I’m sure it’ll all work out fine, Sarah. But if for any reason I … I’ll tell you the story of what happened today. It’ll take my mind off the pain, as well. I’ve tried to call you, e-mail you, send you a message, but there’s no signal here at all. This is the next best thing, I suppose. I think there’ll be enough battery, so I’ll start from the beginning and try not to leave anything out.
The thing is, I came out here to buy this house for you — as a wedding gift! You’ve always talked about having a place in the country for weekends and the summer. It was supposed to be a surprise, and that’s why I didn’t tell you where I was going. I wish I had.
I thought of Heptonwick because when I was a kid, we used to pass through here on the way to the seaside, before the motorway was built. I’ve told you about those holidays before. We’d stop here for a break — pop for me and a pot of tea for mum and dad — and it kind of stuck in my imagination, with its village green, old cottages covered in ivy, the grey-flint church … very ‘chocolate-boxy’, I thought.
Anyway, I found a small local estate agent on the Internet. They didn’t have anything on-line that caught my eye, but I decided to ring; these agents often have perfectly good stuff on their books that they’ve put to the back of the shelf because it hasn’t sold. The lady I spoke to — Ms Collins — was very nice and told me that she did in fact have something that wasn’t posted on-line. And it was affordable.
“But I have to warn you about something,” she said. “They say it’s haunted.”
There was a lightness in her tone, but it did sound a little forced. I laughed and told her that I didn’t believe in ghosts, as you know. She gave me directions and we arranged to meet today.
So I took the afternoon off and drove down. I told you I had meetings out — sorry for that little white lie. Once I’d got off the motorway, the countryside opened up and the memories of those holidays came flooding back. Ah, Sarah, it was such a beautiful afternoon. The sun lit up the yellows and browns of the trees and hedges along the road, with that stunning patchwork of fields on both sides. Lovely, it was.
I drove straight to the house; I found it easily. Ms Collins had given good directions and it was lucky she had — or unlucky, I suppose, in retrospect — because the GPS kept trying to send me in the opposite direction. As if it had an inkling.
The gate was open and I drove into the lane that leads to the house. When I came round the final curve, there it was. I must say it looked a bit sad in the late afternoon sun, what with the broken bay windows on the ground floor, all shuttered on the inside, and the dormer windows in the roof.
I parked next to what I assumed was Ms Collins’s car. The reason I came hit me and I tried to call you, just to hear your voice, but … no signal out there either.
When I got out of the car I shivered — a cold breeze was rustling through the poplars at the front of the garden, sending leaves spiralling down. I heard crows — I wasn’t sure from what direction. I couldn’t see the main road from there. At the time I thought this was probably a good thing, for privacy.
I peered into the other car and saw some property brochures on the passenger side and a coat on the back seat.
The steps to the porch were littered with dead leaves. The front door was ajar so I didn’t even knock, just pushed it open and entered.
The hall was a bit gloomy but I could imagine how grand it must have been in its day. What light there was came from a corridor straight ahead. To the right was an open door to a room that was pitch black, and to the left another room that had a sort of thin, greyish light coming from it. I went to the staircase and was about to call out Ms Collins’s name when … there she was at my shoulder!
“Hello,” was all she said and I nearly jumped out of my skin. Yep, I must admit it startled me, her sudden appearance, but I tried not to let it show.
“Ms Collins? How do you do?” I said. I went to shake hands but she walked straight past me — which I thought was a bit rude.
“I will show you around,” she said. Her voice sounded a little hoarse — a cold, I assumed at the time. She led me to the room on the right.
Apparently it doubled as a living room and dining room. I poked my head in but was none the wiser; as I mentioned, it was pitch black inside. I was going to ask if we could open the shutters to let some light in, but she pointed along the central corridor and asked me if I wanted to see the kitchen.
She gestured for me to go first. This part was much brighter; no shutters on the windows. In the light I could see that the paper was peeling away from the walls, and the paintwork was very flaky and grubby. But the kitchen itself was spacious and had a lot of potential; I imagined us cooking there together. I was sure you’d love it.
I had a quick look out at the back garden — very untidy. I smiled to myself at the thought of you nagging me to get working on it. In the field beyond the garden, there were a number of crows — the ones I’d heard earlier, I supposed.
Ms Collins held back in the corridor as I checked the cupboards and drawers. I was ready to move on when it occurred to me that I should ask her about what she’d told me on the phone — about the house being haunted.
“Oh, that,” she said, not seeming very interested in the topic; at least, her tone was a little flat. But she carried on anyway. “The story goes that many years ago the house was occupied by a family — a young couple and their infant daughter.” She paused, as if trying to remember her name.
She smiled then, and went on.
“The young couple seemed very much in love. The woman especially was immensely happy here and wanted more children to fill up this beautiful house. But the man was weak of the flesh …” — she actually used that term, which I thought was a bit odd — “… and was led astray by another. He told his wife one evening that he was leaving her, and that he wanted to take Isabelle with him. The shock was too much for the woman. She could not see a future for herself without him, much less without her daughter, and knew what she must do. In the dead of night, she took Isabelle to the play-room and strangled her with the cord from the little girl’s dressing gown. Then she hanged herself.”
I was a bit shocked by the story and surprised at the matter-of-fact way Ms Collins told it. She carried on.
“The man was distraught and closed the house up immediately.”
I asked if it was the mother that was supposed to be haunting the house.
“And the daughter,” she replied. “Little Isabelle. They haunt it to keep away pretenders to the house — to their beloved home.”
She paused, gazing out at the fields, then seemed to come round.
“Or so people say. Shall we see the study?”
We emerged from the corridor and crossed the hall to the room with the greyish light.
I told her I thought the story was very tragic, but I didn’t want her to think I might be put off buying — from what I’d already seen, this was an excellent property for the price. So I repeated that I didn’t believe in ghosts and laughed to try and lighten the mood a bit.
“I see,” she said.
And we entered the room. I liked it — the walls lined with shelves, the old wooden desk by the window, the fireplace opposite the door. It had character. A dark corridor led off the room and at the end of it was the source of the grey light. I asked what was down there.
“That’s the play-room,” she whispered, sounding reverential.
I was just about to head for there when I heard it. At first I thought it might be the wind coming down the chimney, but then I recognised the melody and realised it was the voice of a child, a girl, humming. Then came the words.
“Ding … dong … bell. Pussy’s … in the … well.”
The girl chanted it three or four times before the silence returned.
I copied Ms Collins’s whispering and asked her if she’d heard it, trying to keep the fear I suddenly felt out of my voice.
“Yes,” she said. “It came from down there.” She nodded at the corridor and the light at the end of it, the play-room. She didn’t move, so I assumed that I should do the investigating.
I began to edge my way along the corridor, keeping one hand on the wall. It was strange how it was so dark, given the grey light of the play-room. I looked back; Ms Collins was close.
“I thought you said that you were not afraid of ghosts,” she murmured. She sounded like she was taunting me.
“I’m not,” I said, forgetting the whispering. Stupid bravado got the better of me and I strode forward, keeping my eye on the light of the play-room.
The next thing I knew I was stepping on air, then falling.
I landed awkwardly on something soft. I felt a searing pain in both legs and passed out almost immediately.
When I came to, it took me some moments to work out where I was. But then that familiar sound floated down, reminding me:
“Ding … dong … bell. Pussy’s … in the … well.”
It was impenetrably dark. I was lying on my side and had to twist round to look up, and that hurt, I can tell you. The jagged hole I’d fallen through framed a patch of thin light in the corridor above.
I called out: “Ms Collins! Stay where you are! There’s a hole in the floor!”
I expected to see her face peering down shortly, then we’d be able to sort out how to get me out. But no face appeared. I waited. And waited.
“Ms Collins!?” I called out again. I felt the first traces of panic in my chest.
The nursery rhyme had stopped. All I could hear was my breathing.
Then that sing-song voice again, entreating this time.
“Mummy. Come and play.”
I felt the hairs on the back of my neck stand to attention. I was on the point of calling Ms Collins again, to warn her not to go towards the voice because of the hole, when I saw her.
The dim shape of the woman I’d taken to be Ms Collins. Floating, gliding, slowly, smoothly, over the hole above me. She looked down. Her face was barely visible in the grey light but perceptibly impassive … disinterested. She disappeared in the direction of the play-room. To join her daughter.
I think I must have let out a shriek. I fumbled for my phone, which was difficult to get to because my jacket was caught up around my back and I could hardly move with the pain. But I got it and switched on the flashlight. I turned over as best I could. I was lying on a woman. Ms Collins. Her head was twisted at an absurd angle. She was quite dead. She is quite dead.
So here I lie, Sarah. I managed to drag myself off the poor woman’s body, although having her beside me rather than under me is no comfort really. I’ll have to wait and hope that someone from Ms Collins’s office finds her absence strange and calls the police. Yes, I’m sure someone will be here soon. I’m sure.
So that’s — … hang on, what’s that blinking? … No! The battery!
Sarah! Sarah! If … if I don’t … if you hear this message … I want you to know, my darling, my beautiful darling, just how much I lo—