Extract: The Guest Book by C L Pattison
Charles and Grace wanted a quiet staycation honeymoon, but when their train terminates early due to a storm up ahead, they wonder if they made the wrong decision. Forced to take shelter in the nearest seaside town, Saltwater, they discover that there is only one guesthouse left. Unlike the rest of Saltwater, The Anchorage is entirely deserted.
That night, with the storm howling relentlessly, Grace is woken by a child crying. She is haunted by the sound, until Charles convinces her it was only her imagination. But the next day, she finds a warning scrawled in the guest book: Leave now. Do not trust them.
As the storm rages on, phone lines are down, transport links cut off. Grace is desperate to leave, but Charles remains unaffected by the eerie stillness of the house. Is it just Grace’s imagination or do the owners, and Charles, have something to hide?
Read on for an extract from The Guest Book by C L Pattison!
The Guest Book
C L Pattison
My legs are aching and my heart is pounding so hard I think it’s about to burst. But I can’t stop running; you’re right behind me. Another thirty seconds and you’ll be able to reach out and grab my arm. The thought sends a dark tide of panic racing through my body. I can feel it clawing at my throat, making it difficult to breathe.
‘Please come back,’ I hear you shout. ‘I don’t want to hurt you, I just want a chance to explain.’
I know you’re lying. You’ve been lying to me this whole time. My head is spinning like a merry-go-round and I can feel a sort of thunder in my chest, a shuddering sensation, like something breaking open.
At the edge of the bluff I keep going, straight down the rocky steps that lead to the beach. The steps are wet after the rain and I have to force myself to slow down, or else I’ll twist my ankle. The wind’s picking up too, it’s blowing my hair all over my face.
‘Stop running,’ you cry. ‘It’s no good; you can’t get away from me.’
I can and I will.
Only when I’ve reached the bottom step do I risk a look over my shoulder. I can’t see you, but I know you won’t have given up the chase; you’re too single-minded. I used to like that about you.
I stop for a moment and bend over, resting my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath. At first, I don’t know what to do – I just know that I need to get away, to get away from you. And then I see the lifeboat station in the distance. You won’t risk a confrontation there; I’ll be safe.
I climb up onto the sea wall, intending to drop down onto the beach below. That’s when I realise I’ve fucked up: the tide’s in. The sea is fierce and the waves are smashing against the wall, but I’ve made a plan and I’m sticking to it.
I start running; one foot in front of the other, that’s all I have to do. I’m so focused on the lifeboat slipway up ahead that I don’t see it until it’s too late: the rogue wave that rises twelve feet into the air and comes crashing down on top of the sea wall.
As the wave swallows me, my body feels heavy, weighed down like ballast as if the sea has found its way inside me, filling me up. In that moment, I realise I’ve just made the biggest mistake of my life.
My second biggest mistake was trusting you.
I can tell from the look on Charles’s face that he’s starting to enjoy it: the feeling that something bad is about to happen. Ever since he was a little boy, Charles has loved storms. He told me once that when he was eight, he seized the opportunity to watch the weather gods unleash their fury, sneaking out of the house in the middle of the night as his unsuspecting parents slept. For the best part of an hour, he crouched under the eaves of his sister’s Wendy house, watching open-mouthed as lightning bolts carved zigzags across the sky. I love his fearlessness and hunger for new experiences; it’s one of the reasons I was attracted to him in the first place.
Judging by what I can see through the rain-lashed window, there’s a storm brewing right now over our heads; no wonder Charles is looking so pleased. The sky is big and black and even though it’s only four o’clock, the landscape is already beginning to lose its definition. Meanwhile, the wind that began as a stiff breeze when we boarded the train at Salisbury has developed into a full-blown gale.
Naturally, Charles and I checked the weather forecast before we set off, but we weren’t about to let a little old ‘severe weather warning’ spoil our plans, not when we had booked and paid for our first-class rail tickets and boutique hotel with its rainfall shower and two AA Rosette restaurant. In any case, who cancels their honeymoon?
‘I hope we’re not going to spend the entire fortnight stuck in the hotel room,’ I say, sighing heavily.
Charles reaches over and takes my hand. ‘Actually, I think that would be rather romantic… the two of us, holed up together, some place warm and cosy.’
‘But you hate being stuck in one place for too long; you’ll be bored.’
He draws my hand to his lips and kisses my knuckles. ‘Grace, my love, I could be stuck in a lift with you for a hundred years and never be bored.’
My heart swells absurdly at the words. I love Charles so much. Not smugly or sloppily, but with a great thumping visceral certainty. We met two years ago at a sponsored bungee jump, organised to raise funds for a local leukaemia charity. Charles was behind me in the queue as we waited to plunge from a crane platform 160 feet above the ground. When he saw how nervous I was, he offered to take me through some deep breathing exercises to calm me down. It proved to be a highly effective distraction, not least because of his impressive physique and his eyes that were like trap doors, dark and deep. Once we were both safely back on terra firma, he proposed celebrating our achievement with a drink in the pub around the corner. I thought about it for all of two seconds and then I said yes.
The more we talked, the more I liked him and, as day turned into night, something shifted in the air and I felt our bodies draw towards one another, magnetic and irresistible. Later, as we swapped numbers outside the pub, I leaned into his chest and my ear found his heartbeat. I knew there and then that this was the start of something special.
Although our relationship became serious fairly early on, I never entertained any thoughts of marriage, or even a joint mortgage. Back then, the very word ‘husband’ smacked to me of tedium, of entrapment, of constant petty bickering about whose turn it was to empty the dishwasher and, if I was lucky, crap sex (if I was unlucky, there would be no sex at all). I was convinced my life was perfect just the way it was: a well-paid job as a senior HR exec for a global tech company, a beautiful apartment overlooking the park, and a large and loyal circle of friends, many of whom I’d known since school. I had absolutely no intention of giving up my independence any time soon. But last summer, Charles and I went to Turkey and everything I thought I knew about myself turned out to be wrong.
It was only our second foreign holiday together, a three-centre break that was weeks in the planning. Up until then, I saw myself as young, strong, fit… in other words, invincible. It never occurred to me that I might need to rely on anyone for anything. But sometimes, even the most charmed existence can change in the blink of an eye. That’s exactly what happened to me when I had my accident. I understood for the first time that I did need someone; I needed Charles. Because if it wasn’t for him, I would be dead.
Recuperating from my physical injuries was a slow and often painful process, but much more difficult to deal with was the psychological fallout. Before the accident, I was confident, ambitious, eager to step outside my comfort zone. Afterwards, I changed completely: I became cautious, jumpy, overly sensitive. Night-times were the worst. Alone in the darkness, coiled tight with fear, I squeezed my memories into the murkiest corners of my mind as I tried to forget just how close I came to death. Every part of my body seemed to jangle and my head throbbed with the effort of blocking out all the thoughts I couldn’t allow myself to think. While the fear has receded, it’s still there, an ugly, misshapen thing lurking in the shadows, waiting for the next opportunity to sink its teeth into my neck.
Even now, five months later, I don’t like reliving what happened that day in Turkey… feeling vulnerable, feeling mortal, knowing I was utterly alone. Waiting for help that might never arrive. So mostly, I push it to the back of my mind. Charles and I haven’t even talked about it. Maybe one day we will, but not yet.
I should point out that the fallout from the accident wasn’t all negative. Before we went to Turkey, Charles and I had been living on opposite sides of the city. But after I was discharged from hospital I found that the pleasure I usually took in my independence, the relief I felt on shutting the door of my apartment at the end of a long day of being sociable, had evaporated. I came to the sudden realisation that I didn’t want to go through life alone, and that the most important things in the short time we spend on this earth were relationships, not building a career or having a beautiful home. I think Charles sensed my change of heart and when he popped the question as we celebrated my twenty-seventh birthday with a group of friends, I didn’t hesitate to say yes. In that moment, it was as if I’d found the missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle that had been there in the box all the time.
My parents were somewhat taken aback when I told them Charles and I were engaged. I come from an unashamedly upper-middle-class family; Mum’s a dentist and Dad is CEO of a pharmaceuticals company. Although they like him enormously, I think Charles, with his lower second-class degree and his job as a construction manager for a national firm of builders, wasn’t quite the high-achieving husband they had in mind for me. Even so, when they saw how happy I was, they soon got on board.
Charles and I didn’t anticipate tying the knot quite so quickly, not least because all the nicest wedding venues are booked up years in advance. But then we learned of a last-minute cancellation at a stunning historic home in the Wiltshire village where I grew up and where my parents still live. I was hesitant at first, fearing it might be bad luck to step into another couple’s shoes, but Charles convinced me it was too good an opportunity to miss.
He was right. I know everyone says this, but our wedding really was perfect. As the shadows pooled on the Valentine’s Day ceremony, I was flushed with pride in my new husband and brimming with excitement about our shared future. And now here we are, forty-eight hours later, heading for our honeymoon in Cornwall.
Things were quite frenetic in the run-up to the wedding and these two weeks of pure relaxation are just what I need. With any luck, I think to myself as the train emerges from a tunnel, we’ll arrive at our hotel just in time for pre-dinner drinks.
Suddenly, a huge fork of lightning illuminates the sky and the woman on the other side of the aisle gives a loud gasp. ‘I hope we’re safe inside here,’ she says to no one in particular.
Charles leans over to her. ‘It’s okay, you can relax. A train is actually a pretty good place to be during an electrical storm.’
The woman’s eyebrows shoot up. ‘Really?’
Charles nods. ‘In the unlikely event of a direct strike, the electricity will be routed safely through the metal structure of the carriage. It’ll totally fry the train’s electrics, of course, but that’s not our problem.’ He points to the laptop resting on her knees. ‘Unless of course you’ve got that thing plugged in.’
Without a moment’s hesitation, the woman reaches down and yanks the plug out of the power point. ‘Thanks for the heads up,’ she says, beaming at Charles.
I give my husband a playful nudge with my elbow. ‘You’re such a geek, hon. How do you even know all that stuff?’
The words are hardly out of my mouth when there’s a long, loud screech as the train driver brakes hard. Very hard. I stare wide-eyed at Charles and we both grip the armrests, bracing for a possible impact.
‘What the hell…’ Charles mouths at me.
The braking seems to go on for ever, but finally the train comes to a juddering halt. For a moment, there’s stunned silence in the carriage; then a child starts crying.
‘Was that an emergency stop?’ I ask Charles.
‘It certainly felt like it,’ he replies with a grimace.
‘You don’t think we’ve hit something, do you?’ someone behind me says. Suppressing a shudder, I cast around for the nearest speaker, expecting the PA system to burst into life at any moment. When it doesn’t, a susurrus of anxious murmurs breaks out in the carriage. A few minutes later the automatic doors slide open and the guard appears. He makes his way through the carriage, the muscles between his eyebrows tightly contracted.
‘What’s going on, buddy?’ Charles asks as he strides past.
The guard’s frown deepens. ‘Your guess is as good as mine; I’m on my way to speak to the driver now. I’ll make an announcement as soon as I have an update, so if everyone could just bear with me.’
‘Sure, no problem,’ Charles tells the guard’s departing back.
Glowering, I press my face to the window, cupping my hands around my face to block out the glare of the fluorescent lights. All I can see in the gathering gloom is a field with a group of cows huddled in one corner.
‘I hope we’re not going to be here for long,’ I mutter. ‘Our hotel stops serving dinner at eight.’
Charles gives my thigh a quick squeeze. ‘Don’t worry, there’s always room service – and if all else fails, I’ve packed loads of protein bars in the suitcase.’
My eyebrows knit together. ‘It bloody well better not come to that.’
When there’s still no announcement after fifteen minutes, people begin to get restless. A red-faced man with dandruffy shoulders starts pacing up and down, talking loudly into his mobile phone. Further down the carriage, a queue has begun to form for the loo. The boy who had been crying earlier has stopped and is now complaining that he’s thirsty.
Now that the train’s engine is dead, the storm outside is clearly audible. There are frequent rumbles of thunder, interspersed with the occasional flash and crackle of lightning in the distance. The temperature in the carriage has dropped dramatically. As I pull a scarf out of the backpack on my knee, the guard’s voice comes over the PA.
‘Sorry, everyone, I’m afraid we’re going nowhere tonight; there’s a tree on the line up ahead of us. Unfortunately, we have no alternative but to evacuate the train. Can I please ask all passengers to remain in their seats and await further instructions.’
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