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Authors: Susan Hill

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Seven

y business was going through the usual summer lull and I did not have enough to occupy me. The nightmare did not return, but although I had no more attacks of fear, I could not get that experience out of my mind and, in the end, I decided that I would talk to my brother. I rang to ask if I could go to see them for a night and got his Danish wife, Benedicte, who was always welcoming. I think that so far as she was concerned I could have turned up on their doorstep at any time of the day or night and I would have been welcome. With Hugo, though, it was different.

He was now a teacher in a boys’ public school situated in a pleasant market town in Suffolk. They had a Georgian house with a garden running down to the river and the slight air of being out of time that always seems to be part of such places.

They had one daughter, Katerina, who had just left to stay with her cousins in Denmark for the holiday. Hugo and Benedicte were going to the States, where he was to teach a summer school.

I have always felt a great calm and contentment as I step through their front door. The house is light and elegant and always immaculate. But if it belongs to the eighteenth century from the outside, within it is modern Scandinavian, with a lot of pale wood flooring, cream rugs, cream leather chairs, steel and chrome. It would be soulless were it not for two things. The warmth that emanates from Benedicte herself, and the richly coloured wall hangings which she weaves and sells. They make the house sing with scarlet and regal purple, deep blue and emerald.

It is a strange environment for my brother. Hugo has perhaps never quite picked up the last threads of equilibrium, which is why the house and his wife are so good for him. He has an edginess, a tendency to disappear inside himself and look into some painful distance, detached from what is going on around him. But he loves his job and his family and I do not think he is greatly troubled – for all that he has reminders of his sufferings from time to time.

I ARRIVED IN the late afternoon and caught up on news. Benedicte was going out to her orchestra practice – she plays the oboe – but left us with a delicious dinner which needed only a few final touches put to it. The kitchen opened on to the garden, with a distant glimpse of the river, and it was warm enough for us to have the doors open on to a still evening. The flames of the candles in their slender silver holders scarcely flickered.

‘I need your advice,’ I said to Hugo, as we began to eat our smoked fish. ‘Advice, help – I’m really not sure which.’

He looked across at me. We are not alike. Hugo takes after our mother, in being tall and dark with a long oval face. I am stockier and fairer, though we are of a height. But our eyes are the same, a deep smoky blue. Looking into Hugo’s eyes was oddly like looking into my own in a mirror. How much else of his depths might I see in myself, I wondered.

‘Do you ever …’ I looked at the fish on my fork. I did not know how to ask, what words to use that would not upset him. ‘I wonder if you sometimes …’

He was looking straight at me, the blue eyes direct and as unwavering as the candle flames. But he was silent. He gave me no help.

‘The thing is … something quite nasty happened to me. Nothing like it has ever happened before. Not to me. Nothing …’ I heard my voice trailing off into silence.

After a moment Hugo said, ‘Go on.’

As if a torrent had been unleashed, I began to tell him about the afternoon in the Botanic Garden and my terrible fear and then the overwhelming urge to fall face down into the water. I told him everything about the day, I elaborated on my feelings leading up to the fear, I went into some detail about how things were in my present life. The only thing I did not mention, because there were somehow not the words to describe it, was the small hand.

Hugo listened without interrupting. We helped ourselves to chicken pie. A salad.

I fell silent. Hugo took a piece of bread. Outside it had grown quite dark. It was warm. It was very still. I remembered the night I had sat out on the terrace at the Merrimans’ house in the gathering dusk, so soon after these strange events had begun.

‘And you think you are going mad,’ Hugo said evenly. ‘Like me.’

‘No. Of course I don’t.’

‘Oh, come on, Adam … If you’re here to get my advice or whatever it is you want, tell me the truth.’

‘I’m sorry. But the truth is – well, I don’t know what it is, but you didn’t go mad.’

‘Yes, I did. Whatever “mad” is, I went it to some degree. I was in a madhouse, for God’s sake.’

I had never heard him speak so harshly.

‘Sorry,’ I said.

‘It’s fine. I hardly think about it now. It’s long gone. Yet there is sometimes the shadow of a shadow, and when that happens I wonder if it could come back. And I don’t know, because I don’t know what caused it in the first place. My psyche was turned inside out and shaken, but they never got to the bottom of why.’

He looked at me speculatively. ‘So now you.’ Then, seeing my expression, he added quickly, ‘Sorry, Adam. Of course not you. What you had was just a panic attack.’

‘But I’ve never had such a thing in my life.’

He shrugged. A great, soft, pale moth had come in through the open window and was pattering round the lamp. I have never cared for moths.

‘Let’s go out for some air,’ I said.

It was easier, strolling beside my brother down the garden. I could talk without having to see his face.

‘Why would I have what you call a panic attack, out of the blue? What would cause it?’

‘I’ve no idea. Perhaps you’re not well?’

‘I’m perfectly well.’

‘Shouldn’t you see your GP all the same, get a check?’

‘I suppose I could. When you …’

‘No,’ he said, ‘I wasn’t ill either.’

We stood at the bottom of the path. A few paces away was the dark river.

‘I was within a hair’s breadth of throwing myself into that pool. It was terrifying. It was as if I had to do it, something was making me.’

‘Yes.’

‘I’m afraid it will happen again.’

He put a hand briefly on my shoulder. ‘Go and see someone. But it probably won’t, you know.’

‘Did you ever ask if anyone else in the family had had these – attacks, these fears?’

‘Yes. So far as anyone knew, they didn’t.’

‘Oh.’

‘I think that part really is coincidence.’

‘I might not be able to resist another time.’

‘I’m pretty sure you will.’

‘Might you have jumped in front of one of those trains?’

‘I think …’ he said carefully, ‘that there was usually something inside me that held me back – something stronger than it, whatever “it” was. But once … once perhaps.’ He shook himself. ‘I’d rather not.’

‘The shadow of a shadow.’

‘Yes.’

We heard the sound of Benedicte’s car pulling up and then the bang of the front door. Hugo turned to go back inside. I did not. I walked on, beyond the end of the garden and across the narrow path until I was standing on the riverbank. I could smell the water, and although there was only a half-moon, the surface of it shone faintly. I felt calm now, calm and relieved. Hugo seemed to have come through his own ordeal unscathed. He did not want to dwell on it and I couldn’t blame him. I think I knew that whatever had happened to me was of a different order and with a quite different origin. I also knew that if ever it happened to me again, my brother would not want to help me. Nothing had been said and in all other respects I knew I would always be able to rely on him, as I hoped he would upon me. But in this, I was alone.

Or perhaps not alone.

I heard the water lap the side of the bank softly. I felt no fear of it. Why should I?

I waited for some time there in the darkness. I heard their voices from the house. A door closed. A light went on upstairs.

I waited until I felt the night chill off the water and then I turned away with what I realised was a sort of sadness, a disappointment that the small hand had not crept into mine. I was coming to expect it.

I still had the sense then that the hand belonged to someone whose intentions were wholly benign and who was well disposed towards me, who was trusting.

I WAS TO look back on that night with longing – longing for the sense of peace I knew then, even if I also felt an odd sudden loneliness; even if I had, God help me, for some strange reason actually hoped for the presence of the small hand holding mine.

Eight

he following night I had another vivid dream. I was standing as I had stood that evening beside the broken-down gate that led into the garden of the White House, only this time it was not evening but night, a cold, clear night with a sky sown with glittering stars. I was alone and I was waiting. I knew that I was waiting but for whom I waited the dream did not tell me. I felt excited, keyed up, as if some longed-for excitement was about to happen or I was to see something very beautiful, experience some great pleasure.

After a time, I knew that someone was coming towards me from the depths of the garden beyond the gate, though I neither heard nor saw anything. But there was a small light bobbing in the darkness among the trees and bushes some way ahead and I knew that it was getting nearer. Perhaps someone was carrying a lantern.

I waited. In a moment, whoever it was would appear or call out to me. I was eager to see them. They were bringing me something – not an object but some news or information. They were going to tell me something and when they had told me, everything would fall into place. I would know a great secret.

The light disappeared now and then, as the undergrowth obscured it, but then I saw it again a little nearer to me. I moved a step or two forward, my hand on the broken gate. I can feel it now, the cool roughened wood under my palm. I can see the lamp growing a little brighter.

I felt a great wave of happiness and, at the same time, a desire to run towards the light, to push my way roughly through the branches that hung low over the path. I had to do so. I was needed. It was urgent that I should go into the garden, that I should meet the lantern-bearer, that I should not waste another moment, as I somehow felt that I had wasted so many – not moments, but months and years.

I pushed on the gate to try and free it from where it was embedded in the earth and grass, which had grown up in great coarse clumps around it.

I was not pushing hard enough. The gate did not budge. I put my shoulder to it. I had to open it and go into the garden, go quickly, because now the light was very near but going crazily from side to side, as if someone was swinging it hard.

I put my whole strength to the gate and pushed. It gave suddenly so that I was pitched forward and felt myself falling.

And as I fell, I woke.

I THOUGHT A GREAT deal about the dream in the course of the next couple of days and instead of fading from my mind the memory of it became stronger. Perhaps if I could find out more about the White House and its garden, and if I went there again, I would be able to loosen the strange hold it seemed to have on me.

I would pay a visit to the London Library, and if that yielded nothing the library of the RHS, and try to find anything that had been written about it. I had no interest in gardens but something had led me to the ruins of that one and something had happened to me during those few minutes I had spent there which was haunting me now.

Before I had a chance to get to any library, however, a phone call from Fergus McCreedy put the whole matter from my mind.

‘I have news for you,’ he said.

THE MONASTERY OF Saint Mathieu des Etoiles clearly trusted Fergus. The Librarian had sent him a confidential list of the treasures they felt able to sell to raise the money they needed. They included, he said, two icons, the Islamic objects in which Helena was so interested, and three medieval manuscripts. And a Shakespeare First Folio. The Librarian had asked Fergus if he would act as go-between in the disposal of the items – they wanted someone who had an entrée to libraries, museums and collectors round the world, who could be trusted not to send out a press release, and above all a man they regarded as fair and honourable. Fergus was to visit the monastery later in the summer, to look at everything, but he had proposed that I be allowed to go there at once, specifically to look at the First Folio. He had told the Librarian about me. My credentials seemed to satisfy and Fergus suggested I make arrangements with the monastery to visit as soon as I could. If I agreed, he proposed to forward all the contact details.

‘It is a silent order,’ he said, ‘but the Librarian and the Guest Master are allowed to talk in the course of their duties, and both speak English. I suggest you get on with it.’

I asked if that meant he thought they might change their minds.

‘Not at all. It has been deliberated over for a long time. They are quite sure and the Head of the Order has approved it all. But you don’t want anyone else to get wind of this and neither do I. In my experience things have a way of getting out, even from enclosed orders of silent monks.’

BOOK: The Small Hand
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