The second part of the short story inspired by a recent visit to Spain. As events unfold, I may insert subtle alterations to earlier instalments.
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That moment my mobile played its carefree tune. Here comes the sun … I knew it would be the agent, having second thoughts about allowing a single, middle-aged woman to camp in a deserted house. I fumbled in my bag on the floor for the phone. ‘Hello. Yes, yes, gracias. I’m fine. Chimney … flue is clear, all cosy with the fire. And the night sky is magnificent … no, no, I’ve everything I need … yes, todo está bien. Thanks again. Bye, bye.’
The super-dry logs had burned to embers and a threat lurked in the far corner. I conjured up creatures coiled to jump at me any moment. Snakes! Oh no, big mistake, don’t think of snakes. I lay motionless. Blinking, to keep my eyes open, I stared across and beyond the floor to where I thought the thing was hiding. I saw a glitter there. I felt observed.
A growl – or was it a lament? My heart thumped in my throat as I reached into my bag for the tobacco-pouch. I flicked my lighter, lit a candle and held it up. Curled on the heap of rags to where I had brushed the scraps earlier was a dog, a slight, elegant creature with short pale pelt. Its wild, not fearful, but contesting this-is-my-territory look fixed on me. Cornered dogs were dangerous, though this one chose the risk. To confront a human intruder takes courage. Water, food, some gesture was needed to befriend the animal.
In slow motion I shifted my feet to the ground, unscrewed the bottle of water next to my bed and walked towards the stone-ledge round the chimney where I had dumped my cooking gear. I lit a candle and poured water into a bowl. My movements were tracked for the slightest sign of mismatch. I set the bowl down in the middle of the room and retreated to my bed. Exhausted from the effort, I rolled myself a cigarette.
The dog didn’t stir. ‘Come on, the water is for you.’ Ears perked, that was all. Our eyes locked in combat – a staring test. ‘What do you want?’ I got up and broke off a piece from my bread, added a chunk of goat’s cheese and placed the morsels next to the water. Back under my blankets I prepared myself for a long wait.
From outside came a bark. My visitor growled. Company was unwelcome. There must be an opening for animals to slip in to the house. Tomorrow I would camp upstairs and close the door on me. Tomorrow was a long way off. My thoughts drifted to Cora, the puppy that had been given to me for my tenth’s birthday, a spaniel. Neighbours adopted her when my father died and we moved into an apartment. Cora liked chocolate.
A slight thud – snakelike, the dog slid along the floor towards the offerings. Outside another bark broke the silence. My friend tensed but kept quiet. Did I think – my friend? After careful sniffing he daintily consumed the meal, and, without giving me another glance, bounced from the room and disappeared. The presence of a dog that had eaten my food was oddly reassuring. I blew out the candle and fell asleep.
A chorus of birds signalled sunrise. I glanced to the corner of the room now empty of last night’s visitor. The rags turned out to be a frayed woollen cape and shreds of trousers splattered with oil paint, bringing the mysterious artist to mind. With an urgent need to freshen up and explore I skipped breakfast and made for the stream. The clear water purled through my hands like liquid gems. I splashed my face and would take a dip later on. Looking back at the house it appeared seamless, as one, but for the bleak air surrounding the semi.
There are instances when man-made laws ask for transgression. My state-of-the art Swiss army knife had a screwdriver. I detached the padlock from one of the spider-webbed shutters. Peering into the twilight, there were rattan chairs, a round table, dated kitchen facilities and an ornate spiral staircase near the partition wall, against which was an empty shelf.
A snarling – my friend. ‘What’s the matter with you?’ I screwed the padlock back into position. To pacify the dog, I surrendered a bite of my treasured dark chocolate and made sure all food was out of reach on the chimney mantle. While he devoured the treat, I moved across the hall into the rooms adjoining the semi and noticed a shelf looking similar to the one on the other side. My new friend had sneaked up and was yapping. His puzzling behaviour and the coincident of fixed shelves on both sides of the wall in the same position sparked an idea. In the past, my shots in the dark had been rewarding, giving me a certain confidence in areas of the immeasurable.
The sound of a rough engine labouring up the hill distracted my musings. Annoyed, I went to check on the intrusion – a banged-up jeep. The local farmer wanted to know what was going on. In my broken Spanish I said I was planning to buy the property and had been allowed to stay here. The furrow between his brows deepened. He waved an arm, ‘Asustado,’ he said.
‘Un momento!’ I ran to fetch my dictionary.
‘Frecuentado por fantasmas,’ he emphasized on my return.
‘Yo no creo en fantasmas,’ I said, standing my ground.
He shook his head and forcefully reversed the car. I caught ‘turista estupido’ before the jeep vanished in a plume of dust. So the place was spooked, or neighbours wanted me to believe so. Not that I disrespected ghosts. They gave an edge to my goal, is how I saw it.
The dog re-appeared. ‘You must be the guardian of this place,’ I said. He wagged his tail. Finally – an acknowledgement of my presence – and acceptance. I smiled and went to boil water for a much desired cup of coffee. ‘I’ll call you Abu,’ I said, rolling a cigarette, at which he wagged his tail with even more enthusiasm. There was text on my mobile, a message from the agent. ‘Owner expected today. She not sell semi yet but reduce price.’
My mind quickened. She needed the money. I would tackle the ghosts and buy the entire house. Back at the partition wall, I scanned every inch of the shelf and discovered a hook behind a plank. I pulled. Nothing happened. I pulled again and pushed at the same time – the whole shelving creaked and shifted. Abu’s frantic bark made me twinge. His pelt of hair stood on ends. He tucked in his tail and sprinted off as if chased by an abysmal force …