1:1 The Creepy Old House

90 2 5

• In which Carrie Rickard has 33 days left to live •

11 April

"You won't fit in there, Caroline." Her mother's warning was issued in the ringing, decisive tones of a fait accompli, the culmination of her ten-minute diatribe against Carrie's decision. Any anxieties she'd felt at passing her quarter-centenary faded away as her mother stripped her development back by ten years.

Carrie stood in one of the smaller back bedrooms of her new, finally-finished property, holding the phone away from her ear. Her lower lip had split from raking her teeth over it; blood tanged on her tongue.

"I'm staying," Carrie repeated.

Few people tried to stand up to Margaret Rickard, and fewer still succeeded. The teddy on top of Carrie's wardrobe looked on, glass eyes dusty and judgemental.

A beat. "You're not... punishing yourself, are you, sweetheart?"

Cold prickles washed down her spine. "For what?"

Her mother backtracked. "No, nothing. It's just... you put a lot on yourself. That's what I meant."

...Just hang up.

Carrie bit back the expletive-filled outburst that would give her mother the moral high-ground. From the moment she'd seen the ruin on a dull Spring day like this, almost a year ago, she hadn't been able to get it out of her head. The dying, lambent sunlight played across its broken windows, winking at her like a distress call, a secret signal. She couldn't explain it, but for the first time in two years she had felt seen.

She hadn't wanted to go to that stupid housewarming anyway. Piddingdean was a tiny village in the back of beyond, she didn't even know Phil's cousins, and Phil had been in one of his moods. Then, like a magic star, that glimmer of light pierced her world through the passenger window of a blazer-blue saloon and changed everything. A week later she'd taken the train on her own from Victoria to Pagham-on-Sea Parkway and walked for miles until she found it again.

It had been waiting for her.

Carrie knew in that moment, standing on the nettle-strewn avenue looking up at the collapsed porch and broken windows, that she wanted that house more than anything. It had stood for hundreds of years against all weathers and all comers, stripped of its iron and lead, broken but defiant. It was the spark that finally set her resolve on fire.

If you can do that, she'd thought, then I can leave Phil.

The rest was history.

Even fully restored, Fairwood House was a lonely outpost, interrupting the sweep of agrarian melancholy around it. Huddling around its back lawns and curving up to the edges of Barrow Field were the trees of the public woodland called The Chase, once part of the Fairwood estate but now managed by the local Council. The Sussex Weald lay above, the chalk-cliff coast below, the town of Pagham-on-Sea in between: a post-industrial twilight zone of soulless Brutalism and seaside Victoriana.

Fairwood was neither of those things, but rather an internal mess of architecture from previous centuries, dressed up in external Georgian symmetry. The main mass of the house was imperiously square, two shorter wings protruding on each side, symmetrical windows staring out in all directions. It had become known locally as The Crows, although no one could remember when. A murder of the big black birds nested in the trees behind the lawn, settling on the grass every day before taking to flight on some cue Carrie couldn't read, like soldiers in her own private army. They were no help today, providing no defence against her mother's relentless logic.

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