Great news! You can now pre-order all of Jodi Taylor’s books in their lovely new jackets. CLICK HERE for more information.
Here’s a sneak preview to the opening of White Silence that will be released on September 21st 2017. A limited edition signed paperback is now available – CLICK HERE to order.
People say, ‘Silence is golden.’
Silence is white. White and deadly.
My name is Elizabeth Cage. I’m a widow. My husband, Ted, died suddenly.
They took me after the funeral. It was quick and it was quiet. No one knew where I was. There wasn’t a soul in the world who knew what was happening to me. There was no one I could call on for help.
I knew what they wanted but they haven’t got it yet and they never will. There’s more to me than meets the eye. I haven’t spent years cultivating the dowdy housewife look for nothing. To look at me – I’m a drab, insignificant, anxious, twenty-something housewife with unfashionable hair and no make-up. Unfortunately, my appearance is the only thing I can tell you about me. Because I don’t know who I am. I don’t know what I am.
Give me ten minutes with a total stranger and I can tell you things about them they don’t even know themselves. I can look at someone and I know. It’s not voices in my head, or visions, or anything like that, but I know. I know when you’re lying. I know when you’re frightened. I know when you’re bluffing. You don’t have to say a word, but you’re telling me, just the same.
Everyone has one. Some people call it an aura. Before I’d ever heard the term, when I was a child, I called it their colour. Everyone has one. A shimmering, shifting web of colours, constantly weaving itself around them, changing from moment to moment as they react to what’s going on around them. They’re all different. Some people’s colour has a defined shape, thick and even. Some colours are rich and strong and vibrant. Others are pale and insubstantial. Sometimes – and I hate this – there’s an ominous dark patch over their head or their heart, and I know that’s never good.
Sometimes, friends or family members have similar colours. Colours that are related in the spectrum. You may have noticed there are those for whom you feel a natural affinity. That will be because your colours are similar. Some people repulse you and you never know why, but it’s usually because your colours won’t merge.
When I was a child, there were three dustmen. One man, the noisy one, was a deep, royal blue; the older one was turquoise, and the young one a soft green. They came every Thursday morning. They ran up and down the street, shedding rubbish and shouting insults in equal measure, and yet their colours reached out towards each other, blending softly. I used to stand at the window, watching their colours swirl about them, a thing of wonder to a small girl. Sometimes, I can see the same thing with a mother and child. That gentle merging of colours as one shades into another.
But with good, comes bad.
I think I was about twelve years old. I was in the High Street in Rushford. The paper boy had missed us again and my father had sent me to pick one up. I stepped out of the newsagents with his paper wedged under one arm while I carefully peeled the wrapper off my ice cream.
The sun went in. That’s the only way I can describe it. The day grew dark and cold. The sounds of people and of traffic became distorted and ugly.
I looked up. Everything looked completely normal. I stared up and down the street. Cars passed backwards and forwards. People scurried about, in and out of the shops. But there was something. I knew there was something.
I stood stock still on the pavement, the stream of pedestrians parting around me.
And there it was. A woman. She strolled serenely towards me. There was nothing unusual in her appearance. On the contrary, she was well-dressed and made up and her white-blonde hair was beautiful. I felt my heart stop with fear and the thing that lives in my head said, ‘Hide.’
People are blind. They never see what’s really there. She walked slowly and I could see that although no one seemed to notice her, no one touched her. No one made eye contact. No one got in her way. They might not know why they were doing it – they might not even be aware they were doing it at all – but everyone was giving her a wide berth.
I stood, rooted to the spot. Terrified. Terrified of what was approaching and doubly so because no one seemed able to see it but me.
Yes, she had a colour, but it was the energy emanating from her that frightened me. Most people’s colours swirl a little bit, especially if they’re emotional at the time, but this one … It was as if she was encased in a thick black grease. I saw oily colours that made me feel sick. But the worst part was the movement. Her colour didn’t swirl – it spiked. Like a conker case. I’d never seen anything like it before. And the spikes moved, stabbing in and out. Fast and vicious. Never stopping. In and out. Some of them extended a good eighteen inches from her body.
I was only twelve. I had no idea if the spikes constituted defence or attack but I do know that as I saw her – she became aware of me.
My ice cream fell to the ground, unheeded. It was suddenly very, very important that she shouldn’t see me. Or even know I was there. I slipped behind an advertising hoarding, easing my way around it as she drew nearer, and when she was level with me, she stopped.
I stopped too and held my breath.
She looked down at the ice cream splattered across the pavement and then she lifted her head, turning from side to side. I knew, I just knew that she was seeking me out.
The two of us both stood motionless while everyone else, for whom this was just a normal day, streamed past us, intent on their Saturday morning business.
I still wasn’t breathing. I knew with certainty that to make even the slightest sound, the smallest movement would be a very, very bad thing. For me, anyway.
My chest and head were pounding and the pavement swam beneath me. And then, finally, she lifted her head on that graceful neck and began to walk away. I edged my way around the hoarding, watching her disappear into the crowd. She was so tall that her blonde head was easily visible. I watched her until I couldn’t see her any longer and then I turned and ran as hard as I could in the opposite direction.
I was only a child. I thought all monsters were ugly. That’s why they were called monsters. That was the day I discovered I was wrong.
I don’t know who she was or what she was. I’m sorry there’s no neat ending to that story, but I never saw her again. It was, however, the first time I realised that as well as beauty, there was ugliness in this world. Evil as well as good. And there were things out there that, for some reason, only I could see.
And they could see me.
All my life I’ve worked really hard at being really average. Exam results – good, but not brilliant. Achievements – respectable but not world-shattering. I used to spend hours carefully plotting how to come fourth at our school Sports’ Day. Not a winner, but the best of the rest. Good, but not quite good enough. I was quiet, well-behaved and – ironically – as colourless as I could make myself. Instinctively, I knew I must never expose myself, or something terrible would happen. Whether to me or to others was never clear.
I’d learned the hard way. I remember a playground quarrel when I told Rowena Platt that if she didn’t stop lying about who took the money from Suzanna Blake’s purse, I’d send the bogeyman to hide under her bed and eat her as soon as she fell asleep. She fled crying and there was a lot of whispering which stopped whenever I turned around.
There was a similar incident when I told another girl (whose name I forget) to lay off Sharon Tucker’s boyfriend. There was a bit of a punch- up after that and we were all dragged into our Year Head’s office.
My dad took me aside that evening and we sat in his little shed at the bottom of the garden.
‘It wasn’t my fault,’ I said, quietly. ‘I was just trying to help.’
‘I know, love.’
‘I can’t help it.’
‘You can’t, no.’
‘Sometimes, I just know things.’
‘You do, pet. Me and your mother, we’ve noticed that. The thing is, though, knowing things is all very well and good, but keeping them to yourself is better.’
‘But she was the one stealing Sharon’s boyfriend,’ I said, the memory of the injustice still fresh within me. ‘Why did I get the blame?’
‘Well, lass, was Sharon any happier when she knew?’
I had a brief memory of two girls rolling across the grass, tearing at each other’s hair as their friends egged them on.
‘No, I don’t think so.’
‘You see, pet, some people think that somehow, saying something makes it come true.’
‘You mean they thought I’d somehow made her steal Sharon’s boyfriend?’
I remembered, in yet another flash, after they’d been hauled to their feet, the way everyone had stared at me …
‘And you, Elizabeth? How did you feel afterwards?’
I remembered Sharon Tucker, sobbing bitterly and declaring her life was over, and how I wished I’d kept my mouth shut.
I hung my head.
‘The thing is, lass, once something has been said, it can never be unsaid. You can’t unsay something any more than you can unhear it, either. You might want to think about that.’
‘What’s wrong with me?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with you, pet. Nothing at all. You just have a set of skills – unusual skills. Some people can sing. Some people can cook. Some people can play an instrument.’
‘And what can I do?’
He looked straight at me.
‘You know things. That’s all. All sorts of things. At the moment, you can’t control it – a bit like falling off a bike when you’re trying to learn – but one day you’ll get it under control. I think it’s important you control it and not the other way around.’
‘How do I control it? I don’t know how?’
‘Well, if you don’t practice the piano then you can’t play the piano, can you? Why not just try ignoring it? You know how it is – ignore something for long enough, and eventually it gives up and goes away. You think about it.’
I nodded. I’d hung around the outside of giggling groups often enough, waiting to be noticed, and it was true. When you find yourself ignored, sooner or later, with as much dignity as you can muster, you go away.
I took his advice. As best I could, I ignored it, and gradually the thing in my head … subsided. Not completely – it was rather like having a TV on in the background. I always knew it was there, but I didn’t have to listen.
And from that moment on, I kept my mouth shut at school and aimed at average. I think my school teachers thought that initially, I’d been attention seeking. Now I stayed apart and my classmates thought I was a snooty cow. But I’d learned my lesson. To keep quiet. And slowly, over time, the thing inside my head relaxed, closed its eyes and went to sleep.
As I grew up, I became better at filtering out the stuff I really didn’t want to know. I couldn’t turn it off completely, but I could relegate it to the back of my mind where it lurked quietly. Waiting.
‘Why me?’ I said to my dad, one day.
We were in his shed again. A magical place that smelled of wood and creosote into which he disappeared whenever, according to Mum, she had something important to say to him. I used to spend hours in there. I always remember it as being warm and golden, even in winter, and full of fascinating odds and ends. When I was small, I was allowed to hold his pencils and the tape measure. Later, I hammered the occasional nail, and even, once or twice, and with a great deal of apprehension on both our parts, my dad allowed me to saw something.
‘Why can’t everyone else do this?’
‘Because me and your mum, we think you’re special. We chose you, you know. Picked you out from all the others. Your mum, soon as she saw you, said you were the prettiest baby in the room.’
He picked up his pencil.
I’m sure I wasn’t, but it was just like him to say so. He’s been gone a long time now, and my mum even longer, but the memories they left behind are full of happiness and kindness and a sense of security.
‘Did you know my parents at all?’
He shook his head. ‘I know what you’re thinking. Could one or both of them do what you can, and the answer is that I don’t know.’
He marked off his piece of wood and tucked his pencil behind his ear.
‘I never knew them or anything about them.’ He looked at me. ‘You could have a go at finding them. The law says you can do that now.’
Silence fell in the dusty little shed. He busied himself looking for screws in one of his many drawers, but I wasn’t deceived. I could see his colour, swirling around his head. My dad was a deep golden colour, rather like the pieces of wood he loved to work with, and when he became anxious or upset, a dark brown stain would begin to superimpose itself. Like ink in water. He was agitated now, although you’d never know it to look at him. Only I could see it.
‘No,’ I said, as casually as I could. ‘I know who my real parents have always been.’
He closed the drawer and gave me a hug. ‘That’s my girl. Now – can you hold this piece of wood for me?’
We worked together quietly for a while. Actually, I mean that he worked and I held things for him. It took a while to pluck up the courage to say it.
‘Daddy, we could be rich.’
‘We already are, lass, but I think I know what you mean.’
‘But perhaps, if I tried, we could win the lottery.’
‘Aye lass, maybe we could, but I reckon you’ve never heard the story of The Monkey’s Paw.’
I shook my head.
‘Well, there was a family – a mother, a father and their child. The man and the woman were very old. Their child came to them late in life.’
‘Just like us.’
‘Well, theirs was a son, but yes, just like us. Anyway, they weren’t very well off and one day, there came into their possession, a monkey’s paw, and the story goes that if you made three wishes, then the monkey’s paw would make them come true.’
‘Really?’ I said, excited.
‘Ah, but – and it’s a pretty big but, lass – the wishes were granted in such a way that you wished you’d never made them in the first place.’
‘But …’ I said.
‘Ah, that’s what the mother said. But …’
‘Well, she reckoned she’d wish for a bit of money. Not a lot. She reckoned no good ever came of being greedy, so she wished for fifty pounds. A respectable sum in them days. She took hold of the paw …’ he clutched his Phillips screwdriver dramatically, ‘… and said, “I wish for fifty pounds.”’
‘Nothing. To begin with. Next day, their son went off to work. He didn’t come home.’
I could see what was coming.
‘A man from the company came around that evening. There’d been an accident at work, he said. Their son had been caught in some machinery. He was dead. He was very sorry. It wasn’t the company’s fault, he said, but here was a sum of money as a gesture of goodwill.’
I whispered, ‘How much?’
‘That’s not the end of the story though. The old lady, she thought she saw a way to make things right. Grabbing the monkey’s paw again, she wished they could have their son back.’
I went cold. ‘What happened?’
‘Nothing. To begin with. And then, faintly, in the far distance, they could hear footsteps. As if something was coming from a long way away.’
I held my breath.
‘And they weren’t normal footsteps, either. These dragged along the ground, as if whoever was approaching couldn’t walk properly. And the old man remembered what had been said about their son being caught in the machinery.’
He paused to rummage for something in a drawer.
I swallowed hard. ‘What … happened?’
‘The old woman was running to the door. To let whatever it was into the house. He tried to stop her but she was too strong for him. I suppose she was a mother and she just wanted to see her son again. She pushed the old man away and he fell to the floor. He saw a dreadful dark shape pass the window. He could only guess at what their son looked like after falling into all that machinery. All the time, the old lady was scrabbling to get the door open and any minute now …’
‘What did he do?’
‘He saw the monkey’s paw, lying on the ground where the old lady had thrown it. He picked it up, and just as she dragged open the door, he made the third and final wish.’
I couldn’t speak.
‘And when she finally got the door open, there was no one there.’
‘He wished their son to go away?’
‘No lass, he wished they’d never had the monkey’s paw in the first place. Now, let’s go see if your mum’s got the tea ready, shall we?’
I tried not to think about it, but I couldn’t leave it alone, so the next day I went to the library and read the story for myself. It frightened me so much I could hardly move. I had a vivid flash of my daddy, lurching through the front door with his limbs hanging off and his innards ripped out and his ribs so shattered that I could see his still beating heart. He was looking at me with a mixture of hatred and despair and love, even as he reached out for me. I slammed the book shut and ran from the library. I had nightmares for weeks afterwards.
And I became very, very careful about what I did and said.
My mum died first. I was about twelve. She went into hospital and never came out. Dad was quiet and sad for a long time afterwards. His colour was almost all brown. Especially around his heart.
Life went on, though, and we learned to do without her. I studied cookery at school, and we always had a special Sunday lunch, followed by watching football in front of the telly. Then I had chess classes after school on Thursday, and on Friday nights Dad went to his working man’s club. On Saturdays, we had fish and chips and got a DVD in.
It wasn’t a bad life. Dad was a retired council worker who was now able to indulge his passion for joinery. He was sweet and plump and grey-haired and I loved him very much.
And then, two days before my twentieth birthday, he died too. Quietly, in his sleep, at home. I was devastated, but I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Everyone was very kind to me. I thanked everyone politely and just carried on. I would have been lonely if I’d known how.
I had a job in the council records office where they’d known my dad. After a few months, they’d sent me down to the basement to begin digitising the records stored there. It was a lonely little room, miles from the toilets and with no windows. No one else wanted to do it, but it suited me down to the ground. It became my own little kingdom down there. I set myself a daily target, had little races with myself, listened to music and was as happy as I knew how. I honestly thought that would be my life. That I was all set for the uneventful existence of an unmarried woman in a dead-end job in one of the most sedate market towns in the country. But the universe had other plans for me.
One day, about eighteen months after my dad died, I met Ted. Not straight away – I met the flasher and his puppy first, but Ted came along shortly afterwards.
I’d taken my lunch to Archdeacon’s Park, because it’s pretty there. The gardens slope down to the river and there’s a small lake with ducks and a few swans. I chose my usual bench, laid out my lunch beside me, and sat back to enjoy the sunshine. People were strolling around, throwing sticks for their dogs or feeding the ducks. It was all very pleasant and quiet. There were people around, but not too close. Close enough for me to feel as if I belonged, but not close enough to impact on me, which was just the way I liked it.
I ate my egg sandwiches, drank half my drink, nibbled my apple and cheese, and finished the rest of my drink. Just as I always did. I liked the unvarying routine of my life. It made me feel safe. Today was Friday and after lunch, I would return to my basement office, tot up the number of completed records for the week, enter the figures into the file management system, and send them off. I have no idea whatever happened to them after that, but that’s local government. You just keep doing something until someone tells you to stop.
The rest of my afternoon would be spent shelving the old files, pulling out the new ones ready for next week and tidying my desk. Once that was done, I was all set for the weekend. Clean the house on Saturday morning, go shopping in the afternoon, read the papers in the garden on Sunday morning, have a bit of lunch and then watch a film on TV. I like routine. It makes me feel safe. That afternoon, however, my life was about to change forever.
I was just packing up my lunch box when a man plonked himself on the other end of the bench. I hardly noticed him because my attention was all on his puppy – which was exactly as cute as all puppies are. He snuffled around my ankles, not just his tail but his whole bottom wagging with excitement.
I smiled at them both. The man’s colour was a yellowy brown – almost the same colour as his puppy. There was nothing to show he had any hostile intentions of any kind. He smiled back and said, ‘Would you like to stroke my puppy?’
I nodded. He stood up and it was suddenly very clear to me that it wasn’t his puppy he wanted me to stroke.
I remember, I felt no fear. More puzzlement as to what he thought he was playing at. I could see he meant me no harm. I put him down as a bit of an exhibitionist – no more than that, but there were children in the park, so I walloped him around the head with my plastic lunch box and walked briskly away. I didn’t look behind me, so I’ve no idea what he did next, but I called in at the police station to report him. I spoke to a very kind policeman whose colour was almost the same blue as his uniform, signed a statement and went back to work. I was a little late, but no one seemed to notice.
Because of my lateness, I had to bustle about to get everything done, which served to take my mind off what had happened. I did occasionally wonder whether I should be more upset than I actually was, but he’d never meant me any harm, I was sure of it. Mostly, I think, I just felt sorry for the puppy.
Anyway, that evening, there was a knock at the door and there stood Ted, although obviously, I didn’t know that at the time.
I saw a sturdy man of medium height, with a thick head of brown hair, eyes that were almost exactly the same colour, and the world’s most unflattering moustache. His colour was brown too, fitting neatly and tightly around him.
‘Good evening. My name is Cage.’ He held up some ID. ‘I’ve come about the incident in the park this afternoon. May I come in?’
‘Yes, of course.’
I led him into the kitchen and offered him a seat at the table. ‘Would you like some tea?’
‘Very much,’ he said, looking around. ‘It’s been a long day.’
It was only a very long time afterwards that I realised he never once claimed to be a policeman. I just assumed …
‘Well,’ he said, stirring in two neat spoonfuls of sugar, ‘I have some good news for you. We’ve got him.’
‘Really? So soon?’
‘Yes, the silly ass tried something similar about an hour later. In exactly the same place, would you believe? We had a presence in the park at the time – more as a precaution than anything because we never thought he’d be stupid enough to come back again, but he did, complete with his puppy, and we arrested the pair of them. They both came quietly.’
His brown eyes twinkled at me over his cup and I couldn’t help smiling back.
‘The even better news is that you won’t have to testify in court. He’s confessed. Quite willingly. We’re not even sure he knows what’s going on around him most of the time. Quite harmless, but he should be in secure accommodation and from today he will be.’ He twinkled at me again. ‘We’ve even found a home for the puppy.’
‘So it’s true – our policemen are wonderful.’
‘Well, I certainly like to think so. Anyway, the important thing is that you’re quite safe, Miss Ford and you can consider the incident closed.’
‘Well, that’s amazing. Thank you so much. And thank you for taking the trouble to call this evening to tell me.’
‘My pleasure. I have to say, it is nice to be the bearer of good news occasionally.’
‘I don’t suppose that happens very often.’
‘Not as often as I would like, no.’
There was an awkward pause. I watched his colour suddenly stream towards me, as brown and shiny as a new conker.
He cleared his throat.
‘Would you like another cup of tea,’ I asked, almost certain I knew the answer to that one.
He accepted the offer.
An hour later he offered to take me to dinner.
Six months later he offered me his hand in marriage.
Seven months later we were married.
My life changed. Everything changed.
Ted had his own house and so, after a lot of discussion, we sold mine and put the money away.
‘For a rainy day,’ said Ted, which was typical of him. I sometimes think he was born in the wrong century. He would have fitted so neatly into the time between the wars. The 1930s were made for him. Or vice versa. He was a kind, gentle, paternal, family man. He loved to come home to his wife, so I gave up my job and became a housewife. I’m certain they laughed at me at work, but I didn’t care. I loved being a housewife. I loved being Ted’s wife. I would see him off in the morning and welcome him home at night. His house was small and easily kept clean – it wasn’t all vacuuming and dusting. I had time to sit with a coffee in the afternoons and read for a few hours.
In his spare time, he would work in his garden. There was a small lawn outside the back door with flower borders running around three sides. He grew roses and geraniums and dahlias and chrysanthemums – which he would tease me about because I can’t say the word. Behind the lawn, he grew his precious fruit and vegetables. Onions, peas, beans, marrows and raspberry canes. I would take him out a beer on hot afternoons, sitting on the garden roller and watching him work. He would cut the grass with an old-fashioned push mower because he liked the stripes. Every weekend he brought me in a big bunch of cut flowers for the house. He went out occasionally with his friends from work, but most of his spare time was spent quietly at home with me.
I was happy. Not the glorious, head-bursting happiness of a romantic heroine, but deeply, richly, quietly happy. I loved Ted very much and I think – I know – that he loved me.
A little while later, he came home one night to tell me he’d been offered a new job. In the private sector.
‘There’s a place the other side of Rushford,’ he said. ‘The Sorensen clinic. They have some pretty important people staying there sometimes and they’ve offered me a position as head of security. The money’s good. What do you think?’
‘I think it sounds very exciting. Will I see more or less of you?’
‘Hard to say,’ he said, grinning. ‘Which would you prefer?’
He took the job, of course, and as far as I could see, nothing changed at all. His working hours remained the same. He still had the occasional call out in the middle of the night, and he still didn’t talk about his work.
‘I have two worlds,’ he said once. ‘I like to keep them separate. I leave my work behind me when I drive out the gates.’ He smiled down at me. ‘This is my home.’
I snuggled against him on the sofa as he sipped the one beer he allowed himself on weekday nights.
‘Steady on there, lass, I nearly spilled me beer.’
I blew gently down his ear and he suddenly decided he had other things to think about than his beer.
Yes, we were happy. I often wondered if his colleagues sneered at him behind his back. Whether they called him ‘Steady Teddy’ out of contempt or affection, but I wouldn’t have changed a single part of my life.
That summer, the clinic held an Open Day.
‘We’ve never done this before,’ said Ted, pushing a shiny leaflet across the kitchen table.
I picked it up. ‘Why are you doing it now? You surely don’t need the publicity?’
‘It’s more of a PR thing. There are always all sorts of rumours flying around about us.’
‘What sort of rumours?’
‘Well, everything really. From brain washing to baby sacrificing. Apparently, we experiment on human brains. When we’re not eating them, of course, and turning our patients into zombies. Or dancing naked around an old stone altar to raise the devil.’
I poured another cup of tea. ‘So what exactly do you do up there?’
‘Believe it or not, it’s actually quite dull. We’re a small, very discreet private hospital with a high-security clearance. We take in people who, for the good of the country, daren’t let it be known they’re a little …’ he paused.
‘Unstable?’ I suggested.
‘Well, madder than a fish, actually,’ he said. ‘We glue them back together and send them out to rule the world again.’
‘Surely these world rulers won’t want the public peering at them through the bars of their cages.’
He sighed, ‘Bars are very passe these days, Elizabeth. Do try and keep up with current developments in modern mind management.’
‘Anyway, the main building will be closed to the public. Only the gardens are open and there are tents and marquees with examples of staff and patients’ work. We have a great arts and crafts facility. So, do you want to come? It’ll be worth it just for the gardens and cream teas.’
‘And you’ll have to be there anyway.’
‘In my capacity as head of security, yes. I’ll be the one alternately glaring at people or trying to think of a good reason to frisk the pretty girls.’
‘I think I had definitely better come. It strikes me you’re not safe alone.’
‘Good,’ he said. ‘Dr Sorensen says he’s looking forward to meeting you.’
I smiled. ‘It will be fun. I just hope the weather holds.’
It did. We had a glorious June day and it was an excellent excuse to wear a pretty summer frock. Out of respect to the lawns, I put on a pair of ballet flats. I don’t like to carry handbags, so I handed Ted my lipstick to put in his pocket. As I always did. He grumbled, but tucked it away. As he always did.
The Open Day was already in full swing when we arrived.
We pulled in at the main gate and the scanner read the security badge on his windscreen. The barrier came up automatically. The two guards didn’t quite salute but they came very close.
The clinic was housed in a lovely Georgian building, built of cream-coloured stone, complete with ancient lead gutters and pipes. An unreadable crest, weathered by time, was carved over the front door.
The front gardens were very formal, with flower beds in geometric shapes bordered by neat little box hedges. Hanging baskets on stands lined the gravel drive. To the sides and rear, the style was more informal. A beautiful grass walk led down to the river, with terraced beds on either side, backed by tall yew hedges. On either side of that, grass stretched away to almost as far as I could see, with groves of silver birch, oak and beech at nicely picturesque intervals.
There were quite a few people here already, strolling around the gardens pointing at plants, or wandering in and out of various large tents scattered around the lawns. They even had a small brass band on the terrace, playing hits from various musicals.
What do you think?’ said Ted.
‘It’s beautiful,’ I said, gazing around. ‘You’re so lucky to work here.’
His colour wavered for a moment, flickering almost to nothingness at the edges.
‘What? Nothing. Nothing at all. It’s just that I don’t get to see very much of it, that’s all. I’m usually inside.’
‘Down in the dungeons,’ I said.
I knew at once I’d said the wrong thing. Ted’s face never changed, but his colour curdled slightly. Something cold touched my skin. There was the smell of snow. And then it was all gone. Ted was himself and the sun was shining.
I really didn’t like Dr Philip Sorensen.
We found him outside the refreshment tent, talking to a bunch of local dignitaries, who seemed to have turned out in force.
‘Back in a minute,’ said Ted, and went to join them.
I drew back under the shade of a tree and watched.
For all that Sorensen’s head was attentively bent as he listened to what was being said around him, I could see that all his attention was all on me. Even as I watched, his colour, a weak and weedy thing of insipid blue-white, suddenly flared up – like one of those geysers in a national park – and roared out towards me. Like a tidal wave of dirty milk.
I stepped back in alarm, seeking shelter behind the tree. Every instinct warned me to keep my distance because I really didn’t want that thing touching me.
In a flash, he had himself back under control again. His colour reeled itself in and settled about him. I watched him greet Ted, introduce him to those present, and then politely excuse them both. The two of them trod across the grass towards me. I made myself step out from the tree as if I’d just been enjoying the shade, and smile politely.
He didn’t wait for introductions. ‘Mrs Cage. This is such a pleasure. I’ve been wanting to meet you for some time now.’
Yes, he had. I could see he was telling the truth. He had wanted to meet me for some time now. His colour flickered around the edges, and despite his outward polite calm, occasionally a tendril would reach hungrily towards me. I made sure to keep Ted between him and me.
‘Good afternoon, Dr Sorensen. I’ve been enjoying your beautiful gardens.’
‘How kind of you to say so. They are lovely, aren’t they? Now that you’ve finally met us, Mrs Cage, we’d be delighted if you’d visit us more often. Ted can easily arrange a pass for you, and you can enjoy our gardens any time you like.’
‘That’s very kind, thank you,’ I said, deciding never to take him up on his offer.
Pleasantries over, I hoped he would make his excuses – it was his Open Day after all and there had to be loads of people to meet and greet – but he showed no intention of moving away. Ted had stepped back a little and was watching something going on elsewhere. Even as I moved towards him, intending to put a little much needed distance between me and Dr Sorensen, he said suddenly, ‘Would you excuse me a moment please, Elizabeth?’ and strode away, leaving me alone with a man I really didn’t like, and who was showing far too much interest in me. And not in the usual way.
I hadn’t been this frightened since I’d seen that blonde woman, all those years ago. There was something in the way he looked at me. The thought flashed into my head. He knows something. He might not know the specifics, but somehow, he knows about me. How could that be? No one knew. I’d kept it quiet and buried it deep. I’d never spoken of it to anyone. Not even Ted. Sorensen might not know what I was – I didn’t know what I was – but somehow, he knew there was something about me. I felt a little twist of fear, deep inside. Suddenly, the afternoon was not so pleasant after all. I really, really wished Ted would come back.
I stared down at the grass, determined not to meet his eye, and still keeping a good distance between us. We stood in silence, and I knew he was watching me. I should say something. I should start some innocuous conversation about the weather. Anything to prevent him saying what he was obviously gearing himself up to.
I assembled a remark about the lack of rain. From there I intended to move onto Ted’s vegetable garden and his complaints about said lack of rain. I really didn’t care if he thought me the most boring woman in creation – a persona I worked hard at projecting, by the way – I just didn’t want to have any sort of conversation with this man. Sadly, he was Ted’s boss so I couldn’t follow my first instinct which was to turn around and run away.
I was just about to embark on the rain conversation, when, from behind me, Ted said, ‘Look who I’ve found lurking in the shrubbery.’
Dr Sorensen looked past me. ‘Now if you’d said lurking in the beer tent, I would have found that much more believable.’
The words had an edge. It wasn’t quite a joke.
The newcomer clapped him on the shoulder, making him stagger slightly. I warmed to him at once. ‘Sorensen, you old bugger. I can’t believe you’re still alive.’ He saw me. ‘Hello, who are you?’
He wasn’t very drunk, but he’d had a few.
Ted said, ‘Elizabeth, this is a colleague, Michael Jones.’
I said politely, ‘How do you do?’ and drew a little closer to Ted.
Michael Jones was damaged. There’s no other way to put it. I could see it everywhere. His colour was subdued and still. Small patches of a vibrant mix of gold and red still swirled faintly, but there was a nasty dead patch over his heart. I suspected he’d suffered a loss, and very recently, too. I didn’t need any special powers to see he wasn’t handling it well. The rather large drink in his hand was a bit of a giveaway as well. I wondered if he was a patient here. If he was drinking, then that didn’t seem very likely.
Dr Sorensen wasn’t pleased to see him. Not pleased at all. I watched them face each other. Normally, when two people stand together, their colours intermingle for a while. That’s when you get that feeling of attraction. Or not, of course. Sometimes you can really take a dislike to a person without knowing why. You might not know why, but your colour does and stays quiet and close to you. There’s no mingling. I sometimes wonder if it’s to avoid contamination. There are a lot of things in this world you don’t want to touch and you certainly don’t want them touching you.
Attention had moved away from me, enabling me to study the dynamics of what was going on here. There was Dr Sorensen, the smallest man present, but somehow dominating everything around him. His thin grey hair was brushed back from his forehead. His eyes were the colour of a wet pebble. I would never want to be alone with him.
Then there was Ted, medium height, neatly turned out in his second-best suit, his moustache trimmed for the occasion – and no, even though he often swore he’d die for me, getting rid of the moustache was, apparently, a sacrifice too far. His lovely brown colour swirled gently around him.
And finally, the newcomer. This Michael Jones. A big man who had once been even bigger. A man who had regularly worked out and now couldn’t be bothered. Something bad had happened to him and he had withdrawn into himself. His blondish hair was close cropped with just a little fleck of grey at the temples. Tired eyes regarded the world from underneath heavy lids.
Sorensen was talking.
‘You should check into the clinic for a few days, Mr Jones. The rest would do you good.’
Jones shook his head. ‘I want to go back. Someone should keep looking.’
Ted shifted uneasily. ‘Gentlemen, it’s too lovely a day to talk shop.’
There was obviously some sort of security issue here. I seized the excuse.
‘If you’ll excuse me for one moment, I’ll leave you to talk business,’ and turned away before anyone could stop me.
Sorensen’s colour flared towards me again, but I had stepped behind Ted and was moving off towards the grass walk.
‘I’ll come with you,’ said Ted. He too seemed to want to leave and so we walked slowly away. I could feel Sorensen’s eyes burning into my back, but neither he nor Jones followed us.
Just as we were moving out of earshot, I heard Jones say, ‘So that’s her, is it?’ I assumed he was referring to me as Ted’s wife and thought no more about it. I just knew I wanted to go home. To get away from this place and never come back.
I didn’t make the mistake of dramatically demanding to be taken home. Besides, Ted was enjoying himself, so we strolled from group to group, greeting and being greeted. There’s safety in numbers. By now, the lawns were so crowded that everyone’s colours merged into one indeterminate hue, with just the occasional flash as someone somewhere registered a deep emotion. The faint Sorensen-induced nausea faded soon enough.
Of course, Ted had to give me the full tour of the gardens, which was no hardship at all. We strolled across the grass and down shady paths, ending at the gardens’ centrepiece, a large rectangular pool with a rather well-built Atlas, cheerfully shouldering the world as the fountains cascaded around him. The whole thing was surrounded by high yew hedges and the air was soft and warm. I could hear bees zipping past. Ted was walking around the pool, peering into the dark water hoping to spot a fish, when a voice spoke.
‘You shouldn’t be here. Leave and don’t ever come back. And if you want to be really safe, leave your husband behind as well.’
I spun around, which was a stupid thing to do, because, as I’ve said, there was only a tall hedge behind me and whoever had spoken was on the other side, out of sight. I did try to peer through, but yew is thick and impenetrable.
From over the other side, Ted called, ‘Come and look at this one, Elizabeth,’ Not taking my eyes off the hedge, I walked slowly around the pool.
Great. I already saw things no one else could see. Now I’d started hearing them as well.
Five months later I was trying really hard to get out of going to the clinic’s Christmas Party and Ted was trying very hard to get me to go.
‘Why are you so keen for me to go?’
‘Well, I have to go and I’d like to have a beautiful woman on my arm.’
‘But you’re stuck with me.’
‘That wasn’t what I meant,’ he said. ‘As you well know.’
‘It’s too cold, surely,’ I said.
‘It’s inside, silly.’
I definitely didn’t want to be inside that house but I could see he really wanted me to go. And after all, I’d survived the summer Open Day.
‘What about the patients? How do they feel about all this going on?’
‘Most of them go home for Christmas. And sadly, those who are still there have no idea it’s Christmas anyway. It’s a bit of a staff knees-up, really. I’ve already put our names down. Don’t you want to go? They’re getting in outside caterers, and we’ve started decorating the place already. It’s going to look fantastic.’
‘But you won’t be able to drink.’ I can’t drive.
‘They’re sending a car for us.’ His colour deepened with anxiety.
I fell back on the old favourite. ‘I don’t have anything to wear.’
‘Is that all? Go into town and treat yourself.’
‘Is it formal? I don’t like formal.’
‘No, cocktail dresses and lounge suits. Nothing fancy. The whole point is to enjoy ourselves, not stand around looking uncomfortable. Don’t you want to go?’
‘Of course I do,’ I said, praying that something would occur to prevent me. I rather thought I might develop a heavy cold. Nothing too serious. Nothing that would make Ted want to stay with me. I didn’t want to spoil his evening. I just didn’t want to meet Dr Sorensen again. And above all, I didn’t want to enter his house.
I did try the whole ‘too ill to go out, but not ill enough for you to have to stay at home and look after me’ routine and I was wasting my time. Apparently, an evening out was just what I needed to buck me up. And he looked so much happier once I said I’d go. I told myself that so long as I stayed with Ted then everything would be fine. After all, what could Dr Sorensen actually do to me? And in a government establishment of all places? I was being ridiculous. I’d be perfectly safe.
They did send a car for us. Ted ushered me into the back. I put away the thought that we would have no getaway car, gave myself a stiff talking-to for being silly, and tried to relax.
There couldn’t have been a greater contrast to my last visit. Instead of hanging baskets, this time the drive was lit up with fairy lights. White and yellow bulbs glittered and twinkled in the frost. Every window was lit up and the light from the uncurtained windows fell in long rectangles on to the terrace at the front of the building.
Far from being closed and threatening, the front doors stood wide open in welcome, light streaming out across the terrace. Even before our car drew up, we could hear the music and voices coming from within.
‘A bit of busman’s holiday for me, I’m afraid,’ said Ted helping me out of the car. ‘Because the house is open I’m on duty this evening. Not all the time, of course, but I’ll have to nip off every now and then just to make sure everything’s running smoothly.’
He hadn’t mentioned that. I didn’t mean to look anxious, but he must have noticed because he squeezed my hand. ‘Don’t worry, I won’t leave you alone. All the people you met last time will be here, so there’s no need to fret.’
We entered the house together. I paused briefly on the threshold – expecting that familiar chill of something unpleasant, but there was nothing as we walked into one of the most luxurious entrance halls I’d ever seen.
Ted had been right about the large frosted Christmas tree, smothered with twinkling fairy lights at the foot of the stairs. A rather superfluous log burned in a huge stone hearth with the same heraldic crest cut into the wall above the mantel. Two enormous grey sofas sat on either side of the fireplace and there were any number of comfortable looking armchairs scattered around. A currently unmanned very smart reception desk was placed just inside the door.
I was surprised at how many people were there. Little knots of people were standing around chatting and obviously enjoying themselves. No one seemed tense or threatened. I felt encouraged. It should be very easy to avoid Sorensen.
Some doors stood open, signifying the rooms could be explored. I could see a string quartet in what looked like a library. A number of doors were firmly shut, but I had no inclination to explore anyway.
Dr Sorensen bustled towards us, every inch the welcoming host. And there it was again – that little frisson of cold.
‘Mrs Cage, how delightful to see you again.’
‘And Mr Cage,’ murmured Ted, and Dr Sorensen laughed merrily. The effect was rather like broken glass hitting a metal surface.
‘I was so looking forward to seeing you again. I told Ted I wouldn’t accept any excuses. We hardly had the chance for more than a few words back in the summer, did we? I’m rather hoping for an opportunity to show you around later. We’re very proud of our facilities here.’
I smiled politely and decided wild horses wouldn’t drag me from Ted’s side that evening. And if he had to nip off to inspect something then I was heading for the Ladies and not coming out until he returned. We had a taxi booked for midnight, so only another three and a half hours to get through.
I don’t drink much. I don’t like it. And I particularly don’t like getting drunk. Some of the things that prowl around the edges of our subconscious, waiting for that unguarded moment … waiting for a way in … No, I don’t drink. Not very often, anyway, and certainly not tonight.
Ted got me an orange juice. ‘I’ll have a drink later,’ he said. ‘I just have to nip off a minute. I won’t be long,’ and off he went.
I couldn’t see Dr Sorensen nearby, but it occurred to me that the best way of avoiding him was to keep moving so I flitted from one group to another, watching out for him from the corner of my eye, and always keeping him a whole room width away. He was busy greeting his guests though, and never looked my way once.
One reason I avoid large gatherings is that sometimes, it’s like having a hundred TVs on all at once, and all of them on a different channel. I usually manage to tune most of it out, in much the same way that we all tune out street noises when we’re in town, but this evening I had to stay alert, so obviously, I got everyone else as well. Just for the record, there was one couple having a really nasty row – the sort that’s no less spectacular for being conducted in a hissing whisper in the corner by the buffet. One couple – not married, I guessed – was trying to sneak off together without their official partners noticing. That one was actually quite funny. A number of people had drunk too much and were already incurring spousal displeasure.
I was just oozing around a huge bookcase filled with ancient leather volumes when someone spoke in my ear.
‘Hello there. I see you were stupid enough to come back.’
I jumped a mile and stared up at him.
‘Michael Jones,’ he said, helpfully.
‘Yes, I remember. And apparently, I’m not the only one.’
He peered at me. ‘The only one what?’
‘Stupid enough to come back here.’
‘Patient,’ he said, flourishing a glass that I suspected had a lot more in it than orange juice. His colour, like his glass, was all over the place. He was drunk enough and rude enough for me not to feel any social obligations.
He swayed a little. ‘Still with Steady Teddy?’
‘Always,’ I said, stung.
He started to move away.
I blocked his path.
‘And why is that?’
He appeared to have the short attention span of the more than slightly inebriated. ‘What’s all the fuss about you anyway?’
He leaned forwards and I was enveloped in a cloud of alcohol.
‘He wants you for his collection, you know.’
I grew suddenly cold. In vino veritas …
He regarded me owlishly. ‘The one downstairs.’
I tried not to shiver. ‘In the basement?’
He tried to look mysterious and succeeded only in staggering slightly.
I remembered that slight moment of nausea. That slight smell of something cold.
I stepped forwards so he had to move back, and there we were, snugly ensconced in a corner of the library where no one could see or hear us. I remembered to ask open questions.
‘Tell me about his collection.’
‘Well,’ he said, chattily, swaying even more.
‘There you are,’ said Ted.
‘Bugger,’ said Jones. He looked up at a security camera. ‘Ah yes, of course. The all-seeing eye of security. Except, of course, when it isn’t. Eh, Ted? Shame it wasn’t so all-seeing when it needed to be. I said, shame it wasn’t …’
‘Yes, I think we need to get you upstairs. If Dr Sorensen sees the state of you …’
He tailed away, which was unfortunate because I would have liked to have heard what Sorensen would do if he saw him.
Pulling out a bunch of keys, he handed them to me. ‘Elizabeth, would you go first, please. Down to the end of the room. Door in the right-hand corner. The big key.’
I unlocked the door and we got Jones through. He could still walk so it was mainly a case of nudging him in the right direction or intercepting him when he attempted to veer off down the wrong passage.
We staggered up a scruffy flight of backstairs that I was certain the paying patients would never see, along a badly lit corridor, through another door, and out into a large reception area with a nurses’ station. Ted propped Jones against the wall, said, ‘Stay,’ much as you would to a very large and unruly dog, and left me alone with him. A bored-looking nurse was flicking through a magazine. She looked up as he approached. ‘Mr Cage.’
‘Good evening, Cathy,’ he said. ‘Everything all right up here?’
She sighed. ‘Yes, everyone safely in bed and fast asleep.’
Beside me, Jones snorted. I nudged him. ‘Shush.’
He nudged me back. ‘You shush.’
Back at the nurses’ station, Ted was asking to see some sort of rota. She disappeared into a nearby office. As soon as she disappeared, Ted gestured down the corridor. ‘Room Twenty-one.’
I pushed Jones in what I hoped was the right direction, counting doors as I went. Odd on the left, even on the right. Room Twenty-one was at the end. I pushed open the door.
‘Coming in?’ he enquired, pulling me in after him.
‘No,’ I said, wondering why I was so unafraid of this big, slightly unstable, man who was trying to pull me into a dark room, when I was so utterly terrified of the impeccably behaved Dr Sorensen.
I didn’t dare put the light on, but the curtains were open and I could see the dim outline of a bed. I pushed him towards it and he toppled slowly backwards. I yanked off his shoes, avoided his hands and covered him with a blanket. He started to snore almost immediately. I slipped out of the door. Ted was bending over a file with the nurse. Her back was to me. Catching sight of me, he said, ‘That’s fine, Cathy, everything seems to be in order. I’ll send you up some mince pies,’ and signed across the bottom of the page. She turned away with the file, I nipped up the corridor and through the door. A second later, Ted joined me, and we returned to the party, giggling like a pair of idiots.
The rest of the evening passed without excitement. Almost as if he was aware of my anxiety, Ted never left me again. We moved from group to group. People were friendly. The food and drink was good. I enjoyed myself more than I thought I would. On the few occasions I encountered him, Dr Sorensen was charming. His colour kept its distance. I had no alarms of any kind.
On the way home I stared out of the window at the dark shadows flashing past and wondered if I’d allowed my imagination to get the better of me.
It was a day like any other, except that Ted came home looking cross and tired. That wasn’t like him at all, so I served him his dinner on a tray in front of the TV, and went to run him a bath. I was sloshing the water around when I heard the telephone ring, and when I went downstairs, he was pulling on his coat and picking up his car keys.
‘Sorry, love, I have to go back.’
‘Must you? It’s so late.’
‘Only for an hour or so. Don’t wait up.’
‘Are you sure? I can do you some sandwiches.’
‘No. I won’t be long, I promise, but you go on to bed. I’ll try not to wake you when I come in.’
He opened the front door, dropped a kiss on my head and pulled it to behind him.
I never saw him alive again.
There was no clue. No warning of any kind. I spent days afterwards, running over those final moments together, looking for some sort of sign, but there was nothing. I heard the car drive away and then he was gone.
I had a bath myself and decided on an early night. I read for a while, expecting to hear his key in the lock at any moment. Eventually, I switched off the light, turned over, and fell asleep.
I awoke suddenly. The room was cold and dark. A half-moon shone through the window. I knew I was alone. I reached out an arm to switch on the light and the pain in my chest nearly paralysed me. I curled into a ball, fists clenched. I couldn’t catch my breath. The moon swam like a pendulum. I felt an overwhelming sense of fear. Of mortality. Because I was dying. I knew I was dying. I was alone and afraid and I was dying. I tried to call out, forgetting Ted wasn’t here. I tried to call his name and then, suddenly, I realised it wasn’t Ted’s name I was calling – it was my own. I was alone, in the dark, in my car at the side of the road, afraid, in pain, and using my last moments to call for my wife. In that moment, I knew how much Ted had loved me. And how much I loved him.
And then, suddenly – it was gone. The pain. The fear. The moon. Everything, and I was alone in the cold emptiness of death.
And then I was back in my bed again.
I hope you enjoyed this extract – let me know!
Actually, I have to say I felt rather like Max presenting a report to Dr Bairstow when I typed that. In my last job, the phrase ‘situation update’ was the polite way of saying, ‘You’ll never guess what’s all gone tits up now.’ Which I think would make quite a good title, but the cover would have to be enormous so as you were on that one.
I’ve been taking a few days off – yes, I know, but even I have to go outside occasionally, so I headed for Wessex, which is somewhere I’d only ever associated with Thomas Hardy and long dreary afternoons at school while our English teacher made us read someone else’s idea of a good book.
But Wessex is Old Sarum, Stonehenge, Avebury and Winchester, and it’s fabulous. No matter in which direction you look – History has happened all over the landscape. There’s barrows and tumuli (is that right?) and cursuses (is that right? Spell check is nearly as useless as I am.) and castles and cathedrals. I was quite blown away. I also remember thinking I really should have done this before writing about Stonehenge, King Alfred, hill forts, etc, but where’ s the fun if you do things the conventional way?
Anyway, it’s been a great holiday and I’ve enjoyed the days away from my laptop. And I’ve had several ideas along the way, which is good, and also proves I didn’t spend every waking moment scarfing ice creams, chocolate, cheese scones and fudge – not simultaneously, obviously – well not most of the time.
In other news, I’m thrilled to see that Lucy Price-Lewis – who made such a cracking job of The Nothing Girl – is also reading The Something Girl as well. Sadly for her, not only must she brush up her hungry donkey impersonations, but must extend her repertoire even further and develop her aggressive Patagonian Attack Chickens noises as well. I wish her the very best of luck with that one! The Something Girl is out on Audible on 24th August.
No news yet on who is reading White Silence, but I’ll post something as soon as I know. Many thanks to all those who’ve gone ahead and pre-ordered without knowing who the narrator will be. I believe both the Audible and Kindle versions come out next month.
I’m writing to Hazel sometime today because we’ve had a good idea for another competition we hope will be a lot of fun for everyone. Except for me, of course, the hapless judge, because I always like everyone’s entries and would give a prize for all of them if I could, which, I’m always being told, is not the point of the competition.
And before anyone asks, I’m cracking on with the next St Mary’s book which is due for publication next April, I think. There have been many vigorous discussions over the title, all of which I lost, and so the next book will be entitled An Argumentation of Historians. ………. A row of dots signifies sulky author silence.
For those of you who can’t wait – and you know who you are – there’s the Christmas story, Christmas Past, which will come out as usual on Christmas Day, thus throwing a spanner into the works of any number of carefully planned Christmas lunches. (Too early to pre-order yet)
And on top of all that, there are two short stories and the sequel to White Silence planned for next year as well, so as you can see, I don’t just sit and stare out of the window all day. Well, actually I do, but you can get away with it if you’re a writer, because everyone thinks you’re being creative and not, in any way, thinking about Matt Damon.
I think that’s it – there’s Afternoon Tea at Octavo’s on 14th October, of course, and I believe you’re all getting yourselves together for a knees-up in Birmingham sometime. Good luck with that. I shall expect photos. Many, many photos …
The ebook is being published on September 21st, with the paperback following next spring. It will be available on amazon.co.uk and amazon.com and Audible, all on the same day. Let’s keep life simple.
It’s the story of a young woman, Elizabeth Cage, who is more than she seems. Elizabeth has a gift – or a curse – and after her husband’s death she suddenly finders herself isolated and vulnerable. And as if that’s not bad enough – strange things happen wherever she goes.
The book’s a little bit thriller, a little bit romance and a little bit supernatural. Well, quite a lot supernatural, actually.
Hazel is to re-post an excerpt on this page – just to whet your appetites – here’s a sneak peek of the cover.
This story is a bit of new departure for me. It’s a very different story to both the St Mary’s and the Frogmorton Farm series. I had actually forgotten how nerve-wracking it is to launch a new series on an unsuspecting readership. Some of you might like to light a candle and indulge in a few minutes’ personal meditation to prepare yourselves. Or, alternatively, just rip the wrapper off another giant bar of chocolate and grab a bottle of wine. Whatever floats your boat.
I personally am in Dr Who watching mode – behind the sofa.
And then there was the day when Markham managed to get himself snatched by aliens – or so we thought at the time.
I was summoned to Dr Bairstow’s office to find Markham and Peterson already present. We looked at each other.
‘Any clues?’ I asked.
‘You can go in now,’ said Mrs Partridge, so in we went.
He looked up from his desk. ‘There you are.’
We agreed that yes, here we were.
He gestured at his briefing table on which reposed several archive boxes and a fat folder.
‘The County Archivist has been good enough to make available various documents requested by Dr Dowson. A condition was that we do not expose them to the hazards of a random delivery service.’ It was not clear whether it was the company or its delivery that was random, but we nodded anyway. ‘And so, I would like you, personally, to return these valuable documents with my compliments and thanks.’
He handed Peterson an envelope.
‘Of course, sir.’
‘This afternoon, if you please.’
Peterson glanced at his watch. ‘It’s already afternoon, sir.’
‘How quickly you grasp my meaning.’
‘I do my best, sir.’
‘I have assured the County Archivist that my best people are on the job. They being unavailable, however, I have therefore designated my Chief Operations Officer, my Head of Security and my Deputy Director to fulfil this simple task.’
His Deputy Directory, Head of Security and Chief Operations Officer assembled their best air of cool professionalism – which in our case consisted of standing a little straighter and not picking our noses. I don’t think he was impressed, staring at us bleakly for a few seconds and then demanding to know why we were still here.
Since Peterson was burdened with the envelope, Markham and I seized the boxes and we left with all speed.
‘Right,’ said Peterson, ‘I shall assume full control of this mission.’
Markham made a rude noise.
‘Get changed and meet in the car park in ten minutes. That’s ten minutes, Max. No wafting around in front of mirrors trying on dresses.’
Now I made a rude noise.
We met in the car park, shoving Markham and the boxes in the back, and departed.
‘A nice afternoon out,’ said a voice from behind the boxes, and we agreed.
Now I know what you’re thinking. I can hear exactly what you’re thinking, so I will say now that the boxes were delivered on time and to the correct destination. The County Archivist herself took delivery so God knows what was in them. Peterson, after a series of nudges from me, remembered to hand over Dr Bairstow’s letter of thanks and they gave us a cup of tea. They were lovely people. I wish I worked there. We set off for the return trip, hoping to be back in time for tea, and things started to go wrong almost immediately.
Peterson caught my eye. I always think that sounds as if you’ve been indulging in a quick game of eyeball tossing, but I knew what he meant
‘So,’ he said, almost casually, negotiating the last roundabout out of town and accelerating away, ‘how are things with you and Hunter?’
‘OK,’ said Markham vaguely. ‘I think.’
‘Don’t you know?’
‘Well, it’s hard to tell sometimes, but I always think if she’s not coming at me with a kidney bowl then, you know, things aren’t too bad.’
‘Why would she come at you with a kidney bowl?’
‘Because she can’t find a bedpan.’
Peterson tried again. ‘So – got any celebrations planned then?’
‘Well, you have an anniversary coming up.’
‘Wedding. You know. You and Hunter.’
There was a long silence from the back. ‘Don’t know what you mean.’
‘I worked it out,’ said Peterson in his best I’m Peterson and I’m brilliant voice. ‘I’m looking at Hunter these days and she’s looking very well, isn’t she? Blooming, almost. And she’s a very moral girl is our Hunter. Well, she has to be since you don’t have a single moral to your name, so I reckon you had the ceremony just before or just after the Battle of St Mary’s which means there’s an anniversary coming up.’
There was a lot more silence from the back.
‘Oh come on,’ said Peterson. ‘Admit I’m right and the then the two of us can buy you a celebratory drink in the bar.’
‘I’m right, aren’t I? Go on – say I’m right.’
Even more silence.
‘I don’t know why you won’t admit it,’ he said, slightly exasperated. ‘Are you ashamed of something? Wait until I tell Hunter you’re ashamed of her.’
He paused, hopefully.
Nothing but silence.
I pulled down the passenger’s sun flap and looked at the mirror. Markham was sitting with his arms folded and a stupid grin on his face.
‘I reckon,’ said Peterson, ‘the two of you snuck into the Register Office without telling anyone but I’m going to make you tell me just the same.’
‘Right,’ he said. ‘You asked for it. Hold on tight, Max.’
We swerved off the road into a field, skidding to a halt in a shower of dust, stones and indignant birds.
‘What are we doing here?’ said Markham, picking himself up off the back seat and peering out of the window.
‘We’re staying here until you tell us.’ He switched off the engine and folded his arms. ‘Not another yard until you tell us the truth.’
Markham folded his arms. ‘Never.’
I began to make plans for spending the rest of my life in a field.
The silence dragged on, only to be broken by the sounds of Markham getting out.
‘Where are you going?’ I said, in some alarm. ‘We’re still not supposed to go anywhere alone.’
‘Well I’m not staying here with you two maniacs. If you want to sit in a field you can do it on your own. I’m off.’
We watched him walk across the field and out of the gate.
‘Bollocks,’ said Peterson.
‘Well, that worked, didn’t it?’
‘Bollocks,’ he said again.
‘Look, why don’t you just check the records at Somerset House? It’s a simple enough process.’
‘That’s not the point. I want him to tell me.’
I surveyed the vast, empty field. ‘How’s that working out for you?’
He cursed again and switched on the engine.
Markham was a couple of hundred yards up the road. We passed his plodding figure with a merry toot of the horn.
‘It’s four miles back to St Mary’s,’ I said, watching him recede in the wing mirror.
‘Do him good.’
‘Ronan,’ I said warningly. ‘We shouldn’t leave him alone.’
‘No,’ he said reluctantly. ‘You’re right. We shouldn’t.’
We pulled into a layby and waited.
He never came.
We waited some more.
‘For crying out loud,’ said Peterson. ‘I know he’s Security Section, but surely even he can’t have got lost between there and here.’
I sighed. ‘I’ll go and look for him. He might just be taking a rest.’
‘I’ll come with you,’ he said, getting out. ‘No one should be alone, remember?’
‘Markham,’ I said accusingly. ‘We left him alone.’
‘He doesn’t count.’
We walked to the bend and looked. The road was empty. We could see for miles. No Markham. Not anywhere.
‘Shit,’ I said. We rotated slowly. Where could he be?
‘He’s cut across the fields,’ said Peterson. ‘Hang on.’ He climbed onto the car roof and surveyed the flat countryside. The flat, empty countryside.
‘Shit,’ I said again, beginning to panic. ‘We’ve lost him.’
‘We can’t have,’ he said, climbing down.
‘Then where is he? Oh my God, we’ve lost Markham.’
‘Look,’ he said. ‘The little sod’s in a ditch somewhere. Either he fell in and hurt himself – perfectly possible – or he’s hiding under a hedge to teach us a lesson. We’ll go and find him, kick the living shit out of him for frightening us like this, and then he can buy us a drink afterwards.’
I looked up. It was the only direction left. ‘Do you think he’s been snatched by aliens?’
‘Always a possibility,’ he said, locking the car. ‘Although if so then they’ll be returning him in a hurry any minute now.’
‘No, seriously,’ I said as we set off, him on one side of the narrow lane and me on the other. I peered into ditches and looked under hedges. ‘It’s the only explanation. You hear about this sort of thing all the time. You know – anal probing.’
‘For God’s sake, Max, get a grip. Why on earth would super intelligent beings cross the vastness of space just to firkle around in Markham’s bottom area. Would you?’
‘Well there you are, then. Anything your side?’
‘Nothing. Where could he be?’
‘I don’t know, but it’s four miles back to St Mary’s.’
It was at that moment we heard the car start up. We stood paralysed for a moment and then Peterson screamed, ‘Bastard,’ and set off at a run. I pounded along behind him and we raced back around the bend just in time to see Markham pull out of the layby. He waved, gave us a merry toot, and sped away out of sight.
We skidded to a halt.
‘Didn’t you lock it?’ I said accusingly.
‘Of course I did, but it’s bloody Markham, isn’t it? He could hot-wire a rock’.
‘It’s four miles back to St Mary’s.’
‘He’ll stop around the next bend,’ said Peterson, reassuringly. ‘He’s just teaching us a lesson.’
He was and he didn’t.
Four bloody miles. With Peterson vowing grim retribution with every step.
And we missed tea.
Have you ever noticed how often you want to go to the loo when you can’t walk properly? When even a short ten-foot journey to the bathroom is an endless distance and unspeakable agony for every inch of it? And it was going to the loo that got me into this predicament in the first place.
I’m on holiday. I knew it was a bad idea and I said so. I told them. Many, many times. God doesn’t give us laptops so we can frivolously abandon them to gallivant half way across the world for unjustified and unauthorly enjoyment. I warned them. I said it would end badly. And it did.
The first day was fine. I did the traditional tourist thing. There was sun and meeting friends and a glass of wine and a nice lunch and I was beginning to think my misgivings had been completely unjustified. I’d even been able to write a couple of sneaky paragraphs in the bathroom when no one was looking and then – this morning, I had a bit of an incident.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re all reading the previous paragraph and thinking – Wine? Daft bat! Sloshed again.
Well, it was just after breakfast and even I can’t drink wine at breakfast. I’ve tried. It didn’t end well.
Anyway, having gorged myself on everything in sight and drunk three cups of tea, obviously a visit to the facilities was called for. Asking for directions, a charming young man indicated ‘just over there’ and while I was craning my neck to see where ‘just over there’ was, I fell the colossal distance of four whole inches and wrenched my foot. I mean we are talking black football here.
I was helped to my feet by an enormous number of charming young men – because that’s what it takes to get me on my feet these days – although I wasn’t complaining. It was almost equal to the occasion when I looked up and six young men were climbing in through my bedroom window just prior to rescuing me from the flash flood doing its best to wash our cottage away. I can’t tell you how many fantasy boxes that ticked, but back to the diseased foot.
It’s agony. Six hours later, it still hurt like hell. It’s still swollen now, but with blue rather than black bruising, which is interesting and coordinates rather nicely with my top.
I’m surviving on a mixture of Ibuprofen and Pringles and I’m alternately either too sleepy to think straight, or in unbearable agony depending on which point of the pain cycle I’ve reached. They are very strong painkillers and amazingly effective. The pain is still excruciating but I’m feeling very cheerful about it.
And, of course, because I can barely even move my leg, I’m up and down to the bathroom every ten minutes because I’m the proud owner of the bladder that just keeps on giving.
I am never going on holiday again. Ever. Never going to happen. And because I don’t have my laptop with me you won’t get the chance to read this until next week. Many of you may be able to combine it with attending my memorial service, because I’m not going to survive this. I always thought it would be the Accent Electrodes that did for me and I would expire in a shower of sparks, clumsy metaphors and explosive punctuation, but it was the holiday that got me in the end.
Farewell, cruel world …
Actually, there’s been a bit of a renaissance. My chemically induced haze of goodwill produced a tiny idea for a Max, Markham and Peterson story. Just a couple of hundred words. I’ll get it typed up and maybe post it tomorrow …
I shall call it ‘Markham and the Anal Probing,’ because that won’t give Accent Press anything to worry about at all …
I’ve had a fabulous weekend at the end of April. On Saturday April 29th I was at the Llandeilo LitFest, sharing a Time Travel panel with Jasper Fforde, author of the wonderful Thursday Next series. An alarming number of people attended – I’m a bit like Sheldon Cooper in that I worry about crowds large enough to trample me! Not that this group was anything other than beautifully behaved and trampling definitely did not occur. Everyone asked intelligent and perceptive questions – i.e. ones to which I knew the answers.
We all had a bit of fun with the Have you ever written anything you regretted? question and I had to apologise all over again for the ‘sudden and acrimonious break-up of the EU,’ America closing its borders and building a wall, and for the derogatory remarks about Donald Trump’s hair. Once again, I had to deny clandestine possession of a pod although, once again, I don’t think anyone believed me. I rather think I might slip a new chapter into Book 9, detailing the unexpected break-out of world peace and general benevolence to all, just to see what happens. Fingers crossed.
And Sunday was the Booky Brunch at Octavo’s Bookshop in Cardiff, where we got down and dirty with all things St Mary’s. We talked about Ronan, the Time Police, favourite characters, favourite moments, what was the thinking behind this that and the other, how I did my research – yes, I know it looks as if I just throw the books together, but really I don’t – and so on.
We discussed plot developments, the new supernatural series, possible titles for new books and people’s strange aversion to reading anything by the well-known Regency Romance author, Isabella Barclay. The questions were many and varied, and then we tucked into the world’s best ever Eggs Benedict. Followed by mountains of toast and I managed to get marmalade on both elbows. No idea how that happened.
No rest for the wicked, because last Saturday was the Masterclass – History and Humour – which was fabulous, not least because Accent Press (All hail Accent Press) don’t let me out that often. I’m normally down in the dungeon – third manacle from the right if anyone wants to visit – typing away for dear life in the hope of extra gruel and a light touch with the electrodes.
Where was I? Yes. Sorry. Wandering the paths of whimsy again. Of course there aren’t any actual electrodes. What was I thinking? I need my hands to type – and to write more books! No, this week’s good news is my books are now available in Waterstones! The first two books of the series, Just One Damned Thing After Another and A Symphony of Echoes are up on the shelves for all to see. Just like real books. I’m so excited I’m going to have to put the kettle on.
And to finish … just a quick plug for an event very dear to my heart. It’s that time of year again. The annual cheese rolling (as described in A Second Chance) will take place at Cooper’s Hill, Gloucester, on 29th May this year. I’ve been there – In younger and fitter days I did manage to get myself half way up the hill, but collapsing through lack of oxygen. The slope was so steep that even sitting down I was in danger of rolling back down again and could only stay in place by clinging, face down, to a tuft of grass. And fear not – despite what happened to Max, very few people get smacked by the cheese these days. There’s a link below to anyone who can’t make it. Someone will post a video of this year’s carnage in due course. Enjoy.
The final runner-up for the fanfiction short story competition is Andy Farenden.
Excellent research and a vividly drawn word picture of a tiny snapshot in time. Nothing much seems to happen and yet quite a lot actually does. Nice to see Mrs Enderby getting out and about for a change. Congratulations on conveying a complex world in such a few words.
Mrs Enderby dipped her toes in Gunyan River letting the cool water wash over her aching feet; she wasn’t used to being out in the field. After a day on her feet exploring the fabric market, the short walk from the pod to the river in the hard-soled leather shoes had been a less than pleasurable experience. When she returned to St Mary’s she would investigate the possibility of adding some discreet cushioning to the history department’s more basic period footwear. Her security escort, a lovely young man whom Mr Markham had assigned to her, sat further back up the bank under the shade of a nearby tree rubbing his worn feet too.
The assignment from Thirsk had tasked the history department with gathering information on the construction and establishment of the Donglin Academy in 12th century Wuxi, China. Which, for a short time, was a hub of neo-Confucian philosophy and home to scholar Yang Shi. For Mrs Enderby, it was an opportunity to explore the silk trade at the height of the middle ages along the nautical route of the Silk Road.
At first Max had been unsure about bringing her along on the jump, but had given in due to the relative political stability of the era and chocolate centred bribery.
It was late August 1111; Mrs Enderby basked in the warmth of the early evening sun. She had seen a great deal today and her recorder was full of rich bright fabrics and period dress. She had even been able to visit silk makers a little further along the river.
As she sat she noticed a group of young women, who she recognised from the silk makers, approached the water’s edge a little way off. They carried a large shallow bucket between them. Carefully, they began emptying water back in to the river filtering it through their hands. Mrs Enderby realised that they must be draining the water from soaked silk worm cocoons and trying not to let the last precious fibres escape. She drew a pocket-sized notebook and pencil from the secret fold within her dress and began to sketch them.
As the light began to fade and the young ladies finished their task a lamp lighter rounded the corner and began to light the lanterns that illuminated the path around the river’s edge. Mrs Enderby sighed, patted her feet dry with the base of her skirt – something that she would chastise a historian for doing – and slipped her feet back in to her shoes. Rising, she dusted herself off and headed back up the shallow bank to her escort. She smiled at him as he rose to join her. Today had been a good day. Wearily, they made their way back to the pod to re-join the rest of the team.
Mrs. Enderby sagged into her seat as someone passed her a cup of tea; she felt bone tired but satisfied. The historians completed the F.O.D check, took their seats and the world went white.
Hello everyone! We’re here for another of the St Mary’s fanfiction short stories competition entries. This week it’s Kyrsty Hardy’s turn.
This was lovely. I’m so pleased Dr Bairstow had a happy ending for once. In fact, he’s figured prominently in all the entries. Obviously a favourite character. I really like the ending and the nicely understated image of the two of them dancing the night away. And huge professional congratulations on managing to fit Roanoke, a fire, a flood, a skeleton and the Queen’s Jubilee into only 500 words!
It was against Bairstow’s better judgement to send the usual suspects, but with Bashford concussed, and everyone else at a Tudor wedding, an urgent request from Thirsk left only Maxwell, Peterson and Markham available to jump to Roanoke. They had returned suspiciously meekly, and something was clearly amiss.
Standing in his favoured interrogation pose, Bairstow summoned them. Markham was quick to defend himself. “Sir, I was just trying to keep the kids in blue safe. The fire came from nowhere, and I can’t explain the flood. Ask Max; Major Guthrie says it’s always her”.
Maxwell grinned, always a cause for concern.
“Dr Maxwell, explain.”
Peterson interjected. “No need for concern, sir. A minor fire, a little water, no time police. A roaring success”.
“Indeed sir” Maxwell began in the tone that meant trouble “and I think the skeleton was ok. I mean, I didn’t check, but we weren’t struck down, so History must be happy”
Bairstow was not persuaded. “I don’t share this optimism. You will return immediately and ensure History is intact.”
“But sir, we can’t go, we’re already there.”
“Who’s available?” Bairstow demanded.
“Bashford, who doesn’t know who he is, Chief Farrell… and you sir.”
Bairstow sighed “Farrell and I, then. I shall deal with you when we return.”
An hour later, Leon initiated the jump. The world went white. And then, it went red, white and blue…
“Chief, we appear to be in the wrong century” Bairstow checked the readout. “Please explain how my Chief Technical Officer has confused the 1500s and the Golden Jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II. Have you had too many sleep deprived nights with my godson? Or have you finally succumbed to the foolishness that afflicts my entire unit.”
“No, sir, we are exactly where I intended us to be. Look, Edward”
Viewing the Mall through the screens, Bairstow saw a familiar figure. He caught his breath, and started for the door, before stopping with visible effort
“Why would you do this? I cannot go out there.”
“You can; Annie was left behind when the team jumped back due to an injury, and spent the evening alone before a rescue party arrived.” Bairstow thought back “I was on another jump. She never spoke about it, she just said she danced…”
He looked again at the lonely figure of his lost love. As he watched, another familiar figure appeared behind her, dressed in toga and sandals, looked directly at the camera, and nodded, before disappearing.
“The 100 year rule?”
“Our childhoods are far enough in the future, sir. St Mary’s won’t arrive for 5 hours.”
“What shall I say?”
“Edward, if anyone can navigate this situation, it is you.”
Bairstow subtly checked his reflection in a monitor, and reached the door before turning back.
“An honour and a privilege, Edward.” Bairstow placed his cane to one side, and left the pod. Tonight, he would dance with the girl he loved. Farrell closed the door, and put the kettle on. “Happy birthday, sir”.
Welcome to week 4 of the St Mary’s fanfiction short stories. This weeks story is by Vicky Garlic and the first thing that came to my mind was: Seriously?
Only Sykes could manage to get herself propositioned by Fat Harry himself. And on his way to his own wedding, too! Has she no shame? Nicely written and the dialogue really pushes the story along.
The Flanders Mare Fiasco: 6th January 1540, Greenwich, London. A nice, simple observe and document jump, or at least it should have been. My name’s Max and I work for St. Mary’s Institute of Historical Research where we investigate major historical events in contemporary time, don’t call it time travel.
Our latest assignment was to jump to 1540 and witness the marriage between Henry VIII and Anne of Cleves. Why her? Simple really, to find out whether she was as unattractive as everyone said. It’s well known that Anne was said to look nothing like her portrait and Henry wanted out of the marriage as soon as he’d said ‘I do’. Well it was actually a bit sooner than that.
Peterson landed the pod with a bump (I really should stop him from driving) and he, Sykes, North, Markham and I headed towards Greenwich Palace where we hoped to see a glimpse of the fabled Anne. We managed to bustle our way to a good viewing position and I’m almost certain I would have had a perfect view of the new Queen had we not lost Markham and Sykes on the way.
“Markham? Sykes? Report”
“Oh, hi Max,” Sykes replied in her typically cheery voice, “Everything’s fine.”
“Where are you?”
“We took a wrong turn and…oh my god!”
“Oh it’s nothing,” Sykes replied making me tense up.
A long silence.
“We’re fine Max,” he finally replied in an equally cheery voice. I groaned internally. “What’s going on? Where are you?”
“It’s okay,” Markham replied a little too quickly, “We’re on our way back now; we just had a little misunderstanding.”
“A misunderstanding? With who?”
“No one important,” he said airily. I ground my teeth as I saw them enter into view and strode towards them trying to look menacing as the two of them just grinned at me.
“Umm,” Sykes said.
“Well…” Markham said.
“Someone better answer me,” I threatened.
“I might have been propositioned,” Sykes finally replied.
“Henry,” they responded in unison.
I started, “King Henry?” They nodded slowly. “How?”
“Like I said we took a wrong turn.”
I just stared.
“It’s okay, Markham explained I was already spoken for and he seemed to accept it.”
“Peterson, where are you?”
“We’re in the crowd,” Tim replied, “just seen Anne and seriously Max her description as the Flanders Mare is unnervingly accurate.”
“Never mind that now,” I said, “get yourselves back to the pod, we might have outstayed our welcome.”
“Come on you two,” I said glaring at them as they continued to smile.
We miraculously evaded capture/imprisonment/beheading so Henry must have decided to go through with his wedding to the unattractive Anne. Turns out Peterson wasn’t exaggerating about that bit and they had the footage to prove it; Dr. Bairstow would be happy with that at least. I heaved a sigh of relief, settled myself at the console, programmed the return coordinates and initiated the jump. The world went white.
Another Thursday, another St Mary’s fanfiction short story entry from the competition. This weeks offering is by Alison Clements.
A lovely modern twist to a great St Mary’s story. It’s very tempting to speculate on just how much trouble Max, Markham and Peterson could have got up to at Woodstock. Dr Bairstow is on good form as well.
‘Sir!’ I must be firm. Since Matthew my body is no longer the temple of perfection it once was and I doubt it will withstand public scrutiny.’
Dr Bairstow sighed. ‘Not for the first time, Dr Maxwell, I believe you are over-estimating the assignment’s requirements. As I understand it, nudity was entirely optional. Besides, I hardly think the declothing incident participants were universally blessed with bodily perfection.’
‘But really’, I continued, ‘Woodstock? It’s barely history, and everyone knows they got naked and frolicked for days high on dubious chemicals, flower power and free love. What else could Thirsk possibly need to know?’
He looked at me over the top of his glasses. ‘You are there to gauge what proportion of the crowd were there due to the rumour that Bob Dylan might appear. Besides, we are deficient in both cashflow and goodwill with Thirsk and – perhaps with misguided optimism – I feel that this simple assignment should help to address both.’
‘Returning to the free love point, sir. Peterson and Markham are fine-looking specimens, but it’s way more than my job’s worth to court that sort of trouble from Helen and Hunter’. ‘Or Leon’, I added after a brief pause. ‘But mostly Helen. Don’t make me do this, sir.’
‘Let me repeat myself Dr Maxwell. Joining. In. Is. Not. Compulsory.’
I had still not given up on squirming out of this. ‘Does the 20th century really deserve to be exposed (and I mean that in both senses of the word) to Markham and Peterson in all their glory? Because if you think I’m going to be able to stop them getting naked then you are sadly overestimating my superpowers.’
‘I have every confidence in you Dr Maxwell, and if not then I suppose it will save Mrs Enderby some costume work. Although,’ he paused thoughtfully, ‘I know she was very much looking forward to making you a tie-dyed kaftan. Or perhaps a miniskirt?’
I looked at him. There was no hint of humour on his raptor-like features.
‘Just one more thing, sir.’ I had cunningly saved my best argument until last. ‘Surely our British accents will attract unwelcome attention as soon as we speak?’
His face adopted the sort of expression usually seen on a fox which has just discovered an unlatched henhouse. ‘I cannot account for any attention that your inimitable style might attract, of course. But the American borders did not close until well into this century. You will be seen as exotic, and perhaps a little eccentric …’
(‘Absolutely no ‘perhaps’ about it’, I thought …)
‘… but your accents will not in themselves attract undue attention. Stay out of the mud, and enjoy the music. I understand Joan Baez was at her divine best.’
I turned to leave, and passing an amused-looking Mrs Partridge I could have sworn I heard the faintest hum of Blowin’ in the Wind emanating from somewhere. But whether it came from Mrs Partridge or Dr Bairstow himself I couldn’t say.