Monday, October 31, 2016

Writer's Block, A Ghost Story....The Last Chapter

Press Release

The intermittent terror left with the dawn, driven out by the first slices of pink that cut through the grey clouds and striped the patterned carpet. Gwendolyn sat up warily, still listening for the horrifying cries of the night.  But she heard nothing save the caw of the rooks in the trees and the crash of the waves outside her windows.  She picked up her whisky glass and sniffed.  Could there have been something in that whisky?  Something that caused her to hear what wasn’t, couldn’t have possibly been, there?   She tamped down the idea that what she’d heard had been generated by her overwrought, unreliable mind, refusing, as best she could, to entertain that particular fear.

She stood up, padded over to the window and was surprised to see sunlight glistening on a calm sea below.  As is always the case, it was difficult to fully recall the worries of a dark night in the face of a sunny morning.  Gwendolyn dismissed the sound as the result of her exhaustion from travel.  Perhaps it wasn't as dramatic as she’d thought.  She pulled a jumper on over her pajamas and went out into the hall.  Pausing on the landing to gaze out over the front garden, she once again noticed the stained glass apostles surrounding the view,  each one intricate and beautiful.  On closer inspection, and after counting them over twice, she realized one of the twelve was missing.  In its place was a winged boar, an almost identical replica of the stone pair glowering back at her from the tall pillars outside.  

The day was so glorious, Gwendolyn spent its majority outdoors.  It was easier to feel optimistic, and more importantly, easier to dismiss the events of the previous night in the bright light beaming up from the water below.  Though the sea was as much a feature of the house as the stone of its making, its location, so far down the jagged rocks of the cliff side, made it impossible to reach the shore.  So she sat underneath a rather ragged tree that clung to the cliff, reveling in the quiet and the salty breeze.   She ate warmed-over soup for lunch, fresh fruit and cheese for dinner.  She read at bit and dozed in one of the comfortable chairs in the library.  Deciding that whisky was not the best idea before bedtime, she made herself a cup of cocoa and headed upstairs when the stars came out, reading in bed till she fell asleep.

It started just before dawn, when the dark is deepest.  A sobbing so despairing, so real, it buried itself into the very cells of her being.  Properly terrified now, Gwendolyn had no whisky to blame.  But she couldn’t just lie there.  She had to know who, or what, was making this dreadful sound. 

Getting out of bed, she went across the room to the fireplace and grabbed a poker from the hearth.  Wielding it like a sword, she turned the handle on the bedroom door and stepped out into the hallway.  Outside her room the crying seemed even louder and impossible to locate.  It was as though it emanated from every room, through every window.  The house was lavender with moonlight and Gwendolyn crept through it, poker raised and heart thumping.  There was no one in the entry and the library was just as she’d left it, the embers of the dying fire glowing orange in the grate.  Turning towards the dining room her eyes were drawn to the painting of the pink-dressed girl.  With a breath-stealing horror she could clearly see the girl’s once shy smile and innocent countenance was gone.  In their place was an open-mouthed scream, as hideous as the crying that now filled every room of the house.  Gwendolyn slammed the door and fled.

Upstairs, her hands shaking, she fumbled in her bag for her phone and dialed Albert’s number, caring nothing about the time.  Several rings and his sleepy, grumpy voice came on the line.  

“Hullo.  Who the devil is this?”

“Albert, it’s Gwennie.  What is going on here?  What haven’t you told me?  There's something wrong with this place, isn’t there?  I swear, Albert, you get me out of here now.  Tonight.  I don’t care what time it is, you get in touch with that man, what’s his name?  The one that brought me over.  Henry, that’s it.  You call Henry tonight, do you hear me?  I am packing my bags and I want out of here first thing.”

“Now, Gwennie.  Calm down.  You hear something in the night?  It’s just the wind, old girl.  Just the wind.  Why, I remember how hard it blows up there.  Easy to work on the imagination.  But that’s why you’re there!  A good old jolt to the imagination is just what you need.  Am I right?

“Dammit, Albert.  I’m serious.  You get me off this blasted island immediately or I’m calling the police.  I mean it, Albert.   I swear I’ll never write another word for you!  Do it, Albert.  Do it NOW.”

Static popped and crackled for a moment then the phone went silent.  Gwendolyn threw it across the bed, only then noticing that the sobbing, the horrible sobbing, had ceased.  She got dressed and sat on the edge of the bed to wait for morning.

     The painting looked normal once again.  Refusing to stay cowered in her room all day, Gwendolyn had come down the stairs at first light.  She’d stood for a long moment with her hand closed around the glass doorknob before finally turning it.  The fragrance of gardenias surrounded her, almost visibly white in the early grey light of this rainy day.  Her eyes rose slowly to meet the girl in the painting.  The smile had returned.  Gwendolyn stood in the entry hall, reluctant to enter the room, torn between memory of the night before and the reality now in front of her.    She quietly closed the door to the room as one does to the room of the sick, then went down the hall to the rear entry of the kitchen to make herself a cup on strong tea and phone Albert once again.  Her heart sank when she heard the recording, the crisply pleasant voice of Caroline Dunn filling her ear.

“Hello.  You’ve reached the offices of Albert Pepperidge, Esq.  Mr. Pepperidge regrets he cannot speak with you personally, but he is away from his desk at the moment.  Please leave your name and number and he will happily ring you back as soon as he can.”

Gwendolyn took a deep breath and spoke.  “Albert.  I’m begging you.  Get me off this island.  Your plan to get me writing is not going to work here.  There’s something going on up here Albert.  I do not like it.  I will NOT stay here.  Send someone to get me now.  Do you hear me?  I have packed my bags and I am waiting.”

Back on Cadogan Gardens, Albert Pepperidge, seeing Gwendolyn’s number come up, had ignored the call, letting it go to voicemail.  Now he sat at his desk, his breakfast getting cold, thoroughly irritated.  He couldn’t ask Mrs. Dunn for advice, as would be his usual inclination.  She’d already told him in no uncertain terms what she thought of his plan.  But he’d been so certain it would work.  Now, listening to the obvious distress in Gwendolyn’s voice, he was beginning to doubt himself, a feeling as unwelcome to him as it was, frankly, unknown.  With the sigh of disappointment tinged with guilt, Albert picked up the phone and dialed.  A young women’s voice answered.

“GS Productions.  We do things on a Grand Scale.  How may I direct your call?”

“Um, Hullo.  This is Albert Pepperidge.  I wish to speak to Charlie Blake on a matter of some urgency.”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Pepperidge, but Mr. Blake is out of the country at the moment.  Can I leave a message for when he returns?”

“No, you cannot.  I need to speak with him.  Or with somebody in charge of the project up on Greyrocks Island.  I wish to end it early.  I wish to end it today.”

“Oh.  Mr. Pepperidge, I’m a little confused.  We received your earlier message, as well as your check.  You were most generous, by the way.  ‘Specially as we didn’t really do anything for you.  It’s all been taken care of, you’re not to worry.  These things happen.  I can assure you, Mr. Blake was fine with it.”

“Fine with what?!”  What message?  I didn't leave any message!”  Confusion made Albert thunderous.

“Well, somebody did.  A few nights ago.  Told us to scupper the whole project immediately.  Which we did, sir.”

“But it wasn’t scuppered, as you so eloquently say!  It’s going on as we speak.  And from what I can tell, you’re doing a damn good job.  Too good, if you ask me.  I told Charlie I didn’t want him to go too far.”

“First of all, Mr. Pepperidge.  I have to say I do not appreciate being hollered at.”  The young woman’s east end accent, so professionally hidden only moments before, was rearing its offended head.  “Second, as I done told you, we ain’t done nothing up there.  Not one thing.  Nobody went up there, nobody’s there now.  We did a lot of prep work, I can tell you.  But we didn’t do anything up there after your lady called and cancelled.”

Flustered, addled, and red in the face, Albert slammed down the phone and bellowed, “Mrs. Dunn!  In here! Now!”

It was around two when Albert finally phoned.  Gwendolyn had been sitting at the kitchen table, refilling her cup of tea whenever it got cold, and trying to call her mounting panic.  She’d built a large fire and its crackling warmth and glowing light was comforting but she was certain she couldn’t stay one more night in this  house.  To make matters worse, the weather was changing.  All afternoon harsh gusts of wind had flown up from the sea, crashing into the back of the house, making the old windows shudder and rattle.  It was the worst possible soundtrack for fear.  She almost dropped her mobile when it rang.

“Albert?”.  Her voice sounded strange and small, even to herself.

“Yes, Gwennie.  Look, I’m sorry, love.  I’ve phoned Henry, but he tells me he won’t be able to get to you till morning.  Seems a gale is blowing in from the west.  Should be gone by daybreak, if we’re lucky, and he’ll get right over to get you.  I’m, um, well, I’m sorry you don’t like the house.”

“Albert.  I want out of here.  There’s something not right with this place.  Why didn’t you tell me?  I don’t want to spend another night here.”

“I know, old girl, I know.  And believe me, if I could get you off myself, I’d surely do it.  But it’s just not possible till morning.  Henry says the boat would never make it in the storm.  He could set off, but he’d never get there.   Just turn on all the lights and do something to take your mind off things.  Got any whisky?”

Gwendolyn did not respond and Albert, knowing the people he’d hired to add the proper atmosphere of a haunted house to the place had not, in fact, done so, was attempting to keep the worry he’d begun to feel out of his voice.  He cleared his throat.  “Listen now, Gwennie.  It’s true I haven’t been up there since I was a boy, but, well, I’ve heard the stories.  Never believed a one of them.  Not a one. Because I’m a rational man, just like you’re a rational woman.  Think about it, Gwennie.  You know whatever you’ve seen or heard must be the result of something completely normal and easily explained.  You’re just tired, old girl.  You’ve been thinking about scary stories for too long.  You’ll leave there tomorrow, and I promise I’ll get you out of this contract.  I will.  After all, I’m the best agent in the world, aren’t I?  I can do anything, can’t I?  Just one more night and Henry will get you at first light.  It’s a promise.”

Gwendolyn put the phone down on the table without giving Albert a goodbye and rubbed her forehead with the palm of her hands.  Here she was,  a master of the supernatural, stuck in what she believed was a haunted house.  The irony wasn’t lost on her.  He was right, she was a rational woman. She knew she’d been able to write successful thrillers because she’d seen them as fun, and fun only.  She’d never believed one whit in the supernatural.  Did she do so now?  Of course not.  It was all too ridiculous.  Or was she, as she feared above all, experiencing some sort of mental or nervous breakdown?  This thought lurked in the back of her mind, threatening to overwhelm her.  She sat there pondering her situation all afternoon as the windows shivered and shook in the continuous wind, a wind that sounded ever more determined to hold her in the house till morning, at least.  

Even the kitchen, easily the brightest room in the house, began to darken late in the afternoon as the storm outside gathered strength.  Though she thought herself too tense to eat, Gwendolyn went ahead and reheated the soup she’d made and poured herself a glass of wine.   When she finished she busied herself by cleaning up, making the kitchen as spotless as when she’d first entered it two days ago.  But finally, as the shadows of afternoon gave way to the darkness of evening, she knew she had to make a decision.  Was she staying in this room all night, or was she going to face her fears and retreat to her bedroom to try and get some desperately needed sleep? 

She steeled herself, took a large gulp of tea and turned to stare at the closed door to the dining room.  All this simply had to be her imagination, overwrought by overuse and therefore unreliable.  Of course the mind can play incredible tricks, it was a plot point she’d often employed, for God’s sake.  She stood up, slammed her mug back down on the table, crossed the room to the dining room door and in one quick motion, threw it open.

The room was dark, the weak light of the day having left it completely now.  Her eyes traveled over the long flower-filled table, adjusting gradually to the darkness, pausing to rest on each chair in turn as they made their way to the painting.   She looked up and then froze, ice-still and stunned.   The young girl was gone. The dark blues that swirled on the painted curtain behind her were unchanged, as was the tapestry chair on which she’d sat.  But in her place, nothing but black.

Gwendolyn blinked, her heart racing.  And then she heard it.  Rising up from the very earth and falling from the ceilings.  Laughter.  High-pitched and cruel.  Laughter.  Without another thought save escape, Gwendolyn turned and ran through the kitchen to the back door, threw it open and fled outside into the driving rain, the horrifying laughter at her heels.

She ran without thought till she reached the stand of rough lichen-covered trees at the edge of the drive.  From here she could see the house, its tall windows dark as the eyes of the blind. The wind was roaring now.  It shook the trees under which she crouched.  And still she could hear the laughter flowing from the house, its intensity more than equal competition with the wind.  She wiped the rain from her eyes and stared up at the house.  There was nowhere to go, she knew that.  She was the only person on the island and would be till morning.   She would just shelter here as best she could, forever watching the house for any sign she was being searched out, and then follow the road back down to the dock at daybreak to wait for Henry.  If he didn’t come… she couldn’t think about that now.

She stared at the house barely blinking, her eyes stinging from the effort and the wind.  The laughter ebbed away after an hour, just as the crying had done the night before.  And then, as a flaming finger of lightning illuminated the roiling sky, she saw a flash of pink pass across an upstairs window.  Her eyes followed it, window by window, till it rested,  silhouetted in the center of the stained glass apostles on the landing.  Undeniable.  A pink-dressed figure stood there, staring out into the night, staring right at her.   The laughter rose again, louder than before, drowning out the wind, filling every knife-edged drop of rain that fell around her.  Frightened out of movement, out of thought, Gwendolyn watched in terror as the pink dress disappeared and reappeared in the dining room window.  It was coming for her.  She knew it.  She turned and ran, not seeing, not caring, just running for her very life.  She could hear the roar of the sea taking control, its power stronger and more ferocious than the haunted laughter behind her.  She ran towards it like an old friend.   

     On a cold early morning in November, Caroline Dunn turned her key in the lock of the grand old house on Cadogan Gardens and entered, grateful for the warmth that enveloped her immediately, a sure signal that her boss was already up and about his day. The fires were lit and burning brightly in every downstairs room. A faint fragrance of sausages, cinnamon and coffee wafted down the stairs from his rooms above, a cosy smell that mingled perfectly with the large vase of red and orange roses that sat in the entry hall, perfect echoes of the colours now worn on the trees lining the street outside. Miss Dunn thought to herself, and not for the first time, that there are worse places to work.

     She hung up her coat in the hall closet and went over to her desk.  Yes, he’d finished writing the press releases as she’d asked him to.  She’d go ahead and type them up and get them to the printer.  One less thing to do before she began preparations for lunch.  Mr.  Pepperidge was having a favourite guest for lunch today.  She picked up the press releases and read them over, unable to contain a smile…. 

Press Release

From the offices of Albert Pepperidge, Esq.:  It is with deep sadness and personal regret that I announce the death of famed horror novelist, Millicent Penfield, who passed from this life on October 31st whilst on holiday in the Hebrides.  Her marvelous books were a delight to many and hers is a great loss to readers everywhere, both here and around the world.  I am pleased to say that, in tribute to Miss Penfield and as a gift to her loyal readership,  her publisher, Billington Press, will be releasing a new leather-bound collection of her books in the coming months.

And on another note, I am also thrilled to announce that the eminent historical writer, Gwendolyn Sharp, is once again hard at work on what I’m sure will be an illuminating and definitive biography of the artistic Princess Louise, Duchess of Argyll.   It should be released next autumn to what I’m sure will be ecstatic reviews from critics and readers alike.  I would like to personally congratulate Miss Sharp on what I know will be a phenomenal accomplishment.  

The End
Happy Halloween!

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Writer's Block, A Ghost Story.... Chapter Four


   There were no clocks at Greyrocks.  Gwendolyn discovered this not long after waking and found it strangely pleasing.  From the light outside she figured it must have been around ten am when she finally woke.  Grateful the fire had already been laid, she struck a match and set it blazing, then went about making her acquaintance with Greyrocks.  

   The dark grey facade of the house coupled with its setting to create an imposing face to the world, but in truth it was rather modest in size.  The room she was in was cosy and obviously the heart of the place.  A marvelously curated collection of books stood side by side on the shelves.  Wonderful old classics, mostly first editions, and valuable art books, all well-thumbed and beloved by someone at some time.  As promised, Albert had filled the house with flowers; this room overflowed with  pink peonies.  Where he had gotten these at this time of year, Gwendolyn couldn’t imagine.  An Aubusson rug lay on the wide wooden floors and the tall clear windows were dressed in floral linen, lined in silk.  The fat-cushioned sofas were covered in emerald green velvet and seemed to beg for long evenings spent reading, knitting, or maybe even writing.  Gwendolyn laughed a little to herself.  She knew that was her task, writing, but she intended to take this first day off.  

    The sweet fragrance of gardenias drew her across the entry hall into the dining room, stone-flagged and imposing in its grand proportions. The tropical flowers, so strange in this landscape, filled several cut glass vases on a glossy mahogany table that ran the length of the room and three diamond-paned windows threw geometric figures over the polished wood, competition for the highly patterned, autumnal coloured rug below.  But it was a painting that dominated the atmosphere here.  Hung on the wall facing the door, it was a painting of a young girl in a lovely pink dress, her face the very definition of the unique beauty bestowed on the very young and very innocent.  She sat in a tapestry chair as green as a forest and behind her was a curtain in swirls of navy blue.  The girl wore a enigmatic smile that could have been rueful or secretive, one couldn’t tell.  She was utterly beautiful and certain to be a valuable but try as she might, Gwendolyn could find no artist’s signature in any corner.  

     A door beside the sideboard led to a large, airy kitchen presided over by the kingly presence of a humming Aga that erased the chill from the cold stone floors.   It seemed to beg for a pot of soup to be simmering atop one of its round eyes and Gwendolyn realized with a quickening pang how long it had been since she’d eaten.  A wide refrigerator stood across from the Aga and she opened it hopefully.  Albert had been true to his word; everything she could possibly have needed, or wanted, was here.  Pulling out vegetables and chicken, she set about making a large pot of soup, taking pleasure in each step of chopping and seasoning, and delighting  in the aroma that soon began to fill the room.  

     Once the soup was simmering, she grabbed a fresh apple from a bowl on the counter and turned back to explore the upstairs.  She secured the apple in her mouth and picked up her cases.  The stairs were steep and heavily carpeted.  On the landing she paused to look out the window.  The glass was bordered with twelve squares of stained glass, three on each side, depicting what appeared to be the apostles, each face beatific and serene.  Through the center glass she could see the sea, oddly calm after such a rollicking performance just last night. The hallway upstairs was brighter than she’d expected, long rectangles of light fell into it from four well-appointed bedrooms and she set about choosing her favourite - a thoroughly delicious task.

   In the end it was the view that made up her mind.  She’d loved the dawn- colored walls of the first room, the massive sleigh bed of the second.  The third bedroom was the largest, by far, but the fourth had a window seat as perfectly placed for sea viewing as a rook’s nest in one of the windswept trees outside. The sunlight bounced off the water and right into the room, the walls perpetually moving with the waves as though the two were one. The colours of the room  -   pale blue, pink gold, soft grey - had obviously been chosen to marry it seamlessly to the sea; the effect was dramatic and soothing at once.  Gwendolyn sat her bags down decisively.  This was perfect.

     Indeed, as she lay nestled in the four-poster later that night with a small glass of whisky on her bedside table and a fat book in her lap, sated by chicken soup and a freshly baked apple pie that she’d discovered in the larder, Gwendolyn, if she’d been asked, would have said this entire day had been perfect.  She fell asleep confident in her ability to write come morning, something she’d not done for over six months, and with a renewed appreciation for the irascible, yet reliable, Albert.


    There is that certain hour of the twenty-four when certainty is at its most tenuous.  Not quite night yet not quite day, time itself seems to slip its grasp and become unaware of its duties and form.  It’s never the same time each night, but changes with the breath of the others, those ever-present yet unseen.  Later, Gwendolyn would never be able to recall the hour, but she would never forget the sound.  It woke her gradually, as snow wakes one, not with its sound of its falling, but with a subtle changing of the light.  She felt as though she were rising up from softness and peace to the awareness of a profound grief once forgotten.  Crying.  The sound of crying.  Faint, impossible to locate, but everywhere, yet nowhere, at once.  She sat up, her heart attempting an escape from her chest.  

     Switching on the light beside her bed - and wondering briefly at the false security light seems to provide -  she sat rigidly upright, too afraid to venture out into the hall.  And still the sound continued.  A weeping so raw, so vivid, she clapped her hands over her ears in a futile attempt to silence it.  It would stop for a minute during which she would think perhaps she’d been dreaming, only to begin anew, and with accelerated fervour, a moment later.  Gwendolyn dove beneath her coverlet and placed two fat down pillows over her head.

Painting by Atkinson Grimshaw

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Writer's Block, A Ghost Story.... Chapter Three

Chapter I

Up and Over

     Two hours later, Albert stood at his upstairs window and watched Gwendolyn negotiate the puddles along the pavement outside as she made her way to the waiting taxi.  It had been an enjoyable lunch but he was weary of steering the conversation to subjects that had nothing to do with her writing.  He did it well, it was true.  It was his go-to trick in any ticklish situation; keep the flow of conversation twisting and turning like a rushing river, all the while carefully avoiding the obstacles lurking just beneath the surface.  It had served him admirably for years and he had no guilt whatsoever about employing it whenever needed.  Besides, in this situation he was certain his plan to get Gwendolyn writing again was pure genius.  Once she got out to the island all would be resolved.  His plan was flawless.  It was carefully crafted; he had thought of everything and hired the very best, at no small expense to himself.  Now all he had to do was sit back and wait for the results.  He was cognizant of the fact her interest in her lucrative genre was waning, but he’d negotiated a substantial advance for this next book, an advance that had, for his part, mostly been spent, and he was in no mind to deal with the consequences of a default.  Nothing less than death would release Millicent Penfield from this contract.  Let her finish this book and they’d discuss a break later.  Perhaps.  If he was right, it could very well be that dear Millicent would return from her stay at Greyrocks with a quiver full of new ideas, ideas that just might keep them both in clover for many more years to come.  Of course, if it went wrong, Gwendolyn Sharp might never speak to him again.  But when was he ever wrong?

     Mrs. Dunn entered the room behind him and began to clear away the detritus of the elaborate lunch.  “She took the tickets then?”, she asked.  He could feel her frowning, her rapier gaze burning onto his back.

“Yes, Caroline.  It’s all set.  I know you don’t approve, but it’ll work.  Just wait and see.  Just trust me, won’t you?”

     “I do not approve of your methods, Mr. Pepperidge.”  The glasses rattled as she placed them rather roughly on a tray and turned to leave. 

    Albert folded his arms across his belly in a protective stance and continued staring out the window, not wanting to meet her confrontational eyes.  “Trust me”, he whispered, almost to himself.  “Just trust me.”

Whether from wine or weariness, Gwendolyn slept like a baby that night.  Her initial reticence over Albert’s offer - or was it a demand? - that she get away to his place up north had softened and she found herself rather looking forward to it.  Between glances at the photo of the house on the train ride back she’d convinced herself it was just what she needed.  And as she got closer and closer to home, the sun got brighter and the traffic got heavier so by the time she pulled up to her cottage on the hillside, she was practically giddy at the thought of getting away.  She’d get this last book written, it’d make her a packet, and then she could settle down to write only what she wanted for the rest of her days.  All in all, a good plan.  Good old Albert, he always came through for her. 

     So 8:00 that morning found her standing on the platform at St. Ives Station waiting on the train.   It was a twelve hour journey with three changes, but she didn’t mind.  She loved to travel by train.  She’d brought along her knitting, a bit fat book on Elizabethan textiles, the latest copy of the LRB, a thermos of Darjeeling and a flask of Glenmorangie.  She was set. 

     Jostled by another incoming trainload of tourists, she made her way down the platform to her train.  She found an empty seat by a window in the quiet car, and put on her sunglasses, waiting for the doors to close and her adventure to begin.


     As the miles stretched further and further away from home, Gwendolyn found the ever-changing scene outside her window such a distraction that eventually, having read the same sentence over four times without retention, she closed her book to watch.  The view, like a moving painting of greens and golds, altered and revised by an unseen artist with every hour that passed - its color palette deepening, its light darkening -  signaled a distinct shift from the usual.  She felt a bit nervous.  She’d always preferred careful plotting and planning to spontaneity or caprice.  This journey was unlike her, she knew.  She didn’t even know the name of the island to which she was heading.  But as Albert had said, and he knew her better than almost anyone, she needed to shake things up a bit if she was to climb out of the writing rut she was in and for this last book - and it was the last, whether he knew it or not - she was willing to try just about anything to get it done and bid farewell once and for all to the profitable but pestering Millicent Penfield.  

     The windows were black and slashed with horizontal lines of silver when the train glided into its final stop. The last passenger left, Gwendolyn pressed her forehead to the cold glass, trying to get a better look outside through the pouring rain.  One tiny station sat crouched against a lacy iron fence which appeared to be the only fragile bulwark preventing it from blowing off the hillside and into the sea.  The wind sounded alive.  She swallowed hard, picked up her bags and pulled the hood of her coat up tight.

     Her bags nearly blew out of her hands when the door to the train opened.  The wind took her breath away and blew the rain straight into her face.  Squinting through the darkness she saw a pair of car lights flash once in the distance and began to head in that direction, head down.  Over the wail of the wind she heard a car door slam and saw the shadow of an approaching figure, bent double against the force of the wind.  

     “Miss Penfield?”.  The voice sounded far away even though only ten feet separated them.  

“No I’m.. I mean, um… yes!”, she bellowed back.  So this was part of Albert’s strategy, was it?  Gwendolyn Sharp was still back at her sunny cottage and she was to be Millicent Penfield whilst here.  Some sort of psychological trick to get her in the proper mindset for the new book.  A few seconds irritation, then she decided to play along.  What could it hurt?

     The man reached her and bent for her cases.  “You must be Henry”, she said.

   “Aye, that I am, Miss.  Car’s over here.  We need to step it up or we won’t make it across tonight.  Weather’s getting worse.”

Gwendolyn followed close behind him as they fought the wind to a battered truck sitting alone in the car park.  “You can’t mean we’re crossing the water in this?”, she yelled.  No answer from Henry.  

     He threw her cases in the front seat and motioned for her to climb in beside them.  It was a tight squeeze but she managed it.  The wind was muffled by the closing of the doors but its effects could still clearly be seen in the trees bending sideways by the road leading away from the station.

     “Seriously, I’m grateful for your assistance, Henry.  But I really don’t think we should be on the water in this, do you?”

     “Well, it ain’t ideal, I’ll give you that.”   His hands, ungloved and weathered,  shifted gears and the truck complained with a lurch.  “But we can still make it over if we leave now.  I’ve seen it worse believe me.  And it’ll be worse tomorrow by the looks of things.”

Gwendolyn stared up through the rain-soaked window and sincerely doubted his judgment.  “Worse?”, she asked.  “You mean this isn’t as bad as it gets?” 

     Henry barked out a laugh.  “Oh, nae, lass.  It can always get worse.”

    The truck bounced and rolled down the narrow roadway in the dark, then took a sharp left.  She could tell without sight they were nearing the sea, its presence could be felt in the blackness outside her window as strongly as if she were sitting on a beach in the sun and she felt the usual frission of excitement that visited her every time she was near it.  

    “Here we go.”  Henry turned sharply and stopped.  In the beam of the headlights she could just make out a small boat swaying and bobbing against the rope holding it tightly to a wooden dock.  Gwendolyn swallowed hard.

When she was little her father had once taken her out in a boat.  She remembered the way the sun had felt on her shoulders as he pushed off from the shore.   It had been a still day, cloudless and mild, and the sea had been glass-like, with nary a wave nor a ripple.  But the soft sway of the boat had made her sicker than she’d ever been in her young life.  By the time they returned she was positively green.  Since that day, no one had since been successful in persuading her to climb aboard a sea-going vessel.

But this trip was different.  The waves were so high and the wind so strong that the journey over to the island had much more in common with a ride at a fun fair than a sailing.  Too terrified for sickness, she sat huddled beneath a blue tarp in the minuscule cabin as the boat climbed and plunged over hill-high waves, certain this was to be her last night on earth. 

     Exhaustion was descending on Gwendolyn like two strong hands pushing her into the car Henry had waiting at the dock on the island.  The journey over had taken much longer than she’d expected, an indication they were much further away from the mainland than Albert had led her to believe.  The blackness of the stormy night was like heavy theatre curtains closed to the scene playing out just beyond her car windows so she shut her eyes and rested her head against the coolness of the glass.  

    “So then, how long you’re to be stayin’ at the old house?”  Henry’s voice, finally audible in the relative quiet of the car, brought her back from her dozing.

   “Around two or three weeks, I think.”  Gwendolyn realized she wasn’t precisely certain of her departure date.  “I’m working on a book and I guess I’ll be leaving when I’ve figured it out.”

   “Oh, so you’re a writer then are you?  Mr. Pepperidge didn’t say.  Well, I hope you like solitude.  Ain’t nobody lived on this island for over ten years.”

  “But Mr. Pepperidge visits occasionally, surely.”  Gwendolyn was sure she remembered Albert mentioning this.

     “Mr. Pepperidge?  Why, lass, I couldn’t tell you what he looked like if you paid me.  Never set eyes on the man.  He just hires me to look after the place, like his old man used to hire my father for the same job.  He’s had a crew over this past month, getting everything all set up for you, though.”  He had seen the worried look creeping across Gwendolyn’s tired face.  “It’s more than comfortable now.  Nothing to concern yourself with about that.  Even got fresh flowers sent over.  Place is full of them.  Can’t even think what that must’ve cost ‘im. ”

     “Why has it been unoccupied for so long?”, Gwendolyn asked.

    “Oh, you know.  People talk, I guess.  There’s some still around who say it’s haunted.  All rubbish, of course, but some of the old people still believe in that sort of thing.  Celtic mysticism still lurking in the corners of some minds.  But nothing to concern yourself about.  Nothing at all.  It’s just a lonely old house that nobody’s wanted to live in for years. Too far away.  Too quiet.  Too hard to get here.  You know how it is.  Nothing to concern yourself with.”

     Gwendolyn realized he’d said this last sentence three times and began to be a bit concerned.  What exactly had Albert set her up for?

     The road began to narrow into a drive that curved sharply to the right.  They bumped along the ruts, splashing into tire-deep holes and attempting, but not always succeeding, to avoid the rocks that had fallen in their way.  Then, rising up ahead of her she saw the grey stone plinths from the picture, each topped with a carved boar, larger than life-sized and winged.  Glancing up at them as they passed, Gwendolyn wondered what their  presence was intended to convey.  Whatever it was, welcome was not it.

     Henry stopped the car.  With no competition from the motor, the wind seemed more full-throated than ever.  It was unsettling to know the house was sitting right in front of her but she couldn’t actually see it in the darkness and the rain.  She followed close on Henry’s heels as he carried her cases to the door and waited behind him in the stone covered portico as he fumbled for the keys.  The dark door was twice his height and opened with a tired, low squeak, an inhospitable complaint that rose from unfamiliarity with the practice.  A low light was burning on a small round table nestled beneath a staircase that rose from the entry hall into the blackness of the upper floor.  The flagged floor, now dotted with dark grey dots of rain falling from their coats, was covered here and there with an assortment of old, and from what Gwendolyn could make out, rather fine, rugs.  

    “I’ll just carry your bags upstairs, shall I?”

   “Oh no, Henry.  I can do that later.  You better get back to the boat or you’ll never make it back over.”  The weather, far from getting better, seemed to be getting worse and, by the haste Henry displayed in retreat, she knew he thought so as well.  

   Thanking him profusely after he’d flatly refused payment for his service, she stood at the door and waved him goodbye.  He told her to check with Albert if she needed anything.  “Phone service is pretty unreliable with me, you’ll have more luck getting hold of him.  If you need anything, just let ‘im know and he’ll find me.  Good luck with your book, Miss Penfield.”  

Gwendolyn pushed the door closed against the wind and stood for a moment with her back resting against it.  She was so tired.  She had no idea what time it was but knew it had to be the middle of the night.  Looking over at her two cases sitting expectantly at the bottom of the stairs she realized she had neither strength nor interest left for getting them to their destination or even for the exploration she’d planned upon arrival.  Off to her left she could see a room painted with the grey and navy shadows of night and turned that way.   Books lined three walls and encircled a large stone fireplace that rose to the ceiling.  On the other wall two tall windows provided an excellent view of the storm outside; the horizontal rain, the tree-folding wind.  There were two downy sofas draped with cashmere throws facing each another in front of the fireplace and it was onto one of these she fell, curling up in a ball and falling immediately, deeply, to sleep. 


     Earlier that evening, back on Cadogan Gardens, Caroline Dunn picked up the phone and dialed the number she’d found in the top drawer of Albert Pepperidge’s desk.  A wave of relief washed over her when she heard the familiar delay that signaled a recording device.  This would be easier.  She steadied her voice to its most authoritarian timbre and spoke, “Good evening.  This is the office of Albert Pepperidge.  Mr. Pepperidge has asked me to inform you that he will no longer be requiring your services on Greyrocks Island.  He appreciates your time and is sending full payment for all your trouble in tomorrow’s post.  Thank you.”

     Mrs. Dunn replaced the receiver, turned off the light in the office and left the building, a tiny defiant smile on her face.