Do you know that feeling when you walk into a house and you’re instantly absolutely sure that it’s empty? That no one is there. Even if someone should be.
That’s how it was the day it happened. The day my life, my nice comfortable ordinary life, changed for ever.
I’d recently gone back to teaching, just one day a week, every Thursday, at Okehampton College, our nearest community school. I liked to keep busy when my husband Robert was away working. Not that looking after our home and our son wasn’t quite enough most of the time.
This was a Thursday. The 3rd of November 2011. After work I’d gone to the supermarket. We grew most of our own vegetables at home and this was a mild and gentle autumn, so we still had lettuces in the ground along with leeks, carrots and young Brussels sprouts. Our spinach would keep going through the winter, and we had potatoes and apples in store. I’d intended just to shop for more of the things a good mother should try to feed a growing teenager, like fish, chicken and wholemeal bread. But I’d also picked up several of my son’s favourite pizzas, a rich chocolate cake and a block of clotted-cream ice cream. I could never resist spoiling Robbie.
I’d been the same ever since he was born. After all, I’d thought I was going to lose him and I knew almost straight away I would never have another child.
Robbie, named after his Scottish father, Robert, and always known by the Gaelic abbreviation, was fifteen years old, tall, black-haired, pale-skinned, and beautiful. Just like his dad. At least I thought he was beautiful. I thought they were both beautiful.
He’d just begun his mock GCSEs, and I’d left him at home in his room studying. His school believed in making the mocks as much like the real thing as possible. They suspended the usual syllabus and allowed students to work in the library, or at home if they were day pupils, when they didn’t have exams.
Robbie was a quiet studious boy. A little too quiet and studious some might think. He’d led a pretty sheltered life really. His father in particular had seen to that. But Robbie always seemed content enough. He did have his swimming, at which he excelled. He swam for his school and the county. And so far we’d not experienced with him the teenage nightmares so many other families seemed to have to deal with.
The traffic was heavy on the road heading home. We lived in an isolated old farmhouse with an acre or so of land on the edge of Dartmoor. Our nearest village, Blackstone, was almost eight miles away. It was not the pretty chocolate-box kind of moorland village which attracted tourists in the summer. Indeed, it was rather a bleak place. A string of ill-assorted housing – a couple of quite grand thatched places, several rows of small cottages, a line of 1930s pebble-dashed semis and a smattering of modern bungalows – ran along a single narrow road up one side of a hill and down the other. But it was quiet and peaceful and we liked it.
Highrise Farm could also be bleak in the winter. Even more so than the village. But by God, it was splendid. On this orange early evening, at the end of what had been an unseasonably sunny day, I was eager to get back home before darkness fell. Although there was a winterish nip in the air, threatening a frost that night, the sky was clear and glorious.
It was the location, of course, and the house itself, dating back to the seventeenth century and retaining many original features, which made the place so special. But our home was, quite frankly, gorgeous in every way. The kitchen and the bathrooms had all been stylishly refurbished by my husband Robert, who worked pretty much non-stop on Highrise when he was at home.
He was in the oil industry and spent far too much of his time away on the rigs. But we both agreed that it was worth it. He was a senior drilling engineer employed by Amaco Limited UK. It was an important and challenging job, and Robert talked to me a lot about the responsibilities and the stress of the post he held. He was involved in the most advanced aspects of the extraction of oil from the North Sea, and the generous salary he received for both his expertise and somewhat antisocial working arrangements enabled us to enjoy an excellent lifestyle.
When he was on leave he said that nothing gave him greater joy than working on our home. ‘All I want to do, Marion, is to create a personal paradise for my family,’ he often said. ‘It just makes me so happy.’
He had even, virtually single-handed, built a long, narrow swimming pool so that Robbie, who we at any rate believed to be potentially an international swimmer, could train at home.
Robert loved our garden, which was mostly laid to shrubs and lawn so it wouldn’t need too much attention when he was away. But the vegetable patch and greenhouse, his pride and joy, did need attention and, as this had been another in a succession of dry and relatively warm days, might well require watering in spite of the time of year. I cursed silently as yet another set of traffic lights demanded I stop at roadworks on the A30.
One of the two lanes on my side of the dual carriageway was closed. Speed camera warnings lined the roadside along with 50-mile-an-hour limit signs. Chance would be a fine thing, I thought irritably, as I was forced to slow almost to a standstill.
There seemed to be major works going on involving resurfacing and the widening of lanes and it looked as if this lot was going to last well into the Christmas holidays. I texted Robbie to tell him I was going to be a bit later than I’d expected. We always kept in touch, usually texting and calling several times a day when we were apart, but that day we hadn’t been in contact since late morning. I’d not had my normal breaks between classes because I’d been standing in for another teacher who was off sick, and I realized Robbie was probably buried in his revision, and would remain so until I returned home, as he had two exams the following day. Actually, I’d been told by his teachers that he was expected to fly through his mocks. He was very bright. He was also conscientious.
I told him there was pizza for supper. Lots of it. Robbie had an enormous appetite. It never ceased to amaze me how much he ate and how thin he remained. But then, he was still growing, and fast. It looked like he was going to be even taller than his father, who stood a good six foot two inches.
I kept glancing at my phone in case he texted back. I half expected him to do so because he almost always did. But I reminded myself again of how hard he worked when he had an exam looming, let alone mock GCSEs.
As I drove along I could so clearly imagine him at the desk Robert had built for him in his room, custom-made to fit into the awkwardly shaped corner to the left of the ancient chimney breast. He’d be sitting, totally preoccupied, hunched over his keyboard, in just the position I kept telling him he ought to avoid, particularly as he was such a tall boy, in case he damaged his back. He’d have his left elbow propped on the edge of the desk, lower arm arranged so that one side of his face could rest on a splayed hand. His eyes would be screwed up in concentration and he’d probably be chewing a pencil, shredding the end with his front teeth and spitting out occasional splinters of wood onto the floor.
I was smiling as I pulled in to the yard and drew our four-wheel-drive Lexus to a halt. Thinking of Robbie always made me smile.
It was almost 5 p.m., and the sun had very nearly set behind Highrise, but the old house, with its tall chimneys and angular roof formation, still remained in quite spectacular silhouette.
Our dog Florrie, a Border collie, loped from the direction of the house to greet me. She pretty much had the run of our home, though we did try to keep her out of the bedrooms as she shed hair for England. But in any case she had farm blood in her and, particularly in decent weather, often preferred to roam the garden – and sometimes a little further afield, I feared – then lie on the squashy cushion in a box we’d installed in the porch.
She wrapped herself around my legs as I climbed out of the car, and whimpered appreciatively when I scratched the back of her neck. Laden with my shopping, I stepped onto the raised paved terrace which Robert had built right along the front of Highrise. Florrie followed close to my heels.
The door to the adjoining shed where we kept our bicycles was ajar and I pushed it shut with one foot as I walked past.
The front door was unlocked and I managed to open it, without having to put down any of my shopping, by leaning my shoulder against it and pushing the handle with my elbow.
Florrie squeezed past me heading for the kitchen. It was her dinner time, and Florrie had a tummy like an alarm clock. She had only one thing on her mind now. Food.
As I stepped into the flagstoned hallway I called out to Robbie, like I always did.
No response, so I called again. Louder. His room was at the top of the house. He may not have heard me. But somehow I didn’t think that was it. I paused. Uneasy. The shopping heavy in my arms. No, that was not it at all.
It was then that I began to feel the emptiness of the house. That I was overwhelmed with the certainty that Robbie was not there.
However, when I’d closed the door to the shed I’d seen his mountain bike propped against the far wall and, unless Robert or I were around to drive him, Robbie’s only means of transport was his bike. The house was too far away from anywhere for walking to be a reasonable option.
In any case Robbie rarely left the house without one of us, and he certainly would not do so without telling me. He would have called or texted.
No. He was upstairs in his room, too engrossed in his computer or his books to have been aware of the sound of the car pulling into the yard or to have heard me calling him.
I told myself off for having an overactive imagination and carried the shopping into the kitchen. I dumped it on the worktop, handmade by Robert from Dartmoor granite, and stretched my aching arms. Then, with a small moan of relief, I kicked off my shiny black ‘school’ shoes. They were nearly new, had heels I was no longer very used to, and did not feel entirely comfortable at the end of a long day. Gratefully, I thrust my feet into my well-worn old slippers.
The kitchen felt chilly and I realized when I reached out to touch the Aga that I certainly wasn’t imagining that. The range was barely warm. Perhaps unusually nowadays, ours was a solid fuel version. We fed it with wood, mostly gathered from our own land, on which grew sycamore, ash and pine regularly culled by Robert. And, certainly not unusually, Robbie seemed to have forgotten to stoke it. I opened the door to the fire compartment. There was just a faint glow at the bottom. I swiftly gathered up handfuls of small pieces of wood from the box which stood alongside the stove, piled them in, closed the door and hoped that Aga magic would ensure that its energy revived without my having to empty and relight the thing. I also made a mental note to chastise Robbie, not that I expected that to do any good.
Meanwhile Florrie pushed her wet nose against my leg and gazed at me imploringly. She had me exactly where she wanted me, that dog. Obediently, I emptied the best part of a tin of dog meat into her bowl along with some dried mixer.
Then I flicked the switch on the kettle to make tea, and began to unpack my shopping. But I was still battling with that inexplicable and overwhelming sense of unease. I walked to the bottom of the stairs and called up at the top of my voice.
‘I’m back, Robbie. Cup o’ tea?’
Still no reply.
I put one foot on the first stair and was just about to run up to the top of the house. That was what I wanted to do. But I didn’t. Instead I told myself to pull myself together. I was just being silly. Extremely silly.
The kettle would have boiled by now. I went back into the kitchen and made two steaming mugs of strong English Breakfast. I didn’t finish unpacking the shopping, though, nor did I put any of it away. I was, by now, in too much of a hurry. None the less, I kept telling myself I would soon be drinking my tea while sitting in the old cane rocking chair in Robbie’s room, quietly watching him at work until he was ready to come down for his supper.
I quite often did that. He never seemed to mind. From what I gathered from the few other mothers I spoke to, most boys of his age would hate it. But Robbie was different. Our relationship was different. And, after all, I never interrupted. I just sat in silence, unless he spoke to me first, looking out over the view of the moors or maybe thumbing through one of his biking or swimming magazines.
There was a sharp angle on the landing from which a second narrower staircase led up to Robbie’s room. Florrie had finished her dinner and was now able to take an interest in matters other than filling her belly. She came tearing up the stairs after me and pushed past just as I was trying to manoeuvre the awkward angle. I spilt some of the tea, a generous slug of which slurped out of both mugs, and swore under my breath.
I’d been trying to climb the stairs too quickly, of course, considering that I was clutching mugs, which, with the benefit of hindsight, I probably should not have filled to the brim.
It might have been irrational, but I remained so anxious to reach Robbie’s room, to see him there in his familiar surroundings, to watch him turn and smile at me, warm and welcoming, the way he always did, that I hadn’t been able to help hurrying.
Once more I told myself to pull myself together, and slowed to a more sensible pace as I climbed the last few stairs.
The door to Robbie’s room was open just a foot or so, probably pushed ajar by Florrie whom I could hear whimpering on the other side. Later I came to believe that somewhere in my subconscious I registered that the sound she was making was not her normal ‘pleased to see you’ noise. But, to be honest, I don’t really know whether I did or not.
I usually knocked before entering Robbie’s room. Even though I knew I was always welcome, even though there were no locks on any doors in our house, not even the bathrooms. Nobody had ever shown me much respect when I was fifteen, as far as I could remember, but I tried to treat Robbie with respect as well as love and all the other mother stuff.
I could not, however, knock while carrying two mugs.
Instead I called out.
‘Tea’s up, Robbie. Hands full. I’m coming in. OK?’
I pushed the door with one foot, aware as I did so that my son had still not replied. There hadn’t been a sound from him since the moment I had entered the house. The house I’d felt so sure was empty. The house which still felt empty of any other human occupation.
The door swung easily wide open on its well-oiled hinges. Everything in our house was well maintained. Robert saw to that.
I took just one step into the spacious attic room with its high vaulted ceiling and ancient blackened beams.
I am not a tall woman. The first thing I saw was Robbie’s feet. He was wearing the trainers I had given him for his birthday the previous May. They were black Adidas Originals with a narrow red and white trim. At first I think I looked only at the trainers, before allowing my gaze to travel upwards.
My son was suspended from the central beam stretching across the room, his back towards the mullioned windows which presented such a spectacular view of the countryside beyond, his face, his poor distorted face, directly towards me.
Florrie sat below him, staring up. She was still whimpering and now I could quite clearly detect a note of distress. Also, perhaps, of fear.
Robbie was hanging from a rope tied around his neck. Bizarrely, I recognized it as one of the lengths of extra-strong nylon cord, startlingly yellow and shiny, which we had bought, along with all manner of other new equipment, when he and his father had taken off on their bicycles for a few days’ camping on the moors during the summer holidays.
The cord had embedded itself deeply into the flesh beneath Robbie’s chin, and two puffy circular ridges of skin had risen around it. His face was already swollen and had turned an unnatural greyish purple and his tongue lolled obscenely from his mouth. His eyes, his lovely pale-blue eyes, were wide open, bulging only slightly and staring straight at me.
There was an unpleasant smell in the room. I recognised what it was at once, and registered, in a distracted sort of way, that Robbie must have lost control of his bowels.
Behind him his computer, his treasured iMac, lay on the floor, the glass of the screen shattered into pointed shards, as if it had been swept carelessly and with some violence from the desk.That desk, so lovingly constructed by his father, must have been moved across the room. It was now positioned directly behind the spot where Robbie was hanging.
It seemed logical that Robbie had stood on the desk, in order to attach the rope to the beam and to his neck, and had then jumped off. His head was at an acute angle, almost resting on one shoulder. I knew at once that his neck was broken. This was somehow quite abundantly clear even to a woman like me who had never before witnessed anything remotely like it.
Indeed, I took in the whole terrible scene in a matter of seconds, absorbing it, at first, in a curiously clinical fashion.
The implication of what it actually meant took some seconds more. The fact that my beautiful boy hung dead before me was, perhaps, almost too much for me to grasp.
When the brutal reality finally hit me my whole body slumped into a state of muscular collapse. My fists, clutching the two mugs of tea, involuntarily opened. The mugs fell to the wooden boarded floor, smashing into many pieces. Scalding tea gushed onto my feet, burning my instep and toes through the felt material of my slippers.
I could hear myself screaming, though. Not from pain, but out of pure unadulterated desolation. Florrie ran right through my legs and raced down the stairs at even greater speed than she had ascended. She could not possibly have understood what she was witnessing but was suddenly quite desperate to get away.
I just screamed and screamed and screamed.
My life, my world, was over. Hanging from a beam which I knew had once formed part of the hull of a ship that had sailed to America, attached by a length of rope which had anchored a tent against the winds of Dartmoor, swaying grotesquely in the cross-draught caused by my opening a door opposite windows already flung asunder to the unlikely mellowness of a sunny autumn day.
My boy was dead.
Excerpted from The Cruellest Game by Hilary Bonner. Copyright © 2013 by Hilary Bonner.
First published 2013 by Macmillan, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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