“What a dreadful business this is,” said the actress, putting the teacup down on top of the newspaper she had been reading. A brown ring of tea stained the headline – HAVENMOOR TRAGEDY SENDS VILLAGE INTO MOURNING. “This would never happen in London.”
Nathaniel Hunter paused in the middle of dealing the cards and nodded, as he had done at every word she’d said all afternoon. Grandma Lou said nothing, but smiled at Scarlett before going back to her knitting. Scarlett smiled back. All afternoon Lou had listened politely and only spoken occasionally, whilst Nathan ranted about the state of the economy and the finer points of card-dealing and how wonderful Scarlett had been as Lady Macbeth, whilst agreeing whole-heartedly with every point Scarlett made. However, it seemed he had nothing at all to say about the newspaper article.
Grandma Lou pretended to concentrate on a dropped stitch. For a while there were only the sounds of birds tweeting outside the French windows, and a train going by, until the actress broke the silence. “You told me nothing ever happens in the countryside.”
“It never does,” Nathan muttered. “Not around here. I don’t see why you wanted to come and visit this place instead of staying in London. It’s dull. No one around but Grandma and her dogs.”
“Nathan! Don’t be rude!” Scarlett playfully slapped his hand, and he dropped the cards all over the table.
“Oh, don’t mind me, my dear,” Lou said, whilst he went about clearing them up, apologising to Scarlett for his clumsiness. “Young people do say silly things when they aren’t thinking.”
A nervous whimper and the clatter of china signalled the arrival of Josephine – the maid – with more tea. Lou gestured for her to put it down.
“I don’t think there’s ever been an animal attack in London,” Scarlett was saying. “Not one like this. That’s what the papers are saying.”
“Only that it looked like an animal attack, sweetheart,” Nathan said, shifting his chair closer to hers so that their knees touched. “We don’t have to talk about this.”
Scarlett pouted at him. “But I’m interested. Really, Nathan, this is just the sort of thing you’re always writing about in your books, I thought you’d be interested too.”
Nathan moped until Grandma Lou snapped, “Don’t pull faces, Nathaniel. Where did this happen, my dear?”
Scarlett looked over the newspaper. “At Witch Cottage, two nights ago. That little dump we passed on the way here? I thought it was abandoned. I looked like no one had lived there for years. No wonder it looked so awful if someone died there.”
There was a tiny shriek and a crash as Josephine dropped the tray and the empty cups shattered into pieces. The poor girl was on her knees in seconds, scooping up the bits of china. “Sorry, I’m so sorry missus’, sir, I’m so sorry.”
“It’s all right,” Nathan started, but Lou interrupted him. “I think that perhaps you should go to bed, Josephine, dear. Take those things to the kitchen and be off with you.”
The poor little thing nodded and hurried away, mop of red hair bouncing and trembling like an autumn tree in a breeze. Scarlett waved her hand dismissively.
“She’s a timid creature, isn’t she? Whatever, Grandma Lou, you must know about the Witch House if you’ve lived here all your life.”
Lou smiled fondly. “Why, as a matter of fact, there were some stories we used to tell about the Witch House when I was a young woman. About your age, in fact.”
“Did a witch really live there?” Scarlett asked. Nathanial put an arm around her shoulders and tried to pull her close, but she squirmed away, all her attention on Lou.
“There was a woman who lived there, once,” Lou said. “She made her living knitting little caps for the girls in the village. People were afraid of her because she kept to herself in that little cottage. But they only started calling her a witch after the wedding party.”
Scarlett gave a little gasp of excitement. “What happened?”
“The woman had a lover in the village, and he promised that he’d marry her. But one day she found that he was engaged to another woman, with a wealthier family. The wedding proceeded as normal and the woman danced with the rest. But the next morning none of the guests could be found. Not the groom, nor the best man nor any of either family. Just the bride was left alone in her bedroom.
“No one saw the witch again, but when the moon is full, they say that you can still hear howling from Witch’s Cottage. That’s the wedding party, all turned into wolves as revenge for being scorned.”
Lou waved a hand. “But it is only a silly story. More than likely the man upped and left when he found better prospects somewhere else.” She yawned and looked at the clock. “It is late. I should be getting to bed. I trust you can find your way home?”
“I’m not scared of wolves!” Scarlett declared. “I have Nathan to protect me.” She held his hand tightly as they stood up.
Grandma Lou waved them away and Scarlett waved back until Nathan’s car was all the way down the road and the house was out of sight. It was only when they were half way home that she said, “But if the groom just ran away, what happened to the other wedding guests?”
HAVENMOOR TRAGEDY SENDS VILLAGE INTO MOURNING
Harold and Mary Johnston were today found dead in the early hours of the morning. Police reports suggest that they may have been attacked by an animal, perhaps a wild dog.
Mrs Johnston had only recently returned to Havenmoor-Upon-Avon, after she moved to Nottingham following the disappearance of her first husband, Richard Clement, who has not been seen since he mysteriously vanished on their wedding night, along with all of their guests.
Mrs Johnston was seen by a number of witnesses with a man who is believed to be her first husband. The Police are treating Clement as a potential witness, but have not as yet been able to locate him for questioning. The deaths are not being treated as suspicious.
“Perhaps the witch did it,” Nathan joked when she showed him. “Saw that her old love-rival had come back to town and decided to finish what she started. Or sent her pet wolves to do it for her!”
Eventually, she begged Nathan to take her to see the house. “Won’t it make a great play, sweetheart? You can write it and I’ll play the lead! Let’s go to the house, Nathan, oh please let’s go!”
And that was how they found themselves breaking into Witch’s Cottage on the evening of a night with a full moon. Nathan had a torch and a cricket bat in case of danger. Scarlett had a picnic in a wicker basket. She shifted from foot to foot, beaming with excitement.
“I’ll go in first and make sure it’s safe. Wait here,” Nathan said, and left Scarlett in the hallway whilst he went up the rickety staircase. Scarlett didn’t want to wait. After only a minute her feet itched from standing still and she pushed open the nearest door to see what was inside. A kitchen, she thought, as she squinted. Yes, there was the oven, and the dining table, all layered with dust and cobwebs. She stepped forwards then stopped.
The floor was alive! It was covered in heaving, uneven lumps, filled with sounds of snuffling and heavy breathing.
“Nathan!” Scarlett called, wishing she had brought a torch too. She heard a voice upstairs. Nathan’s voice, but not calling back to her. It was low, muttering and she couldn’t make out the words. And there was another voice too. Nathan was talking to someone.
She opened her mouth to call again when the light of the full moon shone in through the cracked window and Scarlett saw why the floor had been moving. The room was full of dogs. All sorts of breeds of dog, filling every inch of floor, some even lazing about on the counters and table. Scarlett backed out of the room. She could hear the voices getting louder, but still couldn’t make out what was being said. Something hit the back of her legs. She looked around and down to see a frail red dog looking up at her. It scratched at her legs. Scarlett almost shook it off, but frowned. The dog seemed familiar. She bent down to get a better look.
She heard Nathan yell, and then a crash, and forgot about the dogs, running out into the hallway.
Nathan was lying half way down the stairs, his chest slashed open in three places. His glazed eyes stared up at the ceiling. A trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth and another down the stairs from the back of his head. Scarlett dropped to her knees by his side and felt for a heartbeat she knew she would not find. He looked surprised.
Scarlett cradled his head and rocked him back and forth. The little red dog joined her.
“I can’t just leave him here,” she told the dog. With a great effort she dragged Nathan’s body to the top of the stairs and rested him with his back against the wall. She kissed his still-warm forehead. Nathan had been talking to someone, so they had to still be nearby. She set down the picnic basket and went to the nearest door, pushing it open. It was a bedroom, curtains shut tight making it even darker than the rest of the house. She fumbled for a light switch.
“No lights, my dear. It’s bad for my eyes.”
Scarlett slowly stepped towards the croaking voice, squinting in the darkness until she could make out the shape of Grandma Lou, sat hunched like a vulture in the bed.
“What are you doing here, Grandma Lou?” she asked. “I heard voices arguing, Nathan…”
“Come a little closer,” Lou called, but Scarlett stayed where she was. She spotted a little knitted cap of crimson wool sitting on the dresser.
“I see you’ve found my old cap.” Lou chuckled. “Put it on. It is my engagement gift to you. Come and sit beside me.”
Scarlett picked up the cap and hesitantly sat down where Lou patted the bed. She narrowed her eyes. The darkness seemed to distort Lou’s features.
“Why, Grandma Lou, are you alright? There’s something wrong with your eyes.”
“It is only the dark. Put the cap on, my dear. Ah, yes! It suits you well. Why, Scarlett, you’ve gone quite pale. And you’re crying, dear. Did my story scare you?”
“It was only a story,” Scarlett whispered. “A silly story.”
“Come closer,” Grandma Lou’s hands crept out of the shadows and snatched at the air. “Let me see the ring he gave you.”
“What large hands you have, Grandma Lou,” said Scarlett, moving away. “Please, I have to tell you something.”
“Sit down, my child; I do like your company. So much more polite and delicate than clumsy Nathaniel.”
“That is what I am trying to tell you!” Scarlett cried, and stood up, backing towards the door. “I found Nathan on the stairs-“
“Do not worry about Nathaniel. Sit down, my dear, I insist!”
Scarlett swallowed. “Grandma Lou, how deep your voice is.”
“It is late and I am tired. Go home and forget all about the stories and no one will trouble you, my dear. There are no wolves in the walls waiting to gobble you up.”
“Oh, Grandma,” said Scarlett, “What big lies you tell.”
Grandma Lou smiled and Scarlett swore she saw bright white teeth shining even in the darkness. She ran for the door and grabbed the handle with shaking hands. They slipped from sweat and she fought to get a grip, only to find that no matter how hard she pulled, it would not open. The little red dog was yapping on the other side, little claws scratching the door. Scarlett kicked the door and cursed and screamed, but there was no one outside but Nathan’s cold body and a house full of dogs.
“Clever girl. You remind me of Josephine, always poking and prying.” Grandma Lou’s voice was a snarl. “She won’t be telling any more tales.” A shadow rose from the bed, with crooked teeth and searching claws. “Do you know what happens to little boys and girls who ask too many questions?”
Slowly, Scarlett slid to the ground, back pressed to the door as the shadow loomed over her. On the other side of the door she could no longer hear the little red dog’s yapping, only the growls and barks of many hungry dogs.
“Grandma Lou,” she whispered, “What big teeth you have…”
“All the better to eat you with, my dear.”
(inspired by Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories, and Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple stories. Originally published by Splendid Fred magazine online, December 2014)