Authors: Marjorie Eccles
A SPECIES OF
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available
This eBook published by AudioGO Ltd, Bath, 2012.
Published by arrangement with the Author
Epub ISBN 9781471310607
Copyright Â© 1996 by Marjorie Eccles
The Author asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
All rights reserved
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author's imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental
Jacket illustration Â© iStockphoto.com
The house had a bad feeling again.
It was an atmosphere hard to describe. It hung on the air in spider's webs, invisible until you felt it clinging to your face; or it waited for you behind closed doors, and as you entered a room it curled to the ceiling, thick as smoke. It was unclean, like a fog seeping in around the edges of the windowpanes ...
But no, it didn't
come from outside.
It came from the unspoken tensions of the occupants, from within, from emotions and resentments bottled up for years and about to erupt again like some evil genie. It was there in the silences and the covert glances, in the sum of what was known, and remembered.
Patti Ryman is whistling as she pushes her bike to the summit of the hill, ready to deliver her newspapers on Saturday morning.
âA whistling woman and a crowing hen, Will bring the devil from his den,'
her granddad used to say. Patti grins. She isn't scared of the devil because she knows he doesn't exist. It isn't that which makes her hurry to get the deliveries to the two old houses over and done with. First, to Edwina Lodge, with its familiar
notice still in the garden but now with a red
sticker plastered across it, and the
ordered to start on Monday. Having delivered the other papers there, she leaves her bike against the wall near the shrubbery inside the gates, and goes on to the next house, Simla, with the
for Miss Kendrick and
for her brother, being careful not to tear these as they're pushed through the letter-box: Miss Kendrick teaches maths at Patti's school, she'll be her form tutor when the new school year starts in a few days' time, and Patti is more afraid of her than any old devil who may be hanging around. The brother, she's never seen, only heard of, so he doesn't bother her.
No, it's something more than either Miss Kendrick or the devil which causes her to hurry through the dark shrubs and trees surrounding both houses, that makes her want to look back over her shoulder, as if something nasty is lurking in the undergrowth, that starts her heart jumping into her mouth.
She has every cause to be uneasy, though not just now.
She turns with relief into Ellington Close, the cul-de-sac of modern houses separating the two bigger ones, although, for a different reason, she never feels entirely comfortable there, either.
It could have been a surprise to nobody, thought Sarah Wilmot, a few hours later, gazing round the kitchen with disbelief, that the house had remained unsold for so long, and it was typical of her brother-in-law's state of mind that he should have been the sucker to buy it. Though âsucker' wasn't a word that normally sprang to mind to describe Dermot.
Bought it he had, however. As if by taking a new job in a new place, by leaving the bright, modern new-town house and saddling himself with this Victorian monstrosity, by burying himself here in this backwater on the edge of the Black Country, he could make himself sufficiently miserable to forget what had happened. But it was barely three months since Lisa had died, and no one had yet got over the shock, least of all Dermot.
Except, to some extent, the children. Children were resilient. They couldn't sustain misery and grief forever â and who would want them to? Bereft and bewildered at first, they were gradually learning to come to terms with the situation. Playing outside now, oblivious of the sultry heat, discovering the new garden, two brown-haired little girls, Lucy leading as usual, red-cheeked in her excitement, Allie quieter, stopping occasionally to stand and stare, to take it all in. Lucy was all Dermot's daughter, in looks, charm and temperament, at nearly ten, an energetic and confident child. But Allie?
Younger than Lucy by eighteen months, she was a different matter altogether. She'd accepted news of the move meekly, unlike Lucy, who'd kicked up a fuss about leaving her school-friends and Granny and Grandpa, but had soon changed her mind when the idea of a new school and new friends was presented to her, and had then hardly been able to wait until they moved in. With Allie, it was hard to tell.
Now, in some indefinable way, she already looked more at home in the garden than Lucy did, as if she belonged there, standing underneath the pear tree, with the hot breeze of a threatening thunderstorm blowing her cotton dress against her thin, tense body.
The garden was decidedly the nicest thing about Edwina Lodge. Secluded and large, running down into thick, long grass at its end, spiked with foxgloves and overhung with big trees from the small wood beyond. The trees were heavy-leafed and lax with the heat of late summer, the garden overgrown, apart from a small tended area adjacent to the house, but all of a piece: a pear tree simply asking for a swing to hang from it, a broken-down pergola burdened with a rampant rose, tile-edged, blue-brick paths, a vegetable garden. Large enough to grow their own vegetables, said Dermot, airily optimistic, he who'd never done more than push a reluctant lawn mower on Sunday mornings â when he was there â in Milton Keynes. Sarah visualized tidy rows of peas and beans. Courgettes, herbs, lettuces and salad onions. Maybe some rocket...
No chance! The arrangement was that she wouldn't be here any longer than it took to do her duty. Then back to her job in London, and concerts, exhibitions, theatres, shops, sophisticated dinners
Simon. Dark-haired, guardsman-tall, immaculate, urbane. More than comfortably off. Everything a girl could want, in fact. She was very lucky, it went without saying.
She ran a hand through the short swing of thick, sun-streaked brown hair and went back with determination to her lists.
Ominously long, those lists, but it was a matter of principle that she should do as much as she could in the couple of weeks or so she was scheduled to stay: just until the girls had settled into school, getting the house shipshape, and finding for Dermot a housekeeper who would be willing to face up to the horrors of the house and, more specifically, the kitchen. The Aga was the most up-to-date piece of equipment there and was unquestionably prewar, second if not first. Sarah made a face at it, refused to contemplate the geyser over the sink and the pipe-festooned corners, abandoned it and took herself to the drawing room, via the dark and echoing hall which, with its cold, Minton-tiled floor and depressing stained glass, was no better.
Given time, money, know-how â none of which Dermot had â something might be done with the drawing room. The
piÃ¨ce de rÃ©sistance
of âthis valuable part-investment property' as the house agents' blurb had it â the investment being that part of the house already split up into three self-contained flats and which was, theoretically, to finance the whole. Huge and high-ceilinged, with elaborate plasterwork and a heavy, ornate black marble fireplace, the drawing room was solid and handsome, needing little more than a lick of paint and new wallpaper â but Dermot would need to think seriously about new furniture. Lisa's light, pretty things would fit in here no better than Lisa herself would have done. Only too easily could Sarah imagine her sister's reactions to the very idea of living here at all: turning her eyes up comically at the notion of such a place as home, at its size, at the cavernous kitchen and the dark, narrow staircases, of which there were two, plus the ones to the attics and cellars. Death traps, all of them.
And yet, heavily pregnant, tripping over the loose belt of her dressing gown, Lisa had lost her footing on the upper treads of the wide, well-lit, open staircase in their modern house in Milton Keynes, fallen from top to bottom and broken her neck.
Another of those swift, futile moments of pain and anger at the unnecessary waste, the misery of it, touched Sarah with a cold finger. She hugged herself, despite the heat.
A clock somewhere chimed a distant, silvery four. Dermot had been gone three-quarters of an hour, inspecting the flats with Mrs Burgoyne, receiving last-minute instructions. Dermot, a landlord!
âDon't be spiky, Sarah,' he'd said, not appreciative of opposition at any time, particularly not now. âMrs Burgoyne's convinced me the flats are a worthwhile proposition, and very little trouble.'
It had seemed to Sarah, and her parents too, that the whole enterprise was fraught with trouble, and this was one of the reasons why she'd volunteered to help Dermot over the settling-in period â although he might have cause to rethink his good luck, she thought, a quick bubble of laughter sending the shivers packing, given that housekeeping wasn't exactly one of her more conspicuous talents. But if she hadn't volunteered, her mother would certainly have felt compelled to do so, foregoing the cruise which Sarah's father had booked to mark his retirement, and to which they'd looked forward for years. A holiday which her mother so desperately needed, after the shock and heartbreak and subsequent upheaval of Lisa's death.
Sarah's whole warm, generous nature had rebelled at such needless sacrifice, and she'd said, impulsively, âI'll go,' earning both Dermot's and her father's gratitude. And, unfortunately, Simon's disapproval.
âThe whole scheme's preposterous â and what am I going to do without you? In the office, not to mention otherwise?'
Sarah told herself that this apparent self-interest hid his real concern, and the âotherwise' pleased her, but she stuck to her guns, reminding him that Devora Vine had supposedly been trained to take over in an emergency â and had been breathlessly waiting for just such an opportunity to prove she could â though she thought this last better not said, unwise to put thoughts into his head about the crush the Divine Devora had on him.
Simon owned and ran a glossy art and antiques magazine, a rather chichi, expensive quarterly with a small but steady, even growing, circulation. Its success wasn't surprising; he worked hard and was extremely knowledgeable in the field, having grown up with a silver spoon in his mouth, surrounded by the sort of things he wrote about.
She promised to stay no more than a few weeks, until the children were settled into school. They'd only be apart for two or three weekends, four at most.
âOr you could come up here and stay,' she'd suggested.
âI could.' His tone implied that the possibility was remote. As if Lavenstock were Alaska or Australia, and not barely an hour and a half from London by Intercity. âWell, maybe,' he added after some consideration, and she'd chalked up a small victory, seeing the smile he allowed himself. âYou know I can deny you nothing, my lovely.'
An exaggeration, on both counts, that she let pass. She'd been his personal assistant on the magazine for four years, and the possibility of a directorship was in the air, though an association of a different kind was more what he had in mind. Sarah suspected he was using the one as a carrot for the other, to try and make her see the sense of becoming Mrs Simon Asshe. Well, it was time she settled down, everyone thought so, including Sarah. Thirty-five was on the horizon. So why the hesitation?
âI can see you're set on going,' Simon had finally admitted, seeing the predicament and reluctantly conceding the reasons for her offer, âso it's no use my trying to dissuade you. You must do what you have to â only don't make it too long, out there in the sticks. I fear Dermot could only too easily become used to you as an unpaid housekeeper.'
Sarah might have feared this, too, had she not already been well-armed against Dermot's admitted tendency to make use of people, especially his womenfolk: first, of his pretty Irish mother who, being as adept as he was at withdrawing from an unsatisfactory situation and with no intention of being burdened with motherless grandchildren, had circumspectly taken herself off to live permanently in Marbella; and thereafter of Mrs Wilmot, his mother-in-law. He was on the surface easy-going and optimistic, full of good ideas, which other people unfortunately tended to get landed with â though he was generally thought well-meaning and was therefore forgiven, until patience wore thin. He had reason to be grateful to a great many people, though in the end, underneath the lazy, blue-eyed, inherited Celtic charm, Dermot was quite capable of looking after his own affairs. The Voss side of his nature, from his German father, perhaps. When you thought about that, it wasn't really all that astonishing that he'd taken this unprecedented step, made the decision to do it off his own bat, and carried it through all of a rush, against all the opposition. And surely understandable that he should be so devastated by Lisa's untimely end that he could no longer bear to stay in the place where they'd been so happy together.