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Black Dog - Chapter 39

The next month, just as Olivia was on her way to catch the train to Peter's Cross, Grace came running up behind her.

"Long time no see," said Grace, her bright smile as false as the red of her lipstick. She made an exaggerated point of noticing Olivia's overnight bag, ready for the full moon. "Where are you off to, then?"

Olivia hesitated, lies not coming easily to her. "I..."

"You should come and visit the farm again," Grace cut in. "There are no other houses for miles around, so we could really get out and stretch our legs. Tonight."

"Tonight? I can't..."

"Come on, do something fun and spontaneous for once."

"I really shouldn't. I've got so much to do before it gets dark, and then I've got to get home in time." She forced her shuffling feet to a faster beat, despite knowing that even if she ran, she wouldn't outrun Grace.

Grace kept pace as easily as expected. "If you come to the farm with me, you won't need to lock yourself up in your room."

"I feel safer that way," Olivia insisted miserably. She hadn't spent a full moon locked in her room for ages. Her shoulders hunched down in the self-effacing slouch of a big girl trying desperately to make herself invisible, as she worried that Grace might learn the truth (or part of it) from Polly.

"You're not some kind of monster," said Grace. "You're not dangerous, and even if you were, you'd have me there to keep an eye on you."

Olivia shrugged. "I don't feel like it tonight," she mumbled. She couldn't bring herself to look Grace in the eye and see the look of hurt bewilderment. Grace gave up the chase, and Olivia carried on towards the train station, hating herself.

*

The walk up from the train station to Auntie Imogen's house still reminded Olivia of summer holidays, bittersweet memories now. She'd never again return to the house under such happy circumstances. She took a meandering walk through the churchyard, making the most of the sun on her skin and of being alone, but she paused when she caught sight of Verity sitting by herself on the plinth of a large obelisk dappled with shade from a cluster of trees younger than the graves. At a distance she looked nothing out of the ordinary, except that she looked rather fed up, but out of habit or self-consciousness she kept to the shadows. The ghostly figure sitting beside her and sniffling was not immediately visible. Out in broad daylight, the ghost appeared worn thin with time, small and childish - a dark-haired girl of ten or eleven, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her cardigan.

At the sight of Olivia approaching, the ghost jumped up, flickering in an instant to become recognisably Auntie Imogen. Did she do it on purpose? Olivia never knew quite what to make of the child Imogen. The elderly figure ambled back and forth pretending to be busy, tugging ineffectually at the weeds. "Somebody ought to come out here and tidy this up," she grumbled. "It's disgraceful."

Olivia glanced at the carvings of the oversized monument where Verity sat, back bent, elbows on knees. The monument's message had been lost to blooms of yellow lichen and the tough grasping tendrils of ivy and other creepers. The unknown occupant of that grave and its neighbours ought to be long past caring about the state of their real estate, but this might not be the case, and probably wasn't a tactful comment to make to an obviously unhappy ghost.

"I think it's rather beautiful," muttered Verity, in the kind of belligerent tone not generally used for discussing nature's splendour.

"I brought milk and chicken for the cats," said Olivia. "Some of those nice biscuits, too."

Verity ignored her studiedly, gazing off into the distance.

"What's the matter with you two today?" asked Olivia, trying to keep her tone light, but fearing all the same. They knew something she didn't.

Verity sighed heavily, chin propped in her hands. "Oh, we've lost another of the cats..."

"Delilah," Imogen interjected to give the cat in question some dignity.

"...and Eli says he's going to run out of room in the garden to bury them at this rate. I suggested building an ossuary, but I don't think Imogen likes the idea."

"No I do not," Imogen confirmed. "What a revolting practice. I won't stand for it. They won't do that to my bones."

"Are you going to get squeamish about it too?" Verity asked Olivia, her bright eyes narrowing slyly, "Or don't you know what an ossuary is?" Before Olivia could answer either way, she carried on: "When graveyards run out of room, they dig up some of the older remains, you know, the ones who haven't paid their rent recently," she added with a sharp-toothed grin. "Clean up the bones and pack them like sardines in a building set aside especially for them. I read about it once."

"Do we have to go on talking about it?" asked Imogen loudly, harassing a thick clump of dandelions, with no apparent results. In a fit of pique she kicked them, giving an unladylike snarl of frustration as the cheerful yellow weeds swayed happily in the breeze, oblivious to ghostly efforts at herbicide.

"Yes, let's not talk about that," Olivia agreed. "What are you doing up here?" Further down the slope the sun shone brightly, and despite the encroaching late afternoon chill it was pleasant enough to sit on the benches at the crossroads and watch the world go by for a while. No need to mention that these old graves were too close to the woods for Olivia's liking.

"It's important to get out and about," said Imogen. "I don't like being stuck in the house all day. Makes me feel like a canary in a cage."

"Ghosts tend to have boundaries," Verity explained. "Most can't travel far at all."

"But I'm working on it," said Imogen, fiercely.

Olivia said nothing. Faded and blurred this far from the house, in the blotchy shadows from the trees, Imogen was as camouflaged as a leopard on a leafy branch. Even her voice sounded distorted and distant. Olivia didn't dare ask what would happen if Imogen strayed too far from the house and exceeded her natural limits.

"Eli might have to dig up your herb garden, at this rate," Verity announced.

"What?"

"To make room to bury more cats."

Olivia scowled. Her herb garden only took up a tiny corner of the garden, and she'd consider any violation of it an act of war. "Oh? Any other plans for my house?"

"Your house?" Verity queried, all blue-eyed innocence. "Oh yes, I keep forgetting."

"'Oh yes,' you do, don't you?"

"He won't have to dig up your herb garden," said Imogen. "Not any time soon."

Not trusting herself to say another word, Olivia turned and stalked off towards the house.

"You know we wouldn't do anything significant without consulting you first, dear," Imogen called as she drifted behind.

Olivia couldn't imagine Eli being persuaded to dig out the entire herb garden without good reason, but nevertheless, it obviously didn't do to leave the house unattended too long. She trod uneasily across the garden, imagining the bones of cat dynasties underfoot.

 

*

A new litter of kittens had arrived in Olivia's month-long absence: she found them play-fighting all across the rug in front of the fireplace, little bundles of black and white fur rolling, biting, squeaking. The runt of the litter, being dead, was unable to join in and mewled pitifully until Auntie Imogen picked it up to fuss over it, gently tutting to the ghostly thing as it batted clumsily at the long tendrils of her hair. Surely these adorable new arrivals should have brightened her mood. Not for the first time, Olivia feared that Verity had spitefully shared what she knew about Olivia's plan… But Imogen couldn't know, or else she'd be furious.

"Where's Eli?" Olivia asked.

"You're early, love," said Imogen. "Don't worry, Eli's about somewhere. If not, I'm sure Verity could take you out to stretch your legs, when the time comes."

"I will not!" Verity exploded. "You can't make me."

"Shush, Verity. Not so shrill."

When Olivia had put the kettle on and unpacked the food she'd brought for her visit, she called Verity over to ask if she'd noticed anything strange about Imogen's mood. "It can't be just the cat."

Verity sniffed haughtily. "'Just the cat,' she says. 'Just'. Vanishes off with her fancy town friends for months on end and forgets all about her poor old auntie and the poor cats who have to go begging for scraps at the vicarage door." She didn't say any more, concentrating ferociously on pouring the tea. A few minutes later, she headed off with the tray of drinks.

Olivia stopped her. "Don't be like that," she pleaded. "What's the matter with Imogen?"

Verity looked startled, as if she'd genuinely forgotten the original question. "It's just the cat. Delilah, I mean. Those awful cars, they come whizzing round like the devil." She sighed. "It's not so bad with the kitten you saw, but - ah, I worked it out, you see - when they don't die here, they don't come back. They're just gone, and Imogen takes that a bit harder. As you'd know, if you spent more time here." She flashed Olivia a bitter look and turned again to take the tea tray into the living room. Her haughty exit was marred when she shrieked and almost dropped the tray.

"Verity!" Imogen appeared at once, alarmed by the cry, "Are you hurt?"

"Oh…" Verity put the half-spilled tea down shakily on the coffee table and bent to examine her shin. "No, not badly. Grubby Old Tom tried to take a chunk out of my leg, that's all."

Olivia had looked down just in time to see the vicious-tempered elderly cat dash behind the armchair. He'd torn Verity's tights, leaving three clear parallel scratches in her pale shin, but she quickly dropped her long black skirt over the injury.

"Grubby Old Tom?" Imogen queried.

"The black one with only one eye, who's about a hundred years old."

Imogen pursed her lips, looking cross. "He prefers to be called Edward."

Verity just grinned. "Olivia came up with the name."

"I never..."

"Yes you did. Last month you were talking about 'that Grubby Old Tom'. You were saying he was just like Eli, and..."

"All right, maybe I did," Olivia admitted, before any more of that conversation could be relayed to Imogen. She already regretted having said so much to Verity under the influence of sleep deprivation. "I'm sorry, Auntie," she said, meekly.

"I think you're both awful," said Imogen. "He may not be young and beautiful, but he's as deserving of love as anybody else."

"When he feels like it," said Verity. "He went missing again just recently, didn't he, and he was gone so long you were certain he was dead, but now he's back and you asked me to make sure he got the cream from the milk..."

Olivia slipped quietly out, leaving Imogen and Verity to argue over the cat. She sat down cross-legged in the middle of her herb garden, that one scrap of land she felt truly belonged to her, rubbing her thumb over the slim ribbons of rosemary leaves and breathing deeply of their strong medicinal scent. Soon enough, before morning and the setting of the moon, it would all be over, one way or another. Olivia had already promised herself that much.

 

 

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