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The Music House by Penelope Jane Randall

They say you can see things here, on the Marsh. Things that aren't real.

It's a funny expression, seeing things, because it means just the opposite. That you're making them up, imagining people or objects or scenes that are actually somewhere else, or nowhere at all. Like a mirage. Except here it's not heat that gathers so much as damp and fog. And history.

The place is a backwater. Things linger that happened a long time ago. But you have to remember that ordinary rules don't apply here and even the Marsh itself exists by a kind of enchantment. At its edge you climb to reach the sea. You can look towards France, or up-Channel to the Goodwin Sands where the ghost ships are.

Inland, ten feet below sea level, there's dead-flat green where water has sunk away. The ground is cut by drainage channels with weird names. Jury's Gut. Five Watering Sewer. Buildings spread themselves far apart because it's safer that way. There's a prairie sky, shallow as a saucer, and layers of mist where those other things float because water droplets - like heat haze - distort light, creating strange half-images. Your imagination fills in the gaps.

* * *
1.

“There's no-one here.”

Lindy's first sight of the Marsh comes one broiled afternoon in July, on a dusty railway platform that twitches in the heat. It is not, she thinks for no identifiable reason, a truthful place.

Her daughter watches her, between pale strands of hair. “So call the house.” To Mia, most things in life are still simple.

Lindy begins to press buttons on her phone.

“No reply.”

They stare at one another. Wanting nothing to develop in her eyes, Lindy turns away. On the wall behind them, tucked inside the frame of the timetable, there's a card for a taxi. A handwritten number. Local, reliable. A battered Ford, she imagines unkindly, whose driver hasn't seen work for weeks.

Tiny as a beetle in the distance their train is levitating away on a shiny cushion of diesel fumes. No-one else got off here.

“Twenty minutes.” Lindy replaces the phone in her backpack.

“This is nowhere.” Mia settles cross-legged on the platform edge, chewing. The arse end of, Lindy thinks, but she says nothing. Anxiety has begun to hurt her stomach. Beyond Mia there's a hum of insects amongst the weeds. Dandelions – for faithfulness, Lindy recalls, vaguely, from the stuff she once learned about the meanings of flowers – dandelions grow between the tracks, among the tar slicks and plastic bottles. There's also willowherb, its silky white threads drifting everywhere. Constancy.

The Marsh is supposed to have its own unique population of plants.

Yeah. Right.

“I need the loo.” Mia makes it sound like Lindy's fault. Mia is fifteen and pretty much everything is Lindy's fault.

Across the track is a single brick wall, half-collapsed, standing at the edge of a field. The words Fine Animal Feeds, painted in sky blue, crumble off the surface. If you don't count that, nothing moves.

“Wissels Farm.”

The taxi turns onto a deeply ditched dirt track. Ahead of them Imogen's house matches the sales brochure photo. Distant. Solitary. An opportunity to acquire a substantial family home, 3½ acres with outbuildings. Estate agents' waffle. Acquire. As though you might add this farmhouse to your collection.

They scrunch to a halt in dusty gravel. The driver reaches into the boot for their bags, but he's begun staring at Lindy in the way people often do, as though time has hiccuped and they haven't realised. She knows what's happening; he's holding her face in his head and trying to identify it. She still hasn't got used to this.

“I hear they're renting out the land,” the driver says, still staring.

“They only need the house.”

The man's expression begins to clear; he has not, after all, recognised her. The startling thing is that people sense the possibility. Even when they see her like this, unmade-up. Untransformed. Away from the cameras.

“Been empty a long time.”

Lindy nods.

“My aunt lives here now.” Mia has picked up on the pause. “She's a famous violinist. We're visiting. Lucky us, hey?”

The house is built of small bricks, its upper storey hung with tiles. Time, and Marsh storms, ought to have mellowed this building but somehow they have not.

Imogen had scribbled across the photo in red marker pen, The Music House, with a thick arrow diving right into the picture. The agent described Wissels Farm as a Renovation Opportunity. Another surreal half-truth. Lindy's favourite was Sitting-room, mostly L-shaped.

She bends down to push a finger into her shoe and hook out a sharp bit of stone. Around them scrubby, unkempt land runs right up to the walls of the house. If a garden has ever existed there is no hint of it now. The voices of the plants are long gone.

“No-one's here, either, Mum.”

Lindy reaches for the handle, then lays the flat of her hand against the edge of the door and pushes. It swings inwards.

Inside there's a hallway with a stone floor and panelled walls. A wooden rocking chair that looks too heavy to move. Beyond it, the place is dark. Air around them that should feel cool is clammy and stale.

An idea is growing in Lindy's head that this is not a house but a display. A setting for something.

She takes a breath.

“Immy? Nigel?”

There's no answer. Hung on the wall behind the chair is a tiny violin. Imogen's first instrument, hardly more than a toy. Lindy always thought it was cursed.

“The noise it used to make,” she says quietly, stroking the violin's varnished sides. “Like a banshee.”

Mia isn't listening. She's staring at Lindy. “Mum? Where are they?”

Lindy's stomach feels stitched and crumpled. Imogen's voice replays itself in her head. Her pale, vulnerable sister at the end of the telephone, refusing to explain. Just come, Lindy. Please.

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