He was in heaven again, umpiring a school cricket match, when something interrupted his appreciation of an exquisite cover drive.
“Dunc,” Heather whispered, jostling his shoulder under the duvet.
He tried to return to the cricket, but it had gone.
Why was she lying behind him? Oh. Holiday. France. First night. The farmhouse only had double beds.
“What?” He grumbled, voice like a bear disturbed during hibernation.
“There’s someone downstairs. Listen.”
He could only hear the short intakes of her breathing.
“It’s probably nothing,” he dismissed, “a cat or –”
A muffled bang below. He lay stock-still.
“I’m scared,” she whispered again, clutching his arm. “Will you go and have a look?”
Damn. Whenever there was a problem with the house or car, he was expected to see to it even though he knew nothing about either.
He peeled back the sheet. Creaked across the floorboards. Gave an exaggerated cough. Switched on the light. Clomped downstairs. Seized a golf umbrella then brandished it like a sword.
Nothing. How ridiculous. A fifty-five year old solicitor looking to take on an imaginary intruder with a brolly.
And then he heard it – on the other side of the wall. Scratching perhaps, or even grinding.
The next morning was overcast but warm enough to eat outside on the patio by some bolted weeds and overgrown shrubs. He’d neither slept well nor raised the incident, and wanted to keep it that way. The past six months had been difficult enough; they were here to give Heather some quiet after the operation. The last thing she needed was more stress.
“So what about last night?” She sought at length, blue eyes fixed on him above the empty plates.
“No idea,” he replied, looking up from a map of Poitiers. “I’m sure it was nothing.”
“Well it had to be something,” she retorted, arms folded. “And it was definitely coming from there.”
She glanced towards the rubblestone barn to which the nineteenth century farmhouse had been added, placing a hand across her throat.
“Maybe a pigeon got stuck,” he suggested.
“A strong pigeon to have moved a plank of wood. There was a loud bang, Dunc, I swear it.”
“Well, it’s been and gone now, hasn’t it?”
She turned away. Hopefully that was an end to it.
“Do you know,” she deliberated, resuming her fixed look, “I felt uneasy the first time we came here, for John’s fiftieth. Remember the story he told about the foresters who stopped for a drink of milk – and the old woman said they could have some but that the cows had TB?”
He rolled his eyes skyward and reached for his pipe.
“I know it sounds silly,” she upheld, hand cradling her chin, “but the place gives me the creeps. Couldn’t we sleep with the bedroom door locked tonight? Just to be on the safe side. I’d feel a lot better if we did.”
“Oh, very well then,” he gave in.
He went to fetch the bikes, opening the barn with a great iron key. A two-storey structure with hewn rafters. Dark. Fusty. Cool. Swags of cobwebs on the walls. Tiny droppings on the stone slab floor. A huge ashlar fireplace dominated the western wall adjoining the farmhouse. Late medieval, if he wasn’t mistaken, possibly earlier.
The place must have served as a forge and provided a threshing floor. But now housed dust-covered junk. An ancient lawnmower. Rusting weights and scales. A disused tennis net. A pile of logs. Gardening tools. Two bicycles. Some plastic tubs of paint.
“What do you think of this crap, then?” John had joked when showing him round. “And if you get the urge to get off your backside and chop some wood, for Christ’s sake don’t resist it.”
Duncan had always liked his brother-in-law, who had bought the land for a song after chancing on it while exploring the area. It had been uninhabited since the old woman’s death, the only undeveloped property in the village until his acquisition.
The barn’s only opening was the door, which showed the width of its walls to be a metre thick, meaning the sound couldn’t have carried to their room or been a trapped bird. So what had it been?
The evening darkened early and they went to bed at nine, worn out from cycling round the vineyards. Duncan locked the door, and Heather insisted the windows were kept shut, even though the air was charged.
A few hours later, he heard a dull thud followed by a series of smaller ones dying away.
He opened his eyes to the darkness, making out that the door was open. It must have swung round and come to rest by the chest of drawers. But how? He’d locked it. Checked it. Kept the key in the door. And Heather was fast asleep; she could – would – not have opened it.
Was someone else here? He swallowed, heart thrumming, already picturing the Breton sweater of the burgler or drugs smuggler. Looked round the room – the chest of drawers indistinct, the wardrobe looming beyond the prison bars of the bedstead. But could see no one.
He’d have to close the door. If Heather woke to find it open, there’d be all hell to pay. He levered himself onto his right-hand side, but something pushed him back, confining him to where he lay. His body seemed a deadweight, unable to move. The air had soured, like the stench of rotting flesh, flowing over him from the rough wall across the landing.
He lay still, playing dead, as rain began to tinkle over the tiles. The chronic air seemed to pass. He could move again. He got up to lock the door, clambered back into bed and held onto Heather.
There was no thunderstorm, just intermittent squalls until mid-morning. They had brunch in the expanse that was kitchen, dining room and lounge rolled into one. He looked drained.
“Whatever’s the matter?” Heather began across their omelettes.
“Just disappointed,” he replied reluctantly, gazing at the ornate toast rack. “With the weather.”
“Well, I’m glad the cycling’s a wash-out. I ache all over from yesterday, don’t you?”
To tell her or not? The truth would probably freak her out and negate the whole point of coming. But keeping schtumm was tantamount to lying. And what if something worse happened?
She listened to his account aghast, breaths shortening.
“I’m frightened,” she imparted, eyes darting towards the barn. “I knew something was wrong the moment we set foot in here.”
“Well, we can’t be sure there’s a ghost here, can we?”
He checked himself, scarcely believing what he’d said.
“Well, I am,” she countered, gripping the crucifix at the base of her neck. “Think of that story about the woodmen. What if they drank the milk and died? Or contracted TB? Of course they’d still be here!”
Why had he mentioned it?
“And what about that fireplace in the barn?” She went on, almost panting. “Suppose some peasants had to undergo a trial by fire for stealing the master’s corn. Or were strung up and garrotted.”
He shut his eyes. It would be a satanic cult next.
“Heth, this really isn’t helping.”
She got up and stood by the window, holding herself with both arms, as if cold.
“I want to leave,” she determined, shaking her head. “Really.”
“But we’ve only just arrived –”
“Dunc, the place is haunted! You know it is, but as usual you’re too Mr Rational to admit it. I don’t want to stay another night.”
She covered her eyes with her hand, and began to cry. He got up and put an awkward arm round her, explaining the ferry ticket was non-transferable and they couldn’t afford a hotel room in high season.
“Look,” he angled, “whatever the problem is, it’s upstairs. What if we sleep down here tonight? I can get the mattress and make up a bed. Who knows, it might be like that night in Prestatyn…”
He poked her playfully. She looked unconvinced, dabbing her cheeks with a serviette.
“Just one night,” he stressed. “And if anything happens, I swear to God we’ll leave. All right?”
By late afternoon they were sitting in the lounge area. Duncan dozed in an armchair, Heather sat on guard in another.
There was a loud smash by the sink, then a clanging like a dustbin lid coming to rest.
“What was that?” He exclaimed.
Heather looked on in horror, clutching her chest, eyes flaring. He got to this feet to investigate. Glass shards, coffee granules and frying pan parts lay scattered on the terracotta tiled floor. Somehow the jar of Nescafe had fallen from the sideboard with the old frying pan, dislodging its handle which now lay amid the debris like a blunt implement used for battering a skull.
But the objects couldn’t have fallen. He’d placed the frying pan securely on top of the mugs and plates to dry, then made a coffee, pushing the jar back against the wall, a good two feet from the edge of the sideboard.
There was a tug at his shirt.
“That’s it,” she burst. “I’m not spending another minute here. Where are the car keys?”
He checked his pockets, already following her to the French windows and out towards the sanctuary of the car.
They sat in silence, staring ahead at the rain-blotched windscreen. He couldn’t take it in.
No point trying to explain anything. They just needed to get as far away as possible, as soon as possible. Whatever the cost.
But first he’d have to clear up the mess and pack their things.
He dashed back through the rain, noticing the bikes still outside. John would be livid his precious racer was contracting rust, but no matter.
Duncan crossed himself before going in and mumbled The Lord’s Prayer, surprised he could remember the words.
The rain had stopped but the sky was still heavy when he returned with the suitcases then went to put the bikes away.
The barn was dark inside, the shapes there difficult to discern. He frisked the wall to click on the light switch. The light flickered as he jiggled the bikes inside, wedging the door open with a foot. He walked to the great fireplace and propped them against it.
The door banged shut behind him. A faint fizzle preceded a dull pop as the light went out.
He stood still, the air drained from his lungs.
In his mind he traced the route back to the door, and took a step forward but found himself rooted to the spot, pinned against the wall. No matter how he tried, his legs had no energy, no power. All that moved was his pounding chest.
And flowing over him, through him, that sour smell. He writhed, picturing the old crone next to him, nose pressed against his ear, sniffing, silently questioning who he was, why was he here.
Light. He needed light. To see if she was there. His matches – where were they? He tried to reach into his left pocket, but it was no good. He couldn’t move.
There was a soft pattering on the door. Rain.
He freed an arm to find the matches. Lit one and held it aloft. Dark cobwebs hung from the walls like bats, the shadow of the log pile dragged itself closer as he moved forward. But there was no one to be seen.
On the northbound N149 to Parthenay, illuminated signs for La Rochelle and Limoges receded into the dark; oncoming headlights confirmed it was not the end of the world. Maybe the rain would hold until Rennes.
In fact, it broke before Nantes, pelting the roof like frozen peas spilling onto a hard floor, sending the wipers into a frantic overdrive reminiscent of the earlier maelstrom. They stared ahead as before. Neither had spoken since leaving Sauvigny.
“Dunc,” she ventured at last. “Do you think it’s still with us – here, in the car?”
Will Kemp has won the Cinnamon Short Story Prize, been commended in the Wordsmiths Writing Contest and had stories published in Dreamcatcher, Sarasvati and Scribble. He teaches Creative Writing at York University and his debut collection Surviving Larkin & Other Stories will be published shortly by Valley Press. For more details, visit: www.wkemp.com