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LORNA LIFTED THOMAS FROM HIS HIGH chair and held him for a moment on her knee. She still couldn’t quite believe he was real. In the darkest days of her illness, she’d been warned that a child of her own might never be possible. Now here he was, more than a year old, walking a few steps, the centre and the love of her life. She tickled his tummy to make him giggle and held him tight. She would fight for him, with all the weapons she had. She’d fought the illness and come back stronger, done that by herself, and this was far more important.
Outside, the light had almost gone, and in the street light’s beam she saw flakes of snow. In a house further along the street, there was a tree in the window, artificial, strung with gaudy baubles. Soon, it would be midwinter, the longest night of the year. There was a temptation to stay where she was, to turn up the heating and decorate the room for Christmas. She’d bought sticky coloured paper to make old-fashioned paper chains, silver foil to turn into stars. Perhaps she’d invite her parents to come for wine and mince pies. It was the time of year for reconciliation.
She knew, though, that any sense of celebration would have to wait. Still with the boy on her knee, she pulled on his snow suit and his little red wellies, then set him on the floor while she found her own outdoor clothes. She took a set of keys from a hook on the kitchen shelf, looked around the room, distracted for a moment by thoughts of decoration, the presents she still had to buy for her son, then she stepped out into the cold.
IT WAS DARK AND FREEZING and Vera was starting to panic. Halfway home, she’d known the journey was a mistake. She should have listened to the team and spent the night in Kimmerston, waiting for the storm to blow over, but she’d thought she knew better. She’d mocked her colleagues for their anxiety, told them that extreme weather was unusual this early in the winter, even in rural Northumberland. And when was the weather forecast ever accurate?
She’d left the police station in a light dusting of snow, a gusty wind blowing it away from the street and into tiny drifts at the kerbs and in shop doorways. Now, on the higher ground, there was a blizzard and the flakes were so big and so thick that she had to lean forward and peer through the windscreen in an attempt to see her way. There were no lights, and even with four-wheel drive she was anxious that she’d come off the narrow road. She’d seen no other traffic since leaving the last village and felt completely alone, disorientated. She drove this route most days, had told her sergeant Joe Ashworth she could do it blindfolded, but now she was lost and felt bewildered and scared.
She came to a crossroads and changed gear, preparing to stop, so she wouldn’t have to use the brakes and cause a skid. There was a finger sign but the village names were covered with snow. She had a moment of real fear then, a complete lack of recognition. In her headlights she saw trees on one side of the road, a thick plantation of spruce. She must have missed a turn earlier. She left the engine running but climbed out to clear the signpost. In one direction was Sawley Bridge and in the other Kirkhill. Kirkhill would bring her closer to home, so she turned right. The road started to rise and her wheels spun. The snow was so deep here that she worried she would get stuck, but there was one set of tyre tracks for her to follow now. Some other foolish soul had been here not long before her and must have made it through.
She seemed to reach the top of a low hill and, in the distance, saw a light below her, almost hidden by the blizzard. The outskirts of Kirkhill village, perhaps. There was a pub in Kirkhill, and she had a feeling that it did food and had rooms. There were worse places to spend a night. The team need never know she’d made an arse of herself. Already she was starting to relax; she could feel the fire warming her bones and taste the first pint of beer. But when she turned the next bend, she almost drove into a car that had slewed off the road and come to a stop just before hitting a five-bar gate. The vehicle was white, almost camouflaged in the snow. The foolish soul hadn’t made it through after all. Vera pulled slowly past the car and came to a stop. The driver’s door was open and it was possible that someone had fallen out. She found a torch in the dashboard and climbed down from the Land Rover. The wind eased for a while and everything was very quiet and still.
Any footprints had been covered by the blown snow, but it seemed that the driver had been able to walk away from the crash. There was no sign of a casualty nearby and, now she was close to it, Vera could see that the car was unharmed. She was about to return to the Land Rover and continue her drive, when she heard a noise. A cry. She shone her torch into the back of the car and saw a toddler, strapped into a seat. The child was wrapped up in a red snow suit and wore small red wellies. It was impossible for her to guess gender or age. Vera’s experience of small children was limited.
‘Hello!’ She was aiming at jolly, friendly, but the child started to whimper. ‘What’s your name?’
The child stopped crying and stared impassively.
‘Where’s your mam, pet?’
Nothing. Vera pulled her mobile phone from her pocket. There was no signal. Not unusual here in the hills. She supposed the driver had walked away to see if she could get better reception to call for help. Vera had already decided that the car had been driven by a woman. A small woman. The seat was pulled right forward towards the steering wheel. She must have left the child, knowing she wouldn’t get very far carrying it. Even if the toddler, staring at Vera from the seat in the back of the car, was old enough to walk, the snow was so deep that it would be impossible for the child to move through it. The red boots were so small that they were more fashion statement than practical bad-weather footwear.
But Vera was troubled. Wouldn’t a mother have shut the door, to keep out the bitter wind? She felt the prospect of a fire and beer disappearing. She lifted out the child’s car seat and strapped it beside her in the Land Rover, struggling to slot the seat belt to hold it firmly in place. It seemed a complicated sort of set-up. Parenthood must be a challenging business these days.
Vera jotted down the white car’s number plate on the back of a receipt she happened to have in her bag, then scrabbled for a clean scrap of paper. She wrote a note and left it inside the white car’s dash. ‘I’ve got your baby. It’s safe.’ With her phone number. Then she thought again and put her work business card beside it. The last thing she needed was an accusation of kidnap.
She drove on, even more slowly than she had before, hoping to catch a glimpse in her headlights of a struggling woman. She’d thought she’d come across her sooner than this. Vera swore under her breath. This was going to take longer than she’d expected. At least the child beside her was quiet, asleep and breathing gently.
The snow thinned and then stopped. The clouds broke and a slight crescent moon appeared. Vera drove round a bend in the road and suddenly she knew exactly where she was. There was a long wall covered with frozen ivy, two pillars marking the entrance to a drive which once must have been very grand, a sign with a coat of arms, faded and covered with snow. But Vera knew what was there. One word: Brockburn. The coat of arms would belong to the Stanhope family.
The light she’d seen from the hill must have come from here. At the entrance she paused and the memories came tumbling in. She’d been dragged here a few times by her father, Hector, when he’d been on his uppers and demanding that the family recognize that he too had a claim to a place in the sun. Each year they’d gatecrashed the gathering before the New Year’s Day hunt. Hector would be in his element, chatting to the local farmers who remembered him as a boy. The black sheep returned to the fold, to drink whisky out of a small plastic glass, while the hounds grew restive and the glistening horses paced outside the big house. Proving that he too honoured tradition.
The family had been unfailingly polite. That branch of the clan used politeness as a weapon of mass destruction. But Hector had always come away humiliated and angry. Vera, who’d never felt any obligation to be loyal to her father, had understood the family’s point of view. Hector would be rude and demanding, usually halfway drunk on the most recent visits. She’d been hugely embarrassed and they’d been kind to her.
On the last visit Vera had been a teenager, perhaps fifteen years old, already a little overweight, awkward, defensive. She couldn’t remember now why she’d been there. Hector had no qualms about leaving her home alone, even as a young child. Perhaps he’d been more nervous about the encounters than she’d realized and had seen her as some kind of shield, or perhaps he’d thought the family would be more sympathetic if they saw he had a daughter to support. It had been a summer afternoon, the sun full and warm, flooding the place with light. They’d sat on the terrace drinking tea, eating thin sandwiches that disappeared in two bites. There’d been meringues. Even now Vera could remember the meringues – all at once crisp and chewy, the intense sweetness contrasting with the soft, bland double cream – more clearly than she could recall the other people who sat at the table. The background sound had been the call of wood pigeons and the faint strains of Bach, coming from a radio in the house.
Sitting with them had been three generations of women: Elizabeth, white-haired and wiry, wife of Hector’s elder brother Sebastian; Harriet, the very glamorous wife of Hector’s nephew Crispin; and her daughter Juliet, a toddler with blonde curls and a knowing stare. If the men were in the house, they’d kept well away. There’d been a conversation, which must have been about money, but which was so hedged around with euphemism that Vera hadn’t been able to work out what was being said. Besides, she’d been focused on the meringues, wondering if it would be rude to take the one which remained on the plate. As always, Hector had left empty-handed and bitter, swearing revenge all the way home.
Now Sebastian and Elizabeth were long dead. Even Hector’s nephew Crispin had passed on. Vera had seen the notice in the local paper but hadn’t gone to the funeral; she’d known it would be a showy affair and anyway, she wouldn’t have been welcome. Only the two women, Harriet and her daughter Juliet, were left, and by now Juliet would be an adult, approaching middle-age.
The baby in the car seat stirred and Vera was brought back to the present. The heating in the Land Rover had never been very effective and she was starting to feel cold. She turned into the drive. The snow was churned by tyre tracks; she hoped that didn’t mean her smart relatives had left the house. She felt strangely anxious about seeing them again, but they would have a phone and the child’s mother might have made her way here. It was the closest form of habitation to the abandoned car. Besides, Vera thought, if she could face murderers and rapists, she wasn’t going to be intimidated by a few weak-chinned minor aristos.
There were more cars than she’d expected parked on the long drive. Some were covered with snow, so had been there for a while, others had clear windscreens. It seemed the Stanhopes had guests. Vera looked at the sleeping baby, lifted out the car seat and made her way to the house.
The sight was like something from a fairy tale. Magical. The flurry of snow had passed and there was moonlight, and a sky flecked with stars. A large cedar stood close to grand stone steps, which were lit from below. The tree had been decorated with hundreds of fairy lights, all white, all twinkling. The ground-floor curtains had been left open and Vera saw a huge Christmas tree, decorated completely in silver. A handful of people, most of them young or very well-preserved middle-aged and all grandly dressed, glasses in their hands, were gathered around an open fire. She checked her watch. Only seven o’clock. Too early in the evening for a party surely? A gathering before dinner perhaps. The house was big enough to accommodate all the guests and this branch of the family might be wealthy enough for lavish entertaining. She wouldn’t know. Some of them had turned out for Hector’s funeral but, since then, there’d been no contact. She paused for a moment, Cinderella looking in: the fifteen-year-old girl again, excluded. Suddenly aware of a different, more glamorous life which would never be hers.
WHEN THE DOORBELL RANG, clanging and tuneless, Juliet couldn’t think who might be there. Her guests had come early, freaked out by the weather forecast. Two couples had cancelled but six people had made the journey, each carefully chosen by Mark for their wealth and professional standing, and then the vicar and her husband for local colour. Had there been another invitation? Someone she’d forgotten? She felt a return of the panic that had been lingering all day, fended off in the last hour by supermarket champagne and a sense that things hadn’t turned out as badly as she’d feared. Earlier, the day had been a bit of a nightmare, to be honest, because people had started to arrive before she was ready for them, anxious about the forecast of snow. Full of apologies: ‘So sorry, darling! Don’t mind us, we won’t get in the way.’ But wanting to be made comfortable, to be given tea, obviously shocked that the bedrooms were so cold.
They managed to heat the reception rooms downstairs – wood from the estate was free and the ancient boiler just about managed to work down there – but upstairs it was fucking Arctic. That was what Mark said, laughing it off, because the whole lord-of-the-manor thing was still a novelty to him; in her more depressed moments it occurred to Juliet that this stately pile had been a major influence on his proposal of marriage three years before. She could tell, though, that there were times when he thought longingly of his single life, the smart apartment, which he still held on to, on Newcastle’s quayside, his work at the Live Theatre, the easy access to bars and good restaurants. She’d loved Mark so much when they’d married. Now the relationship seemed complex and fraught, and she wasn’t sure how they’d move forward. She thought that somehow, she’d failed him.
When the doorbell went, she excused herself from her guests and made her way into the hall. Dorothy would be up to her ears preparing dinner and her mother Harriet, deep in conversation with Jane, the priest from the village, still seemed to believe that they had staff to respond. Harriet had blossomed after her husband’s death, taken to the solo role of lady of the manor with aplomb and seemed hardly to miss Crispin at all. Away from the fire, the hall felt chill. Juliet thought again about the bedrooms and made a mental note to remind Dorothy about hot-water bottles. Juliet hoped that their city friends might see them, and the electric blankets she’d put on some of the beds, as charming, a part of the country-house experience. Dorothy was brilliant and almost certain to remember, but it was the small details that counted. This was about business more than friendship.
Juliet opened the door and felt a blast of icy air. The snow had stopped and it had started to freeze. There was a moon and the park looked glorious, a fairy-tale setting with the circle of black forest as a backdrop. She had a sudden moment of cold exhilaration, of love for the place. After all, Mark was right: this effort was worthwhile. On the doorstep was a woman. Definitely not a late-arriving friend who’d been forgotten. This woman was large and shabby. She wore wellingtons and a knitted hat. She reminded Juliet of the homeless people she encountered occasionally outside Newcastle Central station, wrapped in threadbare blankets, begging. Then there was a flash of recognition. She remembered a funeral. Her great-uncle Hector’s funeral. Hector, her grandfather’s younger brother, a mythical black sheep of whom stories had been told in whispers when she was growing up. It had been a bleak, rainy day and she’d been surrounded by strangers. She’d been sent along to represent their side of the family, because in death Hector could be forgiven. He would no longer be around to cause trouble.
‘Vera, we weren’t expecting you!’ She realized immediately that she’d let dismay creep into her voice. How rude that must sound! Was it possible that her mother, who was becoming ever more eccentric, had invited the woman without letting Juliet or Mark know? ‘I’m sorry, do come in out of the cold.’
‘Hello, pet.’ Vera came in and stamped her boots on the mat to get rid of the snow. ‘I’m not gatecrashing, honest. I’ve got a bit of a situation.’
‘What sort of a situation?’
‘Well, there’s this.’ Vera looked down and Juliet saw a sleeping child in a car seat. ‘Do you think I could bring it in? It’s freezing out here. It’s asleep at the moment.’ She looked at Juliet as if her opinion mattered.
Juliet felt a tug in the gut. She’d wanted children ever since she could remember, but it hadn’t happened and she was approaching an age when perhaps it never would. Sometimes she couldn’t help an overwhelming feeling of jealousy when children were mentioned. If it’s not mine, I don’t care if it freezes to death. Sometimes a gentler longing, which was just as desperate. ‘Of course, bring him in. Or her. Which is it?’
‘Good point,’ Vera said. ‘I haven’t checked.’
Juliet, who looked at mothers’ forums on the Internet in secret, with shame, as if she were accessing pornography, thought it could be about twelve months old. It might just be walking. Not properly talking. But really what did she know? In the drawing room, she heard the sound of voices, a sudden shrill laugh. It was clear that they weren’t missing her. Mark and Harriet would keep things going. She looked again at the baby and found herself unclipping the straps and lifting it out into her arms. It smelled of fabric softener and baby oil. And poo. ‘I think it needs changing. We might have nappies somewhere. Dorothy, our housekeeper, has a baby.’
Copyright © 2020 by Ann Cleeves