August 31, 2013 8 Comments
Having followed the coast road for twenty minutes, Mademoiselle Clements finally drove into the outskirts of the small town.
It’d been a long drive: her eyes were getting heavy and concentration was failing her.
A small car park came into view. She pulled over.
Lifting the handbrake, she sat back with a sigh: the journey was nearly over.
Opening the window, she let in a fresh sea breeze.
“Just what the doctor ordered.” After three hours of air conditioning, it was invigorating to let the cool air wash over her.
Gazing out, the eve of night commenced its first act, bidding farewell to the soft memories of day. A failing band of blue and orange to the west was all that remained. However, in the dying light, she could see undulating dunes, and, somewhere in the distance, she heard the rhythmic beat of waves. Here and there were the soft glow of fires, people enjoying the cool evening and grilling their suppers. On the wind came the sound of chattering, laughter and music.
She’d have loved to have joined them, but work called.
Her short break over, she had to get her bearings. Reaching into her jacket, she took out her phone and called up emails.
“What had Mademoiselle Sanson written?” Her finger brushed against the glowing screen. “OK, so she’s at 11 Rue Sebastien de Neufville.”
Scrolling down further, she read the mail:
“Be careful when driving down the narrow streets. When you reach the coast road, look for the railway crossing. Turn right at the crossing. At the first zebra crossing, turn left into the yard. It’s a red house, you can’t miss it. You can park down the right hand alley. Take the steps up to the first floor, this is where I’ve got my kitchen. I’ll have something ready for you when you arrive.”
Putting the phone away, she started the engine. Before her the road was awash from lights shimmering from the hotel across the road. Some people came out, wandering across the road to the dunes. A taxi slowed to let them cross the road then accelerated away.
She watched its passage. Red brake lights flared.
Traffic lights shone a hazy red. Beyond them she could make out the railway crossing lights. “Right at the railway crossing. Bingo, it’s just around the corner.” She set off to meet Mademoiselle Sanson.
She found the place. Parking the car, her stomach suddenly felt cold, empty.
Not from hunger…, fear. This one was going to be a tough one. Father Cardaliaguet had already briefed her on what to expect. Poor woman.
Following Mademoiselle Sanson’s instructions, she went up the painted stairs and rapped on the door. Delicate linen hung inside the door, masking the interior. From within, she heard the noise of a chair being pushed back.
“I’ll be right there,” came a light voice.
A shadow suddenly masked the soft glow behind the linen. A key turned in the lock and the door rattled open.
An elderly lady, perhaps in her mid-70s, stood before her. She had a regal face, a pinched nose, grey hair, pony tail over one shoulder, and a white linen shawl drawn around her. Her face wrinkled up with a smile of welcome.
“Mademoiselle Clements, I presume?”
“Oh, how nice it is to meet you. I hope you didn’t have much trouble finding my humble abode by the sea.”
“No…, no problem at all.”
“Please, do come in,” she said, opening the door wider, her arm beckoning. “I hope you like fish. You get a fantastic mackerel here. Couldn’t help myself at the market this morning, they looked so good. The smell was awful, mind you,” she laughed. “But, served cold, they’re absolutely delicious on fresh bread.”
“Oh, you shouldn’t have gone to so much trouble.”
“Nonsense. I insist. You’ve had a long journey, so it’s the least I could do.”
The kitchen was sparsely decorated. Simple, yet functional. Typical for the region. The light came from a standing lamp in the corner, its wide shade slightly askew as it huddled up to a tall fridge freezer. The walls were whitewashed, and here and there hung blue-framed watercolours of the surrounding area, she guessed.
The round wooden table was set for two.
“Please, take a seat,” she said, pulling out a chair for her guest.
Mademoiselle Clements sat down.
The old woman went to the ancient cooker and picked up a kettle, taking off the metal lid.
“Would you like something to drink? I prefer a white wine in the evening. But, I can make you a tea or coffee, if you like.”
“Water’s just fine. I like to keep my head clear.”
“Wise girl.” She put the old kettle down and took a bottle of water from the fridge. Pouring, she smiled apologetically. “I don’t want to sound rude, but how long have you been doing this job, Mademoiselle Clements?”
“Ten years next September.”
“Oh, that long,” she said, her brow raised. “A wise head on young shoulders as my Henri used to say. Do many women take to it?”
“I know a few.”
“Not an easy decision to make, I’d have thought? I couldn’t imagine doing it myself; always listening to the woes of others. I think it’d get me down. I’d end up taking my work home with me,” she passed her guest the glass of water. “No…, it’d be nothing for me.”
“It’s quite rewarding. I suppose I take after my father. He’s just retired. Following in his footsteps seemed the right thing to do. He always told me about what he did. He believed.”
“Yes, I can imagine he did,” she said, adjusting her shawl. “But for a girl so young as yourself,” she said, her smile now becoming a thin line.
But it was the way she didn’t quite meet her eyes when she answered, and the subtle change in her tone that seemed suspicious.
Mademoiselle Clements brushed her fringe.
“I can show you my credentials, if you want?” she said, voice calm, polite, her hand reaching into her jacket pocket. However, the old woman’s waving index finder and raised eyebrows, implying nonsense at such an impolite thought, were enough.
“No. I trust you, Mademoiselle Clements. It’s a sixth sense I have. Had it all my life.” In that second a strangely wry smile crossed her face, her eyes wandering for a brief second. Anybody else would have taken it as a tic, a part of old age. However, Ms Clements noticed it: Was she being made too welcome? Was something bothering her? Time would tell. She has probably lived alone for too long, she thought to herself.
Mademoiselle Sanson finally sat down, letting out a slight groan of pain. She gently rubbed her side.
Regaining composure, she pointed to the food. “I bet you’re quite hungry? Come on now, help yourself.”
For a short while they ate in silence.
The room was chilly. It could have been a draught. Mademoiselle Clements looked at the windows. They were all closed. Only the kitchen door was slightly ajar.
A grandfather clock, chiming ominously in the hallway, behind a half open door, broke the ice.
Mademoiselle Clements smiled. “Haven’t heard one of those for a long time.”
“It’s a particular fine piece. Belonged to my father.” She looked towards the door. “Been in the family for generations. Keeps me company, especially on lonely winter nights.”
“How long have you lived here, in this village?”
“Oh, I moved here eight years ago. I felt magically drawn to the sea, the air. It’s good for the old bones. I saw a picture of this place and I knew I had to have it,” a smile lit up her face.
Mademoiselle Clements let her savour the memories. She took another mackerel and finished the salad before probing further.
“So you felt happy living here in the first few years?”
“Yes…, but…” Her pleasant face melted.
“Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t want to…” she stopped, thinking how impolite her question was. But the old woman shook her head.
“No, I’ll have to talk about it at some time with you, so there’s no time like the present, we always say.”
Trying to control the memory, a tear formed in her eye.
She fumbled with her hands. Looking down, Mademoiselle Sanson struggled to find the words. Clearing her throat, she gently put a napkin to her mouth. Her lips twitched as she prepared to speak, looking for the words. Finally, her soft voice drifted across the table. It was if she were talking to a child, her words wavering from a secret she had to disclose.
“It was about a year ago when the problems started. I didn’t think anything of it. But, over the months, it’s worsened.”
“It was terrible. Terrible things happened here. Terrible voices.”
Mademoiselle Sanson looked up, her hands shaking. “I’m very superstitious, so I went to the priest. He told me about some people who could help me, you know…, look into the matter.”
“And he mentioned my name?”
“Yes. Actually, he told me of several people, but he said he’d worked with you before, a few years ago. Told me you were very thorough, discrete.”
A reassuring smile crossed Mademoiselle Clements’ face. “That’s part of my job.” Her voice softened: “We don’t want to cause a fuss. Best to keep things quiet, especially in such close knit communities. I’ve found the smaller the place, the worse it is for gossip and ridicule. I take it you haven’t mentioned this to anyone?”
“No. Only the priest. I thought about going to the doctor, but I was scared.”
“The priest was a good start. From what Father Cardaliaguet has already told me, this doesn’t sound like the ranting’s of someone going crazy,” she smiled. “You do know why he didn’t want to do this himself, don’t you?”
“I assumed he’d never done anything like this before?” she asked, her soft voice wavering again.
“Yes. That’s right. Not that he lacks the confidence, on the contrary.”
Mademoiselle Sanson put a napkin to her mouth. Her hand was shaking. A tear finally running down her cheek, old memories rising up. “I do hope you can help me,” she sobbed, her shoulders gently rocking, her voice became a whisper, despairing. Her body folded inwards. “Father Cardaliaguet has been such…, such a great support for me in recent months,” she said, stifling the tears.
Mademoiselle Clements reached across the table, taking the old woman’s hand. “Don’t worry. We’ll get this place sorted out.”
“I do hope so.”
Mademoiselle Clements took the bottle of wine and poured the old woman a glass. “Here, try this. It’ll help.
“Oh, thank you,” she whispered, taking a sip. Putting the glass down, she wiped her face and sat up straight. Taking a deep breath, her eyes wide, she looked at her visitor.
“Sorry. I don’t want to appear a snivelling old woman, it’s rude of me to put on such a display.”
“I understand. You’ve been through a lot. It takes it out of you. Do you think you’ll be able to go through with it? We can wait?”
“No. You’re here now, so I’ll have to do my best. After this,” she said, lifting up her glass, a smile passing her lips, “I’ll be OK.”
“Dutch courage always helps.”
Getting up, Mademoiselle Clements looked around the room, noticing the paintings. “Do you like collecting?”
“Oh, yes,” she smiled, her mood improving. “The paintings are from a local artist. They remind me of the past.”
“When I was a girl…, where I grew up.”
“Yes…., mementoes from another time. Does he have a gallery?”
“He had a gallery. He died several months ago. Tragic.”
“I’m sorry. Did you know him well?”
“Only the casual business chit chat of two people sharing a love for art, nothing more. But, I suppose I’ll miss his particular way of viewing this place. Visiting his gallery gave me the opportunity to get out.”
“Yes, it’d do you good to get away from things. Especially in the light of what has been happening.”
The old woman got up. She joined the visitor by one particular painting.
“This was his last.” She pointed at the frame. “Look he sighed in on the twenty fourth. The next day he was dead.”
I hope you don’t mind me asking, but has it happened recently?”
She nodded. “Yesterday was bad.”
“Can you describe what happened? It will help me with my initial…, investigation, if that’s all right with you?”
“The quicker we get started the better,” her voice had gained confidence now. A good wine.
“OK. Could you describe it, the time, the duration? Can you remember if it was cold?”
Mademoiselle Sanson pointed to the kitchen door, and the dim hallway visible through the crack.
“I’ll do better than that. Follow me. I’ll show you were it always happens.”
Leaving the kitchen, she led her into a long carpeted hallway.
Over the old woman’s shoulder, she saw the tall grandfather clock at the end of the hall. It was illuminated by a small lamp sitting on a marble bistro table.
“I’ll take you into the study. It looks out onto the road. It always feels as though something is coming in from across the way. It taps on the window several times before starting its…, work.”
They entered the study.
Mademoiselle Sanson flicked a light switch. From above, a chandelier sparkled into life. The curtains were drawn.
The smell of old books permeated the room. Looking around, she was amazed at the book shelves laden with books. Each shelf was surrounded by special glass.
“You’re quite a reader.”
“I’m afraid this is the old baggage I’ve carried all my life. They have been handed down through my family. Ghosts from Utopia, my father once said.”
Mademoiselle Clements walked to the nearest shelf, head cocked to one side, perusing the flaking spines.
“Is there any particular reason he referred to them in such a way?”
“Book purging, he always told me, was one of man’s greatest weaknesses. Neutralise history was what the revolutionaries always wanted. Here are just a few that survived the black lists. I suppose they’re from another world.”
“My God, these are priceless.”
“I suppose they are. They are memories of what once was. Here is a library of what has happened in my life, and the generations before me. Their value is one of sentimentality. When I’m gone, they will bloom in some other world, but not mine. I keep them prisoners, prisoners of an old memory.”
Mademoiselle Clements moved away from the shelf, looking around the room.
“So here is the epicentre, you say. Is there any particular time the visitations happen, or is it random?”
“It can happen at any time.”
Mademoiselle Clements wondered about the books. Old books with old stories that are hard to forget.
“You said that you feel as if it comes in from outside, from that direction,” she asked, pointing to the thick, dark green curtains hanging the full length of the wall.
“Yes. During the day, I can see the trees sometimes shake in a flourish of wind. Then the noise, the tapping.”
“What about temperature. Does it get cooler?”
“Yes. On hot sunny days, it’s a cold spot here.”
“And are you always alone?”
“Would you say it happens after you’ve read any of the books?”
“No. I hardly ever touch them.”
“Do you feel any mood changes prior to the events?”
“No. I can’t think of anything that could cause it to happen. It just comes.”
Mademoiselle Clements looked around.
“Just before the events started, can you remember changing anything in the room, removing a picture, putting in something new, perhaps?”
“It’s been like this for the whole time I’ve lived here. The only changes were outside.”
“Oh? What kind of changes? Changes to the house?”
“No. They put in new telephone cables. The road had to be dug up.”
“And this was just before the events?”
“Do you think they found anything outside, where they were digging?”
“Yes. Oh, I’d nearly forgot. They dug up a lot of old wood,” she rubbed her chin, her face concentrated. “Some people from Caen came to examine it all. They were very excited about the find. I can’t remember what it was…, probably an old house? Do you think this has got anything to do with my problem?”
“Possibly. But it was a different property, you say, across the road?”
Mademoiselle Clements shook her head, staring at a painting of the local chapel.
Mademoiselle Sanson yawned.
“Oh, I do beg your pardon. It’s been a long day, and my nights have not been pleasant in the past few weeks. So, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll retire.”
“Yes, of course. I’m tired from the drive. Could you show me my room?”
“Of course. Follow me.”
Going back into the hallway, Mademoiselle Sanson took her to a door close to the kitchen.
“Here you are. It’s small but cosy.”
“Thank you,” she said, putting her travel bag on the bed. “It’s perfect.” She turned around to the old woman. Look…, if anything should happen this evening, do wake me. I’m a light sleeper, so I may hear something myself.”
“If you don’t mind?”
“No. This is why I’m here,” she said, looking around the room. “Oh, I nearly forgot.” She reached into her travel bag and took out a round object. “It’s a sensor. Quite high tech really. It will monitor the room for temperature, humidity and sounds etc. Anything out of the ordinary and it will send a signal to my monitoring equipment. I’ll just place it on the table in the study, if you don’t mind.”
“No, please go ahead.”
With the sensor in place, she returned to the room and bid the old lady goodnight.
Sitting on the bed, she took out the monitoring device and checked the measurements. Everything seemed fine. Would the old woman have thought it strange that she had brought such a device? She let the thought pass.
Propping it up on the bedside table, she lay her head on the pillow and closed her eyes. “Let’s see what the night has in store for us.”
In her dream, she was in a market square filled with people. She was in the middle of the throng, being pushed along in the flow. They chattered loudly, indecipherable, obviously excited about something. She couldn’t see where they were heading.
Making her way to the edge, she tried to get out of the mass, claustrophobia setting in. Reaching an old house, she stepped into the doorway.
The door opened and a cloaked figure grabbed her from behind. A strong, strangle grip on her throat pulled her into the dark interior.
The thing’s touch was cold, freezing her skin.
She struggled to pull away, panicking.
The cloaked head was next to her face. Its breath, slow and heavy, reeked of decay, death.
She tried to scream.
She was awake.
“Mademoiselle Clements. Is everything all right. You shouted out.”
The old woman tapped gently on the door.
“I’m… ok. It was just a bad dream. Nothing more.”
“Oh, thank the Lord. Good night.”
The old woman’s steps drifted away.
Propping herself up, she rubbed her face.
“Bad dreams. Well, that’s a first.”
Looking at the bedside table, she checked the monitor device. Nothing.
She grabbed her travel bag. Opening it, she pulled out a small notebook. She scribbled a few entries.
“Latent memories permeating the house. There must be a strong spiritual flow coming into the study. Will have to check church records for past events in the vicinity.”
to be continued…