Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ravished Justice


Title: Ravished Justice 
Author: Ranger


Living with a professional cellist meant you quickly became inured to the quality of his music. Noel spent four to five hours of each day in practising. Dominic was long used to eating and sleeping alongside it and it wasn’t often now that he deliberately stopped to listen; but there was something ethereal about the piece drifting out of the music room. Dominic put his briefcase under the stairs, hung his jacket over the stair post and walked towards the half-open door, pulling his tie loose. Noel was sitting with his back to the wall, scowling at sheet music with his hair in his eyes. At the far end of the long, bare floor-boarded room, a young man was dancing, naked to the waist, with the same look of set concentration. Jamie Thadier. Dominic scowled at the sight of him. He had seen him on stage numerous times: Jamie and Noel had been lovers in the days when Jamie’s ballet company travelled with it’s own small orchestra. They were still close friends. Too close for Dominic's liking. In tights, sweating and damp haired, Jamie was alarmingly large. The sheer strength and muscle was far more apparent, the height of each jump unnerving. The perfect, swan line of his body and the endless flow of movement was even more shocking when it was punctuated by a sudden drop into an upright, everyday stance and an impolite phrase in blunt Anglo-Saxon.
“Sorry, I need another 5/4 there.”
Noel hesitated, then repeated a phrase in a different rhythm. Jamie winced.
“That won’t work, will it?”
“Might be better simply stopping, I’ll wait for you to pick the beat up again. Could you hold it without hearing a beat?”
“No problem, if you can pick up the cue.”
“When you come out of the jetes into the turn? Hello.” Noel looked up and leaned back to kiss Dominic, instantly picking up on the scowl.
Jamie, oblivious to Dominic or to quiet, scanned through the music and took Noel’s pencil from him.
“Lose that bit, move to there, take the pause there.”
“From the jumps.” Noel gave Dominic a hard look and picked up his bow. “Two, three-“
Two completely normal looking people abruptly launched into professional performance. They worked together with the smoothness of long practised partners. And they spoke a language of dancing that meant nothing whatsoever to Dominic. He silently pulled a face at Jamie's back and went in search of something to eat. The answer phone was on and flashing in the kitchen: neither Dominic nor Noel was in the habit of answering phones. Dominic put the kettle on and hit the button as he passed. The bleep was followed by Anthony’s voice, muffled in traffic sounds.
“Dom? I’m stuck on the M40, some bloody juggernaut’s shed it’s load- damn, can you hear this? Look, can you get out tonight? There's this club in Alsham, The White Elephant, and this guy I said I'd meet there- I don't want to go on my own, is there ANY chance Noel is going to let you sneak out and come with me? Get back to me when you can, PLEASE come.”
Dominic snorted. Noel did not much like Anthony and he liked Anthony in nightclubs still less. Although fair was fair: if Jamie was around the house Noel could hardly blame him for seeking solace with Anthony. Bleep. Whirr, bleep bleep.
“Hello, Noel Neilson? This is David Winscott here from the VSO, it’s two fifty five, I’m ringing with your name from Ted Wyman- there’s an open air performance tonight, at Rockingham and we’re desperate for a cellist. Please get back to me as soon as possible-“
Dominic grabbed a pen and transcribed the number. Noel walked past him, turned on the hot tap and held his hands underneath it.
“Who was that?”
“Winscott, VSO? They need a cellist tonight for an open air at Rockingham.”
“Damn.” Noel took the number with wet hands. “Did he say where he got my name?”
“Ted.”
“I’ll have to do it then. Oh God, I hate open airs.”
“You’ll have to get a move on, it’s past five now.” Dominic got out of the way and watched Noel dialling, lost in his heavy sweater. “What’s Jamie doing here? Nowhere to practise in that damn great theatre?”
Noel gave him a look. “Now don't start. He wants me to record a piece for a solo at the Welsh National- hello, it’s Noel Neilson.”
Dominic ransacked the cupboards, found the nearest convenience food and nuked it in the microwave. Noel had his telephone voice on: sweet, polite and so reserved it sounded automated. “Right. I’ll be there for seven. My pleasure.”
“Liar.” Dominic accused. "And why can't Jamie find any other musicians to work with? His dance company's got a whole bloody orchestra-"
"We're used to working together and this is a solo piece. We're more or less writing the music to go with the dance. So behave."
Dominic muttered. Noel pulled him round and grunted when Dominic's hug pulled him off his feet. “Do you want to come with me tonight if you're feeling neglected? Lie around a park and freeze to death?”
"Not much. I'll find something to do."
With Anthony. At the White Elephant. Noel fended him off.
"I wouldn't wait for me, I'd think I'll be out until about one with all the driving. Put me down Dracula, I've got work to do. I'll tell Jamie I've got to run, he wanted a shower."
Dominic groaned. Noel swatted him.
"Belt up. Make him a coffee and be polite, he won't stay long. Sure you don't mind being abandoned tonight?"
"Sure." Dominic said innocently. Noel let him go and ran upstairs. Dominic reached for the phone and dialled Anthony's number.
"Looks like I'm free. Where do you want to meet?" 
 
***** 
 
What Noel didn't know, wouldn't annoy him. He wouldn't HATE the idea. It wouldn't cause any major problems. It would however lead to one of those long, tedious lectures where he pointed out all the things he mistrusted about Anthony and reasonably argued Dom into the ground over each and every point. Better just to skip the entire performance. And if he wanted Jamie Thadier rippling his numerous muscles around the house, what did he expect?  Dominic left his car in the Alsham multi storey carpark in mid defiance of Noel's opinions on security, and walked the half mile through the town centre to the club.
Anthony caught sight of him inside and waved enthusiastically.
"Hey! How did you escape? Warder off duty tonight"?
"He's got a concert." Dominic gave Anthony's companion an experienced glance. About twenty, pretty, little to nothing between the ears and already well tanked up. "Is this David?"
"It is." Anthony slung an arm around the boy's shoulders. "David, Dominic."
"Feeling very green." Dominic said bluntly. Anthony grinned.
"Well have to admit things are going a little better than I thought. Come on, lighten up. Have some fun."
There were several other people around that Dominic knew: enough for him to keep fairly well entertained while Anthony and David grew steadily more fascinated with each other. It was approaching eleven thirty when Dominic tapped Anthony on the shoulder and drew him away with some difficulty.
"I've got to go. Noel'll be back around midnight."
"And you'll turn into a pumpkin." Anthony teased.
"Not exactly. You know Noel. Have fun, don't do anything I wouldn't do."
"If I ever listened to you I'd have no fun whatsoever." Anthony gave Dominic a rather alcoholic hug. "Drive carefully. Where did you park?"
"Not far. I'll make it home by midnight."
It was cool outside, becoming deserted as all but the serious clubs closed down for the night. Noel would be home soon, still on a high as he always was after a performance. At his most lively, still flooded with adrenaline and music, sleep would be the last thing on his mind. Dominic stifled a smirk as he walked across the bridge and the ring road by long derelict mills. The road was quiet enough at this time of night that he climbed the barrier and crossed at the corner, ignoring the under pass. There were only two other people in sight: an elderly man walking with a dog and someone in a brightly coloured jacket using a cash machine at the underpass entrance. Dominic rounded the corner into the one way street and jogged up the stained, concrete steps of the multi storey. Footsteps echoed in here and the stairwell was freezing, holding the frosty air like a fridge. There was a curious peace to the stillness and the emptiness in the yellow electric lighting. Dominic jangled in his pockets for his car keys as he walked towards his Rover, aware of someone else unlocking something small and blue on the other side of the deck.
“You got any change? The machine only takes coins.”
Dominic glanced round. The man in the coloured jacket. Dominic felt through his jeans pockets, not without sympathy. “Only a couple of pound coins? Have my ticket if you want it, I’m going.”
He unlocked the driver’s door and felt across the windscreen for the ticket. The interior of the car was cold, his breath frosted in white as he pulled the label off the glass. The man had walked across, waiting. His jacket was in the corner of Dominic’s eye, the footsteps had grown louder, had stopped.
“There-“ Dominic started to say, and stopped, breath jolting in his chest as a hand shoved him forwards against the side of the car.
“What? What’s going on?”
The hand pushed hard, scratching the fastening of his jacket against the car roof. Dominic’s heart started to thud, loudly and painfully. He lifted his hands with all the slowness he could manage, keeping his voice ridiculously calm.
“Allright. Allright, what do you want?”
“You stand still and you won’t get hurt.”
“I’ve got nothing on me, just a few coins in my pocket. Not even a wallet.”
Another hand came around his throat, around the base of his throat with the fingers dipped down towards his chest. One nail scratched. Dominic smelt the tang of metal from a ring on the thick, third finger. He felt his senses lift up through his body and focus in his head. A numb heat settled through his body and he became so aware of his breathing it was difficult to make his lungs work. In and out. In and out. He was working so hard to push air out that his chest was cramping.
“Take the car. The keys are there. I don’t have anything else-“
The hand around his throat clenched so hard he choked, and the other hand dug into his ribs before he could claw those fingers off his airway. “You want to get hurt? Do you?”
Air. A cramp in his chest, a cramp in his twisting guts until he thought he was dying, and yet he said, helplessly, like a child, “No..”
There were other things said. The voice went on and on, getting thicker and hoarser. Dominic stared at his hands, outflung over the roof of the car. His watch. The dark beyond the well lit interior of the car park, the illuminated coke can on the oil stained floor. He concentrated on them all in turn, trying desperately to block out what was happening to him. 
  
 
***** 
  
 
Noel's car was still warm on the drive. Dominic paused beside it, not sure whether he was relieved or alarmed. What was worse? For Noel to be here? For Noel not to be here?
His key in the lock sounded unnaturally loud. Noel's voice instantly called from the kitchen.
"Dom?"
"It's me." Dominic shot the locks across, taking his time. Delaying for every second he could find. It was a while before he made it into the kitchen to where Noel was standing, hips against the kitchen table, arms folded across his chest. His glare was not promising.
"Do you know what time it is?"
"Er." Dominic glanced at his watch. "Twelve forty. You said you'd be back at one-"
"That is NOT the issue." Noel said curtly. "What time are you supposed to be home during the week?"
"Eleven thirty." Dominic heard his own voice, sounding ridiculously apologetic. "I'm sorry-"
Noel's green eyes followed him across the kitchen. "And you let me know where you're going. Notes. We've mentioned leaving notes just once or twice before. If anything happened to you, how would I know? If I don't know where you are, I have no idea whether I need to worry, or call the police, or just wait for you to wander back so I can wring your neck."
"I know." Dominic sat down and surrendered, in no mood to argue. "I'm sorry."
"So where were you?"
Dominic rested his head on his hands, wondering what he felt.
"I went out with Anthony. Club in Alsham."
And you wouldn't believe how sorry I am. Please God don't spank me. Not now.  Not tonight.
"Dom? Are you allright?" Noel's long fingers cupped his chin and lifted. There was no decision to make: Dominic lied without hesitation. He was already in trouble: to admit he'd further disobeyed every rule about parking and safety would not help the situation at all. Noel's green eyes were too soft to be looked at.
"Just a headache. The music was deafening."
"Well you can consider yourself grounded for the next two weeks." Noel let him go, took a couple of aspirin out of the cupboard and ran a glass of water. "Are you sure you're okay? You're very pale."
Dominic swallowed the aspirin, not answering. Noel felt his forehead and pushed his hair back.
"Go on. Bed. We'll talk about this in the morning."
Thank God, Dominic thought silently. Noel wasn't in the habit of postponing sentence. There would be a lecture to face in the morning, but no spanking. Dominic stripped and buried himself under the covers, trying not to shiver. Noel, slight and angular, followed him ten minutes later and opened the window, framed for a moment in front of the dark curtains.
"So what was Anthony's new boyfriend like?"
"Same as all the others." Dominic moved over and burrowed against Noel as soon as he could. Noel winced and wrapped both arms firmly around him.
"You're frozen. Was it that cold out there?"
"I was stuck in traffic for ages." Dominic clung, burying his face deep in the comfort of Noel's neck, and swallowed hard to get the tightness out of his throat. 
 
***** 
  
 
"You were mugged?" Anthony said in horror. "Oh God… oh Dom I'm so sorry-"
"It's not exactly your fault." Dominic sank deeper into the over stuffed sofa, burying himself in his lager. Across the table, Anthony looked distraught.
"I shouldn't have let you walk back on your own, I am SO sorry- did he hurt you?"
"No."
"What did Noel say? Did you report it to the police?"
"No. And Noel doesn't know.
"You didn't-"
"Of course I didn't bloody tell him! Apart from the fact I was already late and out with you without having told him, he'd have killed me for parking in the multistorey and wandering around on my own. Not to mention talking to bloody-" Dominic caught himself. "Strangers."
Anthony kept quiet, unsure of what to say. Dominic took another heavy swallow of lager. It was a Friday lunchtime and the pub was crowded with other suits, snatching an hour's break from the day.
"So what are you going to do?" Anthony said eventually.
"Forget about it." Dominic said shortly. Another long silence.
"Are you around this weekend? David's over and-"
"I'm supposed to be driving to Hertfordshire at six." Dominic put his glass down. "Noel's grandfather's place. Noel inherited it last year, we keep meaning to go over and start stripping it and straightening the place out. I've not seen it yet but Noel says it's out of control. Neglected too long."
"Sounds fun."
"If you like decorating." Dominic glanced at his watch. "Look I'll give you a ring when we get back."
Anthony didn't protest. In this kind of mood, Dominic was not easy company. 
  
 
*** 
 
"Do we HAVE to take that thing with us?"
Noel looked up at the slam of the front door. "That thing is my livelihood. And it's called a cello."
Dominic refused to look at him as he got into the car. "It takes up about two thirds of the car and we're supposed to be going to the damn cottage to work-"
"Dom."
It was quiet in Noel's soft voice, but Dominic knew the intonation well enough to mutter only under his breath as he turned the engine over. Noel leaned to turn the radio down to a tolerable volume and gave his lover a thoughtful look. Dom had been edgy all week, quiet one minute, clingy the next. Now he was in one of his rare but explosive moods where he would not stop until he had self destructed. Something was on his mind and Noel intended to use the weekend to find out what.
He spent the next fifteen minutes watching Dominic grow shorter and shorter tempered, muttering under his breath and impatiently stamping on brake and accelerator as they moved through the evening traffic.
"Allright, that's enough." Noel said firmly when he drove through an orange light a little closer to red than was legal. "Calm down."
"YOU drive and see how calm you are! Do they save all the defective drivers for the rush hour?"
"Dom, enough."
"So YOU drive!" Dominic screeched to a halt in the middle of the road, flung the door open and got out. Noel stared at him, startled and annoyed. The sight of Dominic raising two fingers to the complaining driver behind them made him shift across to the driver's seat, turn the engine over and move the car to the kerb. Dominic was standing on the pavement, hands dug in his pockets, his back to the car. Noel turned the radio off and opened the passenger door.
"Dominic get in."
 Dominic didn't move. Noel swore mildly, got out of the car, took his lover by the arm and pointed him at the car with a discreet and extremely firm swat. Dominic glowered at him, still radiating with fury, then got in and slammed the door.
The rest of the drive was conducted in silence.
It was the first time Dominic had seen the cottage and he was in no state to appreciate it. Overgrown, ancient, not in terribly good repair, he had an image of red bricks and tangled undergrowth as Noel steered him down the path, still in silence, unlocked the door and pushed him into a hallway that smelled of damp.
Dominic fumbled for the lights and cursed as the fuse audibly blew.
"Oh GREAT! Do they actually have electricity in this-"
Noel found the fuse box and flipped the trip switch. The hall had last been decorated in early stone age by the looks of it. Noel opened the door into the kitchen, put the light on and took Dominic by the arm, leading him across to one vacant stretch of wall.
"Face that wall and keep quiet, you are in enough trouble. I'm going to unload the car."
He heard the crash of Dominic's two fists slammed against the ancient paint work, turned around and swatted him hard enough to elicit a yelp.
"AND IF I WERE YOU I would work hard on cooling down!"
Dominic swore under his breath but pressed his forehead to the wall and didn't answer. Noel when really annoyed was not someone to mess around with. He had the musician's temperament, and his soft voice and soft eyes and the flowing hands that gestured when he talked were no indication of the will or determination underlying.  The man played Beethoven in ways that made the music a military offensive.
He listened to Noel moving around in the hallway, the clatter of cases, then the quiet click of the door being shut. Then Noel's usually soft voice in nearly drill sergeant accents.
"SIT."
Dominic turned around and took a seat at the kitchen table, head down. Noel folded his arms and the heavy lock of hair over his forehead slipped down into his eyes, emphasising the glare.
"WHAT exactly was behind that tantrum? Which IS finished, believe me."
Dominic thought only briefly of letting his instincts rule and shouting before he abandoned it. Noel gave him an experienced look.
"Are you ready to talk about this?"
"I don't know why."
"That's not good enough. I will NOT put up with that kind of behaviour from you anywhere, never mind in the middle of a public road. That's aside from the snarling you've been doing all evening."
Dominic glowered at the table.
"Fine." Noel unfolded his long arms, pulled Dominic up from his chair and sat down to turn his partner over his knee. Trousers and briefs were swiftly downed, Noel wrapped an arm around Dominic's waist and administered a spanking to his partner's bare bottom that turned his pale skin scarlet and within a very few minutes reduced him to tears. Noel gave him a few more thorough rounds, concentrating on the lower curves of his backside where the slopes of his buttocks faded into thigh, hearing Dominic's sobbing intensify in a way that meant he was no longer capable of temper in any shape or form. He stopped then and laid his palm comfortingly over the lower half of Dominic's rump, rubbing gently. Dominic came awkwardly upright when Noel pulled him, hot and unsteady and attaching himself to Noel's neck in a deathgrip. Noel shifted to take Dominic between his knees, held him tight and stroked the sandy head under his chin, only half listening to a flood of apologies and promises most of which were too incoherent to follow.
Something was upsetting him. Something fairly major. And Noel was beginning to suspect a guilty conscience was part of it. He waited, rocking Dominic and murmuring, just soothing until Dominic calmed enough to be comprehensible.
"Now are you going to tell me what blew you up this evening?"
"I don't know."
"Dom." Noel pulled away to see Dominic's face. Dominic's eyes were wide with the sincerity only he was capable of. Sometimes Dominic reminded him of a ten year old boy playing sardines inside a six foot body. His pockets ought to be full of catapults and conkers, not car keys and wallets.
"I don't know. Really. I'm sorry, I've been in a lousy mood all day."
"That's no excuse."
That, if there was any vestige of temper left, would have started him off again. The eyes still lifted to his were filled with tears but no longer angry.
"I don't know. Honestly and truthfully. I'm sorry."
Noel looked at him. Leave it, he told himself finally. You know Dom, he'll tell you sooner or later and we've got all weekend. Let it go. 
 
*******
The house was a rabbit warren of narrow, damp stairways and dark rooms. Dominic, who topped Noel's height by about two inches, banged his head on at least three doorways before Noel found the upstairs lights.
"These are the front rooms. The big ones. There's another staircase off the kitchen scullery, about another four upstairs rooms at the back, but they won't be large enough for double beds."
"I'd have thought we'll be lucky if we find beds at all." Dominic opened one door and winced at the musty smell that came out. "I'd guess this was your grandfather's room. It's the only one furnished."
Noel tried the other doors along the hallway and shut them again, tired now and increasingly fed up. "I think you're right. Okay, lets try the back rooms. If there's one up there dry enough, we can put sleeping bags down on the floor."
"This is great this place. Reminds me of the ghost train at Alton towers."
"Shut UP Dominic."
Dominic hooted behind him in the darkness of the stairwell. Noel swatted what he could reach of him and stopped on the dark and narrow landing. Dominic's hands rested on his hips and his chin settled on Noel's shoulder.
"Lead on McDuff."
His depression and temper had vanished; he was slipping into his usual boisterous good nature. Which at this time of night could be just as wearing.
"I haven't been up here since I was a child, these rooms were never used- and I think the electrics are out up here."
Dominic followed him as he tried one of the three door leading off the hall. Two were locked. The third opened onto a bare floorboarded room, unfurnished and unpainted, with nothing more than a small iron hearth. There were no curtains at the window and there was enough moonlight to see. Dominic pounced on the fire with delight. Noel went across to the window. They were at the top of the house, right under the eaves, and with a clear view across the garden. Long and overgrown, only a small stretch of lawn was cultivated. Beyond that, brambles and waist high grass tangled what had once been a vegetable garden and an orchard. A crackle from the hearth announced that Dominic had got a fire going. He gave Noel a faintly guilty shrug and nodded at a coal scuttle which had a few lumps of coal and one or two ancient sticks of kindling.
"It's what it's for. And it's cold."
"There's no central heating." Noel gave one last glance at the window, mentally evaluating the gardening they would have to do. "Okay. I'll get the sleeping bags. You find something to eat. If the water's disconnected, you'll find the mains in the scullery."
The scullery had a dusty oak table and a few chairs and very little else. Dominic tracked down the water mains, turned the half rusted tap and let it run, waiting while the water cleared. For several minutes there were no other sounds than the water running, then a muffled scratching overhead made Dominic look sharply upwards. And grimace.
"Noel?"
"What?"
"There are mice around this house."
"I suppose that's logical." Noel said from the hallway. From the thumps as he headed upstairs, he was dragging the sleeping bags after him. Dominic shut the tap off, filled a kettle and went into the kitchen to light the gas hob. The almighty crash in the hall made him abandon it in a hurry and run. Noel was in a tangled heap at the foot of the stairs. From his swearing, he was less hurt than shaken and annoyed, but any injury to a musician is serious and Dominic grabbed for him anxiously, lifting him to his feet with extreme care.
"Are you okay? Your hands okay?"
"Fine." Despite that, Noel was flexing his fingers carefully, making sure before he checked the rest of himself over. "There's a loose tread up there, it slipped out from under me. Who's bright idea was it coming over here in the dark?"
"Yours."
"Mmn."
They ate sandwiches in the moonlit room upstairs, watching Dominic's impromptu fire. Dominic curled up to Noel, pushing until Noel wrapped an arm around him.
"What do you actually want to do to this…."
"Don't say it. I don't know. Clear it and make it habitable first."
"Did you know it was in this much of a mess?"
"My grandfather was a strange man. Lived alone here for fifteen years. I kept offering to do the garden or update things like the oven, put radiators in- he wouldn't have it. I think it was-"
They both jumped, hard, as the door slammed shut. Dominic relaxed first and giggled.
"Forget the garden, just ring ghostbusters."
"There's all sorts of draughts blowing around this place. Probably window panes broken somewhere-"
Noel broke off again and they clutched each other as the window slammed open, smashing violently into the outer wall. The fire leapt up in response to the rush of cold air, Dominic jumped to shut the window and heard Noel's yelp of pain behind him as the coal scuttle overturned and rolled into him.
"What the HELL-"
Dominic grabbed the window and pulled it shut, locking it firmly. The fire died slowly down again. The room was nearly as bright as day for a minute, Dominic at the window thought he could see every detail of Noel's white and strained face. Then suddenly the light began to dwindle until the room was alarmingly dark. Dominic found the sleepingbag again and he and Noel pressed close together.
"This is NOT a peaceful place for sleeping." Noel muttered. Silence. Dominic strained his eyes to look around him. Every shape in the room was normal- no furniture, just bare walls, the single line of the mantel, the fireplace, the door. Except his eyes were constrained to jump and to search and he was aware of his heart thumping a little without quite understanding why. The smell of old and damp floorboards was overwhelming even with the fire.
"It's an old house. More sounds than we're used to in modern houses." He said lightly. "Just go to sleep. Once you close your eyes there's nothing left to imagine into anything spooky."
But there were plenty of sounds to listen to. Creaks and groans of beams in the night wind. Rattling windowpanes. Dominic felt Noel drift into a doze and lay for a while longer, straining his eyes to see out of the window in the dark.
He was woken by Noel jerking out of his arms. He blinked and reached for him, startled.
"What's the matter?"
"I can't sleep up here." Noel looked unnusually shaken. He was already on his feet, collecting up the sleeping bag. Dominic caught his hand.
"What?"
"I keep having the same dream. Over and over. This woman standing and staring in the corner of the room. Horrible eyes. I know it's daft, but I'm not comfortable up here 
Dom-"
"Okay, we'll move." Anxious, Dominic picked up his sleeping bag and followed him downstairs. The kitchen was surprisingly warm after being upstairs. Dominic shut all the doors leading off the kitchen and joined Noel on the floor in front of the big kitchen hearth.
"Want me to start a fire here too?"
"It'll be warm enough." Noel settled down and Dominic pressed against him, aware he was tangibly more relaxed.
"You know maybe you're on the wrong track with redecorating. Maybe what we should do is damage things a bit more and then sell it as a tourist attraction. The haunted house."
Noel's laugh was faint, but reassuring. 
 
***** 
 
The bathroom was off the scullery. Noel staggered across the tiled floor shortly after five am, blinking on early morning sunlight. The first thing he discovered was the bathroom door no longer shut. Either the door had swollen too big for the frame or the hinges had slipped. The second thing was that as he came out of the bathroom, the sun reflected directly off the glass in the welsh dresser opposite. Noel blinked on it, instinctively lifting a hand to cover his eyes, and caught one, single flash of a woman- a woman in early middle age, sitting beside a table and a lit candle. Then it was gone. Noel checked in mid stride and spun around. There was no chair pulled out from the table. He looked back at the dresser and saw only the sunlight shining off the glass. As he came out of the scullery he saw the kitchen door standing ajar, open onto the damp garden. Suspicious now, Noel pulled the door open and stood, frowning out over the overgrown lawn. There was no sign of anyone within the high garden walls.
Dominic was still peacefully asleep on the floor. Noel stepped over him without worrying: it took an earthquake to rouse Dom once properly asleep. He dug his shaving kit and a towel out of their bags and went back to the bathroom, pausing once more to look hard at the glass in the welsh cabinet. The sunlight had shifted fractionally now and the reflection was less blinding. Noel ran a basin of cold water and started to shave. It was barely a minute before he began to find it difficult to stand with his back to the open doorway. Once or twice he glanced around to an innocently empty scullery, but he was still uncomfortable. It was a relief when he finished, wiped his face and hands and left the bathroom. The temptation was strong to wake Dominic, but he nobly resisted. Instead he took the invitation of the open kitchen door and wandered into the garden.
When he was a child, the lawn had led between ordered flower beds, through a small rose garden around a wishing well, into a vegetable garden and an orchard where once a very fat and elderly donkey had resided. Noel waded the long grass as far as he could, spotting the wishing well still standing amongst the blackberry brambles. He kicked the brambles down as far as possible, trampling them away from the old bricks until the well was revealed again. A stone, dropped over the side, produced evidence there was still plenty of water inside. He was aware from the sound of the kitchen door that Dominic was ambling across to him. Noel leaned both hands on the brickwork and leaned over, peering into the water. The push was slight, but sharp. Noel grabbed the stones for support and swung around, absolutely furious.
"DOMIN-"
Dom was still standing outside the kitchen doorway, shading his eyes and watching a plane overhead. Noel stopped in mid yell and swallowed. His heart was thumping with shock.
****
How exactly did you put this to a partner who had once been thrown out of a horror film for laughing?
Dominic. I suspect you might be right in that what we actually need here is Ghostbusters… Noel wandered into the scullery and stood, watching Dominic shave.
"Dom?"
"Mmn?"
"Do you think anything's strange about this room?"
"The décor. The furniture. I suppose it's got some historical value, but style-?"
"I hated standing with my back to the doorway this morning."
"Something watching you?" Dom grinned at him in the mirror. Noel sighed.
"Not watching. Just there."
"Don't worry love. The only thing around here likely to jump out and grab you is me."
Noel didn't answer. Dominic shook his razor off.
"Oh come on. Who'd be haunting this place? Your grandfather?"
"No." Noel said fairly decisively. "Anyway, this is an ancient place, heaven knows how many people were born and died here-"
"How long have your family lived here?"
Noel trailed off. "My grandfather was born here. And so was his father."
Dominic paused in the doorway and gave him one of his rougher, crushing hugs. They were like being attacked by a very large and friendly puppy at times, but not something Noel would have wanted to live without.
"Where do you want me to start? I take it you’re going to do a couple of hours practising?"
****
Noel opened the windows in the musty drawing room, balanced his music and sat down on a dust sheeted sofa, taking the cello out of it's case. The strimmer's motor coughed into life outside, signalling Dominic attacking the brambles. Dom liked a challenge. Noel blocked out the sound, stretched his hands and began on the finger exercises.
When he was practising, he could lose three hours without noticing. He was chilled and his fingers were sore when he realised the strimmer had stopped outside. Noel laid the cello aside and went to the window. Dom had found a scythe from somewhere and was hacking his way viciously through the undergrowth in a way that suggested he'd lost his temper an hour or two before. The answer was to take him something to drink and distract him for long enough to calm down. Once angry, Dom's sense of efficiency could take over. He'd once mown over an entire flowerbed, having lost his temper with the mower missing the grass edges. Noel wandered into the kitchen and began to boil a kettle, reflecting absently that they were going to have to go out and buy more milk at some point today. There was no fridge in the house: unpacking last night Noel had shoved the milk carton into the larder in the scullery, hoping the cool in there would keep it relatively fresh. It still smelt allright. Noel was about to shut the door when some pencil marks on the grey stone wall caught his eye. They started about three feet up the wall and moved up to nearly five feet, some of the marks fainter than others, but all neatly drawn. A line, ending in a cross and a name. Noel smiled and looked closer, making out the names. P 1928. J 1928. P 1931. J 1930. M 1926. 
 
Dom was in a foul temper, but was winning against the brambles. The space around the wishing well was cleared to within an inch of its life. Noel stood- well away from the well- and watched him gulp tea.
"P would be Paul." He said when he'd told Dom about the marks. "My Grandfather. And J is John- my great Uncle. He was killed at Dunkirk. I don’t know who M is."
"Probably a friend of theirs." Dom said simply. "Or one of the servants' kids maybe. A cousin."
"There ought to be a family tree somewhere. I can't think of anyone with an M name."
"Are you finished?"
"For the moment." Noel looked up at the house windows. "I thought I'd have a wander around and see what we can do in the house. There's some bits of furniture that need clearing but I think the priority might be to rip the carpets out and get rid of the damp."
"Look out for the ghost."
Noel stuck his tongue out and left Dominic to his work. "Just you be careful with that scythe."
The front rooms were straight forward. Noel made a brief inventory, paused in the doorway of his grandfather's room and promised himself to clear it tomorrow. The back rooms were even easier. Noel fumbled through the keys from the bunch belonging to his grandfather and forced the locks. All empty rooms. The tiny ones that must have belonged to servants. The remains of Dom's fire was the only mark of habitation. And a scowling face drawn in the dust on the window. Noel saw that with exasperation. Dominic never could resist a surface to draw in. He scrubbed the scowl out and drew another face above Dominic's, this one with a wide smile.
That left only the last and steepest staircase which led up into the attic under the beams. This would be where Dominic's mice were. Noel unlocked it with a childish sense of excitement. The attic had been completely out of bounds to children in the days when he had stayed in this house. Too many adult worries about dangers, trunks and boxes. There were no lights up here, but two roof windows gave plenty of light to look around. Noel wandered, hands in his pockets, looking at several items of furniture long since brought up here. Empty suitcases. One huge travelling case which when he investigated, revealed papers and costume jewellry. Trunks full of mothballed blankets. Noel sat down on one and pulled at boxes, flicking through and pushing aside. Boxes of magazines. A box of very ancient records. A broken gramophone. A box of children's toys. Noel paused over those, recognising several of them as having lined the shelves of the childrens'  bedroom when he played here twenty years ago. More clothes. He discovered a packet of photographs somewhere in the pile and sat down to flick through them, looking at the meticulous labelling. They were dated from 1914 to 1965, but none of them contained anyone with a name beginning with M. Noel put them back in the packet and pocketed them. Right at the back of the attic was a heap of paintings and he flicked through them, glancing at the more presentable landscapes. The dust underneath the stack was deep enough to pick up in handfuls. And in the dust, a one eyed, porcelein faced doll. Noel picked her up. Still dressed neatly in white silk, a fabric long since yellowed. Still with leather buttoned boots on. Still with long, blond hair. Dust was on her clothes from where she'd been sat behind the pictures- heaven alone knew how long she'd been there. From the rattle, her one eye had fallen in. She looked at though at some point she'd known rough use. One hand was badly chipped and her dress was muddied. Noel sat her on top of the trunks, not liking to leave her in hiding. 
 
Dominic was running his hand under the tap in the scullery.
"It's only a little cut." He objected when Noel pulled his hand out to look. Noel swatted him and put his hand back under the flow.
"I TOLD you to be careful. Stick to the strimmer, you can't cut yourself on that. And you can leave the garden for today. You can go upstairs with a bucket and cloth and wash those windows you've been drawing on."
"I haven't been drawing on windows." Dominic said plaintively. Noel paused, in the process of hunting for sticking plasters.
"No? So who did?"
Dominic grinned. Noel shook his head at him.
"NO. You're not blaming that on the ghost."
"I didn't, honestly. I was never up there unless you were with me."
"So maybe it was there before we came. It was too dark to see."
"What was it?"
"A scowl."
Dominic wrapped a tea towel around his hand and ran up the stairs. Noel followed him, sticking plaster located. He heard Dominic laughing before he got there.
"If that's your ghost, I don't like his attitude."
"Excuse me, I drew the second one."
"What second one?"
Noel glanced up at the window. The sun was shining full on the panes, making the dust marks clear. There was only one mark in the dust. A round face with a ferocious scowl. The rest of the window was untouched. Noel stared at the pane for several seconds. Then pulled Dominic around and put the plaster over the cut. Dominic jerked his head at the corner by the hearth.
"I don't remember seeing her last night either."
Noel looked down. The one eyed doll stared blankly back at him. 
 
***** 
 
"Where was it?" Dominic demanded, heading across the attic like a JCB. "Behind the pictures you said?"
"I left it on top of the trunks." Noel pointed helplessly at the now abandoned trunk top. "I swear I left her there. I don't even know who's she was-"
"Oh don't be daft, she could have been anyone's. Your grandmothers, your mother's-"
"The only toys up here belonged to John and Paul. There was only John and Paul."
"Maybe she belonged to this M then." Dominic sat back on his heels, putting the pictures down. "Who again, could have been anyone."
Silence. Noel looked slowly around him. Then knelt and systematically started unpacking trunks.
It was nearly four thirty when they found a small, black case inside another larger trunk. It was so securely shut that eventually Dominic took a penknife out of his pocket and cut the ropes. Noel lifted the lid and they both choked on the stench of mothballs. Then Noel lifted out a folded bundle of white cotton and shook it open. One small, white dress. One white pinafore. Two pairs of white gloves. Two ribboned night dresses. One small cape. Dominic picked up the cape and rubbed it.
"Rabbits' fur."
There was nothing else in the case but cotton sheets. Noel slowly replaced the clothes.
"Well that's proof."
"Of what?"
"That there was a little girl here at some point."
Dominic shrugged. "She still could have been anyone. It might have been clothes passed on from another family."
"There must be something else here. Photographs or letters. Something."
"Noel we came here to straighten the house out, not to research family history." Dominic said impatiently.
Noel determinedly dived back into the trunk. Dominic sighed and got up.
"Okay. Come on."
"Where?"
"The church. There'll be the registers there. Anyone living here, being born or married or dying here in your family is going to be written in there." 
  
 
**** 
 
"I'm sorry," the verger said apologetically. "They're across at the registry office, you'll have to come back on Monday. We only keep the registers for the last fifty years."
"What about the cemetery?" Noel said to Dominic, barely listening. "Most of the family are buried here."
"Are you looking for anyone in particular?" the verger said with interest. "I do enjoy people taking the trouble to look up their family history."
"There are some things in the house- my grandfather's house-" Noel said briefly, "which belonged to a little girl. I don't know anything about her, I was surprised to find her things there. I wondered if we'd find any clues as to who she was."
"You're Paul Neilson's Grandson, aren't you?" the verger said cheerfully, leaning on the churchyard gate. "I suspect I can answer your question then. Miss Margaret Neilson."
Noel turned to look at him, startled. The verger smiled.
"Come into the church."
At the very back of the chapel, behind a disgruntled looking crusader lying flat on his tomb, was a large pane of stained glass which bore two names at the foot.
'In loving memory of John and Margaret Neilson, 1988'
"We suffered a break-in in 1988." The verger said mildly. "Your grandfather was kind enough to replace this window for us in memory of his brother and sister. Or so he told me."
Dominic patted Noel's shoulder. "There's your M."
"I don't know anything about Margaret." Noel said slowly. "No one's ever mentioned her in my family, I didn't know she existed."
"Women in those days disappeared for all sorts of reasons." The verger ushered them towards the door. "It's possible she got into trouble as girls sometimes do, and was spirited away out of the village. Or that she married during the war and went to the States. More than a few girls did that with the American base so nearby."
"Did my grandfather not say anything else?" Noel paused in the doorway. "I don't think a Margaret Neilson's buried in the family graves-"
"I know the graves your grandfather had looked after and that isn't one of them." The verger said apologetically. "He actually left money to see his parents' graves tended- and the memorial for his brother. I'm sure he would have done the same for Margaret's grave were it here." 
  
 
**** 
 
Noel ate in silence, his mind searching every family event for the last twenty years. Never had he heard his father mention an aunt Margaret. There were no relations he knew of abroad. The doll- still sitting upstairs on the floorboards beside that ferocious scowl- was proof of Margaret's history with this house. There had to be some written record of her somewhere. How could a daughter of the family just disappear?
The crash of Dominic's plate in the sink shook him out of his reverie and made him realise several things very quickly. One, that he had been silent throughout the meal and oblivious to his partner. Two, that Dominic's mood had changed again, and three, that he was clearly not happy with the neglect. Dominic's glare at him was far from amicable. Noel sighed and got up.
"I know, I'm sorry. Come on, let's go and find a pub, get out of this house for a couple of hours."
"So you can sit and stare into space there too?" Dominic said bitterly. Noel put his own plate on top of Dom's, got hold of his partner and pulled him into his arms.
"Come here. I'm sorry, this Margaret thing has really got to me-"
"I noticed." Dominic pulled away and folded his arms. His mood had swung completely from the sunniness of this afternoon. Noel frowned at him and saw the tension in his shoulders and the heaviness in his eyes, the same temper as yesterday evening. He cursed himself quietly for forgetting Dominic's troubles- whatever they were- and for letting them slide out of control while he ruminated on some mythical woman long gone from this house. Because this was out of control. Noel knew it already. Dominic didn't want to be placated, he wanted a fight, and the chances of calming him down now were minimal. Noel made one last effort for a strategy that sometimes worked, pulled Dominic back to him and held on when he squirmed.
"Okay, I get the message. You're fed up with me and I can understand why-"
"YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND A DAMN THING!" Dominic fought him off and moved out of his reach, eyes blazing. Noel pulled a chair out and sat down, making it clear Dominic had his full attention.
"Tell me then."
Dominic scowled at him. It wasn't Dominic's usual scowl either, this wasn't merely Dom in mid strop. Noel saw the difference in his face and felt another twinge of worry. There was something here not being said.
"I'm listening." he said again, gently. Dominic reached for a mug from the draining board.
Noel got up at once, sharpening his voice. "Dominic. I know you're upset, you don't need to prove it to me and I'm telling you now, if you smash that you are in trouble."
Dominic looked him right in the eye, raised the mug and threw it against the stone floor before Noel could reach him.
"RIGHT." Noel said grimly, grabbing his wrist. An identical smash at the far end of the room grabbed their attention. A vase lay broken on the floor in the scullery doorway. Then the scullery door slammed. Hard. Noel reached the door first, flung it open and looked around. The door to the stairs slammed while he watched, hard enough to shake it on it's hinges.
"I don't like the draughts around here." Dom said under his breath, watching the door swing back, still shuddering. Noel took a deep breath and let it out, trying not to shake.
"Neither do I. Any more than I like you breaking things out of temper."
The door slammed again, harder. Noel took firm hold of Dominic's hand and steered him across to the nearest kitchen chair. Between the doors and the inevitability of that gesture, Dominic's defiance was crumbling by the second: he was already changing challenge for whining as Noel sat down to unbuckle his belt.
"Noel- I'm sorry, I just lost my temper, I didn't mean to break it-"
"You certainly DID mean to break it, and you did it because I told you not to." Noel pulled Dominic down over his knees, ignoring yet another slam from the stairwell door. "That is an attention seeking gesture that is going to work every single time. Whether or not you like the attention is another matter."
SLAM.
"Noel-"
Noel gripped his right hip and pulled his shorts down to his thighs.
SLAM.
"Noel I won't do that again, I swear-"
"I've heard that one before." Noel said grimly. "More than once actually. You are going to learn to keep your dramatic gestures under control, my boy."
"I'm sorry-" Dominic yelped as Noel brought his hand down hard on his bare bottom. "Noel please-"
SLAM.
The glass in the windows rattled with the force of that crash. Noel shut his ears and concentrated on the other eleven hard smacks he placed on Dom's clenching bottom. 
Hard enough to bring tears into Dom's eyes.
"Is that enough to convince you we can talk in a civilised manner?" Noel said sternly, shaking his smarting hand. Dom sounded nothing if not forlorn.
"Yes, I'm sorry-"
"So are you going to tell me what's going on?"
"Nothing." Dom said at once and yelped as Noel swatted him again, hard.
"I swallowed that last night. I know I've been blocking you out all evening but that doesn't usually push you to this kind of paddy. There's been something on your mind all week."
"This isn't FAIR!"
"Call it self preservation." Noel said implacably. "I've got all night, Dominic."
Silence. Noel rubbed Dominic's back, waiting.
"Give me a clue. Work? Car? Police?"
"Anthony." Dominic muttered. Noel frowned.
"What about Anthony? Did you two have a row?"
"It wasn't serious. Not really." Dominic hedged. And let the floodgates burst on another dam, enough to be convincing. "You had Jamie in the house all day, then you went mad at me for going out with Anthony-"
Noel swatted him firmly. "I did not 'go mad' at you, and I didn't ground you for going out with Anthony. I grounded you for staying out an hour past curfew and for not telling me where you'd gone. And I know you don't like Jamie, but I do and I'm not going to ban him from the house because you've got some strange idea you need to be jealous of him."
Silence. Noel glanced up and realised the door was no longer slamming. He looked down at his partner, once more rubbing his back.
"I don't expect you to spend any time with Jamie. You hardly ever lay eyes on him. But he's a friend of mine and I do expect you to cope with that. I don't particularly like Anthony, but he's your friend, not mine."
"I know."
Noel lowered Dominic to his knees on the stone kitchen floor.
"So what was the row with Anthony about? This new boyfriend?"
Dominic shrugged. "Wasn't really about anything. I was angry about Jamie, and Anthony barely spoke to me at the club-"
"Why don't you ring him?" Noel said gently. "You two never stay fallen out for very long. He'll probably have forgotten about it by now."
Dominic nodded slowly. Noel helped him to his feet. "Pick the pieces of that cup up and get rid of them."
"What about the vase?" Dominic asked doubtfully. Noel looked down at the pieces.
"That's another problem altogether." 
  
 
***** 
 
There were another two hours of practising to be fitted in during the evening and Noel left Dominic reading, sprawled out by the kitchen hearth which this time they had lit and built into a decent fire.
He was aware at some point of Dominic slipping into the drawing room behind him and standing at the doorway, quiet and still enough to inform Noel he was somewhere between penitent and defiant, still not entirely sure he was forgiven. Noel abandoned the piece he was working on, stretched his hands and started on one of the few pieces Dominic loved. It was a Pavane, a slow and winding Spanish piece written centuries ago and it was one of the few pieces of music Dominic hadn't become immune to. In a house where they lived, slept and ate around hours of rehearsing and piles of music, and where Dominic frequently came home to improptu quartets gathered in the kitchen or dancers in the practise room, music had a matter of fact quality to it, and Dominic had been known to slam pop CDs on full blast to give himself a break. Noel shut his eyes, listening to the slow and resonating sweeps of the ancient dance, drawing out the vibrato on each deep and rich note. This was usually a way to reduce Dominic to butter in five minutes. He was aware when he listened for his partner, that the music wasn't having it's usual effect. Used to playing as part of an orchestra, listening and sensing other musicians around him, all he could feel from Dominic was sadness. And still the half sullen anger. Noel lifted the bow from the strings and turned, wanting to see what was on his face. Except the doorway was empty. Noel sat still for a minute, then raised his voice a little.
"Dom?"
"Mmn?"
The voice was some way off and distracted, but not unhappy.
"Where are you?"
"In the kitchen. Want a coffee?"
"No thanks."
There was no further comment from the kitchen, but Noel could faintly hear the rustle of pages. Once more he turned back to his music, lifted the bow to the strings and resumed playing, but with his ears tuned to the doorway.
There was still somebody there.
Noel tucked the bow into his hand and began the staccato, plucked notes of the Pavane's second movement. Strictly speaking it was the first violins' part, but he liked the rhythms. A minute later he knew the doorway was empty and who ever it was had gone. 
 
There was a dream that came close to morning. A small crowd of people were hurrying across the garden, the women's long skirts darkened by the wet grass, their voices anxious and babbling. Noel roused as the cold, morning air hit his face and found the kitchen door stood open again. The heavy bolt had somehow been shot back and the latch lifted. He slipped out of the blankets and padded across first to the kitchen and then to the scullery door. The scullery was just a scullery. Bright in the morning light, dusty and cold. Noel opened the door to the back stairs. Whatever it was was strongest here. He made his way slowly up the stairs, feeling his stomach tighten in apprehension as he walked. Something was here. Something was aware and watching and unwelcoming. All four of the small rooms were still and empty. The doll was sitting half way up the attic stairs like a sentinel, her one eye fixed on Noel. Noel halted and looked back at her. Then edging carefully around the little figure, he went on up the stairs and into the attic, closing the latch behind him. 
The atmosphere up here was different again. Whatever was on those stairs and in those rooms, didn't come up here. The attic was bright with sunlight and there was no tension in the air. Noel opened one of the skylights against the smell of mothballs and systematically began to sort trunks and boxes. Those already searched against those not yet opened.
Dominic was frying eggs downstairs, shaved, dressed and with the garden door wide open. Noel paused at the stove to give him a hug a little more fervent than usual. Dominic tipped his head back to kiss him.
"Where were you? I left a note on the table to say I'd gone out, we needed more milk and I found a bakery in the village, so-"
"I was in the attic." Noel broke off a corner of still warm bread and chewed absently. Dominic lifted an eyebrow at him.
"And?"
"I went through everything. Every single thing. There's nothing about a Margaret Neilson at all."
"If your grandfather was the one who put up the memorial, wouldn't he have kept some record of her?" Dominic scooped eggs and bacon onto plates, turned and found Noel gone.
"Usually, you'd go berserk if I suggested eating in a bedroom." He complained when he ran Noel to earth with two plates in hand, in his grandfather's room. "This isn't how it works you know. You're under contract to be sensible. I don't have to."
 "I'm on holiday." Noel scooped a forkful of eggs into his mouth and went back to unpacking the heavy dresser. Dominic caught the wad of letters he was thrown.
"What am I looking for?"
"Names. Addresses. Maybe he wrote to her. Maybe some relative of hers wrote to him. I don't know." Noel opened another drawer and found another neat book of photographs. "Maybe there's a picture of her. There has to be something."
In the end Dominic brought boxes upstairs and they began to pack what they sorted through. Folded clothes. Letters. Bills. Personal possessions. Nothing came to light that mentioned anyone other than Paul Neilson. Two photographs stood on the dressing table. One of two boys, about six and ten years of age, standing by the wishing well outside. Another of a young man in army uniform.
"John." Noel said when Dominic picked them up. "My mother has a copy of the army one."
"So where's Margaret in all the childhood ones?" Dominic slipped the picture out of its frame and turned it over. The scrawl was brown and faded. John and Paul 1928.
"Was she older or younger?"
"I don't know." Noel sat down on the edge of the bed and surveyed the mess around them. "Maybe she was a half sister. Maybe my great grandfather had some fling with a local woman and no one mentioned Margaret."
"Maybe she died as a baby or something." Dominic put the picture back. "Children died a lot in those days."
"I suppose that would make sense." Noel said unwillingly. "If Paul was the eldest, a baby would probably mean more to him than to John- and an unChristened baby wouldn't be buried in the family graves. But why the doll and the clothes- the clothes are for a child, not a baby."
"Noel, we don't know they were Margaret's."
"They must have been, who else's could they have been?"
"Anyones."
"No." Noel got up, running his hands through his hair. "There must be something around here that would tell us. Oh heck, do you know it's eleven and I haven't done even ten minutes practise yet?"
Dominic held out both arms and waited until Noel came to him. "There's no point in winding yourself up about it. We're supposed to be going home tonight anyway, why don't we pack this up and go, and you can ring around the relatives at home. See if anyone remembers anything."
That made sense. Noel bit back protests and leaned his head against Dominic's shoulder, looking past him at the faintly chipped and varnished wood of the bookcase. Almanacs. Dog eared copies of Horse and Hound. Noel pulled out of Dominic's arms.
"Head Girl at Highbury?"
"What?" Dominic peered at the book Noel pulled out of the bookcase. The front engraving showed an enthusiastic Amazon with pigtails, brandishing a hockeystick. Dominic snorted.
"I'm sorry but your grandfather clearly had a private kink or two-"
Noel turned the book to show him the front cover. The writing was uneven but copperplated.
Meg Neilson, Caernarvon cottage, 1926. 
  
 
"The handwriting looks about that of an eight year old. The book would have been read by an eight or nine year old and that fits with the clothes." Noel said downstairs, fidgeting in the doorway of the garden. "And the doll. And the marks in the larder stop in 1926. That could have been when she died."
"Or when she went to school. Or went to stay with a relative. If she died here, where's the grave?"
"At school. Or with the relative." Noel said bluntly. "If this was her home, she might well have come back to it."
"I knew it." Dominic said cheerfully. "The doll's spooked the hell out of you and-"
Noel looked at him. Dominic shrugged.
"Okay so the house is weird. But nothing's happened we don't have explanations for. Not really."
"What about what I feel?"
Dominic gave him a faintly softer look. "Maybe you're missing your grandfather more than you thought. Or you're just losing your marbles."
"Thanks a bunch."
Dominic grinned at him. Noel pulled himself up off the doorframe.
"Can you take a couple of days off work?"
"YOU want me to take a few days off work?"
"Yes or no?"
"Yes probably."
"I want to go to the records office on Monday. Maybe there's a record of her death there."
The face on the window. The doll on the stairs. The slammed doors. It all added up with the image of an angry little girl in this house.
"Maybe it's that we've invaded her home." Noel said in the garden when they paused in their efforts to uncover the vegetable garden. "She won't know who we are. We've just turned up and we're going through everything- fiddling with her belongings."
"What do you think a ghost is?" Dominic sprawled full length on the grass and put his arms over his eyes against the sun. "Seriously. Do you think it's an entity capable of processing information, or is it just a collection of emotions and memories that got imprinted on the house somehow?"
"Young man, you can get too damn logical at times."
"Which? If it's the emotions and memories, there isn't much we can do to affect it. Except maybe have the place exorcised."
"She's a child." Noel protested. Dominic grunted.
"You think. If you think she's an entity then what are you going to do about her? Seal off the back stairs and admit that's her ground?"
"She comes downstairs." Noel said, thinking about it. "She came to the doorway of the drawing room. She comes into the scullery. Never the front rooms."
"Back rooms must have been the children's rooms I suppose."
Noel looked sharply at his partner. "I bet you're right. No wonder she lost her temper with us on the first night, we might well have been in her room. And she doesn't go in the attic. Which is right, because children aren't allowed in the attic- that was my grandfather's rule, maybe it was a family rule. She is a child." 
 
**** 
 
Dominic fought with the plumbing that evening and succeeded in running a fairly hot bath while Noel went back to practising. For the first two hours he was waiting for her: after that, he became engrossed in what he was doing and stopped listening. It was the sense of presence that warned him and made him pause with the bow on the strings. Far away in the house he could hear Dominic singing something loud and cheerful and untuneful. The presence was far closer. Noel hesitated a minute, then without looking round, began to play Twinkle twinkle little star. It had been part of a fantasy piece from a concert not so long ago: Noel remembered the piece and let it flow into Green grow the rushes o' and Oh dear what can the matter be. It was some time before he finished, and when he did he was aware that whoever it was was still behind him. Very uncertain, but not able to move away. Noel lifted the bow off the strings.
"Hello Meg."
The atmosphere in the room changed in a split second. The drawing room door slammed and the kitchen door slammed in echo, Noel felt his throat tighten in shock, then the house was silent and the presence was gone.
"Dom are you allright!"
"I have to say, love," Dom shouted back, not noticeably phased, "I don't think she likes you much."
Noel laid the cello down and went into the scullery. Dom was sprawled full length in the bath and reading.
"I only said hello. I wonder if my grandfather knew she was here?"
Dom twisted his head to look at him. "Noel. I can't say I know she's here. I've seen the doll in a couple of different places and yes the doors slam a lot, but this is a draughty old barn of a place- I can't say anything has happened that makes me really think your Meg is running around here. I know it's been different for you. But then she hasn't tripped me on the stairs or tried pushing me down the well. Its you she's got a problem with, not me."
That was undeniably true.
Noel waited that evening until Dominic fell asleep, steeling himself for what he wanted to do. The house was still and well lit by a clear night outside. Noel pulled jeans and socks on, padded through the scullery and felt his way up the back stairs. The darkness of the stairway and knowing what he was likely to find up here made him sweat and his mouth was too dry to swallow, but he felt his way slowly up the stairs, wary for a sudden push or movement under his feet. Nothing happened. Noel opened the doorway to the room they'd spent the first night in. There was no sign of the doll. No sign of the drawing on the window. Just a bare and empty room. Noel sat down on the floor under the window.
"Meg?" he said eventually. "Meg I'm Noel. I'm Paul's grandson."
Nothing. Noel waited. It was nearly two am before he grew too cold and stiff to continue sitting any longer. There was no movement in the room, no sign of anything other than floorboards and walls. Noel shut the door behind him and headed back to the kitchen to join Dominic.
He knew the instant he entered the kitchen where she was. By the kitchen door. Watching Dominic sleep. Noel froze in the scullery doorway, seeing nothing but knowing exactly where she stood. The shock harshened his voice.
"If you touch him-"
He broke off. She wouldn’t. She was a child. She might bang and clatter in temper but she would no more hit out and hurt than Dom would in mid tantrum. Even her pushes and shoves were no more than child daring with no real forethought.
"Meg." Noel said more gently. She didn't move. Noel moved into the kitchen and felt her vanish like a candle light flickering out. In the same instant a light flickered behind him in the scullery. Noel turned and saw the woman rocking slowly in the far corner behind the table in her wooden chair. A grey dress, a white apron, a grim face by the light of the single candle on the floor. A little girl lay on the kitchen table, wearing a white nightdress. Noel caught only one glimpse of long, loose black hair and small, bare feet under the hem of the dress before he grabbed for Dominic.
"DOM-!"
Dominic jerked upright, dragged by his hand and by shock. He was lying at an angle to see through the open doorway and from the way he froze, he could see the couple in the scullery as clearly as Noel could. They clutched each other hard, staring. Then Noel took a step towards the scullery and the candle winked out, taking the scene with it. Dominic came to life and flicked the electric light on. The scullery was empty and still.
It took several mugs of tea, the scullery door tightly shut and the radio on before either of them really calmed down. Sleep was out of the question. Noel found himself wondering vaguely which of them was more upset.
"She was there-" Dom said for the fourth time. "I saw her sitting right in the corner."
"That's where I saw her in the glass."
"And the kid on the table."
"I'll bet that was Meg." Noel gulped tea, scalding his mouth. "What a place to put the body of a child! On the table in the damn scullery-"
"I couldn't see a mark on her." Dom said uncertainly. "No blood."
"Not close enough to see." Noel ran a hand over his eyes. "I am NOT sleeping down here again. I'd rather sleep in the car."
Dom picked the car keys out of his jacket and held them up. "That sounds like a good idea."
***** 
 
The house seemed quietly and peacefully normal in daylight. Dominic still shaved in the kitchen sink, leaving the scullery door shut. Noel dug his mobile phone out of his bag and wandered outside in search of a better signal. As a freelance musician, if he didn't want work he just didn't answer the phone for a few days, but he did keep track of his messages. There was only one. A long silence followed the bleep, then Noel recognised the voice with surprise as being Anthony's.
"Hi- it's er- six o clock, Sunday night, I er- this is Anthony Hillier. I checked the house, I know you're not home and Dom's phone's off, I started to get worried- I just wanted to see he was allright. If I can help he knows where I am."
Bleep. Noel stared at the phone, somewhat startled. Then dialled Anthony's number. Anthony sounded still less certain on a live line, although his first words were genuine enough.
"Noel? Oh God is he allright? I told him he should have seen a GP-"
"Why?" Noel demanded. There was a long silence. Then Anthony said quietly and passionately,
"Shit. I thought he'd have told you by now. He usually does."
"Told me what?" Noel sat down on the low wall around the lawn and crispened his voice to the tone that usually settled Dom down. "Anthony. If you didn't think I should know, you wouldn't have called me. What's happened?"
Another silence. Then Anthony swallowed. "Dom was attacked. Mugged. Except I think it was worse than that. It was Thursday night when he met me at the club in Alsham. He left about eleven thirty to get back before you did, and I let him walk to the car park on his own- I should have gone with him but I was pissed. He was attacked in the car park. He said he wouldn't tell you because you'd go mad about him parking there but I thought that was bullshit, he's told you about worse things than that. He was in an awful mood when I saw him on Friday- when he didn't call and you weren't home last night I started to worry he WAS hurt and it'd got worse-"
Oh God.
"He's okay." Noel took a few deep breaths and made himself speak calmly. "At least he looks fine. I knew there was something bothering him but he's sublimated it pretty well. Did he tell you anything of what happened?"
"No. He said he wasn't hurt. I just didn't know how far to believe him."
"Okay." Noel got up off the wall, resisting the urge to yell for Dominic now. "You've done the right thing telling me, this was something I needed to know."
"Just hope Dom sees it that way." Anthony said ruefully. Noel broke the connection, struggling with anxiety and anger that wasn't in the least directed at Dominic.
No wonder he'd looked so awful when he came home on Thursday night. No wonder he'd been so up and down all weekend. He was obviously doing his best to put the entire affair out of his head.
"Who was that?" Dominic said from the doorway. Noel got up, watching him lock the back door.
"Oh just a message."
Later. Now was not the time for a complicated discussion. Noel couldn't stop himself dropping a hand on Dom's back as they walked across to the car, rubbing in a brief gesture of anxiety, affection and comfort.
Dominic was rapidly bored to tears in the records office. Noel became more and more aware of his fidgeting and finally told him crisply to wait outside or in the car. Dominic took the invitation with alacrity. Left in peace, Noel went back to the church records. Paul Neilson was easy to find. Born August 1919. That was identifyable from family dates and records. From 1919, Noel went backwards. Through marriages, Christenings and funerals, checking each handwritten name. Thirteen months earlier he found the entry.
Neilson. Margaret Mary Elizabeth. Christened  8th July 1917. Noel write down the details, then moved on to 1926. The entries took him some time to work through. There was no entry in that year for a funeral of Margaret Neilson. No record at all.
"You could try Somerset House." The assistant suggested when he returned the book. "They might well have her death certificate. That would have date, place and cause of death."
That was an option likely to take months. Noel leaned on the counter, racking his brains for alternatives.
"What about doctors' records? Police records. Who certified deaths in this area?"
"The local doctor." The man looked doubtful. "Not much we've got in that line at all. Coroner records we've got actually, but only if the death caused an inquest."
"How easy are those records to access?" Noel demanded. The man shrugged.
We wouldn't usually have them, but a lot of records were dumped here during the war and we salvaged them and put them onto computer a couple of years ago. If you've got a date and name I can try a search for you."
"Thankyou." Noel grabbed a pen and scribbled down what he knew. Margaret Neilson. Daughter of George and Angela Neilson, Caenarvon Cottage, 1926.
"Are you going to be much longer?" Dominic said plaintively at his elbow.
"I don't know." Noel turned and leaned against the desk to look at him. "I'm sorry. You're having a boring weekend."
"Boring? You drag me to a houseful of ghosts. That isn't boring."
"One ghost."
"You're in luck." The assistant said from the computer. "I've got a match for you. Margaret Neilson. Was she a relative of yours?"
"Great Aunt."
The assistant waited for the printout from the computer and held it for a moment, looking apologetic. "I'm afraid the Coroner's verdict was unlawful killing. Person or persons unknown."
He held out the printed sheet. Noel scanned it rapidly.
"Tragic." The assistant said, glancing once more at the file on his screen. "How old was she? Nine?"
"-body bore evidence of strangulation and of indecent assault-" Dominic read over his shoulder. "Oh God."
"I'm afraid in the terms of the courts in those days, that probably translates as rape." The assistant said gravely. "Poor little girl."
"What would have happened to the body?" Noel said abruptly, looking up from the printout. "These days it wouldn't be released for burial until they abandoned all hope of catching the killer. In those days surely they couldn't have held onto it that long."
"I wouldn’t know." The man said slowly. "I wouldn't have thought so."
"Thankyou." Noel pocketed the printout and looked for Dominic. The assistant called after him before he reached the door.
"Actually I can think of someone who might be able to help you. There's a Mr Sumner, old friend of the family's- now he was a policeman in this area from the forties onwards. He might well know about police law at the time. I'm sure he wouldn't mind talking to you."
Noel waited long enough to collect the phone number, thanked the man and followed Dominic out into the street. He wasn't sure what he was expecting. Distress. Shock. Dominic's smile held all it's usual enthusiasm.
"So what now, Sherlock?"
Noel took the paper out of his pocket and pulled out his mobile.
"Mr Sumner? My name is Noel Neilson-" 
 
***** 
 
Mr Sumner was in his late eighties and still a large man with a tanned, bald head, intelligent eyes and a wry smile. Dominic and Noel were welcomed straight into the immaculate cottage and Noel left Dominic charming the ex police inspector's elderly wife while he sat down with Mr Sumner himself. Sumner read through the coroner's certificate and grunted.
"Now that doesn't say much."
"I was hoping you might be able to tell me a little about police practise at the time? I can't find any evidence of burial in this area although she clearly died here."
Mr Sumner sat back, making his chair creak. "Well. No facilities for storing the body at that time. You're talking seventy years ago. If there was definitely foul play involved they would have held onto the body for as long as they could, but it would have been handed over to the family within a matter of weeks."
"And no forensic evidence at the time." Noel said grimly. "There would have been nothing more to learn from the body I suppose."
"It would have been photographed. Fingerprinted." Mr Sumner said. "Although I doubt you'd find the records now. There was a war in between. A lot of clutter cleared. A lot of papers destroyed. Even the police files probably wouldn't have been held open for so long."
"So there's no way of knowing." Noel said regretfully. Mr Sumner accepted a cup of tea from his wife and sat back in his armchair. "Well the killer was never found. There were a few suspects, but none taken very seriously. And no other similar murders in the area. It was always considered it was probably a vagrant. Or one of the miners passing through. A lot of them came south looking for work when the pits started to close further north."
"You remember this case?"
Mr Sumner sipped tea. "It was one of the most notorious cases in the area when I joined the local force. I started in this town when I was twenty one. Moved all over the county after that, but I was a constable in this town for eight years. And the murder was only eleven years old when I first started. File still open. There weren't that many unsolved murder cases around here. Little Margaret Neilson was the scandal of the area."
"What happened to her?" Noel said trying to sound dispassionate. The policeman's voice was as matter of fact as it must have been over a hundred such unpleasant stories.
"Raped and strangled. She was found by the gardener on the edge of the property when the household found her missing from her bed one evening. The gardener was arrested of course but there was never any evidence against him. Nowadays with the forensic knowledge about and a small community like that was, you'd have had the killer within twelve hours and a solid conviction. People thought it was someone she knew, poor little scrap. She must have gone outside for a reason or to meet someone."
"She wasn't buried in the village."
"No. Well with no charges brought and the police searching the area, her body was held her in the town for a while. It was a scandal in the district, a child murdered. All the local children were inside by twilight and extra police were brought in to patrol the town and the local villages. And it was a scandal for the family. Not just the murder but the rape. Shameful. And of course they'd have questioned the father and all the male servants, it was a terrible thing for the household. Old Mr Neilson was strange until the day he died and everyone always said it was because of what happened to Margaret. And a murder victim- not a nice thing to have in a family plot. Especially not a sexual attack."
"They must have buried her somewhere."
"Most likely here." Sumner said shrewdly. "Neilson might well have paid the coroner to do it. Discreetly. They'll have records at the church of who's buried where, even if the grave isn't marked." 
 
*** 
 
"Can you believe it?" Dominic was muttering as they wandered through the church graveyard. It was the second one they'd explored; the town had several churches.
"The poor kid gets buried out here in the middle of nowhere by the damn coroner because she had the temerity to be murdered."
"It was the rape, not the murder."
Noel's stomach lurched as a fresh thought hit him.
Oh God Dom, please don't tell me you were raped. Not you.
Noel bent to check another headstone, determinedly keeping his eyes off Dominic. "I think we are going to have to call the vicar and ask to see the records."
"These are the children's graves." Dominic halted beside a small cluster of stones in the far corner. In several of the churchyards the children often seemed to be grouped together. Noel scanned quickly through the names and the pathetic little messages and dates on each stone.
"She's not here."
"Can you believe her parents exiling her like that?"
"Maybe they wanted her somewhere quiet they could visit without the scandal hanging over them."
"Maybe they wanted her out of sight and out of mind. What about the photographs? Her belongings? They cut her out of their lives."
"They might just have found it easier to grieve without reminders of her. There were two other children left to look after."
"Noel."
Noel straightened up from the stone he was examining. Dom was standing against the wall, under a heavy yew tree. The stone was small, grey and badly weathered.
M. Elizabeth Neilson, 1917-1926.
"And that's all." Dominic said grimly. "Not even In Memory Of. Not even her full name."
Noel sighed and put an arm around his waist, resisting the urge to clutch at him. "Well at least we have an idea of what she's so angry about." 
 
***** 
 
That was actually rubbish, he reflected later, sitting on the bench outside the kitchen door. Unlocking the door and walking in had been a strange experience. He'd had to resist the urge to call to her.
Hello Meg, we're home.
Who knew what was on the mind of a dead nine year old child? Maybe Dom was right and there was nothing more than the imprint of old emotions left here. Dominic came out of the back door and stretched, cracking his neck noisily.
"I got hold of the office. I've got until Thursday."
"Anthony rang me this morning."
Noel saw him instantly tense at the name. Dominic looked down at him.
"What did he want?"
"To know if you were allright." Noel kept his tone even, choosing his words carefully. "He told me you were attacked in the car park at Alsham on your way back from the club."
Silence. Dominic folded his hands behind his head and stared at the lawn. "I'm going to kill him."
"I know you weren't mugged." Noel said gently. "You didn't have anything with you apart from your car keys."
Dominic didn't answer. Noel leaned on his knees, watching him.
"Did you get into a fight with this guy? Did you know him?"
Silence.
"Someone else came along. Another driver." Dom said eventually. "He came out of the stairwell and the door slammed- made the bastard look round. I pulled away and kicked him- well tried to kick him. I don't think I hurt him. But I shouted blue murder and he ran away. The other guy started to chase him but I just wanted to get out of there."
Noel got up and got hold of his shoulders, not forcing him to look, but needing him to understand how serious he was.
"Dom. Listen. I know you don't want to talk about it, but I need a straight answer. It doesn't get much more serious than-"
"He didn't rape me." Dominic said tonelessly.
Noel swallowed. "Honestly?"
"Call it indecent assault. But he didn't get that far. And no, I don't need to see a doctor. If I'd had any doubts at all about that, do you think I'd have let you touch me this weekend?"
Noel didn't answer. Dominic raised his arms and shrugged Noel off.
"Do you know what I thought about all Friday? He could have raped me. He could have done it easily. I was so scared I would have let him do anything he wanted, and you want to know something really stupid? I was bigger than he was. And heavier. And he could have walked away and- do you know how long it takes to get a clear HIV test? Six months. Six fucking months. That's not to mention all the other damn things he could have given me- Christ I wouldn't have let you near me!"
"Are you sure he didn't hurt you? Listen to me darling. Internal bleeding, even bruising, you could be in serious trouble-"
"He didn't get that far. Thank God." Dominic screwed up his face and spat at the grass. "No thanks to me."
Noel ran a hand down his back. "Dom."
"You told me over and over again, never park there after dark, don't walk around the streets on your own-"
"Dom, these things happen."
"Yes, tell that to Meg. I'm sure she'd be very interested."
"Dominic!" Noel raised his voice as Dom stalked towards the house. A window opened upstairs and slammed noisily. Dom produced a sound that was theoretically a laugh.
"Oh there she blows!"
"Dom." Noel forced the kitchen door as it slammed behind Dominic. The scullery door was swinging like it was caught in a gale and the kitchen door slammed shut again behind Noel. Dominic shoved a chair out of his path, overturned it and kicked it across the tiled floor.
"Does she think she's got some sort of monopoly here on mood swings?"
"Stand still!" Noel ordered, sharpening his voice. "DOMINIC STAND STILL!"
SLAM.
Dominic ripped the door open and slammed it again himself. "I just hope she's damn well enjoying this!"
"That’s ENOUGH!"  Noel pulled him away from the door and put himself in front of it. It pushed him as it swung open again and slammed shut. Noel turned on the door without thinking. "Meg stop it!"
The door juddered on the rebound and came slowly to a standstill. The kitchen seemed incredibly still. Noel picked up the overturned chair and clicked his fingers, pointing at it.
"Dominic sit. Now suppose we all calm down?"
"You, me and the doors."
"BE quiet." Noel pushed the scullery door back and put a chair in front of it to hold it open. "Meg-"
The back stairs door slammed, but not very hard. Noel drew a deep breath.
"Meg if I hear one more door slam this afternoon, I am going to take them all off their hinges."
"Who DO you think you're talking to!" Dominic said harshly. "Who's there? A few recorded imprints-"
"Dom I mean it, close your mouth NOW." Noel ordered. Dominic flashed him a brief look of surprise and stopped. Noel pulled out the chair beside him and sat down.
"Now listen to me. I don't care what you think, while you're in this house you keep in mind you are sharing it with a child and you behave accordingly. And I know you're upset. I know you don't want to tell me about it. I can't make you and I wouldn't try. But you don't need to hide it from me."
Silence. Dominic stared at the table. Noel stroked his shoulders, then when Dominic didn't flinch, put an arm around him and pulled him close.
"You knew I wouldn't say a word to you about the carpark or the time if you'd have told me what happened. You weren't afraid of that. And you knew I wouldn't make you report it to the police."
Dominic's shoulders hunched and he buried his face in his arms.
"What I can understand is that you were petrified." Noel said quietly against his hair, "You didn't know what was going to happen, you didn't know what weapons he was carrying. You didn't LET him do anything. You made a risk assessment and you made the decision that it was safer not to fight than to risk him doing anything worse."
"I could have flattened him."
"He could have had a knife and he could very well have used it." Noel pulled his head down and kissed him fiercely. "You knew that and you did the right thing. The only thing you COULD do."
Dominic shuddered.
Did you do that, little girl? Noel thought silently at the scullery. Did you know it was too dangerous to fight? Or was that the mistake you made?
Except a man could rape a man and nine times out of ten rely on shock and humiliation, or fear, to keep that man from reporting it to the police. And the risk of charges was slim. A child- a little girl raped- for that the police would have no mercy. Meg's rapist would have seen little choice for his own survival but to leave his single witness silenced. For ten minutes selfish greed, wicked greed, he had used up her life and left her dead behind him. Noel's arms tightened around Dominic and he turned his head to lean his cheek against Dom's sandy hair. The glass of the kitchen doorway reflected the chair propping open the scullery door and the now empty hearth. A little girl in a pinafore standing with her hand on the table by two men huddled in a tight embrace. Pale eyes in a pale face stared at Noel for a minute through the glass from under a shock of pale hair. The second she moved to turn away, she vanished. 
 
***** 
 
He promised to buy me a fairing should please me 
And then for a kiss he did vow he would tease me 
He promised to buy me a bunch of blue ribbons..
Dominic seemed to be caught by the reaction he'd been staving off for nearly four days. When he started to shiver, Noel made him take a couple of aspirin and made him lie down, seriously thinking about taking him home to a properly heated house and a warm bed. Except they both knew they couldn't leave now. He sat with Dom in front of the kitchen fire and watched him drift rapidly off into the paralysed sleep of shock and painkillers, slowly and rhythmically pushing his hair back from his forehead.
A basket of lillies, a basket of roses, 
A little straw hat to set off the blue ribbons 
That tie up my bonny brown hair.
Noel made himself stop humming. The kitchen door quietly swung open. Meg took shape as she slowly sat down on the doorstep, her one eyed doll on her lap.
Oh dear, what can the matter be, 
Dear dear what can the matter be
Her voice was very soft and had the whisper to it of a still high child's voice as her translucent hands smoothed and plaited her doll's hair.
"Meg?" Noel said softly. She looked up at him from under a heavy fringe. Her boots were buttoned under the hem of her skirt and her hair ribbon had slipped slightly askew. Then she returned to plaiting the dolls hair, her feet tucked under her.
Johnny's so long at the fair. 
Oh dear what can the matter be,
Noel joined in with her, singing softly. She glanced at him again under the edge of her hair and smiled a little as she stood the doll upright on her lap, smoothing her dress down. Then she lifted her head as though listening to something. Noel broke off the song and watched her rise to her feet, looking out into the garden. Then she began to walk across the grass, tucking her doll under her arm. Noel got up and went out onto the doorstep. She was striding determinedly, her boots leaving no mark on the grass where she walked. She was heading past the wishing well, towards the end of the garden, the brambles parting in front of her until Noel could see fragments of the vegetable garden which had been there when he was a boy. His heart started to thump painfully.
"Meg!"
She walked, her hair moving against her shoulders, her skirt swirling silently around her boots.
"Meg don't!"
She disappeared behind the brambles. Noel shut the door to keep Dom from the sounds outside and stared after the child, frozen. If he followed her now, he knew what he would see. Something he had no wish to see. Something that had put the cold and matter of fact knowledge behind the pale eyes that had been watching the doll. Except she was still a child and she had been left alone in her home too long, betrayed as she had been betrayed on the night she died, left unprotected to face a man she had no means of resisting. Noel swore aloud and followed her.
He was listening for a scream. He had no idea where he was going, just kept pushing through the brambles, thinking dully that Meg's struggle would probably take place underneath a blackberry bush where he would not have to see it. Then he saw the doll. Lying face down on a clearing in the grass, her one eye hidden. Noel stooped to pick it up, and saw her.  Sitting on the grass on the other side of the clearing, her arms wrapped tight around her knees.
Her eyes fixed on Noel with a rage and a terror that made him realise with a terrible jolt that he was here. In the place that must frighten her above all others. That he was a man, and that he had lifted up her doll which was lying- as she must have been left. Noel stayed where he was, crouched on the grass, and found himself holding the doll so tight that the chipped face scratched his neck.
"No." Noel said softly. "Meg it wasn't me."
The pale eyes hated him. Noel stared at her, feeling his head start to shake in negation.
"No. No pet, it wasn't me-"
She lifted to her feet and started to run towards the house. Noel ran after her, the doll in his hand. She moved through the brambles like water where Noel stumbled and fell, reaching the lawn in time to see the kitchen door fly open and bang closed with terrible force.
SLAM.
Dominic. Noel redoubled his pace, reaching the kitchen door before it could slam for a second time. Dominic was on his feet and trembling as the scullery door, then the bedroom doors upstairs began to slam in turn. A chill rushed through the kitchen and boots rang noisily on the front stairs as someone ran up them, then the doors began to slam in the front bedroom.
"Noel-" Dominic said tightly. Noel grabbed him and held on, pulling his head down to try and shield him from some of the noise. The feet ran across the ceiling over head, then down the stairs again and into the downstairs rooms, crashing those doors in turn.
"What's she doing?" Dom said hysterically. He was shaking all over, beyond being rational. Noel held him tighter, rocking, trying to block out the sounds.
"Looking for her mother."
The fear and agitation that swept through the kitchen again was tangible. And combined with rage. Dominic stumbled in response to a shove in the back that pushed him against Noel. A chair overturned behind them and the windows rattled warningly. Two mugs lifted trembling off the draining board and wavered there.
"What did you DO to her?" Dominic demanded. The kitchen door opened and slammed shut repeatedly, forcing Noel to back away.
"Nothing."
The mugs smashed to the floor. Dominic cried out as he was shoved again, this time into the edge of the table. The yelp forced a shout out of Noel's mouth before he realised what he was doing.
"Meg that's enough!"
SLAM.
Dominic lifted terrified eyes to Noel's. Noel touched his face and strode past him to the scullery. There he put his back against the door to hold it open and lifted his voice to reach the entire house.
"MARGARET NEILSON STOP IT RIGHT NOW! That is ENOUGH young lady, I don't want to hear another bang!"
SLAM.
"MEG!" Noel thundered.
The silence was shocking. Noel glanced at Dominic who was watching him in silence, his arms tightly folded around himself. Noel shut the door on the kitchen and ran up the back stairs. He had no idea where she was. Only a terrible knowledge that she was deserted. Frightened. Confused. And that he had no means of touching or comforting her.
"Meg." He said aloud. "Meg it's allright. There's only Dominic and I here, we're not going to hurt you. And it wasn't us that did this. We didn't hurt you. We didn't change your house. We didn't take away your family."
Silence. Noel turned and found her at the foot of the stairs, her pale eyes burning. Noel sat down on the top step, trying to make his height less intimidating. It was then he realised he still held the doll in his hand. Carefully he sat the battered, porcelein article on the step beside him.
"I'm part of your family. I'm a Neilson too. And Dominic's the closest friend I have. We wouldn't do anything to harm you"
She didn't move. Noel looked at her helplessly, with no idea of what to say. She ran soundlessly up the stairs towards him and Noel clasped his hands over his head to protect himself as what felt like a swarm of bats passed over his head. And then she was gone.
Noel waited for several minutes more, hoping she would come back. Even more frightened that she would come back. Then he went downstairs to Dominic.
He was deathly white and sweeping up broken china with hands that were shaking. Noel picked up the overturned chair and sat down.
"I don't know what to say to her. What the hell do I say to her?"
"I thought you were doing okay with the stop it line."
Dominic very carefully put the broken china down on the draining board and sat beside Noel. Noel could see him trembling.
"There must be someone who knows about this. You read about this sort of thing. Psychics. Someone who'd know what to say to her."
"To move her on?" Dominic said dryly. Noel rubbed his hands through his hair.
"What if she doesn't understand what's happened? Here we are- her family's gone, her house is upside down-"
"I thought ghosts were supposed to re enact their tragedies and not wander off task." Dominic muttered. Noel shook his head.
"I thought she was going to. I didn't want her to go through it alone, that was all."
Dominic looked at him. Noel shrugged.
"I think I made remember what happened. She went out to where it happened- where it must have happened- and when I got there too-" Noel shrugged again, helplessly. "She must have thought it was me."
Dominic looked sharply at him. "That you were- what, that you killed her? That's rubbish."
"What if she's got no sense of time? What does time feel like to a ghost? CAN she remember things? CAN she reason? We don't know! Does she know what being dead means? All I know is she ran back to this house and searched it, and she was terrified. And she didn't find what she wanted."
Because everyone she wanted died years ago. And wouldn't have listened to her when they were here.
Dominic buried his face in his hands.
"Where is she now?"
"I don't know. She's not here." Noel looked down at Dominic's bent head and stifled a wave of crushing guilt.
And this is the last thing you need right now. You need attention and time to talk about that damn attack, we need to think about how we're going to deal with it, and I've hardly got a thought to spare for you.
"Oh darling. Look, get dressed. I'll take you home-"
"And then you'll come back here."
"I can't leave her like this."
"So I stay too." Dominic dropped his hands and sighed. "So what do we do all night? I don't feel like sleeping, I'll tell you. Madam might decide to drop something heavier than a mug."
"There has to be some solution to this." Noel said helplessly. "Something we can do. Explain to her in a way she'll understand."
"What will that achieve?"
"It'll stop her going through the house like a hurricane in a blind panic. Maybe."
Dominic got up and took a packet of cards out of the dresser.
"Is there anyone she'd know?"
"After seventy two years? I doubt it. And I doubt she'd recognise them even if we could find someone. I'll ring around tomorrow. There has to be some expert somewhere who deals with this kind of thing. Maybe a psychotherapist or something."
"Right. First you're going to convince them you know this nine year old girl who's been dead a while, and then you're going to ask them to convince her that she's dead. They're more likely to go to work on you than her."
Noel took his cards and swiped Dominic briskly across the back of the head.
"So you come up with a better idea."
Dominic ducked away from him. "She's scared enough of you and you're related to her. Think she'll like anyone else better?" 
 
***** 
  
 
The knock on the door startled them out of the eighth game of cards.  Noel glanced at his watch and found it was six thirty am. Jamie Thadier was standing on the doorstep in jeans and trainers, looking harassed.
"You couldn't have made this place much harder to find."
"I wasn't expecting you!" Noel gave him an automatic hug and stepped back to let him in. Jamie pulled off his anorak, heading for the kitchen.
"I left about twelve messages on your answer phone. I have about a week before I have to have this dance choreographed and ready to start rehearsals, I have to work with you for a couple of hours no matter what. Death and destruction and anything else is out of the question until this is done."
Dominic looked up from the kitchen table, saw Jamie and fixed Noel with a WHAT?! stare. Noel shrugged, accepting the inevitable.
"I'll get the cello."
He and Jamie belonged to the same type. It was why they'd managed to live together for the three years the dance company had travelled, living a strange bohemian life of never ending rehearsals and meetings and musicians and dancers in their hotel room night and day. Both of them were committed to their craft, both of them had the obsessive, compulsive self discipline that bound them to hour upon hour of practise and perfectionism, both of them were shrewd enough in the world of business to play the art world without being dragged down by it. In this kind of mood Jamie would hear nothing but conversation dedicated to dance and there was little point in arguing with him.
Noel caught the filthy look Dominic shot Jamie as he went out into the garden, but didn't argue. For his own part, Jamie was a welcome distraction, a taste of normality after a horrible twenty four hours.
They practised in the garden, which offered the widest space for Jamie to dance in. Damien took the strimmer and stalked out of sight towards the orchard. Noel pulled the garden bench forward, pinned his music to the stand and promptly forgot about the house, Meg, car parks, ghosts in general and anything else. 
 
It was ten am when the huge water bottle Jamie had been swigging at intervals finally emptied and Jamie headed for the kitchen, hot and tired.
"Mind if I help myself?"
"Go ahead." The strimmer sounds had died away in the distance and Noel laid the cello down on the grass, called back to reality. "I'd better check on Dom. He worries me when he's quiet."
And I'm already ignoring him in the hope this assault business is all just going to fade away. Pull yourself together, Neilson, he needs you. 
 
Dom's attack on the garden had been about the most efficient thing they'd achieved all weekend. The grass was cleared around the wishing well and through the vegetable garden, now rough turf once more. He'd hacked half way into the orchard, clearing the feet of the apple and pear trees. The strimmer lay on the grass as the cut-off point where the grass abruptly erupted to waist height once more. Noel looked around. A handful of leaves alerted him to his partner's presence. Dominic was sitting on the bough of an elderly apple tree, leaning on one elbow and letting the leaves trickle from his hand.
"Hey. What did you do with the Barbie doll?"
Noel didn't answer that, his eyes caught by a flicker of light above Dominic's head. A second later he realised and the shape began to form. Meg. Balancing with her hands holding the branch above her head, her feet on Dominic's branch, her eyes burning dislike at Noel. Noel's breath caught in his thoat.
"Dominic for God's sake be careful! Get down from there now!"
"WHAT?" Dominic sat up, exasperated. "It's a perfectly sound tree, I only-"
"Get DOWN, NOW!" Noel fixed Meg with a stare, a gaze of pure rage. If you dare to push him- if you try to hurt him-
Dominic swung out by his hands from the branch and dropped the ten feet to the ground.
"You can be such an old woman at times."
Noel took a steadying breath and forced himself to keep his voice quiet. "Dominic, SHE was up there with you."
Dominic looked up at the tree. There was no sign of anything but the leaves flickering against the branches. Noel hooked a hand in Dom's belt and drew him away.
"Please, leave the rest of this mowing. It's too dangerous. We don't know enough about her. What she can do."
Dominic looked at him, eyes troubled. Noel felt for his hands, aware she was probably listening, unseen in the trees.
"What if she's after company? Someone else to haunt the garden with her? Someone to keep in this house with her? What if she thinks she can hurt me by breaking your neck?"
"You're getting carried away." Dominic said grimly. Noel shook his head.
"No. We just don't know. So leave the damn strimmer and come away. Jamie's nearly finished, when he's gone I'll start ringing around and look for some advice."
Dominic didn't answer. Noel was braced for an explosion, then Dom sighed hard and headed for the house.
"Okay. I'll take the car and do some damn shopping. If you think she won't get in the car with me. I'm not sitting and watching muscle-man leaping around all morning."
"DOM."
"I DON'T like him! I don't have to!"
"You DO however have to be polite!" Noel grabbed his wrist and pulled him sharply back, making him turn around. "That is the LAST snap I want to hear from you. I'm sorry Jamie's found his way here but I was committed to work on this with him. He won't be here for long."
Dominic's mouth went awry. Noel pulled his head down and kissed him.
"Go on. I'll see you later. It'll be okay."
He couldn't help staring at the passenger seat as Dominic drove out of the gates, half looking for a little girl with pale hair and her tongue stuck out. Dom was right. He was getting carried away.
Jamie was sitting cross legged on the lawn, his water bottle refilled.
"I should have thought. I bet he isn't very happy to see me."
"He'll survive."
Jamie took another swallow of water. "So what's with the house then? Come on Noel, it's all over your face. And his. What's going on here?"
Noel sat down beside him on the grass. There were few people to whom he could come out with a story like this, but he and Jamie both lived in a world fuelled by fantasy and superstition and ancient tradition. The accepted a little more and questioned a little less, understanding how to think with guts rather than logic. He was surprised at how much it helped to put it down into words.
"I think Dominic's right." Jamie said eventually when Noel finished. "She doesn’t seem to mind him at all. It's you she's directing all this at and it has been from the start. You said she started almost as soon as you arrived in the house."
"It was hard to tell at first what was her and what was coincidence." Noel admitted. "I mean we walked in the door and the first thing we did was head upstairs and sleep in - well, what we think is her room. No, I tell a lie. The first thing she saw me do was drag Dominic into the kitchen and spank him."
"Which is hardly likely to endear you to a nine year old." Jamie pointed out, smiling. Noel smiled too, wryly.
"He threw the most almighty wobbly on the way over here. Not that it was surprising really. God knows what he was going through on Friday night. I should have realised."
"He didn't want you to know." Jamie said gently. "He's a well built guy- fit, active, strong. He's hardly going to find it easy that some smaller guy pinned him to the wall and scared the hell out of him.  Or that in that situation he froze. Think about it kiddo. You and I rationalised the machismo years ago. It was that or flip out. I mean a ballet dancer? NOT the most macho job to admit to! Your Dominic's got Rugby Union written all over him."
"He wouldn't even consider reporting it." Noel said slowly. Jamie snorted.
"I can understand. Would you want to describe that kind of assault to a straight copper when the first thing they'll point out is he'd just walked out of a gay club?"
"He didn't do anything to ask for it! The only damn thing he did wrong was to park in that bloody car park when I've told him over and over again it's dangerous at night!"
"Have you gone over that with him?"
"He knows."
Jamie shrugged easily. "Maybe it'd help to go over it again. At least he could sort out what he was genuinely guilty over and what's irrational guilt."
Noel looked at him. Jamie re capped his water bottle.
"I had a mate who was raped a few years ago. Date rape. He knew the guy quite well. He needed someone to talk to a few times. From what he said, most rape victims blame themselves for the attack at some level. And you're missing the most obvious thing here. The whole reason Meg's making life so hard for you two."
"She and Dominic." Noel said aloud. Jamie clicked his fingers.
"Bingo. Two victims of assault. Dominic walks into this house full of these emotions, and hey presto- you stumble across a kid with emotions very much the same. You told me a few times you thought she was Dominic. Because without looking, they felt the same to you. Dominic may even have brought her back here somehow. Triggered her or the house into remembering."
"But she isn't blaming herself. She's blaming me!" Noel protested. Jamie laughed.
"Why do you think they say never work with children? Too damn egocentric. And irrational."
Children. Noel hesitated, thinking about bits and pieces he'd heard, things he'd heard his mother say. Children were egocentric while their experiences of life were few. They had no way to reason about things without connecting to themselves- their actions, their world.
Oh little girl, you didn't make this happen. You did nothing wrong.
Dominic-
Noel got up from the grass.
"It's getting on for lunchtime. Do you have anywhere you need to be tonight?"
"Not until tomorrow afternoon."
"Why don't you stay the night?"
Jamie grinned. "Is that an invitation to sleep in the haunted house? I'm tempted! I'd love to see her- but Dominic's not going to like it much, is he?"
"He's going to have to come to terms with you sooner or later," Noel said bluntly. "If for no other reason than to realise he doesn't need to be jealous of you."
"And you're hoping I'll talk to him a bit about this friend of mine with the rape in his past?" Jamie crossed his ankles and rose gracefully to his feet. "Let me have a shower and I'll think about it."
"Bathroom. In the scullery. You'll have to block the door shut."
"This house has every modern convenience, doesn't it?" Jamie hooked an arm around Noel's neck and gave him a hug. "He must really be something, this bad tempered brat you ditched me for." 
  
 
******* 
  
 
Dominic was gone for some time. Long enough for Noel to settle down to thinking in the position he always thought best. Wrapped around a cello. The music was subconscious after a while, freeing his mind to wander.
Dominic. Angry and resentful at finding Jamie at home with Noel. Dominic ever confident, ever happy-go-lucky, running up the steps of a car park without a second thought for danger. Dominic deliberately making an appointment with Anthony - not that that had been particularly wrong: he hadn't left a note, intending to be home long before Noel was. And Noel was well aware Dominic would have told him about the club anyway. But it had been a small gesture of defiance. As, probably, had been parking in that damned multi storey.
Dear God he's been punished enough for that mistake and far more harshly than I would have dreamed of. That's a risk he'll be frightened to take for years to come.
But there was still that simple disobedience between them. And Dominic's guilt.
So many terrible things could come from assaults like this. Relationships could be ended by the hurt and confusion and damage left behind by someone's thoughtless and destructive intervention.
Meg, left in this house for seventy years, angry and confused and bewildered, with no one to blame but herself. Some little thing she had done as a heedless child. One slight mistake that ended her world and left her abandoned and alone.
For the want of a nail the shoe was lost, 
For the want of a shoe, the horse was lost….
Noel put away the cello, slackened off his bow and watched the drive, looking for Dominic's car.
"They thought she must have known him…. went missing from her bed… went out to meet him."
Who did you meet, Meg? Who waited for you at the end of the garden?
Who was it who followed Dominic into a cold and frosty carpark, with harm on his mind? Noel's fists clenched involuntarily at the thought.
Dominic's car pulled onto the drive. 
  
 
***** 
  
 
"You invited him to-" Dominic dropped the bag on the table and muted his voice slightly at Noel's glare. "I suppose I had NO say in this!"
"Dom he needs to work with me. And I wouldn't mind an impartial observer in the house after last night. This is getting stranger and stranger."
"So you're going to work with him all afternoon are you?"
"Some of it." Noel made himself sound together. As though he was sure of what he was doing. "I want a word with you first."
Dominic caught enough of the implications behind that to look sharply up at him. Noel held out a hand.
"Not in here."
He deliberately avoided Meg's end of the garden. Around the side of the house was a small patch of lawn and a couple of willow trees over another bench. Noel sat down and pulled Dominic down beside him.
"There's a discussion we need to have about where you chose to park on Thursday night. And about walking around the back streets alone in the dark."
"Why now?" Dominic demanded. "You found out about this yesterday morning-"
"I found out that you were attacked yesterday morning." Noel interrupted. "At the time I was more worried about you than the ins and outs of where you parked. And last night we were more than slightly busy. I think we've put this off long enough."
Dom's face was more than faintly mutinous, but he knew better than to launch into open defiance. His voice was polite in a way that told Noel he was trying hard to keep within the bounds of acceptability.
"You told me not to park there at night because it was dangerous. And you were right, I was - mugged. I was wrong. Believe me it's a mistake I won't make again."
"That isn't the issue, Dom. The fact stands that I told you to do something and you decided that it didn't fit in with your plans that evening. I don't make rules up for fun. If I tell you to do something, or not to do something, there is a good reason behind it. You are an active participant in this relationship and you and I have an agreement that in certain situations, I make the rules. And you do not then make value judgements on whether or not you obey me."
Dominic stared at the grass. Noel leaned his elbows on his knees, watching his profile.
"You might decide now that you need to park more carefully. But that isn't going to affect your decision when you feel like driving too fast. Or without a seatbelt. Or to cross a road at a corner because you don't feel like walking to the crossing. Or anything else I've forbidden because it's dangerous."
Silence. Noel spoke to him gently, trying to crack the marble of his expression.
"I'm sorry you had to find out the hard way the reason behind this particular rule, but that doesn't negate the fact that you broke it. Or that I had to find out about all this out from Anthony, not you."
"I didn't want to think about it."
That wasn't entirely true, Noel reflected. He might not have had the words to say it, but his mood swings since Friday had been indicating loud and clear to Noel that he was bothered about something and he was looking for intervention.
If we hadn't been bogged down in Meg and the house, I'd have pinned you to the wall by Saturday night and made you tell me what was wrong. You're not the only one at fault here.
Right now, Noel wanted to do this about as much as he wanted open heart surgery.  Except this house was already stained with the guilt of people ashamed and afraid to face the facts. To deal with them.
"Come here Dom."
Dominic slowly stood up. Noel caught a flash across the lawn. Meg. Standing with her hands by her sides, her face subdued but faintly puzzled. Slowly, gently, Noel shook his head at her. She began to walk towards them, the sun and the wishing well visible through the lines of her dress. About thirty feet away she vanished.
Should we be doing this in front of a child?
Don't be ridiculous man. She was raped. Strangled. Brutalised. She'll see nothing brutal here. And besides. Who's going to report you to social services for shocking a phantom?
Noel quietly unbuckled Dom's belt, pulled his jeans down and turned Dom over his lap. His weight was vaguely comforting in the silence of the garden.
"Tell me why you're getting this spanking."
He felt Dom's protest in the tension under his hand and answered it at once.
"Yes I know. But I want you to be clear on this. Absolutely clear."
"For parking in the multi storey at night after I told you I wouldn't." Dom flinched as Noel drew his shorts down after his jeans. "And for doing it because I was angry about you having Jamie in the house. It was stupid, I didn't really mean to do it to annoy you. I just didn't think it was dangerous."
"The point isn't whether or not you agree with me. The point is I said no." Noel raised his hand and brought it down hard. "No. And I expect you to respect that. Whether I'm talking about car parks, bridges, driving, fireworks, matches or letting the damn cat out at night, no STILL means no. Whether or not you agree with it, whether or not it's inconvenient, no means no. The rules are there to protect you, they are NOT optional."
"I'm sorry." Dom pleaded, twisting. Noel settled in to a sharp and heavy rhythm, covering the white backside upturned on his lap.
"No. I know you're sorry you were attacked- I'm desperately sorry you were attacked, I'm sorry that you got bitten by breaking this rule- but this isn't about the attack. This is purely and simply about doing as you're told. We've had this discussion before, I have little doubt we'll have it again, but you are going to learn that if I say no, I mean it."
There was something in that that stung more than the spanking. Noel felt Dom start to shudder and then to cry, silently and hard. His immediate instinct was to pull Dominic to him and comfort him. Thinking about it, he steeled himself and finished the task at hand. The same brief and sound spanking he would have given for any minor act of disobedience, no more, no less. Dominic was sobbing, still silently when Noel pulled him to his feet and refastened his jeans. He was a mess. White faced, tear stained, far more out of control than Noel had seen him in a long while.  He was too far gone to respond when Noel pulled him down, gathering as much of Dom's long and solider body into his lap. Noel held him hard, feeling him shaking.
"I got what I deserved for that." Dom said eventually, with mild hysteria. "You told me again and again and it happened. I asked for it and it happened."
Noel swatted him, hard. "NO. You parked in the damn place after I told you not to. The ONLY thing you did wrong was to disobey me. You took a risk. You didn't ask for that assault, you didn't provoke it, you did NOT deserve it. The bastard that attacked you was wrong. It was his crime, his decision, his actions, not yours. Be angry. Be sad. Be scared. That's fine. DON'T call it your fault."
Meg was standing closer, underneath the willow. Her full lower lip was caught a little between the slight turn of newly setting front teeth, her eyes were wide and fixed on his. Noel pulled Dom still tighter to him and spoke to her over his head.
"You didn't make anything happen. It was someone else's decision. Someone else did something wrong to you. They took you into their power and they gave you no choice. No way out. And that was wrong. Evil. They hurt you and that was wicked. It isn't bad just to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. There is nothing in you or about you that could possibly make you deserve to be treated like this. This happened TO you. Not because of you."
"If I hadn't gone to the car park that night-" Dom said unevenly. Noel hushed him, burying his face briefly in Dom's hair.
"If I hadn't played that concert in Stourbridge that night, I wouldn't have met you. Things happen the way they happen. Strings of coincidences. No. The only thing you did wrong was to disobey me in parking. And we’ve dealt with that. It's over, it's finished with. That's the end of it."
Meg stood still, hands clasped in the sides of her pinafore. Noel turned his chin on Dom's head to watch her.
Who did you slip outside to meet, baby? Someone you thought you trusted.
"I'm sorry." Dominic said over and over again. Noel rocked him, stroking his back and murmuring nonsense, knowing he was beyond listening now. It was not a serious plea. And yet it was a terrible plea. To turn back time. For a second chance.
Meg turned slowly and walked away across the lawn towards the house. Noel watched her walk for eight or nine steps before she flicked out like an old cinematography film. 
  
 
******* 
  
 
Noel and Jamie were talking softly in the scullery. The clink of mugs was faint and mixed with the crackle and jump of the kitchen fire. Dominic turned stiffly in the sleeping bag on the floor, sat up and reached for his watch. They'd left him to sleep in peace, not wanting to disturb him. Aching, distraught, exhausted, he had wanted nothing more than to sleep.
It was eleven pm.
Dominic sat up in the dark kitchen, listening. The softest creak of the scullery door told him. Then the kitchen door bolt slid silently back. The latch lifted. The door noiselessly opened. Dominic got up and reached for his jeans and boots.
The grass was wet in the moonlight, he saw his footprints left clearly behind him. But they would be gone by morning, covered by the dew. The gardener wouldn't see. And he was too daft to notice besides. The only danger was Paul. Paul who lay awake upstairs in the boys room, waiting. Scolding softly enough not to wake the nurse and the maids who slept in the attic above.
Through the vegetable garden. Past the neat rows of marrows and beans. The trellises than ran upwards, carrying the Sweet Williams. Through the orchard. The shadows were longer there. The pain of a thumping heart made his booted feet quicken a little, made his eyes look neither right or left. Made him clutch Arabella a little closer to his chest until her porcelein face hurt against his breastbone.
He was there. Straightening up against the fence with a smile of welcome. And everything was allright. Dominic loosened his grip on Arabella and ran to meet him. 
  
 
***** 
  
 
"Do you remember that awful concert hall in Rouen?" Jamie grinned. "Six days in those Godawful appartments, you fighting non stop with that French violinist and practising night and day with her-"
"And there was never one rehearsal we had without at least eight of the chorus practising in the kitchen."
"And we spent the rest of the time having union meetings about the exchange rate." Jamie drained his mug. "Those were the days. I can see why you married a nine to five man."
"You'd be surprised at the money in free lancing. And I do a lot of transcription work. Ted Wyman has a lot of museum stuff- all sorts of old music notation forwarded to me to transcribe and organise and hand over to publishers. And I teach occasionally."
"Dominic?"
"Dom busks quite well on the piano but that's about his limit. He's got a good ear. If he didn't-" Noel broke off, frowning. "Can you feel that draught? The door's open."
"It can't be, I bolted it."
"Dominic." Noel exploded out of his chair and bolted for the kitchen. It was still dark. The fire was jumping in response to the night wind from the open door. The sleeping bag before the fire was empty.
"Maybe he's just gone for a smoke." Noel said behind him. "Or a walk."
"Meg!" Noel flung himself back into the scullery, then to the back door. "MEG!"
There was nothing. No whisper of emotion, no sense of her that he'd felt so often over the last few days. The house was empty.
"Oh God…." Jamie said very very softly. His tone penetrated Noel's panic. He looked around. And froze. A small boy in a white nightshirt, his feet bare, his pale hair tumbled into his eyes, stood at the foot of the scullery stairs. He was faintly blue in the electric lighting. He moved past them towards the dark kitchen, his bare feet soundless on the floor. In the doorway he turned to look appealingly at Noel. Noel followed him into the cold, dark garden. Stepped out of the kitchen doorway and ran. 
 
***** 
 
The man straightened up from the fence and smiled. A well brushed dark jacket, a neat bowler hat and moustache, a packet of sweets pulled from his pocket and offered. Humbugs. Dominic saw the stripes and laughed. He never forgot. Never.
"Dom."
"Meg."
Dominic hesitated. Warm hands held his shoulders, drew him back against a body that was shaking but solid. Strong. Arms folded over his chest.
"It's me. I've got you. It's okay."
The man's smile had faded. He was glancing anxiously at the house, fidgeting with his hat brim, his hand held out.
Noel saw only the little girl standing between them and the fence. Meg. Torn between them and whoever her silent conversation was with. She was torn, visibly torn. Dominic was still frozen, unresponsive. Noel held him tighter and tried to make his voice sound calm.
"Meg no. Say no. We're here, it's allright. Go home Meg."
She looked at him, her eyes starting to show disquiet, her instincts beginning to sense danger she couldn't understand.
"Meg run. Go home. He's tricked you, pet. Why would he frighten you? Why would anyone safe want you out of the house at this time of night?"
She hesitated. Dominic began to tremble. Then she took a step towards the fence and laid Arabella down on the grass.
"Meg." Noel said desperately. "Listen to me. This is over. This happened seventy years ago, you know what this bastard did to you. You know what happens next.  He killed you here, baby. He choked you and you died here. The house is old now. Your family are gone because this happened so long ago. Walk away Meg. Go back to the house."
She was walking slowly towards the fence. Dominic was shuddering in Noel's arms, bracing himself, starting to groan deep in his throat. Meg stopped dead and spun. The intensity of her gaze forced Noel to look around with her. The little boy was standing at the edge of the vegetable garden, his nightshirt blowing slowly in the night wind. Meg's smile came slowly but lit up her mouth, then her eyes, then her entire face as she ran past them, catching the child's hand.
Jamie, stumbling through the brambles of the orchard, came to a halt a few feet beyond the children and stared, rooted to the spot. Noel held Dominic and looked silently at the face of his grandfather. A little boy's face, slowly losing the look of fear and dread. For a smile to match his sister's.
Did you know she was here? Noel asked him silently. Did you look for her here? Or did you just remember and wish you'd sent someone after her in time that night? 
 
Both children ran back towards the lights of the house. Not the fleeing of the pursued but the running of children, their hands still clasped. Somewhere across the lawn they faded slowly away, leaving traces of light like the memory of a candle flame blown out in darkness. 
  
 
********* 
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
  
 
POSTSCRIPT 
  
 
"You are not seriously going to live out here?" the lead flortist from the Birmingham symphony orchestra said incredulously. Noel handed him a refilled glass and nodded at the garden stretching beyond the house. The lanterns gave it a quietly lit air in the summer evening. Someone- most likely Dominic- had hung one under the roof of the wishing well, giving an unnatural glow into the water as if someone had lit a fire down there.
"After the time it took Damien to clear the orchard and put the fences back up, I wouldn't have dared say no. Besides, it's him that it affects; I can work from here as well as anywhere else. He's the one commuting, but he said he wanted to do it. He said actually that now he drives into the village each night and it feels like he's left work completely behind."
"You've done a beautiful job on the restoration, both of you." the flortist looked around, mellow with wine. "Such a warm atmosphere. I suppose it must be the red brick."
Four of Jamie's colleagues were breakdancing on the lawn. Noel, who at one time had had ballets being rehearsed in a kitchen where he was trying to eat breakfast, walked around them with only an eye to see if Jamie was amongst them. It was a warm enough evening that people were still sitting and lounging on the lawn, spread out amongst the trees of the orchard and the open spaces of the central garden. What on earth the village would make of seventy people descending on them like this remained to be seen, but in the five months since they'd begun to restore the house, Noel could feel a growing welcome from the locals. He was a Neilson in a Neilson home, where there had been Neilsons for over a century. As the house began to return to well kept and well cared for order, the reserved smiles in the village began to grow warmer and the conversations extending past good morning. Dominic was largely responsible for that, Noel reflected, still searching the garden for his partner. He was the one with the floodlight smile and the natural charm, and the one who had started to bring people home for dinner, rapidly fixing them in a widening circle of neighbours and acquaintances. Several of whom were present tonight, mixing rather wide eyed with dancers, musicians and marketing consultants.
He ran Dominic to earth in a small group by the fence at the very end of the garden. It had taken both of them a while to find the courage to clear that area. They had even talked at one point of bringing the fence forward and handing the last fifteen feet of land to the farmer who owned the field that backed onto it. Except neither of them could forget the small, solitary grave five miles away in the town. One afternoon they had stripped out the blackberry bushes and planted a handful of cherry trees, the blossom from which was still visible on the grass, and replaced the lawn with a pond, from which now the fountain was muttering cheerfully, taking away the silence of the area as they'd taken away the ground where a child had died.
Anthony was sitting on the fence beside Jamie, both of them in deep discussion with Dominic. Noel slipped a hand through Dominic's arm and gave Anthony a friendly smile. Still big mouthed, still tactless, he was nevertheless proving distance made little difference to his friendship with Dominic. Enough to make Noel wonder if he'd underestimated Anthony's sincerity. Dominic steered Noel gently away, leaving Anthony and Jamie still talking.
"Do you know I hadn't thought to introduce those two before?"
Noel glanced back, frowning. "I can't see they'd have much common ground."
"I think you'd be surprised." Dominic said smugly. "I'm going to see if I can talk Anthony into staying the night, give them a while to get better acquainted."
"Dom.." Noel gave into Dominic's pull on his arm and suffered himself to be towed away. "You can't just set people up like that! Besides which-"
Dominic lifted an eyebrow at him. Noel broke off and thought about it. And winced.
"Poor Jamie."
"He'll find some compensations, I'm sure." Dominic steered him onto the lawn, grinning at a knot of marketing executives who were mixed up with half the brass section and the local publican. "After all, you did."
The kitchen was empty. It was too warm for people to be inside. After the time spent stripping and repainting, taking each room in turn, the house was theirs now reflecting them in each room. Through the open door of the kitchen, what had once been the scullery was now a small sitting room which to Noel's eye reflected Dominic's love of colour and space, the hard floor tiles gone, the table quietly disposed of. And the rooms upstairs were re decorated. Dominic's office was now where Meg's bedroom had once been, although there were several executive toys littering it that Noel thought Meg might well have been interested in.
Noel pushed the door to on the garden full of guests, folded his arms around Dominic's waist and watched him open yet another bottle of wine.
"Do you think we should re name the place? We've talked about it enough. Tonight would be the time to do it."
"The official re opening?" Dominic turned and leaned against the table to hold Noel. "No. I like the original name. And it is a Neilson house."
"It’s yours too."
"Can't I be an honorary Neilson?"
Noel smiled and reached up to kiss him. "Of course you can. Neilsons are nothing if not adaptable."
Dominic winked at him and took the fresh bottles outside.
~ The End~
Copyright Ranger 2010 
 

1 comment:

jen vieira pinto said...

Great story! I really liked this couple and the way they interacted. I thought Noel was very gracious and restrained in the way he dealt with Dom and Meg.

At first, the whole thing with Jaime being Noel's previous lover and being in the house alone with him annoyed me. I could really understand Dom's feelings. I wouldn't be comfortable with my lover being alone with someone he'd lived with and had sex with for years. It would have definitely undermined our relationship and my trust in him. I'm of the school of thought that you never put yourself in a position to be doubted or mistrusted. Never being alone with a previous lover would have been one of those strict rule never to be broken.

However, I really liked the way your brought the four of them together in the end and the way Dom was acting towards Jaime. I think you did a wonderful job wrapping this story up very neatly. Now...is there an Anthony and Jaime story as a follow up? :D


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