Authors: Priscilla Masters
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data available
This eBook published by AudioGO Ltd, Bath, 2012.
Published by arrangement with the Author
Epub ISBN 9781471311420
Copyright Â© 1999 Priscilla Masters
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
With apologies to the real inhabitants of Spite Hall. I've borrowed the name only, I couldn't resist it, but the entire story comes, as usual, straight from my head!
6 p.m. Sunday, October 25th
She mumbled while she worked, hands lumpy with arthritis selecting the right shade of thread. Pink for the child's skin. She measured a length, snipped it, made it rigid with saliva and concentrated on threading it through the eye of the needle.
Harder for a rich man.
She made her stitches fine, a difficult manoeuvre with such stiff hands but she would manage it. She was determined.
It was an intricate design, the most complicated she had ever attempted. The baby in the centre, lying on its back. Its mother in the background, hands over her face, unable either to witness or stop the event. The soldier with his sword raised, his next move easy to anticipate. Nan had stitched the title beneath, the sentiment originating from Tintoretto though it was not a copy. His painting had been far too detailed. But she had liked the title, thought it apt and had adapted it.
Massacre of the Innocent.
The border was her particular pride, complicated and wide, bearing emblems â a cross, Remembrance Day poppies, a chalice, supplicating hands.
Nan's eyes drooped slightly. Tapestry was tiring, hard on the eyes, and she wasn't so young now. She smiled, half dozing. She had captured all that she had wanted â and more: that implication of piety. She closed her eyes again and dreamed.
Lydia sat back, listened to the wind screaming like a banshee and sighed. It would be wreaking havoc on the hen house roof. She'd spend most of tomorrow nailing the corrugated tin back to the rafters. She too felt tired. It was time to stop; she'd done enough for today, completed her quota. She could take the evening off and listen to the radio. She folded the exercise book and stared out through the blackening window at the silhouettes of trees forced to dance in submission to the storm, only now realizing that from outside she was illuminated. If anyone was out there she could be picked out as though she sat in the centre of a lit stage. The thought made her suddenly apprehensive. She should have closed the curtains earlier.
Two miles away the same thought was flitting through her sister's mind. Nan's eyes had drifted from the work towards her reflection in the darkening glass. She saw herself clearly, unkindly. Marion Elland, the home help, did her work well. The light picked out details on the glass that she would have asked it to spare. Knobbly joints, a stooped back, sparse white hair, her face creased with more than seventy years of living. Worst was the reflection of her expression, her native aggression watered down by fear. The fear of an old lady living alone, the fear of the vulnerable, the fear that someone was outside, watching her. She should have closed the curtains earlier.
Her eyes were caught by a movement outside. Too big for a cat or a dog. Taller, less graceful, white-faced. She tried to stand up â too quickly â and fell back in the chair with a gasp of pain.
She should have been slower, taken her time as Doctor Edmonds was always telling her. âTake your time, Nan. What's there to hurry for?' He didn't know that taking time was the luxury of the young. For her time was running out as fast as the sand in an egg timer. Faster than she knew. Faster even than nature intended. Nature would have allowed her the slow slide towards death. He would not.
She reached for her walking stick, varnished blackthorn, stout and strong. It provided her with some small measure of confidence, a delusion of security. She thought with it she would be able to defend herself.
It was some use; with it she
stand, take the vital couple of steps and reach the window. Sharply she snapped the brocade curtains
together. She did the same to the other two windows, then with a feeling of relief she dropped back in her chair, exhausted by the effort.
Robbed of his view Christian Patterson padded away from the window and crossed the garden towards his front door.
Nan always mumbled while she worked, the habit of a woman who had lived alone for years. Sometimes she uttered bits of well-known poetry, a few bars of songs, acerbic comments to herself about other people or acid rejoinders to the radio commentators. Tonight it was the turn of âThe Lady of Shalott', an old favourite.
And so she weaveth steadily
And little other care hath she
She liked the image it threw out, the picture she longed to portray, of a young, graceful woman, bent over her needlework. Suddenly she looked up, her eyes threatening to flood â more than fifty years too late. And Sir Lancelot? Would he come riding by? She shivered. God forbid. But he would come one day. He would come. And like the Lady of Shalott it would prove her downfall; the mirror would crack.
She bent back over the canvas, stretched across a wooden frame to keep the pattern taut, the stitches neat and even. It was for the church, meant to replace the top of one of the threadbare footstools. People didn't bother about the church nowadays. Folk would interpret the work as they wished. Nan Lawrence's face twisted in angular spite. They would look at it and see one thing, when she knew it represented something quite different. And when she rested her knees on it while she prayed it would be a fitting symbol of her dominance.
What she could not know was that this design, colourful as it was, would soon become even more colourful. Drops of scarlet would rain randomly to alter the picture, but while she would be the one to apply the colour it would not be of her design. And in time the piece of canvas would be studied, but it never would reach the church.
She leaned back to appraise it. It was almost finished. He would be â no â he would not be pleased. But he would be surprised â yes â surprised.
It was an understatement. She felt desperately tired. Her chin dropped. Her mutterings changed to snores.
Joanna Piercy had no such problems. She was wide awake. Replete and mellow with thought, wine and food, she sat back on the sofa listening to some soft pop classics.
The Very Best of Love.
She stretched her arms above her head. âWell,' she challenged Matthew with a sideways grin. âAm I a good cook or not?'
He was still sitting at the table, a half-empty wine glass in his hand. He returned her grin, put his glass down and answered with mock gravity. âNo, not good, Jo,' he said.
She stood up in one swift, graceful movement and moved behind him to fold his head against her. âNot good, Matt? Careful,' she warned.
He tilted his head right back to kiss her full on the mouth. âIt wasn't good,' he said. âIt was wonderful. I'd almost forgotten how well you can cook â when you try.'
âSarcasm', she said, combing her fingers through the thick, honey-coloured hair, âwill cost you dearly. You can load the dishwasher, Matthew Levin, for tucking that spiteful little comment behind a compliment.'
âLater', he said, âI will throw the plates in the dishwasher, not now.'
But she wasn't going to let him off the hook yet. âPromise?'
âI promise,' he said. âBut for now I should really give the chef her just desserts.'
She giggled and pulled him away from the table back towards the sofa. The CD changed tracks.
Matthew glanced up towards the window. âHang on a minute, Jo,' he said, letting go of her hand abruptly. âDon't want the neighbours peeping, do we?'
Joanna giggled again. Relaxing evenings spent with a bottle of good French wine were infrequent and heady. She felt almost drunk with happiness. âWe haven't got any neighbours', she mocked, âexcept Hubert and his sheep. And they won't tell â whatever we get up to. And anyway,' she said recklessly, âwho cares?'
He drew the curtains. âI care,' he said.
She lay with her head in his lap, looking up at him; it was minutes before either of them spoke.
âI am', Matthew sighed, âa lucky and contented man. A very contented man.'
Joanna studied him slowly. During the year since they had moved into the cottage in the moorlands village of Waterfall Matthew had undoubtedly been happy â for most of the time. The final break up of his marriage had seemed the right step for both of them. It was a new phase, this contentment, after the angst and guilt and doubt had evaporated and they were still savouring it. Throughout the summer he had played cricket with renewed vigour every weekend while she had joined her fellow members of the cycling club. They would meet at the end of the day exhausted but happy and hungry. Through the winter they walked together in the Peak District, discovering country pubs and unknown villages â unknown to them as a couple, a whole new Garden of Eden. Through the week they both worked hard; their leisure time together was precious and valued.
She closed her eyes to shut out a rogue thought. âYou don't think saying you're a contented man is tempting the fates?' She was asking the question lightly, dreamily, but they both knew her fear, that contentment was an illusory state. And as though to confirm her fear, the phone rang before Matthew could answer. The destruction of the atmosphere was swift and complete.
Matthew moved first. âLeave it.' Joanna tugged at his arm.
âJo,' Matthew was impatient, âI can't. It might be ...'
She knew who it
be. Who else would disturb an idyllic Sunday night when they were both relaxed. âLeave it,' she said again, sharply. âLet the answerphone ...' But he shook her from him and picked up the phone.
Straightaway she knew her instinct had been right by the way the lines on his face deepened, by the way his hand pushed his hair from his forehead, exposing deep furrows which had not been there seconds ago. Dammit. The little witch must have an instinct for the precise moment of happiness to so utterly destroy it. Joanna put her shoes back on.
might as well load the dishwasher.
Nan Lawrence's rest had been short-lived; a loud thud had disturbed her from her dream. She had been digging, digging into damp soil, preparing the ground for ...
Dig, dig, dig for victory. Dig dig dig for ...
She sat up, startled. She knew what she had been digging for. There was a second thud followed by an ominous, grating sound. And now she knew what it was that had disturbed her.
It was the long-case clock in the corner. Christian had explained to her why it made that noise; there was a fault in the movement. He had even made a joke about it. He had said it was old, stiff, misshapen and arthritic, like her.
Thinking of the clock reminded her of Christian and the lines in Nan Lawrence's face melted with a streak of sentimentality. A vivid picture presented itself of his tanned forearms disappearing into the trunk of the clock while his grin challenged her. Emotions fought for their place: pride, bitterness, fear. Pride that the boy had inherited some of her powerful character. Bitterness because however hard Nan wished he was her true grandson he was not. Fear that the male sex was so much stronger, more aggressive, more cruel than the female, and his youth made him raw and reckless. A rare pang of conscience hit her; maybe, maybe she had influenced the boy too much. Certainly his mother had thought so.
She tried again to concentrate on her sewing but it was impossible now, her eyes were too tired. And now she had a new worry: she couldn't remember whether she had turned the key in the front door or pulled the bolt across. Foolish the way she forgot things these days â important things. But it wasn't safe to leave the door open, she must check.