She watched him striding over the fields, swinging his arms, mouthing the lines he would later write on a page to the morning mist.
He was a fit 73 years old: his family had never had worries about his health, and his eccentricities? Well, they were just part of who he was.
Amélie watched him pace along the footpath towards the house, her heart singing. Now it really was Christmas, because now Grandad had arrived. Every year, since she had been a tiny little girl, she had waited, gazing out at the landscape, for that figure, every Christmas day. When she was younger someone would be keeping stride with him, but Grandma went to hospital one Summer and never came out again.
And while there was always something indefinably sad about Grandad since then, his face would warm when he reached the house and caught sight of Amélie, and he would hasten to tell her about some tiny harvest mouse who had crossed his path, or a buzzard he saw stalking the hedgerows, or something in the news, or that he had read in a book. There was always something; whomever he had lost, he knew he still had those he loved. Grandad lived the life of the mind: he had never lost that innate joy in life.
That little girl waiting at the window had blossomed now, into a young woman. Though not a beauty, she had a quick mind and a lively face which could set into lines of dogged determination when pressed. She was admirable, her grandfather always reflected.
Amélie St John was home from Oxford for Christmas. Her studies paused, she was enjoying the return to the old traditions of a Christmastime at the St John household.
At length she could wait no longer, and she knew her grandfather must be getting tired. She grabbed a coat and hurtled out of the door and down the path, and met the old man, taking his arm and asking what he had come by, on his walk over the fields.
“The fox is hungry today,” the old man said. “She’s trying to get those little ones of hers fed.”
“You mustn’t leave things out for them, Grandad,” Amélie chided. “Nature has its own ways of levelling things, you know that.” But she knew he would, nature or no nature. He couldn’t bear to see any other being suffer when it was within his power to change things.
“So,” the old man said, changing the subject amicably, “I hear you have a Christmas job. Very impressive.What are you doing, up at the Manor?”
Northdale Manor was a great old Victorian pile down the road. It had been a crumbling wreck until the Ryarsh family took it over; they were making a successful venture of using it as a venue for weddings and film locations.
Amélie smiled. “I’m a duty manager. I make sure everything runs smoothly and lock up when it’s time for everyone to go home.”
Was it her imagination or did her grandfather tense imperceptibly? If he had, he covered it well. “So there are times when you’re all alone up at that great big house?” he enquired. His voice seemed studied in its congeniality.
“I haven’t been yet, but I will be. Tomorrow’s the Boxing Day shoot, and I shall be supervising refreshments and closing up when everyone’s gone. But I can handle it. I’m all grown up now, you know…”
There was a laugh in her voice somewhere, and her grandfather would ordinarily have laughed along. But something was clearly troubling him.
“Grandad? What is it?” Amelie searched his face but he would not meet her eyes.
“It’s nothing. Just something which once happened to me up there, that’s all. Made me wary. Can no one stay to lock up with you?”
“Not really…” Amelie’s voice held a trace of anxiety now. “Grandad, you’ve gone pale. Let’s get you inside by the fire…it’s a while yet until dinner, anyway. You can tell me all about it.”
The fire crackled in the grate and the pair sat, eyes glazed by the flickering flames, glasses of warm mulled wine filling the room with the scent of spices.
“I did some work myself at Northdale, once,” Grandad volunteered. “I was rather a wild card. At Oxford I studied history by day, but I fancied myself a bit of an entertainer by night. I used to keep my posh friends amused at college parties. Juggling was my thing.”
Amélie was nonplussed. She had never suspected a flamboyant side like this to her bookish grandfather. And he had never, not even when she was a tiny girl, juggled for her.
“I could juggle anything,” he was continuing:” balls, yes, but I used to get things from the audience and juggle them; could be a stiletto one night, a Rolex the next. Took a deal of managing, all the different shapes and weights, and I’d juggle fire as a finale. It got me into all the best places at Oxford. I was the life and soul.”
He paused, the ghost of a smile playing on his lips.
“So in my final year I came home for Christmas and had a stroke of luck, as I saw it then. The folks at Northdale had a son at Oxford who had seen me working -and I got an invite to one of their big week-long Christmas parties they used to hold.”
He paused. It was the cars which had bewitched him: they rolled up to that great door on Christmas Eve that year at the dawn of the swinging sixties: the Rolls Royces, the Daimlers with their establishment cargo; and the Jaguars with their racier occupants. There was a handful of Bristols, the luxury handmade cars of the market. Each glided up to the doorway with its stolid pillars of dark stone, and staff would scurry to unload trunks and suitcases, and out would step some impossibly polished visitor or other.
I’ll be entertaining them, he thought, and hugged the idea to himself.
The next night, there he was, in a Saville Row suit, juggling some high-class contributions from the audience. Nothing was too difficult, he recalled, and even now, in front of a fire many decades later, his body remembered that sensation of creating a perfect balance, being at one with whatever powers there might be, making a perfect weightless cycle with a Dunhill cigarette lighter, a Rolex wristwatch and an antique brooch. He was centre stage: guests lined the staircase and jostled in doorways to get a glimpse.
Juggling: it broadens your outlook. Quite literally: though most of us only perceive what is in front of us, a juggler must see just as clearly out of the corner of his eye. And Martin was very, very good. Nothing escaped him.
Certainly not the shadow which emerged, unexpected, unbidden, from the staircase behind the appreciative crowd, a shadow which began as something like mist and gained substance.
Martin nearly dropped the Dunhill. A quick sweep of his vision revealed no-one else had seen this thing which materialised and left in a matter of seconds, a thing which even there, at the edge of his perception, exhibited the most grotesque, jerking movement. Not only this: but a sense of malevolence. And there was something else. A feeling of purpose.
In just the few seconds it stood there. Martin was certain: this thing knew he could sense it. It lived in humans’ peripheral vision. Most were able to dismiss it as a trick of the light; but not Martin. He had a juggler’s highly developed peripheral vision.
And now the creature that lived there, on the edge of human perception, had found someone with whom it could conduct business.
You can find part two of this mystery here…