Canning the uncanny, by Karen Hill-Green
A curtain of icy needles hit the windscreen. Stewart hunched over the steering wheel and craned forward to see through the fogged-up glass. The heater was out again. Hard to make out the road ahead, marbled with hail, leaves and broken branches. He wiped the window with the back of his glove but the polar fleece did not absorb the wet and made the single patch he was looking through blurry. Not much point in driving like this.
He pulled over to the curb and cautiously brought the car to a stop. Grabbing his heavy wool coat from the back seat, he opened the door and got out. Temperature had really dropped. Quickly he buttoned the coat, pulled the collar up and sunk his face into his tartan scarf.
There were no lamp posts this far out of town and his only point of focus in the inky night was a house a couple of hundred metres ahead. He clapped his gloves together and gingerly made his way forward on the icy tarmac. Trudging on the hail felt crunchy but the sound was barely audible above the trees thrashing overhead in the wind.
Stewart’s eyes flitted up and down the road. Alone out here and the phone not picking up a signal. Should be able to use the landline in the house. Margie would be wondering where he was. Slamming out of the house on a night like this was childish. He’d have to apologise, however much she provoked him. Still, it was good to just hit the road and go.
He approached the house as the rain started to ease up. The gate had tired, peeling paint and the latch was stiff, as if it hadn’t been used in years. He fiddled with it and then forced it open. As he went up the path to the front door, the gate banged behind him and set off a dog inside. It had a low deep bark; probably large. Then it stopped. Stewart rapped the knocker. It was grimy to the touch. He stamped his feet and wiped his upper lip off on his sleeve as he waited. Nothing. Maybe they couldn’t hear with the gusts in the trees. He knocked again, though more decidedly. Still nothing.
‘Hello. Anybody home?’ he called out. Odd that the dog did not respond to his voice.
He leant his head back, looking for movement in the upstairs windows. Lacy cobwebs clung to corners and they sheathed sections of wall; no sign of life. There was a chill in the air and he could feel it biting the back of his neck.
‘Hello. Hello,’ he shouted. No telling how far to the next house and he needed to call Margie. She’d be worrying.
He turned the door-knob and poked his head inside.
‘Hi. Is there anybody here?’ Smelt musty. Light on in the kitchen. Maybe the person who lived here was deaf.
The furniture was draped with sheets. Place seemed deserted and as if it had been for a while. Stepping into the kitchen he half expected to see someone but there was no one about; just a country table covered with canning jars and lids. It didn’t add up; an unlocked front door, light left on and a fleeting barking dog. Someone must have left in a hurry.
It had been an emotional day already and now this.
Suddenly the back door flew open and a shaft of bitter cold brought winter fully inside. Stewart wheeled about, ‘What the…’ he said under his breath.
He looked out to the garden, a tangled mess of weeds and brush shimmying in the wind. There was a rushing from the sycamores battling each other at the far side of the distant field. He shuddered, stepped back into the house and closed the door. Alongside him on the wall were faded sepia-toned photographs. Almost all of them were written on in the corners in scratchy white ink and appeared to be of a Mrs Blakeley-Hall presiding over what looked like jam-making contests. Apparently, she was a judge at the county fair, year after year. Her face radiated from the dull pictures and Stewart followed the photo parade from the scullery to the kitchen until he reached the last photograph. From the date, it had been taken more than fifty years before and Mrs Blakeley-Hall appeared to be well into her 80s at that time. She was obviously long gone.
Something metal clattered against the fence. As he looked up, Stewart’s eye caught steam rising from a stainless steel pot on the hob. He walked over to it and saw immediately that it held a red mixture. The luscious smell of currants and berries wafted towards him. There was a wooden ladle on the counter next to the pot and there were tiny bubbles on it where the jam had recently been skimmed off. He felt the side of the pan and it was hot.
Where was the person making this jam?
Suddenly, it was no longer important to call Margie. He just wanted to get out and back on the road. As he ran for the front door, he heard a click from the kitchen and looked behind. The light had gone out. He fumbled with the door-knob and was shaking as he pulled at it. It was sticking; must have swollen with the rain. He pulled hard and it shuddered open. Dashing down the path, he grabbed roughly at the gate latch, flew through and slammed the gate shut. That set the dog off again. He turned around and backed away from the dark house, noticing a worn-out sign in the front garden which said, ‘Bank repossession. Property auction. February 1, 1978.’ That was almost forty years ago. The wind was picking up again and it battered the sign.
Stewart ran to the car. At least the rain and hail had stopped. He was panting as he threw himself into the driver’s seat and locked the doors. Without thinking, he started the ignition and tore off at speed, stones spitting up from the tyres. It was eerily quiet even though the stormy night raged outside. He pressed the radio button and the Bee Gees filled the air.
At the junction he slowed down to make the turn. Standing by the roadside was a bent old woman, no coat, no bag and barely visible in the darkness. She was in her slippers and wearing an apron smeared with red. He recognised the face, radiant in the cold night.