House of memories
Martha was halfway between London and Bath when her satnav suddenly offered to reroute her; an incident on the motorway ahead was causing delays of up to an hour. Soon driving down tight country lanes in the depths of the Wiltshire countryside, the May sun dappling through the tall trees, thick clouds of cow parsley brushing the sides of the car as she passed. She couldn’t believe that this route would possibly ever get her back on to a proper road and was beginning to feel a little anxious when she saw it. A small turning. A blue wooden sign with ‘Moss Cottage’ painted on it. A short gravelled drive, then a pale stone, wisteria-covered cottage behind a small weeping willow. Martha’s heart stopped beating and she pressed hard on her brakes. She stared at the cottage and felt the shock of recognition flood through her. She had been here before.
For a moment she sat paralysed, staring, before a sick feeling in the pit of her stomach roused her and, without checking her mirrors, she reversed at speed. Rolling to a stop, her knuckles white as she clutched the steering wheel, she ducked her head to stare up through the windscreen at the front of the house.
Somewhere in the distance she vaguely noticed the sound of a tractor, but here in this pretty garden it was eerily quiet. Why did this place seem so familiar and why did that feeling seem so disturbing? She could feel threads of memory floating tantalisingly just out of reach, shadows glimpsed out of the corner of her eye, which, when she looked, disappeared, leaving only the faintest of ripples behind. Steeling herself, she stepped out. She could feel a tight knot in her stomach; a mixture of excitement and fear. This was ridiculous. Could it be that the cottage simply reminded her of somewhere or that she recognised it from some article in the papers? Brow furrowed, she didn’t realise that while she had been staring, the front door had opened and a tall, middle-aged woman now stood regarding her silently, dark eyes guarded.
Martha started, ‘Oh, I’m sorry, um…’ Normally extremely articulate, she suddenly found herself at a total loss for words, flustered by the hostility she could feel emanating from the motionless figure.
She tried again. ‘I’m really sorry to disturb you, but I was passing – I’m actually on my way to Bath – and I caught sight of your beautiful cottage and I feel as if I’ve been here before, as if I know it. But for the life of me, I can’t remember when that would have been! Have you lived here long?’
The silence seemed interminable to Martha, who felt herself alternately reddening with embarrassment and feeling sick with anxiety. Oh no, now she needed the loo! This seriously could not be happening. Why on earth didn’t this strange woman say anything? It was just plain rude!
‘This is private property.’ The statement was abrupt and harsh. ‘You’re not welcome here. Leave now or I’ll call the police.’
‘Who is it, Mrs Carey?’ A light, cheerful voice suddenly interrupted and a face framed by dark, wispy curls suddenly materialised behind the still figure. ‘Oh hello, are you lost?’
Startled as much by the smile and friendliness as the sudden appearance, Martha stepped back, her irritation of a moment ago already dissipating.
‘It’s no one, and they were just leaving!’ An almost desperate note had crept into the angry exchange and an arm gripped the door, preventing the young woman from stepping forward.
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean to make you jump.’ The girl glanced sideways in puzzlement at the figure blocking her exit and then turned back to address Martha.
‘No, you didn’t – I mean, you did, but it’s fine. No, I’m not lost exactly, although I didn’t think I knew this area at all. My satnav redirected me. I’m on my way to Bath, but
I saw your beautiful cottage and for some inexplicable reason it drew me in and I feel like
I’ve been here before, but for the life of me I can’t think how, why or when?’
‘How peculiar!’ said the girl, ducking under the rigid arm and grinning, ‘I love a mystery. Sorry about Mrs Carey – she has a heart of gold really, but doesn’t like surprises and is not particularly fond of people. Apart from that, she’s a sweetheart.’ She laughed. It was infectious and after a moment Martha found herself joining in.
‘This must seem so odd to you. I promise you
‘How do you know that? That swing fell apart years ago’
I’ve never done this before and don’t make a habit of pitching up at people’s houses pretending to have been there before.’
‘No, no it’s fine. Look, why don’t you come in, have a cup of tea and I’ll show you around? You can meet my grandmother – she knows far more about the house and area than I do.’ The instant Martha stepped through the door it gripped her; an overwhelming sense of déjà vu. She shook her head.
This was starting to give her the creeps.
Suddenly, the girl in front of her stopped and, turning anxiously, she asked, ‘You’re not a journalist, are you?’
‘A journalist?’ Martha asked bewildered, ‘Why would I be a journalist?’
There was a silence while the girl studied her face. Then, as if satisfied, but without answering, she smiled and continued through a doorway into a bright, sun-filled kitchen. ‘I’m sorry, but over the years we’ve had a lot of gawkers and journalists hovering around,’ she explained.
Martha had stopped listening. Tears seemed to be blurring her vision and the soft voice of the girl seemed to be coming from a long way off.
‘Gran, this is… I’m sorry, I don’t even know your name?’ The girl turned questioningly.
‘It’s Martha,’ but the words were an effort – all her focus was on the view visible through the open door and window, a view that she knew without doubt she had seen before.
The most wonderful euphoria engulfed her. Golden light, haloing a tree heavy with blossom, the buzz of insects and excited twittering of birds faint in the warm scented air.
‘Martha, Martha… are you okay? Oh goodness, she’s awfully pale. Give the girl some room, she’ll be fine – she’s just fainted. Probably hasn’t had a square meal for days. Skin and bone, you young girls, all the same…’
Martha felt brusque hands moving her and reluctantly opened her eyes. Three pairs of eyes surveyed her from above and she realised that she was lying on the floor. Could she be any more embarrassing?
‘I’m so sorry.’
She allowed the surly housekeeper to help her to a chair and gratefully accepted the strong coffee thrust into her hands. ‘Shall we try that again?’ said a kind, slightly rueful
voice from the chair opposite.
Flustered, Martha looked up, ‘I’m so sorry…’ she began again, but a hand was held up to stop her and then extended.
‘No apologies necessary. I’m Sarah, Bella’s grandmother, and I believe you’ve already met Mrs Carey?’ There was definite amusement in her eyes now – she was obviously aware of what had transpired earlier.
‘Martha was passing and saw the cottage, Gran, and thinks she’s been here before although she can’t remember when, so I said you were the one to ask.’
Bella was babbling now, as if she was worried that she had done something wrong. Mrs Carey obviously thought she had and was banging cups around in the sink, lips pursed, shoulders hunched.
‘Mrs Carey, please, we can’t hear ourselves think.’ The attractive woman, who had to be in her late 60s or early 70s, raised her voice firmly and the housekeeper sighed and reluctantly quietened. ‘Thank you. Now, how can I help?’ She turned to Martha.
‘I really don’t know, but I just feel deep down that I have been here before. I have no idea when that could have been, or why, but everything feels so familiar. As soon as I saw the garden I had a hazy vision of being out there – the sun on my face, the smell of apple blossom from the old apple tree with its wonky blue swing; there is an apple tree out there with a wooden swing, isn’t there? And it is blue, isn’t it? The colour of the sky?’
‘How do you know that? I barely remember that swing – it fell apart years ago.’ Now it was Bella’s turn to whisper and look pale as she groped her way into the chair next to Martha.
A heavy silence hung in the air. ‘Gran, you don’t look well. What’s the matter?’ But her grandmother wasn’t looking at Bella – she was staring sightlessly out of the window, turning a coaster over and over in her hands.
‘Yes, there was a swing and Bella’s sister loved it, and yes, it was blue, as even at her young age she was obsessed with the colour.’
‘Sarah, don’t…’ Mrs Carey tried to interrupt, but was waved away impatiently.
‘Bella’s mother, Faye, was just home from the hospital with her as a newborn and she’d put her down for a nap in her cot upstairs. Well, having just given birth and having Evie, an energetic three-year-old, to entertain was terribly tiring and Faye fell asleep on the sofa downstairs.’
A strange feeling of dread had started to creep up Martha’s spine, but she was powerless to interrupt.
The voice faltered, paused a moment, then continued.
‘The little one decided to go into the garden for whatever reason – maybe to play outside, who knows? She was three and a half, and although Faye swore the back door was closed and locked, it appears she managed to open it. Anyway, no one knows how much later it was, but the baby crying upstairs woke Faye up and that’s when she realised the little girl wasn’t in the house.’
‘Oh no, that’s terrible.’ Martha’s hand covered her mouth. ‘Well, that wasn’t the end of it. They scoured the woods behind the house, the fields, knocked on doors, spoke to neighbours; they even dragged the lake, which is a good five miles away – nothing! Faye took to roaming the area night and day and this went on for weeks, months – nothing. Bella’s father couldn’t forgive her for falling asleep and himself for not being there and giving her enough support, and shot himself a year or two later. And Faye… well, Faye had a complete breakdown and hung herself from the old apple tree in the garden under which they had found the little one’s doll’s pram; the only sign that she had been out there. I found her body.
I’d come to stay to look after her and Bella, who by this time was a toddler. As you can imagine it was a terrible time…’
Tears slid silently down her face, and Martha was aware of Bella quietly sobbing beside her. Martha’s guilt at being responsible for dragging up this horror, for reminding them all of their unimaginable loss threatened to overwhelm her.
‘Did they ever find her? Bella’s sister?’
‘No!’ came Mrs Carey’s terse reply.
Fragments of images, dark and disjointed, jumbled sounds, voices and cries. A car journey, and was that a train? Screwing up her eyes, Martha tried to capture the image.
Her head ached with the effort. She was going mad. She hadn’t realised that she was clutching her hair, pulling it back from her furrowed forehead in an effort to try to grasp the elusive images, until she felt the grip on her wrist.
Sarah was staring at her: ‘That mark in your hairline – it’s a birthmark, isn’t it?’
Opening her eyes, Martha reddened, ‘Yes, I think so, at least as far as I know. I’ve had it as long as I can remember.’ Gentle fingers touched the faded pink strawberry.
‘Evie had a birthmark, a bit darker and definitely larger, but she was such a slight little thing with such fine, golden hair, like a fairy, that it was far more visible. How old are you?’
The abrupt question following the almost dreamy, hypnotic stroking of her face shattered her trance.
‘Evie was nearly four when she was taken,’ came the stark reply, ‘20 years ago! This was taken just days before.’ A slightly faded colour photo showed the laughing figure of a young woman, head thrown back, long, fair hair floating down her back, arms outstretched to catch the small figure of a young girl as she was thrown up into the air, laughing uproariously.
It couldn’t be. That face, even in profile… she recognised it. It was the face that haunted her dreams night after night.
A tentative outstretched hand. ‘Evie?’