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.
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
"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?"
"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
"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
"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
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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
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
© 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.
Order online using these
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