Just Good Friends

Tom Cox

Tom Cox shares an extract from his collection of ghost stories ‘Help The Witch’

28 October 2018 08:30

The illusion of an excess of choice had ruined modern romance. This is what, after three years in a cycle of being seduced by that excess of choice, recoiling at the ice-cold lie of it, then being seduced by it again, Helen had concluded.

‘But everyone goes online now,’ Helen’s friend Donna Rooney had said. ‘It’s just a fact of life. It’s so hard to meet people these days.’

Donna was one of the fortunate ones: Mark had been only the second man she’d met romantically via the internet, the pair’s intertwined needs had immediately appeared simple and compatible and there had never been any sense of either of them keeping the other in any kind of holding pattern while they waited to see if anything better came along. Also, Donna’s statement, Helen felt, was a commonly spoken misinterpretation: seeking romance in a virtual environment wasn’t an alternative or replacement; it was an extra way to meet people. The real world hadn’t vanished; it was still there, with its pubs and evening classes and museums and friends of work colleagues and dance floors and attractive strangers eating apples on park benches.

When you first looked at a dating app or website, even when you’d narrowed your focus down to those of an appealing social demographic or appearance or age group, the excitement was that of being presented with a large train entirely full of available people. It was only later that you realised just how crowded with other available people the carriages on that train were, all jostling for the attention of the available people you liked, loudly eating crisps, wiping their greasy fingers on the upholstery and pushing their way down the aisles, sometimes, in the process, knocking you off balance so you fell backwards onto the emergency buzzer.

It had recently occurred to Helen that she no longer wanted to be part of that jostling and, more to the point, would be better matched in the long term to a person who was also not part of it. Someone who had not had their brain reconditioned by it. Shopping for love, she had noticed, seemed to put people in an accelerated, attention deficit headspace. Conversations were quickly forgotten, names, even. A tall and photographically imposing person who entered rooms with surprising deftness, Helen had returned from the toilet towards the end of another nonplussing encounter, unnoticed by her companion for the evening, a fellow academic named Brian or Steve or Carl, to spot, via a gap between his right shoulder and ear, that he was already back on the app through which they had met, scrolling towards his next target. She could not find it in herself to be incensed, having often done the same herself, although to her credit she did always wait until she had at least boarded the train home. That was the internet all over, though. ‘This has been a disappointing life experience. But do not worry. Look what I have for you next!’ it told you, without end.

It was in the spirit of a greater slowing down, as well as a new philosophy about romance, that in March of her thirty-fifth year Helen removed the SIM card from her smartphone, transferred it to a clamshell model of almost a decade’s vintage, and set off to the opposite side of the city for the first of ten evenings of Buddhist meditation. January had been frittered in a series of intense but counterproductive conversations with an IT consultant called Jamie who, despite clicking ‘like’ on all of Helen’s last seventeen photographs, showed no inclination to set a date to meet in the flesh. February had been sucked away with worry about her mum’s surgery. It was only a few hundred years ago, in pre-Gregorian times, that the new year began in March, and that made a lot of sense to Helen today. Years were real and legislated expressly by nature, but months were just stories we told ourselves to give our lives structure. On the street where Helen lived – a line of Victorian terraces petering out into a patch of messy almost-countryside, blemished with rotting machinery and aloof horses – it felt like spring was finally sprinkling its colours over an invisible wall, and this struck her as a far more logical point for a year to begin. The new season seemed to follow Helen through the door of the Sweetland Meditation And Yoga Centre, where the walls were green and lilac and two nonthreatening crew-cutted men sat on a worn sofa sipping peppermint tea: thin, light people, leaflike in their aura.

It became very apparent, after only minutes of her first session, that Helen was not immediately sexually attracted to any one of the other sixteen people in the room, and she silently reprimanded herself for the disappointment she felt at this realisation. This was not what her March new year’s resolution was about: it was about prioritising her own passions, putting herself in good places, throwing herself into activities that interested her. Besides, as she was reminded by her teacher, Preminand, the space she was in was one where goals were not important. There was no ‘correct’ way to meditate, she was told. She suspected that this must be at least partly untrue, since surely if someone was here in the room fighting or playing table tennis, that would be the opposite of the correct way to meditate. But even if she was not getting her breathing exercises totally right, or totally succeeding in blocking out thoughts of unreturned emails and job lists, it was a relief to be forced to just sit still on a cushion by someone for a couple of hours and do nothing: a task that should have been achievable at home but always ended up befuddlingly beyond her reach.

On the way home her new state of stillness and calm was such that the voice of the narrator of the audiobook in her earphones seemed to be running at double speed. Turning into the avenue, she was aware of colours in the dark: new petal shapes, front-door aesthetics. A dark blue Japanese off-road vehicle she often saw parked at the end of the road was not here and she appreciated the texture of the gravel in the space where it normally sat. A pile of lentils had been spilled on the pavement. Two cats – Mitsky, who lived with Deborah and John from number 14, and another, fatter one she thought of as Ginger Ron – sat together on the wall opposite her house in a silence that suggested they’d been disturbed mid-gossip.

After the third of the weekly sessions, a girl called Andrea with perfect posture and a nest of unapologetic hair said she was meeting a friend at the Horse and Star and anyone else who fancied a drink was welcome to join them. Five meditators, including Helen, took her up on the suggestion. The pub was just the sort Helen liked: nicely dingy, slight suspicion of woodworm, jukebox, no shiny black vinyl chairs or gastro menus boasting of tautological pan-fried meals. The seven of them commandeered two four-seater benches either side of a long, pockmarked, coffin-shaped table. Behind them, teenagers just slightly too complicatedly dressed to be goth fell laughing through the door leading to the crypt beneath the bar at intervals of around a minute, allowing half-grumbles of subterranean local punk rock to waft into the room.

The conversation turned to Buddhist practices as alternative to therapy, and Helen attempted to bring Peter, a quiet man perched next to her, into the fold, but instead drifted into her own separate discourse with him. Helen had arrived late for that evening’s session and, seeing her searching in vain for a cushion to perch on, Peter had been kind enough to fetch one from the store cupboard. Now they spoke of the metta bhavana, the ‘loving kindness’ meditation they’d been introduced to earlier in the evening, in which they were asked to bring more and more people into their heart. Helen admitted it had got a little out of control in the end, as she’d found all sorts of unexpected people and animals arriving in her heart, including her postman, a cow, three neighbourhood foxes and a stoat she’d seen last year on holiday on the Gower Peninsula. Everyone had then split into pairs to talk about a person in their life they felt a particular love for, and why. Helen told Peter she had talked about her mum: her unfussy strength, her lack of self-pity, especially after her recent operation. Peter did not say who he had talked about with his partner.

‘How is your mum now?’ asked Peter.

‘She’s doing well,’ said Helen. ‘She is made of something tougher than me. Something a bit leathery.’

‘I’m really glad to hear that.’

Jet-black-haired and a little haunted around the eyes, Peter had a strong, large nose, but was otherwise delicate-featured, and arranged himself like a man keen to hide his tallness. It was only when she saw him stand to go to the bar and order more drinks for the two of them – a lemonade for him and a strong wheat beer for her – that she got a sense of his full height. She noticed that he would periodically stroke the table, paying it close attention. He told her it was oak, felled at least forty years ago. He asked her about her job. He told her that he’d heard that the museum where she worked was very nice, but had not had chance to visit himself. Each time she attempted to ask him a little about himself, he had a very skilled way of diverting the conversation back to her.

Outside, the Fens had brewed up one of their thin mean winds then faxed it east, where it zipped down the alleys and streets of the city. A tiny woman from the course who seemed to have been hugely enjoying her own body all evening, running her hands across her arms and chest at regular intervals, instigated a session of goodbye hugging. Helen wrapped her arms briefly and awkwardly around Peter and wondered precisely where in his jacket he resided.

The weekend was much warmer and Helen headed to her favourite spot near the river with a book.  Three men in wetsuits swam smoothly with the current, like big pacifist leeches, and tantalising snatches of conversation from passing walkers blended not unappealingly with experimental prose.

‘No way is that a real dragon. I’ve already seen five.’

‘Good old Johnny Two Dicks. Always there when you need him.’

‘So that’s her uncle, right? The one who saw Mandelson at the gym. He has no respect for boundaries.’

‘Is it good?’

It took Helen a moment to register that the last sentence was directed at her. She turned to see Peter standing behind her, looking no more evident in a shirt than he had in his coat the other evening.

‘It’s quite trippy. That might be something to do with the fact that it’s translated from Japanese. I don’t know. Or maybe it would be even more trippy if you read the original Japanese version. I’m finding it slow-going.’

‘I’m a really slow reader. I tend to still read a lot of stuff I loved as a kid.’

‘Nothing wrong with that.’

They walked back in the direction of the city, keeping to the river most of the way. Peter stopped to help two men carry a large canoe out of the water and Helen was surprised at how little exertion he displayed in doing so. She asked him what his plans were. He said he had just fancied a walk in the sun, and had no particular destination in mind. Helen said she’d wondered about catching a film later at the Picturehouse but was playing her afternoon similarly by ear. Peter asked her a little more about her job at the museum. It was closed today for refurbishment, but there was no actual work going on and Helen said she could open up and show him around if he liked.

‘So it’s your job to categorise stuff when it arrives?’ he asked, as Helen unlocked the museum’s archive area.

‘That, and various other stuff. Payroll. Interviews, sometimes. There aren’t enough of us working here that everyone can settle to just one role. A lot of what I do is about rejection. People don’t realise how many donations we receive that are totally worthless or irrelevant. I spend a lot of time gently letting people down.’

Helen showed Peter some of the more interesting recent arrivals: two Victorian eel traps, a hammered dulcimer made by a local craftsman, and a writing desk that had originally been used by a student in the university halls in the late seventeenth century. Whenever a curio was made out of wood, Helen noticed that Peter inspected it particularly carefully, taking time to appreciate its joins and grain. At the pub afterwards, he asked her about her mum’s recovery again, and about the life-sculpture class she had started: another of the resolutions of her deferred new year. His flair for filing away small pieces of personal information for later was as impressive and generous as his selfless conversationalism. He drank two lemonades and she drank two pints of strong dark ale from a local craft brewery. The ale made her more talkative and all this left her with the feeling of having monopolised the evening. Outside, in another small unexpected Fenland breeze, Peter struggled to make the zip on his jacket – an anorak, not the bomber from the other day – click into place and she assisted, feeling more like a mum than she had felt within living memory. As she solved the problem, he stood patient and still and trusting.

Helen had spent time alone in the company of plenty of ethereal men before. A couple of years ago she had dated a musician who had played lute at a folk-classical concert held at the museum. The musician spoke sparingly and when he did it was largely in his own whispered lexicon of Beat literature references and angular observations about cloud formations and the Milky Way. To Helen this, initially, was intriguing in the way an overheard conversation in a foreign language can be intriguing but later came the realisation not dissimilar to the one that you might have about the same overheard conversation in a foreign language, upon having it translated for you and finding out that it was really just about that week’s shopping list, or somebody’s marginally painful foot blister.

The musician was well read in a posturing, self-conscious way, a little lazy, and had a surprising lack of emotional depth, especially for someone who found so much of it with an instrument in his hands. Peter was different. His ethereality had no posturing to it and she never hit an emotional wall when talking to him. As he turned the conversation again and again back to her, she saw a listening softness in his eyes, and found herself telling him more and more: about work, about her mum, even about some of her romantic disappointments. After dates with so many men who had been so keen to have their opinions heard, their stories laughed at, she enjoyed this contrast, but after their fifth evening together in as many weeks, it occurred to her how truly little she knew about him. One fact was that he worked ‘with wood’.

‘You mean carpentry?’ she asked.

‘Sort of,’ said Peter.

He had very nice hands: long-fingered without being bony. Hands you’d be very unlikely to find on a building site but which might craft something unique and memorable out of timber. A big contrast to her last but one boyfriend, Richard, who grew potatoes, and had hands that were all palm, deep and thick; such a contrast, so exotic, that when she first touched one of Peter’s hands, she held on to it for an awkwardly long time. This was on their fourth date (were these dates? she still wasn’t sure), when he walked her home past the dark blue Japanese off-road vehicle and the last of the spilled lentils and Ginger Ron the cat on his wall, then, by way of farewell, offered the most gentle of handshakes. By the beginning of June, a serene time of the year, slowed by the effects of a full ten weeks of breathing exercises and mindfulness, Peter and Helen had seen each other – outside the confines of the meditation course – nine times. In those encounters, he had not once come close to kissing her. Something intangible, in rivalry to the draw of his gentle, sweet face and artist’s hands, had made her hold back too, despite not being much of a holder-back, on the whole. Nonetheless, when she took off to spend four days with her mum on the west coast, she felt the need to give him notice about it, in a manner that you might not quite feel the need to do with someone who was just a friend.

Big sheets of black rolled in from the Atlantic, casting shadows over the water and the orthodontic pewter cliffs, then quickly got changed and replaced with cleaner, brighter sheets. Alice led the way, charging up and down the steep natural staircases in the rock, bellowing greetings to a party of passing surfers who were carrying their boards to the beach. Helen’s mum was a little thinner, a little greyer around the eyes, but if you overlooked that, it was as if the tough winter had never happened. Helen struggled to keep up. This walk, which they had done before, always felt a little like being inside a washer-dryer for its full cycle; a budget model, whose drying function was slightly suspect. June was different here: there were hailstones, but also fierce sun and warm salt wind.

‘So he’s not really said he’s your boyfriend?’

‘He’s not said much. He just listens to me and wants to walk everywhere. And I mean everywhere.’

‘Well, he sounds just delicious. If only I could find a beautiful tall man who wanted to hear what I have to say.’

Alice had actually dated too, until a couple of years ago. When you were sixty-three, you expected plenty of baggage, but all too often, even on top of that, you found an extra storage room out the back for left luggage. The fantasist with the fake military career and the secret wife. The con man with the prison record. Helen did not ask Alice about her more recent love life. The main thing was that she seemed well, and, despite its lack of romantic prospects, life overlooking this serrated headland suited her. She had moved to a city just after Helen left home and felt out of place, like a strand of lichen blowing around a smoky pool hall, then moved back. Alice’s current house felt as much like home to Helen as anywhere, even though it had never been home. Reaching the top of the cliff, the two of them could just make out the rooftops of the village where they’d both lived until Helen was six, much of that time with Helen’s dad. The house over there was just smudgy memories now, memories of memories: the stepping stones over the small creek to the rear, a model of the village that Helen’s dad had made for her from papier mâché, the old empty cottage up the hill with its thick, knobbled walls, a well she’d been obsessively warned by Alice not to venture close to on small solo adventures, which Alice encouraged. Alice told Helen she’d been a child boundlessly happy in her own company; the last of a generation who still went to the woods alone. But Helen had only the dimmest recollection of that version of herself. Her abiding memory of childhood was at school in the town, inland from there: roles in plays, countless friends, the excitement of the day everyone arrived at school and found games painted on the concrete playground in bright colours. Had there been a maypole, or was that historical transference: a children’s TV show she was thinking of from the time? No. There was actually a maypole.

Before Alice and Helen turned inland across a field, unusually boggy for June, a dog emerged from a farm and joined them. Helen didn’t know what kind of dog it was. She assumed it was one of those ones that are just a dog. After a mile, the dog transferred to another party coming the other way, a man in a black cagoule and a woman in a red cagoule. Almost all the walking couples here wore gender-specific anoraks of this combination. They’d almost reached an isolated hilltop church and a lone black figure walked the washed-out path to it, creating a scene that appeared monochrome even though it wasn’t. Dusk had calmed the weather: there were no more black sheets arriving from the sky above the water.

Alice admitted she’d been worried about Helen earlier in the year. Alice had been worried about her? Yes. She had not seemed herself, not very present. It was true that Helen now barely recognised her winter self: it was as foreign to her as Alice’s, on that hospital bed. Her view of breakdowns had been very different when she was younger: a vision of a person physically collapsing, making undignified noises, surrounded by tissues. But it was perhaps possible to have a breakdown without actually knowing it, due to the way time had fortified you to cope with it. Helen felt a lack of answers in her life but was much more centred now; a feeling of panic at the edge of everything had gone. On top of that, this place made her another, different person. It was the air, which was full of risk, but more alive than the air where she lived. But the chilly nights took you unaware; the wind that was trapped by the steep hills didn’t jab at your ribs like an early spring Fenland wind, but it still got in the big old houses beyond the cliffs on the colder summer nights. When they got home Alice lit a fire and thrashed Helen at Scrabble, like always.

Back in the city, Helen left a couple of messages for Peter but received no response, via voice or text. On Tuesday a man with a beard so thick it gave a slight impression that he was just some eyes and a mouth visited the museum and, upon leaving, asked Helen for directions to a gallery in the centre of town. As she began to give them, the man rootled around for a pen in an overfull parka coat pocket. She noticed that one of the objects he pulled out of the pocket was a smartphone, which made her wonder why he hadn’t just looked up the gallery on that, but she was too polite to point it out. He also pulled out a large, smooth stone with a hole in the centre. ‘Nice hagstone,’ said Helen.

Three hours later, just before the museum closed, when Helen was moving an old bawdy pub sign from an alcohol-themed display to storage, the man returned, shyly handed her a folded slip of lined notepaper, and left. Marge, who was working on reception, was around, so Helen didn’t open the piece of paper until ten minutes later, when she was in the toilet.

You are very beautiful, it read. But I don’t like to put people on the spot or invade their space. So please feel free to tear this up and never think of it again. But if you would be amenable to it, I’d very much like to buy you a drink. Rob. Beneath this a telephone number was written.

On Wednesday, Helen arrived home to find Peter leaning against the wall, waiting for her. He looked greyer than usual, darkened in the joins of his face. His hands were hidden deep inside his coat sleeves, giving him the appearance of a brittle plant you might wrap in old cloth to protect it from a hard frost.

‘Hi. I’ve been worried about you. I tried to call, lots of times.’

‘I’m sorry. I thought you might have. I’ve not been well. And I’ve got a problem with my phone company. I hoped you’d be home on time today. But I would have waited. It’s a nice day.’

‘What kind of not well?’

‘I don’t know. I think I ate things.’

She invited him in and, for the first time, he accepted. She offered him a tour of the house and he surveyed the rooms blankly, uncritically. Then they stepped out into the garden, where Tania was playing on the rope swing. The rope swing had been attached to an ash tree by the house’s previous owners and was in the rear of the garden, where there was a gap in the fence, leading to next door, where Tania, who was seven, lived with her parents, Nick and Zoe. Helen liked Nick and Zoe, so had not felt any pressing need to repair the gap in the fence. Tania often came through it to play on the swing, and to tell Helen about the book she was writing, which she said was about an owl who was friends with a fridge. She introduced Tania to Peter but, in an unusually sullen mood, Tania didn’t say hello, and gave him a long, sceptical stare. Helen sensed in Peter a keenness to be back indoors.

Helen did not have a lot of food in, but managed to cobble together a curry for Peter and herself from some green beans, potatoes and cauliflower. He sat apologetically on the corner of an armchair, with the plate on his knee, and picked at the meal like an endangered bird, nervous of impending extinction.

‘How was Cornwall?’

‘Wet, but good.’

‘I like that bit.’

‘Which bit?’

‘Well, all of it. It’s nice.’

‘Have you been off work?’

‘Yes. But I didn’t have many jobs this week, so it was OK. I don’t like work.’

‘Who does, I suppose? It’s like nothing when we’re young prepares us for how much time it is sucking away from our lives. I can’t complain. My job isn’t all that taxing most of the time.’

‘Mmmm,’ said Peter, noncommittal.

Helen poured a glass of red wine and offered one to Peter, purely out of politeness. He surprised her by accepting, then draining the glass in one, while pulling a wincing, vinegary face. She poured him another, smaller one and he did the same. He had told her he liked jazz, or maybe he hadn’t told her that, but she did remember that when they’d been in a café in the city centre the other week, he’d seemed to perk up and tune in when Jimmy Smith’s version of the Peter & the Wolf soundtrack had come on. Now she chose a Milt Jackson live album from 1965, nothing too far out. Peter didn’t seem to notice it. He really did look unwell.

‘Are you OK?’

‘Fine.’ At this precise moment the doorbell rang and Peter sprang up, immediately losing his balance and crashing into the sideboard then tripping on his own tangled legs and hitting the floor, twisting awkwardly at the ankle as he did.

‘Oh my God! Are you hurt?’

‘No,’ slurred Peter. ‘I don’t know.’

Reluctantly, Helen left him on the floor and went to find out who was at the door. It was Rebecca, who had some flyers for her new local history class, which she was wondering if she could give to Helen to take to the museum and leave in the foyer. Helen didn’t extend an invite to step beyond the threshold to Rebecca, a caring person who could not resist finding a degree of entertainment in the problems of others. Back when Helen felt beset by romantic frustration, at the end of last year, Rebecca had often lent an ear but had soon begun to make Helen feel like a walking soap opera. Helen had withdrawn from Rebecca as a friend since then, just as she now withdrew back into the house, alone: slowly, with as little drama as possible. It took around six minutes in total and in that time Peter had fallen into what appeared to be a deep sleep on the floor. He looked very peaceful, although his legs retained some of the ungainly twist of his descent. She gently rocked his shoulder and he half opened his eyes, mumbled. Nothing intelligible. One word sounded a little like ‘lost’, but Helen couldn’t be sure.

She managed to return Peter to an upright position and encouraged him to ascend the stairs in a half-crawling way, offering a shoulder for support. She led him into her bedroom and he face-planted into the mattress, which made it difficult for her to get the duvet over him. She had experience of men using drunkenness or feigned drunkenness as a ploy to try to stay the night, but she felt sure that was not the case here, even though she was equally sure Peter couldn’t be that drunk. After all, he had only had a glass and a half of wine. She returned to the living room, checked some emails, drank another glass of wine, watched the second half of a film she’d started watching the other day, a dank tale of a psychotic preacher stalking children through a noir landscape.

She went back to check on Peter twice during this time and he was comatose but breathing steadily. Despite her having lived here for almost nine months, the spare bedroom remained a small city of unpacked boxes, and the fairly high-grade airbed she owned was trapped behind several of them. She didn’t much fancy sleeping on the sofa, so at around 11 p.m. she crept under the covers beside Peter, sticking to her usual side of the bed, but maybe a little more so than usual. He did not stir.

Helen dreamed that Tania was on the rope swing again and Helen was watching her, annoyed at not being able to have a go. But when she finally took over she realised that the rope swing wasn’t here in the city, it was in a much more rural place. As she swung higher, she could just about see the stepping stones behind the house on the coast where she used to live with her mum. The rope swing was getting really high now, and spiky branches prodded her head and it began to bleed, but she kept going higher, in an attempt to get a better view of the stones, even though the blood was running down her forehead beginning to get into her eyes.

‘I missed you so much.’

Helen opened her eyes and could see from a crack in the curtains that was letting in the first light of dawn that Peter was sitting on the end of the bed. His face was turned away from her.

‘I was only gone for eight days.’

‘I mean before that.’

‘I don’t understand.’

‘I knew you wouldn’t.’

‘Now I’m confused. How is your head? You don’t normally drink. I was worried about you.’

‘I don’t like wine. I only had it once before. I don’t like the taste. Or of beer, either. I knew you wouldn’t remember.’

‘Remember what?’

‘We used to be friends. A long time ago. You said we’d always be friends. I missed you so much.’

‘I’m confused.’

‘You said we’d always be friends. It was a promise. I knew you wouldn’t keep it. It was by the stream. I took so long to find you.’

‘Peter, you’re scaring me a bit now.’

‘We used to walk really far together. One time we found an old factory. It was a long way away and my mum would have been angry if she’d known. Nobody was there, but there were shoes. They were very old. You tried some on. I saw you every day, then you were gone. I didn’t get big for a long time and then I did. I looked for a long time before I found you. I came here and I watched for a while. I wanted to make sure it was you.’

‘OK, Peter, I need you to leave now.’

He stood and she was once again reminded of his baffling, incongruous height. She remained frozen beneath the covers while he walked across the room. As he opened the door to the landing, light streamed in from the big curtainless sash window out there, illuminating his face, and she could see tears on it.

‘I just wanted to know you were OK,’ he said.

She did not move until she’d heard the front door click shut. About a minute after that, she permitted herself a glance through the curtains. About a hundred yards away, through a light morning mist that the sun was already eviscerating, she could see him making his way to the end of the street, hands deep in his sleeves, then turn and open the driver’s door of the dark blue Japanese offroad vehicle.

‘I’m done,’ said Donna Rooney. ‘Knobheads, needy freaks, players, liars, stalkers, big babies, the lot of them.’

‘Except the good ones,’ said Alice, through a cough. ‘But they’re usually hiding something.’

The two of them and Helen were in a café on the east side of the city. Three weekends earlier, Mark had dropped the bombshell that over the last six months he had been having an affair with a mature Spanish student of his, with whom he would imminently be moving into a flat in London. This had prompted Helen to reconnect with Donna, but largely as a listener. Helen had said little about Peter to Donna or her mum. As they knew it, she had simply got briefly involved with ‘a weird guy’, who had seemed OK at first but had become a bit too obsessive. It was entertaining to hear the two of them rant about the opposite sex, becoming a double act of sorts, after which – contradicting much of what she’d just said – Donna departed for a pub on the east side of the city, where she was due to meet her date for the evening.

Helen and Alice continued along the river, in no rush to get anywhere in particular. When they reached the university and the crowds thickened, the volume of people appeared to tire Alice out. Helen noticed how much smaller she appeared here, so much less indomitable than on those cliffs near her house. Human character was more subject to geography than was generally acknowledged. Yet there was a pressure to be the same person people had come to expect everywhere you went. It was one of the small, untold difficulties of life.

The summer had got sluggish and dusty around the edges. Helen continued to feel very present in her life, largely avoided the noise of the internet, but meditated nowhere near as much as she intended to. She justified this by deciding that she was in a residual state of mindfulness, carried over from the class in spring. She tidied the garden and told herself that was meditation, since, as she’d been told, there was no right way to meditate. It was about making your own rules. To further suppress a more general feeling of untidiness in the air, she’d finally got around to properly organising the spare room a couple of weeks ago, in anticipation of Alice’s stay. In a drawer stuffed with receipts, she’d found a piece of lined A5 and unfolded it to reveal the note from Rob, the man who’d come to the museum, who she now remembered as two kind eyes poking out of some coarse dark hair. In an impulsive but philosophical mood, hugely aware that two months can be a very long time, she called the number on the piece of paper, and the two of them arranged to meet. They got on effortlessly, and met again. She was surprised to discover that underneath all that beard he was six years younger than her, often speaking eagerly about concepts and experiences she’d been through and out the other side of, with a naivety that was at once charming and a little irritating. In other ways he appeared older than he was. He knew a lot about fossils and followed The Archers obsessively. He co-ran a homeless shelter. He confessed that on the worst days it made him want to walk through his front door at night and collapse on his flat’s cold floorboards.

Helen continued to be mildly stimulated by her job and the night classes and cinemas and drinking holes of the city, but she had recently begun to feel something drawing her away from it, in the direction from which she had once come – just a little tug on a sleeve at first, then more. It was heightened by five days in Alice’s company. She saw sky in Alice’s eyes, a different kind of weather in her cheeks. In her dreams, Helen continued to visit the rope swing on the tree, and the stepping stones. She no longer cut her head on branches as she swung. Other images that came to her made her wake feeling even more sure she was revisiting a version of the countryside surrounding that first house that she, Alice and her dad had lived in. The recesses of a steep space between cliffs. Trees growing almost perpendicular to the mulchy ground. The house higher up the slope and the well behind it. She would often emerge from the dreams feeling a very strong sense that someone had been holding her hand. In one dream she saw Peter waiting for her behind an old stile that had been chewed to a smooth curved edge by horses. Some of the footpaths were streams.

It all made her want to take advantage of Alice’s visit by asking her more about the house. Alice said she mostly just remembered it as very dark, small windows. A dingy hollowed-out slice of land, where it rained significantly more than it did even a mile away. She loved the north coast of Cornwall, but not that house. Helen knew that had been the place where Alice and her dad had broken up and she was aware that it was tainted by that for Alice, so she didn’t press her for too many details.

‘Did I have any friends there?’

Alice took a drag on her roll-up. ‘No, and I always felt bad about that. It was another reason I was glad to move. But you were a very self-sufficient child. You always found ways to amuse yourself. I let you wander for miles on your own. Well, not miles, but far. People probably wouldn’t do it now or they’d think I was a bad mother. Maybe I shouldn’t have done it, but I always had a strange confidence in you to come back safely.’

Helen delayed introducing Rob to Alice for a long time, not because of any uncertainty she felt about him, or their future as a couple, but because of the weight of similar introductions from the past, and the anxieties and disappointments attached to them. She needn’t have worried. When she and Rob finally ventured west together the following January, it was less reminiscent of the uneasy encounters between boyfriends and her mum in the past and more reminiscent of the times in her teens when platonic male friends had come over to the house and hit it off instantly with Alice: Jason McMaster from next door, maybe, or Warren Stafford, whose band she’d played a bit of violin for. That was not to say there was anything platonic about Helen and Rob’s relationship. She still felt a pleasant cube of warmth open up in her chest in the moments before she saw him, even if she had only last seen him a few hours previously. There was no terror in the excitement that went with discovering each other because the excitement soon began to feel underpinned by a realisation that when it faded, it would be replaced by something else, something different, but no less rewarding.

Some parts of him, she was sure, would never stop amazing her. One was his astonishing lack of geographical savvy. He was a man who, faced with a choice of three footpaths, could be guaranteed to choose the one that made no logical sense. A non-driver from a landlocked town, he sat in the passenger seat looking as guileless as a plump, recently birthed woodland creature while Helen negotiated the last few miles to Alice’s beneath inverted waves of black metal rain. ‘So that’s the sea over there, right?’ he asked, pointing to the countryside to the left of the road, entirely overlooking the elevated horizon to the right, with its rim of cracking light, which to Helen’s mind in every way possible screamed, ‘Ocean!’

He put his trust in her totally, like a child, on the three long walks they took that week: only one of them in the additional company of Alice, who was struggling with a trapped sciatic nerve. Unassisted, it was a little tricky for Helen to navigate the two of them to the old house between the steep cliffs, especially since she ambitiously chose not to go the road way, and the footpaths here, a mile or two inland from the coast path, were little trodden and barely marked at all. They scrambled down a nearvertical bank of copper-green ground, finding it impossible not to break into a half-run, and emerged at the end of a lane with grass up the middle.

Helen recognised the first house immediately: the old knobbly walled place that had been empty back then but, while still knobbly, now had the neat look of a holiday cottage. Clean linen curtains, a front garden of trimmed cordylines and sharp-edged beds. Alice and Helen’s old place, sixty yards further down the hill, was less welcoming. Dark brick stained darker by weather. Grouting equipment piled on a small window ledge. Piles of broken propagation trays on a wet and untidy winter lawn. The sweet sound of running water filled the air and in her mind’s eye Helen could pinpoint where the stepping stones were but, disappointingly, they were not visible. They could smell a faint bark perfume from the woodyard a quarter of a mile further down the hill, where the village properly began. As a whole the area was smaller than in Helen’s dim memories, which she’d anticipated, but it was also less accessible, more hemmed in by dead foliage. There was no public access to the stepping stones and, even when Helen climbed the wall, she could not quite see them. The well, meanwhile, was only a rumour.

Alice was right: it was an unusually dark area. On top of the hill behind the cliffs, the sun had been having a ding-dong battle with the clouds, coming back to set a cold sparkle on rooftops and damp walls every time it looked like it had been defeated. But here it couldn’t break through. The ravine had been carved out by nature in such a way that there was a barrier on all sides. Helen now, for the first time, had a sense of how difficult that final winter, after her dad left, must have been for Alice, in a dark place like this, in a house that let in minimal natural light, looking after a child alone, with an only intermittently functioning car. But in the rush of memory that the place provoked in Helen, loneliness was not the central characteristic. She did not recall it as a sad place. Just as the foliage was blocking her route to the terrain where she’d done most of her playing as a child, her memories were frustratingly out of reach. She had new recollections: two ponies a little further down the hill where the light came in and there were always oxeye daisies in summer, a no-longer-existent village post office where every morning her mum collected a newspaper with her name on it from a small pile. A jellyfish sting. Spotty images. The wood smells helped nudge her mind into the past, but they weren’t enough to take away the blotted edges of any mental photos she possessed.

‘I’ve only just fully realised what a bumpkin you are,’ said Rob. ‘Can we have a pint? I’m gasping.’

After thirty-six years, Helen was still finding more out about Alice. Rob’s presence was perhaps a factor in that. It was as if Alice suddenly had two children, which gave her double the reason to reveal information they might not have known about her. He helped her get an old music centre out the loft and a few dozen LPs. The three of them drank two and a half bottles of wine and Alice and Rob danced to ‘Strange Brew’ and ‘The White Room’ by Cream. Alice told them what a huge part of her life dancing had been before Helen was born, how her dad had stifled it, the revelation she’d felt when she did it again, twenty years later, at a salsa class in Bude – all new facts to Helen. Helen found out exactly why Alice had quit her teaching job in Launceston. The caretaker had been making suggestive comments to some of the female teachers, being particularly relentless with Alice’s friend Christy Noll, and once cornering her in the store cupboard. Alice had finally lost patience and reported this to the headmaster, who had shrugged it off, offering the opinion that it was a sad situation when a man was judged for expressing his appreciation of a woman with honest words. ‘He was a hideous dickbag,’ said Alice.

When Helen was out at Sainsbury’s, Alice told Rob about the time Alice had got lost in Cheltenham on the way to meet her friend to see a band, then spotted a man carrying a flute case across a square in the town, who offered to walk her to the venue, since he was going there too. It was only later that Alice realised he’d been the lead singer of the band who were playing. Their name was Jethro Tull. ‘Why has she never told me that?’ Helen said to Rob, offended.

By March, Helen and Rob had made the 360-mile trip west again to do some gardening for Alice, who was now struggling a lot with her leg. It was the beginning of another alternative new year and Helen recognised herself only in segments from thirteen months ago. She’d always been a quietly self-assured person, but her sense of self was different now from what it had been then, reflected back at her solidly by a few people who knew her, rather than flimsily by a lot of people who didn’t.

The dreams about the house in the dark valley continued: not every night, and not every dream featured Peter, but some did, or some simulacrum of a Peterish figure. Once, walking past the Sweetland Meditation And Yoga Centre, tipsy on wine, she came within a whisker of mentioning him to Rob, but decided no good could possibly come of it. In June, on an events-management training course paid for by work, she recognised a large-haired, serene woman as Andrea from the meditation course, and the two of them ate lunch together in a small courtyard where blackbirds flitted. Andrea said she’d not really kept in touch with anyone from the course and asked Helen if she had, and Helen said no.

‘What about the quiet guy you used to talk to? Paul?’ asked Andrea.

‘Peter.’

‘Yes, that’s the one.’

‘I don’t know. We did hang out for a bit. He sort of vanished. I was actually wondering if you might know what happened to him.’

‘No. I think you were the only one he ever really spoke to.’ Helen did not think of herself as self-obsessed or dominant in conversation but, remembering the few weeks she had known Peter, she found herself questioning this. She was amazed at how little she had known about him. They had never become friends on a social networking website; she only knew that he’d lived on the ‘east side of the city’ and worked ‘with wood’. Now the fright of what he had said to her that night at her house had faded, what was left over was an unusual and confusing lowlying guilt. After her encounter with Andrea, the guilt made itself more apparent. She went on Facebook and scanned the friend lists of groups and people affiliated to Sweetland. She tried Peter’s number, but it was out of service, as she’d predicted it would be.

One day she took a detour on the way to Rob’s, going via Sweetland. At reception, she announced that she was trying to find the contact details for a man she’d met on a course there, because she had some important personal news she needed to get to him. The lady on the desk – another leaflike person with excellent posture – explained that she shouldn’t really do this sort of thing, but, perhaps seeing something trustworthy, or marginally desperate, or both in Helen’s face, retrieved a red-spined A4 book from a drawer and flicked through it until she found the appropriate section.

‘You say you don’t know his surname?’ she said. ‘We have a Peter Brook listed here, from that course. Would that have been him?’

‘I guess it must. I don’t think there was another Peter on the course.’

‘Oh, that’s weird: we don’t have any address listed for him. But we do have a mobile phone number.’

She wrote down the number for Helen, who thanked her, then, out on the street, checked and discovered with no surprise that it was the disconnected one she already had. Schoolchildren were out, giddy with the imminence of summer term’s end. Rob had texted. He was already at Helen’s, cooking. He asked if she could stop on the way back and get salad and a bottle of wine.

Alice died in October. It wasn’t a recurrence of the cancer, and Helen would be able to look at the situation philosophically one day because of that, but not for a long time. Alice had done something she tried to avoid at all costs, due to the problems with her eyes: driven at night. She’d been heading back from her friend Marie Reyes’s place along the Atlantic Highway and had swerved to avoid a car overtaking from the opposite direction, skidded, and slammed into a tree. It was all very instant, the police assured Helen.

At the funeral Helen was reminded of her mum’s immense popularity: her curious combination of solitude and sociability. People poured in, many more than Helen had anticipated. Gardeners, café owners, farmers, artists. The rough stone of the church was stained in a particular dark, large way, which made it appear more matter-offact about death’s harsh realities than most churches. Outside, the late afternoon was just a long road made of winter. Rob made six different types of pasty. Only he and Helen ate the vegetarian ones, but people asked if he was a professional chef.

After the recent pull she’d felt in a westerly direction, accumulating slowly with each passing month, it was odd to abruptly realise there was no longer anything here for her. Or was it that simple? That was a vast question, and she was far too tired right now for even small questions. She summoned from a small locked compartment inside of her the strength to write to her dad, at the last address she’d had for him. There was no reply.

Helen and Rob took some time off work and went to Cuba for a fortnight. When they returned, Helen had the house valued. She was surprised at the results. You wouldn’t call it pleasantly surprised, as there was nothing pleasant about it, but she was surprised. Rob said he’d give it a fresh coat of paint. She said she’d seen the paintwork in his kitchen and he should stick to doing great stuff with butternut squash. For the next three months, she did nothing. The house sat there, the bedcovers still unchanged from Alice’s last night in them, a couple of small fragments of moss on the pillow, mementoes of her final day on earth as a gardener. A hole in the conservatory roof reopened in a storm. A couple of young walkers with imaginations leaning to the macabre saw the place from the footpath at the back, became intrigued, looked in the window and spotted a dead mouse and a dead crow on the floor, beneath the hole. On their way back out of the garden they glanced at the garden table and noticed that on top of it was a pygmy-shrew skull that Alice had found on the coast path the previous year. Six miles later, in the pub in the village where Alice and Helen used to live, the walkers told each other stories about the house and decided that somebody, either recently or less recently, had been murdered in it. Then the monthly folk music session started in the pub and there were other subjects, more immediate, to remark upon. When the female walker, who wore a red anorak, went to the bar, a drunk old man ran his hand down her back and made a remark, and they decided to leave.

When Helen herself thought about the house, she felt sure nobody had ever died in it, or that, if they had, it had at least not been in tragic circumstances. She had always slept well in it, despite the noise of the weather up on that high point behind the cliffs. It had been full of Alice’s positivity and clutter: her art, her car-boot trinkets, her attractive rugs. It wasn’t until Helen had actually booked an estate agent to take the photos that she asked Rob if they could have a chat. There weren’t as many jobs over there, not in the fields that the two of them were trained in, but there were some. She had seen a few in events management. And he had been saying for ages that he wanted a change. The cooking. Why not? They could get by, for a while, until they worked it all out.

It wasn’t easy at first. They had their first proper arguments, ones that lasted a day or two. She, a born bumpkin, fell guilty of a classic city-to-country relocation misconception: that she’d be taking the easy, relaxed elements of one kind of life and adding them to another set of easy, relaxed elements, rather than replacing one with another. Shopping – especially with one car that they shared, now Rob had passed his driving test – took planning. It rained every day for a fortnight and the lane flooded, making it impossible to get out and into town. The conservatory became a small enclosed lake when the hole in the roof reopened.

Rob seemed at more of a loose end than her, and he rattled against her nerves. ‘What are you doing?’ he would ask, when the answer, invariably, was that she was doing exactly what she’d been doing the last time he’d asked her, twenty minutes earlier. She wondered if she’d made a mistake, if the isolation would break them. But when he got a job in the kitchen at a café in Holsworthy – not quite the adventurous position he’d been looking for, but with a nice enough boss, and flexible part-time hours – it began to get easier.

Helen never felt bored here. When she was not working on the house or applying for jobs, she found herself writing about Alice, trying to remember details about her life, for fear some might slip away. She wrote with the speed and freedom of someone writing only for themselves. The house was slowly becoming hers and Rob’s, but there was still so much to go through. In a drawer of bills and old lists in Alice’s workroom she found receipts that showed that Alice had been selling her embroideries of the Cornish landscape to local galleries. Rob spoke to the café, and they agreed to have an exhibition of her remaining work.

In the loft, in a box containing Helen’s old schoolwork and drawings, she found four diaries dating from when they’d lived in the dark house: not hers. Alice’s. The entries were sporadic, often with infuriating gaps of over a month between them, sometimes with references to names with no explanation of who they were and sometimes very mundane, but Helen was transfixed. The voice startled her with its innocence, its uncertainty, and she at times found it hard to equate it with the image of a sixty-something Alice on the clifftop, charging up and down steep paths, shrugging off life’s injustices or laughing throatily into the rain at something scandalous. The very early entries offered little clue into what life had been like with her dad, but those from their last six months at the dark house were more expansive and chatty.

3 March, 1984

Walked down into the village with Helen today. Bought milk, eggs, couldn’t find garlic anywhere. Don’t think it’s reached Cornwall yet.

17 March, 1984

A wet day. Nothing good on the radio. I think I would like to escape this place and live in Athens, or Sicily. I want to climb hills in stifling heat and get skin like an old handbag and not care. I want to be free, but I don’t know what that means right now.

20 April, 1984

Helen said she has been playing with the boy from up the hill again. I don’t know what boy she means and there isn’t one up the hill, because nobody has lived in the house for two years, since Florence died. I suppose her family will sell it, eventually. Helen is such a bright child, it would not be a surprise if she had an imaginary friend. I will ask around. I think she walks quite far on her own, so it could be a boy from the village. She said they play Pooh sticks.

Helen’s breath caught. To her it felt sharp, almost like a shout, and she was surprised to find Rob still asleep beside her, the heat of his breath on her forearm. It was as if she assumed that he knew her so well that the turmoil in her mind would have woken him. She read the last entry again. Then she read on.

3 May, 1984

We sat on the clifftop at sunset tonight and it was beautiful. A night like this makes me want to paint the whole world. Found some lovely fabric at the market in Wadebridge on Saturday. I think I will make a dress from it.

7 May, 1984

John is ill. I will try to visit him tomorrow, and bring some shopping. Must get food for Henry too. Probably just offcuts from butcher.

9 May, 1984

For a friend who is imaginary – that is, if he is imaginary – Helen’s boy pal is very detailed. She said he is tall and has dark hair and that he is nicer than the boys at school, who always tease her. She said when he grows up he is going to be ever so tall – taller than her dad, or Mr Watkinson at the post office. She brought back a stick, which had a sharp, whittled end. She said he whittled it for her and his name is Peter. I took it off her and told her it’s too sharp to play with. I also told her that she mustn’t go near the well, but she said she doesn’t anyway, because Peter doesn’t like it. ‘How long have you known him?’ I asked her. ‘For always,’ she said. ‘But he wouldn’t let me talk to him when I was too little.’

17 May, 1984

Brown water coming out of the taps again. Apparently about a third of the village has it, not just us. Helen nagging me to read to her again. Always wanting more. I like it too, it’s such a pleasure to have a daughter who is so enthusiastic about stories and learning, but I could barely keep my eyes open.

18 May, 1984

Helen came in with the bottom of her dress ruined. She said she and Peter had crawled through a hole that led to a stone where King Arthur’s sword is and that he killed a dragon, and that Peter has a sword of his own, which is just as good. I think she has some of her information garbled. Must get her a pair of new trousers. Also need my shoes reheeling. Down to just one pair now, as others got ruined in the mud. Car needs MOT this week. It all comes at once.

21 May, 1984

Derek our postman must be at least sixty, probably older, but he still has an entirely full head of hair. I doubt he has lost one strand. We want to congratulate men when we see this, but why? It’s not like it involved any special effort on their part.

29 May, 1984

I am bored. Today I did something I have never done before: I went into the village pub. I didn’t even want a drink. I recognised a couple of faces in there, nobody by name. Everyone looked around as I walked in. A whoosh of air. I thought that only happened in stories and films. Bob the landlord knew my name, and where I lived. It’s not surprising: if you’re a single mother in a village this size, you don’t get away with anonymity. He seemed nice enough. ‘You’re next to the old Arnold place, aren’t you?’ I said I was, and talked about what a lovely kind lady Florence had been. He said he’d heard the family were selling it too, and he hoped that whoever moved in didn’t get put off by the history. I asked him what history. He said the drowning. I asked him what drowning. He said the boy who’d fallen in the well. It was a long time ago now. Back in the early fifties. The dad made tables. The woodyard had been his, once. Personally, that kind of thing wouldn’t bother him, when buying a house, but he knew it put some people off.

8 July, 1984

I don’t want to be here any more. It is so dark. It’s July, for God’s sake! Where is the light? I am keeping Helen in more (I say that like she is a dog). She is fidgety and upset.

After this, there was a four-month gap, and no more references to the dark house. Alice talked about her new teaching job, her garden, recipes, Helen’s first few days at her new school in Launceston. Her tone was different, less frustrated. Helen read each of the previous nine entries again, then again, then again. Each time, she felt that if she read hard enough, she might find some new clarification, an extra detail.

She got up and went to the bathroom, had a piss, brushed her teeth. A grey streak had emerged over the last six months, in her fringe. Rob said it made him fancy her even more and had given her a new nickname as a result: the Sex Badger. She did not dislike the nickname as much as she pretended to. She remembered she’d left the heating on, went downstairs to turn it off. The curtains were open and the vast night stared back in at her. It took a while to grow accustomed to the sounds a house made at night and she was almost there.

A shift was taking place. There was stuff you couldn’t hold on to that you hoped you might. Friends from the other side of the country were falling away, not always intentionally. Life was rearranging its furniture and settling into a new rhythm. By the anniversary of Alice’s death, Helen had settled into a new role, working for a charitable arts foundation, based at a country house. It was a longish, worthwhile commute. Rob was retraining under a fairly well-known chef: an author, formerly the presenter of a now nearly forgotten TV show. They saw each other less, planned their time more carefully. After taking flowers to Alice, Helen thought about the unrealistic ways that death is packaged. Beneath the graves you could see in the churchyard, there were countless others, long forgotten: so many that it had changed the actual height of the ground. People bought into the unscientific idea that the troubled souls came back in spirit, and when they did, those people then expressed a scientific-seeming certainty that these souls were always frozen in the age they were at the time of death. Who wasn’t troubled? Or maybe there was a line between A Bit Troubled, and Truly Troubled? Who decided where it fell? Who adjudicated crowd control in the afterlife? There was a notice in the church foyer about bat conservation, explaining to people that bats were not actually evil. Who had originally decided that bats were on the side of the bad guys? Where was the hard evidence?

The route from the church to home went past the site of Alice’s crash. Helen had not been able to drive that bit of road for over six months, and had sought out alternative routes, but now she took the direct route. Seven loose hens pecked about at the crossroads, near an old stone cross, on the site of an older stone cross. She slowed to a crawl as she turned into the drive, remembering the deep rut at the start of it and the increasingly brittle state of her car. Rob was out. He was always out, nowadays.

The house’s walls were thick, but when she was inside, the growing wind of the evening felt like it was in there with her. She lit a fire and tried to hurry the flames along with Alice’s old bellows. She drew the blinds in the conservatory at the rear of the house, but always kept the curtains open on the other side, which looked out on to the mile of fields before the ocean. At the point where the first field ended there was a line of young trees. From this distance, in the final moments of dusk, they looked like thin nervous men, uncertain about adulthood, but if you went out to check you would discover that they were definitely just trees.

Help The Witch by Tom Cox is out now.