Bertram wiped a filthy hand against his brow. He was hot; he was sweaty, and he ached all over. It was moments like this when he regretted his decision to leave his grandfather’s cottage to come and live at the manor. He wasn’t averse to hard work; on the contrary, he seemed to thrive on it, but, well, this was just ridiculous. There was so much to do. Every room, of which there were plenty, needed work. Nearly every other weekend, since he’d arrived six months previously, he’d had a bonfire going so he could burn pieces of furniture that were past saving. Every day he cleaned and scrubbed and buffed until his fingers were red raw.
He could just imagine what his grandfather, Sidney, would’ve said to him had he been alive today. “You weren’t put on this Earth to sup wine and eat grapes, Son. Nothing good ever comes from being lazy. Get your hands dirty they’re the only tools you’ll ever need.”
He smiled at the memory. His grandfather may be gone, but Bertram still felt his presence. Sidney had always been a straight talker. Bertram had loved that about him, that and the fact he could play a mean tune on the harmonica. He could always count on his grandfather to give him a good kick up the arse when he needed it. Bertram sighed, he missed him.
Sitting back on his haunches Bertram surveyed the library. He never, in his wildest dreams, thought that at the age of twenty-five he would become the owner of such a grand place. Well, maybe not grand, not yet anyway. He was working on that. Sidney had left the manor to him in his will. The fact that his grandfather owned another property, other than the cottage he’d grown up in, came as a huge surprise. The fact it was a stately manor house, with its own name, even more so.
Bertram wasn’t used to such grandeur. The home he’d shared with his grandfather was a two up, two down, cottage. No more than a shed in comparison to Clayhill which had rooms aplenty, although more than half were riddled with damp and mildew. The manor itself sat in acres of land surrounded by a forest of lush evergreen trees. It was quite intimidating for a simple man such as he. When Bertram had first stepped onto the sloping, green lawn, and looked up at the grey stone of Clayhill before him, he felt unworthy and would’ve hightailed it back to the cottage had it not been nearing midnight. It had taken him the best part of a day to locate, as though Clayhill didn’t want to be found.
Bertram doubted he would be here now if he hadn’t been given a map with very specific instructions on how to locate Clayhill. He’d certainly never had any visitors since his arrival. Six months later he was still alone, in this old, mothball ridden manor house with no-one for company except the occasional rat or mouse that had managed to find its way out of its lair and into his new home. Bertram couldn’t help but smile at the irony. He was a loner by nature, content with his own company for the most part. Of late, however, that was beginning to change. Now he wouldn’t mind having a conversation with someone. Talking to himself just wasn’t entertaining anymore.
He looked at his hands, covered in ash from the fireplace he was attempting to clean. The last time he had been in this room was when he’d first arrived back in December. He’d been drawn to this room perhaps, in part, for the open fire and relatively stable-looking leather armchairs, but mostly because it had splendid views across the grounds. Bertram had lit a fire, drunk half a bottle of brandy and fallen asleep. Only to wake up a few hours later with a pounding headache, a dry mouth, and the feeling that someone was in the room with him. He shut the door on the library that day and hadn’t returned.
That had changed this morning when Bertram had awoken feeling out of sorts. His body felt achy and shivery as though he were coming down with something. He rarely got sick, but when he did, it was always impressive. He didn’t just get a cold, he got pneumonia. Instead of an upset stomach he got gastroenteritis. The thought of becoming unwell whilst he was alone was unnerving. Despite the June warmth, the house was always cool and he had decided it wouldn’t hurt to light a fire in the library to get the cold out of his bones. That was the idea anyway. Now, instead of relaxing in the armchair, he was bent over the fireplace sweeping ash into a dustpan. He wished he’d cleaned the grate before now, it was a dirty job. On the upside, he no longer felt cold. Yet, the ache in his bones seemed to be getting worse, not better.
Bertram rubbed at his arms attempting to ease the pain when he heard the door to the library creak open. He stiffened as the gentle pad of footsteps approached him from behind. His fingers edged towards the iron fire-poke ready to grab it should he need to.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry to disturb you, but I think you’re the person I’ve been looking for?”
Bertram, startled at the sound of the voice behind him, looked up from his kneeled position in front of the unlit fire. Behind him stood a flame-haired woman in her early twenties. She wore a green summer dress that matched the colour of her eyes and fell to the floor in a swirl at her feet. Bertram’s gaze flittered across her shoulders where a smattering of freckles, bronzed darker by the summer sun, stood out against her otherwise creamy skin.
“Who are you?” Bertram asked, not caring that he sounded abrupt. “And how did you get in here?”
The woman’s slim freckled hands clenched the bag she held in front of her like a shield, a look of uncertainty crossing her face. “This is going to sound crazy. I’m not sure where to start,” she responded.
“It might be better if you told me your name first,” Bertram said, standing. “Then perhaps you can tell me why I would think you crazy other than the fact I have no idea who you are and it appears you have broken into my home.”
The woman said nothing. She stood, sizing him up. Bertram stared back. He couldn’t help but notice the cut of her cheekbones, the beauty spot above her eyebrow. It had been a while since he had a conversation with someone so beautiful. A conversation with anyone in fact. Eventually he spoke. “Well? Are you going to tell me what you’re doing here, or should I just call the police?”
“No, please, don’t do that. My name is Mellissa and I’m, well, I suppose I am a…” She shook her head. “Perhaps it would be better if I took your hand?”
Bertram frowned. “OK,” he said, not understanding where this was leading, but going along with it anyway. He rubbed his ash covered hands against his jeans and took her proffered hand. Hers were so creamy white he wanted none of the ash to mar them.
The instant his fingers touched hers, light fractured from her middle like a crystal splintering the sun’s rays. Bertram stood transfixed, unable to take his eyes off her. He watched her with fascination and without fear. Her red hair fanned about her face as if she were underwater and her emerald eyes shone bright, somehow illuminated from within. He felt a tingling sensation pass through her hand and into his. It moved up his arm in slow, deliberate waves. It wasn’t painful, but felt like the first touch of summer sun on his skin; warm and relaxing.
Her hand tightened its grip on his as the library span away in a blur of light and colour. Once his eyes had adjusted, Bertram could see that they had been transported to a vast white hall that stretched on endlessly. It had a high, arched, mirrored ceiling. When he looked up, he saw himself and Mellissa staring back. The hall itself was spotless. He couldn’t see a single mark on the white marbled floor, only thin silver veins running through it. The white walls sparkled as if dusted with minute diamonds. Floor to ceiling pillars stood every ten meters and were decorated in an intricate flower and bee design in gold leaf that wove its way up from the bottom of each pillar. The bees looked real, their wings flashing iridescent in the light. It was breathtaking.
Bertram could sense, rather than see, others about them, the heat of their gaze resting on the two of them, patiently waiting. Yet, he wasn’t afraid.
With every moment that Mellissa clung to him, he felt a gradual sense of peace and of belonging. It was like a piece of him he didn’t know was missing was somehow slotting into place. He felt an unfathomable connection with Mellissa and although he didn’t understand how, he knew he was inexplicably linked to her.
A warm, gentle breeze ruffled his hair as Mellissa withdrew her hand from his. Within moments they were back standing in the library once more as if the most extraordinary moment hadn’t occurred.
Mellissa reached into her handbag and pulled out a bunch of assorted keys. “You’ll be needing these now, Bertram Ash,” she said, placing them into his hand with a knowing smile on her lips.
Bertram stumbled backwards, feeling lightheaded. “What just happened?” he stuttered.
Mellissa helped Bertram into the armchair. The ache he’d felt all morning was gone, replaced instead with something much more unsettling. “I feel strange, as though my whole body has pins and needles. What have you done to me?”
Mellissa pulled a face as she sat in the chair next to him. “I’m sorry, this feeling will soon pass, I think.”
“You don’t sound very certain,” Bertram said. “I don’t feel too good right now.”
“No. I didn’t for a while after either. You should probably rest for a bit. If you’re anything like me, you’ll probably sleep for a few days straight.”
“Sleep for a few days?” Bertram started. “Why would I…” The words slipped from Bertram’s mouth and hung in the air between them.
“Hush now,” Mellissa said as she lay a gentle hand on his cheek, a stream of white light warming his skin there.
Bertram’s eyelids began to droop as images of Mellissa, surrounded by colourful orbs of light, entered his thoughts. Moments later he was asleep.