The Croft - Martins Solitude by Harcourt Tendhall

6 December 2021  { Crime/Thriller }


It was late afternoon when Martin drove along the A9, looking forward to spending a few nights in his new holiday home. After everything that had happened in his life recently, he felt he needed this break. He’d loaded the old Land Rover he’d lovingly restored over the last two years with cleaning tools and materials, together with enough food for his stay and some clean bedding and clothes.

As he got closer to his destination, and the traffic thinned out, he slowed, hoping to recognise the turning he’d taken only once before, when he’d viewed the old croft. He thought he recognised the bend in the road ahead and, sure enough, fifty yards after it was the turnoff marking the start of the track. He turned left, stopped, and engaged the Land Rover’s lower gearing. When he’d viewed it, the estate agent had taken quite a while to bump along the rough track leading to the croft, nestled in the lee of a hill, about a mile off the A9. He realised he’d have to get the track upgraded so he could get his Porsche down it in the future, but for now, the Land Rover would suffice.

‘Woah! What happened here?’ Martin said out loud as he halted. Some flooding had swept away a section of the track since he was last here. It looked very rocky as well. He slowly dropped off the track into the now dry gulley that intersected the old track and picked his way across. The Land Rover lurched violently from side to side as the wheels dropped into the soft peat or climbed over small boulders. He cringed a few times as the underside of the Land Rover scraped over rocks. A final steep climb up the other side and he regained the track. Breathing a sigh of relief, he carried on, eventually reaching the front of the old croft.

After unloading, Martin stood outside and scanned the view in every direction. Nothing. No walls, no telegraph poles, no roads, no buildings, and no people. Solitude. Exactly what he was looking for and felt he needed. Looking westward, he saw the evening sun disappearing behind a bank of cloud and surmised that rain was on its way. Feeling relaxed for the first time in ages, he took a stroll about the immediate area around the croft, something he hadn’t had time to do when he viewed the place. He found a couple of broken flat stones that aroused mild curiosity. It looked as though there may have been some writing on them, but they were so weathered, he couldn’t decipher a single word. Maybe the estate agent could give him some of the history of the place. He made a mental note to ring him in the morning.

Back in the croft, he set about making a fire in the old range and, as the evening light faded, he lit a couple of storm lanterns he’d brought with him. There was no mains electric, or mains anything connected to the croft. There was spring water feeding a stone trough in the rear yard and a wooden barrel, which collected rainwater. Drainage from the croft was to a septic tank. There wasn’t even any mobile phone signal, unless you climbed to the top of the hill, as pointed out to him by the estate agent, like it was some kind of benefit.

He heated some soup, which he ate with some fresh bread, before writing a list of tasks for the next day. The journey from Edinburgh had tired him, so he thought he’d turn in for the night. The old bed looked comfortable enough, but he stripped the dusty blanket and rough sheet from it, cleaned the mattress with his cordless vacuum cleaner, before making up the bed with new sheets, pillow and duvet, bought that morning.

The wind was getting up and sleety rain began falling, so he stoked the range and closed the damper to give a slower burn, hoping it would last most of the night, before finally turning in.

As he lay there, warm and content, he reflected on how lucky he’d been to secure this place. The windfall from his late uncle’s estate had come at just the right time, following so smoothly behind his divorce settlement and purchase of his modern apartment overlooking the Firth of Forth. He never did like his uncle, but did like his wealth. He chuckled to himself as he realised he now disliked his ex-wife even more than his uncle. However, he had gained more from the divorce than he ever felt he got from the marriage. She insisted on keeping their grand house, which had been in her family for four generations, and their two children, so he’d used those as bargaining tools to increase his share of their settlement.

He was just drifting off when he heard a knock. Thinking it was the wind blowing something outside, he ignored it.

There it was again. A pause, then two knocks. Where was it coming from?

After a few minutes, now wide awake, he listened intently. The heavy rain provided a growing background rumble as it drummed on the old slate roof of the croft. It was coming from the door to the cellar. He got up, walked over to it, and hesitated.

Knock, knock.

‘Who’s there?’ he asked, then felt foolish when there was no reply.

Knock, knock.

Convinced that the strengthening wind was blowing something against the door, he grabbed the handle and twisted it to open the door. A sharp pull, then push, confirmed the door was locked. There was no key in the lock. He looked around the room, lifting old pots and other items. He looked through the cupboards but found no key. Meanwhile, the knocking persisted at regular intervals. He walked back to the door and inspected it. It opened inwards, so there was no point in trying to kick it in. As he was looking at it, the handle slowly twisted clockwise, then anti-clockwise. Then the whole door rattled fiercely.

Martin stepped back in shock. ‘FUCK OFF,’ he shouted. ‘Whoever you are, you can’t come in. The door’s locked, there’s no key, so you might as well go.’

There was no reply. The door rattled fiercely again, followed a few seconds later by another, more urgent, KNOCK, KNOCK.

Martin quelled the panic, told himself to calm down and think logically. He knew there was no door from outside leading into the small cellar. It was just four stone walls and a dirt floor at the bottom of the wooden steps. He’d had a quick look at the viewing, but only by the light of his mobile phone. Was there a small passage or tunnel he’d failed to spot? How did that estate agent unlock the door? If he’d still got the key, he’d be having words with him.

‘Whoever you are, the joke’s over. I can’t open this door, you can’t get in, so it’s stalemate. You’d best go. Either that or sleep down there. I don’t really care; I’m off to my bed.’

KNOCK, KNOCK.

‘You can knock all you want. I’m putting my headphones on, so I won’t be able to hear you. Goodnight.’

Martin turned and walked away. As he did, the door rattled fiercely again, accompanied by a growl that grew into a roar. It stopped him in his tracks. It only lasted for seconds, but that was enough.

He quickly dressed and headed for the front door. He opened it to hear an almighty downpour. He’d been so focussed on the cellar door, he’d not registered the increasing noise of the rain. He switched on the light on his mobile phone, revealing the heaviest rain he’d ever seen. His old Land Rover, barely visible, although less than ten feet away, was standing in what now resembled a shallow lake. Then he remembered the gully, thinking it would now be a rushing torrent. He realised there was no way he was going to get to the road, let alone somewhere else to spend the night. He was stuck here.

He turned to look at the cellar door, still firmly shut. At least he was safe - for the moment. What the hell had made that noise? What in hell had made that noise? For the first time since his father left when he was a ten, he felt afraid.

‘Come on, Marty lad, pull yourself together.’

No matter how much he tried, he couldn’t shake that feeling. A feeling he’d invoked in others, growing up in the streets of Edinburgh. After his father left, he vowed to never be afraid again and to ensure that, became someone to be afraid of. Now he remembered why.

Reaching into the nearby kitchen cupboard, he took out a glass and the bottle of whisky he’d brought and shakily poured himself a large one. It disappeared in two gulps. He poured another, put the bottle back, and sat at the rickety old table, staring at the cellar door.

‘No rest for the wicked.’ He chuckled, remembering his mother’s favourite phrase, and thought it was now being applied to him. By who? Why? And why here?

KNOCK, KNOCK.

He closed his eyes. It looked like being a long night. Then he noticed another sound, just audible over the noise of the rain. A steady dripping. He looked at the sink; it was dry. He turned and saw the drip hitting a newly formed puddle in the middle of the floor. Looking up, he saw the drip was coming off a roof beam, close to the top of the pitch. No way could he get up there. He sighed. This was all going so badly, he began wondering what had possessed him to buy the place.

Possessed! That’s it; this place is possessed. The thought hit him between the eyes. Those broken stones; they were gravestones. I’m sat on a bloody graveyard. Oh, fuck! I’m going to swing for that bloody estate agent.

THUMP, THUMP.

‘You’re not coming in. Get back to the hell you came from.’ Martin’s shaky voice didn’t even convince him.

ROAR, THUMP, CRACK, SPLINTER.

Martin grabbed his weatherproof and ran into the storm. He jumped into his old Land Rover and drove off.

* * *

Three days later, Bernie McCloud drove his four-by-four along the track and up to the croft. He knew his buyer had said he’d be spending some time at the old croft and wanted to return the cellar door key he’d realised he still had. The gulley surprised him, but he just negotiated it. When he arrived at the old croft, he had a second surprise, as the front door was wide open.

‘Hello. Martin? Anyone home?’

No answer, so he had a look inside. It seemed Martin must be here somewhere, as all his stuff was there. Maybe out walking? No – there was a pair of shiny new walking boots next to the door, along with a rucksack. He walked around the outside of the croft, scanning the land and hills to the horizon, but there was nobody to be seen. Then he realised there was no vehicle. Maybe Martin had gone for supplies, so he left the key on the table with a note.

On his way back to the road, he was just approaching the gulley and stopped. He thought he saw something red downhill. He got out and, standing on the doorsill of his car, saw there was a red Land Rover down the hill. On its side.

Martin’s body was still inside his old Land Rover. It took them the rest of the day to get him and his battered Land Rover back to town. Despite multiple bruises and a broken arm, the post-mortem revealed he’d died of a heart attack, probably brought on by the Land Rover being washed away down that gully. What nobody could fathom was what had possessed him to drive anywhere in that storm.

Bernie’s client returned the proceeds of the sale to Martin’s solicitor and paid Bernie’s fee. The old croft is back on Rightmove again, and Bernie has added another notch under the kneehole of his desk.


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