Emma could not understand why the glass had broken. She remembered wiping cobwebs from inside of the kitchen window and thinking that she should clean the green algae off the outside. The algae seemed to spread from the nearby conifers on those days when the cottage was engulfed in mist and rain together. At any rate the glass, on that misty morning, had definitely been intact. By noon the mist had given way to brilliant sunshine, with intense light reflected from the pale sea on the distant horizon. And Emma saw a crack glittering across the glass. Could someone have thrown a stone? But it was too far from the town for any kids to come up and make mischief. She had not been out of the cottage, and would surely have heard if something had struck the glass. There was no reason for this crack to appear.
Emma kept glancing at the crack in the window whenever she went past. Over the next few days it lengthened. Then fingers started to grow out of it branching across the glass, making a spider web of cracks and lines. The sun projected a sinister shadow into the window reveal. The only glazier in the phone book said he was busy.
‘I’m doing a block of flats in East Kilbride,’ he explained. ‘It’ll be a month before I can get to ye.’
Perhaps Gordon and Eileen next door could recommend someone.
It had not taken Emma long to strike up a friendship with her new neighbours. Among these few cottages at the end of a narrow lane that led uphill from the town, everyone’s business was public knowledge, and so even before she moved in they all knew that her name was Emma, and that she was from West London and divorced and had a son who still worked down South. No sooner had she unpacked her glassware than Gordon and Eileen were sitting at her kitchen table, having braved a squally evening to come round with a bottle of Chardonnay. The wine, it seemed, was for Eileen; Gordon had spotted the whisky on the kitchen dresser.
‘So how did you get on with the Robertsons?’ asked Eileen. The Robertsons were the couple that had sold Emma the cottage. Emma said they had been easy to deal with, but Gordon snorted.
‘Wanted to get rid of the cottage, aye? They never lived here, only had it as a holiday rental, sold it off when it had made no money.’
‘It was a very reasonable price,’ Emma said.
‘Aye. Well.’ Gordon cleared his throat. I’ll tell you something else about this place… the folk that lived here in the old days, over two hundred years ago. And you’ll understand why it was cheap.’
‘Don’t be believing his stories,’ warned Eileen, folding her hands over the base of her wine glass where it rested on the kitchen table. Her hands were plump, with well kept nails and a lot of old-fashioned gold jewellery.
From under greying eyebrows, Gordon fixed blue eyes on Emma, gauging her reactions.
‘Now, the family that built this place were doomed by their own hands, by their own cruelty. For they would set a false light in that very window there, your kitchen window, to lure the ships on to the rocks. They would rob the drowned men where they found them down in that bay.’ He gestured at the window, which vibrated in reply, agitated by the wind. ‘If they weren’t drowned when they found them, then, well…And they say there’s gold bullion from those sunken ships, still buried in the sand in Dollar Cove. A fortune in golden dollars from the New World.’
‘Sand dollars, aye?’ snorted Eileen, but Emma felt uneasy.
‘What happened to the family? Why do you say they were doomed?’
‘Well I’ll tell you something else.’ Gordon poured a drop of water into his whisky and took a slow sip. ‘One stormy night a stranger come to the house, drenched, his clothes dripping with water as though from the sea. He would not say whence he came there, and he begged a room for the night. He was a dark, strong handsome man, and the daughter of the house said they could not turn him away, not on such a night. Indeed, the daughter and the mother both, could not take their eyes off him, as though he had cast a spell. He played the man of the house at cards – on a Sunday, mind, and in this very room!’
Gordon’s gaze shifted to the fireplace, with its blackened stone work above the range. Emma could imagine an open fire, and two men seated at a low table beside the hearth, the candles flickering and the women watching from the shadows.
‘They played for farthings at first and then for pennies and then for shillings, and soon the host had a pile of winnings and his guest had eyes as hot as embers. But then, the host drew the ace of spades, and his fingers started to tremble, the card flew out of his hand to the floor, and as he stooped to pick it up he saw beneath the table, a cloven hoof, the sign of the devil. He knew then that he was gambling his very soul and all the gold buried in the sand would never be sufficient ransom. And as he rose he made the sign of the cross and commanded the devil be gone. At that, the shutters at the window burst open and there was a roaring as though the gates to hell had opened and all the lost souls were emptying out their burning lungs. All the cards flew up in the air and the devil and all his money vanished on the wind. And thereafter was a draught at the window that could never be sealed, and the daughter of the house became ill of an incurable condition, and all the stones that had been laid in the bay to mark the hiding places of the bullion were washed away by the storm. They died destitute.’
Gordon paused, perhaps to see if Emma was spooked yet, although she didn’t know if he was pulling her leg and about to roar with laughter at her gullibility. His eyebrows were raised and there was a small smile developing into a grin.
‘And I’ll tell you something else…’
‘Can I top your glass up there, Gordon?’ Emma asked politely. Sedation was perhaps the best bet. She thought that the villagers might well have been wreckers once upon a time, but as for the devil playing cards in the kitchen, well, perhaps not. And the windows were uPVC, and not draughty.
‘Eileen?’ Emma gestured towards the wine glass, but Eileen shook her head.
Gordon looked at his watch and his wife.
‘Well, now, we’d better be going. It’s getting late, isn’t it?’ But he held his glass out to the whiskey bottle and Emma poured him another.
‘And I’ll tell you something else.’ He sat upright again.
Eileen rolled her eyes to heaven. Emma refilled her Chardonnay.
‘Go, on, then, Gordon.’ Emma’s tone of voice held as much discouragement as she could muster.
‘They say the curse on this house will only be lifted when the owner does a good deed. A good, pure, generous deed.’
‘Right.’ That’ll take a while, then, she thought.
‘And if not, then the house is doomed, to crack and crumble to dust, and vanish into the ground until nothing remains but brambles.’
Emma stood in the sunlit kitchen with Gordon’s story floating in fragments through her mind. Outside the kitchen window was rough grass, and at the boundary a large bramble patch. Brambles were the ferocious claws of the wilderness that frustrated Emma’s plans to create a garden. Despite her efforts to clear the ground, newly planted shrubs would vanish without trace amongst them within a fortnight. Even young trees would lift despairing branches above the besieging vegetation for a few weeks until pulled down amongst the bindweed and gnawed by rabbits. Yet she felt more at peace amongst the wild beauty of her new home than ever she had in the suburbs of London. If there was a curse on the place, there was a blessing too.
She looked again at the cracked window. There had to be something good, and generous that she could do.
At the back of the dresser was a tall tin containing a bottle of rare and aged single malt. She had brought it all the way from the Green Welly Stop at Tyndrum, and set it aside, unopened, for a special occasion. She smiled regretfully, picked it up, and went next door. After all, Gordon and Eileen knew everyone in the area, so they would be sure to know a glazier.