Published by Corvus, 3rd May 2018
You can only hide for so long…
Lizzie Bradshaw. A student from the Lake District, forced to work away from home, who witnesses a terrible crime. But who will ultimately pay the price?
Emma Taylor. A mother, a wife, and a woman with a dangerous secret. Can she keep her beloved family safely together?
Stella Taylor. A disaffected teenager, determined to discover what her mother is hiding. But how far will she go to uncover the truth?
And one man, powerful, manipulative and cunning, who controls all their destinies.
It’s as if we’ve stepped into a Constable painting, a bucolic vision of England. There’s a single oak ahead of us in the heart of the valley; the grass is lime-green and the steep sides of the Cotswold escarpment are covered in dense woodland. Even though it’s May, the sky is shale-grey; there’s a brooding mass of clouds on the horizon.
‘We could have parked right there! Why did you make us walk all this way?’ Ava whines.
‘Because you’ll appreciate it even more,’ says Jack.
Stella snorts. ‘Yeah, like anyone but you is going to “appreciate” a mouldering old church.’
‘It’s so creepy. I don’t like it,’ Ava says.
I have to admit, the lowering sky and the dark green of the trees surrounding us make me feel a bit hemmed in.
‘I’ve been bitten!’ she shrieks and jumps about, slapping at her ankles.
‘I did see a horsefly back there,’ I say.
‘It’s probably nothing. Just a scratch,’ says Jack.
‘Let me have a look.’ I turn Ava’s slim calf in my hands.
Sure enough, there’s a large red lump starting to form above her ankle bone.
‘Don’t worry, I’ve got some ointment,’ I say, sliding my backpack off my shoulders.
Stella rolls her eyes.
‘Of course,’ says Jack, ‘your mum is prepared for anything. Break a leg, and she’ll wrap you in her space-blanket while we wait for mountain rescue on speed-dial.’
‘You’re kidding, right?’ says Stella. ‘A space-blanket.’
‘I do have a space-blanket, as it happens. You never know when you might need one . . .’ I rub antihistamine into Ava’s leg and she stops whimpering. ‘It’s so light, it would be stupid not to bring it.’ ‘I told you,’ says Jack.
‘Oh my God, you are insane.’
‘We could use it to fly to the moon,’ says Ava.
‘Jesus, Mum, the Taliban carry those things to stop the US spying on them with thermal cameras,’ says Stella.
‘Multi-purpose,’ murmurs my husband.
I finish putting away my first-aid kit. Ahead of us are a tiny stream and the remains of an old bridge.
‘Look! The people who once owned this place probably swept down here in their coach and horses, right over that bridge and up to the big house,’ I say brightly.
‘Like, that’s even interesting,’ says Stella.
There’s a sign saying the ruined bridge is unsafe. A round, stone ball lies to one side, as if it has tumbled from the crumbling turrets. It’s now half-obscured by long grass. There’s a cowpat next to it. We head to the right; buttery-coloured Cotswold stones poke through the soil.
I start singing ‘Follow the Yellow Brick Road’.
‘Spare me,’ mutters Jack under his breath, striding ahead of us. He’s smiling, though.
Ava joins in with the chorus, and we keep singing and she forgets to moan as the hill curves steeply upwards.
I don’t have my husband’s strength or resilience in the face of concerted opposition: I would never have managed to drag a fourteen-year-old and an eleven-year-old out of the house when they’d much rather be Snapchatting (Stella) or practising ballet (Ava). So I’m pleased Jack’s cheerily ignored any opposition to his plans, as he normally does, even if it means visiting yet another church. We haven’t been to see this one in a while, but sadly there’s no cafe nearby that the girls and I can escape to.
I’m out of breath. I really should lose some weight, I think, as I always do when Jack is marching us up some hill. He’s as fit as a flea. He goes to a posh gym in town and does kettlebells and something called HIIT in his lunch hour.
At the top, there’s a mansion that a family actually lives in, rather than opening it up to the public and allowing the whole world to traipse through the living room to raise money to repair the roof, plus a walled garden with stables and greenhouses that are also off-limits. The church is open but to reach it you have to walk round in a loop and double-back to give the owners a modicum of privacy. I get distracted by a lily pool and stop to take some photos on my phone. It’s surprisingly dark: there’s a thick hedge behind me, and beech trees overhead. I imagine this must have led to the main driveway for the house at one time. I lean over the fence, the metal cold against my stomach, and try and get a water lily to fill the frame in my camera. When I finally manage to take a halfway decent photo, I look up, ready to show Ava.
She’s gone. I can’t hear her or Stella and Jack, either. There’s the faint smell of horses and leather. It’s silent. It appears darker than before. The first spot of rain hits my cheek. I look round, but the narrow path is empty of walkers or my family.
I start jogging and call out, ‘Ava? Stella?’
I still can’t see them. The path grows narrower, the trees tower over me and it’s impossible to see over the hedge. Shrubs encroach. Something snaps across my face, stinging my cheek. I cry out. It’s a branch. I feel as if I’m in a tunnel. I run faster. A black shape explodes out of the bushes and I jump back. It’s a blackbird, disappearing into the wood in a flurry of feathers. I can’t breathe. There’s no sign of them, no sign that anyone else even passed this way.
I start screaming their names, over and over, the names of my family, my loved ones, the people I cannot live without. My heart is beating so hard it’s painful.
I must have missed the turn for the church, because now I’m on a wide driveway flanked by those giant beech trees, last year’s masts crunching beneath my feet, and the house is behind me, the windows shuttered against tourists. There’s still no one else around. No walkers. No one appears at the window. I can’t stop shouting; the silence will choke me. I feel as if my chest is in a giant vice that’s squeezing my ribs. I run to a fence and look down into the valley. There’s a girl on horseback a long way below me. She isn’t even aware that I’m up here, shouting for help. The path twists to the left, away from the fields, and disappears into a dark thicket of laurels. Is that where they are? I’m frozen. I don’t know where to search next, what to do.
And then Jack is running towards me. He puts one hand on my shoulder and looks straight into my eyes.
‘Take it easy. Deep breath. In. We’re all here. We’re safe. Breathe out.’
I see the girls peeking round a trellis draped with pink tea roses. Their faces are white. They’re fine, though, just as Jack said they were.
Once I’ve stopped hyperventilating, Jack folds me in his arms.
‘We were inside the church,’ he murmurs in my ear. ‘You know I’d never let anything happen to them, don’t you?’
I nod, and pull away. Ava comes and flings her arms around my waist.
‘Are you all right, Mum? I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have left you. I thought you saw . . .’
‘It’s okay,’ I say. ‘It’s my fault, not yours. I should have kept up.’