CHAPTER NINETY-FIVE: UNEXPECTED VOICES

 

Author’s Note:

 

Phil has now relocated from George’s study in Rosegate to Foxglove, the cottage on Sorrel Lane, entering by way of the key which Gregory Wells had left for Justine in a book almost two centuries prior. We’ll just have to exercise some “suspension of disbelief” and take some creative liberties with this and assume that the Holloways, to honour Justine’s wishes, will have kept old school and not changed the locks!  There’s some silliness at the beginning of this chapter (which may well get axed in the rewrite) but the message of finding clues to present problems in the voices from the past which replay in our mind will stay.

 

 

Phil stood in the cottage, surveying his surroundings. For the life of him, he had no clue why he’d started playing that song. But Journey’s ‘Wheel in the Sky’ was on and he, Claire and the giant pink teddy bear he’d won on were stuck in a malfunctioning Ferris wheel, hanging high above the lights of the town. The umpteenth cigarette of the night was flip-flopping between them, well just between him and Claire really, as Pinky wasn’t allowed to smoke. Claire’s ballet flat was off her foot and spiralling toward the fairground below. The Sony Walkman was on her lap and they were sharing the headphones.

‘I’d fuck you up here if I could,’ Claire said with a toss of her layered hair.

‘And kill us in the process,’ Phil remembered saying. ‘Brilliant way to die, I reckon.’

“Not if only one of you dies,” Phil said in the present, swatting the gut-turning image of Bertie with her legs agape from his mind. “And not if you’re the one who lived to be fucking the dead one.”

‘But Phil,’ Claire was whispering in his ear. ‘Just look down. Isn’t it beautiful? God, it’s like from up here, we can see absolutely everything. It all looks so easy – and it all looks so pretty.’

‘I’ll bet you remember this moment,’ Phil heard himself say.

‘Yeah, right,’ Claire echoed, giving his image a squeeze. ‘Like when we’re forty, all old and out of shape – when our children have left home.’

‘Oh, so you want my babies now, do you?’

‘I want to stick around long enough to see your corduroy and jumper phase.’

‘What?’

‘God knows I’ve stuck out the other phases. The punk rock phase, the heavy metal phase –’

‘Hard rock – not heavy metal. Plus, corduroys won’t be around by then anyway.’

‘Well, when we’re all old and everything, or when we’re having some massive row, when we’re all ragged from life, we should meet each other back in this memory and remember how lovely everything looked from above. My mum used to say that whenever life’s getting you down, you need to look up and if you look up long enough, you’ll get above it all.’

‘How long do you think we’re gonna be stuck up here for?’ he heard himself say.

‘As long as it takes you to – you know …’ Winking, Claire leant over and, to borrow Justine’s term, kissed him in the quarter-moon shadow behind his ear then slipped her hand between his legs.

‘You’re not serious, Claire?’

‘Dead serious,’ she said slyly. ‘Teddy will keep on guard.’

‘Christ – you are serious,’ he said as Claire wiggled the midway prize out of the seat and wedged him between them and the bar in front of them to block the view.

He couldn’t fucking believe it as Claire unzipped him, whispering, ‘You won more than Pinky at the bottle game down there. You’ll be the first bloke in history to do this in the sky – well – on a Ferris wheel right here at least.’

Phil still couldn’t believe it as he switched off the song.

I mean, seriously, they’d achieved the moment. He’d spasmed to borrow another of Justine’s terms. But then, unfortunately, another ‘afterwards’ cigarette carelessly swiped the wrong way and Pinky fell backwards and, going up in flames, dodged the wheels giant steel spokes and tumbled into scrambling bodies and screams below whilst Claire half-wet herself laughing.

‘We’re gonna get arrested, Phil,’ she gasped through her laughter. ‘Get rid of the fucking tissues. Get rid of the evidence. What’s the punishment for pyromania?  Here – quick – get Talking Heads on – play Burning Down the House.’

First the ballet flat – then the flaming bear – then a handful of tissues –

Christ!

And then, very unfortunately for all involved (which in this isolated case, was Claire, Phil, Pinky and later, at the police kiosk by the candyfloss stand, a very furious Beryl and Floyd), Phil and Claire had to endure a 7-day separation imposed on them by three of their four parents (because Claire’s dad was occupied philandering overseas).

Phil smiled, but sadly. Christ – where had the time gone?

And to think they’d thought that forty was old – and that their children would’ve left home!

How naïve both he and Claire had been. But they’d lived to their fullest in a Mistwell sort of way. And they’d laughed – how they’d laughed that night above the town.

‘Don’t forget to look up, Phil,’ Claire echoed. ‘That’s what my mum always said.’

Doing what Claire had bid, but three and a bit decades later, Phil looked up into the rafters of Foxglove, the beautiful intersection of beams.

What artistry, he thought. So much lovelier than an attic.

And at the thought of attics, enter Floyd, hobbling and cursing over his own.

‘Jesus Christ, Phil,’ Floyd growled. ‘I hit my head so hard up there, it’s a wonder I’m not dead! Bloody attic. Mark my words son, don’t have one. And if you have one, bloody knock it out and get yourself one of those posh cathedral ceilings with exposed beams like used to be in your mum’s decorating magazines. I don’t know why she wasted hard-earned money on those magazines, seeing as she never did a thing. Your mum was a right proper fishfinger and chips lass, she was. Nothing fancy ‘bout your mum. What you saw was what you got. She never would’ve belonged in a place with cathedral ceilings with fancy beams. Christ, at the rate she smoked cigarettes, she would’ve set the house on fire with woodwork like that.’

“You’re right about that, Dad,” Phil said in the present, his gaze still upturned.

Thinking of Anthony, Phil shone his torch around the cottage, stopping at the desk Anthony had made. It was small, but finely crafted and still stood at the little window overlooking the heath. And then, it was Anthony Winterbourne’s time to speak from the past.

‘I’ve built a special place for your work,’ he whispered from the past, ‘and I trust you’ll know exactly where to find it. And I know this because you were always listening, even when you were silenced. Only you will know where this place is.’

But where? Phil asked. It’s here. I know it is. But where?

‘My mum always said to look up,’ Claire answered.

‘Get yourself one of those posh cathedral ceilings with exposed beams,’ Floyd responded.

‘This cottage has great bones, Justine,’ Anthony declared. ‘As a carpenter by trade, I know a house with good bones when I see one. And those beams up there? They’re as solid and reliable as they come.’

‘You know where the true stories lie, Owens?’ Sully Jenkins the pathologist joined in (wait a minute – how did Sully get into the picture?). ‘In the bones.  That’s where! Well, for me, we could say, in the whole body, in the cadaver. But when time has eaten away the flesh, all we’re left with are the bones. But the bones? The scaffolding? The structure? That framework designed to anchor the soul?  That framework tells the story of the person who owned it. That’s where forensics come in.’

“The stories lie in the bones,” Phil murmured, echoing Sully.

And suddenly, Phil was dragging a chair across the floor, positioning it beneath one of the cross beams, climbing onto it, holding his torch. The chair wasn’t high enough; he needed a ladder. Remembering that Justine had kept a ladder in the pantry, Phil hurried to the pantry and located it, hauling it out and setting it up. As steadily as he could, he climbed up the rungs until he could see the beam from above. And shining his torch on the beam’s surface, he saw that yes, there, in the top, was a lid with a handle pressed snugly into a groove in the wood. Positioning his torch so he could see what he was doing, Phil gingerly lifted the handle from its resting place and tugged at the lid. It came out, revealing a hollow beneath. Setting the lid aside and picking up the torch, Phil shone the light into the space, catching his breath. For there in his spotlight, was a stack of leather-bound journals – at least five, maybe six.

Heart racing, Phil lifted the journals from the hollow and brought them back down to the table, returning up the ladder to close the space and retrieve his torch. Then, as swiftly as he could, he moved the ladder to the next crossbeam, climbing up, discovering yet another hiding spot, this time concealing an oblong tin. Bringing the tin back down, he set it on the table beside the journals and moved the ladder to the third crossbeam. Mounting the ladder anew, he found another lid, another hollow but, this time, when he looked inside, he found a gun wrapped in velvet with a box of bullets.

“Christ,” he said under his breath, examining the weapon, opening it up, discovering it was empty, but in working order, he decided as he pulled the trigger then released it.

A moment later and the journals, the tin, the gun, and the bullets were all there on the table – one great puzzle begging to be solved, but something told Phil he didn’t have much time to solve it. Time was running out; he felt it. Yet, even under pressure, Phil sat in awe of how the most unlikely of folk – Claire and Anthony, Floyd and Beryl – the ones who’d stood in the way of loved-ones’ art – had come through in the end to support it. Is that what they were doing then? Supporting art? Or saving his life?

Not knowing which it was, Phil decided they were doing both. For he was sure if he survived what lay ahead, he’d owe to himself to artify the hell out of it and share it with the world.

Pulling the first of the journals toward him, Phil opened it up, holding the torch with his left hand whilst managing the pages with his right. The paper, sepia and thin, was filled with cursive writing in black ink. The style was old and seemed to flow. Phil lay his palm atop the page and, through the latex of his glove, he felt his former mother’s warmth which radiated from the ink.

Leafing through the work, he recognised the stories; they were Justine’s. Though wordier than Aubrey’s versions, they were the same. Everything was there in its salacious, painful glory. As Justine’s penmanship flashed past, Phil understood that Aubrey Holloway had been Justine’s translator, simplifying Justine’s voice so he could understand it a century and a half later. Aubrey, bless her soul, had kept the rhythm, and saved the tone, but made it readable for him. And when Phil got to Sidney’s death and read the passage about Sid’s life, his quirks, and foibles, likes and dislikes, he saw that many of the words were blurred. The smudges were from Justine’s tears. She hadn’t said a single word about suicide. She’d only celebrated Sidney’s life. But now, Phil understood. Justine’s maternal devastation was forever salted on the page. The sorrow was ingrained in every sentence, every word. He felt her grief inside his chest because he understood. He’d lost the girl who’d mothered him and nursed his art. He’d waited on the stairs a thousand times, praying to a deity in which he didn’t believe, begging for her to come bursting back into the house. He hated Marmite after than and couldn’t watch The Wombles and didn’t know how much cream soda he should pour to make an ice cream float. And he was sure if he could only find that Ouija board, surely Richie would respond and say she was alright.

Phil turned the page. A different page was there – a little whiter, without a word, pressed against the next. Phil racked his brain. He’d seen the paper before. But where? Hidden throughout his childhood house – inside his satchel – taped inside a toilet stall –

“Christ.”

Snatching up the paper and rushing to the hearth, Phil turned the paper over and rubbed it in the ash, flipping it back over, reading the white wax. ‘If you should ever find this, Phil, then trust me, there’s a God. Always x. Mum.’

“Mum,” Phil said. “Oh God, oh Rich.” So, Richie had been here in Foxglove and she’d known about the journals. They’d fed her art. That’s how she’d painted all her scenes: from Justine’s stories.