Granny Ower The Green (Part Two)
He would say no more, but a couple of days later she wheedled further information from one of the labourers, who seemed a bit more forthcoming (on the basis that he blatantly fancied her). According to Joseph (‘You can call me Big Joe, treacle.’), a local company had the franchise for the shop and post office. The ground floor was going to be used for retail; the upper floors were being converted into a café and heritage centre complete with an observation deck. Helen found herself taking a keen interest in the renovation; there was little else as yet to hold the attention in this windswept place. She thought it might be good if she could get a job in the shop.
How the application form for the job landed on her door mat she was not sure, and it made a small note of concern playing beneath her delight. She supposed she must have dropped some kind of broad hint to Big Joe or one of the other site workers and they passed on her interest. She filled in the form in one quick burst and sent it away as soon as she could. Then she completely forgot about it. More uncounted weeks went by. Several families with children moved into the row. She introduced herself, noticing how these new arrivals seemed like refugees. They were so shell-shocked, disconcerted by the move from town to country, and she wondered if her own little tribe had appeared so traumatised at first. The families were so introverted that she knew she would struggle to communicate with them, but she supposed beggars could not be choosers when it came to associating with strange neighbours in a small community.
After she met these new strangers a childish echo ran through her mind: But I was here first, and she laughed at herself for it. The words themselves seemed to prefigure her own coming here, as if she had tapped into a historic voice put in the archive of this place by someone else.
One morning she found a letter waiting for her, marked on the envelope, ‘Come over to the shop at ten’. Yet she felt a deeper part of her instinct was putting the brakes on her impulse to accept the invitation without question. She had decided not to go and was agonising over it when, just after nine, she received a crackly phone call from Dave who was going on about some emergency with Steve. His signal disconnected before she could get any details, other than the fact that he was on his way here. She scrawled an abject note of apology on a piece of scrap paper and shoved it through the letterbox of the shuttered shop, glad that there was no sign of anyone inside. Then she hurried off with the objecting Tiny towards Mrs McDonald’s house.
‘What’s up? Why are we rushing out? Tell me what’s happening,’ Tiny objected as she rushed to the old lady’s cottage.
‘Can you look after him please?’ she asked Miss McDonald breathlessly and shoved Tiny in the door.
The old woman was a beacon of calm and did not have to be told the reason behind the emergency. ‘To be sure,’ she was saying. ‘Go on and mind to your pressing concern. I will not let him stray far, only to the north. The north is good and safe...’
Helen had to double back quickly to her own house and arrived as Dave screeched up in his car. She was in the car and moving before she could question him. He explained that the police had contacted him about Steve. But this time it was different from previous times when he had vanished, when there had been the feeling of veiled threat about his whereabouts, as when he had disappeared in the past. The authorities wanted access to Steve’s house and Dave had a key. Dave had tried to get in touch with Steve’s lawyer, but he was nowhere to be found. Ten to one he was on a gold course somewhere, trying to bribe some shady business contacts. Warning beacons were going off in Dave’s mind. If he was going into Dave’s house with the police, he wanted a friendly witness with him.
Sergeant Hendrie was waiting in the stair well of the tenement when they arrived, whistling loudly, taking advantage of the acoustics of the close and also warning any inquisitive neighbours to stay indoors. He winked when he saw Helen, knowing her from the old days when she was a punch bag. His moustache crinkled as he beckoned them up the stairs. At the door he guided them in with a sarcastic change of tune: ‘When The Saints Go Marching In’. The unkempt scent of an unwashed single man wafted out rather sickeningly as they entered. Hendrie stopped whistling and stomped into each room briskly to make sure the man was not there. Dave hung back, reluctant to connect to anything in the place. But Helen felt comfortably neutral in the flat, never having lived there. She felt a modicum of satisfaction to have it confirmed that her ex was incapable of even basic hygiene.
‘Nae sign of the dirty bastard,’ Sergeant Hendrie said breezily, coming out of the bathroom. ‘By the way, I wouldn’t recommend relieving yourself in there, if you feel the need.’
Helen gingerly sat down on the settee, which groaned under the weight of her slight frame. ‘Maybe Steve’s wedged down the back, stuck in the stuffing,’ Dave ventured.
‘If he is, let’s leave him there,’ Helen said. She shuffled around the cluttered surface of the coffee table. There were old Chinese food recepticles and a pizza box. Beside the abandoned meals was a record sleeve covered with a confetti of Rizzla fag papers and little dried grubs of tobacco. The policeman fetched up the remains close to his face and sniffed, smelling for cannabis, but his senses revealed no remaining speck of drug on the cover. He tossed it down onto the table.
Helen picked it up forlornly, wishing to find some clue. The record was Paul McCartney’s Ram.
‘Forty years behind the times,’ she said sadly and discarded it.
Dave had to ask Sergeant Hendrie what the procedure was now, but he seemed to have lost interest as much as Helen had. He waffled something about pursuing different lines of enquiry, but there was nothing to delay them there, so Dave hurried her out and they departed the scene.
‘I doubt’ said Dave, when they got to street level, ‘we'll no see that bloody brither o mine again.’ He made an obscure hand gesture to the looming clouds, as if it was obvious that Steve had migrated to another plane. Then he came back to earth with a curse. He shrugged and said there was nothing more to do, which was true.
‘Tell me if you want anything from the flat,’ he said. ‘I’m sure the polis will hand over his belongings in a week or two.’
‘No need,’ Helen said definitely. ‘Yesterday’s meals and cheap rubbish.’
Dave barely said anything on the way back to her house and refused a cup of tea, muttering about how the village was worse than a mausoleum. She thought he might be secretly hurt about Steve's vanishing, but she was too drained to question him. A symptom of her own disquiet were the dreams she started having. They contained a recurring cycle of movement, unshaped initially, that resolved into a churning mass of clouds reflected in the sea. In the background, over the storm sounding, was the disquieting sound of animals bleakly crying. But she could not identify the creatures, and the puzzle coldly lingered when she woke.
‘Seals?’ she said to herself. But she unsure that was the answer.
Henry, who ran the shop, insisted on first name terms with customers and staff. More formally, to enemies and business associates he was Henry Albert MacIlwraith. But to the anonymous ladies he courted on the telephone, he was Wee Hen.
The first time Helen saw him he was on the phone, chatting away. He beckoned her into the back room of the shop with fiery eyes and continued speaking. He chortled so heartily that it startled her, as did the gusto in his phrase: ‘Hullo again, Suzy! It's Wee Hen, your verra best amigo here!’
A fault on the line terminated the call before it could get more interesting. Henry swivelled around to focus on Helen. She blinked under the intensity of his scrutiny. It turned out that Henry knew much about her already, such as the fact that she had two teenage boys, was divorced, and he even uncannily claimed some distant kindred with her late mother. The interview was actually a monologue in which he exhausted himself and then drew a submission of agreement to employment from her.
‘Of course, the shop is merely the side line,’ he confided, taking her arm. ‘It’s the bread and butter side of the business, pardon the metaphor. What I'm really interested in is upstairs. Come with me.’
The sudden camp inflection in his voice diffused concern; and he took a tight grip of her elbow, which was a necessary safety measure, because the stairs up the tower were narrow, unlit, and undergoing a process of renovation. The walls seemed dark, but they smelled of fresh paint. Helen was rather dazzled by the open space on the first floor. There was nothing at all here, which was perhaps why it seemed so much larger than the ground floor shop. The walls were grim grey, except for a very unnatural looking black band which ran raggedly around the walls, halfway up.
‘What's that?’ Helen asked. She had to raise her voice because the sound of the booming sea invaded the place.
Henry became conspiratorial again. ‘That ugly demarcation mark was made by the sea when it invaded this look out tower some time in the 19th century. Folklorists admit the event, but historians do not. Yet there it is in black and white, or rather in black.’
‘Wasn't it part of the witch story?’ she asked, fascinated. She attempted to reach out her hand towards the ugly black band, which seemed rather more like a scorch mark than a sea stain. But she flinched back her hand when it drew near, because the blackness seemed suddenly more wet and slimy.
‘There are different witch stories,’ Henry said senatorially. ‘This one said that the witch sent the waves inland when the watchmen stationed here took too much notice of what she was doing out to sea.’
‘What was she doing?’
‘Naebody kens that juicy mystery, lovely.’
This seemed rather unsatisfactory. ‘I thought it was the church,’ Helen said. ‘The kirk was destroyed by the witch when...oh, I don't know the details precisely.’
Henry laughed at her exasperation.
‘So, dare you work here then?’ he asked.
Helen felt that it was already ordained that she should work here and it would have been churlish to swim against the tide of fate. She would start the following week. In the meantime her head was buzzing with flotsam gathered from the plans for the heritage centre, and it was odd that some of the things in her mind had definitely not been said by Henry. None of it would have interested her ordinarily.
She saw in her mind, repeated that night, a photograph of a village brass band from a century ago. The image had the acknowledged sombreness of the long-dead, but some of the faces in the three ranks were strangely blurred. It was not an aberration of Victorian technology, she thought, but a willing indistinctness which made its purpose sinister. In the middle of the middle rank in the dream photograph, though surely not in the real one, was a proud, uncanny mascot: the figurehead of a ship which must have sunk long ago, since the female figure was well decayed and covered with a clinging mat of tangled seaweed. The men on either side clasped their arms around it in a possessive, almost amorous fashion.
The day before she was due to start work the police came to her door. It was a different sergeant from the one she had previously seen, but she thought she recognised him from somewhere. He came to tell her that Steve was dead. Sergeant Loanhead had to acrobatically catch her as she fell back in the doorway when he spilled out the news. Then he had to contend with Tiny charging to the rescue, as he thought, when he saw the policeman manhandling his mum. The man had to fend him off while supporting her weight and carting her through to the living room.
Helen heard vague distortions in her head of what the sergeant said, though it made no sense. At first she believed he had said that Steve was found ‘asleep in the sea’. Then it changed into ‘with sheep in the sea’. She was drowned in her senses for five minutes while the policemen and a suddenly present policewoman ministered to her. Tiny buzzed around in the background and brought her a glass of water which tasted so oddly salty it made her retch. Finally the reality sunk in. Steve had been found dead on the shore, north of the village, the currents had carried him south and he had been found a bare mile away. It was likely that he had entered the water at the harbour, but nobody could say what had drawn him into the sea. Maybe he had drunk the town dry and wanted to swallow the ocean.
‘He was trying to reach me,’ Helen thought. His one last gasp, reaching out to destroy her. But some malign power, fortunate for her, had prevented him and snuffed out his evil light. The body had been found tangled up in bladderwrack between high and low tides. ‘Chained in weeds,’ she thought.
Miss McDonald joined the small group in the front room. Neither Tiny nor the police had fetched her. Helen imagined that she had been magnetically attracted by the emergency, and was perplexed by her presence in this chaos, until the waves of calm from the old woman overcame and soothed her. She thought she heard the policewoman say that Steve's mouth had been full of water and his lungs were clear, meaning he could not have drowned. Yet that could not be true, surely, she thought.
‘Where is Johnny?’ she wondered out loud.
‘He's at a party in town, remember?’ Tiny said.
‘He should be here,’ Helen objected.
‘But he hates it here,’ Tiny answered. ‘He told me he’d rather be at the bottom of the sea than living here.'
Helen felt a tremor of motion from her hand across his face, and the shockwave darken his expression, then a red ripple mark on his cheek as her hand withdrew. She did not hear a sound. The room turned outside down. Tiny bolted out of the door and old Miss McDonald surreally bounded after him. She found herself being restrained by the burly sergeant while the policewoman senselessly lectured her.
There was no doctor in the village who could sedate her. But she actually felt like she had been chemically restrained. They told her that she had simply blacked out, a ‘fact’ which she treated with suspicion. Whatever happened, she woke up deep that evening, encased tightly in straightjacket sheets of her own bed. The sky through the un-curtained window was lead black. She could hear the sea rolling and thought it was coming to find her in the night.
Davie was sitting there, watching with concern.
Helen gave a gasp when she opened her eyes and saw her, because for a second she thought he was Steve. He laughed mirthlessly when she told him this.
‘No chance of that, hen,’ Davie said. ‘I’ve already seen him, or what was left of him after the North Sea spat him out.’
‘Identified him already? That was quick.’
‘There’s the insurance money to claim,’ Davie said, then added, ‘That was a joke, by the way.’
She sighed and sank back into her pillows.
‘What kind of state was he in? Not that I really care.’
‘He has looked better. Put it this way, rather me identify him than you.’
[To Be Continued]