Authors: Aline Templeton
Cradle to Grave
Also by Aline Templeton
Marjory Fleming series
Cold in the Earth
The Darkness and the Deep
Lamb to the Slaughter
Dead in the Water
Death is my Neighbour
Last Act of All
Past Praying For
The Trumpet Shall Sound
Night and Silence
Shades of Death
First published in Great Britain in 2011 by Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Aline Templeton
The right of Aline Templeton 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.
Epub ISBN 9781848947153
Book ISBN 9780340976975
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
To the memory of Robbie Robertson: a good man
Wednesday, 19 July
She had no idea how long she had been walking, though such light as there was had begun fading into an ominous twilight. Her flimsy trainers, caked with mud, were squelching and she had lost count of the number of times she had slipped and almost fallen. There was a bloody bruise on her ankle and a deep graze on one hand where she had clutched at a boulder to save herself.
But Beth was unaware of her injuries, unaware of anything, really, except the depth of her wretchedness. She’d always hated rain, ever since that dreadful night two years ago. That dreadful night . . .
The garden had looked strange and unearthly in the cold blue light from the street lamps. The trees were dripping and there were wet leaves on the path, slippery under her hurrying feet. And the trees dripped, dripped, dripped, on and on through the horror of her dreams afterwards. Oh, she hated rain.
Now the downpour that had drenched her hair and soaked right through her inadequate parka seemed as much a part of her as the tears she had shed.
The rocky track, starting at the cove, where a few cottages huddled into the shelter of the low cliff behind, led right round the headland, then circled back, following the rising ground to the top of the bluff itself, from which a precipitous path dropped down to the cove again. The viewpoint there had often been Beth’s refuge, a place where no one could come upon you unawares, where sitting on the old wooden bench, you could be alone with the sky and the sea, and look out to the limitless horizon, dreaming of freedom from the cage of your circumstances. That had been Lee’s promise to her – freedom.
Today, as she walked following the line of the coast, there was no horizon. Sullen sea and leaden sky merged in an indeterminate, lightless grey. The colour of despair.
She had been angry when she left the tiny house. ‘Red angry’, she called it: when rage possessed her so that she could hardly think, or breathe, even. She had yelled at him so much that her throat still hurt.
She wasn’t angry now, though. The relentless pounding of the rain had doused the spark of fury and the greyness had seeped through her, through the pores in her skin, through into the core of her being.
The path had begun to rise sharply and she realised with a sense of shock that she was almost back at the bluff above the cove, a circuit of several miles, and the surge of adrenaline that had driven her to this fierce, pointless activity was long gone. She must have been walking for hours: her leg muscles were starting to twitch and she was breathless with exertion and stress. It was almost completely dark now too; the street lights outside the cottages had come on.
Suddenly she was very, very tired. Too tired to scramble down the path to the cove. Too tired to deal with what awaited her below. Later, she would have to. Just not yet.
The bench, ‘her’ bench, stood only yards from the edge, where a ramshackle fence with sagging wires and a weathered, barely legible notice warned against intrusion on to the eroding ground. Not even pausing to brush off the water collected on the seat, she sat down heavily and put her head in her hands. The hiss of the rain and the low moaning of the sea below seemed almost a cry from her own spirit.
It was cold, though, now that she’d stopped moving. The rain was heavier than ever, coming down in silver rods to flay her defenceless body. It would soon be too dark to see her way down. She would be forced to go back—
The noise assaulted her without warning, the air round about her reverberating with a sound like a clap of thunder directly overhead. But it went on and on, not overhead but beneath her feet. The ground was shaking, shifting, and the terrifying groaning grew and grew.
Screaming, she leaped up and fled back the way she had come, in a stumbling run, until the ground felt stable under her feet once more. She turned and saw that the bench where a moment earlier she had been sitting was slipping away from her, faster and faster, until it disappeared, along with the edge of the cliff, in a final apocalyptic roar.
‘What’s she like, then?’ The woman who spoke was perching on the edge of a table in the CID room in the Galloway Constabulary Headquarters in Kirkluce. She was in her late thirties, neat and competent-looking, with a no-nonsense bob and make-up that suggested that when she expended time and thought, it wasn’t on her appearance. Her grey trousers and wrap-top were smart but unobtrusive.
There were only three of them in the room. A demonstration was taking place outside the council offices to protest about the summer floods which had devastated houses in several areas, and the officers not on crowd control had gone along to hold a watching brief.
She had addressed DS Tam MacNee, but he didn’t reply immediately. His swarthy, acne-pitted face took on a jaundiced look; he sucked in air through the gap between his front teeth, then said briefly, ‘Just don’t mess her about. That’s all.’
‘Big Marge,’ DC Kim Kershaw persisted, reflecting on the nickname commonly in use for DI Marjory Fleming. ‘Hunky with it, is she?’
MacNee rose to his full five foot seven – well, six and a bit, but when it came to MacNee, no one was counting. Not out loud, anyway.
‘She’s all right. And as of tomorrow she’s back as my superior officer as well as yours. So keep a civil tongue in your head.’
He picked up the black leather jacket hanging on the back of his chair and shrugged himself into it, then with his hands stuck into his jeans pockets went out, leaving an awkward silence behind him. Kershaw looked after him uncomfortably.
DS Andy Macdonald, who was in his early thirties, tall, dark, with a buzz cut and an instinct for self-preservation, had wisely kept out of it. He took pity on her now. ‘It’s like the Cheshire Cat’s grin. The atmosphere lingers long after Tam’s left the room. You’ll get used to it.’
‘Can’t get it right with him, can I? Oh, probably I will get used to him, or he’ll have to get used to me. One or the other, or preferably both. We don’t have to like each other – this is a place of work, not a dating agency.’
She saw that Macdonald’s brown eyes were looking at her doubtfully. ‘Oh, I don’t mean I want to cause trouble, just the opposite. I want a good professional relationship, but with him it doesn’t seem to work. I daresay we’ll rub along. “Yes, Sarge,” when it’s an order – I can manage that. But for God’s sake tell me what I need to know before I go putting my size sixes in it again. Pals, are they, him and the boss?’
Macdonald hesitated. ‘It’s a bit complicated. They go back a long way. He was her sarge when she was a rookie, but he never wanted promotion to a job that would mean more time at his desk. Not exactly a details man, our Tam. They work together pretty closely – worked together,’ he corrected himself. ‘She’s clever – brilliant at reading the evidence – and he’s got seriously good gut reactions. Great combination. But the suspension . . .’ He sighed. ‘Let’s put it this way. He was on the side of the authorities. He thought she got it wrong. Big time.’
‘Someone died, didn’t they?’
‘Someone died. Let’s leave it at that. It was a misjudgement and media politics were involved. We all get our calls wrong sometimes and it’s over now. If the tribunal’s decision had gone the other way, I’d have handed in my badge.’
‘Seriously?’ Kershaw raised a deeply sceptical eyebrow.
Macdonald met her look squarely. ‘I’m not kidding. Oh, not as some sort of loyalist support. I just wouldn’t trust them. If it was her today, it could be me tomorrow.
‘She was the first woman in Galloway to make promotion to DI, and if there were people who thought that was a man’s job, they don’t think it now. She’s honest and she’s fair-minded, and she’s a good officer. She’ll back you to the hilt unless she thinks you’re not trying.’
Kershaw pulled a face. ‘Very touching, Sarge. Has she got the place bugged, then?’
‘Too smart. She’s not interested in what we say about her behind her back. She’s clever enough to know that’s a good safety valve. Watch what you say to her face, though.’
‘Thanks, Andy. That’s useful. I always like to have a dossier on the boss. But to go back to the original question – what’s she like, Big Marge?’
Macdonald grinned. ‘Oh, like Tam said, don’t mess.’
Darkness was thick about Beth and it was still raining, though less heavily now. There was no track to follow, only miles of rough grass and moorland, and she was struggling through heather and stumbling over hidden rocks. Then boggy ground would suck at her feet until she thought she would be dragged down, down, down, and though there was no one to hear her, she screamed out loud as she fought herself free.
It was the dark of the moon, and with the heavy cloud cover there wasn’t even a star showing through. Screwing up her eyes to make out what lay ahead in the murk, Beth sometimes wasn’t sure she was going in the right direction. Her only guide was the sound of the sea – keeping it to her left meant that she had to be heading back along the peninsula and sooner or later would strike the road – but it was hard to make herself take the risk of going close enough to the edge to hear it.
After the landslip, it had all gone deathly quiet. Beth had listened for sounds of distress and heard none, but she had been too scared to go near enough to look down. She knew what she’d see, anyway – the cottages obliterated under tons of earth and rocks. She had reluctantly lived for a month in the one she’d inherited from her grandmother and there were three others in the little row: one empty, one belonging to a woman she’d taken care to avoid and one a holiday let. At least there was no need to consider Lee, but she’d seen a young couple there this week, with their baby – oh dear God, the baby! Bile rose in her throat and she retched, feeling acid burn her gullet. The baby, and the rain . . .
Then it had been London rain, though, just dreary, persistent, depressing. It was her night off and she’d been going out with a friend to have a few drinks, cheer themselves up. Only she wasn’t, because they’d changed their plans and she was stuck in the house, angry and resentful and not feeling patient. It would all have been different if they hadn’t gone out . . .
Beth jerked her mind away from that obsessive thought, which ran on a loop in her brain, only needing the slightest trigger to set it running. Her present situation was bad enough without dredging up the past.
She had fumbled for her mobile phone, in the pocket of her parka with her purse and a comb – all she had left in the world now, presumably – in the hope that up here on the headland she might pick up a signal, but it was obstinately dead. There was nothing to do but stumble on.
Every movement was painful now. She was black and blue all over from her frequent falls. Once, when she had blundered across a grouse, which had whirred up into her face with an unearthly cry, she’d thought she would die of fright. Her tired muscles were screaming for relief, but if she lay down and fell asleep here in this rain, she would die of exposure. She had reason to know that, all too well.
There would be no rescue parties setting out unless she summoned them herself. She was the only one who knew what had happened there at the end of the road, which led nowhere, except to Rosscarron Cottages.
Beth heard the dogs barking before she saw the keeper’s house. They had heard her first, obviously, and were working themselves up into a state. Fear seized her: she wasn’t used to country life and she had no idea whether they were caged or running free – or even whether their master would come out with a shotgun to defend his isolated homestead against strangers appearing out of the darkness.
Even so, she headed towards the sound and saw a square of light appear, as if floating on the darkness. Another light came on immediately below it. A moment later one was switched on outside too, revealing a house, some outbuildings and, as a door opened, a man with a shotgun. The dogs’ barking rose to a frenzy and he switched on a torch, its rays probing the darkness.
Beth stopped, her heart pounding. But what was the alternative? To stagger on blindly to certain death, once her legs literally couldn’t carry her any more and she collapsed? Plucking up her courage, she screamed at the top of her voice, ‘Help! Help!’
Somehow, he heard her above the din. She could see his surprise. He swung the torch until the beam found her and she stood exposed and helpless. Then, to her intense relief, she saw him break his gun and come towards her with a halting gait.
‘Quiet!’ he snapped at the dogs, and, as obedient silence fell, shouted, ‘Who’s there? What’s wrong?’
Sobbing with thankfulness, she blundered across the last few yards towards a five-bar gate, opened it and fell on her knees.
He hurried across to her, looking shaken. ‘What the hell are you doing here? I could’ve killed you, for God’s sake! Thought it was the fox after the chickens again. Well, I suppose you’d better come inside.’
She didn’t notice the grudging response. He helped her to her feet and, stumbling and sobbing, she crossed the yard past the gundogs to Keeper’s Cottage.
From their runs, two spaniels and a black lab watched, then, the entertainment over, went back into their kennels.
‘The phone’s dead. The lines must be down.’ Maidie Buchan, her dark, wiry hair tousled from sleep, came back into the kitchen.
It was a gloomy room with a small window covered by thin faded curtains that barely met. An elderly Calor gas cooker stood in one corner, and the only storage was provided by a press and by cupboards under a Formica sink unit. A range on the end wall was cold and dead, and the plastic chairs round the kitchen table, also blue Formica, were unmatched, as if they had been picked up in sales here and there. It was immaculately, almost painfully clean, though, with patches scrubbed away on the old vinyl floor. On one of the shelves on the back wall there was a display of cheap, bright glass ornaments and plates in cheerful colours.
Maidie was in her thirties, thin and tired-looking, wrapped in a tartan wool dressing gown that had seen better days. She cast an anxious glance at her husband as she broke the news.
‘That’s all we need!’ he snarled, looking unenthusiastically at the crumpled figure sitting slumped over the kitchen table. ‘Where do we go from here? The woman’s not making sense.’
Alick Buchan was almost twenty years older than his wife. An accident with his gun during his time with the army in Northern Ireland had left him with a limp and confirmation of his earlier conviction that the world was against him.
‘She’s in shock. She’s freezing cold too.’
Maidie went to put an arm round her unexpected guest. Her hands were rough and work-hardened, but her touch and her voice were gentle. ‘Look, I know you’re shattered, but you’re needing out of those clothes before you catch your death. I’ve switched on the immersion and there should be enough hot water for a bath. If you come through the house, I’ll get you some clothes and a towel.’
She managed to coax the girl to her feet, though Beth was moving like an old woman and needed Maidie’s support to cross the kitchen. ‘She’ll want a cup of tea when we get back,’ she said to her husband. ‘Can you put on the kettle?’
Alick grunted, then complied with a bad grace. It wasn’t his job to go making cups of tea for strangers in the middle of the night when a working man should be in his bed. A landslide, the lassie had said, and her name, Beth Brown, but what with the way she was carrying on, and her teeth chattering, he hadn’t been able to make out anything more.
Maybe the emergency services were dealing with it already, but with the lines down and this area being a dead spot for mobile phones, they couldn’t find out. He could only hope Maidie would get Beth sorted so she could tell them what had happened. She was very young – not much past twenty, by the looks of her – so it was all just hysterical nonsense, probably, and then he could get back to his bed. He yawned, went to a cupboard and took out a bottle of whisky and a glass.
When the women returned, Beth was wearing a thick pair of flannelette pyjamas with a woolly sweater over the top, and sheepskin slippers. She had a little colour in her cheeks, and at least the violent shivering had stopped. She sat down at the table again and began rubbing her hair with a towel, rather ineffectually, as if she weren’t quite sure what she was doing. Her hair was very dark, in contrast to her fair skin, and she had a rather heavy face, with light blue eyes. He noticed that there was something strange about them, though he couldn’t quite work out what it was.
Maidie was looking almost as pale as Beth. ‘She managed to tell me. It’s the Rosscarron Cottages, Alick. You know there’s a wee sort of cliff up behind them? She was up there and saw half of it fall on the top of them. She was only feet away when the ground just disappeared.’
This wasn’t what he had hoped to hear. ‘Anyone there at the time?’
‘She doesn’t know. She says her partner’s away, but there’s a woman lives in one of the other cottages, and maybe a young couple on holiday with a baby. Alick, you’ll need to get over there, see what’s going on.’
‘Why does this sort of thing always happen to me?’ he grumbled. ‘Oh, all right, all right. I’ll have to go up and change.’ He was wearing a Barber jacket and wellington boots over his pyjamas; he threw back the rest of the whisky in his glass and went upstairs.
Maidie made tea, then, after listening anxiously to check that he wasn’t coming back, poured a slug of whisky into each mug. It would do Beth good to talk, and in her experience a drop of the craitur had considerable power to loosen tongues.
‘I was scared, so scared,’ Beth was saying when Alick returned fully dressed. ‘I didn’t know what to do. I just walked and walked. I couldn’t see where I was going.’
His eye lit on the bottle of whisky, standing where he had left it, and unsuspecting, he returned it to the cupboard.
‘Don’t know when I’ll be back,’ he said. ‘I’ll maybe need to go to the big house, but I’d better check it out before I disturb Himself in the middle of the night.’
Maidie agreed. Gillis Crozier, her husband’s boss, had quite an intimidating presence at the best of times and you wouldn’t want to get him out of his bed for anything less than a full-scale emergency.
Alick went outside. The rain had stopped, though the clouds were still heavy overhead and he reckoned it wouldn’t be long before it started again. He jumped into the elderly jeep and turned the key in the ignition.
It coughed, sputtered and stopped. He tried again. And again. He grabbed a rag, jumped out and dried everything he could think of. Then, swearing, he tried it again. And again . . .
Quarter of an hour later Alick came back into the kitchen. ‘It’s waterlogged. Can’t get the bloody thing started at all. I’ve pushed it under cover in the barn – see how it is by morning.’
Maidie looked at him in dismay. ‘So what do we do now?’
‘What the hell do you expect me to do? Grope my way two miles along to Rosscarron House in the dark? And then another two to the cottages, maybe, and tunnel through the landfall with my bare hands? They could have the lines fixed by morning and then the people who’re paid to do it can sort it out, instead of me. I’m away to get some sleep, that’s what I’m doing.’ He walked out.
‘Beth—’ Maidie turned to speak to the girl, to find that she had fallen asleep across the table. Maidie sighed, then shook her gently.
Beth came to with a start. ‘What . . . ? Where . . . ?’
‘You’re all right,’ Maidie soothed her. ‘There’s a sofa in Alick’s office you can sleep on tonight, and we’ll sort things out in the morning.’
Thursday, 20 July
The hens might be birdbrains, but they knew enough to keep out of the rain, taking it as usual as a personal insult. The mash in the trough was a persuasive argument, but even so they emerged from the henhouse with muted, discontented mutterings. Even Gordon, the rooster, was too dispirited to make much of a job of hailing the morning. He was a downtrodden creature anyway: since his predecessor, Tony, had sinisterly disappeared leaving only a ring of feathers, the alpha hen, Cherie, had bullied him unmercifully.
Had there ever been a worse July? Marjory Fleming watched them, her tall figure huddled into a hooded oilskin jacket, but even so her hair, chestnut brown with the odd streak of grey, was soaking wet. Usually her chookies had an instantly soothing effect, but this morning their low spirits seemed to be infectious.
She should be feeling elated, instead of having a knot of nerves in the pit of her stomach. The tribunal yesterday had reinstated her, with immediate effect, and today she would be back at the job she loved. She had been totally cleared of the charge of racism, but there was a reprimand now on a record that before had contained only commendations. It would, she kept telling herself, feel just as it had before once she was back, but somehow she wasn’t altogether convinced.
What had changed was her confidence in herself. Vanity had led her into a disastrous mistake, and in future when it was a judgement call – as in her work it so often was – there would be a small voice inside whispering, ‘Are you sure?’
For the first weeks of her suspension, Marjory had kept herself busy. She had returned to a fitness regime, which had slipped badly of late, and then begun a relentless programme of purging neglected cupboards and tackling overdue decorating projects, which had left her family begging for mercy. She had been thinking, though, in terms of weeks, not months: her superintendent, Donald Bailey, had assured her that the chief constable would pull strings to get her back on duty as soon as possible – and perhaps he had. Sometimes officers were suspended for years.
But as a month had slipped into two and her projects were completed, the pointlessness of her daily life began to weigh her down. She had set up an efficient domestic support system, geared to her hectic working life, and it had left her with nothing to do. Marjory had always felt there weren’t enough hours in the day; now she couldn’t believe how slowly the hands of the clock crept round.
As each interminable day crawled past, she doubted herself more and more. She’d always accepted light-heartedly that as a homemaker she was a failure, but if she was no good as a police officer either . . .
Worried, bored and quite desperately unhappy, she became short-tempered. Her long-suffering husband Bill took to spending more time than usual on his work around the farm; she was snappish with her children, Catriona and Cameron. After having her head bitten off when she offered sympathy, Cat had withdrawn, and Cammie, who still had not quite forgiven Marjory for not being a mother first, last and all the time, had reverted to grunting as a means of communication. It was something he did rather well – international standard certainly, and possibly even world class.
Eventually, it seemed futile to make the usual early start to her day. It only meant more hours to fill, and Bill could easily let the hens out and make his own breakfast – he always complained that Marjory’s porridge was lumpy anyway. She had slept later and later, yet felt exhausted all the time. Her fitness programme lapsed; she just hadn’t the energy for it, but she resisted with scorn Bill’s suggestion that she should see a doctor. There was absolutely nothing wrong with her. It was just that she had been working flat out for years and a rest was exactly what she needed.
Her brittle defensiveness only shattered when Cammie, in a clumsy effort to help, dropped a casserole, which shattered on the floor. She heard her own voice screaming at him, saw his white, miserable face and burst into tears.
She couldn’t stop. She was entirely unaware of Cat and Cammie exchanging stricken glances and sliding out of the room. It seemed quite a long time later, when she had sobbed herself to a standstill, that she heard Bill’s voice saying quietly, ‘Finished?’
Marjory looked up blearily. He was holding out a handkerchief and she took it, shamefacedly mopping her eyes.
‘You needed that,’ Bill said calmly. ‘You need a drink too. Come on.’
‘Cammie . . .’ she said, as she got to her feet.
‘Never mind Cammie for the moment. He’s OK; you’re not.’
Marjory allowed him to lead her through to the sitting room which had seen so many of their long conversations over the years. She sat down in her shabby armchair and Meg the collie, who had followed them through, came to press herself against her mistress’s legs in silent sympathy.
Stroking the silky head, she laughed shakily. ‘I’m sorry about that, Bill. I don’t know what came over me.’
Bill brought her a heavy crystal glass with a generous slug of Bladnoch, the local single malt.
know,’ he said. ‘Been there, done that. You’re starting to get depressed.’
She glanced up. She remembered the foot-and-mouth epidemic, when the killing squads had wiped out his healthy sheep as a precaution; the wound, clearly, still hadn’t quite healed.
Yet somehow his understanding annoyed her. ‘Of course I’m depressed. In my position if I wasn’t depressed, I’d have failed to understand the situation.’
‘Yes, I know, love. But when you start not wanting to get out of bed, and bursting into tears over nothing, you can’t pretend you’re just being logical.’
Feeling crosser than ever about having the rug pulled from under her, Marjory muttered rebelliously, ‘Maybe I can.’
Bill had a smile lurking at the corners of his mouth. ‘Getting annoyed about nothing at all – that’s another symptom.’
‘Oh, you!’ She glared at him, then picked up a cushion and hurled it. He caught it effortlessly, trying not to laugh.
Her own laughter was close to tears, and her lip wobbled. ‘Don’t laugh at me, Bill.’
He came across to her. ‘Move up,’ he said, and squeezed into the chair beside her, putting his arms round her and dropping a kiss on her forehead. ‘I’m not laughing at you. I’m trying to make you laugh with me. Nothing better for getting things in perspective. But I’m serious – go on like this and you’ll spiral down into real depression, where you can’t see the sun even when it’s shining in the sky. I know what you’re doing. You’re telling yourself a story that isn’t true – that somehow without your work, you’re nothing – and sooner or later you’ll start to believe it and fall apart.’
Majory’s voice was muffled as she snuggled into his shoulder. ‘It’s pretty much true, though, isn’t it? I’m hopeless at my other role.’
‘As a farmer’s wife, you mean? This farmer’s perfectly satisfied. I didn’t marry you to get a housekeeper – and
’s a mercy.’
He was trying to make her laugh again and she managed a watery smile, sitting up and twisting round to face him.
‘But, Bill, I’ve no idea how long this will go on. Some people can be on ‘‘gardening leave’’ for years – and I don’t like gardening. I’ve got to do something.’
Bill got up, stretched his cramped arm and fetched the Bladnoch to refill their glasses, then sat down in his own chair opposite.
‘You have to make it something you’ve got to do. Set yourself a target and stick to it. What is there you’re interested in but never had time to do – yoga, flower-arranging?’
Majory gave him a quelling look, but she was thinking. ‘They sent me on a short psychology course last year. That was fascinating. Maybe I might pursue that, get a reading list. View it as professional development . . .’
The next morning she had got up with a sense of purpose, and though the worries and frustration certainly remained, her programme of study meant that she felt in control of her life once more. The fitness regime had been reinstated and her household, finding her recognisable again as the woman they knew, had breathed a collective sigh of relief.
And then yesterday the tribunal had cleared her name. Now all she had to do, she told herself firmly as she checked for eggs and collected up the pails, was to get on with the job and live down the humiliation. And rebuild her bridges with Tam MacNee, who apart from the most stiff and formal expressions of regret, had been a stranger to her over these interminable four months.
She felt another nervous twinge in her stomach as she squelched back to the farmhouse.
Alick Buchan was making no attempt to hurry his breakfast. He supped his porridge and drank his tea with maddening deliberation, while his wife, casting anxious looks but saying nothing, bustled about him as if her own busyness might nudge him into action.
Beth Brown, aching in every limb and feeling now the bruises and cuts she had been too shocked to notice last night, sat gripping her mug of tea so tightly that her knuckles showed white. Her brown hair straggled round her pale face, and her eyes were red-rimmed and puffy. Her fitful sleep had been punctuated by hideous dreams: she was in prison again; now she was standing in the dock; the court was rising; the judge had terrible flashing eyes; then the roof fell and she was buried alive under tons of earth . . . She had forced herself awake at last and, too afraid to go back to sleep, had sat up shivering in the cold, grey dawn.
It was barely light outside even now, with a leaden sky. When she had heard sounds of movement, Beth had dragged herself to her feet and got dressed in the jeans and sweater she’d found lying on a chair beside her. The jeans were a bit tight, but she could get into them if she left the waist fastening undone. She sipped at the tea as if even swallowing was an effort.
Eventually, able to bear it no longer, Maidie said to her husband, ‘Why don’t you try and start the jeep while I make your toast? You’ll have to go – the phone’s still out, and dear knows when they’ll get it mended.’
Grudgingly, Alick got to his feet and went outside. Maidie peered out of the rain-streaked kitchen window, reporting on his progress. ‘He’s shut the bonnet now. Oh, and wiped his hands on the back of his jeans. That’s good. Oily marks to get out in the next wash.’
Just as she spoke there was a loud wail from upstairs. Maidie pulled a face. ‘That’s Calum. I’ll have to get to him before he wakes up Gran. Can you make the toast for Alick, Beth? If it’s ready for him, he maybe won’t sit down again.’
Stiffly, Beth got up. It hurt to move, but if there was something she could do to be useful, she didn’t mind the pain. It had been all too clear last night that, however kind Maidie might be, Beth was an unwarranted intrusion as far as Alick was concerned. A small spark of anger flickered; she didn’t want to be here, any more than he wanted to have her. It wouldn’t cost him much to pretend to be civilised about it.
As she toasted the bread under the grill of the old cooker, she heard the engine of the jeep catch and then start running smoothly. It stopped and started again a couple of times without a problem, and glancing out of the window she saw Alick jumping down and hurrying across the yard to the house, his hair flattened to his head by the teeming rain.
As he opened the back door, he saw Beth alone and stopped.
‘Maidie not here?’
‘Your son was crying. She said you’d to have some toast. Here – I’ve buttered it.’
He took the plate from her without thanks, dug his knife into a pot of raspberry jam and spread both slices thickly. ‘I’ll take them with me. Might as well get on with it, if I have to.’
Beth’s parka was drying on the old-fashioned pulley overhead. She went to pull it down, but Alick frowned.
‘You’re not coming with me,’ he said flatly. Then he paused. ‘Unless you want to be dropped off somewhere. With family, maybe?’
Beth could hear the hope of getting rid of her in his voice. ‘No,’ she said coolly. ‘I’ve no one. Just the cottage. I thought maybe the police would want to speak to me.’
Disappointed, Alick was dismissive. ‘What can you tell them they can’t see for themselves? And the emergency services won’t want people like you getting in the way.’
Beth nodded with apparent submission. She’d learned that trick long ago.
‘A night out with a friend? Oh, that’s all right, then. You can go another time – have an extra night off. Not this week, though – we’ve a lot on. Next week, probably. All right?’
She’d agreed, because it was the best-paid job she’d ever had and the result of saying no could be losing it, even though she was at the end of her tether after a difficult day and the promised extra night would never materialise.
Alick seemed satisfied with her practised response. He was on his way out when his wife appeared with a small child on her hip. He looked about eighteen months old, curly-haired and with big, dark eyes, and he was grizzling quietly.
Alick, his mouth full of toast and with the other slice in his hand, said thickly, ‘I’ll call in and tell Himself what’s happened – maybe the phones are all right there. We’ll sort her out later.’ He jerked his head ungraciously at Beth and left.
Perhaps to cover her embarrassment, Maidie went to get a tissue to wipe her son’s tears and his runny nose. ‘I think he’s getting another cold. He was a right little b yesterday and no doubt he’s planning—’
A peremptory voice interrupted her, from upstairs somewhere. ‘Maidie! Maidie! Where are you? What’s going on?’
‘Oh damn! It’s wakened Gran. I’d hoped for another hour’s peace.’ Maidie sighed. ‘I’d better go to her.’
‘Leave Calum with me,’ Beth said quickly. ‘I’ll look after him.’
Maidie hesitated. ‘He’s not very good with strangers, but. . . .’
Beth held out her arms, smiling, and to his mother’s surprise the toddler stopped crying and after taking a long, appraising glance, reached out to her. Beth gathered him to her hungrily.
‘You’re a lovely boy, aren’t you, pet?’ she said. ‘And no one could be happy with a horrible cold, could they?’
She spotted a small chest of toys in a corner of the kitchen and went to pick up a toy car. ‘Look, Calum – it’s going to run along here and run along and—Oops, crash! It’s fallen off.’
The toddler gave a gurgle of amusement. As Maidie watched, smiling, another shout of ‘Maidie! Did you hear me?’ came from upstairs.
She sighed again. ‘I’ll have to go to her.’ Then she paused at the door. ‘You’re awfully good with children, aren’t you?’
‘I’ve always loved kids.’
And as Maidie disappeared upstairs, the phrase echoed in Beth’s head like the slam of an iron door.
It was another hot day in the airless London summer and the sun was streaming through the great windows. The atmosphere was damp with the breath and the sweat of spectators packed into the public seats. In the crowded press box, hacks with notepads sat scribbling, scribbling.
There had been some dull technical stuff from a defence witness and a somnolent hush had fallen. Despite the chilling majesty of the Old Bailey courtroom, she had felt heavy-eyed herself. Below her on a ledge, a bluebottle on its back spun round and round, buzzing and buzzing in a frenzy of helplessness. She knew just how it felt.
When the next witness was called, the atmosphere changed as if a breeze had blown through. Suddenly there was a hum of talk and the reporters were sitting up.