Stories & Articles

The Old House By The Sea

Below is my entry for the 2017 Mslexia short story writing competition. I didn’t win (a travesty), so thought I would publish it here. If you haven’t read my writing before it does tend towards the dark. Sorry about that.

I stared at her and her back at me. She was so small and fragile, her vision little more than a blur, yet her blue eyes were wide open and gazing intently. ‘We’re safe now Bubba‘ I reassured, cradling her in my arms and stroking her head. ‘They won’t find us here. No one will find us here.‘ I rocked her gently until her eyes began to flicker and close.

I’d driven for over 20 hours to get to the old house by the sea, maybe longer, it was hard to keep track. I’d stopped the car only when we needed fuel or she needed to be fed. Though it rattled and the steering shook, the car I had bought the previous morning had proved itself reliable, just like the old man promised me.

I wasn’t sure about the old man – he had spent so long studying Bubba and I that he’d made me nervous. ‘Are you OK?’ he had asked several times and then, as if not believing my reply, ‘Are you sure?’ 

Of course we aren’t OK! I’d wanted to shout at him. We are running away, away from them….! But I couldn’t. What if he told them he’d sold me the car? If he did, it would all be over in hours. They’d take us away. Take her away.

I couldn’t remember much about the day I had met Bubba – I’d not slept for more than a few hours in weeks and tiredness had made my memories fuzzy. But I did know that my job was to protect her. That I alone had been entrusted with this most important task. My charge: a little girl so special and so innocent to the world, completely unaware of the dangers that faced her.

I thought I could protect her at home, by hiding her away, but all too soon they came. Putting Bubba in her cot one night, I had glanced out of the window to see a man stood in the shadows. He didn’t move when my eyes caught his, he wasn’t scared to be seen. He just stood there in the darkness, staring. He wanted me to know they were coming.

Then the phone calls started. All day and night – ring ring ring – silence at the other end when I answered. I’d pulled the telephone cable out of the wall and turned off my mobile phone, yet the ringing didn’t stop. Even when I destroyed both phones it continued. The power these people had.

Bubba had only been with me for two weeks at that point. Oh how I had failed her! I’d hidden her away, kept her out of sight, yet still they found us. My mind raced.

Early one morning I had packed a bag and driven us into town. I abandoned my car and walked with Bubba to the nearest newsagents. Scouring the classifieds for second hand cars, I’d spotted the battered old silver saloon advertised for £200. This would take a huge chunk of our cash but I knew they’d find us if we travelled in my car.

As we’d pulled off the old man’s driveway later that morning, I knew exactly where we should go. A place once belonging to my great aunt many miles away. A place that was all but abandoned now she’d passed away. A place so remote that they would never come looking for us there.

——–

The drive was long and the motorways could only take us so far. We drove as north as we could manage that first day, eventually stopping at a small roadside hotel when Bubba’s cries meant we could travel no longer. She had slept almost the entire journey, only waking up when it was time to feed, but now she was cranky and uncomfortable.

I’d told the lady at the desk that we were travelling to visit a sick relative. We’d left home in a hurry, I’d said, forgetting credit cards. The lady took my cash and didn’t question my story: the little hair Bubba had matched my own in colour and she could quite easily pass as my child. Later the lady would come to our room with an old travel cot for Bubba to use that night. The lady would offer me food too, but I’d told her I felt nauseous and that was the truth. I’d not eaten since Bubba had arrived, my stomach knotted with worry. Now my jeans hung off my hips, and my face looked tired and gaunt.

We had left the hotel at first light before the lady had woken up. As the motorway ended, and the road dipped and weaved through the mountains and finally along the coast, I felt a wave of relief wash over me, and a faint glimmer of hope. Other vehicles and people were now scarce.

I had parked as close as I could to the old house by the sea, then walked the final half mile down the dirt track in fading light with Bubba in my arms. After taking a good look through the downstairs windows, I’d picked up a small rock and smashed the back door pane to get us inside.

Sure enough the place looked and smelled like no one had been inside for years. How long was it since Maggie had passed away? Ten years? Maybe twelve? The furniture was sparse, the air musty and the lights did not work.

I had climbed the stairs to the main bedroom, remembering the house from childhood summers many years before, and there I now sat on the old bed, curtains open and the room bathed in moonlight. I lay down with Bubba to my side, enveloping her little body with my arms and placing my coat over us for warmth.

Tomorrow Bubba and I would walk over to the old lighthouse and look out to sea. During the summers when I was a young girl, Dad and I would sit for hours on these cliff tops with our picnic and our books, hoping to catch a glimpse of an orca or dolphin. It was a sign of good fortune to come, he would tell me, to spot one of these majestic creatures. On the rare occasions we saw them I would be ecstatic with excitement. When we’d get back down South, I would regale my mum with tales of what I had seen. The whales, the ships, the jumping salmon in the nearby river! She should come next year, I’d tell her.

I was 12 when Dad and I spent our last summer on the North Coast. He and mum had separated that winter and I had never visited the old house by the sea again.

I closed my eyes and slowed my breathing, and for the first time in weeks my thoughts began to quieten. I slept.

———

John Stevens had grazed his flock on the cliff tops of the North Coast since he was a boy. His father had done the same, and his father’s father before him. John knew anyone and everyone around these parts, but he didn’t recognise the old silver car he’d passed parked up earlier, nor the lady he now saw sat on the cliff top with a small baby in her arms. He watched them from afar, wondering what they were doing all the way up there in the North. As he watched, a strange feeling came over John; the hairs on his arms stood on end and his stomach flipped.

He walked back to his farmhouse and made up a thermos of tea – an icebreaker with which to approach the stranger, he thought. When he got back to the cliffs, he found the lady and baby were gone, yet the car remained. Panic beset him, and he rushed forward down the track, dropping his flask in the mud. Visitors to the cliffs were very few and far between, and a baby was an unusual sight indeed.

As he continued forward, John scanned the horizon and saw that the windows of the old house were open. Maggie Summerton’s place had stood empty since she had died, inherited, he understood, by a family member who had tried unsuccessfully to sell it on. It had been years since he’d seen anyone there. Squatters – hippy types – had taken up residence one summer but they’d soon cleared off once winter had drawn in. Winters in the North were tough, especially on the coast where the winds were cold enough to cut you in half and the rainfall relentless.

John watched the old house a little more, eventually seeing the lady come outside and wander around, baby pulled to her chest, its head resting on her shoulder. He was worrying unnecessarily he told himself, and turned to go back to the farmhouse. The day was nearing an end, he’d been up since 4am and was getting hungry.

———

Steven paced the room frantically. He sat down on the sofa, but sitting brought him no relief, so he got up and paced the room once more.

‘For God’s sake Steven, just sit down!’ his mother in law Joan shouted. She was perched on the edge of the sofa, hands wringing in her lap and tears welling in her eyes.

‘She wouldn’t let me call anyone to help Joan – she destroyed our phones – she wouldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep. I had only gone next door to ask them to ring the emergency services when she fled. I was gone 5 minutes maximum…!’  Steven slumped onto the sofa next to Joan, buried his head in his hands and sobbed uncontrollably.

‘She was seeing things Joan, and hearing things’ he muffled through his tears. ‘I guess I had been working so many hours it passed me by at first, and by the time I realised what was happening it was too late.’

The doorbell rang and Steven bolted to the front door. Joan clutched the arm of the sofa and steadied herself with the other. Her stomach sank.

On the doorstep stood the female police officer that Steven had come to know quite well over the previous 48 hours. ‘Can I come in Steven?’ asked Detective Cooper. Steven nodded and she followed him into the living room.

‘We’ve had a sighting’ Detective Cooper explained. ‘A good 600 miles north of here’.

Steven, who was terrified of being told his wife and two week old daughter were dead, exhaled loudly with relief.

‘We’ve had a lot of calls following last night’s appeal’ Detective Cooper continued. ‘The most promising was from a lady who runs a small hotel not far from the mountains – she is confident that your wife and daughter stayed last night. The local police are on their way to visit as we speak and are doing whatever checks they can – CCTV wise – in the area.’ 

Detective Cooper paused and took out her notepad from her pocket. ‘Your wife told the lady she was continuing northwards. Any ideas were she could be going up there? Any family or friends?’

Steven – whose head pounded and nerves were frayed – considered the question then shook his head in confusion. ‘She doesn’t know anyone up there. She’s never been-‘

‘Cape Wrath’ Joan interrupted, still clutching the sofa arm. ‘She’s gone to Cape Wrath’.

———

I woke with a startle. What time was it? How long had I slept? Bubba stirred next to me and let out a cry. I checked my watch – 5am. I had slept a whole 5 hours. I opened one of the last bottles of milk I’d packed and fed her until she quietened and fell back to sleep.

My head ached and my heart raced. I needed fresh air. Leaving Bubba to sleep, I wandered outside into the cool morning mist and once more sat on the damp grass of the cliff top.

I stared back at the dirt track and wondered if my dad would arrive today. I had written him a letter the morning we left, posting it on our way out of town. I’d asked him to come urgently to the old house by the sea. He must tell no one where he is going and be certain he is not followed, I had instructed. I promised I would explain when he arrived.

As a child, whenever I was hurt or sad, it was always my dad I would run too. He would scoop me up in his arms and hold me tight. As I grew too big to be lifted, he would kneel down so we were eye-to-eye and grasp my hands in his, telling me everything would be OK. If I woke up scared and crying from a bad dream, he would sit with me and tell me funny stories until I fell back to sleep. If I fell and grazed my knee, he would clean it up and put on a plaster. He would be the one to read to me each night before bed. Sometimes he’d abandon our book and tell me stories from his own childhood, or of far off lands he’d say I must visit one day.

Dad had always known what to do to make things better, and he would know what to do now. He would bring Bubba milk, bring us sheets for the bed and get the electricity working. I’d explain about the people who had come for Bubba, the danger she was in, and he’d tell me how to keep her safe. Dad was our lifeline.

———

Detective Cooper rubbed her eyes and poured herself another coffee. She’d been up most of the night sifting through information from the TV appeal and was now, at 8am, awaiting a call from her colleagues in the North. Cape Wrath, the woman’s mother had said, and so this area was to be visited as a priority. Cooper had checked – it was a good two hours’ drive from the nearest police station, and two hours was a long time in a case like this. The phone rang.

‘Detective Cooper? Sargent Mackintosh here. We’ve dispatched two vehicles to the Cape and the officers have been fully briefed. ETA around 10am. We’ll update as soon as we’ve arrived. I’ve put the coastguard on standby’.

‘Thank you Sargent’ Cooper put down the phone and sipped her coffee. The Cape was remote with towering cliffs that dropped 80ft into the ocean. Despite being August, the sea would be rough around the jagged rocks and the water temperature freezing. Assuming someone could survive a fall from the cliffs, the chances of them surviving for more than a minute in the water below were slim.

Cooper wandered over to the window and stared into the distance. The woman they sought had very recently given birth and was almost certainly suffering from post-partum psychosis, a condition neither the medical professionals attending to her or her own husband had picked up on. She had disappeared with her newborn baby and looked to be heading to a place where, Cooper had now learned, the woman’s own father had fallen to his death twenty years previously.

Cooper hoped and prayed they weren’t too late.

————

It was 9am when John approached the lady on the cliff top, thermos of tea in hand. She’d been sat there since first light, alone to begin with, and then later with the child. John was now certain all was not well.

He said hello as he approached, but the lady had neither turned to face him nor said hello back. As John got closer he could see she had been crying. The baby, who couldn’t be more than a few weeks old, was wrapped in a coat and cradled in her arms.

John sat himself down the grass several metres away. ‘Beautiful here isn’t it?’ he said, but the lady didn’t turn or answer.

‘I’ve got some tea – would you like some?’

The lady flicked her eyes to John and then back out to sea. ‘What took you so long?’ she asked. ‘I was expecting you at first light. Bubba is nearly out of milk’.

John’s heart raced and he stared at the lady. Her skin was pale and her lips were cracked and bleeding. Dark circles surrounded her eyes, and her hair looked like it hadn’t been brushed in days. She wore only a thin t-shirt and jeans on the windy cliff top, and goose-bumps covered her arms.

‘It’s OK’ the lady continued. ‘You’re here now, that’s what matters.’

John poured some tea into the lid of his flask and shuffled closer. ‘Swap you the baby for some tea?’ he smiled. ‘Don’t want it spilling on the little one, do we?’

The lady obliged, and John sat with what he now realised was a beautiful baby girl in his arms. A bonny wee thing, wrapped up warm and sleeping soundly. A little girl who, despite the lady’s appearance, appeared very well looked after.

When John looked back towards the lady, fresh tears were rolling down her cheeks. ‘We’ve been so scared, Dad’ she sobbed, not moving her gaze from the horizon.

John didn’t know the lady who now called him Dad. He didn’t know her story, or understand the troubles that brought her to this place. But he knew what he had to do. He moved closer, took off his jacket and placed it over her shoulders.

‘There’s no need to be scared any more’ he said.