Back in July, when she read the email asking for an October school visit she answered yes. October would sunshine falling on a golden landscape, or so she imagined.
She’d forgotten that October eats the hours of daylight and brings in the dark, but it was too late to back out.
Heavy clouds rolled across the sky as she drove past Doncaster and by the time she’d discovered the lanes beyond Ripon, night had arrived. Another signpost, another junction, another stretch of unexpected dips and bends. This was definitely not how she’d imagined the journey.
And why had she arranged to stay with Amy? Curiosity, pure and simple. A convenient old friend. Reports of a dream home. Amy’s cottage seemed a couple of miles from the school when she’d looked at the map in London but she felt less sure about the distance now. There’d probably be a misty moor or blasted heath in the way. Oh well, she’d check when she reached Amy’s.
Just as the driving got even more difficult, she heard two texts come in. As soon as she could, she picked up the phone.
“Sos! Mum ill. Key undr mat. Food/fridge. Hlp yrself. Amyx.”
The second was even more of the same.
Ps Prob not bck 2nite. Njoy. xxx”
She grimaced. That was just so typical of Amy, she thought, but then she smiled. A night without mindless conversation would be bliss.
The porch lights came on as she arrived, so it was easy to unlock the ancient front door and lug her overnight bag inside. The school stuff could stay in the boot of the car till morning.
As she closed the door, the utter darkness outside felt unsettling. She promptly locked the door and slid the iron bolts across. In a short while, with the school and supper sorted, she lay stretched out on the sofa, scribbling away in perfect peace. What bliss!
Three hours and more than three glasses of wine later, there was still no Amy. Going to bed in an empty house felt strange. There were none of the annoying sounds of home. In fact, it almost felt as if the cottage was holding its breath. What a gloomy thought! Hiccupping loudly, she broke into slightly hysterical giggles.
Halfway up the stairs, she remembered the back door. Locked? Or unlocked? She padded down again. The key stood in the keyhole. She unlocked and locked the backdoor twice, to be really sure, but the bolt wouldn’t slide, which annoyed her intensely. She wedged a wooden kitchen chair tightly up under the handle as reinforcement.
That was better, except then she caught her reflection in the glass panel. The damn windows! Why hadn’t she thought about those before? Anyone could see inside, if anyone was out there. Better safe than sorry. She went round, tugging curtains across the tiny windows, and checking catches were fastened.
Now for bed. Again. At the turn of the stairs, she paused. Had she forgotten anything? Maybe not, but she went down and heaved the dining table across the French window, scraping the stone floor. As she stopped, she felt a kind of noise. It was there for a second, and gone. An illusion. All she was sure of was the beating of her heart. .
She scurried upstairs, steadily checked Amy’s room and windows and then closed that door. She tested the bathroom’s frosted-glass window. When she unfastened and re fastened the linen cupboard on the landing, she knew she was just being silly.
At last, she was in the guest room. She switched on the light and shut that door too, taking a long, deep breath. The space hadn’t felt this large and empty when she’d dumped her bag here earlier. She checked her phone, and there was no signal, of course, not even a stupid text from a so-called friend.
She glared at the stuffed toy animals that crowded across the bed. Her bed. She gathered the simpering creatures up, flung them to the back of the wardrobe, and slammed that shut too. Luckily, the divan bed meant she didn’t have to drop to her knees and squint fearfully into any under-the-mattress darkness.
Still, she felt a fool, alarmed when there was nothing there. Nothing anywhere. Almost defiantly, she got into bed and sat there, wrapped tightly in the duvet. Suddenly, the small silver key in the door caught her eye. Laughing now, she leaped out, turned the key and brought it back to bed with her. Resolutely, she turned off the light and shut her eyes tightly. Right. Done. Safe. Think about tomorrow.
As she lay there, with the key clutched firmly in her palm, something broke the silence.
Something breathed into her ear. “Oh, goody,” said a strange small voice. “Now we’re shut in together for the night, aren’t we?”
The next morning, in the school, the Head Teacher looked sad, in the highly meaningful way that teachers do.
“Children,” she said, with a profound sigh. “We had hoped to have a Real Live Author here to meet you today, but she just hasn’t turned up. Never mind. We’ll show you a Harry Potter video instead.”
HAPPY HALLOWEEN TO ALL OF YOU -
AND HAPPY ALL SAINTS DAY TOO!
31st October 2013.