Cornwall, August 1933
The rain was heavy now and the hem of her dress was splattered with mud. She’d have to hide it afterwards; no one could know that she’d been out.
Clouds covered the moon, a stroke of luck she didn’t deserve, and she made her way through the thick, black night as quickly as she could. She’d come earlier to dig the hole, but only now, under veil of darkness, would she finish the job. Rain stippled the surface of the trout stream, drummed relentlessly on the earth beside it. Something bolted through the bracken nearby, but she didn’t flinch, didn’t stop. She’d been in and out of the woods all her life and knew the way by heart.
Back when it first happened she’d considered confessing, and perhaps, in the beginning, she might have. She’d missed her chance though and now it was too late. Too much had happened: the search parties, the policemen, the articles in the newspapers pleading for information. There was no one she could tell, no way to fix it, no way they would ever forgive her. The only thing left was to bury the evidence.
She reached the place she’d chosen. The bag, with its box inside, was surprisingly heavy and it was a relief to put it down. On hands and knees, she pulled away the camouflage of ferns and branches. The smell of sodden soil was overwhelming, of wood mouse and mushrooms, of other mouldering things. Her father had told her once that generations had walked these woods and been buried deep beneath the heavy earth. It made him glad, she knew, to think of it that way. He found comfort in the continuity of nature, believing that the stability of the long past had the power to alleviate present troubles. And maybe in some cases it had, but not this time, not these troubles.
She lowered the bag into the hole and for a split second the moon seemed to peer from behind a cloud. Tears threatened as she scooped the dirt back, but she fought them. To cry, here and now, was an indulgence she refused to grant herself. She patted the ground flat, slapped her hands against it, and stomped down hard with her boots until she was out of breath.
There. It was done.
It crossed her mind that she should say something before she left this lonely place. Something about the death of innocence, the deep remorse that would follow her always; but she didn’t. The inclination made her feel ashamed.
She made her way back quickly through the woods, careful to avoid the boathouse and its memories. Dawn was breaking as she reached the house; the rain was light. The lake’s water lapped at its banks and the last of the nightingales called farewell. The blackcaps and warblers were waking, and far in the distance a horse whinnied. She didn’t know it then, but she would never be rid of them, those sounds; they would follow her from this place, this time, invading her dreams and nightmares, reminding her always of what she had done.
Cornwall, 23 June 1933
The best view of the lake was from the Mulberry Room but Alice decided to make do with the bathroom window. Mr Llewellyn was still down by the stream with his easel, but he always retired early for a rest and she didn’t want to risk an encounter. The old man was harmless enough, but he was eccentric and needy, especially of late, and she feared her unexpected presence in his room would send the wrong sort of signal. Alice wrinkled her nose. She’d been enormously fond of him once, when she was younger, and he of her. Odd to think of it now, at sixteen, the stories he’d told, the little sketches he’d drawn that she’d treasured, the air of wonder he’d trailed behind him like a song. At any rate, the bathroom was closer than the Mulberry Room, and with only a matter of minutes before Mother realised the first-floor rooms lacked flowers, Alice had no time to waste in climbing stairs. As a skein of housemaids waving polishing cloths flew eagerly down the hall, she slipped through the doorway and hurried to the window.
But where was he? Alice felt her stomach swoop, thrill to despair in an instant. Her hands pressed warm against the glass as her gaze swept the scene below: cream and pink roses, petals shining as if they’d been buffed; precious peaches clinging to the sheltered garden wall; the long silver lake gleaming in the mid-morning light. The whole estate had already been preened and primped to a state of impossible perfection, and yet there was still bustle everywhere.
Hired musicians slid gilt chairs across the temporary bandstand, and as the caterers’ vans took turns stirring dust on the driveway, the half-assembled marquee ballooned in the summer breeze. The single static note amidst the swirl of activity was Grandmother deShiel, who sat small and hunched on the cast-iron garden seat outside the library, lost in her cobwebbed memories and completely oblivious to the round glass lanterns being strung up in the trees around her—
Alice drew a sudden breath.
The smile spread across her face before she could stop it.
Joy, delicious star-spangled joy as she spotted him on the small island in the middle of the lake, a great log balanced on one shoulder. She lifted a hand to wave, an impulse, and a foolish one because he wasn’t looking towards the house. Even if he had been, he wouldn’t have waved back. Both of them knew they had to be more careful than that.
Her fingers found the ribbon of hair that always fell loose by her ear and she wound it between her fingers, back and forth, over and over. She liked watching him like this, in secret. It made her feel powerful, not like when they were together, when she brought him lemonade in the garden, or managed to sneak away to surprise him when he was working in the far-off reaches of the estate; when he asked after her novel, her family, her life, and she told him stories and made him laugh and had to struggle not to lose herself within the pools of his deep green eyes with their golden specks.
Beneath her gaze he bent, pausing to steady the log’s weight before easing it into place atop the others. He was strong and that was good. Alice wasn’t sure why, only that it mattered to her in a deep and unexplored place. Her cheeks were hot; she was blushing.
Alice Edevane wasn’t shy. She’d known boys before. Not many, it was true – with the exception of their traditional Midsummer party her parents were famously reserved, preferring one another’s company – but she’d managed, on occasion, to exchange surreptitious words with the village boys, or the tenant farmers’ sons who tugged their caps and lowered their eyes and followed their fathers about the estate. This, though – this was . . . Well, it was just different, and she knew how breathless that sounded, how awfully like the sort of thing her big sister Deborah might say, but it happened to be true.
Benjamin Munro was his name. She mouthed the syllables silently, Benjamin James Munro, twenty-six years old, late of London. He had no dependents, was a hard worker, a man not given to baseless talk. He’d been born in Sussex and grown up in the Far East, the son of archaeologists. He liked green tea, the scent of jasmine and hot days that built towards rain.
He hadn’t told her all of that. He wasn’t one of those pompous men who bassooned on about himself and his achievements as if a girl were just a pretty-enough face between a pair of willing ears. Instead, she’d listened and observed and gleaned, and, when the opportunity presented, crept inside the storehouse to check the head gardener’s employment book. Alice had always fancied herself a sleuth, and sure enough, pinned behind a page of Mr Harris’s careful planting notes, she’d found Benjamin Munro’s application. The letter itself had been brief, written in a hand Mother would have deplored, and Alice had scanned the whole, memorising the important bits, thrilling at the way the words gave depth and colour to the image she’d created and been keeping for herself, like a flower pressed between pages. Like the flower he’d given her just last month. ‘Look, Alice – ’ the stem had been green and fragile in his broad, strong hand – ‘the first gardenia of the season.’
She smiled at the memory and reached inside her pocket to stroke the smooth surface of her leather-bound notebook. It was a habit she’d brought with her from childhood, with which she’d been driving her mother mad since receiving her very first notebook on her eighth birthday. How she’d loved that little nut-brown book! How clever Daddy had been to choose it for her. He was a journal-keeper, too, he’d said, with a seriousness Alice had admired and appreciated. She’d written her full name – Alice Cecilia Edevane – slowly, under Mother’s watchful eye, on the pale sepia line in the frontispiece, and felt immediately that she was now a more real person than she had been before.
Mother objected to Alice’s habit of caressing her pocketed book because it made her look ‘shifty, like you’re up to no good’, a description Alice had decided she didn’t mind one bit. Her mother’s disapproval was merely a bonus; Alice would have continued to reach for her book even if it didn’t make that faint frown appear on Eleanor Edevane’s lovely face; she did it because her notebook was a touchstone, a reminder of who she was. It was also her closest confidante and, as such, quite an authority on Ben Munro.
It had been almost a whole year since she’d first laid eyes on him. He’d arrived at Loeanneth late in the summer of 1932, during that glorious dry stretch when, with all the excitement of Midsummer behind them, there’d been nothing left to do but surrender themselves to the soporific heat. A divine spirit of indolent tranquillity had descended on the estate so that even Mother, eight months pregnant and glowing pink, had taken to unbuttoning her pearl cuffs and rolling her silk sleeves to the elbow.
Alice had been sitting that day on the swing beneath the willow, swaying idly and pondering her Significant Problem. Sounds of family life, had she been listening, were all around – Mother and Mr Llewellyn laughing distantly as the boat oars splashed a lazy rhythm; Clemmie muttering beneath her breath while she turned circles in the meadow, arms outstretched like wings; Deborah relaying to Nanny Rose all the scandals of the recent London Season – but Alice was intent only on herself and heard nothing more than the mild burr of summer insects.
She’d been in the same spot for almost an hour, and hadn’t even noticed the creeping black ink stain her new fountain pen was bleeding on her white cotton dress, when he materialised from the dark wooded grove onto the sunlit reach of the drive. He was carrying a canvas kitbag over one shoulder and what appeared to be a coat in his hand, and walked with a steady, muscular gait, the rhythm of which made her slow her swinging. She watched his progress, the rope rough against her cheek as she strained to see around the willow’s weeping bough.
By quirk of geography, people did not come unexpectedly to Loeanneth. The estate sat deep in a dell, surrounded by thick, briar-tangled woods, just like houses must in fairy tales. (And nightmares, as it turned out, though Alice had no cause to think that then.) It was their own sunny patch, home to generations of deShiels, her mother’s ancestral home. And yet here he was, a stranger in their midst, and just like that the afternoon’s spell was broken.
Alice had a natural bent towards nosiness – people had been telling her so all her life and she took it as a compliment; it was a trait she intended to put to good use – but her interest that day was fuelled more by frustration and a sudden willingness to be distracted than it was by curiosity. All summer long she’d been working feverishly on a novel of passion and mystery, but three days earlier her progress had stalled. It was all the fault of her heroine, Laura, who, after chapters devoted to illustrating her rich inner life, now refused to cooperate. Faced with the introduction of a tall, dark, handsome gentleman, the dashingly named Lord Hallington, she’d suddenly lost all her wit and pith and become decidedly dull.
Well, Alice decided as she watched the young man walking up the driveway, Laura would just have to wait. There were other matters come to hand.
A narrow stream chattered its way across the estate, delighting in the brief sunny respite before being reeled inexorably back towards the woods, and a stone bridge, the legacy of some long-ago great-uncle, straddled the banks allowing access to Loeanneth. As the stranger reached the bridge, he stopped. He turned slowly back to face the direction from which he’d come and seemed to glance at something in his hand. A scrap of paper? A trick of the light? Something in the tilt of his head, his lingering focus on the dense woods, spoke of deliberation and Alice narrowed her eyes. She was a writer; she understood people; she knew vulnerability when she saw it. What was he so uncertain about, and why? He turned again, coming full circle, lifting a hand to his brow as he cast his gaze all the way up the thistle-lined drive to where the house stood behind its loyal guard of yew trees. He didn’t move, didn’t appear to do so much as breathe, and then, as she watched, he set down his bag and coat, straightened his braces to the top of his shoulders, and released a sigh.
Alice experienced one of her swift certainties then. She wasn’t sure where they came from, these insights into other people’s states of mind, only that they arrived unexpectedly and fully formed. She just knew things sometimes. To wit: this was not the sort of place he was used to. But he was a man on a date with destiny, and although there was a part of him that wanted to turn around and leave the estate before he’d even properly arrived, one did not – could not – turn one’s back on fate. It was an intoxicating proposition and Alice found herself gripping the swing’s rope more tightly, ideas beginning to jostle, as she watched for the stranger’s next move.
Sure enough, picking up his coat and hoisting his bag over his shoulder, he continued up the drive towards the hidden house. A new determination had entered his bearing and he now gave every appearance, to those who knew no better, of being resolute, his mission uncomplicated. Alice allowed herself a smile, slight and self-satisfied, before being hit by a burst of blinding clarity that almost knocked her from the swing seat. In the same instant that she noticed the ink stain on her skirt, Alice realised the solution to her Significant Problem. Why, it was all so clear! Laura, grappling with the arrival of her own intriguing stranger, also gifted with greater perception than most, would surely glimpse beneath the man’s façade, discover his terrible secret, his guilty past, and whisper, in a quiet moment when she had him to herself—
Back in the Loeanneth bathroom, Alice jumped, hitting her cheek on the wooden window frame.
‘Alice Edevane! Where are you?’
She shot a glance at the closed door behind her. Pleasant memories of the previous summer, the heady thrill of falling in love, the early days of her relationship with Ben and its intoxicating link to her writing, scattered around her. The bronze doorknob vibrated slightly in response to rapid footsteps in the hallway and Alice held her breath.
Mother had been a nervous wreck all week. That was typical. She wasn’t a natural hostess, but the Midsummer party was the deShiel family’s great tradition and Mother had been enormously fond of her father, Henri, so the event was held annually in his memory. She always got herself into a spin – it was constitutional – but this year she was worse than usual.
‘I know you’re here, Alice. Deborah saw you only moments ago.’
Deborah: big sister, chief exemplar, prime menace. Alice gritted her teeth. As if it weren’t enough having the famed and feted Eleanor Edevane for a mother, wasn’t it just her luck to follow an older sister who was almost as perfect?
Beautiful, clever, engaged to be married to the catch of the Season . . . Thank God for Clementine, who came after, and was such a curious scrap of a girl that even Alice couldn’t help but seem vaguely normal by comparison.
As Mother stormed down the hall, Edwina padding behind her, Alice cracked the window ajar and let the warm breeze, fragrant with fresh-cut grass and salt from the sea, bathe her face. Edwina was the only person (and she was a golden retriever, after all, not really a person) who could stand Mother when she was like this. Even poor Daddy had escaped to the attic hours before, no doubt enjoying the quiet good company of his great work of natural history. The problem was that Eleanor Edevane was a perfectionist and every detail of the Midsummer party had to meet her exacting standards. Although she’d kept the fact hidden beneath a veneer of stubborn indifference, it had bothered Alice for a long time that she fell so far short of her mother’s expectations. She’d looked in the mirror and despaired of her too-tall body, her unobliging mouse-brown hair, her preference for the company of made-up people over real ones.
But not anymore. Alice smiled as Ben hoisted another log onto what was fast becoming a towering pyre. She might not be charming like Deborah, and she’d certainly never been immortalised, like Mother had, as the subject of a much-loved children’s book, but it didn’t matter. She was something else entirely. ‘You’re a storyteller, Alice Edevane,’ Ben had told her late one afternoon, as the river tripped coolly by and the pigeons came home to roost. ‘I’ve never met a person with such a clever imagination, such good ideas.’ His voice had been gentle and his gaze intense; Alice had seen herself then through his eyes and she’d liked what she saw.
Mother’s voice flew past the bathroom door, something further about flowers, before disappearing around a corner. ‘Yes, Mother dearest,’ Alice muttered, with delicious condescension. ‘No need to get your knickers all in a tangle.’ There was a glorious sacrilege in acknowledging the fact of Eleanor Edevane’s underwear and Alice had to clamp her lips to keep from laughing.
With a final glance towards the lake she left the bathroom, tiptoeing quickly along the hall to her bedroom to liberate the precious folder from beneath her mattress. Managing not to trip in her haste on a tatty patch of the red Baluch carpet runner Great-grandfather Horace had sent back from his adventures in the Middle East, Alice took the stairs two by two, seized a basket from the middle of the hall table, and leapt outside into the brand-new day.
And it had to be said the weather was perfect. Alice couldn’t help humming to herself as she made her way along the flagstone path. The basket was almost half filled and she hadn’t even been near the wildflower meadows yet; the prettiest blooms grew there, the unexpected ones as opposed to the usual tame, showy suspects, but Alice had been biding her time. She’d spent the morning avoiding her mother, waiting until Mr Harris took his lunch break so she could catch Ben alone.
The last time she saw him he’d said he had something for her and Alice had laughed. He’d offered her that half-smile of his then, the one that made her weak at the knees, and asked, ‘What’s so funny?’ And Alice had drawn herself up to her full height and told him it just so happened she had something to give him, too.
She stopped behind the largest yew tree at the end of the stone path. It had been neatly hedged for the party, its leaves tight and freshly cut, and Alice peered around it. Ben was still out on the island, and Mr Harris was all the way down at the far end of the lake helping his son Adam ready logs to be boated across. Poor Adam. Alice watched as he scratched behind his ear. He’d been the pride of his family once, according to Mrs Stevenson, strong and strapping and bright, until a flying piece of shrapnel at Passchendaele lodged in the side of his head and left him simple. War was a dreadful thing, the cook liked to opine, pounding her rolling pin into a blameless lump of dough on the kitchen table, ‘taking a boy like that, so full o’ promise, chewing ’im up and spitting ’im out a dull broken version of his old self’.
The one blessing, according to Mrs Stevenson, was that Adam himself seemed not to notice the change, seemed almost lightened by it. ‘That’s not the norm,’ she always added, lest she betray the deep Scottish pessimism at her core. ‘There’s plenty more come back with all the laughter hollowed out of ’em.’
It was Daddy who’d insisted on employing Adam on the estate. ‘He’s got a job here for life,’ she’d overheard him saying to Mr Harris, his voice reedy with the strength of his feeling. ‘I’ve told you that before. As long as he needs it, there’s a place here for young Adam.’
Alice became aware of a soft whirring near her left ear, the faintest breath of wind against her cheek. She glanced sideways at the dragonfly hovering in her peripheral vision. It was a rare one, a yellow-winged darter, and she felt a surge of old excitement. She pictured Daddy in his study, hiding from Mother in her Midsummer state. If Alice were quick she could catch the darter and run it upstairs for his collection, bask in the pleasure she knew the gift would bring, and feel herself elevated in her father’s esteem, the way she had as a little girl, when the privilege of being the chosen one, permitted inside the dusty room of science books and white gloves and glass display cabinets, was enough to make her overlook the horror of the shining silver pins.
But of course there wasn’t time to go now. Why, even in considering it she was falling victim to distraction. Alice frowned. Time had a funny way of losing shape when her mind got busy on a matter. She checked her watch. Almost ten past twelve. Twenty more minutes and the head gardener would retreat to his shed as he did each day for his cheese-and-piccalilli sandwich, and then contemplation of the racing pages. He was a man of habits and Alice, for one, respected that.
Forgetting the dragonfly, she crossed the path at a clip and made her furtive way around the lake, avoiding the lawn and the band of groundsmen sweeping near the elaborate fireworks contraption, keeping to the shadows until she reached the Sunken Garden. She sat on the sun-warmed steps of the old fountain and set the basket beside her. It was the perfect vantage point, she decided; the nearby hawthorn hedge provided ample cover, while small gaps in its foliage permitted a fine view of the new jetty.
While she waited to catch Ben alone, Alice watched a pair of rooks tumbling together in the sea-blue sky above. Her gaze fell to the house where men on ladders were weaving huge wreaths of greenery along the brick façade and a couple of housemaids were busy attaching delicate paper lanterns to fine strings beneath the eaves. The sun had lit up the top row of leadlight windows and the family home, polished to within an inch of its life, was sparkling like a bejewelled old dame, dressed for her annual opera outing.
A great swelling wave of affection came suddenly upon Alice. For as long as she could remember, she’d been aware that the house and the gardens of Loeanneth lived and breathed for her in a way they didn’t for her sisters. While London was a lure to Deborah, Alice was never happier, never quite as much herself, as she was here; sitting on the edge of the stream, toes dangling in the slow current; lying in bed before the dawn, listening to the busy family of swifts who’d built their nest above her window; winding her way around the lake, notebook always tucked beneath her arm.
She had been seven years old when she realised that one day she would grow up and that grown-ups didn’t, in the usual order of things, continue to live in their parents’ home. She’d felt a great chasm of existential dread open up inside her then, and had taken to engraving her name whenever and wherever she could: in the hard English oak of the morning-room window frames, the filmy grouting between the gunroom tiles, the Strawberry Thief wallpaper in the entrance hall, as if by such small acts she might somehow tie herself to the place in a tangible and enduring way. Alice had gone without pudding for the entire summer when Mother discovered this particular expression of affection, a punishment she could have borne but for the injustice of being cast as a wanton vandal. ‘I thought you of all people would have more respect for the house,’ her mother had hissed, white with fury. ‘That a child of mine could behave with such careless disregard, be the author of such a cruel and thoughtless prank!’ The shame Alice had felt, the heartbreak, at hearing herself described in such a way, at having the results of her passionate need for possession reduced to a general mischief, had been profound.
But never mind that now. She stretched her legs out in front of her, lining up her toes, and sighed with deep contentment. It was in the past, water under the bridge, a childish fixation. Sunlight was everywhere, glittering gold off the bright green leaves of the garden. A blackcap, concealed within the foliage of a nearby willow, sang a sweet fanfare and a pair of mallards fought over a particularly juicy snail. The orchestra was rehearsing a dance number and music skimmed across the surface of the lake. How lucky they were to get a day like this one! After weeks of agonising, of studying the dawn, of consulting Those Who Ought to Know, the sun had risen, burning off any lingering cloud, just as it should on Midsummer’s Eve. The evening would be warm, the breeze light, the party as bewitching as ever.
Alice had been aware of Midsummer Eve’s magic long before she was old enough to stay up for the party, back when Nanny Bruen would bring them downstairs, Alice and her two sisters in their finest dresses, and prod them into line for presentation to the guests. The party was still in its opening throes then, well-dressed adults behaving with stilted decorum as they waited for night’s fall; but later, when she was supposed to be asleep, Alice would listen for Nanny’s breaths to grow deep and slumbersome, and then she’d creep to the nursery window and kneel on a chair to watch the lanterns glowing like night-ripe fruit, the raging bonfire that appeared to float on the moon-silvered water, the enchanted world in which places and people were almost as she remembered them, but not quite.
And tonight she’d be among them; a night that was going to be extra special. Alice smiled, shivering lightly with anticipation. She checked her watch and then took out the folder she’d tucked inside the basket, opening it to reveal the precious cargo inside. The manuscript was one of two copies she’d painstakingly typed on the Remington portable, her latest effort and the culmination of a year’s work. There was a small error in the title where she’d accidentally hit a ‘u’ rather than a ‘y’, but other than that it was perfect. Ben wouldn’t mind; he’d be the first to tell her it was far more important to send the pristine copy to Victor Gollancz. When it was published he could have his very own first edition, she’d even sign it for him, right beneath the dedication.
Bye Baby Bunting: Alice read the title under her breath, enjoying the little shiver it still sent down her spine. She was very proud of the story; it was her best so far and she had high hopes for its publication. It was a murder mystery, a proper one. After studying the preface to Best Detective Stories, she’d sat down with her notebook and made a list of the rules according to Mr Ronald Knox. She’d realised her mistake in trying to marry two disparate genres, killed off Laura, and then started again from scratch, dreaming up, instead, a country house, a detective and a household full of worthy suspects. The puzzle had been the tricky bit, figuring out how to keep whodunit from her readers. That’s when she’d decided she needed a sounding board, a Watson to her Holmes, so to speak. Happily, she’d found him. She’d found more than that.
For B.M., partner in crime, accomplice in life
She ran her thumb over the dedication. Once the novel was published everyone would know about them, but Alice didn’t care. There was a part of her that couldn’t wait. So many times she’d almost blurted it out to Deborah, or even to Clemmie, so desperate was she to hear the words said aloud, and she’d been dodging conversations with Mother, who harboured suspicions, Alice knew. But it was right, somehow, that they should find out when they read her first published book.
Bye Baby Bunting had been born out of conversations with Ben; she couldn’t have done it without him, and now, having plucked their thoughts from the air and put them down as words on paper, she’d taken something intangible, a mere possibility, and made it real. Alice couldn’t help but feel that by giving him his copy she was making the promise that stretched unspoken between them more real, too. Promises were important in the Edevane family. It was something they’d learned from Mother, the adage drummed into them from as soon as they could talk: a promise should never be made that one wasn’t prepared to keep.
Voices sounded on the other side of the hawthorn hedge and instinctively Alice snatched up the manuscript, hugging it to her. She listened, alert, and then hurried to the hedge, peering through a small diamond-shaped gap in the leaves. Ben was no longer out on the island and the boat was back at the jetty, but Alice found the three men together near the remaining pile of logs. She watched as Ben drank from his tin canteen, the knot in his throat that moved as he swallowed, the shadow of stubble along his jawline, the curl of dark hair that reached his collar. Perspiration had left a damp patch on his shirt and Alice’s throat caught; she loved his smell, it was so earthy and real.
Mr Harris gathered up his tool bag and issued some parting instructions, to which Ben gave a nod, the hint of a smile. Alice smiled with him, taking in the dimple in his left cheek, his strong shoulders, his exposed forearm glistening beneath the fierce sun. As she watched he straightened, a noise in the distance having caught his attention. She followed his gaze as it left Mr Harris and settled on something in the wild gardens beyond.
Visible, just, in the tangle of foxtail lilies and verbena, Alice spotted a small figure making his way, jouncy and intrepid, towards the house. Theo. The glimpse of her baby brother broadened Alice’s smile; the large black shadow hovering behind, however, doused it. She understood now why Ben was frowning; she felt the same way about Nanny Bruen. She didn’t like her one bit, but then one tended not to develop fond feelings for people with despotic dispositions. Why the sweet, pretty Nanny Rose had been fired was anyone’s guess. She’d obviously adored Theo, doted on him in fact, and there wasn’t anyone who didn’t like her. Even Daddy had been seen chatting with her in the garden while Theo tripped after the ducks, and Daddy was a very discerning judge of character.
Something had got up Mother’s nose, though. Two weeks ago, Alice had seen her arguing with Nanny Rose, an exchange of heated whispers outside the nursery. The disagreement had been to do with Theo, but vexingly Alice had been too far away to hear precisely what was said. The next thing anyone knew, Nanny Rose was gone and Nanny Bruen had been dusted off for duty. Alice had thought they’d seen the last of the ancient battleaxe with her whiskery chin and bottle of castor oil. Indeed, she’d always felt a certain jot of personal pride, having overheard Grandmother deShiel commenting that it was unruly Alice who had broken the last of the old nanny’s spirit. But now, here she was, back again, more crotchety than ever.
Alice was still lamenting the loss of Nanny Rose when she realised she was no longer alone on her side of the hedge. A twig snapped behind her and she straightened abruptly, swinging around.
‘Mr Llewellyn!’ Alice exclaimed, when she saw the hunched figure standing there, an easel under one arm, a large sketch block clutched awkwardly to his other side. ‘You frightened me.’
‘Sorry, Alice, dear. It would appear I don’t know my own stealth. I was hoping we might have a little chat.’
‘Now, Mr Llewellyn?’ Despite her affection for the old man, she fought a wave of frustration. He didn’t seem to understand that the days of Alice sitting with him while he sketched, of bobbing downstream together in the rowing boat, of her confessing all her childish secrets as they hunted fairies were gone. He’d been important to her once, there was no denying that; a treasured friend when she was small and a mentor when she was first getting started with her writing. Many times she’d run to present him with the small childish stories she’d scribbled in a fit of inspiration and he’d made a great show of providing earnest critique. But now, at sixteen, she had other interests, things she couldn’t share with him. ‘I’m rather busy, you see.’
His gaze drifted towards the hole in the hedge and Alice felt her cheeks glow with sudden warmth.
‘I’m keeping an eye on party preparations,’ she said quickly, and when Mr Llewellyn smiled in a way that suggested he knew precisely whom she’d been watching and why, she added, ‘I’ve been gathering flowers for Mother.’
He glanced at her discarded basket, the blooms wilting now in the midday heat.
‘A task I really should be getting on with.’
‘Of course,’ he said with a nod, ‘and I wouldn’t normally dream of interrupting while you’re so busy helping. But there’s something rather important I need to talk to you about.’
‘I’m afraid I really can’t spare the time.’
Mr Llewellyn seemed unusually disappointed and it occurred to Alice that he’d been quite flat lately. Not moping exactly, but distracted and sad. The buttons of his satin vest were done up crookedly, she noticed, and the scarf around his neck was tatty. She felt a sudden wave of sympathy and nodded towards his sketch block, an attempt to make amends. ‘It’s very good.’ It was, too. She hadn’t known him to draw Theo before and the likeness was exceptional, the lingering hint of babyhood in his round cheeks and full lips, the wide trusting eyes. Dear Mr Llewellyn had always been able to see the best in all of them. ‘Shall we meet after tea, perhaps?’ she suggested with an encouraging smile. ‘Sometime before the party?’
Mr Llewellyn gathered his sketch block closer, considering Alice’s proposal before frowning slightly, ‘What about at the bonfire tonight?’
‘You’re coming?’ This was a surprise. Mr Llewellyn was not a social gentleman and ordinarily went out of his way to avoid crowds – especially those crowds comprising people intent on meeting him. He adored Mother, but even she had never managed to entice him to attend Midsummer before. Her mother’s precious first edition of Eleanor’s Magic Doorway would be on display, as it always was, and people would be vying to meet its creator. They never tired of kneeling down by the hedge and hunting for the buried top of the old stone pillar. ‘Look, Simeon, I can see it! The brass ring from the map, just as it says in the book!’ Little did they know that the tunnel had been sealed for years against the explorations of curious guests like them.
Ordinarily Alice might have probed further, but a burst of male laughter from the other side of the hedge, followed by a comradely shout of, ‘It’ll keep, Adam – go with your dad and have some lunch, no need to lift them all at once!’ jolted her back to her purpose. ‘Well, then,’ she said, ‘tonight, yes. At the party.’
‘Shall we say half past eleven, beneath the arbour?’
‘It’s important, Alice.’
‘Half past eleven,’ she repeated, a touch impatiently. ‘I’ll be there.’
Still he didn’t leave but remained, seemingly glued to the spot, wearing that serious, melancholy expression and staring straight at her, almost as if he were trying to memorise her features.
‘Do you remember the time we took the boat out on Clemmie’s birthday?’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, it was a lovely day. A rare treat.’ Alice made a point of gathering her basket from the fountain steps, and Mr Llewellyn must have taken the hint, because when she finished he was gone.
Alice felt the nag of an unspecified regret and sighed deeply. She supposed it was being in love that made her feel this way, a sort of general pity for everyone who wasn’t her. Poor old Mr Llewellyn. She’d thought him a magician once; now she saw only a stooped and rather sad man, old before his time, constrained by the Victorian dress and habits with which he refused to part. He’d had a breakdown in his youth – it was supposed to be a secret, but Alice knew a lot of things she shouldn’t. It had happened back when Mother was just a girl and Mr Llewellyn a firm friend of Henri deShiel. He’d given up his professional life in London and that was when he’d come up with Eleanor’s Magic Doorway.
As to what had prompted his breakdown, Alice didn’t know. It occurred to her now, vaguely, that she ought to make a better job of finding out, but not today; it wasn’t a task for today. There simply wasn’t time for the past when the future was right there waiting for her on the other side of the hedge. Another glance confirmed that Ben was by himself, gathering his things, about to go back through the garden to his accommodations for lunch. Alice promptly forgot about Mr Llewellyn. She lifted her face towards the sun and relished the blaze that graced her cheeks. What a joy it was to be her, right now, in this precise moment. She couldn’t imagine that anyone, anywhere, could be more content. And then she stepped towards the jetty, manuscript in hand, intoxicated by an enticing sense of herself as a girl on the precipice of a glimmering future.
Sun cut between the leaves, and Sadie ran so that her lungs begged her to stop. She didn’t, though; she ran harder, savouring the reassurance of her footfalls. The rhythmic thud, the faint echo caused by damp, mossy earth and dense trampled undergrowth.
The dogs had disappeared off the narrow track some time ago, noses to the ground, slipping like streaks of molasses through the glistening brambles on either side. It was possible they were more relieved than she that the rain had finally stopped and they were free. It surprised Sadie how much she enjoyed having the pair of them alongside her. She’d been resistant when her grandfather first suggested it, but Bertie – already suspicious of her sudden arrival on his doorstep (‘Since when do you take holidays?’) – had proven characteristically stubborn: ‘Those woods are deep in places and you’re not familiar with them. It wouldn’t take much to get lost.’ When he’d started making noises about asking one of the local lads to meet up with her ‘for company’, regarding her with a look that said he was on the brink of asking questions she didn’t want to answer, Sadie had swiftly agreed the dogs could do with the run.
Sadie always ran alone. She’d been doing so since long before the Bailey case blew up and her life in London imploded. It was best. There were people who ran for exercise, those who ran for pleasure, and then there was Sadie, who ran like someone trying to escape her own death. A long-ago boyfriend had told her that. He’d said it accusingly, bent over double trying to catch his breath in the middle of Hampstead Heath. Sadie had shrugged, puzzling over why that might be considered a bad thing, and she’d known then, with surprisingly little regret, that it wasn’t going to work out between them.
A gust of wind slipped through the branches, spraying last night’s raindrops against her face. Sadie shook her head but didn’t slow down. Wild rambling roses had started to appear on the sides of the path; creatures of habit making their yearly bids between the bracken and the fallen logs. It was good such things existed. It was proof there really was beauty and goodness in the world, just like the poems and platitudes said. It was easy to lose sight of that fact in her line of work.
There’d been more in the London papers over the weekend. Sadie had caught a glimpse over the shoulder of a man in the Harbour Cafe while she and Bertie were having breakfast. That is, while she was having breakfast and he was having some sort of green smoothie that smelled like grass. It was only a small piece, a single column on page five, but the name Maggie Bailey was a magnet to Sadie’s eye and she’d stopped speaking mid-sentence, scanning the small print hungrily. She’d learned nothing new from the article, which meant there’d been no change. And why would there be? The case was closed. Derek Maitland had the byline. No surprise he was still clinging to the story like a dog with his neighbour’s bone; that was his nature. Maybe on some level it was why she’d chosen him in the first place?
Sadie started as Ash leapt from behind a bank of trees and cut in front of her, ears flapping, mouth open in a wide, wet grin. She pushed herself not to fall too far behind, clenched her fists so her fingers drove into her palms and ran harder. She wasn’t supposed to be reading the newspapers. She was supposed to be ‘taking a break from it all’ while she sorted herself out and waited for things in London to cool down. Donald’s advice. He was trying to protect her from having her nose rubbed in her own stupidity, she knew, which was kind of him, but really it was a bit too late for that.
It had been all over the papers at the time, and the TV news, and it hadn’t slowed down in the weeks since, only broadened in scope from articles reporting Sadie’s specific comments to gleeful claims of internal division within the Met, implications of cover-ups. No wonder Ashford was angry. The Super never missed a chance to trumpet his views on loyalty, hoicking up his lunch-stained trousers and giving the assembled detectives a spittle-laden blast: ‘Nothing worse than a canary, you hear? You got a gripe, you keep it in-house. Nothing more damaging to the department than coppers who start whistling to outsiders.’ Special mention was always made then of that most heinous of outsiders, the journalist, Ashford’s chin shaking with the force of his loathing: ‘Bloodsuckers, the lot of them.’
Thank God he didn’t know it was Sadie who’d done this particular spot of whistling. Donald had covered for her, the same way he had when she first started making mistakes at work. ‘That’s what partners do,’ he’d said back then, brushing away her clumsy gratitude with customary gruffness. It had been a bit of a joke between them, the minor lapses in her usual fastidious conduct, but this latest infraction was different. As Senior Investigating Officer, Donald was responsible for the actions of his DC, and while forgetting to bring a notepad to an interview merited a good-natured ribbing, letting slip claims the department had botched an investigation was something else entirely.
Donald had known she was the leak as soon as the story broke. He’d taken her out for a pint at the Fox and Hounds and advised her, in terms that left very little room for disagreement, that she needed to get out of London. Take the leave she was owed and stay away until she got whatever was bothering her out of her system. ‘I’m not kidding, Sparrow,’ he’d said, wiping lager froth off his steel-bristle moustache. ‘I don’t know what’s got into you lately, but Ashford isn’t stupid, he’s going to be watching like a hawk. Your grandfather’s in Cornwall now, isn’t he? For your own sake – for both our sakes – get yourself down there and don’t come back until you’ve got yourself sorted.’
A fallen log came at her from nowhere and Sadie leapt over it, catching the tip of her running shoe. Adrenalin spread beneath her skin like hot syrup and she harnessed it, ran harder. Don’t come back until you’ve got yourself sorted. That was a whole lot easier said than done. Donald might not know the cause of her distraction and blundering, but Sadie did. She pictured the envelope and its contents, tucked away in the bedside cabinet of the spare room at Bertie’s place: the pretty paper, the flowery handwriting, the iced- water shock of the message inside. She could mark the start of her troubles from the evening, six weeks ago, when she’d trodden on that bloody letter lying on the doormat of her London flat. At first it had just been occasional lapses in concentration, little mistakes that were easy enough to cover, but then the Bailey case had come along, that little motherless girl, and kapow! The perfect storm.
With a final burst of energy, Sadie forced herself to sprint to the black stump, her turn-around point. She didn’t ease up until she reached it, lurching forwards to strike one hand against the damp, jagged top, then collapsing, palms on knees, as she caught her breath. Her diaphragm swung in and out, her vision starred. She hurt and she was glad. Ash was nosing around nearby, sniffing at the end of a moss-covered log that jutted from the steep, muddy rise. Sadie drank greedily from her water bottle and then squeezed some into the dog’s ready mouth. She stroked the smooth glossy darkness between his ears. ‘Where’s your brother?’ she said, to which Ash cocked his head and just stared at her with his clever eyes. ‘Where’s Ramsay?’
Sadie scanned the wild tangle of greenery surrounding them. Ferns were striving towards the light, spiralled stems uncoiling into fronds. The sweet scent of honeysuckle mingled with the earthiness of recent rain. Summer rain. She’d always loved that smell, even more so when Bertie told her it was caused by a type of bacteria. It proved that good things could come from bad if the right conditions were applied. Sadie had a vested interest in believing that was true.
They were thick woods, and it struck her as she looked for Ramsay that Bertie was right. It would be possible to become lost forever in a place like this. Not Sadie, not with the dogs by her side, keen noses trained on the way back home, but someone else, an innocent, the girl from a fairy story. That girl, her head filled with romance, might easily venture too deep inside woods like these and be lost.
Sadie didn’t know many fairy stories, not beyond the obvious ones. It was one of the gaping holes she’d come to recognise in her experience compared with that of her peers (fairy tales, A levels, parental warmth). Even the little Bailey girl’s bedroom, though sparsely furnished, had contained a shelf of books and a well-thumbed volume of Grimm’s tales. But there’d been no whispered stories of ‘Once upon a time’ in Sadie’s childhood: her mother hadn’t been the whispering type, her father less so, the two of them equal in their adamant distaste for the fanciful.
Regardless, Sadie had absorbed enough as a citizen of the world to know that people went missing in fairy tales, and that there were usually deep dark woods involved. People went missing often enough in real life, too. Sadie knew that from experience. Some were lost by misadventure, others by choice: the disappeared as opposed to the missing, the ones who didn’t want to be found. People like Maggie Bailey.
‘Run off.’ Donald had called it early, the same day they found little Caitlyn alone in the apartment, weeks before they found the note that proved him right. ‘Responsibility got too much. Kids, making ends meet, life. If I had a quid for every time I’d seen it . . .’
But Sadie had refused to believe that theory. She’d gone off on a tangent of her own, floated fantastic suppositions about foul play, the sort that belonged only in mystery novels, insisting that a mother wouldn’t walk out on her kid like that, bleating on and on about combing through the evidence again, searching for the vital clue they’d missed.
‘You’re looking for something you’ll never find,’ Donald had told her. ‘Sometimes, Sparrow – not bloody often, but sometimes – things really are as simple as they seem.’
‘Like you, you mean.’
He’d laughed. ‘Cheeky mare.’ And then his tone had softened, turning almost fatherly, which, as far as Sadie could see, was a whole lot worse than if he’d started yelling. ‘Happens to the best of us. Work this job long enough and eventually a case gets under your skin. Means you’re human, but it doesn’t mean you’re right.’
Sadie’s breaths had steadied but there was still no sign of Ramsay. She called out to him and her voice echoed back from damp, dark places, Ramsay . . . Ramsay . . . Ramsay . . . the last frail repeat fading into nothing. He was the more reserved of the two dogs and it had taken longer to gain his trust. Fair or not, he was her favourite because of it. Sadie had always been wary of easy affection. It was a trait she’d also recognised in Nancy Bailey, Maggie’s mother; one she suspected had brought them closer together. A folie à deux it was called, a shared madness, two otherwise sane people encouraging each other in the same delusion. Sadie could see now that’s what she and Nancy Bailey had done, each feeding the other’s fantasy, convincing themselves there was more to Maggie’s disappearance than met the eye.
And it had been madness. Ten years on the police force, five as a detective, and everything she’d learned had gone out the window the moment she saw that little girl alone in the stale flat; fine and dainty, backlit so her messed-up blonde hair formed a halo, eyes wide and watchful as she took in the two adult strangers who’d just burst through the front door. Sadie had been the one to go to her, taking her hands and saying, in a bright, clear voice she didn’t recognise, ‘Hello there, lovely. Who’s that on the front of your nightie? What’s her name?’ The child’s vulnerability, her smallness and uncertainty, had hit hard right in the place Sadie usually kept steeled against emotion. During the days that followed, she’d felt the ghostly imprint of the child’s small hands in hers, and at night when she tried to sleep she’d heard that quiet, querulous voice saying, Mama? Where’s my mama? She’d been consumed by a fierce need to make things right, to return the little girl’s mother to her, and Nancy Bailey had proved to be the perfect partner. But while Nancy could be forgiven for clutching at straws, was understandably desperate to excuse her daughter’s callous behaviour, ameliorate the shock of her little granddaughter having been left alone like that and assuage her own guilt (‘if only I hadn’t gone away with girlfriends that week I’d have found her myself’), Sadie ought to have known better. Her entire career, her entire adult life, had been built on knowing better.
‘Ramsay,’ she called again.
Again, only silence in return, the sort marked by leaves rustling and distant water running down a rain-sodden ditch. Natural noises that had a way of making a person feel more alone. Sadie stretched her arms above her head. The urge to contact Nancy was physical, a great big weight inside her chest, a pair of sweaty fists closed tight around her lungs. Her own ignominy she could bear, but the shame when she thought of Nancy was crushing. She still felt the pressing need to apologise, to explain that it had all been a terrible lapse in judgement, that she’d never meant to peddle in false hope. Donald knew her well: ‘And Sparrow – ’ his parting words before he packed her off to Cornwall – ‘don’t even think about making contact with the grandmother.’
Louder this time: ‘Ramsay! Where are you, boy?’
Sadie strained, listening. A startled bird, the beat of heavy wings high in the canopy. Her gaze was drawn up through the lattice of branches to the white speck of a plane unpeeling the pale-blue sky behind it. The plane was heading east towards London and she watched its progress with an odd sense of dislocation. Unfathomable to think that the swirl of life, her life, continued there without her.
She hadn’t heard from Donald since she’d left. She hadn’t expected to, not really, not yet, it had only been a week and he’d insisted she take a full month’s leave. ‘I can come back earlier if I want to, right?’ Sadie had said to the young man in HR, his confusion making it evident this was the first time he’d been asked. ‘You’d better not,’ Donald had growled afterwards. ‘I see you back here before you’re ready and I kid you not, Sparrow, I’ll go straight to Ashford.’ He would, too, she knew. He was heading for retirement and not about to let his unhinged deputy ruin it for him. With no other choice, Sadie had packed a bag, tucked her tail between her legs, and driven down to Cornwall. She’d left Donald with Bertie’s phone number, told him mobile reception was a bit hit and miss, and held out hope he’d summon her back.
A low rumbling came from beside her and she glanced down. Ash was standing as rigid as a statue, staring into the woods beyond. ‘What’s the matter, boy? Don’t like the smell of self-pity?’ The fur of his neck bristled, his ears swivelled, but his focus didn’t shift. And then Sadie heard it too, far off in the distance. Ramsay, a bark – not of alarm, perhaps, but unusual all the same.
An uncharacteristic maternal streak, vaguely disturbing, had come over Sadie since the dogs had adopted her, and when Ash gave another deep growl she capped her water bottle. ‘Come on then,’ she said, tapping her thigh. ‘Let’s go find that brother of yours.’
Her grandparents hadn’t had dogs when they’d lived in London; Ruth had been allergic. But after Ruth died and Bertie retired to Cornwall, he’d floundered. ‘I’m doing all right,’ he’d told Sadie down the whistling phone line. ‘I like it here. I keep busy during the day. The nights are quiet, though; I find myself arguing with the telly. Worse, I have a strong suspicion I’m losing.’
It had been an attempt to make light of things but Sadie had heard the crack in his voice. Her grandparents had fallen in love as teenagers. Ruth’s father had made deliveries to Bertie’s parents’ shop in Hackney, and they’d been inseparable ever since. Her grandfather’s grief was palpable and Sadie had wanted to say the perfect thing, to make it all better. Words had never been her strong suit, though, and so, instead, she’d suggested he might stand a better chance arguing with a Labrador. He’d laughed and told her he’d think about it, and next day he’d gone down to the animal shelter. In typical Bertie fashion, he’d come home with not one but two dogs and a cranky cat in tow. From what she’d observed in the week since she arrived in Cornwall, they’d formed quite the contented family, the four of them, even if the cat spent most of his time hiding behind the sofa; her grandfather seemed happier than he had since before Ruth got sick. All the more reason Sadie wasn’t about to return home without his dogs.
Ash’s pace picked up and Sadie had to hustle not to lose sight of him. The vegetation was changing, she noticed. The air was getting lighter. Beneath the thinning trees, the brambles had taken advantage of the brighter sun, multiplying and thickening gleefully. Branches grabbed and clutched at the hems of Sadie’s shorts as she pushed through their knots. If she’d been given to fancy she might have imagined they were trying to stop her.
She scrambled up the steep sloping ground, avoiding large scattered rocks, until she reached the top and found herself at the edge of the woods. Sadie paused, surveying the landscape before her. She’d never come this far before. A field of long grass stretched ahead and in the distance she could just make out a fence and what appeared to be a lopsided gate. Beyond it was more of the same, another wide grassy space interrupted in places by huge trees with rich leafy foliage. Sadie drew breath. There was a child, a small girl, standing alone in the centre of the field, a silhouette, backlit, Sadie couldn’t see her face. She opened her mouth to call out but when she blinked the child disintegrated into little more than a patch of yellow-white glare.
She shook her head. Her brain was tired. Her eyes were tired. She ought to get them checked for floaters.
Ash, who’d bounded ahead, looked over his shoulder to check her progress, barking impatiently when he judged it insufficient. Sadie started across the field after him, pushing aside the vague unwelcome notion she was doing something she shouldn’t. The sensation was not a familiar one. As a rule, Sadie didn’t worry about that sort of thing, but the recent trouble at work had her spooked. She didn’t like being spooked. Spooked was a bit too close to vulnerable for Sadie’s liking and she’d decided years ago it was better to march straight up to trouble than have it sneak up behind her.
The gate, she saw when she reached it, was made of timber: sun-bleached, splintered and hanging from its hinges with a deep sagging ennui that suggested it had been doing so for a very long time. A leafy climber with trumpeting purple flowers had tied itself in comprehensive knots around the posts, and Sadie had to climb through a gap between the pieces of bowing wood. Ash, reassured by this sign his mistress was following, let out a rousing bark and picked up speed, disappearing towards the horizon.
Grass brushed Sadie’s bare knees, making them itch where her sweat had dried. Something niggled about this place. An odd feeling had come over her since she’d climbed through the gate, an inexplicable sense of things being not quite right. Sadie didn’t go in for presentiments – there was no need for a sixth sense when the other five were being properly employed – and sure enough, there was a rational explanation for the oddness. Sadie had been walking for ten minutes or so when she realised what it was. The field was empty. Not of trees and grass and birds, they were everywhere; it was all the rest that was missing. There were no tractors puttering over the fields, no farmers out mending fences, no animals grazing. In this part of the world that was unusual.
Sadie glanced around, searching for something to prove her wrong. She could hear running water not too far away, and a bird that might have been a raven was watching her from the branch of a nearby willow. She noted great stretches of long rustling grass and the occasional gnarled tree, but nothing human as far as the eye could see.
A black gleam moved on the edge of her vision and Sadie flinched. The bird had launched itself from its perch and was cutting through the air in her direction. Sadie shifted sideways to avoid being hit and as she did her foot caught on something. She fell onto her hands and knees in a stretch of boggy mud beneath the massive willow. She glanced back accusingly and saw a mildewed piece of rope hooked over her left foot.
Instinct, experience perhaps – a grisly melange of crime scenes from old investigations – made her look up. There, tied around the tree’s thickest bough, visible only as a nob- bled ridge beneath the bark, was the rope’s frayed other end. There was another matching one beside it, dangling towards the ground where it trailed a damp plank of disintegrating wood. Not a noose then, but a swing.
Sadie stood up, brushed off her muddied knees, and paced a slow circumference around the dangling rope. There was something mildly unsettling about the tattered remnant of childish activity in this lonely place, but before she could give it further thought, Ash was off again, his brief concern for Sadie replaced by the urgent need to find his brother.
With a last glance at the ropes, Sadie followed. This time, however, she began to notice things she’d missed before. A strip of unruly yew trees ahead now re-presented itself as a hedge, neglected and wild but a hedge nonetheless; on the northern horizon between two dense clumps of wildflowers, she could make out what appeared to be the span of a bridge; the broken gate she’d climbed through no longer seemed a rudimentary division between two natural spaces but an overrun border between civilisation and the wilderness. Which meant this plot of land she traversed wasn’t an uncultivated field, but a garden. At least, it had been once.
A howl came from the other side of the yew hedge and Ash answered loudly before disappearing through a gap in the greenery. Sadie did the same, but stopped abruptly when she reached the other side. An ink-like mass of stagnant water lay before her, glassy in the still of the dense clearing. Willows made a ring around the water’s edge, and from its centre there rose a great muddy mound, an island of sorts. There were ducks everywhere, coots and moorhens, too, and the smell was rich and grubbily fertile. The feeling was uncanny, of avian eyes watching, dark and shiny.
Ramsay howled again, and Sadie followed his call around the lake’s wet bank, decades of duck mess making it slimy underfoot. It was slippery and she went carefully beneath the trees. Ash was barking now too, standing on the far side of the lake on a wooden jetty, his nose raised skywards as he sounded the alarm.
Sadie brushed aside the weeping fingers of a willow, leaning to avoid a peculiar glass dome hanging from a rusted length of chain. She passed another four orbs along the way, all similarly clouded with dirt, their insides layered with generations of spidery web. She ran her hand lightly around the base of one, admiring its strange allure, wondering at its purpose. These were odd fruit hanging there amongst the leaves.
When she reached the jetty, Sadie saw that one of Ramsay’s hind legs had broken through a hole in the rotting timber. He was panicking, and she picked her way quickly but carefully across the planks. She knelt, stroking his ears to calm him as she established there was no serious injury and considered the best way to get him out. In the end she could think of nothing better than to hold him in a clinch and heave. Ramsay was less than grateful, scrabbling his claws against the decking, barking with pained indignation. ‘I know, I know,’ muttered Sadie. ‘Some of us just aren’t very good at being helped.’
Finally she managed to extricate him, collapsing on her back to catch her breath as the dog, ruffled but evidently unhurt, leapt clear of the jetty. Sadie closed her eyes and laughed when Ash gave her neck an appreciative lick. A small voice warned that the boards might collapse at any moment but she was too exhausted to pay it any heed.
The sun had risen now, high in the sky, and its warmth on her face was godly. Sadie had never been the meditating type, but in this moment she understood what people were on about. A sigh of contentment escaped her lips, even though contented was the last word she’d have chosen to describe herself of late. She could hear her own breaths, her pulse pumping beneath the thin skin of her temple, as loudly as if she held a conch shell to her ear to eavesdrop on the ocean.
Without sight to get in the way of things, the whole world was suddenly alive with sound: the lapping of water as it washed around the posts below her, the splashing and skimming of ducks as they landed on the lake’s surface, the wooden planks stretching beneath the sun’s glare. As she listened, Sadie became aware of a thick blanketing hum behind it all, like hundreds of tiny motors whirring at once. It was a sound synonymous with summer, difficult to place at first, but then she realised. Insects, a hell of a lot of insects.
Sadie sat up, blinking into the brightness. The world was briefly white before everything righted itself. Lily pads glistened, heart-shaped tiles on the water’s surface, flowers reaching for the sky like pretty, grasping hands. The air surrounding them was filled with hundreds of small winged creatures. She scrambled to her feet and was about to call for the dogs when something on the other side of the lake caught her attention.
In the middle of a sunlit clearing stood a house. A brick house with twin gables and a front door tucked beneath a portico. Multiple chimneys rose from the tiled roof and three levels of leadlight windows winked conspiratorially in the sun. A climber, green-leafed and voracious, clung to the brick face of the building and small birds flew busily in and out of the fretwork of tendrils, creating an effect of constant movement. Sadie whistled under her breath. ‘What’s a grand old lady like you doing in a place like this?’ She’d only spoken quietly but her voice was foreign and unwelcome, her humour forced, an intrusion on the profound natural exuberance of the garden.
Sadie started around the lake towards the house; its pull was magnetic. The ducks and wild birds ignored her, their obliviousness combining somehow with the warmth of the day, the moist humidity of the lake, to feed the atmosphere of cloying enclosure.
There was a path, she noted as she reached the other side, mostly grown over due to encroaching hawthorn, but leading all the way to the front door. She scuffed the toe of her running shoe against the surface. Stone. Probably pale pinkish-brown once, like the rest of the local stone in the village buildings, but time and neglect had tarred it black.
The house, she saw as she drew nearer, had been as thoroughly forgotten as the garden. Tiles were missing from the roof, some of them lying shattered where they’d fallen, and one of the windowpanes on the top floor was broken. The remaining glass wore a thick render of bird droppings and white stalactites drooped from the sill, spilling onto the glossy leaves below.
As if to lay claim to the impressive clumps, a small bird launched itself from behind the broken glass, diving in a direct line before correcting to swoop fast and close by Sadie’s ear. She flinched but stood her ground. They were everywhere, those little birds she’d glimpsed from the lake, darting in and out of the creeper’s dark spaces and calling to one another in urgent chirrups. Not just birds, either; the foliage teemed with insects of all descriptions – butterflies, bees and others she couldn’t name – giving the building an appearance of constant animation at odds with its dilapidated state.
It was tempting to assume the house was empty, but Sadie had been sent on call to enough homes of the elderly to know that the appearance of abandonment often presaged a sorry story inside. A dull brass knocker shaped like a fox’s head hung lopsided from the chipped wooden door and she lifted a hand towards it before lowering it again. What would she say if someone answered? Sadie flexed her fingers one by one, considering. There was no reason she should be here today. No excuse she could give. A trespassing charge was the last thing she needed. But even as she thought it, Sadie knew she was speculating unnecessarily. The house before her was deserted. It was hard to put into words, but there was a look about it, an aura it gave off. She just knew.
A panel of decorative glass had been set above the door: four figures in long robes, each depicted against a background representing a different season. It wasn’t a religious picture, as far as Sadie could tell, but the effect was similar. There was an earnestness to the design – a reverence, she supposed – that made her think of the stained-glass windows in churches. Sadie manoeuvred a large dirty planter closer to the door and climbed gingerly onto the rim.
Through a largish piece of clear glass, she glimpsed an entrance hall with an oval table at its centre. A vase stood on the tabletop, a bulb-shaped china jug with flowers painted on its side and – she squinted – a faint gold pattern snaking up the handle. A few thin branches of something brittle, willow perhaps, were arranged haphazardly within and there were dry leaves scattered beneath. A chandelier – crystal, glass, something fancy – was suspended from a plaster rose on the ceiling and a wide flight of stairs with worn red carpet curled upwards and away at the back of the hall. There was a round mirror on the wall to the left, hang- ing by a closed door.
Sadie jumped off the planter. A knotted garden ran along the front of the house beside the portico and she clambered through it, prickles catching her T-shirt as she picked a path through the brambles. There was a strong but not unpleasant smell – moist earth, decomposing leaf matter, new flowers beginning to catch the day’s sun – and great fat bumblebees were busy already collecting pollen from a profusion of small pink and white blooms. Blackberries: Sadie surprised herself by dredging up the knowledge. They were blackberry flowers, and in a few months’ time the bushes would be heavy with fruit.
When she reached the window, Sadie noticed that something had been etched into the wooden frame, some letters, an A, maybe an E, crudely carved and dark green with mould. She traced her fingers along the deep grooves, wondering idly who had made them. A curled piece of iron jutted out from amid the thick overgrowth beneath the sill and Sadie pulled the branches aside to discover the rusted remnants of a garden seat. She glanced over her shoulder at the jungle she’d just traversed. Difficult to imagine that a person had once been able to sit here comfortably, looking out over what must then have been a well-kept garden.
That strange, almost ominous, feeling was there again but Sadie shook it off. She dealt in facts, not feelings, and after recent events it was as well to remind herself of that. She steepled her hands against a glass pane and pressed her face to them, peering through the window.
The room was dim, but as her eyes adjusted certain objects began to stand out from the gloom: a grand piano in the corner by the door, a sofa in the centre with a pair of armchairs turned to face it, a fireplace in the far wall. Sadie experienced the familiar, agreeable sensation of opening the lid on someone else’s life. She considered such moments a perk of her job, even if she often saw ugly things; she’d always been fascinated by the way other people lived. And although this wasn’t a crime scene and she wasn’t a detective on duty, Sadie automatically started making mental notes.
The walls were papered in a faded floral design, greyish-mauve, and covered with shelves that sagged beneath the weight of a thousand books. A large painted portrait stood sentinel above the fireplace, a woman with a fine nose and a secretive smile. A pair of French doors bordered by thick damask curtains were set in the adjacent wall. Presumably the doors had led once to a side garden, and sun had spilled through the glass on mornings like this to cast warm, bright squares on the carpet floor. But not anymore. A tenacious weave of ivy made sure of that, clinging to the glass and letting in only the merest specks of light. Beside the doors stood a narrow wooden table on which a photograph was displayed in a fancy frame. It was too dark to see the subject, and even if the light had been better an old-fashioned teacup and saucer blocked Sadie’s view.
She sucked in her lips, considering. In some ways – the open piano lid, the sofa cushions askew, the teacup on the table – the room gave the impression that whoever had been there last had only just left and would be back any minute; yet at the same time there was an eerie, somehow permanent, stillness about the world on the other side of the glass. The room seemed frozen, its contents suspended, as if even the air, that most relentless of all elements, had been shut outside, as if it would be difficult to breathe inside. There was something else, too. Something that suggested the room had been that way for a long time. Sadie had thought at first it was her straining eyes, before she realised that the room’s dull glaze was actually caused by a thick layer of dust.
She could see it clearly now on the desk beneath the window, where a shaft of light revealed a coating over every object: the inkwell, the lampshade and the collection of open books spread haphazardly between them. A sheet of paper on top of the pile caught Sadie’s eye, the sketch of a child’s face, a beautiful face with large serious eyes and soft lips and hair that fell either side of small ears so that he (or she; it was hard to tell) looked more like a garden pixie than a real child. The drawing was smudged in places, she noticed, the black ink smeared, the strong lines blurred, and something had been written in the bottom corner, a signature and a date: June 23rd, 1933.
Loud noise and a barrelling movement behind her made Sadie start, bumping her forehead on the glass. Two black, panting dogs burst through the brambles to sniff at her feet. ‘You want your breakfast,’ she said as a cold wet nose prodded her palm. Sadie’s own stomach took up the suggestion, letting out a low grumble. ‘Come on then,’ she said, stepping back from the window. ‘Let’s get you home.’
Sadie took one last look at the house before following the dogs back through the overgrown yew hedge. The climbing sun had slipped behind a cloud and the windows no longer glinted at the lake. The building had taken on a sullen cast, like a spoiled child who enjoyed being the centre of attention and now wasn’t happy being ignored. Even the birds were more brazen than before, criss-crossing the hazy clearing with calls that sounded eerily like laughter, and the insect choir was growing louder with the day’s expanding heat.
The lake’s flat surface glistened in a secretive, slatey way and Sadie suddenly felt every bit the intruder she was. It was hard to say what made her so certain, but as she turned to leave, ducked through the hole in the yew and started chasing the dogs home, she knew, in that twist-of-the-gut way a police detective had better hope she developed, that something terrible had happened in that house.