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Excerpt for Isobel's Dreaming by , available in its entirety at Smashwords


ISOBEL’S DREAMING

Copyright © 2019 Tracey Lee Hoy

Published by Tracey Lee Hoy at Smashwords

Tracey Lee Hoy asserts the moral rights to be identified as the author of this Ebook.

Characters, locations and settings in this ebook unless otherwise stated are fictitious and bear no resemblance to persons living or dead, of actual persons or places.

Smashwords Edition License Notes

All content in this E-book unless otherwise stated is the sole work of the author and remains the sole property of the author and shall not be reprinted, copied, distributed, reposted, reprinted, shared or used without the author’s implicit permission and is legally protected by the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act of 1988. This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your enjoyment only, then please return to Smashwords.com or your favourite retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

*

Introduction

It is said that small, simple things can make bigger things happen. Was it not the ordinary people in the street who pulled down the wall of Berlin, and who rescued the soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk? The tale of my remarkably curious yet rather perilous adventure began with small, simple things…two small things in fact; two annoying little dogs that lived next door with the semi-famous writer, Findlay O’Connell.

*

Reality comes and goes like the fleeting lifespan of a vagrant dragonfly in a sweetened spring.

Prologue

Scotland, 1507AD

The darkened clouds gathered with haste above the fir trees, leaving the forest under a blanket of unnatural silence. Looking up at the leaden sky, the young woman frowned and finished gathering the last of the herbs, wild roots and vegetables she needed then stepped briskly onto the narrow path which led to her home. The small cottage was tucked snugly into the forest on the side of the rise. Dark fir trees towered either side and a circle of wild hedges rooted with unruly blackberry brambles concealed it from those who were not welcome.

Inside the cottage, the young woman placed her basket onto the worn table and hung her threadbare cloak by the door. The peg next to hers was empty but would not be for long. She hoped her cantankerous stepfather would dally in the village inn, to give her more of this welcome peace. She removed her wooden clogs; bending low to unfasten the thick leather strap and placed them on the floor underneath her cloak that once was her poor mother’s.

Rosamunde used a leather thong to tie her hair back and began to sing and her high voice joined the eerie wind outside that blew around the cottage and through the forest. She began to gather the endive and wild onions from the basket, but as she glanced into the low fire, her song fell away into the coming night; her sharp blue eyes fixed steadily on the fireplace where they watched the fire dancing in the small grate below the steadily broiling pot of lifeless, thin, grey broth.

Mesmerised, Rosamunde unexpectedly lost herself as the endive and handful of wild onion she had been clutching fell away from her hands, because, within the fire, tiny, human figures began to spring to life. Unaware of the cottage around her and unable to move, Rosamunde recognised herself in the dancing flames…

She stood in between a brooding, dark-haired man and an older, shorter woman. Nearby, there were other people wearing peculiar clothing in a landscape unknown to her, until at last, the two images become one as the dark-haired man stood with her alone. The man was connected to all the others and had the power to change the course of coming events. But soon the man began to wither and die as the fire filled with a scorching, blue-black flame and she began to scream…

Through the disappearing fug of the vision, Rosamunde knew there were strange things in the air causing mayhem and that they were all in grave danger. She knew who this powerful, brooding man was and with dread that she would have to warn him, else the dark things foretold in her fiery vision would be given real life. In the last light of day, Rosamunde stood trembling but resolute. She must try to find a most formidable man; one she had only ever heard people speak of: Laird Alasdair Ciar MacLeod.

*

Be yourself; everyone else is already taken.’ Oscar Wilde

Chapter 1

Isobel’s Ordinary Day

Some people have dark circles under their eyes after a big night out clubbing; dancing, drinking and literally letting everything hang out; but I had done nothing more desperate than have home-made Mushroom Stroganoff with spaghetti noodles, and an over-ripe pear. The strongest drink I’d imbibed that night, was a cup of Yorkshire Tea, and believe me, a spoon would stand up in the cup on its own if left to brew for longer than twenty seconds. As I peered into the bathroom mirror that morning I was taken aback with the pathological dark circles under my eyes. These were not the gentle smudges borne by gentle born ladies in Victorian Romance novels who would, on encounter of anything slightly stressful, faint dead away and suffer pretty smudges under their eyes which would have the males dancing attendance on them. What I saw in my mirror were dark rings symptomatic of a wasting malady or infectious disease. I rubbed blearily at the mirror in case it was dirty. But, alas, no it was clean, and the dark circles were unfortunately real, and the healthy brown locks that usually swung down around my face, now hung like dry, unbending straw about my shoulders. I did not have a demanding baby, hectic family life, mortgage or addictive vice to blame—just a lack of decent sleep caused by two small, but rambunctious dogs owned by Findlay the writer from next door called, Hetty and Harry.

These all-nighters were starting to become unbearable. Findlay: nerdy, semi-famous author, has been sympathetic enough on the innumerable occasions I’ve marched bleary-eyed to his door to complain about his dogs. He has not, however, been considerate enough to act on my newest suggestion of leaving them in a cardboard box with two air holes, on the Doggie Shelter doorstep.

That morning, as I strode determinedly to his door, I must have looked a picture, but in contrast, Findlay's own dark, healthy brown hair fell carelessly over his clear, sleep-refreshed eyes behind a pair of Dolce Gabbana prescription glasses. The twitch at the corners of his wide mouth did nothing for my normally even temper. My mother would disagree about my having a normally even temper but then, being disagreeable is evidently part of her job description. My new friend, Priya, who lives a few houses away in a large, noisy house including her aunt and a clutch of rangy cousins, is fortunate enough to have a mother with a temperament to rival the most Holy of Saints. Nothing fazes the woman; not burning cakes, missed appointments, family troubles, lost things or money worries. The woman even gave Priya driving lessons! Priya took six times to get her driver’s licence and she was responsible for ruining two clutches and causing minor damage to multiple parts of the sleek navy Audi 3. What I would give for my mother to be half as calm as Mrs. Chakrabarti.

Once, last year, despairing over my faults, my mother had invited me for morning tea, but on arrival I discovered that our priest, Father Thomas Faircloth from Saint Mary and All the Angel’s parish had also been invited; unbeknownst to the poor man, to discuss my temper and attitude. My sins apparently included; losing my cool with her (over her gossip), and not volunteering to bake for the mid-week charity stall, (which took place while I was in work). Father Tom had tactfully pointed out that some of the saints had been head-strong, but my mother had retorted that I was no saint and the only place I was going, was a one-way ticket to purgatory. Apparently, Father Tom has been heard asking about early retirement since my mother’s increasingly eager presence in all things parish-related.

Presently, I finished my complaint to Findlay O’Connell; semi-famous author, and, as usual, received placatory, soothing noises about things getting better but with no actual promises to stop those horrid little hounds of hell from making my life so miserable. I had a lot of self-pity that day and felt unsure as to whether I should rage or cry. I did neither. I simply turned on my heel; ‘heel’ equalling: sensible, slip-on Sketchers after having been reduced to flats due to extreme tiredness and loss of balance.

So, I left the writer on the step looking like a vaguely bewildered child as he absently scratched his arm and muttered something about red wine. Ignoring him, I narrowed my eyes and shut the black wrought iron gate under the arch full of tiny rose-like flowers as he waved half-heartedly. I did a double-take. Yep, I saw right; he actually waved as though I’d just dropped by for a neighbourly chat. What was it he had said about ‘red wine’? It wasn’t even nine in the morning! I wondered if he was a bit of a closet drinker and wanted me gone so he could get himself leathered. Writers and artsy people had always scared me a little; just what did they do behind closed doors, and what prompted their insane creativeness? Creativeness was such a strange and powerful state of being and I simply was unable to fathom or define it. These people always seemed a little vague, unpredictable and mystical as though they had advanced knowledge of life that they were not willing to share with the rest of us mortals. I shivered, thinking of their obscure statues; large, looming, indefinable paintings, towers of half-written manuscripts, guitar players sitting in parks writing songs or poets seeking some obscure muse.

On my short walk back home, I considered my situation. What was I expecting Findlay to do about the dogs? Murder them in their doggie beds one night after they had all sat down to eat popcorn and watch 101 Dalmatians? Have their voice-boxes removed? Obviously, I was not this callous, but if this nightly torment did not stop, I would soon end up non-compos mentis. I would never have myself a decent life looking like a warmed-up cadaver.

Realising I was going to be late for work again, I legged it into my garage, pretending in my haste not to see my bike leaning miserably against the garage wall amidst broken drawers and clusters of lively dust bunnies, tools I did not remember ever buying and a lot of mysterious, quite possibly, empty boxes. The bike I had bought in one of the college’s payback scheme in one of their latest attempts at getting us all to be healthy. We all thought it imaginative of them at the time and had spent ages in the staff-room poring over the catalogues to choose the most sophisticated sounding brand and colour. Mine was a handsome, tangerine Muddyfox Universal Classic Ladies bike. I had ridden it rather shakily around the block once and vowed earnestly to the bike that I would start riding it one day.

The bike suddenly caught sight of me and edged pathetically closer as I lifted the heavy garage door. I avoided all eye contact with it and hurriedly threw my bag into the car whilst squeezing myself awkwardly in the constricted space. I dared not turn back after I closed the garage door; knowing I would see the wretched thing up at the window scratching its handlebars desperately on the glass. ‘Come back…’ it would cry, ‘You never, ever ride me, why the heck did you buy me only to leave me locked up day in, day out. Come baaack!’ Screek, scratch…

At the edge of the village, the hedges seemed to close in on me, and I narrowly missed Horsey Man, who as usual was leading a jumpy stallion out across the road where it skittered in an alarming manner; its owner giving me the stink-eye. Somehow the pull of the quiet village was lost on me, and even the birdsong I usually found so sweet could not soothe my wearied soul.

*

‘Isobel! What happened to your eyes?’

I fingered one of my eyes in surprise. Oh God…I had Subconjunctival Haemorrhages; those awful blood clots that fill the eyes blood-red. I hadn’t even had a chance to get married, have kids, do up a kitchen and bathroom or go on expensive package holidays when my children grew up. Then I remembered my dark circles in testament to Findlay’s dogs ruining my life. ‘Sharon!’ I snapped tetchily. ‘Don’t scare me like that.’

She shuffled her folders sideways to peer intently into my face. ‘Well, it looks to me like someone was out on the tear last night!’ Sparkling blue eyes blinked out of a fresh face, impeccably glossy auburn hair and a huge, dimpled smile.

It was at that horrible moment I realised I had forgotten the big make-up/cover-up plan. ‘Out on the tear? God, I wish!’ I hissed, pushing her back out of my personal space to check my In-Tray. ‘Those blasted dogs next door kept me awake again last night.’ I looked around in vain for someone with a generous sized make-up bag, but they were all disappearing for classes. I hung my head in a shame that only another woman would understand, and Eleanor McEvoy’s rendition of ‘Only a Woman’s Heart’ ran through my head: ‘My heart is low, my heart is so low, as only a woman’s heart can be…’ I looked longingly at the faded green chairs in our staffroom, wondering if I could crawl under them and sleep for a little while after everyone had gone. Would anyone even notice that I had gone? I swayed slightly in longing until Sharon’s voice broke into my clouded thoughts.

‘A couple of little doggies can’t be that bad, Isobel? Oh, hiya, Daniel!’ she sang cheerfully. The woman was forever happy; short, slim and squeaky clean, her ex-husband, Brian, a bland faced, older guy had unexpectedly left her for an equally old, cuddly woman with a decidedly pronounced puppet-mouth he had met at work. But Sharon still found joy in everything she saw which was perpetually irritating for the rest of us mortals. What had she meant by ‘a couple of little doggies can't be that bad?’ Was she insinuating that I ordinarily arrived for work looking like I had just returned from auditioning for Zombie Apocalypse? Horror of all horrors…had she said, ‘Daniel’?

‘Daniel?’ I squeaked in dismay, turning to see him striding in—all six foot five of him; blonde-hair, hazel eyes with mysterious dark flecks in the iris. I could not face Daniel Kelly today looking like I had done a few rounds in the ring with Belfast Featherweight, Carl Frampton, nor spending time in the classroom with the wild things in his Engineering class. But I had little choice now as he had spotted me and so, smiling grimly and clutching my folders, I soldiered on. I would have plenty of time after dinner tonight to murder Findlay the Writer and commit double canicide.

Slumping down onto a stool in the classroom, I stared wearily for a moment at the table, where ‘Hayden’ had scratched his name in testament to an ‘effing boring lesson,’ and began to write up some notes for my morning target group. These boys were supposed to be able to do advanced mathematics, though some of this lot had either cheated on their entry exams or had presumably forgotten everything they had ever learned in school. I really do not know how they managed to get into the college’s Engineering courses.

As the door opened, I looked up, praying the light would not show how awful I looked. ‘Hi Dan…’ But it was a scowling Frank Thiddle, the Maintenance tutor. Mr. Twiddle, as we called him behind his back, was a replica of Blyton’s bumbling fool only with a mean streak. I jumped in alarm; my jaw slung open, and eyes blinking like a goldfish caught in a filter-tube.

‘He’s going out on a course today.’ Frank Thiddle smiled crookedly; an eerie sight to behold with his perfectly even dentures in a craggy, round face sporting brown, aluminium spectacles surrounded by tufty, steel grey hair.

As my jaw snapped tightly shut, I bit my tongue and cursed as the wild things suddenly appeared at the door with a terrifying clatter.

*

Findlay the Writer

There were times I did not know just where to put my face, or hands when they were not typing out a manuscript or writing something to keep the internet readers happy. My agent assures me I am making sufficient money, but it seems polite to keep the readers happy. After publishing twenty-four novels, I am a virtual baby in the industry; my books mainly Historical Mysteries set in the Highlands, and Victorian London along with a few Meditative Self-Help books for people like me, with Asperger’s. I have written articles for the Scottish Rambler, Country Gardens, Luna Luna and even one small entry in the New York Times. My blog is quite successful and has a surprising two hundred and thirty-four thousand subscribers. When I consider this number of people spending time to sit and read words I have written, it is unfathomable.

I write because I love it; not for the money, for I have most things I need, however there are other things that seem rather elusive to me and writing fills the void and connects me to the real world for a time when I can pretend that I am normal.

I’ve been an author of some sort for all my life, or it surely seems that way, for I am so engrossed in my writing that I find it difficult to remember what day, month and even year it is let alone exactly how old I am. And to what matter is age anyway? I feel a thousand years old some days and then in another moment like a small, innocent child in a universe of stars; God the puppeteer – dangling the planets around our tiny earth like an almighty magician with the power of life and death as the sum of our existence.

Up until January fifteenth last year, everything seemed good in my life because I had family that loved me. As I mentioned, I have Asperger’s Syndrome and have learned to accept that my eccentricities and difficulties are an essential part of me. But, on that inauspicious day, my mother and father had a short holiday planned to Scotland to visit her sister, Aunt Elena and Uncle Archie. An hour after they had set off on their journey, and as I worked diligently away to meet my editor’s deadline, my parents were involved in a terrifying and fatal accident. No-one could tell me why the boom-gates failed to lower, nor why they did not hear the signal or approaching train, however the outcome was the final piece of their living.

A few days after their funeral, still in a state of physical shock, I drove to the crossing and had sat in my car staring at the exact place where they had left the earth. I sat in the silence of the airless car, feeling a gaping nothingness that had suddenly opened in my world. Morbidly, I imagined myself edging forward and looking up to see the Great Western Freight Train hurtling down upon me with such velocity that I would be able to think no further than what I was looking upon before it smashed me to oblivion and I became a star hurtling through the universe in that strange world of some everlasting dream.

The appalling loss in my world is harder than anything I have ever had to cope with. They should have been around when I met the right girl, to help me sort my wedding and to congratulate me on the birth of my babies. I always assumed they would be there to help us look after our children and to tell me whom in the family they resembled as the years wore on. I wanted the years to pass slowly for them and to be there for them when they grew old. Now, I just float about the days in some vague and obscure fashion where reality comes and goes like the fleeting lifespan of a vagrant dragonfly in a sweetened spring.

In a superfluous attempt at feeling part of humanity, yesterday, I dragged myself along to the cinema. I could never see the sense in watching something that could be read in a book; for did the mind not facilitate its own such remarkable feats of production without Steven Spielberg’s assistance? Did it not also serve to fit within the confines of one’s life without having to go anywhere, pay anyone, line up or listen to people around you calling out inappropriately, snickering, and crunching on ridiculously, over-priced and unhealthy snacks? Dr. Seuss had it right when he said, “Hollywood is not suited for me, and I am not suited for it.

Presently, I juggled the small tub of popcorn I had bought out of duty, as though yearning for normality. As I waited for the time of my film to draw near enough to risk going in, I sunk low into a soft chair in front of a large Harry Potter poster and watched the neurotypical folk about their business. I sat quietly, occasionally picking at the popcorn though could not for the life of me understand the attraction of something that smelled like burnt fingernails. Besides that, the health risks of such things were difficult to justify. The ingredient, diacetyl has disturbing properties. Not only can it pass through the blood-brain barrier intended to help keep toxins out of your brain but can cause brain proteins to misfold into the Alzheimer's-linked form known as beta amyloid. So, watching people happily munching away on their popcorn frightened me senseless. I wanted to run and knock the large containers out of their children’s hands and scream about the dangers. But I did no such thing. Instead, I sat waiting for time to swipe its terrifying fingers across the face of the clock. I made a pretence that I was waiting for someone, making frequent, obvious checks on my father’s Bell & Ross watch. A few people stopped to gaze at the poster behind me into Harry’s newest, frightening world. I wondered if I made a face or some peculiar noise would they suddenly see me, or rather was I doomed to be a part of the furniture and remain as unknown and unremarkable as anyone could ever be? I suddenly felt a presence; an icy hand touched my face, and I stiffened. I was not afraid, but mildly surprised, for it was the first time my ghost had left the house with me. I had always assumed she’d had some connection with the house I lived in, but now, this changed things. I ignored her, for what was one to do with a ghost in public?

I knew she was a female for I had seen her shadowy form more than once. She had started to visit just before my parent’s death as though to warn me. I was unafraid, as I had spent much time in Scotland in the ancestral home over which my Aunt Elena and Uncle Archie had guardianship until I, the next owner, would one day take over. Paranormal events occasionally happened there, but it was one of those things of which one did not speak.

Presently, the ghost, annoyed at my rebuttal, made a speedy departure and the temperature returned to normal. I turned uncomfortably, crossing and uncrossing my legs as I watched the young man serving the food at the refreshment counter. The lad was a new employee, for he’d had that haunted look – appealing to someone; anyone, to tell him that soon he would be as proficient as the next kid while making clumsy, unpractised movements. His questions and answers to the customers were stilted and they rolled their eyes in exasperation, adding to his pain. He was, I noticed, like me for a short while, although his misery was temporary. Mine, however, was a lifetime sentence mapped out before me as slowly as the second hand ticked its way past each stroke that marked each single, agonising second which quantified my life.

Finally, it was time to go in and find a seat before I was swallowed into the darkened abyss; before I drove my own self mad with my imaginings. Settling myself in the cinema, juggling my book under my arm, popcorn and water bottle, I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. Two tall, but bent elderly women sat nearby, staring crossly at me for some unknown reason; their mouths opening and closing like a pair of large sea trout. Perhaps they knew I did not belong, for the very young and the very old are much closer to the veil of the after-life.

I pretended to look for something to distract myself from their unwelcome censure and scrabbled within my pockets seeking something elusive; the meaning of life? A book on the Rules of Social Etiquette for those who were not born with it tucked neatly under their arm? No, for those things have always eluded me and even though there are times when it seems I may suddenly have done something the right way, I have only to turn and look at the path behind me to know the truth of the matter; that I was as inept as I felt.

Speaking of books, I had forgotten mine as it lay carelessly on my lap in the half-light. Surrounded by popcorn and carnival-like advertisements booming and racing around the big screen, my book seemed exposed and out of place. Hot on my legs, it begged me to take it away from this incongruity. I picked it up gently for want of anything better to do with my hands, ignoring its indignant murmurings and thumbing the pages so I could read quietly and escape my torture for a few moments in this peculiar place. I sunk deeply and quickly into that familiar world; felt the wind tearing at my clothes as Iestyn Morgan stood by the cliff watching the fleet of tall ships leave the horizon. I felt his sword begin to sing a strange, sad song which caught the wind by the tails and refuse to allow him thought for anything else save the damning truth that he was utterly alone. I felt his heartbeat and became one with him until the thrumming of it so filled my ears that I awakened into the cinema and realised my book had somehow tumbled to the floor.

*

The only true wisdom is in knowing you know nothing.’ Socrates

Chapter 2

Isobel’s Accidental Meeting

After the sun had gone down, I found myself unusually wistful. I would not be seeing Daniel on Monday as he was going to be out on the course for the rest of the week. I was thoughtful as I considered my feelings for him. What exactly did he mean to me? I found that I was unable to categorise my feelings; strange for me, as I had never really found myself analysing my relationships with men before this. I did not think what I had with Daniel was true love, at least not yet, If was not love, what was it? I sighed. I had always felt as though I was missing something integral in the same category as the M

eaning of Life which I doubt had anything to do with love. I wondered if I was looking for something that simply was not there; that people only ever dreamed about and wasted a lot of time, energy and money seeking. I was unusually restless and did not like this feeling at all.

Hetty and Harry were oddly quiet, and I found the silence unnerving. I found myself on edge waiting to hear them - to hear Findlay’s familiar voice cajoling, scolding and singing to them; all which usually occurred with monotonous regularity just when I was sitting down to my tea to watch Big Bang Theory or Judge Judy. They had become one with the white-noise in my life at home.

I sat at my four-seater dining table with its rickety leg, to eat my spaghetti, leek and spinach; washing it down with a tall glass of cold, green tea. Listlessly, I flicked through my emails and Facebook then wandered restlessly over to the window to watch the coming of night in the overwhelming silence.

The sky was cloaked in a twilight mantle in layered hues of lilac and dusky shades of pink softening into the last burnt orange rays of sunlight; making me want to believe in magic. My life was suddenly balancing on the edge of something I could not fathom. I slid my fingers absently down the cool glass.

Lights were on in Findlay’s kitchen window and if I stood on tip-toes I could see above the tall hedge to see him at his table. He sat very still; his head cast forlornly downwards. I was bemused to find that it worried me, seeing him like that. He was always so…what? Dependable, odd? Friendly? Handsome? I widened my eyes at that last thought; swooshing it away into the night. I had enough trouble trying to understand this blossoming relationship with Daniel. As I glanced at the tableau below, a sudden fleeting movement in an upstairs window caught my eye. There was someone there! I felt a cold shiver of fear. Findlay rarely had visitors. The figure had moved past the window, but far too quickly for my eyes to register it properly and I wondered if I had imagined it. But I had the impression – and that was all it was, of a woman in a flash of soft blue clothing.

At that moment, I dropped my gaze back to the writer and for some unknown reason, Findlay looked up, unsmiling and saw me staring, so I stared boldly back. I held his gaze for a few moments until he resumed his forlorn pose. Impulsively, I decided to go down to see what the matter was, after all, we did share a common bond; the daily routine of life—eating, washing, cleaning etcetera. I grabbed an empty container to use for an excuse of needing something. I would also find out who he had staying in the house. Good grief, I was growing more like my mother.

‘Err…can you spare some ah…sugar?’ Findlay’s door had opened without the usual barking and I found myself a bit cross that something might have happened without my knowledge.

‘Sugar?’ He looked mystified, as though I had asked him how many miles it was from Earth to the moon; although from what I knew of him, he probably knew the answer. Then, he was with me. ‘Yeah, sure…’ he drawled, and seemed somewhat happier. He stood aside to motion me inside. He wore a dark, unkempt and moody look with an earthy-coloured handknit jumper with light blue jeans and bare feet. I stared for a second longer than necessary at his feet; long, narrow with clean, clipped nails.

Awkwardly, I stepped into his house for the first time and hovered by a cream, shabby chic hall table which held a Delft blue vase, a landline phone, a bunch of keys and two library books. I peered slyly at the titles to see what kind of person he was by what he was reading. All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr, and on the top, was The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz. They say you can tell a lot about a person by what they have on their bookshelf, though I personally had little appreciation outside of my own, vague taste in books. I’m not sure what I expected him to be reading; perhaps A Dog’s Life, or Old Yella.

Findlay stood in front of me; expectantly, and I slid my gaze away from the books, hoping he would not want to discuss our favourite authors; for I would have to tell him Marian Keyes, Cathy Kelly and Jodi Taylor. I shuffled past him in the close space. You’re quite handsome, I thought admiringly, but you must never date a neighbour; it would be almost incestuous.

‘Am I?’ I heard him say behind me.

‘Are you what?’ He was also obviously losing his marbles, I thought, standing in his lounge room. He really was odd. I would have to watch him. I should not have come.

‘You said, you’re quite handsome,’ he replied; amused.

Good grief! I had said that aloud? I turned my reddening face away from him. ‘I said no such thing!’ I stated. ‘Where are the dogs?’ I demanded, swiftly changing the subject; dropping my empty Tupperware container on the table and looking around the room for the monsters—sure that any minute they would bound up to protect their territory.

Findlay picked up the container; lightly caressing it, but when he spoke it was in riddles, ‘Chance is always powerful. Let your hook be always cast; in the pool where you least expect it, there will be a fish.’ He had a vague, unintentional smile.

‘Findlay, did you say something about fish?’ I asked, mystified. He really would need to be careful or he would find himself in Ty Catrin. I knew someone who found themselves there once a long time ago; a man who had taken to speaking about important matters to light-poles in the street near my family home. Everybody had understandably called him, Lampy and he had begun to get quite frightening once he started waving a large, antique samurai sword about the place. When they took him away, he became a kind of a legend in our street. ‘Come away in off the street now,’ our Mams would call when it was getting dark outside and we were still riding our bikes. ‘Mrs. Gant saw Lampy about, yesterday…’ We were uncertain but could never be sure they were not telling us the truth and so would scatter inside immediately.

‘It was written by Ovid,’ replied Findlay, shaking his head slowly; possibly at my apparent ignorance. ‘Coffee?’

Ovid? Who on earth was he and why was he writing about fish? I wondered, making a mental note to look up this person when I got home. It did not sit right with me when people said things I did not understand, and I had a secret penchant to learn as much as I could about everything. I would not like other people to know this about me, for I feel I am lacking in some way. It is also because I spent most of my school-years daydreaming. I did not like school, and I made only just enough effort to pass my exams; no more, no less. But lately, that fact has been returning to me. They say that things always come back around to bite you and this, I feel is true. I was lost in thought and heard Findlay’s voice again.

‘Isobel…do you want a coffee?’ he repeated patiently.

‘I’m sorry, I was miles away. I’d prefer tea, actually.’ As he headed towards the kitchen, I had a sudden thought. ‘Findlay, who have you got staying with you?’ I asked boldly. I felt I should have been privy to this information, after all, we were neighbours and it really was my right to know who was coming and going. God in Heaven. I really, really was turning into my mother. But the words were already out, and I simply must know who it was. The thought of a secret girlfriend annoyed me, although I could not say why.

‘Staying with me?’ He appeared puzzled.

‘I…I saw someone from my window. Upstairs.’ My heart was beating fast in embarrassment. ‘I.I was cleaning my curtains…’ I blushed again, wondering if he realised that did not have curtains on that window. But he seemed more perplexed that I had seen someone, rather than trying to catch me out. He was genuinely surprised…God…did he have a burglar up there right now? I looked towards the stairs and Findlay’s eyes followed mine. He frowned but did not move.

‘Go and check!’ I hissed. Honestly, did nothing ruffle this guy?

He smiled lopsidedly at me and grabbed a walking stick from his umbrella stand at the door; creeping up the stairs. I shook my head, certain he was not taking me seriously. Seconds passed slowly, and I heard nothing but the ticking clock. Suddenly I heard a thumping sound and a door slam. My heart almost stopped. It was a burglar, and they were murdering Findlay right now! I stood and prepared to run from the house. I would call the police, but I was going to call from the safety of my own house. Then, Findlay walked back down the stairs, swishing the stick like a performer.

‘Nope. Nobody thar!’

‘But I know what I saw…’ I said. ‘Seriously, there was somebody, something was in that window. A woman…in pale blue.’ The little hairs on my neck stood up. Something strange was happening in the air. I could feel it.

Findlay shrugged. ‘It was probably just my ghost.’

Your ghost? I thought, alarmed. I had not thought about ghosts. Why would I? As he went off to get the drinks without further explanation, a chill breeze passed by me and a faint breathy sound caressed the back of my neck. I turned sharply, but nothing was there. I found myself shivering; unable to move or speak, for had I been able to, I would have left right then and there.

Soon Findlay was back, hot drinks in hand and a look of melancholy writ upon his angelic face and I rubbed my chilled arms; thankful that I was able to move again. He was probably kidding me about the ghosts; he was a writer, after all. Yes, he was an odd, awkward sort of fellow, sometimes reminding me of a young teenager in a man’s body. He plonked two coffees down on the table; managing to spill quite a lot on the faded, white linen tablecloth that was embroidered with tiny, delicate flowers; looking suspiciously like a family heirloom. My mother would have had an apoplexy. I did not remind him that I’d asked for tea. He stood near me but did not move to sit. ‘The dogs are away,’ he said abruptly, and I forgot about the ghost and the ruined heirloom.

Dogs away? ‘Away where exactly?’ I asked in suspicion, thinking what a random thing it was for him to come out with. The coffee was hot in my mouth, but I needed to warm myself as a vague trickle of awareness began to open on the periphery of my ordinary days. There had begun a tiny, infinitesimal crack of uncertainty in my world, which, unbeknownst to me would change everything. My head swayed.

Findlay pursed his lips. ‘I’ve taken them to the kennels,’ he said quietly.

I watched him carefully, and saw an unreadable expression move fleetingly across his face and became absorbed as his lips caressed the rim of his mug. I felt a stab of unexpected arousal but quickly exhaled an irritated breath at my lapse. We were quiet for a few moments while he allowed me to contemplate the significance of this fact.

Then, a thought struck me: People sending their dogs to the kennels usually meant only one thing. ‘Ah, you’re going on holidays then?’ I was not keen on him going away. Neighbours were supposed to share the days of boredom, like the two-year olds in playgroup who did not play with others but liked the security of knowing others played nearby. I folded my arms, impatiently awaiting his destination – green with envy before my ears had heard further utterance. I wanted to be the one going somewhere exotic; for him to be the jealous one watching me wave goodbye with my new straw hat and UV400 Tortoiseshell Raybans as my Airport Taxi drew up at the kerb outside my house. I wanted to be the one noticing the curtains of jealous neighbours shuffle as they caught a glimpse of me with my colourful, beachy holdall and wheelie bag heading off to Greece for two fabulous weeks to stay in a villa and lay about on the deck of a yacht owned by a Greek playboy I had met. I was lost for several moments in my fantasy until Findlay gave an impatient cough.

Where would a guy like him go, I wondered crossly. Spain…? No, Ibiza, Greek Islands, caving in Hungary? The truth of the matter was I did not know much about him at all, so it was virtually impossible to guess.

‘I’m taking them up to Aunty Elena in Scotland.’

‘Holidays…in Scotland?’ I repeated; perplexed, attempting to fathom this unexpected twist. ‘Going to family doesn’t count as a holiday, you know,’ I said, smiling; relieved that he was

at least not going to be holidaying somewhere exotic. I relaxed a little until I saw his glum look return.

‘You honestly don’t know why?’ he asked in a voice quieter than the stealthy, cold breeze which had returned; curling up my legs and torso; a viper waiting to strike me in the heart. For a split-second I was overcome with a mixed feeling of terror and of familiarity, like I had known him a long time ago, but before I could make any sense of it, it had faded into the question he had asked. I stared into his eyes; a deep, khaki green which matched his jumper perfectly, although I doubted whether he gave the matter of matching anything much more thought than grabbing it off a chair because he was cold. Time was passing in front of my eyes. I heard an old clock ticking somewhere close but could not see a clock. Awareness began to filter through my thoughts.

‘Wait!’ I cried; a suspicion had arisen; a creeping sense of guilt that nurtured my own insecurities. ‘Are you getting rid of your parents’ dogs?’ I saw him watching me intently; his expression inscrutable. He fiddled with his ring – a thick band of sterling silver etched with Celtic patterns.

While I yet live to look upon the face of the earth,’ he said, sadly.

Those words fell over me; swathed my body like a blanket to warm me in the face of my cold guilt. ‘Ovid?’ I asked, uncertainly. He had not answered my question…or had he? He sat down and leaned in close - too close and I smelled the coffee on his outward breath among his male scent. I noticed the way his lower lip protruded slightly, and my insides trembled. Unable to help myself, I leaned forward waiting; suddenly mesmerised by this man I did not really know at all.

‘Homer; The Iliad,’ he said softly, staring into my eyes, then, abruptly, he sat back and broke the spell. ‘One of his greatest works.’ Gulping down the last of his coffee, he dropped the empty mug heavily on the table, causing me to flinch and I sat back in embarrassment. I was starting to realise with a trickle of unease that I had not been a very nice neighbour. This had been an unsettling experience, but as to what was the most unsettling, I could not have said.

‘Findlay, you aren’t doing this because of me...are you?’ I did not want him to speak because I already knew the answer. My constant, selfish complaints had caused him to give away the only living things his parents had left behind. The all-night barking sessions seriously had to stop, but was this the best way? Suddenly, I felt my eyes sting and knew I was going to cry. I had not cried since my father buried Mr. Pookypoo, our big, marmalade cat who hid our dirty socks around the house and consistently used Dad’s vegetable garden as his own personal litter tray no matter the tactics he had used to combat the cat-carnage. It had been a war that had lasted between them for several years, but even Dad shed a few tears that day.

Impulsively I stood up, almost knocking over my mug, stammering a pathetic sort of, ‘Sorry…goodbye.’ Findlay the Writer, Quoter of Ovid and Homer did not say anything; his large, pouty lips did not move at all. He hated me, I was sure of it. My body wracked with emotions that filled my eyes with the unshed tears so abnormal for a selectively shallow person like me. I hurried through the hallway, bumping into the umbrella stand and threw open the front door, sucking in the cold, late Autumn air as the tears finally tumbled out onto my burning face. I navigated the front step, half-blinded by tears and felt my ankle twist unexpectedly. I became horribly unbalanced and felt myself lurching helplessly sideways, plummeting in slow-motion over the side through two, bright-blue Fuchsia pots and down four feet into the pile of bricks that were stacked against a wall and into a world of exploding, black pain.

*

I was dead. I could feel nothing, hear nothing and saw nothing but a deep, white fog swirling around me until the blackness swirled around me again and I was gone. After some time, or no time at all, a soothing, male voice spoke close to my ear.

‘Isobel…please, please try to stay awake. The ambulance is on its way.’ An awful keening was coming out of me and I realised that there was an unbearable, horrendous pain in my leg. I pushed opened my eyes blearily to see a face swaying inches away from me and pressing something onto my head. It was Findlay. A strange woman appeared behind him, and I realised through a haze of excruciating pain that it was the woman I had seen in Findlay’s upstairs window, and her expression showed terror; her hands covering her mouth. ‘Fin…she’s there.’ I tried to tell him, but the pain overwhelmed me, and I was lost again to the swirling fog.

*

Isobel confused me with her confidence and yet once in my house she seemed suddenly a little insecure. I was slightly consumed by her. Each time she made a complaint about the dogs, I saw a chink in her armour and thought her visits were also having some effect on chipping away at my own shell. I wondered did she realise how much alike we were in some ways, and what that meant? Obviously, she did not have Aspergers, but she was insecure and had built a wall around her emotions – I expected it was to protect herself from hurt.

Over coffee, I had pretended that I was rehoming Hetty and Harry. The plan was to drop them off to Aunt Elena’s for a few months. Secretly, I was hoping my family would want to keep them, because they were more trouble for me than I needed; I had enough trouble looking after myself, let alone my parents’ dogs. But when Isobel became upset, I changed my mind; I had not wanted to hurt her, so I went after her with the intention of telling her it was only for a few months, to give her a break but, a few feet away from my front door, she suddenly disappeared over the side where the broken railing I had never fixed was meant to be. I will remember her terrifying scream for ever and ever.

Down on the ground a few seconds later, I groped in my pocket for a wad of clean tissues to hold onto her bleeding head, careful not to move her leg which was obviously badly broken. I phoned for an ambulance and mechanically gave them my address. I watched her moaning and crying, and kept her still until she passed out again whilst hearing the piercing wail of help closing in.

But what was this strangeness I was feeling, this tangible sense of grounding reality? My mind kept replaying the awful scene over and over. Normally, these things did not penetrate the thick layer of Autism that overlaid my emotions. Oh, believe me, I had emotions but I had such a hyper-sensitivity to them that they were automatically buried deeply. I also had a lot of trouble in expressing my emotions – like people who stutter, cannot get the words out. The words are there, just getting them out is difficult.

So, as I waited there for the ambulance, holding poor Isobel, I experienced a peculiar thing: the metaphorical cloak I had been hiding under since the death of my parents dropped into a pool of nothing onto the ground around me. It was like putting on glasses after being half-blind for a long time and the clarity of thought was so unbelievably welcome that I cried. The paramedics were sympathetic, assuming Isobel was my girlfriend and I was upset because of her horrible accident.

As the ambulance sped off up the road, I became aware of Mrs. Allen standing close by, staring at me with bright-eyed concern as I stood helplessly on the kerb. I realised a small crowd had gathered and wondered how long they had been there.

‘How on earth did she fall, my boy?’ she asked me, rubbing my arm sympathetically; her warm touch penetrating through the layers of fog.

I gave her a wobbly story about how Isobel had come to borrow some sugar and had fallen on her way out.

‘Did you have an argument?’ she asked, frowning.

I thought about this. ‘No.’ It was not an argument, but it had been undefinably wrong. How could I explain that I had made Isobel feel guilty for something she was not responsible for, and that she had left my house in a panic and horrifically injured herself on the way out?

Mrs. Allen stared at me for a moment, her old rheumy eyes seeking the truth in mine. I knew that people could see everything in a person’s eyes, and this often left me feeling vulnerable and overwhelmed, so I looked down at her feet; clad in blue, fluffy-lined crocs. ‘The sugar…?’ she asked, looking around. I gazed up vaguely, knowing she was looking around for the spilt sugar container which would verify my story.

I squirmed. ‘She…left it on the table.’ I stood forlornly…guiltily.

She seemed aware that this was not as straight forward as it should be but nodded her head at my silence. ‘Well,’ she sighed. ‘These things happen.’ She gripped my shoulder with surprising strength. ‘Be sure to let me know how she is, please. She’s a lovely girl, Isobel, but she needs to stop running about the place. She needs somebody like you,’ she murmured.

‘Well, she won’t be running anywhere for a while,’ I muttered unhelpfully. I began to feel some real concern about Isobel and noticed my hands were trembling.

Mrs. Allen noticed too. ‘It’s the shock, you know. Come over for a cup of warm, sweet tea. It will do you good.’

I shook my head, full of guilt rather than shock. It all seemed like a good idea at the time. I hoped and prayer that Isobel would never find out, or she would hate me. ‘Maybe later, thank you, Mrs. Allen. You’re so kind.’ She had been awfully nice to me after my parents’ accident…but I could not think of anything now except Isobel.

‘Will you go and stay with her then?’ she was saying. ‘She’ll need someone there with her and seeing as though you’re such good friends...’

Such good friends? After she had gone, I stared down at the place where Isobel had lain injured and thought I had better get moving before my cloak had time to start folding itself around me once again; shutting out the real world. It was then that my knees had begun to tremble, and the nausea rose in my throat and I knew I was going to be sick.

*

Doubt thou the stars are fire, doubt that the sun doth move. Doubt truth to be a liar, but never doubt I love.’ William Shakespeare; Hamlet’s letter to Ophelia.

Chapter 3

Findlay’s Grand Plan

Chrysanthemums, disinfectant and hot food filled my nose as I struggled to emerge from my unconscious state. Vague sounds drifted languidly in the air around me and I became aware that my body felt quite leaden yet comfortable. I heard other sounds; the repetitive ring of an unanswered phone, more voices; brisk and business-like, the squeak of shoes on a polished floor, the beeping of a monitor, a clatter, shuffling, muted voices in the distance and a crisp, bored voice over a tannoy requesting the presence of a Doctor Flugibard or whomever.

Doctor…? I was in the hospital? I was having trouble remembering what day it was and how I came to be here. Car accident? Perhaps I’d had an accident at work, although the most dangerous thing that had happened at the college was when one of the Engineering students was hurrying back to his work desk wielding a large pair of specialty Wiss-snips in a slightly unsafe manner.

My head was dizzy, and my left leg immobilised; moving it caused excruciating pain. I cried out; scared to open my eyes. If I could not stand this pain, how would I ever give birth to my babies? ‘No babies…’ I wailed. ‘I can’t give birth!’ The sound of a vacuum cleaner started up further down the hall and I heard the desperate cry of a young baby as if in objection to my fears.

‘Birth? Babies?’ said a mellow, male voice quite close to me. ‘You’ve not had a baby, Isobel,’ he chuckled softly. ‘How are you feeling?’

A finger tentatively brushed my cheek. The outline of a man’s face appeared as I tried to open my eyes. I saw him leaning forwards. ‘Daniel?’ I asked hopefully; but it was only Findlay. I probably looked like Medusa and felt sure no one would have thought to bring me a lipstick; something pale to go with the pale pink sheets. I sighed.

‘No,’ said the voice wearily. Wearing a blue knitted jumper and blue jeans with unkempt hair and looking like something the cat dragged in, was the writer.

‘Findlay, I’m sorry about the dogs.’ I slurred, closing my eyes again.

‘Forget about the dogs,’ he ordered gruffly. ‘It’s me who should be apologising to you. It’s you there with a grazed head and a broken leg having fallen over my steps with the broken hand rail.’

So, it was true! I snapped my eyes open and struggled to sit, but Findlay reached over to stop me just as I had moved enough to cause a bit more agony. ‘Arghh!’ I cried. My leg felt like it had been mashed in a meat-grinder and my mind conjured a gruesome image of it withered and slashed with bones protruding from an open wound.

Findlay was half-smiling as I watched him through the bleariness, suddenly grateful for a familiar face. He laid me carefully back down. I had called him Daniel. Suddenly I wanted to cry for everything and everyone, but especially for me.

I saw a drip attached to my hand with little tiny flecks of blood in it which made me queasy. Snatches of the horrific ambulance journey, nurses, doctors, being stuck with needles, being shifted from bed to bed and put to sleep began to emerge along with hazy images of being in enormous pain. ‘Did you…help me?’ I asked, feeling my throat raw.

‘Yes.’ He fiddled with his glasses; readjusting them on his nose. ‘You’ll be alright, you know. Here, do you want some water, Isobel?’ He half-stood with his hand hovering over the water jug.

‘Thank you. It must have been awful for you. It was pretty awful for me too.’

‘I know.’ He looked more upset than he should be, but then he was a bit weird.

‘I want coffee…’ I demanded. Sleep was not far away. I wanted…needed something but I was not sure what it was. My life had shifted and left me flapping about like a Wacky Waving Inflatable Arm Flailing Tubeman on a windy afternoon.

Findlay ignored my request for coffee and poured me some water, then carefully lifted my head to the glass. ‘I have measured out my life with coffee spoons,’ he murmured into my hair; his hand was firm on my neck, his voice soothing.

I took a few sips. ‘Homer?’ I asked then, remembering; resting my eyes. It was nice having someone care…even if it was the nerdy writer.

Smiling down at me, he said softly, ‘Eliot.’

‘Thank you for saving me…for the flowers…and for coming.’ I was having trouble staying awake. He sat back down, open-legged with his hands flopped between them, and I felt comforted by this odd man’s presence. I did not have to worry about how I looked for now. Soon enough, Daniel would come galloping in, bearing flowers, chocolates and sympathy. I would have to get someone to bring in my make-up bag. There was a long, but companionable silence and I felt no need to speak. The monitor beeped regularly, comfortingly in the background reassuring me that I was alive.

*

‘What?’ I bellowed like a petulant child, and not a woman whose strange, but kind-hearted neighbour had offered to put her up until her leg was mended. I looked around for a hidden camera. Did they even do Punked in this country? All kind thoughts of Findlay’s rescue were off the table.


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