. Jordan still wasn’t a hundred per cent keen on thinking about that, but it made a welcome change from open warfare.
She was in the Summer Room, curled on the overstuffed sofa, with the cordless phone still stuck to her sternum and a shawl wrapped around her.
Dad had spent a day hooking up their giant-screen television with satellite and other gadgets, but even Tim hadn’t watched it much. There were other things to do at the Hollow. At first, the TV, like other Naremore additions, stood out among the furnishings which had come with the place. Now, it blended in. The television cabinet even matched the smoky brown rosewood look of the dresser and the table.
It was a familiar shade, the dominant colour of the house.
She thought of watching a favourite film. Bye, Bye Birdie, Move Over, Darling or Charade. Other girls her age liked Tom Cruise or Leonardo DiCaprio, but her top male film stars were Cary Grant and Rock Hudson. Rick made fun of her for her Doris Day enthusiasm, until she introduced him to mid-60s Ann-Margret and Stella Stevens. She liked the hard, sparkly colours, the brashness and confidence even of neurotics, the brassy orchestrations of the theme songs. For his birthday, she had bought Rick a sports jacket with a fine hound’s-tooth weave. She wanted them to be like the chummy but peppery couples in the films, who constantly teased each other but were hipper and smarter than the rest. They were a team against the phonies and the squares.
Here, she didn’t need to watch the films any more. They were in her mind, in her heart.
Was it too soon to call Rick again?
It was. Pity.
She stood, shrugging out of the shawl, and walked across the room to replace the phone in its cradle. When she turned back, her shawl was still in the air, as if settled around invisible shoulders. The old thing had come with the house, faded white crochet with long tassels and a pleasant woolly smell.
Jordan remembered to close her mouth.
The shawl hung in the air, looking like a cartoon ghost with eyeholes and a trailing shroud.
Jordan laughed and the shawl swirled upwards in a spiral, tassels spinning, until it was a magic carpet. It rose almost to the ceiling and stretched out like a table-cloth, then gently floated downwards and draped perfectly over the back of the sofa.
She clapped, slowly.
The break with the world she had known, had almost grown up in, didn’t frighten her. Her bare feet tingled, with the beginnings of excitement. Could conduct the ghost shawl, make it dance at the lift of a finger? She decided it would be impolite. She was too old for toys. This wasn’t a gimmick or a game—no hidden fishing line or computer imagery—but a revelation, an epiphany.
She was as comfortable with the Hollow, and whatever shared it with her family, as she was with Rick, as she had only recently become with her brother and parents, as she hoped to be with herself.
She was smiling and crying at the same time.
Tatum seemed spooked by the size of the study. She was the first person from their London life to come to the Hollow. Steven had suggested she stay over—one of the spare rooms was quite liveable now—but she wanted to drive back for a late party with her fiancé.
Steven naturally set up shop in the study, though he considered eventually having the hay-loft converted into an office suite. He liked the idea of a work-space separate from the house. For the moment, Louise’s old lair suited him fine. Her books and papers were in boxes now. Kirsty wanted to go through them before sharing with Wing-Godfrey’s Society. Jordan and Kirsty had gone on reading jags, scurrying through the children’s books, reporting on every Hollow reference the authoress dropped. He had put his own files into the cabinets and begun to occupy shelves with active folders.
Tatum had held the fort during the interregnum. She ran down deals that were tied up, in development or scotched. He was impressed his p.a. didn’t blame herself for the one which had blown up. It wasn’t her fault, but it would have been like an overeager junior to think it was. No black mark against her.
During the worst of it, he could rely on Tatum. She had thrown in with him and would stick, no matter what. Even before this absence, she had shouldered more than her share of the gruntwork. While he was preoccupied, it had been possible that the whole business would be taken away and torn to pieces. Tatum had seen them through. He had written her in for a percentage on top of her salary. Within a year or two, he would have to make her a partner to keep her aboard. She could handle the city, the face time in crowded coffee bars and the running from one meeting to another, while he sat here in the country, hooked into the world of information, processing like a human computer.
He laid out a couple of long shots for her. It was like Kirsty’s supposed trick with the tree and the standing stones. You had to stand in just one place and look just the right way to see something invisible from everywhere else. In the last week, he had managed it three times, sighting through fiscal tangles to see opportunities being born like new stars.
Tatum slipped his print-outs into her leather document case. He saw she had the scent of blood.
‘This place, Steven, it’s …’
She shook her head. Tatum had one of those thin faces, with smile brackets around her mouth, which work better than they should. She wore her hair in a severe bob that set off her purple horn-rims.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘It’s taken years off me.’
‘All this paper,’ she said, indicating the bookshelves and boxes. ‘My eyes are watering from the dust.’
‘None of us have had that.’
‘You’ve gone native.’
He laughed. ‘Listen to that quiet, Tate.’
‘It sets my teeth on edge, Steven. I’d feel exposed. You’re miles from anywhere. Anyone could come by and walk in. You’d be cut off.’
‘That doesn’t happen. Only in the city.’
Tatum and her fiancé had been mugged last year. Marco had lost two front teeth. She was understandably paranoid.
‘One more thing,’ she said, taking a folder out of her case and laying it on the desk. ‘This is the last of the Oddments accounts. You’re entirely clear of the mess, but Kirsty is still in the hole. I’ve talked with the outstanding creditors. If pushed, they’ll carry her for six months. Of course, they think you’ll cover your wife if it comes to that. If they forced her into bankruptcy, they’d get pennies for pounds. You’d not be legally obliged to pay off her debt. Even as it stands, you can pay or not. It’s your decision.’
‘Can I settle now?’
‘It’s your decision, Steven. You’ve enough in the accounts, even after expenses like me, but it’d leave you stretched. I’d let it roll.’
Last year, Kirsty had started up a small business, on the advice of the insidious Vron, selling bizarre antiques over the net. It had been unsuccessful and proved more of a money pit than anyone could have expected. Several major crises and one big collapse. Tatum obviously resented the shackles Oddments clapped on the expansion of Naremore Consultancy Services. Steven, more than anyone, sympathised with her, but that trouble was past, part of the life left behind. Here, things were different and he just wanted to clean up the last of the mess.
‘Pay them off, Tate. I feel lucky.’
Tatum took that on board.
‘It’ll be done. Here are the figures. If you make out and sign the cheques, I’ll take them back with me.’
She watched as he wrote the cheques. This would take a bite out of reserves already depleted by the move. But the house down-payment had come along providentially. The new Things Can Only Get Better government had changed planning laws, which meant long-ticking investment finally paid off with an unexpected gush of green. That was the beginning of the magic, providing the family with the money to escape from London and their mire of personal problems.
‘Don’t worry,’ he told her. ‘It’s about freedom.’
Tatum took the cheques and proofread them. There was an extra among them.
‘Veronica Gorse?’ Tatum asked.
‘Kirsty made her a partner.’
‘On what investment?’
‘Not money. She was supposed to be the keen eye for treasure. She put the “odd” in Oddments.’
‘I can’t believe you’re paying her off. After everything. Gorse has no legal claim. She’s lucky you don’t start proceedings against her.’
‘It’s worth it never to have to deal with the mad creature again.’
His p.a. shrugged. At one point, Steven seriously suspected the muggers who attacked Tatum and Marco were Vron’s flying monkeys. They hadn’t taken anything, just thumped and run.
With the cheque written, Steven felt another stone was removed from his cairn. He would tell Kirsty later, tactfully. It was over and done. She had new interests now.
Tatum looked around the room again and shivered inside her shoulderpads.
‘I hope this is what you really want, Steven,’ she said. ‘I really do.’
‘Oh, it is, Tate. It really really is.’
In the Hollow, Tim never missed with the catapult. He could bring down an apple with a pebble. Merits for its use within the boundaries no longer awarded. When he took position on the ditch-bank and fired over the border, aiming at a patch of marsh-grass or a gate-post a field away, the shot usually went wild. But, if he turned round and picked out a particular tile on the roof of the taller tower, just above his own bedroom-window, a tile he knew was there but couldn’t see from this far away, he could clip it dead centre and check later to see the rough chip raised by the impact of the stone.
He called his catapult the U-Dub, for UW. Ultimate Weapon.
He did not fire at birds or squirrels or even insects. That, he knew, was not in the rules of engagement. The U-Dub was not a First Strike weapon. It was for defence. If a bird came at him with claws and beak out for his eyes, it would be a go to put a stone into it. But the birds of the Hollow weren’t hostiles.
Still, he felt safer with a strong defence capability.
They sat, all four Naremores, at the long table, empty plates pushed away. Kirsty plunged the cafetiere and poured out cups of coffee, half and half with warm milk for Tim, midnight black for the rest of them. Jordan took a chocolate biscuit with hers. Six months ago, that would have been a miracle on a par with Weezie’s Chest of Drawers. It was magic hour, the sun nearly down but the sky still light. Shadows took a long time to gather in the Summer Room.
For minutes, no one said anything. The family were together, just enjoying that.
Finally, Tim asked, ‘is the Hollow haunted?’
It was the first time any of them had used the word out loud.
Jordan looked eagerly at Kirsty and Steven. She had something to say, but didn’t want to go first.
Kirsty knew it was time to talk.
‘Yes, my darling,’ she said. ‘I think it is.’
‘Then why aren’t I frightened?’
That was the question.
‘I don’t think the Hollow is haunted that way,’ said Steven. ‘The Mystery Collection is enough to convince anyone this is no ordinary house, but it’s not like haunted houses in books and films. Those are bad places, where terrible things happened. You know, built on a cursed Indian burial ground, an unavenged murder victim walled up in the cellar. If there are ghosts here, they aren’t haunting us. It’s as if they’re sharing. Is there an opposite of haunted?’
‘Un-haunted?’ suggested Jordan. ‘Blessed?’
‘What about charmed?’ ventured Kirsty.
Steven was taken with that.
‘Yes, Tim … Mum’s right. This is a charmed house, a happy house. Good things have happened here and they linger like warmth. It’s in the air, like that silence after a concert, just before the applause starts.’
Kirsty drank her coffee. The grind brought here with other half-used jars and tins tasted different. That could be the water, of course. At the Hollow, they didn’t need to filter. She had stopped taking sugar in tea and coffee.
‘Do we want to talk about the magic,’ she began, hesitantly, ‘or are we afraid that if we do, it’ll go away?’
‘Magic?’ queried Steven.
‘Yes, magic,’ Jordan was eager to confirm it. ‘Things moving, things appearing. Presences.’
‘Are they what’s behind the Mystery Collection?’ asked Steven. ‘Ghosts?’
‘Not exactly, or not just,’ said Jordan.
‘The IP are friendlies,’ said Tim. ‘They extend full cooperation.’
‘You’ve seen them, Tim?’
‘You don’t see them, Dad. If you saw them, they wouldn’t be them.’
Kirsty thought about it.
‘I haven’t seen anything either, but I’ve been given things. In a way I can’t explain.’
She was wearing a bracelet from the bottom drawer.
‘And I’ve felt it. We’ve all felt it. Even you, Steven.’
Her husband took her hand and squeezed her fingers. He did not think she was mad. Another miracle.
‘I’ve seen something like a ghost,’ said Jordan.
Kirsty was surprised. She had never suspected.
Tim raised his arms and went ‘woooo-wooooo’. Everyone laughed, including Jordan.
‘Yes, that sort of ghost. A floating white thing. The shawl on the sofa, moving by itself. Dancing.’
‘I haven’t seen anything like that,’ said Steven. ‘I must have angered the spirits or something.’
‘I don’t think so, Dad,’ said Jordan. ‘It’s different for each of us, but it’s different again for all of us together.’
‘So who is it?’ Steven asked. ‘Louise?’
‘More like Weezie,’ said Kirsty.
‘Didn’t Miss Teazle die only last year?’ asked Jordan. ‘It’s older than that. I think the Hollow has been this way for a long, long time. It’s in the ground as well as the house, in the trees and the streams.’
‘Maybe we’re on top of an Arthurian burial ground?’
‘I’m not sure it’s to do with the dead.’
Steven was puzzled by Jordan’s statement. ‘Ghosts are the dead, surely? Spirits left behind, business left undone. They avenge their murders or haunt their heirs.’
‘Those would be unhappy ghosts, Dad.’
Kirsty had a thought. ‘In the Weezie books, the little girl is friends with ghosts. There’s a grisly ghost in the first one—no, a gloomy ghost—which is like your idea of a ghost, the “woooo woooo” misery and chain-rattling ghost. But she meets it, makes friends with it, and it changes. I think Louise turned her own experience into a story.’
‘Cashing in?’ laughed Steven. ‘Maybe we should too? Have haunted holidays.’
‘No, dear,’ Kirsty said, serious. ‘Louise wasn’t like that. I think she was like the house. She wanted to share.’
‘Well, thank you, Weezie,’ said Steven, raising his coffee cup. ‘And thank you too, whoever or whatever you are. Thank you, ah, for having us.’
Kirsty lifted her cup too. And Jordan, and Tim.
A delicious shiver ran through her, and she knew her family shared it. It wasn’t like a wind. The windowpanes didn’t rattle and magazine pages didn’t riffle. It was warm and cool at once, like a caress.
‘That was, um, enlightening,’ said Steven.
The red glow of sunset was splashed across every pane of the picture windows, bathing the Summer Room in petal-pink light. The windows formed a giant screen. Images swirled in the panes, turning the wall into living stained glass. Kirsty recognised the colours of the watercolours which illustrated the Weezie books.
The orchard and the moor were still there, but strings of phantom light wound between the trees. Shapes danced a midsummer gavotte. Faces formed in the interplay of the trees and the flowers and the light. It was as if music were playing, setting her inner ear a-throb, rhythms syncing with the tides of her body. But there was no sound, just a burst of clarity.
‘We should go out there,’ she said.
The French windows opened by themselves. A shimmering curtain hung above the crazy paving. Tim ran out first, dragging Jordan by her hand. They plunged through the curtain as if it were a waterfall, and joined the others in the orchard, the others who were indistinct but definite.
Every song she had ever loved ran through her head, from ‘Right Said Fred’ through ‘Hey Jude’ and ‘Anarchy in the UK’ to ‘Common People’ to ‘Becoming More Like Alfie’. Her husband got up, and pulled back her chair as she stood.
‘I think we should join the children, darling,’ he said, offering his arm.
‘I love,’ she said, beginning the sentence she had clung to for so long it had lost all meaning, then tripping as her tongue ran up against a barrier in her mind.
‘No,’ she said, concentrating to make the barrier go away. ‘I do, Steven. It’s back again. It was here, at the Hollow, waiting.’
He brushed her face with whisper kisses.
‘I love you,’ she said, and her heart was free.
He scooped her up, like a bride in a cartoon, and carried her through the shimmer into the orchard.
Jordan woke up in the orchard with the dawn, face glazed with dew, her brother curled up against her tummy. She blinked in the light, expecting the hammer of a hangover headache to strike, but there was nothing. She could think and breathe and see clearly.
Tim mumbled and rolled up into a ball.
She stood. Sparkling cobwebs hung between the rushes. She had wound up making her bed by the stream, in a natural depression. Dawn-warmth smoothed away her momentary goose-flesh.
Mum and Dad were here too, somewhere. She wasn’t worried about them.
It was like the first healthy day after a bad cold.
The morning after the best-ever love.
Everything was fresh. Her mouth tasted different, cleaner, sweeter. She ran her hands through her hair and found it finer, untangled, heavier.
She was comfortable in herself. She didn’t feel fat or scrawny.
If only Rick were here.
The longing was a worm in the apple. Soon, he would share this with her, with the family.
Last night, she had danced.
Now, she wanted breakfast. When was the last time she had eaten anything before mid-day?
The smell of fresh bread emanated from the kitchen, and the soft whistle of an old-fashioned kettle.
Tim snapped awake.
‘Come on, soldier,’ she said. ‘Reveille.’
Mum leaned out of the kitchen window, beaming and beckoning.
‘How many eggs?’ she shouted.
‘Infinite eggs,’ Jordan shouted back.
‘I’ll try my best.’
Jordan and her brother entered the house by the kitchen door.
With the morning post was a package, addressed to ‘The Naremore Family’. Recognising the tiny hand script, Kirsty claimed and opened it. Why was Vron’s first communiqué since the Weezie book addressed to the family rather than her? Did that mean anything? Should it worry her? She didn’t think anything could worry her any more.
Jordan ate like a soldier and amused Tim with her chatter. Steven watched the kids, not realising his wife was watching him. She saw his laughter lines crinkle, recognised those same lines in Jordan, even in Tim (who took after her). The magic was all around. She was safe.
Inside Vron’s packet was another book. A battered paperback with a fiery spectre on the cover. Ghost Stories of the West Country, by Catriona Kaye. Volume 46 in The Dennis Wheatley Library of the Occult. A peek inside showed a charity shop stamp and a column of crossed-out prices which began with an optimistic £2.50 and sank to a despairing 45p—which was exactly the original recommended retail price listed on the back cover. This 1976 edition, with an introduction by Wheatley, was a reprint of a book first published in 1962.
Though she’d never heard of Catriona Kaye, Kirsty remembered Dennis Wheatley. His black magic books were still liable to be confiscated by tutting teachers when she was at school. She’d tried to read one, but found it stodgy and annoying—she’d skipped to the quivering black mass the other girls had gone on about, then given up on it. She skimmed Wheatley’s introduction. A full third of the wordage annotated the menu served at the society dinner where he’d met the authoress for the only time (the consommé was excellent, apparently). Then, he dismissed Miss Kaye as ‘an impertinent, though not unintelligent flapper’ and copied out the original back jacket copy (‘a fascinating pot-pourri of spine chilling tales’) to pad his piece to two pages. Ghost Stories of the West Country wasn’t an anthology of made-up stories—at least, not in the sense that any writer invented them—but a collection of accounts of ‘true hauntings’ in Somerset, Devon, Dorset and Cornwall.
A woven bookmark—one of Vron’s unique creations, her own black hair with a carefully maintained white streak—stuck out, about half-way through. Kirsty opened to that point and read a few sentences.
‘What have you got?’ Steven asked.
‘Essential information,’ she said, holding the book to show the title. ‘Apparently, we live in “the most haunted spot in England”.’
‘Tell us something we don’t know, Mum,’ said Jordan.
‘Let me read this, and maybe I will.’
That morning, the family all read the chapter. First Kirsty, then Jordan, then Steven, then—with serious concentration, and many questions—Tim. When they had all taken aboard what the book had to say about their home, they reconvened their meeting of the night before, under the midday sun with the heat lying heavy all around.
‘So,’ said Kirsty, ‘what do we think?’
Excerpted from An English Ghost Story © Kim Newman, 2014