Sometimes I am compelled to give Mother Nature a stern piece of my mind. That mid-September evening, I pointed out to her with all the authority I could muster (given my bulging eyes and closing throat) that dense fog was all well and good in the appropriate setting. I wouldn’t have said a word had I been snugly at home with Tobias the cat on my lap, a book and cup of cocoa to hand while Ben and the three children—nine-year-old twins Tam and Abbey and seven-year-old Rose—were cheerfully occupied nearby.
What I didn’t go for was sitting in a state of unbridled terror next to my equally terrified husband as he drove at an uncertain creep down an unfamiliar country road with visibility reduced to a couple of inches at best. We had exited the motorway about forty-five minutes earlier, planning to stop for an early dinner at a restaurant recommended to Ben by a fellow chef who had described the food as superb and well worth a detour.
Not only had we not found the Duck Pond Inn, we had gone twenty miles past the village of Little Woppstone before seeing a signpost with its name on it; by which time it seemed wisest to press on into the wooly gray yonder. What road we were now on was a mystery. I prayed for a ditch into which we might slither and wait lopsidedly until things cleared. It had been ten minutes since we had experienced the small comfort of seeing red pinpricks of taillights ahead of us.
“You’re doing wonderfully,” I told Ben in a voice that wobbled, “so calm and steady.” An image I couldn’t hope to present with my long brown hair untidily escaping its coil and hands gripping my jacket collar.
His reply was a grunt which I deemed heroic and befitting his dark good looks. The poor darling was claustrophobic. He had to be desperately fighting down feelings of suffocation along with fear of an accident, but he still maintained that arresting tilt to his chin. Mrs. Malloy spoke from the backseat, causing me to jump. In my state of nerves, I’d forgotten all about her.
“Bugger of a night,” she said with unnecessary relish.
I was unable to pry my lips open to respond, but Ben nobly managed another grunt.
“Puts me in mind,” Mrs. Malloy went on, “of that ill-fated day when Semolina Gibbons got caught in the mist after saddling the master’s wild-eyed stallion and riding out onto the moor to seek life-saving information from the curate’s bedridden great-grandmother.”
In general, I am very fond of Roxie Malloy. She has been my household helper at Merlin’s Court since shortly after my marriage. The children count on her as one of the beloved certainties of life, and she and I have from time to time worked as a duo in amateur sleuthing. When Ben and I went to Yorkshire to stay with our relatives Tom and Betty Hopkins, we had been happy to take Mrs. Malloy to visit her sister and brother-in-law in the same village. We had deposited her with them a week ago and picked her back up that morning for our return home, where the children were being looked after by Ben’s parents, with help from my cousin Freddy who lives in a cottage on our grounds.
I knew immediately whom Mrs. Malloy meant when speaking of Semolina Gibbons. In addition to other common interests, she and I share an enthusiasm for novels written during what we grandly refer to as the Gothic Revival period of the 1970s. Doing so makes us both feel studious and intelligent. Indeed, we consider ourselves serious collectors of yellow-paged, dingy-covered paperbacks invariably displaying a spooky mansion as the background to a young woman with wind-lashed black hair standing on a rock. Whether it is always the same rock remains open to question—a topic we consider worthy of a doctoral thesis should either of us ever find the time to go up to Oxford and wander the halls of learning, brushing shoulders with tutors and dons and the fearfully clever young. Semolina was the beleaguered but valiant heroine of a recent acquisition titled The Landcroft Legacy, by Doris McCrackle. Okay, maybe such isn’t Literature in its purest form. But to the scoffers I make no apologies for what they may view as escapism. Not all of us can be swept away upon burying our noses in The Subverted Subconscious or Principles of Parallel Pragmatism.
Allowances have to be made for the way the twig is bent, and my parents could never have been accused of overdoing reality. Had I (an only child) not arrived in the conventional manner, they would cheerfully have gone through life believing that storks brought babies to couples leaning out windows hoping to catch a glimpse of a pink or blue ribbon. Once they got over the shock, they were (so they told me) relieved that no assembly seemed to be required and got down to the business of remembering where they had put me and how long ago. Occasionally there were meetings at the dining-room table where they sat looking dubiously adult while seeking my advice on how to bring me up. Otherwise, I got to eat my dinner in the bath or wear my party dress to bed if I felt like it. If I developed a practical streak which caused me to decide against becoming a starving artist in favor of a career as an interior designer, it was because someone had to occasionally remember that the gas bill needed to be paid or the windows closed against sheeting rain.
Had Mother and Father been in the car with us now, they would have been delighted to hear Mrs. Malloy’s recounting of Semolina Gibbons’s visit to the curate’s great-grandmother. As it was, she had to focus on Ben as a captive audience.
“Gone ninety was old Mrs. Weathervane and her the only person left alive, Mr. H, likely to know whether it was the archdeacon’s first or second wife that disappeared after doing a series of brass rubbings in the village church sixty-three years previous. Your heart would have gone out to Semolina! Getting lost in the fog was terrifying in itself, but the worst was when she heard the muffled footsteps behind her and felt a hand close round her lily white throat, it’s no wonder she went to pieces. Have to give it to her that between one scream and the next she tucked away the memory of her assailant whistling an evil little tune; same as she heard the butler doing a week later when she dined at the Deanery on Christmas night.”
Momentarily distracted from our own tremulous situation, I gently corrected Mrs. Malloy. “It was New Year.”
“Oh, well,” she said dismissively, “the fact that the butler had been lost in the fog himself, and blindly grabbed hold of her to save himself from falling, don’t alter the case that Semolina would have done better not to have accepted the man’s offer to give her a tour of the pantries. She couldn’t be sure, for all his apologies, that it weren’t him as moments later had took a shot at her with an arrow. But of course, to be fair to the girl, she wasn’t herself at the Deanery, what with thinking of how Lord Hawtry’s good eye had darkened when she refused his hand in marriage.”
“Perhaps if he hadn’t produced it in a bloody paper bag she might have been more receptive,” said Ben with an admirably steady chortle.
Mrs. Malloy did not appreciate the witticism. “Nothing of the sort; the reason she had to turn him down was because rumor had it he already had a wife floating around.”
“In the goldfish pond or the trout stream perhaps?” This second quip and accompanying relaxation of Ben’s clenched jaw confirmed my hope that the fog was thinning sufficiently for us now to be able to see a couple of feet ahead.
“Alive and well two villages away, serving up drinks at the Smugglers Arms, Mr. H; but, as I said to meself when reading along, Semolina shouldn’t have been so ready to see obstacles. Then again perhaps I’m being too hard on the girl. I’ve always fancied meself married to a lordship and swanning up and down the stairs as lady of the manor.”
We had nearly swanned into a tree that loomed up like an unraveling mummy before being sucked back into the void. Mrs. Malloy was still going on about how Semolina had shown great pluck when pierced in the shoulder by an arrow while sitting in the copse contemplating whether to make her escape that night, or remain until the following Sunday so as to honor her promise to assist with the altar flowers. But enough was occasionally enough. What I needed at that moment was a strong cup of tea accompanied by a Marmite sandwich. There is nothing like Marmite for convincing one there is light at the end of the tunnel. But . . . hold on a moment . . . perhaps such sustenance wasn’t necessary in this instance. I heard Ben suck in a breath as I saw a faint ruby glow ahead of us.
“Taillights!” I cried. “We are not the only ones left alive on the planet!”
“It could be a mirage, Ellie, but I think a vehicle is beginning to take shape.”
“Don’t get too close,” I urged.
“Of course the fly in the ointment, was I to get an offer of marriage from a lord of the realm,” continued Mrs. Malloy, who would have got on with my parents a treat when in this sort of mood, “is I’d be leaving you to find someone else to drudge on alone at Merlin’s Court, Mrs. H. But like I’ve always said, housework was never me true vocation, not a holy calling, so to speak, but a woman has to put bread on the table after being left in the lurch by four husbands. Or was it five, Mrs. H?”
These men all having come and gone before Mrs. Malloy and I crossed paths, I was ill-equipped to do a body count. Eyes riveted on the taillights ahead, I suggested that she round off the number to six.
“Oh, very nice,” she breathed huffily on my neck, “make me out to be Henry VIII. And me the forgiving sort. Even in me worst moments, struggling to bring up young George on me own, I never wished none of them blighters on the chopping block. Except perhaps for number three,” she conceded. Mrs. Malloy prides herself on her honesty. “It was him as ditched me for a bleached-blond barmaid that couldn’t make change counting on her fingers, she had to take off her shoes and use her toes as well. Come to think of it, she’s the one I should have done in. A blow to the back of the head would have taken the smirk off her face.”
I saw Ben’s face lift in a smile.
“To have been arrested for murder would not have been amusing,” I said, having one of my priggish moments, at which he removed his hand from the steering wheel and jabbed a finger at the windscreen.
“That vehicle’s left indicator just went on.”
“Thank goodness,” I craned forward, “we must be coming to some sort of decent road.”
“I don’t see a signpost.” Mrs. Malloy is inclined to put a damper on things when she’s feeling cooped up and in need of a reviving beverage, not necessarily tea.
“We still aren’t seeing much of anything,” Ben replied mildly, “although I can make out that it’s a van.”
So it was—a fuzzy object of no discernable color, but one with a bread-boxy utility about it that suggested to my eager mind a return to its place of business in a street bristling with lampposts and petrol stations where we could refuel and seek directions. Mrs. Malloy was mentioning a long overdue sitdown in a proper chair as we took the turn, playing follow-the-leader rather too closely for my comfort. To be fair to Mother Nature, the wooly gray blanket must have thinned during the past few minutes, because I was able to make out the shift and shape of a pair of oblongs as we passed between them, and then the dusky darkness of some further encroachment as Ben crept us forward with his nose on the wind-screen. I decided we must have entered an alleyway, which belief became a certainty when I perceived ahead of us a solid rectangle that was undoubtedly—even though viewed through the diaphanous veiling—a sizable building of some sort.
“Oh, goodie!” quoth Mrs. Malloy sardonically from the rear. “Looks like a hospital. We can all go in and have heart attacks. They let you sit down when you’re in that condition and force liquids down your throats.”
“I don’t care if it’s one of those Victorian-era insane asylums and we’re met by a toothless hag with hoary locks whose instructions are to drag us to the lichen-coated ward,” I agreed heartily. “I’ll bet that van’s parked itself outside the emergency entrance. Come on,” I patted Ben’s arm, “let’s get out and talk to the driver.”
“I’m ashamed of you, Mrs. H!” A thump on the back of my seat signaled Mrs. Malloy’s search for her handbag and the hat without which she wouldn’t have been seen dead stepping out of the car. Not when she was on holiday and hoping to be taken for the sort of person who never stayed anywhere less déclassé than Claridges or the Dorchester. “Fancy you making jokes about lunatic asylums after living page by page the hell Wisteria Whit-worth endured when her husband, as hadn’t been able to get her to sign over her inheritance to him, had her spirited away at dead of night to that dreadful place deep in the heart of the forest.”
The aforementioned excerpt was from Perdition Hall, another gem by the prolific Doris McCrackle, but I refused to be drawn. “Sorry, I forget at this moment where the wicked hubby incarcerated her. I tend to be heartless after driving nowhere for hours.”
“Persimmon Hall. Known to the locals as . . .”
“And shrouded that night, if you care to remember, Mrs. H, in a fog as bad as this one!”
“Intensifying the sinister aspect of bleak turrets and barred windows to a bone-chilling degree,” I agreed, while thinking that what could be seen of the building in front of us looked extremely dull in comparison. No veiled glimpse of pursued flight across the rooftops or ghostly slither down a drainpipe into the waiting arms of the constabulary. And to make for the further mundane, there were lights from within several of the windows.
“Oliver Twist lived it up at the workhouse in comparison.” I was looking at Ben, who hadn’t budged in his seat.
“More than the lichen-covered walls and rotting floorboards, it were the description of the communal chamberpots that fair broke me heart. And Wisteria, a young lady used to her privacy if you didn’t count the maid standing ready to hand her the warmed towel when she got out of the bath.” Mrs. Malloy exhaled an anguished breath down my neck. “But for me the worst moment came when the poor dear tried to flee the ward and a hand shot out from under one of the beds to grab her ankle. No wonder her lovely black tresses turned white within the hour. Still,” sentimental breath this time, “the happy ending made up for a lot is how we have to look at it. That thrilling moment when Carson Grant, the handsome lawyer, philanthropist, and social reformer, broke into the secret room and rescued her just as the evil Dr. Megliani was strapping that dreadful device to her head that would have destroyed her brain . . .”
A sweetly anguishing moment . . . Wisteria’s wondrous topaz eyes opening to light and love . . . Carson Grant’s steely sensitivity in determining to allow her time to adjust to the news that her husband was dead, the valet having tied his master’s cravat rather too tightly that morning. It was these memories that caused me to ask Ben if he would continue to love me if I were subjected to a mind-altering procedure and had white hair to boot.
“Of course not.” He had never sounded more distant. But before my heart could break, I realized from his blank stare that he hadn’t heard what I’d just said and very likely not a word of the conversation regarding Wisteria Whitworth’s sufferings on the road to true love.
“What’s wrong, darling?” I placed my hand over his.
“That isn’t a hospital out there, Ellie.”
“I said it looked like one, not that it was for sure,” said Mrs. Malloy at her mostly bristling.
“Nor is it a post office, or a department store.”
“So what is it, Mr. H?” Her tone suggested that had she been close enough she would have elbowed him in the ribs. “The Houses of Parliament?”
That I knew was ridiculous. There was no way we could have gone so far off course as to be in the center of London. Although . . . the various thickening and thinning of the mist did create an uncertainty to all things, including the van that had been our beacon. With its lights off, it dissolved and reappeared from moment to moment. Several people-sized shadows had emerged and likewise drifted in and out of vague view.
“It’s a residence. This isn’t a road we’ve turned onto. We’re on someone’s private drive.”
“Well, what’s so bad about that?” I actually laughed, before taking in his anguished expression and instantly regretting my blatant insensitivity. Men feel these situations far more deeply than women, believing that a sufficient supply of testosterone should have provided them with an inner compass. Maps were invented for sissies, the asking of directions entirely a woman’s province. Before I could flounder a meaningless palliative, Mrs. Malloy broke the hollow silence.
“Carson Grant described Wisteria’s new hair as moonlight spilling into the dark places of his soul. Some men just have the knack of making a woman feel good about herself. You need to think about that, Mr. H, instead of fretting that you’ve made a fool of yourself. And,” she had to go and add, “your wife and me.”
“Now we’re here,” I said quickly—for fear Ben would shoot the car into reverse taking us back onto the road to nowhere, “I’ll get out and ask for directions to the nearest town.”
“Coming with you.” Sounds of Mrs. Malloy opening her car door. “You’ll need my arm to hold on to, Mrs. H, or if I know tuppence you’ll get yourself lost before putting one foot in front of the other. Stay put when you’re out and I’ll come and get you.” She is a woman who can’t bear to be left out of anything, however small, which is not to minimize her genuine, if often disgruntled, concern for my welfare. What I didn’t put much faith in were the four-inch heels she invariably wore except (possibly) to bed.
“No, you stay by your door,” I responded firmly, and on the wave of Ben’s dejected sigh exited the car, to be met as I rounded the bonnet by his fog-bulked presence. Given the feeling of standing in damp fur, it was a relief to feel his hand cover mine. Mother Nature, having eased up on us, was back to demonstrating how quickly and thickly she could knit up a gray angora blanket. The van had been absorbed into the mix of plain and pearl, and it was with relief that I felt someone speaking with Mrs. Malloy’s voice bump into my side.
“A good thing my vision has always been so good, Mrs. H!”
This was a surprise to me; she had always claimed the opposite when I would casually mention the cobwebs dangling from the ceiling. But there are times when it doesn’t do to nitpick.
“I can see the outline of steps going up the building. And those blobs moving up them have to be the people that was in the van. There!” If she pointed, I couldn’t see her hand. “We just need to move straight ahead. Do you have hold of Mr. H?”
“His hand, I don’t know if the rest of him is tagging along. Are you there, darling?”
A response came in the form of a grunt.
We shuffled forward . . . or it was to be hoped that was the direction we were taking. I felt myself becoming increasingly disorientated until my foot touched an impediment that suggested we had reached the bottom step. Galvanized by presumably reaching this same conclusion, Ben reclaimed full use of his voice.
“Ellie,” he said with irritable vigor, “do not make excuses for the situation by complaining that the drive should have been better posted. And for God’s sake don’t agree to a cup of tea if they offer. Let’s just get the hell out of here.”