I returned the handset to its brass cradle and looked at the man, who hovered near the only open doorway in a rectangle of yellow light.
He shrugged. It’s a good job it happened when it did. There’s nothing for quite some way. “
“How long did they say?’
“The standard. Within four hours.’ I rolled my eyes, but he just nodded. Of course – an old man in a castle had probably never needed the AA.
‘Do come through – keep warm.’ He’d already turned away and headed out of view.
Well, that was settled, then. I licked something from my lip into my mouth. It had a mealy texture – a small fly? Too late: I’d swallowed it, so I grimaced to myself and headed across the flagged floor tiles towards the yellow rectangle.
Pleasebeahouse pleasebeahouse pleasebeahouse: I’d belted it out all the way down that gravel path, mainly to drown the rasps of a dying engine but also in to summon up whatever gods or demons might exist in the nether regions of this nethery land. Serendipity (the goddess of shouty singing it would appear) repaid me with a country estate slap bang at the end of the driveway, one which had broad steps tapering to a mahogany door, a façade like a wedding cake and a curly crest embedded in stone above the first-floor windows. Two wings either side retreated into darkness, like stepsons, knowing their place. It was in to one of these wings that I now headed, along a narrow stone corridor, feeling like Scooby Doo and thrilling at the reality in which I now found myself.
‘This is a beautiful house.’ I whispered. ‘Do you live here?’
‘Yes. It’s been in the family since the 17th Century.’ His voice was soft, a low blend of highland burr with a drawl inherited from a public schooling south of the border. I’d seen it in his face when he opened the door; the soft chin, the downturned mouth, satisfied as if savouring a good vintage. Be-yond posh. So, when he stopped short ahead of me I dropped a curtsey, a girlish maid in a mansion.
He flicked a light switch and turned to face me. ‘Here we are!’ A lupine smile before he retreated into a small room, a room dominated by the smell of damp digestive biscuit and bum-worn horse saddles. It took me a while to adjust to the dim wattage, but even when I did, the room stayed murky and brown and orange, so stuffed with belongings that I was thrown back through the years to desultory days with my grandad, mooching around on the outskirts of cobbled towns looking at bric a brac in fading shops, German exchange trip weather purging all vitality out through the ends of my fingers.
In light of what happened afterwards, the details are hard to recall, but I remember seeing the man with his back to me, hands plunged into a white plastic bookcase, fiddling between a food processor and an old Encyclopaedia. Next to the bookcase there was a pan of congealed baked beans on top of a small camping stove which was slumped across some floral photo albums. Other details swam up through the soup; a brood of blown glass piggies on a rusty dumb bell doorstop, a badger’s head on the wall wearing a purple baseball cap which bore the logo: ‘Dunny Construction’; plates and paintings of horses, fruit bowls, country cottages, all hung too low to be anything but in the way. Tin huntsmen rode a disconnected car radio. Doilies! On the other side of the room, almost hidden beneath piles of newspapers and sleeping bags, was a camp bed. There was a pottery pug on the floor beside it, its concave belly filled with dark yellow piss. I noticed it just as the man turned, holding a silver tray, a crystal decanter and glasses which he placed on a scuffed tapestry footstool. What had happened here?
He swept a pile of papers from a camping chair on to what may have been a piece of gym equipment and gestured for me to sit. ‘There – whiskey – no ice, I’m afraid.’ He poured the drinks, then, pulling up the knees on his rust brown cords, settled back into the deck chair opposite. He beamed at me, then remembered why I was there and shifted down a gear to serious-face. ‘Four hours, you say?’
‘Could be.’ I raised my glass and we drank.
‘Where are you headed?’
‘Inverness. I’m interviewing a band up there.’ His eyes followed the movement of my face, his mouth open. He licked the creases at the corners of his lips before he spoke. ‘Music?’
‘What sort of music?’
‘All kinds’. This wasn’t true, but experience told me that explaining would force us down a strange route.
We drank again. The window rattled. And then I remembered what I’d heard.
‘Do you live here alone?’ It was the only way I could think to raise it. He looked frail; I could feel his bones lurking, pressed up close to the skin’s surface, waiting to break through.
‘And – do you own the – whole bit? I mean the land?’
‘Up to the high road.’
‘Okay’ I puffed out my cheeks, but had to hold back a smile at the sheer camp of it all – in a creepy mansion with an old posh man – I thought of Scooby Doo again, then straightened my face. ‘I think there’s someone out there.’
He kept smiling, so I kept going. ‘When I came up the track, I mean I was singing to myself but still – I heard something – from the thicket on the left. It was quite close to the house. And it sounded like laughing. Like men laughing.’
‘Right.’ His voice was clipped, no inflection to suggest concern or alarm. It was a cautionary full stop and it irritated me; I like to supply my own punctuation.
‘Was it an animal?’
‘No, no, probably not an animal.’
‘Well – what was it? ‘
‘We have guests at the moment.’
‘Right. Is it an event or something?’
‘Yes. They’ve rented the house for a stag party.’ He smiled. ‘Would you like some more whiskey? Ah no! You have your concert. What sort of music is it this time?’
‘I don’t know.’ I was exasperated by his politesse; I meant to offend, yet he showed no sign of withering. He drank. We both drank. We both looked at our glasses, and then the party came to us.
I think I heard it first. Maybe he dozed off, though in light of what he was expecting to happen, it seems unlikely. But I heard it: a bundle of man-noise, rasping and burbling with alcohol, most of it shouts and hoots, but assembling sometimes to produce a surprising melody in a way that only random mob sounds and a fertile imagination can. Bloody men. My ear traced their movement across the lawn, then the gravel and then the final act: a strong slam on the front door. At this, the man pitched forward. ‘Do excuse me.’ He left and shut the door behind him.
I put down my glass. There was an egg stain on the corner of the footrest and this, of all things, made me uneasy, so I looked at the bookcase, which is when the funny thing caught my eye. Up close, I could see what it was: a pair of antlers, shaved down, the edges exposed and sharp, to about half a metre in height. They were glued and then stitched on to a red woollen beret, which had little bells hanging from its brim. It was beautiful and strange and the fabric felt soft and the antlers cool and clean.
The man returned. ‘There we are – all sorted’
‘I was looking at your hat.’ I said brightly.
‘Your hat – are they real antlers?’ I held it out in front of me.
‘I’ve never seen anything like it.’
He moved closer to me then. He was actually very tall when he stood close. He crooned in my ear. ‘It’s a silly thing, isn’t it? We played with it as children. It made us feel like clowns.’ He tipped his head to one side in a coy gesture of curiosity. ‘Do you like it?’
‘Ha. Yes. Yes, I do.’ I turned it around in my hands, but kept one eye on the man’s face, which had grown large next to my shoulder. His breath was shallow and rapid against my collarbone.
‘Well– would you like to try it on? There’s no one else to – see – you know.’ His voice was a thin needle of a whine, a man child, pleading with nanny. I should have gone then, right then, but a combination of things was acting upon my will; the whiskey, the hat, that crusted yellow egg and finally, the need for something to happen in this house. I probably wouldn’t make the gig, but I would have a terrific bit on the crazy upper classes for the website.
So I put on the hat and felt its weight.
Reader, there was no thunderbolt; I didn’t vaporise into blue smoke and return as Artemis – I remained a woman in a shitty room, just with antlers on her head. But the man took a step back and clapped his hands together, once. From man child to boy child, he was transformed.
‘You look majestic!’
‘Yes, I feel noble.’ I did not feel noble.
He brightened. ‘I know – would you like to see a painting of my father with the stag. With – your stag?’
Not really, I thought. ‘Ooh yes!’ I said.
He guided me by the elbow out of the doorway and back down the corridor, hunching his shoulders and ducking his head as he walked before me. I realise now that I had, in that moment, become his queen, he a gleeful supplicant. But I was the one with the bells, which leapt and danced and made merry about my head –was I a jester? I’d decided to definitely leave by the time that we arrived in the hallway, where he led me to the painting. He stepped back.
‘My father – with your antlers.’
The painting was hard to see, because the gloss of the oil bounced back the light and obscured the surface. But there he was. The stag, my stag, was eye height, his head, poor slack eyed thing, slung back over a small mound on the sandy earth beneath him. The hunter, wearing tweed and a familiar dreary expression, stood alongside his quarry, thinking about teacups and velcro for all I could surmise from his expression.
‘Those are my antlers?’
‘Oh’. And suddenly I didn’t want a dead animal on my head. And I didn’t want to be in the house at all. I moved to take the hat off. He put a hand on my shoulder to stop me and shook his head. I had to leave.
‘I should call to see about the car people.’
‘But it could take four hours, couldn’t it?’ A glint of the tooth in his voice.
‘I might peep out and see if everything is okay’. A whisper.
He unbolted the door.
‘Good idea, my lady. You might get it going again, might you?’ His voice grew to a cackle from a bubble, the manchild – boychild – devilchild – his full form revealed. I was just too late to see his face.
He opened the front door and thrust me through with such force that I stumbled, the antlers pulling me forwards down the steps. I yanked the hat and threw it, poor thing, away from me – again too late – I’d been marked. Torchlight blinded. I turned to see the man, but he was mahogany again. Incantations rose out of the dark and antlers or not, I knew that I would have to run and soon.