Frances lives in Oxfordshire with her husband and American cat and a Greek dog. She was shortlisted for the HG Wells short story prize and is currently writing a novel.
Beth saw the sign first.
‘Look; there’s a house for sale.’
She spoke through a mouthful of blackberries that had stained her lips an unflattering shade of purple. They’d passed a farm ten minutes ago, a shabby affair with a broken-down barn and a farmyard littered with nameless mechanical junk. Now there were only fields.
‘I can’t see anything,’ Guy said, glancing around. ‘Perhaps someone dumped the sign there.’
‘Don’t be silly. Why would anyone do that?’
Beth set off at a clip and he followed her with his head down. When he looked up again, she’d vanished.
‘Beth.’ All he wanted was to read the newspaper in the luxurious surroundings of the hotel, but no, a weekend in the Cotswolds wouldn’t be complete without trudging up a muddy lane in the drizzle. ‘Beth,’ he shouted more loudly.
Beth’s head popped out of the hedge. Her blond hair had come untethered from its clips and fell in damp, snaky tendrils around her face. ‘I think it’s up here.’ The track was steep and so overgrown with vegetation that he had to use a stick to push it back. By the time he caught up with her, he was out of breath and on the verge of mutiny. ‘Look.’ She was pointing towards a low stone building that was almost obscured by ivy. ‘This must be it. Do you think anyone lives there?’
Guy shrugged. ‘I doubt it.’ He searched for a dock leaf to soothe the nettle rash on his ankle which was stinging and itching at the same time. ‘Can we go back now. I need a cup of coffee.’
Beth made a face. ‘Don’t be silly, we’ve come all this way we should at least check it out.’
Guy’s heart sank. There had been talk of buying a second home, but he’d always batted it away. Now, with his bonus sitting in their joint bank account, he was more vulnerable than ever to Beth’s considerable powers of persuasion.
Beth flashed him a smile. ‘I owe you one.’
‘You bloody well do. And, just to be clear, we’re not buying it.’
They exchanged contracts four weeks later and the next day, Guy’s boss called him in and said they were letting him go.
‘Maybe it’s a good thing,’ Beth observed as he drowned his sorrows in a bottle of burgundy, ‘you can do the cottage up and then you can look for another job.’
He’d agreed to buy it as an investment. They would renovate it and rent it to holiday makers prepared pay a premium for beams, inglenook fireplaces, and wood-burning stoves.
‘Great.’ He stared miserably into his glass.
He hadn’t intended to do the work himself. The idea was to get a man in or, better still, several men. Beth patted his knee to confirm the arrangement; she hadn’t kicked up a stink when he’d lost his job, but nor had she brokered his suggestion that they should put the cottage back on the market.
‘Anyway, no one will want it in the state it’s in,’ she added.
‘Yes, but that’s different. We have a vision.’
To realise Beth’s vision, Guy found himself sleeping on a blow-up mattress in a semi-derelict cottage in the middle of nowhere. He soon discovered that he hated DIY and had made almost no progress until the surprisingly attractive barmaid at the pub recommended Tony.
Tony was in his sixties and never stopped talking, but he seemed to know what he was doing. In two days, he’d ripped up the battered parquet floor in the sitting room and dismantled the kitchen units. Guy took out his phone and snapped a picture of the empty kitchen before sending it to Beth, who’d been complaining about the slow rate of progress. _Done!_ 😊 xx.
‘What’s next Guvnor?’
Tony looked at him expectantly; he was cradling a mug of tea, his fifth or sixth that day. Guy hated being called Guvnor like some decrepit army Major but his requests to be called Guy didn’t seem to be getting through.
‘Not sure. What do you think?’
His back and arms were aching and he’d been planning to have a shower before heading to the pub for chat with the barmaid, whose name he’d discovered was Tina. Now he was succumbing to the same peer pressure that had kept him in the office until nine every night. It was a game of who blinks first, if Tony wasn’t giving up then nor would he.
‘We could sand that beam and make it nice for your missus.’ Tony pointed at the blackened beam over the fireplace.
In one of the rare moments when he’d managed to a word in edgeways, Guy had mentioned that Beth was obsessed with the Inglenook fireplace, an enormous stone edifice dominating the lounge. ‘You could actually sit in here,’ she’d said when the estate agent was showing them around. ‘Imagine how cosy it would be on a winter night with the fire roaring.’
Tony was right, the beam was an easy win. Guy shrugged.
While Tony fetched the sander, he inspected the fireplace more closely. The beam was nearly twice the width of his hand and covered in scratch marks, as if an oversized cat had attacked it. He pointed them out to Tony when he returned.
‘Witch marks,’ Tony said. ‘They made them to keep witches away. See this,’ he traced the marks with his finger, ‘Those two V’s joined together, that stands for the virgin Mary.’
‘Should we keep them?’ Guy said doubtfully.
Beth was very particular about preserving what she called ‘the original features.’
‘It’s not listed, is it?’ Tony removed the sander from its box and plugged it in.
‘In that case, you can do whatever you want, unless you’re scared of witches, of course.’
He grinned and Guy got the impression Tony was challenging him, the namby-pamby Londoner who couldn’t tell one end of the hammer from another.
‘Go for it.’
The following day, Guy loaded his dirty washing into the car and drove to London for the weekend. He found Beth polishing the table in their open-plan diner.
‘Pete and Maggie are coming for dinner.’
He’d been looking forward to a quiet night in a takeaway, a film, and a nice bottle of wine. He didn’t mind Pete, but Maggie set his teeth on edge with her braying laugh and anecdotes about her children.
Beth made a face. ‘I thought you’d be pleased after spending all week by yourself.’
‘I wasn’t by myself; I went to the pub.’
‘Well, that’s hardly the same is it.’
She gave him a perfunctory kiss and swept into the kitchen to start on the food. The evening was as bad as he’d expected. Maggie wittered on about pre-school and the twins’ proclivity for finger painting and, whenever he spoke, Beth talked over him or changed the subject. ‘No one wants to hear about that,’ she said when he mentioned the cordless drill that he’d bought but hadn’t yet used. They didn’t have sex because Beth had her spinning class and, when Monday rolled around, he was almost pleased to be leaving.
Tony came that afternoon and they finished the fireplace. It looked good and Guy sent Beth a picture. A few seconds later, her reply came back, ‘In a meeting.’ He threw down his phone in disgust. If she could text, she could open the fucking picture. She was the one who’d wanted to buy the place, not him.
That night, he ate in the pub, a seafood baguette with chips on the side. Behind the bar, Tina was wearing a low-cut black top and leggings, her outfit accessorised with a profusion of silver jewellery that jangled when she moved.
‘Not really.’ Guy made a face and told her about the dinner party, missing out on the bit about Beth talking over him.
‘If my bloke came home after a week away, I wouldn’t be pissing about with a dinner party,’ Tina said. ‘I’d be ripping his clothes off.’
‘Exactly.’ Guy downed the last of his pint and Tina poured him another. ‘My thoughts exactly.’
At some point, he must have invited her back to the cottage because when he woke, Tina was lying beside him. Fuck. He rolled over and pressed the button on the alarm clock; it was three in the morning. His head was pounding, and he eased himself out of bed and pulled on the jeans and fleece he’d worn the previous evening. Downstairs the eviscerated kitchen was bathed in moonlight.
It was coming back to him now, the stumbling, giggling walk along the lane with Tina propping him up, the whisky, (far too much whisky – looking at the bottle, he saw they’d finished most of it) and then the sex. She’d straddled him and pinned his arms behind her head, and when she came, she let out a high-pitched yowl that sounded more animal than human. He hadn’t had sex like that for years and certainly never with Beth, whose idea of a good time involved scented candles, soft music, and plenty of foreplay.
He made a cup of coffee and downed two paracetamol while admiring the view. At the edge of the lawn, something moved. It was hard to make it out in the shadows, but whatever it was, it was big and it was only when it emerged into the moonlight that he realised it was a badger. He’d never seen a badger in the flesh and it was much larger than he’d imagined, roughly on a par with a medium-sized dog, only shorter and wider, with two black stripes running from nose to ear.
It stopped a few feet from the window and, instead of fleeing when it saw him, it stared at him through the glass with malevolent yellow eyes.
‘Are you OK?’ He started at the sound of Tina’s voice. She was wearing his dressing gown and her face was smudged with mascara.
‘I was watching a badger.’
He turned back to the window, but the animal had vanished, leaving only an empty patch of grass.
‘There are loads of badgers around here and foxes. The farmers hate them.’ She pulled the dressing gown around her more tightly. ‘Don’t you find it creepy being here on your own?’
Guy yawned. Although he hadn’t really thought about it, there was something slightly off about the cottage. Twice, after Tony had left for the day, he’d felt the hairs prickle on the back of his neck for no obvious reason and, even with the fire lit, it was always cold.
‘They say a witch lived here, back in sixteen hundred and something.’
Guy yawned again. ‘Ah, well that explains it.’
‘Explains what?’ She looked at him curiously and he told her about the witch marks.
‘And you got rid of them?’ Her eyes widened in disbelief and Guy saw that, despite living in the age of driverless cars and quantum computing, she really believed an old wives’ tale about witches and witch marks. ‘Wasn’t that a bit stupid?’
‘Only if you believe in witches, which, obviously, I don’t.’ He resented being called stupid by a woman who thought witches were a thing.
‘But how can you be sure?’ Tina looked around nervously, as if a witch might be hiding in the empty kitchen. ‘I mean, they must have made the marks for a reason, right?’
‘In those days, they believed in dragons too, but no one worries about them.’
Tina’s expression suggested she wasn’t convinced. ‘Actually, I should probably go.’
‘What now? It’s the middle of the night.’
‘I’ll sleep better in my own bed.’
He offered to walk her home but she refused, saying she was used to walking about in the countryside at night. She pulled her clothes on hurriedly, as if she was anxious to get away.
‘Are you sure you don’t want to stay?’
Guy felt a twinge of desire but, as he reached towards her, she pulled away.
‘I’ll see you around.’
After she’d gone, he typed ‘Roper’s Cottage’ and ‘witch’ into his phone. What came up was mostly stuff about holiday rentals and Harry Potter, but there was one article that caught his attention.
‘Roper’s cottage in the Slad valley was the home of Mary Roper, who was found guilty of witchcraft and hanged in 1653. Her husband died after an alleged affair with a village girl and local people claimed that they’d witnessed Mrs Roper transform herself into a variety of animals, including a fox and a cat.’
So, Tina was right. Guy rather liked the idea that a so-called witch had lived the cottage. With a few embellishments, it would make a great dinner party story.
He awoke to the sound of rain battering the window and a text from Tony saying he had a cold and wouldn’t be able to make it. Secretly relieved to have a day to himself, Guy turned his attention to painting the sitting room. By teatime, he’d finished applying the first coat, and he was about to pour himself a celebratory glass of wine when Beth rang.
‘I thought I’d visit you tomorrow. I’ve got loads of leave and we can go out for lunch. Oh, and Mum said I can bring Bertie, he’ll love the garden.’
Bertie was her mother’s cockerpoo, an animal with boundless energy and no common sense, which Beth had taken to borrowing whenever the opportunity arose. Guy glanced out of the window where the rain was still coming down in sheets.
‘It’s been pissing down all day. I’m not sure the track is even passable.’
‘It’ll be fine. Don’t you want to see me?’
‘Of course, I do, it’s just…’
He did want to see her; he would just have preferred it to be in London, where he wouldn’t have to explain why the kitchen was two weeks behind schedule.
‘Great. We’ll be there around ten. Love you.’
‘Love you too.’
In the master bedroom, he held the crumpled duvet to his nose and wondered if Beth would know what he’d been up to. He’d been unfaithful once before and she swore if he did it again, she would divorce him. The duvet smelt faintly of whisky and something floral that might have been perfume. In the absence of fresh linen, he turned the cover inside out. If she asked him why it was like that, he would plead incompetence.
He knocked back two glasses of wine and then he must have fallen asleep because when he woke; the fire had gone out, and the room was as cold as if it had never been lit. It was getting dark and he became aware of a strange tapping noise coming from the fireplace. Tap, tap, pause, tap, tap. The fire flared suddenly, and a dark shadow flitted across the room. He struggled to his feet. Now the tapping was coming from the window. Tap, tap, pause, tap, tap.
Tina. She must have come back with one of her mates and this was her idea of a joke. All that stuff about witches had been a deliberate ploy to wind him up.
‘Tina.’ He threw open the front door. ‘I know it’s you, so you can stop messing around.’ A gust of wind snatched her name away and the front door slammed as if something had followed him out. A dense mist had descended on the garden and although he couldn’t see more than a couple of feet ahead, he was sure he could hear someone breathing. ‘Tina, this isn’t funny.’
As he inched along the wall, the noise kept moving, coaxing him away from the house. The breathing was laboured and, after he’d gone a few yards, he began to think it might not be Tina after all, but the badger he’d seen the previous night. It was an unpleasant thought and he tried to retrace his steps, only to find that he had lost his bearings completely and was stumbling through the remains of the vegetable garden.
The noise was behind him now, pressing on his heels. A bubble of panic formed in his chest. It must be a badger, a badger, that was all. Badgers didn’t attack people. ‘Shoo.’ He turned around, waving his arms. ‘Go away, get lost.’ He heard a low growl. Did badgers growl? The growling got louder and closer, and a sharp pain radiated up his leg. The creature was gripping his ankle. Bigger even than he remembered, it was worrying him like a dog shaking its great head from side to side. The pain was excruciating. He retracted his fist and punched it hard between the eyes, but he might have been punching an inanimate object for all the difference it made.
There was a sickening crunch as the creature bit into his fibula and he punched it again. It wasn’t just attacking him; it was going to eat him. Looking down, he saw its bloodstained muzzle buried in the torn remnants of his trouser leg. Its yellow eyes gleamed as if lit from the inside. Screaming, he tried to pull his leg away. His ears were buzzing and he realised he was going to pass out.
The lower half of his leg was almost gone, a bloody mass of mangled flesh and sheared bone. Someone was still screaming but the sound was disembodied as if it was coming from somewhere else. He hoped, he hoped… he didn’t know what he hoped. He slid to the ground. It was almost peaceful lying there with his face pressed into the wet earth and the mist swirling around him. He imagined worms and beetles burrowing purposefully through the soil, mice and voles snug in their burrows, and a fox silently watching, waiting for the badger to eat its fill. Only it wasn’t a badger, he knew that now. He smiled at his naivety; the thing gnawing his thigh bone was something else entirely.
The dog leapt out of the car, ignoring the voice calling to him. He was a young dog, and it was the first time he’d been outside London. All around there were unfamiliar smells and his senses were so overwhelmed that he hardly knew where to begin. He paused for a moment to sniff the air and then bounded across the grass toward a particularly appealing scent. It had a rich meaty odour, like the chunks of raw steak he sometimes found in his bowl or the dead rabbit he’d once discovered in the herbaceous border. The smell was familiar yet not familiar and overlaid with something disturbingly unrecognisable that made his hackles rise.
He approached its source tentatively, half crouching, poised to spring away if danger threatened. The thing lay in the grass. It was meat but confusingly it smelt of human, a human he was familiar with. He nudged it with his nose and saw it was a human paw, hairless and fleshy. When he licked it, it wasn’t like steak or rabbit, and he found it hard to dissociate the taste from the smell. A connection existed between the paw and the woman who’d brought him there and, sensing she would want to see it, he took it carefully in his mouth and trotted towards the house.
One thought on “Frances Brindle”
A crafty tale. Guy is a lesson in diminishing influence. I (sadly) know how he feels. As for Beth and Tina – he’s drowning. Love the severed hand between cockerpoo’s teeth; town meets the darker mysteries of the country.