Clutching his case with his left hand and holding onto his hat with his right, J.C. looked across the road toward the heath. The snow was starting now, twisting through the gorse and dusting leaves still clinging to their boughs for fear of where the wind would take them next. It was only a matter of time, J.C. decided, before the wind would nab those last reluctant leaves, forcing them to migrate into the unknown.
A moment earlier, as he’d exited the building, J.C. had quickly checked his watch. It had just gone three o’clock. His appointment was at four. He still had time to make it. Mind you, he hadn’t been expecting the snow to fall with such ferocity and likely hold him up. But then again, it wasn’t the snow’s fault, was it? It was the doing of the English wind which battered all things in its wake. If he’d known the walk ahead was going to be so strenuous, he wouldn’t have left his car in town. But it was too late now. He had no choice but to brave the brrrr and bluster of the elements on the one-hour trek to his appointment.
Hesitating at the edge of the road, J.C. trusted that Wren Underhill, the agent would wait for him if he should take longer than anticipated. He didn’t even know if Wren was male or female. Two days prior, when he’d called the agency, the receptionist had simply told him, “Don’t worry. We’ll send Wren out to meet you. Four o’clock. Tuesday. On the morning of, I’ll text you to confirm.”
J.C. already knew he didn’t have reception on his mobile in the Mistwell countryside so he wouldn’t be able to call the agency to let the receptionist know he might be late. For the first part of his journey, at least the wind would be behind him, pushing him along. But then, when he turned left, it would come up against him, needling his left side with snow, elbowing him into the centre of the road. By the time he reached Wren in the meeting place, he’d be a tousled mess. Acknowledging that, he flinched. There was nothing he loathed more than to show up anywhere unkempt.
J.C. paused, listening to the wind rushing through the gorse. It swished toward him, then receded, crescendo-ing and decrescendo-ing like waves upon the sand. He recognised the simile and thought about the ocean. And thinking of the ocean, he thought of seaside things: pony rides and fish and chips, sandcastles and Punch and Judy, rainbow rock and soft ice cream. And then, he thought about the huts which lined the beach, just beyond the reaches of the tide. He remembered taking cover in his family’s hut, standing in his sandy footprints, shivering whilst his mother dried his hair, the sea view vanishing and reappearing as the towel up-and-downed over his eyes. And then, he thought about those afternoons when rain had heckled him into the shelter and, sitting cross-legged on the floor, he’d watched the crowds thin out, then disappear. His mother would slide a flask into his hand, and through the steam which drifted from the rim, J.C. would watch the raindrops turn the gold sand brown.
Glancing at his watch again, J.C. shook his head as if to shake the memory from his mind. What was he thinking? Beach huts? On a day like this? What a preposterous image for his brain to cough up in a snowfall. Or not. For after all, for him at least, the rhythm of the wind had always paralleled the heartbeat of the sea. Upon hearing one, how could he ignore the other?
He couldn’t, he decided then.
And for an instant, he experienced an overlap: a collision of two pictures.
With his mind’s eye, he saw the beach hut hemmed with sand, but sitting out of context in the heath stretched out before him, its little clapboard body haloed by the gale-blown snow. The vision only lasted for a second before it faded, taking seaside memories with it.
Rocking back and forth on his heels, J.C. refocussed on the present sounds, on the howling of the wind, then the snow which whispered through the brittle grass and naked branches of the heath. And it was strange, for in that isolated place, his ear attuned to nature’s voice, he felt as he’d been feeling as of late: as if he’d been there in another life. Even in that moment, he half-expected a horse and carriage to come rattling past and for the driver to tip his hat in passing.
Two years ago, J.C. never would’ve felt this way. However, the unusual position he’d found himself in had changed his way of thinking. What had begun twenty-four months prior as purely professional had now become intensely personal. He couldn’t pinpoint it, but somewhere along the line, J.C. had started sensing he was in a story over which he had little control, if any.
At first, he’d resisted the sensations, the visions, the déjà-vu, clinging onto tenets he’d always clung to: logic, reason, proof. But as he stepped onto the road that afternoon, he saw himself like the last of the autumnal leaves hanging for dear life onto the winter boughs now bending. He, like them, was subject to a bigger picture, a deep, inevitable cycle. He, like them, was on the brink of letting go and seeing where the journey was about to take him.
He felt change in his bones. Everything was coming together; the pieces of a story which, until quite recently, he never knew he had, were falling into place.
TWO YEARS EARLIER
THE GIRL ON HARLOW STREET
Constable Phil Owens saw the A first.
There it was.
Capital. Golden. Simple.
Laying on its side as if it were playing dead.
Glimmering in the glow from the desk lamp.
Hanging from the tiniest link on the end of a chain.
Phil didn’t follow the chain to whom it led immediately, but rather stopped at the A, instantly aware he’d taken the letter for granted to the point where he never thought about it anymore. But now, in this moment, faced with the A’s acute angle and the slender bar it protected, Phil recalled his earliest memory.
For a split second, he was four years old, sitting on a dark red sofa, his satchel on the cushion beside him. His chubby hand was wrapped around a pencil, and he was following the broken outline of the first letter he would ever write. He joined the dashes of the angle first, then came back to do the line between.
‘Brilliant, Phil’, a voice came over his shoulder. Only nine more to go.
All ten done – in lead – in 1973. And – in thought – in 2019.
The thought took leave and so Phil followed the chain as it inched its way from the A, lifted from the desk and over the jugular of its wearer before it vanished behind her short blonde hair into her nape.
Phil felt sad.
But this wasn’t the usual, baseline sadness he’d been feeling at death scenes as of late. It felt old, as if it harkened back to things he’d blocked from his mind, and therefore couldn’t remember.
Kneeling, Phil stared at the dead woman slumped forward on the desk, her left cheek down, her right cheek visible between strands of flaxen hair. He saw the colour fading from her face, her fingers stiffening with rigor mortis. A lump formed in his throat. A tear came to his eye. An ache throbbed in his chest. His body was trying to tell him something. He was sure of it, though he wasn’t sure of what, other than the fact that he was, yet again, looking at a tragedy.
“Everything all right, Owens?” Detective Redmond asked behind him.
“Right as rain”, Phil lied, rising. “So where are we at?”
“Viv Musgrave the realtor has returned home. She’ll be at the station for questioning later”.
“She was the one who discovered the victim and called”, Redmond replied. “According to her, she had a showing this morning at eight o’clock before the potential buyers were headed for work. She’d come by to change the flowers, get the lighting right and spruce the place up. She said with a house of this age, size, and condition, she always needed time to stage it, get it looking cosy”.
“And the victim?”
“Granddaughter of Mrs. Clara Holloway, the late homeowner. Early twenties, don’t you think? Not a pretty sight, is it? Evidence we’ve got a growing problem in this country”.
“Her name?” asked Phil.
“Her name was Aubrey Holloway”.
“Aubrey”, Phil echoed under his breath. “That would explain the A on her necklace”.
“No need to state the obvious, Owens”.
“In my experience, often the obvious is where the secrets lie”, ventured Phil.
“Well, rest assured, there are no secrets in this case”, Redmond said, cocking her head toward the
woman’s sliced wrist on her sopping red skirt, and then at the antique letter knife at her feet.
“Most unfortunately – because if I had to choose between murder and suicide –”
“Which hopefully you never will”, interrupted Redmond.
“What do you know about her?” asked Phil, opting out of telling the detective that dying by another’s hand, in his books at least, seemed less tragic than dying by one’s own.
“Precious little at this stage”, Redmond replied. “Only what Viv told me”.
“If this is Aubrey’s grandmother’s house, then where are her parents?”
“According to Viv”, Redmond replied, “they’ve been working as professors in Boston for close to three years. Still own their house in London. Viv told me that the deceased had been spending more and more time here at the house, particularly after her grandmother died eighteen months ago. Apparently, she and her grandmother had been extremely close. There’d been some trouble with the parents. As Viv explained it, the victim was upset over the imminent sale of the house”.
“Surely that wouldn’t have been enough to push her to kill herself”.
“Oh, I don’t know about that, Owens”, Redmond contested. “Grief rips the logic clean out of people’s heads sometimes. But even in this case, there’s some logic involved. The deceased’s parents told Viv their daughter had gravitated to this house since she was a child. They said she was distraught over their breaking with the original ancestor’s wish to keep it in the family”. Casting another glance at the young dead woman, the detective sighed. “But if this house were the victim’s main connection to her grandmother and it was being pulled out from under her, depending on the level of her grief, she could well have wanted to join her grandmother on the other side. Besides, all the evidence points to suicide. There’s absolutely nothing that points to anything other than that”.
“Any history of mental illness?”
“I won’t know that until I speak with the parents”, Redmond answered. “But how can you look at this and not cite psychological distress as the main culprit? You know –”
“Yes, I know”, Phil interjected, aware that the ache in his chest was growing stronger.
While the detective went to the window overlooking the street, Phil surveyed the room. A portable printer, several unopened ink cartridges, and four bricks of packaged paper were on a low, round table beside the desk. Looking at the packaging around the paper, Phil saw that it was made of paper as opposed to Cellophane. However, not seeing empty packaging or used cartridges in the bin beneath the table, Phil deduced the young woman hadn’t been printing, even if she’d been writing on the laptop closed in front of her, a laptop flanked with inkwells, and a jar of fountain pens from the nineteenth century.
Shifting his gaze from the laptop, Phil eyed the dying fire, a pair of velvet wing-backed chairs sitting on the hearth before it, and a little trolley in between. He scanned the bookshelves lined with leather-bound books, interrupted here and there with trinkets: a golden bird, a conch shell, and a beautiful kaleidoscope which rested on a wooden stand. There was, as well, a painting of a man standing in a foreign landscape, leaning on a walking stick.
“Do you recognise him?” Redmond asked.
Phil turned, and looked at Redmond now half-sitting on the windowsill, her back toward the panes. “Should I recognise him?” he questioned.
“Being a Mistweller, I should think so”, Redmond replied with a tsk. “It’s Sir Gregory Wells, the renowned geologist. Bloody hell, Owens, his statue has only been standing in the Green for a hundred and seventy years. Outside the station, nonetheless. You pass it every day”.
Phil could’ve made the point that, when it came to facial recognition, there was a notable discrepancy between black marble and ‘whatever-the-hell’ sort of paints people were using back in the day. That discrepant something – resemblance, let’s say – got lost in the translation. But judging by the stern look in Redmond’s eye, Phil decided to go for something safe and undebatable.
“This was his house then?”
“Once upon a time”, said Redmond.
“Once upon a time”, Phil repeated, looking anew at the fair-haired man, muscular and tanned, standing in between two giant cacti. “Sounds like the beginning of a story”.
“It’s just an expression, Owens. At any rate, the house was his and has stayed in the family for generations. The deceased here was his great, great, great-granddaughter. She was the last of the Wells family bloodline”.
“There’s no family member other than the parents wanting to sell?”
“Not that we know of, at least according to Viv”.
“That’s sad”, said Phil quietly.
“That’s life”. Redmond shifted off the sill, and again peered through the window. “Now where’s the crew? You’d think that after all these years, the Heath would have a hospital and fire brigade. But here we are, this leaf-in-the-wind of a police department still calling in the troops from TTO. Don’t you ever get the feeling that, beyond the Heath, we don’t exist? That only we know about ourselves?”
“The eternal plight of the Mistweller”, said Phil, fully aware that Mistwell Heath wasn’t on the map, and that every Mistweller who’d ever lived had been faced with the question ‘where’s that?’ followed by the words ‘never heard of it’. TTO was the acronym one learned at birth. It stood for Two Towns Over. And Two Towns Over had resources of all sorts which powers past and present had ordered it to share.
As Redmond came away from the window, Phil turned back toward the young woman, again looking at the glimmering A on the end of the necklace.
Why was this death affecting him so deeply?
Was it because the woman was close in age to his sons James and Nico? Or was it because, with her fair hair and pale complexion, she reminded him of his sister when his sister had been younger? Or was it because he was sick of seeing another life lost, another soul leaving of its own accord?
Whatever it was, Phil longed to hear the young woman’s voice. Eyeing her lips parted halfway through a breath, Phil yearned for her to raise her cheek from the desk, open her eyes, and tell him what had just happened, why she’d ended her life. But it was more than that. He wanted to hear specifics: the pitch of her voice, the lilt of her accent, her intonation. He needed to know how she’d sounded.
Judging by her fragile appearance and dainty features, he imagined her voice to be soft, quite innocent. But then, what did he know? For she couldn’t have been innocent if she’d ended her life. She must’ve been experiencing deep, irrevocable grief.
“I wonder what she’d say to us if she could speak?” Phil asked.
“Actions speak louder than words”, Redmond said. “With an act like this, she’s spoken”.
At that very moment, Phil heard the arrival of the emergency crew outside.
“Walk through the house”, instructed Redmond. “Cast an eye and make it damned efficient”.
Before he left the study, Phil walked to the window where Redmond had been and looked down at the street. The ambulance and fire brigade were parking outside, with little clusters of rubberneckers forming on the pavement. Constables Vic Cummings and Pete Saunders, his colleagues, had arrived from the station. Clearly following Serge’s orders, they began off the premises and dodging questions tossed at them by concerned and curious neighbours. Several of these neighbours cradled coffee mugs and teacups as if they were watching an 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 ironic. I mean, seriously, out of uniform, Vic was taking photographs of anything and everything; he certainly didn’t practise what he preached.
“Get on with it, Owens”, Redmond said curtly from behind.
“Yes”, said Phil, to the sound of the front door opening and footsteps coming up the stairs.
As he stood aside to let the team come through, Phil did something he’d never done before. Later he’d reckon that his decades-dead grandmother had been speaking in his subconsciousness because she’d always said, “Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, Philip. Always speak up. How can anyone or anything comply with your request if they don’t have the foggiest idea of what it is that you want?”
So, yes, in hindsight, his grandmother must’ve been speaking to him because, as he passed the dead young woman enroute to the passageway, he prayed to hear her voice.
THE BLUE DRESS
Before returning down the two flights of stairs to the entrance foyer, Phil crossed the top floor landing to the room on the other side, entering and switching on the light.
“Christ”, he said, surveying what looked like a landscape of clutter beneath constellations of dust illuminated by a naked bulb hanging from the ceiling.
The room was crammed with boxes and old furniture. Rolls of wallpaper were angled in one corner, easels stacked against another. Jam jars filled with paint brushes lined the windowsill. Bygone paint had cracked and turned to coloured dust inside the jars. The cobwebs draped over the mess suggested nobody had touched the room for years. Surely Viv, the agent, should’ve had the place cleaned up, and perhaps spun the room as an extra bedroom or a loft-space office. But then again, how could anyone clean a room like this without having the owners sort through it first? And how could the owners have sorted through it if they were overseas? Clearly Aubrey Holloway, across the hall, had been too distraught to take on such a feat.
Squeezing through the mess, Phil walked over to an antique wardrobe on the left-hand wall. Giving his latex gloves a tug, Phil opened the wardrobe’s double doors, examining the clothing that consisted mostly of long dresses, Victorian he reckoned, swathed in flimsy plastic.
“Museum worthy, these are”, he commented, coming to a dress that was incongruent with the others in that it was short with padded shoulders, World War Two-ish, Phil surmised.
Extricating the dress from the queue, Phil held it by the hanger to the shaft of light emitted from the ceiling lamp. It was a wartime dress for certain; he’d seen such dresses on his grandmothers in photographs. The dress made Phil nostalgic.
But for what?
He couldn’t pinpoint what was fuelling the emotion.
He studied the dress which, unlike the older dresses, came without a plastic casing.
It was eggshell blue, its right sleeve burnt, the cloth in dark brown tatters. There were char marks on the right sides of the bodice and skirt. Whatever had transpired, Phil knew the fabric had caught fire, but not for long enough for the dress to burn completely. For a second, he considered taking the garment across the landing to Redmond, but seeing the detective was busy with the team, he decided against it, returning it to the wardrobe, hanging it amongst the others.
“What would a wartime dress have to do with a modern-day suicide anyway?” he asked himself, delving in the wardrobe anew and holding up a pair of nineteenth-century boots laced with fraying ribbon.
“Nothing”. And he returned the boots to the wardrobe, closing the door.
Descending the stairs to the second floor of the house, Phil walked through the rooms, searching for anything that looked amiss. Clearly, Viv had turned the lamps and gas fires on to give each room a welcoming glow. The master bedroom, with its large bay window, faced the street, and Philadelphus Park beyond it. Then came the bathroom, dotted here and there with crumpled towels and toiletries. The vintage claw-footed bathtub, flanked by a tub-side table, occupied the centre of the room, its ceramic gleaming as the daylight seeped around it through the window’s mottled-glass.
Benign enough, Phil thought, surveying the space, until he noticed several copper buckets lined against one wall. The buckets, old and slightly battered, unsettled him without apparent cause.
Taking leave of the bathroom, Phil swept through the other upstairs rooms, finding nothing suspicious or alarming. The only other room that unnerved him was a tiny bedroom at the rear. This room, situated at the end of a long corridor, overlooked the garden at the back. Peering through the window, Phil’s eyes followed the central path around a fountain to an arch in the far wall through which he spied what looked to be a graveyard. The second he glimpsed the bench beneath the towering oak, and then the crumbling headstones, the hairs stood up in his nape.
“Get a grip”, he muttered. “It’s been there forever. You knew that”.
That was the truth.
He had known that.
He’d passed the little cemetery many times, but never stopped to think about it, let alone to fear it. But fear was what he was feeling now, and that was strange because the room around him had the opposite effect: it made him feel secure. He stood there torn between the two sensations – safety and distress.
Eager to escape the feeling, Phil exited the room, returning down the corridor, then down the staircase to the first floor of the house. Walking through the spacious rooms – the drawing room, the parlour, the morning room, and dining room – he searched the drawers and cabinets, finding remnants of the past: a Victorian poetry book, a set of knitting needles, and King James version of the Bible, along with a pearwood pipe and a tin of vintage dominoes. A baby grand piano stood proudly in the parlour. Its lid was up, its harp aglimmer. And it was dustless, indicating Aubrey Holloway had cared for it and played it.
Crouching down, Phil opened the stool and discovered a stack of wartime sheet music followed by composition after composition, each one with “A.H.” pencilled in the top right-hand corner. And as he did, he pictured his own piano lessons of yore, all the Monday nights he’d cowered in the Human Metronome’s shadow, massacring the pieces he hadn’t practiced. He’d called his teacher the Human Metronome because she’d always stood behind him, tapping her pointer on the floor with varying degrees of vehemence, hassling him to obey the given tempo.
‘Presto, Philip!’ she echoed in his brain. ‘Andante! Vivace! Boom, boom, boom! Let’s get moving. Does it say ‘lento’ o ‘largo’? No, it doesn’t! Presto, Philip. Presto!’
“What the bloody hell do you think you’re doing, Owens?”
Snapping out of his reverie, Phil twisted around to the best of his 250 lb ability and, sheet music still in hand, looked up into Redmond’s fierce green eyes.
“This isn’t masterpiece theatre, you know”, she snapped. “I told you to take a good look around. Not take it upon yourself to start dabbling in outdated pop songs”.
“There’s quite a lot of music in the bench, Detective”, Phil ventured, struggling up with the collection cradled in his arms. “Including music that seems to have been written by the victim. Do you think it could be important to us?”
“Is her music all instrumental?” she asked.
“Yes”, Phil replied. “There are no lyrics”.
“If there are no lyrics, then the dead girl couldn’t have had anything worth saying”.
“But what about the jazz?” Phil pressed. “Do you think it’s of any significance?”
“For God’s sake, Owens”, Redmond returned with a glare. “You go to any house in England with a piano and I’ll bet you if you dig deep enough in the bench, you’ll find songs from the war. Wartime sheet music is as much a layer of the British household as layers of old wallpaper. My own grandparents had loads of the stuff in their bench. When it comes to our age group, whose didn’t? Besides, this was a wartime household”, Redmond added, cocking her head toward a photograph of a 1940’s beauty beside her beau in his RAF uniform. “And there’s Mrs. Clara Holloway’s picture to prove it”.
“She was the deceased’s grandmother?” Phil asked, surprised. “The deceased was a bit young for a wartime gran. My own gran was about that age and I’m almost thirty years older than the deceased was”.
“According to Viv, the victim was the product of a second marriage”, said Redmond. “After divorcing his first wife, her father, who’s in his seventies now, married the victim’s mother, a woman much younger than himself, and he hadn’t had any children with the first wife. And, as you already know, Clara here only died eighteen months ago. Made it all the way to ninety-nine, she did”.
“Fancy living that long”.
“Well, she was in damn good health, I’ll tell you that much”, Redmond returned. “Viv said the old gal walked in the park at sun-up every day, right up until the day before her death. And speaking of, don’t forget to check out Cemetery Grove beyond the back garden. I shouldn’t imagine you’ll find anything of import in the overgrown rubble, but as Viv said, Miss Holloway up there had an intense connection to her family’s history, and several of her ancestors are buried in the grove”.
“Of course”, said Phil, instantly recalling the fear he’d felt from his bird’s-eye view of the graveyard from the small back bedroom on the second floor. “I’ll head there now”.
In the wake of Redmond’s departure, Phil returned the music to the bench and moved to leave. Just as he was exiting the room, however, he heard the first few measures of a piece of music – in his head, of course. Or was it in his head?
Don’t be daft, you fool, he told himself. Where the hell else would it be coming from?
The piano keys, dead still, confirmed that diagnosis. But from wherever the music had hailed, it was harrowingly strange because it was familiar and alien, heard before yet never heard. The melody was soft and floaty, in a minor key, so therefore, sad – but wistfully sad, not despairingly sad. If the Human Metronome were with him, she’d ask him what the tempo was.
Closing his eyes and rummaging through the dusty Italian terms of yore, he decided it was ‘andante’. And the dynamic? Mezzo piano, he decided – gentle, but not overly gentle.
But seriously – what did he think he was playing at?
It’s not like he’d been any good at music. He’d endured his lessons for five or six years, hating every minute of them, always deviating at the home piano, tinkering with his own stuff, except when he was walloping out the theme song to The Pink Panther which, he couldn’t say enough about.
Did it matter that he hadn’t been a musical virtuoso?
The fact of the matter was that he was hearing music now – music that clearly wasn’t being play-played, but rather thought-played.
Casting a furtive glance over his shoulder, Phil struggled down to the floor again, opening the bench and lifting out the stack of manuscripts, leafing through them to see if he could find one in a minor key.
The compositions were simple enough – in C+, D+, F+ and G+ – that he could rule out minor keys.
He could rule out ghost sounds then.
At least the victim’s music wasn’t calling to him from the bench.
But that unnerved him too. Like when his medical tests came back negative, giving him an instant of relief, but then opening the door to a gazillion other ailments for which he hadn’t been tested. It could be ‘anything goes’. And yet, those melancholic bars played on, unsettling him to no end.
Exiting the parlour, Phil turned left, walking down the corridor that passed the central staircase. As he did, he passed a queue of portraits on the wall, all of which were people dressed in nineteenth century garb. Glancing at their serious expressions, Phil felt like they were staring at him through the canvas.
Perhaps they know I’m headed to their graves, he thought, stopping at a mirror just before the kitchen, but not for long for he abhorred the sight of himself these days. His pudgy face, his furrowed brow, his weary eyes, his balding head, his greying curls just screamed dilapidation to the world. Pudgy. Furrowed. Weary. Balding. Greying. These were his adjectives du jour, his midlife motivation for avoiding mirrors, the reason why he said on repeat, “Gone are the days, Mate. Your time is over”.
Flinching at his split-second reflection, Phil walked through the open double doors that introduced the kitchen, a massive room which spanned the building’s rear. To his immediate left, there was a door. Peering through its tiny window, Phil saw it led to a pathway that hemmed the south side of the house, no doubt on its way to the back garden.
Phil reached for the knob.
The metal, which should’ve been cold, was warm.
Unnerved, Phil pulled his hand away and turned toward the room at large, its focal point a massive central island with copper pots suspended from a beam above it. Must be nice, he mused, thinking of James and Nico, his Instagramming sons, always bumping into each other in the Owens’ family kitchen as they prepped their vegan meals for the JaNiMesCo, Vegan Supper Club.
Shifting his gaze away from the island, Phil eyed the left-hand wall, first noticing the oven, then the countertop that housed a sink below a window faced the southern pathway as had the small side door. The counter ended at a small room in the corner which Phil intuited was the pantry – another perk of yore the Owens’ family home was missing.
With a sigh, Phil turned and faced the huge Victorian fireplace that occupied the right-hand wall. The monstrosity, fronted by a green tiled hearth, was followed by another room which Phil found to be a larder, its only charges now being a tin of Twinings gunpowder tea, a loaf of Hovis and a jar of Marmite.
“Gunpowder tea?” Phil muttered, leaving the larder, and looking through the antique Parisian doors that sat between the larder and the pantry and looked at the back garden.
Tugging at the handles, Phil found the doors pushed open easily, letting in a gust of wind that ruffled his protective gear. Standing on the threshold, he thought the view exquisite, especially in the demi-dark of early morning. The path extended from the steps and wrapped around a mossy fountain toward the archway flanked with lanterns aglow on the far wall. And through that arch, again Phil glimpsed the white stone bench beneath the towering oak, and several of the gravestones underneath the linden.
Phil stepped out from the kitchen and closed the doors behind him, following the pathway to the archway. And as he walked, the sadness he’d experienced upon seeing Aubrey in the study surged again. By the time he reached the graves, his heart was heavy, his vision glassy. The headstones, slanted in the bluebells, were a blur. Taking in the trees, he knew that centuries before, their roots would’ve been malleable enough for the dead to be buried amongst them. By now, those roots, thick and sinuous in their old age, would’ve long since interlaced with the remains; the deceased would be united with the Earth. And perhaps such intercourse was the only Paradise one could hope for in the end.
Watching the letters of the names on the headstones run into one another, Phil wished the souls whose bones lay in the soil beneath could come back to life and tell him what they were thinking and feeling. That’s how he’d felt about Aubrey Holloway in the study. He’d yearned to hear her voice, and he yearned to hear the voices of her ancestors now. And that yearning was distressing to the point of despair for he believed he never could. After all, it was impossible to hear the dead.
Breath hastening, heart racing, Phil paced between the graves and the bench, eventually dropping down on the bench where he threw his head back, trying to regain composure, to re-regulate his breathing. His self-talk of choice was so typically ‘him’, the sort of thing the spiritual gurus his colleague Vic revered would frown upon. “Christ – get a grip, get a grip, get a grip, get a grip”, he muttered to himself. “You’re not four years old anymore—for Christ’s sake, get a bloody grip”.
Moments later, after heeding his own advice, Phil heaved himself from the bench, and looked across the garden and up at the house where, in one of the second-floor windows, he glimpsed a face. It was too far away to see whose it was, but at a guess, it was Redmond’s. And if memory served him correctly, that was the tiny bedroom from which he’d observed the garden and the graves earlier.
Not wanting to be reprimanded for dawdling later by the caustic detective, Phil quickly turned away, making his way to the cemetery’s large wrought-iron gates which led to Sorrel Lane, the country road separating the back garden walls of Harlow’s houses from the heathland for which the town Mistwell Heath had been named.
THE LAY OF THE LAND
Phil pushed through the gates, stepping into the middle of the lane.
The open heath stretched out before him.
Rugged and uneven, it looked like it was stumbling toward the groves that thickened the horizon. That distant row of trees reminded Phil of an unsteady line a child had painted. And suddenly he considered the paint brushes inside the jam jars in the top room. And considering the room, he thought about the wardrobe, then the wartime dress, its sleeves burnt into tatters. And thinking of the dress, he thought how objects long outlived their wearers which brought him back to thinking of Aubrey’s necklace.
Then the letter A.
Then words beginning with A.
‘Academy’, for instance.
And then, contemplating the word ‘academy’, he acknowledged that the road behind that distant line of trees was Old Academy Road – Sloe Road really, but everybody called it Old Academy Road because the only building on it was the former surgical academy. And wasn’t that ironic? For the Whoevers of the World to have built a school for surgeons a stone’s throw from the very town denied a hospital?
Shifting his gaze from the horizon, Phil looked right, studying Sorrel Lane which ran the gamut of the heath before it vanished around a curve, leading into town where it graduated to a road. He then looked left, following the lane as it headed toward Beech Street at the edge of Mistwell Heath, so much at the edge in fact, no road came beyond – just lovely English countryside brushed into oblivion.
Still looking left, Phil glimpsed a building yonder, heath-side, at the edge of Sorrel and Beech. Phil knew the building well. Fronted by a cobbled yard overgrown with thistles, it was an abandoned stable house where, centuries past, inhabitants of Harlow had kept their carriages and horses. Now it stood with shattered panes and unhinged doors, its mildewed shadows awning rusty cartwheels, horseshoes, empty crisp packets, discarded condoms, and syringes. Its walls had been graffitied ‘60’s, ‘70’s, ‘80’s style with ‘FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL’ and phone numbers of all sorts.
What a joke, Phil thought.
How the hell did that work when everyone was on a landline? What kind of idiot would copy and call a number, hoping for some action, but getting someone’s mother on the line instead?
Phil closed his eyes, imagining the building sans vandalism and rubbish. The stables flanked the cobbled yard, and in between, the former coach rooms, introduced by red brick archways, winged out from the central building. In days of yore, those archways would’ve shaded padlocked doors.
The rooms were open to the elements, their rafters webbed, their corners laced with leaves.
Opening his eyes, Phil turned back to the graveyard.
Thanks to the wind, the gates had closed behind him. As Phil re-opened them, he saw two forged-iron letters, one on either side of the latch: C to the left, G to the right. Phil hadn’t noticed them when he’d walked out. But then again, why would he have, seeing as they were on the outside of the gates. But now, recalling the detective having told him to go to Cemetery Grove, he guessed the initials stood for that: Cemetery Grove.
By the time Phil returned to the house, the team had gone, and Aubrey Holloway’s body had gone with it, headed for the Mistwell Mortuary adjacent to the station. Detective Redmond was in the foyer, removing her protective gear, straightening her clothes, and turning up her collar.
“Well, that’s that”, she said, re-wrestling her curls into a scrunchie. “Time to get back to the office and sort this tragedy out. The parents will have been notified by now, and Viv will be in for questioning. Not to mention the calls I need to make. All in a day’s work, sadly”.
“Tragically, I’d say”.
“You’ll get over it, Owens. It’s all part of the job”.
A few minutes later, stepping onto the pavement, Phil began to close the gates behind him. As he did, his wedding ring glinted in the light coming from one of the Victorian streetlamps the town had restored, making him flinch. The forever he and Claire had pledged on their wedding day, as of late, had been fraying at the seams. Long gone were their Ferris wheel nights at the park at his back. Truth be told, long gone was everything but their quarrels. If he and Claire weren’t careful, they were going to become part of the fifty percent of failed marriages of which they’d always sworn they’d never be a part.
As the gate clicked shut, Phil saw ‘ROSEGATE’ engraved on a small iron oval that split down the middle when the gate was open and came back together when the gate was shut. He’d seen the name upon arriving at the house but hadn’t given it much thought. But staring at the word now, he saw ROSE│GATE, so, even when united, the word was apart.
The pang Phil had felt upon seeing his wedding ring deepened into a full-blown ache.
Because there was nothing that he wanted more than for things with Claire to work out the way they’d planned when they were seventeen, and twenty-five, and thirty-three, and forty-one.
To avoid looking at the word divided, Phil eyed the ‘FOR SALE’ sign to the right of the gate.
‘There’d been some trouble with the parents’, Redmond echoed in his ear. ‘As Viv explained it, the deceased had gravitated to this house since she was a child. According to Viv, the parents said she was distraught over their breaking with the original ancestor’s wish to keep it in the family’.
“The world according to bloody Viv”, Phil mumbled, turning and eyeing Redmond’s 1975 racing green Triumph Spitfire parked on the street. Redmond’s car, in his books, was ironic because it announced the detective’s presence when her work was meant to be kept low-key.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” Redmond shocked him from behind.
“Not as pretty as my Ford”.
“You’ve sold out to the Americans, Owens”, she tsked. “But I wasn’t talking about my significant other. I was referring to the park”.
“Oh, right – the park”.
“Yes, Owens, the park. Just look at it.”
Phil looked across Harlow at the trees standing knee-deep in the tattered mist, their branches quivering in the pre-dawn breeze. The view was breathtaking, Phil thought, noticing how the trees approached the edge of the manmade lake to watch the swans emerging from beneath the willow branches curtained along the banks.
“Do you know why it’s called Philadelphus Park?” the detective asked.
“Can’t say I do”.
“It’s a little-known fact here in the Heath,” continued Redmond. “But Philadelphus is the botanical name for the colloquial ‘mock orange’, that shrub with dark green leaves and small white flowers you see in abundance throughout the park, filling the air from May to July with its intoxicating perfume”.
“I know the scent”, said Phil. “I just never knew where it came from”.
“Well, now you do”, said Redmond, pushing past him, making her way to the driver’s side of her Triumph. “I’ll see you at the station in a minute, and we’ll regroup. Saunders is going to lock up”.
And just like that, Redmond was gone – Phil standing on the pavement, suddenly aware he’d taken the park for granted all these years, not realising it was so beautiful.
He’d often spent time there, especially in his boyhood, or at the annual fair with Claire when they’d been younger. And he’d often been there as a police officer, when there’d been trouble in and around the public toilets on the northeast side beside the rhododendron bushes, not far from the playground and the bandstand. And with that thought, he asked himself why it was that certain sites invited trouble whilst others remained pristine and undisturbed? But then again, the same could be said for people, he reasoned. If he’d learned anything in his time on the force, it’d be that the distribution of dysfunction and hard-knocks simply wasn’t fair.
Phil could almost smell the spicy, citrusy fragrance of the mock arrange from where he stood; the aroma was so potent, it was able to foreshadow itself.
And then it occurred: the moment.
He glimpsed himself.
He was twelve and a half, sitting on the bench that faced the willow trees. That was him for certain. There and gone in the blink of an eye. But there. In his trousers, a button-down shirt, and a skinny black tie to honour the Beatles tucked into his jumper.
Do the math, Phil, he commanded, quickly coming up with 1981.
What the hell had he been doing there like that in 1981?
And what was he doing here, wasting time now?
Turning back and taking one last look at ROSE│GATE, Phil instantly recalled having looked at the house that night when he’d been watching the swans. He remembered having looked at it and having concluded that whoever lived in such luxury couldn’t possibly have had any problems, not like he’d had at twelve and a half. Little had he known back then that dysfunction and trauma don’t discriminate. And, with the image of Aubrey Holloway slumped over the study desk, her necklace swerved over its own reflection, the A turned on its side, the inclusivity of tragedy was more apparent than ever.
Christ, life was one calamitous event after another. But –
Phil cast a final glance at the park.
It was spellbinding too.
And before he turned to make his way to Beech Street where his police car was parked, he thought of Aubrey’s grandmother Clara Holloway walking in the park each dawn, watching the mist ascend to reveal the swans, the water, the leaves. And, for a moment, he understood completely, why, for ninety-nine years, she’d continued to live.
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