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Black Dog - Chapter 15

Cutting through the churchyard on her way back to the house, Olivia stumbled upon Verity's plan to make everything better: she'd arranged a picnic. The day might be overcast but the air was still and dry, probably no colder outside the house than in it. Only Verity would have chosen this particular site, though. She'd taken the blanket from the back of the sofa to spread it out on the grass in between the graves, and there she sat, leaning comfortably against the weather-worn headstone of a stranger. Or was the occupant of the grave a stranger to Verity at all?

"A friend of yours?" Olivia asked, sitting down beside her. Auntie Imogen was perched neatly on a nearby headstone, and they'd dragged Eli along too.

Verity pulled away to read the inscription on her resting place. "William Haughton," she said. "Born 1871, died 1887. No, I can't say I knew him." She picked up her cup of tea and poured a thin dribble of it over the grass covering the grave.

"Erm, what are you doing?" Olivia asked.

"Sharing."

"Sharing?" Olivia parroted, feeling almost as stupid as she thought Verity ought to. "With a dead -" She stopped, keenly and uncomfortably aware of her company. "I mean -" She gave up. "I doubt he'll appreciate it."

"He might," said Verity airily. "Awfully young to die, don't you think? Sixteen? What if he'd never had a chance to go for a picnic with a nice girl?"

Despite her doubts about whether Verity counted as 'a nice girl', Olivia did her best to keep her mouth shut. She looked to Auntie Imogen, who couldn't abide awkward lulls in a conversation, and normally would have been making an effort to steer the conversation to her liking. Instead, the elderly ghost sat staring at the house, drumming her fingers in a silent agitated rhythm. Verity had brought along a piece of embroidery from somewhere, demonstrating surprising patience for the fiddly task, with her lacy black parasol close at hand in case of any sudden outbreaks of sunshine. Eli sat on the top of a large horizontal tombstone, smoking and very obviously wishing he was somewhere else. Olivia wished Eli was somewhere else, too.

Using a fallen grave marker for a writing desk, Olivia started another letter.

Dear Uncle George,

I wonder, did you ever meet Uncle Constantin? I don't think so - I was nine or ten when she seemed to just appear out of the blue one summer. I was going to spend a week of the school holidays at Auntie Imogen's house, as usual. I always loved those visits, baking cakes and learning crafts with Auntie Imogen, getting sweets from her friends, exploring the woods at the end of the garden…

I loved the garden especially: the knee-high grass and wildflowers encroaching on the neat rows of the vegetable plot. Far from the postage stamp garden of home, Auntie Imogen's garden ran on for miles and the woods were a kingdom all to themselves, inhabited by birds and animals and countless weird creations of my imagination.

That summer, things changed. As usual, as soon as we arrived, Auntie Imogen put the kettle on, and the grown-ups sat down to catch up on gossip. As usual, I went haring off through the long grass. Not ten minutes later I came running back, scared half to death of 'the man in the woods'. Auntie Imogen gently explained that it was only my 'Uncle Constantin' (who nobody had ever mentioned before) and that he was just coming up to the house to do some gardening work. Looking back, I suppose my parents weren't too pleased with the situation, as they almost took me back home with them when they left at the end of the day. But Auntie Imogen said everything would be fine, so I stayed.

I saw this 'Uncle Constantin' out in the garden a lot that week, but he never did much gardening. He lurked, he smoked, he glared at me like I was a dirty horrible thing. He hated children, and I learned to hate him too, this towering skinny monster who was ruining my favourite place in all the world.

When I got home and reported all of this, Dad said he was glad Auntie Imogen had someone around to help her with day to day life as she was getting older.

But, "He's after her money, I expect," Dad admitted to Mum, once he thought I wasn't around to hear. "And he'll get it, too, by the sound of things."

The rain came down on the picnic with savage suddenness. Big bullet raindrops exploded across Olivia's page in the brief seconds before she tucked her notebook inside her cardigan. Verity shrieked excitably as she leapt up, upsetting the teacups as she darted for the cover of the nearest tree, with Olivia not far behind, and Eli lagging resentfully after.

Imogen stood out in the open with her open hands outstretched and a puzzled look on her face as the rain drenched through her without touching her. "Time to move indoors, I think," she said, the relentless hammering of water almost drowning out her voice, and her already vague features becoming all but invisible in the thick silvery curtains of rain sweeping the graveyard. "Will somebody get the picnic things? Verity? Olivia?"

Olivia grabbed the blanket and China, and made a dash for the house, with Verity splashing after her in the puddles.

Back indoors, Olivia sat cross-legged on her bed with a towel around her hair, listening to the rattle of the rain on the windows as the downpour died away. The heavy grey clouds cleared and the sun shone, but Olivia's mood remained gloomy, still dwelling on the memories of the first summer she'd discovered something amiss at Auntie Imogen's house. She took up her letter again.

Uncle Constantin rarely spoke, not to me and not to anybody else, and he spent most of the evenings alone in the basement. He brought dead things into the house - rabbits, and birds mostly - but Auntie Imogen was used to that sort of thing. The cats did it often enough, and it always pleased her when Mum brought colourful bunches of cut flowers to brighten up the house.

The birds weren't the worst. I'm still not entirely sure what he did with the birds, although I asked Dad about it later and he told me about taxidermy. It sounded so gruesome that I didn't even believe at the time. I can only be thankful Auntie Imogen never had any of her cats stuffed. Or at least, to the best of my knowledge she didn't, but there are rooms here packed to the brink with the strangest things, and I'm the one who has to sort through it all.

The rabbits were the worst. Limp bags of grey-brown fur that he left lolling across the kitchen table, with their round glassy eyes staring blindly. I couldn't stand to be around while Auntie Imogen skinned them, and the mere thought of rabbit stew makes me sick even today.

That first evening with the two of them, I sat at the table and looked with despair at the plate in front of me.

"What's wrong with the girl?" Uncle Constantin growled, through a mouthful of rabbit. For the first time, I'd wished that Mum and Dad hadn't left me alone at Auntie Imogen's house. "Oi. Olivie." He leaned over and snapped his fingers under my nose.

"Olivia," I corrected him in a small, nervous voice. I cleared my throat, wanting to try again: 'My name's Olivia,' loud and confident. But I didn't.
Uncle Constantin looked at Imogen. "What's wrong with her?" If that reads as concern for my well-being… Well. Even at ten years old, I knew well enough that it wasn't.

"Are you all right, love?" asked Auntie Imogen.

What I did next was a big mistake. I told her all about my best friend at school who kept pet rabbits, although they were docile lumps of white fluff, quite unlike the quick brown shapes I'd seen in the woods from time to time. I tried to explain how callous it felt to eat the wild cousins of my friend's beloved pets. As usual, the words came out clumsily, and I gave up mid-sentence rather than arriving at any coherent conclusion to my argument.

"Oh, Libby," Auntie Imogen sighed. "There's no need to get upset, now. Those rabbits weren't anybody's pets." She glanced over at Uncle Constantin. "Were they?" she prompted.

"No." But he smirked when he said it, and next morning two more rabbits lay dead on the kitchen table.

Next summer, I almost refused to go back to Auntie Imogen's house. Mum agreed that perhaps it would be better for me to stay home, but Dad kept delaying the call to Auntie Imogen, until I lived in fear of the end of term. Then, the phone rang. When Dad finally hung up, he said to himself, "Well, maybe that's for the best." He explained it to me later that evening:

Uncle Constantin wouldn't be at the house that summer. He was gone, and he wouldn't be coming back. Auntie Imogen was very upset, and I should be a good girl and help cheer her up by visiting as usual. However, I must avoid mentioning Uncle Constantin at all, as that would only upset her more.

I did as I was told, but that summer was no happier than the previous one.

One more dead letter stuffed into an envelope. Olivia scrawled the name 'George' on the front and tucked it into the shoebox with the others, before pushing it under the bed and forgetting the unpleasant memories sealed inside as best she could. She leaned back against the pillows, listening to the clink of a teaspoon on china downstairs, and somewhere in the house, the faint sound of singing. Verity? It had to be. Again, Olivia didn't recognise the song and couldn't make out the words, but it lulled her anyway, soothing away the irritating thought that she really ought to get back to cleaning. It didn't help that she still felt like a child in Auntie Imogen's house, and therefore whatever was happening was beyond her control. It'll be all right, she found herself thinking, on the verge of sleep, the grown-ups will sort it all out...

 

 

 

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