All four of them got the summons at the same time. Annabel was working an art event in Chelsea, waiting for Sebastian to whisk her away. Elliot claimed to be at work, but no one believed him. And Izzy? She was in Sebastian’s bed.
A flurry of messages swept around London and before long a freshly-showered Sebastian picked up Annabel and made the Wickham-Holbury train. Izzy went home, changed into jeans, and canceled the date she had lined up. She missed the train, as intended—she wasn’t in the mood for Annabel’s self-satisfied wisdom. Instead she caught a fast train to Oxford, taking a cab through the drenching rain to the manor. She met Elliot on the train, who proceeded to talk manically for the whole journey about trades, his job in the city, and, inevitably, drugs.
The storm was in full pelt as she reached Henry’s manor. He’d inherited it four years ago, in his mid-twenties, when his parents were killed in a private jet crash off the Bahamas. It remained unchanged, the decaying grandeur of his forebears, Henry animating it with parties and dogs and hunts and hedonism. Tonight it looked familiar yet shadowy and distant in the churn of the wind, an owl screeching from an outhouse, the shutters battering with intent.
11:00pm Henry’s Bedroom, Wickham Manor, Oxfordshire
“I wanted to say goodbye to you all.”
The room was capacious and untidy, with a large, unshaven, and probably unwashed man sprawled on the bed. A few dogs lay around the floor, labs of various hues, loyally awaiting their commands.
“Are you going away? Where?” Elliot asked, suddenly impatient, annoyed.
“I’m leaving you all here in this life and, depending on how one views the afterlife, I will be found there forthwith.” Henry always spoke slowly, with an exhausted bewilderment, as if life, the Oxford world in which he belonged, were simply all too much. It was an affectation, naturally, but leant itself generously to the gravity of the moment.
There was a stunned silence.
“You’re going to kill yourself?” Elliot looked at him in disbelief.
“Well, not exactly going to, rather that I have.”
Elliot shot him a sideways look. “Hate to tell you this, old boy, but it doesn’t seem to have worked.”
“It hasn’t worked yet,” Henry said in the lightest of tones. “I took an overdose a while back. Should be dead before midnight.” He took another Champagne bottle from the case next to the bed, stoically opened it. “Top up, anyone?”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Henry,” Annabel snapped. “This isn’t something you can mess around with.”
“I’m not messing. Been thinking about it a while. Best way really.” He glanced over the dismal room. “Been unhappy since my parents got themselves killed.” He glumly shook his head. “And since Annabel left me.”
Instead of looking at her—the new, cynical Annabel—he looked at the photographs beside his bed, old tarnished silver frames he treasured. The first was of Annabel, at college, young, fresh, innocent, as if she knew what she wanted and it was there, within her reach. The photo was taken before she’d left Henry, before she’d set her sights on higher things, which in this case was Sebastian, newly promoted to Foreign Editor at the BBC. His handsome dark features had become a familiar sight on TV, a series of war-torn cities forming the grim backdrop. People stopped him in the street, asked for his opinion, his autograph.
The other photograph was the five of them at graduation, arms around each other, beaming smiles on their faces, their lives ahead of them. Izzy had the same photograph by her bed: the gang from 8 Irving Drive. They were a team.
Izzy went and sat on the bed next to Henry. “But things will get better, Henry,” she said in her most heartening voice. “You need to hang on for the good stuff.” But inside she was unsure: What good stuff?
“It’s no use talking me out of it.” Henry looked stoically around at them. “The deed has been done. No going back unless you call an ambulance, which is why I took your phones away when you arrived. I cut off the home phone too and internet, just in case you were wondering.” He patted his pillow, under which he had the offending objects, smiling with his own cleverness. Was he enjoying this?
“Why did you bring us here if you don’t want us to help?” Sebastian asked. He had been quiet until then, a blank expression across his beautiful countenance.
“Because, my dear friends, I have decided to make you all beneficiaries of my will.”
“What game are you playing, Henry?” Sebastian asked evenly, pushing back his dark hair. Izzy watched him, remembering her hands on his back, the thickness of his shoulders, the muscular bulk of his weight on her.
“No game.” Henry sighed. “Don’t have any family, you know. All dead. No one to leave it to, except for my dear, dear friends,” he said with great magnanimity, only the lightest trace of sarcasm; otherwise it wouldn’t have been right.
Snippets of memory flickered through Izzy’s mind. The shared house at Oxford, the ski accident, Elliot’s wedding, Elliot’s divorce, the opening night of Annabel’s first art show, Henry’s PhD graduation ball, the split, the fearful chasm that they all felt would wrench the gang apart forever, the way they’d take it in turns listening to Henry in bars, dinner parties, exhibitions, parks, concerts, beaches, mountains, taxis, trains, living rooms, deep into the night, talking endlessly about Annabel.
“We don’t want your money, Henry,” Sebastian said softly.
“You may not, Sebastian, but I’m sure there are some who might.” Henry looked at Izzy, who pursed her lips. She earned a pittance at a publishing house, always just about scraping by.
“This wouldn’t be my favorite means of making money,” she said giving him a frosty on-off smile.
“But think of the manor, and what wonderful times you’ll all spend here,” Henry went on, a flavor of mock enthusiasm coating his voice. “You could all live here together, like the good old days.”
Tears welled up in Izzy’s eyes. “It wouldn’t be the same without you, Henry.” She leant her delicate, gamine form across his large frame and laid her head on his chest, a black dog nudging her leg in sympathy. “We’d be thinking of you all the time. Your ghost would always be here.”
“But I want you to remember me,” Henry said, a catch in his voice. “I want you to think about me.”
11:20pm The Drawing Room
“I think we should leave him be,” Elliot pronounced. “We’re his friends. We should be honored that he trusts us so much he asked us to come. We should respect his wishes.”
“We don’t think anything of the kind, Elliot,” Annabel got up and paced restlessly around the grand old room. The place was strewn with hunting memorabilia: a stag’s head, hunting landscapes, portraits of well-loved horses, a series of antique pistols. Someone had lit a fire, which ebbed low and neglected. “You’re only saying that because you want the cash.”
“I resent that, Annabel! Just because I have respect for the man’s wishes means I’m a callous, scrounging bastard, does it?” Elliot was shouting, flailing in anger. Was he on drugs?
“Yes,” Sebastian said, lounging over to the window. The musty, gold brocade drapes were open and he gazed through the dirty pane into the speeding glimmers of raindrops. The wood beyond formed a dark shadow, a dense barrier between them and the next farm. “Come on, Elliot. Admit it. You’re desperate for the money.”
“Don’t be silly, Sebastian,” Izzy said, stroking the black dog who had padded downstairs after her. “Elliot spent the entire journey telling me how fruitful he’s been recently.”
“Did he tell you he’d lost his job?”
All eyes shot to Elliot, who went and poked the fire violently. “I may need a few quid at the moment, but I wouldn’t allow that to cloud my judgment at a time like this.”
“What judgment you have,” Sebastian said flippantly. “You can hardly call your choice of bride an excellent decision.”
“That’s unfair!” he shouted. “I never knew about Tracy’s past. She lied to me.” He went toward Sebastian with the poker, waving it threateningly.
“Stop this bickering!” Izzy cried, leaping across in front of Sebastian, protecting him. “What about Henry? We need to decide what to do.” She calmly took the poker from Elliot and guided him to a couch, where he sat watching Sebastian, seething menacingly.
Izzy sighed. “I think Annabel should go up and try to talk him into giving us a phone. Then we can call an ambulance. She’s the one who knows him best, the one who he really wants.”
“No,” Sebastian said quickly. “That would be lulling him into thinking she still cares for him. We can’t let him manipulate us like that. He’s probably bluffing anyway. Doing it all for attention, trying to get Annabel back.”
“Sebastian!” Annabel sank into a dilapidated armchair. “How could you suggest such a thing? Henry’s upstairs dying. You can’t accuse him of playing games.”
“I just don’t want you to be embroiled in this—your past relationship with him, it’s all over now. He knows we’ll send you up. He’s teasing us.”
“I don’t care if he’s playing or not,” Izzy said plainly. “We must do what we can.” She looked at Annabel, “You have to try.”
Annabel got up, straightening down the crimson silk of her sophisticated Chelsea dress. “Oh, I suppose so.”
“This is a ridiculous situation.” Sebastian uttered. “I think one of us needs to go for help.” He glanced around the room annoyed. “I’m going to find a neighbor with a phone. Anyone know where the umbrellas are kept?”
“In the scullery,” Izzy said.
Sebastian pulled Annabel out of the room for a private word, and reappeared a few minutes later with some umbrellas and a couple of flashlights.
“Annabel’s gone up to see Henry. Does anyone know which direction to the nearest house?”
“I think there’s a farm on the road we drove up, maybe a mile or two away.” Izzy said, eyeing his god-like form.
“Right, I’ll head out there.” He strode for the door, and Izzy ran up beside him.
“I’ll come too,” she whispered.
11:30pm The Woods
“At last I have you alone,” Izzy took his hand as they headed out into the downpour.
Sebastian looked down at her. “We have to hurry,” he murmured, a serious look on his face.
He passed her an umbrella, but she tucked it under her arm and clutched hold of his arm, leaning in under his umbrella. She had to do a skittish run to keep up with his long and fervent stride.
“It’s like being in our own little cocoon, under this umbrella,” Izzy mused conspiratorially.
“I’m worried about Annabel,” Sebastian said, an anxiousness in his voice she didn’t recognize. “She’s so lovely, so good, so kind. He’s bound to make her promise things.”
“He wants her back, no doubt about that. It wouldn’t surprise me if this whole charade is nothing but an elaborate ploy to get her to marry him.”
“Marriage! Does she want to?”
“Of course not.” He drew a deep breath. “She wants to be with me.”
The rain fell heavy and hard, pouring over the edge of the umbrella like a waterfall or a fountain or a torrent of tears.
“I thought you and her weren’t serious,” her small voice uttered.
“We are. We’ve been keeping it low because of Henry.”
He pulled her aside to avoid a rushing stream cascading down the path, but she didn’t care anymore. Her feet were already wet.
“I’ve always wondered,” she began. “Why it was that she went out with Henry when we were at college, and not you? If you are so made for each other, why did she choose Henry first?”
Sebastian stopped and looked at her, not in a pleasant way. “That was a long time ago. We’ve all changed, all moved on.”
Not me. I’ve always loved you, Sebastian.
“Why are you sleeping with me then?” she demanded, stopping outright on the path, moving away from him into the drenching rain.
“I don’t know, Izzy.” He looked at her, tired, uncertain. “I like you, always have. That night, at Henry’s ball, when I saw you dancing with him, your silver dress, your hair long, magnificent. You made me realize that I’d never really noticed you, how beautiful you are.”
She put her lips up to touch his, drawing her hand around his neck, pulling him into her wet, chilled body.
“Why don’t we make love right here in the pouring rain, the delicious water seeping over our bodies.”
“This isn’t the time or place, Izzy.”
“Why not? You’re the one who thinks he’s bluffing. Or are you too busy thinking of Annabel?”
“We need to get help. We need some extra options here.”
“Perhaps you already have too many options.”
“Izzy, listen to me!”
But she had run off into the dark, her slender form slipping into the rain as if she was a young sapling or spruce melding seamlessly into the elements.
11:40pm The Grand Hallway
Elliot hurried out of the drawing room when he heard her in the hall. She was clinging hold of the umbrella, soaked to the skin like a wet little stray, sniveling and shaking.
“What happened?” Elliot asked quickly, annoyed and anxious. His eyes had taken on a dark, savage look, and she began to feel nervous. The drug habit had made him incredibly unpredictable recently, but she’d never known him so volatile.
“He wanted to go on his own,” she said.
“I’m going after him,” he grabbed the umbrella and flashlight off her and yanked open the door. “Which way did he go?”
“He’s in the wood, not far from the outhouse.”
He vanished out into the night, and she shut the front door slowly, leaning against it with relief.
The hallway was a massive, galleried room, like a church or a theater, a balcony overlooking from above. The walls held Henry’s ancestors, brutal and violent, with guns and horses and dogs. The black dog was by her side again, and she led him back into the drawing room, finding a checkered blanket and huddling with him before the dying flames.
11:50pm The Drawing Room
Annabel reappeared from Henry’s room.
She sat down on the big couch and grimly watched the fire for a few moments before gently starting to cry. “What have I done?”
“What?” Izzy turned to her, hope awakening beneath her veneer.
“I can’t believe what I’ve done.”
“Tell me, Annabel,” Izzy urged.
“I told him—promised him—that I’d stop my relationship with Sebastian.”
Izzy let out a deep breath.
“And will you do it?”
“I have to. He said he’d only stay alive if I promised I would.”
“He said that he’d go to the hospital?”
“Yes, but he wants us all to go into the room and for me to tell Sebastian that I can’t see him in front of everyone, and then stick to it.”
The fire suddenly crackled loudly, echoing through the dusty room.
“I never thought you were so keen on Sebastian,” Izzy said.
“We were playing it down,” she said. “Because of Henry; because of you.”
“Me?” Izzy gasped. “Why because of me?”
“We all know how you’ve had a crush on Sebastian for years,” she said quietly, too tired to dress it up. “We didn’t want to hurt your feelings?”
“Then why is he sleeping with me?” Izzy spat, standing up and looking accusingly down at her. “Why has he been sleeping with me for the last four months?”
A look of horror washed over Annabel’s beautiful complexion. “He’s been sleeping with you?”
“He says it’s because I’m much more fun,” Izzy dug, reveling in the moment. “He says you’re too boring, he needs more.”
“He’s using you,” she said plainly. “Feels sorry for you.”
“No, Annabel,” she said, smiling. “You’re not enough for him.”
Annabel stood up, Izzy coming up in front of her, her heart racing. Daggers had been drawn, and years of building malice and vengeance took hold.
The dog went to the window and began to bark loudly, the wind shrilled fast against the pane, and suddenly, a colossal explosion came from outside, a gunshot.
They ran to the window and saw the dim flash of a light in the wood.
“Where’s Elliot?” Annabel asked, her face white.
“He went out to help Sebastian,” Izzy said quickly.
“We’d better get out there.”
12:00am The Wood
“What the hell happened?” Izzy raced over, Annabel fast behind.
Following the sounds of his yells, they found Sebastian prostrate in a small clearing, clutching at his shoulder, where a dark, viscous fluid pulsated out between his fingers.
“The bastard shot me,” he muttered.
“Yes, he fucking shot me.”
“Where is he?” Izzy asked.
“He ran off, terrified. I don’t think he meant to hit me, just scare me into going back, helping him.”
They helped Sebastian to his feet, and began walking him slowly back to the manor. The rain was everywhere, all over them, in their eyes, mouths, dripping in cascades off their hair and noses and chins and onto their sodden clothes. They no longer cared.
“He was beside himself with rage. He was trying to talk me out of going to get help. I accused him of wanting Henry to die, and he started talking to me about all the money, about his debts, Tracy taking him to court again, losing his job, nothing on the horizon.”
“But I thought he was offered a new job in the city.” Izzy said. “He said he had loads of offers.”
“It’s just a cover. He has nothing, except a high-maintenance ex, mounting debts, and an expensive drug habit.”
“But why shoot you?”
“Desperation,” Sebastian said. “He started threatening me with one of those antique pistols. I couldn’t believe the bloody thing actually worked. He seemed pretty shocked too. But, honestly, he was crazed about something. He’d obviously been taking something earlier and was heading deep into withdrawal.”
“Should one of us go after him?” Izzy said, hoping it wouldn’t be her.
“No,” Annabel said. “He’ll turn up somewhere and we can deal with him then. One of us has to go and get a phone off Henry to call an ambulance for Sebastian.” She looked at Izzy, a pleading look in her eyes. “It’s your turn now.”
Izzy looked at them both, wet, bloody, dying, and reluctantly agreed, running into the dark with stoic resignation.
12:20am Henry’s Room
“Henry,” she whispered. “We need a phone. There’s been an accident.”
“What happened?” Henry frowned, putting down his paperback and taking a sip of Champagne. “I’m not going to fall for it, you know.”
“Did you hear the gunshot outside?” She moved to the bed and sat down.
“No, you can’t get round me that way.” He put his glass down and slowly shook his head. “I was waiting to see Annabel again. Go and get her for me. She made a promise. Did she tell you?”
“Yes, but you see Elliot shot Sebastian and we need to get him to hospital.”
Henry took a deep breath. “Now you’re being ridiculous. If that’s the best you can come up with—”
“Henry, I wouldn’t make up something like this, would I?”
“You might. Or perhaps Elliot and Sebastian devised the whole event to trick me into going to hospital.” He picked his paperback up again and resumed his reading. “I assure you, I will not.”
“No, honestly Henry. This has nothing to do with you. We need a phone and we promise not to tell the ambulance people anything about you, and you can stay here upstairs and no one will know anything.”
“Don’t be daft, Izzy. Do you think I was born yesterday?”
Izzy let out a short, loud growl. “Sometimes I just want to kill you, Henry!”
“I got there first,” he smiled. “Go back down and tell your little friends that the plan didn’t work, and send up Annabel.”
“Sebastian is dying, Henry. Dying.” She stood leaning over him, her tiny tight fist beside his hulking mass. She was furious and upset and exhausted. “You’re a selfish bastard, Henry. Not only are you going to kill yourself, but let Sebastian die here too.”
Her little hand made a dash for the phones under his pillow, but he quickly had it twisted backward, painfully tight in his bear-like grip. “No you don’t, you little minx.”
She wriggled out of his clasp and stormed out of the room, the black dog beside Henry, watching her go.
12:30am The Drawing Room
Annabel had laid Sebastian out on the couch, the checkered blanket wadded over the wound but darkening fast with his blood.
“Did he give you the phone?” she asked.
“No,” Izzy glowered. “He thinks it’s a hoax. He wants to see you again.”
“How did he look?”
“Alright, the bastard. I’ll never forgive him for this.”
Annabel got up from Sebastian’s side, without looking at Izzy, and stalked off upstairs.
Izzy sat on the floor beside Sebastian’s face and began smoothing it down. “How are you, my darling?”
“Go away, Izzy,” he said calmly. “Leave me alone.”
“Annabel told me,” he whispered. “She said you told her about us, and now she’s leaving me. I never dreamt you would hurt me like this.”
Izzy put her face in her hands and began to weep. “I’m sorry, Sebastian. I’m so sorry.”
“Why did you tell her?” Sebastian’s voice scratched with his falling energy levels.
“She said you felt sorry for me. Did you? Did you feel sorry for me?”
There was silence. He neither refuted it nor agreed. It didn’t matter anymore. His life clung onto Henry’s will and Annabel’s ability to get through to him. As the minutes ticked away, it all suddenly became lost. They were ghosts already, set to spend eternity living the same moment again and again.
12:40am The Drawing Room
At first it was a small flash, short and pointed like a glimpse of a spaceship or a helicopter. Izzy’s eyes flickered across the dark room, out of the window, down the drive, into the void. She watched, stunned and breathless, trying not to blink.
There was nothing.
Then again a flash, this time longer, blue.
And then again.
She rushed to the window.
The ambulance had come.
She raced outside and waved it down, even though it was already at the house, unlikely to go elsewhere.
Izzy led the way into the drawing room and they quickly assessed Sebastian before transferring him onto a stretcher and carrying him out to the ambulance.
“We were told it was a suicide,” the medic said, making a note.
“Oh, that’ll be upstairs,” Izzy said, leading the way to the staircase.
“We’ll have to get another ambulance for that,” he said. “This one has to leave now.” He took a hasty step to get in. “I’ll send another straightaway.”
Izzy went into the house, closed the colossal front door, and leant against it, a frown over her face.
What had happened?
They thought they were coming for a suicide. They didn’t know about any gunshot wound. There was only one possibility: Elliot must have found a neighbor.
1:00am The Grand Hallway
The slow haze of blue flashed, flickered and then went black as Henry’s ambulance disappeared behind the trees. Annabel had gone with him, holding his hand like the good old days, she the mother he had lost, he the adoring child.
Henry had been livid when the ambulance had come for him, but finally admitted that he may not have taken as large an overdose as previously thought. No one had the energy to be angry, only relieved that it had all come to an end. Izzy even met Annabel’s eyes as Henry blurted out: “I suppose it was all wishful thinking.” And she had let out a tiny breath of a laugh, and Annabel smiled, as if they were friendly strangers again, like long ago, the first time they had ever met.
Izzy found herself alone in the heaving mansion, but there were no ghosts. They’d been dissipated, disabused of their basis, disbanded. She had no time for them.
She padded up to Henry’s room, which was left in mid-suicide condition, the empty Champagne bottles, the notes, the scattered photographs. Izzy picked up the one of their graduation, the five of them setting out into the world, promising they would always be friends.
How times change.
Her phone had been left on the bedside table. She scooped it up and tapped in a number.
“I need a cab to take me to London.”
The black dog followed her to the front door, standing in the grand hallway as she headed out to wait for the taxi. The rain had stopped and a fresh dampness filled the air, the hoot of an owl, alone in the outhouse, echoing into distant fields and hills.
“Goodbye dog,” she said, then looked into the old mansion, warm and golden with lights and grandeur. “Goodbye house.” A sad smile crossed her lips, a thousand happy memories, and a few less favorable too.
She slowly closed the great, heavy door, and began her long journey home.