They should be home.
The thought scratched at Grace’s mind as she peered out of a narrow upstairs window. The sun had long since been banished behind a blanket of thick grey cloud. In front of her, the wild moorland rolled away to be absorbed by the gloom of twilight.
Grace turned and trailed through the cottage, flicking at wall switches, shaking the shadows from their slumbers and driving them out. She moved as though in a trance, the surroundings still surreal to her, although it had been over a week since they had moved in. The upstairs corridor was poky, and the ceiling so low that she had spent the last few days watching Adam stooping under the beams. The staircase was steep, the wood beneath the carpet uneven, so it was better to tread on the outer edges of each step rather than stumble into the indentations of myriad footsteps gone before.
She made her careful way downstairs, through the small living room that was littered with packing boxes, and headed into the kitchen, moving again to a window, unable to stop herself from looking out across the sloping moors towards the distant road that wound in and out of sight. A few trees were silhouetted on the horizon, their brittle skeletons bent from regular lashings by the coastal winds. The view before her was utterly still.
She took a deep breath, trying to quell the worry that was winding her nerves into knots. Adam’s note had unsettled her. “Won’t be long. I have to talk to you when I get back, don’t go anywhere. A x”
Back in the lounge, Grace threw herself into an armchair, one hand brushing over the raked leather where a long-dead cat had once regularly sharpened its claws. She looked around the cottage—their cottage, though it was nearly impossible to think of it that way.
“It’s an incredible gift,” she could still hear Adam enthusing, over and over, when they had first found out his grandparents had bequeathed Hawthorn Cottage to him. “It’s like fate is giving us a bloody great shove in the back. Our own place, no mortgage, away from the rat race, a chance for Millie to start life among nature rather than believing that trees grow through cracks in the pavement. Come on, Gracie, let’s give it a go.”
At that point Grace had been overwhelmed by pads and pumps and nappies, and had somehow found herself agreeing with every point he made. Adam was right. Who wanted red-top buses flying past their London flat at all hours; noise, lights, people everywhere? This way they could escape their financial pressures for a while. She didn’t want to leave Millie while she was tiny, and go back to her marketing job, with its meager wage and demanding retail clients. It wasn’t her vocation, and to satisfy her demanding boss she often had to stay long after office hours were over.
They couldn’t avoid the fact that their priorities were changing. Adam and Grace had begun their relationship to a backdrop of fine restaurants and raucous weekends away with friends. Now, in their thirties, most people they knew had children, their social life had dwindled, and they wouldn’t be the first ones to make the move out of the city. Grace began to imagine the possibilities that the cottage in North Yorkshire would present: the chance to cook proper meals for a change, taking Millie for long country walks in the fresh air, and snuggling up to Adam in the evenings. She wouldn’t have to give up anything either—she could take the maximum maternity leave she was allowed while they gave it a try. To top it off, they’d be free of the extortionate repayments on their tiny two-bedroom flat; so instead of struggling, they might even save. And, as Adam said, if it didn’t work out, they would simply come back.
“Six months,” she’d agreed. “We’ll try it for six months, see how it goes.”
But as they packed their belongings, and the moving date drew nearer, something had begun to niggle at her. She couldn’t put her finger on what it was that woke her in the early hours, well before the baby stirred. Eventually she had dismissed it as understandable nerves at such a big change. And yet, the nagging voice refused to quiet.
Now, she picked at the torn leather on the armchair as she thought about their first few days in the cottage. The unsettling silence as she had unpacked boxes. The stillness each time she looked out the window. The black descent of night; and the relentless ticking and chiming of the grandfather clock in the hall. As she sat there, it was hard to imagine the throngs of people and traffic swirling around central London, an endlessly shifting kaleidoscope of color and movement. The last week at the cottage had felt like the longest of Grace’s life. The six months she had promised Adam now lay interminably before them.
She looked at her watch. Where the hell were they? Adam’s car was out the front, so they couldn’t have gone far. Just the thought of the two of them made her heart quicken. Since Millie had been born her emotions seemed to bubble fierce and strange beneath her skin, threatening to spill over at any moment.
Her mobile rang and she fumbled around for it among the packing debris, snatching at it before it stopped.
“Annabel,” she sighed, sitting back down.
“You could at least pretend to be pleased to hear from me,” her sister grumbled. “Or have you forgotten about me already now you’ve moved to Timbuktu?”
“Sorry, Bel, I’m getting a bit worried about Adam and Millie—they’ve been out since I got back from town. They should be back by now.”
Annabel laughed. “Grace, you’re such a worry wart. Adam’s probably chatting over a fence post somewhere. You know he has to show Millie off to everyone. Stop panicking. Now, tell me when you’re coming back—you can’t stay a country bumpkin forever. I miss you too much.”
Grace smiled at that. “You still can’t believe that I’ve moved away, can you? Come and see us, Bel. You never know, you might like it here.”
“So you’re planning on staying then?”
“Yes,” Grace said, as emphatically as she could manage. She had never felt the need to pretend to Annabel before, but she was determined to give this move a chance. In truth, she missed her sister terribly, knew the feeling was mutual, and was afraid that Annabel would exploit any opportunity she saw to encourage them to come back to London.
“Grace? Are you listening to me?”
“Sorry, what were you saying?” Grace replied, tuning back in to the voice on the other end of the line.
“I was asking you to tell me just what Yorkshire has that London doesn’t?”
“Well, fresh air, for a start. And you can move without someone knocking you over and then swearing at you.”
“Okay, okay,” Annabel acquiesced. “Well, at least I don’t have to see you and Adam wandering around with soppy grins on your faces quite so often. It can get pretty sickening after a while, you know.”
Grace ignored the jibe. “Come for a visit, Bel—we’ve got a pub!”
“Hmmm. I guess I might have to if you won’t come back. London misses you, though. I miss you.”
“You shouldn’t have helped me pack everything up then.”
“I know, I’m my own worst enemy.”
Grace smiled again distractedly as Annabel chattered away, getting up to gaze once more through the kitchen window. All was quiet. She walked slowly to the front of the cottage and glanced out into the dusky garden.
There was a dark shape on her doorstep. She couldn’t quite see it at this angle, or make out much in the shadows. She frowned, listening to Annabel reporting on her week as she headed to the front door. Once there, she twisted the key in the lock, pulled it open, and stopped in shock.
In front of her was Millie s pram. She peered inside, to find her ten-week-old daughter fast asleep, her cheeks rosy and cold, her tiny chest rising and falling steadily underneath the tightly tucked woolen coverlet.
Grace ran her fingers gently over her daughter’s forehead, then glanced around and said, “Adam?”
No one answered. She waited, watching her short breaths bursting into the frosty night air. She called a little louder, “Adam, where are you?”
Silence. Then she heard a small voice saying. “Grace? Grace?”
She looked down absently at the phone in her hand. She lifted it up to hear Annabel’s voice, alarmed. “Grace, what’s going on?”
“I just found Millie asleep in her pram on the front doorstep,” Grace said, her confusion growing with every word.
“So they’re back then. See, I told you it would be fine.”
Grace stared out into the deepening darkness. “I’m not sure, Annabel. It’s only Millie here. There’s no sign of Adam.”
“He must be caught up with something—he’ll be there in a second, I’m sure,” Annabel reassured her.
But he wasn’t.
Copyright © 2011 by Sara Foster