Martha climbed gingerly out of the car. Something didn’t seem right. Something had happened here. She had felt an uneasy send of déjà vu about Moss Cottage with its clean stone walls and creepy willow tree as if she had seen them in a dream, only the willow tree was now much bigger. She walked up to the cottage, her legs trembling but compelling her to do so. She tapped on the oak door with its stained-glass portal and tapped the brass knocker, the hairs on her arms prickling with fear and her heart thumping. The musky fragrance of wisteria was overpowering. There was no answer. She pressed the bell and jumped at the loud chiming of Westminster bells jangled in her ears.
She stepped back on the gravel drive and looked upwards. The tiny windows of the cottage seemed to be watching her as if they knew her secrets. Martha walked through a painted wooden gate into the back garden. The dense rhododendron bushes and the high brick walls made her feel closed in. She wiped a bead of perspiration from her brow and unbuttoned her denim jacket.
She jumped. There was a shout.
‘Hello. May I help you?’ said a woman’s voice.
She turned round to see a young woman she didn’t recognize.
‘Er, I’m sorry. I thought no-one was in,’ she said.
‘I was washing my hair,’ said the young woman with quite obviously bedraggled dark hair from her ablutions, a navy-blue towel wrapped round her neck. Her endless legs were clad in fashionable skinny jeans and a tiny pink crop top which displayed her tight bronzed stomach. Her steely blue eyes looked suspicious.
‘Can I help you? This is private property you know. I looked outside and thought you were a trespasser.’
‘N-no,’ said Martha. ‘I’m terribly sorry. You see I think I used to live here. Or at least stayed here for a while. A long time ago.’
‘That’s strange. You either did or didn’t,’ said the woman rudely.
‘I er had an accident. I lost my memory – well part of it,’ feeling she needed to explain herself. She had been working with a therapist for years trying to dig out the memories buried beneath her subconscious, but somehow part of her brain seemed to be resisting them, protecting her from trauma. She remembered driving fast on her motorbike, trying to escape from something. There had been thunder and lightning and a torrent of rain. She had skidded off the road into a dense forest. She had spent a month in a coma and could barely remember anything when she had awoken in hospital.
She babbled on, ‘I live in Leeds and was visiting a friend in Bath. My sat nav made me take the wrong turning and I ended up here.’
The woman’s sharp angular features seemed to soften slightly, and her shoulders dropped – her defences down. She gave a wan smile, ‘Yes, well it is a bit of a warren round here with the winding roads and tall hedges. Lots of people seem to get lost.’
She looked Martha up and down, taking in her slightly greying mousey-brown wiry hair that needed its roots touching up and her hazel eyes in a rounded face, the scuffed white pumps and her baggy jeans and slouchy white t-shirt. She felt so frumpy near this glamorous young woman.
‘Do I know you?’ she asked, moving more closely towards her.
‘Er, I don’t think so,’ mumbled Martha.
‘You look vaguely familiar, that’s all,’ she said.
Martha noticed the charred embers of a barbecue and smelt traces of charcoal. She felt the garden was closing in on her. Something didn’t seem right. She stumbled and fell over a paving stone on the grass, her legs like jelly.
‘Come on, I’ll help you inside. Get you a glass of water,’ said the young woman, rushing towards her. She felt her cool long fingers grasping her arms, helping her up.
The next few minutes were a blur until she found herself sitting at a marble top table in the immaculate designer kitchen sipping iced water. She felt she was in a dream – a bad dream. It seemed familiar but different somehow as if it had had a makeover, but what was disconcerting was a familiar smell she couldn’t quite put her finger on, like a favourite perfume or cologne transporting you back to a special holiday or night club but this wasn’t a pleasant smell or memory. The stainless-steel built-in kitchen must have cost thousands of pounds but seemed sterile, not homely. The parquet flooring was pristine and newly polished as if hiding something. As if all the past had been polished away. The cottage didn’t seem lived in.
‘This is just a holiday home – we live in Surrey and come up for long weekends,’ said the woman, as if sensing her thoughts. ‘John, my husband has driven to the supermarket which is miles away – no Ocado deliveries here,’ she smiled.
Martha smiled wanly, nodding.
‘By the way, I’m Ella,’ she said, putting a plate of expensive chocolate biscuits on the table.
‘Oh er my name is Martha,’
‘Shall I ring someone? A doctor perhaps?’
Martha’s arms prickled with the cold and she shuddered.
‘Er, n-no thanks,’ she mumbled. ‘I’m fine. It was just the heat. I’ll be off soon.’ She tried to nibble a biscuit but it made her feel nauseous.
The sight and smell of the barbecue had triggered a memory and thoughts were flooding through her brain. She had been here before.
Then it suddenly hit her – the memories in full technicolour. It was a student party, twenty years ago. It was late summer and they had a barbecue. They were laughing, drinking homemade elderberry wine and her best friend Sandy had burnt the vegetarian sausages. Life was carefree – they had just finished their finals and were celebrating, feeling confident they had done well. They had hired the cottage for the week. It was perfect – being isolated – they could play their music as loud as they wished. It had been more homely with cosy furnishings and chintz curtains then. They had burnt incense sticks and tried to give it that hippy vibe. They had even been to Stonehenge that day to watch the sunrise.
But then something had happened – something horrible. She couldn’t remember exactly what though. No-one had contacted her afterwards – as if they were too ashamed. But part of her brain had blocked out all knowledge of her friends.
Then it all came flooding back – the home-made wine, the drugs, the body in the garden. No wonder she hated the garden. She remembered the smell of disinfectant as the kitchen floor had been scrubbed.
The mother had come back early. She had been furious – there had been shouting because of the mess they had made. She had threatened to sue them. Tom had got into an argument with her that had turned violent. He had thrown something at her – she had slipped and banged her head against a kitchen unit. There was panic – she was dead. It had been an accident, but they didn’t think they would be believed.
She remembered the screaming, terrible screaming – and blood on the kitchen floor. She remembered Tom crying and helping to lift the body. It was very heavy. She had soil beneath her finger nails.
May be that’s why she had never enjoyed summer. She had always felt a sense of foreboding as the flowers wilted in the fierce sun – the grass parched and straw like. She always yearned to hide in the cool crisp autumn and revelled in the icy winter – felt such a relief when it became cold. She realized that over the years she had resisted knowing the truth. They had lost contact after that – too ashamed to meet again. It had been an accident – her death – but they had panicked – seeing their careers disappearing in front of them. In a panic she realized that her body might still be buried in the garden.
‘I - I think I stayed here as a student – I seem to remember a party one summer.’
Ella’s eyes glinted, calculating how long ago that would have been.
‘That could be so. My mother used to rent the house during holidays. This was her house,’ she said.
There was a sudden jolt of recognition.
‘Was it you?’ she said accusingly.
‘What do you mean?’ asked Martha.
‘Were you here at the party that summer when Mum went missing?’
Martha didn’t answer.
‘Do you remember something?’ she asked, her sharp features becoming even sharper and her eyes glinting.
‘I need to go now. My friend will wonder where I am, said Martha.’
‘My Mum went missing that day. She’s never been found. I was six years old. When I came back from a fishing trip with my Dad, Mum had gone, vanished. It was in the newspapers. She hadn’t taken a suitcase – her clothes and belongings were still here. Wait there – I’m just going to dry my hair,’ she added.
Ella was clutching a Polaroid photograph. ‘I thought you looked familiar,’ she said. It had been taken that night. She was wearing a long flowing pink dress and her bleached hair had a flower in it. She looked suntanned and carefree. That was before it had gone horribly wrong. When she had packed her rucksack and left quickly.
There was something familiar about the sharp planes of Ella’s face and the liquid blue eyes – that quickly transformed into a steely glint. Then she remembered. Her blood ran cold. She could see Ella’s mother – the same eyes and haughty bearing, her steel coloured hair in a tight bun.
‘Er, there was a party. Something happened, I think. I can’t fully remember.’
‘That night – all those years ago. Did something happen to my mother?’ said Ella.
Martha’s face blanched.
‘Did you all do something to her?’ she urged.
She shook her head nervously.
‘I don’t believe you,’ she said.
‘I heard there was a student party. Mum disappeared after that. The police investigated but there was nothing, no trace of her. The students were interviewed but there was no evidence of any wrongdoing.’
Suddenly, she scrabbled in her bag for her phone.
‘You won’t find it in there,’ said Ella, her eyes glinting.
‘You can stay here until you tell me everything. My husband will be home shortly, and he is in the police force. I can’t let you go until I know everything. Where is my mother?’
Martha got up and rushed to the door, but it was locked. She gulped with terror. The fan from the air conditioning seemed to get louder and louder and she fainted.
© Belinda Crowther