Advent Stories #6

THE WINDMILL

cleymoody

As they drove past the gutted skeleton of the Escort, Claire tensed.

‘What’s wrong?’ asked Jonathan, easing off the accelerator.

‘There was someone in that,’ she said, twisting against his seat belt to look out of the back window. ‘Stop. Go back.’

He shook his head. ‘Will you stop messing about Claire? I can never tell when you’re being truthful. You should have been an actress.’

The car diminished. It was standing on its hubs, the tyres having melted, in a pool of oil. Claire squinted at the driver’s side: a black shape was bolt upright in what remained of the seat.

She turned round.

Jonathan was fiddling with the tuner, trying to find some music. The only station that cropped up on the automatic search was a thin grainy hiss, punctuated by a slow ‘whump… whump’ sound.

‘Welcome to Radio Norfolk,’ said Claire, trying to forget. He’d had no lips. Just a gritted sheet of white. His fat had oozed through the black shell of his skin and hung in yellowish loops, like cheap pizza cheese.

The Fens reached out beyond the hedgerows muscling against the car, green fields splashed with red poppies and sprigs of purple lavender. Claire wound down the window and breathed deeply, trying to unwind. This was meant to be a relaxing weekend but already she felt that she’d made errors. And that riled her.

Norfolk? Why are you going to Norfolk?’ they’d asked her back at the office. She’d felt the need to defend the place, even though the nearest she’d ever been to the county was a day trip to Mablethorpe as a child.

‘There’s lots of unspoilt coastline,’ she said. ‘I want long, windswept beaches to walk along. And there’s a stack of wildlife. Apparently.’

‘You should try Suffolk instead,’ a colleague, Gill, had said, almost desperately, while her deputy looked at her with an expression approaching pity.

Jonathan had suggested they go to Paris but she quashed that idea because she didn’t want to spend too much money. And anyway, what was the point of going away for a weekend to another busy, polluted city? But that wasn’t strictly true. Her negativity had more to do with the fact that the break was Claire’s baby: she wanted to come up with the plan. Now, as they swept through mile after mile of flat, sunbleached land, she was beginning to wish that she’d thought of Paris first. And she was also thinking of Jonathan’s disappointment and the ‘told you so’ triumphs of her workmates once she got back.

Jonathan was aware of her frustration. He rubbed her leg. ‘We’ll stop for a drink, hey?’ he said. ‘Next pub we come to. We’ll try some good old local brew.’

‘There was someone in that fucking car,’ she snapped.

‘Fine,’ he said, braking hard. ‘Get out and go and save him.’

They sat in silence, the heat building. Claire strained for some sound to massage the barrier loose between them but none was forthcoming. They hadn’t seen a car, a moving car, for an hour or so. The buildings they’d passed were gutted and crippled, the life seemingly sucked from their stone into the sallow pastures that supported them.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I just – it’s work, you know? It’s been getting me down. I just want this weekend to be perfect. I need this break and maybe… maybe I haven’t realised that you need it just as much. You’ve driven all the way from London and… ’ she trailed off, lamely. Work excuses were crap, she knew that and so did he.

Jonathan didn’t say anything. He started the car and moved off.

‘Put a tape on then,’ he said. ‘Anything. I’m getting antsy with all this bloody quiet.’

She dug for a cassette from the pile on the back seat. Most were hers although there were one or two tapes from his past, recorded on blanks by ex-girlfriends and scribbled over with red kisses. Alexander O’Neal. Luther Vandross. He had some new stuff, Fugees and Skunk Anansie but she couldn’t get the irritation out of her where those older albums were concerned. It wasn’t so much the music – it was shite, that went without saying – it was thoughts of what he’d been up to while she listened to it. Why would you play Luther Vandross if you weren’t doing what he was singing about?

Her fingers settled on a Pavement album they both liked. The tension between them relaxed a little but Claire was glad to be able to point out a pub – it would be good to get out of the car and make the distance between them an optional thing.

‘Where are we, navigator?’ Jonathan asked, parking the car in the gravel forecourt. Behind them, a stone building with no discernible purpose was the only other sign of life around.

‘Um, Cockley Cley. Just south of Swaffham.’

‘Right. Let’s get re-fuelled. Hungry?’

A man wearing sunglasses and a padded Parka uncoiled from the corner of a bench outside the pub, where he had been sunning himself. He snaked out a hand to the adjoining picnic table and withdrew a pallid sandwich from a paper bag. His flask was attached to a sling around his shoulder. Jonathan nodded as they walked by but if the man reacted, Claire didn’t see it.

Inside, three men were hunched over their meals, whispering conspiratorially. A cold meat buffet under hotlights reminded Claire of a Pantone chart of greys. To their left, the lounge was empty: two men were sitting at the bar, exchanging lowing, long-vowelled words. Claire wanted to leave.

‘Jonathan – ’

The man facing her wore a shirt opened to his navel. His gut lolled there, a strip of sweat banding his sternum. His nose was a sickening chunk of discoloured flesh, bulbous and misshapen, hanging down almost to his top lip. She watched, fascinated and repulsed, as he dragged a handkerchief across it, threatening to smear it even further. It looked as though it was melting. His companion was dressed in a cheap suit with a purple shirt. His hair was greased back, one blade of it swung menacingly in front of his eyes. His grin was loose and slick with spit. She could see his dentures, behind the pitted white flaps of his lips, clacking loosely around his mouth.

She edged towards her boyfriend as the landlord appeared from behind a gingham curtain. She was conscious of movement behind his arm: a swift descent of something silver, a hacking noise. She backed into a chair and sat down.

‘Pint of Flowers. And, er – ’ Jonathan looked at her and she saw a little boy lost. The men eating their dinner had looked up at his softly blunted northern tones. They looked confused, as if they ought to act upon this invasion but didn’t know what course to take.

‘Glass of fresh orange,’ she said, her voice too loud.

The landlord poured their drinks and took Jonathan’s money. He had the look of a pathologically strict Sergeant-Major. His moustache and his accent were violently clipped. His eyes were unpleasantly blue.

 

They took their drinks outside and sat on the bench adjacent to the man with the flask. He was still eating his sandwiches. He gave them a cursory once over and zipped his Parka closer to his throat.

‘Jesus,’ whispered Jonathan, downing half of his drink. ‘Jesusing Christing piss.’

‘Did you see that man’s nose?’ hissed Claire, fidgety wth nervous excitement. She was close to guffawing. ‘What do you think it was? Syphilis? Cancer?’

Jonathan polished off his pint. ‘Demonic possession,’ he said, standing. ‘Drink that, bring it or leave it. We’ve been here seven minutes too long.’

They spewed gravel getting out of the car park. Claire looked back and saw the Sergeant-Major step out of the door, his hand raised, a stricken look on his face.

Neither of them said anything until they hit the relative bustle of Swaffham. Even then, their relief could only manifest itself in gusts of laughter.

‘I love you,’ she said, surprising herself. It seemed easy to say after the minor trauma of the pub. It was a comfort.

‘I love you, too,’ he replied, although she hadn’t meant it as a cue. ‘I thought we were goners. I thought we were going to end up as part of a very disappointing Scotch egg.’

She laughed again and then suddenly felt like crying. Her upset was nebulous, there was no real reason for it, no rational reason. They’d just been people, strange only because they were slightly more different to her than she was used to. Must be exhaustion. She closed her eyes and through the reddish dark of that unshareable interior, she immediately saw the measured sweep of a deeper blackness across her vision. She opened her eyes but there weren’t any boringly equidistant trees to cast their shadows, no houses since Swaffham now lay behind them. She shut out the light again and yes, here it was, a slow black glide from the top of her eyes to the bottom. And again, And again. Again.

Her heartbeat then, she reasoned, not without some discomfort. But before she could offer any satisfying alternative, she was asleep.

*

She swam out of the dark, panicking that she wouldn’t grasp Jonathan’s question and be able to answer it before he lost patience with her. But it wasn’t a question, he was merely talking to himself, loud enough for her to infer that he was pissed off with her sleeping while he did all the work.

‘Sea view, they said. A sea view at the hotel. Oh yes, certainly, if you’ve brought the Hubble telescope along with you.’ He looked at her and she could tell why; both to check she was awake and that she appreciated his joke. God, he really could be a minor irritant sometimes. ‘Wells-Next-The-Sea, they call this place,’ he continued. ‘Mmm, and my name’s Jonathan-Two-Dicks-Chettle.’

‘We’re here then?’ Claire stretched in her seat, and blinked against the late morning sunshine. A clutch of beached boats seemed to cling to each other in the distance. Well beyond them, a silvery grey line – like a mirror seen edge on – marked the leading strip of the tide.

‘Yes, arrival can usually be said to be on the cards when the driver is in parking mode. And hey! We’re in a car park. Well done. Super.’

‘Oh shut up, Jon,’ Claire sneered. Twin glints of light drew her gaze towards a range of thin trees forming a paltry windbreak against the sea’s muscle. Someone was looking in their direction with a pair of binoculars.

‘Birdwatchers,’ Jonathan said, with a mock shudder. ‘This place’ll be crawling with them. Come on, let’s go and christen our room.’

They checked into the B&B and were led up a grand staircase past mounted blunderbusses and badly stuffed seabirds. Their room looked out on the car park but was only slightly higher up, giving a better view of the acres between the hotel and the sea. Jonathan pressed up against her while she took in the tangy air. She let him peel down her jeans and panties, take her from behind even though she was dry. His pleasure, transmitted into grunts and selfish stabs, did nothing for her, but it was better than arguing about sex. She wondered why she had suggested this holiday as he withdrew and came on her buttocks. She wondered if, as he wiped himself against her, it was to prove to herself that she didn’t want him any more.

‘Quick walk before dinner?’ he said, tucking himself away and kissing the back of her head. ‘I’ll wait downstairs. See if they can recommend some good restaurants.’

She masturbated herself to a swift, shallow orgasm, then cleaned herself up and pulled on a pair of shorts. Jonathan was leaning against the door outside, absently sniffing his fingers. He looked at her, obviously irritated that he’d had to wait so long, then motioned with his head and set off for the road before she’d reached him. They followed its uneven surface towards the boats then struck out across the fields, past dun coloured cows. Thick reeds nestled in a gulley off the track, hissing.

The quick, unexpected smell of camomile pleased her, a scent she’d always associated with long summer walks as a child with Dad through the woods behind their house. She’d ask him where they were going and he’d reply: ‘The land of far beyond.’ They never arrived, though she’d soon lose her excitement of that unseen place in favour of his soft words as he told her about the plants and the buildings and the animals they saw. More often than not, she’d end up in his arms, too tired to walk, as twilight drew around them.

‘What are you smiling at?’ Jonathan asked.

‘Sorry,’ she said, reluctant to share her memory. He’d probably only scoff. ‘I thought this was a holiday. I thought I’d be able to smile without being invited.’

‘Do you have to be such a snidey bitch all the time?’

‘Only when I’m with you, lover.’

Violently quiet, they approached an expanse of mud. Riven with trenches and pits, its scarred surface stretched out towards the sea. At this landlocked end, dry, stunted plants sprouted from its surface sheen. The acrid smell of salt was accompanied by something cloacal: oil bound up in its organic processes, farting silently through moist fissures.

‘Jesus,’ said Claire. ‘Fucked if I’m wading through that.’

‘This holiday was your idea, kid,’ Jonathan sang. ‘We could have been sipping serré outside Café de la Mairie by now.’

It took the best part of an hour to cross the mud, by which time they were hot and cross with the way the mud sucked their feet in easily enough but was reluctant to give them back without a fight. Eventually the land solidified and gave itself over to a tract of well-packed sand. They squelched towards a band of shallow water and rinsed their feet. At the other side, they headed towards the boats, parallel to the path they’d taken. Two hundred yards away, a man collecting shellfish in a carrier bag cast featureless glances at them while a dog scampered at his feet.

The journey back seemed free of obstacles and they were able to relax and enjoy the walk. The sea breeze flirted gently with them, taming the sun’s heat. Claire was able to laugh at one point, at some lame crack or other that Jonathan came out with. She didn’t care. The water that they’d crossed had broadened and it soon became apparent they’d have to re-cross it to get back to their hotel. It seemed much deeper, with a fast running spine.

‘Shit,’ Jonathan spat. ‘We could swim it.’

‘I’m not swimming anything. I’ve got my sunglasses on and money in my pockets. And my watch isn’t waterproof.’

‘And God fucking forbid you should smudge your fucking make-up!’

Claire flinched from his rage and inwardly threatened herself not to cry. She wouldn’t do that in front of him again. She wasn’t happy with her silence – a mute response might only goad Jonathan further – but if she opened her mouth she’d start bawling. She couldn’t remember how their relationship had started. It was as passionless and inexorable as a driver grudgingly picking up a hitch-hiker on the road.

While he judged the depth and keenness of the water, she watched the tide in the distance, creaming against the slate-coloured sand at a tempo to match the beat of her resentment towards him.

‘I’m going to try this, try walking across. To show you. Then you’ll be safe.’

Do I hate him? she thought, bitter with her redundancy in this situation and angry that he should be illustrating her uselessness by making such a sacrifice. My hero. Suddenly, she didn’t care if he disappeared into the sand and drowned. She wouldn’t dive in to help him, she wouldn’t scream for assistance. She might just sit down on the sand here for a while and count the bubbles.

‘Nah,’ he said, waist-high in water. ‘Sand’s giving way. Too dangerous for you.’

She gritted her teeth and looked back along the course of the water. She saw a place where the water chuckled and frothed and padded over to it. Shallow land. She’d skipped across to the other side while Jonathan was still struggling to free himself of the beach’s suck. She had to turn away from him to conceal her laughter. He caught up to her, red and soaking.

‘You might have told me, you twisted little cunt,’ he hissed into her ear, and strode off.

Yes I do, she thought.

*

Shocked and hurt by his attack on her, more than she wanted to admit, Claire rinsed her feet in the sink while Jonathan languished in the bath. It seemed his good mood had revived somewhat. His hand was gripping the head of his straining cock.

‘Hey, baby,’ he said, in a mock cowboy voice. ‘Why don’cha mosey on over here ‘n’ milk my love udder.’

‘Fuck off,’ she muttered, leaving him to it.

She dressed and went downstairs. Ordered a drink from the bar. An hour later, Jonathan was with her. Her distress was a palpable thing, spinning out from him like hooks on umbilici to become embedded in her flesh. She felt subsumed by his personality, as if he were trying to ingest her. Maybe it was the drink, but she was convinced his feelings for her were as shy of respect and concern as she’d suddenly come to realise for him.

‘Sorry about that whole “cunt” thing. Bit strong. You know I love you. What shall we have for dinner?’

She picked at a chicken and apricot pie while he polished off a bowl of mussels. ‘Christ,’ he said. ‘This sea air! I’m knackered!’ He looked at her hopefully.

‘I’ll stay down here for a while,’ she said. ‘I’m not ready for bed yet.’

He saluted and trotted upstairs. She swallowed hard. It seemed an age ago that she’d been able to think of him as attractive and warm. As – God, had she really? – a potential life-partner.

She took a drink with some of the other tourists, middle-aged women in oatmeal coir jumpers and Rowan bags. They tolerated her presence although she could tell she unnerved them for some reason. The hotel owner came in and lit the fire, asking everyone if they wanted brandy and she was going to start a game of whist if anyone was interested.

Claire bid everybody goodnight and went up to her room, the skin of her nape tightening when she heard the word ‘blood’ mentioned behind her, by one of the women. Did you smell the strength of her blood? She thought maybe that was what she’d said.

Jonathan was snoring heavily. The TV was on, a late night film starring Stacy Keach. She switched it off and went to the bathroom where she undressed quietly. And stopped.

Her period had begun.

Did you smell the strength of her blood?

‘Oh,’ she said, feeling dizzy. ‘Okay.’ She cleaned herself up and slipped into a pair of pyjamas. Stealthily, praying she wouldn’t wake Jonathan, who’d read her clumsiness as a prompt for sex – or an argument – she climbed into bed and willed sleep into her bones before her mind could start mulling over the steady, sour creep of their relationship. She failed. She was awake as the full moon swung its mocking face into view, arcing a sorry path across the sky that might well have been an illustration of her own trajectory through darkness. Jonathan’s ragged breathing ebbed and flowed in time with the tide of disaffection insistently eroding her from within.

As dawn broke, she managed to find sleep, although it was fragmented, filled with moments of savagery and violence that were instantly forgettable even as they unfolded shockingly before her.

Gulls shrieking as they wheeled above the hotel woke her. Jonathan had left a note on the pillow:

Didn’t want to wake you for breakfast – you were well out of it. Nipped out for a newspaper. Enjoy your toast. Love, J.

He’d wrapped two pieces of wholemeal toast and marmalade in a napkin and left them by her bed. The gesture almost brought her back from the brink but she guessed he considered it a chore. If he mentions it to me later, she thought, I’ll know he’s after a reward, a pat on the back. I’ll know it’s over. She giggled a little when she thought the death of their relationship should come down to a few slices of Hovis but that wasn’t really the case; it was just a tidy way to cap it all, a banal necessity to make the enormity of her realisation more manageable.

An hour later, they were piling along the A149 coastal road, Jonathan singing loudly to a Placebo song. The sea swung in and away from them, lost to bluffs and mudflats before surprising Claire with its proximity once more. She didn’t like the sea here. It appeared lifeless and sly. Where it touched land, grey borders of scum had formed. It simply sat there, like a dull extension of the Norfolk coastline.

They pulled off the road for a cup of tea at a small café. While Jonathan argued with the proprietor, who was loath to accept a cheque under five pounds, Claire watched an old woman attempting to eat her Sunday lunch. Her hands shook so badly that she couldn’t cut her meat; her cutlery spanked against the side of her plate like an alarm. The winding blades of an old-fashioned fan swooped above them all. Something about its movement unsettled Claire.

‘Come on,’ said Jonathan, imperiously. ‘We’ll have a drink when we get to Cley.’ He turned to the café owner, who was now flanked by his waitresses, alerted by the fuss.

‘Suck my dick, Fatso,’ Jonathan said, and hurried away. Claire raised a placatory hand but the proprietor only looked saddened. The woman raised her jerking head and showed Claire what she was chewing.

*

‘Jon! How could you say that? How could you embarrass me like that?’

‘Us Chettles don’t suffer fools lightly, Claire. I’m not about to start now.’

She wanted to leave him, to just go home, but it was his car and she didn’t know where the nearest railway station was. Sheringham, probably, a good twenty miles away. She hadn’t seen a bus or taxi since they were in Ely the day before yesterday.

‘I don’t feel as though I’m on holiday, Jon. I haven’t been able to relax. All we’ve done is drive and argue. And I really needed this break.’

‘Hey, it was your choice.’

‘Oh, like it would have been different if we were in Paris?’

He was nodding. ‘Paris is the city of romance. It’s impossible to have an argument there.’

She snorted. ‘There’s a word for people like you. Dumbfuck, I think it is.’

He let that one go, but she could see his jaw clenching, his knuckles whitening on the wheel.

She saw the windmill first. It rose up from a coppice beyond a low range of roofs, its naked, motionless blades seeming to pin the sky into position. She pointed it out and Jonathan nodded, turning the car on to a gravel track. They crested a small humpback bridge over a stream choked by rushes. The windmill was white, tall and solid. Some of its windows were open; lace curtain wagged in the breeze.

Jonathan parked the car and got out without looking at Claire. He walked through the heavy wooden door at the windmill’s base. Claire collected the bags and stood for a while, looking out towards the dunes. On the path, a cluster of birdspotters in brightly coloured windcheaters alternated their focus between her and a clump of gorse. Occasionally, one of them would raise their sunglasses and favour her with a brilliant stare. One of them trotted further down the path and the others followed. Claire laughed. They looked intense and foolish.

At the door, she paused. She couldn’t see anybody inside.

‘Jon?’

There was a visitors’ book open on a bureau next to a coffee cup. A small jar of lollipops on the windowsill had been discoloured by the sunlight. ‘Hello?’

She left the bags by the door and headed towards the room to her left. The door was ajar; an old woman was turning back the covers on the bed.

‘Oh, hello?’ said Claire, raising her hand. The woman looked up and smiled.

‘Hang on dear,’ she said, fiddling with her ear. Claire saw she was wearing a hearing aid. ‘I keep it turned off when I work. Nice to have silence every now and again.’

‘My name’s Claire? Claire Osman? I booked a double room for tonight.’

She moved past Claire and checked her name in the ledger. ‘Yes. Room for two. Where’s your partner?’

‘He went in ahead of me.’

The old woman gave her an askance look before shuffling towards the other end of the room. She twisted the handle on the door at the end but it was securely locked.

‘Nobody came in here, my love. Are you sure?’

‘I’m certain!’ Claire blurted. ‘I saw him come in before me. He must have gone through that door.’

‘Aye, if he was a spirit. That’s the door to the windmill. It’s always locked unless we have a party of schoolkids come round, or enthusiasts, you know.’

‘The other guest room then. He must be joking with us.’

‘There’s someone already in that, my love.’

‘He must be in there.’ Claire felt sick. She’d have been happy to see the back of Jonathan in any other circumstances but this was just too weird. Suddenly too final.

She pressed up close against the old woman’s back when she disturbed the other guests, who were sorry they couldn’t help, but no, they hadn’t seen a soul in the past half hour. Claire felt her head filling with grey. She smelled Trebor mints and Lapsang Souchong on the woman’s cardigan. The next thing she was aware of, she was sitting on a high-backed wooden chair in the dining room, her eyes fixed on a cut glass bowl filled with boxes of Kellogg’s Variety. The old woman had her hand between hers. The other guests – a woman in a pair of khaki shorts and a fleece; a willowy woman in a track suit sucking vampirically at a cigarette – watched, concerned from the corner of the room.

She introduced herself as Karen and looked as though she’d smoked herself thin. The type of woman who hurried a meal, picked at it really, just so that she could have the cigarette afterwards. Claire wondered if that was the way she had sex too. She drew the smoke so deeply into her lungs that it was almost without colour when it returned.

Her partner, Brenda, offered to call the police and look around the dunes outside. ‘The tide here is pretty innocuous but, you know, water is water.’

Claire sat in the room, looking at Jonathan’s travel bag. It hadn’t been zipped up properly; a corner of his Bolton Wanderers flannel was sticking out of it. Two WPCs arrived. She told them what she knew, which was nothing. They made notes anyway. Checked the car. Told her to relax and there’d be someone to talk to her in the morning. Best not to go anywhere tonight. In case Jonathan should return.

‘He’s got the car keys anyway,’ she said. The policewomen laughed, although she hadn’t meant it as a joke.

She watched them go back to their car. They talked to the old woman for a while, one of the policewomen turning to look at her through the window for a few seconds.

She ate with the other couple at the ridiculously large dining table, Brenda quick to let her know what a sacrifice this was as they’d aimed to go to The Red Lion in Upper Sheringham for food. Karen puffed before and after courses and during mouthfuls. Her cheeks seemed permanently hollowed.

‘Has he ever done this before?’ she asked.

Claire started to cry through her food, something she hadn’t done since her childhood. She’d forgotten how hard it was to eat and cry at the same time. It was quite interesting to try, really.

‘I can’t talk. I’m sorry.’ She left them and went to her room. She drew a hot bath and soaked for twenty minutes, tensed for his knock at the door and his impatient, stabbing voice. She never realised she’d miss him so much.

Later, she watched the dark creep into the sky. Mars clung, a diamond barnacle, to the underside of a raft of cloud. The birdspotters were still out there, a mass of coloured Kangol clothing and Zeiss lenses. There was even a tripod. Cows stood in a far off field like plastic toys.

Pale light went on outside. A soft looking young girl carrying a hose slowly drifted around the perimeter of the windmill’s grounds wetting the plants and the lawn. An overweight dog ambled alongside her. Claire listened to the fizz of electricity until it calmed to a dull murmur and then went to bed.

Sleep claimed her quickly, despite her loneliness and the alien posture of the low-slung room. Her dreams were edgy, filled with savage angles and lurid colours, as though she were a film director trying too hard. She was in a car too big for the road, ploughing through a village where there were no men. She was heading towards a windmill in the distance that didn’t seem to get any closer. Occasionally she’d drive over some indistinct shape in her path. Before long, the roadkill became larger. Some of it wore clothes. It didn’t impede her progress; she drove straight over it.

whump… whump… whump

Shanks of flesh squirted up on to the windscreen. The engine whined as it bounded through the bodies.

whump… whump… whump

*

Awake. Grainy blackness separated into the lumpen shapes of furniture and pictures on the wall. Imperfect light kissed at the curtains, turning them into powdery tablets of neon.

‘Jonathan,’ she whispered, softly, hopefully.

whumpwhump

A deep creaking noise punctuated that heavy sound. The window filled with black, then cleared again after an age. Blackness once more. Then soft light.

She opened the curtain. A blade of the windmill swung past her, trailing ragged edges of its sail. Down towards the end of the lawn, a huddle of people sat, a pinkish mass in the gloaming. Were they having a midnight party? Why hadn’t she been invited? Maybe they wanted to leave her to her grief.

She shrugged herself into her towelling robe and picked her way through the shadows to the main door. The air was sharp with salt and still warm. She followed the path round to the garden, stepping through an arch crowded with roses. The windmill creaked and thudded, underlit by strange, granular arcs from lamps buried in the soil.

She was halfway across the lawn when she saw they were naked. They were surrounding something, dipping towards it and moving away. She recognised the young girl who’d watered the lawn, the old woman and Karen, who was lying back, cigarette in one hand, Brenda’s thigh in the other. Brenda was talking to some other women. Claire realised she hadn’t seen a man since the pub in Cockley Cley. The Sergeant-Major bustling out of the door. Holding up his hand. Mouthing something.

whumpwhump.

The windmill hadn’t born sails when they arrived that morning. She took another, hesitant step forward when she was spotted. One of the policewomen pointed at her. They all turned to look, peeling away from the dark, wet core of their interest. She saw their bodies were painted with blood. The old woman wore feral slashes of deep red across her forehead and neck.

Claire felt a thick, hot release against her thigh as she turned to look at the blades of the windmill, wrapped in the still wet hide of her boyfriend.

She turned back to the women, who were advancing towards her now. She reached beneath the folds of her robe, smudged her fingers in her own blood and began to paint.

 

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