– The Homecoming –
North Cornwall, England. Late November 1979
The blizzard smashed into the Capri, rocking the car wildly as he hit open country. The wipers were totally unprepared for this sudden avalanche of thick, cloying snow, vision ahead reduced to all but zero, momentum from the final descent driving the car forward relentlessly. Alarm bells rang loudly in Jon’s head, a chilling prophesy of danger becoming imminent reality as, through the white curtain, two huge columns of granite loomed up before him, glistening in the stark glare of the headlights, demanding an explanation. He’d completely forgotten just how close the pillars were to the end of the tunnel.
Instinctively, Jon hit the brakes hard, something he had studiously avoided doing as he’d plummeted down the valley, knowing what the consequences would be. As expected, the car spun extravagantly on the icy surface but, in barely two seconds, he’d regained control, easing the Capri round parallel to the approaching pillars. Shuddering violently, the car slid erratically sideways, slowing gradually. Despite his complete confidence, he knew it was going to be a close thing.
Allowing himself a nod of satisfaction, the car came to a juddering halt six feet from what appeared to be a shimmering cliff face. Exhaling loudly, he gathered his thoughts for a few moments before maneuvering back into position, contemplating the final act of his tortuous journey. The massive blocks of granite had stood sentinel at the entrance to Chy Nans for centuries. It had been three long years since they had last seen Jon Penryn, and their disapproval was tangible. Directly ahead, through a thick curtain of wintery blackness, the ancestral home was waiting but, so far, the omens were far from encouraging.
To say that his thoughts were chaotic would have been a considerable understatement. This was absolutely crazy. It felt like the end of the world, although very little in his life made sense at the moment. Here he sat, buried in snow, about to return to a home he had not seen, and family he had not spoken with, for three years, the circumstances of his departure still raw. Since hearing the news, nothing had been able to convince him that the reception he might get, or indeed give, would be anything other than indifferent. Memories of sadness and anger instantly flooded back, filling his mind with resentment. Hardly the basis for a healing reunion.
Releasing the seat belt, he closed his eyes, searching desperately for a positive thought, but nothing of substance came to mind. With a sigh of hopelessness, his head slumped forward, coming to rest on the steering wheel, darkness and relentless snow closing in all around him, the steady throb of the engine, like a racing heartbeat, the only sound in this barren wilderness.
Jon Penryn was coming home … but to what?
His self-indulgent reverie was swiftly put into perspective, all gloomy thoughts blasted into oblivion when, in that very second, everything changed.
The driver door of the Capri was wrenched open, causing a deluge of snow to surge in, stinging Jon’s face and soaking the interior instantly. A large, vice-like hand reached inside, grabbing his shirt and jumper in a steely grasp, pulling him violently from the cockpit. Jon was thrown to the ground, his knees making a bizarrely satisfying crunch as they hit the icy crust. There was no time to savour the sensation however, as the same grasp yanked him to his feet, and he awaited developments with trepidation. Gasping for breath, his natural instinct was to retaliate so, when the choking grip on his throat slackened, he prepared to defend himself or to escape into the blizzard.
Never one to back away when threatened, Jon prepared his counter-attack, shaking himself free and squaring up to where he estimated his attacker to be standing. Anticipating a tussle, his bold initiative never got past the planning stage and was abandoned altogether when, in the glare of a flashlight, two barrels of a shotgun glinted six inches from his forehead, bringing the uneven contest to a halt. Never having been up close to the business end of such a deadly piece of equipment, the effect was both alarming and fascinating, although the former held the ascendancy.
‘Who are you?’ spluttered Jon, ‘What the hell do you want?’
By way of response, his assailant turned the gun round and smashed the butt of the shotgun into Jon’s stomach, bringing him to his knees once more.
‘Shut up and don’t move. I will use this, believe me.’
The aggressive voice was accompanied by a deep snarl, and delivered in a burr that contained a hint of Cornish, roughened, perhaps, by the gnawing cold.
By now, thick snow encased Jon’s clothes and hair, the heat of his body encouraging icy rivulets of water to run down his neck and into his eyes and ears. Standing, as far as the pain in his midriff would allow, he was once again peering down the business end of the gun.
With supreme irony, the Beatles’ “Rubber Soul” album had reached the last track of the cassette and “Run for your Life” seemed like good advice. It crossed his mind to reach inside the car, turn off the music and ignition before resuming the conflict. Weighing up whether to suggest this to his assailant, his immediate thought was that the request might not meet with approval. However, the decision was not his to make.
‘For Christ’s sake! I live here, this is my home!’ he shouted, as if that would make any difference.
It must have sounded pathetic, and yet it occurred to him that he deserved exception to violence on his own doorstep, not that his attacker would consider that of any importance.
Thrusting the torch towards Jon’s face, the man grunted in obvious disappointment then, mercifully, lowered the shotgun. Once more the Cornish burr cut through the icy air.
‘My God, if it isn’t bloody Jon Penryn! Surprised you’ve got the nerve to show your face around here again.’ There was a pause while the man considered his next verbal assault, which wasn’t long coming, being preceded by a derisive exhale of breath rather like a tyre being deflated.
‘Suppose you’ve heard about your Father and crawled back … at last. That was more than a week ago. Didn’t even have the decency to come home straight away. Typical of a no good waster like you. No respect, but then … why am I not surprised?’
‘Still don’t know who the hell you are,’ stammered Jon although, now the initial shock had moderated, he did have an inkling of who the man might be, and at least the guy was talking, rather than threatening to blow his head off. The man swung the torch up to his own face, confirming Jon’s suspicion. The craggy, snow-encrusted profile of Francis Martyn, thrown into sinister relief by the light, bore all the hallmarks of a Halloween mask. A woodsman on the Penryn Estate for many years, a man fiercely protective of Jon’s mother, Francis had taken it upon himself to singlehandedly safeguard the heritage of the Penryn family, although Jon was clearly excluded from the arrangement.
‘Bloody hell, Francis, what’s with the melodrama?’ asked Jon sharply. ‘And, as for threatening me with a gun, you need your head tested. You were really going to shoot me, for heaven’s sake?’
Jon was incredulous, although light from the torch showed enough of the man’s eyes to indicate that the idea appealed to him greatly.
‘Crazy things been happening here over the last couple of weeks’ he growled. ‘People coming and going at strange times, usually in the dead of night. Bit of damage to the house and folks poking around at the old buildings. Been keeping an eye out, told your mother I would.’ The voice, probably through gulping in freezing air, was becoming more strained as the conversation progressed, a deeper rawness now in evidence.
‘Saw the car coming through the woods. No one in their right mind would be out in this weather, unless they were up to no good.’
His reasoning was sound although Jon thought to ask why Francis wasn’t sitting at his own fireside in that case, thinking better of it in the circumstances. It was ridiculous, trying to conduct a conversation of sorts with a maniacal snowman in a snowstorm. It was time to upgrade their environment.
‘Put that down for God’s sake’ he said, waving at the gun-barrel and pulling the collar of his coat up around his ears. ‘Let’s at least get in the car before we’re buried alive.’ Jon was now shivering as the icy cold seeped into every part of his body, the water that had dribbled down his neck reaching his chest and stomach. It was impossible to concentrate on anything but survival when speech and movement were constricted by the numbing cold. Francis put up little resistance to the suggestion. Shaking the worst of the snow from their clothes, the two men slumped in soggy silence into the front seats and hastily shut the doors.
Now, at least, he was able to think straight and, once his metabolism had stabilized, was able to consider his situation with a degree of logic rather than having to fight off the monster who glowered beside him.
From the pillars, it was no more than one hundred yards to the house. Even through the snow, Jon had expected to see lights when he arrived, and turned his focus to where he assumed the building to be. There was nothing. Turning off the car lights, ahead lay total darkness, with no indication that a building even existed. A loud grunt from Francis added little by way of explanation.
Restarting the engine, the car heater, in combination with two large men covered in swiftly melting snow, now took on the character of a sauna, each of them steaming gently, a layer of condensation forming on the windows. Within a minute they were both hot and wet, which was even less comfortable than being outside in the blizzard.
How the hell was he supposed to make any sense of all this? The sodden heap steaming beside him seemed disinclined to clarify the situation. In desperation, Jon’s thoughts tripped over each other in a series of questions.
‘What about mother?’
‘Is she at the house?’
‘Why can’t I see any lights?’
‘Is she okay?
‘Is anyone with her?’
Francis simply grunted, as though this covered all the enquiries in one hit.
‘What’s going on Francis?’ said Jon in exasperation ‘I tried calling several times before I left London, and again when I stopped on the way down, but no reply.’
The man grunted again, a stock response in tandem with a snarl and a growl, Jon picturing a sign above a shop down a dark alleyway in a Dickensian village.
“Grunt, Growl and Snarl - Theatrical Supplies and Sundries - enter and be discouraged!”
‘I heard the phone a couple of times’ he growled eventually ‘but it stopped before I got to it. Must have been you. Your mother is … safe.’ He used the word guardedly. ‘Staying with Mrs Paynter in the village. She’ll look after her. Took her there a couple of days back. Can’t live in the house at the moment.’
Jon’s mouth formed a number of ‘why’ and ‘what’ questions as Francis continued.
‘Chy Nans is in a terrible state, needs work. The roof leaks in places and the power’s been erratic for some time. Cut out altogether yesterday when the snow arrived.’ A hearty sniff was added to the repertoire.
‘There’s no light or heat, although the phone’s working fine. Seems that someone’s broken into the house … two different places. Nothing major missing so far as I can see. Just a bit of damage, broken windows mainly and the back door’s been tampered with. I’ve been on the lookout. Soon as I see anything, I come straight over.’ Francis’voice seemed a little less aggressive, bordering on conversational.
‘I’m worried about your mother. She’s been in a bad way for some time now but seems to have got worse lately. Don’t think it’s just your father’s accident. It’s more than that.’ He turned his eyes to Jon then swiftly away again.
‘She’s very forgetful, distant, seems to have lost her way and, to an extent, her will. Been talking about you and Tegan, as if you were still young and playing in the garden rather than her being in Italy and you, well, fuck knows where.’ His tone hardened again as he continued.
‘The fact that she never heard from you after you left, what … three years ago or thereabouts, didn’t seem to hit home until a few months back. She keeps healthy enough though, and still gets involved with the church in the village, which is a good thing I suppose.’
Realizing that he’d dropped his grumpy guard, Francis briskly abandoned chatty mode, grunted even more loudly and prepared to get out of the car.
‘No point you going to the house. Better tomorrow when it’s light. I’ve a sofa you can sleep on.’ The offer was made in such a way that it blatantly invited rejection. Whatever the case, Jon’s mind was already made up.
‘No, I’m going to the house. I haven’t come all this way through a snowstorm to stop now.’ He could almost feel the man’s shrug.
‘Do you want to come with me?’ he added, the suggestion being greeted by a loud snort.
‘Suit yourself, no point in me being there. I can’t do anything for the time being. It’s cold and damp, but it’s up to you.’ Francis seemed to be able to inject derision into every sentence. ‘Keys are in the usual place, to the side of the front door above the porch. You’ll find logs there as well if you need them. We’ll come over sometime and see what’s to be done.’
He swung the door open, inviting a fresh cascade of snow into the already sodden interior, then slammed it with unnecessary force.
Jon slipped into gear, preparing to drive away, pausing to wipe a layer of condensation from the screen. A loud rap on the window caused fresh anxiety. Winding down his window just an inch, it was clear that the shotgun-wielding version of Francis Martyn had returned.
‘What … you … did’ he hissed, putting emphasis on every word ‘I’ll not forgive. And there will be plenty more who will not forget either.’
Jon just had to ask, even though he feared the response would be less than encouraging. ‘Is Kerensa …?’
His words were cut down savagely, as the other man’s face drew even closer to the narrow opening of the window. Jon felt the wetness of spit on his face, the stale smell of tobacco drifting in on icy vapors.
‘You dare even mention her name?’ rasped Francis. ‘If I could have tracked you down after you left, I would have killed you Mr Penryn.’ He banged his fist down loudly on the roof of the car then strode away, swallowed up by a white curtain within seconds. It was suddenly very quiet.
During this whole encounter, the car had become partially buried in snow. Jon shook his head in disbelief, wondering what else could possibly go wrong. Engaging third gear, he rocked the Capri back and forth until it gradually eased forward. Patting the dashboard affectionately, he negotiated the pillars nimbly, slowly gliding along what he assumed to be the drive, although he could have just as easily been in the middle of the lawn. Somewhere ahead nestled the dark medieval manor house he called home.
Yes, he was wet.
Yes, he was cold.
Yes, he was traumatized.
Yes, he was concerned about his mother.
But, on top of that, he was now deeply puzzled.
Francis Martyn and his wife, Elsie, had, reluctantly, taken Kerensa in when her mother and father had been deemed unsuitable to look after her. Despite Jon being closely involved with Kerensa, she had never fully explained the reasons behind this, and, whenever the question was raised, she’d been evasive, swiftly changing the subject and making light of the matter as if it was of no consequence. His thoughts unfolded as he eased away towards the pillars.
‘I can’t believe we didn’t talk about this. It was fundamental. Did she think I wasn’t interested? What sort of relationship did we have? I thought it was good but … how much did we really know about each other? I can’t believe that over two years, she never said anything. No wonder we broke up so easily.’
What could Francis possibly mean by, “What you did, I’ll not forgive?” Was there something Jon didn’t know about?
Okay, it would be a bit tricky if or when he and Kerensa met again, but why the big drama? Relationships disintegrated all the time. Was their breakup anything out of the ordinary?
He’d considered this very point often whilst in London. On the face of it, they’d split up over something that could quite easily have worked through, and he’d written several times, trying to explain, suggesting they should talk. It wasn’t as if they had fallen out of love as such. It had just been a bizarre set of circumstances, making him wonder why never once had she replied or responded to letters and messages. Perhaps she’d interpreted things differently?
Jon negotiated the hundred yards or so to the front of the house, the car lights bouncing off the windows as he approached, sending dancing patterns through the still falling snow. The austere façade of Chy Nans regarded him with tangible distaste, either resenting having been left to the mercy of the elements, or taking exception to the fact that he’d finally returned. The car sighed with audible relief, settling to a quivering halt as the key was turned in the ignition.
Climbing out, Jon grabbed a bag from the back seat and dashed to the shelter of the wide granite porch, square and solid, protruding from the front of the building with a room directly above it, his old music room. Scraping one hand along the stone shelf above the huge oak door, he eventually found keys and, with his now fading torch, located the lock. The door creaked open reluctantly, causing a ghostly scream to echo through the silent, damp blackness inside. Remnants of the torch beam caused shadows to dance around the walls as he took one last glance behind at the snowy wasteland, suddenly very appealing compared to the grim medieval hall he was about to enter.
Jon Penryn was home – but not in a happy place. Okay, he hadn’t expected to be welcomed with open arms, quite the opposite in fact, but to be assaulted before he had even reached the doorstep was beyond belief. Less than a week ago, the very thought would have been preposterous. As he stood on the threshold, Jon’s mind drifted back over the events that had led him to this point.