Read Chill Online

Authors: Alex Nye

Chill

For Micah and Martha.

With love.

History is a collection of found objects, washed up through time.

 

Jeanette Winterson

Samuel was alone in the house. Outside the moor lay silent, stretching away into endless emptiness. Dunadd was completely deserted. He liked it this way, having the place entirely to himself. He could almost pretend the house was his. There was an atmosphere of secrecy and silence, which grew more intense when there was no one else about. The others had all gone skiing – it was all they could think to do on the snowbound moor. The drifts were so high that the narrow winding road, which led up to the isolated Dunadd House, had become impassable.

It was so quiet. There was nothing but the sound of the wind in the trees, and the distant murmur of the Wharry Burn, water travelling and rumbling beneath ice. The whole moor was covered with snow, an ocean of unending white, waves of it packed up against the walls of the barn and cottage – the cottage where Samuel now lived.

The rooms, corridors and staircases of Dunadd House creaked all about him in the silence. Numerous empty rooms lay behind heavy oak doors.

Samuel had felt nervous as he crossed the snowy courtyard, the white tower looming above him, but he was not going to be put off. He made his way up the silent staircase to the drawing room on the first floor.

The grandfather clock ticked noisily in the hall below, a deep sombre note befitting its age, like the heartbeat of the house itself; constant, regular, marking time.

On the wide landing dark wooden doors concealed their secrets from him, but ahead of him one door stood open. He made his way towards it over the polished boards and Turkish carpets. He trod softly, afraid to disturb the peace. The colours of the rugs were beautiful, tawny-red, crimson and tan-coloured, like the flanks and hide of a red deer. The walls were panelled in dark oak, and he was conscious that above and behind him lay another narrower stone staircase, leading into the tower, a place he had never before explored.

He passed shelves of books, old thumbed paperbacks, family favourites, and pushed open the door at the end. Before him lay the drawing room on the first floor, a vast expanse filled with light from the large bay windows on either side. Old pieces of antique furniture stood about in the shadows, gathering dust.

After a week of raging blizzards the moor had at last fallen silent, and sunlight sparkled and reflected from the snow outside, and reached into the dark corners of the house. Dust motes circulated slowly.

Samuel was familiar with this room. He had been here before, most memorably on Christmas Day, just over a week ago, although he preferred not to think about that right now. It only made him nervous, and he didn’t want that. He wanted to be able to explore the house, unafraid, without feeling the need to keep glancing back over his shoulder.

He advanced slowly into the centre of the room.

Near the door stood the grand piano, as expected, its lid
open and ready to play. Family photographs of the widowed Mrs Morton and her three children stood on its polished surface. At the other end of the room was a massive stone fireplace, its hearth stacked with firewood, unlit at the moment. Mr Hughes would light it later when the family returned. Above the fireplace hung the mirror, framed in elaborate scrolling gilt. Samuel made a deliberate effort not to look into it. He repeatedly drew his eyes away on purpose, especially after what he had last seen there. He didn’t want that vision to disturb his dreams again.

He wanted normality, nothing unusual to happen. Or did he? Perhaps he was seeking her out again.

He walked across the drawing room to the window seat on the far side, and sat down with his back to the room. He made himself comfortable and studied the view of the mountains. It was a breathtaking panorama. The whole moor lay beneath him.

He turned his attention to the map underneath the window, a long map of the Highland line, browned with age at the edges, fixed and preserved behind glass. This is what he was here for, ostensibly, to copy the drawing of this map, so that he could have one for his own room. His bedroom in the cottage across the courtyard shared the same view. Mrs Morton had been reluctant to leave him alone in the house at first, but at last she had agreed, and now here he was.

He placed his pens and pencils on a small occasional table and dragged this into position next to him. Then he rolled out his long piece of paper, selected specially for the purpose, and pinned it down onto the table with a weight at either end to stop it from curling inwards.

The oak panelling creaked now and then in the silence, and from a long way away, if he strained his ears, Samuel could still hear the regular, soothing beat of the clock downstairs. He began to draw, his fingers moving rapidly over the paper, his back to the mirror and whatever visions it might contain.

This is an ordinary house
, he told himself.
It’s old and beautiful and very large, but it holds no sinister secrets
. He almost believed it for a moment.

There was nothing Samuel loved more than copying maps. He liked drawings with lots of fine lines and detail. It was a gift he’d always had. Even as a small child, sitting in front of the television, he had arranged his pens and pencils in neat rows and would draw away with utter contentment for hours.

As he worked he glanced over his shoulder from time to time at the empty room behind him. The mirror over the mantelpiece remained blank, nothing moved or stirred in its silvery depths.

He stopped drawing and listened. He thought he’d heard a sound on the staircase. The empty house waited, no sound apart from the distant tick of the grandfather clock and Samuel’s own breathing. There it was again – a light tread on the stair. He decided it was probably Granny Hughes doing her dusting again, despite the fact she had been ordered to rest by Mrs Morton. She often crept about like that, duster in hand, trying to be invisible in spite of her mutterings and groanings.

He turned back to his drawing, his hand poised over the paper, and began to draw a long curving line, more slowly this time, his ear cocked for any sound outside.

Behind him the door swung slowly inwards – he could feel the draught of it at his back travelling across the room. Slowly he turned his head, but there was no one there.

Then he heard it.

It was the sound of a woman crying. It filled the room around him, permeating the walls and furniture. A bottled-up sound, trapped, as if echoing along a long dark corridor.

Samuel looked about him, spinning this way and that, but the drawing room was empty. Then he heard her footsteps. She passed through the room to the door of the library at the far end. He couldn’t see her, but he could hear her footsteps clearly, and the sound of her weeping. Then the library door closed with a bang, and he was left with a terrible silence.

He dashed across the drawing room, stumbling against the furniture in his haste. When he got to the door of the library he rattled the handle furiously, but it was locked … from the inside. He bent down and peered through the keyhole. The key was still in place. He could see nothing.

He stood up and his eye was caught by the mirror over the fireplace. It reflected back no one but himself.

“I don’t believe in ghosts,” he whispered to himself. “I don’t believe in them.” There had to be a logical explanation.
Think with the mind, not the heart
. But his mind was telling him to run.

He fled from the drawing room leaving his pens and pencils and unfinished map scattered on the window seat. The door swung wide behind him, and he pelted down the staircase, his feet clattering against the wooden boards. He charged along the corridors to the kitchen at the end, calling out for Fiona as he went.

“Fiona? Mrs Hughes?” No one answered him. Granny Hughes was up in her room in the tower, half-asleep, an unread library book on her lap.

He ran outside onto the snow-packed lawn, and stood looking up at the windows on the first floor. The immense panes of glass were dark with shadow. Nothing could be seen in the drawing room. If he closed his eyes he could still hear the sobbing echoing inside his head. He looked all about him at the silent trees, blanketed in snow, the cold bleak hills, hoping to catch a glimpse of Mr Hughes, perhaps busy about his work, or the family returning from their skiing trip, but there was no one. He stared up at the dark mass of the house. Then he thought he saw movement in the library window to the right of the drawing room. A shadow moving, backwards and forwards … then it was gone.

“What is it, boy? What is it you’ve seen?”

Samuel spun round to find Mr Hughes standing behind him, a shovel in his hand where he’d been attempting to clear a path through the snow.

“I thought I heard something,” Samuel stuttered, looking confused. “Something very sad.”

“Oh aye?” and Mr Hughes nodded. “Uhuh! You’ve heard her then?” He paused and added “We heard something once, long time ago now, but it went away again right enough.” It was as if they were discussing a problem of woodworm or damp, something ordinary and everyday.

Samuel stared at him. “What d’you mean?”

“Never you mind, lad. And don’t go breathing a word of it to Mrs Hughes now, or she’ll never do the cleaning up in that library again. And we don’t want that now, do we, or
Mrs Morton will get into one of her fits, so she will and start tearing her hair out …”

Then he shuffled off through the snow without another word or backward glance.

Samuel shook his head.

He looked back at the empty windows of the big house, but this time saw nothing. The dark panes of glass simply stared back at him, empty. Whatever was inside there was watching him, he felt sure, but he didn’t know why.

Three weeks earlier Samuel Cunningham had moved from Edinburgh with his mother, Isabel. It was a few days before Christmas, just before the big freeze set in – not a good time to move house. The cottage on Dunadd Estate was cheap, and it was all Isabel could afford. She also knew that it would give her space for a studio workshop. She was a sculptor by profession, recycling waste in order to create imaginative works of art. She didn’t earn much money from it – hardly any, in fact.

Samuel remembered the day of the move well. He placed his own belongings in a box marked “Samuel’s Room,” and piled it on to the back of the pick-up truck. The removal van with their heavier furniture had already left at the crack of dawn. Their flat in the tall Edinburgh tenement, now bare of furniture, looked gloomy and sad. Grey squares marked the bare walls where pictures had once hung. Samuel took one last look around.

They had never owned a car before, but travelled everywhere by bus or on foot. The white pick-up truck, which his mother had just bought a few days before, was their very first vehicle. It looked battered, but his mother insisted its engine was sound. “It’s great at getting through heavy snow in winter. We’ll need it up on Sheriffmuir,” she’d added ominously.

The long empty hallway of the flat echoed desolately as they walked from room to room, saying a last farewell. Then
they closed the door on its silence, leaving the voices to echo for another family, while they moved on and lived elsewhere.

“It’s only an hour’s drive away on the motorway,” she kept telling him, as they drove out of Edinburgh. “You’ll still be able to keep in touch with all your old friends.” But that wasn’t the point, and she knew it.

When they saw Stirling Castle rearing up on the skyline they knew they were nearly there. At Bridge of Allan they turned off the main road, and a winding single-track lane took them deep into some trees and up into the hills. The truck laboured its way up a steep gorge, between sheer walls of rock, where they plunged suddenly from daylight into darkness. Isabel switched on the headlights so that two cones of light shone brightly into the shadows. Then they emerged onto open moorland. At the top Samuel wound down his window to listen. Absolute silence met their ears.

He looked about him. There were only a few stark trees on the summit, bent and twisted into grotesque shapes by the wind. Samuel’s fingers itched to draw them. In the distance he could see a range of mountains sweeping across the horizon, their peaks covered with snow.

As they crossed the Wharry Burn and drew nearer to Dunadd, a mist wrapped itself around the trees, obscuring the hills from view. A white five-barred gate suddenly loomed through the mist towards them.

It looked a very desolate spot.

Nailed to one of the trees was a cracked wooden sign with the one word “Dunadd” written on it. The letters were weather-worn and somehow friendly.

They drove up a steep rutted lane and at the top emerged
on to a sort of high plateau, where the mist suddenly cleared. It was like being on the roof of the world. And here Samuel had his first glimpse of Dunadd – a white castle with a round tower, and a courtyard of outbuildings, stables, barns and cottages, one of which was to be their own. Everything was painted creamy white, including the connecting stone archways.

“Wow!” Samuel breathed, gazing about him. “It’s like a monastery.”

They got out of the truck and stood in the cold, empty silence.

Behind them a side door suddenly burst open and four golden retrievers came bounding out towards them, filling the air with resonant barking. They hurled themselves against the pick-up truck. Samuel’s mother lost some of her bravado and flattened herself against the car, shrieking “Do something, Samuel.”

They were closely followed by a small slim woman of about his mother’s age, who screeched at the dogs. She looked like the sort of woman who could cope in a crisis.

“Quiet boys! Stop it at once! I said
silence!
” she bellowed in a powerful voice that echoed across the valley.

The dogs grew quiet. They stood wagging their tails and looking silly.

“I
am
sorry about that. They always greet visitors like this. They’re completely harmless, you know. I’m Chris Morton, by the way,” the woman said, holding out her hand to be shaken. “The door is open at the cottage, but perhaps you’d like a cup of tea first?”

“That would be lovely,” Isabel smiled, trying to pull herself together. “Nice doggy,” she added, aiming a pat at the smallest of the four dogs. In reply it snapped at the end of her orange
scarf, and she drew back quickly.

They followed their new landlady through a side door into the big white house, through a series of dark, winding corridors until, finally, they emerged into a huge kitchen.

“Granny!” Chris Morton shrieked, her voice echoing down the passageway beyond so that Isabel jumped in alarm.

“You must meet Granny Hughes. She and her husband used to live in your cottage. They’re staff on the estate, you know, but had a very hard decision to make.” She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “They were offered a council flat down in the village, an offer they couldn’t possibly refuse under the circumstances. They’re both pushing seventy and due for retirement, but they still come up to work in the daytime, to take care of the horses … that kind of thing. And the children, of course!” She snorted with laughter. “I could never cope without her.”

Then she put her head back and yelled “Granny!” once more. Finally a miserable-looking woman with a hacking smoker’s cough and a sunken chest shuffled through the door.

“Ah, there you are, Granny,” Mrs Morton smiled. “The Cunninghams have arrived.”

“Oh aye?” Granny said crossly and sniffed.

“Would you be an absolute sweetie,” she asked, “and make them a cup of tea?”

Granny pulled her brown cardigan across her chest and shuffled towards the kettle.

“How many children do you have?” Isabel asked hopefully.

“Three,” Chris Morton said. “Two boys and a girl. Charles is the eldest, he’s thirteen, then there’s Sebastian, he’s twelve, and Fiona, the youngest. She’s eleven.”

“The same age as you, Samuel,” Isabel beamed.

Samuel gave an awkward grin.

“You’re bound to get on,” Chris Morton murmured.

“Bound to!” repeated his mother.

Granny didn’t take part in any of this cosy exchange, but busied herself at the sink. Then she glanced sideways at Isabel and said, “It’s a nice cottage right enough, but … brrh!” She shook her head and muttered “You’ll find it awful cauld in the winter. In the summer too, come to think of it!”

“Granny, really,” and Mrs Morton gave an embarrassed laugh.

“If it’s a challenge you’re wanting, you’ll get that right enough, living up here. The coal’s heavy to carry, love,” she added, glancing at Isabel’s slender arms. “And awfy dirty. But no doubt you know what you’re in for.”

“That’s Granny for you,” Mrs Morton laughed a little too brightly. “Keeps us all on our toes. She and Jim will show you the ropes, especially how to work the stove.”

“Huh!” Granny said gruffly, her back to the rest of them. “That stove’s a mind of its own.”

By now Granny’s husband, Jim, had appeared, carrying a paintbrush in his hand.

“Always ask Jim if there’s anything you need to know,” Mrs Morton was informing them. “He keeps us all straight, don’t you Jim?”

“Oh aye. Aye,” Mr Hughes muttered, laughing nervously. He looked less than convinced, however.

The adults fell to talking about arrangements for the house, keys and such like, so Samuel sat down at the table and gazed about him. He had never seen a kitchen quite like
this one before. There seemed to be so much wildlife for a start. A rabbit sat on a kitchen counter nibbling a lettuce, and the whole pack of dogs now seemed to be lolling under the table. There was also a cockatoo in an ornate cage, and Samuel was sure he saw a horse walk past the window.

“As I said before, we’re a community here,” Mrs Morton was saying. “We all pull together. Look out for one another. That sort of thing.”

Isabel drew her feet under her nervously. “Of course,” she murmured politely.

It was a bright and colourful room. The cabinets were all painted soft pale blue and yellow, and there were wooden dressers stacked to the ceiling with hand-painted pottery. A large red Aga heated the room nicely. There was a rocking chair and a long wooden table with bowls of fruit and candles and model aeroplanes and paintboxes scattered across it – evidence of Mrs Morton’s children.

By the time Mrs Morton led them across the courtyard to view their new home, the sun had come out and burnt away the mist.

“Of course you’re seeing the cottage at its best,” Mrs Morton explained, as she unlocked the front door and pushed it open. “The sun doesn’t always shine quite so flatteringly up here. It can be pretty bleak in the winter.”

Samuel and his mother looked about them. The interior of the cottage was fairly run down, but it was large and spacious and had potential. There were fireplaces in every room, and Isabel was already having fantasies about lighting a crackling fire in each, as well as tackling that truculent stove.

She approached the mantelpiece and wiped a finger along
its dusty surface, her face inscrutable. Mrs Morton watched her uncomfortably.

“It’s in need of a lick of paint and some cheering up,” she apologized, glancing guiltily at the bare flagged floor of the kitchen. “What you see is what you get, I’m afraid. It’s so hard to know what people want in the way of original features.”

Isabel turned to Chris Morton and smiled.

“It’s perfect,” she said.

“It would be a long-term let of course,” Mrs Morton went on. “So long as we were all agreeable, I see no reason why the period of the let should not continue for as long as is convenient. I have no other plans for the cottage.”

Then she left them to unpack.

It was a sturdy little cottage, long and low, with whitewashed walls and three tall chimneys, surrounded by beech trees, which partly sheltered it from the wind, for the winds were fierce up on Sheriffmuir and roared and banged about the chimneys all year long. It had a big garden, bordered by a crumbling stonewall on one side, with a white picket fence at the end, beyond which lay the hills and Dunadd Wood. On either side of it lay the outhouses, stables and barn. At the end of the garden was a small burbling stream, whose sound would become familiar to Samuel in the weeks and months ahead as he fell asleep at night.

“I think we’ll be happy here, Samuel,” Isabel said confidently, once they were alone. She turned to him with a look of calm certainty on her face.

They had no idea what a severe winter lay ahead.

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