Here’s something I started about five years ago when I took the first tentative steps into authorship. I had completely forgotten writing this. It didn’t even have a title. It was one of those stories you just write to see where it takes you. There was no plotting, no plan, no idea where it was going. It is only the first chapter and there is no more, but I think it’s interesting and I want to know what happens next now. Excuse the formatting and any typo errors, it hasn’t been edited at all. I think this might be my next noir serial project. I will make some changes to it. It will be set in the late 1950s and the house will be moved out into the countryside to make it less accessible… there won’t be a takeaway meal either. What do you think?
The Dark Secret
Drew Barrett looked down from Scarrett Hill over the snow covered village below. Some of the roofs had a full covering, others, with less insulation showed their bare red tiles. It had been many years since he last took in that view, many more since he had seen the village lying under snow. There were one or two chimneys puffing out thin, grey smoke, back then every house would have burned coal.
Drew’s gaze moved down to the right and focused on a large, old red brick house. The building was set in a wide courtyard protected by a high wall and pair of elaborate iron gates. The roof was covered in a thick carpet of snow, an old TV ariel rocked unsteadily in the chill northerly wind. A single set of tyre tracks were cut into the snow on the drive that led to the gates. Someone had arrived early: his money was on Sarah.
He turned away; his thoughts suddenly full of blazing log fires, Christmas trees and ghost stories. The yellow taxi waited at the kerb side, engine still running, warm exhaust fumes rose into the freezing air. Drew pulled open the passenger door and climbed inside.
The driver pushed the gear lever forward and slipped the hand brake.
‘Nice view isn’t it? Especially in winter, I’ve had a look myself once or twice.’
‘It’s always been a stunning view, whatever the weather,’ Drew answered; he cupped his hands and blew warm air into them. ‘I can close my eyes and see that landscape wherever I am in the world.’
The cabbie nodded and waited to see if his passenger would continue. They had driven over forty miles and this was the only real conversation they had managed. He looked again at the man beside him; he seemed lost in his thoughts and didn’t look like he wanted to be found.
‘I might have to get hold of some snow chains if the weather doesn’t change soon. I can’t remember a winter like this.’
‘I can,’ Drew, replied. ‘When I was a child we had these winters regularly. I was back there for a moment then.’
The driver answered quickly, keen to keep the conversation flowing.
‘I’ve only been in the area about fifteen years. I thought we were supposed to be getting into global warming,’ he turned his head to look out of the window. ‘Someone ought to tell Mother Nature.’
They drove on to the outskirts of the village, the temperature was dropping again and there was the odd flake of snow in the air. The driver was happy the journey was almost over, the country lanes would soon be a like glass and he had five miles to drive before he got home himself.
Drew pointed to a phone box on the left side of the road. ‘Drop me here.’
The driver retrieved his passenger’s case from the rear seats and smiled at Drew encouragingly. ‘Thanks for the call, that’ll be £60. Please’
Drew pulled four twenty pound notes from his wallet and handed them to the driver. Preoccupied he picked up his bag and trudged his way through the slush of the main street to the call box. He pushed in a coin and dialled, it was a full minute before anyone answered.
‘Hello.’ The voice was hesitant, unsure.
‘It’s me, Drew, I’m here.’
‘Thank goodness, I was beginning to wonder if something had happened.’
‘No, I’m fine; it’s winter here don’t forget. It’s been snowing, took ages to clear the airport and the roads were atrocious once we got off the freeway. I didn’t bother hiring a car, I rang a local taxi firm, took him an hour and a half to pick me up and the same again to get me here.’
‘Have you seen anyone yet?’
‘No, I’m calling from a public phone, someone’s here though. There are tyre tracks leading to the gates. One set.’ He paused, ‘Ok, I’m going up to the house, just wanted to check in without being overheard.’
‘Good luck, and all my love, Drew. I’ll send over some warm sunshine shall I?’
Drew shook his head although she knew she couldn’t see, ‘Don’t bother; I like it exactly the way it is.’
Drew walked in the tyre tracks all the way up to the huge iron gates, his soft leather shoes were no match for eight inches of snow and his feet were already cold. At the gates he turned and followed the wall round to the west. After fifty yards he came to another, smaller gate, he pushed down the latch and it swung open with a groan. He scanned the courtyard, there was a small hatchback parked by the front door. His money was still on Sarah.
He crossed the snow covered cobbles and cursed as the snow seeped into his shoes. His eyes went to the roof; there was smoke coming from the main chimney. Whoever was here had already built the fire, thank God.
Drew tried the handle of the big oak door, it was locked. He pushed the old enamel doorbell and heard the tinkle of a bell from somewhere deep inside. A minute later the door swung open and Sarah was standing before him. Her mouth formed a weak smile.
‘Hello Drew, it’s been a while.’
Drew put down his case, leant forward and kissed his sister on the cheek.
‘Hi, Sarah, you haven’t changed a bit.’
‘You have,’ she replied. ‘You look older, I do like the bits of grey at the temples though, very distinguished.’
‘Ellie, wants me put something on my hair, she says I’ll look old before my time. You’re not allowed to get old in the States.’
‘I know, I watch the TV shows, no one looks over forty. I wish I didn’t.’
Drew closed the door and pushed his case into the passage.
‘I see you’ve got the fire going, that’s good, my feet are freezing.’
Sarah looked at his leather brogues, horrified.
‘I’m not surprised, look at what you’re wearing; this is the south west of England in winter, not Florida in July. Go through, I’ll get you a towel.’
Drew walked through to the sitting room, memories flooded back with every stride.. Old sepia photographs and oil portraits lined the walls. There was a square of carpet with a floral pattern in the centre of the room, either side of the huge wooden fireplace were two soft, wing backed chairs. The room was exactly as he remembered it from childhood, from the mahogany cabinets to the huge old mirror on the chimney breast. There was something not quite the same though, something was missing. It took a few minutes to figure out. There were no family photographs adorning the tables, no pictures of grinning infants on the cabinets, no school photos on the wall. Someone must have put them in storage.
Drew pulled one of the chairs closer to the fire, took off his shoes and leant them against the hearth to dry out. He was just pulling off his sodden socks as Sarah returned carrying a bowl of steaming water, draped over her arm was a soft white towel. She handed the towel to Drew and motioned for him to lay it on the bare wooden floor, then she set the bowl down.
‘The old ways are the best, that will soon get the blood flowing.’
Drew eased his feet into the warm water and sighed deeply.
Sarah disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a silver tea tray. She lifted the china tea pot and poured the thin liquid into two delicate cups. Drew leant back in his chair and studied the ceiling.
‘Christ, this takes me back.’
Sarah shot a warning look. ‘There’s no need for that, Drew.’ We don’t all take the Lord’s name in vain.’
‘Sorry, Sarah, I was forgetting. ‘Do you still miss the convent?’
‘I never did miss it Drew, it was never for me; not really. it was more of a retreat than a calling.’
I still don’t know how you stood it though. Eight years of hair shirts and prayers?’
‘It isn’t like that and you know it, stop teasing. Just because I wasn’t cut out to be a nun doesn’t mean I stopped believing.’
‘Just pulling your leg, Sarah, I always could get you going.’
Sarah pursed her lips.’ You made it into an art form and got away with it because you were a lot younger than me. As for Joseph…’ Her voice trembled slightly. ‘He’ll be here tonight, he rang an hour or so ago. He has business in the city that won’t wait.’
‘Drew nodded. ‘It’s always business first with Joe. He hasn’t changed much by the sounds of it.’
‘He sounded pretty much the same,’ she agreed. ‘Forthright and to the point, that’s our Joseph.’
‘What about Gwen?
‘Heard nothing, she got the letter, or it was signed for at least. She hasn’t been in touch though.’
‘Uncle George? He’s the one who started all this.’
‘I had a call from him about a week ago; he’ll be here sometime over the weekend. He said everyone has to be here before he can conclude the business.’
‘Mark? Has anyone managed to track him down yet? I suppose it would have been in the papers, over here at least.’
‘You know as much as I do about Mark, and that’s a lot more than I really want to know.’
‘When he took off, he disappeared off the radar, didn’t he? Even the police couldn’t find a trace.’
‘He’s dead, Drew, long dead.’
‘You’ll have to fill me in on all the grisly details, Sarah. I was too young to take it all in at the time.
‘I won’t be filling you in on anything, Drew. That’s one family skeleton I hope stays securely in the cupboard.’
Drew lifted his feet from the cooling water and dried them on the towel. ‘Ah that’s better, more like feet than ice blocks. I think I’ll get changed, I take it I using my old room?’
Drew pulled open the door to his old room and a thousand memories flooded back at once. The walls were still decorated with his old posters, mostly footballers and guitarists. Above his bed was the yellowing poster of Neil Armstrong bouncing on the moon’s surface. He opened the wardrobe door and was faced with the bare backside of a female tennis player. Mother had never liked it, but she had never told him to take it down. The bed had been made up, Sarah had been busy.
He unpacked quickly, dumping everything on the bed; he could transfer it all to the wardrobe later. Yawning, he picked up his travel bag and wandered along the corridor to the second floor bathroom. He turned on the hot tap half expecting dust to flow but was surprised when hot water poured out.
Sarah had got the boiler going too.
Drew stripped quickly and turned on the shower; the old pipes clunked and gurgled before water flowed from the shower head. As he stepped under the stream an old rock song came to mind. He hummed, then sang as Pete Townsend’s lyrics came flooding back to him. ‘Hope I die before I get old.’
Drew changed into jeans and a sweatshirt. He felt much fresher after the shower, now he was hungry too; he wondered whether Sarah was cooking or if she had ordered in. Dropping the wet towel in the laundry basket he stepped out onto the landing again and headed for the stairs. As he reached the top, he heard female voices coming from below. Gwen must have made it after all. The thought didn’t exactly fill him with joy.
He ruffled his still wet hair into some sort of style and trotted down the stairs, the voices ceased as he reached the bottom step. Summoning up more cheer than he felt he threw open the kitchen door and threw his arms wide.
‘Hello Gwen, have you missed m…’
He stopped abruptly, the kitchen was empty. Drew turned about face and strolled back into the sitting room. Sarah was sat in front of the fire, reading a magazine; she looked up as he entered.
‘All scrubbed up?’
Drew ignored the question.
‘Were you talking to someone just then?’
Sarah shook her head.
‘I heard voices, was someone here?’
Sarah looked puzzled. ‘I didn’t hear anything.’
‘There were voices, women’s voices, I couldn’t make out the words but there were people talking.’
Ah, I did put the radio on for a moment, but then decided to read instead, must have been that you heard. Some play or other.’
Drew took the magazine and tapped her on the head.
‘One up to you, Sis. What are we doing for dinner?’
Sarah snatched the magazine back.
‘Takeaway tonight, if they’re going to remain open that is. I’m not sure what to order and how many for, as yet.’
‘I hope Joe, gets here soon. I could eat a horse.’
‘Not in Repton you can’t,’ Sarah answered. ‘They only ride horses here.’
At eight o’clock Drew rang the local takeaway and ordered for four. Joe and Gwen could warm theirs up, if and when they arrived. He paid by card, they promised to deliver for nine.
At nine o’clock on the dot, the phone rang. Sarah took the call.
‘The delivery man has broken down in the village, he has the food, could one of us nip down and get it?’
‘I take it that one is us, is me?’
Sarah nodded. ‘Make yourself useful, Drew, I’ll sort the plates and get the oven on to keep Joe’s food warm. If you look under the stairs you’ll find some waterproofs and a few pairs of wellingtons.’
Drew took an old oilskin from the coat hook and selected a pair of rubber boots from a rack underneath. He wondered who they belonged to. They certainly weren’t his. Maybe Reeves, the part time gardener-handyman had left them.
He let himself out leaving the door on the latch and trudged off toward the village following the same route he had arrived by. The snow had begun falling again, he looked up at the leaden sky and thought fleetingly of sunny Florida. The thought didn’t linger, he was happy to be back in cold, snowy England, he hadn’t realised how much he had missed it.
He found the takeaway van by the church, its driver deep in conversation with the breakdown services on his mobile phone.
Drew stood patiently while the man passed on his details. Two minutes later he was walking back to the house carrying a box of foil cartons. He started to follow the tyre tracks as he had done previously, but realising that he was now wearing protective boots he cut across to the snow covered path that led directly to the side gate. Drew took in the scene as he walked, there really was nowhere on earth that got close to this place in winter. The snow was falling heavily again and he knew the footprints he was following would soon be covered. Drew stopped and looked ahead; there were footprints leading towards the house but none leading away. Joe must have arrived just as he was picking up the meal from the van.
Drew plodded on at a quicker pace remembering some of the arguments that had flared up between the two of them. Their rows soon blew over, they were typical brothers. Drew had never really liked Joe and he knew the feeling was mutual. Sarah had always got on with him although they were like chalk and cheese. Then things changed for some reason; he never had found out why.
Drew let himself in the side gate and followed the two sets of prints across the courtyard. He reached the big oak door, held the box under one arm and pulled down the brass handle with the other, then he leant against it to push it open.
It didn’t budge, he tried again, still no movement.
Drew cursed the latch and pushed the doorbell again, Sarah opened the door.
‘Didn’t you take the key?’
‘Would I be ringing the bloody doorbell if I had a key Sarah?’
‘Okay, no need to get shirty.’
Drew passed the box of food to Sarah and took off the waterproofs and boots. He sat on the bottom stair and pulled on his trainers while Sarah carried their meal through to the kitchen.
‘Which one’s Joseph’s? I’ll put his straight in the oven.’
‘Isn’t he here already?’ Drew asked, puzzled.
‘No, he rang while you were out; he won’t be here until elevenish.’
Drew stuck his head around the door.
‘If Joe isn’t here, who made the extra set of prints in the snow outside?’
Sarah began to tip out the foil trays onto plates.
‘I have no idea, Drew, the paperboy? Maybe the postman?’
Drew shook his head.
‘There were no prints in the courtyard until I got here Sarah. You parked your car by the front door and didn’t have to cross it. I crossed it twice once either way. When I got back to the side gate there were two sets of prints. Someone’s been in the courtyard while I was out.’
Sarah was having none of it.
‘Oh Drew, your imagination really does get the better of you at times. I’m sure there’s a simple explanation to it. Maybe someone got lost and stopped to ask for directions but decided against it. I don’t know, first you hear voices and now footprints in the snow. I think jet lag has got to you.’
Drew wasn’t convinced and searched the ground floor. He found no one.
He decided to leave it for another day. Sarah wasn’t taking him seriously and he was feeling very tired all of a sudden, jet lag had that effect. It would take him all week to shake it off, by then it would be time to fly home and he would have to suffer the effects again.
After dinner they sat by the fire drinking tea and chatting about old times.
‘What happened to all the pictures in here, Sarah? We used to have lots of family ones.’
‘No idea. This is how I found it today when I arrived. Maybe Gwen took them.’
‘I can’t see Gwen getting all sentimental.’
‘No, you’re probably right. I really don’t know, that’s another mystery for you to solve Drew.’
There was no reply, just the sound of gentle snoring.
Drew woke with a start. He was still in the fireside chair, covered with a blanket, the fire had burned low. He yawned, stretched and checked his watch. 1.00AM. There was no sign of Sarah.
He got to his feet and pulled the blanket close around him, it was cold in the room. As Drew opened the door and turned to switch off the dimmed light, he caught the sound of women’s voices, he cocked his head to one side to get a clearer sense of direction. The voices dropped to a hissed whisper. Drew tiptoed to the kitchen door and listened intently, the whispers stopped. He eased open the kitchen door and flicked on the light, the room was empty.
He checked the dining room, then the study. Both were empty.
Drew was baffled. He looked under the stairs, the waterproofs he had used earlier still were on the hook, a small puddle of water lay underneath on the stone floor, the rubber boots sat on the rack where he had left them. He crept across to the front door and looked out of the small side window, only one car on the courtyard. Joe still hadn’t made it.
Then the whispers began again.
Drew crept up the stairs, silently cursing each creaking step as he went. At the top he stopped to listen. All was quiet once more.
Drew eased down the landing listening at each door as he passed. Joe’s old room was quiet, as was Gwen’s. He moved further along and put his ear on his Mother’s door. There was something, he was certain, a faint, almost inaudible sound from inside. Drew gripped the handle and gently turned the knob; the door opened with a low groan. He reached for the light switch and flicked it down, there was a faint plop as the bulb blew. Drew swore and stepped inside.
The room was in semi darkness, outside the snow clouds had moved on and a cold watery moon cast a pale light on the frozen ground. Shadows from the trees outside danced across the bedroom wall. Drew threw the curtains wide, and turned to face the room. All was quiet. Then the faint sound came again, this time from behind. Drew felt cold sweat on the back of his neck. He turned checked the window carefully. A draught was blowing through a gap in the bottom of the frame causing a faint whistling sound. He laughed at his own fear and pushed the sash window down. The whistle stopped instantly. Drew headed for the door and closed it quietly behind him.
‘Ghosts and whispers,’ he said under his breath. ‘Just like the old days.’
He stopped dead as an icy shiver ran down his back. ‘Just like the old days? What was just like the old days? Come on man, Think!’
Drew stood on the landing demanding more of his memory than it wanted to give him. There was something, a faint memory, a thought dragged up from a time long forgotten. It was there, for a moment, then it was gone, like the whispers.
But the whispers hadn’t gone. Drew turned back to his Mother’s old room and listened again at the door, there was no mistaking it. The whispers were back and louder than before, female voices, talking in hushed tones.
Drew threw open the door, and leapt into the room, the window was wide open, the curtains billowed inwards as a freezing wind blew in. There were still shadows on the walls but they were no longer the shadows of trees. Drew stood, mouth agape as he saw the silhouette of two girls on the far wall, huddled together, whispering, sharing a secret. Drew looked around to see what was causing the shadows but there was nothing. Hands shaking he turned to the window and slammed it shut. The shadows disappeared along with the whispers.
Drew staggered out into the corridor, his mind a mass of unanswered questions. At the back of the queue a small voice was asking, ‘do you remember?’
To be continued