Meet Carrie Rickard, main character in The Crows (coming January 2020).
Her Pinterest Mood Board is here: https://www.pinterest.co.uk/cmrosens/pagham-on-sea-mood-board/carrie-rickard-cursed-newcomer/.
This is part of a cut version of the first draft, set about a month before the novel begins. To go back further and see Carrie’s first experience of Fairwood House (a.k.a. The Crows), see my post A Prelude: Love Song to The Crows. If you haven’t met her neighbour, serial-killing eldritch soothsayer Ricky Porter, then you can read The Crows: Teaser to get to know him.
Carrie Rickard’s alarm sounded at 06:30, echoing around the crypt with a jarring jangle and flashing coloured lights. Roused from a dead sleep, Carrie struggled up off the mattress and flung her hand out to grab her vibrating phone. Throat lined with a thin patina of stone dust, she clambered drowsily out of the tangles of her sleeping bag and duvet, space blanket protesting her escape from its insulating clutches. The crypt was always chilly, and the cold spots – which Carrie determinedly did not associate with paranormal activity, or she would never get to sleep at all – came and went at inconvenient hours of the night. This was, after all, a final resting place, not somewhere a sleepy twenty-something should be waking up.
The crypt was the only structurally sound part of the building, the original thirteenth-century masonry providing the only shelter that Carrie could now afford. It probably served her right for thinking she’d be safe from the departmental downsizing and sinking her savings into the renovation project. Now she was stuck under the only roof she had left, the Georgian structure above her a skeletal mess of rotting boards, half-finished plaster and exposed wiring.
She groaned with the stiffness in her neck and dressed in the dark.
The auctioneer had raised his gavel and brought it down, and there went most of Carrie’s share of the sale of Grampa Jim’s flat. The renovations swallowed everything else, money pouring into the maw of the old estate and trickling away through pipes and wires, absorbed in carpentry and plastering, lining the pockets of surveyors and architects.
It was all going so well… until her insurance company went bust.
And still, even after her job was gone with little to tide her over, and the London flat was too expensive, her relationship over at last in an explosion of threats and phone calls until she had changed her number and moved in temporarily with her dad, The Crows welcomed her with the promise of a new start. It sheltered her in all its derelict splendour. She couldn’t explain why she preferred the ruin in the back of the Sussex beyond to her teenage bedroom in Croydon, but perhaps it was as simple as the desire to shed old skins, wriggle out of her past and all its shadows, and find something clean and fresh and new. Fix someone else’s past, restore something tangible, put the wreckage of her own life in perspective. Whatever drew her there, the house intended her to stay.
I AM YOURS, it told her, louder and stronger with every improvement, every contractor, every cheque.
I AM YOURS, AND YOU
It was no wonder she had sunk the entirety of her savings into it.
It was where she belonged.
The electricity wasn’t connected, so Carrie was using a solar panel device she’d bought off the internet to power her lamp and charge her mobile. She bundled her scattered laundry into her tote bag, then, jeans securely belted and blouse buttoned incorrectly, she donned her hard-hat and headed up the stairs.
Braving the trip to the kitchen, Carrie ducked beneath the wires dangling from the ceiling where the rotted beams had been ripped out and replaced, and the doorway gaped, door-less, into the vast space. Carrie went on autopilot. The birds were barely awake yet, although the clouds were lightening a little, underbellies mottled with the promise of dawn. The window glass had been put back in, thank God, and through the bevelled panes the building site of a garden greeted her with the sight of JCBs at rest.
The top of the mineral water was being stubborn, and Carrie winced as it chafed against her palm. Eventually she gave up and loosened it with her teeth, picturing her mother’s horrified face with a slight inner smirk. She was too tired even for a mental grin.
She did everything with bottled water except shower – she did that at the Community Centre – and flush the toilet. There was a chemical
Port-a-loo outside that the builders had left, and Carrie, armed with a can of air freshener and her own toilet paper, had been using it too. Since some of the work had been paid for up front, the renovations were still continuing. Soon, the money would run out and the gaping black hole of uncertainty yawned at her. Back in February she’d been promised running water by the end of the month, and Carrie had no idea how she was going to pay for it. Still, with February now over, Carrie had yet to see so much as a wet spanner.
Just as the water began to boil, Carrie’s phone rang. It took her a minute to figure out what the noise was, and that it wasn’t just her alarm going off again.
It was Jess, probably up for her run.
“Hello?” Carrie croaked, her throat dusty and dry. She had to squint at the coffee jar twice to make sure it wasn’t decaff, but even when she dumped some into last night’s mug straight from the jar she wasn’t one hundred per cent certain.
Jess’s voice was sickeningly lively. It was a lunchtime voice, Carrie thought, attempting to pour the steaming water from the small-lipped saucepan into the mug with her left hand. It was very nearly not a disaster.
“I was just online,” Jess blurted down the phone, as Carrie swore vehemently and swayed on one foot, boiling water pooling around her pumps, “And I just saw your status! Are you ok? When did this happen?”
“It’s half six, Jess.” Carrie stared blankly at the mess on the tiles.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” Jess bulldozed through the deflection, her one-track mind not easy to derail. “You’ve actually been living there since last month?”
Carrie gave up. “Yeah… I told you I lost my job, right?”
“Yeah, but you said you had severance pay, and you were applying for all those other jobs…”
“I know,” Carrie said dully. The coffee had turned to mud in the mug, an oily instant sheen staring back at her from its half-filled depths. The streaked stains on the ceramic turned her stomach. She put the offending coffee down. “I’m sleeping in the crypt, the original abbey bit. The actual house itself is more or less structurally sound but there’s basically no upstairs still. I’m hoping they’ll sort that out soon, and then I can get around to the rest of it when I can afford to, you know?”
She could almost hear Jess’s eyes roll. “Why didn’t you just ask to crash at mine?”
“And do what with all my stuff from the flat?”
“Keep your stuff there, where you are, and come and sleep at my place! Have you even got electricity?”
Carrie turned to look out of the window. The garden would need to be restored, once the builders were gone. A sparrow, oblivious to her presence, swooped onto the path and hopped forwards towards the wall. He came quite close, beady eyed. A little green caterpillar was moving across the broken stones, unconscious of any risk. Carrie watched it blindly inching towards its own doom with morbid fascination.
“No, I don’t have electricity yet,” Carrie murmured. “There’s a generator in the garden but the house isn’t properly wired.” She decided she might brave the coffee after all. The cycle of nature played itself out without her as its audience, and the caterpillar’s story was left unfinished. It struck a raw chord in Carrie.
“Do you have water?”
“Should do by the end of the month.”
“But you don’t now?”
The coffee was still warm, but just as bad as she expected. It left a bitter coating on her tongue.
“Do you even know anyone in Pagham-on-Sea?”
“God, it looks like a dump.” Jess was evidently on her laptop – Carrie could hear the faint tapping of keys as she Googled. “Oh crap. Look at the buildings, holy shit. The morgue is in the middle of town. Not the town hall. The bloody morgue. Shouldn’t that be attached to a hospital, or something? Carrie, seriously. Just come and crash with me.”
There was no point in arguing. Carrie had the feeling she would end up on Jess’s sofa by the end of the day, and although that made her feel like some kind of parasite, she half-hoped that would be the case. She wasn’t really a parasite. Some were parasitical by nature – others had a parasitical state of existence thrust upon them. She was a naturally independent creature, and that made her the more endearing kind. Like a leech, but fluffy rather than disgusting. A fluffy leech. A fleech.
She, Caroline Rickard, was a fleech.
Hopelessly side-tracked with this early morning attack of whimsy, Carrie realised Jess was still talking.
“…And I really don’t know what you see in the place, it’s awful – it’s going to be a nightmare for you to fix…”
Something hot and angry balled itself up in Carrie’s stomach. “Are you talking about my house?”
A pause. The deepest crack in the plaster wall gaped in an angry frown.
Carrie tensed, jaw clenched, the coffee slopping against the sides of her mug as her hand trembled.
“It’ll be great when it’s done,” (Jess, backtracking), “But… it’s just… you know, it’s so stressful for you…”
“The house,” Carrie said through gritted teeth, “Is fine.”
Small flecks of plaster dust trickled from the crack.
“I don’t need help,” Carrie went on as her temper snapped, “I’ll get stuff sorted soon. I don’t care what you think of it, Jess, because I live here now. So you’re just going to have to get over it.”
“Oh, right, like you don’t need your mates anymore? Is this because I’m still talking to Becky? I think you just need to get over that, especially since she’s having a hard time right now.”
“Maybe she’d have an easier time if she didn’t shag other people’s boyfriends.” The bile burned her throat on the way out. If she hadn’t found out about Becky and Phil, she’d probably still be with him, still thinking their problems were all in her head, that she was imagining things, that he was the saint her friends (her lying, cheating friends) told her he was.
Jess hung up.
Carrie was left with a void of silence, and the realisation that Jess had, essentially, chosen to take Becky’s side.
The headache came on her suddenly, like an invisible blow to her temple. It thumped into her head and flooded the back of her skull with pressure.
“It’s alright,” she told the kitchen as if the house had been listening. “We don’t have to listen to that. We’ll do just fine, you and me.”
Just fine? You’re talking to your house.
That didn’t bode well. She wasn’t so much a fleech as a little green caterpillar, crawling slowly towards disaster. Although she peered hopefully out of the window again, both the sparrow and the caterpillar had gone.