Authors: Catriona McPherson
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #General
Catriona McPherson was born in the village of Queensferry in south-east Scotland in 1965 and educated at Edinburgh University. She divides her time between Scotland and California.
First published in Great Britain in 2008
by Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © 2008 Catriona McPherson
The right of Catriona McPherson to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
Ebook ISBN 978 1 4447 4053 0
Paperback ISBN 978 0 340 93535 4
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
For my mother-in-law, Nan McRoberts,
Twelve black horses spanned the ring, nodding and snorting, six to either side, with their master a splash of blood red and ink black at the centre where the whip kept cracking. Just beyond its reach, the Risley man lay back on his trestle bench, knees working like pistons and satin straining across his thighs as he threw the little girls in their tutus up into the air and caught them again. The girls flashed their eyes and snapped their arms at each cymbal crash, each landing. The clowns, in their spots and stripes and checks, racing along on the ring fence, held high the paper hoops, and the grey horse cantering hard around the edge ducked its head as the girl on its back leapt clear, broke through and landed again, her powdered feet curling on to her horse’s broad rump, her arms floating outwards as gently as her feathers, her smile serene. The spangled figure high in the dome swung and spun, plummeting downwards as the coils around her body unfurled, her toes pointed, the arch of her neck elegant and the tilt of her chin as delicate as a child’s.
Where to look first? What to feel? Not for nothing was this called The Spectacular, where every sight and sound conspired to overwhelm the senses, excite children beyond any hope of sleep that night, pluck the grown-ups out of their slouches and back to clamorous wonder, enrapture all and keep them saucer-eyed and thrumming.
Look closer though and the bones were revealed. Nothing wasted, nothing left unseen. While the spangled girl spun and every eye marvelled at her, the bare-back rider stood square and let her feathers stream. When the rider leapt, the clowns skipped along the ring fence to their spotlit marks. While the clowns tumbled and turned their clumsy cartwheels, the little girls waited, moving only to keep their balance true. When the girls rolled and flipped, the horses trotted quietly on until, at another crack of the whip, they reared up, kicking out their hooves, and every eye was drawn to them, no one looking at the spangled girl as she climbed with steady grip and slowly coiled the rope around herself again.
Twice a year, for a week or so, for half an hour each day, it is easy to feel glad to be in Perthshire. Between one morning and the next, when spring is unfurling, the beech walk between the edge of the park and the cottages becomes a sort of hushed nave where the sunlit green of new leaves against the filigree can lift the hearts and calm the minds of all who pass along it. And then again, when summer gives its first sigh and begins gently to sink into autumn, one day the green will turn to gold and the breeze will shake a few golden shingles free, sending them spiralling downwards and letting the sunshine dazzle through the pinprick holes in the canopy, so that one wants to stand in the dappling light and raise one’s face to heaven, feeling the leaves brush past as they fall.
Today was not one of those days. A particularly gusty November had seen off the last leaf weeks ago and now the bare branches, black and slick, offered no shelter but instead only organised the raindrops into larger servings, the better to soak Bunty and me as we plodded underneath.
For all the murk and chill, though, I had been eager to set out on our walk this morning. My husband, over breakfast, had been waxing political again.
‘Our days are numbered,’ he had begun, from behind
, after a hefty sigh.
‘Everyone’s days are numbered,’ I replied, hoping to offend him with my frivolity and avoid an out-and-out conversation.
‘Well, you laugh while you can,’ said Hugh, bending his newspaper down to look at me, ‘but mark my words, we won’t survive this, not this time. It will be upon us before we know what’s hit us and we will all be swept away.’ Hugh could find in the most blameless little
leader sure signs of revolution blowing in like a ice-storm from the east and engulfing Perthshire. ‘Lenin—’ he went on, but I nipped it in the bud, for when he got as far as Lenin there was no stopping him.
‘—is dead,’ I said.
‘—has more people coming to visit his tomb every month, it says here,’ said Hugh, ignoring me.
‘Why not stick to the national news at breakfast?’ I suggested. ‘I’m sure Russian politics can’t be good for one’s digestion.’
‘Irish Free State.’
‘Or the book pages.’ I was getting desperate.
Hugh gave a bark of very dry laughter.
‘The book pages!’ he snorted. ‘That Kafka fella has a new thing out, worse than the last. The book pages, Dandy, are far from the oasis of comfort they used to be.’
‘But hasn’t Mr Wodehouse just published again?’ I asked.
‘He has indeed,’ said Hugh, with an air of triumph for which I could not account until he went on: ‘and has fled our shores and gone to live in France. Must know something the rest of us haven’t heard yet.’
I could not help the sudden leap of hope in my breast.
‘Well, as to living in France—’ I began, trying to sound casual. Once again, Hugh interrupted me.
‘Never!’ he thundered. ‘If we are going down, then down we shall go, fighting to the last.’ With that, remembering that the coming revolution would provide scope for valour and glory as well as an end to life as we knew it, he took a satisfied bite of his toast and folded the newspaper to the sporting news.
Plotching rain, leaden skies and Bunty’s listless snuffling in the mats of leaves (she knew that all the little creatures were burrowed away for the winter) were welcome notes of cheer after that. I trudged on, inwardly counting my blessings as Nanny Palmer’s early training had left me all but unable not to do. Peace was still on the list even seven years after the armistice that put it there but it was beginning to lose its place to the everyday: stout shoes, warm clothes, a solid roof awaiting my return, hot coffee – chocolate even, if I asked for it – and health and strength and … I willed my thoughts towards less depressingly wholesome blessings … a new sable-tipped evening wrap, Christmas coming but no family visits coming with it and, next week, Rudolf Valentino at the Cinerama.
As I lifted my head, clicked my teeth at Bunty and quickened my pace for home, I caught sight of a little group of rather bedraggled strangers crossing the lane ahead of me, as though sent by Nanny Palmer’s ghost to remind me that simple comforts were not to be sniffed at, not when many a decent-born family was reduced to tramping around for work and shelter. I peered after them, wondering where they had come from and where they were bound; our lane is not accustomed to much traffic. A tall thin father, a far from thin mother, a biggish child and a tiny one, I thought, and then I blinked. The father had stooped to pass under the lowest branch of a beech tree, a branch to which I could not have reached my fingers if on tiptoe, the tiny child had spoken with the voice of a man, the bigger child was smoking a pipe, and the ‘mother’ was lumbering along with the heavy tread of a …
? A giant, a smoking child, a midget and a
? Beside me, Bunty growled. I caught her muzzle in my hand and held her head against my hip until they were gone and I could step quietly away.
My maid was still in my bedroom when I returned. I am sure she would have described herself as bent upon some essential task without whose execution my wardrobe would fall to mothy dust but really she was only cooing over my newest clothes like any miser with his gold, scattering a little lavender, pinning lace to tissue-paper, rolling a cashmere jersey around one of her little ticking bolsters as reverently as though the jersey were gold leaf and the bolster destined to lie beneath a mummy’s head in a Pharaoh’s tomb for all eternity. Grant really was born fifty years too late: stuffed bustles, whalebone and ten layers of starched petticoats would have soaked up a great deal more of her talent than my array.
‘Filthy morning still,’ I greeted her. I am quite an old hand at Scotch greetings after all these years.
‘You’ll not be going out again, madam,’ Grant informed me, ‘so I’ve laid out your pale blue wool and indoor shoes.’ I sighed. The way she forced me into carpet slippers and whisked away my walking shoes the minute I was in the door always gave me a trapped feeling, even on a day as unappealing as this. My friend, Alec Osborne, was wont to say ‘Ah, house-arrest!’ whenever he put his head around my sitting-room door in the morning and saw me with my feet in little bags of felt with threaded ribbon. Besides, the blue wool get-up made me feel like an overgrown baby in a romping-suit. Thinking of which, I considered how to broach the subject in hand without sounding peculiar and making Grant stare.
‘Have there been any visitors today?’ I asked her. ‘Downstairs, I mean. I thought I saw strangers in the lane.’
‘Mr Pallister doesn’t allow visitors in the morning, madam,’ said Grant. ‘Mrs Tilling was speaking of it only the other day again. She had the fish man in for a cup of tea and a slice of her fruitcake and Mr Pallister walked through the kitchen four and five times with a face on him like—’ Grant caught herself just in time and I was sorry. She has a talent for rather cutting physical description and I had never heard her thoughts on Pallister in a temper. ‘But as Mrs Tilling said, you have to keep in with the fish man or who knows what he might not palm off on us, stuck here away at the end of his round as we are, and it’s not her fault he fetches up before dinnertime, is it?’
‘No, quite, quite,’ I agreed. I had never suspected before that the price of an occasional turbot along with the herring might be the compromising of Mrs Tilling’s honour in Pallister’s eyes. ‘But I didn’t mean visitors exactly. I suppose I meant tinkers. Knife-menders? Gypsies with pegs to sell?’
‘Oh no, madam,’ said Grant. ‘John Bailey does all our knives every May and the gypsies – our gypsies, that is: the McRortys – are long gone back to Ireland until the spring. Mrs McRorty was expecting another baby and she’s always happier if the babies are born in Ireland. Mind you, Margaret was born right here at Gilverton, two years ago at midsummer, because they could hardly interrupt themselves at their busiest time and …’
I marvelled to myself as she continued supplying unwanted and unheard details. To me, gypsies and tinkers are undifferentiated, welcome and useful of course, but really just part of the landscape with their ponies and wagons and black cooking pots over fires. It had never occurred to me that the camps I glimpsed now and then every summertime were
gypsies and that
gypsies had a name and a history known to all, that gypsies no less than fish men had their rounds.