Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Colton Manor: Chapter One


Ursula St Clare put her paint brush down with a sigh. It was raining again. She could hear it pattering on the roof, faintly at first but growing louder. When she had opened the curtains that morning it was grey and overcast outside, but dry for a change. She’d hoped the rain would hold off so she could go for a walk along the cliff top in the afternoon. Her plan had been to find a path down to the beach where she could do some sketches, but it seemed the bad weather was setting in for the day.

She’d been at Colton Manor for almost a week and she had barely set foot outside during that time. Although it was summer it had rained every single day, and she hadn’t even seen the beach properly yet, apart from the glimpses she caught of it from the window. It looked windswept and freezing, not at all what she imagined it would be like when she and her friends had decided on a whim to rent Colton Manor for the summer holidays several months earlier.

The four of them had been on their way back from a friend from art school’s wedding when they’d stopped in the small coastal town of Paradise on the far north coast of New South Wales, Australia. After a hearty pub lunch the group had gone for a stroll down the main street and Rachel had seen the advertisement in the real estate window for a holiday rental. The house was an historic mansion and none of them had been able to believe how cheap the rent was. Ursula had gone inside to find out if it was a misprint, but the lady behind the desk assured her it was the correct figure.

“Tourism was a bit slow last year and the owner didn’t want the house sitting empty again so he dropped the price,” she said.

“It’s very cheap. Is it true he’s willing to rent it for the whole summer break?”

“Yes, the family have gone overseas and they don’t know when they’ll be back. You might be able to get it for longer if you’re interested.”

“Oh, I’m not really serious,” she replied, stepping back towards the door, “My friends and I couldn’t believe how cheap it was, and we were just curious”

“I see,” said the lady, pursing her lips. She was wearing old fashioned horn-rimmed glasses and her black hair was pulled back severely in a bun. Ursula guessed she was in her fifties. Her sharp nose and features reminded her of a bird.

“Sorry to waste your time.” She was about to step out the door when the lady got up from her desk and walked to the counter.

“Wait a minute, if you’re not in a hurry you can go and have a look at it anyway. I’ll give you the keys. It’s quite impressive and well worth a tour, even if you don’t want to rent it.”

Ursula hesitated. The offer was unusual, but there was no reason why they shouldn’t take a peek. They weren’t in a hurry to get back to the city, and normally she loved looking through old houses. It wasn’t every day an opportunity like this came along, but for some reason she felt no enthusiasm at the prospect. The woman seemed to sense her misgivings.

“At the very least I’ll be able to tell my client that someone viewed it, because we haven’t had any interest yet. You just have to leave some ID with me,” she pressed. “He gets a bit cross when I tell him no one has been through it, as if I’m not doing my job properly.” She laughed shrilly and Ursula noticed it had a hint of desperation to it. She felt sorry for the woman, and reluctantly she went outside to see if her friends were interested.

She had been hoping they’d say no, but Rachel, Dale and Connor jumped at the chance to see inside Colton Manor, and that was how she found herself navigating the winding road around the cliffs towards the huge house a short time later. The weather had been a little overcast when they stopped at Paradise for lunch, but as they made their way to the house it began to rain, and it got heavier as she struggled on the unfamiliar bends.

They’d rented a car for the trip, and Ursula wasn’t familiar with the location of the windshield wipers. When she tried to turn them on she switched on the left blinker instead, and she swore under her breath as they drove into a patch of fog. For a few seconds she couldn’t see a thing, and she was forced to swerve suddenly when a black car flew out of the mist directly towards them. The driver beeped the horn and gestured angrily, and Ursula realized she’d been on the wrong side of the road.

As soon as she could find a safe place on the shoulder of the road she pulled over and took some deep breaths. When she looked around at her friends they were all pale with shock.

“That was a close call,” said Dale, breaking the silence. “Do you want me to drive?”

“Yes, thanks,” replied Ursula, getting out of the car with trembling legs and taking his place in the passenger seat. No one said much as they drew nearer to the mansion, but their close encounter on the road was almost forgotten when they caught sight of the impressive house through the trees. The others began chattering excitedly, but Ursula was overcome with the same unsettled feeling she’d experienced in the real estate office. She told herself it was nerves from the near miss they’d just had, and she tried to join in with the conversation.

“Wow, it’s absolutely beautiful,” exclaimed Rachel, as they drove through the grand iron gates which were open, as if waiting for them, and past the manicured gardens that seemed to stretch on forever. Colton Manor was made of white stone, and although it couldn’t have been more than one hundred and fifty years old, it looked like a castle. “It’s hard to believe we could actually afford to stay here.”

 “Can you imagine the parties we could have?” said Connor. “We could invite everyone from college up for weekends. It would be awesome.” When they stepped through the double front doors into the foyer they were even more impressed. The house was fully restored but most of the original features had been preserved. All of the rooms combined old world charm with modern comforts in an understated way that didn’t detract from the feeling they’d been transported back in time to the mid-nineteenth century.

The misty location of the house had seemed romantic and charming on a winter’s day, and as they’d looked through the rooms and explored the grounds they’d indulged in collective daydreams about how nice it would be here in summer when they could swim on their own private beach and sip cocktails in the gazebo as the sun set.

They all had to submit paintings for a major class exhibition when they returned from summer holidays, and they agreed this would be the perfect place to get some work done. The plans, which had started out as a lark, became more serious as they drove home, and by the time she dropped Rachel and Connor off in front of their student share house the four of them had agreed to rent Colton Manor together for six weeks over summer.

As she was the only one with any spare cash, Ursula had offered to book the house and pay for it on the understanding the other three would pay her back as soon as they could. That had turned out to be her undoing and the reason she now found herself alone in a huge, chilly mansion on a windswept cliff top while nearly everyone else she knew was lapping up the sun. She now knew why the town had struggled to attract summer visitors the previous year; it was because they didn’t seem to have a summer at all.

The room on the second floor that she’d chosen for her studio was especially cold that morning and she couldn’t get the heating to work.  She pulled on the coat she’d brought with her just in case the evenings were chilly, but she’d never seriously expected to wear it. At the thought of the bikini and suntan lotion in her suitcase she gave a grim laugh.  These things would probably never see the light of day while she was here.

She’d been so looking forward to a fun, carefree holiday with her friends that she’d dyed her hair for the occasion. The pink and yellow stripes went perfectly with the vintage sundresses she’d picked up from the charity store, and although her parents told her disapprovingly that she looked like a typical art student, she was proud of her appearance. It annoyed her that no one would get to see these dresses now because she’d probably spend the entire holiday alone dressed in the oversized man’s shirt she always wore when she painted.

Her college friends had assured her that the seclusion would be brilliant for her work and that she’d be so inspired she wouldn’t have time to feel lonely, but in fact, the opposite was true. She’d been unable to focus enough to get any painting done, and the isolation was beginning to play tricks on her mind.

Just that night she’d woken with a start, thinking she heard a man calling to her in the darkness. She knew she had to be dreaming because it had sounded like he was right there in the room with her. She’d still turned on the light to look under the bed and inside the closet, feeling very silly as she did it, but needing to be sure. She hadn’t been able to get back to sleep after that, and now she was tired and unmotivated as she stared at the blank canvass in front of her.

“Hello, is there anyone home?” The voice floated up the stairs, just barely audible above the rain and distant crashing of waves on the rocks. Ursula jumped in shock at the unexpected sound.  Although she’d only been at Colton Manor a short time she’d become accustomed to the silence, and the intrusion seemed harsh and out of place.

She didn’t know anyone in the area, and she felt slightly apprehensive as she made her way downstairs. Through the glass door at the back of the house leading into the kitchen she could see a woman with springy blonde curls standing on the veranda. She was dressed casually in jeans, and in her hand she held a plate with a cake on it. She appeared to be around thirty.

“Hi, I hope you don’t mind me intruding like this.  I live around the point with my family. We’re your closest neighbours. When Yvette from the real estate agency told me you were out here on your own I thought I’d better come and introduce myself. I’m Bonnie Forbes.”

“Oh, thanks, that’s really nice of you. Please come in and I’ll make a fresh pot of coffee. I’m Ursula.” Bonnie hesitated as Ursula held the door open for her.

“Do you mind if we sit outside? The veranda is completely sheltered from the rain.”

“It’s a bit cold don’t you think? I can put the heater on in the kitchen and it will be nice and warm.”

“I’d really prefer to sit outside if that’s okay. Here, this is a welcome gift for you.” She held out the chocolate cake towards her.

“Okay, thanks” said Ursula as she took it. “You go ahead and I’ll be right out.” As she boiled the kettle and cut a piece of cake each, she contemplated the woman’s strange behaviour. The rain was setting in, and it would be very uncomfortable outside, but it was almost as if Bonnie didn’t want to come into the house. She seemed nice enough though, and Ursula could use the company. Grabbing a scarf someone had left in the hall closet she retrieved the tray from the kitchen and went outside to brave the elements. 

Bonnie had made herself comfortable at the table on the veranda and as they chatted amiably Ursula discovered that her neighbour was a school teacher with three young children. She and her husband had moved to the area five years earlier to escape the city grind.

“Please tell me the weather gets better than this. I really don’t want to spend my summer wearing a coat and scarf. My friends will be very glad they couldn’t make it if it rains the whole time I’m here.”

“What happened to your friends, if you don’t mind me asking? Yvette at the real estate agency said a group of you rented the house but the others had backed out after you’d paid. That seems a bit unfair.”

“Oh, it wasn’t their fault. My best friend Rachel was in an accident and she broke her leg. Her boyfriend obviously couldn’t come without her. The other person, Dale, well, he and I had a bit of a thing going but we split up not long ago. It would have been fine if the others had come, but we both agreed that just the two of us would have been a bit awkward.”

“And you couldn’t you find anyone else?”

“No, by the time all this happened everyone had made plans, so I had no choice but to come on my own.”

“How have you found it so far?”

“To be honest it’s a bit lonely, I’m used to being around people all the time, so it’s hard being by myself. I think I’ve started imagining things. I actually thought I heard someone calling me in the middle of the night last night.” She expected Bonnie to laugh, but instead she looked serious, and she didn’t say anything for a moment.

She cleared her throat and looked uncomfortable before she finally spoke. “I really don’t know how to put this, and I don’t want to scare you, but there are rumours about this house that you should know about.”

“What sort of rumours?” Ursula said, drawing in her breath.

“People say it’s haunted.”

 “Aren’t there rumours like that about all old houses? You don’t believe them do you?”  She tried to laugh the comment off, but Bonnie didn’t even crack a smile as she set her coffee mug down on the table.

 “I’m going to be honest with you, Ursula. This isn’t just a social visit. I came here to warn you about the house. The reason the rent is so cheap for the summer is because no one has been able to stay here for more than a week or two. They all leave in a big hurry because they’re scared away. There’s something about it that isn’t right. I felt it the first time I came here, and that’s why I refuse to set foot inside.  

For a moment Ursula didn’t know how to respond, but she remembered the feeling of foreboding she’d had about the house when the woman at the real estate offered to let them view it, and again when she’d seen it for the first time. She’d always been attuned to her sixth sense, but since she’d arrived at Colton Manor she’d tried to ignore the bad vibes the house seemed to give off. She usually took her intuitions very seriously, but she couldn’t afford to let herself get carried away when she was here for over a month on her own.

“Please tell me this is a joke.”

“I wish it was, but you can ask anyone in town. Yvette should never have rented the house to you, but she was under a lot of pressure from the owner to find a summer tenant. When I found out you were here on your own I had to let you know. If you want my advice I think you should just cut your losses and get out of here, go back to the city. It’s not safe for anyone, but especially a young woman by herself.”

“I can’t,” replied Ursula, her panic beginning to rise. “I’m in between houses at the moment and all my stuff is in storage. On top of that I have no money. Every cent I had went into the rent for this place. I can’t leave because I have nowhere to go.”

 “What about family or friends? Surely there’s someone you can stay with? I’d offer you a bed at our place, but with three kids there’s not much room to spare.”

“My parents live overseas, and most of my friends have gone away for the summer break.  There’s no one else I could impose on for that long. I know you meant well, Bonnie, but I wish you hadn’t said anything. Now you’ve really got me spooked.” Ursula glanced up at the window of her studio, and for a second she was positive she saw someone standing there looking down at them. She put her hand to her mouth. “God, now I’m even seeing people, I just thought there was someone looking out from that window.”

Bonnie glanced towards the window nervously. “I’m sorry. My husband told me not to say anything to you, and maybe he was right, but I just thought you should know. I feel awful now.”

“No one has ever actually been hurt by this ghost, have they?”

“Not that I know of. From what I’ve heard people just get very spooked and leave, but nothing has ever physically harmed them.”

“I think I can handle things that go bump in the night as long as they don’t hurt me. I’m sure I’ll be fine.”

Bonnie did not look very convinced as she stared at Ursula with a furrowed brow. Then her face brightened unexpectedly.

“Actually there is one possible solution. It won’t get you away from the house but it will mean you don’t have to be here on your own.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, I have a friend who’s renovating his house and he’s been staying in a motel in town. He’s a science professor who doesn’t believe in ghosts. He’s always said he’d be glad to spend time in this house and prove all the gullible the people wrong. This is a chance for him to put his money where his mouth is. What do you think?”

Normally Ursula wouldn’t even have contemplated living alone with a total stranger, especially in such an isolated location, but she was desperate.

“Sounds great. When can he move in?”

Bonnie laughed. “Let’s not jump the gun. It might be a good idea if you meet him first. He’s very well-known in town and a perfect gentleman. You won’t have any trouble with him. Why don’t you come around to my place for afternoon tea and you can get to know him before you make up your mind.”

“Okay, I’ll be there. What time?”

“Oh, around three. Just turn right from the drive and follow the road right around the point. You can’t miss the house.’

“Thanks, Bonnie.” They talked for a little longer and after she’d waved her guest off fifteen minutes later Ursula tried hard to be brave as she turned back towards the house. Again, for just a split second she thought she saw someone at the upstairs window. The last thing in the world she wanted to do was go back inside after what Bonnie had told her, but the rain was coming down harder now and she had no choice.

Whatever this friend of Bonnie’s turned out to be like, she didn’t care. He could have two heads for all it mattered to her, just as long as he provided her with human company and helped to ward off the evil spirits that dwelled in Colton Manor. Bonnie had mentioned he was a science professor. In her mind she pictured a crusty old man who did not suffer fools gladly and would be quick to dismiss any fanciful notions she might have. That was exactly the kind of man she needed right now, and she couldn’t wait for the next few hours to pass so she could meet him, and hopefully convince him to move in with her.
Colton Manor is available for 0.99 on Amazon.