Authors: Chris Priestley
My name is Michael: Michael Vyner. I’m going to tell you something of my life and of the strange events that have brought me to where I now sit, pen in hand, my heartbeat hastening at their recollection.
I hope that in the writing down of these things I will grow to understand my own story a little better and perhaps bring some comforting light to the still-dark, whispering recesses of my memory.
Horrors loom out of those shadows and my mind recoils at their approach. My God, I can still see that face – that terrible face. Those eyes! My
hand clenches my pen with such strength I fear it will snap under the strain. It will take every ounce of willpower I possess to tell this tale. But tell it I must.
I had already known much hardship in my early years, but I had never before seen the horrible blackness of a soul purged of all that is good, shaped by resentment and hatred into something utterly vile and loveless. I had never known evil.
The story I am to recount may seem like the product of some fevered imagination, but the truth is the truth and all I can do is set it down as best I can, within the limits of my ability, and ask that you read it with an open mind.
If, after that, you turn away in disbelief, then I can do naught but smile and wish you well – and wish, too, that I could as easily free myself of the terrifying spectres that haunt the events I am about to relate.
So come with me now. We will walk back through time, and as the fog of the passing years rolls away we will find ourselves among the chill and weathered headstones of a large and well-stocked cemetery.
All about us are stone angels, granite obelisks and
marble urns. A sleeping stone lion guards the grave of an old soldier, a praying angel that of a beloved child. Everywhere there are the inscriptions of remembrance, of love curdled into grief.
Grand tombs and mausoleums line a curving cobbled roadway, shaded beneath tall cypress trees. A hearse stands nearby, its black-plumed horses growing impatient. It is December and the air is as damp and cold as the graves beneath our feet. The morning mist is yet to clear. Fallen leaves still litter the cobbles.
A blackbird sings gaily, oblivious to the macabre surroundings, the sound ringing round the silent cemetery, sharp and sweet in the misty vagueness. Jackdaws fly overhead and seem to call back in answer. Some way off, a new grave coldly gapes and the tiny group of mourners are walking away, leaving a boy standing alone.
The boy has cried so much over the last few days that he thinks his tears must surely have dried up for ever. Yet, as he stares down at that awful wooden box in its frightful pit, the tears come again.
There are fewer things sadder than a poorly attended funeral. When that funeral is in honour of a dear and beloved mother, then that sadness is all the more sharply felt and bitter-tasting.
As I am certain by now you have guessed, the lonesome boy by that open grave is none other than the narrator of this story.
I looked into that grave with as much sense of dread and despair as if I had been staring into my own. Everything I loved was in that hateful wooden box below me. I was alone now: utterly alone.
I had never known my father. He was killed when I was but a baby, one of many whose lives were ended fighting for the British Empire in the bitter dust of Afghanistan. I had no extended family. My mother and I had been everything to each other.
But my mother had never been strong, though she had borne her hardships with great courage.
She endured her illness with the same fortitude. But courage is not always enough.
These thoughts and many others taunted me beside that grave. I half considered leaping in and joining her. It seemed preferable to the dark and thorny path that lay ahead of me.
As I stood poised at the pit’s edge, I heard footsteps behind me and turned to see my mother’s lawyer, Mr Bentley, walking towards me accompanied by a tall, smart and expensively-dressed man. I had, of course, noticed him during the funeral and wondered who he might be. His face was long and pale, his nose large but sharply sculpted. It was a face made for the serious and mournful expression it now wore.
‘Michael,’ said Bentley, ‘this is Mr Jerwood.’
‘Master Vyner,’ said the man, touching the brim of his hat. ‘If I might have a quiet word.’
Bentley left us alone, endeavouring to walk backwards and stumbling over a tombstone as he rejoined his wife, who had been standing at a respectful distance. Looking at Jerwood again, I thought I recognised him.
‘I’m sorry, sir,’ I said, gulping back sobs and hastily brushing the tears from my cheeks. ‘But do I know you?’
‘We have met, Michael,’ he replied, ‘but you will undoubtedly have been too young to remember. May I call you Michael?’ I made no reply and he smiled a half-smile, taking my silence for assent. ‘Excellent. In short, Michael, you do not know me, but I know you very well.’
‘Are you a friend of my mother’s, sir?’ I asked, puzzled at who this stranger could possibly be.
‘Alas no,’ he said, glancing quickly towards the grave and then back to me. ‘Though I did meet your mother on several occasions, I could not say we were friends. In fact, I could not say with all honesty that your mother actually liked me. Rather, I should have to confess – if I were pressed by a judge in a court of law – that your mother actively
liked me. Not that I ever let that in any way influence me in my dealings with her, and I would happily state – before the same hypothetical judge – that I held your late mother in the highest esteem.’
The stranger breathed a long sigh at the end of this speech, as if the effort of it had quite exhausted him.
‘But I’m sorry, sir,’ I said. ‘I still do not understand …’
‘You do not understand who I am,’ he said with a
smile, shaking his head. ‘What a fool. Forgive me.’ He removed the glove from his right hand and extended it towards me with a small bow. ‘Tristan Jerwood,’ he said, ‘of Enderby, Pettigrew and Jerwood. I represent the interests of Sir Stephen Clarendon.’
I made no reply. I had heard this name before, of course. It was Sir Stephen whom my father had died to save in an act of bravery that drew great praise and even made the newspapers.
But I had never been able to take pride in his sacrifice. I felt angry that my father had thrown his life away to preserve that of a man I did not know. This hostility clearly showed in my face. Mr Jerwood’s expression became cooler by several degrees.
‘You have heard that name, I suspect?’ he asked.
‘I have, sir,’ I replied. ‘I know that he helped us after my father died. With money and so forth. I had thought that Sir Stephen might be here himself.’
Jerwood heard – as I had wanted him to hear – the note of reproach in my voice and pursed his lips, sighing a little and looking once again towards the grave.
‘Your mother did not like me, Michael, as I have said,’ he explained, without looking back. ‘She took
Sir Stephen’s money and help because she had to, for her sake and for yours, but she only ever took the barest minimum of what was offered. She was a very proud woman, Michael. I always respected that. Your mother resented the money – and her need for it – and resented me for being the intermediary. That is why she insisted on employing her own lawyer.’
Here he glanced across at Mr Bentley, who stood waiting for me by the carriage with his wife. I had been staying with the Bentleys in the days leading up to the funeral. I had met him on many occasions before, though only briefly, but they had been kind and generous. My pain was still so raw, however, that even such a tender touch served only to aggravate it.
‘She was a fine woman, Michael, and you are a very lucky lad to have had her as a mother.’
Tears sprang instantly to my eyes.
‘I do not feel so very lucky now, sir,’ I said.
Jerwood put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Now, now,’ he said quietly. ‘Sir Stephen has been through troubled times himself. I do not think this is the right time to speak of them, but I promise you that had they not been of such an extreme nature, he would have been at your side today.’
A tear rolled down my cheek. I shrugged his hand away.
‘I thank you for coming, sir – for coming in his place,’ I said coolly. I was in no mood to be comforted by some stranger whom, by his own admission, my mother did not like.
Jerwood gave his gloves a little twist as though he were wringing the neck of an imaginary chicken. Then he sighed and gave his own neck a stretch.
‘Michael,’ he said, ‘it is my duty to inform you of some matters concerning your immediate future.’
I had naturally given this much thought myself, with increasingly depressing results. Who was I now? I was some non-person, detached from all family ties, floating free and friendless.
‘Sir Stephen is now your legal guardian,’ he said.
‘But I thought my mother did not care for Sir Stephen or for you,’ I said, taken aback a little. ‘Why would she have agreed to such a thing?’