It was late in the evening when Marie said goodbye to the boys and, finally alone, stood outside the cottage looking at the clouds. There was no sound other than the rush of wind in the trees, coming and going like waves in the air. Words and images came uncontrolled into her mind, and she knew that she had to come down from a high of impressions and emotions. She went inside the house, made herself a cup of hot chocolate, and walked into the lounge room where the log Jim had placed on the fire before he left was still glowing. Marie placed a bit more kindling and another log on top of the dwindling fire, and soon it blazed anew. With her warm cup in hand, Marie took her time walking through the open space downstairs and the bedrooms upstairs, which were in need of a bit of airing and cleaning. Finally, exhaustion from too much socializing took over, and she decided against a shower and just changed into a nightshirt before she curled up and fell asleep watching some movie on television.
The next day, she’d hardly finished her breakfast when the phone rang. It was Jim, who apologized for the early hour (it was 11:00 a.m.), thanking her for the weekend and the most fun he had in years. Marie said, “Likewise.”
Their conversation continued until Jim audibly let out a sigh and said, “I really enjoy talking to you.”
Marie replied, “Me too,” and then she quickly corrected herself. “I mean talking to you, not me.”
Jim let out a laugh and said, “This is why I love talking to you,—you’re just so wonderfully crazy. I’d love to spend some time with you. I know Nigel is coming next weekend, but what about the following weekend?”
“The following weekend? Let’s see . . . ” she said playfully, “I’m just checking my diary. Hmm . . . all I’ve got booked is alone in the country or alone in the country, so yes—it would be great to have you come and visit.”
Jim said, “It’s a date then,” and leaving his phone number for the third time, he added that she could call him anytime.
Marie sat silent next to the phone, the words of her conversation with James echoing in her mind. God, I talk a lot of shit, she thought and, not dwelling further on what had beensaid, she concentrated on what had to be done instead—and that was to clean the house. Soon the bedrooms smelled of lavender instead of old musk, and the beds were made with newly washed linen. She’d looked at her laptop with a sense of yearning, but much was yet to be discovered in her immediate environs. The autumn leaves with their warm colors of rusty red and brown indicated that the English summer was truly over. She cut a few flowers still in bloom and put them in a vase, in order to keep the last of their beauty, and collected some herbs to use in cooking and some to be preserved in olive oil.
Once her living environment was to her standard of cleanliness, Marie decided to take a walk to the castle along the brook, which Nigel had recommended instead of the straight country road. Fairly early in the morning she got up and dressed country-appropriate, wearing sensible footwear and a water-resistant coat. Although the sun was shining with no rain clouds in sight, she remembered Nigel’s words: “Never trust fine weather in these parts.”
From the cottage she walked on the path beside a meadow and down a small incline leading to the brook. Marie had never been keen on walking and preferred to ride a bike—or better, a horse—but she enjoyed a casual stroll alone in nature, and she was looking forward to discovering the castle, which Nigel had described as “mysteriously unique.” He’d told her she couldn’t miss the castle since the wild path beside the brook would break and there’d be a cultivated lawn for a stretch, and all she had to do was walk up to the historical site. She had no difficulty fi nding the site, and in another way Nigel had been correct: the weather all of a sudden changed dramatically, from blue sky to overcast, and from still air to the early signs of a brewing storm.
The first thing she noticed about the castle was how small it was, like a Disneyland imitation without the cuteness of that artificial world. As she walked closer, she noted two sinister gargoyles sitting in a crouched position, as if carved from the homogenous mold of the castle, on both sides on outward-jutting cornerstones above a solid wooden door looking as if they were ready to attack. She tried to look through the opaque, stained-glass windows, but the inside of the building was as dark as the outside felt to her, and it seemed as if the gargoyles were protecting a ghostly interior that was devoid of occupants.
The wind had picked up, and clouds, pregnant with water, had blackened the sky. It started to rain, and Marie kept on walking around the castle in search of shelter. She quickly came to a small chapel with its doors wide open, and she walked right in. She could discern candlelight at the far end, but otherwise it was dark, and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust. As she walked farther down, the candlelight upon the altar made the figure of Christ on the cross appear like a spectral apparition, and Marie felt a shiver down her spine. Her sight now more adjusted to the dark, she saw to the left and right of the aisle the eerie shadows of the saints.
The chapel smelled damp and musty, but there was another smell, pungent and unpleasant in a way Marie had never smelled before. There was something unholy in the chapel, and she thought that this was not a house of God, but God knows.
She left the chapel feeling somewhat disturbed by her sensory impressions, unsure if there was indeed something sinister within or if her imagination had played tricks on her mind. With the rain lashing at her, she ran along the straight country road back to the cottage, feeling as if she were being followed.
Once she arrived home, Marie walked around the house, making sure all windows were closed, and the doors, front and back, were locked. Then she opened a bottle of red wine, lit a fire, and settled back at the small desk beside the bay window. What was that? she thought. She contemplated calling Nigel butdecided against it, since she didn’t want to let him think she was afraid of something she couldn’t even rationalize. After a while of sitting in silence, she opened her laptop and started a Word document she titled, “The Thunder of Nautilus.”
Marie had been writing for two days, with only a few breaks to make a sandwich, heat up canned soup, take a shower, or a walk through the garden, when on Thursday afternoon she heard a knock on the door. She took a look in the hallway mirror, quickly ran her fingers through her disheveled hair and thought, Good grief—I look dreadful, before she opened the door. Amiddle-aged man with an attractive smile stood in front of her and introduced himself as Duncan, the gardener, and they shook hands. Marie asked Duncan to come in and led him to the kitchen, where she offered him a drink. He said that a wee bit of whisky would be great. Nigel had a stocked bar with all sorts of top-shelf stuff, and Marie made a mind memo to buy a bottle of Scotch on the shopping trip Nigel had planned.
Duncan proved to be an ardent storyteller with a seemingly endless inventory of local lore and history. Marie, now in the presence of somebody eloquent, told him about her experience at the castle, and suddenly, for the first time since he arrived, his expression became serious. As Marie poured him another glass of whisky, he said, “It’s amazing that you picked up some vibe. Are you sensitive to the paranormal?”
“No, not really,” Marie replied.
“Well,” Duncan began, “legend has it that a couple of hundred years ago, the lord of the manor found his wife with her lover in an embrace, and his jealousy was such that he beheaded the lover with one clean stroke of his sword and took his wife to the chapel, where he hung her upside down on the cross and cut her throat from ear to ear. They say in these parts that the Lord of Hades himself was in cahoots with the husband, black clouds had darkened the sky, and a storm was unleashed from hell itself. Even to this day, it’s said that when the sky is dark and a storm is coming, one can see the blood running like a crimson river from the cross down the aisle to the chapel doors.”
Marie wasn’t sure if she’d just heard the tallest bullshit tale since the story of Adam and Eve, or if it was indeed true and she’d picked up on some kind of darkness held in the halls of the chapel.
She said, “You’re not joking.”
Duncan said, “I tell you, when I first came to these parts and before I heard this story, I went inside the chapel, like you trying to find shelter from the rain, and I don’t know what it was, but whatever it was, it gave me goose bumps, and I was so spooked I never went into that chapel again.”
They talked for a while about things beyond the perception of the ordinary senses and agreed that, although one cannot explain these phenomena, it didn’t mean they didn’t exist. It was late in the afternoon when Duncan said he really had to head back home, and on his way out he said, “Nigel mentioned that you lost a dog you loved very much.”
“Yes, my best friend—he died not that long ago.”
“Well, my collie bitch had a litter six month ago and I have one male pup left. I thought, you living here alone, a dog might be what you need,” said Duncan.
Marie’s face lit up. “I’d love to have a dog again, but I don’t know how long I’ll stay.” Then she sighed and said, “Can I have a look at him?”
Duncan said, “Yeah, sure. Come over with me now if you like.”
Marie said that she would like that very much, and within minutes she was ready. When they arrived at Duncan’s house, a black border collie cross with a white chest came running and greeted Marie with wagging tail. She fell in love instantly, and while she cuddled the pup, Duncan said, “His name is Michael Jackson.”
Marie laughed at the “black-and-white” joke, thanked Duncan with a beaming face, and asked how much she owed him. He said that if she could pay for the first shots, that would be great. He packed up some dry dog food and a few treats to last until the weekend, and then drove Marie and MJ back to the cottage. Once alone with her dog, she gave him a treat and he nuzzled her neck, and from that moment on they were inseparable.
The following weekend, MJ announced Nigel’s arrival in a rental car, with a deep growl at first and then with wagging tail, once he realized that it was a friend who’d come to visit. While Nigel greeted the dog, Marie said, “You knew I couldn’t say no to him, didn’t you,” and Nigel admitted that he’d meddled a bit.
Once Nigel had refreshed himself and had praised Marie for her hausfrau expertise—how clean the place was—she told him about her weird experience at the castle and Duncan’s story.
Nigel responded by laughing out loud, telling Marie that her imagination was indeed fertile and that it would be helpful to her as a writer. He said that Duncan, the crazy Scotsman, was full of it, and you had to take his fondness for telling bizarre stories with a grain of salt. But Marie saw her experience in the chapel in a different light and asked Nigel to accompany her there sometime. Nigel said, “Sure— that would be fun.” They spent the remaining day in Bristol shopping and having afternoon tea with exquisite tiny cakes and cucumber sandwiches at a hotel tearoom famed for its traditions. At last they returned to the cottage and spent the evening in front of the fireplace, talking and drinking the wine Nigel had recommended in town, bottles of which Marie had bought by the dozen. When the subject of Jim’s intention to visit the next weekend came up, Nigel stated, “You two make a nice couple,” which elicited a cry of, “Don’t—I’m already embarrassed!” from Marie, who changed the subject quickly to the lunch invitation at the manor, asking if a bottle of wine and some flowers from the garden would be appropriate to bring.
Nigel replied, “Yes, that’s a lovely thought.”
They went to bed early and Marie woke early the next day. She decided to make breakfast and serve it to Nigel in his bedroom on a large silver tray. “Wake up sleepyhead,” she said happily as she opened the curtains.
“Ohhhh noooo—the light . . .” Nigel cried out. “You crazy German, in a civilized country it’s compulsory to sleep in on a Sunday, not to be woken up in the middle of the night.”
Marie responded, “Light and the middle of the night? Sounds like an oxymoron. Come on, sit up straight.”
Nigel said, “I’m not an ox, nor a moron, you walking dictionary,” as she fluffed his pillows before putting the tray in front of him. Nigel called her a pain in the posterior; she called him a grumpy bum, and then the friends drank tea, ate toast, and talked as they lazed on Nigel’s bed until it was time to get ready for lunch.
With MJ running before them, they took the shortcut over the fields, and when they got to the manor, Dr. John Byron greeted them congenially and showed off the renovations he was obviously proud of. Marie thought his upper-class English accent delightful and was amused by how he spoke with a hint of irony as he commented on the portraits of his ancestors on the walls in the hall and up the side of the wide stairwell. Marie had been impressed by the almost monolithic appearance of the manor and its sophisticated front garden from afar, appreciating how the garden merged aesthetically with the horizontal and vertical lines of the building.
Once inside the manor, she remarked enthusiastically about the tasteful yellow and green hues on the freshly painted walls in the dining and drawing rooms, and the overall understated elegance of the interior. John obviously appreciated the positive feedback, and he didn’t fail to mention how much Nigel had contributed to the restoration process with his expertise. When he introduced Gloria in the kitchen, he said that she usually would only come twice a week, but that she had kindly offered to come this morning in order to make one of her exquisite roasts. He praised her by saying what a tremendous help she was, and how everything worked like clockwork thanks to her. Gloria smiled and jokingly said, “All right—clockwork countdown is happening now: one, two . . .” and on three she opened the oven door, and the aroma of the roast that had been an appetizing hint invaded the kitchen with full force. Marie and Nigel remarked on the wonderful aroma and thanked Gloria, then John ushered his guests into the adjacent dining room, helped to serve the food, and poured the red wine from a crystal decanter. As Gloria excused herself, she told John that the pudding was chilled in the fridge, that she had taken out the Stilton cheese, and that she had filled the coffee machine with freshly ground beans.
While they ate lunch, Nigel told their host about the story Duncan had told Marie and asked him what he knew about the origins of such a tale. John said that as far as he knew there was no recorded evidence of a double murder, but that there was no doubt some truth to it, although probably embellished with more horrifying detail as time went by. He asked Marie about her thoughts on the subject, and she said that she thought it to be in the nature of people to add more to existing talk, and that although an element of truth might be seminal, human imagination and inventiveness in its diversity contributed no doubt to the greater part of the production of legend. Nigel added that one must make a distinction between the cultural heritage of legend and the gossiping mouths of people who enjoy drama, as long as it happens to others and doesn’t affect them personally. John then said that the term “drama” was all too commonly used in a negative way, and Nigel responded that to him it was no wonder the term was loaded with negative connotation, since soap operas also were classified as drama, and that one surely must distinguish between “high” culture, like a play by Shakespeare, and the “low” of a mindless television show with limited vocabulary and an idiotic storyline. Then, since Marie had studied theatre and literary theory, he asked her what the experts said about where the distinction is made.
Marie answered by saying that literary theory, like philosophy, was complex and offered no easy answers, that precise terms like “high” and “low” were problematic because they denoted hierarchical order, which in post-modern context was being debated and left more questions than answers. Nigel responded by saying that clearly Shakespeare’s genius had to be acknowledged, and Marie continued: “I think Shakespeare’s genius is undisputed, but I think he had lots of help from other writers and actors in his time.”
“Heresy!” Nigel said with feigned disgust, and the three of them laughed.
John then asked Marie what she thought about the popularity of soap operas on television, and she replied, “I think people are enjoying the paradox that those shows on television create. On the one hand, people can feel close to the characters because they can relate to their joys and their pain, their ups and downs, while on the other hand the drama is played out in a theatrical space, removed from their own reality.”
“Well, this applies to all theatre, doesn’t it?” John said. “All right—we can’t rely on popular opinion. But what
makes one piece of literature better than another?” Nigel added, and turned towards Marie for an answer.
“Well, we could use scientific technique by dissecting a piece of literature in its parts. Look at how the parts relate to the whole and the connections of one piece to another, but no scientific method can be used to rationalize the essence of a literary work. It doesn’t explain its mind and soul because literature is not science but art and, therefore, it is a—a matter of taste, and b— lies within the artistic sensibility of the reader, whether layman or educated critic.”
To this John responded, “Well said!” Then he asked his guests to follow him into the library.
He invited Marie to have a look at the collection of books, kept dust free on shelves behind glass doors, and asked Nigel to pour some port while he got the coffee. When he returned with coffee cups, milk, and sugar, he said apologetically to Marie, “I know Nigel loves coffee, but I haven’t even asked you—I just assumed you like coffee, being German.”
Marie replied, “I might not be a typical coffee fanatic, but I like a cup occasionally—especially after such a fabulous lunch.” John smiled and placed the cup of coffee next to the glass of port Nigel had filled again and offered long, slim cigarillos in a wooden box. They all took one, and John gentlemanly lit Marie’s cigarillo first. She puffed it a few times and said, “It’s official—I’m now decadently in heaven.”
John laughed, and Nigel, amused, looked at him, and said, “Told you she’s one of the boys.”
John said to Marie, “I’m guessing our gay friend is talking about the very pretty boys, but I haven’t met any boys prettier than you.”
Marie, always uncomfortable with compliments and thus not very good at handling them gracefully, tried to be cool by changing the subject and said to John, “Nigel told me that you’re a psychiatrist working in a particularly wearisome environment with difficult, institutionalized patients.”
John replied that it had been a thankless job, but that it was in the past, explaining that he’d quit not long after he inherited the manor and had been concentrating on the renovations until only recently, when he’d started to work again, part-time in a shared practice.
Nigel enquired about the previous job and asked John if he thought that particularly vicious sexual offenders could be cured, and whether it was ever safe to release them back into society. John replied that not all sexual offenders were what Nigel called particularly vicious, like the case of a twenty-year-old boy who was intellectually retarded, had the mental and emotional development of a twelve year old, at best, and had done no more than touch the breasts of a thirteen-year-old- girl without an invitation. However, he was sent to prison like any pedophile. While he was confined with men who knew nothing about him, other than that he’d been a sexual offender with a minor, they took misguided justice into their own hands, doused him with petrol, and burned him so severely that he barely survived.
“I understand what you’re saying,” Nigel said after a pause, “but what about the vicious offenders, men who rape and murder?”
John said, “Are you asking me if I think it’s ever safe to release them back into society?”
“Yeah,” Nigel said.
John responded unequivocally, “No.”
“So is there anything we can do other than lock the evil doers up in a dungeon filled with vipers and throw away the key?” asked Nigel.
John said, “Fortunately, in a civilized country such as ours, we are set to believe in a humane society, but unfortunately there is no humanity in the acts of murdering rapists, pedophiles, and psychopaths. As a doctor I have to uphold the Hippocratic oath, but as an ordinary citizen I seek justice, just like most of us— and yes, lock them up and throw away the key. Anyway”—he turned to Marie—“I think this subject matter a tad too glum, don’t you?”
She said, “I think it’s a very difficult subject matter and profoundly involves our emotions and desire to punish such evil. I have no answers, but I do believe that those people, once caught and sentenced, must never be released from prison.” On that they all agreed.
It was late in the afternoon when Nigel said it was high time for them to leave, and in parting John invited Marie to visit anytime—to chat, or to use the library—and Marie said she’d love to come over, thanked him for the great lunch, good conversation, and the open invitation.