It’s Sunday again! I can’t believe it. For people who are confined to barracks, we’re fairly rattling through the weeks and months! Let’s hope time is propelling us towards a bright spot on the horizon. Anyway, I hope you are keeping safe and well and have a few moments to spare for the third instalment of Scrapefoot. Who is behind the brightly-lit windows of a seemingly empty cottage? Enjoy…
My heart must have stalled, because it suddenly started up again, rattling in my chest like a freight train. This time I did fumble for my phone, not to access the flashlight, but to have 999 at the ready. Squatters. That was the only explanation. Eel Beck Cottage was an ex-forestry worker’s dwelling. It had its own modest patch of land, with a vegetable plot at the back and a front garden over which, despite some heavy-duty wire netting, my mother had fought a long running battle with the deer. This was not a house you’d stumble upon. There were no passers-by in the wood, no ramblers, or tourists or opportunists. Whoever was behind those warm amber windows had chosen to be here. Had been led here. I glanced up at that bright star.
How dare they? Mustering all my courage, and mentally rolling up my sleeves, I started up the garden path. I was not afraid of confrontation. Most people, be they board members or gnarly trespassers, could be viewed as naughty children. They just needed the error of their ways pointing out to them in no uncertain terms. I had only taken a handful of steps when I realised I was not the first to mark this pristine blanket of snow. There were tracks, a single animal, leading right up to the front door. Animal prints. Fox prints. I stopped dead. Despite the cold and the dark, the front door was slightly ajar.
I faltered. Icicles, like crystal drops, had formed on the stone lintel and now they were melting, drip, drip ,drip. Someone had lit a fire in house. I could smell woodsmoke and the snow which had been banked up against the bottom of the door caved in like a child’s sandcastle. The amber light around the door seemed to grow brighter. For a second, the idea of a dirty, smelly fox slipping into my mother’s home outraged me more that the notion of a vagrant take-over. I could smell fox; that sharp, musky whiff. The same scent that greeted me in London when I went out to my car in the early mornings. The scent of something waiting and watching, anticipating my next move.
Giving the door a shove, I stepped over the threshold of snow. A rich, dark heat hit me: smouldering timber, winter apples, spice. It propelled me forcibly back to childhood, to my mother’s far-fetched tales, fleecy pyjamas, hot chocolate before bed. I had to swallow something hard that lodged in my throat and when I called out, my voice had lost its usual authority.
“Hello? Who’s there? You shouldn’t be in here, you know.”
I let my gaze roam around the walls. The place was filled with candles in jars. On every surface they sat, little flames dancing like fireflies. I’d been imagining a crime scene, the place burglarised, upturned drawers and scattered paper and desecration. But none of that was evident. The place looked broadly as we had left it twelve months ago, when the paramedics had skilfully manoeuvred my mother over the same threshold. She’d looked back once, and I’d had to avert my eyes from the deep well of sorrow in hers.
No the place looked undisturbed. I said it again- hello -in a much firmer voice. A head popped up from behind the table, quickly followed by the rest of the man who’d been crouching there. There is a strange man in my mother’s kitchen. That’s all my brain would come up with. There is a strange man in my mother’s kitchen.
And he was indeed strange.
He was very…pale. Like a faded painting. Hair the colour of ash and a wispy beard to match, an Arran jumper unravelling at the hem, and those camouflage pants that soldiers wear in the desert. He was barely there, yet somehow he seemed to merge with the kitchen and all its neutral shades; whitewash, stone, limed oak. When he looked straight at me, his eyes reflected the amber glow of the candlelight.
“Hello,” he said, as if I was the visitor, the intruder.
“What do you think you’re doing?” My voice was gaining ground, becoming more confident.
He glanced at the floor tiles. “I was fixing that table leg. It’s wobbly, the table.”
“It’s always been wobbly, but-”
“No problem. You’re welcome.” He moved over to the hearth where a healthy blaze was spitting and crackling. Sparks detached themselves and floated up the chimney. As a child, I used to rush outside to see if I could spot them emerge, little specks of fairy dust against the night sky. I shook the notion away.
“My mother hasn’t used that fireplace for years. There’s central heating and light.” I marched over to the wall and clicked a switch. The kitchen was flooded with a harsh artificial glow, making the stranger wince. I could see him clearly now. My first thought was that he was much younger than I’d first thought. Maybe he’d gone prematurely grey, like Philip Scofield. His skin was still young and taut, and his facial hair looked a bit tentative, like a teenager’s. It was hard to work out his age.
“I like the dark,” he complained, rubbing at his eyes.
I immediately clicked off the switch and we reverted to candlelight. What the hell was I doing?
“Look- who are you? I’m going to call the police.”
He laughed at that, one of those seen-it-all-before laughs. “I wouldn’t bother. They’d never be able to find this place. It took me all my time.”
“So how did you find it?” I was feeling frustrated, angry and my legs were tired. I wanted to sit down, but I had to get this person out of the house first.
“The star, of course.” He jerked his head towards the low ceiling. My thoughts travelled upwards, through the rafters and the attic, up into the sky to the Great Conjunction. I brought them back down to earth and rearranged them. I had to get this CRAZY person out of the house. Something else occurred to me.
“That fox- is it yours? A pet or something? It came in here, I saw the prints in the snow. You need to get out and take it with you.” I suddenly moved from the spot where I’d planted myself, looking under the table and between the legs of chairs. “They’re unhygienic.”
“The white fox?” His voice sounded amused.
“Is it a dog?” I straightened up. That would make more sense. “Is it your dog? Look, seriously, you and your dog need to sling your hook. Get out now. This is my mother’s house. I don’t even know how you got in.”
I glance around wildly but there is no sign of a forced entry. Everything is untouched apart from the addition of a warm fire and soft lighting- and a fixed table leg.
“No, No, it’s not a dog,” he said eventually, but he didn’t elaborate.
Thank you for reading! See you next week for Scrapefoot #4