The Collection (Part 1)
She wanted a quick getaway, but Reverend Wilkes stopped Layla and her husband on the church steps, ensnaring them in conversation. As the other parishioners filed past, Wilkes plied them with questions. She pursed her lips and dug sharp fingernails into her palms as he spoke.
He asked how their son Roland was enjoying university, and if Lizzie, their eldest, would be visiting soon. She noticed Geoff tense at this second question and rested her hand on his back before he could answer. She explained to Reverend Wilkes that Lizzie was enjoying life in London and would be coming home to visit soon.
“Shall we get going?” she added, ushering Geoff down the church steps before Wilkes could say another word. They moved briskly through the throng and down Watery Lane.
“Old busy body,” Geoff said.
She changed the subject with a smile, “First customers arriving at six. Jobs to do.”
Geoff shrugged, “Who’s giving the grand tour, you or me?”
“Deal’s a deal. You stick to maintenance, I’ll do customer relations.”
Their walk out of town and across the field passed in comfortable silence. They reached the bridge, rounded the long bend in the single lane road and the farmhouse came into view. The sight of it still filled her with pride. Each of the four sections separated by neat turrets, all built with pastel brown stone direct from the Blaxter Quarry. The flower and vegetable gardens ranged out to the west. A wild orchard and meadow, which they thought of as their own, flanked to the south.
At first, she was set against Geoff’s idea to annex the east wing, converting it to a holiday let. Why turn their little piece of the Cotswolds into a chopped-up boarding house? He’d chipped away for months, explaining the designs, showing her how it could all be self-contained. “All we’ll have to do,” he said, “is take the bookings and watch the money roll in.”
When she finally acquiesced, the renovations had gone smoothly, leaving plenty of room in the rest of the house, just as he’d promised. Air BNB automated the admin, and they had bookings all the way up to Christmas. Layla could hardly believe what people were prepared to pay for a cramped guesthouse.
If her calculations were correct, this new cash flow would upgrade their retirement plans from fixed income penny-pinching, to borderline affluence. She was already planning a trip to India in the Autumn, and skiing with her friend Annabel in the new year.
The rest of the day passed in busy preparation for their first guests. Layla had cleaned the guest house the day before, but she gave the newly fitted bathroom and kitchen one more spruce. It wasn’t the review or the money which mattered, but family pride. The main bedroom had once been a playroom for Jemma and Roland, the kitchen a TV room where the kids, in their teenage years, had played video games with their friends. Layla knew it was silly, but she imagined their love and joy seeping into the fabric of the house. She hoped the Sheldons would know this was a blessed place.
Between five and six, they sat together on the sofa, Geoff with a paperback, Layla with her embroidery. Her eyes kept wandering to the front window, anticipating the Sheldon’s car. She had to unpick her stitch so many times, eventually she gave up. At twenty past the hour, she asked Geoff if they should call the Sheldon’s mobile, and check everything was okay.
He nodded solemnly, “Or maybe you should try the police? Put out a missing persons’ report?”
For a second she was thrown, then saw a smile break out on his face. She punched him playfully on the shoulder.
“You’re all wound up Layl.” he said, “Take it down a notch or two.”
The words were barely out of his mouth when the sound of crunching gravel made them turn toward the window. Jean and Lawrence Sheldon were climbing out of the Land Rover as Layla opened the front door.
Mrs. Sheldon was tall and slim, with shoulder length black hair, expensively styled. She wore a fleece pulled down tight over sporty leggings which clung to toned leg muscles. Reflexively, Layla dropped her hands to her hips.
Lawrence Sheldon was dressed more soberly, sky-blue shirt tucked into navy chinos. He had a handsome angular face, with prominent cheek bones. His hair was shaved and receding, but he wore it well. They looked like the successful middle-aged couple they probably were. Layla told herself to admire them for it.
Geoff sidled past and shook their hands. Layla followed.
“The house looks amazing,” Jean Sheldon addressed this to Layla. Her smile was wide and bright, perhaps too much so.
“Thank you.” she replied, “You’ll be staying on this side.” She winced, knowing it sounded proprietorial.
Jean Sheldon kept on grinning and said “Fabulous”, retreating to the back passenger door and opening it for the figure inside. He got out.
Layla gave Geoff a look. She had expected a boy, but this was a man. Young, perhaps early twenties, but a man nonetheless. He was tall like his parents but too thin for his height. His black hoodie and tracksuit bottoms flapped around him, like a scarecrow caught in the wind. The son had his father’s features, but beneath the flop of greasy black hair, it lent him a counterfeit look, like a lazily designed plastic doll.
He raised his head and fixed his gaze on Layla.
A series of vague, anchorless memories reared up in her mind. An amalgam of news footage and photographs from newspapers, men trying to cover their faces, police on either side of them. Joshua Sheldon had the same the same aura of defiant menace about him.
His mother must have noticed Layla’s reaction. When Joshua began dragging his case into the house, she whispered, “He’s been having a tough time at university. We thought he’d benefit from some country air. Might even come walking with me and his Dad.”
“That’s nice.” Layla said.
“Or he might just hang around in the flat. You know, relax. That’s okay isn’t it?”
“Of course,” Layla said, although she wasn’t entirely sure. She lead Mrs. Sheldon away to show her the flat, whilst the father and son continued to bring in the luggage. She explained the WIFI and the hot water and the TV, and was about hand over the key when a box carried by Lawrence Sheldon caught her eye.
“Is everything okay?” Jean Sheldon asked.
Layla’s brain took a few seconds to categorise the twist of metal and wires poking out the top of the plastic container.
“What’s that?” The question was, undoubtedly, intrusive. If the roles had been reversed, Layla would have told her host mind her own bloody business.
But Jean Sheldon didn’t seem to mind. “Sound equipment. Joshua likes to play with sound. It’s a hobby. Microphones, that kind of thing.”
Layla’s pulse thumped around her ears, like a bass drum pounding. “Microphones?” she said.
As a quiet, reclusive child, Layla had hated nothing more than her mother’s microphones.
Coronet, carbon, ribbon or moving coil; the variety did not matter, she’d have destroyed them all given half a chance. They seemed to grow like weeds in every corner of their home, and absorb her mother’s attention and kindness.
She knew it was unhealthy to feel so intensely jealous of these inert interlopers, but a child needs the love and attention of a parent. Layla’s mother spent far more time checking and meddling with her precious microphones than tending to the needs of her own daughter.
Her father had disappeared from their family life whilst Layla was still in the womb. Photographs and letters suggested a domineering, irascible man, refusing to suffer fools gladly. She suspected his absence had created space for her mother’s obsession to take root and grow. Her mother never spoke of him and became agitated if Layla dared mention his name.
Their house, situated on Watery Lane near to the church and school, was large and difficult to maintain. There was old family money somewhere, but never enough to cover daily costs and her mother’s obsession. Layla remembered leaks and damp and carpets worn down to patches of floorboard. The garden was full of junk and beneath the house was a boarded up cellar, condemned as a death trap.
In one room, her mother collected and experimented with her recordings. They called it the studio, but it more closely resembled a junk shop dumped inside a Victorian drawing room. Every surface was covered with the detritus of capturing and replaying sound: record players, headphones, tape decks, adjusters and unused microphones. There were shelves covering the walls packed with reels of tape and vinyl, some of it labelled, some of it not. Around the rest of the house, mics were placed in every crevice and corner, all connected by a spider’s web of wires. If there had been friends to invite, Layla would never have taken them inside her home.
Once, she summoned the courage to ask about the microphones and the endless hours her mother spent in the studio.
“What are you listening for, mummy?”
“For the truth,” she replied, “For the word.”
Layla knew there was more to ask, more for her mother to tell, but instinct told her to stop.
Church was the only relief from home. Each Thursday Layla would accompany her mother in preparing the flowers for St. Dunstan’s, and on Sunday they would attend services.
This was her life until the age of ten, and she accommodated herself to it. The routines of moving through each day may have been difficult, sometimes even traumatising, but it was her life, and she could have continued with it long into her adult years.
But one day, mother took Layla for a walk in the fields on the edge of town, and life changed forever.
The next morning, she felt more positive about their guests. Layla knew she needed to get used to having other people close by, give herself time to adjust. As she was making breakfast, she watched the elder Sheldons exiting the front gate, complete with backpacks, hiking boots and walking poles. She smiled and shook her head, feeling silly for fretting the night before.
Geoff was cheerier that morning too. He had plans to expand their meagre vegetable patch. After breakfast, he sat at the table sketching a diagram of where each of his “crops” would be sowed, mumbling to himself about how the potatoes could fit around the carrots, and how he might have room for leeks or onions in this area or that. Layla liked hearing him talk this way. Geoff was always better company when he had a project to work on.
She called Lizzie and caught up on her life in London. Layla could not imagine enjoying the speed and chaos of the Capital, parties and her seemingly ever-changing roles creating fundraising campaigns for charities. But Lizzie seemed to thrive on it, and Layla was grateful for her happiness, knowing herself how easily things could take a turn for the worse.
After lunch, she and Geoff went out onto the back-garden patio, drank tea and watched the sparrows flit around the birdfeeder. Geoff used his binoculars to spot birds in the distance. This had been the pace of their life together for some years, but Layla found more satisfaction in it that morning, knowing that, even as they relaxed, the flat next door was earning their keep.
“Plans today?” Geoff asked.
“I’ll sort the flowers at church later. Then I need to pick up . . .” Layla stopped mid-sentence.
Over Geoff’s shoulder she’d spotted a figure moving in the distance, along the tree line which separated the grazing field from the woods. The Sheldon boy walked along the path in a hunched shuffling manner, hands in his hoodie pockets.
Geoff said, “Funny one, that lad.”
But it wasn’t just the boy who’d caught Layla’s eye. “Do you see? Do you see around his ankles?”
“My eyes aren’t what they once were.”
“By his feet,” she said.
She picked up the binoculars. Layla scanned for Joshua Sheldon, adjusting the focus until she had a clearer view. He’d picked up his pace, making it tricky to keep him in her sights, and the long grass made it difficult to see the lower part of his body. But there seemed to be something there, something small bounding alongside him. It would flash above the grass line for an instant, then drop away. Sheldon was looking down towards it, speaking to it.
“Layla, please,” Geoff’s voice was gruff and insistent.
A break in the grass allowed her to see it for a half-second. It could have been a squirrel or a weasel or even a large rat. It hopped along in time with the Sheldon’s step, as if they were two friends chattering to each other on a country walk.
“Layla, put those down! He’ll see you spying on him.”
She dropped the glasses and turned to Geoff, checking how serious he was. The colour rising in his neck and cheeks told her. Before she placed the binoculars down, she sneaked one more look, but could no longer see anything alongside the boy.
“Layla” Geoff scolded.
She put the binoculars down, and looked again with the naked eye. The boy was no longer looking down. The flitting figure beside him seemed to have disappeared.
“What was it anyway?” Geoff said.
“An animal . . .” but even as she started to say it, she knew how ridiculous it would sound. “Nothing. Maybe a trick of the light.”