White Rabbits & A Haunted Postbox – Part VI
The final part of Chapter One…
George Judd hesitates. They’ve just left his back yard. His older brother is with him, in a hurry to get to the pub. They should have been there an hour ago but got delayed trying to deal with Ned Hawkins.
The Wherrys’ clerk is still in the Judds’ yard, lying in the ruins of the hutch. He doesn’t seem injured but refuses to be moved. Instead, he keeps babbling about angels and white rabbits talking to him.
George and Arthur had wanted to carry Ned home but the suggestion sent him into floods of tears. In the end, Sally Judd told them to leave him where he was. She’d thrown a couple of blankets over Ned and promised to keep an eye on him.
Now, George glances at his brother. ‘Let’s go round the harbour way.’
‘You daft? That’s miles further.’
‘Well… we’re already late. Bit more won’t matter. I fancy a bit of a stroll. Get the smell of rabbits out my nose.’
‘Beer would do the job.’
‘It’s a nice evening though.’
‘Only a bit. You gone soft or something.’
‘No! I want a beer. Come on!’
George shuffles from side to side. ‘It’s just… I don’t go Ash Hill way anymore.’
Arthur’s eyes narrow. He senses there’s more to this than just his brother being awkward. ‘Why not?’
‘Got my reasons.’
‘Like what? Come on: you can tell me.’
‘Well… promise not to laugh?’
‘Get on. Out with it.’
‘There’s a ghost.’
‘Up on the corner. You remember where the lane goes past the post box? Just below Tower House?’
‘That’s where I saw it. The ghost.’
Arthur tips his head to one side. His brother has never been one for stories. He’s a solid man, same as all the Judds. Built like an island fishing boat: stumpy and broad of beam: made for weathering anything the Atlantic throws at them. George is no nonsense and practical. He’s steady. Talk of ghosts doesn’t fit. ‘So. What did you see?’
Arthur starts walking. George is glad he’s admitted his fear. That’s the hardest part. He hurries to fall into step with his older brother, relieved Arthur is taking him seriously. ‘A woman. A white woman.’
‘A woman in white?’
‘No. A white woman. Skin that glowed.’
‘Not a stitch.’
‘Not at all.’
It’s raining more heavily now. The brothers dip their heads into their collars, heads tilted forward. They walk briskly up the dark street, water running down the cobbles beneath them.
‘So. Tell the story.’
‘It was a couple of years ago. I was on the way to the pub. It was a dark night. Stormy. And I was just stomping along, head down, thinking about nothing more than a pint.’
George takes a deep breath. ‘Then suddenly… there it was. This… creature standing in front of me. All shining white and naked it was. I stood there with my mouth open like a fish on the quay. Didn’t know what to do.’ He shuddered at the memory. ‘And then she screamed. Horrible it was. Turned my blood to ice it did.’
‘So where were you?’
‘Right next to the postbox.’
‘What, this postbox?’
George’s eyes pop open as he realises what Arthur has done. ‘You bastard!’
Without another look, George sets off at a run. Arthur laughs like a drain. Then looks around, realises he’s alone. He glances at the post box and then turns his head slowly, examining the shadows to either side. His smile fades. ‘Hold on!’
First in a gentle jog then a lumbering canter, Arthur follows his brother up the hill, heading for the safety of the Marlinspike Inn. And its beer.
* * *
Keziah watches the rain coursing down the window. Her rooms are in the northern wing: a part of the house added back when James II was on the throne. It’s cold and draughty but she’s lived here long enough she rarely notices any discomfort. Besides, the advantages of her isolation within Tower House more than outweigh any inconvenience as far as she’s concerned.
When first shut up in her rooms as a young woman of seventeen Keziah had ranted and raved, railing at the injustice. During those first few years she tried anything to escape her imprisonment: from throwing herself out of windows and climbing chimneys to attempting to suborn the servants with bribery, blackmail and naked threats.
But her captors were too implacable and her guardians too resolute. Besides which, on those few short occasions she did escape the family home, she realised there was nowhere on Black Island for her to go and no simple way off the island. As time passed, she began to accept her fate. Unable to look outwards, she started to look inwards. And, after the first decade, being confined to her rooms came to seem natural. She realised one day that the life of a recluse agreed with her; it freed her from all normal convention and expectation.
In the fifty years following that revelation, Keziah’s taste for isolation has grown rather than diminished. People are bearable in short bursts but she finds the incessant and inconsequential chatter that pours out of most highly irritating. Where once she plotted how to make her escape, now she schemes so as to minimise her contact with the world outside her private quarters.
It’s not that she’s cut off or disturbed. She knows most people regard her as a little deranged at best. More often the phrase is stark, staring mad. It’s a reputation she cultivates with aplomb. She’s become expert at unnerving people. It’s remarkable the effect an unblinking stare and graphic observations of a personal nature can have on someone who thinks they should come and talk to her. A little drool always helps with those who don’t immediately get the message.
But that’s just because Keziah doesn’t want to talk to anyone on Black Island. They were the ones who turned away, the ones who closed their eyes when her family locked her up. Her family! The thought sends a twitch of anger down the left side of Keziah’s face. Black Islanders in general may be beneath her contempt but her family are something else. Never mind the fact those directly responsible are all dead. Someone has to pay and, now, her revenge is finally under way.
She smiles. Clarence Wherry thinks he’s so clever. He plots and plans but can’t escape the underlying fact that he’s a natural incompetent. The Wherry family have never been anything but upstart toadies, clingers-on and parasites. Just because one of them married her aunt, they all thought they were gentry. Her father’s biggest mistake ever was leaving the family business in their care. Under the stewardship of Clarence and his oily father before him, the Black Island Company is slowly sinking into a mire of mismanagement.
There were times at today’s board meeting when Keziah found it hard to resist a smirk. Not that it would have mattered. They all think she’s crazy anyway and none of them would have had the remotest idea why she was smiling.
It was highly amusing though. She’d known Clarence was desperately worried as soon as she saw him. The letter hadn’t arrived.
Keziah had timed it perfectly. She made sure the reply from her broker wouldn’t arrive until the morning of the meeting. It was worth it just to see the anguish on Clarence’s face, although the inane expression when his reprieve arrived did make her feel a little nauseous.
But, thanks to the injection of extra cash confirmed in the broker’s letter, Clarence was able to present a version of the accounts that made it appear the company was still solvent.
Keziah smiles as she gazes out into the night. What the other board members don’t know is that he only managed it by selling off part of the company. Something he has no right to do. Each board member has some shares but the majority, the ones for which Clarence is responsible, are all held in trust. They belong to the rightful heir to the family business. But with both her brothers dead, Joseph in the war and the little one, Luke, in childhood, there is no heir. No male one, anyway. Which is how Clarence has been able to continue in his cuckoo role, claiming control of the company as the family steward. Although that still doesn’t allow him to sell the family shares.
Not that Keziah minds. Not in the least. It has taken some careful manoeuvring and delicate negotiations. But the first part of her plan has come to fruition. The money she’s made over the years and the various identities her broker has created for her have enabled her to buy the shares. No one else on the island knows it but Keziah Black now owns a significantly larger part of the Black Island Company than she did before. Not majority control but a step along the way. And, while Clarence has got some fresh funds to play with, they won’t last. He doesn’t have the skill to manage the company properly. With the help of some judicious outside interference, Keziah will make sure that — sooner or later — he’ll need more outside money to balance the books.
Second time round it’ll be easier too. He’ll try to sell off another small parcel of shares. Discreetly. But Keziah and her agents will be watching. Ready to pounce and ready to buy.
A movement outside distracts her and Keziah looks down into the streets. Two men go by. Islanders. Fishermen by the look of them. Off to drink their profits away, no doubt.
She watches them go. At least she doesn’t have to risk chance meetings with their like any more. Things are much easier now, although it’s been a long process. To begin with communicating with the world outside Black Island was so much harder. She used to have to contact her agent by letter and that was always tricky.
Mad Keziah Black can’t be seen walking down to the post office like any normal person. Nor can she hand any mail to other members of the family or the servants: none of them is to be trusted. She has a couple of allies on the island but only a couple. For many years, getting letters in and out has necessitated considerable subterfuge.
Seeing the two fishermen go past reminds Keziah of a night a few years ago. She’d suddenly needed to send a letter to her broker. There’d been no way of getting in touch with one of her usual agents in time. The only thing for it was to use the postbox in the street below. It had been pouring with rain and she hadn’t wanted to get her clothes wet in case questions were asked about her whereabouts.
So Keziah, using an old, half-forgotten side entrance, slipped out into the street naked. It was a dark, wet night and she only needed to go about ten yards. She’d put her letter in the box and was just dashing back to safety when she came face-to-face with an islander walking up the street. It gave her the fright of her life and she’d screamed in shock.
Still. At least she doesn’t have to worry about things like that anymore. Now she’s got a brand-new Nokia 5110 phone. It arrived just a week ago, smuggled into the house inside several hanks of knitting wool. The little mobile phone is bright red and Keziah loves it. She keeps it hidden away inside her knickers where it’ll be safe. It’s also set on vibrate so no one will ever hear it ring.
Keziah turns away from the window and makes her way to her knitting chair. Mountains of brightly coloured wool and bundles of knitting patterns surround the ancient armchair. The patterns on top are mostly Keziah’s own: badly-drawn sketches for garments so ugly and shapeless no-one’s ever likely to be interested in borrowing the pattern or examining it any further. Tucked lower down are other papers: the ones that matter.
Now, lowering herself into the chair, Keziah isn’t there to see as another man goes running up the street. This one would be even more familiar to her. It’s Clarence Wherry’s slightly odd clerk, Ned Hawkins. But he’s not acting his normal servile self. This Ned Hawkins has wild, staring eyes and he’s wrapping his arms around his coat, cradling four small rabbits.
They’re white rabbits and Ned Hawkins is their guardian angel. He’s rescued them from captivity and now he’s taking them to freedom. Up into the hills: that’s where they’re going. Off to a place where man and white rabbits can live free.
To be continued…
That’s the end of the first chapter of Church of the White Rabbits.
Chapter Two explains more of what’s brought Arthur Judd back to Black Island and how Keziah takes revenge on someone who makes the mistake of thinking she’s just a batty old lady.