For one family in England, a move to a new home in rural Somerset initially brings out the best in their treatment of each other, but the walls housing their newfound harmony have perilous plans in store. The house in Kim Newman's new novel, An English Ghost Story, is not "home sweet home" material, and readers can experience moving day in the exclusive excerpt provided to us by Titan Books.
"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. A stand-alone novel from acclaimed author Kim Newman.
Kim Newman is a well known and respected author and movie critic. He writes regularly for Empire Magazine and contributes to The Guardian, The Times, Time Out and others. He makes frequent appearances on radio and TV. He has won the Bram Stoker, International Horror Guild, British Fantasy and British Science Fiction Awards and been nominated for the Hugo and World Fantasy Awards."
— — —
Sun rose over the Hollow. Birds sang, and flew from the trees to the eaves of the house. Water boatmen skipped on the duckweed in the ditches. Early summer dew burned off in a trice. Apples, ripe early, hung in the orchard, ready to be eaten.
The Hollow was coming to life, in anticipation.
Bowker drove Steven out to the Hollow and handed over the keys, along with an oilskin packet of papers and deeds. Steven shook hands with the estate agent, who lingered an awkward moment -- not setting foot on property no longer under his custodianship, his right of access given away with the keys -- and left, wishing the Naremores joy in their new home.
Steven opened the gate and let it swing inwards on its new hinges, then crossed the bridge. He found himself striding proudly up the drive, until he stood between the shadows of the towers. He got on his mobile and told Kirsty they owned the Hollow. She said the movers had called and were on their way from London.
After ringing off, he wandered beyond the house and stood alone in his orchard, looking at his trees and his house, feeling the spring of his grass under his soles. At last, he could relax. For the first time in what must have been years, he was completely calm, secure, safe.
His wife and kids were back in Sutton Mallet, at the b and b where they'd spent the night. The family's belongings were in a removal van on a motorway. Steven's business was out in the aether: telephone numbers, e-mail addresses, web-sites, domain names and bank accounts in the process of transfer from one physical address to another. This moment of possession was his alone.
On behalf of the family, but his.
There had been a bad moment when the survey came back with a list of needed repairs, but the Teazle estate dropped the asking price. In his profession, Bowker could almost pass for human. He’d gone out of his way to fix the deal, arranging for the urgent work to be done before exchange of contracts. Steven's ambition, however, was still never to be in a kitchen with an estate agent again.
Since that first visit to the Hollow, he'd been back several times, frustratingly chaperoned, suffering agonies of doubt. What had been obvious that first time was hard to recapture. He should not have worried. He knew that now.
Experience led him to expect disappointment, to suspect a fast one being pulled. The hardest part was overcoming his instinct to distrust. He had to concede the possibility something good was being gifted.
It was still here. What they had all felt.
He looked up at the West Tower, at the window of the room he would share with Kirsty. In the flat -- in the old flat -- their double bed had to be jammed into a corner, leaving only a thin L of path around it. To get dressed or undressed without banging elbows or knees, they’d had to go into the bathroom. The master bedroom at the Hollow had space for a king-size bed, a dressing table, a full-length mirror and matched his and hers chests of drawers with room left over. Should they ever want to, they could fit in a hip-bath, a spinning wheel, a Nautilus machine and a pinball table. The walk-in wardrobe was the size of Tim's old room.
The window caught the sun and flashed like a mirror held by a partisan signalling an all-clear to comrades.
Because he could, because no one could stop him, Steven let his body go limp and fell to his knees, feeling the cool of the grass through his jeans, then pitched forward onto his face and rolled over to look up at the sky.
He lay on the land he owned. Tree-branches crowded his vision. Green and gold fruit hung, waiting to be plucked and eaten. They must all have apples. It would be a ceremony. Eating the fruit would seal the pact.
His mobile trilled. He let it ring for long seconds.
Overarching branches shielded him from the sun. He did not have to squint or blink. He could focus on the gentle movements of the trees. They had been beckoning; now they were welcoming.
Steven felt as if he were being hugged.
Jordan kept an eye on the road ahead. It wasn’t a winding country lane but an arrow-straight Roman causeway across a moor. It would be all too easy to drive into a ditch if the road took a sharp, unexpected kink. Mum, carphone wedged between shoulder and jaw, ran over her things-to-do-list, talking equally to Dad over the phone and Jordan and Tim in the car.
Mum was sensitive about her driving – she’d been in two accidents, and once lost her license for a year -- so Jordan didn't mention any minor veering or the incident of the startled cyclists. She would only speak up if a Naremore life was threatened. Tim had a dent in his forehead, near the hairline, from the worse of the two crashes. He was always careful to fasten his seatbelt now, even when sitting in a parked car. Jordan had been in the accident too, but only sustained minor bruises. She remembered the instant of grinding terror, though.
Jordan saw Mum had spotted the turn-off. They had their own signpost: The Hollow ½m. On large-scale maps, the place was listed as if it were a tiny village separate from the already-tiny-enough Sutton Mallet.
The signpost was a pick-up point for the school buses she and Tim would be catching come September. Because of a discrepancy in the educational systems of town and country, it was easier to let them miss a month or so at the end of this academic year and start fresh in the autumn, after an extended holiday which stretched ahead like an eternity. Tim would be joining Class Six of primary school in Huish Episcopi. She would be in the second year at Sedgwater College.
Her old college let her sit her mocks a month early, to help with the move. She had done as well as expected. Exams had never been among her problems. That was one of the reasons few noticed the problems she did have: as long as she got marks in school, all must be right at home and in her heart.
There was no point thinking like that. Things were different now.
She could hardly believe it herself, but last night in the cramped b and b room, even before they were in the Hollow, she had breathed easier and slept well. Weights which had pressed down on her for as long as she could remember were lifted. She wanted to call Rick as soon as possible, and tell him how she felt, how things were changing. Without Rick, she might not have made it through the dark forest to this clearing.
Mum's list ran on as she drove along the turn-off that became the drive of the Hollow. At this rate, her parents would still be on the phone to each other when they were face to face.
'Nearly there, Steven,' said Mum. 'I'll click off.'
She put the carphone in its dashboard cradle, and checked on Jordan and Tim with glances up at the rear-view mirror and to the side.
'You two have everything sorted? We've a lot to get through today.'
Getting the major moving-in done in one day was important to Mum and Dad. They wanted to sleep soundly in their new house and wake up the next morning to find themselves at home.
For Jordan, it would be different. It would take months of exploring and teasing and rearranging and experimenting before she was settled. It would be like when she started going out with Rick, and wasn't quite sure what to make of him but knew it would be all right in the end. She looked forward to the long business of moving-in. It would be an adventure, just as Rick had been -- was still -- an adventure.
'Your LL has been noted and processed, Marm,' said Tim.
'LL?' queried Mum.
'Lengthy List,' Jordan explained.
Tim's acronyms often annoyed Mum, but now she laughed, half-turned and accepted her son's salute.
Tim wore baggy camouflage trousers, green-black t-shirt and SAS-style black beret. For this mission, he had tiger-striped his face grey and green and gold.
Jordan sometimes thought her little brother inhabited one of those weird zones. Then again, she was hardly one to speak up. None of the Ne'er-do-well Naremores could stand for the Average Normal Party.
'Where's he got to?' Mum asked.
They were driving through the gate, over the bridge -- less rickety-rackety after the concrete fix-up required by what Tim called the SS, Sinister Survey -- and onto (into?) the Hollow. Mum looked around for Dad.
They had agreed, in a way Jordan thought was sweet, that he should not go into the house -- their house -- without them. The family should take the first step inside together.
Dad should be outside.
'You could always give him a bell,' Jordan suggested.
Mum instinctively reached for the carphone before realising it was a joke.
'HH', she said, exaggeratedly. Standing for 'Ha-Ha', it was a Timism the whole family had picked up on.
'Is Dad a casualty?' Tim asked.
Jordan and Mum looked where Tim was pointing, between the garage and the house. Dad was lying flat on the ground in the orchard, limbs stretched out in an X. Hearing the car, he sat up sharply, flyaway hair sticking out, displaying a goofy grin.
'Definitely a casualty,' Mum confirmed.
It was a day of firsts and rituals. That was important. They linked arms and octopus-stepped over the threshold, cramming themselves into the foyer. Then they laughed as Steven searched his pockets for the keys which he had only just put away, refusing to let his arms free until they were properly inside. He had forgotten the inner foyer doors, which led into what Tim called 'the secret passage'. All the doors and windows were newly-fitted with locks. The keys were still shiny and hard to tell apart, but he instinctively slid the right one into the lock and it turned easily.
Kirsty and Jordan set out to make a ceremonial pot of tea. There were cups a-plenty in the kitchen, though they had to be rinsed of months' dust. Kirsty had brought tea-bags and milk from the village shop. While the womenfolk saw to their chores, Steven and Tim went out to fetch apples.
'The golden ones are sweet and for eating, while the green ones are tart and for cooking,' said Kirsty.
'You should get the gold ones,' added Jordan.
'HH,' said Steven and Tim, together.
In the orchard, Steven put on an ironic caveman voice and told his son, 'Men hunt, women cook.'
'Women can hunt,' said Tim.
Steven hefted Tim, who was getting to be quite a weight at nine, up onto his shoulders and hoisted him towards an apple-bearing branch.
'I can't reach, PP.'
PP. Paternal Parent.
'I can't heft you any higher.'
'It's all right.'
Apples fell past Steven and thumped on the grass. Four exactly.
'The branch bent. I couldn't reach it, but it could reach me.'
'If that isn't a welcome, I don't know what is.'
He crouched and let Tim vault off his shoulders. Straightening up, he saw the branch still swaying, having given up its gifts. Tim snapped off a salute to the tree, which Steven solemnly echoed.
Tim pulled the front of his t-shirt out into an apron-pocket and piled in the apples. His white tummy and arms undermined his junior commando look, made him less Tim o' the Green.
This could work, Steven thought. No, he must be more positive. This would work.
The past two months had been eerily quiet. At first, he felt he was walking through a landscape dotted with unexploded bombs, some sticking obviously out of the dirt, others buried just below the surface. An explosion would almost have been a relief. At least, a big bang would mean things getting back to what passed for normal. Then it dawned on him. A tiny green shoot of an idea, poking up through the blasted landscape. Could this be hope? Had everything really changed?
The family had made an unspoken pact. Their mission, as Tim would have put it, was to get back to the Hollow, to occupy the position and to hold off all-comers. With that end in view, sacrifices Steven had expected to be forced after screaming matches were made with quiet dignity. It was not just about Dad being a crackpot.
Before they saw the Hollow, the mooted move had been an act of desperation, a last chance. It had been this or call in the lawyers, the therapists and - God help him but it might have come to it - the hit men. Since their first sight of this place, he had begun to feel they were not escaping from anything but escaping to something.
Now they were here, safe.
While the moving men carried family belongings into the house, Tim executed a complete reconnoitre of the territory. With two cups of tea in him, he piddled in all four of the toilets, achieving a satisfactory FF (First Flush) in each. He had enough pee left to spray a few drops into the ditch at the far border of the property. Holes plopped in a green mass of duckweed took slow moments to fill in. In the city, only the homeless piddled in the open air, but the country welcomed the watering.
That first time, Tim had carried out only the most perfunctory reconnaissance. Mum and Dad had been back to the Hollow while prepping the relocation. The BS had gone along on one of those expeditions, but he was held in reserve, confined to quarters. This was the key deployment. It was on him now. He had to get the lie of the land, assess its potential. Once mapped and known, landscape was an ally.
First, he inspected the perimeter. He began at the bridge, looked over the clean concrete support pillars which had been put in recently. Plants were already swarming up around them, green rust spreading in tendrils. He slid down the thickly-grassed slope to the slow-flowing stream and looked under the bridge. He dipped his hand in cool water. In a pinch, it was potable.
He found an unrusted steel strut which made a perfect hand-hold and slipped under the bridge, curling up and jamming his knees against the concrete underside to keep his feet out of the water. There was just enough space to crawl along, hanging upside-down, reaching from strut to strut, without getting wet. Emerging into sunlight, he awarded himself ten merit points for the small manoeuvre but deducted five for forgetting to time himself against his stopwatch. If he didn't know his time, how could he better it?
Beyond the bridge, he stayed down in the stream-bed and made his way to the corner of the property, where a T-junction fed the ditch around the Hollow. The moat was shallow, a reflecting runnel of green water in the centre of a strip of muddy, reed-thronged marsh. Insects crawled and buzzed, some fabulously strange.
Tim made his way around the ditch, until he was back where he started. The Hollow's moat consisted of two flowing streams connected by still cross-channels. The moor, neutral territory, was divided into fields by these ditches. Far off, he could see sheep.
His hands and arms were brown now, with grey patches where mud had dried in the sun.
The perimeter secure, he mentally divided the property into quadrants: orchard, garage/barn, house, drive. The garage/barn and the house would warrant extensive individual patrols, but orchard and drive were open territory. At present, the drive was occupied by the movers’ vehicle. Tim found a spot by an outlying tree, in a clump of bushes dotted with tiny yellow flowers. He blended in to watch the moving men at work. Since the secret passage was narrow, they had to lug the bigger items round by a side path and through the glass doors. He was pleased none of them spotted him. They were not potential hostiles, but this was fresh country and he needed the practice. He had to become part of the land.
He thought about the orchard. He felt good about the place. The tree had dropped apples into his hand. An operative could live off the land in that quadrant, find shelter and provisions. Vegetation would conceal him from enemy eyes.
The largest of the trees had fallen once, but grew still. The trunk had split open and its inside was rotted out, but it had survived and flourished. A thick, healthy limb extended from the main trunk, spreading living branches from the hollow bole, sound wood growing from the dead. This was a good place. When prying eyes were gone, he would work with an entrenching tool and make himself a lair. PP had said something about helping Tim build a treehouse, but that wasn't quite in the plan. He envisioned a hide, which would be secret. From the outside, it must just look like a fallen tree. Hostiles would stroll past without knowing they were mere feet from his lair. He had a code-name ready, Green Base.
The old campaign, the city mission, was over. No victory could be claimed, since it was abandoned before objectives were secured. A black merit against him, which he would have to work hard to wipe out. Though it had not been his decision, forces had withdrawn and he had pulled out along with the rest of them.
Here, there would be a new campaign.
At the Hollow, there was a chance for G and G. Gold and Glory.
A fresh apple fell, nearby. Tim reached out and it slapped right into his hand, a perfect catch.
Earlier, he had shared fruit with the family.
This was just for him.
The Hollow swallowed everything they had brought from London. When heaved into place by the removal men, their desks and chairs stood out, clashing with what was there. But if Kirsty looked again a few minutes later, she couldn't tell what was old and what was new -- except the obvious Naremore gadgets Miss Teazle had lived and died without: widescreen TV, computers, CD and DVD players, fax, microwave.
Kirsty's old things, bits of furniture from the flat, were newer than things which had been here forever, or at least since Louise Teazle was a girl. Decisions must be made soon. Stuff would have to go. Their leaved dining table looked like a sideboard next to the Hollow's main table, which was long, wide and solid enough for a catwalk.
She was ready to be ruthless. Someone in this family had to be. First for the chop: a dusty five-bar electric heater which stood in the huge fireplace. Its inadequate grille and visibly frayed fabric cord were accidents-in-the-making.
The Hollow was a project worthy of her full attention. She had ideas about how it could be made to work for them. At the moment, Steven thought of it only as a home, but Kirsty saw more, a potential business asset. She wasn't ready to set out her ideas yet, but when she did they would be stunners.
They already had post, dumped on an escritoire in the passage. She carried it into the main room. Letters had come from electricity, water, satellite TV and telephone suppliers. A technician would be out tomorrow to hook up more phone lines and the dish was due at the end of the week. She glanced at an electoral register form and a set of leaflets from the council and read several cards from people who had received their change of address note.
'You haven't dropped out of the Rat Race,' wrote Bobbie, 'you're just running faster than the other rats.' What had her sister meant by that. Probably nothing; it was widely accepted that Bobbie was barking.
When she picked up a slim packet, borders edged with the self-invented hieroglyphs Vron used on everything, an uneasy plunge of anticipation troubled her stomach. She had no idea how her best friend was really taking the family move, whether she saw it as a betrayal or an abandonment. She turned over the jiffy bag several times, trying to puzzle out runes she knew were impenetrable. To the horror of the Post Office, Vron once sent Steven a birthday parcel blatantly marked ‘contains Anthrax and Poison’, CDs of the metal bands he didn’t like. After a deep breath, she slit open the packet. Out slid a shiny, modern paperback. Weezie and the Gloomy Ghost, first of the Weezie books. Inside the book was an Escher postcard with 'Luck' lettered on the back.
Kirsty thought Vron didn't believe in luck, then remembered her friend’s actual statement was that she believed people made their own luck. Thinking for a moment, she decided it was a fair post-break card, a helpful note -- though 'Good Luck' would have been less ambiguous. The picture, of impossible lizards climbing impossible stairs, meant something she would puzzle out later. Everything Vron did meant something. The book would be useful. She would re-read it, perhaps aloud to Steven and the kids … though she’d better keep back who it came from. Vron was still a touchy subject at family meetings.
A cream envelope was addressed to 'the New Owners'. Mr Bernard Wing-Godfrey, President of the Louise Magellan Teazle Society, asked permission to pay a visit to discuss matters relating to the late authoress. He congratulated the Naremores on being lucky enough to live in his heroine's house.
Did Wing-Godfrey mean Weezie or Miss Teazle?
She hadn’t read a Louise Magellan Teazle in thirty-five years. Suddenly, looking at the little girl on the cover of the book, a penny dropped. Weezie was short for Louise, doubly short for Louise Teazle. They must have called Louise ‘Weezie’ when she was little. Kirsty paged through Weezie and the Gloomy Ghost, looking at the Van Loon illustrations. Hilltop Heights was the Hollow taken off a moor and put on a hill. One picture showed Weezie's home in full, in the distance beyond the copse where Weezie stood with the transformed Merry Ghost. The two towers were unmistakable. Kirsty wanted to share this with Steven, soon.
She looked around, remembering what she had said on the viewing day, that she could see things from the stories in the big room -- what would they call it, the hall? -- and all around the house.
Kirsty had never known such a happy place.
And now she lived here.
She had been told about happy places, but never been able to believe in them. Until the break, Vron had told her that what she needed to do was find a happy place inside herself and move into it when things got too much. Vron said you could furnish your happy place from memory and whimsy. When had tried, Kirsty imagined a big room filled with items that meant something to her. She hadn't got very far before it all fell apart.
Like a lot of Vron's ideas, the happy place theory was barely workable. But before giving up, Kirsty had remembered to include Weezie's Magic Chest of Drawers, with the top drawer that always had the same thing in and the bottom drawer that never had the same thing twice and the middle drawer which was always a jumble of surprises.
There was a three-drawer chest in Jordan's room. She was sure she had seen it. An idea clicked in her mind and a wish warmed her heart.
Kirsty went up, above Miss Teazle's study, and looked in on her daughter.
'Hello, Mum. What's up?'
Jordan had her three matching pink suitcases open on the bed.
The chest of drawers was in a corner. Kirsty was drawn to it. She touched its stained surface. The brass handles were tarnished. It had taken some punishment over the years. Louise must have had a kitten; old scratches marred the bottom drawer.
(that never had the same things twice)
'Would you mind if I had this in our room?'
'It's too small for your collection.'
A taller chest of thinner drawers was in the middle of the room, final resting place undecided. Its drawers were sealed with masking tape.
Jordan thought a while and Kirsty found herself on hooks. What if her daughter refused? After so long without a blow-up, was this worth one?
'Feel free, Mum.'
Kirsty was relieved and hugged Jordan, suddenly, harder than she intended.
'Oof. What's that for?'
'Because I have the best family in the world.'
Jordan looked at her, not sure if she were serious or setting a trap. Kirsty couldn't blame her, not after everything.
'So do I, Mum.'
Tears started in Kirsty's eyes. Happy tears.
With clothes unpacked and things provisionally arranged, Jordan could relax, easing into her room as if it were a warm, scented bath. She picked a suitable disc from a Perspex rack and fit it into her portable CD-tape-tuner: the Chordettes, Sentimental Journey. She lowered herself into the rocking chair, gingerly in case it snapped to twigs under her weight. The chair was just her size. She settled and put out a foot, resting it against the low window-sill. She eased herself gently back and forwards, in time to 'Carolina Moon'. The movement was strangely sexual.
Her favourite photograph of Rick was tucked into a corner of the dressing-table mirror, where he could gurn at her when she played with her face. As she rocked, his tiny eyes seemed to follow her.
When Dad and Mum told her the family was moving to the West Country, Jordan threw one of her wobbliest wobblies. She refused to eat for a week and retreated to her cupboard-like old room. Putting on her eyelashed sleep mask and earphones, she played heartbroken Patsy Cline directly to her brain.
She thought only one thing. Leaving London meant losing Rick. The whole move was cunningly designed to make her utterly miserable.
It wasn't as if coming by a boyfriend had been easy. She was one of those girls boys were afraid of. It was odd, because she had always had more boy friends than girl friends. Talking to fellas was easier because she had more to talk about with them. All the boys she had been friends with until the last few years went mad with puberty. They either started looking at her with that expression that really did have to be called 'undisguised lust' no matter how silly it sounded, or wanted to pour out their hearts about how they were tragically smitten with some twitty girl Jordan wouldn't have given the time of day.
She wasn't tribal, either: while classmates were deciding which Spice Girl to emulate, her role models were Doris Day in the tart romantic comedies of the early 1960s and Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face and Breakfast at Tiffany's. She listened to all kinds of music, but mostly liked singers from the 1950s and early 60s. For a while, she had worn a headband like Jackie Kennedy and dressed for college in a powder-blue suit with matching shoes and gloves. When asked why she favoured odd styles, she could only say they felt right to her, embarrassed even by terms like ‘vintage' and 'retro'.
The thing about Rick was that he hadn't been at the same schools as her from the age of six. They had met in college as more-or-less adults and didn't have any history. He noticed her in the common room, when she was smoking her third ever cigarette. She had bought a long pink holder in the Oxfam shop and had to take up the habit to make use of it. He was a sci-fi freak and said she looked like Lady Penelope from Thunderbirds. He had unmanageable red hair and crooked teeth, but she had known at once about him, as she had known at once about the Hollow.
If it had been a few years ago, the move would have meant starting all over. Tim had already forgotten his city friends and was ready for country duty. But she was different.
As soon as she saw the Hollow, she knew that moving wasn't leaving, wasn't a straight swap. Dad was bringing his business with him, prepared to work out of a virtual office. Mum wouldn't cut herself off from the support network she’d built up in London. Map distance meant very little these days.
Her parents knew she had slept with Rick. She had put up with their lecture about being 'sensible' though she gathered that as teenagers they’d been gob-happy, pill-popping, joylessly promiscuous punks. There were photos of Mum with her hair in a Mohawk ruff. The major concession Jordan had extorted in return for her cooperation with house-hunting expeditions was that Rick would be able to sleep over at the flat. As it happens, they had only been able to take advantage of the ruling twice and on one of those times her period had been on and they couldn't do anything. She had been assured with a solemnity on a par with a clause in a peace treaty ending a thirty-year border war that Rick would always be welcome at the Hollow, to stay for as long as he wanted. He was leaving college in a month's time and would come down for a long visit. Then he was taking a year off to work as a cycle messenger before going to the University of the West of England in Bristol, only fifty minutes away from Sutton Mallet. It took longer to get across London in the rush hour. She was already determined to get into UWE. It made perfect sense. The Communications degree Rick was taking was ideal for her. The puzzle pieces all fit.
She would be happy in this place. Rick too.
Back in the city, she was still a kid because everyone she knew thought of her that way. They looked at her style choices and thought she was playing dress-up, but this was the way she was, was who she was. It wasn't going to change.
Here, at the Hollow, she would be treated as a young lady.
From her window, she saw Tim dart from tree to tree, finding spots of cover. This was his paradise too.
As she rocked, she remembered caresses. Afternoon sunlight fell upon her, warming her face and hands and throat like soft warm fingers.
Clear voices told Jordan what she could expect from love
Steven gave the moving men bottles of beer from the cool-box. It was a hot day and they'd unloaded in double-quick time.
The three blokes from the city, sweaty from work, sat on the grass by his drive, blinking in the sunlight. Already, he was apart from them. They were alien but he was at home. He was from the Hollow. He was a Hollow Man.
'Lovely spot you've found here, Steve,' said Ben, the driver. 'Idyllic.'
Ben's shifters -- a friendly Rasta called Trey and a silent lad, Jimmie -- drank their beer and looked up at the towers. This must be totally beyond their experience.
'Wonderful for kids,' said Ben. 'Specially your younger pair. Loads of places for hide and seek. They're already at it, I see.'
'Tim's gone to ground,' Steven admitted.
They looked past the house, into the orchard.
'It's like "how many animals can you see in this picture?"' suggested Trey.
Steven laughed. Tim was crawling by the fallen tree, keeping close to its shrinking noontime shadow.
'What's your little girl's name?' Ben asked.
'No. The littler one. With the straw hat.'
'Don't understand your banter, old chap,' said Steven, stiffer than he meant.
'She was watching us inside, from the fireplace,' said Ben. 'Wasn't she, lads?'
Reluctantly, Trey nodded. Steven noticed he had crossed his fingers, all eight of them.
'Pretty little thing,' said Ben. 'With ribbons.'
'Not one of mine, I'm afraid. Must be a stray.'
'There was no girl,' said Jimmie. He didn't have the thin voice Steven had imagined. 'Just shadows. Playing tricks.'
Ben let it drop. Steven was puzzled. Something was odd here, but he'd have time to hunt it down. He was going to have a lot of time.
He had arranged with his major clients to take things easy for the next month while he got the Hollow sorted out. Then, he would be open again for business and better than ever.
Steven wasn't a stockbroker, an accountant or an investment counsellor. In the pits of the crash, ejected from the brokerage where he’d worked for most of the 80s, he had found a gap in the money market and made up his own job. He found individuals or institutions with funds to invest and brought them together with individuals or institutions with projects which needed finance. He was an intermediary, a deal-maker. It was a game, really: putting together financial jigsaws. Tatum, his personal assistant, was keeping his city office open, but the business was in Steven's head and computer files. When he worked it out, he was surprised at how little he needed to be in London. Well over half his clients weren't city-based. He just hoped there would be enough for Tatum to do to justify her salary. Especially when he took on someone local to handle secretary-assistant chores here.
'Talk about peace and quiet,' said Ben. 'Listen to that.'
A few birds. Tiny tree-shifting sounds. Kirsty pottering about in the house. No traffic, no voices, no car alarms.
'And breathe the air.'
Steven took in a lungful and didn't choke.
'Wait till someone spills a load of cow's muck on the road,' said Trey. 'Then talk to me about your effluents.'
'I hope you know what you're doing, Mr Naremore,' said Jimmie. 'This isn't the city.'
'True,' said Trey. 'No clubs, no cinemas, no tube trains, no Saturday nights. Prob'ly can't get espresso for a hundred mile hereabouts.'
'Oh yes I can. I've brought my own machine.'
Trey laughed, dreads shaking.
'We're here to escape from Saturday nights,' Steven said.
'That's not what I mean,' said Jimmie.
'I'd go mad inside a week,' said Trey.
'Just be careful,' said Jimmie. 'Shadows can be deceiving. You need to shine your light all around.'
Kirsty put a bowl of apples, which Tim had gathered, on top of her new chest of drawers, the Weezie Chest. She remembered how it went, and recited to herself.
'"The top drawer always had the same thing in and the bottom drawer never had the same thing twice and the middle drawer was always a jumble of surprises."'
She pulled open the top drawer. It was empty. And the bottom drawer. Empty too. The middle drawer was stuck. She had to scrape a seal of paint with a nail-file before she could jiggle it open. It was crammed with bent, rusty wire coat hangers. A jumble, certainly, but not really surprising. She took out the hangers and twisted them into a modern artwork which she shoved into one of the Sainsbury's bags they were using for the rubbish. Hanger-hooks speared through the plastic like claws.
So much for Weezie's Magic Chest of Drawers.
When she was a little girl, Louise Teazle must have had more imagination than Kirsty's children. Of course, she had grown up to be a writer. She had to have imagination. Sometimes Kirsty wondered what was wrong with her kids. Shouldn't they be crazier? They were both far too responsible. At Jordan's age, she’d been a wild woman, with biro-tattooed knuckles and safety-pin piercings. Her daughter's watchwords were 'neat' and 'nice'. There was hope for Tim, though, when he grew out of this military thing.
A magic chest of drawers shouldn't be empty. She pulled out the bottom drawer and popped in an apple. She hadn't noticed but there was an old newspaper lining the drawer, faded to match the brown of the wood. The headlines were about Chairman Mao and Christian Barnard. She shut the drawer.
Pleased with herself, she put apples in the two other drawers.
Weezie, she remembered, had to feed her chest of drawers with cake, to keep it magic. Louise's mother (Mama) must have gone spare if she really did that, left pieces of cake in with the linen to mould.
She looked out of the window.
Jordan sat in her rocking chair in her own bedroom window, in the opposite tower. She looked like Norman’s mother in Psycho, which made Kirsty giggle. Steven was in the drive, bonding with the moving men over beer. Tim was in the orchard, creeping up on an invisible enemy.
From here, she could see her whole family.
Knowing where everything was calmed her. Vron said Kirsty was deathly afraid of letting things get away from her, that she needed perspective. That was one of Vron's metaphors, but here it was literally true. All along, what she had needed was not Tamazepam or primal scream therapy but a tower tall enough to look down from, to be sure everything was all right.
She wanted an apple. An apple from the orchard.
There were some still in the bowl, but she decided to take one out of the chest.
She opened the top drawer. There was no apple.
She felt inside, reaching and finding that the drawer had no back. The apple must have fallen.
The middle drawer was stuck again, so she pulled out the bottom drawer. Two apples lay on the newspaper. She laughed, realising the magic had worked. The top drawer, which had been empty when she first pulled it out, always had the same thing in it. Nothing. The bottom drawer, which had also been empty, never had the same thing twice. First it was empty, then it had one apple, now two apples. Of course, there was an explanation. The apple had fallen from the top drawer to the bottom. All magic was like that, she supposed. With an explanation.
She gave the middle drawer a wrench, not really expecting a jumble of surprises. The drawer came open, and she looked down at a pool of apple sauce.
Time to make a full report to the PP. Tim snapped off a salute, and ran down the intel he had gathered from his recce.
Dad nodded. Usually, he barely took in Tim's reports. Today, first day of the new mission, he paid attention.
'There are no hostiles within the perimeter,' Tim reported. 'This is a safety zone.'
'That's good to know, Timmy.'
'The IP is friendly.'
Dad flashed a proper smile. 'Of course.'
'I'll run information-gathering sorties over the next week, so we know what animal life we've got around the place.'
'Did you run across a little girl in a straw hat?'
'No, PP. Should I have?'
Tim was genuinely puzzled.
'Not really. You can stand down now, Timmy.'
Tim let his breath out and slumped a little.
'You look tuckered out, soldier. Better hop off to the bathroom and get that camouflage off before the MP catches you. There'll be an inspection later. Best not have dirt under the fingernails.'
Tim recognised Dad was playing along. The PP only half-understood the mission. Brass were like that everywhere, Tim supposed. But they were over him for a reason. His job wasn't to question authority.
He made his way to one of the bathrooms.
He would be careful to look out for this little girl in a straw hat. She was probably not hostile, but he couldn't be sure until he'd cleared her himself.
In the bathroom, he methodically cleaned his face, hands and arms. Then he changed into civvies.
How could that happen?
It wasn't exactly apple sauce. There were pips and a stem in there, and shredded peel. She touched it, but didn't dare taste. It was as if a whole apple had been put in a blender and given a couple of minutes.
A jumble of surprises?
She shut the drawer and pulled it out again.
Still apple sauce, but she found out why the drawer kept sticking. One last hanger-hook, broken off, was caught in the runner. It had come loose now and lay in the apple mess.
She looked in the top drawer. Still empty.
The bottom. No apples, no newspaper. A shiny copper coin. A 1948 half-penny. She shut the drawer and pulled it out again. No apples, no newspaper, no coin. A single, limp, white glove. She took it out and slipped it on. It was elbow-length, with a pearl button at the wrist. It felt warm, as if it had just been worn. She liked the glove. It was elegant, seemly, fitting and fit.
She closed and opened the drawer again, hoping for a match. This time, there was a dried, pressed flower. A rose. That gave her pause. Rose was her middle name, and Vron's. A word of power between them. When they signed messages 'Rose', it signified something of paramount importance. They had called their music venture Rose Records. She picked up the rose with gloved fingers.
It was as if she was being spoken to, with symbols. A very Vron-like way of going about things.
No. She was being silly. The chest must be a conjuring prop. There were hidden blades in the middle drawer, and a false back to the whole thing. When she opened and closed the drawers, she was tripping tiny levers, shifting objects around. It was no surprise Louise would have such a thing. She wrote about magic, so people would have given her magical presents. Had it been made for one of the television adaptations of Weezie?
She opened the top drawer, the one that always had the same thing, nothing. It did not disappoint her. She took the plastic bag of bent coat hangers and jammed it in. The bag barely fit and she had to bend and break the hangers further, ripping the bag to uselessness, to get the tangle to lie flat enough for her to close the drawer.
She counted slowly up to five and opened the top drawer.
She closed and opened, closed and opened, closed and opened.
The hangers were gone forever. This was better than a kitchen waste disposal unit. She found other things which needed to be thrown away -- bags and wrappers and ruptured cardboard boxes -- and disappeared them.
She picked up the chest of drawers. It wasn’t heavy. It couldn't contain an intricate mechanism. It wasn’t connected to any hidden chute. She’d humped it here from Jordan's room and knew it was just a piece of furniture.
It was magic. That was all there was to it.
Steven was in charge of the family's first proper meal at the Hollow. Kirsty had produced a bean-salad in Tupperware and a joint of cold ham for lunch, which had been eaten outside with the moving men. Now the family were alone together and could break bread – Delia’s pasta carbonara, actually, but with warmed French bread on the side -- at their own table.
Tim set the places. Jordan picked the wine and the music (she had to tell Steven who it was, Julie London). The children collaborated on the carrying-out of bowls and bottles from the kitchen to the big room, which he realised now was to be called the Summer Room. Never before had Steven cooked in a room different from the one where they ate. It meant a whole new tier of jobs to be parcelled out.
Kirsty came down from the tower, in her backless cream evening dress, with one white glove. She had put her hair up.
Steven was stunned.
Tonight, when the kids were in bed, there was another inaugural ceremony to be seen to. When they had got their first flat together, they had christened all three rooms in one night, with dozes between bouts of lovemaking, and had enough left over in the early morning for afterplay in the tub of the tiny bathroom.
Counting the inside toilet, the secret passage, the larder and the foyer but not the outside toilet or the barn-garage (which might bear investigation), there were sixteen rooms at the Hollow. Maybe more, if some of the wardrobes were reckoned and further exploration of the unused store-rooms disclosed secret nooks. At thirty-eight, Steven wasn't sure if he was up to it in a month, let alone a night. And there'd be awful complications with Jordan's and Tim's rooms.
Looking at Kirsty, though, he wondered.
These last years -- God knows how many? -- their lives had been changing. Properly looking at her had sometimes been difficult. There were always people -- the kids, Vron, others -- and things -- work, craziness, medication -- in the way. They had both turned into strangers.
His wife was still a stranger, but not in a frightening way.
Behind her, the moors were twilit. A moon hung up high, light scattering in through the wall of glass, falling all about the Summer Room. The view was spectacular, endlessly changing but eternally the same. From this room, the landscape they saw was exactly as it would have been to a Monmouth rebel or a Roman legionary standing on the same spot. Only the occasional winking red aeroplane light among the stars let slip that this was nearly the 21st Century.
And his wife was the same. Eternally the same, eternally a surprise. He remembered how she had been when they met, and understood that in recent years she had just channelled her wildness into other things. Now, it was being directed back at him and his mouth was dry with excitement.
'Where's the other glove, Mum?' Jordan asked.
'Does everything have to be symmetrical, darling girl?'
Kirsty made a flourish with her fingers.
Steven was suddenly very hungry indeed.
They all took their places at the table, clustering at one end around a candelabrum Jordan had found in one of the unexplored rooms. Candles dripped on white cloth. The big bowl of pasta had to be passed from person to person. It was almost too heavy for Tim.
Steven hadn't had to say grace since school and wasn't about to start now. But something had to be said. He could not let this moment pass.
He lifted a glass of wine.
'A toast, I'm afraid. We have to have one. Jordan, pour Tim some wine.'
No protest came from Kirsty, whose eyes and earrings sparkled with candlelight. Tim put aside his orange juice and Jordan grinned at her brother as she decanted a half-measure of Chilean red. Steven was determined to do this properly.
'To us, to the Naremore Family, and to our new home. We would like to thank the Hollow for having us, and we hope that it will keep us always.'
'Here here,' said Jordan, chinking her glass against Tim's.
The sparkles in Kirsty's eyes were tears. Steven's chest tightened with unbidden memories of other tears. The glass in his hand was crystal, very easy to shatter with too heavy a grip.
Kirsty dabbed her eyes with the back of her new-old glove and touched his glass with hers. She mouthed 'I love you' at him and took a deep drink.
'Magic,' she said out loud.
Jordan lay on her old mattress in her new bed. She was a little tipsy. Half-way through the meal, she realised her parents were looking at each other the way she and Rick looked at each other. It was the feeling she associated with Peggy Lee singing 'Fever', that finger-snapping, languid beat of mutual desire.
Right now, in the other tower, her parents were having sex.
She was more aware of it than she ever had been in the flat, though her room there had adjoined her parents'. One or other of them had been sleeping out of the flat or on the front room sofa for what seemed like three-quarters of the time.
She supposed it was a good thing, Mum and Dad making love. But, still, well ... ugh!
The land-line wouldn't be hooked up until tomorrow and she hadn't been able to exchange more than a few words with Rick's father on Dad's mobile. She gathered Rick wasn't at home. She hadn't expected him to stay in missing her, though that would probably have made her feel nice.
When she had a phone in her room, she would be able to talk to Rick every night. She tipsily pondered this phone sex thing. How did it work exactly? Like Rock Hudson and Doris Day in their split-screen baths in Pillow Talk?
She didn't feel alone or lonely.
There were tiny movements in the room. The chair by the window was rocking, not vigorously, not noisily. It was a comfort. The rocking was in time to 'Fever'.
All at once, she fell asleep and dreamed.
She kept her glove on, enjoying the feel of him through satin, hooking her arm around his neck. In the dark, they were new people, without all the baggage of a marriage. Kirsty forgot everything beyond the bed.
Afterwards, she was too exhausted to sleep. The rhythm still beat in her body, and she still felt him close, pushing gently against her, pressing down tenderly. He had most of the duvet but she was warm enough, wondering if her skin was glowing with the heat she felt inside.
Steven had dropped off and was sighing in his sleep. He only snored when he had the flu.
She slipped out from under his arm and rolled off the bed, landing like a cat.
Perspiration dried on her back.
The moon shone through the curtains. She crawled across the floor, feeling the bare boards between the rugs, relishing the scent of the old wood, and sat cross-legged in front of her magic chest.
'Thank you, Weezie,' she whispered.
She peeled off her glove, finding her arm and hand slick with sweat, and popped it into the top drawer. She made the glove go away, padded back across the room, and slipped into bed. She gently wrestled a stretch of the duvet onto herself, snuggled against the comforting presence of her husband, and surrendered to night and darkness.
The family all dreamed the same dream. They were together, at the Hollow, on the crazy paving patio beyond the French windows of the Summer Room, looking at the orchard, which was crowded with more trees than they had imagined. The sun was high but its light was as gentle as the moon. Everything was alive and moving lazily: the trees, the birds, the house, the grass, the streams.
From out of the orchard came a little girl in a straw hat and a white sailor suit, with blue ribbons around her hat and waist and knees. She was solemn beyond her years but bright and friendly and all that they could wish she was. She was a friend and a sister and a daughter and a comfort.
With her, hanging back cautiously in the green shadows of the orchard, were playmates. The little girl looked at the family, fixing on each in turn, seeing right into their hearts. She understood at once that they were not what they had been in the city but were reborn in this place, at the Hollow.
Once she had decided that it was all right, her playmates came out of the trees.
The family were seized with joy.