Winter Solstice-A Halloween Story
Dusk gathered quickly as the autumn afternoon drew to a close, the oak and maple that lined the avenue reached naked and gnarled branches into a low, pearl grey sky. Rough piles of curled orange and brown leaves littered the front garden, blown by a brisk wind into piles against curbs and beneath the hedges. As the streetlights blinked on and bathed the street in uniform arcs of sulphur yellow, Rachel pointedly ignored the other occupant of the room and flicked off the lamp at her elbow. The sharp coolness of the glass bathed her hot skin, and her breath formed a thin mist on the surface. Half closing her eyes, she let the gloom wrap itself around her like a blanket.
‘The Trick-or-Treaters will be along soon,’ she whispered, then louder, and more accusing. ‘I used to love Halloween, until you spoiled it for me.’
‘Have you been angry with me all this time?’ Jake’s low, sensuous voice rumbled from his armchair on the other side of the room. ‘Is that why you won’t even look at me?’
‘Since you ask, yes.’ Rachel kept her gaze fixed on the empty street. ‘I was heartbroken when you left. I couldn’t understand why you would do such a thing, and without a word. No note or even a text.’ In his tailored jeans and crisp white shirt beneath the petrol-blue leather jacket he always wore, Jake lounged in his chair, casual and immaculate as usual. His floppy blond hair and lop-sided smile twisted her heart in the same way it had the day they met. It was easier to stay angry if she didn’t look into those puppy-dog eyes. At least these last months on her own had taught her self-discipline. ‘I’ve had a year to get this angry. It won’t disappear simply because you finally decide to turn up with no warning.’
Questions as to where he had been all this time could wait. Right now she needed to maintain an aloof distance in which to nurse her fury, albeit feigned. It was important to show him he hadn’t broken her spirit and that she had survived well enough without him.
But he had. And she couldn’t.
‘I remember.’ His voice, soft, low and achingly familiar flowed over her. ‘Your liking for Halloween that is. Although I didn’t see the china witch’s house I bought you on the step this year.’
‘Couldn’t be bothered.’ Rachel sniffed, following the progress of a white cat that edged its way across the top of the fence. Its tail curled over its bony back like a question mark. ‘I’ve put a bowl of sweets by the gate though. The kids can help themselves.’
The cat lifted its head and then froze, alerted by something. A noise or a headlight, she couldn’t tell which. In a flurry of white fur, it scrambled down the fence and darted into the hedge at the front of the house. A smile tugged at Rachel’s mouth as hard on the cat’s departure, a group of four children came into view. In witches hats and jiggling plastic bats-in-flight on sticks, they drew level with the gate. All girls.
One reached for the latch but a second distracted her, pointing to where Rachel had left the bowl of goodies. She needn’t disconnect the doorbell after all.
‘It’s not like you to distance yourself from all the fun that way,’ Jake said, making her flinch at the unexpected closeness of his voice. On silent feet he had closed the distance between them and now perched on the sofa arm beside the window. If he reached out a hand, just a little. He could touch her. He didn’t. Rachel drew her legs tighter into her body, wrapping both arms around her knees and turned back to her contemplation of the garden. ‘No, well. Things change, don’t they?’
He released a resgined breath and leaned forward, his chin in line with her shoulder. ‘I wish you’d let me explain.’
‘What for?’ Rachel shrugged, feigning nonchalance. ‘I’ve gone this long in ignorance. What difference would it make now?’ Tell me why you left me? her mind screamed but her lips refused to form the words. I loved you so much, and I truly believed you loved me. You told me you did, every day – and yet....
‘Because it’s important.’ The plea in his voice melted a few of the shards of ice round her heart. Only a few. ‘I was the one who had to face everyone alone, Jake.’ She prodded her chest with a finger in emphasis. ‘My parents, my friends, work colleagues, even the neighbours.’ She indicated the terrace of identical houses opposite, where candles flickered on windowsills and fake spiders hung from porches. ‘It didn’t take long before sympathy turned to suspicion; especially when the police and the newspapers got involved. Those reporters made such a thing about you not having taken anything with you. I expected the police to come and dig up the back garden.’
‘I took my motorbike.’ She jerked up her chin and narrowed her eyes. ‘Always the comedian, eh Jake? Ever ready with the flippant remark to excuse your selfish behaviour. Well, I’m not laughing anymore.’ She’d barely smiled for months.
He looked about to say something else, but she turned away. Her gaze snagged on another group of children who approached from the opposite direction. These were smaller, their voices raised in high-pitched excitement. Following behind at a slow, disinterested pace came the obligatory adult. Giggling, the youngsters halted by the gate, small heads dipped to search for their favourite treats.
An elderly woman in a floor-length cloak who ambled down the pathway of the house next door, a plump arm lifted to greet the visitors. A broom in one hand, a bulging carrier bag in the other.
‘I see Mrs Hanley’s on form.’ Jake cocked his chin at the new arrival. ‘This must be the only day of the year the local kids won’t run away screaming. She doesn’t have to bother with make-up either.’
‘Don’t be cruel,’ Rachel snapped through gritted teeth. ‘She was very kind to me when you left.’
She recalled the sludgy tea in heavy brown mugs drunk over Mrs Hanley’s kitchen table, while the woman’s all-knowing eyes beamed sympathy mixed with slight cynicism. She never said it, but the implication that a handsome free spirit such as Jake was never going to stay in one place for long. Rachel rested her chin on her knees, watching her neighbour placing treats into tiny outstretched hands. Having called a greeting to the hovering parent, she shuffled back to her front door. ‘She even helped me distribute flyers in the shopping centre with your picture on them three weekends running.’
She knew her barb had gone home when Jake coughed nervously and stared at the floor.
‘Rach. I didn’t mean it, you know.’
‘Didn’t mean what exactly? To leave, or to slope off without a word to anyone?’ Her self-righteous fervour rose in her throat, threatening to choke her. How many times had she imagined this very conversation. She wanted to make him squirm with guilt and then grovel and beg her forgiveness. A forgiveness she would grant, eventually as they both knew she would. But for now, this was her moment, her chance to have the upper hand, and she wasn’t going to waste it.
She had returned from a fraught day at work that evening in no mood for Halloween celebrations. Not that she had been in the right frame of mind for partying of any sort lately, although she had remembered to stop off at the supermarket for a bumper pack of assorted sweets. Then she had chickened out and left them by the gate so she wouldn’t have to pretend this wasn’t the anniversary of Jake’s leaving.
When she flung open the gate and negotiated the tiled path, at first the figure crouched on the step with his arms round his knees looked like a dream. Her breath had caught in her throat and she imagined it had finally happened. His abandoning her had sent her mad and she was hallucinating. It wasn’t until he spoke, that she realised he was actually there. He unfolded his limbs slowly, and stood, pushing one hand through his floppy wheat-coloured hair the way he always did when feeling guilty. The instinct to throw herself into his arms was so strong, the hand that gripped her doorkeys cut painfully into her palm. At five inches taller than her, to hug him properly meant her toes had to leave the floor. It had always been the best part. That lift and swing, followed by the crush of his muscular arms that always made her gasp; that and the sweet smell of his skin and the feel of her fingers in his hair. Shock had kept her rooted to the spot, her other arm stiff by her side. Forcing herself to brush past him, she had fumbled with the front door keys, making him laugh at her clumsiness. Like he always did. She had blinked away hot tears and motioned him inside with a silent, grudging nod and a, ‘You had better come in.’ How could she not? It was half his house after all, even if she had struggled to find the mortgage payments alone for the past year. Jake’s movements were hesitant, his eyes guarded; as if the house they had furnished together was in some way alien. Remaining polite and aloof had proved easier than Rachel had imagined. The shock of seeing him probably. Almost formally, she offered him a seat, determined this time he wouldn’t get away with the, ‘it-doesn’t-matter-now-it’s-in-the-past speech.
It bloody well did matter.
The deepening gloom leached colour from the garden, apart from the streetlamp with its soft, buttery beam. The front path meandered crookedly in a grey ribbon to the gate, the Edwardian mosaic tiles muted to varying shades of silver in the dusk. Her face superimposed on the glass like an Impressionist painting, overlaid with transparent tree branches and a light mist. Rachel tucked a strand of hair behind one ear, leaving it to fall straight and thick below her shoulders. She hadn’t been near a hairdresser for months, so her coppery curls were longer than a year ago and a little ragged round the edges. Her pale skin and wide, grey eyes were the same, although she was thinner than last year. And older. More mature perhaps, or simply more cynical?
‘I thought I knew you, Jake.’ She kept her voice even, despite the scratchiness in her throat, ‘two years of marriage is enough time to get to know someone, don’t you think?’ He nodded and looked about to speak, but she rushed on. ‘How exactly did you expect me to take your disappearance? And over something as trivial as whether we were going to spend Christmas with your parents or mine?’ A festive season she had spent alone in this house in the end, because she couldn’t bear the accusatory stares of her family. Or his. Men don’t walk out on their wives for no reason. She must have driven him away, mustn’t she?
He dry-washed his face, and then rested his chin in his palms. ‘It wasn’t about that, Rach. You know it wasn’t,’ he said, using his affectionate abbreviation of her name in the same tone he used when he decided she was being unreasonable.
Rachel stiffened. She hadn’t told anyone the true reason for their quarrel. It would have been too shaming to admit she had been desperate for children and he had not. She had begged him to start a family and he had stormed out in a temper rather than listen again to all her carefully rehearsed rationale. Her promises to budget carefully if she gave up work and even cook from scratch instead of using expensive pre-prepared meals had gone unheeded.
The last sound she had heard was the revving of his motorbike on the street and the throaty roar and squeal as it sped off down the wet asphalt. Perhaps it was her fault he had gone.
She stole a quick glance at his face, where a plea stood in his eyes to which she longed to respond, but couldn’t. Then an image insinuated itself into her head, past the recriminations and anger she had built up over the last year. An image of her and Jake on that same sofa, when she had lain beneath him with her arms above her head and his body pressed against hers, their fingers interlaced over her head while he whispered her name. She squeezed her eyes shut to banish the memory.
‘We were happy, weren’t we, Rach?’
She cleared her throat before answering. ‘I thought so. Which is why I don’t understand. No letter, no phone call. Nothing.’
‘I ask, because I need you to tell me we were good together for those two years.’ ‘Too little, too late.’ ‘Would you believe me if I said I didn’t plan to leave that way? It just happened?’ She picked at a hangnail. ‘I used to believe every word you said. Lately I’m not quite so gullible.’
‘Not gullible, my love. Sweet and kind and loving. You always saw the best in people. The best in me.’ ‘And look where it got me?’ Tears pricked her eyes and she blinked them away. Stay strong, don’t weaken. He’s not sorry enough. ‘Don’t say that. I became a better person for being with you. I should have appreciated you more. I honestly wish I had.’ He rubbed his palms down the thighs of his jeans. ‘Have you um. . . managed while I was gone. Money-wise I mean?’
She glared at him, and then turned sharply away to where a tiny figure in a ghost costume bent to the bowl by the gate. So small, the top of the child’s head wasn’t visible above the hedge. Rachel hoped there was an adult nearby. ‘I kept my job. God knows how, I was a mess for weeks. My parents helped.’ She swung back to face him and narrowed her eyes. ‘Yours didn’t. They said you’d never have done something like that before you married me.’
‘They shouldn’t have said that.’ He raked a hand through his hair in a way that made her throat ache. He had lovely hair. Thick and soft, it sprang back into place when she ran her hand over it. Like an animal pelt. Her fingers twitched, and she clenched her fist against one knee.
‘Are you going to tell me where you’ve been, Jake?’
‘I didn’t go that far as it happened.’ His loose-shouldered shrug made his leather jacket creak. ‘Only to Donnington Cross.’ Donnington Cross. Rachel frowned, thinking, but nothing surfaced connecting that name to anything. Or anyone. She held her breath. Had Jake gone there to be with someone? A woman who had convinced him he would be happier there and not here with her? Alone in their bed, Rachel had toyed with a dozen scenarios, that one being the most insidious, and the most hurtful.
The doorbell chimed and Rachel sighed, but didn't move.
‘You’d better answer that,’ Jake said.
She shook her head wearily. ‘It will only be Trick-Or-Treaters, teenagers hoping for money I expect. Ignore it.’
‘Answer it, Rachel.’ The catch in his voice brought her head round to meet his steady gaze. Jake could never let a phone ring or a door go unanswered. Not like her. It was one of those exasperating things they could only tolerate by making into a joke. She sighed in an, if-you-insist sort of way and unfolded her legs from the seat. She stepped into the hall then turned back to duck her head round the door frame. ‘Don’t you move. I’m not finished with you.’
‘Mrs Rossi?’ The policeman on the doorstep looked far too young to be out after dark. He couldn’t meet Rachel’s eye and stood shuffling his feet.
‘Yes?’ She almost wanted to ask if he had an appropriate adult with him, when a girl in uniform stepped into the porch light. She didn’t appear to be much older, but she shouldered in front of her colleague to indicate she was in charge. Probably on the fast track promotion scheme, with her, ‘don’t-mess-with-me stare. She’d probably make detective in six months.
Rachel tried to recall if she had seen either of them before. When she had reported Jake missing, or during one of her follow-up visits to the police station which came to nothing. She had learned a thing or two since then. Don’t rush in with a hundred questions. If they know anything, they will tell you. Blustering and emotional outbursts made them impatient and slow the process.
‘We’ve found your husband, Mrs Rossi.’ The female officer apparently didn’t believe in wasting time. ‘Found?’ Rachel had no intention of making this easier for them. Whatever, ‘this’ was. She had no desperate questions left. Let them do the explaining. The woman swallowed and her gaze roved the hall. Not quite so businesslike now.
‘A-a farmer was clearing a ditch beneath a bridge over the road at a place called Doddington Cross, near Oxford. He found your husband’s motorbike in the undergrowth. Beneath it, he discovered-.’ she cast a quick glance at her colleague, who looked away. ‘Well, in actual fact he called us and we sent a team out there. That’s when we found-.’
Rachel had stopped listening, her gaze fixed on a point over the policewoman’s shoulder. The front gate swung drunkenly on its hinges and next to it stood Jake. Bathed by the misty yellow streetlight, he held the bowl of treats out to two small girls who grinned up at him through their butterfly face paint. The bobbles on their head-bands wobbled as they moved their heads, and sweet wrappers poked through their fingers as they tucked their prizes into their bags. When they skipped off down the street, Jake straightened and half turned, his gaze sought Rachel’s and held for a long second. Then he lifted one hand in a slow wave, his heart-stopping smile only for her.
‘Are you all right, Mrs Rossi?’ The policewoman’s voice came to her from a long way away. Rachel didn’t answer. She knew if she took her gaze off him, Jake would be gone. Forever.