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Authors: Sheila Radley

A Talent For Destruction

BOOK: A Talent For Destruction
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Contents
Sheila Radley
A Talent for Destruction
Sheila Radley

Sheila Radley was born and brought up in rural Northamptonshire, one of the fortunate means-tested generation whose further education was free. She went from her village school via high school to London University, where she read history.

She served for nine years as an education officer in the Women's Royal Air Force, then worked variously as a teacher, a clerk in a shoe factory, a civil servant and in advertising. In the 1960s she opted out of conventional work and joined her partner in running a Norfolk village store and post office, where she began writing fiction in her spare time. Her first books, written as Hester Rowan, were three romantic novels; she then took to crime, and wrote ten crime novels as Sheila Radley.

Canon Law of the Church of England, C.26.2

Part 1 – this winter
Chapter One

The children had never seen so much snow.

It began just in time for the start of the Christmas holidays, falling so lightly at first that it did no more than tickle their upturned faces as they ran out of school, tantalizing them with the possibility of a different world of play: snowballing in the streets, building snowmen in the gardens, tobogganing in Castle Meadow, even sliding on the ice if the Mere froze over. But although the darkening sky looked full of it, and the air tasted cold and thick and still, the first fall of snow was hesitant. From the gates of the primary school, built in the expansive 1960s on the outskirts of Breckham Market, the children looked out across ploughed fields and saw with disappointment that the snow had done no more than dust the dark earth, like caster sugar sprinkled on Christmas pudding.

But that evening the wind rose, the snow beat down in a blizzard, and next morning the town – the whole of East Anglia – woke to pale empty skies and silence. Roads and paths and gardens were obliterated, houses were huddled under thick white thatch, every telegraph and electricity line supported a narrow wall of snow. Cars that had been left outside overnight were transformed into mobile igloos. In the centre of the small town the parish church of St Botolph, standing high on the top of Market Hill, pinnacled and battlemented and soaringly Perpendicular, had been softened and rounded into lines that made it seem almost Baroque.

The children were overjoyed. They bounced outside; wellingtonbooted and plumped up with extra woollens and scarves, to do battle, or more peaceably to roll giant snowballs. Down by the slow black river, Castle Meadow – the site of a minor twelfth-century fortification whose grassed-over ruins no archaeologist had ever found time to excavate – provided useful slopes for toboggans improvised from melamine trays and plastic fertilizer sacks. Some children hastily amended their Christmas present lists to include proper toboggans. All of them crossed their fingers in the hope that the snow would stay at least until the end of the holidays.

And the snow did stay, for weeks, bonded to the surfaces where it had fallen by exceptionally severe frosts. Ice covered the surface of the Mere to a depth of several inches, and made roads and paths hazardous. It was the hardest winter for eighteen years, a particularly difficult time for the old and infirm, for those who had to travel to work, and for farmers with livestock out in the fields.

It was a cruel winter for wild creatures, too. Emboldened by hunger, everything that flew or ran or crawled began to draw near human habitation. Mallard ducks, dispossessed from the Mere by the ice, besieged the executive houses on Mere Road. Small birds braved cats in order to snatch crumbs thrown from back doors. Backyard hens were nudged from their feeding troughs by families of rats. A fox was seen in broad daylight, scavenging round the dustbins at the back of the golf club. Only the carrion crows lived well, gorging themselves on the carcases of whatever succumbed to hunger and cold.

But for the children, the weather remained a delight. The start of the school term was an unwelcome intrusion upon their activities, because it seemed impossible that the freeze could last until the half-term holiday. Those who had managed to acquire proper toboggans felt a particular sense of frustration as they looked out of their classroom windows and saw all that snow going to waste.

One of the chief mourners was Justin Muttock, aged ten. His grandfather, a carpenter by trade, had made him a toboggan for Christmas, and he had shared the rides with his friend Adrian Orris. Adrian was a little older and a little taller, the leader in all their ploys until now, and so Justin had a double reason for wanting the snow to remain: the unaccustomed power of patronage, generously bestowed or capriciously withheld, was as sweet to him as the swish of snow under the runners and the rush of cold air against his face.

To his disappointment, a slow thaw began in mid-February. The sky lightened; the sun offered to shine. Trees became black rather than white, and the deceptively soft-looking paws of snow that had for weeks pressed down the branches of garden conifers, threatening to break them, gave up and slid limply off. Walls and roofs began to emerge, like buildings partially excavated from a bed of white lava. Justin's front-garden snowman still retained its hard-packed dignity, but the white carpet it had stood on was beginning to look threadbare. Patches of deep snow lingered in places, but Castle Meadow was on a south-facing slope and the boys'hopes receded with the strengthening of the sun. Most of the other open spaces in or near the town were too flat for tobogganing.

And then, on the first day of the half-term holiday, he remembered Parson's Close.

‘Bet there's still enough snow there!' he told Adrian. ‘There's a good slope, and big old trees at the top so the sun can't shine through.'

‘We can't go to Parson's Close,' said his friend. ‘You know what that man said he'd do if he caught us there again.'

‘That was last summer – he won't be there in this weather, stupid! Anyway, we only want to use the toboggan. We can't get wrong for doing that.'

‘We might if the Rector sees us,' objected Adrian. It was not a possibility that really worried him, but Justin's idea was a good one and because it was not his own he wanted to diminish it.

But six weeks of uncontested leadership had heightened Justin's estimation of himself by several inches. ‘He won't see us, not from his house. I'm going anyway, even if you're not.'

Anonymous in their dark green parkas, the boys hurried through the streets one behind the other, carrying the toboggan so as not to scrape its runners on the bare patches of pavement that had begun to appear through the gritty slush. The sky was a cool clear blue, and the town smelled of wet wood. Melting snow dripped on to pedestrians from the timber-framed overhangs of the old shops in the Shambles, and trickled down the gutters of Market Hill.

The boys stopped for a breather under the great tower of the church, then shifted their grip and set off again, leaving the shopping streets and turning right past a no-through-road sign on to less well-trodden, whiter slush; along the quietness of St Botolph Street, beside the flint wall that bordered first the churchyard, then the extensive gardens of the Rectory. On the opposite side of the road was a survival oddly rural so near the centre of the town: a high chestnut-paling fence, overhung by bare-branched trees. In the middle of the fencing was a five-barred gate, with a meadow beyond. The painted word PRIVATE on the top bar was faded, but still clearly visible.

The boys ignored the gate, and continued along the cul-de-sac. Across the end of it was a hedge, with a gap in the middle opening on to a footpath that sloped down through some allotment gardens. As they drew level with the place where the roadway ended and the fence formed a right angle with the hedge, the boys took a swift glance round to make sure that they were not being watched, tugged two loose palings aside and pushed their way through the fence into Parson's Close.

As Justin had predicted, here was untrodden snow. The meadow faced north, sloping down from St Botolph Street towards the by-pass, and the snow was best at the top, where a row of mature copper beech trees cut off most of the sun. At the bottom of the meadow, where bramble bushes sprawled beside the ditch that separated Parson's Close from the grass verge of the by-pass, the snow had almost gone; but there was still enough of it to make a longer toboggan run than Castle Meadow had ever offered.

It proved to be hard work. The snow was powdery stuff, crusted on top, and at first the toboggan simply sank in. But the boys persevered, and by the end of the morning their solo runs had almost reached the bottom of the meadow.

Their last ride before they went home in search of dinner was made together. Justin sat in front. Adrian gave him a running push and jumped on behind. The extra weight added to their momentum and they slid nearly the full length of the meadow, bumping and jolting and cheering until the toboggan finally hit a tussock of grass and overturned, tumbling them out almost in the bushes.

They lay for some minutes where they had fallen, sprawled on a thin cushion of snow, gasping and laughing and throwing weak punches at each other, and kicking their legs in the air.

BOOK: A Talent For Destruction
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