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Authors: Anthea Fraser

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The Seven Stars

BOOK: The Seven Stars
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Copyright © Anthea Fraser 2014

 

The right of Anthea Fraser to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.

 

First published in Great Britain in 1995 by Collins Crime.

 

This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.

 

 

GREEN GROW THE RUSHES-O

 

I’ll sing you one-O!

(
Chorus
) Green grow the rushes-O!

What is your one-O?

One is one and all alone and evermore shall be so.

 

I’ll sing you two-O!

(
Chorus
) Green grow the rushes-O!

What are your two-O?

Two, two, the lily-white Boys, clothed all in green-O,

(
Chorus
) One is one and all alone and evermore shall be so.

 

I’ll sing you three-O!

(
Chorus
) Green grow the rushes-O!

What are your three-O?

Three, three, the Rivals,

(
Chorus
) Two, two, the lily-white Boys, clothed all in green-O,

One is one and all alone and evermore shall be so.

 

Four for the Gospel makers.

Five for the Symbols at your door.

Six for the six proud Walkers.

Seven for the seven Stars in the sky.

Eight for the April Rainers.

Nine for the nine bright Shiners.

Ten for the ten Commandments.

Eleven for the Eleven that went up to Heaven.

Twelve for the twelve Apostles.

 

 

1

 

For the rest of her life, Helen was to wonder whether, if she had turned left instead of right out of the university gates, events would have turned out differently. Had she herself been the catalyst, or was the course already set and her own part in it negligible?

At the time, however, she had no premonition of the far-reaching consequences of her inattention. In the rear-view mirror, Penelope
’s figure grew smaller, disappearing completely as a bend in the drive hid her from sight. That was it, then. The Christmas respite was over, both children had returned to college, and this evening she and Andrew would have the house to themselves.

Not that Christmas had been plain sailing, with the strain of trying to behave naturally. She
’d read there was a sharp increase in family break-ups following the festive season. Too much enforced goodwill, no doubt.

She waited at the gates as an endless stream of cars swooshed past her. She was later than she
’d intended and the murky afternoon was thickening into fog, a hazard she’d not anticipated.

A sudden toot jolted her out of her musings. A motorist was flashing his lights, inviting her to emerge, and she started forward quickly, in her haste turning right towards the town, as they
’d done at lunch-time. The motorway lay in the opposite direction.

She could imagine what Andrew
’s comments would have been, Helen thought grimly as she crawled in line over the viaduct into town. It was a stupid mistake, due entirely to lack of attention, but on reflection no real harm was done.

If she turned right again into the High Street, she should be able to work her way back to the main road.

Then, as she took the turn, she saw the sign for Shillingham. Surely it would be quicker, instead of doubling back, to carry on and join the M4 a couple of junctions nearer London.

She inched her way along the High Street, thronged now as home-going shoppers clogged the road or queued patiently at the bus stops. They
’d be glad to get home on such a night. Would she? Home to Andrew’s moody silences and outbursts of temper? To Pen and Thomas’s empty bedrooms, and the depressing task of stripping their beds?

At the far side of town, a more detailed sign informed her that Shillingham was twenty-seven miles away. Farther than she
’d expected, Helen thought, hoping the fog would clear.

Instead, with the lights of the town behind her, visibility worsened. Fog drifted in from the fields on either side, smudging the headlamps of approaching cars, and she
realised with dismay that far from correcting her error, she had compounded it.

The road was winding in a leisurely fashion through the countryside, adding miles to the already lengthy drive ahead of her. She should have turned back when she had the chance. If she could find a suitable place, she would do so now.

But no suitable place presented itself and the oncoming traffic was continuous, an unending succession of lights that half blinded her. Behind her temples the first, ominous hints of a headache stirred, a reminder that she was both physically and emotionally exhausted. The prospect of struggling through foggy country lanes to the motorway, only to face a further long drive, was suddenly insupportable.

She should have booked a room for the night, rather than attempt the double journey — plus helping Pen to settle in
— in one day.

Another signpost was looming and she narrowed tired eyes to read it.
Marlton
5
,
Shillingham
18
. A wave of relief washed over her; there’d be somewhere in Marlton where she could spend the night.

In fact, she
’d covered only two of those miles when an outline materialised ahead, a building with lights in its windows and an illuminated sign on which, as she drew nearer, she made out the welcome words:
The
Seven
Stars
Guesthouse
.
Bed
and
Breakfast
.

Sending up a little prayer of gratitude, Helen turned off the road and, following the car-park sign, drove down the side of the house to where the narrow lane opened up into a large, gravelled space in front of a huddle of outbuildings. A couple of cars were parked at the far end and she drew in beside them.

Switching off her lights, she picked up her handbag and was about to leave the car when a noise from the house made her pause. A door had been flung open and a figure came running out, skirted what looked like a conservatory, and disappeared round the corner she had just negotiated.

A man
’s voice shouted urgently, ‘Molly! Come back! Molly!’ and was followed almost immediately by the man himself in hot pursuit. At the corner of the house, however, he hesitated. Then, perhaps because the girl was already out of sight, he turned back towards the house and, without glancing at the darkened cars, went in and slammed the door.

Helen got out and looked about her
, shivering in the dank evening. The house was long and sprawling, with a steep gable at each end and the octagonal sun-room or conservatory halfway along. She glanced at the small door through which the figures had emerged. Lights shone behind its glass panes, but she decided against approaching it. Better to use the conventional front entrance.

Diffused light from the house guided her to the corner
, from where she could see the blurred aura of a streetlamp on the main road. Picking her way over the uneven ground, she walked back up the lane to the front of the house.

It was an attractive-looking building in the local stone with the same steep gables as at the rear
, and these were repeated in miniature above single-storey wings that protruded on either side. Helen walked between them to the arched front door and rang the bell.

Several minutes passed
, and she was about to ring again when the door opened and a tall, red-haired woman of about her own age stood looking at her. Helen said, ‘Could I possibly have a room for the night? The fog’s thickening and I don’t fancy the drive home. You are open, aren’t you?’ The woman smiled. ‘To benighted travellers, always. Come in.’

Helen stepped into the welcoming warmth and gave an exclamation of pleasure.

The hall was large and inviting. Old beams crisscrossed the ceiling, a huge fire blazed in an open hearth, and in the far corner a couple of men stood drinking at a small bar. They turned curiously to glance at her.

Helen followed her hostess to a small office on the right of the hall.
‘I’ve no luggage, I’m afraid. I wasn’t intending to be away overnight.’


I’m sure we can rustle up something. I’m one of the proprietors, Stella Cain; my sister and I run this place, helped sporadically by our husbands.’


Helen Campbell.’

Mrs Cain lifted a large registrations book on to the desk
, opened it at the current page and turned it to face Helen. ‘If you’d like to fill in your name, address and car number, I’ll sort some things out for you.’ She bent to open a cupboard. ‘I keep a stock of toothbrushes, razors and so on; you’d be surprised how often people forget to bring them.’


Are you open all year?’ Helen asked, looking up from the register.


Not officially, but at the moment we have two residents, whom you saw just now. Mr Pike works in Steeple Bayliss and stays with us Mondays to Thursdays, and Mr Saxton is living here while his house is being converted. Which takes care of our single rooms, but we have a twin and a double free. Actually, you’re better off in the twin; it has a proper bathroom
en
suite
, while the singles have only shower rooms.’


A long, hot bath would be bliss,’ Helen admitted.


Fine. And I presume you’ll want an evening meal?’


You do provide it, then?’ The sign had said bed and breakfast and she’d been wondering if she could beg a sandwich.


Normally, only if it’s ordered at breakfast, but one more won’t make any difference. We eat at seven.’

An hour and a half to relax
, Helen thought gratefully. ‘Is there a pay phone? I must let my husband know where I am.’


Yes, it’s under the stairs.’ Mrs Cain handed her a plastic-wrapped toothbrush and a carton of toothpaste. ‘I’ve a comb if you need it.’


No thanks, I have one in my bag, and some basic make-up. I’ll manage.’

They crossed the hall
, from which the men had now disappeared, and started up the shallow staircase. ‘How old is the house?’ Helen asked.


Late seventeenth century. It was a coaching inn for many years, then evolved into a pub.’

Helen glanced back at the gracious hall.
‘It certainly doesn’t look like one now!’


No, we’ve restored the original layout. It wasn’t too difficult; a ramshackle division had been put in to separate the public bar and saloon, with the bar itself in the middle. We just pulled the lot out and put a small bar-unit discreetly in the corner, as you saw.’

They had reached the top of the stairs. The landing had a decided slope
, and the thick blue carpet failed to muffle the creaking boards beneath it. There was a curtained window at each end, beneath which stood small rosewood tables bearing identical arrangements of dried flowers. Mrs Cain turned to the left and, walking the length of the corridor, opened the door at the far end.


This is at the back of the house,’ she said, drawing the curtains. ‘It’ll be nice and quiet for you. Let me know if there’s anything else you need.’

Left alone
, Helen looked interestedly about her. The room was charming, its cream walls adorned with old prints, its curtains and matching bedspreads spattered with poppies on a cream background. The plain red carpet was the same luxurious thickness as that on the landing, the furniture attractive in pale wood. A kettle and other tea-making equipment stood invitingly on a shelf.

She pulled the curtain aside and looked out of the window. Beneath her
, indistinct in the foggy darkness, lay the gravel courtyard and the blurred humps of the cars. The door through which the girl had run must be directly below her. Idly, Helen wondered what had prompted her flight.

She let the curtain fall and stood uncertainly for a moment. It felt strange having no luggage to unpack
, nothing to make the room more personal. Still, a bath would restore her.

She went to the bathroom and turned on the taps
, grateful to find a towelling robe on the back of the door. After her bath, she’d wrap herself in it and lie down for a while. Andrew wasn’t expecting her for an hour or more yet; time enough to phone him when she went down for dinner. Undressing quickly, she stepped into the bath and sank under the steaming water.

*

When, shortly before seven, Helen came downstairs, the hall was deserted. Bracing herself, she turned into the short passage which housed the pay phone and her heart began its familiar pounding as she dialled her home number.


Yes?’ Andrew’s voice, typically curt and impatient.


It’s me,’ she said. ‘I’m afraid I shan’t be able to get home this evening. It’s foggy up here, so I’m staying overnight.’


Oh, really, Helen! Couldn’t you have left earlier?’


I’m sorry, I didn’t realise the time. There’s some cold chicken in the fridge, and—’


When
will
you be home?’ he interrupted, as though she were being deliberately difficult.


About lunch-time, I should think.’ She paused. ‘Is it foggy there?’


No, clear as a bell.’

It would be.
‘Well, I’ll see you tomorrow then.’ She paused and when he made no comment, added, ‘Goodbye.’


Goodbye,’ he said, and put down the phone. Slowly Helen did the same, waiting for her heartbeat to return to normal. She emerged from the passage and paused, wondering where to go. Suddenly, a voice spoke near at hand, making her jump. It came from behind a half-open door just beside her, in apparent reply to some comment.


Well, dammit, I thought she’d gone. God knows how much she heard.’

Hastily
, in case she too should be thought to be eavesdropping, Helen walked over to the fireplace, her mind returning to her problems.

Something would have to be done
, she thought wearily, gazing into the heart of the flames; they couldn’t go on like this. Despite her valiant efforts over Christmas, the children had not been deceived. Several times, for no reason, Penelope had caught and squeezed her hand, and once Thomas said diffidently, ‘Is everything all right, Mum?’

She reminded herself that they weren
’t really children anymore; perhaps she should be more frank with them. But that would be disloyal to Andrew. She must speak to him first, and her heart quailed at the prospect.

BOOK: The Seven Stars
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