Not the brilliant Stone Roses’ track, but a short story…
‘Any better suggestions?’
Carol said nothing. He gripped the wheel, digging his fingernails into the soft leather leaving a cluster of half-moon impressions. He jabbed the button on the dash killing that irritating newsreader voice that had got them lost in the first place.
‘What are you grinning about?’
‘Nothing at all, my love.’
‘Cos you’ve got nothing to smile about. In case you’ve forgotten you’ve got us lost and it’ll be dark soon.’
It had been like this all the way down the A55: niggles and moans followed by silence. Why did he have to get so close to that Mercedes? When would they stop for a flat white?
‘You should’ve got the postcode off matey.’
‘Yes, love. I know I should but it wasn’t a good signal, was it?’
They’d been through this twice already. Matey was Gruff, the Mr Fix-It at the local solicitors.
‘Your fancy woman would know the way.’
‘You’re jealous of the Sat Nav now?’
‘Don’t flatter yourself,’ Carol said and folded her arms to stare out of the window. The gold necklace he’d bought her glistened in the sunlight. There was a time when she’d been glad to get a bunch of daffodils in an elastic band, called him a romantic fool and ruffled his hair asking him which churchyard were they from? These days she thought expensive jewellery was the least she deserved. When he’d taken the gold necklace out at dinner she snatched at it and told him through narrowed eyes, ‘Don’t be getting any ideas, Pete Sutton.’
She frowned, swatting away a midge. Pete knew what she was thinking: Where do I plug in my hair-tongs round here? How the hell am I going to get a decent facial? Pete opened the window and sucked in the cool evening air. He closed his eyes and felt the breeze lift his fringe. He got a sweet trace of flowering gorse, the salt tang of the Irish Sea.
‘So, we sit here like lemons, do we?’
‘Christ, Carol. Give it a rest, will you?’
He didn’t have a postcode and the Sat Nav couldn’t cope with Welsh. The little windy lane they were looking for had so many vowels in it he’d likely copied it down wrong.
Pete didn’t wait for her to say it. He rammed the gearstick in first and roared away scattering gravel in his wake and flattening the thin Mohican of turf that ran down the centre of the lane.
‘Does anyone live here?’ Carol said.
It was true they hadn’t seen a soul since they’d begun the steady climb from the coast road. The lane had got narrower and narrower and the dry-stone walls and scratchy brambles had come uncomfortably close to his front wings. He pulled up outside a cottage but the curtains were drawn.
‘We’ve been here before.’
‘No, we haven’t. I’d recognise it.’
‘I’m telling you. I’m not going to argue with you.’
Pete offered up a silent prayer; thinking if only that were true. He pulled in hard and snapped on the handbrake and got out. ‘Come on then, light of my life,’ he said.
‘What are you playing at now?’ Seeing he wasn’t coming back Carol grabbed her shoes from the foot-well and tottered after him. ‘We should get a hotel, get something to eat. Pete, for crying out loud…’
‘Don’t need to,’ he said. He was resting on a gatepost, grinning. Ten, maybe twelve years had fallen from his shoulders; the takeover and redundancies; his cancer scare and Julia and Stewart emigrating. Stand on your tip toes at the gate and, yes, it was just possible to see a tiny blue-green sliver of the sea beyond the abandoned quarry. Last time he’d come up this lane he would’ve been eleven and squeezed between their slobbering Labrador Ben and a stack of cricket gear, windbreaks and Dad’s fishing tackle. ‘It’s fantastic, isn’t it? A new start’s just what we need eh?’
‘You’ve got that faraway look,’ Carol said.
‘We had some good times here.’
Pete had never seen eye to eye with his Dad, but talk about buckets and spades and boat trips round the harbour and he got all misted up.
‘As long as your ghost isn’t still here,’ she said.
Years ago, they’d been in a pub with friends and the drink had flowed and Pete had shocked Carol when he’d spoken of a ghost that had sat on the end of his bed as a kid. She’d always had Pete nailed as the practical sort who didn’t believe in the supernatural but he said it was an old sailor and he’d been so scared he hadn’t been able to move. His eyes were like black pits and he’d pointed at something through the window. The others had laughed and he’d got in a round of drinks to change the subject.
‘It’s got opportunity written all over it,’ Pete said.
Keep Out or Falling Masonry should’ve been written all over, Carol thought. New Place, it was called in Welsh. Well you could’ve fooled me, Carol thought. The drive up to it was full of potholes and broken half bricks jutted from the gravel. Pete didn’t have a key to the padlock so she had to carry her shoes and walk on the grass verge her feet sinking into the soft turf. New Place was enclosed by trees full of noisy crows. There were slates missing from the roof and fertiliser bags had been stuffed in their place to try and keep out the rain. The windows were streaked with grime.
‘What do you think?’ Pete was beaming. ‘We can get a conservatory put in and I want one of those wood burners. If I built a veranda thingy we could get a hot tub.’
Ever since he’d had the call from Parry’s solicitors he’d been glued to any property or renovation shows he could find. But you didn’t need to be an expert. Any fool could see his Auntie Gwen had left them a wreck. Carol’s thinking was to pull it down and stick on some holiday lets; those cute little timber chalets that were springing up all over the place. They could get six hundred a week each in the season, no trouble. Pete produced a long, thin key on a knotted piece of parcel string. He jiggled it about in the lock and it turned with a rusty scrape and they went in.
The White Lion was crowded but Pete found them a snug that wasn’t too near the toilets or coat stand and gave Carol a menu while he weaved his way to the bar for drinks. A few years ago, they’d have been serving up gassy lager, oven chips and scampi. Now it was all craft ales and Mexican and Thai food served up on slates with homemade relishes. Carol checked her watch. Pete wasn’t making much progress at the bar, so she draped her jacket over the chair and went to the toilets. It was chilly and she hoped she wouldn’t have to wait long. She sat in the second cubicle. The door opened, signalled by chatter and clinking glasses from the bar. Someone went into the next cubicle and sat down. After a few minutes a woman said her name. ‘We still on for tomorrow?’
Carol cleared her throat, agreed. ‘Come at three.’
The bolt slid across and the door swung open crashing against the tiles. Carol found she needed to pee after all. She was met by Pete in the corridor holding her vodka and tonic and a pint of something called Double Dragon. ‘Thought I was going to have to send out for a search party, petal.’
‘Just women’s trouble,’ Carol said, knowing Pete would never press.
When they’d got the wood-burner going she had to admit it wasn’t too bad. Dotty old Gwen had some decent furniture and the room had heated up so much she was glad for some fresh air on the patio. Gwen had painted a bit too – not Carol’s sort of thing – but she had to admit she had talent. She’d used something like a butter knife to spread splodges of oil paint. She’d caught the sea crashing over the rocks.
‘She was pretty good, wasn’t she?’ Pete said.
Carol yawned. ‘I’m bushed. Do you want me to take your book up?’
Pete followed her up the creaking stairs, no doubt angling for an ‘early night.’ How many times did she have to tell him she was worn out? She got under the covers, pulling them up to her ears as she had as a little girl – and listened to him breathing and sighing, hoping for something he wasn’t going to get. Finally, he cussed under his breath, clicked off the bedside lamp and before long he was snoring. Carol lay perfectly still, but wide awake beside him.
A little before three she heard the key in the lock and she went into the bathroom as they’d agreed. She put down the lid on the pan and sat on the toilet, listening. She heard a foot on the stairs and prayed Pete hadn’t woken. Usually, he could sleep through a tsunami. The bathroom floorboards were knotty and warped, the cracks between them wide enough to post a letter, so she took great care to inch around the skirting and open the door a fraction. There was a full moon and she’d left the blind up on the landing so it cast a faint, milky light on the stairs. She took a deep breath, grimacing as she opened the door a little more, cussing that she’d forgotten to grease the hinges with butter. They didn’t squeal and betray her and she offered up a silent ‘thank you’ to the heavens.
She saw him and swallowed. He gripped the banister rail and crept the last few steps to the landing. He was an old guy with lank, greasy hair and a dark complexion. He took a pipe from his pocket and bit on it. He wore an old cord cap and a creased woollen shirt beneath a greatcoat. He was perfect for the job. He watched each step and he pushed the door open with a gentle palm. Carol sat down on the toilet, counting to ten to slow her breathing, her racing pulse. The door was ajar and she caught the drift of tobacco, a low humming and a few words of a song before Pete screamed.
She made coffee. Pete sipped at it, holding the cup with both hands. Pete had bolted from the room. He wouldn’t go back upstairs and he wanted to drive, go anywhere. She said he was in no fit state to go anywhere, so they’d sat through the small hours in the rocking chairs talking, drinking coffee.
‘I know what I saw.’
‘I know love. It’s alright,’ Carol said.
‘You must think I’m tapped. It was him again. I know it was.’
Carol ruffled his hair thinking he was that boy again, desperate to get away. She sipped her coffee. It was important she didn’t rush him.
‘They were coming back from Australia when there was one almighty storm and they went down off the coal rocks. They were prospectors and carrying a fortune in gold, some of their pockets were full of it. They got a line ashore but some of them wouldn’t leave without their gold. They were still looking when they drowned. He’s still looking now, isn’t he.’ Pete shivered, blowing on his coffee.
‘Well he’s not going to have any luck round here,’ Carol said.
Pete stared at his feet.
‘What are we going to do then?’ she said. ‘I mean we can’t stay here if this is what happens.’
‘I’m sorry love. I’m not thinking straight, am I?’
Carol gave him a hug. ‘I don’t blame you. What happened was horrible.’
‘You believe me, don’t you?’
Carol smiled. ‘Of course, I do. You know what you saw.’ She went over to the window and gazed out over the gorse. ‘We’ll have to think about selling, though. It’d be impossible for you to live here.’
Pete said nothing.
‘We can’t stay love, can we? It’d be crazy,’ she said.
‘They haunt people cos they’re unsettled.’
Carol rolled her eyes. ‘You’ve been watching Channel 5 again.’
Pete shook his head. ‘If you can sort out what’s upsetting them they move on.’ He bit his lip. ‘The thing is I’ve done something I shouldn’t have….’
‘What did you do?’
Pete fingered the hem of his sweater. ‘He was searching for gold. If we gave him gold-’
‘No!’ Carol ran upstairs. ‘Where are they, Pete? What have you done with my earrings, my necklace? Shit, where the hell is my watch? Did you give it to that man?’
Pete climbed the stairs. He took her hands in his. ‘Not a man, a ghost. We’ve given him what he wanted so he’ll go away. I had to do it. We’ll stay here tonight and he won’t come again, you see.’
Carol stared into his eyes, searching for a glint, a gleam, anything. Pete stared back, giving her nothing.