Lost Dog 9
The Devil. His brother's words played on Richard's mind. Why hadn't he considered it before ? Had his mother been consumed by some dark, primeval spirit ? Is that why she abandoned Richard's father ? Had she been brainwashed ?
Slowly, gradually, pieces began to fit together. He recalled his mother's artwork - the strange, beguiling animal portraits, the moody landscapes that contained bizarre images of illicit sex in autumnal forests. And the way she accused Jackie of bringing her injuries upon herself. Wasn't that alone enough to explain her warped frame of mind ?
Richard began to shiver. The cottage was suddenly infused with her. Every corner, every blemish on every wall, seemed to contain her spirit. Was this the reason why strangers were throwing bricks through the window ? Was this why dead birds were being left on the doorstep ?
He thought back to his time with Morwenna. He was certain that he'd been drugged. She had come into the bedroom and checked to see if he was still unconscious. She'd said: "He's still sleeping. We'll come back later." Why ? What was she planning to do with him ? Imprison him indefinitely ? And then, the strangest, most logical thought: Was Morwenna a witch ?
He began to clean the cottage - from top to bottom he needed to expunge his mother’s memory. Leaving it as it was had been a mistake. The walls needed stripping and re-papering, the living room needed carpeting, the kitchen needed tearing apart. Even so, he didn't believe he could live here, not now. All the paint and paper in the world wasn't enough to drive out her spirit. She remained within the brickwork, in the loft, beneath the floorboards - a spectre, a ghost, ready to haunt him forever.
He washed the skirting boards and door frames with hot water and bleach. Then he vacuumed each room, wiped the exposed floorboards with a cloth as if he were wiping away the invisible seeds of a virus. Next was the kitchen: he dismantled the old cupboards and shelving units that had housed her food, throwing the pieces of wood out of the back kitchen door until a large pile grew ready to be burned.
He continued throughout the night, stripping the old wallpaper in each room until all that was left was the wall by his makeshift bed. He pushed his bedding to one side and began to tear off the paper. As he did so drawings appeared, drawings that were similar in form and content to the paintings stored in the barn. The more paper he tore from the wall, the more drawings were revealed. And in the centre, above where Richard's head lay when he slept, a large self-portrait of his mother emerged, a portrait in which she, in a standing position, was floating like some bizarre angel, her arms outstretched, her hands holding sprigs of vine, her face at peace and her eyes closed, as if she were ascending to a spirit world.
Exhausted, he slept in the living room, the room in which a brick had come crashing through the window. The drawing of his mother still graced the upstairs wall. The sight of it had been enough to make him flee downstairs, unable to summon the energy to paint over it and erase it forever. He vowed to do so as soon as he woke but, realizing that he had been alone in the house for three days, he felt instead a compelling need to embark on his regular walk along the sea front. The house seemed to be suffocating him, draining him of all mental, spiritual and physical power. Richard needed to clear his head.
The following morning he made his way to the beach and stood, the sea before him, gazing out towards the horizon, observing the dog walkers and parents allowing their toddlers a free run in the sand. It was late autumn now - out of season - and the sea front attractions had been packed away, out of sight until next spring. The small sea front café, though, was still open and Richard went to the counter. A middle aged woman greeted him and he ordered a cup of tea. She was chatty, this woman, and wanted to know if he was visiting. Richard, conscious that he hadn't spoken to another fellow human being for nearly five days, responded, explaining that his mother had recently passed away and he was fixing up her cottage. The woman inquired further, telling Richard that she had run the little cafe for over twenty years. "I probably knew her" she said and asked Richard for her name. He told her and she nodded. His mother had been a regular customer, especially in autumn and early spring when visitors were thin on the ground. "She used to buy a cup of tea, just as you've done, and sit over there, content as you like." The woman pointed to the wooden benches and chairs overlooking the beach. "She was a lovely lady. Always cheerful and never short of a good word. She'll be missed."
He carried on along the sea front road and round the jagged isthmus where the castle stood, stopping for a while to gaze out across the bay. He turned and prepared to walk down the hill and re-trace his steps home. As he did so he saw two familiar figures standing on the pavement: the youth and the black mongrel dog that had been promised to his mother.
They were standing on the opposite side of the road, adjacent to a car park. The youth was staring directly at Richard and, when Richard turned, he hurried along the pavement and out of sight.
Because he was at the far end of the car park Richard ran up the incline and then bore left, following the road as it snaked round the coastal point, carrying on downwards to the sea front proper. He was soon out of breath. As he rounded the final bend he saw that the youth and the mongrel were already near a lay by, another popular parking place for people to sit and look out to sea. He walked after them as quickly as he could. They remained in his sight until the youth veered off from the road towards a sea-front shelter, hidden from the road by hedge rose and trees. By the time Richard got there the youth had disappeared again. In front of the shelter was a wooden fence. Beyond the wooden fence was the exposed rock leading down to the water.
Richard climbed over the fence. Sure enough the youth and the dog were clambering across the rock in the direction of the beach. Richard tried to follow. He found it difficult to make his way across the sharp rocks. His feet kept slipping and his shoes were soon wet. The youth, more nimble, easily negotiated his way onto the sand. Soon both he and the dog walked across the little beach after which Richard lost sight of them.
Richard considered turning back. He realized that the tide was coming in. Within an hour or so the rocks he was walking on would be submerged. He decided to continue, reckoning that the beach was nearer than the shelter where he'd climbed the fence. Either way it was touch and go. Not only had he lost his quarry but he was in danger of becoming marooned.
He managed to scramble to shore but not before the fast incoming tide had soaked not only his shoes but his trousers below the knee as well. He called a taxi to take him home and, once inside the cottage, fell into his bed, exhausted.
He woke at midnight, sensing that someone was outside. Slowly, he got up and dressed, expecting another rock to crash through the window at any moment.
The knife and rope were still hidden, available for him to use should he need them. The small rucksack he’d packed sat ready in the corner of the room. Richard took hold of it and made his way towards the kitchen.
Once there he heard the sound of somebody moving the pieces of wood he’d thrown out the previous day. The person was near – just beyond the kitchen door. He could see the blurred figure through the frosted glass. The person then came close to the door and tried the handle, twisting it three, four, five times. Richard remained in darkness, his back pressed to the wall. The figure moved away.
Richard unlocked the kitchen door and stepped outside. Then he ran to the small shed in the garden and crouched down to retrieve the knife hidden in the gap between the side of the shed and a wall. He turned, got to his feet and recoiled as he saw the figure of the intruder. The youth was standing looking at Richard from the kitchen door. Next to him sat the black mongrel dog.
“What do you want ?” Richard asked.
The youth looked different. He seemed calm – almost serene – as if turning up at the cottage at midnight was a normal thing to do.
“Morwenna would like to speak with you.”
Richard said: “She knows where I am.”
“Not here” the youth continued “at Morwenna’s house.”
Richard wondered whether it was an elaborate trick. Did Morwenna think she could simply coax him back ?
“You’ll have to explain to your friend Morwenna that I have no desire whatsoever to visit her house, at least not until my car is returned.”
The youth nodded. “I understand. I’ve been asked to tell you that your car is ready for you to collect.”
Richard was steadily becoming more angry. “Who the hell does Morwenna think she is ? If she had something to do with the disappearance of my car then she should bring it back to me!”
He realized that he was still holding the knife and that he looked faintly ridiculous with it in his hand. The youth was not a danger to him and neither, it seemed, was the dog. Richard unzipped his rucksack and dropped the knife inside.
“Morwenna wants to discuss certain things with you. She said it’s imperative that you return.”
“What things ?”
“Things that concern your late mother.”
Another scenario unfolded itself: Morwenna had considered Richard’s rights towards his mother’s artwork and, after engaging in a futile attempt at intimidation, fearing, perhaps, that Richard would go to a solicitor, she now wanted to reach some kind of agreement. Perhaps the youth had thrown the brick that landed in Richard’s living room although he found it difficult to believe that such a mild-mannered soul would be capable of such a thing.
Richard, condescending, said: “And when am I required to travel to see your so-called mistress ?”
The youth ignored Richard’s jibe. “I can drive you there immediately.”
A small white diesel van was parked close to Richard’s house.
“I don’t take kindly to being intimidated in this manner” Richard said. “I expect to be fully compensated for the window you broke.”
The youth looked puzzled. “I don’t know anything about a broken window.”
Richard told him to stop lying. “My front window was smashed and a dead bird left on the doorstep. If it wasn’t you, who else could it have been ?”
“Teenagers from the town” came the answer. “Your mother was a recluse. A target for prejudiced minds. Morwenna was required to intervene on more than one occasion.”
Richard felt a wave of guilt wash through him. His mother had endured hatred and intimidation and he hadn’t been able to help her. Why hadn’t she told him about such acts ?
“And yesterday ? You were following me.”
“No. That was merely a coincidence. Yesterday was not the right time to speak with you.”
Richard recalled his conversation with Peter, his use of the words curse, Devil. Perhaps the youth was right - now was the time to confront Morwenna.
They walked to the van and the youth opened the rear doors, allowing the dog to jump onto an old mattress. As they drove away from the cottage Richard wondered if he had been told the truth or whether he was willingly being led into Morwenna’s trap.
Part 10 here: