This is the third chapter in the series of chapters in which I’m working the musical thread into the novel. It follows ‘A Boyhood Ghost’ and ‘A Prayer’ which you can find on this ‘MUSIC’ section of the site before this chapter.
There was professional pandemonium, of course, as there always was at scenes like this.
Before he left the study, Phil wandered to the window which looked down at the street. The ambulance and fire brigade were parked outside, little clusters of rubberneckers forming on the pavement. Constables Vic Cummings and Pete Saunders, clearly following Serge’s orders, were taping off the premises whilst fending off the questions tossed at them by concerned and curious neighbours. Several of these neighbours were shamelessly cradling coffee mugs and teacups as if they were watching the episode of a crime series being filmed.
“Go back to bed,” Phil heard Pete Saunders bark at the nosey little contingents.
“Mobiles off, please and thank you,” Vic Cummings bellowed.
Coming from Vic, whose mobile phone had become his most important body part, that command was “slightly” on the ironic side. I mean, seriously, out of uniform, Vic was taking photographs of anything and everything; he certainly didn’t practise what he preached. But as the first of the emergency team began to busy themselves in the study, Phil slipped out to do as Redmond had instructed: to sweep the premises to see if anything appeared amiss.
Phil could’ve started his sweep upstairs, but wanting to escape the commotion in the study, he decided to return to the entrance foyer and start from there. Lumbering down the stairs, he felt the same sensation he’d experienced while going up: the inkling that he’d ‘been there’ and ‘done that’ before. By the time he reached the foyer, his skin was clothed in goosebumps, his temples stippled with perspiration. And as he returned to his initial position at the foot of the stairs, something told him his feelings of déjà-vu were only going to get worse.
As Phil stood with his back to the front door, looking inward through the house, the silence he’d experienced in the study returned. It was as if the house itself was muting the activity on his outskirts to have him hear what it wanted him to hear. Suddenly, the voices, steps, beeps, and movement coming from the team faded, clearing the way for other sounds. The ticking of the grandfather clock which stood to the right of the stairs. The snapping of firewood which Viv Musgrave must’ve lit in the rooms before finding the victim. The whistling of the wind outside – a sound which, in on any other day, would’ve triggered the 1983 song ‘Whistle Down the Wind’ by Nick Heyward. But seeing as it was that day, and not any other day, it didn’t. And then, there was another sound: the rhythmic sound of branches brushing up against a windowpane somewhere, in one of the rooms to his right, Phil guessed.
The longer Phil stood there, listening to the sounds, the more he realised that they were the sounds of the past, the noises, non-electrical and non-technological, that the original owners of the house would’ve heard in the nineteenth century. Pendulum. Fire. Wind. Trees. Together, they formed the building’s original soundtrack, so much so that Phil could picture himself in Victorian garb, occupying that very location a hundred and fifty years prior. I mean, seriously, he wouldn’t have bat an eyelash if he heard horses clopping along the cobblestone street behind him in that very moment.
“And that is why sound is important, mates,” he muttered to himself, continuing to think, ‘Because sound, if it’s done right, can transport you to anywhere.’
It wasn’t Rosegate’s original soundtrack alone that spoke to Phil that dawn, however. It was the building’s décor. Cleary, the victim’s grandmother had, by way of upkeep and restoration, kept the house in its original, Victorian milieu, to the degree it could’ve been opened as a museum. As Phil was about to discover, even the electric lighting and the consoles for the central heating and air conditioning were disguised behind antique wall sconces.
As the foyer split in two small sections to accommodate the staircase, Phil had a decision to make: would he go left, or would he go right? And perhaps because the grandfather clock began to chime to mark the arrival of five o’clock, Phil’s attention was drawn to the right.
The instant Phil turned right and entered the first of the lower floor’s two front rooms which looked out at the street, he knew he’d entered the drawing room. In keeping with what he’d seen so far, it was stylish for the 1830’s, its ceiling high, its décor dark, its leadlight windows graced with heavy, velvet curtains. The furniture was bulky and ornate, the Persian carpets faded. Before the hearth, two aubergine chairs glimmered in the firelight, a box of antique dominoes sitting on a table in between. Viv had partially slid the box’s lid open to reveal the tiles. Peering at the bone and ebony rectangles, Phil couldn’t help but think of the commentaries his vegan sons would make, about the barbarism of humanity, the way we continually and unquestioningly fondle death. ‘Games made from bones,’ he heard them say.
Because they had said that before? Or because they would say that if they were there? Or because he simply imagined them saying that?
Whatever the case, in Phil’s books, it was as good as said.
Picking up a tile, its dots amounting to five, then looking at the empty chairs, Phil felt the time-warp pinching. It was as if the bygone domino players who’d inhabited those chairs had simply upped and left for a break, with plans to return a moment later. It was as if they weren’t years-dead, but rather out in the garden, or in another room of the house with the best of intentions to return to their game.
Staring at the dots, Phil was aware, as he had been with the sound of the wind, that if it had been a different day, he would’ve heard Radiohead’s song ‘2+2=5’. But, as he’d already established, that day wasn’t any other day, so, just as he wasn’t hearing ‘Whistle Down the Wind’, he wasn’t hearing ‘2+2=5’ either.
That said, what he was realising in that songless moment was that he had, on a handful of occasions, heard the Radiohead song when he’d crossed Detective Redmond’s path at the police station, but never knowing why. In fact, there was a peculiar little medley that swirled around Redmond whenever she entered his radar. ‘Girl’ by The Beatles, ‘Back to Black’ by Amy Winehouse, the afore-thought ‘2+2=5’, and – well, hang on – although he didn’t know it, he’d get to the next one in the eclectic repertoire once he hit the parlour in a quarter of an hour.
As Phil set the domino back with the others, he noticed a solitary pipe in a stand made for two. Studying the lonely pipe, Phil knew that it was made from pearwood; he loved the way its small bowl gleamed, and its stem curved upward. And, as just as he’d pictured the players returning to play with the dominoes, he could just imagine a gentleman of yore entering the room and picking up the pipe, packing it, and smoking it, sending soft, grey lines into the room.
Moving away from the hearth, Phil wandered the room, the soles of his boots tocking on the hardwood, falling silent any time they hit the Persian carpets. Kneeling and opening the drawers to each of the room’s two sideboards, he found stacks of dull, black fabric which he deduced were tablecloths, as well as a collection of knitting needles. He also found a book of poetry by a poet he’d never heard of called Christina Rosetti along with a King James’ version of the Holy Bible. That combination of items – black tablecloths, knitting needles, poetry, and a bible – seemed like a bizarre mix indeed, but didn’t set off any alarm bells with regards to the victim.
“Nothing amiss,” Phil said to himself, exiting the room and making his way to the next one which, he discovered, was the dining room.
Upon passing through the open double French doors which lead to the space, Phil caught his breath. The room was beautiful, with a polished mahogany table stretching the length of the long, narrow space and sheer white curtains billowing in the open window frames. If that wasn’t a film-worthy vision, he didn’t know what was.
Viv Musgrave must’ve opened the windows to air out the room, Phil thought, immediately walking around to the other side of the table so he could close them. And, as he pulled them closed, he realised the old, wizened ash tree beyond them had been the culprit scratching the top, closed portion of the panes, contributing to the sounds he’d heard whilst standing in the foyer minutes earlier. Staring out at the tree, Phil saw the initials R.W. had been etched deeply in its trunk.
What did R.W. stand for? Phil asked himself.
A person, he quickly concluded.
By the looks of it, the initials had been there for ages.
Leaving the two windows, Phil searched the cabinet at the far right-hand side of the room, finding nothing other than silverware, linens, and fine bone china, another thing with which his vegan sons would take great issue. Then, returning to the fireplace on the far left-hand wall, Phil examined the objects on the mantlepiece, none of which caught his attention.
As he moved to exit the room, he turned and stood on the threshold between the open doors, taking a moment to imagine the table heaped with food and surround by well-dressed people. Thanks to the Victorian décor and the original furniture, it was easy to picture.
Taking leave of the dining room, Phil passed a small storage room filled with cleaning supplies, then continued to the kitchen which spanned the back of the house.
The kitchen, by far the biggest room Phil had seen yet, was light and airy with whitewashed walls, stone-tiled floors and a rack of copper pots hanging from the ceiling over a bulky central island. A restored Victorian oven in full working order occupied the right-hand wall while the counter, sink, and cupboards ran the length of the wall opposite. In the left-hand corner of the room, a door opened to the pantry, and in the right, another door led to the larder. Between the two, a set of Parisian doors looked out at the back garden. Wandering to those doors, Phil eyed the long garden path which wend its way around a fountain before reaching an archway in the high red brick wall at the back. Squinting, he spied what appeared to be a white stone bench and headstones in the space beyond.
Until this point, Phil had been experiencing the sensation of déjà-vu, yet the instant he glimpsed what he assumed to be a private graveyard, he broke out into a full-blown sweat. There was nothing he wanted more in that moment than to break free of his hazmat suit and make a run for home, but the rational part of his brain held him back, so the best he could do, was take leave of the kitchen and the view. Not that he fared any better back in the hallway, however, for the wall leading back to the foyer was lined with five large portraits, each of which mysteriously unnerved him.
First came a painting of Sir Gregory Wells, the famous geologist whose statue towered in the Green in the town centre. Next came the portrait of Lady Emeline Wells, a beautiful woman Phil assumed to be Sir Gregory’s wife. After that, came a picture of George Wells, clearly Sir Gregory and Lady Emeline’s son as he shared both their likenesses. Then came a portrait of a young woman in her wedding dress. The name engraved on the frame read Ada Wells which Phil took to be George’s wife.
And then –
Phil stopped dead in his tracks.
For the final portrait, which came just before the morning room, was of a statuesque woman with auburn hair and dark grey eyes. Dressed in pale mauve and jet black, she arrested Phil with her gaze. As he looked at her, Phil felt nothing but love. And that was beyond bizarre because it was a love like he’d never felt. But then again, perhaps he had felt a love like that once, because if he’d never felt it, how would he recognise it as love now?
All-encompassing, deeply-penetrating, the energy from that portrait hit him straight in the heart. It wasn’t romantic. If anything, it was maternal.
‘Don’t be daft,’ he chided himself in thought. ‘You’ve clocked half a century already, mate. It’s a bit late to be hungering for a mum’s love at this point.’ And then he contemplated his long-dead mother Beryl growling at him from around her cigarette, telling him to ‘buckle up and get on with it’, whatever ‘it’ was, usually something mind-numbing or soul-crushing like mowing the lawn or taking out the rubbish.
And yet –
The feeling this portrait was evoking was distantly familiar, like he’d known it, but he’d lost it, and hungered for it since, not knowing that he’d hungered for it.
Looking at the inscription on the frame, Phil saw it read ‘Justine’.
Only ‘Justine’. There was no surname added.
And yet, this woman’s position amongst the portraits of the others suggested she was a key member of the Wells’ household. Not to mention, if you were coming to the portraits from the front door, her portrait would come first, suggesting she had been the most important of the group.
Mesmerised, Phil immediately began to feel calmer; Justine’s gaze allayed the stress he’d been feeling while looking at the graveyard from the kitchen.
Just as Phil was about to move on and enter the next room, he passed a mirror which was the exact same size and had the exact same frame as the portraits.
How strange, he thought, as he stared at himself in the glass. Whoever had hung that framed mirror there had clearly intended for passing viewers to see themselves as part of the family in the line-up of portraits.
Phil left the mirror, turning right into the morning room, a spacious room with a desk, chair, and cabinet at one end, and a sitting area comprising of two chairs and a settee in front of a fireplace at the other. On the wall opposite the door, there was a large leadlight window by way of which, on sunnier days, the morning light would flood the room, allowing the location to live up to its name.
As in the other rooms, there was nothing that appeared suspicious.
On the mantelpiece above the nineteenth century fireplace, there was a wedding photograph of an older man with his much younger bride standing all-smiles under an arbour in the back garden. Looking at the picture closely, Phil deduced the couple must’ve been the victim’s parents, although, that said, the victim didn’t look much like them.
Truth be told – (and Phil returned to the hallway to the portrait of the auburn-haired woman) – the victim looked more like ‘Justine’ than she looked like her parents. The two women – the painted one, and the victim upstairs – shared the same semblance and height, the same flawless complexion. Only the colour and style of their hair and their clothing set them apart. And yet, by way of ancestry, if they were related, which they must’ve been, there was nothing strange about their likeness. However, arrested anew by the portrait, Phil had an inkling that the two women shared more than appearance. Although he had no proof whatsoever, he felt like they’d shared the same voice, that centuries apart, they’d sounded alike. And so it was, again, that he hungered for the sound of the victim’s voice, as if, he understood that upon hearing it, he’d be hearing the voice of the woman in the painting by osmosis. Never in his life had Phil felt that exact feeling before: the yearning to ‘hear’ the dead speak, with the added expectation that their voices would sound the same.
Jogging himself from his own musings, Phil concluded that the morning room had no light to shed on the current situation, and, so, with a sigh, he proceeded to the parlour.