Will found the key where the note had indicated and unlocked the door, pushing it open with a shove as the moisture-swelled frame resisted. As if I didn’t remember I was near the sea. To continue the theme, the house smelled faintly of salt. As he walked from room to room, he noticed the sort of held breath feeling that a house holds when it is too long closed up and vacant.
Not empty anymore, he thought. Mine.
The Grey House (which was still called only that by the older residents, no matter that it now had a proper house number and postal code just like the rest of the village) had ceased to be grey some years back; its boards weathered white by the wind and the salty air. Will wondered if he should paint it, but the expense and hassle seemed a bit much for accuracy in a title, and Will had learned long ago that old names can still be true, despite appearances. More true, even.
He replaced what boards were rotted with age and wet with strong boards and silver nails, specks of protection that twinkled as he hammered them into place. He did repaint the fences, but that more to do with the house’s role as a landmark and his own new role as its caretaker.
The locals didn’t appear surprised that Will was now the one filling orders at the market or clearing the front gate of fallen branches. Whatever tale Captain Toms had told before his death (or an event close enough to that for regular people’s understanding) meant that Will was merely “that sweet boy who was putting the old Grey House back to rights”, and as much of a fixture of the village as if he’d lived there all along.
He was overwhelmingly polite and kind and smiled at the old ladies who clucked at him and still call him a boy though he was already a decade past his thirtieth birthday. Apparently he would forever be thought of as out of time with his body one way or the other. If any remembered him as the quiet, polite boy who had visited with some English schoolchildren, relations of the captain’s friend Professor Lyon, they didn’t mention it.
After the outside of the house was hale and whole, Will concerned himself with the rooms. He spent long afternoons sweeping from attic to cellar, repairing weak floorboards (though leaving the contents of the attic undisturbed with no one the wiser) and wobbly banisters, stained tiling and cracked pipes.
He also searched out spots of rot and damp in the shelves, set aside books that needed new binding (he would write to Max for some advice, the art of book repair being his newest hobby) and made sure each old painting’s frame held true.
When the weather was fine, he threw open all the windows (now gleaming with fresh panes of glass) so that the wind swept through the place, filling each room with the clean wild smell of the sea. He knew the Captain would have approved.
Childhood memories sat side by side the ones he was making, the clatter of rain on the roof not unlike the sound of Jane and her brothers racing down the stairs, a walk to the market overlaid by a more frantic run down those same lanes to the harbour.
The couple that ran the market feared Will was lonely, so one day they offered up a puppy from their newest litter. She was red and gold, a tumble of tawny curls. Will named her Ruth and her flopping scamper was his permanent shadow on walks through the village.
Some of the younger women in the village wondered if he was hiding away from some scandal or nursing a broken heart—this handsome young man with no wife or nearby family—but those older or wiser simply left him alone to his own devices.
And he wasn’t truly alone, Will often received calls and letters from his family, and with so many rooms it wasn’t unheard of for a sibling or two to stop by on a visit—once Stephen brought his huge brood of laughing children for a week at the seaside and Will thought his face would split for smiling.
He still wasn’t truly sure why the Captain had given him ownership of the Grey House, whether Captain Toms was as removed from this Time as Merriman or would return one day, if there was a purpose to his being here in this Place that was simply unknown to him. He knew there was no use to worrying about it and besides, there were more useful things to occupy his attention, like the old shingles in the room that could use replacing and the replanting of flowers along the path.
Mary, on her last visit, had told him he just simply had to plant red carnations, but the memory of bleached white and vibrant red still put him uneasily in mind of a ribbon-wrapped skull, so he chose yellow instead.
They were coming along nicely now, thriving in the pale spring sunshine as Will tamed the bushes that grew next to them. Pruning was not an activity for the inattentive, he had too many scratches and scars to prove it, so most of his focus was on his shears and twine when he noticed a women making her way up the path. Tourists often came by when the weather was warm, wanting to see the Grey House up close and check off another stop on their tour of the touted historical buildings of Tressiwick. He was amenable, but all too frequently played up being the quiet local gardener and went unnoticed. He stood, taking a moment to push his hair out of his face before he went on to the next bush.
“Will? Will Stanton?”
There was enough shiver in her voice that Will look up startled, unsure how this stranger would know him. Then something about the tilt of her smile brought him back to another springtime in this place, another day in this yard. He could see the same happening to her.
“Hello, Jane Drew,” he said, and he thought his face would split from smiling. He didn’t know if this meeting was the reason why he had been sent to Tressiwick, but as Ruth pranced around Jane’s feet and the yard filled with barking and laughter, Will thought it could be reason enough.