Mildred wants to borrow a button again, she pleads with Charlotte — says come on, we haven’t played in so very long. Agatha chides them — we’re packing them away children, soon we’ll all be gone. The men with clipboards stand outside, saying this roof is crooked, something’s wrong.
This button was a porthole once, it was a Catherine wheel. These shoelaces were conger-eels, this matchbox was a bomb.
Agatha remembers this house so full of little feet and little laughs. Summer evenings yawned like dozing cats; we listened to faeries singing at the bottom of the garden, eavesdropped on wood nymphs chattering beneath the slow-crackle of bonfire leaves.
For lunch, cook had prepared poached salmon with lemon and dill, freshly-picked cucumbers and radishes from the garden, a potato salad with parsley and capers. And despite the bottle of buttery Mersault which Archibald Catdangler, the thirteenth Earl of Blatherwick had already polished off, it was the capers — these innocuous yet flavourful little fellows, he’d identified as the unwelcome foreign interlopers to his meal.
“Capers!?” young Archie exclaimed. “Never heard of them. What’s wrong with a good old English pickled onion if one requires piquancy?”
“Cook thought she’d surprise you, sir,” said Mayhew, the head butler, who’d served three generations of Catdanglers.
“They look like rabbit poo, and they taste worse!”
“Very good, sir.”
“POO! POO!” Archie plucked a caper from his salad and tossed it in the direction of the only other guest in the dining room — a huge bearskin rug, complete with taxidermied head, which sprawled hairy and menacing by the fireplace. Archie bought the creature to commemorate the death of his grandfather, Colonel Barrington Catdangler, who’d died in rather odd circumstances. The colonel was fond of two things — brandy and stargazing. One night he took a notion to show his infant grandson the constellation of Ursa Major, and having gone to collect his telescope, had somehow managed to confuse it with the scope of a rifle and shot himself in the face. The very physics of the incident seemed to defy all natural law, but the mystery didn’t make the colonel any less deceased and the bear stood (or rather lay) in fitting memorial to an absurd death.
The caper landed right in its mouth.
Archie wobbled to his feet, unhooking the strap of his own hunting rifle from the antlers of a mounted stag’s head which peered inscrutably down from the wall at cook’s spread.
As was tradition at Blatherwick Hall, ever since the death from tuberculosis of two young maidens — Mildred and her elder sister Charlotte (who would’ve been Archie’s great nieces, Mayhew was just old enough to remember them) there was to be a badger cull.
“Time to get the black bastards!” shouted Archie, swinging his rifle over his shoulder.
Mayhew had witnessed first hand the effects of TB. So called “Consumption” because it did exactly that. Burning through its victims leaving only wreckage in its wake. The girls had died — pale and gasping — despite the efforts of the finest physicians. At first it was not grief which consumed the household, but rather disbelief, for everyone was quite sure they’d pull through. The idea that a higher force had come to claim them, one which could not be bartered or bargained with, or simply ordered to leave, had been anathema to the highborn of Blatherwick Hall. As unlikely as the sun going round the moon.
Those below stairs had seen it many times though, and their grief was real, even though they were not blood. Agatha, a scullery maid, erstwhile companion to the two girls, had taken the news particularly to heart and had found her way up to the attic with a length of rope from the yard. The phrase, “wind your neck in” was still used to deter anyone who wanted to visit the attic in Blatherwick Hall and the groundsmen had always been more than a little perplexed as to why the wisteria grew towards one distinct point of the gable end, no matter how vehemently they tried to train it otherwise.
Treatment of Tuberculosis had come a long way since then of course, and gas was now considered the more humane method of culling animals, but to Archie it was all just sport. Mayhew could but weep at the sight of this ingrate. This snowy boy — lucky never to’ve faced gas, nor rifle, nor bombs nor bayonet but who would, undoubtedly, have a hand in deciding this country’s future for as long as the landed gentry should endure.
“Pets, pests and pestilence!” Archie spat, rifle cocked and foot resting on the head of the great black bear. “Are we not beset on all sides, Mayhew?”
“And so we must defend what is ours, such is an Englishman’s duty! Onwards to battle.”
Mayhew spoke no reply, he thought of all the creatures of the woods, and said a silent prayer they should remain — soft breath and prickly fur — safe in their dens until morning. Or else rise up, with tooth and claw and snout, and win the day — for what God in any heaven would not rightfully take their side?
“Oh and Mayhew, do get rid of that bird from the chimney breast, it’s driving me potty, there’s a good chap.”
And Mayhew did. With the help of James, the good-natured groundsman, he was able to access the flue and free the chirruping jackdaw which had got itself stuck. Birds had flown in there before, usually it wasn’t long before they perished — once the realisation dawned on the poor tiny creature that it was trapped, the sky forever hidden and unreachable, it was too much for the heart to bear and, perhaps mercifully, it would cease to beat.
Not so this fellow! Mayhew cupped his delicate body between soft hands, felt the tick of his carriage clock heart — A heart! Fit to drown any infantry drum or clanging death knell and to remind us all of what we each possess. A life, a heart, a terrible thing to waste.
Mayhew left Blatherwick Hall that day never to return. In the afternoon he sat beneath the shade of an old oak tree and lit his pipe. The smoke drifted over the hedgerows and the wildflowers as the gunshots cracked in the distance. And then he was gone, leaving no legacy save his footprints, which dented the forgiving moss ever-so-briefly, before disappearing back into England’s green fields.
They found Archie at the foot of the attic staircase. Limbs jutting at ghastly angles. Eyes staring into nothingness, lips pursed — forming a word the mouth would never speak. It was unclear what he’d been doing, there was no rope present at the scene. And though the doctors found all sorts of injury, the neck remained unbroken. The heart, on the other hand, was a different matter. “Misadventure” was listed as the official cause of death, for it did not seem credible, nor befitting for a man of Archie’s birth and reputation, for the doctor to write down, “fright.”
Tom never really slept these days. His ears were always attuned to any sound coming from his daughter’s bedroom. She hadn’t settled here, and most nights she appeared in her parents’ bed. They wouldn’t notice her come in, she was so quiet — little feet padding softly down the hall on the plush new carpet. Halloween was such a silly tradition, Tom thought. Bloody American nonsense. The pumpkin faces and the masks and the fireworks which people had insisted on setting off had frightened Isabel, given her a case of the “heebie-jeebies” as those damnable Americans would probably say. She had a rather active imagination — not always a good thing.
“Daddy!” came the cry, and Tom reacted instantly, already alert. Like an army recruit leaping from his bivouac.
He dashed to Isabel’s room and switched on her lamplight, she was sitting up in bed, hugging her knees and the duvet covers close to her chest.
“There’s a monster in my cupboard. Tell it to go away.”
“Ok sweetheart. Go away monster!”
“Do it in Grandad’s voice.”
This was her new thing, Grandad’s voice. Tom found it rather strange because the girl had never actually met her grandfather. He died well before she was born, and as far as he was aware he had never imitated his voice in her presence. He did it anyway though, because this is what dads do for little girls.
“Now look here,” Tom began, “if there are any monsters in the wardrobe, you’re to leave immediately, do you hear? This is our property, and you monsters are trespassing. And in the name of King George we command you to BE GONE!”
“BE GONE!” Isabel joined in with this. “BE GONE!” she hugged her dad, who stayed sitting on the bed while she drifted back to sleep.
In the darkness, Tom could still hear the fireworks clapping in the cold night air. There were noises from inside too. On several occasions, Tom had heard a bump! coming from somewhere on the upper floors. This was an old building, he told himself, and its bones were still adjusting to their new body.
He wasn’t sure why they’d bought this place, thought they’d overpaid. The developers had bought the crumbling Blatherwick Hall and the surrounding estate for a song. Perhaps it should’ve just been left to rack and ruin, to stand in monument to the failures of the upper classes to keep the roof on. Let it be reclaimed by the woodlands. An apartment wasn’t his first choice either, even one so grand as this. Something struck him as fundamentally odd about having people above and below you.
Maybe his mind was playing tricks, maybe he was just getting old, but something felt off here, as though he’d had his shoes on the wrong feet ever since they’d arrived. Things were going missing, he was sure of it — spectacles, business cards, buttons.
In the quietest hours of the night, he’d heard what sounded like another family through the walls — two little girls and a woman. He hadn’t seen them around the place though, but there was plenty of time to get to know the neighbours.
He turned out the nightlight and paused for just a second to listen to the sound of his daughter’s breathing, now steady with the rhythm of sleep. It was a clear night, and the stars were out. The great creatures of the sky — the lion, the bull and the bear, would watch over her til morning. Tom heard a floorboard creak, or maybe it was a door, or a rafter. The little girl stirred, but didn’t wake.
Rick White is a fiction writer from Manchester, UK whose work can be found in many fine lit journals including Trampset, Milk Candy Review and Idle Ink. Rick’s debut collection Talking to Ghosts at Parties is available now via Storgy Books.