Below is an excerpt of The Soul Guide. It’s available now to download on Amazon Kindle or FREE to Kindle Unlimited membes released Saturday 18th February). Have a read and if you like it order the full book here.
The old Caretaker sucked in a ragged breath as the razor-sharp pain ripped through his chest and tore at his heart. The huge bunch of keys he was holding fell to the wooden floor, shattering the peaceful silence of the library, and the ground beneath his feet lurched suddenly. He staggered back from the violence of it, the sheer brutality, and clutched at his chest half expecting to feel his rib cages torn open, bits of shredded skin and muscle hanging over a broken heart.
He knew with certainty she was gone. The Soul Guide was dead.
In that moment, he wanted to die too but somehow his heart remained beating. Bertram’s body shook with the realisation of what had happened. It took all his strength to remain standing, knowing, if he were to submit, he’d most likely fall and never get back up.
Through the pounding in his ears, he could hear the feint tick-tock of the antique grandfather clock, the sound an ever-present heartbeat of the Manor house in which he lived. He concentrated on that sound, waiting for his erratic pulse to return to normal, and the dizziness to abate, before crouching down with a groan to pick up the bunch of keys he’d dropped. His arthritic hands curled around them and he was glad of the comfort they gave him; it took the edge off the pain coiling around his heart.
With shaking hands, he found the large, ornate, rust covered key he was seeking and pulled it free from the rest. Holding the key in his fist, he made his way to the back of the library. He knew what he must do, but the knowledge of her death was a shackle on his soul and he found each step torturous to take. Sweat beaded his brow, his feet were heavy, his steps clumsy, still he forced himself to move forward.
The height and breadth of the back wall of the Library was covered in custom made, dark oak bookcases that held at least one thousand books in varying colours and sizes. This room had always been his favourite within the Manor, but now the colours appeared muted, dull, as if her death had sucked the light from the room, from him.
Reaching the fourth bookcase that lined the wall, Bertram ran his fingers along the shelf closest to his shoulder. He watched the dust motes float away from him in the fading evening light that pooled through the open window. The sweet smell of a warm summer’s day still lingered in the air as the sun dropped behind the forest that circled the Manor. He watched the sky fill with warm oranges and reds, a watercolour painting spreading out across the horizon. It reminded him of the Soul Guide, the way her hair caught the light, a fiery halo. Now, even that memory of her was lost behind a bleak fog.
“Excuse me, I’m sorry to disturb you, but I think you’re the person I’ve been looking for?”
The younger Bertram, startled at the sound of the voice behind him, looked up from his kneeled position in front of the unlit fire. Behind him stood a flame-haired woman in her early twenties. She wore a green summer dress that matched the colour of her eyes and fell to the floor in a swirl at her feet. Bertram’s gaze flittered across her shoulders where a smattering of freckles, bronzed darker by the summer sun, stood out against her otherwise creamy skin.
“Who are you?” Bertram asked. “And how did you get in here?”
The woman’s slim freckled hands clenched the bag she held in front of her like a shield, a look of uncertainty crossing her face. “This is going to sound crazy, I’m not sure where to start,” she responded.
“It might be better if you told me your name first,” Bertram said, standing. “Then perhaps you can tell me why I would think you crazy other than the fact I have no idea who you are and it appears you have broken into my home.”
The woman said nothing. She stood, sizing him up. Bertram stared back. He couldn’t help but notice the cut of her cheekbones, the beauty spot above her eyebrow. It had been a while since he had a conversation with someone so beautiful. A conversation with anyone in fact. Eventually he spoke. “Well? Are you going to tell me what you’re doing here, or should I just call the Police?”
“No, please, don’t do that. My name is Mellissa and I’m, well, I suppose I am a…” She shook her head. “Perhaps it would be better if I took your hand?”
Bertram frowned. “Okay,” he said, not understanding where this was leading, but going with it anyway. He rubbed his ash covered hands against his jeans and took her proffered hand. Hers were so creamy white he wanted none of the ash to mar them.
The instant his fingers touched hers, light fractured from her middle like a crystal splintering the sun’s rays. Bertram stood transfixed, unable to take his eyes off her. He watched her with fascination and without fear. Her red hair fanned about her face as if she were underwater and her emerald eyes shone bright, somehow illuminated from within. He felt a tingling sensation pass through her hand and into his. It moved up his arm in slow, deliberate waves. It wasn’t painful, but felt like the first touch of summer sun on his skin; warm and relaxing.
Her hand tightened its grip on his as the library span away in a blur of light and colour. Once his eyes had adjusted, Bertram could see that they had been transported to a vast white hall that stretched on endlessly. It had a high, arched, mirrored ceiling. When he looked up, he saw himself and Mellissa staring back. The hall itself was spotless. He couldn’t see a single mark on the white marbled floor, only thin silver veins running through it. The white walls sparkled as if dusted with minute diamonds. Floor to ceiling pillars stood every ten meters and were decorated in an intricate flower and bee design in gold leaf that wove its way up from the bottom of each pillar. The bees looked real, their wings flashing iridescent in the light. It was breathtaking.
Bertram could sense, rather than see, others about them, the heat of their gaze resting on the two of them, patiently waiting. Yet, he wasn’t afraid.
With every moment that Mellissa clung to him, he felt a gradual sense of peace and of belonging. It was like a piece of him he didn’t know was missing was somehow slotting into place. He felt an unfathomable connection with Mellissa and although he didn’t understand how, he knew he was inexplicably linked to her.
A warm, gentle breeze ruffled his hair as Mellissa withdrew her hand from his. Within moments they were back standing in the library once more as if the most extraordinary moment hadn’t occurred.
Mellissa reached into her handbag and pulled out a bunch of assorted keys. “You’ll be needing these now, Bertram Ash,” she said, placing them into his hand with a knowing smile on her lips…
Bertram winced as the pain of that memory sliced through him. It was over forty years since he’d first met Mellissa, during the same year he had come to live at the manor when he had turned twenty-five. Her sudden appearance had flipped his solitary existence upside down, and now she was gone there was a cavernous emptiness left in her wake. Like black ink, he could feel the bond that bound them together all those years ago, seeping out of every pore in his body and it hurt like no physical pain ever had.
Swallowing the sob that burned his throat, Bertram continued to run his fingers along the shelf. Moments later he had found what he was looking for, a lock shaped hole carved into the surface of the wooden bookshelf. The key hadn’t met the lock for several years, and his fingers, being as they were, made turning the key even more difficult. “Blasted hands,” he muttered under his breath.
With a little patience and whispered words of encouragement the key turned with a resounding click. Cold air puffed out of the slim gap that appeared between the two bookcases either side and horizontally above his head. With a deep breath, Bertram pulled the key from the lock and pushed against the bookcase. The gap widened a few inches to reveal a secret door set back against the row of bookshelves. It was a door of books within a wall of bookcases.
Bertram looked out the window, the walled garden in the grounds of the manor were abundant with an array of fragrant flowers he and Mellissa had planted together over the years. He’d been looking forward to spending time out there, now it was unlikely he’d be returning before summer was over.
Sighing, he reached for the only red leather-bound book on the door and pulled it towards him. The door swung inwards with a loud creak and revealed a dark, stone staircase that curled upwards and out of sight. The air smelt stale, old. Despite his reservations, he took one last look at his beloved library, then stepped over the threshold.
Pulling on the leather-bound book once again, Bertram moved aside as the door closed behind him. The stairwell was briefly dipped in darkness before an oil lamp, fixed to the wall above the first stone step, fluttered on. Knowing the climb would not be an easy one, Bertram regretted his love of Golden Virginia rolling tobacco. Despite this, he placed a foot on the first stone step. At intervals, whilst he ascended the stairs, oil lamps above him lit up, sensing his presence. It was one of the many mysteries of the Manor he had long since stopped questioning and just accepted.
After what seemed like hours but would probably only take minutes to climb by someone younger and fitter than himself, Bertram reached the top of the circular staircase. In front of him was another door that seemed to pulse in the dim light cast from the oil lamps on either side and arched into a point above his head. Its surface was not smooth and flat but bumpy and ridged like one of the very old and very gnarled trees in the forest that surrounded the manor.
This door, however, was not opened by one of the keys in the bunch that now hung from a loop on Bertram’s jeans. It only opened to the sound of the Caretaker’s whistle and a willing offering of his blood.
Bertram stroked his bristly grey goatee and asked himself whether he had the strength to face what was on the other side. He knew, however, that he had no choice. He was the Caretaker, and like the Soul Guide, he had a job to do despite his heavy heart and tired body. Until his last breath he had promised to fulfil his role, and that’s exactly what he intended to do, heartache or not.
Bertram placed his hand on the centre of the door just where a piece of knotted wood protruded out. Like the door below, it had been several years since he’d opened it and he questioned whether his fading memory would recall the tune he needed to whistle for him to enter.
He needn’t have worried because the moment his calloused palm rested on the wood the haunting tune left his lips. Bertram closed his eyes and felt the slice of pain slash through his palm. Still, he whistled on as the warm trickle of his blood seeped into the wood of the door. Not stopping, even, as he felt the door ripple beneath his hand. As the last note left his lips, Bertram opened his eyes and stepped into a long, white corridor on the other side of the door, it stretched off into the distance, seemingly no end in sight.
He took one glance back and set off to his destination.
Sybil clasped her hands together over her mouth and huffed a warm breath onto her cold, stiff fingers. She’d spent the afternoon roaming the shops intending to buy some Christmas presents for her dad, but nothing seemed right. Until a few months ago, they had loved Christmas, had loved the magic this time of year seemed to bring. She loved the way children would chatter about Father Christmas, their eyes lit with wonder, their delight in visiting him at Harrods. She loved the smell of roast chestnuts on London’s street corners and the lights on Oxford and Regent Street. Her most favourite time during Christmas, was when, as a family, they would bedeck the biggest, fullest, blue spruce Christmas tree with jewelled coloured baubles and home-made decorations. This year they hadn’t bothered to put up a tree.
Knowing there was only one thing that would put a smile on her Dad’s face, something she couldn’t possibly give him, she had found herself in Waterstones running up a massive bill on books. After a further half-hour of futile looking she decided to rest her aching arms and grab herself a coffee.
Turning down a side street, away from the mass of Christmas shoppers, Sybil sought out the cosy Italian café she always frequented on her visits to Oxford Street. She loved the decor of the café, with its velvet seats, sheepskin throws, twinkling white fairy lights and rows of coloured bottles that lined the wooden walls. It reminded her of a Swedish ski lodge she had stayed in one holiday as a kid. Then there was the friendly Italian owner, Carlo, who seemed to remember all who entered his establishment. Over the years, he had become a steady constant in her life and she looked forward to seeing him, even more so these past six months since her mum’s death.
It also helped that Carlo made the most beautiful lemon Pan di Spagna, which she could never resist a slice of. Neither could her dad, who always used to accompany her on their days out in London together. No matter where they visited, they always ended their outing at Carlo’s Café. A monthly ritual, started when she was a child and which she now missed desperately. It seemed like forever since she lasted visited the café with him.
Since her mum’s death her dad had become increasingly more withdrawn. He no longer had any interest in accompanying her on those precious trips they had once so enjoyed together. He’d even missed her eighteenth birthday, so absorbed in his own grief he’d forgotten.
With a sigh, Sybil pushed open the door and tripped over the owner’s dog, a Bull Mastiff, who was laying across her path. “Oops, sorry Giuseppe, didn’t see you there!” Sybil smiled, despite herself. She should have remembered it was his favourite spot, every time she’d visited over the years he’d slept nowhere else. She’d seen so many new customers to the café almost fall face first on the floor, it never failed to raise a smile with the regulars. Now, she’d done the same.
Giuseppe lifted his big round head and gave a deep woof in greeting before resting it back on his paws and closing his eyes once more. Carlo had never attempted to move the dog, had said Giuseppe was his security guard, his sentinel. In the past, Sybil and her dad had always had a good laugh over Carlo’s description given the dog’s laziness and his sweet nature.
“Ciao Bella, it’s good to see you. I’ve missed you this last month,” called Carlo, the café’s owner. A huge smile spread across his face as he came out from behind the counter and enveloped her in a comforting hug.
“I’ve missed you too,” Sybil said hugging him back.
He’d always been so welcoming, loving even, and although she appreciated it, it only seemed to highlight what she was now missing from the relationship with her own dad. She wanted to hold on, to savour Carlo’s warmth. Instead, she leaned out from his embrace and took in his appearance. He never seemed to age a year. She had been visiting this café since she was eight and not an extra wrinkle appeared on his face. He seemed forever a fifty-year-old, portly man, with blue twinkling eyes, a mop of thick brown hair, and a jovial outlook on life.
“I’m sorry it’s been so long. I haven’t been able to come as much as I’d like, what with dad…” Sybil paused, afraid her emotions would burst free. Carlo waited and Sybil swallowed the lump in her throat. “Since starting University, I’ve been busy with my studies,” she said as she extricated herself from his hug and shook off her winter coat, her long brown hair falling in a tangle of waves down her back.
“Bella, you do not need to explain. How are you coping with your new life at University?”
“It’s fine, different. I don’t have all my home comforts but the course is everything I hoped for.”
“And your father, how is your father doing?” Carlo asked, placing his hand on Sybil’s shoulders, searching her face. She wondered whether Carlo knew how much her dad had changed these past few months. How much she had.
Sybil pushed down the sadness she felt when she thought about her dad. He wasn’t doing well, she knew it. The last time she had seen him, his appearance had changed so much she almost didn’t recognise him. Despite this, she plastered a smile on her face, not wanting to concern Carlo. “He’s abroad with his new job and won’t be back until Christmas Eve. I spoke to him a few days ago, he seems to enjoy it.” Her olive skin tinged red on her cheeks, she had never been a great liar. In truth, she hadn’t talked with her dad for over a month now and she had no clue when he’d be home next.
“I see,” Carlo nodded his head. “Well, let’s hope he will get the chance to come visit me soon, eh? Now, what can I get you Bella?” he said as he walked back behind the counter and reached for a coffee mug from the hook above his head.
“A Latte, and a slice of my favourite, please Carlo.”
Moments later, Carlo handed over the mug of frothy Latte and a slice of cake and motioned Sybil to take a seat. He poured himself an expresso shot and followed Sybil to her favourite spot by the window. She sunk into the squishy, red, velvet couch and smiled as Carlo sat opposite her.
“So, Bella, you say your father has a new job? Tell me about it,” Carlo asked, peering at her over the rim of his cup.
“Honestly, Carlo, I don’t know much. He only took the job a little over a month ago, and he’s been away for all that time,” Sybil said, recalling the conversation she’d had with her dad just before he’d left. It had been brief, forced, and only caused her to worry more about his state of mind. She had hoped that this job would prove a welcome distraction from his heartache, but it had become more of a distraction from her. “All I know is that he travels around the world purchasing rare antiques to sell back here in one of the big auction houses. I’d love to know more, but, well, that’s difficult when he’s never around,” she said, picking at the threadbare couch.
Carlo placed the small white cup on the table between them. “Working, it seems, is his way to cope with the pain, no?”
Sybil shrugged. “It would appear that way.”
“Grief affects us in different ways, Bella. Your father, he will get through this, but for now you must allow him time to deal with his feelings the best way he knows how.”
Carlo was right; he needed more time. She knew her dad was suffering, the pain of his loss evident in every step he’d made since that day, every half-hearted smile. He was a ghost, an apparition, floating through the days. Lost.
“I just want to see him, Carlo. I miss us, I miss him….” Sybil’s voice trailed off.
She didn’t want to admit how hurt she was by her dad’s withdrawal from her. She felt like an orphan. It was as though she’d lost both parents that night. Unshed tears welled in Sybil’s eyes. A gaping hole had opened since her mum’s death and now, it sat dark and empty between them. A silent void of grief, bitterness and regret. Sybil knew her dad balanced precariously on its edges, so close to falling into its depths. She’d lost count of the times she’d pulled him back from its brink, but it was getting harder and harder to stop him from falling.
Carlo leaned over the table and took Sybil’s hand in his. “Bella, he loves you. Of that I am certain. He will come back to you again. Give him more time.”
Sybil squeezed Carlo’s hand and raised her troubled hazel eyes to his kind blue ones. “I will try, Carlo, but I feel so helpless. I know he blames himself for the accident. He is tortured by what happened. He is convinced that if he hadn’t been working so late, had more sleep the night before, he would have reacted quicker to the maniac who was speeding down the country lane. If anyone is responsible for mum’s death, it’s the driver of that car,” Sybil said, as she rubbed at the thick, red scar that ran from her hairline to her eyebrow and ended on her cheekbone.
Her last memory was of leaving the restaurant that night, she had no recollection of the accident or the horrors that followed. When she’d opened her eyes two weeks later, her dad was by her side, but grief had already scored deep lines onto his face and hollowed out his cheeks. He had told her of her mum’s death and how he had walked away unscathed. Except he hadn’t, he was left with the memories of that night and the screaming nightmares which haunted him ever since.
“Nothing can change what happened, Bella. There is no use in your father torturing himself with ‘what ifs’. He will understand this one day. Until that day comes, you must remain strong for him. He needs you more than he realises.”
The café door chimed behind them. Carlo smiled, patting Sybil on the hand. “Give me a moment, Bella,” he said.
“Sure,” Sybil said, picking up her fork and forcing herself to eat a mouthful of cake whilst Carlo greeted the next customer who, no doubt, was glad to be out of the cold December weather.
Sybil stared out of the window eating the sweet, zingy cake, the smell of lemon and caramel comforting her somehow. She allowed her mind to wander over the desolate landscape that was the past few months of her life. She had spent her days and most evenings with her head buried in a book, alone in the University library. Studying, reading a good book and keeping track of her dad ate into all her time. She was invisible to others, and she knew deep down that was of her own doing. She didn’t have friends of her own age, more acquaintances she sometimes spent time with to discuss an assignment, but she always kept them at arms-length and after a while they didn’t seem to notice her anymore. Not that she wasn’t social, she just didn’t want her life complicated more than it already was. Besides, getting close to someone meant talking about your family and she wouldn’t be able to stand the pity that would inevitably follow.
Sighing, she placed down the fork on the empty plate in front of her. A sudden warm breeze blew over her arm and she felt the strange sensation that someone was staring at her. As the seconds ticked by, she felt that gaze burn her skin and she was wilting under the intensity of it. Intrigued, she turned in her seat and looked over at Carlo who was still busy behind the counter dealing with the customer who’d entered a few minutes ago, he looked up and gave her a quick smile. Her gaze then fell on Giuseppe, who was fast asleep, his front paw twitching. “Not the dog then,” she muttered.
Her eyes lifted to the elderly couple sitting in the battered tan chesterfield on the other side of the café, both reading a book, their free hand entwined in each other’s. It wasn’t them either. Sybil felt her cheeks growing warm and an unsettled feeling bloomed in her stomach. She felt less intrigued and more uneasy. A quick movement caught her eye, and there, at the back of the café, in a dimmed seating area, she saw a young, dark-haired man staring at her.
Goosebumps sent her arm hairs to attention, and she felt cold, despite the warmth of the café. Although his expression was hidden by the shadows of the alcove, it was his eyes that captured her attention, that made her spine snap straight. Despite the shadows, they gleamed like cats’ eyes on a motorway, a silver flash in the dark.
Sybil stood up, knocking the table in front of her with her knee, causing the mug and its last mouthfuls of latte to spill over its surface. Her heart pounded in her chest as the seed of unease took root inside her.
Carlo stopped what he was doing and looked over to Sybil. “You ok, Bella?” he asked, concern furrowing his brow. Even Giuseppe was disturbed enough to wake up from his slumber.
“Sorry, yes, I just remembered I’ve got to catch the 19.15 train from Waterloo back home. I’d better make my way there now, or I’ll miss it,” Sybil lied whilst picking up the mug and attempting to mop up the spillage, her hands shaking.
“Leave that, Bella. I will clear it up. You sure you’re ok?” Carlo asked, his eyes flicking from her shaking hands to her face.
Sybil wiped her hands on her jeans and gave him a beaming smile to reassure him she was fine. “It was just me being clumsy. I’m fine, Carlo, honestly.” She hoped he believed her, she just wanted to get out of there. She felt strange in her skin, like it didn’t fit suddenly.
“Ok, if you’re sure,” Carlo said after a short pause. “You go get your train, but come back soon, eh? I am always here, Sybil.”
Sybil nodded her head in relief. She felt guilty leaving so soon, but she had to get outside in the fresh air and quick. “Yes, of course. Maybe next time I can persuade dad to come with me?”
Carlo grinned. “It would be good to see him. I have his special brew waiting just for him,” he said, tapping a gold tinned canister of coffee. “Will you pass on my regards?”
“Sure,” Sybil replied. Her hands trembled as she pulled out her purse.
Carlo shook his head. “Non, Bella, it’s on me.”
Sybil pulled on her coat and picked up her bags. “Thank you, Carlo. I hope to see you soon.”
“Prego. Take care, Bella, I smell snow in the air!” Carlo winked and Sybil couldn’t help but give a small smile. Carlo always ‘smelt’ snow during winter and his prediction hadn’t been right yet.
Picking up her bags, Sybil passed Carlo, giving him a quick peck on the cheek, and stepped over Giuseppe. A quick look over her shoulder and Sybil could see that the young man was busy on his mobile phone. Perhaps she’d imagined it all, except she couldn’t shake the feeling of disquiet that continued to snake its way across her skin.