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The Girl On The Swing

Taken from Sands of Time

 

 Charlotte put her hand on the gate and pushed hard.  In the soft twilight the air was cool and fresh after the heat of the road.  ‘Are you sure this is the right house?’ she called over her shoulder.  She couldn’t bear it to be wrong.  Already she loved the place.  She could feel the weight of stress and exhaustion  lifting from her as she stood there.

‘I’m sure.  It’s just like the photo on the brochure.’ Tim slammed the boot lid and followed her up the path, a case in each hand, a bag under his arm and  waited while she put the key in the lock and after a short struggle turned it.

The  silence of the room rose at them,  enfolding them, holding them momentarily still and speechless.

Tim dropped the bags on the floor. The sound broke the spell and suddenly they could hear the birds outside again, the ticking of a clock somewhere in the corner, the creak of the door as it swung behind them.  ‘It’s a bit cold in here.’ He looked round and shivered. ‘Let’s leave the door open and  let in some warmth.’

Lilac Cottage was tiny.  A living room, pink washed between the heavy oak beams, with a large fire place filled with dried flowers took up most of the ground floor with behind it a kitchen furnished in old colour washed pine. Behind that a small modern bathroom had been slotted somehow into what must have once been a lean-to shed. Upstairs there were two rooms each with two single beds covered in brightly coloured eastern throws, the curtains flame cotton, the old boards covered in rag rugs.

Charlotte surveyed the beds quickly.  Hardly ideal for patching a marriage.  Four beds. Two rooms. They would not be thrust into one another’s arms.  She glanced at Tim ruefully but he was staring out of the window.

‘Look at the garden.  It’s gorgeous.’

The riot of colour echoed that of the bedrooms.  Scarlet and russet and violet and blue and pink and orange jostled  and quarrelled in the beds outside.  The result was exuberant and vividly cheerful.

‘Food?’ Charlotte grinned at him.  That at least was an uncontentious suggestion.  It would put off the allocation of beds.

He gave her a smile in return.  ‘Sounds good to me.’

They clattered down the narrow wooden staircase and stopped at the bottom.  The living room was full of sunshine now. Charlotte stopped, entranced.

Tim was immediately behind her.  ‘What’s wrong?’  He passed her and picked up a box of food.  ‘Come on. Last one in the kitchen does the washing up.’

Alone in the middle of the floor she glanced round.  She could hear a blackbird singing in the garden, hear Tim cheerfully crashing round in the kitchen.  For a moment she didn’t move. Then she followed him.

‘Drink?’ He had found the corkscrew and the glasses.  ‘I’m afraid the wine is a bit warm.’

‘Doesn’t matter.’ She took the glass from him and raised it. ‘Here’s to us.’ He was still very handsome, her Tim.  His square, regular features set off by his startlingly blue eyes and dark hair, his figure kept trim by games of squash and sessions at the gym.

‘To us.’ Tim smiled and leaning forward, almost shyly, he kissed her on the cheek.  ‘Pax,’ he said quietly.  ‘No more fighting.’

‘Pax.’ She nodded.

They unpacked the food and laid out a cold meal on the kitchen table.  Tim heated some soup whilst Charlotte searched the drawers for cutlery.  The crash in the next room made them both look up.

‘What was that?’

‘Only the door.  We left it open, remember?’ Tim turned down the hot plate and went to look.

Following him,  she saw Tim staring round. ‘What is it? What’s wrong?’ She was nervous about the room. It felt, she realised suddenly, as though there was someone there, watching them.

‘The door is still open.  I wedged it.’ He gave her a sheepish smile. ‘We mustn’t let ourselves get spooked.’

‘Who is spooked?’ She sounded defiant. ‘This is the country.  It was probably a sheep or something.’

‘A sheep!’ He let out a yell of laughter.  ‘Oh Carla, my love, there are no sheep for miles.’

She liked the laughter.  She hadn’t heard it for a long time.  Not since she had told him she knew about the firm’s problems.  And Serena.

It was over, he said.  Long over.  Over before it had begun.  Only the stress of the take over and the threat of  redundancy  had pushed him into it.  Mutual comfort.  Shared problems.  Being  thrust into each other’s company long day after long day.  He couldn’t help himself. Sanity had returned.  Serena had gone and he had come back to Charlotte.

But not totally.  Something was still missing; some vital, central warmth had gone from their relationship and Charlotte still felt lost and miserable.

The holiday was his idea.  Leave the broiling London streets, the car fumes, the hothouse claustrophobia of the city and in the scented greenness of the country learn to trust each other again.  She hadn’t asked him what she had done to lose his trust - the betrayal, after all,  had been  his alone. But deep down she knew.  It was because she had found out.  Never again could he trust her to look at him with the same innocence. The same certainty.

That was his loss.

They walked out into the lush twilight of the overgrown garden,  and turned as bats swooped round them, to look at the  cottage.

‘It’s still warmer out here than inside. ‘ Tim sipped his wine.

‘You noticed?’ Charlotte glanced at him.  ‘It’s worst in the sitting room.’

‘Damp, I expect.  It’s probably been empty all winter.’

‘And all spring? And all early summer?’ She shrugged.

Behind them an old apple tree was silhouetted against the green afterglow of the sky.  Tim put up a hand to the bough rough with papery lichen.  ‘I love these old trees. These days fruit trees are about two feet high.  You couldn’t climb in them.  Or swing.’ His fingers had found the old chains, bitten deep  into the bark.  They had been cut off a few inches below the branch. Rust and cobwebs and old leaves had all but hidden them.

‘This must have been an idyllic place to live as a child.’ Charlotte leaned against the branch.  She could feel the coldness of the dew on her sandals.

‘Only in fairy tales.’  Tim began to walk back towards the house.  ‘No sanitation.  Disease.  Poverty - ‘

‘Don’t spoil it, Tim.’

They moved the dried flowers and piled the hearth with logs. Charlotte cut roses from the pergola  and they found a concert on Classic FM.

It was after eleven before they stirred and, seeing the fire a bed of ash, thought about going upstairs.

Charlotte went first, noticing  that Tim had left both their cases on the landing.  She sighed.  ‘Where are we going to sleep?’ she called.

‘Don’t mind.  You choose.’

She picked up her case and walked into the left hand room.  It was the larger of the two and faced, like the other, across the garden.

‘This one.’  She put the case down on one of the beds.

‘It’s good there are two rooms.  We can spread ourselves.’ He had come upstairs behind her.  He lugged his own case into the other room.

Charlotte stared after him.  This was supposed to be a reconciliation; a new beginning.  She had imagined him bringing small gifts, wooing her afresh, reassuring her and above all making love.

Biting her lip she sat down on the bed.  For a moment she was afraid she was going to cry.

Mat? Where are you, Mat?

The voice outside her door was young; very clear.

She stared across the room in astonishment.  ‘Tim? Is that you?  Who’s there?’

The cottage was silent .

‘Tim?’ She realised suddenly that she was scared.  ‘Tim? Where are you?’

It was as though someone were listening outside the door.  Mustering every bit of courage she could find Charlotte tiptoed towards it and pushed it open.  The landing was deserted.

‘Tim?’ She nudged open the other door with her finger tip.  ‘Tim, are you there?’

Tim’s case stood in the middle of the floor. The room was empty.

Running downstairs Charlotte called again.  There was no sign of him in the house, or again  when she searched the dark garden.  Standing on the lawn she gazed round puzzled.

And suddenly he was there behind her in the kitchen doorway, mug in hand.  ‘Tea?’ he called.

‘Where were you?’ She stared at him, disorientated.

‘In the kitchen.’

‘No, just now.  When I came downstairs.’

‘I was in the kitchen.’ She saw impatience flicker across his features.  ‘You walked right past me.’

‘I didn’t.’ She tried to make it a joke.

He shook his head. ‘Never mind.  Forget it.  Have a cup of tea.’

He had washed the dishes, she discovered, and tidied everything away.  He had put new logs on the  fire and it  was smouldering gently again.

Throwing herself down on the sofa, Charlotte sipped her tea.  She watched him. 

‘I wasn’t sleepy,’ he answered her unasked question.. He stood up, his back to the flames.  ‘It’s nice here, isn’t it.  Incredibly quiet.  I hope we don’t get London- withdrawal symptoms.’ He gave her one of his lop-sides grins, half humorous, half quizzical.

‘So do I.’ She hadn’t meant her reply to sound so dry.

‘It is over, Carla.  I swear it.’ He immediately looked guilty.’ I was a total idiot and I shall regret it all my life.  Please try and forgive me.’

She stared down into the depths of her mug.  ‘I want to.’

‘But?’

One word could convey so much.  Uncertainty.  Fear. Hope.  Resignation.  Anger.

She glanced at him.  ‘But you have to show me you still love me.  ‘

‘Carla, you know I do.’

‘No, Tim.  I don’t know anything any more. Words are so easy. They are not enough.  You have to show me.  Tell me. Reassure me.  Every minute of every day if necessary.’ She paused and then tried to lighten the remark a little.  ‘At least until I’m convinced.’

‘I see.’  For a moment she though he wasn’t going to move, then at last his expression softened.  ‘So you won’t hit me if I kiss you?’

She laughed. ‘No, I won’t hit you.’

She made it easy for him. She stood up and put down her mug and held out her arms.

‘Carla - ‘ He came towards her.  His hand caught hers.  Then he froze.

Mat? Where are you, Mat?

The call came from upstairs on the landing.

‘Who the hell is that?’ He dropped her hand and strode to the staircase. 

‘It sounds like a boy.’ Charlotte was peering over his shoulder.

‘Come on.  We heard you. We know you’re there.’ Tim ran up the stairs two at a time.

Charlotte remained at the bottom. ‘Be careful - ‘

He was out of sight now, in her room.  Then she heard his footsteps cross the landing and he was in his own.

‘There’s no one here,’ he called.  ‘Take a look outside.  He must be in the garden.’

‘How could he be?  He couldn’t have gone past us - ‘ Her voice died away and she shivered.  ‘Forget it , Tim.  It must have been someone outside in the lane.’

He was clattering down now, shrugging, heading for his mug of tea and the fire.  ‘I could have sworn the voice came from upstairs.’

He sat down and leaning over the arm of the chair he drew his briefcase towards him.  Unfastening it he drew out some papers and then settled back with a comfortable sigh, the incident apparently forgotten..

Charlotte stared at him in dismay. What had happened to the kiss? ‘Tim? You’re not working?’

‘No, of course not.’ His eyes did not leave the pages on his knee.  ‘Just reading for a few moments while I finish my drink.’ He looked up suddenly. ‘You don’t mind, do you?’

‘No, of course not.’ She sat down on the opposite end of the sofa gazing into the fire.  Then she stood up again restlessly. ‘More tea?’

He did not hear her.

Shrugging she walked out into the kitchen and opened the back door.  The garden was sweet scented  beneath the moon; almost as light as day.  She stepped down onto the grass and wandered across the lawn.  The apple tree cast a hard shadow in the moonlight.  Beneath it, it was black.  Somewhere near by an owl hooted.

Mattie, where are you?

The voice was further away now at the end of the garden.  He sounded young and very sad.

‘Hello!’ Charlotte called.

She took a couple of steps forward.  ‘Hello? Don’t be afraid.’

There was no answer.  In the silence she found she was  shivering.

Behind her in the cottage a light came on upstairs.  She didn’t notice.  She stepped  further into the shadows.  ‘Where are you?’

Above her the apple tree branches were dark.

In the cottage the light went out.

‘I know you’re there.  Come out, so I can see you.’ It was dark all round her now.  The ground was damp underfoot, the air suddenly cold and bitter with rotting leaves. She knew there was no one there.  She could sense the emptiness of the night.

Suddenly frightened she turned back towards the house.  The backdoor was half open as she had left it.  In the living room one small lamp burned by the fireplace.  There was no sign of Tim.

Climbing the stairs she glanced into his bedroom.  His curtains were open.  She could see him in the moonlight, lying on the bed.

‘Tim!’ she whispered.

He slept on.

In her own room the smell of lavender and roses drifted in through the open window.  She dug in her case for her washing things and her nightdress and crept downstairs to the bathroom.

She woke suddenly a couple of hours later and lay looking up at the ceiling. The moon had gone and the room was dark.  For a moment she didn’t move, then she stood up and went to the window.  The  moon had gone behind  the house and the garden was still bright with its glow.  There was someone under the apple tree.  She frowned, straining her eyes.  A girl in a white dress.  She was sitting on a swing, gently rocking herself backwards and forwards with one foot.

As Charlotte watched  the girl swung higher.  She grasped the chains more tightly as she pushed harder, her head back, her long hair tumbling behind her as the momentum of the swing carried her higher and she was pointing her toes now, her white dress flying in the moonlight.

Mattie, where are you?

The boy’s voice was right behind Charlotte as though he too was looking out of the window.

Mattie, no!

Charlotte spun round, her heart thumping.

The room was empty.

‘Tim, did you hear that?’ Her voice was husky.  She found she was shaking. Turning back to the window she glanced out.  The garden was deserted.  Under the apple tree the shadows were dark and empty.

‘Tim?  Tim!’ Running across the landing Charlotte threw open his door.  ‘Tim? Did you hear him?’

Tim groaned.  Turning over onto his back he opened his eyes and blinked.  ‘What time is it?’

‘I don’t know.  Three-ish, I think. Tim, he was here, in my room.’

‘Who?’ Tim sat up.  He was bare-chested, wearing only his shorts and Charlotte was aware suddenly of how much she wanted him.

‘I don’t know who.  The boy.  The one we heard earlier.  The one calling for Mattie.’ She broke off.  The girl. The girl on the swing.  Had that been Mattie?

But she had been a dream.  Surely, she had been a dream.

‘Tim, I’m scared.  Can I come in here with you?’

For a moment she wondered if he would refuse.  He said nothing, looking at her, then he held out his arms.

‘Why did you go to bed on your own?’ she asked as she snuggled in beside him in the narrow bed.

‘You disappeared.  I thought  maybe you felt it was too soon.’  He reached up and kissed her forehead gently. Then  his arms slid round her waist and he drew her close.

                                                 *

‘I think the cottage is haunted.’ Spooning boiled eggs into egg cups. Charlotte set them on the tale and reached for the toast rack.  She was pink and scrubbed from the shower and  glowing with happiness.

Tim nodded.  ‘I wondered when you would finally come to that conclusion.

‘You think so too?’

He shrugged. Spreading marmalade on his toast he shook his head slowly. ‘I can’t think of any other explanation.’

‘But you don’t believe in ghosts.’

‘I know.’ He grinned.

‘Does it scare you?’

‘No.’ He reached for his coffee.  ‘It sounded like a child.  Worried. Lost. Frightened but not frightening.  I think this is one of those places where events have been recorded in the house walls.  Like a video.  It plays the same sequence again and again.’

‘But there must have been a reason for it to have recorded that bit. He has lost someone.  He is desperate to find her.’

The girl on the swing.

She sat down opposite him. ‘Poor boy.  I wish we could help.’

‘Videos don’t need help.’ He began to tap his egg.

‘I suppose not.’ She wasn’t convinced.

He glanced up.  This isn’t going to spoil the holiday for you?’

She shook her head and smiled.  ‘After last night? After all, he brought us back together.’

‘He did didn’t he.’ He lifted the top off his egg neatly.  ‘What shall we do today?’

She didn’t answer. When he glanced up again he saw that she was smiling.

*

Later that morning they strolled along the lane to the village shop.  It was the old man in the queue for the tiny post office counter who recognised them.  ‘You the folks from Lilac Cottage?’

Tim nodded.

‘I thought so.  You seen young Matilda yet?’

Behind them Tim heard Charlotte’s quick intake of breath.

‘Who’s Matilda?’ he asked

‘Now Bill Forrest, don’t you go scaring folk!’ The post mistress leaned forward and tapped the glass partition between them sharply. ‘Take no notice of him, my dears. He’s an old fool.’

‘No.’ Charlotte stepped forward.  ‘No, wait.  Tell us please.’

The old man glanced at her.  His eyes were hazy blue, but they were very keen. ‘You seen her, then?’

‘On the swing.  Yes.’

‘Matilda Brew, that was.  Just a girl when she died , so they say. Her brother, he unfastened the swing for a prank. Thought it would dump her on the grass, he did, poor lad.’

‘Oh God, that’s awful.’ Charlotte stared at him

‘When did this happen? Tim put his arm round Charlotte’s shoulder.

‘Years ago.  Long before my time.’ The old man tucked his pension deep into his pocket.  ‘You go and look in the churchyard if you want to know about them.  The grave is there, near the gate.’

*

They pushed open the lych gate on the way back to the cottage.  The old stone, covered in moss, had leaned over slightly. The words were badly weathered.

Matilda Drew  born 1753 died 1827

May her spirit fly free as a bird on the wing

There was a picture of a dove beneath the words, then under that again a smaller, less ornate inscription said simply.

And here lies also her brother

John

born 1750 died 1841

Tim frowned.  ‘That can’t be right. That means she was in her seventies when she died and he was nearly ninety.  It must be the wrong grave.’

‘Or Bill got the story wrong.  John got there in time.’ Charlotte ran a finger over the rough lettering. She glanced at him.  ‘That’s what I think happened.  He realised what he had done and he ran out into the garden as she began to swing and he saved her.’ Somehow she knew she was right.

‘And  his panic was so great that the house has remembered it all these years?’  Tim  nodded.  ‘They must have been very close, to be buried together like this. Neither of them married.’

‘Do you  think they were happy in the house?’

‘Of course they were.’  Tim grinned at her. ‘I think there is a lesson here somewhere, don’t you?  Even if it does come right in the end one can still regret a mistake for eternity.’  He pulled her against him gently and kissed her, then, stepping away he leaned across to pick  a wild rose from the hedge.  Laying it  at the foot of the headstone he stood for a moment in silence, then he turned and reached out again for Charlotte’s hand. ‘Come on, he said.  ‘Let’s go home.’

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