The outside world seemed different somehow. The light had changed, or at least her perception of it had. The sun-gilded hedgerows held a promise of brighter things to come and the air smelled fragrant and sweet. Driving back to Mrs. Donnelly's house, she couldn't get the Sergeant's words out of her head: Life doesn't get easier, we get stronger. Those words gave her courage now and she wished she could see him again to say thank you. She hoped he was okay and that he would find his Sarah, as he called her.
Arriving at the old farmhouse, Catherine could hardly believe that it was only yesterday she had arrived under a cloud of rain and hurt.
"Changed your mind?" Mrs. Donnelly said as soon as she opened the door, dispensing with any niceties.
"Um, yes. Change of plan – I have to get home," Catherine explained.
"Well if you ask me, it was a daft idea staying up in Hollowbrook on All Hallows Eve," she sneered.
"Halloween. Not exactly the night you'd pick to be alone in an old place like Hollowbrook. Anyway, I hope you're not looking for a refund now," she began, making it clear that her attitude to business was 'buyer beware'.
"No, no it's fine. Keep the money. I just came to return the keys and to ask you a question about a man I met."
"Oh yes?" she said, her eyes lighting up with mischief.
"No it's nothing like that. I came across a young Sergeant last night," she said, reluctant to mention exactly how she had met him.
"A Sergeant? Out here?"
"Yes, he said his name was Andrew. Sergeant Andrew Montague. Apparently he was looking for his girlfriend, a girl named Sarah? I think her grandmother used to own Hollowbrook?"
Mrs. Donnelly's face went a ghostly pale and her eyes as wide as two saucers. It was the first time since Catherine had met the woman that she was lost for words.
"I told him that I would help him find Sarah and so I thought you'd be the best person to ask."
Silence fell between them and in the end, Catherine just handed the old woman the keys and told her to forget about it, that she would ask in the village.
"You'd better come in," she said, uncharacteristically hospitable.
Mrs. Donnelly was of the generation that still kept a parlour: a good room just for visitors and the part of the house that was usually reserved for wakes. It was full of knick-knacks that were old but not valuable enough to be called antiques. She picked up an ornate photo frame from the sideboard and handed it to Catherine. A monochrome image of a pretty young woman stared back at her. She wore a patterned tea dress and despite her smile and the wind blowing in her hair, she looked distracted and sad.
"My mother," Mrs. Donnelly said quietly. "Sarah."
"Sorry? I don't understand," Catherine said, shaking her head.
Mrs. Donnelly motioned her to take a seat at the mahogany table by the large sash window, that filled the room with bright rays of morning sun.
"Before she met my father, she was promised to another. Oh a fine young fellow he was by all accounts, tall dark and handsome," she said, her features softening.
Catherine appreciated her hosts' newfound affability, but she wasn't sure what this had to do with Sergeant Montague. Mrs. Donnelly must have sensed her bewilderment and so proceeded to remove the backing of the photo frame.
"He was to return after the war," she continued, "when they would marry. But there was no hero's welcome for those young men that did return." She revealed another photo that had been hidden beneath Sarah's portrait. "They say he walks among the living still..." she broke off.
Catherine suddenly felt very hot and clammy. She shifted in her seat, wishing she had never started this conversation. But Mrs. Donnelly persisted, handing her the photo.
"Sergeant Andrew Montague," she said, pointing to the monochrome figure.
There he was, standing tall and proud in the very same uniform. The man she had spoken with only a few hours ago, suspended in time in this black and white photograph.
"What is this? It can't be..." Catherine said, putting the photo back on the table.
"He never returned Catherine. He was killed in battle in 1937; the Spanish Civil War."
The words hit her like bullets, knocking the wind out of her. She tried to breathe deeply, to slow the hammering of her heart against her chest. Mrs. Donnelly reached out and took her by the arms, steadying her.
"You're not the first person to hear Sergeant Montague's footsteps wandering around Hollowbrook Cottage, the poor lost soul," she added, blessing herself. "But you are the first to have spoken with him," she said, as though Catherine was somehow lucky.
"I feel sick," Catherine said, clasping her hand to her mouth and then her head as it began to spin.
"What did he say to you?" Mrs Donnelly asked, hungry with curiosity.
"Wait, have you seen him too?" Catherine asked.
"Only once, when I was a young girl," she said, sheepishly. "My mother used to take me there during the holidays. On this one night, I woke up to the sound of chairs being dragged across the flagstones. I thought it was my grandmother and went to investigate. It was the middle of the night, but the embers cast enough light for me to see him, standing rigid in his uniform, waiting." Mrs Donnelly shivered then and turned her gaze to the window.
"There has to be some sort of an explanation for this, it's just not possible," Catherine reaffirmed, reaching into her pocket for a tissue to halt the tears and the madness of indulging this kind of folklore. She felt a small square of paper in her pocket and took it out to look at it. Opening out the note, she saw a short handwritten message.
"I'm going home now Catherine. Tell Sarah I will meet her there.
When the time comes, he'll be waiting for you too.
A. Montague "
YOU ARE READING
When Catherine revisits Hollowbrook cottage on a stormy October night, she crosses paths with a mysterious stranger who is not all that he seems. On a night when the veil between worlds is at its thinnest, all that is real and unreal meet in a nowh...