Authors: Jennifer; Wilde
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Room Beneath the Stairs
Jennifer Wilde writing as Katherine St. Clair
To Milton Bransford
WITH ALL THE BEST
TO THE BEST OF FRIENDS
I was eleven years old when I first saw Greycliff Island, and I immediately made it my own. I would never be able to go there, of course, but that didn't matter. It was my private place, safe and secure, removed from all the heartbreak and sadness I had known so often in my short life. It was a symbol, and in my imagination I dwelt there like a storybook child, surrounded by warmth and beauty and the friends I had never known. Every day that summer I would leave the cottage and pass through the woods and wander along the shore, and when I reached my secret cove I would perch on one of the rugged gray boulders and stare at my island, dreaming while sea gulls circled overhead and scolded with shrill cries.
Over a mile from shore, it rose majestically from the water, shining like a jewel on sunny days, frequently shrouded by mist, which made it dark and mysterious. The island was wedge shaped, a small village huddled near the water on the side facing landward. Behind it, pine-covered hills rose in levels to the high, flat stretch of land where the big house stood. From the ocean, I knew, one could see only the steep gray cliff that gave the island its name. On clear days, perched on a rock in my cove, I could see the village, with boats tied to the piers and rocking with the waves, fishing nets hanging like spider webs on ancient poles. The buildings were picturesque, very old-fashioned. Sometimes, if there was no mist, I could see the dull red-tiled roof of the big house rearing above the dark pines on the cliff side. A rich and powerful family lived in that mansion, and they owned the island. That didn't matter either. As I kept my lonely vigil on those hot summer days, Greycliff Island belonged to me.
Although it was English territory, the island was like a separate country, tiny and proud and self-sufficient. The men of the village, fishermen famous all along the coast, made their living from the sea, and the women made exquisite lace that was distributed all over England and sold in some of the finest shops in London. The islanders were a strange breed, clannish, dour, formidable. Maudie, my aunt's maid, said they were all descended from the pirates and smugglers who had once made the island their headquarters. Like many of the coastal folk, Maudie was superstitious, and she believed the island was cursed.
“Strange things 'appen there, Miss Carolyn, an' that's no lie. Evil things. Them caves where the smugglers used to hide their boatsâwhy, not more'n a year ago they found a little girl there. Wudn't even as old as you are, poor mite, an' 'orribly mutilatedâ”
My aunt came in before Maudie could finish her frightening tale, and I was glad. Maudie was a silly thing, skinny and nervous, addicted to the tabloids and always chattering about axe murders and skeletons in the woods and witchcraft rampant in the suburbs. I had no intention of letting her spoil my island with her foolish babble. Greycliff Island was beautiful silhouetted against a pale blue sky, the pine trees dark emerald, the gray boulders glittering silver in the sunlight. It was mine, a place where sadness never came, a haven where I could roam in imagination and forget my grief.
My father had died when I was five. I remembered his hearty laughter and his smiling blue eyes. My mother had never gotten over his death. She was pale and sad and vague, and it was as though I were the parent and she the child. We lived in a drafty old flat in London. I looked after her, reminding her to buy groceries, reminding her to pay the bills, holding her hand when she had one of her bad spells. One afternoon she went for a walk and stepped in front of a huge red bus. It was a terrible accident, some people said, and others whispered that it was no accident at all. The conductor claimed she deliberately stepped from the curb and hurled herself in front of the bus, and a number of passengers agreed with him. Accident or no, my grief was almost unbearable. I was sent to the coast to stay with my aunt during the summer months. In September, I would go to a boarding school.
Aunt Angela was kind in her way, but she knew nothing whatsoever about children. A spinster, she was tall and thin and gaunt, her hair steel gray, her blue eyes bewildered at this sudden responsibility thrust upon her. She saw to it that I was well provided for, but she was immersed in church work and social activities and had no time to spare for those other needs every child has. There was no communication between us. We respected each other and kept our distance. Aunt Angela gave me a pleasant room and fed me and went on about her business. I was left free to roam the woods and walk the shore and dream of another, happier existence.
In memory, I can see myself back then. Was ever a child so plain, so serious? I was terribly scrawny, and my long brown braids were drab, the color of mud. My face was thin, and people told me I was always frowning. I remember being filled with doubt and insecurity. I wasn't meek and docile, no. I was fierce and independent and belligerent, unlovable because I was without love. I was hateful to Maudie. I kept to myself. There was a crusty shell around me, and it was only when I was alone that the real Carolyn was able to exist.
I spent several hours a day at my secret cove. Sometimes I would take along a book or my sketch pad and crayons, but usually I was content to sit and dream. The shore was wild and rugged, reached by a twisting, dangerous path down the side of the cliff. Great jagged boulders rose along the water, foaming waves lashing against them in fierce onslaughts; the air was laced with a strong, salty tang. There were barren stretches of beach littered with driftwood and broken shells, and always the gulls screamed as though in anguish. The cove was different. No larger than a room, it was surrounded by rock on three sides and sheltered a tiny yellow beach. There were crevices in the rocks where sand crabs scurried, and there was a small pool, blue and amethyst, alive with beautiful, exotic water creatures. The cove was snug, protected from the savage waves, and by sitting on one of the rocks I could look directly across to the island.
It was hot that mid-August day as I made my way down the steep pathway cut into the side of the cliff. The sky was yellow white; heat shimmered in visible waves. The water was pearl gray with deep bronze shadows, and calm, slipping over the rocks and washing over the sands with a quiet, slushing noise. Defiantly barefoot, wearing a short, ragged blue dress, I clambered over the boulders like a young mountain goat, pausing to stare into the depths of purple and azure pools nestled among the rocks. I picked up a tiny coral and orange shell and examined it. It was beautiful, delicately formed, the loveliest by far of any I had found. I would keep it always. It would remind me of the coast when I was banished to the gray school back in the city. I would be leaving soon. Soon I would no longer be able to visit my island.â¦ I hurried along, eager to sit and stare, eager to dream.
By the time I neared the cove, my dress clung to me in damp patches of perspiration, and one of my braids had come undone. All arms and legs, my calves covered with a network of scratches, I must have looked an awkward, gawky puppet with stringy hair and heat-flushed cheeks. The boy stared at me as though I were an apparition, and my eyes widened with surprise when I saw him sitting there on my rock. His rowboat was pulled up on the small stretch of beach, and he dangled a fishing line into the pool. Surprise turned to fury. Dropping the tiny shell into my pocket, I glared at him with undisguised menace, my hands balled into fists. He merely grinned, and that infuriated me all the more.
He was perhaps thirteen years old, tall, with a healthy, muscular build. He wore scuffed tennis shoes, tight trousers bleached bone white, and a loose black and white striped jersey with the sleeves pushed up over his elbows. His shaggy dark blond hair curled behind his ears and fell across his forehead in tattered locks, making a startling contrast with his deep tan. His eyes were gray, surrounded by sooty lashes.
He stood up, his wide pink mouth curling in an infuriating grin, and I drew back. He was beautiful, a bronzed young Adonis with sun-streaked hair. I was afraid without knowing why. I hated him, because he had invaded my cove, and because I was ugly and awkward and insecure. I knew he was probably laughing at me. I wanted to hit him, and I wanted to burst into tears and run fleeing along the shore.
“Hello there,” he said. His voice was low for one his age.
“This is my cove,” I informed him coldly.
“You own it?” he inquired.
“Go away.” I glared at him.
“What's your name?”
“That's none of your business!”
“I'm Grey. Grey Brandon. You've got sand on your knees.”
I brushed my knees angrily. Grey thrust his hands into his pockets and smiled. With great natural charm, he exuded an affable, nonchalant warmth that made itself felt immediately. Most people are helpless in the face of such magnetism, and I was no exception. I could feel my anger melting, and I fought to hold on to it. I didn't want to give in to that charm. Defiantly, I stared at him, and Grey gave his head a little shake and shrugged his shoulders. Digging into his pocket, he pulled out a chocolate bar and began to unwrap it.
“Want some chocolate?”
“No, thank you!”
“Suit yourself,” he retorted. Sitting back down on the rock, knees spread out, he began to eat the candy, ignoring me. My cheeks were flushed, and I felt warm all over. There was an ache inside that I couldn't understand. Part yearning, part sadness, it mounted, and I could feel the corners of my mouth begin to tremble.
“I thought maybe we could be friends,” he said indifferently, without looking at me. “I don't have any friends. I hoped maybe you'd be one.”