Chloe was one of those smiley people, the ones who just have that amazing glow about them. They exude it without even trying. She floated up to us and hugged the three guys, hanging on a bit longer to Lee. Oh sorry, Dez the girl magnet. I hoped this wasn’t going to be another one of his friends to freak myself out over. One Annabitch was plenty, thanks for the offer.
I had met her before, when I spent a weekend in London, but she had subtly persuaded Annabelle to stay home with her and watch DVDs the night we hit the town. I think she knew I was stressing about the situation. She must be very sensitive to have felt my vibe and sussed it out. I made a pact with myself to try my hardest to be nice to Chloe.
She was suddenly hugging me, which made me stiffen. I am not used to that kind of affection with strangers. Lee is different of course, I am sickeningly close to him in every way and I would crawl inside him if I could. She smelt sweet like daisies and vanilla. She said hi to me in my ear and when she stood back to look at me she was still holding my shoulders and smiling.
‘It’s so nice to meet you properly. I’ve been looking forward to the meeting the girl who has stolen mon ami’s heart away. You’ve no idea what a mush head he’s turned into.’
Chloe was pretty. I was almost jealous as she wore no makeup at all, yet looked amazing. Her pale green almond eyes shone and she had flawless olive skin with a pink featherlike ting. Her hair was mousy and straight, down to her waist and she had plaited the sides, which framed her face. She was like a medieval princess. Her lace shawl fell off her shoulder and revealed her white blouse, one of those that you find in ethnic shops in Camden Market. She pulled it back and shuddered, the evening air chilling her skinny frame.
‘Let’s go in,’ said Lee. ‘Are you guys staying out here for another one?’
I said no but Simon and Joel nodded, Annabelle joining them with her already lit cigarette.
We went inside, Lee turning left to the kitchen and the bright light. Chloe looked around and sat down at the table, taking it all in. Lee asked her if she was ok.
‘This is an amazing place,’ she said, gazing around. ‘It’s got a real history, hasn’t it? Has Si found out anything about it, I mean I need to know what I’m up against.’
I looked at Lee, puzzled. We sat down and Lee put his hand over hers across the table.
‘Chlo, it’s ok,’ he said ‘Whatever happens, I’ll be here for you. If it gets too much I’m sure Belle will take you back. Really though, you are usually fine after a few days. Remember when you moved into our house? You felt overwhelmed for a day or two and then you got used to it.’
Chloe smiled and nodded. She turned to me and looked right into my eyes, like she was delving into my soul.
‘Casey, I don’t know you at all yet, but Lee tells me you are into Wicca, is that right?’
‘Yes…but I don’t really practice it as much as I should I guess.’ I felt a bit ashamed as if I was being judged by a supreme Goddess.
‘That’s ok, neither do I. Life gets in the way, doesn’t it?’ she was still smiling. Like an angel in fact.
‘Chloe’s a HSP. That means Highly Sensitive Person,’ said Lee, sounding not at all as if he was speaking in a foreign language to me. That’s how it felt, maybe because I was still a bit squiffy from the wine.
‘Yes. Basically I find it hard to function around people because I absorb all their energy, whether it’s joyful or sad or whatever. This means I have to spend a lot of time on my own. It drains me completely and I’m prone to depression unless I control how I deal with it all. I am always meditating and trying to find ways of protecting myself. Also, the reason Lee is reassuring me is that I am sensitive to spirit activity. I can feel them all around me and they often seek me out. I know it sounds crazy and slightly fucked up, but it is what it is. Nuts, right?’
‘So, is that why you’re drawn to Wicca?’ I asked, fascinated and insanely jealous. ‘I mean, if you are sensitive and empathic, your connection with the Earth must be strong too.’
Chloe looked at Lee and back at me again. ‘Oh mon dieu!’ She grinned widely. ‘Lee, give me a beer. I think I’ve found a kindred spirit!’
I asked Chloe heaps of questions and we talked about Wicca and Paganism, She noticed that I was wearing my Pentagram and she showed me hers. She had one but hers was a Triquetra, like a silver knot that represented the Goddess, which I also had at home. We discussed a lot of themes around Paganism and Witchcraft and what we practice. Chloe had got a set of Runes from her Grandmother that she used to guide her and also she told me extensively about Candle magic and Herbology. I made her promise to show me and teach me all she knew. Her mother, who was French, used to be a member of a Coven in France before she moved to England, which fascinated me as well. I had wondered why she kept slipping French into everything she said. I thought she was being pretentious but it turned out that French was in fact her mother tongue, so I let her off.
Lee was sitting there listening and cuddling me. He kept topping up my wine glass and Chloe was on her third beer when the others trouped in.
‘You guys have been ages out there.’ Lee said, ‘Did you explore the grounds?’
‘Nope, we just spent the last hour smoking our guts out and slagging y’all off,’ laughed Joel and plopped down next to Chloe. Annabelle perched next to Lee on his other side and I instinctively looked under the bench to make sure she hadn’t got her jangly hands on Lee’s leg or anything. I felt distinctly drunk and in need of another cigarette.
Simon came and sat next to me and I felt my body tingle. I was trapped between two highly sexy guys. Chloe was smiling at me (for a change) and I think she sensed how I felt. She winked. Don’t ask me how I knew that, but I just did somehow. Then more bottles of beer were being opened and cork screws in wine bottles popping. Chloe asked where the toilets were and I realised I hadn’t been since we got there.
‘We used the hedge,’ said Simon, raising his eyebrows at Chloe. ‘But I think I saw a wash room next to the chandelier room. Do you want me to show you?’
They both went to the door and I jumped up. Chloe let Simon go first and grabbed my hand. An hour before that would have really freaked me out, but I felt nice. Chloe was nice. I don’t usually ever like people who are nice.
I didn’t ever lust after androgynous emo guys either, but I had started that tonight too. I blame it on the wine. Damn those fermented grapes.
Chloe was really gripping my hand. I wanted to be like Lee and do the reassurance thing, but that wasn’t in my repertoire. I kept remembering what she had told me about her being able to sense and see spirits and I thought, Jesus, the girl must be fighting them off in here right now. It was dark, pitch dark. I could sense we were in the hallway and the grand staircase was at the side of us. Suddenly, Simon broke the silence.
‘Bollocks, I left the torch.’
‘It doesn’t matter, Si.’ Chloe whispered. ‘Just keep walking. I can see a doorway straight ahead. That must be that huge room with the chandelier. It’s ok, I- Oh my God!’
Chloe was pointing straight out in front of her. I followed her finger, but all I could see was darkness.
‘Chlo, what it is?’ asked Si, ‘Don’t make us shit ourselves!’
‘I saw a figure standing there. It was like a woman. Just there, staring at us. Then she turned and walked down there.’
Chloe pointed at 11 o’clock. I couldn’t see anything.
‘Shall we go back?’ I asked, not knowing how to deal with this. I was freaking out but didn’t want to go batshit crazy. Once I went, I really went and didn’t want to look like a complete squealer on the first night.
‘No, it’s ok guys. Let’s just go. It’s fine now. Nothing there.’
We all walked together, I suddenly needed to pee more than ever. Simon went in front and Chloe and I locked arms. We found a door just down from the Chandelier room and Simon pushed the door that creaked loudly as it opened on its tired hinges. I saw a row of toilet cubicles and made a dash for it, my bladder ready to burst. It stank a bit but I didn’t care at that point. Chloe went in the next cubicle and asked if I was ok. I started laughing and she did too. Simon’s mocking voice echoed in the darkness.
‘I’ll just be waiting here then.’
We were trying to wash our hands in the dark, when we heard voices outside the door. The others were there. I immediately felt lighter as if they had broken a dark spell, and Chloe and I joined them. They had piles of sleeping bags and blankets in their arms and suggested camping down in the chandelier room for the night. It had a carpet at least. I took hold of the pile that Lee had and he went to get more stuff. We bumped into each other as we walked, the mountain of bedding blocking my vision. Simon’s torch beam helped us drop the stuff near some sofas which seemed as good a place as any. I had hoped me and Lee could have found a room of our own, but realistically I was exhausted and had drunk too much. I needed to lie down.
Lee came back with his torch and some drinks just in case anyone wanted more and some water. I certainly did. It was weird but cool as we all tried to arrange our bedding so we didn’t have smelly feet near anyone’s face or too cramped up that we could elbow someone in the eyeball during the night. It was almost midnight. We were all absolutely bushed.
‘Is everyone here?’ whispered Simon. I couldn’t tell where he was in relation to us, but not next to us, that I knew and was glad of. There was a chorus of dull mumbles and groans as we all settled down. Our sleeping bag was just right, not too tight but tight enough that I could feel all of Lee’s body entwined with mine. His arms were round me and I just let out a sigh of contentment as my head found his chest and I started to float off. It was so quiet all of a sudden. The building was silent and there was no outside noise. We were out in the sticks, completely isolated.
‘Did you lock the front door, Si?’ Annabelle asked, her voice sounding hollow in the vast room. I snapped back into consciousness as I realised she was near us. I extended my foot out to my side. No one there. I knew Chloe was near me but she had her space near the long sofa as she explained she needed. I reached my arm across to Lee’s side and felt something soft. ‘Ouch.’ Annabelle laughed, clearly thinking Lee had touched her.
I lay there in the dark, annoyed, listening to Lee breathing. He was asleep, but he kept pressing his lips into my hair as if to reassure himself that I was there. I don’t know how long I was awake, but there was shuffling and turning going on in Annabelle’s sleeping bag and she obviously couldn’t sleep. Then an arm flopped onto me, causing Lee to stir. She was trying to hug him!
I wanted to get up and move away from her, but it was hard to find the zip. Lee woke up.
‘Case, what’s up babes?’ he mumbled.
‘I’m trying to get out,’ I said. ‘I need to move!’
Shuffling around the room, I was waking the others up.
We managed to climb out and Lee kept asking me what was wrong. Then, Annabelle spoke.
‘Where are you going, Lee? Please don’t go. Stay here, please stay.’
I couldn’t see his reaction, but I felt him bend down next to her.
‘Why? The others are all in here. Come on Belle, try and get some sleep. Me and Case are going to find somewhere else to sleep. I’ll talk to you in the morning.’
He picked up our sleeping bag and water bottles and whispered for me to follow him. We tiptoed out of the chandelier room and it was freezing cold in the hall. He told me to shield my eyes and clicked the torch on. It was on feint beam so it didn’t blind us. He walked ahead of me, our bare feet smacking against the marble floors. We trudged past the washroom, Lee looking for doors on either side leading to rooms that might be carpeted so we could kip down in peace. The doors were all locked. By the time we got to the end of that corridor, our eyes had grown more accustomed to the dark. That was when we saw the outdoor corridor beyond a glass door. The moon seemed to be bathing the glass panelling in its glow, inviting us to walk down it. Lee grabbed my hand and pushed the glass door. It opened out and we were bathed in the moonlight. There was another smaller building attached at the end, so I nudged him to walk on, feeling awake now and up for exploring. The glass on each side seemed to be straining to keep the overgrown foliage and bushes from breaking in. It was like an underwater aquarium, but in a forest. I could hear the distant hoot of an owl. It was eerily beautiful.
‘Let’s sleep in here.’ I whispered and Lee turned and smiled at me. That divine smile that radiates love that I have never seen in anyone else.
‘Maybe another night. I need somewhere soft tonight.’
We kept walking, marvelling at the view that sometimes exposed itself in random areas where foliage wasn’t as dense. The grounds surrounding the mansion were awesome, clearly overgrown and hiding secrets that I promised myself I would reveal.
At the end of the corridor was another identical door with glass panelling. It opened easily and straight in front of us was a steep stone staircase. Lee made sure I was ok to go up and we went, spiralling up and round until we got to a dark landing. Directly to our left was a room that seemed to be light. Lee bent his head round the doorframe and beckoned me in. It was an awesome room. It had an old rug on the floor, and the whole of the front of it was a huge patio door that stood open proudly, letting the moonlight shine in. The walls were a lovely matted green with an old fashioned sink on the left, surrounded by a pastel blue that had started peeling. Beyond the patio door was a wrought iron balcony with art nouveau style swirls and buds blossoming within its frame.
‘let’s sleep here.’ Lee said, peering out into the view of the gardens. ‘This is awesome.’
We set up the sleeping bag and snuggled down, making sure our water was in reach. Lee’s heart was beating fast as I sunk into him and I kissed his chest and hugged him close. He pulled his arms away from me and lifted off his t shirt, kissing my neck and lips, softly at first and then with passion. I forgot everything right there and then and let myself evaporate into the erotic state that was Lee and I. Every single time the same yet deliciously different. Afterwards, we fell asleep, pressed against each other, not knowing where my limbs finished and his limbs began.
‘Casey, Case…Babes, wake up.’
I tried to open my eyes but they felt glued shut, my head was spinning. I eased myself up on my elbows and looked at Lee. He was facing the other way, propped up on his knees.
‘What the fu…..’ I managed to say, not understanding why he had prized himself out of our little warm cocoon, and was asking me to look out the open door.
‘I saw a girl out there, on the balcony, I swear!’ he had his hand over his mouth as if he was going to vomit.
I turned completely round to look outside. I saw nothing. The only weird thing was that I could smell cigarette smoke. Fresh smoke, not the shit that burns your nasal passage out like stale Sunday pubs used to before the smoking ban.
There was an orange blanket down on the floor of the balcony that didn’t seem to belong to the mould ridden room we were in. It looked new, clean. There was also a cream coloured gypsy scarf with red and black roses on it, tied to one of the railings. That had not been there when we came in the room. I told Lee. He swore again that he had seen a girl, kneeling down on the balcony, looking in at him.
When I asked him if he could remember anything else, he said yes. She had been smoking.
We stared at each other for what seemed like ages. I didn’t feel scared, probably because I hadn’t actually seen anything. Lee did look scared though. I asked him what he wanted to do. He lay back down and stretched his arms behind his head, staring at the ceiling.
‘What time do you think it is?’ I asked him, hating the silence.
He reached into his jeans pocket for his mobile phone and at that second, it started ringing. He sat up again and said hello to Annabelle. I knew it was her because he called her Belle.
He didn’t talk much. I could hear that she was crying down the phone. His face was a picture of stern, I couldn’t make out whether he was pissed off or concerned. He said ‘Ok, Ok I’m coming.’
He hung up.
‘I’m sorry Case. She’s upset. I’m going back to the Chandelier room. Please come with me, I don’t want to leave you here on your own. I’ll just talk to her for five minutes and then we can camp out in a corner away from everyone and get some kip. Ok?’
I reached over and kissed him, I couldn’t be angry at him when he was so caring. He hugged me tight and said we could sleep here tomorrow night again, if I wanted, and we started dressing and gathering our stuff.
When we got back into the chandelier room, there was a little bit of light coming in. It was about 4am. I went and chose a spot in the corner and got back into the warm sleeping bag. I could hear Annabelle sobbing and Lee trying to console her. How messed up to call a guy who’s obviously with his girlfriend having some private time. How fucking lame. I peered over the edge of the sleeping bag and saw Chloe asleep all curled up in her pink blankets and Joel with his mouth open and arms splayed out like an angel in the sleeping bag instead of the snow. I could just hear his snoring above Annabelle’s whining.
Simon wasn’t there. I imagined going to find him. Maybe he was having a ciggy out the front or maybe he was asleep all alone in another room. I hoped he was ok.
Lee came back then and crawled into the sleeping bag, snuggling up again. It wasn’t long before I was asleep and dreaming, the sound of Annabelle’s fragmented sobs still echoing around the dawn soaked room.