A remote village in Dorset. A battle between superstition and reality. Newcomers are cold-shouldered, but alliances are formed. Kate, recently widowed finds herself unexpectedly in love, but the past is as dangerous as the present.
During late November, when the landscape was revealed without its disguise of leaves, Kate shut up the house in Onslow Square. She drove up, down and across the South West. Sussex was too expensive, Hampshire too accessible, Devon and Cornwall too inaccessible and Wiltshire too pretty. In Dorset, she had come home. She packed a bag, put everything else in storage and left London to find a house where she could hide and recover.
‘I’m glad it’s a wet day,’ she told the large estate agent as he untangled himself from the small car. ‘I don’t want to be influenced by the picturesque.’
‘Hardly,’ he said. He opened the door and Caesar, who had taken up the whole back seat, spilled out. The agent walked Kate over to the bus shelter. ‘We’ll be out of the rain here.’
She peered through the drizzle. The village looked peculiarly grey, the rain drawing darker streaks down its closed face. The short street was made up of cottages with low doorways and small windows. The houses round three sides of the square were narrow, flat-fronted and spinsterish. There was a red-brick village hall, a garage, a butcher’s shop, a greengrocer, a general store and Post Office combined, and a pub: The Lamb.
‘I expect you drive?’ the man said.
‘I do. But I’m not going to. I like to walk.’ She patted Caesar who was wiping his muzzle on the grass verge.
‘There’s a bus once a day into Wareham and Weymouth. And the train to London.’ He looked at her doubtfully. ‘It is a weekend cottage, you’re looking for?’
‘I’m looking for somewhere to live. Cheap, with a garden.’
‘It’s cheap here. Cut off. No school.’ He lowered his head to look at her. ‘No phone, either. Or drainage. Do you think you can cope with a septic tank?’
Kate began to laugh. ‘I hope so. I was brought up somewhere like this. A very long time ago,’ she added, checking that her hair was still reasonably up, despite the bucketing of the little car from puddle to puddle along the lanes.
The man extracted an umbrella from his brief-case. ‘You can’t take a car along the track in winter. We’ll have to walk.’
They passed the church where a giant yew shadowed the graves and left the village behind. For half a mile they followed a stream that slunk like a weasel along the path till it slid underground.
They stumbled along an overgrown track, pushing through wet grass and brambles. A chimney appeared at their feet. ‘There it is,’ the man said. ‘The rest is hidden in the chine. A cleft in the land, leading to the sea,’ he explained.
Kate nodded. She didn’t think it worthwhile explaining that she had lived here as a child and had spent her holidays exploring chines.
The man took Kate’s arm as they negotiated steep stone steps made slimy by the spread of moss. ‘Careful!’ the man exclaimed. ‘I’m always frightened a client will slip and sue me.’
‘I’d do no such thing,’ Kate said, generous with pleasure. In the chine, they stepped carefully through a nettle-patch to reach a gate grey with lichen. The man shoved till it opened just enough to let them through. ‘Why hasn’t it sold?’
‘People back off.’
The garden was long and narrow. There were fruit trees at the far end, a collapsing shed and a patch of lawn.
‘There’s a lime tree.’ Kate waded through the rough grass and briefly touched its trunk with her palm.
The cottage was small, built of stone with a high-pitched roof. Small windows blinked under frowning eaves. There was a slate-roofed porch at one end and a lean-to kitchen at the other. Beside the door a water-butt dripped. Kate stood on tip-toe and peered inside. Her reflection wobbled on the dark surface.
The living-room took up the ground floor. ‘The bath is in the kitchen,’ the man told Kate, and lifted a wooden flap to show a pitted and stained tub crouching beneath.
‘They built them big in those days,’ he added, wondering where the hot water would come from.
‘Are you sure? I mean the bathroom arrangements aren’t very…’ There was a nervous turning of the tap, and joint surprise when water came out The privy flushes,’ he said in a rush. ‘But it’s round the corner from the back door. What will you do if you have people to stay?’
‘I’ll only invite people who won’t mind the ‘bathroom arrangements’. Now, where’s the sea?’
She had heard it, weaving in and out below the sound of their footsteps on the path and on the stone floor; below the jarring strain of a swollen window beneath the man’s heavy arm and Caesar’s paws slipping on the uncarpeted boards.
In single file, they crept along a narrow chalk path. ‘Mind your step,’ he said, ‘slippery when wet.’
The cove opened suddenly at her feet. It was almost circular, floored with slabs of rock interrupted by small areas of pebbles. The stream reappeared, no longer skulking, but as a white snout thrusting down to meet the waves.
Kate and Caesar stood silently watching the heaving water. The man, aware of the importance of the moment, stood a little to one side and noticed how the hair of the woman and the shaggy pelt of the dog were similar in colour and equally wind-blown as they sniffed the air.
They paused at the gate. The man held out his hand. ‘Let me know.’
‘I want it, of course,’ Kate said. ‘How soon?’ She was surprised by the relief in his face. ‘It’s been hard to sell?’
‘Well, yes. But it has a good owner now. Vacant Possession.’
‘Do you have a mobile I can get you on?’
‘I meant to say. No signal; too enclosed.’
‘I have the land line.’
Kate pulled on another sweater, spread her overcoat and two large towels on top of the blankets on the divan bed and crept into the chilly sheets. She looked out of the curtainless windows at the dark bank of the chine and a narrow band of star-flecked sky. She reached her hand down and touched Caesar’s warm, harsh fur and fell asleep.
Next morning she woke to a late-rising sun and the murmur of the sea. Her life smelled different. She muffled herself in an old coat bought smart in London for Alasdair’s benefit now at last comfortable with drooping hem and missing button. She stuffed a lead in her pocket and called Caesar.
The track was hard and brittle and the sea hazy. She picked a lump of chalk off the path and threw it. ‘Off you go!’
Caesar raced ahead then stopped, specks of white on his muzzle where he had burrowed into the ground. He snapped and pounced then raced away again.
The track fell steeply to the beach. It was low tide and a table of rock lay uncovered, half wet, half dry. It was fringed with the seaweed Kate had told the weather by as a child. She watched the flaccid ribbons being tossed and twisted by the waves. To each side were more rocks; sharp-edged cubes, rising directly out of the sea. Above her head, the cliffs were so high and climbed so steeply she had to crane her neck to see the hollow curve of the sky. Dizzy, she looked down again, and began to hunt for lucky stones with holes in them. She found two to carry home and fix to a wire hanging from a hook in the porch.
Kate followed the swish of Caesar’s tail back up the path. There was another moving shape on the cliff top to her right. The first person to approach her new world and, from a distance, they were unidentifiable as friend or foe.
The shape became the figure of a man; grew larger as it approached; footfalls loud on the frozen chalk. She called to Caesar. She thought of turning away; disappearing into the chine. She stood irresolute, her hands stuck into the sleeves of her coat. But I’m on my own ground, she thought and decided to stay. The man drew level, hesitated. He was very young.
Caesar ran up and sniffed at his ankles. Kate bent to snap on the lead. The youth showed no signs of nervousness but she smiled reassurance. He said something; sounds of inquiry, unintelligible beneath a scarf tied high around his ears and chin.
Kate slapped her hands together, half listening, guessing the meaning. ‘Yes. I’ve just moved in.’
She saw his eyes, startled above the mask of the scarf. He must have said something different; Kate smiled. Without understanding why, she started to untie her headscarf. She felt the cold against her ears and neck. He was already moving away. She thought: is he angry, or is he frightened? Caesar pulled at the lead, but she waited to watch as the boy walked up the track, his rough black hair falling on the shoulders of a patched bush-jacket.
March brought unforeseen problems. The stream swelled and poured down the chine and into the cottage. The generator stopped and Kate could not start it. She panicked at the cold and walked into the village with Caesar. She stumbled across the frozen field, ice in the ruts cracking under her feet. The mechanic was in the far corner of his shed, in a cloud of warmth, a welding torch in his hand. Usually he came out when she dropped by to ask for a refill for her gas canister. She stood nervously in the open mouth of the garage. ‘I can’t start the generator. It’s got petrol. I think it must be damp.’
He didn’t turn when she spoke, but bent his head. ‘Uh?’ A noise she found hard to interpret.
‘The generator,’ she repeated, shouting above the noise of flame and hammer.
‘I got a call-out charge.’
‘Of course. But you can come?’ she waited for the smile, the nod.
He walked to the front, wiping his hands on his overalls. ‘Might be tomorrow.’
‘Oh.’ She thought of the refrigerator and its small ice-box. But really, a bit of water inside as well as out wasn’t important.
‘Whenever you can. I’ll be there.’ She wondered why his voice was so dull, why no smile answered hers. She told herself she was imagining it, that he was too busy to chat.
Two days later he came; he mended the generator, but refused a cup of tea. She paid him cash. He didn’t say ‘goodbye’ but scrambled back up the path and into his truck.
Ants invaded the kitchen. Kate scooped them onto leaves and bore them, like an overfull glass, to the end of the garden where she gently tipped them into the hedge.
In a swift storm, a branch from the lime tree split and hung dangerously from a strip of sinewy bark. For the first time, Kate felt unable to cope.
‘Have you ant spray?’ she asked in the village shop. The woman behind the counter stared at her wordlessly.
‘Stamp on ‘em,’ the woman waiting behind said, not to Kate, to be helpful, but as if recalling satisfaction.
‘Please can you put this card in your window?’ Kate had written on a postcard with her old address scratched out: ‘Help wanted in garden; also odd Jobs and general maintenance. Hours and wages to suit successful applicant.’
Summer moved towards her. Sunlight entered the bottom of the chine earlier and left it later. The days passed, each like the one before. Being on her own, there were no imperatives, hardly any choices to be made. One was either indoors, or out.
She was happy when a letter came from Tim Portman, but pretended that it was he that wanted company, not her.
My dear Kate
Here I am, back in the old country after my last tour. And you are back in the ‘Old County’ Well done! We’ve missed you. I gather not many people know where you are and I won’t give the game away. But, may I visit; bring you something to ‘warm the house’ as they say?
‘I’m sorry about Alasdair; he was far too young to die, and you to be left alone. You must have had a rotten time. To die just when he was about to enjoy retirement was hard on you both.
I hear you’re managing very well, as you always have done, and I expect Edward and Joyce have been rallying round.
You know you have my greatest sympathy, which I hope you will let me offer in person. I shall be back on base in a couple of weeks, hence the address on this letter. The club is a poor substitute for home.
Dear Tim, Kate said to herself. But am I ready to see him? So many things he did not know, and certainly would not guess at, being Tim. When she thought of him, she thought of his eyes; pale blue, slightly protruding, anxious. Loving as a dog’s eyes should be, and as Caesar’s weren’t.
The bottle was open on the draining-board. The sun struck it, and scattered prisms over the ceiling. Kate poured herself a glass of sherry and watched the dust falling through the light. She could not avoid seeing the dirt circling the inside of the sink nor the base metal showing through the flaking chrome of the taps. The floor was sticky. Caesar’s food was spattered on the newspaper under his bowl. Caesar was sulking under the table. She could not face visitors now.
She looked at the garden which was even less of a garden than when she had arrived. Alasdair had been the gardener, she remembered, staring out, unfocussed. She thought: my birthday tree. He cared for plants, knew their names. I miss him for that, but for nothing else. If he could come back, if like the end of the Monkey’s Paw, I heard his footsteps on the path, his knock on the door, I would lock and bar it. She clutched her glass. She didn’t fear the fancied horrors of putrescence a year after her husband’s death, but the sounds of her jailor returning.
‘I am becoming a recluse,’ she told herself and tipped the remains of the sherry down the sink. ‘It’s dangerous to shut out the world.’
She wrote a note to Tim: So happy you are back. Come soon. Bring friends. There is plenty of room; you can sling a hammock or pitch a tent in the garden. We must all enjoy the summer while it’s here.
Tim phoned her that evening. ‘I know you don’t want company, but there’s this chap. You’d like him.’
‘Creative type. Works on television. Giles Cavell.’ Tim wished that he could see her face not that he would have tried to read her expression, he was too discreet to do that. ‘Remember him?’
‘Yes.’ She waited, listening to the odd crackling on the line.
‘He’s making a programme about Tyneham. I didn’t make any promises. Just said you were here.’
‘I do remember him. Charming, but no shelf life. He followed fashion and had floppy fair hair. Didn’t he have lots of sisters and a mother who spoiled him?’
‘That’s the one. Still handsome.’
‘He asked me to marry him. I chose Alasdair.’
‘Right choice. Definitely the right choice.’
Kate said, ‘I’m trying to forget the past. Caesar is reminder enough.’
‘Sort of like Alasdair, isn’t he?’
‘That is very perceptive of you. Caesar was Alasdair’s dog. Now he is my ever watchful protector and jailer.’ She said no more, not wanting to embarrass Tim with confidences.
Tim said, ‘The loss was all Giles’s. Sylvia’s nothing like you.’
‘Oh?’ Kate was bristling.
‘Clever. Works for a magazine.’ Tim was back-pedalling ‘And beautiful.’ Realising this might be mis-construed, he added, ‘All women are beautiful. And wonderful. I know that.’
‘You want me to ask him over?’
‘No, of course not. Only if you want to.’
‘But you told him you’d ask me if I would?’
‘We’ll go as far as the village. I’m going to post a letter.’ Kate told Caesar, thinking that if she did not speak she would lose the knack. She clipped on his lead and dragged him after her. She avoided the branch swinging from the lime tree; made nervous by the rustling of dying leaves she felt suddenly chilled despite the sun. She stepped on tiny flowers pressed close to the ground; trailed her hand through long grasses, plucked an ear of green corn and sucked its stem. She went bare-foot, carrying her sandals looped over her wrist. She skirted the nettle beds and climbed the fences, scooping up her skirt. Her legs and arms bore a network of white scratches. A thumb nail had broken, and she tugged at it with her teeth. Realised how all her nails were short now, and grubby, her hands rough. ‘Do I care?’ she asked Caesar. ‘Am I going native?’
They reached the village. She peered at the white cards in the window of the Post Office. She went in. Her card, placed there a month ago, was beginning to curl and the drawing pin was rusty.
‘My card’s still here,’ she said, regretting her plea for help since it had been so casually ignored.
The woman behind the counter said nothing.
‘No-one’s answered it?’
‘People don’t to go to the chine.’
But the woman had turned away, was tearing a single stamp from the sheet.
‘I’ll take a dozen,’ Kate said, feeling an atmosphere. ‘On account.’
She fled out into the square. Boys were sitting on the steps of the War Memorial, smoking and drinking from cans. Cigarette butts, crisp packets and pages of a newspaper lay on the ground, idle in the torpid air. Caesar was panting. ‘You’re thirsty.’ She looked round, but it was late; the garage had hidden behind its metal shutters, leaving a rusty saloon and a tractor parked in front, both so old they would not tempt. She heard the Post-Office door being bolted behind her.
Across the square, the pub waited in silence. The sign of a lamb was suspended in the still air. Kate lifted the latch and opened the door to the incomprehensible local voice. It was dark after the sun outside; the small leaded windows diminishing what light there was . She made out men’s backs in a row along a bar. Other men, sitting at small tables. Silence and Caesar’s claws scraping on the flags. The light, the liquid in the glasses, the tables and chairs, the men’s hands and faces; all the same rich, dark amber.
The men leaning on the bar turned to look at her, then turned away. The bartender serving was deep in conversation with a man with a drinker’s nose. ‘The cottage in the chine,’ he said. The other turned and stared. Kate stood on one leg, then on the other. She patted Caesar’s head and told him to ‘sit.’ ‘Could I have some water for the dog?’
A sudden commotion amongst the anonymous legs. Caesar tugged his lead, pulled it out of her grasp, shot across the room, and under a table. A hush, then animal screams, barks and yaps; sounds of strangulation. After the commotion a moment’s silence. ‘I’m sorry. Caesar! Caesar!’ She was about to bend down, reach under the table, grab at the loop on the end of the lead. A hand clasped her shoulder. ‘Leave ‘em be.’
A black and white collie came out backwards, its hind-legs scrabbling. Blood on its ears. Caesar after it, jaws agape, clutching at the throat. ‘Caesar! Can’t you stop them?’
Someone was pulling at her shirt. A button tinkled on to the floor. Her hand clinging on to the lead, her other hand clutching her shirt closed across her breast.
‘Get out. Take the cur with you.’
At the back of the room, small movements. Chairs being scraped to one side.
An elbow pushed into her side. ‘Get out of here.’
Kate knelt on the floor. ‘I can’t leave my dog. Just help me get the dog’
‘You go and he’ll follow. Dogs follow bitches.’
‘I only wanted water for him.’ Dogs were everywhere. She saw their eyes in the dark under the settles; heard the swish of tails and neat terrier paws scuttering on the wooden floor. Shamefully, she felt tears. Be your age, she told herself.
She heard a guitar riff at the back of the room and for a moment it sweetened the air. She looked down at the filthy floor and felt a comb slipping then her hair falling.
The young men from the square were coming in. She had to be on her feet. She struggled to stand; one hand holding the edge of the table, another the back of a chair. Damn, damn, damn you, Caesar. Stop messing up my life.
A rattling beside her. ‘Fifty pence.’
Her knees were trembling and her arms ached. Caesar’s lead in one hand, combs in the other. Unable to hold her shirt together where the missing button should be.
A charity box was being shaken under her nose. ‘I haven’t got fifty pence.’ She heard every inflection of her voice; every clear syllable, vowel, and consonant dropping with tinny perfection into the silence. Laughter. ‘You the rich woman in the chine. Not got fifty pence?’
‘I came out as I was. I was only going for a walk. I didn’t think I’d need money.’
‘Fifty pence, if you want to get out of here.’
‘I don’t understand.’
All faces turned to her. Music still coming from the back of the bar, then drowned by conversation. She seemed to be causing only a local upset.
‘Any woman comes in here on her own pays fifty pence.’
‘Might be a witch for all we know.’
She tried to laugh. ‘What century are you living in?’
Silence, while they considered. She thought to disarm with humour. ‘The dog’s male. Doesn’t he count?’
But no-one laughed. She clipped on Caesar’s lead.
‘The name tag,’ someone said. ‘Looks like silver.’
They stared at her, waiting. Those between her and the door had legs thrust out, arms folded across the chest.
‘Here, then,’ she slipped the disc off, like a key from a ring, and dropped it into the box. She gripped Caesar’s lead. Walked to the door. Heard someone say ‘She’ll not stay long.’
‘Not in the chine.’
A younger voice said, ‘Wait till the oaks are felled, then where will she go?’ She heard someone blow a raspberry. More laughter.
The bar had been dark and sunless. Kate stood a moment in the square, collecting herself, surprised to find the sun still in the sky. As she walked home, the reddening semi-circle began to fade and fall apart till it was lost in fragments of cloud. She reached the head of the chine. The sea was still there, sleeping under the horizon. She paused to let the indigo water return her to calm. Caesar, smirking, ran ahead of her down the slope to the cottage. She thought: I’ve given away his identity. He is nameless, stateless. He has lost his place.
And felt a shiver because she knew she did not have one either.