Tangled Web, a taster

Tangled Web is a 34,000 word novella, available in paperback or as a Kindle download from Amazon.

Taster:

Chapter One

On a night like this, when the wind howls down the chimney and the sea booms eerily in the caves in the bowels of Mandlake House, Hannah remembers.

She shivers and imagines the dark eddies of foam exploring the dank innards as they reach ever progressively into the caves.

The house is surrounded at high tide by the merciless sea, the rocky path from the mainland hidden by angry waves, beating around the submerged granite tips.

In the summer city tourists whoop across the sand of Trecoran and clamber over wet boulders to explore the towering rocks of Mandlake Island. They splash through pools and laugh at grazed legs as they slip on seaweed, pressing forward over the unfriendly terrain, until they follow a gully and round the lee of the mountain. They stop, uncertain, and stare at the towering stone turrets of Mandlake, the house seemingly built into the rock, tucked into a sea-eroded ledge and cocooned by cliffs.

The sight is so unexpected, their bravado gives way to fear and they stare at one another and peruse again the stone walls and shuttered windows, the perimeter surrounded by spiked, rusted railings. The bravest of the group may walk further, seeking entrance, the closed shutters giving strength to the thought that it is unoccupied. But the gates are wound with rusting chains, wider than their hand span and, though they peer through the railings, they see no sign of life.

Finally, joking and jostling with ribald words of cowardice fuelling bravado they clap one another on the shoulders and return to the pub and stare broodingly from their safe bay window over to the small mountain island.

Sometimes alcohol adds a boast to their lips or they dare a question to the old-timer smoking his pipe at the bar, but no local will talk of Mandlake, its myth or reality, and the tourists shrug and go home to their suburbs, their curiosity unsatisfied, and their thoughts drift away beneath suburban skies and the mysterious dwelling is forgotten.

But, occasionally, when out at night and following the trail to the end of the point, a traveller stops awhile and contemplates the view and his gaze rests on the black rock that is Mandlake and he sees a flash of light. Then he wonders and agrees to himself it is a glow from the mainland reflecting on the dark water. But he cannot be sure. And he has a feeling of unease as he shrugs and turns his back, shivering as he enters the warm confines of his car and heads back to his summer apartment.

Hannah remembers her first visit to Mandlake House. She was just eight, her red hair drawn into uncompromising plaits around her thin face, her green eyes sparking anger as sharp as diamonds. The prospect of summer with James and Uncle Henry was dismal.

The journey seemed interminable. Hannah sat, tense and filled with foreboding as her mother chatted in a bright, brittle voice about the glories of the house on the island.

“I loved staying there in my summer holidays, when your Grandfather opened the house to all his friends. We’d swim and have barbeques on the beach and then we’d take the boat to Trecoran and spend the evening in The Whistleblower.” Diane glanced quickly sideways at the rigid form, her hands clasped and mouth set in a mutinous line.

“There was a piano in the pub and we’d all sing along. What a noise we must have made!” She chuckled at her memories.

“So, why haven’t we been before?” The accusing voice of her daughter brought a frown to Diane’s face.

“Well, when your grandfather had to move to the mainland, after his heart attack, Uncle Henry moved to Mandlake. It was about the time …” She sighed. “The time Henry and Caroline separated. Henry had nowhere to go. It seemed logical. Henry loved the place.”

“So, why haven’t we visited Uncle Henry before?” Hannah repeated stubbornly.

“Henry became very sad when he left Caroline.” Diane remembered her twin’s bitterness. “He didn’t want company. Of course, he had James every holiday, but it couldn’t have been much fun for James.”

“Will James be there?” Hannah showed a flicker of interest for the cousin she had never met.

“I expect so,” Diane smiled again and patted her daughter’s knee. “You’ll enjoy the holiday, you’ll see.”

“But I will come home again?” Hannah’s voice was anxious.

“Of course, darling, as soon as I’ve had my operation and I’m well again, I’ll fetch you. It should only be a couple of weeks, three at the most.”

There was silence for a moment.

“Why can’t Daddy come home and look after me?” Hannah’s finally voiced the thought that had been in her head ever since her mother had mentioned Mandlake.

“You know he can’t.” Diane sighed. “He’s working abroad. He can’t just up and leave.”

“Even when you’re ill and going to have an operation?” Hannah persisted.

Diane shook her head. “He can’t come home for either of us, darling. He’ll ring you, like he usually does, at the weekends. But he can’t come home just now.

Hannah’s bottom lip jutted. “There’s not much point in having a Daddy!” Her voice trembled. “He’s never there.” She stared angrily at her mother.

“Hannah,” Diane’s tone was sharp, “we’ve been through this before. You know Daddy gets home when he can.” Diane pushed a strand of hair from her cheek and Hannah noticed her mother’s eyes were filled with tears.

Feeling guilty, she subsided and turned away, watching the landscape rear into mountains as they neared the Welsh coast.

“This is Trecoran,” Diane said as they approached the town and Hannah was aware of a busy street, colourful shops with seaside wares straddled over pavements. It looked cheerful and she brightened.

“And there’s The Whistleblower,” Diane added and Hannah stared with interest at the low-slung stone building, bedecked with bouncing baskets of red petunias.

Reluctantly, Hannah followed her mother from the car and entered the shadowed depths of the bar. She watched as Gareth Watkins, tall and stooping, his blue eyes twinkling in his weather-beaten face, bellowed to the kitchen beyond, enveloping Diane in a bear-like hug.

“Bronwen, it’s our Diane. She’s arrived!”

There was a flurry as a woman entered, thinner still than her husband, her mousy hair pulled back from her angular features. She pulled her apron from her waist and flung it on a chair.

“Upon my soul, Diane, all grown up!”

She looked as if she might cry and Hannah wondered again why her mother had stayed away so long, when the people here were obviously fond of her.

“And this must be young Hannah.” Bronwen stared down at the child, beaming. “My, but she’s going to grow into a beauty.” She chucked Hannah under the chin and Hannah frowned. Bronwen laughed and turned back to Diane as she called over her shoulder: “Paul, come and meet young Hannah.”

A lad, taller than Hannah, appeared and stared at her. His pale blue eyes, startling in their clarity, met hers and she felt a moment’s panic. Then he smiled and reached for her hand.

“Hannah,” he said gently. “Come and play.”

“Not today, Paul.” Bronwen touched his arm. “She can’t stay today. Another time, perhaps.”

His smile faded and a frown darkened his face. “I want her to stay, now.” His hand tightened on her fingers and Hannah winced, backing away.

“Paul!” His mother’s voice was stern.

He let go of Hannah’s hand and cast her a glowering glance.

“You will be my friend.” The promise sounded threatening and Hannah leant against her mother, staring up at her as Paul stomped out.

“Don’t mind him, dear,” Bronwen said quietly. “He gets lonely sometimes. I’m sure you’ll become good friends over the holidays.”

Hannah had her doubts, but remained silent.

“We must go,” Diane said.

“Of course, Gareth’ll take you and your things over. Henry’s expecting you. I prepared the room yesterday.” Bronwen brushed her hand over Hannah’s head.

“You’ll have a lovely time at Mandlake,” she added gently. “James is already there.”

“I thought he would be,” her mother answered. “Perhaps we’d better get going. I want to go home tonight.”

“You’re not staying?” Gareth sounded disappointed. Diane shook her head. “I’ll call back in before I leave.”

“Stay and have a meal, before your journey.” Bronwen’s voice was persuasive.

Hannah saw her mother hesitate. “That would be welcome,” she agreed at last. “It would save me stopping on the way. If it’s not too much trouble?”

“None at all, my dear. I’ve already got a pie in the oven, just need a few vegetables. Plenty there for one extra.” She bustled away and Gareth led the way down to the jetty, carrying Hannah’s case.

The journey over the sea was short. Hannah held on to the side of the boat as it rocked and bumped over the waves, spray salting her arms and face. She stared at the rocky island and thought how forbidding it looked.

Struggling to hide her fear, she followed her mother and Gareth up the winding path, slipping on shale and gasping as the wind caught her breath. Her first sight of Mandlake House was favourable. The sun glistened on the mellow stone and the windows twinkled.

But oh, it was so big! Hannah halted for a moment and stared. So this was where she had to spend the next few weeks. Shaking slightly she trudged through the heavy door.

Uncle Henry was huge. He seemed to fill the vast hall, and his voice boomed to the rafters, but when he bent to peer at her, she saw his eyes were sparkling and she felt the warmth emanate from his plump body.

“So this is my niece.” His eyes swept over her and she felt herself tremble, but there was kindness in his gaze, and sympathy. Hannah felt the beginnings of tears in her throat and resolutely bit her lip. It had been a long journey, ending in this rather terrifying place, where her mother was going to leave her with a man who seemed equally terrifying and she felt lost and alone, and very, very hungry.

“Come into the kitchen.” Uncle Henry led the way. “Bronwen left a big pan of soup, all ready to warm and there’s local bread, and biscuits?” He looked quizzically at Hannah who nodded her head at the biscuits. Uncle Henry opened a tin and Hannah dived in, feeling better as she munched.

“And you, Diane?” Henry asked his sister.

“I’ll get back, if you don’t mind, Henry.” Diane replied with a tired smile. “Lot to do, you understand?”

“Of course.” Henry touched her shoulder briefly. “When’s the operation?”

“I go in tomorrow. They should operate next day.” Diane’s voice was quiet as she looked at her daughter anxiously.

“Don’t worry, dear. Hannah will be just fine. We’ll have something to eat and then I’ll help her settle in. She’s got a lovely room, overlooking the sea. James’ll be back soon – he went over to Trecoran.” He smiled wryly. “I think he finds Mandlake a bit quiet!”

Diane gave Hannah a hug and, for a moment, Hannah clung.

“Be brave, I love you,” Diane whispered.

“Get well soon, Mummy.” Hannah’s voice was choked and then the door closed and her mother had left with Gareth and she was alone with her Uncle.

“Eat up, Hannah.” Henry ladled soup into a bowl and sliced bread. “Then I’ll show you your room.”

Hannah fell in love with her bedroom as soon as she entered it. Decorated in warm, rich reds and deep pinks, it felt warm and inviting. The carpet was thick and springy and an enormous feather duvet swamped her bed. It felt soft to her experimental bounce and she longed to curl up beneath the cool cotton. The view from her window widened her eyes. The sea stretched forever and the waves crashed and foamed below. She imagined herself on a desert island and felt excitement tingle in her bones. No wonder her mother had loved this place.

Quickly she unpacked and set out to explore. She wanted to see the island for herself, before James returned.

She was on the rocky plateau outside the gates of Mandlake House when James suddenly appeared from behind a rock.

“Who are you?” He glowered at her with black eyes, his dark hair tossed by the sea wind and curling about his neck.

She thrust her chin in the air and glared defiantly back. “You’re James!” she declared.

He nodded.

“I’m Hannah.”

His brow cleared and he grinned, relaxing.

“Hannah, what a plain name!” He laughed. “I shall call you Petal.”

“I shan’t answer to that!” She sniffed and turned away, staring across the heaving waves.

“Petal soft, petal soft,” he chanted and laughed as her back tautened.

She turned back and surveyed him haughtily. “James is no better. The only James I know is an ancient king, and he’s dead!”

He laughed out loud at her scorn, his eyes twinkling.

“I don’t want a fight,” he said softly. “Shall we be friends?”

She shrugged. She missed her friends, missed the sound of the city, missed her mother. She knew she would go home in a few weeks; her mother had assured her that she would be well again, soon, when she had recovered from the operation. It would take time, her mother said gently, that was all, and her brother was the only family able to care for the child. But still …

Hannah felt alone and afraid, stuck with a cousin she’d never met before, and a boy at that; and an uncle who seemed enormous. She studied James as he waited for an answer. He was taller than her by a head and shoulders, broader, stronger; but he was two years older and his eyes, as they returned her gaze, softened and she recognised pity.

Her bottom lip jutted as she lifted her chin. She didn’t want his pity. Her mother would be all right, she’d said so. She didn’t particularly want to be friends with James, but the alternative was pretty grim! She didn’t want any part of Mandlake and this offshoot of her family. No matter that Uncle Henry, another ancient king she reflected, was her mother’s only brother; no matter that there was no one else to care for her. She didn’t want to be in this seaside town with its howling winds and crashing water.

“Friends?” he repeated.

She shrugged again.

“Suppose so,” she muttered, and walked slowly back to the towering stone that was to be her holiday home.

“That’s another stupid name,” she said.

“What is?”

“Mandlake. There’s no lake, just …” She swung her hands wide at the surrounding breakers.

“There was, once.”

“Oh?”

“Mandlake House was built on its island in the middle of a gigantic lake,” James said dreamily. “Surrounded by enormous mountains.”

“Really?” Her look was sceptical. “So?”

“The ice age came, and the seas rose and swallowed the land.”

“And left Mandlake?”

He nodded. “And a few mountains, of course.” He gestured towards the rocky peaks back-clothing Trecoran. “The sea filled the lake and left the island smaller, but Mandlake House was saved.”

They entered the saved mansion and Hannah shivered. She wondered where she’d be if the ice age had swallowed Mandlake as well. Somewhere much nicer, she thought gloomily.

Hannah never discovered whether this legend was true but, over the years, her love for Mandlake grew and James was always there…

Until Uncle Henry died; suddenly, inexplicably.

The funeral was a lonely affair. She hadn’t seen James for months and the sight of his bowed head brought tears to her eyes and the familiar ache in her heart.

“James, I’m so sorry.” Hannah had put a tentative hand on his arm.

He tensed and stared down at her, his eyes remote and sharp. Startled, she let her hand fall and stepped back, her heart pounding.

“James?”

“Hannah!” Warmth returned to his gaze and his eyes softened.

“Are you all right?” She watched him anxiously.

“Of course!” He forced a smile and wrapped his arms around her. “It’s good to see you again.”

“It’s been a long time.” She felt his breath on her hair and leaned against his chest, feeling the familiar safeness of his embrace. “I’ve missed you.” Her voice was muffled and she raised her eyes to his face. “Poor Uncle Henry,” she said softly and his eyes became anguished.

“It shouldn’t have happened!” His voice was angry and they clung together, seeking comfort.

He pushed her gently away as the hearse arrived and fiddled with his tie. She took his arm and, taking a deep breath, they began the procession to the church. Never had so small a distance seemed so far. Glancing up at James she saw his impassive face, staring straight ahead, but his arm was rigid beneath her hand.

There was a mêlée of voices in the reception room of the hotel. Waiters stepped deftly between chattering mourners; Uncle Henry had been popular and his untimely death aroused great sympathy. Hannah found herself smiling woodenly at people she had never met, murmuring inadequate words, her eyes seeking James. Occasionally he sent her a brief smile, quiet solace in the interminable wake until, finally, the crowd dispersed and the untidy room was bare.

Hannah heaved a sigh of relief and joined James at the bar.

“Thank God that’s over,” he muttered as she sank thankfully on to a seat. “Drink, Hannah?”

She nodded and leaned back against the cushions, watching his tall figure as he ordered and returned to her.

He leaned across the table to her. “And you, Hannah. Are you all right?”

She shrugged. “I suppose.”

“That doesn’t sound very positive.”

She stared into her glass. “I’m in a job I don’t like, in a flat I’m not keen on and my social life is dull!” She smiled wryly at the self-pity that was evident in her voice.

“Then change things.” His voice was testy as he frowned at her.

“Yes.” Hannah said, and wondered why she hadn’t.

“You, James?”

“I’m fine.”

“You haven’t been near since my mother’s funeral.”

“No. It seems that’s where we’re destined to meet at the moment; funerals!”

Hannah shuddered and there was an uneasy silence. The old familiarity between them was missing and Hannah wondered what was wrong.

“Have you had a letter from the solicitor, Mr Morrison?”

James nodded.

“I’m going to see him next week. Will you be there?”

“I’ve said I’ll see him when I can.” James’s voice was abrupt. “I have to go away – some business to attend to.”

“Now?” Hannah said, surprised.

“Now.”

“But what about the will?”

“What about it?” He was frowning into his glass again.

“Don’t you want to know what Uncle Henry has left you?”

He stared at her for a long moment and she felt unease rise. He looked so angry.

“I know he’s left me the house in town,” James replied. “At least he said he would. So I shan’t be homeless.” He smiled grimly. “The rest, well,” he shrugged, “I really don’t care.”

“James!” Hannah was shocked. “What about Mandlake?”

“He can do what he likes with Mandlake,” James replied quietly and Hannah stared at him, taken aback.

Then she sighed. This James was impossible to deal with, she would wait until he returned to the lovable man she knew – if he ever did!

“Well, anyway,” she drained her drink, “I shall go to the solicitor next week as promised. Perhaps I can give you a ring and let you know what he said?”

“Perhaps,” he replied.

Suddenly angry, Hannah stood up. For weeks she had waited for his contact and now, when they were here together, he was being difficult. Well, let him sort out his own affairs. She would go and see Mr Morrison and damn James!

She picked up her handbag and looked down at James.

“Goodbye,” she said stiffly. “You know where I am if you need to get in touch with me.” And turning, she walked away.

“Hannah …” She heard James call, but she didn’t look back and, as the automatic doors swished quietly to a close behind her, she felt the tears well and fall gently on her cheeks.

The solicitor’s news came as a shock: “Henry left Mandlake House to you.”

“To me?”

Mr Morrison nodded in affirmation.

“As I said, Mandlake House was left to you. I don’t suppose you have a contact address for James?” He looked at her hopefully.

Hannah shook her head. “We never really kept in touch. The last time I saw James was at the funeral.” She shivered.

“We saw each other at Mandlake, an occasional contact between visits, but I never knew when to expect him.”

“He lived in your Uncle’s town house?”

She nodded.

“But that’s been let for the past eighteen months.”

Hannah looked startled.

“He didn’t leave a forwarding address, just said he’d be in touch.” Mr Morrison smiled wryly.

“That sounds like James.” Hannah smiled. “He would just turn up, and then take off, but he always came back.”

Mr Morrison sighed. “I’ve posted notices and tried to make contact, he seems to have changed his phone. I was hoping he’d appear after the funeral. I tried to speak to him then, arrange an interview – but he evaded me.”

Hannah nodded, her thoughts returning to James’s strange behaviour.

There was silence as Mr Morrison shuffled papers, waiting for Hannah’s attention to return.

“Why did he leave me Mandlake House?”

“Because you loved it?” He looked at her shrewdly. “He mentions in his will that you had an affinity with the place and he’s left James the London house and the cottage in Cornwall, along with all his stocks and shares I might add, so I’m sure James won’t begrudge you Mandlake.”

“But what on earth am I to do with it?” Hannah stared at him, his plump face wreathed in the satisfied smile that comes with an expansive will. He was one of the Executors and Hannah almost felt his smugness.

She sighed. Uncle Henry had been rich. She supposed she’d always known that, but the fact never intruded on her visits to him, holidays that usually helped to ease the current trauma in her life. She had been more interested in recovery, and James, than she had been in Uncle Henry’s wealth. But now…

“How on earth am I supposed to maintain it?”

“There’s a trust, set up a long time ago. You’ll need all the details, they’re here somewhere.”

He rummaged through piles of banded files.

Hannah shook her head. “I need to think about this,” she replied.

“Shall I forward the details to you?”

Hannah nodded. “Yes, please,” she said firmly, making a decision. “I’d like everything relevant sent to me and then I can study it quietly.”

“To which address?”

“Mandlake House,” she replied and he looked startled. “I shall go to Mandlake. I take it there’s no one living there?”

He shook his head. “It was let in the summer, but it’s empty now.” He looked doubtful. “It’ll be very cold and possibly damp.”

“Bronwen Watkins and Gareth, they still worked for Uncle Henry?”

He nodded.

“Then contact them and ask them to prepare a room and anything else they usually do before visitors arrived.” She stood up as he watched her doubtfully. “Please?”

He sighed and nodded. “I’ll see what I can do and ring you.”

“Thank you.”

“Before you go …” He hesitated.

“Yes?” She turned.

He was shuffling papers and ran his fingers over his balding head.

“There’s something else,” he said finally, as if making a difficult decision.

“Something else?” she echoed, sinking back into her chair.

He coughed nervously and then stared directly into her eyes. “Have you heard of Sofia?”

“Sofia who?”

Mr Morrison shrugged and then picked up a single piece of paper. “A few days before he died, your uncle sent me an email.”

Hannah waited.

He pushed the email across the desk. “Read it,” he said abruptly.

Hannah picked up the paper and scanned the words, her eyes opening wide in surprise.

Please add a codicil to my will: I leave my home on the island, and all its contents, to Sofia. Imperative you do this immediately. Will explain all when I call next week.

“Of course.” Mr Morrison was watching Hannah. “He never visited and I heard nothing further from him.”

“The house on the island?” Hannah repeated. “Mandlake?”

Mr Morrison shook his head. “Definitely not. This is an addition to his will, so the inheritance of Mandlake remains with you. No, this is a different house altogether.”

Hannah silently re-read the email.

“It doesn’t mean anything to you?” He looked at her anxiously as she shook her head.

“I’ve never heard of Sofia,” Hannah said in a bemused voice. “And I don’t know of any other property that Uncle Henry owned.” She handed the sheet of paper back.

“Yet another mystery.” He sighed heavily. This was obviously going to be a difficult task. “Of course, your Uncle travelled a lot, particularly in later years, but an island! It could be anywhere in the world. Hannah looked startled as he stared at her gloomily.

“Let me go to Mandlake as planned,” she suggested. “And, while I’m there, I’ll look through any papers I can find. See if I can throw any light on Sofia; and James’s whereabouts,” she added.

Mr Morrison shook her hand. “Please keep in touch.” He managed a smile.

“Of course.” Hannah walked out, her head in a whirl. Mandlake was hers, but where was James? And would he really be glad she had inherited the house? She remembered his obsession with the grim history of the place and shivered. No, she didn’t think James would be too pleased with the bequest.

And who was the mysterious Sofia, and the home on the island? Surely there had to be some clues at Mandlake. Hannah sighed as the endless questions reverberated around her mind. Nothing could be done until she got to Mandlake. Then she would look for some answers.

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