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 9781471311437
Copyright Â© 1999 by 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
This book is dedicated to Robert and Margaret and their splendid herd of Friesian cows who give me so much pleasure as I watch them from my kitchen window, and to Marilyn Liu who made an admirable Detective Inspector Joanna Piercy â just when I needed her most. And, of course, not forgetting Kerith.
Tuesday, July 7th, 6.58 a.m.
A mischievous starling had learnt to mimic the farmer's whistle and lure the cows to the gate. So while he sat on a high branch of the hawthorn tree, his head cocked to one side, beak open, the animals stood, foolishly, waiting to be led to the cowshed.
Milk leaked from their bloated udders and dampened the cracked mud. And impatient for the relief of the milking parlour the cows trampled the dusty clods and jostled for prime position while the starling continued to tease, repeating the call at intervals.
It was a good enough impersonation to fool the cows.
But they were stupid animals anyway.
Ahead of them, air shimmering with buzzing swarms of flies, gaped the empty lane, with its baking cow pats and the hawthorn tree with the taunting starling, its tiny eyes bright with intelligence, trilling its deceitful tune.
A few of them lifted their heads, absorbed the familiar sounds and were vaguely aware that one thing was missing. Perhaps the familiar stamp of farmers' boots?
By seven fifteen the cows were desperate. Full udders are painful and the hormones given to stimulate their milk production meant their udders were filled to bursting point. They widened their stance and bellowed for help. A few at the back of the herd shoved forward, increasing the pressure on the leader so she was forced against the gate. The hasp holding it was old and rusty, the nails pinned into wood weak with damp rot. Under the pressure of the cows, goaded by the cheeky starling, it suddenly broke and swung open. They were free. They could have wandered at will. Without the farmer's switch they could have waddled up the road or down the hill to other pastures. But they were cows, simple animals without imagination or direction. A few of them grazed half-heartedly at the verges yellowing in the summer's heat but the burden of milk was heavy. The instinct to drain their load overcame any sense of liberty. As though the farmer and his dog were behind them they stamped and snorted, flicked their tails against the flies and moved along the dusty track, towards the milking parlour, passing the yawning door of the farmhouse. As they drew level with the house a huge black and white Friesian with a number 79 stamped on her rump lifted her head to stare. But cows are incurious creatures. The open door meant nothing to her. So she bent her head again, swayed her boney hips and walked steadily to the milking parlour.
But once outside the disorganized herd remained there.
They said you could set your clock by him he was so punctual. At precisely ten o'clock every morning Dave Shackleton swung the milk tanker round the tight corner and drove along the lane towards the farm. It was his job to suck the milk out of the tank and drive it to the Milk Marque headquarters. He honked his horn, as he did every morning, to warn the farmer to be ready. He had another collection to make and was anxious to sun himself at home. The job necessitated an early start and he was tired and a touch more impatient than usual. So when no one came to greet him and a couple of the stray cows crowded round his cab he was annoyed, slapping his hand on the horn again. He scanned the entire dusty yard, the cowsheds, the stone farmhouse, even back along the lane. But instead of being met by the farmer, a cow jostled the tanker. In the distance a dog roamed the lane. Puzzled he scanned the chaotic yard and honked his horn for the third time.
It was then that the absence of humans began to trouble him and he started to notice other things. The tractors were still and the ancient Landrover was neatly backed up against the wall. The door to the farmhouse stood open, as usual, but this morning no one appeared in it. Shackleton's hand left the horn and found the cab door handle instead. He threw the door wide open and jumped down, elbowing a path through the needy cows who were pushing towards him desperately, perhaps connecting a human form with deliverance. One or two pushed against him roughly. Shackleton ignored them after a soft, âHay-up.'
Shouting now, he peered first inside the milking parlour, straining for the familiar sight, the thin, bent old man in his dungarees and the square, bovine son who worked so tirelessly alongside him. Maybe even Ruthie.
But it was empty apart from two or three heifers who optimistically stood in their usual stalls. And now a new sound joined the mooing of the cows and the droning of insects. Noah, the old dog, sensing something, was barking and rattling his chain.
Shackleton glanced uneasily towards the house. The door was open. Maybe they had overslept and were finishing their breakfast. He started towards it, already mentally pulling their legs about being lie-a-beds.
But even as he formed the thought he knew he was mistaken. Aaron and Jack Summers
overslept. Like him they were reliable, industrious. In all the years he had been calling at the farm the cows had always been milked every day. This family, for all their strangeness and segregation, were steady people, the three of them, father, daughter and son.
Shackleton scratched his wiry curls and took two reluctant steps towards the open door of the farmhouse.
It was not like them to neglect their herd. Other farmers, maybe, and his head gave an involuntary jerk towards the neighbouring farm. He called out and listened for an answer before resolutely climbing the steps. But even then he didn't walk straight in but knocked and called again only to be met by the same ominous silence. Apprehensively he stepped inside the stifling glass porch before pushing the door wider, shouting as he went.
âHello. Hello there. Aaron. Jack. Hello.'
Later when he recalled it he would remember the shout as a scream. But then there was nothing to warn him except maybe the buzzing flies which had been attracted by the jewelled lights of the porch.
And the scent.
Ahead of him the stout door was also standing ajar. And Shackleton caught a waft of the scent that had attracted the flies. Not toast or tea. Not souring milk or fresh cow dung. All these were part of the background, normal, everyday smells for Hardacre Farm. This was a new smell, sweet and sickly like the scent in a cowshed when the afterbirth had finally been dragged from an exhausted cow.
Nervously he stayed behind the door, letting the sun cook his back as he contrasted the ominous quiet within the house with the noisy jostling of the cows in the yard.
It felt wrong.
Searching for clues he looked at the jumble in the small porch, the waxed jackets hanging up, the pairs of wellies, the double barrelled gun that stood against the three-legged stool. He was certain something was very wrong.
The gun was missing.
The door yawned in front of him. He took one small step forward. This gave him a limited view of the room, dark, still. A heavy, Victorian sideboard, dust. The scent was overpowering now. Dave Shackleton lifted his hand to knock. A month ago he would not have knocked. He would have walked straight in. But something had happened.
It had been in early June, a month ago. He had been desperate to see Ruthie again and had used a parcel handed to him by the postman who resented the long drive to the farm as an excuse to see her. Calling out casually he had walked straight into the sitting room to see three faces staring at him with the blank hostility they would only have given a complete stranger. And for the first time in the fifteen years since he had started calling at Hardacre Farm, a youth of nineteen, he had felt an intruder. He had known then that the family had a secret. And they didn't want him â or anyone else â to know. At first he had felt hurt, then curious while he had stood, awkwardly, on the muddy coconut mat, scanning the three faces: the thin, crusty old man, hands gnarled from years of farming, the simple, honest features of the lad who never quite understood. And Ruthie, her face pale with shock, her eyes dark and deceitful, almost unrecognizable in their hostility. He had been dismayed by her expression and his face burnt. This was not the Ruthie he adored but someone else, someone strange. And she had known it, flushing with awkwardness; but it had been Aaron who spoke in a hostile, gravelly voice. âWhat do you want, Shackleton?'
So this morning Shackleton knocked for a third time.
Matthew was watching her anxiously. âWell, Joanna, what do you think of it?'
He was like a small boy, showing a half-decent report to his parents, trying to ignite some enthusiasm yet knowing, in his heart, that he would receive none.
Joanna slowly moved her head a full 180 degrees to take in the wide sweep of the barren slope with its one redeeming feature, a stream at its base crossed by a stone bridge. At last she turned to look unenthusiastically at the derelict cottage Matthew had wanted to show her.
He dropped his arm around her shoulders and tried again. âBeautiful, isn't it?'
Without speaking she absorbed other details: the breached wall, stones fallen and left; the grey stone, mossy and damp even in the middle of a heatwave; the slates missing from the roof; the sagging gutters; broken, cracked filthy windows, rotting frames. On the hottest day of the year here was a chilling air of damp, decay and neglect.
She turned her head again to look at Matthew. He was giving her an anxious grin, still making the effort to coax her to like it. But her face must have displayed her mood and eventually he gave a wry smile. âLook, I'm not saying it doesn't want a bit of work â¦'
She couldn't resist it. âThat's an understatement.'
âShe was an old lady. Probably hadn't touched it for years.'
She said nothing.
âIt can easily be done up.' He narrowed his eyes as though picturing the industry. âA lick of paint here, the wall rebuilt, new window frames, a stove in the kitchen. Just think of the peace, Joanna. The utter, blissful peace. Please. Don't be a wet blanket.' His green eyes were wide open now and shining with enthusiasm. That same enthusiasm which made him careless with his next statement. âThese places can so easily be done up. You should have seen our old farm before Jane and I attacked it.'
It was an unfortunate remark.
Matthew tried again. âLet's look inside.'
The gate fell off its hinges as they pushed it open. Joanna let it clatter on to the path. It was just another symptom of decay. The key was heavy and old fashioned, the lock almost too stiff to turn the ancient mortice and tenon. It took all Joanna's strength to rotate it and force the door open.
Inside was, if anything, worse. Dark and poky with a musty, damp smell, peeling cream paint, meat hooks ominously embedded in the ceiling. There were mouse droppings and bird droppings, spiders webs and bits of nests. In the corner was a heap of rags, a makeshift bed. Had it recently been home to a tramp? She stood in the centre of the room and sighed. On a day when the sun dazzled outside, indoors was dingy, dull and depressing.
She could not live here. Not even with Matthew. She turned to him and tried to communicate her sense of foreboding. âWhat on earth must this place be like in winter?'
Typically he shrugged. âI know you think it's a bit dismal, Jo.' And his defence was repeated. âBut honestly, as I said, a lick of paint, patch the roof up, put in an Aga and ...' His voice trailed away. At last he had stopped peering round the cottage and was facing her.
âIt needs more than that.' She peeled away a strip of the paint and watched the plaster behind turn to sand and spill on to the floor. The eternal emblem of time running out. âI wouldn't mind if it was a bit of cosmetics but this needs structural gutting. It's a shell.'