The Poet's House

The Poet’s House

By Barbara Erskine


Given the time of year, she had probably been mad to rent the cottage. Suitable for writer or artist, the ad had said, code for isolated and shabby, out of season and cheap. But once she had seen the ad something had driven her on. She had to reply.

She pushed open the door and peered in cautiously.  A small living room, the remains of the last fire still scattered in the hearth. Two tiny bedrooms, kitchen and bathroom. The  cottage was old and pretty, swathed in end of season roses. She’d rented it because of its name. The Poet’s House.

She paused for a moment, getting the feel of the place, shivering as an unexpectedly strong gust of wind stirred the wood ash in the hearth, then she went to drag her bags out of the car. There was a storm coming.

The poet’s picture hung on the wall near the stairs. She had heard of him, though he wasn’t famous. This had been his family home. He was young and handsome and had died tragically in the First World War, killed on the Somme. Gently she reached up and touched his face, feeling a sudden connection. Perhaps his presence would inspire her; make her writing flow.

She explored the garden before the rain set in and saw how close the sea was.  No more than twenty yards away white topped waves lashed at the low cliffs. They crumbled as she watched, fissures and cracks appearing in the soft red rock as shards of sand and earth tumbled down onto the beach below where the sea hurled itself against the land.  Further along the coast two houses had half collapsed over the edge. That, she realised, was probably the destiny of the cottage too. Only short lets for holiday makers. No future here but the sea. The summerhouse belonging  to the cottage was right on the edge now. What a pity. It was  the perfect place to write. Was that where the poet had written his poems? It looked as though it would go very soon, perhaps tonight if the storm didn’t abate. She looked at it sadly then turned to go indoors.

She wrote until it was late. By the time she went to bed she was exhausted, goaded by the ever increasing scream of the gale blowing in off the North Sea.

The dream was sudden and very real. The young man was standing beside her bed, his face grey with fatigue and anxiety. ‘Help me,’ he said. ‘Please. You have to save them or it will be too late.’

She sat up, listening to the wind and groped for the light switch. Nothing. The electricity had succumbed to the storm.

She had seen a torch downstairs. Groping her way down she found it and switched it on, shivering, still gripped by the dream.  You have to save them. The words were echoing in her head.  The house felt strange. Uncomfortable. She went to look out of the window into the darkness and gradually became aware that there was someone standing behind her. She could see his reflection in the glass. For a moment she was too afraid to move. When she turned there was no one there.

It was as she headed towards the stairs to go back to bed that the beam of torchlight caught the picture on the wall. The young man of her dream.

Help me. You have to find them. The voice rose against the howl of the wind and it was then she saw him again, this time standing by his picture. She froze in terror, staring at him.  He raised a hand, beckoning and turned towards the door. In an extra strong gust of wind it  flew open.  The wind screamed in, rattling the picture on the wall, blowing her papers off the table. He wanted her to follow him.

She stepped outside, clutching her raincoat round her. He was drifting in front of her down the garden towards the cliffs, his face set, anxious, gesturing towards the summerhouse. She could see the door swinging back and forth, the far end undermined, hanging out now over the void.  Her torch beam wavered. He was there, inside. She had been right. This was where he had worked, where, before the horrors of the war he had felt safe. He was pulling at something on a shelf by the door.  She followed him, afraid, aware of the strength of the wind, the crumbling cliff.  In the darkness the interior of the summerhouse seemed strangely peaceful. On the shelf she saw a packet and reaching up she grasped it and pulled, feeling the wooden floor begin to lurch and splinter beneath her feet as she grabbed the package and threw herself out of the door back onto the firm ground. The night was full of wind and crashing waves. There was no sign of the young man.

The next morning the storm had gone. She awoke in bed recalling her nightmare with a shudder.   From her window she could see that the summerhouse and half the hedge had gone in the night.

Downstairs she stopped, shocked. A torn wet bundle of papers, wrapped in some kind of waterproof material lay on the table. Had she actually gone down the garden in the teeth of the storm and risked her life to bring this indoors?

She opened it.  Inside was a pile of manuscript. Poems.

She looked up at the portrait and smiled in awe. Did he smile back? She wasn’t sure.

All short stories »