FULL STORY | "Muttonscalp" by I. Horsburgh

Illustration by Sam Rheaume; read the full story  in issue 6

Illustration by Sam Rheaume; read the full story in issue 6

There was a soft thump at the front door. Lia raised her head from the heap of photos spread out on the polished tabletop. She didn’t move from the chair. Beyond the glass, soft flakes wafted down. If they couldn’t reach the bell, it was probably kids. She picked out another of the sepia photos from the file, held it up, considering. The noise came again, a single thud on the wood.

“Get lost,” she thought, “I’m working.” It came again, muffled but determined. “If your knuckles are bleeding, don’t come crying to me.”

She got to her feet, and made her way in an unhurried fashion across the hall, which had a pleasing scent of fresh paint and sawdust.

The light and airy feel in here was a big improvement on what they’d found when the house was first unlocked. It was unrecognisable, the old stone building with dripping mould on the walls, a stench of rot and a roof like moth-eaten lace. All was now scoured clean and made sound. This had been, among other things, a farmhouse, including an inn, a meeting house for non-conformists, a school, an amateur knocking-shop and a scrapyard/piggery.

It was one of those double-fronted flat-faced sandstone buildings that one saw all over the North, with Georgian windows set into in an older facade. Often marooned by a dual carriageway or on the fringe of a housing estate, stripped to the bone as nature and vandals took turns, sometimes all that was left was a collapsing husk. In this case they’d got there in time, before the whole lot toppled to the ground like an elephant with a dart in its flank. Its official name had been Muttonscalp Farm, but since a family named Winter had spent a short time living there about one hundred and fifty years ago, it was now Winter House. The Winter Trust had appointed Lia to run things. She was already known among her colleagues as the Sno Queen.

She flung open the front door, prepared to give someone an earful. There was nobody in sight, no prints on the crisp carpet at her feet. If anything had been thrown at the door from over the fence, there was no sign of it. How had they managed that?

“Bloody kids!”

Children from the housing estate had been hanging about when the contractors were working, peering through the iron gates. There was a high fence at the front, high brick walls at the back, but they must have found a way of getting through. Winter House was for the community, of course, and there would be outreach, but Lia didn’t want just anybody barging in, not yet. They were not due to open for a month or so, probably the end of June. If this was going to be the cultural hub that had been promised, you couldn’t be having unauthorised snowball fights all over the place. Event management would be seeing to those, later, once there was accident insurance in place.

The Sno had set to a powdery texture that looked a lot like the real thing, as far as she knew. At the age of twenty-eight, she was too young to have ever seen real snow. They were still working on the squeak people said you could hear when it compacted underfoot. The tang in your nose, and frozen breath—they were working on that, too.

The Sno was really coming down now, not that there was any chance of being Sno-ed in. The particles could be shifted quite easily with a big plastic scoop. It was more like being in a giant snow globe, the Snoflakes endlessly circulating. She went to take a reading from the machine, which sat unobtrusively at the base of a wall in the back garden.

As Lia stepped back inside the front door, she saw a movement at the end of the hall. A woman in a long printed-cotton dress, sprigged with blue flowers, was walking past the foot of the stairs, carrying a baby in her arms. Her brown hair hung down like the ears of a spaniel. She turned her back towards Lia and walked steadily along the narrow passage towards the kitchen.

This was Martha Wake. She had died in 1838. The baby, wrapped in a shawl and pressed against her shoulder, had no face yet. There was little point in providing one. It could have been any one of her eight known children, half of whom had lived to grow up. She would have been thought lucky for that.

In the right conditions, a skull in the ground could be copied in three dimensions without excavation, and a reconstruction made. You could now see the faces of ancestors who’d never heard of cameras, the wealthier, well-nourished ones, anyway. If they had good strong bones and a marked grave, they could be brought back. If, however, your rickets-stricken forebears were bundled into a pauper’s grave with a dozen strangers, you were going to have to go on using your imagination.

The faces of children were not recreated, for the same reason that there are no child crash test dummies. The tables that gave the average thickness of skin on a human skull were based on donated bodies, and parents didn’t donate their children for this sort of research. Lia knew some archaeologists had disliked excavating children’s graves anyway. She wouldn’t call herself sentimental, but she could see their point.

In Martha’s case, she’d died relatively young. There were no females of a similar age in the grave, and she had lived for a time at Muttonscalp as a servant, so she was ideal as a subject. There were others as well, a good sample of the many who’d come and gone here over the centuries. They were on shuffle, so you never knew which one you’d come across as you went about the rooms. There’d be the flick of a frock coat round a corner, the top of a bewigged head passing below as you glanced over the banister. They did not make eye contact. During tests this had been found to be a bit too unsettling for some people. They looked over your shoulder or at the ground. They moved across your path or away from you, but never towards you. Dogs didn’t like them. Visitors with guide-dogs would have to be warned about that. Cats trotted through them, unfazed.

In theory, accurate voices could also have been created, but again, in tests, the voices of actors were found to be more effective. The reconstructed voices, using the bones of the neck and thorax, were croaky and at the same time, a bit too real for comfort. The first time the real Richard III spoke, he was said to have sounded like a ventriloquist’s dummy with a frog trapped inside it, but technology had moved on. The Winter House ‘grams were intended to maintain a dignified silence.

Lia returned to her pictures. The south-facing light of what had been the parlour was usually easy to work by if you were picking out tiny details in photographs. There was one in particular she thought would look good blown up for exhibition, Edwardian skaters on a pond, muffled up against the cold. It wasn’t a Christmas card-pretty scene, the clothes were practical, but she wished she could have seen it in colour. Every so often, as she worked, a ‘gram went past the door of the room. They didn’t come in—this was not a public area. The ‘grams circulated as long as there was somebody in the house, the motion-sensors being part of the renovation. Lia was not disturbed by them. They were only shadows, like a zoetrope. There were to be no artefacts to give a “period’ feel to the house. There were museums in the region stuffed with authentic bygones, but this was not a museum, it was a gallery with exhibition spaces. The Sno outside the window was coming down so thickly, she went outside to take another reading. Again, the screen told her that all was well.

#

She’d listened to all the recordings in the archive, including a very old woman who could remember trying to make a snowman.

“It was all wet and slushy, and we couldn’t get it to cling together. It stuck in frozen pills to our mittens. My gran could remember sledging on the Town Moor in Newcastle, on real, soft snow. She said it was like flying.”

Lia tried to picture it—the ringing voices of the children in the bitter air, the fading light of a winter’s afternoon long ago, the blue metal of the toboggan hitting the frozen crystals—but it was too remote.

“Starved with cold,” people around here still said. But still, how must it have felt?

The Sno she had knelt in just now, while wearing knee-length shorts and a skimpy t-shirt, was warm and dry to the touch. Lia’d never worn mittens, she thought they sounded impossibly hampering. How on earth did people get anything done, dressed like that? They were going to have craft sessions at the house, knitting woollen mufflers and stockings, but what they would do with them was anyone’s guess. There were rumoured to be patches of real snow in secret locations in the Highlands, but Lia reckoned you were more likely to meet the Loch Ness Monster trotting down the road

Pulling herself to her feet, she looked up at the front of the house. The falling Sno made it hard to be sure, but was that a shape crossing the mullioned window on the top floor? There was a staircase just behind it, and a landing. She couldn’t see if the figure was a man or a woman, or just a cloud reflected on the pane. She knew them all: Mary Anne Haddrick, Denton Friend, Isaac Verey, Samuel Gelatly, and her favourite, Jane Codling. She’d drowned during a skating party on the frozen lake in nearby Sedgely in 1880, while the rest of the village rescued a hot chestnut machine.

This ‘gram could have been any of them. Whoever had set them off should not have been in the house, though. Nobody should be. Lia took a step towards the front door, then hesitated. She should let somebody know if they had an intruder. Walking round to the back of the building, she found no footprints. The rear doors were still locked.

Back at the front, she found the hall empty. She stood just inside the door, and clapped her hands. None of the ‘grams appeared. This happened sometimes. She knew they hadn’t gone anywhere, although she was tempted to call for them by name, like they were mischievous children. She walked up the stone stairs, on which the real Isaac Verey had tripped and died in 1798.

She’d read that people in the past used fire rather than lamps to light rooms, and candles were only for getting from one place to another, not always without mishap. The light in this house today was so clear, with new skylights, that it was hard to picture them stumbling about in smoky darkness. The ‘grams moved with an assurance they could hardly have known in life. Nothing of their aches and pains, or ill-fitting shoes, or bare and callused feet, showed.

Upstairs, in the long gallery, blow-ups were propped against the walls, photographs of winters past. There was a woman in a sacking apron putting out scraps for birds, sheep crowding round a bale of hay, and a group of men with shovels in the terrible winter of 1947, digging an entire train out of the drifts. Birds had fallen out of the trees like stones. There would be illustrations and information panels related to the Little Ice Age, and Frost Fairs on the Thames, once they were completed.

Beyond them was something which Lia was especially proud of. The snowflakes installation hung on impossibly thin wiress. Each was the size of a dinner plate, intricate and sparkling. As the prisms of glass caught the light, rainbows were reflected on the walls and floor. If one was struck just so, it rang with music. Sometimes, when she was alone in the gallery, Lia walked through the shimmering maze of flakes, flicking them with the tip of a finger as gently as she could, so that the whole house was alive with chimes. There must have been music of some sort here once, and she would have loved to know it.

Something cold touched her shoulder for a fleeting moment, and she flinched. Putting her hand up to her collarbone, she felt dampness on her fingertips. Goosebumps rose on her bare arms. She looked up. Something had dripped from the skylight. The Sno only fell from the level of the eaves, so the glass above her was clear, but there must be condensation. She’d have to report that. No matter how meticulous the conservation, an old building will have ways of confounding you.

Walking back along the landing, she looked over the banister, expecting to see the crown of a head passing over the worn flags, but it was all stillness down there. She found a song bubbling up. Lia belonged to a choir. She’d been researching some music for them, really old songs, not familiar to most people. They hoped eventually to sell an album in the Winter House shop, along with the snowdrop mugs and the icecube fudge. They would be winter songs, not Christmassy, but something evoking the feel of an icy cold day. The acoustics in here were perfect. She put back her head and sang.

“Under the blanket, under the snow, under the blanket of winter I’ll go. Under the-” Behind her came a resounding crack, then the sound of shattered glass. If one of those snowballs had hit the window….

Running back into the gallery, it was difficult now to see clearly. Somehow Sno was covering much of the skylight! That shouldn’t happen. The Sno that fell down from the eaves couldn’t go upwards, even on a breezy day. Turning on the lights, she saw one of the snowflakes shattered on the wooden floor.

“I wasn’t singing that high, was I?” Then she saw the snapped wire. That was going to have to be reported, they couldn’t risk it happening when the visitors were in. She walked back along the landing, which was still empty of ‘grams. There was a corridor stretching along the front of the building, leading to a storeroom at the end. This was where the ‘gram she had seen from outside had been walking. It was hard to see much through the window, so thick was the Sno, but somebody seemed to have dumped a black bin liner near the gate.

She opened the storeroom door, feeling pity as always for the maids whose tiny bedchamber this had once been, and from the cupboard, she collected strong gloves and a shoe box, as well as a small brush. Most of the snowflake could be rescued, if she was careful. She walked back along the corridor, along the landing and into the gallery. She’d worked in old buildings before. They all have their own settling noises, and she was only just learning the music of Winter House. She closed her eyes, and stood for a moment, listening, but the Sno seemed to block any ambient noise. She half expected, when opening her eyes, to see a retreating back or a hem whisking out of sight, but the ‘grams were still not in evidence. There are always teething troubles, she told herself, better to get this ironed out before the hordes arrive.

The pieces of snowflake were still scattered on the floor of the gallery, but it was now so dark that the reflections had paled. She took out her phone. The signal was never very good in the house, for some reason, but it looked as though she had a message. She didn’t recognise the number. The text blinked out even as she read:  

Under the blanket, I’ll waken once more, dressed all in white, I’ll wait at your door

She felt a long shiver that started at the top of her head and ran down through her body. There was somebody in the house, listening. They must have heard her singing, and now they were mocking her. If it was someone she knew playing a mean joke, they’d be sorry, but running through the possibilities in her mind, she couldn’t think of a single colleague or friend who would do this. She wished she could, because the alternative, the stranger hiding in the house, meant she was going to have to get out. She wasn’t someone who ever backed away from trouble, and being driven out of somewhere that was her own space was infuriating.

She made her way down to the hall, deliberately not running. This was a strategic withdrawal, not flight. She didn’t want to end like Isaac Verey in a heap at the bottom of the stairs.

The heavy front door was shaking as though buffeted by a strong wind. She paused, watching, clutching the banister rail. Meet it head on. They won’t expect that. Make yourself do it. Three strides and she was across the hall. She reached out and grasped the handle. It stuck. She yanked at it, struggling, using all her strength, her palms slippery on the metal. Swearing to herself, she tried again, and all at once it yielded, pulling her off-balance, bringing a pile of Sno in with it, far more than the machine should have been able to produce. Then she saw that some of it was melting, watery crystals dissolving into a puddle at her feet. It couldn’t do that. It came from a laboratory. It would not melt.Beyond, in the garden, a blizzard raged, and a cold she had never known bit into her. Her teeth chattered, and she flung her arms around herself. She took a step outside and sank into a drift of icy powder that numbed her bare legs. Through the whirling flakes, she could just make out a patch of black near the gate that must be the bin-bag she’d noticed from upstairs. Measured against the distant gatepost, it was taller than she had supposed.

As she watched, it moved, swivelling to face her. It was not trash, she realised, no shapeless mound, but a human figure,a silhouette outlined against the snow. Lia didn’t know if this was an adult or a child, the slight build could have been either. The features were not distinct from here, and there was snow in her eyes. It began to make its way towards her. Then she saw the long gown brushing the snow, powder sticking to the hem. Lia recognised it as the one she’d selected for Miss Codling. Plain brown wool with horn buttons down the front, suitable for a spinster.

“How did she get out here? She can’t be here, it doesn’t work like that…” The ‘grams were part of the building. They didn’t go outside for a cigarette break or a breath of air, anymore than would a lightbulb. Lia’s breath was white in the gelid air. Miss Codling was not producing breath at all, and nor was her chest moving. You expected that from a ‘gram. She was looking directly at Lia. That, you didn’t expect, Lia told herself, even as the woman approached her, not gliding, but standing on top of the snow in her button boots. She advanced, unhurried but steady, her arms at her sides, her expression calm. She’d never had an expression of any sort before. They hadn’t needed to supply one. There’d never been any light flickering behind those brown eyes. Until now. Lia drew back, struggling against the wind. She didn’t want to take her own eyes from the woman’s face.

“She’s got lovely long eyelashes, we never gave her those, where did they come from? It’s the paint in the house, I’ve breathed something in, some chemical. I understand I’m hallucinating, but I’m on my feet.” She found that she was talking aloud, through freezing lips, the skin of which felt puckered and dry. Jane Codling was only feet away, posture straight as a poker, unhindered by the gale. Her sandy hair showed under the edge of a sensible bonnet trimmed with brown ribbon, suitable for a maiden aunt. “She’s made of light, she cannot harm me.” Jane’s own lips crimped into a smile, showing teeth that were not part of her specification, even as Lia’s mumbled words were snatched away by the storm. Miss Codling only came up to Lia’s shoulder, but right now, that didn’t feel like an advantage. Lia stumbled back inside.

As she fell back into the hallway, the icy wind blew through the building, carrying the blizzard with it. Drifts already lay on the windowsills, as though the house had been left roofless for years. She saw that a man in a striped waistcoat and brown fustian breeches was coming down the stairs as though he owned them. She knew him as Samuel Gelatly, yeoman farmer, died 1802, probably of pneumonia. She had dressed him, picked out his wig, set him to walk through the house like a clockwork toy. That seemed like something that had happened long ago, when there was warmth somewhere in the world. She’d never known such cold. They called it being starved with cold, she was starving down to a bundle of frozen sticks, crouched on her knees on the chequered tiles, that were already glazed with frost.

Samuel walked across the hall with the same steady tread as Jane Codling, who had followed her in, and now stood blocking the doorway, arms at her sides, eyes aglitter, mouth curved upwards. Samuel’s eyes met Lia’s. They were colder than the snow, hard as black ice. Somewhere in the house, another woman’s voice began to sing, pure and sweet.

“When we awaken, under the snow…” Other voices, many more voices than there were ‘grams, old and young, joined in:

“We bring the winter wherever we go…”