As the huge oak door swung inwards, I stumbled and fell flat on my face in the hallway. The lovely aroma of freshly applied paint and new wood shavings didn’t alleviate the pain of my bruised shoulder and leg.
I’d driven down from Scotland to Bassett Hall, the big manor house on the Norfolk Coast, and was suffering the worst bout of flu I could remember, alternately shivering with cold and feeling boiling hot, all the time fighting an agonising ache in my shoulders and a thundering headache and sore throat.
As I stumbled to my feet and switched on the light, the mobile in my pocket vibrated, and I managed to hold it up to my throbbing head.
“Is all the work done?” pestered the anxious voice of movie director Paul. “’Cos we’re coming down to Bassett Hall in the morning with all the props and some of the actors, and we’ll probably start shooting later in the day.”
“I promised it would be ready, didn’t I?” I answered wearily.
“If I had a quid for every broken promise I’d be a rich man. Honestly Jamie, if there’s still work to do on the house I’ll be in big trouble—”
“Don’t worry Paul, the lads have finished everything,” I managed to croak, my throat on fire. “I’ve just this moment arrived here to check that it’s all hunky dory. Don’t worry.”
“Don’t worry? There’s a heck of a lot of money riding on this, and it’s my neck on the line…”
I let him ramble on, scarcely caring. In fact I don’t mind admitting to you that I wasn’t as confident as I was saying, but as the architect in charge of the renovations, it was all part of my job to sweet-talk my temperamental scaredy-cat employer, who’d pestered me constantly ever since I’d started this wretched job.
You’ve probably heard of Bassett Hall. It’s a large Victorian-built stately home on the Norfolk coast, and during the Second World War it was used for the secret meetings of a band of aristocrats nicknamed the ‘Bassett Set’. Owner of Bassett, Sir Alistair Josling, and his well-to-do friends were Nazi sympathisers, and met regularly to discuss ways of making England capitulate to Nazi Germany, and the glittering rewards for them personally in a Hitler-run England. Some of his fellow traitors and co-conspirators were in high positions in the civil service and the military, and there was even one member of parliament. All had attended the meeting amid utter secrecy.
But by a delightful twist of fate, Bassett Hall had been bombed by a German aircraft on that one fateful night in 1942 when all the traitors were assembled there. The pilot, who had been searching for a likely target on which to ‘unload’ the bombs he hadn’t been able to drop on London, happened to notice the large house near the coast and let fly.
I’m glad to say that Sir Alistair and his co-conspirators were all killed.
Only part of the building had been lost, and after the war, the Hall was rebuilt, and its current owner had recently rented it out to my employers, a movie production company, who wanted to make a film about the events of that night at the actual location. I’d been hired to make a few structural changes to the building so that it looked as close as possible to how it must have done on the night it had been bombed.
The last clear memory I have of that night of my arrival was staggering up the stairs, getting into bed and falling asleep.
When I next woke up it was night-time again—presumably I’d slept all through the following day. I looked out of the window to see the back of the house lit up, and several extremely well preserved vintage cars were parked in the rear courtyard.
I got up and put on my dressing gown and walked out onto the landing. Down below I could see a lot of 1940s-style furniture in place, what’s more, most of the actors seemed to have arrived: men in period evening dress, and ladies with wartime evening wear, dripping diamonds and sporting the hair fashions of those Spartan days, reminding me of those old films with Rita Hayworth and Bing Crosby. I heard snatches of conversation, and it was hard to tell if the actors were just mooching around the set or were actually taking part in filming. The good thing from my viewpoint was that Paul obviously hadn’t felt the need to seek me out to complain about anything.
My attention was caught by a very young actress with black hair cut in a bob, who was dressed as a maid. Even from above I could see the large dark birthmark on her wrist which seemed to be heart-shaped, as she held the tray of drinks, pointedly ignored by all the other actors. She looked up at me and gave me a huge smile, then she glanced disparagingly at the actors who weren’t taking any notice of her. She scowled, then, for my benefit, she stuck her tongue out at the other rude thespians. I smiled back, responding to the mischief in her eyes, the lovely dimples in her cheeks and her contagious sense of fun.
The next moment I felt myself shivering so badly that my teeth were chattering, so, rather than getting dressed and going down to find Paul, I tiptoed back to bedroom and locked the door, hoping that no one but the young actress had noticed me, and that she wouldn’t tell anyone. The pernickety bugger would assume I’d found everything okay and had gone home sometime yesterday.
The next time I got up I felt much better. It was daylight at last. The fever had abated, and I felt tremendously hungry, realising I hadn’t eaten for over a day.
But oddly enough, after I’d dressed and stepped out onto the landing, it seemed as if I was completely alone in the house. I found my phone, and noticed the new text message from Paul, apologising for not meeting me there the day before, but saying that there had been an unexpected problem, and he was planning to come the next day, meaning by my reckoning, any time now.
Just as I was reading it I looked out of the landing window to see the first vehicles came onto the front drive—practically an army of cars, vans and trailers and caravans. Doors were slamming. I could hear loud conversations, laughter, coughing, footsteps on gravel. The rattle of the front door swinging open.
I met Paul in the hallway, wondering quite what was happening to me.
Where were all the people I’d seen in the house the night before? In that moment I realised that my fevered brain must have concocted a very realistic dream, based on my knowledge of the dark end of the notorious Bassett Set. I’d heard that if you have a high fever this kind of thing can happen. Presumably I had walked in my sleep and then had some bizarre kind of waking dream.
“This is Rose,” Paul said, as a very old lady in a wheelchair was being pushed in our direction. Paul introduced me to her, and she smiled up at me. As I looked into her bright eyes there was something that triggered a memory, but I couldn’t work out what it was, or where I’d seen her before.
“We’re very lucky,” Paul explained, hovering above the old lady, and indeed treating her with great kindness and respect. “Rose here is an absolute treasure. She was a parlourmaid here in this actual house on the night it was bombed—she’s advising us on all the period detail.”
“Yes, I still remember the night it happened as if it was yesterday,” the old lady took up her story, preening in Paul’s flattery. “I was taken on temporary like, just for the one evening, and what a horrible lot they were, treated me like dirt—I wasn’t surprised afterwards when it turned out they were all ruddy traitors. They sent me down to the cellar to get a special bottle of wine, just before the bomb hit, and I reckon that fancy bottle of wine saved my life. It’s a funny thing, young man,” she changed tack, turning towards me and leaning forwards to stare at my face. “I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before.”
“Yes, you look familiar to me too.”
It was true. However, the familiarity seemed ephemeral, utterly elusive. There for a second, and then gone in a flash, like a part-remembered dream.
“Funny, I never forget a face,” Rose went on, “It’ll come back to me, where I saw you, it always does in the end. Because I distinctly remember seeing you, clear as day.”
As Rose went on, I noticed her smile, and, despite the wrinkles in her cheeks, there were sudden dimples that seemed strangely familiar too. And then she lifted her skeletal, liver-spotted hand from her knees.
And as the limp material of her sleeve fell away I saw a birthmark there on the back of her wrist.
It was in the shape of a heart.
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