1: Southolt Street, 2 January, 4.23pm
A great white duvet lays over the garden, shimmering here with a tinge of violet, there with a pool of gold, its edges buttressed up against the fence; its quilted middle nailed down in places by stray icy droplets from the snow-laden sycamore. From beyond the low wall at the far end comes the subdued madman's mumblings of the brook which runs across it, and beyond that only a billowing sheet wall of white. Such is the gentle prison of nature's bedroom which descended over the village last night.
My life is normally such a blind cacophany of activity that the sudden calm is comforting, soothing my mind almost to the point of recklessness. "Another day of this and I shall go completely mad," said Mrs Haggard bringing her snowy-eyed runts home from creche. Fifteen years of infuriating noise and then it all stops at once. My parents have jetted off to sunny Tenerife, leaving me to 'mind the house' as mum put it, though quite why a house needs minding is beyond me; it isn't likely to go anywhere. Especially in this weather. Even old Sammy lies sprawled out like a shaggy dog rug in front of the fire, the flickering light nervously prodding and teasing his shadow into wraithlike shapes across the floor.
Outside in the fading halflight, the neighbours' lawnmower is squatting in the middle of their carefully manicured garden as I write, an object as brash and simultaneously long-dead as any burnt-out banger in a car park, dribbling its rusty rivulets into the snow. It sits, immobile, innocuously polluting its mother earth. Yet it does the job still, albeit with less finesse and more of an unenthusiastic strain, its wheels making a little yell with each revolution and its heavy brown blades no longer slicing through the tender yellow-green blades but rather, bluntly cudgelling them into submission, fifty at a time across the backs of their heads. Ku-djang (eek), ku-djang (eek), et cetera.
Of course the Pemberton-Blacks would have been young once, though twice my age when they bought it, and perhaps that ancient rusting heap reflected their character as well in its then shiny surfaces as it does now in its dullness. It must once have been a sparkling showpiece of modern domestic technology. It would have been proudly steered around the lawson cypress, clattered lightly beside the holly and driven stridently over the lawn in bold sunbleached stripes, fervently crushing the pesky ladybirds and decapitating dandelions with carefree abandon.
But to the point, dear boy, as Miss Thump would say, don't dilly-dally along the way! The point is, my dear, that that old lawnmower wasn't there yesterday. It was in its annual five-month hibernation in the shed. And why isn't it slumbering still with its dreams of the days of yore, where it was before? Miss Thump, I might add, also demands that everything fits the plot. The surprise emergence of the lawnmower from its traditional resting place doesn't fit at all, and there isn't even a plot - or is there? If there is, this all looks fairly ominous, if not downright mysterious. I may yet have a story to tell: it could be "The Peculiar Case of the Blacks' Grim Grass-Reaper."
The most peculiar part is the wide undulating trail that stretches from the shed to the lawnmower - there are no footprints, nor any sign of a disturbance other than the track left behind it. It is crisp at the edges and as smooth as the Epsom racetrack.
I told Mr Shah at his dingy little shop and he said, "How very sinister. Perhaps he is having some bit of poverty over his car. One pound forty-six please." I asked him what he meant and he said "Here," taking the money, "one pound, one pound fifty. That is four pence change my young friend. You should be brushing up on your counting."
"And do not be visiting any racetracks my friend - I knew a man who lost five hundreds pounds in one single afternoon once. It is a mug's game you know."
I don't like Mr Shah because he's always moralising at me. Who said anything about going to a racetrack? But there's no-one else to ask.
The main problem with being on my own is the boredom, so I have decided to spend the half-term writing the best and biggest essay that old Miss Thump will ever see in her dusky years as an English teacher. You may be wondering (dear diary, or dear reader - or indeed, dear Miss Thump), why I am not addressing her personally. The answer is that - without meaning to offend - I feel better able to write if I'm not constantly being harangued in my mind by the thought of yet another B-grade. Of course B's aren't that bad as such, but it has been quite frustrating. Also, it seems more poignant if I imagine that I'm writing to someone I know better, as if the very whiteness of the page is shining back to me. So, dear reader, I hope that something interesting happens that will make this essay a little masterpiece. We can but trammel the railroad of time to see what sights are there to be seen!
Incidentally, old Hemingway (or young Hemingway, as he was then: he's six feet under now), he wouldn't have had this problem - he'd have been beetling off to Spain to write about the blazing sun and the blazing guns. But at least it beats the boredom. My parents are away, the village is cut off and hemmed in, and the writing seems to alleviate the emptiness. Maybe Virginia Woolf would have gone mad a good deal more quickly if she hadn't been a writer.
I spent the earlier part of the evening attempting to persuade Sammy to kill the fluffy draught excluder on command, but he merely sniffed at it and wandered off for another snooze. Nevertheless, I will persevere: it is only a matter of releasing his natural animal instincts which have been caged and suppressed for so long. I will teach him to be a courageous protector of the right and the good, instead of the uninterested slob that he has been all his life.
2: Southolt Street, 3 January, 8.00pm
I went outside to look at the lawnmower early this morning. It has been playing on my mind and I am determined to find out how it arrived there. The more I think over the events of this morning, the stranger it seems.
Up bright and early like the proverbial bunny rabbit, I felt free, with the house to myself and two weeks ahead of me. Early mornings are a constant source of surprise to me. The air was still and fresh, the wispy winter clouds scudding diligently across the pale sky, and a string of birds - thrushes perhaps - were talking and exclaiming amongst themselves along the roof. The brook, now veritably babbling under the ice, filled out the background, and the scene was of a place removed two hundred years into the past, noticeably lacking in the offensive noises and roars of today's machinery - cars, televisions, and the rest of it. As I made my way across the garden I felt more deeply serene and at peace with the world than I have ever felt. I slid into a reverie wondering how the human species can have carved out for itself such an obtrusive and unpleasant existence. It is a melancholic thought that all of the stress, danger and violence that you are likely to encounter during your life will be caused by other people in the same society. Yet when it is all stripped away, or when it is fast asleep, what remains - with air to breathe and space to think - is the way it should be, this is how our tribal ancestors lived! (If I am being naive, I apologise, but the morning was beautiful and selfish people with their noisy smelly machines have already wrecked it since then.)
So, plodding through the snow with giant astronaut's steps, each step breaking the frost-hardened surface with a deep crunch, was not as casual or as surreptitious as I had hoped. There was nothing odd about the lawnmower, and my own footprints made it look perfectly natural, as if I had just pushed it there. Carefully I made my way back, replacing my feet into each footwell in the snow to avoid making any more noise, but as I did so, I noticed that the neighbours' back door was wide open. This did seem odd considering that they are also away on holiday, so I cut alongside the drift against the house wall, where there was a natural channel carved out by the wind, and held my breath as I approached the open door.
My nostrils were immediately suffused with a strong metallic tang, and stepping inside, I was overcome by an intensity - somewhere between metallic grey and pinky-sweet - and my head reeled and my vision fragmented. I was as near to passing out as I have ever been and lost my balance, but fortunately my wayward hand found an old brass hatstand, and I spent the next few minutes desperately pulling the door back and forth to clear the air.
Odours have, in my meagre experience, the strange magic of being easier to recognise in small doses, and this overwhelming whiff, keen to take its rightful place in the archives of overwhelming whiffs, gradually distilled itself, the metal sharpening into acid and the sweetness thinning out into a faintly malignant perfume. Something in this kitchen was definitely askew, olfactorily speaking. I would like to write that it smelt of death (which would help the plot no end), but unforgiveably it smelt more like hot mould wine.
The Pemberton-Blacks' kitchen was not out of character with the house itself - as large and as like a Victorian scullery as you might imagine, with white walls, a cast-iron stove and a set of brass cooking utensils hung on separate hooks on the wall. It took a long time to sniff out the source of the smell. At first I thought it was a tennis ball, but it turned out to be a mouldy lemon. It sat unhappily in a basket with a few sprouting potatoes which had turned to clumps of earth, and a number of small shrivelled orange things with brown stripes.
The Pemberton-Blacks' house is a vast old Victorian thing with pointy ornamented gables and dozens of steep slate roofs, and hidden areas of flat roof which could be put to good use by privacy-loving romantic types. Little stone gargoyles pout and grin at unwary passers-by. It has narrow Gothic windows set into the red brick walls, and a wrought-iron weathervane which squeaks in the wind; porticos, lobbies and porches stuck on in unpredictable places; large panels of mock stained glass, and bluff wooden doors wide enough for a small herd of geese. At night the house rattles and shakes in the wind, and the eye may be caught by the shining moon's distorted reflection in one of the attic windows, or by the flit of some dark flapping shape in the shadows.
This monstrous old construction might have a terrifying history of witchcraft and evil doings. I imagine an old black carriage clattering and bouncing violently across the uneven road as it comes hurtling over the brow of the hill towards the house... Two lean wild horses are pulling it, their black coats gleaming momentarily in the lamplight, flinging their manes from side to side... their snorted steam illuminated and glowing as misty clouds in their wake... the dead still of night with its pale half-moon and the light drizzle... then the horseman standing astride their arching backs, bent forward in agitation, yelling 'Yah! Yah!'.. it comes closer, the gold trimming on the carriage glinting randomly... a dark figure being racked about inside... my heart jumps and pumps madly as I back away into the mud beside the road... the hooves and breathing and spinning wheels are intense, filling the air with splintered shards of noise...
Then an almighty din of damnation erupts as the carriage is upon me, the horseman's whip singeing the air, kapash! kapash! flashing towards my eye and is gone, the image of its tip lingering in my vision, YAH! he shrieks; his face, concealed by a black flapping hood, is revealed as a hollow skull; I lose my balance and am falling backwards as the figure inside grabs the top of the carriage door and her young enshrouded face screaming above the crest on the door is burned into my memory and the acrid stench of horse sweat washes into my head as I hit the ground with a dull crack. There is a rich taste of blood at the back of my nose, smooth and morish, and I struggle to stay awake as the sounds become muted and the scene peels itself away from my consciousness.