Authors: Katherine Webb
A Half-Forgotten Song
he wind was so strong that Dimity felt herself pulled between two worlds; caught in a waking dream so vivid that the edges blurred, and then vanished. The gale tore around the corners of the cottage, humming down the chimney, crashing in the trees outside. But louder than any of that was the sea, beating against the stony shore, breaking over the rocks at the bottom of the cliff. A bass roar that Dimity seemed to feel in her chest, thumping up through her bones from the ground beneath her feet.
She’d been dozing in her chair by the remnants of the fire. Too old and tired to rise, to take herself upstairs to bed. But now the wind had wrenched the kitchen window open and was flinging it wide against its hinges, hard enough that the next bang might be its last. The frame was rotten; it had been years since the window was held shut by anything more than a wedge of folded paper. The sound came into her dream, and woke her, and she hovered on the verge of sleep as the cold night air poured in, pooling at her feet like the rising tide. She had to get up and wedge the window shut before the pane smashed. Dimity opened her eyes, and could see the gray outlines of the room well enough. Outside the window the moon raced across the sky, clouds streaking past it.
Shivering, she made her way to the kitchen window, where the storm was caking the glass with salt. The bones of her feet ached as they pushed through her skin. Sleeping in the chair made her hips and back stiffen up like swollen wood, and it was an effort to push the joints into movement. The wind coming in lifted her hair and made her shiver, but she shut her eyes to sniff at it, because the smell of the sea was so dear, so familiar. It was the smell of everything she knew; the smell of her home, and her prison; the smell of her own self. When she opened her eyes, she gasped.
Celeste was there. Out there on the cliffs, standing with her back to the cottage, facing out to sea, cast in silver by the moonlight. The surface of the Channel heaved and churned, spindrift whipped from white crests and flung stinging against the shore. Dimity felt tiny flecks of it land on her face, hard and corrosive. How could Celeste be there? After so many long years, after she vanished so completely? But it was her, for certain. That long, familiar back, a supple spine descending into the voluptuous curves of her hips; arms straight by her sides with her fingers spread.
I like the touch of the wind, running through my hands.
Her words seemed to whisper through the window, with that strange guttural accent of hers. Long hair and long, shapeless dress, rippling out behind her; the fabric pressed against the contours of her thighs and waist and shoulders. Then came a sudden clear image—of him, sketching Celeste, his eyes flicking up with that frightening intensity, that unbreakable concentration. She shut her eyes again, and held them tight. The memory was both beloved and unbearable.
When she opened her eyes, she was still in her chair and the window was still banging, the wind still blowing in. Had she not gotten up at all, then? Had she not gone to the window and seen Celeste? Dimity couldn’t tell whether that was real and this, now, a dream, or if it was the other way around. Her heart pounded at the thought—that Celeste had come back; that Celeste had discovered what had happened, and who was to blame. The woman’s fierce, angry glare flashed before her mind’s eye, seeing everything, seeing right through her; and suddenly she knew.
Dimity heard her mother’s voice say, breathing sourly into her ear; so clearly that she looked around to see if Valentina was really there. Shadows lay in the corners of the room and stared back at her. Her mother had sometimes claimed to have the gift, and had always searched for signs of it in her daughter. Fostered any inkling of inner sight. Perhaps, finally, this was what Valentina had hoped for, because just then Dimity
that change was coming. As sure as the sea was deep. After all the many long years, change was coming.
was coming. Fear wrapped its heavy arms around her.
arly morning sunshine poured in through the gallery’s tall front windows, bouncing up from the floor, dazzling. Late summer sun that was still warm, and promised a fine day, but when Zach opened the front door, there was a stony coolness to the air that hadn’t been there even a week ago. A damp tang that spoke of autumn. Zach took a deep breath and turned his face to the sun for a moment. Autumn. The turning of the season, the end of the happy hiatus he’d been enjoying, of pretending that everything would stay the same. Today was the last day, and Elise was leaving.
He cast a look along the street in either direction. It was only just eight o’clock, and not a single person was walking along his particular street in Bath. The Gilchrist Gallery sat on a narrow side street, just a hundred yards or so from Great Pulteney Street, a main thoroughfare. Close enough to be easy to find, he’d thought. Close enough that people would see his sign when they were walking past and happened to glance up the street. And the sign was clearly visible—he’d checked to make sure. It was just that surprisingly few people happened to glance to either side as they walked along Great Pulteney Street. It was too early for shoppers yet anyway, he reassured himself. The steady streams of people crisscrossing the bottom of the road had the smart, hurried look of people going to work. The muffled sound of their footsteps carried through the still air, tunneling towards him through stark black shadows and blinding patches of sunlight. The sound seemed to make the silence at Zach’s door ring out sadly. A gallery shouldn’t rely on footfall, or passing trade, he reminded himself. A gallery was something the right people should seek out. He sighed, and went inside.
Zach’s gallery had been a jeweler’s shop before he’d taken over the lease four years previously. When it was refitted, tiny metal links and clasps turned up underneath the counter and behind the skirting; scraps of gold and silver wire. He even found a jewel one day, tucked behind a shelf where there was a narrow crack between wood and wall. It fell onto his foot with a solid little tap when he took the shelf down. A small, sparkling, perfectly clear stone, which might be a diamond. Zach kept it, and took it as a good sign. Perhaps it had cursed him instead, he mused. Perhaps he should have sought out the erstwhile jeweler and given it back to him. The shop’s aspect was perfect, sitting on a slight slope with its huge windows turned southeastwards, capturing all this morning sunshine but directing it to the floor of the shop, not onto the walls, where the perishable artworks hung. Even on dark days, it seemed bright inside, and just big enough to step back to admire the larger pieces from a suitable distance.
Not that there were many large pieces up, at that moment. He’d finally sold the Waterman landscape the week before, a piece by one of his contemporary local artists. It had hung in the window long enough for Nick Waterman to start fretting about the colors fading, and the sale had come just in time to stop the artist moving his whole collection elsewhere.
His whole collection.
Zach snorted softly. Three cityscapes of the Bath skyline from various vantage points on the surrounding hills, and a slightly mawkish beach scene of a girl walking a red setter. Only the color of the dog had made him take the piece. A fabulous coppery red, a blaze of life in an otherwise stagnant scene. The price of the painting, split evenly between gallery and artist, had given Zach enough money to pay his road tax and get back the use of his car. Just in time to take Elise farther afield, on some proper day trips. They’d been to the caves at Cheddar; to Longleat; for a picnic in Savernake Forest. He turned slowly on his heels and looked at the rest of the stock, eyes sliding over some small but nice pieces by various twentieth-century artists and a few recent watercolors by local artists, and then alighting on the stuttering heart of the collection: three drawings by Charles Aubrey.
He’d hung them together carefully, on the best-lit wall, at the perfect height. The first was a rough pencil sketch, called
. The subject was squatting inelegantly, with her back to the artist and her knees wide apart, the fabric of a plain skirt draped over them. Her blouse was tucked carelessly into her waistband, and had come out at the back, riding up so that a fragment of skin was showing. It was a drawing of outlines and hasty shading, and yet this small section of her back, the indentation of her spine, was so beautifully rendered that Zach always wanted to put out his hand, brush his thumb along the groove and feel the smooth skin, the hard muscles underneath it. The slight dampness of sweat where the sun warmed her. The girl was apparently sorting some kind of foliage into a wicker basket on the ground between her knees, and as if she felt the viewer’s scrutiny, as if she was half anticipating this uninvited touch on her back, she had inclined her face towards her shoulder so that her ear and the outline of her cheek were visible. Nothing could be seen of her eye except the smallest hint of the lashes beyond the curve of a cheekbone, and yet Zach could feel her awareness, feel how alert she was to whoever was behind her. The viewer, all these years later, or the artist, at the time? The drawing was signed and dated 1938.
The next piece was in black and white chalks on buff-colored paper. It was a portrait of Celeste, Charles Aubrey’s mistress. Celeste—there seemed to be no record of the woman’s surname anywhere—was of French Moroccan descent, and had a honeyed complexion under masses of black hair. The drawing was just of her head and neck, halting at her collarbones, and in that small space it had encapsulated the woman’s anger so intensely that Zach often saw people recoil slightly when they first saw it, as if they expected to be reprimanded for daring to look. Zach often wondered what had put her in such a violent mood, but the fire in her eyes told him that the artist had been on thin ice when he’d chosen that precise moment to draw her. Celeste was beautiful. All of Aubrey’s women had been beautiful, and even when they weren’t conventionally so, he still captured the essence of their allure in his portraits. But there was no ambiguity about Celeste, with her perfectly oval face, huge almond-shaped eyes, and swaths of inky hair. Her face, her expression, were bold, fearless, utterly captivating. Small wonder that she managed to captivate Charles Aubrey for as long as she did. Longer than any other mistress he had.