Arson & Old Lace
I pulled the car in close to the hedgerow and turned the key, and that amazing silence came down. It was the silence I had been wanting for more than a year, since my husband had left me, since I’d decided my only hope of peace lay in the ancient rhythms of an English village.
I used to wake in our apartment on West Eighty-third and listen for that silence through Manhattan’s background hum. Keeping by long habit to my side of the bed, I would see behind closed eyelids the narrow country road and the old cottages with roses in bloom on their walls, as they had been when Quin and I had first come to Far Wychwood.
The village inn had been more affordable than an Oxford hotel when we’d come over to attend the wedding of our daughter, Emily, in Christ Church Cathedral, and we’d loved it so much, we had stayed there again when our grandson was born. The memory had become a refuge after Quin told me he’d fallen in love with another woman, and then through the hard labor of adjusting to life alone.
I closed my eyes and sank into the silence. When I opened them I saw my new home, standing where it had stood since the seventeenth century. Built of honey-colored Cotswold stone, its slate roof thick with velvety lichen, its windows mullioned and diamond-paned, a trail of brown vine by the door with the ghosts of last summer’s roses clinging—it looked like a Travel Britain poster, and it even had a name, in the English way: “Rowan Cottage.”
I had been right to give the realtor an order for “a nice little furnished place in Far Wychwood” and leave the rest to her. She knew the kind of thing we Yanks were looking for.
I stepped out of the little car I had rented that afternoon at Heathrow, on a surge of relief at having made it all the way to Gloucestershire on the wrong side of the road without killing myself or anyone else. It would have been more sensible to have spent the night in London, as Emily had urged me to, but I couldn’t wait to see my new home.
I pulled my suitcase and carry-on from the trunk. I had given everything to my friends in New York except a modicum of clothing, and the books, CDs, and photo albums I’d shipped. The rest belonged to the three quarters of my life Quin had shared, and I never wanted to see it again. I looked forward to leisurely days browsing county markets and antique shops for the furnishings of my new, solitary life.
But as I opened the gate and started up the worn brick path, the first pang of doubt struck. Could I be turning into a crazy old lady already, in just the first year of my sixties? It was kind of crazy to leave a circle of friends, a long career as a librarian, a whole country behind on the strength of a memory. After thirty years in Manhattan, could I be happy out here in the sticks? Wasn’t I liable to go crazy from boredom?
The great adventure I’d been having began to feel like one more example of “going off half-cocked,” as Quin called it, that impetuous nature he and Emily found so trying. But I realized I was veering perilously close to self-pity. This mood had to be the result of a drop in endorphin levels from two days without a good long walk, I told myself firmly.
My English realtor, a woman named Eleanor Coleman, had sent me a key. When I opened the door and stepped into the narrow hallway, the musty smell of a long-closed house rose around me. I flipped a wall switch and an overhead light came on. Thoughtful Eleanor Coleman! She’d had the electricity turned on.
I stepped into the room on my right and pushed another light switch. I was in a cozy little sitting-room with bare, random-width floorboards. A sofa covered in classic chintz and a green baize wing-chair flanked a fireplace. The far wall was ridged with empty bookcases from floor to ceiling.
The kitchen, across the hall, was the real English article, with stone-flagged floor, wooden dish rack over the sink, and glass-fronted cabinets. The only appliances were a rather elderly refrigerator and a huge Aga stove that took up most of one wall. I opened a door beside it and started up a steep, boxed-in staircase.
The second floor was tucked under the eaves, the ceilings low and slanted. There was an adequate, old-fashioned bathroom and two bedrooms freshly painted in a nice pale peach color, with good firm beds. The leaded casements of the larger room overlooked the back yard, its bare trees and bushes soft-edged in the twilight. The other bedroom looked out on the road and somebody else’s cottage across the way, with one lighted window.
I leaned on the sill and looked out. Whoever lived in that little cottage was my only near neighbor. Woods and fields surrounded us, except for an abandoned building with a fallen-in thatched roof a few hundred yards down on my side of the road. We were apparently the last two occupied dwellings at this end of the village.
My second thoughts were multiplying into third and fourth ones. Everybody had said I was so brave when I’d told them my plans, but could it be that, under the surface bravado, I was really just one of those awful clinging mothers?
Emily had been a Rhodes scholar. As soon as she had finished her Oxford degree she had married her tutor. While I’d felt some regret that she would be staying in England, I’d had my chosen life and wanted her to have hers, too. She’d gone on to qualify as a psychotherapist and found a great job at an Oxford hospital. As it turned out, it was better that she was overseas during the breakup. It had hurt her enough at long distance.
That had all happened while she was still on maternity leave. Only after she went back to work had I begun to hear stress in her voice over the transatlantic wires. A succession of babysitters proved unsatisfactory, the hospital wanted her to take on more patients, little Archie came down with the usual baby ailments. She had sounded so delighted when I’d suggested coming over to live nearby and lend a hand. But how would she feel now that I was really here?
I flashed on her face, younger than her years, the blue eyes going cold behind her glasses. I remembered her voice, that patronizing tone she could assume so easily: “No, Mother, I don’t think he needs a little cereal. That’s an outmoded idea from your generation. The best authorities say milk is all a baby should have for the first six months, so please don’t keep on about it.”
That had been fourteen months ago, the last time I’d seen her. Quin, as always, had backed her up, and I had swallowed my opinions to keep the peace, hard though that always was for me.
Having burned all my bridges behind me, how would I now stand up to her when she gave me the Look, as sooner or later she would?
You will not go on worrying like this, I told myself sternly. I knew I was strong enough to forget the past and deal with whatever dilemmas the future would bring. It only required determination and will, and plenty of exercise. I ordered myself to think about something else—that cottage across the road, for instance, about as old and picturesque as they come.
The little structure had spent centuries settling into its plot of ground, and now it leaned noticeably to one side. There were a couple of broken panes in one of the casements, which must make it pretty cold in there on a March evening like this. The window and door frames hadn’t been painted for years, and the yard was such a tangle of weeds, I couldn’t see a path. I wasn’t going to find any new friends in that decrepit place, I thought glumly.
Then I noticed something grey and wispy, easing out under the door. I peered closer. Yes, it was smoke, seeping around the door, blowing through the missing window-panes. As I watched it came faster and faster, and then the light went out.
I ran downstairs and across the road, and pounded on the door. There was no answer, but I could hear somebody blundering around in there, knocking things over.
“Hey!” I shouted. “Your house is on fire! Hello!”
There was still no response, so I turned the knob. The door swung in abruptly, and I was enveloped in smoke. Something black went whizzing past my feet and out the door. I didn’t stop to see what it was, but plunged in, holding my breath.
The fire lit up the far wall. I could see the flames rising from a stove, reaching for the rafters. They had begun to consume a curtain above the stove, and a piece of the fabric was drifting to the stone floor, just missing a burlap sack that lay there.
As I came near the fire a shape loomed up beside me, tall and dim in the smoke. It stood there unmoving while I groped for the stove knob and twisted it. The fire died into the burner. I grabbed the curtain rod and jerked the burning curtain to the floor, leaned across to the sink to turn the faucet on full blast, let the water partially fill a battered tin pot, and upended it over the curtains. Then I did it again. The damp smoke gagged me, but the flames smoldered out.
I pressed a towel over my mouth and nose and went around opening casements. In a few minutes the smoke began to clear. Now I could make out that figure by the stove, a tall, thin man with a beard, bent over, coughing spasmodically. Why hadn’t he made a move to help me?
As we both began to draw breath again, he spoke. “Annie?” he said in a high-pitched, quavering voice.
“No,” I choked out with exasperation, “my name’s not Annie!”
I grabbed his arm and pulled him out the door. We stood on the doorstep, dragging in air and looking each other up and down.
The moonlight showed me what a very old man he was. Gnarled bones stood out under the furrows of his face. His clouded eyes were sunk back in their sockets and his mouth caved in on toothless gums. His shirt was a mosaic of food stains, his fly was half unzipped, he wore a broken-down shoe on one foot but only a sock on the other. And he smelled. The odors of unwashed flesh and stale urine floated to me on the night breeze.
He was glaring at me indignantly. “You bain’t Annie!” he growled.
“No,” I said, much more gently, now I could see the old man must be senile. “My name’s Catherine. However did that fire start?”
He glanced back into the cottage, shaking his head of long, matted grey hair.
“Don’t know, do I? Just fixing a bit of egg and bacon for dinner, I were, and there the cooker took fire. It’s they witches, I don’t doubt.”
“Right, must have been witches.” I felt too sorry for the poor old fellow to laugh. “Well, it’s about cleared out, and I’m getting cold, aren’t you? Let’s go back inside.”
He followed me. The inside was just like the outside, cluttered and unkempt, with burlap bags of produce standing around, dry sticks that must once have been herbs hanging from the rafters, food-crusted dishes and pans on the table and in the sink, and under the smell of smoke the smell of rot.
There only seemed to be one source of light, a big brass lamp lying on the floor under the window. Crossing the slanted floor to get to it was like walking up a ramp. It was heavy, and, when I set it on a table and twisted the switch, its light was flickering, inadequate.
The old man went straight to the stove and reached for a box of wooden matches sitting next to one of the burners.
“No, no, no, you’re going to do it again!” I exclaimed, pushing in to grab the matches out of his shaking hand.
“I’ll have me egg and bacon!” he shouted feebly.
“Why don’t you just sit down, Mr.—What’s your name?”
“Me name?” He stared as if unable to believe a person lived who didn’t know who he was. “Me name’s George, ain’t it? George Crocker, same as it’s been for more nor ninety year.”
“Sit down, then, George. I’ll fix you some bacon and eggs.”
He sank into a chair by the big wooden table, muttering unintelligibly.
“You shouldn’t be trying to cook,” I said. “Isn’t anybody living here with you? Your wife, or a son or daughter?”
“Wife?” He squinted with the effort of remembering. “Died long years ago, didn’t she, Emma? A son, aye, I’ve a son. I’ve taken gurt care of him. He’ll not want after I’m gone, won’t Arthur.”
“Why isn’t he taking care of you?” I demanded. “Where is he, while you’re setting fire to your house?”
“Arthur? In his home, and that’s at Oxford. Did ye think I’d forgot where Arthur lives?”
“Does he ever come to see you?” I asked, already disliking Arthur, as I sawed at a rock-hard side of bacon sitting on an old hutch. “Why doesn’t he hire somebody to stay with you, or get you into—” I stopped, realizing I might be treading on dangerous ground.
“A workhouse?” He fired up instantly, his eyes flashing back in their caverns. “Nay, Missus, Arthur knows I’ll never go to the bloody workhouse!”
“No, of course not. Don’t worry about it. They haven’t had workhouses for a long time.” A vision of the dancing orphans in Oliver went through my head. “So, Arthur’s your only child?”
“Nay. There was Annie.”
He subsided, staring down at the flagstones, shaking his head sadly.
“I’d not mind if she were still here, but she’s gone, ain’t she? It weren’t her fault. She were a good girl, always reading them books. Only a lass she were when it happened. And she made it right in the end, didn’t she?” He slammed his fist down on the table, as if I were arguing with him.
I wondered if he knew what he was talking about, any more than I did. The bacon was sizzling now. I filled the tin kettle from the tap and lit another burner with the last match in the box. The room was getting chilly with everything open, and the smoke had cleared, so I shut the windows and went to shut the door. Just beyond the doorstep, a skinny black cat was sitting among the weeds, its tail curled neatly around its feet. It stared up at me, unblinking. As I started to close the door, it sprang up and ran past me into the cottage, as fast as it had streaked out before.
It went straight to George Crocker, sniffed his sock gingerly, and rubbed its body against his leg.
“There, Muzzle, ’twas naught in the end,” he reassured it.
“What’s its name?”
They both looked at me with wary hostility.
“Muzzle’s his name.”
“What kind of a name is that for a cat? Muzzle?”
“Aye, Muzzle, Muzzle—where the bloody mouse lives!”
He went back to stroking its scruffy fur.
“He can find ’em out better nor any cat I ever had, and do for the mouse as well. Do ye see any vermin runnin’ about me house? Nay,” he answered himself, “Muzzle’d not stand for it.”
The cat slunk under the old man’s chair and crouched there in lion-position, glaring out at me malevolently.
“Should I open a can of food for him?” I asked.
“Nay, he don’t need you to do aught for him, no more nor I do! You go on home and mind your own dinner. Muzzle and me’s fine on our own. I’ll make the dinner, I been doin’ it for fifty year!”
It was no use arguing with him. I looked around at the mess, wondering whether he would have a fit if I brought a mop over tomorrow. Old men were impossible to predict, I knew from experience. I remembered how my father had been in his last years, never as cantankerous as George Crocker, but ready one day to cooperate with anything I proposed, and the next in a feeble rage at an innocent word.
My eye lighted on a wavering line of white paint drawn around the whole room, where the floor met the walls.
“What did you do that for?” I asked, pointing at it.
He stared at me as if he doubted my sanity. “Why, for the witches, bain’t it?”
“Oh, come on, George.” I couldn’t help smiling.
“It don’t do to make game of the witches, Missus. They’ll not cross one of they lines, everybody knows that. Think I want to be strangled with witch-weed in me sleep?”
It was hard to believe that thirty-six hours ago I’d been hailing a cab in mid-Manhattan traffic, and now I was listening to a character out of Thomas Hardy recommending the best way to deter witches.
“This were ever a gurt place for ’em,” he rambled on. “Tell that by the name, can’t ye? That’n’s mother were a witch’s familiar.” He pointed under the chair. “The witch vanished away one day, like they do, with his cat, and left its kitten behind, and I took him in. I reckoned then the witches’d leave me be, and so they have.” He chuckled at his own shrewdness.
“Then what do you need the white line for?”
“No harm in bein’ double-sure. Not when it comes to the witches. What are ye grinnin’ about? Them as don’t credit the power of the dark ones’ll turn up in the wychwood one night with a rope of the witch-weed about their neck!”
“Well, Catherine, you were looking for old and quaint,” I muttered sarcastically as I turned the bacon and eggs out on a cracked plate.
When I set it before him he grumbled about the way the food was cooked, but stuffed it in ravenously. Finally he set the plate on the floor. He had left one of the eggs, and the black cat crept out and ate it. When I went over to pick up the plate, the scruffy thing drew back and hissed at me.
“That is the meanest cat!” I exclaimed. “If it would act halfway friendly I’d get it some food, but—”
“Forget that!” the old man ordered. “It’s got late. I can’t be nattering with fools all the night. I’m off to bed.”
“Do you need any help?”
“Don’t I tell ye I’m fine on me own?” he flared up again. “I’ve seen the day I could throw the smith over his smithy, if I’d a mind to. You ask folk, they’ll tell ye.”
I made sure the burners were off before I left. A quick look around had not revealed another box of matches, so I gave myself orders to bring some over tomorrow. I’d already decided to come back and cook him another meal.
Rowan Cottage was cold, and the musty smell was everywhere. I was too exhausted to figure out how the central heating worked. In fact, I opened one of the back windows in the kitchen to air the place out.
Before going to bed I picked up the phone. There was a dial tone, another detail seen to by miraculous Eleanor. I would have to be sure to look her up and thank her for all the extra trouble she’d taken.
I longed to hear Emily’s voice, but something told me it would be better not to disturb them so late. I’d call in the morning.
I wandered around the place for a while, turning lights on and off, opening cabinets, the refrigerator, the stove, sitting down on the sofa to test it for comfort. Tired as I was, the thrill of actually being in my own seventeenth-century cottage, as different from a Manhattan apartment as anything could be, kept me going for half an hour or so. I felt safe for the first time in a year.
Finally I climbed the narrow, boxed-in staircase again, carrying my baggage. I was too weary even to bathe. I got my flannel nightgown out and put it on, found the mystery I’d started on the plane, and slipped into bed under the one thin blanket.
I read for a while, finishing the book. When I clicked the bed lamp off, the dark was profound with no street lights outside, and the silence I had so looked forward to was actually a little scary. Now I didn’t feel so safe. I was used to the night sounds of screeching brakes, voices in the street, the rumble of the subway under the sidewalk. This was like being the last person left on the planet. Except, of course, for George Crocker, but somehow knowing he was nearby wasn’t all that reassuring.
“What are you going to be scared of next?” I demanded into the darkness. “Maybe you’d better get a can of paint tomorrow, and make a line around the floor to keep the witches out!”
A minute later, I was asleep.