by Nigel Jarrett
It’s always there in the distance, like an invitation, or a dare, in the clouds. It never moves as a tree moves in a gale. It never wears out or changes shape, as we do who cling to the tree’s trunk, blinded by wind and storm. Picking our way up its flanks or dancing on its summit, we make little impression. Our victory is nothing compared with the mysterious triumphs that earn Ingleborough its garlands of autumn mist. It was there before us and it will be there when we are gone. It marks time. One of its small pebbles might roll an inch to the side, unseen; nothing more. Ingleborough suffers no loss.
I didn’t write that; it’s in a guidebook to this place and its local mountain. I’ve been written about—lots. When Stephen went missing, people would say they saw it in the paper or on TV. Parents Tell of Son With Heart Of Gold, was one of the headlines.
What the newspapers didn’t explain was how Alfie and I had grown apart before Steve disappeared. Those pictures of the two of us looking glum as we stared at Steve’s photograph said more than our suffering at his disappearance: they showed two people already drained of feeling and hope at opposite ends of the line. Not even an only son dead—yes, he’s dead—at 28 could fully repair what had been broken.
The summit of Ingleborough can be seen from one of the front upstairs windows in a gap between the houses across the road. We have four rooms: the Hutton, the Barbon, the Casterton, and the Cowan. Alfie named them when we took over this place and decided it could do with a few changes. I’d suggested Rydal, Grasmere, Ambleside, and Derwent, but it was a time when I could see things were not quite right between us and I went along with his ideas for the sake of peace. Steve’s death threw us together again. It was like a collision. There are still plenty of reason why we shouldn’t get on but now we’ll never part. Our future will be about remembering together. We are mended but the cracks still show, never to be opened up again. We walk with a limp, Alfie tells well-wishers without looking at me for confirmation.
The person who wrote that about Ingleborough called it ‘a Biblical summit.’ I suppose she meant places where people in the Bible went to think or preach—the sermon on the mount; solid ground under your feet; but no-one to bother you. I sometimes wonder what the Winstanleys thought of it. They stayed in the Barbon that time, out of season, two years after Steve was taken from us. I often think of the Winstanleys, Emma and Joe. I still go back a year in the Visitors Book and read their names and their comments: 10 March – 13 Jan, 2016/Joe and Emma Winstanley/ Frome, Somerset/What a lovely place. You have everything you could need here. Will return.
They never have. I think guests write things like that to let you know they enjoyed their stay but don’t wish to offend by admitting they’ll probably not return. Some do, our ‘regulars’. But most don’t; they just want to leave as satisfied customers. It was as normal as it could be. We thought normal would be a help.
The Winstanleys hadn’t been here two hours on their first afternoon when we heard muffled but raised voices coming from their room. Alfie threw me a glance, then went on with what he was doing. Then we heard a bump, possibly a suitcase falling off the bed. That was Alfie’s explanation, and that’s what the bump became. There were no more noises or loud voices. Not for the rest of that day at least. Our guests are never perfectly silent during the whole of their stay here. But most of the time they’re out.
I don’t know how to put this, but a woman can always tell when another woman is troubled. Alfie and I never let on who we are. Strangers, guests, might have remembered us from the newspaper and TV, but wouldn’t guess from our surname, Phillips, that we were the Phillipses who lost a son named Steve in the Middle East. Pictures of Steve are not in the public areas of the building. We are a couple who are getting on with things, despite everything.
As the owner of a B&B, you can’t afford to pry too much. But some things are not to be avoided. We have a front room, for the use of guests. Most of the time, it’s empty, though in winter with a full house, we light a fire and keep it going, or invite the guests to. These days, the elderly and retired have extended the season, such as it was. We are pretty busy all the year round. Anyway, on the second night of their stay. I noticed Mrs Winstanley in the guest room, reading a book. There was no sound from the Barbon, and I wondered if her husband was unwell and asleep upstairs. I mentioned this to Alfie. No, he said; he’d seen Mr Winstanley go out, had ‘caught the back of him’ squeezing through the front door. Later, at about a quarter past ten, I was walking into the kitchen when Mrs Winstanley came out of the room, carrying her book, and began making her way upstairs, clutching the banister. Each step of the stairs makes a faint creak, and I heard the creaking stop for a few seconds half way up and then resume. Alfie and I were turning in ourselves later, when there was some sort of commotion in the street outside—raised voices, at any rate. We sleep at the back of the house, downstairs. Seconds after, the front door banged open, rattling the umbrella stand. Alfie opened the bedroom door to see Mr Winstanley clinging to the newel post at the bottom of the stairwell, then straighten himself, take a deep breath, and march smartly to his room in a military fashion. He was dishevelled.
The Winstanleys said little to each other at breakfast, he bending to his plate of full English, and she gazing through the window at the back garden, delicately nibbling a piece of toast. We discovered they’d just moved to Somerset—from where, they didn’t say. We talked about the weather, the news (some Royal scandal or other), and holidays abroad, which we hadn’t taken for ten years. They seemed ill-matched: she was well-spoken and courteous; he harsh, worse off, and of few words, with untidy hair and wearing Sellotaped glasses, though he was the first to compliment us on the breakfast. Alfie asked me if I noticed Mr Winstanley’s hands. No, I said, not particularly. A woman’s hands, he said, white as wax and with long nails. Although it was fine, they never went out on their second day. I don’t know what they did for food. On the third, they went out together, she smartly-dressed in a camel-hair coat, he in a grubby mac and wearing trainers. Later that afternoon, I was in the Casterton, preparing it for new guests, when through the window I could see Mr Winstanley approaching, alone, on the opposite side of the road. Thirty yards behind was his wife, walking idly and not as though she’d been detained, but evidently with her eyes on him. When Mr Winstanley entered, he shut the door behind him and, mumbling under his breath, took off his coat and climbed the stairs, making what seemed like an exaggerated effort, audibly puffing and blowing. It was a bit comical. His wife then rang the bell. Alfie answered it. He could see her beyond the dull glass, like someone coming in and out of focus. She apologised, not for her husband but for leaving her set of keys behind. That night they went out together, for a meal we assumed. It was raining. I popped into the Hutton, stood back from the street light, and looked out. Mr Winstanley had already crossed the road and was beckoning impatiently to his wife. She was holding a headscarf in place, he was bareheaded, the rain already having made a further mess of his hair. When they returned, not late, they seemed to be having an argument, and trying to keep it quiet. I didn’t hear it, but Alfie did, turning the TV down so that he could concentrate. Later, there were raised voices from their room, Mrs Winstanley’s this time. But not for long.
On the morning of their departure, Mrs Winstanley was first to the breakfast table. We had another couple in and a single man, likely as not a travelling salesman. The couple were hoping to walk the three peaks—Peny-Ghent, Whernside, and Ingleborough—but as they told me about it I could see that Mrs Winstanley had been crying. How can you tell? Alfie asked me. I just can, I said. As Mr Winstanley entered the room, his wife turned to look at him and her gaze followed him to the table, as a mother’s would follow a child. He’d brought a newspaper—the day before’s—and read it without exchanging a word. It was one arm of his specs that was taped up. His hair was tangled, his tie carelessly knotted.
On leaving, Mrs Winstanley signed the book, as her husband struggled down the stairs with their two small suitcases. He’d paid us after breakfast. She left first, he awkwardly negotiating the front door behind her. He was wearing the same pair of trainers.
A few days later, Mrs Winstanley sent an email, thanking us again for their stay but trying, I don’t know how to put this, to apologise for something. I replied, saying we were glad that she and her husband had enjoyed themselves.
Almost immediately there was another email from her, saying, oh, Mr Winstanley wasn’t her husband; he was her brother. It arrived as if flung at the screen from someone who wanted to make contact, not just to explain, especially as the explanation might raise as many questions as were inappropriate to people just pecking at computer keyboards.
They’d asked for twin beds—not unusual with older couples. Alfie thought it was still odd; undressing and all that. I wanted to tell him that he suspected everything but knew nothing, the reason why, before Steve’s death, we had grown apart, though I know I must have been a trial for him, one way or another. I stayed silent, of course; I do these days, for the sake of calm.
I wanted to start a conversation, call Mrs Winstanley Emma, and tell her about Steve—how he was an aid worker who’d been kidnapped in northern Syria in 2012 and then beheaded by terrorists two years later.
But I somehow know we won’t see them again. They are in another world. We all are, in our own ways. So she’ll never find out about him and us and we’ll never know about them—unless we read about them in the paper after something awful has happened. Just as I’ll never know what’s in that video. Alfie forced himself to watch part of it, because it was the last image of his son and he wanted to rage, he said—rage; his son, not ours, he said, though Steve is ours, was ours. I know they block out the final minutes, I know the murderers shout something foreign. But I could never bear to look. Alfie did say the place where it was done was like the top of Ingleborough, with men in black wearing black headdresses that flapped in the wind. I cried at that. He called me ‘old girl’ and placed a hand on my shoulder. Then he went out, perhaps to shed a few tears himself. At least, I heard him blow into a Kleenex, perhaps so that I should hear. Well, I did; I did hear. Nothing will change for us now, like nothing changes for a woman with a disturbed brother, or on mountain tops, apart from a pebble dislodged an inch or two by a gale. Nothing really.
Nigel Jarrett is a former daily-newspaperman and a double prizewinner: the Rhys Davies award for short fiction and the inaugural Templar Shorts award. His first collection of stories, Funderland, was warmly reviewed in the Independent, the Guardian, and the Times. He is also the author of a poetry collection, a novel, and two other story collections. His work is included in the two-volume anthology of 20th– and 21st-century Welsh short fiction. His latest short story collection, Five Go To Switzerland & Other Stories (Chaffinch Press, Dublin) is due in spring 2021. He lives in Monmouthshire.