The storm has grown in strength as the day retreated and now it holds dominion, raging along the lane, thrashing through trees and bushes, shivering lampposts to the root, tearing on into the dark in a panic of leaves and twigs and anything else without attachment to the world. It snatches the gate out of my hand when I lift the catch, then bullies on ahead through stands of lavender, a scattering of pots, and up through the pergola of wild rose that frames the little porch of Myrtle Cottage. A police officer in a yellow jacket is sheltering there, directing the beam of his torch along the path.
‘Good timing,’ he shouts. ‘We’re just about to break in.’
A cause for concern. Helen had rung NHS Direct complaining of feeling unwell. But before the call taker had time to give her advice or find out more, there was the sound of a scream and the line went dead.
‘She had a fall the other day. Nothing serious. Given some pain meds and discharged. That’s all we know,’ I tell the officer, leaning in so he can hear.
A dog barks from deep inside the cottage.
‘I think they’re in,’ he says. Moments later, a bolt is thrown and the door opens.
The other two police officers have turned on whatever lights they could as they came through, illuminating a low-ceilinged honeycomb of a building, eerily undisturbed. For a moment or two we stand together in the kitchen and the tiny hallway. Even the dog – an elderly Airedale with a disappointed expression – stands with us, tolerating an encouraging scratch behind the ear from one of the police officers. He looks round at the quiet house as bemused as the rest of us.
We split up to search the place.
Myrtle cottage must at one time have been at least two or three buildings, but in the hundreds of years since the floor plan has changed endlessly. Now it is a muddled affiliation of rooms and annexes, staircases and walk-in cupboards, outbuildings and attic studies.
Leading on with the torch. It’s impossible to predict the depth of space behind each door. Patting for switches that aren’t there or don’t work. Probing ahead, and the torchlight plays across a furry bed cover crumpled at the foot of a bed; a giant teddy on a rocking chair; a dressing gown hanging from a hook; a reflection of light from a framed photo; a glass of water on a side table; across shelves bowed with a weight of books; tables strewn with notebooks, baskets, ornate boxes, saucers of trinkets, little ceramic trays of make-up. Checking the bathroom (the bath). The airing cupboard, the linen closet. At any moment expecting to hear something, to see something – someone.
Out into the garden, where the storm chases its tail around the house.
The coal shed, a garage converted into a studio, with more shelves of books, musty boxes of children’s toys from the fifties, a clear area at the back with a table set for spraying and stencilling.
The summer house, locked and dark. The torch through the patio doors – Bugs Bunny in a rictus of astonishment, propped up against a stack of spotted chair cushions, a folded umbrella. Round to the greenhouse, the overgrown path at the side of the house, the log pile, the tool shed, a muddled stack of logs, a rusted barbeque equipment, an extension at the back – another studio, with a chair and a desk of papers, a lamp, a book on astronomy, a mug, a plastic kettle.
Nothing found, we all re-group in the kitchen.
Whatever may have happened here, there’s no sign of Helen and no patient to treat. Our best guess is that the call-taker misinterpreted the scream. Perhaps she put the phone down for some other, more innocent reason, and simply left the house to get help or do something unconnected.
‘We’ll stay here and try to find out more,’ says the first police officer. ‘We’ll talk to neighbours, make some calls. The door needs securing too, of course. But thanks for coming out. Sorry it was a waste of time.’
The Airedale accompanies us to the door. I catch a last glimpse of him staring glumly out as we leave. And maybe it’s because the house seems so thick-walled and low and sheltering, with its tiny windows glowing in the dark, but when the old door shuts behind us, the storm seems wilder, ready to jump down hungrily and snatch us up before we make the ambulance.