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(Note this is a long story, a novelette, but it’s divided into small parts and there’s hopefully enough to entertain along the way. If you liked my stories “Horse and Ruth”, “Lemon House” and “Alouette” then this might appeal. BTW all the paintings exist if you want to Google them. Enjoy. BC)
Grunt had never been called by an employment agency before. That was for professional types, surely, not a bloke who’d just spent lockdown bouncing between homeless shelters. Still, the agency were “terribly keen” he visit them 10am that very morning, Tuesday 21st June 2020. They said it was good news.
He turned up at the swanky city offices with his whole head freshly shaved, wearing his Sunday best–black combats and t-shirt. Sure, the clothes were donated, but at least they were clean and almost big enough. A friendly volunteer at his shelter even bought him some shiny new work boots. He felt dead important strolling into the granite lobby for his appointment, at least until the security guard slipped him a tenner.
A round little woman, the agent, took him in a glass elevator to her top floor office and offered him a seat, but when he lowered into the designer chair it creaked so alarmingly he stood up again. He planted himself opposite her desk hunched, as if that would knock a foot off him and make him human sized.
The agent was a jolly type. She constantly laughed, to put him at ease he guessed, but it made her sound super-stressed or like she was taking the piss. He guessed she already knew he was mute, too, because she spoke loud and slow. He wasn’t dumb. He just couldn’t talk.
“Mr Johns… can I call you Grant?”
Everybody called him Grunt, but he nodded anyway.
“O… K. Well. This is a very unusual situation. An old and highly respected legal firm, Carboys and Carboys, has been hassling us for years, all the employment agencies in the UK, actually, looking for a Grant Johns.” She regarded a printout on her desk. “A large man, they say, with a wide range of skills. My wife volunteers at your shelter. When she described you, I thought of Carboys straight away. Do you know someone there?”
He shook his head.
She snorted. “Course not! Well it seems they know you Mr Johns. So let me check, you’re an accredited carpenter, plumber and electrician?”
“And you’re a qualified gardener of some ten years?”
“You’ve worked in security, as a doorman, a bodyguard and as a live-in guardian?”
“Will you marry me?”
He shook his head.
The agent blasted a laugh so loud Grunt jumped. She scanned her page. “Oh and you have an A-level too. In Art?”
He did. How did she know that? He braced for the piss-takes.
“Well done you!” She ran her finger along the page. “So. Carboys manage the affairs of a select number of very wealthy individuals and estates. They need you to look after a substantial property they’ve maintained but kept vacant for over a hundred years, in accordance with the will of the last owner. You’ll be paid a subsistence, but can live on the premises. You might call this a dream gig, Mr Johns. Interested?”
He shrugged, then nodded. He even managed a smile. He wasn’t fussy. Any old mansion would do.
“It’s… Shackam house in Hampstead.” She made it sound like the star prize in a game show.
He sagged. Any old mansion but that one.
Typical. Of all the houses in England, they wanted him to look after the one place that gave him nightmares. One day, life would cut him an actual break.
Grunt grew up in a children’s home near Hampstead. He used to climb over the wall of that creepy old house and steal apples because none of his mates had the balls. They said it was haunted by “The Red Lady.” He thought that was bollocks. One afternoon, to prove his bravery, he sneaked in just to hang out in the garden. He couldn’t believe no-one lived there, yet it was kept so neat, as if waiting for its owner to return. He explored the maze, rolled on the lawns, pissed on the topiary, then stalked around the building to see if he could sneak in there too. That’s when he caught a violent flash of red at a first floor window. Thrashing hair. An unhinged scream.
The agent didn’t clock his disappointment. “The last caretaker quit. He…” She checked her page. “Oh, he ran away. How strange.” More chortling. “His loss, eh? Anyway, they said try it for one night, and contact them tomorrow if you want it.”
She gave him a set of keys straight out of a museum, and slapped his shoulder like the flank of a horse. “Oh and there’s limited running water and no electricity at the property, I’m afraid. But that won’t effect a stout soul like you will it? Plenty of open fires–” another horse pat–“and you look no stranger to an axe, eh?”
The agent guffawed.
Shackam House was a Georgian pile set in its own walled parkland in a secluded, villagey part of Hampstead. He’d vowed never to return since he saw the Red Lady that day, yet here he stood, facing the formidable old red brick mansion, willing his legs to approach escort eryaman the gate.
He forced himself to look hard at each black window, as if staring down a fight. The huge Georgian panes were empty and alien, like the eyes of a lion at the zoo. No. A lioness. There was something both feminine and monstrous about that façade. Beautiful yet fearsome. Like she dared you to admire her.
His knees wobbled as he screeched open the gate and climbed the portico steps. His fingers trembled as he offered the twisted old key to the lock.
He clattered open the doors, slicing sunlight into the dusty dark of a long, marble hall complete with a formidable grand stair. A dark figure set his heart pounding. His own shadow.
He shook his head, stepped in and closed the door. Then he turned back to the hall, and the Red Lady greeted him.
Or at least her portrait, hung over a hallway fireplace. A young woman with rosebud lips and doe eyes set in a melancholic but ecstatic gaze. He recognised the painting’s Pre-Raphaelite style. He’d always had a thing for those winsome women. Their bodies so neat and skin so perfect. He had a Pre-Raphaelite poster on his own wall, when he had his own wall, of a little known painting by John Collier–it depicted Lady Godiva, naked astride her horse.
In fact, he’d dreamt of that woman the night before. She was posing for the painting and he had to take the place of the horse. He dropped to his hands and knees and she sat on his back. He felt ashamed, then excited as she wound her naked hips on him, sighing, patting his shoulder. “Good boy. Good boy” A patch of damp grew on his back, then water rose, up his wrists and knees.
The fireplace portrait was less cheeky. It looked like a Rossetti. And it looked like an original.
They all did. Pictures of the Red Lady hung everywhere. He creaked around the gloomy rooms, throwing open shutters and windows to flush all the shadows and stale air. The last bloke hadn’t looked after the place too well, the parquet was grubby and paintwork peeling. Old chicken-shop boxes and empty lager cans littered every surface.
Grunt had brought refuse sacks and collected trash as he went. It was his way of laying his scent in a new place, to tidy it up, and with each bag he stuffed with the mundane shit of ordinary life, ghosts seemed less and less likely.
He tidied the hallway, library, drawing rooms and dining room under the dreamy eye of the Red Lady hung on every wall. In each picture she seemed distracted, even enraptured, by someone just behind him. He stopped to take one in, and became mesmerised. He tumbled into her massive, liquid eyes. Wondered if her lips were parted for a sigh or a kiss. She had the heavy-lidded look of someone for whom love, life even, was always just out of reach. Delighted at what she saw but resigned to never touch it. Hopes waiting to be dashed. He knew that feeling.
Then, upstairs, a girl sobbed. No. More like caught breaths. Whimpers.
He jumped. Listened hard.
Nothing. Maybe squatters? He wanted to call out, announce himself. Damn his dumb mouth. He growled, and stomped loudly up the stairs.
The first floor’s dark blue corridor was coated in dust and dimly lit by a stained skylight. On a table set beneath, displayed on its own mount, lay a strange iron poker, it’s tip wrought into spirals. A grim kind of artwork. In passing, he clocked it as a potential weapon. Heavy ornaments had saved his skin more than once working as a live-in guardian.
All the rooms were locked, but for one. The doors swung open almost on their own, into a room that was more studio apartment than bedroom. A boudoir, with its own ensuite bathroom, and tables, chairs and chaise set about an imposing fourposter on a raised dais. The bedroom even had a little library nook.
And more Red Ladies. But these weren’t the chocolate box, dreamy portraits of the ground floor. The huge room was covered floor to ceiling with nudes. The copper-headed girl lay naked on her front staring at a crowing cockerel on her bedstead, or at a phallic vase. On one, a snake coiled around her hips, on another she lolled on a tiger with a leopard and cheetah lolling on her legs. In another she was ecstatic in the air, with wisps of golden mist about her hips and between her legs. Naked in a peacock chair. Tip-toeing starkers through a forest. Then, in pride of place, a large piece set between two enormous windows. The Red Lady was stood up to her thighs in a placid pool. In this, she was dressed–as a milk maid it seemed–but had tugged up the hem of her skirt to stare glassily at her intimate reflection in the flat water.
Grunt’s ears blazed. He focussed on his trash-gathering to distract himself but still felt mugged by angels.
The emerald silk bed had a box of Kleenex on the pillow, and a little nest of scrunched tissues on the floor. No prizes for working out which room the last bloke slept in. Grunt’s stomach turned. He threw open a window.
The gardens though, were exactly as he remembered. He could even see the wall he’d climb elvankent escort over as a kid, opposite an avenue of espalier apple trees. A green-scented breeze called him.
Eight hours later, he’d pulled up a dead tree and hacked it into firewood. He’d mowed the lawn and filled a shopping bag full of new potatoes. He was about to tackle pruning a shaggy box-hedge arch when he noticed the sweat soaking through his combats. His T-shirt clung to him like he’d swum a length in it. His skin itched, and his arms and back ached. His shadow stretched all the way across the lawn toward the house like it was trying to haul him back inside. What time was it anyway? Being late June, it was probably later than it felt.
He’d save his energy for tomorrow, have a bath and–
Damn. Didn’t the agent say there was no water? Or was that electricity?
He returned to the house, taking the back way through a service yard where he passed an old pump.
Out of curiosity he tried it. The lever jetted crystal clear water into a bucket. Before he knew better he’d upended it over his head.
Too good. He kicked off his boots, and pulled off his t-shirt and jeans. He doused himself in bucket-loads of icy water and scrubbed off the grime, roaring at each blast of chill.
His shorts grew baggy as a nappy. Who’d care if he stripped? There wasn’t anyone round for miles. He peeled them off, doused and scrubbed his undercarriage.
He shook himself dry in the sun, his cock whapping the sides of his hips and drawing out his grunty chuckle. He couldn’t help it, he felt baptised into a new life.
And was it the day’s last heat after the cold water that hardened him? Or was it the Red Lady, haunting his head. In a good way. And not so much her creamy nakedness as that expression. The quiet delight. If a woman looked at him like that he would never disappoint her. He pulled his trousers back on, struggling with his misbehaving member.
That’s when he caught the stranger’s eye.
A girl watched from the boudoir window. Stiffly dressed, a librarian or something, clutching a blue book to her chest as if it might protect her. Her jaw gaped. She hid.
Half a head peeked out again. A large eye. Bitten lips.
Every schoolboy myth of the Red Lady assaulted him at once. Her innocent eyes could freeze a man solid. Her pretty lips concealed teeth filed to points. Her fingernails, scalpels.
But he wasn’t a kid anymore. This woman was probably a lawyer, come to check on him. He marched through the house and up the stairs, wishing he’d put his shirt on, shoes too, but braced to bluff it out. Everyone expected odd behaviour from a man like him anyway. To announce himself, he approached noisily. He thumped up the hall and rattled the doorhandle into the boudoir.
But the room was empty. He checked the hallway. The rest of the rooms were all still locked. How had she got out quicker than he got in, and without passing him?
In the boudoir’s library corner, in front of the farthest window overlooking the service yard, the desk now sported the mysterious woman’s small, blue book.
A diary. Ancient, pages crisped. He carefully opened a bookmarked page, surprised to find it labelled with that day’s date. Tuesday 21st June. But 1881, not 2020.
The handwriting was tiny and loopy, but still clear.
8pm Tuesday 21st June, 1881.
Diary, it’s Midsummer’s night and he’s come alive. The big fella, Animus. And he’s right here.
Shackam’s been away at his old man’s plantation in Jamaica for a month–with his missus no less–so I’m the lucky bird who’s had her whole gilded cage to her very own self. But he’s back later and I’m worried. So here I am.
I came to my desk to tell you what the bastard did to me before he went, so you understand my worries, but I went into a dream. A shadow popped up on your virgin page: a proud phallus, stretched across the paper, bucking. My dream man was stood beside my desk. Naked of course. (He’s my fantasy after all, and would you dress a stallion in tails? A prize bull in a topper?)
He was stood close, his thigh warm at my arm. Calm. His silent presence is like a mountain or a mighty old oak.
His dark eyes glittered from his stormy cliff face, and the evening sun across his body turned veiny bulges and clefts into a rugged landscape Gainsborough would parade round town if he could but capture it. What a specimen. What an imagination I have.
My mighty man’s cock and balls were set beside my cheek. A hot aroma of cut grass, loam and musk. I knew what he was after. He never speaks, sweet Animus, but his intentions are always clear. He wanted me bent over my desk, impaled on that member. I squeezed his balls, and he pushed his hips for more. I brushed my fingertips along his strained underside and raised a bouldery rumble from his chest. A breeze caught a chilly trickle under my skirts, where I’ve had fresh air for underwear the last four weeks on account of Shackam’s cruelty.
And I know, I know. My lord and master would etimesgut escort surely beat me, or worse, chuck me out, if he knew I desired another as much as Animus. Yes, I’m a kept woman. But Shackam owns my body, not my heart.
The big fella laid a shovel hand on my shoulder. I wondered should I pull up my skirt, pop my feet up on the desk and blossom for him? Let his fingers spread the pink under my russet fur. Let a thick digit dig my soft, wet earth, again, my soggy hollow sucking back at him like mud! No lie, dear Diary, his single, middle finger is more satisfying than Shaggem’s hardest hardon.
I didn’t do that. I took his rod firm and blinked up at him. His craven face was so softened with adoration, it raised a tear to my eye. And then to his. He swallowed, kicked in my grip–
Well, it was just a dream. Animus wasn’t really there, and I was wet and my hungry palm, empty.
I didn’t want to write down what the hateful Shaggarse did to me after all, not after such a dreamy moment. So I was just putting the book away when the water splashed outside and, strangely, a bull snorted. Or something. I looked out the window, down into the service yard.
And there he was!
My fella was washing under bucket loads of pump water. Buck naked. Large as life. Well, he’s larger than actual life of course. A boulder for a head. Ox shoulders and arms thick as legs. God those, packhorse haunches. Exactly like my fant’sy man but solid as a knock on the head. And Diary, hear this. His manhood was stuck out there big and hard as the poor pony’s cock I used to chuck little stones at back on the farm!
And he looked right up at me. I won’t lie, I fair soiled myself. I hid behind the shutter. When I peeked out again he was struggling into his breeches, then he thumped into the house. Was he coming to get me at last?
I ran to the hall to meet him… but the little keepsake Shackam left me cooled my ardour. Mounted on the hall table, like a whispered warning–the branding iron. The wicked, serpentine ‘S’ on the end still had bits of my skin on it. The welts on my rump throbbed. The spell was broke.
Animus never turned up.
The diary was delicate as an autumn leaf in Grunt’s trembling fingers, but it still slumped him onto the chair like a head butt. The room span. The floor pitched. He dropped the book on the desk and winced at it like it might whack him in the face again.
Spring seemed impossible too. Every year everything burst back into life. And he saw a total eclipse once. Howcome the massive sun was just far enough away to be exactly covered by a little moon, closer up? Nature was full of the unlikely. And this girl, her voice. It slot right into him like a needle in the groove of a record he already had in his head.
Who was she?
He opened the cover to the first page. In flowery handwriting: “The Secret Diary of Niamh.”
He tried to turn another page but the first was so brittle, his clumsy fingers cracked off a corner. Grunt jolted. Breaking something so magical and precious made him want to throw up.
He pulled out his phone and spent the next hour carefully photographing every one of the fifty or so pages, using the diary’s bookmark to tease open the delicate leaves.
He worked quickly, but caught glimpses: “…on the tippety-tip of tipping over…” “…Rossetti spread my knees to the sunrise…” “…brutal shoves smacked my arse…” “…I won’t do that and you know it…” “…rub your pump until it gushes…”
And the last page, unfinished: “…just know that I love–” and a splatter of ink.
With the strange text safe in his phone, Grunt headed to the kitchen feeling like he’d bottled lightning. He lit the range with the wood he’d cut earlier and washed some of the little potatoes in a cracked butler’s sink. There was running water after all– probably a bath too if the house was built to house a wealthy man’s mistress.
Grunt chucked the potatoes in the oven and returned to his phone and to Niamh’s diary. He needed to find out more about this woman. He pulled up her first entry:
11am, Monday 13th September, 1880
Dearest Diary, when Mam gave you to me I didn’t know you’d turn out to be my only friend.
Mam says I’m lucky to find a rich, handsome man to look after me, but I’d rather it was for love than (unrequited) lust. And she’s right, sex with one person is no price to pay for a safe life. Women put out much more for much less. She insists she and Grandmam have taken “ancient measures” too. That my hell-on-Earth is pre-payment for a later heaven. But don’t I have to die to see heaven?
And I’ve no friends in this God-forsaken, shitty city and the house is far too big for a mouse like me. And a whore is a whore, no matter how much she’s paid. I didn’t imagine this is how I’d live my life.
Oh boo-hoo, I hear you. Grow up.
But I can scarce believe I met Mr Shackam, and how I got here.
I was grown by the sea. I even had my own private cove because no-one dared scale its perilous cliffs but for goat-girl, yours truly. I spent many summer days on my beach and being a cheeky wench would go there, you know, for privacy. With ten of us in the cottage and curtains for walls there was nowhere else for a young woman to enjoy her womanhood.
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