The tree has caved in the front of the house and nestles, now, between the large front windows—broken water pipes gushing around the trunk. A giant’s skull caved in; the murder weapon lodged in its cranium. It had fallen with such ease, in the end, as though standing tall had grown too much to bear. Collapse was a relief. The house stands at the end of the track, high on the cliff, overlooking a small, curved bay with a sandy beach. There are no lights on. Nobody lives here, though sometimes people stay.
The winds that caused the damage have eased. They still blow, gusting petulantly and knocking birds from nests. Every now and then a stone will fall. Black slate scurrying down the cliffside to the sand below. But it is not like it was. The gale doesn’t howl like a wolf pack, doesn’t chase small creatures to ground and winnow through their burrows, freezing their bones. The rain doesn’t lash against the dunes, peeling away the layers until the roots of the grasses stand exposed, naked against the storm. The body of a seal lying between the rocks rests in a rockpool stained with blood. The damage is done, the dead are awake, and now a dull peace reigns. What weather remains picks irritably at the wilderness. Bored. So, when the twin lights swing round the head of the track it is as though the whole valley cranes its neck to see its visitor. Silver and boxy like a tugboat but silent and fast the vehicle slides up the narrow track. No fumes, no engine growl or parting waves, it creeps towards the house like a predator. It rolls to a stop in front of the house anticlimactically, disappointed to find its quarry dead. A shard of a door opens and from behind black glass a man steps out, a frown on his face and voices in his head.
“Hi, It’s Steve, look – hello? Sorry, I’m at the house, the signal’s bad. It’s a mess, that big tree fell, yeah, clean through. Can you call the contractors? Thanks. Look, I’ll ring you back later. Cheers.”
Steve taps the side of his head, and his frown deepens. He moves towards the remains of the house and his grey suit ripples against the wind. It is not a fabric suited to the country; the breeze blows right through raising goosebumps on his skin. He pushes his way through a side door, the wood caught in the frame that has warped with the weight of wood lying above it. Steve moves with confidence. Seemingly unconcerned that the tree might shift, that he might be the next to shoulder its weight.
With the front of the house gone there is no impediment to watching eyes, no reason not to pry, no need to be invited in. Steve takes out a rectangle of polished obsidian and taps at it as he moves through the rooms. He pauses over sheets of cracked black glass, dark mirrors that hang in every room and almost all broken. On windowsills and bookshelves shells sit. The carcases of anemones and bottles of coloured sand that do not come from the beach below—that smell of different seas. In the kitchen, he picks carefully over the shattered remains of glasses and plates. A rectangular box glows with a white-blue light, humming as the bottles inside discharge wine over the floor. Steve seems particularly upset at this
“Fucking hell. What a mess.”
Steve has problems. He’s restless. In need of help. He mops at the floor with a clean white towel which absorbs the wine like blood into bandages. He picks up a pillow from the large bed and then places it back down. Lifts shards of the black mirrors and holds them up to the light. He seems suddenly unsure of himself and rushes to the large glass door that overlooks the sea, somehow still intact. Sliding it back he steps onto the wooden deck of a balcony that hangs over the beach. It creaks as he steps on it. The metal struts bolted to the cliffside groan under the weight.
He ought to heed the warning.
Instead, he walks to the edge, leans over the rail and takes in great lungfuls of salted air. There is a gust as the wind picks up again and the scent of the beach at low tide fills him. The smell of seaweed on the turn, limpets with imperfect seals and rotting flesh beneath. He gags. His eyes are wild, his hair blown out of its crisp perfection and his tie flaps free in the wind. The metal and wood creaks again and this time he listens, snaps free from the spell, and moves quickly back inside sliding the glass door shut against the howling gale.
This plan would be wonderful were there a front to the house. As it is, it only takes a moment for the wind to find him again and it taunts him with tidewrack, with the stench of the sea—it is a beautiful smell, to some—Steve retches, and leaves through the side door and walks through the garden to a smaller house. The house that was here when he bought it. That’s the way of it, around here. See a place. Buy a place. Buy a small home and make it bigger. It happens all the time.
This house has stood for three centuries. This house has weathered the storms. Its name etched in neat type onto the small slate plaque.
The Toll House. A place to pay your dues.
He lets himself in, passing through walls three feet thick made of heavy granite blocks and stuffed with lime. Amongst other things. Bottles with pins in. Withered hearts. Things to keep the outside out, the inside in. He pauses in the doorway and shudders. Shrugging off the wind. The door closes with a snap, and he’s gone.
The next morning and the weather is worse. The wind has woken cruel and cold, and plays with the iron latch of the Toll House. The door opens and Steve emerges. He looks better than he did. He appeared briefly, in the night, to salvage a bag from his vehicle and now he is dressed a little better than before. Though the waxed coat he wears could do with some years on it. Could do with a little bit of wearing in. Steve is talking to the voice in his head again.
“Jenny, morning. I’m fine, yes. No, I stayed in the guest house. Fine. A little poky but warm enough, reminded me why we built the new place. All those low ceilings and wonky walls. But it’s dry, and there isn’t a bloody tree sticking out of it. Did you get hold of them? What? What the hell could they be busy with? There’s nobody here! Fine. Fine. Yes, Fine – look, I can’t leave the place like this, anyone could walk in. I’m going to stay for a few days, until someone can come out and make it secure. No, I brought the Tesla.” He laughs.
“No, it did not, not at all. You pay half a million for a house and there’s no road to get to it!” He laughs again then stops to listen. Jenny does not seem to have been laughing. Perhaps she did not like his joke. There is a long pause and Steve chews his lip throughout. He is physically biting his tongue. When Jenny is done, he snaps at her.
“Look, just get someone out OK? I’ll go to the pub, use their wi-fi. I don’t know, it’s got a silly name. The Bugaboo? Something colourful for the tourists.”
That is not its name. The Inn is a reminder that passes tourists by. You need to know a thing first to forget it.
“The signal here is shit. Can you forward my emails to my personal account? Great. Right. Bye.”
He taps furiously at his ear and stands with his hands on his hips staring at the caved-in house. He turns. Attracted by movement on the beach. Creatures stirring. Steve is on it. This is a thing he seems equipped for; he moves with purpose, to the top of the wooden rope-railed staircase that slopes down towards the sand.
The shapes on the beach ignore him. Small and quick footed. They are searching for something, below the balcony.
“This is a private beach! You can’t be here. I’m sorry, but you’ll have to leave.” Steve does not sound sorry. Not at all. The two figures show no sign of hearing and Steve hurries down the steps and begins striding over crushed seashells and seaweed to the trespassers. He’ll show them. Steve will show them.
But alas. Steve will not because, somehow, when he arrives at the spot, the spot they searched on, it is empty even of footprints. Steve wheels about in the cold wind. Flecked with sea foam and licked by a salt tongued breeze. Alone. Those rascals, those scoundrels, have escaped him.
As though they were ghosts.
Steve mutters steadily as he climbs the cliff, and his discomfort is buffeted to the ears of those that would listen until the door of the Toll House slams shut.
The morning passes quietly enough. The seagulls hang immobile on the wind, swaying lightly but holding firm. There is a creak, now and then, as the tree shifts in its cradle, and down on the beach the seals are back to bury their dead. Peace. Until Steve remerges. He starts towards the Tesla but stops. Looks down the old track he arrived on and shakes his head. He turns and climbs the stile towards the cliff path.
It clings close to the edge of the field, teasing a collapse in several places though it never falls. Steve clings to it, threatened onto the straight and narrow by gales to his windward side and cattle to his lee. The cattle are bothered by wind nor man, though they follow Steve as he walks, chivvy him along. Focused on glaring at the cattle to his right, he misses the miracles to his left. A raven passes, flying upside down, just because it can, and when it has had enough it pivots and swoops and lands cawing on a drystone wall that ought not be standing, really. The boundary of a long-lost field, it is now nothing but a line of rock atop a bigger one. There are sparrowhawks, too. And kestrel. Searching in the grass for mice and rats that scurry eyes fixed downwards. Steve moves in the same way. Blind to what is hunting him. The path begins to descend. Over the years a natural progression has emerged. Soil giving way until the slate was met and a rock-worn tumbling staircase was revealed. No handrails here. Nothing to slow a faster descent, should a foot slip. Steve’s feet do not slip. He reaches the bottom breathless but safe and steps onto the concrete curb with audible relief.
The bay used to hold a few houses here and there. A farm, some cottages. All gone now bar the few that cluster around the inn. The new estate sits above the wide sandy beach in darkness. Not a light is on. There are no Teslas here. Nothing moves but the occasional seabird. A flock of oystercatchers whistling overhead. Steve is the only Steve here. There are no other Steves at this time of year; Steve is a Steve out of season. It does not seem to bother him. He moves through the empty houses with a sneer on his face. Smiling at points of difference any other onlooker would not discern. Once or twice, he stops suddenly, his face reddens. Envy spread across it. These houses he passes quickly. But he always looks back.
He is at the seafront again now. On the carefully maintained strip of pavement that follows the beach. The sand is wet and carved out by wind and Steve looks at it with the same disgust he viewed the cattle. The track to his house. He does not see the sea glass burnished in the sand, does not see the seals on the rocks to the north. He does see, however, the dark clouds the wind is driving onto shore, a fleet of them. And, unpractised though he is, even Steve doesn’t misread that sign. Steve turns towards the end of the bay. Past the last stragglers of glass fronted empty houses and the shuttered shops. Past loud things now quiet. Like Steve, this paradise is out of season. The oystercatchers have circled back, their whistles a bellow overhead as Steve breaks cover, calling the clouds and the rain to him. He is heading for the lights that hang below the headland. On the spit of the quay. To get to it he clambers over a low chain fence that separates concrete from quarried stone. From granite.
The last bastion of the old village. A few small cottages stand on the quayside, new names chiselled onto slate that, just like the Toll House, stand empty.
The Net Loft.
The Harbourmaster’s Cottage.
Each a joke on someone that has never found it funny. In the harbour, fishing boats rattle their chains. Steve skirts these and stumbles into a stack of lobster pots that send him sprawling, long severed pincers reaching out for help. There is a laugh. Steve looks up to see a fisherman tidying the deck of one of the boats. As he chuckles he pulls a crab from the pot, kisses its shell and throws it back into the sea, eyes to the heavens.
Then the man, still smiling at the sprawl of legs and fishing nets in front of him, climbs over gunwale to solid ground and heads inside the Inn. You can smell the sea as he leaves. Handed down to him from his father, and his. Going back to the flood.
Steve, who smells of nothing, stands, brushes himself off and heads inside the pub. Not added colour for tourists. Its painted sign swings in the wind and shouts its name, The Bucca’s Due. Named for a story that used to be true. The window stickered with the promise of ales. Of Doombar Pale, Moorland Stout, Free Wiffi. Delicious.
Look, door open and inviting. Though there are only a few inside. The money made in the warmer months, the inn now half asleep, half shut down to survive but always open, just in case. Warm light pooling on the quayside from door and window. The window in which a bottle hangs full of coloured threads. There must be thousands. Millions. Begging to be counted.
There’s a tradition that says wayward spirits can’t help but stop and count them. Nonsense of course. Nonetheless…
Dark. The pub is dark, the light in the window out and now the answer may never be known. The jar keeps its secret. Has done its job. Chalk one up to superstition. The fishermen must have gone home. Gone to newer houses further inland that don’t have names, just numbers. Pebble dashed and too far from the sea.
Steve is gone too. Where? Back to the house, perhaps. A shortcut taken across the beach, around the headland just ahead of the tide. A few drinks inside him and brave enough to face the surf.
What if he slips? What if the water takes him before his time? No sign of him stumbling across the dark shale, the moonlit seaweed and cuttlebones. How long has it been since he left?
Nothing on the bay, so round the corner to the beach below the house that hangs over the cliffside as though a high tide had left it stranded. There. A shadow in shadows. Steve lurches up the steps to the clifftop. Not sure footed but lucky Steve is scrambling to the top. A Lucky man. A lonely man, no—not alone. He taps his head.
“Jenny? Jen?” His voice slurred and slipshod. “Jenny?” He’s shouting now and drowning out anything that poor voice might be saying to him. “Bugger it.” A tap, the voice is gone, and Steve is home, tripping over the low fence and falling face first onto foreign gravel, imported expensively from distant shores.
“Shit.” He sits, brushes himself off and stares in amazement at the hole that the tree left, bereft of tree. There is confused murmuring, what did you drink Steve? In the Pub? Too much Wiffi? Too strong for you whatever it was. They’ve sent you home reeling. Unable to even utter a word of thanks at this great kindness. This grand removal.
Steve stands and turns and waves a dismissive hand at the place where the tree lay, goes inside the Toll House but there—look—the door ajar. An invitation clear as night. A thank you, perhaps. An opening, a chance.
No. The door is closed.
It is late in the day when Steve bursts forth. He almost trips over the shape on the mat. A ragged black pouch whose tendrils trail in the dirt. A gift. A present. It would sit prettily next to his shelves of seashells. His bottles of sand. If he was worried he shouldn’t take things from the beach below he needn’t be. Here is a gift. A hint. He bends down and examines the casing of the shark’s egg. Lifts it up. Feels the crackle of its edges, shakes it and listens to the sand rattling within, grains spilling from the crack in its side.
Throws it away.
An outstretched hand rebuffed and two heads dip back below the clifftop to wait for company. Another buzzing in Steve’s head. Jenny? No.
“Yes, hello? Speaking. Not for a…what are you talking about the tree’s gone, your lot must have been up here last night.” A pause. Steve listens, eyes flicking to the hole that the roots left. He walks to the edge as he listens and looks down into the darkness. To the hollow beneath, lined with duck down and tangled nets. A smuggler’s rest long abandoned, the caves to it collapsed. Maybe. It has the trappings of a bower.
“Right. Well, it’s gone anyway so it’s just the house that needs making safe. Can you send someone up to take a look?” Another pause and Steve loses interest in the hole. Walks distractedly to the Tesla, places a hand on its roof. “How long? I need it done by the end of the week.” A pause again. These new voices must have some power over him; he shrinks back from them, clutching the Tesla for support. “Fine. As soon as you can, then.” He slaps at his ear like a horsefly bite to still the noise.
Making safe. The house needs making safe. But after that, a payment due.
A house that’s safe.
The first drops of rain fall and Steve hurries inside. Not to his cosy, thick walled house into which things cannot see. Into a private, hidden nest built for this very thing, to weather storms. No, Steve rushes into his shattered glass skull of a house that sounds like a hailstorm as the water hits it. The house that has not yet been made safe. No need to follow, you can see right through. He pulls the last unbroken bottle from its glowing box. Now this is promising. A libation. He hurries out of the wreckage again and into the cottage. Nothing spilt along the way. The weather is blooming, blossoming into a tempest and it rails against the windows of both broken house and whole. Through the glass of the latter Steve can be seen, drinking his wine, not looking happy. A tap on the window, to keep an eye.
TAP TAP TAP
Up he jumps. Red wine spilt onto polished boards. No good there Steve. Pour it onto the sand. His face pressed to the glass and looking into the grey looks scared, uncomfortable. Even through the window his whisper is audible.
What trees Steve? None stand close enough to tap the glass. Something else, just as long and gnarled and branched. Hands outstretched. Fingers rapping. Steve closes the curtains and is lost again.
It is midnight when he reappears. Bleary eyed. The wine has robbed him of sleep. He steps out onto the driveway, moonlit, the silver light making even this sorry sight at least a fraction more beautiful. The rain has stopped. Even the wind has dropped. Steve walks to the cliff and stares out to sea. The ground beneath his feet a mere tremble away from falling. His turned back waiting to be pushed. But he stands. Looks out. Gasps. There had been a low fog across the water, but it rolls away like an anchovy tin lid, a sea of moonlit scales beneath. There in the water like some dredged up squid a tangle of black wood and leafless canopy floats the tree. A reminder of a favour done that’s yet to be repaid. The moon catches on the wet bark and the sound of the sea lapping at its edges echoes up towards the cliff. Steve turns and freezes, staring at something he cannot possibly see. Staring at me.
He taps the side of his head as though I can be shut off.
I am not in your head, Steve. I am here.
He scrabbles at his ear, pulls a little black object out, a shell-less whelk and hurls it to the floor then stands panting in the moonlight.
Is that Jenny, Steve?
Jenny lies quiet on the gravel. Steve runs inside his glass house, I can see him moving through the rooms. Can see him consider, for a moment, climbing the shattered bones of the stairs to the upper floors.
This was your own fault, Steve. If you had lived quietly in that little house with thick stone walls I cannot enter I would have stayed sleeping. I would have faded away. But you built this house, shook the earth, loosened the roots of a tree as tired as I am. It was only a matter of time.
Why have you gone inside, Steve? It’s dangerous. I have not finished. The tree was just the start. I will make your house safe. I am only trying to help.
But Steve does not listen. He is on the balcony again. Creaking struts and popping bolts.
When it falls it does so screaming. A flock of kittiwake, a fox calling. Twisted metal and breaking glass. Down goes Steve and the house, the tide rising to meet them.
Thank you Steve. How generous. Quite the offering. A little too much perhaps? Though the favours I granted were substantial. And the door to the toll house left ajar! A new home to replace the one I lost. The one that is filling with water. A cosy place to sit and wait for those I hope are more grateful for my help. I am very helpful. As I cross I look out across the bay, past the three figures standing in the water, I see a light still on upstairs at the inn.
The Bucca’s Due. Named after a time when, once the fish had been caught, a little pile was left on the sand. For the Bucca. For the sea. For me. Payment for a favour done. A bountiful catch. A fortuitous tide. Some mackerel, some pilchard. An eel. A little piece for what they took. Never more than could be spared, a morsel not a meal. But those days are gone. Those people have left. There are no little gifts left on the sand.
I had thought those days were done. The busy summers, full of people who did not need my help. Did not wish to feed me. Pay me. Nothing worth staying awake for. But I am awake now. Ready to help. And I have not been fed in a very long time
Sam is a writer living above the moor in Cornwall, he also works in a library by the sea. He was shortlisted for the Bridport flash fiction prize in 2020, and in 2021 was longlisted for the Louise Walters Books page 100 competition, as well as shortlisted and highly commended in the Hammond House international short story prize. In January this year he was featured on an episode of Litopia’s ‘Pop up Submissions’ which he won. He is represented by John Baker at Bell, Lomax, Moreton and his first novel GORSE, a historical folk horror, is out on submission.
photo by Kevin Bosc (via unsplash)