Two updates and the first part of a spooky short story this week.
First, the launch party for the Charity anthology ‘When Stars Will Shine’ is this Monday 9th December, and all royalties will go to ‘Help for Heroes.’ It’s already racing up the Amazon charts and tipped to be a future No. 1. Check it out on Facebook for your chance to chat to the authors, enter competitions and win prizes.
When Stars Will Shine launch party
Next, if you are looking for an online magazine, particularly aimed at forward-thinking people in mid-life and beyond, check out Autumn Chickens online magazine.
Features, stories, recommended books, important discussions and prize draws are all available by signing up for the free newsletter.
Finally, the first part of the promised short story: ‘Best Man’ part 1 follows. More next week.
It seemed a good idea at the time. When Nick told me he was getting married in a remote country estate, I agreed to drive down after work and stay for the weekend. He’d raved about his fiancé, with her midnight black hair, alabaster skin and full red lips. Surprisingly he had no photos of her, but never stopped telling me how beautiful she was. All Nick’s previous girlfriends had been leggy, busty blondes which made me wonder why he thought this one so special.
He told me she came from an ancient, wealthy family and the venue was her ancestral home. I assumed it would be quite a grand affair so packed my penguin suit, as well as my usual casual wear. It was the end of November, and knowing how draughty some of these old buildings could be, I threw in my heavy overcoat for good measure.
‘It’s a bit difficult to find,’ Nick messaged as he emailed me detailed directions on how to reach the place. ‘It doesn’t show up on any maps, so you can’t rely on SatNav.’
Although I printed out the instructions, I decided to Google the area. This only revealed thick forests, fields and little sign of human habitation, which seemed a little odd if the mansion had been there for centuries. Friday night at work was a nightmare, so although I had intended to leave early it was gone seven before I set off. From the mileage I expected it to take between an hour, and ninety minutes depending on the traffic, and at first I made good progress. It was nearly eight when I left the main road and consulted the detailed notes Nick had given me.
As I drove along the narrow, winding lanes there were no lights until, looming out of the darkness, I saw the sign for the “Abandon Hope Inn,” so I knew I was on the right track. Just as I passed the pub the heavens opened, and the rain fell in torrents. The windscreen wipers had a hard job keeping up with the deluge, and in the pitch black of the twisting trail I was worried I would get lost. It was a relief when I saw the signpost indicating the direction of the village with the unusual name of “Nohope,” which was the next major landmark Nick had shown on his map.
After a couple of miles, the road turned into a path which became increasingly narrow, but as there were only high hedges and no turn-offs, I had no option but to keep going. Eventually I noticed the rows of ancient Elm trees, which in the deserted gloom threatened like soldiers guarding the entrance to the junction. Turning left, I continued for about two miles before my headlights reflected off wrought iron gates as the road petered out. I had arrived.
‘Donn, you made it. We’d almost given you up,’ Nick called as he crunched across the gravel path to greet me. ‘We’ve finished dinner but I’ll get the cook to rustle up something to keep you going. How was your journey?’
‘You weren’t kidding when you said it was remote,’ I replied. ‘How come it’s not on any maps? From what I can see it looks huge; you must have acres of grounds here.’
‘I’ll give you the grand tour tomorrow, but for now you must be tired. The family like to keep things private, but it’s a fascinating place. We’ve put you in the blue room. I’ll show you the way, then we can have a snifter and a chat in peace. The younger ones are arriving in the morning, and the oldies usually retire early. Country ways, you know. Let me take your bag. It’s good to see you.’
The rain had finally stopped as Nick led me across the circular drive back to the house, which thankfully was ablaze with lights. I just had time to notice various outhouses which could have been either stables or garages, before he unlocked the heavy wooden door. Although it was standard size, it was set into an immense hinged outer surround, which was tall and wide enough to allow access to a regiment of warriors, although it would have taken complicated machinery or a battalion of men to open it.
The foyer was a pleasant surprise. Modern paintings hung on the walls, several chandeliers made it bright and cheerful, and from the warmth enveloping us, I suspected there was underfloor heating and carefully concealed radiators. Two huge marble staircases led up each side, meeting at the top to form a gallery overlooking the entrance. From there, Nick opened another oak door to reveal a lift which silently took us up two further storeys. We emerged into a long, carpeted corridor with several more doors leading off, which I assumed were bedrooms.
‘Here we are,’ Nick said, guiding me into an enormous suite complete with four-poster bed. ‘Bathroom’s off there to the left, and if you need anything press the red button by the bed. Staff are on duty 24/7 so don’t be afraid to ask. When you’re ready, take the lift to the second floor and I’ll meet you in the library. See you in a while.’
Crossing the room, I pulled open the heavy, red drapes to reveal floor to ceiling windows, overlooking the grounds below. The lights from the house only illuminated the immediate area before the darkness of the winter’s night took over, but I thought I glimpsed a dark shape flitting between the trees. Perhaps it was a shadow, or a figment of my imagination. Realising time was passing, I had a quick shower, threw on jeans and a fresh shirt and went to join Nick.
‘Come on in,’ he said as he welcomed me into a beautiful panelled room, piled floor to ceiling with shelves containing books of every description. To one side was an antique sideboard with a modern electric plate-warmer holding several covered dishes. ‘I wasn’t sure what you’d want, so there’s a bit of everything. Help yourself. Wine, beer or brandy?’
‘This is amazing, Nick,’ I said as I uncovered the dishes and piled food onto a plate. ‘I haven’t eaten since lunchtime, so I didn’t realise how hungry I was until I saw this lot. Some water will do for now, but I’ll join you in a brandy afterwards. Thanks.’
‘It’s the least I could do after you travelled all this way. To be honest, I felt a bit outnumbered with all Lili’s family, so it’s great to have some moral support. How have you been? It’s a while since we’ve had a proper catch-up.’
One brandy turned into several as we chatted, and it was only when a clock boomed the witching hour that I realised how quickly the time had passed. I had intended to find out more about Nick’s mysterious fiancée, but noticing me yawning, he suggested I get a good night’s sleep and we could continue our conversation the following day. Whether it was the alcohol or the long drive after a stressful day, I was pleased to call it a night, and was asleep almost before my head touched the pillow.
I woke with a start in the early hours, and feeling uneasy in the strange environment, fumbled for the light switch. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the sudden glare, and notice the dark shadow behind the drapes. There was someone in the room. I tried to yell but it came out more as a squeak.
‘Who’s there? Come on out where I can see you.’
© Voinks August 2019
To be continued next week. Hope to see you again, then.