Read Once Online

Authors: James Herbert

Tags: #Thrillers, #Fiction, #Cerebrovascular Disease, #Fantasy, #Horror - General, #Contemporary, #Fiction - Horror, #Horror

Once (3 page)

He managed a smile and allowed his pleasure to reassert itself, a seemingly inherent ability that Thom had often wished he, himself, possessed. ‘How about a beer, or something stronger? You must have a thirst after your long drive.’

Thom didn’t like to tell his friend that following his stroke he had lost much of his appetite for alcohol.

Thanks, but no,’ he said, clasping Hugo’s shoulder with an appreciative hand, anxious not to offend. Td kinda like to get to the cottage and settle in. We can catch up tomorrow.’

‘Or later tonight?’ Hugo suggested hopefully.

We’ll see. I’m not quite up to strength yet and as you say, it’s been a long drive.’

Well… okay. But at least let me get Hartgrove to drive you over and help you unpack.’

Thom glanced at the manservant, who still watched from the top step. ‘You kidding?’

They both grinned at each other knowingly.

‘You know what I’d really like to do?’ Thom said. Td like to walk from here. It’s funny, but that was all I dreamt of when I was laid up in hospital, recovering from the…’ he hated the word ‘… from, the, uh, stroke. I just wanted to stroll through the woods again, you know? Come up on the cottage as I remembered it.’

‘Alone?’

Thom nodded.

‘Understand perfectly, old son. If that’s your wish …’

There was no direct road suitable for vehicles to Little Bracken; to take the Jeep would mean going back to the main road and finding the rutted track that led directly to it.

‘Leave the Jeep and I’ll get old Eric to drive it over later. It’ll give you time to get used to the place again.’

Eric Pimlet along with Hartgrove and Mrs Boxley, the cook who came in once a day from the nearby village of Much Beddow to serve lunch and evening meals, were the manor house’s only permanent staff; gardeners and cleaners were employed on a once-a-week basis nowadays.

‘It’ll be good to see old Eric again,’ Thom said.

‘I’m sure he’ll be pleased to see you, too. Now look, I’ve had your larder filled with essentials, plus a few goodies you’ll like. And someone will pop over from time to time to help keep you stocked up. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the phone line switched back on yet, but I can—’

‘No need.’ Thom patted a jacket pocket. ‘I’ve got my mobile.’

‘Hmm … reception’s not always that good in this part of the world, but I can get Eric to look in on you every morning.’

‘Not necessary, Hugo. I’ll be fine - honestly. The doctors haven’t quite given me the all-clear yet, but they’re amazed at my progress. Besides, I’ll have a physio working me over three times a week in the cottage to make sure I get back to strength. A kind of buy-your-own-torture scheme that the doctors insist upon.’

“Well, if you’re sure …’

‘Hugo, believe me, I am.’ Thom reached out to his friend’s shoulder again. ‘Listen, you’ve been great. You know I appreciate all you’ve done.’

Hugo’s face reddened and for a second or two his already watery eyes became even more liquid. He cleared his throat and looked towards the distant woodlands.

‘Don’t mention it, Thom,’ he said, a little hoarsely. We’ve been pals a long time …’

He left it at that and Thom grinned. Who else would put up with you?’ Thom said, dropping his hand away. He, too, looked towards the lush woodlands in the distance. ‘Best be on my way. I’ve been looking forward to this.’

‘I can imagine, laid up in hospital like that. You still love the old place, don’t you, Thom?’

He hesitated. ‘I’m not sure if that’s true. There was a time when I hated it.’

“When Bethan …? Hugo brought himself to a halt. Insensitive though he could be sometimes, even Hugo understood how hard the premature loss of his mother had hit Thom all those years ago; so hard, in fact, the grief had not yet faded entirely. He reached into his trouser pocket and drew out a long, worn iron key, which he thrust at Thom. Its rounded head was made up of three simple, flat circles resembling a metal shamrock. The bit was hidden behind Hugo’s fleshy fingers, but Thom easily remembered the solid plain pattern of its ward cuts.

Thom reached for the key and, as he did so, felt a frisson of … of what? He couldn’t be sure. Excitement? Yes, there was that, but there was something else also. Relief? Yes, that too. But this, paradoxically, was mixed with … it couldn’t be fear, could it? No, not quite that. Apprehension was more correct. For just a moment, he had experienced a fluttery nervousness in his stomach, paranoid butterflies with hard-edged wings. Could he really be nervous of going back to the home he had loved so much as a child? Was it the thought of its emptiness, the absence of the mother he had lost so many years ago? Since the illness Thom had realized that his emotions were more frail, that tears seemed never far away, and he had assumed it was because of a barely suppressed self-pity. Well, maybe it was exactly that. Yet this … this apprehension … seemed to emanate from outside himself, as though it tainted the very air between the two outstretched hands.

Then he had the long key in his palm and the disquiet dissolved, was merely a passing sensation.

The key seemed to become warm against his flesh as he looked at it and something inside him … his spirit? … lifted once more. Bemused, he smiled at Hugo.

‘It’s good to be back,’ he said.

And at that time, he honestly meant it.

A WALK THROUGH THE WOODS

HE WALKED away from the Big House, descending the gentle slope to the wide path that led towards the river and concentrating on keeping his left foot from turning inwards, another symptom of the damage he had suffered. At this stage, his walking-cane was merely a prop; before he completed the journey to the cottage, however, and his left leg was even more wearied, it would become a necessity. Half-way down the hill he turned to see Hugo still watching him, hands in his pockets, the distance too far to read his expression. He waved the stick and his friend raised an arm to wriggle his plump fingers in response. Thom’s smile faltered when he noticed Hartgrove - Bones - remained by the front door, as still and watchful as a black bird of prey. Jesus, what was it about the man that made his flesh creep? Was it the incident in the cellar? Was that why he still had nightmares about the man? With an effort, Thom dismissed the manservant from his mind and went on his way.

He soon reached another path that entered a leafy tunnel and that would take him to the old stone bridge crossing the river. A coolness settled over his shoulders, the sun’s rays barely penetrating the thick ceiling of leaves; a breeze came off the fast-flowing river to meet him. Once, long ago, he had relished the sudden drop in temperature when his mother had brought him across the great sunshine-filled meadow (didn’t the sun always shine its hardest when you were little?) from the opposite direction, where she had pointed out insects and grey butterflies barely visible to the human eye, flowers with exotic names, and even animal droppings, evidence of creatures who preferred to hide from view; now though, the coolness was almost unpleasant, for it seemed to freeze the perspiration on his brow, and today the river sounded angry rather than swift.

The short straight bridge had been built from greystone soon after Castle Bracken was finished, and the mortar had become either crumbly or filled with moss; a greenness tainted the stone, deeper near the water that rose and faded wash-like as it reached the jutting parapet. Thom paused towards the middle and peered down into the agitated foam below, its rush caused by a sudden dip in levels beneath the dark arch itself, a singular rapid that increased the river’s flow. He thought of the many times he and Bethan - how his heart softly ached for her - had lingered at this same spot as she had dropped a leaf or small twig into the froth and they had watched it being washed downstream, a fragile craft tossed and swirled by the currents, Thom laughing and pointing a finger, Bethan smiling indulgently. He smiled now, seeing in his mind’s eye the valiant little vessel fighting against the bullying waters, bobbing to the surface again and again every time it was immersed, finally becoming too far away to see any more. The air was always damp here on the bridge no matter how bright the sun, invisible droplets of moisture filling the shade offered by the trees and shrubbery on either bank. Indeed, long twisting branches reached across the river to meet their counterparts on the other side,

leafy fingers intertwining so that the span was in a permanent gloom, even the winter sun finding it difficult to penetrate the naked but dense interlacing.

Pushing himself away from the wall by his elbows, Thom moved on, following the wide track through the wooded area on the far side of the bridge, the sound of the river’s flow receding behind him, the air gradually warming with each step he took until the trees ended and he was confronted by a rickety wooden gate and fence. The barrier was there to keep in the deer, a few horses, and other, less obvious, animal Me that wandered or skipped the meadows and pastures beyond. The gate was kept shut by a simple but heavy metal latch.

Again he lingered, taking time to view the broad expanse of coarse, browning grass beyond, searching towards the thick fringes of woodland on the other side, and his spirit lifted afresh, something within escaping its shell to soar high into the deep summer sky. His smile became a grin and his breath became an appreciative murmur.

He quickly pressed down on the latch, leaning hard to disengage it, and then he was through, carefully closing the gate after him. Wary of the grass snakes that always appeared to be in abundance in this particular field, he strode purposefully into the longish grass, walking-stick held under his arm, his leg steady enough. He suddenly felt happier than at any other time since the stroke, including when he had received the good news that, if he was careful - cut out the smokes, easy on the booze - and if he obeyed and worked with the therapist, then there should be no recurrence, he would be just fine. Thom felt oddly unburdened, as free as he had been as a boy, chasing through this same meadow, clapping his hands and giggling at butterflies or startled rabbits, his mother’s caring eyes on him at all times. Perhaps he sensed that same protection now; maybe he was reminded of a glorious era when he was cherished and guarded, when he was invincible against the bad things; a time when his soul was light and his mind untroubled, his young body bothered neither by weakness nor pain.

It stayed with him for a while, this dreamy glow; stayed with him until he approached the woods and his leg began to ache.

It was as if he were entering another world, a hushed world, a world that was shaded and cool, shafts of sunlight angling through its twilight in long, shimmering beams, the silence only occasionally interrupted by a falling branch somewhere out of sight, or a rustle of undergrowth as some hidden animal, aware of his presence, broke for home. Thom followed the path he and Bethan and all past visitors to Little Bracken, from one century to the next, had taken. There were other paths running through the woods, not as obvious as this one, and as a boy he had explored most of them; he wondered now how many such tracks had been lost to time and neglect, untrodden and so reclaimed by the forest. Did any one walk these woods anymore? Who would bother unless they knew of its ‘magic’, the serenity within? But then, who would have access anyway? Eric Pimlet, of course; it was part of his job. But Thom could not imagine old Bones venturing into such wilderness. Nor Hugo - certainly not Hugo. No nature-lover he, nor one to enjoy strenuous exercise - any exercise, for that matter. And Sir Russell had been too frail for years and was now too ill.

It was a waste and a shame; but he was glad, for it meant that the little kingdom belonged to him alone. Thom was aware that this was a fancy, but the notion was not new to him, it was something in which he had always indulged since the early days of running through the trees, surrounding himself with imaginary friends, invisible beings who were never too tired or too busy to play.

Even then he was aware that he was considered an odd,

solitary child, whose only real companion was Hugo Bleeth. But Hugo was older and under Bethan’s tutelage; he was also the boss’s son and Thom had constantly been reminded he was to be treated as such (though never by Hugo, himself). But Thom - and his mother - knew better. He had never been lonely here, not when imagination and fantasy were his true friends. Or perhaps, his mentors. It was they who had given him a Me that was far from empty, a time when his thoughts were boundless, his imageries true. And the woodland, itself, had invoked its own treasures, mind treasures, which could be explored and experienced, and relished and owned. For an instant - and only an instant -the childhood memories became a reality, became now, and he felt the same excitement, the same soaring blissfulness that could only come from a special kind of innocence and a willingness to believe.

A nightingale, singing somewhere deep within the woods, diverted his attention for a moment and the sweet call was not an interruption to his thoughts but somehow an endorsement of the remembered happiness. Thom listened a while, then pressed on, even keener to reach his old home.

He passed by shade-loving flowers along the side of the trail, sanicle, archangel, yellow pimpernel, flora that usually waited for late summer to bloom, but here - as ever - they had arrived early. He heard the low pitch of warblers singing to each other, while a blackcap swooped down into a glade off to his right, disappearing briefly into a tangle of hawthorn and rooting around until it found the insect noticed from the air. A flurry of wings took the bird back above the treetops. Because of his profession, Thom took a more than usual interest in the trees themselves, noting their condition, their texture and robustness, the slight ‘sheen’ of the silver birch, taking pleasure in naming aloud each variety.

He came upon a huge oak, one easily remembered because of its age and sheer scariness. Its gnarled bark seemed to contain images, carvings that were not quite

discernible but that resembled grotesque, twisted figures and tortured faces; its great thick branches spread outwards as if ready to grab anything that might pass by. To allay his fear, Bethan had explained that such ancient trees were invaluable in nature, for they supported the perfect Me cycle: their leaves, bark, acorns eaten by animals and insects, which in turn were prey to others; their remains passed on as droppings or simply discarded to be broken down by bacteria and so replenishing the earth itself. A fine system, unless you were first in the chain. The big old oak also provided the perfect home for small creatures - animals, insects and birds - who lived inside the trunk or the deep channels of its bark, or simply nested among the boughs.

He went on, delighting in the colours along the way, their random display exhilarating, the perfumes almost intoxicating, and, for a time, the trauma of the last few months was completely forgotten. But soon - too soon - his aching leg began to weary and a numbness began to spread down his arm like a creeping frost. Thom knew he was abusing his weakened body, ignoring the doctors’ advice to take things easy for a while, to exercise every day but not to overdo it; and after months of therapy, he still needed time to build up his strength and impatience could be his worst enemy. That very day he had driven all the way from London and, although the left side of his body had barely come into play, the journey had taken its toll. Then to walk from the Big House to the cottage (not on a whim, it had to be said, but on a self-promise) might have been pushing himself too far. Nevertheless, he did not regret his decision, even if his breathing was becoming a little laboured and he had consciously to lift his left foot from the ground, a sweat beginning to break out on his forehead once more: the air was too fresh and scented, the forest and its flora too beautiful, for him to worry over fatigue and physical discomfort.

In a clearing ahead he saw the jagged trunk of a tree that had been struck by lightning, its base still firm in the ground

but rising like a blackened spire pointing darkly towards the sky. The top half lay by its side, leafless branches withered and dry. There were other fallen trees in the forest, but this one struck Thom as particularly unsightly, as though the drama of its felling had left its sickly aura. He wondered if he bore a similar aura, the suddenness and fierceness of the attack on his own body similar in its way to the lightning strike on the tree. No. He was still alive and the tree was dead. Such comparison was as foolish as it was self-pitying. He shrugged off the idea, only too aware of his persistently delicate emotional state.

Leaf mulch beneath his feet softened his footsteps, yet still his left leg seemed unusually heavy. The cane’s tip sank further into the earth each time he leaned on it, an indication of his increasing dependency. When he spied another toppled tree trunk close by the path, this one nothing more than a thick log obviously undisturbed for many a year, the scars where branches had been lopped off covered by lichen, he decided to rest awhile. Trudging through long grass, he made his way over to the natural bench and sat down.

The faint challenge of a cuckoo came to him from somewhere in the heart of the woodland. A breeze shifted through leaves overhead. Something small, perhaps an acorn from a nearby oak, dropped to the forest floor, the sound soft but singular in the near-silence. And then another noise, one he did not recognize, as faint as the cuckoo’s call, yet closer.

Thom held his breath and listened. Was it in his own imagination? It wasn’t the common sound of the forest, it was neither a bird, nor an animal - yet inexplicably, it seemed natural enough to the environment. The noise stopped, but he continued to hold his breath.

It began again, a soft… whistling. A high-pitched, almost gentle … whistling-ringing.

He turned towards the sound, puzzled, expectant, and saw nothing. That is, he saw nothing unusual. The woods were perfectly still. Normal.

The queer yet sweet whistling-ringing persisted, but he could not recognize its source: it was somehow melodious, but with no fixed tune, like tiny faraway wind chimes caught in a draught. It was like nothing he had ever heard before. And yet … and yet it seemed familiar to him, as though it might have originated from some forgotten dream. Then it occurred to him that this was not a noise at all, but some kind of weird, unreal tintinnabulation that emanated from within his inner ear, a sensation rather than a real sound. Another belated surprise thrown at him by the stroke, blood-flow through the ears distorting the vibrations that are turned into the electrical impulses we know as sound? It wouldn’t have surprised him - it wouldn’t be the last nasty shock the illness had in store for him, no matter how well he was progressing, he was sure of that.

He mentally kicked himself. Give it up, he silently chastised, you can’t blame everything on the stroke. Some things in Me just happen naturally, and with no dire consequences. A peculiar whistling-ringing in his ears was nothing to get stressed about. It would pass. How many times in his life had he thought he’d developed tinnitus before, only for it to disappear again in less than a minute?

Then a strange thought occurred and he had no idea where it had sprung from: maybe this noise was something that connected with the subconscious before it reached the conscious; maybe it was only a vibration that gave off a peculiar sound. For some reason, the theory was perfectly rational to him at that moment. Even so, it had to have a source…

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