The Veiled Arbour
It has been my experience that once people know you tell stories for a living they often seem to worry ideas are in short supply for you. No matter where they are when they meet you, no matter what they’re doing, they have clearly decided it’s their solemn duty to make sure you don’t run out of inspiration. Quite a lot of the time this results in you being trapped in long, dull conversations that feel more like lectures. You’ll be cornered for endless amounts of time at dinner parties or weddings, or even when you’re just out shopping, having your ear talked off by someone who has decided they once had a bad dream that everyone should know about. Every so often, though, you will come across something disquieting, something that has more than just the ring of truth about it. Something that takes hold of you and doesn’t ever really let go.
I was lucky enough, if that lucky is the right word, to hear one such story recently at a gathering at an old manor house. Instead of trying to find some way to work it into a story of mine or plagiarise the events I thought it would be best to present them to you as they were first told to me.
It all came about because a friend of mine’s mother in law fell ill. He and his wife were due to be attending a rather grand Christmas party that his company was footing the bill for but, as his wife had to rush off to tend to her mother, he had a ticket spare. Now, once you get so far into December, very few people have anything like a spare night in their schedule. They all have their own family gatherings or work dos to attend. Luckily for my friend, I was not in the same boat as them. I was busy trying to think of something interesting to write and had sealed myself away from the world of relatives and wrapping paper when I received his text. At first, I’ll be honest, I baulked at the idea of being a plus one but it struck me that I needed to get away from the laptop for a while. It was starting to give me an unhealthy tan. I sent him a thumbs up, dug out on my one complete suit that still fits and waited for my little night of freedom to come along and pull me away from the four walls of my room.
His company had clearly had a very good year. They’d rented the main house of a place called Faunton Hall. We had the whole place to ourselves for the night. Just us, a large local swing band, a sizeable catering staff and wall to wall antique furniture. I was a bit worried about not fitting in at first but I settled in well enough. There were cocktails on arrival and some very good food. Sadly, before the band could come on and the dancing could start, the MD of the company stood up and announced he was going make a short speech and present a few awards. It was those magical words that drove me to decide to attempt a strategic withdrawal. I’d spoken to the man earlier and he seemed incapable of saying hello without then talking about himself for a good twenty minutes. A short speech from him might take all night. It might even take us to next Christmas.
I quietly left the great hall, with its huge Christmas tree and rather stern looking portrait collection, and retreated into the small bar that was across the reception area and down a short corridor. With almost every other guest occupied with the thought of an award or a little mention in the speech to end all speeches I was glad to find there was no queue at the bar. I walked straight up and ordered something that was also straight up. Well, apart from a little ice. I took my short but strong measure and found myself a comfortable seat near the fire. I could faintly hear the opening strains of the speech. The full symphony was yet to begin. I closed my eyes and listened to the crackle of the fire instead. It was far more pleasing.
“Hello,” a voice said. “Are you who I think you are?”
I sighed and opened my eyes. So close to freedom and yet so far. I found one of the waiters hovering beside my chair. A young lad. A little nervous, so probably new to the job or to recognising people. He was young enough that he hadn’t quite decided on exactly who he was going to be in later life. The academic, the good son and the middle class rebel were all visible across his awkward frame and ill fitting uniform. I said I probably was who he thought I was and offered to buy him a drink as if it was some sort of prize. I rarely know what to do in these situations. He readily accepted, although he did keep glancing over his shoulder in case any senior employer might suddenly appear and drag him away.
“I hope you don’t mind,” he told mine. “I’m sure you get this all the time. It’s just that, well, I have a story you might want to hear.”
The speech was still winding up to full speed in the other room. I swirled my drink for a moment, the ice clinking against the glass. Truly I had found myself between the proverbial rock and hard place. Doing my best not to sound weary I told him to proceed. The awkward manner I’d perceived in him earlier only seemed to deepen as he approached the subject at hand. It clearly wasn’t something he felt comfortable discussing. He decided to take a run up to the matter, starting first with the background details. He told me his name was Michael. Michael Sykes.
“Mike Sykes,” he groaned. “I’ve never forgiven my parents for that.”
As the speech waffled ever onwards in the great hall it garnered the odd subdued ripple of polite applause. I had a sneaking suspicious the audience had begun to realise this was not going to be the short speech they were hoping for. Pulling my focus back to our conversation I noticed Michael’s hesitance at the mention of his parents.
“Is this to do with your parents?” I asked, trying to ease him along.
“Maybe it’s easier if I start at the beginning,” he suggested.
And so it was that Michael Sykes told me that it was very likely I’d heard of his grandfather. Kenneth Sykes. I told him I had, even if some of his work was more than a little obscure. Kenneth Sykes was, for a time, one of the more interesting modern artists of the eighties and nineties. He had originally operated out of London, where he’d held all manner of strange and unusual installations with very little warning, but he’d later moved somewhere up north. Somewhere out in the country I think. I’d read the odd interview with him after that. I liked his style and his was an odd story.
Kenneth Sykes had originally been trained as a classical painter and he had defended the style fiercely as a younger man, back in the sixties and seventies. He’d gone on recordtime and again against the very idea of modern art, making it incredibly clear that he didn’t hold with that sort of thing at all. Everything changed in the early eighties when he quite by accident discovered the burgeoning alternative comedy scene. It seems that voice inspired something in him. It awakened a new side in the classically trained artist. He started to see how art could spread a very similar message from a very unexpected platform. It was that juxtaposition he fought for across the rest of his career, determined to make himself heard. He was a long way ahead of his time, as it turned out.
Sadly Kenneth Sykes’ brave and daring new work never really generated much more than the odd bit of offence in the popular press. Which was a shame. He had an incredibly sharp mind and a deeply strong will. He never stopped fighting what he saw as the good fight. Even in his twilight years he was a stalwart of the alternative arts scene. A seasoned general who wouldn’t stand down from the front line. Not even his declining health was allowed to slow him down. Towards the end he was forever being whisked away from clubs or galleries only to reappear a few weeks later looking all the better for his latest brush with death. Unfortunately none of us can win that particular race forever. We all fall in the end. Ken Sykes was no different. The infamous legend of the alternative art scene died aboard. He was over in Spain, attending some sort of ballet he’d arranged to have staged in a disused bull fighting arena.
“They tried to rush him home,” Michael told me. “Just like every other time. Only he never got as far as the airport.”
Apparently Michael’s tale involved what the great man of modern art had left behind in his will. For a man of moderate success it appeared that Kenneth Sykes had left quite a sizeable inheritance, mainly in the shape of his county house and the contents of said house. Sadly, and rather predictably I suppose, this had caused a rift between his own two sons. Again, I remembered something very vague about this in the papers. They had fallen out at the funeral, before the service had started. In fact they had ended up fighting each other outside the church.
“The press had loved it,” Michael said glumly, nursing his drink. “Some of them even thought it was staged. One last show from the late, great legend. They didn’t realise that my father and my uncle hated each other. They always had, since they were kids. It was just a fact of life by the time me and my sister were born. We grew up never seeing Uncle James. He was occasionally mentioned but there were never any pictures of him. He never called or sent us anything. He was some like sort of myth. A ghost. Until, that is, Dad had his accident.”
Only one of Ken Sykes’ sons had chosen to try and follow in his footsteps. The younger brother, James. Michael’s father, Thomas, had tried to get as far away from that world as he possibly could. He had avoided anything to do with art from an early age and had ended up falling in love with commerce. He liked money, plain and simple. I can only imagine what his father must have made of that. Thomas Sykes had liked money from the moment he could first grasp its purpose in his sweaty little palms. He had liked it so much that he had made it his business to understand how it worked. He wanted to know how it controlled the world, how it pulled all the strings around us. Money was never really just currency to him. It was an obsession. A habit. A craving. Money had a gravity to Thomas Sykes. He was locked into its constant orbit. It has to be said his love affair with money, stocks and shares had treated him incredibly well over the years. It had allowed him to buy a large house for his family in theleafy fringes of Kent. Thomas and his family spent a lot of their lives wanting for very little. Which probably explains just how Thomas had managed to secure a very highly regarded solicitor and claim his father’s house up north for himself, snatching it away from his brother. Not that he’d ever done anything with it. He had just left it there to rot, if only to annoy the mythical and ghostly James.
The money had also allowed Thomas to indulge in another hobby of his. Fast cars. He had grown up like so many other children of the eighties, in awe of the sports car. The super car. The difference being he now commuted to and from the office in one. One of the many he owned. That was when the accident had occurred.
Michael struggled to talk about it. He said his father was probably one of the few men who liked to commute.
“He saw it as his time to unwind,” he explained. “He would buy these cars and just burn them through the country lanes around our house. Either he was taking out his frustration on the tarmac or celebrating another win.”
Sadly no matter how good a driver someone claims to be there is one obstacle they cannot avoid forever. Statistics. If you drive fast and loose and wild every single day of your life then you are bound to lose control at some point. Which was exactly what happened to Thomas Sykes. From what the police have been able to ascertain from the scene of the accident he swerved to avoid something in the middle of the road and ended up catching a patch of black ice. It spun his streamlined car out of control and straight into an old stone wall. There was barely a mark on the wall but the car simply crumpled up like a piece of unwanted paper.
“They say he died on impact.” Michael’s throat was threatening to seize up as he tried to talk. “It was a hard few weeks as the police looked into things and asked a lot of questions. A man who makes a lot of money, like my father, I guess they have a lot of possible enemies. A lot of suspects for the police. By the time we were able to bury him we thought we were numb to it all. We thought nothing would shock us. That was when Uncle James turned up.”
Apparently the monstrous, violent, uncaring Uncle James that Thomas had told his children all about was a myth. A fabrication. It soon became clear very that James was probably the calmer and kinder of the two sons. He wouldn’t allow the family do anything for him. He made them all drinks and asked them how he could help. He kept on top of the housework and did his best to stop them having to lift a finger. He even cried when he spoke about his brother. James was a failing artist, forever doomed to be hidden by the shadow of his father. He had never been as successful but it really didn’t seem to bother him.
“You should have seen him,” Michael said. “In fact I might have a picture of him.”
He took out his phone and started to search through a vast array of photos. After a while he tutted.
“I could have sworn I had one. He was like a scruffy version of Dad,” he said, handing me the phone. “That’s Dad.”
He showed me a picture of Michael and his family. There was Ginny, the younger sister who was obviously spending a lot of her money and time trying to look older. There was Michael’s mother, Charlotte, who was working the same scheme as her daughter, only in reverse. Finally, standing in the centre of them, was Thomas. He was a tall man. Proud, if not also a little smug. He was well groomed and stood almost to attention. Neatly cut hair, skin tanned to a healthy colour.
“Uncle James turned up in an old Sex Pistols T shirt, ripped jeans and a second hand suit jacket. But you could see Dad in there.” Michael took the phone back and look at the photo for a moment before he switched it off. “James had long, curly hair and the beginnings of a patchy beard. He looked like people I’d been to uni with and he was so kind to us.”
Whilst he had never made the money his brother or his dad had James insisted on taking the family out for dinner and then spent the next few days doing anything and everything he could to help them. At first Michael’s mother, Charlotte, had been hesitant but she soon changed her mind as James never asked them for anything. He’d only heard about his brother’s death when someone had sent him an anonymous letter saying how sorry they were for his loss.
“He said he’d got a lot of time to make up for,” Michael said. “He never asked for money, he never once said anything bad about Dad or Granddad. He was there for us. It felt good to have someone so open and caring there, when you needed them. Everyone else we know now, they’re only friends with us because of what we own. It’s like we bought their friendship. Uncle James wasn’t like that. He was family.”
One evening Michael came down from his doubtlessly expansive room and found his mother and uncle talking in the kitchen.
“I thought they were arguing at first. They went quiet when they realised I was there. That’s never a good sign. Mum and Dad used to do that. Only Uncle James asked my opinion and told me what they were talking about. Which was new. He wanted to go and fix up Granddad’s old house. Not for himself. For us. He said he thought it would be good for us to have somewhere else to go, somewhere away from the press, the police and two faced friends. Mum wasn’t so sure at first. She seemed to be trying to talk him out of it. I said I thought it was a great idea and that seemed to change her mind. Only…only I’m not so sure now. It’s so hard to know for sure. Dad had always said James would do anything to get Veil Arbour.”
Veil Arbour was Kenneth Sykes’ home. In fact it had been so much more than that. Veil Arbour had been Ken Sykes’ most favourite thing in the world. It was his prize possession. His jewel. He took friends and colleagues there to show off. He painted there. He planned his next work there. He always returned there when he was unwell and somehow the very presence of the place always made him feel better. It was a beloved home and he had meant to leave it to the only son who had attempted to follow in his footsteps. Sadly Thomas had decided to claim it for himself and basically thrown money at the problem until it resolved exactly the way he wanted. Since then he had often bragged that James was dying of jealously. I suppose you can’t blame Thomas’ widow for suspecting foul play. Except, of course, for that the fact James was so insistent that he wasn’t trying to steal it from them.
“I don’t want it,” he had said to them that night. “I couldn’t live there. Me and Dad, well, it’s complicated. I couldn’t live and work in the same place where he created some of his greatest hits. It wouldn’t be right. But it would be perfect for all of you. It makes sense. It’s out in the middle of nowhere, not far from the coast. It’ll do you all good. Dad always said it helped him remember what was important in life. I think you need it now.”
Charlotte Sykes had tried to explain to him that, even if he wanted to do this, that the house would be in a state of total disrepair. No one had stepped foot in there for years. It would need a lot of work doing to it. It would need clearing out before they could even start to think about renovating it.
“Then at least let me do that for you,” James had immediately suggested. “I don’t mind. I’ll go up there next week. I’ll spend a few days there, clearing it out. It’s the least I can do. Besides, I’ve stayed in worst places. Believe me.”
According to Michael his mother hadn’t immediately leapt at the proposition. If anything she had let James nag her into agreeing. When she finally did consent she had insisted that she would pay for his expenses and his travel arrangements. She had also insisted on getting him some decent camping gear to sleep on. He had tried to refuse her help but Charlotte had told him it was mandatory. If he was going to help them then they were going to help him.
“The old family rift was finally healing,” Michael said softly. “All it had taken was the death of my father.”
James had been packing for the trip when Michael had gone to thank him. They’d gotten to talking and Michael had suggested his uncle would soon get lonely up there.
“Don’t worry,” James had smiled. “I’m used to being alone. I’ll be fine.”
“But your dad lived there,” Michael had said. “It won’t be easy staying there by yourself. Just you and all his stuff. It’ll get to you.”
After a lot of discussion James had finally came up with a solution that pleased both uncle and nephew. To make sure he didn’t lose his mind from loneliness, grief or a combination of the two he would email Michael every night.
It was at this point in the story when we were interrupted by one of Michael’s superiors. It had been duly noted that he had spent some time now sitting and talking to one of the guests and it was being taken from his wages. Michael seemed too tired argue. He allowed himself to be dragged back to work. Although, as he went off to return to the duties he’d been neglecting, he quickly handed me his phone.
“Here,” he said. “All my uncle’s emails are on there. You can read them for yourself.”
It was hard not to be flattered by the sudden trust from a stranger. Even if it was clearly a little desperate. I thanked him and said I would return it to him as soon as I could. Behind us the speech was ending and the party was spilling out onto the dance floor. I was in no mood to join in, so I collected my coat and my drink and headed outside. I found a quiet bench out on the grounds and started to read through the emails of James Sykes, still unsure of the outcome of his trip to Veil Arbour.
(Don’t think we’re quite at the ‘Dear Nephew’ stage yet, are we?)
Early start today. Earlier than I’m used to. Not sure if I woke any of you. For the record I tried my best not to as I snuck out to meet the taxi that your mum had insisted on arranging. I’m still so embarrassed by her generosity. All my train tickets paid for. The taxi to the station. Money for food and supplies. A new inflatable mattress, sleeping bag and clothes. Oh yeah and she lent me the laptop I’m currently emailing you on. I know you guys are well off but I didn’t come here for charity. I came to help. Honest.
Anyway, I’ll get off the struggling artist’s soapbox now.
The taxi (paid for) got me to the station with time to spare. I ended up drinking a cheap coffee and doing the crossword while I waited for my train to arrive. Typically, it was late. Just late enough that it made every other change over a mad sprint between platforms. God bless public transportation, right?
As I got closer to my final destination the weather seemed to get angry with me. Very angry. I’m guessing it’s still cold where you are but the winter here looks a hell of a lot crueller. The grey skies here are basically black. I have a sneaking suspicion the sunlight is probably grey and cold. The winds are strong enough to threaten to push you over. The constant sound of rain ricochetting off the roof over your head makes you look around for the closest life boats. So far I’m not seeing the beauty of the north that your granddad used to rave on about. There is something about the moors though. A sort of endless, hypnotic bleakness. Once you cross their borders you start to wonder if you’ll ever leave them behind. Or if they’ll ever leave you. They suit the weather as well, that’s for sure. They look even more alive in the gales and the horizontal rain. They seem to dance around you in the bad conditions.
The people on the trains started to changed around me as well. I went from early commuters, all briefcases and broadsheets, to gaggles of single mum shoppers and their screaming kids. Screaming kids who seemed to be smarter than their parents, which was worrying. After them it was the quiet pockets of skiving teenagers and the bitter eyed pensioners. By the end of the line, though, they’d all deserted me. The final train that carried me over the moors seemed to be completely empty. Although I did keep thinking I caught sight of someone in the next carriage. Not there was anyone there when I finally got off at the other end. No, just me.
I arrived at Upper Hopworth, the nearest village to the house, at just after six. The station was small and deserted. It’s a surprisingly surreal feeling to be the only one who gets off a train and find an empty platform waiting for you. It’s an eerie moment. We’re all so used to the hustle of larger stations, I guess. Well, Upper Hopworth could be on a different planet. They’ve left up those old second world war era posters that you see in museums. Careless talk costs lives. Dig for Britain. There are large, smiling carrots and little caricatured Hitlers leering at you out of the gloom. It can really catch you off guard. Still, Upper Hopworth station does feel like a little piece of preserved history. It has the town’s name spelled out in flowers and a signal box that is defiantly denying the existence of the 20th century. Let alone the 21st.
I followed the steps up into the village and tried to find myself a taxi out to the house. Unfortunately my plan hit a snag almost immediately. There was no taxi rank. In fact there were no taxis. At all. In the end I had to duck into the local pub to try and find the number for one.
The pub was a nice place. The Green Man. It’s what tourists have a habit of loudly called quaint when they’re in earshot of the locals. There was a large fire to one side. Stone walls. Old, wooden furniture. Brass ornaments on the walls. A long, old fashioned bar ran along the far wall with a brass railing at foot level.
I walked over to it and bought myself a pint. I asked the barmaid, who was not unattractive might I add, about the possibility of taxis and got a raised eyebrow in response. That couldn’t be a good sign. She told me that the village that had been taxi free since their last taxi driver had retired two years ago. When I asked how I could get out to Veil Arbour I heard some muttering from the few locals around the fire.
“Ignore them,” the girl behind the bar told me. She had an accent that instantly made me think of old TV adverts for bread and tea bags. “I’ll give you a lift when my shift finishes. If you don’t mind waiting.”
I said no problem and decided to spend the time trying a few of the local ales. While I sat at the bar I got quizzed by some of the older regulars. They wanted to know if I’d bought the house up on the moors and if I was planning to live there. When I said I was the son of the owner and I was fixing it up for my in-laws to stay there they looked at me like I had lost my mind. Although they never said why. I brought it up with the barmaid, Lucy, as we were leaving the town behind later us on.
“I wouldn’t worry about it,” she told me as she kept her eyes on the road. “It’s all old wives tales. Nothing more.”
“Oh, the stories about the house. About the collection up there.”
“I really wouldn’t worry about it,” she said. “There’s no truth in any of it. This is more about empty houses out on the moors. People start assuming the worst. They go looking for ghosts. That’s all it is. Rumours.”
“Fine,” I said, trying to sound patient. “But rumours about what?”
She drove us onto the moors. Looking back in the dark I couldn’t see any sign of the railway that had brought me here. All I could see were hills rising and falling away into the night like tides of stone and bracken. The lights of the village had soon shrank away behind us.
Looking ahead again all we had to guide our way were the car headlights, as they picked out the hedges, stone walls and failing skeletons of barns and farmhouses. There wasn’t another car in sight.
“Fine,” Lucy sighed. “But don’t say I didn’t warn you. Rumour has it, rumour mind you, that your father collected objects from haunted houses.”
“Sorry, he did what now?”
“Don’t shoot the messenger. You asked, remember? It’s just what people say. They say he spent his last few years buying as many things as he could from haunted houses. Paintings, books, furniture. They say he filled the house with them. No one knows quite why though. People talk about it like it was an obsession. They say he was trying to understand death. He was trying to cheat it.”
The car fell into silence. The wind howled outside. The rain tapped on the glass. The rhythm of the wipers counted away the seconds to my arrival at Veil Arbour.
“That’ll teach me for asking,” I sighed.
When she dropped me off at the roadside I could barely see the house off to the right. I could see the rickety old fence, that was blowing back and forth on the wind. I could see the gate that looked rusted shut, but that was about it. The house was hidden in the dark, looming shape of the hill that rose behind it.
Lucy lent me a torch out of her glove box and wished me luck.
“Sure you don’t want to join me?” I asked.
“What and risk finding out all those rumours were true? No thank you. I’m comfortable in my ignorant cynicism.”
With that she left me and my bags by the side of the road. I hoisted my bags over my shoulder and went up to the gate, which put up a pretty decent fight before it finally consented to let me through. I’d only ever seen photos Veil Arbour. Dad never invited me or your dad up here. He said he liked to keep it separate from his family life. I never quite got why but your granddad was one of a kind. Let’s put it that way. I’d always see him when he came back to London and he would go on, endlessly, about this place but he never invited me to see it. His old cronies, sure. His friendly critics and old drinking buddies, oh yeah. They all came here. Along with that other guy. The one I thought was his agent for years, or his doctor. Only he was neither. Just another weird acquaintance. Funny, I haven’t thought of him for years. Anton Margarum. Odd guy. Ghoulish was the word. Tall, thin, pale as a sheet. He carried a crooked old walking stick with him everywhere he went. He looked like a pound shop Rasputin. Then again a lot of alternative artists have a habit of looking like that. He’d been up here, no doubt about that. He went everywhere with your granddad towards the end. Although I never saw him on Dad’s photos. Not surprising really. The goon never smiled and everyone on those photos was always smiling. Stoned, drunk, giggling artists. Of course they were smiling. And dancing. And generally living it up. Veil Arbour had always looked to be such a happy place. A place where the sun always shone. Well, the place looks very different at night. Especially now. Now it looks down right dormant.
The path that led up through the overgrown front garden rose slightly under your feet. It wasn’t steep. It was at just enough of an angle to make you feel like your world was being turned askew. All the time you could feel the house looking down at you, as it appeared out of the dark. It seemed larger than I expected. A stout shape, set against the rising hill behind it. I tried to ignore the chill in my bones as I headed for the front door.
Something rattled off into the hedges and weeds. I didn’t look round. I just kept looking dead ahead. At the house. The beam of my torchlight fell across its face and its dark, dead windows. I’m so glad your mother never came here and saw it like this. There’s a real sense of death here. Of dread. Or of a dead end, if that makes sense. There’s no feeling of being welcome. Instead there is very much a sense of a tomb or a strong wind trying to turn you away. Don’t get me wrong, none of this means anything. It’s just I arrived here in the dark, in the beginnings of a storm. Plus I had ales and train leg to contend with. There was no denying it, though. No matter how much I wished I could. I didn’t feel like I was alone up here.
It was easy to see where all those local rumours had come from. This place looks like it’s being held together by ghostly figures, moving shadows, creaking stairs and rattling windows. Still I knew there was no turning back. I just needed to get past the creepy feeling and find a place to sleep. It would all look better in the morning.
I got to the front door and struggled with the key for a moment. When the door finally did give I was struck by the strong and instant smell of neglect. Damp and dust and decay. I pushed the door open the rest of the way and shone the torch into the large and spacious hall. Black and white tiles on the floor. A rather grand, if cobweb strewn, light fitting hanging from the ceiling. Paintings running up the wall along the stairs. All the interior door were closed and waiting to opened.
Dust danced in the torchlight as I walked in, stepping over a surprisingly large heap of junk mail. In amongst all the yellowing newspapers and adverts for takeaways and cheap double glazing I saw little scraps of folded paper. I left them there for now and shut out the wind and the rain. I was soaked to the skin and freezing cold. It was foul out there. It sounded worse now it was fighting to get into this empty house. Every footstep, every move I made, echoed around me. That was going to take some getting used to. To be honest, Mike, that was the moment when I was glad I’d got you to email later. Suddenly the rest of the world didn’t feel so far away.
I set my bags down and tried the light switch. Rather predictably it didn’t work. I tried another by the stairs. Nothing. Perfect. I needed to try and find the fusebox. Hopefully I could coax some power back into this place, otherwise I was going to be feeling very cold for a very long time. The wind was picking up again outside.
I kept my coat on as I started to explore. The first door I tried was off to the left of the hall. It led to a long, narrow dining room. It was still fully furnished. Dad had put a long, dark oak table down the middle of the room. The wood looked almost black in the torchlight. As did the thin, high backed chairs that were sitting along it. The backs were just high enough that you thought you could make out someone sitting in them, if only for a second. Just out the corner of your eye. The sideboards were loaded with now tarnished silver and there were paintings on every available section of wall. I couldn’t help but look at them. The artist in me had to know what he’d put up in here. A few of them were Dad’s. A lot were done by his friends. They all seemed to be of the local landscape. That was a nice touch. He had always been so happy here. Thinking of him and his friends enjoying themselves and this house helped me relax a little. Even in the dark, with the storm starting to rage again outside, I felt a little safer with the thought of good times nearby. I got my nerves under control and walked into the next room. Which I did not expect to be….
A two storey library!
I had no idea Dad was so into collecting books. Well, I say collecting. Every single shelf was empty across both floors. There was an empty table in the centre and two empty lecterns that looked like they’d come from old churches. There wasn’t a book in sight. Which was odd. As I stepped into the room, scanning the empty shelves with the torch, my footsteps echoed overhead to the floor above. There was a balcony along there, with even more empty shelves but no way up or down. The sound had me convinced I heard someone walking about above me, keeping pace. I stopped and waited. No, it was just me. I was being daft. I got a grip on myself and kept exploring.
The next door took me right and into a large, farmhouse style kitchen. A door led out into the back garden, which looked even wilder than the front. The cupboards all appeared to be bare and, when I tried to run water into the sink, things started to clank overhead. The water that eventually appeared was brown for a while, until it spluttered into something bordering on clear. There was a door that led back into the hall but no sign of a cupboard or a fusebox that way, so I went back into the kitchen and tried the other door, that led to the opposite corner of the house to the library. That next room was even more unexpected than the library but, much like it, was another two storey room. This room, however, was not full of bookshelves. If anything it was almost empty. It had large, wooden carved panels running up the walls on every side. The only window was at the top. A large, stained glass affair by the looks of it.
Shining the torchlight up the walls I could see the carved panels had faces on them. The only doors in and out of this strange room were down here, on the ground floor. The only other thing in the room was a wooden, octagonal table in the centre of the room and narrow, almost shelf like benches running around the base of it. The table had four metal rings set into it. I rattled one as I walked past it and headed towards one of the walls to look at the faces waiting in their carved wooden squares. Every single face was an old fashioned green man. They were all shapes and sizes. They were covered in leaves and stems and flowers. There were no repeats, no patterns. Every single one of them was unique. It must have taken forever to do this. The more I looked at them in the moving beam of the torch, the less I liked being in that room. Some of those faces looked to be in pain. Some of them looked like they were screaming while the foliage grew out of their mouths and eyes.
It didn’t take long before I moved into the next room, heading back towards the front of the house again. Although, for all the strangeness of the empty library and the bizarre atmosphere of the room I’d just left behind, this last room was the one that stung the most. Dad’s studio.
There was a battered old armchair in the corner. The indent of him still left in the sagging old cushions. There were piles of old newspapers and paperbacks everywhere underfoot. There were photos stuck to the walls, along with sketches and failed attempts. There were empty mugs and overflowing ashtrays on every available surface. There stained plates and old takeaway containers. Empty wine bottles and burned down candles. With the torchlight defining one detail after another with each shaky movement I felt like I’d finally stumbled into his crypt. A crypt he’d only just left.
I couldn’t face that room for long, Mikey. I got out of there as quick as I could and started again to hunt for the fusebox. I need to get some lights on before I went running out the door and down the hills back to the village.
It took a while and a few laps to finally find what I was looking for. All the time the weather was howling outside. The ceiling overhead creaked and groaned. The windows rattled. I heard the occasional drip of water finding its way through the cracks above me. The dark started to get to me as well. I kept thinking of those wooden faces in that large tower of a room. I kept thinking of all of those empty dining chairs and all those empty shelves. I thought of all those old boys leaving their pub and wondering if they’d ever see me again as they went home. I began to wonder if they would.
When I finally did stumble across the fusebox it was hidden in a kitchen cupboard. It took some work but I managed to coerce it into living again. When that was done and there was light I cheered with relief. The house felt a little better. Until, that is, I went upstairs and saw the state of the place. The mould on the walls. The damp. The cracked windows. The piles of junk and debris. The collapsed floorboards in a few places. It wasn’t going to be an easier for days. Also none of the beds upstairs looked viable. Which is why I’m now down in the dining room, using the sleeping bag and inflatable mattress. I’m also keeping my clothes on. It is freezing in this place. Better turn in now. Got a long day ahead of me tomorrow and it feels like I’ve been writing all night.
First things first. The only shower at Veil Arbour is well and true knackered. Which was a huge blow. Although I have managed to get the water flowing pretty well in the bathroom sink, so that’ll have to do for now. Don’t let all the talk about damage and damp last night ruin your impression of this place, by the way. It’s been empty for years, remember. Any house left alone for that amount of time would look like this. I promise you we’ll get Veil Arbour back to her former glory before you, your mum and your sister head up here. For the record though, I’m just the first wave. You are going to need plasterers, plumbers and all manner of tradesmen up here before you pack your bags and catch the train northwards. Trust me.
Glad to say the weather up here has decided to play nicely today. I woke up to find the sun shining and the wind nothing but a gentle, pleasant breeze. It helped to make this house seem far more friendly. The nightmare house has been dispelled. For now at least.
I washed, dressed and took a walk around the first floor rooms. There are three bedrooms here. One master bedroom and two smaller ones. Along with the top floor of the library. I was also surprised to find another set of stairs. These were narrower, unlit and hidden around a corner as if no one was meant to find them. I took the torch when I followed them up to the next floor. I was no mood for another game of James and the Shadowy House.
The stairs took me up to a crooked attic level. A short, low corridor that ran past three doors. One was a junk room, plain and simple. Another was full of records and a large sound system. I wondered where Dad had hidden all his music when I was looking around last night. The other room was locked. I tried the door a couple of times and it wouldn’t budge. Fair enough. I would deal with it later. I had work to do.
As I headed down into the hall I found myself approaching that heap of mail I’d had to step over last night. It still amazes me just how much junk mail gets sent to an empty house. You could almost have skied down the banks of this unwanted mail. The majority of it was old papers and flyers but I’d hadn’t been seeing things. There were little scraps of paper littered in amongst them. Little folded notes like you’d expect to get passed in a school classroom. That was odd.
I bent down and scooped up a few. Some looked brand new whilst others, deeper in the pile, looked yellow with age. Whoever had been posting these had clearly been doing it for a while. Surely they had to know the place was empty. There were enough stories about the place after all.
I unfolded a slightly newer one. It simply read Nancy Silver. I tried another one. This one had another name. Kevin Hill. I kept looking through them. The majority were names but there were other things as well. Some mentioned cars. Others a new roof or conservatory or extension. Others talked about health or money. A grandchild. Who was putting all these through the letterbox of a long empty house? The handwriting was rarely ever the same. It felt like something Dad would have done as part of one of his shows, only he’d been dead for so long now. Maybe his fans were keeping this last idea alive. Which was sort of sweet, I guess.
With the toaster dead and the oven uncooperative at best I ended up having bread and butter for breakfast. I washed it down with a cup of black coffee and started work. I made a rough plan of attack and figured the best thing I could do was clear out the junk first and save anything salvageable or with sentimental value for later. I also decided the best place to start was the bedrooms. There was less to go through up there and it would be nice to get a sense of achievement. I figured the hall was the best collection place until I could get a skip or two up here. So that’s what I did. I worked through the spare bedrooms, dumping all the rubbish in the hall. I piled furniture to one side and anything else like sheets, curtains clothes to the other. I sorted out the mail as well and piled it up by the front door, keeping the notes separate for now.
By mid afternoon I was doing well. I was getting somewhere. I made myself another cup of coffee and decided to call your mum before heading down to the village for supplies. I tried to get a decent signal in the hall and upstairs but was getting nowhere. The only room where my phone even registered a bar was in that tall, wood panelled room at the back of the house. Only there must have been a crossed line or something. All I could hear was some whispered half of a conversation being swept away on waves of static. I didn’t stay in there for long. That audience of carved faces were still a little too much for me. I walked out and shut the door behind me. I dread to think what Dad must have spent on them. I’m guessing he must have run out of money or got bored of them as there are still quite a few blank spaces in there.
I changed out of my work clothes and headed out of the house and down into the village. The walk took about half an hour. It felt good to be in the fresh air and the sunshine. The dust cleared from my head after a while and I was happily distracted by the sunlit moors around me. The stretching, rolling vistas. The little roads that weave in and out of sight. The small, grey pockets of houses nestled amongst the valleys. The smoke rising from the odd chimney. The faint sounds of animals in the fields. I even started to whistle as I saw the village ahead. Maybe this was what your granddad loved about the place. The tranquillity.
When I got down into the streets of Upper Hopworth I nipped into the local shop and picked up some bits and pieces. The bare essentials and a few bottles of red as well, of course. Whilst the woman scanned my shopping and packed it she asked where I was staying. There was that look again when I told her.
“I’d heard someone was moving in up there,” she said. “Didn’t believe it but here you are..”
“Oh, I won’t be living up there,” I told her. “I’m just cleaning it out. My sister in law and her kids are going to come and stay for a while. They’ve had a rough time of it. I thought it would do them good.”
“And they’re staying up at the Arbour?” She fixed me with a stern look. “No offence, lad, but they won’t be doing any relaxing up there. You want a relaxing holiday? You should burn that place to the ground and use the insurance money to pay for a nice trip abroad. No one should ever stay in that house ever again.”
“Because that house is tainted, that’s why. They say strange ceremonies were held up at that house.”
“Please. My dad was a bit of a nutter but he never went in for anything like that.”
“I’m just telling you what I heard, that’s all. I wouldn’t live there if you paid me.”
I did my best not to be rude. I paid her for my shopping, thanked her for the advice and left quickly. I headed back out of the village and kept my head down. There were a few locals around. I was sure I could feel them watching me as I headed back up the hill. In a bizarre moment I looked back and I could’ve sworn I saw your mum standing there. Only she was gone when I stopped and looked closer. I guess I need to get my eyes tested again soon.
I headed back up the hills without any more random sightings and I tried to keep whistling, only it was steeper going this way. Colder as well. The wind was picking up. I kept thinking about the conviction in that old woman’s eyes. I tell you one thing, Michael, if you guys ever decide to sell Veil Arbour I don’t see any local taking it off your hands. Which is a real shame when you consider the amount of work I’m putting in.
The upstairs is clear. Well, the first floor and two of the rooms in the attic. Still can’t see the key for the locked door. No worrying about it for now thought. I also got the rotten floorboards out and I’m trying to air out some of the rooms.
Knackered tonight. Had a microwave curry and looked out over the back garden. For a place with arbour in the name there’s really not a lot of trees around here.
Sorry, another short one. Another long day. I’m getting used to the quiet and to the creaking and cracking of the old place. Got Dad’s record player to work down in the hall and spent the day with jazz playing through the place. Not my kind of thing but reminded me of your granddad, which was nice.
I went through some of the old papers and found an advert for a local skip firm. They were a bit funny about delivering up here but they’ve said they can get one up to me in the next couple of days.
Another cheap meal. I sat in Dad’s studio, in his chair. I got a little weepy over a glass of wine. It’s so hard to imagine him here, alone, like this. This is a house that craves company. You’d want a family up here with you. Why did he never invite me or even your father and you guys? Why keep us all away from this place?
Been through the dining room. The hall is turning into a large junk yard. It’s starting to feel like I’m sealing myself in. I’ve found some great paintings by Dad and his friends. I’m going to bring them back with me, let you guys have them. You forget, behind the attitude and the lecturing, what a great painter the man was. His political leanings put him ahead of the times but his talent belongs with the greats of the past. Sort of tragic really.
Ate in his study again tonight. I found an old tin box under his chair. It was full of letters and photos and an old key. It has to be for the room upstairs. I’ll check it out tomorrow.
Oh, and something else. There was another note through the door this morning. Another one of those folded notes. No one knocked the door or anything. They just dropped it through. This one reads New Washing Machine. Seriously? What was your granddad up to?!
A strange day. It started out normally. I got up, washed and pulled on the overalls like always. Today the plan was to start with the library. So that’s what I did. I moved the lecterns out, the chairs. More stuff for the skips that are coming tomorrow. It was when I started to move the table, struggling a little to be honest, that I spotted the book under it. It was exactly under the centre of the table, under the rug the table was standing on. It was hidden. Perfectly hidden. It was a travel guide to Spain. There were names and contact numbers scrawled in it. Dates and times. These were the plans to Dad’s last trip. Only he had written these weird little notes along with them, over and over.
Anton cannot know.
No one can know.
Sell all the books.
Destroy all the books.
Burn the maps.
Lock away the finds.
They were across the tops and bottoms of pages. The writing was sharp, pressed into the paper so much that, in some cases, it showed through on the other side. It was like he was having to remind to himself, to strengthen his resolve or something. I do remember the funeral, before the fight. I remember his friend, Anton, being there. He seemed angry. Angrier than your dad. He wouldn’t talk to anyone. He stormed away from there. Much like I ended up doing. I never saw him again. The only thing I heard him say was that he’d never known Dad was going away. Now it looks like Dad planned it without telling him. On purpose.
Flicking through the yellowed old pages of that travel book I found one more note. A note that really worried me.
No more faces on the wall.
Rattled by the book I was glad when the library was done. Looking for something to distract myself I decided to try the locked door upstairs. I know this place well enough by now. Nothing bad has happened to me over the past few nights. I’m not freaked out by turning off the lights out. I figured the hidden book was troubling but the house itself is harmless, right? If anything the book probably just showed your granddad was slipping slightly by then.
I went up to the top floor and tried the key in the door. It opened easily. I stepped in and felt something roll away from under my foot. A stick of chalk. When I looked at the floor I saw there were markings. Chalk drawn markings. A shape or a symbol or something. Someone must have drawn it before they closed the door and locked it. It looked….okay, for the record, I don’t want to freak you out. This is just a house. I don’t want you refusing to come here. So, if you want, I won’t blame you if you stop reading here. But I’m going to say it. I think because I need to. These symbols looked demonic. Seriously. Like devil worship. And I’d stepped right over them. My dragging feet had brushed some of the shape of it away, blurred the chalk edges.
A chill blew through me. I was about to back out of there when I noticed what was actually in this room. There were dusty glass cases. Some were squat, low tables. Others were more like display cases in a jewellers. There were maps pinned to the walls. Old black and white paintings that showed old buildings and strange, ethereal figures. It took a lot of willpower not to run out of that room. This was it then. This was the collection.
I looked it over. Quickly, might I add. There were labelled exhibits. Fossils and carvings. Rusted pieces of metal. Old pots and glasses. Books. The labels, all in Dad’s handwriting, talked about where things were found and the dates. In one of the cases there was a gap. A long space at the top of the case. There was label by it. The label read as follows:
Old walking stick
Found on Hopsworth Moors, 1987
Date unknown. Silver topped design.
Related maybe to The Veil of Harvests
- Dad came up here then. Before he moved here. He used to come on holidays up here. Walking tours. He’d take photos and try to forget about all the fights he was taking on at home. So he’d come up here and found this walking stick himself. Anton Margarum used to have a walking stick like that. Silver topped. That was weird.
Looking over the handwritten labels on everything I thought how happy the locals would be. They were right. Kenneth Sykes had indeed been collecting things from haunted houses and burial sites. He had been cataloguing them and he had obviously been pretty obsessed with them judging by what he was drawing on the floors of his house. What had that note in the travel book said? Lock away the finds.
When I heard the crash from below I went running downstairs. It sounded loud enough to make me wonder if one of the floors had given way. Instead I found all the furniture I’d been piling up in the hall had been tossed everywhere. It had collapsed like dominoes. The front door was wide open and blowing on the breeze. The little notes had blown up the stairs. All of them. They had separated themselves and blown right up the stairs. All the other mail had stayed in the hall.
That was it. I was taking a walk.
I changed and got out of the house, glad of the fresh air. Even if it was raining. I stalked down the hill towards the village and I didn’t look back at the house as I went. I didn’t want to see that place for a while.
When I got into Upper Hopsworth I headed for the pub, my head full of wild thoughts. That’s probably why I stopped on the bridge overlooking the station and thought I saw someone down there looking back up at me. A tall, thin man with dark hair and a dark beard. A walking stick by his side. Of course he wasn’t there. I was just jumpy and an idiot, that’s all.
I did my best not to notice the leaf strewn, serene face on the pub sign as I went in. I headed straight for the bar, nodding to the coarse faced old boys who were staying close to the fire. Lucy was behind the bar. She smiled when she saw me.
“He survived his first few days” she announced. “Now he turns to drink.”
“Or maybe two drinks,” I suggested. “I think I’ve earned them.”
I ended up staying in The Green Man until gone eleven. Eleven pm that is, not eleven pints. Although I did sink quite a few while I talked to the locals. Each and every one of them had a story about the house I was staying in or about my father. Although not one of them could tell me about the little notes that kept appearing through my door.
I played a few games of darts and, in amongst the spooky stories and the overacting, I heard some brilliant stories about my dad getting into trouble with the locals. Then, when I was nursing a pint of something dark and strong, an old farmer came over and told me that he was working near the house once when he saw Kenneth Sykes being rushed back.
“He weren’t a well man,” he said grimly. “I could tell. They had to carry him out of the car and up to the front door. He had some friends with him. One of them, this big thin sod, gave me a hard look when he saw me watching.”
I nodded but didn’t interrupt. I’d heard a lot of these stories. I knew the best thing to do was let them run their course.
“My dad,” he carried on, “when he died, he was the same colour as your dad that day. Grey. Bloodless grey. I remember thinking we’d hear Mr Sykes had gone by morning. Only we didn’t. We didn’t hear anything out of that house for a few days. Then, when we did, it was your dad. He was sitting at that bar, large as life, laughing about it. Large as life. He said he was feeling fine. Trust me when I say he wasn’t a well men when they carried out of that car that day. He was slipping away. He wasn’t supposed to recover. I’d never put a lot of stock into what people used to say about that house until that day. The way he bought us all a round and told us to forget about it. I didn’t feel too good about that. The next time I saw him, at that bar again, he looked tired. Tired and talking about going away soon. He told me to forget about that as well.”
I offered him a drink but he turned it down and said it was time he was leaving.
“Let me offer you some advice, lad,” he said to me. “Don’t stay at that house. Whatever your father did up there, I don’t think that house is safe anymore. Not for anyone.”
Again, I feel bad telling you this. I really do. I feel bad telling you all of this. Only…only I need to. I need to write this all down. I need to process it. I’m sure it’ll turn out to be nothing. Just like how I thought I saw your mother outside the pub when I was walking to the bar that night. Your uncle is tired and he got a little drunk, that’s all. Also that room freaked him the hell out today. As did that travel book and when all that furniture fell over….and what happened when I got back to the house.
I stayed at the pub until it closed. I was in no rush to leave and Lucy started to worry about me walking home in the dark. She insisted I stick around so she could give me a lift home again. I gave her a hand clearing up, thinking it was the least I could do. I was, after all, turning her into the local taxi service.
“You okay?” she asked as we worked.
“Just a little rattled,” I said as I struggled to put chairs on top of tables. “Your regulars really should work for the local tourist board.”
“They mean well,” she said. “People love a good spooky story. That’s all. I wouldn’t worry about it.”
“Let me ask you something. I found a pile of post through the door when I got in the other night. There were all these little notes mixed in amongst it. Just folded pieces of paper. I asked some people here about it but no one would tell me anything.”
“Yeah, that’s superstition for you. They don’t want to waste their wishes.”
“You know I do my best to stop us looking like another village of yokels but I think it’s a losing battle. I really do. The notes are from people wishing for stuff, okay? People round here seem to have got it into their head that if they write the name of something or someone they truly desire on a piece of paper and post it through the door of Veil Arbour then it will come true. You can feel free to point and laugh now.”
“They know it’s a letterbox and not a wishing well, right?
“One would hope.”
After we were done clearing up we got into her car and headed back up those dark roads. I offered her a chance to come in and have a look round but she refused politely.
“You’re fine,” she said. “I’ve had a long shift. I need a long nap.”
“Me too,” I said, hoping my voice sounded a relaxed as hers.
For the record it didn’t.
We said goodnight and I started back up the path again. I thought it would be easier coming back into the house now there were working light switches to hand. No more torches, no more moving shadows. No more of those first night jitters. Regardless of what I’d found today or those stories I’d been told tonight, I still felt a little smug. I had electricity. A sure fire way to banish any shivers. After all I’d stayed in this house for days and been fine. I was fine.
Only I was wrong, Michael. Because I walked in there, switched on the lights and felt my world fall apart.
“That’s not possible,” I muttered.
The hall was clear. Completely clear. All of that furniture, all of that hard work. It was gone. I switched on the lights across the house and started looking around. I felt my sanity start to crumble. That’s the only word for it. Crumble. Everything was back where it started. Every single piece of furniture. It had all gone back to where it belonged. How had it done that? There was only one key to this place and I had it. If the locals had broken in as part of some prank then surely they’d have left a sign. Which they hadn’t. Whoever had done this had left no trace of ever being here. It would have taken them hours to do this as well. Longer than I was away. They’d even got all the furniture back upstairs. It was beyond impossible. It couldn’t be happening.
I stood in that now empty hall and wanted to laugh. I wanted to be in on the joke. Because, logically, it had to be a joke. The locals wanted to poke fun at the new boy. I wander into the pub a little freaked out and they keep me there while they do this. They probably primed the ones who stayed behind to tell me as many haunting tales of the old place as possible.
Only this felt like something else. It was more than that.
When I heard something slam upstairs I bolted for it. Whoever it was, I going to catch them. I was going to show them that you didn’t get to do this sort of thing. It wasn’t on. I got up to the first floor and heard it again. Over and over again. Something banging. Something hammering.
Without thinking I ran for the top floor. For that little corridor. I got up there and thought I saw someone at the end of the corridor a second. A tall looking figure with a walking stick. Only he’d gone the moment I blinked. The banging was the coming from the door. The door to the collection. The door I’d locked. It had come open again.
I grabbed it and held it. There was no wind blowing it. Only I felt it fight me for a moment. Then it stopped. When I looked down the symbol on the floor had completely vanished. Wipedaway. One of the cases was open as well. I frowned and walked over to it. I’d only looked in there this morning. What had been in there? I read the label by the new gap.
Found on Hopsworth Moors, 1992
Related to The Veil of Harvests. Altar chains possibly.
I slowly closed the case and walked out of the room. I locked the door and double checked it. Then I walked back to the landing and looked out over the empty hall. The skip was coming tomorrow. Whatever this was. Whatever had happened. I would get my revenge tomorrow. I had a sledge hammer with me. I would take it to that furniture and I would smash it to pieces. Let’s see it reappear then, good as new.
That was when something caught me eye. The hall wasn’t completely empty. There was something new down there, sitting by front of the door. My boot print stamped on it. I ran down the stairs and picked it up. Another folded note. Another pointless wish. I opened it and read the name.
I don’t think I’ll sleep well tonight. Exhausted or not.
I wasn’t wrong, Michael. I did not sleep well. Although I did sleep. I slept deeply. Far too deeply. I didn’t dream of the house, if that’s what you’re thinking. No, instead, I dreamt of trees. Endless trees. I dreamt of a never ending forest where the trees whispered and pleaded for help. There were faces in the trunks of those old trees. Wooden faces. They never moved but I heard them speak to me. I heard them beg to be set free. They knew my name. They knew my father’s name. They feared it.
I was woken up by someone hammering at the door. I opened it to find a man in a neon jacket and hard hat waiting for me.
“I was about to give up knocking,” he said with a sneer. “I was about to try wishing.”
“Funny,” I groaned.
“We’ve got the skip for you,” he said, looking me up and down. “If you’ll just sign here.”
I scrawled some half awake version of my name and watched as the lorry lowered the skip into the small parking space outside the front gate. I thanked them, we arranged for me to call for collection. They would only come in daylight he told me. I didn’t argue. After last night I understood why all too well. I also knew what was going out first. That collection. I wasn’t spending another night in the house with that thing sitting over my head.
No wash, no breakfast. I got straight to work. I threw the remains of the collection into an old drawer box and took it out, a pile at a time. Then I smashed up the furniture and took that out. I tore down the pictures and took them out. That room done I did the other two rooms in the attic and headed on to the bedrooms.
I took out all of my fear and all of my uncertainty out on that furniture. Let’s see just how determined this house was to stay in one piece, I thought. I destroyed as much as I could and hauled it all down to the skip. I threw the newspapers and post in with it. Although I still couldn’t bring myself to throw out the wishes. As ridiculous as it sounds.
One piece of good news was that I couldn’t find the note with your father’s name on this morning.
The morning came and went and the skip started to fill up. I wasn’t stopping. I carried on past the pain and cramps. I worked through the hunger, only stopping for the odd glass of cloudy water. I cleared out all the bedrooms then I focused on the downstairs. I was just starting to work in the dining room when there was a knock at the front door. I did think about ignoring it but there was the faintest hope it could be Lucy. I could do with seeing a friendly face. I set the hammer down and headed to the front door. If it was the furniture trying to get back in I was going run for the train station and never look back.
However, instead of phantom furniture or friendly barmaids, I found myself looking at another familiar face from last night. It was the farmer who had told me about your granddad’s speedy recovery.
“Afternoon,” he said grimly. There was an old woman standing behind him in a shockingly floral dress. Her chubby hands were folded in front of her large chest and she had severe looking handbag hanging from the crook of her meaty arm.
“Hi,” I said. “Everything okay?”
“See you’re hard at work,” he said.
I was glad to see the skip still full.
“Yep,” I said. “Finally winning.”
He frowned at me.
“How’d you mean?”
“Oh nothing,” I said, waving a tired hand. “How can I help?”
“This is my aunt,” he said, stepping slightly out of her way. “Tilda.”
“Hi,” I said to her.
“Hello,” she sniffed.
“I was telling her about you working up here and she asked if I could bring her to speak to you.”
“That’s right,” she said. “Wanted to warn you.”
I felt my heart sink. I didn’t need this. I was working fast. I’d be out of here soon enough. Still, I couldn’t just slam the door in their faces. Imagine the talk in the village then. I stood back and let her in. She marched past me. Her nephew hesitated for a moment before he trailed after her.
“I take it George told you about the house,” she said, looking around at the empty hall.
“A lot of people have,” I said, trying not to sound annoyed. “But everything’s fine. As you can see.”
There was no way I was telling her about last night. I still wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to believe it. Yes, I had moved every single piece of furniture down to the hall before it moved itself back up to where it came from. Yes, I still had some of the bruises to prove it. I just didn’t want to think about what it meant. I’d even texted your mother last night to see if there were ever any spare keys to the place. She had texted back to say there was only the one. There went my prank idea.
Aunt Tilda was heading through the door into the kitchen. I followed after her. I could hear George, the gossiping nephew, following us. He was muttering to himself.
“My George doesn’t remember before this house was built. I do.” She stood at the back door and stared out the window at the back garden. “I know what was here before your father came and built his house.”
“Built it?” I stayed behind her. “I thought he just bought it.”
“No, he bought the land.” She was looking out over the old garden intently. “Him and his thin friend. Funny business that. He stays in the village one day, goes out hiking. Comes down that afternoon with this ‘friend’ in tow. Says he bumped into him.”
“What was wrong with that?” I asked.
“All I know is very few people go hiking with a shovel in their pack,” she said quietly “A long, thin streak of misery that one as well. His eyes could burn holes in you. Anyway, it was the two of them who built this house. To their design.”
“He wasn’t an architect,” I said. “The man couldn’t build with Lego bricks. Are you sure you’re thinking of my dad? Kenneth Sykes?”
She turned and glared at me. Her face might have been screwed up and dried out with age but there was no doubting the fire behind those eyes.
“I know who I’m talking about,” she said firmly.
“Now, now, Auntie,” George said from behind me. “We’re guests here.”
“This isn’t a house to practice your manners in, Georgie,” she said talking past me. “This isn’t a house you should ever come to again. It was the same with the woods that was here before. You never came to those woods. Especially after dark.”
“Hang on,” I said, stepping back from between them and holding my hands up. “Whoa, whoa, whoa. I’m getting a little sick of this. Are you people just trying to scare away the big city folk? Is that it? Last night it was the haunted house and now it’s the haunted woods.”
“I never said haunted,” Tilda said. “The Veil Woods was never haunted. No, it was the living who were the problem here. They did things in those woods. Performed rituals. That sort of thing. It had been going on for years. Old traditions. Chains in the trees and wooden altar, that’s what I heard.”
“Hippies were they?” I asked, trying not to think about my dream last night.
“I don’t know what they were and I don’t ever want to know, thank you. At first, when your father came here, we hoped that was the end of it. He pulled those trees down. He put up his house. Everything seemed to go back to normal. At first.”
“Turns out he was just doing it behind closed doors, if you know what I mean,” George said.
“The rituals. He carried them on,” Tilda explained. “He cut down those trees but he used their wood in the house somewhere. He knew what this land was for. Him and his arty friends and that tall ghoul of his. They were all dabbling in those same dark arts. The Harvest, or whatever it was called. That’s why you’d do best to be away from here, lad. This house ain’t safe. This land ain’t safe. There’s something dark hanging over your shoulders and you can’t even see it. It’s almost upon you.”
“And now you’ve said your piece, Aunt Tilda,” George said, stepping up to her. “So we can heed your own advice, hey?”
He started to lead her back the way they’d come, with her arguing. The door to my left creaked open. I could see the wooden panelling behind it. Those green men carved into the woodwork. I was about to go after George and his aunt when I noticed something. The rings on that table weren’t empty. They’d got chains attached to them. The front door slammed shut.
I worked through the afternoon and into the night after that. I made a promise to your mother and I am going to keep it. I am never coming back here again though. What you and your family choose to do with this place is up to you, Michael. I’m starting to wonder if your dad accidentally had the right idea. I’m also starting to understand why your granddad never had us over to stay.
I’m leaving the lights on tonight. The wind is back and I swear I can hear branches creaking over my head.
I swear I can.
I had the dream again last night. I was back in those woods. I could hear those voices on the wind and I could see those faces. Those set, pained faces set in the trunks of the trees. Not carved into the wood but a part of it. Like they grew there naturally. There was a tree at the top of the hill that had no face. When I went to walk towards it the branches of that tree reached out for me. They took hold of me. I could still feel them round me when I woke up.
I cleared the dining room fast this morning. Again. Then I knew there was no getting away from it. I needed to clear the studio. I took down the curtains and started to work. The sketches Dad had been working on were all of green men. Some were of his own face, half turned into wood, fresh leaves sprouting from his mouth. They were strange and terrifying images. I couldn’t look at them for long. I also found letters. Lots of letters, going back years. Letters from friends of his. All of them thanking him for their time up at Veil Arbour. They all told him how much better they felt for their stay. They wrote of ailments going away, of test results coming back clear. Then they thanked him. Over and over again. Sometimes they thanked Anton Margarum as well. We’re so lucky you found that man, one letter wrote, or that he found you.
Reading the letters it sounds like Anton arranged a lot of the parties and gatherings I’d seen photos of and they were always instigated by someone falling ill. In their letters they would say they were only too happy to attend and of course they would bring a friend or a loved one. A plus one. They were never mentioned in the thank you letters. Well, not exactly. The letters always said something else instead. They said that the treatment was indeed worth the cost.
Stuffed down the side of the chair I also found something else. A note that Dad had written towards the end. It was the beginning of his own letter. To Anton Margarum. He’d obviously abandoned it. The readable portion reads as follows:
I must get away from this house, Anton. You must understand. We have to stop this. We have to. What we’re doing is wrong. It’s those faces. I can’t stop looking at those faces. I recognise some of them. I laughed and drank with them. Before we chained them to that altar of yours.
I dream of the woods every night now. Of the Harvest. I have spent far too many nights walking through the old woods that used to be here. The woods you lead me to. The trees that had your chains set in them. I have to get away. I have to clear my head. We have to stop doing this. I was wrong to find you. I was wrong to wake you up. I see that now.
I can’t make out the rest. I’m not sure I want. I tore the last of the furniture apart today. Tomorrow I pull down that wooden panelling in that last room and I take a sledgehammer to that table. It’s just a table. Nothing more.
I tried to get the chains off it today but they wouldn’t give. It was like they’d always been there.
There is something wrong here, Michael. Something so very wrong. I can’t stay here. I can’t stay here another moment. I’m packing and leaving after I send this. Tell your mother I’m sorry. Tell her not to come here. Although I swear I saw her outside last night. Her, that tall man and some other people. People in the shadows. There was a box amongst them. They were gone when I looked again.
I can’t stay here anymore. I’m sorry.
That was the last email I could find on Michael Sykes’ phone from his Uncle James. I pulled my coat closer around me and flicked back to the main menu. I went to the photos and went through them. I went to that photo of his father again. That proud face. Then I went on further. There were photos of a square faced old house. A hill rising behind it. I scrolled on. There was a picture of a laptop on the floor of a narrow room, by a sleeping bag that had been torn open. There was another photo looking through a ruined old kitchen. There was wooden panelling behind it. The next photo showed a face. A carved, wooden face. It looked tormented by pain. Leaves were covering it, growing out of its curled hair and stubble covered chin. I knew that face. I’d seen an older, smarter version of it only a few photos before.
I went back to the menu after that and turned the phone off. I sat out in the dark for some time, trying not to think too much. I wasn’t sure what to make of all this but I’ll tell you this, I found it hard to look at the trees around me for fear of what I might see. I felt as if I could hear the wind softly whispering through each of their desolate winter branches. I felt as if I could hear the rattle of chains, dancing loose and waiting for another arm to be locked in place.
It took a while before I felt ready to face the party again. Smiling faces and drunken dancing were not going to sit well with me after what I’d read in those emails. Even when I got inside I steered clear of the celebrations. Instead I cornered one of the waitresses and asked where I could find Michael Sykes so I could return his phone. She told me he was about to leave, that someone was picking him up out the back. I hurried round and saw a large, dark car waiting there. Michael was heading towards it in his coat. A bag over his shoulders. There was a certain sadness in his eye, in the speed of his walk.
“Is everything okay?” I asked.
“We’re off,” he said. “Long drive ahead.”
“But I have to talk to you about….”
A tall, alarmingly thin man with black hair and a black beard got out of the passenger side of the car. He looked over at us.
“Come along, Michael,” he said in a quiet voice. “You know how your father hates to be kept waiting.”
I bit my tongue to keep the obvious question from slipping out. I felt Michael look at me though as I glimpsed towards the driver’s window and recognised the face I saw through that tinted glass. My heart suddenly felt very cold. I had seen a photo of it moments ago, although it had lost its tan now.
“We have a party of our own to go,” the thin man said to me by way of explanation as I stood back up. “A homecoming if you will.”
That old woman had been right. His eyes really did feel as if they could burn holes into you.
“Yes,” I said quietly. “I imagine you do.”
Michael took his phone off me and got into the back of the car. I could see his sister in there waiting for him. She had the same look on her face.
“Michael…” I said quietly.
“It’s okay,” he said softly. “It was good to meet you.”
I stood back and felt the thin man watching me for a moment before he got back in. He had to readjust his walking stick as he got back in. His dark, crooked walking stick with a silver top. I watched as the car head up towards the small drive that led to the back gate and the road beyond. I watched it disappear off into the night and was glad when it was gone from my sight.
I didn’t hear my friend calling for me from the doorway straight away. Apparently the taxis were here to take us back to town.
“Where’s my plus one?” he drunkenly called out.
“Please,” I whispered to the night air. “Don’t call me that.”