A man returns to his family home to whiteness the death of his Grandfather.
Excess rain water dripped from the leaves of the trees that bordered the winding country lane. In the city it had been pouring from the canopies of the shops, splashing down the necks of those pedestrians careless enough not to be carrying an umbrella. The same water had also run in small rivers down the entranceway to the car park below Jonathan Denalel’s apartment, forming into diminutive lakes and seas where the autumn leaves had clogged the drains. His car had come to life at the first turn of the ignition key, in spite of the dismally damp conditions. Jonathan had always taken the utmost care with it, an early addition of the E Type Jaguar covered in burgundy paint work that was waxed every week by his own loving hands; there had never been a scratch or dent on the body, the metal showed no sign of fatigue or rust.
The windshield wipers had been forced to work overtime to keep his screen clear of the spray kicked up by the other cars as he left the city. It was now mid-afternoon and the downpour had finally ceased, the clouds had turned from black to grey-white and were letting through the faded autumn sunshine. The oaks, shaking their leaves in the light breeze like dogs ridding themselves of the clinging droplets, sent tiny showers onto the cars bonnet.
Winter marked the ending of what, in Jonathans opinion, had not been a particularly good year. Business had not picked up as the country had failed to come out of its latest recession. The elections were beginning to loom over the horizon of next year, and he had found a number of grey hairs growing in his light brown thatch.
A dip in the shops revenue did not bother Jonathan, for he had the Family to back him, but the sluggish financial growth had not been the only thing that had marked this year out as a bad one. Things had started off with the death of Elizabeth Arlton (Aunt Eliza as she was known to most).
That first incident had brought about a sober gathering bereft of the cheerfulness which usually pervaded any occasion where there was such a large collection family members. They had arrived from various cities and towns across America, and a fair few from over the Atlantic, to pay their respects.
Eliza had been both head and backbone of the wayward clan for as long as Jonathan could remember. She was a woman everyone respected, the sort of person young daughters could talk to about dolls and boys while at the same time being a comfort to those young boys when girls became a confusing intrusion into their lives. Other talents of hers included defusing the inevitable arguments which occurred between various factions in the Family, and a subtle way of matchmaking that couples only realised had occurred after they were happily wed. Eliza’s husband, grandpa Arlton, was wise enough to step into his late wife’s shoes, but he did not enjoy the attention that head of the Family brought and had no wish to follow in her footsteps. There was also the fact that the Family had a bent toward being matriarchal and so it felt right that another woman should take Eliza’s place. Instead the gap was soon filled by Alice Wilkes a widow who commanded plenty of gravitas in her own right.
The second thing to happen in the first half of the year had taken place at the beginning of summer, and had been more dramatic if not as memorable as the first. It had involved Emily Lacey a member of the Family still living in Eilim Cross. In these more modern times Miss Lacey’s action should barely have caused an eyebrow to be raised, but the Family was bound together by tradition and while for Emily it was nothing more than following her heart and marrying the man she loved, for Alice and the older members of the Family it was as rude as if she had stood on a table at Eliza’s wake and shouted that the Devil could take them all. To marry someone outside of the Family was not seen as just a break with tradition, it was a finger in the eye for nearly everything the Family stood for.
Of all of those who involved themselves in the affair it was perhaps Grandpa Arlton who acted with the most sense, for although he was angry enough not to turn up at the wedding he was also sane enough to prevent some of the younger men of the Family (some of whom had an eye on Emily themselves) from disposing of the lady’s fiancé. Alice had, in the end, given a token blessing to the whole affair, for as she said, the Family had overcome far worse troubles before. Besides there was little need to go completely crazy over what, in a few years, would be mere trivia.
By the time Jonathan reached the edge of the small town the hazy sunshine had almost dried the weathered white sign which read:
WELCOME TO EILIM CROSS
PLEASE DRIVE CAREFULLY
Hinged underneath this was a small placard with the words THANK YOU printed on it.
Eilim Cross had changed little since he had last been here, but then it had changed little since he was a child and honestly never expected it to alter at all.
There was a copse of trees off to the west, near where the church backed onto the pastures. It was there that he and Robert Adams used to dam up Archers brook and sail their leaf boats across miniature rapids. Jonathan remembered Father Jackson shouting at them for cutting through the church yard and running over the grave stones as they headed to the wood after school. The priest had always thought they did it deliberately to annoy him, whereas the real reason was that it was just a short cut and it meant they could get an extra few minutes of playtime before tea. From this end of the village it was not possible to see the church or its small graveyard, but Jonathan was sure it would still be as weathered and unrepaired as ever, the gold coloured cockerel on the wind vane still hanging loose on its fixings because there was not a ladder in the town high enough to reach it.
There were other things that brought back memories for Jonathan as he drove slowly through the town. The tiny corner shop owned by Mr Oldford, but run mainly by his domineering wife Josey. She would watch the children like a hawk while they were buying sweets, because she thought them all little thieves in the making. Two doors down from the shop, and shielded from the road by a hedge, was the May’s cottage. This had formerly belonged to a family by the name of Harrison, the three children, a wife and husband had all been killed when the building burnt down. The only survivor of the fire had been the family dog, Alf, who, at the funeral, showed great dislike towards a friend of the Harrisons, Marcus Paulson who lived in the next town. This, of course, added fresh wood to the fire, by confirming what most thought; that Marcus had been seduced by Mrs Harrison. It was also spread about the village by some, that the ghosts of the dead family continued to inhabit what remained of the house, and that they would not rest until Mr Harrison got revenge. At the time Jonathan and Bill, still being at that age when a ghost was a creak in the attic, often dared each other to spend a night in the shell of the house. They stayed till nine o’clock one night, and then both agreed that they really ought to be home in case their parents got worried as to where they were. The boys leaving early had nothing, of course, to do with the noises they kept hearing or the feeling of unease that had crept up their spines.
Near the far end of the town Jonathan finally arrived at the family house. He turned off the main highway onto a drive flanked by light coloured stone walls which wound its way through a small group of trees. To both the left and right the well kept grass of the front lawns was shielded from view by a run of rhododendron bushes. Small lights were planted along the driveway to illuminate it at night.
The drive finally opened out into a wide gravel parking area that was set in front of the house. A number of cars were already sat facing the lawns. This gathering was not going to be anywhere near as large as the ones earlier in the year; only close family members would be attending. The funeral was over a week away and that was likely to be as big as Aunt Eliza’s, but for now it was more intimate.
Jonathan climbed out of his car and opened the boot, taking out his travel bag. He then turned and walked up to the front door and rang the bell. Like so much that related to the Family, the house had remained unaltered for countless generations. The large bay windows either side of the double front door gazed out across the grounds. To the left of the house sat a wing which had been added in the 1800s; the white stone cladding not quite matching the original building. To the right was a small continuation of the driveway which led to the garage block situated to the rear of the property.
The sound of the door bell echoing in the hallway reached Jonathan as he removed his finger from the large white button. A few moments later the right-hand door swung open and he was greeted by the solemn face of Reginald the resident butler.
“Mr Denalel,” he intoned, “I am glad that you could make it.” He stepped back from the threshold and allowed Jonathan to enter, giving the day bag a quick glance. “Shall I take that to your room? Most of the others are already here and gathered upstairs.”
Jonathan placed his bag on the floor, and gave a quick smile. “That would be great, Reginald. I’ll go straight up.”
“Would you care for a coffee?” the butler asked.
“Yes, thanks,” Jonathan replied.
He left Reginald and headed up the stairs to his right. As he climbed the steps he looked down at the well worn runner, his hand brushed the oak banister. He remembered running up and down these stairs as a child when the house was a castle. The family parties he had come to here were some of the best moment of his life; better than the high school dance, possibly even eclipsing his first kiss with Eloise.
The parties still took place and he attended those that he could. They were always well populated, but his view from adulthood did not compare to that of his childhood. There were still the clowns and the jugglers in the garden, the party games organised by some of the parents, but he could not get away with joining in hide-and-seek at his age.
After reaching the top of the stairs he walked along the wide landing and came to the door at the end. With a heavy heart he knocked once and then pushed it open, stepping into the master bedroom.
Like the halls and stairs, dark wood panels lined the walls. There were two large windows that looked out onto the formal rear gardens. Both had thin curtains which were drawn to keep permanent a state of twilight. Various pieces of old furniture, crafted in numerous styles of centuries long gone, were dotted filled the room. In the bed lay an old man, his white hair cut short, his hands resting on the covers were thin and skeletal, his pale skin sagging on his bones. The people gathered at the bedside all glanced up as the newcomer slipped in.
Jonathon’s brother was the first to speak, his voice low, but not quite a whisper. “Jono, good to see you. We weren’t sure if you’d have chance to get away.”
“I wasn’t sure either,” Jonathan replied, “but I managed to re-arrange a few things.” He glanced at the old man on the bed. “How’s he doing?”
The man’s eyes opened slowly and stared at the newcomer. “Oh, he is hanging on in there and certainly well enough to speak for himself.” There was a cracking sound in his throat that could have been laughter.
Jonathan gave him a broad grin. “I’m not surprised you’re still here, that stubborn streak must be refusing to let go.” He walked around the bed and stood next to his brother’s wife. “I hope you’re not going to hang on for too many more days. The food for the wake has already been ordered.”
The old man gave another crackling laugh while Jonathan’s sister-in-law offered up a disapproving glance. On the other side of the bed the younger brother tried to hide a smile.
“I’ve never disappointed you lot yet,” the old man replied. “I’m not going to start now, so you’ve only got an evening to wait.”
“Now, grandpa Alton,” a voice piped up from the doorway, “you shouldn’t pay any heed to Jonathan’s wise cracks. If he keeps it up I’ll take him outside and give him a good whipping.”
Jonathan and his brother both gave a wide grin.
“Dad,” Jonathan said, “have you just got here? I didn’t see your car parked outside.”
The three men shook hands.
“I got here yesterday,” the father replied. “Had to go back into town to run a couple of errands, so I’ve been out all morning.” Then he turned to the old man lying in the bed. “How are you feeling?” he asked. “Would you like me to get rid of this lot for a bit so you can get some rest?”
As if on cue, Reginald stepped in to the room. “There is coffee in the sitting room for Jonathan and those who would care for it.”
“That solves it then,” Jonathan’s sister-in-law said. “Let’s leave grandpa Alton so he can have a sleep.”
They filed out of the room and down to the ground floor sitting room where coffee and biscuits had been laid out for them.
It was some hours later, when the lights had been turned on in the house and the birds had roosted in the trees, that Jonathan left the rest of his kin in the sitting room and made his way upstairs. The door was silent as he eased it open. The sleeping form did not stir and so he began to back out again.
“I’m not asleep, you know,” the old man said, his voice surprisingly strong.
Jonathan paused, and then stepped back into the room, pushing the door closed behind him.
“I’m sorry if I woke you, grandpa”.
“Oh, don’t worry. I haven’t been able to sleep. Hardly likely to at a time like this.”
Jonathan made his way over to the bed; in the silence his footfalls echoed off the wooden floor between the rugs.
“How are you feeling?” Jonathan asked as he reached the bedside.
The old man gave a slight shrug. “As well as you would expect, given the hour. What about you? How are things at the shop?”
“Oh, you know what it’s been like this last year. Takings are down by half from two years ago, but it will be picking up again. I have little to complain about.”
“Has Eloise come with you? I didn’t see her earlier.”
Jonathan shook his head. “No. She’s still caught up in Europe. I had to leave everything with her so I could get back. She sends her regards, of course.”
“And your sister?”
Jonathan’s expression took on a hint of disgust. “She’s not arrived yet.” His voice had changed subtly, showing signs of tension.
The old man looked at him with some sympathy. “I know you don’t approve, but this is our way and it will happen regardless of what you think.”
“It just feels wrong to me. It always has.”
“If it affected you, would your opinion be the same?” the old man asked.
“I think so,” Jonathan replied. “I don’t know, I suppose. Maybe I would. Maybe I would feel different about it if it wasn’t my sister who was involved.”
“You came though.”
“I came to say good bye to you,” Jonathan’s tone was quite sharp, but hinted at compassion. “If it was someone else lying there I wouldn’t have made the journey.”
He was about to say something more when the door opened and his brother walked in.
“Ah, there you are,” Paul said. “Sarah’s here, grandpa.”
He stepped aside and Jonathan’s sister walked into the room, followed by her husband. Jonathan moved away from the bed and went to greet her, offering up a light kiss on the cheek.
He glanced down at her swollen stomach. “How are you doing and how is bump getting on.”
“I’ve only walked up the stairs and already I could do with a rest.” She made an exasperated face and then smiled. “As much as I love him, the quicker he is out, the happier I’ll be.”
“Well, not long now,” Jonathan managed to hide his dislike and rested his hand on his sister’s shoulder as he stepped aside to let her approach he bed.
Sarah walked over to the old man and picked up one of his hands, clasping it in both of hers.
“How are you feeling, grandpa? Have these lot given you any rest?”
The skin around his eyes creased into a well worn pattern and a cracked smile showed through at the corners of his mouth.
“I’m fine, my dear. It isn’t that they won’t leave me alone, it’s the fact that they do keep leaving me alone. I’m stuck in this bed and they think all I want to do is sleep.”
Sarah smiled back at him. “We’ll I’m more than happy to stay with you and chat. I’ve got lots to tell you about the new house. Charles finally finished the nursery as well; with only a couple of days to spare.” She turned to her husband who was still standing by the door. “Could you get me a glass of water? I’m going to sit with Grandpa for a while.”
Jonathan helped his sister pull a chair closer to the bed, while Paul rearranged cushions for her.
When he was sure she was comfortable he said, “I’m going to unpack my clothes and see if I can get hold of Eloise, she should be awake by now.”
His sister looked away from the bed and up at him. “Okay, hon. Give her my love.”
As he left she gave Paul a quick frown and he returned it with a shrug.
Jonathan found Reginald had places his bag in the room he always stayed in. It only took him half an hour to arrange his clothes. Then he decided to go for a walk around the gardens. It had stopped raining and he would have a little privacy while he spoke to Eloise. It also allowed him to see some of his old play areas. He especially wanted to check if the tree house he and Bill had built one summer was still in the woods at the back. The last few times he was here he had looked and it had now become a ritual. It enabled him to hold onto days that had passed into memory so long ago.
He deliberately took his time in the garden. The darkness did not bother him and Eloise, knowing how little he was enjoying the visit, spent quite a time with him on the phone. When he finally returned to the house the others had eaten and some had already retired to their rooms to rest. Sarah was still talking to Grandpa Alton.
Jonathon stuck his head into the sitting room and told those who were still awake that he was going to bed. No one offered any comment. He paused for a moment outside the master bedroom and then with a sigh pushed it open.
“I just thought I’d say good night. I’m going to try and catch some sleep. I’m still suffering from some jet lag after the flight.”
His sister gave him a questioning look. “You’re not staying up then?”
Jonathan was about to reply when Grandpa Alton spoke. “It’s okay, my dear. Your brother and I had a chat earlier. He’s here and that’s what matters.” He looked across the bed at Jonathan. “You get some sleep. It was good to see you one last time.”
Jonathan gave up his hold on the door and walked over to the bed to give the old man a kiss.
“I’m sad to see you go. Thanks for everything over the years.” His voice stayed level, but there was a glint of tears in his eyes.
Then he walked around to his sister and gave her a kiss as well. Without another word from any of them he left the room and went to his own bed.
Jonathan opened his eyes and found he was staring at the ceiling. Something had woken him up. He reached over and picked up his watch from the bedside table. Five minutes after three. He put his it back down and listened: silence. That made him more curious. At this time in the night things should have been happening. Megan Saltmarsh, the current midwife, should be here and almost everyone else would be up and about.
Wondering if there was a problem, or if things had not started yet, he decided to get out of bed. Throwing back the covers he was in the process of swinging his legs out when he heard something move below him. He froze. It had sounded like something scurrying. A rat maybe; but he knew there were no rats in the house.
Jonathan was a man who liked to consider himself fearless. There were certainly things in the greater world he did fear, but those he had so little chance of encountering he paid them little heed. The sound from under the bed stirred something primal within him; a fear that had lain dormant for centuries. He found he was holding his breath, waiting for the noise to happen again.
It did come a second time. He heard it more clearly: a scurrying under his bed. Certainly not a rat; something larger.
He was being stupid. Not only was he unlikely to meet anything that could actually cause him harm, but more to the point this was the house in Eilim Cross, not some cheap hotel in Haiti. Still the fear would not subside. He had the distinct impression that whatever was under his bed could hurt him and it was not something he wanted to meet.
With what courage he could muster he reached out to pick up his mobile phone. He would call Eloise, she could help regardless of the distance. His desire to stay away from the edge of the bed meant that he had to stretch to grab the phone, but he managed to get a purchase. Just as he lifted it from the bedside table something pulled at the bedclothes on the opposite side. The movement made Jonathon jump and he twisted his head around to see what was there. His movement caused the phone to slip from his fingers, the cool metal case sliding out of his grasp. The phone hit the bedside table and then rolled over and off the edge. He heard it thud as it landed on the rug covering the floor beside his bed.
For a moment anger overcame his fear. “Who’s there? Why don’t you come out?”
In response to his demand there was another tug at the bedclothes and he instantly regretted issuing the challenge. He drew his body up into a sitting position that gave him a better view across the top of the bed. At the same time he saw the covers pulled down further in the far corner. He knew for certain now that something was climbing up onto the bed and he held his breath.
The covers were tugged once more and this time they were followed a moment later by a tiny hand which reached up. A second followed and then a head appeared from over the edge.
The head turned slightly so that it could regard Jonathan as the creature continued the climb and it was all Jonathan could do to stop himself from crying out. The body of the child was perfect, tiny little hands with pink fingernails; arms and body slightly chubby with baby fat. What riveted Jonathan in place was the face. Not a child’s face at all but that of grandpa Alton.
The miniature replica of the old man smiled at Jonathan with a toothless mouth.
“Hello, my boy.”
Jonathan gave a start and opened his eyes, gasping for air. He was lying in his bed. To his relief he was alone. In the quiet of the bedroom he could hear people moving around the house. He picked up his watch from the bedside table, the phone was still there as well. It was just before six o’clock in the morning.
He threw back the covers and got out of the bed. As he came to his feet he realised how drained he felt; a symptom of the night’s events.
Once dressed and having used the bowl and jug of water to freshen up, he slipped on his dressing gown and opened the bedroom door, walking out onto the second floor landing. There was no one in this part of the house, but he could hear people moving around below and so he made his way down the stairs to find them.
As he came down the curving staircase he noticed that the door to the master bedroom was closed and a wreath had been hung on it. He did not need to be told what that meant. From inside the room next to it came the sound of soft voices. Jonathan approached the door and gently pushed it open.
His sister was lying in the bed, around her stood Paul and his wife as well as their parents. A basket supported by a wooden frame had been placed by the side of the bed. In a chair on the far side of the room Sarah’s husband sat slumped, his mouth was open slightly; he was snoring very quietly. All of those gathered around the bed looked exhausted.
“How has it gone?” Jonathan asked.
His sister gave him a wide smile and nodded with her head to indicate the bundle she cradled in her arms.
“Come and have a look,” she said. “Meet Anthony Daniel Jeremiah Alton, your new nephew.”