Читать онлайн «Winter’s Children: Curl up with this gripping, page-turning mystery as the nights get darker»
He paused to wipe the sweat from his furrowed brow, staring out across the green to the valley below, to the patchwork of grey stone walls rising as far as the eye could see and not a white dot among them. The rooks were cawing down in the churchyard, the curlews had long gone, a flock of redwings were grazing in the distance in the field where his best-in-show tups should have been preparing to service his flock. His eyes filled with tears when he thought of them. They were not just rams, they were old mates, tough proud stock.
How trustingly they had followed his shaken bag of feed nuts as he led them down to their deaths. His ewes were edgy amongst strangers and sheltered their lambs at their side. He had stood with the slaughtermen to the very end, trying to calm their panic on that terrible afternoon when the world was watching the Cup Final indoors, unaware of his terrible betrayal. Like lambs to the bloody slaughter indeed.
It was all in a day’s job for the slaughtermen, but the young vet, new to the job, had the decency to blanch as she grabbed each lamb with her needle. He could hear the bleating panic of his ewes crying, the panic rising as some made a dash for it in vain. And gradually as his flock was destroyed, there was only the silence of a summer’s afternoon, the blaring of the wagon driver’s radio, trying to catch the latest score.
He could see that heap, all he had worked for, piled up lifeless and he’d broken down, unashamed of his grief at such a loss. It was unspeakable the way the diggers scooped up their bodies like woolly rags but he’d seen it through to the end. They were his flock. He had seen each calf born and he must watch them die. It felt like mass murder.
They lambed late in the Dales to avoid the harsh winter and wet spring. It made no odds. How could he have unwittingly nurtured such a disease in his flock? No amount of compensation would ever drive that terrible scene from his mind, or the fact that Bruce Stickley was on the phone minutes after the cull to bid for the valuation of them for compensation.
Nik raised the axe and swung down. It was tempting to give up. The house was a millstone around his neck. His mother was weary. What was the point in all his research, the advice being dished out right, left and centre to the small farmer? ‘Try this, buy that'. Everyone knew there was money in the Dalesmen’s pockets and Nik was wary.
Wintergill had cost him dear; his first youthful marriage had foundered because his town-bred wife, Mandy, couldn’t stomach the loneliness or the harsh winters. Yet he was tied to the place by myriad invisible threads. He was damn near forty-two! Was it too late for life outside the dale? Perhaps he could retrain or retire – and do what?
For God’s sake, this is the only life you’ve ever known, he cried. How do you go on with nobody to follow? Even Jim had taken flight and topped himself, and he had two sons. He had made his own decision. He did not want his children to suffer the burden of being farmer’s sons. It was a terrible solution.
Nik was no longer certain about anything as he looked once more to the beautiful scene before him: how the farm stuck out on a high promontory overlooking the valley and the river snaking through the autumn woods down below; the trees turning into russet and amber and the wind sending storm clouds racing across the darkened sky. The first snows were on their way.
He felt a familiar tingling in the back of his neck. He was not alone.
She was watching him.
Even if he whipped round suddenly he would not see her face, whoever she was, this ancient phantom who wandered over his fields and hid in his copse. There was no comfort in her presence, no benign aura in her haunting. She flitted from lane to wood and moor. Only once had he ever seen her face, years ago, by the Celtic wall when he was young.
‘Bugger off, you old hag!’ he yelled, and swung his axe again in fury.
To be reduced to bagging logs for sale, fixing gaps and repairing machinery – it was no life for a farmer, but it kept his muscles firm and his thighs stretched. He had seen too many of his mates turn to fat in the last few months when reality had kicked in. The bar of the Spread Eagle was a tempting crutch to lean on to sup away sorrows. If he lost his fitness, he would lose what little pride he had left.
Not even his mother knew he could sense stuff with his third eye. It was usually reserved for the female Snowdens to inherit. ‘The eye that sees all and says nowt’ was how his father had once described it. It was not a manly thing to feel spirits up yer backside so he kept quiet about this unwanted gift. If only it had warned him of the danger to his stock.
A movement caught his eye and Nik looked up to see his mother waving from across the gate, calling him inside. What did she want now? He dropped his axe, stretched his back and made for the house. He could do with a coffee and a pipe.
‘What’s it now, Mother? If it’s another rep … put them off again!’ Nik yelled, bending under the lintel of the back kitchen scullery door, unpeeling his waterproofs and muddy boots. His mother was standing in his kitchen with a mug of coffee. She usually kept to the front portion of the old house, looking south onto the garden – he kept to the rear with ready access to the courtyard and outbuildings. He looked at his watch and supposed it was time to set aside farm chores in favour of a scrub and polish, ready for the funeral.
His mother was looking flustered, already dressed in a navy two-piece wool jersey suit. ‘Would you believe it! That was Stickley’s. They’ve got us a winter let for six months … someone from the Midlands saw the house on their website and booked it up on the spot. They’re on their way. Fancy, a winter let out of the blue after all this time.’ She made her way to the ironing board, which always sagged under a mound of creased washing.
‘Honestly, Nik,’ she said, looking around. ‘If you think I’ve got time to do this load … Get your skates on and shift yourself … I hope there’s a decent shirt among this pile. I’m not having you turned out like a crumpled rag, not with half the county coming to see Jim off. Can you bring me in some logs before you shower?’
Nik grunted, banging his boot across the stone-flagged floor, sending the house dog, Muffin, a collie cross, scurrying for cover under the table.
‘Who on earth would want to come up here in this weather? I thought we’d told them to hold back on lets. It’s been empty all summer. It’ll need a good airing.’
‘Don’t look a gift horse, Nik. Be thankful for small mercies after the season we’ve not had. Shift yerself and fill the log basket, turn on the water for me. They’ll not be here until late, and I’ve got Annual Parish Survey meeting tonight so you can let them in when they arrive.’ She paused, looking at him. ‘And no scowling. Be civil.’
Nik was watching his mother glancing around his living room with dismay at the unwashed pots in the sink, the grubby tea towels and the cluttered table, but she buttoned her lip. This was his half of the house and how he organised his affairs was none of her business. Washing up and clearing away was women’s work, he muttered, and he’d no mind to change his old ways. Ever since Mandy left him years ago, this back-to-back living suited them both. The hall door was their own Berlin Wall, dividing north from south, mother from son, chalk from cheese, Mozart from Bach.
Nik could see she was itching to clear up his mess and put the room back to times past when you could lick your porridge from her shining floor, but there was no time for arguments if they were to sort out the Side House and make the service on time. Damn the estate agents for conjuring up this holiday let out of thin air! Perhaps Bruce Stickley had a conscience after all and was trying to make up for that insensitive intrusion.
‘We spend a fortune doing up that barn and now you grumble because it gets let out. After the summer we’ve had, we should thank the Good Lord that we still have this asset left,’ she added.
‘Yes, and look what it cost us!’ Nik thought of the antiques they’d had to sell to fund the project. ‘I don’t like townies cluttering up the place, leaving gates open and asking silly questions.’ He did not want any post mortems with strangers, their pitying glances when they realised what had happened. He had good reason to hate what the summer had done to farmers. Was he not burying one of them that very afternoon?
‘Bruce Stickley gave good advice when he suggested we went for a top-of-the-range conversion: double glazing, central heating. We’ll be getting top whack for the let. It has a view second to none down the valley. There’s no pleasing you, son,’ Nora snapped. ‘It’s the only decent investment we’ve got left apart from the house. If we decide to sell up–’
He did not want to hear another word about selling up. ‘Stickley’s not having the house. Over my dead body! I know what he’s really after; soft-soaping you with a good letting, for once. He’s got his eyes on Wintergill for himself, always has had … He’ll slap planning permission on every bloody barn, shed, nook and cranny, strip the assets and keep the real prize for himself. I know his little tricks.’
Nora knew he was right. ‘Bruce has a point, you know,’ she replied. ‘This place is too big for the two of us. We rattle round like dried peas in a drum. What do we need twenty rooms for? It’s not as if–’ She stopped abruptly. ‘You know what I mean.’
‘Stop that, Mother. Wintergill House has been in this family for generations and I see no reason to change. Snowdens have made a good living from this land. Peaks and troughs, ups and downs, this is just a bad patch but we’ll survive,’ he argued, standing his ground.
‘Do you really think so in this climate, son? Be reasonable. I’m getting too old … I’m the wrong end of seventy and you’re not getting any younger … Who’s going to follow us then?’ She paused for breath, sensing this was not the time for recriminations. There were no other Snowdens left to inherit … ‘Rationalisation is the word on everyone’s tongue,’ she continued. ‘It makes common sense to take the money and run. We’ve got choices now. You haven’t decided on spending anything yet.’
‘That money stays in the bank for restocking and I don’t intend to restock until I’m sure where I’m going,’ Nik argued. ‘I’m not listening to your doom and gloom; I’m off for a quick bath.’
‘What about the logs?’ she shouted up.
‘Later, there’s plenty of time,’ he replied, bounding up the stairs, peeling off his clothes as he went in search of his dark best suit, peering at his outline in the tallboy mirror. He paused to examine his torso: not in bad shape at all, broad shoulders, not much of a beer belly when he stood sideways, strong haunches, muscular legs from years of rugby, and a decent set of tackle in fine working order but underused lately.
He would still make a good tup! If only he had sired a son to pass on the name and the heritage. How could Mother begin to understand how he felt about this house, the farm and its land? The love of it was bred in his bone. Damn it, this was the only thing he had left to love!
Nik dipped his head in the lukewarm water to rinse off the shampoo. If only there was a son to follow him, but he’d left it a bit late now. Oh, Mandy! I thought you were the one … He’d met her at a Young Farmers’ ball in Harrogate. She was a hairdresser out for fun, dancing on fire with gorgeous black hair and a figure to match. It was lust at first sight. She’d been dazzled by the size of the farm, enchanted by the James Herriot setting for a while until the reality of this life dawned. They married in haste, too young and love blind to the fact that their worlds were too far apart to make a lasting relationship work.
Nik shut his eyes to block out the image of her in the barn with her legs coiled round Danny Pighills’ waist as he pumped himself into her. If his gun had been handy he’d have shot them both like vermin. He’d torn them apart and given Danny such a beating. He wasn’t proud of himself but he was drunk, shamed and humiliated. She’d left that night and returned only for her clothes under armed guard. It was all around the district that Nik Snowden couldn’t keep his wife. He was deeply hurt by her rejection of all he held dear. The bitterness he’d felt then had eased to a dull ache of regret. He had not heard from her in years.
Now he was resigned to the single life – once bitten and all that … Occasionally there was a fling with one of the pub crowd but nothing serious. He was never in a sound enough financial position until now to take on another partner, and he was wary. Women were not to be trusted. The world around had changed since his youth, when farmers’ wives knew their place. Now they ganged up together and argued their corner, demanding equal shares in the business and working outside the farmstead just to keep their kids clothed and heeled. In his heart he knew that such women deserved respect but if the truth were told, the confidence of some of those brass-faced lasses scared the pants off him!
Now Jim Grimoldby’s sudden death had shaken his faith in his own judgement. There he had sat, on the same bar stool at the Spread Eagle with his old school mate for years, moaning on about Defra and all the EU regulations, working out plans for their compensation, laughing at Jim’s terrible jokes, playing darts, the occasional game of rugby, while Jim was going through hell.
You never knew what was going on in someone else’s head. That space between the ears is always a lonely place, he thought. Was it just depression at the sight of his sheep culled, too much to drink, or was it utter weariness with the whole damned shooting match that made his friend walk onto the moor with his shotgun and blow his head off? What sort of friend had he been not to recognise such despair? There’d been enough leaflets and confidential phone numbers to ring for counselling but Dalesmen are proud and stubborn – shy of talking to strangers, however well-meaning.
Brian Saddleworth had had a stroke when his stock was taken out, and was selling up. Poor Nigel Danby was in the last stages of lung cancer and in no fit state to carry on. It had been a bad year for the dale farmers on top of foot-and-mouth. So he must stomach this coming intrusion and think about the monthly rental cheque. If his father could see the state things had got to … Tom Snowden once refused even to consider bed and breakfast as a small sideline. Now every farm had a sign at the lane end. That was, until the blanket closure of every footpath, and the walkers all but disappeared.
When he thought how they had slummed it over the years in this cold barn of a house with its winding oak staircase, dark panelling, mullioned windows and ancient furniture. It didn’t seem right to sell off their heirlooms to help fund a project that would have their guests living in a luxury his own mother had never enjoyed.
Old Joss Snowden, Nik’s great-great-grandfather, would be turning in his grave if he knew what he had done. If truth were told, he’d been dipping into the family silver for years, oak settles here, a piece of silver there, topping up his losses. It couldn’t have gone on for much longer. Now there was money coming out of his ears and Stickley was suggesting they sell the place, lock, stock, to some London magnate for a shooting lodge, though even the grouse here were thin on the ground in this grim weather. Who would want to take on this albatross?
Sandringham it wasn’t – more like Wuthering Heights on a bad day – but he loved every wooden nail of it. It was his castle and his domain, his kingdom. There’d been a dwelling here since before recorded history. He was always digging up shards of Roman pottery, Celtic pin brooches, clay pipes and medieval tiles and coins. Nik had quite a collection stashed away somewhere.
The rear of the house went back to the fifteenth century, with its arching roof timbers. Nathaniel Snowden had added to the house in the seventeenth century: sturdy rubble-filled walls and square neat windows befitting the Puritan gentleman. Then his grandson Samuel restored the fortunes of Wintergill with the purchase of enclosed land, rebuilding the house looking south down towards Pendle Hill and the River Ribble. He had sired sixteen children, ten sons to expand his fortunes across the globe.
Then came George and his son, Joss, and his son, Jacob, the teetotal Methodist whose festive spirit was the talk of the dale, who prospered when Victoria was Queen. All of them had built on the strengths of their forebears, all were famous for their hospitality and open house. Grandpa Jo lost three sons with the Yorkshire Light Infantry and Tom, Nik’s own father, had ploughed a straight furrow for the war effort in the forties, seeing some of Wintergill’s most prosperous years.
How could he now be the one to finish them off?
Nora couldn’t settle while Nik was in the bath. She opened up the Side House, put on the heating and brought the linen down from her own airing cupboard. There would be time after the funeral to buy some bread, milk and flowers for the welcome basket. It was such a long time since the last let that she was nervous.
Now she was sifting through her glove box to find a leather pair big enough to hide her gnarled fingers. No one wore hat and gloves much to church, but she believed a woman was undressed without them. She sat at the dressing table stool, staring at her hands.
What a sturdy pair of friends these had been over the years, grasping the hind legs of newly delivered calves, planting vegetables, pickling fruit, plucking feathers, grabbing sheep, soothing sick beasts and children, grasping reins, steering wheels, holding the hands of the dying and whipping up the best sponge cakes in the district.
Now they were gnarled and horny, coarsened by wind and rain, with mottled liver spots, as wrinkled as cooked apple skins. They were long and square with over an octave span: more a man’s hand than a woman’s. No amount of elderflower and lanolin ointment would alter that.
Her dad’s only compliment on her marriage to Tom Snowden over fifty years ago was to look at her hands with pride. ‘You’ll earn your keep with those spades,’ he said. By then any dreams of further education and foreign travel as far from Scar Top as possible were blighted by war and the sense of duty that sent her scurrying back home to do her bit. There was never choice in the matter when Ben Frost, her dad, gave his orders.
As a child she had lived off the moor, boarding in school houses in the town to attend the local girls’ grammar school, matriculating with honours with a place at university a certainty. Then war broke out and it was all ploughs to the furrow, trying to grow arable crops on wet, sodden hilltops. There was no time for regrets when there was a nation to feed.
Where was that nation in the last few years when their produce was bottom of the heap of imported meat? When fleeces lay rolled in the shed and lambs were not worth the slaughter – and as for the poor pig farmers … If only supermarket shoppers would buy British then this terrible disease might not have happened.
Once upon a time it was one sheep, one lamb, one acre but the temptation to intensify had taken over. There was little humanity in farming – not a local abattoir left in the district but a plethora of regulations and directives. Now nature had had the last word. Suddenly her hands started to twitch again as she fingered a silk scarf from the bottom drawer.
Every Christmas for forty years, one new scarf was added to her collection from Tom. He was not one for lavish presents or romantic gestures. They weren’t bred like that in the Dales, but what he bought was always quality and long lasting so she picked out a navy and lilac stripe, not too flashy for a funeral. No one bothered much with full mourning but it was right to make the effort. The old-fashioned symbols were long gone: mourning veils to hide your tears, black armbands, funeral cards and mourning wreaths on the door, curtains closed in respect and hats off as the cort?ge passed. She would wear a hat out of respect and make sure that her son was decently dressed for the occasion.
There was a time when Nik was one of the smartest, handsomest young men in the dale, with his rugged good looks. He reminded her so much of Tom in his prime; the man who stopped her heart with one of his grins and his blue, blue eyes. If Nik’s shoulders were stooped now it was for good reason. Worry was weighing them down. He was fighting a lost cause and she feared trying to hold back the hungry tide. This afternoon he must shoulder his friend’s coffin to an early grave.
Jim’s suicide brought the pain of the collapse of their industry right to their doorstep. There was anger and confusion. If the vicar doled out any platitudes in his service, she
would lynch him personally. She was not on familiar terms with their new vicar, being more a Mother Earth than God the Father believer, but she would attend high days and holy days as neighbours must, to honour the dead and their living. Solidarity was the word they bandied about but actions spoke much louder.
They would bounce down from the tops to the church by the gill, with its stream coursing down the rocks that gave their village its name, and park Land Rovers and pickups where they could. There would be tea and sandwiches in the Spread Eagle, and the women would crack and gossip until it was time for evening milking and farm chores, but there were gaps now to fill in the farm routine. She powdered her red cheeks mapped with red veins. She had not missed doing her own farm chores one iota.
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