Spectre: An excerpt from my unfinished new novel

 

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(Image from net)

As the train pulled out into the countryside north of Nottingham, rolling and frost-topped on that winter’s morning, I finished sending messages to the three adults who might wonder about me in the course of the day, and fell asleep. I knew I had an hour in hand, with crooked-spired Chesterfield and a clutch of mining villages to cross, an alarm set on my phone just in case, and no wish to think of anything at all till I got there. The train chugged through landscape I enjoyed even in the harshest weather, because harsh seemed to suit the miniature towns we passed, some of them decimated by plague or war in the past, with that lingering drama heightened by the chill. But the unsettling motion of the train, the early morning murkiness, and the whiplash of rain against the windows meant that I was soon dreaming troubling dreams ~

I walked up to the little house I had lived in for years with my former husband. It was the same in every way but that the already disproportionately large attic looked larger still, and the smaller lower floor was positively mincing. It loomed over me now, seemingly salivating where the upper windows dripped rain. When the door opened, I thought it must be my husband, but the figure hung back in the shadows till the moon came out (how was it so late? I had started for Sheffield at the crack of dawn). But when he finally stepped into the light, I saw that he was no longer a man but half-wolf, slavering and sniffing with its gaze fixed on me. I tried to run only to find my feet cemented to the garden path. Had a slick crawled over as I watched with my heart in my mouth? I screamed but no sound emerged. And then as he leaned into me, his face coming closer and closer to my own, I could see the red of his pupils, and smell his feral breath. Till I woke with a start to realise it was the conductor’s face hovering over my own. He had a concerned look on his face and a wagging beard, as he politely informed me that my time had come. Or perhaps he said that about my destination.

Was it the whiff of scruffy beard that had occasioned the unpleasant dream or the trepidation with which I approached this visit? Too late now to turn around, I thought, as I gathered my things and still feeling woozy, even frazzled, disembarked. Nothing really changes, I was able to smile to myself as I worked my way through the pigeons and pedestrians to grand Sheffield Library near which I meant to catch my tram. It loomed imposingly behind the sheets of rain. Still the place of calm I recalled but there was no time for that today. The world around me would quieten down, I knew, as I pushed to the suburbs and people and places thinned, but the turmoil inside would only increase as I neared my destination. As I walked on, the rainswept stone looked as grey, and the concrete blocks of the seventies as unwelcoming as I remembered them. Steam rose from the streets to wrap round the rushing pedestrians, all in a hurry to get somewhere, climbing farther to cling to the tram lines stretching overhead, like snow cleaves to cobwebs.

If that looked a cold embrace, the welcome I might get may be poorer still. I steeled myself for it as I found a window seat for my ride. Not that I wanted a warm welcome, like a homecoming bride ~ god forbid. All that had been left behind a long time ago. But the possibility of nastiness, or violence which it might well descend into (hadn’t it so often before?) made me anxious. And before I knew it I had unconsciously shredded the tram ticket in my hands and had one more worry – that I would be thrown off the tram for ticketless travel! Wouldn’t it be the perfect excuse to go back home then, to the warmth of my family? I could do that anyway, couldn’t I? I didn’t need to ride back into the past and revive it first, I entreated, perhaps just myself, as I watched the pebbled-dashed houses of the suburbs, winter-bare trees, and far fewer people, glide past my tram window.

Could any good possibly come of my mission? Of course not, a cheerful voice piped up behind me. Startled and then pleased, I craned around to smile a thanks. But she wasn’t talking to me at all. Her companion in a Tartan coat that leaped out of the grey of that Sheffield dawn, nodded an affirmation. Of course not, they said to each other, one must never rush into anything. Imagine, exclaimed the Scotch-brite lady, if you bought a garish dress that was all wrong for you! Exactly, agreed the woman who had spoken first, one must approach life and its trappings with caution. That’s what I should do, I muttered, go back now while I still could. But the tram lurched to a stop, reminding me with a sharp tug to my stomach, that was no longer possible. The past was here, rearing up, and with it I would have to engage.

My reluctant steps however only allowed me as far as the café halfway up the hill, and there I found myself rehearsing at last the lines I would say to my ex, even those which I hoped he’d say back to me. “But you see what you’ve done to me?” “Not just the injuries you inflicted then, but now, so many years later?” And finally, “Why did you do it when you claimed to love me?” And in the best–case scenario playing out in my head, he would acknowledge my pain, “I am sorry. I should never have done it. It was inhuman behaviour. Let me set it right, now.” But even in my head, this rose-tinted cloud would pop within seconds, leaving behind the certainty that what would really happen, the real best-case scenario, would be the door slamming in my face.

Would it still be the blue door with luminous stained glass that we had bought together with such hope (or at least, I had hoped), the one we taped over when he’d sent his fist flying through it, I stopped to wonder? Then, I rolled a softer line of questioning around in my head, “Could we talk about those years? Something has happened and I need to know about the times you…” but how does one even say that, about the things he’d done to me, without sounding angry and strident, and well, violent because violent things have violent sounds, don’t they?

Didn’t we talk about violent words that sound violent just the other day, Steph? I found myself typing, as I waited for my coffee to cool a little. “Yes,” Steph got back lightning quick. “How letting loose verbally invariably led to physical aggression? Yes, yes, we did. Reliving it was hard but I’m glad we did it together”. The memory of this exchange, of dark matters though it was, made me smile. But I must have more than smiled. I must have made a sound that carried enough for the waitress to be suddenly watching with pursed lips. Or did I just look wrong? I was wearing the same dark coat as everyone else and the same chunky boots, but of course my round, brown, beaming face and jet hair would stand out in this neighbourhood, it always had.