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Black Dog - Chapter 36

Lost in miserable contemplation, Olivia had no concept of how far the journey took her. High hedges and the grasping bare branches of trees lined the lanes, all alike. Once in a while, signs of habitation loomed and passed, clustered cottages or solitary houses on long stretches of empty road. White signposts marked placenames that Olivia only half-knew, and Grace had fallen silent, concentrating on the way ahead.

The little car turned off down a rutted track that jolted Olivia out of her introspective trance and into anxious wakefulness. As Hawthorn and Beech trees yielded to fields slumbering under blankets of snow, Olivia peered out through the fogged windscreen, trying to make out the details of the squat bulk of the farmhouse up ahead. "Do they know about us, your friends?"

"Some of them," said Grace, parking the car. She sat still and quiet for a moment as the engine's growl gave way to silence punctuated by the ping of cooling metal and the excitable cry of a tawny owl. "Best to keep quiet about it unless I say otherwise."

They got out, Olivia grimacing as she realised she'd left her scarf at the house in her haste to be gone.

Barking startled her and she almost lost her footing on the ice and snow as she jerked round to see two Collies streaking over, tongues lolling, breath clouding.

Grace bent to ruffle the thick fur of the animals' necks affectionately, speaking soft words of praise. She smiled wryly at Olivia. "We'll tell them you're my poor frazzled cousin, in need of some peace and quiet."

Icy puddles cracked under their shoes, the collies weaving around them, thumping their legs with wagging tails.

Letting herself into the farmhouse, Grace flicked the light switch to no effect. "Oops, power's out again," she murmured, feeling her way forward, rummaging in cupboards until she found candles and matches. "I hope you're not afraid of the dark," she whispered, her face made a grinning theatrical mask by the flickering candlelight.

"Where is everybody?" Olivia whispered back. The farmhouse seemed curiously empty with no ghosts or cats.

Grace laughed. "Asleep, I should imagine. Just us girls tonight. They like early starts here, so I'd better show you to your room so you can get a good night's sleep. Have you got everything you need? Nightie? Toothbrush? Clean undies for the morning?"

Olivia faltered on the stairs. "Yes, all that, but I've just thought: I didn't bring much money with me. I'll have to..."

"Olivia, stop fussing. You're my guest here and after all you've been through I think it's only right that I spoil you for a couple of days at least."

Miles from anywhere, with nothing more than one suitcase and whatever she might find in her pockets, Olivia had no other options.

*

Morning, which came just as early as Grace had promised, brought cheerful introductions over breakfast at the huge kitchen table and Olivia ate as much as she dared of soft fresh bread, butter and sweet blackberry jam. Grace's friends seemed entirely too good to be true. Too ready to accept a vague story, too happy to let this stranger stay in their midst. Too cheerful in general. Olivia was much relieved when Grace suggested they drive into town for a look around the shops.

Olivia recognised the place from one or two visits in her childhood. It was small, the shops Grace had talked of, just a single row less than half a mile long. They weren't that far from Peter's Cross, a couple of small stations away by the lifeline of the railway threading through the countryside.

Grace's ulterior motive for the day surfaced soon enough as they strolled down the high street. "I know you had that job at the library but it's too far away now," she said, in a manner that was friendly enough but brooked no argument.

Olivia could read between the lines. The library was too close to the house. "What do you expect me to do? Be a lady of leisure?" She couldn't imagine even the stiflingly warm hospitality of the farmhouse extending so far but she wasn't sure what job prospects Grace thought she had either.

"You remember my friend Polly, who I mentioned before? She's still looking for someone to share a flat and her employer's looking for a new girl, just shop work, nothing too difficult for a clever girl like you."

Yes, the pieces slotted together neatly. "I see. Which one is it, then?"

Grace pointed to a narrow-fronted shop, diamond-paned windows, gold lettering on a black background: H.G. Green Jewellers. Glimpses of gold and diamonds sparkled tantalisingly behind the glass. Well-maintained, the shop still looked as though it had been there a very long time. It belonged, effortlessly.

With the way Grace walked in as if she owned the place, the thought occurred that perhaps she did... or perhaps it was just the confidence and red lipstick smile that must make her at home anywhere in the world. "Hello, Henry," she called, striding past the rows of glittering wares on their velvet cushions. Olivia followed, dodging her own anxious reflection in the gleaming mirrored hall of treasures.

A large gentleman sitting behind the dark well-polished counter looked up at them over his spectacles. "Grace! Dearest!" He was in his fifties at a guess, but his dark hair had only the first hint of grey and his eyes were bright and lively. With the aid of a silver-topped cane, he levered himself up out of his seat.

"Is this the young lady? What a delightful girl. A true English Rose."

Olivia, who'd never heard such praise directed at herself, blushed.

"She's the one," said Grace. "Olivia, this is Henry Green, an old friend of mine."

"Pleased to meet you, Olivia." He offered a hand, soft and gentle but strong. "Grace, if she can speak, she'll be perfect, judging by all you've said on her behalf. Have you worked before, Olivia?"

Olivia kicked herself into gear, eager to make a good impression and not embarrass Grace or herself any more than necessary. She rambled rather about her stint at the library, and he showed her around the shop. She knew something was afoot when he took her to a bank of silver jewellery.

At the sight of all that softly gleaming silver, Olivia's hand closed involuntarily into a fist, the memory of a fierce burn sharp as if it had happened a moment ago. She glanced panickedly at Grace. "Mr Green, I'm afraid I can't..."

"Shush, shush," said Mr Green. "I'm sure you can. A good girl, well-spoken, good bearing… You're absolutely perfect, you only need a little training. Now..." he produced a pair of spotlessly white cotton gloves from a drawer, handing them to Olivia, "I don't allow my girls to touch a single thing without these. It's no slight against you personally but I simply can't have any mucky pawprints about the place."

Olivia nodded slowly, inspecting the fit of the white gloves, then glancing at Mr Green's own gloved hands. She'd noted the shape of his cane's topper: a wolf's head. Pewter, not silver as she'd thought at a first careless glance. She didn't dare speak of it, just in case he was one of them.

He showed her the rest, outlining her duties, while she followed in a daze, and then it was over and Mr Green was thanking her for her time and Grace ushering her out into the cold light of day.

She had a new job, somehow. The librarians wouldn't be sorry to see her go, not after all those sick days and late arrivals. She could make a fresh start.

"Are you all right?" asked Grace, when they were outside. "You look a bit stunned."

Olivia nodded. "You could have warned me." She could have prepared… or more likely she could have worked herself into a frothing nervous mess. Would Grace's old friend have accepted her no matter what? She thought again of the pewter wolf's head. "I didn't know there were so many of us." How could there be so many, all hidden from view?

"There aren't that many, but we're all related, as far as I know. You and me, we really are some sort of cousins. Henry's more interested in that sort of thing. He says he's my..." she paused, thinking carefully. "Great-great-uncle, on my mother's side."

They walked on, with Grace talking ceaselessly, sweeping Olivia up into a whirlwind of necessary preparations. She must meet Polly next, as they'd be living and working together, then they must make the flat itself liveable, with provisions for the shared kitchen, clean bedding for both rooms and all the other essentials. Then to make sure that Olivia had suitable clothes for work, oh, and Olivia must make sure to call her parents with her good news and her new address...

"Thank you so much for everything you've done," said Olivia, butting in on the planning when she realised that she might appear ungrateful in her stunned silence. "It's lovely of you but what am I going to do about the house?"

"Oh, we'll sort something out," said Grace breezily. "Don't you worry about that. Would you like me to send someone round to change the locks?"

"Oh, would you do that for me?"

Grace smiled. "Of course. We'll have that fixed in a flash."

 

 

*

Olivia had been born to worry. Her mum took word of the changes better than expected. After all, Mr Green paid better than the library and it made sense for Olivia to rent a room close by, with plans to manage Auntie Imogen's house from a ladylike distance instead of bumbling about in dungarees trying to clean and decorate everything herself. Olivia found her new work not too difficult, she rubbed along well enough with Polly, yet she couldn't settle her nerves, she couldn't stop thinking.

She dreamed of the house and the woods. Worse than that, life away from the house felt dreamlike and unreal, as if the dreams were the true thing. The moonlight filtering through tall straight tree trunks, the veils of evergreen branches. The scent of pine and poison. The rustle and crackle of dry brown undergrowth beneath paws in the cold still night. Every morning she woke surprised to be human.

As the anniversary of Uncle George's death approached, Olivia arranged her time to be alone whenever she could. She walked a lot. It felt better to keep her feet moving, and besides, with a cold snap and more snow, there were less people about. Olivia bundled herself up in scarf, gloves, hat, muffling the world. The snow on the roads had turned to brown slush, but on the pavements it was still crisp and white, and the roofs of the shops and houses were coated in thin sparkling sheets, the sky brittle-cold and so pale a grey it was almost white, like fogged glass closing the world in. The constant static hiss of falling snow steadily covered everything, erasing details, blurring boundaries.

A burst of indignant noisy bird chatter grabbed her attention and she saw a tall thin man turned out of a side road up ahead. Olivia held her breath and stared, not daring to take her eyes off the familiar figure, the world-weary gait she would have recognised anywhere. It wasn't the first time since leaving Auntie Imogen's house that she'd glimpsed Eli, or thought she had. Before, the figure had vanished before she could blink. She stalked after him in the snow. He hadn't seen her, but it couldn't be mere coincidence to see him here. Did he know where she lived, where she worked? Her mind whirled with thoughts of another confrontation -

And then, with Olivia's attention distracted just for a moment by the flutter of a blackbird's wings, Eli disappeared. Olivia scanned the scene hopelessly: he could have disappeared inside any doorway, down any alleyway. If Jim was any indication, Eli could have reluctant accomplices almost anywhere. They'd come close to the town's graveyard, and Olivia headed inside. Perhaps Eli had found himself honest work digging graves. But there was no sign of him there, either.

Olivia brushed snow off a bench and sat down, shivering slightly and not with the cold. It had been reckless of her to chase after Eli like that. She didn't know what she'd planned to do. She sighed deeply, a bleak weight of misery all but crushing the breath from her chest. First, she'd let her parents down, then Auntie Imogen, then Verity. They hadn't asked much of her - nothing that ought to have been beyond her abilities if she'd only tried harder. She had no idea how to make amends. She fished out her notebook and pen from her coat pocket, and began to write.

She couldn't remember much from Verity's notes, and she'd left them crumpled in a wastepaper basket back at the house. She could check out what books on mythology she could find in the library, but those few paltry books would likely treat creatures of the night as nothing more than stories to frighten children. With a pang she remembered the ancient esoteric books that Verity had torn apart. Where else could she look? Who else could she talk to? She needed the library at the house, but was too afraid to return to it.

 

 

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