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The Distant Hours

The Distant Hours

Аннотация

    Edie Burchill and her mother have never been close, but when a long lost letter arrives one Sunday afternoon with the return address of Millderhurst Castle, Kent, printed on its envelope, Edie begins to suspect that her mother's emotional distance masks an old secret. Evacuated from London as a thirteen year old girl, Edie's mother is chosen by the mysterious Juniper Blythe, and taken to live at Millderhurst Castle with the Blythe family: Juniper, her twin sisters and their father, Raymond. In the grand and glorious Millderhurst Castle, a new world opens up for Edie's mother. She discovers the joys of books and fantasy and writing, but also, ultimately, the dangers. Fifty years later, as Edie chases the answers to her mother's riddle, she, too, is drawn to Millderhurst Castle and the eccentric Sisters Blythe. Old ladies now, the three still live together, the twins nursing Juniper, whose abandonment by her fiance in 1941 plunged her into madness. Inside the decaying castle, Edie begins to unravel her mother's past. But there are other secrets hidden in the stones of Millderhurst Castle, and Edie is about to learn more than she expected. The truth of what happened in the distant hours has been waiting a long time for someone to find it…


Kate Morton The Distant Hours

    Copyright © Kate Morton 2010
    For Kim Wilkins,
    who encouraged me to start;
    and
    Davin Patterson,
    who was with me to the last full stop

    Hush… Can you hear him?
    The trees can. They are the first to know that he is coming.
    Listen! The trees of the deep, dark wood, shivering and jittering their leaves like papery hulls of beaten silver; the sly wind, snaking through their tops, whispering that soon it will begin.
    The trees know, for they are old and they have seen it all before.
    It is moonless.
    It is moonless when the Mud Man comes. The night has slipped on a pair of fine, leather gloves; shaken a black sheet across the land: a ruse, a disguise, a sleeping spell, so that all beneath it slumbers sweet.
    Darkness, but not only, for there are nuances and degrees and textures to all things. Look: the rough woolliness of the huddled woods; the quilted stretch of fields; the smooth molasses moat. And yet. Unless you are very unlucky, you won’t have noticed that something moved where it should not. You are fortunate indeed. For there are none who see the Mud Man rise and live to tell the tale.
    There – see? The sleek black moat, the mud-soaked moat, lies flat no longer. A bubble has appeared, there in the widest stretch, a heaving bubble, a quiver of tiny ripples, a suggestion-
    But you have looked away! And you were wise to do so. Such sights are not for the likes of you. We will turn our attention instead to the castle, for that way also something stirs.
    High up in the tower.
    Watch and you will see.
    A young girl tosses back her covers.
    She has been put to bed hours before; in a nearby chamber her nurse snores softly, dreaming of soap and lilies and tall glasses of warm fresh milk. But something has woken the girl; she sits up furtively, sidles across the clean white sheet, and places her feet, one beside the other, two pale, narrow blocks, on the wooden floor.
    There is no moon to look at or to see by, and yet she is drawn to the window. The stippled glass is cold; she can feel the night-frosted air shimmering as she climbs atop the bookcase, sits above the row of discarded childhood favourites, victims of her rush to grow up and away. She tucks her nightdress round the tops of her pale legs and rests her cheek in the cup where one white knee meets the other.
    The world is out there, people moving about in it like clockwork dolls.
    Some day soon she plans to see it for herself; for this castle might have locks on all the doors and bars against the windows, but that is to keep the other thing out, and not to keep her in.
    The other thing.
    She has heard stories about him. He is a story. A tale from long ago, the bars and locks vestiges of a time when people believed such things. Rumours about monsters in moats who lay in wait to prey upon fair maidens. A man to whom an ancient wrong was done; who seeks revenge against his loss, time and time again.
    But the young girl – who would frown to hear herself described that way – is no longer bothered by childhood monsters and fairy tales. She is restless; she is modern and grown-up and hungers for escape. This window, this castle, has ceased to be enough, and yet for the time being it is all she has and thus she gazes glumly through the glass.
    Out there, beyond, in the folded crease between the hills, the village is falling to drowsy sleep. A dull and distant train, the last of the night, signals its arrival: a lonely call that goes unanswered, and the porter in a stiff cloth hat stumbles out to raise the signal. In the nearby woods, a poacher eyes his shot and dreams of getting home to bed, while on the outskirts of the village, in a cottage with peeling paint, a newborn baby cries.
    Perfectly ordinary events in a world where all makes sense. Where things are seen when they are there, missed when they are not. A world quite unlike the one in which the girl has woken to find herself.
    For down below, nearer than the girl has thought to look, something is happening.
    The moat has begun to breathe. Deep, deep, mired in the mud, the buried man’s heart kicks wetly. A low noise, like the moaning wind but not, rises from the depths and hovers tensely above the surface. The girl hears it, that is she feels it, for the castle foundations are married to the mud, and the moan seeps through the stones, up the walls, one storey after another, imperceptibly through the bookcase on which she sits. A once-beloved tale tumbles to the floor and the girl in the tower gasps.
    The Mud Man opens an eye. Sharp, sudden, tracks it back and forth. Is he thinking, even then, of his lost family? The pretty little wife and the pair of plump, milky babes he left behind. Or have his thoughts cast further back to the days of boyhood, when he ran with his brother across fields of long pale stems? Or are his thoughts, perhaps, of the other woman, the one who loved him before his death? Whose flattery and attentions and refusal to be refused cost the Mud Man everything-
    Something changes. The girl senses it and shivers. Presses her hand to the icy window and leaves a starry print within the condensation. The witching hour is upon her, though she does not know to call it that. There is no one left to help her now. The train is gone, the poacher lies beside his wife, even the baby sleeps, having given up trying to tell the world all that it knows. At the castle the girl in the window is the only one awake; her nurse has stopped snoring and her breaths are so light now that one might think her frozen; the birds in the castle wood are silent too, heads tucked beneath their shivering wings, eyes sealed in thin grey lines against the thing they know is coming.
    The girl is the only one; and the man, waking in the mud. His heart splurting; faster now, for his time has come and it will not last long. He rolls his wrists, his ankles, he launches from the muddy bed.
    Don’t watch. I beg you, look away as he breaks the surface, as he clambers from the moat, as he stands on the black, drenched banks, raises his arms and inhales. Remembers how it is to breathe, to love, to ache.
    Look instead at the storm clouds. Even in the dark you can see them coming. A rumble of angry, fisted clouds, rolling, fighting, until they are right above the tower. Does the Mud Man bring the storm, or does the storm bring the Mud Man? Nobody knows.
    In her bower, the girl inclines her head as the first reluctant drops splatter against the pane and meet her hand. The day has been fine, not too hot; the evening cool. No talk of midnight rain. The following morning, people will greet the sodden earth with surprise; scratch their heads and smile at one another and say, What a thing! To think we slept right through it!
    But look! What’s that? – A shape, a mass, is climbing up the tower wall. The figure climbs quickly, ably, impossibly. For no man, surely, can achieve such a feat?
    He arrives at the girl’s window. They are face to face. She sees him through the streaky glass, through the rain – now pounding; a mudded, monstrous creature. She opens her mouth to scream, to cry for help, but in that very moment, everything changes.
    Before her eyes, he changes. She sees through the layers of mud, through the generations of darkness and rage and sorrow, to the human face beneath. A young man’s face. A forgotten face. A face of such longing and sadness and beauty; and she reaches, unthinking, to unlock the window. To bring him in from the rain.
    The True History of the Mud Man
    Prologue
    Raymond Blythe

PART ONE

A Lost Letter Finds Its Way

1992

    It started with a letter. A letter that had been lost a long time, waiting out half a century in a forgotten postal bag in the dim attic of a nondescript house in Bermondsey. I think about it sometimes, that mailbag: of the hundreds of love letters, grocery bills, birthday cards, notes from children to their parents, that lay together, swelling and sighing as their thwarted messages whispered in the dark. Waiting, waiting, for someone to realize they were there. For it is said, you know, that a letter will always seek a reader; that sooner or later, like it or not, words have a way of finding the light, of making their secrets known.
    Forgive me, I’m being romantic – a habit acquired from the years spent reading nineteenth-century novels with a torch when my parents thought I was asleep. What I mean to say is that it’s odd to think that if Arthur Tyrell had been a little more responsible, if he hadn’t had one too many rum toddies that Christmas Eve in 1941 and gone home and fallen into a drunken slumber instead of finishing his mail delivery, if the bag hadn’t then been tucked in his attic and hidden until his death some fifty years later when one of his daughters unearthed it and called the Daily Mail, the whole thing might have turned out differently. For my mum, for me, and especially for Juniper Blythe.
    You probably read about it when it happened; it was in all the newspapers, and on the TV news. Channel 4 even ran a special where they invited some of the recipients to talk about their letter, their particular voice from the past that had come back to surprise them. There was a woman whose sweetheart had been in the RAF, and the man with the birthday card his evacuated son had sent, the little boy who was killed by a piece of falling shrapnel a week or so later. It was a very good programme, I thought: moving in parts, happy and sad stories interspersed with old footage of the war. I cried a couple of times, but that’s not saying much: I’m rather disposed to weep.
    Mum didn’t go on the show, though. The producers contacted her and asked whether there was anything special in her letter that she’d like to share with the nation, but she said no, that it was just an ordinary old clothing order from a shop that had long ago gone out of business. But that wasn’t the truth. I know this because I was there when the letter arrived. I saw her reaction to that lost letter and it was anything but ordinary.
    It was a morning in late February, winter still had us by the throat, the flowerbeds were icy, and I’d come over to help with the Sunday roast. I do that sometimes because my parents like it, even though I’m a vegetarian and I know that at some point during the course of the meal my mother will start to look worried, then agonized, until finally she can stand it no longer and statistics about protein and anaemia will begin to fly.
    I was peeling potatoes in the sink when the letter dropped through the slot in the door. The post doesn’t usually come on Sundays so that should have tipped us off, but it didn’t. For my part, I was too busy wondering how I was going to tell my parents that Jamie and I had broken up. It had been two months since it happened and I knew I had to say something eventually, but the longer I took to utter the words, the more calcified they became. And I had my reasons for staying silent: my parents had been suspicious of Jamie from the start, they didn’t take kindly to upsets, and Mum would worry even more than usual if she knew that I was living in the flat alone. Most of all, though, I was dreading the inevitable, awkward conversation that would follow my announcement. To see first bewilderment, then alarm, then resignation, cross Mum’s face as she realized the maternal code required her to provide some sort of consolation… But back to the post. The sound of something dropping softly through the letterbox.
    ‘Edie, can you get that?’
    This was my mother. (Edie is me: I’m sorry, I should have said so earlier.) She nodded towards the hallway and gestured with the hand that wasn’t stuck up the inside of the chicken.
    I put down the potato, wiped my hands on a tea towel and went to fetch the post. There was only one letter lying on the welcome mat: an official Post Office envelope declaring the contents to be ‘redirected mail’. I read the label to Mum as I brought it into the kitchen.
    She’d finished stuffing the chicken by then and was drying her own hands. Frowning a little, from habit rather than any particular expectation, she took the letter from me and plucked her reading glasses from on top of the pineapple in the fruit bowl. She skimmed the post office notice and with a flicker of her eyebrows began to open the outer envelope.
    I’d turned back to the potatoes by now, a task that was arguably more engaging than watching my mum open mail, so I’m sorry to say I didn’t see her face as she fished the smaller envelope from inside, as she registered the frail austerity paper and the old stamp, as she turned the letter over and read the name written on the back. I’ve imagined it many times since, though, the colour draining instantly from her cheeks, her fingers beginning to tremble so that it took minutes before she was able to slit the envelope open.
    What I don’t have to imagine is the sound. The horrid, guttural gasp, followed quickly by a series of rasping sobs that swamped the air and made me slip with the peeler so that I cut my finger.
    ‘Mum?’ I went to her, draping my arm around her shoulders, careful not to bleed on her dress. But she didn’t say anything. She couldn’t, she told me later, not then. She stood rigidly as tears spilled down her cheeks and she clutched the strange little envelope, its paper so thin I could make out the corner of the folded letter inside, hard against her bosom. Then she disappeared upstairs to her bedroom leaving a fraying wake of instructions about the bird and the oven and the potatoes.
    The kitchen settled in a bruised silence around her absence and I stayed very quiet, moved very slowly so as not to disturb it further. My mother is not a crier, but this moment – her upset and the shock of it – felt oddly familiar, as if we’d been here before. After fifteen minutes in which I variously peeled potatoes, turned over possibilities as to whom the letter might be from, and wondered how to proceed, I finally knocked on her door and asked whether she’d like a cup of tea. She’d composed herself by then and we sat opposite one another at the small Formica-covered table in the kitchen. As I pretended not to notice she’d been crying, she began to talk about the envelope’s contents.
    ‘A letter,’ she said, ‘from someone I used to know a long time ago. When I was just a girl, twelve, thirteen.’
    A picture came into my mind, a hazy memory of a photograph that had sat on my gran’s bedside when she was old and dying. Three children, the youngest of whom was my mum, a girl with short dark hair, perched on something in the foreground. It was odd; I’d sat with Gran a hundred times or more but I couldn’t bring that girl’s features into focus now. Perhaps children are never really interested in who their parents were before they were born; not unless something particular happens to shine a light on the past. I sipped my tea, waiting for Mum to continue.
    ‘I don’t know that I’ve told you much about that time, have I? During the war, the Second World War. It was a terrible time, such confusion, so many things were broken. It seemed…’ She sighed. ‘Well, it seemed as if the world would never return to normal. As if it had been tipped off its axis and nothing would ever set it to rights.’ She cupped her hands around the steaming rim of her mug and stared down at it.
    ‘My family – Mum and Dad, Rita and Ed and I – we all lived in a small house together in Barlow Street, near the Elephant and Castle, and the day after war broke out we were rounded up at school, marched over to the railway station and put into train carriages. I’ll never forget it, all of us with our tags on and our masks and our packs, and the mothers, who’d had second thoughts because they came running down the road towards the station, shouting at the guard to let their kids off; then shouting at older siblings to look after the little ones, not to let them out of their sight.’
    She sat for a moment, biting her bottom lip as the scene played out in her memory.
    ‘You must’ve been frightened,’ I said quietly. We’re not really hand-holders in our family or else I’d have reached out and taken hers.
    ‘I was, at first.’ She removed her glasses and rubbed her eyes. Her face had a vulnerable, unfinished look without her frames, like a small nocturnal animal confused by the daylight. I was glad when she put them on again and continued. ‘I’d never been away from home before, never spent a night apart from my mother. But I had my older brother and sister with me, and as the trip went on and one of the teachers handed round bars of chocolate, everybody started to cheer up and look upon the experience almost like an adventure. Can you imagine? War had been declared but we were all singing songs and eating tinned pears and looking out of the window playing I-spy. Children are very resilient, you know; callous in some cases.
    ‘We arrived eventually in a town called Cranbrook, only to be split into groups and loaded onto various coaches. The one I was on with Ed and Rita took us to the village of Milderhurst, where we were walked in lines to a hall. A group of local women were waiting for us there, smiles fixed on their faces, lists in hand, and we were made to stand in rows as people milled about, making their selection.
    ‘The little ones went fast, especially the pretty ones. People supposed they’d be less work, I expect, that they’d have less of the whiff of London about them.’
    She smiled crookedly. ‘They soon learned. My brother was picked early. He was a strong boy, tall for his age, and the farmers were desperate for help. Rita went a short while after with her friend from school.’
    Well, that was it. I reached out and laid my hand on hers. ‘Oh, Mum.’
    ‘Never mind.’ She pulled free and gave my fingers a tap. ‘I wasn’t the last to go. There were a few others, a little boy with a terrible skin condition. I don’t know what happened to him, but he was still standing there in that hall when I left.
    ‘You know, for a long time afterwards, years and years, I forced myself to buy bruised fruit if that’s what I picked up first at the greengrocer’s. None of this checking it over and putting it back on the shelf if it didn’t measure up.’
    ‘But you were chosen eventually.’
    ‘Yes, I was chosen eventually.’ She lowered her voice, fiddling with something in her lap, and I had to lean close. ‘She came in late. The room was almost clear, most of the children had gone and the ladies from the Women’s Voluntary Service were putting away the tea things. I’d started to cry a little, though I did so very discreetly. Then all of a sudden, she swept in and the room, the very air, seemed to alter.’
    ‘Alter?’ I wrinkled my nose, thinking of that scene in Carrie when the light explodes.
    ‘It’s hard to explain. Have you ever met a person who seems to bring their own atmosphere with them when they arrive somewhere?’
    Maybe. I lifted my shoulders, uncertain. My friend Sarah has a habit of turning heads wherever she goes; not exactly an atmospheric phenomenon, but still…
    ‘No, of course you haven’t. It sounds so silly to say it like that. What I mean is that she was different from other people, more… Oh, I don’t know. Just more. Beautiful in an odd way, long hair, big eyes, rather wild looking, but it wasn’t that alone which set her apart. She was only seventeen at the time, in September 1939, but the other women all seemed to fold into themselves when she arrived.’
    ‘They were deferential?’
    ‘Yes, that’s the word, deferential. Surprised to see her and uncertain how to behave. Finally, one of them spoke up, asking whether she could help, but the girl merely waved her long fingers and announced that she’d come for her evacuee. That’s what she said; not an evacuee, her evacuee. And then she came straight over to where I was sitting on the floor. “What’s your name?” she said, and when I told her she smiled and said that I must be tired, having travelled such a long way. “Would you like to come and stay with me?” I nodded, I must have, for she turned then to the bossiest woman, the one with the list, and said that she would take me home with her.’
    ‘What was her name?’
    ‘Blythe,’ said my mother, suppressing the faintest of shivers. ‘Juniper Blythe.’
    ‘And was it she who sent you the letter?’
    Mum nodded. ‘She led me to the fanciest car I’d ever seen and drove me back to the place where she and her older twin sisters lived, through a set of iron gates, along a winding driveway, until we reached an enormous stone edifice surrounded by thick woods. Milderhurst Castle.’
    The name was straight out of a gothic novel and I tingled a little, remembering Mum’s sob when she’d read the woman’s name and address on the back of the envelope. I’d heard stories about the evacuees, about some of the things that went on, and I said on a breath, ‘Was it ghastly?’
    ‘Oh no, nothing like that. Not ghastly at all. Quite the opposite.’
    ‘But the letter… It made you-’
    ‘The letter was a surprise, that’s all. A memory from a long time ago.’
    She fell silent then and I thought about the enormity of evacuation, how frightening, how odd it must have been for her as a child to be sent to a strange place where everyone and everything was vastly different. I could still touch my own childhood experiences, the horror of being thrust into new, unnerving situations, the furious bonds that were forged of necessity – to buildings, to sympathetic adults, to special friends – in order to survive. Remembering those urgent friendships, something struck me: ‘Did you ever go back, Mum, after the war? To Milderhurst?’
    She looked up sharply. ‘Of course not. Why would I?’
    ‘I don’t know. To catch up, to say hello. To see your friend.’
    ‘No.’ She said it firmly. ‘I had my own family in London, my mother couldn’t spare me, and besides, there was work to be done, cleaning up after the war. Real life went on.’ And with that, the familiar veil came down between us and I knew the conversation was over.
    We didn’t have the roast in the end. Mum said she didn’t feel like it and asked whether I minded terribly giving it a miss this weekend. It seemed unkind to remind her that I don’t eat meat anyway and that my attendance was more in the order of daughterly service, so I told her it was fine and suggested that she have a lie-down. She agreed, and as I gathered my things into my bag she was already swallowing two paracetamol in preparation, reminding me to keep my ears covered in the wind.
    My dad, as it turns out, slept through the whole thing. He’s older than Mum and had retired from his work a few months before. Retirement hasn’t been good for him: he roams the house during the week, looking for things to fix and tidy, driving Mum mad, then on Sunday he rests in his armchair. The God-given right of the man of the house, he says to anyone who’ll listen.
    I gave him a kiss on the cheek and left the house, braving the chill air as I made my way to the tube, tired and unsettled and somewhat subdued to be heading back alone to the fiendishly expensive flat I’d shared until recently with Jamie. It wasn’t until somewhere between High Street Kensington and Notting Hill Gate that I realized Mum hadn’t told me what the letter said.
    A Memory Clarifies
    Writing it down now, I’m a little disappointed in myself. But everyone’s an expert with the virtue of hindsight and it’s easy to wonder why I didn’t go looking, now that I know what there was to find. And I’m not a complete dolt. Mum and I met for tea a few days later and, although I failed again to mention my changed circumstances, I did ask her about the contents of the letter. She waved the question away and said it wasn’t important, little more than a greeting; that her reaction had been brought on by surprise and nothing more. I didn’t know then that my mum is a good liar or I might have had reason to doubt her, to question further or to take special notice of her body language. You don’t though, do you? Your instinct is usually to believe what people tell you, particularly people you know well, family, those you trust; at least mine is. Or was.
    And so I forgot for a time about Milderhurst Castle and Mum’s evacuation and even the odd fact that I’d never heard her speak of it before. It was easy enough to explain away; most things are if you try hard enough: Mum and I got on all right, but we’d never been especially close, and we certainly didn’t go in for long chummy discussions about the past. Or the present, for that matter. By all accounts her evacuation had been a pleasant but forgettable experience; there was no reason she should’ve shared it with me. Lord knows, there was enough I didn’t tell her.
    Harder to rationalize was the strong, strange sense that had come upon me when I witnessed her reaction to the letter, the inexplicable certainty of an important memory I couldn’t pin down. Something I’d seen or heard and since forgotten, fluttering now within the shadowy recesses of my mind, refusing to stop still and let me name it. It fluttered and I wondered, trying very hard to remember whether perhaps another letter had arrived, years before, a letter that had also made her cry. But it was no use; the elusive, granular feeling refused to clarify and I decided it was more than likely my overactive imagination at work, the one my parents had always warned would get me into trouble if I wasn’t careful.
    At the time I had more pressing concerns: namely, where I was going to live when the period of prepaid rent on the flat was up. The six months paid in advance had been Jamie’s parting gift, an apology of sorts, compensation for his regrettable behaviour, but it would end in June. I’d been combing the papers and estate agents’ windows for studio flats, but on my modest salary it was proving difficult to find anywhere even remotely close to work.
    I’m an editor at Billing & Brown Book Publishers. They’re a small family-run publisher, here in Notting Hill, set up in the late 1940s by Herbert Billing and Michael Brown, as a means, initially, of publishing their own plays and poetry. When they started I believe they were quite respected, but over the decades, as bigger publishers took a greater share of the market and public taste for niche titles declined, we’ve been reduced to printing genres we refer to kindly as ‘speciality’ and those to which we refer less kindly as ‘vanity’. Mr Billing – Herbert – is my boss; he’s also my mentor, champion and closest friend. I don’t have many, not the living, breathing sort at any rate. And I don’t mean that in a sad and lonely way; I’m just not the type of person who accumulates friends or enjoys crowds. I’m good with words, but not the spoken kind; I’ve often thought what a marvellous thing it would be if I could only conduct relationships on paper. And I suppose, in a sense, that’s what I do, for I’ve hundreds of the other sort, the friends contained within bindings, page after glorious page of ink, stories that unfold the same way every time but never lose their joy, that take me by the hand and lead me through doorways into worlds of great terror and rapturous delight. Exciting, worthy, reliable companions – full of wise counsel, some of them – but sadly ill-equipped to offer the use of a spare bedroom for a month or two.
    For although I was inexperienced at breaking up – Jamie was my first real boyfriend, the sort with whom I’d envisaged a future – I suspected this was the time to call in favours from friends. Which is why I turned to Sarah. The two of us grew up as neighbours and our house became her second home whenever her four younger siblings turned into wild things and she needed to escape. I was flattered that someone like Sarah thought of my parents’ rather staid suburban home as a refuge, and we remained close through secondary school until Sarah was caught smoking behind the toilets one too many times and traded in maths classes for beauty school. She works freelance now, for magazines and film shoots. Her success is a brilliant thing, but unfortunately it meant that in my hour of need she was away in Hollywood turning actors into zombies, her flat and its spare room sublet to an Austrian architect.
    I fretted for a time, envisaging in piquant detail the sort of life I might be forced to eke out sans roof, before, in a fine act of chivalry, Herbert offered me the sofa in his little flat below our office.
    ‘After all you did for me?’ he said, when I asked if he was sure. ‘Picked me up off the floor, you did. Rescued me!’
    He was exaggerating; I’d never actually found him on the floor, but I knew what he meant. I’d only been with them a couple of years and had just started to look around for something slightly more challenging when Mr Brown passed away. Herbert took the death of his partner so hard, though, that there was no way I could leave him, not then. He didn’t appear to have anyone else, other than his rotund, piggy little dog, and although he never said as much, it became clear to me by the type and the intensity of his grief that he and Mr Brown had been more than business partners. He stopped eating, stopped washing, and drank himself silly on gin one morning even though he’s a teetotaller.
    There didn’t seem to be much choice about the matter: I began making him meals, confiscated the gin, and when the figures were very bad and I couldn’t raise his interest, I took it upon myself to door-knock and find us some new work. That’s when we moved into printing flyers for local businesses. Herbert was so grateful when he found out that he quite overestimated my motivation. He started referring to me as his protégée and cheered up considerably when he talked about the future of Billing & Brown; how he and I were going to rebuild the company in honour of Mr Brown. The glimmer was back in his eyes and I put off my job search a little longer.
    And here I am now. Eight years later. Much to Sarah’s bemusement. It’s hard to explain to someone like her, a creative, clever person who refuses to do anything on terms that aren’t her own, that the rest of us have different criteria for satisfaction in life. I work with people I adore, I earn enough money to support myself (though not perhaps in a two-bedder in Notting Hill), I get to spend my days playing with words and sentences, helping people to express their ideas and fulfil their dreams of publication. Besides, it’s not as if I haven’t got prospects. Just last year, Herbert promoted me to the position of Vice Chairman; never mind that there are only the two of us working in the office full-time. We had a little ceremony and everything. Susan, the part-time junior, baked a pound cake and came in on her day off so we could all three drink non-alcoholic wine together from teacups.
    Faced with imminent eviction, I gratefully accepted his offer of a place to stay; it was really a very touching gesture, particularly in light of his flat’s tiny proportions. It was also my only option. Herbert was extremely pleased. ‘Marvellous! Jess will be beside herself – she does love guests.’
    So it was, back in May, I was preparing to leave forever the flat that Jamie and I had shared, to turn the final, blank page of our story and begin a new one all of my own. I had my work, I had my health, I had an awful lot of books; I just needed to be brave, to face up to the grey, lonely days that stretched on indefinitely.
    All things considered, I think I was doing pretty well: only occasionally did I allow myself to slip deep inside the pool of my own most maudlin imaginings. At these times I’d find a quiet, dark corner – all the better to give myself over fully to the fantasy – and picture in great detail those bland future days when I would walk along our street, stop at our building, gaze up at the windowsill on which I used to grow my herbs and see someone else’s silhouette fall across the glass. Glimpse the shadowy barrier between the past and the present, and know keenly the physical ache of being unable ever to go back.
    I was a daydreamer when I was small, and a source of constant frustration to my poor mother. She used to despair when I walked through the middle of a muddy puddle, or had to be wrenched back from the gutter and the path of a hurtling bus, and say things like: ‘It’s dangerous to get lost inside one’s own head,’ or ‘You won’t be able to see what’s really going on around you – that’s when accidents happen, Edie. You must pay attention.’
    Which was easy for her: never had a more sensible, pragmatic woman walked the earth. Not so simple, though, for a girl who’d lived inside her head for as long as she’d been able to wonder: ‘What if…?’ And I didn’t stop daydreaming, of course, I merely got better at hiding it. But she was right, in a way, for it was my preoccupation with imagining my bleak and dreary post-Jamie future that left me so utterly unprepared for what happened next.
    In late May, we received a phone call at the office from a self-styled ghost whisperer who wanted to publish a manuscript about his other-worldly encounters on Romney Marsh. When a prospective new client makes contact, we do whatever we can to keep them happy, which is why I found myself driving Herbert’s rather ancient Peugeot hatchback down to Kent for a meet, greet and, hopefully, woo. I don’t drive often and I loathe the motorway when it’s busy, so I left at the crack of dawn, figuring it gave me a clearer run at getting out of London unscathed.
    I was there well before nine, the meeting itself went very well – wooing was done, contracts were signed – and I was back on the road again by midday. A much busier road by then, and one to which Herbert’s car, incapable of going faster than fifty miles per hour without serious risk of tyre-loss, was decidedly unequal. I planted myself in the slow lane, but still managed to attract much frustrated horn-honking and head-shaking. It is not good for the soul to be cast as a nuisance, particularly when one has no choice in the matter, so I left the motorway at Ashford and took the back roads instead. My sense of direction is quite dreadful, but there was an AA book in the glove compartment and I was resigned to pulling over regularly to consult it.
    It took me a good half hour to become well and truly lost. I still don’t know how it happened, but I suspect the map’s vintage played a part. That, and the fact that I’d been enjoying the view – fields speckled with cowslips; wild flowers decorating the ditches by the side of the road – when I probably should have been paying attention to the road itself. Whatever the cause, I’d lost my spot on the map, and was driving along a narrow lane over which great bowed trees were arched when I finally admitted that I had no idea whether I was heading north, south, east or west.
    I wasn’t worried, though, not then. As far as I could see, if I just continued on my way, sooner or later I was bound to reach a junction, a landmark, maybe even a roadside stall where someone might be kind enough to draw a big red X on my map. I wasn’t due back at work that afternoon; roads didn’t continue on forever; I just needed to keep my eyes peeled.
    And that’s how I saw it, poking up from the middle of an aggressive mound of ivy. One of those old white posts with the names of local villages carved into arrowed pieces of wood pointing in each direction. Milderhurst, it read, 3 miles.
    I stopped the car and read the signpost again, hairs beginning to quiver on the back of my neck. An odd sixth sense overcame me, and the cloudy memory that I’d been struggling to bring into focus ever since Mum’s lost letter arrived in February resurrected itself. I climbed out of the car, as if in a dream, and followed where the signpost led. I felt like I was watching myself from the outside, almost as if I knew what I was going to find. And perhaps I did.
    For there they were, half a mile along the road, right where I’d imagined they might be. Rising from the brambles, a set of tall iron gates, once grand but listing now at broken angles. Leaning, one towards the other, as if to share a weighty burden. A sign was hanging on the small stone gatehouse, a rusted sign that read, Milderhurst Castle.
    My heart beat fast and hard against my ribcage and I crossed the road towards the gates. I gripped a bar with each hand – cold, rough, rusting iron beneath my palms – and brought my face, my forehead, slowly to press against them. I followed with my eyes the gravel driveway that curved away, up the hill, until it crossed a bridge and disappeared behind a thick patch of woods.
    It was beautiful and overgrown and melancholy, but it wasn’t the view that stole my breath. It was the thudding realization, the absolute certainty, that I had been here before. That I had stood at these gates and peered between the bars and watched the birds flying like scraps of night-time sky above the bristling woods.
    Details murmured into place around me and it seemed as if I’d stepped into the fabric of a dream; as if I were occupying, once again, the very same temporal and geographical space that my long-ago self had done. My fingers tightened around the bars and somewhere, deep within my body, I recognized the gesture. I’d done the same thing before. The skin of my palms remembered. I remembered. A sunny day, a warm breeze playing with the hem of my dress – my best dress – the shadow of my mother, tall in my peripheral vision.
    I glanced sideways to where she stood, watching her as she watched the castle, the dark and distant shape on the horizon. I was thirsty, I was hot, I wanted to go swimming in the rippling lake that I could see through the gates. Swimming with the ducks and moorhens and the dragon- flies making stabbing movements amongst the reeds along the banks.
    ‘Mum,’ I remembered saying, but she didn’t reply. ‘Mum?’ Her head turned to face me, and a split second passed in which not a spark of recognition lit her features. Instead, an expression that I didn’t understand held them hostage. She was a stranger to me, a grown-up woman whose eyes masked secret things. I have words to describe that odd amalgam now: regret, fondness, sorrow, nostalgia; but back then I was clueless. Even more so when she said, ‘I’ve made a mistake. I should never have come. It’s too late.’
    I don’t think I answered her, not then. I had no idea what she meant and before I could ask she’d gripped my hand and pulled so hard that my shoulder hurt, dragging me back across the road to where our car was parked. I’d caught a hint of her perfume as we went, sharper now and sour where it had mixed with the day’s scorching air, the unfamiliar country smells. And she’d started the car, and we’d been driving, and I was watching a pair of sparrows through the window when I heard it: the same ghastly cry that she’d made when the letter arrived from Juniper Blythe.
    The Books and the Birds
    The castle gates were locked and far too high to scale, not that I’d have rated my chances had they been lower. I’ve never been one for sports or physical challenges, and with the arrival of that missing memory my legs had turned, most unhelpfully, to jelly. I felt strangely disconnected and uncertain and, after a time, there was nothing for it but to go back to the car and sit for a while, wondering how best to proceed. In the end, my choices were limited. I felt far too distracted to drive, certainly anywhere as far as London, so I started up the car and proceeded at a crawl into Milderhurst village.
    On first glimpse it was like all the other villages I’d driven through that day: a single road through the centre with a green at one end, a church beside it, and a school along the way. I parked in front of the local church hall and I could almost see the lines of weary London schoolchildren, grubby and uncertain after their interminable train ride. A ghostly imprint of Mum long ago, before she was my mum, before she was much of anything, filing helplessly towards the unknown.
    I drifted along the High Street, trying – without much success – to tame my flyaway thoughts. Mum had been back to Milderhurst, all right, and I had been with her. We’d stood at those gates and she’d become upset. I remembered it. It had happened. But as surely as one answer had been found, a host of new questions had broken free, fluttering about my mind like so many dusty moths seeking the light. Why had we come and why had she wept? What had she meant when she told me she’d made a mistake, that it was too late? And why had she lied to me, just three months before, when she’d told me that Juniper Blythe’s letter mean nothing?
    Round and round the questions flew, until finally I found myself standing at the open door of a bookshop. It’s natural in times of great perplexity, I think, to seek out the familiar, and the high shelves and long rows of neatly lined-up spines were immensely reassuring. Amid the smell of ink and binding, the dusty motes in beams of strained sunlight, the embrace of warm, tranquil air, I felt that I could breathe more easily. I was aware of my pulse slowing to its regular pace and my thoughts stilling their wings. It was dim, which was all the better, and I picked out favourite authors and titles like a teacher taking roll-call. Brontë – present; Dickens – accounted for; Shelley – a number of lovely editions. No need to slide them out of place; just to know that they were there was enough, to brush them lightly with my fingertips.
    I wandered and noted, reshelved occasionally when books were out of place, and eventually I came upon a clearing at the back of the shop. There was a table set up at the centre with a special display labelled Local Stories. Crowded together were histories, coffee-table tomes, and books by local authors: Tales of Mystery, Murder and Mayhem, Adventures of the Hawkhurst Smugglers, A History of Hop Farming. In the middle, propped on a wooden stand, was a title I knew: The True History of the Mud Man.
    I gasped and picked it up to cradle.
    ‘You like that one?’ The shop assistant had appeared from nowhere, hovering nearby as she folded her dusting cloth.
    ‘Oh, yes,’ I said reverently. ‘Of course. Who doesn’t?’
    The first time I encountered The True History of the Mud Man I was ten years old and home from school, sick. It was the mumps, I think, one of those childhood illnesses that keep you isolated for weeks, and I must’ve been getting whiney and unbearable because Mum’s sympathetic smile had tightened to a stoical crease. One day, after ducking out for a brief reprieve on the High Street, she’d returned with renewed optimism and pressed a tattered library book into my hands.
    ‘Perhaps this will cheer you up,’ she’d said tentatively. ‘It’s for slightly older readers, I think, but you’re a clever girl; with a bit of effort I’m sure you’ll be fine. It’s rather long compared with what you’re used to, but do persevere.’
    I probably coughed self-pityingly in response, little aware that I was about to cross a tremendous threshold beyond which there would be no return; that in my hands I held an object whose simple appearance belied its profound power. All true readers have a book, a moment, like the one I describe, and when Mum offered me that much-read library copy mine was upon me. For although I didn’t know it then, after falling deep inside the world of the Mud Man, real life was never going to be able to compete with fiction again. I’ve been grateful to Miss Perry ever since, for when she handed that novel over the counter and urged my harried mother to pass it on to me, she’d either confused me with a much older child or else she’d glimpsed deep inside my soul and perceived a hole that needed filling. I’ve always chosen to believe the latter. After all, it’s the librarian’s sworn purpose to bring books together with their one true reader.
    I opened that yellowing cover and, from the first chapter, the one describing the Mud Man’s awakening in the sleek, black moat, the awful moment in which his heart begins to kick, I was hooked. My nerves thrilled, my skin flushed, my fingers quivered with keenness to turn page after page, each thinning on the corner where countless other readers had taken the journey before me; I went to grand and fearsome places, all without leaving the tissue-laden couch in my family’s suburban breakfast room. The Mud Man kept me imprisoned for days: my mother started smiling again, my swollen face subsided, and my future self was forged.
    I noted again the handwritten sign – Local Stories – and turned to the beaming shop assistant. ‘Raymond Blythe came from around here?’
    ‘Oh yes.’ She pushed fine hair behind each ear. ‘He certainly did. Lived and wrote up at Milderhurst Castle; died there too. That’s the grand estate a few miles outside the village.’ Her voice took on a vaguely forlorn note. ‘At least, it was grand once.’
    Raymond Blythe. Milderhurst Castle. My heart had started to hammer pretty hard by now. ‘I don’t suppose he had a daughter?’
    ‘Three of them, actually.’
    ‘One called Juniper?’
    ‘That’s right; she’s the youngest.’
    I thought of my mum, her memory of the seventeen-year-old girl who’d charged the air as she entered the village hall, who’d rescued her from the evacuee line, who’d sent a letter in 1941 that made Mum cry when it arrived, fifty years later. And I felt the sudden need to lean on something firm.
    ‘All three of them are still alive up there,’ the shop assistant continued. ‘Something in the castle water, my mother always says; they’re hale and hearty for the most part. Excepting your Juniper, of course.’
    ‘Why, what’s wrong with her?’
    ‘Dementia. I believe it’s in the family. A sad story – they say she was quite a beauty once, and very bright with it, a writer of great promise, but her fiancé abandoned her back in the war and she was never the same again. Went soft in the head; kept waiting for him to come back, but he never did.’
    I opened my mouth to ask where the fiancé had gone, but she was on a roll and it was evident she’d be taking no questions from the floor.
    ‘Just as well she had her sisters to look after her – they’re a dying breed, those two; used to be involved in all sorts of charities, way back when – she’d have been packed off to an institution otherwise.’ She checked behind her, making sure we were alone, then leaned closer. ‘I remember when I was a girl, Juniper used to roam the village and the local fields; didn’t bother anyone, nothing like that, just wandered sort of aimlessly. Used to terrify the local kids; but then children like to be scared, don’t they?’
    I nodded eagerly and she resumed: ‘She was harmless enough, though; never got herself into trouble she couldn’t be got back out of. And every village worth its salt needs a local eccentric.’ A smile trembled on her lips. ‘Someone to keep the ghosts company. You can read more about them all in here, if you like.’ She held up a book called Raymond Blythe’s Milderhurst.
    ‘I’ll take it,’ I said, handing over a ten-pound note. ‘And a copy of the Mud Man, too.’
    I was almost out of the shop, brown paper bundle in hand, when she called after me, ‘You know, if you’re really interested you ought to think about doing a tour.’
    ‘Of the castle?’ I peered back into the shadows of the shop.
    ‘It’s Mrs Bird you’ll be wanting to see. Home Farm Bed and Breakfast down on the Tenterden Road.’
    The farmhouse stood a couple of miles back the way I’d come, a stone and tile-hung cottage attended by profusely flowering gardens, a hint of other farm buildings clustered behind. Two small dormers peeked through the roofline and a flurry of white doves wafted around the coping of a tall brick chimneystack. Leaded windows had been opened to take advantage of the warm day, diamond panels winking blindly at the afternoon sun.
    I parked the car beneath a giant ash whose looming arms caught the edge of the cottage in its shadow, then wandered through the sun-warmed tangle: heady jasmine, delphiniums and campanulas, spilling over the brick path. A pair of white geese waddled fatly by, without so much as pausing to acknowledge my intrusion, as I went through the door, passing from brilliant sunshine into a faintly lit room. The immediate walls were decorated with black-and-white photographs of the castle and its grounds, all taken, according to the subtitles, on a Country Life shoot in 1910. Against the far wall, behind a counter with a gold ‘Reception’ sign, a short, plump woman in a royal-blue linen suit was waiting for me.
    ‘Well now, you must be my young visitor from London.’ She blinked through a pair of round tortoiseshell frames, and smiled at my confusion. ‘Alice from the bookshop called ahead, letting me know I might expect you. You certainly didn’t waste any time in coming; Bird thought you’d be another hour at least.’
    I glanced at the yellow canary in a palatial cage suspended behind her.
    ‘He was ready for his lunch, but I said you’d be sure to arrive just as soon as I closed the door and put out the sign.’ She laughed then, a smoky chuckle that rolled up from the base of her throat. I’d guessed her age as pushing sixty, but that laugh belonged to a much younger, far more wicked woman than first impressions suggested. ‘Alice tells me you’re interested in the castle.’
    ‘That’s right. I was hoping to do a tour and she sent me here. Do I need to sign up somewhere?’
    ‘Dear me, no, nothing as official as all that. I run the tours myself.’ Her linen bosom puffed self-importantly before deflating again. ‘That is, I did.’
    ‘Did?’
    ‘Oh yes, and a lovely task it was too. The Misses Blythe used to operate them personally, of course; they started in the 1950s as a way to fund the castle’s upkeep and save themselves from the National Trust – Miss Percy wouldn’t have that, I can assure you – but it all got a bit much some years ago. We’ve all of us got our limits and when Miss Percy reached hers, I was delighted to step in. There was a time I used to run five a week, but there’s not much call these days. It seems people have forgotten the old place.’ She gave me a quizzical look, as though I might be able to explain the vagaries of the human race.
    ‘Well, I’d love to see inside,’ I said brightly, hopefully, maybe even a little desperately.
    Mrs Bird blinked at me. ‘Of course you would, my dear, and I’d love to show you, but I’m afraid the tours don’t run any more.’
    The disappointment was crushing and for a moment I didn’t think I’d be able to speak. ‘Oh,’ I managed. ‘Oh dear.’
    ‘It’s a shame, but Miss Percy said her mind was made up. She said she was tired of opening her home so ignorant tourists had somewhere to drop their rubbish. I’m sorry Alice misled you.’ She shrugged her shoulders helplessly and a knotty silence fell between us.
    I attempted polite resignation, but as the possibility of seeing inside Milderhurst Castle receded, there was suddenly very little in life that I wanted more fiercely. ‘Only – I’m such a great admirer of Raymond Blythe,’ I heard myself say. ‘I don’t think I’d have ended up working in publishing if I hadn’t read the Mud Man when I was a child. I don’t suppose… That is, perhaps if you were to put in a good word, reassure the owners that I’m not the sort of person to go dropping rubbish in their home?’
    ‘Well…’ She frowned, considering. ‘The castle is a joy to behold, and there’s no one as proud of her perch as Miss Percy… Publishing, you say?’
    It had been an inadvertent stroke of brilliance: Mrs Bird belonged to a generation for whom those words held a sort of Fleet Street glamour; never mind my poky, paper-strewn cubicle and rather sobering balance sheets. I seized upon this opportunity as a drowning person might a raft: ‘Billing & Brown Book Publishers, Notting Hill.’ I remembered then the business cards Herbert had presented at my little promotion party. I never think to carry them with me, not in an official way, but they come in very handy as bookmarks and I was thus able to whip one out from the copy of Jane Eyre I keep in my tote in case I need to queue unexpectedly. I tendered it like the winning lottery ticket.
    ‘Vice Chairman,’ read Mrs Bird, eyeing me over her glasses. ‘Well, indeed.’ I don’t think I imagined the new note of veneration in her voice. She thumbed the corner of the business card, tightened her lips, and gave a short nod of decision. ‘All right. Give me a minute and I’ll telephone the old dears. See if I can’t convince them to let me show you round this afternoon.’
    While Mrs Bird spoke hushed words into an old-fashioned phone receiver, I sat in a chintz-upholstered chair and opened the brown paper package containing my new books. I slipped out the shiny copy of the Mud Man and turned it over. It was true what I’d said: in one way or another my encounter with Raymond Blythe’s story had determined my entire life. Just holding it in my hands was enough to fill me with an all-encompassing sense of knowing precisely who I was.
    The cover design of the new edition was the same as that on the West Barnes library’s copy Mum had borrowed almost twenty years before, and I smiled to myself, vowing to buy a Jiffy bag and post it to them just as soon as I got home. Finally, a twenty-year debt would be repaid. For when my mumps subsided and it was time to return the Mud Man to Miss Perry the book, it seemed, had vanished. No amount of furious searching on Mum’s part and impassioned declarations of mystification on mine, managed to turn it up, not even in the wasteland of missing things beneath my bed. When all avenues of search had been exhausted, I was marched up to the library to make my barefaced confession. Poor Mum earned one of Miss Perry’s withering stares and almost died of shame, but I was too emboldened by the delicious glory of possession to suffer guilt. It was the first and only time I’ve ever stolen, but there was no help for it; quite simply, that book and I belonged to one another.
    Mrs Bird’s phone receiver met the cradle with a plastic clunk and I jumped a little. By the tug of her features I gathered instantly that the news was bad. I stood and limped to the counter, my left foot numb with pins and needles.
    ‘I’m afraid one of the Blythe sisters isn’t well today,’ said Mrs Bird.
    ‘Oh?’
    ‘The youngest has had a turn and the doctor’s on his way out to see her.’
    I worked to conceal my disappointment. There was something very unseemly about a show of personal frustration when an old lady had been taken ill. ‘That’s terrible. I hope she’s all right.’
    Mrs Bird waved my concern away like a harmless but pesky fly. ‘I’m sure she will be. It’s not the first time. She’s suffered episodes since she was a girl.’
    ‘Episodes?’
    ‘Lost time, is what they used to call it. Time she couldn’t account for, usually after she became over-excited. Something to do with an unusual heart rate – too fast or too slow, I can’t remember which, but she used to black out and wake up with no memory of what she’d done.’ Her mouth tightened around some further sentiment she’d thought better of expressing. ‘The older sisters will be too busy looking after her today to be bothered by disturbances, but they were loath to turn you away. The castle needs its visitors, they said. Funny old things – I’m quite surprised, to be honest, they’re ordinarily not keen on guests. I suppose it gets lonely though, just the three of them rattling around inside. They suggested tomorrow instead, mid-morning?’
    A flutter of anxiety in my chest. I hadn’t planned to stay, and yet the thought that I might leave without seeing inside the castle brought with it a profound and sudden surge of desolation. Disappointment darkened inside me.
    ‘We’ve had a cancellation so there’s a room free if you’d like it?’ said Mrs Bird. ‘Dinner’s included.’
    I had work to catch up on over the weekend, Herbert needed his car to get to Windsor the following afternoon, and I’m not the sort of person who decides on a whim to stay for a night in a strange place.
    ‘All right,’ I said. ‘Let’s do it.’
    Raymond Blythe’s Milderhurst
    While Mrs Bird started on the paperwork, transferring details from my business card, I disengaged myself with a mumble of polite noises and drifted over to peek through the open back door. A courtyard had been formed by the farmhouse wall and those of other farm buildings: a barn, a dovecote, and a third construction with a conical roof that I would later learn to call an oast house. A round pool meditated at the centre and the pair of fat geese had launched themselves across the sun-warmed surface, floating regally now as ripples chased one another towards the flagstone edges. Beyond, a peacock inspected the edge of clipped lawn separating the tended courtyard from a meadow of wild flowers that tumbled towards distant parkland. The whole sunlit garden, framed as it was by the shadowed doorway in which I stood, was like a snapshot of a long-ago spring day, come back somehow to life.
    ‘Glorious, isn’t it?’ said Mrs Bird, behind me suddenly, though I hadn’t noticed her approach. ‘Have you ever heard of Oliver Sykes?’
    I indicated that I hadn’t and she nodded, only too happy to enlighten me: ‘He was an architect, quite well known in his time. Terribly eccentric. He had his own place in Sussex, Pembroke Farm, but he did some work at the castle in the early 1900s, soon after Raymond Blythe married for the first time and brought his wife here from London. It was one of the last jobs Sykes worked on before he disappeared, off on his own version of the Grand Tour. He supervised the creation of a larger version of our circular pool, and did some tremendous work on the moat around the castle: turned it into a rather grand bathing ring for Mrs Blythe. She was a terrific swimmer, they say, very athletic. They used to put…’ She glued a finger to her cheek and wrinkled her forehead. ‘A chemical – oh dear now, what was it?’ She removed the finger and raised her voice. ‘Bird?’
    ‘Copper sulphate,’ came a disembodied male voice.
    I glanced again at the canary, fossicking for seed in his cage, then the picture-hung walls.
    ‘Yes, yes, of course it was,’ Mrs Bird continued, unfazed, ‘copper sulphate to keep it azure blue.’ A sigh. ‘That was a long time ago now though. Sadly, Sykes’s moat was filled in decades ago, and his grand circular pool belongs only to the geese. Full of dirt and duck mess.’ She handed me a heavy brass key and patted my fingers closed around it. ‘We’ll walk up to the castle tomorrow. The forecast is clear and there’s a beautiful view from the second bridge. Shall we meet here at ten?’
    ‘You’ve an appointment with the vicar tomorrow morning, dear.’ That patient, wood-panelled voice drifted towards us again, however this time I pinpointed its source. A small door, barely visible, hidden in the wall behind the reception counter.
    Mrs Bird pursed her lips and seemed to consider this mysterious amendment before nodding slowly. ‘Bird’s right. Oh now, what a shame.’ She brightened. ‘Never mind. I’ll leave you instructions, finish as quickly as I can in the village, and meet you up at the castle. We’ll only stay an hour. I don’t like to impose any longer: the Misses Blythe are all very old.’
    ‘An hour sounds perfect.’ I could be on my way home to London by lunchtime.
    My room was tiny, a four-poster bed squatting greedily in the centre, a narrow writing desk huddled beneath the leaded window and little besides, but the outlook was glorious. The room was at the back of the farmhouse and the window opened out to look across the same meadow I’d glimpsed through the door downstairs. The second storey, however, offered a better view of the hill that climbed towards the castle, and above the woods I could just pick out the tower’s spire pointing at the sky.
    On the desk someone had left a neatly folded plaid picnic blanket and a welcome basket filled with fruit. The day was balmy and the grounds were beautiful, so I picked up a banana, pinned the blanket beneath my arm, and headed straight downstairs again with my new book, Raymond Blythe’s Milderhurst.
    In the courtyard, jasmine sugared the air, great white sprays tumbling from the top of a wooden arbour at the side of the lawn. Huge goldfish swam slowly near the surface of the pool, listing their plump bodies backwards and forwards to court the afternoon sun. It was heavenly, but I didn’t stick around; a distant band of trees was calling to me and I wove my way towards it, through the meadow dusted with buttercups, self-sown amidst the long grass. Although it wasn’t quite summer, the day was warm, the air dry, and by the time I’d reached the trees my hairline was laced with perspiration.
    I spread the rug in a patch of dappled light and kicked off my shoes. Somewhere nearby a shallow brook chattered over stones and butterflies sailed the breeze. The blanket smelled reassuringly of laundry flakes and squashed leaves, and when I sat down the tall meadow grasses enclosed me so I felt utterly alone.
    I leaned Raymond Blythe’s Milderhurst against my bent knees and ran my hand over the cover. It showed a series of black-and-white photos arranged at various angles, as if they’d dropped from someone’s hand and been photographed where they fell. Beautiful children in old-fashioned dresses, long-ago picnics by a shimmering pool, a line of swimmers posing by the moat; the earnest gazes of people for whom capturing images on photographic paper was a type of magic.
    I turned to the first page and began to read.

    CHAPTER ONE
    MAN OF KENT

    ‘There were those who said the Mud Man had never been born, that he had always been, just as the wind and the trees and the earth; but they were wrong. All living things are born, all living things have a home, and the Mud Man was no different.’
    There are some authors for whom the world of fiction presents an opportunity to scale unseen mountains and depict great realms of fantasy. For Raymond Blythe, however, as for few other novelists of his time, home was to prove a faithful, fertile and fundamental inspiration, in his life as in his work. Letters and articles written over the course of his seventy-five years contain a common theme: Raymond Blythe was unequivocally a homebody who found respite, refuge and ultimately religion in the plot of land that for centuries his forebears had called their own. Rarely has a writer’s home been turned so clearly to fictive purpose as in Blythe’s gothic tale for young people, The True History of the Mud Man. Yet even before this milestone work, the castle standing proud upon its fertile rise within the verdant weald of Kent, the arable farmlands, the dark and whispering woods, the pleasure gardens over which the castle gazes still, contrived to make of Raymond Blythe the man he would become.
    Raymond Blythe was born in a room on the second floor of Milderhurst Castle on the hottest day of the summer of 1866. The first child of Robert and Athena Blythe, he was named for his paternal grandfather, whose fortune was made in the goldfields of Canada. Raymond was the eldest of four brothers, the youngest of whom, Timothy, died tragically during a violent storm in 1876. Athena Blythe, a poetess of some note, was heartbroken by her youngest son’s death and is said to have descended, soon after the boy was laid to rest, into a black depression from which there would be no return. She took her life in a leap from the Milderhurst tower, leaving her husband, her poetry and her three small sons behind.
    On the adjoining page there was a photograph of a handsome woman with elaborately arranged dark hair, leaning from an open mullioned window to gaze upon the heads of four small boys arranged in order of height. It was dated 1875 and had the milky appearance of so many early amateur photographs. The smallest boy, Timothy, must have moved when the photo was being taken because his smiling face had blurred. Poor little fellow, with no idea he’d only months left to live.
    I skimmed the next few paragraphs – withdrawn Victorian father, dispatch to Eton, a scholarship to Oxford – until Raymond Blythe reached adulthood.
    After graduating from Oxford in 1887, Raymond Blythe moved to London where he began his literary life as a contributor to Punch magazine. Over the following decade he published twelve plays, two novels and a collection of children’s poetry; however, his letters indicate that despite his professional accomplishments he was unhappy living in London and longed for the rich countryside of his boyhood.
    It might be supposed that city life was made more bearable for Raymond Blythe by his marriage in 1895 to Miss Muriel Palmerston, much admired and said to be ‘the most handsome of all the year’s debutantes’, and certainly his letters suggest a sharp elevation of spirit at this time. Raymond Blythe was introduced to Miss Palmerston by a mutual acquaintance and, by all reports, the match was a good one. The two shared a passion for outdoor activities, word games and photography, and made a handsome couple, gracing the social pages on numerous occasions.
    After his father’s death in 1898, Raymond Blythe inherited Milderhurst Castle and returned with Muriel to set up home. Many accounts from the period suggest that the pair had long wished to begin a family and certainly, by the time they moved to Milderhurst, Raymond Blythe was quite open in expressing concern in his letters that he was not yet a father. This particular happiness, however, was to elude the couple for some years and as late as 1905 Muriel Blythe wrote to her mother confessing the agonizing fear that she and Raymond would be denied ‘the final blessing of children’. It must have been with tremendous joy, and perhaps some relief, that four months after her letter was sent she wrote again to her mother advising that she was now ‘with child’. With children, as it turned out: after a fraught pregnancy, including a lengthy period of enforced confinement, in January 1906 Muriel was delivered successfully of twin daughters. Raymond Blythe’s letters to his surviving brothers indicate that this was the happiest time of his life, and the family scrapbooks overflow with photographic evidence of his paternal pride.
    The next double page held an assortment of photographs of two little girls. Though they were obviously very similar, one was smaller and finer than the other, and seemed to smile a little less certainly than her sister. In the last photo, a man with wavy hair and a kind face sat in an upholstered chair with a lace-clad baby on each knee.
    There was something in his bearing – the light in his eyes, perhaps, or else the gentle press of his hands against each girl’s arm – that communicated his deep affection for the pair, and it occurred to me, as I looked more closely, how rare it was to find a photograph from the period in which a father was captured with his daughters in such a simple, domestic way. My heart warmed with affection for Raymond Blythe and I continued reading.
    All was not to remain thus joyous, however. Muriel Blythe was killed on a winter’s evening in 1910 when a red-hot ember from the fireplace by which she sat escaped the bounds of the screen to land in her lap. The chiffon of her dress caught fire rapidly and she was aflame before aid could reach her; the blaze went on to consume the east turret of Milderhurst Castle and the vast Blythe family library. The burns to Mrs Blythe’s body were extensive and although she was wrapped in damp bandages and treated by the very best doctors, she succumbed within the month to her terrible injuries.
    Raymond Blythe’s grief following his wife’s death was so profound that for some years after he failed to publish another word. Some sources claim that he suffered a crippling writer’s block, while others believe he sealed up his writing room and refused to work, opening it again only when he began his now famous novel, The True History of the Mud Man, born of a period of intense activity in 1917. Despite its widespread appeal to young readers, many critics see the story as an allegory for the Great War, in which so many lives were lost on the muddy fields of France; in particular, parallels are drawn between the titular Mud Man and the scores of displaced soldiers attempting to return home and reclaim their families after the appalling slaughter. Raymond Blythe himself was wounded at Flanders in 1916 and invalided home to Milderhurst, where he convalesced under the care of a team of private nurses. The Mud Man’s lack of identity and the narrator’s quest to learn the forgotten creature’s original name and his position and place in history are also seen as a homage to the many unknown soldiers of the Great War and the feelings of displacement that Raymond Blythe may have suffered on his return.
    No matter the large volume of scholarship devoted to its discussion, the truth of the Mud Man ’s inspiration remains a mystery; Raymond Blythe was famously reticent about the novel’s composition, saying only that it had been ‘a gift’; that ‘the muse had attended’ and that the story had arrived whole. Perhaps as a result, The True History of the Mud Man is one of very few novels that has managed to capture and retain public interest, becoming almost mythic in its significance. Questions of its creation and influences are still vigorously debated by the literary scholars of many nations, but the inspiration behind the Mud Man remains one of the twentieth century’s most enduring literary mysteries.
    A literary mystery. A shiver crept down my spine as I repeated the words beneath my breath. I loved the Mud Man for its story and the way its arrangement of words made me feel when I read them, but to know that mystery surrounded the novel’s composition made it just that much better.
    Although Raymond Blythe had, to this point, been professionally well regarded, the enormous critical and commercial success of The True History of the Mud Man overshadowed his previous work and he would ever after be known as the creator of the nation’s favourite novel. The production in 1924 of the Mud Man as a play in London’s West End brought it to an even wider audience, but despite repeated calls from readers, Raymond Blythe declined to write a sequel. The novel was dedicated in the first instance to his twin daughters, Persephone and Seraphina, however in later editions a second line was added, containing the initials of his two wives: MB and OS.
    For along with his professional triumph, Raymond Blythe’s personal life flourished again. He had remarried in 1919, to a woman named Odette Silverman whom he met at a Bloomsbury party hosted by Lady Londonderry. Though Miss Silverman was of unremarkable origins, her talent as a harpist gave her an entrée to social events that would most certainly have been closed to her other wise. The engagement was short and the marriage caused a minor society scandal due to the groom’s age and the bride’s youth – he was over fifty, and she, at eighteen, only five years older than the daughters of his first marriage – and their different provenances. Rumours circulated that Raymond Blythe had been bewitched – by Odette Silverman’s youth and beauty. The pair were wed in a ceremony at the Milderhurst chapel, opened for the first time since the funeral of Muriel Blythe.
    Odette gave birth to a daughter in 1922. The child was christened Juniper and her fairness is evident in the many photographs that survive from the period. Once again, despite jocular remarks as to the continued absence of a son and heir, Raymond Blythe’s letters from the time indicate that he was delighted by the addition to his family. Sadly his happiness was to be short-lived, for storm clouds were already gathering on the horizon. In December 1924 Odette died from complications in the early stages of her second pregnancy.
    I turned the page eagerly to find two photos. In the first, Juniper Blythe must have been about four, sitting with her legs straight out in front and her ankles crossed. Her feet were bare and her expression made it clear she’d been surprised – and not happily – in a moment of solitary contemplation. She was staring up at the camera with almond-shaped eyes set slightly too wide apart. Combined with her fine blonde hair, the dusting of freckles across her snub nose, and the fierce little mouth, those eyes created an aura of ill-gotten knowledge.
    In the next photo Juniper was a young woman, the passing of years seemingly instant, so that the same catlike gaze met the camera now from a grown-up face. A face of great but strange beauty. I remembered Mum’s description of the way the other women in the village hall had stepped aside when Juniper arrived, the atmosphere she’d seemed to carry with her. Looking at this photograph, I could well imagine it. She was curious and secretive, distracted and knowing, all at the same time. The individual features, the hints and glimmers of emotion and intellect, combined to form a whole that was compelling. I skimmed the accompanying text for a date – April 1939. The same year my twelve-year-old mother would meet her.
    After the death of his second wife, Raymond Blythe is said to have retreated to his writing room. Aside from a few small opinion pieces in The Times, however, he was to publish nothing of note again. Though Blythe was working on a project at the time of his death it was not, as many hoped, a new instalment of the Mud Man, but rather a lengthy scientific tract about the non-linear nature of time, explicating his own theories, familiar to readers of the Mud Man, about the ability of the past to permeate the present. The work was never completed.
    In the later years of his life, Raymond Blythe was subject to declining health and became convinced that the Mud Man of his famous story had come to life to haunt and torment him. An understandable – if fanciful – fear, given the litany of tragic events that had befallen so many of his loved ones over the course of his life, and one that has been gladly adopted by many a visitor to the castle. It is a prevailing expectation, of course, that a historic castle should come replete with its own spine-chilling stories, and natural that a well-loved novel like The True History of the Mud Man, set within the walls of Milderhurst Castle, should provoke such theories.
    Raymond Blythe converted to Catholicism in the late nineteen-thirties and in his final years refused visits from all but his priest. He died on Friday 4 April 1941 after a fall from the Milderhurst tower, the same fate that had claimed his mother sixty-five years earlier.
    There was another photograph of Raymond Blythe at the end of the chapter. It was vastly different from the first – the smiling young father with the pair of plump twins on his knees – and as I studied it my conversation with Alice in the bookshop came rushing back. In particular, her suggestion that the mental instability that plagued Juniper Blythe had run in the family. For this man, this version of Raymond Blythe, had none of the satisfied ease that had been so remarkable in the first photograph. Instead, he appeared to be riddled by anxiety: his eyes were wary, his mouth was pinched, his chin locked by tension. The photograph was dated 1939, and Raymond would have been seventy-three years old, but it wasn’t age alone that had drawn the deep lines on his face: the longer I stared at it, the more certain I was of that. I’d thought, as I read, that the biographer might have been speaking metaphorically when she referred to Raymond Blythe’s haunting, but now I saw she was not. The man in the photograph wore the frightened mask of prolonged internal torment.
    Dusk slumped into place around me, filling the depressions between the undulations and woods of the Milderhurst estate, creeping across the fields and swallowing the light. The photograph of Raymond Blythe dissolved into the darkness and I closed the book. I didn’t leave, though. Not then. I turned instead to look through the gap in the trees to where the castle stood on the crest of the hill, a black mass beneath an inky sky. And I thrilled to think that the following morning I would step across its threshold.
    The characters of the castle had come to life for me that afternoon; they’d seeped beneath my skin as I read and I now felt that I had known them all forever. That although I’d stumbled upon the village of Milderhurst by accident, there was a rightness to my being there. I’d experienced the same sensation when I first read Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre and Bleak House. As if the story were one I’d already known, that it confirmed something I’d always suspected about the world: that it had sat in my future all along, waiting for me to find it.
    Journey Through a Garden’s Bones
    If I close my eyes now, I can still see the glittering morning sky on my lids: the early summer sun simmering round beneath a clear blue film. It stands out in my memory, I suppose, because by the time I next saw Milderhurst, the seasons had swung and the gardens, the woods, the fields, were cloaked in the metallic tones of autumn. But not that day. As I set off for Milderhurst, Mrs Bird’s detailed instructions loosely in hand, I was enlivened by the stirrings of long-buried desire. Everything was being reborn: birdsong coloured the air, bee-buzz thickened it, and the warm, warm sun drew me up the hill and towards the castle.
    I walked and I walked, until, just when I thought I was in danger of losing myself forever in an unending wooded grove, I emerged through a rusted gate to find a neglected bathing pool laid out before me. It was large and circular, at least thirty feet across, and I knew it at once as the pool Mrs Bird had told me about, the one designed by Oliver Sykes when Raymond Blythe brought his first wife to live at the castle. It was similar in some ways, of course, to its smaller twin down by the farmhouse, yet I was struck by the differences. Where Mrs Bird’s pool glistened blithely beneath the sun, manicured lawn reaching out to tether itself to the sandstone surround, this one had long been left to its own devices. The edging stones were coated in moss and gaps had appeared between them, so the pool was fringed now by kingcups and ox-eye daisies, yellow faces vying for the patchy sunlight. Lily pads grew wild across the surface, one tiled over the other, and the warm breeze rippled the entire skin like that of a giant scaled fish. The sort that evolves unchecked; an exotic aberration.
    I couldn’t see the bottom of the pool, but I could guess at its depth. A diving board had been installed on the far side, the wooden plank bleached and splintered, the springs rusted, the whole contraption held together, it appeared, by little more than good luck. From the bough of an enormous tree a wooden swing seat was suspended on twin ropes, stilled now by the host of thorny brambles that had plaited their way from top to bottom.
    The brambles hadn’t stopped at the ropes either: they’d been having a lovely time thriving unchallenged in the odd, abandoned clearing. Through a tangle of greedy greenery, I spied a small brick building, a changing room, I supposed, the peak of its pitched roof visible at the top. The door was padlocked, the mechanism completely rusted, and the windows, when I found them, were laminated thickly with grime that wouldn’t wipe off. At the back, however, a pane of glass was broken, a grey tuft of fur impaled on the sharpest peak, and I was able to peer through. Which, of course, I wasted no time in doing.
    Dust, so dense I could smell it from where I stood, decades of dust, blanketing the floor and everything else. The room was unevenly lit, courtesy of skylights from which several wooden shutters had been lost, some still hanging by their hinges, others discarded on the floor below. Fine flecks sifted through the gaps, spiralling in streamers of strangled light. A row of shelves was stacked with folded towels, their original colour impossible to guess, and an elegant door on the far wall wore a sign that read ‘Dressing Room’. Beyond, a gossamer curtain fluttered pinkly against a set of stacked lounging chairs, just as it must have done for a long time unobserved.
    I stepped back, conscious suddenly of the noise of my shoes on the fallen leaves. An uncanny stillness permeated the clearing, though the faint lapping of the lily pads remained, and for a split second I could imagine the place when it was new. A delicate overlay insinuated itself atop the present neglect: a laughing party in old-fashioned bathing suits laying down their towels, sipping refreshments, diving from the board, swinging out low and long over the cool, cool water…
    And then it was gone. I blinked, and it was just me again, and the overgrown building. A vague atmosphere of unnameable regret. Why, I wondered, had this pool been abandoned? Why had the last long-ago occupant washed their hands of the place, locked it up, walked away, and never come back? The three Misses Blythe were old ladies now, but they hadn’t always been so. In the many years they’d lived at the castle surely there had been steaming summers ideal for swimming in just such a place…
    I would learn the answers to my questions, though not for some time yet. I would learn other things too, secret things, answers to questions I hadn’t begun to dream of asking. But back then all that was still to come. Standing in the outlying garden of Milderhurst Castle that morning, I was easily able to shrug off such musings and focus instead on the task at hand. For not only was my investigation of the pool getting me no closer to my appointment with the Misses Blythe, I also had a niggling feeling I wasn’t supposed to be in the clearing at all.
    I reread Mrs Bird’s instructions closely.
    It was just as I thought: there was no mention of a pool. In fact, according to the directions, I was supposed to be approaching the south front right about now, making my way between a pair of majestic pillars.
    A small stone of dismay sank slowly to the pit of my stomach.
    This was not the south lawn. I could see no pillars.
    And, while it was no surprise to me that I was lost – I can get in a muddle crossing Hyde Park – it was intensely annoying. Time was pressing and, other than retrace my steps and start again, there seemed little choice but to keep heading higher and hope for the best. There was a gate on the other side of the pool and, beyond it, a stone staircase carved steeply into the overgrown hillside. At least a hundred steps, each sinking into the one beneath as if the whole construction had heaved an enormous sigh. The trajectory was promising, though, so I started climbing. I figured it was all a matter of logic. The castle, the Sisters Blythe, were at the top: keep going upwards and I’d have to reach them eventually.
    The Sisters Blythe. It must’ve been around this time that I started thinking of them that way; the ‘Sisters’ jumped in front of the ‘Blythe’, somewhat like the Brothers Grimm, and there was little I could do to stop it. It’s funny the way things happen. Before Juniper’s letter I’d never heard of Milderhurst Castle, now I was drawn to it like the dusty little moth to the big, bright flame. In the beginning it was all about my mum, of course, the surprise news of her evacuation, the mysterious castle with the gothic-sounding name. Then there was the Raymond Blythe connection – the place where the Mud Man came to life, for goodness’ sake! But now, as I drew closer to that flame, I realized there was something new making my pulse all thrilled and spiky. It might have been the reading I’d done, or the background information Mrs Bird had pushed upon me over breakfast that morning, but at some point I’d become fascinated by the Sisters Blythe themselves.
    I should say that siblings interest me generally. I’m intrigued and repelled by their closeness. The sharing of genetic ingredients, the random and at times unfair distribution of inheritance, the inescapability of the tie. I understand a little of that tie myself. I had a brother once, but not for long. He was buried before I knew him and by the time I’d pieced enough together to miss him, the traces he’d left behind had been neatly put away. A pair of certificates, one birth, one death, in a slim file in the cabinet; a small photograph in my father’s wallet, another in my mum’s jewellery drawer: all that remained to say, ‘I was here!’ Along with the memories and sorrows that live inside my parents’ heads, of course, but they don’t share those with me.
    My point is not to make you feel uncomfortable or sorry for me, only to express that despite having almost nothing material or memorable left with which to conjure Daniel, I’ve felt the tie between us all my life. An invisible thread connects us just as certainly as day is bound to night. It’s always been that way, even when I was small. If I was a presence in my parents’ house, he was an absence. An unspoken sentence every time we were happy: If only he were here; every time I disappointed them: He wouldn’t have done so; every time I started a new school year: Those would be his classmates, those big kids over there. The distant look I caught in their gazes sometimes when they thought they were alone.
    Now I’m not saying my curiosity about the Sisters Blythe had much, if anything, to do with Daniel. Not directly. But theirs was such a beautiful story: two older sisters giving up their own lives to devote themselves to the care of the younger: a broken heart, a lost mind, an unrequited love; it made me wonder what things might have been like, whether Daniel might have been the sort of person I’d have given my life to protect. I couldn’t stop thinking of those sisters, you see, the three of them tied together like that. Growing old, fading, spinning out their days in their ancestral home, the last living members of a grand, romantic family.
    I climbed carefully, up and up, past a weathered sundial, past a row of patient urns on silent plinths, past a pair of stone deer facing off across neglected hedges, until finally I reached the last step and the ground flattened. A pleached alley of gnarled fruit trees racked before me, drawing me onwards. It was as if the garden had a plan, I remember thinking that first morning; as if there were an order, as if it had been waiting for me, refusing to leave me lost, conspiring instead to deliver me to the castle.
    Sentimental silliness, of course. I can only suppose that the steep incline had left me light-headed and subject to wildly grandiose thoughts. Whatever the case, I felt infused. I was intrepid (if rather sweaty). An adventurer who’d slipped from my own time and place and was going forth now to conquer… well, to conquer something. Never mind that this particular mission was destined to end with three old ladies and a country house tour, perhaps an offer of tea if I was lucky.
    Like the pool, this part of the garden had long been left untended, and as I passed through the tunnel of arches I felt myself to be walking within the ancient skeleton of some enormous monster, long dead. Giant ribs stretched above, encasing me, while long linear shadows created the illusion that they also curved beneath. I skipped quickly to the end but when I reached it I stopped short.
    There before me, cloaked in shade though the day was warm, stood Milderhurst Castle. The back of Milderhurst Castle, I realized with a frown, taking in the outhouses, the exposed plumbing, the distinct lack of pillars, entrance lawn or driveway.
    And then it dawned on me, the precise nature of my lostness. Somehow I must’ve missed an early turn and I had ended up winding right around the wooded hillside instead, approaching the castle from the north rather than the south.
    All’s well that end’s well, though: I’d made it relatively unscathed and I was quite sure I wasn’t yet offensively late. Even better, I’d spied a flat strip of wild grass wrapping its way around the walled castle gardens. I followed it, and finally – a triumphant trumpet flourish – stumbled upon Mrs Bird’s pillars. Across the south lawn, just where it ought to be, the front face of Milderhurst Castle rose tall and taller to meet the sun.
    The quiet, steady accumulation of years I’d felt on the garden climb was more concentrated here, spun out like a web around the castle. The building had a dramatic grace and was decidedly oblivious to my intrusion. The bored sash windows gazed beyond me, looking towards the English Channel with a weary permanence of expression that emphasized my sense that I was trivial, temporary, that the grand old building had seen too much else in its time to be bothered much by me.
    A clutter of starlings took flight from the chimney tops, wheeling through the sky and into the valley where Mrs Bird’s farmhouse nestled. The noise, the motion, was oddly disconcerting.
    I followed their progress as they skimmed the treetops, skirling towards the tiny red-tiled roofs. The farmhouse looked so far away, I was overcome by the strangest sense that at some point during my walk up the wooded hill I’d crossed an invisible line of sorts. I’d been there, but now I was here, and something more complicated was at work than a simple shift in location.
    Turning back towards the castle, I saw that a large black door in the lower arch of the tower stood wide open. Strange that I hadn’t noticed it before.
    I started across the grass, but when I reached the stone front stairs I faltered. Sitting by a weathered marble greyhound was his flesh and blood descendant, a black dog of the type I would come to know as a lurcher. He’d been watching me, it seemed, the whole time I’d been standing on the lawn.
    Now he stood, blocking my way, assessing me with his dark eyes. I felt unwilling, unable to continue. My breathing was shallow and I was suddenly cold. I wasn’t afraid, though. It’s difficult to explain, but it was as if he were the ferryman, or an old-fashioned butler, someone whose permission I needed before I could proceed.
    He padded towards me, gaze fixed, footfalls noiseless. Brushed lightly beneath my fingertips before he turned and loped away. Disappeared without a second glance through the open door.
    Beckoning me, or so it seemed, to follow.
    Three Fading Sisters
    Have you ever wondered what the stretch of time smells like? I can’t say I had, not before I set foot inside Milderhurst Castle, but I certainly know now. Mould and ammonia, a pinch of lavender and a fair whack of dust, the mass disintegration of very old sheets of paper. And there’s something else, too, something underlying it all, something verging on rotten or stewed but not. It took me a while to work out what that smell was, but I think I know now. It’s the past. Thoughts and dreams, hopes and hurts, all brewed together, fermenting slowly in the fusty air, unable ever to dissipate completely.
    ‘Hello?’ I called, waiting at the top of the wide stone staircase for a return greeting. Time passed and none came, so I said it again, louder this time. ‘Hello? Is anyone home?’
    Mrs Bird had told me to go on in, that the Sisters Blythe were expecting us, that she’d meet me inside. In fact, she’d been at great pains to impress upon me that I was not to knock or ring the bell or otherwise announce my arrival. I’d been dubious – where I came from, entrance without announcement came pretty close to trespassing – but I did as she’d bid me: took myself straight through the stone portico, beneath the arched walkway, and into the circular room beyond. There were no windows and it was dim despite a ceiling that swept up to form a high dome. A noise drew my attention to the rounded top, where a white bird had flown through the rafters and hovered now in a shaft of dusted light.
    ‘Well then.’ The voice came from my left and I turned quickly to see a very old woman standing in a doorframe some ten feet away, the lurcher by her side. She was thin but tall, dressed in tweeds and a button-up collared shirt, almost gentlemanly in style. Her gender had been brittled by the years, any curves she’d had sunken long ago. Her hair had receded from her forehead and sat short and white around her ears with a wiry stubbornness; the egg-shaped face was alert and intelligent. Her eyebrows, I noted as I moved closer, had been plucked to the point of complete removal then drawn in again, scores the colour of old blood. The effect was dramatic, if a little grim. She leaned forward slightly on an elegant ivory-handled cane. ‘You must be Miss Burchill.’
    ‘Yes.’ I held out my hand, breathless suddenly. ‘Edith Burchill. Hello there.’
    Chill fingers pressed lightly against mine and the leather strap of her watch fell noiselessly around her wrist bone. ‘Marilyn Bird from the farmhouse said you’d be coming. My name is Persephone Blythe.’
    ‘Thank you so much for agreeing to meet me. Ever since I learned of Milderhurst Castle, I’ve been dying to see inside.’
    ‘Really?’ A sharp twist of her lips, a smile as crooked as a hairpin. ‘I wonder why.’
    That was the time, of course, to tell her about Mum, about the letter, her evacuation here as a girl. To see Percy Blythe’s face light up with recognition, for us to exchange news and old stories as we walked. Nothing could have been more natural, which is why it came as something of a surprise to hear myself say: ‘I read about it in a book.’
    She made a noise, a less interested version of ‘ah’.
    ‘I read a lot,’ I added quickly, as if the truthful qualifier might somehow lessen the lie. ‘I love books. I work with books. Books are my life.’
    Her wrinkled expression wilted further in the face of such an innocuous response, and little wonder. The original fib was dreary enough, the additional biographical titbits positively inane. I couldn’t think why I hadn’t just told the truth: it was far more interesting, not to mention honest. Some half-cocked, childish notion of wanting my visit to be my own, I suspect; for it to remain untinged by my mother’s arrival fifty years earlier. Whatever the case, I opened my mouth to backtrack but it was too late: Persephone Blythe had already motioned for me to follow as she and the lurcher started down the gloomy corridor. Her pace was steady and her footfalls light, the cane, it seemed, paying mere lip service to her great age.
    ‘Your punctuality pleases me, at any rate,’ her voice floated back to me. ‘I abhor tardiness.’
    We continued in silence, deep and deepening silence. With each step, the sounds of outside were left more emphatically behind: the trees, the birds, the distant chattering of the somewhere brook. Noises I hadn’t even realized I was hearing until they were gone, leaving a strange airy vacuum so stark my ears began to hum, conjuring their own phantoms to fill the void; whispering sounds, like children when they play at being snakes.
    It was something I would come to know well, the odd isolation of the castle interior. The way sounds, smells, sights that were clear outside the walls seemed somehow to get stuck in the old stone, unable ever to burrow their way through. It was as if over centuries the porous sandstone had absorbed its fill, trapping past impressions, like those flowers preserved and forgotten between the pages of nineteenth-century books, creating a barrier between inside and out that was now absolute. The air outside may have carried rumours of buttercups and freshly mown grass, but inside it smelled only of accumulating time, the muddy held breath of centuries.
    We passed a number of tantalizing sealed doors until finally, at the very end of the corridor, just before it turned a corner and disappeared into the further gloom, we came to one that stood ajar. A sliver of light smiled from inside, widening into a grin when Percy Blythe prodded it with her cane.
    She stepped back and nodded bluntly, indicating that I should enter first.
    It was a parlour and it stood in great welcoming contrast to the shadowy oak-panelled corridor from which we’d come: yellow wallpaper that must once have been fiercely bright had faded over time, the swirled pattern settling into a tepid languor, and an enormous rug, pink and blue and white – whether pale or threadbare I couldn’t tell – stretched almost to reach the skirting boards. Facing the elaborate carved fireplace was an upholstered sofa, oddly long and low, that wore the imprints of a thousand bodies and looked all the more comfortable for it. A Singer sewing machine fed with a swathe of blue fabric stood alongside.
    The lurcher padded past me, arranging himself artfully on a flattened sheepskin at the base of a great painted screen, two hundred years old at least. A scene of dogs and cockerels was depicted, the olives and browns of the foreground faded to form a muted meld, the background sky eternally in the gloaming. The patch behind the lurcher had worn almost completely away.
    At a rounded table nearby a woman the same age as Percy sat with her head bent close over a sheet of paper, an island in a sea of scattered Scrabble pieces. She wore huge reading glasses that were fumbled off when she noticed me, folded into a hidden pocket in her long silk dress as she stood. Her eyes were revealed as grey-blue, her brows a rather ordinary affair, neither arched nor straight, short nor long. Her fingernails, however, were painted a vivid pink to match her lipstick and the large flowers in her dress. Though dressed differently, she was as neatly packaged as Percy, with a commitment to outward appearance that was somehow old-fashioned even if the clothes themselves were not.
    ‘This is my sister, Seraphina,’ said Percy, going to stand beside her. ‘Saffy,’ she said in an exaggeratedly loud voice, ‘this is Edith.’
    Saffy tapped the fingers of one hand against her ear. ‘No need to shout, Percy dear,’ came a soft singsong voice, ‘my earpiece is in place.’ She smiled shyly at me, blinking for need of the glasses her vanity had removed. She was as tall as her twin, but through some trick of dress or the light, or perhaps of posture she didn’t seem it. ‘Old habits die hard,’ she said. ‘Percy was always the bossy one. I’m Saffy Blythe and it’s really, truly, a pleasure to meet you.’
    I came closer to take her hand. She was a carbon copy of her sister, or she had been once. The past eighty-odd years had etched different lines on their faces and the result was somehow softer on Saffy, sweeter. She looked just as an old lady of the manor should and I warmed to her immediately. Where Percy was formidable, Saffy made me think of oatmeal biscuits and cotton-fibre paper covered with a beautiful inky scrawl. It’s a funny thing, character, the way it brands people as they age, rising from within to leave its scar.
    ‘We’ve had a telephone call from Mrs Bird,’ said Saffy. ‘I’m afraid she’s been caught up in the village with her business.’
    ‘Oh.’
    ‘She was in a frightful flap,’ Percy continued flatly. ‘But I told her I’d be happy to show you round myself.’
    ‘More than happy.’ Saffy smiled. ‘My sister loves this house as other people love their spouses. She’s thrilled to have a chance to show it off. And well she might. The old place is a credit to her: only years of her tireless work have kept it from falling into disrepair.’
    ‘I’ve done what was necessary to stop the walls collapsing around us. No more.’
    ‘My sister is being modest.’
    ‘And mine is being stubborn.’
    This chiding was evidently a normal part of their repartee, and the two paused to smile at me. For a moment I was trans- fixed, remembering the photograph in Raymond Blythe’s Milderhurst, wondering which of these old ladies was which little twin, and then Saffy reached across the narrow divide to take Percy’s hand. ‘My sister has taken care of us all our long lives,’ she said, before turning to look with such admiration at her twin’s profile that I knew she had been the smaller, thinner of the two girls in the photo, the one whose smile wavered uncertainly beneath the camera’s gaze.
    The additional praise did not sit well with Percy, who scrutinized her watch before muttering, ‘Never mind. Not much further to go now.’
    It’s always difficult to know what to say when a very old person starts talking about death and its imminence, so I did what I do when Herbert hints about my taking over at Billing & Brown ‘one day’: I smiled as if I might have misheard and gave the sunlit bay window a closer inspection.
    And that’s when I noticed the third sister, the one who must be Juniper. She was sitting statue-still in an armchair of faded green velvet, watching through the open window as the parkland spilled away from her. A faint plume of cigarette smoke rose from a crystal ashtray, smudging her into soft focus. Unlike her sisters, there was nothing fine about her clothing or the way she wore it. She was dressed in the international costume of the invalid: an ill-fitting blouse tucked in firm and high to shapeless slacks, her lap marked by greasy spots where things had spilled.
    Perhaps Juniper sensed my gaze, for she turned slightly – just the side of her face – towards me. Her eye, I could see, was glassy and unsteady in a way that suggested heavy medication and when I smiled she gave no sign that she had seen, just continued to stare as if she sought to bore a hole right through me.
    Watching her, I became aware of a soft press of sound I hadn’t noticed before. A small television set perched on a wooden occasional table beneath the window frame. An American sitcom was playing and the laugh track punctuated the constant hum of sassy dialogue with periodic stabs of static. It gave me a familiar feeling, that television set, the warm, sunny day outside, the still, stale air within: a nostalgic memory of visiting Gran in the school holidays and being allowed to watch television in the daytime.
    ‘What are you doing here?’
    Pleasant memories of Gran shattered beneath the sudden icy blow. Juniper Blythe was still staring at me but her expression was no longer blank. It was distinctly unwelcoming.
    ‘I, uh… hello,’ I said. ‘I…’
    ‘What do you think you’re doing here?’
    The lurcher gave a strangled yelp.
    ‘Juniper!’ Saffy hurried to her sister’s side. ‘Darling girl, Edith is our guest.’ She took her sister’s face gently in both hands. ‘I told you, June, remember? I explained it all: Edith’s here to have a tour of the castle. Percy’s taking her for a lovely little walk. You mustn’t worry, darling, everything’s all right.’
    While I wished fervently that I could somehow disappear, the twins exchanged a glance that sat so easily in the different lines of their matching faces that I knew it must have passed between them many times before. Percy nodded at Saffy, tight-lipped, and then the expression dissolved before I’d worked out what it was about that glance that gave me such a peculiar feeling.
    ‘Well then,’ she said with an affected cheeriness that made me wince, ‘time is wasting. Let’s get on, shall we, Miss Burchill?’
    I followed gladly as she led us out of the room, around a corner and down another cool, shadowed passage.
    ‘I’ll walk you past the back rooms first,’ she said, ‘but we won’t stop long. There’s little point. They’ve been under sheets for years.’
    ‘Why is that?’
    ‘They all face north.’
    Percy had a pared way of speaking; a little like the way wireless commentators used to sound, back when the BBC was the last word on all matters enunciative. Short sentences, perfect diction, the hint of nuance concealed in the body of each full stop. ‘The heating in winter is impossible,’ she said. ‘It’s just the three of us so we hardly need the space. It was easier to close some doors for good. My sisters and I took rooms in the small west wing; near the yellow parlour.’
    ‘That makes sense,’ I said quickly. ‘There must be a hundred rooms in a building this size. All the different levels – I’d be sure to get lost.’ I was babbling, I could hear it but I couldn’t stop it. A basic lack of facility with small talk, excitement at finally being inside the castle, lingering discomfort from the scene with Juniper… whatever, it proved a lethal combination. I drew a deep breath and, to my horror, continued: ‘Though of course you’ve been here all your life so I’m sure it’s not a problem for you-’
    ‘I’m sorry,’ she said sharply, turning to face me. Even in the gloom I could see that her skin had whitened. She’s going to ask me to leave, I thought; my visit is too much, she’s old and tired, her sister isn’t well.
    ‘Our sister isn’t well,’ she said and my heart plunged. ‘It has nothing to do with you. She can be rude sometimes, but it isn’t her fault. She suffered a great disappointment – a terrible thing. A long time ago.’
    ‘There’s no need to explain,’ I said. Please don’t ask me to leave.
    ‘Very kind, but I feel I must. At least a little. Such rudeness. She doesn’t do well with strangers. It’s been an awful trial. Our family physician died a decade ago and we’re still battling to find another we can tolerate. She gets confused. I hope you don’t feel unwelcome.’
    ‘Not at all, I understand completely.’
    ‘I hope so. Because we’re very pleased you could visit.’ That short hairpin smile. ‘The castle likes to be visited; it needs it.’
    Caretakers in the Veins
    On the morning of my tenth birthday, Mum and Dad took me to visit the dolls’ houses at the Bethnal Green Museum. I don’t know why we went to see dolls’ houses, whether I’d expressed an interest or my parents had read a newspaper article about the collection, but I remember the day very clearly. One of those few shining memories you gather along the way; perfectly formed and sealed, like a bubble that forgot to pop. We went in a taxi, which I remember thinking very posh, and afterwards we had tea at a fancy place in Mayfair. I even remember what I wore: a diamond-patterned mini-dress I’d coveted for months and finally unwrapped that morning.
    The other thing I remember with blinding clarity is that we lost my mum. Perhaps that event, rather than the dolls’ houses themselves, is why the day didn’t fade for me when it was tossed in amongst the crushing constellation of childhood experiences. It was all topsy-turvy, you see. Grown-up people didn’t get lost, not in my world: it was the province of children, of little girls like me who made a habit of following their daydreams and dragging their feet and generally Failing to Keep Up.
    But not this time. This time, inexplicably, earth joltingly, it was my mum who’d slipped through the cracks. Dad and I were waiting in a queue to buy a souvenir booklet when it happened; we were shuffling forward, following the line, each of us keeping silent company with our own thoughts. It wasn’t until we reached the counter and both stood mutely, blinking first at the shop assistant, then at one another, that we realized we were somehow without our traditional family mouthpiece.
    I was the one to find her again, kneeling in front of a doll’s house we’d already passed. It was tall and dark, as I recall, with lots of staircases, and an attic running along the top. She didn’t explain why she’d returned, saying only, ‘There are actual places like this, Edie. Real houses with real people living in them. Can you imagine? All those rooms?’ A twinge at the edge of her lips and she continued, the soft, slow lilt of recitation: ‘Ancient walls that sing the distant hours.’
    I don’t think I answered her. For one thing there wasn’t time – my dad turned up right then looking flustered and somehow personally wounded – and for another I wasn’t sure what to say. Although we never discussed it again, it was a long time before I let go completely of the belief that somewhere out there in the great, wide world, stood real houses with real people living in them and walls that sang.
    I mention the Bethnal Green Museum here only because, as Percy Blythe led me down darkening corridors, Mum’s comment came back to me, bright and brighter, until I could see her face, hear her words, as clearly as if she were standing right next to me. It might have had something to do with the odd sense that pressed upon me as we explored the enormous house; the impression that I’d fallen victim somehow to a shrinking spell and been transported inside a house for dolls, albeit a doll’s house that was rather down at heel. One whose child owner had grown beyond the point of interest and moved on to new obsessions, leaving the rooms with their faded wallpapers and silks, the rush-matted floors, the urns and stuffed birds, the heavy furniture waiting silently, hopefully, for reoccupation.
    Then again, perhaps all that came second. Perhaps it was Mum’s comment that came to mind first because of course she’d been thinking of Milderhurst when she’d told me about the real people in their real houses with lots of rooms. What else could have inspired her to say such a thing? That unreadable expression on her face had been the result of remembering this place. She’d been thinking about Percy, Saffy and Juniper Blythe and the strange, secret things that must have happened to her as a girl when she was transplanted from south London to Milderhurst Castle. The things that had reached across fifty years with a grasp strong enough that a lost letter could make her cry.
    Whatever the case, as I took Percy’s tour that morning, I carried my mum with me. I couldn’t have resisted her if I’d tried. No matter that I’d become inexplicably jealous that my exploration of the castle be my own – a small part of Mum, a part I’d never known, certainly never noticed, was anchored to this place. And although I wasn’t used to having things in common with her, although the very notion made the earth spin a little faster, I realized that I didn’t mind. In fact, I rather liked that the curious comment at the doll’s house museum was no longer an oddity, a mosaic piece that didn’t fit the whole. It was a fragment of Mum’s past, a fragment that was somehow brighter and more interesting than those surrounding it.
    So it was, as Percy led, and I listened and looked and nodded, that a small ghostly Londoner stepped silently beside me: wide-eyed, nervous, glimpsing the house for the first time, too. And it turned out I liked her being there; if I could’ve, I’d have reached down across the decades to take her hand in mine. I wondered how different the castle must have been in 1939, how much change had occurred in the past fifty years. Whether even then Milderhurst Castle had felt like a house asleep, everything dull and dusty and dim. An old house biding its time. And I wondered whether I’d have the chance to ask that little girl, if she was still at large somewhere. If I’d ever be able to find her.
    It is impossible to recount everything that was said and seen that day at Milderhurst, and, for the purposes of this story, unnecessary. So much has happened since, subsequent events have bowed and bent and mixed in my mind so that it’s difficult to isolate my first impressions of the castle and its inhabitants. I will stick, then, in this account, to the sights and sounds that were most vivid, and to those events pertinent to what came after, and what came before. Events that could never – will never – fade from memory.
    Two important things became clear to me as I took the tour: first, Mrs Bird had been underplaying matters when she’d told me Milderhurst was a little shabby. The castle was distressed, and not in a glamshackle way. Second, and more remarkably, Percy Blythe was blind to the fact. No matter that dust smothered the heavy wooden furniture, that countless specks thickened the stagnant air, that generations of moths had been feasting on the curtains, she continued to speak about the rooms as if they were in their prime, as if elegant literary salons were staged, and royalty mingled with members of the literati, and an army of servants bustled unseen along the corridors doing the Blythe family’s bidding. I’d have felt sympathy for her, caught as she was in a fantasy world, except that she wasn’t at all the sort of person who engendered sympathy. She was resolutely un-victim-like and therefore my pity was transformed into admiration; respect for her stubborn refusal to acknowledge that the old place was falling apart around them.
    Another thing I feel compelled to mention about Percy: for an octogenarian with a cane she set a cracking pace. We took in the billiard room, the ballroom, the conservatory, then swept on downstairs into the servants’ hall; marched though the butler’s pantry, the glass pantry, the scullery, before arriving finally at the kitchen. Copper pots and pans hung from hooks along the walls, a stout Aga rusted beside a sagging range, a family of empty ceramic pots stood chest to chest on the tiles. At the centre, an enormous pine table balanced on pregnant ankles, its top scored by centuries of knives, flour salting the wounds. The air was cool and stale and it seemed to me that the servants’ rooms, even more than those upstairs, bore the pallor of abandonment, They were disused limbs of a great Victorian engine that had fallen victim to changing times and ground to a final halt.
    I wasn’t the only one to register the increased gloom, the weight of decline. ‘Diffi cult to believe, but this place used to hum,’ said Percy Blythe, running her finger along the table’s crenelation. ‘My grandmother had a staff of over forty servants. Forty. One forgets how the house once gleamed.’
    The floor was littered with small brown pellets I took at first for dirt but recognized, by their particular crunch underfoot, as mouse droppings. I made a mental note to refuse cake if it was offered.
    ‘Even when we were children, there were twenty or so servants inside and a team of fifteen gardeners keeping the grounds in order. The Great War ended that: they all enlisted, every last one. Most young men did.’
    ‘And none came back?’
    ‘Two. Two made it home, but they weren’t the men they’d been before they went. There were none returned in quite the same shape they’d left. We kept them on, of course – to do otherwise would have been unthinkable – but they didn’t last long.’
    Whether she referred specifically to the length of their employment or, more generally, to their lives, I wasn’t sure, and she didn’t leave me pause to enquire.
    ‘We muddled along after that, employing temporary staff where possible, but by the second war one couldn’t have found a gardener for love nor money. What sort of a young man would be content to occupy himself tending pleasure gardens when there was a war to be fought? Not the sort we cared to employ. Household help was just as scarce. We were all of us busy with other things.’ She was standing very still, leaning on the head of her cane, and the skin of her cheeks slackened as her thoughts wandered.
    I cleared my throat, spoke gently. ‘What about now? Do you have any help these days?’
    ‘Oh, yes.’ She waved a hand dismissively, her attention returning from wherever it had been. ‘Such as it is. We’ve a retainer who comes in once a week to help with the cooking and cleaning, and one of the local farmers keeps the fences standing. There’s a young fellow, too, Mrs Bird’s nephew from the village, who mows the lawn and attempts to keep the weeds in check. He does an adequate job, though a strong work ethic seems to be a thing of the past.’ She smiled briefly. ‘The rest of the time we’re left to our own devices.’
    I returned her smile as she gestured towards the narrow service staircase and said, ‘You mentioned that you’re a bibliophile?’
    ‘My mother says I was born with a book in my hand.’
    ‘I expect, then, that you’ll be wanting to see our library.’
    I remembered reading that fire had consumed the Milderhurst library, the same fire that had killed the twins’ mother, so although I’m not sure what I expected to see behind the black door at the end of the sombre corridor, I do know that a well-stocked library was not it. That, however, is precisely what lay before me when I followed Percy Blythe through the doorway. Shelves spanned all four walls, floor to ceiling, and although it was shadowy inside – the windows were cloaked by thick, draping curtains that brushed the ground – I could see they were lined with very old books, the sort with marbled end papers, gold-dipped edges, and black cloth binding. My fingers positively itched to drift at length along their spines, to arrive at one whose lure I could not pass, to pluck it down, to inch it open, then to close my eyes and inhale the soul-sparking scent of old and literate dust.
    Percy Blythe noticed the focus of my attention and seemed to read my mind. ‘Replacements, of course,’ she said. ‘Most of the original Blythe family library went up in flames. There was very little salvageable; those that weren’t burned were tortured by smoke and water.’
    ‘All those books,’ I said, the notion a physical pain.
    ‘Quite. My father took it very badly indeed. He dedicated much of his later life to resurrecting the collection. Letters flew hither and yon. Rare-book dealers were our most frequent callers; visitors weren’t otherwise encouraged. Daddy never used this room, though, not after Mother.’
    It might have been merely the product of an overactive imagination, but as she spoke I became certain that I could smell old fire, seeping from beneath the new walls, the fresh paint, issuing from deep within the original mortar. There was a noise, too, that I couldn’t place; a tapping sound, unremarkable under normal circumstances but noteworthy in this strange and silent house. I glanced at Percy, who had wandered to stand behind a leather chair with deep-set buttons, but if she heard it at all, she didn’t show it. ‘My father was a great one for letters,’ she said, gazing fixedly at a writing desk within a nook by the window. ‘My sister, Saffy, too.’
    ‘Not you?’
    A tight smile. ‘I’ve written very few in my life and those only when absolutely necessary.’
    Her answer struck me as unusual and perhaps it showed on my face, for she went on to explain.
    ‘The written word was never my métier. In a family of writers it seemed as well to recognize one’s shortcomings. Lesser attempts were not celebrated. Father and his two surviving brothers used to exchange great essays when we were young, and he would read them aloud in the evenings. He expected amusement and exercised no restraint in passing judgement on those who failed to meet his standards. He was devastated by the invention of the telephone. Blamed it for many of the world’s ills.’
    The tapping came again, louder this time, suggestive of movement. A little like the wind sneaking through cracks, blowing grit along surfaces, only heavier somehow. And, I felt certain, coming from above.
    I scanned the ceiling, the dull electric light hanging from a greying rose, a lightning-bolt fissure in the plaster. It struck me then that the noise I heard might well be the only warning we were to get that the ceiling’s collapse was forthcoming. ‘That noise-’
    ‘Oh, you mustn’t mind that,’ said Percy Blythe, waving a thin hand. ‘That’s just the caretakers, playing in the veins.’
    I suspect I looked confused; I certainly felt it.
    ‘They’re the best-kept secret in a house as old as this one.’
    ‘The caretakers?’
    ‘The veins.’ She frowned, looking up, followed the line of the cornice as if tracing the progress of something I couldn’t see. When she spoke again, her voice was slightly changed. A hairline crack had appeared in her composure, and for a moment I felt that I could see and hear her more clearly. ‘In a cupboard in a room at the very top of the castle there lies a secret doorway. Behind the doorway is the entrance to an entire scheme of hidden passages. It’s possible to crawl along them, room to room, attic to vault, just like a little mouse. If one goes quietly enough, it’s possible to hear all manner of whispered things; to get lost inside if one isn’t careful. They’re the castle’s veins.’
    I shivered, overcome by a sudden and pressing image of the castle as a giant, crouching creature. A dark and nameless beast, holding its breath; the big, old toad of a fairy tale, waiting to trick a maiden into kissing him. I was thinking of the Mud Man, of course, the Stygian, slippery figure emerging from the lake to claim the girl in the attic window.
    ‘When we were girls, Saffy and I liked to play pretend. We imagined that a family of previous owners inhabited the passages and refused to move on. We called them the caretakers, and whenever we heard a noise we couldn’t explain, we knew it must be them.’
    ‘Really?’ Barely a whisper.
    She laughed at the expression on my face, a strangely humourless ack-ack that stopped as suddenly as it had started. ‘Oh, but they weren’t real. Certainly not. Those noises you hear are mice. Lord knows we’ve enough of them.’ A twitch at the corner of her eye as she considered me. ‘I wonder. Would you like to see the cupboard in the nursery that holds the secret door?’
    I believe I actually squeaked. ‘I’d love to.’
    ‘Come along then. It’s quite a climb.’
    The Empty Attic and the Distant Hours
    She was not exaggerating. The staircase turned in upon itself, doubling back again and again, narrowing and darkening with each flight. Just when I thought I was going to be plunged into a state of utter blindness, Percy Blythe flicked a switch and a bare light bulb fired dully, swinging on a cord suspended from the ceiling high above. I could see then that at some point in the past a rail had been attached to the wall to assist with the final steep assault. Sometime in the 1950s, I guessed; the metal cylinder had a dull utility feel about it. Whomever and whenever, I saluted. The stairs were perilously worn, all the more so now that I could see them, and it was a relief to have something onto which I could clutch. Less happily, the light meant I could also see the webs. No one had been up those stairs in a long time and the castle spiders had noticed.
    ‘Our nurse used to carry a tallow candle when she took us to bed at night,’ said Percy, starting up the final flight. ‘The glow would glance against the stones as we went and she’d sing that song about oranges and lemons. You know it, I’m sure: Here comes a candle to light you to bed.’
    Here comes a chopper to chop off your head: yes, I knew it. A grey beard brushed my shoulder, sparking a wave of affection for my plain little shoebox bedroom at Mum and Dad’s. No webs there: just Mum’s bi-weekly dusting schedule and the reassuring whiff of disinfectant.
    ‘There was no electricity in the house back then. Not until the mid-thirties, and then only half voltage. Father couldn’t abide all those wires. He was terrified of fire, and understandably so considering what happened to Mother.
    ‘He devised a series of drills after that. He’d ring a bell, down on the lawn, and time us on his old stopwatch. Shouting all the while that the place was about to go up like a mighty pyre.’ She laughed, that glass-cutting ack-ack, then stopped again suddenly when she reached the top step. ‘Well,’ she said, holding the key in the lock a moment before turning it. ‘Shall we?’
    She pushed open the door and I almost fell backwards, bowled over by the flood of light that came rolling towards me. I blinked and squinted, gradually regaining my vision as the room’s contrasting shapes sharpened into view.
    After the journey to reach it, the attic itself might have seemed an anticlimax. It was very plain, with little of the Victorian nursery about it. Indeed, unlike the rest of the house, in which rooms had been preserved as if the return of their inhabitants was imminent, the nursery was eerily empty. It had the look of a room that had been scrubbed, whitewashed even. There was no carpet, and the twin iron beds wore no covers, jutting out from the far wall each side of a disused fireplace. There were no curtains, either, which accounted for the brightness, and the single set of shelves beneath one of the windows was naked of books and toys.
    A single set of shelves beneath an attic window.
    I needed nothing more to make me thrill. I could almost see the young girl from the Mud Man’s prologue, woken in the night and drawn to the window; climbing quietly onto the top shelf and gazing out across her family’s estate, dreaming of the adventures she would one day have, utterly unaware of the horror that was about to claim her.
    ‘This attic housed generation after generation of Blythe family children,’ said Percy Blythe, her eyes making a slow sweep of the room. ‘Centuries of peas in a pod.’
    She made no mention of the room’s bare state or its place in literary history and I didn’t press her. Since the moment she’d turned the key and led me in, her spirits seemed to have sunk. I wasn’t sure whether it was the nursery itself that was having such an enervating effect, or whether the increased light of the stark room simply allowed me to see her age writ clearly within the lines of her face. Whatever the case, it seemed important to follow her lead. ‘Forgive me,’ she said finally. ‘I haven’t been upstairs in a time. Everything seems… smaller than I remember.’
    That I understood. It was strange enough for me to lie down on my childhood bed and find that my feet had grown past the end, to look sideways and see the unfaded rectangle of wallpaper where Blondie had once been pasted and remember my nightly worship of Debbie Harry. I could only imagine the dissonance for someone standing in a bedroom they’d outgrown some eighty years before. ‘All three of you slept up here as children?’
    ‘Not all of us, no. Not Juniper; not until later.’ Percy’s mouth contorted a little, as if she’d tasted something bitter. ‘Her mother had one of the rooms off her own chamber converted to a nursery instead. She was young, unfamiliar with the way things were done. It wasn’t her fault.’
    It seemed an odd choice of words and I wasn’t sure that I understood.
    ‘Tradition in the house was that children were permitted to move downstairs to a single room when they turned thirteen, and although Saffy and I felt very important when our time finally came I must confess to missing the attic room. Saffy and I were used to sharing.’
    ‘I suppose that’s common for twins.’
    ‘Indeed.’ An almost smile. ‘Come. I’ll show you the caretakers’ door.’
    The mahogany cupboard stood quietly against the far wall, in a tiny box-like room that opened out beyond the twin beds. The ceiling was so low that I had to duck to enter, and the fruity smell entrapped within the walls was almost suffocating.
    Percy didn’t seem to notice, bending her wiry frame to pull at a low handle on the cupboard, creaking the mirrored door open. ‘There it is. Right in there at the back.’ She eye-balled me, hovering near the doorway, and her blade-thin brows drew down. ‘But surely you can’t see; not from all the way over there?’
    Manners forbade me actually covering my nose so I took a deep breath, holding it as I moved quickly towards her. She stepped aside, indicating that I should come closer still.
    Suppressing the image of Gretel at the witch’s oven, I climbed, waist-deep, into the cupboard. Through the grim darkness, I spotted the small door cut into the back. ‘Wow,’ I said on the last of my breath. ‘There it is.’
    ‘There it is,’ came the voice from behind me.
    The smell, now I had no choice but to breathe it, didn’t seem so bad and I was able to appreciate the Narnia thrill of a hidden doorway in the back of a cupboard. ‘So that’s where the caretakers get in and out.’ My voice echoed around me.
    ‘The caretakers perhaps,’ said Percy wryly. ‘As to the mice, that’s another story. The little wretches have taken over; they don’t need a fancy door like that one.’
    I climbed out, dusted myself off, and couldn’t help but notice the framed picture hanging on the facing wall. Not a picture: a page of religious script, I could see when I went a little closer. It had been behind me on the way in and I’d missed it. ‘What was this room?’
    ‘This was our nurse’s room. When we were very small,’ said Percy. ‘Back then it seemed like the nicest place on earth.’ A smile flickered briefly before failing. ‘It’s little more than a closet, though, isn’t it?’
    ‘A closet with a lovely outlook.’ I’d drifted towards the nearby window. The only one, I noted, whose faded curtains remained.
    I drew them to one side and was struck immediately by the number of heavy-duty locks that had been fitted to the window. My surprise must have shown because Percy said, ‘My father had concerns about security. An incident in his youth that had stuck with him.’
    I nodded and peered through the window, experiencing, as I did so, a frisson of familiarity; I realized that it wasn’t for something I’d seen, but for something I’d read about and envisaged. Directly below, skirting the footings of the castle and spanning twenty feet or so, was a swathe of grass, thick and lush, an entirely different green from that beyond. ‘There used to be a moat,’ I said.
    ‘Yes.’ Percy was beside me now, holding the curtains aside. ‘One of my earliest memories is of being unable to sleep and hearing voices down there. It was full moon and when I climbed up to look out of the window our mother was swimming on her back, laughing in the silvered light.’
    ‘She was a keen swimmer,’ I said, remembering what I’d read about her in Raymond Blythe’s Milderhurst.
    Percy nodded. ‘The circular pool was Daddy’s wedding gift to her, but she always preferred the moat, so a fellow was engaged to improve it for her. Daddy had it filled in when she died.’
    ‘It must have reminded him of her.’
    ‘Yes.’ Her lips twitched, and I realized I was exploring her family’s tragedy in a rather thoughtless way. I pointed at a stone protrusion that cut into the moat’s petticoat, and changed the subject. ‘Which room’s that? I don’t remember noticing a balcony.’
    ‘It’s the library.’
    ‘And over there? What’s that walled garden?’
    ‘That’s not a garden.’ She let the curtain fall closed again. ‘And we should be getting on.’
    Her tone and her body had stiffened beside me. I felt sure I’d offended her in some way but couldn’t think how. After scrolling quickly over our recent conversation, I decided it was far more likely she was just upset by the press of old memories. I said softly, ‘It must be incredible to live in a castle that’s belonged to your family for so long.’
    ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It hasn’t always been easy. There have been sacrifices. We’ve been forced to sell much of the estate, most recently the farmhouse, but we’ve managed to hold onto the castle.’ She very pointedly inspected the window frame, smoothed a piece of flaking paint. Her voice, when she spoke, was wooded with the effort of keeping strong emotion at bay. ‘It’s true what my sister said. I do love this house as others might love a person. I always have.’ A glance sideways. ‘I expect you find that rather peculiar.’
    I shook my head. ‘No, I don’t.’
    Those scar-like eyebrows arched, dubious; but it was true. I didn’t find it peculiar at all. The great heartbreak in my dad’s life was his separation from the home of his childhood. It was a simple enough story: a small boy fed on fables of his family’s grand history, an adored and moneyed uncle who made promises, a death-bed change of heart.
    ‘Old buildings and old families belong to one another,’ she continued. ‘That’s as it’s always been. My family lives on in the stones of Milderhurst Castle and it’s my duty to keep them. It is not a task for outsiders.’
    Her tone was searing; agreement seemed to be required. ‘You must feel as if they’re still around you – ’ as the words left my lips, I had a sudden image of my mum, kneeling by the dolls’ houses – ‘singing in the walls.’
    A brow leaped half an inch. ‘What’s that?’
    I hadn’t realized I’d spoken the last aloud.
    ‘About the walls,’ she pressed. ‘You said something just now, about the walls singing. What was it?’
    ‘Just something my mother told me once,’ I swallowed meekly, ‘about ancient walls that sing the distant hours.’
    Pleasure spread across Percy’s face in stark and brilliant contrast to her usual dour expression. ‘My father wrote that. Your mother must have read his poetry.’
    I was sincerely doubtful. Mum had never gone in much for reading, and certainly never for poems. ‘Possibly.’
    ‘He used to tell us stories when we were small, tales of the past. He said that if he didn’t go carefully about the castle, sometimes the distant hours forgot to hide.’ As she warmed to recounting the memory Percy’s left hand drifted forth like the sail of a ship. It was a curiously theatrical movement, out of character with her thus-far clipped and efficient manner. Her way of speaking had altered, too: the short sentences had lengthened, the sharp tone softened. ‘He would come upon them, playing out in the dark, deserted corridors. Think of all the people who’ve lived within these walls, he’d say, who’ve whispered their secrets, laid their betrayals…’
    ‘Do you hear them too? The distant hours?’
    Her eyes met mine, held them earnestly for just a moment. ‘Silly nonsense,’ she said, breaking into her hairpin smile. ‘Ours are old stones, but they’re still just stones. They’ve no doubt seen a lot but they’re good at keeping secrets.’
    Something crossed her face then, a little like pain: she was thinking of her father, I supposed, and her mother, the tunnel of time and voices that must chatter to her down the ages. ‘No matter,’ she said, more for her own sake than mine. ‘It doesn’t do to brood on the past. Calculating the dead can make one feel quite alone.’
    ‘You must be glad to have your sisters.’
    ‘Of course.’
    ‘I’ve always imagined that siblings must be a great comfort.’
    Another pause. ‘You haven’t any of your own?’
    ‘No.’ I smiled, shrugged lightly. ‘I’m a lonely only.’
    ‘Is it lonely?’ She considered me as if I were a rare specimen deserving of study. ‘I’ve always wondered.’
    I thought of the great absence in my life, and then of the rare nights spent in company with my sleeping, snoring, muttering cousins, my guilty imaginings that I was one of them, that I belonged with somebody. ‘Sometimes,’ I said. ‘Sometimes it’s lonely.’
    ‘Liberating, too, one would expect.’
    I noticed for the first time a small vein quivering in her neck. ‘Liberating?’
    ‘There’s none like a sister for remembering one’s ancient sins.’ She smiled at me then, but its warmth fell short of transforming her sentiment to humour. She must have suspected as much, for she let the smile fall away, nodding towards the staircase. ‘Come along,’ she said. ‘Let’s go down. Careful, now. Make sure you hold the rail. My uncle died on those stairs when he was just a boy.’
    ‘Oh, dear.’ Hopelessly inadequate, but what else does one say? ‘How awful.’
    ‘A great storm blew up one evening and he was frightened, or so the story goes. Lightning sliced open the sky and struck right by the lake. The boy cried out in terror, but before his nurse could reach him, he leaped from his bed and fled the room. Silly lad: he stumbled and fell, landed at the bottom like a rag doll. We used to imagine we heard him crying in the night sometimes, when the weather was particularly bad. He hides beneath the third step, you know. Waiting to trip someone up. Hoping for someone to join him.’ She pivoted on the step below me, the fourth. ‘Do you believe in ghosts, Miss Burchill?’
    ‘I don’t know. Sort of.’ My gran had seen ghosts. A ghost, at any rate: my uncle Ed after he came off his motorbike in Australia. He didn’t realize he was dead, she’d told me. My poor lamb. I held out my hand and told him it was all right, that he’d made it home and that we all loved him. I shivered, remembering, and, just before she turned, Percy Blythe’s face took on a cast of grim satisfaction.
    The Mud Man, the Muniment Room, and a Locked Door
    I followed Percy Blythe down flights of stairs, along gloomy corridors, then down further still. Deeper, surely, than the level from which we’d climbed initially? Like all buildings that have evolved over time, Milderhurst was a patchwork. Wings had been added and altered, had crumbled and been restored. The effect was disorientating, particularly for someone with no natural compass whatsoever. It seemed as if the castle folded inwards, like one of those drawings by Escher, where you might continue walking the stairs, round and round, for eternity, without ever reaching an end. There were no windows – not since we’d left the attic – and it was exceedingly dark. At one stage I could have sworn I heard a drifting melody skating along the stones – romantic, wistful, vaguely familiar – but when we turned another corner it was gone, and perhaps it had never been. Something I certainly did not imagine was the pungent smell, which strengthened as we descended and was saved from being unpleasant by sheer virtue of its earthiness.
    Even though Percy had pooh-poohed her father’s notion of the distant hours, I couldn’t help running my hand against the cool stones as we walked, wondering about the imprints Mum might have left when she was at Milderhurst. The little girl still walked beside me but she didn’t say much. I considered asking Percy about her, but having gone this far without announcing my connection to the house, anything I thought to say carried the stench of duplicity. In the end I opted for classic passive-aggressive subterfuge. ‘Was the castle requisitioned during the war?’
    ‘No. Dear God. I couldn’t have borne it. The damage that was done to some of the nation’s finest houses – no.’ She shook her head vehemently. ‘Thank goodness. I’d have felt it as a pain to my own body. We did our bit though. I was with the Ambulance Service for a time, over in Folkestone; Saffy stitched clothing and bandages, knitted a thousand scarves. We took in an evacuee, too, in the early years.’
    ‘Oh?’ My voice trilled slightly. Beside me the little girl skipped.
    ‘At Juniper’s urging. A young girl from London. Goodness, I’ve forgotten her name. Isn’t that a pip? – Apologies for the smell along here.’
    Something inside me clenched in sympathy for that forgotten girl.
    ‘It’s the mud,’ Percy went on. ‘From where the moat used to be. The groundwater rises in summer, seeps through the cellars and brings the smell of rotting fish with it. Thankfully there’s nothing down here of much value. Nothing except the muniment room, and it’s watertight. The walls and floor are lined with copper, the door is made from lead. Nothing gets in or out of there.’
    ‘The muniment room.’ A chill rippled fast up my neck. ‘Just like in the Mud Man.’ The special room, deep within the uncle’s house, the room where all the family’s documents were lodged, where he unearthed the mouldy old diary that unravelled the Mud Man’s past. The chamber of secrets in the house’s heart.
    Percy paused, leaned on her cane and turned her eyes on me. ‘You’ve read it then.’
    It wasn’t a question exactly, but I answered anyway. ‘I adored it growing up.’ As the words left my lips I felt a stirring of old deflation, the inability to express adequately my love for the book. ‘It was my favourite,’ I added, and the phrase hung hopefully before disintegrating into specks, powder from a puff that drifted unseen into the shadows.
    ‘It was very popular,’ said Percy, starting again down the corridor. No doubt she’d heard it all before. ‘It still is. Seventy-five years in print next year.’
    ‘Really?’
    ‘Seventy-five years,’ she said again, pulling open a door and issuing me up another flight of stairs. ‘I remember it like yesterday.’
    ‘The publication must have been very exciting.’
    ‘We were pleased to see Daddy happy.’ Did I notice the tiny hesitation then, or am I letting things learned later colour my earliest impressions?
    A clock somewhere began its weary chime and I realized with a stab of regret that my hour was up. It seemed impossible, I’d have sworn black and blue that I’d only just arrived, but time is an odd, ungraspable thing. The hour that sagged between breakfast and my setting out for Milderhurst had taken an age to pass, but the sixty brief minutes I’d been granted inside the castle walls had fled like a flock of frightened birds.
    Percy Blythe checked her own wristwatch. ‘I’ve dallied,’ she said with mild surprise. ‘I apologize. The grandfather is ten minutes fast, but we must get on nonetheless. Mrs Bird will be here to collect you on the hour and it’s quite a walk back to the entrance hall. There’ll be no time to see the tower, I’m afraid.’
    I made a gasping noise, a cross between ‘Oh!’ and a sharp reaction to pain, and then I recovered myself: ‘I’m sure Mrs Bird won’t mind if I’m a little late.’
    ‘I was under the impression you had to be back in London?’
    ‘Yes.’ Though it seems unfathomable, for a moment I’d actually forgotten: Herbert, his car, the appointment he had to make in Windsor. ‘Yes, I do.’
    ‘Never mind,’ said Percy Blythe, striding after her cane. ‘You’ll see it next time. When you visit us again.’ I noticed the assumption, but I didn’t think to query it, not at the time. Indeed, I gave it little thought other than to pass it off as a rather fun and meaningless rejoinder, for as we emerged from the stairwell I was distracted by a rustling sound.
    The rustling, like the caretakers, was only very faint and I wondered at first if I’d imagined it, all that talk of the distant hours, people trapped in the stones, but when Percy Blythe also glanced around, I knew that I had not.
    From an adjoining corridor, the dog lumbered into view. ‘Bruno,’ said Percy, surprised, ‘what are you doing all the way down here, fellow?’
    He stopped right beside me and looked up from beneath his droopy lids.
    Percy leaned forward to scratch him behind the ears. ‘Do you know what the word “lurcher” means? It’s from the Romany for thief. Isn’t that right, boy? Terribly cruel name for such a good old boy as you.’ She straightened slowly, one hand in the small of her back. ‘They were bred by the gypsies originally, used for poaching: rabbits and hares, other small creatures. Pure breeds were forbidden to anyone who didn’t belong to the nobility and the penalties were severe; the challenge was to retain the hunting skills whilst breeding in sufficient variation that they didn’t look like a threat.
    ‘He’s my sister’s, Juniper’s. Even as a small girl she loved animals specially; they seemed to love her too. We’ve always kept a dog for her, certainly since the trauma. They say everyone needs something to love.’
    As if he knew and resented being made the topic of discussion, Bruno continued on his way. In his wake, the rustling came again faintly, only to be drowned out when a nearby phone began to ring.
    Percy stood very still, listening the way people do when they’re awaiting confirmation that someone else has picked up.
    The ringing continued until disconsolate silence closed around its final echo.
    ‘Come along,’ said Percy, a note of agitation clipping her voice. ‘There’s a shortcut through here.’
    The corridor was dim, but no more so than the others; indeed, now that we’d emerged from the basement, a few diffuse ribbons of light had appeared, threading their way through the castle knots to spill across the flagstones. We were two-thirds of the way along when the phone began again.
    This time Percy didn’t wait. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said, clearly flustered. ‘I can’t think where Saffy is. I’m expecting an important telephone call. Will you excuse me? I shan’t be a moment.’
    ‘Of course.’
    And with a nod she disappeared, turning at the end of the corridor and leaving me stranded.
    I blame what happened next on the door. The one right across the hall from me, a mere three feet away. I love doors. All of them, without exception. Doors lead to things and I’ve never met one I haven’t wanted to open. All the same, if that door hadn’t been so old and decorative, so decidedly closed, if a thread of light hadn’t positioned itself with such wretched temptation across its middle, highlighting the keyhole and its intriguing key, perhaps I might have stood a chance; remained, twiddling my thumbs, until Percy came to collect me. But it was and I didn’t; I maintain that I simply couldn’t. Sometimes you can tell just by looking at a door that there’s something interesting behind it.
    The handle was black and smooth, shaped like a shin bone and cool beneath my palm. Indeed, a general coldness seemed to leach from the other side of the door; though how, I couldn’t tell.
    My fingers tightened around the handle, I started to twist, then-
    ‘We don’t go in there.’
    My stomach, I don’t mind saying, just about shot through the roof of my mouth.
    I spun on my heel, scanned the gloomy space behind. I could see nothing, yet clearly I wasn’t alone. Someone, the owner of the voice, was in the corridor with me. Even if she hadn’t spoken I’d have known: I could feel another presence, something moving and hiding in the drawing shadows. The rustling was back now, too: louder, closer, definitely not in my head, definitely not mice.
    ‘I’m sorry,’ I said to the cloaked passage. ‘I-’
    ‘We don’t go in there.’
    I smothered the panicky surge in my throat. ‘I didn’t know-’
    ‘That’s the good parlour.’
    I saw her then, Juniper Blythe, as she stepped from the chill darkness and slowly crossed the corridor towards me.
    Say You’ll Come Dancing
    Her dress was incredible, the sort you expect to see in films about wealthy debutantes before the war, or hidden on the racks of upmarket charity shops. It was organza, the palest of pink, or it had been once, before time and grime had got busy, laying their fingers all over it. Sheets of tulle supported the full skirt, pushing it out as it fell away from her tiny waist, wide enough for the netted hemline to rustle against the walls when she moved.
    We stood facing one another across the dull corridor for what felt like a very long time. Finally, she moved. Slightly. Her arms had been hanging by her sides, resting on her skirt, and she lifted one a little, leading from the palm, a graceful movement as if an unseen thread stitched to her inner wrist had been plucked from the ceiling behind me.
    ‘Hello,’ I said, with what I hoped was warmth. ‘I’m Edie. Edie Burchill. We met earlier, in the yellow parlour.’
    She blinked at me and tilted her head sideways. Silvered hair draped over her shoulder, long and lank; the front strands had been pinned rather haphazardly with a pair of baroque combs. The unexpected translucence of her skin, the rake-like figure, the fancy frock: all combined to create the illusion of a teenager, a young girl with gangly limbs and a self-conscious way of holding them. Not shy, though, certainly not that: her expression was quizzical, curious, as she took a small step closer into a stray patch of light.
    And then it was my turn for curiosity, for Juniper must have been seventy years old and yet her face was miraculously unlined. Impossible, of course; ladies of seventy do not have unlined faces, and she was no exception – in our later meetings I would see that for myself – but in that light, in that dress, through some trick of circumstance, some strange charm, it was how she appeared. Pale and smooth, iridescent like the inside of a pearl shell, as if the same passing years that had so busily engraved deep imprints on her sisters had somehow preserved her. And yet she wasn’t timeless; there was something unmistakably olden days about her, an aspect that was utterly fixed in the past, like an old photograph viewed through protective tissue in one of those albums with the sepia-clouded pages. The image came to me again of the spring flowers pressed by Victorian ladies in their scrapbooks. Beautiful things, killed in the kindest of ways, carried forward into a time and place, a season, no longer their own.
    The chimera spoke then, and the sensation was compounded: ‘I’m going in to dinner now.’ A high, ethereal voice that made the hair on my neck stand to attention. ‘Would you like to come too?’
    I shook my head, coughed to clear a tickle from my throat. ‘No. No, thank you. I have to go home soon.’ My voice was not itself and I realized I was standing very rigidly, as if I was afraid. Which, I suppose, I was, though of what I couldn’t say.
    Juniper didn’t seem to notice my discomfort: ‘I have a new dress to wear,’ she said, plucking at her skirts so that the top layer of organza pulled up a little at each side, like the wings of a moth, white and powdery with dust. ‘Not new exactly, no, that isn’t right, but altered. It belonged to my mother once.’
    ‘It’s beautiful.’
    ‘I don’t think you ever met her.’
    ‘Your mother? No.’
    ‘Oh, she was lovely, so lovely. Just a girl when she died, just a girl. This was her pretty dress.’ She swirled coyly this way and that, peered up at me from beneath her lashes. The glassy gaze of earlier was gone, replaced by keen blue eyes, knowing somehow, the eyes of that bright child I’d seen in the photograph, disturbed while she was playing alone on the garden steps. ‘Do you like it?’
    ‘I do. Very much.’
    ‘Saffy altered it for me. She’s a wonder with a sewing machine. If you show her any picture you fancy she can work out how it’s made, even the newest Parisian designs, the pictures in Vogue. She’s been working on my dress for weeks but it’s a secret. Percy wouldn’t approve, on account of the war, and on account of her being Percy, but I know you won’t tell.’ She smiled then, and it was so enigmatic that my breath caught.
    ‘I won’t say a word.’
    We stood for a moment, each observing the other. My earlier fear had dissipated now, and for that I was glad. The reaction had been unfounded, an instinct only, and I was embarrassed by its memory. What was there to fear, after all? This lost woman in the lonely corridor was Juniper Blythe, the same person who had once upon a time chosen my mother from a clutch of frightened children, who had given her a home when the bombs were falling on London, who had never stopped waiting and hoping for a long-ago sweetheart to arrive.
    Her chin lifted as I watched her, and she exhaled thoughtfully. Apparently, as I’d been reaching my conclusions she’d been drawing her own. I smiled, and it seemed to decide her in some way. She straightened, then started towards me again, slowly but with clear purpose. Feline, that’s what she was. Her every movement contained the same elastic mixture of caution and confidence, languor that masked an underlying intent.
    She stopped only when she was close enough that I could smell the naphthalene on her dress, the stale cigarette smoke on her breath. Her eyes searched mine, her voice was a whisper. ‘Can you keep a secret?’
    I nodded, which made her smile; the gap between her two front teeth was impossibly girlish. She took my hands in hers as if we were friends in the schoolyard, her palms were smooth and cool. ‘I have a secret but I’m not supposed to tell.’
    ‘OK.’
    She cupped her hand like a child and leaned in close, pressing it against my ear. Her breath tickled. ‘I have a lover.’ And when she pulled away her old lips formed a youthful expression of lustful excitement that was grotesque and sad and beautiful all at once. ‘His name is Tom. Thomas Cavill, and he’s asked me to marry him.’
    The sadness I felt for her came upon me in a rush, almost too great to bear, as I realized she was stuck in the moment of her great disappointment. I longed for Percy to return so that our conversation might be ended.
    ‘Promise you won’t breathe a word of it?’
    ‘I promise.’
    ‘I’ve told him yes, but shhh – ’ a finger pressed against her smiling lips – ‘my sisters don’t know yet. He’s coming soon to have dinner.’ She grinned, old lady teeth in a powder-smooth face. ‘We’re going to announce our engagement.’
    I saw then that she wore something around her finger. Not a ring, not a real one. This was a crude impostor, silver but dull, lumpy, like a piece of aluminium foil rolled and pressed into shape.
    ‘And then we’re going to dance, dance, dance…’ She started to sway, humming along to music that was playing, perhaps, in her head. It was the same tune I’d heard earlier, floating in the cold pockets of the corridors. The name eluded me then, no matter how tantalizingly close it came. The recording, as it must have been, had stopped some time ago, but Juniper listed regardless, her eyelids closed, her cheeks coloured with a young woman’s anticipation.
    I worked on a book once for an elderly couple writing a history of their life together. The woman had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s but was yet to begin the final harrowing descent, and they’d decided to record her memories before they blew away like bleached leaves from an autumn tree.
    The project took six months to complete, during which time I watched her slip helplessly through forgetting towards emptiness. Her husband became ‘that man over there’ and the vibrant, funny woman with the fruity language, who’d argued and grinned and interrupted, was silenced.
    No, I’d seen dementia, and this wasn’t it. Wherever Juniper was, it wasn’t empty, and she’d forgotten very little. Yet there was something the matter; she clearly wasn’t well. Every elderly woman I’ve known has told me, at some point, and with varying degrees of wistfulness, that she’s eighteen years old on the inside. But it isn’t true. I’m only thirty and I know that. The stretch of years leaves none unmarked: the blissful sense of youthful invincibility peels away and responsibility brings its weight to bear.
    Juniper wasn’t like that, though. She genuinely didn’t realize she was old. In her mind the war still raged and, judging by the way she was swaying, so did her hormones. She was such an unnatural hybrid, old and young, beautiful and grotesque, now and then. The effect was breathtaking and it was eerie and I suffered a sudden surge of revulsion, followed immediately by deep shame at having felt such an unkind thing-
    Juniper seized my wrists; her eyes had reeled wide open. ‘But of course!’ she said, catching a giggle in a net of long, pale fingers. ‘You already know about Tom. If it weren’t for you, he and I would never have met!’
    Whatever I might have said in reply was swallowed then as every clock within the castle began to chime the hour. What an uncanny symphony it was, room after room of clocks, calling to one another as they marked the passing time. I felt those chimes deep within my body and the effect spread icy and instant across my skin, utterly unnerving me.
    ‘I really do have to go now, Juniper,’ I said, when finally they stopped. My voice, I noticed, was hoarse.
    A slight noise behind me and I glanced over my shoulder, hoping to see Percy returning.
    ‘Go?’ Juniper’s face sagged. ‘But you’ve just arrived. Where are you going?’
    ‘Back to London.’
    ‘London?’
    ‘Where I live.’
    ‘London.’ A change came over her then, swift as a storm cloud and just as dark. She reached out, gripping my arm with surprising strength and I saw something I hadn’t before: spider-web scars, silvered with age, scribbled along her pale wrists. ‘Take me with you.’
    ‘I… I can’t do that.’
    ‘But it’s the only way. We’ll go and find Tom. He might be there, up in his little flat, sitting by the windowsill…’
    ‘Juniper -’
    ‘You said you’d help me.’ Her voice was tight, hateful. ‘Why didn’t you help me?’
    ‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I don’t-’
    ‘You’re supposed to be my friend; you said you’d help me. Why didn’t you come?’
    ‘Juniper, I think you’re confusing me-’
    ‘Oh, Meredith,’ she whispered, her breath smoky and ancient. ‘I’ve done a terrible, terrible thing.’
    Meredith. My stomach turned like a rubber glove pulled inside out too fast.
    Hurried footsteps and the dog appeared, followed closely by Saffy. ‘Juniper! Oh, June, there you are.’ Her voice was drenched with relief as she reached her sister’s side. She wrapped Juniper in a gentle embrace, drawing back at length to scan her face. ‘You mustn’t run off like that. I’ve been so worried; I looked everywhere. I didn’t know where you’d got to, my little love.’
    Juniper was shaking; I expect I was too. Meredith… The word rang in my ears, sharp and insistent as a mosquito drone. I told myself it was nothing, a coincidence, the meaningless ravings of a sad, mad old woman, but I’m not a good liar and I had no chance of fooling myself.
    As Saffy brushed stray hair from Juniper’s forehead, Percy arrived. She stopped abruptly, leaning on her cane for support as she surveyed the scene. The twins exchanged a glance, similar to the one I’d witnessed earlier in the yellow parlour that had so perplexed me: this time, however, it was Saffy who broke away first. She’d managed, somehow, to penetrate the knot of Juniper’s arms and was holding her little sister’s hand tightly in her own. ‘Thank you for staying with her,’ she said to me, voice quavering. ‘It was kind of you, Edith – ’
    ‘E-dith,’ Juniper echoed, but she didn’t look my way.
    ‘ – she gets confused and wanders sometimes. We watch her closely, but…’ Saffy shook her head shortly, the gesture communicating the impossibility of living one’s life for another.
    I nodded, unable to find the right words to reply. Meredith. My mother’s name. My thoughts, hundreds of them, swarmed at once against the current of time, picking over the past few months for meaning, until finally they arrived en masse at my parents’ home. A chilly afternoon in February, an uncooked chicken, the arrival of a letter that made Mum cry.
    ‘E-dith,’ said Juniper again. ‘E-dith, E-dith…’
    ‘Yes, darling,’ said Saffy, ‘that’s Edith, isn’t it? She’s come to visit.’
    I knew then what I’d suspected all along. Mum had been lying when she told me Juniper’s message was little more than a greeting, just as she’d lied about our visit to Milderhurst. But why? What had happened between Mum and Juniper Blythe? If Juniper was to be believed, Mum had made a promise that she’d failed to keep; something to do with Juniper’s fiancé, with Thomas Cavill. If that was the case, and if the truth really was as dreadful as Juniper suggested, the letter might have been an accusation. Was that it? Was it suppressed guilt that had made my mother cry?
    For the first time since I’d arrived at Milderhurst I longed to be free of the house and its old sorrow, to see the sun and feel the wind on my face and smell something other than rancid mud and mothballs. To be alone with this new puzzle, so that I might begin to unpick it.
    ‘I hope she didn’t offend you…’ Saffy was still speaking; I could hear her through my own reeling thoughts as though she was far away, on the other side of a thick and heavy door. ‘Whatever she said, she didn’t mean it. She says things sometimes, funny things, meaningless things…’
    Her voice tapered off but the silence left behind it was unsettled. She was watching me, unspoken sentiments in her eyes, and I realized that it wasn’t concern alone that weighted her features. There was something else hiding in her face, particularly when she glanced again at Percy. Fear, I realized. They were frightened, both of them.
    I looked at Juniper, hiding behind her own crossed arms. Did I imagine she was standing especially still, listening carefully, waiting to see how I’d answer, what I’d tell them?
    I braved a smile, hoping against hope that it might pass for casual. ‘She didn’t say anything,’ I said, then shrugged my shoulders for good measure. ‘I was just admiring her pretty dress.’
    The surrounding air seemed to shift with the force of the twins’ relief. Juniper’s profile registered no change, and I was left with a strange, creeping sensation, the vague awareness that I’d somehow made a mistake. That I ought to have been honest, to have told the twins all that Juniper had said, the cause of her upset. But having failed thus far to mention my mum and her evacuation, I wasn’t sure that I could find the necessary words-
    ‘Marilyn Bird has arrived,’ said Percy bluntly.
    ‘Oh, but things do have a habit of happening all at once,’ said Saffy.
    ‘She’s come to drive you back to the farmhouse. You’re due in London, she says.’
    ‘Yes,’ I said. Thank God.
    ‘Such a shame,’ said Saffy. Through sterling effort and, I suppose, many years of practice, she managed to sound completely normal. ‘We had hoped to offer you tea. We have so few visitors.’
    ‘Next time,’ said Percy.
    ‘Yes,’ Saffy agreed. ‘Next time.’
    It seemed unlikely, to say the least. ‘Thank you again, for the tour…’
    And as Percy led me back along a mysterious route, to Mrs Bird and the promise of normality, Saffy and Juniper retreated in the opposite direction, their voices skirting back along the cold stones.
    ‘I’m sorry, Saffy, I’m sorry, sorry, sorry. I just… I forgot…’ The words broke then into sobs. A weeping so wretched I wanted to slam my hands against my ears.
    ‘Come along now, dearest, there’s no need for all that.’
    ‘But I’ve done a terrible thing, Saffy. A terrible, terrible thing.’
    ‘Nonsense, little dear, put it out of your mind. Let’s have our tea, shall we?’ The patience, the kindness in Saffy’s voice made a small chamber within my chest clench tight. I think that’s when I first grasped the interminable length of time that she and Percy had been making such reassurances, wiping the confusion from their younger sister’s ageing brow with the same judicious care a parent gives their child, but without the promise that the burden would some day ease. ‘We’ll get you back into something sensible, and then we’ll all have tea. You and Percy and I. Things always look better after a cup of nice, strong tea, don’t they?’
    Mrs Bird was waiting beneath the domed ceiling at the entrance to the castle, puffed up with apologies. She fawned on Percy Blythe, grimacing dramatically as she lambasted the poor unwitting villagers who’d held her up.
    ‘It is of no matter, Mrs Bird,’ said Percy in the same imperious tone a Victorian nanny might use to address a tiresome charge. ‘I enjoyed leading the tour myself.’
    ‘Well of course you did. For old times’ sake. It must be lovely for you to-’
    ‘Indeed.’
    ‘Such a shame that the tours were ended. Understandable, of course, and it’s a credit to you and Miss Saffy that you managed to keep them going for so long, especially with so much else on your-’
    ‘Quite.’ Percy Blythe straightened and I became aware suddenly that she didn’t like Mrs Bird. ‘Now if you’ll both excuse me.’ She bowed her head towards the open door, through which the outside world seemed a brighter, noisier, faster place than when I’d left it.
    ‘Thank you,’ I said before she could disappear, ‘for showing me your beautiful home.’
    She eyed me a moment longer than seemed necessary, then retreated along the corridor, cane beating softly beside her. After a few paces she stopped and turned, barely visible in the cloaking dim. ‘It was beautiful, you know. Once upon a time. Before.

ONE

    October 29th, 1941
    One thing was certain: there’d be no moon tonight. The sky was thick, a roiling mass of grey, white and yellow, folded together like victims of a painter’s palette knife. Percy licked the tobacco paper and tamped it shut, rolling the cigarette between her fingertips to seal it. An aeroplane droned overhead, one of theirs, a patrol plane heading south towards the coast. They had to send one, of course, but there’d be nothing to report, not on a night like this, not now.
    From where she leaned, her back against the van, Percy followed the plane’s progress, squinting as the brown insect grew small and smaller. The glare brought on a yawn and she rubbed her eyes until they stung pleasantly. When she opened them again the plane was gone.
    ‘Oi! Don’t you go marking my polished bonnet and wings there with your lounging.’
    Percy turned and rested her elbow on the van’s roof. It was Dot, grinning as she loped from the station door.
    ‘You should be thanking me,’ Percy called back. ‘Save you twiddling your thumbs next shift.’
    ‘True enough. Officer’ll have me washing tea towels otherwise.’
    ‘Or giving another round of stretcher demonstrations to the wardens.’ Percy cocked a brow. ‘What could be better?’
    ‘Mending the blackout curtains, for one.’
    Percy winced. ‘That is dire.’
    ‘Stick around here much longer and you’ll be needle in hand,’ warned Dot, arriving to lean beside Percy. ‘Not much else doing.’
    ‘He’s heard then?’
    ‘RAF boys sent word just now. Nothing on the horizon, not tonight.’
    ‘Guessed as much.’
    ‘Not just the weather, neither. Officer says the stinking Bosch are too busy marching for Moscow to bother much with us.’
    ‘More fool them,’ said Percy as she inspected her cigarette. ‘Winter’s advancing faster than they are.’
    ‘I suppose you’re planning on hanging about anyway, making a nuisance of yourself in the hopes Jerry gets confused and drops a load nearby?’
    ‘Thought about it,’ said Percy, tucking the cigarette into her pocket and swinging her bag over her shoulder. ‘Decided against. Not even an invasion could keep me here tonight.’
    Dot’s eyes widened. ‘What’s this then? Handsome fellow asked you to go dancing, has he?’
    ‘No such luck; good news all the same.’
    ‘Oh?’
    The bus arrived and Percy had to shout to be heard over its motor as she climbed aboard. ‘My little sister’s coming home tonight.’
    Percy had no greater lust for warfare than the next person – indeed, she’d had more occasion than most to witness its horrors – which was why she never, ever, acknowledged aloud the strange kernel of disappointment that had festered deep inside her since the cessation of nightly raids. It was utterly absurd, she knew, to feel nostalgia for a period of abject danger and destruction; anything other than cautious optimism was damn near sacrilege and yet an appalling temper had kept her awake these past months, ears trained on the quiet night skies above her.
    If there was one thing on which Percy prided herself it was her ability to exercise pragmatism in all matters – Lord knew, someone had to – thus she’d determined to Get to the Bottom of Things. To find a way to still the little clock that threatened to tick away inside her without opportunity ever to strike. Over the course of weeks, taking great care never to reveal her inward state of flux, Percy had evaluated her situation, observing her feelings from all angles before finally reaching the conclusion that she was, quite clearly, several shades of crazy.
    It was only to be expected; madness was something of a family condition, as surely as the gift for artistry and the likelihood of long limbs. Percy had hoped to avoid it, but there you are. Inheritance was a damn good shot. And if she was honest, hadn’t she always supposed it a mere matter of time before her own unhinging?
    It was Daddy’s fault, of course, in particular the terrific stories he’d told them when they were girls, small enough to be lifted, green enough to curl themselves perfectly within his wide, warm lap. Tales from his family’s past, about the plot of land that had become Milderhurst, that had starved and flourished, twisted and turned throughout the centuries, been flooded and farmed and fabled. About buildings that had burned and been rebuilt, rotted and been sacked, thrilled and been forgotten. About the people who had called the castle home before them, the chapters of conquest and sublimation that layered the soil of England and that of their own beloved home.
    History in the storyteller’s hands was a potent force indeed, and for an entire stretch of summer after Daddy left for the Great War, when she was a girl of eight or nine years old, Percy’s dreams had been vivid with invaders storming the fields towards them. She’d coerced Saffy into helping establish forts in the treetops of Cardarker Wood, building stockpiles of weapons, and beheading the saplings that displeased her. Practising, so that when the time came for them to do their duty, to defend the castle and its lands from the invading hordes, they’d be ready…
    The bus rattled round a corner and Percy rolled her eyes at her own reflection. It was ridiculous, of course. Girlish fancies were one thing, but for a grown woman’s moods still to hinge on their echo? It really was too sad. With a huff of disgust, she turned her back on herself.
    It had been a long trip, far longer than usual, and at this rate she’d be lucky to make it home for pudding. Whatever that might be. The storm clouds were amassing, darkness threatened to drop on them at any moment and the bus, with no headlights to speak of, clung to the verge in readiness. She checked her watch: already half past four. Juniper was expected at six thirty, the young man at seven, and Percy had promised to be back by four. Doubtless the Air Raid Precautions fellow had acted on good authority when he’d waved the bus over for random inspection, but tonight of all nights she had better things to be doing. Lending temperance to the preparations at Milderhurst, for one.
    What were the odds that Saffy hadn’t worked herself into a state during the day? Not good, Percy decided. Not good at all. No one submitted so willingly to the tumult of occasion as Saffy, and ever since word had arrived from Juniper that she’d invited a mysterious guest to join them, there’d been little chance of the Event, as it was thereafter known, being spared the full Seraphina Blythe treatment. There’d been talk at one stage of unpacking Grandmother’s leftover coronation stationery and writing out table places, but Percy had suggested that a party of four, three of whom were sisters, made such fuss unnecessary.
    A tap on her forearm and Percy realized that the little old lady beside her was holding an open tin, gesturing that she should take something from within. ‘My own recipe,’ she said in a bright, piping voice. ‘No butter to speak of but not bad at all, even if I do say so myself.’
    ‘Oh,’ said Percy. ‘No. Thank you. I couldn’t. You keep them for yourself.’
    ‘Go on.’ The lady rattled the tin a little closer to Percy’s nose, nodding approval at her uniform.
    ‘Well, all right.’ Percy selected a biscuit and took a bite. ‘Delicious,’ she said, with a silent lament for the glorious days of butter.
    ‘You’re with the FANYs then?’
    ‘Driving an ambulance. That is, I was during the bombing. Cleaning them for the most part lately.’
    ‘You’ll be finding yourself some other way to help the efforts now, I don’t doubt. There’s no stopping you young folk.’ An idea dawned, making saucers of her eyes. ‘But of course, you should join one of those sewing bees! My granddaughter belongs to the Stitching Susans, back home in Cranbrook, and oh, but they do a mighty job, those girls.’
    Needle and thread aside, Percy had to concede the notion was not a bad one. Perhaps she should channel her energies elsewhere: find a government official to chauffeur, learn how to defuse bombs, pilot a plane, become a salvage adviser. Something. Maybe then the ghastly restlessness would abate. Much as she hated to admit it, Percy was coming to suspect that Saffy had been right all these years: she was a fixer. No instinct for creation, but a habit of restoration and never happier than when she was put to good use, patching up holes. What a thoroughly depressing thought.
    The bus lumbered around another corner and at last the village came into view. As they drew nearer, Percy spied her bicycle, leaning against the old oak by the post office, where she’d left it that morning.
    Giving thanks again for the biscuit and solemnly promising to look in to the local sewing bee, she disembarked, waving at her old lady as the bus trundled on towards Cranbrook.
    The breeze had picked up since they’d left Folkestone and Percy shoved her hands into her trouser pockets, smiling at the dour Misses Blethem, who drew collective breath and gathered their string shopping bags close, before nodding a greeting and scurrying away home.
    Two years of war, and there were still some for whom the sight of a woman in trousers heralded the dawn of the apocalypse; never mind the atrocities at home and afar. Percy felt a welcome resurrection of spirits and wondered whether it was wrong to adore her uniform all the more for the effect it had on the Misses Blethem of the world.
    It was late in the day, but every chance remained that Mr Potts hadn’t yet made his delivery to the castle. There were few men in the village – across the country, Percy was willing to bet – who had taken to the office of Home Guard with a zest to match that of Mr Potts. So zealously did he seek to protect the nation that one was liable to feel quite neglected if not stopped at least once monthly for an identity check. That such dedication left the village without a reliable postal service, Mr Potts seemed to regard as an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice.
    The bell tinkled above the door as Percy entered, and Mrs Potts looked up sharply from a pile of papers and envelopes. Her manner was that of a rabbit caught unawares in a gardener’s patch, and she obliged the image further by giving a little sniff. Percy managed to conceal her amusement beneath stern congeniality, which was, after all, something of a speciality.
    ‘Well, well,’ said the postmistress, recovering herself with the speed of one well practised in mild deception. ‘If it isn’t Miss Blythe.’
    ‘Good afternoon, Mrs Potts. Anything to collect?’
    ‘I’ll just have a look now, shall I?’
    The very notion that Mrs Potts wasn’t intimately acquainted with every piece of correspondence that had come or gone that day was laughable, but Percy played along. ‘Why, thank you,’ she said, as the postmistress repaired to the boxes on the back desk.
    After much officious riffling, Mrs Potts pulled free a small clutch of assorted envelopes and held them aloft. ‘Here we are then,’ she said, making a triumphant return to the counter. ‘There’s a parcel for Miss Juniper – from your young Londoner, by the looks; happy to be back home, is she, young Meredith? – ’ Percy nodded impatiently as Mrs Potts continued – ‘A letter hand-addressed to yourself and one for Miss Saffy alone, typed.’
    ‘Excellent. One hardly needs bother reading them.’
    Mrs Potts lined the letters up neatly on the counter top but didn’t release them. ‘I trust all is well up at the castle,’ she said, with rather more feeling than such an innocuous query seemed to warrant.
    ‘Very well, thank you. Now if I-’
    ‘Indeed, I hear congratulations are in order.’
    Percy let out an exasperated sigh. ‘Congratulations?’
    ‘Wedding bells,’ said Mrs Potts, in that irksome manner she’d perfected, managing both to crow at her ill-gained knowledge while greedily digging for more. ‘Up at the castle,’ she repeated.
    ‘I thank you kindly, Mrs Potts, but alas I’m no more engaged today than I was yesterday.’
    The postmistress stood a while computing, before breaking into pealing laughter. ‘Oh! But you are a one, Miss Blythe! No more engaged today than yesterday – I must remember that.’ After much mirth she sobered, pulling a small lace-trimmed handkerchief from her skirt pocket to dab beneath her eyes. ‘But of course,’ she said between blots, ‘I never meant you.’
    Percy feigned surprise. ‘No?’
    ‘Oh no, for heaven’s sake, not you or Miss Saffy. I know neither of you have any plans to leave us, bless you both.’ She wiped her cheeks once more. ‘It was Miss Juniper I was speaking of.’
    Percy couldn’t help but notice the way her little sister’s name crackled on the gossip’s lips. There was electricity in the very sounds, and Mrs Potts a natural conductor. People had always liked to talk about Juniper, even when she was a girl. The little sister had done nothing to help matters; a child with a habit of blacking out at times of excitement tended to lower people’s voices and get them talking about gifts and curses. So it was throughout her childhood, that no matter what strange or unaccountable situation arose in the village – the curious disappearance of Mrs Fleming’s laundry, the consequent outfitting of Farmer Jacob’s scarecrow in bloomers, an outbreak of mumps – just as surely as bees were drawn to honey, loose talk turned itself eventually to Juniper.
    ‘Miss Juniper and a certain young fellow?’ Mrs Potts pressed. ‘I hear there’ve been quite some preparations up at the castle? A fellow she met in London?’
    The very notion was preposterous. Juniper’s destiny lay elsewhere than marriage: it was poetry that made her little sister’s heart sing. Percy considered having fun with Mrs Potts’s eager attention, but a glance at the wall clock made her think better of it. A sensible decision: the last thing she needed was to be drawn into a discussion about Juniper’s removal to London. The chance was all too real that Percy might inadvertently reveal the trouble Juniper’s escapade had caused at the castle. Pride would never allow such a thing. ‘It’s true that we’re having a guest to dinner, Mrs Potts, but although it is a he, he is nobody’s suitor. Merely an acquaintance from London.’
    ‘An acquaintance?’
    ‘That is all.’
    Mrs Potts’s eyes narrowed. ‘Not a wedding then?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘Because I heard it on good authority that there’s been both a proposal and an acceptance.’
    It was no secret that Mrs Potts’s ‘good authority’ was obtained by careful monitoring of letters and telephone calls, the details of which were then cross-referenced against a healthy catalogue of local gossip. Though Percy didn’t go so far as to suspect the woman of steaming envelopes open before sending them on their merry way, there were those in the village who did. In this case, however, there had been very little post to steam (and not of the sort to get Mrs Potts excited, Meredith being Juniper’s only correspondent) just as there was no truth to the rumour. ‘I believe I would know if that were the case, Mrs Potts,’ she said. ‘Rest assured, it’s just a dinner. ’
    ‘A special dinner?’
    ‘Oh, but aren’t they all at a time like this?’ said Percy, breezily. ‘One never knows when one might be sitting down to eat one’s last.’ She plucked the letters from the postmistress’s hand and as she did so spied the cut-glass jars that had once stood on the counter. The acid drops and butterscotch were all but gone, but a small, rather sad pile of Edinburgh rock had solidified in the base of one. Percy couldn’t stand Edinburgh rock, but it was Juniper’s favourite. ‘I’ll take what you have left of the rock, if you don’t mind.’
    With a sour expression, Mrs Potts broke the mass free from the jar’s glass base and scooped it into a brown paper bag. ‘That’ll be sixpence.’
    ‘Why, Mrs Potts,’ said Percy, inspecting the small, sugary bag, ‘if we weren’t such firm friends, I’d suspect you of trying to fleece me.’
    Outrage suffused the postmistress’s face as she spluttered a denial.
    ‘I’m joking, of course, Mrs Potts,’ said Percy, handing over the money. She tucked the letters and the rock into her bag and donated a brief smile. ‘Good afternoon now. I shall enquire after Juniper’s plans on your behalf, but I suspect when there’s anything to know, you’ll be the first to know it.’

TWO

    Onions were important, of course, but that did nothing to alter the fact that their leaves brought absolutely nothing to a flower arrangement. Saffy inspected the feeble green shoots she’d just cut, turned them this way and that, squinted in case it helped, and applied whatever creative power she could muster to imagining them in place at table. In Grandmother’s heirloom French crystal vase they stood a fleeting chance; perhaps with a splash of something colourful to disguise their origin? Or else – her thoughts gathered mo mentum and she chewed her lip as was her habit when a grand idea was breaking – she might surrender herself to the theme, throw in some fennel leaves and marrow flowers and claim it a humorous comment on the shortages?
    With a sigh she let her arm drop, hand still clutching the flagging fronds. Her head shook sadly, seemingly of its own accord. Onto what mad thoughts did a desperate person latch? Clearly the onion shoots would never do: not only were they hopelessly ill suited to the task, but the longer she held them the more potently their odour struck her as remarkably similar to that of old socks. A smell the war, in particular her twin sister’s occupation in it, had given Saffy ample opportunity with which to become familiar. No. After four months in London, mixing in the smartest Bloomsbury circles, no doubt, braving the air raid warnings, sleeping some nights in a shelter, Juniper deserved better than eau de filthy laundry.
    Not to mention the guest she had mysteriously invited to join them. Juniper was not one to gather friends – young Meredith being the single surprising exception – but Saffy had an instinct for reading between the lines and, despite Juniper’s lines being squiggly at the best of times, she’d gathered that the young man had performed some act of gallantry to earn Juniper’s good favour. The invitation, therefore, was a show of the Blythe family’s gratitude and everything must be perfect. The onion sprouts, she confirmed with a second glance, were decidedly less than perfect. Once picked they mustn’t be wasted though – such sacrilege! Lord Woolton would be horrified – Saffy would find a dish to take them, just not from tonight’s menu. Onions and their after-effects could make for rather poor society.
    Sounding a disconsolate huff, then doing the same again because the sensation so pleased her, Saffy started back towards the house, glad as always that her path didn’t take her through the main gardens. She couldn’t bear it; they’d been glorious once. It was a tragedy that so many of the nation’s flower gardens had been abandoned or given over to vegetable cultivation. According to Juniper’s most recent letter, not only had the flowers by Rotten Row in Hyde Park been flattened beneath great piles of wood and iron and brick – the bones of Lord only knew how many homes – the entire southern side was given over now to allotments. A necessity, Saffy acknowledged, but no less tragic for it. Lack of potatoes left a person’s stomach growling, but absence of beauty hardened the soul.
    Directly before her a late butterfly hovered, wings drawing in and out like the mirrored edges of a set of fireside bellows. That such perfection, such natural calm, should continue while mankind was bringing the world’s ceiling down around it – why, it was nothing short of miraculous. Saffy’s face lightened; she held out a finger but the butterfly ignored her, lifting then falling, darting to inspect the brown fruits of the medlar tree. Completely oblivious – what wonder! With a smile, she continued her trudge towards the castle, ducking beneath the knobbled wisteria arbour, careful not to catch her hair.
    Mr Churchill would do well to remember that wars were not won by bullets alone, and to reward those who managed to sustain beauty when the world was being blasted into ugly pieces around them. The Churchill Medal for the Maintenance of Beauty in England had a lovely ring to it, Saffy thought. Percy had smirked when she’d said so at breakfast the other morning, with the inevitable smugness of one who’d spent months climbing in and out of bomb craters, earning her very own bravery medal in the process, but Saffy had refused to feel foolish. Indeed, she was working on a letter to The Times on the subject. The thrust of it: that beauty was important, as were art and literature and music; never more so than when civilized nations seemed intent upon goading one another into increasingly barbarous acts.
    Saffy adored London, she always had. Her future plans depended upon its survival and she took each bomb dropped as a personal attack. When the raids had been in full swing and the crump of distant anti-aircraft guns, the screaming sirens, the miserable explosions had been nightly companions, she’d chewed her nails feverishly – a terrible habit and one whose blame she laid squarely at Hitler’s feet – wondering whether the lover of a city might suffer its plight all the more for being absent when disaster struck, in the same way a mother’s anxiety for a wounded son was magnified by distance. Even as a girl Saffy had glimpsed that her life’s path lay not in the miry fields or within the ancient stones of Milderhurst, but amidst the parks and cafes, the literate conversations of London. When she and Percy were small, after Mother was burned but before Juniper was born, when it was still just the three of them, Daddy had taken the twins up to London each year to live for a time at the house in Chelsea. They were young; time hadn’t yet rubbed away at them, polishing their differences and sharpening their opinions, and they were treated – indeed they behaved between themselves – as a pair of duplicates. Yet when they were in London, Saffy had felt the early stirrings of division, deep but strong, within herself. Where Percy, like Daddy, pined for the vast, green woods of home, Saffy was enlivened by the city.
    An earthy rumble sounded behind her and Saffy groaned, refusing to turn and acknowledge the heavy clouds she knew were gloating over her shoulder. Of all the war’s personal privations, the loss of a regular wireless weather forecast had been a particularly cruel blow. Saffy had faced the shrinkage of quiet reading time with equanimity, agreeing that Percy should bring her one book a week from the lending library instead of the usual four. On the matter of retiring her silk dresses in favour of practical pinafores she’d been positively sanguine. The loss of staff, like so many fleas from a drowning rat, and the consequent adjustment to her new status as head cook, cleaner, laundress and gardener, she’d taken in her stride. But in Saffy’s attempts to master the vagaries of the English weather she had met her match. Despite a lifetime in Kent, she had none of the countrywoman’s instincts for weather: she had discovered, in fact, a curious antithetical knack for hanging out washing and braving the fields on the very days rain was whispering in the wings.
    Saffy marched faster, almost at a canter, trying not to mind the odour of the onion leaves, which seemed to be gaining strength as she gained pace. One thing was certain: when the war ended, Saffy was giving up country life for good. Percy didn’t know it yet – the timing must be right before the news was broached – but Saffy was going up to London. There she intended to find herself a flatlet, just for one. She had no furniture of her own, but that was a small impediment: such matters Saffy entrusted to providence. One thing was certain, though, she’d be taking nothing with her from Milderhurst. Her accoutrements would all be new; it would be a fresh start, nearly two decades later than she’d initially planned, but that could not be helped. She was older now, stronger, and this time she wouldn’t be stopped no matter how overwhelming the opposition.
    Though her intentions were secret, Saffy made a habit of reading the letting pages in The Times each Saturday so that when opportunity presented, she’d be ready. She’d considered Chelsea and Kensington but decided in favour of one of the Georgian squares in Bloomsbury, in walking distance of both the British Museum and the shops of Oxford Street. Juniper, she hoped, might also remain in London and set up in a place nearby, and Percy would, of course, come to visit. She’d stay no longer than a single night though, due to strong feelings about sleeping in her own bed and being on hand to prop up the castle, bodily if need be, should it begin to crumble.
    In the privacy of her own thoughts, Saffy visited her little flatlet often, especially when Percy was stalking up and down the castle corridors, raging about the flaking paint, the sinking beams, decrying each new crack in the walls. Saffy would close her eyes and open the door to her very own home. It would be small and simple, and very clean – she’d take care of that herself – and the overriding smell would be one of beeswax polish. Saffy clenched her fist around the onion sprigs and walked even faster.
    A desk beneath the window, her Olivetti typewriter at its centre and a miniature glass vase – an old but pretty bottle would do at a pinch – in the corner, with a single flower in the prime of its bloom, to be replaced daily. The wireless would be her only companion, and throughout the day she’d pause in her typing to listen to the weather reports, leaving briefly the world she was creating on the page to gaze through the window at the smokeless London sky. Sunlight would brush her arm, spilling into her tiny home and setting the beeswax on the furniture to sparkling. In the evenings, she’d read her library books, write a little more of her own work in progress, and listen to Gracie Fields on the wireless, and no one would grumble from the other armchair that it was a load of sentimental rubbish.
    Saffy stopped, pressed her palms to her warm cheeks and gave a sigh of deep contentment. Dreams of London, of the future, had brought her all the way back to the rear of the castle: what was more, she’d beaten the rain.
    A glance at the henhouse, and her pleasure was curdled somewhat by regret. How she’d live without her girls she didn’t know; she wondered if it would be possible to take them with her. Surely there’d be space in her building’s little garden for a small run – she would just have to add this necessity to her list.
    Saffy opened the gate and held out her arms. ‘Hello, darlings. How are you this afternoon?’
    Helen-Melon ruffled her feathers but didn’t shift from the roosting bench, and Madame refused even to look up from the dirt.
    ‘Chin up, girls. I’m not going anywhere yet. Why, there’s a whole war to win first.’
    This rallying call did not have the cheering effect Saffy had hoped for and her smile staled. It was the third day in as many that Helen had been downcast, and Madame was ordinarily nothing if not vocal. The younger hens took their cue from the older two, so the mood in the coop was decidedly grey. Saffy had become accustomed to such low spirits during the raids; chickens were every bit as sensitive as humans, just as susceptible to anxiety, and the bombers had been relentless. In the end, she’d taken all eight down into the shelter with her at night. The air had suffered, it was true, but the arrangement had suited all concerned: the hens returned to laying and, with Percy out most nights, Saffy had been glad of the company.
    ‘Come now,’ she cooed, scooping Madame into her arms. ‘Don’t be stroppy, my lovely. It’s just a storm gathering, nothing more.’ The warm feathered body relaxed, but only briefly, before wings flapped and the hen staged a clumsy escape, back to the dirt she’d been scratching.
    Saffy dusted off her hands and set them on her hips. ‘As bad as that, is it? I suppose there’s only one thing for it then.’
    Dinner. The only move in her arsenal guaranteed to brighten their spirits. They were greedy, her girls, and that was no bad thing. Would that all the world’s problems were solved with a tasty dish. It was earlier than usual, but these were critical times: the parlour table was still not set, the serving spoon was missing in action, Juniper and her guest would be at the door in no time at all – with Percy’s spirits to manage, the last thing she needed was a clutch of cranky hens. There. It was a practical decision, to keep them sweet, and nothing whatever to do with Saffy being a hopelessly soft touch.
    The steam of a day spent conjuring dinner from what could be found in the larder or begged from the adjoining farms had collected in the upper nooks of the kitchen and Saffy tugged at her blouse in an effort to cool down. ‘Now,’ she flustered, ‘where was I?’ She lifted the saucepan lid to satisfy herself the custard had gone nowhere in her absence, guessed by the oven huffing that the pie was still cooking, then spotted an old wooden crate that had outlived its original purpose but would suit her current one perfectly.
    Saffy dragged it into the furthest corner of the larder and climbed aboard, standing on tiptoes right at its edge. She spider-walked her hand along the larder shelf until her fingers grazed the darkest patch and a small tin reached out to meet them. Wrapping her hand around it, Saffy smiled to herself and clambered back down. Months of dust had settled, grease and steam had formed a glue, and she had to wipe the top with her thumb to read the label beneath: sardines. Perfect! She grasped it tightly, relishing the thrill of the illicit.
    ‘Don’t worry, Daddy,’ sang Saffy, digging the tin opener from the drawer of clunky kitchen utensils, shutting it again with a bump of her hip. ‘They’re not for me.’ It had been one of her father’s ruling tenets: tinned food was a conspiracy and they were to submit themselves to willing starvation sooner than allow a spoonful to pass their lips. A conspiracy by whom and to what effect Saffy did not purport to know, but Daddy had been forceful on the matter and that had been enough. He wasn’t one to brook much opposition and for a long time she’d possessed no desire to give him any. Throughout her girlhood he had been the sun that shone for Saffy, and the moon at night; the idea that he might ever disappoint her belonged in a counter-realm of ghouls and nightmares.
    Saffy mashed the sardines in a porcelain bowl, noticing the hairline crack in its side only after she’d rendered the fish utterly unrecognizable. It was of no consequence as far as the hens were concerned, but along with the wallpaper she’d discovered peeling away from the chimney in the good parlour it was the second sign of decline in as many hours. She made a mental note to check carefully the plates they’d put aside for tonight, to hide any that were similarly marred; it was just the sort of wear and tear to get Percy fuming, and although Saffy admired her twin’s commitment to Milderhurst and its maintenance, her ill mood would not be conducive to the atmosphere of convivial celebration she was hoping for.
    A number of things happened then at once. The door creaked ajar, Saffy jumped, and a remnant of sardine spine dropped from the fork’s tine onto the flagstones.
    ‘Miss Saffy!’
    ‘Oh, Lucy, thank God!’ Saffy clutched the fork against her staccato heart. ‘You shaved ten years off my life!’
    ‘I’m sorry. I thought you were out fetching flowers for the parlour… I only meant… I came to check – ’ The housekeeper’s sentence broke into tatters as she drew closer, took in the fishy mash, the open tin and she dropped her train of thought completely when she met Saffy’s gaze. Her lovely violet eyes widened. ‘Miss Saffy!’ she said. ‘I didn’t think-’
    ‘Oh-no-no-no – ’ Saffy flapped a hand for silence, smiling as she lifted a finger to her lips. ‘Shh, Lucy dear. Not for me, certainly not. I keep them for the girls.’
    ‘Oh.’ Lucy was visibly relieved. ‘Well, that’s different, isn’t it. I wouldn’t like to think of Himself,’ her eyes raised reverentially towards the ceiling, ‘being upset, even now.’
    Saffy agreed, ‘The last thing we need tonight is Daddy turning in his grave.’ She nodded at the first-aid box. ‘Pass me a couple of aspirin, will you?’
    Lucy’s brow rumpled with concern. ‘Are you unwell?’
    ‘It’s the girls. They’re nervy, poor darlings, and nothing smoothes a frazzled temperament quite like aspirin, except perhaps a sharp swig of gin, but that would be rather irresponsible.’ Saffy used the back of a teaspoon to grind the tablets to powder. ‘You know, I haven’t seen them so bad since the raid on May the tenth.’
    Lucy paled. ‘You don’t think they sense a fresh wave of bombers?’
    ‘I shouldn’t think so. Mr Hitler’s far too busy marching into winter to trouble much about us. At least, that’s what Percy says. According to her, we should be left alone until Christmas at least; she’s terribly disappointed.’ Saffy was still stirring the fishy concoction and had drawn breath to go on when she noticed that Lucy had moved away to the stove. Her posture gave no indication that she was listening any more and all of a sudden Saffy felt silly, like one of her hens when they were in the mood for clucking and the garden gate would do for company. After an embarrassed little cough she said, ‘Anyway, I’m prattling. You didn’t come to the kitchen to hear about the girls and I’m keeping you from whatever it was you were doing.’
    ‘Not at all.’ Lucy closed the range door and stood tall, but her cheeks were a deeper pink than the oven alone might cause and Saffy knew that she hadn’t imagined the previous moment’s discomfort; something she’d said or done had spoiled Lucy’s good humour and she felt beastly about it. ‘I was coming to check on the rabbit pie,’ Lucy continued, ‘which I’ve now done, and to let you know that I didn’t find the silver serving spoon you wanted but I’ve put another at table that should do just as well. I’ve also brought down some of the records Miss Juniper sent back from London.’
    ‘To the blue parlour?’
    ‘Of course.’
    ‘Perfect.’ It was the good parlour, and therefore they would entertain Mr Cavill there. Percy had disagreed, but that was to be expected. She’d been in a temper for weeks, stomping along the corridors, forecasting doom and gloom about the coming winter, grumbling about the shortage of fuel, the extravagance of heating another room when the yellow parlour was already warmed daily. But Percy would come round: she always did. Saffy tapped the fork on the side of the bowl with determination.
    ‘You did very well with your custard. It’s lovely and thick, even without the milk.’ Lucy was peeping beneath the saucepan lid.
    ‘Oh, Lucy, you’re a darling. I made it with water in the end, a little honey as sweetener so I could save my sugar for marmalade. I never thought I’d thank the war for anything, but I wonder that I might have lived my entire life without knowing the satisfaction of creating the perfect milk-less custard!’
    ‘There’s many in London would be grateful for the recipe. My cousin writes that they’re down to two pints each a week. Can you imagine? You ought to jot down the steps to your custard in a letter and send it to the Daily Telegraph. They publish them, you know.’
    ‘I didn’t know,’ said Saffy thoughtfully. It would be another publication to add to her little collection. Not a particularly salubrious addition, but a clipping nonetheless. It would all help when the time came to send off her manuscript, and who knew what else might come of it? Saffy quite liked the idea of a regular little column, ‘Sew-a-lot Saffy’s Advice to Ladies’ or some such, a small illustrated emblem in the corner – her Singer 201K, or even one of her hens! She smiled, as pleased and amused by the fantasy as if it were a fait accompli.
    Lucy, meanwhile, was still talking about her cousin in Pimlico and the single egg they were allowed each fortnight. ‘Hers was rotten the other week, and can you imagine? – they wouldn’t replace it for her.’
    ‘But that’s just mean spirited!’ Saffy was aghast. Sew-a-lot Saffy, she suspected, would have much to say on such matters and wouldn’t be afraid to make magnanimous gestures of her own as recompense. ‘Why, you must send her some of mine. And take half a dozen for yourself.’
    Lucy’s expression could not have been more delighted had Saffy begun handing out lumps of solid gold, and Saffy felt embarrassed suddenly, forcing the spectre of her newspaper doppelganger to dissolve. It was with an air of apology that she said, ‘We’ve more eggs than we can eat, and I’ve been looking for a way to show you my gratitude – you’ve come to my aid so often since the war began.’
    ‘Oh, Miss Saffy.’
    ‘Let’s not forget I’d still be laundering in caster sugar if it weren’t for you.’
    Lucy laughed and said, ‘Well, thank you kindly. I accept your offer most gratefully.’
    They started wrapping the eggs together, tearing small squares from the salvaged newspapers stacked by the stove, and Saffy thought for the hundredth time that day how much she enjoyed their former housekeeper’s company and how unfortunate it was that they’d lost her. When she moved into the flatlet, Saffy decided, Lucy should be given the address and encouraged to call for tea whenever she came up to London. Percy would no doubt have something to say about that – she had rather traditional ideas about the classes and their intermingling – but Saffy knew better: companions were to be valued, wherever one found them.
    A grumble of thunder menaced from outside and Lucy ducked her head to spy through the grimy windowpane above the small sink. She took in the darkening sky and frowned. ‘If there’s nothing else, Miss Saffy, I’ll finish up in the parlour and be on my way. The weather looks like settling in and I’ve a meeting to attend this evening.’
    ‘WVS is it?’
    ‘Canteen tonight. Got to keep those brave soldiers fed.’
    ‘That we do,’ Saffy said. ‘Speaking of which, I’ve stitched some children’s dollies for your fund-raising auction. Take them tonight if you’re able: they’re upstairs, as is – ’ a pause for theatrical effect – ‘the Dress.’
    Lucy gasped and her voice dropped to a whisper, even though they were alone. ‘You finished it!’
    ‘Just in time for Juniper to wear tonight. I’ve hung it in the attic so it’s the first thing she sees.’
    ‘Then I shall certainly pop upstairs before I go. Tell me – is it beautiful?’
    ‘It’s divine.’
    ‘I’m so pleased.’ A moment’s hesitation and Lucy reached out to take Saffy’s hands lightly in her own. ‘Everything’s going to be perfect, you see if it isn’t. Such a special night, having Miss Juniper back from London at last.’
    ‘I just hope the weather doesn’t hold up the trains too long.’
    Lucy smiled. ‘You’ll be relieved to have her home safe and sound.’
    ‘I haven’t slept a single night through since she’s been away.’
    ‘The worry.’ Lucy shook her head sympathetically. ‘You’ve been a mother to her, and a mother never sleeps easy when she’s worried for her babe.’
    ‘Oh, Lucy – ’ Saffy’s eyes glazed – ‘I have been worried. So worried. I feel like I’ve been holding my breath for months.’
    ‘There haven’t been any episodes, though, have there?’
    ‘Mercifully not, and I’m sure she would have told us if there had. Even Juniper wouldn’t be untruthful about something so serious-’
    The door blasted open and they each straightened as sharply as the other. Lucy squealed and Saffy almost did, remembering this time to swipe the tin and hide it behind her back. It was only the wind picking up outside, but the interruption was sufficient to sweep away the pleasant atmosphere inside and take Lucy’s smile with it. And then Saffy knew what it was that had Lucy on tenterhooks.
    She considered saying nothing, the day was almost over and sometimes least said really was soonest mended, but the afternoon had been so companionable, the two of them working side by side in the kitchen and in the parlour, and Saffy was eager to set things to rights. She was allowed to have friends – she needed to have friends – no matter what Percy felt. She cleared her throat gently. ‘How old were you when you started here, Lucy?’
    The answer came quietly, almost as if she’d expected it: ‘Sixteen.’
    ‘Twenty-two years ago, was it?’
    ‘Twenty-four. It was 1917.’
    ‘You were always one of Father’s favourites, you know.’
    Within the oven, the pie filling had begun to simmer inside its pastry casing. The former housekeeper’s back straightened and then she sighed, slowly and deliberately. ‘He was good to me.’
    ‘And you must know that Percy and I are both very fond of you.’
    With the eggs all bundled, Lucy could find no further occupation at the far bench. She crossed her arms and spoke softly. ‘It’s kind of you to say, Miss Saffy, and unnecessary.’
    ‘Only that if you ever changed your mind, when things are more settled, if you decided you’d like to come back in a more official-’
    ‘No,’ Lucy said. ‘No. Thank you.’
    ‘I’ve made you uncomfortable,’ Saffy started. ‘Forgive me, Lucy dear. I wouldn’t have said a word, only I don’t like to think of you misunderstanding. Percy doesn’t mean anything by it, you see. It’s just her way.’
    ‘Really, there’s no need-’
    ‘She doesn’t like change. She never has. She almost died pining when she was sent away to hospital with scarlet fever as a girl.’ Saffy made a weak attempt to lighten the mood: ‘I sometimes think she’d be happy for we three sisters to remain together here at Milderhurst forever. Can you imagine? All of us old ladies with hair so long and white we could sit on it?’
    ‘I should think Miss Juniper would have something to say about that.’
    ‘Quite.’ As would Saffy herself. She had a sudden urge to tell Lucy all about the flatlet in London, the desk beneath the window, the wireless on the shelf, but she suppressed it. This wasn’t the time. Instead, she said, ‘Anyway, we were both sorry to see you leave us after so many years.’
    ‘It was the war, Miss Saffy, I needed to be doing something to help, then with Mother passing as she did and Harry-’
    Saffy waved her hand. ‘There’s no need to explain; I understand completely. Affairs of the heart and all that. We all of us have lives to lead, Lucy, particularly at a time like this. War makes one see what’s important, doesn’t it?’
    ‘I should get on.’
    ‘Yes. All right. And we’ll see each other again soon. Next week perhaps, to make some piccalilli for the auction? My marrows-’
    ‘No,’ said Lucy, a fresh note tightening her voice. ‘No. Not again. I shouldn’t have come today, only you sounded beside yourself.’
    ‘But Lucy-’
    ‘Please don’t ask me again, Saffy. It isn’t right.’
    Saffy was at a loss for words. Another gust of angry wind and a distant rumble of thunder sounded. Lucy gathered up the tea towel of eggs. ‘I should get on,’ she said, more gently this time, which was somehow worse and brought Saffy to the brink of tears. ‘I’ll fetch the dollies, take a look at Juniper’s dress, and be on my way.’
    And then she was gone.
    The door swung shut and Saffy was alone again in the steaming kitchen, clutching a bowl of mushy fish and racking her brains, wondering what had happened to drive her friend away.

THREE

    Percy coasted down the slope of the Tenterden Road, across the rattle of stones at the base of the driveway, and jumped off her bicycle. ‘Home again, home again, jiggety jig’, she recited under her breath, gravel crunching beneath her boots. Nanny had taught them the rhyme when they were very small, decades ago now, yet it always came to mind when she crossed from the road onto the driveway. Some tunes, some chains of words were like that; they lodged and refused to dislodge no matter how a person might wish it. Not that Percy cared to rid herself of ‘Jiggety Jig’. Dear Nanny with her tiny, pink hands, her certainty in all things, the clickety needles as she sat by the attic fire at night, knitting them to sleep. How they’d wept when she celebrated her ninetieth birthday by retiring to live with a great-niece in Cornwall. Saffy had gone so far as to threaten a death plummet from the attic window in protest but, alas, the pronouncement had been dulled by previous deployment and Nanny was not swayed.
    Even though she was already late, Percy walked rather than rode her bicycle up the drive, letting the familiar fields welcome her home as they fanned out on either side. The farm and its oast houses to the left, the mill beyond, the woods to the distant right. Memories of a thousand childhood afternoons roosted in the trees of Cardarker Wood blinking at her from the cooling shadows. The exhilarating terror of hiding from the white slavers; hunting for dragon bones; hiking with Daddy in search of the ancient Roman roads…
    The driveway wasn’t particularly steep and it wasn’t for lack of ability that Percy chose to proceed on foot, rather that she enjoyed walking. Daddy had been a first-rate walker, too, particularly after the Great War. Before he published the book, and before he left them to go up to London; before he met Odette and remarried and was never really theirs again. The doctor had advised that a daily walk would help his leg and he’d taken to roaming the fields with the stick Mr Morris had left behind after one of Grandmother’s weekends. ‘You see the way the end swings out before me with each stride?’ he’d said as they strolled along Roving Brook together one autumn afternoon. ‘That’s as it should be. Good and solid. It’s a reminder.’
    ‘Of what, Daddy?’
    He’d frowned at the slippery bank as if the right words might be hidden there, between the reeds. ‘Why… That I, too, am solid, I expect.’
    She hadn’t understood his meaning then; had only presumed him enamoured of the stick’s weight. She certainly hadn’t probed further: Percy’s position as walking mate was tenuous, the rules governing its continuation firm. Walking was, according to the doctrine of Raymond Blythe, a time for contemplation; on rare occasions, when both parties were amenable, for the discussion of history or poetry or nature. Chatterboxes were certainly not tolerated and the label once given was never lost, much to poor Saffy’s chagrin. Many was the time Percy had glanced back towards the castle as she and Daddy set off on their ramble, to see Saffy scowling from the nursery window. Percy had always twinged in sympathy with her sister, but never sufficiently to stay behind. She figured that the favour was just reward for the countless times Saffy held Daddy’s ear, making him smile with amusement as she read aloud the clever little stories she’d written; more recently it was for the months they’d spent together, the two of them, immediately after his return from war, when Percy had been sent away with scarlet fever.
    Percy came to the first bridge and stopped, resting her bicycle against the railing. She couldn’t see the castle from here, not yet; it remained hidden in the clutch of its woods and wouldn’t appear fully until she reached the second, smaller bridge. She leaned over the edge and scanned the shallow brook below. The water swirled and whispered where the banks widened, hesitating a little before continuing on towards the woods. Percy’s reflection, dark against the white-reflected sky, wavered in the smoother, deeper middle.
    Beyond was the hop field in which she’d smoked her first cigarette. She and Saffy together, giggling over the stolen case, pinched from one of Daddy’s more pompous friends while he roasted his hammy ankles by the lake on a stifling summer’s day.
    A cigarette…
    Percy felt the breast pocket of her uniform, the firm cylinder beneath her fingertips. Having rolled the damned thing, it was as well to enjoy it, surely? She had a feeling that once she entered the castle’s fray a quiet smoke would be but a distant dream.
    She turned, resting against the railing, struck a match and inhaled, holding her breath for a moment before letting go. God, how she adored tobacco. Percy sometimes suspected she would be happy to live alone, to never speak another word to a single living soul, on condition she could do so here at Milderhurst with a lifetime’s supply of cigarettes for company.
    She hadn’t always been so wretchedly solitary. And even now she knew the fantasy – though certainly not without its comforts – to be just that. A fantasy. She could never bear to be without Saffy, not for long. Nor Juniper. It had been four months since their little sister took herself to London, and the two of them left at home had behaved in the interim like a pair of handkerchief-twisting old dearies: speculating as to whether she had sufficient warm socks, sending fresh eggs to London with whomever they knew was making the journey, reading her letters aloud over the breakfast table in an attempt to discern her mood, her health, her mind. Letters, incidentally, in which no mention – veiled or otherwise – was made of the possibility of marriage, thank you very much, Mrs Potts! The suggestion was laughable to anyone who knew Juniper. While some women were formed for marriage and prams in the hallway, others, most decidedly, were not. Daddy had known that, which is why he’d arranged things the way he had, to ensure that Juniper would be taken care of after he was gone.
    Percy huffed with distaste and flattened her spent cigarette beneath her boot. Thoughts of the postmistress reminded her of the items she’d collected and she pulled them from her bag, an excuse to linger in the calm of her own company a little longer.
    There were three pieces in total, just as Mrs Potts had advised: a parcel from Meredith to Juniper, a typed envelope addressed to Saffy, and another letter with her own name written across its front. The script, with its dizzy loops, could belong to none other than Cousin Emily, and Percy tore open the envelope eagerly, angling the top page so it caught the remaining light and she could make out the words.
    With the exception of the time she’d dyed Saffy’s hair blue, Emily had borne the esteemed title of Favourite Cousin throughout the Blythe twins’ childhood. That her only challenge came from the pompous Cambridge cousins, the strange, thin cousins from the north, and her own younger sister, Pippa, whose unfortunate tendency to weep at the slightest provocation earned her immediate disqualification, rendered the honour no less heartfelt. A visit from Emily had been cause for great celebration at Milderhurst and without her the twins’ childhood would have been a rather more stagnant place. Percy and Saffy were very close, as twins couldn’t help but be, but they were not the sort whose bond excluded all others. Indeed, they were a pair whose friendship was improved by the incorporation of a third. Growing up, the village had been full of children with whom they might have played if not for Daddy’s suspicion of outsiders. Darling Daddy, he’d been a terrible snob in his way, only he’d have been shocked to be labelled as such. It wasn’t money or status that he admired, but brains; talent was the currency with which he sought to surround himself.
    Emily, blessed with both, had received the Raymond Blythe stamp of approval and had thus been summoned to stay at Milderhurst every summer. She’d even earned inclusion in the Blythe Family Evenings, a semi-regular tournament instituted by Grandmother when Daddy was a boy. The call would go out on the auspicious morning – ‘Blythe Family Evening!’ – and anticipation would animate the household all day. Dictionaries were located, pencils and wits were sharpened, and finally, when dinner was done with, everyone would gather in the good parlour. Contestants would take up position at the table or in a favourite armchair, and finally Daddy would make his entrance. He always withdrew from general activity on tournament day, secreting himself away in the tower to produce his list of challenges, and their announcement was something of a ceremony. The specifics of the game varied, but at its most general a location, a character type, and a word would be supplied, then Cook’s largest egg-timer flipped, and the race would be on to craft the most entertaining fiction.
    Percy, who was bright but not a wit, who loved to listen but not to tell, who wrote slowly and punctiliously when she was nervous and made everything sound impossibly starched, had dreaded and despised these evenings until, quite by accident, when she was twelve years old, she discovered the amnesty accorded to the game’s official score-keeper. While Emily and Saffy – whose devotion to one another only fuelled their competition – sweated over their stories, furrowed their brows, bit their lips, and raced their pencils across pages, vying hotly for Daddy’s praise, Percy sat serenely awaiting entertainment. For written expression they were evenly matched, Saffy perhaps a little stronger in vocabulary; however, Emily’s wicked humour gave her a distinct advantage and for a time it had been clear that Daddy suspected the family’s gift of flowering specially in her. That was before Juniper was born, of course, with a precocious talent that swept all other claims aside.
    If Emily felt the chill when Daddy’s attention shifted orbit, her recovery had been swift. Her visits had continued happily and regularly for many years, long beyond childhood, until that last summer in 1925, the last before she was married and it all ended. It was to Emily’s great advantage, Percy had always supposed, that despite her talents she’d never possessed the artist’s temperament. She was too even-tempered, too good at sports, too jolly and well liked to walk the writer’s path. Not even the merest whiff of neuroses. Much better for Emily the fate that had found her after Daddy’s focus waned: marriage to a good sort, a clutch of freckle-nosed sons, a grand house overlooking the sea, and now, according to her correspondence, a pair of amorous pigs. The entire letter was little more than a collection of anecdotes from Emily’s Devonshire village: news about her husband and boys, adventures of the local ARP officers, her elderly neighbour’s obsession with her stirrup pump, yet Percy laughed as she read it. She was still smiling when she reached the end, folded the letter neatly and tucked it back into its envelope.
    Then she tore it in half and in half again, pushing it deep within her pocket as she continued up the driveway. She made a mental note to remove the shreds to her wastepaper bin before her uniform found its way into the laundry pile. Better yet, she’d burn the pieces that very afternoon and Saffy would be none the wiser.

FOUR

    That Juniper, the only known Blythe not to occupy the nursery in childhood, should wake on the morning of her thirteenth birthday, toss a few valued possessions into a pillowcase, then head upstairs to stake her claim on the sleeping attic, had surprised no one. The perfect contrariness of the event was so in keeping with the Juniper they knew and loved that whenever anyone spoke of it, in years to come, the progression seemed utterly natural and they found themselves debating the very suggestion that the whole thing hadn’t been planned in advance. For her part, Juniper said very little on the subject, either at the time or later: one day she slept in her small annexed room on the second floor, the next she presided over the attic. What more could one say?
    More telling than Juniper’s removal to the nursery, Saffy always thought, was the way in which she’d dragged an invisible cape of curious glamour after her. The attic, an outpost in the castle, the place to which children had traditionally been banished until by age or attribute they were deemed worthy of adult regard, a room of low ceilings and feisty mice, skull-freezing winters and simmering summers, the outlet through which all chimneys passed on their way to freedom, suddenly seemed to hum. People with no reason at all to subject themselves to the climb began to gravitate to the nursery. ‘Just going to pop my head in,’ they would say, before disappearing up the staircase, only to reappear somewhat sheepishly an hour or so later. Saffy and Percy would exchange an amused glance and entertain one another with guesses as to what on earth the poor unwitting guest had been doing up there when one thing was certain: Juniper had not been playing hostess. It wasn’t that their little sister was rude, only that she wasn’t particularly affable either, and there was no company she enjoyed as much as her own. Which was a good thing, given that she’d been afforded very little opportunity to meet anyone else. There were no cousins her age, no family friends, and Daddy had insisted she should be educated at home. The best Saffy and Percy could figure out was that Juniper ignored her visitors completely, leaving them to potter unfettered in the busy chaos of her room until finally they tired sufficiently and took it upon themselves to leave. It was one of Juniper’s strangest, most indefinable gifts and one she’d possessed all her life: a magnetism so strong it was worthy of study and medical categorization. Even people who didn’t like Juniper wanted to be liked by her.
    The last thing on Saffy’s mind, however, as she climbed the uppermost staircase for the second time that day, was unravelling the mysteries of her little sister’s charm. The storm was gathering faster than Mr Potts’s Home Guard patrol, and the attic windows were wide open. She’d noticed them when she was sitting in the henhouse, stroking Helen-Melon’s feathers and fretting over Lucy’s sudden sternness. A light’s ignition had drawn her attention and she’d glanced up to see Lucy collecting the hospital dollies from the sewing room. She’d followed the housekeeper’s progress – a shadow as she passed the second-floor window, the spill of lingering daylight as she opened the hallway door, then a minute or so’s passing before a light flickered in the upper staircase that led to the attic. And that’s when Saffy had remembered the windows. She’d opened them herself that morning in the hope that a day’s fresh air might clear away months of stagnation. It had been a fond hope and one whose fulfilment Saffy doubted, but it was better, surely, to try and fail than to throw one’s hands in the air. Now, though, with the smell of rain on the breeze, she needed to get them shut. She’d watched for the light to be extinguished in the stairwell, waited another five minutes, then, judging it safe to venture upstairs without fear of meeting Lucy, headed inside.
    Taking great care to avoid the third step from the top – the last thing Saffy needed tonight was the little uncle’s ghost making mischief – she pushed open the nursery door and switched on the light. It glowed dully, as did all the Milderhurst electrics, and she paused a while in the doorway. Murky light aside, it was her custom when considering a foray into Juniper’s domain. There were few rooms on earth, Saffy suspected, where it was as prudent to plot a course before attempting entry. Squalor was perhaps going a little too far, but only a little.
    The smell, she noticed, remained; the blend of stale tobacco smoke and ink, wet dog, and feral mouse, had been too stubborn for a single day’s breeze. The doggy odour was easily explained – Juniper’s mutt Poe had languished in her absence, splitting his moping between the top of the driveway and the end of her bed. As to the mice, Saffy wasn’t sure whether Juniper had been feeding them on purpose or if the little opportunists were merely benefiting from her slatternly occupation of the attic. Either was possible. And, although she wouldn’t confess it too widely, Saffy quite liked the mousy smell; it reminded her of Clementina, whom she’d bought from the Harrods pet department on the morning of her eighth birthday. Tina had been a dear little companion, right up until the unfortunate altercation with Percy’s snake, Cyrus. Rats were a much-maligned breed, cleaner than people gave them credit for and truly companionable, the nobility of the rodent world.
    Having glimpsed the clear-ish passage to the far window – a legacy of her previous expedition – Saffy started gingerly through the jumble. If Nanny could only see the place now! Gone were the clean, clear days of her reign, the supervised milky suppers, the little broomette pulled out at night for crumbs, the twin desks against the wall, the lingering scent of beeswax and Pears soap. No, Nanny’s epoch had been ended well and truly; replaced, it seemed to Saffy, by anarchy. Paper, paper everywhere, inked with odd instructions, illustrations, questions Juniper had written to herself; clusters of dust gathering contentedly, lining the skirting boards like chaperones at a dance. There were things stuck to walls, pictures of people and places and oddly assembled words that had, for some inexplicable reason, captured Juniper’s imagination; and the floor was a sea of books, articles of clothing, cups with dubiously grimy insides, makeshift ashtrays, favourite dolls with blinking eyes, old bus tickets with scribble around their edges. The whole made Saffy lightheaded and decidedly queasy. Was that a bread crust beneath the quilt? If so, it had hardened by now into a museum piece.
    Though tidying up after Juniper was a nasty habit and one against which Saffy had long ago waged war and won, on this occasion she couldn’t help herself. Mess was one thing, comestibles quite another. With a shudder she reached down, wrapped the granite-hard crust in the quilt and hurried to the closest window, releasing the crust and listening for the dull thud as it hit the old moat grass below. Another shudder as she shook out the quilt, then she pulled the window closed and sealed the blackout curtains.
    The tatty quilt would need washing and patching, but that was for another day; for now Saffy would have to content herself with giving it a thorough folding. Not too neatly, of course – though Juniper, it was safe to assume, would neither notice nor care – just enough to restore to it some semblance of dignity. The quilt, Saffy thought fondly, drawing the corners to arm’s length, deserved better than a four-month furlough on the floor playing shroud to a stale lump of bread. It had been a gift originally, one of the estate farmer’s wives had sewn it for Juniper many years before, that being the sort of unsolicited affection Juniper tended to inspire. Although most people would be touched by such a gesture, bound by it to take special care of the item, Juniper was not most people. She placed no greater value on the creations of others than she placed on her own. This was one of the aspects of her little sister’s character Saffy found most difficult to understand, and she sighed as she took in the autumn of discarded papers on the floor.
    She looked for a place to leave the folded quilt and settled on a nearby chair. A book lay open atop a pile of others and Saffy, pathologically literate, couldn’t help flicking back to the title page to see what it was. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, inscribed to Juniper by T. S. Eliot after he came to visit and Daddy showed him some of June’s poems. Saffy wasn’t sure about Thomas Eliot; she admired him, of course, as a wordsmith, but there was a pessimism in his soul, a darkness in his outlook, that always left her somehow more aware of hard edges than she had been before. Not so much with the cats, who were whimsy itself, as with his other poems. His obsession with ticking clocks and passing time, it seemed to Saffy, was a recipe for depression and one she could quite do without.
    Juniper’s feelings on the matter were unclear. This was not a surprise. If Juniper were a character in a book, Saffy often thought, she’d be the sort whose evocation was best limited to the reactions of others, whose point of view was impossible to enter without risk of turning ambivalence into absolutes. Words like ‘disarming’, ‘ethereal’ and ‘beguiling’ would be invaluable to the author, along with ‘fierce’ and ‘reckless’, and even on odd occasion – though Saffy knew she must never say so aloud – ‘violent’. In Eliot’s hands, she’d be Juniper, the Cat au Contraire. Saffy smiled, pleased by the notion, and dusted her fingers on her knees. Juniper was rather catlike, after all: the wide-apart eyes with their fixed gaze, the lightness of foot, the resistance to attention she hadn’t sought.
    Saffy began wading through the sea of papers towards the other windows, permitting herself a brief detour past the cupboard where the Dress was hanging. She’d brought it upstairs that morning, as soon as Percy was safely out of the house; pulled the dress from its hiding place and draped it over her arms like the sleeping princess of a fairy tale. She’d had to bend a coat hanger out of shape so that the silk might swathe against the outside of the wardrobe, facing the door, but it was necessary. The dress must be the first thing Juniper saw when she pushed open the door that evening and switched on the light.
    Now the dress: there was the perfect example of the unknowable Juniper. The letter, when it arrived from London, had been such a surprise that if Saffy hadn’t witnessed a lifetime of her sister’s abrupt about-turns, she’d have believed it a prank. If there was one thing about her sister she’d have put money on, it was this: Juniper Blythe did not give two hoots about clothing. She’d spent her childhood in plain white muslin and bare feet and had a curious knack for reducing any new dress, no matter how smart, into a shapeless sack within two hours of wear. Although Saffy had held out some hope, maturity had not changed her. Where other girls of seventeen longed to go up to London for their first season, Juniper hadn’t even mentioned it, shooting Saffy a stare of such withering intensity when she so much as hinted at the possibility that the after-burn had pained for weeks. Which was just as well, seeing as Daddy would never have allowed it. She was his ‘creature of the castle’, he used to say, there was no need ever for her to leave it. What would a girl like her want with a round of debutante balls anyway?
    The hurried postscript in Juniper’s letter, then, asking whether Saffy minded putting a dress together, something a person might wear to a dance – wasn’t there an old frock of her mother’s somewhere, something she’d worn to London, just before she died, perhaps it could be altered? – had been utterly bemusing. Juniper had made a point of addressing the letter to Saffy alone, so although she and Percy usually worked in partnership where Juniper was concerned, Saffy had pondered the request privately. After much consideration she’d come to the conclusion that city life must have changed her little sister; she wondered whether Juniper had been changed in other ways, whether she’d want to move to London for good after the war. Away from Milderhurst, no matter what Daddy had wanted for her.
    Regardless of why Juniper had made the request, it was Saffy’s delight to fulfil it. Along with her typewriter, Saffy’s Singer 201K – undoubtedly the finest model ever made – was her pride and joy and although she’d done copious sewing since the war began, all of it had been practical. The opportunity to set aside the stacks of blankets and hospital pyjamas for a time and work on a fashion project had been thrilling, particularly the project that Juniper had suggested. For Saffy had immediately known the dress of which her sister spoke; she’d admired it even then, on that unforgettable night in 1924 when her stepmother had worn it to the London premiere of Daddy’s play. It had been in storage ever since, down in the muniment room, which was airtight and therefore the one place in the castle where moths and rot couldn’t find it.
    Saffy ran her fingertips lightly down the sides of the silk skirt. The colour really was exquisite. A lustrous almost-pink, like the underside of the wild mushrooms that grew by the mill, the sort of colour a careless glance might mistake for cream, but which rewarded close attention. Saffy had worked on the alteration for weeks, always in secret, and the duplicity, the effort, had been worth it. She lifted the hem to check again the neatness of her handiwork, then, satisfied, smoothed it. She took a small step backwards, all the better to admire the full effect. Yes, it was glorious; she’d taken an item that was beautiful but dated and, armed with favourite editions from her collection of Vogue magazines, turned it into a piece of art. And if that sounded immodest, so be it. Saffy was well aware that this might be her last opportunity to see the dress in all its glory (the sad truth: once Juniper took possession there was no telling what dreadful fate awaited it); she wasn’t about to waste the moment by adhering to the dreary strictures of false modesty.
    With a glance behind her, Saffy slipped the gown from its hanger and felt its weight in her hands; all the best dresses had a pleasing weight. She inserted a finger beneath each of the shoulder straps and held it up in front of her, chewing her bottom lip as she regarded herself in the mirror. There she stood, head tilted to the side, a childhood mannerism she’d never managed to shed, and from this distance and in this half-light, the passage of the years might never have been. If she squinted a little, smiled more broadly, she might still be the nineteen-year-old who’d stood beside her stepmother at the London premiere of Daddy’s play, coveting the pale pink dress and promising herself that one day she too would wear such a wondrous thing, maybe even at her own wedding.
    Saffy put it back on the hanger, tripping on a discarded glass tumbler in the process, one from the set Daddy and Mother had received from the Asquiths on their marriage. She sighed; Juniper’s irreverence really knew no bounds. Which was all well and good for Juniper, but Saffy, having seen the tumbler, couldn’t very well ignore it. She bent to pick it up and was halfway to standing again when she glimpsed a Limoges teacup beneath an old newspaper; before she knew it she’d trespassed all over her own golden rule and was down on all fours, cleaning. The pile of crockery she’d assembled within a minute didn’t make a dent in the clutter. All that paper, all those scribbled words.
    The mess, the impossibility of ever reasserting order, of reclaiming an old thought, was almost a physical pain for Saffy. For while she and Juniper were both writers, their methods were quite opposed. It was Saffy’s habit to set aside precious hours each day in which to sit quietly, her only companions a notebook, the fountain pen Daddy had given her for her sixteenth birthday, and a freshly brewed pot of strong tea. So arranged, she would carefully, slowly, craft her words into pleasing order, writing and rewriting, editing and perfecting, reading aloud and relishing the pleasure of bringing her heroine Adele’s story to life. Only when she was absolutely happy with the day’s work would she retire to her Olivetti and type up the new paragraph.
    Juniper, on the other hand, worked like someone trying to write themselves free of entanglement. She did so wherever inspiration found her, writing on the run, spilling behind her scraps of poems, fragmented images, adverbs out of place, but somehow the stronger for it; all littered the castle, dropped like breadcrumbs, leading the way to the gingerbread nursery at the top of the stairs. Saffy would find them sometimes when she was cleaning – ink-splotched pages on the floor, behind the sofa, under the rug – and she’d surrender herself to the conjured image of an ancient Roman trireme, sail hoisted, wind beating it full, an order shouted on deck whilst in the bows the secreted lovers hid, on the brink of capture… Only for the story then to be abandoned, victim of Juniper’s fleeting, shifting interest.
    At other times, whole stories were begun and completed in wild fits of composition; manias, Saffy sometimes thought, though that was not a word any of the Blythes used lightly, certainly not in relation to Juniper. The littlest sister would fail to appear at table and light would be found streaking through the nursery floorboards, a hot strip beneath the door. Daddy would order them not to disturb her, saying that the needs of the body were secondary to the demands of genius, but Saffy always sneaked a plate up when he wasn’t looking. Not that it was ever touched; Juniper just kept scribbling all night long. Sudden, burning, like those tropical fevers people seemed always to be getting, and short-lived, so that by next day all would be calm. She would emerge from the attic: tired, dazed and emptied. Yawning and lounging in that feline manner of hers, the demon exorcised and quite forgotten.
    And that was the strangest aspect of all for Saffy, who filed her own compositions – drafts and finals – in matching lidded boxes that were stacked prettily for posterity in the muniment room, who had always worked towards the thrill of binding her work and pressing it into a reader’s hands. Juniper had no interest whatsoever in whether or not her writing was read. There was no false modesty in her failure to show her work to others; she simply couldn’t have cared less. Once the thing was written, it was no longer of any interest to her. Percy, when Saffy mentioned it, had been nonplussed, but that was to be expected. Poor Percy, without a creative bone in her body-
    Well, well! Saffy paused, still on hands and knees; what should appear beneath the underbrush of papers but Grandmother’s silver serving spoon! The very thing she’d spent half the day looking for. She sat back on her haunches, pressing her hands flat against her thighs, forcing the kink from her lower spine. To think that all the while, as she and Lucy had turned drawers inside out, the spoon had been tucked beneath the rubble in Juniper’s room. Saffy was about to pluck it from its resting place – there was a curious stain on the handle that would need attention – when she saw that it had been acting as a bookmark of sorts. She opened the notebook – more of Juniper’s scratchy handwriting, but this page was dated. Saffy’s eyes, trained by a lifetime of voracious reading, were faster than her manners, and within the split second it took to blink she’d discerned that the book was a journal, the entry recent. May 1941, just before Juniper left for London.
    It was simply dreadful to read another person’s journal and Saffy would be mortified if her own privacy were invaded in such a fashion, but Juniper had never cared for rules of conduct and in some way that Saffy understood but couldn’t formulate into words, that fact made it all right for her to take a peek. Indeed, Juniper’s habit of leaving personal papers lying flagrantly in the open was an invitation, surely, for her older sister, a mother figure really, to ensure that all was in order. Juniper was almost nineteen, but she was a special case: not responsible for herself like most adults. How else were Saffy and Percy to act as Juniper’s guardians other than by making it their business to know hers? Nanny wouldn’t have thought twice about leafing through diaries and letters left in view by her charges, which was precisely why the twins had gone to such great lengths to rotate their hiding spots. That Juniper didn’t bother was evidence enough to Saffy that her baby sister welcomed maternal interest in her affairs. And she was here now, and Juniper’s notebook was lying right there in front of her, open to a relatively recent page. Why – it was almost uncaring, wasn’t it, not to take a tiny little peek?

FIVE

    There was another bicycle leaning against the front steps, where Percy had taken to leaving her own when she was too tired, too lazy, or too plain rushed to put it in the stables. Which was often. This was unusual – Saffy hadn’t mentioned guests other than Juniper and the fellow, Thomas Cavill, each of whom would be arriving off buses and definitely not by bicycle.
    Percy climbed the stairs and dug about in her satchel, searching for the key. Saffy had become very particular about keeping the doors locked since war started, convinced that Milderhurst would be circled in red on Hitler’s invasion map and the Blythe sisters marked out for arrest, which was fine with Percy except for the fact that her front-door key seemed always intent on hiding from her.
    Ducks spluttered on the pond behind; the dark mass of Cardarker Wood quivered; thunder grumbled, closer now; and time seemed to stretch like elastic. Just as she was about to give up and start pounding on the door, it swung open and Lucy Middleton was there, a scarf over her hair and a weak-beamed bicycle lamp in her hand.
    ‘Oh my!’ The former housekeeper’s free hand leaped to her chest. ‘You frightened me.’
    Percy opened her mouth, but finding no words closed it again. She stopped rummaging and swung her satchel over her shoulder. Still no words.
    ‘I – I’ve been helping in the kitchen.’ Lucy’s face was flushed. ‘Miss Saffy gave me a ring. On the telephone, earlier. Neither of her dailies was available.’
    Percy cleared her throat and regretted the action immediately. The resulting croak connoted nervousness, and Lucy Middleton was the very last person before whom she wished to seem uncertain. ‘Everything’s set then, is it? For tonight?’
    ‘The pie’s in the oven and I’ve left Miss Saffy with instructions.’
    ‘I see.’
    ‘The dinner will cook slowly. I’d be expecting Miss Saffy to boil over first.’
    It was a joke, an amusing one, but Percy left it too long to laugh. She sought something else to say, but there was too much and too little and Lucy Middleton, who had been standing, waiting for something further, must have realized that it wasn’t coming because she moved now, somewhat awkwardly, around Percy to retrieve her bicycle.
    No, it wasn’t Middleton any more. Lucy Rogers. It had been over a year since she and Harry had wed. Almost eighteen months.
    ‘Good day, Miss Blythe.’ Lucy climbed onto her bicycle.
    ‘Your husband?’ said Percy quickly, despising herself as she did so. ‘Is he well?’
    Lucy didn’t meet her eyes. ‘He is.’
    ‘And you too, of course?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘And the babe.’
    Almost a whisper: ‘Yes.’
    Her posture was that of a child expecting to be scolded or, worse, thrashed, and Percy was overcome with the sudden, hot desire to fulfil the expectation. She didn’t, of course, adopting instead a casual tone, less precipitate than before, almost light, and saying, ‘You might mention to your husband that the grandfather in the hall is still gaining. We arrive at the hour ten minutes sooner than we should.’
    ‘Yes, ma’am.’
    ‘I don’t think I imagined that he bore some special sentiment towards our old clock?’
    Lucy refused to meet her eyes but uttered a vague reply before mounting her bicycle and pushing off towards the top of the driveway, lamplight scribbling a shaky message on the ground before her.
    At the shudder of the front door downstairs Saffy clapped the journal shut. Her blood thrummed warm beneath her temples, her cheeks, the skin stretched taut above her breasts. Her pulse beat faster than a small bird’s heart. Well. She stood shakily, pushing herself up from the ground. That certainly took away some of the guesswork: the mystery of the evening ahead, the alteration of the dress, the young male guest. Not a gallant stranger at all. No. Not a stranger.
    ‘Saffy?’ Percy’s voice cut sharp and angry through the layers of floorboards.
    Saffy pressed a hand to her forehead, steeling herself to the task ahead. She knew what she had to do: she needed to get herself dressed and downstairs, she needed to assess how much cajoling Percy was going to require, then she needed to make sure the evening was a great success. And there was the grandfather chiming six o’clock so she had to do it at once. Juniper and her young man – whose name, Saffy was sure she remembered correctly, was the same as that she’d glimpsed in the journal entry – would be arriving within the hour, the strength with which Percy had slammed the front door foretold a dark mood, and Saffy herself was still dressed like someone who’d spent the day digging for victory.
    Pile of liberated crockery forgotten, she waded hurriedly through the paper so she could close the remaining windows and draw the blackout curtains. Movement on the driveway caught her eye – Lucy crossing the first bridge on her bicycle – but Saffy looked away. A flock of birds soared across the distant sky, way over by the hop fields, and she watched them go. ‘Free as a bird’ was the expression, and yet they weren’t free at all, not as far as Saffy could tell: they were bound to one another by their habits, their seasonal needs, their biology, their nature, their birth. No freer than anyone else. Still, they knew the exhilaration of flight. What Saffy wouldn’t give sometimes to spread her wings and fly, right now, drifting from the window to soar above the fields, over the top of the woods, following the planes towards London.
    She’d tried once, when she was a girl. She’d climbed out of the attic window, walked along the ridge of the roof, and scrambled down to the ledge below Daddy’s tower. She’d made herself a pair of wings first, the most glorious pair of silken wings, bound with twine to fine, light sticks she’d salvaged from the woods; she’d even sewn elastic loops on the back so she could wear them. They’d been so beautiful – neither pink nor red but vermilion, gleaming in the sun, just like the plumage on real birds – and for a few seconds after she’d launched herself into the air she’d really flown. The wind had buffeted her from beneath, whipping up through the valley to push her arms behind her, and everything had slowed, slowed, slowed, briefly but brilliantly, and she’d glimpsed what heaven it was to fly. Then things had begun to speed up, her descent had been rapid, and when she’d hit the ground, her wings and her arms had been broken.
    ‘Saffy?’ The shout came again. ‘Are you hiding from me?’
    The birds disappeared into the swollen sky and Saffy pulled the window shut, sealing the blackouts so not a chink of light would be seen. Outside, the storm clouds rumbled like a full stomach, the gluttonous belly of a gentleman who’d escaped the frugalities of a rationed pantry. Saffy smiled, amusing herself, and made a mental note to jot down the description in her journal.
    It was quiet inside, too quiet, and Percy’s lips tightened with familiar agitation; Saffy had always been the sort to hide when confrontation reared its bitter head. Percy had been fighting her twin’s battles all their lives, something she excelled at and actually quite enjoyed, and which worked very well indeed until dispute arose between them and Saffy, woefully out of practice, was ill equipped to meet it. Incapable of fight, she was left with only two options: flight or abject denial. In this instance, judging by the emphatic silence which met Percy’s attempts to find her, Saffy had chosen the former. Which was frustrating, exceedingly frustrating, for there was a fierce, spiky ball inside Percy, just waiting to get out. With no one to scowl at or take to task, however, Percy was stuck nursing it, and the fierce, spiky ball wasn’t the sort of affliction to shrivel of its own accord. With nowhere to fling it, she would need to seek satisfaction elsewhere. Whisky perhaps would help: it certainly wouldn’t hurt.
    There was a moment each afternoon at which the sun reached a particular low point in the sky and light vanished, immediately and drastically, from within the castle. That moment passed as Percy went down the corridor from the entrance hall. When she emerged in the yellow parlour it was almost too dark to see her way across the room, which might have been hazardous had Percy not been able to navigate the castle blindfolded. She edged around the sofa into the bay window, pulled the blackout curtains across the glass and switched on the table lamp. As usual it made no practicable dent in the gloom. She pulled out a match to light the paraffin lamp’s wick but found, with mild surprise and strong annoyance, that after the encounter with Lucy her hand was shaking too much to strike it.
    Ever the opportunist, the mantel clock chose that moment to step up its ticking. Percy had never liked that damned clock. It had been Mother’s and Daddy had insisted it was dear to him; thus its tenure was secure. There was something in the nature of its tick, though, that set Percy’s teeth on edge, a malicious suggestion that it took far more joy than a china object should at sweeping aside the passing seconds. This afternoon her dislike verged on hatred.
    ‘Oh, shut up, you stupid bloody clock,’ said Percy. Forgetting about the lamp, she tossed the unspent match into the bin.
    She’d pour herself a drink, roll a cigarette, and then she’d head outside before the rain came, make sure there was sufficient firewood in the pile; see if she couldn’t rid herself of that spiky ball in the process.

SIX

    Despite the turmoil of the day, Saffy had left a small portion of her brain free to devote itself to wardrobe rummaging; sorting through the options in her head so that come evening she wouldn’t be waylaid by indecision and forced to make a careless choice. Truthfully, it was one of her favourite pastimes even when she wasn’t hosting a special dinner: she visualized first this dress, with those shoes and that necklace, and then started again, cycling blissfully through the countless permutations. Today, combination after combination had presented itself only to be dismissed because it didn’t meet the final, essential criterion. Which was probably where she ought to have started, only it would have limited so direly the options. The winning outfit was always going to be the one that worked best with her finest nylon stockings: that was, the only pair whose six darned holes could happily be concealed by careful selection of the right shoes and a dress of the right length and persuasion. Cue the peppermint silk Liberty gown.
    Back in the order and cleanliness of her own bedroom, as Saffy climbed out of her pinafore and did battle with her underwear, she was glad she’d already made the difficult decisions. She had neither the time nor the focus to make them now. As if deciphering the implications of Juniper’s journal entry wasn’t enough to contend with, Percy was downstairs and she was angry. As always, the whole house glowered with her; the slam of the front door had travelled all the way along the house’s veins, up four storeys and into Saffy’s own body. Even the lights – never bright – seemed to be sulking in sympathy, and the castle cavities were dirty with shadows. Saffy reached into the very back corner of the top drawer and retrieved her best stockings. They were tucked inside their paper packaging, wrapped inside a piece of tissue paper, and she unfolded them carefully, running her thumb lightly over the most recent repair.
    The problem, as Saffy saw it, was that the nuances of human affection were lost on Percy, who was far more sympathetic to the needs of the walls and floors of Milderhurst than to those of her fellow inhabitants. They’d both been sorry to see Lucy go, after all; and it was Saffy who was more apt to feel her absence, alone in the house all day, washing and scrubbing and patching meals together with only Clara or half-witted Millie for company. But while Saffy understood that a woman, given the choice between her work and her heart, would always choose the latter, Percy had refused to accept the changed household with any grace. She’d taken Lucy’s marriage as a personal slight and there was no one like Percy for holding a grudge. Which was why Juniper’s journal entry and what it might portend was so disquieting.
    Saffy slowed in her inspection of the stocking. She wasn’t naive and she wasn’t a Victorian; she’d read Third Act in Venice and Cold Comfort Farm and The Thinking Reed, and she knew about sex. Nothing she’d read before, though, had prepared her for Juniper’s thoughts on the matter. Typically frank; visceral, but lyrical too; beautiful and raw and frightening. Saffy’s eyes had raced across the page, taking the whole lot in at once, an enormous glass of water tossed at her face. It was unsurprising, she supposed, given the pace at which she’d read, her confusion at meeting such vivid sentiments, that she couldn’t now bring to mind a single line; only fragments of feeling, unwanted images, occasional forbidden words and the hot shock of having met them.
    Perhaps it hadn’t been the words themselves that had so astonished Saffy as much as to whom they belonged. Not only was Juniper her far younger sister, but she was a person who had always seemed emphatically sexless; her burning talent, her eschewal of all things feminine, her just plain oddness – all seemed to elevate Juniper above such basic human desires. What was more, and perhaps it was this which stung most, Juniper had never so much as hinted to Saffy that she was contemplating a love affair. Was the young male guest this evening the man in question? The journal entry had been penned six months ago, before June went to London, and yet the name Thomas had been mentioned. Was it possible that Juniper had met him earlier, at Milderhurst? That there had been more to her leaving than met the eye? And if so, were they still, after all this time, in love? Such a brilliant and exciting development in her little sister’s life, and not a word had been shared. Saffy knew why, of course: Daddy, if he were alive, would be furious – sex too often led to children, and Daddy’s theories on the incompatibility of art and child-rearing were no secret. Percy, as his self-elected emissary, must therefore remain none the wiser; Juniper had been right in that. But not to tell Saffy? Why, she and Juniper were close, and as secretive as Juniper was, they’d always been able to talk. This matter should be no different. She rolled the stocking off her hand, resolving to rectify matters as soon as Juniper arrived and they could snatch a few private moments together. Saffy smiled; the evening wasn’t merely a welcome home, or a show of gratitude. Juniper had a special friend.
    Satisfied that the stockings were in good order, Saffy hung them on the bedrail and prepared to take on the wardrobe. Good Lord! She stopped still, turned her underwear-clad self this way and that, glancing back over her shoulder to get a rear view. Either the mirror had developed some sort of reflection disorder or she’d gained a few more pounds. Really, she ought to donate herself to science: to gain weight despite the grave state of England’s pantries? Saffy couldn’t decide whether it was downright un-British or a clever victory against Hitler’s U-boats. Not worthy perhaps of the Churchill Medal for the Maintenance of Beauty in England, but a triumph nonetheless. Saffy pulled a face at herself, cinched in her stomach, and opened the wardrobe door.
    Behind the selection of dull pinafores and cardigans hanging at the front was a wonderland of vibrant neglected silks. Saffy clapped her hands to her cheeks; it was like revisiting old friends. Her wardrobe was her pride and joy, each dress a member of an esteemed club. It was a catalogue of her past, too, as she’d once thought during a fit of maudlin self-pity: the dresses she’d worn as a debutante, the silk gown she’d worn to the Milderhurst Midsummer Ball of 1923, even the blue frock she’d made to attend Daddy’s play’s premiere the following year. Daddy had maintained that daughters should be beautiful and they’d all continued to dress for dinner as long as he was alive; even when he was confined to his chair in the tower they’d made the effort to please him. After his death, however, there hadn’t seemed much point, not with the war. Saffy had kept it up for a time, but once Percy joined the ambulance service and started spending nights on duty they’d agreed, wordlessly, to let the custom slip away.
    One by one, Saffy swept the gowns aside, until finally she glimpsed the peppermint silk. She held the others clear a moment, taking stock of its lustrous green front: the beading on the décolletage, the ribbon sash, the bias-cut skirt. She hadn’t worn it in years, could barely recall the previous occasion, but she could remember Lucy helping to mend it. It had been Percy’s fault; with those cigarettes and her careless manner of smoking them she was a menace to fine fabrics everywhere. Lucy had done a neat repair job though; Saffy had to hunt along the bodice to find the singe mark. Yes, it would do nicely; it would have to. Saffy drew it from the wardrobe, draped it across the bedspread, and took up her stockings.
    The biggest mystery, she thought, spidering her fingers down the sides of the first stocking and easing her toes in, was how someone like Lucy could possibly have fallen in love with Harry the clock man in the first place. Such a plain little man, not at all a romantic hero, scuttering about the passages with his shoulders hunched and his hair always a little longer, a little thinner, a little less kempt than it should be-
    ‘Oh Lord; no!’ Saffy’s big toe caught and she began to topple sideways. There was a split second in which she might have righted herself, but her toenail had snagged in the fibre and to plant her foot would have risked a new ladder. Thus, she took the fall bravely, whacking her thigh painfully on the dressing-table corner. ‘Oh dear,’ she gasped. ‘Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.’ She slid onto the upholstered stool and scrambled to inspect the precious stocking: why, oh why, hadn’t she concentrated better on the task at hand? There would be no new stockings when these ones tore beyond repair. Fingers trembling she turned them over and over, running her finger-tips lightly across the surface.
    All seemed in order; it had been a narrow escape. Saffy let out the sigh she’d been holding, and yet she wasn’t wholly relieved. She met her pink-cheeked reflection in the mirror and held it: there was more at stake here than the last remaining pair of stockings. When she and Percy were girls they’d had plenty of opportunity to observe adults up close and what they saw had mystified them. The ancient grotesques behaved, for the most part, as if they’d no inkling at all that they were old. This perplexed the twins, who agreed that there was nothing so unseemly as an old person who refused to acknowledge his or her limitations, and they’d made a pact never to let it happen to them. When they were old, they swore, they would jolly well act the part. ‘But how will we know?’ Saffy had said, dazzled by the existential knot at the question’s core. ‘Perhaps it’s one of those things, like sunburn, that can’t be felt until it’s too late to do anything about it.’ Percy had agreed on the problem’s tricksy nature, sitting quietly with her arms wrapped around her knees as she gave herself over to its consideration. Ever the pragmatist, she’d reached a solution first, saying slowly, ‘I suppose we must make a list of things that old people do – three ought to be enough. And when we find ourselves doing them, then we’ll know.’
    Gathering the candidate habits had been simple – there was a lifetime’s observation of Daddy and Nanny to consult; more difficult was limiting their number to three. After much deliberation they’d settled on those leaving least room for equivocation: first, professing strong and repeated preference for England when Queen Victoria was on the throne; second, mentioning one’s health in any company other than that which included a medical professional; and third, failure to put on one’s undergarments whilst standing.
    Saffy groaned, remembering that very morning when she’d been making up the bed in the guest chamber and caught herself detailing her lower-back pain to Lucy. The conversation’s topic had warranted the description and she’d been prepared to let it slide, but now this: felled by a pair of stockings? The prognosis was dismal indeed.
    Percy had almost made it safely to the back door when Saffy finally appeared, gliding down the stairs as if she had nothing in the world to answer for. ‘Hello there, sister mine,’ she said. ‘Save any lives today?’
    Percy inhaled. She needed time, space and a sharp swinging implement in order to clear her head and exorcise her anger. Otherwise, she was as likely as not to hurl it. ‘Four kittens from a drain and a clump of Edinburgh rock.’
    ‘Oh, well! Victory all round. Marvellous work indeed! – Shall we have a cup of tea?’
    ‘I’m going to chop some wood.’
    ‘Darling – ’ Saffy came a step closer – ‘I think that’s rather unnecessary.’
    ‘Better sooner than later. It’s about to pour with rain.’
    ‘I understand that,’ said Saffy, with exaggerated calm, ‘but I’m quite sure we’ve sufficient in the pile. Indeed, after your efforts this month, I estimate we’re set until approximately 1960. Why don’t you take yourself upstairs instead, get dressed for dinner – ’ Saffy paused as a loud noise sheeted from one side of the castle’s roof to the other – ‘there now, saved by the rain!’
    Some days even the weather could be counted on to take the other side. Percy pulled out her tobacco and started rolling a cigarette. Without looking up she said, ‘Why did you ask her here?’
    ‘Who?’
    A hard stare.
    ‘Oh that.’ Saffy waved her hand vaguely. ‘Clara’s mother was taken ill, Millie’s as daft as ever and you’re always so jolly busy: it was simply too much for me on my own. Besides, there’s no one who can sweet-talk Agatha quite like Lucy.’
    ‘You’ve done all right in the past.’
    ‘Darling of you to say so, Percy dear, but you know Aggie. I wouldn’t put it past her to cut out tonight, just to spite me. Ever since I let the milk boil over she’s held a mighty grudge.’
    ‘She’s – it’s – an oven, Seraphina.’
    ‘My point exactly! Who’d have thought her capable of such a ghastly temperament?’
    Percy was being managed; she could feel it. The affected lightness in her sister’s voice, being cut off at the pass on her way to the back door, then shooed upstairs where she was willing to bet a dress – something wretchedly fancy – had already been laid out for her: it was as if Saffy feared she couldn’t be trusted to maintain civility in company. The suggestion made Percy want to roar, but such a reaction would only confirm her sister’s concerns, so she didn’t. Swallowing the urge, she dampened her paper and sealed the cigarette.
    ‘Anyway,’ Saffy continued, ‘Lucy’s been a darling, and with nothing decent to roast I decided we needed whatever help we could get.’
    ‘Nothing to roast?’ said Percy breezily. ‘Last I looked there were eight contenders fattening up nicely in the bird-house.’
    Saffy drew breath. ‘You wouldn’t.’
    ‘I dream of drumsticks.’
    A gratifying tremor had insinuated itself into Saffy’s voice, travelling all the way down to the tip of her pointed finger: ‘My girls are good little providers; they are not dinner. I will not have you looking at them and thinking of gravy. Why, it’s… it’s barbarous.’
    There were a great many things Percy wanted to say, but as she stood there in the dank corridor, rain pounding the earth on the other side of the stone wall, her twin sister standing before her, shifting uncomfortably on the stair – hips and stomach stretching her old green dress in all the wrong places – Percy glimpsed the thread of time and all their various disappointments along it. It formed a block against which her present frustration slammed, concertinaing behind. She was the dominant twin, she always had been, and no matter how angry Saffy made her, fighting subverted some basic principle of the universe.
    ‘Perce?’ Saffy’s voice still trembled. ‘Do I need to put my girls under guard?’
    ‘You should have told me,’ Percy said with a short sigh, snatching the matches from her pocket. ‘That’s all. You should have told me about Lucy.’
    ‘I wish you’d just put the whole thing behind you, Perce. For your own sake. Servants have done worse to their employers than leave them. It’s not as if we found her with her fingers in the silver drawer.’
    ‘You should have told me.’ Percy’s throat ached as she spoke. She fumbled a single match from the deck.
    ‘If it matters so much, I won’t ask her back. For what it’s worth, I can’t imagine she’ll put up much argument; she struck me as rather keen to avoid your society. I think you frighten her.’
    A snap as the matchstick broke between Percy’s fingers.
    ‘Oh, Perce – now look, you’re bleeding.’
    ‘It’s nothing.’ She wiped it on her trousers.
    ‘Not on your clothing, not blood, it’s impossible to clean.’ Saffy held up a crumpled item of clothing she’d brought with her from upstairs. ‘In case you failed to notice, the laundry staff left us some time ago. I’m all that’s left, boiling and stirring and scouring.’
    Percy rubbed at the bloodstain on her leg, smudging it further.
    Saffy sighed. ‘Leave your trousers for now; I’ll see to them. Go on upstairs, darling, and make yourself tidy.’
    ‘Yes.’ Percy was looking at her finger in mild surprise.
    ‘You put on a nice party frock and I’ll put on the kettle. Make us a pot of tea. Better yet, I’ll fix us a cocktail, shall I? It is a celebration, after all.’
    Celebration was taking it a bit far, but Percy’s fight had left her. ‘Yes,’ she said again. ‘Good idea.’
    ‘Bring your trousers down to the kitchen when you’re done; I’ll put them in to soak right away.’
    Percy clenched and unclenched her hand as she started slowly up the stairs, and then she stopped and turned. ‘I almost forgot,’ she said, taking the typed envelope from her bag. ‘A letter for you in today’s post.’

SEVEN

    Saffy hid inside the butler’s pantry to read the letter. She’d known immediately what it would be and it had taken all her efforts to conceal her excitement from Percy. She’d snatched at the envelope, then stood watch at the bottom of the stairs, making sure her sister didn’t suffer a last-minute change of heart and head for the woodpile instead. Only when she’d heard Percy’s bedroom door close behind her had she finally allowed herself to relax. She’d all but lost hope that a reply would ever come and, now that it had, she almost wished it hadn’t. The anticipation, the tyranny of the unknown, was nearly too much to bear.
    Downstairs in the kitchen, she hurried into the windowless butler’s pantry, which had once swollen with the indomitable presence of Mr Broad but now contained little more to evidence his reign of terror than the desk and a wooden cabinet of old, impossibly tedious daily records. Saffy pulled the string that fired the light bulb and leaned against the desk. Her fingers turned to thumbs as she fumbled with the envelope.
    Without her letter opener, which was sitting in its cradle on her writing desk upstairs, Saffy had to resort to tearing the envelope open. Which she didn’t like doing and therefore did as neatly as possible, almost enjoying the prolonged agony such extreme caution brought. She slipped the folded paper from within – very fine paper, she noted; cotton fibre, embossed, warm white – and, with a deep breath, opened it out flat. Eyes scanning quickly, she drank in the letter’s meaning, then went back to the beginning again, forcing herself to read more slowly, to believe what she was seeing, as incredible joyous lightness of being spread from deep within her body, turning even the outermost tips of her fingers to stardust.
    She’d first glimpsed the advertisement in The Times when she was leafing through the lettings. Female companion and governess sought to accompany Lady Dartington and her three children to America for the duration of the war, it had read. Educated, unmarried, cultured, experienced with children. The advertisement might have been written with Saffy in mind. Though she had no children of her own, it was certainly not for lack of desire. There had been a time when her future thoughts had been filled – surely like most women’s? – with babies. It seemed they were not to be had, however, without a husband, and therein lay the sticking point. As to the other criteria, Saffy was quite confident she could claim without immodesty to possess both education and culture. So, she’d set out immediately to win the position, composing a letter of introduction, including a pair of splendid references, and putting together an application demonstrating Seraphina Blythe to be the ideal candidate. And then she’d waited, trying as best she could to keep her dreams of New York City to herself. Having long ago learned that there was no point ruffling Percy’s feathers unnecessarily, she hadn’t mentioned the position to her twin, allowing her mind to fill privately, and vividly, with possibilities. She’d imagined the journey in rather embarrassing detail, casting herself as a sort of latter-day Molly Brown, keeping the Dartington children’s spirits buoyed as they braved the U-boats en route for the great American port…
    Telling Percy would be the hardest part; she wasn’t going to be pleased, and as to what would become of her, marching the corridors alone, mending walls and chopping wood, forgetting to bathe or launder or bake – well, it didn’t bear thought. This letter, though, this offer of employment Saffy held in her hand, was her chance and she wasn’t about to let a bad habit of sentiment stop her from taking it. Like Adele, in her novel, she was going to ‘seize life by the throat and force it to meet her eyes’ – Saffy was very proud of that line.
    She closed the pantry door quietly behind her and noticed immediately that the oven was steaming. In all the excitement she’d almost forgotten the pie! What a thing! She’d be lucky if the pastry weren’t burnt to a cinder.
    Saffy slid on her oven mitts and squinted inside, breathing a great sigh of relief when she saw that the pie’s top, though golden, was not yet brown. She shifted it into the bottom oven, where the temperature was lower and it could sit without spoiling, then stood to leave.
    And that’s when she saw that Percy’s stained uniform trousers had joined her own pinafore on the kitchen table. Why, they must have been deposited when Saffy was in the pantry. What luck that Percy hadn’t discovered her reading the letter.
    Saffy gave the trousers a shake. Monday was her official washing day, but it was just as well to leave the clothes to steep a while, especially where Percy’s uniform was concerned; the number and variety of stains Percy managed to collect would’ve been impressive if they weren’t so jolly difficult to remove. Still, Saffy enjoyed a challenge. She stuck her hand into first one pocket, then the other, in search of forgotten odds and sods that would spoil her load. And it was just as well she did.
    Saffy pulled out the pieces of paper – goodness, such a number! – and laid them beside her on the work top. She shook her head wearily; she’d lost count of how many times she’d tried to train Percy to clear her pockets before putting clothes out for laundering.
    But how strange – Saffy shifted the shreds about with her finger, located one with a stamp. It was, or had been once, a letter, torn now into pieces.
    But why would Percy do such a thing? And who was the letter from?
    A slamming noise above and Saffy’s gaze swung to the ceiling. Footsteps, another slam.
    The front door! Juniper had arrived. Or was it him, the fellow from London?
    Saffy glanced again at the tattered pieces of paper, chewed the inside of her cheek. Here was a mystery, and one she needed to resolve. But not now; there simply wasn’t time. She needed to be upstairs, to see Juniper and to greet their guest; Lord only knew what Percy’s state was now. Perhaps the torn letter would shed some light on her sister’s foul mood of late.
    With a short nod of decision, Saffy concealed her own secret letter carefully beneath her bodice and stashed the pieces she’d pulled from Percy’s pocket under a saucepan lid. She would investigate properly later.
    And, with a last check of the rabbit pie, she straightened her dress about the bust, discouraged it from clinging quite so closely to her middle, and started upstairs.
    Perhaps Percy only imagined the rotting odour? It had been an unfortunate phantom lately; it turned out there were some things, once smelled, that could never be escaped. They hadn’t been in the good parlour for over six months, not since Daddy’s funeral, and despite her sister’s best efforts a musty edge still clung. The table had been pulled into the centre of the room, right atop the Bessarabian rug, then laid with Grandmother’s finest dinner service, four glasses apiece, and a carefully printed menu at each place. Percy picked one up for closer inspection, noted that parlour games were scheduled and put it down again.
    A jolt of memory took her back to a shelter she’d found herself in during the first weeks of the Blitz, when a planned visit to Daddy’s solicitor in Folkestone had been scotched by Hitler’s fighters. The forced gaiety, the songs, the horrid, acrid smell of fear…
    Percy shut her eyes then and saw him. The figure dressed all in black, who’d appeared midway through the bombing and leaned, unnoticed, against the wall, speaking to no one. Head deeply bowed beneath his dark, dark hat. Percy had watched him, fascinated by the way he stood somehow outside the others. He’d looked up only once, just before he gathered his coat around him and walked out into the blazing night. His eyes had met her own, briefly, and she’d seen nothing inside them. No compassion, no fear, no determination; just a cold emptiness. She’d known then that he was Death and she’d thought of him plenty since. When she was working a shift, climbing into bomb craters, pulling bodies from within, she’d remember the ghastly, otherworldly calm he’d carried wrapped around him as he strode from the shelter out into the chaos. She’d signed up with the ambulances soon after their encounter, but it wasn’t bravery that drove her, it wasn’t that at all: it was simply easier to take one’s chances with Death on the flaming surface than to remain trapped beneath the shaking, moaning earth with nothing but desperate cheer and helpless fear for company…
    There was an inch or so of amber liquid in the bottom of the decanter and Percy wondered vaguely when it had been put there. Years ago, certainly – they used the bottles in the yellow parlour for themselves these days – but it hardly mattered, liquor was the better for ageing. With a glance over her shoulder, Percy dropped a shot into a glass, then doubled it. Rattled the crystal stopper back into place as she took a swig. And another. Something in the middle of her chest burned and she welcomed the ache. It was vivid and real and she was standing here right now feeling it.
    Footsteps. High-heeled. Distant but ticking rapidly along the stones towards her. Saffy.
    Months of anxiety balled up like a leaden weight in Percy’s gut. She needed to take herself in hand. There was nothing to be gained by ruining Saffy’s evening – Lord knew, her twin had little enough opportunity to exercise her zest for entertaining. Oh, but Percy felt giddy at the ease with which she might. A sensation similar to that when a person stands right on the precipice overlooking a great height, when the knowledge that one must not jump is so strong that an odd compulsion almost overtakes one, whispering that to jump is the very thing that must be done.
    God she was a hopeless case. There was something fundamentally broken at the heart of Percy Blythe, something queer and defective and utterly unlikable. That she should contemplate, even for a second, the ease with which she might deprive her sister, her infuriating, beloved twin, of happiness. Had she always been so mired in perversity? Percy sighed deeply. She was ill, clearly, and it wasn’t a recent condition. Throughout their lives it had been thus: the more enthusiasm Saffy showed for a person or an object or an idea, the less Percy was able to give. It was as if they were one being, split into two, and there was a limit to the amount of combined feeling they could exhibit at any one time. And at some point, for some reason, Percy had appointed herself the balance keeper: if Saffy were anguished, Percy opted for glib merriment; if Saffy were excited, Percy did her best to douse it with sarcasm. How bloody cheerless she was.
    The gramophone had been opened and cleaned and a pile of records stacked beside it. Percy picked one up, a new album sent by Juniper from London. Obtained God knew where and by what means; Juniper, it might be guessed, had her ways. Music would surely help. She dropped the needle and Billie Holiday started to croon. Percy exhaled, whisky warm. That was better: contemporary music without previous associations. Many years ago, decades before, during one of the Blythe Family Evenings, Daddy had given the word ‘nostalgia’ in a challenge. He’d read out the definition, ‘an acute homesickness for the past’, and Percy had thought, with the gauche certainty of the young, what a very strange concept it was. She couldn’t imagine why anyone would seek to re-inhabit the past when the future was where all the mystery lay.
    Percy drained her glass, tilted it idly this way and that, watching the remaining droplets congeal into a single entity. It was the meeting with Lucy that had her nerves prickling, she knew that, but a pall had spread across all the day’s events and Percy found her thoughts drawn back again to Mrs Potts in the post office. Her suspicions, her insistence almost, that Juniper was engaged to be married. Gossip attached itself to Juniper, but it was Percy’s experience that where rumour nested there was always a shred of truth. Though not in this case, surely.
    Behind her, the door sighed as it was opened and a cooler gust crept in from the passage.
    ‘Well?’ came her sister’s breathless voice. ‘Where is she? I heard the door.’
    If Juniper were to speak of private matters it would be to Saffy. Percy tapped the rim of her glass thoughtfully.
    ‘Is she upstairs already?’ Saffy’s voice dropped to a whisper as she said, ‘Or was it him? What’s he like? Where is he?’
    Percy straightened her shoulders. If she expected any cooperation from Saffy she needed to offer an unreserved mea culpa. ‘They’re not here yet,’ she said, turning to her twin and smiling – she hoped – guilelessly.
    ‘They’re late.’
    ‘Only a little.’
    Saffy had that look, the transparent, nervy face she used to wear when they were children putting on plays for Daddy’s friends and no one had yet arrived to fill out the chairs for the audience. ‘Are you sure?’ she said. ‘I could have sworn I heard the door-’
    ‘Check under the chairs if you like,’ said Percy lightly. ‘There’s no one else here. It was just the shutter you heard, the one on the window over there. It came loose in the storm, but I fixed it.’ She nodded at the wrench on the sill.
    Saffy’s eyes widened as she took in the wet marks on the front of Percy’s dress. ‘It’s a special dinner, Perce. Juniper will-’
    ‘Neither notice nor care,’ Percy finished. ‘Come on now. Forget about my dress. You look good enough for both of us. Sit down, won’t you? I’ll make us a drink while we wait.’

EIGHT

    Given that neither Juniper nor her gentleman friend had arrived, what Saffy really wanted to do was scurry back downstairs, put the pieces of torn letter back together, and learn Percy’s secret. To find her twin in such placatory spirits, though, was an unexpected boon and one she couldn’t afford to squander. Not tonight, not with Juniper and the special guest expected any minute. On that note, it was as well to remain as close as possible to the front door, all the better to catch Juniper alone when she finally arrived. ‘Thank you,’ she said, accepting the proffered glass, taking a healthy sip to signal goodwill.
    ‘So,’ said Percy, returning to perch on the edge of the gramophone table, ‘how was your day?’
    Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice might have said. Percy, as a rule, did not peddle in small talk. Saffy hid behind another sip of her drink and decided it was wise to proceed with extreme caution. She fluttered her hand and said, ‘Oh, fine. Although I did fall over putting on my underwear.’
    ‘You didn’t,’ said Percy, with a genuine crack of laughter.
    ‘I most certainly did; I’ve got the bruise to prove it. I’ll see every colour of the rainbow before it’s gone.’ Saffy prodded her bottom delicately, shifting her weight as she sat on the end of the chaise longue. ‘I suppose that means I’m getting old.’
    ‘Impossible.’
    ‘Oh?’ Saffy perked up slightly, despite herself. ‘Do tell?’
    ‘Simple. I was born first; technically I’ll always be older than you are.’
    ‘Yes, I know, but I don’t see-’
    ‘And I can assure you I’ve never so much as teetered when getting dressed. Even during a raid.’
    ‘Hmm…’ Saffy frowned, considering. ‘I see your point. Shall we ascribe my misadventure to a momentary lapse then, unrelated to age?’
    ‘I expect we must; to do otherwise would be to script our own demise.’ It had been one of Daddy’s favourite expressions, uttered in the face of many and varied obstacles, and they both smiled. ‘I’m sorry,’ Percy continued. ‘About before, on the stairs.’ She struck a match and lit her cigarette. ‘I didn’t mean to quarrel.’
    ‘Let’s blame the war, shall we?’ Saffy said, twisting to avoid the oncoming smoke. ‘Everybody else does. Tell me, what’s new in the big, wide world?’
    ‘Not a lot. Lord Beaverbrook’s talking about tanks for the Russians; there’s no fish to be had in the village; and it appears that Mrs Caraway’s daughter is expecting.’
    Saffy inhaled greedily. ‘No!’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘But she’d be what, fifteen?’
    ‘Fourteen.’
    Saffy leaned closer. ‘A soldier was it?’
    ‘Pilot.’
    ‘Well, well.’ She shook her head dazedly. ‘And Mrs Caraway such a pillar. How terrible.’ It didn’t pass beneath Saffy’s notice that Percy was smirking around her cigarette, almost as if she suspected her twin of enjoying Mrs Caraway’s misfortune. Which she was, a little, but only because the woman was an eternal bossy-breeches who picked fault with everybody and everything including, word had made its way to the castle, Saffy’s very own stitching. ‘What?’ she said, flushing. ‘It is terrible.’
    ‘But not surprising though,’ said Percy, tapping away ash. ‘Girls these days and their missing morals.’
    ‘Things are different since the war,’ Saffy agreed. ‘I’ve seen it in the letters to the editor. Girls playing up while their husbands are away, having babies out of wedlock. It seems they barely have to know a fellow and they’re walking down the aisle.’
    ‘Not our Juniper though.’
    Saffy’s skin cooled. There it was, the snag she’d been waiting for: Percy knew. Somehow she knew about Juniper’s love affair. That explained the sudden lightening of mood; this was a fishing expedition, a sneaky one, and Saffy had been caught on a hook threaded with tasty village gossip. Mortifying. ‘Of course not,’ she said as smoothly as she could manage. ‘Juniper’s not like that.’
    ‘Of course not.’ They sat for a moment, each regarding the other, matching smiles applied to matching faces, sipping their drinks. Saffy’s heart was ticking louder than Daddy’s favourite clock and she wondered that Percy couldn’t hear it; she knew now what it was to be an insect in a web, awaiting the great spider’s approach.
    ‘Although,’ Percy said, dropping ash into the crystal tray, ‘I did hear something funny today. In the village.’
    ‘Oh?’
    ‘Yes.’
    Silence stretched uneasily between them as Percy smoked and Saffy concentrated on biting her tongue. How maddening it was, not to mention underhanded: her own twin, using her predilection for local chatter in hopes of tempting her to give away her secrets. Well, she refused to fall into line: what did Saffy need with Percy’s village gossip anyway? She already knew the truth: it was she, after all, who had read Juniper’s journal, and she wasn’t about to be tricked into sharing its contents with Percy.
    With as much poise as she could muster, Saffy stood, straightened her dress, and began an inspection of the table’s setting, aligning knives and forks with assiduous care. She even managed to hum mindlessly beneath her breath and affect a small, blameless smile. Which was a comfort of sorts when the doubts came creeping from the shadows.
    That Juniper had a lover was surprising, certainly, and it had been hurtful to Saffy not to have been told, but the fact itself didn’t change things. Did it? Not things that Percy cared about; not things that mattered. Surely nothing ill could come from Saffy keeping the news to herself? Juniper had a lover, that was all. She was a young woman, it was natural; a small matter and one that was bound to be temporary. Like all of Juniper’s various fascinations, this fellow would fade and thin and be blown away on the same breeze that brought the next attraction.
    Outside, the wind had picked up and the claws of the cherry tree scratched against the loose shutter. Saffy shivered, though she was not cold; her own small movement was caught by the mirror above the hearth and she glanced to meet herself. It was a grand mirror, gilt framed, and hung on a chain from a hook at great height. It leaned, therefore, away from the wall, angling towards the ground, and the effect as Saffy looked up, was of the glass glaring down, foreshortening her like a stumpy green dwarf beneath its thumb. She sighed, short and unintentional, alone suddenly and tired of obfuscating. She was about to look away, to return her attention to the table, when she noticed Percy, hunched on the mirror’s glass rim, smoking as she watched the green dwarf at its centre. Not merely watched, scrutinized. Searching for evidence, for confirmation of something she already suspected.
    The realization that she was being observed made Saffy’s pulse quicken and she had the sudden urge to speak, to fill the room with conversation, with noise. She drew a short, cool breath and began. ‘Juniper’s late, of course, and I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised; no doubt it’s the weather keeping her, some sort of holdup on the line; she was due off the five forty-five, and even allowing for the bus from the village I’d have expected her home by now… I do hope she packed an umbrella, only you know what she’s like when it comes to-’
    ‘Juniper’s engaged,’ Percy interrupted sharply. ‘That’s what they’re saying. That she’s engaged.’
    The entrée knife clinked high and metallic against its mate. Saffy’s lips parted, she blinked: ‘Pardon, dearest?’
    ‘To be married. Juniper’s engaged to be married.’
    ‘But that’s ridiculous. Of course she’s not.’ Saffy was genuinely stunned. ‘Juniper?’ She laughed a little, a tinny sound. ‘Married? Wherever did you hear such a thing?’
    A stream of smoky exhalation.
    ‘Well? Who’s been talking such nonsense?’
    Percy was busy rescuing a piece of stray tobacco from her bottom lip and for a moment said nothing. She frowned instead at the speck on her fingertip. Finally, she flicked her hand on its way to the ashtray. ‘It was probably nothing. I was just in the post office and-’
    ‘Ha!’ said Saffy, with rather more triumph than was perhaps warranted. Relief, too, that Percy’s gossip was just that: village talk with no grounding in truth. ‘I might have known. That Potts woman! Really, she’s an utter menace. We must all be thankful that she hasn’t turned her loose talk yet to matters of state.’
    ‘You don’t believe it then?’ Percy’s voice was woody, no modulation at all.
    ‘Of course I don’t believe it.’
    ‘Juniper hasn’t said anything to you?’
    ‘Not a word.’ Saffy came to where Percy was sitting, reached out and touched her sister’s arm. ‘Really, Percy dear. Can you imagine Juniper as a bride? Dressed all in white lace; agreeing to love and obey somebody else as long as they both shall live?’
    The cigarette lay withered and lifeless in the ashtray now, and Percy steepled her fingers beneath her chin. Then she smiled slightly, lifting her shoulders, settling them again, shaking the notion away. ‘You’re right,’ she said. ‘Silly gossip, nothing more. I only wondered…’ But what precisely she wondered, Percy let taper to its own conclusion.
    Although there was no music playing, the gramophone needle was still tracing dutifully around the record’s centre and Saffy put it out of its misery, lifting it back to the cradle. She was about to excuse herself to check on the rabbit pie, when Percy said, ‘Juniper would have told us. If it were true; she would’ve told us.’
    Saffy’s cheeks warmed, remembering the journal on the floor upstairs, the shock of its most recent entry, the hurt at having been kept in the dark.
    ‘Saffy?’
    ‘Certainly,’ she said quickly. ‘People do, don’t they? They tell each other things like that.’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘Especially their sisters.’
    ‘Yes.’
    And it was true. Keeping a love affair secret was one thing, an engagement quite another. Even Juniper, Saffy felt sure, would not be so blind to the feelings of others, the ramifications that such a decision would have.
    ‘Still,’ said Percy, ‘we should speak with her. Remind her that Daddy-’
    ‘Isn’t here,’ Saffy finished gently. ‘He isn’t here, Percy. We’re all of us free now to do exactly as we please.’ To leave Milderhurst behind, to set sail for the glamour and excitement of New York City and never look back.
    ‘No.’ Percy said it so sharply that Saffy worried for a moment that she’d spoken her intentions out loud. ‘Not free, not completely. We each of us have duties towards the others. Juniper understands that; she knows that marriage-’
    ‘Perce-’
    ‘Those were Daddy’s wishes. His conditions.’
    Percy’s eyes were searching her own and Saffy realized it was the first time in months that she’d had the opportunity to study her twin’s face so closely; she saw that her sister wore new lines. She was smoking a lot and worrying, and no doubt the war itself was taking its toll, but whatever the cause the woman sitting before her was no longer young. Neither was she old, and Saffy understood suddenly – though surely she had known it before? – that there was something, some place, in between. And that they were both in it. Maidens no more, but a way yet from being crones.
    ‘Daddy knew what he was doing.’
    ‘Of course, darling,’ Saffy said tenderly. Why hadn’t she noticed them before – all those women in the great in-between? They were not invisible surely, they were merely going about their business quietly, doing what women did when they were no longer young but not yet old. Keeping neat houses, wiping tears from their children’s cheeks, darning the holes in their husband’s socks. And suddenly Saffy understood why Percy was behaving this way, almost as if she were jealous of the possibility that Juniper, who was only eighteen, might some day marry. That she still had her entire adult life ahead of her. She understood, too, why tonight of all nights Percy should lose herself in such sentimental thoughts. Though driven by concern for Juniper, motivated by gossip in the village, it was the encounter with Lucy that had her behaving this way. Saffy was drenched then by a wave of crashing affection for her stoic twin, a wave so strong it threatened to leave her breathless. ‘We were unlucky, weren’t we, Perce?’
    Percy looked up from the cigarette she was rolling. ‘What’s that?’
    ‘The two of us. We were unfortunate when it came to matters of the heart.’
    Percy considered her. ‘I shouldn’t think that luck had much to do with it. A basic matter of mathematics, wasn’t it?’
    Saffy smiled; it was just as the governess who replaced Nanny had told them, right before she went away, returning to Norway to marry her widower cousin. She’d taken them for a lesson by the lake, her habit when she wasn’t in the mood for teaching but wanted to escape Mr Broad’s scrutiny; she’d looked up from where she was sunning herself to say, in that lazy, accented manner of hers, eyes glinting with malicious pleasure, that they’d do well to put all thought of marriage aside; that the same Great War that had wounded their father had also killed their chances. The thirteen-year-old twins had merely stared blankly, an expression they’d perfected, knowing it drove adults to agitation. What did they care? Marriage and suitors were the last things on their minds back then.
    Saffy said softly, ‘Well, that’s a sorry luck of sorts, isn’t it? To have all one’s future husbands die on the French battlefields?’
    ‘How many were you planning on having?’
    ‘What’s that?’
    ‘Husbands. You said, “To have all one’s future”…’ Percy lit her cigarette and waved her hand. ‘Never mind,’ she said.
    ‘Only one.’ Saffy felt suddenly light-headed. ‘There was only one I wanted.’
    The silence that followed was agonizing and Percy, at least, had the dignity to look uncomfortable. She didn’t say anything though, offered no words of comfort or understanding, no kind gestures, merely pinched the tip of her cigarette, sending it to sleep, and made for the door.
    ‘Where are you going?’
    ‘A headache. It’s come on quickly.’
    ‘Sit down then; I’ll fetch you a couple of aspirin.’
    ‘No – ’ Percy refused to meet Saffy’s gaze – ‘no, I’ll fetch them myself from the medicine box. The walk will do me good.’

NINE

    Percy hurried along the hallway, wondering how she could have been so bloody stupid. She’d meant to burn the pieces of Emily’s letter immediately, and instead she’d allowed the encounter with Lucy to flummox her so that she’d left them in her pocket. Worse yet, she’d delivered them directly to Saffy, the very person from whom the correspondence must be kept concealed. Percy drummed down the stairs, through the door and into the steam-filled kitchen. When, she wondered, might she have remembered the letter herself, if not for Saffy’s allusion to Emily’s husband, Matthew, just now? Was it too premature to lament the loss of her reliable mind; to wonder at the sorts of demonic deals she’d have to make to get it back?
    Percy stopped abruptly before the table. Her trousers were no longer where she’d left them. Her heart lurched, a hammer against her ribs; she forced it back inside its cage where it belonged. Panic would not help; besides, this wasn’t of itself a terrible thing. Percy was quite sure Saffy hadn’t yet read the letter: her manner upstairs had been far too measured, too calm, for it to be otherwise. For, dear God, if Saffy knew that Percy was still in touch with their cousin, there’d be no masking that tantrum. Which meant all was not yet lost. Find the trousers, remove the evidence, and everything would be all right.
    There had been a dress on the table too, she remembered, which meant there was a pile of laundry somewhere. How difficult could that be to find? More difficult, certainly, than if she had the vaguest notion how laundry was done, but unfortunately Percy had never paid much attention to Saffy’s housekeeping routine, an oversight she promised silently to amend just as soon as the letter was safely in her possession. She began with the baskets on the shelf beneath the table, rummaging through tea towels and baking trays, saucepans and rolling pins, one ear trained on the stairs in case Saffy should come searching. Which was unlikely, surely? With Juniper already late, Saffy would be loath to venture far from the front door. Percy wanted to get back there herself: as soon as Juniper arrived she intended to ask plainly about Mrs Potts’s rumour.
    For although Percy had gone along with her twin’s certainty that Juniper, if engaged, would have told them the news, in reality she had no such confidence. It was the sort of thing that people did tell one another, that was true enough, but Juniper wasn’t like other people: she was beloved but she was also undeniably singular. And it wasn’t only the lost time, the episodes: this was the little girl who’d comforted herself by rubbing objects on her naked eyeball – smooth stones, the end of Cook’s rolling pin, Daddy’s favourite fountain pen; who’d driven away countless nannies with her incurable obstinacy and refusal to abandon imaginary cohorts; who, on the rare occasions she was induced to wear shoes, insisted on wearing them wrong-footed.
    Oddness, of itself, was of no concern to Percy: as the family argument went, which person of value didn’t have a good pinch of strangeness in them? Daddy had his ghosts, Saffy had her panics, Percy herself made no claims on the pedestrian. No, oddness was neither here nor there; Percy cared only about doing her duty: protecting Juniper from herself. Daddy had given her the task. Juniper was special, he’d said, and it was up to all of them to keep her safe. And they had, so far, they had. They’d become expert at recognizing occasions when the very aspects that fuelled her talent were at risk of tipping over into fearsome rage. Daddy, when he was alive, had allowed her to rampage without restraint: ‘It’s passion,’ he’d said, admiration burnishing his voice, ‘unaffected, unbridled passion.’ But he’d made sure to talk to his lawyers. Percy had been surprised when she’d first discovered what he’d done; her immediate reaction had been the heat of betrayal, the sibling’s mantra of ‘It isn’t fair!’, but she’d soon enough come to heel. She’d understood that Daddy was right, that what he proposed would work out best for all of them. And she adored Juniper, they all did. There was nothing Percy wouldn’t do for her baby sister.
    A noise from upstairs and Percy froze, scrutinizing the ceiling. The castle was full of noises so it was a matter of sorting through the usual suspects. Too loud for the caretakers, surely? There it was again. Footsteps, she figured; but were they getting closer? Was Saffy coming downstairs? A long, breath-held moment in which Percy remained absolutely still; motionless until she was satisfied, finally, that the footsteps were moving away.
    She stood up then, carefully, and scanned the kitchen with rather more desperation than she had before; still no sign of the bloody laundry. Brooms and a mop in the corner, wellington boots by the back door, the sink containing nothing more than soaking bowls, and on the stovetop a saucepan and a pot-
    A pot! Of course. Surely she’d heard Saffy talking before about pots and washing, right before the topic turned to immovable stains and a lecture on Percy’s own lack of care. Percy hurried to the stove, peered inside the large steel container, and bingo! What relief – the trousers.
    With a grin, she heaved out the sodden uniform, twisted it back and forth to find the collapsed pockets and squirrelled her hand into first one, then the other…
    Blood drained instantly from her face: the pockets were empty. The letter was gone.
    More noise from upstairs: footsteps again; Saffy pacing. Percy swore under her breath, berated herself again for her stupidity, then shut the hell up as she tracked her sister’s whereabouts.
    The footsteps were coming nearer. Then there was a banging sound. The footsteps changed direction. Percy strained harder. Was someone at the door?
    Silence. In particular, no urgent call from Saffy. Which meant no one had knocked, for one thing was certain – Percy’s absence would not be tolerated once guests arrived.
    Perhaps it was the shutter again; she’d only tapped it lightly back into place with the small wrench – without a tool set handy there’d been little else she could do – and it was still blowing a gale outside. Add that to the list of things to mend tomorrow.
    Percy took a deep breath and let out a dispirited sigh. She watched the trousers sink back into the pot. It was after eight o’clock, Juniper was already late, the letter could be anywhere. Maybe – her spirits lifted – Saffy had taken it for rubbish? It was torn, after all; perhaps the letter had already been burned, and was little more now than ashes in the Aga.
    Short of running a fine-tooth comb over the entire house, or asking Saffy directly what had become of it – Percy winced just to imagine that conversation – she couldn’t see that there was anything more she could do. Which meant she might as well go back upstairs and wait for Juniper.
    A great crash of thunder then, loud enough that even in the bowels of the house Percy shivered. In its wake, another, softer noise, closer. Outside perhaps, almost like someone scratching along the wall, hammering periodically, looking for the back door.
    Juniper’s guest was due about now.
    It was possible, Percy supposed, that a person unfamiliar with the castle, approaching it by night, during the blackout, in the midst of a great rain storm, might find themselves seeking entrance elsewhere than the front door. Slim though the possibility was, once she’d considered it Percy knew she had to check. She couldn’t jolly well leave him floundering out there.
    Stitching her lips tight, she took a last glance about the kitchen – dry pantry goods ready for use on the bench, a scrunched tea towel, a saucepan lid: nothing even resembling a stack of torn paper – then she dug the battery torch from the emergency kit, pulled a mackintosh over her dress, and opened the back door.
    Juniper was almost two hours late and Saffy was officially worried. Oh, she knew it was bound to be a delay on the train line, a punctured bus tyre, a roadblock, something ordinary, and certainly there’d be no enemy planes complicating matters on a sodden night like this; nonetheless, sensible reasoning had no place in the worries of a big sister. Until Juniper walked through that front door, life and limbs intact, a significant part of Saffy’s mind would remain encased by fear.
    And what news, she wondered with a nibble on her bottom lip, would her baby sister bring with her when she did, finally, spill across the threshold? Saffy had believed it when she’d reassured Percy that Juniper wasn’t engaged to be married, she really had, but in the time since Percy had disappeared so abruptly, leaving her alone in the good parlour, she’d grown less and less certain. The doubts had started when she’d joked about the dubious spectacle of Juniper in white lace. Even as Percy was nodding agreement, the frou-frou image that had flashed into Saffy’s mind was undergoing transmutation – a reflection in rippling water – into another, far less unlikely vision. One Saffy already held within her imagination and had done since she’d started work on the dress upstairs.
    From there, the pieces had fallen quickly into place. Why else had Juniper asked her to alter the dress? Not for something as ordinary as a dinner, but for a wedding. Her own wedding, to this Thomas Cavill who was coming tonight to meet them. A man they hitherto had known nothing about. Indeed, the extent of their knowledge now was limited to the letter Juniper had sent advising that she’d invited him to dinner. They’d met during an air raid, they shared a mutual friend, he was a teacher and a writer; Saffy racked her brains to remember the rest, the precise words Juniper had used, the turn of phrase that had left them with the impression that the gentleman in question had been responsible, in some way, for saving her life. Had they imagined that detail, she wondered? Or was it one of Juniper’s creative untruths, an embellishment designed to predispose their sympathies?
    There had been a little more about him in the journal, but that information was not in a biographical vein. What had been written there were the feelings, the desires, the longings of a grown woman. A woman Saffy didn’t recognize, of whom she felt shy; a woman who was becoming worldly. And if Saffy found the transition difficult to reconcile herself to, Percy was going to need a great deal of coaxing. As far as her twin was concerned, Juniper would always be the baby sister who’d come along when they were almost fully grown, the little girl who needed spoiling and protecting. Whose spirits could be lifted, her loyalties won, with nothing more weighty than a bag of sweets.
    Saffy smiled with sad fondness for her barnacled twin, who was, no doubt, even at this minute, arming herself so that their father’s wishes might be respected. Poor, dear Percy: intelligent in so many ways, courageous and kind, tougher than leather, yet unable ever to unshackle herself from Daddy’s impossible expectations. Saffy knew better; she’d stopped trying to please Himself a long time ago.
    She shivered, cold suddenly, and rubbed her hands together. Then she crossed her arms, determined to find steel within them. Saffy needed to be strong for Juniper now; it was her turn. For she could understand, where Percy would not, the burden of romantic passion.
    The door sucked open and Percy was there. A draught pulled the door closed with a slam behind her. ‘It’s bucketing down.’ She chased a drip from the end of her nose, her chin, shook her wet hair. ‘I heard a noise up here. Before.’
    Saffy blinked, greatly perplexed. Spoke as if by rote: ‘It was the shutter. I think I fixed it, though of course I’m not much use with tools – Percy, where on earth have you been?’ And what had she been doing? Saffy’s eyes widened as she took in her twin’s wet, muddy dress, the – were they leaves? – in her hair. ‘Headache gone then, has it?’
    ‘What’s that?’ Percy had collected their glasses and was at the drinks table pouring them each another whisky.
    ‘Your headache. Did you find the aspirin?’
    ‘Oh. Thank you. Yes.’
    ‘Only you were gone a long time.’
    ‘Was I?’ Percy handed a glass to Saffy. ‘I suppose I was. I thought I heard something outside; probably Poe, frightened of the storm. I did wonder at first if it might be Juniper’s friend. What’s his name?’
    ‘Thomas.’ Saffy took a sip. ‘Thomas Cavill.’ Did she imagine that Percy was avoiding her eyes? ‘Percy, I hope-’
    ‘Don’t worry. I’ll be nice to him when he arrives.’ She swirled her glass. ‘If he arrives.’
    ‘You mustn’t prejudge him for being late, Percy.’
    ‘Why ever not?’
    ‘It’s the fault of the war. Nothing runs on time any more. Juniper’s not here either.’
    Percy reclaimed the cigarette she’d left earlier, propped against the rim of the ashtray. ‘That’s hardly a surprise.’
    ‘He’ll be here eventually.’
    ‘If he exists.’
    What an odd thing to say; Saffy tucked a wayward curl behind her ear, confused, concerned, wondering if Percy was making some sort of joke, one of the trademark ironies that Saffy had a habit of taking literally. Though her stomach had begun to churn, Saffy ignored it, choosing to take the remark as humour. ‘I do hope so; such a great shame to learn he’s a mere figment. The table will look terribly unbalanced minus a setting.’ She perched on the edge of the chaise longue, but no matter how she strove for ease, a peculiar nervousness seemed to have transplanted itself from Percy to her.
    ‘You look tired,’ said Percy.
    ‘Do I?’ Saffy tried to affect an amiable tone. ‘I suppose I am. Perhaps activity will perk me up. I might just slip down to the kitchen and-’
    ‘No.’
    Saffy’s glass dropped. Whisky spilled across the rug, beading brown on the blue and red surface.
    Percy picked up the glass. ‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I just meant-’
    ‘How silly of me.’ Saffy fussed at a wet spot on her dress. ‘Silly, silly…’
    And then it came, a knock on the door.
    They stood as one.
    ‘Juniper,’ said Percy.
    Saffy swallowed, noting the assumption. ‘Or Thomas Cavill.’
    ‘Yes. Or Thomas Cavill.’
    ‘Well,’ said Saffy with a stiff smile. ‘Whoever it is, I expect we’d better let them in.’

PART TWO

The Book of Magical Wet Animals

1992

    I couldn’t stop thinking about Thomas Cavill and Juniper Blythe. It was such a melancholy story; I made it my melancholy story. I returned to London, I got on with my life, but a part of me remained tethered to that castle. On the brink of sleep, in a moment of daydream, the whispers found me. My eyes fell closed and I was right back in that cool, shadowy, corridor, waiting alongside Juniper for her fiancé to arrive. ‘She’s lost in the past,’ Mrs Bird had told me as we drove away, as I watched through the rear-view mirror, the woods drawing their wings around the castle, a dark, protective shroud: ‘That same night in October 1941, over and over; a record player with a stuck needle.’
    The proposition was just so terribly sad – an entire life spoiled in an evening – and it filled me with questions. How had it been for her that night when Thomas Cavill failed to show for dinner? Had all three sisters waited in a room done up specially for the occasion? I wondered at what point had she begun to worry; whether she’d thought at first that he’d been injured, that there’d been an accident; or whether she’d known at once she’d been forsaken? ‘He married another woman,’ Mrs Bird had told me when I asked, ‘engaged himself to Juniper then ran off with someone else. Nothing but a letter to break off their affair.’
    I held the story in my hands, turned it over, looked at it from every angle. Envisaged, amended, replayed. I suppose the fact that I’d been similarly betrayed might have had a little to do with it, but my obsession – for, I confess, that’s what it became – was fed by more than empathy. It concerned itself particularly with the final moments of my encounter with Juniper; the transition I’d witnessed when I mentioned my return to London; the way the young woman waiting longingly for her lover had been replaced by a tense and wretched figure, begging me for help, berating me for having broken a promise. Most of all, I fixated on the moment she’d looked me in the eye and accused me of having failed her in some grave manner, the way she’d called me Meredith.
    Juniper Blythe was old, she was unwell, and her sisters had been at great pains to warn me that she often spoke of things she didn’t understand. Nonetheless, the more I considered it the more awfully certain I became that Mum had played some part in her fate. It was the only thing, surely, that made any sense. It explained Mum’s reaction to the lost letter, the cry – for it had been of anguish, hadn’t it? – when she saw from whom it came, the same cry I’d heard as we drove away from Milderhurst when I was small. That secret visit, decades before, when Mum had taken my hand and wrenched me from the gate, forced me back into the car, saying only that she’d made a mistake, that it was too late.
    But too late for what? To make amends, perhaps; to repair some long-ago transgression? Had it been guilt that took her back to the castle and then drove her away again before we passed through the gates? It was possible. And if it were true would certainly explain her distress. It might also account for why she’d kept the whole thing secret in the first place. For it was the secrecy as much as the mystery that struck me then. I don’t believe in an obligation of full disclosure, yet in this case I couldn’t shake off the sense that I’d been lied to. More than that: that I was somehow affected directly. Something sat in my mother’s past, something she’d made every attempt to hide, and it refused to stay there. An action, a decision, a mere moment, perhaps, when she was just a girl; something that had cast its shadow, long and dark, into Mum’s present, and therefore right across mine too. And, not just because I was nosy, not just because I was coming to empathize so strongly with Juniper Blythe, but because in some way that was difficult to explain, this secret had come to represent a lifetime’s distance between my mother and me – I needed to know what had happened.
    ‘I should say that you do,’ Herbert had agreed, when I said as much to him. We’d spent the afternoon squeezing my boxes of books and other assorted household items into storage in his cluttered attic, and had just headed out for a stroll through Kensington Gardens. The walks are a daily habit of ours, begun at the vet’s behest; they’re supposed to help with Jess’s digestion, the regular activity giving her metabolism a little boost, but she approaches the event with spectacularly bad grace. ‘Come along, Jessie,’ said Herbert, tapping his shoe against a stubborn bottom, which had affixed itself rather firmly to the concrete. ‘We’re nearly at the ducks, old lovely.’
    ‘But how am I going to find out?’ There was Auntie Rita, of course, but Mum’s fraught relationship with her elder sister made that idea seem particularly sneaky. I pushed my hands deep into my pockets, as if the answer might be found amongst the lint. ‘What should I do? Where should I start?’
    ‘Well now, Edie.’ He handed over Jess’s lead while he fussed a cigarette from his pocket and cupped his hand to light it. ‘It seems to me there’s only one place to start.’
    ‘Oh?’
    He exhaled a theatrical stream of smoke. ‘You know as well as I, my love; you need to ask your mother.’
    You would be forgiven for thinking that Herbert’s suggestion was obvious, and I must take some of the blame for that. I suspect I’ve given you entirely the wrong impression about my family, beginning as I did with that long-lost letter. It’s where this story starts, but it’s not where my story starts; or rather, it’s not where the story of Meredith and Edie starts. Coming into our family that Sunday afternoon, you’d be forgiven for thinking we were a rather expansive pair, that we chatted and shared easily. However nice that might sound, it was not the case. There are any number of childhood experiences I could submit in evidence to demonstrate that ours was not a relationship marked by conversation and understanding: the unexplained appearance in my drawer of a military-style bra when I turned thirteen; my reliance on Sarah for all but the most basic information regarding birds and bees and everything in between; the ghostly brother my parents and I pretended not to see.
    But Herbert was right: this was my mother’s secret, and if I wanted to know the truth, to learn more about that little girl who’d shadowed me around Milderhurst Castle, it was the only proper place to begin. As good luck would have it, we’d arranged to meet for coffee the following week in a patisserie around the corner from Billing & Brown. I left the office at eleven o’clock, found a table in the back corner and placed our order, as per habit. The waitress had just brought me a steaming pot of Darjeeling when there came a blurt of road noise and I looked up to see the patisserie door was open and Mum was standing tentatively, just inside, bag and hat in hand. A spirit of defensive caution had taken hold of her features as she surveyed the unfamiliar, decidedly modern cafe, and I glanced away, at my hands, the table, fiddled with the zip on my bag, anything to avoid bearing witness. I’ve noticed that look of uncertainty more often lately, and I’m not sure whether it’s because she’s getting older, or because I am, or because the world really is speeding up. My reaction to it dismays me, for surely a glimpse of my mother’s weakness should engender pity, make her more lovable to me, but the opposite is true. It frightens me, like a tear in the fabric of normality that threatens to render everything unlovely, unrecognizable, not as it should be. All my life my mother has been an oracle, a brick wall of propriety, so to see her unsure, particularly in a situation that I meet without a wrinkle, tilts my world and makes the solid ground swirl like clouds beneath me. So I waited, and only when enough time had passed did I look up again, catch her eye, sure again now, confident, and wave with candour, as if only in that moment had I realized she was there.
    She negotiated the crowded cafe cautiously, guarding her bag from bumping people’s heads in an ostentatious way that managed somehow to convey disapproval at the seating arrangements. I, meanwhile, busied myself making sure no one had left spilled sugar granules or cappuccino froth or pastry flakes on her side of the table. These semi-regular coffee dates of ours were a new thing, instituted a few months after Dad’s retirement started. They were a little awkward for both of us, even when I wasn’t hoping to undertake a delicate excavation of Mum’s life. I stood halfway out of my seat when she reached the table, my lips met the air near her proffered cheek, then we both sat down, smiling with excessive relief because the public greeting was over.
    ‘Warm out, isn’t it?’
    I said, ‘Very,’ and we were back in motion down a comfortable road: Dad’s current home-improvement obsession (tidying the boxes in the attic), my work (supernatural encounters on Romney Marsh), and Mum’s bridge club gossip. Then a pause while we smiled at each other, both waiting for Mum to falter beneath the weight of her routine enquiry: ‘And how’s Jamie?’
    ‘He’s well.’
    ‘I saw the recent write up in The Times. The new play’s been well received.’
    ‘Yes.’ I’d seen the review, too. I didn’t go hunting, I really didn’t; it just jumped out at me when I was looking for the letting pages. A very good review, as it happens. Damn paper: no suitable flats to rent either.
    Mum paused while the cappuccino I’d ordered for her arrived at the table. ‘And tell me,’ she said, laying a paper napkin between her cup and saucer to soak up the slopped milk, ‘what’s next on his agenda?’
    ‘He’s working on his own script. Sarah has a friend, a film director, who’s promised to read it when he’s done.’
    Her mouth formed a silent, cynical ‘Oh’ before she managed to utter some positive noises. The last of these was drowned when she took a sip of coffee, flinched at the bitter taste, and, blessedly, changed the subject. ‘And how’s the flat? Your father wants to know whether that tap in the kitchen’s still giving you trouble. He’s had another idea he thinks will fix it once and for all.’
    I pictured the cold and empty flat I’d left for the final time that morning, phantom memories sealed within the collection of brown cardboard boxes my life had become, then crammed into Herbert’s attic. ‘It’s fine,’ I said. ‘The flat’s fine, the tap’s fine. Tell him he really doesn’t need to worry any more.’
    ‘I don’t suppose there’s anything else that needs attention?’ A faint pleading note had crept into her voice. ‘I thought I might send him around on Saturday to do some general maintenance.’
    ‘I told you. Everything’s fine.’
    She looked surprised and hurt and I knew I’d spoken brusquely, only these dreadful conversations in which I pretended all was going swimmingly were wearing me down. Despite my willingness to disappear inside story books, I’m not a liar and I don’t cope well with subterfuge. Under ordinary circumstances this might have been the perfect time for me to break the news about Jamie – but I couldn’t, not when I wanted to steer us back to Milderhurst and Juniper Blythe. In any case, the man at the next table chose that very instant to turn around and ask whether he could borrow our salt shaker.
    As I handed it to him, Mum said, ‘I have something for you.’ She pulled out an old M &S bag, folded over to protect whatever was inside. ‘Don’t get too excited,’ she added, passing it to me. ‘It’s nothing new.’
    I opened the bag, slipped out the contents and stared in puzzlement for a moment. People are often giving me things they think are worth publishing, but I couldn’t believe anyone could be that far off the mark.
    ‘Don’t you remember?’ Mum was looking at me as if I’d forgotten my own name.
    I gazed again at the stapled wad of paper, the child’s drawing on the front, the ill-formed words at the top of the page: The Book of Wet Animals, Written and Illustrated by Edith Burchill. A little arrow had been inserted between of and Wet and the word Magical added in a different-coloured pen.
    Mum said, ‘You wrote it. Don’t you remember?’
    ‘Yes,’ I lied. Something in Mum’s expression told me it was important to her that I did, and besides – I ran my thumb over an inky blob made by a pen allowed to rest too long between strokes – I wanted to remember.
    ‘You were so proud of it.’ She tilted her head to look at the little bundle in my hands. ‘You worked on it for days, crouched over on the floor beneath the dressing table in the spare room.’
    Now that was familiar. A delicious memory of being tucked in the warm, dark space withdrew itself from long-term storage and my body tingled with its release: the smell of dust in the circular rug, the crack in the plaster just large enough to store a pen, the hardness of wooden boards beneath my knees as I watched the sunlight sweep across the floor.
    ‘You were always working on one story or another, scribbling away in the dark. Your father worried sometimes that you were going to turn out shy, that you’d never make any friends, but there was nothing we could do to dampen your enthusiasm.’
    I remembered reading but I didn’t remember writing. Still, Mum’s talk of dampening my enthusiasm struck a nerve. Distant memories of Dad shaking his head incredulously when I returned from the library, asking me over dinner why I wasn’t borrowing from the non-fiction shelves, what I wanted with all that fairy nonsense, why I didn’t want to learn about the real world.
    ‘I’d forgotten that I wrote stories,’ I said, turning the book over and smiling at the pretend publisher’s logo I’d drawn on the back.
    ‘Well.’ She wiped an old crumb from the table. ‘Anyway, I thought you should have it. Your father’s been pulling boxes down from the attic, that’s how I came to find it. No point leaving it for the silverfish, is there? You never know, you may even have your own daughter to show it to one day.’ She straightened in her seat and the rabbit hole to the past closed behind her. ‘Tell me,’ she said. ‘How was your weekend? Did you do anything special?’
    And there it was. The perfect window, curtains drawn wide. I couldn’t have constructed a better opening for myself if I’d tried. And as I looked down at The Book of Magical Wet Animals in my hand, the time-dusted paper, the imprints from felt pens, the childish shading and colouring; as I realized that my mum had kept it all this time, that she’d wanted to save it despite her misgivings about my wasteful occupation, that she’d chosen today, of all days, to remind me of a part of myself I’d quite forgotten; I was overcome by a sudden swelling desire to share with her everything that had happened to me at Milderhurst Castle. A sweet sense that it would all work out for the best.
    ‘Actually,’ I said. ‘I did.’
    ‘Oh?’ She smiled brightly.
    ‘Something very special.’ My heart had begun to gallop ahead; I was watching myself from the outside, wondering, even as I teetered on the cliff edge, whether I was really going to jump. ‘I went for a tour,’ said a faint voice rather like my own, ‘inside Milderhurst Castle.’
    ‘You… You what?’ Mum’s eyes widened. ‘You went to Milderhurst?’ Her gaze held mine as I nodded, then it dropped. She shifted her cup on the saucer, swivelled it by its dainty handle, this way and that, and I watched with cautious curiosity, unsure what was about to happen, eager and loath, in equal measure, to find out.
    I ought to have had more faith. Like a brilliant sunrise clarifying the clouded horizon, dignity reasserted itself. She lifted her head and smiled across the table as she set her saucer straight. ‘Well now,’ she said. ‘Milderhurst Castle. And how was it?’
    ‘It was… big.’ I work with words and that was the best I could come up with. It was the surprise, of course; the utter transformation I’d just witnessed. ‘Like something out of a fairy tale.’
    ‘A tour, did you say? I didn’t realize one could do such a thing. That’s our modern times, I suppose.’ She waved a hand. ‘Everything for a price.’
    ‘It was informal,’ I said. ‘One of the owners took me. A very old lady called Persephone Blythe.’
    ‘Percy?’ A tiny tremble in her voice; the only prick in her composure. ‘Percy Blythe? She’s still there?’
    ‘They all are, Mum. All three. Even Juniper, who sent you the letter.’
    Mum opened her mouth as if to speak; when no words came out she closed it again, tightly. She laced her fingers in her lap, sat as still and as pale as a marble statue. I sat too, but the silence took on weight and it became more than I could bear.
    ‘It was eerie,’ I said, picking up my teapot. I noticed that my hands were shaking. ‘Everything was dusty and dim and to see them all sitting in the parlour together, the three of them in that big, old house – it felt a little like I’d stumbled inside a doll’s-’
    ‘Juniper, Edie – ’ Mum’s voice was strange and thin and she cleared her throat – ‘how was she? How did she seem?’
    I wondered where to start: the girlish joy, the dishevelled appearance, the final scene of desperate accusations. ‘She was confused,’ I said. ‘She was wearing an old-fashioned dress and she told me she was waiting for someone, a man. The lady at the farmhouse where I stayed said that she isn’t well, that her sisters look after her.’
    ‘She’s ill?’
    ‘Dementia. Sort of.’ I continued carefully: ‘Her boyfriend left her years ago and she never fully recovered.’
    ‘Boyfriend?’
    ‘Fiancé to be precise. He stood her up and people say it drove her mad. Literally mad.’
    ‘Oh, Edie,’ said Mum. The slightly ill look on her face resolved into the sort of smile you might give a clumsy kitten. ‘Always so full of fancy. Real life isn’t like that.’
    I bristled: it gets tiresome being treated like an ingénue. ‘I’m just telling you what they said in the village. A lady there said Juniper was always fragile, even when she was young.’
    ‘I knew her, Edie; I don’t need you telling me what she was like when she was young.’
    She’d snapped and it had caught me unawares. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘I-’
    ‘No.’ She lifted a palm then pressed it lightly against her forehead and stole a surreptitious glance over her shoulder. ‘No, I’m sorry. I can’t think what came over me.’ She sighed, smiled a little shakily. ‘It’s the surprise, I expect. To think that they’re all still alive; all of them at the castle. Why – they must be so old.’ She frowned, affecting great interest in the mathematical puzzle. ‘The other two were old when I knew them – at least they seemed that way.’
    I was still startled by her outburst and said guardedly, ‘You mean they looked old? Grey hair and all?’
    ‘No. No, not that. It’s hard to say what it was. I suppose they were only in their mid-thirties at the time, but of course that meant something different back then. And I was young. Children do tend to see things differently, don’t they?’
    I didn’t answer; she didn’t intend me to. Her eyes were on mine, but they had a faraway look about them, like an old-fashioned silver screen on which pictures were projected. ‘They behaved more like parents than sisters,’ she said, ‘to Juniper, I mean. They were a lot older than she was, and her mother had died when she was only a child. Their father was still alive, but he wasn’t much involved.’
    ‘He was a writer, Raymond Blythe.’ I said it cautiously, wary that I might be overstepping again, offering information that was hers firsthand. This time, though, she didn’t seem to mind and I waited for some indication that she knew all that the name meant, that she remembered bringing the book home from the library when I was a girl. I’d kept an eye out when I was packing up the flat; hoping I might be able to bring it to show her, but I hadn’t found it. ‘He wrote a story called The True History of the Mud Man.’
    ‘Yes,’ was all she said, very softly.
    ‘Did you ever meet him?’
    She shook her head. ‘I saw him a few times, but only from a distance. He was very old by then and quite reclusive. He spent most of his time up in his writing tower and I wasn’t allowed to go up there. It was the most important rule – there weren’t many.’ She was looking down and a raised vein pulsed mauve beneath each lid. ‘They talked about him sometimes; he could be difficult, I think. I always thought of him as a little like King Lear, playing his daughters off, one against the other.’
    It was the first time I’d ever heard my mother reference a character of fiction, and the effect was to derail my train of thought entirely. I wrote my honours thesis on Shakespeare’s tragedies and not once did she give any sign that she was familiar with the plays.
    ‘Edie?’ Mum looked up sharply. ‘Did you tell them who you were? When you went to Milderhurst. Did you tell them about me? Percy, the others?’
    ‘No.’ I wondered whether the omission would offend Mum; whether she’d demand to know why I hadn’t told them the truth. ‘No, I didn’t.’
    ‘Good,’ she said, nodding. ‘That was a good decision. Kinder. You’d only have confused them. It was such a long time ago and I was with them so briefly; they’ve no doubt quite forgotten I was there at all.’
    And here was my chance; I took it. ‘That’s just it though, Mum. They hadn’t, that is, Juniper hadn’t.’
    ‘What do you mean?
    ‘She thought I was you.’
    ‘She…?’ Her eyes searched mine. ‘How do you know?’
    ‘She called me Meredith.’
    Mum’s fingertips brushed her lips. ‘Did she… say anything else?’
    A crossroads. A choice. And yet, it wasn’t really. I had to tread lightly: if I was to tell Mum exactly what Juniper had said, that she’d accused her of breaking a promise and ruining her life, our conversation would most certainly be ended. ‘Not much,’ I said. ‘Were you close, the two of you?’
    The man sitting behind stood up then, his considerable backside nudging our table so that everything upon it quivered. I smiled distractedly at his apology, focused instead on preventing our cups and our conversation from toppling. ‘Were you and Juniper friends, Mum?’
    She picked up her coffee; seemed to spend a long time running her spoon around the inside of her cup to tidy the froth. ‘You know, it’s so long ago it’s difficult to remember the details.’ A brittle, metallic noise as the spoon hit the saucer. ‘As I said, I was only there a little over a year. My father came and fetched me home in early 1941.’
    ‘And you never went back?’
    ‘That was the last I saw of Milderhurst.’
    She was lying. I felt hot, light-headed. ‘You’re sure?’
    A little laugh. ‘Edie – what a queer thing to say. Of course I’m sure. It’s the sort of thing one would remember, don’t you think?’
    I would. I did. I swallowed. ‘That’s just it. A funny thing happened, you see. On the weekend, when I first saw the entrance to Milderhurst – the gates at the bottom of the drive – I had the most extraordinary sense that I’d been there before.’ When she said nothing, I pressed: ‘That I’d been there with you.’
    Her silence was excruciating and I was aware suddenly of the murmur of cafe noise around us, the jarring thwack of the coffee basket being emptied, the grinder whirring, shrill laughter somewhere on the mezzanine. I seemed to be hearing it all at one remove, though, as if Mum and I were quite separate, encased within our own bubble.
    I tried to keep the tremor from my voice. ‘When I was a kid. We drove there, you and I, and we stood at the gates. It was hot and there was a lake and I wanted to swim, but we didn’t go inside. You said it was too late.’
    Mum patted her napkin to her lips, slowly, delicately, then looked at me. Just for a moment I thought I glimpsed the light of confession in her eyes, then she blinked and it was gone. ‘You’re imagining things.’
    I shook my head slowly.
    ‘All those gates look alike,’ she continued. ‘You’ve seen a picture somewhere, sometime – a film – and become confused.’
    ‘But I remember-’
    ‘I’m sure it seems that way. Just like when you accused Mr Watson from next door of being a Russian spy, or the time you became convinced you were adopted – we had to show you your birth certificate, do you remember?’ Her voice had taken on a note I recalled only too well from my childhood. The infuriating certainty of someone sensible, respectable, powerful; someone who wouldn’t listen no matter how loudly I spoke. ‘Your father had me take you to the doctor about the night terrors.’
    ‘This is different.’
    She smiled briskly. ‘You’re fanciful, Edie. You always have been. I don’t know where you get it from – not from me. Certainly not from your father.’ She reached down to reclaim her handbag from the floor. ‘Speaking of whom, I ought to be getting home.’
    ‘But Mum – ’ I could feel the chasm opening between us. A gust of desperation spurred me on. ‘You haven’t even finished your coffee.’
    She glanced at her cup, the cooling grey dribble at the bottom. ‘I’ve had enough.’
    ‘I’ll get you another, my shout-’
    ‘No,’ she said. ‘What do I owe you for the first?’
    ‘Nothing, Mum. Please stay.’
    ‘No.’ She laid a five-pound note by my saucer. ‘I’ve been out all morning and your father’s by himself. You know what he’s like: he’ll have the house dismantled if I don’t get back soon.’
    A press of her cheek, clammy against mine, and she was gone.
    A Suitable Strip Club and Pandora’s Box
    For the record it was Auntie Rita who made contact with me, not the other way round. It so happened that while I was floundering, trying without success to find out what had happened between Mum and Juniper Blythe, Auntie Rita was getting revved up to host a hen night for my cousin Samantha. I wasn’t sure whether to be offended or flattered when she phoned the office to ask me the name of an upmarket male strip club, so I went with bemused, and ultimately, because I can’t seem to help myself, useful. I told her I didn’t know off the top of my head but that I’d do some research, and we agreed to meet in secret at her salon the following Sunday so I could pass on my reconnaissance. It meant skipping Mum’s roast again, but it was the only time Rita was free; I told Mum I was helping with Sam’s wedding and she couldn’t really argue.
    Classy Cuts squats behind a tiny shopfront on the Old Kent Road, breath held to fit between an indie record outlet and the best chippie in Southwark. Rita’s as old school as the Motown records she collects and her salon does a roaring trade specializing in finger waves, beehives and blue rinses for the bingo set. She’s been around long enough to be retro without realizing it and likes to tell anyone who’ll listen how she started out at the very same salon as a skinny sixteen-year-old when the war was still raging; how she’d watched through those very front windows on VE Day when Mr Harvey from the milliner’s across the road stripped off his clothes and started dancing down the street, nothing to know him by but his finest hat.
    Fifty years in the one spot. It’s no wonder she’s wildly popular in her part of Southwark, the busy chattering stalls set apart from the glistening dress circle of Docklands. Some of her oldest clients have known her since the closest she got to a pair of scissors was the broom cupboard out back, and now there’s no one else they’d trust to set their lavender perms. ‘People aren’t daft,’ Auntie Rita says, ‘give ’em a bit of love and they’ll never stray.’ She has an uncanny knack for picking winners from the local form guide, too, which can’t be bad for business.
    I don’t know much about siblings, but I’m quite sure no two sisters have ever been less alike. Mum is reserved, Rita is not; Mum favours neat-as-a-pin court shoes, Rita serves breakfast in heels; Mum is a locked vault when it comes to family stories, Rita is the willing font of all knowledge. I know this firsthand. When I was nine and Mum went to hospital to have her gallstones removed, Dad packed me a bag and sent me to Rita’s. I’m not sure whether my aunt somehow intuited that the sapling in the doorway was way out of touch with her roots, or whether I besieged her with questions, or whether she just saw it as a chance to aggravate Mum and strike a blow in an ancient war, but she took it upon herself that week to fill in many blanks.
    She showed me yellowed photographs on the wall, told me funny stories of the way things had been when she was my age, and painted a vivid picture with colours and smells and long-ago voices that made me starkly aware of something I’d already opaquely known. The house where I lived, the family in which I was growing up, was a sanitary, lonely place. I remember lying on the small spare mattress at Rita’s house as my four cousins filled the room with their soft snores and fidgety sleep noises, wishing she were my mother instead; that I lived in a warm, cluttered house stretching at the seams with siblings and old stories. I remember, too, the instant rush of liquid guilt as the thought formed in my mind; screwing my eyes tight shut and picturing my disloyal wish as a piece of knotted silk, untying it in my mind then conjuring a wind to blow it away as if it had never been.
    But it had.
    Anyway. It was early July and hot the day I reported in; the sort of hot you carry in your lungs. I knocked on the glass door and, as I did so, caught a glimpse of my own tired reflection. Let me just say, carving out sofa real-estate with a flatulent dog does nothing for one’s complexion. I peered beyond the ‘Closed’ sign and saw Auntie Rita sitting at a card table in the back, cigarette dangling from her bottom lip as she examined something small and white in her hands. She waved me in. ‘Edie, luvvie,’ she said over the welcome bell and The Supremes, ‘lend me your eyes, will you, poppet?’
    It’s a little like stepping back in time, visiting Auntie Rita’s shop. The black and white chessboard tiles, the bank of leather-look lounge chairs with lime-green cushions, the pearly eggcup hairdriers on retractable arms. Posters of Marvin Gaye and Diana Ross and The Temptations framed behind glass. The unchanging smell of peroxide and next-door’s chip grease, locked in mortal combat.
    ‘I’ve been trying to thread this blasted thing through there and there,’ Rita said around her cigarette, ‘but as if it’s not bad enough that my fingers have turned to thumbs, the bloody ribbon’s upped and grown a mind of its own.’
    She thrust it towards me and with a bit of squinting I realized it was a small lacy bag with holes in the top where a drawstring should be.
    ‘They’re favours for Sam’s hens,’ Auntie Rita said, nodding at a box of identical bags by her feet. ‘Well, they will be once we’ve made ’em up and filled ’em with goodies.’ She dumped the ash from her cigarette. ‘Kettle’s just boiled, but I’ve got some lemonade in the fridge if you’d rather?’
    My throat contracted at the mere suggestion. ‘I’d love one.’
    It’s not a word you’d normally think to associate with your mother’s sister, but it’s true so I’ll say it: she’s saucy, my auntie Rita. Watching her as she poured our lemonades, rounded bottom stretching her skirt in all the right places, waist still small despite four babies more than thirty years ago, I could well believe the few anecdotes I’d gleaned from Mum over the years. Without exception these had been delivered in the form of warnings about the things good girls didn’t do, however they’d had a rather unintended effect: cementing for me the admirable legend of Auntie Rita, rabble-rouser.
    ‘Here you are then, luvvie.’ She handed me a martini glass spitting bubbles and harrumphed into her own chair, prodding at her beehive with both sets of fingers. ‘Phew,’ she said, ‘what a day. Lord – you look as tired as I feel!’
    I swallowed a glorious lemon sip, fierce bubbles singeing my throat. The Tempations started crooning ‘My Girl’ and I said, ‘I didn’t think you opened Sundays?’
    ‘I don’t, not as a habit, but one of my old dears needed a rinse and set for a funeral – not her own, mercifully – and I didn’t have the heart to turn her away. You do what you must, don’t you? Like family some of them.’ She inspected the bag I’d threaded, tightened the drawstring, loosened it again, long pink fingernails clacking together. ‘Good girl. Only twenty more to go.’
    I saluted as she handed me another.
    ‘Anyway, gives me a chance to get a bit of work in for the wedding: away from prying eyes.’ She widened her own briefly before narrowing them like shutters. ‘That Sam of mine’s a nosey one, always was, even as a girl. Used to scale the cupboards looking for where I’d stashed the Christmas goodies, then she’d dazzle her brothers and sisters by guessing what was wrapped beneath the tree.’ She drew a fresh cigarette from the packet on the table, said; ‘Little beggar,’ and struck a match. The cigarette tip flared hopefully then settled. ‘How about you then? Young girl like you oughta have better things to be doing with her Sunday.’
    ‘Better than this?’ I held up my second little white bag, ribbon in place. ‘What could be better than this?’
    ‘Cheeky mare,’ she said, and her smile reminded me of Gran in a way that Mum’s never does. I’d adored Gran with a might that belied any suspicions I’d had growing up that I must surely be adopted. She’d lived alone for as long as I’d known her, and though, as she was quick to point out, she’d had her share of offers, she refused to remarry and be an old man’s slave when she knew what it was to be a young man’s darling. There was a lid for each pot, she’d told me often and soberly, and she thanked God she’d found her lid in my grandfather. I never met Gran’s husband, Mum’s father, not that I remembered: he died when I was three and on the few occasions I thought to ask about him, Mum, with her distaste for rehashing the past, had always been quick to skim the subject’s surface. Rita, thank goodness, had been more forthcoming. ‘So,’ she said, ‘how’d you get on then?’
    ‘I got on very well.’ I fossicked inside my bag for my notes, unfolded them and read out the name Sarah had given me: ‘The Roxy Club. Phone number’s on here, too.’ Auntie Rita wriggled her fingers at me and I handed her the paper. She puckered her lips as tight as the top of the little drawstring bags. ‘The Roxy Club,’ she repeated. ‘And it’s a nice place? Classy?’
    ‘According to my sources.’
    ‘Good girl.’ She refolded the paper, tucked it into her bra strap and winked at me. ‘Your turn next, eh, Edie?’
    ‘What’s that?’
    ‘Down the aisle.’
    I smiled weakly, lifted a shoulder to flick away the comment.
    ‘How long’s it been now, you and your fellow – six, is it?’
    ‘Seven.’
    ‘Seven years.’ She cocked her head. ‘He’d be wanting to make an honest woman of you soon else you’ll be getting the itch and moving on. Doesn’t he know what a fine catch he’s got? You want me to have a good talk to him?’
    Even if not for the fact that I was trying to conceal a break-up, it was a scary thought. ‘Actually, Auntie Rita – ’ I wondered how best to put her off without revealing too much – ‘I’m not sure either one of us is the marrying kind.’
    She drew on her cigarette, one eye narrowing slightly as she considered me. ‘That right?’
    ‘Afraid so.’ This was a lie. Partly. I was, and remain, most definitely the marrying kind. My acceptance, throughout our relationship, of Jamie’s sneering scepticism towards wedded bliss was at complete odds with my naturally romantic sensibilities. I offer no defence other than to say that, in my experiences when you love someone you’ll do just about anything to keep them.
    On the back of a slow exhalation Rita’s gaze seemed to shift gears, from disbelief, through perplexity, arriving finally at weary acceptance. ‘Well, maybe you’ve got the right idea. It just happens to you, life, you know; happens while you’re not watching. You meet someone, you go riding in his car, you marry him and have a batch of children. Then one day you realize you’ve got nothing in common. You know you used to, you must have – why else would you have married the fellow? – but the sleepless nights, the disappointments, the worry. The shock of having more life behind than in front. Well – ’ she smiled at me as if she’d given me a recipe for pie rather than the desire to stick my head in an oven – ‘that’s life, isn’t it?’
    ‘That’s glorious, Auntie Rita. Make sure you put that in your wedding speech.’
    ‘Cheeky thing.’
    With Auntie Rita’s pep talk still hanging in the smoky haze, we each engaged in private struggle with a tiny white bag. The record player kept spinning, Rita hummed as a man with a molten voice urged us to take a good look at his smile, and finally I could stand it no longer. Much as I enjoy seeing Rita, I’d come with an ulterior motive. Mum and I had barely spoken since our meeting at the patisserie; I’d cancelled our next scheduled coffee date, pleading a backlog at work, and even found myself screening her phone calls when she rang my machine. I suppose my feelings were hurt. Does it sound hopelessly juvenile to say so? I hope not because it’s true. Mum’s continued refusal to trust me, her adamant denial that we’d visited the castle gates, her insistence that it was I who had invented the whole thing, caused a small spot inside my chest to ache, and made me more determined than ever to learn the truth. And now I’d skipped the family roast again, put Mum’s nose even further out of joint, ventured across town in shoe-melting heat: I wouldn’t, I couldn’t, I mustn’t leave without some gold. ‘Auntie Rita?’ I said.
    ‘Hmm?’ She scowled at the ribbon that had knotted itself in her fingers.
    ‘There’s something I wanted to talk to you about.’
    ‘Hmm?’
    ‘About Mum.’
    A look so sharp it scratched. ‘She all right?’
    ‘Oh yes, fine. It’s nothing like that. I’ve just been thinking a bit about the past.’
    ‘Ah. That’s different then, isn’t it, the past. Which particular bit of the past were you thinking of?’
    ‘The war.’
    She set down her little bag. ‘Well now.’
    I proceeded with caution. Auntie Rita loves to talk but this, I knew, was a touchy subject. ‘You were evacuated, you and Mum and Uncle Ed.’
    ‘We were. Briefly. Ghastly experience it was, too. All that talk of clean air? Load of bollocks. No one tells you about the stink of the countryside, the piles of steaming shite every place you care to tread. And they called us dirty! I’ve never been able to look at cows or country folk the same way since; couldn’t wait to get back and take my chances with the bombs.’
    ‘How about Mum? Did she feel the same way?’
    A swift, suspicious flicker. ‘Why? What’s she told you?’
    ‘Nothing. She’s told me nothing.’
    Rita returned her attention to the little white bag, but there was a self-consciousness in her downturned eyes. I could almost see her biting her tongue to stop the flow of things she wanted to say but suspected she shouldn’t.
    Disloyalty burned in my veins but I knew it was my best chance. Each of my next words singed a little: ‘You know what she’s like.’
    Auntie Rita sniffed sharply and caught the whiff of allegiance. She pursed her lips and regarded me a sidelong moment before inclining her head towards mine. ‘She loved it, your mum. Didn’t want to come home again.’ Bewilderment glistened in her eyes and I knew I’d struck an old and aching nerve. ‘What kind of a child doesn’t want to be with her own parents, her own people? What kind of a child would rather stay with another family?’
    A child who felt out of place, I thought, remembering my own guilty whispers into the dark corners of my cousins’ bedroom. A child who felt as if they were stuck somewhere they didn’t belong. But I didn’t say anything. I had a feeling that for someone like my aunt who’d had the good fortune to find herself exactly where she fitted, no explanation would make sense. ‘Maybe she was frightened of the bombs,’ I said eventually. My voice was rocky and I coughed a little to clear the gravel. ‘The Blitz?’
    ‘Pah. She wasn’t frightened, no more than the rest of us. Other kids wanted to be back in the thick of things. All the kids in our street came home, went down into the shelters together. Your uncle?’ Rita’s eyes took on a reverence befitting the mention of my feted Uncle Ed. ‘Thumbed his way back from Kent, he did; he was that keen to get home once the action started. Arrived on the doorstep in the middle of a raid, just in time to shepherd the simple lad from next door to safety. But not Merry, oh no. She was the opposite. Wouldn’t come home until our dad went down there himself and dragged her back. Our mum, your gran, she never got over it. Never said as much, that wasn’t her way, she pretended like she was glad Merry was safe and sound in the countryside, but we knew. We weren’t blind.’
    I couldn’t meet my aunt’s fierce gaze: I felt tarred by the brush of disloyalty, guilty by association. Mum’s betrayal of Rita was real still, an enmity that burned across the fifty-year gulf between then and now. ‘When was that?’ I said, starting on a new white bag, innocent as you please. ‘How long had she been away?’
    Auntie Rita drilled her bottom lip with a long baby-pink talon, a butterfly painted on the tip. ‘Let me see now, the bombs had been going a while but it wasn’t winter because my dad brought primroses back with him; he was that keen to soften your gran up, make everything go as easy as it could. That was Dad.’ The fingernail tapped a thinking rhythm. ‘Must’ve been sometime in 1941. March, April, thereabouts.’
    She’d been honest in that, then. Mum had been gone for just over a year and had come home from Milderhurst six months before Juniper Blythe suffered the heartbreak that destroyed her, before Thomas Cavill promised to marry her then left her stranded. ‘Did she ever-’
    A blast of ‘Hot Shoe Shuffle’ drowned me out. Auntie Rita’s novelty stiletto telephone jittered away on the counter.
    Don’t answer it, I pleaded silently, desperate that nothing be allowed to disturb our conversation now that it was finally up and flying.
    ‘That’s as like to be Sam,’ said Rita, ‘spying on me.’
    I nodded and the two of us sat out the last few bars, after which I wasted no time steering us back on track. ‘Did Mum ever talk about her time at Milderhurst? About the people she’d been staying with? The Blythe sisters?’
    Rita’s eyes rolled like a pair of marbles. ‘It was all she’d talk about at first. Gave us the pip, I can tell you. Only time I saw her looking happy was when a letter arrived from that place. All secretive she was; refused to open them until she was alone.’
    I remembered Mum’s account of being left by Rita in the evacuation line at the hall in Kent. ‘You and she weren’t close as kids.’
    ‘We were sisters – there’d have been something wrong if we didn’t fight now and then, living on top of each other like we did in Mum and Dad’s little house… We got on all right, though. Until the war, that is, until she met that lot.’ Rita speared the last cigarette from the packet, lit up and shot a jet of smoke doorwards. ‘She was different after she got back and not just the way she spoke. She’d got all sorts of ideas, up there in her castle.’
    ‘What kind of ideas?’ I asked, but I already knew. A defensiveness had crept into Rita’s voice that I recognized: the hurt of a person who feels themselves to have suffered by unfair comparison.
    ‘Ideas.’ The pink fingernails of one hand frisked the air near her beehive and I feared she’d said all she was going to. She contemplated the door, lips moving as they chewed over the various answers she could give. After what seemed an age, she met my eyes again. The cassette had finished and the salon was unusually quiet; rather, the absence of music gave the building space to hiss and creak, to complain wearily about the heat, the smell, the slow toll of the passing years. Auntie Rita set her chin and spoke in a slow, clear voice: ‘She came back a snob. There, I’ve said it. She went away one of us and she came back a snob.’
    Something I’d always sensed was made solid: my dad, the way he felt about my aunt and cousins and even my gran, hushed conversations between him and Mum, my own observations of the different ways things were done at our place and at Rita’s. Mum and Dad were snobs and I felt embarrassed for them and embarrassed for me, and then, confusingly, angry with Rita for saying it and ashamed of myself for encouraging her to do so. My vision blurred as I pretended to focus on the white bag I was threading.
    Auntie Rita, conversely, was lightened. Relief spilled across her face and seemed to radiate beyond. The untold truth was a wound that had waited decades for someone to lance. ‘Book learning,’ Rita spat, crushing her cigarette butt, ‘that’s all she wanted to talk about once she got back. Walked into our house, turned her nose up at the small rooms and our dad’s labouring songs, and took up residence at the lending library. Hid in corners with one book or another when she should’ve been helping out. Talked a lot of bosh about writing for the newspapers, too. Sent things off and all! Can you imagine?’
    My mouth actually fell open. Meredith Burchill did not write; she certainly did not send things off to the newspapers. I’d have assumed Rita was embellishing, only the news was so perfectly confounding it simply had to be true. ‘Were they published?’
    ‘Of course not! And that’s just what I’m saying: that’s the sort of mumbo-jumbo they put in her head. Gave her ideas above her station, they did, and there’s only one place those ideas take you.’
    ‘What were they like, the things she wrote? What were they about?’
    ‘I wouldn’t know. She never showed them to me. Probably thought I wouldn’t understand. Anyway, I wouldn’t have had the time: I’d met Bill by then, and I’d started here. There was a war on, you know.’ Rita laughed, but sourness deepened the lines around her mouth; I’d never noticed them before.
    ‘Did any of the Blythes come to visit Mum in London?’
    Rita shrugged. ‘Merry was awful secretive once she got back, ducking off on errands without saying where she was going. She could’ve been meeting anyone.’
    Was it something in the way she said it, the shadow of insinuation clinging to her words? Or was it the way she glanced away from me as she spoke? I’m not sure. Whatever the case, I knew immediately that there was more to her comment than met the eye. ‘Like who?’
    Rita squinted at the box of lace bags, inclining her head as if there’d never been anything as interesting as the way they sat together in little white and silver rows.
    ‘Auntie Ri-ta?’ I dragged it out, ‘Who else would she have been meeting?’
    ‘Oh, all right.’ She folded her arms so that her boobs perked together then looked directly at me. ‘He was a teacher, or he had been before the war; back at Elephant and Castle.’ She made a show of fanning her peachy cleavage. ‘Ooh la la. Very good-looking, he was – he and his brother both: like film stars, those strong, silent types. His family lived a few streets over from us and even your gran used to find a reason to come out on the step when he was passing by. All the young girls had crushes on him, including your mum.
    ‘Anyway,’ Rita continued with another shrug, ‘one day I saw them together.’
    You know that expression ‘her eyes goggled’? Mine did. ‘What?’ I said. ‘Where? How?’
    ‘I followed her.’ Justification trounced any embarrassment or guilt she might have felt: ‘She was my little sister, she wasn’t behaving normally, it was a dangerous time. I was just making sure she was all right.’
    I couldn’t have cared less why she followed Mum; I wanted to know what she’d seen. ‘But where were they? What were they doing?’
    ‘I only saw from a distance but it was enough. They were sitting together on the grass in the park, side by side, tight as you please. He was talking and she was listening – real intent, you know – then she handed him something and he…’ Rita rattled her empty packet of cigarettes. ‘Bloody things. I swear they smoke themselves.’
    ‘Auntie Ri-ta!’
    A brisk sigh. ‘They kissed. She and Mr Cavill, right there in the park for all the world to see.’
    Worlds collided, fireworks exploded, little stars shot up the black corners of my mind. ‘Mr Cavill?’
    ‘Keep up Edie, luvvie: your mum’s teacher, Tommy Cavill.’
    Words were beyond me, words that made any sense. I must’ve made some sort of noise because Rita held a hand to her ear and said, ‘What’s that?’ but I couldn’t manage it a second time. My mother, my teenage mother, had sneaked away from home for secret meetings with her teacher, Juniper Blythe’s fiancé, a man she’d had a crush on; meetings that involved the handing over of items and, more to the point, kissing. And all this had happened in the months leading up to his desertion of Juniper.
    ‘You look peaky, love. Would you like another lemonade?’
    I nodded; she fetched; I gulped.
    ‘You know, if you’re so interested you should read your mum’s letters from the castle yourself.’
    ‘Which letters?’
    ‘The ones she wrote back to London.’
    ‘She’d never let me.’
    Rita inspected a dye-stain on her wrist. ‘She wouldn’t need to know.’
    My look, I’m sure, said, Huh?
    ‘They were amongst Mum’s things,’ Rita explained, ‘came to me after she passed away. Kept them all those years, the sentimental old girl, never matter that they hurt her so. Superstitious, she was, didn’t believe in throwing letters away. I’ll dig ’em out, eh?’
    ‘Oh… I don’t know, I’m not sure that I should-’
    ‘They’re letters,’ said Rita, with a dip of her chin that made me feel daft in a Pollyanna sort of way. ‘They were written to be read, weren’t they?’
    I nodded. Tentatively.
    ‘Might help you to understand what it was your mum was thinking up there in her fancy castle.’
    The thought of reading Mum’s letters without her knowledge plucked at my guilt strings, but I silenced them. Rita was right: the letters might have been written by Mum, but they’d been addressed to her family back in London. Rita had every right to pass them on to me, and I had every right to read them.
    ‘Yes,’ I said, only it sounded more like a squeak. ‘Yes, please.’
    The Weight of the Waiting Room
    And because that’s the way life seems to work sometimes, it was while I sat unpicking Mum’s secrets with the sister from whom she most wished to keep them, that my dad had his heart attack.
    Herbert was waiting with the message when I got home from Rita’s; he took both my hands and told me what had happened. ‘I’m terribly sorry,’ he said, ‘I’d have let you know sooner only I didn’t know how.’
    ‘Oh…’ Panic throbbed in my chest. I pivoted towards the door, then back. ‘Is he-?’
    ‘He’s at the hospital; stable, I believe. Your mother didn’t say much.’
    ‘I should-’
    ‘Yes. Come on; I’ll hail you a cab.’
    I made small talk with the driver all the way. A short man with very blue eyes and brown hair beginning to rust towards silver, a father of three young children. And while he told stories of their mischief and shook his head with that mask of mock exasperation parents of small children adopt to degloss their pride, I smiled and asked questions, and my voice sounded ordinary, light even. We came closer to the hospital, and it wasn’t until I’d handed him a tenner and told him to keep the change and to enjoy his daughter’s dance recital, that I realized it had started to rain and I was standing on the pavement outside the hospital in Hammersmith without an umbrella, watching a cab disappear into the dusk while my father lay somewhere inside, his heart all broken.
    Mum looked smaller than usual, alone at one end of a bank of plastic chairs, drab blue hospital wall glooming over her shoulder. She’s always well turned out, my mum, dressing from a different age: hats and gloves that match, shoes kept swaddled in their shop boxes, a shelf full of different handbags jostling together, awaiting promotion to complete the day’s outfit. She wouldn’t dream of setting foot outside the house without her powder and lipstick in place, even when her husband’s gone ahead in an ambulance. What a loping disappointment I must be, inches too tall, far too frizzy, lips stained with whichever gloss I happen to excavate first from the detritus of loose change, dusty breath mints and random stuff that live in the depths of my faded tote.
    ‘Mum.’ I went straight to her, kissed a cheek made deathly cool by the air-conditioning and slid into the bucket seat beside her. ‘How is he?’
    She shook her head and fear of the worst lodged lumplike in my throat. ‘They haven’t said. All sorts of machines, doctors coming and going.’ She let her lids fall briefly closed. She was still shaking her head, softly, from habit. ‘I don’t know.’
    I swallowed hard and decided not knowing was preferable to knowing the worst, but I thought better of sharing this platitude. I wanted to say something original and reassuring, something to alleviate her worry, make it all OK, but Mum and I had no experience down this road of suffering and consolation, so I said nothing.
    She opened her eyes and looked at me, reached to hook a fuzzy curl behind my ear, and I wondered whether perhaps it didn’t matter, that she knew already what I was thinking, how earnestly I wanted to make it better. That there was no need to say anything because we were family, mother and daughter, and some things were understood without being spoken-
    ‘You look dreadful,’ she said.
    I stole a sideways glance and caught my shadowy reflection in a glossy NHS poster. ‘It’s raining out.’
    ‘Such a big bag,’ she said with a wistful smile, ‘and no room for a little umbrella.’
    I shook my head lightly and it turned into a shiver and I realized suddenly that I was cold.
    You have to do something in hospital waiting rooms or else you find yourself waiting, which can lead to thinking, which in my experience can be a bad idea. As I sat silently beside my mum, worrying about my dad, making a note to buy an umbrella, listening to the wall clock sweep away the seconds, a horde of lurking thoughts seeped along the wall to brush my shoulders with their tapered fingers. Before I knew what was happening, they’d taken my hand and led me places I hadn’t been for years.
    I was standing against the wall of our bathroom, watching my four-year-old self tightrope-walk along the bath tub. The little naked girl wants to run away with the gypsies. She’s not sure exactly who they are or where to seek them, but knows they’re her best bet for finding a circus to join. That’s her dream and it’s why she’s practising her balancing act. She’s almost across to the other side when she slips. Falls forwards, winds herself, lands with her face beneath the water. Sirens, bright lights, strange faces…
    I blinked and the image dispersed, only to be replaced by another. A funeral, my gran’s. I’m sitting in the front pew beside my mum and dad, only half listening as the rector describes a different woman from the one I knew. I’m distracted by my shoes. They’re new, and although I know I should be listening better, focusing on the casket, thinking serious thoughts, I can’t stop looking at those patent leather shoes, turning them back and forth to admire the sheen. My dad notices, shoulders me gently, and I wrestle my attention forwards. There are two pictures on top of the coffin: one of the Gran I knew, the other of a stranger, a young woman sitting on a beach somewhere, leaning away from the camera, smile hooked as if she were about to open her mouth and make a quip at the cameraman’s expense. The minister says something then and Auntie Rita starts to wail, mascara spilling black across her cheeks, and I watch my mum expectantly, waiting for a matched response. Her gloved hands are folded in her lap, her attention is fixed on the casket, but nothing happens. Nothing happens and I catch my cousin Samantha’s eyes. She has been watching my mum too and I am suddenly ashamed…
    I stood decisively, catching the black thoughts by surprise and sending them scuttling to the floor. My pockets were deep and I plunged my hands down to their seams firmly enough to convince myself I had a purpose, then I paced the corridor paying museum attention to the faded posters touting immunization schedules that were two years out of date; anything to stay here and now and far away from then.
    I turned another corner into a brightly lit alcove and found a hot drinks machine nudging the wall. The sort with a platform for the cup and a nozzle that shoots out chocolate powder, coffee granules or boiling water, depending on your predilection. There were tea bags in a plastic tray and I draped a couple into Styrofoam cups, one for Mum and one for me. I watched a while as the bags bled rusty ribbons into the water, then took my time over stirring in the powdered milk, letting the grains dissolve fully before carrying them back down the corridor.
    Mum took hers wordlessly, used an index finger to catch a drip as it rolled down the side. She held the warm cup between her hands but didn’t drink. I sat beside her and thought about nothing. Tried to think about nothing while my brain ticked ahead of me, wondering how it was I had so few memories of my dad. Real ones, not the sort stolen from photographs and family stories.
    ‘I was angry with him,’ Mum said finally. ‘I raised my voice. I’d finished the roast and laid it on the table for carving and even though it was getting cool sitting out, I decided that it would serve him right to eat a cold dinner. I thought about going to fetch him myself, but I was sick and tired of calling to no avail. I thought: see how you like a cold roast.’ She rolled her lips together the way people do when the threat of tears makes talking difficult and they’re hoping to cover the fact. ‘He’d been up in the roof again all afternoon, pulling down boxes, cluttering the hallway – God knows how they’ll get back up again, he’ll be in no fit state – ’ She looked, unseeing, into her tea. ‘He’d gone into the bathroom to wash before dinner and that’s where it happened. I found him lying beside the tub, right where you fainted that time, when you were small. He’d been washing his hands, there was soap all over them.’
    Silence ensued and I itched to fill it. There’s something reassuring about conversation; its ordered pattern provides an anchor to the real world: nothing terrible or unexpected can happen, surely, when the rational exchange of dialogue is taking place. ‘And so you called the ambulance,’ I prompted, my tone that of a nursery-school teacher.
    ‘They came quickly; that was lucky. I sat with him and wiped the soap away, and then it seemed that they were there. Two of them, a man and a woman. They had to do CPR, and use one of those electric shock machines.’
    ‘A defibrillator,’ I said.
    ‘And they gave him something, some medicine to dissolve any clots.’ She studied her upturned hands. ‘He was still wearing his undershirt, and I remember thinking I should go and bring him a clean one.’ She shook her head and I wasn’t sure whether it was with regret that she hadn’t, or astonishment that such a thing had occurred to her while her husband lay unconscious on the floor, and I decided that it didn’t really matter right now and that I was in no position to judge anyway. Don’t think it had escaped my notice that I’d have been there to help if I hadn’t been probing Auntie Rita at the time, lifting stories from my mum’s past.
    A doctor came down the corridor towards us and Mum knotted her fingers. I half stood, but he didn’t slow, striding across the waiting room to disappear through another door.
    ‘Won’t be long now, Mum.’ The weight of unspoken apology curled my words and I felt utterly helpless.
    There’s only one photograph from my mum and dad’s wedding. I mean, presumably there are more, gathering dust somewhere in a forgotten white album, but there’s only one image I know of that’s survived the passage of years.
    It’s just the two of them in it, not one of those typical wedding photos where the bride and groom’s families fan out in either direction providing wings to the couple in the centre; unbalanced wings so you suspect the creature would never be able to fly. In this photo their mismatched families have melted away and it’s just the two of them, and the way she’s staring at his face it’s like she’s enraptured. As if he glows, which he sort of does: an effect of the old lights photographers used back then, I suppose.
    And he’s so impossibly young, they both are; he still has hair, right across the top of his head, and no idea that it’s not going to stick around. No idea that he will have a son, then lose him; that his future daughter will so bewilder him and that his wife will come to ignore him, that one day his heart will seize up and he’ll be taken to hospital in an ambulance and that same wife will sit in the waiting room with the daughter he can’t understand, waiting for him to wake up.
    None of that is present in the photo, not even a hint. That photo is a frozen moment; their whole future lies unknown and ahead, just as it should. But at the same time, the future is in that photo, a version of it at any rate. It’s in their eyes, hers especially. For the photographer has captured more than two young people on their wedding day, he’s captured a threshold being crossed, an ocean wave at the precise moment before it turns to foam and begins its crash towards the ground. And the young woman, my mum, is seeing more than just the young man standing beside her, the fellow she’s in love with, she’s seeing their whole life together, stretching out ahead…
    Then again, perhaps I’m romanticizing; perhaps she’s just admiring his hair, or looking forward to the reception, or the honeymoon… You create your own fiction around photos like that, images that become iconic within a family, and I realized as I sat there in the hospital that there was only one way of knowing for sure how she’d felt, what she’d hoped for when she looked at him that way; whether her life was more complicated, her past more complex, than her sweet expression suggests. And all I had to do was ask; strange that I’d never thought of it before. I suppose it’s the light on my father’s face that’s to blame. The way Mum’s looking at him draws the attention his way, so it’s easy to dismiss her as a young and innocent girl of unremarkable origins whose life is only just now beginning. It was a myth Mum had done her best to propagate, I realized; for whenever she spoke of their lives before they met it was always my dad’s stories she told.
    But as I conjured the image to mind, fresh from my visit to Rita, it was Mum’s face I brought into focus; back in the shadows, a little smaller than his. Was it possible that the young woman with the wide eyes had a secret? That a decade before her wedding to the solid, glowing man beside her, she’d enjoyed a furtive love affair with her school teacher, a man engaged to her older friend? She’d have been fifteen or so at the time, and Meredith Burchill was certainly not the kind of woman to have a teenage love affair, but what about Meredith Baker? When I was growing up one of Mum’s favourite lectures was on the sorts of things good girls did not do: was it possible she’d been speaking from experience?
    I was sunk then by the sense that I knew everything and nothing of the person sitting next to me. The woman in whose body I had grown and whose house I’d been raised was in some vital ways a stranger to me; I’d gone thirty years without ascribing her any more dimension than the paper dollies I’d played with as a girl, with the pasted-on smiles and the folding-tab dresses. What was more, I’d spent the past few months recklessly seeking to unlock her deepest secrets when I’d never really bothered to ask her much about the rest. Sitting there in the hospital, though, as Dad lay in an emergency bed somewhere, it suddenly seemed very important that I learn more about them. About her. The mysterious woman who made allusions to Shakespeare, who’d once sent articles to newspapers for publication.
    ‘Mum?’
    ‘Hmm?’
    ‘How did you and Dad meet?’
    Her voice was brittle from lack of use and she cleared her throat before saying, ‘At the cinema. A screening of The Holly and the Ivy. You know that.’
    A silence.
    ‘What I mean is, how did you meet? Did you see him? Did he see you? Who spoke first?’
    ‘Oh, Edie, I can’t remember. Him; no, me. I forget.’ She moved the fingers of one hand a little, like a puppeteer dangling stars on strings. ‘We were the only two there. Imagine that.’
    A look had come upon Mum’s face as we spoke, a distance, but a fond one, a release almost from the discombobulating present, where her husband was clinging to life in a nearby room. ‘Was he handsome?’ I prodded gently. ‘Was it love at first sight?’
    ‘Hardly. I mistook him for a murderer at first.’
    ‘What? Dad?’
    I don’t think she even heard me, so lost was she in her own memory. ‘It’s spooky being in a cinema by yourself. All those rows of empty seats, the darkened room, the enormous screen. It’s designed to be a communal experience and the effect when it’s not is uncannily detaching. Anything could happen when it’s dark.’
    ‘Did he sit right by you?’
    ‘Oh no. He kept a polite distance – he’s a gentleman, your father – but we started talking afterwards, in the foyer. He’d been expecting someone to meet him-’
    ‘A woman?’
    She paid undue attention to the fabric of her skirt and said, with gentle reproach, ‘Oh, Edie.’
    ‘I’m only asking.’
    ‘I believe it was a woman, but she didn’t show. And that – ’ Mum pressed her hands against her knees, lifted her head with a delicate sniff – ‘was that. He asked me out to tea and I accepted. We went to the Lyons Corner House in the Strand. I had a slice of pear cake and I remember thinking it was very fancy.’
    I smiled. ‘And he was your first boyfriend?’
    Did I imagine the hesitation? ‘Yes.’
    ‘You stole another woman’s boyfriend.’ I was teasing, trying to keep things light, but the moment I said it I thought of Juniper Blythe and Thomas Cavill and my cheeks burned. I was too flustered by my own faux pas to pay much attention to Mum’s reaction, hurrying on before she had time to reply: ‘How old were you then?’
    ‘Twenty-five. It was 1952 and I’d just turned twenty-five.’
    I nodded like I was doing the maths in my head, when really I was listening to the little voice that whispered: Might this not be a good time, seeing as we’re on the subject, to ask a little more about Thomas Cavill? Wicked little voice and shameful of me to pay it any heed; while I’m not proud of it, the opportunity was just too tempting. I told myself I was taking my mum’s mind off Dad’s condition, and with barely a pause, I said, ‘Twenty-five. That’s sort of late for a first boyfriend, isn’t it?’
    ‘Not really.’ She said it quickly. ‘It was a different time. I had been busy with other things.’
    ‘But then you met Dad.’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘And you fell in love.’
    Her voice was so soft I read her lips rather than heard her when she said, ‘Yes.’
    ‘Was he your first love, Mum?’
    She inhaled a sharp little breath and her face looked as if I’d slapped her. ‘Edie – don’t!’
    So. Auntie Rita had been right, he wasn’t.
    ‘Don’t talk about him in the past tense like that.’ Tears were brimming over the folds around her eyes. And I felt as bad as if I had slapped her, especially when she started to weep quietly against my shoulder, leaking more than crying, because crying isn’t something she does. And although my arm was pressed hard against the plastic edge of the chair, I didn’t move a muscle.
    Outside, the distant tide of traffic continued to drift, in and out, punctuated occasionally by sirens. There’s something about hospital walls; though only made of bricks and plaster, when you’re inside them the noise, the reality of the teeming city beyond, disappears; it’s just outside the door, but it might as well be a magical land, far, far away. Like Milderhurst, it occurred to me; I’d experienced the same dislocation there, an overwhelming sense of envelopment as I passed through the front door, as if the world without had turned to grains of sand and fallen away. I wondered vaguely what the Sisters Blythe were doing, how they’d filled their days in the weeks since I’d left them, the three of them together in that great, dark castle. My imaginings came one after the other, a series of snapshots: Juniper drifting the corridors in her grubbied silk dress; Saffy appearing from nowhere to lead her gently back; Percy frowning by the attic window, surveying her estate like a ship’s captain keeping watch…
    Midnight passed, the duty nurses shuffled, new faces brought with them the same old banter. Laughing and bustling around the illuminated medical station: an irresistible beacon of normality, an island across an unpassable sea. I tried to doze, using my bag as a pillow, but it was no use. My mum, beside me, was so small and alone, and older somehow than the last time I’d seen her, and I couldn’t stop my mind from racing ahead to paint detailed scenes of her life without Dad. I saw it so clearly: his empty armchair, the quiet meals, the cessation of all DIY hammering. How lonely the house would be, how still, how swamped by echoes.
    It would be just the two of us if we lost my dad. Two is not a large number; it leaves no reserves. It’s a quiet number that makes for neat and simple conversations where interruption is not required; is not really possible. Or necessary, for that matter. Was that our future, I wondered? The two of us passing sentences back and forth, speaking around our opinions, making polite noises and telling half-truths and keeping up appearances? The notion was unbearable and I felt, suddenly, very, very alone.
    It’s when I’m at my loneliest that I miss my brother most of all. He would be a man by now, with an easy manner and a kind smile and a knack for cheering our mother up. The Daniel in my mind always knows exactly what to say; not remotely like his unfortunate sister who suffers terribly with being tongue-tied. I glanced at Mum and wondered whether she was thinking of him, too; whether being in the hospital brought back memories of her little boy. I couldn’t ask, though, because we didn’t talk about Daniel, just as we didn’t talk about her evacuation, her past, her regrets. We never had.
    Perhaps it was my sadness that secrets had simmered for so long beneath our family’s surface; perhaps it was a type of penance for upsetting her with my earlier probing; perhaps there was even a tiny part of me that wanted to provoke a reaction, to punish her for keeping memories from me and robbing me of the real Daniel: whatever the case, the next thing I knew I’d drawn breath and said, ‘Mum?’
    She rubbed her eyes and blinked at her wristwatch.
    ‘Jamie and I broke up.’
    ‘Oh?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘Today?’
    ‘Well, no. Not exactly. Around Christmastime.’
    A tiny utterance of surprise, ‘Oh,’ and then she frowned, confused, calculating the months that had passed. ‘But you didn’t mention-’
    ‘No.’
    This fact and its implications brought a sag to her face. She nodded slowly, remembering, no doubt, the fifty small and smaller enquiries she’d made after Jamie in that time; the answers I’d given, all lies.
    ‘I’ve had to let the flat go,’ I said, clearing my throat. ‘I’m looking for a bedsit. A little place of my own.’
    ‘That’s why I couldn’t reach you; after your father – I tried all the numbers I could think of, even Rita’s, until I got on to Herbert. I didn’t know what else to do.’
    ‘Well,’ I said, a strange artificial brightness in my tone, ‘as it happens that was the perfect thing to do. I’ve been staying with Herbert.’
    She looked baffled. ‘He has a spare room?’
    ‘A sofa.’
    ‘I see.’ Mum’s hands were clasped in her lap, held together as if she sheltered a little bird inside, a precious bird she was determined not to lose. ‘I must post Herbert a note,’ she said, her voice threadbare. ‘He sent some of his blackberry jam at Easter and I can’t think that I remembered to write.’
    And like that it was over, the conversation I’d been dreading for months. Relatively painless, which was good, but also somehow soulless, which wasn’t.
    Mum stood then, and my first thought was that I’d been wrong, it wasn’t over and there was going to be a scene after all; but when I followed the direction of her eyes I saw that a doctor was coming towards us. I stood too, trying to read his face, to guess which way the penny was about to drop, but it was impossible. His expression was the sort that could be read to fit each scenario. I think they learn how to do that at medical school.
    ‘Mrs Burchill?’ His voice was clipped, faintly foreign.
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘Your husband’s condition is stable.’
    Mum let out a noise, like air being pushed from a small balloon.
    ‘It’s a good thing the ambulance got there so soon. You did well to call it in time.’
    I was aware of soft hiccuping noises next to me and I realized Mum’s eyes were leaking again.
    ‘We’ll see how his recovery progresses, but at this stage angioplasty is unlikely. He’ll need to stay in for a few days longer so we can monitor him, but his recovery after that can be done at home. You’ll have to watch him for moods: cardiac patients often struggle with feelings of depression. The nurses will be able to help you further with that.’
    Mum was nodding with grateful fervour. ‘Of course, of course,’ and scrabbling, as was I, for the right words to convey our gratitude and relief. In the end she went with plain old, ‘Thank you, doctor,’ but he’d already withdrawn behind the untouchable screen of his white coat. He merely bobbed his head in a disconnected way, as if he had another place to be, another life to save, both of which he no doubt did, and had already forgotten quite who we were and to which patient we belonged.
    I was about to suggest that we go in and see Dad when she began to cry – my mother, who never cries – and not just a few tears wiped away against the back of her hand; great big racking sobs that reminded me of the time in my childhood when I was upset about one trifling thing or another and Mum told me that while some girls were fortunate to look pretty when they cried – their eyes widened, their cheeks flushed, their pouts plumped – neither she nor I were among them.
    She was right: we’re ugly criers, both of us. Too blotchy, too snarly, too loud. But seeing her standing there, so small, so impeccably dressed, so distressed, I wanted to wrap her in my arms and hold on until she couldn’t help but stop. I didn’t though. I dug inside my bag and found her a tissue.
    She took it but she didn’t stop crying, not right away, and after a moment’s hesitation, I reached out to touch her shoulder, turned it into a sort of pat, then rubbed the back of her cashmere cardigan. We stood like that, until her body yielded a little, leaning in to me like a child seeking comfort.
    Finally, she blew her nose. ‘I was so worried, Edie,’ she said, wiping beneath her eyes, one after the other, checking the tissue for mascara.
    ‘I know, Mum.’
    ‘I just don’t think that I could… If anything were to happen… If I lost him-’
    ‘It’s OK,’ I said firmly. ‘He’s OK. Everything’s going to be all right.’
    She blinked at me like a small animal for whom the light is too bright. ‘Yes.’
    I obtained his room number from a nurse and we negotiated the fluorescent corridors until we found it. As we drew close, Mum stopped.
    ‘What is it?’ I said.
    ‘I don’t want your father upset, Edie.’
    I said nothing, wondering how on earth she thought I might be planning to do such a thing.
    ‘He’d be horrified to learn that you were sleeping on a sofa. You know how he worries about your posture.’
    ‘It won’t be for long.’ I glanced towards the door. ‘Really, Mum, I’m working on it. I’ve been checking the rentals but there’s nothing suitable-’
    ‘Nonsense.’ She straightened her skirt and drew a deep breath. Didn’t quite meet my eyes as she said, ‘You’ve a perfectly suitable bed at home.’
    Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig
    Which is how, at the age of thirty, I came to be a single woman living with my parents in the house in which I’d grown up. In my very own childhood bedroom, in my very own five-foot bed, beneath the window that overlooked Singer & Sons Funeral Home. An improvement, one might add, on my most recent situation: I adore Herbert and I’ve a lot of time for dear old Jess, but Lord spare me from ever having to share her sofa again.
    The move itself was relatively painless; I didn’t take much with me. It was a temporary arrangement, as I told anyone who’d listen, so it made far more sense to leave my boxes at Herbert’s. I packed myself a single suitcase and arrived back home to find everything pretty much as I’d left it a decade before.
    Our family house in Barnes was built in the sixties, purchased brand new by my parents when Mum was pregnant with me. What makes it particularly striking is that it’s a house with no clutter. Really, none at all. There’s a system for everything in the Burchill household: multiple baskets in the laundry; colour-coded cloths in the kitchen; a notepad by the telephone with a pen that never seems to wander, and not one envelope lying around with doodles and addresses and the half-scribbled names of people whose calls have been forgotten. Neat as a pin. Little wonder I’d suspected adoption when I was growing up.
    Even Dad’s attic clear-out had generated a polite minimum of mess; two dozen or so boxes with their lists of contents Sellotaped on the lids, and thirty years’ worth of superseded electronic appliances, still housed in their original packaging. They couldn’t live in the hallway forever, though, and with Dad recuperating and my weekends tumbleweed clear, I was a natural to take over the job. I worked like a soldier, falling prey to distraction only once, when I stumbled upon the box marked Edie’s Things and couldn’t resist ripping it open. Inside lay a host of forgotten items: macaroni jewellery with flaking paint, a porcelain trinket box with fairies on the side, and, deep down, amongst assorted bits and bobs and books – I gasped – my illicitly obtained, utterly cherished, hitherto misplaced copy of the Mud Man.
    Holding that small, time-worn book in my grown-up hands, I was awash with shimmering memories; the image of my ten-year-old self, propped up on the lounge sofa, was so lucent I could almost reach across the years to poke ripples in it with my finger. I could feel the pleasant stillness of the glass-filtered sunlight and smell the reassuring warm air: tissues and lemon barley and lovely doses of parental pity. I saw Mum, then, coming through the doorway with her coat on and her string bag filled with groceries. Fishing something from within the bag, holding it out to me, a book that would change my world. A novel written by the very gentleman to whom she’d been evacuated during the Second World War…
    I rubbed my thumb thoughtfully across the embossed type on the cover: Raymond Blythe. Perhaps this will cheer you up, Mum had said. It’s for slightly older readers, I think, but you’re a clever girl; with a bit of effort I’m sure you’ll be fine. My entire life, I’d credited the librarian Miss Perry with setting me on my proper path, but as I sat there on the wooden floor of the attic, the Mud Man in my hands, another thought began to coalesce in a thin streak of light. I wondered whether it was possible that I’d been wrong all this time; whether perhaps Miss Perry had done little more than locate and lend the title and it had been my mother who’d known to give me the perfect book at the perfect time. Whether I dared ask.
    The book had been old when it came to me, and passionately well loved since, so its state of déshabillé was to be expected. Within its crumbling binding were stuck the very pages I’d turned when the world they described was new: when I didn’t know how things might end for Jane and her brother and the poor, sad man in the mud.
    I’d been longing to read it again, ever since I returned from my visit to Milderhurst, and with a swift intake of breath, I opened the book randomly, letting my eyes alight in the middle of a lovely, foxed page: The carriage that took them to live with the uncle they’d never met set off from London in the evening and travelled through the night, arriving at last at the foot of a neglected drive while dawn was breaking. I read on, bumping in the back of that carriage beside Jane and Peter. Through the weary, whiney gates we went, up the long and winding path, until finally, at the top of the hill, cold in the melancholy morning light, it appeared. Bealehurst Castle. I shivered with anticipation at what I might find inside. The tower broke through the roofline, windows dark against the creamy stone, and I leaned out with Jane, laid my hand beside hers on the carriage window. Heavy clouds fleeted across the pale sky, and when the carriage finally stopped with a clunk we clambered out to find ourselves standing by the rim of an ink-black moat. A breeze then, from nowhere, rippling the water’s surface, and the driver gestured towards a wooden drawbridge. Slowly, silently, we walked across it. Just as we reached the heavy door, a bell rang, a real one, and I almost dropped the book.
    I don’t think I’ve mentioned the bell yet. While I was returning boxes to the attic, Dad had been set up to convalesce in the spare room, a pile of Accountancy Today journals on the bedside table, a cassette player loaded with Henry Mancini, and a little butler’s bell for summoning attention. The bell had been his idea, a distant memory from a bout of fever as a boy and, after a fortnight during which he’d done little more than sleep, Mum had been so pleased to see a return of spirit that she’d happily gone along with the suggestion. It made good sense, she’d said, failing to anticipate for a moment that the small, decorative bell might be commandeered for such nefarious use. In Dad’s bored and grumpy hands, it became a fearful weapon, a talisman in his reversion to boyhood. Bell in fist, my mild-mannered, number-crunching father became a spoiled and imperious child, full of impatient questions as to whether the postman had been, what Mum was doing with her day, what time he might expect his next cup of tea to be served.
    On the morning that I found the box with the Mud Man inside, however, Mum was at the supermarket and I was officially on Dad-watch. At the sound of the bell, the world of Bealehurst withered, the clouds receded quickly in all directions, the moat, the castle vanished, the step on which I stood turned to dust so that I was falling, with nothing but black text floating in the white space around me, dropping through the hole in the middle of the page to land with a bump back in Barnes.
    Shameful of me, I know, but I sat very still for a few moments, waiting it out in case I earned a reprieve. Only when the bell’s tinkle came a second time did I tuck the book inside my cardigan pocket and clamber, with regrettable reluctance, down the ladder.
    ‘Hiya, Dad,’ I said, brightly – it is not kind to resent intrusions from a convalescent parent – arriving at the spare-room door. ‘Everything all right?’
    He’d slumped so far he’d almost disappeared inside his pillows. ‘Is it lunchtime yet, Edie?’
    ‘Not yet.’ I straightened him up a bit. ‘Mum said she’d fix you some soup as soon as she got in. She’s made a lovely pot of-’
    ‘Your mother’s still not back?’
    ‘Shouldn’t be long.’ I smiled sympathetically. Poor Dad had been through an awful time: it isn’t easy for anyone being bed-bound weeks on end, but for someone like him, with no hobbies and no talent whatsoever for relaxing, it was torture. I freshened his water glass, trying not to finger the top of the book protruding from my pocket. ‘Is there anything I can fetch you in the meantime? A crossword? A heat pad? Some more cake?’
    He let out a forebearing sigh. ‘No.’
    ‘Are you sure?’
    ‘Yes.’
    My hand was on the Mud Man again, my mind had taken guilty leave to debate the particular merits of the daybed in the kitchen and the armchair in the lounge, the one by the window that spends the afternoon drenched in sunlight. ‘Well then,’ I said sheepishly, ‘I guess I’ll get back to it. Chin up, eh, Dad…’
    I was almost at the door when, ‘What’s that you’ve got there, Edie?’
    ‘Where?’
    ‘There, sticking out of your pocket.’ He sounded so hopeful. ‘Not the post, is it?’
    ‘This? No.’ I patted my cardigan. ‘It’s a book from one of the attic boxes.’
    He pursed his lips. ‘The whole point is to stow things away, not to dig them out again.’
    ‘I know, but it’s a favourite.’
    ‘What’s it all about then?’
    I was stunned; I couldn’t think that my dad had ever asked me about a book before. ‘A pair of orphans,’ I managed. ‘A girl called Jane and a boy called Peter.’
    He frowned impatiently. ‘A little more than that, I should say. By the looks of it, there’s a lot of pages.’
    ‘Of course – yes. It’s about far more than that.’ Oh, where to start! Duty and betrayal, absence and longing, the lengths to which people will go to protect the ones they cherish, madness, fidelity, honour, love… I glanced again at Dad and decided to stick with the plot. ‘The children’s parents are chargrilled in a ghastly London house fire and they’re sent to live with their long-lost uncle in his castle.’
    ‘His castle?’
    I nodded. ‘Bealehurst. Their uncle’s a nice enough fellow, and the children are delighted by the castle at first, but gradually they come to realize that there’s more going on than meets the eye; that there’s a deep, dark secret lurking beneath it all.’
    ‘Deep and dark, eh?’ He smiled a little.
    ‘Oh yes. Both. Very terrible indeed.’
    I’d said it quickly, excitedly, and Dad leaned closer, easing himself onto his elbow. ‘What is it then?’
    ‘What’s what?’
    ‘The secret. What is it?’
    I looked at him, dumbfounded. ‘Well, I can’t just… tell you.’
    ‘Of course you can.’
    He crossed his arms like a cranky child and I scrabbled for the words to explain to him the contract between reader and writer, the dangers of narrative greed. The sacrilege of just blurting out what had taken chapters to build; secrets hidden carefully by the author behind countless sleights of hand. All I managed was, ‘I’ll lend it to you if you like?’
    He pouted unbecomingly. ‘Reading makes my head ache.’
    A silence settled between us, tending towards uncomfortable as he waited for me to concede and I – of course, for what choice did I have? – refused. Finally, he gave a forlorn sort of sigh. ‘Never mind,’ he said, waving his fingers disconsolately. ‘I suppose it doesn’t matter.’
    But he looked so glum, and the memory came upon me so intensely of how I’d fallen into the world of the Mud Man when I was laid up with mumps or whatever it was, that I couldn’t help saying, ‘If you really want to know, I suppose I could read it to you.’
    The Mud Man became our habit; something I looked forward to every day. As soon as dinner was over, I helped Mum with the kitchen, cleared Dad’s tray, then he and I would pick up wherever we’d left off. He couldn’t fathom that a made-up story could interest him so avidly. ‘But it must be based on true events,’ he said repeatedly, ‘an old kidnapping case. Like that Lindbergh fellow, the child taken from his bedroom window?’
    ‘No, Dad, Raymond Blythe just invented it.’
    ‘But it’s so vivid, Edie; I can see it in my head when you’re reading, as if I were watching it happen; as if I knew the story already.’ And he would shake his head with a wonder that made me warm to the tips of my toes with pride, even though I’d taken no part, myself, in the Mud Man’s creation. On days when I stayed late at work he became fidgety, grouching at Mum all evening, listening for my key in the door, then ringing his little bell and feigning surprise when I answered: ‘Is that you, Edie?’ he’d say, lifting his brows as if confused. ‘I was just going to ask your mother to plump my pillows. I say – seeing as you’re here, we might as well take a look at what’s happening at the castle.’
    And perhaps it was the castle, even more than the story, that had really won him over. His jealous respect for grand family estates was as close as Dad came to having a general interest and once I let slip that Bealehurst was based heavily on Raymond Blythe’s real ancestral home, his interest was assured. He asked copious questions, some of which I could answer from memory or existing knowledge, others that were so specific I had no choice but to produce my copy of Raymond Blythe’s Milderhurst for him to pore over; sometimes even reference books I’d borrowed from Herbert’s enormous collection and brought home from work. Thus it was that Dad and I fanned each other’s infatuation and, for the first time ever, the pair of us found ourselves with something in common.
    There was only one sticking point in our happy formation of the Burchill family Mud Man fan club, and that was Mum. No matter that our Milderhurst habit had arisen quite innocently, the fact that Dad and I were sitting together behind closed doors, bringing to life a world Mum resolutely refused to speak about, and over which she had greater claim than either of us, felt sneaky. I knew I was going to have to talk to her about it; I also knew the conversation was going to be prickly.
    Since I’d moved back home, things between Mum and me had continued as they always had. Somewhat naively, I think I’d half expected that the two of us might undergo a miraculous renaissance of affection; that we might slip into a routine together, fall easily and often into conversation; that Mum might even bare her soul and divulge her secrets to me. I suppose that’s what I’d hoped might happen. Needless to say, it didn’t. In fact, although I think Mum was pleased to have me there, grateful that I was helping out with Dad and far more tolerant of our differences than she had been in the past, in other respects she seemed more distant than ever, distracted and vague and very, very quiet. I’d assumed, at first, that it was a result of Dad’s heart attack, that the worry followed hotly by relief had thrown her into a tumble of re-evaluation; but as the weeks went by and things didn’t improve, I began to wonder. I found her sometimes paused in the middle of an activity, standing with her hands in the sudsy kitchen sink, staring blankly through the window. And the expression on her face was so faraway, so knotted and confused, it was as if she’d forgotten where and who she was.
    It was in just such inclination that I found her on the evening I came to fess up about the reading.
    ‘Mum?’ I said. She didn’t seem to hear and I went a little closer, stopping by the corner of the table. ‘Mum?’
    She turned from the glass. ‘Oh, hello, Edie. It’s pretty this time of year, isn’t it. The long, late sunsets.’
    I joined her by the window, watching the last glaze of peach darken from the sky. It was pretty, though perhaps not sufficiently to warrant the ardent attention she was paying it.
    After a time, in which Mum said nothing further, I cleared my throat. I told her I’d been reading the Mud Man to Dad, then I very carefully explained the circumstances that had led to such a thing, in particular that it hadn’t been planned. She barely seemed to hear me, a slight nod when I mentioned Dad’s fascination with the castle the only sign that she was listening. When I’d reported everything I considered of consequence, I stopped and waited, steeled myself a little for whatever might be coming.
    ‘It’s kind of you to read to your dad, Edie. He’s enjoying it.’ It was not exactly the response I’d expected. ‘That book is becoming something of a tradition in our family.’ The flicker of a smile. ‘A companion in times of ill health. You probably don’t remember. I gave it to you when you were home with mumps. You were so miserable, it was all I could think to do.’
    So. It had been Mum all along. She, and not Miss Perry, had chosen the Mud Man. The perfect book, the perfect time. I found my voice. ‘I remember.’
    ‘It’s good that your father has something to think about while he’s lying in bed. Better still that he has you to share it with. He hasn’t had many visitors, you know. Other people lead busy lives, the fellows from his work. Most of them sent cards, and I suppose since he retired… well, time marches on, doesn’t it? It just… it isn’t easy for a person to feel they’ve been forgotten.’
    She turned her face away then, but not before I’d noticed her lips pressed hard together. I had a feeling we were no longer speaking only of my dad, and because all roads of thought led me at that time to Milderhurst, to Juniper Blythe and Thomas Cavill, I couldn’t help wondering whether Mum was mourning an old love affair; a relationship from long before she met my dad, when she was young and impressionable and easily wounded. The more I pondered it, the longer I stood there stealing glances at her pensive profile, the angrier I felt. Who was this Thomas Cavill who had skipped off during the war, leaving a spill of broken hearts behind him. Poor Juniper, wasting away in her family’s crumbly castle, and my own mother, nursing her private sorrow decades after the fact.
    ‘There’s one thing, Edie – ’ Mum was back to facing me now, her sad eyes searching mine – ‘I’d rather your father didn’t know about my evacuation.’
    ‘Dad doesn’t know you were evacuated?’
    ‘He knows that it happened, but not where I went. He doesn’t know about Milderhurst.’
    She suddenly paid great attention to the back of her hands, lifting each finger in turn, adjusting her fine gold wedding band.
    ‘You do realize,’ I said gently, ‘that he’d think you a person of inestimable fabulousness if he knew you’d lived there once?’
    A slight smile ruffled her composure, but her attention didn’t leave her hands.
    ‘I’m serious. He’s smitten with the place.’
    ‘Nevertheless,’ she said, ‘I’d prefer it this way.’
    ‘OK. I understand.’ I didn’t, but I think we’ve established that already, and the way the streetlight was now caressing her cheekbones made her look vulnerable, like a different kind of woman, younger and more breakable somehow, so I didn’t press further. I continued to watch her, though; her attitude was one of such keen contemplation that I couldn’t look away.
    ‘You know, Edie,’ she said softly, ‘when I was a girl my mother used to send me out around this time of night to fetch your grandfather back from the pub.’
    ‘Really? By yourself?’
    ‘It wasn’t uncommon back then, before the war. I’d go and wait by the door of the local and he’d see me and wave and finish his drink and then we’d walk home together.’
    ‘The two of you were close?’
    She tilted her head a little. ‘I perplexed him, I think. Your grandmother, too. Did I ever tell you that she wanted me to become a hairdresser when I left school?’
    ‘Like Rita.’
    She blinked at the night-black street outside. ‘I don’t think I’d have been much good at it.’
    ‘I don’t know. You’re pretty handy with the secateurs.’
    There was a pause and she smiled sideways at me, but not completely naturally, and I had the feeling there was something more she wanted to say. I waited, but whatever it was, she decided against it, soon turning back to stare at the glass pane.
    I made a half-hearted attempt to engage her in further conversation about her school days, hoping, I suppose, that it might lead to mention of Thomas Cavill, but she didn’t take the bait. She said only that she’d enjoyed school well enough and asked me whether I’d like a cup of tea.
    The single virtue of Mum’s abstraction at that time, was that I was spared having to discuss my break-up with Jamie. Repression being something of a family hobby, Mum didn’t ask for details; neither did she drown me in platitudes. She kindly let us both cling to the myth that I’d made a purely selfless decision to come home and help her with Dad and the house.
    The same, I’m afraid, could not be said of Rita. Bad news travels swiftly and my aunt is nothing if not a foul-weather friend, so I expect I shouldn’t have been surprised when I arrived at the Roxy Club for Sam’s hen night only to be accosted at the door. Rita tucked her arm through mine and said, ‘Darling, I’ve heard. Now don’t you worry; you’re not to think it means you’re old and unattractive and destined to be alone for the rest of your life.’
    I waved to let the waiter know I was ready to place a rather stiff drink order and realized, with a vague sinking sensation, that I was actually envying my mother her evening at home with Dad and his bell.
    ‘Lots of people meet “the one” in their later years,’ she continued, ‘and they’re made very happy indeed. Just look at your cousin over there.’ Rita pointed at Sam, who was grinning at me past the G-string of a bronzed stranger. ‘Your turn will come.’
    ‘Thanks, Auntie Rita.’
    ‘Good girl.’ She nodded in approval. ‘You have a good time now and put it all behind you.’ And she was about to move on to spread her cheer elsewhere when she grabbed my arm. ‘Almost forgot,’ she said, ‘I’ve brought something for you.’ She dug inside her tote and pulled out a shoebox. The picture on the side was of an embroidered pump slipper, the sort my gran would have cherished, and although it seemed rather an unlikely gift, I had to admit they looked comfy. And not impractical: I was, after all, spending a lot of nights in these days.
    ‘Thank you,’ I said. ‘How kind.’ And then I lifted the lid and saw that the box didn’t contain slippers at all, but was half-filled with letters.
    ‘Your mum’s,’ said Auntie Rita with a devilish smile. ‘Just like I promised. You have a good old read of those, won’t you? Cheer yourself up.’
    And although I was thrilled by the letters, I felt a curl of dislike for my Auntie Rita then, on behalf of the small girl whose handwriting swirled and looped in earnest lines across the fronts of the envelopes. The young girl whose older sister had deserted her during the evacuation, slinking off to be housed with a friend, leaving little Meredith to fend for herself.
    I put the lid back on, anxious suddenly to get the letters out of that club. They didn’t belong there amidst the bump and grind; the unedited thoughts and dreams of a little girl from long ago; the same young girl who’d walked beside me in the corridors of Milderhurst; whom I hoped to know better one day. When the novelty straws appeared, I made my excuses and took the letters home to bed.
    All was black as pitch when I arrived and I tiptoed carefully up the stairs, fearful of waking the sleeping bell-ringer. My desk lamp imparted a dusky glow, the house made queer nocturnal noises and I sat on the edge of the bed, shoebox on my lap. This was the moment, I suppose, when I might have done things differently. Two roads forked away from me and I could have followed either. After the merest hesitation, I lifted the lid and pulled the envelopes from within, noticing as I leafed through that they were arranged carefully by date. A photograph dropped loose onto my knees, two girls grinning at the camera. The smaller, darker one I recognized as my mother – earnest brown eyes, bony elbows, hair cut in the short, sensible style my gran favoured – the other, an older girl with long blonde hair. Juniper Blythe, of course. I remembered her from the book I’d bought in Milderhurst village; this was the child with the luminous eyes, all grown up. With a surge of determination, I put the photograph and letters safely back into the box, all except the first, which I unfolded. The letter was dated September 6th, 1939; neat printing in the top right-hand corner.
    Dear Mum and Dad, it began, in large, rounded handwriting,
    I miss you both lots and lots. Do you miss me? I’m in the country now and things are very different. There are cows for one thing – did you know they really do say ‘moo’? Very loudly. I almost jumped out of my skin, the first one I heard.
    I am living in a castle, a real one, but it doesn’t look the way you might imagine. There is no drawbridge, but there is a tower, and three sisters and an old man who I don’t see, ever. I only know he’s there because the sisters talk about him. They call him Daddy and he’s a writer of books. Real ones, like in the lending library. The youngest sister is called Juniper, she’s seventeen and very pretty with big eyes. She’s the one who brought me to Milderhurst. Did you know that’s what gin is made from, by the way – juniper berries?
    There is a telephone here, too, so maybe if you have the time and Mr Waterman at the shop doesn’t mind, you could…
    I’d reached the end of the first page but didn’t turn it over. I sat motionless, as if I were listening very carefully to something. And I was, I suppose; for the little girl’s voice had drifted from the shoebox and was echoing now in the shadow-hung hollows of the room. I’m in the country nowthey call him Daddythere is a tower, and three sisters… Letters are special like that. Conversations waft away the moment they’ve been had, but the written word prevails. Those letters were little time travellers; fifty years they’d lain patiently in their box, waiting for me to find them.
    The headlights from a car in the street outside threw slivers between my curtains, tinsel shards slid across the ceiling. Silence, dimness again. I turned the page and read on, and as I did so a pressure built behind my chest, as if a warm, firm object were being pushed hard from within against my ribs. The sensation was a little like relief and, oddly, the quenching of a strange sort of homesickness. Which made no sense, only that the girl’s voice was so familiar that reading the letters was a little like re-meeting an old friend. Someone I’d known a long time ago…

ONE

    London, September 4th, 1939
    Meredith had never seen her father cry. It wasn’t something fathers did, not hers certainly (and he wasn’t actually crying, not yet, but it was close), and that’s how she knew for sure that it was wrong what they’d been saying, that this was no adventure they were going on and it wouldn’t be over soon. That this train was waiting to take them away from London and everything was about to change. The sight of Dad’s big, square shoulders shaking, the strong face knotted queerly, his mouth pulled so tight that his lips threatened to disappear, and she wanted to wail just as hard as Mrs Paul’s baby when he needed feeding. But she didn’t, she couldn’t, not with Rita sitting right there at her side just waiting for another reason to pinch her. Instead, she lifted a hand and her father did the same, then she pretended someone was calling her and turned around so that she didn’t have to watch him any longer, so they could both stop being so horribly brave.
    There’d been drills at school in the summer term and Dad had been talking the whole thing up at night, telling them over and over about the times he’d gone down to Kent as a boy, hop-picking with his family: the sunny days, the campfire songs in the evening, how beautiful the countryside was, how green and sweet and endless. But although Meredith had enjoyed his stories, she’d also thrown a glance or two Mum’s way, and that had got the lump of foreboding roiling in her stomach. Mum had been hunched over the sink, all sharp hips and knees and elbows, exercising the same fierce attention to scrubbing pans spotless that always presaged grim times ahead.
    Sure enough, a few nights after the stories started, Meredith heard the first argument. Mum saying they were a family and they ought to stay together and take their chances as one, that a family broken apart could never be put back together quite the same. Dad had spoken then, calmer, telling her it was like the posters said, that kids had a better chance out of the city, that it wouldn’t last for long and then they’d all be back together. Things had gone quiet for a moment after that, and Meredith had strained to hear, then Mum had laughed, but not happily. She hadn’t come down in the last shower, she said; if there was one thing she knew it was that governments and men in fancy suits couldn’t be trusted, that once the kids were taken God only knew when they’d get them back and in what sort of condition they’d be, and she’d shouted some of the words Rita got regular swipes for using, and said that if he loved her he wouldn’t send her children away, and Dad had shushed her and there’d been sobbing and no more talking and Meredith had put her pillow over her head, as much to drown out Rita’s snoring as anything else.
    There’d been no more talk of evacuation after that, not for days, until one afternoon Rita came running home to tell them that the public swimming baths were closed and there were big new notices out front. ‘There’s one on each side,’ she’d said, eyes widened by the press of portentous news: ‘The first says “Women Contaminated”, the second says “Men Contaminated”.’ And Mum had knotted her hands and Dad had said only, ‘Gas,’ and that was that. Next day Mum pulled down the only suitcase they owned and any pillowcases she could spare and started filling them with things on the list from school – just in case: a change of knickers, a comb, handkerchiefs, and a brand-new nightdress each for Rita and Meredith, the necessity of which Dad had gently queried and Mum had justified with a fierce scowl. ‘You think I’m letting my children go with threadbare clothing into the homes of strangers?’ Dad had stayed quiet after that and even though Meredith knew her parents would be paying for the new items until Christmas, she couldn’t help taking guilty delight in the nightie, which was crisp and white and the first she’d ever owned that hadn’t been Rita’s first…
    And now they were being sent away and Meredith would have done anything to take back her wish. Meredith wasn’t brave, not like Ed, and she wasn’t loud and confident like Rita. She was shy and awkward, and utterly different from everyone else in her family. She shifted in her seat, lined her feet up together on her suitcase and considered the gleam of her shoes, then blinked away the image of Dad polishing them the night before, setting them down when he’d finished only to wander the room a few idle minutes, hands in pockets, before starting the whole process again. As if by applying polish, driving it deep into the leather and buffing until it shone, he could somehow ward off the untold dangers that lay ahead.
    ‘Mu-mmy, Mu-mmy!’
    The shriek came from across the carriage and Meredith glanced up to see a little boy, not much more than a baby, clinging to his sister and pawing the glass. Tears had snaked down his dirty cheeks and the skin beneath his nose was shiny. ‘I want to stay with you, Mummy,’ he cried. ‘I want to get killed with you!’
    Meredith concentrated on her knees, rubbed at the red marks her gas-mask box had made as it banged against her legs on the walk from school. Then she looked again through the train’s window, she couldn’t help herself; peered up at the railing above the station where the adults were crowded together. He was still there, still watching them, the stranger’s smile still twisting up his normal Dad-face, and Meredith found it difficult suddenly to breathe and her spectacles were starting to fog, and even as she wished the earth would open up and swallow her so it would all be over, a small part of her mind remained detached, wondering which words she’d use, if asked to describe the way fear was making her lungs constrict. As Rita squealed with laughter at something her friend Carol had whispered in her ear, Meredith closed her eyes.
    It had begun at precisely eleven fifteen the previous morning. She’d been sitting at the front of the house, legs stretched out along the top step, taking notes as she watched Rita across the road making eyes at that ghastly Luke Watson with his big yellow teeth. The announcement had come in distant strains from the wireless next door, Neville Chamberlain talking in that slow, solemn voice of his, telling them there’d been no response to the ultimatum and that they were now at war with Germany. Then had come the national anthem, after which Mrs Paul appeared on the neighbouring doorstep, spoon still dripping with Yorkshire pudding batter, with Mum close behind her, and householders all the way along the street doing the same. Everyone stood where they were, looking one to the other, bewilderment, fear and uncertainty written loud on their faces, as mutterings of ‘It’s happened’ began to pass along the street in a great disbelieving wave.
    Eight minutes later, the air-raid siren clattered and all hell broke loose. Old Mrs Nicholson ran up and down the street in hysterics alternating the Lord’s Prayer with panicked declarations of their impending doom; Moira Seymour, who was the local ARP warden, got excited and started twirling the heavy rattle signalling a gas attack and people scattered in the hunt for their masks; and Inspector Whitely wove his bicycle through the mayhem wearing a cardboard placard over his body that read ‘Take Cover’.
    Meredith had watched, wide-eyed, drinking in the mayhem, then stared up at the sky, waiting for the enemy planes, wondering how they’d look, how their appearance might make her feel, whether she was able to write fast enough to jot it all down as it was happening, when all of a sudden Mum had clutched her arm and dragged her and Rita down the street towards the trench shelter in the park. Meredith’s notebook had dropped in the rush and been trampled and she’d wrenched her arm free and stopped to pick it up, and Mum had shouted that there wasn’t time and her face had been white, almost angry-looking, and Meredith had known she’d get a tongue-lashing later, if not worse, but she’d had no choice. There’d been no question of leaving it behind. She’d run back, ducked beneath the crowd of frightened neighbours, seized her notebook – worse for wear, but still intact – and returned to her furious mother, face no longer white but red as Heinz tomato ketchup. By the time they got to the shelter and realized they’d forgotten their gas masks, the All Clear had sounded, Meredith had earned a smack across the legs, and Mum had resolved to evacuate them the next day.
    ‘Hey there, kiddo.’
    Meredith opened moist eyes to see Mr Cavill standing in the aisle. Her cheeks warmed instantly and she smiled, cursing the image that came to mind of Rita leering at Luke Watson.
    ‘Mind if I take a look at your name tag?’
    She wiped beneath her specs, and leaned closer so he could read the cardboard tag around her neck. There were people everywhere, laughing, crying, shouting, swirling round and round, but for a moment she and Mr Cavill were alone in the middle of it all. Meredith held her breath, conscious of the way her heart had started to hammer, watching his lips as he mouthed the words written there, her very own name, his smile when he’d verified they were all correct.
    ‘You’ve got your suitcase, I see. Did your mother make sure to include everything on the list? Is there anything you need?’
    Meredith nodded; then shook her head. Blushed as words she would never, ever, dare to speak popped into mind: I need you to wait for me, Mr Cavill. Wait for me to get a little older – fourteen maybe, fifteen – and then the two of us can get married.
    Mr Cavill marked something down on his paper form and capped his pen. ‘We might be on the train a while, Merry. Have you brought something to keep you busy?’
    ‘I brought my notebook.’
    He laughed then, for he was the one who’d given it to her, a reward for doing so well in her exams. ‘Of course,’ he said. ‘That’s perfect. Make sure you write it all down, now. Everything you see and think and feel. Your voice is your own; it matters.’ And he gave her a chocolate bar and a wink, and she smiled broadly as he continued up the aisle, leaving her heart swelling as big as a melon in her chest.
    The notebook was Meredith’s most treasured possession. The first proper journal she’d ever owned. She’d had it for twelve months now but she hadn’t written a single word inside, not even her name. How could she? Meredith loved the smart little book so well, the smooth leather cover and the perfect neat lines across each page, the ribbon stitched into the binding for use as a bookmark, that to spoil it with her own penmanship, her own dull sentences about her own dull life, seemed too great a sacrilege. She’d pulled it from hiding many times only to sit with it on her knee for a while, drawing great pleasure simply from owning such a thing, before tucking it away again.
    Mr Cavill had tried to convince her that what she wrote about wasn’t nearly as important as the way she wrote it. ‘No two people will ever see or feel things in the same way, Merry. The challenge is to be truthful when you write. Don’t approximate. Don’t settle for the easiest combination of words. Go searching instead for those that explain exactly what you think. What you feel.’ And then he’d asked if she understood what he meant, and his dark eyes had been filled with such intensity, such earnest desire that she should see things as he did, and she’d nodded and just for a moment it was as if a door had opened up to a place that was very different from the one in which she lived…
    Meredith sighed fervently and sneaked a sideways glance at Rita, who was combing her fingers through her ponytail, pretending not to notice that Billy Harris was making moon eyes at her from across the aisle. Good. The last thing she needed was for Rita to guess how she felt about Mr Cavill; thankfully, Rita was far too wrapped up in her own world of boys and lipstick to bother with anyone else’s. A fact Meredith counted on in order to write her daily journal. (Not the real journal, of course; in the end, she’d struck a compromise, collecting spare paper from wherever she could find it and keeping it folded within the front cover of the precious book. She wrote her reports on that, telling herself that one day, maybe, she’d broach the real thing.)
    Meredith risked another peek at her dad then, ready to look away before she caught his eye, but as she skimmed the faces, searched for his familiar bulk, cursorily at first, then with rising panic in her throat, she discovered he wasn’t there. The faces had changed; mothers were still crying, some waved handkerchiefs, others smiled with grim determination, but there was no sign of him. Where he’d been standing was a gap that filled and shuffled as she watched, and as she searched the crowd she realized that he’d really gone. That she’d missed seeing him go.
    And although she’d held it in all morning, although she’d schooled herself away from sadness, Meredith felt so sorry then, so small and frightened and alone, that she started to cry. A great rush of feeling rose from within her, warmly and wetly, and her cheeks were instantly drenched. The awful thought that he might have been standing there all that time, that he might have been watching her as she watched her shoes, spoke with Mr Cavill, thought about her notebook, and willing her to look up, to smile, to wave goodbye; that eventually he must have given up and gone home, believing that she didn’t care at all-
    ‘Oh, shut up,’ said Rita beside her. ‘Don’t be such a blubbering baby. For goodness’ sake, this is fun!’
    ‘My mum says not to look out the window or you’ll get your head chopped off by a passing train.’ This was Rita’s friend, Carol, who was fourteen and as big a know-it-all as her mother. ‘And not to give anyone directions. They’re just as likely to be German spies looking for Whitehall. They murder children, you know.’
    So Meredith hid her face behind her hand, allowed herself a few more silent sobs, then wiped her cheeks dry as the train jerked and they were off. The air filled with the shouts of parents outside and children inside and steam and smoke and whistles and Rita laughing beside her, and then they pulled out of the station. Rattled and clattered along the lines, and a group of boys, dressed in their Sunday best although it was Monday, ran up the corridor from window to window, drumming on the glass and whooping and waving, until Mr Cavill told them to sit down and not to open the doors. Meredith leaned against the glass and, rather than meet the sad grey faces that lined the roadsides, weeping for a city that was losing its children, she watched with wonder as great silver balloons began slowly to rise all around, drifting in the light currents above London like strange and beautiful animals.

TWO

    Milderhurst Village, September 4th, 1939
    The bicycle had been gathering cobwebs in the stables for almost two decades and Percy was in little doubt that she looked a sight riding it. Hair tied back with an elastic band, skirt gathered and tucked between locked knees: her modesty might have survived the ride intact, but she was under no illusion that she cut a stylish figure.
    She had received the Ministry warning about the risk of bicycles falling into enemy hands, but she’d gone ahead and resurrected the old thing anyway. If there was any truth to the rumours flying about, if the government really was planning for a three-year war, fuel was sure to be rationed and she’d need a way of getting about. The bicycle had been Saffy’s once, long ago, but she had no use for it now; Percy had dug it out of storage, dusted it off, and ridden it round and round at the top of the driveway until she could balance with some reliability. She hadn’t expected to enjoy it so much and couldn’t for the life of her remember why she’d never got one of her own all those years ago, why she’d waited until she was a middle-aged woman with hair starting to grey before discovering the pleasure. And it was a pleasure, particularly during this remarkable Indian summer, to feel the breeze rush against her warm cheeks as she whizzed along beside the hedgerow.
    Percy crested the hill and leaned into the next dip, a smile spreading wide across her face. The entire landscape was turning to gold, birds twittered in the trees, and summer’s heat lingered in the air. September in Kent and she could almost convince herself she’d dreamed the announcement of the day before. She took the shortcut through Blackberry Lane, traced her way around the lake’s edge, then jumped off to walk her bicycle through the narrow stretch bordering the brook.
    Percy passed the first couple shortly after she’d started through the tunnel; a boy and girl, not much older than Juniper, matching gas masks slung over their shoulders. They held hands and their heads were bowed so close as they conferred in earnest, low voices, that they barely registered her presence.
    Soon a second, similarly arranged pair came into view, then a third. Percy nodded a greeting to the latter then wished immediately that she hadn’t; the girl smiled back shyly and leaned into the boy’s arm and they exchanged a glance of such youthful tenderness that Percy’s own cheeks flushed and she knew at once her blundering intrusion. Blackberry Lane had been a favourite spot for courting couples even when she was a girl, no doubt long before that. Percy knew that better than most. Her own love affair had been conducted for years beneath the strictest veil of secrecy, not least because there was no chance that it might ever be validated by marriage.
    There were simpler romantic choices she could have made, suitable men with whom she might have fallen in love, with whom she could have conducted a courtship openly and without risk of exposing her family to derision, but love was not wise, not in Percy’s experience: it was unmindful of social strictures, cared not for lines of class or propriety or plain good sense. And no matter that she prided herself on her pragmatism Percy had been no more able to resist its call when it came than to stop herself from drawing breath. Thus, she had submitted, resigning herself to a lifetime of layered glances, smuggled letters and rare, exquisite assignations.
    Percy’s cheeks warmed as she walked; it was little wonder she felt such special affinity with these young lovers. She kept her head down thereafter, focused on the leaf-strewn ground, ignoring all further passersby until she emerged at the roadside, remounted, and began to coast down into the village. She wondered, as she rode, how it was possible that the great machine of war might be grinding its wheels when the world was still so beautiful, when birds were in the trees and flowers in the fields, when lovers’ hearts still heaved with love.
    The first inkling that Meredith needed to wee came when they were still amongst the grey and sooty buildings of London. She pressed her legs together and shuffled her suitcase hard onto her lap, wondered where precisely they were going and how much longer they had to wait before they got there. She was sticky and tired; she’d already eaten her way through her entire packed lunch of marmalade sandwiches and wasn’t remotely hungry, but she was bored and uncertain and she was sure she remembered seeing Mum tuck a pound of chocolate digestive biscuits into the suitcase that morning. She opened the spring locks and lifted the lid a crack: peered inside the dark cavity then threaded her hands in so she could rummage about. She could have lifted the lid entirely, of course, but it was best not to alert Rita with any sudden movements.
    There was the topcoat Mum had sat up nights finishing; further to the left a tin of Carnation milk Meredith was under strict instructions to present to her hosts on arrival; behind it, a half-dozen bulky terry towels Mum had insisted she bring, in a mortifying conversation that had made Meredith cringe with embarrassment. ‘There’s every chance you’ll become a woman while you’re away, Merry,’ her mum had said. ‘Rita will be there to help, but you need to be prepared.’ And Rita had grinned and Meredith had shuddered and wondered at the slim chance that she might prove a rare biological exception. She ran her fingers around her notebook’s smooth cover, then – Bingo! Beneath it she found the paper bag filled with biscuits. The chocolate had melted a little, but she managed to liberate one. Turned her back on Rita as she nibbled her way around the edges.
    Behind her one of the boys had started singing a familiar rhyme -
    ‘Under the spreading chestnut tree,
    Neville Chamberlain said to me:
    If you want to get your gas mask free,
    Join the blinking ARP!’
    – and Meredith’s eyes dropped to her own gas mask. She stuffed the rest of the biscuit in her mouth and brushed crumbs from the top of the box. Stupid thing with its horrid rubbery smell, the ghastly ripping sensation as it pulled off her skin. Mum had made them promise they’d wear their masks while they were away, that they’d carry them always, and Meredith, Ed and Rita had all given grudging agreement. Meredith had later heard Mum confessing to Mrs Paul next door that she’d sooner die of a gas attack than bear the horrid feeling of suffocation beneath the mask, and Meredith planned to lose hers just as soon as she was able.
    There were people waving to them now, standing in their small backyards watching as the train steamed past. Out of nowhere, Rita pinched her arm and Meredith squealed. ‘Why’d you do that?’ she asked, slapping her hand over the stinging spot and rubbing it fiercely.
    ‘All those nice people out there just lookin’ for a show.’ Rita jerked her head towards the window. ‘Be a sport now, Merry; give ’em a few sobs, eh?’
    Eventually, the city disappeared behind them and green was everywhere. The train clattered along the railway line, slowing occasionally to pass through stations, but the signs had all been removed so there was no way of knowing where they were. Meredith must have slept for a time because the next she knew the train was screeching to a halt and she was jerked awake. There was nothing new to see, nothing but more green, clumps of trees on the horizon, occasional birds cutting across the clear blue sky. For one brief elated moment after they’d stopped, Meredith thought they might be turning around, going home already. That Germany had recognized that Britain was not to be trifled with after all, the war was over, and there was no longer any need for them to go away.
    But it wasn’t to be. After another lengthy wait, during which Roy Stanley managed to vomit yet more tinned pineapple through the window, they were all ordered out of the carriage and told to stand in line. Everyone received an injection, their hair was checked for lice, then they were told to get back on board and sent on their way. There wasn’t even an opportunity to use a toilet.
    The train was quiet for a while after that; even the babies were too worn out to cry. They travelled and they travelled, on and on, for what seemed like hours and Meredith began to wonder how big England was; when, if ever, they’d reach a cliff. And it occurred to her that perhaps the whole thing was really a great big conspiracy, that the train driver was a German, and it was all part of some devious plot to abscond with England’s children. There were problems with the theory, holes in its logic – what, for instance, could Hitler possibly want with thousands of new citizens who couldn’t be relied on not to wet their beds? – but by then Meredith was too tired, too thirsty, too utterly miserable, to fill them, so she squeezed her legs together even tighter and started counting fields instead. Fields and fields and fields, leading her to God knew what or where.
    All houses have hearts; hearts that have loved, hearts that have billowed with contentment, hearts that have been broken. The heart at the centre of Milderhurst was larger than most and it beat more powerfully. It thumped and paused, raced and slowed, in the small room at the top of the tower. The room where Raymond Blythe’s many times greatgrandfather had sweated over sonnets for Queen Elizabeth; from which a great-aunt had escaped to sweet sojourn with Lord Byron; and upon whose brick ledge his mother’s shoe had caught as she leaped from the little archer’s window to meet her death in the sun-warmed moat below, her final poem fluttering behind her on a sheet of fine paper.
    Standing at the great oak desk, Raymond loaded his pipe bowl with a fresh pinch of tobacco, then another. After his littlest brother Timothy died, his mother had retreated to the room, cloaked in the black singe of her own sorrow. He’d glimpsed her by the window when he was down at the grotto, or in the gardens, or on the edge of the woods, the dark shape of her small, neat head facing out towards the fields, the lake: the ivory profile, so like that on the brooch she wore, passed down from her mother before her, the French countess Raymond had never met. Sometimes he’d stayed outside all day, darting in and out of the hop vines, scaling the barn roof, in the hope that she would notice him, worry for him, shout him down. But she never did. It was always Nanny who called him in when the day was spent.
    But that was long ago and he a foolish old man becoming lost amidst fading memories. His mother was little more than a distantly revered poetess around whom myths were beginning to form as myths were wont to do – the whisper of a summer’s breeze, the promise of sunlight against a blank wall – Mummy… He wasn’t even sure he could still remember her voice.
    The room belonged to him now: Raymond Blythe, King of the Castle. He was his mother’s eldest son, her heir and, along with the poems, her greatest legacy. An author in his own right, commanding respect and – it was only honest, he countered when a wave of humility threatened – a certain fame, just as she had done before him. Had she known, he often wondered, when she’d bequeathed the castle to him along with her passion for the written word, that he would rise to meet her expectations? That he would one day do his bit to further the family’s reach in literary circles?
    His bad knee seized suddenly and Raymond clutched it hard, stretching his foot in front of him until the tension eased. He hobbled to the window and leaned against the ledge while he struck a match. It was a damn near perfect day and as he sucked on his pipe to get it smoking, he squinted across the fields, the driveway, the lawn, the quivering mass of Cardarker Wood. The great wild woods of Milderhurst that had brought him home from London, that had called to him from the battlefields of France, that had always known his name.
    What would become of it all when he was gone? Raymond knew his doctor spoke the truth; he wasn’t stupid, only old. And yet it was impossible to believe that a time was coming in which he would no longer sit by this window and look out across the estate, master of all that he surveyed. That the Blythe family name, the family legacy, would die with him. Raymond’s thoughts faltered; the responsibility to avoid this had been his. He ought to have remarried, perhaps, tried again to find a woman who could deliver him a son. The matter of legacy had been very much on his mind of late.
    Raymond drew on his pipe and puffed with soft derision, just as he might in company with an old friend whose familiar ways were becoming tiresome. He was being melodramatic, of course, a sentimental old fool. Perhaps every man liked to believe that without his presence the great foundations would crumble? Every man as proud as he, at any rate. And Raymond knew he ought to tread more carefully, that pride comes before a fall, as the Bible warned. Besides, he had no need of a son: he had a choice of successors, three daughters, none of them of the marriageable type; and then there was the church, his new church. His priest had spoken to him recently of the eternal rewards awaiting men who saw fit to honour the Catholic brethren in such a generous way. Canny Father Andrews knew Raymond could use all the heavenly goodwill he could arrange.
    He took in a mouthful of smoke, held it a moment before exhaling. Father Andrews had explained it to him, the reason for the haunting, what must be done to exorcise Raymond’s demon. He was being punished, he knew now, for his sin. His sins. To repent, to confess, even to self-flagellate had not been enough; Raymond’s crime was greater than that.
    But could he really hand his castle over to strangers, even to smite the wretched demon? What would become of all the whispering voices, the distant hours, caught within her stones? He knew what Mother would say: the castle must stay within the Blythe family. Could he really bear to disappoint her? Especially when he had such a fine natural successor: Persephone, the eldest and most reliable of his children. He’d watched her leave by bicycle that morning, watched as she stopped by the bridge to check its footings, just as he’d once shown her. She was the only one amongst them whose love for the castle came close to matching his own. A blessing that she’d never found a husband, and wouldn’t now, certainly. She’d become a castle fixture, as much his own possession as the statues in the yew hedge; she could be trusted never to do wrong by Milderhurst. Indeed, Raymond sometimes suspected she, like he, would strangle a man with her bare hands if he so much as threatened to remove a stone.
    He noticed then the noise of an engine, a motorcar, somewhere below. As quickly as it had started it stopped, a door slammed, heavy, metallic, and Raymond craned to see over the stone windowsill. It was the big old Daimler; someone had driven it from the garage to the top of the driveway, only to abandon it. His attention caught on a moving figment. A pale sprite, his youngest, Juniper, skipping from the front stairs to the driver’s door. Raymond smiled to himself, bemusement and pleasure combined. She was a scatty waif, that was certain, but what that thin, loopy child could do with twenty-six simple letters, the arrangements she could make, were breathtaking. If he a were a younger man, he might have been jealous-
    Another noise. Closer. Inside.
    HushCan you hear him?
    Raymond froze, listening.
    The trees can. They are the first to know that he is coming.
    Footsteps on the landing below. Climbing, climbing towards him. He laid his pipe down on the flat stone. His heart had begun to kick.
    Listen! The trees of the deep, dark wood, shivering and jittering their leaveswhispering that soon it will begin.
    He exhaled as steadily as he could; it was time. The Mud Man had come at last, seeking his revenge. Just as Raymond had known he must.
    He couldn’t escape the room, not with the demon on the stairs. The only other option was through the window. Raymond glanced over the sill. Straight down like an arrow just as his mother had done.
    ‘Mr Blythe?’ A voice drifted up the stairs. Raymond readied himself. The Mud Man could be clever; he had many tricks. Every inch of Raymond’s skin crawled; he strained to hear over his own rough breaths.
    ‘Mr Blythe?’ The demon spoke again, closer this time. Raymond ducked behind the armchair. Crouched, quivering. A coward to the very end. The footsteps came steadily. At the door. On the carpet. Closer, closer. He screwed shut his eyes, hands over his head. The thing was right above him.
    ‘Oh, Raymond, you poor, poor man. Come along; give Lucy your hand. I’ve brought you some lovely soup.’
    On the outskirts of the village, either side of the High Street, the twin lines of poplars stood as ever, like weary soldiers from another time. They were back in uniform now, Percy noted as she whizzed by, new white stripes of paint around their trunks; the kerbs had been painted, too, and the wheel rims of many cars. After much talk, the blackout order had finally come into effect the night before: half an hour past sundown the streetlights had been extinguished, no car headlights were allowed, and all windows had been curtained with heavy black cloth. After Percy had checked on Daddy, she’d climbed the stairs to the top of the tower and looked out across the village in the direction of the Channel. The moon had cast the only light and Percy had experienced the eerie sensation of feeling what it must have been like hundreds of years before, when the world was a far darker place, when armies of knights thundered across the land, horses’ hooves thrummed the hard soil, castle guards stood poised and ready- She swerved as old Mr Donaldson drove along the street seemingly right at her, steering wheel gripped tight, elbows stuck out to the sides, face held in a grimace as he squinted through his specs at the road ahead. He brightened when he made out who she was, lifted his hand to wave and dragged his car even closer to the road’s edge. Percy waved back from the safety of the grass, following his progress with a barb of concern as he zigzagged towards his home at Bell Cottage. What would he be like once night fell? She sighed; bombs be damned, it was the darkness that was going to kill people around here.
    To a casual observer, unaware of the previous day’s announcement, it might have appeared that all was unchanged in the heart of Milderhurst village. People were still going about their business, shopping for groceries, chatting in small groups outside the post office, but Percy knew better. There was no wailing or gnashing of teeth, it was more subtle than that and perhaps the sadder for it. Impending war was evidenced by the faraway expression in the older villagers’ eyes, the shadows on their faces, not of fear but of sorrow. Because they knew; they had lived through the last war and they remembered the generation of young men who had marched away so willingly and never come back. Those too, like Daddy, who had made it home but left in France a part of themselves that they could never recover. Who surrendered to moments, periodically, in which their eyes filmed and their lips whitened, and their minds gave over to sights and sounds they wouldn’t share but couldn’t shake.
    Percy and Saffy had listened together to Prime Minister Chamberlain’s announcement on the wireless the day before and had sat through the national anthem in deep thought.
    ‘I suppose we shall have to tell him now,’ Saffy had said eventually.
    ‘I suppose so.’
    ‘You’ll do it, of course.’
    ‘Of course.’
    ‘Choose your moment carefully? Find a way to keep him sensible?’
    ‘Yes.’
    For weeks they’d put off mentioning to Daddy the likelihood of war. His most recent descent into delusion had further ruptured the tissue connecting him to reality and he’d been left swinging between extremes like the pendulum in the grandfather clock. One moment he seemed perfectly reasonable, speaking to her intelligently of the castle and of history and the great works of literature, the next he was hiding behind chairs, sobbing in fear of imagined spectres, or giggling like a cheeky schoolboy, begging Percy to come paddling with him in the brook, telling her he knew the best place for collecting frogspawn, that he’d show her if only she knew how to keep a secret.
    When they were eight years old, in the summer before the Great War started, she and Saffy had worked with Daddy on making their own translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. He would read the original Middle English poetry and Percy would close her eyes as the magical sounds, the ancient whispers, surrounded her.
    ‘Gawain felt etaynes that hym anelede,’ Daddy would say: ‘the giants blowing after him, Persephone. Do you know how that feels? Have you ever heard the voices of your ancestors breathing from the stones?’ And she would nod, and curl up tighter beside him, and close her eyes while he continued…
    Things had been so uncomplicated then, her love for Daddy had been so uncomplicated. He’d been seven foot tall and fashioned of steel and she’d have done and thought anything to be approved of by him. So much had happened since, though, and to see him now, his old face adopting the avid expressions of childhood, was almost too much for Percy to bear. She would never have confessed it to anyone, certainly not to Saffy, but Percy could hardly stand to look at Daddy when he was in one of what the doctor called his ‘regressive phases’. The problem was the past. It wouldn’t leave her alone. Nostalgia was threatening to be her ball and chain, which was an irony because Percy Blythe did not go in for sentimentality.
    Netted by unwanted melancholy, she wheeled her bicycle the final short distance to the church hall and propped it against the wooden face of the building, careful not to squash the vicar’s garden bed.
    ‘Good morning, Miss Blythe.’
    Percy smiled at Mrs Collins. The old dear who, in some inexplicable curvature of time, had seemed ancient for at least three decades, had a knitting bag strung over one arm and was clutching a fresh-baked victoria sponge. ‘Oh, but Miss Blythe,’ she said with a woeful shake of her fine silvery curls, ‘did you ever think it would come to this? Another war?’
    ‘I hoped it wouldn’t, Mrs Collins, I really did. But I can’t say I’m surprised, human nature being what it is.’
    ‘But another war.’ The curls shivered again. ‘All those young boys.’
    Mrs Collins had lost both her sons to the Great War, and although Percy had no children of her own, she knew what it was to love so fiercely that it burned. With a smile, she took the cake from her old friend’s trembling grasp and hooked one of Mrs Collins’s arms over her own. ‘Come on, my dear. Let’s go inside and find ourselves a seat, shall we?’
    The Women’s Voluntary Service had decided to meet in the church hall for their sewing bee after certain vocal members of the group had declared the larger village hall, with its wide wooden floor and lack of ornamental detail, a far more suitable site for the processing of evacuees. As Percy took in the huge crowd of eager women clustered around the assembled tables, however, setting up sewing machines, rolling out great swathes of fabric from which to make clothing and blankets for the evacuees, bandages and swabs for the hospitals, she thought that it might have been a foolish choice. She wondered too how many of this number would drop away after the initial excitement wore off, then chastised herself for being uncharitably sour. Not to mention hypocritical, for Percy knew she’d be the first to make her excuses just as soon as she found another way to contribute to the war effort. She was no use with a needle and had come today simply because, while it was the duty of all to do what they could, it was the duty of Raymond Blythe’s daughters to give what they couldn’t a damn good go.
    She helped Mrs Collins into a seat at the knitting table, where conversation, as might be expected, was about the sons and brothers and nephews who were set to join up, then delivered the victoria sponge to the kitchen, careful to avoid Mrs Caraway, who was wearing the same dogged expression that always presaged delivery of a particularly nasty task.
    ‘Well now, Miss Blythe.’ Mrs Potts from the post office reached out to accept the offering, held it up for inspection. ‘And what a lovely rise you’ve managed here.’
    ‘The cake comes courtesy of Mrs Collins. I’m merely its courier.’ Percy attempted a swift escape, but Mrs Potts, practised in conversational entrapment, cast her net too fast.
    ‘We missed you at ARP training on Friday.’
    ‘I was otherwise engaged.’
    ‘What a pity. Mr Potts always says what a wonderful casualty you make.’
    ‘How kind of him.’
    ‘And there’s no one can wield a stirrup pump with quite so much verve.’
    Percy smiled thinly. Sycophancy had never been so tiresome.
    ‘And tell me, how’s your father?’ A thick layer of hungry sympathy coated the question and Percy fought the urge to plant Mrs Collins’s marvellous sponge right across the postmistress’s face. ‘I hear he’s taken a bad turn?’
    ‘He’s as well as might be expected, Mrs Potts. Thank you for asking.’ An image came to her of Daddy some nights ago, running down the hallway in his gown, cowering behind the stairs and crying like a frightened child, sobbing that the tower was haunted, that the Mud Man was coming for him. Dr Bradbury had been called in and had left stronger medicine for them to administer, but Daddy had quivered for hours, fighting against it with all he had, until finally he fell into a dead sleep.
    ‘Such a pillar of the community.’ Mrs Potts affected a sorrowful tremor. ‘Such a shame when their health begins to slide. But what a blessing he has someone like you to carry on his charitable works. Especially in a time of national emergency. People around here do look to the castle when times are uncertain – they always have.’
    ‘Very kind of you, Mrs Potts. We all do our best.’
    ‘I expect we’ll be seeing you over at the village hall this afternoon, helping the evacuation committee?’
    ‘You will.’
    ‘I’ve already been over there this morning, arranging the tins of condensed milk and corned beef: we’re sending one of each with every child. It isn’t much, but with hardly a scrap of assistance from the authorities it was the best we could offer. And every little bit helps, doesn’t it? I hear you’re planning on taking in a child yourself. Very noble of you: Mr Potts and I talked about it of course, and you know me, I’d dearly love to help, but my poor Cedric’s allergies – ’ she raised an apologetic shoulder heavenwards – ‘well, they’d never stand it.’ Mrs Potts leaned in closer and tapped the end of her nose. ‘Just a little warning: those living in the East End of London have entirely different standards from our own. You’d be well advised to get in some Keating’s and a good-quality disinfectant before you let one of them set foot inside the castle.’
    And although Percy harboured her own grim fears as to the character of their soon-to-be lodger, Mrs Potts’s suggestion was so distasteful that she plucked a cigarette from the case in her handbag and lit it, just to be spared answering.
    Mrs Potts carried on undeterred. ‘And I suppose you’ve heard the other exciting news?’
    Percy shifted her feet, keen to pursue alternative occupation. ‘What’s that, Mrs Potts?’
    ‘Why, you must know all about it, up there at the castle. You probably have far more of the details than any of us.’
    Naturally at that moment silence had fallen and the entire group turned to regard Percy. She did her best to ignore them. ‘The details of what, Mrs Potts?’ Irritation lengthened her spine a good inch. ‘I have no idea of what you’re speaking.’
    ‘Why.’ The gossip’s eyes widened and her face brightened with the realization that she was a star performer with a new audience: ‘The news about Lucy Middleton, of course.’

THREE

    Milderhurst Castle, September 4th, 1939
    Evidently there was a trick to applying the glue and plastering the fabric strip without gumming up the glass. The perky woman in the illustrated guide didn’t seem to be having any difficulty reinforcing her windows; indeed she looked positively chipper about the whole prospect, tiny waist, neat haircut, bland smile. No doubt she’d be equal to the bombs, too, when they fell. Saffy, by contrast, was flummoxed. She’d started on the windows back in July when the pamphlets first arrived, but despite the sage advice in the Ministry’s pamphlet number two: ‘Do not leave things to the last!’, she’d slackened somewhat when it looked as if war might yet be averted. With Mr Chamberlain’s ghastly announcement, however, she was back at it. Thirty-two windows crisscrossed, a mere hundred left to go. Why she hadn’t just used tape, she’d never know.
    She pasted the last corner of cloth into place and climbed down off the chair, stepping back to observe her handiwork. Oh dear; she tilted her head a little and frowned at the skewed cross. It would hold, just, but it was no work of art.
    ‘Bravo,’ said Lucy, coming through the door just then with the tray of tea. ‘X marks the spot, don’t they say?’
    ‘I certainly hope not. Mr Hitler should be warned: he’ll have Percy to answer to if his bombs so much as graze the castle.’ Saffy swiped the towel against her sticky hands. ‘I’m afraid this glue has quite set against me; I can’t think what I’ve done to offend it, but offend it I have.’
    ‘Glue with a mood. How terrifying!’
    ‘It’s not the only one. Forget the bombs, I’m going to need a good nerve tonic after dealing with these windows.’
    ‘Tell you what – ’ Lucy was pouring from the pot and she let the phrase hang while she finished the second cup – ‘I’ve taken your father his lunch already; why don’t I lend you a hand here?’
    ‘Oh, Lucy darling, would you? What a brick! I could weep with gratitude.’
    ‘No need for all that.’ Lucy fought back a glad smile. ‘I’ve just finished my own house and it turns out I have a way with glue. Shall I paste while you cut?’
    ‘Perfect!’ Saffy tossed the towel back onto the chair. Her hands were still tacky but they’d do. When Lucy handed her a cup, she took it gratefully. They stood for a moment, sharing the companionable silence as each savoured a first sip. It had become something of a habit, taking tea together like this. Nothing fancy: they didn’t stop their daily tasks or lay the best silver; they just managed to be busy together in the same place at the right time of day. Percy, had she known, would’ve been horrified; she’d have come over all frowns and glowers, pursed her lips and said things like, ‘It isn’t proper,’ and, ‘Standards should be maintained.’ But Saffy liked Lucy – they were friends, after a fashion, and she couldn’t see that sharing tea could do any harm at all. Besides, what Percy didn’t know couldn’t hurt her.
    ‘And tell me, Lucy,’ she said, breaking the silence and thereby signalling that they might both resume their work, ‘how’s the house going?’
    ‘Very well indeed, Miss Saffy.’
    ‘You’re not too lonely there by yourself?’ Lucy and her mother had lived together always in the little cottage on the village’s outskirts. Saffy could only imagine what a gap the old woman’s death must have left.
    ‘I keep myself busy.’ Lucy had balanced her teacup on the windowsill while she ran the glue-laden brush diagonally across the pane. For a moment Saffy thought she detected a sadness in the housekeeper’s face, as if she’d been about to confess some deep feeling but had thought better of it.
    ‘What is it, Lucy?’
    ‘Oh, it’s nothing.’ She hesitated. ‘Only that, I miss Mother, of course…’
    ‘Of course.’ Lucy was discreet (to a fault, the nosier part of Saffy sometimes thought), but over the years Saffy had gleaned enough to know that Mrs Middleton was not an easy person. ‘But?’
    ‘But I do quite enjoy my own company.’ She glanced sideways at Saffy. ‘If that doesn’t sound too awful?’
    ‘Not awful at all,’ Saffy said with a smile. Truthfully, she thought it sounded wonderful. She began to picture her own little dream flatlet in London, then stopped herself. On a day when she was pillar to post with chores it was foolish to become distracted. She sat on the floor and set about running the scissors through the fabric, making strips. ‘Things all right upstairs, are they, Lucy?’
    ‘The room looks lovely; I’ve aired it and changed the linen, and I hope you don’t mind,’ she smoothed out a piece of fabric, ‘but I’ve put away your grandmother’s Chinese vase. I can’t think how I missed it when we were wrapping and storing the precious items last week. It’s safe and sound now, tucked away in the muniment room with the others.’
    ‘Oh,’ Saffy’s eyes widened, searching Lucy’s face, ‘but you don’t think we’ll get a little wretch, do you? Intent on breaking things and wreaking havoc?’
    ‘Not at all. I just thought it was as well to be safe rather than sorry.’
    ‘Yes.’ Saffy nodded as the housekeeper took up a new piece of fabric. ‘Very wise, Lucy, and of course you’re right. I should have thought of it myself. Percy will be pleased.’ She sighed. ‘All the same; I thought we might put a little bunch of fresh flowers on the nightstand. Raise the poor little mite’s spirits? Perhaps a glass vase from the kitchen?’
    ‘Far more suitable. I’ll find one, shall I?’
    Saffy smiled agreement, but as she pictured the child’s arrival her smile staled and she shook her head. ‘Oh, but isn’t it ghastly, Lucy?’
    ‘I’m sure no one expects you to offer your best crystal.’
    ‘No, I mean the whole thing. The proposition itself. All those frightened children, their poor mothers back in London having to smile and wave as they watch their babies disappear into the great unknown. And for what? All to clear the stage for war. So young men can be forced to kill other young men in far-off places.’
    Lucy turned to look at Saffy, surprise in her eyes, some concern mixed in. ‘You mustn’t go getting yourself all upset now.’
    ‘I know, I know. I won’t.’
    ‘It’s up to us to keep morale high.’
    ‘Of course.’
    ‘It’s lucky there are people like you willing to take the poor little wretches in. What time are you expecting the child?’
    Saffy set down her empty teacup and took up the scissors again. ‘Percy says the buses arrive sometime between three and six; she couldn’t be any more specific than that.’
    ‘She’s making the selection then?’ Lucy’s voice had caught a little, and Saffy knew what she was thinking: Percy was hardly the obvious choice when it came to maternal matters.
    As Lucy shifted the chair to the next window, Saffy scampered along the floor to keep up. ‘It was the only way I could get her to agree – you know how she is about the castle; she has images of some unholy terror snapping curlicues off the banisters, scribbling on the wallpaper, setting the curtains on fire. I have to keep reminding her that these walls have stood for hundreds of years, that they’ve survived invasions by the Normans, the Celts, and Juniper. One poor child from London isn’t going to make any difference.’
    Lucy laughed. ‘Speaking of Miss Juniper, will she be in for lunch? Only I thought I saw her leaving in your father’s car earlier?’
    Saffy waved the scissors in the air. ‘Your guess is as good as mine. The last time I knew Juniper’s mind was…’ She thought for a moment, chin on her knuckles, then released her arms theatrically. ‘You know, I can’t remember a single time.’
    ‘Miss Juniper has talents other than predictability.’
    ‘Yes,’ said Saffy with a fond smile. ‘She certainly has.’
    Lucy hesitated then, climbed back down to the ground and drew slim fingers across her forehead. A funny, old-fashioned motion, a little like a damsel contemplating a fainting spell; it amused Saffy and she wondered whether she could incorporate the endearing habit into her novel – it seemed just the sort of thing that Adele might do when made nervous by a man…
    ‘Miss Saffy?’
    ‘Mmm?’
    ‘There is something rather serious I wanted to talk to you about.’
    Lucy exhaled but didn’t continue and Saffy wondered for a terrible, hot instant whether she might be ill. Whether there’d been bad news from the doctor: it would explain Lucy’s reticence and, come to think of it, her recent habit of distraction. Why, just the other morning, Saffy had come into the kitchen to see Lucy watching unseeingly from the back door, across the kitchen garden and beyond, whilst Daddy’s eggs continued to boil far beyond his usual soft preference.
    ‘What is it, Lucy?’ Saffy stood up, gesturing that Lucy should join her in the sitting area. ‘Is everything all right? You’re peaky. Shall I fetch you a glass of water?’
    Lucy shook her head but glanced about for something to lean on, choosing the back of the nearest armchair.
    Saffy sat on the chaise longue and waited; and in the end, when Lucy’s news finally burst forth, she was glad that she was seated.
    ‘I’m going to be married,’ said Lucy. ‘That is, someone has asked me to marry him and I’ve said yes.’
    For a moment Saffy wondered if the housekeeper was delusional, or at least playing a trick. Quite simply, it made no sense: Lucy, dear reliable Lucy, who had never once in all the years she’d worked at Milderhurst so much as mentioned a male companion, let alone stepped out with a fellow, was to be married? Now, out of the blue like this, and at her age? Why, she was a few years older than Saffy, surely nearing forty years old.
    Lucy shifted where she stood and Saffy realized that silence had fallen rather heavily between them and it was her turn to speak. Her tongue moved around some words, but she couldn’t seem to utter them.
    ‘I’m getting married,’ said Lucy again, more slowly this time, and with the sort of caution that suggested she was still getting used to the notion herself.
    ‘But Lucy, that’s wonderful news,’ said Saffy, all in a rush. ‘And who is the lucky fellow? Where did you meet him?’
    ‘Actually,’ Lucy flushed. ‘We met here, at Milderhurst.’
    ‘Oh?’
    ‘It’s Harry Rogers. I’m marrying Harry Rogers. He’s asked me and I’ve said yes.’
    Harry Rogers. The name was familiar, vaguely; Saffy felt sure she should know the gentleman, but she couldn’t find a face to match the name. But how embarrassing! Saffy could feel her cheeks reddening and she covered her dilemma by planting a broad smile on her face, hoped it was sufficient to convince Lucy of her delight.
    ‘We’d known one another for years, of course, what with him visiting so regularly at the castle, but we only started walking out together a couple of months ago. It was right after the grandfather clock began playing up, back in spring.’
    Harry Rogers. But not, surely, the hirsute little clock man? Why, he was neither handsome nor gallant nor, from what Saffy had observed, remotely witty. He was a common man, interested only in chatting with Percy about the state of the castle and the inside workings of clocks. Obliging enough, as far as Saffy could tell, and Percy had always spoken kindly of him (until Saffy chided that he’d be sweet on her if she weren’t careful); nonetheless, he wasn’t at all the right man for Lucy with her pretty face and easy laugh. ‘But how did this happen?’ The question had risen and bubbled out before Saffy could even think to stem it. Lucy didn’t appear to take offence, answering directly, almost too quickly, Saffy thought; as if she herself needed to hear the words spoken in order to understand how such a thing could have occurred.
    ‘He’d been up to see about the clock and I was leaving early on account of Mother being poorly, and it just so happened that we bumped into one another on our way out of the door. He offered me a lift home and I took it. We struck up a friendship and then, when Mother passed away… Well, he was very kind. Quite a gentleman.’
    There fell then a pall of silence in which the scenario played out variously in each of their minds. Saffy, though surprised, was also curious. It was the writer in her, she supposed: wondering at the type of conversation the two might have had in Mr Rogers’s little motorcar; how, exactly, one thoughtful lift home had blossomed into a love affair. ‘And you’re happy?’
    ‘Oh yes.’ Lucy smiled. ‘Yes, I’m happy.’
    ‘Well.’ Saffy forced strength into her own smile, ‘Then I’m enormously happy for you. And you must bring him up for tea. A little celebration!’
    ‘Oh no.’ Lucy shook her head. ‘No. It’s kind of you, Miss Saffy, but I don’t think that would be wise.’
    ‘Why ever not?’ said Saffy, though as she said it she knew perfectly well why not, and suffered a wave of embarrassment for not having found a smarter way to extend the invitation. Lucy was far too proper to entertain the notion of dining with her employers. With Percy, especially.
    ‘We’d rather not make a fuss,’ she said. ‘We’re neither of us young. There won’t be a long engagement; there’s no point in waiting, what with the war.’
    ‘But surely at his age Harry won’t be going-?’
    ‘Oh no, nothing like that. He’ll be doing his bit though, with Mr Potts’s mob. He was in the first war, you know; at Passchendaele. Alongside my brother – alongside Michael.’
    There was a new expression on Lucy’s face then – a type of pride, Saffy realized, a tentative pleasure shot through with mild self-consciousness. It was the novelty, of course, the recent change in circumstance. Lucy was still becoming used to this new persona, that of a woman soon to be married, a woman who was part of a couple, who had a male counterpart through whom she might be clothed in reflected glory. Saffy warmed a little vicariously; she couldn’t think of anyone she knew who deserved happiness as much as Lucy. ‘Well, of course, that all makes very good sense,’ she said. ‘And you must certainly take a few days for yourself either side of the wedding. Perhaps I could-’
    ‘Actually.’ Lucy pressed her lips together and concentrated on the patch of space above Saffy’s left shoulder. ‘That’s the thing I really must talk to you about.’
    ‘Oh?’
    ‘Yes,’ Lucy smiled, but not easily and not happily, then the smile fell away leaving only a slight sigh in its place. ‘It’s rather awkward you see, but Harry would prefer… that is, he thinks that once we’re married it would be best if I stay at home; look after his house and do my bit for the war effort.’ Perhaps Lucy felt as keenly as Saffy that further explanation was required for she went on to say, quickly, ‘And in case we should be blessed with children.’
    And then Saffy understood; it was as if a great veil had been lifted. Everything that had been blurred came into focus: Lucy wasn’t in love with Harry Rogers any more than Saffy was, she merely yearned for a baby. It was a wonder Saffy hadn’t figured it out straightaway; it was so plain now that she knew. It was, in fact, the only explanation. Harry had offered her that one last chance; what woman in Lucy’s position wouldn’t make the same decision? Saffy fingered her locket, ran a thumb over the snib, and felt a surge of kinship with Lucy, a flush of sisterly affection and understanding so strong that she was overcome with a sudden desire to tell Lucy everything, to explain that she, Saffy, knew exactly how she felt.
    She opened her mouth to do just that, but found no words had come. She smiled slightly, blinked and was astonished to feel a wave of warm tears threatening to spill. Lucy, meanwhile, had turned away, was searching her pockets for something, and Saffy, recovering her composure as best she could, glanced surreptitiously towards the window, watching as a single black bird sailed an invisible current of warm air.
    She blinked again and everything took on a misty veneer. But how ridiculous it was to cry! It was the war of course, the uncertainty, the wretched, hateful windows!
    ‘I’m going to miss you too, Miss Saffy. All of you. I’ve spent over half my life here at Milderhurst; I always assumed I’d end my days here too.’ A slight hesitation. ‘If that doesn’t sound too morbid?’
    ‘Terribly morbid.’ Saffy smiled through tears, pinching the locket again beneath her fingers. Lucy would be dreadfully missed, but that wasn’t the only reason Saffy wept. She didn’t open the locket any more; she didn’t need the photograph to see his face. The young man with whom she’d been in love, who’d been in love with her. The future had stretched ahead, anything had been possible, everything. Before it was all stolen from her-
    But Lucy knew none of that, and if she did, if over the years she’d gathered threads here and there, connected them to form a rueful picture, she was polite enough never to mention it. Even now. ‘The wedding will be in April,’ she continued softly, handing Saffy an envelope she’d drawn from her pocket. Her letter of resignation, Saffy realized. ‘Spring. In the village church, just a small wedding. Nothing fancy. I’d be very happy to stay on until then, but I understand if…’ There were tears in her eyes now. ‘I’m so sorry, Miss Saffy, not to give you more notice. Especially at a time like this, with help so difficult to find.’
    ‘Nonsense,’ said Saffy. She shivered, aware suddenly of a draught, crisp against her damp cheeks. She pulled out her handkerchief and dabbed, noticed the smudges of face powder on the cloth. ‘Oh goodness,’ she said, pulling a face of mock horror, ‘what a mess I must look.’ She smiled at Lucy. ‘Now, never mind your apologies. You’re not to give it another thought, and you’re certainly not to do any more crying. Love is a thing to be celebrated, not wept over.’
    ‘Yes,’ said Lucy, looking anything but a woman in love. ‘Well then.’
    ‘Well then.’
    ‘I should get on.’
    ‘Yes.’ Saffy didn’t smoke, she couldn’t stand the smell or the taste of tobacco, but at that moment she wished she did. Something settling to do with her hands. She swallowed, straightened a little, drew strength as she often did by pretending to be Percy…
    Oh dear. Percy.
    ‘Lucy?’
    The housekeeper turned from where she was collecting the empty teacups.
    ‘What about Percy? Does she know about Harry? That you’re leaving us?’
    The housekeeper’s face paled as she shook her head.
    Unease set up camp in Saffy’s stomach. ‘Perhaps I ought to-?’
    ‘No,’ said Lucy, with a small, brave smile. ‘No. It’s something I must do.’

FOUR

    Percy didn’t go home. Neither did she go on to the village hall to assist with the arrangement of corned beef tins. Saffy would later accuse her of forgetting to collect an evacuee on purpose, of never having wanted one in the first place; but although there was an element of truth in the latter accusation, Percy’s failure to show up at the hall had nothing to do with Saffy and everything to do with Mrs Potts’s gossip. Besides, as she reminded her twin, everything had worked out in the end: Juniper, unpredictable, beloved Juniper, had happened by the village hall quite by chance and Meredith had thus been plucked for the castle. Percy, meanwhile, having left the WVS meeting in something of a daze, had forgotten about her bicycle, turning to walk instead along the High Street, head held high, gait assured, looking for all the world like someone with a list in her pocket of a hundred tasks to be met by dinnertime. Giving no hint at all that she was the walking wounded, a ghostly echo of her former self. How she found herself at the hair salon she would never know, but that is precisely where her numb feet took her.
    Percy’s hair had always been long and blonde, though never so long as Juniper’s nor so golden as Saffy’s. Percy didn’t mind either of these things; she’d never been the sort to pay much attention to her crowning glory. While Saffy left her hair long because she was vain and Juniper ignored hers because she wasn’t, Percy kept it that way for the simple reason that Daddy preferred it. He believed that girls should be pretty; that his daughters, especially, should have long fair hair that fell in waves down their backs.
    Percy flinched as the hairdresser wetted and combed her hair until it was dishwater-dark and lank. Metal blades whispered cool against the back of her neck and the first hank dropped to the floor, where it lay still, a dead thing. She felt light.
    The hairdresser had been shocked when Percy made the request, had asked her over and again if she were sure. ‘But your curls are so pretty,’ she’d said sadly; ‘do you really want them all off?’
    ‘All of them.’
    ‘But you won’t recognize yourself.’
    No, Percy thought, and the notion had pleased her. When she’d sat in the chair, still in something of a dream, Percy had looked and met her own image in the mirror; caught herself in a moment of introspection. What she’d seen had disquieted her. A woman of increasing years, still wrapping her hair in rags at night to affect the girlish curls that nature had forgotten. Such fussing was all well and good for Saffy, who was a romantic, refusing even now to let go of old dreams and accept that her knight in shining armour was not coming, that her place was, and would always be, at Milderhurst; but it was laughable in Percy. Percy the pragmatist, Percy the planner, Percy the protector.
    She should have cut off her hair years ago. The new style was trim and spare and although she couldn’t claim to look better, it was enough to know that she looked different. With each snip something inside her released, an old idea to which she’d been clinging without knowing it, so that finally, when the young hairdresser lay down the scissors and said, a little greenly, ‘There you are then, dear. Don’t you look neat?’ Percy had ignored the infuriating condescension to agree with some surprise that yes, she did indeed look neat.
    Meredith had been waiting for hours, first standing, then sitting, now slouching on the wooden floor of Milderhurst village hall. As time stretched out, and the stream of farmers and local ladies dried completely, and the dark started to hover outside the windows, Meredith let herself wonder what dreadful fate might await her if she weren’t chosen at all, if nobody wanted her. Would she spend the next few weeks living here, alone, in the draughty hall? The very thought made her spectacles mist so that everything was blurred.
    And it was then, at that precise moment, that she arrived. Swept in, like a resplendent angel, like something out of a made-up story, and rescued Meredith from the cold, hard floor. As if she knew somehow, through some sort of magic or sixth sense – something science was yet to explain – that she was needed.
    Meredith didn’t see the actual entrance, she was too busy cleaning her spectacle lenses on the hem of her skirt but she did feel a crackle in the air and perceived the unnatural silence when it fell amongst the chirruping women.
    ‘Why, Miss Juniper,’ one of them said, as Meredith fumbled her spectacles back onto her nose and blinked towards the refreshments table. ‘What a surprise. And how may we be of assistance? Are you looking for Miss Blythe, because it’s quite a curious thing, but we haven’t seen her since midday-’
    ‘I’ve come for my evacuee,’ said the girl who must be Miss Juniper, cutting the woman off with a wave of her hand. ‘Don’t get up. I see her.’
    And she started walking, passing the children in the front row, and Meredith blinked a few more times, looked over her shoulder and realized there was no one remaining there, then turned back just in time to find that splendid person standing directly above her. ‘Ready?’ the stranger said. Casually, lightly, as if they were old friends and the whole thing had been planned in advance.
    Later, after Percy had lost hours somehow by the brook, sat cross-legged on a smooth-washed stone, built childish boats from whatever came to hand, she returned to the church hall to collect her bicycle. After such a warm day the evening had come in cool, and by the time Percy started for the castle, the falling dusk had shadowed the hills.
    Despair had tangled Percy’s thoughts and she tried, as she pedalled, to straighten them. The engagement itself was devastating, but it was the duplicity that cut deepest. All this time – for there must have been a period of courtship leading to the proposal – Harry and Lucy had been sneaking behind her back, conducting their affair beneath her nose as if she were nothing to either of them, neither lover nor employer. The betrayal was like a hot iron to her chest; she wanted to scream, to tear at her own face, and his, and hers, to scratch and harm them both as they had wounded her. To bellow until her voice failed, to be beaten until she no longer felt pain, to close her eyes and never have to open them again.
    But she would do none of those things. Percy Blythe did not behave in such a way.
    Over the treetops, the oncoming darkness continued to bruise the distant fields and a flock of black birds took flight towards the Channel. The moon’s pale casing, as yet unlit, hung lifeless in the shadows. Percy wondered, idly, whether the bombers would come tonight.
    With a short sigh she lifted one hand to press the newly exposed skin at the nape of her neck, then, as the breath of evening brushed her face, she pedalled harder. Harry and Lucy were to be married and nothing Percy did or said would change that fact. Crying would not help, neither would reproach. What was done was done. All that remained was for Percy to formulate and follow a new plan. To do what needed to be done, just as she always had.
    When finally she reached the gates of Milderhurst, she swerved across the road and the rickety footbridge, and jumped off her bicycle. Although she’d done little more than sit all day, she was tired, and strangely so. Tired to the ends of her fingers. Her bones, her eyes, her arms, all airy, as if they were made up of grains. Like a rubber band that had been wound too tightly and unravelled now to find itself stretched and frayed, weak and shapeless. She fumbled with her handbag until she found a cigarette.
    Percy walked the final mile, pushed the bicycle beside her as she smoked, stopping only when the castle came into view. Barely visible, a black armoury against the navy sky, not a chink of light showed. The curtains were drawn, the shutters were closed, the blackout was being followed to the letter. Good. The last thing she needed was for Hitler to set his sights on her castle.
    She rested her bicycle on the ground and lay beside it on the night-cooled grass. Smoked another cigarette. Then another, her last. Percy curled onto her side and pressed her ear to the ground, listened as Daddy had shown her. Her family, her home, was built on a foundation of words, he’d said, time and again; the family tree laced together with sentences in place of limbs. Layers of expressed thought had soaked into the soil of the castle gardens so that poems and plays, prose and political treatises, would always whisper to her when she needed them. Ancestors she would never meet, who had lived and died before her birth, left behind them words, words, words, chattering to one another, to her, from beyond the grave, so she was never lonely, never alone.
    After a time Percy stood, picked up her things and continued in silence towards the castle. Dusk had been swallowed by dark and the moon had arrived, the beautiful, traitorous moon, stretching her pale fingers over the landscape. A brave harvest mouse fled across a silver spill of lawn, fine grass quivered on the gentle rises of the fields, and beyond the woods shrugged blackly.
    She could hear voices inside as she drew nearer: Saffy’s and Juniper’s, and another, a child’s voice, a girl. Allowing herself a moment’s hesitation, Percy climbed the first step, then the next, remembering the thousands of times she’d run through the door, in a hurry to get to the future, to whatever was coming next, to this moment.
    As she stood there, hand poised to open the door of her home, as the tallest trees of Cardarker Wood bore witness, she made a promise: she was Persephone Blythe of Milderhurst Castle. There were other things in life she loved – not many, but there were some: her sisters, her father, and their castle, of course. She was the eldest – if only by a matter of minutes – she was Daddy’s heir, the only one of his children who shared his love for the stones, the soul, the secrets of their home. She would pick herself up and carry on. And she would make it her duty, from this moment forth, to ensure no harm befell any of them, that she did whatever was necessary to keep them all safe.

PART THREE

Kidnappings and Recriminations

1992

    Milderhurst Castle was almost lost to the Sisters Blythe in 1952. The castle needed urgent repair, the Blythe family finances were dire, and the National Trust was keen to acquire the property and begin its restoration. It seemed that the sisters had little choice but to move somewhere smaller, sell the estate to strangers, or sign it over to the Trust so they might get on with ‘preserving the crowning glory of the building and gardens’. Only they did none of those things. Percy Blythe opened the castle to visitors instead, sold a few parcels of surrounding farmland, and somehow managed to scrape together sufficient funds to keep the old place standing.
    I know this because I spent the better part of a sunny weekend in August trawling through the local library’s micro- film records of the Milderhurst Mercury. In retrospect, telling my dad that the origin of The True History of the Mud Man was a great literary mystery was a little like putting a box of chocolates on the floor beside a toddler and expecting him not to touch it. He’s rather results-based, my dad, and he liked the idea that he might be able to solve a mystery that had plagued academics for decades. He had his theory: the real-life kidnapping of a long-ago child lay at the novel’s gothic heart; all he needed to do was prove it and the fame, the glory, the personal satisfaction, would be his. Confinement to bed, however, is no friend to the sleuth, so an agent was necessarily enlisted and dispatched in his place. Which was where I figured. I humoured him for three reasons: partly because he was recuperating from a heart attack, partly because his theory wasn’t completely ridiculous, but most of all because reading my mother’s letters had stretched my fascination with Milderhurst to pathological proportions.
    I started my enquiries, as I usually do, by asking Herbert whether he knew anything about unsolved kidnapping cases from the early part of the century. One of my hands-down favourite things about Herbert – and the list is long – is his ability to find precisely the information he’s after in the face of apparent chaos. His house is tall and skinny to start with, four one-time flats patched back together: our office and printing press takes up the first two levels, the attic’s been sacrificed to storage, and the basement flat is where he lives with Jess. Every wall of every room is lined with books: old books, new books, first editions, signed editions, twenty-third editions, stacked together on mismatched, improvised sets of shelves, in a glorious, healthy disregard for display. And yet the entire collection is catalogued in his brain, his very own reference library, so that he has every reading experience of his life at his fingertips. To see him home in on a target is a thing of beauty: first, his impressive brow furrows as he takes in the query, then a single finger, delicate and smooth as a candlestick, raises and he hobbles, wordlessly, to a distant wall of books where the finger is given free reign to hover, as if magnetized, above the spines, leading him, finally, to slide the perfect book from its place.
    Asking Herbert about the kidnapping was a lazy long shot, so I wasn’t really surprised when it yielded little of use. I told him not to feel bad and headed to the library, where I befriended a delightful old lady in the basement who’d apparently been waiting there all her life on the off-chance I’d show up. ‘Just sign in over here, my dear,’ she said eagerly, pointing to a clipboard and biro, and shadowing me closely as I filled in the requisite columns. ‘Oh, Billing & Brown, how lovely. My dear old friend, may he rest in peace, published his memoirs with B &B some thirty years ago.’
    There weren’t many other folk spending that gorgeous summer’s day in the bowels of the library, so I was easily able to co-opt Miss Yeats to my purpose. We passed a lovely time together, trawling through the archives, turning up three unsolved kidnapping cases in and around Kent during the Victorian and Edwardian periods, then plenty of newspaper reports concerning the Blythe family of Milderhurst Castle. There was a charming, semi-regular column of housekeeping advice written by Saffy Blythe throughout the fifties and sixties; numerous articles about Raymond Blythe’s literary success; and some headlining reports of the family’s near loss of Milderhurst in 1952. At the time Percy Blythe had given an interview in which she made an emphatic case: ‘A place is more than the sum of its physical parts; it’s a repository for memories, a record and retainer of all that has happened within its boundaries. This castle belongs to my family. It belonged to my ancestors for centuries before I was born, and I won’t see it passed into the hands of people who wish to plant conifers in its ancient woods.’
    A rather pernickety representative of the National Trust had also been interviewed for the article, lamenting the lost opportunity for their new Garden Scheme to restore the property to its former glory: ‘It’s a tragedy,’ he began, ‘to think that the great properties of our nation will be lost to us over the coming decades, through the sheer bloody-mindedness of those who cannot see that in these lean and austere times, individual residence in such national treasures is tantamount to sacrilege.’ When asked about the Trust’s plans for Milderhurst Castle, he outlined a programme of works including, ‘the structural repair of the castle itself, and a complete garden restoration’. An aim, I’d have thought, that was very much in line with Percy Blythe’s wishes for her family estate.
    ‘There was a lot of ambivalence about the Trust at the time,’ said Miss Yeats, when I ventured as much. ‘The fifties were a difficult period: the cherry trees were taken out at Hidcote, the avenue at Wimpole was cut down, all in the service of a sort of all-purpose historical prettiness.’
    The two examples meant little to me, but all-purpose historical prettiness certainly didn’t sound like much of a match for the Percy Blythe I’d met. As I read further, matters became clearer still. ‘It says here that the Trust planned to restore the moat.’ I looked up at Miss Yeats, who inclined her head, awaiting explanation. ‘Raymond Blythe had the moat filled in after the twins’ mother’s death: a sort of symbolic memorial. They wouldn’t have been happy with the Trust’s plans to dig it out again.’ I leaned back in my chair, stretching my lower back. ‘What I don’t understand is how they could’ve hit such hard times in the first place. The Mud Man is a classic, a bestseller, even today. Surely the royalties would have been enough to keep them out of trouble?’
    ‘One would think so,’ Miss Yeats agreed. Then she frowned and turned her attention to the rather large stack of printouts on the table before us. ‘You know, I’m sure I…’ She shuffled the pages back and forth until one was chosen and held right by her nose. ‘Yes! Here it is.’ She handed me the newspaper article dated May 13th, 1941, and peered over the top of her half-moon glasses. ‘Apparently Raymond Blythe left a couple of large bequests when he died.’
    The article was entitled: ‘Generous Gift from Literary Patron Saves Institute’, and was accompanied by a picture of a grinning, dungaree-clad woman clutching a copy of the Mud Man. I scanned the text and saw that Miss Yeats was right: the majority of the royalties were divided after Raymond Blythe’s death between the Catholic Church and another group. ‘The Pembroke Farm Institute,’ I read slowly. ‘It says here that they’re a conservation group based in Sussex. Committed to the promotion of sound ecological practice.’
    ‘Rather ahead of their time,’ said Miss Yeats.
    I nodded.
    ‘Shall we check the reference files upstairs? See what else we can find?’
    Miss Yeats was so buoyed by the prospect of a new research tangent that her cheeks had taken on a rosy sheen and I felt really rather cruel when I said, ‘Not today, no. I’m afraid I haven’t the time.’ She looked crestfallen, so I added, ‘I’m so sorry. But my dad’s expecting a report on my research.’
    Which was true, and yet I didn’t go straight home. When I said there were three reasons I was happy to give up my weekend to my dad’s library task, I’m afraid I was a little disingenuous. I wasn’t lying, they were all true, however there was also the small matter of a fourth and more pressing reason. I was avoiding my mother. It was all the fault of those letters, more accurately, of my inability to leave the damned shoebox closed once Rita had given it to me.
    I read them all, you see. The night of Sam’s hen party, I took them home and devoured them, one by one, beginning with Mum’s arrival at the castle. I endured with her the freezing early months of 1940, witnessed the Battle of Britain raging above my head, the nights spent shivering in the Anderson shelter. Over the course of eighteen months, the handwriting grew neater, the expression more mature, until finally, in the wee hours, I reached the last letter, the one sent home just before her father came to fetch her back to London. It was dated February 17th, 1941, and read as follows.
    Dear Mum and Dad,
    I’m sorry that we argued on the telephone. I was so pleased to hear from you both and I feel terrible about the way it ended. I don’t think I explained myself very well at all. What I meant to say is that I understand that you just want the best for me, and I’m grateful, Dad, that you’ve been to speak with Mr Solley on my behalf. I can’t agree, however, that my coming home and finding typing work with him is ‘best’.
    Rita is different from me. She hated it here in the country and has always known what she wanted to do and be. For my entire life I’ve felt that there was something wrong with me, that I was ‘other’ in some important way I couldn’t explain; that I couldn’t even understand myself. I love to read books, I love to watch people, I love to capture the things I see and feel by arranging words on paper. Ridiculous, I know! Can you imagine what an odd, black sheep I’ve felt my entire life?
    Here, though, I’ve met people who enjoy these things, too; and I realize that there are others who see the world as I do. Saffy believes that when the war ends, which it must do soon, I have a good chance of getting a place at one of the grammar schools, after that – who knows? Perhaps even university?! I must keep up with my schooling though, if I am to stand a chance of transferring to grammar school.
    So I beg you – please don’t make me come home! The Blythes are happy for me to stay and you know that I’m well cared for here. You haven’t ‘lost’ me, Mum; I wish you wouldn’t put it like that. I’m your daughter – you couldn’t lose me if you tried. Please, though, please let me stay.
    With much love and heaps of hope,
    Your daughter, Meredith
    I dreamed of Milderhurst that night. I was a girl again, dressed in a school uniform I didn’t recognize, and standing at the tall iron gates at the bottom of the driveway. They were locked and far too high to scale; so high that when I looked up at where their tops should be they seemed to disappear into the swirling clouds above. I tried to climb them but my feet kept slipping, they’d gone all jelly-like, the way they often do in dreams: the iron was icy beneath my hands, yet I was filled with a deep longing, a fierce desire to know what lay beyond.
    I looked down and saw that a large key, rusting around the edges, lay across my palm. Next thing I knew, I was beyond the gates and sitting in a carriage on the other side. In a scene borrowed directly from the Mud Man, I was being drawn up the long and winding drive, past the dark and shivering woods, across the bridges, until finally the castle loomed above me at the top of the hill.
    And then, somehow, I was inside. The whole place felt abandoned. Dust coated the corridor floors, the paintings hung crooked on the walls, the curtains had all faded, but it was more than just the way it looked. The air was stale, cloying, and I felt as if I’d been locked within a box inside a dark and musty attic.
    A noise then, a whispery, rustling sound, and the merest suggestion of movement. At the end of the hall was Juniper, dressed in the same silky dress she’d been wearing when I visited the castle. I was aware of a strange sense within me, the dream’s pervasive mood of profound and troubled longing. I knew, although she didn’t say a word, that this was October 1941 and she was waiting for Thomas Cavill to arrive. A door appeared behind her, the entrance to the good parlour. There was music, a tune I felt I knew.
    I followed her into the room where a table had been set. The room was thick with anticipation, and I drifted around the table, counting the places, knowing, though I’m not sure how, that one was set for me and another for my mum. Juniper was saying something then, that is, her lips were moving but I couldn’t make out any words.
    Then, suddenly, I was at the parlour window, only, in a strange dream twist of logic, it was my mother’s kitchen window too, and I was staring at the glass pane. I looked outside and it was stormy and I realized there was a glistening, black moat. Movement and a dark figure began to emerge; my heart struck like a bell. I knew it was the Mud Man and I was frozen where I stood. My feet had become one with the floor, but just when I was about to scream, my fear suddenly disappeared. I was filled instead with a flood of yearning and sorrow and, quite unexpectedly, desire.
    I woke with a start, catching my dream in the process of dissolving. Tattered fancies hung like ghosts in the room’s corners and I lay very still for a time, willing them not to dissipate. It seemed to me that even the slightest movement, the merest hint of morning sunlight, would burn the imprints off like fog. And I didn’t want to lose them yet. The dream had been so vivid, the heaviness of longing so real that when I pressed my hand against my chest I half-expected to find the skin bruised. After a time, the sun rose high enough to slide across the rooftop of Singer & Sons and pry through the gaps in my curtains and the dream’s spell was broken. I sat up with a sigh and noticed Gran’s shoebox on the end of the bed. At the sight of all those envelopes addressed to Elephant and Castle, details of the night before came rushing back and I was hit by the sudden, clear-light-of-day guilt of someone who’d glutted on a feast of fat and sugar and someone else’s secrets. No matter how glad I was to have acquired the voice, the pictures, the small sense of my mum, and no matter how convincing my justifications (the letters were written long ago; they were intended for an audience; she’d never have to know), I couldn’t erase the expression on Rita’s face as she’d given me the box and told me to have a good old read; the hint of triumph, as if we two shared a secret now, a bond, a connection that excluded her sister. The warm feeling of holding the little girl’s hand had gone, leaving only the sneak’s remorse in its place.
    I would have to confess my crime, that much was certain, but I made a deal with myself. If I managed to leave the house without running into Mum, I could have a day’s grace to consider how best to do it. On the other hand, if I ran into her before I reached the door, I would confess all, then and there. I dressed quickly and quietly, took stealthy care of all additional grooming needs, rescued my tote from the lounge – all was going brilliantly until I reached the kitchen. Mum was standing by the kettle, robe fastened around her middle, a little higher than it should be, giving her an odd snowman-like shape.
    ‘Morning, Edie,’ she said, glancing over her shoulder.
    Too late to backtrack. ‘Morning, Mum.’
    ‘Sleep well?’
    ‘Yes, thanks.’
    I was rustling up an excuse for skipping breakfast when she put a cup of tea on the table in front of me and said, ‘And how was Samantha’s party?’
    ‘Colourful. Noisy.’ I gave her a quick smile. ‘You know Sam.’
    ‘I didn’t hear you come in last night. I left you some supper.’
    ‘Oh…’
    ‘I wasn’t sure, but I see you didn’t-’
    ‘I was pretty tired-’
    ‘Of course.’
    Oh, but I felt like a heel! And the unfortunate pudding effect of Mum’s robe made her seem more vulnerable than ever, which made me feel even worse. I sat where she’d put the tea, drew a decisive breath and said, ‘Mum, there’s something I need to-’
    ‘Ah!’ She winced, sucked her finger then shook it quickly. ‘Steam,’ she said, blowing lightly across her fingertip. ‘It’s this silly new kettle.’
    ‘Can I fetch you some ice?’
    ‘I’ll just run it under cold water.’ She turned on the tap. ‘It’s something in the shape of the spout. I don’t know why they keep redesigning things that work perfectly well already.’
    I took another breath, but let it out again as she continued talking.
    ‘I wish they’d just focus their attention on something useful. A cure for cancer, perhaps.’ She turned off the tap.
    ‘Mum, there’s something I really need-’
    ‘I’ll be right back, Edie; let me take your father his tea lest the bell begin to toll.’
    She disappeared upstairs and I waited, wondering what I was going to say, how I was going to say it, whether it was possible to phrase my sin in such a way that she might understand. A fond hope, but I dismissed it swiftly. There is no kind way of telling someone you’ve been peeking through the keyhole at them.
    I could hear the edges of the low conversation Mum was having with Dad, then his door closing, then footsteps. I stood quickly. What was I thinking? I needed more time; it was foolish just to rush in; a little thought would make all the difference – but then she was in the kitchen saying, ‘That ought to keep His Nibs happy for the next fifteen minutes,’ and I was still standing somewhat awkwardly behind my chair, as natural as a bad actor in a play.
    ‘You’re off already?’ she said, surprised. ‘You haven’t even had your tea.’
    ‘I, ah…’
    ‘You were saying something, weren’t you?’
    I picked up my teacup and studied the contents closely. ‘I…’
    ‘Well?’ She tightened the belt of her robe, waiting for me, the merest hint of concern narrowing her eyes. ‘What is it?’
    Who was I kidding? More thought, a few additional hours: none of it was going to change the facts. I let out a sigh of resignation. ‘I have something for you.’
    I went back up to my room and collected the letters from beneath my bed.
    Mum watched my return, a slight crease in her brow, and I laid the box on the table between us.
    ‘Slippers?’ She frowned lightly, first at her slipper-clad feet, then at me. ‘Well, thank you, Edie. One can never have too many pairs.’
    ‘No, but you see, they’re not-’
    ‘Your gran.’ She smiled suddenly, a distant memory firing. ‘Your gran used to wear this type.’ And the look she gave me then was so unguarded, so unexpectedly pleased, that it was all I could do not to seize the lid from the box and declare myself the ghastly traitor that I was. ‘Did you know that, Edie? Is that why you bought them? It’s a wonder you could still find the old-’
    ‘They’re not slippers, Mum. Open the box; please, just open it.’
    ‘Edie?’ An uncertain smile as she sat in the nearest chair and pulled the box towards her. She offered me a last wavering glance before turning her attention to the lid, lifting it and frowning at the pile of discoloured envelopes within.
    My blood ran hot and thin, like petrol beneath my skin, as I watched the emotions flit across her face. Confusion, suspicion, then the intake of breath heralding recognition. Later, as I ran the memory over in my mind, I could pinpoint the precise instant at which the scrawled handwriting on the top envelope metamorphosed into a lived experience. I saw her face change, her features adopting, once more, those of the almost-thirteen-year-old girl who’d written the first letter to her parents, telling them about the castle in which she’d found herself; she was there again, caught in the original moment of composition.
    Mum’s fingers rested on her lips, her cheek, then hovered above the soft indentation at the base of her throat, until finally, after what seemed an age, she reached tentatively into the box, withdrew the pile of envelopes and sat holding them in both hands. Hands that were shaking. She spoke without meeting my eyes. ‘Where did you…?’
    ‘Rita.’
    She released a slow sigh, nodded as if she’d been given the answer to something she should have guessed. ‘How did she come by them? Did she say?’
    ‘They were with Gran’s things, after she died.’
    A noise that might have been the start of a laugh, wistful, surprised, a little bit sad. ‘I can’t believe she kept them.’
    ‘You wrote them,’ I said softly. ‘Of course she kept them.’
    Mum was shaking her head. ‘But it wasn’t like that… my mother and I, we weren’t like that.’
    I thought of The Book of Magical Wet Animals. My mother and I weren’t like that either, or so I’d thought. ‘I suppose that’s what parents do.’
    Mum fumbled envelopes from the pile, fanning them out in her hands. ‘Things from the past,’ she said, more to herself than to me. ‘Things I’d worked so hard to put behind me.’ Her fingers lightly traced the drift of envelopes. ‘Now it seems no matter where I turn…’
    My heart had begun to race at the promise of revelation. ‘Why do you want to forget the past, Mum?’
    But she didn’t answer, not right then. The photograph, smaller than the letters, had fallen loose from the pile, just as it had the night before, slipping onto the table. She inhaled, before lifting it higher, rubbing her thumb across its surface; the expression on her face was vulnerable, pained. ‘Such a long time ago, yet sometimes…’
    She seemed to remember then that I was there. Made a show of tucking the photograph back amongst the letters, casually, as if it meant little to her. She looked directly at me. ‘Your gran and I… it was never easy. We were very different people, we always had been, but my evacuation brought certain things to the fore. We fought and she never forgave me.’
    ‘Because you wanted to transfer to grammar school?’
    Everything seemed to freeze then, even the natural circulations in the air stopped their swirling.
    Mum looked as if she’d been struck. She spoke quietly, a quaver in her voice: ‘You read them? You read my letters?’
    I swallowed; nodded jerkily.
    ‘How could you, Edith? These are private.’
    All my earlier justifications dissolved like flecks of tissue in the rain. Shame made my eyes water so that everything seemed bleached, including Mum’s face. Colour had dissolved from her skin, leaving only a splatter of small freckles across her nose so that she looked like her thirteen-year-old self. ‘I just… I wanted to know.’
    ‘It’s none of your business to know,’ Mum hissed. ‘It’s got nothing to do with you.’ She seized the box, clutched it tightly to her chest, and after a moment’s indecision hurried towards the door.
    ‘But it does,’ I said to myself, then louder, my voice trembling, ‘you lied to me.’
    A stumble in her step -
    ‘About Juniper’s letter, about Milderhurst, about everything; we did go back – ’
    The slightest hesitation in the doorway, but she didn’t turn and she didn’t stop.
    ‘ – I remember it.’
    And I was alone again, surrounded by that peculiar glassy silence that follows when something fragile has been broken. At the top of the stairs a door slammed shut.
    A fortnight had passed since then, and even by our standards relations were icy. We’d maintained a ghastly civility, for Dad’s sake as much as because it was our style, nodding and smiling but never speaking a word that wasn’t of the ‘Please pass the salt’ variety. I felt guilty and self-righteous in turn; proud and interested in the girl who loved books as much as I did, angry and hurt by the woman who refused to share the merest part of herself with me.
    Most of all though, I regretted having told her about the letters. I cursed whoever it was that said honesty was the best policy, turned a keen eye back to the letting pages, and fed our cold war by making sure I was barely around. It wasn’t difficult: the edits for Ghosts of Romney Marsh were under way so I had a perfectly valid reason for putting in long hours at the office. Herbert, for his part, was pleased to have the company. My industry, he said, reminded him of the ‘good old days’ when the war had finally ended, England was getting back on its feet, and he and Mr Brown were rushing about acquiring manuscripts and filling orders.
    So it was, on the Saturday of the library visit, when I tucked my file of newspaper printouts beneath my arm, checked my watch and realized it had only just gone one, I didn’t head for home. Dad was sweating on his kidnapping research, but he’d wait until our Mud Man session that evening. I started for Notting Hill instead. Swept along by the promise of good company, welcome distraction, and maybe even a little something for lunch.
    The Plot Becomes Rather Thick
    I had forgotten that Herbert was away for the weekend, delivering the keynote address at the Annual Meeting of the Bookbinders Association. The shades at Billing & Brown were down and the office was sombre and lifeless. As I stepped across the threshold and was met by utter stillness, I felt a deflation out of all proportion.
    ‘Jess?’ I called hopefully. ‘Jessie girl?’
    There came no grateful padding, no laboured clamber up the stairs from the basement, just ripples of silence rolling towards me. There is something deeply disquieting about a beloved place relieved of its rightful occupants, and at that moment I’d never been so eager to jostle with Jess for room on the sofa.
    ‘Jessie?’ Still nothing. Which meant that she had gone to Shrewsbury, too, and I really was alone.
    Never mind, I jollied myself along, there was plenty of work to keep me busy all afternoon. Ghosts of Romney Marsh was going to proof on Monday and although circumstances had already gifted it my close attention, there was always room for improvement. I lifted the blinds, switched on my desk lamp, making as much incidental noise as I could, then sat down and leafed through the manuscript pages. I shifted commas, I put them back again. I vacillated over the merits of using ‘however’ in place of ‘but’ without drawing any conclusion and marked the spot for further thought. I similarly failed to reach a firm decision on the next five stylistic queries before deciding it had been madness to attempt concentration on an empty stomach.
    Herbert had been cooking and there was fresh pumpkin lasagne in the fridge. I removed a slice, heated it up, and took my plate back to my desk. It felt wrong to eat over the ghost whisperer’s manuscript, so I slid across my file of Milderhurst Mercury printouts instead. I read bits and pieces, but most of all I looked at the pictures. There’s something deeply nostalgic about black-and-white photographs, the absence of colour a visual rendering of the deepening funnel of time. There were lots of shots taken of the castle itself at various periods, some of the estate, a very old one of Raymond Blythe and his twin daughters on the occasion of the publication of the Mud Man. Photos of Percy Blythe looking stiff and uncomfortable at the wedding of a local couple called Harold and Lucy Rogers, Percy Blythe cutting the ribbon at the opening of a community centre, Percy Blythe presenting a signed copy of the Mud Man to the winner of a poetry competition.
    I flicked back through the pages: Saffy was in none of them, and the fact struck me as rather unusual. Juniper’s absence I could understand, but where was Saffy? I picked up an article celebrating the end of the Second World War, highlighting the involvement of various villagers. Yet another photograph of Percy Blythe, this time in ambulance uniform. I stared at it thoughtfully. It was possible, of course, that Saffy didn’t like having her photo taken. It was possible, too, that she was staunchly opposed to involvement in the wider community. More likely, though, I felt certain, having seen the pair in action, she was a twin who knew her place. With a sister like Percy, filled with the steel of resolution and a fierce commitment to her family’s good name, what hope had poor Saffy of getting her smile in the newspaper?
    It was not a good photograph, very unflattering. Percy was in the foreground and the photo had been taken from below, no doubt in order to capture the castle behind her. The angle was unfortunate, making Percy seem looming and rather severe; the fact that she wasn’t smiling didn’t help matters.
    I looked closer. There was something in the background that I hadn’t noticed before, just beyond Percy’s tightly cropped hair. I dug in Herbert’s drawer until I found the magnifying glass, held it over the photograph and squinted. Drew back in amazement. It was just as I had thought. There was someone on the castle roof. Sitting on a ridge by one of the peaks, a figure in a long white dress. I knew at once that it must be Juniper. Poor sad, mad Juniper.
    As I looked at the tiny speck of white up by the attic window, I was overcome by a wave of indignant sadness. Anger, too. My feeling that Thomas Cavill was the root of all evil reawakened and I let myself sink once more into my imaginings of the fateful October night on which he’d broken Juniper’s heart and ruined her life. The fantasy was well developed, I’m afraid; I’d been there many times before, and it played like a familiar film, moody soundtrack and all. I was with the sisters in that perfectly set parlour, listening as they wondered what could be keeping him so long, watching as Juniper began to fall victim to the madness that would consume her, when something happened. Something that had never happened before.
    I’m not sure why or how, only that clarity, when it came, was sudden and fevered. The dream soundtrack screeched to a halt and the vision dissolved leaving only one fact behind: there was more to this story than met the eye. There had to be. For people didn’t go mad simply because their lover stood them up, did they? Even if they did have a history of anxiety or depression or whatever Mrs Bird had meant when she spoke of Juniper’s episodes.
    I let the Mercury drop and sat up very straight. I’d taken the sad story of Juniper Blythe at face value because Mum was right: I’m terribly fanciful and tragic tales are my favourite type. But this wasn’t fiction, this was real life, and I needed to look at the situation more critically. I’m an editor, it’s my job to examine narratives for plausibility, and this one was lacking in some way. It was over-simplified. Love affairs disintegrate, people betray one another, lovers part. Human experience is littered with such personal tragedies; ghastly, but surely, in the greater scheme, minor? She went mad: the words rolled off the tongue well enough, but the reality seemed thin, like something out of a penny dreadful. Why, I had been replaced in similar fashion myself recently and had not gone mad. Not even skirted close.
    My heart had started to tick along rather quickly and I was already reaching for my bag, shoving my newspaper file back inside, gathering my dirty plate and cutlery for the kitchen. I needed to find Thomas Cavill. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? Mum wasn’t going to talk to me, Juniper couldn’t; he was the key, the answer to everything lay at his feet and I needed to know more about him.
    I switched off the lamp, dropped the blinds and locked the front door behind me. I’m a book person, not a people person, so it didn’t occur to me to do it any other way: with a skip in my step, I hurried back in the direction of the library.
    Miss Yeats was delighted to see me. ‘Back so soon,’ she said, with the sort of enthusiasm you might expect from a long-lost friend. ‘But you’re all wet! Don’t tell me the weather’s come in again.’
    I hadn’t even noticed. ‘I don’t have an umbrella,’ I said.
    ‘Well, never mind. You’ll dry off soon enough, and I’m very glad you’ve come.’ She gathered a thin pile of papers from her desk and brought it to me with a reverence befitting transportation of the holy grail itself. ‘I know you said you hadn’t time, but I did a little sleuthing anyway – the Pembroke Farm Institute,’ she said, having noticed, perhaps, that I hadn’t a clue what she was talking about. ‘Raymond Blythe’s bequest?’
    ‘Oh,’ I said, remembering. The morning seemed an awfully long time ago. ‘Terrific. Thanks.’
    ‘I’ve printed out everything I could find. I was going to ring you at work and let you know, but now you’re here!’
    I thanked her again and gave the documents a cursory glance, flicking through pages detailing the institute’s history of conservation, making a small show of considering the information, before tucking them inside my bag. ‘I’m really looking forward to exploring them properly,’ I said, ‘but there’s something I need to do first.’ And I explained then that I was looking for information about a man. ‘Thomas Cavill is his name. He was a soldier during the Second World War and a teacher before that. He lived and worked near Elephant and Castle.’
    She was nodding. ‘Is there anything in particular you were hoping to uncover?’
    Why he failed to arrive at Milderhurst Castle for dinner in October 1941, why Juniper Blythe was plunged into a madness from which she never recovered, why my mother refused to talk to me about any aspect of her past. ‘Not really,’ I said. ‘Whatever I can find.’
    Miss Yeats was a wizard. While I battled the microfilm machine solo, cursing the dial which refused to perform small incremental shifts and flew instead through weeks at a time, she darted about the library accumulating odd bits of paper from here and there. When we reconvened after half an hour, I brought a worse-for-wear newsreel and a crushing headache to the table, while she’d assembled a small but decent dossier of information.
    There wasn’t much, certainly nowhere near the reams of local press concerning the Blythe family and their castle, but it was a start. There was a small birth notice from a 1916 Bermondsey Gazette, that read, CAVILL – Feb 22, at Henshaw St, the wife of Thomas Cavill of a son, Thomas, an effusive report in the Southwark Star from 1937, entitled ‘Local Teacher Wins Poetry Prize,’ and another from 1939 with a similarly unambiguous title, ‘Local Teacher Joins War Effort’. The second article contained a small photograph labelled ‘Mr Thomas Cavill’, but the copy was of such poor quality that I could tell little more about him than that he was a young man with a head, shoulders and a British army uniform. It seemed rather a small collection of public information to show for a man’s life and I was extremely disappointed to see that there was nothing at all from after 1939.
    ‘That’s it,’ I said, trying to sound philosophical rather than ungrateful.
    ‘Almost.’ Miss Yeats handed me another clutch of papers.
    They were advertisements, all dated March 1981, all taken from the bottom corner of The Times, Guardian and Daily Telegraph classifieds. Each one bore the same message:
    Would Thomas Cavill, once of Elephant and Castle, please telephone Theo on the following number as a matter of urgency: (01) 394 7521
    ‘Well,’ I said.
    ‘Well,’ Miss Yeats concurred. ‘Rather curious, wouldn’t you agree? Whatever could they mean?’
    I shook my head. I had no idea. ‘One thing’s certain: this Theo, whoever he might be, was pretty keen to get in touch with Thomas.’
    ‘May I ask, dear – I mean, I certainly don’t like to pry, but is there anything here that helps you with your project?’
    I took another look at the classifieds, pushed my hair behind my ears. ‘Perhaps.’
    ‘Because you know, if it’s his service record you’re interested in, the Imperial War Museum has a wonderful archive collection. Or else there’s the General Register Office for births, deaths and marriages. And I’m sure with just a little more time I could… oh dear,’ she said, flushing as she glanced at her watch, ‘but what a shame. It’s almost closing time. And right when we were getting somewhere. I don’t suppose there’s anything more I could do to help before they lock us in?’
    ‘Actually,’ I said, ‘there is one little thing. Do you think I could use your telephone?’
    It had been eleven years since the advertisements were placed so I’m not sure what I expected, I know only what I hoped: that a fellow by the name of Theo would pick up at the other end and happily fill me in on the past fifty years of Thomas Cavill’s life. Needless to say, it’s not what happened. My first attempt was met by the rude insistence of a disconnection tone and I was so utterly frustrated that I couldn’t help but stamp my foot like a spoiled Victorian child. Miss Yeats was kind enough to ignore the tantrum, reminding me gently to convert the area code to 071 in line with the recent changes, then hovering very closely as I dialled the number. Under scrutiny I grew clumsy and had to try a second time, but finally – success!
    I gave the receiver a quick tap to signal that the number had begun to ring; touched Miss Yeats’s shoulder excitedly when the line picked up. It was answered by a kindly lady who told me, when I asked for Theo, that she’d bought the house from an elderly man by that name the year before. ‘Theodore Cavill,’ she said, ‘that’s who you’re after, isn’t it?’
    I could barely contain myself. Theodore Cavill. A relative, then. ‘That’s him.’
    Beneath my nose, Miss Yeats clapped the heels of her hands like a seal.
    ‘He went to live in a nursing home in Putney,’ said the lady on the phone, ‘right by the river. He was very happy about that, I remember. Said he used to teach at a school across the way.’
    I went to visit him. I went that very evening.
    There were five nursing homes in Putney, only one of which was on the river, and I found it easily. The drizzle had blown away and the evening was warm and clear; I stood at the front like someone in a dream, comparing the address of the plain brick building before me to that in my notepad.
    As soon as I set foot inside the foyer, I was accosted by the nurse on duty, a young woman with a pixie haircut and a way of smiling so that one side of her mouth rose higher than the other. I told her who I’d come to see and she grinned.
    ‘Oh, how lovely! He’s one of our sweetest is Theo.’
    I felt my first pang of doubt then and returned her smile a little queasily. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but now, beneath the stark fluorescent light of the hallway we were fast approaching, I wasn’t so sure. There was something not terribly likeable about a person prepared to impose upon an unsuspecting old gentleman, one of the nursing home’s sweetest. An arrant stranger with designs on the fellow’s family history. I considered backing out, but my guide was surprisingly invested in my visit and had already railroaded me through the foyer with breathtaking efficiency.
    ‘It’s lonely for them when they get near the end,’ she was saying, ‘especially if they never married. No kids or grand-kids to think about.’
    I agreed and smiled and trailed her at a skip along the wide, white corridor. Door after door, the spaces between punctuated by wall-hung vases. Purple flowers, just this side of fresh, poked their heads over the top, and I wondered absently whose job it was to change them. I didn’t ask, though, and we didn’t stop, continuing right down the corridor until we reached a door at the very end. Through its glass panel, I could see that a neat garden lay on the other side. The nurse held open the door and tilted her head, indicating that I should go first, then followed closely on my heel.
    ‘Theo,’ she said, in a louder-than-normal voice, though to whom she spoke I couldn’t tell. ‘Someone here to see you. I’m sorry – ’ she turned to me – ‘I don’t remember your name.’
    ‘Edie. Edie Burchill.’
    ‘Edie Burchill’s here to visit, Theo.’
    I saw then an iron bench seat just beyond a low hedge, and an old man standing. It was evident from the way he stooped, the hand holding the back of the seat, that he’d been sitting until the moment we arrived, that he’d clambered to his feet out of habit, a vestige of the old-fashioned manners he’d no doubt been using all his life. He blinked through bottle-thick glasses. ‘Hello there,’ he said. ‘Join me, won’t you?’
    ‘I’ll leave you to it,’ said the nurse. ‘I’m just inside. Give me a yell if there’s anything you need.’ She bobbed her head, crossed her arms, and disappeared sprucely back along the red-brick path. The door closed behind her and Theo and I were left alone in the garden.
    He was tiny, five foot tall if he was lucky, with the sort of portly body you might draw, if you were so inclined, by starting with a rough aubergine shape and strapping a belt across the widest point. He gestured away from me with a tufted head. ‘I’ve been sitting here watching the river. It never stops, you know.’
    I liked his voice. Something in its warm timbre reminded me of being a very little child, of sitting cross-legged on a dusty carpet while a blurry-faced grown-up intoned reassuringly and my mind took leave to wander. I was aware suddenly that I had no idea how to begin speaking with this old man. That coming here had been an enormous mistake and I needed to leave immediately. I’d opened my mouth to tell him so when he said, ‘I’ve been stalling. I’m afraid I can’t place you. Forgive me, it’s my memory…’
    ‘It’s quite all right. We haven’t met before.’
    ‘Oh?’ He was silent and his lips moved slowly around his thoughts. ‘I see… well, never mind, you’re here now, and I don’t have a lot of visitors… I’m terribly sorry, I’ve forgotten your name already. I know Jean said it, but…’
    Run, said my brain. ‘I’m Edie,’ said my mouth. ‘I’ve come about your advertisements.’
    ‘My…?’ He cupped his ear as if he might have misheard. ‘Advertisements, did you say? I’m sorry, but I think you might’ve confused me with someone else.’
    I reached inside my bag and found the printout page from The Times. ‘I’ve come about Thomas Cavill,’ I said, holding it so he could see.
    He wasn’t looking at the paper though. I’d startled him and his whole face changed, confusion swept aside by delight. ‘I’ve been waiting for you,’ he said eagerly. ‘Come, sit down, sit down. Who are you with then, the police? The military police?’
    The police? It was my turn for confusion. I shook my head.
    He’d become agitated, clasping his small hands together and speaking very quickly: ‘I knew if I just lasted long enough, someone, someday would show a bit of interest in my brother. Come.’ He waved impatiently. ‘Sit down, please. Tell me – what is it? What have you found?’
    I was utterly flummoxed; I had no idea what he meant. I went closer and spoke gently. ‘Mr Cavill, I think there’s been some sort of misunderstanding. I haven’t found anything and I’m not with the police. Or with the military for that matter. I’ve come because I’m trying to find your brother – to find Thomas – and I thought you might be able to help.’
    His head inclined. ‘You thought I might… That I could help you…?’ Realization drained the colour from his cheeks. He held the back of the seat for support and nodded with a bitter dignity that made me ache, even though I didn’t understand its cause. ‘I see…’ A faint smile. ‘I see.’
    I’d upset him and although I’d no idea how, or what the police might have to do with Thomas Cavill, I knew I had to say something to explain my presence. ‘Your brother was my mother’s teacher, back before the war. We were talking the other day, she and I, and she was telling me what an inspiration he was. That she was sorry to have lost contact with him.’ I swallowed, surprised and disturbed in equal measure by how easy it was for me to lie like this. ‘She was wondering what became of him, whether he kept teaching after the war, whether he got married.’
    As I spoke, his attention had drifted back towards the river, but I could tell by the glaze of his eyes that he wasn’t seeing anything. Nothing that was there, at any rate; not the people strolling across the bridge, or the small boats bobbing on the distant bank, or the ferry-load of tourists with pointed cameras. ‘I’m afraid I’m going to disappoint you,’ he said finally. ‘I don’t have any idea what happened to Tom.’
    Theo sat down, easing his back against the iron rails and picking up his story. ‘My brother disappeared in 1941. The middle of the war. First we knew was a knock at my mum’s door and the local bobby standing there. Wartime reserve policeman, he was – friend of my dad’s when he was alive, fought alongside him in the Great War. Ah – ’ Theo flapped his hand as if he were swatting a fly, ‘he was embarrassed, poor fellow. Must’ve hated delivering that sort of news.’
    ‘What sort of news?’
    ‘Tom hadn’t reported for duty and the bobby’d come to bring him in.’ Theo sighed with the memory. ‘Poor old Mum. What could she do? She told the fellow the truth: that Tom wasn’t there and she had no idea where he was staying, that he’d taken to living alone since he was wounded. Couldn’t settle back into the family home after Dunkirk.’
    ‘He was evacuated?’
    Theo nodded. ‘Almost didn’t make it. He spent weeks in hospital afterwards; his leg mended up all right, but my sisters said he came out different to when he went in. He’d laugh in all the same places but there’d be a pause beforehand. Like he was reading lines from a script.’
    A child had begun to cry nearby and Theo’s attention flickered in the direction of the river path; he smiled faintly. ‘Ice cream dropped,’ he said. ‘It wouldn’t be a Saturday in Putney if some poor kid didn’t lose his ice cream on that path.’
    I waited for him to continue and when he didn’t, prompted him as gently as I could. ‘And what happened? What did your mother do?’
    He was still watching the path, but he tapped his fingers on the back of the seat and said, in a quiet voice, ‘Tom was absent without leave in the middle of a war. The bobby’s hands were tied. He was a good man though, showed some leniency out of respect for Dad; gave Mum twenty-four hours to find Tom and have him report for duty before it all went official.’
    ‘But she didn’t? She didn’t find him.’
    He shook his head. ‘Needle in a haystack. Mum and my sisters went to pieces. They searched everywhere they could think but…’ He shrugged weakly. ‘I was no help, I wasn’t there at the time – I’ve never forgiven myself for that. I was up north, training with my regiment. First I knew was when Mum’s letter arrived. By then it was too late. Tom was on the absconders’ list.’
    ‘I’m so sorry.’
    ‘He’s on it to this day.’ His eyes met mine and I was dismayed to see that they were glassy with tears. He straightened his thick spectacles, hooked the arms over his ears. ‘I’ve checked every year since because they told me once that some old fellows turn up decades later. Front up at the guardroom with their tail between their legs and a string of bad decisions behind them. Throw themselves on the mercy of the officer on duty.’ He lifted a hand and let it fall, helplessly, back to his knee. ‘I only check because I’m desperate. I know in my heart that Tom won’t be showing up at any guardroom.’ He met my concern, searched my eyes and said, ‘Dishonourable bloody discharge.’
    There was chatter behind us and I glanced over my shoulder to see a young man helping an elderly woman through the door and into the garden. The woman laughed at something he’d said as they walked together slowly to look at the roses.
    Theo had seen them, too, and he lowered his voice. ‘Tom was an honourable man.’ Each word was a struggle and, as he held his lips tight against the quiver of strong emotion, I could see how much he needed me to believe the best of his brother. ‘He never would’ve done what they said, run away like that. Never. I told them so, the military police. No one would listen. It broke my mother’s heart. The shame, the worry, wondering what had really happened to him. Whether he was out there somewhere, lost and alone. Whether he’d come to some harm, forgotten who he was and where he belonged – ’ He broke off, rubbed at his bowed brow as if abashed, and I understood that these were heartbreaking theories for which he’d been castigated in the past. ‘Whatever the case,’ he said, ‘she never got over it. He was her favourite, though she’d never have admitted such a thing. She didn’t have to: he was everybody’s favourite, Tom.’
    Silence fell and I watched as two rooks twirled across the sky. The rose couple’s stroll brought them close and I waited for them to reach the riverbank before turning to Theo and saying, ‘Why wouldn’t the police listen? Why were they so sure that Tom had run away?’
    ‘There was a letter.’ A nerve in his jaw flickered. ‘Early 1942 it arrived, a few months after Tom went missing. Typed and very short, saying only that he’d met someone and run off to get married. That he was lying low, but would make contact later. Once the police saw that, they weren’t interested in Tom or us. There was a war on, didn’t we know? There wasn’t time to be looking for a fellow who’d deserted his nation.’
    His hurt was still so raw, fifty years later. I could only imagine what it must have been like at the time. To be missing a loved one and unable to convince anyone else to help in the search. And yet. In Milderhurst village I’d been told that Thomas Cavill failed to show up at the castle because he’d eloped with another woman. Was it only family pride and loyalty that made Theo so certain the elopement was a lie? ‘You don’t believe the letter?’
    ‘Not for a second.’ His vehemence was a knife. ‘It’s true that he’d met a girl and fallen in love. He told me that himself, wrote long letters about her – how beautiful she was, how she made everything right with the world, how he was going to marry her. But he wasn’t about to elope – he couldn’t wait to introduce her to the family.’
    ‘You didn’t meet her?’
    He shook his head. ‘None of us did. It was something to do with her family and keeping it secret until they’d broken the news to them. I got the feeling her people were rather grand.’
    My heart had started to race as Theo’s story overlay so neatly with the cast of my own. ‘Do you remember the girl’s name?’
    ‘He never told me.’
    The frustration winded me.
    ‘He was adamant that he had to meet her family first. I can’t tell you how it’s plagued me over the years,’ he said. ‘If I’d only known who she was, I might’ve had a place to start searching. What if she went missing too? What if the pair of them were in an accident together? What if her family has information that might help?’
    It was on the tip of my tongue then to tell him about Juniper, but I thought better of it at the last. I couldn’t see that there was any point in raising his hopes when the Blythes had no additional information on the whereabouts of Thomas Cavill; when they were as convinced as the police that he’d eloped with another woman. ‘The letter,’ I said suddenly, ‘who do you think sent it, if it wasn’t Tom? And why? Why would somebody else do such a thing?’
    ‘I don’t know, but I’ll tell you something. Tom didn’t marry anyone. I checked with the Register Office. I checked the death records, too; I still do. Every year or so, just in case. There’s nothing. No record of him after 1941. It’s like he just disappeared into thin air.’
    ‘But people don’t just disappear.’
    ‘No,’ he said, with a weary smile. ‘No, they don’t. And I’ve spent my whole life trying to find him. I even hired a fellow some decades ago. Waste of money that was. Thousands of quid just to have some idiot tell me that wartime London was an excellent place for a man who wanted to go missing.’ He sighed roughly. ‘No one seems to care that Tom didn’t want to go missing.’
    ‘And the advertisements?’ I gestured to the printout, still on the seat between us.
    ‘I ran those when our little brother Joey took his turn for the worse. I figured it was worth a shot, just in case I’d been wrong all along and Tom was out there somewhere, looking for a reason to come back to us. Joey was simple, poor kid, but he adored Tom. Would’ve meant the world to him to see him one more time.’
    ‘You didn’t hear anything though.’
    ‘Nothing but some lads making prank calls.’
    The sun had slipped from the sky and early dusk was sheer and pink. A breeze brushed my arms and I realized we were alone again in the garden; remembered that Theo was an old man who ought to be inside contemplating a plate of roast beef and not the sorrows of his past. ‘It’s getting cool,’ I said. ‘Shall we go in?’
    He nodded and tried to smile a little, but as we stood I could tell that the wind had left his sails. ‘I’m not stupid, Edie,’ he said as we reached the door. I pulled it open, but he insisted on holding it for me to pass through first. ‘I know I won’t be seeing Tom again. The ads, checking the records each year, the file of family photographs and other odds and sods I keep to show him, just in case – I do all that because it’s habit, and because it helps to fill the absence.’
    I knew exactly what he meant.
    There was noise coming from the dining room – chairs scraping, cutlery clanging, the mumbles of congenial conversation – but he stopped in the middle of the corridor. A purple flower wilted behind him, a humming came from the fluorescent tube above, and I saw what I hadn’t outside. His cheeks shone with the spill of old tears. ‘Thank you,’ he said quietly. ‘I don’t know how it is you chose today to come, Edie, but I’m glad you did. I’ve been blue all day – some are like that – and it’s good to talk about him. I’m the only one left now: my brothers and sisters are in here.’ He pressed a palm against his heart. ‘I miss them all, but there’s no way to describe Tom’s loss. The guilt – ’ his bottom lip quivered and he fought to wrest it back under control – ‘knowing that I failed him. That something terrible happened and no one knows it; the world, history, considers him a traitor because I couldn’t prove them wrong.’
    Every atom of my being ached to make things right for him. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t bring news of Tom.’
    He shook his head, smiled a little. ‘It’s all right. Hope’s one thing, expectation’s quite another. I’m not a fool. Deep down I know I’ll go to my grave without setting Tom to rest.’
    ‘I wish there were something I could do.’
    ‘Come back and visit me some afternoon,’ he said. ‘That’d be marvellous. I’ll tell you some more about Tom. Happier days next time, I promise.’

ONE

    Milderhurst Castle Gardens, September 14th, 1939
    There was a war on and he had a job to be doing, but the way the sun beat hard and round in the sky, the silver dazzle of the water, the hot stretch of tree limbs above him; well, Tom figured it would’ve been wrong in some indescribable way not to stop for a moment and take a plunge. The pool was circular and handsomely made, with stones rimming the outside and a wooden swing suspended from an enormous branch, and he couldn’t help laughing as he dropped his satchel onto the ground. What a find! He unstrapped his wristwatch and laid it carefully on the smooth leather bag he’d bought the year before, his pride and joy, kicked off his shoes and started unbuttoning his shirt.
    When was the last time he’d been swimming? Not through all of the summer, that was certain; a group of friends had borrowed a car and taken off for the sea, a week in Devon during the hottest August any of them could remember, and he’d been all set to join them until Joey took his fall and the nightmares started and the poor kid wouldn’t go to sleep unless Tom sat by the bed and made up stories about the Underground. He’d lain in his own narrow bed afterwards, heat thickening in the room’s corners as he dreamed of the sea, but he hadn’t minded; not really, not for long. There wasn’t much he wouldn’t do for Joey – poor kid, with his big man’s body turning to flab and his little boy laugh; the cruel music of that laugh made Tom ache and knot inside for the kid Joey’d been, the man he ought to have become.
    He shrugged out of his shirtsleeves and slipped his belt free, shed the sad old thoughts, then his trousers too. A big black bird coughed above him and Tom stood for a moment, craned to glimpse the clear blue sky. The sun blazed and he squinted, following the bird as it glided in graceful silhouette towards a distant wood. The air was sweet with the scent of something he stood no chance of recognizing but knew he liked. Flowers, birds, the distant burble of water scooting over stones; pastoral smells and sounds straight from the pages of Hardy, and Tom was high on the knowledge that they were real and he was amongst them. That this was life and he was in it. He laid a hand flat on his chest, fingers spread; the sun was warm on his bare skin, everything was ahead of him, and it felt good to be young and strong and here and now. He wasn’t religious, but this moment certainly was.
    Tom checked over his shoulder, but lazily and without expectation. He wasn’t a rule breaker by nature; he was a teacher, he owed his students an example, and he took himself seriously enough to attempt to set them one. But the day, the weather, the newly arrived war, the smell he couldn’t name that sat on the breeze like that, all of it made him bold. He was a young man, after all, and it didn’t take much for a young man to find himself infused with a fine, free sense that the earth and its pleasures were his to be taken where found; that rules of possession and prevention, though well intentioned, were theoretical dictates that belonged only in books and on ledgers and in the conversations of dithering white-bearded lawyers at Lincoln’s Inn Fields.
    Trees encircled the clearing, a changing room stood silent nearby, and the hint of a stone staircase led somewhere beyond. Across it all lay a spill of sunlight and birdsong. With a deep, contented sigh, Tom decided the time was upon him. There was a diving board and the sun had warmed the wood so that as he stepped onto it his feet burned; he stood for a moment, enjoying the pain, letting his shoulders bake, the skin tighten, until finally he could stand it no longer and took off with a grin, jumping at the end, drawing his arms back and launching, cutting like an arrow through the water. The cold was a vice around his chest and he gasped as he came to the surface, his lungs as grateful for air as a baby’s on drawing first breath.
    He swam for some minutes, dived deeply, emerged again and again, then he lay on his back and let his limbs drift out from his body to form a star. This, he thought, is it, perfection. The moment Wordsworth and Coleridge and Shelley were on about: the sublime. If he were to die right now, Tom was sure, he would die content. Not that he wanted to die, not for at least seventy years. Tom calculated quickly: the year 2009, that would do nicely. An old man living on the moon. He laughed, backstroked idly, then resumed his floating, closed his eyes so that his lids warmed. The world was orange and star-shot, and within it he saw his future glowing.
    He would be in uniform soon; the war was waiting for him and Thomas Cavill couldn’t wait to meet it. He wasn’t naive, his own father had lost a leg and parts of his mind in France and he entertained no illusions as to heroics or glory; he knew war was a serious matter, a dangerous one. Neither was he one of those fellows keen to escape his present situation, quite the opposite: as far as Tom could see, the war offered a perfect opportunity for him to better himself, as a man and as a teacher.
    He’d wanted to be a teacher ever since he realized he’d grow up one day to be an adult, and had dreamed about working in his old London neighbourhood. Tom believed he could open the eyes and minds of kids like he’d once been, to a world far beyond the grimy bricks and laden laundry lines of their daily experience. The goal had sustained him right through teacher-training college and into the first years of Prac until finally, through some silver-tongued talking and good old-fashioned luck, he’d arrived exactly where he wanted to be.
    As soon as it had become clear that war was coming, Tom had known he’d sign up. Teachers were needed at home, it was a reserved occupation, but what sort of an example would that set? And his reasoning was more selfish too. John Keats had said that nothing became real until it was experienced and Tom knew that to be true. More than that, he knew it was precisely what he was missing. Empathy was all well and good, but when Tom spoke of history and sacrifice and nationality, when he read to his students the battle cry of Henry V, he scraped against the shallow floor of his own limited experience. War, he knew, would give him the depth of understanding he craved, which was why as soon as he was sure his evacuees were safely settled with their families he was heading back to London; he’d signed up with the 1st Battalion of the East Surrey regiment and with any luck he’d be in France by October.
    He turned his fingers idly in the warm surface water and sighed so deeply that he sank a little lower. Perhaps it was the awareness that he would be in uniform next week that made this day somehow more vivid, more real than those that fanned out on either side. For there was definitely some unreal force at work. It wasn’t a simple matter of the warmth or the breeze itself, or the smell he couldn’t name, but a strange blend of condition, climate and circumstance; and although he was keen to line up and take his turn, although his legs ached sometimes at night with impatience, right now, at this very moment, he wished only for time to slow, that he might remain here floating like this forever…
    ‘How’s the water?’ The voice when it came was startling. Perfect solitude, shattered like a golden eggshell.
    Later, on the many occasions he was to replay the memory of their first meeting, it was her eyes he would remember clearest of all. And the way she moved – be honest: the way her hair hung long and messy around her shoulders, the curve of her small breasts, the shape of her legs, oh God, those legs. But before and above all those, it was the light in her eyes; those cat’s eyes. Eyes that knew things and thought things that they shouldn’t. In the long days and nights that were to come, and when he finally reached the end, it was her eyes he would see when he closed his own.
    She was sitting on the swing, bare feet on the ground, watching him. A girl – a woman? He wasn’t sure; not at first – dressed in a simple white sundress, watching him while he floated in the pool. Any number of casual rejoinders came to mind, but something in the quality of her expression tied his tongue and all he managed was, ‘Warm. Perfect. Blue.’ Her eyes were blue, almond-shaped, a little too far apart, and they widened slightly when he uttered his three words. No doubt wondering what sort of simpleton she’d stumbled across making free with her pool.
    He paddled awkwardly, waited for her to ask him who he was, what he was doing, what business he had swimming there at all, but she didn’t, she asked none of those questions, merely pushed off lazily so the swing travelled in a shallow arc across the edge of the pool and back. Keen to establish himself as a man of more than three words, he answered them anyway: ‘I’m Thomas,’ he said, ‘Thomas Cavill. Sorry to use your pool like this but the day was so hot. I couldn’t help myself.’ He grinned up at her and she leaned her head against the rope, and he half wondered whether she might be trespassing as well. Something in the way she looked, a cut-out quality as if she and the environment in which he found her were not natural companions. He wondered vaguely where it was she might fit, a girl like this, but he drew a blank.
    Wordlessly she stopped swinging, stood and let go of the seat. The ropes slackened and it lassoed back and forth. He saw that she was rather tall. She sat then on the stone edge, gathered her knees close to her chest so that her dress bunched high around her legs, and dipped in her toes, peering over the tops of her knees to watch the ripples as they ran away from her.
    Tom felt the rise of indignation in his chest. He’d trespassed but he hadn’t done any real harm; nothing to earn this sort of silent treatment. She was behaving now as if he weren’t there at all; though she was sitting right by him, her face was fixed in an attitude of deep, distracted thought. He decided she must be playing some sort of game, one of those games that girls – that women – liked to play, the sort that confused men and thereby, in some strange counteractive fashion, kept them in line. What other reason had she for ignoring him? Unless she was shy. Perhaps that was it; she was young, there was every chance she found his boldness, his maleness, his – let’s face it – near nakedness confronting. He felt sorry then – he’d not intended anything like that, had only fancied a swim after all – and he adopted his most casual, friendly tone: ‘Look here. I’m sorry to surprise you like this; I don’t mean any harm. My name’s Thomas Cavill. I’ve come to-’
    ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘I heard you.’ She looked at him then as if he were a gnat. Wearily, mildly annoyed, but otherwise unaffected. ‘There’s really no need to trumpet on and on about it.’
    ‘Now hang on a minute. I was only trying to assure you that…’
    But Tom let his assurances trail off. For one thing, it was evident that this strange person was no longer listening, for another he was far too distracted. She’d stood up while he was speaking and was now lifting her dress to reveal a swimsuit beneath. Just like that. Not a glance his way, no peeping beneath her eyelashes or giggling at her own forwardness. She tossed her dress behind her, a small pile of discarded cotton, and stretched like a sun-warmed cat, yawned a little, bothering herself with none of the female fripperies of covering her mouth or excusing herself or blushing in his direction.
    With no fanfare at all she dived from the side and as she hit the water Tom hurried to climb out. Her boldness, if that’s what it was, alarmed him in some way. His alarm frightened him and his fear was compelling. It made her compelling.
    Tom hadn’t a towel, of course, nor any other way of drying himself quickly enough to get dressed so he stood out in a sunny patch and tried to look as if he were relaxed about doing so. It was no mean feat. His ease had deserted him and he knew now what it was to be one of his bumbling friends who fell to shuffling their feet and confusing their words when faced with a pretty woman. A pretty woman who had swum to the pool’s surface and was floating lazily on her back, long wet hair fanning out like seaweed from her face, unalarmed, unaffected, seemingly unaware of his intrusion.
    Tom tried to find some dignity, decided trousers would help and pulled them over his wet shorts. He aimed for authority, tried not to let nervousness tip him over into cockiness. He was a teacher, for God’s sake, he was a man about to become a soldier; it shouldn’t be so hard. Professionalism, though, wasn’t an easy thing to exude when one was standing bare-foot and semi-naked in someone else’s garden. All earlier epiphanies regarding the foolishness of property law were revealed now as crude, if not delusional, and he swallowed before saying as calmly as he could, ‘My name is Thomas Cavill. I’m a teacher. I’ve come here to check on a pupil of mine I believe has been evacuated here.’ He was dripping water, a rivulet ran warm down the centre of his stomach, and he winced when he added, ‘I’m her teacher.’ Which, of course, he’d already said.
    She’d rolled over and was watching him now from the centre of the pool, studying him as if she might be making mental notes. She swam beneath the water, a silvery streak, and emerged at the edge, pressed her arms flat against the stones, one hand on top of the other, and rested her chin on them. ‘Meredith.’
    ‘Yes.’ A sigh of relief. At last. ‘Yes, Meredith Baker. I’m here to see how she’s doing. To check that she’s all right.’
    Those wide-apart eyes were on him, her feelings impossible to read. Then she smiled and her face was transformed in some transcendent way and he drew breath as she said, ‘I suppose you’d better ask her that yourself. She’ll be along soon. My sister’s measuring her for dresses.’
    ‘Good then. That’s good.’ Purpose was his life raft and he clung to it with gratitude and a total lack of shame. He put his arms back through his shirtsleeves and sat down on the end of a nearby sun lounger; pulling the folder and its checklist from his satchel. With a pretence of composure he performed great interest in its information, never mind that he could have recited it if pressed. It was as well to read it through again: he wanted to be sure that when any of his pupils’ parents saw him back in London, he’d be able to answer their questions with honesty and certainty. Most of his kids had been accommodated in the village, two with the vicar at the vicarage, another at a farmhouse down the way; Meredith, he thought, glancing over his shoulder at the army of chimney pots above the distant trees, had scattered the furthest. A castle, according to the address on his checklist. He’d hoped to see inside, not just to see but to explore a little; so far the local ladies had been very welcoming, asking him in for tea and cake, fussing over whether he’d had enough.
    He risked another glance at the creature in the pool and figured that an invitation here was decidedly unlikely. Her attention was elsewhere, so he let his focus rest on her a while. This girl was perplexing: she seemed blind to him and blind to his charm. He felt ordinary next to her and that was something he wasn’t used to. From this distance, however, and with his pride somewhat smoothed, he was able to put his vanity aside long enough to wonder who she was. The officious lady from the local WVS had told him that the castle was owned by one Mr Raymond Blythe, a writer (‘The True History of the Mud Man - why, surely you’ve read it?’) who was old now and unwell, but that Meredith would be in good hands with his twin daughters, a pair of spinsters perfectly suited to the care of a poor, homeless child. No other occupant had been mentioned and he had assumed, if indeed he’d given it much thought at all, that Mr Blythe and the twin spinsters would be the full complement at Milderhurst Castle. He certainly hadn’t expected this girl, this woman, this young and ungraspable woman who was certainly no spinster. He wasn’t sure why, but it felt incredibly urgent all of a sudden that he know more about her.
    She splashed and he looked away, shook his head and smiled at his own regrettable conceit; Tom knew enough of himself to realize that his interest in her was in direct proportion to her lack of interest in him. Even as a child he’d been driven by that most senseless of all motivators: the desire to possess precisely what he couldn’t. He needed to let it go. She was just a girl. An eccentric girl at that.
    A rustle then and a bonny Labrador charged honey-blond through the foliage, chasing its wagging tongue; Meredith appeared on its heels, a smile on her face that told him all he needed to know about her condition. Tom was so pleased to see her, a little piece of normality in spectacles, that he grinned and stood, almost tripping over himself in his hurry to greet her. ‘Hey there, kiddo. How’s tricks?’
    She stopped dead, blinked at him, confounded, he realized, to see him so decidedly out of context. As the dog ran circles around her and the blush in her cheeks spread to her neck, she shuffled her plimsolls and said, ‘Hello, Mr Cavill.’
    ‘I’ve come to see how things are going.’
    ‘Things are going well, Mr Cavill. I’m staying in a castle.’
    He smiled. She was a sweet kid, timid but clever with it. A quick mind and excellent skills of observation, a habit of noticing hidden details that made for surprising and original descriptions. She had little to no belief in herself unfortunately, and it wasn’t hard to see why: her parents had looked at Tom as if he’d lost his mind when he suggested she might sit the grammar school entry a year or two back. Tom was working on it though. ‘A castle! That’s a piece of luck. I don’t think I’ve ever been inside a castle.’
    ‘It’s very large and very dark, with a funny smell of mud and lots and lots of staircases.’
    ‘Have you climbed them all yet?’
    ‘Some, but not the stairs that lead to the tower.’
    ‘No?’
    ‘I’m not allowed up there. That’s where Mr Blythe works. He’s a writer, a real one.’
    ‘A real writer. He might offer you some tips if you’re lucky.’ Tom reached to give the side of her shoulder a playful tap.
    She smiled, shy but pleased. ‘Maybe.’
    ‘Are you still writing your journal?’
    ‘Every day. There’s a lot to write about.’ She sneaked a glance at the pool and Tom followed it. Long legs drifted out behind the girl as she held onto the edge. A quote came unexpectedly into his head: Dostoevsky, ‘Beauty is mysterious as well as terrible.’ Tom cleared his throat. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘That’s good then. The more you practise, the better you’ll become. Don’t let yourself settle for less than your best.’
    ‘I won’t.’
    He smiled at her and nodded at his clipboard. ‘I can mark down that you’re happy then? Everything’s all right?’
    ‘Oh yes.’
    ‘You’re not missing your mum and dad too much?’
    ‘I’m writing them letters,’ said Meredith. ‘I know where the post office is and I’ve already sent them the postcard with my new address. The nearest school is in Tenterden, but there’s a bus that goes.’
    ‘And your brother and sister, they’re near the village too, aren’t they?’
    Meredith nodded.
    He laid his palm on her head; the hair on top was hot from the sun. ‘You’re going to be all right, kiddo.’
    ‘Mr Cavill?’
    ‘Yes?’
    ‘You should see the books inside. There’s a room just filled, every wall lined with shelves, all the way to the ceiling.’
    He smiled broadly. ‘Well, I feel a whole lot better knowing that.’
    ‘Me too.’ She nodded at the figure in the water. ‘Juniper said I could read any of them that I wanted.’
    Juniper. Her name was Juniper.
    ‘I’m already three-quarters through The Woman in White and then I’m going to read Wuthering Heights.’
    ‘Are you coming in, Merry?’ Juniper had swum back to the side and was beckoning to the younger girl. ‘The water’s lovely. Warm. Perfect. Blue.’
    Something about his words on her lips made Tom shiver. Beside him Meredith shook her head as if the question had caught her off guard. ‘I don’t know how to swim.’
    Juniper climbed out, slipped her white dress over her head so that it stuck to her wet legs. ‘We’ll have to do something about that while you’re here.’ She pulled her wet hair into a messy ponytail and tossed it over her shoulder. ‘Is there anything else?’ she said to him.
    ‘Well, I thought I might…’ He exhaled, collected himself and started again. ‘Perhaps I ought to come up with you and meet the other members of your household?’
    ‘No,’ said Juniper without flinching. ‘That’s not a good idea.’
    He felt unreasonably affronted.
    ‘My sister doesn’t like strangers, particularly male strangers.’
    ‘I’m not a stranger, am I, Merry?’
    Meredith smiled. Juniper did not. She said, ‘It isn’t personal. She’s funny that way.’
    ‘I see.’
    She was standing close to him, drips sliding into her lashes as her eyes met his; he read no interest in them yet his pulse quickened. ‘Well then,’ she said.
    ‘Well then.’
    ‘If that’s it?’
    ‘That’s it.’
    She lifted her chin and considered him a moment longer before nodding. A short flick that ended their interaction absolutely.
    ‘Goodbye, Mr Cavill,’ said Meredith.
    He smiled, reached out to shake her hand. ‘Goodbye, kiddo. You take care now. Keep up your writing.’
    And he watched them go, the two of them disappearing into the greenery, heading towards the castle. Long blonde hair dripping down her back, shoulder blades that sat like hesitant wings on either side. She reached out an arm and put it lightly around Meredith’s shoulders and hugged her close and, although Tom lost sight of them then, he thought he heard a giggle as they continued up the hillside.
    Over a year would pass before he saw her again, before they met again quite by chance on a London street. He would be a different person by then, inexorably altered, quieter, less cocksure, as damaged as the city around him. He would have survived France, dragged his injured leg to Bray Dune, been evacuated from Dunkirk; he would have watched friends die in his arms, survived a bout of dysentery, and he would know that while John Keats was correct, that experience was indeed truth, there were some things it was as well not to know first-hand.
    And the new Thomas Cavill would fall in love with Juniper Blythe for precisely the same reasons he’d found her so odd in that clearing, in that pool. In a world that had been greyed by ash and sadness, she would now seem wonderful to him; those magical unmarked aspects that remained quite separate from reality would enchant him, and in one fell swoop she would save him. He would love her with a passion that both frightened and revived him, a desperation that made a mockery of his neat dreams for the future.
    But he knew none of that then. He knew only that he could check the last of his students off his list, that Meredith Baker was in safe hands, that she was happy and well cared for, that he was free now to hitch a ride back to London and get on with his education, his life’s plan. And although he wasn’t yet dry he buttoned up his shirt, sat to tie his shoelaces, and whistled to himself as he left the pool behind him, lily pads still bobbing over the ripples she’d left in the surface, that strange girl with the unearthly eyes. He started back down the hill, walking along the shallow brook that would lead him towards the road, away from Juniper Blythe and Milderhurst Castle, never – or so he thought – to see either one of them again.

TWO

    Oh – but things were never to be the same afterwards! How could they be? Nothing in the thousand books she’d read, nothing she’d imagined, or dreamed, or written, could have prepared Juniper Blythe for the meeting by the pool with Thomas Cavill. When first she’d come upon him in the clearing, glimpsed him floating on the water’s surface, she’d presumed she must have conjured him herself. It had been some time since her last ‘visitor’, and it was true there’d been no thrumming in her head, no strange, displaced ocean whooshing in her ears to warn her; but there was a familiar aspect to the sunshine, an artificial, glittering quality that made the scene less real than the one she’d just left. She’d stared up at the canopy of trees and when the uppermost leaves moved with the wind, it appeared that flakes of gold were falling down to earth.
    She’d sat on the pool swing because it was the safest thing to do when a visit was upon her. Sit somewhere quiet, hold something firmly, wait for it to pass: the three golden rules that Saffy had devised when Juniper was small. She’d lifted Juniper onto the table in the kitchen to tend her latest bleeding knee, and said very softly that the visitors were indeed a gift, just as Daddy said, but nonetheless she must learn to be careful.
    ‘But I love to play with them,’ Juniper had said. ‘They’re my friends. And they tell me such interesting things.’
    ‘I know, darling, and that’s wonderful. All I ask is that you remember that you’re not one of them. You are a little girl with skin, and blood beneath it, and bones that could break, and two big sisters who very much want to see you reach adulthood!’
    ‘And a daddy.’
    ‘Of course. And a daddy.’
    ‘But not a mother.’
    ‘No.’
    ‘But a puppy.’
    ‘Emerson, yes.’
    ‘And a patch on my knee.’
    Saffy had laughed then, and given her a hug that smelled like talcum and jasmine and ink, and set her back down on the kitchen tiles. And Juniper had been very careful not to make eye contact with the figment at the window that was beckoning her outside to play.
    Juniper didn’t know where the visitors came from. All she knew was that her earliest memories were of figures in the streams of light around her crib. They’d been there before she’d understood that others couldn’t see them. She had been called fey and mad, wicked and gifted; she’d driven away countless nannies who wouldn’t abide imaginary friends. ‘They’re not imaginary,’ Juniper had explained, over and over again, with as reasonable a tone as she could muster; but it seemed there were no English nannies prepared to accept this assertion as truth. One by one they’d packed their bags and demanded an audience with Daddy; from her hiding spot in the castle’s veins, the little nook by the gap in the stones, Juniper had cloaked herself in a whole new set of descriptions: ‘She’s impertinent…’, ‘She’s obstinate…’, and even, once, ‘Possessed!’
    Everybody had a theory about the visitors. Dr Finley believed them to be ‘fibres of longing and curiosity’, projected from her own mind and linked in some way to her faulty heart; Dr Heinstein argued they were symptoms of psychosis and had provided a raft of pills he promised would end them; Daddy said they were the voices of her ancestors and that she had been chosen specially to hear them; Saffy insisted she was perfect as she was, and Percy didn’t mind much either way. She said that everyone was different and why on earth must things be categorized, people labelled normal or otherwise?
    Anyway. Juniper had not really sat on the swing seat because it was the safest thing to do. She’d sat there because it afforded her the best view of the figment in the pool. She was curious and he was beautiful. The smoothness of his skin, the rise and fall of muscles on his bare chest as he breathed, his arms. If she had conjured him herself, then she had done a bloody brilliant job; he was exotic and lovely and she wanted to observe for as long as it took him to turn back into dappled light and leaves before her eyes.
    Only that wasn’t what had happened. As she sat with her head resting against the swing’s rope, he’d opened his eyes, met hers, and begun to speak.
    This, of itself, was not unprecedented; the visitors had spoken to Juniper before, many times, but this was the first time they’d taken the shape of a young man. A young man with very little clothing on his body.
    She’d answered him, but shortly. Truthfully, she’d been irritated; she hadn’t wanted him to speak; she’d wanted him just to close his eyes again, to float upon the shimmering surface, so she could play voyeur. So she could watch the dance of sunlight on his limbs, his long, long limbs, his quite beautiful face, and concentrate on the queer sensation, like a plucked string humming, way down deep within her belly.
    She hadn’t known many men before. There was Daddy, of course – but he hardly counted; her godfather, Stephen; a few ancient gardeners who’d worked on the estate over the years; and Davies, who’d babied the Daimler.
    But this was different.
    Juniper had tried ignoring him, hopeful that he might get the idea and stop trying to make conversation, but he’d persisted. He’d told her his name, Thomas Cavill. They didn’t usually have names. Not normal ones.
    She’d dived into the pool herself, and he had made a hasty exit. She’d noticed then that there were clothes on the sun bed; his clothes, which was very strange indeed.
    And then, the most peculiar thing of all. Meredith had come – released at last from Saffy’s sewing room – and she and the man had begun to converse.
    Juniper, watching them from the water, had almost drowned in shock, for one thing was certain, her visitors could not be seen by others.
    Juniper had lived at Milderhurst Castle all her life. She had been born, like her father and her sisters before her, in a room on the second floor. She knew the castle and its woods as one might be expected to know the only world one had met. She was safe and loved and indulged. She read and she wrote and she played and she dreamed. Nothing was expected of her other than to be precisely as and who she was. Sometimes, more so.
    ‘You, my little one, are a creature of the castle,’ Daddy had told her often. ‘We are the same, you and I.’ And for a long time Juniper had been perfectly content with this description.
    Lately, though, in ways she couldn’t properly explain, things had begun to change. She woke at night sometimes with an inexplicable tugging in her soul; a desire, like hunger, but for what she couldn’t say. Dissatisfaction, longing, a deep and yawning absence, but no idea of how to fill it. No idea of what it was she missed. She’d walked and she’d run; she’d written with speed and fury. Words, sounds, had pressed against her skull, demanding release, and to put them on paper was a relief; she didn’t agonize, she didn’t ponder, she never reread; it was enough just to free the words so that the voices in her head were stilled.
    Then one day an urge had taken her to the village. She didn’t drive often, but she’d steered the big old Daimler into the High Street. As if in a dream, a character in someone else’s story, she’d parked it and gone inside the hall; a woman had spoken at her but by then Juniper had already seen Meredith.
    Later, Saffy would ask her how she’d chosen, and Juniper would say: ‘I didn’t choose.’
    ‘I don’t like to disagree, lamb, but I’m quite sure it was you who brought her home.’
    ‘Yes, of course, but I didn’t choose. I just knew.’
    Juniper had never had a friend before. Other people, Daddy’s pompous friends, visitors to the castle, just seemed to take up more air than they should. They squashed one with their blustering and their posturing and their constant talking. But Meredith was different. She was funny and she saw things her own way. She was a bookish person who’d never been exposed to books; she was gifted with astute powers of observation, but her thoughts and feelings weren’t filtered through those that she’d read, those that had been written before. She had a unique way of seeing the world and a manner of expressing herself that caught Juniper unawares and made her laugh and think and feel things anew.
    Best of all, though, Meredith had come laden with stories of the outside world. Her arrival had made a small tear in the fabric of Milderhurst. A tiny, bright window to which Juniper could press her eye and glimpse what lay beyond.
    And now just look what she had brought! A man, a real man of flesh and blood. A young man from the outside, the real world, had appeared in the pool. Light from the outside world had shone through the veil, brighter now that a second hole was torn, and Juniper knew that somehow she must see more.
    He’d wanted to stay, to come with them up to the castle, but Juniper had told him no. The castle was all wrong. She wanted to watch him, to inspect him like a cat – carefully, slowly, unnoticed as she drifted past his skin; if she couldn’t have that, it was better to have nothing. He would remain that way a sunlit, silent moment; a breeze against her cheek as the swing tilted back and forth across the warming pool; a new, low pull within her stomach.
    He went. And they stayed. And she draped her arm over Meredith’s shoulder and laughed as they returned up the hill; joked about Saffy’s habit of sticking pins into legs as well as fabrics; pointed out the old fountain, no longer working; paused a moment to inspect the stagnant green water sulking inside, the dragonflies hovering fitfully about its rim. But all the while her thoughts drew out behind her like a spider’s thread, following the man as he made his way towards the road.
    She began to walk, faster now. It was hot, so hot, her hair was already drying, sticking to the sides of her face, her skin seemed tighter than usual. She felt oddly animated. Surely Meredith could hear her heart, hammering away against her ribs?
    ‘I have a grand idea,’ she said. ‘Have you ever wondered what France looks like?’ And she took her little friend’s hand and together they ran, up the stairs, through the briars, beneath the long row of tunnelled trees. Fleeting – the word came into her head and made her feel lighter, like a deer. Faster, faster, both of them laughing, and the wind tore at Juniper’s hair, and her feet rejoiced against the baking, hard earth, and joy ran with her. Finally, they reached the portico, tripped up the stairs, panting, both of them, through the open French doors and into the cool stillness of the library.
    ‘June? Is that you?’
    It was Saffy, sitting at her writing desk. Dear Saffy, looking up from behind the typewriter in the way that was habit with her; always just a little bewildered, as if she’d been caught in the middle of a rose-petal, dew-drop dream and reality was a slightly dusty surprise.
    Whether it was the sunlight, the pool, the man, the clear blue of the sky, Juniper couldn’t resist planting a kiss on the top of her sister’s head as they hurried by.
    Saffy beamed. ‘Did Meredith – Oh yes, she did. Good. Oh, I see you’ve been swimming; be careful that Daddy…’
    But whatever the warning, Juniper and Meredith had gone before it was finished. They ran along looming stone corridors, up narrow flights of stairs, level by level, until finally they reached the attic at the very top of the castle. Juniper went swiftly to the open window, eased herself onto the bookcase and swivelled so that her feet were on the roof outside. ‘Come,’ she said to Meredith, who was still standing by the door, a strange look on her face. ‘Quickly now.’
    Meredith let out a tentative sigh, propped her spectacles back on the bridge of her nose, then followed; did exactly as Juniper had done. Inched her way along the steep roof until they came upon the ridge that pitched south like a ship’s prow.
    ‘There, see?’ said Juniper, when they were seated side by side, settled on the flat behind the edging tiles. She pointed, a scribble on the far horizon. ‘I told you. All the way to France.’
    ‘Really? That’s it?’
    Juniper nodded, but she paid the coastline no more heed. Squinted instead at the wide field of long, yellow grass, skirting Cardarker Wood; scanning, scanning, hoping for just one final glimpse…
    A jolt. She saw him then, a tiny figure, crossing the field by the first bridge. His shirtsleeves were rolled to his elbows, she could tell that much, and he had his palms out flat beside him, brushing the tops of the long grass. He stopped as she watched, lifted and bent his arms so that his hands rested on the back of his head; seemed to embrace the sky. She realized he was turning; had turned. Was looking back now at the castle. She held her breath; wondered how it was that life could change so much in half an hour when nothing much had changed at all.
    ‘The castle wears a skirt.’ Meredith was pointing at the ground below.
    He was walking again, and then he disappeared behind the fold of the hill and everything was still. Thomas Cavill had slipped through the crack and into the world beyond. The air around the castle seemed to know it.
    ‘Look,’ said Meredith, ‘just down there.’
    Juniper took her cigarettes from her pocket. ‘There used to be a moat. Daddy had it filled in when his first wife died. We’re not supposed to swim in the pool either.’ She smiled as Meredith’s face became a study in anxiety. ‘Don’t look so worried, little Merry. No one’s going to be cross when I teach you to swim. Daddy doesn’t leave his tower, not any more, so he’s not to know whether we use the pool or not. Besides, when the day’s as warm as this it’s a crime not to have a swim.’
    Warm, perfect, blue.
    Juniper struck the match hard. With a long, drawing breath, she leaned a hand back against the sloping roof and squinted at the clear, blue sky. The ceiling of her dome. And words came into her head, not her own.
    I, an old turtle,
    Will wing me to some wither’d bough; and there
    My mate, that’s never to be found again,
    Lament till I am lost.
    Ridiculous, of course. Utterly ridiculous. The man was not her mate; he was no one for her to lament till she was lost. And yet the words had come.
    ‘Did you like Mr Cavill?’
    Juniper’s heart kicked; she burned with instant heat. She’d been discovered! Meredith had intuited the secret workings of her mind. She thumbed her damp dress strap back onto her shoulder; was stalling; returning the matches to her pocket when Meredith said, ‘I do.’
    And by the pinkness on her cheeks, Juniper perceived that Meredith liked her teacher very much indeed. She was torn between relief that her own thoughts were still private, and a wild, crushing envy that her feelings should be shared. She looked at Meredith and the latter sensation passed as fast as it had flared. She strove for nonchalance. ‘Why? What do you like about him?’
    Meredith didn’t answer at first. Juniper smoked and stared at the spot where the man had breached the Milderhurst dome.
    ‘He’s very clever,’ she said at last. ‘And handsome. And he’s kind, even to people who aren’t easy to be with. He has a simple brother, a great big fellow who acts like a baby, cries easily and shouts sometimes in the street, but you should see how patient and gentle Mr Cavill is with him. If you saw them together, you’d say he was having the best time of his life, and not in that overdone way that people have when they know they’re being watched. He’s the best teacher I’ve ever had. He gave me a journal as a present, a real one with a leather cover. He says that if I work hard I could stay at school longer, maybe even go to a grammar school or university, write properly one day: stories or poems, or articles for the newspaper – ’ there was a pause as she drew breath, then – ‘nobody ever thought I was good at anything before.’
    Juniper leaned to bump shoulders with the skinny sapling beside her. ‘Well, that’s just madness, Merry,’ she said. ‘Mr Cavill is right, of course, you’re good at a great many things. I’ve only known you a matter of days and I can see that much – ’
    She coughed against the back of her hand, unable to continue. She’d been overcome by an unfamiliar feeling as she’d listened to Meredith describe her teacher’s attributes, his kindnesses, as the girl spoke nervously of her own aspirations. A heat had started to build in her chest, growing until it could no longer be contained then spreading like treacle beneath her skin. When it reached her eyes it had grown points and threatened to turn to tears. She felt tender and protective and vulnerable, and as she saw the beginnings of a hopeful smile stir on the edges of the young girl’s mouth, she couldn’t help wrapping her arms around Merry and squeezing hard. The girl tensed beneath the embrace, gripping the shingles tight.
    Juniper sat back. ‘What is it? Are you all right?’
    ‘Just a little frightened of heights, is all.’
    ‘Why – you didn’t say a word!’
    Meredith shrugged, focused on her bare feet. ‘I’m frightened of a lot of things.’
    ‘Really?’
    She nodded.
    ‘Well, I suppose that’s pretty normal.’
    Meredity turned her head abruptly. ‘Do you ever feel frightened?’
    ‘Sure. Who doesn’t?’
    ‘What of?’
    Juniper dipped her head, drew hard on her cigarette. ‘I don’t know.’
    ‘Not ghosts and scary things in the castle?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘Not heights?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘Drowning?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘Being unloved and alone forever?’
    ‘No.’
    ‘Having to do something you can’t stand for the rest of your life?’
    Juniper pulled a face. ‘Ugh… no.’
    And then Meredith had looked so downhearted that she couldn’t help saying, ‘There is one thing.’ Her pulse began to race, even though she had no intention of confessing her great, black fear to Meredith. Juniper had little experience with friendship, but she was quite sure telling a new and treasured acquaintance that you feared yourself capable of great violence was inadvisable. She smoked instead and remembered the wild rush of passion, the anger that had threatened to rip her apart from the inside. The way she’d charged towards him, picked up the spade without a second thought, and then -
    – woken up in bed, her bed, Saffy by her side and Percy at the window.
    Saffy had been smiling, but there’d been a moment, before she saw Juniper was awake, in which her features told a different story. An agonized expression, lips taut, brow creased, that belied her later assurances that all was well. That nothing untoward had happened – why, of course it hadn’t, dearest! Just a small case of lost time, no different than before.
    They’d kept it from her out of love; they kept it from her still. She’d believed them at first; of course she had. What reason, after all, did they have to lie? She’d suffered lost time before. Why should this be any different?
    Only it had been. Juniper had found out what it was they hid. They still didn’t know that she knew. In the end it had been a matter of pure chance. Mrs Simpson had come to the house to see Daddy, and Juniper had been following the brook by the bridge. The other woman had leaned over the railing and thrust a shaking finger, saying at her, ‘You!’ and Juniper had wondered what she meant. ‘You’re a wild thing. A danger to others. You ought to be locked away for what you did.’
    Juniper hadn’t understood; hadn’t known what the woman was talking about.
    ‘My boy needed thirty stitches. Thirty! You’re an animal.’
    An animal.
    That had been the trigger. Juniper had flinched when she heard it and a memory had dislodged. A fragmented memory, ragged around the edges. An animal – Emerson – crying out in pain.
    Though she’d tried her hardest, forced her mind to focus, the rest had refused to clarify. It remained hidden in the dark wardrobe of her mind. Wretched, faulty brain! How she despised it. She’d give up the other things in a flash – the writing, the giddy rush of inspiration, the joy of capturing abstract thought on a page; she’d even give up the visitors if it meant she could keep all her memories. She’d worked on her sisters, pleaded eventually, but neither would be drawn; and in the end Juniper had gone to Daddy. Up in his castle tower, he had told her the rest – what Billy Simpson had done to poor, ailing Emerson; the dear old dog who’d wanted little more than to while away his final days by the sunlit rhododendron – and what Juniper had done to Billy Simpson. And then he’d said that she wasn’t to worry. That it wasn’t her fault. ‘That boy was a bully. He deserved everything he got.’ And then he’d smiled, but behind his eyes the haunted look was lurking. ‘The rules,’ he’d said, ‘they’re different for people like you, Juniper. For people like us.’
    ‘Well?’ said Meredith. ‘What is it? What do you fear?’
    ‘I’m frightened, I suppose,’ said Juniper, examining the dark edge of Cardarker Wood, ‘that I’ll turn out like my father.’
    ‘How do you mean?’
    There was no way to explain, no way that wouldn’t burden Merry with things she mustn’t know. The fear that held tight as elastic bands round Juniper’s heart; the horrid dread that she’d end her days a mad old lady, roaming the castle corridors, drowning in a sea of paper and cowering from the creatures of her very own pen. She shrugged; made light of her confession. ‘Oh, you know. That I’ll never escape this place.’
    ‘Why would you want to leave?’
    ‘My sisters smother me.’
    ‘Mine would like to smother me.’
    Juniper smiled and tapped some ash in the gutter.
    ‘I’m serious. She hates me.’
    ‘Why?’
    ‘Because I’m different. Because I don’t want to be like her even though its what everyone expects.’
    Juniper drew long on her cigarette; tilted her head and watched the world beyond. ‘How can a person expect to escape their destiny, Merry? That is the question.’
    A silence, then a small, practical voice. ‘There’s always the train, I guess.’
    Juniper thought at first she’d misheard; she glanced at Meredith and realized that the child was completely serious.
    ‘I mean, there are buses, too, but I think the train would be faster. A smoother ride, as well.’
    Juniper couldn’t help it; she started to laugh, a great hulking laugh that rose up from very, very deep within her.
    Meredith smiled uncertainly and Juniper gave her an enormous hug. ‘Oh Merry,’ she said, ‘did you know you’re really, truly and utterly perfect?’
    Meredith beamed and the two lay back against the roof tiles, watching as the afternoon stretched its film across the sky.
    ‘Tell me a story, Merry.’
    ‘What sort of story?’
    ‘Tell me more about your London. ’

The Letting Pages

1992

    Dad was waiting when I got in from visiting Theo Cavill. The front door hadn’t even latched behind me when the bell tinkled from his room. I went straight up and found him propped against his pillows, holding the cup and saucer Mum had brought him after dinner and feigning surprise. ‘Oh, Edie,’ he said, glancing at the wall clock, ‘I wasn’t expecting you. Time quite got away from me.’
    A very unlikely assertion. My copy of the Mud Man was lying face down on the blanket beside him and the spiral notepad he’d taken to calling his ‘casebook’ was propped against his knees. The whole scene smacked of an afternoon spent musing on the Mud Man’s mysteries, not least the way he was hungrily surveying the printouts peeping from the top of my tote. Although I can’t say why, the devil entered into me at that moment and I yawned widely, patting my mouth and making my way slowly to the armchair on the other side of his bed. I smiled when I was comfy and finally he could stand it no longer. ‘I don’t suppose you had any luck at the library? Old kidnappings at Milderhurst Castle?’
    ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Of course. I quite forgot.’ I took the file from my bag and sorted through the pages, presenting the kidnap articles for his keen perusal.
    He skimmed them, one after the other, with an eagerness that made me feel cruel for having made him wait. The doctors had talked to us more about the risk of depression for cardiac patients, especially a man like my dad, who was accustomed to being busy and important and was already on shaky ground dealing with his recent retirement. If he saw a future for himself as a literary sleuth, I wasn’t going to be the one to stop him. Never mind that the Mud Man was the first book he’d read in roughly forty years. Besides, it seemed to me a far better purpose in life than the endless mending of household items that weren’t broken to begin with. I resolved to make more of an effort. ‘Anything pertinent, Dad?’
    His fervid expression, I noticed, had begun to droop. ‘None of these is about Milderhurst.’
    ‘I’m afraid not. Not directly anyway.’
    ‘But I was sure there’d be something.’
    ‘Sorry, Dad. It was the best I could do.’
    He grimaced bravely. ‘Never mind, not your fault, Edie, and we mustn’t let ourselves become discouraged. We just need to think laterally.’ He knocked his pen against his chin then pointed it at me. ‘I’ve been going over the book all afternoon, and I’m positive it’s something to do with the moat. It has to be. It says in your book about Milderhurst that Raymond Blythe had the moat filled in just before he wrote the Mud Man.’
    I nodded with all the conviction I could muster and decided against reminding him of Muriel Blythe’s death and Raymond’s subsequent show of grief.
    ‘Well, there you are then,’ he said brightly. ‘It must mean something. And the child in the window, stolen while her parents slept? It’s all in there, I just need to make the right connection.’
    He turned his attention back to the articles, reading them slowly and carefully jotting notes in a quick, stabbing hand. I tried to concentrate, but it was difficult when a real mystery was preying on my mind. Eventually I fell to staring through the window at the dusky evening light; the crescent moon was high in the purple sky and thin sheets of cloud drifted across its face. My thoughts were with Theo and the brother who’d disappeared into thin air fifty years ago when he failed to arrive at Milderhurst Castle. I’d gone searching for Thomas Cavill in the hope I might find something that would help me better understand Juniper’s madness, and although that hadn’t happened, my meeting with Theo had certainly changed the way I thought of Tom. Not a cheat at all, but a fellow, if his brother was correct, who had been much maligned. Certainly by me.
    ‘You’re not listening.’
    I glanced back from the window, blinked: Dad was watching me reproachfully over the top of his reading glasses. ‘I’ve been outlining a very sensible theory, Edie, and you haven’t heard a word.’
    ‘Yes, I have. Moats, babies…’ I winced, took a crack. ‘Boats?’
    He huffed indignantly. ‘You’re as bad as your mother. The two of you are downright distracted these days.’
    ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about, Dad. Here.’ I leaned my elbows on my knees and waited. ‘Look, I’m all ears. Lay the theory on me.’
    His chagrin was no match for his enthusiasm and he proceeded to do so at a skip. ‘It’s this report here that’s got me thinking. An unsolved kidnapping of a young lad from his bedroom in a manor house near Milderhurst. The window was left wide open, even though the nurse insisted she checked it when the children went to sleep, and there were marks on the ground that seemed to indicate a stepladder. It was 1872 so Raymond would’ve been six years old. Old enough for the whole event to have left quite an impression, don’t you think?’
    It was possible, I supposed. It wasn’t impossible. ‘Definitely, Dad. That sounds very likely.’
    ‘The real clincher is that the boy’s body was found after an extensive search – ’ he grinned, proud of himself and stretching the suspense – ‘at the bottom of the muddy estate lake.’ His eyes scanned mine, his smile faltered. ‘What is it? Why do you look like that?’
    ‘I… because it’s rather awful. That poor little boy. His poor family.’
    ‘Well yes, of course, but it was a hundred years ago and they’re all long gone now, and that’s just what I’m saying. It must’ve been an awful thing for a little boy living in a nearby castle to hear his parents talking about.’
    I remembered the locks on the nursery window, Percy Blythe telling me that Raymond was funny about security because of something in his childhood. Dad actually had a point. ‘That’s true.’
    He frowned. ‘But I’m still not sure what it all has to do with the moat at Milderhurst. Or how the boy’s muddy body turned into a man who lives at the bottom of a mudded moat. Or why the description of the man emerging would be so vivid-’
    A soft knock at the door and we both looked up to see Mum. ‘I don’t mean to interrupt. I’m just checking whether you’ve finished with your teacup.’
    ‘Thank you, dear.’ He held it out and she hesitated before coming to collect it.
    ‘You’re very busy in here,’ she said, pretending great interest in a tea drop on the cup’s outer curve. Blotting it with her finger and making every effort not to look in my direction.
    ‘We’re working on our theory.’ Dad winked at me, blissfully unaware that a cold front had cut his room in two.
    ‘I expect you’ll be a while then. I’ll say my goodnights and turn in. It’s been a rather tiring day.’ She kissed Dad on the cheek then nodded my way without actually making eye contact. ‘Good night, Edie.’
    ‘Night, Mum.’
    Oh Lord, but it was so stiff between us! I didn’t watch her leave, pretending great interest instead in the printout on my lap. It happened to be the stapled set of pages Miss Yeats had sourced on the Pembroke Farm Institute. I glanced through the introduction which gave the group’s history: started in 1907 by a guy called Oliver Sykes – the name was familiar and I racked my brain before remembering it was the architect fellow who’d designed the circular pool at Milderhurst. It figured; if Raymond Blythe was going to leave money to a group of conservationists, they must’ve been people he had reason to admire. Ergo, he’d have employed the same people to work on his prized estate… Mum’s bedroom door closed and I breathed a sigh of something like relief. I laid down the papers and tried to act normally for Dad’s sake.
    ‘You know, Dad,’ I said, my throat gritty, ‘I think you might be on to something; that thing about the lake and the little boy.’
    ‘That’s what I’m talking about, Edie.’
    ‘I know. And I definitely think it could’ve been the inspiration for the novel.’
    He rolled his eyes. ‘Not that, Edie; forget about the book. I’m referring to your mother.’
    ‘To Mum?’
    He pointed at the closed door. ‘She’s unhappy and I don’t like to see her that way.’
    ‘You’re imagining things.’
    ‘I’m not daft. She’s been moping about the house for weeks, then today she mentioned that she’d found the letting pages in your room and she started to cry.’
    Mum had been in my room? ‘Mum cried?’
    ‘She feels things deeply, she always has. Wears her heart on her sleeve. You’re similar that way, the two of you.’
    And I’m not sure whether the comment was calculated to knock me off guard, but the very notion of Mum wearing her heart on her sleeve was so confounding that I lost all ability to insist that he was totally and utterly incorrect about us being similar. ‘What do you mean?’
    ‘It was one of the things I most liked about her. She was different from all the stiff upper lips I’d come across before. The first time I laid eyes on her she was having a good old cry.’
    ‘Really?’
    ‘We were at the pictures. By chance we were the only ones there. It wasn’t a particularly sad film, not that I could see, but your mum spent the whole time weeping in the dark. She tried to hide it, but when we got out into the foyer her eyes were as red as your T-shirt. I felt so sorry for her I took her out for cake.’
    ‘What was she crying about?’
    ‘I was never sure exactly. She cried rather easily in those days.’
    ‘No… really?’
    ‘Oh yes. She was very sensitive – funny, too; clever and unpredictable. She had a way of describing things that made you see them as if for the first time.’
    I wanted to ask, ‘What happened?’ but the insinuation that she was no longer any of those things seemed cruel. I was glad when Dad continued anyway.
    ‘Things changed,’ he said, ‘after your brother. After Daniel. Things were different then.’
    I couldn’t be certain I’d ever heard my dad say Daniel’s name and the effect was to freeze me. There were so many things I wanted to say, to ask, that they swamped one another and I managed only, ‘Oh.’
    ‘It was a terrible thing.’ His voice was slow and even, but his bottom lip betrayed him, a strange, involuntary mobility that made my heart constrict. ‘A terrible thing.’
    I touched his arm lightly, but he didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were fixed on a patch of carpet by the door; he smiled wistfully at something that wasn’t there, before saying, ‘He used to jump. He loved it. “I jump!” he’d say. “Look, Daddy, I jump!”’
    I could picture him then, my little-big brother, beaming with pride while he took clumsy frog leaps around the house. ‘I would have liked to know him.’
    Dad planted his hand on top of mine. ‘I’d have liked that, too.’
    The night breeze toyed with the curtain by my shoulder and I shivered. ‘I used to think we had a ghost. When I was little. I sometimes heard you and Mum talking; I heard you say his name, but whenever I came into the room you stopped. I asked Mum about him once.’
    He looked up and his eyes searched mine. ‘What did she say?’
    ‘She said I was imagining things.’
    Dad lifted one of his hands and frowned at it, spidered his fingers into a loose fist, scrunching an invisible piece of paper as he gave a rumpled sigh. ‘We thought we were doing the right thing. We did the best we could.’
    ‘I know you did.’
    ‘Your mum…’ He tightened his lips against his sorrow and a part of me wanted to put him out of his misery. But I couldn’t. I’d waited such a long time to hear this story – it described my absence, after all – and I was greedy for any crumb he might share. He chose his next words with a care that was painful to watch. ‘Your mother took it especially badly. She blamed herself. She couldn’t accept that what happened – ’ he swallowed – ‘what happened to Daniel was an accident. She got it into her head that she’d brought it on herself somehow, that she deserved to lose a child.’
    I was speechless, and not just because what he described was so horrid, so sad, but because he was telling me at all. ‘But why would she think such a thing?’
    ‘I don’t know.’
    ‘Daniel’s condition wasn’t hereditary.’
    ‘No.’
    ‘It was just…’ I struggled for words that weren’t, ‘one of those things’, but failed.
    He folded over the cover of his spiral notebook, laid it evenly on top of the Mud Man and set them on the bedside table. Evidently, we wouldn’t be reading tonight. ‘Sometimes, Edie, a person’s feelings aren’t rational. At least, they don’t seem that way on the surface. You have to dig a little deeper to understand what lies at the base.’
    And I could only nod because the day had already been so bizarre and now my father was reminding me about the subtleties of the human condition and it was all just too topsy-turvy to compute.
    ‘I’ve always suspected it had something to do with her own mother; a fight they’d had years before, when your mum was still a teenager. They became estranged afterwards. I never knew the details, but whatever your gran said, Meredith remembered it when she lost Daniel.’
    ‘But Gran would never have hurt Mum, not if she could help it.’
    He shook his head. ‘You never can tell, Edie. Not with people. I never liked the way your gran and Rita used to gang up on your mother. It used to leave a bad taste in my mouth. The two of them setting against her, using you to create a wedge.’
    I was surprised to hear his reading of the situation; touched by the care in his voice as he told me. Rita had implied that Mum and Dad were snobs, that they’d looked down on the other side of the family, but to hear Dad tell it – well, I began to wonder whether things weren’t quite as clear as I’d supposed.
    ‘Life’s too short for rifts, Edie. One day you’re here, the next you’re not. I don’t know what’s happened between you and your mum, but she’s unhappy and that makes me unhappy, and I’m a not-quite-old-yet chap, recovering from a heart attack, whose feelings must be taken into account.’
    I smiled, and he did too. ‘Patch it up with her, Edie love.’ I nodded.
    ‘I need my mind clear if I’m to sort out this Mud Man business.’
    I sat on top of my bed later that night with the letting pages spread out before me, doodling circles around flats I hadn’t a hope of affording and wondering about the sensitive, funny, laughing, crying young woman I’d never had the chance to know. An enigma in one of those dated photographs – the square ones with the rounded corners and the soft, sun-shadowed colours – wearing faded bell-bottoms and a floral blouse, holding the hand of a little boy with a bowl haircut and leather sandals. A little boy who liked to jump, and whose death would soon despoil her.
    I thought, too, about Dad’s suggestion that Mum had blamed herself when Daniel died. Her conviction that she’d deserved to lose a child. Something in the way he’d said it, his use of the word ‘lost’ perhaps, his suspicion that it had something to do with a fight she’d had with Gran, made me think of Mum’s final letter home to her parents. Her pleas to be allowed to remain at Milderhurst, her insistence that she’d finally found the place where she belonged, her reassurances that her choice didn’t mean Gran had ‘lost’ her.
    Links were being made, I could feel them, but my stomach didn’t care one whit. It issued an unceremonious interruption, reminding me that I hadn’t eaten a bite since Herbert’s lasagne.
    The house was quiet and I went carefully along the dark corridor towards the stairs. I’d almost made it when I noticed the thin strip of light issuing from beneath Mum’s bedroom door. I hesitated, the promise I’d made to Dad ringing in my ears; the small matter of patching things up. I didn’t like my chances – there’s no one quite like Mum for skating airily along the surface of a frost – but it was important to Dad, so I drew a deep breath and knocked, ever so lightly, on the door. Nothing happened and for a moment I thought I might be spared, but then a soft voice came from the other side: ‘Edie? Is that you?’
    I opened the door and saw Mum sitting up in bed beneath my favourite painting of the full moon turning a liquorice-black sea to mercury. Her reading glasses were balanced on the tip of her nose and a novel called The Last Days in Paris leaned against her knees. Her expression as she blinked at me was one of strained uncertainty.
    ‘I saw the light under the door.’
    ‘I couldn’t sleep.’ She tilted the book towards me. ‘Reading helps sometimes.’
    I nodded agreement and neither of us spoke further; my stomach noticed the silence and took the opportunity to fill it. I was making movements to excuse myself and escape back towards the kitchen, when Mum said, ‘Close the door, Edie.’
    I did as she said.
    ‘Please. Come and sit down.’ She took off her glasses and hung them by the chain over her bedpost. I sat carefully, leaning against the wooden end-rail in the same place I’d occupied as a kid on birthday mornings.
    ‘Mum,’ I started, ‘I-’
    ‘You were right, Edie.’ She slid the bookmark into her novel, closed its cover but didn’t relinquish it to the bedside table. ‘I did take you back to Milderhurst. Many years ago now.’
    I was seized by a sudden urge to cry.
    ‘You were just a little girl. I didn’t think you’d remember. We weren’t there for long. As it happens, I lacked the courage to go any further than the front gates.’ She didn’t meet my eyes, hugging her novel firmly to her chest. ‘It was wrong what I did, pretending that you’d imagined the whole thing. It was just… such a shock when you asked. I was unprepared. I didn’t mean to lie about it. Can you forgive me?’
    Is it possible not to wilt before a request like that? ‘Of course.’
    ‘I loved that place,’ she said, lips drawing. ‘I never wanted to leave it.’
    ‘Oh, Mum.’ I wanted to reach out and touch her.
    ‘I loved her, too: Juniper Blythe.’ And then she looked up and the expression on her face was so lost, so forlorn, that my breath caught in my throat.
    ‘Tell me about her, Mum.’
    There was a pause, an enduring pause, and I could see by her eyes that she was far away and long ago. ‘She was… like no one else I’d ever met.’ Mum brushed a phantom strand of hair from her forehead. ‘She was enchanting. And I say that quite earnestly. She enchanted me.’
    I thought of the silver-haired woman I’d met within the shadowy corridor of Milderhurst; the utter transformation of her face when she smiled; Theo’s account of his brother’s love-mad letters. The little girl in the photograph, caught unawares and staring at the camera with those wide-apart eyes.
    ‘You didn’t want to come home from Milderhurst.’
    ‘No.’
    ‘You wanted to stay with Juniper.’
    She nodded.
    ‘And Gran was angry.’
    ‘Oh, yes. She’d wanted me home for months, but I’d… I’d managed to persuade her that I should stay. Then the Blitz happened and they were pleased, I think, that I was safe. She sent my father to get me in the end, though, and I never went back to the castle. But I always wondered.’
    ‘About Milderhurst?’
    She shook her head. ‘About Juniper and Mr Cavill.’
    My skin actually tingled and I held the bedrail very tightly.
    ‘That was my favourite teacher’s name,’ she continued. ‘Thomas Cavill. They became engaged, you see, and I never heard from either one of them again.’
    ‘Until the lost letter arrived from Juniper.’
    At mention of the letter, Mum flinched. ‘Yes,’ she said.
    ‘And it made you cry.’
    ‘Yes.’ And for a long moment I thought she might do so again. ‘But not because it was sad, not the letter itself. Not really. All that time, you see, all the time that it was lost, I thought that she’d forgotten.’
    ‘Forgotten what?’
    ‘Why, me, of course.’ Mum’s lips were trembling. ‘I thought that they’d got married and forgotten all about me.’
    ‘But they hadn’t.’
    ‘No.’
    ‘They hadn’t even got married, for that matter.’
    ‘No, but I didn’t know that then. I didn’t realize until you told me. All I knew was that I never heard from either one of them again. I’d sent something to Juniper, you see, something very important to me, and I was waiting to hear back from her. I waited and waited and checked the post twice every day, but nothing came.’
    ‘Did you write back to her? To find out why, to check that she’d received it?’
    ‘I almost did a number of times but it seemed so needy. Then I bumped into one of Mr Cavill’s sisters at the grocery shop and she told me that he’d run off to get married without telling any of them.’
    ‘Oh, Mum. I’m sorry.’
    She set her book down on the quilt beside her and said, softly, ‘I hated them both after that. I was so hurt. Rejection is a cancer, Edie. It eats away at a person.’ I shifted closer and took her hand in mine; she held on tightly. There were tears on her cheeks. ‘I hated her and I loved her and it hurt so very deeply.’ She reached into the pocket of her dressing gown and handed me an envelope. ‘And then this. Fifty years later.’
    It was Juniper’s lost letter. I took it from Mum, unable to speak, uncertain whether she meant for me to read it. I met her eyes and she nodded slightly.
    Fingers trembling, I opened it and began.
    Dearest Merry,
    My clever, clever chicken! Your story arrived safely and soundly and I wept when I read it. What a beautiful, beautiful piece! Joyous and terribly sad, and oh! so beautifully observed. What a clever young Miss you are! There is such honesty in your writing, Merry; a truthfulness to which many aspire, but which few attain. You must keep on; there is no reason why you shouldn’t do exactly what you wish with your life. There is nothing holding you back, my little friend.
    I would love to have been able to tell you this in person, to hand your manuscript back to you beneath the tree in the park, the one with the little diamonds of sunlight caught within its leaves, but I’m sorry to say that I won’t be back in London as I thought. Not for a time, at any rate. Things here have not worked out as I’d imagined. I can’t say too much, only that something has happened and it’s best for me to stay at home for now. I miss you, Merry. You were my first and only friend, did I ever tell you that? I think often of our time here together, especially that afternoon on the roof – do you remember? You’d only been with us a few days and hadn’t yet told me you were frightened of heights. You asked me what I was frightened of and I told you. I’d never spoken of it to anyone else.
    Goodbye, little chicken,
    Much love always,
    Juniper x
    I read it again, I had to, tracing the scratchy, cursive handwriting with my eyes. There was so much within the letter that made me curious, but one thing in particular to which my focus returned. Mum had shown it to me so I’d understand about Juniper, about their friendship, but all I could think of was Mum and me. My whole adult life had been spent happily immersed in the world of writers and their manuscripts: I’d brought countless anecdotes home to the dinner table even though I knew they were falling on deaf ears and I’d presumed myself since childhood an aberration. Not once had Mum even hinted that she’d harboured literary aspirations of her own. Rita had said as much, of course, but until that moment, with Juniper’s letter in hand and my mother watching me nervously, I don’t think I’d fully believed her. I handed the letter back to Mum, swallowing the clot of aggrievement that had settled in my throat. ‘You sent her a manuscript? Something you’d written?’
    ‘It was a childish fancy, something I grew out of.’
    But I could tell by the way she wouldn’t meet my eyes that it had been far more than that. I wanted to press harder, to ask if she ever wrote now, if she still had any of her work, if she’d ever show it to me. But I didn’t. She was gazing at the letter again, her expression so sad that I couldn’t. I said instead, ‘You were good friends.’
    ‘Yes.’
    My first and only friend, I loved her, Mum had said, Juniper had written. And yet they’d parted in 1941 and never made contact again. I thought carefully before saying, ‘What does Juniper mean, Mum? What do you think she means when she says that something happened?’
    Mum smoothed the letter. ‘I expect she means that Thomas ran off with another woman. You’re the one who told me that.’
    Which was true, but only because that’s what I’d thought at the time. I didn’t think it any more, not after speaking with Theo Cavill. ‘What about that bit at the end,’ I said, ‘about being frightened? What does she mean there?’
    ‘That is a bit odd,’ Mum agreed. ‘I suppose she was remembering that conversation as an instance of our friendship. We spent so much time together, did so many things – I’m not sure why she’d mention that especially.’ She looked up at me and I could tell that her puzzlement was genuine. ‘Juniper was an intrepid sort of person; it didn’t occur to her to fear the things that other people do. The only thing that scared her was some notion she had that she’d turn out like her father.’
    ‘Like Raymond Blythe? In what way?’
    ‘She never told me, not exactly. He was a confused old gentleman, and a writer, as was she – but he used to believe that his characters had come to life and were going to come after him. I ran into him once, by mistake. I took a wrong turn and wound up near his tower – he was rather terrifying. Perhaps that’s what she meant.’
    It was certainly possible; I cast my mind back to my visit to Milderhurst village and the stories I’d been told about Juniper. The lost time that she couldn’t account for later. Watching her father lose his mind in old age must have been particularly scary for a girl who suffered her own episodes. As it turned out, she’d been right to be afraid.
    Mum sighed and ruffled her hair with one hand. ‘I’ve made a mess of everything. Juniper, Thomas – now you’re looking at the letting pages because of me.’
    ‘Now that’s not true,’ I smiled. ‘I’m looking at the letting pages because I’m thirty years old and I can’t stay at home forever, no matter how much better the tea tastes when you make it.’
    She smiled too then, and I felt a tug of deep affection, a stirring sensation of something profound that had been sleeping for a very long time.
    ‘And I’m the one who made a mess. I shouldn’t have read your letters. Can you forgive me?’
    ‘You don’t need to ask.’
    ‘I just wanted to know you better, Mum.’
    She brushed my hand with a feather-light touch and I knew she understood. ‘I can hear your stomach grumbling from here, Edie,’ was all she said. ‘Come down to the kitchen and I’ll make you something nice to eat.’
    An Invitation and a New Edition
    And right when I was puzzling over what had gone on between Thomas and Juniper and whether I’d ever have the chance to find out, something completely unexpected happened. It was Wednesday lunchtime and Herbert and I were returning with Jess from our constitutional around Kensington Gardens. Returning with a lot more fuss than that description suggests, mind you: Jess doesn’t like to walk and she has no difficulty making her feelings known, registering protest by stopping every fifty feet or so to snout about in the gutters, chasing one mysterious odour after another.
    Herbert and I were cooling our heels during one such fossicking session, when he said, ‘And how’s life on the home front?’
    ‘Beginning to thaw, actually.’ I proceeded to give him the summary version of recent events. ‘I don’t want to speak too soon, but I believe we might’ve reached a new and brighter dawn.’
    ‘Are your plans to move on hold, then?’ He steered Jess away from a patch of suspiciously odorous mud.
    ‘Lord, no. My dad’s been making noises about buying me a personalized robe and putting a third hook in the bathroom once he’s able. I fear if I don’t make the break soon, I’ll be lost forever.’
    ‘Sounds dire. Anything in the letting pages?’
    ‘Loads. I’m just going to need to hit my boss for a significant pay rise to afford them.’
    ‘Fancy your chances?’
    I shifted my hand like a puppeteer.
    ‘Well,’ said Herbert, passing me Jess’s lead while he dug out his cigarettes. ‘Your boss may not be able to stretch to a pay rise, but he might have had an idea.’
    I raised a brow. ‘What sort of an idea?’
    ‘Rather a good one, I should think.’
    ‘Oh?’
    ‘All in good time, Edie, my love.’ He winked over the top of his cigarette. ‘All in good time.’
    We turned the corner into Herbert’s street to find the postman poised to feed some letters through the door. Herbert tipped his hat and took the clutch of envelopes beneath his arm, unlocking the door to let us in. Jess, as per habit, went straight for the cushioned throne beneath Herbert’s desk, arranging herself artfully before fixing us with a look of wounded indignation.
    Herbert and I have our own post-walk habit, so when he closed the door behind him and said, ‘Potlatch or post, Edie?’, I was already halfway to the kitchen.
    ‘I’ll make the tea,’ I said. ‘You read the mail.’
    The tray had been set up earlier in the kitchen – Herbert is very fastidious about such things – and a fresh batch of scones was cooling beneath a checked tea towel. While I scooped cream and homemade jam into small ramekins, Herbert read out snippets of import from the day’s correspondence. I was juggling the tray into the office when he said, ‘Well, well.’
    ‘What is it?’
    He folded the letter in question towards him and peered over its top. ‘An offer of work, I believe.’
    ‘From whom?’
    ‘A rather large publisher.’
    ‘How cheeky!’ I handed him a cup. ‘I trust you’ll remind them that you already have a perfectly good job.’
    ‘I would, of course,’ he said, ‘only the offer isn’t for me. It’s you they want, Edie. You and no one else.’
    The letter, as it turned out, was from the publisher of Raymond Blythe’s Mud Man. Over a steaming cup of Darjeeling and a jam-laden scone, Herbert read it aloud to me; then he read it again. Then he explained its contents in rather basic terms because, despite a decade in the publishing industry, the surprise had rendered me temporarily incapable of understanding such things myself: to wit, there was a new edition of the Mud Man being printed the following year to coincide with its seventy-fifth anniversary. Raymond Blythe’s publishers wanted me to write a new introduction to celebrate the occasion.
    ‘You’re having a joke…’ He shook his head. ‘But that’s just… far too unbelievable,’ I said. ‘Why me?’
    ‘I’m not sure.’ He turned over the letter, saw that the other side was blank. Gazed up at me, eyes enormous behind his glasses. ‘It doesn’t say.’
    ‘But how peculiar.’ A ripple beneath my skin as the threads that had tied themselves to Milderhurst began to tremble. ‘What shall I do?’
    Herbert handed me the letter. ‘I should think you might start by giving this number a ring.’
    My conversation with Judith Waterman, publisher at Pippin Books, was short and not unsweet. ‘I’ll be honest with you,’ she said, when I told her who I was and why I was calling: ‘we’d employed another writer to do it and we were very happy with him. The daughters though, Raymond Blythe’s daughters, were not. The whole thing’s become rather a grand headache; we’re publishing early next year, so time is of the essence. The edition’s been in development for months: our writer had already conducted preliminary interviews and got some way into his draft, then out of the blue we received a phone call from the Misses Blythe letting us know they were pulling the plug.’
    That I could imagine. It was not difficult to envisage Percy Blythe taking great pleasure in such contrary behaviour.
    ‘We’re committed to the edition, though,’ Judith continued. ‘We’ve a new imprint starting, a series of classics with memoir-esque opening essays, and The True History of the Mud Man, as one of our most popular titles, is the ideal choice for summer publication.’
    I realized I was nodding as if she were with me in the room. ‘I can understand that,’ I said, ‘I’m just not sure how I can-’
    ‘The problem,’ Judith pressed on, ‘would appear to be with one of the daughters in particular.’
    ‘Oh?’
    ‘Persephone Blythe. Which is an unexpected nuisance seeing as the proposal came to us in the first instance from her twin sister. Whatever the case, they weren’t happy, we can’t do anything without permission due to a complicated copyright arrangement, and the whole thing is teetering. I went down there myself a fortnight ago and mercifully they agreed to allow the project to go ahead with a different writer, someone of whom they approved – ’ She broke off and I heard her gulping a drink at the other end of the line. ‘We sent them a long list of writers, including samples of their work. They sent them all back to us unopened. Persephone Blythe asked for you instead.’
    A hook of niggling doubt snagged my stomach lining. ‘She asked for me?’
    ‘By name. Quite assuredly.’
    ‘You know I’m not a writer.’
    ‘Yes,’ said Judith. ‘And I explained that to them, but they didn’t mind at all. Evidently they already know who you are and what you do. More to the point, it would appear you’re the only person they’ll tolerate, which reduces our options rather dramatically. Either you write it, or the entire project collapses.’
    ‘I see.’
    ‘Look – ’ the busy sound of papers being moved across a desk – ‘I’m convinced you’ll do a good job. You work in publishing, you know your way around sentences. I’ve contacted some of your former clients and they all spoke very highly of you.’
    ‘Really?’ Oh, frightful vanity, fishing for a compliment! She was right to ignore me.
    ‘And all of us at Pippin are looking at this as a positive. We’re wondering whether perhaps the sisters have been so specific because they’re ready, finally, to talk about the inspiration behind the book. I don’t need to tell you what a terrific coup that would be, to discover the true history behind the book’s creation!’
    She did not. My dad was doing a brilliant job of that already.
    ‘Well then. What do you say?’
    What did I say? Percy Blythe had requested me personally. I was being asked to write about the Mud Man, to speak again with the Sisters Blythe, to visit them in their castle. What else was there to say? ‘I’ll do it.’
    ‘I was at the opening night of the play, you know,’ said Herbert when I’d finished relaying the conversation.
    ‘The Mud Man play?’
    He nodded as Jess took up her position on his feet. ‘Have I never mentioned it?’
    ‘No.’ That he hadn’t was not as strange as it might seem. Herbert’s parents were theatre people and much of his childhood had been spent knocking about behind the proscenium arch.
    ‘I was twelve, or thereabouts,’ he said, ‘and I remember it because it was one of the most astonishing things I’d ever seen. Marvellous in many ways. The castle had been constructed in the centre of the stage, but they’d built it on a disc, raised and inclined, so that the tower pointed towards the audience and we could look right through the attic window into the room where Jane and her brother slept. The moat was on the very rim of the disc and the lights came from behind, so that when the Mud Man finally emerged, when he began his climb up the stones of the castle, long shadows fell into the audience, as if the mud of the story, the damp and the dark and the monster himself, were reaching out to touch one.’
    I shivered theatrically and earned a suspicious look from Jess. ‘Sounds the stuff of nightmares. No wonder you remember it so well.’
    ‘Quite, although there was more to it than that. I remember that night specially because of the kerfuffle in the audience.’
    ‘Which kerfuffle?’
    ‘I was watching from the wings, so I was well placed to see it when it happened. A commotion, up in the writer’s box, people standing, a small child crying, someone ailing. A doctor was called and some of the family retired backstage.’
    ‘The Blythe family?’
    ‘I suppose it must have been, although I confess to having lost interest once the disturbance was over. The show went on, as it must – I don’t think the incident rated as much as a mention in the papers the following day. But for a young lad like myself it was all a bit of excitement.’
    ‘Did you ever find out what it was that happened?’ I was thinking of Juniper, the episodes I’d heard so much about.
    He shook his head and drained the last of his tea. ‘Just another colourful theatre moment.’ He fumbled a cigarette into his mouth, grinned around it as he drew. ‘But enough about me. How about this summons to the castle for young Edie Burchill? What a lark, eh?’
    I beamed, I couldn’t help it, but the expression staled a little as I reflected on the circumstances of my appointment. ‘I don’t feel great about the other writer, the fellow they engaged first.’
    Herbert waved his hand and ash sifted to the carpet. ‘Not your fault, Edie love. Percy Blythe wanted you – she’s only human.’
    ‘Having met her, I’m not so sure of that.’
    He laughed and smoked and said, ‘The other fellow will get over it: all’s fair in love, war and publishing.’
    I was quite certain the displaced writer bore me no love, but I hoped it wasn’t a case of war either. ‘Judith Waterman says he’s offered to hand over his notes. She’s sending them this afternoon.’
    ‘Well, then. That’s very decent of him.’
    It most definitely was, but something else had occurred to me. ‘I won’t be leaving you in the lurch when I go, will I? You’ll be all right here by yourself?’
    ‘It will be difficult,’ he said, furrowing his brow with mock perseverance. Still, I suppose I must bear it bravely.’
    I pulled a face at him.
    He stood up and patted his pockets, feeling for his car keys. ‘I’m only sorry we’ve got the vet’s appointment and I won’t be here when the notes arrive. Mark the best bits, won’t you?’
    ‘Of course.’
    He called Jess to heel then leaned over to hold my face in his two hands, so firmly I could feel the tremors that lived inside them as he planted a whiskery kiss on each cheek. ‘Be brilliant, my love.’
    The package from Pippin Books arrived by courier that afternoon, just as I was closing up shop. I debated taking the whole lot home, opening it in a steady, professional manner, then thought better of it. Jiggled the key in the lock, fired up the lights again and hurried back to my desk, tearing the parcel open as I went.
    Two cassette tapes fell free as I fumbled an enormous stack of papers from inside. There were over a hundred pages, fastened neatly with a pair of bulldog clips. On top was a cover letter from Judith Waterman including a project brief, the crux of which read as follows:
    NEW PIPPIN CLASSICS is an exciting new imprint of PIPPIN BOOKS that will bring a selection of our favourite classic texts to new readers and old. Re-jacketed with beautiful matching bindings, assorted decorative endpapers and all-new biographical introductions, the NPC titles promise to be a dynamic publishing presence in coming years. Beginning with Raymond Blythe’s The True History of the Mud Man, NPC titles will be numbered so that readers can enjoy collecting them all.
    There was an asterisked handwritten note from Judith at the bottom of the letter:
    Edie, what you write is, of course, up to you; however, in our initial briefing discussions we wondered whether, seeing as so much is already known about Raymond Blythe and because he was so reticent about his inspiration, it might be interesting to write the piece with a particular eye to the three daughters, posing and answering the question of what it was like to grow up in the place from which the Mud Man came.
    You’ll see in the interview transcripts that our original writer, Adam Gilbert, has included detailed descriptions and impressions of his visits to the castle. You are most welcome to work from these, but you’ll no doubt wish to conduct your own research. In fact, Persephone Blythe was surprisingly amenable on that count, suggesting that you pay them a visit. (And it goes without saying that if she should choose to let slip the origins of the story we’d love for you to write that up for us!)
    The budget isn’t huge but there’s sufficient remaining to fund a short stay in the village of Milderhurst.
    We have made an arrangement with Mrs Marilyn Bird at the nearby Home Farm Bed and Breakfast. Adam was pleased with the standard and cleanliness of the room, and the tariff includes meals. Mrs Bird has advised of a four-night vacancy beginning October 31st, so when next we speak please let me know whether you’d like us to make a reservation.
    I flipped over the letter, ran my hand across Adam Gilbert’s cover sheet, and sank into this most thrilling moment. I believe I may actually have smiled as I turned the page; I certainly bit my lip. Rather too hard, which is how I remember it so well.
    Four hours later I’d read it all and I was no longer sitting in a quiet office in London. I was of course, but also I was not. I was many miles away inside a dark and knotty castle in Kent, with three sisters, their larger-than-life Daddy, and a manuscript that was yet to become a book that was yet to become a classic.
    I laid down the transcripts, pushed back from my desk and stretched. Then I stood and stretched some more. A kink had tied itself at the base of my spine – I’m told reading with one’s feet crossed atop the desk can do that – and I struggled to dislodge it. Time and a little space allowed certain thoughts to rise from the ocean floor of my mind, and two things in particular floated to the surface. First up, I was awestruck by Adam Gilbert’s workmanship. The notes had clearly been transcribed verbatim from taped interviews and prepared on an old-fashioned typewriter, with impeccable handwritten annotations where necessary, and a level of detail so that they read more like play scripts than interviews (complete with bracketed stage directions if any of his subjects so much as scratched); which is probably why the other thought struck me so strongly: there had been a notable omission. I knelt on my chair and leafed again through the stack to con- firm, checking both sides of the paper. There was nothing from Juniper Blythe.
    I drummed my fingers slowly on the stack of notes: there were perfectly good reasons why Adam Gilbert might have passed her over. There was more than enough material without additional comment, she hadn’t even been alive when the Mud Man was first published, she was Juniper… Nonetheless, it niggled. And when things niggle, the perfectionist in me starts to fret. And I don’t much like to fret. There were three Sisters Blythe. Their story, therefore, should not – could not – be written without Juniper’s voice.
    Adam Gilbert’s contact details were typed at the bottom of his cover sheet and I deliberated for around ten seconds – just long enough to wonder whether nine thirty was too late to ring somebody whose home address was Old Mill Cottage, Tenterden – before reaching for the phone and dialling his number.
    A woman picked up and said: ‘Hello. Mrs Button speaking.’
    Something about the slow, melodic tone of her voice reminded me of those wartime movies with the rows of phone operators working the switchboard. ‘Hello,’ I said. ‘My name’s Edie Burchill, but I’m afraid I might have called the wrong number. I was looking for Adam Gilbert.’
    ‘This is Mr Gilbert’s residence. This is his nurse speaking, Mrs Button.’
    Nurse. Oh dear. He was an invalid. ‘I’m so sorry to bother you this late. Perhaps I ought to call back another time.’
    ‘Not at all. Mr Gilbert is still in his study; I see the light beneath the door. Quite against doctor’s orders, but so long as he keeps off his bad leg there’s not much I can do. He’s rather stubborn. Just a minute and I’ll transfer your call.’
    There was a heavy plastic clunk as she laid down the receiver, and the steady sound of footsteps retreating. A knock on a distant door, a murmured exchange, then a few seconds later, Adam Gilbert picked up.
    There was a pause after I introduced myself and my purpose, in which I apologized some more for the awkward way in which we’d entered each other’s orbit. ‘I didn’t even know about the Pippin Books edition until today. I’ve no idea at all why Percy Blythe would put her foot down like that.’
    Still he didn’t speak.
    ‘I’m really very, very sorry. I can’t explain it; I’ve only met her once before and then only briefly. I certainly never meant for this to happen.’ I was jabbering, I could hear it, so with great force of will I stopped.
    Finally he spoke, in a world-weary sort of voice. ‘All right then, Edie Burchill. I forgive you for stealing my job. One condition, though. If you find out anything to do with the Mud Man’s origins you tell me first.’
    My dad would not be pleased. ‘Of course.’
    ‘Right then. What can I do for you?’
    I explained that I’d just read through his transcript, I complimented him on the thoroughness of his notes, and then I said, ‘There’s one little thing I’m wondering, though.’
    ‘What’s that?’
    ‘The third sister, Juniper. There’s nothing here from her.’
    ‘No,’ he said. ‘No, there’s not.’
    I waited, and when nothing followed I said, ‘You didn’t speak with her?’
    ‘No.’
    Again I waited. Again nothing followed. Apparently this was not going to be easy. At the other end of the line he cleared his throat and said, ‘I proposed to interview Juniper Blythe but she wasn’t available.’
    ‘Oh?’
    ‘Well, she was available in a bodily sense – I don’t think she leaves the castle much – but the older sisters wouldn’t permit me to speak with her.’
    Comprehension dawned. ‘Oh.’
    ‘She’s not well, so I expect that’s all it was, but…’
    ‘But what?’
    A break in conversation during which I could almost see him grabbing for the words to explain himself. Finally, a brambly sigh. ‘I got the feeling they were trying to protect her in some way.’
    ‘Protect her from what? From whom? From you?’
    ‘No, not from me!’
    ‘Then what?’
    ‘I don’t know. It was just a feeling. As if they were worried about what she might say. How it might reflect.’
    ‘On them? On their father?’
    ‘Maybe. Or else on her.’
    I remembered then the strange feeling I’d got when I was at Milderhurst, the glance that had passed between Saffy and Percy when Juniper shouted at me in the yellow parlour; Saffy’s concern when she discovered that Juniper had wandered off, that she’d been talking to me in the passage. That she might have said something she shouldn’t. ‘But why?’ I said, more to myself than to him, thinking about Mum’s lost letter, the trouble hinted at between its lines. ‘What could Juniper possibly have to hide?’
    ‘Well,’ said Adam, lowering his voice a little, ‘I must admit to having done a bit of digging. The more adamant they were about keeping her out of it, the more interested I got.’
    ‘And? What did you find?’ I was glad he couldn’t see me. There was no dignity in the way I was practically swallowing the telephone receiver in my eagerness.
    ‘An incident in 1935; I guess you could call it a scandal.’ He let the final word hang between us with a sort of mysterious satisfaction, and I could just picture him: leaning back against his bentwood desk chair, smoking jacket drawn taut against his belly, warm pipe clamped between his teeth.
    I matched his hushed tone. ‘What sort of scandal?’
    ‘Some “bad business” is what I was told, involving the son of an employee. One of the gardeners. The details were all rather imprecise and I couldn’t find anything of an official nature to verify it, but the story goes that the two of them were involved in some sort of a scrap and he came out of it beaten black and blue.’
    ‘By Juniper?’ An image came to mind of the wisp of old woman I’d met at Milderhurst; the slender girl in the old photos. I tried not to laugh. ‘When she was thirteen years old?’
    ‘That was the implication, though saying it out loud like that makes it seem rather far-fetched.’
    ‘But that’s what he told people? That Juniper did it?’
    ‘Well, he didn’t say any such thing. I can’t imagine there are too many young fellows who’d admit freely to being bested by a slim young girl like her. It was his mother who went up to the castle making claims. From what I hear, Raymond Blythe paid them off. Dressed up as a bonus for his father, apparently, who’d worked his whole life on the estate. The rumour didn’t go away, though, not completely; there was still talk in the village.’
    I got the feeling Juniper was the sort of girl people liked to talk about: her family were important, she was beautiful and talented – in Mum’s words, enchanting – but still: Juniper the Teenage Man-Beater? It seemed unlikely, to say the very least.
    ‘Look, it’s probably just groundless old talk.’ Adam’s tone was breezy again as he echoed my thoughts. ‘Nothing at all to do with why her sisters vetoed our interview.’
    I nodded slowly.
    ‘More likely, they just wanted to spare her the stress. She’s not well, she’s certainly not good with strangers, she wasn’t even born when the Mud Man was written.’
    ‘I’m sure you’re right,’ I said. ‘I’m sure that’s all it was.’
    But I wasn’t. I didn’t really imagine that the twins were fretting over a long-forgotten incident with the gardener’s son, but I couldn’t rid myself of the certainty that there was something else behind it. I put down the phone and I was back in that ghostly passage, looking between Juniper and Saffy and Percy, feeling like a child who is old enough to recognize nuance at play, but hopelessly ill-equipped to read it.
    The day that I was due to leave for Milderhurst, Mum came early to my bedroom. The sun was still hiding behind the wall of Singer & Sons, but I’d been awake for an hour or so already, as excited as a kid on her first day of school.
    ‘There’s something I wanted to give you,’ she said. ‘To lend you, at any rate. It’s rather precious to me.’
    I waited, wondering what it might be. She reached inside her dressing-gown pocket and took an object out. Her eyes searched mine for a moment, then she handed it over. A little book with a brown leather cover.
    ‘You said you wanted to know me better.’ She was trying hard to be brave, to keep her voice from shaking. ‘It’s all in there. She’s in there. The person that I used to be.’
    I took the journal, as nervy as a novice mother with a brand-new baby. Awed by its preciousness, terrified of doing it damage, amazed and touched and gratified that Mum would trust me with such a treasure. I couldn’t think what to say; that is, I could think of lots of things I wanted to say, but there was a lump in my throat, years in the making, and it wasn’t about to budge. ‘Thank you,’ I managed, before I began to cry.
    Mum’s eyes misted in instant response and at the very same moment each of us reached for the other and held on tight.

THREE

    Milderhurst, April 20th, 1940
    It was typical. After a terribly cold winter, spring had arrived with a great big smile and the day itself was perfect; a fact Percy couldn’t help but take as a direct slight from God. Then and there she became a non-believer, standing in the village church, at the far end of the family pew her grandmother had designed and William Morris had carved, watching as Mr Gordon, the vicar, pronounced Harry Rogers and Lucy Middleton man and wife. The entire experience had the vaguely spongy feeling of a nightmare, though it was possible the quantity of bolstering whisky she’d consumed beforehand was playing its part.
    Harry smiled at his new bride and Percy was struck again by how handsome he was. Not in the conventional sense, neither devilish nor suave nor clean-cut, rather he was handsome because he was good. She had always thought so, even when she was a little girl and he a young fellow who came to the house to attend the clocks for Daddy. There was something about the way he carried himself, the unassuming set of his shoulders, that marked him as a man whose self-opinion was not unduly inflated. Moreover he was possessed of a slow, steady nature, which might not have been dynamic, but spoke of care and tenderness. She used to watch him from between the banisters, coaxing life back into the oldest and crossest of the castle’s clocks, but if he’d noticed he’d never let on. He didn’t see her now, either. He only had eyes for Lucy.
    For her part, Lucy was smiling, giving an excellent performance of one who was pleased to be marrying the man she loved above all others. Percy had known Lucy for a long time, but had never thought her such a very good actress. An ill feeling shifted in the pit of her stomach and she longed again for the whole ordeal to be ended.
    She could have stayed away, of course – feigned illness or pleaded essential war work – but there’d have been talk. They’d employed Lucy at the castle for over twenty years: it was unthinkable that she might be married without a Blythe standing witness in the congregation. Daddy, for obvious reasons, made a poor choice, Saffy was preparing the castle for Meredith’s mother and father, and Juniper – never an ideal candidate – had retreated to the attic with her pen in a frenzy of inspiration; thus the duty had fallen to Percy. To shirk the responsibility wasn’t an option, not least because Percy would’ve had to explain her absence to her twin. Crushed to be missing the wedding herself, Saffy had demanded a report of every last detail.
    ‘The dress, the flowers, the way they look at one another,’ she’d said, listing them on her fingers as Percy tried to leave the castle. ‘I want to hear it all.’
    ‘Yes, yes,’ Percy had said, wondering whether her whisky flask would fit inside the fancy little handbag Saffy had insisted she carry. ‘Don’t forget Daddy’s medicine, will you? I’ve left it out on the table in the entrance hall.’
    ‘The hall table. Right.’
    ‘It’s important he has it on the hour. We don’t want a repeat of last time.’
    ‘No,’ Saffy agreed, ‘we certainly do not. Poor Meredith thought she was seeing a ghost, poor lamb. A very rambunctious ghost.’
    Percy had almost been at the bottom of the front stairs when she’d turned back. ‘And Saffy?’
    ‘Mmm?’
    ‘Let me know if anyone comes to call.’
    Ghastly death merchants preying on an old man’s confusion. Whispering in his ear, playing up to his fears, his ancient guilt. Rattling their Catholic crucifixes and muttering their Latin into the castle corners; convincing Daddy that the spectres of his imagination were bona fide demons. All, she was sure, so they could get their hands on the castle when he died.
    Percy picked at the skin around her fingernails, wondered how much longer it would be before she could get outside for a cigarette; whether it was possible for her to slip out unnoticed if she affected the perfect attitude of authority. The vicar said something then and everybody stood; Harry took Lucy’s hand in his to walk her back down the aisle, holding it with such tenderness that Percy realized she couldn’t hate him, even now.
    Joy animated the married couple’s features and Percy did her best to match it. She even managed to join in the applause as they made their way along the narrow aisle and out into the sunshine. She was aware of her limbs, the unnatural claw she’d made with her hand on the back of the pew, the lines of her face sitting in forced merriment that made her feel like a clockwork puppet. Someone hidden high above in the raked church ceiling jerked an invisible wire and she seized her handbag from beside her. Laughed a little and pretended to be a living, feeling thing.
    The magnolias were out, just as Saffy had hoped and prayed and crossed her fingers for, and it was one of those rare but precious days in April when summer begins to advertise itself. Saffy smiled just because she couldn’t help it.
    ‘Come on, slow coach,’ she called, turning to hurry Meredith along. ‘It’s Saturday, the sun is shining, your mother and father are on their way to visit; there’s no excuse for dragging your feet.’ Really, the child was in a most cheerless mood. One would’ve thought she’d be delighted at the prospect of seeing her parents, yet she’d been moping all morning. Saffy could guess why, of course.
    ‘Don’t worry,’ she said, as Meredith reached her side. ‘Juniper won’t be much longer. It never lasts more than a day or so.’
    ‘But she’s been up there since dinnertime. The door’s locked, she won’t answer. I don’t understand…’ Meredith squinted in an unflattering way, a habit that Saffy found frightfully endearing. ‘What’s she doing?’
    ‘Writing,’ said Saffy simply. ‘That’s how it is with Juniper. That’s how it’s always been. It won’t last long and then she’ll be back to normal. Here – ’ she handed Meredith the small stack of cake plates – ‘why don’t you help by laying these out? Shall we sit your mother and father with their backs to the hedge so they can see the garden?’
    ‘All right,’ said Meredith, cheering up.
    Saffy smiled to herself. Meredith Baker was delightfully compliant – an unexpected joy after raising Juniper – and her residency at Milderhurst Castle had been a resounding success. There was nothing like a child for forcing life back into tired, old stones, and the infusion of light and laughter had been just what the doctor ordered. Even Percy had taken a shine to the girl, relieved, no doubt, at having found the curlicues intact.
    The greatest surprise, though, had been Juniper’s reaction. The evident affection she felt for the young evacuee was the closest Saffy had ever seen her come to caring for another person. Safty heard them sometimes, talking and giggling in the garden, and was confounded, but pleasantly so, by the genuine geniality in Juniper’s voice. Genial was not a word Saffy had ever thought to use when describing her little sister.
    ‘Let’s lay a place here for June,’ she said, indicating the table, ‘just in case, and you beside, I think… and Percy over there…’
    Meredith had been following, laying down the plates, but she stopped then. ‘What about you?’ she said. ‘Where will you sit?’ And perhaps she read the apology forming in Saffy’s face for she went on quickly, ‘You are coming, aren’t you?’
    ‘Now, my dear.’ Saffy let the clutch of cake forks fall limp against her skirt, ‘I’d love to, you know I would. But Percy’s very traditional about such matters. She’s the eldest, and in the absence of Daddy that makes her the host. I know it must all sound terribly silly and formal to you, very old-fashioned indeed, but that’s the way things are done here. It’s the way Daddy likes to entertain at Milderhurst.’
    ‘But I still don’t see why you can’t both come.’
    ‘Well, one of us has to stay inside should Daddy need help.’
    ‘But Percy-’
    ‘Is so looking forward to it. She’s very keen to meet your parents.’
    Saffy could see that Meredith was unconvinced; more than that, the poor child looked so bitterly disappointed that Saffy would have done just about anything to cheer her up. She prevaricated, but only briefly and not with any real strength, and when Meredith let out a long, dispirited sigh, Saffy’s remaining resolve collapsed. ‘Oh, Merry,’ she said, sneaking a glance over her shoulder, ‘I shouldn’t say anything, I really shouldn’t, but there is another reason I have to stay indoors.’
    She slid to one end of the rickety garden seat and indicated Meredith should join her. Took a deep, cool breath and released it decidedly. Then she told Meredith all about the telephone call she was expecting that afternoon. ‘He’s a very important private collector in London,’ she said. ‘I wrote to him after a small advertisement appeared in the newspaper seeking an assistant to catalogue his collection. And he wrote back recently to tell me that mine was the successful application; that he would telephone me this afternoon so we might work out the details together.’
    ‘What does he collect?’
    Saffy couldn’t help clasping her hands together beneath her chin. ‘Antiquities, art, books, beautiful things – what heaven!’
    Excitement brightened the tiny freckles across Meredith’s nose and Saffy thought again what a lovely child she was, and how far she’d come in six short months. When one considered the poor skinny waif she’d been when Juniper first brought her home! Beneath the pale London skin and ragged dress, though, there lurked a quick mind and a delightful hunger for knowledge.
    ‘Can I visit the collection?’ said Meredith. ‘I’ve always wanted to see a real, live Egyptian artefact.’
    Saffy laughed. ‘Of course you shall. I’m certain Mr Wicks would be delighted to show his precious things to a clever young lady like you.’
    Meredith really did appear to glow then and the first barb of regret poked holes in Saffy’s pleasure. Was it not just a little unkind to fill the girl’s head with such grand imaginings only then to expect her to keep quiet about them? ‘Now, Merry,’ she said, sobering, ‘it’s very exciting news, but you must remember that it’s a secret. Percy doesn’t know yet, and nor shall she.’
    ‘Why not?’ Meredith’s eyes widened further. ‘What will she do?’
    ‘She won’t be happy, that’s for certain. She won’t want me to go. She’s rather resistant to change, you see, and she likes things the way they are, all three of us here together. She’s very protective like that. She always has been.’
    Meredith was nodding, absorbing this detail of the family dynamic with so much interest that Saffy half expected her to pull out that little journal of hers and take down notes. Her interest was understandable, though: Saffy had heard sufficient of the child’s own older sister to know that notions of sibling protectiveness would be unfamiliar to her.
    ‘Percy is my twin and I love her dearly, but sometimes, Merry dear, one has to put one’s own desires first. Happiness in life is not a given, it must be seized.’ She smiled and resisted adding that there had been other opportunities, other chances, all lost. It was one thing to feed a child a confidence, quite another to burden her with adult regrets.
    ‘But what will happen when it’s time for you to go?’ said Meredith. ‘She’ll find out then.’
    ‘Oh, but I’ll tell her before that!’ Saffy said with a laugh. ‘Of course I will. I’m not planning to abscond in the black of night, you know! Certainly not. I just need to find the perfect words, a way of ensuring that Percy’s feelings aren’t hurt. Until such time, I think it best that she not hear a thing about it. Do you understand?’
    ‘Yes,’ said Meredith, somewhat breathlessly.
    Saffy bit down on her bottom lip; she had the uneasy sense that she’d made an unfortunate error of judgement, that it had been unfair to put a child in such an awkward position. She’d only meant to take Meredith’s mind off her own miserable mood.
    Meredith misunderstood Saffy’s silence, taking it for a lack of faith in her ability to keep a confidence. ‘I won’t say anything, I promise. Not a word. I’m very good at secrets.’
    ‘Oh Meredith,’ Saffy smiled ruefully. ‘I don’t doubt it. That’s not it at all – Oh, dear, I’m afraid I must apologize. It was wrong of me, asking you to keep a secret from Percy – will you forgive me?’
    Meredith nodded solemnly and Saffy detected a glimmer in the girl’s face; pride at having been treated in such an adult manner, she supposed. Saffy remembered her own childish eagerness to grow up, how she’d waited impatiently on the cliff edge, pleading with adulthood to claim her, and she wondered whether it was possible ever to slow another’s journey. Was it even fair to try? Surely there could be nothing wrong in wanting to save Meredith, just as she’d tried to save Juniper, from reaching adulthood and its disappointments too fast?
    ‘There now, lovely one,’ she said, taking the last plate from Meredith’s hands, ‘why don’t you leave me to finish here? Go and have some fun while you wait for your parents to arrive. The morning’s far too brilliant to be spent doing chores. Just try not to get your dress too dirty.’
    It was one of the pinafores Saffy had sewn when Merry first arrived; made from a lovely piece of Liberty fabric ordered years ago, not because Saffy had a project in mind, but because it was simply too beautiful not to possess. It had languished ever since in the sewing cupboard, waiting patiently for Saffy to find it a purpose. And now she had. As Meredith dissolved into the horizon, Saffy returned her attention to the table, making sure everything was just so.
    Meredith wandered aimlessly through the long grass, swishing a stick from side to side, wondering how it was that one person’s absence could rob the day so wholly of its shape and meaning. She rounded the hill and met the stream, then followed it as far as the bridge carrying the driveway.
    She considered going further. Across the verge and into the woods. Deep enough that the light sifted, the spotted trout disappeared, and the water ran thick as molasses. All the way until she crossed into the wild woods and reached the forgotten pool at the base of the oldest tree in Cardarker Wood. The place of insistent blackness that she’d hated when she’d first come to the castle. Mum and Dad weren’t due for an hour or so yet, there was still time, and she knew the way, it was only a matter of sticking by the burbling brook, after all…
    But without Juniper, Meredith knew, it wouldn’t be so much fun. Just dark and damp and rather smelly. ‘Isn’t it wonderful?’ Juniper had said, the first time they’d explored together. Meredith had been uncertain. The log they were sitting on was cool and damp and her plimsolls wet from where she’d slid off a rock. There was another pool on the estate, teeming with butterflies and birds, and a rope swing that lazed back and forth in the dappled sunlight, and she’d wished, wished, wished, they’d decided to spend the day there instead. She didn’t say as much though; the force of Juniper’s conviction was such that Meredith knew the fault was her own, that her tastes were too juvenile, that she just wasn’t trying hard enough. Screwing her determination to the sticking place, she’d smiled and said, ‘Yes.’ And again, with feeling, ‘Yes. It is. Wonderful.’
    In a single, fluid motion, Juniper had stood, arms extended to the sides, and tiptoed across a fallen log. ‘It’s the shadows,’ she’d said, ‘the way the reeds slip down the banks, almost slyly; the smell of mud and moisture and rot.’ She smiled sideways at Meredith. ‘Why, it’s almost prehistoric. If I told you we’d crossed an invisible threshold into the past, you’d believe me, wouldn’t you?’
    Meredith had shivered then, just as she did now, and a small, smooth magnet within her child’s body had thrummed with inexplicable urgency, and she’d felt the pull of longing, though for what she did not know.
    ‘Close your eyes and listen,’ Juniper had whispered, finger to her lips. ‘You can hear the spiders spinning…’
    Meredith closed her eyes now. Listened to the chorus of crickets, the occasional splashing of trout, the distant drone of a tractor somewhere… There was another sound, too. One that seemed distinctly out of place. It was an engine, she realized, close by and coming nearer.
    She opened her eyes and saw it. A black motorcar, winding down the gravelled driveway from the castle. Meredith couldn’t help but stare. Visitors were rare at Milderhurst, motorcars even rarer. Few people had the petrol for making social calls and, from what Meredith could tell, those who did were hoarding it so they could flee north when the Germans invaded. Even the priest who called on the old man in the tower arrived on foot these days. This visitor must be someone official, Meredith decided; someone on special war business.
    The motorcar passed and the driver, a man she did not recognize, touched his black hat, nodding sternly at Meredith. She squinted after him, watching the car as it continued warily along the gravel. It disappeared behind a wooded bend only to reappear some time later at the foot of the driveway, a black speck turning onto the Tenterden Road.
    Meredith yawned and promptly forgot all about it. There was a patch of violets growing wild near the bridge and she couldn’t resist picking some. When her posy was lovely and thick, she climbed up to sit on the railing of the bridge and divided her time between daydreaming and dropping the flowers, one by one, into the stream, watching as they turned purple somersaults in the gentle current.
    ‘Morning.’
    She looked up to see Percy Blythe pushing her bicycle up the driveway, an unflattering hat on her head, requisite cigarette in hand. The stern twin, as Meredith usually thought of her, though today there was something else in her face, something beyond stern and a little more like sad. It might just have been the hat. Meredith said, ‘Hello,’ and clutched the railing to save herself from falling.
    ‘Or is it afternoon already?’ Percy slowed to a stop and flicked her wrist, reading the small watch-face that sat against the inside. ‘Just gone half past. You won’t forget we have a tea engagement, will you?’ She glanced over the end of her cigarette as she drew long and hard, then exhaled slowly. ‘Your parents would be rather disappointed, I imagine: to travel all this way only to miss you.’
    It was a joke, Meredith suspected, but there was nothing jovial about Percy’s expression or her manner so she couldn’t be sure. She hedged her bets, smiling politely; at the very least, she figured, Percy might assume she hadn’t heard.
    Percy gave no indication that she’d noticed Meredith’s response, let alone given it further thought. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘things to do.’ And she nodded bluntly, continuing on towards the castle.

FOUR

    When Meredith finally caught sight of her parents, walking together up the driveway, her stomach flip-flopped. For a split second she felt as if she was watching the approach of two dream people, familiar yet entirely out of place here, in the real world. The sensation lasted only a moment before something inside her, some disc of perception, turned over and she saw properly it was Mum and Dad and they were here at last and she had so much to tell them. She ran forwards, arms wide, and Dad knelt, mirroring her posture, so she could leap into his big, wide, warm embrace. Mum planted a kiss on her cheek, which was unusual but not unpleasant, and although she knew herself to be far too old for it neither Rita nor Ed were there to tease her, so Meredith let her dad hold hands with her all the rest of the way, as she talked without pause about the castle and its library and the fields and the brook and the woods.
    Percy was already waiting by the table, smoking another cigarette, which she extinguished when she saw them. She smoothed the sides of her skirt, held out a hand, and with a bit of fussing the greeting was effected. ‘And how was your train trip? Not too unpleasant I hope?’ The question was perfectly ordinary, polite even, but Meredith heard the toffy clip of Percy’s voice through her parent’s ears and wished it were Saffy’s soft welcome instead.
    Sure enough, Mum’s voice was thin and guarded: ‘It was long. Stopping and starting all the way, letting the troop trains pass. We spent more time in the sidings than we did on the track.’
    ‘Still,’ said Dad, ‘our boys have gotta get themselves to war somehow. Show Hitler Britain can take it.’
    ‘Just so, Mr Baker. Sit down, won’t you, please?’ said Percy, indicating the prettily laid table. ‘You must be famished.’
    Percy poured tea and offered slices of Saffy’s cake, and they spoke, somewhat stiltedly, about the crowding on the trains, the state of the war (Denmark had toppled, would Norway be next?), predictions for its progress. Meredith nibbled a piece of cake and watched. She’d been convinced that Mum and Dad would take one look at the castle, then another at Percy Blythe, with her plummy accent and broomstick spine, and adopt defensive manoeuvres, but so far things were going smoothly enough.
    Meredith’s mum was very quiet, it was true. She kept one hand holding tightly onto the handbag on her lap in a nervous, stiff sort of way, which was a little disquieting given that Meredith couldn’t think that she’d ever seen her mother nervous before: not of rats, or spiders, or even Mr Lane from across the road when he’d spent too long in the pub. Dad seemed to be a bit more at ease, nodding as Percy described the Spitfire drive and the care packages for soldiers in France, and sipping tea from a hand-painted porcelain teacup as if he did so every day. Well, almost. He did manage to make it look rather like a doll’s-house tea set. Meredith didn’t think she’d ever realized quite how enormous his fingers were and an unexpected wave of affection washed over her. She reached out beneath the table to lay her palm on his other hand. They weren’t a family who expressed themselves physically and he glanced up, surprised, before squeezing hers in return.
    ‘How’s your schoolwork going, my girl?’ He leaned his shoulder a little closer and looked up to wink at Percy: ‘Our Rita might have got the looks, but young Merry here took all the brains.’
    Meredith warmed with pride. ‘I’m doing lessons here, Dad, at the castle, with Saffy. You should see the library, there are more books even than at the circulating library. Every wall covered with shelves. And I’m learning Latin…’ Oh, how she loved Latin. Sounds from the past, imbued with meaning. Ancient voices on the wind. Meredith pushed her spectacles higher up the bridge of her nose; they often slipped with excitement. ‘And I’m learning the piano, too.’
    ‘My sister Seraphina is very pleased with your daughter’s progress,’ said Percy. ‘She’s come along rather well, considering she’d never seen a piano before.’
    ‘Is that right?’ said Dad, hands jiggling in his pockets so that his elbows moved most peculiarly above the table top. ‘My girl can play tunes?’
    Meredith smiled proudly and wondered if her ears were glowing. ‘Some.’
    Percy topped up everybody’s tea. ‘Perhaps you’ll take your parents inside later, Meredith; into the music room, where you might play one of your pieces for them?’
    ‘You hear that, Mum?’ Dad nodded his chin. ‘Our Meredith is playing real music.’
    ‘I heard.’ Something seemed to set then in Mum’s face, though Meredith wasn’t sure exactly what it was. It was the same look she got when she and Dad were fighting over something, and he made a small but fatal error ensuring that victory would be hers. Her voice tight, she spoke to Meredith as if Percy wasn’t there. ‘We missed you at Christmas.’
    ‘I missed you too, Mum. I did really want to come and visit. Only there were no trains. They needed them all for the soldiers.’
    ‘Rita’s coming home with us today.’ Mum set her teacup on its saucer, straightened the teaspoon decisively and pushed it away. ‘Found her a position with a hairdressing salon, we have, down on the Old Kent Road. Starts on Monday. Cleaning at first, but they’ll teach her how to do sets and cuts, too.’ Gratification brought a glimmer to Mum’s eyes. ‘There’s opportunities at the moment, Merry, what with so many of the older girls joining the Wrens or going to the factories. Good opportunities for a young girl without other prospects.’
    It made sense. Rita was always fussing with her hair and her prized collection of beauty aids. ‘Sounds good, Mum. Nice to have someone in the family who can set your hair for you.’ That didn’t seem to please her mum.
    Percy Blythe took a cigarette from the silver case Saffy insisted she use in company and felt about in her pocket for matches.
    Dad cleared his throat. ‘The thing is, Merry,’ he said, and his awkwardness was no consolation to Meredith for the terrible thing he said next ‘your Mum and me – we thought it might be time for you, too.’
    And then Meredith understood. They wanted her to go home, to become a hairdresser, to leave Milderhurst. Deep inside her stomach panic formed a ball and started rolling back and forth. She blinked a couple of times, straightened her specs, then stammered, ‘But, but, I don’t want to be a hairdresser. Saffy says it’s important I finish my education. That I might even get a place at grammar school when the war is over.’
    ‘Your mum was just thinking of your future with the hairdressing; we can talk about something else if you like. An office girl maybe. One of the ministries?’
    ‘But it’s not safe in London,’ said Meredith suddenly. It was a stroke of genius: she wasn’t really remotely frightened of Hitler or his bombs, but perhaps this was a way to convince them.
    Dad smiled and patted her shoulder. ‘There’s nothing to worry about, my girl. We’re all doing our bit to ruin Hitler’s party: Mum’s just started in a munitions factory and I’m working nights. There’s no bombs been dropped, no poison gas, the old neighbourhood looks just the same as always.’
    Just the same as always. Meredith pictured the grimy old streets and her grim place in them, and with a bolt of sickening clarity admitted then how desperate she was to stay on at Milderhurst. She turned towards the castle, knotting her fingers, wishing she could summon Juniper with nothing more than the intensity of her need; wishing that Saffy might appear and say the perfect thing, make Mum and Dad see that taking her home was the wrong thing to do, that they must let her stay.
    Perhaps by some strange twin communication, Percy chose that moment to wade in. ‘Mr and Mrs Baker,’ she said, tapping the end of her cigarette on the silver case and looking like she’d rather be anywhere else, ‘I can understand that you’d very much like to have Meredith home with you, but if the invasion should-’
    ‘You’re coming with us this afternoon, young miss, and that’s final.’ Mum’s hackles had risen like a set of quills. She didn’t so much as glance at Percy, fixing Meredith with a look that promised fierce punishment later.
    Meredith’s eyes watered behind her spectacles. ‘I’m not.’
    Dad growled, ‘Don’t you talk back to your mother-’
    ‘Well,’ said Percy abruptly. She’d lifted the lid on the teapot and was scrutinizing its contents. ‘The pot’s empty; excuse me while I refill it, won’t you? We’re rather short on help at the moment. Wartime economies.’
    They all three watched her retreat, then Mum hissed at Dad, ‘Rather short on help. You hear that?’
    ‘Come on, Annie.’ Confrontation was not something Dad enjoyed. He was the sort of man whose impressive bulk was enough of a deterrent that he rarely needed to come to blows. Mum, on the other hand…
    ‘That woman’s been looking down her nose at us since we arrived. Wartime economies indeed – in a place like this.’ She tossed her hand in the direction of the castle. ‘Probably thinks we ought to be in there fetching after her.’
    ‘She does not!’ said Meredith. ‘They’re not like that.’
    ‘Meredith.’ Dad was still staring at a fixed point on the ground, but his voice rose, almost pleading, and he shot a glance at her from beneath his knotted brow. Ordinarily, she knew, he relied on her to stand silently beside him when Mum and Rita started screaming. But not today, she couldn’t just stand by today.
    ‘But, Dad, look at the lovely tea they put on specially-’
    ‘That’s enough lip from you, Miss.’ Mum was on her feet now and she jerked Meredith up by the sleeve of her new dress, harder than she might otherwise have. ‘You get on inside and fetch your things. Your real clothes. The train’s leaving soon and we’re all going to be on it.’
    ‘I don’t want to go,’ said Meredith, turning urgently to her father. ‘Let me stay, Dad. Please don’t make me go. I’m learning-’
    ‘Pah!’ Mum swiped her hand dismissively. ‘I can see well enough what you’ve been learning here with your Lady Muck; learning to cheek your parents. I can see what you’re forgetting too: who you are and where you come from.’ She shook her finger at Dad. ‘I told you we were wrong to send them away. If we’d only kept them home like I wanted-’
    ‘Enough!’ Dad’s top had finally blown. ‘That’s enough, Annie. Sit down. There’s no need for all this; she’s coming home now.’
    ‘I’m not!’
    ‘Oh yes you are,’ said Mum, pulling back her flattened hand. ‘And there’s a good clip round the ear waiting for you when you get there.’
    ‘That’s enough!’ Dad was on his feet now, too; he grabbed hold of Mum’s wrist. ‘For Christ’s sake, that’s enough, Annie.’ His eyes searched hers and something passed between them; Meredith saw her mother’s wrist go limp. Dad nodded at her. ‘We’ve all become a bit hot and bothered, that’s all.’
    ‘Talk to your daughter… I can’t stand to look at her. I only hope she never knows what it is to lose a child.’ And she walked away, arms folded stubbornly across her body.
    Dad looked tired suddenly, old. He ran a hand over his hair. It was thinning on top so that Meredith could see the marks that the comb had made that morning. ‘You mustn’t mind her. She’s fiery, you know how she gets. She’s been worried about you, we both have.’ He glanced again at the castle, looming above them. ‘Only we’ve heard stories. From Rita’s letters and from some of the kids who’ve come home, terrible stories about how they were treated.’
    Was that all? Meredith felt the bubbling delirium of relief; she knew there had been evacuees less fortunate than her, but if that was all they were worried about, then surely all she had to do was reassure her dad. ‘But there’s nothing to worry about, Dad. I told you in my letters: I’m happy here. Didn’t you read my letters?’
    ‘Course I did. We both did. Brightest spot in our day, your mum and me, getting a letter from you.’
    The way he said it, Meredith knew that it was true and something inside her panged, imagining them at the table, poring over the things she’d written. ‘Well then,’ she said, unable to meet his eyes, ‘you know that everything’s all right. Better than all right.’
    ‘I know that’s what you said.’ He looked towards Mum, checking she was still a fair distance away. ‘That was part of the problem. Your letters were so… cheerful. And your mother heard from one of her friends that there were foster families changing the letters that the boys and girls were writing home. Stopping them from saying anything that might reflect badly. Making things seem better than they really were.’ He heaved a sigh. ‘That’s not how it is, though, is it, Merry? Not for you.’
    ‘No, Dad.’
    ‘You’re happy here; as happy your letters make out?’
    ‘Yes.’ Meredith could see that he was wavering. Possibility shot like fireworks through her limbs, and she spoke quickly. ‘Percy’s a bit stiff, but Saffy’s wonderful. You could meet her if you come inside; I could play you a song on the piano.’
    He looked up at the tower, sunlight sweeping across his cheeks. Meredith watched as his pupils shrank; she waited, trying to read his wide, blank face. His lips moved as if he were taking measurements, memorizing figures, but it was impossible for her to see which way the sums might lead him. He glanced, then, at his wife, fuming by the fountain, and Meredith knew that it was now or never. ‘Please, Dad.’ She grabbed the fabric of his shirtsleeve. ‘Please don’t make me go back. I’m learning so much here, far more than I could learn in London. Please make Mum see that I’m better off here.’
    A light sigh and he frowned at Mum’s back. As Meredith watched his face changed, fell along lines of tenderness so that Meredith’s heart turned a somersault. But he didn’t look down at her and he didn’t speak. Finally, she followed his sightline and noticed that Mum had twisted a bit, was standing now with one hand on her hip, the other fidgeting lightly by her side. The sun had crept up behind her and found glints of red in her brown hair, and she looked pretty and lost and unusually young. Her eyes were locked with Dad’s, and in a dull thudding moment, Meredith saw that the tenderness in his face was for Mum, and not for her at all.
    ‘I’m sorry, Merry,’ he said, covering her fingers, still clutching at his shirt, with his. ‘It’s for the best. Go and fetch your things. We’re going home.’
    And that’s when Meredith did the very wicked thing, the betrayal for which her mother would never forgive her. Her only excuse that she was robbed entirely of choice; that she was a child and would be for years to come, and nobody cared what she wanted. She was tired of being treated like a parcel or a suitcase, shunted off here or there depending on what the adults thought was best. All she wanted was to belong somewhere.
    She took her dad’s hand and said, ‘I’m sorry, too, Dad.’ And as bewilderment was still settling on his lovely face, she smiled apologetically, avoided her mum’s furious glare, and ran as fast as she could down the grassy lawn. Leaped across the verge and into the cool, dark safety of Cardarker Wood.
    Percy found out about Saffy’s plans for London quite by chance. If she hadn’t absented herself from tea with Meredith’s parents, she might never have known. Not until it was too late. It was fortunate, she supposed, that the public airing of dirty laundry was something she found both embarrassing and drear, and that she’d made her excuses and gone inside, intending only to allow the requisite time to pass before returning to stilled waters. She’d expected to find Saffy crouched by the window, spying on proceedings from afar and demanding a report – What were the parents like? How did Meredith seem? Had they enjoyed the cakes? – so it had been somewhat surprising to find the kitchen empty.
    Percy remembered she was still carrying the teapot and, following her rather feeble ruse, returned the kettle to the stove. Time passed slowly and her attention drifted away from the flames, and she started wondering instead what dreadful thing she’d done to deserve both a wedding and a tea engagement on the same day. And that’s when it came, a shrill clattering from the butler’s pantry. Telephone calls had become rare after the Post Office warned that social chatter over the networks could delay important war talks, so it took a moment for Percy to realize the cause of the indignant racket.
    As a consequence, when she did finally lift the receiver, she succeeded in sounding both fearful and suspicious: ‘Milderhurst Castle. Hello?’
    The caller identified himself at once as Archibald Wicks of Chelsea, and asked to speak to Miss Seraphina Blythe. Taken aback, Percy offered to jot down a message, and that’s when the gentleman told her he was Saffy’s employer, calling with revised advice regarding her accommodation in London as of the following week.
    ‘I’m sorry, Mr Wicks,’ said Percy, blood vessels dilating beneath her skin, ‘I’m afraid there must have been a misunderstanding.’
    An airy hesitation. ‘A misunderstanding, did you say? The line – it’s rather difficult to hear.’
    ‘Seraphina – my sister – will be unable to take up a position in London.’
    ‘Oh.’ There was another pause, during which the line crackled across the distance and Percy couldn’t help picturing the telephone wires, strung from post to post, swaying in the wuthering breeze. ‘Oh, I see,’ he continued. ‘But that is odd, only I have her letter accepting the position right here in my hand. We’d corresponded quite reliably on the topic.’
    That explained the frequency of post Percy had been carrying to and from the castle of late; Saffy’s determination to stay within reach of the telephone ‘in case an important call should come through regarding the war’. Percy cursed herself for having been distracted by her WVS duties, for not having paid closer attention. ‘I understand,’ she said. ‘And I’m certain that Seraphina had every intention of honouring her agreement. But the war, you see, and now our father has been taken ill. I’m afraid she’ll be needed at home for the duration.’
    Though disappointed and understandably confused, Mr Wicks was mollified somewhat by Percy’s promise to send him a signed first edition of the Mud Man for his collection of rare books, and rang off in relatively good spirits. There would be no question, at least, of his suing them for breach of contract.
    Saffy’s disappointment, Percy suspected, would not be so easily managed. A toilet flushed somewhere in the distance, then the pipes gurgled in the kitchen wall. Percy sat on the stool and waited. Within minutes, Saffy hurried in from upstairs.
    ‘Percy!’ She stopped still, glanced towards the open back door. ‘What are you doing here? Where’s Meredith? Her parents haven’t left already, surely? Is everything all right?’
    ‘I came to fetch more tea.’
    ‘Oh.’ Saffy’s face relaxed into a faltering smile. ‘Then let me help. You don’t want to be away from your guests too long.’ She fetched the jar of tea leaves and lifted the pot’s lid.
    Percy considered obfuscation but the conversation with Mr Wicks had so surprised her that she drew a blank. In the end, she said simply, ‘There was a telephone call. While I was waiting for the kettle.’
    Only the faintest tremor, a fine drift of tea leaves from the sides of the spoon. ‘A telephone call? When?’
    ‘Just now.’
    ‘Oh.’ Saffy brushed the loose leaves into the palm of one hand; they lay together like a pile of dead ants. ‘Something to do with the war, was it?’
    ‘No.’
    Saffy leaned against the bench top and clenched a nearby tea towel in her hand as if trying to avoid being pulled out to sea.
    The kettle chose that moment to spit, hissing through its spout before winding itself up to a menacing whistle. Saffy took it off the heat, remained at the stove with her back to Percy, her breath stilled.
    ‘It was a fellow by the name of Mr Archibald Wicks,’ Percy said then. ‘Calling from London. A collector, he said.’
    ‘I see.’ Saffy didn’t turn. ‘And what did you tell him?’
    A shout from outside and Percy moved swiftly to the open door.
    ‘What did you tell him, Percy?’
    A breeze, and on it the yellowing scent of cut grass.
    ‘Percy?’ Barely a whisper.
    ‘I told him that we needed you here.’
    Saffy gave a sound that might have been a sob.
    Percy spoke carefully then, slowly. ‘You know you can’t go, Saffy. That you mustn’t mislead people like that. He was expecting you in London next week.’
    ‘Expecting me in London because that’s where I’m going to be. I applied for a position, Percy, and he chose me.’ She did turn then. Lifted her clenched hand, elbow bent, a strangely theatrical gesture made more so by the scrunched tea towel still in her grasp. ‘He chose me,’ she said, shaking her fist for emphasis. ‘He collects all sorts of things, beautiful things, and he’s hired me – me – to assist him with his work.’
    Percy dug a cigarette from her case, had to fight the match, but eventually she struck it.
    ‘I’m going, Percy, and you can’t stop me.’
    Damn Saffy; she wasn’t going to make things easy. Percy’s head was already throbbing; the wedding had left her spent, then playing hostess to Meredith’s parents. This was the last thing she needed; Saffy was being purposely obtuse, goading her into spelling things out. Well, if that was how she wanted to play it, Percy wasn’t afraid to lay down the law. ‘No,’ she exhaled smokily, ‘you’re not. You’re not going anywhere, Saff. You know it, I know it, and now Mr Wicks knows it, too.’
    Saffy’s arms slackened beside her, the tea towel fell to the flagstones. ‘You told him I wasn’t coming. Just like that.’
    ‘Someone had to. He was about to wire you the fare.’
    Saffy’s eyes were brimming now, and although Percy was angry with her she was pleased too, to see that her sister was fighting the rush of tears. Perhaps a scene would be avoided this time, after all.
    ‘Come along now,’ she said, ‘I’m sure you’ll see eventually that it’s for the best-’
    ‘You’re really not going to let me go.’
    ‘No,’ said Percy, firmly but kindly, ‘I’m not.’
    Saffy’s bottom lip trembled and her voice when finally she managed to speak was little more than a whisper. ‘You can’t control us forever, Percy.’ Her fingers were scrabbling together against her skirt, gathering invisible sticky threads into a tiny ball.
    The gesture was one from childhood and Percy was overwhelmed by déjà vu and a fierce urge to hold her twin close and never let her go, to tell her she was loved, that Percy didn’t mean to be cruel, that she was doing it for Saffy’s own good. But she didn’t. She couldn’t. And it wouldn’t have made any difference if she had, because nobody wants to be told that sort of thing, even when they know, in their heart of hearts, that it’s true.
    She settled instead for softening her own voice and saying, ‘I’m not trying to control you, Saffy. Maybe some other day, in the future, you’ll be able to leave.’ Percy gestured at the castle walls. ‘But not now. We need you here now, what with the war and Daddy as he is. Not to mention the severe shortage of staff: have you considered what would happen to the rest of us if you left? Can you see Juniper or Daddy or – Lord help us – me, staying on top of the laundry?’
    ‘There’s nothing you can’t do, Percy.’ Saffy’s voice was bitter. ‘There’s never been anything you couldn’t do.’
    Percy knew then that she’d won; more importantly, that Saffy knew it too. But she felt no joy, only the familiar burden of responsibility. Her whole being ached for her sister, for the young girl she’d once been with the world at her feet.
    ‘Miss Blythe?’ Percy looked up to see Meredith’s father at the door, his thin little wife by his side, and an air of complete perturbation surrounding them both.
    She’d forgotten them completely. ‘Mr Baker,’ she said, ruffling the back of her hair. ‘I apologize. I’ve taken an age with the tea-’
    ‘That’s all right, Miss Blythe. We’re about done with tea. It’s Meredith, you see.’ His shoulders seemed to sink a little. ‘My wife and I planned to take her home with us but she’s that set on staying – I’m afraid the little devil’s given us the slip.’
    ‘Oh.’ It was the last thing Percy needed. She glanced behind her, but Saffy had performed her own escape act. ‘Well. I expect we’d better take a look then, hadn’t we?’
    ‘That’s just it,’ Mr Baker said unhappily. ‘My wife and I have to be back on the three twenty-four to London. It’s the only service today.’
    ‘I see,’ said Percy. ‘Then of course you must go. The trains are terrible these days. If you miss today’s, you’re as likely still to be waiting this time Wednesday.’
    ‘But my girl…’ Mrs Baker looked as if she might be about to cry and the prospect didn’t sit comfortably on her tough, pointy face. Percy knew the feeling.
    ‘You’re not to worry,’ she said with a short nod. ‘I’ll find her. Is there a number in London where I can reach you? She won’t have gone far.’
    From a branch in the oldest oak of Cardarker Wood, Meredith could just make out the castle. The pointed turret of the tower and its needle-like spire piercing the sky. The tiles glowed crimson with the afternoon light, and the silver tip shone. On the lawn at the top of the driveway Percy Blythe was waving her parents goodbye.
    Meredith’s ears burned with the thrilling wickedness of what she’d done. There’d be repercussions, she knew, but she’d had no other option. She’d run and she’d run until she could run no further, and when her breath was finally caught, she’d scaled the tree, alive with the strange, humming energy of having acted impetuously for the very first time in her life.
    At the top of the driveway, Mum’s shoulders sagged and Meredith thought for a moment she was crying; then her arms flew out to the side, hands like startled starfish. Dad flinched backwards and Meredith knew that Mum was shouting. She didn’t need to hear what Mum was saying to know that she was in big trouble.
    Meanwhile, still standing in the castle yard, Percy Blythe was smoking, one hand on her hip as she watched the woods, and Meredith felt a whisper of doubt grow wings within her stomach. She had presumed she’d be welcome to stay on at the castle, but what if she weren’t? What if the twins were so shocked by her disobedience that they refused to look after her any longer? What if following her own desires had led her into terrible trouble? As Percy Blythe finished her cigarette and turned back towards the castle, Meredith felt suddenly very alone.
    Movement drew her gaze to the castle roof and Meredith’s heart turned like a catherine wheel. Someone in a white summer dress was climbing there. Juniper. Finished at last! Back in the outside world. As Meredith watched, she reached the flattened edge and sat, long legs dangling over the side. She’d be lighting a cigarette now, Meredith knew, leaning back, looking up at the sky.
    But she didn’t. She stopped abruptly instead, and looked towards the woods. Meredith held tightly to the branch; excitement had brought on a funny sort of laugh which caught in her throat. It was almost as if Juniper had heard her, as if the older girl had somehow sensed her presence. If anyone could do such a thing, Meredith knew, it was Juniper.
    She couldn’t go back to London. She wouldn’t. Not now, not yet.
    Meredith watched her mum and dad walk down the drive away from the castle, Mum’s arms folded over her middle, Dad’s limp by his sides. ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered under her breath, ‘I didn’t have a choice.’

FIVE

    The water was tepid and shallow, but Saffy didn’t mind. A long soak in a hot bath was a pleasure of the past, and it was enough just to be alone with Percy’s ghastly betrayal. She eased her bottom forward so she could lie flat on her back, knees bent towards the ceiling, head submerged, and ears underwater. Her hair floated like seaweed around the island of her face and she listened to the eddies and gurgles of the water, the clanking of the plug chain against the enamel, and other strange languages of the watery world.
    For their entire adult life, Saffy had known herself to be the weaker twin. Percy liked to pooh-pooh such talk, insisting there was no such thing, not with them: that there was only a sunlight and a shadow position, between which they alternated so that things were always in perfect balance. Which was kind of her, but no more accurate for being well intentioned. Quite simply, Saffy knew that the things for which she had a superior talent were those that did not matter. She wrote well, she was a fine dressmaker, she could cook (passably) and lately even clean; but what use were such skills when she remained enslaved? Worse, a willing slave. Because for the most part, it shamed her to admit, Saffy didn’t mind the role. There was an ease, after all, that came with being subordinate, a release of burden. And yet, there were times, like today, when she resented the expectation that she ought to fall into line without argument, no matter her own preference.
    Saffy lifted her body and leaned against the tub’s smooth end, swiped the wet flannel against her anger-warmed face. The enamel was cool on her back and she arranged the flannel like a shrunken blanket across her breasts and stomach, watched it tighten and release with her breaths, a second skin; then she closed her eyes. How dare Percy presume to speak for her? To make decisions on Saffy’s behalf, to determine her future without consultation?
    But Percy did, just as she always had, and today, as ever, there’d been no arguing with her.
    Saffy exhaled, long and slow, in an attempt to control her anger. The sigh caught on a sob. She supposed she should be pleased, flattered even, that Percy needed her so fiercely. And she was. But she was tired, too, of being powerless; more than that, she was sick at heart. For as long as she could remember, Saffy had been stuck in a life that ran parallel to the one of which she’d dreamed, the one she’d had every reasonable expectation to believe would be hers.
    This time, however, there was one little thing she could do – Saffy brushed each cheek, enlivened by the creep of determination – a small way in which she might exercise her own feeble power against Percy. It would be a strike of omission rather than commission; Percy would never even know the blow had been struck. The only spoil of war would be a slight return of Saffy’s self-respect. But that was enough.
    Saffy was going to keep something to herself, something that Percy would prefer to know: all about the unexpected visitor who’d arrived at the castle that day. While Percy was at Lucy’s wedding, Juniper was in the attic and Meredith was stalking the estate, Daddy’s solicitor, Mr Banks, had arrived in his black motorcar, accompanied by two dour little women in plain suits. Saffy, who’d been making adjustments to the tea table outside, had first considered hiding, pretending there was no one at home – she didn’t particularly like Mr Banks, and she certainly didn’t like answering the door to unexpected callers – but the old man had been known to her since she was a small girl, he was a friend to Daddy, and therefore she’d been bound in some way she couldn’t easily explain.
    She’d run through the kitchen entrance, straightened herself in the oval mirror by the larder, then hurried upstairs, just in time to greet him at the front door. He’d been surprised, almost displeased, when he saw her, wondering aloud what times were coming to when somewhere as grand as Milderhurst was without a proper housekeeper, then instructing her to take him to her father. For all that Saffy longed to embrace society’s changing mores, she harboured an old-fashioned reverence for the law and its officers, so she’d done precisely as he said. He was a man of few words (that is, he was a man not disposed to making idle chitchat with the daughters of his clients); their climb was silent, and for that she’d been glad; men like Mr Banks always made her tongue-tied. When they finally reached the top of the winding staircase, he’d given her a curt nod before showing himself and his two officious companions through the doorway and into Daddy’s tower room.
    Saffy’s intention hadn’t been to snoop; indeed, she’d resented the intrusion on her time almost as much as she resented any task which took her up to the ghastly tower with its smell of impending death, the monstrous framed print on the wall. If the tortured struggle of a butterfly trapped in a web between the banisters hadn’t caught her eye, she’d no doubt have been halfway down the stairs and well out of earshot. But she had and she wasn’t and so, while she carefully unthreaded the insect, she heard Daddy say: ‘That’s why I called you, Banks. Damned nuisance, death. Have you made the amendments?’
    ‘I have. I’ve brought them to be signed and witnessed, along with a copy for your records, of course.’
    The details thereafter Saffy hadn’t heard, nor had she wanted to. She was the second daughter of an old-fashioned man, a spinster in her middle years: the masculine world of property and finance neither interested nor concerned her. She wanted only to free the weakened butterfly and get away from the tower, to leave the stale air and stifling memories behind her. She hadn’t been inside the little room for over twenty years, she intended never to set foot inside again, ever. And as she hurried down and away, she’d tried to elude the cloud of memories that pressed upon her as she went.
    For they’d been close once, she and Daddy, a long time ago, but the love had spoiled. Juniper was the better writer and Percy the better daughter, which left very little room for Saffy in their father’s affections. There had only been the one brief, glorious moment in which Saffy’s usefulness had outshone that of her sisters. After the Great War when Daddy had returned to them, all bruised and broken, it was she who had been able to bring him back, to give him the very thing he needed most. And it had been seductive, the force of his fondness, the evenings spent in hiding, where no one else could find them…
    Suddenly there was bedlam and Saffy’s eyes snapped open. Someone was shouting. She was in the tub but the water was icy, the light had disappeared through the open window leaving dusk in its place. Saffy realized that she’d slipped into a doze. She was fortunate that was all the slipping she’d done. But who was shouting? She sat up, straining to hear. Nothing, and she wondered whether she’d imagined the noise.
    Then it came again. And the din of a bell. The old man in the tower, off on one of his rants. Well, let Percy see to him. They deserved each other.
    With a shiver, Saffy peeled back the cold flannel and stood, sending the water buckling back and forth. She stepped, dripping, onto the mat. There were voices downstairs now, she could hear them. Meredith, Juniper – and Percy, too; they were all there, all of them in the yellow parlour together. Waiting for their dinner, she supposed, and she would fetch it for them as she always did.
    Saffy tugged her dressing gown from the hook on the door, fought with the sleeves and fastened it over her cool, wet skin, then she started down the hallway, her wet footsteps echoing along the flagstones. Nursing her little secret close.
    ‘You wanted something, Daddy?’ Percy pushed open the heavy door to the tower room. It took her a moment to spot him, tucked in the alcove by the fireplace, beneath the Goya print; and, when she did, he looked frightened to see her and she knew immediately that he’d suffered another of his delusions. Which meant that when she went downstairs she’d more than likely find his daily medicine sitting on the hall table where she’d left it that morning. It was her own fault for having expected too much, and she cursed herself for not having thought to check on him as soon as she’d arrived home from the church.
    She softened her voice, spoke to him the way she imagined she might to a child, had she ever had the chance to know one well enough to love them: ‘There now. Everything’s all right. Would you like to sit down? Come along, I’ll help you get settled here by the window. It’s a lovely evening.’
    He nodded jerkily, started towards her outstretched arm, and she knew that the delusion had ended. She knew, too, that it hadn’t been a bad one because he’d managed to recover himself sufficiently to say, ‘I thought I told you to wear a hairpiece.’
    He had, many times now, and Percy had dutifully purchased one (not an easy thing to do in a time of war), only to leave the wretched thing lying like a severed fox’s tail on her bedside table. There was a crocheted blanket draped over the arm of the chair, a small, brightly coloured thing that Lucy had made for him some years ago, and Percy straightened it over his knees when he sat down, saying, ‘I’m sorry, Daddy. I forgot. I heard the bell and I didn’t want to leave you waiting.’
    ‘You look like a man. Is that what you want? People to treat you like a man?’
    ‘No, Daddy.’ Percy’s fingertips went to the nape of her neck, centred on the little velvety coil that dipped lower than the rest of her hairline. He’d meant nothing by it and she wasn’t offended, only a little startled by the suggestion. She sneaked a sideways glance at the glass-fronted bookcase, caught her image rippling in the dimpled surface; a rather severe-looking woman, sharp angles, a very straight spine, but a pair of not ungenerous breasts, a definite curve at the hips, a face that wasn’t primped with lipstick and powder but which she didn’t think was manly. Which she hoped was not.
    Daddy, meanwhile, had turned his head to look out across the night-draped fields, blissfully unaware of the line of thinking he had sparked. ‘All of this,’ he said without shifting his gaze. ‘All of this.’
    She leaned against the side of the chair, rested an elbow on its top. He didn’t need to say more. She understood as no one else the way he felt as he looked out across the fields of his ancestors.
    ‘Did you read Juniper’s story, Daddy?’ It was one of the few topics that could be relied upon to brighten his spirits, and Percy deployed it carefully, hoping she might thereby pull him back from the edges of the black mood she knew was still hovering.
    He waved his hand in the direction of his pipe kit and Percy handed it to him. Rolled herself a cigarette as he was feeding tobacco into the bowl. ‘She’s a talent. There’s no doubt about it.’
    Percy smiled. ‘She gets it from you.’
    ‘We must be careful with her. The creative mind needs freedom. It must wander at its own pace and in its own patterns. It’s a difficult thing to explain, Persephone, to someone whose mind works along more stolid lines, but it is imperative that she be freed from practicalities, from distractions, from anything that might steal her talent away.’ He grabbed at Percy’s skirt. ‘She hasn’t got a fellow chasing her, has she?’
    ‘No, Daddy.’
    ‘A girl like Juniper needs protection,’ he continued, setting his chin. ‘To be kept somewhere safe. Here at Milderhurst, within the castle.’
    ‘Of course she will stay here.’
    ‘It’s up to you to make sure. To take care of both your sisters.’ And he launched into his familiar spiel about legacy and responsibility and inheritance.
    Percy waited a time, finished smoking her cigarette, and only when he was reaching the end, said, ‘I’ll take you to the lavatory before I go, shall I, Daddy?’
    ‘Go?’
    ‘I’ve a meeting this evening, in the village-’
    ‘Always rushing off.’ Displeasure pulled at his bottom lip and Percy had a very clear picture of what he might have looked like as a boy. A spoiled child accustomed to having things as he wished.
    ‘Come along now, Daddy.’ She walked the old man to the lavatory and reached for her tobacco tin as she waited in the cooling corridor. Patting her pocket and remembered she’d left it in the tower room. Daddy would be a time, so she hurried back to fetch it.
    She found the tin on his desk. And that’s where she also found the parcel. A package from Mr Banks but with no stamp affixed. Meaning it had been delivered personally.
    Percy’s heart beat faster. Saffy had not mentioned a visitor. Was it possible Mr Banks had come from Folkestone, sneaked into the castle and made his way up to the tower, without announcing himself to Saffy? Anything was possible, she supposed, but it was surely unlikely. What reason would he have for doing such a thing?
    Percy stood for a moment, undecided, fingering the envelope as heat collected along the back of her neck and beneath her arms so that her blouse stuck.
    With a glance over her shoulder, even though she knew herself to be alone, she unsealed it and shimmied the folded papers from inside. A will. The date was today’s; she straightened the letter and skimmed it for meaning. Experienced the strange, oppressive gravity of having her worst suspicions confirmed.
    She pressed the fingers of one hand against her forehead. That such a thing should have been allowed to happen. Yet here it was; in black and white, and blue where Daddy had slashed his agreement. She read the document again, more closely, checking it for loopholes, for a missing page, for anything that might suggest she’d misunderstood, read too quickly.
    She hadn’t.
    Oh Christ, she hadn’t.

PART FOUR

Back to Milderhurst Castle

1992

    Herbert lent me his car to drive to Milderhurst, and as soon as I was off the motorway I wound down the window and let the breeze buffet my cheeks. The countryside had changed in the months between my visits. Summer had come and gone, and autumn was now in its final days. Enormous dried leaves lay in golden piles by the side of the road, and as I slipped deeper and deeper into the weald of Kent, great tree branches reached across the road to meet at its centre. Every time the wind blew, a fresh layer was shed; lost skin, an ended season.
    There was a note waiting for me when I arrived at the farmhouse.
    Welcome, Edie. I had some errands that couldn’t wait and Bird’s laid up with the flu. Please find attached a key and settle yourself into Room 3 (first floor). So sorry to miss you. Will see you at dinner, seven o’clock in the dining room.
    Marilyn Bird.
    PS I had Bird move a better writing desk into your room. It’s a little cramped, but I thought you might appreciate being able to spread out with your work.
    A little cramped was putting it midly, but I’ve always had a thing for small, dark spaces and I set about immediately making an artful arrangement of Adam Gilbert’s interview transcripts, my copy of Raymond Blythe’s Milderhurst and the Mud Man, and assorted notebooks and pens; then I sat down, running the fingers of each hand along the table’s smooth edge. A small sigh of satisfaction escaped as I leaned my chin on my hands. It was that first-day-of-school feeling, but a hundred times better. The four days stretched ahead and I felt infused with enthusiasm and possibility.
    I noticed the telephone then, an old-fashioned Bakelite affair, and was possessed by an unfamiliar urge. It was being back at Milderhurst, of course; in the very same location where my mum had found herself.
    The phone rang and rang and just as I was about to hang up, she answered, somewhat breathlessly. There was a moment’s pause after I said hello.
    ‘Oh, Edie, sorry. I was looking for your father. He got it into his head to -. Is everything all right?’ Her tone had sharpened like a pencil.
    ‘Everything’s fine, Mum. I just wanted to let you know that I’d arrived.’
    ‘Oh.’ A pause as she caught her breath. I’d surprised her: the safe-arrival phone call was not a part of our usual routine; it hadn’t been for around a decade, since I convinced her that if the government trusted me to vote, perhaps it was time she trusted me to take the tube without calling in my successful journey. ‘Well. Good. Thank you. That’s very kind of you to let me know. Your father will be pleased to hear it. He misses you; he’s been moping since you left.’ Another pause, a longer one this time in which I could almost hear her thinking, and then, all in a rush: ‘You’re there then? Milderhurst? How – how is it? How does it look?’
    ‘It looks glorious, Mum. Autumn’s turning everything to gold.’
    ‘I remember. I remember how it looked in autumn. The way the woods stayed green for a time but the outer tips burned red.’
    ‘There’s orange, too,’ I said. ‘And the leaves are everywhere. Seriously, everywhere, like a thick carpet covering the ground.’
    ‘I remember that. The wind comes in off the sea and they fall like rain. Is it windy, Edie?’
    ‘Not yet, but it’s forecast to come in blustery during the week.’
    ‘You wait. The leaves fall like snow then. They crunch beneath your feet when you run across them. I remember.’
    And her last two words were soft, somehow fragile, and I don’t know where it came from but I was overwhelmed by a rush of feeling, and I heard myself say, ‘You know, Mum – I finish here on the fourth. You should think about driving down for the day.’
    ‘Oh, Edie, oh no. Your father couldn’t-’
    ‘You should come.’
    ‘By myself?’
    ‘We could get lunch somewhere nice, just the two of us. Go for a walk around the village.’ The suggestion was met with the eerie whistling of the telephone line. I lowered my voice. ‘We don’t have to go near the castle, not if you don’t want to.’
    Silence, and I thought for a moment she was gone, then a small noise and I knew that she hadn’t. I realized, as it continued, that she was crying, very lightly, against the phone.
    I wasn’t due up at the castle to meet with the Sisters Blythe until the following day, but the weather was predicted to turn and it seemed wasteful to spend a clear afternoon sitting at my desk. Judith Waterman had suggested that the article include my own sense of the place so I decided to go for a walk. Once again, Mrs Bird had left a fruit basket on the bedside table and I selected an apple and a banana, then tossed a notebook and pen into my tote. I was surveying the room, about to leave, when Mum’s journal caught my eye, sitting small and quiet to one side of the desk. ‘Come on then, Mum,’ I said, snatching it up. ‘Let’s take you back to the castle.’
    When I was a child, on the rare occasions that Mum wasn’t going to be waiting for me at home after school, I caught the bus instead to my dad’s office in Hammersmith. There I was supposed to find a patch of carpet – a desk, if I was lucky – in one of the junior partners’ rooms, a place to do my homework, or decorate my school diary, or practise signing the surname of my most recent boy-crush; anything really, so long as I stayed off the telephone and didn’t get in the way of industry.
    One afternoon I was sent to a room I’d not been inside before, through a door I’d never noticed, right at the end of the very long hallway. It was small, little more than a cupboard with lighting, and although it was painted beige and brown, there were none of the glitzy copper-tone mirror tiles and glass bookshelves of the other corporate rooms. Instead, there was a small wooden table and chair, and a thin, towering bookcase. On one of the shelves, beside the jowly accounting tomes, I spied something interesting. A snow globe: you know the sort, a wintry scene in which a small stone cottage stood bravely on a pine-planted hill, flakes of white dusting the ground.
    The rules of Dad’s workplace were clear. I wasn’t supposed to touch anything, and yet I couldn’t help it. The globe transfixed me: it was a tiny splinter of whimsy in a beige-brown world, a doorway at the back of the cupboard, an irresistible emblem of childhood. Before I knew it I was on the chair, dome in hand, tipping and righting it, watching as the snowflakes fell, over and over, the world within oblivious to that without. And I remember feeling a curious longing to be inside that dome, to stand with the man and woman behind one of the gold-lit windows, or with the pair of tiny children pushing a maroon sledge, in a safe place that knew nothing of the hustle and the noise outside.
    That’s what it felt like to approach Milderhurst Castle. As I walked up the hill, nearer and nearer, I could almost feel the air changing around me, as if I were crossing an invisible barrier into another world. Sane people do not speak of houses having forces, of enchanting people, of drawing them closer, but I came to believe that week, as I still do now, that there was some indescribable force at work deep within Milderhurst Castle. I’d been aware of it on my first visit, and I felt it again that afternoon. A sort of beckoning, as if the castle itself were calling to me.
    I didn’t go the same way as before; I cut across the field to meet the driveway and followed it over a small stone bridge, then a slightly larger one, until finally the castle itself came into view, tall and imposing at the peak of the hill. I walked on and I didn’t stop until I reached the very top. Only then did I turn to view the direction from which I’d come. The canopy of the woods was spread out beneath me and it looked as if autumn had taken a great torch to the trees, burnishing them gold, red and bronze. I wished I’d brought a camera so I could take a shot back for Mum.
    I left the driveway and skirted along a large hedge, looking up as I went at the attic window, the smaller one attached to the nurse’s room with the secret cupboard. The castle was watching me, or so it seemed, all its hundred windows glowering down from beneath their drooping eaves. I didn’t look at it again, continuing along the hedge until I reached the back.
    There was an old chicken coop, empty now, and on the other side a dome-like structure. I went closer, and that’s when I recognized what it was. The bomb shelter. A rusty sign had been planted nearby – from the days of the regular tours, I supposed – labelling it ‘The Anderson’ and although the writing had faded over time, I could make out enough to see that it contained information about the role of Kent in the Battle of Britain. A bomb had landed only a mile away, it said, killing a young boy on his bicycle. This sign said that the shelter had been constructed in 1940, which meant, surely, that it was the very one in which my mum must have crouched when she was at Milderhurst during the Blitz.
    There was no one around to ask, so I figured it would be OK to take a look inside, climbing down the steep stairs and beneath the corrugated iron arch. It was dim, but sufficient light slanted through the open doorway for me to see that it had been decorated like a stage set with paraphernalia from the war. Cigarette cards with Spitfires and Hurricanes on them, a small table with a vintage wood-panelled wireless in the centre, a poster with Churchill’s pointed finger warning me to ‘Deserve Victory!’ just as if it were 1940 again, the alarm had panicked, and I was waiting for the bombers to fly overhead.
    I climbed out again, blinked into the glare. The clouds were skimming fast across the sky, and the sun was covered now by a bleak white sheet. I noticed then a little nook in the hedge, a raised hillock that I couldn’t resist sitting on, I pulled Mum’s journal from my bag, leaned back, and opened to the first page. It was dated January 1940.
    Dearest and most lovely notebook! I have been saving you for such a long time – a whole year now, even a little bit longer – because you were a gift to me from Mr Cavill after my examinations. He told me that I was to use you for something special, that words lasted forever, and that one day I would have a story that warranted such a book. I didn’t believe him at the time: I’ve never had anything special to write about – does that sound terribly sad? I think it might and I really don’t mean it that way, I wrote it only because it’s true: I’ve never had anything special to write about and I didn’t imagine that I would. But I was wrong. Terribly, totally, wonderfully wrong. For something has happened and nothing will ever be the same again.
    I suppose the first thing I should tell you is that I’m writing this in a castle. A real castle, made of stone, with a tower and lots of winding staircases, and enormous candle holders on all the walls with wax mounds, decades and decades of blackening wax, drooping from their bases. You might think that this, my living in a castle, is the ‘wonderful’ thing, and that it’s greedy to expect anything more on top, but there is more.
    I’m sitting on the windowsill in the attic, the most marvellous place in the whole castle. It is Juniper’s room. Who is Juniper, you might ask, if you were able? Juniper is the most incredible person in the world. She is my best friend and I am hers. It was Juniper who encouraged me finally to write in you. She said she was tired of seeing me carrying you around like a glorified paperweight and that it was time I took the plunge and marked your beautiful pages.
    She says there are stories everywhere and that people who wait for the right one to come along before setting pen to paper end up with very empty pages. That’s all writing is, apparently, capturing sights and thoughts on paper. Spinning, like a spider does, but using words to make the pattern. Juniper has given me this fountain pen. I think it might have come from the tower, and I’m a little frightened that her father will decide to go looking for whoever stole it, but I use it nonetheless. It is truly a glorious pen. I think it is quite possible to love a pen, don’t you?
    Juniper suggested that I write about my life. She is always asking me to tell her stories about Mum and Dad, Ed and Rita, and Mrs Paul next door. She laughs very loudly, like a bottle that’s been shaken then opened, bubbles exploding everywhere: alarming, in a way, but lovely, too. Her laugh is not at all how you might expect. She’s so smooth and graceful, but her laugh is throaty like the earth. It’s not only her laugh that I love; she scowls, too, when I tell her the things that Rita says, scowls and spits in all the right places.
    She says that I am lucky – can you imagine? Someone like her saying that of me? – that all my learning has been done in the real world. Hers, she says, was acquired from books. Which sounds like heaven to me, but evidently was not. Do you know, she hasn’t been to London since she was tiny? She went with her entire family to see the premiere of a play from the book that her father wrote, The True History of the Mud Man. When Juniper mentioned that book to me, she said its name as if, surely, I would be familiar with it, and I was very embarrassed to admit that I was not. Curses on my parents for having kept me in the dark about such things! She was surprised, I could tell, but she didn’t make me feel bad. She nodded, as if she quite approved, and said that it was no doubt only because I was far too busy in my real world with real people. And then she got the sad look that she gets sometimes, thoughtful and a bit puzzled, as if trying to work out the answer to a complex problem. It is the look, I think, that my mother despises when it sets in on my own face, the one that makes her point her finger and tell me to shake off the grey skies and get on with things.
    Oh, but I do enjoy grey skies! They’re so much more complex than blue ones. If they were people, those are the ones I’d make the time to learn about.
    It’s far more interesting to wonder what might be behind the layers of clouds than to be presented always with a simple, clear, bland blue.
    The sky outside today is very grey. If I look through the window it’s as if someone has stretched a great, grey blanket over the castle. It’s frosty on the ground, too. The attic window looks down upon a very special place. One of Juniper’s favourites. It’s a square plot, enclosed by hedges, with little gravestones rising from beneath the brambles, all stuck out at odd angles like rotting teeth in an old mouth.
    Clementina Blythe
    1 year old
    Taken cruelly
    Sleep, my little one, sleep
    Cyrus Maximus Blythe
    3 years old
    Gone too soon
    Emerson Blythe
    10 years old
    Loved
    The first time I went there, I thought it was a graveyard for children, but Juniper told me they were pets. All of them. The Blythes care very much for their animals, especially Juniper, who cried when she told me about her first dog, Emerson.
    BrrrBut it’s freezing cold in here! I’ve inherited an enormous assortment of knitted socks since I arrived at Milderhurst. Saffy is a great one for knitting but a terrible one for counting, the upshot of which is that a third of the socks she’s made for the soldiers are far too tight to cover so much as a burly man’s big toe, but perfect for my twiglet ankles. I have put three pairs on each foot, and another three singletons on my right arm, leaving only my left exposed so that I might hold a pen. Which explains the state of my writing. I apologize for that, dear journal. Your beautiful pages deserve better.
    So here I am, alone in the attic room, while Juniper is busy downstairs reading to the hens. Saffy is convinced that they lay better when they’re stimulated; Juniper, who loves all animals, says that there is nothing so clever or soothing as a hen; and I enjoy eggs very much indeed. So there. We are all happy. And I am going to start at the beginning and write as quickly as I can. For one thing, it will keep my fingers warm
    Fierce barking, of the sort that makes one’s heart contract like a slingshot, and I almost jumped out of my skin.
    A dog appeared above me, Juniper’s lurcher; lips pulled back, teeth bared, a low growl emanating from deep within him.
    ‘There, boy,’ I said, my voice tight with fear. ‘There now.’ I was debating whether to reach out and stroke him, whether he might that way be calmed, when the end of a stick appeared in the mud. A pair of brogue-clad feet followed, and I looked up to see Percy Blythe glaring at me.
    I’d quite forgotten how thin and severe she was. Hunched over her cane, peering down, and dressed in much the same fashion as the last time we’d met, pale trousers and a well-cut shirt that might have seemed manly if not for her incredibly narrow frame and the dainty watch that hung loosely around her gaunt wrist.
    ‘It’s you,’ she said, clearly as surprised as I was. ‘You’re early.’
    ‘I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to disturb you, I-’
    The dog growled again and she made an impatient noise, waving her fingers. ‘Bruno! That’s enough.’ He whimpered and slunk back to her side. ‘We were expecting you tomorrow.’
    ‘Yes, I know. Ten in the morning.’
    ‘You’re still coming?’
    I nodded. ‘I arrived from London today. The weather was clear and I know it’s expected to come in rainy over the next few days so I thought I’d take a walk, make some notes, I didn’t think you’d mind, and then I found the shelter and – I didn’t mean to be a nuisance.’
    At some point during my explanation her attention had waned. ‘Well,’ she said, without a whiff of gladness, ‘you’re here now. I suppose you might as well come in for tea.’
    A Faux Pas and a Coup
    The yellow parlour seemed more down at heel than I remembered. On my previous visit I had thought the room a warm place, a patch of life and light in the middle of a dark, stone body. It was different this time, and perhaps the change of seasons was to blame, the loss of summer’s brilliance, the sneaking chill that presaged winter, for it wasn’t only the alteration in the room which struck me.
    The dog was panting hard and he collapsed against the tattered screen. He, too, had aged, I realized, just as Percy Blythe had aged since May, just as the room itself had faded. The notion popped into my head then that Milderhurst really was somehow separate from the real world, a place outside the usual bounds of space and time. That it was under some enchantment: a fairy-tale castle in which time could be slowed down, speeded up, at the whim of an unearthly being.
    Saffy was standing in profile, her head bent over a fine porcelain teapot. ‘Finally, Percy,’ she said, as she tried to replace the lid. ‘I was beginning to think we might need to gather a search – Oh!’ She’d looked up and seen me at her sister’s side. ‘Hello there.’
    ‘It’s Edith Burchill,’ said Percy, matter-of-factly. ‘She’s arrived rather unexpectedly. She’s going to join us for tea.’
    ‘How lovely,’ said Saffy, and her face lit up so fully that I knew she wasn’t just being polite. ‘I was about to pour, if only I could get this lid to sit as it should. I’ll lay another setting – I say, what a treat!’
    Juniper was by the window, just as she had been when I’d come in May, but this time she was asleep, snoring lightly with her head tucked into the pale green wing of the velvet chair. I couldn’t help but think, when I saw her, of Mum’s journal entry, of the enchanting young woman whom Mum had loved. How sad it was, how terrible, that she should have been reduced to this.
    ‘We’re so glad you could come, Miss Burchill,’ said Saffy.
    ‘Please call me Edie – it’s short for Edith.’
    She smiled with pleasure. ‘Edith. What a lovely name. It means “blessed in war”, doesn’t it?’
    ‘I’m not sure, I said apologetically.’
    Percy cleared her throat and Saffy continued quickly. ‘The gentleman was very professional, but – ’ she shot a glance at Juniper – ‘well. One finds it so much easier to speak with another woman. Isn’t that so, Percy?’
    ‘It is.’
    Seeing them together like that, I realized that I hadn’t imagined the passing of time. On my first visit, I’d noticed that the twins were the same height, even though Percy’s authoritative character added stature. This time, however, there was no mistaking it, Percy was smaller than her twin. She was frailer, too, and I couldn’t help thinking of Jekyll and Hyde, the moment in which the good doctor encounters his smaller, darker self.
    ‘Sit, won’t you,’ said Percy tartly. ‘Let’s all sit and get on with it.’
    We did as she said, and Saffy poured the tea, conducting a rather one-sided conversation with Percy about Bruno, the dog – where had she found him? How had he been? How had he managed the walk? – And I learned that Bruno wasn’t well, that they were worried about him, very worried. They kept their voices low, sneaking glances at the sleeping Juniper, and I remembered Percy telling me that Bruno was her dog, that they always made sure she had an animal, that everybody needed something to love. I studied Percy over the top of my teacup, I couldn’t help it. Although she was prickly, there was something in her bearing that I found fascinating. As she gave short answers to Saffy’s questions, I watched the tight lips, the sagging skin, the deep lines etched by years of frowning, and I wondered whether she’d been speaking, in some part, of herself when she said that everybody needed something to love. Whether she, too, had been robbed of someone.
    I was so deep in thought that when Percy turned to look directly at me, I worried for an instant that she’d somehow read my mind. I blinked and heat rushed to my cheeks, and that’s when I realized Saffy was speaking to me, that Percy had looked up only to see why I hadn’t answered.
    ‘I’m sorry?’ I said. ‘I was somewhere else.’
    ‘I was just asking about your journey from London,’ said Saffy; ‘it was comfortable, I hope?’
    ‘Oh, yes – thank you.’
    ‘I remember when we used to go up to London as girls. Do you remember that, Percy?’
    Percy gave a low noise of acknowledgement.
    Saffy’s face had come alive with the memory. ‘Daddy used to take us every year; we went by train at first, sitting in our very own little compartment with Nanny, and then Daddy purchased the Daimler and we all went up by motorcar. Percy preferred it here at the castle, but I adored being in London. So much happening, so many glorious ladies and handsome gentlemen to watch; the dresses, the shops, the parks.’ She smiled, sadly, though, it seemed to me. ‘I always assumed…’ The smile flickered, and she looked down at her teacup. ‘Well. I expect all young women dream of certain things. Are you married, Edie?’ The question was unexpected, causing me to draw breath, at which she held out a fine hand. ‘Forgive me for asking. How impertinent I am!’
    ‘Not at all,’ I said. ‘I don’t mind. And no, I’m not married.’
    Her smile warmed. ‘I didn’t think so. I hope you don’t think I’m prying, but I noticed that you don’t wear a ring. Though perhaps young people don’t these days. I’m afraid I’m rather out of touch. I don’t get away often.’ She glanced, almost imperceptibly, at Percy. ‘None of us does.’ Her fingers fluttered a little before coming to rest on an antique locket that hung on a fine chain around her neck. ‘I was almost married, once.’
    Beside me, Percy shifted in her seat. ‘I’m sure Miss Burchill doesn’t need to hear our tales of woe-’
    ‘Of course,’ said Saffy, flushing. ‘How foolish of me.’
    ‘Not at all.’ She looked so embarrassed I was anxious to offer reassurance; I had a feeling she’d spent much of her long life doing just as Percy bade her. ‘Please, do tell me about it.’
    A sizzle as Percy struck a match and lit the cigarette she’d trapped between her lips. Saffy was torn, I could see, a blend of timidity and longing playing on her face as she watched her twin. She was reading a subtext to which I was blind, assessing a battleground scored with the blows of previous scuffles. She returned her attention to me only when Percy stood up and took her cigarette to the window, switching on a lamp as she went. ‘Percy’s right,’ she said tactfully, and I knew then that she had lost this skirmish. ‘It’s self-indulgent of me.’
    ‘Not at all, I-’
    ‘The article, Miss Burchill,’ Percy interrupted. ‘How is it progressing?’
    ‘Yes,’ said Saffy, recovering herself, ‘tell us how it’s going, Edith. What are your plans while you’re here? I expect you’ll want to start with interviews.’
    ‘Actually,’ I said, ‘Mr Gilbert did such a thorough job that it won’t be necessary for me to take up too much of your time.’
    ‘Oh – oh, I see.’
    ‘We’ve spoken of this already, Saffy,’ said Percy, and I thought I detected a note of warning in her voice.
    ‘Of course.’ Saffy smiled at me, but there was sadness behind her eyes. ‘Only sometimes one thinks of things… later.’
    ‘I’d be very happy to speak with you if there’s something you’ve thought of that you might not have told Mr Gilbert,’ I said.
    ‘That won’t be necessary, Miss Burchill,’ said Percy, returning to the table to tip some ash from her cigarette. ‘As you said, Mr Gilbert has amassed quite a dossier.’
    I nodded, but her adamant stance perplexed me. Her position that further interviews were unnecessary was so emphatic, it was clear that she didn’t want me to speak alone with Saffy, and yet it was Percy who’d dropped Adam Gilbert from the project and insisted that I replace him. I wasn’t vain or mad enough to believe it had anything to do with my writing prowess or the fine rapport we’d struck up on my previous visit. Why, then, had she asked for me? And why was she so determined that I should not speak with Saffy? Was it about control? Was Percy Blythe so accustomed to ordering the lives of her sisters that she couldn’t permit so much as a conversation to be carried on without her? Or was it more than that? Was she concerned about whatever it was Saffy wanted to tell me?
    ‘Your time here will be better spent seeing the tower and getting a feel for the castle itself,’ continued Percy. ‘The way Daddy worked.’
    ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘of course. That’s certainly important.’ I was disappointed in myself, unable to shake the feeling that I, too, was submitting myself meekly to Percy Blythe’s direction. Deep inside me, a small pig-headed something stirred. ‘All the same,’ I heard myself say, ‘there seem to be a few things that weren’t covered.’
    The dog whimpered from the floor and Percy’s eyes narrowed. ‘Oh?’
    ‘I noticed that Mr Gilbert hadn’t interviewed Juniper and I thought I might-’
    ‘No.’
    ‘I understand that you don’t want her disturbed, and I promise-’
    ‘Miss Burchill, I assure you there is nothing to be gained in speaking with Juniper about our father’s work. She wasn’t even born when the Mud Man was written.’
    ‘That’s true, but the article is supposed to be about the three of you and I’d still like to-’
    ‘Miss Burchill.’ Percy’s voice was cold. ‘You must understand that our sister is not well. I told you once before that she suffered a great setback in her youth, a disappointment from which she never recovered.’
    ‘You did, and I would never dream of mentioning Thomas to her – ’
    I broke off as Percy’s face blanched. It was the first time I could think of that I’d seen her rattled. I hadn’t meant to say his name and it hung like smoke in the air around us. She snatched up a new cigarette. ‘Your time here,’ she repeated with a stern, slow finality, belied by the quivering matchbox in her hand, ‘would be best spent seeing the tower. Gaining an understanding of the way Daddy worked.’
    I nodded, and a strange unsettled weight shifted in the pit of my stomach.
    ‘If there are any questions you still need answered, you will ask them of me. Not my sisters.’
    Which was when Saffy intervened, in her own inimitable fashion. She’d kept her head down during my exchange with Percy, but she looked up then, a pleasant, mild expression arranged on her face. She spoke in a clear voice, perfectly guileless. ‘Which means, of course, that she must take a look at Daddy’s notebooks.’
    Was it possible that the whole room chilled when she said it? Or did it only seem that way to me? Nobody had seen Raymond Blythe’s notebooks; not when he was alive, and not in the fifty years of posthumous scholarship. Myths had begun to form around their very existence. And now, to hear them mentioned like this, so casually; to glimpse a possibility that I might touch them, might read the great man’s handwriting and run my fingertip, ever so lightly, over his thoughts, right as they were forming – ‘Yes,’ I managed, in little more than a whisper, ‘yes, please.’
    Percy, meanwhile, had turned to look at Saffy and although I had no more hope of understanding the dynamics that stretched between them and back over nearly nine decades than I did untangling the undergrowth of Cardarker Wood, I knew that a blow had been struck. A fierce blow. I knew too, that Percy did not want me to see those notebooks. Her reluctance only fed my desire, my need, to take them in my hands, and I held my breath as the twins continued their dance.
    ‘Go on, Percy,’ said Saffy, blinking widely and allowing her smile to wilt a little at the corners, as if perplexed, as if she couldn’t understand why Percy needed prodding. She sneaked the briefest glance at me, sufficient only for me to know that we were allies. ‘Show her the muniment room.’
    The muniment room. Of course that’s where they were! It was just like a scene from the Mud Man itself: Raymond Blythe’s precious notebooks, concealed within the room of secrets.
    Percy’s arms, the cage of her torso, her chin: all were rigid. Why didn’t she want me to see those books? What was inside them that she feared?
    ‘Percy?’ Saffy softened her tone the way one might with a child who needs cajoling to speak up. ‘Are the notebooks still there then?’
    ‘I expect so. I certainly haven’t moved them.’
    ‘Well then?’ The tension between them was so thick I could barely stand to breathe as I watched and hoped. Time stretched painfully; a gust of wind outside made the shutters vibrate against the glass. Juniper stirred. Saffy spoke again. ‘Percy?’
    ‘Not today,’ Percy said finally, driving her spent cigarette into the little crystal ashtray. ‘The dark comes in quickly now. It’s almost evening.’
    I glanced at the window and saw that she was right. The sun had slid away quickly and the cool night air was sifting into place. ‘When you come tomorrow, I’ll show you the room.’ Her eyes were hard on mine. ‘And Miss Burchill?’
    ‘Yes?’
    ‘I’ll hear no more from you about Juniper or him.’

ONE

    London, June 22nd, 1941
    It was a small flat, little more than a pair of tiny rooms at the top of a Victorian building. The roof sloped on one side until it met the wall that someone, at some time, had erected so that one draughty attic might become two, and there was no kitchen to speak of, only a small sink beside an old gas cooker. It wasn’t Tom’s flat, not really; he hadn’t a place of his own because he’d never needed one. He’d lived with his family near Elephant and Castle until the war began, and then with his regiment as it dwindled to a small band of stragglers on their way to meet the coast. After Dunkirk, he’d slept in a bed at Chertsey Emergency Hospital.
    Since his discharge, though, he’d been drifting from this spare room to that, waiting for his leg to heal and his unit to recall him. There were places empty all over London so it was never hard to find a new abode. It seemed that everything had been shuffled by the war – people, possessions, affections – and there was no longer one right way of doing things. This particular flat, this plain room that he would remember specially to his dying day, that was soon to become the repository for his life’s best and brightest memories, belonged to a friend with whom he’d studied at teacher training college, in a different version of his life, long ago.
    It was early still, but Tom had already walked to Primrose Hill and back. He didn’t sleep late any more, nor deeply. Not after the months in France, living by his wits, in retreat. He woke with the birds, the sparrows in particular, a family of whom had taken up digs on his sill. It had been a mistake, perhaps, to feed them, but the bread had been mouldy to begin with and the fellow down at the Salvage Department fierce that it shouldn’t be thrown away. It was the heat of the room and the steam from the boiler turning Tom’s bread to mould. He kept the window open but the day’s sun accumulated in the flats beneath, spread up the staircase and shrugged through the floorboards, before hitting his ceiling and stretching out with proprietorial ease to shake hands with the steam. It had been just as well to accept it: the mould was his, as were the birds. He woke early, he fed them, he walked.
    The doctors had said that walking was the best thing for his leg, but Tom would’ve done so regardless. There was something restless living inside him now, something he’d gained in France that needed to be exorcised daily. Each footfall on the pavement helped a little, and he was glad for the release, even though he knew it to be temporary. That morning, as he’d stood at the top of Primrose Hill and watched the dawn roll up its sleeves, he’d picked out the Zoo and the BBC and, in the distance, the dome of St Paul’s, rising clear of its blitzed surroundings. Tom had been in hospital during the worst of the raids and Matron had arrived on the thirtieth of December, The Times in hand (he’d been allowed the newspaper by then). She’d stood beside the bed, po-faced but not unkind, as he began to read, and before he’d finished the headline, she’d declared it an act of God. Although Tom had agreed that the dome’s survival was a wonder, he’d thought it had a bit more to do with luck than Lord. He had trouble with God, with the notion that a divine being might save a building when all of England was bleeding to death. To Matron, however, he’d nodded agreement: blasphemy would’ve been just the sort of thing to get her whispering to the doctor about worrying states of mind.
    A mirror had been propped on the ledge of the narrow casement window and Tom, dressed in his undershirt and trousers, leaned towards it, rolling the stub of shaving soap across his cheeks. He watched dispassionately the mottled reflection in the stippled glass, the young man cocking his head so that milky sunlight lay across his cheek, running the razor carefully along his jaw, stroke by stroke, flinching as he negotiated the territory around his earlobe. The fellow in the mirror rinsed the razor in the shallow water, shook it a little, and started on the other side, just as a man might when he was tidying himself up to visit his mother on her birthday.
    Tom caught himself drifting and sighed. He laid the razor gently on the sill and rested both hands on the outer curve of the basin. Screwed his eyes shut, beginning the familiar count to ten. This dislocation had been happening a lot lately, since he returned from France but even more so after leaving the hospital. It was as if he were outside himself, watching, unable quite to believe that the young man in the mirror with the amiable face, the mild expression, the day stretching ahead, could possibly be him. That the experiences of the past eighteen months, the sights and sounds – that child, dear God, lying dead, alone, on the road in France – could possibly live behind that still-smooth face.
    You are Thomas Cavill, he told himself firmly when he’d reached ten; you are twenty-five years old, you are a soldier. Today is your mother’s birthday and you are going to visit her for lunch. His sisters would be there, the eldest with her baby son, Thomas – named for him – and his brother Joey, too; though not Theo, who’d been sent up north with his regiment for training and wrote cheery letters home about butter and cream and a girl named Kitty. They would be their usual rowdy selves, the wartime version of themselves, at any rate: never questioning, hardly complaining, and then only ever in a jocular fashion about the difficulties of obtaining eggs and sugar. Never doubting that Britain could take it. That they could take it. Tom could vaguely remember feeling the same way himself.
    Juniper took out the piece of paper and checked the address once more. Turned it sideways, twisted her head, then cursed herself for her appalling handwriting. Too quick, too careless, too eager always to move on to the next idea. She looked up at the narrow house, spotted the number on the black front door. Twenty-six. This was it. It had to be.
    It was. Juniper decisively shoved the paper in her pocket. Number and street name aside, she recognized this house from Merry’s stories as vividly as she would Northanger Abbey or Wuthering Heights. With a skip in her step, she climbed the concrete stairs and knocked on the door.
    She had been in London for exactly two days and still she couldn’t quite believe it. She felt like a fictional character who’d escaped the book in which her creator had carefully and kindly trapped her; taken a pair of scissors to her outline and leaped, free, into the unfamiliar pages of a story with far more dirt and noise and rhythm. A story she adored already: the shuffling, the mess, the disorder, the things and people she didn’t understand. It was exhilarating, just as she’d always known it would be.
    The door opened and a scowling face caught her off guard, a person younger than she was but also somehow older. ‘What do you want?’
    ‘I’ve come to see Meredith Baker.’ Juniper’s voice was strange to her own ears, here in this other story. An image came to her of Percy, who always knew precisely how to behave out in the world, but it merged with another more recent memory – Percy, red-faced and angry after a meeting with Daddy’s solicitor – and Juniper let it turn to sand and scatter to the ground.
    The girl – with those pursed and grudging lips she could only be Rita – looked Juniper up and down before arriving at an expression of haughty suspicion and, oddly, for they had never met before, strong dislike. ‘Meredith!’ she called finally from the side of her mouth. ‘Get yourself out here now.’
    Juniper and Rita observed one another as they waited, neither speaking, and a host of words appeared in Juniper’s mind, knitting themselves together to form the beginning of a description she would later write back to her sisters. Then Meredith appeared with a clatter, spectacles on her nose and a tea cloth in her hand, and the words seemed unimportant.
    Merry was the first friend Juniper had made and the first she’d had occasion to miss, so the immense weight of her friend’s absence had been totally unexpected. When Merry’s father had arrived without notice at the castle in March, insisting that his daughter return home this time, the two girls had clung to one another and Juniper had whispered in Merry’s ear, ‘I’m coming to London. I’ll see you soon.’ Merry had cried but Juniper hadn’t, not then; she’d waved and returned to the attic roof and tried to remember how it was to be alone. Her whole life had been spent that way – though in the silences left by Merry’s departure, there’d been something new. A clock was softly ticking, counting down the seconds to a fate that Juniper was stubbornly determined to outrun.
    ‘You came,’ said Meredith, nudging her spectacles with the back of her hand and blinking as if she might be seeing things.
    ‘I told you I would.’
    ‘But where are you staying?’
    ‘With my godfather.’
    A grin broke across Meredith’s face and turned into a laugh. ‘Let’s get out of here then,’ she said, gripping Juniper’s hand tightly in her own.
    ‘I’m telling Mum you didn’t finish the kitchen like you were s’posed to,’ the sister shouted after them.
    ‘Don’t mind her,’ said Meredith. ‘She’s in a snit because they won’t let her out of the broom cupboard at work.’
    ‘It’s a great pity no one’s thought to lock her in it.’
    In the end, Juniper Blythe had taken herself to London. By train, just as Meredith had suggested when they sat together on the Milderhurst roof. Escaping hadn’t been nearly as hard as she’d expected. She’d simply walked across the fields and refused to stop until she reached the railway station.
    She’d been so pleased with herself when she did, that it skipped her attention for a moment that she’d need to do anything further. Juniper could write, she could invent grand fictions and capture them within an intricacy of words, but she knew herself to be perfectly hopeless at everything else. Her entire knowledge of the world and its operation had been deduced from books and the conversations of her sisters – neither of whom was particularly worldly – and the stories Merry had told her of London. It wasn’t a surprise, therefore, as she stood outside the station, to realize she had no idea what to do next. Only when she noticed the kiosk labelled ‘Ticket Office’ did she remember that of course, she would need to purchase one of those.
    Money. It was something Juniper had never known or needed, but there had been a small sum left when Daddy died. She hadn’t concerned herself with the details of the will and the estate – it was enough to know that Percy was angry, Saffy concerned, and Juniper herself the unwitting cause – but when Saffy mentioned a parcel of actual money, the sort that could be folded and held and exchanged for things, and offered to put it away safely, Juniper had said no. That she preferred to keep it, just to look at awhile. Saffy, dear Saffy, hadn’t blinked, accepting the odd request as perfectly reasonable because it had come from Juniper whom she loved and therefore would not question.
    The train when it arrived was full but an older man in the carriage had stood and tipped his hat and Juniper had understood that he meant for her to slide into the seat he’d vacated. A seat by the window. How charming people were out here! She smiled and he nodded, and she sat with her suitcase on her lap, waiting for whatever might come. ‘Is your journey really necessary?’ the sign on the platform demanded. Yes, thought Juniper. Yes, it is. To remain at the castle, she knew with more certainty now than ever, would have been to submit herself to a future she refused to meet. The one she’d seen reflected in her father’s eyes when he took her shoulders between his hands and told her they were the same, the two of them, the same.
    Steam swirled and eddied along the platform and she felt as excited as if she’d climbed onto the back of a great huffing dragon who was about to launch into the sky, carrying her with him as he flew away to a place of fascination and fancy. A shrill whistle sounded, making the hairs on Juniper’s arms stand up, and they were off, moving, the train lurching in mighty heaves. Juniper couldn’t help but laugh against the glass then, because she’d done it. She’d really done it.
    Over time, the window misted with her breath and unnamed, unknown stations, fields and villages and woods, skimmed by: a blur – pastels of green and blue and streaky pink, run through with a watery brush. The skidding colours stopped sometimes, clarifying to form a picture, framed like a painting by the window’s rectangle. A Constable, or one of the other pastorals Daddy had admired. Renderings of a timeless countryside that he’d eulogized with the familiar sadness clouding his eyes.
    Juniper had no patience for the timeless. She knew that there was no such thing. Only the here and now, and the way her heart was beating in its too-fast way, though not dangerously so, because she was sitting inside a train on her way to London while noise and movement and heat surrounded her.
    London. Juniper said the word once beneath her breath, then again. Relished its evenness, its two balanced syllables, the way it felt on her tongue. Soft but weighted, like a secret, the sort of word that might be whispered between lovers. Juniper wanted love, she wanted passion, she wanted complications. She wanted to live and to love and to eavesdrop, to learn secrets and know how other people spoke to one another, the way they felt, the things that made them laugh and cry and sigh. People who weren’t Percy or Saffy or Raymond or Juniper Blythe.
    Once, when she was a very small girl, a hot-air balloonist had launched from one of the Milderhurst fields; Juniper c