An extract from THE HAUNTED
On the night she arrived in Fort William, Susie dreamed of weddings.
She used to dream about weddings often. Mostly her own wedding in the big, dark Catholic cathedral; the white designer dress she’d worn and the single white rose she’d carried instead of a bouquet. She’d had a recurring dream where the thorns dug into her hands and she bled until the dress turned red. There was another nightmare, one she’d had when she was first engaged but still came from time to time all these years on, about her engagement ring. In this one, the stones came loose from her ring and scattered on the floor.She got down on her hands and knees, searching with her fingers for the diamonds and rubies, then trying to shove them back into their settings, watching them fall and bounce on the floor again, getting increasingly frantic. It always worried her that these dreams might be some kind of portent. She believed in that kind of thing even if Martin dismissed it all and found her rather silly.
In Fort William, though, she dreamed of a friend’s wedding, a man she knew well called Tom who had married years ago. In the dream, it was the same bride and groom but it was in the present day. Susie had on a pink suit with a white carnation for a buttonhole. The perfume from the flower struck her powerfully: the smell of weddings. She walked into the church smiling, but then the breath was knocked out of her. Tom was standing at the front in a black dinner jacket, looking suitably nervous, but the church wasn’t set up the way she was expecting it to be at all. Instead, a funeral was to take place. The coffin lay in front of the altar on a trolley with wheels.
Tom walked down the aisle the wrong way, towards Susie. He was talking, garbled words coming out of his mouth the way they did when he was distressed. His wife had died suddenly, he told her, but that was okay because the priest had been so accommodating, really he had, and managed to arrange a funeral instead and wasn’t that good of him? And, really, no, it was all right, because it had to be done, his wife needed to be buried if she’d died and it was good of the priest to fit them in this way and at least all their friends were here. His cheer was fake and very disturbing, the smile of a horror-movie clown.
The scene cut then, the way it only does in dreams or films, and she was in a small room on her own. There was a wooden cabinet standing in front of a set of French windows and it was the smell of polished wood that filled her senses now. She opened the doors on the front of the cabinet and examined its contents. There were urns inside, filled with ashes and with a small, brass plaque on the front of each to say whose remains they were. She had realised she was dreaming some time before this, and was looking for significance in the names on the plaques; for someone she knew, perhaps even her own name. None of them meant anything to her. Amongst the urns was a bucket. It stood out; it was brightly coloured like the kind you might buy at the seaside. She knew immediately that it contained the ashes of a child. She rushed to shut the door but the cabinet was unsteady and it rocked. The bucket had no lid and it tipped over, its contents spilling on to the floor. She grabbed at the dust, pulling it up from the floor in a panic, feeling dreadful guilt. The ashes flowed through her fingers like sand on a beach and she felt bits of bone, rough against her skin. Then she woke up.
She was hot with fear and her arms were aching. The alarm clock said it was five past seven but some light already seeped in under the curtains, thanks to the recent change back an hour to Greenwich Mean Time. She remembered her wedding day ten years earlier had lasted an hour longer for the same reason. She turned and saw Martin, still fast asleep and snoring. His blissful peace seemed impossible. She could hardly believe he wasn’t attentive to her terrors, that he hadn’t realised something was wrong and woken up to comfort her. How could he sleep right next to someone night after night and not be in touch with their soul? She was almost certain she would have woken with a start had the situation been reversed. She got out of bed and shrugged on her dressing gown. She walked over to the window and peeked out, careful not to move the curtains too far for fear of letting in too much light and disturbing her husband.
She needn’t have worried so much about the light. As usual, Fort William was shrouded in cloud. The rain dripped relentlessly on to this cold, damp corner of the world. Even through the mist, though, the view was magnificent. Looking at the spectacular curve of ben to loch, the dramatic etchings of long-gone glaciers, it reminded her of their honeymoon, when their marriage was new, and she smiled. That was the point of coming here, after all.
She remembered the conversation they’d had the previous evening about taking a trip to the bothy. This was a crofters’ hut in the middle of nowhere, a place for walkers and shepherds to put up for the night, that Martin had visited on a holiday with his parents when he was young. He said now that he’d tried to persuade her to go there on their first trip to Fort William but that she’d been dead against it. She didn’t remember this at all but she didn’t argue about it. She had no idea why he was so keen to rough it in a hut, and it wasn’t her usual style, but she was happy to indulge him. It would be an adventure and that was what this holiday was about.
A loud snort came from the bed, making her start and spin round to look at her husband. He turned on to his side and made snuffling noises, then settled down into a deep sleep once again. She watched him as he slept, wondering if she’d be able to get a coffee from downstairs. She didn’t want to boil the kettle in the room and wake him. She smiled gently to herself. Every marriage had its problems; working through them was the thing. She wished she could remember why she hadn’t wanted to go to the hut on their honeymoon but the details completely escaped her. This time, though, when he asked her to take that adventure with him, she had said yes. They would walk together in the fresh Highland air and find the bothy. They would burn a wood fire, and lie close to each other in the dying light and it would be perfect. It would be like turning back the clock and starting everything again.
The feeling from the dream washed over her and she shuddered. There had been something about the dream, something different but difficult to define. She’d had these kinds of dreams before and they often meant something. But it was just an ordinary nightmare, she decided. She watched her husband’s chest rise and fall and felt some comfort in how clear that movement was from under the sheets. Then, like a miracle, he woke up as she watched.
‘Hey baby,’ she said, as he came to. She loved to see him wake in the morning, never tired of this ordinary magic. Previous experience had taught her that such things could not be taken for granted.
He mumbled something in reply, still under the deep spell of sleep. She walked back over to the bed and lay down there next to him. She nuzzled in and they began to kiss. Even after all these years, his kisses left her slightly high sometimes, with that heady feeling of loving and being loved. She’d thought this would pass, had been told it would, but this wasn’t her experience.
Susie relaxed, placing a hand on his shoulder. They lay there like that, face to face, neither in a rush to move, just seeing the day in together.
Susie felt conspicuous at breakfast. The room was so quiet that even the clinking of their pots felt like a deep disturbance of the peace. This hushed them for a few minutes but then the excitement of being on holiday and planning an adventure together broke through and they were chatting animatedly. The day was looking quite bright now and there was a big picture window in the dining room to show it off to its best effect. Susie felt happy to be alive and married and here with her husband.
Martin’s mouth was still curled upwards from the revelation that there was black pudding on the menu and he looked very satisfied with himself as he lifted a forkful. She watched him feed and pushed cereal around in her bowl. She’d only had a few spoonfuls; she was never hungry in the morning. Martin poured them both more tea.
‘The waiter here’s good,’ Martin said, through a mouthful of food. ‘I mean, he’s attentive, and over at the table when you need him, but you don’t really notice him when you don’t. Exactly the right balance.’
‘Yes,’ Susie said, smiling. It was good to see her husband so content and she was pleased they’d managed to find a decent hotel. She sipped her tea, which was a tad too milky, but it didn’t matter. All around the room there was the sound of good pots and cutlery. This was certainly a rather better hotel than the one they’d stayed in on their honeymoon. Of course, Martin had been just an ordinary class teacher then, and Susie’s job had been at entry level in social work, and their wages hadn’t been that great. They’d both had lots of promotions since. Susie had been able to take her career as seriously as Martin did his; it was one of the upsides of not having kids, he often reminded her.
With a final scrape of knife against crockery, Martin finished his food, then pushed the plate away. He smiled Susie’s favourite crooked smile and wiped his mouth with a napkin. ‘So what do you fancy doing today, Sue? Shall we make out for the bothy like we talked about?’
Susie beamed at him and picked up her cup. The tea was going a little cold, though, so she grimaced and put it straight back down. ‘I was wondering about the castle nearby. The one we passed on the way here, you know, the one you took the photo of from the road. I think that would make a lovely day out.’ She wasn’t sure why she was stalling except that, now it came down to it, something about going to the bothy rested heavy on her heart.
‘Yes, no doubt it would,’ Martin said. He took a sip of tea himself. ‘Cold,’ he said, pulling a face.
‘Or there are some fabulous short walks around and about.’ Susie picked up her handbag and pulled a leaflet from its folds. ‘The one to the waterfall looks divine.’
Martin grabbed the leaflet, gave it a perfunctory look over, then dropped it on the table beside his greasy plate. ‘A little bit lightweight for my tastes, Sue.’ He grinned at her and his eyes glowed with enthusiasm for his planned trip. It was a look that meant she couldn’t refuse him and she began to melt even before he spoke again. ‘We’ve only got a few days in Fort William before we head west and who knows if we’ll ever come back here. If we’re going to spend a night sleeping rough then it’d seem tonight or tomorrow would be the time to do it.’
Every aspect of what he was saying made sense, as ever. Martin was nothing if not logical. Susie wasn’t at all sure what was holding her back. She’d felt excited about the trip earlier. But something about his eagerness to go jarred with her. She couldn’t explain but she felt his draw to the place was unnatural, creepy even. She had a vague sense of remembering now why she’d said no on the honeymoon. That feeling from the dream came back, the fear, and she tried to dismiss it.
Martin’s face softened as he smiled at her. ‘Come on, Susie-Sue,’ he said, his old name for her, the one he had used all the time when they were first together and she liked because it reminded her of those times. ‘It’ll be fun. We can cosy up together in front of the fire and tell ghost stories; you’d like that. And we can get cosier than we have in a while, if you know what I mean.’ Martin winked at her, and Susie couldn’t help but smile at this. They never did seem to find enough time to get close in their busy lives and she missed the physical side of their relationship. The idea of the two of them curled up warm together against the night really appealed.
‘Do you even know anything about this bothy? Where it is? Whether it’s actually usable? It’s a long time since you were here with your parents, honey.’ Susie spoke carefully, with a deliberate cheer in her voice.
‘I know about all that,’ he said. He reached to the floor and picked something up, placing it on the table away from his dirty plate. It was a transparent plastic case and inside were printouts of what looked like a website. There was also a map and compass. Susie took hold of the package and pulled papers from inside. Martin had certainly done his research and she wondered why this would come as a surprise to her after all these years. There was a picture of the bothy, and some information about its registration with the Mountain Bothies Association and its state of repair, which was detailed as ‘good’.
Susie looked at the printouts and remembered watching her husband sleep, the peace across his brow. She wanted to make the man she loved happy. She remembered the way she’d felt that morning, excited about an adventure together and ready to try something new. It had been years since she’d done anything she would describe as genuinely exciting.
‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Let’s go to the bothy today.’
Susie had turned the temperature high on the shower so that it steamed up the bathroom. She enjoyed the feeling of her pores opening and her bones heating up. She knew the shower was a luxury she could forget now for a couple of days, even though they would still be paying for the posh hotel room, so she made the most of it while she could. Her skin was welting red under the water. She breathed and ducked under the spray, scrubbing at her face as if it had been covered in mud. Beneath the rush of the water, she could hear Martin moving around in the room next door, packing.
She continued showering until she felt too hot, like she might faint, and the skin on her fingers had begun wrinkling. She stepped from the bathtub into the cold of the room and wrapped herself up in a soft, warm towel. She thanked God again for being able to afford such a lovely hotel. It was madness to be leaving it to stay in a shepherds’ hut in the middle of nowhere with no shower or bed and definitely no soft, warmed towels to wrap herself up in. But how wonderful would the shower feel after all that roughing it? It was worth the trip out into the mountains just to come back. She dried herself slowly and decided that she would imagine how this shower was going to feel when they got back here if she ever felt cold or uncomfortable on their adventure.
As she emerged from the en-suite, she saw Martin had unpacked and was now repacking a rucksack. He was throwing items back in rather roughly and she knew from his body language that he was frustrated with how long she’d taken in the bathroom and keen to get on their way. She hadn’t meant to take so long. It had just felt so nice under the heat and steam. She hurried now to get ready. Martin must have noticed this, as his movements seemed to calm. She glanced over to see him packing one of his purchases from Fort William. It was a hunting knife. Sharp and vicious, it glinted at her across the room. She didn’t really get why they needed it. They didn’t go hunting. Martin had just wanted it, though, another boy’s toy, and she had no real reason to object to that.
Susie’s hairdryer was at the bottom of the suitcase and she virtually had to unpack the entire bag to find it, but she preferred it to the one the hotel supplied. She plugged it in and switched it on. Martin was talking to her but she couldn’t hear his voice. She stopped the dryer for a moment.
‘Is that really necessary?’ he said. ‘We should get a move on and set out.’
‘I can’t go with wet hair,’ she told him. ‘Walking on those hills at the beginning of November? It won’t be much fun at the bothy if I’ve got a cold.’
He nodded and began to say something but Susie had the dryer on again and couldn’t hear.
Martin had brought a slightly smaller rucksack with them for Susie to carry on treks. When she’d finished drying her hair, she packed this second bag with some of the lighter items they needed, the way they’d agreed. Her mobile phone rang. She looked at the display and saw that it was work, probably a colleague with a question. ‘I’ll have to take this,’ she told Martin, but he didn’t seem to be listening.
It was Coral, asking about a client file, and Susie gave her the information. Martin was talking to her as she spoke on the phone, something about a torch, but she wasn’t taking it in. If he really wanted her to hear something, he should wait until she was off the phone. Susie didn’t make a special effort to work out what he wanted and she discussed a couple of other issues with Coral before hanging up. She zipped up the rucksack.
Martin was sitting on the bed with his arms crossed on his chest and his coat on. ‘Are we going, then, or are you going to find something else to hold us up?’ he said, teasing her.
‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I didn’t mean to be so useless. I just got a bit wrapped up in my shower.’ Martin smiled, and patted her bottom playfully. ‘You’re a nuisance sometimes but you’re worth it,’ he said. ‘Shall we get off?’
Susie grabbed the smaller rucksack and hoisted it on to her back as an answer.