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In dreams she had often been here: walked this path, opened this gate. These woods were not unknown to her. The soft grass which yielded to her careful tread had done just this, at just such a place, not so long ago. Dapples from a leaf-concealed sun had fallen on her skin then too, like the speckles of a roe deer fawn, as she had stepped among the trees on feather feet. She remembered well.
How long ago it seemed, that morning when she woke while still asleep. How bright the sun had been when she wandered from her enchanted forest to discover herself in the hospital bed! And how far away were the concerned eyes of the man who loved her: no matter how close he came. For many days she had wandered between waking and sleep, unwilling to leave those warm green glades. Even when, at last, she took the final faltering steps back into pain she knew she would never forget them. They were part of her as nothing else could be.
Katherine’s coma had lasted for three weeks. Medical opinion had at first insisted she would never regain consciousness, that the brain damage when her head hit the road was irreversible. Later, as the rest of her shattered body grew stronger her doctors predicted a possible semi-vegetative state, warning her doting mother and contrite husband to prepare for “lasting disability”. So when she opened her eyes fully for the first time and enquired brightly if there was any chance of an Archers, they had a lot of diagnosis to re-digest. Within a month she had left hospital, was walking within two. Within three she had left Mark, moved back with her mother.
It was not so much Katherine who could not forgive Mark, as Mark who could not forgive himself. He had been driving much too fast. She had been mutilated, thrown from the car, while he had escaped with no more than a few abrasions. When he looked at her now it was no longer with love but with a kind of repressed horror, a loathing for what he had done to her. So one morning she had quietly moved out, leaving a note which really said nothing, because there was nothing she could say.
When Katherine shared her experiences with friends she often talked of her ‘transformation’ – how she had emerged from hospital a different person from the life-loving twenty-six year old who was rushed there after the crash.
“I’m a sort of butterfly in reverse. I went back to my chrysalis and came out as a bug.”
She spurned the company of those who tried to reassure her about the changes to her body, preferring harsh honesty to flattery however sincerely meant.
“My left leg’s shorter than my right: don’t tell me it doesn’t notice, because it does.
I’m always going to limp; that’s the truth. And my face will always make people wish I had a bag over it. Lots of scars - lots!”
There was little anyone could do to convince Katherine that, despite all the failings of her body, that innate grace, the poise of the once-beautiful, remained. To the tutored eye she was not disfigured at all.
It was her mother who suggested that she should “get away” – put some physical space between her and the piece of road that had changed her life. For some time Katherine, who had reverted to her father’s name, Selcourt, resisted the idea: she needed to work, to be involved again, to feel normal. But work did not want her back, not yet: in fact she had an uneasy feeling Marcus, her boss at the West End showroom, might never want her back. There was an embarrassingly long silence when she offered to return early, followed by a mesh of excuses why she would not be needed until after the summer season.
“Go and heal yourself, sweetie. We’ll have a chat in the autumn. No rush.”
“You’ll be short-staffed, you know you will. The orders for the Thai t-shirt range are huge.”
“We’ll manage, Katie. Really, love, we will! Now go and lick your wounds – we’ll meet up at the ‘Pret’, OK?”
Alone in her room, Katherine communed with her mirror. It was easy to see herself with Marcus’s eyes: far too easy. The girl he had hired three years ago had been beautiful, with charm to loosen the most careful purse-strings. That girl had been a buyer magnet, full of confidence and implied promise; someone who, by an arch look or a glimpse of thigh, could close orders with the prestige accounts that coursed through the veins of his organisation like life-blood. But now! Katherine let her fingers probe the long scar which started at her hairline, tracing down to where it parted her eyebrow in a white rift. The impact had spared her eye – just – but no amount of time, or makeup, would ever recover that fissure.
She opened her wardrobe and took out her favourite work dress, one of those she told herself she could never wear again. Then, as if she needed to reinforce her self-image, she slipped the garment on. What she saw in her reflection – the uneven hips, the contusions on her legs, the savage scar across her shoulder, brought a small cry to her throat, a cry the more poignant because she remembered how she had loved this dress, not half a year ago. And yes, she saw herself at once as Marcus saw her.
She tried to imagine his candid thoughts as though he were saying them aloud: “Time for a career-change, Katie my sweet, hmm? Something a little less in the critical gaze?” He was right. She sat on the edge of her bed and let herself cry gently for a while because she knew he was right. That night she and her mum sat in the kitchen with a bottle of wine. She felt ready to accept her future.
“What do I want to be? I suppose that’s not a question anymore. Who’ll employ me – that’s what I really should be asking.”
“Anyone with their head screwed on properly.” Her mother opined. “Look, Katie, you’ve had a big set-back to your confidence: you need to rebuild yourself. But you still love selling and I know you can still do it, my love. You just want something a bit lower key for a while, that’s all.”
“But I’ve looked through the ‘papers, and yesterday I ‘phoned a few agencies. There’s nothing out there I can even remotely see myself as.”
“You don’t know what you want right now.” Katie’s mother grasped her daughter’s wrist. “You can’t sort yourself out because you’re up too close.” She rose from the table; returned holding a sheaf of papers and a newspaper clipping. “Take a look at these.”
The wad of A4 was held together with old treasury tags and not a little dog-eared; Katie’s mum laid it on the table, thumbed over a few pages, plucked out a picture which she pushed unceremoniously into Katie’s hand.
“Have a look at that. Read the newspaper cutting. Take your time…..read all of it if you like.”
“Where on earth did this come from?” Taking the photo and holding it up to the light, Katie could decipher what appeared to be a farm building against a backcloth of rather moody hills. “Looks a bit grim.”
“Read the clipping. You remember your cousin Stephen?”
“Just about. Didn’t he come to the wedding?” Katie had a vague recollection of a rather pale man who had helped Mark out with the bar at her wedding reception. Between them they had tried to drink it dry, if she recalled correctly.
“He wasn’t at his best that day;” Her mother said hastily. “He is really quite a nice lad when you get to know him.”
“I’m finding ‘lads’ rather difficult to get to know, nowadays; “Katie retorted. “Anyway, don’t we hate the Redcleugh’s on sight? Sort of obligatory, isn’t it?”
She had referred to her mother’s second married name deliberately, knowing it would drop into a well of embittered silence. Brian Redcleugh had lasted only three years as her step-father, just long enough to make a presence at her own marriage to Mark: two months later it had been affidavits at twenty paces. Stephen Redcleugh was Brian’s son by his first marriage. He wasn’t really a cousin, just one of those unhappy accidents to which families are prone when they become intertwined.
Her mother sighed: “Time is a bit of an oracle, you know? It puts a different complexion on things, shows you the truth. Brian wasn’t so bad, Katie. You and I, we’re simply not too good at marriage, you see?”
“Wow, Mother!” Katie knew how difficult that admission must have been. “I do remember Stephen, don’t I? He hit on me at my own wedding.”
“Ridiculous! Did he? Mind you, he was a bit drunk, wasn’t he?”
“A bit!” Katie stared at the stack of paperwork. “I take it this has something to do with Stephen. Let me guess; one of his business ventures?”
“That’s a very good guess!” Her mother said. “You haven’t even read it yet.”
“Not too difficult: he used to dream up a new one every week,”
Getting to her feet, Katie gathered up the pile. “I’ll look at it tonight, mum. But somehow, I don’t think I’m ready – I don’t think I’ll ever be ready for Stephen.”
“You’re a peculiar kind of beggar, darling, but you are one nonetheless. Don’t be too much of a chooser.”
Nice one, mother! Katie thought as she left the room. The erstwhile Mrs. Redcleugh had a devastating line in parting shots. She was right, of course; could not have been more right if she had thrust a mirror in front of her daughter’s nose. It just wasn’t what Katie needed to hear, right then.
Whenever a burden became too heavy to bear, Katie sought out Brendan. Brother to Marcus, her former boss, Brendan was a designer struggling at the lower end of the fashion ladder. Although he and Katie had met through their work, the friendship which had blossomed between them owed nothing to the garment industry: they had sparked the first time they met and they were unequivocally loyal to each other. When she had lain so close to death Brendan had been at her side almost as often as her husband. As she recovered it was Brendan who offered the shoulder to lean upon, carried her when she could no longer walk, lifted her when she could not climb. He was her pillar of resolution, her rock. Above all, her unsightly appearance seemed to have no effect upon him: their conversations were as illuminating as before her accident and there were none of those tiny, subtle changes of inflection, those careful choices of phrase, she experienced from others of her friends.
It was no more than twenty minute’s drive to the Earls Court basement flat which was Brendan’s design studio, workroom, showroom and home. He was in.
“Katie, my heart! Just who I hoped would pop her head through the door! You haven’t got the sobs again, have you?” His bright eyes looked into her face and she felt the warm glow she always felt when she was near him. ‘Oh, Brendan!’ She thought: ‘If only you were in the least bit interested I would marry you tomorrow!’
But of course, Brendan wasn’t.
“I have found just the most devastating thing for an autumn print. I saw it and I simply died! You must see it! You must!”
She found herself being happily led along the twilight corridor which linked his workshop with the two living rooms of his flat. Brendan threw open the workroom door with a flourish, gesturing grandly to a luridly sketched African print, mixture of tourist art and cave drawing. “Fabulous, darling! Look at it, I mean, really! Can’t you just drool for it in cinnamon?”
Katie was overcome with laughter. She fell back into one of the many stacks of cloth cuttings and cushions which littered the room.
“Oh, god, Bren, its ghastly! Wherever did you get it?”
“I know! It’s so awful it’s beautiful: and I’m not saying where I got it. Trade secret, need-to-know basis.”
“Portobello Market, then. Bren, love, have you got a drink? I’m desperate!”
“Aren’t you driving?”
“Do I have to go home?”
“Of course not.” Brendan was instantly serious. “Having a crisis, lovey, are we?”
There were not many things in that workroom which sprang immediately to hand. To the visitor it seemed, on first acquaintance, to defy its purpose. Samples of cloth, torn and discarded patterns, rolls of paper, garment rails, hangers, even the odd upturned chair, made any normal semblance of work impossible. It was only through familiarity that Katie, gaining an insight into Brendan’s madness, had learned how serious a place of industry it really was. This dim room, with its high, rimy windows, was an extension of his soul. When he worked here he was a man possessed by a dream, a visionary, a prophet, a high priest at the altar of fashion. It mattered little that his dream was unshared: here he was god. This room was his temple of hope.
Somehow, the workroom also produced a vodka bottle and two glasses: Brendan wiped them clean with an offcut.
“Tell Uncle Brendan?”
“Oh, Bren, darling. It isn’t fair, bringing all this to your door.”
“My darling Katie-kins, I sold four dresses today. You can’t depress me, you miserable cow!”
That was when Katie started sobbing, and she didn’t stop for ten minutes, and Brendan protested she was making his rather trendy little t-shirt number soggy, and in a minute the colours would start to run. Even when she had managed to dry her eyes, and her voice was level again, he didn’t stop holding her: all the while, as she poured out her heart to him, Brendan gently stroked her cheeks, the back of her head, her shoulders. Then, when the darkest misery from the corners of her fear was all talked out and she was finally exhausted, relaxed by drink and the heady smell of dye, she fell asleep in his arms.
When she wakened smoky Earls Court sunlight was peering down at her from the high windows of Brendan’s bedroom and a rich bacon aroma filled the air. She dragged herself to the kitchen where she discovered her host, Wicca-like, bent over a sizzling pan.
“You put me to bed.”
“You were out cold, sweetie. Oh!” Brendan feigned absolute horror. “Oh! My god! This doesn’t mean we have to get married, or something?”
“No, Bren dear: I’m still fully dressed.”
“Thanks be! Breakfast?”
After all, always, the reality check. You go back because you have to go back. For Katie, reality was her mother’s flat: the real world was the one she saw in her mirror, even though, that morning as she drove back across London, she knew what she would find there.
The folder Katherine’s mother had produced the previous day was waiting for her on the kitchen table. She did not open it at once: she made coffee, prowled around it like a suspicious animal, tidied its loose sheets into a semblance of order and sense. Then she read it.
At eleven thirty the ‘phone rang. A man’s voice drooled in fronds of dark brown molasses through the earpiece: Katie hated it instinctively; it was like telecommunicated rape.
“Katherine, darling. Was that your message? So good to hear from you! How are you?”
“Oh, Stephen, I’m sure word got around….how do you think I am?”
“You poor sweet! Are you in pain?”
“If you mean ‘have I read your business plan?’ Yes, I have.”
A lubricious chuckle: “You liked it, then? Katherine, I need you. Come up and see me and we’ll talk about it. I’ll pay your expenses.”
Maybe it was the phrase ‘I need you’, or maybe it was the same demon that drove Katie to seek solace from Brendan, which persuaded her to board an early morning train for Caisterham. Whatever it was, she almost instantly regretted it. She would have objected less if the little boy who sat facing her in the train, next to his mother, had been badly behaved, undisciplined, or even slightly uncouth. He was none of these things. He was well dressed, scrubbed to within an inch of his life, and as courteous as any nine-year-old has ever been. He was also extremely uncomfortable. When Katie smiled at him, he tried to smile back, but immediately averted his eyes.
“Hello,” Katie said.
The child muttered something. His mother nudged him, gently. “Robert, be polite!”
“Hello.” Robert said, and looked away.
“They’re so self-conscious at this age, aren’t they?” Said Robert’s mother, with one of those perfunctory smiles which tailed away at the end.
The silence lasted all the way to Potters Bar.
“Mummy?” Robert murmured in a voice Katie was clearly not intended to hear: “What happened to the lady?”
His mother hushed him.
“But mummy – “
“I was in a car accident.” Katie said. “I was hurt very badly, and my face is scarred.”
She had not considered her intrusion might be unwelcome: she saw no reason why it should be; but the mother clearly took exception. Shortly afterwards, she quietly suggested to little Robert that they might seek the dining car. They did not return.
The seats opposite Katie’s remained unoccupied for the rest of the journey, even though the train became increasingly crowded with each stop on its way North. Although there were times when Katie would have rejoiced in such space and privacy, this was not one: she sat in isolation, feeling wretched and very alone. She was grateful when the train slowed and the austere granite towers of Caisterham Cathedral announced the end of her ordeal.
Stephen was waiting for her on the platform. She was apprehensive of this meeting, wondering for dreadful, poignant moments if he would even recognise her. She need not have feared, however; Stephen instantly picked her out from the crowd. His pasty face creased in a thick-lipped smile, he came bounding towards her with that peculiar antelope gait of his.
“Let me take your bag. Darling you must be exhausted! Come on, we’ll revive you with some decent coffee!”
It was an old-style four-star hotel in the city.
“I’ve booked you a room here for tonight.” Stephen told her. “You check in and I’ll meet you in the coffee shop in half an hour.”
The room was pleasant enough, with a view of the river and a shower which worked. Feeling refreshed, Katie found Stephen waiting for her as he had promised.
“Did you like my idea?” He asked her, over Latte.
“There was a lot of financial stuff, not much about the basic premise. Rich homes for rich people, is that it?”
“In a nutshell, I suppose. Look, I know I have a reputation, shall we say – a bit of a dilettante, yes?”
“Yes.” Katie agreed.
“Well, I’m not any more. That is, I’ve settled down a bit. A few years ago now, I was on holiday up here and driving around (the scenery in the hills is fantastic) when I saw this ruined stone cottage, sitting in a quiet little valley all to itself. To be honest, I fell in love with it, you know? Turned out this cottage was an old lead mine worker’s home which was just sitting on this farmer’s land and falling to bits. Well, it didn’t take much to cut a deal for the cottage with some land. I teamed up with a local builder who knew his stuff, and suddenly I’m in property development!”
“Rich homes for rich people?” Katie reminded him gently.
“Katie you should have seen this cottage when it was finished! No trouble with planning permission – it was already a residence, you see? We augmented it tastefully, gave it services, made the best we could of the land and fenced it. Jace (he’s the builder, you’ll meet him later) was so proud of it he suggested we get a valuation. It was sold within a week! Guess who to?”
“Oh, let me see….Brad Pitt?”
“Not far off. Heard of Mike Preston?”
“Mike Preston the singer?”
“None other.” Stephen sat back in his chair. “Katie, these hills are full of property like that, and they can be bought at rock-bottom. So far Jace and I have done seven; there are two more in progress. The world is full of rich people looking for quiet retreats: non-doms, show bizz, celebs, financiers……We put them together with the house, often at quite an early stage, and we modernise to their tastes. We aren’t talking two up, two down here – we’re more into private cinema, indoor pool, stables, all the toys.”
“The photo on the newspaper clipping – is that one of them?”
Stephen laughed. “Lord no. Did look a bit of a shed, didn’t it? That’s a little retail and small business centre up in the dales, where we have our office. If you’re fit, we’ll go and have a look.”
In a car which certainly fitted her prospective employer’s new-found status, Katie was whisked along a winding road, quickly shedding the carapace of the tiny city.
“We’re branching out, now,” Stephen was saying. “We buy in any property in a sufficiently private location and improve it to our level. I’m mostly into the development side, so I need someone to do the promotional stuff; someone who can open negotiations for a purchase, someone who can close a sale. You are a born closer, Katie. You always were. None better. And you can operate at the right level.”
No sound penetrated the cocoon of the car. The villages which floated silently by the windows were rows of terraced houses; red brick at first, then, as they wormed their way further into the hills, green sandstone. Katie had expected – what? – Lowry landscapes, she supposed: kids on street-corners, factory gates, hostile faces hardened by the rough edge of life. But she saw none of these things. The children were like children anywhere, embodiments of attitude and angst. And the adults they passed seemed open, friendly. Some even met her gaze and smiled back.
The centre which contained the hub of Stephen’s business was more agreeable in reality than its picture had suggested. A functional reception room and a couple of small offices were all that comprised Redcleugh Developments.
“We’d value your input of course.”
“I’ll need to do things to the reception.” Katie said.
“Goes without saying.” Stephen acknowledged. “We’re just growing, Katie – that’s why you are so essential. You’ll help us to the next level. Come and see our latest acquisition!”
Their journey was a little longer this time. Tired, Katie relaxed into the leather comfort of the Mercedes, drinking in a passing film-strip of purple hills and rushing streams. Without realising it, she drifted into sleep.
“Wake up!” The car had stopped. Stephen was poking inexpertly at her shoulder. “Here’s your first sales project!”
She sat up, blearily adjusting her eyes to bright sunlight. The car waited at the entrance to a driveway guarded by electric gates which slid apart to admit them.
“Welcome to Carfax.” Stephen said.
“Carfax? Like the Abbey?”
“There’s an Abbey?”
“Carfax Abbey. Count Dracula. Exactly who do you want to sell this to?”
“We’ll change the name.” Stephen decided.
The house was unspectacular on first acquaintance, a long, stone structure with a grey slate roof behind a large tarmac forecourt. Only the steep rake of its pitched roof gave any clue to its pedigree. The exterior timber, the doors and windows were all deliberately subdued in walnut brown. Inside, though, this mundane duckling became a spectacular swan. A wide entrance hall beneath lofty oak beams with a floor in rich natural stone, lit both from walls and roof, led by way of wood panel doors into a sumptuous lounge, a palatial kitchen. It was a house to draw breath, a dream palace. Full length windows commanded panoramic views of the little dale below the house. Stephen tapped on them.
“Triple glazed - demanded, by our sort of client.”
Upstairs the bedrooms intruded into the roof space; five of them, each one with its own roof beams, discreet dressing room and bathroom en suite.
“See that plumbing? Fifty years ago you could buy a house for what that cost us.”
As they left, Stephen said: “I know! We’ll call it ‘Manderley’.”
“No.” Said Katherine. “I shouldn’t.”
They spoke little as the car wound its way back through high moors to Caisterham. Katie had to admit to herself that her opinion of Stephen had changed. Her first impression of the drunken wedding guest contrasted uncomfortably with the man who now sat beside her, driving expertly through those switchback lanes. His voice still irritated, yet the day had passed in Stephen’s company without his betraying the slightest unease with her altered state, or making any reference to it. She was thankful to him for that. Yes, it would be a good idea to put distance between herself and London for a while, and Caisterham could hardly be further away. And yes, she could get quite enthusiastic about the work Stephen wanted her to do, although she had certain doubts as to her ability to do it. They were drawing up outside the hotel when she decided, after some hesitation, to broach the unspoken subject herself.
“You still want me to do this – now you’ve seen me?” She asked.
“Sorry.” Stephen looked puzzled. “What do you mean?”
“Well, let’s be frank. I’m somewhat damaged, aren’t I?”
“Oh, the accident!” Stephen smiled. “No problem. Thing about this business, most of it is done on the ‘phone. You set ‘em up for me, I do the final deal. No reason you should have to meet anyone personally at all.”
Katie felt as if all the internal bits of her ravaged body had collapsed into a heap. “Have you been taking lessons from my mother?”
He looked at her blankly: “Sorry?”
“Oh, nothing.” She swung herself awkwardly from her seat, standing, as she still did, with a wince of pain.
“I take it you’re going to come and work for me then?” Stephen asked brightly, as she closed the car door behind her.
“Can I call you in the morning? I’d like to sleep on it.”
Later, after a solitary meal in the hotel restaurant, Katherine walked by the river, wondering at the ribbon of peace the waters and their steep, tree-lined banks provided amidst the hustle of traffic. She discovered a little churchyard and dallied there for a while, reading the headstones of those, with lives peaceful or troubled, who rested beneath her feet. There were many stories here, graves filled with greater adversity than hers. Filtering through the trees, a music of distant laughter drew her back to the riverside path, and she stood watching from behind a green veil of leaves as a novice crew of rowers laboured on the water below. Oh, the joy of seeing, and not being seen! This, on a gently sunny evening in June, was an idyllic place to be.
Katherine slept soundly. In the morning she telephoned Stephen and said yes.
Of all her friends, the one whose reaction to her news most surprised her was Brendan. For some reason she was not prepared for the look which crossed his face, or the definite moisture in his eyes.
“I need a fresh start, Bren. Too many memories here: and I have to work, of course. Let’s face it; the offers have hardly covered the doormat lately.”
“But you’ll come back – I mean, at weekends, or something?”
“I’m going to see how it works out. If it’s as good as it seems I’ll be working pretty hard. I’ll get somewhere to live, and – oh, I don’t know, maybe I’ll drop down here occasionally. I promise I’ll come and see you first if I do!”
“Oh, Katie!” Said Brendan. “However will I survive without our little chats?”
His hug at parting was impulsive and sincere. Returning his embrace as she thought for a last time, Katie felt bereft. Something unaccountable, some little fire of regret flickered through her veins, as though a spark had been at once ignited and snuffed out.
“If there was anything that would make me come back, Brendan,” she found herself saying, “it would be you.”
For the first time ever, she kissed his lips. “You’re a very special person, you know?”
And Brendan said bravely: “Oh, I know, Katie-kins. Now remember, will you my sweet? If you’re ever in trouble, my door’s always open.”
“Haven’t you had that lock mended yet?”
“Oh, you can be such a witch!”
As Katie drove through the traffic lights at the end of the street, she glanced in her mirror. Brendan stood outside the door of his workrooms, watching her until she disappeared from sight.
Katherine had given herself a day to make the journey north. Not only did she have to contend with the mysteries of sat-nav, which she had borrowed from a friend especially for the purpose, and the overloaded struggle of her ageing and inadequate car, but there was also the issue of pain. In most respects she had been lucky that the physical damage to her body from the accident had left her without too much discomfort, and she could control what aches there were with prescribed pain-killers: however, long periods of inaction, such as those spent sitting in cars, could bring huge surges of acute agony. The most she could drive at a time was a couple of hours, before she would need to walk, then rest. It was five o’clock in the evening when she drew up outside the offices of Redcleugh Developments. Stephen was waiting.
“Well done, old girl! Good trip?” Before she had time to answer he interjected with a brisk: “Come on. Something to show you. We’ll go in mine. Not far!”
Ten fast-driving minutes down the road, Stephen swung the Mercedes into a small village built around a little maze of back lanes, each not much wider than the car. Somewhere in the middle of these they emerged onto a wide green with three Chestnut trees and one of those dejected-looking play areas where children never seem to play: rusted swings, a damp-looking roundabout. Two teenage girls, sitting on the swings, watched them with only passing interest as they drew up before a whitewashed single-storey cottage. “Come on – take a look!” Stephen bounded from the car.
A long day was becoming painful. Katie hated it when her disabilities forced a limp from her, but she was stiff and hurting. Following in Stephen’s springing footsteps, she felt like Wenceslas’ page. The teenage girls murmured something to each other. One of them laughed, though it was not an unkind sound.
“What do you think?” Stephen gestured expansively at the whitewashed cottage.
Katie tried to be polite. “Very nice, but not exactly in your – sorry - our image, is it?”
Inside, the cottage was perfect - homely, with flagstone floors and inviting furniture. The lounge and dining area were all one large room. A huge fireplace with a wood-burning stove dominated one end; at the other, beyond an exposed stone wall, a plank door led through to a double bedroom, with a big, queen-sized bed and lots of chintz. A further door in the rear wall of the main room opened onto a short passageway, with a kitchen to the right and a small but warm-looking bathroom on the left.
“The bathroom’s rather cramped,” Stephen admitted. “We had to do that to make space for the bedroom en-suite.”
“Oh. I didn’t notice the en-suite. You want me to set up a sale for this?” Katie asked, wishing she could just lie down on the soft queen-sized bed and go to sleep.
“No, Katherine darling I want you to live in it. It’s yours. Well, for a modest rent, anyway. Oh god, please say you like it?”
It was sometime before Katie realised her mouth had dropped open. Her mind was filling with a dozen questions, including some for which the answers, she was afraid, might not be pleasant. She had expected to have to conclude her day with a search for a hotel or a guest house. She framed her one question carefully: “What do I have to do, Stephen, to earn this?”
He immediately caught her meaning. “Nothing you don’t want to do.” His face was serious. “Work for me, Katie, that’s all I ask. Work the magic you worked for those London showrooms who couldn’t get enough of you. I’ve been hanging around on the fringes for far too long now: I want to come in - I want to succeed. I know you can do that for me. Now!” His tone lightened. “We discuss things like that in the morning when you come to work. Do you think you can find your way back here, if we go and get your stuff?”
Later, much later, when she had rested on the queen-sized bed and discovered that Stephen had stocked up her fridge with enough food for a week, Katie sat on the little bench outside her cottage door, watching a red sun dip over a great mass of hill beyond the village. The two teenage girls were still on the swings where they had been for most of the evening.
One of them asked, un-selfconsciously: “What’s your name then?”
And she answered: “Katie. What’s yours?”
“I’m Gemma, she’s Tina. You’re not from round here, then?”
“No. Not from round here. But I’m here now.”
There was timelessness, a solace of singing birds and drifting breeze, about this place. Katie knew she would stay.
In the weeks and months that followed, everything in Katie’s life changed. True to his word, Stephen demanded nothing more, apart from rent for the cottage, than her commitment to his work: and what work! She soon began arriving at her office before eight o’clock, staying until late. As in her previous ‘life’, Katie set a tempo, a vibrant atmosphere within which the regular buzz of the telephone was almost a sort of piped music. Stephen touched base rarely at first, but as the initiative grew and more and more clients had to be greeted, he became a frequent visitor. On the morning of one such visit, barely twelve weeks into Katie’s employment, she opened a small can which threatened to contain worms.
“Trouble is,” she said, “Demand is beginning to outstrip supply. It was fine while you were only completing on maybe two or three properties a month, but now…..”
“Jace has always supplied the leads to any established properties,” Stephen replied. “I negotiate for the ruins. But I’m spending too much of the week selling. I don’t get time.”
“Exactly. I need someone here, part-time at least, so I can get out of the office occasionally to help you.”
Stephen looked doubtful. “I don’t know,” He said carefully. “I’m not sure Jace would agree to that.”
Jace. Katie had met Jace Harter for the first time only a few days after she started work. A spare, overalled figure, he entered the offices while Katie was in the middle of refurbishing the reception area.
“Hi, can I help?” Katie asked, from amid a stack of comfortable chairs.
“No.” Replied the figure, shortly. He went straight past Katie and into the office.
Heart beating a little fast, Katie followed. “Sorry, but I think you have to tell me who you are? This area’s private?”
“Not to me, it isn’t.” Rejoined the figure, as he threw some files Katie had been working upon to one side. “What have you done with the Carfax file?”
Katie moved firmly between the overalled man and her desk. “I think you have to tell me who you are. Now.”
“Do I, missy? Do I? Well, Jace Harter is who I am, and I’m your boss’s co-director. Now that makes me your boss, too, don’t it?” Jace Harter jutted out a strong, obstinate chin. “So where’s that file?”
Deliberately controlling her temper, Katie pulled a file from her stack. “It isn’t called ‘Carfax’ any more. It’s been renamed.”
“Has it now?” Harter fixed her with a keen eye. “How did that happen?”
As soon as she started explaining the unfortunate connotation of the name, Katie could see that Jace wasn’t listening. So she stopped. “What are you looking for?”
“Elec’ricals. We got some lights for the bedroom what attached to beams – can’t remember who from. We’ve got to order some more for Kydde’s House.”
“Pretorrini Imagio. But they were expensive – five hundred per fitting.”
“Oh really. S’pose you can do better.”
“Yes, I can. There’s an electrical fittings importer in Manchester: Massingley and Harris. We can get the same quality at half the money.”
Harter grunted. “Well now, you’d better get some then. I want six. By next week.”
And he walked out.
Stephen had been out of the office with a client. When he returned, Katie had told him about her first meeting with Jace.
“I don’t think he likes me.”
Stephen smirked. “Is that important?” He saw Katie’s response coming, and immediately switched the expression off. “I’m sorry: of course it is. Let me tell you about Jace.”
He went on to explain how he and Jace had met, over Stephen’s very first development. “Jace was a local builder then, and a good one. When we looked at that first house we both saw the same things, so I suggested we worked together. That was when I formed Redcleugh Developments Limited. We’re co-directors, yes, but he still likes to think of himself as a general builder, even though all his work comes through Redcleugh Developments now. I think he’s afraid the bubble will burst at any moment, and he’ll be back doing roofs and extensions again.”
“You didn’t tell him about me, did you?”
“Oh, I did! We both agreed we needed someone to fill the role you have; but Jace’s mind isn’t exactly easy to access. It may be that he was anticipating a filing clerk. You will get used to him, and he to you. He’s quite a nice bloke, really.”
Katie waited another week for Stephen to confer with Jace about her suggestion that she have some help in the office. Nothing happened.
With time she became used to her role as “The Girl in the Cupboard.” This title was not of her making: a client with whom she had been negotiating for some weeks referred to her thus when he found Stephen, not Katie waiting for him at the station. Stephen related this to Katie afterward, and she imagined it might shame him into changing his policy. It didn’t.
She was not, to be truthful, so very discontented. Although her physical contact with clients was kept to a bare minimum, suppliers and their representatives encountered her often, and among these known faces she began to feel comfortable, even normal at times. It was a pattern she followed in her limited social life, too: always shopping in the same places, talking just to those who lived around her in her village, rarely straying outside the circle she saw as protective. Visiting anywhere or anyone new meant enduring those same references little Robert had exhibited on the train: the covert looks, the quiet whispers. Where she was known, this no longer happened. It was easier that way.
Then, one Saturday afternoon in the dying embers of autumn, when Katie had wrapped up her work for the weekend and seated herself with a cup of coffee on the wooden bench which fronted her cottage, reality came to call. There, sitting contentedly in a watery sun, taking in air and beverage with slow satisfaction, she barely noticed the low blue sports saloon which burbled lazily onto the green, or the man who levered himself from the driver’s seat – that was until he walked towards her.
“Mark?” Katie felt the ground opening beneath her. “Oh my god, Mark!”
“Hello Kat.” Her husband used her old pet name, the one he had adopted for her when they were together. His arms were stretched out, inviting an embrace.
“What…what are you doing here?” Instinctively, she backed away.
“Looking for you. You’re the very devil to find, too, I can tell you. Nobody wanted to tell me where you were.” His hands dropped to his sides. “It’s OK, Kat, I’m not going to assault you. Just saying ‘Hi’.”
“Yes, I’m sorry.” She stumbled out some appropriate words. What was there to say? “You’d better come inside.” She offered a drink: “No, of course not. You’re driving.”
“I might not be.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake!” He muttered impatiently. “Stop pussy-footing around! I haven’t come all this way to play caveman and drag you off by your hair. Christ, I knew this would be awkward, but….”
“What have you come for?” She cut him short.
“Get me a coffee, first.”
It was the least she could do.
Earlier, Katie had set a fire in the stove, for the evening would be chill this late in the year. They sat opposite each other in the padded chairs, staring across a gap which seemed more like a chasm.
“How long has it been?” Mark asked, finally.
“I don’t know. Six; maybe eight months?”
“Seven months and fifteen days.” He confirmed with certainty. “I won’t pretend I haven’t missed you. Kat, you know that if I could turn back the clock…”
“I know, I know.” She interrupted, deliberately avoiding his gaze. “But you can’t, Mark. And I don’t want to.”
He said nothing for a few minutes, just sipping his coffee, though it was still much too hot. “Nice place, this. But working for Stephen Redcleugh? Must be a living nightmare.”
“No. The nightmare’s right here.”
Mark seemed amused at this. “Yes,” he said. “Alright – point taken, I suppose.”
This scene was one which had been played out, and dreaded, time after time in Katie’s imagination. They would meet, accidentally, in a supermarket perhaps, or on the street. Somehow she had always known that mere geography would not be enough to prevent this sentence of fate; somehow or by some means their paths would cross, in spite of her best efforts to avoid it. What she did not know, had never known until today, was how she would feel, what her response would be when it happened. Would she still want Mark, like, really want him – with that old fire, that seminal flame once so ready to consume them both? Was there still love? Would he look at her with the same eyes as before? After the accident all she had seen in his face was guilt – in the hospital as she lay between life and death, at home in bed as she lay between pain and despair – his almost spaniel-like sorrow had been akin to drowning. Now, as she saw him, a little older, a little thinner, all she felt was…..nothing: a great, wide, deep, yawning nothing.
He had to ask it. “Is there someone else?”
“With me like this? God no.”
“You don’t look so bad.” Mark looked at her critically: “you’ve healed quite well, I’d say. A few scars, maybe, but they don’t notice much.”
“Still that old, sensual stare, eh?” He smiled as she blazed at him. “OK. Do you remember Cheryl Southby? You met her at that awful abortion of a party in Chingford year before last.”
“I think I remember several dreadful parties in Chingford. But Cheryl Southby? No.”
(This was a lie, deliberate and calculated. Katie remembered Cheryl very well. But the words ‘peroxide’ and ‘Essex’ were best left unsaid.)
“Well, Cheryl and I are a bit of a number. In fact, we’re somewhat more than that.”
“Oh, yes?” It required effort to keep any trace of interest out of her voice, but Katie managed. “And this affects me in some way?”
Mark brimmed with sincerity. “Katie, darling; you and I - I think we both know? I mean, I still love you, you might – just might – still like me a bit; but it’s going nowhere, is it? It’s over. I mean, mia culpa and all that, but I don’t want to go on forever staring at this terrible sin in my life. Katie: I want a divorce.”
That word! No matter how utterly love had died, or how cold the ground they stood upon now, it still struck home like a poniard. Katie could only manage a silent nod. They sat looking at each other across a gulf of silence.
“I think it’s time you went.” Katie said at last. “Send me the papers – I’ll sign.”
At the doorway he said: “Well, I suppose we may never actually meet again. No chance of enduring friendship, is there?”
Katie managed a ghost of a smile. “I don’t know. Give it time.”
She watched Mark’s car disappear down the narrow lane which led back to the village street. Then she closed her door on the outer world, looking about her room for any trace of evidence that he had been there. The rumpled cushion, which she straightened so thoroughly it might never have been used; the coffee cup she took to the sink and washed until it shone. Then, when she was satisfied that her home, if not her heart, was cleansed, she sat down by the fire and wept.
The very next day, as it seemed to Katherine, winter came.
Katherine awoke to the beat of rain on her bedroom window. Although her clock told her it was seven, there was no sign of daylight. In the bathroom she was greeted by a slow but steady dripping from the ceiling. Muttering darkly, she went to fetch a bowl from beneath the kitchen sink.
At the office, she told Stephen about the leaking roof.
“I’ll ask Jace to come and have a look at it. He might have some space this afternoon.”
Katie winced inwardly at the thought of Jace Harter in her home, but she said nothing.
True to Stephen’s word, Jace came into the office at about three fifteen.
“Your roof’s leaking then.”
There was work on Katie’s desk, but Jace insisted. “Leave it – there’ll be little enough to do the next few months: you haven’t found that out yet, have you?”
“I could give you the key,” Katie blurted, truthfully not looking forward to spending time with this blunt man. “I trust you.”
She immediately regretted the remark. “I don’t give a fuck if you trust me or not, missy. But I’d rather you were there, if you don’t mind. Now come on.”
Harter’s driving reflected every other aspect of his personality – arrogant and bluff. Katie was thankful for so short a journey. As an elderly man was forced to skip for the kerb, she gave way to a whimper of protest. Jace heard it.
“So you do the driving for the company as well, now, do you?”
They roared into Katie’s little grass square, drawing bemused expressions from a group of parents shepherding their children back from school.
“Do you want a coffee, or something?” Katie asked as Jace stared up at her slates: she almost expected him to adopt the builder’s intake of breath, but he merely pointed. “It’s that flashing, I’d say. I told him it’d give trouble. I’ll have a look in your loft.”
Katie opened her door, ready to usher him inside, but there was nothing in Jace’s makeup that permitted ushering. No sooner had the key turned in the lock than he grasped the handle and blundered inside. Then – demonstrating a capacity to surprise – he stopped to wipe his feet.
What followed Katie would only describe later as an inspection: Jace surveyed the main room, moved on to the bedroom, then the kitchen.
“Forgot where the hatch was.” He said, unconvincingly, having found it in the passage outside the kitchen. “You’ve made it look alright, this.”
Then, as he manoeuvred himself up into the roof space: “How do you manage for a bathroom?”
“I’ve been using the en-suite.”
Jace froze, incredulous. “Did we put an en-suite in here?”
Katie watched his back as he did the pull-up necessary to get into her loft. It was a strong back, of course, as a builder’s will be. But the gratuitous ripple of muscle and sinew reminded her of things she didn’t want to remember.
Jace returned to ground level.
“The flashing’s most of it, but there could be a cracked slate as well. I’ll get the ladder off and put some mastic in to seal it for now, and come back tomorrow with the stuff. Only take a half hour, at most. What about your decorations – much damage?”
“I’ll show you.”
“How about that coffee?”
As they drank the beverage, Katherine decided to try and build bridges. “How long have you lived in the dale, Jace?”
“Longer than you’ve been alive, woman. I were brought up here. Never left it.”
“What, never thought about anywhere else- living abroad, or down south?”
“Why? Everything anyone could want is here. You could spend a fortune looking and never find better.”
And, Katie reflected, that was probably true.
“Will you want me with you tomorrow?” She asked as they prepared to return to the office.
“Nothing needs doing from the inside: well, not until I can get the decorating lad round. But I’ll show you what I’ll be doing outside, if you want.”
It wasn’t a question. Jace led her outdoors, showed her the fault in her roof and mapped out, very carefully and fully, what he would do to make it right. As he explained Katie was drawn in. No matter how simple the job, this was a man lovingly describing his work; a craftsman in a very real sense.
The telephone call which was to rock Katie’s world came a few days later, as the week drifted away and Saturday threatened.
With the onset of the season, the pace of business at Redcleugh Developments had slowed. In spite of her endeavours to generate new business, Katie’s days at the office grew shorter, so that she found more and more time on her hands – time which was sometimes unwelcome.
“This is normal,” Stephen told her. “We draw our horns in for the winter and wait for better things – we’ve got a lot of work on the renovations side, but the office will be quiet. No-one in our market thinks much about buying property at this time of year.”
Quiet it was. The workday quickly degenerated into a succession of mundane nine to five days, staring through the windows at the grey slate of the world. A few hours of sunshine became headline news. The radiators clicked and groaned with the strain.
Katie was still busy: there were fittings and materials to order and trace, suppliers and debtors to track down. But client contact was missing, and the weekend overtime went with them. Weekends were long.
“Hi – you’ve got a property I’m interested in seeing: Wonder if we could organise it?”
Katie felt the voice was one she should recognise. “Of course. Which property did you have in mind?”
“‘High Foxhills Farm’. You showed it to a friend of mine last month and he told me about it. Harvey Bresson it was – you may remember.”
Of course she remembered! Bresson was their first real stage personality – or would have been if he had bought the house. He didn’t, maybe because some little bird had informed him that it was intended to be called ‘Carfax’. So who was this?
“Daniel Bryant” Her caller informed her, as though he had read her mind. “How about a viewing, then?”
Daniel Bryant! The Daniel Bryant? “Certainly. When are you free?”
“About half an hour.”
On reflection, it would seem amazing this had never happened before; the immediate client – the prospective buyer who happened to just drop in. As Stephen put it: “These people are so busy they only go to the loo by appointment – you just don’t get impulse buyers in this field.”
Well, he was wrong. And he wasn’t here to correct it. Stephen was in London, searching out new design ideas for Kidde’s House. His last strict instructions were to ensure that Jace never did a sales pitch. So….
Katie was apologetic. “There’s no-one here today to show you round….”
“Oh, that’s a pity. I’m not around to be shown after today. Are you sure you can’t stretch a point?”
An opportunity to get one of Redcleugh Developments’ best flagship properties under negotiation before winter set in? Katie took an executive decision. “Yes, if you don’t mind me being the point,” she said, “I’m happy to be stretched.”
“Brilliant! See you in half an hour.”
Film stars, she had been told, were always late. Nevertheless, there was some serious panicking to be done, and Katie did it. The keys to the house had to be rediscovered, the sales pack for the house had to be sorted out – she had to be sorted out. Daniel Bryant wasn’t late. An Aston Martin, metallic black and gleaming, slipped into the centre car park precisely on time, and out of it climbed a tall, bronzed figure for whom all activity instantly stopped.
Katie realised her knees were shaking. The assurance with which she had greeted some of the world’s top fashion buyers in her glory days was conspicuously missing now. The ugly duckling image she had invented largely, it must be said, for herself, snapped and niggled at her. She was alive to every tiny pain and imperfection. Her hand felt cold and sweaty as she extended it to the living statue that walked through the door.
Daniel Bryant’s eyes met her own. His smile reached into her cold heart and made it warm; his eyes took her to him, and held her in his thrall – she felt almost as if she was floating. “Hi.” He said simply. “I’m Daniel. How lovely to meet you Katie.”
She was lost.
Put to it, Katie would have been at a loss to describe the passing of that afternoon. Relaxing in the rather stern Germanic luxury of his quintessentially English car, she dutifully planned the sales pitch for Bryant that Stephen would have expected of her. But she knew it was wrong, and in the next two hours learned more about negotiating top-of-the-market property than any estate agent could have taught her. And Daniel proved such an easy client: instantly, she felt as if she had known him from childhood – there was not a trace of that formal, awkward gulf of experience she had anticipated. There were no difficult silences, no concessions to her invalidity (as she saw it), no moments when the conversation did not freely run of itself. When they got to the house, she was almost sorry. As she showed him around, she forgot entirely about the sale. She thought only about the time she was spending standing at the side of someone who was just that little bit more than a man: Daniel Bryant himself.
“That was brilliant!” He said at last, as they descended the glass staircase which led from the upper storeys of the farmhouse into a long, open-plan ground floor room. He sat on one of the long, calf-skin settees and opened the pack Katie had given him.
“How much is the vendor asking?”
This was the moment Katie had been at once hoping for and dreading. No negative comment - no ‘shame the accommodation isn’t larger’, or ‘perhaps if it were a little closer to the city…’ But at the same time, no comfortably affordable figures – no showroom dress prices: ‘Oh, only sixty-nine pounds. Four colour-ways…
She tried not to gulp, or hesitate: in fact, the reply might have been a little over-casual: “One point four million. As you see it, of course.”
“Oh, of course.” Daniel Bryant’s keen gaze met hers. She mustn’t stare – mustn’t! “Whereas, I wouldn’t want to go any higher than one-three-seven-five. Could you put that offer?”
My god! He was negotiating! You’ve got him, Katie! You’ve got him! “Well,” Katie said, biting firmly down on the lilt that kept threatening to tweak her vocal cords, “High Foxhills is owned by Redcleugh Developments: I think we would be looking at a minimum of one-three-nine-five. Do I assume you might be interested?”
Bryant smiled. “Interested? Yes. But let’s see if we can do something with those nines and fives, shall we? Maybe Redcleugh Developments might like to have a little think?”
On the way back to the office, Katie made conversation: “What brings you to this part of the world?”
“I’ve always loved it. The scenery’s stupendous – climate isn’t, of course, but you can’t have everything, Katie, can you?”
He slowed in time to allow a rabbit to reach safety: “High Foxhills would be ideal as a hideaway, especially for the next eight months or so. That’s the other thing, I didn’t mention, did I? I’d need to complete quickly. You see, I’m filming near here.”
“Really?” Katie suppressed the word ‘wow!’; “An English piece?”
“Yes; thoroughly, I’d say. I wanted an English film for my debut as a director. Good script, too.” He paused for a moment, jigging the car around another errant bunny: “I rather wish I’d stuck to acting – it’s been an absolute swine up to now. How many little wild things are there on this road?”
“They heard you were here – they’re auditioning.”
His smiles were rare, but radiant. Katie basked. “Well, tell them I’m not doing ‘Watership Down.’ Rather wish I was – the costuming would be easier.”
“Yes, my biggest headache, really. I’m doing the Cameron Sett book ‘Alison’s Eyrie’ – have you read it?”
Katie had to confess she had not.
“Well, how to describe? Sort of ‘Great Gatsby’ but sixties - not Twiggy sixties, though; more down-to-earth funky.” He laughed. “See? I can’t even describe it myself? Thing is, no-one, and I mean no-one, Katie, has the faintest idea about this stuff costumes-wise. I need an original eye.”
They were nearing the Redcleugh Developments office. “I just might know someone.”
Katie said. “I don’t want to presume, but could I give him your number?”
There was little else to do with the day, and Katie was home by five-thirty. Her telephone rang. It was Stephen.
“Hi.” She said, trying not to sound too elated. “Stephen, High Foxhills – can we go to one-three-nine?”
Stephen did not answer immediately. Then he said, slowly: “One-three eight-five would be good. Why?”
“Because I think I’ve sold it.”
Katie made herself some tea, braved the advancing chill of evening to sit outside on her bench, hands wrapped around the mug for warmth. Oh, she knew the investment that Redcleugh had in High Foxhills, knew very well that if she could close the sale with Bryant they stood to make nearly two hundred thousand. That was the sort of victory, the sort of achievement, which had always been her reason for getting up each morning. But not now; not this time. Tonight what really counted was the memory of an afternoon with Daniel Bryant, a transcendent afternoon when she had felt, and been treated as though she were normal. For a few precious hours – and now she knew there would be more – the scars which defined her had been made to disappear. Katie realised she was crying, and for the first time in nearly a year the tears were not tears of pain.
Before she went to bed that night Katie did three things. She called Daniel Bryant at his hotel and closed the sale of High Foxhills for one million, three hundred and eighty seven thousand pounds; then she telephoned Brendan.
“Katie-kins! You darling! How did you know I was depressed? Tell me all your news!”
It was a battery-draining conversation. Eventually, though, she remembered why she had called.
“Bren, have you ever thought about designing costumes for films and stuff?”
“I’ve thought about it, sweetie, but that’s about all. You’ve no idea what torture it is to get a toe in the door. And then it needs to be steel-capped, if you see what I mean?”
“Let me give you a number. I think this just your bag. Say I asked you to phone.”
The third thing Katie did that night was to go to the mirror, and take a long look at her scars and her crookedness, which had not altered or ameliorated. To herself and to her world she looked just the same.
The last thing she expected when she arrived at the office the next morning was a reception committee. The very last thing she expected was for the reception to be hostile.
Jace Harter and Stephen were waiting in the reception area: Stephen was pacing, looking fixedly at his feet: when he looked up to greet her his face was pale and strained. Harter was clearly incandescent. His eyes flamed with anger, and his glare when he saw Katie could not be mistaken for anything but hatred.
Katie stopped in the foyer. “What’s this about?”
“’Morning, Katie.” Stephen said unsteadily. “Come in and sit down, would you?”
“I think I’d rather stand. Have I done something wrong?”
Harter exploded: “Wrong? Wrong?”
“Jace!” Stephen placed a placatory hand on Jace’s shoulder. “Let me…please? Katie, we think you stepped outside the frame. Viewings aren’t your responsibility, are they?”
For a moment, Katie was speechless. She said at last: “I closed a deal for you – with a prestige client. I would have handed it to you but you weren’t here, and the client was going to slip off the hook. What, did I settle too low, is that the problem?”
“No, no. The price was - well, quite good in fact: but you shouldn’t have done it. I haven’t given you any background – on the legal side, or anything. For all we know, this could be full of holes.”
Harter would not be restrained any longer. “We’ve got a lot of money tied up in that there Foxhills, young lady!” He shouted. “Near a million! And you just waltz in there and imagine you’ve sold it like it were a Mars bar, or something. It’s irresponsible!”
Katie felt her own colour rising. “I have sold it. I closed it last night – I came in this morning to prepare the legals. Don’t you think I’ve been working in your field long enough to know by now where the mines are? If I hadn’t taken the opportunity you’d have had Foxhills on the books at least until the spring, you know that. I’ve saved you a fortune.”
“No. No, I’m thinking you’ve made us a lot of trouble, that’s what I’m thinking.” Harter muttered. “Stephen, we ought to be considering this.”
Perhaps for the first time, Katie saw the dynamic between the two men. She shook her head sadly.
“You know what I think?”
“Nobody wants to know what you think, young woman. You’re employed to be a clerk, that’s all.” Harter responded.
“Am I?” Katie saw Stephen’s hurried downward glance. “That really is what you told him, isn’t it Stephen? You were employing me to run the office for you - you didn’t tell him anything about me, did you? Are you that scared of him?” She paused, gathered her thoughts. “You two should sort this out between you, I think. Jace, you need to accept that you’re playing with millions now, not thousands: it’s earning for you very nicely, but you can’t stand the pressure. So you talk everything down, try to suppress the business enough so you feel safe. Stephen, he’s pulling your strings, mate. You aren’t colleagues, you two. You aren’t even friends.”
There was little time, Katie knew, before her balloon would burst and she would collapse into a weeping heap, but right then she was buoyed up on her own rage. She elbowed past Jace into her office, grabbed a box and began throwing her personal possessions into it.
“If you ever believed I would be your filing clerk you were mistaken. I’ll be out of the house by the weekend. I expect a cheque for my commission on the Foxhills sale, together with my pay to the end of the month. You can mail it to me in London when the sale completes.”
She made for the door, ignoring Stephen’s slightly plaintive: “Katie? Wait for a minute?”
The door slammed in Katie’s wake. In the silence she left behind, the two men looked at each other, in many ways for the first time.
A further hour of that morning had passed before the last outraged tear had dried and the final fumes of fury dissipated; by which time Katie was back at her cottage, facing a marathon of packing. Impetuously, she had promised to be out by the end of the week, the problem being that the week was already very nearly ended. Nonetheless right then she needed space, so it required no effort to persuade herself to turn her back upon her troubles for a while.
Her car took her grudgingly up the steep climb which wound out of the dale to one of the many hilltop towns she had seen on the map, and not yet visited. It was in her mind to walk, rather than drive, but as so often at that time of year the cloud base had dropped and the higher levels were thick with fog, so she contented herself with a slow progress through what turned out to be no more than an extended mining village, now bereft of its mine.
She almost missed it. In the gloom its forlorn yellow sign was barely visible. The original proclamation, professionally written: ‘Butterfly Farm’ had been augmented with later handwritten additions: ‘Petting Zoo’ ‘Aviary – tropical Birds’ ‘Hot Food’. Intrigued, she found another handwritten sign: ‘Car Parking’, and turned in.
There were no other cars in the car park. A large commercial greenhouse lurked in the grey shade, dripping and doleful. ‘Admission £3.00’ declared another sign. But there was no evidence of anyone having been around the tiny wooden toll booth for a while. Tentatively, almost nervously, Katie tried the door beyond.
A waft of warm summer air brushed her face, a screen door flapped. She waited for a moment to see if someone would appear, then opened it.
There was no reply. Outside, the greenhouse had looked impoverished – its paint peeling, bare wood beneath yielding to the elements. Inside, it was a tropical forest: a slatted wooden walkway led her between giant succulent plants and small trees, meandering through glades where fountains played. Seats invited Katie to rest and listen – thin bird-call, no louder than a breath, permeated the silence: cicadas chirruped persistently; somewhere something larger as yet unseen squawked an indignant complaint.
Everywhere there were butterflies - refulgent flickerings of red, yellow, and blue, tossing themselves into the air like fragments of coloured tissue. Furtive movements in the undergrowth told of other small things. Enchanted, Katie sat on a bench beside a fountain, breathed deeply of the foetid-sweet atmosphere, and let the solace of the place take her to itself.
“Hello. Can I help you?”
She had no idea how long she had been asleep – fatigue had so crept up on her that having to open her eyes to see the source of this voice was a surprise in itself.
A pair of strikingly blue eyes with concern in them was looking down on her. Their owner, a fair-headed man of perhaps some thirty or so years, was smiling gently. Katie thought this was the kindest face she had ever seen.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” She stammered. “I think I fell asleep.”
“Isn’t she amazing?” The man asked.
The man nodded towards Katie’s right knee. A bright orange and brown butterfly was basking there, flexing its wings.
“She’s a Juno – Junonia Octavia. Her common name’s a ‘Gaudy Commodore’ – but I like Juno.”
“She’s very beautiful.” Katie said, thinking that the man was very beautiful, too. She came to herself. “I should pay my entrance fee – I couldn’t find anybody. Three pounds, isn’t it?”
The man sat beside her. “Excuse the familiarity.” He gently coaxed the butterfly from Katie’s leg; put it on a branch beside him. “Those are her wet season colours: gets pretty wet and humid in here. Dry season, she turns mainly to blue. Changes her clothes, you see? Don’t worry about the fee – it goes straight to the bank anyway.”
Katie laughed; something she had not felt like doing for several hours. “That’s not very good business. Won’t you get into trouble?”
The man shook his head. “I’m the only one around here to get into trouble with. I own this place, for my sins. Not for much longer, though.”
“Is business bad?”
He smiled at her again; the same concerned, challenging smile. “Tell you what – I could do with a break. Would you like some coffee? I just made it, and there’ll be no-one in while the fog’s down. It’ll waste.”
He led the way to an annexe which had been built onto the rear of the greenhouse; functionally (and optimistically) furnished with about a dozen tables and attendant chairs.
“I’m Ben,” He said suddenly, pouring coffee from a jug.
“Hi Katie. Everyone warned us. Up there, they said, it’s a short summer season and a long hard winter. Well, everyone was right.” He waved expansively at his empty enterprise. “This is the sad result. No people, and it turns out we’re on a main road to nowhere. We won’t last another winter. The debts are mounting: wolves are at the door.”
“That’s a shame. You have a lovely butterfly house.”
Ben shrugged. “Easy come, easy go I guess. Now you.” He leaned forward, resting his elbows on the table. “Tell me your troubles. And don’t say you haven’t any, because I can see them in your eyes.”
“Much the same as you.” Katie confessed. And she told him the story of her day, because he was easy to talk to and she needed to put into words all that she had been thinking since she walked out of Redcleugh Developments.
Ben commiserated. Thereafter the talk got smaller, sprinkled with anecdotes about butterflies and the tiny creatures which lived in the greenhouse behind them. When she finally got up to leave, Katie felt as though a yolk had been lifted from her shoulders.
As Ben escorted her back through the greenhouse, she said: “I don’t know what to do now. Slink back to London with my tail between my legs, I suppose.”
“No, stay.” Ben said. “Come out to dinner tonight?”
This stopped Katie in her tracks. “Don’t be silly! You don’t want to have dinner with me!”
“Why ever not?” He sounded mystified. “Do you throw your food around or something? I can wear protective clothing.”
Katie was amused by this, but her inner self was not laughing. Why not go out with him? Well, because the old demons were still on her shoulder, and the scar she bore there was itching, if she needed any other reminder.
“I’m going to be leaving in a day or two. It wouldn’t be wise.”
As she drove away, she wondered if Ben was married: and then she wondered why that seemed so important – or if it mattered at all. She put the thought from her mind; but she could not so quickly dispel the memory of Ben. He stayed with her for quite a while.
Still Katie resisted any temptation to return to the cottage and the necessary business of packing. Instead, bored with the hills and their mantle of fog, she drove eastward until she reached Caisterham. There she bought herself a portable lunch, taking it to eat beside the river at the spot where, on her first visit to the city back in summer, she had watched novice rowers at their practice. No rowers were on the water today, no melody of laughter, no leaves upon the trees to hide her, as they had done so discreetly then. They lay; brown corpses thick beneath her feet, already deteriorating in persistent drizzle, their odour of decay a cold contrast to the warm redolence of Ben’s butterfly house. Naked branches above the path dripped misery over her shoulders and her bare head. Katie retreated to the graveyard, dried herself a spot on one of the benches there, and ate dejectedly until, defeated at last, she retrieved her car for the drive home.
Gemma and Tina were on the swings, impervious to rain which had become quite heavy.
“You leaving then?” Gemma called over as Katie parked her car.
“How on earth did you find that out?” Katie was genuinely amazed.
Gemma glanced at Tina. “’Most everyone does.” She said, and they both laughed.
This book was captivating from the very start and Frederick Anderson's descriptions of the country settings made me feel I was almost there in reality. A great story with just the right amount of romance
By O.G. Tomes
Watch out Nicholas Sparks fans...... Frederick Anderson has arrived! Ah, the lines I wish to quote from this journey taken within the writing style of Frederick Anderson......." the hardcover of a book that must be read before it is loved.."
A fellow weaver of tales, he has captured my attention from the very first page and kept me engrossed, within the story, every step of the way.
I am spellbound by the characters he has created. Built to captivate your attention, the plot weaves its mystery and beguiles you to love the dear Katherine while encouraging her to fight her battles to rebuild her life after a tragic accident. You will sigh at the re-emergence of her lost beauty as she heals the wounds fate has handed her. Both those you can see and those you cannot. All the while he keeps you entranced by the dastardly Jace with his dark past and present schemes.
Anderson lures the reader into a relationship with the story. He interlaces the bare souls of the characters and their inner workings with a tension that builds. While reading, the scenes play in your mind's eye, for Anderson is gifted at handing you the reality of his settings. He opens the door to a room and takes you in......"to heightened senses and to being welcomed without reservation or condition if only for a brief while."
I longed to rush toward the ending, yet dreaded it as it drew near. A poignant story that leaves you hopeful and smiling. I highly recommend this touching story! Can you guess what is moving to the top of my reading stack? Yes, another Frederick Anderson Novel! -