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‘Isn’t talking about Blanch Farm meant to be bad luck?»: An extract from Small Angels

‘Isn’t talking about Blanch Farm meant to be bad luck?»: An extract from Small Angels
One man tries to tell the tale that others are too scared to mention, about the farm by the woods. An extract from Lauren Owen’s debut novel ‘Small Angels’

Brian was a local historian, a curator of gossip. He had run the post office for several decades, carefully noting the address of every letter he franked. He lived alone with a Jack Russell named John Aubrey and a freezer full of meals that his wife had cooked for him before her death – neatly labelled lasagnes and shepherd’s pies on ice. The dog loved him and they were rarely seen apart. Tonight it lay quietly at Brian’s feet, watching as he spoke. Besides Chloe, it was the only creature in the Albatross pub to listen willingly.

They did listen, mais. The wedding guests listened, and the rest of the pub listened too, letting conversations lapse.

John Pauncefoot leaned against the bar, concentrating with a resigned air. Elizabeth Daunt set down her book and sighed, but did not depart. A family of diners fell silent, the children twisting in their seats to stare, ignoring their mother’s frown. The waitress set down her tray of dirty glasses and listened openly.

Brian had an earnest gaze, thin, restless hands that seemed made for dramatic gestures, and a long acquaintance with the acoustics of the Albatross. The singer by the fireplace – seeing that he had lost his audience for the time being – put his guitar to bed in its case and took his half-hour break.

“The thing is, Small Angels doesn’t rightly belong to the village at all,” Brian began. “It belongs to the Gonnes. Much good it did them.”

“Do you have to do this now, Brian?” Sam said. “We’re meant to be celebrating, and this is morbid stuff.”

“I don’t mind,” said Chloe. Snug in the Albatross, in her circle of well-wishers, in her happy love affair, she was ready for a gloomy romance – something grim howling outside to make the warmth and bright warmer and brighter. Sam said nothing further, and Brian continued: "Donc, there’s a house out beyond the village. White walls, sitting by itself in the middle of nowhere – Blanch Farm. The Gonnes lived there for over a century. The family name changed from time to time, bien sûr, but it was always the same people underneath. Ten years ago, there was a whole pack of them there.

“Selina – the old lady – was boss of the clan. I went to school with her husband, Paul. Not a bad sort. Quiet, mind you. Talked like words tasted bad. He and Selina had four granddaughters to bring up, and I never envied them that little task. You’d see those girls wandering the fields at all hours like they didn’t have a home to go to.

“Maybe they’d have picked up better ways if they’d gone to school, but they never stirred from Blanch Farm. People used to say that the old lady didn’t want to spend on the bus fare. Somebody should have stepped in, but no one liked to upset Selina.

“They were strange people. The thing was, they lived much too close to Mockbeggar Woods.” He turned to Chloe. “You’ve seen Mockbeggar, je suppose?"

“Just from outside,” Chloe said. “It’s near the church” – smiling, she tried out the newly discovered name – “near Small Angels. Isn’t it? I wanted to go in and explore but Sam said we couldn’t.”

“I should think not,” Brian said, frowning. “Nobody with any sense goes into those woods.”

Chloe looked around the Albatross, expecting a contradiction. But no one spoke. Sam had picked up the candle on the table and was tipping it so that the liquid wax threatened to drown the light.

“Only the Gonnes ever walked in Mockbeggar,” continued Brian. “People used to say it was just them and the dead.”

A sigh from Brian’s audience. Here was the meat of it at last.

“So this is a ghost story?” Chloe said, pleased and surprised. “I don’t claim that part’s true, mind. I wouldn’t say that. All I know for sure is what the tradition is, and what I’ve seen and heard for myself.”

He looked around the Albatross. “They’d rather I didn’t tell you this stuff now. They listen, don’t they, mais? Can’t help themselves. Because the thing is, we all knew that there was something going on. That’s where Small Angels comes in.

“The Gonnes were at Small Angels all the time, back in their day. It’s just up the fields from Blanch Farm, practically on their doorstep. God knows what they used to do there, but that church is more used to strange goings-on than it is to weddings, you can be sure of that. They kept the church key – had it for generations. The old lady used to wear it on her wrist.”

“This must be hers, ensuite,” Chloe said. She took the key from her handbag and held it up so Brian and her guests could see. It was a gorgeous thing – dark metal, weighty. “They gave me it when I’d paid the deposit. Isn’t it pretty?"

Brian looked as if he wanted to ask to hold the key but didn’t quite dare.

"Oui," il a dit. “That’ll be it.” He gathered his story threads: “Once a month, when there was a full moon, you’d see lights in the windows of Small Angels, you’d hear bells ringing across the fields. That was the Gonnes. I passed them once, walking through the fields towards the church. It was dusk but the moon was out already. They all carried lights and they were singing. I said, Good evening but they didn’t answer. Paul Gonne hung back for a moment and he said, Get out of it, Brian. Get home. I didn’t hang about to see anymore.

“And then there were the beacons, trop. Have you seen those yet?"

“I don’t think so,” said Chloe.

“There are four of them – metal brackets, you can’t miss them, still standing at the boundaries of the Gonnes’ land.

“The family would light them every evening. People used to get worried if they weren’t burning by dusk. You could talk all you wanted about quaint local superstitions, but when night came you wanted to be damn sure those lights were lit.”

“But you didn’t know why?"

Brian shrugged. “Maybe our grandparents’ grandparents knew. But the Gonnes kept their secrets very carefully. The old lady wouldn’t even let strangers in the house. Fought tooth and claw to stop Small Angels reopening. Being turned into a venue.” He looked darkly at Chloe and Sam. “Damn-fool idea, given what happened last time that place was used. I don’t suppose they told you when you booked that Small Angels has been shut up for ten years?"

"Non."

“Of course not. The last time the church was used was for Paul Gonne’s funeral, and that wasn’t an occasion you’d want to repeat.”

He took a sip of his drink, and continued uninterrupted: “Before things went wrong, the Gonnes were managing well enough, as far as any of us could tell. They walked in the woods and no matter what company they found there, it seemed to suit them well enough. They never had quite enough money but they got by. They had a vineyard, and buyers would come from far off for the wine. Paid pretty well for it, Apparemment. There was something curious about the taste, something it picked up from the earth and the water.

“But one year there was a freezing spring. Vicious cold in May, just the worst time for a grape crop. Paul Gonne went out to the field one night to check on the vines and didn’t come back. They found him curled up out there – stroke, the doctors said. But he was a strong man, never ill a day in his life. The attack came out of nowhere.

“After that, things changed at Blanch Farm. The Gonnes stopped coming into the village. You hardly saw them anymore. Especially the girls.

“I called round once. Just to see if I could do anything for Paul. Shouldn’t have bothered. Selina told me to leave them in peace, said she was sick of me spying and I should mind my own business. I never spied, though.”

“Of course not,” Chloe said.

“Just kept my eyes open. Maybe if more people had kept a lookout, things wouldn’t have happened the way they did.”

Brian paused to finish his drink. Those who knew where this tale was tending were waiting for someone to intervene. But the story went on; it unfolded like a disaster, unstoppable.

“It took Paul a while to die. Can’t have been pleasant for the family to watch.”

He reached down and scratched John Aubrey’s ears gently. The dog looked back at him – anxious, adoring.

“He kept going until late summer or the start of autumn – this kind of season, En réalité. Weather was beautiful that year.

“I didn’t find out about Paul dying for a few days. I don’t think anyone outside the family did. Then Selina came to church – our church, je veux dire, the one just a spit away from this pub – one Sunday and summoned everyone to the funeral. Said she’d be glad of our company.

“It was tradition for the Gonnes to invite the whole village to their funerals, and it was tradition for everybody to go. After the service at Small Angels the family would have a feast back at Blanch Farm – wine, aliments, la musique. It was the way they always did things. Nearest thing they ever got to making merry.

“But at that time, after Paul’s death, I didn’t like how things were looking at Blanch Farm. There was a bad sort of atmosphere when you went by. Shutters closed all day. Mess in the yard. Lights in the windows at odd times. Seemed to me it was a bad idea to go off to Small Angels at dusk and then traipse back to the house in the dark.”

He looked around his audience – most of them locals.

“You lot keep your eyes on the ground, don’t you?" il a dit. “Don’t like to mention what happened that night. But you all know.

“The church was full that evening. The Gonnes were in their funeral best, bien sûr, and most of the village was there too.

“I remember darkness falling outside, night air coming in. It felt like we were in a lifeboat on the open sea. You understand what I mean? Better inside than out alone in the dark, but at the same time we were so obvious. One bright point in all that blackness. I had my prayer book open in front of me: Defend us from all perils and dangers of this night.

“And I thought: bien, whatever we’re in for, it’s too late to get away now.

“I felt watched that night. In the graveyard, in the dusk – dusk burials were always the Gonnes’ way, they’d bury by torchlight or moonlight – I felt that the woods had come very close. Small Angels always did look like it was going to be eaten up by the trees any minute. Cette nuit, it seemed like Mockbeggar had crept closer than ever.

“After they’d put Paul in the ground, the girls lit lanterns to lead the way back, and there were lights burning along the path to guide us through the dark to Blanch Farm. More of them outside in the yard. People said it was pretty.

“We were out of the dark, away from the graves now, and here was food and wine and a sight of the Gonnes. The daughters were all grown up by that point and people were curious about them and their strange ways. Most of the village drank and ate and stared, and started to enjoy themselves.

“All the time, I knew something was out of joint. I had a feeling of something coming, something about to go wrong and I couldn’t stop it, couldn’t leave. It got to ten, and then eleven, and the party – it was a party, though we were all supposed to be mourning – the party kept going. It was like nobody could drag themselves away.

“I went round the back of the house. There’s an orchard there. I wanted some quiet, to clear my head a moment. Work out in my own mind what was going on.

“But I wasn’t alone out there. Just beyond the orchard gate – just where the lantern light failed – I saw something moving close. A pale shape.”

“A person?"

"Non. I went closer to the gate, away from the noise of the party, and that’s when I heard it—” Here came a distraction: a late guest had arrived – a tall, dark woman, unperturbed by the stares of those around her. This was Sam Unthank’s sister, Kate. It was common knowledge that she had barely shown her face in the village for years, and it had been generally agreed that she would miss the wedding.

Chloe knew better. Months ago, she had pushed Sam into asking Kate to be his best man, despite his insistence that Kate would refuse.

He didn’t say that he didn’t want Kate at his side, Chloe noticed, only that Kate would turn him down. So she told him that they would visit Kate and issue their invitation in person.

During the visit she had been eloquent, stressing how happy Kate’s presence would make them both, and how excited they both were about the wedding. Finalement, she piqued Kate’s interest. Before their departure, Kate had asked her if she and Sam were really proposing to clean and decorate Small Angels for the ceremony in the space of a week.

Chloe had confirmed that this was the plan, and Kate had said that in that case she had better join them to help. It was surely one of her duties as best man.

(Punctuality was also one of her duties, Chloe thought now, but she wouldn’t hold that against her.)

Kate’s gaze was on Brian – she had caught his last few words as she came in – and her expression was both sombre and sarcastic.

“You sure you want to tell that story, Brian?"

“I’ve got a right. I was there.”

“All the same. Isn’t talking about Blanch Farm meant to be bad luck?"

The Albatross was quiet. All over the pub, eyes were cast down. John Aubrey sneezed.

"Brian?” Chloe said gently. “Don’t leave us stranded. Even if it is an unlucky story. What happened next? What did you see at Blanch Farm?"

But Brian was affronted. His performance had been spoiled. “Ask your fiancé,” he said to Chloe. “I should be getting on.” He nodded towards his dog. “This one needs a walk.”

‘Small Angels’ by Lauren Owen est dehors 2 août. Hachette, £18.99