The ram lowers its head and charges.
Pieces of sheep soar majestically into the air as I gun the motor, throw back my head and roar my defiance. The whey faced shepherd stares, horrified as the legless trunk loops into the passenger seat, the satanic yellow eyes still open, the image of the onrushing Bentley insignia etched permanently on the cold dead retina.
I reach Oatenshaw Towers shortly before nightfall, greeted by Lucinda lurching unsteadily across the gravel, a half empty bottle of Calvados clutched in one hand, what appears to be a rib of beef in the other.
“What ho! Lucy…”
The amiable greeting dies in my throat and I duck as the joint comes sailing through the air.
“Peregrine! You bastard…”
She slurs, offering me the bottle. I drink long and deep, savouring the burn, the fire moving through my veins. The right hander takes me unawares and I’m sitting on the gravel, the salty taste of blood in my mouth, looking up just in time to dodge the hob nailed boot hurtling towards my unprotected visage. Seizing the foot I viciously twist and Lucinda collapses giggling into the gravel. Leaving her there, I rise to my feet and advance on the porch. A peremptory rap is followed by a crescendo of barking as the Doberman twins hurtle from some dark corridor, the scent of blood inflaming their finely tuned instincts.
A muffled curse, the sound of a boot thudding into canine ribs. A yelp and the sound of the bolt being drawn back. Placing my Oliver Sweeney boot carefully against the door, I explode into the room, Soames the butler hurled like a rag doll into the shadows. The sickening sound of bone on tile. The great hall – a roaring inferno blazing in the grate, the leaping shadows not quite hiding the corpulent forms slumped over the table, mighty snores rending the night. My great uncle Aldermaston Algernon Oatenshaw; a dangerous maniac when awake, thankfully, in his cups, as threatening as a new born lamb. Taking a flaming brand from the fire I set fire to his brilliantined coiffure and gleefully watch as he chaotically capers, thrashing the blazing edifice with the Darlington & Stockton Times. Flaming tales of rural misdemeanor fall hot from the press to the carpet, where the embers sink smoky and deep into the remnants of the threadbare pile.
I pour myself a generous tumbler of Glendronach, stand sneering in front of the fire as the cantankerous colonel awakes with a curse and raising his fist brings it crashing down on the table, scattering bone china and cutlery; Colonel Meridew Musters hauls himself to his feet, shouting at the top of his lungs
A feeble whimpering from the shadows as the hapless butler, reluctantly regaining consciousness, registering broken bones, bruising and battery, responds.
“What are these damn people doing in my house? I will not have this prancing buffoon and his fawning acquaintances on the premises one second longer – d’you hear me!”
“Ah, if I may be so bold sir….”
“Spit it out man!”
“You’re at Oatenshaw Towers sir..!”
“Good god, so I am….”
The colonel subsides, glaring ominously across the table at the still snoring head of the Oatenshaw clan. Marion Malfeasance Oatenshaw, ninety five years viperous and vicious, sits at the head of the table, bolt upright, eyelids blinking like lizards. The head turns towards me, the body motionless. The thin lips move, silence. A tongue rasps across the arid bottom lip.
“Peregrine, dear boy, there you are. Do put Algy out, there’s a good chap. And when you’ve quite finished simpering like an imbecile, I have a Christmas present for you.”
Emptying the fire bucket over Algernon’s blackened scalp I approach the table warily – Marion’s last present had been a carefully wrapped biscuit. Dry and crumbling, accompanied by a rasping sound reminiscent of vultures clearing their throats. This was what passed for laughter in Marion’s hellish household.
“Now Peregrine, I want you to pay attention, this present I am about to give you has been in the family for seven hundred years. It is quite possibly priceless and you are only to sell it in the direst emergency.”
I groan, Marion saw priceless heirlooms everywhere, where others saw woodworm infested tat, fit only for firewood, Marion saw intricate craftsmanship from a byegone age. Her attempt to auction her dead husband’s false teeth had ended acrimoniously with an entirely predictable failure to reach the £5,000 reserve she had placed on the fetid gnashers. Defiantly she had decided to adopt them herself, the disfiguring results terrifying the horses and frightening the local children.
It was rumored that one poor waif had its hair turn completely white upon being suddenly confronted by Marion’s stretched and grinning features looming out of the darkness in the stables. The leathery rustle of her movements, the reek of sulphur and the panic induced in the occupants of those ghastly stalls suggesting something accursed from the netherworld had passed that way.
Draining my glass, I approach the table. Marion eying me with ill concealed contempt. An elaborately wrapped parcel the size of a shoebox is produced and shunted across the table at me. I dive to stop it falling, my hopes rising in spite of everything. As I unwrap the box, my pulse quickens, I’m a child again, unwrapping a succession of broken toys and half eaten treats. Inside the box, a singular piece of footwear. A vast sock, moth eaten and hideous. I gingerly hold the grisly exhibit aloft. Marion’s delighted features….
“You can have the other one next year!”
Without a backward glance I stalk from the room, determined never to darken these terrible acres again. Pausing only to jettison my wooly companion, I spin the wheel; opening the throttle, I head east towards Whitby. Between fresh white sheets to sleep a while, dreaming of happier days.