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  • Writer's pictureYvonne Costello

Moat Hill Hall - The First Chapter

Updated: Oct 8, 2023



Startled crows cawed. Their winged shapes scattered out from the upper canopies, shaking leaves from the branches down to the fern and bracken below.

Snap! I turned sharply, jarring my neck. A flame orange flitted through the green and dissolved away as though I had imagined it. I paced backwards, searching for anything in the gaps between the trees. Panic rose in my chest. I ran, retracing the path I thought I had come through, hoping to return to the glade. Every tree resembled the last, swallowing me deeper into the belly of the woodland where only the most stubborn of sun rays could penetrate and moss grew thick upon their trunks.

The sound of feet thumping against the ground echoed my own, forcing me to throw glances behind me but seeing no one. I flew into a haphazard sprint, jolted and broken as I stumbled over roots that reached above the peat like the bony arms of the dead rising from their graves. Something willed me to stop, challenge the threat and end the chase, but I feared the unknown. Ignoring the stitch that twisted my gut, my legs pulsated through the thicket when finally, the trees relented, clearing into a strip of poppies, dandelions and cornflowers of the richest blue before I made it to Moat Hill, liberating me into uncovered sunlight once more.

Only from the burning in my lungs did I realise how laboured my breathing was. Tears ran down my face. Someone had been there, teasing a game of cat and mouse. Had they caused the fire?


CHAPTER 1

Rosie

I glanced at my watch. Shit. Time to go. I had been awake for so long that I had lost all sense of time. A film formed over the surface of my full coffee cup, but I gulped it down anyway. It had cooled to an unpalatable temperature. I grimaced at the taste, knowing that I had scooped one too many spoonfuls of instant granules this morning. Plans, sketches and documents were sprawled all over my desk and I fumbled around, shoving them into a folder in no particular order.

“Chris! You ready?” I shouted through the hallway and swung on my oversized coat whilst heading for the front door.

“Yup, two secs, Rosie!” Chris was my structural engineer, who also lodged with me. He strode down the tiled flooring and threw his rucksack filled with survey equipment over his shoulder. “No breakfast?”

“No, I feel really… knotty.” I winced at the pain from the nerves.

“Don’t worry about it, we’ll be fine! You’re always fine!”

I mustered a smile, although even I could tell it was a feeble attempt.

“Want me to drive?” he offered.

I shook my head as we walked out into the winter air. The sky outside was horribly dull, sending my mood further into its depths. The past few days of rain had finally ended, but we were now met with an impermeable frost. Puffs of mist formed with our every breath. Had the sun really risen? Was it hiding behind a false horizon, warning me that no good would come of today?

We climbed into my Mini parked on the cobbled road and left our little town of Great Kirkby behind as we ventured deep into the moorland. Though the memory was vague, I knew the general direction we needed to be heading in. Moat Hill Hall was towards the north-eastern end of Wetherdale, the loneliest part of the Howardian Hills.

The roads narrowed into single track lanes and greenery grew as dense as the fog funnelling down the paths, shrouding the view ahead. Chris was quiet, leaving me to my thoughts as I fixed my eyes on what little I could see of the road. A dark shape tucked into the side of the road loomed from the murk and my eyes flitted towards an old, seemingly abandoned Fiat. I thought it strange why it would be left there.

“Stop!” Chris’ shout forced me to turn my head back onto the road and I slammed on the brakes.

Out of nowhere, a flash of red bolted out. An animal? A person? I gripped at the steering wheel as we failed to halt. Black ice lurked over the tarmac. We hurtled towards the verge until half of my car fell into a ditch. Our bodies shot to the side, then forwards before our seatbelts yanked us sharply back.

“Jesus!” Chris yelled. At least I think he did. I could hardly tell, as my brain muffled all sound and maybe I swore alongside him as well. I realised that it was in fact, a suicidal fox which bounded over the grassy verge, only just getting out of the way in time. Once safe, it turned its head and set its striking amber eyes directly on me with disdain before it turned back around and dashed through the mist. I glared after it, mentally demanding an apology, but watched its unruly tail sail away.

“You okay?” Chris asked. He swept away his blonde fringe that flopped forwards over his eyes.

“Yes. Sorry about that.” A heavy sigh flooded out of me. I tried to swallow the lump swelling large in my throat. “Maybe you should have driven after all.”

I managed to steer the car out of the ditch and leaned closer towards the windscreen, squinting through the fog. The road ahead forked in two, with the main road veering left.

“I remember this…” I narrowed my eyes, taking the tapered lane on the right through the woodland. A familiar slate plaque nestled in a lone stone wall came into view. Moss and ivy had engulfed half of the engraving and I could only make out the words “ILL HALL”. I eased my car in through rusted iron gates and up the long gravel driveway towards the building. It stood like a monolith, menacing, impenetrable.

Childhood memories of walks around here came flooding back. I would stop at the big gates and stare at this building. I remembered it as beautiful and wondered what mysterious lives the Lord and Lady led inside. No one ever saw the Hall’s inhabitants or knew what they looked like, although there were whispers of a red-headed family with skin so pale it was almost translucent. I imagined they were ethereal beings, caught in a magical landscape. It was forbidden territory – until today. But after two decades of abandonment leaving the Hall to ruin, it still felt wrong to step foot here.

A Porsche was parked up casually by the entrance, immaculate in condition. The sheen of its metallic black skin stood in stark contrast to its setting. I slowed my muddy car to a stop beside it. As I stepped out onto the driveway, a chill, colder than the air, cut through me, and I hugged my coat around me tighter. We walked over to the wooden door, and I lifted the corroded iron ring, letting it sound against the rotting timber. We waited. Nobody answered. I knocked again.

The Porsche looked so out of place against the dilapidated Hall, it could not have been there for long. Someone must be inside the building or in the grounds somewhere. Perhaps the place was so vast, they just didn’t hear us.

“Shall we try the back?”

We trudged across the garden where the morning dew cast a glistening web over the undergrowth and the Hall’s unforgiving shadow followed over us. Its windows with blackened glass, repeated along its façade, cloaked the unknown. Their sills accented underneath by dripping weather stains, reached down like long skeletal fingers.

“Miss Rudley?” A male voice in the distance called. I turned to see a young man in a suit striding towards me, polished looking and slim with a thin, black, tie jolting randomly against the gusts of wind.

“Terence Williams,” he said with a disarming smile.

“You’re Mr Evans’ agent?” You even look like your flashy car, I thought.

“Yes. Good to meet you.” He extended out his hand.

I shook it, embarrassed at how cold and bony my touch must have felt, but he seemed unphased.

“What do you think of this?” he asked, nodding towards the Hall.

“Impressive,” I said. “I remember coming for walks around this area when I was little. I always found it intriguing.”

He looked surprised. “You grew up around here?”

“Yes. Lord and Lady…?” Their names momentarily escaped my mind.

“Stewart,” he said.

“What happened to them?”

“Who knows? Bit haunting, isn’t it?” His gaze lingered on the Hall. I thought I could see the light leave his eyes and then he shook his head, as if to wake himself from a dream. “We’re just doing some trial bore holes around the foundations to assess the state of them. You know Andy already, don’t you?”

I nodded. Andy was a contractor I had worked with on previous jobs. A practical, jolly man.

“Good, we’ve already appointed him for the work.”

My anxiety eased a little upon hearing this. “Would you happen to know what his thoughts are yet? It doesn’t look like it’s in great condition.”

“He said we should knock it all down and start again,” he chuckled wryly. “The planners would love that.”

I ignored his sarcasm. “Which other architects have been here?”

He smiled at me. “Now that would be telling, Miss Rudley.”

Rudley Architects was my practice. I knew I was competing against at least two other firms to bid for the renovation of this Hall. Mine was the only young practice local to Wetherdale that had been selected to participate. The other city-based architects had more resources and bigger design teams compared to our tiny company of three.

“Where is Mr Evans?” I looked around the empty site.

“Oh, he likes to keep to himself. I manage all interactions.”

“So, you have a detailed brief?”

“He wants to convert it into a wildlife centre. That’s all I know right now. Just take your time and have a look around today. If you win the contract, we can discuss the particulars later.”

His phone rang and he took it out of his pocket, checking the caller’s number. “I need to take this call, so I’ll leave you to it – don’t stir up any ghosts in there,” he remarked in a coy tone.

He strode off and I took in a deep breath. I was never superstitious or into paranormal activity like my mother was, but confronting apparitions was not on my agenda today.

I walked over to Chris who was already noting down measurements and assessing the Hall’s structure.

“Would you be ok to have a look at the points where I’ve sketched an intersection with the old Hall?” I asked, handing the drawing over to him. “We need to pay particular attention to the west. I’m thinking maybe a glass extension at that end. It’ll be less intrusive. I’m going inside to take a look.”

“Not a problem at all, boss,” said Chris, drawing out his laser measurer like a light sabre, matching his actions with sound effects.

I rolled my eyes. “Try to stay professional. I know it’s hard.” A cheeky grin spread across his face and he jogged back to finish his survey. I couldn’t help but feel lighter, it made an inviting difference to the bleak day, but that feeling soon dispersed as I made my way towards the Hall. The gardens were so overgrown, thorny tentacles wormed out from languid hedges, making it tricky to negotiate my path inside. In the distance, the mist was clearing, and I began to make out where the fields and woodland formed a boundary between the estate and the undulating moors.

An ancient birch tree came into view. It’s bare silver arms needled into the cloud. As I drew near to it, I studied the flaky bark around its trunk and an irregularity in its patterning caught my attention. Something inorganic had been carved into it. I took a closer look and rubbed my fingers against the bumps and indents.

“DB,” I read aloud to myself. D.B. I thought again.

Stone steps beckoned me in, and I opened a pair of tall, stained-glass doors underneath an imposing canopy. Immediately, I found myself in an assembly room with extravagant pillars. Although they stretched three metres high, carved mahogany panels lined the wall and ceiling which darkened the room, closing me in and somehow making the great space feel claustrophobic. Cobwebs clung to the profiles of the intricate woodwork, forming fine veils across them. It was difficult to imagine how the room may have once been filled with music and people dressed in elaborate attire, laughing as they mingled and danced.

Now the only sound around me were my own footsteps. And all I could smell was the stale, musky scent of decay. Moat Hill, with all its past grandeur, was drenched in a thick air of sadness. Most rooms were bare as I strolled from one to another, apart from the odd piece of antique furniture upholstered with faded tapestry, placed in their own vast spaces of solitude.

A figure with dark hair stood at the end of a room. I gasped. It turned to face me at the same time as I moved, and my heart missed a beat. A cracked mirror as tall as a door, edged with weathered brass, framed my reflection. It stared at me, exposing my stunned expression.

I grew up as a mixed-race girl in the North, where minorities were spaced out like planets in the solar system and having a mother from China – fresh off the boat as they say – I was accustomed to feeling different. In a world of white men and being at least a foot shorter than most of them, I was constantly made to feel small in more ways than one. They boxed me in and my defiance in a cage and tried to keep us locked up. I was thirsty for growth, hungry for power. Today, I was a single woman in my thirties running my own practice, looking for projects that would stand out from the rest. Moat Hill was the project I was waiting for. It was the one that would prove my worth.

I had a decade of experience behind me, but as I stood, confronted by my own image, with my woollen coat swamping my small body, the uncertainty in my eyes betraying me, I was scared. Have I taken a bite too big? I could just turn back. Tell Terence that I’ll pass on the project and decline the bid.

I was about to do so when I caught a glimpse of a staircase. I’ll just take a look, and then leave.

My boots tapped unconsciously along the floorboards as I climbed the staircase towards the room. It was majestically sculpted, but it had worn treads. I glided the palm of my hand along the cast iron balustrade. At the top, the landing stretched as far as the eye could see to each end. I headed west, past endless rows of doors that opened into more sad, empty rooms, tracing the jagged outlines of old wallpaper, as though the touch of my fingertips would transport me to the past.

A door at the very end, recessed in the shadow pulled my attention and my legs moved me towards it. I stood at the door and listened.

I lifted my hand, rested it over the brass knob, and waited. Then I shifted it left. And shifted it right. I pushed up against the door. Its lock and hinges rattled, yet it wouldn’t budge.

Don’t stir up any ghosts.

The thought sent a disturbing shudder down my back, and I snatched my hand away from the knob like it stung. I could not detect what the sense of apprehension was, but I did not feel safe here anymore.

I paced downstairs, trying to find my bearings when I came across a kitchen and saw an old mug with coffee stains trickling down the side. Toasted crumbs scattered on a plate by a kettle. Receipts on a table, and a weathered old leather couch that dipped so low in the centre, the wooden support could almost be seen. On the wall, a man’s fishing jacket hung on one of the iron pegs. I was surprised to see such a room under recent use.

On the other side of the kitchen, an opening to a smaller hallway and finally, an exit. I flung open the door and welcomed fresh air into my lungs. On the driveway, Terence leaned against his convertible, still on his phone, appearing to be busy negotiating something. I wondered if his well-presented appearance and expensive car were earned by his success or if it was just style without substance. He wrapped up his conversation as soon as I caught his eye and walked over to me. He rubbed his hands, cupped them together and blew into them to generate some warmth.

“Miss Rudley, how did you get on?”

I wasn’t sure where to start, so I started with a lie.

“Good, thank you.” Then curiosity struck. “Just one thing – the last room at the end of the west upper floor was locked?”

“Ah, I’m afraid that’s the only room that’s out of bounds. You’ll have to gather what you can and make assumptions based on what’s around it.”

“Oh - why is that?”

“It’s Mr Evans’ orders. We simply follow them. Probably only storeroom,” he said flippantly.

“Is Mr Evans staying here? I saw that the kitchen was being used.”

“Occasionally he’ll pop back to check on the estate and he’s known to stay for a couple of days at a time. He’s a naturalist – spends most of his time outdoors.” I watched the way he rubbed at his face and fiddled with his sleeves as he spoke. The stains on the coffee cup in the kitchen had barely dried up. If I had held my hand up to it, it may have still been warm. Mr Evans could not have been that far away.

“He’s definitely not around now?” I pressed.

“No. Miss Rudley, I can tell you want to meet him, but really, he isn’t here.” He smirked and turned to his car, packing his things away into the boot.

“Terence - Mr Williams. I understand that I should run everything past you… I just think it would be beneficial for the design if I could talk to him. In person. The brief is practically non-existent.”

It didn’t appear like he was listening but distracted by his own thoughts. He touched a discreet button in the car. The boot door shut and then he observed me. Aware of his assessment, I looked him dead in the eye and straightened up my back, feigning confidence in my proposal.

“I’ll see what I can do. It might be tomorrow if he is around. He doesn’t stay for long.” He locked his car. “Right, Miss Rudley, if you’re about done, I’ll head back in and lock up.”

“Yes, I’m done. Thank you.”

“No problem at all. Perhaps I’ll see you soon.” He was already making his way inside. I notice a little stoop of his shoulders as he walked, the toes of his flat, pointy brogues facing outwards with each step. As I watched him leave, I mulled things over.

Inside the stifling corridors of the Hall, I had convinced myself to walk away from this but back in the daylight, I was acting as if I was desperate for the role.

Chris strode over.

“Hiya, got everything we need? What do you reckon? Happy to bid for it?” he asked.

“Terrified, actually.”

Chris laughed it off. “I would be worried if you didn’t feel nervous.”


That afternoon, no sooner than our return home, I received an email from Terence.

Dear Miss Rudley,

Thank you for visiting Moat Hill Hall this morning.

I can confirm that Mr Evans would like to meet you back at the Hall tomorrow at 5 PM.

Any problems, let me know.

Regards,

Terence Williams

TW Property Agents


Five PM seemed late, a strange sort of time to hold a meeting, but I accepted the chance to meet elusive Mr Evans. I started to conjure up images of what he might be like. From the rumours I had heard circling around the village, I had a preconceived idea of him: large, grumpy and old. Odd to let such a magnificent place go to ruin. How did he come to acquire it in the first place? Did the Stewarts just vanish from existence, or were they forced to leave it to someone else, wealthy but mad enough to not care. Surely his agent, Terence knew something about this.

If he was going to be a reluctant client, I was going to try twice as hard to win him over. I was not going to be so easily deterred. Moat Hill Hall was a chance of a lifetime and the vision of winning the bid, turned my morning’s nerves into a buzz of excitement.

***

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