Mrs. Fleur Winchester
Truly I loved this part of the world. The deep wooded valleys and fast clear flowing streams and rivers that pulsed down from the mountains and moors always seemed to make me feel awake and alive. The small town of Denbigh with its ancient castle in ruins above was a perfect place for us to settle. Built on a rocky outcrop in the idyllic vale of Clwyd the market town had stagnated a little since the closure of the livestock market and of the North Wales Hospital. These had both employed a lot of people. There had been a period of quite high unemployment and decay but it just felt like the town was starting to wake up a little. Business was coming back, the pubs and restaurants were busy again. A buzz was starting to develop. A throb of new life returning to the area.
I loved the way that the walls of the ancient castle were, in places, integrated into houses and shops at the top of the town. The stones of the castle interlaced with the fabric and bricks of modernity. In places it seemed haphazard, chaotic and with no scheme as if the modern and Victorian housing had been randomly thrown together. The fusion that resulted felt comfortable, but always as if some thought or direction was missing. The steep hills to the top of the town were lined with these houses, built in sections cut into the gradient with a stepped saw bladed edge to the rooflines. At the center of the town the old chapel sat squat and grey. Built of stone, looking hewn from the grey rock itself. The chapel was empty then and still remains so. The Windows then as now guarded by steel grills, dark inside, empty and vacant. The chapel was built in 1905 after the last outbreak of cholera had swept through the town like vengeance and on the site of a small pool that had been the source of the infection.
Of course, modernity had found its way into the town when Morrison’s arrived. Morrison’s brought a little cafe and a bit of identity with it. Maybe it was Morrison’s that the town needed, a new employer, a show of faith. The café had become a central meeting point. "See you in Morrison’s café" had become a common place expression. It was not just for us though. Pol said that it "attracted them like moths". The former patients of the hospital would meet there every day and talk with their friends, real or imaginary.
The empty hospital was a terrific old building. A Victorian asylum in its day. Built with real flair and style, turreted, towered and cloaked with ivy. Sometimes I would drive down and look at the huge heavy front of the building through the steel fence that denied access to the grounds as it began its decay… but not now. The massive tower of the front of the building stood at the end of a short, yew lined avenue.
The grounds, in their day, must have been so well kept, manicured, perfect the red roses grew and reached higher in tilled and perfect ordered beds beside the yew avenue. The grounds decayed as the life left the hospital. Thorns and briars overcame the roses, the tilth of the soil choked now by a bed of nettles. I used to stop outside of the fenced off main gate, look through the slats of the ten foot steel palisade fencing. I would look at the windows, broken and dark, watch the jackdaws circle the tower. Watch as they flew in and out of the windows. It used to draw me. I had this fascination with the awesome Victorian monument. A fascination that I could not answer. A feeling that there were lost secrets and dark voices in the company of the Jackdaws.
Pol had new found success, the years of the shift work had now passed. He always had said that he wanted to write. I guess I maybe didn’t really give him the credit of being as capable an author as he seemed to be! When he was policing he was always so tired, so drained. His creativity choked and stifled. His character had changed, he was like the man I had met all those years before. He always wanted to but when he was off work following the latest ankle operation he finally got to start writing. It consumed him, he could not stop, like an obsession. The success was not expected. He never put his uniform back on. Really we could have settled anywhere we fancied in the country. Pol wanted to buy a place in the Highlands. The price differential meant we would have got lots of house and land for our money. For me there was no choice… no other option, it had to be Denbigh. Near the seat of my growing obsession.
Wednesday 5th May 2010
“Pol, come and look!”
“Is it Topmove.com?” He said tiredly.
Since the money had been in the bank from the first edition of his first book it had been burning a hole in my pocket. Topmove had become my favourite website. Every hour of every day I seemed to spend on it. The search parameters were burned into my brain!
He limped, slowly, through from the kitchen. This operation had been a big one. The recovery from the grafting procedures was slow and excruciatingly painful. The book and its publication had kept him sane during the long days of sitting on his back side with his leg in plaster. His left leg was clearly sore. In his shorts the difference between his left and right leg was clear. Both well-muscled and highly defined but his left clearly wasted. The angry scar on his ankle was still red and swollen like a welt beneath the skin. Being laid up and confined made him irritable and short tempered. I could see it in him. He didn’t shout, didn’t snap but I could see the explosions in his dark eyes and the growing storm in his mind. A caged and confined animal. There had to be a channel for the fire. The words had rolled from him and in to the book with white hot fury. It was clearly cathartic for him.
The lack of training had put a few pounds on his belly whilst he had sat with his foot in plaster. But he remained smooth and graceful in his movements, measured and fluid in his steps and in his breathing. I knew that now he didn’t have the burden of the horrific shift pattern that he would soon be back in much better shape. He was such a driven man. He had been called a machine in the past by his training partners.
“Look at this!” I called through to him. “I think this might be the one for us”
“Oh right.” he replied with token interest.
Over the past few weeks we had repeated this same dialogue a fair few times, we both knew our parts pretty well.
“Listen Pol”, he sat down beside me on the new sofa and looked at the lap top screen.
“Here”, placing a mug of tea in my hand.
“Four bedrooms, Dining room, lounge, kitchen… look, it has an Aga” I was bursting, it had everything I wanted. “Small utility room, the dogs could go in there” I scrolled down the web page a little “conservatory… Oh look at the pictures, this place is gorgeous!”
Pol seemed fairly non plussed about the house that had so violently grabbed my attention.
“How much land?” He asked.
“Two hundred and twenty two acres, but most of it non-productive steep sided woodland down into the Ystrad valley.” I knew that would be the clincher. Suddenly he was full of life, his attention grabbed.
“Let’s look then”. I showed him through the pictures on the computer. He didn’t really care about the house. He wasn’t that bothered by the forty acres of productive grazing land. He wanted to know all about the sheds and the woodland. I could see the cogs turning. I could see the processes in his brain. I watched as he made the equations, could we afford it?
This could be his own personal hunting estate. This could be all of his dreams embodied into one house. The asking price was more than we had in the bank. But only a little more.
I thought I knew where the Ystrad valley was. I was a little afraid to ask him. I didn’t know if I wanted him to tell me what I knew or to release me from the spell that the place wove over me.
“You know, I would be able to write in the conservatory in the summer and look over the fields and see the birds and watch the buzzards soaring.” Clearly the idea was starting to grow in Pol’s mind. “Four bedrooms would be ok, you know. Big enough to use one as a study and also to keep one for when the kids come to stay.”
“How about we convert one of the out buildings and make like a self-contained annex for when the kids come, the bigger one is like a cart lodge, it would be ideal, make a flat on the top floor and then on the bottom put in some big French windows looking over the yard for the lounge and for the kitchen…”
“Yes, that sounds ace”. He replied. “I like the sound of the woods...”
I knew he had taken the bait. Finally he was more animated and excited. He really seemed to like the sound of this place in Wales.
“Shall we go down to look at the weekend?” He asked, he knew before he asked I was absolutely bursting with excitement about this place.
It was much later now, it was dark and we lay together in each other’s arms. Spent after lovemaking. In that tender glow of an embrace where I felt secure and solidly safe against his strong and sexy chest. His breathing was slow and regular. His heart was slowing back down and beat out a slow melody of love and reassurance in my ear. He had his right arm around my shoulder and I delighted in him tracing small circles absently sensitively on my shoulder with his fingertips. We had our problems in the past but this was our future, together.
“Pol?” I ventured.
“Yes sweetie” he answered softly and languidly.
“The Ystrad Valley, is that near the old hospital?”
“Yes, flower, it runs down the back of the hospital towards the main Vale of Clwyd.”
Pol swiftly drifted into sleep, I remained on his chest and I listened to his breathing change and his heart slow. Since he had been out of the police his sleeping had improved and the sleepless nightmare filled nights had decreased. Whilst he slowed, my mind accelerated. The house was near the hospital. I wondered quite how close it was, I wondered if I would be able to see the hospital from the house. Would the land join together? Would I be able to get into the grounds and join the jackdaws and crows in their silent and dark retreat?
I was so excited, I would be calling that estate agent first thing in the morning. The night seemed to be dragging on and on and sleep seemed to evade my speeding and bursting mind. Pol slept soundly, occasionally he would make a few light groans and snores. I tossed and turned and sought some kind of sleep. However when sleep came to me it did not come easily.
I dreamed of an empty room, a huge long empty room. The paint was peeling off the walls, like the skin of the room was falling away in its decomposition. There were banks of windows on each side with many broken panes, broken sharp shards like the jagged teeth of a shark in the openings of the frame. I was walking towards the end of this huge room but I got no closer. As I walked I could felt the steps I was taking but I was making no progress towards the end of the room. I looked down to look at my feet and I saw the grey linoleum of the floor littered with dirt, dead insects and a dead sparrow laying discarded and broken on the floor. Ants crawled around over the sparrow, they crawled into its open beak, under the skin, the feathers moved. My vision seemed to zoom in on the bird and the ants. I focused on the bird and the mechanical destruction that the ants performed as they carried pieces of the sparrow away to their unseen grubs. I could not see my feet. I was in some kind of long gown or smock. A white garment that covered me to the floor. Try as I might I could not move. I was unable to get away. A fear and desperation stalked me and overtook me. In my dream I started to panic. I tried to run down the large room to the door at the end. I could get no closer, no nearer, no matter how hard I struggled towards the door it remained out of my reach. I looked towards the windows for another way out. I could see nothing. A heavy fog obscured my vision and I could see nothing outside. I knew where I was, I was trapped in my obsession, I was trapped in the Hospital.
I heard a voice in my dream, like a voice within the fog of my consciousness, distant, lost and quiet. I tried to hear the voice. It was taken on a fell wind and was gone from of my grip. The whispering voice faded in the distance. I became desperate to hear the message but the more I strained the more obscure it became. It carried my hope and was gone, swept into the fogs of oblivion like a whisp of smoke.
I turned my head. Looked to my left side. My vision was filled with a cold and huge eye. Blue grey with no heart or soul. Pure fear grew from the hollow loss of the voice, swept over me in a wave of terror. The eye consumed me, all of my awareness surrounded by the grey of the eye. The eye moved and looked over me, or more like through me. It could see my inner most fears. My soul was exposed to the eye. My perspective opened and I could see the head surrounding the grey eye of my nemesis. The head was that of a Jackdaw.
I awoke into the darkness of my night. I was wet with sweat and my heart was pounding in my ears. I cuddled up to my man and hoped the terrors of the dark night would soon pass me by. I was troubled by the dream and finally I did fall into a deep and dreamless sleep.
Morning came for me at quarter to nine, with a cup of tea from a hugely enthusiastic husband. “Hey sweetie, you are on with it this morning”
“Yeah, for sure” he replied “we have some stuff to do today”
He was slightly flushed and very alert. I hadn’t seen him like this for months, since before his operation.
“Hey Pol, have you been training?”
“Just a couple of miles on the bike, got to get this lard off!”
Laughingly he patted his belly. He wasn’t fat but he had put a few pounds on with inactivity. Until he started writing he spent his post-operative days eating biscuits. The early days, when he had a lot of pain, had been hard on him. This had been his fourth operation on the ankle. I guess that after this many years of pain and procedures he would find another six months in plaster a little tough. Once the pain had subsided the book had started and he was rejuvenated. He ploughed his obsessive nature and the pain into writing.
He had struggled with not being able to go outside. He had loved to train and to hunt but these had not been possible for him.
“I am going to phone the agent at nine. I tried at eight and eight thirty but they weren’t open. I just wanted you to be about when I did it.” He was so enthusiastic about this house. He was twitching. Whilst we had been chatting he had checked his watch several times. Like he could will the time on.
“This could be the house we have been after all this time. All these years that we have dreamed about a nice place in the country, maybe this is it time our dreams come true!” he enthused. I could not shake my dream. The eye was still there. Still in my mind. Watching over me.
“Maybe so.” The excitement was starting to mount in me also. It would be a dream to live beside that hospital.
By ten that morning we were in the car heading to the house. We got to the roundabout, the M62 to the West and, I couldn’t help thinking, our future. The East Yorkshire city of Hull lay behind us under the high mid-morning sun. With a great sense of anticipation we joined the traffic on the west bound carriage way and started our journey. We made the normal small talk and played the old familiar games that had started when the kids were young. But as the years had passed and the kids had fledged and left we continued to play them. They were the comforting scripts of familiarity that were our handrail as we crossed the great River Ouse and through the Yorkshire Pennines and dropped into Manchester and the Victorian industrial heart land of Lancashire. The bright sunshine reflected the blue summer skies over the high moorland reservoirs that we passed. The journey across Cheshire was smooth and fast. The motorway was empty in our direction. The traffic seemed heavier on the other side of the road. We didn’t stop for a coffee, it would have been a waste of time. Once Pol was focused on something he switched into that “Machine” we had joked about so many times.
I always thought that the descent into the Vale of Clwyd was the entrance to Wales proper. It was a manmade cutting through the Clwydian Mountains. The soil was thin and the sides of the cutting were chopped into the grey slate of the welsh mountains. On the face of the manmade cliffs I could see the marks of the men that cut the gorge. They had left long straight tracks where they had bored into the mountain. The engineers had blasted great sections of the rock away, like so many giant land boring worms. Every ten feet or so huge steel rods protruded and huge nuts were threaded on the end as if man’s engineering might was holding the sides back and preventing them from re-joining in a natural healing process.
The weather took a turn for a worse as we dropped into the Vale of Clwyd. The rain appeared to come in from nowhere. The sky darkened and the clouds rolled low and heavily in from the Irish Sea and beyond that the limitless Atlantic. Land marks were no longer visible. The bright white marble church at Boddlewyddan was obscured in seconds. The rain hammered down from the low, pendulous, leaden skies. Within seconds the road was awash with the rain water and Pol slowed right down. He was a careful driver and would not endanger us.
Shortly afterwards we had arrived at the Estate Agents in Denbigh. Parking in the back street car park we had briefly walked through the narrow old streets of the old part of town and into the town center to the agent’s office. Pol’s limp did not slow him down. I almost needed to run to keep up with him as he forged ahead. I knew his ankle would be hurting him with every step. I also knew he would just ignore the pain and, as he might say, “soldier on”.
“Hello”. We were greeted by a disinterested assistant in Jones and Son Estate Agency. She remained firmly sat at her desk, nail file firmly grasped in her hand and her attention firmly on the offending nail.
“My name is Winchester, we have come to look at a house” Pol spoke simply, quietly and with a slight curl to his lip. I could see how the assistant’s attitude had really put his back up.
A short, middle aged, man bustled through from the back. He was a scruffy soiled looking man. Overweight, over greasy and dandruff over his shoulders. His pale and taut skin shone with oily sweat. The navy blue suit sported too many stains on the front and his tie was an epitaph to too many too quickly eaten fast food snacks.
“Oh good afternoon, Mr. Winchester, my name is Mr. Rhodri Jones.” His voice was breathless, like he had been running. He emphasized his own name.
The Girl continued to file.
The estate agent extended his right hand to shake hands with Pol. Pol looked down at the pudgy, fat, sweaty paw. I felt a laugh welling up inside me. I knew how much Pol would hate this. He hated touching people… especially dirty ones. He would shake the man’s hand because he believed that “Manners maketh a man”. Sure enough they shook hands. I could see the quiet revulsion in his eyes.
Their conversation was short and curt. Pol told him that we had money in the bank and we wanted to look at the property that afternoon. The estate agent said he had some other business to attend to but soon agreed to allow us the keys to look on our own.
Keys in hand we went for lunch at the Con Amici Italian in Denbigh. As we sat in the restaurant I thought that this might become one of our regular eateries.
Monday 7th June 2010
The month had passed us by so quickly. Having removers had made the move the easiest we had ever had. Although having money running into the bank account constantly had made just about everything a whole lot easier. Our earlier days when the kids were young seemed a lifetime away from the world we lived in now. The world of comfort, new cars and cash bought houses. Money had opened doors and readjusted others’ attitudes towards us. At the Landrover garage the salesman fawned for our attention. The cups of coffee ran as freely and as thickly as the flattery and compliments. The salesmen subsequently took their slice from the new Freelander that we drove out the gate. I wonder how often they have cars bought on a debit card.
Pol had spent the month talking about his next book. I knew he could not wait until he was in the new house. For him preparedness was everything. Bryn Heulwen had a fantastic west facing view towards Snowdonia. He planned to put a conservatory there so he could look at the mountains as he wrote. I doubted he could tap into the pain that has allowed the first book to run so smoothly again. His training had stepped up and his limp, whilst always present had diminished somewhat.
And so on Monday 7th June 2010 we drove through Denbigh and onto the smaller roads towards the small village of Sauron and at twelve noon we left the road and onto the farm track to, our new life. The track ran through our land and across some relatively flat land with flat green, hard grazed fields, along the edge of the deeply dropping Ystrad Valley and its massive and ancient oaks and beeches into our farmyard. Shining white and resplendent in its newly applied coat of paint. The removers worked hard to empty their van and get on, they wanted to be away and start back towards Hull.
The yard was one of Welsh tradition. Farm house to the West, large shed to the north with the doors facing the yard to shelter it from the colder winds. Open fronted cartlodge with loft to the East. All constructed from local stone. Solid stone walls, two feet thick. Slate roofed and strong.
The sun shone on the yard as we drove in. Translated from Welsh Bryn Heulwen meant sunshine hill. It seemed aptly named and perfectly idyllic. I drove the car into the yard and parked it up near to the cart lodge. We walked across the yard and into the house.
The cold of the winter months of emptiness still hid in the darker corners of the rooms and the thick walls were cold to the touch.
Pol said “Lets light a fire, get some warmth into these cold walls.”
He promptly went outside and left me in our new home on my own. I shuddered in the cold damp atmosphere. Soon we would make it warm, make it ours.
Pol returned with a big basket of dry logs and we soon lit the fire in the open fireplace of front room and got it blazing ferociously the heat radiated from the fire and filled my bones with its hope. We sat on packing boxes, waiting for the furniture to be bought in, and drank our mugs of tea looking into the flames. Each quiet and in our own worlds.