"In the house on the hill, there was a light. A single, flickering flame in a room on the first floor. Like a candle burning. Daphne wondered who lived there and resolved to ask her host, Teddy, if it belonged to the Hall.
She stood with her hands on the cold stone windowsill of her bedroom in Dean Hall. In the fading October light, spread out below her lay the fields, furrowed and brown, the glint of white chalk in the soil glistening in the moonlight like fragments of bone.
She shivered, feeling the chill dusk creep over her skin, and withdrew back into her room. She pulled at the window, stiff in its mullioned hinges, and rattled the metal catch until it was properly closed. But she lingered at the window a moment longer, her gaze fixed upon the speck of light on the distant hills, until suddenly it was gone. If she’d been a jumpy kind of a girl, she might have gasped. As it was, Daphne felt rather put out, as if she had been snubbed or been caught snooping.
She thought of her temporary room in the boarding house in Berwick Street, the single gas ring in the kitchen shared by four girls like her, who had not been brought up to earn a living by typing or working in a shop. She thought of the tatty WC at the end of the corridor, the nylon stockings hanging over the bath, the scarcity of hot water, and could have cried for the world she found herself in. If Douglas had not run out on her, life would have been so different. Mrs Daphne Dumsilde. It had such a ring to it. Douglas had promised to look after her, in sickness and in health. But he had not.
Daphne shook her head, irritated at how easily she had allowed herself to slip back into her habitual gloomy state of mind. Why spoil a perfectly pleasant weekend? Invitations had been thin on the ground – a woman alone was always awkward and her circumstances made it doubly so. Here there would be plenty of hot water, plenty of food and drink, perhaps a little dancing and amusing company to keep the dark thoughts at bay. She should enjoy herself. Appreciate being out of London.
She walked to the dresser and took a cigarette from her case. She tapped it sharply to tighten the tobacco, picked up her Ronson and jabbed at it with her thumb until it sparked. That, too, reminded her of Douglas.
Daphne inhaled, feeling the calming smoke trickle down into her lungs. Her jumping heart steadied. From the oak hall below, she heard the sound of the gramophone and whispers of jazz. Oddly modern music for so antique a setting. She glanced back to the window, her eye drawn by the echo of the light on the hill, but dusk had fallen, stripping the shape and character from the pleasant Sussex landscape.
Daphne stubbed out her cigarette and quickly dressed for dinner. She hesitated a moment, then removed her wedding ring and left it on the table beside the bed.
Her bedroom was in the south wing, which meant she had to walk past the doll’s house on the long corridor on her way down. There were ribbons of dust on the slope of its red-tiled roof and tall chimneys, but it was beautiful still. Tonight there appeared to be a fire burning in a grate of one of the tiny bedrooms. Daphne knew it must be some kind of clever electric trick, but it looked so real she could not resist opening up the front to investigate.
The white wooden facade swung back, revealing the entire household within from top to bottom. Daphne cast her eyes over each of the rooms in turn, but could not work out where the light had been. There were lamp fittings on the balsa-wood walls, but they didn’t work.
She glanced over her shoulder, wondering if perhaps the electric light in the corridor might somehow have bounced off the glass front of the display cabinet and given the impression of something shining inside the doll’s house. Straightaway, she saw that was impossible. The angle was all wrong. Daphne shivered, disliking the hard black eyes and frozen feathers of the robins, blackbirds and cranes motionless behind the glass.
The evening passed in a haze of vermouth and ragtime and pheasant, all pleasant enough, blotting out the memory of the drab life to which she would have to return on Monday morning. The company was congenial and she flirted a little with a boy who worked in a dispensary. While the men talked finance, Daphne talked about the latest detective novels to a girl from Surrey, some vague relation of Teddy’s. With an intimacy established, she could see the girl was on the point of asking about Douglas. Daphne excused herself and went in search of coffee. It was, Daphne thought savagely, why she rarely ventured out in society. It was dull always to have all eyes on her, wondering and thinking.
Her room was cold and the maid had not closed the curtains. As she climbed into bed, she told herself the evening had been a welcome change from scratch suppers eaten alone with only a paperback book for company, but she couldn’t pretend she felt less lonely than usual.
Looking back, Daphne never worked out what it was that woke her. One moment she was fast asleep, dreaming. The next, she was wide awake, heart pounding. The silence of the sleeping house surged around her, punctuated by the gurgling of the water pipes.
But yet there was something. As if the air itself was alive, brittle and sharp.
Daphne waited for her eyes to adjust. Then, she saw it. Through the window, in the same place as before, a flickering light in the house up on the hill, flames flickering and dancing. Except this time they were fiercer, more insistent, certainly not a single candle.
She sat bolt upright in her bed. The house on the hill was burning.
Daphne flung back the covers and jumped out of bed, banging her shin on its wooden corner. She pushed her feet into her walking boots, put her hat on her head and her coat over the top of her pyjamas, and ran down the corridor, raising the alarm. She hurtled down the main stairs, unbolted the heavy front door and flew out into the night. Somehow, she should help. The others would follow. They would see what she had seen, and follow.
Daphne ran across the lawns and up into the pastures above the Hall. Her breath burned ragged in her throat and the muscles complained in her thighs and calves, but she kept going. Grey clouds scudded across the face of the moon, sending slats of silver shadows like streamers over the grass.
Then Daphne caught a glimpse of someone else on the hillside, ahead of her, also heading towards the house.
‘Wait!’ she cried out, but the man did not falter. He did not even turn around.
Daphne kept going, taking long strides, half stumbling, half running, keeping him in her sights. The closer she got, the more she felt there was something familiar. The cut of his jacket, his profile in the flat white light.
Suddenly, between the trees, there was the house itself. She stopped dead. It was just as she had imagined it would be. Perfectly beautiful, a white, wooden, painted fac¸ade, sloping, red-tiled roof and tall stack chimneys. In fact, the original of the doll’s house on the first floor of the Hall.
There was no sign of the man. What was more, Daphne realised there was no crackling of flames, no heat, no sign that anything was wrong. There was only a single flame, like a candle, that she had noticed earlier in the same first-floor room. The same place where she had seen a pinprick of light in the doll’s house. A trickle of cold ran like a finger down her spine.
Daphne saw the front door was open. She took a step towards it, hesitated, then another step. Had the man already gone in?
‘Is anyone here?’
No one answered. She walked into the house, across the red-and black-tiled entrance hall, and up the stairs. Now she could hear the ticking of the clock, and the crack, spit and roar of an open fire. Where was everybody?
Looking back, Daphne thought it queer that it did not even occur to her to leave. Something was drawing her towards that bedroom on the first floor. At the top of the stairs, she turned right. The door at the end of the corridor was ajar. One step further, and another. Now she was pushing it slowly open."
The Best Little Book Club in Town is published by Orion, and is out now. £1 from the sale of each book will be donated to Breast Cancer Care.