Читать онлайн «Winter’s Children: Curl up with this gripping, page-turning mystery as the nights get darker»
How she longed for a cottage down by the village beck, centrally heated, draught free, with lamps lit in the dusk and a good fire. She would soon get her energy back if she had only a small house to heat and clean instead of this barn. Lately she had found herself dosing off in the afternoons over her reading, breathless at the slightest exertion, but now was not the time to moan about her health when there was a young man in his forties, leaving a wife and children to bury him.
The service was mercifully short. She had to admit there was dignity in the old Prayer Book proceedings. It carried the distraught family through the ordeal. Even non-believers could take refuge in its language. Nik stood grim-faced, supporting the widow as the mourners stepped out into the autumn wind and rain towards the burial plot.
She did not want to see the look of incomprehension on Karen’s face as she gripped her sons in anoraks. The farm hand had found Jim in the field with a note thoughtfully pinned to his jacket in a plastic freezer bag. He was a proud man. He wanted to free his children from the curse of being farmer’s sons. This was his only way out, but what a legacy for his poor kids. The mourners gathered awkwardly just as the clouds parted and the sun glinted for a second, bathing the stone walls in a soft pink light.
It was more an afternoon for a ramble across the moor, if only the footpaths were open, than the burial of a young man gone mad with fear of failure. Nora stood silently for the final part of the ceremony, knowing a little of the grief Karen Grimoldby must be feeling. Time was not a great healer. It just took the edge off some of the pain so that you could breathe and carry on. The pain would never go away.
She was not one for small talk. Women had to be brick walls when it came to their children, appearing tough and hard. Family was what mattered most, she believed. If you indulged your unhappiness then it would linger longer. Feelings were best kept under control.
There would be time later to take Karen a plate pie and a tin of flapjack for the twins. When the sympathy letters were answered and the funeral expenses paid in the months to come – when winter held them in its iron fist– that would be the time to bob in and encourage the girl. That was when the chill of grief took its hold on a woman. Karen would be selling up and moving away, and another farm would be broken into lots to be bought as a holiday cottage for some blessed offcomers.
She turned towards the corner of St Oswald’s that would always be her own. All that was once precious to her was buried there. There were just two simple headstones with Latin inscriptions.
‘Nos habebit humus.’ Earth will hold us.
‘Mea filia pulchra.’ My beautiful daughter. Latin was such a dignified language to hide one’s grief in. She didn’t want the world to read her sorrow. It was enough that Father and child were together under the maple, Acer pseudo-platanus ‘Brilliantissimum', that fired each spring.
Farmers were used to death and the cruelty of nature, she mused. The hooded crows pecked out the eyes of newborn lambs if the ewe did not birth quickly enough. Foxes tore the heads off them for fun. Nature separated the weakest and picked them off, but this contagion levelled all in its path. Only the fit would survive the rigours of this coming winter.
Tom had a decent span, Shirley did not. She never talked about it much. What good would it do? There was no point in weeping and wailing and falling apart when there was another child and a farm to run. Sorrows were best kept in the family under lock and key. That’s why offcomers often called Dales folk cold, unfeeling, a subhuman species, impervious to suffering, but Jim’s death and foot-and-mouth showed otherwise. Underneath the weatherbeaten faces assembled on this bleak afternoon were the same fears and sorrows. Farmers had their own ways of dealing with them. Some took to religion or drink. She was the worst of all when it came to bottling things up.
‘Sad business is this, Mrs Snowden,’ whispered Bruce Stickley in her ear, looking every inch the successful country land agent in his navy Crombie coat and knife-edged trousers. She never trusted a man who had time to put his trousers in such a shape. But she nodded quickly and looked away.
Bruce Stickley was quick to strike up conversation these days. ‘It makes you think what’ll be happening next, doesn’t it?’ he continued. ‘Soon there won’t be any farms to manage, if this climate continues. You’ll be the last farm left in the dale.’
Nora shrugged in reply.
‘Don’t look so worried,’ he continued, oblivious to her disinterest. ‘You’ve got one of the most sought-after properties in the Dales with those three magic ingredients.’ He grinned.
‘Go on, surprise me,’ she quipped sharply.
‘Location … location, location,’ he replied. ‘There’s nothing to beat a south aspect, a hilltop view and a splendid array of ancient buildings to create interest in a sale. You’d get a tidy packet for all of it, even in the condition it’s in. If ever you think of selling I hope I’d be your first port of call.’
If she’d been a man she’d have socked him in the bollocks just to wipe that smug expression off his greasy face: odious little man with his slicked-back hair and hooded eyes. He thought he was the bee’s knees, but he was nothing but a blowfly feeding off a carcass. ‘This is hardly the time or place,’ she sniffed haughtily, piercing him with her icy stare.
‘Of course … but I just wanted you to know,’ Stickley countered with about as much sensitivity as a wolf on heat.
‘What gives you the idea we’ll be selling up?’ she snapped back.
‘With Nik having no one to take over, and the change in your circumstances,’ he answered, not so sure of his ground now.
‘I know how it is for hill farmers now. I saw Nik at the diversification lecture. Have you thought about developing the other barns?’
‘What we decide to do is none of your damned business, young man,’ she snapped. ‘Like father, like son, so I see. I knew your father. He always drew a hard bargain, always on the lookout for something cheap or run down. You’ve done well out of other people’s sorrows over the years … We’re here to honour a poor man who couldn’t take any more bad luck, not to do deals over his corpse. Show some respect!’ She turned her back on the estate agent and made for the open grave to throw her handful of soil into the hole. She did not want Bruce Stickley to see that his words had hit home.
So the news was out that they were hovering on the brink of a decision like so many here today. You need only be seen going into the estate agent’s office on market day for nosy parkers to put two and two together to make five. Nik was right: Bruce had an eye on their house for himself. Well, tough, she’d rather sell it at a loss than allow him the deeds.
It was raining in Bradford when the travellers slipped off the M62, and sleeting on the road to Skipton, but the intrepid driver ploughed on northwards along the A65. The snow was settling on the pavements in Settle as they made their way cautiously upwards where the snowflakes floated as thick as goose feathers onto the windscreen.
Trying not to panic, thankful that gritters were already ahead clearing a path, Kay Partridge continued to climb upwards over clanking cattle grids in the dusky light.
‘Are we nearly there?’ said Evie, her daughter, with thumb in mouth, eyeing the snow with fascination.
‘Last lap, muppet,’ she answered, not daring to stop in case they slithered to a halt and found themselves stranded halfway up the hill. The Freelander was stuffed to the gills with bedding, toys, books, the contents of her mother-in-law’s freezer, radio, video, plastic bags full of clothes. There was plenty of ballast.
Within days of deciding to rent a cottage in the half-term break, everything slotted together so neatly that surely this impulsive decision was meant to be?
She plumped for Wintergill House the minute she saw its details on the screen. Perhaps it was the name that caught her attention. It was as close to her dream home as she could find, and she wanted a place for winter. Wintergill looked old, remote and on a hillside. The details were just right. There were three bedrooms and it was part of the old estate, now a working farm. Kay also ran off loads of bumf about the district, just to be sure. It wasn’t far from Bankwell and Gran’s old place, although no one would remember her now. Even the village school had its own website. It was familiar territory, and even if she’d not been back for years, she felt a lightening of her spirit to be back in Yorkshire.
Now they were in another world and the wheels scrunched on pristine snow. It was all very exciting but scary. November was a little early for a blizzard, surely? Soon the lights of Wintergill would shine out like beacons guiding them forward. The weather could close them in for weeks and she wouldn’t care.
‘We’ve made it,’ she sighed, turning to her daughter, but the child had snuggled back under the blanket and gone back to sleep. It was time to stop the car, light up a ciggie and draw a deep breath, blowing the smoke out of the window, ashamed at her weakness but it gave her time to savour the moment. Was this real or was she dreaming? Would she wake up back in Sutton Coldfield, with her mother-in-law bending her ear?
Poor Eunice! She’d swept into Kay’s bedroom without knocking, waving tickets in her hand. ‘I’ve got front seats in the dress circle on Boxing Day … won’t that be fun?’
‘That’s very kind of you but I’m afraid we’ll not be here for Christmas this year,’ Kay whispered. ‘I’ve booked a country cottage away from it all.’
‘Without telling us first?’ Eunice snapped. ‘For how long? I suppose I can exchange them for January.’
‘We’ll be leaving after half term … it’s a six-month winter let,’ Kay said, not wanting to see the horror on Eunice’s face.
‘You can’t be serious … just packing up and leaving us on a whim,’ screamed Eunice. ‘It’s nearly Christmas … What about Evie’s schooling? You can’t just bundle her off like a parcel into the middle of nowhere. Whatever has got into you? After all we’ve done. I think you should speak to your counsellor.’
‘I’ve had it up to here with grief counselling,’ Kay answered. ‘I’ve been sensible, not done anything in a rush. I’ve been ricocheting off the walls like a pinball. You’ve both been more than kind, and we do appreciate all your advice, but it’s nearly a year since Tim died and I can’t go sponging off you both for ever, living in your house. We have to move on, Eunice. I have to pick up my career again.’
‘Nonsense. This is all part of the upset. Poor little Evie, doesn’t she have a say in all this? She’s so looking forward to Christmas. She’s settled in the school now with a trip to the panto arranged. Daddy and I are going to give her a special treat. I know we can’t make it up to her for not having her own daddy here.’ Eunice Partridge’s eyes were brimful of tears and Kay felt a monster for spoiling all her plans.
‘No one can bring Tim back. It’s going to be an awful Christmas for you too, remembering last year and the upset, as you call it. So I’ve decided to do something different. I did wonder about a holiday in Africa, a safari, or Morocco where there’s no Christmas to remind us …’ she suggested.
‘You can’t take a child from her Christmas.’ Eunice was horrified.
‘Christmas is not compulsory, you know. Lots of people escape from it. But then I got a better idea. We can take a country let for a few months and I’ve found something on the internet in Yorkshire.’ She paused, knowing Eunice would not understand.
‘Yorkshire! It’s miles away!’ Eunice spat out the words as if they were rancid.
‘Why not? It was good enough for my mother to be brought up in. The Dales are beautiful. It’s quiet and safe, with friendly people. They’ve been through a bad time. I want to show some solidarity with my kinfolk,’ Kay replied, deciding not to tell them the real reason or the dream that had given her comfort and the courage to make this move.
For months the grief of Tim’s sudden death in that motorway crash on Christmas Eve had lain upon her like a hard frost, nailing down her resolve, leaving her unable to make the slightest decision. Cocooned by his parents, cosseted from reality by their smothering kindness, she had let them organise their lives to suit their own need of Evie. She could hardly breathe for their kindness and fussing. Now was the time to break free or go under before that first anniversary came round.
‘It’s cold and wet up there, and they’ve had foot-and-mouth.’ Eunice sniffed. ‘You should be going up there in summer, not in the middle of winter. What about Evie’s schooling?’ Eunice was not going to give up easily.
‘They do have schools up there too. It’s not exactly Antarctica.’ It was hard to be polite but Kay bit her lip and tried to breathe deeply.
Eunice decided to call in the troops, shouting to her husband, who was cowering in the conservatory under a newspaper. ‘Dennis! Come and hear this. You’ll never believe what Kay is dreaming up for Christmas. How will we manage without Evie? She’s so like Tim, with those grey eyes, his nose.’ The floodgates were opening again but Kay had her arguments well rehearsed.
‘I’m sorry but she’s not Tim. She’s not a substitute for your son. She has to get over his death in her own way. Pretending he’s not dead doesn’t help either.’ It was out in the open at last, the resentment that had been building up for weeks.
‘What do you mean?’ Eunice screeched, going pink in the face.
‘You talk about him as if he is still alive, suspended in midair somewhere, waiting to descend when he’s finished his business trip. Evie thinks he’ll come home for Christmas. She wrote a letter to Santa asking him to send her daddy back. I don’t want her deceived.’ Kay paused. ‘I should have said something ages ago. I know you mean well–’
‘How can you be so cruel? We’ve been trying to protect her. She’s too young to understand about death. It will give her nightmares. She’s only seven.’
‘You’re never too young to learn that death is part of life, that sometimes terrible things can happen. Every time I try to tell her about Tim’s accident, she covers her ears and says he’s gone away to make more pennies. We mustn’t turn him into some plaster saint or pretend he’s just in some other place.’ Kay paused, seeing the look of pain on Eunice’s face, but the truth had to be spoken.
‘We’re only doing what we think best for Evie,’ Eunice muttered uncomprehending.
‘Of course, I know … we all miss him but he was so driven sometimes … I wonder if it was worth it,’ came the weary reply.
‘You wanted for nothing, my girl. He gave you both a good life. He died for his family.’ Eunice’s eyes flashed with accusation as she spoke.
‘If only he hadn’t tried to squeeze too much into his frantic schedule. He was belting down the motorway in bad weather, late as usual for his next meeting, when he should have been spending time with us. He died as he lived– in the fast lane. It’s so unfair, and I just don’t want to be here … on Christmas Eve. Can’t you understand?’ Kay argued.
‘I have to go now before we get sucked into everything.’ There was nothing more to say.
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