Refreshed, Jen returned to the library with a light heart and full of determination to complete her Sisyphean task.  She threw the windows wide to let in the summer and took a deep breath of the hazy morning air.  It was going to be another beautiful day.  True, she would mostly spend it stuck inside, but at least it was far better than being stuck in the archives, even if the work was not as interesting.  In addition, she was determined to take Mags’s advice and get out into the fresh air a bit more – for a stretch, if nothing else.

She set to with a will, gradually whittling down the piles of books and papers that she had not finished with before Dave had dragged her off to the pub.  She began to play games with herself, setting targets for cataloguing this or that stack, alphabetising as she went.

After a week of this, Jen was surprised at how much work she’d actually got through.  It seemed the break really had done her some good, after all.  To make things a bit more pleasant, she had also managed to locate an old, battered, yet still serviceable radio, so she could listen to music as she worked.  She sang along, usually under her breath, but sometimes loudly (if not always in tune) for the sheer joy of the echoes she could coax out of the parquet floors and high ceilings.  The books, though, muffled some of the echoes so it sounded really odd, too, in places.  She sang all the louder when she began to see more books and papers catalogued than those she hadn’t.  She decided that whenever the halfway point was (not too long ago, but still passed), it should have been celebrated.  Therefore, when she had finished for the day, she decided to go and find Dave, graciously accept his apology (which had better be forthcoming, she thought, fiercely), and see if he fancied a rematch – one on one, this time.  She suspected she would lose spectacularly, but was curious to see just how far positive thought could take her when pitted against Dave’s misspent youth.

Wandering out into the garden, she was surprised to find that there had been a shower of rain not long before, leaving the scent of petrichor hanging heavily and gloriously in the now humid air.  Jen breathed deeply – it was one of her favorite smells, all the more precious for being so rare in this country that was so gloomy for most of the year.  She also prized the fact that she knew what it was called and what caused it.  She liked to be able to name things properly, so one day, she’d put “the smell after rain” into an internet search engine and found it was caused by a growth inhibiting oil produced by  plants in dry weather to stop their seeds germinating during a drought.  It was washed away by rain, allowing the seeds the optimum growing conditions in which to sprout.  She couldn’t believe the elegance of it.  She wasn’t surprised, either, that it had been discovered by a couple of Australians.  What must it smell like there after the rains…?

Whilst she was wandering along, busily snuffling at the air, she was so lost in her woolgathering that she tripped over Dave, who was doing something horticultural to a cold frame.  She managed to stay upright, just about.  However, she caught Dave completely off balance and he ended up in the cold frame with an almighty crash.

“Aaargh!  Jen!  What are you trying to do, kill me?!” he yelled – as best he could from upside down with his legs in the air.  “Look, I’m really sorry, alright?  There’s no need to get violent, girl.”

Jen burst out laughing at the ludicrous sight of Dave, planted like a cucumber with his legs and arms flailing as he attempted to extricate himself from the wreckage.  Jen was laughing too hard to help him, so he had to struggle out on his own.  Her laughter didn’t abate when he finally managed to struggle out of the wreckage of the frame, as he stood there brushing himself down, straightening his clothing and looking at Jen with accusing reproach.  Eventually, by dint of exercising almost every ounce of self-control she had, she eventually got herself under some sort of control and managed to splutter, “Oh, Dave – I’m sorry.  I honestly didn’t mean to do that – I wasn’t watching where I was going.  I was miles away – in Australia, as it happens.”

Dave looked nonplussed.

She giggled “Never mind – d’you fancy a game of pool tonight?”

The reproach melted into a wicked grin.  “Rematch, is it?  Think you can drink me under the pool table this time?”

“Absolutely not.”  said Jen, firmly.  I’m not touching that godawful moonshine.  I learned my lesson last time.  About the only thing it’s good for is cleaning cutlery – if the cutlery doesn’t dissolve first.  No – I shall be sticking to cider.  You, however, can drink whatever you like, as long as I don’t have to carry you home afterwards.”

“Deal!” he replied with enthusiasm.  “When are we going?”

“I thought we could go in a bit, after we’ve had something to eat.  I, for one, am starving”

Later on as they once again set off to the pub, Dave said, “Have you heard any of the stories about this place?” gesturing back towards the hall, looming behind them in the gathering dusk.

“Now who’s going to tell me stories,” she asked, “when I’m stuck up in the library on my own all day?”

“Good point.  Well, there’re some fairly gruesome and grizzly tales attached to the hall – especially some of the old parts.”

“Old parts?”

“Yeah – there’s been some sort of building or other on this site for centuries.  It’s burned down at least twice – they just incorporated what was left when they rebuilt it..  The last time was seventeen-something-or-other.  Must have been careless with the candles back then – it had only been rebuilt after the previous fire for about fifty years or so.”

“How do you know all this stuff?” asked Jen.

Told you – Merry’s writing a family history.  She reads me bits out, sometimes.”  He paused, thoughtfully.  “Sometimes, I think she only does it to exercise her voice.  She often hardly speaks to anyone from one week to the next, sat up in that attic.”

Jen got an image of a sad, shrunken old dear, birdlike and shivering, pitifully lifting beseeching eye to the occasional visitor, hoping for meagre conversational crumbs in a dark, dusty turret. All the furniture shrouded in dustsheets, looming like ghosts out of the gloom of crooked corners.  She shivered and said “Oh, the poor thing!” with feeling.

Dave chuckled.  “Oh, don’t you feel sorry for her, girl – she loves it up there!  Peace and quiet, space, light and air.  And nobody to give her funny looks if she burps or farts, or picks her nose out of turn” he added, mischievously.

Jen burst out laughing.

“Nah,” he continued, “You really should go up and see her, though – compare notes on the library.  She’d love that.  Besides, there’s a few books up there that I bet ought to be back in the library.  Still – what Lord H-H don’t know won’t hurt him.”

“She stole from her own library…?” said Jen, puzzled.

“Told you she was as mad as a fish.” said Dave, with a grin.  “But no, as it happens, she stole ‘em from Lord H-H – it’s his library.  Everything passes through the male line when one of ‘em dies.  Relatives live here at the sufferance of the Lord.  Even grandmothers.  To be honest, that’s probably one reason that she lives up there – keeps out of His Lordship’s way so he doesn’t pack her off to some old folks’ home.  He might even forget that she’s there sometimes.  I think they both prefer it that way, really – they never really got on too well.  And I don’t think he’d like it too much if he knew what she was up to.”

“No?” said Jen, puzzled.  She had loved her grandmother dearly, and couldn’t imagine why anyone else wouldn’t love theirs.

“Nope.  There’s a few skeletons in this family’s cupboard, believe me.  Literally, in a few cases, if you can believe the stories.”

“Really?” said Jen, suppressing a shiver, but intrigued all the same.

“Oh yeah – listen…” and proceeded to tell all sorts of gruesome, blood-curdling and toe-curling stories of the family’s past.

 

The stories continued all through the wood and into the pub.  They got a drink and sat down as Dave told of people bricked up in walls, rape, murder, slavery, monstrous children, vengeful ghosts by the dozen, drownings, immolations and dismemberments.  As he finished a tale of the twenty-somethingth Lord Harrington-Harrington (who’d been so jealous of his pretty young wife that he’d had her poisoned, stuffed and mounted so he could keep an eye on her, then threw himself off the roof when he found that a family of mice had made a nest in there), Jen said, “Oh, come on, Dave!  Some of these stories are ridiculous!”

“Maybe so” he replied, “But Merry’s collected them all, over the years, from journals, newspaper articles, local folktales and whatnot.  Some of them may have only a grain of truth, but the truth is lurking there, all the same.  After all – they had to start somewhere, didn’t they?”

“Well, maybe some of them…  But good grief!”  She waved her hands around, helplessly.  “Surely some of them were made up out of whole cloth by… oh, I don’t know… jealous peasants or disgruntled estate workers or something.”

“Funny thing – you’d think so, wouldn’t you?  But the family’s always been fairly well respected round here.  Even if they’ve sometimes not been universally liked.”

Bob the barman interjected, “It seems odd to think of anyone making things up about them – somehow wrong.”  He’d been collecting glasses nearby and had stopped to listen to a couple of stories.  Indeed, quite a little group had gathered around the table as Dave had been busy spinning his tales of dastardly deeds and melancholy minds.  Jen blinked in surprise as she looked around – she’d been so engrossed that she hadn’t noticed.

Bob laughed.  “Heh – never sell any beer when Dave’s telling stories.  Everyone’s too busy listening.  Including me!”

“Well, let’s sort that out right now, shall we?” said Dave.  “Two more over here please, Bob.  My mouth’s as dry as an Aussie flip flop with all that talking.”

“Right you are, Dave, mate.  On the house, though – for entertainment services rendered.”

“Cheers, Bob!” grinned Dave, happily.

Other people started ordering drinks then, in addition – suddenly realising they also had dry mouths.  In their case, however, it was from being open-mouthed at the stories.  As the crowd drifted towards the bar, with Bob in the lead, he was heard to say “No – you lot can pay for yours, you freeloading buggers!” in a good natured and, Jen suspected, oft-repeated grumble.

Dave was grinning.

Jen caught on.  “You git!” she whispered fiercely.  “You did that on purpose – telling stories so that you’d get free drinks.  I’ve been set up again!” she fumed – but not entirely seriously.  Dave laughed.

Not really, girl – those buggers love a good story.  But it’s always nice to have a fresh audience, you know.”

 

The walk home was a lot more respectable than the previous one.  A whole lot straighter, too.  Also, there was far less staggering about, tripping, passing out and vomiting involved.  They did stop for a rest, however, at the same place where Dave had hit his head and passed out the previous time.  As they sat on the log, Jen remembered her dream.

“I don’t know what they put in that bloody moonshine you lot slipped me last time, but I had the weirdest dream when I fell asleep here before.”

Dave grunted.  “Wondered if you were dreaming” he said.

“What else would I be doing?” Jen enquired.

“Well, I thought you might have been hallucinating, actually.”

“Why on earth would you think that?” asked Jen in surprise.

“Well…  It has happened before.  But he probably got a bad bottle – he was right as rain in a couple of days…”

Jen started to make noises as of one who was about to go ballistic.  Dave acted quickly to head that off.  Well aware that very few people could resist talking about their dreams – incomprehensible as they may be to anyone else, each being the product of a mind as unique as a fingerprint, he said, “What was this dream about, then?”

Caught off balance, Jen said “Hm.  Not the slightest idea.  It was just…there…in my head.”  And she proceeded to describe the hollow in the wood, the curtains, the books, the minotaur reading on his carved stump.

“Oh – him again” said Dave.

“Eh?  What do you mean, ‘Oh, him again’?”

“Oh, he turns up every now and again.  Mags has dreamed about him a couple of times – so has Rick.  And me.  One or two others.  He sort of comes with the territory.  No idea why.  Maybe there’s a carving of him somewhere in the house and it’s a sort of subliminal thing…or something…  Never noticed one mind you, but then it wouldn’t be subliminal if I had, would it?”

“Are you serious?”

“Oh yes,” said Dave, matter-of-factly.  “Never known him to turn up so quickly, though.  People who dream about the old boy have usually been here at least a year or so.”

“I dreamed about him again the next day,” said Jen, quietly.

Dave gave her a sharp look.  “Really?”

“Well, just his voice, actually.  He told me so many things.  I wish I could remember what they were…  They seemed so…so… important, somehow.”

“Jen,” Dave said, even more quietly, “He’s never spoken to anyone before.  He’s just been… There.”

Now it was Jen’s turn to ask “Really?” in surprise.

“Really.”

They lapsed into silence, staring at the darkness of the trees.

After a bit, Jen said, “But…  Why would he talk to me?  I mean, it’s not as if I’ve been here long.  And I’m not even a permanent fixture.  I’ll be gone again as soon as I sort the library out.

“Maybe that’s why,” said Dave, thoughtfully.

“Why would that have anything to do with it?”

“Well – you said that he was surrounded by books when you saw him – he was in the centre of a labyrinthine library.”

“Well, it’s possible, I suppose…  But I think we’re forgetting one very important thing, here.”

“Which is?…”

“Dave, it was a dream!  It doesn’t mean anything!  It’s just random stuff floating around in my head that’s been pummeled into some sort of order by my synapses so they can catalogue and file it away.  Just like I’m doing with the books!”

“And just how much sense does a reading minotaur guarding an alfresco library in the middle of a wood make?”  retorted Dave. “A minotaur, I might add, that isn’t exclusive to your head.  It can’t be just a coincidence.”

“No, but it is, as you said, probably subliminal.  Coupled with the fact that I was probably also feeling subconsciously guilty about goofing off to go and get drunk, play pool and fall asleep in a wood with an unconscious reprobate at my feet!  As for the others’ dreams…  probably also subliminal.  Maybe there is a carving, or picture or something in the house or grounds that’s too small or unobtrusive to be noticed normally.  I dunno.  But I think your subconscious notices and remembers everything.”

“Hmmm…  A couple of days ago, I might have agreed with you, but now I’m not so sure.”

“Oh, Dave!  Don’t be so daft!  Look – I think we’ve both had too much to drink to be having this conversation.  In fact, it’s probably why we’re having this conversation.  Come on.”  Jen rose to her feet.  “Let’s get back to the house.  I’m sure it will all seem embarrassingly ridiculous in the morning.”

Dave hauled himself upright.  “Hm.  You’re probably right about that, girl.  But then,” he continued, with a grin, “I’m always embarrassingly ridiculous.  Pride myself on it, in fact.  Well – we’ll see in the morning, won’t we?”

They headed back in silence.

Jen pondered as she walked.  “Is there really something worth wondering about in this?  Or is it really just a coincidence?  Or subliminal?  Or am I just drunker than I think I am…?”  She privately suspected the latter.  Eventually, she dismissed the whole thing as pointless speculation.  She was tired now, as well as drunk, and all she could think about was how much she was looking forward to her lovely, soft, warm bed.  Lovely, lovely bed.