Business as usual at The Yew Tre
Scarlett can scarcely conceal her relief from the back of the taxi. The guesthouse is glorious. The corner of it nudges against the woods and the Cotswold stone glows in the sunshine. She’s been worried, with such high expectations for this trip. They wanted Mexico, or Morocco, but the recession has hit them hard.
Scott sits beside her immersed in his phone.
‘Darling, look at it –it’s lovely,’ she says. He hasn’t put the damn thing down since they got on the train in London, and has missed the entire journey. Who is he texting? She pushes the question aside. Not on their honeymoon, he wouldn’t do that. Leave the past in the past, he always says. She sighs. Easier said than done. And it’s not like his record is spotless. She feels her mood darkening. No. A new beginning is what this is, and what better way to kick-start it than four full days of relaxation here, at The Yew Tree. ‘A Honeymoon Idyll – Peace, Privacy and Relaxation,’ it had promised. She nestles into Scott’s shoulder and averts her eyes from his phone.
‘Welcome to The Yew Tree, come on in.’ They enter and find themselves in a spacious lounge. ‘The wife’s out at the moment with the daughter, but she’ll be back later. Call me Boris.’
Yes the sofas are a bit mottled and the rugs threadbare but the fresh sunflowers and smell of cut grass are inviting. The man who stands before them with his trousers fastened at chest height seems friendly enough. A great billow of a shirt hangs theatrically from his shoulders. Reaching out a large hand to shake theirs, he gestures to the suitcase –
‘You’re in the cottage, I hope that’s alright? You’ll have the place all to yourselves, apart from our daughter, who has a room at the back. When you first booked there was plenty of space in the main building, but since then we’ve been inundated, and as some of our guests are of, well, the older variety, we thought you young honeymooners might be happier in the cottage anyway.’ He winks lewdly. Scarlett grimaces whilst Scott frowns at his phone.
‘Do you not have Wi-Fi?’ He asks.
‘Nope, no Wi-Fi, no phone reception – we like to keep things simple.’ Scott glares at him. Boris carries their suitcase out through the kitchen to the back door.
‘The man’s a pillock,’ Scott says after they’ve been shown to the cottage and their room. He throws his phone on the bedside table and walks to the window, pulling back the blue linen curtains. The view is glorious – only the attic window of the main house can be seen from here, the rest is just grass and trees and sky.
‘Oh it doesn’t matter, we’re here to spend time together anyway, aren’t we?’ Scarlett says. Scott stretches out on the bed and kicks off his shoes.
‘Come here wifey,’ he reaches out for her hand. She wants to make him work for it but she never has been able to resist him.
They doze off after making love, Scarlett’s leg thrown over his. They awake to find the night settled and the temperature grown chilly. Scarlett has the distinct feeling that she is being watched. But she prides herself on being practical and level-headed. She turns the side lamp on. Scott walks to the window to close it. From behind his back Scarlett squints - she could have sworn she saw a light flicker in the attic window of the house. She stands and peers out but by then Scott has shut the window and the main house is steeped in shadows. The stillness of the countryside must be playing with her nerves. Outside the garden is silent, woods behind mounting up like dark clouds.
‘Come on, let’s go and find a pub. I’m starving.’ Scott passes her clothes.
It’s a twenty minute walk to the nearest village and at Scott’s insistence they settle for the only pub that shows sports. Whilst he cheers on the England football team, Scarlett glugs her wine, aware that people are staring at them – a gaggle of workmen in heavy muddy boots, a couple of kids who look distinctly under age, a lone woman who leans against the bar in riding boots and jacket. When Scott goes to the bar for more drinks she can’t help but notice the woman leaning in towards her husband and the way in which he assumes immediate intimacy with a tilt of his head. She can’t hear what they are saying. She won’t ask.
As they leave the pub, the riding boot woman does too. Scott calls out goodnight as she sets off in the opposite direction.
‘Happy honeymoon,’ the woman replies. Scarlett detects laughter in her voice.
Scott wants to take the shortcut, along the old disused railway path that the bartender told him about.
‘Come on, it’ll be fun, you’re not scared are you?’
‘Course not –but we didn’t bring a torch.’
‘There’s no point going the long way back, there’s no street lighting. And we get to see whether there really is a big black cat that prowls here.’ Maybe that’s what they were talking about, Scarlett muses. He grabs her hand and tugs her towards the fork in the road where it joins the path. She can’t see her hand in front of her face. The wine she has drunk distorts her footsteps. A stream on their left gurgles and their feet crunch against the stones. A splash shatters the silence and Scott tightens his grip on Scarlett’s hand.
‘A fish?’ she says.
‘I need a piss. Wait here.’ He vanishes into the inky night. She doesn’t move a muscle. She hears his footsteps moving towards her and relaxes but after growing louder they pass straight by her, receding into the distance.
‘Scott? Scott? This isn’t funny.’ And suddenly all her pent up frustration of earlier is uncontainable. ‘You fucking idiot come back here.’
It’s colder by the minute. She shuffles forwards, trying to tread lightly. She’s not even sure where the turn is from this path to reach the guesthouse. Suddenly, pausing, she tilts her head to the sky – giggling, a splash. Swimming at this time of night? It’s coming from the left, beyond the stream. A woman calling; a man laughing. She has no desire to interrupt a skinny-dipping session but she doesn’t see what option she has, so she feels her way down the bank and wades through the stream. Thank God for wellies. As she climbs up the bank on the other side, she realises there is a millpond just beyond it.
The moonlight has broken through the pitch-black sky and she sees two figures. The cold mist from the water curls against their pale bodies. They are naked, she realises as she draws closer. The woman’s back is turned to her, affording only a glimpse of her long dark hair but the man is facing her, his smile clearly visible. Scott.
‘Scarlett?’ He sees her. Turning, he looks to where the woman was. Scarlett sees her run off into the trees. The woman from the pub? Perhaps she followed them. Maybe they’d planned it!
‘How could you? Who is she?’ Scarlett spits the words at him as he reaches her, cradling his clothes against his dripping body.
‘I thought…’ he drops to the floor, shivering. ‘I thought she was you. You’re the same.’
‘You left me on the path, remember? I waited for you. How could that,’ she points towards the trees, ‘possibly have been me?’ He tugs on his clothes.
‘You can’t seriously think that I would run off with another woman on our honeymoon, can you?’ He’s right. It’s ridiculous. But the evidence is in front of her. Scott grabs her hands. ‘She came down the path behind me as I was turning back towards you. You, I mean she, was skipping. I followed her to the millpond where she laughed your laugh and looked at me with your eyes.’ Scott’s teeth are chattering. He needs to get to warmth, quickly. The Absinthe shots at the end of the evening were a bad idea. She has no wish to linger here. Though if it wasn’t quite so dark and the landscape so unfamiliar she’d hunt the woman down herself.
They find the turning easily now that the clouds have parted, and the remainder of the walk to the guesthouse is in silence. Scott is clearly shaken, and Scarlett can’t rid herself of the image of the woman’s body outlined in the moonlight. It’s late but the lights in the main house are on. The door opens as they approach. This time it’s a woman who stands before them. She would have been beautiful once, before life stained her face with sadness. Her expression when she sees Scarlett’s face is dark.
‘Good evening, I’m Eloise – the wife.’ She passes Scott a towel. ‘It’s a cold night for a dip,’ she comments. Scarlett blushes. ‘Come in and have a drink.’
‘It’s so late, we don’t want to put you out.’ Scarlett longs for the privacy of their room.
‘Nonsense, just a quick one.’ The hot toddy warms Scarlett. The proprietor tells them tales of previous guests. The walls are lined with photos.
‘And that’s the mayor shaking my hand,’ she says. Scarlett points to another. ‘Who’s that?’
‘That’s my daughter after she passed her first piano exam, proud to bits we were.’ Scott nods off by the fire that has been lit. Though they said it was a full house, Scarlett hasn’t seen any other guests.
‘Is the cottage okay for you?’ Eloise asks.
‘It’s lovely thank you,’ Scarlett replies.
‘If you get cold there are more blankets in the cupboard.’ Scarlett has become used to the strange way Eloise looks at her. She rouses a dozy Scott and they head towards the kitchen and the back door.
‘Scarlett?’ Eloise calls out. Scarlett walks back in towards the lounge.
‘Tomorrow perhaps you’d like to look at my studio?’ Only now does Scarlett remember that she is an artist, it was mentioned in one of the reviews.
‘That’d be lovely,’ she replies.
‘And dear – make sure he looks after you.’ What a strange thing for her to say, Scarlett thinks. She follows Scott out into the icy garden.
The more she thinks about the incident at the millponds, the more she thinks it must have been a genuine mistake. She can’t be sure that the woman looked like her. She didn’t see her face. But Scott loves her. After all, it was he who wanted a fresh start. Back in the room he is sleepy and remorseful. Scarlett decides to drag it out just a little longer. She falls asleep with her back to him and the covers wedged firmly under her body.
She awakes in the night to cramping stomach pains. She knew the food in that pub was dodgy. Stumbling through the room, she opens the creaky door and just makes it to the bathroom before throwing up. As the hours pass with her head hung over the toilet seat, she wishes fervently that Scott would wake and bring her a blanket. At one point she hears the floor creak and her hopes rise but silence falls again soon after. He’s always been a deep sleeper. Only as the first light of day seeps through the window netting does she feel able to drag herself back to their room, where she falls into a dreamless sleep.
‘Wake up darling,’ Scott’s face is centimetres from hers when she opens her eyes. She can see that last night at the millpond is a faded memory. Her stomach feels fine now. She loves making love in the morning and after all he is her husband.
‘You’re keen,’ he whispers when she reaches out her hand. ‘Twice in one night. I am a lucky man.’ She whips her hand back in to her chest.
‘What are you talking about?’
‘No need to play coy with me my love,’ he grins. ‘Of course you’re going to find it impossible to resist my allure.’ Sitting up, Scarlett pulls the covers up to her chin.
‘I’m serious. What are you talking about? Twice in one night?’ she says. He looks confused.
‘Come on, don’t play games, it’s not funny,’ he says. A long silence follows. ‘In the night, don’t you remember?’ he forces a smile. ‘You woke me up, on top…wearing nothing but your wedding veil.’ Scarlett stares. ‘Don’t tell me you don’t remember? It was…well…quite something, even by our standards.’ She doesn’t register this ranking system of his that usually winds her up. He’s serious. Jumping off the bed she pulls on her blouse and jeans, drags the suitcase out.
‘What are you doing?’ Scott snaps into action, wrestling the case from her arms.
‘What I should have done a long time ago. I’m cancelling the whole thing and going back to London. Alone!’ Scott takes a deep breath.
‘Scarlett, this is insane. We’re on our honeymoon for God’s sake. Perhaps you just forgot. We were both sleepy and had been drinking.’
‘No, I didn’t forget. And you know how I know? Firstly, because I spent the whole night with my head down the sodding toilet.’ She throws her wedding ring at him. ‘And secondly, because I didn’t bring my fucking veil here. I left it at home.’ She shoots him a dark look. ‘Explain that!’
He has not changed, will never change. She’s been chasing the end of the rainbow the whole time.
‘Maybe it was a dream,’ he offers, as she drags their suitcase across the garden. ‘Come on darling. This is insane – and embarrassing.’ The proprietor and his wife are watching them through the kitchen window.
‘You should have thought of that before cavorting with the local temptress and then shagging her in our bed. I was willing to believe that what happened last night was a misunderstanding but…’ the backdoor opens and Eloise walks towards them.
‘What happened, did you not sleep well? What– are you leaving?’ She sees the suitcase.
‘We’re sorry, but we need to head back early. Would you mind calling us a taxi?’ Scott attempts to smile as Scarlett stomps across the dewy grass.
‘Why of course, but won’t you at least stay for breakfast?’ Eloise looks at Scarlett.
‘I’m sorry, but I really need to leave as soon as possible,’ Scarlett replies. Eloise lays a cold hand on her wrist.
‘Look dear, you can’t rush off whilst you’re upset. Decisions made in haste are never the best ones. Why don’t you come with me whilst you calm down, then if you still want to leave, well, who are we to stop you?’ Despite her reservations, Scarlett’s upbringing has instilled in her an inability to be impolite. So she allows Eloise to lead her through the kitchen and into the main hallway, where Eloise stops abruptly.
‘You can go with Boris and have breakfast,’ she says to Scott, who stands awkwardly in the doorway.
Scarlett is led up a long set of stairs, across a landing, and then up again, into the eaves. The room at the top of the house must be the one they could see from their window. Eloise unlocks it with a key that hangs from her neck. The door creaks open. As she enters Scarlett is vaguely aware of the door shutting behind her. The studio in which she now finds herself entrances her.
‘Tea dear?’ Eloise asks. Scarlett nods. Unlike the rest of the guesthouse that is caked in dust and layers of old age, this room is clean and clutter free, clinical almost. There is a faint smell of chlorine. In one corner of the room stands a bathtub. When she drinks the tea it is bitter. She forces down a grimace. She feels her stomach clench; perhaps it is still not quite recovered from the night.
The room is flooded with light. It streams through the skylights and a large window at the end that opens onto the garden and the cottage. Portraits adorn every single inch of wall space. They are skilfully done, some with oil paints, a few with pastels. A couple are crudely drawn in angry black pencil. A woman seen through an open window, her leg thrown over her sleeping partner. In another, the woman’s eyes wide with fear, across a lake. No. A millpond. In superb, dazzling detail, the portraits are lifelike and utterly convincing. They are all of Scarlett.
Scarlett steps back, stumbling over the leg of the huge easel that occupies the central space. It is covered with a white sheet.
‘I don’t understand,’ she whispers, realising too late that the door is locked. Eloise walks to Scarlett and puts an arm around her.
‘It’s not surprising that you are confused dear. Most people are.’
‘What do you mean, most people?’
‘Our guests, the ones she chooses. Of course most of them leave without mishap – you’ll know that from the reviews no doubt. But the ones we keep, well – you can’t blame them really, it’s not their fault.’ A thread of fear slices through Scarlett.
‘What do you mean, she?’ Her voice quivers slightly. Eloise visibly relaxes. Dropping her shoulders she walks to the window.
‘Our daughter of course,’ she says. ‘Come and look.’ Eloise takes her hand and leads her to the window where she points to the cottage. Scarlett longs to hurl herself from the window but she knows that if she were to jump it would not be without injury or possible death.
‘See?’ Eloise points to one of the windows that is flung open. Scarlett recognises the blue curtains as those of their room. ‘I know it’s a bit far away,’ Eloise passes Scarlett a pair of binoculars. ‘Try these’. And with trembling hands Scarlett raises them to her eyes.
Scott is sitting on the bed facing the window, the tight expression of earlier gone. He laughs as a woman enters the room behind him, stands and turns his back to the window as he lifts her blouse over her head. As they fall onto the bed the woman turns her face to the window and jolt of recognition runs through Scarlett. It is like looking in a mirror. As the woman stretches out her arm towards the curtain, her full breasts tumble against Scott’s chest. He pulls her against him as the curtain closes.
Eloise turns to Scarlett.
‘They make a good match don’t they dear? We knew when we first saw you that she’d choose you. Or perhaps, I should say, that she’d choose Scott.’ She laughs girlishly. ‘Don’t worry too much dear, her appetite for one man doesn’t last long, she’s quite the black widow! A voracious appetite but gets bored easily. We have to keep her well supplied.’
Scarlett is aware of the room shifting around her, just before she throws up on the floor. Eloise pats her back and leads her to the chair.
‘Don’t worry about the mess. But you’ll need to drink a little more tea to top you up.’ She grips Scarlett’s face with a firm hand and pours the remains of the liquid down her throat. Scarlett sputters. ‘It’s nothing compared to the mess there’ll be later,’ Eloise adds. She covers an impish smile with a coquettish hand. ‘Our daughter is far better at cleaning up than we are but for some reason she doesn’t like finishing off the women, so that’s down to us.’ She giggles, seeming younger by the minute. ‘A mother’s work is never done.’ She rubs Scarlett’s shoulder. ‘You’re rather quiet dear. Don’t worry, it doesn’t take long. Oh, silly me! You’re probably wondering what happened to her? It’s quite simple. She was such a lovely child, so full of joy. And then on her wedding night, her husband ran off with her bridesmaid. Boris and I didn’t like him from the start but of course she wouldn’t listen. After he left she was in pieces, couldn’t get her out of the cottage at all. And then when she finally seemed to be on the mend, they found her body down by the millpond. Hanging from a tree.’ Scarlett’s body convulses slightly.
‘We were devastated of course, as anyone who loses a child would be, so you can imagine our relief when she came back to us. Even if it were in shadowy form.’ Walking to the easel, Eloise removes the sheet. ‘See? Just an outline of a person really.’ The canvas is blank save for a faintly pencilled outline of something formless, like smoke. In the centre is a grotesquely distorted mouth, wide open. ‘When she sees someone she likes, she watches them from here. She’s very good at reinventing herself. Always was resourceful. She studies you before she becomes you.’ She sweeps her arm around the room. ‘These are all hers, quite the artist she would have been. I’m not bad, but really the talent’s all hers.’ She opens a cupboard and pulls on overalls that smell of rubber. Slides a plastic mask over her face. ‘You can’t blame her really, wanting a small slice of the happiness that she was robbed of.’
She reaches further into the cupboard and pulls out one large container, and then another. Walking over to the bathtub she puts the plug in and snaps her gloves on. Opening the first of the containers, she pours the brown liquid carefully into the bath. After emptying the second, she turns to Scarlett. ‘I used to use three each time,’ she gestures to the bath. ‘But it was a little wasteful. The body dissolves you see, and as it does so of course it sinks into the liquid. I find that with a little bit of stirring to speed the whole thing up, two containers are just enough. Sodium hydroxide is hard to come by – as you can imagine.’
She walks back to Scarlett who has put her head between her legs. The locking of the door was quite unnecessary; she could no more walk to it than she could fly out of the window. The room lurches. What was in that tea?
‘Sweetie, look at me.’ Scarlett forces herself to raise her head. ‘It won’t take long’ Eloise reassures her. Scarlett is vaguely aware of Eloise propping her up against the back of the chair, and unbuttoning her blouse. ‘We take your clothes off first, as it’s only living tissue that gets dissolved. These…’ – she unfastens Scarlett’s bra – ‘we burn later. The rest is simple chemistry. You will dissolve almost completely. All that will be left is a reduction. Completely untraceable.’
The room pulses as Scarlett tries to focus. Putting her hands underneath Scarlett’s armpits, Eloise half lifts, half drags her towards the bath. ‘And when it’s over, well, you don’t really leave. No one ever does. We’ll be closed for business for a while, until she’s bored of Scott. It can be a little distracting – like I said, she’s voracious.’ She smiles. ‘You’ll stay here with our other guests, and when she tires of him, Scott will be here too. As if you were never parted. Then he’ll be all yours forever. Isn’t that the best wedding gift you could have asked for?’ A phone rings, and Eloise props Scarlett on the floor against the bath whilst she reaches for it. It seems to Scarlett that she is miles away.
‘Good afternoon, The Yew Tree? Why yes, we’re the perfect honeymoon retreat, we’d be delighted to have you. Four weeks? Should be fine. We’re closed at the moment but we’ll be open as usual for business by then.’
As Scarlett hovers on the edge of consciousness, she hears the laughter of young lovers through the open window. She feels herself being lowered into the bath and is faintly aware of a remote gnawing pain