House of Echoes by Barbara Erskine
A beam of cold sunshine finds its way through a knot hole in the wood of the shutters and strays across the dusty boards. Laser like, it creeps from right to left until it reaches the flower lying in its path. One by one, in the spotlight, the petals fall open, their thin creamy whiteness already edged with brown.
In the silence the skirt skimming over the boards makes no sound; the footsteps from the past are quiet.
With no ear there to hear them the echoes in the house are silent.
Had she really not wanted to know? Joss put her foot down and accelerated into a bend. Or had she been afraid of the truth?
‘Are you sure you don’t want me to come with you?’ Before she left home her husband Luke reached in through the open window and put his hand over hers as it rested on the wheel. On the seat beside her was the gazetteer and the file with the copy of her birth and adoption certificates and the note of the address. Belheddon Hall. She had glanced up at him and shaken her head. ‘I must do this alone, Luke. Just this first time.’
The gate, hidden behind the yews and laurels, had not been opened for a long while. The wood was damp and swollen and slimy with lichen. It caught on the untrimmed grass as she pushed it back and it hung open behind her as she stepped out onto an overgrown path which appeared to lead into an area of woodland. Pushing her hands down into her pockets she walked cautiously forward, feeling half guilty, half exhilarated as the wind whipped her hair into her eyes. The woods around her smelled of rotting leaves and beech mast, bitter and sharp with early autumn.
Somewhere near her a pheasant crashed out of the undergrowth with an explosion of alarm calls and she stopped, her heart thundering under her ribs, staring round. As the frightened bird flew low through the trees and out of sight the silence returned. Even the cheerful rustling of the leaves overhead died away as the wind dropped. She stared round, straining her ears for some kind of sound. Ahead, the path curved out of sight around a stand of holly trees, their glossy leaves almost black in the dull afternoon light, their berries shocking in their abundant redness.
The holly bears a berry as red as any blood.
The line from the carol floated through her head. She gazed at the trees for a moment, strangely reluctant to walk any further, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling as she became aware suddenly that eyes were watching her from the thicket on her left. Holding her breath she turned her head.
For several seconds she and the fox stared at each other, then he was gone. He made no sound but the space he had filled beneath the old hawthorn bush was empty. She was so relieved she almost laughed out loud. Whatever thoughts had raced through her head at that moment they had not included a fox.
With a lighter heart she stepped forward, aware that the wind was once more blowing strongly in her face and two minutes later she rounded the corner near the holly bushes to find herself on the edge of an overgrown lawn. In front of her stood the house.
It was an old grey building with gabled roofs and mullioned windows, the plastered walls covered in ivy and wisteria and scarlet Virginia creeper. She stood quite still, staring. Belheddon Hall. Her birthplace.
Almost on tiptoe she crept forward. Internal shutters gave the windows which faced her a strangely blind aspect, but for a moment she had the strangest feeling that she was being watched from somewhere behind those shutters. She shivered and turned her attention firmly to the porticoed front door which looked up the long tree lined drive leading out of sight, presumably to the front gates. Where once there had been gravel there were now knee-high thistles and ragwort and wind-blown rose bay.
She sniffed. Emotions she didn’t know she had been harbouring seemed to be welling up inside her: loss, grief, loneliness, disappointment, even anger. Abruptly she turned her back on the house and gazed down the drive, rubbing her eyes with the back of her hand.
She spent a long time wandering round the overgrown gardens and lawns, exploring the lake with its perimeter of reeds and bulrushes and weeds, and the stableyard and coach houses which lay through the archway at the side of the house. Her shoulders hunched against the wind she tried the front door and the back, both locked and bolted as she had known they would be, and she stood at last on the terrace at the back of the house looking down towards the lake. It was a wonderful house; wild, deserted, locked in its dreams of yesterday. With a sigh she turned and stared up at the blind windows. It had been her home if only for a few months, and presumably the scene of whatever unhappiness had made her mother give her away. It was in her blood and it had rejected her.
It was for Tom she was doing this she had reflected wryly as she drove through the network of quiet North Essex lanes. Tom. Her baby son. Until she had held him in her arms and gazed into that small, crumpled red face, so like his father’s, she had been content to leave her origins a mystery.