The Secret of Hillnesss Point 3
The next few weeks, the last of the summer holidays, were a blur for the girls. They spent them exploring their new surroundings as you would expect. There were several visits to the Post Office and one to the pub for Sunday lunch. Magwins was not mentioned again, and Belinda did her shopping at the new Supermarket outside Firchester. The most interesting development during those sunny days though was a new friend.
Nigel Crackthorne-Woottonn (two T’s two N’s) was a little older than the girls and quite a bit taller and his name was exceptionally, ridiculously long. He was not the sort of boy who could go unnoticed in a crowd on account of his bright blonde hair and very prominent ears. He lived three doors away with his Aunt Stephanie and Uncle Ray in a cottage much like the one the Fairways now occupied. His parents had gone to Africa to help underprivileged children who couldn’t read or write (or so he told the girls) and would soon send for him. He couldn’t be quite sure how long they had been gone though he thought it must be nearly a year. Aunt Stephanie was his mother’s sister. She was quite old, almost fifty, and had a thin, pale face with a permanently tired expression as if she always needed a little lie down to perk her up. She was a teacher and might even teach Natalie and Elizabeth when they started at St Brenda’s School for Boys and Girls where they and Nigel and every other child under twelve for miles around would soon be starting the new year. Uncle Ray was a wiry energetic man who always seemed to have “jobs to get on with”. he was invariably away at work or if at home spent his days tinkering with an old motorbike or his ancient Ford car. Elizabeth had first encountered Nigel on the lane that passed by her front door as he walked home from playing cricket on the fields behind the meeting hall. He looked quite nice and very grown up in his whites and Elizabeth had said so in that direct way of hers and Nigel had felt rather flattered, not being used to such compliments. They struck up a conversation and before long Natalie had joined them introducing herself as Natalia in a mock East-European accent and immediately telling Nigel that his ears were bigger than Prince Charles’ in that direct way or hers. Before long the three had struck up a friendship and had spent quite a few afternoons exploring Hillness Point and its surroundings.
The children were allowed to roam pretty much anywhere except the beach and the cliff which were off limits unless they were with adults because of warnings of cliff falls. The year before a young courting couple on holiday from London had tragically been killed when a huge section of the cliff face had slipped and buried them as they lay in each others arms.
The sisters and Nigel spent many happy hours walking on the hill or playing football and cricket which Nigel was determined to teach them so he could practice his batting and were frequently at each others houses until their Mothers called them to bed. There were very few other children living in the village. The young mostly moved away to University or to work in nearby Firchester or even further to London. The average age of a Hillness resident was probably sixty or so. The sons and daughters of local farmers appeared occasionally with their parents, shopping or visiting the village to post a letter but never stayed for long. There were grandchildren who visited but they seemed to keep themselves to themselves and Nigel, Natalie and Elizabeth felt as if they had the whole of Hillness to themselves.
During the days they explored the village and Nigel showed them various things he had discovered. Behind the wooden meeting hall there was a large patch of burnt grass that he told them had been where the furniture from the hall been burnt when it was discovered to be riddled with a particularly virulent strain of woodworm. In the graveyard he showed them a headstone that bore the inscription;
“In Memory of The Girl In Green - Killed by Train
December 11th 1933”
“Gone but not Forgotten”
Nigel said she had been so badly injured that no one could recognise her and no one had come forward to claim the body. The train of course no longer came as far even as Firchester but had once terminated at a small and now abandoned station a mile or so away from Hillness. Around the turn of the century holiday makers had used it to reach the coast and there were still pictures on the meeting hall walls of severe looking women in long black pinch-waisted skirts, carrying parasols and standing in front of the Ness with children dressed in smocks and long socks.
For the most part the village and its surroundings were pleasant. The only place they gave a wide berth was the big house on the green. They had never seen anyone come in or out although lights would sometimes be on in the dusk. Nigel told them his Aunt Stephanie had instructed him to keep away from the house and that it was owned by some foreign people who used it for holidays. To the children it didn’t look much like a holiday house but they gave it little thought at the time. Only Natalie appeared to be dissatisfied with this and would sometimes suggest they take a closer look. She was intrigued by the carved eyes on the gateposts and wanted to know why they were there. Her sister and Nigel ignored her as was the best way.
One warm Sunday afternoon Nigel, Natalie and Elizabeth were having tea at Nigel’s house. Aunt Stephanie had made egg sandwiches, toasted tea cakes, a pot of Earl Grey tea, real lemonade and a huge Victoria sponge cake. They were eating in the kitchen and Stephanie had gone into the living room to do some work, closing the door behind her and leaving the children alone. Uncle Ray was hammering something in the back garden and whistling his favourite tune which due to his tone deafness could have been anything at all.
“Thif spunch if luffley” Nigel had a piece of cake almost as big as his head stuffed sideways in his mouth.
They munched in silence for a few minutes before Natalie poured the lemonade in three large plastic tumblers and they all sat back in their chairs stomachs full to bursting.
“Heard you had a bit of a fright at Magwins then”. Nigel said offhandedly.
“When?” Elizabeth wondered why he’d brought that up now, weeks had passed since the mouse incident.
“I wasn’t frightened, it was Lizzy”. Said Natalie.
“Well, anyway. That’s what I heard”. Nigel shrugged
They drank more lemonade. So full of cake they were beginning to feel sleepy.
“She’s a witch you know. She keeps a black panther in her bedroom and at night she sends it out to do her bidding and kill anyone who crosses her”. Nigel growled the last words in a sort of ‘Long John Silver’ voice.
“That’s rubbish” Natalie scoffed.
“How would you know?”
“Well….” She frowned.
“See. Don’t say its rubbish if you don’t know. I happen to have seen it if you don’t mind.”
“Seen what?” asked Elizabeth.
“The… Panther”. Nigel breathed.
The room seemed very still and quiet. Both girls knew that Nigel wasn’t really the type to tell lies, even for effect.
“When did you see it?” Natalie’s sounded sceptical.
“Where was it?” Elizabeth looked over her shoulder out of the darkening window as if the beast might be there at that very moment. “Was it near here?”.
Sensing he had their full attention and that they were a little nervous at the thought of wild beasts roaming Hillness at night, Nigel slowly stood and crossed the room. He leaned his back against the counter, clasped his hands before him for effect and began his account of the night he saw ‘The Beast’.
Meanwhile down on the sea front below the Ness, the water invaded and retreated from the shore in an endless rhythm stirred by warm summer winds blowing in from the South West. From a precipitous vantage point half way up the face of the cliff a heavy-set man kept watch. Above a rocky outcrop that resembled the head of a giant pachyderm he lay flat and angled his head until his view pointed directly through a hole in the rock worn there by dripping water and time. Briefly he thought he saw a light but it was just the dying sun glinting off a gull on the horizon. His companion sat patiently swishing his long tail from right to left.