So that’s it. The twisted, burnt effigy to so much destruction in our lives – itself meeting a violent, blazing end – is finally sold. The property developer will raze what is left to the ground and start again. If only the hurt and the memories can be so swiftly erased. If only lives can be so easily rebuilt; but they cannot. They haunt and linger like a ghostly spectre and will be there forever.
News of the sale lifts my mood. If it can’t undo the past, maybe it’s the door to a better future. Leaving my luxury apartment in the converted old Barracks block, I breathe deeply, absorbing the salty air and vista spread before me of gently rippling gem-sprinkled sea dotted with bobbing boats, all taking full advantage of the unusually hot weather. Dredgers and cargo ships lie peacefully at anchor on the horizon, harried by busy cross-channel ferries rushing past on their businesslike way to France and Spain. Across the Solent, there is the Isle of Wight. The sharp grey stone focus of St John’s Church Spire and green-striped chalk chunks of Culver Down contrast the vivid velvet of the blue sky. If the past isn’t forgotten, at least it is put aside on such a beautiful day. I feel good. I feel relief. I feel positive in a way I have not done for as long as I can remember. The sun washes my body and spirit with its restorative rays. I relish my walk.
Setting off across what was once the Royal Marines Parade Ground, I reach the Promenade. I turn right, the shingle beach – like piles of multi-shaped, multi-shaded toffees of pale cream to burnt caramel – to my left. I marvel at the rare flora and fauna sprouting among the stones as if their seeds have casually cascaded from the sky; pale pink sea bindweed, vibrant yellow horned poppy, and sea kale playing host to butterflies, bees and birds. A group of seagulls does physical jerks on the pebbles, others heckling them overhead; the primly uniformed tiny pied wagtails dart between plant and stone.
Hitting my stride, I pass the miniature golf links, beach huts, Rose Garden and Canoe Lake. Ahead is the decaying hulk of South Parade Pier. Once a traditional seaside attraction of funfair, candy floss, music hall and slot machines, its best days are now a distant memory. When used as a film set in the 1970s, it was almost destroyed by fire. At least that would have put it out of its current misery. I am suddenly drawn back to the house. How dare it squat in my mind? I instantly evict it.
Reaching Southsea Castle, I contemplate Henry VIII standing here all those centuries ago, helplessly watching his flagship, the Mary Rose, disappear beneath the Solent. Smiling to myself, I imagine his rage.
As I turn to walk back my mood swings with the change of direction. I look at my watch; it’s just after four o’clock. My eyes are again drawn to the sea. But this time not towards the happy holiday scene. This time towards a series of structures – Spithead Shoals – between the mainland and Isle of Wight. They rise from the water like dark sea monsters. Also known as Palmerston’s Follies, they suddenly seem threatening; the word folly masking something far more sinister. They are malevolent creatures, eyes balefully registering every mainland move, including my own. I want to look away, but they hold me like a magnet. My carefree mood spirals down; dread inexplicably comes in its place. At the Canoe Lake, the giant pedalo swans now jar discordantly with their graceful, dignified natural counterparts. The beach plants turn into ugly, scrubby weeds. What is the matter with me? I felt so happy just a short while ago. As I near home, I suddenly feel stifled by the heat I had earlier embraced; despite the heat, I shiver. The distant thick ochre swathe of Hayling Island beach closes in and stifles me.
I take a leisurely bath before dinner, hoping the lavender-scented bubbles will help me relax. They do not. Even the high-ceilinged spacious rooms of my apartment seem small; I am trapped. The glass of my favourite St Emilion that I pour with dinner tastes bitter and heavy, making my head throb at the first sip. Abandoning my meal, I go to bed. I will feel better in the morning.
I am pleasantly surprised when sleep comes quickly. But my hopes of a restful night soon vanish. My dreams – or nightmares – are dominated by the house. First intact, pristine, proud; untouched by the fire that finally ravaged it. Then a hideous shell, attacked, tortured and disfigured by the flames. The trees around it are charred bodies, limbs grotesquely deformed. And he is there. I can’t see him but he is there; a dark, brooding, relentless presence.
My panic rises to a crescendo and jolts me awake. I am shaking, sweating, crying. Now I am aware of a rhythmic beat across the room. Trembling, I sit up, not wanting to look, yet unable to resist. Torrential rain is falling; giant drops pock-mark the window; a tree’s bony fingers tap on the glass in the gale force wind. I laugh with hysterical relief at this bizarre drumming duet. I get up and go to look out. The weather breaks; a violent thunderstorm erupts. At least that explains my headache. Thunder thrashes the apartment block mercilessly; lightning splits the livid sky. As I watch, they join forces, lighting up a massive monster of a man, looming at my window. I scream aloud with shock. Then I realise it is the bronze Yomper, standing guard at the Museum entrance. Its sudden violent thrusting into the spotlight appears to double its size; the ghastly light renders it invader not protector. Desperately trying to control my breathing, I go to the kitchen for a glass of water, take it back to bed and sit, slowly sipping. Gradually, I calm down. It is now nearly five o’clock. Not long until daylight and psychological safety.
I get up at seven, feeling emotionally drained. The panic has gone. The wind has dropped but the sea front road has flooded and is closed. The Yomper has resumed his usual enigmatic pose, gazing out to sea. My strange mood yesterday must have been caused by the coming storm. It was certainly one of the worst I can ever remember, and I always get headaches with humid weather. Yet I still have a lingering sense of unease. Well, it’s early; maybe it will fade as the day goes on.
At nine o’clock the phone rings. A well-spoken man queries my name. I confirm who I am. He is a solicitor acting for a relative and regrets to inform me the relative has passed away. As I am the nearest surviving family member, there are naturally some formalities to deal with. They are not urgent but he is letting me know out of courtesy. He mechanically tells me he is sorry for my loss and rings off.
I feel sick, the bile rising in my throat. I repeatedly retch. The newly deceased relative is out of my life and has been for many years. But he is never far from my mind. Although we are not in touch, I am always aware of him; too well aware. He murders his first wife, claims it is an accident, and gets away with it.
This cold-blooded killer has a stroke just when my mood of the previous day descends into darkness. He wants to see me but his solicitor tells him I want no contact under any circumstances – even these. He raves in his sickness for most of the night. Then, just as he is haunting my dreams, he has another stroke; this one fatal. His death throes convulse him just as the storm rages at my window and the Yomper turns monster. Then he is dead.
His first wife is the wonderful Rebecca. Strong, beautiful and – most unforgivably – independent, he won’t dominate her and she pays the ultimate price. His second wife is her opposite – quiet, naive, eager to please. That doesn’t satisfy him either. Finally suspecting the truth about Rebecca, she becomes a threat. She too is disposable. Another tragic accident.
So what are these people to me? He is wealthy, powerful, pillar of the community and master of the magnificent – but doomed – house, Manderley. The house he signs over to me, knowing others will see it as a generous gift while to me it is the worst insult. She, Rebecca, is my beloved mother. He is the suave, debonair, psychopath – and now dead – Maxim de Winter. Is he my father? I don’t know. I hope not. I hope my mother found real love, was loved in return and that I was born out of that love. I may never know. But I do know how much I have longed for this moment. How I have prayed for this day to come. How I have waited to reveal the truth. He will not rest in peace; I will not let him. I owe it to Rebecca. And I owe it to the second Mrs de Winter.
Suddenly, my mood lifts. I feel light. Outside the rain stops and the sun is shining …
Author’s note: This story was inspired by the work of Daphne du Maurier.