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Are you sure she’s in there?
That’s what he said.
Yes. Didn’t you pick it up? They saw her by the side gate.
The one with the ‘Private’ sign?
Yeah – well they’ve both got signs I think. Anyway, she was there first thing, half an hour before she should have been in the gardens at all, and when they approached her –
So how did she get in?
No clue. Maybe that bit of broken fence the other side of the brook. Anyway –
But she’s old, right? She’d have had to climb – it’s only the top bit that’s come away – and then she’d have to get across the water –
I don’t know, mate. I’m just telling you what he said –
Yeah. They saw her by the gate, walked over to her, called out ‘Excuse me’ or something, and she looked back at them over her shoulder, and disappeared.
Through the gate?
Well, where else? Tom’s waiting at the other side, in case she legs it that way –
Legs it? I thought she was old, you know – an old –
Old, Tom said, not incapable. Anyway, the boy’s here now, we’ll leave him at this end and we can check the outside first.
I don’t buy it. What would she want in here anyway? It’s all nettles and brambles – she’d have been scratched and stung to bits as soon as she made it through the gate. Nothing’s been done in here for months, years probably, not since that last lot of trainees, the ones – Ow! Shit. It’s not funny – that was painful, man.
Better watch where you’re going then, mate. Have a look round the back there by what’s left of the shed, by the honeysuckle – Criminal, really, when you think about it, all those poor sods with – anyway, make sure she’s not hiding in the undergrowth before we head inside.
What is she, a bloody badger, now? Or a mole? She’s an old lady, right? Why would she be grubbing about in the dirt?
No. Yeah. Well, nothing here, no one here. Try the door.
I hear them, crashing about outside, men of course, two I think although there may be more. Then their voices are suddenly close. The letter box – there is a letter box! – opens and springs back, once, and the handle turns, turns again. I stand to one side of the door, as still as I can, making no sound. In front of me is the hook, its key now back in place, and beside this a shelf with a pile of envelopes, damp to touch. I lay my palm on top of the pile, brush away webs and bits of plaster and dust. I listen for the men outside, wait for fingers to push open the flap again, imagine a head twisting on its neck, this way and that, eyes searching vainly for a glimpse of me, and I swallow my laughter, making sure I stay out of sight. I try to control my breathing – in, out, slower, silent – but they are making too much noise to hear anything. Perhaps they have brought reinforcements? I want to look, but I don’t want them to see me. I shuffle sideways as far as the doorway on my right. There is a window with curtains half drawn. If I keep close to the wall – there. Yes, two of them: one brute of a chap whacks the brambles with a spade. Now the other – smaller, younger – comes right up to the window and pushes his face into the glass. He shades his eyes with cupped hands, stares into the room. If I were there, my eyes pressed to the pane precisely opposite his, what a shock he’d have! But he moves away.
Round the back, he says.
Well, she must have gone somewhere. Try that door – and the window – windows.
Locked, too. And the windows. Nothing broken. Nobody’s –
What about upstairs?
You’re joking, right? Unless she has special powers – you know – or wings, yeah. Maybe she flew up there – there’s a chimney, look.
It’s no laughing matter, mate. In the gardens out of hours – plus the safety factor, if she –
I know all that. But she ain’t in there, or out here – so she must have slipped away. Which means – we’re looking in the wrong place. I reckon we stop wasting time playing pirates and leave security to deal with it – mate.
You know – scraping about looking for buried treasure. Only without a map.
You watch too many films, mate. Anyway, nobody’s saying she’s got herself buried – but she’s gone to ground somewhere. After ten now, gates are open – she could be anywhere.
Do we know what she looks like?
Do we have – you know – a description?
Old lady, that’s all he said. Anyway, we’ve done what we can – put out a radio call and let security get on with it.
A new voice crackles outside. I’ve kept them silent company, tracking from inside their route round to the other end of the cottage. The back door is a flimsy affair, plywood banged together in a hurry and the job never finished. It wouldn’t take much for one of them to push their way through but they’re too busy with their radios, playing at soldiers. Or spies. A square of frosted glass takes up most of the top half of the door. If I keep quite still – if they make out my figure at all, what will they think they see? A coat hanging on a peg? Like this I can watch their shapes bubble and melt and reform until, bored now by their antics, I leave them to their toys and walk up the narrow stairs. I’ve left my boots by the back door and my socks slip on the wood. The steps are splintery but the centre of each one has been worn to a concave shine.
Two rooms, side by side. Both have a window front and back. One room is shaded by trees – the apple tree outside, and then the pines of the main garden beyond the hedge. There are two wooden chairs and a small upholstered chair, faded red and gold, with curved wooden arms, pushed into a corner, its back to the room; also a single bed, unmade, as if the sleeper has not long left. I pull the covers up over cold sheets. The walls are papered, one strip coming away by the door, and then painted over cream, but carelessly, so that a pattern of flowers emerges here, and here. There’s a dark patch high up on the outside wall. I breathe, and again, deeper, but there is only the smell of dust and a faint echo of something spicy. I imagine bunches of herbs hung up to dry, starched white sheets in which the scent of lavender from the last rinse lingers. A memory: I drop sprigs of rosemary – or thyme? – into a warm bath and swirl the water with my fingers. Years ago.
The other room still has its fireplace, a heap of twigs in the grate, the boards dotted with soot. This room is empty apart from a small table by one window and is full of light. Beyond the glass, pale sun in a pale sky. Inside, sunlight wavers on wood and plaster and warms the dusty air. I carry a chair through from the other room and sit at the table, looking out as if I am at home.
Afternoon: the sun has moved round behind the pines. I listen to the sounds of the world outside: the thrum and shriek of traffic, the wail of a siren. From the gardens, children’s voices, laughter. An hour or so before dusk; time I was gone. I can slip out through the door at the back, skirt the weeds and brambles and join other visitors admiring the autumn colours or wandering through the glasshouses for a bit of warmth. And then out with the rest through the main gates, and home. The room feels chilly now – or perhaps I have sat too long. I stand back from the table for a last look, so that I can take away the view like a photograph: an oblong of tree tops and sky, the beginnings of a flush in the west, bordered by the window frame. That’s when I hear voices below.
So a false alarm, then – a fuss about nothing?
But there was someone – ?
Yeah, I think so – probably just some rough sleeper caught on the hop.
So we’re not checking inside.
They’re still looking for keys. Richard has a set but he’s away until the end of the week. There’ll be a key inside. As for the rest of the spares –
So put a padlock on this gate for now – a bit of wire will do for the other one. I’ll make a start on the fence.
I stand well back at the side of the window, looking towards the front gate. One of the men, the big bulldog, lumbers into view. He has a bag, canvas it looks like, over his shoulder. At the gate, he hangs the bag over one of the posts and takes out tools. I move to the back window. The other man stands at the boundary fence with his back to the cottage. A line of traffic stops and starts beyond him. A cluster of laths leans on the unbroken section of fence. He takes one, holds it in position against the middle upright in the break, and begins to hammer. How long will these jobs take? I never intended to be here so long. Now – I shrug, enjoying the irony as I watch him working: instead of keeping me out, they are fencing me in.
By the time they finish and leave, it is almost dark. Their voices grow fainter as they walk away, until I can’t hear them at all. Apart from the drone of traffic, there is little sound from outside now: a blackbird, imagining himself to be alone at last perhaps, sings unrestrained. Above the pines, the sky burns, bruised purple. I feel my way downstairs, elbows to the walls, planting my feet firmly. I’m tired and hungry. I haven’t eaten since – well, since breakfast. My bag is by the back door, where I left it out of sight, and I think – yes, half a bar of chocolate and a windfall from the tree outside. No tea, of course. But water? Yes, and a cupboard of oddments above the sink. I push aside a butter dish and a cracked glass and select a mug with no handle. There is a scuffling from somewhere near my feet, then silence. I move through one doorway, then another, to the bathroom. Downstairs the darkness quickly becomes dense, wrapped like velvet about my head and hands. I go back upstairs, cold water splashing from the mug over my wrist as I climb. A little more light up here, but no moon. So what to do? Can I break out as I broke in? Risk apprehension, confrontation, explanations? Should I be scared? I number reasons to be afraid: mice, or worse; spiders, bats or worse; discovery, or worse; intruders – ha!
More than anything I feel exhausted, as if I’ve walked all day.
I sit in the armchair, sip at my cup until it’s empty then walk over to the bed. I push down on the mattress – somewhere between firm and collapsed. I peel back the covers, crouch down beside the bed and sniff at the pillow and the sheets. Nothing too unpleasant, only a musty smell: and the need to rest, for half an hour at least, is overwhelming.
I curl into a ball, pull the blankets up to my chin and sleep till morning.
Listen. Traffic – stop, start, rise and fall – and a scatter of sound at the window, like a handful of gravel thrown at the glass by a lover. Rain, then, in a gusting wind and – yes, it’s almost light.
Grey light in a cold room in a silent house. Warm in these borrowed wraps, though, I could stay for ever. I lie on my back, hands by my sides, and imagine all the workings of my body, liver and lungs and kidneys, draining away, my brain melted to a liquid that seeps into the pillow, leaving me hollow, only my heart remaining.
Now a crackle and slide from somewhere close – the next room? I hold my breath, but there’s no more. What have I done? A flurry of rain, a chuck and a rattle from the blackbird and a scratch and scrape from below. I ease myself to sitting, rub my shoulders and, pulling the top blanket round me in a cloak, I shuffle to the window. Fallen leaves of amber and rust lie in a mat over the lawn, so that the patch of grass glows. In the next room a smattering of soot tops the twigs in the grate and blotches the hearth. I will clean it later. More scratching. I hitch up my blanket and go downstairs to investigate.
The cat is in through the door the instant I open it. It stalks into the kitchen, tail upright, yowls with irritation. Shh, I say but of course there is no one to hear. I bend down and touch its head with my fingers. It nudges against them, eyes closed, leaving a wet trail on my skin. A scrawny thing, striped orange over a nondescript fawn. Its paws make a double line of prints to a cupboard. There’s nothing, I say, no food for you here. It looks at me, indignant – is she lying? – sniffs at the saucer of water I offer and walks off into the hall. I lean on the sink, sample what is outside in segments through each pane. The trees are busy; squirrels bustle about their high-wire errands; birds pick at the lawn. A magpie sits high in the tallest tree. I can’t see its mate. The cat reappears, paws at the door and is off without a backward glance. I move to close the door. Instead, I step out into the garden.
The rain has eased to a sprinkle, and no wind now. It’s cold, and I’m glad of the blanket, but not cold enough to send me back indoors. I take a step, and another, watching out for nettles. The grass gives under my feet, squeezing up between my toes. My right foot finds the first windfall before I see it, a lump under the heel that almost has me toppling. I tread more carefully, collecting the fruit that the birds haven’t pecked in a fold of the blanket. The air is sweet with the smell of apples – I hold one to my nose and take my breakfast inside.
I should leave while it’s early, before they’re back with keys or crowbars, before I find myself in trouble. I fill a cup of water: cold and clean, like water from a spring. I leave the mug upside down on the draining board and go upstairs, replace the blanket. What I mean to do is crumple the covers as I found them. What I do instead is pull them back, smooth the sheet, and open the window wide so that the cold air rushes in. I fetch a newspaper from downstairs, from the pile under the window, and scrape the mess of soot from the hearth in the next room, finishing the job with paper damp from the tap. It’s streaky but some improvement. Now I remake the bed, close the window and turn the armchair to face out then I change my mind and half carry half drag it through so that it sits in front of the fireplace in the other room, as I might arrange it if there were a fire burning in the grate. I turn from the imagined warmth to the window. Something moves on the grass below. Something – someone – stands looking up at me.
There’s somebody inside.
Look. There’s someone in there. I saw it – her – I think it was a her. A woman.
No, really, I saw something.
Come out of there now.
But I saw –
Now, I said. You know you’re not allowed in there – and anyway it’s been empty for years.
Now. I mean it. That’s enough. You’re old enough to read. You know what private means. You –
An old woman. I saw her. She looked at me. She had crazy grey hair – like snakes – and a big nose –
And staring eyes and another huge eye in the middle of her face. I think she was a witch.
I’m warning you – now.
On the morning of the third day I lie in bed, watching it get light. I think with pleasure of the day ahead. We will stroll round this garden within a garden, the cat and I, discovering our world. If the cat knows it all already and has no need to explore, it keeps this quiet. I have chosen a stick which I keep by the back door. It is the perfect length for poking at the undergrowth, hoping to uncover crocus or pansies braving the cold and help their progress towards the light. (Or for beating off interfering children? the cat suggests. I smile. Witch indeed!) In the hour before the main gardens open, a little more weeding; I have resisted the temptation to clear a bed, settling for thinning the worst patches, in the hope that the transformation will go unnoticed. Always I am alert, ready to take cover if there are voices or footsteps nearby and the cat, whose hearing is better than mine, has perfected the warning signal of a frozen posture, nose high, so that I know when to be still. But interest in the cottage and its uninvited guest seems to have evaporated. Or perhaps the troops are needed elsewhere.
It can’t last, of course. I am a trespasser! And without the justification of a good cause, a footpath to keep open or the plight of the homeless. I think of my flat, the paraphernalia of an ordinary life. And I am hungry! Unlike the cat, which must have other homes where it is fed as well as a supply of mice, I have managed on a diet of apples and cold water for long enough. I consider the alternatives: hide by the back gate until the coast is clear then step into the main garden and nip out with a group during opening hours, or wait until dark and attempt to exit the way I came in. Perhaps I should investigate other sources of nourishment? I try to picture myself nibbling at the bark of a sapling like the muntjac I watched yesterday. I rise resigned to finish the adventure quietly while I can, surprised by the sadness tugging at my limbs.
The next surprise is the absence of the cat. I stand at the open door and call for it – ‘Cat! Cat?’ – in a low voice. It has no other name: we have kept our distance, the cat and I. But if I am leaving, there is no reason for the cat to stay. I replace the cat’s saucer and the mug with no handle in the cupboard. I decide to leave the bed made, the table and chairs where I have placed them, and the stems of salvia in the window in an old beer bottle I found in the hedge. If I have gone, what does it matter if there are traces of my stay? Finally, a wash: only cold water and a dishrag for a towel, but I manage to get most of the soil off my hands and out from under my fingernails. There’s a comb in my bag. And then I’m ready.
It’s easy to remove the wire from the back gate and slip onto the path through the pines. I walk with my head down, in case I pass anyone who might recognise me, until I can see the café in the distance. And here’s the turning that will take me to the main entrance. I am almost there when I spot the man from the first morning (see his fat neck? the cat whispers from behind a bush) coming straight for me. I freeze, nose high, before I remember that he never actually saw me. Even so, I don’t relish the risk. I retrace my steps and join the queue in the café. The woman in front of me turns and smiles at my full tray. I’m meeting a friend, I say. She has a child with her – in fact, the place is full of children. I scan their faces, wondering if any of them is Natalie. If I concentrate, could I turn her into a toad? At my table, I unload the crisps, cake, banana and chocolate straight into my bag, and sit down to enjoy my shepherd’s pie and a glass of red. And then home.
It began with a pile of sticks in the grate. Sometimes I picked up a twig caught in the weeds, or branches that had blown down in the night. Soon there was a bundle by the back door that we had to skirt round when we returned from our walk. The cat is back, of course, and there is a kettle by this time, too, that I found upended in the shed, and sometimes a saucer of milk. The days of alternating starvation and gorging – the café days – didn’t last. I came upon the remains of a potato crop about the same time as I discovered another loose board in the boundary fence, and round the corner a shop that stocks matches and rice and a few vegetables. We don’t need much. The owners – at first I imagined them father and son, but a hand on a shoulder, a moment of intimacy – well, they don’t ask questions, don’t speak much English at all, and I like it this way.
Our first fire was a tentative thing, a match to the twigs in the upstairs room. I sat on the edge of the chair, watched the flames and imagined a tell-tale strand of smoke drift across the evening sky. Since then, we have grown bolder: I build a pyramid of sticks on some strips of newspaper in the downstairs fireplace and throw on leaves. The cat watches with little interest. On evenings like this, though, when the wind howls and sings in the chimney, I light the fire and add wood from the off-cuts in the shed. The bulldog and his aide left behind the broken pieces of fence when they’d finished the repairs, too. I have brought the small armchair down, and the cat and I sit with our feet on the hearth and stare into the blaze. I wonder if tonight will be the night when our trespass is discovered, if tomorrow will bring a rap on the door, or eyes that peer in through the slit of the letterbox. I think of the letters I never sent, and never received. I wonder if there is enough wood for another fire, or if we need to broaden our search. Though there are several branches out there in the main garden after the recent storms.