Authors: Mark Sennen
To the real Charlotte Savage
Table of Contents
The song ends and Mummy and Daddy clap. The candles on the cake flicker in the draught and Mummy tells you to blow them out. You lean forward and purse your lips, your brother moving alongside you to help, and you both puff with all your might. One, two, three, four, five, six. All out. The room plunges into darkness and you feel a sudden fear.
‘Lights on!’ Mummy says and Daddy switches the light on and marches forward, the big knife in his hand, the blade shiny, sharp, ready for cutting.
The big knife lives in the kitchen, stuck to the wall above the cooker by magic. At least that’s what Daddy calls it. The knife winks at you every time you pass by, a flash of light reflecting off the stainless steel, the glare mesmerising. You don’t like being in the kitchen alone with the knife, especially not at night.
Because that’s when the big knife talks to you.
‘I am temptation,’ it says. ‘I am the explorer. I am the light.’
You’ve heard someone else speak like that too, in the cold of the church, but although the words are similar you don’t think they can mean the same thing.
‘OK, so who’s going to have the first piece?’ Daddy says and for a moment you forget about the knife and instead concentrate on Daddy’s words, knowing he is trying to trick you. You mustn’t be greedy, must always be polite; if you aren’t, you’ll get hit. You point to your brother. He smiles and claps his hands.
‘Can I, Daddy, can I?’
‘Of course you can, here, let’s see.’
Daddy takes the knife and rests it on the white icing, using his other hand to push the blade down into the cake. He cuts again and then slides the knife under the cake and withdraws the slice. He stops. Doesn’t give the piece to your brother after all. Daddy frowns. The inside doesn’t look right, the yellow sponge is soft and mushy, not cooked properly. Daddy doesn’t like that. He turns to Mummy and sneers at her.
‘What’s this?’ Daddy’s face reddens. ‘I’m out working all day and you can’t prepare a cake on this, of all days. Our special day. What do you think, boys?’
‘Naughty Mummy, bad Mummy, naughty Mummy, bad Mummy.’ You and your brother start the chant, the chant your Daddy has taught you. You hate singing the words, but if you don’t there’ll be trouble. There’s been a lot of trouble in recent months because Daddy’s changed in some way. You don’t understand why, but you wonder if it’s your fault, something you’ve done.
‘Yes, boys. Naughty Mummy.’
Daddy steps forwards and slaps Mummy in the face. She raises her hands, but it’s too late. The blow catches her and knocks her sideways. Then Daddy has her by the hair. He is dragging her out of the room into the hall, pulling her up the stairs. Mummy is screaming and Daddy is shouting. They are upstairs now, the door to their bedroom slamming shut. You know what’s going on up there because once you peeked through the keyhole. Daddy is doing something to Mummy and she doesn’t like it. Afterwards Daddy will be sorry and Mummy will say everything is going to be alright, but this time you wonder if Mummy’s words will come true because the big knife has gone. Daddy has taken it with him. You wonder how you will be able to cut the cake without it, but then you remember the cake is bad.
Your brother is crying and you tell him to pull himself together. You whisper the words Mummy says about everything being OK, but even as you say them you know they are lies. Parents lie to their children all the time. They tell them things called white lies. But there are other types of lies as well, other colours. You’ve learnt that.
‘It’s OK.’ You repeat the words to your brother as you touch him on the shoulder, but you know something has changed today and nothing is ever going to be OK again.
‘Evening, Charlotte,’ someone says as she climbs from the car. Another person nods. Not a greeting, just a simple recognition that she’s here to share the load. The dirty work.
She walks across the field. Except it isn’t a field, the mud more sludge than earth, pools of water in footprints showing her the way from the gate to the tent. Not a tent for camping. Not sleeping bags to slip into at night, snuggle down, cool air on face, stars above visible through the opening of the tent.
No, there are no stars tonight, only cloud from which rain tumbles in streams, as if from a million hosepipes. There are bags, yes, although these ones are black, the tent white, vertical sides flapping in the breeze, and inside, the light comes not from a weak torch but from halogens. The people here aren’t on holiday, not smiling, not laughing apart from one joke about the weather, the incessant rain. Even then the laughter is nervous, not genuine, as if the banter which preceded the joke was merely to take minds off the task in hand, away from the hole in the ground which the tent covers. But words can’t do that, can’t take her thoughts away from the horror down in the pit where a pump thrums, slurping water up a hose to discharge it a few metres away. A generator chugs somewhere in the background and every now and then the halogens dim for a moment as the engine misses a beat.
She wonders who set this all up, who coordinated everything, who the hell is in charge of this nightmare. But really, those details don’t matter at the moment. The only thing which matters is that she doesn’t throw up, doesn’t cry, that she keeps her mind on the job.
Job, what a laugh. They don’t pay her enough for this; couldn’t. Nothing is worth this. Staring down into the hole, seeing the pitiful sight within, smelling the decomposing flesh, thinking about her own little girl, dead years now. Thinking about her other children too, knowing she loves them more than anything. Knowing nothing can be worse than this for a mother, for a parent, for anyone with an ounce of humanity inside them.
And while the others are talking, making comments, offering suggestions, she’s letting her mind go blank, allowing just one thought through: a promise to the three souls dissolving down there in the mud that she will find who did this. A promise she will do more than just find them.
Bere Ferrers, Devon. Saturday 14th June. 11.20 a.m.
Joanne Black had managed the farm for more than half a dozen years, ever since her husband had run off and left her for a younger model. At first it had been a real struggle, a steep learning curve for a woman who had never even liked gardening and who used to get squeamish if the cat brought in a mouse. Needs must, though, and within a couple of years she was looking after the five hundred acres as if she had been born to the task. Help had come from a neighbouring farmer and from her farmworker and if either had been sceptical at first, they’d never showed it.
Joanne had inherited the farm from an uncle who had no other relatives. At first the plan had been to sell the place and do something with the money, but somewhere down inside Joanne had felt that was wrong. As a child she’d often visited Uncle Johnny. She remembered one occasion when she helped him bottle feed an orphan lamb. ‘He needs you, he does,’ her uncle had said and Joanne felt a warmth in knowing that. Back home her mother said her eyes had sparkled when the lamb nuzzled the bottle and sucked down the milk. Somehow the uncle had seen that sparkle and years later, when writing his will, he’d taken a gamble. Right at the moment she and William, her ex, had been going to consult the land agent about selling the farm, Joanne had changed her mind. Taken a gamble too. Uncle Johnny may have believed Joanne was a long shot, but hell, she was going to see to it his bet paid off.
William’s view was that she’d gone mad. What did they know about farming? Wouldn’t a couple of million in the bank be better than feeding lambs on a cold, frosty January morning?
No, it wouldn’t.
Joanne chuckled to herself now as she opened the post. Bills, yes, but a letter from Tesco confirming a contract to supply them with organic lamb, and two bookings for the holiday cottages. There was also a large cardboard tube. Joanne pulled off the end-caps and extracted a roll of paper which turned out to be a poster. A note slipped out from the tube too and she recognised her brother’s handwriting: ‘Hope you like this, sis. Happy Birthday, love Hal.’ Hal lived in the US and worked for a large software company. Joanne unrolled the poster and gasped when she realised it was an aerial photograph of the entire farm. She had looked at maps on the web where you could load up such an image, but this was much better quality and at poster-size the detail was amazing.
Spreading the picture out on the kitchen table, Joanne spent a good ten minutes examining every last nook and cranny on the farm. As she worked her way down one edge of the poster, where a corner of a field had been left to seed because the combine harvester couldn’t turn in the odd little space, she spotted a strange marking on the ground. She remembered how archaeologists used aerial pictures to find and map the extent of prehistoric monuments and wondered if the markings could be something similar. If it had been in the middle of the field she would have been worried about preservation orders, but this lay in the centre of a useless patch of scrub.
She’d finish her coffee and then head out on the quad bike, see what the ground looked like up close. There might even be something worth finding down there, she thought. Something like buried gold.
Two hours later, and if gold
been buried in the field, then Joanne was wondering whether somebody had got to the treasure before her.
Jody, her farmworker, was manoeuvring the little mini-excavator into position at one end of the patch of earth. The excavator had a bucket claw on the end of an arm, the machine most often in use for digging drainage channels, and now Jody placed the claw above an area of disturbed ground.
Earlier, Joanne had zoomed down to the corner of the field on the quad bike and found the spot easily enough. She was surprised she had never seen it before, since the outline of a rectangle showed where the dock and nettle and seedlings grew at a different density from the rest of the scrub. At one end of the rectangle the seedlings were this year’s, the grass and weeds not so well established. Somebody had dug the muddy earth within the last twelve months or so. It was then she’d decided to get Jody down with the digger.
Joanne nodded at Jody and the mechanical arm creaked as the claw hit the ground, the digger lifting for a moment before the shiny steel blades penetrated the topsoil and Jody scooped up a bucketful of earth, swinging the digger round and dumping the spoil to one side.
Twenty minutes later the hole stood a metre deep and about the same square, and still they could tell they hadn’t reached the bottom of the disturbance. Joanne began to think the exercise was futile, not the best use of Jody’s time nor hers. She looked at the heavy clouds: imminent rain. Time to give up and head for a cup of tea. Even as she thought it, little specks started to fall from the sky. ‘Pittering’ her uncle used to say. Next it would be pattering and then the heavens would open.