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Authors: Kate Riordan

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BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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I breathed out slowly, my own cheeks hot as I realised I had pictured Edward as Tom while I read. I turned the page over quickly and let my eyes skim until another entry stopped my eye. The handwriting was altered: larger and more childlike, many of the letters printed. The pencil had been pressed to the paper very hard.

When I came here before all was well. I was well. I knew she would be a girl and I wrote it here and I was right. Not that he would listen. He is my heir, he would keep saying, though I knew he was wrong. Then she came and
he said it didn't matter and I believed him then, a week ago. He hasn't said it again.

It is so very dark here tonight. The moon comes and goes, and so I write half blind. I didn't dare fetch a lantern; one of the servants would have seen me. There is always one of them creeping about, watching for me to do something I shouldn't, waiting for me to be in a place I shouldn't be. I think I must have managed before, but now it is all so hard to remember. This child has addled my brain, turned it to soup. Since her, I cannot think straight.

Today I could not feed her. They brought her in, but I felt my face turn away. I feel as though black clouds are poised just above my head, heavy, pushing me down. I don't want to eat what they bring me, all of it wet and oversalted, weak beef tea and tepid soups. It makes me sick, though they said I must, for her. They did not say I should eat for myself.

I was afraid when I crossed the Great Mead to come here. Out in the middle of it, the moon went behind a cloud as it does again now, leaving me in the oily dark. I found I could hear everything out there though, acutely and unlike I've ever heard anything—the rustle and click of every creature in the earth under me and, all around, the spun silk of spiders' webs tautening and humming.

I thought I would feel safer here than I do in the house, but it is no good. It is myself I need to escape from, and that is impossible.

The tone of it was strange and melancholy. No, more than that. Anxiety and dread seemed to leach out of every word. It wasn't just the handwriting that was disordered; her thoughts were too.

I didn't like to even think it of Elizabeth, who I now felt like I knew and was therefore protective of, but I wondered if she had been . . . somewhat ill in her mind after her daughter's birth. I put my hand to my stomach. I had been seduced by the idea of Elizabeth from my earliest days in the valley, but it had gone far beyond mere intrigue by now. There was a connection between us—a twisted rope of silken threads stretching back through the years—and this connection didn't exist only in my imagination. I knew that because of the way Mrs. Jelphs looked at me sometimes. She recognised in me something that she had once known in Elizabeth. Then I began to wonder if the words I had just read could somehow be infectious, bringing bad luck upon my own experience of having a baby.

I had heard of women who were no longer themselves in the immediate aftermath of a birth, but I didn't think I had ever known any. An image of my mother came to the front of my mind then, and it was so vivid that it briefly swept away all thoughts of Elizabeth. I had always avoided questioning the difficulties my mother and I had always had in simply getting on. It had always been so complicated with her, as it had never been with my father.

Sometimes I felt she disliked me; sometimes I could justify her behaviour as concern; other times she showed nothing more than indifference. None of this was new to me—indeed, it had been a source of fear and hurt throughout childhood, my skin apparently incapable of growing any thicker until I left school, when I did at last become more able to put it into perspective. What struck me now, for the first time, was the way her mood had been dictated by what she called “the curse.”

My mother regarded her monthly bleed as unhygienic and—perversely—unnatural. In contrast to some of the more sheltered girls I had gone to school with, who were blissfully (or so I thought)
unaware of such things until they got their own monthlies, I had come to dread the onset of mine, so familiar was the sight of my whey-faced mother putting a steadying hand out to the sideboard or the table as a cramp gripped her.

Worse than that, though, were her outbursts in the week before she was due. She was sharp-tongued at the best of times, and my father and I learnt to avoid her then, when she was so spoiling for a fight that the least provocation would set her off, resulting in a bitter torrent of discontentment and regret at her life with us. When I was very young, my father had joked about locking ourselves out of harm's way in his garden shed until her fury abated, but his voice always shook when he said it.

My own “curse,” when it did arrive, was nothing of the sort: not just irregular, but light. I sometimes thought that was because I so fervently wished never to get it at all. Later, I convinced myself it meant I would have trouble conceiving—one of the reasons alarm bells went off in my head so late when I did fall pregnant.

I had no idea if my mother's monthly anger and despondency could have been mirrored—and even amplified—by pregnancy or its aftermath. But it seemed to make sense to me there, in the silence of the summerhouse, the broken diary forgotten for the time being on my lap. Perhaps that had always been our trouble: I had made her ill when I was born, and now I was forever associated in her mind with a bleak chapter in her past. She had done her duty: I had always been fed, clothed, and sent to school in a beautifully sewn uniform, but I wasn't sure she had ever really liked me.

At that bleak thought I began to cry, only stopping when I realised the tears were soaking and rippling the pages of the diary. I sat there for a time, my mind not on Elizabeth for once, but on my own past. Even though my mother had never really been affectionate
towards me, I wished more than anything that she was with me, so I could ask her if she had been brought low after my birth, and if she could forgive me for it.

Eventually I forced myself to get up and put the diary back where I'd originally found it, tucked behind another book on the shelf. As soon I stepped back out into the sunshine, my spirits lifted a little. Back at the kitchen garden, I saw that Mrs. Jelphs had moved on to her beloved roses.

“Oh, good, you're back. I thought you'd be longer.” She turned to look at me properly, and her face fell. “Alice, dear. Whatever's wrong?”

My tears had dried, but perhaps my eyes were red. I rubbed at them and then realised I had pencil marks on my fingers. I must have looked like a grubby child after a tantrum, and the thought made me smile sadly.

“I'm fine now, really. I just had a little cry over nothing.”

I thought she'd smile back and say something comforting and meaningless about pregnancy and its strong emotions, but she continued to stare until I had to look away.

“Has this happened before?” she said finally.

“What, the crying? No. To tell the truth, I just missed my mother for a moment.”

Her face cleared. “Well, of course that's very understandable. You're so far away from your family. You poor girl, I should have known. Listen, this may cheer you up: go and have a look in the small parlour. It completely slipped my mind before, but Thomas left you something to look at, though I don't know why on earth he thinks you would be interested.”

He'd thought of me. Mrs. Jelphs was right; I felt immediately more cheery. I put the diary entry and all thoughts of my mother firmly to the back of my mind.

It was on an occasional table next to the window seat of the small parlour, a battered cardboard box with a lid labelled in black ink by a spiky, rather messy hand: “Thomas Stanton. Form I. Cranmer House.” And then, on one side, in capital letters and ringed falteringly in red ink, touchingly polite and earnest even as it was bossy: “
TOP SECRET. PLEASE KEEP OUT
!”

I lifted the lid, ignoring the warning directed at some long-grown-up schoolboys. It looked a peculiar collection, at first glance. On top were cigarette cards, some rudimentary watercolours that had crinkled as they dried, and a brittle oak leaf. As I lifted the box onto my lap, a loose, solitary marble rolled around at the bottom. They could have been the keepsakes of any boy of eleven or twelve.

I sifted through ink-splotched Latin prep and letters from home—Lady Stanton was not a very expressive mother, by the sound of it—and wondered what he had meant me to find. Then I picked up a dog-eared copy of the
Boy's Own Paper
and a sheaf of photographs fell out, all different sizes, some mounted in cardboard frames. I moved everything over to the sofa, where it was more comfortable.

The first photograph was of the manor, taken from the edge of the formal garden. To me it looked exactly the same as it did now, except that the yew trees were taller. I calculated that if Tom had taken it when he was twelve or so, the image had been captured less than twenty years before, a speck of time for a house like Fiercombe. I turned it over. The writing wasn't his. The
F
of Fiercombe was larger than the rest, and written with a flourish—I would have guessed it was a woman's hand, even if I hadn't known it was Elizabeth's. “Fiercombe Manor, 1893. The day of the picnic,” it read. I traced the words with my finger. I had put her to the back of my mind, but here she was again.

The next pictures were newer and smaller and taken with no sense of composition. Presumably Tom had taken these during a winter in the valley—perhaps the camera had been a Christmas present. The place was transformed, with the beech trees stripped of their leaves and heavy snow blanketing the Great Mead. In childish writing, each letter still carefully formed, he'd diligently labelled each one “Fiercome, 1911,” the missing
b
squashed in later, in lighter ink.

There was one of a lopsided snowman, half a dozen of the manor from different angles—I noticed the yews were much smaller than in the previous picture—and one, taken by someone else, of two boys in mittens and woolly hats with their arms round each other. While Henry's features were different from Tom's—the older boy's nose a shade thinner, his eyes darker and slightly more close-set—the pair were unmistakably brothers. “Me and idiotic Tommy playing in the snow” was scrawled on the back in a new hand. The boy who had written it had lived only a few more years.

The next set, distinguished by being slightly larger, had been taken in summer. All of them featured a lake. I had some dim recollection of Mrs. Jelphs mentioning one when I had first come to Fiercombe, but I had forgotten it until now. There was no sign of it on the estate that I had noticed. Could it have dried up, perhaps? I could see the steep valley walls in the background of some of them, so it couldn't have been somewhere else entirely.

There was what seemed to be a small folly or eye-catcher in four of the pictures. Its oval window was dark in the bright sunlight that seemed to bleach those parts of each image that weren't in the shade. In two of these the lake was still and empty, but in the third, taken from precisely the same angle, a boy now swam. His head was as sleek as a seal's, his arms and face pale in contrast to the dark water. It was the older of the two brothers, perhaps three or
four years on. I turned it over and saw I was right. “The first swim of the summer, 1914,” the caption read. Just before war was declared, I thought. I realised the other, more personal significance a beat later: it must have been taken just before Henry's death.

The next picture showed Tom in the foreground, pulling a face, each of his summer freckles a distinct point in his barely tanned face. Henry had written on the back of this one, too: “Tommy larking about.” I lifted the next one. It showed Henry with another boy, their arms round each other's shoulders as Tom's and Henry's had been in the snowy shots, the stranger drawing back his free arm in a fist as though he was about to punch Henry. From Henry's expression, this was all a huge joke. The other boy was leaner than Henry, with sinewy muscles under his brown skin. “Me and Crawford” was scrawled on the back. A schoolboy friend who had come to stay in the holidays, I presumed.

The last picture had evidently been taken by Crawford and was of the two brothers, their damp heads touching. I thought of an hourglass, the sands running freely, gathering relentlessly in a pile at the bottom; time running out for Henry. I turned back to the first photograph, the one that Elizabeth had written on the back of. Had time also been running short for her, when she'd written that strange entry in her diary?

I looked through the photographs again and then leant back on the cushions to rest my back, trying to piece everything together. I suppose I must have drifted into a light doze, dreaming of Elizabeth as I so often did, but also of the boys and the dark expanse of lake, because the roar of an engine brought me back into my own time. I sat up and yawned, the photographs scattering around me. The sound grew louder until I heard the crunch of loose stones and the squeal of brakes. I tipped everything back into the box and shoved the lid back on.

Before I left the room, I checked my reflection in the mirror over the mantel, and ran my fingers through my hair. My eyes were the green of the beech leaves in the valley when the sun shone through them. I remembered how James had said they changed with my surroundings, but thinking of him no longer hurt as it once had. My mind felt too busy with other things.

Tom was in his shirtsleeves, the collar and two buttons below it open. There were still shadows under his eyes, but I realised they were probably always there. He raised his hand when he saw me, and slammed the door of his little motorcar shut with a bang. To my dismay, my heart had begun to beat harder at the sight of him.

It clearly wasn't quite the proper thing to do, but Mrs. Jelphs decided that Tom and I would eat supper together. I felt like a Victorian governess when she told me in a conspiratorial murmur: too high up the pecking order to eat with the servants, and too low to eat with the family. Like a chaperone from the same era, she left us alone for no more than five minutes at a time but claimed not to be hungry herself. Afterwards, Tom suggested that the three of us repair to the small parlour for an after-dinner drink. He fetched Mrs. Jelphs and me a sherry each and poured out a generous slug of whisky for himself.

BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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