They had made there final move. This had better be the dream house they were looking for


The shadow of the gallows by M.A.Meddings

SHADOW OF THE GALLOWS.

BY M.A.MEDDINGS

Quite by chance they found the house; set back from the road amongst the trees. It stood alone and dilapidated in the lea of the hill, where a rough track climbed from the high road.
'Just the ticket', Paul said. 'It will come for the right price if we play our cards right. A bit rough now I know, but see that, good solid flint; this place, built to last it was'. Joanna cared the less.
She was tired of the constant upheaval every two year, and wearisome of chasing dreams. Just when she began getting used to a place enough to call it home, Paul would, for reasons best known to himself, want to move on. This was their fourth house in almost twelve years, and looked no different to the rest when they bought them.
Described as the perfect properties for renovation, all bought at the lowest market price, substantially improved then sold as the market turned. It was a tricky balancing act, but Paul had perfected it. Business thrived and they might enjoy life to the full, if only they could settle.
'We've had four beautiful houses yet no home', said Joanna, 'it is time now to put down roots'.
'Your absolutely right darling, and this could be the place, just look at that view', said Paul. 'We can take our time, make what we want of it and', he paused for a second before continuing, 'if you like in eighteen months or so, start a family'.
Joanna perished the thought. 'This disjointed existence is no life style for children. They need security above all else. Until we settle, a baby is out of the question'.
Privately Paul knew she was right, but he needed more time and a couple of good deals to secure their future. Much of the work on this property, could be done without touching the capital; a couple of men, subcontract, that's all it would need, and, as funds were still coming in from the rented properties, the cash flow would handle itself.
Paul eventually persuaded her. After all; the place did have character and what a garden they could make on the side of that hill.
'We could have terraces awash with colour in years to come', she said exited by the challenge. 'Make no mistake Paul, if we get this house, I intend to stay, and then in a couple of years or so, if you want we will start a family'.
The planning clerk was harder to convince.
'Should have been knocked down years ago, but you know what local sentiment is. It was habitable until a few years ago, but the public health changes soon put paid to that. Needs a great deal of work, but if you've enough money, you can make it habitable again. A worthwhile project though, that might attract a grant if you delve deeply enough. A great deal of history that place has, some of it not very pleasant'.
The Old gaol house went under the hammer and fell short of the reserve price, the owner, only too pleased to reconsider Paul's final offer. On this market, who else had shown an interest in the crumbling property. The best course, was to cut losses, a dilemma Paul was all too familiar with.
Joanna began to feel at home once the new windows were in.. On a good day, from the front of the house, you could see the Southern edge of the Cotswolds. It was spectacular, and for once it seemed her father approved of their choice.
'It's a pity your mother wasn't here to see this. She would have loved to pitch into that garden', he said.
Jo knew exactly how he felt, she missed her too, especially the valued guidance she gave with gardens. This one would have been no different. This one had potential, but it would take time to develop. That development, would be the poorer, without the benefit of her mother's experience.
Jo inherited her mother's love of floriculture and was quite a gardener in her own right. She looked forward therefore, to the task of renovating the garden, whilst Paul tackled the house.
They moved in towards Autumn and within three summers, the garden and house had taken the form they'd planned, a substantially appointed Wiltshire home, with terraced gardens. They were a riot of colour, particularly at the height of summer. Nothing would spoil this! Jo simply would not let it! Here they would stay! It was perfectly situated! Within easy commuting distance of London, where Paul had most of his business interests, and close enough to Oxford, for her to keep an eye on her father, who appeared lost since her mother died.
The garden was Jo's pride and joy. A memorial tribute to her mother, whose influence, seemed obvious, throughout.
'But I'm damned if I know what she would have done with that'!
That! Was a plot of rising ground at the top end of the garden. A ramparted hillock close to the boundary wall, where the track began its ascent to the summit of the hill.
The 'tump', Joanna called it, was almost devoid of plant growth, except for a few scrub alpines and stone crops she'd managed to bring on along the flanks. It should have been the ideal site for a rock garden. Yet, despite an apparently rich loam and the application of copious amounts of fertiliser, barren is what it remained.
'Jepson says it's to do with the Arsenic', she told her father.
Jepson, was a local man who came two mornings a week to help with the heavy work.
'Something about here being an Arsenic vein running through the hill, apparently, according to him, it comes to the surface right there'.
Her father dismissed the claim.
'Never heard the like of it girl', he said. 'Roses, that's what you need, roses. Roses will grow anywhere. Remember what your mother did with roses'?
How could she ever forget the heady tang of the Rose scented summers of her childhood. Her mother was a genius with roses, could get then to grow wherever she put them. Able to strike cuttings at will!
'Just take your cutting my dear', she said 'dip it in rooting compound, put it into a sandy loam for a few weeks and see what happens'.
Jo did so and failed. She often got them to root successfully, only to lose them in the potting on stage. Her father was quite right of course. If she could create a bower on top of the tump and cover it with roses, it might solve the problem.
Jepson was no help at all and irritated her with a constant doom laden prophecy.
'No good will come from throwing good money after bad. That mound is barren cus nature intended it so. No sense in wastin' energy tryin' to put right, what she decides is wrong'.
Joanna ignored him. She had made up her mind. 'We will have roses Jepson! Despite you! Lovely climbing roses on a frame, with a seat and a table and chairs, where we can take tea'.
'You gar build a bower first missis', said Jepson, 'who gonna build that for ye? You aint considered that 'ave you missis? And, you need some good timber to make a proper bower, none of that half seasoned rubbish. You want some good ol' English 'ardwood, so you do, loik what he sells down by the river, might be something there for ye'.
Jepson was absolutely correct. There might be something there.
What the wood yard did sell, often intrigued her. In the remains of the old sawmill, the owner had assembled a massive collection of horticultural paraphernalia, a virtual 'utopia' for the landscape gardener.
Most of the collection was the remnants from abandoned churchyards, or reclaimed from the gardens of deserted Victorian mansions, destined for demolition. Consequently, alongside redeemed marble angels, the owner had successfully delivered into good keeping and eventual profitable sale, the discarded jardiniere of long forgotten summers.
Wrought iron railings; stone baths; slate chimney pots; strange obelisks, even an eight foot high bronze bull, were each neatly labelled, with their respective place of origin and price of sale.
'Purely guideline prices ma'am', the owner of the yard informed her. 'I works on the needs must principle. If you need it more than I do, then you'll pay more, if not, then you'll pay less'. Always willing to haggle though is Johnson ma'am, make me an offer and we'll see what comes of it. What is your pleasure this fine day'?
Oh! I see; timber is it? Good old fashioned oak at that. Best place to look, is in that shed; there's a load of old timber inside darling. You might find what you want in there'. He directed her to the older part of the mill, where stored on ramshackle trestles, was row upon row of roughly stacked, reclaimed timber.
Half hidden by a plethora of roof joists, Jo found just what she was looking for, three pieces of blackened oak, that might fit the bill.
'Fifty quid ma'am, that's me price if you take the lot, I'll not be splitting them up'.
'I was thinking more like thirty', said Jo.
'There's nine good pieces of oak there missis, where you gonna buy that for fifty quid'?
'Only three pieces' I think Mr Johnson', she replied. 'Besides, where are you going to sell them as a job lot? I'll give you thirty-seven, no more'.
'Nine there are to be sure ma'am, and fourty is a fair price no less', said Johnson, 'is it a deal'?
'If nine there are sir, then it's a deal, but I'll want delivery thrown in'.
'Oh but you're a hard woman missis, that you are. Delivery on the morrow and not before.
Joanna struck the deal.
There were indeed nine balks delivered, as Johnson assured her. Three pieces at least twelve inches thick, looked as though they might have supported at one time, the great buttressed roof of a church. They were a little over fifteen feet long, tapering slightly from one end to the other. At the smaller end, were the remnants of what looked like mortice joints.
'Obviously where the smaller pieces fitted', she told Paul. Her husband was non committal.
'Whatever', he said, 'it must have been one hell of a roof. Just look at the length of those timbers, too long for a roof truss. They have been set into the ground at sometime or another, see the blackening on the ends. That's where they applied the pitch to the wood to protect it from rot. My guess, they were the side wall supports for a barn or something'.
The workmen Paul engaged, at his wife's instance, took two days to erect the structure. They set the main uprights into the ground until a triangular bower; some ten foot high, stood sentinel and gaunt at the top of the 'tump', throwing its long shadow at evening, across the rest of the garden.
Across the gap created by the uprights, Jepson suspended open trellis for the roses to grow on. This served to enclose the bower on two sides, making it less stark and softening its outline against the sky.
Jepson gave notice soon after. Without warning, he suddenly decided to leave. Joanna was at odds to explain why.
'The man is absolutely in comprehensible', she confided in her father. 'He seemed happy enough and we'd been getting along just fine. He worked marvels with the roses on the bower. Just look for yourself how beautiful it looks. Then, just when the hard work's done, he decides to quit. Would you believe it'?
Joanna's father kept his own counsel.
'You're sure you didn't offend him in any way', he asked, 'you can be a trifle short with people at times too much like your mother, to tell me different. I know you may not have intended to offend, but you may have said something out of place and he took umbrage'.
Jo pondered for a few seconds then replied. 'Well I'm fairly sure I didn't, but there was just one small difference we had, nothing really, weeks ago, we had this argument about a wretched weed. It will take over if we let it, but to leave me high and dry about that, seems strange. Come I'll show you the stuff and you can judge for yourself. It emits the most awful smell if you touch it'. She led the way to the 'tump', continuing the conversation as they walked.
'We've tried everything to get shut of it, but the damn thing keeps coming back, must be the amount of fertiliser we used on the ground originally; finally paying dividends in the wrong way. Such a nuisance. It will spoil the bower altogether if we don't do something about it.
I told Jepson to dig out the tap roots, which he swears he did, but he couldn't have done the job properly, because within days, the weed was back again as healthy as ever. That's when I had this nonsense about the plant talking. I ask you a grown man talking to plants'.
She led the way up the steps that gave access to the 'tump'.
'So you think it might be Henbane dad? So did I. Especially with that smell! Take a look for yourself Dad, that's not Henbane'! She was pointing to a luxuriant growth beneath the bower, who's ovulate leaves stretched a full two feet across at the widest point.
To her surprise, from the crown of the plant, a stubby flower stalk appeared to be forming.
'Now there's a thing. It's growing a flower. That wasn't there this morning. See what I mean, just can't get rid of it, and look, there seems to be another growing over there'.
She pointed to a smaller plant let, just poking its head through the surface of the soil.
'Touch the leaf's dad if you dare, but put a peg on your nose first'.
Jo's father obliged and within seconds, was staggering backwards from the putrescence the plant was giving off.
'In God's name Jo, what the hell have you got! Rotting meat? It smells like rotting meat! You've to get rid of that somehow. You can hardly blame Jepson for wanting nothing to do with it'.
They both burst into laughter as she slipped her arm through his as they descended the steps.
'Seriously darling, I would imagine a good strong weed killer will see the back of it eventually, but enough of gardening, come, let's go to lunch, my treat'.
Jo was amazed. The first time in ages he had found time to lunch with his daughter, always too busy when she'd suggested lunch, even dinner, what a pleasant surprise.
The surprise was anything but pleasant.
'Had you really no idea things were as bad'?
Her father had broken the news. Paul was bankrupt.
'Jo I promise you, I've checked everything, even broken some worthy business connections in his defence, but he owes money all over the place'.
'How much'? Her father hesitated, 'There's talk of', he hesitated again.
Joanna insisted, 'Dad! How much'?
'Over half a million, but that's probably an exaggeration. You'll know soon enough. There's a petition in Gloucester tomorrow'.
Jo hardly heard him. The suddenness of the information shocked her. What a fool she'd been. It was all there for her to see had she wanted. The constant moves from place to place had nothing to do with advancement. The chance to better themselves, or a host of other excuses he'd trotted out, all down to one thing, the need to realise capital quickly to ward off his creditors.
Why had she been so gullible? The signs were always there. That time in Maidenhead, when the Court hotel refused him credit. Alarm bells rang then. He silenced them with his charm and the speed, with which he replaced the funds he'd borrowed.
Then there were the hastily concealed letter, the secret telephone calls taken out of earshot. The raised voices on the line, bank statements that never came; supposed people that owed him money, if only he could get it out of them. Anxious waiting for letters containing rent cheques from his agents, all added up to one thing. They had been living beyond their means for years.
Instead of admitting it, that way they could have dealt with their problems, the fool had hidden things from her. How could she ever forgive him? Her father interrupted her thoughts.
'Of course dear, I can help, but keep me fully informed'.
'Yes of course dad, but that will come only if we need to, the house has to be worth at least a quarter of a million'.
Her father was less than optimistic.
'Sorry to add to your troubles, but my guess is; I could be wrong of course, that it's mortgaged up to the hilt anyhow. Whatever, you can't really plan anything until you and Paul lay your cards on the table. Then if you want some help, you only have to ask'.
As she left him, Joanna's mind was in a turmoil. How would they manage? Every thing they'd worked for, lost. Why hadn't he confided in her? Where had all the money gone? Another woman perhaps. Joanna decided that was not possible; she would have known surely, but then would she?
'Joanna, stop it', she screamed as she started the car. 'You're becoming irrational. If we get out of this, it's with a clear head; nothing gained by panic. It's best to get home now and begin to discuss the things we should have done years ago'.
The house was in darkness as she pulled into the drive a little after Nine o clock. To her surprise, Paul had parked his car in the open garage, with the lights on.
'Paul are you there', she called, 'darling, we need to talk'. He wasn't in the garage. Jo switched off the lights and went round to the back of the house, where she let herself in through the French windows.
As she pulled the drapes, the storm that had been rumbling all evening, finally broke.
A spectacular fork of lightening rent the leaden skies beyond the ridge and was followed by an ominous growl from the towering thunder clouds, rolling in from the Southwest
'Paul darling, are you there'? She called from the foot of the stairs, and waited an answer. There was none. 'Where could he be', she thought, 'I only hope he hasn't gone to drown his sorrows'. Then she remembered the car. 'No, whatever, at least if he'd gone on a bender, he had the good sense to leave the car at home. Oh! Damn him; just when we need to talk things over, he's not around. Typical! Good old, something's bound to turn up;Paul. Solve your problems by running away from them, just his style'. She felt the anger surge as she went upstairs to the bedroom, where she found the keys to the car.
There was nothing she could do but wait. He couldn't be faraway, maybe if she made a phone call or two. He might be at the Renton's place. She would ring; maybe they had seen him.
Sarah Renton was rather sharp with her on the telephone, insisting that she ask Paul to ring them urgently, as soon as he returned home.
'God, not them', she thought, 'He isn't owing them money as well, the shame of it all,
Just when, we were making friends'.
Her anger changed to despair and she collapsed in a flood of tears, sobbing deeply, until an involuntary sleep came and momentarily eased the burden.
It must have been the rain on the window that woke her, for it lashed the southern side of the house with such a driving force, that Jo thought it might cave in. It was Three thirty a.m and a dark gloomy morning would dawn soon.
She lay for some time, caught in the eye of the storm, between half asleep and awakening. Gradually however, she became aware of another sound, less furious than the sound of the rain smashing into the house. It was a quieter more rhythmic; yet nonetheless malignant sound. A creaking of wood, accompanied by a light squealing; a somewhat joyful; delightful; pleasurable squealing, as if a pack of rats was abroad and, finding in their path a store of grain, had paused to feast.
'The flowers, my god, they're destroying my flowers'. She ran down the stairs and into the garden.
There she found Paul, hanging, and the terrible grisly truth about the bower was revealed. Set stark against the early light of dawn, she finally saw it for what it was. They had erected in all innocence, a gaunt; triangulate; bower in the shape of the Tyburn tree. The timber she'd bought, was the remnants of a gallus frame, where the unfortunate victims of a harsher realm, met their fate.
The creaking sound that woke her, the insidious sound of the rope around Paul's neck, chaffing on the gallows beam as his body swung in the wind. Drawn in dreadful awe, by the light squealing sound from the 'tump', Joanna climbed the steps to the summit then recoiled in horror.
The plant that grew so luxuriantly these past weeks, was now in full bloom. From the centre, a tendrilous growth, extending upwards, had entwined itself round Paul's legs, embedding cruel thorns deep into his veins. A light rhythmic pumping of the stem signalled all. The Mandragorian growth, was gleefully feeding on the blood of her husband, in the shadow of its home.
In grim realisation that it had been waiting for them all along, Joanna struck the final blow. With spade held aloft, she brought it violently down into the heart of the plant. A terrible scream rent the air as the blade cleaved the roots. A stream of blood shot upwards, spattering her dress with Paul's life and the world turned, then spun, as she collapsed into oblivion.

THE END





Short story by lastromantichero
Read 541 times
Written on 2005-12-14 at 06:01

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Whew!
2005-12-14


penfold18
Excellent write mike , great imagination, and build up, thoroughly enjoyed reading this well done that man :-))
2005-12-14