The rest of our week in Northumberland went by pleasantly and quickly. Dad managed to get two afternoons and one morning off work, and on both of his free afternoons he drove us around on explorations of the local area. Tony wasn't as interested in castles as I was, but even he was impressed by the coastline with its mixture of rocky headlands and almost deserted sandy beaches. However, though the weather was mostly sunny and warm, we didn't go swimming in the sea because the water was very cold.
On Dad's morning off work we went to Prospect House to check up on the workmen and to arrange details of the housekeeping job with Mrs Crawford. While he talked to her, Tony and Brian went outside to kick a soccer ball about, and I tagged along with them. Tom was nowhere to be seen, and Brian didn't mention him at all. Instead, he spent much of the time complaining how bored he was because most of his friends were away on vacation.
"At least you've got your brother for company," Tony said.
"Not any more," Brian responded with a frown.
He didn't elaborate on that brief comment, although it must have been obvious from our expressions that Tony and I were curious about what exactly he meant by it. Instead, he kicked the ball in my direction, thereby drawing me into their kick-about and giving me the opportunity to demonstrate my total ineptitude at ball games.
"Well, boys," Dad said when he came outside after his discussion with Mrs Crawford, "as it's nearly lunch time, why don't we get something to eat in the village pub? Then I'll drop you off wherever you like before I go to work."
"Sounds good to me," Tony said, and I nodded my agreement.
"Would you like to join us, Brian?" Dad asked.
"Yes, thanks, I'd love to," Brian responded eagerly, "but I'd better check with Mum first."
He ran into the house and a few seconds later he popped his head outside the front door. "Mum says it's okay, but I have to clean myself up and change my clothes."
"You're fine as you are," Dad said. "You don't need to get dressed up."
"I know that," Brian said with a wry smile, "but Mum says I have to. Anyway, I'll just be a couple of minutes."
He disappeared from view, and, true to his word, he was back in less than three minutes. I must admit, he looked very handsome in his fresh blue shirt and black jeans, and I wondered how he'd manage to get cleaned and changed so quickly.
We sat in the shade of a tree in the pub garden while we chatted and ate our lunch, and it didn't take long for Dad to discover that Brian played rugby for his college. When Dad had been a student he'd been on his University's rugby team, so the conversation for the rest of the meal revolved around rugby, with occasional forays into soccer. Although I tried to maintain an appearance of polite interest, my mind drifted away from what they were saying.
My wandering thoughts were, however, neither deep nor consequential. I speculated about the sexuality of the cute guy sitting with three young women, and I wondered if the little stream behind Prospect House might be a tributary of the river at the bottom of the pub garden. My attention was suddenly dragged back to my companions when I heard Dad mentioned Tom.
"Does your brother play rugby?" Dad asked Brian.
"No, but he used to be good at soccer."
"Used to be?" Dad echoed. "What happened?"
"I suppose he just lost interest," Brian replied, obviously not wishing to say any more on the subject.
During the ensuing lull in the conversation, Dad looked at his watch and said, "Time I went to work. Have you two decided where you want me to drop you off?"
Before either Tony or I could reply, Brian spoke.
"Why don't you stay around here?" he said eagerly. "Maybe we could walk along the river or even hire a boat?"
"Sounds good to me," Tony said and then looked at me. "That okay with you, Mark?"
"Yeah, that's fine," I agreed.
"Well," Dad said as he stood up, "unless I hear from you otherwise, I'll meet you back at the house at about six thirty."
As soon as Dad was out of sight, Brian stood up and announced that he was going to get us some more drinks, whereupon I pointed out that I wasn't really thirsty.
"We are!" Brian said, winking at Tony. "The barmaid's a friend of mine."
With that, he went into the pub, and I cast a questioning look at Tony.
"Just relax and enjoy yourself," he told me and smiled enigmatically.
Tony clearly knew something I didn't, and I had the feeling that somehow he and Brian had arranged this together. While we waited for Brian to return, I racked my brains trying to think when the two of them might have had the opportunity to conspire without my noticing. Then I remembered that Tony and Brian had been alone together outside while Dad ordered the food and I'd gone to empty my bladder.
Brian returned and placed three glasses on the table. All three glasses, including the one he placed in front of me, appeared to contain coke, despite the fact that up until then I'd been drinking shandy. As soon as he sat down, he and Tony picked up their glasses, clinked them together, took a drink and then looked expectantly at me. The expressions on their faces, together with Brian's earlier words made me realise that the drinks were probably not simply cokes. Tentatively, I took a little sip.
"Yuch!" I exclaimed, trying not to attract the attention of people nearby.
"It's only a little vodka," Brian said in a low voice as he leaned across the table. "You'll get used to it."
He and Tony grinned at each other and drank some more. However, I wasn't sure if I would get used to it, or even if I wanted to get used to it. Although I'd occasionally had enough wine to get merry, usually at celebratory meals, I'd never been really drunk and I had no intention of getting drunk in such a public place.
"But what if we get caught?" I whispered to Brian. "You're dad's a policeman!"
"And everybody knows that," he replied with a grin, "which is exactly why no one will check up on us... as long as we're discreet."
"Well my dad will go ballistic if he smells alcohol on my breath when he collects us," I said and pushed my glass across the table toward Brian and Tony.
As soon as I'd done that I began to have second thoughts, and it occurred to me that Tony might think I was a wimp. Brian appeared as if he were about to say something uncomplimentary, but before he could do so Tony spoke to him.
"Mark's not even sixteen yet, so he's not had as much practice as we have."
Although he probably had the best intentions, his words came across to me as being patronising, and I became a little irritated. However, I didn't want to spoil Tony's fun so I decided to make a tactical withdrawal.
"I'm going for a pee," I announced as I stood up.
By the time I'd returned, Tony had almost finished his drink, and Brian had not only finished his own but had also started on the one that had been mine.
"I presumed you didn't want it," Brian said.
Superficially, his tone was apologetic, but I thought I detected a hint of a challenge. In any case, I decided to keep things as pleasant as possible.
"That's okay. I'm not keen on coke anyway," I joked. "That's why I had shandy with lunch."
When all three glasses were empty, Brian offered to buy another round, but I suggested we go for a walk, and I was relieved when Tony backed up my suggestion.
We spent a very pleasant hour or so walking along the river then Brian suggested we go back to the pub to see if their boat was available for hire. Bearing in mind that I 'd had very little rowing experience and that the other two had been drinking, I was initially very nervous about the idea. However, although they both seemed very relaxed, neither of them seemed drunk, and Brian said he was an experienced rower, so I agreed.
When we'd had enough of messing about on the river we returned the boat and decided to find somewhere cool to rest before we walked back up to the house to meet my dad. Brian led us to a grassy area on the riverbank that was shaded by a few trees, and we lay down on our backs, side by side with me in the middle. There was a long comfortable silence and eventually I decided to take advantage of the relaxed atmosphere to try to assuage my curiosity.
"Erm, Brian," I said tentatively.
"Hmm?" he responded, sounding drowsy.
"I don't want to seem nosy, but I was wondering..."
I paused and began to consider how or even if I should continue. After all, for the last couple of hours we'd all got on really well, and I didn't want to spoil things.
"Hmm?" Brian prompted.
It occurred to me that if he was ever going to be in the mood to answer my questions then this was going to be it. So I took the bull by the horns. "I was wondering why you and Tom don't get on so well. Is it just because he spends so much time going out on his own? Or is it because he became such close friends with Miss Victoria?"
Although I didn't look at the other two, I could sense that the atmosphere became less relaxed. Brian didn't respond for a while and Tony, who probably shared my curiosity, also remained silent. Just as I was about to give up hope of getting an answer, Brian spoke.
Again there was a long silence, and I began to think that was the only response there was going to be.
"He's a weird kid, and he has some weird friends," Brian said, in a tone that wasn't at all unkind. "But he wasn't always like that. Everything was okay until he started having the nightmares."
"Nightmares?" Tony asked, betraying his curiosity.
"Yeah, they started four or five years ago. He'd wake up screaming and shouting that he couldn't breathe. Then he started going off alone into the woods and spending lots of time with the old lady. I must admit that after he became friends with her the nightmares didn't happen so often. But they never went away completely."
When he stopped speaking I felt that he wasn't going to say anymore, but encouraged by his response so far, I decided to take things further.
"But I don't understand why there seems such bad feeling between you," I said. "I mean, even if he is weird, he's still your brother."
"Of course he's still my brother!" Brian said irritably. "But he's the one who doesn't want anything to do with me."
"Oh," I said quietly.
Although I felt chastened that my previous assumptions appeared to have been wrong, I would probably have eventually asked for more information if Brian hadn't volunteered it.
"Actually, I s'pose it may have been my fault," he said, "but it wouldn't have happened if Tom and the old woman hadn't been so secretive. And I still don't understand why he made such a fuss about it."
He sighed wistfully, and then spoke again.
"A few months before the old lady died she gave Mum a really nice brooch. Apparently, it'd been in her family for ages, and she wanted it to go to someone close rather than some distant relative she'd never met. Anyway, she also gave Tom a box that he called his 'box of treasures', but he wouldn't tell me what was in it. So one day I waited till he went out, then went into his room, found the box under his bed, and looked inside. But he came back and caught me and went crazy. He shouted, screamed, sand even threw stuff at me. And since then he hardly even speaks to me."
"But what was in the box?" Tony asked, just beating me to it.
"Just a bunch of old photos and papers. Really old stuff. Rubbish really. Like I said, I still don't know why he made such a fuss about it."
The following three weeks went by quickly, and in fact the time seemed to go much too quickly. Staying at Tony's house was very enjoyable, though we didn't share a room and I didn't get to see him naked. As I wasn't used to being so close to someone for such long periods of time, I occasionally had to shut myself away in the room I was borrowing from his sister. However, he seemed to understand that I sometimes needed to be on my own, and he didn't put any pressure on me to be sociable when I wasn't in the mood.
Sometimes I felt guilty that while I stayed with Tony he didn't see much of his other friends. I told him I didn't mind if he went out with them, but he just said he could do that after I'd moved away and that he wanted to make the most of our time together. I made some joke about it not being like I was dying, but it didn't lighten the mood much. All too soon the end of July arrived, and I realised I was going to miss Tony even more than I'd expected.
As it turned out, the Saturday of the weekend Dad came down to collect me was my sixteenth birthday. Elaine, whom I'd visited a couple of times per week while I was staying with Tony, insisted on throwing a joint 'birthday-and-bon-voyage' party for me and Dad. Although I wasn't feeling in much of a party mood, I ended up enjoying myself, not least because of the wonderful home-cooked food Elaine provided.
That night I stayed at Tony's, and Dad stayed at Elaine's house, and the next morning we all met up again for a huge 'farewell breakfast' provided by Elaine. Before we got into the car to drive off she gave me a big hug, but as I was expecting it I managed not to cringe, and even tentatively returned the hug. She was well aware of the fact that I was very uncomfortable with any touch more intimate than a handshake, so she wasn't upset by what from anyone else might have been interpreted as a cool response.
When Tony also hugged me, however, just before I got into the car, I definitely wasn't expecting it, and I just froze. I considered hugging him back, but was worried that if I did then I might seem too enthusiastic and so betray my true feelings to everyone. Before I could make any decision about what to do, he'd released me and stepped back, looking a little embarrassed. As we drove off a couple of minutes later, I hoped that Tony knew me well enough to realise that my lack of response wasn't a rejection.
Surprisingly, the men working on the house had finished ahead of schedule, so Dad had already moved in, made the place liveable, and had even turned the old library into a very nice office. We still needed to buy more furniture, but the smaller of the two reception rooms had been turned into a comfortable living room and the kitchen had everything we needed. The larger reception room was still completely empty, and our dining furniture looked tiny and totally lost in the huge dining room.
"I made your bed up so you have somewhere to sleep tonight," Dad said as we carried my suitcases upstairs, "but all your other stuff is still in boxes. You still have about three weeks before school starts, so you've plenty of time to unpack and settle in."
Oddly, I was mildly disappointed as we entered what was now my new bedroom, because there was no hint of the weird feelings I'd had before. Instead, I felt as if I was coming home, possibly because I could see my old familiar bed and other possessions scattered around the room. While Dad went downstairs to make us a snack, I unpacked my toiletries and a few clothes.
"I have to work tomorrow," Dad said when we finished eating. "If you're up by eight we can have breakfast together, and Mrs Crawford will be here at ten so she can make you some lunch."
"Don't you think I'm old enough to make my own lunch?" I asked in a half-joking tone.
"Probably. But she'll be here anyway, and you'll probably be busy unpacking and settling in. Which reminds me, Brian said he'd be happy to help you moving furniture and stuff. So it seems like you've already made a new friend here."
It was obvious that Dad was very pleased and maybe a little surprised that I'd started making friends so quickly. Of course, I was also pleased, but to be honest I would've rather had one Tony than a dozen Brians. We continued chatting for almost an hour, and although nothing particularly deep or meaningful was discussed, I was beginning to feel closer to my dad than I had in a long time. Maybe it would have been nice to talk for longer, but I was very tired and so went to bed relatively early while Dad went to do some work in his office.
My bed had been placed with the headboard against the northern wall of the room, but while I was getting undressed I suddenly felt that although the north-south orientation was correct, it should be moved across to the eastern wall. However, as several large boxes and a wardrobe were currently in the way, I decided that moving the bed should wait until I could get some help.
Almost as soon as my head touched the pillow I was asleep, and if I dreamed at all, I had no memory of it when I awoke soon after seven o'clock the next morning. The only slightly unusual thing was that just before I fell asleep I had the impression that the walls were a deep, dark red. When I thought about this during breakfast it seemed odd that the room should seem red when it was, in fact, now mostly blue and had been a pale green when I first saw it.
When Mrs Crawford arrived I was busy unpacking, but she called out my name and I went down to greet her.
"Did you sleep well?" she asked.
On the face of it, that was a very ordinary question and the sort of thing one asks just to be polite, but her expression of mild concern hinted that she was genuinely interested.
"Yes, very well, thanks."
"That's good," she said, smiling as if relieved about something.
"Your dad said you picked your bedroom yourself," she continued after a brief pause.
"Erm, yes," I responded, wondering where this conversation was going.
"That's the only room in the house I've never been in," she said. Then, with an expression that might have been one of slight embarrassment, she added, "Well, not until after your dad moved in."
"Oh," I said, unable to hide my surprise and curiosity. "Why's that?"
"Well, that room was always kept locked. I've no idea why. Miss Victoria never talked about it, but I got the feeling that even she'd not been in there. At least not since she was a little girl."
"Oh," I said again, this time unable to hide my disappointment at not finding out more.
"Are you hungry?" she asked. The sudden and obviously deliberate change of topic temporarily disoriented me, but made me realise that it had been over two hours since breakfast, and I was indeed hungry.
"Yes, a bit," I admitted.
"In that case, I have just the thing. I made you a special welcome cake, " she smiled and tapped the cake tin that I suddenly noticed she was carrying under her arm.
We went down to the kitchen where she made tea for both of us, but she declined to have a piece of the gorgeous chocolate cake.
"How's the unpacking going?" she asked when I finished eating.
"So far I've not done much. I need to move my bed and other stuff around first," I replied, then a little hesitantly I added, "Erm, Dad said that Brian might help."
"Yes, Brian told me he'd volunteered himself. Unfortunately, he's out all day with his dad. There's an open day at police headquarters. Did Brian tell you he wants to be a policeman like his dad?"
She sounded very proud of both her husband and her elder son, and it occurred to me that I still hadn't seen Mr Crawford.
"No, he didn't mention that," I replied.
I couldn't help imagining Brian in a police uniform, then immediately had to make sure Mrs Crawford couldn't see the growing bulge in my jeans.
"Why don't you ask Tommy to give you a hand?" she asked brightly.
"Oh, there's no hurry," I responded quickly. "It can wait till I see Brian tomorrow."
"But why waste today? Tommy may not be as big as Brian, but he's stronger than he looks."
"Well, Brian offered and Tommy," I paused and corrected myself, "Tom hasn't."
"I told him you'd promised he could have free run of the estate, and he was very pleased, so I'm sure he would offer if you gave him a chance. But you've not really talked to him yet, have you?"
I'm not sure, but I thought I detected some disappointment in her tone, and I remembered what she'd said a month earlier. She'd seemed to think that Tom and I could be good friends, but asking him to move furniture didn't seem to me to be a great way to start a friendship.
"He's in the walled garden now. Go and ask him to help before he disappears into the woods for the rest of the day."
Her voice was quiet and polite, but it was clear she was used to getting her own way, and as I had no reason to do otherwise, I agreed.
Tom was pulling up weeds as I entered the garden, but when he saw me he threw a handful of them into the wheelbarrow and stood up. Although not yet noon, the day was sunny and hot, and he wiped the sweat from his eyebrows with the back of his hand. He looked wary but not unfriendly as I approached. He merely nodded a greeting, waiting for me to speak. Yet again, I was struck by his unusual eyes, and it occurred to me that no matter how often I saw him in future I'd always be amazed by their beauty.
When I'd seen him previously, his eyes may have distracted me from noticing the rest of his face, because this time I also noticed his high cheekbones and high forehead. These observations, combined with his liking for the woodland, made me think of an elf, and I couldn't hold back a brief burst of laughter when I found myself looking to see if he had pointy ears.
"What are you laughing at?" he said, frowning.
"Oh, nothing. Just thinking of something I saw on TV last night," I lied lamely, unable to think of anything else to say.
He looked doubtful, but fortunately for me he didn't ask exactly what I'd seen. Again he seemed to be waiting patiently for me to break the silence, so I told him that his mum had suggested I ask him to help me move stuff. His response took me by surprise.
"In your bedroom?" he asked.
"Erm, yes, mostly."
"I'm not sure..." he said, frowning again and giving me the impression that he'd been about to add something else but had decided against it.
Despite what his mum had just said about my room, my first thoughts on hearing his words were that he might suspect that I was gay and that I might try to seduce him. I immediately realised that I was just being paranoid. As Tony often told me, my mind must be very weird. As it turned out, Tom's next words pointed to a more obvious but no less curious reason for his apparent reluctance to help.
"Mum told me you moved into the locked room."
"Well," I said, trying to make a joke of it, "it wasn't locked when I chose it and it isn't locked now."
He wasn't amused by my attempt at wit, and for several seconds he seemed deep in thought. Just as I was becoming concerned by the length of the silence, he spoke again.
"Okay," he said. "Give me an hour to finish this and clean up, then I'll see you up at the house."
With that he went back to his weeding, apparently ignoring me.
"Right, thanks," I said, and not knowing what else to do, I left him to his work.
From the way he said 'the house' I knew he meant Prospect House. I'd already learned that Brian, Tom and their mum said 'our house' or 'home' or 'the gatehouse' when they referred to their own home, but when they said 'the house', especially when it was spoken as if with capital letters, it always meant Prospect House.
Anyway, true to his word he turned up at the house just over an hour later. He helped me out for a couple of hours and then his mum made us all a late lunch. Although he was very relaxed in the rest of the house, in my room he seemed to be on edge and he didn't stay any longer than was essential. However, it didn't seem as if he were afraid of the room, but instead it seemed that being in the room made him very distracted.
He left immediately after lunch, and as he made his exit from the rear of the house I went to thank him again. Just as he was leaving, I remembered something he'd said when I'd asked him for help, and I couldn't resist the urge to ask him about it.
"Tom, remember in the garden you were talking about my room and you called it 'the locked room'? Do you know why it was kept locked?"
He frowned and hesitated before he replied. "It's Edward's room."
Before I could say anything else, he turned on his heel and strode off rapidly. I watched as he made his way across the lawn and down to the stream, eventually disappearing into the woods. Then I went back into the kitchen where his mum was loading up the dishwasher.
"Mrs Crawford," I asked, "who is Edward?"
At first she didn't seem to know what I was talking about, then she seemed to remember something. "Do you mean who was Edward?"
"Erm, I'm not sure. Tom just mentioned an Edward."
"Oh," she said as if suddenly understanding. "That's probably something Tom picked up from Miss Victoria. She had an older brother called Edward who died when she was just a girl. But she never spoke about him. Well, not to me anyway, though it wouldn't be too surprising if she mentioned him to Tommy. All I really know is that Miss Victoria was buried next to Edward in the churchyard."
Over the next few days I settled into my new life, which, apart from missing Tony, was just as happy, or at least no more unhappy than my former life. I didn't see much of Tom, but when I did he was always friendly unless I was with Brian, at which times he was cool but polite. Brian, apart from his obsession with rugby, proved to be a pleasant companion and took the time to show me around the local area. He even asked for Tony's email address so they could stay in touch. Despite a totally unjustified twinge of jealousy, I gave it to him.
During my first week in the house, once I'd moved the bed to the 'correct' place, there seemed nothing unusual about my new bedroom. Then, eight days after I moved in, some strange things happened. Well, from an external point of view, nothing really actually happened, so perhaps it would be more accurate to say that I experienced strange things.
First of all, the fleeting impressions of deep, dark red in the room became more frequent. That usually happened when I was falling asleep, sometimes as I was just waking up, and a couple of times when I was just sitting quietly reading. Then on two occasions that week I heard a tapping noise just as I was falling asleep. The sound continued for a few seconds, then stopped for a while, then started again. Although it was very quiet, it had a profound effect on me.
The longer the tapping went on the more it seemed to excite me, and I became very restless. Not only did it arouse me from my near-sleep but it also seemed to arouse me sexually. In fact, I became so horny that I didn't look for the source of the sound but instead I wanked intermittently for hours and had three orgasms. However, the orgasms didn't satisfy me and the excitement wouldn't go away. Eventually, I managed to sleep, by which time I was totally exhausted.
On the fourth night after that first incident, just as I was dozing off, the tapping started again. Ignoring my growing sexual arousal, I tried to locate the source of the sound and tracked it down to the window. Outlined against the external darkness were the deeper shadows of tree branches, and I presumed the wind was causing twigs to tap against the window. Of course, that didn't explain why I was so horny that for the next hour or so I was masturbating frenziedly.
Unlike my usual sessions, during which I fantasised about Tony or some other guy I fancied, this wasn't accompanied by any fantasy at all. Instead it was a pure, primal lust centred on my own penis. All external stimuli, even the tapping sounds, were tuned out, and nothing existed for me except a desperate need to achieve orgasm at all costs. After my second orgasm the erotic frenzy disappeared, leaving me with a feeling that I'd been drained of all energy. However, despite my tiredness I couldn't go to sleep because my mind was in turmoil as I tried to make some sense out of these recent experiences.
When Tony, always in the nicest possible way, called me weird I took it as almost a compliment. I was proud to be different from the other kids I knew. However, even Tony didn't know about my 'mini-visions' or the intense emotions I sometimes felt when I visited certain places. The only person I'd ever told was my dad, and his reaction discouraged me from mentioning the subject again.
I'd grown accustomed to experiences that other people would call 'weird', but since I'd first visited Prospect House things had escalated so far that it was difficult to convince myself that it was just one of my little eccentricities. On the other hand, I couldn't believe, and I didn't want to believe, that there was anything wrong with the house. Apart from anything else, I'd persuaded Dad to buy the place, and there was no way we could move out now.
Looking for other explanations, I told myself that the sound I heard was merely the tapping of tree branches on my window and that my resulting irritation had triggered off nightmarish versions of my 'mini-visions'. I tried to convince myself that the disturbing nature of these recent experiences was probably caused by the disturbance of moving to a totally new place. No doubt the references by Tom and his mum to the 'locked room' stimulated my subconscious imagination, and my normal teenage sex-drive gave rise to the strong erotic feelings. Yes, when I thought about it, everything had a reasonable explanation. Keeping those thoughts in my mind, I gradually calmed myself down and eventually fell asleep.
When I came down for breakfast the next morning, Dad's greeting was accompanied by a look of concern.
"Are you okay, Mark? You look awful. Your eyes make you look like a zombie!" His words were joking but his tone indicated genuine worry. Having seen myself in the mirror when I got up I could see his point.
"I'm fine. Just tired that's all. I didn't get much sleep last night."
"What's the matter?" he asked. Then before I could respond, he added, "Maybe you're coming down with something."
I told him about the tapping and the tree branch, though I didn't mention the effects it had on me.
"That's strange," he said. "I don't remember seeing a tree so close to the house."
"Actually, neither do I, so I s'pose we both missed it."
"Well, you'd best ask the gardeners about removing the branch before it breaks the window. And if the tree's too close to the house we may have to have it removed before the roots damage the foundations."
Dad left for work while I was still having breakfast, and after he'd gone I tried to remember if I'd noticed the tree before. On the one hand, I didn't recall actually seeing it, but on the other hand if I closed my eyes I could summon up a very vivid and detailed mental picture of it. Feeling the need to settle the matter, I quickly finished my mug of tea and went outside to the grassy area between the path and the east side of the house. There was no tree.
I looked up and saw my bedroom widow, so I knew I was in the right place. The nearest tree was at least ten yards away and was on the other side of the path, so there was no way that it could be the source of the shadowy branches I'd seen. Feelings of dislocation and disorientation swept through me, and I felt so dizzy that I had to lean against the wall. Confused, I studied the area between the path and the house, but all I could see was a slight hollow in the otherwise flat ground.
"They never could get it flat."
The shock of hearing the voice, which came so unexpectedly from behind me, almost gave me a heart attack. I turned my head and saw Tom standing on the path with his hands in the pockets of his tan shorts.
"You okay?" he asked in a concerned tone.
"Yeah. Thanks," I managed to croak. "You just startled me, that's all."
"Oh, sorry," he said, looking a little sheepish.
We looked at one another then, unsure what to say, I looked at the ground.
"That dent makes it a bugger to cut the grass," he said. "My granddad said that when they filled the hole in they couldn't make the ground flat. No matter what they did, the ground just sank again. So eventually they gave up."
As I was still recovering from the confusion and shock, I didn't immediately respond, so I suppose he must have thought our conversation had ended. He started walking toward the rear of the house, and by the time I'd got my mind into gear he'd moved a couple of yards along the path.
"Hey, Tom!" I called out. "Do you know what made the hole?"
"Yeah. When they pulled out the tree stump."
"Tree? What tree? What happened to the tree?" I asked rather stupidly, my mind spinning.
"Miss Victoria's father had it chopped down after Edward died," he replied, giving me a very strange look that I couldn't interpret.
My mind filled with more questions, and while I tried to sort them out, I looked back down at the hollow. I felt a little dazed, but eventually I looked up again, but by that time Tom had gone, presumably having given up on our conversation.
I went back to my room and looked out of the window but couldn't see anything that could have been the branches I'd seen, or at least thought I'd seen, the previous night. I sat on my bed, and despite the warmth of the summer day, I shivered. Maybe Dad was right and maybe I'd caught a bug. No one else I knew around here was ill, but maybe it was a local strain of virus that affected me more than others because I'd just moved here.
Before going to bed, and when it was dark outside, I looked out of the window again, but there were no shadowy branches to be seen. During the next few days there was no return of the tapping and no more unusual experiences. This reinforced my previous conclusions that it had been some sort of nightmare-mini-vision, probably triggered by the move and new surroundings. However, the knowledge that there used to be a tree outside my widow left me with a nagging doubt.
The only notable nocturnal experience during the following week was an erotic dream, which featured Tony. Such dreams about Tony were not at all uncommon, and this dream was in one of the usual formats until right at the end. While we were kissing he had his eyes closed, but when he opened them again he was looking at me with Tom's unique blue-gray eyes.
During my first week or so at Prospect House I was kept busy unpacking, arranging my room and generally settling in. Tony and I chatted on the phone a couple of times per week and we exchanged daily emails. The third week, however, Tony was on holiday in Spain with his parents, and I had little to do. In the past, back home in the Midlands, I would've been happy being on my own and content to read, listen to music, play computer games, or just go for a walk. However, although I didn't feel lonely in my new surroundings, I did feel restless and somehow dislocated, so I couldn't settle down to my usual solitary pastimes.
Dad was at work most of the time, but Mrs Crawford was around the house from ten in the morning until three in the afternoon. I found myself chatting to her quite often while she was cooking, though I kept out of her way while she was cleaning. I soon became accustomed to her occasionally brusque manner, and I gradually began to feel at ease in her presence. She was an excellent cook, possibly even better than Elaine, though I knew that for me she could never take the place of Elaine.
To be honest, until the second week in Northumberland, I hadn't realised how much Elaine meant to me. For the last nine years or so she'd always been there, and I'd just taken for granted all the little things she did for me. Indeed, as I lay on my bed staring at the ceiling one morning, I remembered some of the 'motherly' things she'd done that I'd never even noticed at the time. That night, I phoned her for the first time since I'd moved north, and from then on I talked to her on the phone at least once per week.
Brian and I went cycling together a couple of times, and one day we went all the way to Moreton, where he showed me the college I was going to attend. However, by then most of his friends were back from their holidays, and he spent a lot of time with them. One morning he asked if I wanted to go into Alnwick with him and some of his friends, and he seemed genuinely disappointed when I made some excuse for not joining them. The truth is that although I got on reasonably well with him, we didn't have a lot in common, and I felt we'd never be really close friends.
I finally got to meet Mr Crawford when I went to meet Brian at the gatehouse before setting off on the first of our cycling trips. Up until then his shift pattern had prevented our paths from crossing, but on that occasion it was clearly his day off, and he was washing his Volvo in the driveway. He was very friendly and asked the usual polite questions about how I was settling in and so on, but we didn't really have a conversation. In appearance he was much how I might expect Brian to look when he was about forty. Although Tom wasn't in sight at the time, the similarity between Brian and his dad emphasised to me the lack of family resemblance between Brian and his brother.
For most of the first couple of weeks I rarely saw Tom, and when I did we usually just exchanged polite greetings. However, on the Friday afternoon of the second week our paths accidentally crossed, and we had something approaching a conversation. At lunch time that day, Mrs Crawford had been telling me a little about her family history and mentioned that for centuries her ancestors and those of Mr Crawford had been buried in the graveyard of the local church. As my mum was from Scotland, my dad was from the south of England, and I was born and brought up in the Midlands, I was fascinated by the idea of families being so closely attached to one location.
She also mentioned that parts of the village church were over eight hundred years old, and that also caught my imagination. It was a beautiful sunny day, and I had nothing better to do, so after lunch I went for a walk and took a look at the church and graveyard, both of which turned out to be bigger than I expected for such a small village. The church was on the southern edge of the village and was situated on top of a small hill, one side of which was quite steep . The gravestones, interspersed with some large trees, were scattered around the church and down the shallower slopes of the hill.
To give myself a chance to cool off after my walk, I decided to look around inside the church before exploring the gravestones. I didn't see anyone as I walked through the churchyard, and the only person inside the church was an old woman arranging some flowers at the side of the altar. When she saw me she nodded and smiled, then without speaking she returned to her task. Emerging from the building a few minutes later, I was dazzled by the bright sunlight and had to shield my eyes until they adjusted. Then, close to the church door, I saw a familiar figure crouched by a couple of graves, on both of which were fresh flowers. It was Tom, stuffing some weeds and dead flowers into a plastic bag. He obviously had no idea that I was standing just a few feet behind him.
"Hi, Tom," I said quietly so as not to startle him.
He looked up quickly, clearly surprised to see me, and despite my efforts, he appeared almost shocked.
"H-hi," he stammered as he stood up.
"Sorry I startled you."
"S'okay," he said, quickly regaining his composure.
"Looking after the family graves?" I asked, mainly just to make conversation and give him time to recover.
"Erm, not my family."
He looked down at the headstones as if he were embarrassed then he gave a brief and almost humourless laugh.
"My family don't get to be buried so close to the church," he said. "They're mostly over there."
He nodded his head further down the slope toward the lichgate. My curiosity aroused, I took a close look at the two headstones, one obviously much older than the other. The more recent marble stone was much more easily legible and said:
Victoria Elizabeth Armstrong
Sister to Edward
Died 7th Oct 2001, Aged 93
Now at Peace
The words on the older, adjacent headstone, made of plain sandstone were:
Edward Albert Armstrong
Born 26th July 1901
Died 16th Sept 1918
Beloved brother to Victoria
The final line must have been added some time after the rest of the brief inscription, because the letters were not only slightly different but also they hadn't been eroded as much as the preceding lines.
"Oh, I see," I said. "Your mum said that you and Miss Victoria were friends."
Tom's seemed to be tense while I was looking at the inscriptions, so my words were intended to make him feel more at ease. However, in truth I found it difficult to see how he could have become such close friends with someone so much older than himself. It was even harder to understand why he was putting flowers on the grave of Edward, who'd died about seventy years before he was born.
"My family are over there," Tom said abruptly and started walking rapidly away from me.
I had the suspicion that he'd sensed the questions arising in my mind and that his rapid departure was intended to prevent me putting those questions into words. Not wishing to cause him any further discomfort, I decided let the matter drop and trotted after him.
"I thought there'd be more Armstrongs here," I said when I caught up with him. My comment was made mainly to put him at ease by showing him that I wasn't going ask questions about Victoria or Edward, and I didn't really expect him to respond.
"Miss Victoria's parents are buried inside the church with the really posh people," he said.
The fact that he'd responded so seriously to my throwaway comment surprised me a little, and that is my only excuse for what I said next.
"So Miss Victoria wasn't posh enough to make it inside," I joked and grinned.
From the expression on his reddening face I knew immediately that I'd made a mistake. Knowing they'd been close, I should have thought before I spoke. I mentally kicked myself, wondering why it was that I managed to upset Tom almost every time I spoke to him.
"Of course she was posh enough!" he said, his voice grating with annoyance. "But she preferred to be with her brother."
"Look, I'm sorry," I said earnestly. "I'm really sorry I said that. It was just a feeble attempt at a joke, and it was stupid of me. "
He was still glaring at me, his eyes shining so brightly that I had to look away from his face.
"Forgive me? Please?" I pleaded.
Normally I didn't much care what other people thought of me, except of course for Tony, Dad and Elaine. However, for some reason that I didn't understand, it was very important to me that Tom shouldn't be angry with me.
For several seconds he remained still and silent, but then I saw his body relax, and a couple of seconds later he resumed his rapid stride down the hill. Not knowing what else to do, I followed him. Even as I began moving, questions popped into my mind. I wondered why Edward hadn't been buried inside the church. Surely he must have been as posh as his sister. However, bearing in mind Tom's reaction to my light-hearted question about Miss Victoria, I thought it would be unwise to voice my thoughts.
"Most of the Crawfords are here," Tom said, coming to a halt so suddenly that I almost collided with him.
There were quite a few headstones with the Crawford name around the place where Tom had come to a halt, and he pointed out some of his closest relatives, including his grandfather. Most of the recent graves were reasonably well looked after, but none had any fresh flowers. Recalling what his mum had told me about Tom's namesake, I looked around for a Thomas Crawford, but couldn't see a headstone with that name. Then remembering that he'd died in the First World War, I thought I'd try to impress Tom with my deductive abilities.
"I guess Thomas Crawford, the one you were named after, is buried in France," I said.
Instead of looking impressed, as I'd hoped, he looked startled. For the second time in just a few minutes I had to look away from as eyes as they stared intently at me. His unusual eyes were fascinating, even beautiful, when his attention was directed elsewhere, but when his attention was concentrated on me they could be very disconcerting. It felt as if he were trying to read my mind or see into my soul.
"What makes you say that?" he asked warily.
"Well, erm," I mumbled then forced myself to look into his eyes. "I can't see his grave here, and your mum said he died in the First World War. So I just sort of guessed."
He looked at me thoughtfully, as if he were assessing me. Occasionally his mother had made me feel very self-conscious by giving me a very similar look, especially soon after I first met her. However, it seemed to me that Tom was assessing me, even judging me, almost every time I met him. It was very unsettling.
"Actually," he said eventually, "no one knows where he is. They never found his body."
His tone was quite neutral, so there was no obvious explanation for the fact that I was suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of sadness so deep that the light seemed to dim. I thought that a cloud had passed in front of the sun, but when I looked up there were hardly any clouds to be seen, and none that would have so recently covered the sun. I shivered and staggered, but fortunately steadied myself by leaning on a nearby headstone.
"Are you okay?" Tom asked with genuine concern.
"Yeah. Yes, thanks," I said unsteadily, feeling a little foolish.
He looked at me dubiously, and for a moment I thought he was going to reach out to support me. Quickly, I straightened up, and in an attempt to distract attention from myself, I said the first thing that came into my head.
"It's sad that his family never had a grave to visit or a funeral to say goodbye."
"It was the same for lots of other families," he said quietly. "But at least there's the Memorial."
"Memorial?" I echoed.
"The War Memorial by the village green. Surely you've seen it?"
"Oh, yeah," I said, again feeling foolish.
Of course I'd seen it, but I'd not really looked at it. After all, virtually every village in England had a similar memorial. It was just part of the background scenery that I never paid much attention to.
"Thomas's name is on the Memorial," Tom said. "Come and see."
He walked off toward the centre of the village. I wasn't particularly interested in seeing a name on a memorial, but as I'd brought up the subject I felt I ought to follow him. When we got there I was surprised by how many men from just one small village had been killed in four years of war. There among the alphabetical listings was Thomas.
'Pvt Thomas Albert Crawford died Cambrais March 1918 aged 18'
Again I attempted to impress Tom, this time with my observational skills.
"I see both Thomas and Edward had the same middle name," I commented.
"Albert was a very common name in those days," he responded, clearly totally unimpressed.
"Well, I also noticed another coincidence," I said, not yet prepared to give up. "Edward had the same birthday as me!"
I gave him a small, almost triumphant smile and observed his expression, hoping for a small sign that I'd impressed him. For a moment his face betrayed some strong emotion, but he suppressed it so quickly that I couldn't interpret it. However, I was pretty certain that the emotion could not be described by the word 'impressed'.
"I'd better get back home," he said and immediately strode off.
It occurred to me that saying something briefly and then immediately walking off appeared to be one of Tom's main characteristics, at least when he was with me. I wondered if he did the same thing with everyone. Then I wondered whether he wanted me to follow or leave him alone. As I had no idea what he wanted me to do, I did what I wanted.
"I'm going home as well," I said as I caught up with him, "so I'll walk with you."
He didn't say anything and didn't give any other sign to indicate whether my accompanying him was either welcome or an annoyance. In fact, he seemed so caught up in his own thoughts that he appeared totally indifferent to my presence, if he noticed me at all. We walked along for a few minutes, neither of us speaking until we were more than half way home, by which time I was finding the silence uncomfortable.
"I notice that you and Brian don't seem to get along," I said, merely trying to open up a conversation.
His only response was to increase his walking speed. He'd already been walking quite fast, so keeping up with his new pace made me a little breathless. Obviously, he was fitter than I was because he was still breathing normally.
"It's a pity," I pressed on, "cos Brian seems to be a nice guy."
Still he didn't reply. To be honest, his lack of response, combined with the hot summer sun and the strain of such a fast walk, had made me irritable. Also, we were within sight of his house, and I knew that if I didn't get him to say something soon then it would be too late. Maybe getting him to speak was a challenge I couldn't resist. Whatever the case, my next words were perhaps unwise and probably a breach of Brian's confidence.
"He's sorry he opened your box, you know. Maybe you should forgive and forget. After all, he is your brother."
He stopped and stared at me, almost as if he couldn't believe what I'd said. For a while he seemed to struggle with himself, as if there were several things he wanted to say but couldn't decide whether or not to say anything.
"That's what he told you is it?" he said with an angry frown. "That it's just about the box?"
Having prodded him until I got a response, this particular response made me wish I'd not pushed things so far. Fearing that anything else I said might make him even more angry, I just nodded my head.
"Well it might have started with the box, but it's not about that anymore. As Brian seems to be telling you so much, maybe you should ask him to tell you the whole truth!"
With that, he ran off and disappeared inside his house, so I continued up the driveway toward my own home. Whatever was really going on between Tom and Brian, I decided that the risk of such emotional reactions might make it unwise to ask either brother about it.
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