Shabby, Gothic Revival Mansion is how Abbey Hall was described to me, which undoubtedly, piqued my interest, after a phone call from my frantic Aunt Lizzie, pleading for my help, in a very complex and sticky situation.
“You gotta help me Mags, I need you to deliver a letter, and it’s most urgent; I’ll pay you a grand, if you’ll do it?” Her tone was more than a little insistent and I could hear the sharp inhalation of cigarette smoke. This could only mean one thing, Trouble.
The errand, however, was music to my ears, although the amount offered, I thought was a little excessive but as I was absolutely flat-broke, I would have, quite honestly, done anything for money at that point. Delivering a poxy letter, for what I considered a large amount of money, seemed a coincidental doddle. I’d done errands for her before, but none like this and certainly not for such a big lump of much-needed cash.
“Okay, I’ll do it.” I actually fist-pumped the air; quietly pleased I would be able to pay my bills, for this month at least.
“Great, Mags, thank you, that’s really, super-great. Come round, now, to discuss directions, okay, you have to come, right now, this very minute.” Her relief at my acceptance was unmistakable, but I detected what I thought to be, more than a flicker of angst, in her voice; she took in a deep sigh and controlled the exhalation, so it lasted a while. I’d heard this worrisome sigh before.
I skipped the three doors down, to her Rectory, the November chill nipping at my neck and creeping under my coat like devils hands. A breath of warmth brushes my face as I open the door to a picture of mayhem. I find my aunt, not only flustered, but doing a full-on November, spring-clean, even the resident cobwebs are getting it. She is usually very much in favor of them, but not today it seems, she is shoving the broom into corners of the kitchen with a vehement gusto. A clear sign of stress. My aunt has never been house proud, except when she is stressed.
“It’s an old wreck for sure, that damned hall, get yourself there, tonight, Lizzie no delays, ok?”
“Can’t it wait until tomorrow?” I watch her feet leave the stool and land on the kitchen floor with a thump; she winces and attempts to straighten her back. Her Santa’s hat is arguing with her springy hair and is starting to slide upwards, until her fingers pull in back into place.
“Nope, has to be tonight, sugar-plum, tomorrow will be too late, and by too late, I mean, over, like when the fat-lady sings, oh, and take Norris.” – Norris is Lizzie’s car.
“Should you be doing that?” I nod to the stool, wondering what the nonsensical gibberish is all about.
“Nope.” Her eyes are definitely laughing and she’s wobbly in that way, when you are trying to prove you are not.
“Get a move on, Poppit, you need to get there before dark and stay over, don’t come back until morning, it’s a long old drive.” She shoves a bundle of notes in one hand and a very old map in the other. I look into her eyes which are glazed over with confusion, querying her urgency.
“An advance.” She flicks her eyes at the crumpled notes and winks.
“Oh, and whatever you do, don’t stop!” Her eyes became serious; she was never serious about anything. Although her words were making sense, she was not. I found her whole demeanor confusing.
“And be prepared love, it really is an old wreck.” She makes a face that shows all of her teeth and turns the light off and attempts the stairs, bumping hips with walls, and gripping the banister like an old friend for support, she disappears and leaves me, completely in the dark, about her odd behavior too.
However, I’m somewhat mystified when driving up the imposing and majestic-looking driveway, in Lizzie’s battered Morris Minor, that her description, might somewhat, have understated the grandeur of the place. I find Abbey Hall to be, simply magnificent, a very handsome building.
I also find myself poking at my recently-bobbed auburn hair, feeling all-of-a-sudden quite inadequately dressed, in my one and only, formal gray suit. The ambiance is all together magical; the mansion is surrounded by an untouched, blanket of brilliant-white, virgin snow, not a rabbit, fox, or dog print in sight. I’m a bit miffed and feel as though I’m in the middle of a scene, in a recently-shook, Christmas-snow-globe. I’m suddenly incensed with Aunt Lizzie for lying, fearing one of her imbecilic games coming on.
“That bloody woman!” My quiet words make little clouds and dance with the dark.
An outdoor Christmas tree dazzles me, with the blink of white lights, taking me to thoughts of Lizzie, in her kitchen, handing me a worn map to Abbey Hall, when I unrolled it, looked slightly scorched. She was wearing a Santa’s hat that had slipped over her left eye, after a tug of war with her hair and her hands, a hint of alcohol, was sour on her breath, which was unusual, as she rarely drank; that is, under usual circumstances, which of course, these weren’t, not by any means.
Uncle Dick had been visiting for the weekend and I wondered if this had something to do with him, as my Aunt seemed upset and unusually quiet and repeatedly cleaned her collection of teapots- which filed any available space left in the kitchen - to within an inch of their lives. Initially, didn’t ask her what the problem was, as we didn’t do emotional, things were often left unsaid but something seemed off.
“The place is a bit of a wreck.” She’d slurred, while knocking back a Harvey’s-Bristol-Cream, in one, then butchering a gnarly carrot with a peeler, and shaking her head, agreeing with herself.
“They’ll bite yer hand off.” She’d assured, under her covert smoky breath, which indicated she was fraught about something; Lizzie kept a packet of menthol cigarettes, not very well hidden, under the sink, behind the washing powder, for these types of occasions.
“Is something wrong Lizzie?” I ask, knowing it’s a ridiculous question, as she is obviously displaying signs of stress and rarely opens up anyway.
“Don’t be silly, you banana, what could possibly be wrong.” She answers, while polishing her Arabic, ceramic coffee pot, with such quick, forceful rhythm, her under arm skin swings of its own accord. She also sings it in her high-pitched, reassuring voice and I definitely know something’s not right.
Although, what the comment meant about: biting my hand off, I wasn’t really sure. The one-thousand-pounds, she’d offered me to deliver the letter, was really, the only thing I cared about, at that point. In hindsight, I wish I’d have probed a bit deeper, as the signs were all there. They’d always been there, as plain as the wonky nose on my face.
Surrounding forest-pines and spruces are lightly dusted with snow and the dip of the valley is bluish and as smooth as a glacier. The distant smell of wood-smoke scents the air with tantalizing ribbons of well-seasoned Ash and Beech wood.
I’m hoping for a stiff sherry or some alcoholic equivalent to warm me down to my knees, upon my arrival, but instead I’m offered a tedious cup of Earl Grey for my troubles, to whet my whistle, as Aunt Lizzie would say.
The Butler, Jefferson, is a cumbersome man, with a very thick monobrow, the bulk of him and his belligerent presence is enough to frighten me to death, he would anyone, his face is quite unfriendly. He clasps both hands, rigidly together, behind his tombstone-of-a-back and rocks back and forth, heel to toe. However, his softly spoken, fine-porcelain voice diminishes any doubts I have, the very minute he says:
“This way Madame.” I hide my amusement with a nervous smile. His voice is not only delicate but has a definite trace of femininity to it. But there’s something about the way his eyes follow my every step that’s just a bit spine-chilling.
I’m shown into a drawing room and told that the lady of the house will be with me shortly. Again, I’m offered the, presumably perfunctory, cup of tea, which I politely decline on account of my recent trip to the GP. Who informed me that my diet should no longer include any type of caffeine or my frequent trips to the lavatory, would likely increase tenfold – despite me being only twenty-two. I also consider my very lengthy journey ahead and don’t fancy stopping to pee in these eerie hills and valleys, no matter how lovely they are.
I survey the room. It’s spacious, with many oversized glittery, gilt-edged mirrors on sage-green walls. Pastel sofas are strategically placed at odd angles and a fire is crackling away in the hearth, in an inglenook, bigger than I have ever seen before.
It’s a very gracious; yet, homely room and I could easily curl up with a book and stay here for the evening, without ever meeting the hosts. In fact, it would be an altogether better prospect than the real reason for my visit here at Abbey Hall.
I’m surprised to see a young woman with a swollen belly enter the room. She is far from beautiful, or graceful and far from what I had imagined. For me this type of stately home, possibly quite ignorantly on my part, had always conjured up up the image of wealthy, champagne-drinking, cigar-smoking thoroughbreds. The men dressed in tailored, tweed suits and paisley, silk smoking jackets and the ladies poured into gowns and draped with glittering jewels and having swirly chignons hairstyles, pinned tight to their aristocratic heads, like cinnamon swirls.
Latvian born Inga is bug-eyed and unnaturally long and has thighs that wouldn’t be out of place on a Russian shot putter. Neither would her broad shoulders. A short boyish haircut is bleached an unnatural shade of frazzled, yellow-blonde. She’s wearing Nike tracksuit bottoms and bright-pink fury rabbit-slippers, with goggle-eyes and long fluffy ears; she reeks of new money and bad taste. I must look astonished, as she asks:
“Is something wrong?” In a cool, Nordic accent.
“No, not at all, will your husband be joining us?” I enquire, glancing at the door and feeling very at ease with her informal tone and I let my shoulders drop and begin to relax and observe the room a little more closely, taking in an antique rocking horse and a stuffed rat in a glass case.
“Our favourite taxidermist is in Cardiff, I can give you his number, if you like?” It’s possibly the strangest thing anyone has ever said to me.” I shake my head. She shrugs and continues:
“Yes, he’ll be along in a minute, he’s just putting the dogs out.” She plonks herself on the sofa, right next to me, so I have to shift a little, and she strokes a creamy-white albino cat that walks the length of the sofa back; it purrs and forcefully nuzzles her hand with a solid head. I find myself inching back, away from it.
“He’s unusual looking.” I say, noticing a red tinge to its blue eyes. By unusual, I mean as ugly as sin.
“She, her name’s Verity.” She corrects me. She carries it to the opposite sofa, perhaps sensing I’m uncomfortable and it curls into a bun on her lap.
“I think she’s beautiful, we inherited her when we took the house over from my parents. She came in one day, to escape the cold and never left.” I secretly think I would have, personally, taken it to the nearest RSPCA; it has a peculiar vibe about it. Not that I’m into that kind of thing, like my aunt, but its aura would definitely be dark if I was.
A short, slight man appears in the door way, creating a very long shadow across an expensive cream carpet, I notice my size-five footprints in its luxurious depths. He is also, nothing like I expected. His mop of unruly white-blonde curls, he brushes away from his eyes, and lunges a skinny, clammy, hand at me.
His attire is only slightly more formal. He has a vibrantly-patterned shirt on, open to the waist, exposing pale, waxy skin and a rack of ribs; he’s sporting excessively-long, flared corduroy trousers, in varying shades of tie-die pink. My first instinct tells me is that he is either a flamboyant gay man, or, some kind of eclectic fashion designer, or possibly both. These are the only explanations I can summon for such unapologetic campness. Of course, I’m wrong on both counts and later remind myself about the book, cover, thingy and not to do it, ever.
“Albins.” He announces proudly, yet softly, and sits next to his wife, who places a manly hand on his knee and he a slender hand on her belly, which ripples, with what I presume is a protruding elbow or some other fetal part. It’s like their need to touch one another is crucial. There’re a twee couple, no doubt about it, who smile at one another before turning to face me, as if bracing their selves for our forthcoming, unsettling conversation.
”Jefferson says you have something for us?” Jefferson is in the room, looming quietly in the corner, rocking back n forth and doesn’t make a sound but his watching eyes speak volumes. I can’t help noticing his trousers are at least ten cm’s short of his ankles and he catches me looking and shifts his feet.
Albin leans forward and, once again, moves his long spiraling fringe away from his very queer, milky-blue-eyes. I wonder for a second if, perhaps, he’s blind.
I snap open the rusting clasps of my briefcase and hand over the letter, which has the familiar spidery writing of my Aunt Lizzies’ on it; addressed to The Owners of Abbey Cwm Hir Hall.
Both eye the letter, and then glance at me with mild curiosity. So, he isn’t blind.
”I don’t know of its contents; I’m purely a messenger for my Aunt.” I confirm, suddenly realizing; I had been so desperate for the money, I hadn’t inquired as to, exactly, what this was about. All Lizzie had said was something about her employers from the mid seventies, owing her something important and I was to get here without stopping.
I watch as their eyes volley down the page, Inga’s big hand with chipped black nail polish at the tips of square finger nails, covers her mouth, in shock, when they reach half way down; as does Albins, when he arrives at the end of the letter. Now, I’m as intrigued as ever.
Behind the couple, I see a flicker on the wall that makes my eyes go there. I see the shadow of a tall, willowy ballerina, bringing her leg up to her face then holding her ankle with two hands. I turn to see where the real person is but no one’s there. All of a sudden, the dancers shadow pirouettes along the wall, until she disappears, sending a succession of shivers through me.
I notice there are some very unusual ornaments; a life- sized-clown, dressed in a red, silk, all-in-one playsuit, a ruffle at the neck. It has an eerie, milky, porcelain face with rouged-cheeks; it also grimaces like a deranged fool, showing pointy teeth and dangles in the corner of the room almost lifeless, but at the same time, scarily real. There’s a beautifully-framed picture, of a colorfully-tattooed Indian elephant, in a circus-ring, wearing a small hat and balancing one concrete leg on a drum, and another with an Indian man sat atop, wearing an orange turban with a three-feathered plumage and looking to the distance. The shadow, whizzes across the wall, again.
“What was that?” I question, my mouth open, my neck quickly swinging from side to side, as I search for the elusive ballerina, then my eyes fix to the wall, waiting for her to re appear. The couple ignores my question. The Christmas tree in the corner nearest to me, I notice, is decorated with wooden circus characters, not a hint of Santa, baubles; tinsel or angels in sight but there are numerous clowns, acrobats, elephants and tigers.
“This is very disturbing but, I think you must be mistaken.” Inga says, her voice cracking as she hands me back the letter, still not acknowledging my question about the shadow. It would be rude to read the letter now, but I’m desperate to know what could have caused such shock and puzzlement. I think I see a knowing look pass between the couple and Inga squeezes Albins hand in a reassuring way, a never-mind, kind of way.
They can see I look bemused and I am. I’m also hoping my Aunt Lizzie hasn’t sent me on some wild-goose-chase, knowing I’m flat-broke and wanting to give me something, she would consider, fun to do. The shadow has left me feeling as if someone’s poured ice down my collar and every hair on my head is pin-prick raised, I’m eager to get going.
“Alas, we are not The Griffith family. Our family has owned The Hall for five generations. My great, great, great, grandpa Likten, had a fascination with Llewellyn, the last Prince of Wales, whose body is buried right here. He directs my eyes behind him with a small hand, to where, I’m not sure but I try to hide my shiver, imagining this prince being right under us, or not far from where we sit.
“Well, it’s actually only his body; his head was taken to London.” Inga corrects him, matter-of-factly, with her series of soft Nordic clicks. This does nothing to reassure me and I really want to leave. I’m hoping finding my way out of here, isn’t as complex as my journey in, which took me down the same lane, four times, before a drunken, rotting, hand- painted sign appeared for: The Abbey.
“I’m very sorry to have wasted your time.” I offer and get up to go; wondering who the Griffith family might be. And what Inga means by disturbing and mistaken? I also have the distinct feeling, eyes are on me.
“Please, do read the letter, and if you do find out more, please can you let us know?” Both look genuinely concerned about something, I later learn that something’s me. Albin gently presses a business card into the palm of my hand with the type of writing on it you see on the side of a circus lorry and closes my fingers around it with his; his touch is icy and my mind jumps through a series of picture framed memories.
I feel a kind-of unpleasant vibration pass through his fingers to mine, like when you accidentally touch an electric fence, and I try to pull my hand away in surprise but he’s more than a bit reluctant to let go. The memories are all of a life I don’t know, yet, but I’m in all of the frames.
As I make my way to the car, I turn to look at the couple stood under the intricate sandstone arch with soft yellow lighting behind them, both waving and smiling. Two tall, pale-brown Dobermans appear at their sides, ears pricked. I think they’re a very odd-looking bunch indeed, even the freakish-looking cat comes and stands in front of them and curls its long bony tail around Inga’s thick ankles. I’m more than a bit weirded out. The cold has evolved to absolutely-freezing and curls around my legs and up my skirt and into my bones.
I travel the winding country roads, seemingly lit by an oversized moon. I’d heard on the radio earlier today, that tonight the moon will be the closest it has been to earth since 1948. It makes sense, the pale-blue moon, sat on inky clouds, is positively massive and the blue hue of the hills is very beautiful, if a little spooky. It makes me think if my mother, I wonder if she is looking at the same moon. Ironically, Lizzies David Bowie cassette is blaring out Electric Blue. This cool darkness makes me think of wolves and owls and things that make piercing screeches breaking the silence of night. As if on cue, an owl echoes a chilling hoot and across the valley, another replies.
The letter is practically burning a hole in the briefcase, that’s sitting on the passenger seat. It’s too cold and scary to stop, so I press on to Llandeillo, a small town my Aunt said she stayed at whilst working at Abbey Hall. I wonder was this a lie too? I know very little about her past, apart from the fact she is my mother’s sister and she told me adventure stories, about her time in Mid Wales, before she was saddled with me. This era seemed to have left a good impression; as she talked of little else in her life and smiled a glossy smile when she spoke of the era. I know three, definite, things about her: she wears and made me wear a lot of oversized, garish, woolen clothing, in the ugliest possible colours. She enjoys a practical joke, often at my expense, and she has very few, what I would call, close friends and those she does have are from that time.
I wonder then, have I got the wrong Abbey Hall? As I can’t imagine Aunt Lizzie lying to me; she has always been a straight- talker, I sense I’m missing something important.
The sight of Llandeillo is a relief. After passing a dead badger and two flattened-foxes, and, almost crashing into a wall that unfolded into a shadow. The pretty orb lights strung throughout the town are cheerily reassuring.
The sat nav tells me I’m at my destination; which is weird because I can’t see a B&B sign. I’m outside a lone, higgledy piggeldy stone cottage, which is preceded by a black looming hill; there are small, evil-faced gargoyles either side of a door. But it is number seventeen, which is where the address says, plus, the annoying, sultry tone of my sat nav also insists, repeating: “You have reached your destination.” So, I knock lightly and jump from foot to foot as its freezing cold and my fingertips are already as numb as nettle stings.
“The door opens and there is no one there, just a voice pouring out from a dimly-lit kitchen, possibly by candles, as there are flickers striking the wall.
“Upstairs, first room on your left.” The voice is that of an old woman, who sounds as if she has just smoked an entire packet of cigarettes. It makes me shudder and wonder if I’m in the right place.
“Maggie, isn’t it?” She inquires, quite spookily, just as I’m thinking about legging it to the car.
“Lizzie made the booking; you’re in the right place.” I shudder again at the sand paper-ish tone of her voice and her ability to know exactly what I’m thinking; I also wonder how on earth my aunt knew where I would end up, as she never mentioned any booking.
“Do you know her?” I ask, thinking it’s unusual to use someone’s Christian name unless you know them personally.
“I hear a death-defying gravely laugh, followed by a smoker’s spluttery cough, for a second, I’m concerned; I imagine a burnt out throat, blackened with tar. The sound of her cuts right through me.
“Oh, I know her alright.” She growls and the kitchen door slams shut, blasting a gust of air my way and taking what little light there is with it.
If it wasn’t so late, I would go to find another place to stay. I feel my way up the stairs as the light in the hall isn’t working, thankfully, I find a key in the first door to the left. I open it up, literally, with my heart hammering away in my chest, like a hunted fox. I fumble around for a light switch and I’m very surprised to find a plush beige room, very tasteful, warm, and cozy.
A bale of fluffy white towels is placed at an angle at the corner of the bed and a moth-eaten teddy with one eye, sits lopsidedly on my pillow.
I avoid showering, suddenly too overcome with tiredness to be bothered and slip into bed; after removing the odd, Victorian-looking bear and placing it behind the bathroom door, out of sight. The many layers of covers and blankets are comforting and heavy and the cotton sheets crisp and fragrant, it’s not long before I’m falling into a deep beckoning slumber, thinking about the letter, which I intend to read over breakfast and I’m soon purring out soft snores, and dreaming about the dancing shadow.
When I wake up, which is surprisingly late, I’m surprised to see my clothes folded neatly on the chair and the teddy bear back in the room, perched on a writing bureau, now with two eyes stitched in crosses. I rub my eyes, gauging my sockets with my knuckles, instantly furious, that someone has been in the room while I slept.
I pull on my jeans from a battered leather hold all and a grey hoodie and realize the door is locked from the inside when I reach for the handle. I fly down the stairs, outraged, confused and ready to launch a verbal attack on the nosy old hag for; somehow, managing to snoop around in my room, I’m finding this whole situation totally creepy.
The house is empty; a note has been left for me on the dining room table, propped up on a cactus plant, like the ones you see in western films.
“Breakfast’s in the oven, please make sure you turn it off and I hope you will visit us again soon.” I wonder who us might be, as I only heard the one terrifying voice?
I’m sleepy and a bit bamboozled and think, I haven’t even paid for the room. Tiny, delicate handwriting appears on the note; it’s so small, I have to open my eyes as wide as an owl to focus on it. It’s at the very bottom of the yellowing paper, I’m positive the writing wasn’t there when I looked only a second before, it says:
“Don’t worry - Lizzie has taken care of everything.” What’s she playing at? I think, as I wolf down a very delicious breakfast, which includes my favourite, black pudding, it warms my insides right up to my neck. I begin to tidy my things, so I can make for Aunt Lizzies to have all this out with her and find out what on earth she’s up to. I sit on the very springy bed and snap open the briefcase, what the content of this letter might be, has me very curious, and I rub my palms together in anticipation.
To my astonishment, it’s empty, the letter and the business card are both gone. My eyes dart in every crevice of the room; I feel panicked and peer under the bed. I know the letter was in there. I check the car, and besides a few empty McDonald’s paper-coffee-cups, nothing’s there either. It must have been the elusive woman. I have so many questions for Aunt Lizzie; I have to write them down, on the back of the note, so I don’t forget:
1) Who are the Griffith family?
2) Do you know the woman at number 17?
3) Why did you lie about working at Abbey Hall?
4) Did you really live in Llandeillo?
5) Are you winding me up?
6) What’s in the letter?
7) Why send me to Abbey Hall?
8) Who is that woman at number 17 and why didn’t she show herself.
9) Do you know the Latvian couple? Ask about the circus?
!0) Who are you, really?
11) When do I get paid? (Most important.)
On the drive back, I start to think about some of the stories Aunt Lizzie told me as a child. Specifically, about three characters, who worked with her at Abbey Cwm Hir, all of whom, she said, were about her age and all in service at Abbey Hall.
First, there was Hector, apparently, the tallest boy in the village; they nicknamed him tops as he could see over the tops of hedgerows and they monopolized him as a human spy. He was also a Horticulturalist/resident gardener and supposedly the best plant-grower around for many miles. Second, was a girl named Viola, who was said to have a voice so beautiful, it alone, would make boys and men and people, in general, fall in love with her, she was the ladies maid.
Last but not least was Shooby, AKA Shubert, a young, strong, bulldozer-of-a-man from Lancashire who could play every instrument there was and had six fingers and toes on both his hands and feet. He was also double-jointed had dual roles as the piano teacher and protector of the two small children: Ceinnwyn and Ithel Griffith. Lizzie had described the children as being of: “The upmost importance.” I took this to mean; to the owners of Abbey Hall. Of course, I was wrong.