Sob, sob, sob. An inhuman weeping from the hunched figure in black as she slumped wearily over the large dining table, nursing a large, fingerprint-stained glass of amber liquid, abandoning her strict rules of etiquette for the first time in living memory as she gingerly placed her bony elbows upon the table top, bracing her willowy fingers together to form a trembling cradle for her blazing forehead, stinging tears rolling silently down her cheeks in a never-ending torrent. Hearing the feared monster cry was far more sinister than the usual cacophony of wild screams and shrieks that made up her usual vicious dialect. To see the miniscule chink in the indefatigable armour made her even more terrifying, to know that she was capable of such remorse, and yet chose to show none to her, despite of all that she had done… Emotion was a weakness, a frivolous waste of time, energy and logic… Silence fell, wild sobs no longer punctuating the air, a deadly hush as her unwanted presence was detected, the monster raising her red-rimmed eyes to glower back, spitting with malevolence, metaphorical flames of anger bursting forth from her flared nostrils as she turned her attentions to her unwitting prey. Caught in observation of a scene that she should never have witnessed… and now there would be pain… so much pain…. raw anger and humiliation turning to white hot revenge as something heavy impacted with her slender frame, she felt as if she had been struck by a lead weight… her chest was closing up… her lungs on fire as she sank to her knees… A hand swooped from the depths of the darkness, clutching a large fistful of her long, dark tresses, pulling so tightly that she could feel hairs detaching from their roots one by one, the incessant pressure rippling across her scalp as the tormentor leant closer, her sour breath tickling unpleasantly against her cheek as she growled ominously into her ear, "You never saw anything… do you understand?"
"111, 113, 115… it must be here somewhere!" muttered Imogen Drill counting wearily as she trudged along the seemingly never-ending street, counting the long list of houses as she fumbled amidst the dark depths of her backpack, searching fruitlessly for her umbrella. Summer had lasted an unusually long five days before returning to the characteristic humid drizzle that was to be expected of the British summer. It had been a long morning, painstakingly following the request made of her by her fellow member of staff during her routine visit.
"Number 117," she consulted Constance's narrow scrawl before looking up expectantly. "This is it…"
Earlier that morning:
"Well, it's tough, being the only non-witch on the teaching staff…"
"You're not a-?"
"Oh good Lord, no!" snorted Imogen as she leant back comfortably into the chair, crossing one of her long legs over the other in her usual casual manner, "But that's not to say that I haven't ever wished that I was… it can certainly get a bit tough when it's only you who can't perform any of the amazing tricks that everyone else can... some people do judge you like that…"
Especially like you used to… she thought to herself as she stared back at the frail woman opposite her, dark hollows appearing amidst the pale complexion, cheekbones painfully defined, dark eyes darting nervously around the room, mildly mistrustful of everything in sight, like an animal in caged captivity, Constance Hardbroom had been effectively imprisoned by her own mind, her own worst enemy as ever, invincible to all-only to be beaten by herself.
"But, didn't it bother you that magic may actually exist?" muttered Constance, a slight crease appearing in her brow as she frowned slightly, plucking absent-mindedly at the fraying cuff of her dressing gown, "That everything that you grew up believing in was wrong?"
"Well, it was hardly what I would call a normal job interview!" Imogen smiled wistfully to herself, "I had previously been working at an all-girls academy, Heversham High. I had a good job, my very first job after teacher-training college, as an assistant head of department- it was a reasonable salary for somebody who was used to working all hours in a pub on minimum wage to finance her way through college, and I loved teaching the girls…" she sighed, running a tanned hand through her short blonde spikes.
"But, there was quite a personality clash with the rather formidable head of department, one Veronica Pike: a tweedy, egocentric throwback who believed in death or glory as the only sensible method of approaching a sporting fixture. She was an unmitigated bully, and would resort to anything to get her own way. Students and staff alike were petrified of her. Shortly after I arrived, I came across her screaming, I mean, literally screaming at this poor girl who had had the misfortune to have fallen over during a basketball match, and as a result had dropped the ball, which the other team then picked up to score with! It wasn't her fault, the girl was exhausted from the non-stop intensive training that she had been made to take part in, not allowed to rest or eat until she had completed the tasks set to her, and had literally collapsed from over-exertion! I decided to lodge a complaint against Pike and her outrageous behaviour, and the next thing I knew, she had turned the tables, claiming that it was me who had cornered the girl, and had even "persuaded" the girl in question to testify against me! Of course, she was too terrified to do anything to other than what Pike wanted her to do, so…" she broke off and shrugged non-committedly, evidently more hurt by the events than she was letting on in her account, "Last in- first out, etcetera, etcetera.."
"You were sacked, because of her?" indignation was rife in Constance's voice as she stared in disbelief at Imogen.
Imogen nodded quickly, staring at the backs of her hands in a bid not to be seen to be over-emotional about having to recount her dismissal. "Yes, but in a way, it was one of the best things that could have happened to me…"
A raised eyebrow from Constance was her invitation to continue.
"A few days after I had left Heversham, I had moved back into my parents' house- unable to pay the rent on my flat with no money coming in; I was at a bit of a loose end. But, a chance encounter with Davina…" she broke off and gestured towards the door, rolling her eyes fondly, "in a local café was enough to set events in motion that lead to me getting an interview for Cackles Academy!"
She lowered her voice and leaned closer, "I mean-how many people do you know who stroll into a teashop with a besom broomstick under one arm, followed by a decidedly moth-eaten looking cat and immediately show more culinary interest in devouring the table decorations than anything on the menu? She then managed to throw an entire plate of fruit salad over my head, and somehow mysteriously managed to repair a shattered glass bowl and remove the cream from my hair when she thought that nobody was looking! After that rather unfortunate introduction, we struck up a rather long conversation; I still had no idea that she was a witch at this time. All I knew was when the talk turned to work, that she told me that Amelia was looking to start physical education lessons for the girls at the academy, and, before I could blink, I had an invitation to meet with Miss Amelia Cackle to discuss a potential job, teaching at her academy!"
"But," she cleared her throat, chuckling slightly to herself, "It certainly took a while to accept that people could do magic! I nearly died of shock when you first-"
"When I what?" came the prompt reply, slightly edged with sarcasm, "Turned you into a frog? "
"No, Constance..." Imogen ventured nervously, shifting awkwardly in her seat, "You could always appear from thin-air… as you did in my interview and nearly gave me heart-failure! I always used to think you were watching everyone… you certainly had a sixth-sense for detecting troublemakers!"
"Oh, wonderful… I'll add teleportation to the miraculous list of skills that I apparently possess!" muttered Constance, swatting her bony hand impatiently upon the soft folds of the duvet. Her face softened as she looked back at Imogen.
"I'm sorry..." she sighed, "I know I shouldn't act like this… It's not your fault that I am in this irksome situation, but nothing, nothing, makes any sense, nothing correlates to anything else anymore- it's all a blur of mixed up details, as if somebody has painted over the top of a masterpiece- daubed new colours over the original shades, confused and hidden the perfect details behind a murky shroud… permanently hidden the truth from view…"
"Thank you," she lifted her head and offered a small smile by means of apology to Imogen, "thank you for being so accepting of me in my current state-"
"You're thanking… me?"
"Yes. For talking to me as if I weren't suddenly about to attack you, for being patient enough to know what it's like to have all this terrifying talk of magic and the supernatural being bandied around you like some impossible dream that refuses to end…"
"..and for brightening up my exceedingly dark day with your company…"
I think that's the nicest thing you've ever said to me… Imogen thought to herself.
"So, Imogen? Imogen." Satisfied that she had recalled the woman's name correctly, Constance leant closer, her quiet tones falling to a whisper, "It is because of this, that I need to ask for your assistance on a very, very private matter…"
"Oh? What sort of matter?"
Constance straightened up, looking furtively at the door before fumbling beneath her pillow to extract a rather battered looking spiral-bound notepad.
"The doctors gave me this to write in, anything that I might remember or think I remember…" she explained, leafing through the slightly crumpled pages with a determined accuracy.
"Now then… ah!" her bony finger stopped scrolling through the neat black writing, tapping gently upon the text in question.
"This is the address, the address that my memory is busily telling me that I live at, where the school is that I work at… eventually, no matter how diverse the memory, everything leads back to here…"
She stopped, her dark eyes meeting with Imogen's green eyes, almost pleading with her as she continued her request.
"Please, Imogen- would you go to this address for me? Tell me what you find? I need to know what is there, if there is any link at all, or whether I am merely falling into the depths of insanity and making wild presumptions about properties that I have never visited in my life. Either way, for my sake- please, will you do this for me?"
"Please!" an uncharacteristically emotional plea erupted stiltedly from between the thin lips of the woman sat opposite her, "This is the only way…the only way of knowing…"
She gritted her teeth as the uncomfortable confession made its way jerkily from within her, awkwardly making itself known, her usual verbal grace and eloquence somewhat deserting her at the alarming prospect of having to reveal some rather uneasy suspicions.
"I-Imogen, to be quite honest, I'm… I'm… almost, almost scared of what this might bring, what it might reveal, or not- but whether it proves me mad or not, at least I'll be some way towards knowing… perhaps it is merely a form of rational insanity, if there is such a thing…"
Imogen nodded quickly, her eyes prickling slightly with the faint burning sensation of tears welling up at the sight of the helpless shell of a woman whom she had until a week ago had lived in absolute fear of- Constance Hardbroom, asking for her help, being gentle and friendly? Surely this was some bizarre dream that she was about to wake from, a hallucination of the most peculiarly vivid kind.
Have I inadvertently ingested one of Davina's home-remedies again? She found herself thinking to herself.
No, this sensation was even more curious than that- was she really about to cooperate with Constance Hardbroom? That in itself was a record for the two women, who both secretly rather enjoyed their on-going spats and one-upmanship that fuelled the majority of their usually heated discussions- but, she reminded herself, that was a different Constance, a Constance who was very much out of reach at this point.
"Yes, I'll do it…" she returned the smile awkwardly, as her mind filled with questions like a swarm of wasps buzzing angrily inside her temples, generating a multitude of questions that she longed to ask, certain that this would be a wasted mission. "No problem."
Did Constance ever leave the academy? No, she lived there for the entire year round, reasoned Imogen to herself, certain that this was once again another of the poor woman's constructs.
"Thank you," relied Constance quietly as she carefully tore the faintly lined paper from the notepad and pushed it into the sport's mistress's hand.
"Please don't tell anyone about this, especially Amelia…"
"Just… just don't."
Imogen paused outside a large set of gothic wrought iron gates, ornately decorated with elegantly winding designs, guarded either side by a pair of faintly crumbling stone pillars, the bases of which were covered hungrily by various mosses and lichen, determined to evade the organised force of destruction that had tamed the wild garden that had previously lain behind the forbidding gates. A tall, redbrick house stood proudly at a respectable distance back from the quiet private road, nearly hidden behind a tall, well-maintained hedge. Decidedly gothic in style, the house boasted several towers and sweeping, grand architecture- a miniature castle hidden amidst the urban sprawl of the capital, so very traditional, so very Constance…
Her eyes detected a miniscule twitch in the heavy cream curtains that hung at the large arched window on the ground floor, an unseen observer cautiously watching her from within the impressive property. She took a moment to inhale deeply before summoning the courage to carefully push open the heavy black gate and walk purposefully up to the dark green painted front door. She raised her hand to knock, but the door swung open before her fist could make contact with the oak surface.
"Can I help you?" a calm, patient voice enquired patiently, low, well-educated contralto tones coloured with well-articulated annunciation, professional, but not cold and aloof, a faint edge of warmth to the business-like manner. A tall, willowy woman was standing there, with elegantly styled iron-grey hair, worn tied back in a low style that contrasted strikingly with her well-fitting dark clothes. Her appearance was timelessly graceful and made it hard to place an exact age upon her well-proportioned, albeit slightly wrinkled features. She was wearing a minimal amount of makeup and jewellery- a faint shimmer of coral lipstick offset by a slender gold bangle at her wrist and a simple string of large, glistening, milky-white pearls which was doubled twice around her neck. Her already impressive stature was further contributed to by the pair of soft black leather high-heels of a modest height. Her fingernails were long and shapely, professionally manicured, and a pair of tortoise-shell reading glasses was perched delicately upon the end of her nose.
"Umm…" The usually articulate sports mistress was rarely struck dumb in conversation, but she found herself flushing bright red as she fumbled for words like a tongue-tied teenager, twisting her hands together awkwardly as she tried to put her inquiry into words.
"I- somebody I know, a-a friend, she sent me here, here to, to find out w-whether…"
She broke off as the homeowner raised an inquisitive eyebrow at the sight of the mildly dishevelled woman who was standing on her doorstep, blonde hair lightly tousled, sparkling green eyes traced with dark shadows that betrayed her recent sleepless nights. She cleared her throat, holding up the crumpled piece of paper.
"Does Constance Hardbroom live here?" she asked hopefully, looking for the slightest flicker of recognition in the other woman's face.
"No…" a faint frown crossed the mildly lined face as she searched her memory for the name, "I haven't been a resident in this neighbourhood for a particularly long time, but I don't think I know a-a, what was it again? Hardboom?" Harpbroom?" she continued to mutter quietly to herself, trying every variation of the name under the sun.
"Hardbroom, Constance Hardbroom," corrected Imogen, gritting her teeth faintly as the image of the hospital-bound Constance wound itself firmly into her mind's eye, " I-I…" she trailed off wearily, running a stray hand through her untidy hair, ruffling the blonde spikes with her combing fingers.
"I'm sorry, I-I should go…" a crack appeared in her voice as she turned to leave, gesturing weakly into the air in mild despair. "I'm sorry to have wasted your time…"
Of course it would have been a dead end. A complete blank, yet another of Constance's memories that could be proved to be false, another complete impasse of false construction from her injured, reeling mind. How on earth was she going to break this to Constance? How could she be the one to shatter the miniscule grain of hope that the poor woman was clutching to? Her despair must have been present in her face, as suddenly, from nowhere, a comforting hand placed itself upon her shoulder.
"Hey, hey, hey…" a quiet voice soothed, "What's the matter? You look as if you've been in real trouble, are you sure that there's nothing that I can do to help?"
Imogen looked up into a concerned pair of hazel eyes, daring her own composure to leave her as she bit her lip anxiously, an unfamiliar sensation of tiredness and emotion rising up like a tidal wave within her, the combined impact of the previous seven days hitting home in one fell swoop.
"Oh… it's nothing really…" she managed, attempting a nonchalant smile that froze halfway across her lips.
"Hmmm, it looks like it…" murmured the statuesque woman, a faint hint of disbelief present in her voice. "At least let me invite you in for a cup of tea before you set off on your travels again?"
She left the question dangling enticingly in the air, long enough for Imogen to nod jadedly before allowing herself to be steered into the soft, welcoming glow of the sumptuous drawing room. Light was flooding into the large room from the high, arched windows, illuminating the pale magnolia painted walls and the simple antique furniture that lined the edges of the room. Beautifully carved tables and framed pictures complimented each other in a simplistic but high-quality array, period features maintained amidst the plush modern interior.
"Now, you sit there…" Imogen found herself seated gently upon a cream-leather sofa, next to an expensive looking woollen throw, "And I'll go and get some tea? You do drink tea? Would you rather have coffee?"
"Tea… would be fine, thank you…" she managed to murmur before her mysterious hostess smiled encouragingly and disappeared off to the kitchen in a soft swish of black fabric and a faint clatter of pearls, a faint trace of Chanel perfume lingering momentarily in her wake.
Imogen sighed, leaning back gratefully into the soft textile surroundings, kneading her aching eyes against her cool palms, tiredness and frustration pounding angrily behind her temples in a dizzying burst of percussion, leaden eyelids protesting vehemently against their 36 hour spell of enforced wakefulness. She stifled a yawn. What on earth was happening to her? Life had skewed off at such a bizarre tangent that it had left her completely disorientated, her usual routines decaying to nothingness- how long had it been since she had been for a morning run? Spoken to Serge? She was always at the hospital now, her life revolved around looking after Amelia and Davina's needs, or sitting with Constance. Constance… It would be fair to say that neither woman had felt anything short of disinterest and mild contempt for each other up until last week- but, strangely, now she felt… a connection?
The sudden enquiry rudely snapped her out of her reverie as a steaming willow-patterned teacup was thrust beneath her nose with the determined politeness of an expert hostess.
"Thank… thank you." She eased herself up into a more accessible position and accepted her refreshment.
"Milk, no sugar, thanks..."
An awkward, protracted silence fell as the elegant woman seated herself gracefully upon the other end of the settee, carefully crossing one slender leg over the other, nothing breaking the steady hush of the environment except for the delicate chink of the silver-teaspoon against the bone china cup, as she committed her full attention to the stirring the swirling brown liquid.
"So," the well-educated voice broke into the mute surroundings as she set the spoon carefully into the blue-patterned saucer, taking a minimal sip from the steaming liquid. "I hope you'll forgive me for being as bold to say this, but I sense that you are in some sort of trouble, perhaps?" She trailed off, concern evident in her eyes as she cast a sideways look at her unexpected houseguest.
"Yes..." Imogen's voice was hoarse as she nodded briefly, "Well, not me as such..."
She gripped the sides of her saucer tightly as she stared resolutely at the floor, a large lump having appeared unexpectedly within her throat.
"It's my colleague. She's been in a terrible accident..."
She stopped, clearing her throat loudly in a bid to shift the growing ball of emotion that was threatening to develop into tears if left unchecked.
"She's… she's lost her memory completely.. of everything…everybody she knows… everywhere she's been…"
"That's awful..." soothed the calm voice, a reassuring hand reaching across and squeezing Imogen's wrist faintly, "But, I'm sure that she is having the best medical care available, and that time itself will help to heal that particular ailment… most things in life become less painful with time… and I'm sure that you are doing all that you can to make things as easy and accessible as possible for her…"
Imogen nodded, her head feeling as if it had been stuffed with cotton wool, a dull, muggy fog of supressed anxieties and fears balling up tightly within. Talking was not helping, serving only to aggravate the rising feelings that were fighting for release, straining at iron chains that her self-control had placed around them, caging them in.
The other woman's voice broke into her thoughts once more.
"What does this all have to do with my house? And this person whom you are looking for?"
Imogen let out a breath that she had been unaware of holding as she took a much-needed gulp of tea.
"Well, this may seem hard to believe…" she began, raising her eyes to meet those of the other woman, "but, she thinks that she remembers this house, for some reason or another?"
A faintly puzzled look dawned upon the tall woman's features, "So, your companion is- Constance, Constance?" she broke off to mutter distractedly beneath her breath, "Oh, I'm getting so forgetful these days, what was that surname again?"
"Hardbroom," supplied Imogen flatly, for yet another time, "Constance Hardbroom. And yes, it was her that was involved in the accident."
"Well—" she broke off once again, "I'm sorry, I don't I ever caught your name?"
"Well, Imogen, as I say, I haven't lived in Coombe Wood Drive for a particularly long amount of time, but I'm afraid that that name simply doesn't ring a bell with me. I know that the house was empty for quite a while before I purchased it three years ago, so it is highly possible that the previous owners may have known your friend?"
Imogen nodded silently, wishing she could make her escape from the house, knowing that there were no more leads to be found.
"I'm Eleanor by the way…" a graceful hand was proffered, which she shook reluctantly.
"But," she paused thoughtfully, "I may well be able to contact the estate agents who sold me the house; there may well be a point of contact for the previous owners within their records?"
Imogen looked up hopefully, "Well, if you were able to?"
"I'll try my best, I promise…" smiled Eleanor, a gentle smile lighting up her faintly lined features, "Anything to be of some help, and my nephew does work for the company in question, so I can attempt to trace the previous owners for you?"
"Thank you," whispered Imogen, draining the remaining dregs from her teacup, returning a weak smile, "Thank you very much… I know that Constance would appreciate this…"
Eleanor leant forwards, rummaging within a black leather handbag, extracting a slimly bound diary, scribbling busily upon one of the pages in a sloping script, before tearing it carefully from the book.
"Here," she said, pushing the lined fragment towards Imogen, "This is my telephone number, call me in a couple of days, and I'll see what I can do."
Imogen murmured her thanks, writing her own mobile number on the back page of Eleanor's address book in her neatly rounded handwriting. Her digital watch beeped intrusively, causing her to flinch as she consulted the time.
"I-I'd better be going…" she gestured awkwardly towards the timepiece, "It's visiting time at the hospital in about 20 minutes, I really should go and meet my other colleagues…see how Constance is..."
"I understand," nodded Eleanor as she rose to her impressive height, guiding Imogen towards the front door, "Have you got far to go?"
"Oh, it's not far… only about 15 minutes up the road..."
They reached the hallway and Eleanor eased open the catch upon the heavy timbre door.
"Take care. And if you need anything, don't hesitate to call me- I know how difficult these situations can be…" she trailed off sadly with a faint shrug of her narrow shoulders. "Anytime…"
"Thank you…" smiled Imogen, "For the tea… and everything…"
"It was my pleasure."
The dark green door swung closed behind Imogen as she swung her rucksack onto her back and walked slowly across the gravelled drive.
She consulted her watch and swore faintly as she picked up her pace, her dry trainers squeaking slightly against the wet paving stones. She had promised to meet Amelia in five minutes time- she couldn't be late, nobody knew where she had disappeared to on her secret errand…
She extracted her iPod from the depths of her bag and fought to untangle the jumbled mass of white cable of her headphones, before selecting a particularly upbeat, fast playlist.
Her feet began to pound the ground, faster and faster, sending up little splashes from the standing water, soaking the tops of her socks as her pace quickened, her arms beginning to drive the tempo as her stride lengthened, hurtling forwards with a fresh injection of pace. Oh, it felt so good to be running again, her head was clearing from beneath the oppressive, tired dullness, her senses far more alive than they had been in a long time, her lungs drawing in breath after breath as a broad grin of contentment spread widely across her face, as for just a solitary moment, all her cares and worries disappeared into the whirlwind blur of turbulent air that she left disturbed in her speeding wake as she sped through the rainy streets of London towards the hospital.
A/N: Well, I finally got around to updating! I'm delighted to say that I'm off to university to study Music in September, so haven't had much time to write recently, what with having to sort out accommodation etc. but I've finally got this chapter finished! Big thanks to Dissecting Pomegranates for her help with ping pong for this chapter *awards cookies*, and a huge thanks to everyone who has read or reviewed this story so far- your reviews really do mean a lot, so please keep them coming!