Paul paused in his brisk walk back from the farm shop. “Hello! Can I help you?”
The young woman peering furtively through a cottage window flinched and then backed away. “Um, I was just wondering if anyone was in.”
Paul looked at her. She looked in her early twenties, with dull brown hair and frightened eyes. She was far too thin. “I think that they’ll be home soon,” he lied. He waited to see what she would do next.
Her eyes darted frantically around. “I can’t really wait, I’d better get off. I don’t want to miss my bus.”
Paul stood calmly next to the gate. “There isn’t another bus here until Wednesday,” he said.
“I mean, car, I mean, my lift,” she stuttered.
Paul looked at her carefully. He had never seen anything less threatening in his life. “You’re the phantom cleaner, aren’t you?”
“What? No! I mean, I’m not a phantom! I mean, what are you accusing me of?” She tried to back away and stumbled, losing her footing on the edge of the path and landing with an undignified bump. She burst into tears.
Paul walked through the gate and held out a hand to her. “Come on, let me help you up.”
She hesitated, rubbed the tears from her eyes and then put her hand in his. “Thank you.”
Paul helped her up and led her gently out of the garden. “I’m Paul.” He hesitated, but he couldn’t abandon the woman in front of him. “Why don’t you come back to my cottage? You can stay outside while I make you a bite to eat and we can talk. You look like you could use a friendly listener.”
Her lip quivered as she fought for control. “I’m Liz,” she said, looking carefully over him.
Paul realised that his height and strength were doing him no favours at the moment. “I know you haven’t any reason to trust me,” he said, picking his words with care. “But all I want to do is give you something to eat, listen to your story and try and help you out – promise!”
Liz looked at him suspiciously. “I don’t take charity, you know,” she said. “I’ll do something in return. I’m good at cleaning, so perhaps I could help your wife?”
Paul recognised the question in the question. He picked up one of her bulky bags. “I’m not married. In fact, I live alone. I’m renting a cottage from Richard Dark, but I’ve only met him once or twice. I’m a stranger to the area and there is even a locked room that you mustn’t go in.” He looked down at the wide eyed woman. “That’s the main reason why I said that you could wait outside while I made you something to eat. You need to decide if you will trust me.”
Liz stared at him for a long moment, then took a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “Are you going to call the police?”
Paul shook his head. “But you can’t go breaking into places. Come on, I’ll make you something to eat and we can talk.”
Liz followed Paul back up the hill to the cottage. He led her around the back of the cottage to the stone bench. “Take a seat. Tea or coffee?” he said, unlocking the kitchen door.
Liz stared at the seat, then around the empty moorland at the back of the cottage. The light was fading from the sky and the air was damp. For a moment she seemed lost in thought and then shook her head. “I’m coming in to make the tea,” she said. “And I can put some washing on.”
Paul thought about his full laundry basket. “Don’t worry about that,” he said quickly. “Are you sure about coming in?”
Liz nodded. “I sort of trust you, heaven knows why. Anyway, I’m stronger than I look.”
“There really is a locked room you mustn’t go in,” Paul said quickly. “It’s not mine to show you. It’s full of confidential papers.”
Liz looked irritated. “I never pry,” she said. She took another deep breath and walked past Paul into the kitchen.
Paul followed her. “It’s a bit of a mess,” he said, “But I’ve got some bacon and eggs. I can make you a quick fry up.”
Liz looked around the spartan kitchen and tutted. “Why don’t you go into that locked room, let me know where to knock, and I’ll make some dinner. Then we can talk.”
“We’ll both be eating?” Paul asked. Liz looked like she would be blown over in a soft breeze.
“Of course, after I’ve done the work,” Liz opened some cupboards and frowned. “You said you had eggs?”
Paul held out the shopping bag from the farm shop. “There’s some bacon in there as well, and I picked up some butter.”
Liz peered inside the bag and sniffed again. “Right,” she said, taking off her coat and hanging it neatly on the back of the door. “Where shall I find you when I’m ready?”
“The door at the end of the hall,” Paul said, waving a hand in a vague direction. “Will you be okay?”
Liz gave him a long cool look. “I can make a simple supper. Now, if you’ll let me get on with things…” Paul took the hint and left.
Paul was absorbed in the faded entries of a diary when he heard a firm knock on the door. “Hang on.” He meticulously put the diary back in its place before opening the door.
Liz was in an apron, her face was a little flushed and her hands looked reddened and a little damp. “I’ve made dinner.”
“Wonderful,” Paul said as a savoury scent wafted down the hall. “I’m looking forward to it.”
“You don’t know if I can cook,” Liz said as she led the way down the short passage to the kitchen.
“Can’t all brownies cook?” Paul said absently, his mind still on the diary entries.
Liz gave a short gasp and froze. For a moment she stood, transfixed, in the hall before taking a deep breath. “I don’t know what you mean. Besides, my name isn’t Brown. It’s…” She scrabbled for a name. “I’m Liz Queen.”
Paul looked at her scared but defiant face and wondered what he was supposed to say now. He settled for the truth. “That room is full of documents about werewolves and vampires. My parents were killed by a boggart. Who else but a brownie is breaking into people’s houses and cleaning in return for food? Besides, I’m starving.” He pushed gently past her and into the kitchen.
It took all of his hard won self-control to keep walking casually over to the table which was now scrubbed within an inch of its life. Everything in the kitchen looked like it had been scrubbed within an inch of its life. The room gleamed. Paul took a seat at the table next to one of the plates, leaving the seat next to the kitchen door for Liz, in case she felt the need to escape. “This looks amazing.”
Liz took the seat opposite and sat ramrod straight. “I’ve done nothing wrong.”
Paul thought about breaking, entering and theft of food and decided not to argue. He remembered a fragment about brownies that he had read among the stacks of notes. “Should I say grace?”
“I should think so!” Liz said. “I’ve been properly brought up.” A shadow passed across her face before she squared her shoulders, folded her hands and looked expectantly at Paul.
Paul muttered a few words he remembered vaguely from a film he had seen, then looked uncertainly at Liz. “Should I serve?”
Liz looked much more assured. “Why don’t you help yourself while I pour the tea.”
Paul didn’t need much encouragement. The huge pasta bake sat on the table looked and smelled incredible. He took around a quarter of it and added some of the greens. “How did you manage to make this? I mean, it’s been less than an hour.”
Liz smiled as she helped herself to her own generous portion. “It’s surprising what I can do.” She hesitated for a moment, then nodded. “Brownies have a knack, and I was brought up in the correct way of doing things.”
“I’m very grateful,” Paul said as he tucked into the delicious bake. “I was just going to fry bacon and eggs. This is amazing.”
They ate in companionable silence for a while, then Paul asked, “What happened?”
Liz put down her fork. She had eaten hungrily, but now she seemed to have lost her appetite. “I was staying with my family, at a house in Halifax. He was a bit of an old skin flint, but he left us alone most of the time and while he didn’t pay well, he paid prompt.” Liz paused and then took a sip of tea. “He got Covid first, then we all did.” Her eyes grew wide and she stared, unseeing, at the plate in front of her. “I got better, and I helped nurse him and my family, but…” She swallowed and tried again. “It took my family. We suffer with such things.” She forced a smile. “Perhaps it’s because of our weak chests that we insist so much on keeping things nice and clean.”
Paul looked around the immaculate kitchen. It was clean enough to perform surgery on any surface. “You did a good job in here,” he said.
Liz sighed. “If I had more time I’d do a thorough job. Anyway, when Mr Dent, the old man, died, it sort of took the fight out of my parents. They were poorly already, and they went quickly, with my brothers.” She rubbed away a tear and carried on, keeping the same matter of fact tone. “You see, we like to belong. Some families have their own business and can keep going with all their clients. Others stick to the same family. But old Mr Dent had no-one and then we heard that they were going to knock the building down.” Liz bit back a sob. “We had kept that house beautiful. And it was being pulled down to dust. Well, I’d recovered by then, but it just about finished off my sister, so it was just me. I didn’t know what to do, so I packed up what was rightfully mine and started walking. There wasn’t much money left, as we couldn’t get a normal doctor and the medicine and visits were expensive, and Mr Dent never liked parting with money anyway. I didn’t have money for a place, and I didn’t know what to do. I thought it was fair enough doing a bit of cleaning in return for food, but I think I may have upset people.”
Paul didn’t know where to start with that. “People feel uncomfortable if strangers have been in their home without them being invited,” he said carefully. “And I think some felt judged.”
“They should feel judged,” Liz snapped. “Some of those ovens were a disgrace! It took more than baking soda on them, I can tell you.” Her face softened. “But I did enjoy the clean.”
Paul felt out of his depth, but he couldn’t let the brownie down. “I can’t pay you much,” he said, “and I’m not sure how my employer would see you staying here, but if you stay and keep things clean I can work out some wages as well as food and board.” He looked hard. “That paper room has to stay out of bounds. I’m sorry, but Richard and Mike were really clear. And I don’t know what they would think about a cleaner.” He thought for a moment. “If they ask, I’ll tell them that you’re my girlfriend and you’re staying with me for a while. We just won’t say how long. That way, you can stay here until you work out what you want to do next. Do you have any other family?”
Liz shook her head. “We kept ourselves to ourselves and didn’t cause trouble. I know I need to find more brownies, but I don’t know where to start, and I’m so tired.” Her control finally cracked and she started to sob.
Paul reached over and gently patted her hand. “I’ve got to keep working, of course, but when I’m not, I’ll see what I can do to help. There may be clues in the room.” He fumbled for words. “And you can stay her for as long as you like until you work out what you want.”
Liz wiped her eyes. “And I can give this house a good going over, and the garden is a shame as well.” She looked warily at him. “If that’s alright?”
Paul sighed deeply. “It will be fine,” he said and really hoped that he was right.
You can find Paul’s story from the beginning here, Under Dark Hills