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Authors: Kate Riordan

Fiercombe Manor

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DEDICATION

For my four parents

EPIGRAPH

              
I met a lady in the meads,

                     
Full beautiful—a faery's child,

              
Her hair was long, her foot was light,

                     
And her eyes were wild.

                            
—John Keats, “La Belle Dame sans Merci”

CONTENTS

Dedication

Epigraph

Prologue: Alice

[1] Alice

[2] Elizabeth

[3] Alice

[4] Elizabeth

[5] Alice

[6] Elizabeth

[7] Alice

[8] Elizabeth

[9] Alice

[10] Elizabeth

[11] Alice

[12] Elizabeth

[13] Alice

[14] Elizabeth

[15] Alice

[16] Elizabeth

[17] Alice

[18] Alice

[19] Elizabeth

Epilogue: Alice

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Also by Kate Riordan

Credits

Copyright

About the Publisher

P
ROLOGUE

ALICE

M
IDSUMMER
, 1936

F
iercombe is a place of secrets. They fret amongst the uppermost branches of the beech trees and brood at the cold bottom of the stream that cleaves the valley in two. The past has seeped into the soil here like spilt blood. If you listen closely enough, you can almost hear what's gone before, particularly on the stillest days. Sometimes the very air seems to hum with anticipation. At other times it's as though a collective breath has been drawn in and held. It waits, or so it seems to me.

The word
combe
means “valley” in some of England's southwesterly counties, but the roots of
fier
are more obscure. At first I thought it was a reference to a past inferno, or perhaps a hint of one to come. It seemed just the sort of place that would dramatically burn to the ground one night; I could imagine too easily the glow of it from the escarpment high above, smoke staining the air, and the spit and pop of ancient, husk-dry timbers as the flames licked faster. But I was quite wrong: in Old English it means “wooded
hill,” aptly describing the dense and disorderly ranks of hanging beech that leer and loom as you descend steeply towards the old manor house.

Things you would never accept in everyday life—strange happenings, presences, and atmospheres, inexplicable lurches of time—are commonplace at Fiercombe. They have become commonplace to me. I have never grown accustomed to the darkness of night here, though. The blackness is total, like a suffocating blanket that steals over you the instant the light is turned out. When open eyes have nothing to focus on, no bar of light under the door, no chink of moonshine through heavy curtains, they strain to catch sight of something, anything. During those early nights here, my eyes would flick from where I knew the windows were to the door and back, until exhaustion turned the walls to a liquid that rose up at me in oily waves.

Like those of a blind person, my other senses grew quickly acute for the lack of visual distraction. Even in the dead of night, when the house finally slept, I was convinced I could hear it breathe, somewhere at the very edges of my hearing, beneath the whisperings and scratchings I thought I could discern. Even in the day, when nothing looked out of the ordinary, I would still find my skin prickling with the vibrations of the place, something instinctive and animal in me knowing that things had been knocked out of balance here, that something had gone awry.

I have been here a little over three years now, since the late spring of 1933. When I arrived from London, I was not quite six months pregnant by a man I wasn't married to. A man married to someone else. If it hadn't been for him and my own foolishness, and the subsequent horror and shame of my parents, then I would never have come to Fiercombe at all. What a strange thought that is now, after all that has happened.

When I think back to the time before I came here, it feels like someone else's life, read in a book. It's difficult for me to recapture how I truly felt about things then; how I went about my normal routine of working, the evening meal with my parents, going to the lido or the pictures with my friend Dora and daydreaming about the man I thought I was in love with. I see now that I wasn't very grown-up.

I came just as spring was softening and deepening into languid summer. It was a beautiful summer—more beautiful than any I've known before or since—though I was still glad to put it behind me when autumn finally arrived. Too glad, perhaps. There were rifts in the valley that remained unhealed as the leaves began to turn, but I was too busy forging my own new beginning to acknowledge them. The signs and clues were there; I simply chose not to heed them. I have let three years of contented life in the present chase away the unresolved past, just as the morning sun does the nightmare. Today's confession has changed all that, and I can no longer turn away. They deserve better. They always did.

[1] ALICE

F
OUR YEARS EARLIER

I
n the summer of 1932 I had never heard of a place called Fiercombe. I was still living an ordinary sort of life then. A life that someone else, looking in, would have probably thought rather dull. That was certainly how I viewed it, though I was reluctant to admit that at the time, even to myself. After all, admitting it also meant facing the probability that nothing more interesting awaited me.

It wasn't until after I left school that I began to feel a creeping sort of restlessness. I had a full scholarship to the local grammar, and I had liked it there—not just for the solace of its rituals and order but for its pervading sense of purposeful preparation. Preparation for what was to come after: the tantalising, unknowable future. What shape that would take, I had no idea. Much of its allure lay in its very amorphousness, the vague sense of expectation that edges closest on those perfect summer evenings England never seems to have enough of. Evenings gilded with twilight, the perfumed air brimming with promise. Yet the mornings after those evenings always seemed to go on in the normal way—the world shrunk to a familiar room again, consoling but uninspiring, the walls near enough to touch.

Quite suddenly, or so it felt, school was long behind me and I was a woman of twenty-two. Still nothing of any note had happened to me. I remained at home with my parents, I had a job that I could have done perfectly adequately in my sleep, and there was no sense that whatever I had blithely expected to come along and lift me clear of the mundane was any nearer. If anything, it seemed to have retreated.

My mother was no less frustrated by my lack of progress—though for rather different reasons. I was a good-looking girl, she told me somewhat grudgingly, so why did I never mention any gentlemen friends? Why was I not engaged, or even courting? After the milestone of my twenty-second birthday passed, she aired these anxieties with ever-increasing frequency, her expression at once baleful and triumphant.

Triumphant, I suppose, because she had never really wanted me to go to the grammar, believing that girls with too many brains were fatally unattractive to prospective husbands. Though the shortage of men after the war was the crisis of an older generation, there lingered a sense of urgency for unmarried girls, at least in my mother's mind. She also professed not to see the point of school beyond the legal leaving age of fourteen. Anything after that was for boys and girls with plain faces, she said. After all, no woman could keep her job after her wedding anyway.

For the time being, my own job—one I knew I was fortunate to have, when so many had no work—contributed to the household budget, one aspect of it even my mother couldn't criticise. Each morning I took a bus south to Finsbury Park, where I caught the Piccadilly line to Russell Square. Just off the square itself was the office where I was the junior of two typists to a Mr. Marshall, a minor publisher of weighty academic books. I had a smart suit I had saved to buy rather than make, and two handbags, between
which I transferred the gold-plated compact my aunt had bought me one Christmas.

On my first day I had felt rather sophisticated as I walked to the bus stop, the pinch of my new court shoes a grown-up and therefore pleasurable kind of discomfort. A few years on from that hopeful morning, I still occasionally felt a vestige of that early pride—it was just that sometimes, particularly during the afternoons, so quiet I could hear the ponderous tick of the clock mounted on the wall, I couldn't help wondering when my life—my real life—would begin.

I had never had any sort of serious attachment to a man. Perhaps the closest I'd come was a boy at school who I let kiss me a few times. At the grammar, some of the lessons were mixed, and David was in my French class. He thought he was in love with me during the last summer we spent there, and during those drowsy afternoons, when the high windows were opened and the smell of cut grass made us long for the bell, he would stare at me across the classroom. His gaze made my skin tingle warmly, and made me conscious of how I sat, how my hair was arranged, and what facial expression I wore. But the truth of it was not love, nor probably even lust. What I liked was the way he felt about me, and I'm sure he was more in love with the sudden intensity of his feelings than he was with the girl in the next row.

Now many of my friends—David Gardiner too, in all likelihood—were married or engaged, or at the very least courting, and yet I had failed to meet anyone. Dora, who was forever trying to persuade me out to meet a friend of whichever man she was currently interested in, teased me gently for being so fussy. My mother, being my mother, was rather more direct.

“You'll be left on the shelf if you don't get a move on,” she said one Saturday, when I had been made to accompany her shopping on our local high street in a north London suburb. “I've said it
before and no doubt I'll say it again, but if you spent less time reading and more time out and about in the fresh air or going to dances, you'd give yourself a better chance.”

I remember we were in the chemist's shop, which was hushed except for my mother's voice and the bell that trilled whenever the door opened. The air smelt of floral talc and carbolic soap, and faintly bitter from the medicines and tonics that were measured and weighed out of sight.

We had an argument then—about lipstick, of all the ridiculous things: she wanted me to buy a brighter shade than I could imagine myself wearing. That led to other topics of discord, and by the time we were walking home, past the new café that had just opened opposite Woolworth's, we had returned to the subject of my job and her conviction that I would never meet anyone if I remained in it.

BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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