A painter recovers her lost talent at an allegedly haunted cottage in rural Kent and learns a little too late, the meaning of eternal love.
Daisy Taylor spent most days in her painting studio on the top floor of a Mayfair townhouse where she lived with her husband Felix Reginald Taylor.
Felix owned a small gallery with an impressive collection of post-war Japanese abstracts. His gallery was just three-blocks away from the townhouse, so this evening, same as almost every other evening, Felix walked home after work. As he approached the townhouse, Daisy could hear him singing through the street-facing window.
“Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy, all for the love of you –” Unlike his baritone speaking voice, Felix’s singing voice was high-pitched and clear, like a prepubescent altar boy’s. Though they’d been married for a decade and two years, Daisy was still unsettled by how incongruous that delicate crooning sounded coming from a man as bearish and portly as Felix.
She wiped her paint-smudged fingers on a rag, walked down the stairs, opened the door and gave him a perfunctory hug.
“Hello darling. How’s your masterpiece coming along?” Felix asked removing his worsted coat and hanging it on the rack along the entryway.
“It’s not,” said Daisy who was already sauntering back upstairs.
Felix followed her up and into the studio where she stood in front of her canvas grimacing as she contemplated her work. He came up behind her, kneaded her slender shoulders and kissed her swan-like neck.
“Stop that, please.” She shrugged. “Look at this mess,” she said pointing to the nebulous purple, white and black composition on the canvas.
“Hmmm. It’s not that bad. An improvement from your last piece, I’d say.”
“You’re such a bad liar.” Daisy gazed thoughtfully at the painting, looking like a sad Greta Garbo. “ARTnews had called me England’s most promising expressionist, compared me to Ernst Kirchner, Emil Nolde. But now – now, everything I do is mediocre at best. Most of the time, pure shit.” She pressed her palm to her forehead. “Oh, what’s happened to me, Felix? I’m a failure, a failure.”
“Come now, what rubbish, my darling.” He opened his arms to her.
Daisy embraced him, buried her face in his chest, then clutched at the soft flesh around his waist and squeezed. “You’re getting so fat Pooh Bear,” she said pinching him in a way that made him wince.
“Ouch. Hurts!” He pulled away. “Why don’t you sign up for a still life class or a landscape workshop. Might get you inspired again.”
She looked at him with slack jaw and the eyes of a street fighter. “Classes are for amateurs and bored housewives. I know how to paint. I’m just stuck because I live such a bor-ring life,” she wanted to add “with such a boring man” but didn’t feel like particularly jabby this evening. Felix always truckled to her anyway, so even attempting to argue with him was no fun anymore.
After showering, Daisy set down a bottle of wine, two plates of Herefordshire beef with peas and rosemary potatoes and a sourdough loaf on the dining room table. She had pre-ordered the meal through a gourmet food delivery service. As they ate underneath the soft light of a favrile glass Tiffany chandelier, Daisy noticed the liver spots on the back of Felix’s hands as he skewered an army of peas. She looked at her own smooth, unblemished skin and it became apparent to her that their fifteen-year age gap was more obvious than ever. In the way an artist scrutinises the forms and textures of things, she made a mental note of Felix’s sloping shoulders, his wobbly chin and how he chewed his food like a ruminant, and she felt oppressed. I’ve made a mistake, she thought. Why did I marry him?
Before she became Mrs. Taylor, Daisy Malouf was one of the most talented and popular students at the Royal College of Art. Within a year of graduating, she had her first solo and then a group exhibition at The Haywood where she shared the walls with art world legends Christopher Ofili and Jenny Saville. Back then, she had imagined that like Ofili and Saville, she too would become famous. She day-dreamed of seeing her paintings hanging in the Tate Modern, their miniatures sold as postcards at the museum’s gift shop.
But Daisy did not have the clarity of mind and discipline that artistic excellence required. Her parents had always called her temperamental and friends described her as flighty. When she was in a good mood, she would rant about some brushstroke technique she was trying out, or about how she thought she shared much in common with Matisse or Van Gogh. She’d stay up all night mixing paints to get just the right shade for her work. But there were other times when she would lose all interest in painting – and in almost everything else – and not get out of bed till mid-afternoon. Unwilling, or perhaps unable, to move her body, she’d lie there staring up at a hairline crack on the ceiling feeling its blackness seeping into her. Terrified of being consumed by despair, she could never tolerate being alone for too long. So she had waltzed from one lover to the next with barely a month’s break between them, until her passions left her depleted, morbidly disappointed and desperate for a dependable and devoted companion.
It was during one of her melancholic spells that she met Felix at an opening night party in a Chelsea gallery. He had gushed over her work and declared a bright future for her as an artist. He promised her he’d represent her and showcase her paintings at The Faeger. In his eyes, she saw a steadier, brighter version of herself and after six months in his company, the heavy sadness did not return. She stayed with him and they were married a year later.
True to his word, Felix supported Daisy and worked hard to promote her as an artist, but the art world had lost interest. Last spring, at The Faeger, Daisy had stood in a corner eavesdropping as Felix regaled a potential buyer with one of her paintings.
“I’m sorry Felix. It doesn’t work for me. I feel like the artist is trying too hard. It’s soulless.”
Daisy had been devastated. She tried harder and harder to paint something that would redeem her, but everything she produced was dull and flat.
She hadn’t sold a painting in years and this evening as she studied the man sitting across the table from her, the man she agreed to “love and to cherish, till death us do part”, a little voice in her head told her that it was him, and the staidness of their married life, that caused her creative demise.
“I think I need to get out of the city for a while. A change of scene might get my creative juices flowing again,” she told Felix. She had hardly touched her steak but was on her third glass of wine.
“That’s a great idea. I’m off to Japan again next week. I have a viewing at a gallery in Sendai. Maybe take yourself out to Rowan Lodge while I’m away?”
“Yes. I think I will. How long will you be gone for?”
“Just a week.”
“Perfect. I’ll drive out to Sevenoaks the day you leave,” she said, her lips curling up at the corners.
The next day, Daisy’s younger sister Violet came by for a visit. Violet lived out in Reading, but once a month, she visited her oncologist in Mayfair and would pop round to see Daisy after.
Too thin and slightly hunched, Violet was a plainer version of Daisy, and though they shared the same Garbo-like eyes and mouth, on Violet the features were watery and lacked symmetry.
“So, what’d the doctor say?” Daisy was standing behind the island bar in the kitchen preparing a pot of tea.
Violet sat on one of the bar stools nibbling a custard cream. “He says the tumour’s not gotten any larger but my thyroglobulin’s up, which according to him isn’t good. He’s suggesting radiation. If that doesn’t work, he says chemo. Urgh… chemo. I’ll lose my hair.”
Daisy patted Violet’s forearm and squinted. “Thyroid cancer’s very treatable and it’s only stage one. You’re a fighter Vi, you’ll pull through.”
Violet held her breath then burst into tears. “I think Kevin’s cheating on me.”
“What?” Daisy’s eyes widened. “What makes you think that?”
“He’s been really cold and stroppy with me in lately. Always sneaking off into his study and texting, and when he comes out, he’s got this weird grin on his face. I just know something’s going on.”
Daisy handed Violet a tissue. “He’s probably just worried about you,” she said. She swallowed a mouthful of tea. It was too hot and scalded her tongue.
“Sometimes, I think he’s the reason I’ve got cancer. He loves me so much less than I love him and that’s what’s making me sick. I do more for him, I give more. I give in more. He just takes takes takes, sucks the life out of me. I feel like I’m struggling to stay afloat in our relationship, doing everything I can to make sure he doesn’t leave me. Haven’t you noticed? He’s just been getting fitter with age. Me – I’m falling apart. Look at all these greys,” she said tugging at a cluster of silvery strands on the top of her head. “Kevin’s mean. The things he says to me, the way he treats me, the way he looks at me. Sometimes when I’m with him, I feel like I’m drowning.” Violet plucked a petal from a rose in a vase on the counter. “You won’t understand. You have the most loving husband in the world,” she said dabbing her eyes.
Daisy put a cup of tea in front of Violet. “Vi, stop with this nonsense. Don’t be a victim. You can’t blame Kevin for your cancer. Maybe he just needs some space. I’m sure this is rough on him too.”
“Maybe you’re right. Oh Daisy, I hate being sick.”
“Aww, sweetheart, you’ll pull through. I know you will.”
“And what if I don’t?” Violet held back her tears. “There has to be another world beyond this one. Another life, don’t you think?”
“Stop being so dramatic, Vi. Stage one is totally treatable. You’ll be fine.” Daisy shook her head. “And no, Vi, I don’t think we get another life. This is the only one we’ve got, so we best make the most of it,” she stuffed a custard cream into her mouth then handed her sister another tissue.
“I think you’re wrong. There has to be something after. There just has to be.”
Daisy pressed her lips tightly together, raised her eyebrows and shook her head. “Once we’re dead we’re food for worms. It’s lights out. Eternal unconsciousness. Finito. The end.”
“Oh shut up. You remember what Helen Burns said?
“Who the hell is Helen Burns?”
“Helen Burns from ‘Jane Eyre’.” Violet gave Daisy an exasperated look. “The sick girl; Jane’s best friend at the orphanage.”
“Why would I know that? I never read ‘Jane Eyre’.”
“Well, you should, it’s really good.” Violet rested her palm on her collarbone and directed her eyes towards the ceiling trying to recall the words. “She said, ‘There’s an invisible world and a kingdom of spirits: that world is all around us, for it is everywhere.” She dropped a sugar cube into her tea, stirred it in and smiled. “There has to be something after.”
Daisy screwed up her mouth and nodded but looked at Violet like she was mad. “You believe what you need to sweetie. As far as I’m concerned, the afterlife, like happily ever after, is a fucking fairy tale.”
“You’re a right bitch, you know that, Daisy?” Violet blew noisily into her tissue.
Daisy cocked her head and blew Violet a kiss. “I love you too, sis.”
Rowan Lodge was a cottage four miles outside the town of Sevenoaks in Kent. A small ragstone building, it sat at the edge of a rowan and silver birch forest near the north-eastern entrance of an estate that once belonged to Felix’s family. In the 1920s, Felix’s grandparents had sold the estate to the local council, but they’d kept the lodge, which came into Felix’s possession when his father died some twenty years ago. Built in the mid 17th century as a pigpen, the building had been converted into a servant’s lodge sometime around the late 1890s, before it was abandoned and left to gather moss.
When Felix took ownership of the property, he had hired a renovation crew to restore the original stone fireplace, mullioned windows, and wooden door and ceiling beams. He transformed the decrepit hovel into a comfortable weekend cottage. On the ground level, facing the fireplace, was a lounge with pistachio-coloured wainscoting, a leather-upholstered Chesterfield sofa and armchair, Persian rugs and a French tapestry of Diana and Actaeon. Adjacent to the lounge was a small kitchen and dining area with the original stone floors intact. Felix had added a new mezzanine loft, which contained the bedroom and a bathroom with a sumptuous claw-foot tub.
Daisy had first visited the lodge a little over a month after she and Felix became a couple and they had spent their first night together there. During that visit, Felix told her a story he’d heard about the property.
“You remember Uncle Edward?” Felix had asked her as they lounged on the bed eating strawberries. “You met him at my cousin Phyllis’ wedding.”
Daisy nodded. She made a semi-circle with her hand and mimed the act of drinking. “The one that won’t shut up and gets all touchy feely after he’s had a few too many?”
“Yes, quite right. That would be Uncle Edward,” said Felix cringing. “According to him, more than a hundred years ago, a young laundry maid who worked at the estate had lived in this very lodge. One day, she received news that her lover, a fisherman, had died at sea. In her grief, he wandered out to a gypsy camp near Godden Green and sought out a spell to raise the dead. Later that evening, back at the estate, the stable master found her in the kitchen scrubbing blood off her face and frock. He learnt that she had stolen a Winchester from the hunting shed, went out into the forest, shot and crippled a stag, cut out its beating heart with a butcher knife and eaten it. The maid told the stable master that a gypsy woman had instructed her to do so if she hoped to see her lover again. Five days later, the maid was found hanging from this very beam,” Felix said pointing to the thick, cracked alder joist above their bed.
Daisy pictured a woman in a Victorian frock and mop cap hanging from the ceiling, but the image seemed almost comical when set against the stylish new sleeping loft with its geometric patterned Kelly Hoppen wallpaper and modern, Debenhams décor.
“Shortly after her death,” Felix continued, “a new maid moved into the lodge. On her fourth night, this maid came banging at the door of the main house, screaming. She said she’d been awakened by a loud, thumping noise and when she looked out of her window, she’d seen an ashen-skinned man with black holes for eyes standing in the woods. He was buck-naked but for a bloody deer hide draped over his shoulders and antlers growing out of his head. No one believed her of course, but the same thing happened to three other maids after her, always on the fourth night of their arrival. So eventually, Rowan Lodge was sealed up and abandoned.”
Felix had been rubbing Daisy’s foot as he told the tale. She watched him with furrowed brows, and it crossed her mind that perhaps attempting to scare her was his method of seduction. She wasn’t scared at all. The soothing sound of his deep voice and the pressure of his dry, warm fingers made her toes tingle, and that tingle travelled all the way up to between her thighs.
“Now that’s one for the campfire,” Daisy said raking Felix’s hair with her fingers. “I remember your Uncle Edward telling me he wanted to be novelist. He’s certainly got the imagination for it.”
“I suppose he does.” Felix said. He slid his hands under her shirt and pulled her into his arms. They rolled around in bed, laughing before slipping under the duvet.
On the morning of Felix’s departure, Daisy drove him to the airport, said goodbye then continued driving on the A2 for about an hour till she arrived at Rowan Lodge at ten past four in the afternoon. It was a chilly but bright autumn day. She entered the lodge and opened the windows for a few minutes to draw in a cross breeze. Then she went upstairs, took a long bath, shaved her legs, dried off, wrapped herself in a towel, then flopped on the bed and thought about her lover’s face between her legs. She was imagining his stubbly chin rubbing against her belly when her mobile phone rang. She picked it up and rolled onto her elbows.
“Helloo sexy. You on the way?” She cooed. “What? What do you mean you’ve decided not to come? We planned this a week ago.”
She closed her eyes and listened but wasn’t buying the excuse about “too much work”.
“You’re such a flake Kevin.” She hung up.
That evening, as she sat on the sofa, nursing a bottle of pinot noir to dull her indignation, it occurred to her that she ought to be grateful she wasn’t married to a selfish, unreliable louse like her brother in-law and that unlike Kevin, Felix was loyal and dependable. She turned off the lights, went into bed and was asleep by nine.
At dawn, she got out of bed, put on her sweatpants and a long-sleeved t-shirt and headed out to the woodland trail at the back of the lodge for a run. At around eight, she was back indoors having two slices of toast and a black coffee. After breakfast, she set up her easel, canvas and tools in the lounge and began working. The light here was different from the light in her Mayfair studio. Soft and white, it filled the space, illuminating her empty canvas till the lineaments of a face came into her mind. She took a blunt pencil and quickly sketched her vision on the canvas. Then she mixed yellow, red and blue paint to make a dark shade of ochre. She picked up a fine horsehair brush, dipped it into the paint and moved it confidently over the outline of the face. She worked without pause through to the late afternoon. At dusk, before the last rays of daylight disappeared, she stood back and examined her work. She gasped and a smile spread across her face. She couldn’t yet tell for certain what she was looking at, but she knew this was the best thing she had done in a long time. The colours were violent, but the strokes precise; slashes and daubs of crimson, olive green, mustard yellow and specks of brown created the most intriguing textures, ridges and bumps on the canvas, capturing a peculiar verisimilitude to flesh. But the work was far from complete. The eyes, mouth and nose – patches covered in pale eggshell paint – were still shapeless. Yet she could already sense the great potential in this new composition. Daisy’s heart raced as she felt the power returning to her hands. She couldn’t wait to see what would happen next. But she had been painting for eight hours and was now hungry and tired, so she put her tools away, ate a salad and went to bed.
The next day, she awoke at the same time and went out for her morning run. It was cold enough that her breath left a ribbon of vapour in the air. As she jogged along the narrow trail, she remembered the times she had spent in Sevenoaks with Felix. Random memories rushed through her mind. Him blowing into her hands to warm them up when they were cold and numb. Kissing her on the forehead whenever she felt she was running out of ideas. Him laying out a picnic in the meadows and presenting her with a baked treat he’d bought at the store. Them having long conversations in bed and Felix listening attentively to her. Him forgiving her almost immediately after she’d lashed out at him for something she didn’t agree with. She returned to the cottage and once again worked feverishly till sunset.
By the end of her third day at Rowan Lodge, Daisy had completed a portrait of her husband. It was in the fauvist style with fierce strokes and bold clashing colours. The light bounced off Felix’s cheeks, forehead and hair, imbuing his face with a magnificent glow. And the eyes, they were breath-taking – gentle, affectionate, limned with tenderness and an eagerness to please. They were eyes suffused with love, the purest and rarest kind. By sunset, the painting was nearly finished. There were still details that needed to be worked in, but Daisy would complete these the next day.
She took a photo of the painting and sent it to Felix on WhatsApp. He called her almost immediately after he received it and they talked for about an hour. He said he couldn’t wait to show it to his friend, the director of the Tate. That night, just before Daisy fell asleep, she thought to herself, Felix Reginald Taylor, what would I do without you?
On her fourth day at the lodge, Daisy repeated her morning routine then returned to her painting. By the late afternoon, heavy clouds had gathered, hiding the sun and darkening the sky. Despite the heaters being cranked up, the lounge was unusually drafty, so she kindled a fire and warmed herself in front of it.
The flames, vaulting then shrinking within the firebox, made the painting smoulder mysteriously so it looked as if Felix’s eyes were moving across the room. In the radiance of firelight, Daisy noticed that the portrait looked different than it did earlier in the day, more expressive and mesmerising. She continued working with fervour, adding shadowy blues and smoky purples. In a fugue, she painted for hours. When she was done, she stepped back.
The painting had transmogrified. Felix’s face now seemed sinister, ferocious almost, like a wounded bear, but the portrait looked even more exquisite than before. Daisy was so engrossed in her work that she lost track of time and when she looked at the clock above the mantel, it was already five to nine and pitch-black outside. She had a sandwich and tomato soup for dinner, then washed the dishes.
In front of the kitchen sink, a mullioned window looked out into the dark woods. Through the sound of the running tap, Daisy heard a rustling outdoors. It seemed to be coming from a spot in the woods a few feet from the window. She leaned forward, peered through the glass and saw what looked like a human figure lurking between the trees. As her eyes focused on the figure, she thought she glimpsed a pair of antlers behind the tree branches. Unsure if it were just light reflecting off the window, she grabbed a kitchen knife and tiptoed out onto the front porch to get a better look.
“Hello, is there someone there?” she asked, but all she heard was the wind before drops of rain fell on her face. It was now preternaturally cold outdoors and she found herself shivering, so she hurried back inside and locked the door. I must have been staring at the fire for too long, my eyes are playing tricks on me, she assured herself. Recalling Uncle Edward’s tale, she felt uneasy and suddenly became aware of how alone she was out here in the lodge.
She decided to call Felix. It was 9:30 p.m., morning in Japan. She knew he was an early riser like her, so now would be a good time to reach him. She dialled his mobile number and received a message from his network provider. “Sorry, but the person you are trying to reach is not available. Please try again later.” He’s probably in the bathroom, she surmised. She would try again later.
She made a cup of chamomile tea then put on a pair of socks and a cardigan and curled up on the sofa in front of the fire. As she listened to the ticking of the clock, she sensed all the uninhabited spaces around her – the bedroom and bathroom upstairs, the musty broom closet near the front door. Daisy did not believe in ghosts, but tonight, the lodge felt menacing. Out here in the quiet countryside, all alone, her body occupying only a small portion of this old, stone dwelling with a tragic past, Daisy could feel a void pressing in on her. She began to imagine all that might be present in vacant spaces. The little hairs behind her neck began to rise. The long, loud silence made her mind run wild, so she turned on the television, flipping through the channels and stopping when she got to the news.
On the screen, she saw a grey and misty place by the sea. A concrete breakwater was being assaulted by giant swells as the ocean surged onto the land. Then came images of flooded roads, cars bobbing along what looked like a rapidly flowing river and houses so deeply submerged in water only their roofs could be seen. Daisy turned up the volume.
“A 9.0 magnitude earthquake struck off the coast of Japan. At four twelve this morning, a tsunami warning was sent out across the Sendai coastal plain. More than 4,000 people have been evacuated,” the newscaster reported.
That’s where Felix is, she realised. She called his mobile again but got the same recorded message. Why didn’t I get the name of his hotel? She thought. She knew why. She’d been too busy planning her rendezvous with Kevin. Calm down; he’s probably nowhere near the flood. Go to bed, try calling him later, she told herself. She went upstairs, changed into her pyjamas and crawled under the duvet but was too antsy to fall asleep. She lay there looking up at the massive wooden beam overhead. She imagined the laundry maid hanging from it. She imagined herself hanging from it. She imagined antlers crashing through the kitchen window. She imagined Felix snoring peacefully next to her. She drifted off but then awoke at 2:34 a.m. and immediately reached for her phone on the nightstand. She called Felix again. “Sorry, but the person you are trying to reach is not available.”
In panic, she dialled his number again and again. “Sorry, but the person you are trying to reach is not available. Please try again later.” Pick up Felix. Pick up! She took four deep breaths. He has poor coverage, that’s all. Send him an email. Using her phone, she emailed him then she lay back down on the bed and shut her eyes. At 2:53am, her phone rang. She grabbed it and was overwhelmed with relief when she heard Felix’s voice.
“Oh my god! I saw the news. Are you alright?”
“Yes, my darling. I’m fine.” He sounded surprised.
“Oh, thank goodness Felix. Why didn’t you pick up? I was so worried.”
“No need for that. How are you?”
“I saw something tonight that really scared me.”
“No. I mean that too, but no, something else.”
“What did you see?”
“I know it’s madness, but I could have sworn I saw a man with antlers out in the woods. I thought about Uncle Edward’s story and got spooked.”
“Oh darling, it’s just a silly story.”
“Oh Felix. I wish you were here. I miss you so much,” Daisy said. She started weeping but didn’t understand why.
“I’ll be home sooner than you know it.”
“OK. I love you,” she said. She felt more relaxed now that she was hearing his voice. She rested her head on a pillow and moved her phone from her right ear to her left ear. “It sounds windy where you are. Are you outdoors? Where are you?”
“In the sea, I think.”
“What do you mean, in the sea?”
Then she heard it. Soft but distinct, a tune coming from outside the front door. The wind, she thought.
“Felix? Hello?” The connection was fuzzy, and she could her her own voice echoing back through the receiver. “Felix? What do you mean you’re in the sea? Felix?”
His voice was breaking up. “I couldn’t – elp – myself – fell in – start – ed drowning – the day – met you.”
Daisy got out of bed, stood up and slowly walked down the stairs to the lounge, towards the front door. She could still hear the tune. There was no doubt about it, it was a person singing. That voice, it sounded like it was about twelve paces from the door and it was getting louder. She could make out the words clearly now. “I’m half crazy, all for the love of you…”
“Felix?” She was calling his name in two directions – into the receiver and towards the front door.” “Felix? I’m serious. Where are you? Felix?”
There was no answer. On the other end of the phone all she heard was the sound of crashing water. Then silence.
Daisy dropped the phone, put her ears against the door and felt her heart leap to her throat. There was no mistaking whose voice it was. “But you look sweet upon a seat of a bicycle made for two –” She unbolted the lock and with trembling hands gripped and turned the brass knob.
Copyright Michele Koh Morollo