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Harrowfield

a novelette
by Neil Williamson

The Ephemera by Neil WilliamsonWhen the lawyer left to attend to business in some other part of the building I stood in the doorway of the library at Harrowfield House and beheld a rare treat. It was the archetypal library, the kind immortalised in movies of the nineteen thirties and forties. It occupied two rooms which took up much of one side of the ground floor, high oak shelves stretching along the walls, stout with accumulated knowledge. Subtle lighting picked out the texture of leather, the glint of gold lettering against the sober spectrum presented by the rows of spines. There was a reading table in the centre of the first room, a broad map table in the other.

I breathed in the temple stillness, a hush that was one part anticipation and one part respect, and savoured the prospect of what would be my retreat and my work for the next two or three days.

Then a phone began to warble. It was my damned mobile. Communications technology is the curse of the modern age. That anyone thought it was desirable to be able to be contacted anywhere, any time, no matter how inopportune the moment is beyond me. However, Christine had worn me down with common sense, persuading me to buy one for keeping in touch when I was out -- as she put it -- on my travels. I could not deny that it made sense, in terms of our business at least, but I didn't have to like it.

I stabbed the answer key.

"Charlie-boy. Where are you?"

I hadn't heard the voice for two years, but it was as familiar to me as my old rugby injury.

Massimo Grieve.

My dreams of solitude evaporated.

Fifteen years earlier Grieve and I had shared university digs up in Glasgow. We hadn't got on, though we had managed to co-exist, the way flatmates must, with a minimum of interaction. Perversely, while contact with my friends withered over the years, Grieve had stayed with me. A recurring disruptive force in my life. Possibly he mellowed, or perhaps it was enforced habit that eventually made us friends. Friends of sorts anyway. Our last encounter had been fractious.

"I'm up in the Lakes," I said. "A place called Harrowfield. They asked me up to catalogue ... "

"The Douglas Randall place? He's dead is he? Excellent. Listen, Charlie, I'm in Manchester right now so I can be with you after lunch sometime. See you about two? Good. We can catch up then."

The line went dead. Whatever the call had originally been about I would possibly never know, but the mention of Harrowfield had caught his interest. I felt a lump of anticipation settle in my stomach. My first thought had been that Grieve's call was nothing more than coincidence. But coincidences followed him like scavenging crows.

Three things always come to mind about Grieve from the student days: the kind of brain that guaranteed him his first class degree while allowing him to pursue a lifestyle of dope and daytime TV, an infantile fascination with 'True Crime' books and the pages of Fortean Times, and the fact that any encounter with him always left you with more questions than answers. Questions like: what was his interest in Douglas Randall; and how the hell did he get the number of my new phone?

I was eating a pre-packed sandwich in my car when Grieve arrived. A cold drizzle had begun to streak the windscreen as I chewed and watched the wind toss gulls about over the little lake and its bleak shores. Choppy waves lapped almost up to the walls of the house.

The morning had gone well. An initial inspection had revealed that the library contained a selection of biographies and fiction, small in number but sporting a few intriguing items. Reference books and histories took up the remainder of the shelf space in the first room, but it was the second room that interested me most. As I had expected, the Randall family had assembled one of the most extensive collections of maritime histories and nautical charts in the country. It would fetch a fair amount at auction.

Grieve had changed his car again. This time it was a sleek, Japanese affair, deep metallic blue. The top was down, allowing the rain in and, unfortunately, letting out the jaunty blare of what sounded like a Tijuana Brass rendition of Spanish Flea.

The car and music stopped and the roof rolled up smoothly. Grieve got out and stood appraising the house. A leather coat fluttered tent-like about his wide frame, the wind riffling through his springy thundercloud of dark hair. The sideburns if anything were even bushier than last time I'd seen him, and the sunglasses were his customary affectation. He carried a slim metallic case. Perhaps all this was what passed for acceptable dress in the computer consultancy business these days, or perhaps it was just Grieve being an insufferable poser as usual.

I got out to meet him, slightly conscious of the conservative cut of my own Slater Bros suit.

"Impressive, isn't it?" I said.

"I suppose so." Grieve fixed his attention on the house. It loomed -- an impassive façade of grey sandstone and glass, peaked and turreted on the top like some combination of chalet and keep. "If by impressive you mean big," he muttered sarcastically.

This was another Grieve thing. Never one for bothering with hellos and goodbyes, he suddenly appeared in your life and carried on where he had left off. He'd been here no more than a few minutes and already my back was up.

"Grieve, why are you here?" I asked.

He looked surprised. I wasn't always so forthright. "Same reason as you, Charlie. Books." He laid a patronising hand on my arm. "You know the kind I mean," he went on. "It's been more or less common knowledge that Randall was a dabbler, and rumour has it that over the years he acquired some very rare volumes of an occult nature. It's that old classic pattern: bereavement to spiritualism to dabblings on the dark side."

Glib as it was, this matched pretty closely what the lawyer had told me. Randall had inherited the house and a world wide shipping business on his father's death in 1948. He had come home to England in the autumn of that year, leaving his young American wife to follow, but she had died before she could join him. Perhaps not too surprisingly, grief-stricken, Randall had become a recluse, especially in the fifteen years since his retirement. Anything beyond those facts of course was total fantasy of the pulpiest kind, the stuff of those hammy seventies horror movies, and just the sort of thing Grieve would go for. The 'rumour' he spoke of could likely be traced to the kind of conjecture that was rife in those post-war years when spiritualism was at its peak.

So that was why he was here. Magick books. I was a little disappointed but not surprised. Grieve's fascination with the occult went back as long as I'd known him. He loved mystery. He aspired to it and he sought it out wherever he suspected two and two could spookily be added to make five. The last time he'd dropped in on me he had been looking for a book of reproductions of the sketches made by the hermit, William Rae. In the twenties Rae had been discovered living in isolation in Sutherland in Northern Scotland. His cabin had been littered with renditions of his, by all accounts very disturbing, dreams, and the pictures were supposed to have been collected into a volume, now much sought after. Of course my contacts had been unable to locate any trace of it and I doubted it had ever existed. In my experience that was how these things usually turned out.

"You know, Charlie," Grieve said, "there are people who would be very interested in preventing these books going to public auction."

"That would be a matter for the estate. Not me," I said, unhappy at the insinuated slur on my professional integrity. Whether these people meant himself or someone he was acting for I didn't care to know.

"I understand," he said, "but I'm confident an arrangement can be made."

"Whatever," I allowed myself a smirk at his confidence. "But I haven't seen anything remotely occult yet, I'm afraid."

"Trust me," Grieve said. "They're here." He named some titles. I recognised two. These were not books in general circulation and I doubted there was even one copy of either in the country.

"Well, if you say so, I'm sure we'll find them," I sighed. Getting rid of Grieve could be difficult. Asking him straight out to leave would make him more determined to stay. If he had nothing better to do, I decided, he could hang around until the work was done and he was satisfied that his information was wrong. Following him inside I added, "If by occult you mean shipping records."

"What's missing from this picture?" Grieve's voice surprised me. I had become so absorbed in my work that I'd almost managed to forget his presence. Entering the library's nautical room I found him bending over the table, reading lamps illuminating the heap of maps strewn across it. I held my annoyance and looked over his shoulder.

He tapped the uppermost map with a forefinger. The chart was a black and white, laminated affair showing the physical geography of a southern part of the Lake District. Dense finger-print whorls represented the profusion of peaks. Towards the foot of the map I recognised a pattern of hills, the way the road snaked down and then curled around, and there, marked by name, was the house.

I shook my head. "What are you on about, Grieve?"

He shot me a look, a little smile. Then he flipped the map up and revealed a modern colour OS map of more or less the same area.

I still didn't see. I said so.

He laid down the first map again and lifted it. Laid it, lifted it. Eventually he said, "The Lake!"

He was right. The older rendering omitted the lake outside the house.

"Nineteen forty seven," he said, pointing. Then the newer map, "Nineteen seventy."

"You're saying the lake suddenly appeared on the map sometime between forty seven and seventy," I said, feeling as stupid as I sounded.

"I don't think geology works that fast," he said pointedly.

I shrugged. I wasn't sure he was right, but decided to let it ride. Sure enough though, on the earlier map the area at the side of the house currently occupied by the lake was clearly marked as an area of open land. Harrow Field.

"Cartographical error?" I ventured.

He produced two more maps, slapping them down a little dramatically. "Not unless they missed it in thirty one and oh-nine as well."

"Perhaps they just copied the old maps and repeated an old error," I suggested. I realised that he was trying to imply something -- God knew what -- mysterious in all this and I was suddenly determined not to encourage him with it, adding, "or maybe it was a natural disaster?"

He frowned at me then grinned. "Who knows? Shouldn't be too hard to find out though, should it?"

When Grieve returned about forty minutes later I tried to ignore him, but was peripherally aware of him inspecting the shelves in a casual, almost bored, fashion. He didn't mention the lake.

"So where do you reckon the magic books are," he said.

I paused in my note-taking, pen poised above the ledger. "Have you tried under M?"

"Very funny."

"Well how about that old favourite, the secret room? That's the traditional place for a forbidden library, isn't it?" I looked over to see a grin illuminating his face, like that of a child that has just tricked an adult into giving him his own way. He seemed to take my suggestion, flippant as it was, as permission to probe around the shelves and began to pull books out at random.

My concentration broken, I watched this performance for a full minute before my patience ran out. "So what about the lake?" I said.

Grieve stopped what he was doing. His impish smile confirmed that he'd been waiting for me to ask.

"It's just a lake," he said. "Except that it appears to have no tributaries." He returned to the reading table and sat down, spreading his hands flat in front of him and stretching his legs underneath. "Oh," he added, "and it's salt water. Aha!"

There was a click followed by a smooth rumbling noise. To my astonishment a square section rose out of the centre of the table. The section was shelved and had the capacity to hold a number of large volumes, but the shelves were empty.

Grieve ran a finger along a shelf, looked thoughtful. "No dust," he said.

"Bravo, Grieve." I laughed. "You've discovered a forbidden library with no books."

Then I stopped laughing as I was suddenly gripped by the conviction that someone else had entered the room. But when I turned I found the doorway empty.

"Charlie?" I heard Grieve say behind me.

Ignoring him, I stepped out into the hall. It was empty too, but there was something unusual. A smell. Fresh, with a sharp tang to it, familiar but out of place against the waxy odour of the house.

"Mrs Caldwell?" I called, thinking it had been the lawyer I had sensed, but she did not reply. The light in the hall had a sullen quality, filtering through the frosted panels around the front door to cast a moiré pattern the colour of beaten copper on the polished wooden floor. I was reminded of the sea at sunset. Then a shadow passed across the glass and the sound of the doorbell made me jump.

Since the bell still did not immediately bring the lawyer, I opened the door myself. Two men stood there in identical blue overalls. The digging tools in the truck parked behind them completed the picture. I led them around the house to the little chapel perched up the hillside. The family plot lay behind it. There was now a biting edge to the breeze coming off the lake, heavy cloud having gathered during the course of the afternoon. The chapel doors were ajar and we found Caldwell inside. While she took the diggers off to the grave site I lingered, intent on a moment more's respite from the wind. A deep chill had settled inside me.

The chapel was a sombre affair, solidly constructed from grey sandstone. Isolated electric lights shed a little warm illumination which only emphasised the shadows. The building was barely large enough for three narrow ranks of pews and the open coffin at the front. From my vantage at the door I could see little of the contents -- a supine form in a black suit, pale face at the top, white gloves clasped at waist level.

"Douglas Randall, I presume," said Grieve mordantly as he pushed past me for a better look. I hovered by the door. "Funny how you can tell they were rich even when they're dead," he said. "The gloves are a bit much though. Makes him look like a snooker referee on a rest break. When did he die?"

"Saturday," replied the lawyer, re-entering the chapel having discharged instructions to the diggers. "The family was notified, but is spread pretty far afield, I'm afraid. There are cousins and such in the USA and New Zealand. None, that we could trace here in the UK, however. It'll be a quick interment tomorrow if there are no mourners."

"How did he die?" said Grieve.

Caldwell peered at him, as if registering him for the first time. "I'm sorry, but who are you?"

Feeling stupid for not having introduced him immediately, I did so now. It was no more than a vague introduction but Caldwell seemed to accept it. She nodded, pushed a stray strand of greying, blonde hair away from her pinched face.

"Mr Randall fell down the stairs -- the coroner believed on his way to bed. He was on a course of medication for his heart," she said unhelpfully. "Now gentlemen, it's getting late. If it's okay with you I have to get back to the office, so I'll have to ask you to pack up for the night." She looked as if she was glad to be leaving. I couldn't say why, but at that moment I felt exactly the same way.

I had a room in the village hotel. It came as no surprise to find that Grieve had discovered this and booked himself into the same place. We ate in the little dining room. Half a dozen tables squeezed into disturbingly floral surroundings. The food was bland, but hot and filling, and I felt the inner chill recede at last.

While Grieve ordered coffees, I excused myself. On my return I discovered that the few other diners had departed and that Grieve had opened up his silver case on our cleared table. Inside the case was the smallest, meanest looking laptop computer I'd ever seen. A loose black coil connected it to his mobile phone. Grieve was tapping delicately at the keyboard.

"Just doing a wee search on Randall," he said as I sat down. "Obits from the New York Times in the late forties came up with something interesting."

The waitress arrived with a stainless steel pot, steam curling from the spout. She tried to find a space on the table but gave up and set it on the adjoining table along with the milk jug and bowl of sugar sachets. When she was gone I slipped around to see what Grieve had found. The uppermost of the windows on the screen contained a transcript of a 1949 New York Times obituary which reported that Jayne Randall had died on January 22nd when the passenger ship, Galatea, part of the Randall Empire line, had sunk in the North Atlantic. One hundred and seventy two others had drowned that day. This was followed by a report of the extravagant memorial service, a picture of a long line of black cars.

"Well," said Grieve, "that perhaps explains why there are no direct heirs -- but it does add to the mystery, doesn't it?"

"What mystery?" I was immediately irritated. "Grieve, there is no mystery here. Randall is just a dead old man with a tragedy in his past. Leave it at that."

Of course, he couldn't. He waited me out with that knowing expression until I had to try again.

"He lost her fifty years ago," I said. "How do you know he didn't marry again? Or take a mistress."

"The only beneficiaries were distant cousins. Your Mrs Caldwell told us that," Grieve stressed with laboured patience. "Since he was a widower there was no reason to prevent him marrying another lover. Even if he hadn't married again, the mistress and any kids would surely have been named in the will."

"So, he didn't marry again," I said.

"Exactly," Grieve replied.

"It's not exactly a mystery."

"On its own, no. But then there's the lake."

"Oh give it up, Grieve." I felt my voice tense in annoyance.

He looked at me levelly, then asked, "What did you see -- back there in the library?"

The switch of subject confused me for a moment. I'd almost forgotten. "Nothing," I said.

Grieve raised an eyebrow.

"Really," I insisted. "I saw nothing. It was just a feeling, an impression that someone was standing in the doorway. A woman ... "

"You saw a woman?"

"No. I told you. There was no-one there. It was just a feeling, that's all. I thought it was Mrs Caldwell." Grieve was paying close attention and I was acutely uncomfortable with the direction of his train of thought. "It was just my imagination," I said. "What else could it have been?"

Whatever reply he may have had for that question was derailed by the irritating cartoon melody of my mobile. It was Christine. She told me that the new shipment of stock for our antiquarian bookshop had at last arrived from Holland. One of the bibles had been sold, but apart from that trade was slow. Nothing new. Business news updated, there was a pause, a heartbeat which I was not inclined at that moment to fill. Then she rang off cheerfully. Guiltily I suppressed a wish that she hadn't phoned.

"Married?" Grieve asked as I pocketed the phone. I nodded, suddenly feeling as if I'd scored a secret point in the game for managing to keep information from the man who knew everything.

"How's it going?" he said.

"Fine," I said. Then added, "great."

Grieve nodded. I didn't know whether in acceptance of what I said or in confirmation of some hidden thought of his own.

Sleep came uneasily. The room was unbelievably small and the radiators appeared to be stuck at their highest setting. I lay tossing my thoughts around in the dark and realised that I had been on edge since arriving at Harrowfield. I wanted to put it down to Grieve's usual unsettling effect on me but it felt like there was more to it than that. I pushed Grieve from my mind, and thought instead about Christine. I wondered if she was asleep yet, or lying awake like me. I tried to picture her face. I tried very hard.

When I did manage to drop off it was with the help of the hypnotic rattle of the rain against the window.

I dreamt of rain too. It was raining inside the room, water falling silently through a wedge of sodium light from the street. I could see the distinct drops clearly, and as they passed through the amber light they slowed, descending like glittering beads on threads. Then a hand appeared. The fingers were slender, the wrist fine and articulate, and where the hand intersected the light I could see that it consisted of sparkling, fizzing vapour. A hand made of bright rain.

It reached towards me and where it touched my chest I felt such a shocking cold that I woke at once. I was not surprised to find the sheets damp, my body drenched. As I became properly awake I realised that this, and the faint tang of salt I still detected in the air, were due to a sweaty night in a hot room, and nothing more.

I felt a churlish pleasure that Grieve did not appear at breakfast. This ill slept, I really wasn't in the mood for him. I half hoped he'd given up and gone home, so my mood worsened when I drove to the house to find his car there before mine. The sky was bruised with ugly clouds and the wind was cold, bullying me across the drive towards the front door. Grieve's voice stopped me.

"Charlie!"

I couldn't see him at first, but when he called again I spotted him, absurdly hanging out of a second floor window along the side of the house that faced over the lake. I walked around.

"What the hell are you doing?" I shouted, not disguising my disapproval.

"Look." He seemed excitable, good-naturedly ignoring my own mood. He was wedged half out of the left-most of three identical windows. With a struggle he extricated himself and vanished. I waited and, feeling the edge of the wind at my back, pulled my collar up and stepped into the lea of the house. My feet were suddenly cold too. Looking down I discovered that I was standing in a puddle around an overflowing drain. Cursing, I stepped back. The drainpipe spewed dirty looking water. I followed it up and saw that it exited the house below the middle of the three windows. Grieve reappeared at the right hand of these.

"There's no door," he shouted gleefully, then, seeing that I wasn't following him, "come up and I'll show you."

I didn't believe him at first, but eventually he proved to me that whatever room the middle window belonged to had no door -- at least not one that we could find. There were two doors on the east second floor landing. Both opened onto rather non-descript guest bedrooms: bare, functional rooms that, although clean enough, had a look of disuse about them. Considering Randall's reclusive tendencies, this was hardly surprising.

Rather desperately I suggested that the window between the two rooms may have been purely decorative, that there was no third room. A certain amount of unproductive tapping and listening at walls hinted otherwise but an inspection of the dimensions of the bedrooms suggested that any room that might exist would have to be pretty narrow. I couldn't imagine that anyone would build such a room. Grieve though was convinced.

"So where is it, Charlie?" he exclaimed. "Where's the door?"

I shrugged. A flurry of rain pattered against the window, spattering the windowsill, and I pulled the sash down. It was sticky, requiring some effort before it closed with a thump.

"Grieve, it's an old house," I said, and a solution suggested itself. "One large room got knocked into two and instead of splitting a window they built either side of it. Simple explanation. End of story. I'm going to get back to my work."

I meant it. Whatever mystery his brain was concocting to tie together these otherwise unnoteworthy elements was an attempt to justify his belief that Randall had a secret collection, and it existed purely in Grieve's imagination. Randall had been no more than a tragic widower, the lake a curious natural phenomenon, and the supposed library had never existed. I'd had enough. The morning was wearing on and there was a lot to be done before the lawyer returned at five. It appeared that she'd stuck only long enough for one of us to arrive. It seemed she didn't care to spend much time at Harrowfield House.

I left the room and was about to descend the stair when my body was seized by a cramp of cold. I clutched the banister for a few seconds and then the spasms of painful shivers left me as suddenly as they had come. It felt as though whatever had gripped me had flown from me, rushed out of my chest and my extremities to the other end of the landing. Looking in that direction, I saw that there was another flight at the far end, leading upwards and ending at a single door. Since the second floor was nominally the top of the house, I guessed the door led to an attic space.

"Grieve," I said, climbing the stairs. "Look at this." I stopped short of the door. My heart clenched. The air up this one flight of stairs was noticeably colder; it smelled fresh, tainted with a saline edge. I laid my hand on the brass door handle and snatched it back. "Jesus!"

"Cold?" Grieve said.

I nodded. I could see now that what I had taken to be a film of dust on the handle was in fact a rime of frost.

Grieve moved past me. His shoes squelched. Along the bottom of the door the carpet was soaked. He crouched, sank his fingers into the weave and then lifted them to his nose, sniffed them, licked them. "Salt water," he said. Then turning to me, "Like the hall yesterday?"

That was the smell. Salt water. My mind raced for an explanation that did not involve whatever Grieve was thinking right now. Anything that wasn't mysterious. Supernatural. I couldn't think of one. The words slipped out, "And I had a dream last night."

He stood and wiped his hand on his trousers. In the face of his expectation I briefly described my dream. Grieve subjected me to a look of appraisal which I could not easily interpret, but in parts it bore resemblance to comprehension, suspicion and envy. Then he stepped past me and used the cuff of his coat to turn the handle.

The door opened onto darkness. Grieve reached into his coat and pulled out a penlight. He flicked it on. "It's a boy scout thing," he said, stepping through the doorway.

Even as I followed him I wondered what the hell I was doing. This was not a rational activity for two adults to be pursuing in a dead man's house -- but the salty air prickling my skin and the sudden deep cold returning to fill my bones were not rational either. I allowed myself to be led.

Under the sweep of Grieve's narrow beam we could see that the attic was only partially floored. Narrow walkways of planking led around the outer construction of the stairwell and stretched into the darkness. Between them lay exposed beams. We would have to watch where we put our feet unless we were in a particular hurry to go downstairs. Grieve set off around the stairwell. I followed, feeling the rough brickwork with my right hand. He played his light around. Searching. In the quick illumination I made out the shapes of lumber -- trunks and suitcases, grey with stoor and less identifiable, curiously humped forms under sheets. Somewhere, water dripped in a tank.

"There," Grieve said at length.

I followed the beam of the torch. A short distance away under the slope of the roof lay a metallic structure. An extendable ladder. We followed the walkway in that direction, and where I had been expecting to have to step between the joists found that a couple of loose planks had been laid directly to the ladder. I guessed as soon as I saw the ladder that there would be a trap door leading down into the third room. A padlock lay in the dust between the beams. Grieve lifted the door and a cold blast of wet air swept up into the attic. The ladder appeared to have been there for years, yet it slid easily as we lowered it into the room. Grieve almost knocked me out of the way to get down first.

"Oh, God," I heard Grieve say as I followed him. My foot grew cold as it contacted the floor with a soft slopping sound. For the second time that day I was standing in an inch of grey water.

If previously I had been reluctant to consider anything unusual at Harrowfield House I could not deny it now. At the very least, Douglas Randall had been out of his mind.

From where I stood to the window at the far end, the room was about twenty five feet in length but could have been no more than six feet wide. The floor and walls and ceiling had been coated and sealed with some clear brown substance. Gutters ran along the sides.

There could be no other explanation for this than the room had been designed to hold water.

Then I saw the reason for Grieve's anguish, and I shared it. There were books half submerged in the water, pages floating loose. He handed them up to me. They were ugly books, thickly bound and heavy with moisture. Among the titles were those Grieve had mentioned earlier. I had never expected, nor indeed wanted, to come across volumes of this rarity. In my trade, there are certain kinds of books it is best not to pursue. These would have been worth as much as the rest of the collection to the right buyers, but seeing how warped they were, I knew without trying to prise apart the pages that Randall's occult library was ruined. I stacked the books on a rough shelf that had been screwed inexpertly to the wall. It was landscaped with laval sculptures of melted red wax.

"What went on in here?" I said, astonished by the room. "And where is the water coming from?"

Grieve stood, in his hands one last book, slimmer than the rest, and a box of lacquered black wood. As he stepped aside I saw the window properly for the first time. It was a plain sash window. Four panes of dirty glass, each with a dark fringe of mildew. Outside the skies had cleared some and the rain had abated. Which made it all the more difficult to explain the water pooling on the sill, streaming down the wall feeding the drain in the floor beneath the window. Mentally I connected it with the drainpipe outside.

"It must be leaking down from the roof. Perhaps the guttering is blocked," I said, not really believing what I was saying, but unable to come up with a credible alternative. I pushed down on the sash to try and close it but the frame was obviously too warped for it to budge.

Grieve had been examining the slim book. "No," he said quietly and handed it to me. It was a simple note book: no identifying marks on the stained cover, no names or dates on the inside, only a mess of gluey pages smeared with washed out ink. Peeling them apart, however, I discovered that not all of the writing -- and I was certain it was Randall's -- had been rendered unreadable. A few pages were just about legible, although I soon realised that legibility did not guarantee comprehension.

"Making the wards has exhausted me," I read aloud. "I could sleep for a hundred days but at last I am ready. I won't be delayed. I know I should not do this, but I cannot not do it. God help me." Grieve met my incredulity with a flat expression, indicating that I should continue. On the next page, "Oh, dear God, it worked. But we had so little time. So little time."

The next clump of pages was so sodden that they ripped pulpily when I tried to separate them. Then I came across this: "It is over. I lost control and almost lost everything, least of which my life. I panicked. So much water. How will I explain the lake?" After this, underlined, "It is over."

There was not much more, only one passage, near the end. "The wards are almost gone. I don't think I have the strength to make more. I will see her just once more, and then, God willing ... "

After that the pages were blank.

There was no doubt now that Grieve was right.

"What are 'wards'?" I asked.

"Objects that allow the user to control power," Grieve said. "In this case I imagine they allowed Randall to open a portal -- to somewhere pretty wet by the looks of it."

"A portal?" I breathed, shocked at myself that I could lend the idea any credence. "A portal to where?"

He indicated the steady stream from the window. "Looks like he wasn't able to close it properly the last time. Perhaps for some reason he had to leave before he was finished. That might even have been what killed him." His face lit up as the logic of it unfolded, filling in the blanks in his understanding of events. "Yes! He became ill. That's why the trap door wasn't locked and why the books weren't returned to the library." Grieve's eyes were bright with the adventure. He was having the time of his life. "But what did Randall mean by 'God willing'? And he must have known the spells he needed to make the wards by heart, so why did he tote his whole library up here? Charlie, I think he was trying something new. I wonder what he was up to."

"To where, Grieve?" I had begun to shiver again, and not just from the cold.

Before he could answer, the window rattled violently in its frame, raising an inch, and the water began to pour into the room. It gushed over the sill, became a curtain falling to the floor and sent waves the length of the room. Crying out, I managed to keep my feet as it sloshed around my ankles, soaking my trousers with icy wash, but Grieve reeled back a couple of steps, falling on his knees. The wave broke weakly against the far wall sending ripples down the gutters.

Then a figure rose from the water. Not from underneath the surface, but out of it. By its shape a woman, water coursing down from her brow, around the line of her chin, pouring across her narrow shoulders, the subtle curves of her breasts and hips, feeding the cascade that was her legs before merging with the surface water in a swirl of currents.

A woman made of water. None of her features was defined, only hinted at -- a pair of swirling eddies billowed loose sand where the eyes would be, a clot of weed tumbling in the place that marked the mouth. Impossible as it was, I knew her -- except where in my dream she had been made of rain, now she was composed of darker, murkier water. I could not escape the impression from her stance and the inclination of her head that she recognised me also.

Then she spoke and her voice was the brittle cry of gulls, the creaking of sea ice in the cold, dead water far from land. "Douglas?" she said. She was asking me. I think Grieve sensed this and, although it must have killed him to be excluded, was unwilling to do anything that might break the spell. Regaining his feet, he said nothing but his eyes widened, signalling that I should answer.

I knew who she was -- could only be. Jayne, Douglas Randall's wife. Blocking the train of impossibilities that assumption engendered, I said, "I'm sorry, your husband is dead."

Possibly she had guessed this already. Her head bowed. A spear of sullen light broke through the clouds outside, falling diagonally across her torso, illuminating the dark water of her core. The only sound in the room was the constant streaming of water.

An impact behind us broke the moment. The window creaked alarmingly and the sash shot up a clear foot as water surged into the room. Through the open gap I was amazed to see an expanse of grey sea. Ugly waves rolled high, crashed down in unrelenting rhythm. I could not reconcile the otherwise normal view of cloudy weather seen through the top half of the window with this angry seascape through the bottom. As if to convince me that this was not some kind of illusion, a gust of freezing sea air assaulted us.

Then in the troughs I saw heads appear. First one, then another, then as if some rumour was spreading beneath the waves, they became a crowd. The heads rode the swells, disappeared in the troughs, reappeared. They were of the same manner of being as the woman that stood beside us -- and they were coming closer to the window. Beneath the crashing of the deep water their voices rose in furious anguish.

In answer, the apparition that had been Jayne Randall let out a god-awful shriek. It spurred us both into reaction.

"Oh, Jesus," Grieve shouted, sloshing towards me. We reached for the window together and threw all our weight into forcing it down. It was stuck fast.

"The ward."

It was Randall's wife. In an outstretched hand she held the box. Grieve had dropped it when he fell. As he stepped towards her to take it the next wave hit him squarely in the back and he pitched forward, through the water woman and disappeared momentarily under the surface. That wave was followed immediately by another surge. I gripped the side of the window, resisting the flow, but Grieve was swept to the end of the room, colliding with the ladder.

In those two gulping surges the water had risen above my waist. The people in the sea were approaching disturbingly fast, their voices carrying on the bitter wind that froze my fingers, turned my trousers into an icy second skin. They were now close enough to make out faces, etched with expressions of loss and recrimination. Then they disappeared beneath the waves, reappeared once more. Closer.

I thought Mrs Randall had vanished as well. Then she rose in front of me. Box in hand.

I took it. It was a simple little thing, decorated with some oriental pattern, black layered on black. A twist of the saline encrusted lug released the lid. Inside was a parcel of folded velvet, and nestling within the sodden material, I found a ring of cloudy metal. Surprisingly it was warm to touch and when I held it up to the light I saw that it was not metal, but glass. A torus of glass etched with an inscription too faint to read, and inside the glass what looked like captive smoke, coiling sinuously. It was beautiful.

"Put it on," the woman implored.

I almost dropped it as the next wave caught me by surprise, sending me down. Numb cold enveloped my head, as the current swept me away from the window. When I resurfaced the water level had risen still further. I struggled back towards the window.

Instinct made me slip the ring on to my wedding finger. Smoky glass and plain simple gold gleamed in the turbulent light from the absurdly disconnected Lake District sky through the top half of the window. The ward's warmth against my skin was comforting.

I heaved down on the sash. Nothing. It was as stuck as before. The window vibrated as something jostled it from the other side.

"Break it," the woman pleaded. "Don't let them into my house."

I didn't understand.

"Charlie," Grieve said, leaning unsteadily on the ladder, "it's a closing rite. You'll have to destroy the ward to close the portal." He coughed, belching water. "But don't do it."

I stared at him in disbelief. I was terrified of what even now was closing on this room. I wanted nothing more than to have that window safely shut.

"There's nothing to be scared of," he said. "They're no more dangerous than she is."

"How can you know that?" I gasped.

Grieve grinned sourly. "I think I got a stomachful of her when I took that last tumble." I couldn't tell if he was being serious. "Charlie, she's manipulating us -- you. When Randall didn't return to complete what he started that last time, she led you here to do it. To close the portal and bring her home from the loneliness of the sea. But what about the others? Don't they deserve the same chance?"

The water woman hissed like steam, then erupted in a jet of spray that hit him square in the chest, sending him under once more.

Behind me the window rattled against the onslaught of the sea. Through the open window I saw the passengers and crew of the Galatea, clustered on the other side of the sill. Their faces bore such pain, such fury, such hope that I froze. For a moment Grieve's argument stayed my desperation to shut them out. The ward buzzed warmly around my finger. I clenched it in a protective fist. With this power, why should I not try to save what remained of these souls? Then the water became a turbulent cloud as the mass of them rushed for the gap. In panic I brought my fist down on the sill and, despite the drag of the water, managed to summon sufficient force to smash the ring. The water boiled around my hand and scalding pain seared through my finger. At the same time, energy drained out of me, down my arm and through my blistering hand. The window crashed shut.

The drainpipe overflow had created a direct channel to the lake. It was still flowing. We passed it on the way up to the chapel. Grieve said he wanted to pay his last respects, but I knew he wanted the last piece of evidence, the proof that he'd figured everything out correctly. This was a couple of hours after I'd let him haul me out of the room and treat my hand while both we and our clothes dried off in the kitchen. He didn't mention that amid the blisters he had seen the ring of raw letters branded into my flesh.

As soon as I was bandaged up he announced his intention to leave. I thought his haste a little off, but couldn't really blame him. He had what he came for after all. The books from Randall's secret room, ruined as they were, sat in the boot of his car. I didn't begrudge him them, and to be truthful I was happier not having to include them in the catalogue and explain the state they were in.

Inside the chapel Grieve said, "Well? Shall we have a look?" He approached the coffin and lifted Randall's hand. Gently he tugged off the glove.

The fingers looked whittled. Crossed and crossed again with old scars. The pain of making the portal was written all over them in tiny scratchy letters.

Fifty years. I imagined the lonely evenings when he would weaken and summon her out of the sea. I imagined them in that room. Each occasion special but inadequate, sharing words because they could share nothing else. The agony as he sent her away.

"Do you think she went back," I said as we retraced our steps. "When we closed the window."

"No," Grieve answered. "I think Randall realised he was too old to go on making the wards, so he went for broke and tried to bring her through permanently, or at least for an extended duration. But it cost him too much. He couldn't close the portal afterwards, probably died trying to reach his pills. It almost worked, though. Now Jayne was rooted here and with Randall gone she had to find a way to close the portal. She chose you."

"You think she knew he was dead?"

Grieve nodded. "I think so. If not for certain, then she had a pretty firm suspicion when he left things undone."

"Then why did she want to be here so badly? What difference did it make?"

Grieve looked at me strangely. "Love? Remembrance? I don't know. I'd have thought you'd know more about those things than me. I don't suppose it's surprising that she'd choose to be here to remember him alone. Beats the crowded North Atlantic anyway. Selfish bitch."

While I felt a welling of guilt about consigning the people of the Galatea to the bitter monotony of the place where they had died, I thought Grieve's cynicism a little damning. I wondered if he had seen the chapel floor. A pool of salt water like fifty years worth of tears.

As he was getting into his car, Grieve treated me to one of those looks. Eventually he said, "You're lucky, you know that?"

I raised a hand to the back of the speeding vehicle, and then Grieve was gone.

Gulls argued noisily over the lake and its salt-spoiled shores. Whatever was left behind of Jayne Randall -- whatever eroded, polished vestige of dead love -- she had what she wanted. Harrowfield was a drowned place. She was welcome to it.

Grieve's parting remark snagged in my thoughts. At first I thought he had been referring jealously to my interaction with Jayne Randall's -- I suppose he would call it -- 'spirit'. But that was being more than a little uncharitable. Perhaps he meant something else entirely.

I fished my mobile out of my pocket, dialled carefully.

"Christine?" I said. "It's me. No, nothing's wrong. I just wanted to talk."


© Neil Williamson 2005, 2006.
This story first appeared in Dark Horizons #47, and is republished in the collection The Ephemera.

Neil Williamson's first collection The Ephemera was published in April 2006 by Elastic Press in a limited-edition hardback, which sold out almost immediately. The paperback edition came out in May 2006; ISBN: 0954881265.
The Ephemera by Neil Williamson

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