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Black Dog - Chapter 20

Olivia's burst of enthusiasm quickly faded again. She'd planned to finish decorating the guest bedroom (her own bedroom, as she ought to start thinking of it) but that prospect became daunting when she looked more closely at the full extent of the damage. Instead, she moved on to the next door along the corridor.

The door wouldn't budge, and she stood there rattling the handle and poking about in the lock with various keys and generally getting frustrated with the whole thing. When the door finally gave, she nearly fell flat on her face after it, and a sharp loud crash sounded from inside the room: the sound of something expensive hitting hard floor and shattering into a million shards. Olivia stood in the corridor, holding her breath wondering if she could blame it on a cat.

"Imogen?" Verity called from downstairs, "Was that you? What on earth are you doing up there?" Footsteps in the hall swiftly followed.

"Nothing!" Olivia shouted back. "You don't need to come up, I've got it all under control!" This did nothing to discourage Verity from coming up to see for herself, though. She'd been moping ever since Eli had disappeared, bored without her favourite enigma for company. She appeared at the top of the stairs, the familiar glitter of curiosity in her eyes, and Olivia slammed the door again quickly. "Really, it's nothing. Go back to whatever you were doing."

"I wasn't doing anything," said Verity, sneaking a hand onto the door handle and turning it before Olivia could close her hand over Verity's, holding the door firmly shut.

Verity glared at her. "What are you hiding in there? What did you break?"

The tiny hand on the door handle was icy cold, and Olivia could feel all the delicate bones under her grip. She let go. "Sorry. I just panicked a bit when I heard whatever-it-was break." She grinned sheepishly. "I'm not used to being a grown up in this house, and I keep thinking someone's going to shout at me if I do something wrong."

Verity's expression became a little less angry. "Someone is going to shout at you, Olivia," she said, as she pushed the door open. It swung easily, no longer hindered by the tower of tea chests which had been stacked, somehow, against the inside of the door. "You should be careful with Imogen's things. Come on." She peered curiously into the dingy room. "Let's go and see what priceless family heirloom you broke." She stepped carefully through the debris that had tumbled all over the floor, the accumulated rubbish of decades. A large cabinet blocked the room's only window, shutting out nearly all natural light, and Olivia fumbled for the light switch. The mess it illuminated horrified her. If she'd thought the living room was bad…

Auntie Imogen, not having any children and not needing quite so many guest bedrooms as the house provided, had used this room purely for storage. She'd filled vast numbers of tea chests with anything and everything and overloaded shelves with useless clutter that she couldn't bear to part with. Things she'd loved and things she'd forgotten. The question nagged at Olivia still, how had there come to be tea chests stacked eight feet high in front of the only door?

Meanwhile, Verity had found an island of free space and stood there looking all around, grinning like a loon. "This is going to be so much fun!"

If there had been any signs of sarcasm in that statement, Olivia couldn't see them. "You're mad," she said, and started to make her way towards Verity through the sea of debris. She didn't make it far before something crunched under her shoe. She froze. "Oh."

Verity stared at her in wide-eyed shock, her mouth open. "If you don't stop breaking things, I'm going to come over there and… and pinch you until you cry!"

It was such a ridiculous threat that Olivia almost laughed, but she couldn't be sure Verity hadn't actually meant it. She lifted her foot from the sad remains of a little china lamb, and was then faced with the dilemma of where to put it down again.

"Just. Stay. There," Verity hissed, rushing to gather up enough of the clutter on the floor to clear a path. Then she led Olivia carefully by the arm to her oasis. "What does she think she's doing, blundering about like a bull in a china shop," she whispered loudly, then: "Sit!" she instructed.

Reluctantly, Olivia did so.

Verity smiled. "Good girl. There are going to be some wonderful finds in here, I can tell. As long as you don't break them all first."

"'Wonderful finds'? I can tell you now, there won't be. We should get out while we can still find our way back to the door. Forget about it, let it rot." A couple of feet from where she sat, shards of blue glass glittered in an unfriendly way amongst the other scattered bits and pieces. Olivia couldn't possibly tell what they'd been five minutes earlier, and she could only hope Auntie Imogen had forgotten about it years ago.

Verity dived into the nearest box, up to her elbows. "I thought you wanted to redecorate. You can't do that without clearing up a bit first, can you? Come on, Olivia: aren't you the least bit curious?"

*

The room was full of the most unbelievable rubbish Olivia had ever seen. It was a fire trap, too, more than half paper. Books by the box load, all falling apart with age and use, many without covers, their pages coming away in ones, twos and big chunks of book. Newspapers in varying shades of brittle yellow, bundled or loose, dating back beyond the turn of the century. Letters that hadn't been sent; letters that hadn't been read; letters addressed to people long dead, and signed by their contemporaries, until Olivia's head was full of the names of dead strangers. From the look of it, Auntie Imogen had kept every postcard and Christmas card she'd ever received. Photographs, too. Black and white, sepia, developed by professionals or in the home darkroom in the basement. Pictures of family and friends and people no one remembered any more but these physical memories of them lingered.

Verity 'ooh'ed and 'ahh'ed over all her fascinating discoveries completely failing to actually throw anything away, while Olivia sat quietly looking through an envelope of old photos of her parents. She'd found one of them, so young, so happy, unaware of the camera,  in the garden of Auntie Imogen's house. In the next photo, Uncle George appeared grinning madly into the camera lens, his arm draped around Dad's shoulders, while Dad looked vaguely embarrassed. Dad had always been the quiet one.

"Well now, what have you got there?" asked Verity, leaning over. Olivia showed her the next photo - her parents with Auntie Imogen. Mum looked lanky and boyish next to Auntie Imogen, who had still been beautiful thirty years ago. The next picture was of Uncle George, caught off guard and looking pensive.

"Is that your uncle from the picture I liked? The one who wrote the books?"

Olivia nodded. "Uncle George."

"Oh, gosh! I can see the resemblance now. I don't know why I didn't see it before."

Olivia blushed at the rather backhanded compliment and shuffled through the photos again. "These shouldn't be hidden away in a box no one's opened for years. They should be in a proper album."

"Or framed and put on the wall," said Verity. "I'm sure Imogen would be ever so pleased if you did that for her."

"You think I should?" George had always been Auntie Imogen's favourite nephew, and there was already one photo of him on the mantlepiece downstairs, after all. Olivia's parents talked about him often, but he didn't feature in any of the framed photos on their living room walls. "No, an album's better." An album could be closed and hidden, on those days when the past hurt too much.

"We could go into town and get a pretty scrapbook," said Verity, taking the photos and putting them in a handy shoebox. "But not just yet! Chop chop: back to work!"

Olivia sighed, and turned her attention to the next nearest thing: a box of old clothes, all crumpled and stuffed in. She reached in, trying to untangle a long summery dress. Something in there stung! With a startled yelp of pain Olivia snatched her hand back, shaking it and hissing through her teeth.

"What did you do?" Verity grabbed Olivia's injured hand to see an angry red welt running the breadth of the palm. Cautiously, Verity dug into the box of clothes. "Aha!" she announced. "The culprit," and held the thin glittering string of the necklace up to the light, admiring it. "Silver, I thought so. Very nice," she murmured to herself. "Very bad for werewolves, though. Surely you know that much?" She grinned, showing her sharp little eye-teeth. "Mind if I have it?" she asked, fastening it around her neck.

"Well I know I don't want the bloody thing!" Olivia snapped. The worst of the pain had subsided, but the burn still stung fiercely whenever she moved her hand.

Verity's expression softened. Oh, you poor thing," she said, patting Olivia's shoulder gently. "It really hurt you, didn't it? Let's go and get you patched up. I'm sure it's not usual for the reaction to be so strong," she mused, leading Olivia to the bathroom and sitting her down on the edge of the tub. "Maybe it's because you're so new." Verity babbled on as she rummaged through the medicine cabinet, theorising about how the body might adjust over time to the lycanthropic condition, and slathered on some kind of cold salve that soothed the burn.

How was she to live with this new severe allergy? She guessed that the silver-coloured rings Verity wore must not be real silver, but what if Olivia were to accidentally shake hands with someone who could afford the real thing? What if someone with real silver earrings hugged her, and the metal brushed her cheek? It would only take the same momentary contact she'd had with the necklace to cause a painful burn and perhaps to leave a disfiguring scar. She'd have to think of an innocent explanation for the burn on her hand, if anybody asked. She'd have to think of polite excuses to avoid such things happening again. She returned to her work with new caution.

*

Imogen sat at the kitchen table, her spine stiff and her expression determined. In front of her on the tabletop lay a large, much-used recipe book. She stared intently at it. Nothing happened. Slowly but surely, a look of hopelessness crept into the lines of her eyes and her mouth.

"Perhaps," she said, her voice wavering, "we should start with something smaller?"

"It's not difficult," said Eli, who sat opposite her.

"That's easy enough for you to say."

He leaned over and flipped back the cover for her. "Better?"

Imogen thought of how many times in her life she'd lifted the heavy book down from its place on the shelf, how many times she'd turned the pages without conscious thought. "Is there some knack to this? Should I try to use my hands, or just concentrate very hard?"

Eli gave her blank look. He was accustomed to having a physical body, just as Imogen had been. "Both?"

Imogen nodded, and with her attention riveted on the first page, she reached for the corner. She felt the glossy smoothness of the paper under her fingertips. She marvelled at the feel of the rough ridges of the page edges as she ran her forefinger along them, and gripped the corner of the first page, slowly and carefully peeling it back. She dropped the first page on top of the front cover, and her look of intense concentration dissolved into a mad grin. She turned the second page, and the third, still smiling happily to herself, but when the sound of laughter filtered down from upstairs, the fourth page slipped through her insubstantial fingers. "What are those girls getting up to? I think I'd better go and find out."

She went by the stairs. Other ghosts used more direct means of getting from one place to another, but Imogen felt that the recipe book was quite enough experimentation for one day. Walking through walls just felt ostentatious and unnecessary, and she saw no need for that kind of hurry. She liked the soundlessness of her footsteps, though, and could see quite a few advantages to that.

In the hallway upstairs she found boxes lying about, full of… things. Rubbish, she might have called it, at a push. Where had it all come from? She followed the sound of laughter to a door that had always been closed, but which now stood open, and saw Verity inside the unfamiliar room with an incredibly ugly hat perched precariously on her head. It was a faded lime green affair, enormously brimmed and topped with a dusty spray of ostrich plumes and cobwebs. It was very nearly falling off, mostly because Verity was laughing so hard at the hat Olivia was modelling. The girls had found Mother's hat collection, and Imogen smiled now as she remembered trying not to laugh at the hideousness of both those hats many years ago. Verity wore 'Snotbird' and Olivia 'the Blancmange'.

"Very fetching, Olivia," she said, making the two girls jump guiltily.

"Oh, hello," said Olivia, snatching off the hideous hat. "I didn't hear you come up."

"I'm not surprised. What are you two doing?"

"We found hats," said Verity, still giggling, and Imogen felt a sharp pang of envy at how pretty Verity looked, even with the ridiculously ugly hat half-falling over her eyes.

"We're tidying up," said Olivia. "Verity's been helping me sort through."

Imogen surveyed the room. She'd begun to recognise things amongst the mess. "I see."

"It's not a problem, is it?" asked Olivia, looking terribly anxious. "If you'd like to help, even just to make sure we don't get rid of anything important."

Imogen shook her head. "No." She forced a smile. "No, I'm sure I can trust your judgement. I'll leave you to get on with it." She turned quickly and headed back downstairs.

She's getting rid of all my things. As if I really was dead and gone…

 

 

 

 

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