As if by a dream Catherine came to the Red House. She abandoned her car once the lane’s dusty surface was choked by the hedgerows, and moved on foot through a tunnel of hawthorn and hazel trees to glimpse the steep pitch of the roof, the ruddy brick chimneys and the finials upon its sharp spine.
Unseasonably warm air for autumn drifted from the surrounding meadows to settle like fragrant gas upon the baked ground beneath her feet. Drowsy and barely aware of the hum emitted from the yellow wildflowers and waist-high summer grasses so hectic in the fields, she felt nostalgic for a time she wasn’t even sure was part of her own experience, and imagined she was passing into another age.
When she came across the garden’s brick walls of English bond, seized by ivy right along their length to the black gate, a surge of romantic feelings so surprised her, she felt dizzy. Until the house fully revealed itself and demanded all of her attention.
Her first impression was of a building enraged at being disturbed, rearing up at the sight of her between the gate posts. Twin chimney breasts, one per wing, mimicked arms flung upwards to claw the air. Roofs scaled in Welsh slate and spiked with iron crests at their peaks bristled like hackles.
All of the lines of the building pointed to the heavens. Two steep gables and the arch of every window beseeched the sky, as though the great house was a small cathedral indignant at its exile in rural Herefordshire. And despite over a century of rustication among uncultivated fields, the colour of its Accrington brick remained an angry red.
But on closer inspection, had the many windows been an assortment of eyes, from the tall rectangular portals of the first three storeys to the narrower dormer windows of the attic, the house’s face now issued the impression of looking past her.
Unaware of Catherine, the many eyes beheld something else that only they could see, above and behind her. Around the windows, where the masonry was styled with polychromatic stone lintels, an expression of attentiveness to something in the distance had been created. A thing even more awe-inspiring than the building itself. Something the eyes of the house had gazed upon for a long time and feared too. So maybe what she perceived as wrathful silence in the countenance of the Red House was actually terror.
This was no indigenous building either. Few local materials had been used in its construction. The house had been built by someone very rich, able to import outside materials and a professional architect to create a vision in stone, probably modelled on a place they had once admired on the continent, perhaps in Flemish Belgium. Almost certainly the building was part of the Gothic revival in Queen Victoria’s long reign.
Judging by the distance of the Red House to the local village, Magbar Wood, two miles away and separated by hills and a rare spree of meadowland, she guessed the estate once belonged to a major landowner advantaged by the later enclosure acts. A man bent on isolation.
She had driven through Magbar Wood to reach the Red House, and now wondered if the squat terraced houses of the village were once occupied by the tenants of whoever built this unusual house. But the fact that the village had not expanded to the borders of the Red House’s grounds, and the surrounding fields remained untended, was unusual. On her travels to valuations and auctions at country residences, she hardly ever saw genuine meadows any more. Magbar Wood boasted at least two square miles of wild land circling itself and the house like a vast moat.
What was more difficult to accept was that she was not already aware of the building. She felt like an experienced walker stumbling across a new mountain in the Lake District. The house was such a unique spectacle there should have been signage to guide sightseers’ visits to the house, or at least proper public access.
Catherine considered the surface beneath her feet. Not even a road, just a lane of clay and broken stone. It seemed the Red House and the Mason family had not wanted to be found.
The grounds had also known better days. Beneath the Red House’s facade the front garden had once been landscaped, but was now given over to nettles, rye grasses and the spiky flowers of the meadow, thickets trapped half in the shadow of the house and the garden walls.
She hurried to the porch, when a group of plump black flies formed a persistent orbit around her, and tried to settle upon her exposed hands and wrists. But soon stopped and sucked in her breath. When no more than halfway down what was left of the front path, a face appeared at one of the cross windows of the first storey, pressed against the glass in the bottom corner, left of the vertical mullion. A small hand either waved at her or prepared to tap the glass. Either that or the figure was holding the horizontal transom to pull itself higher.
She considered returning the wave but the figure was gone before she managed to move her arm.
Catherine wasn’t aware there were any children living here. According to her instructions there was only Edith Mason, M. H. Mason’s sole surviving heir, and the housekeeper who would receive Catherine. But the little face, and briefly waving hand, must have belonged to a pale child in some kind of hat.
She couldn’t say whether it had been a girl or a boy, but what she had seen of the face in her peripheral vision had been wide with a grin of excitement, as if the child had been pleased to see her wading through the weeds of the front garden.
Half expecting to hear the thud of little feet descending the stairs inside the house, as the child raced to the front door to greet her, Catherine looked harder at the empty window and then at the front doors. But nothing stirred again behind the dark glass and no one came down to meet her.
She continued to the porch, one that should have stood before a church, not a domestic house, until the sombre roof of aged oak arched over her like a large hood.
One of the great front doors crafted from six panels, four hardwood and the top two filled with stained glass, was open, as if daring her to come inside without invitation. And through the gap she saw an unlit reception, a place made of burgundy walls and shadow, like a gullet, that seemed to reach into for ever.
Catherine looked back at the wild lawns and imagined the hawkbit and spotted orchids all turning their little bobbing heads in panic to stare at her, to send out small cries of warning. She pushed her sunglasses up and into her hair and briefly thought of returning to her car.
‘That lane you have walked was here long before this house was built.’ The brittle voice came from deep inside the building. A woman’s voice that softened, as if to speak to itself, and Catherine thought she heard, ‘No one knew what would come down it.’
ONE WEEK EARLIER
All of the small faces were turned to the door of the room. A myriad glass eyes watched her enter.
The number of dolls and even their intentional arrangement startled Catherine less than the sense of anticipation she felt in their presence. She briefly imagined they had been waiting in the darkness for her like guests at a surprise party for a child, a century before.
Even if she were the only living thing in the room, she remained as still as the dolls and returned their glassy stares. If anything moved, she would let go of the shriek that had built like a sneeze.
But after a moment of immobility she realized she was staring at the most valuable hoard of antique toys she had seen in her years as a valuer, in her time as a producer of television shows about antiques, and even as trainee curator at a children’s museum.
‘Hello? Hello, Mr Dore. It’s Catherine. Catherine Howard.’
No one answered. She wanted someone to. Having had to let herself into the room was awkward enough.
‘Sir? Hello, it’s Catherine from Osberne, the auctioneers.’ She stepped further inside. ‘Hello?’ she repeated quietly enough to have given up on anyone being present.
The bathroom door was open, the cramped yellowy space beyond it unoccupied. Unused clothes hangers chimed inside an empty wardrobe. Walnut, but badly scratched. Some yellowing stationery and a poor male attempt at hospitality refreshments crowded one side of the little desk.
The living area of the room appeared unused by anyone besides the dolls. Many of which were arranged on the undisturbed quilt, a handmade eiderdown on a brass-framed bedstead as old as the building. Upon the wall at the head of the bed was a framed woodcut of a small square church set within neat grounds.
The only other item that appeared to belong to the legal guardian of the collection was a trunk. Between the bed and the window a large leather chest had been placed. Upon the lid of the trunk sat another row of dolls. Their little legs hung over the edge of the aged and watermarked leather. A backdrop of fussy, not entirely white, net curtain before the solitary window smothered the afternoon’s grey light and formed a fitting background to the little figures, as if they were trapped inside an old photograph.
Even the upholstered chair that partnered the desk was occupied by a doll. And that figure was the most magnificent of them all.
Catherine didn’t close the door in case Mr Dore returned, the Mason family’s legal representative, and the solicitor instructed to discuss an auction of their ‘antique assets’ with her. The letter from Edith Mason mentioned nothing else.
She guessed Mr Dore might have popped out and been delayed getting back to the appointment, though she hadn’t seen a pub in Green Willow, nor had she spotted any building in the village offering the prospect of communal activity, let alone food. Even finding Green Willow had been a struggle. Beside the Flintshire Guest House, the village was little more than a line of stone buildings, a closed post office and a weed-filled bus stop. No cars were parked outside any of the cottages.
Catherine checked her watch again. The thin old man downstairs, in the tiny alcove serving as a reception, had definitely said, ‘Go right up.’ When he handed her keys, he’d not even removed his eyes from whatever he’d been reading behind the counter.
The proprietor issued the impression he was accustomed to, if not worn down by, hordes of visitors to what was a small establishment, barely on the English side of the border between Monmouthshire and Herefordshire. Accustomed to elderly locals being curious about her visits to remote places, Catherine had paused before the tiny counter to say, ‘Mr Dore is up there?’ The man in reception did not answer, but snuffled with irritation and twitched his threadbare head over his book.
‘I’ll just go right up then.’
Meeting a prospective client in a hotel room was also a first but, in her brief though rapidly growing experience as the valuer for Leonard Osberne, she’d found that eccentrics and descendants of eccentrics from Shropshire to Herefordshire, the Welsh border, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, who used the firm to auction the contents of homes and attics long sealed from the modern world, were becoming less unusual. Leonard had a broad range of oddballs on his books. She was beginning to think he didn’t have anything else.
The weird seemed attracted to her boss. Or aware of him through some word-of-mouth legacy she had yet to fathom, because Leonard never once advertised their services during her twelve months with the firm. Their office was no more than two rooms on the ground floor of a building in Little Malvern. A place of work that indicated its presence with a solitary brass plate at street level. Office space her boss had occupied since the sixties. Into which she’d introduced a computer and the internet. Another reason why Catherine was never sure how Leonard came by so much trade. The Mason family and their solicitor, Mr Dore, seemed keen on maintaining the enigma.
Sat on the chair before the desk, Catherine carefully held the doll she’d dispossessed of a seat. From its straw hat drifted the feminine scent of a floral perfume or pomander, a rose, jasmine and lavender concoction. From her first cursory examination she believed the doll was an original from the Pierotti family of wax modellers, and in near perfect condition despite being made around 1870. The head and limbs miraculously retained their peach flesh tint. Curled Titian hair and the brows above the sad eyes were of mohair. Inside what she knew was an actual infant’s dress, she assiduously checked for other signs of authenticity. The torso was calico stuffed with animal hair, the shoulder plate was sewn to the torso, the hips were seamed. It was original.
Catherine waited another five minutes for Mr Dore to appear. There was no phone to connect her with reception, but she wondered if she should go back down the narrow flight of stairs and enquire about the whereabouts of the solicitor. A legal professional who appeared to have left over three hundred thousand pounds’ worth of antique European dolls in an unsecure room, with a stranger.
Catherine placed the doll back upon the chair. There were two collectors and one museum that she knew of who would immediately produce a chequebook after seeing the photo- graph she had taken of the Pierotti doll.
Her legs felt like they were actually shaking with excitement. Only confusion was spoiling the find.
The prospective client, a woman called Edith Mason, had requested the viewing. Catherine had never heard of her, though apparently Leonard had dealt with her in the past. But Catherine had heard about Edith Mason’s uncle, M. H. Mason. A man considered to be England’s greatest taxidermist. Leonard claimed Mason was also a masterly puppeteer, though Catherine was only aware of his preserved animals in the antique trade. She’d never seen any examples of his legendary work with her own eyes, but had come across photographs of the little of his craft that survived the purges of the sixties, the same decade in which his long life was ended by his own hand. She didn’t know much more.
At this viewing, she’d been expecting a few preserved field mice and maybe a stoat mounted in M. H. Mason’s signature dioramas, certainly not a Pierotti doll in immaculate condition within the crowd arrayed before her, of what appeared to be equally unspoiled antique dolls. She assumed they must be the property of the niece and heir, who would be close to a hundred years old by now.
On the desk she inspected four Bru dolls with their trademark big glass eyes and babyish faces. The painted bisque heads displayed no scratches, the paperweight glass eyes were in working order and the mohair wigs were perfectly groomed. The pieces had the tiny telltale nipples and gusseted joints that allowed the pudgy stuffed legs to move. All were dressed in period costumes, the bodies beneath made of kid. So definitely bébé Bru. The lower arms and hands were also exquisitely contoured without scuffs or chipped knuckles. Fifty grand without change for the set.
‘No way. No bloody way.’ On the bed she gently inspected an elegant Gesland ‘Manuelita’, and five French Jumeau dolls from the 1870s’ fashion range. The German porcelain of their elaborately styled heads was in pristine condition. And lined upon the trunk were a group of Gaultier girls with swivel heads, silk gowns, leather boots that actually buttoned up, and luminous glass eyes made by German masters long gone, along with their craft.
To calm herself Catherine gulped at her bottle of water. Leonard was just going to pass out when she showed him the pictures of what had fallen into their laps. And according to Edith Mason’s letter, these were ‘samples’ from ‘a larger collection’.
Her camera flash exploded white light into the room as if the miserable guest house had been struck by lightning. Unaware of the time, Catherine photographed each item from a variety of angles.
Mr Dore remained a no-show.
When she finished the viewing she packed away her notes and camera, turned out the lights, closed and locked the door to the room. Downstairs her dinging of the bell failed to summon the old receptionist, who possibly doubled as the owner. She left the keys on the counter of the reception alcove. Unlatched the door and let herself out. As she pulled the door shut she noticed the CLOSED sign faced the street. Forgetting she was upstairs, the unsociable proprietor must have locked up.
Catherine wondered if Edith Mason had insurance to cover what she now estimated to be half a million pounds’ worth of antique dolls left unsupervised in a bedroom of a dingy guest house with no online listing.
Before she headed back to Little Malvern, to tell Leonard about her extraordinary find, Catherine detoured to a place she was once very familiar with, Ellyll Fields, or ‘The Hell’. A village between Green Willow and Hereford, where she’d endured the first six years of her life. A place she’d never returned to and had tried to forget. Because the scene of the abduction and probable murder of a child she had known well was a part of the world she’d not felt inclined to revisit in the following thirty-two years of her life. The thought alone of returning had always been enough to make her feel sick. When visiting clients in Herefordshire, she’d even become adept at not seeing that part of the page in her road atlas.
This afternoon would mark a return to a time in her life she’d never shared with anyone besides three therapists and her parents. That morning, for an unpleasant moment, merely driving close to ‘The Hell’ to get to Green Willow had felt like a trap. And a fate predestined. One she had hitherto suppressed. But as advised by her most recent counselling, returning to the scene would reveal the place to be innocuous and bereft of the poignancy of her lingering childhood dread.
She had been prepared by a cognitive behavioural specialist to identify and repel outbreaks of paranoia. Which she duly did, because coincidence was rarely conspiracy. She knew her feelings about her birthplace were irrational. And these days, she had to keep in mind, the distant part of her memory that ‘The Hell’ occupied only really intruded upon her thoughts when she was confronted by compatibly tragic news stories about missing children or bullying.
Despite her own reassurances, and those of others, for the first time since she began working for Leonard Osberne, she wished her boss was able-bodied. Were he not confined to a wheelchair Leonard could have attended to the Mason account in person and she could have maintained her distance from ‘The Hell’.
She’d never seen Leonard so excited about the prospect of a new account either. ‘This could be big, my girl. If Edith has any of her uncle’s work still hanging around out there, we’ll probably make the papers. And I’m not talking about the locals. Didn’t I promise I’d make you a star! You wouldn’t get this kind of work in London.’
Running away was rarely graceful, or even satisfactory, and Catherine’s departure from London still harnessed the power to warm her with shame, and occasionally freeze her with panic. Reliving the memory of a particular incident that ruined her professionally in the capital still stretched her mental resources beyond a healthy tension. Only once she’d reached her parents’ house in Worcester, eighteen months before, did she feel she’d passed beyond the range of her enemies in London, along with the unfortunate reputation she’d fled. But her afternoon in Green Willow and her current journey to Ellyll Fields forced her to acknowledge that by leaving London and coming home, she’d moved back within range of the unhappiest period of her life: the beginning. As if she had been driven back by one of the unconscious compulsions her therapists had been so keen to reveal as a mainstay in her life.
Catherine tried to stayed focussed on the road, but wondered again if her childhood unhappiness had been the reason she’d gone to a university in Scotland, and then to another three distant cities to work after graduation. That she’d spent her entire adult life running from ‘The Hell’.
But here you are, girl.
She picked up the A road that would lead her into Ellyll Fields, and her feelings immediately smouldered beneath a messy collage of actual recollections and her memories of photographs from family albums. And in the anxious mix came a force of apprehension that made her breathless.
But she could not deny she was strangely excited to be going back there too. Excitement that felt reckless. An unstable desire to revisit a strangeness in her childhood that she considered the only relief in a thoroughly miserable introduction to life.
Catherine stood at the edge of a petrol-station forecourt that had not been in her childhood. The only thing she recognized was the humpback bridge over a stream of shallow brown water, referred to as a river when she was a child. Though even the bridge had been lowered and widened to allow freight lorries to shudder through Ellyll Fields in gusts of dusty wind.
The little paper shop where her nan had bought her ten- pence mixtures of sweets in a white paper bag was no more. Gone along with the little plastic boy out front, who’d held a collection box and had a spaniel at his feet. Beside the Wall’s ice-cream sign made of tin, covered in faded pictures of ice lollies that once made her mouth water, the plastic boy had stood sentinel in all weathers. She’d often been allowed to put a half-penny coin inside his box.
Catherine wondered what happened to all of the crippled boys and girls with their spaniels, who once stood outside sweet shops. Where the paper shop had been was now a decelerating lane into the petrol station.
There had been a chemist’s and a clothes shop beside the newsagent’s. Yellow cellophane behind their windows used to remind her of Quality Street chocolates that came out at Christmas. In the chemist’s she’d received her first pair of milk-bottle glasses in black NHS frames. Three decades would pass before that particular style of spectacle frame was considered cool. Fashion had not been on her side when she actually had to wear them.
And in the clothes shop she had been bought her first pair of school shoes. Even recalling these shoes made her breath catch. Nor for the first time was she astonished at what remained in her memory.
Few had worn that type of sandal. Even fewer had liked them. They had been brown and made by Clarks. Something else that had since become popular. The certainty of the adults surrounding her in the shop, that the sandals were a satisfactory purchase, nearly gave her the same confidence at the point of sale. Once home with the box and the horrible sandals in their bed of tissue paper, thoughts of the coming school term and what awaited her had created an empty feeling in her stomach, a cold tingling space in which no food would settle.
Her instincts about the sandals had been correct and she came to hate them. She’d cut them with scissors, but ended up going to school in damaged shoes. She’d also worn the sandals at weekends, so news of school shoes being worn in public on a Saturday had whipped round the playground. Everyone thought she did things like that because she was adopted.
Dopted! Dopted! Dopted!
In this dreary place of concrete and tarmac, built over her childhood, a burst of the chant returned to her mind. Followed by another inner refrain of Pauper! Riffy Pauper! Pauper! Riffy Pauper! Which of the chants had scalded her with shame and humiliation the most, she couldn’t decide. But their echoes still hurt.
In a moment of sympathy, and recognition that her burden might be greater than her own, even little Alice Galloway once asked her, What’s it like to have no real mum and dad? I’d hate it. And Alice had worn a large brown boot on one foot to correct her strange lurching walk. The boot, and an eye socket packed with gauze, had excused Alice from violence.
During a family holiday in Ilfracombe, Catherine remembered wishing on coins thrown into a fountain, and also after the candles had been blown out on an iced birthday cake, that she could be disabled like Alice. Her adopted mother had actually cried when she told her, in all sincerity, about her birthday wish. Her poor dad had even shut himself in the garage for a day. So Catherine never said anything like that again. The worst Alice ever dealt with was white dog shit packaged in tin foil and a Milky Bar wrapper, and given to her as chocolate by a group of girls from the next grove.
‘Jesus.’ Catherine shook her head at the side of the dismal road. Its expansion had not come close to burying the rubble of her childhood. ‘Jesus Christ.’ Who took bullying seriously back then? Maybe her nan, who persuaded her adopted parents to move away from Ellyll Fields for Catherine’s sake after Alice Galloway went missing. A relocation to Worcester that also took Catherine away from her nan. A move that broke both their hearts.
‘Oh, Nan.’ At the side of the traffic-blasted road, Catherine’s eyes stung with tears. She sniffed, looked about to see if anyone in the garage shop was looking at her. Then returned to her car on the petrol-station forecourt.
Behind the Shell garage the red bricks of a newish housing estate stretched away across what she’d once known as the ‘Dell’. Scrub really, full of litter and blackberry vines where adults sent rather than walked their dogs. The Dell had been full of dog mess, but local children had still eagerly raced through the narrow tracks on their bikes and sat in the two abandoned vinyl car seats that had been thrown over the fence.
Using the bridge as a landmark she drove through where she remembered the Dell to be, and the small dairy farm that bordered it. Since she’d been away, the farm had also been developed into new housing, and she was soon driving across what she remembered as an eternity of long wet grass only the most foolhardy kids ventured into because of the enormous cows and apocryphal tales of children being speared on bull horns. Once, the field had even been made available for the local populace during the Silver Jubilee. She’d seen photographs of herself as a baby in the field, her pushchair festooned with Union Jack flags.
The new housing estate that covered the Dell and the adjoining field had been created with identical three-bedroom houses arranged in cul-de-sacs. There were no children playing outside of them now. Every house confronted every other house with too many windows. When Catherine pulled over and stood on the empty pavement, the windows on both sides of the road made her feel exposed and small. Curiously, the road surfaces still looked new.
At the western edge of the housing estate she parked in the lay-by of a dual carriageway. The rows of concrete buildings where her nan had lived, set on perpetually windswept grass, all stained with rust about their outflow pipes and speckled with black clouds of soot near the guttering, had been erased from the earth. There was now a Tesco and another petrol station in their place, a DIY centre, a large traffic island, and three new roads leading to places people would rather be.
Her nan’s brownish living room with the painting of a green-faced Spanish girl over the gas fire, that looked like the front of an old car, and her ashtray on a metal stand, and the dark velour sofa, and the door with dimpled glass panes, and the smell of Silk Cut and sausage rolls, no longer existed.
Catherine’s throat closed on a lump the size of a plum she could not swallow. She decided not to buy petrol at this garage either. She needed fuel to get home to Worcester, but would fill up somewhere else between here and there.
Parked at the northern edge of the housing estate, Catherine discovered the old river had been funnelled into a concrete aqueduct, close to one side of the road. On what was once a riverbank stood a row of identical wooden fences at the rear of private gardens. With the exception of the humpback bridge by the Shell garage, the topography of her early child- hood was non-existent.
She guessed her old den had once been on the other side of these garden fences. Until her sixth year, the den she and Alice Galloway shared, at the furthest edge of the dairy farm’s field, had been one of the few enchanting places in her life. Until Alice went missing and Catherine’s family moved away, the den was the only sanctuary outdoors that she and Alice ever found in Ellyll Fields. Being so close to its foundations returned tears to her eyes.
She and Alice had discovered a way to circumnavigate the field of cattle to get to the thin river that once trickled between the shadowy banks, carpeted in dead leaves and sheltered by tree branches that hung over the water. A sanctuary in days when children roamed freely and spent most of their time outdoors.
No one ever found out where poor Alice had been taken in the summer of 1981, but Catherine once believed her friend had found a new sanctuary in some other place. Alice had even suggested the potential of such to her, though only after she’d been gone three months.
How furious they all were at the very idea that she’d seen Alice again. The memory of Alice’s mother going hysterical in her parents’ kitchen, pulling her own hair out, which made her look like Cat Weasel with a red face, still issued the occasional pang of shame. Something Catherine would never forget, nor forgive herself for being the cause of.
She no longer believed she’d seen Alice after she disappeared either, and hadn’t for decades. As a child she had done, and also believed that Alice had come back for her that day. And for most of her childhood Catherine even wished she’d taken the opportunity to go away with her friend too, to follow her to some place better than this ever was.
On the opposite side of the river to their den, a wire fence once protected the special school’s grounds. The Magnis Burrow School of Special Education had been derelict when Catherine lived in Ellyll Fields thirty years ago, so it was no surprise to find the school had been demolished, along with everything else.
Landscaped mounds of long grass, dotted with buttercups and dandelions, had once formed an incline topped with a row of red-brick buildings, their windows covered in plywood boards. Now, even the small hillocks had been levelled to make way for the aqueduct and another dual carriageway.
Whenever she’d asked about the empty school next to the farmer’s field, she was told all kinds of things by her parents and her nan, who never seemed comfortable when they answered.
‘Used to be a home for handicapped children. Mongol children. You know them children that get old, but keep children’s faces.’
‘Thalidomide children that don’t live very long.’ ‘Children in wheelchairs or invalids with their legs in callipers.’
Like the plastic boy outside the sweetshop who collected her coins? Like Alice? she’d asked. Like me? she’d meant.
‘Their mothers had them too late.’ ‘They’ve gone a bit funny in the head.’
‘Some of them went missing, so don’t go anywhere near that place. It ain’t safe.’
The words of the adults made her sensibilities cringe now. But along with Alice’s unexpected return to the den, three months after her disappearance, Catherine had once believed that some of the special children had also been left behind.
Until her early teens, when therapists and doctors persuaded her to accept the idea that her hallucinations were just another example of an unhappy, if not ‘disturbed’ childhood, she’d been convinced the children she’d seen in those abandoned school buildings were real, while also seeming a bit unreal, like so much of her childhood had been.
Years later she accepted the children were hallucinations, inserted into her world as imaginary friends or guardians. And in hindsight, for the derided and lonely, no one knew better than Catherine how important an imagination was when you were small. If the only real friend you ever had went missing, you just made up the rest.
She must have been six when she tried to tell her nan and parents about the special schoolchildren who had been left behind.
‘It’s them tearaways from the Fylde Grove you’ve seen,’ her dad had said. ‘They’ve already smashed the windows. You shouldn’t be going over there. Keep away from it.’
The children from the Fylde Grove never went anywhere on foot. They rode around on bicycles they threw down with a clatter as they dismounted, and had loud voices and untucked shirts and florid faces and hard eyes. And you could only reach the special school by creeping around the perimeter of the field, or by going up a long drive to the gates covered in barbed wire, which were never open. The main entrance of the derelict school was also on the main road, where no child was permitted to go by bicycle.
Catherine never once saw children from the Fylde Grove anywhere near the special school, nor anyone else for that matter. The special school and its children had always belonged to her and Alice. And the children she had seen in those derelict buildings were very different to the ‘tearaways’ from Fylde Grove. Where the children inside the derelict special school came from had been one of the great mysteries of her childhood, but they were among the few children she could remember being kind to her and Alice.
Sat in her car, a recollection of that section of the school’s fence, fixed between concrete posts, returned to her mind so vividly that she could practically feel the wire again, clutched between her fingers, as she watched Alice hobble up the grass bank to the old buildings, during the afternoon of the day she went missing.
Catherine changed position in her seat and opened a window to try and ease away the discomfort that was nine parts psychological and one part heartbreak, an old crack that would never heal.
Only when she was alone in her den on the riverbank did she ever imagine she’d seen the children, on the opposite side of the wire fence she’d peered through, while she sat on the slippery tree stump with the three old paint tins around her like drums, a scatter of dried flowers upon the leaves she had collected to make a carpet, and the plastic tea set that had gone green from being left outside for too long. And only when she was so heavy with anguish that her misery had felt like the mumps, had they appeared. Children in strange clothes allowed to play outside when it was going dark.
She’d usually felt like that on a Sunday afternoon, when the sky was grey and the air drizzly and even her bones were damp. Right before she walked home for a tea of beans on toast that she could barely swallow at the prospect of school the next day.
After the police interviews, she never spoke about the children again outside of a therapist’s house.
But the longer she looked out through her windscreen at the dual carriageway, and the garden fences along the border of the estate, and the concrete ditch that diverted her little river, and considered all of her memories and the way they’d haunted her, the more foolish and insignificant they all seemed to be now. She wondered if coming here had finally allowed her to let go of all that. And in a curious way being here again after all of these years did feel necessary.
Her thoughts drifted to the evening ahead, and to her boyfriend, Mike, and she held precious an image of his smile. Even though he’d not been his usual self for a few weeks, she believed he genuinely looked forward to being with her. And she thought of dear old Leonard behind his vast desk and how he had come to rely upon her and think of her as a favourite niece. A month ago he’d even become tearful over a lunch that involved a lot of wine, and had explained to her how important she was to his business, and that he wanted her to ‘keep it’ once he’d ‘been wheeled off to that great auction in the sky’.
Catherine thought of her own flat in Worcester with its whites and creams and quiet interior. A place she always felt safe. There was no more London to endure now. She even had a great haircut, which could never be underestimated. She was happy. Finally. This is what happiness felt like and this was her life now. Career, boyfriend, her own home, her health. As good as it gets. What happened all of those years ago was over. Let go of it. The past had even been physically removed and its ground covered with tarmac, bricks and concrete. It was gone and it wasn’t coming back.
Catherine dabbed at her eyes and checked her make-up in the rear-view mirror. She sniffed and started to smile. Turned the ignition key.
Excerpted from House of Small Shadows by Adam Nevill. Copyright © 2013 by Adam Nevill. First published 2013 by Macmillan. This edition published 2013 by Pan Books, 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
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.