Pulling up a chair, Linda produced a snare-drum rattle. "How can you stand it? It's like a morgue, this place," she said, unbuttoning her red leatherette coat.
"It was till you arrived," Karen said, laying down her pen and stretching. One of the window panes creaked in sympathy. Graham turned from showing his chewing mouth to the librarian. "If any of my descendants start researching me I'll haunt them."
"What makes you think you're going to have any descendants, Graham?" Linda said his name with sarcastic emphasis, but her look was sly, encouraging. Graham chewed vigorously around a grin and started flicking her hair. Karen could smell the oil that patched his overalls. Beginning to feel excluded, she asked him why he wasn't at the garage.
"Test driving a BMW," he said, looking impressed with himself.
"Like all over Colmorden, he's testing it," Linda said, her eyes bright and wicked. At her invitation to join them, Karen cast a rueful glance at the screen, as if she hadn't already decided to quit for the day. "Might as well," she said. Stowing away her notes, she felt she'd achieved something. She'd found her grandmother's grandfather and his two brothers, though Gran had mentioned only one. With their parents, William and Ivy Singleton, they were a neat family unit living in Grobbey in 1851. Karen twisted the motorised lever and flying names were like stacked ridges of trembling grey cloud. The noise should have precluded talk, but Linda persisted as she opened a Mars Bar. Reflected in the reader screen, the librarian looked up from her desk. "What?" Karen almost shouted. The librarian was rising - a slow jack-in-the-box.
"Somebody's watching." Linda's voice rang theatrically, because the film had snagged somewhere between the reels. Peering, pulling gently, Karen was aware of a buttress of sunlight with a dark shape at its source in the window. She jumped as the film freed itself and rattled on. Of course - a momentary power cut. But Linda was tapping her shoulder, smirking as she pointed a thick finger of chocolate at the window.
A head and shoulders, edges faded by an aureole of sunlight like shards of ice. Someone wearing a cape? Waving?
"Window cleaner? I dunno," Karen muttered, self-conscious, convinced the figure was gesturing at her and everyone knew it.
The film slow hand-clapped on one reel. Karen pulled it off and fitted it into its box. Glancing up again, she saw that there was nobody there, but as if it had been affronted by their stares, the window abruptly clattered open on the hinge running along its base. Noises nosed in: cars, car horns, a dog barking and a sound that had Karen watching the rushing clouds as if they really could be rubbing together like millions of wind-tormented leaves. Graham was at the door, calling out, "Are we going or what?"
Outside, the wind had dropped to a breeze. The metallic pink BMW stood at the kerb. Karen sat behind Linda, and Graham swung the vehicle into the traffic, then turned off into a street of peeling terraces. Away from the town centre he drove with uncharacteristic caution, but this wasn't his rust-scabbed Cortina, and in these streets there were few to impress. Beyond allotments, white smoke, confused by the wind, spread like foliage over two factory chimneys. At Linda's insistence, Graham turned back for the centre of town. In the High Street, they were hemmed in by traffic as shoppers, perhaps expecting rain, dodged around them. The interior of the car had more style and comfort than Karen was used to at home in Coniston Street. She wondered if it was the tinted glass that created the effect of a shadow swooping low, again and again, over the car.
Graham left Karen and Linda outside Lewis's. Inside, Linda wandered to a counter where a girl was demonstrating make-up. Karen ate in the café upstairs, then stood outside at the bus-stop. The four o'clock queue wound back on itself twice. Gran's face appeared, thin, vague-eyed, reproachful, amidst Karen's uncharitable thoughts on pensioners who had all day to shop, then grumbled at peak hour queues. When the bus arrived, all the seats were taken and those standing in the aisle were not about to alight. She trudged back to the library.
When she arrived home soon after seven, her father was adjusting his peaked cap before the hallway mirror.
"Your Aunt Marie rang. Your Gran had a bit of a turn this afternoon."
Karen stood indecisively. Gran had been unwell for weeks, and Karen was unsure how to express more than a general concern. "Oh, right," she said.
"Marie thought it'd be best if you went around another night."
"No problem," Karen said absently. She dropped her bag and went upstairs to run a bath. It was a relief when her father called up and the front door slammed: he was still unused to abandoning her for his new night-shift job guarding a warehouse full of electrical goods.
She returned downstairs and left the remains of a chicken casserole twirling in the microwave. In the living room she got out her notes, not sure what was unsettling her until the hum of the oven ceased and uncovered the continual swish of heavy traffic on wet roads. But no - that couldn't be right; the rain had held off and, besides, at this hour the main road at the end of the street no longer streamed with commuter traffic. It was more like trees in motion, she decided; not that there were many near here, but for a few spindly specimens in wire skirts that the vandals had overlooked. It was fatigue, of course; the aural equivalent of spots before the eyes.
Karen switched on the television and turned up the volume, then scanned through the names she'd noted down at the library. There were a few here she'd like to have presented to Gran tonight in exchange for the stories behind them. A sheet slipped to the carpet. Pencilled names were faded caterpillars on a sparse web, but even Aunt Marie would be impressed when it was finished - not that a family tree was ever truly finished. In her mind's eye, the colours of the angular branches, fruited with names, were accentuated by the gaudy paraphernalia of an overlit quiz show on the television.
That night she dreamed of the tree until she'd drained it of its rainbow colours, leaving it a stark black thing. But in the moments before she awoke the next morning, dense masses of foliage were growing on the branches, smothering the names.
The dream had faded by lunchtime when Karen caught the bus into town. Watery sunlight exposed the bleak, blanched concrete of the bus station, where, in a corner, a single-decker waited. The driver looked delighted to see her, but just as delighted by the shoppers who rapidly filled the bus after her. By the time it had left the suburbs of Colmorden, Karen was the sole passenger again.
The sky was grey. Sporadic drops made splattered insect shapes on the windows, distorting the fields. Six miles out, the trees began. Light smeared through the dull green canopy over the bus. More light gathered ahead, then they were out of the trees for a moment - time enough to see a tower and then a long roof slope come into view as the road curved. Karen leant into the window, intent on an indistinct shape that lifted from the roof before disappearing behind the tower. Trees again, and she was glancing from side to side at white-washed cottages and sober red-brick dwellings clothed in creeper, through which burglar alarms poked pinched grey faces. A moment later, the road fed into a wide green.
Alighting from the bus, Karen squinted a moment beneath a grey, yet radiant, sky; black dots hovered until a succession of blinks shifted them jerkily over the trees. As she crossed the green, the wind tugged at her, shook the crimson-flowered rhododendrons threateningly before a dark gabled house by the church.
She pressed the doorbell and watched two men in hard hats moving obscurely on scaffolding against the church tower. "Can I help you?" A dark wing flexed - a wing of tarpaulin from the church roof. "Excuse me. Ex..." Karen turned as the words registered.
The priest riffled through a diary as fat and black as a Bible as she introduced herself, careful to mention the time of the appointment. At last he clapped a hand to his forehead. "Of course," he said. "I'm sorry - I've been expecting someone else."
Sorry to disappoint you, Karen thought as he led her to a room as bare as a cell. There was a large picture window with a table before it piled with parish registers.
The church filled the view from the window. As she worked, Karen glanced up occasionally to note how far its shadow had advanced towards her on the grass. By three-thirty, the shadow was with her in the room. Her shoulder ached from writing. The two workmen sat high on a girder, their legs dangling. The younger one raised his mug to her. Karen smiled, more to herself than at him, in the dimly lit room. She got up to switch the light on, then opened a can of lemonade. She was staring dreamily at the fireplace, aware of a dry rustle from the chimney, when an abrupt penetrating tap startled her. Turning back to the window, she had the odd impression that a shape had hung just below the upper frame before pulling up and out of sight. That must have been a movement made by one of the workmen who'd now finished their tea-break. The middle-aged man was folding his tabloid as the younger one shook his flask over the chasm of shadow flanking the nave. Half an hour later, Karen saw they had been joined by two others in white overalls. The workmen watched from a respectful distance as the newcomers, moving with ponderous caution, picked out objects from a rectangular hole in the roof before placing them in a container like an extra-large hold-all.
By early evening, two registers remained, but Karen had tired of the relentless succession of births and deaths, the interminable entrances and exits that made her own life seem fleeting. She packed her notebooks away and stepped into the hallway. The priest was on the telephone trying to interrupt vociferous squeaks. Seeing Karen, he raised his eyes questioningly and pointed at the front door. She nodded and he smiled and raised a hand. Karen let herself out, wondering if she'd been blessed.
From the bus-stop, her eyes constantly strayed to the church. Seen almost end-on, it was a great darkened doorway into the woods. The gravestones reminded her that she'd intended to examine the inscriptions. Another day, perhaps. She shivered, willing the bus to hurry. As the wind strengthened, the woods moved with a languorous power. A painful creaking had her spinning to face the cottages behind her. Above them, within the swirling leafage, a package of darkness remained motionless. If it was a perched figure, had it called to her? The voice came again, almost blown away by the wind. She turned back to find a white transit van had pulled up. The driver's window framed the small, neat features of the younger of the two workmen. He didn't appear to mind asking her a third time.
Hurrying around the front of the van, Karen found his workmate holding open the passenger door; then she was inside, relieved as he slammed the door on insistent creakings and flappings like sails.
"I saw you with those big books," the driver said, as the back doors were opened and his partner climbed in effortfully. Karen explained, in an indifferent tone, adding, "It's for my Grandma really - she's always on about the past."
The van entered the trees. Karen watched the wing mirror let go of the lights of the village.
"Sounds like hard work to me," the driver said.
"It's easier than what you're doing - I'm scared of heights."
A voice at her shoulder. "Not just heights to be scared of, is there, Andy? Want to hear something really scary?"
"Go on, Eric - tell her," Andy said with amused resignation.
Eric's rough, round face hovered between them. "There's three of us normally, but yesterday this one," he tapped Andy's shoulder, "was at Colmorden College doing his day release, so there's just me and Brian. So it's afternoon tea-break. I stop no matter what - but not our Brian. He'd been wittering on about hearing scratching sounds under a section of the church roof. Well, I couldn't hear nowt so I left him to it. Anyway, a few minutes later this wind came up sudden. It made a right mess and Brian was shouting blue murder - well, crying, more like. When I got to him he was flat on his back, eyes on stalks, and he was pointing. And I looked and I saw this big black shape dipping into the trees behind the church..."
"A loose sheet of tarpaulin - that's my theory," Andy interjected. Karen couldn't be certain in the darkness if he'd given her a reassuring wink. Eric went on:
"Well, whatever he saw or I saw, them bones were real enough. Brian had hefted up some roof slates and there was a space inside about three feet deep - full of 'em, it was."
"Did you see the forensic blokes up there?" Andy asked matter-of-factly.
The trees wearied her. It was as if the van were suspended over the hub of two immense revolving dark wheels. They were silent until the woods ended at an invisible fence, and the fields raced off beneath a vault of blue and grey cloud. Only the horizon was clear. Karen wished Eric had less to say for himself, but she listened to his anecdotes, smiled when Andy smiled, shared with him the occasional colluding glance.
Outside the house in Coniston Street, she stood at the van window. It was more than cold air that made her thanks a little breathless.
"Any time," Andy said, reaching across the passenger seat to hand her a card. Running up the drive, it was too dark for Karen to read the words until the halogen lamp over the door came on as if for the new act of a play. Next to "Colmorden Building Services" was a scribbled name and telephone number.
It wasn't too late to visit Gran, but she'd ring first. Aunt Marie answered and Karen wistfully recalled a time when her grandmother had been well enough to look after herself.
"Hi - it's Karen. How's Gran?"
There was a drawing in of breath. "Recovering. I think it was a reaction to these new tablets she's taking."
"I found out a few more things," Karen said, clutching Andy's card.
"Oh, yes." Aunt Marie sounded circumspect.
Recounting a few names, Karen heard her voice entering a void until one name prompted an interruption.
"You'd better keep Harold Singleton under your hat when you see her. He's the one that's supposed to have seen the Jackdaw Jack. Your Gran woke up yesterday afternoon yelling her head off that Jack had escaped."
Karen took a breath, her mind clutching at elusive memories, but Aunt Marie was already explaining testily. "You must have heard it when you were little. It's an old Grobbey tale told to get kids up to bed."
Had someone called out in the background?
"I'd better let you go now, Karen - that's your Gran."
Karen went to bed early that night, and found herself in the van again.
"You don't know my name yet," she says.
"No - but I know who you are."
It's so dark she's no longer sure it is Andy. Regular brushing of foliage against the roof of the van sounds purposeful, and that whirring in the back where Eric sits silent, unseen... She pulls at the door and the wind screams, the trees tumble like immense engines. She can't see the woods that she spends the rest of the night wandering.
The following afternoon, Karen bought some large-print romances for Gran in the library book-sale, then she trudged up the wide marble staircase to the reference library. Seeing the microfilm reader free, a leaden weight shifted inside her.
More names, dramatis personae bereft of a play. She'd persevered for an hour when a yawn made her jaw ache. Her eyes watered and names in the 1871 census ran. She looked away from the screen briefly. A tramp stared blankly into the Investors Chronicle. A head-scarfed woman struggling with a crossword puzzle was almost hidden behind turreted encyclopedias. The librarian was in low voiced discussion with a man in a business suit. The hum of the microfilm reader was a patient one-note lullaby that dropped a tone when she returned her gaze unwillingly to the screen. A name leapt forward from the background that looked the colour and texture of old skin, and behind her eyes appeared a vision of lightning over night-time woodland, trees close-packed as cauliflower heads.
"Whitaker, Jack. Roofer."
A metallic screeching made her skin crawl. Karen saw reflected in the screen the raised lid of the map cabinet. The librarian was hauling out huge, yellowing Ordnance Survey maps for the man in the suit. Was an odour, like old, fusty dishcloths, emanating from the maps? Karen scribbled the name into her notebook. Glancing up, she thought at first someone had switched off the microfilm reader, but it was a shadow shed from behind that filled the screen. The smell was worse; she grimaced as her head swam. It had to be the tramp and he was standing behind her. She'd remonstrate with the librarian - that'd teach him; but he must have sensed her irritation because he was withdrawing. Bowing her head to her notes, Karen felt an urge to tear them up. And something troubled her: she'd seen the figure stalking off to the exit but hadn't heard the click of the security system. She twisted in her seat. Two desks away, in his usual place, the tramp puckered his lips at her as he scratched audibly beneath his upraised chin.
When she arrived home, her father had gone to work. She scanned the roofscape from her room. Her eyes smarted. Returning on the bus, spots had moved in her peripheral vision, and she'd developed the notion that one had kept pace, hopping, half flying at a distance. Even now, on the choppy black waves of distant roofs, a group of chimneys seemed to alternately dilate and narrow. She rubbed her eyes and tried to sort out the day's findings. She'd felt too jaded to be methodical. Dates were missing; her handwriting would have made the census enumerator blush. She recalled the photocopy and the ill-tempered satisfaction it had given her to ask the librarian for "something on Grobbey" a minute before the library closed. The woman evidently hadn't forgiven her for the episode in the library with Linda and Graham. In a back room, filing cabinet drawers had slammed before the librarian emerged with a booklet from which Karen photocopied two facing pages. There was a drawing of a church dwarfed by a furious scribble of trees. Karen read:
"Grobbey lacks the boggarts and piskies of other Lancashire villages but in the Roofer, alias Jackdaw Jack, it has its own home-grown demon."
She realised she was hungry and went down to the kitchen. She read as she ate.
"Following a gale which appeared from nowhere on February 18th, 1868, seemingly to vent its fury on Grobbey alone, one Jack Whitaker appeared just as mysteriously. His offer to repair the storm-damaged roof of St Cuthbert's was accepted by Fr William McPhee and thereafter he stayed on as handyman. Whitaker was a sharp featured, wiry fellow often to be found holding forth in local inns where somehow he contrived to reveal little about his past. Witty, a little cruel, it took little persuasion for him to prick the pomposity of local worthies with imitations of uncanny accuracy. He charmed old ladies and was seldom without a young one on his arm. There had always been whispers, and when some of these same girls disappeared, the whispers multiplied. Someone said they'd seen a group of raggedly black-clad figures cavorting on the church roof. It was rumoured that traces of blood and feathers had been found on the altar. A woman said she'd been waylaid by Whitaker on Grobbey green: she'd patiently acquiesced in his affectionate face-pulling at her child in its pram - until she realised the tongue he waggled was a large worm.
"Soon after this incident, Whitaker vanished. This was proof enough for some that the girls' fates were linked with his, though in what way nobody could be certain. A search party set forth for the woods, there to find Whitaker's cottage abandoned. Shortly before sunset, the party discovered one Harold Singleton, inebriated and incoherent. An incorrigible ne'er-do-well, he was already on a charge for poaching on Crown lands. They'd expected a tale, but the one he offered had them peering up at the trees. Singleton claimed he'd been followed by something high within them, and sensing it draw closer, he'd panicked and aimed his shotgun. It misfired, and buckshot sprayed wide. A wind emerged, tossing the foliage, and he'd glimpsed Whitaker screaming as his peculiarly gloved hands had clasped his eyes. A voluminous black garment had flapped frenziedly around him and it seemed the very wood was an extension of him. Singleton swore that, notwithstanding the fact Whitaker was injured, as likely as not blinded, he maintained his elevated position and was moving in the general direction of Grobbey.
"There was no further sighting of the fugitive, but nevertheless, two days later, the Bishop of Blackburn ordered an exorcism to banish whatever might linger in the village. Others said the ceremony was undertaken to bind Whitaker inside the church, into some cranny of which, known only to himself, he had hidden."
Karen folded the photocopy again and again and threw it into the kitchen bin. It was understandable for Gran to want to forget her grandfather's wayward brother, especially if he was connected to a story like that. Of course, details had been elaborated over the years, and one of the main players was a drunkard, so why did it trouble her? She found herself searching urgently in her pockets for Andy's card.
He must not have returned from work, but after listening to the chirruping ring for longer than she could bear, Karen slammed the receiver with mingled feelings of anxiety and betrayal.
She rang Linda, and the ringing tone was persisting stubbornly when the doorbell sounded. Karen rushed into the hallway. In the glass panel of the front door, she thought for a moment that black flames flickered in a halo of sodium light, but, opening the door, she found Linda in a black leather jacket. At the kerb, the driver's window of the Cortina was a square mouth bawling rock music. Inside, coaxing the dregs from an upturned can, Graham looked like he was singing into a microphone. Real friends for all their limitations, Karen thought, asking Linda to give her five minutes. Rum and Coke? Yes - two or three of those would do nicely. In her room, she brushed her hair to a shine. Squinting at herself in the mirror, her eyes were blue-shadowed hollows, but she prided herself on applying eye shadow more effectively than Linda had done tonight.
Graham drove by the pub in the next street, then past Chaplin's where students congregated. As they sped along wider, leafier avenues at the edge of town, Karen asked where they were going. Linda squirmed round in her seat, her face flushed. In the windscreen, fields gathered around the last street lamps.
"Go on - guess," she said.
"Not Grobbey?" Karen said sullenly, convinced her presence was an alcohol-prompted afterthought.
"It's a nice little place, Grobbey," Graham countered. "You can introduce us to some of your relatives."
Linda giggled, then continued giggling at nothing. They began to goad each other playfully; to Karen the previous day seemed as remote and full of possibilities as childhood. Twenty minutes later the woods took them before releasing them onto Grobbey green.
Graham circled the green slowly, eyeing the houses like a prospective burglar. The church was a slab of shadow; then they were passing the pub with cars parked before its lights in a curving fan of colour. Linda was whispering in Graham's ear, and Karen realised they weren't going to stop. Two figures stood in the pub doorway. Karen knocked and waved in frantic, happy recognition. She was sure Andy had seen her, though he'd only time to look startled as the car accelerated, heading for the road that would return them to Colmorden.
It wasn't spite. They'd simply forgotten her. Linda was nuzzling Graham's neck. Karen slumped against her window, resigned. She hadn't noticed until now that it was windy again. The trees in turmoil reminded her of volatile crowds in silent films. She felt calm until the car jolted before coming to a halt. Linda was laughing as she undid her seat-belt, then she was opening her door. Cold air pushed in heedless of Karen's dismay. Graham turned the radio on, but the clamour of wind wouldn't let her hear it. Pushing at his door, the wind yanked it wide for him. He reached back into the car five shadowed fingers. "Five minutes," he shouted.
"Bastards!" Karen said, watching them move off in the headlight beams, the wind buffeting them as they leaned against each other.
Spread like wings, the doors shuddered feebly and, after she'd climbed into the front seat, it took all her strength to wrench them closed. She wished she could turn off the rushing and creaking outside as easily as the hiss coming from the radio. Wait, just wait, she told herself.
She sensed five minutes becoming more like ten. Pressing the indicator stalk, she despaired of the pitiful piping that emerged. Foliage advancing and withdrawing on the car soon made waiting a worse option, but she had to force herself to stand outside and call out. After a moment, she let the wind push her forward within the headlight beams. They'd lit her for yards further than she'd have expected when she stopped and called out again. The dark gaps between the trees ahead were yawning mouths. She turned back and a wall of trees faced her. The breath caught in her throat. It was the moon that had been lighting her way, and now, as if irritated at her discovery, it rolled behind the clouds.
A car door slammed. They wouldn't leave her - they wouldn't. She ran towards the sound, stumbled at another, fell. Her hands felt sticky where they'd hit the ground but there wasn't time to think about that. A scream had her running again, almost immediately overjoyed at light filtering between boughs. It was the road. There was a white van; its headlights illuminated Graham's car pointing into the woods and still unoccupied. Karen ran to the passenger window of the van where Eric scowled.
"What's going on? You looked terrified waving at us like that. Then we drive past and see the car with nobody in it. He's a worrier, Andy - he's gone to search for you."
Pointing, Eric looked unnerved. Karen ran, ignoring his protests. She felt in control now and, calling Andy's name, it surprised her that there was no answer. After only a few yards, the woods had surrounded her. Shifting moonlight made the trees seem to march. She sensed a circling motion and turned with it, fearfully, There was a scream that fled through the woods, wind-carried. She ran back, but the road evaded her. The trees ended, but it was a clearing.
"Karen." Thank God, thank God. It was Andy, but where? She went forward, turning as she sensed a greater movement circling the clearing - closing in.
"Here. Climb up. It's not safe."
He was in a tree. She even knew which one, though she couldn't see him. She could have laughed.
It was huge and old. Branches spread almost from floor level, and it was an easy stride from a lower to a higher one, from where she stared up into a shifting sky of foliage. "Andy?" She'd have been content to stay there but for a crashing of branches approaching the clearing, and Andy's oddly even-toned demand. "Higher - hurry." Someone tumbled into the moonlight. Then it was as if the trees expelled a clump of shadow that caught up the first figure and bore it onwards and up into the trees at the far side. A scream echoed as if the perimeter of the clearing was stone. Unable to move, Karen hugged a bough. If Andy had seen what she'd witnessed, would he sound as collected? One word emerged from the darkness above - "Higher".
At every side, sweeping wing motions of foliage opened great skewed windows onto the other trees. Only a glimpse, but had she seen a pair of figures on a branch? She twisted. In another direction, another pair of shapes, and there was no mistake this time. Barely distinguishable from the shuddering leafage that surrounded it, a figure stood on a branch. Leaning against it, a seated shape kicked feebly. When the standing figure stooped down to its companion, Karen was already glancing away, distracted by sounds of foliage giving way above her. She was trembling violently as if the wind had made her a creature of branches and leaves. She reached a foot down for the lower bough but failed to meet it. The scene in the other tree replayed behind her eyes. The expression on the face of the kicking figure had been unique in her experience, but the face itself had been familiar enough for her to know that whoever it was making its way down to her, it was not Andy. The lower bough might have dissolved in darkness, but widening her eyes for a sight of it only sharpened her recall of the head lolling back, the mouth gaping like a chick's craving grubs, the beaked face pecking down - once, twice.
She was letting go, stepping out into darkness, when hands gripped her shoulders.
"Careful." With the voice came a foul odour, enveloping her. She shouted raggedly, kicked, flailed, but the grasp only tightened. And she fought just as hard the conviction that the hands weren't hands at all, and the raucous, cajoling voice nothing like Andy's nor any other she'd ever heard, when it said:
"Karen - look up, look up, look up."
Copyright © 1998 Christopher
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