Please read Chapter 1 here:
Someone sniggered. Then there was some extremely loud snorting. It kept coming back like a boomerang inside my head, pricking painfully at my eyeballs and bashing at my temples. My mouth felt like I had been force fed sand paper in the night and probably smelt like something had crawled in there and croaked it. I hated being hung over and Joel clearly wasn’t suffering like I was which made me feel ten times more irritated. He was talking to Lisa on the phone, god knows how he had the head to carry out a conversation let alone make dumb jokes. Lee started to stretch inside the sleeping bag and our limbs were all entwined. Our flesh was all clammy and it felt like we were being ripped apart as he struggled to unzip the bag.
‘Dez, Casey!’ he bellowed. I groaned and tried to pull Lee’s arms back into the warm cocoon.
‘What d’ya want with us?’ Lee goaned, his eyes still closed as he groped around for my hands. We started weakly wrestling under the cover, the seams making little ripping noises as I tried to kiss him and he tried to tickle me.
‘Si wants to talk to us. He reckons he’s found something cool.’
Lee groaned again. I sighed. I didn’t want to get out of the bag in front of all of them looking like a scrag with my hair all over the place and my makeup splayed all over my face as it usually was. I never could be arsed to take it off before going to bed and last night had been no exception.
‘Where are we showering?’ I whispered to Lee under the cover. He pulled the bag over his head and ducked down to me, grinning, his full lips smiling and his long black hair pushed down over his eyes by the static of the polyester material.
‘I think there are some cubicles in that washroom you went to with Chlo,’ he said. ‘I’ll get out and you can wrap yourself in the sleeping bag and go in that direction. I’ll find the shower stuff and meet you there, ok?’
Reluctantly I agreed. Lee kissed me, making me wonder for the millionth time how come he never had dog breath in the morning, and I felt cold air sweep in and around my legs as he clambered out of the bag. I eased myself up and stuck my head out the top to look around at the carnage of the hung-over bodies, but there was only Joel there, splayed out with his arm behind his head, bare torso bathed in sunlight, wearing very loud pyjama bottoms with offensive, multi-coloured shapes on them that made me want to gauge my eyes out. He stopped texting on his phone and threw it on a pile of clothes next to him on the floor.
‘Hey,’ I tried to say, my throat all dry and croaked up. ‘How are you?’
Joel spun round, clearly way too fast as I saw he grimaced, his head probably dislodged itself from his brain momentarily. His blonde mop was sticking up in all directions across his head. It was so long at the front that it was almost covering his nose and he lifted his head up and blew on his fringe to give himself a path of vision.
‘Oh Case, you’re conscious. How’s the head?’
‘Thumping like a bastard.’ I told him, fishing around for my water and gulping its entire contents down, dribbling in the process and wiping it before he noticed. ‘Where’s everyone else?’
Joel sat up and pulled a t-shirt over his head, clenching his teeth with the effort of it all. He stretched his arms up and back over his head in a strange contorted yogic motion and yawned loudly.
‘Chlo is making us all breakfast, Annabelle is cleaning the freakin shower room, Si is….I don’t know where, and I’m here.’ He said, lethargically gathering up his blankets. ‘Si came in about half hour ago and said he’s got something cool to show us, dunno what.’
I looked around. Sunlight had bathed the room in yellow. There were a few cream coloured sofas pushed up against the windows and some old bashed up looking tables dotted around that didn’t seem to fit the rest of the décor. Annabelle’s sleeping bag had been folded up with an ethnic tie-dye sheet on top of it and apart from that, the room was sparse. I managed to locate my mobile under the pile of spare blankets at the bottom of our bed. The time was 11:47.
Lee then appeared at the doorway waving my vanity case and beckoning. Joel was laden down with his sleeping stuff and started walking towards the door, a pillow thudding as it dropped at his feet. He didn’t pick it up, just murmured ‘fuck it’ and kicked it as he went. Lee stepped aside at the doorway, laughing as Joel pushed his way past, dropping a few other things on the floor and just walking off, leaving them there.
I checked I wasn’t completely naked and stood up, my body coming out in goose bumps as the cold air kissed it. I scooped everything up and ran to Lee, jumping over Joel’s abandoned blankets. Lee grabbed everything, pushed the vanity into my hands, placing my flip flops on the right and left so I could just slip my feet into them without fumbling and threw some towels over my shoulder. We both laughed as we realised how choreographed the moves were.
‘Go, go go!’ he teased as he playfully pushed me from behind. I flapped to the wash room and almost bumped into Annabelle as she was leaving with a bucketful of cleaning products. We looked at each other and I noticed that she had already done her full gothic eye make up and lipstick. That struck me as a bit odd, cleaning a shower room in a full face of makeup. She smiled a little bit, straining to look me in the eye and so I moved aside to avoid her. Lee said something and I turned. Then she was hugging him, her arms round his neck, the cleaning products almost toppling out of the bucket clamped in her hands behind his head.
‘Morning Bella,’ he said, his voice muffled in the folds of her grey t-shirt. ‘How are you?’
She let him go, smoothed her clothes down, lifted the bucket and pointed at it.
‘Obsessively cleaning, so feeling good, I guess.’ She shrugged as if to say, that’s me, that’s what makes me happy.
‘Well, the place was a bit on the gross side.’ Lee stated, trying to make her feel better, again. ‘Anyways, we’ll just take a shower and be in the kitchen for a coffee and some toast. See you there?’
Annabelle glanced at me and pushed past into Lee. She shouted something but I didn’t hear what.
‘She said that Chloe has made us all a big slap up fry up.’ My stomach decided to rumble in celebration.
The cubicles were too small for both of us to get washed properly in, but we had a little bit of fun time before the water started to run cold. Lee dried me and helped me find my clean clothes. I just put on some leggings and a Paramore t-shirt, I was too hungry to go and find any other clothes from the big ruck sack we had brought. Lee looked so cute with his dripping hair that had got so long since I last saw him. I got splashes of water on me as he kept swooping in to kiss me and making my face all wet as well. Lee dressed in jeans and t-shirt as well and we arranged our toiletries by the sink, claiming one out of the other eight stretching along the wall. It looked like Annabelle had cleaned every single one of them.
We took the clothes and wet towels and hung them over some chairs in the kitchen. The room was bustling and warm and Chloe was the epitome of an Earth Mother as she skipped between stoves, bacon and eggs sizzling in several pans on one stove and mushrooms and some unrecognisable mush cooking away on another.
‘Morning guys!’ she smiled, her long hair swishing around in a high pony tail. ‘I’ve got veggie breckies going on here, and normal fry up on here for Simon and Joel who are going to do the rest for themselves. Sit, sit, sit. Here’s some coffee!’
Annabelle was already sitting. She was hunched over her plate, fork in hand, pushing her eggs around the plate not seeming to be eating any of it. Lee sat down next to her and nudged her with his shoulder. She looked up and with what looked like a whole lot of effort, smiled, lifting a miniscule piece of bacon to her lips and nibbling it.
I sat next to Lee and grabbed the huge jug of black coffee. I poured one each for us and offered Chloe one but she said she didn’t drink that kind of coffee. Then suddenly we both had a plate of steaming hot something in front of us. I could see eggs and mushrooms but the other concoction was unrecognisable. It looked gloopy and limp but I had learned from my own experimental cooking that you shouldn’t make a judgement until the tasting.
‘Mmmm thanks Chlo,’ Lee said, a grin not unlike The Joker spreading on his face. He loved food and anything that hadn’t previously been an animal could very possibly have been devoured in less than a minute if he wasn’t so polite and good mannered. I stared down at it and leaned in to Lee who had already stuffed a forkful into his mouth. ‘What is that?’ I asked, pointing my fork towards it as if it was going to attack me, trying not to speak too loudly so Chloe would hear.
But she did.
‘Casey. This is my famous vegan delight that my Grandmama used to make me.’ She said, plonking herself down next to me with a piled up plate of her own.
‘It’s a mixture of vegetables like courgettes, tomatoes, peppers and onions with tofu. A bit like a casserole. Try it, you’ll love it. Lee always has some when I cook it.’
Lee had very nearly finished already. Simon and Joel breezed in followed by a waft of tobacco that made me involuntarily inhale in an effort to chase any hit I could get before I ventured outside later. I piled some casserole onto my fork and gingerly tasted it. It was utterly gorgeous. I stuck my thumb up at Chloe and demolished the whole thing.
Simon and Joel had sat down opposite and were shovelling bacon and eggs into their mouths like it was the last meal on earth. I missed the taste of bacon and it really smelt nice, but despite the odd craving, like for a millisecond, I didn’t miss meat. I should’ve guessed Chloe would be a vegan.
The coffee flowed and I started to feel more human. Annabelle filled up her mug and slipped out quietly, no one seeming to notice except me. Lee stacked our plates and of course, Joel jibed him again when he took them to one of the many sinks and said he would wash them up later.
Simon wanted to talk to us.
I tried to check him out without making it too obvious. He looked rather dishevelled this morning compared to the night before, but just as sexy. His hair was still swept sideways across his eyes, but it wasn’t as flat and styled as before. He was wearing a little bit of liner which looked smudged as if he hadn’t taken it off, just like me really. He was wearing a plain black t-shirt with cut off sleeves and I was surprised to see he had quite muscular arms considering his skinny frame.
‘I found something that you guys are gonna love.’ He explained, his eyes creasing up in a grin as he started tapping his fingers on the table in excitement. He was wearing a thin black band ring around his little finger. ‘And this means no more smoking outside. Come on, I’ll show you.’
Joel had gone with lightning speed out that door at the mention of smoking, leaving his ketchup smeared plate and greasy cutlery strewn everywhere. Simon smiled at me as I stood up, letting his eyes run up and down as he checked me out. I felt myself go crimson as my cheeks heated up. I looked away, afraid of what might transpire if we carried on. Lee hadn’t noticed.
‘Did you manage to get some decent shut eye?’ Lee asked Simon as we headed out the kitchen. Chloe was still hovering around in the kitchen, wiping the table down and taking the abandoned plates to the sink. She mouthed to me that she would be there in a minute, and I followed the guys out into the entrance hall. Simon told Lee how he had had some more of his nightmares and had dragged one of the sofas into a room beyond the Chandelier room for some quiet because Joel had been snoring and Annabelle had been crying. He had asked her what was wrong and she had told him nothing, just Michael texting her and being a dick. She had then told him to leave her alone. Nice.
‘I saw a door across the other side of the room and just grabbed a sofa. It was heavy as hell but I managed it.’ He told us. ‘I couldn’t see a thing in there but I noticed immediately how freezing cold it was. I was like, what the hell, and thought about going back to the Chandelier room, but then I noticed why it was Antarctic!’
We had walked past the open door of the Chandelier room and turned left down a narrow passageway that only one of us could fit down at a time. It smelled damp and all I could see was Lee’s silhouetted head bobbing high in front of me. The wall covering crumbled slightly as I dragged my hands against it, leaving a powdery residue on the ends of my fingertips. Then I saw Lee’s hair explode into a halo of light as we walked into a long, narrow room. Simon had walked on ahead and Lee reached back to grab my hand as we all gathered inside. Joel approached behind me and Chloe’s gentle voice was heard, saying something about Michael not being able to touch her anymore. Annabelle was with her and a strange mix of smells hit my nose; patchouli and Jasmine with a strong undertone of tobacco.
As I said, it was a long, narrow room with an exceptionally high ceiling. The walls must have once been covered with a dark purple antique looking paper, but this had peeled off in most places, some of its yellowing strips lying around on the dusty deep red carpet. The feature that we were all fixated on was the window. I say the as in only one, because it wasn’t necessary to have any more than that. It covered the whole of the opposite wall, making me feel like a tiny miniature doll in a very large dolls house.
Simon was gazing towards the open view and out beyond. We could see the intensity of wilderness that used to be the gardens trying to push its way into the structure almost as if it wanted revenge; wanting to attack the man- made bricks and mortar that had flattened its growth all those years ago when the Victorians had first started building. I imagined the branches and their leaves finally curling themselves around the window frames and sliding under the carpet, consuming it all and bringing it down, Nature taking back what had been given so freely.
Then, with a gasp, I realised that there were branches inside the room.
‘There is absolutely no glass left,’ Simon explained, his hands pushed deep into his grey jeans pockets, balancing on one bandy leg so he could stick his other leg through the space that once held the glass. He kicked some of the branches with his Doc Marten boot and laughed. ‘How cool is this?’
We all edged up to the space and touched the leaves and branches as if we didn’t believe what Simon was saying. There was a gap through which Joel was leaning too far forward and Lee grabbed his arm.
‘Look through here guys!’ Joel pointed and stepped back to let us look. Lee went first, still holding on to my hand from behind. I heard him say ‘Wow’ and he stepped back, smiling, his eyes shining as the sunlight caught them through the gap in the trees. A cool summer breeze rustled the foliage and as it swayed in front of me, it created my own little windows of space to see out. I held on tight to Lee and leaned my head out, heights never having bothered me much. The view was amazing.
We were on a floor of the building that stood above most of the trees that were standing majestically around the grounds. This puzzled me for a second as we hadn’t climbed any stairs, having not explored at all yet, except for the annex tower. Then I remembered Lee telling me that it was on a hill, so maybe the side here dipped down into a valley. In that case there had to be levels of rooms built underground at some point. I deduced that we must be looking out over the right side of the building, the East facing. In the distance there was a thick wooded area and as I leaned a little more and felt the grip on my hand tighten, I turned my head left and right to take in the panorama. It was all densely grown over, only a few patches of grass could be seen down there. A small clearing had been made for a porter cabin, which I guess belonged to the work men, but aside from that, it could have been totally untouched by human hands. Wild, free and fierce. It was like being on a balcony; a very large balcony with no railings. We all took it in turns to peek through and then we walked along the length of the room, seeing if there were any other natural windows where we would be able to sit and admire the view. The area where Simon had chosen seemed to be the thinnest in leaves with the best view of the outside world and there he had put the sofa.
He was lazed along its length, cheekily grinning as he puffed on a cigarette. I hadn’t even smelled it. Then I realised that was what he meant when he said no more smoking outside.
‘Come and look at this fascinating item.’
He jumped up and stood with one hand on the arm of the sofa and beckoned us all to gather round. We all looked at each other in bewilderment at this description of a dirty, stained old sofa and Lee smirked at Joel and Annabelle. Chloe was right next to me looking happy, her wide blue eyes framed with dark globules of thick mascara that kind of looked really cool, like her eyelashes had got beads on them.
‘Yeh, Si, totally awesome!’ Joel piped up sarcastically, lighting a cigarette and blowing out hard in the direction of Simon’s hair.
‘It looks like several families of small creatures have been using it as a lav.’ Sniggered Annabelle who I noted again, was standing on the other side of Lee. Closely. ‘Or squatters have. Or all the above!’
I laughed along with them all. Simon stood there, a smug look on his face. He began pacing around the sofa, one hand caressing his chin as though deep in thought.
‘Is that mould as well?’ Lee asked, pointing. ‘And you slept on that?’
A fragrant breeze whispered through the leaves and a branch tapped lightly on the side of the rotting window frame somewhere.
‘My ever-appreciative buddies for life. Trust me. Look a little closer.’
Annabelle snorted in disgust and shook her head. Lee started moving towards it, dragging me with him. Chloe came too.
So I looked closer. I saw something really cool. The so-called mould was not mould. It was intricately woven patterns drawn with what seemed to be biro pen. It began underneath a cushion at the end and spread, flowing like flowers on a trellis, up the back of the sofa and down in the opposite direction across the seating cushions. There were a few colours, but it was beautifully subtle. Black, blue, green and the odd splashing of red that made it look like it was flecked with blood. There were so many designs; spider webs, flowers, thorns, spirals, leaves, and waves. Then I noticed that inside the patterns, words had been written, words that belonged to sentences, some groups of sentences making poems.
Lee had let go of my hand and was kneeling down, softly letting his hand glide over the area. He was reading, his neck bending this way and that so that he could follow the sentences that sometimes spiralled round or travelled right across the cushions.
‘You shouldn’t have sat on that, let alone slept on it.’ Lee said, shaking his head in awe. ‘It’s a work of art. Have you read any of the stuff on there?’
‘Yes, I have actually, Dezmondo.’ Simon answered, the smug way his lips curled up at the edges making me want to kiss them. ‘FYI it doesn’t come off at all, not even a slight smudgification. And I have added something of my own for the occasion.’
We were all there now, leaning over and trying to suss out what Simon had written. I didn’t want to get too close because they were all almost cheek to cheek. I wasn’t that familiar with them yet. I was silently chuckling at Simon’s penchant for making up new words of his own. Smudgification. I did that a lot too.
‘Got it!’ exclaimed Annabelle pointing a black finger nail at an area near the cushion. She was smiling but there was a grimace there as if she had smelled something rank hiding in the cracks of the cushions.
Lee started reading.
‘The only way to deal with an unfree world is to become so absolutely free that your very existence is an act of rebellion.’
We all stood there in silence.
‘By Albert Camus.’ Chloe stated, pronouncing it in a real French accent. It sounded like ‘Elbear Camoo’. She smiled at Simon victoriously.
‘I didn’t know you read Camus, Chlo,’ Simon looked at her, a puzzled, but admiring look on his face. ‘Are you in concurrence with him, then?’
Chloe smiled back and folded her arms across her chest.
‘I read a lot of things, Si.’ She informed him. ‘I love French philosophy, mainly because of my roots, but also because I’m interested in Semiotics. I started reading Barthes because being a Wiccan, signs and symbols are important to me. ‘
‘And there’s Ferdinand de Saussure, the Swiss Linguist,’ Simon continued, pacing again. ‘Have you read a lot about linguistics? I suppose with you being bi-lingual, it’s fascinating.’
I looked up at Lee and shrugged my shoulders. I was interested in Philosophy, well more accurately I was interested in the idea of reading philosophy, but had never had the real chance to get into anything. It was the same with poetry. Even though I had studied Literature A Level, I had been more in love with the idea of loving poetry than I was in actually reading it. I felt inferior as I stood there, all the talk about Semiotics reiterating the fact that I knew not a lot. It made me feel a bit stupid, as if I had this vision of the type of person I wanted to be and had tried to convince myself I was that person to seem cool. Like when I used to sit in the corridor at college with ‘War and Peace’ open on my lap, not actually being arsed to read it, rather listening to rock music through hidden ear phones, just so that people would see me reading it. At least Lee wasn’t joining in, even though I knew he did read obscure books. Joel had walked off and was standing looking out through our window of leaves.
‘We can never be free, anyway.’ Annabelle stated, perching her long body on the arm of the sofa. ‘Being born into any society, anywhere in the world and in any period of time, renders us slaves even though we may not even recognize ourselves as such. Do we question why we do things? Like, why we get married? Why we go to work? Yes, we might sit around and go, oh I hate work, why do I do this shit job, but we don’t question the deeper reason we do it. We follow our parents who followed their parents. It’s like an unspoken set of rules. We all follow them. We can’t avoid them, so we’ll never be truly free.’
I hated to think it, but she was absolutely right. I had often thought about why my parents did things, why people never question anything. They just go through life following everyone else.
‘We are essentially tribal.’ Lee said, walking to the back of the sofa to examine what was there. ‘We need to feel that we are not alone in our beliefs, so we prefer safety in numbers. A psychologist called Roy Baumeister talks about this. He argues that a lack of belonging would have a long term negative impact on mood and health, and those who do not meet their belonging needs may suffer from behavioural and psychological issues. Look at us lot, for example. We all hang out and live together because we feel safe. We have common grounds and beliefs. We make choices based on our basic needs every second of our lives.’
‘I don’t think we are that ignorant that we don’t question things.’ Chloe continued. ‘Some of us don’t eat meat because we question the death and butchery that comes with the meat industry. Some people choose not to get married but live with someone until they are old and grey instead. What does freedom mean anyway? Having the means and opportunities to be able to do what you want to. Some people work hard to achieve it and eventually manage it. ‘
Annabelle looked thoughtful for a while. ‘Yes, but what I’m saying is that we make choices subconsciously based on options that society has planted seeds for. We wear clothes because it’s not socially acceptable to walk around naked. Not eating meat is a choice, but we have to eat something. Chloe, you eat vegetables and stuff that society has made acceptable and accessible to buy in large corporate supermarket chains. True freedom would be going into the forest and foraging for your own food.’
Joel started laughing.
‘She has been known to do that actually, Anna.’ He said going up to Chloe and putting his arm round her. ‘When her Mum came and we went for a bike ride over to the Heath, remember? She brought back some weeds and stuff in her bag and reckoned they were good for brewing. I love our little hippie girl.’
Chloe smiled. ‘It was Chamomile, t’es con.’
‘Did you just call me an idiot again?’ Joel asked, jabbing her in the ribs and making her squeal.
‘Yep,’ she giggled. ‘Imbecile!’
‘Well, Joel has managed to diffuse another potentially exciting debate by being a knobhead.’ Simon said sitting down on the sofa and rolling a cigarette. ‘So on that note, I suggest that you all think of something of your own, deep and meaningful, to write on our new piece of interactive art. Meanwhile, we’ve got to start discussing my project. All my notes are in my bag. Shall we have a smoke and then go and make coffee and sit in the kitchen? I can spread out my storyboard on the table.’
Everyone agreed. Only Joel made a bored face and grinned at me. I had been hoping that we would all be going to explore the building and grounds, seeing as we hadn’t done that at all yet. I realised, to my disappointment that these guys were not so much into exploring abandoned buildings, instead they were here just to get the filming done. I knew Lee would explore with me, so I decided for now just to join in with the others. I was interested in seeing what film Simon wanted to work on. We had a few smokes all round and then piled back into the kitchen. Chloe started making coffee while we huddled around the table, Simon unrolling a huge poster size sheet and getting some pots and bowls to hold down the ends so it was flat.
‘Right, before I talk you all through the first scene, let me tell you the general premise of the film.’ He said, weaving his fingers together and leaning his elbows on the table. ‘Have any of you seen The Story of The Eye, by George Bataille?’
We were watching something incredibly bizarre. Simon had got it on his I pad, because only Chloe and Lee knew what The Story of the Eye was.
Annabelle had her normal default look of disgust on her face. Joel had a smile on that very soon was going to develop into a sick joke, as we watched a baby being born, shown right there, the viewer getting a complete eye-full of everything. It made me feel a bit uncomfortable, as I was starting to dread what ideas Simon had for a film based on this. Lee had his arm draped round my shoulder and I wondered what he was thinking, and more importantly how come he knew about this film! Nudity, people dressed in very dodgy looking leather outfits, women kissing, sex. I definitely did not know this side of my boyfriend.
Thankfully it was only the trailer so it was over soon enough. I actually liked it. It was stylish and poetic, despite the very shocking suggestions regarding the themes.
Annabelle shifted and stood up.
‘I need a cigarette after that,’ she announced. ‘I’ll be on the balcony.’
‘Well, I thought that was cool,’ I said, hoping to prove to everyone that I was open minded and appreciated arty stuff. ‘You didn’t tell me you had seen this.’ I smiled up at Lee so as not to sound accusing.
‘I’ve only seen the trailer.’ He sat back on the bench. ‘Si showed me it a few days ago and ran his idea by me. Chloe, you’ve read the book, haven’t you, you saucy cow.’
Chloe stuck her tongue out at Lee playfully.
‘A French Classic.’ She said proudly. ‘It’s all about teenage sexuality. Shocking, but I think Bataille was trying to shock. There’s a huge stigma attached to sexual experimentation and you, sorry us Brits just don’t talk about it. It’s like a taboo. It shouldn’t be though. It’s a natural and expressive desire. Why try and repress it?’
Simon was just staring at her.
‘Chloe!’ He said, a huge grin spreading across his face. ‘How come that all this time I’ve known you, we’ve never discussed anything like this. I thought you were all about cosmic spells and potions and world peace and love. Not about the rawness and macabre of the human state. I’m impressed.’
Chloe blushed and looked away. I didn’t know whether she was generally the bashful type, which judging by what she had just revealed I doubted, or whether she had a thing about Simon. I didn’t blame her one little bit. I think I did, truth be told. The intensity and depth of his thinking was very attractive to me and these hidden depths surely went down a lot further than I knew about at that moment. He was edgy and dark, a bit like me, but I felt he could teach me a lot. I would enjoy sinking down, down, down with him, back to a pure state of not giving a shit, of being an animal, of expressing the indescribable.
‘Chloe is all those things.’ Lee said, reaching across and grabbing her petit hand. She was wearing lots of very thin silver bands on each finger, some resting above the knuckles. She also had a large red stone that shimmered in the light which turned loosely on her finger as Lee lifted her hand to kiss it.
‘Everything is about balance.’ she smiled as Lee let go of her hand. ‘So, Si, tell us what you intend to make us do in this film of yours.’
Annabelle came back in and we were all gathered. Lee was on my left, Annabelle on Lee’s left, Chloe opposite next to Simon and then Joel was perched on the right of me, busy rolling up cigarettes for later. Simon had given us all our choice of alcoholic beverage and I had a beer in front of me, fresh out of the fridge. I wished we could be ‘on the balcony’ as we had started calling it, so I could have a smoke as well as a beer. Simon cleared his throat and began.
We all leant over the storyboard, like a coven of witches at the cauldron. All the sketches were upside down for me, Lee and Joel but Simon continued regardless.
‘So, the general premise for the film is that it has to be half an hour in length.’ He looked at each of us in turn, almost as if he was checking we were paying attention. I tried not to hold his attention too long, but a small, naughty part of me craved it. ‘The brief is to make a film that represents the concept that art isn’t always pleasant or nice to look at. I chose Bataille as an example of this, as Chloe rightly said, his work is shocking and aims to get taboo subjects talked about. Of course, I’m not a plagiarist, so we’re not going to be doing anything remotely sexual, so don’t worry.’ He laughed and glanced at me. I smirked back and he carried on talking. I stared at his lips that were enticingly pierced with a gold ring. I wondered how it felt when you kissed him.
I tried to keep up with what was being said. Joel interrupted him a few times, saying that it would be hard to do this, that and the other and Lee also put a few of his views forward. The two girls remained silent. Chloe was focused on what was being said as she kept nodding in agreement. Annabelle was staring at the storyboard, occasionally looking down at her mobile phone and texting someone. I was starting to get bored when I heard my name mentioned.
They were all looking me, Chloe and Lee were smiling and Joel was nudging me.
‘Sorry, what?’ I said, feeling a bit embarrassed, which wasn’t a normal emotion for me to feel.
‘I just said, would you mind doing a bit of an explore before it gets dark, just to see what we’ve got here as far as the three scenes are concerned?’ Simon was jotting notes down in a pad, his writing spiky like spiders’ legs.
‘Yes, of course!’ I agreed, a little too enthusiastically. I had no idea what I was looking for. I made a mental note to ask Lee later on as I didn’t want to admit I had switched off when the plot and storyline was being discussed.
‘Great, thanks for that. Dez, obviously you are going with her, right? We don’t know what state this place is in as far as rotten floors and stairs so look after each other. Chlo, can you please help me with ideas for the props we’ll need and then me, Dez and Jo can start making them. Anna? Would you mind taking us back to town tomorrow when we’ve decided what we’ll need to make cos I haven’t got materials or tools. Yep? Cheers.’
Lee tugged on my hand and gestured for me to follow him. We went into the Chandelier room and collected our things. I suggested we take everything over to the annex room as that’s where we both wanted to sleep. We needed to sort that before it got dark and I wanted some time alone. We were laden down with a rucksack each, clothes, towels and day bags, but it was manageable in one trip. It was 3pm and I was feeling tired, the night before starting to catch up with me.
The afternoon light gave the glass corridor a surreal glow and I noticed details about it that had been clothed in darkness the night before. The nicest feature was the floor, which was made of hundreds of multi-coloured tiles making a lovely mosaic design that travelled the whole length of the corridor, carrying on into the entrance of the annex where the steps began. Lee stopped at the stairs and pointed in front of him. I peered round him and saw an archway leading to what looked like a conservatory area. Being as bright as it was through the arch, it must have been exposed to the elements in some way. We decided to have a look later.
‘Stay here and I’ll go and dump these bags down and come and get yours.’ Lee offered, being the Gentleman as always. I took no notice and started ascending, but regretted it as my legs were killing me. I was determined to prove I could cope and made it to the top of the stairs, panting. The landing was bathed in sunlight coming from the glass windows to my right. They were designed in a long panel with art nouveau style lead patterns surrounding the pains at regular intervals reminding me of stained glass in churches. Lee appeared and looked surprised that I had made it up. He took all the bags and bundled them into the room we would sleep in.
‘Those windows are friggin awesome!’ he said as he wrapped his arms around me. We stood there looking out at the view, which again, was mostly trees that were tentatively plotting their way in to the annex tower just like their allies on the outside of the main building. Then I noticed that there was a corridor straight ahead of us as well, some doors open and a few closed, about six doors in all. Lee kissed my head and we walked into our new holiday suite.
The room looked much the same as it had done the night before, except to me it was shabbier now as the sunlight was exposing it in all its derelict glory. The sink was there surrounded by the peeling blue paint, the balcony still boasting the intricate spirals and flowers of the wrought iron railings. It had once been a very luxurious bedroom, but I loved it exactly how it was now, worn and wise, hiding its history like a secretive lover.
Lee spread our sleeping bag over the rug that had been very soft the night before, against all odds considering how old it must have been. We also had a yellow blanket and an old double duvet with hideous blue hearts dotted all over it, which was a spare, just in case we were cold. I doubted we would be. Two pillows were set out, but Lee usually ended up sleeping on both of them and me with my special Lee pillow. His chest.
‘Did you bring our wash stuff?’ I asked him, realising as I said it, that we probably didn’t have a toilet or shower in this annex.
He shook his head. ‘Sorry, babes, I’ll go and get it all now, unless there’s a working toilet and sink in here somewhere? What does my sweet think? Shall we go and look?’ I slapped him playfully for calling me ‘my sweet’ and we went to explore.
We tried the first two doors in the corridor but they were locked. Opening the first door that was ajar, we walked into a small kitchen area, darkened by the old broken blinds that had been pulled half way down the window. It smelled vaguely of old bread. The cupboard doors were a weird shade of pink, almost salmon pink, some of them were cracked and fell off their rusted hinges as we tried opening them. There was a thick layer of dust on the surfaces and in the corner, near a cooking hob, was a group of pots, with sugar coffee and tea written on the sides. Lee dared me to look inside but there was nothing left, only a few blackened coffee granules in the bottom, probably stuck there now and forever. There was an old fridge and a small round table squashed in the corner, covered by one of those plastic table cloths that had a cool 70s pattern on it, large ellipses in blues and purples overlapping each other in blinding confusion.
We left the kitchen, thinking it was a shame that the electricity had been cut off years back. It would have been cute to make breakfasts in there, just the two of us, taking our coffee and eggs onto the balcony and sitting on the orange blanket, picnic style.
We then opened the next door to see a toilet that looked as though Annabelle had just that second cleaned it. I looked at Lee in disbelief and he frowned, trying to think it through and find a rational explanation. There wasn’t one.
‘Maybe the construction guys have been working over here too and they’ve been keeping it sparkling.’ Lee suggested. It flushed fine. There wasn’t a sink, but we had one in the room so I hope that worked.
The only remaining open door was a storage space. It had two sections, like a walk-in wardrobe except it was only deep enough for one person to stand in. The top shelf had some old boxes with roses and other floral patterns on and taking them down I was disappointed to find they were empty. There were some old rusty coat hangers, a small clock with the hands missing, a red sandal, a small wooden box with chess pieces in, and a larger box, locked. I checked the upper shelf for any other trinkets but there was nothing I could see. The bottom shelf was empty except for more coat hangers, wooden this time and an old hat that looked like it should be in a Theatre costume department. A faded pink curtain, with a damp stain across it, hung from a steel pole. I pulled it aside and it revealed a small wooden chest but that too was locked.
‘I want to find the keys!’ I said to Lee, feeling like a child in a toy shop. Lee was tall and had pulled something rectangular out from the corner on the shelf above me. Whatever it was, it was smothered in cob webs. He blew on it and then I saw what it was. A pack of Tarot Cards.
‘Hey…wow!’ I said almost snatching them out his hand. He swapped them into his other hand and elevated them above his head, smiling down at me condescendingly. I tried to jump at them but he tickled me with his free hand and made me scream. I hated being tickled, but loved it at the same time. He ran out of the cupboard and into the room, getting under the sleeping bag and hiding. I then saw one of the cards slipping out from under the bag. Lee was sniggering. As I looked closer, I noticed which one it was. The Lovers.
We spent a few hours alone in our private room, delighting in the fact that when I had closed the door there had been a key in it, which did lock despite having to bang it with the end of the torch to make it turn.
We were lying in the sleeping bag, the light just beginning to fade, when Lee’s phone buzzed somewhere underneath the piles of clothes. It was Simon. Lee said we had been exploring and had found some interesting places and he looked at me slyly when he said it. Interesting places indeed.
I looked at my phone and was quite shocked to see it was 6 o’clock. My stomach was making somersaults and needed food. Lee offered to go and make our dinner, so we got dressed and made sure we had everything we needed for the evening ahead; torch, phones, valuables. Even though we had a key, I didn’t trust that we’d be able to unlock it again on our return, so we just took all our money and things we didn’t want to lose in my little shoulder bag.
As we were going down the stairs, Lee’s phone rang again. He stopped half way down to answer it and his face went from chilled out, loved up Lee, to stressed out, shocked Lee. He started kicking the wall with his shoe and I heard him go ‘Yes. Ok. I’ll be there. But are you sure there’s no one else? Well, it’s a lot difficult actually, as I told you yesterday. I know. I spoke to her. Yes, she did. Ok. See you tomorrow. Bye.’
He looked down at his shoes and pushed his hand through his hair. He looked well pissed off. I had a feeling I was going to be even more pissed off any second.
‘I have to go to work, every night this week from 7pm til 12, starting from tomorrow.’ He said. ‘It’s Matt, I knew he would back out. Ken has asked Sue, she can’t cover because she’s on holiday in Sain and Kev can’t cos he’s got flu. That leaves me. Again. Fuck. Simon’s gonna freak.’
Simon? Simon’s gonna freak? How about Casey? She might just be a little bit cross as well. Shit me. I would have to stay here on my own, with people I didn’t know, for 7 hours out of each day, and he didn’t think I would have a problem with that?
‘Screw Simon. What about me?’ I heard my mouth say, involuntarily.
Lee sighed. We were still standing on the stairs like dorks.
‘Casey, please don’t,’ he pleaded. ‘I know this is shit for you as well, but the whole point in us being here is for Si’s film. It’s only a few hours a night and I’ll be back and we can sleep together in our room and it’ll be awesome. I’ve got to persuade Bella to take me back to town and bring me here every evening, which is gonna suck for her as well. Help me out here, please.’
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I screamed at the wall as if Lee was no longer there, ‘But we are supposed to be spending these two weeks together!’
Lee had sat down on the step. Part of me wanted to go and hug him, but the other half, my angry half, felt betrayed, as if he was only concerned about them. He spent all his life with them. It was always about them.
‘I’ll come with you then,’ I suggested, suddenly lifted as I realised how cool the solution was. ‘I can sit at the bar ‘til you finish your shift, then we can come back here together.’
Lee said nothing. He wasn’t even listening.
I waited for what seemed like ages. Lee then got up and turned, not looking me in the eye, just flatly addressing me.
‘Are you coming? I’m hungry. I’ll cook and talk to Si and Bella. ‘
I followed him, against all my instincts. I felt like sitting in the dark room alone, smoking and fuming, but I was ravenous.
We walked in silence, Lee tried to take my hand twice, but I ignored it. I wanted to make a point and my point would be, no one treats Casey like shit.
We walked into the kitchen and everyone seemed to be busy cooking their own dinners. Annabelle was stirring something at the end cooker, Joel was crouched down at the next one with the oven door down, poking something that had way too much smoke bellowing from it. Simon was already at the table eating what looked like Lasagne, flicking through a magazine while he chewed. Then I saw Chloe, over the other side of the kitchen loading vegetables into a huge industrial blender. She glanced over at me and smiled.
‘Alright there, Dezmondo?’ asked Simon as Lee went to get some stuff out of the fridge. ‘Had a pleasant afternoon?’
He looked up at me and gave me a weird look, something like, yeh I know what you were up to and although it’s cool, I’m fucking green about it.
‘I need to talk to you, man,’ Lee said, his head almost inside the freezer compartment. ‘Something’s come up.’
Simon let his fork fall to his plate. I sat on the edge of the bench opposite him, not knowing what to do. As angry as I was with Lee, I felt mean leaving him to prepare the food and talk to Simon.
‘Do you want me to do that while you guys talk?’ I offered, grabbing the bag of vegetables that we had put under the table.
Lee closed the freezer and shook his head. ‘Go and have a cigarette if you like, I’ll text you when dinner’s ready.’
I took that as a cue to go. Lee obviously didn’t want me around putting my angry ore in when Simon was due to freak out as well any second. I gave Lee the bag and he mouthed ‘Sorry’ as he took it, followed by ‘Love you’. I managed a weak smile and shouted to Joel.
‘Joel. Cigarette break. Now.’
He followed me like a puppy, the waft of burnt food did too. ‘Fucking burnt my curry, didn’t I?’ he moaned. I found myself laughing at that as we zigzagged our way blindly to the balcony, the light fading fast, cigarettes already poised between our lips to be lit as soon as we set foot in there.
Joel ranted on a bit about his curry and then I started telling him what had just happened to Lee. Joel was sitting on the floor with his back propped up against the sofa. I was curled up in the corner of it, on my fifth cigarette.
‘So, Si is defo in the ballistic stage right about now, I guess,’ Joel said as though this was an amazing pearl of wisdom that would just sweep the problem magically away.
‘Yes, Joel.’ I said, trying not to sound irritated by his obviousness. ‘Don’t you think it’s a pile of shit that he’s gonna be in London every evening when I’m here?’
Joel blew blue smoke up into the air. It swirled and dispersed as the breeze tripped it up. ‘Well, not really. I mean it’s not like he’s not ever gonna be here, is it? Before you know it, he’ll be back. You can hang out with me, it’ll be fun.’
I wanted to say, that wasn’t the point, but I decided against it. Joel just didn’t get it.
‘So, what’s Simon’s film about?’ I asked him. I figured that he wouldn’t be all like, what do you mean, weren’t you listening to the guru of film makers? Shame on you my girl. To the gallows with you!
Joel sighed and stretched his arms up, yawning loudly.
‘Do you know what, Case?’ he answered, seemingly quite serious for Joel. ‘I have not got a single fucking snippet or interest or inkling what in the name of feck it is about because I wasn’t listening. So strike me dead with a turnip.’
We both started laughing. I couldn’t stop. Joel was snorting and I just couldn’t breathe. Joel started doing his silent laughter again because no sound was coming out from him, but the sofa was shaking. I tried to compose myself but I couldn’t.
Lee texted me to tell me dinner was ready and that he had replaced Joel’s charred pizza with another one and that was also ready.
‘Hey, Dezman, you beauty!’ Joel shouted, jumping up and adjusting his trousers in the dark. I could see his outline, but not much else.
‘It’s dark!’ I announced, getting to my feet and trying to get my bearings.
‘The door’s that way.’ Said Joel. It was too dark to see if he was pointing or not. I’m sure he was though, the dick.
‘As I said, it’s dark!’ I laughed and pushed him. ‘Come on, let’s go. I can see the door frame over that way.’
We made it to the kitchen. It was quiet. Lee was the only one there, sitting at the table, two steaming dinners of quorn, tomato sauce, peppers and spaghetti in front of him, smelling divine. Joel’s normal coloured pizza was there too and Joel tucked in, thanking Lee with his mouth full, making appreciative groaning noises as he pulled the cheese laden slice apart with his teeth.
‘How did it go?’ I asked, wondering why Simon wasn’t still here. It must have gone pretty badly.
‘Si stormed off as soon as I told him.’ Lee said flatly. ‘I knew he’d do that. He’s not feeling good at the moment as it is and he was depending on me to help him. He said his film needs to be shot mostly during the evening for the correct lighting, and that’s when I won’t be here. So, yeh. It didn’t go well.’
Joel didn’t comment. He was all focused on the pizza.
We ate in silence for a while. Then Chloe came in and put her hand on Lee’s shoulder, sitting down next to Joel.
‘Hey sweets,’ she said to Lee. ‘Si will calm down. I’ve just had a word with him and explained that really, it’s just a matter of you two working out a new schedule, like during the day you can do all the prep and script work and then we can help Si film bits in the evening. It’s no biggie.’
‘And he actually said ‘it’s no biggie’?’ asked Lee, smiling at Chloe.
The atmosphere lightened a little. I sniggered. Lee nudged me and laughed. Joel was trying to extract a massive length of stretched cheese from between his side teeth.
‘No, but he’s gone for a walk. When he gets back he says we’ll all have a beer and chill out, sort it out in the morning. You know, I think he’s still suffering a lot from PTSD. What do you reckon? He’s just so angry all the time!’
Lee agreed with whatever PTSD meant. Joel sat back and rubbed his belly.
‘Greedy twat.’ Said Lee and threw a napkin at him.
‘Did you talk to Annabelle?’ I asked, not really wanting to know, but somehow having to satisfy my morbid curiosity.
‘Yes, she’s cool with it.’ Lee sighed, sounding relieved. ‘In fact she said she was glad for the chance to get away from here for a few hours every evening. She wants to spend some time at the house on her own, I didn’t ask why.’
My heart stopped and then started beating again. For some reason, I felt like that meant something ominous for me and Lee, but my reasoning couldn’t answer my gut reaction quick enough to make me feel better. She would drive Lee to work, leaving here at about 5pm, go to the house, stay there until about 11:30, go and pick him up at 12 and drive him back here? Suspicious was the name of that game.
‘As long as Michael doesn’t get invited to stay there with her!’ Chloe suddenly exclaimed, putting her hands to her face in despair. She was so expressive with her hands, almost like a character from one of those black and white movies that had to rely on gestures to relay meaning instead of words. ‘That would be horrible. She was saying this morning how much safer she feels being here with us. You don’t think she’s changed her mind do you?’
‘Whatever Anna decides to do is her own funeral Chlo, ‘ said Joel, shaking his head as if her behaviour exasperated him beyond comprehension. ‘We’ve all tried to help her, but she just does what she likes regardless of our advice.’
Annabelle chose to walk in as Joel was finishing his sentence. He didn’t seem bothered by it at all.
‘Whose advice might that be, then, Mr Sympathy?’ she asked plonking her bottle of Guiness down on the table. ‘I don’t recall ever confiding in you. Oh, wait. I did once and if I remember rightly, you dismissed my problem entirely. You’re a fucking clown, Mackie.’
Chloe put her head in her hands again and got up to get a bottle of water from the fridge.
‘Ok, you two, please let’s not start again. There’s been enough conflict this evening already. Fin.’
Annabelle sat and drank her Guiness in silence. I looked around at the group of friends, minus Simon, and realised I was right about something. Friends were too much trouble. I often sat alone in my attic room feeling lost and alone, wishing I had a big group of close mates to hang out with, but this proved that the reality was far from romantic. The closer you got to people, the more you realised they were out for themselves and when push came to shove, the only person you could really rely on was yourself. Even the good people like Lee were unreliable. He was so busy trying to please everyone that in the end, he pleased no one, most of all himself. Chloe was the same. She didn’t seem to see the faults in anyone, always trying to be peace maker extraordinaire. She spent her time feeling overwhelmed and stressed at the slightest disagreement or argument. I wanted to get to know her better, to have someone here when Lee had gone with Annabelle, someone who would say, Casey, it’s fine, there’s nothing going on between them. Lee loves you. But somehow I doubted that I would ever be able to discuss my fears with her. She was too loyal to both of them, especially Lee. Joel was clearly someone who avoided difficult situations, preferring to joke around and make light of everything. Simon was someone who I had felt I could bond with, if I could reach that far into his world. But he had this barrier, a huge solid concrete wall that I doubted I would ever be able to crash through. Despite being surrounded by people, I suddenly felt really alone.
Lee and Simon went to the Chandelier room when he came back in. It happened that, just as I started to feel the emptiness of the situation, everyone got up and dispersed, leaving me sitting there. Chloe was clearing up again while brewing some tea in an old fashioned teapot. Annabelle had slipped out after her phone started ringing, and Joel had announced that he was going to find somewhere where he could kip down on his own for the rest of the time here.
Chloe spoke, sounding tired.
‘Hey Case, are you ok?’ she asked gently. ‘You seem really quiet. Has something happened?’
I wanted to blurt it all out but felt cagey after what I had been thinking about earlier. Casey brought her brew to the table and offered me one. It was green as she poured it. I asked what it was.
‘Camomile tea for my nerves. I need it to help me sleep.’ She said, sipping it. ‘Try it. It doesn’t taste great, but believe me, it really works.’
It did taste quite foul, but I could have done with a good night’s sleep so kept swallowing, almost choking a few times while trying not to let my taste buds experience too much of it. It was like hot liquid daisies. Not that I had ever eaten daisies, but you know.
‘So, how do you feel about Lee having to go to work?’
Boom. There it was. She was psychic.
‘To be honest, Chloe, I am fuming about it. ‘ I said, coming dangerously to the point of hysterical no return. ‘I’ve missed him so much and just wanted to have some fun together. Now, it’s like his job is more important.’ My heart was thumping uncomfortably in my chest. I needed more than tea to calm these wired nerves.
Chloe was silent. I could sense her looking at the top of my bowed head. I didn’t do silences very well, usually fighting inside my head to fill them with words. Any words. I considered myself socially inept.
When I didn’t carry on ranting, she spoke.
‘It’s totally understandable, really. I mean, I would feel the same. The thing is that when stuff like this happens, and there’s really nothing you can do to change it, there’s not really any point in getting angry. What does that change? It’s better to just accept it and enjoy the time Lee is here with you. Believe me, spending time with you this summer is all he has been talking about for months. I could tell by his face just now. He’s gutted, absolutely bummed. I wouldn’t lie to you Case. That guy’s world revolves around you.’
I wanted to burst into tears, I won’t lie.
We sat there for what seemed like ages, me trying to fight back tears, Chloe sipping on her tea. I wondered if she knew that it wasn’t the only reason I was churned up inside? I mean it did sound crap when I said it out loud. It wasn’t as if he had broken up with me or even that I wasn’t going to see him for days on end.
‘And also, as far as Annabelle is concerned, there is nothing going on between them, I can tell you that for nothing. So, stop worrying and enjoy this summer. We’re going to have a blast. You and me, we are going to explore every single inch of this amazing building and if we are lucky, which I’m sure we will be, we might even get to see some spirits. They are all around us. It’s up to us to find out of any of them need help, you know, to pass into the light. So, first thing’s first. Show me the amazing place you and Lee found today.’
I lead Chloe through the glass corridor. She kept stopping to touch the glass, pressing her finger tips softly against the mould coloured panes. Some of the glass had been smashed, letting leaves and sometimes a lone flower poke its head through, almost as if Nature was reaching out to us, saying look, I’m still here. I’m beautiful; the phoenix flower emerging from the ashes of the dusty brick work.
My mind was still chasing Chloe’s last words to me about Lee and Annabelle. I wanted to believe her. I almost allowed myself to as I got lost in Chloe’s warm cloud of positivity. I had been bottling up all my rage for months and months, not having anyone to really talk to about it, at least no one who really understood the emotional strains of a long distance relationship. Her carefree vibes seemed to be bouncing round the glass of the outdoor aquarium, dragging the sun out from behind its hide and seek cloud, bathing us in its healing rays. I felt light and almost ready to skip to the annex room. Maybe I had been paranoid about Annabelle. Maybe I needed to be grateful for what I had instead of wasting time worrying about something that would happen if it was fated to, whether I stressed about it or not. That’s hard to do when it involves the only person you have ever loved; the one person who gets you. The one person who seems to care. The one person who had the power to drag the protective tower he had made just for, crumbling to the ground along with my life.
Chloe was standing at the doors at the end of the corridor, her hands on her hips, her blonde hair shimmering in a sprinkling of sun dust. She was wearing a floor length cream gypsy skirt that sparkled when the sun hit the embroidered sequins. I couldn’t see her feet, it was that long. I wondered if she had made it herself, being a Fashion student. I thought about my own boring outfit, black leggings and my Paramore t-shirt. I should have got changed into something nicer, more imaginative. I made my own clothes. It was something I had always been proud of, people coming up to me at College asking me where I got that dress from, and being able to state I made it myself or how I got ideas for my various t-shirt designs. Being different to everyone else was something like a mantra I lived by and I had let it slip lately. I was with art students, film students and a fashion student. I felt a bit weird again as if I shouldn’t be there. As if Lee would be better off with Annabelle. After all, she was stunning with her cat-like eyes, full lips, amazing dread locks and cool style. She looked good even dressed in a black t-shirt and jeans, somehow exuding a potent look at me vibe without even trying. She was as tall as Lee as well, not like me, a short- ass dwarf.
I tried to smile as Chloe put her arm out towards me. She clamped me gently in a side hug, her flowery perfume wafting around me, making me feel instantly better. Are all French people this affectionate? I wondered, still feeling a bit uncomfortable with such physical closeness. Lee was the only one who I felt good pressed up against. My parents were quite affectionate with each other, but I had never felt the need for motherly cuddles or to sit on my Dad’s lap like some girls. I guess it had followed me through to my teens as I still didn’t need to feel anyone close to me like that. Only Lee. Even with boyfriends before him, I was never the one who craved to display my feelings in public or in private, holding hands or cuddling up. Hugging my girl buddies? Unheard of. Stella would piss herself laughing.
‘Case, are you sure you’re alright, ma cherie?’
I looked into her green eyes and I saw genuine concern. I couldn’t hold her gaze for long as I felt ashamed all of a sudden. Shame was not an emotion I was used to and I didn’t like how vulnerable it made me feel. I had always been the one who stepped over emotion and sometimes even stamped on it under foot. I was used to being in control, at least around other people. I would even go as far as to argue against what I truly believed in, just to be seen as the queen of conflict. No one could penetrate my hard exterior. Or so I thought.
I smiled and edged away from Chloe’s hug. I needed to regain my posture and get a grip. I walked up the stairs first and gestured towards the windows that Lee and I had stood and admired not long before. How things had changed since then, my mood seeming positively ecstatic then compared to the doom I felt now.
‘Wow, belles fenetres!’ Chloe exclaimed in delight, again running her finger tips across the coloured glass panels and over the lead that swirled and spiralled in art nouveau clusters. ‘Such beautiful windows eh?’
I had understood what she said, but agreed. They really were gorgeous.
I walked into the bedroom and felt a welcoming gust of summer air coming in from the open balcony doors. A tiny bird landed on the iron balcony railing, its head searching frantically for any sign of crumbs there, but seeing none, opened its wings and flew.
Our bedding was still strewn on the floor and I knelt down and straightened it out, kicking some of my spare clothes underneath the mound. Chloe hadn’t noticed. She was walking around the edge of the room, seemingly examining the walls, occasionally dragging her long fingers across the peeling paint work.
She saw me watching her, stopped walking and started giggling.
‘Oh mon Dieu, you must be asking yourself what the heck I’m doing! No, I haven’t got some weird fetish about touching everything in sight, it’s just that I can sense the history of a place by touching walls and things.’
There was a word for this, but in my eagerness to impress her with my knowledge of parapsychology and mystical subjects, I couldn’t think of it. Clairvoyant was when someone has the ability to gain information about an object, person, location or physical event by using senses other than the five we all use. But there was a term for someone who could touch objects and see the life of the person who owned it.
‘I am a kind of amateur Psychometrist,’ Chloe explained. ‘Have you seen ‘Rose Red’, that Stephen King film where that group of Psychics investigate the haunted house?’
‘Yep’ I admitted, even though it was one of those films that you don’t admit to having loved, ‘It was a cheesy film, but had some good ideas. There was a woman who could touch things…what did they call her….oh yes, a ‘touch know’!
We laughed. Chloe walked out to the balcony and stood in the doorway, putting her flip flopped foot onto the wooden slats to check it wasn’t about to cave in, taking her down to the thick hedgerows below.
‘It’s cool, isn’t it?’ I said, walking up behind her. ‘So, have you ‘seen’ anything yet, you know, as far as the history of the building? I didn’t get chance to ask you if you had seen that girl again, the one you saw when we went to the loo together yesterday.’
Chloe was leaning on the railings, her long neck stretched down as her head went from side to side, scanning the area below the balcony. It made me feel dizzy looking down there.
‘Well, I didn’t sense anything else last night, but then I was so knackered, I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow.’ She explained. ‘But…..’
She twirled round and faced me, an excited look on her face. It was then I noticed the scarf tied to one of the vertical iron railings. I had totally forgotten about that, the night before when Lee had woken me up to tell me he had seen a girl on the balcony, he had been there.
Had it been there when we had returned to the annex earlier on? I didn’t recall it, but surely I would have seen it? One of us would have.
Chloe had stopped short of telling me something and was staring at me again. I walked onto the balcony, that wasn’t really wide enough for two people, Chloe stepping aside as I strode up to the railings and picked up the bottom of the scarf to examine it.
‘What’s that?’ I heard Chloe ask as I spread it out in my fingers. It was heavy fabric, expensive, good quality fabric. It was old, some of the weave had thinned in places, but it was still wearable. It was antique cream coloured with quite large roses embroidered on it, red petals sewn onto black petals. It was lovely. Along the bottom of the folds were hand sewn tassels of shiny cream, silky as they draped over my fingers. I untied it and let Chloe look at it.
‘We noticed it here last night but I’m sure it wasn’t here earlier on,’ I said, trying to get my head around it.
‘This is exquisite,’ she mused as she let her fingers trail over the intricate embroidery. ‘My Grandmamma had one like this. I remember my Mama wearing it.’
Her face was very serious. She lifted her head and her eyes gazed out towards the horizon. I gathered she was doing her touch-know again. I watched her, fascinated.
The sun went behind a cloud and my arms came up in small goose pimps. Chloe’s eyes travelled back to the shawl and her eyes closed for a few seconds. When she opened them, her body convulsed slightly as though she’d had an electric shock, her arms and hands jolting. A faint gasp escaped from her lips. She put out her hand and gripped my shoulder, overbalancing slightly.
‘Oh Jesus, I’m sorry Case. Merde……….that was bizarre. Everything went dark and I could taste this horrible bitterness on my tongue. Then all I could see were my eyes, but they were red and blood shot. I thought I was going to throw up. Can we go in?’
She tied the shawl back onto the railing and stood there for a few seconds before walking back in, as if still trying to figure out what had happened. The sun had not come back out and it was noticeably chilly.
I tried to close the balcony doors but they made a pained moaning noise when I pulled them, a metallic scraping noise setting my teeth on edge. I decided to leave them.
Chloe was sitting on the floor, her long thin arms wrapped around her knees. She asked me for a cigarette.
‘I didn’t know you smoked!’ I laughed as I took my tobacco out and started rolling one each.
‘I don’t normally, but after that I need one. Sometimes I have the odd one, just to relax after something like that.’
I sat down opposite her, cross legged, and lit the cigarettes, handing one to her. She said merci and took a long drag.
‘So, tell me what you’ve seen so far,’ I said, wanting to know everything, ‘Or if you want, we can talk about what just happened. ‘
Chloe had her chin resting on her knee and seemed spent. She kept taking drags of the rollie, exhaling the blue smoke slowly as if relishing the relaxation it provided, every time, her eyes closing more, her lids looking heavier and heavier.
After a while, she spoke.
‘Ok. First of all, I get tired really easily, especially when I am zoned into the Psychometrics, so please excuse me if I slur my words.’ She smiled. ‘Last night, apart from listening to Anna crying herself senseless again, before I dropped off for real, I heard bells. Not church bells, not that loud or deep, but like cow bells or something. Then I dreamed of a girl. It’s hard to explain, but she wasn’t like a ghost…not dressed in old fashioned clothes or whatnot like they usually are. I have seen lots of spirits, Case, but this one was…..Je ne sais pas….different.’
‘So what was she dressed like?’ I asked, not really knowing what the hell to say.
Chloe thought about it before speaking. Then laughed unexpectedly.
‘You know, like Steampunk?’ she said, shaking her head as if she didn’t believe what her own mouth was saying.
That was when my phone rang. Lee’s name was flashing. Chloe gestured me to answer it.
‘Lover!’ he said in that playful, sexy voice he knows I can’t resist, ‘Where art thou?’
I told him I was in the annex with Chloe. He said he was still with Simon trying to get some schedule figured out. He was checking on me, just to see if I was ok. We spoke for a while about what they had sorted out so far and I told him Chloe had been doing some Psychometry. He didn’t seem surprised and didn’t ask me what it was so I assumed they had already discussed all of her talents. Before we hung up after promising to meet for a snack later, I asked him about the shawl.
‘Oh man, I’d forgotten all about that!’ he said, ‘Do you know what? I really don’t think it was there earlier. I would have had a closer look at it. Jesus, that’s weird. Maybe it was there…I really don’t know. What about that girl I saw as well? Oh God, that really put the shitters up me. I wanted to tell Chloe but haven’t had a chance. Tell her what I saw and that we can spend some time in there with her later, see if she can sense anything.’
I told Chloe that Lee had seen a girl on the balcony. She asked me what she had looked like, but I couldn’t tell her as I had been dead to the world when Lee had claimed he saw her. Chloe stood up and made a three hundred and sixty degree turn, her hand stretched out as she went, her long skirt bellowing out to expose her graceful legs. I guessed she was casting a protective circle, which is done in Wiccan rituals for protection against evil and demonic entities.
‘Casey, do you want to see my Runes?’ she asked me, delving into her shoulder bag and pulling out a bulging draw string bag in pale velvet.
Clearly that was the end of the conversation about the ghost girl, then.
I was genuinely interested in Runes, so I didn’t mind. I had had a set years back, but my Mum, in her knowledge of all things esoteric, had labelled them as ‘evil’ and ‘satanic’ toys that were not to be used in her house. I didn’t talk to her for weeks after that, but that was nothing compared to when she tried to ban me from wearing my Pentagram. Oh the fuss and bother over the again ‘satanic’ symbol I was parading. What was I thinking? There was enough evil in the world, without spreading it even more. Spreading evil? The woman is insane, she’s a fucking mentalist. I printed loads of information off the internet and I remember this passage that I specifically memorised to piss her off. I also carry it around in my wallet:
‘To most modern Pagans, the pentagram symbolizes the elements of earth, air, fire, water, and spirit, as well as the directions East, South, West, North, and Within. The continuous line that forms the star speaks to the interconnectedness of all things Divine and Earthly, and reminds us to strive toward balance with all we encounter. The circle that frequently appears around the pentagram is symbolic of unity, wholeness, the quest for Divine Knowledge, and the never-ending cycle of birth, death, and rebirth.
It is by drawing on the elements represented by the pentagram while within a sacred circle that those who practice the art of focused intention known as Witchcraft (or simply “the Craft”) seek to alter their internal and external realities. Those who follow the Wiccan tradition believe that the Craft is governed by the Threefold Law, which states that any energy set forth, be it with good or harmful intentions, will be multiplied three times over and returned to the caster. This encourages most Wiccans to use the Craft only for spiritual growth and healing, and discourages its use in the harming of anyone or anything, including the interference with another’s free will.’
Chloe had spread them out on the wooden floor so they looked like they were an intricate design of a mosaic, the symbols staring up at us, lines kicking and pointing, as if desperate to reveal their hidden wisdom.
I went to sit next to her, rolling another cigarette. As I crouched down, ready to learn more, I noticed a bag that Lee had brought earlier, standing upright with a long object that looked like a bottle, protruding against the fabric. I reached for it and unbuckled the flap and yes, there it was; the bottle of red that I had put in there and forgotten about. And two glasses.
‘Yay!’ I shrieked. ‘Chloe?’
Chloe nodded enthusiastically and grabbed one of the glasses, holding it up as the thick nectar swirled out of the bottle neck and into the glass. I filled mine up and then rooted around in the bottom of the bag, remembering that I had put some candles in there as well. It was getting dark now. I had been all set for a romantic encounter with Lee, but that was ok. I would grab some more wine for us later. I also got my dock out of the side pocket and put on some music. The room didn’t seem as spooky with Hayley Williams singing out and loud.
‘Now, let’s see.’ Chloe announced, taking a delicate swig of wine, her little finger sticking up elegantly. ‘ May be this girl we’ve seen will talk to us through these.’
I lit the candles and hoped they wouldn’t fall over onto the wooden floor. I made a mental note to get some plates from the kitchen to stand them on as I didn’t want to be worrying about that later on when I was snuggled up here with my boy.
‘Can you do readings for people who aren’t here at the time?’ I asked her, whispering now as the candles were projecting an eerie light across the room and the air from outside seemed thick as if it was going to start with thunder and lightning at any moment.
Chloe sat up, sipped some more wine and breathed in deeply.
‘Yes, at least I’m going to try!’ she said, laughing. I laughed too as we were like two little girls hiding away, up to mischief, even though Chloe must have been twenty, the same age as Lee. I was the one that felt like a baby.
Suddenly, the candles flickered and one of them almost went out completely, diminishing the light in the room for a few seconds until its wick flared up again and light swam around the walls. Chloe looked up towards the door and at that second, I heard the chinkling sound of bells. I felt Chloe’s hand grope for mine as my eyes strained to get accustomed to what they thought I was seeing in the doorway. Within the rectangular black of the hallway beyond that open door, was a shape; the shape of a figure, standing there, silent and still. I focussed, in slow motion and so beyond frightened that I couldn’t look away as the dreamlike state created by the candles and wine blurred reality like a silk veil falling over our heads. I heard Chloe gasp. The face of a girl was illuminated momentarily by the candle light, her hair colour melted into the darkness behind her, leaving some black strands wildly falling over her face, tufts and knots like the tiniest of dreadlocks. Her dark, make- up smudged eyes swam with fear and disbelief. Then she disappeared, but she didn’t fade. She darted, as quickly as she had manifested, out of sight behind the frame of the door. The last vision of her was a brush of white skirt that licked the shadows on the landing. As the fabric bellowed out, it revealed her bare ankle and around it was tied a thin string of delicate silver bells. Then, with a soft tinkle, that too was gone, leaving behind silence in the emptiness of the pitch black.
‘Chlo……….what the fuck was that?’ I stammered, clambering up onto my feet but not knowing why I needed to do that. My legs were weak and I felt them give out.
Chloe still had hold of my arm and I had dragged her half up as well. She looked shocked, but not scared at all.
‘I think that was your girl.’ She said, bending down and picking up her glass, necking the remainder. ‘Shall we look out there? I don’t know, maybe it was a squatter. Oh shit, it could be, Case. What shall we do?’
She looked more scared by the thought of a squatter appearing to us, than I demonic looking ghost girl. I tried to calm my racing heart by telling myself she was used to seeing stuff like that. Nothing to freak out over…
Then there was a loud noise on the stairs, shoes shuffling. I wanted to run but there was nowhere to run to. Then, relief flooded over me as I heard Lee’s voice.
‘Helloooooo! Belles femmeses?!’
We looked at each other and laughed, not because it was a moment of hilarity, just because it was such a relief. Both of us were standing with one hand on our knee, bowed down with wine glasses in our other hands. Lee walked in and stopped abruptly as he saw our weird stances, a puzzled look on his face.
‘Hey, what’s up? Why the giggling? And more importantly, why are you both hunched over like old biddies?’
‘Hello, idiotic person who doesn’t understand how to greet people en francais!’ Chloe shook her head in friendly exasperation. ‘Femmeses? What the hell?’
We straightened up and Chloe stretched her arms out, groaning.
‘We just saw someone,’ I said, going up to him and letting him wrap his arms around me. He smelt of cigarette smoke that wasn’t my Amber Leaf, and beer. It must have been from Simon. He was warm and comforting.
‘Who’s someone?’ he asked, I could hear his voice booming out as I had my ear to his chest. ‘Is there someone else here? I saw someone last night too, Chlo!’
Chloe had poured herself another glass of wine and offered the bottle to me. I broke away from Lee’s embrace only just enough to examine the remainder and take a swig straight from it.
‘It was really weird and eerie because no sooner had I woken Case up and told her, than she had disappeared totally. The girl, not Casey. ’ he grinned, having added that bit on the end for comical effect.
We laughed nervously. I drunk the rest of the wine down and thought about having a cigarette, but not wanting to leave Lee.
‘Do you think there are squatters here?’ Chloe asked him, sitting back down on the floor.
Lee must have brushed his hand through his hair, which he often did when he got asked a question, because his hand left the small of my back and I felt really cold all of a sudden.
‘Si said there aren’t. Apparently he asked the owner because he didn’t want any of us to be approached by junkies or whatever while we are staying here overnight, understandably. The builders have had strict instructions to report any dodgy people hanging around, so I assume the coast is clear. Besides, how could a girl have climbed up onto that balcony and then disappeared so fast?’
Chloe was biting her lip on one side, looking thoughtful. It was freezing in that room by then and the candles were burning down fast. Chloe suggested we go and talk to the others and ask them if they had seen anyone else around. We concurred and I switched off the Dock and stuffed it in the bag while Lee took the empty bottle and glasses. He had a torch light on his mobile and switched it on as Chloe snuffed out the candles, whispering softly,
After we had dumped the bottle and glasses in the kitchen, we went to the sofa room to see if the others were there. It was just approaching 8pm.The building was cold and Lee gave me his jumper to put on as weirdly, he wasn’t cold at all. We walked in and Simon was sitting on the floor propped up against the sofa, rolling a cigarette, talking loudly about some ancient philosophical ideal that was still relevant to us in the twenty first century. The candle light emphasized all his facial features, making them softer and sweeter than they really were. When he saw us, he smiled briefly and looked away, still talking, then a few seconds later, stealing a sideways glance at me again when he thought I wasn’t looking. I felt myself melt again as I sat down on the floor, Lee beside me, holding me tightly against him. I felt myself imagine what it would be like to sit close to Simon like that.
Annabelle’s serious face was also illuminated by the candles that they had lit at regular intervals around the room, making it feel like a guitar sing song round a camp fire. She was sitting curled up on the sofa wearing a chunky black and grey striped jumper that was much too big for her, the sleeves covering her hands showing only the lit end of a cigarette. Joel was sitting with his leg up on the other side of the sofa, a beanie hat covering his wild hair. He was texting on his phone, every so often snorting with laughter when another message came through, obviously not remotely interested in what Simon was saying.
The wind was whistling in through the exposed windows and making the candles flicker, creepily. I was glad we were all together. There was safety in numbers sometimes. Not often, but sometimes.
‘Hi guys.’ Simon said, taking a drag of his rollie. ‘Long time no. What’s up with my dudes?’
I glanced sideways at Chloe who had sat down next to me. She looked like she was going to speak up, but changed her mind and pretended to examine her nails.
‘I think there might be someone else here with us in the building.’ Lee stated, hugging me tighter. ‘I’ve seen a girl and so has Chlo and Case.’
‘Oh yes, so have I!’ Joel piped up. ‘She’s 6ft with dreadlocks and tattoos in places that she won’t show us.’
Annabelle threw a lighter at Joel. ‘Yes, it’s me! I’ve got nothing better to do than go around pretending to be a fucking ghost!’ she said, trying not to laugh, ‘And for your info, buddy, you will never see my tattoos, even if hell freezes over and I grow a penis, so quit going on about it.’
I wonder if Lee has seen them.
I focussed on the conversation. Lee continued.
‘Me and Case are sleeping in the annex which is off this main building towards the back.’ He said. I wished he wouldn’t tell everyone any more information, in case they decided to prank us or pay a visit at some inopportune moment. He carried on, ‘Last night, I saw her. She was on the balcony staring at me. When I woke Case up she had gone. Then the girls looked freaked out when I went to find them just, saying they saw a girl standing in the doorway. I mean, surely this isn’t good. Si, what do you reckon?’
Simon was looking at us shaking his head as if we were bat shit crazy. Lee looked back at him as if to say, believe it, we’re not on the moon shine.
‘Are you serious?’ he said asked, frowning, his eyes widening, ‘ I mean, all three of you saw the same girl?’
We all nodded. ‘We’re not a hundred per cent sure it’s the same girl, but we’ve all seen someone.’ Chloe clarified, her body seeming to stiffen as she continued staring into the darkness.
‘Ok, man. Listen. Don’t sleep in there, ok? Find somewhere else, stick to the main building. I’ll give Ray a call in the morning and ask him if he knows anything. Weird as fuck that.’ Simon was looking at me, biting his bottom lip with his front teeth, puzzled.
Joel stood up, laughing.
‘Ok then, seriousness over. I’m going to get some plonk for our consumption. Beers? Wine?’
We all gave our orders and Joel clicked on his torch and headed off to the kitchen.
‘So, tomorrow we’re going to start filming.’ Simon explained. ‘We’ve got a good enough idea of what we want to achieve before Dez and Anna leave at 5pm. Casey, Dez told me you haven’t had chance to explore everywhere yet. Could you do it tomorrow morning, please?’
I smiled and nodded. He smiled back and glanced at Lee, but Lee was talking to Chloe. He looked back at me, not smiling but conveying something with his eyes. It took me a while to work out what it was, but as I was sitting there listening to them discuss the filming, I realised what it was.
But not only his desire for me. He acknowledged my desire for him too.
Joel came with the drinks and the atmosphere slowly turned from fear and eeriness into one of light heartedness and fun. We talked about what we wanted to do in the future and of course, the classic debate about whether we should choose a job for the money, the satisfaction or the good of the people.
I already knew what Lee wanted to do. He was studying Fine Art but was also doing an Art Therapy module next year and so had been spending the previous few months studying for his basic Counselling Skills certificate. We had discussed this subject at length between us and although I admired him for doing that kind of work, I wanted to hit the big time, I wanted to be a designer, earn a lot of money from my creative streak. Lee wasn’t bothered by money, he was driven by helping people. I thought maybe Simon would agree with me on this, he seemed ambitious and driven, so I asked him.
‘So, Si. What do you want to do with your life?’ I smiled at him, the wine really starting to break down my inhibitions.
He had already told everyone, obviously because they were all close friends, but for me, he explained again.
‘I want to make films. I want to challenge the way society thinks. I want to revolutionize the way we are spoon fed information by the media. I want to be able to highlight conspiracy theories and have them proved. I want to take our government down and all the minions who serve it. That’s what.’
Simon turned to him before I could answer him. I had sort of thought of what to respond with, trying to make him see that I wasn’t just some eighteen year old naïve country girl who was only just out of Sixth Form. I lived in the real world. I knew about Conspiracy theories, thank God for Lee telling me about so many of them. I was vaguely aware that Lee would probably wonder what the hell I was playing at being all extroverted with his mates, but I was already in the tipsy zone. It’s a dangerous place to be.
Suddenly, in my wine haze, I was aware that someone was shouting. This wasn’t the fun and laughs that we had all shared not five minutes earlier when Joel had taken the piss out of Annabelle saying she would end up being a graphic designer for ‘Your Hidden Tattoos are Shite’ magazine and when Simon had made us all laugh saying dumb words like when Lee grows up he’s going to ‘counsellorize’ people and make them ‘subject to art therapeeization’.
Simon was angry at Joel. Joel was slouched on the sofa, smoking and drinking more or less at the same time, pointing a finger at Simon, the one that was holding the cigarette. He was waiting to shout back.
‘Man, all you ever do is sit on your fucking lazy backside and criticise everyone around you. Fuck you, man. Just because your parents are sliding around in liquid gold and can fund all your habits, you think that you can swan around, back chatting tutors, charming the girls and generally being a jumped up prick. Well, my friend, let me tell you that your fucking days are numbered!’
Simon got to his feet, pulled a jacket off the floor where he had been sitting and grabbing his tobacco, stormed off into the blackness. We heard a door slam and then there was quiet. No sound except my breathing and the wind rustling the leaves. Somewhere in the distance I could hear an owl, but none of those sounds were as loud as the silence that pervaded the sofa room.
Everyone looked at each other. Annabelle turned to Joel and asked him what he had said to make Simon blow up like that.
‘Christ sakes man!’ Joel blurted. ‘All I said was that he didn’t need to get a Degree to do that, anyone could do it.’
‘I think Simon’s still really suffering after the accident, Joel,’ said Lee, trying to diffuse the situation as he usually did in a crisis. ‘You need to think about what you say to him. He feels guilty about the crash as if it’s his fault. This whole film project thing is really eating away at him as well, he feels bad for dragging us all out here when we should be on holiday, kicking back and chilling. Just quit the insensitive jokes for a while, hey?’
Chloe looked sad. I guessed that her oversensitivity was overwhelming her. I thought about hugging her, she looked so crushed. I realised I must be drunk if I was seriously contemplating such a move. Lee got up and went over to her. I noticed Annabelle’s look of envy as he got down next to her and put his arm round her shoulder. Even I was a bit jealous but that was probably the wine talking. Annabelle then looked at me and smiled. She lifted a cigarette to her lips and squinted her eyes so as not to let the smoke sting. Then she said something that really freaked me out.
‘You see? It’s not only you he loves.’
Suddenly I wanted out of that room. I got up and grabbed the torch that was lying on the floor surrounded by empty tins and bottles, treading on some other tins as I flailed to get out. I ran towards where I thought the door should be and clicked on the torch. The door to the chandelier room was slightly ajar and I pushed myself in and ran across the huge expanse of carpet. I stopped at the far end of the room, my face almost pressed flat against the cold glass of one of the windows. My head was spinning as I closed my eyes, my body seeming to detach itself from my head and slip down towards the floor. That was when I felt hands lifting me up and arms slip round my waist. I was being pulled somewhere. Then I felt myself being lowered in the darkness and then my body hit something soft. A sofa. My legs were being pulled and then they were stretched out, another soft feeling on my body as what felt like a blanket was draped over me. I opened my eyes and there was Simon’s face, looking at me and smiling. Maybe I was hallucinating?
‘Stay here for a bit, Case.’ he whispered, touching my cheek. His hand was cold. ‘I need someone to talk to.’
I sat up, suddenly feeling a bit more sober. We were in the chandelier room. It was pitch black except for the moon light, but I couldn’t see him very well.
‘I’m here, sitting on the floor,’ he whispered. ‘I was lying here until you came bounding in. I thought you needed to lie here more than I did!’
‘Thanks’ I replied weakly. ‘I think I just had way too much wine. Annabelle said something that freaked me out and I just had to get out.’
‘What has Anna said, now?’ he asked, shifting his position on the floor. ‘She’s harmless, honestly. She comes across as being a queen bitch, but really, she’s a pussy cat.’
‘Oh nothing I guess. Just that I was sure she inferred that Lee loves Chloe.’
Simon chuckled again.
‘Yes, of course Lee loves Chloe. Lee loves everyone. That’s Lee. But he doesn’t love love her. Come on. He’ s only got eyes and a heart for you, girl. I don’t blame him either.’
Had he just admitted it? Had he said it into the darkness? To my face, but not to my face?
‘What do you mean, you don’t blame him?’
I was really pushing it now, my heart beating like crazy. It was as though I had a demon voice saying things that my heart didn’t have the guts to say.
‘Come on, Casey. Don’t tell me you don’t know what’s going on. Please be the one person who is willing and gutsy enough to be honest about feelings. No one can hear us, they’re all in the other room. If someone comes through we just keep quiet. Ok? Please. I am so fucking tired of tamed down emotions and everyone’s supressed, blunted passion for life.’
I felt sick, but elated. And very bad.
My mouth wouldn’t work. I wanted to say how I felt, that I wanted to know what it was like to touch him, to have his hands touch me, to kiss him. But also that I was in love with Lee and I could never leave him. But what could we do? Please kiss me once, just to know what it feels like. It’ll be our secret.
But of course, I didn’t. All I mustered up was, ‘But I love Lee.’
Simon didn’t speak for what seemed like hours. I suspected he was angry with me for being just another weak, passionless dork. Then, he switched on the torch and let it stay on the floor so not to blind me.
‘I know that.’ He said with surprising tenderness. ‘I also know the unwritten rule about not falling for your best mate’s girlfriend.’
I could make out his outline now as he pulled his knees up, hugging them to his chest. ‘But the thing is, emotions and feelings don’t follow rules, at least not the ones that our so-called civilised society has created. I know we can’t, Case. I know that. Despite the stuff I go on about, you know, that we are all animals and need to connect with our basic desires and that we all deserve to follow our own pursuit of happiness, I do have some respect for my close friends and I don’t want to mess with that. I guess I just wanted to hear you say that you feel the same about me. That’ll do. For now.’
‘I do. I really do.’
That sounded like such a cop out after that sociological insight into human behaviour that he had just threaded through my brain and pulled on; easing me dangerously nearer to his deadly lair.
I heard him swear under his breath, but wasn’t going to let myself look at him. If I did that, I wouldn’t trust myself to remain on the sofa. I was staring up at the ceiling; well, the direction that I knew the ceiling to be in, trying not to cry. I was so confused.
‘Case, I don’t know how I am going to deal with this, but somehow hearing that has made it more bearable. Stupid, in a way because it would be easier to forget you if you’d just said, Si, don’t be a fucking idiot, you’re my boyfriend’s best mate. Get a grip you asshole.’
I laughed. Why, I don’t know.
‘I’m being honest with you. ‘ I confessed, wanting to say something meaningful while I still had the chance. ‘I want to do unspeakable things to you, but that’s betrayal. I don’t want to lose Lee, he’s the best thing in my life. He’s my best mate as well as boyfriend. But you…you are something else.’
‘I need to kiss you.’
I stood up. I couldn’t be there. It was leading to something that was getting beyond my control. Si stood up too and we were there, face to face, staring into each other’s eyes. I stepped towards him and put my arms around his neck, feeling his warm but bony chest press against mine. I felt his arms go round my waist and squeeze, his lips were painfully close to the bare skin of my neck. I came out in goose pimps and it wasn’t from the cold. He buried his face into my neck and I heard him breathing, shallow and fast. My body felt like a taught electric wire, sizzling and fusing with heat overload.
Then there were voices in the room.
Si broke away from me and cold air rushed in to fill the void between us. He looked at me one more time and smiled before Chloe and Lee came up to us, their torches sending beams of dancing light around the room like disco strobes. Joel followed, talking about what he was going to cook, Chloe laughing at him, saying he never cooked, just heated stuff up, sometimes too much.
Lee grabbed my hand, whispered ‘Where were you?’ and pulled me towards the door and out to the kitchen. Chloe and Joel followed behind, then Annabelle walked out of the shadows, yawning.
‘I’m ravenous!’ she said, pushing Joel out of the way as we entered the kitchen. ‘Let me at that fridgedaire!’
Lee’s head disappeared into our bag of food stuff and Joel and Chloe raided the other freezer in the corner.
As we all started preparing our late night dinners, I couldn’t stop thinking about Simon and that he had said it out loud. He had crossed the line, but I was glad. It was our secret and needed to stay that way.
I didn’t see him for the rest of the night. Part of me, my sensible part, was glad. But that was not the part that was taking me over.
Lee and I were curled up in our sleeping bag, every possible body part engulfed in the warmth of the covers and each other’s heat. It was dark, only one candle burned faintly in the corner of the room. A chill- out compilation play list floated out from my dock, vibrating around the cold walls and swirling like a harmony cloud before dispersing out of the balcony doors and out into the midnight air.
Lee was breathing heavily but he wasn’t yet asleep. I had learned what his breathing sounded like when he had slipped into that world of dreamscapes and transience. We were used to each other’s little quirks and habits, having been together for almost a year. So much so, that it was almost like we were one person at times. Like then, our bodies perfectly entwined even though we were different shapes and sizes. It was like our minds folded in on each other and therefore our bodies followed. Lee was my first real relationship, even though I had been out with other guys before him, they all were, in hindsight, totally childish, immature and just fulfilling some bizarre transitional teenage need. But sometimes I really did wonder why Lee loved me so much, why he put up with all my bullshit, the way I just spouted crap in his face when I got jealous, never even considering that he may want to defend himself against my accusations. We had fought a few times and it was always about my temper and me being self -absorbed. I didn’t listen to anyone else when I was raging and I couldn’t see that changing any time soon. He was my tonic, my opiate. He calmed me and balanced my fiery headstrong ways. I didn’t know what I did for him. Sometimes I thought I was his project, his guinea pig for his Counselling practice. His case study. He had already helped me in so many ways, from being a spoilt kid to becoming a more thoughtful, tolerant person. Still, I really didn’t have much to offer a relationship except a sense of adventure and a lot of laughs. When I asked him about this, he would laugh, kiss my forehead and say, ‘Case, don’t ask me why I love you. If I could tell you why, it wouldn’t be love. Just go with it. Trust it.’
Lee was still awake.
‘Can you hear the wind?’
I lifted my head up from on his chest so I could hear the outside world. I had been tuned in to his heartbeat and couldn’t hear much else.
‘Yes, I can.’ I said, sitting up onto my elbows. ‘It sounds like it’s raining as well.’
I found extreme weather conditions relaxing. I loved the sound of a storm outside when I was curled up under the duvet. My bedroom was at the very top of the house I lived in with Mum and Dad, a converted attic room where I was able to look out across the woodland as if the trees were a vast green carpet. I was often kept awake by rain lashing against my windows, and the wind howling like banshees around the eaves. There was nothing to shelter my world up there. I was exposed. I loved it.
Lee had managed to close the balcony doors, which was a good thing as the rain was tap dancing against the rotting wood. The old man’s whistle of the breeze rushing through a hole in the door frame occasionally made us jump, and then laugh as we remembered what it really was.
I laid back down again and pressed myself into Lee’s chest. I wanted to ask so many questions about Simon, Annabelle and Chloe, but I didn’t want to give myself away. I didn’t want Lee to suspect that I had a thing for Simon or that I was going to start hassling him about Annabelle being in love with him for the millionth time since our years relationship began.
As if he read my mind, Lee started the conversation off, his voice slurry and sleepy.
‘Annabelle’s not what you think, you know.’
I felt my eyebrows raise. I let out a deep sigh as if to say, well, what the fuck is she then?
‘Please trust me, Case. She’s going through a really tough time right now. She has told me some stuff and you’re gonna have to trust me on this, but it’s horrific. I want to help her but I haven’t figured out how yet. You can help me.’
‘Me? How?’ I asked, feeling my blood start to race and my face heat up. I willed myself to calm, calm. Don’t get angry. Don’t kick off.
‘By letting me be with her sometimes, just to talk to her. Trust me and her a bit more, please. I can see in your face every time she looks at me or talks to me, you’re pissed off. There is absolutely nothing for you to worry about. I love you. You’re safe in that. I love Bella as well, as a friend. Ok, babe?’
I didn’t know what to say. After a while I said what I thought I had to. I was tired and needed to sleep.
‘Ok. I’ll try. I trust you. I love you.’
I needed the toilet. I had no idea what time it was, but I had been dreaming of Simon. We had been on a fairground ride, you know, one of those carousels, me riding on the front and him sitting behind me with his arms around me. I looked down at his hands which were clasped together, his skin white with the tautness of the skin as if he was clinging on for sheer life. I could see the black ring glinting in the sun, the one he wore on his little finger. Just underneath, it was leaving a residue of dark green, the copper staining the skin. On his wrist he wore a plain silver bangle with a celtic knot design winding and gliding over its surface like a snake. I hadn’t noticed this in real life. My hands were clamped around the ears of the poor horse we were riding, its mane all shabby and peeling, the gold paint crumbling off with the wear and tear of children’s clumsy fingers. Simon had whispered something in my ear and I had looked out at the audience watching the ride, mothers smiling and waving at their children, again and again as we passed them, becoming blurred as my eyes gave up on the detail. But there had been someone standing there. He was clearly defined amidst the white haze of streaks and lines. Lee. He was still, hands in his pockets. His face came near as the horse seemed to take on a life of its own, the next time it would touch him. Faster and faster, the horse was galloping off the carousel and into the crowd. Lee’s face was startled. His hand had shot up to defend himself. But it was too late. The horse and its ears plunged into Lee, the nose hooking his body for a second and then plunging the screaming Lee into the air. Then I had woken up, a weird warbling noise escaping from my throat.
I really did need the toilet.
I groped around for the zip and softly started easing it downwards so as not to make a noise. It stuck for a second and then suddenly it was moving, cold air pushing through the side of the sleeping bag. I couldn’t make out where I was as it was pitch black, but seeming to remember we had gone to sleep with our heads towards the balcony doors for some reason. I pushed my leg out and bashed my foot on something hard. The wall. Lee stirred and then I heard a voice say,
‘Case, are you ok?’
I started laughing. He was such a light sleeper.
‘Yes, but my bladder’s bursting!’ I giggled, rolling my body over his and onto the other side. ‘And I can’t see shit!’
I could then hear him groping around for his mobile phone with the torch attachment. He said bollocks and shit a few times before he found it and the little feeble light came on, shining on my white legs that looked so luminous in the dark.
‘I’ll come with you.’ He said, grabbing my hand and expecting me to pull him up. ‘You might get all scared and wee on the floor!’
I slapped him and we filed out onto the landing area. He pushed me to go first and followed me from behind, hands on my waist guiding me down the corridor. We took it in turns to use the toilet, Lee making sure he closed the door on me when he took a leak, but not letting me have any privacy when I was sitting there, my middle finger doing some aerobics as he laughed at me and made a childish noise to imitate my peeing sound.
We crept back towards the room, Lee going first this time. Suddenly, he stopped and put both arms out as if to stop me running forwards.
‘What’s up?’ I asked, already slipping back into the land of nod and feeling irritated.
‘There’s someone in the room.’
My heart jolted. Lee’s body was stiff and upright. I didn’t know what to do as he was in front and I couldn’t see a thing in the dark. Suddenly my senses had sprung to life and I could hear an owl in the distance, the rustling of the leaves outside as the wind teased them, the wind bashing up against the annex walls and the tap, tap of branches as though they were demanding to be let in.
‘Stay here for a sec, Case.’ Lee said and slowly walked towards the open door. It was then that I heard the talking. It was a low whisper and although I couldn’t make out the words, it was like a poem in a foreign language. It rhymed and had patterns of sounds that kept repeating over and over. Like a Buddhist mantra. It was a soft voice, a girl’s voice.
Lee turned to me and I could just make out the white of his eyes. He looked scared. He beckoned and I almost ran to him, clinging to his t-shirt, pressing my face into his back.
We moved to the frame of the door, where Chloe and I had seen the girl earlier in the day and I stopped down under Lee’s arm to see who was inside. Then there was a groaning noise which turned into a choking, coughing noise. Then spluttering as though someone had got something stuck in their throat and was trying to puke it up.
Neither of us knew what to do.
Then, to my horror, I heard a wet, scratching noise like nails ripping through flesh. Then water running, a tap turning, the water hissing violently against the porcelain of the sink. Then the sobbing started. Heavy, choking sobs that burned the air with despair and seemed to tear through the night like a scalpel blade through silk.
‘Who’s there? What’s happening to you?’ Lee’s familiar voice sounded so bizarre that I almost burst out laughing. ‘Do you need help?’
Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the sobbing and panting stopped.
We didn’t move for ages. Lee clicked on his torch and hesitantly aimed it around the room. I wanted to shut my eyes as I was sure something was going to be there, lurking in the shadows, something I would not want to see.
But it was just how we had left it.
‘Case. This is fucked up. Did you just hear that horrific display of human pain, or did I dream it? What a fucking nightmare. I dunno, do you want to stay here, or go find somewhere else to sleep? I’m too tired to think straight.’
I put my arms out to him and we hugged for a while. I wasn’t sure what we had just witnessed, but I knew that I was almost dead walking. I took his hand and pulled him to our makeshift bed and climbed inside the bag, holding it open for Lee to snuggle down next to me before zipping it up. Lee turned over on his side and I slipped my arms around him, his arms folding over mine and his fingers entwining mine.
‘It’s ok Case, I love you.’ He said as we both sipped into unconsciousness.
Sunshine. Hot on my face.
I opened my eyes and the glare blinded me. It felt lovely, and I peeled myself away from Lee to sit up and take in the room. My right hip was dead and as soon as I moved, a dark pain shot through it and made my toe twitch. I needed to move. My watch said 8:08am.
The birds were singing, their tunes sometimes loud, as they flew close to the balcony looking for food. Then I realised something strange. The doors were open again.
Lee turned round and kneed me hard on the leg. I jumped in pain and exclaimed he was a tossball and clambered out of bed, my leg buckling underneath me. He apologized and offered to massage it, but I declined. I wanted to get dressed and go shower. I wanted to get outside in the grounds for a change and enjoy the weather. I wanted to forget about what had happened in the night.
‘Why did you open the doors, you baggage?’ he said, laughing at me as I tried to find some clothes to put on, all the clothes I had brought with me sticking out of my rucksack in a ball of creased mess.
‘I didn’t you dickweed..’ I mocked, tying my hair up out of my face. ‘You must have done it. Or maybe it was the ghost!’
Laughing, I threw a t-shirt at him and he put it on, swinging his long legs out and standing up, all in one quick motion.
He did have shorts on too.
‘So, what the heck was that last night?’ he said, a serious look of worry across his brow. ‘It sounded like someone was gauging at themselves. Have you looked in the sink? The choking and coughing……..oh God, that was awful. It was like they were ripping flesh off. It made me feel real queasy but all I wanted to do was help, to stop it.’
I went over to the sink. Nothing. Not even a trace of water.
‘Who opened the doors, Lee?’ I asked. Now that I thought about it, I was getting a bit freaked out.
‘I honestly do not know babe.’ He stood there in the t-shirt. It said ‘Make tea not war.’ across the chest. It was made of hemp.
I got dressed in a purple blouse that was all creased and stupid. I loved it cos my friend Stella had brought it back from Morocco for me one year and it had smelt of Amber resin because she had packed it in the same pocket of her bag by mistake. It had metal lace around the bottom with small metal charms hanging off and a long neck tie that also had bells attached. Bells. Bells.
Stepping onto the balcony there was no scarf. Had Chloe put it back? Yes, I was sure she had. So where was that now? I kept forgetting to check things, like that scarf. What else was there? Oh yes! Chloe wanted me to take her Runes back to her. I needed to stop drinking wine for a day. We all did. I was beginning to think we were all hallucinating.
I turned back to go inside and get the Runes while I remembered and Lee had come up behind me and we collided. He laughed and kissed me.
‘Look, I found these.’
I looked down and in his palm were two Runes.
‘They were under my pillow.’
I laughed and pushed his hand away, going in to find the velvet bag that contained the rest of them. I couldn’t find them anywhere.
‘Lee, honestly now. Where were they, cos I’ve got to take the lot, with the velvet bag. Gimme them please. It’s not funny, they’re Chloe’s.’
‘Case, you adorable numpty. Listen to my face. Listen to what it’s telling you. I found them under my pillow!’
He was serious. But that was so far beyond ridiculous that it had travelled round the circumference of ridiculous and come all the way back round again.
‘No,’ I simply said, laughing. ‘This is not happening.’
There was a knock and Chloe pushed open the main door. More sunshine entered the room with her.
‘Hey guys,’ she smiled. ‘Bonjour….how did you sleep?’
She swept in with her sparkly mini skirt and floral bouquet of loveliness. I looked at Lee and he looked at me. Chloe stopped twirling.
‘Mes amies, what’s up?’ she asked, looking concerned. ‘I feel something’s not right.’
Lee told her what we had heard in the night and I told her about the balcony doors and the Runes, which Lee was still holding out in his hands as if they had fallen from an alien cocoon and landed on him.
Chloe cupped Lee’s hand from below and gazed at the Runes. One was like it had a cross but the horizontal bar was tilted down a little bit. The other had like a capital F but the two branches were pointing up on a tilt.
Chloe’s face was deadly serious.
‘Mon Dieu.’ She whispered. ‘Do you know what these mean?’
Lee and I shook our heads.
She stared at that them for a few minutes and then sat down, clenching them both in her hand and putting her hand up to her eyes.
‘The first one is called Naudiz.’ She explained. ‘It is a symbol of great oppression and grief, like someone is trapped in a place they haven’t got any means of getting out of. The other one, Fehu, is said to be the ‘sending’ Rune. It’s a channel for transference. In other words, it can act as a psychic link from one person to another, giving or taking strength or psychic power. Either this means someone is trying to help one of us who is in serious pain right now, or it means that someone who is in pain, is trying to use one or all of us to get free of it by feeding off their energies. If that’s the case, if someone is draining us, we’re in deep shit, mes amies.’