Sunday, 19 May 2013
From the journal of Greta Gardner, February 1978
The boy arrived at night, wrapped in a blanket. He was carried by his adopted father who placed him on the kitchen floor next to me. His big blue eyes stared out from under his wild black hair. He shrank from the fire, he shrank from my touch, yet his skin was cold as ice…
He arrived with a list of instructions tucked into the pocket of his jacket.
Eats - mostly chicken and oranges (likes: roast chicken, blood oranges and plums).
Drinks - mostly water and citrus juice.
First warning - do not let him go in the sun often as he burns easily.
Second warning - make sure he wears his necklace amulet (a parting gift from his biological mother). He screams if you take it.
Final Warning - do not let him go out at night alone.
As a small boy (just walking) he had a tendency to wander off, and many times staff at the orphanage were unable to find the little fellow for hours. Once, he was found hanging upside down from the roof of the school gymnasium, like a bat. The only giveaway was the drip drip drip of juice as he stuffed his baby face with blood oranges.
His file was then stamped: Special Needs.
I shook my head as I read this. I was sure Mr Spencer had finally lost his mind dragging the mite all the way back from Spain. It was many years before I learnt the full extent of his malady.
From the notes of Mr Tom Bennett (lawyer) and visitor to Hampstead Heath, London, Present Day
When I saw the house in the fragile light, I could barely make out the lines of gothic architecture in the morning mist. I’d heard whispers about the strangeness of the place. I was told that I risked my life going there; that the owner brandished a gun and roamed the heath looking for his lost love. Music and chatter, laughter and screams could be heard miles away in the night. Neighbours said the lovers who’d inhabited Hareton Hall lived there still, as young and beautiful as they ever were; haunted.
The family, the Spencers, originated in Yorkshire and could trace their lineage back a thousand years. Their secrets wove through history and time and family portraits. I held in my hand a photograph of Mr Spencer, an aristocrat with an interest in archaeology, returning from a trip to Spain with a small child. Among other documents, there was a photograph of the entire family, arriving to greet Mr Spencer and his newly adopted son at the airport. The family were generationally wealthy. Mr Spencer had an interest in Botany. According to my documents, he kept to himself and his study. Within the file, I also retained the marriage notice of the daughter, Kate. This was long before the family feud that had ignited decades of dispute.
In the picture was a beautiful mother with ink black curls. The older teenage boy, Harrison, had a scowl on his face and headphones on his ears. He appeared tuned out from the proceedings. The girl, her dark curls tied with an unruly red ribbon, revealed an adorable cherub face. Aged six, she peeked out from behind her mother and stole the picture. It was this child’s face I remembered long after I’d set the image aside.
As I walked along the winding road that led from Hampstead Heath towards Hareton Hall, I passed another magnificent home, The Grange. This was a Georgian mansion hidden behind a maze of orange trees as opposed to The Hall where photographs showed gargoyles at its entrance. The signatures I was required to collect involved the ownership of both properties.
I’d been advised not to try to park along the icy road that connected the houses on opposite sides of the heath. Instead, I’d driven to a spot along the frosty lane which meant I had to walk the rest of the way in the rain. Late afternoon seemed to be losing light but then all the days were dark now as London turned rapidly into winter. It was not a good time to walk about the borough. A man had recently gone missing and was yet to be found. As I was surrounded by street crime in my first position as junior solicitor at a criminal law firm, I was not perturbed.
I pushed the family photograph, covered in plastic, deep inside my briefcase along with some handwritten journals kept by Kate Spencer, the only daughter of the house, and one by the housekeeper, Greta Gardner. Greta’s journal contained a collection of various yearly expenses with some alarming family details written in the margins. Both contained valuable information entrusted to me. I noticed The Grange to my right, a well-kept home, built not far from a local landmark, Kenwood House. The Grange held some of the allure, yet I suspected hosted none of the secrets, of Hareton Hall.
The history of the Spencer family haunted me as I walked. I remembered words and snippets from the bizarre journals. For example, Heath was described as, “a pale little boy with sharp milk teeth!” This journal scribble was mixed with the photographs I resolved to return to their rightful owner. As I rounded the corner, I was almost as keen to talk to Greta Gardner, the housekeeper and keeper of secrets, as I was to speak with the owner of The Hall.
The heath was silent and stark in bare winter.
I’d visited during summer as a child but never with such purpose in my step. To my right and to my great relief, I saw the entrance to a pub. I’d been there with my family once, just after I’d graduated from university. I decided to warm myself and ask for directions.
The Horse and Ale used to serve delicious roast dinners and hot toddies. I hoped it hadn’t changed too much in the intervening years.
I settled in front of the fire, grateful for the familiarity as I drank my hot, strong mulled wine. When the waiter asked me if I needed anything extra, I asked him for directions to Hareton Hall.
‘Who wants to know?’ The low, gruff voice of a man, perhaps in his thirties, spoke to me from behind one of the many sofas. He had a plate of what appeared to be lamb, dipped in gravy and a large pint of dark ale in his hand. His dog lay lovingly, sleeping at his feet, apparently unbothered by the smell of roasted meat.
‘Ah, I do.’
‘Really? And who might you be?’
To say he was unfriendly would be an understatement.
‘I’m…well, who are you?’
He almost laughed.
‘I asked you first.’
‘I’m Tom Bennett, the junior partner from Bennett & Sons. I have an appointment at Hareton Hall.’
‘To see the owner?’
‘Yes, and…who might you be?’
‘I am the owner.’
He didn’t smile. He rose slowly. For a youngish man, he seemed to carry the weight of the world on his broad shoulders. He looked like a hard partying insomniac. I offered him my hand and he took it obligingly. If I was trained to comment on such things, which I suppose I am, I’d say he was tall and fairly handsome. The air of sleeplessness hung over him like a cloud. He was polite yet unfriendly; he did not smile. He was unshaven; his dark shirt was unironed but expensive. He stared at me coldly.
The publican scurried off to some far flung corner of the establishment. One of the lights overhead flickered as the man moved closer to me. He picked up an implement from the fireside and stoked the flame.
I took another sip of my drink and waited for him to speak.
‘Well then, it’s me you’ve come to see. Place is empty, except for my housekeeper Greta, a few horses in the stables and the dogs.
‘Perhaps I could come to Hareton Hall?’
‘It would help if I sighted the property and it may be easier to talk there.’
‘I am busy this evening. If you had come earlier as arranged…
‘I was detained. It was further away from Hampstead than I expected.’
‘Even so…I don’t have visitors at night. I shall arrange for you to come tomorrow morning. Twenty minutes.’
‘It may take more than twenty minutes…’
The rain poured down overhead and with it the darkness of early winter. For once, I was glad as a young man, not to have to hurry back to a wife and family.
The man shrugged.
‘Well, it’s getting late. You can stay here tonight - for free; I own the pub. I’ll send my driver to get you at nine in the morning. We can finalize the matter then.’
He smiled for the first time at the blonde, middle-aged woman who entered the room and moved softly behind the bar.
‘This is Greta; she used to be the housekeeper at Hareton Hall; raised me as a child; she’ll fill you in on the story. Look after him Greta and see he gets a comfortable bed.’
Greta looked at me warily.
He whistled to his dog, a large amiable Labrador who obviously worshipped his master.
The dog sat up and barked. I think his owner was used to people behaving in a similar manner.
It turned out Greta had quite a tale to tell as she chatted to me by the fireside that evening. I asked her to identify her household journal and she was pleased to do so. I marked it as “Exhibit A” in my head; it was to be a wealth of information. I had the journal open on my knee as we talked. The Spencer crest hovered above us as Greta spoke in detail about the family she’d once served. Before I retired to bed, I could not resist writing down what she said as I did not want to forget what she told me. As I offered to pay for my drinks, I was more intrigued than ever about the legends of Hareton Hall and the fate of the Spencer children who lived there, more than thirty years ago…
I read Greta’s words as I rested on the hotel bed. They were written in a firm, definite hand:
February 1978 (second entry) - we were not sure what country the child originated from. When Mr Spencer brought him back from his trip, I thought he’d finally gone mad, like his ancestors. I said, ‘You were searching for fossils, not people!’ But he just shrugged and said, ‘Well, I saw him on the street and no one claimed him so I filled in the paperwork, paid a requisite sum and now here he is. All this had happened many months before the actual collection. Perhaps the child was originally from Europe or maybe as close as Liverpool? The foundling had papers to say he was ours, signed by a solicitor, no less. He didn’t speak a word that first night. His bell bottom jeans and shoes were filthy and caked with mud from the walk along the driveway. Dirt splattered on my kitchen floor. I thought it was very inconsiderate of Mr Spencer not to have put clean clothes on him but grown men rarely think of small comforts. The dark haired, six-year-old person stared at me blankly and flinched when I tried to go anywhere near him. He kicked and scratched me so hard when I went to take his jacket (where I read the “instructions”) that I honestly wondered how I’d cope looking after a child in such a…state. Harrison, almost eight years the child’s senior, shoved the boy when he thought no one was looking and whispered to him before leaving the house, ‘Who do you think you are? Invading my home like this… I’ll make you pay, charity case!’
Kate, who had always been naughty (a fact belied by her pretty and innocent face), and never close to her much older brother or absent socialite mother, became attached to the new boy who we named Heath and resolved to raise as part of our family…
It was all rather formal yet strangely personal.
I’d learnt, as a child, Heath Spencer had no language and apparently very little memory of his origins. He’d certainly made up for it judging by the detailed and sophisticated legal correspondence he’d addressed to me personally and which I had spread out on the desk in my room. Heath’s letters addressed the various ownership and personal scandals involving both himself and his adopted relatives in almost forensic detail. Events happened a long time ago, but the origins and complex story of the properties in question, both Hareton Hall and The Grange, involved both the Spencer and Hunt families whose paperwork I now studied. Their generational feuds had been the talk of the firm, behind closed doors, of course.
According to family tradition, the Spencer children were sent away to school the year they turned twelve. However, the friendship between the two youngest children began much earlier, with a whisper. It was as if Kate was the first to know, although his adopted father must have suspected. There was something different about Heath.
The first night the child arrived, Kate wandered up to him when he was left alone in the kitchen and the little boy hissed at her, baring his tiny, white incisor fangs. Kate scowled then smiled and moved towards the small boy, rather than rejecting him. As if he were some exotic pet, she tried to pat his head. The boy, suddenly ashamed of his behaviour, covered his mouth. Heath had only recently learned how to recede his little fangs but sometimes they came out when he was frightened or stressed. Kate took his hand and led him upstairs.
When they were in the play room, she asked him to explain more. It was their secret, she told him. Kate loved to have secrets. The little boy didn’t know what to tell her.
‘I was born this way,’ he whispered.
His biological father had kept notes but Mr Spencer wanted proof. After many secretive tests with a Vampire specialist on Harley Street it was explained to Mr Spencer that the child had a rare condition. There was a line of Spanish vampires from thousands of years ago that he possibly descended from through his mother. His blood type was unknown. What they did ascertain was that the child might grow out of his ways and never fully mature into a “blood sucker” as the specialist called his “breed”. He also warned Mr Spencer, “Tell no one.” Fearing society would reject his new son, Mr Spencer agreed.
Heath was told his cravings for blood would not reach full maturity until he did (at around eighteen) and in the meantime, he could be easily sustained with a diet high in protein and iron. He would keep ageing until then. As the venom in his blood was diluted, he would be given protection from sun. His image would appear in photographs and mirrors until it began to fade in adulthood. Kate’s father had been assured by the vampire specialist it was completely safe for Heath to go to church and be around other children.
Mr Spencer was given a list of instructions similar to the ones the boy arrived with; that he had to be careful of the child’s fair skin in the sun, (although a small amount wouldn’t hurt as long as he took his daily supplements and wore a pendant protecting him from daylight). According to the notes, the child’s mother was horrified the baby had crackled and almost burnt in the light. Heath had also tried to bite her when nursing. Finally, unable to cope, his mother had left him with Spanish nuns when he was just three months old. She had placed the protective amulet around the baby’s neck along with a kiss as she broke down and put him in a basket outside the gates of the orphanage. As he grew, incorrigible, the child daily escaped and ran himself ragged along the Spanish streets. That was how Mr Spencer found him, pale and hungry for protein, like a wild kitten.
After the child arrived at Hareton Hall his incisors were painlessly filed down during regular check-ups at the family dentist and life resumed as normal. Life for Heath was a regular routine of vitamin taking, avoiding the sun, wearing his amulet (even in the bath) and craving roast dinners (his favourite). The child was deemed eccentric and wild but no one except Mr Spencer, Kate and Heath knew he was actually different. He had cravings for cooked, red meat, a desire to sleep half the day and stay up all night, but those were habits and slowly, Heath conformed to the ways of the household.
On one occasion, he had been caught off-guard when Kate’s mother had walked in on the child playing with his train set and Heath, suddenly frightened, sensed an intruder. He turned round and hissed, before realizing the full impact of what he had done. His new mother fled from the room screaming, “He’s not normal! He’s just not normal!” Heath tried to apologize. The woman wouldn’t listen. She packed her bags and wanted to take Kate with her; the little girl refused to go.
After Kate’s mother left Hareton Hall, her father withdrew from the world. Mr Spencer retired from normal life and began to live in relative seclusion. He went for long walks during the day and took trips abroad, collecting plants to study and write about in his home office.
Growing up, Kate and Heath ran wild. As the years wore on, Mr Spencer became a hermit and slept often, worked in the garden and read the Bible fireside in the afternoons. One by one, the staff began to give notice, except the housekeeper Greta, who’d been with the family since she was sixteen. Greta had more to do than keep track of the wayward children who were soon expelled from the local primary school for “non-attendance, unruly behaviour” and (worst), “attempted biting,” something Kate hotly denied as Heath looked on sheepishly.
Although Greta knew Heath was unusual, he’d managed not to reveal his secret to her. There had to be something wrong with him, Greta thought, but nothing that boarding school wouldn’t fix. Besides, no one was perfect.
Although Mr Spencer felt especially partial to his youngest children, he began counting the days until they were old enough to be sent to Yardley Mansion School in Scotland, a Spencer family tradition. Perhaps they would learn something useful about discipline in such a prestigious establishment. After all, it would be nearly impossible to escape lessons there and Heath’s condition seemed almost entirely under control, his penchant for roast dinners aside. But after all, who except vegetarians did not like a good roast?
When Heath grew stronger (useful against Harrison) and his inclinations grew rougher, he hid them and learned to control his desire to sometimes nip Kate on her leg or arm. In fact, he’d be horrified if she knew he once imagined tasting the pretty little vein in her wrist.
He’d educated himself and knew biting was wrong and never in a billion years would he wish to hurt the person he loved most in the world. Heath religiously took his supplements, wore his amulet and kept himself sustained with his favourite juice and meat. As he grew older, his cravings were not subsiding quite as easily.
Heath was closer to Kate than anyone. Apart from Kate’s father, whom Heath regarded warmly, she was the only friend he’d ever had. Well, except for Greta, who, after a faltering start, grew to look upon Heath with great fondness. At first Heath didn’t like Greta. She was always huffing and puffing in the kitchen about the extra work and ignored him when he asked lots of questions until he stopped talking altogether and then she said things like, “Has the cat got your tongue, young man?”
Harrison was at home for half-term holidays when the children started playing a particularly savage game of sardines. Heath had been caught running through the attic by Harrison and was beaten with a stick. Heath then (unsuccessfully) tried to drive his homemade stake into the older boy’s leg. After witnessing Harrison’s cruelty, Greta had become Heath’s ally. She told Mr Spencer who reprimanded Harrison for picking on the smaller child and withdrew the older boy’s financial privileges for a month. Harrison was angry; the boy was half his height but twice as strong.
‘I’ll get you back for this, charity case,’ the older boy said as he again hit Heath when nobody else was about. There was enough force in that clip to make Heath’s ear bleed. Heath bared his teeth, as he waited for the strength in his venom to take over. Kate swiped her elder brother and before long the three of them were wrestling, pushing, kicking and shoving each other until the little girl was almost squashed in the pile beneath. This just led the two boys to start fighting all over again. Heath bit Harrison on the wrist and spat out the taste just as quickly. Harrison called him a “little animal”. Kate screamed so hard Greta had to race up the stairs to break them up.
Harrison would have been sent back to school to suffer the long weekend alone before term started but Greta noticed spots on all three children as she was sending them out of the room separately. They had developed chicken pox, which Harrison blamed on the local “state school scum” - Heath and his bratty little sister’s school friends.
‘Oh be quiet, Harrison!’ Greta warned. ‘I think it is far more likely that you carried the chicken pox back with you from that posh boys’ school your father pays the earth for…’
Chastened, Harrison went back to bed moaning and demanding more sympathy. Both Harrison and Kate, spoiled before their mother left, demanded to be waited on hand and foot but not Heath. He had lain there, expecting very little sympathy (eyeing the specially delivered basket of blood oranges), sleeping most of the day and happy to gnaw on a chicken leg when it was given. Because he was a stoic little boy, Heath had won Greta over. She kept the best treats for him - fruit and sandwiches for his lunch (the boy always left the bread and ate the meat) - fussing over him like a young mother. This too, bred Harrison’s resentment. Heath, for the first time in his young life, basked in the adoration the females of Hareton Hall gave him, and he grew into a tall, robust child whom Greta predicted would be, “a real lady killer one day”.
At eight years old, that day hadn’t quite arrived.
Kate and Heath
After Mr and Mrs Spencer separated, Hareton Hall was never the same. Mutual loneliness, secrets and headstrong natures had drawn Heath and Kate into an alliance. The days went by and as they grew together, the children craved freedom.
One cold day in November Kate and Heath lay side by side on Hampstead Heath making starfish in the snow. There was no sun as usual. Their arms and legs reached out forming windmills in the ice, so that their fingers almost touched.
‘Kate?’ the small boy asked as he sat up and wrapped his scarf around his neck and ears. He had dark hair and blue eyes and was as strikingly good looking as the girl, with her midnight curls and icy, reddened cheeks. Both of them had perfectly white teeth from their frequent trips to the dentist and Heath, in eighteen months, had learnt how to control his fangs, perfectly. Now that he was a little older, he never revealed them in public and they didn’t need to be filed anymore.
‘Yes,’ she replied.
‘I wish Harrison would stop picking on us.’
‘Me too, he’s…mean. Every time he comes home from school I dread it. He takes over the house and pinches me and locks me in my room when no one is about. Ever since mother…I can’t say the words,’ she said as she put her small hand to her mouth and Heath noticed a tear drying on her face. The recent abandonment of Kate by her mother had not overly concerned Heath, since the woman had had nothing to do with him on a daily basis and had shown little interest in his upkeep. But he understood how it felt to be left and reached out to commiserate with Kate.
That first night, after Mrs Spencer left, Kate and Heath had played with the train set until, eyes heavy, they fell asleep together on the floor. Greta had placed a pillow under each small head. Ever after, they slept near each other or on opposite sides of the wall. They made hand puppet shows in the moonlight on the walls of the play room and Heath always let Kate win at games.
‘Don’t cry,’ Heath told Kate that day in the Hampstead meadow. ‘You have to be strong. If you cry, your tears will turn to crystal in this weather and freeze on your face. Imagine how awful that would look. Yuck.’
Kate laughed. ‘Perhaps it’s for the best. You can save my crystal tears in a jar,’ she joked.
‘I don’t like it when you cry,’ Heath said, wiping the tears from her face.
Kate sat up and sniffed into her coat sleeve.
The boy took her mittened hand.
‘Never cry again, Kate. We must be stronger than that, stronger than them.’
‘Stronger than this?’
Kate rolled up the edge of her jeans to where her knee showed the beginnings of a scab and a remarkably deep bruise.
‘It happened when Harrison kicked me because I wouldn’t give him the riding whip father bought me for my birthday. I was afraid he’d whip Hero too much.’
To her surprise, Heath moved forward, leaned over her leg, touched the scab and moved closer, almost as if he was going to lick it.
‘That’s gross,’ Kate said, ‘you were going to kiss it better like Greta would. , I hate kisses, unless I’m the one giving them!’ the girl announced, pulling her leg closer.
Heath looked very dejected and turned his face away.
Kate smiled; glad to have evoked such a strong reaction. She was ‘quite the little exhibitionist’, as Greta told her once.
‘I’m only kidding! Gotcha…’ Kate smiled.
Heath grudgingly turned to face her.
Kate covered her knee and changed the subject. ‘I heard you playing guitar this morning. I can hear you from my room when I wake up. You play much better than Harrison.’
Heath beamed with pride. He wasn’t used to hearing praise before he’d moved to The Hall. His only real problem was his adopted brother.
As if reading his thoughts, Kate said, ‘Never mind, we’ll get Harrison back one of these days. C’mon, I’ll race you to the bus stop. I found some coins in Harrison’s coat pocket when he was sleeping. Now we can go and buy sweeties…’
Heath didn’t want to disappoint her with his unnatural lack of desire for sugary lollies.
Instead, Heath picked up a stick and used it to plough through the snow quickly. He withheld the urge, like small children sometimes have, to bash the flower beds because he was fairly sure Kate wouldn’t approve. In this way, the children civilized and complimented one another’s personalities.
‘One day, when we’re grown up…I’ll take care of you, Kate,’ he said.
‘Silly, you take care of me already…’
‘When we’re grown up we’ll get married.’
‘Even sillier, we’re brother and sister.’
‘Not really. We’re not actually related.’
The boy was annoyed his suggestion had not been taken seriously. He reached into his pocket and dragged out a remarkably fresh, although slightly crumpled, wildflower.
‘I’ve been saving this all morning to give to you,’ he said, handing her the daisy.
‘Thank you,’ she said, dismissively. Kate was already thinking about how easily they could avoid going to school and go straight to the sweet shop instead.
The boy picked up his brown leather satchel and headed to the bus stop, ignoring Kate as he walked past her. ‘That will teach her a lesson,’ he thought.
‘Stop! Now you are being the silly one,’ the girl said. ‘We both know we’re not really brother and sister.’
Heath smiled at Kate as she took his hand. The frozen winds played with their hair and both children forgot their conversation as they ran to stop the bus as it moved forward. The little boy was amazed at how fast he’d begun to run, almost merging in double quick time across the meadow. He had to wait at the bus stop for the girl to catch up.
It was so cold Greta noticed Kate’s breath first as she entered the kitchen and placed her school bag on the floor. Heath dawdled behind his eye-catching counterpart. Kate was meticulous about her appearance. Her perfect curls lay in bunches behind her ears, tied in royal blue ribbons, the colours of her school. Her long socks were not rippled as other children’s were. In fact, the uniform she wore was in good condition, unstained and nearly uncrushed. Greta looked at Kate again. She knew that after her mother had fled, literally fled the house one night to go gallivanting around Europe with a man she’d met in rehab, Kate had become unmanageable - but bunking school? She really didn’t know what to do about this.
From the moment Kate had been born her Papa had indulged her every childish whim, much to the displeasure of her mother who worried that the child would be spoiled and difficult, like Harrison. Well, he was in boarding school where Kate would surely be sent soon, just as her older brother had been.
As for the “wild child”, as Greta thought of him, he looked completely unkempt – shirt hanging out, hair unbrushed, knees scratched. He ran upstairs to Kate’s bedroom (a converted ballroom) or to his own, the more modestly sized room opposite, to play video games and listen to music. The children would lounge around on the floor (strewn with the striped wrappers of Kate’s favourite boiled sweets) in the afternoons. They ate and listened to music, hardly bothering to even attempt their homework.
Heath had long ago discovered the path around the side of the house, through the kitchen door where the new au pair was standing and peeling potatoes for dinner. He fled past their elderly gardener and crept inside the kitchen, thinking he might sneak past, but Greta was too quick. She grabbed him by the hands.
‘Don’t say “what”, I know what you’ve been doing…or rather not doing.’
‘You just said “what”…’
‘That’s not what I meant…’
‘Said it again…’
‘Oh, you little rascal…’
‘What is it Greta?’
‘You haven’t been to school, have you? You and Kate have been gallivanting on the High Street. I can’t believe you’ve not been detained by police! The meadow must be too freezing even for both of you…scamps. And look at that bruise on your leg, Kate.’
Kate moved behind the bench protectively. She didn’t want Greta to have too much knowledge about the behind-the-scenes household warfare.
‘If that’s Harrison’s doing, I told you to tell me if he ever tries to hit either of you again! He’s twice your age. Honestly, I don’t know what this family has come to ever since your mother left. I’ll be calling social services next…or they’ll be calling me…’
‘Oh don’t do that Greta. I just…knocked into something when I was out riding…at pony club.’
Heath looked at Kate quickly, knowing if they told on Harrison again, it would only make matters worse the next time he came home.
‘I told you to tell me if that older brother of yours so much as raises his voice. He wouldn’t dare do it in my presence. But that doesn’t give either of you an excuse to avoid school. It’s a good thing Harrison is going away to University. By then, he won’t even be coming home for holidays…’
Heath and Kate were too quick. Greta talked on whilst they ate everything on the kitchen countertop behind her.
When Greta stopped talking, Kate took a bottle of fizzy drink and Heath grabbed a packet of Parma ham and they raced up the stairs, rejoicing in the time when their play room was empty of responsible adults (almost always). They had the whole ancient second floor to themselves in the afternoons. They could play their games or crawl outside, along the ledge that connected them to the ground and the road that led them to The Grange. Heath liked to go fishing in the stream and learned to make an open fire and cook the food on it. He was more and more interested in living in this natural, primal way, even at such a young age.
Annabelle and Edmund Hunt were the same age as Heath and Kate and their nearest neighbours. They were so stuck up neither Heath nor Kate had ever spoken to them. The blonde girl had poked her tongue out at Kate once during ballet lessons at the local church hall. Neither of the girls had spoken to each another since.
Kate and Heath lived in a world of their own - a world with a secret language and two rooms that adjoined each other with archaic light fittings, tall ceilings and furniture passed down through generations. There was a shabby opulence surrounding their secret society of two. Kate’s room had a canopied bed with cream sheets and a blanket and an old fashioned cream lace doll.
On occasions when the neighbourhood children were invited to tea, the doll’s house intrigued all of Kate’s jealous little acquaintances (mainly from school). But Kate never let Heath catch her staring at the perfect dolls in their pristine world longingly. She knew he’d think envy beneath her.
As he grew older, he became tougher and more boisterous, wanting to be outside more than inside which, Greta reasoned, was only natural in an almost twelve-year old boy. Heath remembered little of his origins. It was as if he’d only ever existed in Kate’s world, something he knew to be untrue. Yet Kate’s father was the only father he remembered. Mr Spencer had been kind to him so he loved him as he loved Kate. But he knew her father was not his real father and that the “blood” running through his veins had some kind of magic in it. He felt different to other boys his age - happier roaming the woods than sitting in a classroom.
Harrison, in his final year of school, was still a problem. Once, when he was home from school for a weekend and Mr Spencer was at a business conference in Brussels, Greta was called away for the afternoon. Kate’s older brother rounded up the children after she left and locked them together in the attic after inviting some of his older school friends round to party. Harrison thought it would be fun to terrify the “little kids”. Neither Kate nor Heath rewarded him with their tears but there had been an all-out fight in the hallway after the children had somehow managed to break the lock. Harrison hadn’t expected this but it was the last time he underestimated Heath’s strength.
When Kate’s father arrived home early, only to discover Heath and Kate amidst a mess of teen partying and chaos, he hit the roof. Mr Spencer packed Harrison off to the strictest boy’s boarding school in the South of England to complete his finals. It was a place where corporal punishment was yet to be banned another reason for the older brother to harbour resentment against the smaller children. They were soon to be packed off to Scotland, to a co-educational school, strict but far less rigid than where Harrison was going.
It was summer by then; Mr Spencer had grown frail just as Heath and Kate grew stronger and taller.
Hampstead was quiet. It was as if the entire borough had gone on holiday. Heath had taken to staying outside but on one particular rainy and overcast day, Kate took an entire chicken and a jug of orange juice out of the fridge and set out lunch in the upstairs playroom.
They sat together, enjoying their meal that last Saturday before they were due to board the train to Scotland. Both Kate and Heath had grown more studious in preparation for boarding school. They even finished reading the required list of books, lying on their backs, in the window seats of the playroom. Kate smiled at Heath - sometimes she thought her father had brought Heath home to be her exclusive friend.
September arrived after an endless summer of reading and night swimming in the indoor pool. The day before they were due to leave for Scotland, bright sun shone through the bay windows. Heath, uncomfortable, pulled his amulet close to his chest. His eyes felt sensitive to the light.
‘C’mon children,’ Greta said, wanting to make their last day at Hareton Hall memorable. ‘Rise and shine. It’s a lovely day. Why don’t we all take a picnic outside and go to Hampstead Heath? School doesn’t start until Monday. C’mon, get dressed.’
The children were excited as they pulled on their shoes.
In the parklands, Greta spread the checked blanket out on the lavender field under an umbrella and the children hungrily heaped food on plates. Heath got bitten by ants but barely made a peep even when Greta soothed his calf with warm tea. The boy had never known such care and in all his young years, never seen a spread of such magnificence. He ate three pieces of turkey, a chicken leg, ham, a left over chop, a slice of bacon and a huge glass of orange juice. Kate and Greta drank tea and ate most of the cucumber sandwiches.
Afterwards, the children went running to the ponds to feed the ducks. As Greta lay reading a magazine, Kate and Heath discovered the hidden conservatory in a secluded part of the park. It was like being in another world, one far removed from London or Spain or family fighting or anywhere they had ever known - a glass palace with a covered in roof and shards of dappled, muted light (not enough to make Heath’s skin burn). The building was filled with remarkable tropical trees and flowers growing in an adjusted temperature. There were even garden chairs to sit on and stare in wonderment at the magical surroundings. Both children thought the same thing; that they’d found a remarkable secret, a place where they could hide…and meet.
Edmund and Annabelle
This secluded section of Hampstead Heath also led to a hidden laneway that attached Hareton Hall to The Grange. Kate and Heath ran down the lane and it brought them out in the garden of the neighbouring property. They laughed when they saw their neighbours, Edmund and Annabelle, in the distance. Viewed through the low, floor-length windows of the Grange, the Hunt siblings were taking private dancing lessons. Heath had never seen a ballet class and thought the whole thing was hysterically funny. Kate thought it was rather beautiful, but she would never admit that. The Grange was a world beyond billowing cream curtains where all seemed tranquil and safe. When the dance teacher tried to demonstrate with Edmund, how to partner, Heath literally fell on the ground laughing.
‘Who’s out there?’ Edmund shouted, turning towards the window. Heath and Kate crouched out of sight, beneath the sill.
‘Mind you keep your eyes up here while we are dancing,’ the woman, wearing leg warmers and a tight hair bun, scolded him. Edmund reluctantly looked away. Annabelle glanced up when the teacher wasn’t looking and noticed two children. The boy looked vaguely familiar to her, about the same age, running away from the house in the long grass. The girl tumbled in the heather and before long they were laughing and running, fading into the meadow.
If anyone had asked, Annabelle would have described them as the opposite of her and her brother; free. The blonde girl wished she could join them. Instead, her glacial, childish image, secured in tight ballet slippers and pink ribbons, her unsmiling yet lovely face, mocked her in the mirror.
That night, Heath lay awake under the covers of his bed, his school trunk packed, his uniforms tagged with his initials, perfectly starched and ironed. The summer wind outside howled through the trees and rain fell softly on the roof. He could see shadows of the branches outside. A breeze swept through the heath across the pond and along the heather fields. Then all he could hear were the traces of it, and in those traces, a whisper, and in that whisper, the sound of a tap at his door.
Kate came wandering into his room with her hair in curlers as she wanted to make a good “first day” impression at her new school.
‘You look ridiculous,’ Heath said. ‘Go back to bed. You know Greta has warned you about not distracting me now that we are going to be in separate houses at our new school.’
Kate, hurt, turned and walked out of the room. Heath was sorry to have been so mean but how could he explain his issues to Kate? Lately, the desire to sink his teeth into her wrist was becoming stronger. He’d been taking his medication twice a day and was just about to take his evening dose when Kate arrived to tell him her hopes and dreams for the future. She’d gone back to her room, crawled upon her quilted bed and fallen asleep, listening to the storm rage outside her window.
Late, very late that night, the young girl woke to the sound of the screaming trees and the branches thrashing the window pane. She would not be rejected this time and opened the connecting door to find Heath fast asleep.
‘Heath,’ Kate whispered. ‘Wake up.’
‘What’s wrong?’ the boy said, crawling out from the sleeping bag he slept in for security – the one Greta had tried, with little success, to take away from him these past six years.
‘I had a dream about us.’
‘Shh. Go back to sleep, Kate.’
‘I dreamt I was left outside in the rain, freezing in winter. I cut my arm on your window and it bled and hurt and I had to beg you to let me inside…’
Heath groaned. ‘Don’t say things like that Kate. I would never hurt you.’ He moved uncomfortably, the venom sometimes pulsed more strongly in his blood at night, but he’d never told anyone this. ‘Go back to sleep, Kate. It’s almost morning. You know Greta doesn’t like it when you come in here anymore…’ He was due to take his morning vitamins, and then he’d be sure to feel normal for at least eight hours…
Heath rolled over. Kate hovered again and began to cry as she rocked his sleeping bag, forcing him to open his eyes.
‘Heath, Heath, wake up.’ He rolled over unwillingly. ‘Promise me…promise me something.’
‘Alright, I promise, now go back to sleep.’
‘Promise me, if that ever happens, you’ll let me in.’
‘Heath smiled and shook his head sleepily, ‘I promise. Now go back to bed.’ Heath took his capsules from the bedside table and gulped them down in the morning light.
Kate crawled beside him, dragging her blanket around her, as he turned over. The girl gained comfort from her nightmare only when she managed to rest her head in the crook of the reluctant boy’s shoulder.