I have much to report, yet of substance little.
When Charteris finally stirred he was much preoccupied with Sprake. All that could be gathered from the latter’s ramblings and peculiar reticence was that he had left the pub in the company of the barmaid, but that something had intervened in their dalliance. Something that caused him to reel away in such horror that he was left with no conscious capability, merely an instinct that returned him to us.
It was MacReady’s turn to collect supplies from the farm. It was a daily chore, Dyson explained, because the food did not last. He showed me the apples left over from last night, shrivelled now and wormy, then threw them away.
On MacReady’s return we breakfasted, in silence except for when the muttering audible from Sprake’s room rose in volume or pitch, prompting us to drown it out as best we could with meaningless but loud conversation. The others were still intent on keeping something from me, and once our brief meal was over they hastened to leave about their day’s work. I could draw from them no hints as to its nature, and when I made as if to join them they insisted I wait and talk to Charteris. I acceded begrudgingly (I had no wish to join them in their labours but urgently wanted to escape that accursed cottage for a while).
Left with nothing to do, I pretended to myself that I was making further progress on my translation of the codex and its implications. I allowed Charteris, when he descended with the news that Sprake was sleeping once more, to believe he was interrupting me, but in truth I had no idea where the previous hour or so had gone. The sheet on which I was working was a mass of barely legible scrawls, so different form my common hand, that I could not recall making – nor, indeed, make much sense of – them.
Charteris pecked at his breakfast. He refused to answer any of my questions directly, but he did indicate that my supposition was correct – he did have need of my expertise. He claimed it had never been his intention to reveal anything to me until tomorrow, and now Sprake’s obscure malady prevented him even from showing me the lay of land, which is how he had wanted us to spend this first full day together. But there was no reason it would not be safe for me to walk the circle of the hills around Lower Wirklesworth alone. He would lend me boots, if I needed them, and a stout jacket, ‘You need to get a sense of the place,’ he said, ‘of its shape and antiquity, the ages that are gathered here.’
He thrust a battered old map at me. It dated from the 1870s. ‘By far the most reliable one,’ he explained. ‘Places might not always seem to be where they should. But as long as you stay on the marked paths you should always find your way back into the village. Remember, though, the map is never the territory, and sometimes the territory does not want to be known.’
It was nonsense of the highest order, but the rain had ceased , the skies seemed clear, and some fresh air would be welcome. I did not like to admit to myself that I was anxious to be out of that house.
‘Take some apples,’ he advised. ‘Throw them away if you don’t eat them – they will be bitter by nightfall and rotten by dawn.’
And so I walked up the main road out of the village until it peaked and then left it to commence a widdershins circuit high above Lower Wirklesworth. By noon I was skirting the edge of a gritstone moor. Even to the untrained eye, it was clearly a ceremonial landscape, Neolithic stone circles and burial chambers and other cyclopean remnants bulging here and there out of the riotous heather and ferns. It was there that I noticed the contrast I had not perceived on my arrival as Charteris had driven me over the ridge and into the bowl-shaped valley below. Beyond, the land was full of colour, rich and full, but the peaks of the hills seemed to provide a barrier of sorts, and within them colours faded into a greyness, from fruitful verdure to a grim vegetal enervation.
The moorland gave way to a black tarn, ominous in its placidity. I threw an apple as far out as I could, and it slipped into the opaque waters with barely a ripple.
Emaciated cattle, their sickly eyes a milky white, parted before me, skittish but bone weary.
Within an hour, a thick mist descended and it was all I could do to keep to the path. The grass grew wet and treacherous underfoot. Long before reaching the ruins of Upper Wirklesworth, I made my way down to the village, the circuit incomplete.
At the cottage, Charteris was nowhere to be seen. I found Sprake huddled in an armchair.
Now was not the time, I realised, to fumble my condolences over his wife’s death. I sat with him, though at first he barely acknowledged me. He picked at a patch of mould on the blanket in which he was wrapped. I could not help but stare. When he became aware of my gaze, he smiled and explained: ‘It is everywhere in this valley. Leave your clothes hanging for more than a day and it will appear. If you find it on your skin , scrub it out like the very devil.’ He picked up a twig and showed me the curious growth mottling every inch of it. ‘It’s not a mould or a fungus, not a lichen, not a moss, according to Dyson,’ he said. ‘And every time he sends off a sample to a lab it deliquesces before it reaches them. He is trying to get the equipment here to do his own analysis. Look closely and you will see it on the grass and the trees, even on those rickety cows. It is indiscriminate.’ Somehow in his mouth that word seemed filthy.
He lapsed into silence and soon fell asleep. I, too, was in need of rest. I went inside and lay on my bed. I drifted in and out of consciousness, disturbed once more by that animal scratching. I grew convinced that it was not outside in the eaves as I had thought during the night, but inside the walls. I might have been dreaming.
I awoke at dusk, disturbed no doubt by the sound of the others returning. I threw open my attic window to let some of the mustiness out of the air. It must have startled the squirrel, still gathering food for her young, on the guttering below me. Whatever was in her mouth was still alive.
She turned on me, dropping her prey and rearing up in fury. Through the dull lactescence of her eyes a rage burned. It seemed sentient, prompted by an affront aeons old.
Stifling a scream, I slammed the window shut.
I longed for company yet could not bring myself to join the others.
Later, Charteris brought me up a tray of supper. He looked at me with a knowingness I could not bear. ‘Get some sleep,’ he said, ‘we will speak in the morning.’
I could sense something buried deep inside me emerging.
Not merely the hatred I felt for him in that moment, but something that was not quite part of me. Something that had been summoned.