The rain fell hard and fast bouncing off the windscreen like rubber bullets sending the windscreen wipers into a frenzy every couple of seconds. Phoebe’s sister crawled the car at a snail-like pace along the country lane ahead of us. Ever since Nell had steered her untrustworthy car into Hadley, there had been a thick coat of mist clinging to the land like a disease, making me wish I was anywhere but here.
“I wish this rain would stop,” I moaned, letting my head thump back against the headrest.
Next to me, Phoebe glanced up from the magazine she attempted to read by the light of a mini torch. “It doesn’t appear to be that bad,” she said and went back to her magazine. “Anyway, we’ve got to be nearly there by now. Here,” she passed me a water damaged copy of Vogue. “Read that.”
The thought of reading in the car made my head spin. “Not unless you want me to throw up.” I threw it onto the seat between us. “Will it be much longer, Nell?”
“Don’t ask me questions when I am trying to drive, please,” Nell gritted her teeth. She was four years older than us but had only passed her driving test last month after failing half a dozen times. Even then, Phoebe believed their dad had given the examiner a bribe to ensure she passed this time. It stumped me why she would have volunteered as the driver for this two-hundred-mile trip into nowhere. I couldn’t work out if it was because she was so eager to be on the road having just passed or if she had lost her mind.
I looked at my watch. It had just left twenty-five to nine. “It can’t be much longer. Are you alright, Eleanor?” Phoebe’s grandmother had not spoken three words together since we had set off.
Face cast in shadow, Eleanor half-turned towards me and offered a weak smile. “Yes, I’m fine.”
I now regretted allowing Phoebe to talk me into coming. I don’t travel well at the best of times, but I certainly don’t travel well in crappy weather that adds hours onto an already boring journey.
A sigh escaped Phoebe’s mouth. I stretched my limbs as much as I could to ease the throbbing which had built up after two-and-a-half hours. I toyed with the idea of asking to stop at the next bed-and-breakfast. In weather like this, it wouldn’t be long before Nell did serious damage to us or anyone else brave enough to venture out in this.
The car spluttered. And jumped, jerking forward only inch by inch. My hands flew, one on the seat in front, the other to the door frame to support myself. A low hiss filled the vehicle and steam rose from the bonnet until it was inseparable from the mist surrounding us. The pages of Phoebe’s glossy magazine fell from her hands, fluttering.
“What the hell was that?” she asked.
I swallowed. Hard. A sense of dread slunk over me leaving trails of sweat upon my palms and brow and the wild thumping of my heart drummed in my chest. The last time I felt this ill, I had gastric flu and passed out on stage during the Christmas play. I remained quiet to suppress the urge to be sick as Nell and Phoebe descended into muted panic.
“It’s fine, it’s fine. Everything is fine,” Nell muttered to herself, her voice high. She turned off the ignition and prompted the rest of us to lock our doors. I’d already done mine, I’d read too many horror stories about murderers attacking people in trouble on long, isolated stretches of road like this one.
“Maybe you stalled it,” I offered, half in prayer I was right.
“Yes. Stalled it. I could have stalled it.” Nell turned the key in the ignition again but there was nothing. Not even the chugging sound of the engine attempting to start. “This isn’t good.”
“Shit, Nell. What are we going to do now?”
“I do not want to hear foul language leave your lips again, Phoebe. Do you understand?”
“Is there a problem, dear?” Eleanor asked Nell.
Before Nell could answer, the mist surged forward consuming the car with the four of us inside. The thick haze swirled, leaden and unforgiving. Then a shadow broke the white smoke. Wisps of it clung to the shape. A dark figure. A man, stumbling out of the dense obscurity.
I edged forward in my seat. He was inches away from the bonnet.
“Are you seeing what I’m seeing?” I reached for the door lock, my voice sounding foreign.
“Do not get out of the car,” warned Nell, but I was no longer listening. Something had descended over me. I felt a pull as I watched the stranger slump to his knees. Bright red stains coated his hands from where he stemmed an eager flow of blood coming from his chest. His clothes were strange, a blood-darkened tunic of blue and murrey clinging to his torso, like a character straight out of Olivier’s Richard III. His hair drenched with sweat stuck to his bloodied, mud-splattered face.
“Do not get out of the car,” Nell repeated.
“Let her go,” Eleanor said.
He drew me to him, and I couldn’t fight it anymore. I ignored Nell’s pleas and unlocked the door at my side of the car. Stepping out, the rain pounded my bones, soaking right through my clothes to the skin but I didn’t feel a drop. I think I heard Phoebe screaming, but she seemed so distant now, so far away.
By the time I had regained my senses, I had knelt by the stranger and was cradling his head in my lap. My hand crushed his chest, attempting to stop any more blood loss. His blood warmed my skin. Any other day, I would have recoiled in horror at the mere sight of blood but now I felt nothing except an overwhelming desire to stop this stranger losing anymore.
“Kate,” he whispered, the skin of his lips cracked and dry. “I have returned for you, just like I promised I would. I, John Neville, have returned for you.”
“My name is Anne. Is Kate your wife? Do you know where she is? Do you want me to fetch her for you?” Great, I thought. The poor man is in a terrible way, there’s nothing I can do and I’m trying to confuse him with twenty questions.
The clicking sound of the car door handle being pulled broke the awkwardness as Phoebe climbed out. She pulled the hood of her parker straight over the top of her head and headed our way.
“We have to go, we shouldn’t stay around here too long,” she said. There was a stern tone to her words I had never noted her use before.
“We can’t leave him, Phoebe! He’s barely conscious and has lost a lot of blood,” the rain was relentless and continued to thrash the surrounding tarmac. It ran from my hairline and dripped down off the end of my nose. I didn’t think he would make it, but I couldn’t say as much, not in front of him.
With a quivering hand, he brushed away the raindrops from the planes of my cheeks. “They look like tears,” he whispered.
My heart jolted, but I allowed my eyes to close, my head bowing to his touch. The brush of his fingertips sent shivers down my spine as a faint glimmer of recognition flickered in my mind. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up and goose bumps rose on my flesh. Luckily, the dark concealed my blushes. I had forgotten Phoebe was there.
“It is you, Kate. Just as I remember. I told you I would come for you. Though in truth, I took a little longer than expected.”
I broke away from him and looked at Phoebe. “He’s delirious.”
Neither Phoebe nor I saw her frail grandmother emerge from the car until she was nearly upon us. Her back hunched over almost double and she wheezed with every breath. Her skin held little colour; cracked and broken like the baking earth in a drought-ridden country. The old woman hobbled towards us as a stooped gremlin might do, all wilted and twisted. She looked as though she could break at the slightest touch and crumble like a biscuit.
“At the top of the hill,” Eleanor pointed to the right of us where a dark outline of trees stood silhouetted against the navy covering overhead. “Is our destination. Go through the clearing there and you will find a path, follow it right to the end, until the stream that runs alongside it changes direction and runs to the north, walk through the field following the stream until you come to a house of grey. That is Burnley Manor, you’ll find help there and Phoebe will go with you.”
“But what about you and Nell? We can’t just leave you here. Nell looks traumatised.” Her face ashen, Phoebe’s sister still gripped the steering wheel with white-edged knuckles.
“Of course you can. Don’t worry about Nell, I’ll take care of her. We shall stay with him until you bring help. Now hurry. Go! You are wasting time.”
“Take Anne to the house, Phoebe.”
That was an order. Phoebe nodded whilst I took off my coat to reveal only a thin, plain white T-shirt that exposed my arms to the early April air. Lifting the man’s head with as much care as I could, I placed the rolled-up garment underneath. I didn’t want to go but his eyes had now closed, and the heaving of his chest grew shallower.
My watch could have timed the hammering of my heart. Phoebe retrieved the torch from the car and we followed the directions that Eleanor had given us. Phoebe seemed to steam ahead, knowing where she was going, lighting the way. I trailed behind, fighting against the violent wall of water that continued to build in front of me.
A burning smell rented the air and wrapped around the inside of my lungs, suffocating and choking. It seemed to be everywhere, but I couldn’t see any signs of a fire. No smoke, no flames.
The house emerged, rising high from the ground before my eyes. The more the building loomed over me, the greater the sense of foreboding twisted in my stomach. There before me was a vast object of anxiousness and yet it was our salvation. Like lost ships on a stormy sea we sought the guidance and comforting light of the lighthouse. But Burnley Manor was cast in darkness.
“Where do we go?” I called out to Phoebe.
“How come you know where to go?”
“I’ve been here before, when I was younger. We used to come here often. Now hurry, if we don’t get out of this rain we’ll be the ones needing help.”
We entered through an arched wooden door built into a stone tower and found ourselves in a split-level courtyard. Even though the courtyard itself was larger than two sets of semi-detached houses on my street, I felt trapped. Hemmed in by the quad of ancient stone walls. I tugged at the damp collar of my t-shirt.
We approached a smaller version of the gatehouse door with a thick, black metal knocker in the middle. Three times Phoebe knocked and then waited.
“Are you sure someone is in?” I asked.
“Someone is always in, we just have to wait.”
The door creaked open. I turned to find a robust woman standing in the doorway. Her plump face lacked the colour I expected. Grey strands of age streaked her hair, which was the colour of an autumn morning. She had it scraped back, tight to her head and pinned up. The woman said nothing but her steely gaze bore into me like she had seen a ghost. Her closed, wiry lips trembled.
“Meg, it’s me, Phoebe. This is my friend, Anne.”
“Anne,” she mouthed, squinting at me.
“Yes, Anne. Look Meg, we need your help. There is a man down on the road at the bottom of your land. He’s wounded, and it looks like he doesn’t have long.”
Shivers ran the length of my spine as Meg’s stare continued to bore into my skin. There was something, I noted, that passed between Meg’s eyes, a flicker. Of what, I was unsure, but it was something that would have become an explosion had she not contained it.
Then the woman smiled. “Please come in.”
“We don’t have time,” I pleaded. “I’m sure he’s going to die.”
“I need to get my bag and cloak, my child, unless you would rather wait in the rain?” she said. Meg went back inside and left the door open for Phoebe and me to step inside.