Authors: Kirsten Arcadio
Copyright @2014 Kirsten Arcadio
Kirsten Arcadio has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 2014 by Kirsten Arcadio.
It was time.
I switched off the flickering TV screen, blinking as the house was plunged into darkness. Sticking to the plan, I went out to the hall and fetched my jacket from the cloakroom, glancing at the carriage clock in the corner: 9pm. She would be waiting for me.
Once outside, I swung into my Mercedes and drove through the country lanes until I reached the dead end she’d told me about. I knew it, of course. Not that I’d told her that. I parked in a small indent in front of a gate by the side of the road, before getting out to walk the rest of the way. When I reached the edge of the copse, I looked over at the barn for a second, catching my breath. There was no sign of Martha. I skirted around the edge of the clearing until I got to the trees on the other side. From the safety of the thicket, I stole a look, wondering at the building’s pulsing, enticing magic. Meanwhile, branches swayed above, drawing my attention upwards as their shadows tried to swallow me up.
One tap and the light from my phone illuminated sodden leaves beneath my feet. The trees behind me appeared to hiss, ‘
Stop now! And look
.' I caught my breath. The atmosphere had changed from still and claustrophobic to wild. Leaves swirled as trees were stripped naked, their boughs bent by invisible forces.
Changing direction again, I returned to the far side of the copse nearest to the barn, hugging myself as I went. ‘Martha?’ I called, my voice thin and ineffectual against the buffeting wind. There was no answer. Deciding to pull myself together, I paced over the grass in double-length strides, arriving at the entrance in seconds. The door was open, as she said it would be. Inside, sparkly dust seized my lungs, but I would not be deterred. I was here now, so I had to see it through.
I hesitated for a moment before moving further in, feeling my way through merchandise piled up in makeshift, shabby displays. I caught a glimpse of large, oak bookcases near the window at the back, and I made for them, keen to run my fingers along the edges of the wood which looked smooth and clean, quite at odds with the stench which lurked in stagnant pockets around me. I shut my mouth in an effort to keep it at bay.
Just then, my feet connected with something on the floor and I looked down. Golden script jumped out at me and as I sank to my knees to take a closer look, a prickling sensation down my back told me something wasn’t right. I used the light from my phone to get a better look. The shiny lettering seemed to float about in front of my eyes. I blinked. Down here it felt warm and pungent and the air was thick. Putrid, I thought, stale and strong.
By the book was a lumpen shape clad in a long black garment, its pale triangle of a face barely visible. As my eyes slid across it, time seemed to stop. Eventually I reached across, my throat tight. I’d half guessed it. God. Not here. Not me. Not now.
Fumbling for my phone I tried to cast more light on her body, which was still and quiet. The lock code jammed. Damn. I lunged over to put two fingers against her neck. No pulse. Dialling 999 with one hand, I wrenched open her mouth and shoved my ear down to her face. Nothing.
I heard a voice on the other end of the line. ‘Yes? I’ve got a medical emergency. A young woman. No pulse, no heartbeat. We’re at the New Age shop out on the A445.’
I went onto autopilot and started CPR, but I knew. I could feel the darkness, the sludge of a life she’d had, just slipping away.
As a howl rose and ambushed my ears the world seemed to tip up. I felt sick.
A voice yelled, ‘Paramedics! Where are you?!’
‘Here,’ I said, my voice faltering. ‘Right here.’
I couldn’t believe it had happened again.
The first of my patients, Gemma, had decided to die almost exactly a year ago in September 2008, just a few months after she arrived in the village full of energy, hopeful her new hairdressing salon would do well here. Only twenty-five when she died, her descent into addiction was hard to make sense of. Not long after that there was Clare, who’d been in her late fifties. I could still see her now, small and birdlike, grey and timid as she sat slumped over her dining room table at an odd angle. I’d seen her through her sitting room window as I’d passed by on the street. The greying yellow around her nose and mouth still hovered on the edge of my senses, as did the sight of her fish eyes, still open and staring through the crack in the door to her entrance hall as I’d entered the house with the emergency services. Worst of all, her death reminded me of my mother. Fiddling with the charm bracelet Mamma had given me not long before her own depression led her to perish, I stopped for a second. I’d inherited so much from her: my tall, willowy frame, straight blond hair and grey-green eyes which people found uncomfortable to look into. Like me, she’d had a habit of staring. I wondered if I would become even more like her as I aged and it was a sobering thought.
Was it guilt which tormented me? This thought was uppermost in my mind as I left work the evening of the day after Martha’s death. As I strode out of the surgery which housed my psychotherapy practice, fighting the onset of a migraine which throbbed between my eyes, I picked over thoughts which had plagued me on and off throughout the day. Discordant chanting echoed round my head and I was bothered by a myriad of images: rafters split by the sun’s rays which reached down to silhouette a tall, elegant shape by a distant window. A man, whose blue eyes within a time-ravaged face and outstretched arms seemed to be calling to me from another place, another time. Martha’s lifeless body on the floor.
Zipping up my bottle-green Barbour jacket as I walked, my thoughts returned to Martha. I trawled my mind for clues, wondering if I could have missed something important. At several of her sessions, but especially the last few, she’d spoken of her sense of isolation in the village. I thought behavioural therapy might help her. No matter now, my efforts had been useless. I slung my handbag over my shoulder and locked up, deep in thought.
The grey mass of the village loomed as I walked up the hill towards my home on a leafy road away from the nefarious grey council houses and decrepit playgrounds in the valley. Not that anywhere in this dreary village in the old heartland was all that desirable. This was uppermost in my mind as I passed the village’s tiny supermarket, complete with bored kids outside, and the adjacent pharmacy, newsagent and post office, small smatterings of green and red against the colourless street. Rain splattered the dirty paving stones: typical early autumn weather. I ignored it and carried on walking, despite the fact I’d be soaked by the time I got home. Several umbrellas passed me by.
I frowned, thinking about Martha. She’d been a classic case. Depression, self-harm and I wondered about anorexia too. But her last session had been different. For once, upright in her chair, her back no longer hunched into the leather backrest, her hair had been glossy for the first time in a while and she’d had a glint in her eye. From her appearance it seemed like she’d turned a corner. But it was what she’d said that nagged at me now: she’d told me she was ready to ‘escape’.
In response to my questioning stare, a wary smile had travelled across her plain, pale features. ‘You’ll see, Dr Lewis’ she’d said. ‘The longer you stay in this village, the more likely you are to be sucked in to what goes on around here.’
I’d scribbled ‘Paranoia? Investigate further?’ in my notes and encouraged her to talk but the rest of our conversation seemed of no consequence. She’d said all she wanted to say.
After another five minutes’ walking, I was home. I stopped for a second by my neighbours’ house, standing in the shadows of its tall Victorian bulk. By day it was a hive of activity: people who came and went almost continuously, but after dark it felt cold and forbidding. It never usually bothered me, but today a strange feeling snuck in as I stood there letting the rain soak through my clothes. The couple who lived there, Julia and Iain Walsh, were the leaders of a group known as the ‘Charismatic Community’ which had been running for as long as they had been living in the village, probably more than twenty years. For a community group, it commanded unusual levels of respect from many of the villagers. They were religious, I thought, although something about their tight-knit cliquey nature didn’t sit right. I found it intriguing that after more than a year of living and working here I was still discovering which villagers were members. It was the last thing anybody told me and yet it was something which bound so many of them together.
Once through my front door, I strode across to my dining room, the notebook I’d found beside Martha’s body uppermost in my mind. I couldn’t think why I hadn’t told the police about the notebook, but now I’d taken it, I couldn’t give it up. Given my mistrust of authority, my actions seemed reasonable in my view. Once in the possession of the police, Martha’s journal of dreams would be put in an evidence bag and kept in a drawer somewhere until they decided to release it to the family. It was doubtful they would do much more than skim it, especially as her death was certain to be classified as suicide. My need was much greater, I reasoned, and I was qualified to look through the lines of scrawled text to the real message they carried. Experienced in the black art of the interpretation of dreams and symbols, I would be able to employ some unorthodox methods to interpret Martha’s thoughts. Not that I intended to share my findings with anyone. Not yet, anyway.
I paused for a brief moment by the sideboard which waited in the shadows. I knew what I had to do but it wasn’t easy. By now the sun had set and the corner of the room was enveloped in sparky darkness, the dust film on the furniture glinting in the moonlight as it peeked through the dancing trees outside. Making my way to the far end of the room, I stopped by the window to slide my hand along the sill and close the curtains before turning back into the room. I stayed there for a moment and took a deep breath in. It had been a long time.
With one swift movement I opened one of the sideboard drawers to reveal an old pack of cards, their sturdy mass as real as ever. As usual, memories of my grandmother flashed up straightaway.
‘You’re a traveller at heart, Elena my dear,
’ I could hear her saying,
‘descended from gypsies, just like me.’
I shook myself. She’d been joking, of course, or half-joking. Sometimes it had been hard to tell. But then the other memory muscled in too, and my hand tightened around the pack. It had ended up being our secret, but she’d always dealt me the same reading, no matter what.
Before I had a chance to open up the pack and start laying them out, the doorbell interjected and I jumped. In the hall I opened the door to come face to face with my neighbour. ‘Julia?’ I wondered what she wanted. I hadn’t been expecting her - Julia never came to my house.
She glanced at my left hand, which - I realised - still held the pack of Tarot cards. ‘Good evening, Elena.’
She cut an imposing figure, dark and gaunt as she stared directly into my eyes. I was glad my height meant I could meet her gaze head on. I didn’t like the opaque way in which she appraised me, always refusing to break eye contact. I looked down at her long, white fingers cradling a small, foil wrapped package which she held out to me. Neither of us smiled as she spoke.
‘I made some biscuits for the community meeting earlier and I had some left over. I thought you might like them.’ I shrugged, trying to smile but she appeared not to notice. ‘And I wanted to ask, Elena, how your work was going these days? We heard about that awful suicide.’
‘Yes, Martha Dawson. Drugs overdose. Just 25.’
‘I wanted to talk to you about it. Do you mind if I come in?’
On my way through to the living room, I put the cards and her homemade biscuits down on the coffee table and gestured for her to sit on the sofa next to me. She eased herself down, back straight, looking around the room as she did so, her gaze slow and deliberate as her eyes rested on my bookshelf at the far end of the room. ‘I’ll cut to the chase,’ she said. ‘The girl who was found dead, Martha -’ I noticed she had stopped panning and was now staring at the pack of cards in front of me on the table.
I nodded for her to continue.
‘She was a member of our community, you see. Not very active, but a member, nonetheless. We were happy to have her in our midst.’
As she spoke, I noticed her eyes had a deadened look about them, almost as if there was nobody there. I held myself very still, hoping not to distract her from whatever it was she wanted to tell me, but it was tricky. I’d seen this look before, and it rarely spelt good news. Often I found it in cases of severe personality disorder, of the type I couldn’t deal with using psychotherapy alone.