Christine Poulson

A Trick of the Light

Shadows, No. 2; copyright Alan Reed

A woman was standing on the other side of the stream, a slender woman with red hair. I had only to tilt my head a fraction, and she was gone. A trick of the light. You had to catch a particular configuration of tree trunks and autumn leaves at exactly the right angle. The woman flickered in and out of view as I shifted my head. I thought of those drawings that you can see as a beautiful young woman or an old crone.

The air was full of movement, the rustling of leaves, the sound of running water. Smudge, our elderly cat, who dated back to my husband’s first marriage, was on the other side of the stream, meowing urgently. I hauled a branch out of the water, let the end land with a crash on the further bank. The cat rushed along it as if blown by a gust of wind.

I followed her towards the house along the rim of the millpond. There were supposed to be trout in there, but I hadn’t seen any yet. I stopped and gazed into depths of the dark water. A cloud shadow passed over me, and I was suddenly cold. I had the strangest feeling, as though there was a hitch in the day. That’s the closest I can get to it. A gust of wind shook down a shower of twigs, and time moved on.

It was time to get on with the hundred and one things that you have to do when you’ve just moved house. Afterwards, I wondered just how much that had to do with what happened. Don’t they say that the stress of moving is second only to bereavement or divorce? And Rob was away at a conference: that was a factor, too.

*     *     *

That night I couldn’t sleep. Eventually I got up, thinking I’d unpack some more books. There’s a door in my study that opens onto the garden. Before I knew what I was doing, I’d let myself out. The lawn was wet and cold under my bare feet, and a full moon hung low in the sky, flooding the garden with pallid light.

I thought at first that I was seeing my own reflection in the stream. But it was a woman standing on the far bank. She was somehow blurry, as if I was seeing her through water. She moved towards me and set her foot on the branch I’d placed across the stream. With a graceful movement, she tossed something—a flower? a scrap of paper?—into the stream. I looked down at the water, and what I saw turned my blood to ice.

The water was flowing uphill.

A hand on my shoulder. A pale face close to mine. I couldn’t move. I tried to scream, but nothing came out of my mouth.

And that was when I understood I’d been dreaming. The hand and the face were Laura’s.

‘Mum!’

The fear in her voice pulled me free of the dream.

‘It’s OK, it’s OK. I was having a nightmare.’

‘So was I, and when I came in to find you, you were making a funny noise.’ She was pale, and her long, red-gold hair was tousled.

‘I’m OK now. I’ll take you back to bed, shall I?’

‘Will you get in with me for a bit?’

Her room was across the landing from mine. She got into bed, and I climbed in beside her.

She was just thirteen, but she was nearly as tall as I was. She squealed. ‘Your feet! They’re like blocks of ice.’

‘Sorry.’ I pulled them back.

On the bedside table were a few treasured possessions—her MP3 player, her Buffy the Vampire Slayer DVDs, and a copy of Alice in Wonderland, comfort reading. Propped up against the DVDs was an unfamiliar photograph.

Laura saw me looking. ‘Dad found that photo of Mummy when he was clearing out a drawer.’

‘That’s fine,’ I said, answering the uncertainty in her voice. ‘We’ll look for a frame for it.’

‘I miss Dad,’ she said.

‘Me too. But he’ll only be gone a week.’ I reached for her hand and squeezed it.

‘Can we have the light on for a bit?’

She settled her head on the pillow. My gaze settled on the photo of Jenny. It had been taken at the seaside somewhere. Jenny was crouching with her arm round Laura, their hair tangled together by the wind. They seemed to smile out at me, though it must have been Rob they were looking at. Jenny: my Rebecca, the first wife I had never met, though there was no mystery about how she had died. A moment’s inattention, a microsecond of sleep, that’s all it takes on the motorway. For Laura she had remained mummy, a word freighted with all that was tender and childish. I tried not to begrudge her that. When I married Rob, Laura started calling me Mum. A good word: succinct and serviceable and hard-wearing. The years of getting up in the night, attending parents’ evenings, and hanging around in shoe-shops had surely earned me the title . . .

Jenny’s face was a blur, the room slipped away, and I was asleep.

*     *     *

‘What can have happened to her?’ Laura asked. ‘Do you think she tried to go home? Our old home, I mean.’

It was mid-morning the following day, and I was at the sink filling the kettle.

Last night’s dream had left a bad taste. And now Smudge was missing. I hadn’t seen her since she’d dashed towards the house the previous day. She didn’t usually stay out at night, and to be missing for so long was unprecedented.

‘Maybe we should have kept her in longer. I’ll ring the new people if she doesn’t turn up soon.’ Privately I doubted that Smudge was up to negotiating several miles of forest and moorland. More likely, a fox had got her.

A kinder thought occurred to me. ‘Maybe she got shut in someone’s shed. You know how nosy she is. We can put up notices, ask the people in the village—’

‘Yeah, OK. Mum, you know it’s Halloween tonight?’

My maternal antennae shot up. ‘Yes?’

‘There’s something I want to ask you.’

She paused. This was a familiar ploy: the delay would allow me to imagine all manner of things. In my relief at the modesty of the actual proposal, I would be more likely to agree.

But this time she left it too late. Before she could go on, the doorbell rang.

*     *     *

‘I was visiting a client in Manchester and had to stay over. I thought I’d just drop by on the off chance, see how you were settling in,’ Heather said.

Her eyes slid away from mine.

‘I’ve brought these,’ she added, thrusting out a bunch of flowers, and it wasn’t some wilted offering from a service station, but a proper florist’s bouquet of lilies and white roses done up in lilac gauze.

I was staring at her open-mouthed. Laura jostled me from behind.

She squealed with delight: ‘Auntie Heather! Have you come for lunch?

‘Hey, look at you! Don’t you look great!’

I got a grip on myself. ‘Come in, Heather, come in.’

*     *     *

Laura and Heather leaned together over the photos of Heather’s boys, Laura’s cousins. Seeing those two heads with identical glossy, red-gold hair so close together gave me a pang. And those photos suggested to me that this wasn’t a spur-of-the-moment visit. Heather was Jenny’s older sister, had three sons of her own, and had been anxious to add her little orphaned niece to her brood. And then I’d come along. In different circumstances I’d have liked her—she’s an interesting and intelligent woman, a civil engineer, but taking the place of a much loved sister isn’t a great basis for a friendship.

‘Are you going trick-or-treating tonight?’ Heather asked Laura.

Instead of replying, she glanced in my direction, wondering no doubt whether Heather’s presence would weigh in her favour or not.

At last she said, ‘It’s Halloween night at Fagin’s.’

‘No,’ I said.

‘But Mum! Everyone’s going dressed as vampires!’

‘Who’s everyone?’

‘Well, Megan for a start.’

‘Megan’s fifteen.’ And even then, her mother ought to know better. I kept that opinion to myself. ‘Why don’t you go out trick-or-treating with Rachel and the others like you planned? I’ll drive you into Sheffield.’

‘That’s for kids!’

You are a kid, I wanted to say.

She appealed to her aunt. ‘Auntie Heather?’

Heather opened her mouth, then our eyes met. She pressed her lips together and shook her head. She looked down at the photos.

‘If Dad was here—’ Laura began.

‘He’d say exactly the same—’

‘I want to go! I’m going to go!’ She pushed the photos away and got to her feet as if she was planning to head off to the night-club that very minute.

‘Oh no, you’re not!’

She stood with her arms akimbo and thrust her lower lip out.

‘Who are you to tell me what to do, you’re not even—’

She bit off the end of the sentence. She turned on her heel, ran out of the kitchen and slammed the door, leaving the unspoken words hanging in the air.

‘You’re not even my real mother!’

*     *     *

She’d never said it before—never even got near it as far as I could tell—

‘Fagin’s?’ Heather asked.

‘Oh, some god-awful night-club for teenagers. She’s far too young, and she knows it. ’

I was determined not to justify myself, yet a moment later I heard myself say weakly, ‘She’s not normally like that.’

‘Oh, Sarah, they're all like that at her age. You should have heard some of the things the boys used to say to me.’

She got up and walked over to the long window that looked out on the pentrough and the dam.

‘This is interesting.’ She gestured towards two big galvanized steel valves set in the kitchen floor beneath the window. ‘So the water goes through these and under the house. This glass must be—what?—twenty-five millimetres thick. In the pond—forty or fifty thousand gallons of water?

‘No idea,’ I admitted.

‘That kind of weight could take the kitchen floor down.’ She saw the expression on my face. ‘I guess there’s a sluice gate, isn’t there?’

‘Up at the end of the garden where the mill race leaves the river.’

‘No problem, you can cut off the flow if need be.’

She stood gazing out of the window. I cast about for something else to say.

Heather cleared her throat. ‘I want to say—you’re doing a good job.’

‘Well, thanks, but—’

‘“Why now?” I’ve had a cancer scare.’ She waved away my expression of concern. ‘Didn’t come to anything, but it got me thinking. I haven’t been fair to you. Or to Jenny. She’d want there to be someone there for Laura.’

‘It can’t have been easy for you.’

‘Or for you.’ Heather laughed. ‘Oh, God, look at us! Pass the sick bag!’

I grinned. ‘Yeah well, I’m not denying, you were an interfering cow.’ There was a silence. I looked sideways at Heather, wondered for a moment if I’d misjudged it.

Heather stared at me. Then she grinned too.

‘Agreed,’ she said. ‘And you were a self-righteous baggage.’

‘Let’s shake on that.’

Heather’s hand was smooth and her grip, firm. I felt the strength in it.

The laughter went out of her face. She didn’t release my hand, and I knew that something else was coming, something I wasn’t going to like.

‘This isn’t all I came for.’ Heather let go of my hand and sat back. Her eyes didn’t leave my face. ‘About Laura. I’m right, aren’t I, in thinking that you still haven’t told her everything about Jenny’s death?’

My heart sank. ‘It never seemed the right time.’

‘She needs to know.’

‘I’ll discuss it with Rob when he gets back.’’

She nodded and the telephone rang.

‘That’ll probably be him now.’

*     *     *

It was midnight in New Zealand, and Rob was just about to go to bed.

‘Probably won’t sleep though. Yeah, the hotel’s fine, actually has an exercise bike in the bedroom, would you believe? Are you OK? And Laura?’

I took off my glasses and rubbed the bridge of my nose.

‘Laura’s fine.’ I was just about to tell him that Smudge was missing when I caught a glimpse of her out in the garden. My mind was following Rob’s account of the conference banquet while my eyes absently followed her movements. She was pouncing on something—it looked like a long piece of grass—and Heather had gone out into the garden. She was crouching at the bend of the path, the sun glinting on the smooth fall of red hair.

‘If it starts to rain heavily, keep an eye on the level of the pond,’ Rob was saying now.

Something was wrong, but what? Then I knew: there had been the sound of a door opening somewhere in the house. It wasn’t Laura: she was still in her room. I could hear her banging about. But if Heather was in the garden . . .

There were footsteps coming up the stairs.

I jumped to my feet, dropping the phone with a clatter on the table. I strode to the door and flung it open. Heather was standing at the top of the stairs, her eyes wide with surprise.

So who was in the garden?

*     *     *

‘What did you see exactly?’ Heather asked.

We were out in the garden standing at the end of the millpond. What had I seen? And where was Smudge? She was nowhere in sight.

‘Just a shape really. I didn’t have my glasses on. And red hair like yours, I thought. What did you see?’

‘I couldn’t quite see for these trees here, but I thought someone had wandered into the garden. That was what I was coming to tell you.’

‘No one here now anyway.’

I felt a spot of rain on my face. I looked up and saw a mountain of clouds massing above the trees.

Heather shivered. ‘The weather’s turning.’

A gust of wind shook a shower of twigs down onto the pond.

‘Let’s go in and have lunch, shall we?’

*     *     *

It was a subdued affair. Laura had calmed down, but she’d been crying, and her eyes were red. My thoughts kept returning to what I’d seen in the garden—or hadn’t seen.

I was setting out cheese and biscuits when Laura said, ‘What’s that noise?’

I couldn’t hear anything, and then there was something—just on the edge of my hearing.

Laura got to her feet and went into the hall. Heather and I followed. She was listening at the cellar door.

‘It’s Smudge!’

When I opened the door, a gust of dank air came through. The cat emerged mewing piteously, a cobweb trailing from one ear. She headed for her food-bowl in the kitchen.

‘How did she get down there?’ I said. ‘I haven’t been down today. Laura—’

‘No way! Not on my own. It’s spooky!’

‘Perhaps there’s a way in from outside?’ Heather said.

I switched on the light. The single bulb cast a watery yellow light that illuminated only the centre of the cavernous space. I went and got a torch.

*     *     *

I played the beam of light around the walls. In the far corner was a cluster of small white globes hanging in a net of spiders’ webs.

‘What are those?’ Laura said.

She was standing on the bottom step to make sure of a quick get-away.

‘Something to do with the spiders,’ Heather said. ‘Though whether they’re nurseries or larders, I couldn’t say.’

‘Oh, gross!’

‘There’s quite a lot of stuff down here,’ Heather remarked. ‘Bits of old furniture, it looks like.’

‘It belongs to the old lady who used to lived here.’

‘Dead?’

‘Nursing home. Her son was supposed to be shifting all this stuff.’

I swung the torch round. The shadow of a huge hand reared up on the wall, the fingers splayed, the index finger curled and beckoning.

Heather said, ‘Christ Almighty!’

Laura gasped.

My heart thudding, I directed the beam downward. There was a hand sticking up from a packing case.

*     *     *

‘It’s ’way cool,’ Laura said. ‘It must be an artist’s model.’

The hand was made of pale wood, birch probably, and mounted on a conical plinth.

‘Jolly life-like, I must admit, with these articulated joints,’ Heather said. She played with the wooden fingers, bending them and straightening them. ‘I wonder what it’s doing down here?’

I said, ‘It’s damaged, look. The top joint of the third finger’s missing. It’s just been dumped down here with all the other rubbish.’

‘Can I have it?’ Laura said. ‘I could keep my rings on it or—I don’t know, but I want it.’

‘You’ll have to clean it up, but fine. Come on, let’s go back up.’

I pushed Laura gently towards the stairs and was on the bottom step myself before I saw that Heather was still standing by the packing case, holding the hand.

‘Are you coming?’ I asked.

She didn’t reply.

‘Heather?’

‘What?’ she looked up. ‘Oh, yes, sorry.’

The colour had gone from her cheeks, but maybe it was just the light in the cellar. She seemed her normal self when we got back to the kitchen. When we saw Heather off, rain had set in and mist had descended over the trees. Heather and I hugged instead of exchanging our usual formal kiss on the cheek.

‘Ring me and let me know you’ve got back OK.’

‘I will.’

By tea-time it was raining stair-rods, far too wet for trick-or-treating, and anyway Laura wasn’t feeling very well. When I put my hand on her forehead, she felt hot. She only picked at her supper, and she went to bed early.

When I went in to check on her, she’d fallen asleep with the DVD running. The model hand had taken its place among the other treasures. All the fingers were sticking straight up in the gesture that’s used to stop the traffic. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was lying open on the bed. I picked it up and read the last page where Alice realizes that the Red Queen and her court are merely playing cards. ‘At this the whole pack flew up into the air, and came flying down upon her: she gave a little scream, half of fright and half of anger and tried to beat them off, and found herself lying on the bank with her head in the lap of her sister.’

There was a snarl from the TV: I looked up to see a young woman morphing into something horrible with lots of sharp teeth and hair. Buffy was about to kick ass. I switched it off, and for a moment it was quiet before the sound of the wind and the rain rushed in again.

I went into my study to do some work—I’m an academic, a historian—but I couldn’t settle. My thoughts drifted. It was partly the wind—was it strong enough to take tiles off the roof?—and it was partly the conversation I’d had with Heather.

Jenny hadn’t been alone in the car. Laura knew that, but she didn’t know that the man who had been driving, who had fallen asleep at the wheel, was her mother’s lover. She didn’t know that Jenny had left Rob—and Laura. It wasn’t something you could explain to a two-year-old. Or to a five-year-old—or a seven-year-old—and then you start to think maybe it’s something that you needn’t ever explain. And anyway Rob was sure she’d intended to come back for Laura—

The house was creaking like a ship in a storm, and a cold draught was playing around my ankles. I looked at my watch, wondering why Heather hadn’t rung yet, but when the phone did ring a few seconds later, I nearly jumped out of my skin.

As if it had been a signal, from upstairs came an ear-splitting, mind-bending shriek.

It was followed by a piteous wail. ‘Mum! Mum.’

I took the stairs two at a time. Laura was sitting bolt upright in bed, staring at the window, her hands outstretched, as if she were warding something off. I followed the direction of her gaze, expecting to see—I don’t know what I expected to see—but there was nothing except the rain smacking against the window.

‘Mum! Mum!’

It’s a night terror, that’s all, I told myself, but the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

‘It’s alright. I’m here.’

I sat on the bed and took her in my arms. She pressed her face into my shoulder. She was quivering, and her shoulders were narrow and bony under my hands. After a while the phone stopped ringing.

I sat back and looked into her face. She was still trembling but her eyes were clear. I smoothed back the reddish-gold strands of hair plastered over her forehead.

‘What was all that about?’ I asked.

‘I dreamt I was out in the garden looking for Smudge, and I saw a woman on the path by the pond. I knew she was something evil. She ran after me. I got back to the house just in time and slammed the door. She was walking round the house looking for a way in, and then she was at my window and I knew who it was.’ A tear spilled over and trickled down her cheek. I hadn’t seen her so upset since she was a small child.

‘And that was the worst thing of all,’ she managed to get out.

‘Who was it? Tell me.’

‘It was Mummy.’

In the next room the phone began to ring again.

*     *     *

‘Laura’s approaching puberty,’ Heather said. ‘She’s bound to be thinking about Jenny, wondering what she was like.’

Her matter-of-fact manner steadied me a little.

‘But what about my dream?’ I said in a low voice. Laura had gone down to the kitchen to make some hot chocolate, but I wanted to be sure she couldn’t hear me. ‘How come we both dreamed about a creepy woman in the garden?’

She hesitated. ‘You guys are pretty close.’

I gave a yelp of disbelief. ‘Thought transference! Is this the best you can come up with?’

She didn’t reply. The silence stretched out.

‘What is it, Heather?’

‘It’s probably nothing . . .’

‘Heather!’

‘I saw the post-mortem report on Jenny. She was my sister, I wanted to know. Her hand was mutilated. Glass from the windscreen. It was one of those freak things. The top joint of the third finger on her right hand was sliced off. Gave me a bit of a turn when I saw that hand in the cellar.’

Neither of us spoke.

Then, ‘It can’t be more than a coincidence,’ I said.

‘Of course not. Because whatever’s going on, if there is anything going on, it’s not about Jenny. She had her faults, but there was no malice in her.’

And that was when the line went dead.

*     *     *

Laura was sitting at the kitchen table, her hands cupped round her mug, with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland open before her.

Something was wrong with the scene, but I didn’t know what. Then I saw it: behind her a solid block of water, dense and black, pressed against the kitchen window and was seeping in ’round the seal.

I ran to the levers that opened the valves and heaved on them. The block of water sank like a lift in freefall. There was a mighty roar like a bathtub emptying. But immediately the water began to fill up again, faster than it was draining away. I heard Heather saying: ‘that kind of weight could take the floor down.’ I had to close the sluice. I reached for my raincoat and a torch.

‘Get dressed,’ I told Laura.

The instant I stepped out of the house my face was slick with rain. Above the roar of the water, I could hear the boulders grinding on the bed of the stream. The air was heavy with the smell of peat.

A hand gripped mine. It was Laura. She had her coat on over her pajamas.

‘Go back,’ I shouted.

She shook her head.

‘I need you to find the cat and put her in her carrier.’

She bit her lip and turned back to the house.

*     *     *

The wind buffeted me. The beam of the torch jerked about, illuminating flailing trees and the choppy surface of the pond. I toiled on, leaning into the wind. The stream had burst its banks, and I was up to my ankles in icy water. I reached the sluice, but when I leaned on the wheel to lower it, nothing happened. I strained and gritted my teeth, but it was useless, the pressure of the water was too great.

I looked back at the house. The lights flickered as though there had been a brief interruption in the power supply. I had to get Laura out of there. I ran back, slipping and struggling through the mud, falling more than once. And the second time a curious thing happened. As I tried to clamber up, weighed down by mud and water, I seemed to be lifted up as if I were being blown forward. I found myself muttering, ‘Hurry, hurry’ in a voice so hoarse that I scarcely recognised it as my own.

I had to put my whole weight against the front door to open it. The ground floor was inches deep in water, slopping and slurping, glittering with shards of glass. The kitchen window had given way. A river was running through the house. I leaned forward and grabbed the newel post at the foot of the stairs.

Laura was gazing down at me from the landing with Smudge in her arms. Her eyes were wide with fear.

The house was bitterly cold. The lights flickered and I saw there was a woman half-way up the stairs.

The red-gold hair, the face in the photo: it was Jenny. She had come for her daughter.

Laura backed away. The cat yowled and scrambled from her arms.

The figure seemed to advance and retreat as if I was looking through a telescope and someone was twisting the lens.

‘Mum, Mum.’

It wasn’t much more than a whisper, but it reached into my heart and pulled me forward. But only for a few steps. My legs refused to take me any closer to the figure on the landing. My flesh was crawling . . .

But if I didn’t get Laura out of the house. . . The water was rising, and the weight of the water—

‘Think, think,’ I heard myself say through gritted teeth.

‘A trick.’ It was if someone had whispered in my ear.

A trick. With a rush everything fell into place. Jenny smiling out of the photo. Alice realising that the Red Queen and her court are nothing but a pack of cards. Heather saying ‘there was no malice in her.’ The figure in the garden, old crone or beautiful young woman?

Something had strayed out of the forest and found its way in through a crack in our lives. This phantom, this creature of ice and water, was not, could not, be Jenny.

‘How could I ever have thought it was?’ I said aloud.

The wind dropped. The house grew quiet. The chill left the air. The figure on the landing grew blurry, lost substance. Now it was dissolving into mist, fading away.

A moment later the light shone steadily on an empty staircase.

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