Why is an only child invariably possessed of so much family? Perhaps as the lone progeny of a tribe it is not so much that horde of uncles and aunts and great-aunts and great uncles and second cousins and third cousins and indeterminables is actually larger than in any other family, merely seeming that much more numerous in contrast to the daily experiences of a single son, accustomed to short and impermanent glimpses of ever varying relations. Or perhaps there is some truth in it – that men and women born into large families naturally desire to escape them, and satisfy themselves with fewer offspring than their parents in turn. I do not know. All that I am sure of is that I am just such an only child, and that I have relatives quite beyond number.
In my childhood one consequence of this broad wealth was my inability to enjoy it. I found my relatives tiresome, distant, and memorable only in their extremity, categorised in some childish rhyme I used to try and keep of them all, which reduced each portion of the clan to some defining feature of body or soul. I was indifferent to visits from the short or the tall, but feared the thin and the fat. The ‘wild and hairy’ were on my mother’s side, suitably remote. They only ever broke upon my solitude rarely, but then with violence of gift-giving and music-making. Far too energetic for my retired younger self.
Amongst all these, however, there was one cousin of my own generation, a few years younger and somewhat brighter, whose company was a constant joy and subsequently, when lacking, a constant request. His name was Michael and he has recently become quite well-known for his talents, which were already apparent when I first knew him. We spent some time sharing a school to our great mutual satisfaction, and forged a tie of trust and intimacy, as boys will, that has lasted the years despite the consequent distances between us and the infrequency of our meetings. We lost touch for some time while he studied at Oxford and then travelled, for some time, those parts of the world that served his interests. On his return he announced, much to the surprise of the family, that he was getting married.
That is now quite some time ago. Michael and his wife Helen, whom he met whilst researching the sphragistic history of ancient Sweden, are still married and once again happy, for it might not be quite true to say ‘still’ happy. Such a word might imply a complete continuity in their happiness which, I am afraid to say, would be misleading. It is about Michael, his wife, and a time shortly after their marriage that I propose to tell you – this time that prevents me, in all honesty, from deploying the innocent adverb ‘still’ and implying lives entirely free from perturbation or peril.
Unfortunately I had been necessarily absent from cousin Michael’s wedding to the reputedly lovely Helen, on account of the affair of the Monk’s Tomb, a matter that must wait for some time to be fully brought to light. My desire to visit the newly-weds was only delayed by their own extended honeymooning and more unavoidable commitments in London, so when at long last they were settled in their new house and I found myself with a week I might honourably lend to what I would rather than what I must, I did not hesitate to write to Mr and Mrs Edmund and declare my intention.
The answer I received was uncharacteristically brief. It simply read, ‘Come by all means! Michael.’ I do not really recall what I made of it at the time with any accuracy, but I might have arrived more prepared, or at least more cautiously, if I had not read Michael’s exclamation as one of excitement, but rather one of desperation.
There was nothing less than wonderful about the beginning to that visit. The ride into rural Gloucestershire was delightful in the early Spring. Travelling by train allows such lacunae of blissful inactivity: everything is somebody else’s responsibility when you are on a train, from departure to arrival and ever in between. Should the train be delayed, why, so be it. Better delayed than wrecked on the line. Like stubborn beasts, the engines will have their own way and their own timing, for while they can be tamed, they cannot be coerced or coaxed into anything that they do not do. A trained man may have some weight with them, but a passenger, never! It is merely his task to submit to the awesome power and inscrutable complexity of the busy railways and to be satisfied with whatever he receives. And that, I feel, is freedom of a sort.
I shared a compartment with a young manager of a Bath bank. Dining on the Great Western, we both agreed and I still maintain, is quite the height of luxury. Racing along Brunel’s smooth and crafted road, in no other way can a leisurely lunch be a once so desperately fast of so delicately substantial. The only thing that approaches this supping on a train is to eat on board some great ship, but in such a case speed and, of course, the view are both sacrificed to layer another degree of, frankly, unnecessary sumptuousness. Rather a varied bouquet than a single gilded lily.
Our train whistled though mist as we ate, a single pane of glass between lobster salad and Chardonnay and the racing track. The countryside waited, alive, in glimpses of budding cherries, in the coarse sunlight and the flash of the fast-moving millstream, lending the bright and excited world a clarity that simply sang of spring. The heavy clouds shunting rays over the embankments towards us, away from us, over all stupid and standing sights, they answered the charging force of the engine with a subtle power of their own to mark and to reveal and to light and to deny. What I missed, cooped up in a London townhouse! Here was the bright circle of Spring, gathering itself delicately, almost imperceptibly, for the coming rush of a new year. The starting leaves, sparking on twig tips like green glowing coals, hung everywhere over last year’s fall still deeply littering and filling the hollows. The mist sharpens, here, and softens, there, and the weak and new-born sun, looking like a pale yolk in a pale sky, surprises everything with the cool strength of his beams.
I alighted onto the platform of a small country station, to wait for the connection that would take me up the branch line to my eventual destination. Peering into the lively faces all around me, watching the lively poplars’ sway, I saw that same exuberance that had so endeared the lucky young manager to me in the compartment. Spring! There was never anything like it.
It was still early in the year, though, and by the time I reached the ultimate station on the line the brightness of day was fading. It was only a late afternoon, but the further the driver led me down deep hawthorn lanes, the more I felt the fragility of that hopeful new year. Here and there I saw frost still lying around a fallen tree or hanging into the edge of a shadowed ditch, and in the quiet shadow of the hills the day grew colder.
The rattle of the hired carriage and the echoing clop of the horse in front of me rang and resounded, and I saw crows flying, and snowdrops still in corners. We turned suddenly between two tall white willows and were suddenly before a small house nestled among trees and quite hidden from the road.
The lights inside the house shone warmly through the upper panes of the door before me, but as I knocked and the carriageman turned his trap about and returned the way he had come, I reflected that Michael’s love of privacy had secreted him close in a lonely house. The cold that had followed me from the station hung overhead with the slowly-climbing darkness, captured between the boughs of the willow and ash and heavy on the steeply-pitched roof. Well, surely it would be all the warmer inside for that.
The door opened and before me stood the young woman who had to be Michael’s wife Helen. Certainly she suited the multiple guarantees of beauty that I had heard vouchsafed. She was not over-tall, not over-slender, rich brown in the tresses, slight and sincere about the smile and elegantly, effortlessly dressed. Only one thing stood out; her eyes were very rimmed with red and shadowed, although they were themselves eyes of a velvety shade that pledged tenderness. She was indeed quite lovely.
‘Mrs Edmund?’ I asked, removing my hat. ‘I believe I am your cousin by marriage.’
‘Clement?’ she said, with a strange ring, satisfied, unhurried and pleased. There was a praise worth seeking in her voice. ‘At last! I have been waiting to meet you for so very long. And Michael has told me so much about you. Come in at once, dearest cousin.’ She gave me her hand, which was cold, I realised with a shock exaggerated by the warmth of the hallway, and I kissed it.
I motioned to my small trunk and bag. ‘Is there anyone to take these?’
Michael appeared from the door on the left, ‘No, I’m afraid not, old man. It’s just the two of us here. We can’t get any help! And I’ll say we need it. I can’t put anything down without losing it somewhere. Been asking since we got here, you know. But, I say, dashed good to see you.’ We shook hands like close cousins.
The front door was closed against the now swiftly falling darkness and he took the Gladstone and one end of the trunk. ‘I’ll help you up with these to the room. Yes, dashed good to see you.’ He said this last repetition with a slight shake in his voice that seemed caused by something more than the effort of the stairs and my luggage, but I was not sure. I took the other end and followed him up the narrow stairway.
‘I’m afraid,’ he said, ‘that you’re not in the better guest room. The funniest thing, you see. We meant for you to have the room at end, overlooking the fields to the front, but we can’t find the key. I didn’t think the door had been locked since we moved here, but for some reason when Helen came to air it this morning the door was locked and the key missing.’
I looked at Michael, as we put the trunk down on the floor of a small, sparse room that I presumed was the second-best guest room. He seemed rather over-troubled, so I tried to put him at his ease.
‘You know I really don’t mind,’ I said. ‘What’s possible is what’s possible. It’s a delight to be here, and to see you again – an absolute honour.’
‘Yes, in was very glad when you wrote. You’re the first real guest, actually, and it’s been six weeks. But it has rather frustrated me, I admit.’ His face lost the gleam of contentment that had always so endeared him to me when younger and was crossed by a troubled frown. ‘I seem to be constantly mislaying things. I suppose it’s the unfamiliarity of a new place, but, dash it all, it’s frustrating.’
A less frustrating topic was at the fore of my mind. ‘I haven’t had much opportunity to congratulate you and your wife,’ I said. ‘You have every reason to be quite happy. I have never seen a more beautiful young woman.’
Michael instantly lightened, as would any man so fortunate, that is, at that moment I still thought him fortunate, having no reason to think otherwise. ‘Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘You should come downstairs and meet Helen properly. You also need a warming drink and some supper after all that travelling and you must tell us what you’ve been doing. It must have been very exciting to miss our wedding for!’
I was quite content to oblige, over supper, and a couple of glasses of sherry, by explaining to Michael and the lovely Helen exactly what I had been doing. I felt that I owed them more than merely an apology for my previous absence, and so at Helen’s request I told them all of my part in the affair of the Monk’s Tomb. Judging some of the details too disquieting for the warm company we had struck up, I was careful to avoid those explanations which, even in the security of the house, even around a bright fire, were apt to make even me shiver.
Helen was quite fascinated. In turn, she related to me the story of the couple’s meeting, grown friendship and short engagement among the Scandinavian sphragisists. Michael, however, I could not fail to notice, was ill at ease and unconcentrated. Even close description of the most individual ancient seals and the most decorated waxes failed to catch his attention fully. He puffed at his cigar nervously, at times barely listening. Helen’s enthralled and enthralling conversation sufficed. It seemed that Michael really had told her everything about me, which bears witness rather to his faithful generous friendship than anything admirable about the life I lead. I was greatly touched both by the interest of his wife and, inferentially, by his, even if some other concerns possessed him for the time being.
Clearly Michael’s behaviour had not escaped Helen’s notice either. As he lit another cigar, she suggested that he show me the garden while it was maybe still light enough. Strangely, Michael started like a wild thing. Am queer intense look flashed across his grey eyes and fled from his face.
‘Yes,’ he said, regaining his composure and looking at me with some clarity again. ‘Perhaps I should. Would you like that, Clement?’
I answered that I would very dearly. Michael was an able and a keen gardener, and although they had not been long in this house I was sure that he could at least share some very interesting plans. He led me towards the back door.
‘I shall take you outside in just a moment,’ he said. ‘But first, I want to show you something. Come into my study.’
‘Now Michael,’ I said, following him through the door, ‘you are plainly quite worried about something. You have been nervous and jumpy all evening. Is everything alright?’
He did not answer immediately, but went up to a bureau and unlocked it with a key from his waistcoat. ‘I will explain it completely,’ he said in an undertone. ‘I am, I will freely admit, not on an even keel. Something has been troubling me very much. Here.’ And he removed from an inner cupboard a small box, on top of which was an ungummed cream envelope.
Something about the way Michael handled the little wooden box was not right. His hands grasped it tightly as if it were heavier than it surely were, or in some other way, not as it immediately seemed. It was a light wood, but stained unevenly by water and not quite fully closing. The twisted lid bore the remains of a green silk cushion, also stained and quite torn, the colour faded and only just discernible. A wedge of darkness stood out where the upper did not meet the lower part, almost leeringly shameless in the way the little thing was so broken and ruined. The envelope was a normal house envelope – the same sort, in fact, as that which had held Michel’s enigmatic reply to my own letter.
Obeying some inner prompt I did not quite recognise, before I knew what I was doing I reached out to touch the little box where it sat, and brought my hand back with a cry of shock and amazement. It was cold – a cold of a degree more biting and permanent than, surely, wood could convey.
‘You also feel it?’ asked Michael keenly. ‘It is desperately cold and does not warm. But I will show you what is inside.’
His hands flinched involuntarily as they felt the frozen edges, but he brushed the envelope from the top, which fell with a clinking, and opened the box.
Inside, I saw as I leant forwards and peered, what obviously were, or had been, two silver christening spoons, no bigger than my little finger, wrought finely and carefully. But they were twisted into bizarre, sharp shapes, ruined and defiled with certain intent. Around them the moisture of the air froze into twin ovals of rime. A pungent and piercing smell arose and our breaths misted like on a winter’s morning. As I looked at the spoons my heart – I could feel it within me – sank and slowed and I was filled with a great and possessing sadness. Was it merely my sympathy for the loss – the poignant destruction – of such dear possessions of some long-dead family that drew such bands around my sore-breathing lungs? I could not tell if there was not also some simple communication of woe, direct, plain, unvoiced and yet utterly comprehensible, in that pathetic sight. Compelled to keep looking I was dragged deeper and deeper into the paralysing and consuming sadness.
The first of three parts of a ghost story I wrote in Easter 2006, when friends were enjoying M R James’ formula for horror… Fut