Happy Halloween! As a holiday treat, I thought I would share a spooky short story with you.
I don’t think I’m very good at short stories, but I keep trying! This one, titled The Author, was written in response to The Stylist/Virago’s Daphne Du Maurier short story competition. Du Maurier is one of my all time favourite authors and I thought it would be fun to write something in homage to her.
Accordingly, I’ve tried to imitate her voice and cram in as many Du Maurier references as I can! I also made the subject a female author in tribute. It was great fun to write and I hope you will enjoy it too.
I read every book except the biography. To open that flashy volume, emblazoned with her name and photograph, felt like prying; curious in a way degrading to both her and me. Besides, I did not need an academic to translate my author – I had her words. The smooth, rocking rhythm of those words, wafting up from the page like incense. Although she died before I was born, I knew her voice, would know it amongst a thousand others; its wit and its fearless, strident tones. The way it revealed her secrets on the page and, somehow, my own with them. As if she had glimpsed me in the womb and known precisely what I would grow to be.
Even as the coach lumbered up the narrow road leading to her house, I recognised the cliff yawning over the sea, and the gulls circling in the spray. I knew there would be purple mounds of thrift growing from the rock, dotted here and there with sea-lavender. Long before it appeared through my window, I pictured a medieval turret engulfed by ivy. And it seemed to me, as we pulled up before Magnus Hall ready for our day-trip, that I had visited this place before. The warm, yellow stone, the lawns, the pink rhododendron – surely I had seen them in a dream? Walking down the steps, past the driver, onto the gravel, felt exactly like coming home.
Outside, all was alive with the force and sound of the sea. A blast of wind tore off my hat and sent it scudding away. I laughed. After a long journey, it was good to feel the salt air strike my face and comb its fingers through my hair.
Half a dozen gulls, large as chickens, stood on the lawn before the house, watching us. One tilted its head to regard me with reptilian eyes. I waved.
‘In a line, please!’ Our tour guide bellowed above the hubbub. His umbrella emerged, a long green finger.
I shuffled into place behind a couple with a screaming child. I wished they had left the little boy behind. His red, scrunched face was spoiling my sense of awe and excitement. The author never put children into her books, never delved into their world. Right now, I could understand why.
We passed through the arched door into a chamber smelling of dust and leather. Sepia light filtered through the windows and splashed on burnished wood. The blustery day passed away. All was quiet and still. No clocks ticked, no footsteps sounded through the carpet. Even the child before me surrendered, all at once, to a deathly hush.
We turned to the right and there she was, hanging above the mantelpiece in oils: my author. Bobbed hair clung to her jaw. She stared direct, unapologetic like the seagull. She looked different in paint, austere. I could not picture those crimson lips forming her words, the words that brought me such joy.
‘This was painted at the height of her power,’ the tour guide droned. ‘She was forty-six’.
Murmurs ran down the queue like shivers along a spine. Cameras flashed, reflecting off the picture frame. Cheapening her.
‘The year after, she won the Ambrose Prize with I Return. If you step through this way, you will see the famous house from that novel. That’s right – this door.’
I pushed forward, excitement brewing. What did he mean by saying we could see Yellan House? Had someone illustrated an edition of the book?
We passed into a vaulted medieval hall. Tasselled curtains covered the windows, blocking all natural light. Only electric lamps shone, sterile, inside glass cabinets. Standing on tip-toe, I strained to see over the shoulder of the woman in front. Glass everywhere; covering each wall, bouncing back our faint, colourless faces. And behind the glass, a doll’s house.
Yellan House – I knew it well – finely wrought in miniature. There was the conservatory, where the marriage proposal took place; here, the parlour where she found the body.
‘She built a house for every novel.’ The tour guide’s voice buzzed inside my ear. ‘And see the characters, inside. Highly detailed, often based on people she knew. This one, famously, Major Armstrong from Laburnum, modelled after the author’s husband.’
As I gazed at the figures occupying Yellan House – their glassy eyes and waxen faces – a strange grief possessed me. I did not want these stiff-jointed dolls. I wanted my characters, the friends in my mind no one else could taint.
The line wiggled and then broke as tourists swarmed around the cabinets. Once more cameras flashed and children laughed. It was shameful, demeaning. Her magical world, invaded.
Pushing past a gaggle of school girls, I went to the back of the hall where there was space to breathe. Here stood a cottage I could not place from her novels. Sand surrounded the base, intimating a sea-side setting. A doll dressed in fishermen’s overalls crouched in the garden, cleaning a tiny net.
‘This one has always been my favourite.’ I jumped to see the tour guide standing beside me. He regarded the cottage fondly. ‘So apt. Her words are like a net, don’t you think? Drawing you in.’
‘But I don’t recognise it,’ I confessed. ‘I don’t know it from the books.’
‘You wouldn’t. This was her last novel, unfinished. No title.’
‘Unfinished!’ I felt breathless. There were more words, words unread. My eyes travelled over the house, garnering the rooms: a cottage kitchen; a scullery; a red flock parlour with a half-made doll. ‘But . . . how far did she get?’
‘A fair way, I think.’
‘But why wasn’t it published?’
‘The wishes of her son forbade publication. He felt so strongly that he even left instructions in his own will.’
I did not know that she had a son. ‘Surely his children – ’
‘He did not live to have children. He died as a young man, lost at sea.’
It served him right. He had taken something from me – something precious.
I turned back to the cottage, my nose pressed against the glass, to study the incomplete doll in the red room. Her face bore no features, yet she wore beige slacks like mine; a white blouse, like mine. A terrible hunger started up inside. This was my character, created for me, waiting by a red velvet sofa for adventures that would never come. The author had written a character for me and this dead man, her interfering son, kept us apart.
‘Is it here?’ My breath misted the glass. I saw the house dimly, through a fog, the doll’s blank face a moon riding clouds. ‘Is the manuscript here?’
But the tour guide just smiled and moved on.
It was not hard to conceal myself within Magnus Hall. It was not hard to crouch for hours with pins and needles in my legs when I remembered the reward.
My coach departed with the daylight. Staff exchanged farewells. I heard keys clunk in locks and finally, I was alone.
Unoccupied, the house felt larger. Louder too – haunted by the restless sound of the sea. I found a flashlight in the staffroom and walked, as she must have done, through the hall of dolls, past their watchful eyes, into the room with her portrait and round toward the stairs.
In a circle of torchlight I glimpsed mahogany banisters and a chintz carpet snaking up to the second floor. The treads creaked beneath my feet as I climbed, but I was not afraid. This was home – here, with her presence and the waves tossing outside. I was mistress of the house, even as she had been.
Her library was not locked. The door whined on its hinges as I crept in, my torch casting monstrous shadows up the wall. Here, the air was warm with the scent of paper. No curtains blocked the windows; they faced over the cliff-edge, out to sea, where crests of white foam writhed in dark water.
She might have sat there only yesterday. Her green leather chair before the desk; the pens lined up ready for use. And there, in another cabinet, her notebook.
Her last novel.
Trembling, I made my way across the carpet, jammed the torch between my teeth and fumbled with the cabinet door. No alarms sounded, no wires tripped. I lifted the book gently, a sleeping child in my arms. Damn her son. This manuscript, whatever it said, was meant for me.
Dizzy with anticipation, I opened the cover and sniffed the first page, longing to find a trace of her perfume. There was none. No scent at all.
My pulse pounded, drowning out the crash of the sea.
Here was the first sentence, written in her long, sloping hand.
I knew that you would come.
Gulls awoke me, cackling in the high wind. Slowly, painfully, I opened my eyelids. A room swam into focus. I hadn’t noticed, by torchlight, the lurid red of the library walls. It made my head pound.
My neck ached too. I tried to stretch. The muscles were stiff as wood – they refused to move.
I could not lift my arm. I could not open my lips.
Panic spiked as I tried to recall the night before. What happened? Why was I frozen like this, cast in stone? Only my eyes moved, frantic, looking for help.
The room was empty. No cabinet, no unfinished book, no desk looking out to sea. Simply the throb of that red flock wallpaper and a sofa by my side.
This wasn’t the library, yet somehow I knew it. Something was familiar . . .
‘I don’t believe it.’ A male voice.
‘Look!’ It sounded like my tour guide. I strained, trying to turn my head.
‘What am I looking at?’
Two enormous faces loomed before me. Their features rippled, obscured by an invisible barrier.
‘The doll,’ my tour guide gasped. ‘Look!’
‘Are you feeling all right, John? You’re very pale.’
One giant eye pressed closer. I saw my terror reflected on a colossal scale. ‘It has a face.’
‘They all have.’
‘No . . .’
I did recognise the room, the red room. I had been right about the doll and the book. They were always meant for me.
Her words are like a net, don’t you think? Drawing you in.
As horror ignited, I met the tour guide’s eye. Saw, in its depths, that he knew.
But he could not help me. No one could.
We were powerless, each of us frozen, as her words lapped against the walls with the endless sigh of the sea.
Copyright Laura Purcell 2016