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Authors: Kate Riordan

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BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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“Write and tell us how you find it,” she said. “You know I won't be able to come until you're ready to have it, don't you? We can't possibly afford the expense of a visit before then.”

I tried to think about how things would be for me beyond the labour and the giving away of the baby in London's anonymous heart, but found I couldn't. It seemed as remote to me as hearing about something that would happen to someone else, many years from now.

Once we reached Paddington, I insisted that my father not wait for the train to leave. He had barely said a word to me on the journey from home, and I didn't think I could bear the tension between us a moment longer. The panic that for weeks had risen inside me whenever I thought about going away, nasty spurts of fear that only sleep could temporarily quell, had actually eased a little now I was on my way. I knew I would feel better still once I was alone.

“Please don't wait,” I said again, when he seemed reluctant to move. “It won't go for almost half an hour yet.”

“Well, if you're sure,” he said, and looked at me properly for the first time in weeks.

I looked down because I thought I would cry if I didn't. My father had always made me feel quietly adored, and I didn't seem to have entirely ruined that. He pulled me towards him briefly and then patted me awkwardly on the back.

“Take good care of yourself, won't you?” he said, and when I looked up from searching in my handbag for a handkerchief, he had done as I asked, just as he always had, and vanished into the melee of the station concourse.

My hand was trembling as I pulled the door of the second-class carriage shut behind me and took a seat. After what seemed like an age, the whistle blew, the last door slammed, and the train started to move off down the platform. I had unthinkingly chosen a seat facing backwards, and as we picked up speed and pulled away from the station's grimy bulk, I experienced the unnerving sensation of watching my hitherto life recede into nothing.

As we gathered speed across the metal tangle of tracks that erupted out of Paddington, I reflected on how strange it felt to be making a journey I had last made as a little girl. My mother had grown up just five miles north of the valley that shields Fiercombe Manor from the rest of the world, and so this was a journey she had done many more times than I, clattering back towards the easy green fields of her girlhood.

She had left for London to work in service when she was sixteen. My father, a groundsman she met a few years later, was a Londoner who didn't understand the appeal of the open countryside. On the contrary, he had found the silence and emptiness oppressive on his sole visit to meet my mother's family. It was too dark to sleep, he said, and never went again.

By the time I was born—a good way into the marriage—a pattern was already established: my mother visited Painswick once each summer, while my father stayed at home. In my earliest years I went along with her, but at some point that changed, my mother deciding there was no sense in taking a child on a long, stuffy train journey. After that I went to my father's sister in Archway instead.

My own memories of Gloucestershire soon narrowed to a few crystalline images: my grandmother's dresser with its ranks of Blue Willow pattern plates; a morning when I was allowed to eat slice after slice of buttered toast because my mother wasn't there to say I was greedy; being wrenched through a late-summer field by a dog that was stronger than me. After I had stopped going, my Gloucestershire relatives seemed content enough with a new studio photograph of me every so often. There was apparently no thought of them coming to London. After my grandparents died within months of each other when I was ten, we seemed to lose touch with the rest of them altogether. Now I was returning, though I could never have predicted the reason for it.

The first leg of the journey passed quickly. I was hungry—I was always hungry by then—and so I made my way to the buffet car and treated myself to a round of ham sandwiches, which I washed down with lemonade. I hadn't experienced any strange cravings, only the urge to eat lots of red meat and anything sugary. My mother had a sweet tooth and bought herself a weekly quarter of pear drops, but I wasn't usually very partial. Now, however, I drank down the tall glass bottle of lemonade like water and went back to the counter to buy an iced bun. The man who took my money nodded his approval.

“I like to see a lady enjoy her food,” he said.

I smiled but put a defensive arm across my stomach, though I knew I didn't show much in my new coat.

I changed trains at Swindon, and though it was hardly the countryside, I fancied the air smelt different from the fresh-cut grass smell of London's parks. It was earthier, with a hint of fresh manure that I found I quite liked. The branch line train was rickety and slow, stopping so regularly that it never gathered any real pace. Unlike the deep cuttings of brick the Victorians built to bury
London's railway tracks under the terraces above, here we trundled through on high, the rails snaking along the ridges of lush valleys.

Finally we came to a jerky standstill at Stonehouse, where I'd been told to get off. The small platform soon cleared of people, with no one left looking for me, so I made my way out to the front of the station. A single battered van idled there, its driver sound asleep, and a couple of boys were sitting on the curb next to their bicycles, which they had flung down carelessly.

I was just wondering what on earth I was to do when a clopping sound made the boys look up. I followed their gaze. A horse pulling an open carriage was approaching in unhurried fashion. Holding the reins was a weather-beaten man wearing a flat cap low over his forehead. As he turned into the station forecourt, I realised with a start that he had come for me. The boys, also realising this, grinned over in my direction. I wondered bewilderedly what else awaited me.

The driver introduced himself simply as “Ruck” before swinging my case into the footwell and helping me up onto the narrow seat. Behind us the carriage's seats were covered in sacking and strewn with an assortment of tools, but it would have been quite grand when it was new.

We processed silently through a series of small villages, the iron-shod hooves of the horse muffled by the earth road. The honey-coloured hamlets, where the cottages invariably cleaved towards an exquisite church, were even more picturesque than postcards and packets of fudge had given me to imagine—and much more so than I had noticed as a tiny girl. After Paddington's tired terraces, grubby streets, and draughty terminus it was almost obscenely pretty.

I knew nothing of the local topography then, still accustomed as I was to an orderly kind of nature, bound within the tidy perimeters
of London's sprawling suburbs; the bright squares of lawn and plump hedges tended by office men after hours. I found out later that these villages, so sturdily set amongst the lanes and luxuriant pastures, are in fact balanced on a narrow ridge that runs between two deep valleys. This upthrust of land marks the place where the Vale of Berkeley meets the Cotswold escarpment. Beneath the rich loamy soil two distinctly different types of bedrock have been fused together, evidence of some ancient geological cataclysm of which there is no sign on the surface.

About an hour passed before we began our descent into the narrower and deeper of the two valleys, the very last of the Cotswolds' combes to the west. As the land fell away, I reached for the handle of my case to stop it tumbling off into the dirt, and braced my knees against the front of the carriage. My other arm lay protectively across my lap. I saw Ruck's eyes flicker over me as I moved, and I wondered if there was a smirk on his weather-cracked lips.

“Won't be long now,” he said, his voice loud in air that had grown stiller yet. “Though you won't find a deeper bottom in these parts.”

I blushed at these last words, feeling foolish for doing so. Later I discovered that he wasn't really making fun of me—that
bottom
, like
combe
, is a local word for valley. Or perhaps he was being sly, knowing that I would be ignorant about such things then, and ill at ease in a strange place.

As we descended deeper, the light changed, turning ever more green and fractured as we passed beneath the thickening canopy of leaves.

“What trees are these?” I said a little shakily, to prove I wasn't bothered by the previous comment. He looked right at me then, and despite the diminished light, I could see the broken veins that fanned out across his cheeks from his nose.

“Beeches they is,” he said gruffly. “There's bluebells here in spring, acres of 'em spread out through the trees as far as the eye can see. Like a carpet, they says. Folk come to look at 'em, folk from Stroud, sometime Chelt'nham. You've missed 'em this year though. You're not too late for the glowworms though. You'll see them come dusk in July, if you look hard enough. Some summers bring 'undreds of 'em to the loneliest corners of the Great Mead.”

I gripped the seat with my hand as we hit a deep rut in the lane, gritting my teeth as I imagined the baby being jostled about dangerously. Perhaps that would be no bad thing; I could go home to London if . . . I forced my mind away from the thought and glanced over at Ruck to see if he'd noticed my discomfort. Perhaps he had, because the pace did slow a little.

“There's not many that comes this way,” he said as he pulled on the reins. “It's the one public road in the valley, but it's hard to find. There's folk who've lived round here all their lives what don't know about it or else don't bother with it. Too easy to get lost. Too many tracks off to the side that don't lead nowhere.

“O' course in the winter it's impassable. Or, rather, you can get down it easy enough—if it's icy, you'll be down in the Great Mead wrong way up before you knows it—but you won't get out again. In high summer it cracks like a dried-up riverbed. Times in between it floods. Once you're down there, you stays.”

“Don't the family mind it?” I said. “It must be terribly inconvenient.”

I heard my voice like a stranger's in the unmoving air, and it sounded shrill and affected. I felt the heat rise again on my cheeks.

“The Stantons? They's grow'd used to it, I s'pose,” he said. “Or the maister has. Sir Charles. He were born to living in the country. Lady Stanton don't like it much, her think it too quiet. It's she what makes sure they're overseas most of the year now.”

“They don't spend the summers here?”

Ruck shook his head. “Hardly the winters neither. It's France they goes to.” He drew out the
a
in France to a long “ahh.”

“Apart from a couple o' days last Christmas, they haven't been back for nearly two year now. Down south to the French resorts they goes. Her was promised that by the maister; that when the younger boy were grown they didn't have to spend another summer here.”

“But why? I'm sure the winters can be hard, but the summers must be glorious.”

He shook his head again. “Her can't abide 'em since . . . well, there were a bad summer here. Since then her's got notions about things. Sleeps bad. Flits around, she does, with this look on her face. The melan-cholic, they calls it. O' course some of us are kept too busy to have it.”

He laughed then, a dry, creaking sound that made me shudder slightly, though it was harmless enough. By the time he'd recovered, we were approaching a fork in the lane, no doubt one of the many that deceived the unwary.

“I'll take you the slow way down to the manor,” he said, his gruff manner resumed. “You'll get a good look at it then.”

He pulled the horse off to the left, onto a path that was yet more pitted and overhung with beeches, their lowest limbs pressing in towards us as though they hadn't been cut back in a long time. It seemed as though dusk had already fallen under those heavy boughs, the light leached out of the day, although my wristwatch told me it was only half past two. I tapped the small circle of glass, and the long hand jumped as though it had stopped some minutes back.

Instead of the steep path that had been leading us directly down towards the valley floor, we now seemed to be weaving our
way down a gently looping course. I allowed my legs to relax but kept hold of my case, as the turns were sharp. The trees to our right soon grew sparser, the sunlight breaking through bravely to light up the brambles and tinge the ferns sepia.

“Keep your eye out,” said Ruck. “Any second now you'll see 'er to your left.”

Slowing the horse as we turned another corner, he gestured off to the left, where the trees were thinner still. I sat up straighter as I caught the first glimpse, a flash of soft, sunlit gold amongst the dun-coloured bark of the beeches.

“Is that it?” I said softly, as if speaking too loud would make it disappear altogether.

“That's the manor,” he replied, as triumphant as if it were his own. “You'll get a better look if you hang on there. Keep looking now.”

He was right. At the next bend the trees had been cleared, presumably deliberately, to reveal and frame a three-gabled house made of the same stone as the cottages high up on the ridge. After the dim light of the wood it seemed even more golden than those more modest dwellings, its stone warmed by sunrays that had managed to reach over the steep valley walls and drench it.

The manor, I realised, was not very large. It made some of the grander houses I'd seen on postcards seem overblown by comparison. The glowering woods encroaching upon its north side made it look smaller still, a noble house in miniature. I was glad of this: where the wild valley was intimidating, the manor, reposing quietly in the sunshine, seemed welcoming.

Ruck looked over at me, and I realised he wanted some kind of response.

“It's a beautiful house,” I said truthfully. “Much more beautiful than many of the more famous houses.”

He seemed satisfied with that. “It's older than most of 'em too,” he said as we negotiated another hairpin bend in the road. “The gables were all built separate, you know. There's two hundred year between the eastern and western ends.”

BOOK: Fiercombe Manor
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