Tell A Tale — Gothic Fiction

Somewhere Just Off the Map By Madeleine McDonald

“What are you playing at?” Rachel dropped her case on the bed and rounded on Tom. “Your Christmas invite was not because I’m Australian and on my own, right?”

He looked hurt. “That bit’s true. Please, Rachel, just act natural and let Mum and Dad think what they want to think.”

She drew a deep breath and made her voice level. “Tom, do your parents know about Rich?”

“No, I only came out at uni.”

He looked younger than his 19 years and her anger evaporated. “Alright, but you owe me big time.”

*

They ate supper in the warm farmhouse kitchen. Tom’s Dad was a silent man, but Uncle Bill made up for it, with gory tales of cattle raids and ancient blood feuds.

“Our land ended up on the English side of the border, but we reivers were a thorn in the side of the English and Scots alike. The Archbishop of Glasgow cursed us in perpetuity back in 1525. Not that that stopped us.” Bill stood up and began to recite, “I curse their head and all the hairs of their head‒”

“It’s Rachel’s first night, Bill,” Tom’s mum interrupted. “Show her the tower tomorrow. She’ll understand then.”

*

After supper, Tom found Rachel some wellies and they stepped out into the dark. When they rounded the corner and her eyes adjusted, she gasped. Behind the house, an almost windowless tower rose dark and sinister.

“I’ll show you inside.”

“Now?” She craned her neck to see the top of the tower.

He flicked on a torch. “I dare you. Don’t worry, I know my way around blindfold. Jim and I used to spend the night here in sleeping bags, eating biscuits and pretending to hold the tower against our enemies.”

Glad of an excuse to escape his family’s gentle questioning, Rachel followed.

By torchlight, they climbed a spiral stone staircase leading to a bleak hall. Tom left a single candle alight and they tackled another staircase up to the crenellated roof, where their boots crunched into a thin layer of snow. They leaned on the parapet, listening to the silence. The tower stood defiant and impregnable. Moonlight bathed the empty hills. Normal life was invisible, somewhere just off the map.

Tom broke the silence. “It’s odd, isn’t it? My ancestors spent centuries thumbing their noses at the Scottish or English kings and their armies. Dad and Bill are so proud of our maverick heritage. They can’t see that’s what the warlords are doing in Afghanistan, but this time Jim was on the side of the good guys. My brother got blown to bits for that privilege.”

*

In the train bearing her away from Carlisle, Rachel was sorry Tom had to spend the remainder of the holiday unsupported. Uncle Bill’s voice filled her head as it had filled the kitchen, reciting an ancient curse against all reivers. With Jim, the family line had died out and Tom, she knew, would never take a boyfriend home for Christmas.


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