The light was fading fast. There hadn't been much of it in the first place, between the fog and the drizzle, and now a gloomy September twilight was seeping away into darkness. My boots had rubbed a blister on the back of my right ankle, and my hip was complaining. If I didn't stop soon, I would be in trouble.
I was booked in at a youth hostel another seven miles off. I'd lost time going the wrong side of a stream, and had pushed on far further than I should have done before I admitted to myself that I was going to have to retrace my steps. Then I'd got lost again, misled by a crooked sign-post at the top of the hill. I was back on the right path now, but I didn't have seven miles' worth of daylight left.
The path went steeply down into a little village; I was among houses almost before I knew it. An inn sign creaked in the damp breeze. The Railway Tavern. I was briefly cheered – until I remembered that there was no railway marked on the map. Looking up and down the road, it seemed that the railway had partly been built over and partly turned into the cycle path I was to follow to my destination: well, I thought, at least I wouldn't go wrong on that. But my hip was aching in protest at the idea of seven miles on tarmac, and I cursed Dr Beeching and all his works. Was there a bus? The bus stop was obvious enough, but I'd missed the last bus by several hours. I sighed. The longer I stayed still, the less I wanted to move. Did the Railway Tavern do accommodation? No – in fact, it looked distinctly unwelcoming – but two doors down there was a prim white-painted house with a sign advertising Bed and Breakfast.
I could have cried. When I got half way up the path and saw the No Vacancies sign in the window I nearly did. I was standing there, trying to summon the will to turn back, when the front door opened.
The proprietor – she couldn't possibly be a guest – was shaking some mud off a newspaper into the flowerbed. She must have been breath-taking in her youth; even now, well into her seventies, she was a tall, imposing figure. When she saw me, she waved.
'Come in, duck,' she said, 'you don't want to be standing around in the rain.'
I followed her in, very conscious of my muddy boots, and made sure not to step off the doormat. 'I see you're full,' I said, 'but is there somewhere else in the village I could stay?'
'Not since the Robertsons took over at the Railway.' She looked at me, then at the sky, then at me again. 'I've no beds tonight, but if you can put up with a mattress in the hall, I'd be glad to have you.'
'Really? That would be amazing.' The relief was immense. I hadn't let myself think about how much I wanted to stop.
'Of course. Come along into the kitchen and warm up – don't worry about the floor, it'll brush up. Have you eaten? I can get you a bowl of soup. And if you want to use my bathroom, you'll be very welcome.'
I couldn't quite believe my luck. 'But you're full up tonight?'
'Yes: there's a wedding at the church, and I've got the groom's auntie and all her family here. Two little boys sleeping on camp beds in the breakfast room, would you believe? I wouldn't do that, usually, but tonight I've made an exception...' She didn't expand on that. At the time I assumed that she meant that this party, and I, could be trusted not to report her to the Health and Safety Executive, but later I wondered. She said, 'I've told them to be in by eleven.'
I got my boots off and got the soup down my gullet as if it was the elixir of life, while my hostess set up her breakfast preparations for the next day. Then she took me up to the landing and opened a tall cupboard. Between us we manhandled the spare mattress down the stairs and propped it up against the wall.
My unorthodox billet meant that I couldn't go to bed until everyone else had come in, of course. I took a bath, my troublesome hip unknotting itself in the warm water, and then dozed in the kitchen. The wedding party trailed in at about half past ten, grimly tipsy, the children quarrelsome and exhausted. I watched them go up the stairs, and got my mattress down on the floor. The boys came down again dressed in pyjamas, and my hostess saw them into the breakfast room and turned the light off after them.
'You'll be cold,' she said to me. 'I'll see what I can find you.' She left me alone in the hall. Absently, I looked at the pictures at the wall. Most of them were prints of antique maps of the locality, but there was one that caught my eye: a watercolour of a copse of trees, in the fiery yellows and oranges of autumn, swimming in a haze that looked almost like smoke. The landscape felt familiar, and I suspected that I'd passed the subject that day. I didn't remember the trees, though: perhaps they'd been cut down. Burned, said something in my head; but I thought that was just the effect of the colour scheme and the hazy style. It wasn't a new painting. The artist hadn't dated it, but I guessed it must be about fifty years old.
My hostess called from the top of the stairs, 'Here – you should be able to make shift with these.' A stack of blankets, a pillow and three cushions, and a patchwork quilt in triangles of red and yellow.
'You're very kind,' I said. 'Most people would have sent me on my way – or at the very least called a taxi.'
'It's no night to be outside,' she said gravely.
I agreed with that, snuggling down into the blankets. The clouds had cleared, but there was a sharp wind whistling in the trees and rattling the gate. I drifted off into sleep with that pleasant consciousness of being warm inside while the weather did its worst.
I awoke with a jolt a couple of hours later, at the sound of a gunshot. Or was it just a door slamming?
'No! You shan't come in!' At first I thought it was my hostess' voice, but there was something odd about it. It was clearer, shriller – younger, almost. Scared. I pulled the quilt up around my neck.
There was a grating, metallic noise. I identified it, after a few seconds, as the sound of a bolt – whether being shut or drawn back I couldn't tell. I sat up to look.
There was nobody at the door.
There was no bolt.
I hadn't noticed when I came in. It was a new door, much newer than the house. There was a Yale lock in the centre, and there were deadlocks at the top and bottom. There was no bolt, and nothing that I could see that would make the sound of one. Could it have been the back door? It had sounded too close for that.
And then the voices started again. They were there: they were there at the front door. I would have sworn my life on it.
'Who are you?' she asked. 'Why have you come? Why don't you go...?'
Home, she'd been going to say.
'I have no home, my love,' came the reply, in a laughing, sing-song tone that made me shudder. Whatever was out there, it wasn't human. 'I have no home, any more.'
She was scared. I could tell by her breathing. 'Where was your home, then?'
'It burned. It burned. My trees. My home.'
'Oh...' A sigh, almost, of realisation, of resignation. 'The copse, last year. And so you come for me? I can't give your trees back. I can't give you anything.' She was scared, but she was not surprised.
I looked up. A rectangle of light from the streetlamp outside shone through the fanlight, falling across the floor and half-way up the wall. It hit the painting, and I could see without a doubt now: those trees were burning.
The thing spoke again. 'All this year I have been wandering. Tonight, I am permitted to rest, if I can find one to rest in. I am hungry, my love, I am hungry.'
Down in the valley, I heard an engine whistle. But I couldn't have done, I thought. It must have been half a century since a train ran along that track. Whatever this was, it couldn't be from now.
That didn't make it any more comfortable. The September I was listening to was long gone, but the thing was still out there, searching for its home, and I feared for anyone who was outside tonight. 'You came home late. You are mine. You or your father, you are my home.'
'I went to Caroline's party. That's where I was last year, too. I didn't burn your trees.' She was cooler than I'd have managed to be in the same situation. 'What was it? A spark from the train? A cigarette end? Sun on broken glass? I don't know. Human error, probably. Human carelessness. But it wasn't me, and it wasn't Dad. You know it couldn't have been. He can't get up the hill any more.'
'He loved me.'
'He gave years of his life to the forestry, and then they turned him aside when he couldn't work. And now you want his body and his soul? This is how you repay us?' She turned away angrily: I heard the crisp rustle of her dress. In unconscious association I pulled the quilt closer around myself. The street lamp drained the colour from the red and yellow triangles, reducing them to darker and lighter shades of muddy orange. I knew as surely as if I saw her in broad daylight that the woman at the door wore red – that same red that was now scrunched in my fingers.
'You shan't touch this house,' she hissed. 'Not me, not mine, not anyone in here.'
The thing shouldn't have been able to hear her through the door, but it answered her. Its own voice was a low, hungry howl. 'I came for you, my love,' it wailed. 'You loved me, you loved the trees. You always said.
'I came for your beauty and your song, and you turn me away. Be warned, then: every year, when the balance tips towards night, I will be here. And I will claim my due. You cannot watch forever.'
Forever... forever... it echoed through the hall.
Suddenly, she was alone. Alone except for me, a silent ghost fifty years in her future, and how should she know I was there? She sat down on the bottom stair, and began to cry quietly.
And then the rain started, a gentle, blotting thrum on the roof of the porch, and within ten minutes I was asleep.
In the morning, I woke up, I dressed, discreetly, under the covers, I folded my blankets and the patchwork quilt, and I went and sat in the breakfast room. The two little boys were seated at a table, drinking orange juice and playing some kind of battle game with the tiny jam jars and packets of butter. There was no sign of their parents: hungover, I suspected.
The proprietor was bustling around, clearing up the remains of some early riser's breakfast. That surely couldn't have been a wedding guest, I thought, and I wondered just how many people she had invited in to spend the night, how many people she'd kept safe from the thing that roamed the hills, looking for love or revenge.
'Tea or coffee? Did you sleep well?' she asked, then, remembering where I had spent the night, 'Did you sleep much at all?'
'On and off,' I said. 'I had some strange dreams.'
'Indeed,' she said. She looked straight at me, and her eyes seemed very blue and very piercing. 'Indeed. No, I didn't sleep much myself.'