Originally published: 16.04.16
The taxi dropped David at the end of a long gravel drive. It was still light – midsummer – and the sky was heavy. It had not been a good summer. The sun had struggled all month to break through the barriers of clouds.
‘Just down there,’ the taxi driver said, pointing, as David paid the £20 fare. ‘It’s a ten minute walk. Full of potholes,’ he grumbled. ‘Wreck my tyres to take you all the way down.’
David nodded. After seven hours on the train and twenty minutes in the cab he could do with the walk. Stretch his legs.
He stopped, and turned back to the driver who was pulling away.
‘Sorry,’ David said. ‘Have you got a card? In case I need you to pick me up?’ He didn’t know what welcome awaited him at the end of the driveway. He should’ve contacted Leonie first, let her know he had thought about it, let her know he was coming. What an idiot, he thought. She might not even be here.
The driver glared at him. ‘I’m only working for another three hours,’ he warned, taking a creased card from his back pocket and handing it out the window. David took it, hoping his distaste over the card’s proximity to the driver’s behind was not too obvious. ‘Three hours,’ he repeated. ‘Otherwise you’ll have to wait until morning.’
What kind of taxi firm was it, David thought, as he made his way towards the house, that not only begrudged giving you a card, they didn’t even work all night through?
‘We’re not in Kansas anymore,’ he said, addressing a goldfinch perched on a low-hanging branch. He kicked a grey pebble out of his way and into the dusty grass that lined the drive.
The driver had been right. The road, if it could be called that, was in a mess. His feet skidded on the rough gravel and every few metres he dodged a pothole that gaped obscenely, dried up puddle-mud at its base. Stephen must have one of those 4×4 cars, he thought. A 4×4 with substantial tyres.
Or a helicopter, he thought, grimacing. Yes. He’s definitely the type to have a bloody helicopter.
He’d only been walking for five minutes and already he was sweating. The day may have been grey but it was still June. It was still warm. Midsummer, he remembered. He could feel a damp patch forming on the back of his shirt, beneath his backpack. The more he was aware of it, the hotter he felt. He didn’t want to greet Leonie with a dark sweat patch spread across his back.
She’ll be wearing some cool, clean summer dress, he thought. Linen, or bleached cotton maybe. Edwardian petticoats – that was her style. Crisp and fresh, a belt across the middle as wide as her hand.
This weather, he thought. It wouldn’t be so bad if the sun were shining. He wouldn’t mind the sweat, the heat, if it were a good, clean sun.
We need a storm, he thought.
The driveway took a sharp turn to the left. There, in front of him, stood the castle.
He let out a low whistle.
Grey and solid, the castle had been built to withstand anything history could throw at it. It was architectural code for ‘sod off and good riddance’. There were no delicate flourishes. No moments of designer whimsy. It squatted – there was no other word for it – square and ugly, at the end of the drive. To its left a light green lawn stretched out towards a perfectly round man-made lake on the edge of the dark green woods.
David stood at the door and took a deep breath, inhaling the scent of the pines on the other side of the lake. A hint of orange. Douglas firs – he remembered his mum telling him how to recognise it. Underneath the citric tang of the leaves his nostrils could detect something else, too. Something darker, something threatening. A bloody, animal smell.
He pushed his hand over his short hair.
Now or never, he thought, and rang the doorbell.
The door was made of such thick wood that he couldn’t hear if anyone was walking down the hallway in response. He waited, straining to hear. He didn’t want to ring twice.
The door swung open, exposing a long hallway and there she was, Leonie, in her Edwardian style petticoat, white cotton with lace trimmings, just as he had predicted. She looked like she should be wearing a broad-brimmed sun hat with a blue bow around it. Instead, her head and her feet were bare.
‘David!’ Leonie said. She looked shocked for a moment. He watched her settle her features into her hostess smile. No one else would notice, no one who didn’t know to look for the passage of expressions that darted across her face, the face she adapted so quickly. He noticed, of course he did. He prided himself on knowing what she was thinking, was angry with himself when he got it wrong.
‘David,’ she repeated. ‘What a…surprise.’ She paused. ‘Well. Come in,’ she said, her voice bright, her mouth smiling her hostess smile as if she lived here, with Stephen, when, David thought angrily, when really she was just as much as a guest as he was. ‘What a surprise,’ she said again. ‘I, I mean we, didn’t expect you to come.’
‘I was invited, wasn’t I,’ he answered shortly. He heard his accent, thicker than usual.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘But you never said…’ Her voice trailed off.
‘Anyway,’ she continued, her bright hostess voice back in tune. ’You’re here now.’
David followed Leonie down the long hallway. It was decorated in the old style, with dark wood panelling and burgundy walls. The overall effect was oppressive. Antique stag heads looked down on them; their antlers that had once pointed skywards now dulled and diminished in the dim lamplight. Interspersed between the long-dead prizes hung repetitive paintings of repetitive-looking men in tartan.
‘Stephen’s ancestors,’ Leonie said, following his glance. She gave David a conspiratorial wink. ‘Or so he says…No women, you’ll no doubt notice.’
He laughed. It was going to be okay, after all. She was Leonie, the old Leonie, and she was his just as much as ever. She laughed in response to his laughter, slipping her arm through his and laying her head on his shoulder. He treasured the feel of her slim wrist in his.
‘Dear David,’ she said. ‘I am glad you’ve come.’
He wanted to plant a soft kiss on the top of her tangle of hair. Once it would have been natural to. But as though she sensed his unspoken desire, she unravelled her arm from his and skipped ahead down the hallway.
‘Stephen will be so pleased to see you,’ she said, looking back over her lovely shoulder. Her voice didn’t quite believe it. She looked to the side, guilty. A child caught in a lie. ‘He was just saying this morning how much he hoped you would come.’ She faced him straight on again. ‘Come on. We’re in the drawing room.’
He laughed at the way she enunciated “drawing room” and she rewarded him with one of her broad smiles, giving him another delicious wink. ‘So pretentious,’ she mouthed silently, before clapping her hand over her mouth to hide her giggle.
‘Stephen,’ she announced, pushing open the door to the drawing room. ‘Look! David has come.’
Stephen stood, framed by the old leather armchair behind him. He held out his hand to David.
‘David,’ he said. ‘So you decided to join us after all.’ He paused, and moved to stand in front of the fireplace, empty of flames, wood stacked and waiting at either side. ‘How come you changed your mind?’
David’s eyes quickly flicked over to Leonie, who stood, her hands behind her back, apparently deeply absorbed in the titles of the leather-bound books that stood in neat rows along the wall by the door. He looked back at Stephen.
‘I needed a break,’ he said, pushing his hand through his hair. ‘London’s too hot. You know what it’s like. It’s too much in the summer.’
‘Well, that’s why we’re here,’ Stephen agreed. ‘Take a seat. Leonie and I were just discussing her little book.’
David sat in the second leather armchair. It was too large for him. It didn’t matter that he was so tall; if he sat back he disappeared into its huge frame. He settled on perching at the edge of the wide seat.
‘Leonie, come,’ Stephen said, beckoning her with his hand. ‘You’ve looked at those books dozens of times.’
‘I know,’ she replied. ‘But each time I find something different. There’s always a surprise or two.’ She paused. ‘Look,’ she said. ‘You’ve all the Waverley novels. I’m sure they weren’t there this morning.’
She hesitated for a moment, looking from David’s seat to the chair recently quitted by Stephen.
‘Aren’t you going to sit down?’ she asked. She sounded nervous, uncertain.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘I’ll just sit here, in that case.’ She took her place on a small round leather footstool.
David looked around the room. It smelled harsh with leather – a dark, masculine smell. Like the hallway before it there was a lot of wood panelling, and more portraits of supposed ancestors along the walls. Above the great stone fireplace was a grand oil painting of a man in full Scottish military regalia, a preposterous moustache bristling on his face. It was hard to credit that his descendant stood beneath the portrait, with his urbane good looks – clean-shaven, his blue jeans and white shirt casually expensive.
‘Drink?’ Stephen asked.
David nodded. He desperately wanted a beer. Something cold and fizzy that reminded him of spring spent with Leonie, the two of them tipsy and giggling in parks. It didn’t matter what he wanted, however. Stephen didn’t do beer.
‘Here,’ said Stephen, pouring out a shot of golden liquid into a crystal glass. ‘Try this. You won’t have tasted anything like it.’
‘Won’t I?’ David said, a sullen tone underlying his words. This was typical of Stephen, he thought. It was too hot for whisky, surely? He was already too hot. The hard booze would make him feel uncomfortable. Sticky. Whisky should be drank in winter when it burned your throat and settled with that dull warmth in your stomach. Whisky was for the dark. It wasn’t for grey and humid midsummer nights like tonight.
Stephen watched him take a sip of the drink.
‘Twenty-five year old Glenlivet,’ he pronounced. ‘Good?’
David hated to admit that it was good. He hated to admit that, even after everything, he was still impressed by Stephen’s wealth – by his imposing home, his expensive good taste in everything from jeans to whisky.
It hadn’t always been so, of course. When they had first met, when Stephen had taken an interest in David’s writing, when Stephen had helped David meet that first publisher, when Stephen had thanked David for dedicating his first collection to him.
Then, they had been friends. Then, David had been willingly impressed. He had looked up to Stephen. He had wanted to be more like him. Even now, the hit of whisky on his tongue, he wanted to be more like him. Only now, he despised Stephen for it. He despised himself even more.
Still, he thought. I can’t fault the whisky.
‘Good,’ he admitted.
‘I don’t think I’ve ever seen you drink a glass of whisky in your life,’ Leonie observed, making her eyes as wide as only she could.
‘Well, I’m glad your first whisky is one as fine as that,’ Stephen said. ‘Although,’ a sliver of malice sliding into his tone. ‘Perhaps not. Perhaps it will just set you up for a lifetime of disappointment.’
Leonie darted a look at Stephen and then at David.
‘Don’t…’ she began.
But she appeared to think better of it, and turned her attention back to the bookshelf.
The alcohol had gone straight to David’s head. All he’d had to eat on the journey was a tasteless cheese sandwich and two fingers of Walkers shortbread served with a cup of rancid instant coffee.
‘Another?’ Stephen said, watching David’s reaction to the first glass. He poured a generous measure. ‘Here, enjoy it. It’s meant to be enjoyed.’
David took the glass and raised it to Stephen, sloshing the golden liquid around the sides. He felt giddy and daring and angry all at once.
‘To your health,’ he said, with what he hoped was a sardonic edge to his voice.
‘And yours,’ Stephen replied, his own tone neutral.
‘And one for me?’ Leonie asked, resting her pointed chin on Stephen’s shoulder.
‘Of course,’ said Stephen. ‘Forgive me.’
He poured a measure into the third glass and handed it to Leonie. She took a sip, looking over the edge of her glass at Stephen, then at David, and back to Stephen again.
‘Well,’ she said, addressing him. ‘This is all very jolly, isn’t it. The three of us.’
‘Back together again,’ said Stephen easily.
David said nothing.
Leonie had been wearing that dress, he thought, the day he met her. She had been looking at the pictures in the National Gallery, and he had been struck by how, despite her old-fashioned dress, she looked light and modern when surrounded by all the dark and ancient paintings. He couldn’t remember how he had started talking to her. But he remembered the need – the feeling of absolute need that had overwhelmed him, to speak to her, to stop her slipping away from him and into the next room of dark, ancient paintings.
She looked the same tonight as she did then, he thought. The contrast of her, all light and modern in her old-fashioned dress, against the dark and ancient room.
Leonie had laughed at Stephen, the day he introduced them. Stephen himself had been mesmerised by her, of course he had, and she was charm itself during the meeting. She could be, when she wanted to be. But later on, at home with David, she had laughed.
‘He’s a phoney,’ she had said. ‘Whichever way you look at it. Either he’s a phoney because he pretends to live in a great big Scottish castle with a great big family tree. Or he’s a phoney because he really is that, and yet pretends to be a modern man living the high-life in London. Either way, he’s a phoney.’
She had laughed again then, the laugh she had when she remembered some secret joke of her own.
‘But he’s a real phoney,’ she said, putting on a nasal New York accent, waggling her finger at him.
David had looked at her, confused.
‘Breakfast at Tiffany’s,’ she explained. ‘It’s what her manager says about Holly.’
‘Who’s Holly?’ he had asked, laughing at her laughter. She had rolled her eyes at that, and kissed him.
Somewhere along the line, Stephen had got hold of Leonie. He had talked to her about her writing – a subject she never broached with David. Why hadn’t she? What had prevented her? He could have helped her; she didn’t need to go to Stephen. Yet it was Stephen she turned to. There were coffees, and dinners, and then conversations about her little book that he, Stephen, would of course do everything to support.
Then there was the day before yesterday. Leonie on the phone, repeating Stephen’s invite, urging David to come up to the castle as soon as he could. She had been very clear on that point.
He had been cruel. He had said things to hurt her. Things he had meant once, and didn’t mean any longer.
That was why he had come, in the end. To show her that the words he meant then he didn’t mean any longer.
‘Another?’ Stephen asked.
David longed for that beer. But any drink was better than no drink.
‘Smoke?’ Stephen said, holding out a cigar packet.
David shook his head. The combination, he knew, would be enough to make him sick. Stephen knew it. Putting the packet away, he was unable to resist the smirk that twisted his mouth.
‘I’ll have another,’ Leonie said, holding her glass out like Oliver.
‘Drink up Leo,’ David said, smiling at her. She turned to him, a sweet smile on her face that felt as intimate as a caress.
‘Mud in your eye,’ she whispered. She held his eye for a moment longer, as a sigh rippled through his body. He looked away first. He watched her walk over to the window, where she stared out at the long shadows made by the trees on the edge of the lake. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘It’s midsummer.’
It was later on, and they had carried on drinking. The three-hour deadline had passed; the taxi would no longer come to take David home. He was laughing at a story that Stephen was telling, a story about a famous writer who poured whisky from a teapot when doing events, and Leonie was watching him laugh. It was good, Leonie thought, to see David laughing again. It was good, to see him laughing with Stephen again.
She remembered how she had laughed at Stephen, that first night. David had brought her along, eager to show her off, eager to show Stephen off. Later on she had done an impression of Holly Golightly’s manager – what was his name? Berman, that was it. He hadn’t known it, hadn’t recognised the reference; he probably thought the film was about a woman called Tiffany, and she had promised that they would watch it together. One more promise the two of them had failed to keep. The two of them, laughing in the little kitchen with a chessboard floor, just like Holly’s own.
When had it switched? When had Stephen stopped being a figure of fun to her? She had laughed at him, once, and then he had come along with promises she trusted him to keep.
David hadn’t understood. Was it only the day before yesterday he had said those things? He had said things she didn’t want to remember, not now. Things that she didn’t want to remember, things that were true. He hadn’t known that, of course not. Truth, knowledge – it didn’t matter. Not by the shouting stage.
Now they were here, the three of them together again. They were laughing, those two, she wasn’t joining in. What were they talking about? She left them, laughing, and walked over to the window. It wasn’t quite dark, even now, and yet the heaviness of the clouds meant it was darker than it should have been. It hadn’t been a good summer.
As the thought formed in her mind, the clouds split open in a crash of thunder. Rain, reticent at first and then gathering momentum, poured out of the sky, rattling the antique glass in its metal frame. A flash of lightening lit her up, brightening the white of her dress.
At the shock of the storm she shivered, and jumped back from the sill. She felt exposed, as though the glass had opened up and forced her into the outside.
She turned her back to the window, leaving the storm to play out behind her, leaning her body on her hands that grasped the wooden sill. What were they talking about? They were leaving her out. It wasn’t fair.
‘We should have music,’ she interrupted.
They looked up at her. David had a soppy smile on his face, his eyes shone like glass. The whisky was having its desired effect. He couldn’t quite handle it. Stephen, she observed, was confident with whisky. A little pink in the face, but not so much as to shake his veneer of suave capability.
‘What music do you want?’ Stephen asked, opening a cabinet to reveal a top of the range sound-system. Bang and Olufson, Leonie guessed, or something in that line. It looked grotesque, incongruous amidst the stags and the ancestors.
‘Something to dance to,’ she said, stepping nimbly on her toes into the heart of the room. ‘So long as one of you dances with me.’
Stephen put on a Motown record. Leonie started to giggle. Motown sounded so wrong, so out of place, here, in Scotland, in a granite castle, in Stephen’s hands. It wasn’t music she associated with him. But then, she thought, what music would she associate with him? She didn’t know. She didn’t know anything about him, not really.
‘Come on,’ she said, her smile warming her voice, reaching her hand out to David as Needle in a Haystack blared out the speakers. ‘Dance!’
He laughed and stood up, skidding slightly on his feet. She held him with confidence. She didn’t want Stephen to see his slip.
He was so familiar to her. The easy movement of his body against her own, his chin resting above her forehead, the shape of his hands on her back. She breathed him in, he twirled her round, pushed her away from him, pulled her back in spinning, hugged her close and lifted her up until she was pressed against his chest, her legs sticking out useless behind her.
He put her down, gently, slowly, holding her tight to him. She looked up at him as he looked down at her, not letting go. The track faded out.
Diana Ross sang oooh ooh-ooh oooh.
‘May I?’ Stephen said, reaching for Leonie’s hand in his own. Unthinking, she pulled it away.
‘No,’ she said, catching her breath. ‘I…’
‘Come on, Leonie,’ Stephen said, firmer now, his fingers grasping for hers.
‘She said no,’ David said. She felt herself being pulled closer into his chest.
She pushed him away, breaking out of his arms. ‘No, I…’ she said. ‘I just…’ Her voice faded. She no longer quite knew what it was she meant to say.
The three stood separate, silent against the Supremes. She stole a glance at Stephen. His face, pink with whisky, had darkened. She could see the tension forming in his neck, the grip of his hand against the crystal glass.
‘What are you doing here, David?’ Stephen said, a note of accusation in his voice.
‘What?’ David said, pushing one hand through his hair, the other reaching out for Leonie, suspended. ‘What do you mean?’ He looked wounded, confused. He had forgotten, in the whisky and the laughter and the dance with Leonie, that he had not wanted to come, before. He had forgotten. He had thought himself welcome.
‘What are you doing here?’ Stephen repeated, enunciating each word.
‘Stephen…’ Leonie said.
‘Leonie invited me,’ David interrupted.
Stephen turned to look at her. ‘Did you?’ he said.
David saw a flash of confusion chase across Leonie’s face, illuminated by another flash outside the window.
‘You said…’ she started. ‘You said to,’ she finished.
‘Yes,’ said Stephen. ‘I suppose I did.’ He sighed, affecting boredom. He didn’t want a scene, she thought. Was it he, then, who had started it? Or was it her, her and her unthinking no?
‘You didn’t expect him to accept,’ she said, trying to keep her voice light. It was important to keep it light. ‘That’s all. It’s not my fault that you didn’t expect that.’
‘You can’t control everything,’ David said. His voice sounded thick from alcohol. ‘You just can’t.’
Leonie glared at him. Don’t, David, she thought. Leave it, before you say something stupid. Something from the day before yesterday.
‘Stephen…’ she began.
‘Shut up, Leonie,’ he said, cutting her off. ‘This has nothing to do with you.’
David took a step forward, his foot skidding slightly beneath him. This time there was no Leonie to disguise his slippage. ‘You can’t,’ he said. ‘You can’t talk to her like that.’
‘David!’ she said. The thunder rolled out across the sky. ‘Don’t!’
‘No!’ he replied. He was almost shouting against the thunder, not realising it, the alcohol blurring his perceptions. The track switched on the stereo. Marvin Gaye. ‘Leonie, listen to me.’ He made another grab for her hand, grasping at air as she refused it.
‘Listen,’ he repeated. ‘He can’t talk to you like that. I won’t,’ his voice faltered. In the dim light, his face helpless, he looked like a child. It hurt Leonie to look at that face. ‘I won’t let him,’ he said finally. She imagined him a child, puffing his chest up, defying a bully, knowing it was hopeless. A pressure fizzed behind her nose; tears stung in her eyes,
An unmistakable sneer spread itself across Stephen’s face. For a moment he looked his age. ‘Oh for God’s sake, David,’ he began.
‘No!’ shouted Leonie. ‘Enough. Stephen, stop it. You can’t, I can’t…’ she took a deep breath. With a flash behind her, she stood, her dress shining white. ‘I’ve had it. I’ve had enough.’
She turned away from them, then. Walking with purpose towards the doorway she left the two men, both standing, mouths slightly open, watching her retreat. She walked down the dark hall and pushed the heavy wooden door open into the night’s dim light. She could hear a voice shouting at her, David or Stephen, she no longer knew which, telling her to stop, that there was no where for her to go, that the taxis had stopped running, that it was a ten mile walk to town.
The rain was throwing itself down now, bouncing off the ground around her bare ankles as she picked her way along the drive, the sharp stones painful underfoot. She ignored their sting, carrying on to the light green grass darkened by rain, the mud oozing between her toes, staining the underside of her nails.
The rain soaked her hair black, fat drops coursing down her cheeks, her light cotton dress bleached transparent. She gasped at the cold of the rain on her cheeks, her lips.
She gasped again when she saw it.
There, at the edge of the dark green woods, stood the stag. The velvet of his antlers was matted and course in the rain. She had not realised, from the size of the prized heads in the hallway, just how frankly huge an adult stag could be. He stood, very still, behind the curtain of rain, his golden eye unblinking, his wet snout sniffing the damp air.
She stood, watching him watching her. She saw the ruffle of fur of his neck, bedraggled in the rain, the delicate bend of his knees, the broad strength of his back that sloped down into his hind legs. Hind, she thought, that’s what they call a deer, isn’t it?
They stood, in stillness. She imagined his wide forehead bowed, his antlers pointing forward, taking aim. The crash of shoulders, crushing. The tangle of antlers, the clack of bone. The heat of it.
But not now. Right now, he was at peace. Right now, his antlers pointed skywards.
A flash of lightening illuminated him. His antlers shone silver, lighting them up to a bright white at the tips. He pushed his head forward and barked. She jumped back. A horrible, primal sound.
She reached out her hand. He turned his back to her, and made his slow way back into the shelter of the woods.
I‘m a Bristol based blogger, short-listed for the Emma Humphrey’s Memorial Prize in 2015, who writes stories, talks about feminism and politics and generally muses on happenings. My first children’s novel Greta and Boris was published in 2014. Twitter @sianushk