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Widowmere

Widowmere

 

Emma Lee Bole

 

Shakespir edition

 

Copyright 2016 Emma Lee Bole

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-one

Chapter Twenty-two

Chapter Twenty-three

Chapter Twenty-four

Chapter Twenty-five

Chapter Twenty-six

Chapter Twenty-seven

Chapter Twenty-eight

Chapter Twenty-nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-one

Chapter Thirty-two

Chapter Thirty-three

 

Widowmere

 

Chapter One

 

A sky of torn tissue paper in shades of smoke. Hills of piled rust and ashes. Silvered water, as slippery as mercury. The surface of Windermere flinched, trembling, while ducks dozed at its shifting edge.

The rain had wept itself through and left a drained and washed-out landscape. Sitting on the raised path by the lake’s shoreline, I took two deep breaths, boxed up my rage in a dark corner of my head and tried to forget about the phone call that had sent me scuttling here.

Instead I concentrated solely on the sketchpad on my knee. Think of nothing but the colours. Careful, now.

I dipped my brush, stroked the watercolour palette and added a smear of Cadmium Yellow to the ragged sky. It wasn’t there in truth: a gloomy dusk was ready to fall, but this design looked better with a touch of gold.

“View from Waterhead” was my most popular card. Not my favourite view, with those dark knuckles of the Langdales clenched beyond the jetty: and not the best view in the Lake District by a long chalk, even once I’d deleted the concrete outlet pipes and rearranged the clanking yachts. But in the three months since I’d set up business, it had been my strongest seller – perhaps because so many tourists lingered here and saw it for themselves.

Not that many tourists were lingering here now. On a chilly teatime in mid-March, most visitors had headed for the bright windows of Ambleside’s guesthouses and cafes. Only a handful still dawdled by the darkening lake.

A dog-walker pulled on a reluctant spaniel that was straining at the dopey ducks: an elderly couple in twin green waterproofs strolled comfortably arm in arm: and a young woman in a long black trench-coat was beach-combing, idly sifting through handfuls of stones, although only an incorrigible romantic could find that wet gravel worth a second glance. I watched her drop half her handful and slide the rest into her pocket.

The waterproof twins slowed as they approached me. I could see them trying to get a discreet look at my sketchpad, the way people often do when I’m painting out of doors. Some seem to think I’m laid on for their entertainment: they flock round and praise loudly, only to mutter reservations as they move away again. An easel’s a disaster. It makes painting a spectator sport.

Maybe if I wasn’t young and female it would help. I’ve learnt to scowl, but it doesn’t always work. I had no trouble scowling with sincerity at these two, for my fury was still warm. It didn’t put them off.

“Beautiful evening,” offered the male of the pair, eager and toothy.

“Mm.”

He paused to peer. “Delightful part of the world here, isn’t it?”

“Mm-hm.” I made it as discouraging as I could.

“We’ve just been to look at the Roman fort back there. Galava, do you know it? Fascinating, absolutely.”

“Mm.” It wasn’t. It was a few old lumps of rock, and he was standing in my way.

“Come along, Griff,” said his partner gently, “let’s leave the young lady to her work.” She was Scottish, with careful grey hair and glasses. She gave me a kind auntie’s smile, took his hand and they walked on, at peace with each other and the world.

I wasn’t at peace. I was still brooding on that phone call.

It had taken me a while to hear the phone. I’d been hoovering the guesthouse, trying to wipe my muddy traces off The Heronry’s dun carpets. I was desperate to keep my lodgings spotless; I couldn’t afford to give any cause for complaint.

When I finally answered the phone, Greta’s impatience slammed down the line at me. But then talking to my sister frequently reminds me of being beaten around the head with a complaints box.

“Eden. You took your time. Having a little lie-down, were you?”

Greta, despite being nearly two years younger, sounded like an exasperated older sister. She was in a permanent state of annoyance with me. I knew she wished she wasn’t my sister at all, or at least that I would have the good grace to change my name, move out of Cumbria and stay well away from her.

“Greta. How are you?” I said evenly. “How’s school?”

“Worked off my feet. What do you think?”

“Well, I…”

“Of course, you wouldn’t know about that, would you? But I had Sunday off for a change, for the first time this term. I abandoned the mountain of marking and went for a day out in Keswick.” Abrupt, cold, meaningful. “I ended up in Latrigg Galleries.”

That wasn’t so remarkable. I wondered why she was bothering to tell me.

“That’s nice,” I said. “Did you have a good time?”

“Oh, yes. Until I walked into the Galleries, and the day was ruined. I saw it, Eden. You’re up to your old tricks again.”

Silence. The house stopped to listen.

“What do you mean?”

“You know exactly what I mean.” Antagonism drilled through the phone into my ear. I was bewildered.

“I don’t sell my cards through Latrigg Galleries,” I said. “I’ve only got one outlet in Keswick, and that’s Freddie’s bookshop.”

“I don’t mean your crappy little cards and cheesy sketches! That’s not what I’m talking about!”

“Then what are you talking about?”

You.” She hissed down the line. “You and those bloody MacLeishes. Haven’t you learnt? Haven’t you got any sense or decency at all? For God’s sake, haven’t you put us through enough? Can you hear me, Eden?”

I could hear her. I was so breathless with indignation that I couldn’t speak. Her voice was still boring away like a dentist’s drill: but with a furious jab at the phone I closed the call.

It was total rubbish. I had nothing to do with Latrigg Galleries. I was as desolately clean as a snowy graveyard; but she wouldn’t believe that. She was only willing to believe the worst of me.

I paced up and down the big, cold, silent house for a while, panting my outrage at the pristine carpets, swearing at the stripped beds and banging the doors of empty wardrobes as if Greta was inside them. The end of the rain offered an escape. I grabbed my sketchpad and watercolour box and headed out to the lake, that yielding grey quilt of water, seeking comfort and composure.

Comfort and composure. Wasn’t that what everybody came here for? Brains out, dummies in, as Greta once sneeringly remarked. She was talking about the tourists who clogged the roads each weekend, driving at twenty, heads twisting in their endless, restless chase after tranquillity; but it applied to me as well.

That was why I’d come back here last year, a piece of flotsam looking for a shore. After my ten months in prison, I’d come to see reflections on the silky water, as momentary and untouchable as dreams.

I’d come to hear the rooks’ bedtime banter in tall, swaying trees. I’d come to curl up in the cradle of damp hills, this vast, brackened nest with buzzards swinging overhead. So different from that narrow, overheated prison cell. I’d come to breathe, to lose myself, forget.

Like everyone. Now, down by the uncertain water, I frowned at the fading sunset and then at my sketch: a postcard piece of schmaltz in grey and gold. Four pounds fifty retail. I signed it with a discontented scribble: Eden Shirer.

The grey-haired couple turned to amble back along the shore, talking softly in an easy intimacy that made me feel hollow. The dog-owner had left. Two reined toddlers with their mothers took over duck-tormenting duties at the jetty, hurling in fistfuls of bread that attracted a mob of seagulls. Meanwhile, the young woman in the black coat slid another handful of wet stones into her pocket, and gazed out across Windermere.

Then, with steady, deliberate strides, she walked into the water. Her long coat wetly trailing, she began to wade towards the centre of the lake.

 

Chapter Two

 

It took me several seconds to believe it. At first I thought bemusedly that this was just an eccentric form of paddling, for she was barely knee-deep, and seemed unconcerned.

Her coat stretched out behind her like a tent pegged by the water. After a few more paces, she flopped forwards at full length, her arms flung out. She didn’t try to swim.

At which point I said “Bloody hell!”, pushed everything off my knee on to the ground, ripped off my jacket and galloped down to the lake to wade in after her. It was plainly up to me: the waterproof twins were too old for total immersion and the staring mums were toddler-bound.

So I floundered in. The water bit through my jeans, munching its way up my legs with teeth that were first shockingly, and then numbingly, cold. Although it was still shallow when I reached her, I could feel the bottom beginning to shelve steeply away. I grabbed her by the soggy trench-coat, heaved her upright and tried to drag her back towards the shore.

She was taller than me: heavier and stronger. She fell backwards deliberately and pulled me under. The cold water was a giant, demeaning slap on the face. When I hauled myself up she tried to pull me in again; and all my anger came leaping out of its cage.

“Oh no, you don’t!” I yelled. “I’m not having this! Out you come right now!” – a direct echo from my mother twenty years ago when I was six, which disconcerted me but made her stand up tall in the water in her sodden coat, like a drowned woman’s ghost. She stared at me with wide, dark eyes, made darker by her weeping eyeliner.

“No no no,” she said in a distant, unemotional wail. “I have to go back home.” Her wet face shone. With her pale skin, huge black-rimmed eyes, and long, dark, dripping hair, she was a mermaid. A siren. The grim winter twilight laid silver caresses on her. She was beautiful.

“Dead right you have to go back home!” I scolded. “But you have to get out of the water first.”

“It’s where I live,” she said. “Where I belong. I’m not getting out.”

“I really think you should,” I said, toning down my voice, more cautious now. “You come with me. It’ll be all right. You hold my hand, come on now. Here; that’s it.” I took her hands, fish-slippery and unresisting. “Be careful.”

I slowly backed towards the shore, holding both her hands. This time she didn’t try to pull me down, but followed, stumbling once or twice. Her coat was dragging from her shoulders.

“Take that off,” I said, as we approached the small audience now gathered by the lakeside. A couple of cars had pulled up on the road to watch. With difficulty, I tugged the sodden coat off her: it weighed a ton. I dropped it in the lapping shallows, and helped her to the shore where the waterproof twins reached kindly hands out to her.

By now I was shivering painfully, as much with adrenalin as cold. I ached all over. She wasn’t shivering at all.

“What were you doing?” I demanded.

“Easy now,” said the male twin anxiously.

She stood like a trickling statue in a fountain, smiling faintly. She was about my age: perhaps a little younger. Early twenties, maybe.

“I stole my husband,” she said distantly.

“You what?”

“His soul,” she said. She twisted her head to look back at the thin waves of Windermere casting their flickering net at the shore. A black delta of hair flowed down her shoulders, dripping into the lake. “I need to go home.”

“Och, we can take you home,” offered the female twin. “Can’t we, Griff? Where do you live, dear?”

“No, I need to stay here.” Sitting down abruptly on the stony shoreline, she put her hands around her knees and her head on one side expectantly as if she was waiting for a picnic. I fished for the drifting trench-coat and upended it. Handfuls of sludgy grit slid from the pockets and splattered into the water.

The mothers began to lead their wide-eyed toddlers well away from the bedraggled mermaid: the halted cars, seeing no-one drowned or drowning, pulled regretfully away.

“I slipped,” she said.

I didn’t argue. “Well, what were you doing out there in the first place?” It was still my mother’s voice. Worse, my sister Greta’s, haranguing and hostile. I breathed deep and tried again. “I mean, are you all right? Do you feel okay?”

“I just felt like a swim.”

“A swim?” Griff queried, frowning. “In your coat?” He stared at her. “I’ve seen you before, haven’t I? Haven’t we met?”

“No, I don’t think so, Griff,” his partner said.

But the mermaid turned her washed face up to them. A face straight out of some Victorian painting, right down to the heavy chin and sulky mouth; stubbornly robust, with none of the airbrushed flimsiness of a magazine model. Despite the weeping make-up, her beauty shuddered through me with a shockwave like an earthquake.

“You might have seen me at the supermarket,” she said indifferently.

I squatted down beside her. “Are you local, then?”

She half-closed her eyes. “I might be.”

“What’s your name?”

“Selena.”

“Selena what?”

She hesitated, then shook her head and wouldn’t say. She wouldn’t tell us where she lived, or give a phone number. There was no phone in her pockets. She sat mute and calm upon the stony beach, hugging her arms around her muddy knees. I noticed a wedding ring.

I looked at the twins. “Police or hospital? What do you think?”

“No, no, neither!” Selena’s head shot up in alarm. She shook it again, emphatically, like a dog. “I’m not ill. And walking into a lake isn’t a crime.”

“The Lady of the Lake!” Griff announced excitedly. “That’s who you are!” She glanced up at him sidelong, with a measuring look, and did not disagree.

I glanced at my watch, which had clouded and stopped. Ambleside’s shiny new police station wouldn’t be open now in any case: its hours were nine to five, weekdays only. Local criminals were expected to keep office hours. Kendal police station might be manned, but that was twelve or thirteen miles away, as was the nearest A and E.

I didn’t want to hang around, wet, waiting on a police car for half an hour. Quite apart from the cold, I had an acquired aversion to police cars.

“Those two poor girls are both soaked through!” exclaimed Griff. “We should do something to help them, Muriel!”

“Yes, we need to get them dry. We’ve got a car,” Muriel told me in her composed, dapper Scottish, “but it’s not very close. It’s parked up in the town.”

“We might as well walk her straight to my house.” My teeth were chattering. I needed to move: I could feel everything beginning to seize up. “Selena? Can you walk into Ambleside?” I held her limp hand, which felt warmer this time than my own. When I started to pull her to her feet, she stood up of her own volition.

“All right,” she said meekly.

We must have made a strange procession. Heads swivelled as we laid a wet trail along the pavements. Griff and Muriel insisted on walking the whole half-mile with us, Griff carrying the sodden coat on one arm and gallantly thrusting his other elbow at Selena. She laid two fingers on it like a fastidious lady.

Meanwhile Muriel accompanied me with my painting gear, laying on a gentle stream of commonplaces as if hoping to shrink the day back to ordinary status. She and Griff were on holiday, she told me in her calm, musical voice, staying in a flat up the hill on the east side of the town and returning to the old haunts they used to visit with the children. Who were grown-up now, and lived down south, with two delightful grandchildren. One boy, one girl.

“Didn’t we stay here once, Muriel?” exclaimed Griff as we arrived at The Heronry and I fumbled for the key.

“Years ago,” said Muriel. “This is your guesthouse?” She looked up dubiously at the narrow grey façade, the lightless windows frowning at the dusk, and the “No Vacancies” sign. Actually there were eleven vacancies, but no proprietor.

“Not mine,” I said. “I’m house-sitting while the owners are in Lanzarote.” I unlocked the door and keyed the alarm with frozen fingers, then led them down the long corridor into the kitchen at the back.

“My goodness, you’re both terribly wet!” said Griff with concern, as if he’d only just noticed.

“Well, March isn’t the best month for swimming in Windermere,” I said.

“No, indeed!” He looked around the kitchen. “Where are we? Who owns this place?”

“Some friends called the Pattinsons.” They were actually friends of my mother. My own friends, almost without exception, were no longer talking to me.

I hoped the laminated floor was waterproof. Selena was still dripping lavishly. You’d have thought she was made of water. I sat her on a stool to ooze while I spread around haphazard sheets of the Westmorland Gazette, which I’d left open at Accommodation after a forlorn and depressing search. Griff fussed with tea-towels.

“Dear me,” he said, “talk about wet! The lady of the lake and no mistake!”

Selena flicked back her hair with one finger and laughed. She looked pretty normal. Griff laughed back.

Muriel put the kettle on. “Should we stay here with you?” she asked doubtfully. “Will you be all right?”

“I’ll be fine,” I said. “I’ll put her in the bath. And lend her some dry clothes.” I wasn’t sure what to do with her after that, but it was hardly Muriel’s problem.

“I hate to leave you to it, but…”

“It’s okay. I know a policeman at the local station. I can always ring him if I need to,” I said loudly, for Selena’s benefit. In truth, to say that I knew Sergeant Hunter Brigg was stretching reality. I’d talked to him half a dozen times. Skirted the sharp edges of him, maybe.

“You won’t need to ring the police. I won’t cause any trouble,” Selena said with calm assurance. I hoped she was right, because I didn’t have Hunter’s private number, and I couldn’t see Kendal station happily handing it over.

“I would stay – it’s just that…” Muriel gestured helplessly. “We need to get back home.”

“Oh, yes,” said Griff regretfully. “We’ve got to pack. Early start tomorrow. Reality calls, alas.”

As they trooped into the hall, Muriel pulled a slip of paper from her handbag and wrote neatly on it. “That’s my mobile number. Do ring, Eden, if you need any help – or just to let us know what happens.”

“Okay. Thanks.” I closed the door on them and returned to the kitchen, where Selena was opening cupboard doors with energetic curiosity.

“Where do you keep your tea?”

“I’ll do that,” I said. I didn’t want her rummaging. I found mugs and dropped teabags into them. “And in a bit I’ll run you a bath, as long as you won’t try and drown yourself in it.”

Her lips twitched ruefully. “Windermere wasn’t deep enough, was it?”

“It gets deeper,” I said. “And colder. If you’d gone any further out I might have thought twice about going in after you. I hate deep water.”

“It was nice of you to follow me. Can you not swim, then?”

“Not when it’s that cold.” I’d had a fear of deep, cold water ever since I was ten and fell into Derwentwater while I was boating with Greta and our older brother Allen. I reckon Greta pushed me, though she denied it. The expedition was her idea: playing bloody Swallows and Amazons, and I expect I annoyed her, as usual, by not doing it right.

I remember well the breathless, stabbing shock of going in. The water wrapped me round like lead. I couldn’t move. It was Allen who helped me struggle out, nearly paralysed with cold, unable to swim although I was a perfectly good swimmer. All these years later, I still avoided the edges of boats and had a horror of falling in – even on the Sawrey ferry.

“I’m perfectly all right now,” said Selena tranquilly. “Now that I’m here.”

None the less, once she’d drunk her tea and I’d run a bath down in the Pattinsons’ gloomy living quarters in the basement, I wedged the bathroom door open and listened for healthy splashing while I shivered in a dressing gown in the adjacent room. I was realising, belatedly, that no matter how sane she seemed I shouldn’t leave her alone.

So I waited until she was out of the bath and carelessly half-covered in an inadequate towel – dripping all over again, a dark and disturbing Botticelli Venus – before running upstairs to pull dry clothes from the wardrobe I was currently using in one of the guest bedrooms and bring them down to her.

She sat on the edge of the bath with her long bare legs stretched out, voluptuous breasts exposed in an unselfconsciously seductive pose that she can’t have meant but that totally threw me. She watched me in the mirror, doubly dripping, hair and glass and skin all melting into tears. Her face told me nothing.

“Get out while I shower,” I said, more roughly than I needed to.

By the time I’d finished, she was dressed. With my blue shirt buttoned to her neck, she was no longer a sensual Botticelli but a pent-up Victorian, pouting like the brooding beauties in a Rossetti painting.

In comparison I felt as puny as a drippy Waterhouse nymph, all anxious eyes and muddy hair. My clothes were tight on her: she was shapelier than me. My ten months in prison had turned me somehow both thin and flabby at the same time. The flabbiness was going, but the thinness lingered.

Her eyes were fixed intently on me, waiting patiently for directions; she seemed as passive as a child. Her trust was disconcerting.

I wondered what I ought to do with her. Although the sensible thing would be to turn her over to the police, I felt an innate revulsion at that idea. And now that she didn’t seem to be in imminent danger at her own hands, she became almost a welcome distraction. Having somebody else to think about, I decided, was good for me.

“Let’s get something to eat,” I said, and led her back up to the kitchen where I cooked us beans on toast. We ate on stools squashed up against the worktop, because I was trying to keep the adjoining dining room clean, and anyway its formal ranks of tables didn’t seem conducive to the confidences I was hoping she would entrust me with.

“Sorry it’s a bit basic,” I said. Beans on toast was a staple of my diet, along with pasta and brown sauce, and mints. I used to shoplift bacon in my carefree past, but these days dared not risk it.

“That’s all right.” She ate rapidly, hungrily, and I forgot my own food in watching her: this beauty who had stepped out of her gilded frame to eat my toast. Her accent seemed incongruous – south Lancashire, I thought, perhaps a touch of Merseyside.

“Where are you from?” I asked, and saw the lovely face stiffen. “All right. I’m not asking. But why Windermere?”

She stared mournfully at the plate, mouth set in a melancholy bow. Her long hair, slick with my conditioner, slid down to veil her face.

“Was it just the closest bit of water?” I persisted.

“Not really. Coniston’s closer. Or Esthwaite,” she murmured through the hair, inviting guesses. She reminded me of somebody, though I couldn’t quite think who.

But Esthwaite narrowed it down. Maybe she was from round Hawkshead way.

“You live in a village?”

“On a farm.”

I studied her. Even allowing for her double soaking, her skin looked dewy-fresh, not weather-beaten. Her curves weren’t muscular. Her fingernails were long: I remembered how soft her hands had felt. And there was that wedding ring.

“You’re not a farmer’s wife?” I asked, incredulous.

She nodded. “Luke’s wife,” she said softly.

“Luke who?”

She didn’t answer, just glanced at me from under those dark lashes. She really wanted to be recognised and taken home, I thought: a sheltered townie unsettled by the rough and ruthless nature of farm life. Luke the farmer probably fell short on sympathy. “So Luke’s the husband you stole, right?” I continued.

“What?”

“You said in the lake you stole your husband.”

“No! Why would I say that?” She looked alarmed. “I never said that. My husband died.”

“He died?” My image of a surly farmer melted into ripples. “What happened?”

“It was at the farm. It was dreadful. I can’t tell you.” Yet the soulful eyes gazed at me with supplication, as if she just wanted prompting to say more.

I knew now who she reminded me of. There had been women like her in prison: evasive, troubled, contradictory. Saying things for effect. Sometimes they meant them, sometimes not.

“Are you on anything?” I asked, although I’d seen no puncture marks. “Medication, drugs? I don’t want to dob you in, I just want to know.”

“Nothing,” she said. “I don’t do drugs.”

“Okay. When did Luke die? Can you tell me that?”

“Three months ago. December.” There was a pause, during which I was wondering how to word the obvious question, when she answered it anyway. “He killed himself.” The words hung in the air like letters of smoke, drifting down into the silence.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said after a moment.

“Yes. So, you see.” She dropped her head. I saw: the beans congealing on her plate, the downcast face framed by damp hair, and felt a cruel, clomping idiot.

“Do you want to talk about it?”

She shook her head slowly, meditatively. “Could you show me round the house?”

I could think of no reason why not. It would take her mind off dead Luke, after all. So I gave her the guided tour, from the owners’ basement to the third floor single up in the roof, smelling of Spring Primrose paint.

She exclaimed at everything with a mermaid’s naïve wonder at how the humans lived. She counted bedrooms on her long fingers and caressed the Pattinsons’ commonplace ornaments with unnecessary reverence.

“It’s nice here. We used to move around so much,” she said. “I never got used to any of those places. They weren’t much of a home. But your home’s nice.”

“It’s not mine.” I explained that I was house-sitting while the owners had their annual holiday, and at the same time was charged with repainting most of the bedrooms. This was the fourth guesthouse I’d looked after since New Year, and would be the last, for the wandering owners were returning: Easter would soon unleash its slow-moving GoreTex-coated hordes.

I didn’t know where I would go next. I had hopes of the Ruskin Hotel, where I’d worked two summers as a student, but they might not take me now. Not now I was a con.

The Pattinsons knew of my criminal record, of course, but more importantly, they also knew my mother. Sometimes I felt that everyone knew my mother – in the guesthouse trade, at any rate. She’d run one herself before moving to Penrith, where she set up an accommodation agency. A woman of many parts, my mother. Not like me. I had one part, and that was it.

I’d started house-sitting soon after my release from jail, unfairly desperate to get away from my parents. My mother’s brisk efficiency was too painful a reminder of my own failures: while my father, who I’d hoped would at least provide a stout shoulder I could cry on, shied away from any such drama. I loved my father, but he would have been happier, I think, with mechanical children than ones made of flesh and blood and tears. He didn’t know what to do with me, and was glad to escape into his shed, leaving me to wander the house like a doleful shadow in search of myself; my past everywhere around me yet unutterably lost.

There was no comfort in home any more. So it was a relief to escape to the bland rooms of the Heronry which were at least as empty of memories as they were of character.

I explained a little of this, briefly, to Selena. Not about jail. She seemed more fascinated with the guesthouse than it merited. I hadn’t intended to show her the big back double bedroom where I did my cards; but she opened the door and went in anyway.

I’d turned the room into my temporary studio. It faced north, with high sash windows that let in draughts, but also a clean light. On the spotless Old Rose wall hung two large prints of baleful herons: but all the other art-works in the room were mine.

My drawing-board was propped up on the dressing table with my box of watercolour tubes and my jars of water, a dustsheet spread beneath to catch the splatters. The Pattinsons would be aghast – but they would never know. The latest batch of cards was lying on sheets of newspaper on the bed, while the mounts were stacked against the pillows.

I was uncomfortable. I felt exposed, which was daft, because what else did I paint the things for except to be seen?

“That’s lovely!” Selena picked up a waterfall. She sounded surprised enough to be sincere.

“They’re greetings cards. People like hand-painted cards,” I said grumpily.

“They’re very artistic.” She laid the waterfall down respectfully and picked up Tarn Hows. “This is really nice! Eden, you’re so talented!” Her admiration knocked me sideways. I liked it, but I didn’t deserve it.

“No, I’m not,” I said roughly. “I just churn them out for the tourists.” These had taken hardly more thought than the paint I’d slapped upon the bedroom walls. The same views over and over: no two quite identical, though. I was diligent about that.

“That one’s Grasmere, isn’t it?”

“Probably.”

“And there’s Skelwith Fold!” she said excitedly. “I saw you there! I saw you painting. You had a yellow coat on.”

“Yup, more than likely. I get all over the place.”

She picked up my sketchpad and studied the pencil outlines of hills and trees with letters scribbled around them. WB, VR, UTS. “Why do you write on them?”

“That’s a code for the colours.” Winsor Blue, Venetian Red and Usual Tree Stuff.

“Wow,” she said. “A real artist. You’re so clever. What else do you paint?”

“Just this,” I said shortly. None of this was art, and I knew it even if she didn’t. This was just technique. I did larger pieces as well, A2 or A3, designed to complement magnolia walls; but they weren’t art either. I didn’t sell many. They languished, slowly growing tattered, in Freddie’s bookshop.

Meanwhile the big stuff – the real stuff – was lurking somewhere just beyond the trees or beneath the surface of the lake, but I didn’t know exactly where it was or how to reach it. Sometimes I caught the edge of it as I sketched, shivering, on a hillside: sometimes it glowed briefly through the layers of wash on the paper. But I couldn’t keep it there. The more paint I applied, the more I hid it from myself.

Selena sat down at the dressing table and fingered my brushes. Dabbling one in a jar, she painted a large watery circle on the mirror.

Two oval eyes, an L for a nose, a collapsing M for a mouth; and long wet snakes for hair. A child’s portrait. As the strokes began to run, she laid down the brush and stared into the liquid face.

“But that’s not me,” she said quietly. “Not the real me in any picture. I wish I could paint myself. Do you ever paint people, Eden?”

“Not any more. I’m not much good at people.” I’d done enough portraits in jail to last a lifetime, but none since. To change the subject, I asked her, “Do you like it on the farm?” – then could have kicked myself. With a dead husband?

She did not answer. Laying a finger on the mirror she began to draw stripe after stripe across the dissolving face, caging it behind trickling bars until it was obliterated.

“Sorry,” I said.

“I’ve nowhere else to go. It was okay at first. But it’s lonely without Luke.”

“Yes, of course. Which farm?”

She looked at me sidelong through the waterfall of hair, as expressionless as the wet face on the mirror.

“Okay,” I said. “How did you get to the lake?”

“I walked,” she said.

“That must have taken you a while.”

“I suppose. An hour or so. I wasn’t checking.” Now I pinned down exactly who she reminded me of. It was Jackie, from the cell next door to mine, ten years older than me but as dreamy and erratic as a teenager. Jackie would confide half a secret and wait for me to ask for the rest. I never knew which of her secrets to believe: they were mostly rubbish.

But Selena’s secrets would be different. A husband’s suicide… How would I react if Nick had killed himself?

With a shudder, I instantly dismissed the thought, because if Nick, my one-time partner, were to do anything so out of character it could only be my fault.

“Are you okay?” she asked, as solicitous as if I were the half-drowned widow and not her.

“I’m fine. Still warming up after our dip,” I said. “Why did you say you belonged there, in the lake?”

She gazed back at the spoiled reflection in the mirror. “Just remembering stories from when I was a kid,” she said quietly.

“Stories?”

“About selkies. You know what a selkie is? It’s a woman who lives in the sea and comes out to get married. But she has to go back to the sea after.” Her reflected eyes fixed on me intensely: her voice urged me to understand. I didn’t.

“Windermere’s not the sea,” I pointed out.

“It doesn’t matter,” she said earnestly. “It works the same way, whatever. It’s just water. It doesn’t have to be the sea. This girl – this selkie came out of the black pool and got caught. She shed her fishy skin and all the men fell in love with her. They hid her skin away so she couldn’t go back home until she found it.”

A silver fish-tail struggled briefly in my head, net-bound. But surely that was wrong.

“I thought the selkie was a seal, not a fish,” I said. “Who told you those stories?”

“My Grandad.”

“And where does your Grandad live?”

“He’s gone. They’ve all gone. I’m alone.” And suddenly her voice was husky and her eyes were wet with tears: an artist’s tears, poised on the brink, not reddening her eyes but only magnifying their lustre. “Can I stay here with you tonight? I feel safe here. I’ll be no trouble.”

“I don’t think that’s a good idea. We need to get you home.”

“No, no! I can’t. He’ll be so cross.”

“Who will?”

“Please let me stay,” she begged. “Just for tonight. I’ll go home in the morning.” She put an arm around me. “I really want to stay. You’ve been so nice.”

Nice? I was many things, I thought, but nice was not high on the list.

Selena thought I was nice. She thought I was a nice, normal person, showing normal kindness. I was a failure at so many things: my sister’s contempt still twanged against my skull. But Selena saw me differently.

“Okay,” I said. “Just for tonight.” I felt a little dizzy with the unaccustomed power of being nice and normal. Then I wondered if I was mad. Or if she was.

I didn’t think so. She was off-balance, that was all. Immature, with her children’s stories… I remembered all those needy girls in jail. She would have been the queen of them, holding them spellbound with her mystery and allure. I wasn’t immune.

And in jail, I’d caught the instinct to give shelter. The first rule of prison: look after each other. Everything was shared – tobacco, chocolate, phone cards, in an endless calculation of favours done and owed. The bottom line: don’t grass. It’s us against the screws.

However, if she didn’t come clean by morning, I’d take her down to the police station. That wasn’t grassing: that was necessary. Hunter would know who she was. Sergeant Hunter Brigg was in charge of area computer files, but he didn’t seem to need them to recall every detail of who was who and where, and generally why. It was all there in that cynical, disenchanted head. Hunter would sort it out.

Meanwhile I had merely to keep her happy and stop her from plummeting down the stairs, drowning, stabbing, electrocuting or otherwise doing herself in. No problem.

“Who should I ring to say that you’re okay?” I asked. “Who’s at home?”

“There’s only Isaac. He’s Luke’s dad.”

“Is he the one who’ll be cross?”

She shrugged. But Isaac was another clue. I had the sense of unpicking at tiresome knots that would eventually unravel to reveal the truth. There couldn’t be many Isaacs in the area, and she must know it.

“Ring him,” I said. I threw her my phone, watched her dab at the keys and listened for the buzz of voice at the other end.

“Isaac? It’s me. No, I’m fine. I got caught up… yeah, sorry, but I bumped into a friend in Ambleside. We’re going for a drink so I’m stopping at hers tonight. Her name’s Eden. From way back. Sure.”

As she passed back the phone, I asked, “Do you get on okay with Isaac?”

She pulled a face. “He’s a bit…”

“What? Is he unkind to you?”

“Well, no, not really. It’s just… he’s old.” As if to say, he’s Martian. If Selena was twenty-four or so, what would that make her father-in-law? Fifty-ish? Older, from the way she spoke. I imagined a decrepit, grumbly old codger with whom she had nothing in common.

“What about Luke’s mum?”

“She’s dead. Died a couple of years back. Cancer or something. I never met her.”

“So you can’t have known Luke all that long.”

“No.” Her voice was wistful. I changed tack.

“There’s just you and Isaac on the farm, then? That must be a lot of work.” And a slightly weird arrangement, however old he was.

“Oh, no. There’s Bryony. She’s a farmhand.” Her voice returned to perfect flatness. Selena did not like Bryony. “She’s been there years. And the Aireys sometimes come over from the next farm to help out.”

I had more than enough to identify her now, as well as Isaac’s number logged on to my phone. “It must be strange for you living there.”

“Yes.” She paused. “Luke shot himself.”

Since I’d already done the sorry bit, I had nothing to add. I didn’t know what she expected.

“Why?” I asked eventually.

She sighed and shook her head so that the dark fronds of hair fell over her face. “He was depressed, ever since his mother died. Luke was a worrier. Everything bothered him.”

“What about your own parents? Did you think of going back to them?” For I was deciding that this was where her trouble lay, in being an unwanted widow, an outsider with her pale soft hands, an intruder in her husband’s house now he was dead.

“No. There’s no-one left,” she said, and stood up abruptly. She was shivering now for the first time. “Can we go back downstairs?”

It was warmer in the lounge, where a crowd of armchairs huddled round the firescreen with its embroidered herons lurking malevolently by a pond. China herons of varying sizes and degrees of probability pecked and stalked their way along the mantelpiece. Selena settled on the over-stuffed sofa with a packet of my mints to watch EastEnders on TV.

I pretended to read the damp newspaper, but I couldn’t concentrate. I was too aware of her. Even absorbed by the quarrelsome doings on screen, she looked like the Lady of Shalott. My eyes traced her profile: its classic brow, that melancholy lip, the shadowed hollow underneath the chin.

After a while I picked up my pencil, and sketched her on the paper next to the crossword. It was rubbish. I tried again, frustrated: why couldn’t I draw people? Why wouldn’t they come alive? By the time I stopped, the whole newspaper was patterned with her face. I folded it up so that she would not see.

“Early night,” I said.

We both slept in the front twin room, where I could keep an eye on her. I locked the window and hid the key. Didn’t want her throwing herself out in the night. I set the burglar alarm in the hall so it would go off if she tried to hurl herself down the stairs.

I thought I’d never get to sleep, not with a mermaid stranded on the pillow opposite, thrashing her tail occasionally and sighing for her lost love. But I must have been exhausted, because I slipped into the unruffled blue-green depths of dream with barely a conscious thought.

It wasn’t the burglar alarm that woke me. It was an internal alarm, a sense of something wrong that pulled me up immediately to the black surface of the night.

My pulse was racing. I’d been a fool to let her stay. What had she done?

She had got out of bed, that was all, and as my eyes adjusted I saw her silhouetted by the window, drawing back the curtain to look out. A mermaid out of water, gazing longingly back into the limitless ocean of night.

I jumped up, all panicky until I remembered the window was locked. Then I sat down foolishly on the bed, feeling my warmth drain away.

“Selena? What’s wrong?”

“Just looking for someone,” she said.

“Who’s out there?” I stumbled to the window.

“Nobody. They’ve gone. There’s no-one there. Go back to bed.”

“Who were you looking for?” I twitched the curtains aside. Beyond my pale reflection I thought I caught a movement as something slid away from the lamplight. A fox or cat. Below me was a bare pavement, silence: the hills were shadow laid on shadow.

“Luke,” she whispered. She laid a hand upon the glass, like a doctor feeling for a pulse, and said, “I killed my husband.”

 

Chapter Three

 

“Of course she didn’t,” said Hunter. “It was a suicide. The week before Christmas, don’t you remember? It made the local paper.”

He spooned two sugars into a plastic mug of instant coffee, and stirred with his good hand. I noticed that the new wood of the counter was already stained with a multitude of coffee rings, and worse. A black splodge on the floor was evidence of a major ink cartridge incident.

Ambleside’s brand-new police station wasn’t wearing very well. Inside the thin cladding of Lakeland slate, it was pure breezeblock, overwhelmingly grey. Selena had just gone down a grey corridor with a WPC to find a grey bathroom, so I had a few minutes on my own with Hunter. I watched his hands while he keyed a number on the phone.

“I had other things on my mind before Christmas,” I said.

“Oh, that’s right. Just got out of the nick, hadn’t you?” he said casually. “Well, her husband was Luke Staithwaite. Son of Isaac. Staithwaites have farmed over Little Langdale way for generations. Borrans Rigg Farm. There’s nobody answering.” He put the phone down.

“The father should be there, shouldn’t he?”

“Isaac? He’ll be out working. Luke was the only child, the last of the line.” Hunter raised an eyebrow at me. “She probably expected you to know all about his death. It made the headlines. Family tragedy: first the mother, now the son. You’d have thought they died a week apart instead of eighteen months.”

“I wasn’t reading the papers just then.” I’d been more concerned about my own tragedy at the time, struggling through the thickets of an excruciating family Christmas. “So was it definitely suicide?”

Hunter pulled a wry face. “Well, not officially. The coroner returned an open verdict, but that was just to spare the family’s feelings, since there were no insurance issues involved. There was even a suicide note, for Christ’s sake, but the coroner decided it was inconclusive. Said it could have been an accident while Luke was cleaning his shotgun.”

“So why don’t you agree?”

He gave a caustic grunt. “Farmers don’t shoot themselves in the head by accident. And they don’t, as a general rule, clean their shotguns in the bedroom.”

“Okay. Why would he commit suicide?”

“He was a farmer,” said Hunter, as if that explained everything. “They do it all the time. It’s a hard life and getting harder every year. And they have the means.”

I glanced at the door. There was still no sign of Selena returning. “Then why does she think she killed him?”

“Guilt,” said Hunter. He looked like he hadn’t slept well. There were indigo shadows under his eyes and deep creases round his tightly drawn mouth. I wondered if his hand was hurting, or if it was the nightmares keeping him awake; but I knew better than to ask.

“Guilt about what?”

“Who knows? Maybe she was having an affair.”

“And that’s why she tried to drown herself?”

“Drown herself? In Windermere, in full view of half a dozen people? With a pocket full of pebbles? Give us a break,” said Hunter. “Attention-seeking.”

“Or a cry for help.”

“Whatever,” he said impatiently. Then, as Selena and Fiona came back in, he switched his face from sceptical to sympathetic. A small shift of the muscles and he was all professional concern.

Fiona raised her eyebrows at him. “Can I get back to my paperwork now, Sergeant Brigg?”

“Please do, Constable Curry,” he answered gravely. The formality was a game between them, I had decided; a dance of decorum, for I thought that Fiona, big, busy and competent, secretly fancied Hunter.

Well, it was nice that somebody did. He was a bit frosty for my taste. Fiona saw Hunter as noble, but I knew better. He was just hacked off with the hand life had dealt him, or rather had taken away from him. Although perhaps his injury wasn’t to blame for his wintriness; it was possible he’d always been that way.

Hunter pushed the cup of coffee over to Selena. She can’t have noticed his right hand when we first arrived, but she did now.

With a small gasp she stared down at the pink gap where the fore and middle fingers should have been. The ring finger was a stump beyond the first knuckle; the little finger was truncated by one joint. Only the thumb was intact. The long scars that extended up his sleeve were still a youthful red. Selena took another quick, shocked breath, and then got a fit of the giggles.

“Sorry,” she said, her own unblemished hand over her mouth, “I didn’t mean to laugh. It’s just… a surprise, for a policeman.”

“I’m uncommon,” said Hunter calmly. He was getting better at not reacting to people’s reactions. When I’d first met him, his eyes would narrow at any hint of condolence. They didn’t now, even though Selena was saying all the wrong things:

“Oh, wow! What happened? Did it get trapped in something? Couldn’t they sew them back on? Or were you born …” She didn’t seem able to take her eyes off it.

“It was an accident. Reattachment failed,” he said brusquely. “Mrs Staithwaite, your father-in-law isn’t answering his phone. I think the best thing is for us to give you a lift back to your farm. Borran’s Rigg.”

She showed no alarm at being identified, but looked almost complacent. “All right,” she said meekly. “As long as Eden can come too.”

Hunter glanced at me quizzically.

“I don’t mind,” I said. “But aren’t you on the desk?”

“Neil and Fiona will hold the fort.”

“Won’t they mind?”

“No.” He meant Yes, but I don’t care. They wouldn’t stop him. Hunter was the hero, the talisman, the winner of medals. With the reorganisation of the local force, the new police station at Ambleside gave them the perfect place to hive him off to after his convalescence. They’d found him a desk job, made allowances, given him plenty of leeway and a long leash. I think they were a little scared of him.

Even Inspector Irlam, for all his Manchester experience of guns and gangs, tiptoed around Hunter. I’d observed them together at a sat-nav cock-up on Compston Road, when a lorry managed to defy the one-way system and caused a spectacular gridlock which half the town turned out to admire. I’d seen how Larry Irlam, loud and forceful with the crowds, had switched to sudden deference on turning to his sergeant.

“I suppose you might be useful,” said Hunter to me now. “If Isaac Staithwaite’s there you can explain to him exactly what happened. He may need to repeat it to a doctor.”

“What doctor? I don’t need a doctor,” said Selena. “There’s nothing wrong with me.”

She sat in the back of the police car with her hands clenched tightly round each other. I felt the same way about police cars.

But then she smiled at me, and before Hunter got in, leaned over to whisper,

“So what happened to his hand?”

“He met a man with a machete,” I said, so that she wouldn’t ask him. As we set off I gazed studiously out of the window, because I didn’t want her interrogating me either. I still remembered the look Hunter had given me when I’d asked him the same question, the first time we met.

It was just after New Year, when I was only two weeks out of jail, and still as straggly and stunned as a new-hatched chicken. I slunk into the police station and found myself confronted by a broad young desk sergeant with a face of stern politeness. He had grey eyes and a generous mouth that should have looked friendly, and didn’t: the premature lines around them gave him an angry air.

I thought he was annoyed with me. Although I noticed the hand resting on the counter, it didn’t seem important. I was too wrapped up in my own concerns.

“I’m reporting in,” I’d said. “I’m a – I’m out on licence. I need to notify you of a change of address.”

“It’s your probation officer you need to tell.”

“I can’t get hold of her. I need to make sure somebody knows I’ve moved to Ambleside. I’ve been offered a job.” The first of my house-sitting assignments: I’d dived at it headlong, desperate to get away from home. But I was also terrified of infringing the terms of my licence and being sent back to prison.

Maybe Hunter sensed my terror, for he questioned me gravely, gave me an alternative phone number to try and took down my details in a reassuringly ceremonious way. When I told him I’d been sent down for forgery he showed no reaction. He was efficient and thorough and gave the impression that his mind was somewhere else entirely. He held his pen levered between thumb and little finger, which gave his writing a curious slant. It looked awkward.

“Doesn’t it change your signature?” I said, unthinking.

He grimaced. “Oh, my bank loves me. I need to learn how to forge my own handwriting. Maybe you could help me there.”

That rocked me back. He’d been so formally polite up to that point. But then I saw the tightness in his face; he was avoiding sympathy. So I said,

“At least you can still play the violin.”

He relaxed a fraction. “True. The piano’s a bit of a bugger, though.” At which I felt brave, and nosy, enough to ask how it had happened.

“Machete,” he said. Something warned me not to ooh and aah. I wondered how a policeman could cope with half a hand.

“What, someone a bit careless?” I said.

“A bit.” The hand resting on the counter hadn’t moved. “A drug addict in a hostage situation. In Barrow, about a year ago.”

I didn’t inquire any further. A year previously, I’d been about to go on trial, after interminable months on bail and in limbo, still unable to get my head round what was happening: trapped by my parents’ pain, my sister’s contempt, and above all the incredulity of Nick, my only love, my partner. The outside world had passed me by.

But after that first meeting I looked up Hunter Brigg on the internet in the library. Yep, big story, which I couldn’t have missed if my head had been anywhere near screwed on.

The Machete Murder. A junkie stoned on meth had holed up in a laundrette in Barrow with his girlfriend and her sister, shouting incoherent threats. Hunter was one of the two bewildered policemen who were first on the scene – Barrow not normally being a hotbed of hostage-taking – and in the ensuing bedlam, he broke in through the back door and relieved the junkie of his machete, too late to stop the sister getting her throat cut, but in time to save the girlfriend from a similar fate.

At a cost. The injuries to Hunter’s right hand resulted in the loss of three and a bit fingers, and later in the acquisition of a clutch of bravery awards and newspaper headlines. In every photograph, he looked grim. He gave no quotes. Well, he actually gave plenty, but since they were along the lines of I wasn’t brave at all, I was a stupid bungler and the whole thing was a mess, the reporters had prudently chosen to ignore them.

Hunter had told me those additional details two weeks later, after he’d found my stolen scooter for me in the backyard of a sixteen year old fence in Bowness. I bought him a ginger beer and a sort of fellowship was born.

I would never have had a drink with a police officer before I got nicked. I didn’t know any policemen then: they were just the faceless, overbearing instruments of the state. But once I got arrested I met plenty, and discovered that while some were pompous Plods the majority were down-to-earth and occasionally even sympathetic.

Hunter wasn’t particularly sympathetic. But he had the hand: I had the record, and we both, I think, saw ourselves as injured outcasts. Mavericks. Misunderstood. Well, I did, anyway.

A ginger beer in the Golden Rule didn’t quite make a friendship, though. It didn’t make me feel any more comfortable in the police car beside Selena.

Hunter drove in silence past Skelwith Bridge down roads that were not yet car-clogged as they soon would be, once the daffodils got into their full riot gear. I stared out of the window at their tight, prim buds lined up against the ragged walls. It had been a daffodil that made me decide to be an artist twenty years ago. I hated the bloody things now.

Selena was watching Hunter drive. After a while she leaned into me again and whispered, “Isn’t he clever?”

“Incredibly,” I said aloud. “You should see him juggle truncheons.”

Hunter ignored us both. “I’m turning left soon, I believe?”

“In a minute,” she said. The lane was narrowing, the higgledy stone walls bulging out into the road. The traffic braked and crawled past an overgrown entrance penned in with cherry trees. I hadn’t travelled down this road since returning to the Lakes three months ago, but now it prodded at my memory.

“I’ve been here before!” I said with sudden realisation.

Hunter snorted. “You don’t say.”

“No, I mean I’ve stayed here,” I insisted. “At that place we just passed.” I twisted my head round to see the driveway disappearing. “Years ago. I went on an art course there, in a sort of bunkhouse.”

“That’s Russell’s place,” said Selena. “Raven How. He’s an artist too.”

“That’s it! I remember Russell!” I said excitedly. “Is he still there?”

“Oh, yes. They still do painting courses.”

“Nine years ago,” I mused. It had the golden haze of legend now. I wished I could go back, rewind, and start again at seventeen. So many things I’d do differently. I wasn’t quite sure which, though.

Hunter took the next entrance a few hundred metres further on, and drove along a jolting, uphill track. Half way, I glimpsed the untidy grey bulk of Raven How again before it dived behind a hillock. At the end of the track, we arrived at Borrans Rigg Farm: a tall, austere farmhouse of weathered brick, unusual in this stony landscape. Beyond its surrounding fields rose the wolfish peaks of the Langdales.

I jumped out of the car into a large concrete farmyard and stared round and up at those grey authorities: Cold Pike, Pike of Blisco, and back beyond them Great Gable and Scafell. An iron crown. Their slopes were cloaked in fox and sable. I’d painted more scenic views in the last few months than I could count, but this one took my breath away.

A pair of sharp-nosed dogs stood to attention in their sentry kennels and barked at us. It felt colder and cleaner here than in the town. I sucked in smells of cows and earth, and heard farmyard clatter breaking out from the shed to my right. There were buckety noises and a bull’s trammelled bellow.

In answer, calves bawled from the bigger barn at the back of the yard. Between the two was a pair of squat semi-detached cottages, converted out-buildings with tubs of determined primulas beside their bright red doors.

The curtains in one cottage moved. A girl came out, stamping her feet into wellies. She was as square and solid as the cottage, with a flat face and fair curls strenuously pulled back and tied down.

“Selena?” She stared at Hunter, registering the uniform and then the hand. “What’s happened? Is everything all right?”

“A slight mishap,” said Hunter.

“Nothing’s happened,” said Selena. “There’s nothing wrong, Bryony. You can go off and do your work.”

But Bryony marched over to the bellowing outbuilding and disappeared into its darkness. A moment later she came out followed by a man. Tall and lean, he had to duck beneath the lintel.

“Here’s Isaac,” she said.

He wasn’t decrepit. He wasn’t even old, not really. Maybe sixty, with cropped hair as grey as granite, a face as still and weathered as the rocks in the fields. I thought at once it was a face that had noticed much and been surprised by nothing. A face like that of the grandfather I had never seen except on one creased photo, standing amongst grazing horses.

Isaac looked silently at Selena with stoical tolerance, and then directed an enquiring gaze at Hunter.

“Let’s go inside, shall we?” Hunter said. We all trooped through the side door of the farmhouse, which led straight into the big, high-ceilinged kitchen with faded green walls, limp tea towels draped like sad flags round a blackened range and a row of boots – seven of them – standing knock-kneed by the door. As well as the range, there was a modern cooker, and the chairs which Isaac motioned us to sit down on were clunky yellow pine; but the long dark table, scarred and battered, might well have been eighteenth century oak. A tide of paper-work washed across it, held back by the teapot.

On the ancient rag rug lay an old border collie which raised its grizzled nose to Isaac. He felt absently for its ears as he sat down in the easy chair next to the range. He looked like the farmer in my first reading book, his strong hand resting on the sheepdog’s head.

“Well, go on,” he said, his voice cave-deep.

“Mrs Staithwaite?” Hunter asked Selena. “Are you happy for Eden to explain what happened?” He meant happy for Bryony to hear it; his eyes travelled to her standing stocky and puzzled in the doorway.

But Selena just shrugged. “Sure.” She stood by the stove and fiddled with the zip on my puffa jacket. Her long trench coat, still damp, was in a carrier bag along with her other clothes. I’d put them in the tumble drier, but they stank.

I described, as briefly and factually as I could, Selena’s dip in Windermere, aware throughout of the farmer’s grey eyes fixed on me unwaveringly. As I finished they creased into a slow smile.

“That was courageous of you,” he said.

“Not really.” I was flustered; what had I needed courage for? I’d gone scarcely thigh-deep in still water. But his tone almost made me believe that I’d actually done something right for a change. It had been so long since anyone approved of me.

“All right now, are you, lass?” he asked Selena.

“I’m fine.”

“Silly thing to do, wasn’t it?” He spoke as if to a child, and she answered like one, head down, hair twirling round her finger.

“Not really. Nothing bad happened.”

“But it could have. You should take care of yourself. You could have caught a chill.” If Selena had thought Isaac would be cross, then she was wrong. He was gruffly solicitous. It wasn’t appreciated. She shrugged and hunched her shoulders as if to ward him off.

Isaac sighed. “Bryony,” he said, “why don’t you take Selena up to her room and sort those clothes out? Then you can give Miss…”

“Shirer. Eden Shirer. Call me Eden.”

“Miss Shirer her clothes back.”

“I don’t need Bryony!” Selena seemed discomposed, a princess who had wandered out of her castle to find herself in the woodcutter’s cottage.

“You’ve got me anyway. And Ruby’s upstairs, mending curtains. Come and say hallo to Ruby,” said Bryony, not untenderly. As they passed through the inner door I glimpsed dark polished floors and a black dresser with a funereal peace lily drooping over it, and heard the slow, momentous ticking of an ancient clock.

Isaac fondled the old dog’s ears. He looked at Hunter and said steadily, “Well, she’s not been right since Luke died.”

“Of course. Depression?” Hunter was good at the voice of concern. I couldn’t tell how much he really cared.

“She’s been under the doctor. She didn’t want to go, but he gave her some tablets first off when she couldn’t sleep. I thought she was all right now, or better, anyway. She took it hard.” He looked into a distance somewhere beyond the old dog’s head.

I cleared my throat. “She said a couple of odd things.”

Isaac’s gaze switched to me. It gave me a weird feeling: like being watched by a mountain. Not many people looked at me so thoroughly.

“Aye?”

“Well, when Selena came out of the lake, she said she stole her husband.” I drew a breath. “And later on, in the middle of the night, she said – well, she said she killed her husband. I know that’s nonsense.” Something in Isaac’s face took my voice away.

“She seems to be suffering from some confusion,” Hunter said prosaically.

Isaac’s brows drew together. “Stole Luke? I don’t know what she means there. Not unless…”

“Yes?” prompted Hunter.

Isaac shook his head more definitely. “Luke’s death wasn’t Selena’s fault. She did him good. She helped him get over it when Carol died.”

“Your wife?”

He nodded, turning his face back down to his dog, kneading its ears. “Luke met Selena soon after; at the funeral, in fact.” His face twitched slightly. “Selena was supposed to be at the funeral the day before. Got the date mixed up. Strange way to meet, but they got on all right. Gave Luke something to hang onto. In each others’ pockets after a bit.”

“Then what went wrong for Luke?” Hunter’s voice was hushed respectfully.

Isaac sighed and leaned back in his chair. The dog, abandoned, rested its chin on his lap in appeal.

“Luke had problems,” he said. His voice was deep and quiet, lifting the words up from a well of silence. “He had problems years back, long before Carol died. He was always given to ups and downs. Easily influenced. He’d get these grand ideas – these money-making plans – and then take it badly when they didn’t work out. Because they never did work out. It seemed like every set-back went round and round in his head and he couldn’t shake it off. It all started with the foot and mouth.” He looked at me directly. “Before your time.”

“I remember.” I’d only been a child, but you couldn’t live round here and not remember the coming of the foot and mouth disease.

“It was terrible,” said Hunter gravely.

“It was a plague and a siege rolled into one. The barriers. The warnings. The fires and the stench. Those massive burial pits at Great Orton: like the middle ages. Everybody suffered, every farm. Some took years to get over it – not just money-wise, but up here.” Isaac tapped his head. “Some never did.”

“I know,” said Hunter.

“Luke never did. Death and disaster were always there, just waiting round the corner. Then last year he thought our stock had it again.”

“What?” Hunter’s head jerked back.

“One of the cows went lame, had mouth ulcers. I was pretty sure it wasn’t foot and mouth – you don’t forget what that’s like in a hurry – but I couldn’t convince Luke. He… panicked.”

The dog whimpered, waiting. But Isaac’s hand was still. His voice was very even.

“He took the gun up to his room. I didn’t know. I was outside with the vet when we heard the gunshot. The cow was fine: she’d just ate something that she shouldn’t. But Luke was dead.” He glanced bleakly up at Hunter. “You know he left a note?”

“I read the copy in the coroner’s report. It didn’t mention foot and mouth.”

“No. But that was the root of it. Nothing to do with Selena. He was obsessed. I couldn’t help him. No-one could help him.” The tendons tightened in the hand that gripped the chair arm.

“Selena is clearly affected by his death. I would recommend that she goes back to see her doctor,” Hunter said.

“I’ll get Bryony to take her.” As the women came back into the room Isaac’s hand relaxed, returning to the dog at last. Its eyes shuttered themselves in ecstasy.

Selena was wearing jeans and a baggy grey jumper: a masculine jumper, way too big, that buried her curves and made her look soft and guileless. Bryony handed me a bag of my clothes.

Behind them both was a third woman, tall and angularly graceful. I recognised her. She was Russell’s wife, Ruby, whom I’d met on my painting course at the neighbouring house nine years before.

Ruby’s name was fitting. She glowed with colour: ruby, emerald, gold, a slice of jungle vibrancy lighting up the sombre room. Her outfit might have been the same one I remembered from nine years back: long red scarf, green velvet jacket, swirly mauve-and-gold hand-painted wellies. There were a few more lines than previously on her strong face, now in middle-age but still handsome. Her auburn hair was bright.

“Those curtains are sewn up,” she told Isaac, but her sharp eyes alighted on Hunter and his hand. He grasped all her attention until I said,

“Hallo, Ruby? I was on one of your courses years ago.”

Her gaze shifted; her brow furrowed. “Really? A weekend one?”

“No, a week. One of the summer courses. It was nearly nine years ago; you won’t remember.”

“I do indeed! Certainly I remember!” She didn’t. “Let me see, you’re–”

“Eden.”

“Of course! You were little Eden.”

“Still am,” I said.

“A lovely name! Eden, yes. You were quite talented, as I recall. So what are you doing these days, Eden? Still painting? Did you go to art college like you planned?”

“Yes, I did.” Though it hadn’t been quite as I’d planned. “I paint a bit. Small things, you know.”

“You must come over some time,” she said. “Russell would love to see you again.” I doubted if he would have a clue who I was.

Isaac stood up, even taller inside the house than out. “Talent as well as courage, eh? We’re very grateful to you.” He held out his hand and I shook it. It was cool and firm, calloused with fifty years of effort.

“What do you say, Selena?” suggested Ruby, not even sotto voce. Selena gave her a quick look and then recited without expression,

“Thank you, Eden, and thank you, Sergeant Brigg.”

We all trooped outside. I didn’t want to leave. I wanted to stay at the farm with the tall man and the old dog: a storybook world, unchanged over centuries. I wanted to sit at the ancient kitchen table under the slow tick of the clock.

I wanted the sleepy baaing of the sheep and the unseen bellowing of the bull to drown out Greta’s shrill complaints, to banish all the world’s reproofs. I wanted to pull that ring of hills around me like a shawl of charcoal and sienna.

“I’m pleased I could help, Isaac,” said Ruby. She kissed him loudly on the cheek, at which Isaac looked awkward and Hunter’s mouth twitched. “I’ll bring that pulsatilla over for your joints. It might benefit Selena too: her moods, you know. Anything else you need doing round the house, just say the word. We’re quiet right now: no painting courses until Easter.”

“Eden’s a brilliant painter,” put in Selena. “She’s as good as Russell. She paints cards for people to buy.”

“Cards? Of course, that’s it!” Ruby slapped her thigh in a theatrical gesture that made Hunter smile. “Freddie’s bookshop! That’s where I’ve seen your name. You sell your landscapes there, don’t you? So does Russell. Eden Shirer! I knew I’d heard that name before. Yes, they’re very nice.”

Her voice turned down. I cringed. My watercolours were snares for tourists, and she must know it. Certainly Russell would know it. I shrivelled inwardly at what he would make of my work.

“They’re lovely paintings,” said Selena wistfully. “I wish you could paint me, Eden.”

I felt myself wilt. “Like I said, I don’t do portraits.”

“You said not any more! So you used to. You could again, just once, couldn’t you? I really wish you’d paint me.”

“Selena, don’t nag Miss Shirer. She’s done enough,” said Isaac gently. Selena flashed him a resentful glance.

“But it’s important,” she insisted. “Because Luke never had a picture of me, did he? We never took any wedding photos.”

“You didn’t want them,” Isaac said. “You refused.”

“Point-blank,” said Bryony.

“Well, I want a picture now! For Luke. I want you to come back and paint me, Eden. Please do, please.”

“Look, Selena–” Isaac stopped, because Selena hiccupped and was starting to sob tearlessly, like a child trying to prove a point.

“It’s For Luke. How can you say no? Don’t you care what Luke would think?” she wailed.

“That doesn’t make any sense,” said Bryony.

“It’s an excellent idea, Selena,” said Ruby briskly. “You’re made to be painted. A born model. Eden should definitely do it.” She mouthed at me, “It’ll be good for her.”

Maybe so. I didn’t think it would be good for me. It would just prove my limitations yet again.

“Will you, Eden? Will you come back?” Selena’s huge eyes begged me.

I meant to refuse; but something welled up unexpectedly inside me. It wasn’t pity. It was an emotion that I hadn’t felt for so long that I hardly recognised it now. Desire.

I thought it had died in jail; but now it stirred again. I desired those rampant, guarding hills and the solemn farmhouse with a sudden fierce need; not just to look at but to paint, to capture; to make them mine and make me them.

So I said with careful casualness, “What if I did a picture of this place, and put you in it?”

“The farmhouse? Could we get it printed up?” asked Bryony. “The Aireys got cards made up for the Farmstay guests, Isaac. Or we could use it to advertise the cottages on the website.”

“No, no, not on the website!” cried Selena. “This is for Luke! It’s not for everybody!”

“No website,” said Isaac heavily. “How much do you charge?”

“I wouldn’t charge you anything,” I said. I would paint Selena standing on her head if it gave me the chance to come back here.

My heart was thumping with intense, shocking need. I wanted the brush in my hand now. I wanted to make the colour grow across the paper. I felt my skin grow hot with wanting.

It wasn’t just the landscape. It was that face, as still and worn as rock. Those eyes as watchful as the sky. The grey head of an austere king, haloed by the iron crown of hills.

I didn’t do people. And I didn’t understand this unforeseen, electric urge. But, more badly than I’d wanted anything for ages, I wanted to paint Isaac.

 

Chapter Four

 

My first real paint box was the size of a tea tray. It was a thing of total wonder, from the picture on its lid – two rosy children chasing a dog – to the slim squirrel-hair brush and the forty-eight little bricks lined up inside, enchanting me with their names.

They laid spells on me. Vermilion, magenta, ultramarine, cerulean blue. Learning to paint with these was easier than learning to read. Like a voracious reader, I painted anything and everything: my family, our sullen cat, our B and B in Ambleside, the cluttered house we moved to in Penrith, my father’s ramshackle garage and his strange collection in the shed. I painted his flywheels and oilcans. I painted bins and Marmite pots and gym shoes and bowls of cat food.

I couldn’t understand why my classmates could not do the same: why their houses all had four windows and a chimney, and their people had big feet pointing out at right angles and no shoulders. I painted literally. It didn’t occur to me for years that I had no imagination.

“Look at Eden’s drawing,” said Miss Wilkinson, holding up my picture for Year Three to admire. “Eden has looked properly. She has drawn her daffodil the way it really is, not the way she thinks it ought to be. She has seen it like an artist.” At that instant, my career took shape ahead of me: a straight, wide, easy road.

Later on, in High School, I acquired a label, an aura. Eden can draw. It defined me. Whatever else I couldn’t do, I could always draw. My skill held a kind of magic for classmates who still drew an aeroplane the way they had in infant school.

Back then, I drew a lot of portraits, to order: a caricature of the Head, or a long-limbed fashion sketch, or Mr Travis (History) with no clothes on. I drew my friends, to please them, although the results dissatisfied me. I couldn’t capture character: I couldn’t get inside people. My friends didn’t see it, for the likeness was good enough, but I knew my portraits were dead in the water. I was discovering by then that my competency lay elsewhere.

I could lay a wash and turn it to a landscape with a line. I could paint colours and reflections: hills and skies and water. I filled books with my experiments. My money went not on make-up but on tubes of watercolour – so much more luscious than the blocks – and sable brushes.

I rejected vermilion and magenta. My favourite colours were raw sienna, cobalt violet, terre verte. And as an early eighteenth birthday present, I begged and cajoled my parents for a week’s watercolour course at Raven How Artists’ Centre.

Raven How was a bunkhouse whose spartan rooms Ruby had done her best to disguise with tie-dyed drapes and throws. The walls were lit by Russell’s paintings – semi-abstract landscapes full of broad, confident brush-sweeps and translucent colours, as bright and urgent as stained glass.

Russell himself was tall, lean, shaggy and decisive. He had a constant one-week growth of beard: too restless to shave. I thought him leonine, prowling between his twelve timid pupils with a growled comment here, an approving toss of his mane there. We did our painting out in the field or, on the days it rained, in the big conservatory, pausing only to eat Ruby’s weird, if well-cooked, meals. I tried chick-peas for the first time, determined to like them because Russell did.

There was a daughter. Delilah was then three, and not Russell’s, Ruby was at pains to tell us, for they had an open marriage – a glamorous expression I had met but not been able to apply to anyone I knew: yet they gave the impression of being a long-settled couple. The courses had been running for several years. Over-subscribed, said Russell with satisfaction. You are the fortunate few.

I already knew that. I thought I knew it all. I went there in the anticipation of showing off. That week amongst dabbling amateurs three times my age only strengthened my opinion of my own talent. I knew I was better than any of them except Russell. That week confirmed my choice: I was going to be an artist.

The age gap should have warned me; but I was blind with love. It didn’t register that the form of art I had chosen to marry myself to was middle-aged, middle-class and middle-brow. Imagine: a stringy, gauche seventeen year old, into grungy leather, vampire movies, vodka with anything, drum’n’bass – and watercolours. I didn’t foresee the ridicule my passion would provoke. That unwelcome revelation was yet to come, at university.

Now, nine years later, as I climbed off my scooter in Keswick, I had to admit that my painting had taken me in directions I could never have foreseen so long ago. I had certainly never foreseen Freddie’s Bookshop as the main showcase for my talent, although God knows how I could have imagined anything grander was remotely possible.

I parked up by the supermarket and strolled around for a bit to recover from the trauma of driving over Dunmail Raise. Though I’d had the second-hand scooter for three months now, I’d not yet accustomed myself to the capricious, whiny ride: it buzzed and bumped along the Lake District’s roads like a bad-tempered mosquito, only not as fast. With a top speed of thirty, it wasn’t the pleasantest way to travel; nor the most popular, with the other traffic at least.

So I was glad to enjoy the sedate bustle of Keswick market and admire the bric-a-brac and home-made pies. I liked Keswick, with its business-like air and the stately tower of the Moot Hall, which always looked to me like something built by an enthusiastic ten-year-old giant with a ton of grey and white Lego.

Freddie’s was just around the corner from the market place. It was a long, thin shop that tunnelled into the gloomy depths of the building and sprawled tentacles of piled books up the rickety stairs. Freddie sold second-hand and antiquarian books, maps, charts, prints, greetings cards and minor original water-colours, unframed, any major ones generally being displayed on the more dignified walls of Latrigg Galleries down the road.

Freddie was sitting on a cushion on the floor surrounded by books, regardless of any customers who would have to pick their way around him. Not that there were any customers.

“My dear Eden,” he said, his ready smile turning equally readily to anxiety, “I wasn’t expecting you. We don’t need to restock your cards just yet. It’s the weather, you know. A chilly spring so far.” He stared up at me with his genial, apologetic gaze. Freddie’s once-handsome, chubby face was heading dramatically south, with drooping jowls and heavy bags under his eyes. Too much smoking and drinking. He resembled one of Rembrandt’s late self-portraits; that air of puffy resignation.

“It’s all right,” I said, embarrassed. “I was coming up to Keswick anyway so I thought I’d just drop in on the off-chance, and beg a brew.”

“Well, that’s easy, my love. Any time,” he said, scrambling laboriously to his feet. “I’ll get the coffee on. Matt? Coffee?” he called.

Matt appeared from behind a bookcase. “Hallo there, Eden.” Matt was tall, dark, and while not exactly handsome, had an attractive, alert face, his amused green eyes as wide-set as a cat’s beneath his carefully spiked hair. His movements held a supple catlike grace as well, with a gym-honed tautness that I might have surreptitiously admired had there been any point. He wore a new leather jacket, with a badge declaring Rarely pure and never simple.

“Oscar Wilde?” I asked.

“Of course.” Matt was organised and clever and, I thought, quietly devoted to Freddie. Freddie was certainly devoted to him. I assumed that they were partners in more than business. At any rate, when Matt touched Freddie lightly on the shoulder I saw how Freddie looked at him: like the old dog with Isaac.

“You sit down,” said Matt. “I’ll make the coffee. Chocolate biscuits?”

“Bring the lemon cake,” said Freddie. They always had a full cake tin. Visiting them was like dropping in on a couple of uncles – although Matt, the younger by a good ten years, was barely thirty; but their easy acceptance made me more comfortable than I was with my own family.

I’d known Freddie and his shop since I was a little girl in pigtails hunting comic books. However, it was Matt, new to me when I turned up with my painted samples at New Year, who had proved my first ally.

I’d already been turned down by several shops, all saying No, dear, it’s an over-crowded market – and I could see Freddie was about to say the same, when Matt spoke up for me. I think these have something, he’d announced. Not the usual run of the mill. You’re a professional artist, right? Eden Shirer… He eyed me with a speculative gaze, cogs turning in his head. Now where have I heard that name?

He had probably read it in the papers. I had to spill out my jailbird credentials – something my probation officer insisted on – which left Freddie totally in shock but which Matt, after an initial recoil, put to one side.

Irrelevant, he’d quietly said to Freddie; everybody makes mistakes. Forgive and Forget. And Freddie had agreed, though clearly for the love of Matt, not me: and Matt had brought me a piece of parkin.

Now the three of us sat on the big, cracked leather sofa by the window, with plates of sticky lemon cake, and exchanged Keswick gossip with Ambleside’s, such as it was. A hotel closed: a café opened. Freddie’s motorboat was up for sale, but no buyers. Was Freddie short of money then? I couldn’t work out how to ask, and anyway Matt was rattling on amusingly about a local newsagent who had run off with the week’s takings and one of the paper-girls.

Matt was easy company. Like me, he’d been brought up in the Lakes before the city beckoned: and, like me, had returned home out of exile when things hadn’t worked out. I felt a fellowship with him on that account. Matt loved a gossip, with just a hint of sharpness showing through his carefully kind manner. Freddie was less forthcoming. I didn’t mention my dip in the lake with Selena just yet; I was saving it up, and at the same time wondering how much I should say.

Meanwhile a single browser appeared and tiptoed round the shop, refusing offers of help. Time of year, Freddie said again.

“I think I’ll just hibernate next winter,” he added gloomily, “and save myself the trouble.”

“You won’t need any more cards for a while then?”

Freddie was already shaking his head when Matt put in, “Oh, if you’ve brought them, Eden, we’ll take them. They don’t need much space, after all.”

“What about my bigger paintings, Freddie? Are you ready to restock yet?” I asked without much hope.

“Not just yet,” he said. “I always think it’s better not to display too many all at once.” I knew Freddie’s theories on rarity value.

“I bumped into somebody the other day I haven’t seen for years,” I said. “You might know her. Ruby: wife of Russell. They run the painting courses at Raven How.”

“Oh, yes! I know them quite well.” The crease deepened between Freddie’s brows.

“Apparently he sells some work through you. I never realised.” I hadn’t spotted any in the shop, although I would have expected to instantly recognise Russell’s strong lines and colours. But maybe it was only minor bits and pieces that he bothered to sell here.

Freddie locked his fingers together. “We’ve had a few pieces of Russell’s. I don’t think he’s as productive as he used to be.”

“I suppose he doesn’t have much time, with all those courses.”

“They don’t run so many of those nowadays,” said Matt, offering me a second slice of cake.

“Don’t they? I wonder why. When Ruby asked me what I was doing these days I hardly knew what to say. I mean, I couldn’t tell her I’d been done for forgery,” I said glumly. “I don’t think that would go down well.”

“It matters less than you suppose,” said Freddie, patting my knee.

“It still matters, though.”

“But how much?” Matt sat forward to study me intently with his measuring cat’s stare. “Who exactly did you hurt?”

I smiled without humour. “Nobody, except myself.”

“And do you feel you’ve paid for what you did?”

“More than enough,” I said.

“Indeed. Unfortunately not everybody would agree.” Matt leaned back again, his tone sardonic. “Ruby, for one. She’s conventional beneath the tie-dye.”

“No, no! Ruby’s big-hearted,” objected Freddie. “She wouldn’t care about it.”

I was doubtful. “Please don’t tell her anyway, will you? Or Russell, if you should happen to mention me at all. Not that he’ll remember me. But he’d think I’d wasted my talent, such as it was.”

“You wouldn’t be alone in that,” said Freddie ruefully. “Where did you bump into Ruby?”

“Oh, she came over to the farmhouse next to Raven How, while I was… er, visiting.” I still hadn’t decided how much of Selena’s story I was at liberty to tell.

“You were at the Staithwaite place?” said Matt, suddenly alert.

“Yes. Do you know it?”

Freddie shook his head, but Matt said, “I used to know Luke. The man who died.” Freddie took an inward breath and looked up and away at the bookshelves, tapping his fingers on the flaking leather of the sofa arm.

“The farmer who killed himself?” he said distantly.

“Supposedly.” Matt sighed and ran a hand through his hair. “I hardly like to think it, but yes, I suppose he must have. Poor old Luke.”

“How well did you know him?” I asked.

“Very well, as a boy. We met at High School when we were both eleven. We stayed friendly right through school and for a few years after, until I moved down south.”

“I didn’t know it was that long,” said Freddie, with a petulant edge to his voice.

“Oh, yes. Everyone liked Luke. He was very popular, especially with the girls. He was always falling for some pretty girl or other. Not many of them turned him down. He was good-looking, with that brown hair flopping over his eyes; and always ready to please. Thoughtful. Sometimes moody but appealingly so. The moods grew darker, though, as he grew older.” Matt winced slightly in remembered pity or pain.

“But you moved away,” said Freddie. “You dropped him.”

“I lost contact,” said Matt carefully. “When I came back up to Cumbria , I got in touch again, but it seemed to me he wasn’t the same man. His mother was very ill by then. I think Luke was already suffering from full-blown depression, and his mother’s death was the last straw.”

“But he met Selena just after his mother died,” I said, startled into an unintended show of knowledge.

“That’s true. I suspect he married her on the rebound from her death. Not that Selena wasn’t good for him – I’m sure marriage helped him for a while, but in the end the depression took over. There was nothing she could do about it.”

“How do you know all this? I thought you hardly ever saw him,” complained Freddie.

“Hardly ever isn’t never,” Matt answered levelly. “We bumped into each other from time to time. And Ruby gave me updates. I couldn’t help but take an interest. I’d grown up with him, after all.”

Freddie half-glanced at him and looked away again as if it hurt, although Matt showed the same composed face as always.

“You’ve met Selena, then?” Matt asked me.

“Yes. As a matter of fact–” I stopped. Hunter might not approve, even though Selena’s dip in the lake had hardly been private. “I met her in Ambleside, and we got talking, and I went back to the farm,” I said lamely. I was a bad liar. Matt’s eyes narrowed in sceptical amusement.

“You got talking? What about? Where was that?”

“About painting. I was painting at the time, down by Waterhead, and she was there too.”

“You talked with Selena about painting?” Matt sounded incredulous.

“Sure. Why not? I’ve promised to do her portrait. But that’s just an excuse. Once I saw where she lived, I couldn’t resist. I’ve got to paint that farm,” I said. “It’s such an amazing setting.”

“It’s quite a place,” agreed Matt. “Luke never appreciated it. You should go there some time, Freddie.”

“What for?” Freddie grumbled.

“Next time we go for dinner at Ruby and Russell’s, I’ll take you over.”

“Not necessary,” said Freddie shortly. He heaved himself off the sofa and began to shuffle the display books around the table. I was taken aback. Here they were talking with familiarity about dining with Russell, when I’d carefully treasured his legend in my heart for all those years.

“What sort of thing does Russell paint these days?” I asked.

“You want to see? Come down here. I’ll show you.” Turning his back on Matt, Freddie led me down the book-strewn tunnel to the depths of the shop, as murky as a pond, the feeble lights barely penetrating its brown gloom.

I spotted my cards on a rack, half in shadow and hemmed in by garish cartoons of sheep holding umbrellas. I bit my lip and said nothing. I had few enough outlets as it was.

At least one of my larger paintings was decently displayed on the wall. Just a shame it wasn’t sold. The stuff around it probably put people off: it was fairly grim.

“There,” said Freddie. “Those are Russell’s.” He pointed at the pictures I’d just been mentally condemning to the dustbin.

“What? Those?” I was stunned. Where were the flowing lines, the vibrancy of colour? These were dry, muddy scratches in the dirt, barely recognisable as landscapes: their trees looked dead and their earth poisoned. I peered for the signature, disbelieving: there it was, sure enough.

“He’s changed,” I said. “I mean, that’s quite a change in style.” Could I have been mistaken about Russell all those years ago? But even at seventeen I surely knew what was good and what wasn’t. This wasn’t.

“So I believe. We haven’t been stocking him for long. A year, maybe. He used to sell his work elsewhere. Latrigg Galleries and a few others. He had a name,” said Freddie.

“Does he sell well?”

Freddie put his head on one side and smiled at me.

“Sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have asked.” Name or not, I couldn’t see people falling over themselves to buy these. I hated them. To cover my shock, I said, “You don’t really need any more of my cards, do you?”

“No,” said Freddie. “I’m about to sort out that lot, you know, to show them off better. Matt’s been on at me about updating the display racks. I’m afraid I just don’t seem to get round to it. The view of Derwentwater from Cat Bells is our best seller.”

“I’ll knock out some more of those, then,” I said. “In different weathers.” I wouldn’t need to go up Cat Bells again to do it. I had the photos and the sketches. Just add mist or sunshine, or my favourite, thunderous rainclouds with a pale sunbeam glinting through. I was good at clouds, thanks largely to Russell. I took another disbelieving glance at the muddy scrapings on the wall before retreating.

Saying goodbyes to Matt and Freddie, I left with my rucksack still full of cards. I wandered the gently undemanding Keswick streets for a while, collecting postcards for reference and checking out coats on the market and in the charity shops, because my lemon puffa jacket was growing more disgusting by the day.

But finally I couldn’t put it off any longer. Gathering my courage, I walked into Latrigg Galleries.

I pretended to myself that I was just browsing – a hiker hoping to get warm. I strolled across the polished floor, laying a trail of echoes, and surveyed the works on the spacious white walls. This room held the modern stuff: big, bold, sophisticated. Real art. There were none of Russell’s. I went into the next room, where they kept the older paintings, and stopped dead in shock.

I recognised it straight away. It was an Anthony MacLeish, a late one, that I clearly remembered painting towards the end of my short career before I diverged into the Holbecks that were to prove my downfall. “Rae Bridge,” it was called. I’d used a photo off a calendar.

The first shock was just seeing it there. The second shock was how good it was. I mean, it was good. I didn’t quite believe I’d done it. It looked alive. You could almost hear the water laughing.

The third shock was the price. Which was well into four figures.

Almost twenty times what Lionel had paid me for it originally. I stood and stared, until the assistant – or possibly owner – finally felt it worth his while to ask if he could help me. Sharp suit, southern accent, bored air. He wanted to be in Soho, not Keswick.

I couldn’t help it. I said, “How come this is so expensive?”

“This is a particularly fine example of MacLeish’s work. He’s been undervalued for a long time. He’s on the up. A good investment for the right person.” He spoke flatly, eyeing my naff yellow jacket and scuffed boots. I was clearly not that person. He didn’t like it when I asked,

“What’s the provenance?”

“It’s being sold by a private collector who purchased it some years ago.” Three years at most. I never knew any of the buyer’s names: Lionel saw to all that.

“But it’s authenticated?” I insisted.

“Validated by the auction house,” he said sniffily. “Are you considering buying?” Just daring me to say yes.

So I invented an interest. “Anthony MacLeish was friends with my grandfather.”

“Really?” I could see his ears perk up. “Are there any of his works in the family?”

“I believe there used to be a couple. I don’t know what happened to them.”

“Well, if you ever come across them and the family wishes to sell, I’d be very interested to take a look.”

“Okay,” I said, edging towards the door. “I’ll bear it in mind.” He didn’t want to let me go now.

“Were they good friends, MacLeish and your grandfather?”

“Um… I believe they fell out.”

He nodded. “Yes, well, MacLeish had a habit of doing that, I understand.”

“Do you have any of his other work?”

“Not at present. But we’re always on the lookout. Do let us know if you hear of anything.” He had gone from sniffy to courteous: greedily so. I reached the door at last with him nosing after me like a well-dressed piranha.

“I’ll remember that,” I said, as I slid out.

I had to pause outside in the street for a while, pretending to contemplate jam tarts through a shop window while my heart was pounding and my mind racing. Who would have thought it? MacLeish was in demand. Could I still do it?

I closed the thought firmly away and locked the door. No, I couldn’t. Even if I could come up with a provenance – something Lionel had always arranged – I still couldn’t do it. I’d been in enough trouble. I could never get away with presenting the gallery with a new Anthony MacLeish. A pity: I felt a pang, because I’d enjoyed them, had been confident in the role of that quarrelsome, obsessive, long-dead Scotsman. And he had never let me down.

The court case had been based on my Holbecks. By the time I was charged, the MacLeishes had slipped through the net and gone, all except the last two they found in Lionel’s workshop.

We made out they were the first two, not the last. We never let on that there had been more: that there was a sizeable shoal of fake Anthony MacLeishes out there, swimming around the muddy unregarded shallows of the art market. The two they found were never brought in evidence against me, since they had not been sold. The Holbecks were enough.

At least there was nothing to link me now to this MacLeish, apart from Greta. No matter what her doubts, she wouldn’t act on them and risk more notoriety for the family. There was no reason for anyone else to wonder. It was a good painting: it ought to make some buyer very happy. I’d hang it on my wall any day, I thought, if I ever owned a wall to hang it on.

My work, for sale in Latrigg Galleries. I was proud.

 

Chapter Five

 

 

“It’s not one of mine,” I said. “I went to check it out. It’s a genuine MacLeish. You know I only did the two, Greta, and I’d be surprised if one of them escaped.”

“Oh, did you really?” I could hear the sarcasm coming all the way from Cockermouth. “So it’s just a great big coincidence, is it, then, you and a genuine MacLeish appearing in the Lake District at exactly the same time?”

“It’s got a provenance. It’s nothing to do with me.”

“Are you quite sure?” That teacher voice: I hated it, especially from a sister two years younger than me. Greta had had it all her life.

“Listen,” I told her. “I am not up to my old tricks. I’m earning a decent, honest, very meagre living. You just talk to my probation officer.”

“You twist her round your little finger,” Greta said.

“That’s neither true nor fair.” My probation officer had approved my frequent shifts of job and address without demur, certainly – but not because I manipulated her. She had a heavy caseload of much harder nuts than me. I was light relief.

“Sitting round in other people’s houses,” Greta said. “You think that’s a proper job?”

Phone clenched to my ear, I gazed at the basement wall, now fresh Wild Orchid, but slow to dry because I was covering the bills for my stay and dared not switch the radiators on. “Yes. I’m not just sitting here, I’m cleaning and decorating. It’s hard work.”

“You should try teaching. Then you’d know what hard work is. No, on second thoughts, you shouldn’t. You’d be totally unsuited to it.” Greta was in her second year of teaching at a primary school in Workington.

“Thanks,” I said. “Nice to have the support of my family.”

“You need someone to tell you the truth. And the truth is, Eden, you’re a fraud. I know who did that bloody painting. I’m not stupid.”

I took a swift breath, said “Goodbye, Greta,” tonelessly and slammed the phone down before I started shouting at it.

“Jesus Christ!” I yelled at the orchid wall instead. “What does she want? Blood?”

That was it. Greta wanted blood. She wanted my head on the block. I felt she’d despised me for years, and I had no idea why. We’d got on all right as children, apart from the odd attempted drowning, even though our tastes differed wildly: mine for solitude and exploring and making dens; hers for order, filling my dens with dolls which had to sit in rows and be told off. I hated dolls.

I didn’t hate Greta, though: I quite liked her, and assumed that she had once quite liked me. I didn’t know what had changed. Well, I did know. But that wasn’t any help. She was unforgiving.

I marched out of the basement, ran up to my painting room and swiftly laid out four A5 sheets of semi-rough on the dressing table. Propping my photos up against the mirror, I began to pencil in the view of Derwentwater from Cat Bells. I drew quickly, lightly, barely touching the paper where I felt more like stabbing it.

So I didn’t know what hard work was, did I? The one-woman production line. I sketched in the humps of four Castleriggs. Greta was jealous of my talent, that was her trouble. Talentless and resentful, like all teachers, because I’d been successful – for a while, at least.

My pencil ripped at one of the sheets and I screwed it up and hurled it away, then stared at the bin, breathing hard and wishing I could throw the last two years in there as well.

I was being unfair. To teachers, not to Greta. It was my art teacher who had made me believe that I was good enough for university. And so I would have been – maybe eighty years ago.

Not in the twenty-first century, though. When I got there, I hated my art course. I wanted to paint and draw, and more specifically to paint and draw from life. I wasn’t interested in installations and events and ideas. I had no ideas. I didn’t get other people’s. I decided that my co-students were all frauds, trying to produce something that fell in with fashion, blind to what they could actually see. They were fakes.

For a while I tried to fake it too. The only thing I ever did that my tutors liked was a dismantled engine that my father had discarded: I exploded the parts across a cut-up candlewick bedspread thrown out by my mother, and called it Lunatic Disenchantment. I’d jabbed my finger in the dictionary at random. The whole thing took me twenty minutes and earned my only A.

By then I’d learnt that my own stuff was no good in any case. My watercolours, unloved, grew limp and tame. It seemed my only talent was for pastiche. My tutor suggested that I had the necessary skills for the greetings card market. This was not a compliment.

It was to prove him wrong that in my third year I bundled up my out-of-hours efforts and hawked them round a few commercial art galleries, who of course didn’t want to know; and ended up in Lionel’s antiques shop.

Lionel inspected my work with care. Hmm, he said, interesting. This one looked very much like William Russell Flint. Well, yes, I was influenced, I said. I borrowed other artists’ styles, having lost confidence in my own.

Lionel asked a few questions about my background. He was small, round and waistcoated, with a pointed beard and the air of a well-read garden gnome. I liked him.

Would I consider copying a painting for a commission? he asked. For a client who didn’t want to display the real thing for insurance reasons. So I came into his shop and practised over a day or two, with Lionel looking over my shoulder. The end result was, I thought, pretty good. To show off, I then painted almost the same picture but in mirror image, with subtle adjustments – taller trees, a distant child on the left, lose the hill – so that it ended up making a different, but matching, partner to the original.

Lionel liked it. His client bought it. Lionel offered me other commissions, “in the style of.” I did them. He sold them. I never knew who to or how much for. I got a small amount for each one, but it paid the rent.

Did I wonder? Yes, of course I did.

Did I care? No. My work was being bought. It had a value: that was all I cared about. By now I was no longer a student: I had a living to earn. I waitressed in the evenings, and by day, in the run-down flat I shared with Nick, I painted. Nick was out at work, creating storyboards for an advertising agency. I was painting early twentieth century watercolours, in the style of little known artists, 1890’s to 1930’s, the sort of things that might fetch a couple of hundred in a saleroom on a good day but would attract no particular attention. None of them were signed: not by me, at any rate.

It was Lionel who suggested Anthony MacLeish. The perfect subject: prolific, badly-documented, given to offering paintings to his bookies to pay his gambling debts, and to anyone else in exchange for a loan: thirty years dead and with no descendants to take an interest in his estate. A cantankerous, compulsive painter of Highland landscapes and backer of bad horses. He didn’t always choose his subjects well, any more than his horses, but he had a superb way with line and shadow. He taught me a lot. In return I bulked up his body of work with some good, solid stuff.

Now I paused, sitting at the dressing table with my brush in the burnt umber. MacLeish was on the up. Was that due to me? Was it because of my paintings leaking into the market, nudging up the prices? That was a thought.

That one hanging in Latrigg Galleries: that was a top painting. Great clouds. I’m a bit of a virtuoso with clouds. I can make them look really difficult. Like a pianist playing trills: everyone says, ooh, how tricky! Tricky’s the word – it’s just sleight of hand. Russell taught me that. He had some brilliant tricks with clouds.

After a couple of years, I’d done with Antony MacLeish. We don’t want to saturate the market, Lionel had said. How about Gerwyn Holbeck? So I took him on. He was a bigger name already; he would command a higher price tag.

And that was my undoing. Holbeck had a mannered, idiosyncratic style, harder to fake than MacLeish’s, and because of his higher profile, subject to a lot more scrutiny. I thought my Holbecks were fine. They weren’t. The fraud squad got a tip-off from an auctioneer, and came to see Lionel; and Lionel shopped me.

I couldn’t blame him, really. He had to give them something. It turned out he had a lot at stake: apparently a fair number of his antiques weren’t the real deal either. And there was a whole lot more money tied up in them than in my paintings.

I was, I think, his only artist, an opportunist sideline that came to grief – but when they pulled me in, a whole, long, teeming, tangled catch of dodgy furniture and shady dealers was trawled in after me. So I was Lionel’s plea bargain, his hope for a shorter sentence.

But suddenly I found myself slipping into a muddy, desperate world of endless and terrifyingly quiet police interviews and faintly contemptuous lawyers, which finally ended in an eighteen month sentence and the words I’d thought existed only in bad movies: Take Her Down.

The worst thing was telling my parents. Telling my mum that I’d been charged: that killed me. My throat closed up. I could hardly get the words out. I had to repeat it all three times, painfully, because she wouldn’t, couldn’t understand.

“You’ve been what? You’ve been doing what?” she said. My mum was as straight and tough and undistracted as a Roman road. She valued hard work and had worked hard all her life. She was appalled, and Greta lined up right behind her.

My father was more sympathetic. Whatever you’ve done, he said, you’re still our daughter. In truth, he wasn’t all that bothered. Not a deep man, my dad, but kindly enough when he remembered to be. My brother Allen, like him, was inclined to say Silly girl, hard luck.

And then there was Nick – no, I couldn’t even bring myself to think about Nick. Back to my mother.

Appalled as she was, my mum set out to make the best of things. She was the one who visited me in prison, who offered sensible advice, who made it plain she would forgive me if I straightened myself out.

Greta never would. She was never going to forgive me anything. Yet I wasn’t that bad, was I? Not everybody thought I was that bad. Isaac approved of me. Selena admired me. She admired my paintings, anyway. And while fishing her out of the lake was hardly a heroic act, surely a bad person would have left her there to flounder?

A bad person wouldn’t have taken her home and put her in the bath. They would have turned her straight over to the police. No, maybe that was what a good person would have done. An ultra-good person, like Greta, not a normal person like me.

Normal? I was kidding myself. A normal person would have left her to the police. Although I’d thought I was acting like a nice, kind, normal person, I wasn’t any of those things. I’d taken her in because she breathed Jail to me; because of that familiar sad waywardness.

Cat Bells wasn’t working. Greta had ruined my Sunday morning. I couldn’t concentrate: I needed to get out. Rinsing my brushes, I left the dark washes of Derwentwater to dry while I returned to the phone.

I’d never rung Griff and Muriel as I’d promised. Now I hunted round the kitchen until I found Muriel’s slip of paper, and rang the number neatly printed on it.

Muriel answered, her Edinburgh accent as crisp and clean as a new shirt. “Eden! How good of you to get in touch!” It sounded genuine. Somebody believed my act, then. “How did things go the other evening? How is Selena?”

“She seemed to be okay,” I said. “She stayed here overnight, and then I took her to the police station next day and they drove her home.”

“Was it close?”

“It was a farm in Little Langdale. I’ve arranged to go over there and see her again. I’m meant to be painting her portrait, would you believe?” Prompted by Muriel, who said all the interested, encouraging things that Greta wouldn’t, I described the visit to the Staithwaites’ farm.

“I’m glad she seems to have recovered,” Muriel said. “And you? How are you? Did you suffer any ill-effects from your soaking?”

“No, I’m fine. I’m made of tough stuff.”

“Eden?” She hesitated. “Would you like to meet up with us? It would be very nice to see you again.”

“Sure,” I said, agreeably surprised. “But are you still in the Lakes? Weren’t you packing? I thought you’d be back home by now.”

“No, we’re still here. I feel rather guilty about leaving you to deal with Selena on your own. We’re going into Bowness shortly. Why don’t you join us, and we’ll take you out to lunch?”

“That would be good,” I said, gratified. Although I wasn’t keen on Bowness, a free lunch was always welcome.

“Can you meet us at Waterhead Pier in half an hour? We’re going to take the boat,” said Muriel, “and cruise down the lake to Bowness.”

I pulled a face. If I’d known, I wouldn’t have agreed so readily – partly because of my dislike of boats, but also because I didn’t know the pair of them well enough to spend that long together. I foresaw two hours of politely shivering, wind-whipped boredom ahead. However, it was too late to back out now.

Down at Waterhead Pier, I spotted Griff and Muriel immediately, although they didn’t appear to see me or maybe didn’t recognise me with my hair dry and bouncing around in all the annoyingly wrong directions. I went up to them and said Hallo.

Muriel was digging in her handbag. Griff said Hallo back, with a faint, polite note of enquiry. No recognition. Had I somehow got the wrong couple? Surely I couldn’t be mistaken, for they wore the matching green coats, and I remembered Griff’s gaunt, amiable, intelligent face, like a don escaped from the library. I was having a surreal moment of doubt when Muriel looked up and to my relief said,

“Hallo there, Eden! Nice to see you.”

“Well, Eden!” said Griff, instantly all smiles. “And how are you?”

“I’m good, thanks.”

“Let me just go and get a timetable,” said Muriel, and she walked off towards the hut.

Griff rubbed his hands. “So! And all the, er, family are well?”

“My family? Yes, they’re fine, thanks. How about you? Have you had a good weekend?”

Griff looked blank for a moment. Then he glanced at the rucksack sitting on the ground beside him, and his face cleared. “Oh, excellent! We’ve been up Loughrigg. I know a lot of people don’t rate it too highly but it’s always been a favourite of mine.”

“People have mountain snobbery,” I said. “It’s a beautiful day for it.”

“Yes, fantastic. A little boggy underfoot, though,” said Griff ruefully, as Muriel returned.

“You remember Eden, don’t you, Griff?” she said.

“Of course I do! How could I forget a name like that?”

“It is unusual,” I admitted. “My parents named all three of us after rivers. My brother’s Allen and my sister’s Greta.” When Greta used to moan about it, I told her to be thankful she hadn’t ended up as Ribble or Nidd.

“Eden was there with us when that other young lady got into trouble, you remember, Griff,” said Muriel.

On Griff’s face, utter confusion. Blankness, almost terror.

“Into trouble,” he repeated.

“The young lady who went swimming in the lake just over there the other evening. Eden had to go in and pull her out. We lent a hand,” supplied Muriel.

“Oh, yes! Yes!” His face creased into a broad smile. “Poor young lady! But what a thing to do. Fancy going swimming at this time of year!”

“What month is it, Griff?” asked Muriel, very quietly.

“Well…” His eyes strayed aside: to my puffa jacket, to a nearby couple wearing woolly hats, to the trees by the road, newly frilled with lime-green trim. “It’s… not very warm for spring yet, is it? We used to go swimming in Coniston Water when the children were small. Not sure I’d do it now, even in August.” He gave a mock shiver.

“Too true,” I said, the surreal feeling creeping over me again. I wondered if my face showed the same confusion that Griff’s just had.

“Would you go and buy the tickets for us, Griff?” asked Muriel. “Three for the red cruise.” Griff went off, muttering three for the red cruise, three for the red cruise.

Muriel looked up at me. An unremarkable, cheerful, competent face. “Memory loss,” she said.

“Oh. I did wonder…”

“He had viral encephalitis two years ago and it practically destroyed his short term memory. His long-term memory is still intact, for the most part anyway, right up to a few weeks before he fell ill: then everything stops. There’s just a ten to fifteen-minute window since.”

“Window?”

“That’s how long he can remember things for. Less if he gets distracted.”

I gazed at Griff, talking at the counter. He looked perfectly normal. “Oh my God, how very–”

“Yes, it’s disconcerting,” she said matter-of-factly. “I’m sorry I didn’t warn you, Eden, and just walked off like that. But I wanted to see if he would recognise your face. I wondered if he would remember anything about Selena’s rescue, with it having been such a dramatic event. I hoped that being back here at Waterhead might jolt his memory into action. I do keep hoping these things, though so far I’ve been disappointed.”

“Well, he did seem to remember something.”

Muriel shook her head decidedly. “No, he just picked up on what I said. He pretends, or he thinks he remembers when he doesn’t. It was a forlorn hope, really. But worth a try.”

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“It’s called anterograde amnesia. With a degree of retrograde amnesia. The neurologist is encouraging, but he’ll never recover his full memory.”

“What’s that, Muriel?” asked Griff, returning to us.

“I was telling Eden about your illness. Do you remember your illness, Griff? When you had to go into hospital?”

His forehead creased. “What, when I broke my ankle?”

“No, after that. Your encephalitis. When you lost your memory.”

Griff scratched his thinning hair. “Vaguely. All a bit of a blur, you know. It happened so fast…”

“Of course,” I said.

“But none the worse for wear. I’m right as rain now. And here we are on holiday,” said Griff. He beamed around at the rucksack and woolly hats.

“A long holiday,” added Muriel, her smile echoing his.

We lined up to climb aboard the launch. Griff wanted to sit on the outside seats, which were hard and damp, and too close to the side for my liking.

Even though I knew it was perfectly safe, I felt my stomach do its slow roll as it always did on a boat. The sky above us was as clear as sapphire, and the air still: but I was aware that once we were out on the lake a cold wind would leap from nowhere like an unruly poltergeist to torment us. Muriel donned a Peruvian hat with ear-flaps, an overgrown baby’s bonnet.

“Tell us about yourself, Eden,” she said as we huddled on the austere seats. “Do you come from round here?”

“I lived in Ambleside till I was eight.” In the bright myth of my childhood, Ambleside was my true home: only now it felt alien, offering no comfort.

“And how long have you been a house-sitter?”

“Just a few months. It gives me time to paint: I do water-colours for sale to tourists. That’s one of my best-selling views,” I added, pointing towards the Langdales.

“And one of my favourites!” Griff exclaimed. “We’ve been coming here for so many years, it’s like a second home, isn’t it, Muriel?”

She patted his hand with her gloved one. As we chugged away, Griff began to give a running commentary on the landmarks that we passed. He knew more of them than I did: I’d never heard of Bee Holme or Pinstones Point. He was knowledgeable and enthusiastic, almost childlike in his excitement.

“It’s fine here,” said Muriel to me, “because the scenery is so familiar. It just carries him along, like a lifeline. It provides a continuous thread to follow.”

“What’s that, dear?”

“It’s fine here today,” said Muriel. “Lovely weather. What’s the name of that promontory?”

“That’s Ecclerigg,” said Griff.

“He knows them all.”

“Not all,” said Griff modestly. “My memory’s not what it was, I’m well aware, but I fancy I do have a good head for maps.”

Five minutes later, when his commentary tailed off in a look of vague bewilderment, she promptly began one of her own: what a nice day for March, we should reach Bowness just in time for lunch, and seeing as we had sandwiches yesterday after that nice walk by Grasmere, what about a nice hot lunch today? Our young friend Eden might like the Red Squirrel Café, always nice on a Sunday.

Beneath the garnish of niceness, the meat became evident: she was giving Griff a context. He grew happy again.

I wasn’t so happy. I was conscious that I should be spending that rare jewel-like day in painting, not sitting on a boat making small-talk and trying to ignore the sloshing proximity of deep water. By the time we disembarked, my stomach was churning like the waves.

And I didn’t care for Bowness, a muted, middle-class Blackpool – but a genteel, insipid, watercolour version instead of the lively, brash McGill of the real thing. The shops were awash with china pigs and stuffed rabbits. My mood wasn’t improved when I stopped at Tiggywinkles, one of my few outlets, and discovered that my cards had been removed from the window display and replaced with more bloody cartoon sheep.

Throughout this, Griff was genial and friendly. He took his cue from Muriel, who addressed me by name rather more than would be expected. Only occasionally did I catch him glancing at me with puzzlement and unease, until Muriel made some comment about our young friend Eden and all was well again.

In the café, they had an unidentifiable meat pie and chips.

“We don’t cook on holiday,” said Griff, “it’s not fair on Muriel.”

“Are you staying here for long?”

“Another week,” he said. “Work beckons, you know.”

“What do you do?” I wondered how he could manage to hold down a job.

Griff’s face clouded. “Oh, local government finance. You know, endless paperwork and general rubbish.”

“My brother Allen’s in the same line,” I said. The sort of office job Nick and I had always agreed on despising, until Nick went and bought his suit without consultation and began applying to advertising agencies.

“But you’re planning to take early retirement, aren’t you, Griff?” prompted Muriel.

“That would be nice. But there’s no point in my retiring before you do. Muriel’s an FE lecturer in catering,” said Griff with fond pride. “So no cooking on holiday, eh, Muriel? This is your time to switch off!”

I thought a catering lecturer should have had something to say about that pallid pie. I couldn’t face it. I had a vegetarian panini in deference to my uneasy stomach, and ate it too quickly, which meant I had no excuse for not answering Muriel’s innocent questions about my past but had to skate uncomfortably around the great black hole of Jail that kept cracking open in front of me. So when I noticed the computer in the corner, I made grateful excuses and went to check my email.

Pointless, really. Since I’d taken myself off Facebook, the only person who ever contacted me was my old school friend Stephanie. I kept hoping for a message from Nick, or even third-hand news about him, just a crumb; but it never happened. My university friends had ceased to talk to me or did so in such guarded terms that I’d let the correspondence drop. If I’d been caught dealing E’s it would have been different, they wouldn’t have minded: but there was something about fraud and forgery, it seemed, that turned people away.

Only Steph – kind, thoughtful and determinedly Christian – told me she was praying for me and sent me regular updates on her baby. Today there was a picture of him trying to eat his own feet.

I emailed back my admiration. As I returned to the table a surge of depression broke over me at the sight of the grey heads of my ersatz friends. I told myself sternly that I was lucky to have anyone to buy me lunch.

“There’s still ten minutes on the computer if you want,” I offered.

“Ten minutes?” Griff looked blank.

“I bought twenty. So feel free if you want to use the internet.”

He stared. “What for? Why would I want to do that?”

“Well, in case you want to look something up.”

“Who sent you? What are you doing here?” His voice was rising, but Muriel said composedly,

“Hush, Griff. Eden is a friend. She’s come to have lunch with us.”

“Oh!” He subsided doubtfully, looking at his plate. “Lunch? I’m afraid we’ve almost finished! If I’d known you were joining us…” He glanced at Muriel reproachfully before handing me the menu. “What would you like?”

“No, just a coffee, thanks,” I said.

It was back to the starting blocks of the conversation. The introductions and polite chitchat had to be endured all over again. I was glad to finish and get back to the ferry, to be ambushed by the chilly wind.

There, huddled on the deck, I listened to Griff’s exuberant exposition of the landmarks in reverse. Watching the yachts and dinghies bobbing across the grey water, I was trying not to imagine being on one, when I realised that Griff’s voice had wound down and he was again looking at me with puzzlement.

“Eden, Griff,” said Muriel. “Eden is a painter. Do you paint boats at all, Eden?”

“Not in any detail.” Boats were just highlights, a quick way to introduce a dab of colour. Would yacht-owners buy portraits of their property, I wondered, like racehorse owners did? The ferry-riders were a bigger group. “Maybe I could paint this launch,” I mused. “Would you buy a watercolour of a launch?”

She laughed. “If it was good enough. We like watercolours, don’t we, Griff?”

“I wonder if the ferry company would mind,” I said. “Do you think a boat could be copyright?”

“I don’t see how they could object,” said Muriel, pulling her coat more tightly round her.

“Well, I’d hate to break any laws.” I paused, irresolute, wondering if this was the time to take the plunge and tell them about my conviction. I wasn’t likely to get a better lead-in.

My nerve failed me. They didn’t need to know, and anyway Griff would never remember. He was looking at me oddly enough as it was.

“Break laws? What laws?”

“You know, trying to make money out of pictures that were illegal…” I faltered.

“Illegal?” said Griff, staring. “I have no knowledge of that at all. Why are you asking? What’s it got to do with you?” His hands curled around the edge of his seat.

“What’s that hill called over there?” said Muriel.

Griff looked. “That’s Wansfell Pike. You know that, Muriel. We’ve climbed it several times. Don’t you remember?”

“I’d just forgotten the name. Did you do your Wainwright notes for that climb? I know you wrote up the walk over the top to Troutbeck.”

“Oh, yes! I was reading through my notes for Troutbeck just last week.”

Muriel leaned forward to me. “Griff is a great admirer of Wainwright’s guides,” she said. “He’s been compiling his own set of walking books in the same style. With notes on each walk, the little pen and ink drawings, maps, everything. They’re delightful.”

“Not in the same league as Wainwright, of course,” said Griff ruefully. He lifted his hands from the seat, flexed them and cracked his knuckles. “He’s inimitable. My drawings aren’t half as good as his.”

“I think they’re very good, Griff! Perhaps you should let Eden judge. Eden is a professional artist, you know. Do you remember,” added Muriel, “Eden was painting when we first met her? It was at Waterhead, over there.” She pointed at the approaching shore. “We’d just walked down from Jenkin Crag.”

“Oh, yes! I remember.”

“That was the day we saw Selena,” I put in, “the girl who fell into the lake.”

“Who what? What girl?”

“Never mind, Griff,” said Muriel.

“The Lady of the Lake, you called her,” I said.

“Oh yes! I remember her. Like a drowned rat!” His face lit up. “Goodness me! I remember the Lady of the Lake all right. That long coat was so wet, wasn’t it? Wet right through! My word.”

Muriel took a sharp inward breath, staring at him.

“What happened that day, Griff?” she said faintly.

“Well, don’t you remember her? The young lady standing up in her wet coat. Looking at us with her long hair all wet. The Lady of the Lake! I can see her face now. She fell in, did you say? Is she all right?”

“She’s fine,” I said. Muriel gazed at Griff with a stunned, dazzled face, as if he were a revelation; an angel.

“She didn’t catch cold?” he queried.

“No, she seemed to be okay,” I said. “We took her back to her home.”

“Where’s that?” he asked eagerly.

“It’s a farm over towards Little Langdale, a bit off the beaten track. It’s a very lovely setting.”

“Eden!” Muriel addressed me earnestly. Her face was flushed, her hair disordered by the breeze. “You said you’d be going back soon to paint her. I don’t suppose – could we come too? Do you think Selena would mind? I really would like us to meet her again.”

I understood why: she needed to know if Selena would stir Griff’s memory to further wakefulness. Thinking about it, I couldn’t see any reason for Selena to object. She’d probably appreciate their interest.

“I should think that would be okay,” I said.

“We can give you a lift to the farm – that might make things easier for you too. It would be lovely to visit Little Langdale, and see Selena, wouldn’t it, Griff? The Lady of the Lake?”

“Absolutely!”

Ambleside was pulling slowly closer, winding us in to shore. Griff began to rearrange his rucksack comprehensively, taking everything out with some surprise before replacing it, while Muriel sat very still and studied him as if he were an abstract painting in a gallery and she the viewer, looking for clues to meaning. When she finally turned back to me, her face was dazed.

“This could be the beginning of something. Thank you so much for coming with us. I do look forward to seeing you again soon,” she said.

Griff shook my hand heartily in his firm grip. “A pleasure! Give our regards to everyone at home. Goodbye, er…”

“Eden.”

“Eden!” He struck his forehead in mock self-castigation. “How could I forget a name like that?”

 

Chapter Six

 

As I walked back through the town, I could feel myself still lurching with the swell. When I reached The Heronry and saw Hunter Brigg leaning on my doorbell, my heart lurched along with my stomach, making me momentarily dizzy.

That bloody MacLeish, I thought, Greta’s shopped me! and for a few seconds I considered running away.

I was too slow. Hunter turned before I had a chance to run. He wasn’t in police uniform, I realised belatedly, but wore a short, severe black overcoat, collar turned up, like a private eye in a film. He looked the business.

“Didn’t know if you were still living here,” he said. “Thought you might have moved on.”

“No, I’ve got another week or two before the Pattinsons come back.”

“Then where will you go?”

I shrugged. I didn’t know and pretended I didn’t care. “My parents, as a last resort. But I’ve been looking for live-in work as a chambermaid. I’m waiting to hear from the Ruskin Hotel; they know me there.” So far they were the only ones who’d shown any interest at all.

“An easy life.”

“No, not really.”

“I was being ironic,” said Hunter. “I’ve come to take you out to lunch.” I was startled. This was a new, giant step in our relationship.

“I’ve just done that,” I said. “It’s half past two. I’ve had a panini.”

“Panini? That’s not Sunday lunch. Have another one.”

“Why?”

“I told my parents I couldn’t go over to theirs today because I was taking a girl out to lunch. I don’t want to lie to them.”

I breathed easier again, knowing I was just an excuse. “Hunter, you shouldn’t make them think that I’m your girlfriend.”

“I said a girl.”

“It comes to the same thing.”

“You wish,” he said. “Christ, Eden, does it matter? It makes them happy. They worry about me.”

“Then go over to Sedbergh and be nice to them and stop them worrying.”

“It doesn’t work,” said Hunter. “Just pick a pub, will you?”

So we trailed off up the road to the pub where I sat and rustled a packet of crisps while he dived into a hill of roast beef and a small barn of Yorkshire pudding. It was good to watch Hunter eat: he didn’t mess around. He didn’t fuss with his food or hold it up on his fork to judge it, give it points out of ten, the way Nick used to do.

Nick. The memory burnt a small hole in my heart, as always. Loquacious, jokey, ambitious, flamboyant Nick, so different to the sharp boundaries of Hunter. We met on the first week of our university art course. Nick chose me, and I still have no idea why. I was incredulously, ecstatically grateful. I barely left his side the whole three years; we seemed to fit together like a pair of moulded palettes, inseparable.

The trouble with fitting together like that, of course, is that one partner always has its back to the other. My back was turned to Nick. I kept quiet about my increasing disillusionment with the art course, since he was happy enough with it. And later, having got into the habit, I kept hidden from him all my forgeries, so intent on proving my own worth that I never thought much about what his reaction might be until it was too late.

I pushed Nick below the surface again now as I had to do so often. He would keep bobbing up. I concentrated instead on Hunter’s hands ripping his bread roll apart, mopping up the gravy hungrily. He devoured like a wolf, with pragmatic greed. I didn’t know if he was unaware of the other diners’ handward glances, or choosing to ignore them.

He was certainly choosing to ignore me. If I had been his girlfriend, I wouldn’t have felt best pleased.

“You should have asked Fiona out,” I said.

“She’s already taken,” said Hunter through the bread.

“Well, there must be someone you could ask who’s more appropriate than me.”

“You’re fishing,” he said, tearing at a Yorkshire pudding.

“I’m not.”

“There was a girlfriend. Alice. It lasted nearly three years, until this.” He waved his hand.

“What, she dropped you just because of that?” I was indignant on his behalf.

“No. I dropped her. She went all motherly on me. Started cutting up my food. Her pet cripple,” said Hunter, making me wince.

“That was a narrow escape.”

“Yup.”

“I meant for her,” I said.

“So did I. Are you really intending to go back to Staithwaites’ farm to paint Selena?”

“Sure am.”

Hunter laid down his fork. “I was reading through the statements taken at the time of Luke Staithwaite’s death. I had a word with Larry Irlam, since he was the one who did the interviews.”

“Why? What were you looking for?”

“Just refreshing my memory. I was interested by what Selena said to you: I killed my husband. I wanted to remind myself what really happened.”

“And?”

“Luke shot himself through the head in his bedroom at approximately 12 noon,” said Hunter. “Selena was downstairs making lunch at the time. Bryony was in the yard; Isaac was with the vet, looking at the sick cow that Luke thought had foot and mouth.”

“But that didn’t. It seems a bit precipitous to shoot himself without even waiting for the vet’s verdict.”

Hunter shrugged and resumed eating. “Larry reckoned Luke had got himself strung up to an unbearable pitch. He was walking around muttering to himself, according to Selena. Luke’s and Isaac’s were the only prints on the gun. The pathologist agreed that the wound was consistent with it being self-inflicted. He hesitated to say if it was suicide.”

“Yeah, like you said, cleaning it in his bedroom.” I didn’t believe it either.

Hunter laughed shortly. “It’s not totally impossible, I suppose. People do some incredibly stupid things. I mean, look at me.” He held up his hand. “Imagine thinking a baton was a match for a machete! I should have waited for back-up.”

“You heard the sister screaming,” I said, recalling the lurid newspaper accounts I’d read.

“It didn’t help, though, did it?” said Hunter bitterly. “He’d already cut her throat by the time I got inside. I was too late.”

“You saved the girlfriend’s life,” I said cautiously. This was the first time since we’d met that Hunter had spoken to me about that day. A landmark of a sort.

“For what?” he demanded. It wasn’t a rhetorical question: I remembered the reports I’d read on the internet. Siege Drama Victim Stands by Machete Man. According to his girlfriend, the row was all the sister’s fault and their attacker was just misunderstood and confused. I thought she was the confused one. No wonder Hunter was bitter.

“Maybe he’s a reformed character by now,” I said. “People do change.”

“Only for the parole board.”

I started to say that was unnecessarily cynical; but then fell silent, because I decided that it might be true. The girls in jail repented when it suited them.

And what about me? I had changed all right; but did that mean I had repented?

“Go back to Luke,” I said.

“Yeah, well.” Hunter played with a roast potato. “In theory Selena could have encouraged him to turn the gun on himself, by nagging, slagging or bragging.”

“You what?”

“The three usual causes of a domestic. One partner nagging the other, or slagging them off, or bragging about an affair. I suppose you could add fagging, in the old public-school sense of bullying. Suicide would be an extreme reaction, I admit. Anyway, Larry didn’t think any of those applied to Luke.”

“How would he know?”

“According to Isaac, the two of them were devoted to each other.” He paused. “Selena behaved oddly at the interviews, though, from what Larry said.”

“How do you mean?”

“Very calm one minute, shrieking like crazy the next. Larry put it down to shock. He would. He likes things simple. He had enough of murder and mayhem down in Manchester: he’s a cow in clover up here. Thinks it’s a different world.”

I imagined Inspector Larry Irlam trying to conceal his jovial grin as he wrote down Luke’s last moments: a nice, neat, self-inflicted shooting with a properly licensed gun. “It is a different world. Apart from the odd machete.”

“Don’t you believe it,” Hunter said. “Anyway, Larry didn’t think it worthwhile questioning the widow too closely, her being so upset and that. Although he did comment that Bryony seemed more upset than Selena – or more conventionally so, perhaps. Which is interesting.”

“Are you allowed to tell me all this? What would Larry think?”

He sat up straight and looked directly at me. I thought he was angry.

“Listen,” he said, “I’m not especially interested what Larry thinks. If I’ve had half my hand and my career cut off in the interests of the police, they can damn well give me some interest back in return. Especially when I’ll never–” He stopped and threw his hands up, then pushed the half-empty plate away.

“You can still apply to be a detective. Or go for inspector. Nothing’s stopping you.”

“Except the police psychiatrists and the promotions board,” he said sardonically. “I’ve got post-traumatic stress disorder, didn’t you know? I’ll fall to bits in a crisis. Safer to keep me bloody pen-pushing with my one and a half fingers.”

“That’s rubbish.” I spoke brusquely. “There’s nothing to stop you from going for it except the fear of failure. Just give it a few more months.”

“And the rest.”

“Do something else, then.”

“The police was all I ever wanted to do,” said Hunter. There was quiet desolation in his voice.

“Then apply to be a detective! Unless you want to be booking double-parkers and chasing sheep-rustlers all your life.”

I thought I’d overdone the brusqueness. But Hunter said, “It’s diesel rustlers this week. Somebody drained a tank at a farm near Witherslack, and left the tap running. What they stole was worth five hundred quid but the farmer’s been left with a clean-up bill for ten times that. Selfish bastards.”

That was more like the Hunter I knew. He pulled the plate back towards him and attacked it again. “That reminds me,” he said with his mouth full, “Luke Staithwaite was involved in some sort of scam, several years back. Buying red diesel cheap off farmers on behalf of a gang who stripped out the dye and sold it on at a profit.”

“Did he get convicted?”

Hunter shook his head. “Got off with a caution for cooperating with the police. I gather he thought better of it; felt he was letting his family down. Anyway, he spilled the beans in return for a clean charge sheet. He was only a small player. A follower, not a leader – according to Larry he just fell into bad company. Some of the big fish got sent down, but not for long enough if you ask me.”

I wondered what Isaac had thought of that escapade. If that was one of Luke’s money making plans that had gone awry…

“I suppose he was just trying to make a bit of extra cash,” I said. “Did Selena inherit much when he died?”

“Hah! You’re joking. A small overdraft and a six year old tractor.”

“But his father’s a landowner. Isaac.” Saying his name brought a faint, comforting warmth.

“No, he’s not,” said Hunter dampeningly. “I checked. Isaac’s a tenant farmer. Most of that land belongs to the National Trust, including the actual farmhouse. Isaac only owns a couple of acres and some outbuildings.”

“Well, they could still be worth a lot of money,” I said sulkily. “A couple of acres is plenty to build on.”

“Not round here. New-build in Little Langdale? Pigs might fly.”

“You could do up the outbuildings.”

“That’s change of use. You got any idea of the miles of red tape involved in getting planning permission? Enough to knit your own straitjacket. There was a farmer over Torver way,” said Hunter, “who turned half his milking parlour into a holiday home. He was told to tear it all down again.”

“And did he?”

“Oh, he took it down all right. Then he took his muckspreader down to the council offices in Kendal and gave them a good manuring. A lot of people cheered – including Isaac, probably. Lots of farmers would build on their land if they could. They can’t. No change allowed round here.”

Maybe Luke had felt trapped, I thought: caught in the strangling net of tradition. A clatter of laughter rang out from the bar. I stared across, seeing not the drinkers, but Selena’s face, watchful one minute, wistful the next.

I stole my husband. His soul. I killed my husband. That expressionless whisper through the long damp hair.

“I think you’re right about Selena feeling guilty,” I said. “Perhaps she pushed him towards suicide without meaning to. Nagging or whatever, like you said.”

“Well, it’s possible,” said Hunter. “He was already close to the edge. It wouldn’t have taken much to make him wobble over it. I’ll be interested to hear how Selena behaves when you go back to the farm.”

“I won’t be going on my own. The old couple that helped rescue her are coming along too. Well, oldish. They’re the friends who bought me lunch today.” The sort of friends with whom polite small talk was obligatory: at least with Hunter there was no need for that. Or indeed for any politeness at all, as he proved by snorting at me disparagingly.

“Do they know they’re consorting with a crook?”

“It was only a panini! Anyway, you consort with crooks.”

“Crook, singular,” said Hunter. “You’re the only one. And I’m in full possession of the facts.” Consorting with me, I was well aware, was Hunter’s rebellion against his uniform: his little walk on the wild side. Fleetingly I wished it might be because he actually enjoyed my company, before I told myself not to be so bloody daft.

He was right about Griff and Muriel, though. Perhaps I should have informed them of my background. It made me uncomfortable.

To change the subject, I said, “Now he’s an interesting case,” and recounted the tale of Griff’s amnesia.

“I know them,” said Hunter unexpectedly.

“You do?”

“She brought him to the police station a while back to explain the situation. In case he got detached from her and lost, she said, so we’d understand what was going on.”

“She said that in front of him?”

Hunter nodded. “As if he was a toddler. He looked totally confused. In fact, he looked quite terrified at first, as if he was convinced he’d been arrested. She handled it well, though. By the end he seemed to think she’d just been handing in a lost purse. Went away perfectly happy.”

I pondered this. I supposed it showed necessary forethought on Muriel’s part. “I don’t know how she copes. It must be appalling – he remembers nothing that’s happened in the last two years.”

But Hunter merely grimaced. “O lucky man,” he said.

 

even

 

“You remember Eden, Griff?” said Muriel. “We met at Waterhead.”

“Of course!” He shook hands with me politely. “How could I forget a name like that?”

“Nice car,” I said. Muriel drove a pale green Citreon, almost new. I settled on the back seat with my drawing board and mobile studio, an old wooden cutlery box that used to be my grandmother’s.

“We’ve hired it for the holiday,” said Griff. “Ours was having a bit of trouble.” Muriel opened her mouth, then closed it again and kept on driving.

“How long are you staying in the Lakes?” I asked her. Griff answered.

“Just till Friday. Got to get home by the weekend and sort stuff out; we’ve got the grandchildren coming for a visit.”

“It’s called confabulation,” said Muriel over her shoulder.

“What?” said Griff.

“Filling in the gaps. Like on the boat. The mind abhors a vacuum. It’s not as bad as it was at first, though.”

“What?” said Griff.

“Isn’t that a glorious scene?” Muriel gestured out of the window at the clustered trees encasing the hillside like bees around a hive. It wasn’t something I would want to paint, but Griff, relaxing, began a discourse on the archaeology of field systems that took us all the way past Low Park.

“We must have driven this road dozens of times, yet I never realised there was a farm here,” said Muriel, as we trundled down the rutted drive to Borrans Rigg. The crown of hills slid into view to frame the farmhouse, sending a shiver down my spine.

Soon I would be studying it – her – him – pencil in hand, ready to capture and contain. To hold for ever. Timeless, simple, clear.

Bryony came out into the yard to greet us. She looked like a presenter off a children’s programme in a red jumpsuit, fair hair in a ponytail, face scrubbed and freckled. All she needed was a smile. But she was as prickly as a hedgehog. When I introduced Griff and Muriel she nodded curtly.

“Selena’s gone shopping. She’ll be back soon, I expect. She won’t want to miss you, after all. She was ever so excited about having her portrait painted.” Bryony spoke with a clumsy sarcasm which I guessed was rare for her.

“What about Isaac? Is he in?” I asked. The dogs were missing, apart from the grizzled old one who sat by the door, waiting.

“He’s gone up the hill. We’re bringing the sheep down to the in-bye land ready for lambing. It’s a busy time of year,” she said accusingly. “He’ll be back in a bit.”

“Okay,” I said. “I’ll just do some sketches of the house if that’s all right.”

“I’ll leave you to it.”

So I walked around the yard for a while, examining the farmhouse from different angles. Although it wasn’t really the house that I wanted to paint, I could use those mottled reds of the brick as a contrast to the smoky greens and purples of the land beyond.

At last I found the right view. My perfect landscape: it would be simple, singing, free of clutter. I dragged over a giant plastic feed tub that was exhorting me to Increase my Forage Utilisation, sat down on it with my drawing board and opened my cutlery box.

Muriel and Griff hung round at first, but when the wispy lines on my paper showed no signs of mutating straight into a Turner they unfolded their OS map all over their car bonnet like a recalcitrant table cloth, conferred and then tramped off down a path behind the cottages.

I sketched more freely in their absence. This was the bit I most disliked, though it was essential to get the structure right. As I drew I tried to feel the shape of the picture to come. I’d not worked so carefully for a long time. I scribbled UTS in the margin, then crossed it out. I wouldn’t be using my Usual Tree Stuff here, not on this one. It deserved better.

Bryony returned to look over my shoulder. She didn’t bother to compliment me, rightly. It looked like nothing. Those trumpeting hills, that slope as sueded as a saxophone, the oboes and piccolos of the clouds: none of these sounded through the paper yet. With a surge of discomfort that was almost panic, I thought that maybe they never would.

Be calm. Early days.

“Did Selena say how long she’d be?” I asked.

Bryony sniffed. “Wouldn’t make any difference if she had. She doesn’t stick to what she says.”

“Does she not?” I blocked in the farmhouse roof and stared at the chimney. Normally I would add a picturesque wisp of smoke. I left it.

“She’s changeable. Unreliable.”

“Right.” Those hills, now, what colours should I use? Burnt with bracken, nubbled with rocks, rich russet and charcoal. Patched with black, only I never used black; I mixed it. Bryony stood watching my careful pencil without comment.

“That policeman,” she said suddenly. “Do you know him well?”

“Sergeant Brigg? Not really.”

I didn’t need her there, distracting me, but after a minute she said heavily, “I suppose he’s told you it was suicide.”

“Luke’s death? Um – well, yes. It seems to be the obvious conclusion.”

“She drove him to it, though. Selena. She treated Luke like a piece of crap.”

“Did she?” My pencil stalled.

“Oh, she had him bewitched to start with. It was never going to last. She’d be nice as pie one minute, then turn round and scream at him the next.”

“I thought his father said they got on well,” I said, and then wished I hadn’t, because it was Hunter who had told me that. But Bryony didn’t notice. The words came out in agitated bursts, as if now she’d unscrewed the lid of her emotion it refused to go back on.

“Well, he would say that, wouldn’t he? He’s Luke dad, he didn’t want to question his choice of wife. But Luke was mine first–”

The words ended in a strangled whimper. I swivelled round on my plastic pot and saw Bryony’s face twisting with grief.

“Oh Christ,” I said, dropped my pencil and jumped up. Giving her an awkward hug, I patted her sturdy, heaving back, as if she was my little sister, although I’d certainly never hugged Greta in that way. I’d consoled a few weeping prison inmates, though; some of them only teenagers yet bearing a lifetime’s disappointments. I didn’t mind offering a shoulder to cry on in jail because it stopped me from crying myself. I’d never cried in jail. Or since.

Bryony drew back after a minute, wiping her face with her fingers. “Sorry.” Digging in her pockets, she produced a tangle of string, a penknife and three humbugs, like a storybook schoolboy, before finding a shredded paper handkerchief which fell to bits as she dabbed her nose with it.

“Let me get this straight,” I said. “You were with Luke?”

“We were together for six months,” she said huskily. “Until his mother died. That changed everything.”

“Grief can make people behave in strange ways,” I said.

“It wasn’t grief that changed Luke. It was Selena. She took him over. She’s beautiful, isn’t she?” Bryony’s voice quivered.

I nodded, although I heard my mother warn in her decisive way: Beauty is as Beauty does. “You say Selena used to scream at Luke? What about?”

“I dunno. Anything. If his coffee went cold. If he had the wrong boots on. If he touched her the wrong way. He never knew where he stood. All right,” she said, “so I’m no beauty, not like her, but I loved him. I would have been a better wife for him than she was.”

I made a non-committal noise which Bryony must have taken as agreement, for she went on shakily, “Luke had been through bad times, he’d been in a bit of trouble when he was younger, and he kept worrying about whether he was cut out to be a farmer. But I supported him. I steadied him. I’m tough, I work hard, I know animals, I’ve learned this business from the bottom up. Selena knows nothing. She doesn’t even try.” Bryony ended on a hiccup.

“You think she was all wrong for him?”

“I know she was. But Luke thought she was the fairy queen. The gateway to mystery and adventure. God, that’s a laugh! She’s so ignorant! She’s been nowhere. She doesn’t even have a passport. There’s nothing to her – no substance.” Bryony wiped her eyes again, angrily. “Luke realised that at the end,” she said. “That’s why he turned back to me.”

“He–?”

“He was mine first,” she insisted. “Selena stole him off me. But he came back to me the week before he died.” She took a shuddering breath. “I was so happy.”

“Then what went wrong?”

Her shoulders slumped. “Luke had always been anxious. Usually I could pull him up again, but this time it was different. He’d heard a rumour about foot and mouth disease. Luke had a thing about it, an obsession. I tried to reassure him and he wouldn’t listen. He wouldn’t talk to me. He cut me off. When the cow fell sick, he was distraught. It was all too much for him. He had nobody to turn to. No other friends.”

“What about Matt? From the Keswick bookshop,” I added when she looked blank.

“Oh – him. I believe they were big buddies once, but I hardly know him. He came back up to Cumbria just before Luke met Selena. He went drinking a few times with Luke but not with me around. I think he despises me actually. And once Selena turned up – well, Matt stepped aside. He stopped visiting and let Selena take over. And she did take Luke over, believe me. She bewitched him.”

“Mm,” I said noncommittally, for what man was ever bewitched that didn’t want to be? Poor Luke, caught between an erratic wife and a jealous girlfriend. “Did Selena know about you and Luke?”

“I don’t know. She wouldn’t have cared anyway. Lying around on the sofa half the day watching telly. She wasn’t interested.”

Although I found that hard to believe, I let it pass. “Will Selena stay here now, do you think?”

“God knows. I’ll stay, though.” Bryony gazed up at the farmhouse, her mouth set in determination. “I’ll stay as long as Isaac wants me to. This is my life, now.”

I studied her: small, unadorned, and dogged. It was hard to imagine Selena in those overalls and with those dirty hands.

“How long have you worked here, Bryony?”

“Four years. I wanted to be a vet. I started working here to get experience while I was retaking A-levels. But I didn’t get the grades and anyway I’d fallen for Luke by then. And he felt the same about me. Only Isaac didn’t approve, and then Selena came–” She swallowed and clamped her mouth closed.

“Are you okay?”

She glanced round. Isaac was striding down the lane behind the farmyard, two sheepdogs whizzing round his ankles. The old dog by the door got stiffly to its feet and wandered up to him.

“Things to do,” muttered Bryony, and clumped away.

Isaac stooped to give the dog a pat, and then straightened up to nod at me, flicking his cap with a forefinger. “How do. Nice to see you back. Thought you might not want to waste your time on this old pile.” The words were casual, but the eyes smiled.

“Hallo, Mr Staithwaite.” Feeling my face split into an idiot’s grin, I pulled it back into shape. “I was hoping to find Selena here so I could start painting her, and a couple of friends who met her at Waterhead have come over to see her too, only Bryony said she’s out so they’ve just gone off for a walk and I’ve started sketching the farmhouse, hope you don’t mind.” I was burbling.

He took a look at my sketch. “Not bad,” he said courteously, although it still looked like nothing.

“Don’t worry, it’ll get better. I’ve only just started. It’s a beautiful landscape.” I hesitated, about to wade into deep water, not knowing how cold it would turn out to be. “But what I’d really like is to paint you,” I said.

Isaac looked startled. I might as well have propositioned him. “Me? Why?”

I’d prepared my answer earlier. “You’ve got a classic farmer’s face.”

“What’s that when it’s at home?”

“It’s very characteristic of Cumbria,” I said. “It’s the sort of face you see in old photographs. I’d really like to paint you against that backdrop of the hills, with the dog at your feet.”

He relaxed a little at being generalised. “And how long would that take?”

“Twenty minutes to start with,” I said, thinking that might just be little enough for him, and I was right.

“Is that all?” The eyes creased. “Thought you were going to say days. Well, let me go and get some coffee, and I’ll give you twenty minutes.”

I followed him to the farmhouse and leant on the kitchen doorway while he put the kettle on, a dark figure moving around the equally dark kitchen. I heard myself burbling again, about the house, my cards, my lakeside sketches. I was like a child on a sugar rush. My chatter seemed to amuse him, but it was all gibberish. I made myself stop.

“Selena’s all right, is she, after her dip in the lake?” I asked.

“Aye, seems to be. I’m surprised she’s not here for you, though. She was pretty pleased with herself after you came round last.”

“Where do you think she’s gone?”

“Shopping.”

“Does she help out much on the farm?” I watched his deliberate movements, fetching down mugs, spooning instant coffee into them. He put everything down gently.

After a while he answered. “She’s not unwilling. It’s foreign to her, though, this sort of work. She wasn’t brought up to it, like.”

I thought, she’s had nearly two years to get used to it, surely? I didn’t say so, though. Instead I blurted out,

“My grandfather was a farmer. In Ireland. He bred horses.” There was no reason why this should interest Isaac, but he answered politely.

“Did he, now? We’ve no horses. Enough on our plates with the bull, stroppy old bugger.”

He handed me my coffee. When he said, “Right then. Where do you want me?” it was without innuendo.

At least it made positioning him easy. He had no self-consciousness, and I was able to treat him like a life model, making him lean on the stone wall beside the house, arm there, cap off, head up a bit, a little bit more this way, the old dog here, yes, that’s it. And then I drew.

The other two dogs lay on the ground nearby, uneasy at his lack of movement, whining now and then. After a while they got up to patrol the yard. The old one stayed, guarding his master.

“All right, Tag Lad,” said Isaac. The dog’s ears pricked and drooped again.

“How’s business?” I asked him, to fill in the space made by sketching. Silly question. For farmers, business was never good.

“I can’t afford to retire just yet, put it that way,” said Isaac without moving. Most untrained models move as they talk. Isaac didn’t.

“What about when you do retire? What happens then?” Even worse. Terrible question. I felt my face begin to burn.

Still Isaac didn’t move. “The business was to go to Luke,” he said ruminatively, “but I don’t know if he really wanted it. Couldn’t blame him. Hard to see a future in farming these days. Most of the young ones want out.”

“That’s such a shame!” I protested. “I mean, this is such a beautiful place…” I hated how trite and inane I sounded.

“Oh, aye. It is – in summer, any road.” A flicker of humour crossed his face. “It’s the tourists that keep us afloat, hiring the cottages. And the rent for Raven How. Everyone needs a sideline these days. That’s all we’re good for now, raising sheep at more than we can sell them for and keeping the hills pretty for the visitors.”

“Is that the way Luke felt?”

“He never told me so outright,” said Isaac.

I couldn’t do justice to his face. I was hunting for an iconic image: his rock-like quality, the calm kingship. But my pencil lines pulled tighter and tighter on the page, and it looked less and less like Isaac. I couldn’t draw people. Whatever made me think I could? Abandoning his features, I set to work on his hair.

“It can’t be easy without him,” I said, and heard the platitude fall with a dull thunk like a stone into a pond. My conversation was no more original than my drawing.

Isaac stared away over my head before answering. “Aye. I couldn’t keep the place going without Bryony. Good lass, works hard, knows the animals. She’s a quick learner. I wasn’t sure she’d stay.”

“Bryony told me she used to go out with Luke once,” I ventured.

“More than once.”

“So it must have been difficult when Selena came along.” I had a dim awareness that my question might be cruel. But the bereaved always wanted to talk about the dead, didn’t they? It was a kindness to allow them. Anyway, I wanted to hear his version of the marriage.

“Well, Luke and Bryony had already broken up by then, I think. Around that time, anyway. I had other things on my mind: it was just after my wife died.”

“That can’t have been an easy time,” I said. Inane. Hollow. Fake.

“No,” said Isaac on a rising note, and left it. He gazed into the distance again. After a moment he added abruptly, “Luke worried.”

“About foot and mouth?”

“About everything. It all built up in him like a volcano. Selena didn’t know how to cope, but then how would she? It wasn’t her fault. I should have seen the warning signs. Should have hidden the shotgun, maybe. But he was over thirty. What can you do? You can’t treat a man like a child.”

“No,” I said, pleased at these melancholy confidences, and sad that I was pleased. My dad had never confided anything more personal than problems with an engine mounting.

I rubbed at the hills again, unable to get their line right, any more than my line of questioning. I’d make a terrible detective.

“What about Bryony?” For I wondered if Isaac knew of Bryony’s sad boast: Luke came back to me before he died. But as soon as I asked, I saw the weariness in his eyes.

“Bryony? What could she do?” He broke his pose to look at his watch. “This is a long twenty minutes.”

We still had seven left. I didn’t want to lose him. “I’d like to spend the last few minutes painting, not drawing,” I said. “I’ll just go and get some water.”

“In that little thing?” He eyed my small jar. “That’s no good for you. I’ll fetch a jug.”

I followed him back into the kitchen with its sudden disconcerting intimacy. The gloom seemed to gather us close.

“But you still feel responsible,” he said quietly to the sink. “No matter how old they are, your child is still your child. You still feel it’s your fault. You should have done something.”

I wanted to offer comfort, but felt useless and inept. “It was an open verdict,” I said.

“Aye.” He clunked the jug down on the ancient table. “Wait on.”

He strode into the dark, polished back of the house, the slow clock ticking, an underground elfland with a different time. I heard the scrape of a drawer being pulled open and the jangle of a metal handle. Isaac re-emerged carrying a flimsy box that had once held assorted Christmas cards.

He peeled off a rubber band and tipped out a small, creased stack of papers that slid across the table. Picking one out, he unfolded it for me.

“What do you make of this, then?”

I knew at once what it was, and my heart turned over. He was trusting me, a stranger, with his son’s last words.

Yet I didn’t want to read the note. I felt like it was cursed: the last thing Luke had touched before he picked up the gun.

It said:

I CAN’T TAKE ANY MORE OF THIS.

EVERYTHING IS AGAINST ME.

THERE’S NO PLACE LEFT

I MISS YOU MUM

The block capitals were uneven and roughly written, the pencil stabbing into the paper.

“Suicide or not?” asked Isaac. His eyes held mine, as bleak as the open sea, and I didn’t want to answer. But I had to.

“Yes,” I said reluctantly. “If you’re certain that’s his writing?”

“Aye.” Again that impatient, upward lilt at the end of the word. “Not a great one for handwriting, Luke, but that’s his all right.” Isaac’s face was stony as he swung round to turn his back to me and began to wash his hands thoroughly in the sink. “Makes no difference in the end.” His voice was rough. “He’s dead either way.”

Gently I refolded the note and tidied the spilt papers back into the box. Health cards. A tax notice. A death certificate, Carol’s, dated 20th May, two years ago. Exactly a month after my first panicky phone call from Lionel: my first gut-wrenching interview with the police.

Isaac was spending a long time scrubbing. A birth certificate unfolded itself: I opened it fully, curious to learn his birthday, his place of origin.

But it wasn’t Isaac’s. It was Selena’s, the short version: Selena Crabbe, a birthday in Bolton thirty years ago. I was surprised that she was so much older than she looked and acted.

Something about the certificate caught my eye. On an impulse I folded it back up, and put it in my pocket.

There was no time for second thoughts, because Isaac turned back round to face me, drying his hands. I piled all the other papers hurriedly inside the box. He put the lid on and twanged the rubber band around it.

“This painting,” he said. “You don’t really need me in it, do you? It was Selena you were going to paint.”

I could see he’d had enough. He’d lost heart; that was my fault, for talking about Luke.

With the birth certificate rustling like a clarion in my pocket, I left him and went back outside. He did not follow.

 

Chapter Eight

 

Outside, I felt the cold air freeze my lungs as if it aimed to drown me. My hopes were frozen too: it seemed unlikely that I’d get Isaac to pose for me again.

Muriel and Griff were wandering back up the farm track towards me, arm in arm.

“Good walk?” I said.

“Beautiful,” said Griff fervently. “A lovely place.” Yet he stared at me with blankness as if he had no idea of who I was or why we were here.

“We’ve been taking photographs of the scenery, haven’t we, Griff? It was very kind of Eden to show us this farm in Little Langdale, where her friends live,” prompted Muriel. Spelling out the obvious like a patient mother: Look, there’s a cow. Isn’t that a nice sheep? See the big red tractor.

See the old blue van. It hurtled, rattling, over the cattle grid and swooped up the track towards us too fast. Having squealed around the yard like a seagull, it braked abruptly, nose up against the wall.

Selena jumped out, looking pleased. She wore her long trench coat over the baggy jumper like idiosyncratic haute couture. Just as I was about to greet her, Muriel put a swift hand on my arm.

“No names,” she murmured.

“Hallo! I thought you might not come back after all,” Selena said. She gave me half a hug, barely touching me; but her face shone with gratification.

“Why wouldn’t I? I promised.”

“Yes, but people don’t keep their promises, do they?”

“The Lady of the Lake!” Griff’s ebullient voice burst in. His long, earnest face creased into a delighted smile. “It’s the Lady of the Lake! Isn’t it, Muriel? My goodness! Not going for a swim today, are you?”

Muriel clamped her hand to her chest. Selena eyed Griff warily.

“A swim? That was just an accident,” she said.

“We’re so glad to see you.” Muriel’s voice faded, breathless. “We gave Eden a lift here in our car. I hope you don’t mind? You’ve made a full recovery?”

“I’m absolutely fine,” Selena said, and turned back to me. “Are you going to paint me now, Eden? Where should I stand? Do I need to wear anything special?” She gazed at my open sketchbook and her face fell in disappointment. “Oh, you’ve started already! Why were you drawing Isaac?”

“Because you weren’t here.”

“Well, I am now. How do you want me to pose? Shall I get changed? Do I look all right?”

She looked unusual. Tight black trousers, heels too high for a farmyard, coat like a shabby vampire’s cloak, and the vast, grey, masculine jumper.

“She should be standing by a lake,” said Griff excitedly.

“Or in it,” said Selena. She leaned elegantly against the wall, one foot in front of the other in the pointy boots, her hips thrown forward in a practised manner. A 1950s starlet, ripe for a calendar. “Is this okay?” she asked.

“I don’t want you to pose,” I told her. “Just be yourself. Pretend to look at the sheep.”

At once she put her chin on her hand, and gazed into the distance with a languid sensuality straight off a gallery wall. Never mind the PreRaphaelites, I thought, Alma-Tadema would have loved her: he would have undressed her and stood her in a Roman bath for portly Victorian gentlemen to spy on. It was charming; but it wasn’t what I wanted.

“No, take your hand away,” I said. “Look natural.” She was as perfect and obedient as a ragged mannequin, but looking natural was beyond her. I gave up. It didn’t really matter. It was the landscape that I wanted, after all.

But once I began to draw her – just as in the guesthouse – I was hooked. She had such a classic profile, with that straight nose and the strong chin. Formed for art.

As always, it was the expression that eluded me. I moved round her to make quick sketches of her head. None of them satisfied me. They looked like a fifteen year old’s idea of beauty, all pouty lips and arched brows, more Snow Queen than Selena.

As I drew, Griff watched intently: not me, but her. Muriel, in turn, watched Griff with uncertainty and hope. Every so often she put a hand to her throat.

“Please can you not?” said Selena after a few minutes, twitching out of position. “I’d rather you didn’t stare at me like that.”

“Come away, Griff,” said Muriel swiftly. “Let’s leave them for a while.” She took his arm and he followed her obediently across the yard.

“Why did you bring them?” Selena said. She didn’t sound happy.

“They were keen to see you. I didn’t think you’d mind.”

“I don’t mind her. She’s nice enough. It’s him. The old guy.”

“I know he’s a bit strange. He’s lost his memory,” I explained. “He doesn’t remember anything for more than about ten minutes.”

“But he remembered me! That’s weird.” Selena shifted as she thought about it. I sighed and rubbed out again. “How come he remembers me?”

“I suppose that when you see someone floating in a lake fully clothed, it makes an impression.”

“It’s creepy, though. He’s creepy. I’d rather he forgot.” She turned dark, solemn eyes on me. “What about you, Eden? What did you think, when you saw me in the lake?”

“Well – I was worried about you. That was why I went in after you.”

“I’m glad. Most people wouldn’t have.”

“Oh, I expect they would.”

“No. People are cruel.” She sighed, gazing wistfully into the distance, and I wondered who she meant. Who was cruel? Who broke those promises she had spoken of?

It could only be Luke, I thought, as I pencilled in the shadows round her eyes. Her face was a ravishing enigma, the full lips slightly parted in longing or reproach. Her breath misted in the cold air, making ghosts.

Surely, even if painting Isaac was beyond me, I couldn’t fail with her… My pencil felt its way around her cheek, her mouth, her transient beauty against the enduring hills, searching for a truth that might be within my grasp at last.

And then the spell was broken, as Bryony stumped back across the yard to peer over my shoulder. Griff, rediscovering me, hurried eagerly after her to peer over my shoulder. Muriel followed to rebuke him and peer over my shoulder.

“They’re just preliminary sketches,” I said in self-defence.

“But very charming,” said Muriel.

“So realistic!” declared Griff with elation. He was euphoric. “Why, you could turn professional! They could be book covers.”

He was right. I saw that they were dreadful. The height of clichéd romance: all Selena needed was a shawl and a swarthy lover glowering in the background.

“Let me look!” Selena came over to stare in fascination at her pencilled face. “That’s me?”

“That’s a decent one with the farmhouse,” Bryony said pragmatically. “It’d look good on our website.”

“I’m not going on a website.”

“But you could be famous!” Griff exclaimed. “The Lady of the Lake. Wouldn’t you like that?”

“Stop it. No, I wouldn’t.” She shook her hair forward to cover her face, a disingenuous gesture of bashfulness for someone who had been so keen to pose.

“But you’re remarkably pretty,” insisted Griff. “Isn’t she, Muriel? Why, you’re quite lovely!”

“Oh, yes,” said Muriel, smiling. She didn’t seem to mind Griff’s animation, but Selena stiffened. I was embarrassed on her behalf.

And frustrated too. How could I capture Selena’s haunted beauty, or Isaac’s weary kingliness, with perpetual spectators popping heads over my shoulder?

“It may never get finished anyway,” I said grumpily.

“But you’ve only just begun! You will finish, Eden, won’t you?” begged Selena. “You will come back?”

I did want to. I longed to feel that rush again, the excitement flowing through my hands. Like an addict returning to her old habit, I wanted more – if only I could get rid of all the popping heads, and Selena would stand still.

“Later,” I said. “I’ll do some preparation at home first. I should have brought a camera to take reference shots.” My phone was an ancient one with no camera.

“You’ve got yours, Griff,” suggested Muriel. “It’s in your pocket.”

“Really? So it is!” He pulled a camera out triumphantly. “Well, that’s a stroke of luck! Shall I take a picture of the young lady?”

“No!” Selena recoiled, crossing her hands over her face dramatically, as if she were a film star and he the paparazzi. “No photos!”

“Oh, don’t be so daft,” said Bryony wearily. Griff held up his camera, a small silver glint against the gloomy sky.

“Smile!” The flash smacked across the farmyard and galvanised Selena.

“I said no photos!” she screeched. Lunging at Griff, she cuffed his head with both hands in turn. She kicked at his shins and tore the camera from his startled hand.

“What the hell?” cried Bryony. Griff, in shock, held his arms up as if he was being robbed. Muriel quickly got in front of him.

But Selena had already whirled away, fumbling with the camera. “How do I delete the bloody thing?”

“Give that back this minute!” demanded Bryony.

Selena swore at the camera, then swirled round in a wild arc like a clumsy discus thrower and flung it away across the farmyard.

A little silver satellite, it hurtled through the air. Sailing through the half-open door of the shed, it landed with a muffled clatter.

“What are you doing, you idiot?” yelled Bryony. Selena burst into tears.

“I’ll get it,” I offered hastily. Running over to the shed, I dived into shadow and a hot stink of manure.

For a few seconds I couldn’t see a thing. Then I made out a low-beamed roof and a row of wooden stalls, mostly full of sacks except the nearest which was full of enormous, smelly, rustling bull. The camera glinted by its feet.

I seized a pair of long iron tongs that were resting on a shelf. They felt surprisingly heavy when I lifted them down. But as I stretched out for the camera with them, the bull’s hind leg twitched. I leapt backwards.

“Stop there!” ordered Bryony’s voice behind me. “Don’t go any closer. Those bull tongs aren’t long enough. Leave it to me.”

She was carrying a spade with which she prised the camera carefully away. The bull shifted its restless bulk and rumbled, a storm trapped inside a shed.

“What the hell is she playing at?” muttered Bryony as she levered the camera through matted straw. “Who does she think she is, a bloody D-list celebrity?”

“She’s upset.”

“Upset! She’s play-acting. Attention-seeking.”

Tentatively I picked up the camera and wiped off some slime. “At least this is okay, I think.”

Backing out into the daylight, I offered it to Griff, who looked shattered: he was trembling.

“I said no photos! I hate people poking bloody cameras at me!” cried Selena.

“Hey,” I said. “No big deal. Lots of people feel that way. It’s no problem. I don’t need photos.”

Muriel added, “It’s perfectly all right. We understand.” Which I thought remarkably forgiving of her, even though within ten minutes Griff would presumably have forgotten all about being kicked.

Selena stared at us and then rubbed her sleeve across her face and snuffled. “Sorry,” she whispered. “It reminded me of – of Luke. Police photos. Those cameras flashing everywhere. Horrible memories.”

“What’s all the noise out here?” Isaac strode out of the house. “Sounds like a coop full of angry chickens.”

“Just Selena being a pain again,” said Bryony.

“I daresay. No need to shout.” Isaac looked down at Selena. “You feeling all right, Selena? What happened?”

She jerked away as if he’d slapped her. “Nothing happened. Bloody well leave me alone,” she said, her voice high and vibrating.

“Perhaps you’d better go and have a lie-down.”

“Don’t talk to me like that!” she shrieked. “Don’t push me around! Get off!”

Isaac took a couple of steps backwards before speaking again with gruff kindliness. “Come on, now, lass. Let’s see a smile. No more song and dance, eh? Where’s that shopping? I’ll lend you a hand.”

“I don’t need a hand,” Selena muttered, suddenly forlorn. She stood aside and allowed him to unload the car before following him at a distance into the house.

“Well,” said Muriel. “Time to go, I think, Griff. We’d better change our boots.”

They retreated to the car, Griff already shedding his shock to become engrossed with bootlaces. I began to put my gear away with a sigh. My fifteen minutes with Isaac hadn’t been enough; and my sketches of Selena left me dissatisfied.

“Sometimes I think it wasn’t suicide at all.”

I looked up sharply. Bryony stood next to me.

“How do you mean?”

“You saw that business with the camera. That’s what she’s like! There was no reason for all that. She didn’t make that sort of fuss when the police photographers were here.”

“Maybe not,” I said, “But it must have traumatic. Why else would she lash out at Griff like that? And at Isaac too. Does he really push her around?”

“Of course he doesn’t!” said Bryony. “He’s all softly softly with Selena, treats her like one of his prize calves or something. She’s just a drama queen. Likes to think she’s hard done by.”

I sighed. Bryony seemed determined to do Selena down. “It’s very likely she’s depressed. Has she been back to the doctor yet?”

“She doesn’t want to go. And I don’t see why I should take her. There’s nothing wrong with her except bad temper. That’s why I don’t think Luke committed suicide. She gets violent – well, you saw!”

“I saw her kick someone,” I pointed out, “not shoot them. Anyway, Luke left a note.”

Bryony chewed her lip stubbornly. “She could have written that.”

“But she was downstairs when he – when it happened, wasn’t she? And they must have checked the gun for fingerprints.” I knew damn well they had, although I couldn’t tell Bryony I’d learnt that from Hunter.

“Selena wasn’t bothered, though!”

“Bothered by what?” I asked.

“The sound of the shotgun. You’d panic, wouldn’t you? I heard the shot and I panicked and ran into the kitchen. And there she was, all casual, not bothered. She didn’t even go upstairs until I asked her what was going on. Then she came up after me. And when she saw Luke on the floor, she didn’t try to help, she stood there screaming like a train, and wouldn’t stop–” Bryony broke off and turned away.

I pitied her: both for her grief, and for her desperate need to believe the worst of Selena. Screaming like a train didn’t sound like a surprising reaction to the sight of a husband’s bloody corpse; but Bryony didn’t want to believe that Selena cared.

A moment later she turned back to me with dogged desperation. “Luke should have known that I was there for him. He didn’t need to kill himself!”

“I know it’s not easy to accept,” I said.

“Get her to talk about it,” pleaded Bryony. “I know there’s more to it than meets the eye. Luke had never been like that before.”

“But–”

“You could talk to her when you come back to paint her. She likes you. She was really excited about you visiting. Hardly stopped chattering on about you all last week.”

I felt uncomfortable. “Bryony, you’re surely not expecting her to confess to murder while I paint her?”

“But try,” said Bryony. She was desperate. “Please. Just make Selena talk. I know she’s got a secret. You could find it out.”

 

Chapter Nine

 

“Well, that was a lovely walk, Muriel, if a little muddy!” said Griff. She didn’t answer as she started up the engine. Nor did I: my morning and my mood had both been spoiled.

We didn’t even get as far as the road. After we’d gone about ten yards, Griff exclaimed, staring, “Hallo there! Is it a gypsy?”

It was Ruby. She was clambering nimbly over a stile beside the track. She wore a patchwork coat with squares of tangerine and violet, and those flowery boots again, in a colourful jangle like a jazz chord. Muriel stopped the car.

Seeing Ruby stride towards us, it came rushing back to me how annoyingly patronising I had found her when I was seventeen. I’d thought her superfluous. It had been clear to me that Russell was the genius, not Ruby, who wasn’t a painter at all but only an artists’ model, even if she made weird pottery; and I resented her encouraging comments because what did she know?

Now she smiled down at me in that same benevolent way. She was carrying a Pyrex dish wrapped in clingfilm.

“Eden! Our little artist. How are you? A lasagne for Isaac,” she explained as we all piled out of the car again. “Selena doesn’t do a great deal of cooking.”

“No, indeed,” said Griff.

“I saw your car from the window at Raven How,” said Ruby, making me grumpily wonder how much time she spent spying on Isaac’s farm. She fixed expectantly enquiring looks on Muriel and Griff, until I had to introduce them, recounting how we’d first met down at Waterhead.

Ruby beamed at them. “So it was you who tried to help Selena? She can be a difficult girl, I’m afraid.”

“She does seem a little troubled,” said Muriel more diplomatically.

“We’re so grateful to you,” Ruby said. We? Did she mean her and Isaac?

She went on. “We’re having one of our soirees on Friday night. A small gathering for dinner, music. Why don’t you come? Isaac will be there, of course. Eden, you must bring someone, a boyfriend. And please, Griff, Muriel,” – she extended graceful hands to them – “do come, as a thank you for your kindness to Selena.”

Muriel began to demur.

“No, no, you must!” said Ruby, laughing. “The more the merrier. We love having people over.”

“I don’t have a boyfriend,” I said sulkily.

“Just bring a friend, then. Russell was most interested to hear I’d bumped into you. He’s dying to catch up.”

I doubted that. If Russell remembered me at all from nine years back, it would be for my unusual youth, not for my talent. Did I really want to explain to him how little I’d achieved since then?

But Isaac would be there. “All right,” I said.

“Ruby, could I have a word?” asked Muriel. She took Ruby’s arm and led her away a few yards, where they began to talk inaudibly.

“Lovely landscape here,” I said to Griff.

“Oh, yes, indeed! I think that’s Cold Pike over there, er …”

“Eden,” I supplied. “I’m Eden. Yes, it is. Have you ever been up it?”

“Oh, many times. But not recently.”

“I believe you do little sketches of your walks?”

“I do indeed!” His face lit up.

“I’d love to see them sometime,” I said, watching Ruby glance our way.

“Friday at seven-thirty, then!” announced Ruby loudly. She rested her hands reassuringly on Muriel’s shoulders before embracing her with loving care.

All very unnecessary. In contrast, I got the bare shadow of a wave as Ruby bore her lasagne to the farmhouse.

“What a lovely lady,” said Muriel, starting up the car again. “I had to explain about you know what. A room full of strangers; but she was very kind. She’ll let everybody know so there’s no awkwardness.”

“Know what, Muriel?” said Griff.

“And meals are usually fine,” said Muriel. “Food gives structure to any occasion.”

“Your food certainly does!” said Griff.

“We’ve been invited to a dinner party, Griff,” she said. “A very nice lady called Ruby. She wants to arrange some company for the poor lonely farmer who lives near here. He doesn’t get out enough. Ruby’s worried he’ll retreat into his shell.”

“Well, that wouldn’t do,” said Griff.

“And it will be nice for us too, won’t it?”

I felt ashamed of my grouchiness. So what if my morning had been spoiled? Griff’s whole life was spoiled, and Muriel’s too. She probably needed to get out as much as Isaac did.

By the time she dropped me off in Ambleside, after a journey filled with Griff’s amiable ramblings, there was no probably about it. Muriel must, I thought, be desperate for a change of company.

“Won’t be a minute, Griff,” said Muriel. She accompanied me to the door, where she said, “Eden? Could I possibly keep one of your drawings of Selena?”

“What for?”

“To show to Griff later, since we can’t take a photo of her. I can’t tell you how significant this afternoon has been. It’s the first time he’s remembered anything without me prompting him. The Lady of the Lake! Her long wet coat! It means so much. It could be a breakthrough.”

At Muriel’s tremulous smile, I felt a pang. She cared so much about him. Who did I have to care for me that way?

I banished the self-pity; and selecting a good likeness of Selena, gave it to her. She slid it carefully into her handbag.

“Thank you, Eden.”

As they left, I fumbled in my pocket for the key, and felt the soft rustle of the birth certificate. I sat down in the Heronry’s kitchen to contemplate it.

My first impression had been right. There was something wrong with the certificate: something that brought back memories of prison. The smell of cigarettes and bleach and bodies seemed instantly to waft around me.

Selena’s got a secret. You could find it out.”

Only one person ever confessed their crimes to me in prison. The other girls confessed their boredom and dismay and misery, frequently and loudly: but not their crimes. They were all innocent, or had been forced to do it, or grassed up or ripped off, or were otherwise unlucky. Just like me.

I was the only forger. The others were mostly in for drugs, theft, shoplifting, drugs, assault, soliciting, and drugs. There were a few sophisticates: credit card fraud, fencing. A couple of head cases: baby-stealing, GBH, drugs. Lots of self-harmers, past and present. Many mourners of absent children.

Gradually the sea of faces sorted themselves into categories: the harmless, the ones to be wary of and a few to be definitely avoided. My first cellmate Leanne was somewhere between the second and third categories. A motor-mouth, always on about what someone had done to her and what she’d do to them. She turned her radio on full blast and spent the evenings shouting through the window. Whenever she begged stuff off me – phone cards, sugar, batteries – I seldom dared refuse.

Leanne was touchy and easily aggrieved. I was growing to dread lock-up but didn’t know how to ask to change cells. She began to complain loudly about the mess, the lack of space, the bloody stink in her cell since I moved in.

Until I drew her: slouching on her bunk, feet up, listening to her radio. I was trying to phrase a letter to Nick but the unusual quietness of her pose made me draw her instead. It came out well: lively and vivid, because I did it quickly.

I gave her the sketch. She said nothing, just looked at it suspiciously. Next day she flashed it round the spur and was told that it was good. Other girls asked me to do their portraits, or gave me photos of their boyfriends and children to draw.

Leanne became proprietorial and began to act as go-between. I think she took commission in the form of cigarettes. I got used to people looking on with a respectful “Woo!” I guarded myself against those Woos. I never let myself believe that they were right. My portraits were good enough only because there was no competition and no knowledgeable judge.

“Dawn wants you to draw her,” said Leanne one day. “I told her you’d go straight round.”

“Dawn?” I was annoyed with Leanne for touting me so casually. “Later,” I said.

“You’d better go now.” I couldn’t see any reason for Leanne to sound threatening. I’d noticed the other inmates spoke about Dawn very little, and in a circumspect way, but there was nothing intimidating about her. She looked harmless and ordinary – small, round, quiet, middle-aged, lost behind enormous glasses. I assumed she was a housewife who had gone round the bend, maybe run amok in the supermarket.

So for the sake of a quiet life, I went along and drew Dawn. She was perfectly nice: calm and practical, reminding me of one of my old school dinner ladies. She asked me how I was getting on and sympathised at my grimace.

“Leanne’s a wild one,” she said, shaking her head. “Unreliable. Too many drugs. They have a permanent effect, you know. I hope you’re steering clear.” There were plenty of drugs floating round the wing, though I never knew how they got in. I said,

“Yes, I’m steering clear.”

“Wise girl. It was forgery, wasn’t it? Those Holbecks. And Lionel only got three years! He didn’t exactly rush to clear the decks, though, did he? A nasty shock for some of his suppliers. And a narrow squeak for others.”

I didn’t know. She knew more about the case than I did, right down to the Christian name of my solicitor.

“Do you know what I’m for, Eden?”

“Um… shoplifting?” It seemed the likeliest and least offensive option.

She laughed. “No. That’s something I’ve never needed to do. They sent me down for, let me see now: receiving, arson with intent, conspiracy to defraud, criminal damage, obtaining property by deception, importing class C and soliciting to murder.”

She counted them off on her fingers. My mouth had fallen open. She smiled at me kindly.

“I never did the last two,” she said. “I was set up by somebody I thought was a friend. I won’t touch drugs: a dreadful trade. But all’s fair and square, because they never got me for the insurance pay-offs.”

“Oh,” I said, weakly.

“A tidy little business and no-one harmed. These insurance companies swindle anyone they can, after all, don’t they? I know I can trust you with that information, Eden. You’re not a grass. What about you? What else have you done?”

“Nothing. Just the Holbecks.”

“No other artists?”

“No.”

“In all that time with Lionel? Really?”

“No.” But she was watching me shrewdly, and I knew that she knew.

She let it pass. “What about documents?”

“No,” I said, but she began courteously probing. Had I attempted handwriting? Signatures? Wills? Certificates? Did I know anything about the passport business? I kept shaking my head. Just painting. Just the Holbecks, I insisted. That’s all I did. Nothing else. I was an amateur.

Dawn patted my knee. “Good girl. And I’m sure you’ll be going straight once you get out. Not like most of these girls. You’ve got your head screwed on, I can tell. You keep it that way.”

She said she liked the portrait. I don’t think she actually looked at it. I left her cell feeling like a mouse released by a cat: but one that I’d only just discovered was the real thing and not a furry toy.

Afterwards, in certain ways, my sentence got easier. I was moved without explanation to share a cell with Oba, a sad and sweet-natured Nigerian drugs mule. Leanne steered clear of me. I was offered cigarettes without reason. Nobody nicked my mints or spilt food all over my tray any more.

And I was summoned to Dawn every now and then to draw her and to listen to her chat. She liked to talk about art. Tom Keating, Van Meegeren, Myatt and Drewe: the great forgers, although, as she pointed out, the greatest were those whose names would never come to light. She mused aloud on their techniques: the old stretchers, the rusted tacks, the dust rubbed into the canvas, the falsified catalogues.

Huddled over my paper, I never contributed more than yes or no as her voice drifted on, as dry and light as a spider’s web, discussing forgeries she had known. I left her with a feeling of profound relief: but I learnt some interesting stuff along the way.

One of those conversations was in my mind next day as I leant over the counter at Ambleside Police Station.

“It’s been altered, Hunter, look.” I spread the birth certificate out in front of him. “There’s something funny about that eight. Look at the pink pattern in the background.”

“I’m looking,” he said.

“I think someone’s bleached out a number and written in an eight. Some of the background got bleached out too and they had to redraw it. It doesn’t quite match.” Only amateurs use household bleach, Dawn said. You can always tell. Look around the letters.

Hunter squinted at it, unconvinced. “You’re saying Selena has a falsified birth certificate?”

“Exactly.”

“It’d be easy enough to check against the register.”

“But would anyone ever check? Unless you applied for a passport or something. Bryony said Selena doesn’t have a passport. And get this, Hunter. She doesn’t like her photograph being taken.”

“She’s not unique in that,” he said.

“No, but she was vehement about it.” I described the incident with the camera. “And she was adamant that she didn’t want her picture on the website, either. Not even as a painting. Why would that be, unless she doesn’t want to be recognised?”

Hunter turned the certificate over in his hands. “How come Selena let you take this?”

“Um…”

He sighed and shook his head. “So that’s petty theft, then, is it, Eden? Would you like to make a statement now?”

“It’s not theft. I’ve only borrowed it,” I said. “I’m going to take it back.”

He leaned his elbows on the counter. “Eden, I’ve only borrowed it is an idiot’s excuse. Don’t be an idiot.”

“I’ve just said I’ll take it back! Aren’t you interested? It’s deception – don’t you see? Why would she have a fake birth certificate?”

“The biggest market is for illegal immigrants. I doubt if that applies.”

“I think she’s got something to hide.”

“Like what?”

“Like a criminal record. There’s something funny about her.”

“There’s something funny about everyone,” said Hunter. “However.” Straightening up, he rattled the piece of paper. “I’ll photocopy this, since you’ve brought it in, and run a check.”

As he went into the back, I called, “You’re not busy today, then?”

“A lost wallet, a lost puppy, a lost child.”

“A lost child?”

“We found it. It was in the Fudge Shop. They rang us just before the parents did.”

“Life in the fast lane, eh?”

“Don’t,” said Hunter emphatically. He returned and handed back the certificate. “I’ll turn a blind eye as long as this goes back to where it came from.”

“All right.” Although I wasn’t sure how I would manage it.

“And don’t go pulling any more stunts like that.”

“Stop pontificating, Hunter!”

“I’m saying it for your own good. You’ve got a reputation to mend,” he said. He was serious. It made me uncomfortable. Why should it matter to him?

Because he was a policeman, I supposed. He was enough of a maverick to want my company, but conventional enough to want me honest.

“You doing anything Friday night?”

He frowned at me. “Why?”

I felt awkward; I didn’t want to give him the wrong idea. “I owe you a meal. And I’ve been asked to dinner at Raven How: the artist’s place. Selena and the others at the farm have been invited, and so have Griff and Muriel. You know, Mr and Mrs Memory Loss.”

“Should make for an interesting party,” Hunter said.

“Ruby told me to bring a friend, and you’re the closest thing to a friend I’ve got just now.”

“Aaah,” said Hunter. “My heart bleeds. Will the food be any good?”

“It was nine years ago,” I said. “Ruby was a good cook back then. Might be even better now.”

“All right,” said Hunter casually, but his eyes had lightened just a touch at Ruby’s name. “I don’t mind.”

“Great,” I said, equally casually. “Then you can give me a lift.”

 

Chapter Ten

 

 

I dithered over what to wear. Would Isaac like my dark blue dress? Would he notice? Would Hunter? I put the dress on anyway.

Hunter didn’t notice, or at least, he didn’t comment. He looked smart. I didn’t think it was for me.

We arrived at Raven How to meet Freddie and Matt just getting out of their car. When Ruby threw open the door, Griff and Muriel were already inside and hailed us cordially, though in Griff’s case only through politeness as we had to be introduced all over again.

It seemed that Griff remembered Freddie, though, from regular visits to the bookshop in the past. The group was completed by a hippy-ish, well-spoken couple, Hal and Susan. While everyone exchanged pleasantries, I looked around, wondering where Russell was. The place hadn’t altered much, I could see.

Raven How was a sprawling stone building, not as imposing as the Staithwaites’ farm nearby. It had been haphazardly added to through the years, and at some point turned into a bunkhouse with a maze of cramped dormitories. We were shown into the lounge, which was really a huge, dilapidated conservatory, but which at least was light and spacious, unlike the rest of the place. Nine years ago my group had set our easels up in there when it was raining outside.

The décor was still much as it had been back then. Tall screens stood before the windows, decorated with Ruby’s twisting ivy-stencils and Russell’s paintings. They did not go together particularly well. One screen was covered with a home-made tapestry in bloody shades of purple. Ruby’s bumpy pottery stood on the stencilled pine dresser, or held strong-scented candles in the niches of the exposed stone wall. Books with names like Crystal Healing and The Seven Truths of Chakra fell over each other on a shelf.

All unchanged, except for something which I hadn’t noticed back then: it was bloody freezing. The screens did nothing to keep away the cold that emanated from the misting windows. When Delilah offered to take my jacket, I hung on to it.

Delilah, who’d been three when I last saw her, was now a twelve-year-old miniGoth, pale and polite, with black braces on her teeth. Russell hadn’t yet appeared; but his paintings grabbed me just as they had nine years ago.

Shining mosaics of translucent, polished colour: thunderous plum and indigo, and shifting shades of deep, tangled green, while red and orange would come leaping like boxers out of the corners. Russell could push colour like no artist that I’d seen. But he could do subtle too. Watching him paint clouds had been a revelation, like watching God at work.

When Russell finally came in, carrying drinks, I had to look twice. Was that really him? The piratical face was gaunt and blotchy; the leonine mane needed a good wash.

Back then, Russell had been almost as showy as Ruby – I remembered embroidered waistcoats, dandyish cravats, and red trousers. I’d gone out and bought myself an embroidered waistcoat too, in tribute, at seventeen. Then only worn it once.

Now he was dressed in shabby cords, and his creased grey shirt was mottled not just with exciting sploshes of paint, but with grime, especially round the cuffs. I’d had enough acquaintance with grime to no longer find it attractive.

He didn’t recognise me. Oh, when Ruby said my name, he did the How are you Eden? business, but in a tone so flat and distant it was obvious that he didn’t remember me and didn’t care.

Nevertheless I rattled out my little, unconvincing story: art degree, struggle to make ends meet, waitressing and odd jobs while I painted, with glandular fever standing in for jail. Only Susan showed any interest. Freddie looked tactfully at his drink; Hunter raised an eyebrow at me.

“Too much information,” he murmured.

I knew that. Having composed my story, however, I didn’t want to waste it. At this point Selena and Isaac were announced by Delilah.

“Bryony didn’t come,” said Isaac. “She’s not been feeling well. Gone to bed early.” He looked uncomfortable in a heavy tweed jacket. Selena was wearing a crimson off-the-shoulder dress. It was a cheap one, but on her that didn’t matter. Dark and velvety as a rose, she drew all eyes. Beside her, Susan looked drab; and even Ruby’s flame-lily elegance seemed overblown and wind-seared.

“My goodness,” said Griff to Muriel, “isn’t that the Lady of the Lake?” which made Muriel glow with hope and caused much conscious laughter all round. Ruby told the tale to Hal and Susan as if Selena’s throwing herself in Windermere was just a whimsical prank.

Selena smiled assent. She was a gracious picture of politeness as she lavished praise on the drinks, the candles, and my nondescript dress. On her best behaviour. You’d never have suspected the camera-throwing incident had happened from the civil greeting she bestowed on Muriel. She was respectful to Hunter, affectionate with Ruby, and clumsily effusive towards me.

“Isn’t it a lovely home?” she said admiringly. “So much prettier than the farm. So many nice things! I love that dresser.” She stroked the lumpy vases and the stencilled ivy with a lingering touch, and ran a curious hand along the volumes on the shelves, pausing to pick up Empowerment Through Celestial Energy and trace its gilded cover with her finger.

“Are you interested in that sort of thing?” I asked, surprised.

“Oh, no. But it’s pretty.” Quickly she replaced it and stepped back to survey Russell’s paintings. “So are those, aren’t they? But not as good as yours.”

“They’re much better,” I said. “Haven’t you been here before?”

“Only a couple of times. Ruby used to invite us after we got married, but Luke wouldn’t come.”

“Why not?”

“He didn’t get on with Ruby,” she said. “Ruby was his mum’s best friend, but after his mum died he went right off her.”

“Well, I suppose he was grieving. Maybe he just wanted peace and quiet.”

“No. It was something Ruby did.” Selena hesitated, and seemed about to say more when Griff came bearing down on us with a gladly outstretched hand.

“The Lady of the Lake!” he announced ecstatically. Selena gave him a small, tight smile, murmured an excuse and moved away. Griff was beginning to trail after her, when Matt prevented him by stepping smartly in and engaging us in conversation about Ruby’s furnishings, with sly jokes at the expense of the hand-painted dresser and its adornments. He was not as admiring as Selena.

“It’s the Bloomsbury look,” he said. “Or is that William Morris? I don’t think she could make her mind up. The kitchen’s quite something too. Ruby’s Irish phase. She tried to antique the table, but I’m afraid she went overboard on the distressing.”

“Your sarcasm is showing, Matt,” said Freddie, finishing his drink.

“Oh, Ruby knows. I’ve told her that she’s overdone it. Isaac has the real thing, of course, but he doesn’t care.”

I wanted to know what Isaac did care about; but Hal and Matt began to talk antique furniture, in which I had no interest, and Isaac was buttonholed by Ruby. I watched them surreptitiously until Muriel came up to me. She was glowing.

“Griff seems happy enough, doesn’t he?” I commented. “And he remembered Selena again.”

“I can hardly believe it!” Her voice brimmed with gladness. “When I showed him your drawing, he knew her immediately. The Lady of the Lake! He said it at once. He remembered the long coat dripping, and the wet hair. No other details, true… but even so!”

How strange, and sad, I thought, to base your happiness on your husband’s recognition of another woman. But I murmured a sympathetic agreement.

Ruby shooed us all along to the kitchen, which smelt of onions but was much warmer than the lounge. It was a long, dark, lopsided room, one end of its beamed ceiling higher than the other, with cupboards painted in eye-watering green and orange Celtic knot designs. I couldn’t look at them for more than a few seconds. Bunches of dried herbs dangled from the beams, shedding bits of leaf from time to time.

Ruby waved us towards the table which appeared to have been attacked with a pickaxe. I sensed some manouvering for position. Hunter got himself next to Ruby, who got herself next to Isaac, in a seat he had been saving for Selena only to be ignored as Selena plumped herself down next to Matt and began to talk to him flirtatiously, all giggles and intimate murmurs. I thought her coquettishness was out of place for one so recently widowed. It seemed Matt thought so too, for he replied with polite formality.

By careful indecisive hanging around I managed to get the seat on Isaac’s other side. He took a cautious sip of the yellow wine and peered doubtfully at his plate in the candlelight.

The wine was home-brewed. The tablemats were hand-woven, possibly out of nettle stems. I suspected there were nettles in the spiced lamb casserole Ruby served up too: there were certainly lots of strange green shreds floating in it, although some of those might have fallen from the ceiling. It tasted good, though.

“What are these?” Isaac muttered at me, holding up his fork.

“Chickpeas.”

“Very nice,” he said gloomily. “I’m not used to these occasions. More at home in the Red Lion.” He pushed a few chickpeas to the edge of his plate. “Even when Carol was alive,” he went on heavily, in answer to a question I hadn’t asked, “we didn’t go in for these dinner parties. Not our style. Mind you, she was a good cook, was Carol. Made a superb Rogan Josh. Did one the week before she died.”

“Well, at least she wasn’t too ill to–” I stopped. It sounded terrible.

“No. It was all very quick. She was weak, she got tired, she was in terrible pain. Yet she was still. Not admitting. Trying to.” He rested his head on his hand.

“I’m so sorry,” I said, helpless. I finally understood what I’d been too self-absorbed to notice, that Isaac’s heaviness was not down to chickpeas, his weathered stoicism was not because he was made of rock and mountain but because he was doing his best to weather grief. To keep on living when those he loved had died.

I had no concept of what such grief might mean. I had no measure. I’d lost Nick, but Nick was still alive. If I could just make myself into some semblance of a normal, decent person, we might yet find each other again.

In my affliction, I’d grabbed at Isaac’s kindness with the avidity of a drowning woman reaching for an offered hand. It had not occurred to me that he might be drowning too. Now I had a foolish urge to hold him, to put my arms around him; as if I could magically make it better when, of course, I meant nothing to him at all.

I resisted all foolish urges. Instead, I covered for him.

“Try some butter on those turnips,” I said. “It makes them edible.” He moved his hand, took the butter, and the table stopped pretending not to watch. Matt began some lively talk about vintages and English wine, offering the bottle around until Freddie raised his eyebrows disapprovingly.

“You know nothing about fine wine, Matt,” he said with unwonted sharpness.

“True, but I’m an expert on bluffing,” said Matt easily. “After all, I do it all the time with books.”

“Don’t be an idiot, Matt. You’re more widely read than I am,” Freddie snapped.

“No, I’m just better at the selling of them, and of course the cooking,” said Matt lightly. I’d never seen Matt rise to Freddie’s surliness; or if he did, it was with a touch as delicate as a cat’s claw.

Still, cats’ claws could hurt; although I wasn’t sure why Freddie took such offence at this mild scratch. He glared at Matt, and for the next few minutes did not speak.

Meanwhile Matt turned to exchange affable chit-chat with Muriel, who was sitting somewhat nervously apart from Griff. Matt made her laugh even as she cast another anxious glance Griff’s way.

But Griff was fine. He talked geology to Hal and Russell in the manner of an enthusiastic lecturer, oblivious to Russell’s grouchiness. Occasionally he appealed over the table for Selena’s opinion, at which she gave an enigmatic Mona Lisa smile. Russell’s eyes, too, often rested on Selena, but without Griff’s eager friendliness.

Hunter, somewhat to my surprise, was enjoying himself, discussing cookery with Ruby more genially than I had ever seen him talk to anyone, including me. And yet Ruby had broken all his rules: she’d exclaimed loudly over his hand, and offered to cut up his meat. Astonishingly, Hunter didn’t seem to mind. He even laughed.

Well, it was none of my business who Hunter saw fit to admire. Even if she was fortyish with hennaed hair. So I studiously ignored them and told Isaac all about my unknown grandfather and his horses. He listened politely but without response. I tried to chat to him about sheep; but he didn’t want to talk, so I gave him a break by helping Matt clear plates away to the kitchen end of the room.

“It’s going better than I thought,” said Matt as he carefully loaded the dishwasher. “I thought it might be awkward.”

“Why?”

He pulled a wry face. “Just the mix of people. Russell can be… a little bit unsociable. And so can Isaac, though I must say he’s got more excuse.”

“At least Selena seems to be quite happy. She seems to like you, Matt. She was flirting with you!”

“I’m safe,” said Matt with a half-smile. That was why I liked him, too. No complications. Doubly safe, in fact, because he so carefully kept things light, concealing his kindness behind ironic bars. He paused to rearrange plates before adding, “I expect I’m a reminder of happier days, when Selena first met Luke.”

“Did you see much of them together?”

I was wondering what sort of a couple Luke and Selena made, but when I saw the way Matt’s whole body tightened I wished I hadn’t asked.

“Not much,” he answered quietly. “Like I told Freddie, I saw Luke very seldom once he married.” I had the sense of stumbling around hidden mine-workings: carefully camouflaged pits of meaning into which I could tumble and be lost.

Had Matt been jealous? I couldn’t ask. So I changed the subject. “I thought this evening might be difficult for Griff. I suppose Muriel’s told you about him.”

“Yes. She’s a pleasant lady, isn’t she? A great shame. She seems to think there’s hope, though. Apparently he’s become quite attached to Selena.” The hidden pits were covered over. There was a faint mockery in his voice.

“Well, he met her in memorable circumstances,” I said, handing him the vegetable dishes. “And of course, Selena is very beautiful.”

“Is she? I have different tastes. She’s rather obvious, isn’t she? You have more style, Eden.” This was pure kindness on his part. Next to Selena I was a stick with no style at all. “Anyway, if she’s flirting with me,” he went on, “it just proves that she doesn’t get out enough. Closeted on that farm all day with Isaac… She just wants somebody to be kind to her, poor soul.”

“Isaac’s kind to her!” I said instinctively.

“No doubt,” said Matt, while I reflected that Selena was treating Isaac with a cool reserve. But it wasn’t Isaac’s fault. He was kind, I was sure.

“It must be an odd household, that one,” I said.

“It’s a house of relics. What’s left after death.” Matt poured himself a glass of water and drank before he said thoughtfully. “I’m glad Isaac came tonight, though I must admit I am surprised. He doesn’t like artists, you see, thinks they’re a waste of space.”

“Oh.”

He glanced at me. “Perhaps it would be more accurate to say he doesn’t like Russell. He sees Russell’s presence here as a necessary evil: but Isaac wouldn’t make enough from this place just letting it out to school field-trips. He needs the year-round income.”

“What, Raven How belongs to Isaac, then?” I remembered him saying something about the rent.

“Yes. So it’s rather unfortunate that he’s taken against Russell. Mind you, Russell isn’t exactly a bundle of laughs.”

“He does seem rather…”

“Unwelcoming? You could say that. He’s your archetypal artist: too busy being a genius to care what effect he has on other people. If he even notices.” Matt’s tone was acerbic. He drained his glass and added, “Carol kept the social wheels oiled.”

“Like Ruby does,” I said.

“Women are better at it, aren’t they?”

He wasn’t so bad at oiling social wheels himself, I thought, watching him offer help to Ruby when she came to fetch pudding from the fridge. As he carried away the bowls, I told her,

“It’s nice to see this place hasn’t changed.”

“I’ve always loved it here. Where are you living now, Eden?”

“In a guesthouse for a few more days, and then I’m on the streets, unless the Pattinsons let me stay on.” I’d pinned my hopes on their charity, having buffed and polished their house like a trophy cabinet. Come Easter, though, they would be full and I would be out. As I explained this to Ruby, she looked thoughtful.

“We’ve got spare rooms here,” she said. “The Easter watercolour course is coming up, but it’s not fully booked. There’d be a bed for you if you wanted to stay for a few days.”

“Really? Oh, Ruby, that’s so very kind!”

“If you’re prepared to muck in with the cleaning and cooking for the course, I’d only charge you a nominal rent.”

“How good of you,” I said, slightly less enthusiastically; and then dithered, wondering whether to tell her about my conviction.

I decided that later on would do. I’d give her offer time to bed in and root itself. Anyway, there was no point blighting Ruby’s evening by suddenly unmasking myself as the skulking villain at the feast.

Pudding was a caramel and whisky goo, very alcoholic. My surly Scots artist Anthony MacLeish would have approved of that pudding, still more of the bottle of Scotch that was then carried into the chilly lounge, where night streamed through the windows and made the candles shudder. A guitar was produced which Hal played while Susan sang several dreary folk songs, slightly out of tune, which everybody talked through.

Freddie had charge of the whisky bottle. “Need some more of this to warm us up,” he told me. I thought he was already fairly drunk. “Good news, by the way, Eden. We’ve had a little run on your cards. Matt sold five the other day.”

“That’s great!” I said, pleased and then immediately deflated, because five cards was nothing and anyway Isaac didn’t like artists. I looked over at him, sitting hunched on the other sofa, his tweed jacket clashing horribly with the cinnamon throw, listening to the music with glum resignation. Griff and Russell were discussing local history while Selena sat patiently on a stencilled chair between them. After a minute she rolled her eyes and called out to me,

“Got any of those mints, Eden?”

Hal stopped playing and announced abruptly that he and Susan had to go as they had a long drive home. No-one attempted to dissuade them.

“Mints?” queried Selena again once they had left.

“Eden always has mints,” said Freddie caustically. He knew that in prison they’d been my substitute for cigarettes; and I’d become addicted.

When I offered them round, Selena stood up and with languid grace wandered over to me. Russell’s gaze slid after her like a shadow.

“Can I sit here?” Slipping her shoes off, she collapsed onto the sofa and stretched her legs out with a sigh. “Actually, I just wanted an excuse to get away from those two.”

“Griff and Russell? Why?”

“Field systems. Do you know anything about field systems? I don’t even know what they are. They’re making me feel really thick.” She laughed, but I thought she was upset.

“I don’t suppose they mean to,” I said. Griff and Russell’s heads both craned towards us, watching Selena or rather her bare legs. Abruptly she curled her feet up beneath her on the sofa.

“That old guy’s staring at me,” she muttered. “And the way he keeps going on about the lady of the lake! I wish he’d stop.”

“It’s his memory,” I reminded her. “He’s not doing it on purpose.”

“Well, it gives me the heebie-jeebies. He’s creepy. I don’t like old men. You’re all right, Freddie, I don’t mean you.”

“Thank you,” said Freddie, who was all of forty. “Although I have to say, right now I feel decrepit, ensconced between you radiant young ladies.” He spoke the words very carefully. His eyes strayed gloomily to Matt and Hunter.

They made a handsome pair: Matt with his studied stylishness and trim, toned body, while Hunter – well, trim was not the word for Hunter, although I suspected he was equally fit.

But they gave out a similar air of power controlled, contained. The difference, I decided, was Matt’s feline self-awareness: he was fully alive to the impression that he made. Hunter, on the other hand, didn’t know and didn’t care.

When Hunter noticed me watching him, his eyes narrowed. I turned back to Freddie.

“Did Matt ever introduce you to Luke?” I asked, and then felt cruel, for Freddie looked away and didn’t answer. It was Selena who said,

“He didn’t introduce anyone after me. I mean, they weren’t really friends any more once we got married.”

“Matt and Luke were at one time, I believe, extremely close,” said Freddie quietly.

“No, not like that! You mustn’t think that, Freddie!” said Selena with some anxiety. “Luke wasn’t that way at all. Matt only has eyes for you. And no wonder, you’re looking very handsome at the moment.”

“Oh, very,” said Freddie glumly. He had shadows under his pouchy eyes, and the hand holding his glass shook with a faint tremor.

“Matt didn’t care about Luke, you know, Freddie,” she persisted. “He wanted me and Luke to marry. He helped us get together. That proves it, doesn’t it? Honestly, he only cares about you.”

Personally, I thought that Matt had cared about Luke deeply: but had recognised there was no future in it, because Luke wasn’t gay.

Perhaps Freddie was thinking the same as he gazed mournfully into his drink. “He was extremely grieved by Luke’s death, that’s all I know.”

“Well, so was I!” she said. “It was dreadful, seeing him lying there, with all the blood–” She put her hand up to her mouth, flinching. “Matt didn’t have to see him there. I did. I was a lot more upset than Matt. It wasn’t like you think, Freddie.”

Freddie sighed and looked away. But Selena said, “It’s true,” and patted his shoulder with a touching attempt at reassurance until he gave her a reluctant smile.

Snuggling up to him, she took his arm. “So how is business, Freddie? Are you making loads of money?”

“If only,” said Freddie. “There’s not much money in books, you know.”

“There’s not much in pictures, either,” I said. “Though at least Russell makes a living out of them.” And I called out to him, daring to be his equal, “Russell? What sort of work are you doing now?”

Russell stared down at me with, I thought, amazed haughtiness.

“God, don’t ask,” muttered Freddie.

But Ruby said, “Why don’t you show Eden? Take her up to your studio.”

“I’d love to see it too,” said Muriel. “Wouldn’t you, Griff? Would you like to see some paintings?”

I was sure Russell wanted to refuse. But Ruby didn’t give him the option. Instead she invited everyone along, so that the whole lot of us trooped upstairs and clumped along the corridor behind her in a chattering conga.

The studio was an angular room beneath the eaves. With bare, splattered floor-boards underfoot and uncurtained windows showing blank squares of night, its space was made achingly white by naked light bulbs. A paint-streaked trestle table held a muddle of brushes and squirming tubes. Stacks of paper curled up inside a cupboard with no doors. A half-finished painting stood on an easel: others lay on a multi-layered drying rack or were propped against the wall.

It was awful. I didn’t know what to say. The paintings I’d seen in Freddie’s shop hadn’t been the exceptions, the rare unsold disasters. These were just as bad, or worse.

No more broad sweeps and sinuous, decisive lines. No more stunning stained-glass colours. This work was dry, slow to the point of hesitancy, with harsh, grainy brushstrokes and colours as dull and flat as chipboard.

“That’s an interesting change of direction,” was what I came up with at last. Maybe this work had merits I couldn’t detect. Russell’s surliness suggested he couldn’t detect them either. And this was the man who had inspired me, when he spoke of drawing a scene, literally: of pulling out the essence, of tempting it, charming it onto the paper…

Next to me, Isaac squinted at the easel in dismay. “What’s it meant to be?” he muttered.

Russell glared at him, thrusting his jaw out aggressively. “A load of bollocks, obviously!”

“Well,” said Isaac, at a loss. I felt for him. He had neither the artifice nor the vocabulary for this.

“The dry-brush technique gives it a restrained immediacy,” I said.

Russell switched his blowlamp glare to me. “That’s bollocks too.”

Luckily Griff provided a distraction. “Look, Muriel! D’you see that? There’s our Lady of the Lake!” he cried. Lying on the rack was a charcoal head of Selena, drawn with thick black strokes. She wore a seductive, questioning smile.

Eagerly Griff went over and held it up, then began to leaf through the pictures underneath. “Here she is again! My word!”

Selena drew a sharp breath. Then, lips compressed, she wrapped her arms tightly around herself, turned on her heel and marched out. I felt some sympathy for her.

“What a lovely picture,” Muriel said.

“It’s not meant to be lovely,” Russell drawled. “I call that one the portrait of a prostitute.”

“A what?” said Matt.

Russell smirked. “You heard.”

“A prostitute?” repeated Griff, wide-eyed.

“He’s joking, Griff,” said Muriel.

“I don’t joke about my art,” said Russell with a sneer.

In two swift strides, Matt had closed the gap on him and thrust a clenched fist underneath his chin.

Russell flinched back, and Matt’s face hardened with a certain relish. I didn’t doubt that he could flatten Russell if he wished, and I wouldn’t have been altogether sorry to see him do it. Russell hadn’t even pretended to show any interest in my career.

“Would you like to reconsider that?” Matt said coldly. Russell’s face was a picture. Contempt jostled with consternation and badly-concealed fear.

“I think you should both reconsider,” Hunter said, in his most unimpressed policeman voice.

“Don’t you ever call her that again,” Matt said, his voice low.

“For heaven’s sake, Matt! It’s metaphorical,” said Ruby. “Not to be taken literally, is it, Russell? It’s artist’s licence.”

“Like my fist,” said Matt, withdrawing it with a cool shark-smile. Russell puffed his chest out indignantly.

“Well, of course it is,” said Muriel.

“A model can be anything the artist wants,” said Ruby. “It’s a special relationship. You used to call me your muse, didn’t you, Russell?”

He just snorted. Ruby didn’t appear to notice. “He’s done a whole series of Selena,” she added proudly, holding another portrait up for us to admire.

I wondered why Selena hadn’t mentioned these to me. But then who would want their portrait labelled as a prostitute’s? Metaphorically or not. No wonder Matt was still eyeing Russell askance. I heard Freddie hiss at him,

“What d’you think you’re doing? He’s our host! And he’s a client!”

“Fucking artists and their fucking licence,” said Matt: and he stalked out of the studio.

Muriel at once began admiring the drawings of Selena, trying to bandage up the incident with soothing plaudits. I concurred, for in my opinion these were better than his landscapes; they had something of the old confident flow. There was a whole sheaf of Selenas – yet not a single picture of Ruby. So what had happened to that special relationship?

“Are there any portraits of you here?” I asked her.

“Oh, certainly!” said Ruby. “There’s a good one on the landing. Let me show you.”

So we all trooped out again in our obedient crocodile and trailed down the corridor past the frugal bedrooms that I remembered from nine years ago. I stuck my head in one or two: they were just the same, with narrow bunk beds crowded against white-washed stone, up to six crammed into each room. No expense spared. The folded duvets on the bunks were thin and yellowed; cobwebs laced the corners.

Ruby flicked a switch to light up the far end of the landing. “Here I am,” she said. “Russell did this some years back. It’s always been one of my favourites.”

The portrait was very large, and very naked. It was obviously an early work: quite apart from the style, Ruby’s face was younger, her skin as firm and luscious as a peach – no, a whole basket of fruit, succulent and inviting. More concubine than prostitute. We stopped, and gazed.

“Very nice,” said Hunter appreciatively. Isaac looked away.

“How lovely,” said Muriel. “It must have taken a long time.”

“About two months, as I remember,” said Russell shortly.

“It’s very good, isn’t it, Griff? Griff?” Muriel turned her head, suddenly alarmed. “Where’s he gone?”

“He can’t be far away,” I said.

There was a shriek: Selena came stumbling backwards out of one of the bedrooms further down the corridor.

“What are you doing? Get out! Leave me alone!” she yelled.

“I wasn’t – I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean–” Griff stammered as he followed her out, with Matt escorting him firmly by the elbow.

“You old perv!” Selena’s face was flushed with anger.

“I didn’t mean it!” protested Griff. “I was only looking. I didn’t expect– ”

“Just looking?” spat Selena. Her affability was all gone, replaced by wildcat fury. Matt grasped her hand and patted it protectively.

“It’s quite all right,” he said. “Hush, now Selena. There’s no harm done.” His eyes beckoned Muriel, who hurried over. Griff turned to her in miserable bewilderment.

“But what did I do? It’s the Lady of the Lake, isn’t it?”

“I am NOT the Lady of the fucking Lake!”

“Come along, Griff,” said Muriel briskly, “I think it’s time we went home.” He looked at her, dismayed and fearful.

“But why? I only wanted–”

Now,” said Muriel, her patience thin for once. “We’ll get our coats.” She seized Griff’s arm and pulled him down the stairs.

“Time you went home too, young lady,” Isaac told Selena.

“Don’t order me about! You don’t own me!” she retorted.

His brows drew together. “No need for all the fuss. I think you’d better come with me.”

“Get off me!” Selena’s face contorted: her voice shook. He was nowhere near her.

“Don’t make such a fool of yourself,” said Isaac tiredly. “Sorry, Ruby. She’s being daft. It was a very nice meal. But I’ve got to be up early. We’ll go now.”

Selena was stealing Isaac away from me. I’d said none of the deep, important things to him that I’d longed to. Instead I’d blathered about sheep. It couldn’t end like this.

“Isaac? When shall I come round to the farm to finish painting you? You said I could, remember,” I added urgently, for his face was closing, doubtful. He wanted to leave.

“You’re supposed to be painting me, not him!” Selena cried.

“Selena,” said Matt quietly. She subsided, her face working.

“Say Monday,” Isaac said reluctantly. “Say twelve, midday. Come on, now, lass.” Selena pushed past him and ran fleetly down the stairs.

“See you at noon on Monday,” I called down after Isaac as he followed her. I noticed Hunter looking at me as if I was the one who’d just caused all the commotion. I raised my chin and glared back.

“Selena’s somewhat volatile,” said Russell flatly, as if she was a paint-thinner.

“Exactly what happened in that bedroom?” Freddie asked.

Matt grimaced. “I’m afraid Griff tried to kiss her. Don’t tell Muriel. I expect her life’s dismal enough as it is. Possibly Griff took somebody’s idea too literally.” This was said with a curl of the lip at Russell, who pretended not to hear. “Freddie, we’d better be going too.”

Soon all the others had left; but Hunter lingered in conversation with Ruby. Although I tried to chat to Russell, I might as well have been talking to the wall. I felt my words dissolve, uncared-for, and was relieved when Hunter finally dragged himself away.

“A shame it broke up so early,” he said in the car. “What was that little fracas all about?”

“Which one?”

“Both. Well, Griff is brain-damaged, obviously; it’s just as well he’s got Muriel keeping a beady eye on him if he’s liable to kiss people. Selena wasn’t very understanding. Maybe she’s not capable of it.”

“She’s all off-balance,” I said, thinking of her hurling away the camera and viciously kicking at Griff’s shins. I hadn’t told Hunter about the kicking. It hadn’t been important enough: just a moment of misbehaviour – like Griff’s unwanted kiss, and Matt’s menacing fist… All small transgressions, easily excused. They all had their reasons, just like my slightly more serious yet surely still excusable transgression.

“Some people are thrown by any sort of abnormality,” said Hunter. I managed not to glance at his hand. “But I was surprised at Matt squaring up to Russell like that. A bit of an over-reaction, wasn’t it? He didn’t strike me as the gallant type.”

“She’s the widow of his best friend. He intervened on Luke’s behalf. Russell was lucky not to get decked.”

But Hunter shook his head dismissively. “Matt was just making a point. I think he enjoyed seeing Russell cringe, but he had more sense than to knock him over just for being a prat, especially in front of a policeman. Not that I want to wear my policeman’s hat on all occasions.”

“I thought you never took it off?”

“Oh, in the right company I will. I enjoyed myself this evening.”

“Ruby’s married,” I said severely. “And ten years older than you. At least.”

“So?”

“And that picture was ancient. Russell doesn’t paint in that style any more.”

“I wonder what else he doesn’t do any more.”

“Stop it, Hunter!”

“Why?” He glanced at me, then looked back through the windscreen. He was smiling. “Waspishness doesn’t suit you,” he said.

“I’m not being waspish,” I snapped.

“Of course not. Nor jealous either. Why would you be? We have no claim on each other.”

“Dead right!”

“After all, I’m not jealous of Isaac.”

That shut me up. “Is it so obvious?” I said after a while.

“As a vapour trail,” said Hunter. “You hardly took your eyes off him all evening. And you said Ruby was a little old for me?”

“It’s nothing like that, Hunter! I just like him. Why shouldn’t I? He pays attention to me. He listens. He doesn’t treat me like an idiot.”

“Father-figure, is he?”

“I’ve got a perfectly good father,” I said stiffly.

“And what about Nick? Forgotten him, have you?”

I had never told Hunter anything about Nick except his name. To have him brought up now infuriated me. “I just told you. It’s not like that. Of course I haven’t forgotten Nick!”

“He wasn’t there when you needed him, though, was he? That’s why you’re looking for crumbs of affection from an old farmer.”

“I’m not–”

“Yes, you are. Hurt and lost and searching for your bearings. Ah well, I expect you’re safe enough idolizing Isaac,” said Hunter. The car swooped round a corner: the trees were phantoms in the headlights. “You won’t get close to him, but by the same token he’ll never let you down.”

Idolizing? Hurt and lost? He made me sound like a moody teenager. And was he implying that Nick had let me down?

As if Nick had ever let me down. It was me who’d let him down, and I could not forget it. I’d lost him through my huge, inexcusable transgression.

“Just what would you know about it, Hunter?” I demanded furiously. “Nick has nothing to do with this. Don’t pretend you know anything about me and Nick! And don’t tell me how I feel about Isaac! I just want to paint him. That’s all. There’s nothing else to it.”

“Whatever you say,” said Hunter coolly.

“You can drop me at the bridge.”

“Certainly.” His tone was dismissive. We drove the last mile back in silence.

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Next day I aired the guest-house, opening the windows to let the breeze waft through carrying cool green scents of spring and frenetic birdsong. On Sunday, the Pattinsons returned and nodded their approval of my guardianship, as a reward offering me a few more days in the tiny top single.

So I was happy. I woke early on Monday morning hearing the blackbird’s carol and knowing things would work out okay.

I would move to Raven How for Easter, and perhaps borrow Russell’s studio, and go over to the farm where Isaac would welcome me with his slow, crinkly smile. Forget Hunter; he knew nothing. I would paint those hills and learn to do them justice. I would capture Isaac in pigment and water.

Freddie would sell lots of my inspired new paintings. After Easter the Ruskin Hotel would take me on. And the future… well, it unrolled ahead of me, sunlit for a change if inevitably hazy. I had a place again, a part to play in life. I was turning myself back into a proper person.

So I attended to business, like a proper person should. First I did the rounds of my outlets in the Southern Lakes – Tiggywinkles, the Blue Pig and the Hunny Bee – and was only slightly downhearted to learn they’d sold a grand total of four cards in the last week.: three Waterheads and a Tarn Hows. That wouldn’t keep me in beans for long.

But things would pick up. Spring would bring the crowds and their fat wallets. I pulled a large chunk of my remaining savings out of the cashpoint in carefree optimism, and splurged a quarter of it on petrol.

Then I buzzed up to Grasmere like a bluebottle with my painting gear tied precariously on the back of the scooter. Wordsworth’s country was adrift in daffodils now, yellow as shop cake, inviting a host of visitors to gather round them hungrily. The sun threw rose petals across the hillsides and made the young leaves glow like lemons.

I set up on the far side of Grasmere, looking towards Dunmail Raise. There I painted three swift cards and one slower, larger picture on semi-rough, overlaying, sponging out, blotting: and everything I did went well. Not just that I had no technical disasters, no irrevocable bleeding of colours, but I managed to get something and hold it down. The way those clouds shone as if they harboured heaven: the wistful arches of those reaching hillsides.

At half past eleven I packed up, elated, feeling it was not impossible that I might turn myself into an artist at last, produce something of a pause and a “Who’s that?” The scooter loaded, I set off over Red Bank towards Little Langdale and the farm with hope and anticipation tightening in my chest. Now for Isaac.

Rattling through the craggy landscape scattered with the gold of daffodils and sun, I felt my good fortune in living in this famous place, at the centre of a certain cultural universe. The Lakes at that moment seemed as magnificently meaningful as anywhere in England except perhaps Westminster, where to stroll must be to walk into the heart of not just Literature but History and the News.

At last, I felt at home here. For the first time since I’d left prison, crawling like a sick and pallid animal from its hole, the mountains slid into their proper places round me. I fitted: I was welcomed. In Isaac I had found a harbour; in his farm, an ancient haven where I could anchor myself to the world.

I would paint Isaac as rocks and cloud and water. I could do it. I sputtered past Loughrigg Tarn in a sunny haze of confidence, fizzed through Skelwith Bridge, buzzing round the bends; moved out to avoid a sheep grazing on the verge, and drove straight into a car.

I just had time to think “What the-” and then “Oh, shit” as the car loomed up on me. I felt myself swerving frantically. The car hit the bike: the bike hit the wall: I hit both of them and then the ground where I lay thinking, My paintings! and knowing I should get up and check, but being for some reason unable to move. My second-hand helmet was skittering away across the road trailing a broken strap.

Doors slammed. Feet thudded. Voices shouted.

“What the hell do you think you were doing?”

Middle-aged woman, fierce spectacles, angry. I managed to sit up and look at her. But I had no voice.

“What the hell do you think you were doing? You were going way too fast for those bends!” Youngish man, angry with middle-aged woman. I couldn’t work out why. Had she knocked him over too?

“I don’t expect to meet some idiot on a scooter on the wrong side of the road!”

“Sheep,” I said. I turned my head. The sheep was fine.

“Are you all right?” the young man asked, bending down to me. “Are you hurt? Do you want me to call the police?”

Fierce woman began to expostulate. I shook my head emphatically. “No. No police. I’m fine. Really.” To prove it, I got to my feet, although my legs didn’t want to obey. They just wanted to sit there. I leant against the wall. “I’m fine,” I repeated.

“Bloody hell!” said the woman, inspecting her bumper.

“You should think yourself lucky,” said the young man. I wasn’t sure who he was talking to. “Can I ring someone? Or give you a lift?”

“No.” I tried to gather my thoughts. “I’m not going far. I’m nearly there.” The bike looked okay. So did the box. The portfolio was bent, but not excessively. I went and picked up my helmet, to prove I could walk, although my legs still didn’t want anything to do with the matter. I had to lean against the wall again before they handed in their notice altogether. As I pretended to inspect the helmet for damage, the sight of the staples sticking out of the failed strap barely even registered on my jumbled brain. I wished everyone would just go away and let me sit down again.

Which they did, eventually, the helpful young man climbing back into his pickup only after I waved my mobile at him and told him I’d ring a friend. But once they’d driven off I slumped down on the verge. Bruises were making themselves known. My left hip was on fire: my head was aching as if I’d spent the last hour crying, and I’d managed to acquire a bump on my temple worthy of the Beano.

Eventually I got up and began to push the scooter. Either it or I felt wobbly: I wasn’t sure which, but either way I wasn’t going to risk riding it. I kept feeling waves of nausea, and three times had to stop and rest while they washed over me. It wasn’t until I at last reached the end of Isaac’s lane that I felt able – no, obliged – to climb onto my scooter again and ride it fearfully, phut-phutting up the track to the farmhouse.

The dogs ran up, barking: the bull bellowed, unseen, in its shed; but there was no sign of Isaac or anyone else. Of course, I thought dizzily, I must be at least half an hour late. I tried to check my watch but couldn’t make sense of the hands. I just couldn’t quite remember what they meant. I banged on the farmhouse door to ask the time, then realised it was open.

I pushed it open further and peered into the kitchen. My hip was hurting quite badly. I wanted a shoulder to lean on, a broad chest to cry on.

“Hallo?” When no-one answered, I limped across to the inner door and opened it. The corridor was dark. There was the clock, ticking portentously next to a long metal case. No other sound.

“Hallo,” I said to nobody. I felt like Goldilocks.

Selena’s birth certificate was in my pocket. I’d brought it along in case I got a chance to put it back unnoticed.

Well, now was the chance. Clever me, I thought, as I crossed the corridor and pushed open the next door.

This was the parlour. Gloomy, listening. A mirror-black table with a small lace cloth in the middle. A stone fireplace, its angry mouth swallowing all warmth. Against the near wall the huge, dark dresser gleamed like a shadowed pool. Its brass handles glittered: a wan and wilting peace lily lamented over it.

I pulled at the drawers. Nothing but tablemats in the first one. Nothing but jumbled stationery in the other. As I closed the drawers jerkily, everything rattled. I panicked and fled back to the kitchen with the birth certificate still in my pocket, certain that I must be audible throughout the house and would be accosted any minute.

But the house remained silent as I hobbled out into the yard with the distrustful dogs. I didn’t want to leave. I knew I was too shaken up to paint; but neither could I ride the scooter all the way back home.

Looking for Isaac, I limped over to the big barn, which was half full of spiky machinery and half of young cattle that lowed at me reproachfully, prompting a deeper answer from the distant bull.

“Oh, bugger it,” I said. I wanted to lie down. Maybe it was time to do my Goldilocks impression after all. I retreated from the barn and for the first time noticed a cap lying on the ground near the bull’s shed. That was surely Isaac’s cap. I clicked the latch and looked in.

The bull, its rump facing me, snorted and shifted threateningly. There was something under its feet, something in the way. For a few seconds I couldn’t tell what it was.

Then as my eyes accustomed themselves to the dark, I realised with a shock that it was Isaac. He was lying on the floor in the gloom amidst the straw and muck, a scatter of small white objects round him.

“Isaac!” I said. “Isaac, what are you doing? Get out of there!” My voice was hoarse. He didn’t move. He couldn’t hear. I would have to pull him out.

But I couldn’t reach him. When I managed to get hold of one of his Wellingtons, it slid right off while Isaac barely budged. The bull’s hind leg stood on his chest. One of the round white objects was stuck to his boot: it looked like a mint.

I eased a few inches further forward and tried to grab his clothing. The bull did not like it. It stamped and trampled on him. I dreaded to think how much it weighed. Shouting hoarsely at it, I looked round frantically for the bull tongs. But I couldn’t see them on their shelf and in any case wouldn’t know how to use them safely.

Instead I reached out again to seize a handful of trouser and pulled, fruitlessly: the bull’s back leg kicked out and grazed my forehead.

I yelped and staggered backwards. I was feeling sick and dizzy again and couldn’t think. I had to phone someone – police, ambulance: but they’d take too long. A neighbouring farmer, but I knew none of their numbers. I fumbled in my pockets and couldn’t find my phone. Too slow. Have to run and fetch someone. I stood up, wobbled, sat down again in the doorway.

Someone was coming, thank God, across the yard. Red and green: it was Ruby, although there seemed to be slightly more than one of her.

She hurried over and stared down at me. “Eden! Are you all right? Your face – you’re bleeding!” The bull roared and she looked past me, through the door.

“Oh, my God,” she said. “Is that Isaac? Have you rung an ambulance? Ring an ambulance! I’ll try and get the bull away.”

She knew better than me how to handle it. She untethered its head and with firm, even words persuaded it out of its stall, trampling over Isaac as it shuffled into the adjoining one.

Meanwhile I found my phone at last and tried to ring an ambulance. My phone wouldn’t work: my fingers wouldn’t work. When eventually I got through, my mouth wouldn’t work. I couldn’t remember the name of the farm.

“It’s Isaac,” I said uselessly. Ruby took the phone off me and gave curt, businesslike directions. “And the police,” she said. “We need the police.”

Then she went back into the shed and squatted down beside the mangled, dirty huddle of clothes on the floor, touching them gently. “Oh, Lord,” I heard her murmur. “Oh, dear Lord.” She came out again and yanked me up by my elbow. “He’s dead,” she said roughly.

“He can’t be! How do you know? He can’t be!”

“He’s dead. What happened?” she said fiercely.

I didn’t know. I didn’t quite remember how I’d got there, or what I’d done, or why I couldn’t stand up but had to slide back down again. I didn’t know why my extra-strong mints were scattered around the shed instead of in my pocket. I saw a sheet of paper lying in the dirt next to me, in the shadow of the door, and put my hand out to it as if it would tell me all the answers.

Ruby snatched it away. She smoothed it out and frowned at it, and then at me.

“What’s this?”

I looked at it stupidly as she held it out. It was a painting, a water-colour. Signed. It was one of mine.

 

Chapter Twelve

 

“There,” the doctor said. “How’s that?” Without waiting for an answer, she began to thrust scissors and dressings away with an impatient manner that said she had more important things to do.

I put an experimental hand to my eyebrow. It was stinging and throbbing at the same time under its antiseptic wodge of dressing.

“Next time, don’t buy a used helmet,” said the doctor curtly. She checked her watch, tutted and left the room without a goodbye. I heard her voice out in the corridor.

“…shock with a possibility of concussion. Keep an eye on her. Any drowsiness, faintness or vomiting, take her into Kendal A and E.”

Inspector Larry Irlam’s fruity voice mumbled at her indecipherably. Hers rose in answer.

“I’m not a police doctor, for Christ’s sake! I’ve got a long list of visits to do yet, and now I’ll be late for all of them. If you want a theory about what hit her on the head, get one of your own people to do it.” The door squealed. It needed oiling.

Hunter came in and took my fingerprints without telling me why, his long, competent left hand placing my fingers on the scanner while his right hand, at the controls, said I have no fingerprints. I am not a criminal, like you. Thank you, said Hunter formally.

Inspector Irlam came in after him. Happy Larry; only he wasn’t now. His well-fed jowls had a discontented droop instead of the usual grin. Didn’t want a death on his patch, I thought a little fuzzily.

“You’re all right, are you?” said Larry. “Feeling better?”

“Yes, thanks.”

“Good. We’ll want to talk to you about recent events. You’ll need a lawyer.”

“A lawyer? Why?”

“You’ve got some explaining to do. I’m sure that, with your past experience, you know a lawyer or two. Otherwise we can arrange for one. You may also ring a member of your family. Or friend.” He sounded as if he didn’t think I had any. “WPC Curry will help you make any necessary calls.”

He and Hunter left. Fiona brought me a phone to ring my mother. It was as bad as that first call, almost two years ago, which had nearly killed me: the worst moment, bar one, of my whole fraudulent career. Since Fiona had warned me not to mention Isaac’s name, and I could barely bring myself to speak of his death, I struggled to explain why I was at the police station awaiting questioning. I thought I would have to repeat everything three times, as I had on that earlier occasion, to try and make her understand.

But she was unsurprised. Resigned. That was worse than anything: that she thought so poorly of me now, expected so little.

“Morally bankrupt,” the judge had called me at the trial. I’d been indignant. Who had I hurt? Nobody. I’d added to several people’s pleasure by providing them with a nice painting. The edge of a slippery slope, the judge said. A slippery slope to what, exactly? Biting the heads off jelly babies? I’d stopped listening.

My mum evidently thought I was well down that slope now. Without a murmur of sympathy she told me she’d get hold of a lawyer. She rang off.

I sat and looked at the table, until Fiona brought a cup of tea for me to look at. After a while I put my head down on the table next to it.

“Wake up,” said Fiona sharply. I decided that maybe I should pretend to fall asleep and then they would have to cart me off to A and E and clean white sheets, where I could be told that Isaac’s death was a delusion, a hallucination.

But it wouldn’t change anything. I was definitely delirious, though. I kept seeing the bull’s large, soulful eye. I felt sick and draped myself across the bin, but nothing came up. No saving trip to A and E.

Eventually a lawyer appeared: one I’d never met, young and suave and confident.

“So what’s this all about?”

I just looked at him. When Larry Irlam and Hunter came back in, the lawyer began to tell them that I was too concussed to be interviewed.

“I’m not. I’m fine,” I said.

“Are you sure?” said Hunter.

“I want to do it now,” I said. My mother was presumably paying for this lawyer, and I didn’t want to cost her any more than necessary. Anyway, I thought confusedly, if I seemed confused it could be put down to concussion. It would be a good excuse.

I just didn’t know what for. I didn’t know what was going on. I didn’t like the way that Hunter didn’t smile, didn’t nod, just sat down in the corner and crossed his legs.

“You are under arrest for suspected theft,” said Larry, “for now. Other charges may follow.” He switched a recorder on and read me my rights off a piece of A4 card in a fast, angry rattle of words, before thrusting the card impatiently aside.

“Theft?” I said.

“We’ll come to that,” said Larry. “Tell us exactly what happened this morning.”

I had already tried to blurt out my account to Hunter, before he shut me up. Now I went through it all again.

“My client is concussed. She’s not well enough for this now,” said my lawyer.

“Yes, I am. What theft?”

Larry laid Selena’s birth certificate on the table in front of me. “Why was this in your coat pocket?”

I looked at Hunter’s inscrutable face. It did not help me. I couldn’t think of an acceptable answer. Now I wanted to plead sickness, and thought of falling limply off my chair: but it was too late.

“I don’t know,” I said.

Larry pushed a plastic bag across the table at me. Inside it were some banknotes and a screwed up tube of mints. “These were also in your pocket. Are they yours?”

“Yes. I got sixty pounds out of the bank this morning.”

“Did you get that bang on the head there too?”

“What? I fell off my scooter.”

“So you told us. Exactly what time did you say that was?” Larry seemed to have turned into someone else entirely. It was scary.

“A bit before twelve, I think.” I described what I could of my accident and the angry driver. It sounded like a child’s invention.

“My client is concussed,” said the lawyer.

Larry ignored him. “Did you exchange names and addresses?”

“No. I was too shaken up.”

“Numberplate?”

I shook my head. Hunter leaned forward.

“The man in the pickup who stopped to intervene: did you exchange any details with him?”

“No. I was fine. I mean I thought I was fine. I mean I didn’t want any fuss.”

“So you got back on your scooter and continued to Staithwaite’s farm.”

“After a while. And I walked the scooter,” I said. “I didn’t ride it.”

Larry said, “Then it’s strange that you were seen riding the scooter up the farm track.”

“I just rode the last bit. Who told you that?”

“What time was it when you arrived at the farm?”

“I don’t know.” I remembered looking at my watch. Where had the hands been? Flying round the moon, for all I knew.

“Please describe to us again exactly your movements upon your arrival at the farm,” said Larry sternly, as if it was an exam question and I was a failing student. He wasn’t enjoying himself.

Neither was I. There were too many images: too many feelings. I didn’t want to look at them or feel them again. I didn’t want any of it to be real. Isaac wasn’t dead: he couldn’t be. Ruby had made a mistake.

I tried to get things in the right order. Larry kept asking me to go back, to repeat myself. I must have been speaking too quietly, trying to turn the leaves of memory without quite touching them. I didn’t mention going into the parlour, let alone opening the dresser drawers. I described how I’d looked in on the calves, heard the bull, seen the cap on the ground…

It was a hard tale to tell. Neither of them made it easier. They didn’t say a word, just sat and listened to me filling the silence with my helplessness.

“Why didn’t you move the bull into the next stall?” asked Larry.

“I didn’t know you could.” It sounded like a feeble answer, even to me.

“So you left Isaac there.”

“I tried to get him out.”

“But you failed.”

“I… had to sit down. I felt ill. My head hurt.” It was hurting again now. I put up a hand and touched the huge soft bump of dressing.

“Did you ring for help?”

“I couldn’t find my phone until Ruby got there.”

“We’ve talked to Ruby,” Hunter said.

“She was extremely helpful,” Larry said. “Unlike some people.”

“She said your phone was in your pocket,” added Hunter.

“Along with a birth certificate that doesn’t belong to you,” said Larry irritably.

“I don’t remember.” I didn’t want to remember. I wanted to somehow undo the whole day, unzip it and turn it inside out and start again.

Larry was staring at me with furious distaste. “Why did you go into the farmhouse first?”

“I told you. The door wasn’t shut, so I went into the kitchen to see if there was anyone there.”

“Had you been into the farmhouse on any previous occasion?”

“Only the kitchen. Sergeant Brigg was there.”

“Tell us again exactly where you went this time,” said Hunter, his voice very level.

“Into the kitchen.”

“Nowhere else?”

I was about to shake my head when I caught Hunter’s steely eye. I said, “I think I went through to the parlour. I don’t remember properly. I think I called hallo.”

“Did you touch anything in there?”

I hesitated again. “I put my hand on the dresser. I felt faint. I had to steady myself.”

“You steadied yourself with your hands inside the drawers?” said Larry. The contempt in his voice knocked me back. “Your fingerprints are all over the drawers, inside and out. Is that where you found the certificate and the money?”

“My client is concussed,” said the lawyer, sounding less confident than before.

“The money’s mine,” I said. “I told you. You can check with the bank.”

“But you did open the drawers?”

“I must have,” I said. I’d gone all hoarse. “I don’t remember. But I didn’t take anything.”

Hunter said, “How did Isaac get his bang on the head?” His voice was expressionless. I didn’t like this.

“I don’t know! What bang?”

“The heavy blow to the top of his head.”

“Quite a coincidence, isn’t it?” commented Larry. “Two people with head injuries, same day, same time. What did you hit him with? Was there a struggle? Did he go down straight away? No, he had time to hit you back.”

Interrogation didn’t suit Larry. He sat back looking fed up.

The lawyer said, “Those are leading questions. I advise you not to answer them, Miss Herron.”

Hunter said, more quietly,

“Eden. Did you hit Isaac for any reason?”

“No,” I said. “I found him there. I didn’t hit him. And he didn’t hit me. The bull kicked me.”

“What about this?” Larry pushed over the crumpled painting, in a clear plastic wallet. I looked at it. Under the smears of mud, it was indisputably mine, with the scribbled signature and the glue spots on the back. Coniston Old Man. Not one of my best.

“I did that weeks ago,” I said. “It was for a card.”

“And what was it doing in the farmyard?”

“I suppose Isaac must have bought it,” I said, with a pang. Maybe he had really liked my work enough to seek it out.

“And then he threw it away, did he?” said Larry. “Thought it was rubbish, did he? How did that make you feel?”

“He didn’t,” I said.

“Or perhaps there was a different reason. Perhaps you made a pass at him, and he didn’t care for it? You were keen on Isaac. But you didn’t like being turned down, did you?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” I managed to say. “He was already dead. I didn’t get any chance to even talk to him.”

“Or to offer him a mint? Those mints were all over the place. The same sort as were in your pocket. You passed them round at Ruby’s house only three days ago. You turned up to paint Isaac, you offered him a sweet, you got out your portfolio, and then what happened?”

“Nothing!”

“My client is concussed,” the lawyer said.

“This interview is concluded,” said Larry. He switched off the recorder and pushed his chair back with an angry scrape. “You will shortly be taken to Kendal police station where you will be held for a further period. A detective chief inspector will review possible charges. I’d say it could be manslaughter at the very least.”

He stamped out. Hunter got up to follow.

“Hunter?” I said. He turned at the door and looked at me. My lawyer was checking his phone.

I swallowed, not daring to say Birth Certificate. “I was trying to put it back.”

“Then tell him so,” said Hunter, and he was gone.

Soon after that I was led out to a van and driven to a cell at Kendal. There I lay on a plastic mattress like a giant gym mat, and tried to fill my head with colours: attempting to overlay the picture in my head that would not be overlaid, the chaotic brown and red.

Someone brought me a microwaved shepherd’s pie, which I couldn’t eat. After a while I tried to sleep. It was as bad as my first night in jail, when I hadn’t slept at all.

I lay awake reliving that endless night; and remembered how next day I’d been taken aside by one of the prison officers, who sat me down and told me the routines, gave me some advice. I hadn’t been there long enough to know how rare such kindness was.

“The important thing,” she counselled, “is not to lose sight of who you are. Keep hold of who you are.” I nodded, storing the advice away. Only later, when I took the words out to look at them again, did I realise they were useless. I had no idea of who or what I was. I was a fake. A counterfeit. A shadow on the wall.

If I had no idea then, I had even less now. Either I, or the world, or maybe both, had turned to fog. I was slipping from my own grasp. I must have slept, eventually, because I had a dream in which I was trampling all over Isaac in boots that didn’t fit. I awoke suddenly to cold toast and a message from a constable, saying the DI would be seeing me about midday.

I didn’t have to wait that long. At eleven I was ushered into an identikit interview room, same grey breezeblock as at Ambleside, with the same scratched desk, a clone of the one Hunter and Larry had sat behind: and there was Hunter, or a clone of him, neat and fresh-shaven and as self-satisfied as the cat with the cream. He told me I was free to go.

“Go where?” I said stupidly.

“Go home,” said Hunter. “The DI doesn’t need a further interview. Your accident has been verified. The man in the pickup reported the other driver to Barrow station last night. He took her number.”

“Did he?”

“We checked her out and she admits she was there and saw you come off your bike. She doesn’t admit any fault. We’ve notified your lawyer. Do you want to press charges?”

“No.” I looked at him blankly. “That’s it, then?”

“And as far as Isaac’s death is concerned, you’re in the clear. The pathologist says he died well before you got there. He was dead by noon.”

“Are you sure?”

“The pathologist is sure,” said Hunter, “because quite apart from the body temperature, Isaac’s watch had stopped. The bull stood on it at ten to twelve, just as you fell off your scooter. You couldn’t have got there before twenty to one. Your friendly witness drove back on his return trip half an hour after your accident and saw you pushing the bike along. He actually pulled up and watched you for a few minutes to make sure you were all right.”

“That was nice of him.”

“Extraordinarily. I wish everyone was that public-spirited.” Hunter looked positively jaunty. I felt like a zombie with a hangover.

“What about the birth certificate?” I said.

“Well, I had to spin Larry a yarn about that. I said Isaac had lent it you because he was worried about its authenticity, and he’d asked you to bring it in to the station to show me. I said your concussion must have made you forget.”

“And Larry believed you?”

“I had the photocopy to back your story up. He agreed that the birth certificate needs checking out. He had a moan about me not mentioning it, but I told him I didn’t want to put words into your mouth. I was waiting to see what you would say. That bit was true at least.”

“Thank you,” I muttered. Lying wouldn’t have come easily to Hunter: it must have been a wrench. I wasn’t sure why he’d done it for me. Especially considering all the other stuff he must have told Larry – about me being keen on Isaac, for a start.

Hunter shrugged. “Larry wasn’t difficult to convince, especially once the bank confirmed the cash was yours. He was relieved, if anything. He’d rather it was just an accident. Larry likes his solutions simple. Do you want a lift back to Ambleside?”

I didn’t. Now that I could leave, I wanted to stay in the shelter of the cell. I didn’t want to go out into the big bleak world where Isaac had just died. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure how else I would get home.

In the police car I felt conspicuous. Everyone seemed to be staring in at me: that’s her, the fraud, the convict. I bet she did it, whatever it was.

“You all right?” said Hunter. “Head still hurting?”

“Not much. What exactly – what exactly happened to Isaac?”

“Death was due to massive internal injuries. A bull can weigh well over a ton. The rest’s still under investigation, but he probably just slipped. It happens.” He glanced at me. “Sorry.”

“You should be,” I said bitterly. “You thought I’d done him in. You told Larry that I might have made a pass at him. How could you think that? How could you think I’d hurt him?”

“Whoa! That wasn’t me.”

“Well, who was it, then?”

“Larry had to consider every possibility,” was all he said.

So Isaac had just slipped. Bad luck, bad timing. My head was aching again. I tossed it restlessly against the car seat. “I should have been there. Why was there nobody else there? Where were Bryony and Selena?”

“Bryony was at the doctor’s surgery. Selena was shopping in Keswick, apparently.”

“That’s a long way to go.”

“She likes the shops there better than the ones this end. Apparently.”

“If I’d only got there on time,” I said, “or if they’d only been at home, Isaac might not have died. We could have got him out. Or he might not have gone into the bull’s shed at all.”

I could hardly bear to think about it: Isaac’s cry as he fell, perhaps knocking himself out – I hoped so: because otherwise it would have meant the terrible panic, the failed attempts to get up from under those heavy trampling hooves, the stench and pain and fear and finally, blackness.

Although I didn’t want to, I made myself look at the scene again. The whining dogs in the yard. The scatter of mints like pale pebbles. Who had left those? Hansel and Gretel? And that sheet of paper on the ground.

“That painting,” I said. “Where did that painting come from?”

“It was one of yours,” said Hunter patiently.

“I know it was. But I didn’t bring it.”

“You probably left it behind last time.”

“No, I didn’t. It was torn out of a card – you could see the glue still on the corners.”

“Are you sure?” said Hunter.

“Positive. You have a look.”

“I will.” He was silent for a moment. “So maybe Isaac bought it.”

“Maybe,” I said doubtfully. I remembered those four cards sold in Tiggywinkles: none of Coniston Old Man. And Freddie had sold five cards, but surely none to Isaac, or he would have mentioned it. Wouldn’t he?

“I’ll bear it in mind,” said Hunter. The traffic was worsening as we neared Ambleside, slowing to its usual crawl.

“Drop me off at the corner.” I didn’t want the Pattinsons to see me arrive in a police car.

“You’re still living in the same place?”

“For now. I’ve got to move before Easter.” But where to? Ruby’s? That dreadful tableau in the farmyard replayed itself: her furious, horrified face; my useless fumbling with the phone. She blamed me. I saw her accusation as she picked up that discarded painting. How had it inserted itself there, in that scene? It didn’t fit. A tight, black band of foreboding constricted round my head.

“Don’t move without telling us,” said Hunter. “We may need to have another talk.” He pulled the door closed after me, and drove away.

 

er Thirteen

 

It was just as well I didn’t turn up in a police car. My parents and Greta were waiting for me at The Heronry, arranged in a stern row along the flouncy sofa in the lounge. The Pattinsons had fed them tea and then tactfully disappeared.

“Well, I knew it would just be a mix-up,” said Dad blithely. “Terrible thing, though, what happened. Most unfortunate.” He shook his head and winked at me.

“Yes,” I said. “Terrible.”

“But you didn’t really know the man, did you?” said Greta scornfully. “Just well enough to get yourself arrested on his property.”

“I was doing a painting of his farmhouse. Working.”

“Working,” repeated Greta. I could tell she was wondering whether to temporarily depart from the subject of my criminality to deliver a short lecture on the true nature of work.

“I do wish you’d be more careful on that scooter,” said my mother, “dreadfully dangerous things, aren’t they, Don?”

“Dreadful things,” agreed my dad, meaning, I knew, the whiny piddling inefficiency of the engine, and not bothered about the danger at all.

“I am careful,” I said. “It was the other driver’s fault. And the sheep’s.”

“Not your fault, of course,” said Greta, glaring. “Nothing’s ever your fault.”

“I could look out for a little motor for you,” said Dad, “something with about fifty thousand on the clock.”

“You know why they immediately assumed it was you?” said Greta. “You’re labelled. Labelled for life.”

“Not for life,” protested Mum.

“I know a nice little Renault coming up for part ex soon, or what about a Micra?”

“I don’t want a car, Dad, honestly.”

“There’s absolutely no point,” said Greta, “until she earns an honest living.”

“She’s made a start,” my mother said.

Greta snorted. “Some start! How old is she? And I’m using my preparation time up on this, you know. Have you any idea of the strings I had to pull to get out of school?”

“You didn’t have to,” I said.

“I couldn’t leave Mum and Dad to face this on their own. When are you going to get a proper job? And don’t say you already have. You know you haven’t.”

It was easy for her. She’d always known she would be a teacher, ever since her early practice on those downcast rows of dolls and teddies. She had the impatience born of certainty, and went to university to do her B. Ed. with an air of “Well! About time too!” Greta despised anyone who didn’t have a vocation, or was so flimsy they couldn’t make their mind up – or feebly decided on a non-job, like art.

“Then maybe you could afford a proper place to live as well,” she added. She shared a glossy flat in Cockermouth with her partner Liam, who was clever, shy and silent. I liked Liam. He didn’t deserve her. “Where are you supposed to be going next? I suppose you’ll want to come and stay with me.”

That was the last thing I wanted. “I’ve got some possibilities lined up.”

“You can always come back home with us, dear,” said Mum with weary briskness. She’d had enough of me. “We’d be delighted.”

“Delighted,” echoed Dad, and he did mean it; he’d continue to be delighted for a full twenty minutes after I’d unpacked, when he would forget my presence and go back to humming around his shed. Dad worked long hours at the garage but always found time for the shed, with its sharp oily odour of engines, as sour as warm pennies: their hiss and pounding were his breath and heartbeat, and at their centre was his shiny God, the 1903 Mather and Platt.

I assured my parents that although I would be equally delighted, I hoped it wouldn’t come to that; and that I was fine, the cut on my head was nothing, well, not quite nothing, actually a serious concussion, I amended with an eye on Greta, and the doctor had put in several (fictional) stitches. But I’d cope, don’t worry. As they left, Greta paused in the hall.

“You should be ashamed,” she said.

“What of?”

“Everything. All this,” she said, exasperated. “What on earth must the Pattinsons think? How does Mum explain this to the neighbours?”

“There’s nothing to explain.”

“Not yet,” she said meaningfully.

Once they had left, I went up to my bedroom under the eaves, crawled into my bed and closed my eyes. I expected to lie awake again with a head full of blood and mud. Instead I instantly fell asleep for the rest of the day and woke up disorientated at nine o’clock that evening. Descending into the busy, alien light of the Pattinsons’ kitchen, I forced myself to eat a bowl of cornflakes and satisfy their discreet curiosity.

So that night, of course, was another largely sleepless one. I kept visualising the abandoned painting, lying mud-splattered in the doorway of the shed. What was it doing there?

At some point I stumbled up and went to stand at the window. As I drew back the curtain the darkness howled at me. I dared not put my hand against the glass.

Next morning, a continuous ache seemed to have set up home in my chest. I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t paint. I couldn’t draw. What was the point anyway? I needed to get out, but I didn’t know where to go. My scooter was still at the farm, I supposed, but I dreaded going back there and hearing the bellow of the bull. I shrank from the sight of those harsh dung-spattered walls, the rustling shadow where his head had last been laid. In what shadow was his head laid now?

Eventually, after pulling the dressing from my head and replacing it with a woolly hat, I dived out into the anonymous clatter of the street without any clear aim in mind. I started walking and found myself half-way up the hill to the small block of flats where Muriel had told me that they lived. I didn’t know which one was theirs. So I rang her mobile, and she came out of the front entrance with a grave, anxious face.

“I heard something on the local radio,” she said. “Isaac Staithwaite. Isn’t that the farmer we met last week?”

“Yes,” I don’t know what my face said in addition, because she put a hand to her mouth.

“Oh, you poor dear,” she said, and then folded her arms carefully around me. She smelt of lemon soap and fresh linen. “Was he a good friend of yours?”

I shook my head. “I’d only met him three times.”

“It’s the shock,” said Muriel understandingly. “They said on the radio that he’d been found dead, cause uncertain. A woman was helping police with their enquiries.”

“That was me.”

“Oh, Lord!” She drew away and studied me with concern. “And are you – did they..?”

“I was a suspect, I think. I’m not any more.”

“My goodness! Whatever happened?”

I explained as briefly as I could. Meanwhile, she led me slowly, with several stops for questioning, through the drab shared hall and up two flights of concrete stairs.

By the time I’d finished we were in their second-floor flat. Inside was much nicer than the common parts, with a long view through a massive picture window out over rooftops to Loughrigg and the fells beyond. The furnishings looked new: tan leather sofa, an elegant white marble mantelpiece complete with matching china swans, and pale, sleek beechwood units. It might have been a show-flat had not each cupboard door and drawer been labelled with a post-it note that listed contents – placemats, scissors, stamps and bills. On the wall hung a calendar with a big yellow arrow stuck to it that announced TODAY IS. Wednesday, apparently. I’d lost track.

Griff advanced, smiling, to shake my hand.

“It’s our young friend Eden, Griff – you remember Eden?”

“To be sure I do! What an unusual name.”

“We saw Eden at the dinner party last week, where we met Isaac, the poor farmer who’s just died. Do you remember, it was on the radio?”

“Oh, dear, yes, poor man. He had a heart attack, didn’t he?”

“No,” said Muriel. “It was an accident. Wasn’t it, Eden?”

“I suppose so. They think he fell. But at first they thought somebody might have hit him. And one of my paintings was left nearby: that’s another reason why I got hauled down to the station. I don’t know how it got there,” I added, because Muriel was looking aghast. “But it’s a bit odd.” And the mints too: the more I thought about them, the odder they became.

“Who’s this chap who fell?” said Griff.

“But who left the painting there?” asked Muriel. “What does it all mean?”

“Good question,” said Griff, nodding.

“I don’t know. Probably nothing. I probably dropped it after all.” But I was sure I hadn’t. Still, anyone at the farm could have bought it, either at Freddie’s or somewhere else. It could have been dropped there at any time. To speculate any further was just paranoid.

Anyway, I didn’t want to speculate aloud to Muriel, because she looked pale enough as it was; while Griff was just bewildered.

“It’s horrific,” she said. “An instant of carelessness and things change for ever. We were in Freddie’s shop just on Saturday, Eden, chatting about the dinner party and having a laugh about those chickpeas… ”

“Were you? Who were you with?” Griff asked, surprised.

“With you, Griff, don’t you remember? We bought a picture there.” She lifted up a mounted painting from the floor and propped it on the mantelpiece between the china swans. A large watercolour of Ullswater, decent enough; not one of mine, unfortunately.

“You bought that?” said Griff. “Without telling me?”

“A surprise,” said Muriel.

“Well, it’s very nice, but I wish you’d consult me!” Griff said, mildly aggrieved and laughing to try and cover it up. “That must have cost a lot of money!”

“We can afford it, Griff.” She sounded brusque. He looked taken aback and rather forlorn. To distract him, I enquired,

“Did you see any of Russell’s paintings while you were in Freddie’s shop?”

Muriel looked surprised. “Russell? Does he have some for sale there?”

“So do I, actually. Did Freddie not mention it?”

She pulled a regretful face. “Well – no. He was a little vague. I think he might have had a drink at lunchtime. And I’m not sure he quite knows what he’s got in his stock, to be honest.”

“Matt keeps the place in order,” I said.

“Such a patient young man, Matt,” said Muriel wistfully. “I think he has to be. I only wish I could always be as forbearing.”

“Who’s Matt?” said Griff.

“Just a friend of Freddie’s. Never mind. Put the kettle on for us, please, Griff.” Muriel sat down with a sigh, and rubbed her eyes. Griff disappeared into the kitchen at the back.

“Tired?” I asked.

“Sometimes it gets to me,” she said. “And now this death. The poor man! To die like that, alone… It makes you wonder what it’s all for.”

“I know.”

“I have no reason to complain,” said Muriel. “Such a lovely place we’ve got here. In the past we rented holiday flats in this block, various ones over the years, so when this came up for sale it seemed a natural place to return to after Griff was ill. He knows the layout and the surroundings. He only has to look out of the window and it reassures him.”

“It’s certainly very nice here.”

“Yes. Griff couldn’t go back to work, of course: and since I’m officially his guardian now, I couldn’t work either. He can’t be left alone.” She sighed again. “I managed to get early retirement. We’d just sold our old house, and downsized to a new one, but that didn’t work out.”

“Didn’t he like it?”

“It was too unfamiliar. He didn’t know the place and couldn’t learn it. I tried to buy the old house back, but the new owners weren’t interested. So I jumped at this.”

“But he thinks he’s on holiday here?”

She smiled sadly. “All the time. It’s easier just to pretend than to constantly explain the truth. What’s the point? It would only make him anxious. Sometimes we go and stay with our daughter Nina down in Reading. That’s her, with her baby.” She pointed at a photo: a pretty girl, holding a grumpy blob. “Only he’s a toddler now,” said Muriel, “and our grand-daughter is five, and Griff can’t understand how they’re growing up so fast.”

“Tricky.”

“Yes. It’s getting harder and harder to explain. People aging, places changing… at least this place doesn’t change much,” she said. “Nothing changes here, does it, Griff?”

He was carrying in a plate of biscuits which he put on the table. “Always wonderful here,” he agreed. “We always enjoy coming back here.”

“And the tea, Griff?”

“Tea? Oh, sorry. Forget my own name next!” He went back into the kitchen.

“So I should be grateful,” Muriel continued. “As long as Griff’s happy, that should be enough. It’s just that… well, I can’t get away. I can never leave him alone. I feel guilty for wanting to, but sometimes I just have to…”

“Well, I should think so! Everyone needs time to themselves. Could you not leave him in the flat for a while? Or ask a neighbour to keep an eye on him?”

She shook her head. “Really, I shouldn’t leave him alone at all. And as for neighbours – most of these flats are holiday rentals, and empty half the time.” She looked down at her hands, tightly folded on her lap. “Sometimes I just have to have some time out, but I hate myself for it. What if he had a seizure? He still does, occasionally. And he can get so emotional. It would be dreadful if he got upset.”

“What, because you’re not there?”

She nodded. “I’ve tried leaving a note explaining that I’ll be back soon. But last time I did that he never read it, and got in a panic. It was terrible. I can’t lock him in, in case of fire. But what if he went out to find me and got lost?”

“Surely he wouldn’t get lost,” I said. “He knows the area.”

“Oh, yes. He just wouldn’t know what he was doing here. He could end up going anywhere.” I thought of Hunter’s account of Muriel leading Griff, child-like, to the police station. Now I began to see why. “He forgets where we live,” she said. “We used to stay at so many different places. The first time I lost him it was dreadful. I didn’t know where to look: in the end I found him at a hotel we’d once used, shouting at the receptionist that she’d double-booked our room. I’ve tried to prime the hotels now, but I don’t think they understand.”

“Does he understand?”

“Not really. He knows something’s wrong but he doesn’t remember what. It’s as if his life is written on a whiteboard and wiped out minutes later.”

“But his memory from before the illness seems pretty good.”

“Oh, it is. The borderline is hazy: he only remembers bits and pieces from the weeks before he fell ill, and he gets them muddled, but everything before that is intact. That’s what makes life possible, so I’m grateful. He can learn new skills – like the electric tin opener – and he remembers music. Tunes do tend to stick. Snatches of songs, like little mantras.”

She got up and went to a drawer, from which she took a piece of paper. It was my portrait of Selena.

“He remembers her,” she said. “But I don’t know why. I’ve decided that it’s just another mantra, a fragment that’s somehow stuck: the Lady of the Lake. It’s not enough.” She slid the portrait into hiding behind the watercolour on the mantelpiece.

Her wistfulness touched me. “I could stay with him,” I said. “You could go out now. Why don’t you? Try it out for half an hour. Do a bit of shopping. Have a coffee.”

“Are you sure? It wouldn’t be too much trouble?” She grabbed at my suggestion like a lifeline.

“No problem. Maybe Griff could show me those Wainwright-style sketches you were telling me about.”

“What a good idea! And you’ve got my phone number, just in case.” She turned to Griff, coming in with the tea-tray. “Griff, why don’t you go and fetch your Wainwright notes? They’re in the plastic box under the bed.”

“Is that where they are? I wondered where they’d gone!” Griff hurried away and returned a moment later with a storage box which he set down on the coffee table.

“Our young friend Eden is a professional artist,” Muriel told him.

“Really? Well, you won’t think much of these, then, I’m afraid,” Griff said with rueful grace, lifting out a sheaf of notes and drawings.

He was right. I didn’t. His ink sketches were painstaking and precise, fells and valleys covered in meticulous cross-hatching, but with none of the delicate, nubbly charm of Wainwright’s work. I could do better myself, I thought. How much would an original Wainwright fetch?

I slapped the speculation down. Don’t even begin to go there.

“I’m just popping out for some milk, Griff,” said Muriel casually. “You two will be all right for a bit, won’t you?”

“Of course,” he said absent-mindedly. As she put on her coat and slipped away, he leafed through the pseudo-Wainwrights with me, matching the drawings to the notes and maintaining a perfectly coherent flow of comment and information.

“I thought at one time of sending them to a publisher,” he said after a while, “but Muriel reckoned they wouldn’t want them. Too close to the original.”

“That would be a problem.”

“I won’t stop doing them, though. I enjoy them too much. I know I’m not a great artist…” His gaze wandered around the room and fell on the watercolour on the mantelpiece. “Not like this chap,” he said, getting up to inspect it. “That’s nice, isn’t it? I don’t know why they haven’t framed it.”

“Where did it come from?” I asked, curious to see what he would say.

“Oh, it came with the flat.” He picked it up and saw the portrait underneath. He laid it on his palm. “Who’s this?” he said.

“That’s Selena.”

“No, surely that’s the Lady of the Lake,” he said with excited recognition.

“You remember her?”

“Didn’t she go swimming? In her long red coat?”

“It was black,” I said. “But yes. We met her last Friday at the dinner party, do you remember? Freddie was there too, and Isaac the farmer.” I knew that would mean nothing to Griff: but I felt a great need to say Isaac’s name.

“A dinner party? Where was that?” He looked dubious.

“Ruby’s house. We looked at Russell’s paintings. We ate chickpeas. Freddie was there. And Isaac died,” I said. “Two days ago. He died on his farm.”

“He what? Who died?”

“Isaac, the farmer with grey hair.”

Griff stared at me. “What are you saying?”

“Isaac died.” A great weariness came over me. I was baffling Griff, but I didn’t care. No matter how often I said Isaac’s name, nothing would be changed. “The police are still investigating.”

Selena’s picture fluttered from his hand. “Who are you? What are you doing here?” He looked around wildly. “Where’s Muriel?”

“It’s all right! Muriel’s just popped out. She’ll be back in ten minutes. I’m a friend of hers, called Eden.”

“Eden?” He sounded incredulous.

“After the river. I called round to look at your Wainwright sketches.” I indicated the pile by the box.

Griff looked down at them, still disturbed. “Those,” he said. “Who told you about those?”

“Muriel did. I’m an artist. She thought I might be interested in your collection.”

“But I don’t have one! It was unintentional!”

“Was it? I think they’re very good,” I said. “Where is this one of?” I held one up at random.

“That? That’s Helm Crag.”

“Did it take you long?”

He took the drawing slowly from my hand. “It took… about two hours, I think.”

“And do you make notes as you do the walk, or afterwards?”

“In this case, I believe I made them at the time. I don’t always. It depends on the weather.”

“That’s a lovely route direct from Grasmere.”

He was beginning to relax. “Well, as long as you can avoid the crowds.”

“Isn’t that always the problem?” I said. “Which part of the Lakes is free from crowds?”

“Ah, you have to go over to the western lakes to get real peace. Wastwater and Ennerdale…” And he was off again, tramping over fells in his memory. While he rummaged in his plastic box for Wasdale Head, I retrieved Selena’s portrait and discreetly returned it to its hiding place behind the watercolour.

By the time the latch clicked and Muriel returned he was taking me on a tour of pubs in the western fells with a rundown of the menu in each one. He was perfectly happy, and I was knackered.

“Everything all right?” asked Muriel, unwinding her scarf. She looked more like herself.

“Fine. No problem.”

“Oh, good. I did as you suggested, and just had a coffee and a stroll around the shops. It was so nice. Eden – I hardly like to ask this, but would you consider doing it again? I could pay you.”

I wavered, but not because of Griff. I could see that although he was easily made anxious, he was equally easily led back to safe familiar pastures.

“Yes, I’d be glad to,” I said, and was rewarded by the thankfulness flooding over her face. Then I knew I had to tell her. “Muriel, there’s something you should know,” I said reluctantly. “I have a criminal record. A conviction.”

“Good heavens!” said Griff, staring.

Muriel searched my face. “What for?”

“Fraud. Forgery, to be exact. I forged some paintings by a dead artist. I thought I was being clever, and I needed the money. I spent ten months in jail. That was why the police suspected me after Isaac’s death – because I had a record.”

“The police?” said Griff.

“They’ve cleared me now.” It was more than just my record, I knew, that had prejudiced Larry Irlam against me: but I had a feeling that if I hadn’t been knocked off my scooter Larry would now be busy stitching me up for manslaughter or worse. Last out of prison, first on the suspect list.

“Thank you for telling me,” said Muriel gravely. “I don’t think it changes anything, however. You’ve paid your debt to society, and that’s the end of it. I shall forget about it. And Griff certainly will, won’t you, Griff?”

“Absolutely!” he said heartily. “So it was you that the police were after?”

“The past is dead and buried. Isn’t it, Griff?”

“Dead and buried,” Griff repeated, with a buoyant grin.

 

Chapter Fourteen

 

I had to go back to the farm. My scooter was still there; but more than that, I felt I had to stand in that farmyard, to face the scene. It was the only way to make his death real.

First, however, I had to talk to Ruby. So after getting off the Mountain Goat bus and watching it bounce away towards the Hardknott Pass, I walked up the overgrown track to the grey bulk of Raven How, as squat and stately as a liner afloat on a ragged green ocean. The conservatory windows were wide open as if they were airing it; or perhaps they just enjoyed the blast of icy mountain air whistling through.

On seeing me at her door, Ruby’s red-rimmed eyes grew hard. She hadn’t forgiven me for either finding Isaac’s body, or for my incompetence when I did.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I came to apologise for the other day. I know I was useless. I had concussion,” and I touched the dressing, which I’d put back on my head, to prove it.

“You’re all right now, I trust,” said Ruby coolly.

“Yes.”

She folded her arms and leaned back against the doorframe to study me. I was uneasy.

“The police know I arrived too late to help Isaac. They worked out the timings. They know I wasn’t there when he died,” I explained. It occurred to me only now that it must have been Ruby who saw me riding my scooter down the drive, and who reported it to the police. Had she not told them at what time that happened?

“So Inspector Irlam informed me yesterday,” she said. “It seems it was an accident. Isaac slipped and fell.” But her tone and her eyes were still accusing me, and now I could guess why. I needed to own up.

“Is that what he says? I suppose that must have been what happened. But they arrested me partly because I – because I already have a criminal conviction.”

“Yes, well they would, wouldn’t they?” she said, arms still folded.

“You know about it, then.”

“I know now. Inspector Irlam let that bombshell drop when he came round to talk to me. Forgery, of all things! Were you going to mention that before you moved in here?” Her tone was scathing.

I lifted my chin. “Yes, I would have, because my probation officer says I must. Otherwise no, I wouldn’t, because I’m too ashamed of it and I hate the way people look at me when I tell them, as if I’m a cockroach they’d like to crush underfoot. Anyway, I assume the offer of a room is now withdrawn.”

Ruby looked away from me at last. “Oh, hell,” she said. “I don’t know, I can’t decide any more. I’ve got too much else to think about.”

“Yes. I’m sorry. I know you and Isaac were close.”

“You know nothing about it,” she snapped.

“Did Sergeant Brigg come round here too?”

“Yes. He was grave and silent,” she said. “He’s a sympathetic man. He understands suffering, I think. Oh, God!” She turned her face away from me. “Isaac went through so much suffering, first with Carol and then Luke. Carol was a great friend, my best friend. And now for Isaac to die this way! It’s horrible. The whole family snuffed out. Three deaths, all avoidable.” She wiped her eyes.

“Carol’s death wasn’t avoidable,” I said. “She had cancer, didn’t she?”

“It’s the treatment that kills you,” said Ruby. “All three of them. I can’t get over it. The whole family.”

“Except Selena.”

“Yes. To think it’s all in her hands now!”

“What, the farm?”

“And this place.”

Of course. Raven How had been Isaac’s. I heard his deep quiet voice talking about the rent: he’d been standing against the wall, the light on his left turning his cheek from granite to golden sandstone. That voice I would not hear again. My throat closed up.

“I’ll leave you, then,” I said, with difficulty.

“Wait. Oh, hell. Come in.”

I followed her into the kitchen. Ruby seized a long knife from the block by the stove and began to chop viciously at a carrot, throwing the pieces into a large hand-thrown pot. Her lips were pressed tightly together. I stared out of the window at the track down which I had wobbled on my bike towards the grim scene at the farm. My stomach was tying itself up like the Celtic knots on Ruby’s cupboards.

When Ruby spoke, her voice was low and harsh. “I told Delilah about you being a forger. And you know what she said? Cool. She said Cool!”

“Sorry.”

She whirled round to face me, knife in hand. “How could you? How could you pass off your work as someone else’s?”

“The someone else was dead,” I said. “It was the only way of selling any work at all.”

“By deceit,” said Ruby with contempt. “By fraud.” I was stung. Room or no room, I wasn’t going to take that lying down, because Ruby should understand, if anyone did.

“Oh, come on,” I said roughly, “they were all frauds at art school, the whole lot of them. All trying to be Tracy Emins or Gavin Turks or whoever. They were all out to impress each other, copying their favourite artists, pretending to be the next big thing. It was all a massive fake.”

“But the whole point of art is–”

“To show the truth? Bollocks. What artist ever did that? Tree in the wrong place? Move it. Sky the wrong colour? Change it. House the wrong shape? Rebuild it. Happens all the time. Don’t tell me it doesn’t.”

“But that’s not the same as–”

“Why? How is it different? At least I was trying to paint,” I said vehemently. “Most of them didn’t give a stuff about painting. Too busy being modern and neo-conceptual and deconstructing their little segment of self-centred world.”

Ruby fell silent, looking at me. I felt myself deflate. My tirade had been a mistake. “I’ll go,” I said. “You don’t want me here.”

“Hang on.” She rotated the knife in her hand, considering, then spoke with deliberation. “I don’t. That’s true. But I made you an offer, and I’m a woman of my word.”

I was incredulous. “Is the offer still open, then?”

“For Easter,” said Ruby flatly. “After that, we’ll see. But it’s down to Russell anyway. Go and ask Russell: he has the final say.”

“All right,” I said, grateful and also apprehensive, because she might be relying on Russell to turn me down and save her the trouble.

Delilah, however, thought I was cool. Mounting the threadbare stairs to Russell’s studio, I allowed myself the faintest of smiles.

I heard a clatter and a curse as I approached. The studio door was open. There stood Russell, by his easel, in a smock – a real painter’s smock, such as I had never seen except in photographs. His feet were in the middle of a puddle of dirty water. A jar rolled across the floor towards me, and I dived to retrieve it.

“Stupid,” he muttered.

“Shall I mop it up?”

“Leave it. It doesn’t matter.”

“It’ll ruin the floor,” I said, although the floorboards looked pretty ruined in any case: that wasn’t the first jar of paint-water to soak into them, by any means. It was a good room for painting, though, awash with clear light through the north-facing windows. I was bowled over by a sudden longing to be standing at that easel, in a real studio, even in a smock.

Russell glowered at his picture.

“Can I look?” I asked.

“If you must.” He was surly. He didn’t stand aside for me. I peered round him at scratchy trees on a gravelly hill. He’d been using masking fluid which left odd, conspicuous edges as if his landscape was peeling. It was strangely, bleakly, insistently clumsy. I didn’t like it much.

“Interesting,” I said.

He sniffed, and rasped a half-dry brush across the paper. “I saw your work at Freddie’s when I was there the other day.”

“Oh. What did you think?” I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear.

“It was very good,” he said sulkily. “How much did you earn from your Holbecks?”

So he knew too. “Nothing,” I answered. “I got caught before I got paid.”

“Hmph,” he said. “I couldn’t have done that.”

“No, well, I know you’d never consider–”

“I can’t copy other styles,” said Russell moodily. “Never could. I can’t do any style but my own.”

I studied his peeling hills. “Your own has changed from nine years back.”

“Everything changes. And not for the better.” That was certainly true of his painting. “Death,” said Russell to his easel, “Death changes everything.”

“Yes. Isaac’s death was a terrible tragedy.” The words sounded limp and trite. I wondered how I could utter them without breaking down. Isaac’s death? Why did I not weep?

“I wouldn’t say a tragedy,” Russell grunted, his chin on his chest. “Hazardous job, farming. Tractors tipping over. Poisoning by pesticide. Tumbling into combine harvesters. Fact of life. Not tragic. Just unfortunate that Isaac didn’t have the wit to get out of the way of the bull.” The brush squeaked, and I flinched.

“The wit?”

“Something farmers aren’t renowned for. Most of them possess about as much as imagination as their cows.”

“Isaac wasn’t stupid!”

“I didn’t say he was. I said imagination. What this bloody cultural cliché of a place is desperately short of. Incestuous, big-headed and small-minded,” grumbled Russell to his chest.

“I think that’s a rather sweeping–”

“Anyway, how would you know what Isaac was? You’d only just met him.” Russell lowered his brush and turned to me with a sneer. “You obviously took a shine to him, though. Latched on to him like a limpet at that bloody dinner party, didn’t you? And Isaac took a shine right back.”

Did he? I didn’t know. I found myself hugging the thought, and pushed it aside.

“We got on all right, if that’s what you mean,” I said stiffly.

“Hah! Don’t flatter yourself. He had a taste for young ladies, according to Selena.”

“Selena? Why, what did she say about it?”

He grinned at me like a hyena. “When she sat for her portrait last year, she got talking to me. Implied that Isaac had tried to get off with her. Schmoozing up to her, she said.” He was waiting for my reaction: he wanted to see me shocked. I wasn’t going to give him that pleasure. So I said casually,

“I expect Isaac tried to be nice to her, that’s all. I doubt if it was anything more than that.”

“You don’t believe her? Neither do I, as it happens. She’s an inveterate liar.” Russell turned back to wash his brush, rattling it fiercely around the remnant of water in the jar. He seemed grimly satisfied. “Can’t trust a word she says. It’s all hogwash. Or should that be bullshit? It’s irrelevant now, anyway. Isaac’s dead. Leaving no trace, no marker, nothing to tell the world he ever mattered.”

I grew hot with indignation, and had to command myself to be polite, since I was dependent on his goodwill for a roof over my head. So I countered as composedly as possible.

“I think Isaac mattered. Quite apart from the farm, he mattered to me and he mattered to you, too. Didn’t you just say, Death changes everything? So his death must have affected you.”

Russell grabbed a paint tube from the table and squeezed it viciously before stabbing at the helpless yellow worm of gamboge on his palette.

“I wasn’t referring to Isaac’s death,” he rasped.

“Whose, then? Luke’s?”

He prodded at his painting, adding an invisible, pointless smear before he answered. The words seemed dragged painfully out of him. “I meant before that. I meant Carol. Isaac’s wife.”

“Oh! Right. I mean, I never met her, but Ruby was obviously very close.”

“They were supposed to be best friends. It was horrific.”

“Well, cancer is a dreadful thing,” I said helplessly, from the depths of total ignorance.

The brush hovered in mid-air. Russell spoke very quietly. “Ruby couldn’t accept that Carol was that ill. Couldn’t accept the endless interventions, hospitals, drug regimes, you know. Ruby’s always been ridiculously healthy. People like her don’t believe in illness. They think pain is imaginary. She didn’t want to understand.”

“Carol’s death must have been a terrible shock.” Two heartbeats. “Just like Isaac’s.” Still no inclination to burst into tears. Why not, when Ruby’s eyes were so red-rimmed?

Russell shrugged, and began to paint again, more intently. He had cared for Carol, evidently, more than for Isaac. I changed the subject.

“Ruby suggested that I should ask you about me moving in here for a bit. Helping with the cleaning and cooking for the Easter painting course.”

“What did she think about it?” His tone was cold.

“She said she was prepared to take me, but she left the final decision up to you.”

“Did she.”

I got the message. He wasn’t interested. I was wasting my time.

“Never mind,” I said. “I understand your reasons for refusing. Ruby doesn’t actually want me here either, not surprisingly in the circumstances. Give my love to Delilah.” I just wanted to get away now.

“The course starts on Good Friday,” Russell grunted. “Finishes on Sunday. Can you move in before then?”

“Really?”

“You might be useful with the clients. Help them mix the paints and so on. You’d be surprised how many colour-blind imbeciles we get. Should be in bloody nursery school: can’t tell blue from purple, some of them. And as for any sense of perspective!”

“Oh.”

“Tell Ruby it’s a trial run,” said Russell. “We’ll see how it goes.”

“Okay. Right. Thank you!” Turning to leave, I caught sight of a portrait of Selena on the drying rack. I didn’t think I’d seen it at the dinner party: it looked new, barely dry. I swivelled it to see it properly.

“That’s good,” I said, on impulse. It was true: it had a life and vigour that his landscapes lacked. “I tried to draw Selena, but it wasn’t very successful. She’d make a great model, though, wouldn’t she? If only she’d keep still.”

“She only sat for me the once,” said Russell, with a hauteur that forestalled any further conversation. So I went back down to Ruby and reported my success, news which she received evenly, with lips again compressed and disapproving.

Yet when I left her, and set out along the field path to the farm, I reflected that Ruby’s disapproval was preferable to Greta’s. According to my sister, I should be ashamed of the disgrace, of the consequences, of the blight I brought upon my family. Ruby’s was a purer indignation. For her, the act of forgery itself was shameful.

And I was ashamed, to be sure: I was ashamed that my Holbecks hadn’t been good enough to even give the experts pause. My talent had been unequal to the task, I thought, as I climbed the stile and Borrans Rigg farm loomed into view.

Its dignified brick face brought a rushing wave of memory hurtling through me. Such a short time ago he’d stood there. Then everything had changed, whirled into chaos by the muddy maelstrom in the shed. I waited for the pricking of my eyes: reached for a handkerchief in readiness. Yet still no tears.

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

It felt surreal. A blood-spattered layer spread across reality. Surely, beneath it, lay the truth: that Isaac was still sitting in his kitchen, or striding on his hill, and would turn up in a minute to stand against that wall, beneath his rugged crown.

The old dog meandered round the farmyard, his tail down and his purpose lost. A broken length of police tape lay bedraggled on the ground outside the bull’s dim shed. I wondered what had happened to the bull.

The house was closed up and forbidding. But on looking round, I saw Bryony in the back field with two young men, doing things to sheep. When I walked over to meet her she introduced them as Jimmy and Cameron Airey from the neighbouring farm.

“I couldn’t manage without them. Lambing,” she said. She looked exhausted.

The Aireys nodded and smiled at me cheerfully. Both had blond hair, red cheeks and irrepressible grins that kept breaking out until they remembered to be mournful and sober. As I offered condolences to Bryony, they eyed me with sly interest, which made me guess that they knew all about my arrest and night in prison.

Bryony left them with the sheep and walked back to the house with me.

“I really am sorry,” I said. “If I’d got here earlier it might not have happened.”

“If I hadn’t gone to the doctor’s, it might not have happened,” she said dully. Her eyes were bruised with shadows.

“Those two don’t seem too bothered about Isaac.”

“The Aireys? They’re a different generation. Their dad’s cut up, but the lads didn’t really know him.”

“No? I would have thought, being farmers–”

“Those two aren’t going to be farmers. Anything but, they say. They’re both students, home for the holidays, which is lucky for me because I can’t do it all on my own.”

“What about Selena?”

Her,” said Bryony. “She’s as much use as a pig in a laundry. She’s just gone out for a Long Walk.” The capital letters were audible and ironic. She plodded into the kitchen and looked round with a sigh.

“Shall I put the kettle on?” I said.

“Don’t bother, orange squash will do. I’ve got to go out again in a minute. Some of the wall’s come down at Low Garth so that’s the next job.”

I found glasses and filled them. His hands on the taps. My fingerprints overlaying his. Every print of his would soon be overlaid, superseded, buried.

Bryony slumped down in Isaac’s old chair. “Selena’s never taken much interest in the place, so I don’t suppose she’ll start now. Isaac used to try and persuade her to go round with him and learn stuff, but it didn’t work.”

“Couldn’t she go round with Luke?”

Bryony laughed shortly. “They’d get nothing done.”

“But she wouldn’t learn from Isaac?”

“No. She told him she was scared of cows,” said Bryony. “Scared of the machinery. Scared of sheep. Everything. The truth is, she didn’t want to try. And she doesn’t understand the importance of the routines. The fact that you can’t just skip them or only do them when you feel like it. She hasn’t grasped that.” She drained her glass and stood up again wearily. I followed her out into the yard: the bull scuffled in its shed, unseen.

“What will you do with the bull?”

“Sell it, if we can persuade Selena to,” said Bryony. “Though I’m not sure if anyone local would buy it now. Not because of superstition, just out of respect.” Her face folded, momentarily. “It’ll go to market.”

“I thought maybe it would get put down.”

“Why? It’s not the bull’s fault. It’s what bulls do. That’s why you have to have to be so bloody careful round them.” She trudged across the yard. The Aireys had gone.

“Shall I give you a hand with the wall?”

“It’s hard work,” said Bryony.

“I don’t mind.” Together we negotiated sheep and cows, crossing two muddy fields to where a section of wall had sagged and spilt its top courses.

“Bloody walkers,” said Bryony. “What’s wrong with using the stile?” She began to gather the fallen stones into piles by size, and I copied her; then tried to fit the chunks of rock together on the broken wall, in double ranks interleaved with slate, as she did.

It was like an oversized, extremely heavy game of Cuboids. The first ten minutes were fun. The next ten were so-so. After that my hands began to hurt, and my shoulders ached, and none of the rocks would fit but kept trapping my fingers. I was glad when Bryony finally straightened up, wincing. She looked pale.

“Are you okay?”

“Just tired. I’ll stop in a few minutes. I’m making a right mess of this anyway: I haven’t got the knack. Isaac could do it just like that, clunk clunk.” She sighed, rubbing her face. “I wish whoever made him fall over in that stall was here now, with a hundred miles of wall to build. From scratch.”

My mouth dropped slightly open. “What do you mean, whoever made him fall?”

“Well, you don’t think it was an accident, do you?” she retorted. “Isaac wouldn’t have banged his head on that beam unless someone pushed him.”

“I didn’t know he’d banged his head.”

“I heard them talking about it when I brought them cups of tea. They reckoned he hit his head on the beam and fell over. Only I don’t believe he did. Oh, I know they found his hair snagged on it–”

“Did they?”

“I watched some guy in plastic overalls pick it off and bag it up,” said Bryony. “I told him, Isaac’s used this shed for thirty years, some of that hair’ll be older than you are. He could judge that beam to a T, he’d never knock himself out on it. But the guy wasn’t interested.”

“So what do you think happened, then?”

“Selena,” said Bryony. She bent down for a slab of slate. I was frozen.

“What? You think Selena killed Isaac?”

“Well, not exactly. Maybe not deliberately. But I can just see it now: him telling her to tidy up the yard, or something, and her getting on her high horse, and saying, it’s not my job, and giving him a shove, and down he goes.”

“And bangs his head on the beam?”

She shrugged. “Beam, shelf, whatever. Caught off-balance. Maybe the bull kicked him on the head. And off she runs because that’s what she does. She doesn’t think.”

“But Selena wasn’t even there. She was shopping in Keswick.”

“So she says.

“You don’t think so?”

“Oh, she went to the supermarket all right. Came back with a load of stuff we didn’t need. Biscuits and sugar pops, and bagfuls of sweets. She’s mad for sweets.” Bryony clunked her slab down on the wall so hard I expected it to shatter. “I wouldn’t be surprised if she ran away from Isaac in a huff and went shopping straight afterwards. Be just like her.”

“But Keswick’s a long way. It would have taken her ages.”

“How do we know she went to Keswick at all?” countered Bryony. “There are shops a lot closer than that. Don’t put that little slate there, we’ll use it on the top as one of the coping stones.” I replaced it on its pile and hefted up a mighty boulder instead. My biceps complained, but my mind was buzzing.

“If Selena went to a supermarket,” I said, “surely her receipt would show the place, and the time.”

“You think Selena keeps receipts? She couldn’t find it. Went through the bag three times with the police, but it wasn’t there.”

“What did the police say?”

Bryony snorted. “What, Inspector Laughing Clown and Sergeant Frodo the two-fingered?”

“He’s called Hunter,” I said. “Hunter Brigg.”

She looked up from the wall. Must have heard something in my voice. “Sorry. He’s a friend of yours, isn’t he? I didn’t say anything about my theory to the police, because I expect they’ll work it all out in due course. And anyway it probably didn’t happen, and I’m just being a bitch because I feel so bad and I need someone to blame it on. He was the last of the line. That’s it now, the farm’s dead, everyone’s dead. But it’s not going to help if they take Selena away. I really will be on my own then.”

Her voice cracked; but she controlled herself. “I seem to have brought bad luck on this family,” she muttered.

“I could just as easily say the same. What will you do? Will you stay on here?”

“For now,” said Bryony. “It’s all in the hands of the lawyers. The Aireys will help keep the farm going for now, do the milking and that, but in the long term I don’t know what will happen.”

She picked up two more slabs and stood with them dangling in her hands, shoulders drooping. For all her sturdiness, she looked worn out.

“Isaac wouldn’t have wanted to see me running the farm,” she said. “I do know that. He was set against me. He took to you straight away, I could tell. But he never took to me.”

“Isaac wasn’t against you,” I protested. “He liked you. He said he couldn’t keep the place going without you.”

“Isaac said that?” She stared at me, disbelieving. “Well, he never said it to me.”

“He said you worked hard, and knew the animals.”

Her chin jutted as she heaved the slabs onto the wall. “I did. I do. But he didn’t want me to be with Luke. He turned Luke against me before Selena even came on the scene.”

“Did he? How?”

“Well, somebody certainly did! Who else could it be? Luke rejected me overnight. I know that was around the time his mother died, but there was more to it than that. I think Isaac decided he didn’t want me in the family, and told Luke so.”

“So Luke dumped you.”

“He didn’t just dump me,” said Bryony. “He refused to even talk to me, as if he suddenly hated me – just like that.” She snapped her fingers. “And two days later, there was Selena, sitting on a gravestone with her come-on smile.”

In my mind’s eye I saw Selena, elegantly perched upon the wall: a mermaid on dry land and combing out her long wet hair. “Luke was hurt. He was grieving,” I said.

Bryony began to pile slates in a leaning row along the top of the wall, tugging them angrily to and fro until they stabilised. “Yes. Luke was grieving. That made him vulnerable. He was very persuadable, was Luke: he’d believe anything you told him. And Isaac was the only person who might want me off the farm.”

“But I still don’t–”

“When Selena turned up Isaac was as nice as pie to her, not that she’d thank him for it. She liked to make out he was some sort of bully. But he never told her to mend a wall or muck out the shippen.”

“That’s because there was no point. He knew she couldn’t do it, and you could. Isaac thought highly of you, Bryony. Really.”

She gave me a twisted smile. “It doesn’t matter now what Isaac thought. I’m all that’s left to care about this place. Selena won’t. But I’ve always loved the farm, this land, even more than Luke did.” She ran her hand over the top course of the wall, caressing the stones.

“Bryony? Did you ever buy one of my pictures?”

“Why?”

“There was one left by the bull’s shed when Isaac…” I couldn’t say it.

“Yes, I know. Inspector Laughing Boy told me. The answer’s no, I didn’t buy it.”

“Did Isaac, do you think?”

“Not that I’m aware of. Not his thing. You probably dropped it out of your sketchbook when you were here before.”

I probably hadn’t – not with those dots of glue of the corners – but there was no point telling her that. So I just said, “Well, I suppose so,” while Bryony slapped the wall as if it were a large, docile animal.

“That’ll do for now. Should stay up a bit longer. Thanks for your help.”

“I don’t think I was much help,” I said ruefully.

“It’s nice to have the company, though.”

“For me, too. Is my scooter still around here somewhere?”

“Behind the cottages. I’ll show you.” Bryony walked back with me to the farmyard.

I paused to stroke the old dog, Tag lad, lying by the door. His tail wagged feebly, without enthusiasm. He was missing his master, I thought. As was I. I felt grief throttle me like a ligature around my neck, a hand closing on my heart: though still no tears. I ached for him because I had not known him.

“Here you are,” said Bryony. The scooter was propped up against the cottage’s back wall next to a narrow path. “And there’s your helmet. You can get back to the road faster this way if you don’t mind it being a bit rutted .”

“I didn’t know there was a footpath here.”

“I just wish the hikers would stick to it,” said Bryony, “instead of climbing all over my bloody walls.” She waved goodbye and stumped back to her ewes.

I managed to jam the strap back onto my helmet by the loose staples until it looked vaguely legal. It would have to do until I bought a new one. Putting it on, I began to push the scooter up the path.

Halfway along, I turned and gazed back at the haughty shoulder of the farmhouse. Then I looked for Raven How, and for Ruby spying on me from her windows: but from here Raven How was entirely hidden.

The path emerged onto the road through a small gate a hundred metres from the main drive. Mounting the scooter, I began to putter carefully along; and there, a little further down the road, standing by the verge, I saw Selena.

She was clutching a handful of bedraggled daffodils. A strange, exotic figure she appeared, with her outsize coat and wild hair: Ophelia in search of a pond.

As I chugged towards her, it occurred to me that quite possibly Selena had bought one of my pictures – or, perhaps hadn’t bought it at all but had filched it from my house while she looked through my cards in the bedroom. It would have been easy for her to stuff one up her borrowed jumper. I wouldn’t have noticed it was missing: I didn’t keep a count of my cards until they went out to the shops.

Selena turned and smiled, and then walked right out in front of the scooter. I had to swerve to a sudden halt and nearly went into the wall again.

“You mustn’t do that,” I said, “my brakes aren’t that good.”

“I knew you’d stop.” She was carefully made up. The siren look: black eyeliner, dark lipstick, blusher, the works. I wondered who for. Yet under her voluminous coat she still wore Luke’s old, frayed jumper.

“I was waiting for you,” said Selena.

“How? You didn’t know I was coming.”

“But I knew you would. He said you’d come back.”

“Who said it? Isaac? Did he say that?”

“You had to come back.” Her gladness gave me the unwelcome suspicion that her face was so assiduously made up just for me.

“I’m very sorry about Isaac’s death,” I said formally.

“Yes. So am I. It’s a pity you were late at the farm,” she said. “You shouldn’t have been late.”

“I couldn’t help that.”

“It was bad luck. The police were asking about you. They wanted to know all about you and Isaac.”

“What did you tell them? I mean, there was nothing to tell,” I said.

She gave me a conspirator’s grin. “You know! About you fancying the socks off him.”

“No, I didn’t,” I said. “Nothing like that. I was interested in him, as a friend.” Even that brief relationship had been a dream, a chimera: based on a few kind words, and blown away on the cold wind.

But Selena just grinned all the wider. “You were staring at him the whole time. And getting yourself sat next to him at that dinner party! Your policeman boyfriend knows, does he? Or doesn’t he mind?”

I drew myself up, trying to be dignified. Not really possible in a grubby yellow coat astride a battered 50cc scooter.

“Sergeant Brigg is not my boyfriend,” I answered reprovingly. “And I didn’t fancy Isaac: I liked him. I probably stared because I thought he had an interesting face for artistic purposes. I’m sorry he’s dead. You obviously aren’t.”

“Of course I am. I am sorry, Eden.” Her voice softened. “Don’t get cross. I’m upset too. The cops were asking about me and Isaac: it was horrible.”

“Why? What did they ask?”

“What was your relationship with your father-in-law like? I said he was a sad old man and I tried to be nice to him. That’s the truth. I was nicer than he deserved.”

My heart gave a thump of indignation. “Why? What did he ever do wrong?”

Her face screwed up. “Well… it wasn’t what he did. I mean, he didn’t actually get that far.”

“Did he say things to you?” The words congealed in my mouth. I didn’t want to know: but I forced myself to be specific. “Did he say… things that were suggestive?”

“I don’t know. He was just creepy. A creepy old man.”

“What exactly does that mean?” Now I was angry. Creepy seemed to be a catch-all term with Selena. She’d called Griff creepy: but then he’d tried to kiss her. Isaac hadn’t done anything, by her own admission.

Her face clouded uncertainly. She plucked the head off a wilted daffodil. “I don’t know,” she muttered. “I can’t say what I mean.” A second daffodil was beheaded: her hands began to tear apart the others. Petal after shredded petal was cast aside.

She was disturbed by too much death, I thought; and briefly wondered if Bryony could be right, and Selena had been present at Isaac’s death.

But Bryony was jealous. She needed a scapegoat: Selena just happened to fit the bill. There was no evidence at all against her – and after two bereavements in three months, surely she had a good excuse for acting a little weird. More liable to harm herself than anyone else. She needed somebody to keep an eye on her.

“I’m going to be staying at Ruby and Russell’s for a bit,” I said. “I’ll be able to come round and see you.”

Selena’s face lit up. “That’s good! Rather you than me, though.”

“Why?”

“Well, Russell… he’s so bad-tempered these days. And he looks at me all funny. Does he do it to you?”

“He hasn’t really looked at me at all.”

“While you’re there, will you come over and paint me properly?”

“Maybe. If I have time.” I didn’t think I had the heart to paint the farmhouse any more.

“I wish you would,” said Selena wistfully. “I liked you drawing me. It’s not like a photo, is it? Photographs are cruel. They’re meant to show the truth, but they don’t. They get it all wrong, don’t they?”

“They can do,” I said, remembering my police mugshots: lank hair pulled back, no make-up. Despite my terror, the camera had shown me as callous, sneering, hard.

“But you can make a painting any way you want,” she murmured. “You can show things the way they should be. You can make them real. Will you paint me?”

“I’m going to be pretty busy at Ruby’s.”

“But you must! Please, Eden!” She held out the broken daffodils, imploring me, a beautiful, wan beggar girl in something by Millais or Herkomer, ripe for a picture. “You have to paint me! I really need you to! That was why I went to Waterhead.”

“What was?”

“I followed you there,” she said eagerly. “That first day we met. I followed you from that guesthouse place. You never saw me, you were marching down Lake Road like your heels were on fire. You had your box thing under your arm.”

I stared at her, mute. Her eyes met mine: wide, green, full of longing, as deep as the sea.

“That was why I threw myself into the lake,” she whispered. “I wanted you to rescue me. I wanted you to paint me. To make me real.”

 

Chapter Sixteen

 

“I got away as fast as I could. She really freaked me out. She’d been stalking me!”

“Not necessarily,” said Hunter coolly. We were walking around Rothay Park in his lunch hour. The place was quiet: only a few pushchairs and sedate old couples shared the lawns with us. Hunter looked the perfect, serious policeman, pacing along beneath the stately trees with his hands behind his back. Only he wasn’t taking me seriously.

“Think about it!” I urged. “That first evening when I took Selena back to the guesthouse, she said she’d seen me before, painting at Skelwith Fold. I didn’t think anything of it at the time. But what if she’d been stalking me ever since then? My God!” I put my hands to my hot cheeks. “To think I invited her to my house! And she slept there, in the same room – anything could have happened!”

“But didn’t,” said Hunter equably. “And it isn’t your house.”

“It’s not funny!”

“Of course not. Do you want to make an official complaint about her behaviour?”

“Don’t be daft. I don’t have any proof, do I? It’s only her word.”

“A very vague word.”

“Not that vague. She said she saw me walking down Lake Road with my box under my arm!”

“So she noticed you. That doesn’t mean she followed you.”

Selena’s red painted lips mouthed at me. I wanted you to rescue me, to make me real. Yet when I dragged her out of the lake, what was it she had said? It’s where I live. Where I belong. So what was that all about?

It was fantasy, that was what. Attention-seeking. Teasing. “She says some weird things.”

“Really?” said Hunter.

“There’s something wrong with her.”

“Congratulations. You got there in the end.” We had arrived at the children’s playground. where he jogged up onto the swinging walkway. Bridge of death, we used to call it as kids, though you’d have hard work to twist an ankle on it.

“That’s not very policeman-like,” I said severely.

“Good.” He jangled along the walkway and jumped down at the other end. “That little story wouldn’t be the first thing she’s invented,” he said. “I checked out the birth certificate. Falsified, like you thought. Selena Crabbe has a matching death certificate from 1997. Car crash. And she was born in the seventies, not the eighties. It was a fairly clumsy forgery.”

“So our Selena isn’t Selena at all. Who is she, then?”

“Who knows?”

“Well, what are you going to do about it?” I demanded.

“That’s up to Larry Irlam. He’d probably rather not charge her with anything if he can help it. He thinks she’s vulnerable. In need of protection, not prosecution. He’s under her spell.”

I shook my head in disbelief. “How does she do it?”

“She’s a beautiful widow,” said Hunter, as if that explained everything. Maybe it did. She’d had me under a spell of sorts for a while, after all. Though beauty shouldn’t influence a policeman, surely, even one as reluctant to engage with nastiness as Larry.

“And what if she’s a beautiful murderer?” I said.

Hunter sighed. “Look, Eden, Isaac hit his head on a wooden beam inside the shed, and fell. That’s what the forensic evidence indicates. The pathologist thinks it was accidental, and Larry’s happy to agree. There has to be an inquest because of the unexpected nature of his death, but the coroner won’t find anyone to blame except the bull.”

“But Larry thought I’d hit him. Why has he changed his mind?”

“Isaac was taller than the beam, and for once he forgot to duck to avoid it. Some of his hairs were found trapped in the splintered wood. He wouldn’t even have had to knock himself out. Once he was on the floor, in all that slippery muck, and the bull stood on him…”

“Don’t,” I said.

He shut up. After a moment he said quietly, “So why do you think Selena was involved?”

“Because Bryony says pushing Isaac in a temper is the sort of thing she’d do. I’ve seen her push Griff around when she got annoyed with him for trying to take her photo. She didn’t just push him, she kicked him. And what about that painting of mine? I know Selena says she was out shopping, but she’s got no proof.”

“So tell me what you think happened,” said Hunter.

“Selena knew I was supposed to be there at twelve noon. She heard me agree that with Isaac at the dinner party. Well, everybody did.” I blushed to remember how I’d shouted it down the stairs. “On Monday morning she got annoyed with Isaac over something.”

“Over what?”

“I don’t know. Him telling her off or something.” I recalled how furiously she’d shrieked at Isaac on the landing. Get off me! And she’d shrunk away from him convulsively…

I shivered. Isaac couldn’t possibly have done anything to justify such loathing. “There needn’t have been a proper reason. She didn’t like Isaac very much. So she hit him over the head.”

“What with?”

“A spade or something, I don’t know.”

“Hmm,” said Hunter. “I can really see this going down well with a jury.”

“And when Isaac fell down and got trampled she left my picture and the mints there to try and frame me, in case the police decided that it wasn’t accidental.”

“Why would Selena want to frame you? She seems to like you.”

“I don’t know. Just convenience, I guess, if she knew I was due to turn up any minute.”

“And she conveniently just happened to have one of your pictures to hand. Where did she get it from?” He was slipping into interrogative mode now.

“She could have bought it, or she could easily have stolen it from my house, the evening I took her in. I showed her my painting room and she was picking up all the cards. She seemed fascinated. Maybe she kept one of them.”

“You’ve no evidence of any of this,” said Hunter, but he was listening more intently than before.

“And the mints,” I said. “She knew I liked that sort. She ate half my packet at the guesthouse. Bryony says she buys loads of sweets.”

“Those mints could have been Isaac’s.”

“Isaac didn’t eat them. He didn’t drop them there.” I felt again the thunderous vibrations of the bull’s hooves, the hot, fierce stink and shadow. Nausea rose in my throat and I had to swallow it down.

“One problem,” Hunter pointed out. “Ruby would have seen Selena driving down the track. She saw Bryony leave the farm at nine-thirty in the Landover, and Selena followed an hour later, driving away in the van. But Ruby didn’t notice her return. She saw nobody else until you arrived.”

“Why would she see anyone? Glued to the window, is she?”

“Or she would have heard the car. She seems to be sufficiently observant,” said Hunter levelly.

“Busy lady. I should have thought somebody on foot could sneak past her easily. Though if they were really worried about being seen, they wouldn’t have to. There’s a path that cuts behind the holiday cottages. Selena could have parked up on the road and walked that way to the farm without Ruby noticing.”

Hunter scrutinised me with cool grey eyes. “In that case, so could anybody else. I’m not sure why you’ve got it in for Selena.”

“Because of the painting!” Exasperated, I spread my hands. “All right, it could have been somebody else. Somebody could have bought it at Bowness, or at Freddie’s shop, or I suppose they might have taken it without Freddie’s knowledge. Russell goes there regularly. And so does Ruby.”

That didn’t go down well. “Unfortunately Ruby has an alibi,” Hunter said repressively. He began to walk again, striding out across the wet grass. “As does Russell. I spoke to them both. They were at home at Raven How all the Monday morning from taking Delilah to school until Ruby saw you ride the scooter up the drive: Russell was painting and Ruby was bottling up massage oils.”

“Massage oils? Did she offer you a demo?”

Hunter didn’t even deign to reply. “She sells aromatherapy oils,” he said distantly. “Apparently they have to be diluted in a base.”

“So they were in separate rooms all morning, were they? And their only alibis are each other?”

“If they need them.”

“Ruby was on the scene fast,” I said. “And she moved the body.”

“She didn’t know it was a body at that point,” countered Hunter. “She was trying to save him. You were there first.”

I could hear the unspoken words: I had failed to try to save him. Nevertheless, I persisted with my latest ill-formed theory.

“Ruby was keen on Isaac.”

“She was a neighbour, and she was neighbourly. So?”

“Maybe it was Ruby, not me, who made a pass at Isaac, and got turned down!” As soon as the snide remark was out, I wished I’d kept it to myself. Hunter glanced at me scathingly.

“Don’t be ridiculous, Eden. Is that the best you can do?”

I bit my lip. “Who stands to benefit? Did Isaac leave a will?”

“Not a recent one. The only will we know about left everything to Luke and his dependents.”

“Selena, then.”

“For what it’s worth. Which in terms of an estate, evidently isn’t much.”

I pondered. “So what happens to the farm?”

“Nothing, for a while. The National Trust will probably appoint a tenant. I think Selena ought to inherit any bits of land that Isaac actually owned, although he had an older sister in Australia who might contest that if she feels inclined.” He slowed beneath the trees. “But tell me this, Eden. Why would Ruby or Russell try to pin this supposed crime on you?”

“Because I’ve got a criminal record, of course! I’m an obvious suspect for the police to latch on to.”

“A criminal record which Ruby and Russell didn’t know about,” said Hunter dampeningly. “I was there when Larry told them. Ruby in particular was appalled.”

“Oh.”

“You seem very ready to think the worst of Ruby. Why is that?”

I was about to deny it: but I owed Hunter better. So I said reluctantly,

“I know I’m not being fair to her. She’s been very good to me: she’s offered to put me up over Easter in spite of all this. She keeps her promises.”

“But?”

“I suppose I’m jealous,” I said with difficulty. “Because she’s got such a nice life. Because she makes a living doing arty stuff, and she has a talented husband, even if he is a prat, and a big house, even if it is freezing, and a family; and because she’s good. She’s honest. And I’m not.”

“No, you’re not,” said Hunter. I knew, and he knew, and I knew that he knew. So I said it.

“I was jealous of her attachment to Isaac.”

“Which might have been mostly in your head,” said Hunter, “and which in any case can hardly be consolation for her now. The funeral’s next Wednesday at Hawkshead.”

“Already?” I was shocked. A lump swelled in my throat at the thought of Isaac in his coffin, the earth laid over him, layer after layer. “I thought you said there’d be an inquest?”

“It’s been opened and adjourned to allow the funeral. I’ve got dispensation from Larry to go along, provided we don’t get a sudden crime wave. I told him it would be good for community relations. And I want to see who turns up. Will you be there?”

“I don’t want to go,” I said instantly, and thought of grizzled Tag Lad lying in the yard, alone while the bells tolled far away, with no master to caress his ears. Grief for the old dog hit me like an axe between the shoulders.

It was awful. I had no warning, and no place to hide. I had to cover my face with my hands because I couldn’t possibly cry in front of Hunter, and in public. But I couldn’t stop heaving and shaking regardless, until after a few seconds I felt his arm go round me. Both of us as rigid as wooden soldiers. It was knowledge of his embarrassment that made me stop. As I shuddered to a standstill, he let me go.

“What was it about Isaac?” he asked quietly.

I groped for a handkerchief. People were looking at us. “He was rooted,” I said. “He was secure. Unchanging.” I thought that was the answer. But it wasn’t. There was something else.

“He was lonely,” I said, the words coming out of the air unexpectedly, and only as I spoke them did I know them to be true. Isaac was lonely, abandoned by the ones he loved. Just like me.

I pulled myself away, ashamed of having betrayed so much. Now Hunter would think I was a drama queen who considered Isaac’s grief comparable to my own small self-inflicted woes.

“Sorry, Hunter. We’ll have set all the tongues wagging now.” I glanced around: we were being cheerfully observed by a brace of spry old men taking the air.

“Let them wag,” said Hunter. “Will you be all right? I need to get back.”

“I’m fine. I’ll just walk round a bit and clear my head.”

We shook hands gravely before we parted. He seemed reluctant to go: I watched his departing back, still conscious of the imprint of his disconcertingly solid shoulder, the harsh fabric of his uniform a strange substitute for the soft tweed of the jacket that I had imagined resting my unhappy head on.

But that had been a fantasy born of misery and need. All I’d done now was mortify poor Hunter. Dear God, I had just cried all over a policeman… I wondered what the two old men surmised from it: a confession made, a weeping sinner, advice given and accepted. All part of a busy officer’s day.

 

Chapter Seventeen

 

I decided not to follow Hunter back straight back into town. I couldn’t face confinement in my tiny attic in the Heronry: it would only make me think too much.

So I strolled away from town towards the road at Under Loughrigg, while the park glowed all around me with that ethereal, luminous green that is peculiar to springtime. The pale sunshine had brought the walkers out in force. When I lingered by the beck, a party of them marched past me along the road in boy-scout style, boots clumping, high-tech sticks swinging dangerously.

One of them looked familiar. Long legs, grey hair, an eager manner as he spoke animatedly to his neighbour.

“Griff?” I called out as they passed.

He stopped and looked at me. “I’m sorry?”

It was Griff all right; but of course he didn’t know me. While I was wondering what to say, he started to walk briskly on again.

I stared after him. What was he doing here? Those must be old friends: that was it, taking care of him while Muriel got some time off.

But a moment later Griff veered off alone on to the path that led up Loughrigg Fell. The rest of the troop, still talking heartily, continued on the road beside the river. One of them gave Griff a brief wave: the sort you’d give someone you’d only known for ten minutes. Griff waved back before setting off uphill.

“Bloody hell!” I said. “What’s he doing?”

I ran to the bend. There he was, striding away up the path as if he relished the chance to stretch his legs. I hurried after him.

“Griff!” I yelled. He turned to wait for me, frowning courteously.

“Yes, I’m Griff. I’m sorry, er…?”

“Eden. We’ve met before. I’m a friend of Muriel’s. Does Muriel know where you are?”

Silly question. A look like fear passed across his face. “I’m going to meet Muriel now,” he said.

“Where, exactly?”

He waved his hand. “On the other side. Do excuse me, I’ll be late.” He moved away again, striding, if possible, even more swiftly than before.

I hesitated, wondering what to do. It seemed most unlikely that Muriel had arranged to meet him anywhere. On the other hand, Griff seemed to know where he was going. But once he’d ascended Loughrigg, where would he go next?

“Oh, hell,” I said. I would have to follow him. As I began to scramble after him he was already quite a way ahead. He had the proper kit on: anorak, boots, rucksack. I had my ordinary shoes which were fine for the park but not designed for fell-walking. The gap between us began to widen.

“Griff!” I yelled uphill. This time he halted briefly and glanced back, but didn’t wait for me. Why should he? I was a complete stranger. I decided it would be wiser not to call out to him again, but just to try and keep him in sight and make sure he came to no harm.

I panted along about fifty metres behind him, trying to stay at the same distance. It wasn’t easy. As well as the right boots, he had longer legs than me; and he was fit for his age, mounting the steepening path with ease. Soon I hardly had the breath to call him even if I’d wished. Occasionally he turned around to look at me, but gave no sign of recognition.

We ploughed on uphill, me cursing silently and willing him to sit down and rest. He didn’t. At last the ground flattened, and I paused to gasp, my breath raw and painful in my throat. When I looked back, Windermere was a long, thin, sunlit pond stretching away south into the gentler landscape of Cartmel, while Ambleside was a neat grey model village nestling in the hills.

Griff did not pause to survey the view. He veered away from it, leaving the well-defined path to dive into the choppy sea of rugged knolls and boggy dips that characterise the top of Loughrigg. He seemed to know where he was going, although no other walkers strode along this route. The closest people I could see were a good half-mile away.

Griff hurried on so rapidly that I worried he might trip. But when I followed, I quickly realised that in my flimsy shoes I was more likely to come to harm than he was: I dared not speed up for fear of turning an ankle.

Nevertheless I stumbled after him along winding sheep-paths that dipped up and down in giant waves, while every so often he would slow down, peer round as if re-orienting himself, and then charge off again with renewed determination.

My heart was hammering with effort by the time I realised what I should have done right at the start: rung Muriel.

“Idiot,” I muttered to myself. As I staggered breathlessly along, I got my mobile out, dabbed at the keys, and heard the phone start to ring.

At once I realized I was hearing not just the ringing tone. A happy, jangling little tune was carried to me through the clear air. Mozart, I think. Griff looked down, patted pockets, and retrieved a phone. As he answered it, he looked back at me with my own phone clutched to my ear.

I should have rung off then. Instead, stupidly, I said into the mouthpiece,

“Griff, you need to go home. Muriel’s waiting for you.”

I saw him stiffen as I spoke. He dropped the phone on the ground as if it had just turned into a rat, and began to run away from me.

“Oh, Christ,” I said into the phone. I had just totally spooked him. No wonder he was running, with a strange female in pursuit and ringing him up on top of a hill. The only consolation was that in ten or fifteen minutes he would have forgotten all about it. All I had to do was stay out of sight for a while.

So that was what I tried to do, with mixed success. When I reached the place where he’d been standing, I wasted several minutes hunting for his abandoned phone. By the time I found it in a clump of grass, Griff had disappeared.

I panicked until I ran up to the top of a mound and spotted him again. And then, of course, he spotted me; and fled, his speed redoubled.

We kept this up over the top of Loughrigg, me bobbing up and down like a meerkat, until my inadequate shoes and the hems of my jeans were soaked through. Loughrigg doesn’t have a peak, which was good. What it does have is acres of lumpy, blobby, tussocky peaklets, crags, pits and pockmarks, which were not so good. I was knackered and wanted to stop but couldn’t for fear of losing Griff, who was pulling away from me, bounding like a goat over a rocky outcrop.

“Griff!” I yelled at last, in desperation. I hoped he’d had enough time to forget about me, and might just stop this time.

He halted: hesitated, and then came a little way towards me before he stopped again, as wary as a deer.

I scrambled up the crag. Behind him, the clouds clenched bruised and bulging fists: the sun lanced through them to pick him out in gold, like some biblical film hero. Moses on the mountaintop, but with no audience but me. There was no-one else in sight.

“Griff!” I wheezed. I could hardly talk. “Do you know where you’re going?”

“Who are you?”

“I’m Eden. I’m a friend of Muriel’s.”

“Eden? I don’t know any Eden!” He glanced around anxiously at the empty fell, probably thinking that I was some sort of mugger with a mountain fetish.

“Look,” I said, “Don’t worry about that. Let’s just go back to Ambleside and find Muriel.”

“You’re following me! Why are you following me?”

“I want to help you,” I said.

“What for? I don’t need help!” He was on the verge of panic.

“I’m worried you’ll get yourself into trouble, Griff.”

His eyes widened. “Trouble? Why would I be in trouble? It wasn’t my fault!”

“No, I know, but–”

“It was accidental!” he panted. “I was looking for something else entirely!”

“Griff, I think Muriel would like you to–”

“Can’t anyone be allowed a mistake?” he shouted. “This is persecution!”

“Griff, the only reason that I’m following you–”

He took a step forward. “I’ve told you! It was a simple matter of chance, I’ve told you that, and now you’re hounding me! Can’t you leave me alone even on holiday? I can’t take any more of this! Get away from me! Go away!”

With that, he took a few long, lurching strides towards me and pushed me roughly by the shoulders. I staggered backwards to the edge of the low outcrop.

“Griff, will you just–”

He pushed me again and I lost my balance. I found myself tumbling sideways and then sliding helplessly down a muddy slope until I came to rest at the bottom of one of the pockmarks. As I sat up, Griff started to clamber down the slope towards me.

“I’m going!” I shouted. “You’re right, it was a mistake. I got it wrong. I’m going!”

I staggered upright and began to limp away from him. My ankle felt as though someone had tried to twist my foot off.

When I turned, I saw that our former positions were reversed: Griff was coming after me.

“Stop!” I yelled. “I said I’m leaving! Go away!” because I had no idea what he might decide to do in his delusional terror. I hobbled away from him as fast as I could.

Next time I looked, he had stopped, thank God, and was just staring at me. After a moment he turned around and began to plough away in the opposite direction. I bent over to try and get my breath, feeling more shaken than seemed reasonable.

I couldn’t pursue him any longer. I could barely walk, and had to sit down to massage my ankle. Then I fumbled for my mobile, thinking that maybe I should ring the police.

Instead of my own phone, I pulled out Griff’s. Only of course it must be Muriel’s, I realized. Possibly he had picked up the wrong phone because he couldn’t remember whose was whose.

So I looked through the phone’s address book, found the number for Griff and rang it.

I feared that there’d be no signal here, but it was stronger than in some parts of town, the height compensating for my remoteness. Muriel answered at once, her voice tense. As soon as I began to explain, she burst out frantically.

“Where is he? Is he all right? I’ve just got back; I only went out for ten minutes, and he’d gone. Oh God, I thought he’d be safe! Where is he now?”

“Still walking over Loughrigg,” I said, and described his location to her as precisely as I could. “If he keeps going in the same direction, he’ll hit Loughrigg Terrace and the path between Rydal Water and Grasmere.”

“Then I know where he’ll go,” said Muriel, her relief audible. “He’ll go down to Rydal and walk back along the Rothay. It was one of our regular walks. I’ll drive straight up there, and hopefully I’ll meet him. Can you still see him?”

“No, sorry. I turned my ankle and had to take it easy.” There was no point giving her all the details now. “I’ll get down on my own okay, don’t worry.”

Thanking me profusely, Muriel rang off. I sat on my damp tussock for a few more minutes, nursing my ankle, and thinking over various puzzles.

Stop persecuting me. What had Muriel called it? Confabulation. It wasn’t surprising Griff felt persecuted, being chased up a hill by a persistent stranger; no doubt his confused brain had supplied him with a story.

But Muriel. “I’ve just got back. I only went out for ten minutes…” Well, in those ten minutes Griff had kitted himself out, set off on his expedition and got half-way over Loughrigg. That must have taken him a good hour or more. So where had Muriel been all that time?

And what was Freddie’s number doing in her address book?

I looked at the mobile in my hand. Then I scrolled down the menu and searched the sent box. Muriel had sent Freddie a text yesterday: No problem, please do. I went back to the inbox, and found its partner: Could we talk re M? Could I ring you after 8? Freddie had asked. And she’d answered, No problem, please do.

I was being both paranoid and unethical. There were no secrets here, although Freddie, I guessed, had some heartache over Matt, and found Muriel a sympathetic confidante. There were probably no secrets anywhere, just misunderstandings and mistakes. Muriel must have got back home a while ago, or had been out for longer than she realised. It didn’t really matter. What mattered was Griff’s safety.

I got stiffly to my feet, and found I could walk as long as I didn’t take it too fast. Griff was far away now, a vertical dab against a purple, cloud-swept horizon, the high fells looming beyond him like awful teeth waiting to eat him up. Peak after peak marched away into the distance in a regal panorama that made me feel insignificant and helpless. When I began to walk it was with the sense of being a crawling ant under a vast sky.

Thankfully Griff was still heading in the direction I’d told Muriel. However, by the time I reached Loughrigg Terrace I’d lost him again. I rested, scanning the hillside that was clogged with clutching fronds of bracken, a million fractals starting to unfurl. The water far below was mirror-still. A jet fighter crashed through the sky above me and arrowed into the distance towards Dunmail Raise, leaving a trail of thunder.

I walked slowly down to the lake, wondering if Muriel had got here, and was about to try ringing her again when I spied the pair of them sitting on a bench, enjoying the view like any everyday couple. I hobbled over.

“Here’s your phone,” I said to Muriel, who immediately jumped up, all thanks, and offered me a lift back to Ambleside which I gratefully accepted.

“You remember our young friend Eden, Griff?”

“Of course I do!” But his usual ebullience was lacking.

“I’m afraid I’ll get your car seat muddy,” I said. My jeans were caked. “I slipped in a boggy bit. So is, um, everything okay?”

“A little quiet,” said Muriel, “but none the worse for wear.”

“That’s good. I was worried.”

“Thank you so much, Eden,” she said, “for finding my phone, and the other thing.” Griff said nothing.

In the car, I tried to make polite enquiries about what had happened, but her answers were as evasive as my questions, both of us sliding round the heavy bulk of Griff who sat in the middle of our conversation like a silent judge.

“I’m in your debt,” said Muriel as she pulled up by the guesthouse. “Anything could have happened if you hadn’t seen – what you saw. If there’s a favour I can do you in return, just say.”

“Well, there is something, actually. I need to move my stuff over to Raven How, the artists’ place, in a day or two. I don’t have much, but the scooter’s not really adequate for removals. I’ve been wondering how to manage it. I don’t suppose you could…?”

“That’s easily done,” said Muriel warmly. “No problem. And a pleasure to see Ruby again; such an understanding, helpful lady. You remember Ruby, Griff?”

“Naturally,” said Griff, expressionless. “Goodbye, Ruby.”

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

Ruby liked Muriel. They were two of a kind: industrious, efficient organisers, and seemed to recognise each other as such despite the contrast between Ruby’s vividly eccentric clothes and hennaed hair and Muriel’s quiet respectability. At any rate, Ruby embraced Muriel with a good deal more affection than she offered me, and when Muriel gently commiserated with her on Isaac’s death I saw her eyes fill up with tears.

“He was a dear friend,” she said brokenly, “a dear, dear friend. He so badly needed someone to look after him. After Carol died, he worked too hard. I tried to get him to slow down. I tried to help as much as I could…”

“But what about Selena and the other girl who works there?” asked Muriel with mild Scots asperity. “Didn’t they help him out?”

“Help who?” said Griff. He was wearing a tie. Muriel had told me he had put it on when she’d mentioned that they were going near the home of the Lady of the Lake.

“Oh, I’m sure Bryony tried,” said Ruby. “They’re both very young, though. The young don’t have the same understanding.” And she had the cheek to glance at me. “To them, Isaac was just an old man.”

“He wasn’t that old!” I found myself saying.

“There was a gap,” said Ruby distantly. “Selena certainly couldn’t bridge it. She was stiff with him. Strained, even.”

“Selena,” said Griff, with a note of enquiry.

“The Lady of the Lake,” supplied Muriel. “Do you remember her?”

“Of course I do! We saw her in that long wet coat! Oh, yes!”

Unable to stand this, I swiftly said, “Shall I bring my things in, Ruby? Which room do you want me to have?”

“Just pick a dormitory,” Ruby said dismissively. “Any of the smaller ones.” No, she definitely didn’t want me here.

I lugged my bags upstairs and stuck my head in every cold, pale bedroom. I thought they might have been spruced up by now ready for the weekend’s arrivals, for Good Friday was only a few days away: but dust lay greyly bunched under the bunks and hazed the windowsills.

I picked the smallest two-bunk room partly for reasons of diplomacy but mainly because it felt the warmest – or rather, the least cold. It was narrower than my old prison cell, and less well-equipped. Since there was only one tiny cupboard, I emptied my bags on to the bottom bunk and slid my art box and sketchpads underneath.

Then, hearing a curse from down the corridor, I walked along it to the studio – stopping to ponder Ruby’s large, nude portrait on the way – and peered through the half-open door. There was Russell, still besmocked, dabbing discontently at a picture clipped to his easel. He looked just as ridiculous as before, and the studio looked even more alluring.

“Hallo, Russell,” I said.

His head jerked up. “What? What?

“Hallo. I’ve just moved in.” I took a couple of steps into the room to see what he was painting. If it was a landscape, it was a weird one: I glimpsed a clump of close, black, netted lines before he lunged in front of it.

“For fuck’s sake! Can’t you see I’m working?”

“I only came to–”

“Get out! Out!

“Sor-ry!” I said, shocked into sarcasm. He snatched something from the table and threw it at me. It hit me on the stomach and rattled down onto the floorboards. A tube of watercolour: Ivory Black.

Since I was a guest here, I just dipped my head in apology and backed out. No wonder Isaac couldn’t stand artists if Russell was all he had to go by. Though maybe I did Russell an injustice: I might have caught him in the throes of genius. Genius my Aunt Sally, said a voice inside my head, as snappy as a sheepdog.

I snook back downstairs, where the other three were drinking coffee out of Ruby’s bumpy home-made mugs. Muriel and Ruby seemed to be having a cosy chat about local delinquency. I wondered if I’d been used as an example. Certainly Ruby’s manner chilled as I walked in.

“I took room 7,” I told her. “It’s fine, thanks. I might just pop round to the farm to see how Bryony’s getting on.”

“Good idea,” said Ruby coldly. “She could probably use some help.”

Which you’re obviously not prepared to offer her, I thought, not the way you offered it to Isaac…

That snappy dog again. I admonished it silently. Ruby is a generous person, I scolded myself, and Russell is highly talented, whereas you, my girl, are just a bitch.

“Muriel?” I asked. “Would you and Griff like to come over to Staithwaites farm with me?”

Muriel looked at Griff, considering. “No,” she said. “On the whole, I think not.” Griff himself showed no reaction. So I left them to it and made my way across the field on my own.

Bryony was in the back barn with Jimmy Airey and half a dozen fat and restless sheep. She came out when she saw me.

“First lambs born today,” she said. “All twins. It’s going to be a busy couple of weeks.”

“Will Selena help?”

“Selena? You must be joking. The whole process revolts her.”

“I can try and help out if you like,” I said, although the snappy dog inside me promptly yapped, you? I did my best to ignore it. “I’ve just moved in at Raven How for Easter, so I could always come round if it’s not busy there. Mind you, I don’t know owt about pregnant sheep.”

She smiled tiredly. “Well, that’d be good, but I think Ruby has other plans for you.”

“Does she?”

“Going to get you cleaning the whole place out, she says. They have a soft life in those prisons. She’ll find out what hard work is. That’s what she says.”

“So Ruby told you about me.”

“Yes. I don’t care. Forgery’s not like robbery, is it? Nobody gets hurt.”

Although I’d told myself this many times, I found myself arguing against it. “Somebody might have. I’d just never know.”

Bryony shrugged. “It’s nothing to me. But I think Ruby’s going to keep her beady eye on you.”

“Oh, great.”

“Yeah, she’s a bit of a sergeant-major, is Ruby, for all her crystal healing and that. I don’t think you can help me with the lambing. But there is actually something else you could help me out with, if you really want.”

“Sure.”

“Come inside.” She led me into the house. The old dog lay on the tattered kitchen hearthrug: when I bent to stroke him, his ears barely twitched.

“I’m trying to clear out Isaac’s room,” Bryony explained. “Selena isn’t interested, she says she doesn’t want any of it, it’s old man’s gear. So it’s down to me to sort it out, and I’m short of time. A bit of help would be great. I doubt if there’s anything of value, but if there’s any personal stuff, I think it ought to go to his sister in Melbourne.”

“What sort of personal?” I asked with some dread.

“Family letters, photos, anything like that.”

She led me into the polished hall, past the clock and the long metal chest which took on a sudden malignance as I realised it was a gun safe. The gun Luke had turned on himself… Everything is against me. There’s no place left.

Bryony was marching on up the dark stairs, which creaked meaningfully, sending secret messages to each other. The landing smelt of mildew. A dying peace lily drooped in a pot, the sad partner of the one wilting downstairs on the dresser. She went into a bedroom.

I didn’t want to follow. I was already seeing multiple imagined Isaacs, trudging up the stairs, hand on the banisters, turning through a doorway. I didn’t want to see him lying on the bed.

I’d forgotten Carol. The bed had a double dip worn into it: the imprint of her ghost, next to his.

“Does anybody sleep here now?” I whispered.

“No. Selena’s still in the front room, and I’ll be in the cottage for a few more weeks. It’s not booked till May.”

The room was faded, with grubby wallpaper and tired curtains, their wavy hems inexpertly tacked up. On the dressing table were a dusty bottle of aftershave and a tube of homeopathic arnica ointment, unsqueezed, which I suspected was a gift from Ruby. A massive Victorian wardrobe stood with its doors open, drab coats displayed within, no Narnia. This was all there was left of him. Black bin bags were strewn on the floor.

“I was going to sort his clothes,” said Bryony, “when the lambs intervened. Suits and anything decent go in one bag for the charity shop. Underwear and anything worn out in another, for chucking.”

I swallowed. “Shouldn’t Selena…?”

“She won’t. Says she can’t sleep properly with all his stuff around the house. She’s spooked. Says she can feel him.”

“Where is she, anyway?”

Bryony just spread her hands with exaggerated resignation. “Who can say? Off on one of her jaunts, I expect. You don’t mind giving me a hand with this, do you? It’s just that I’m going to have so little spare time…”

I could hear her anxiety. “I don’t mind,” I said. But I did.

After she departed, I began to finger through the clothes dangling limply in the wardrobe, pulling out hangers one by one. It seemed a dreadful liberty: one that surely Isaac would find mortifying.

But Isaac cared about nothing now. And the heavy woollen jackets and creased shirts I unloaded from the rail were poor, inadequate shadows of him, unbearably depressing. He had three suits, all ancient, with old-fashioned lapels. One bore a poppy in its buttonhole. Two tweed jackets, one streaked with whitewash. Shirts frayed at the collar and cuffs.

I began to fold them and decant them into bags. They all had an unfamiliar smell: soap, wool and something else. This was a horrible job. I had loved Isaac, but I did not love his clothes.

After the wardrobe I moved on to the dressing table. The top drawer was even worse. I dragged pyjamas and underwear out as fast as I could, in slithering coils, and jammed them into a second black bag.

The second drawer was slightly better. No underwear. Bottles of sunscreen of varying degrees and ages: I stood them next to the vintage aftershave on the top. A pile of old labels and receipts going back donkey’s years; a leaflet on sheep dip. I put them in the bin. Anti-fungal cream, aspirin, a whole untouched blister pack of tablets called something I’d never heard of that had me flummoxed until I saw the name on the prescription label. Carol’s, dated March two years previously. He’d never had the heart to throw them out.

And inside a carrier bag, a small jumble of ladies’ clothes. A lilac blouse, a printed t-shirt with a Spanish slogan. More of Carol. I had no image of Carol, the woman who had married the man I had improbably loved for a few days. A photograph underneath the clothes was no help. It was from the eighties: she looked young, pretty and fashionable for her time with that dark puff of hair, holding up a small, worried child who was presumably Luke. Now also dead. The whole lot of them, dead. The thought disheartened me so much that I had to sit down on the floor.

Eventually I tipped out the bottom drawer. More photos, mostly Luke in various sizes, acquiring as he grew a dark and dreamy sullenness, his sensuous mouth downturned and long hair flopping carelessly over one heavy-lidded eye. A wedding: Luke solemn in a navy suit and Selena smirking in a veil. On one flank, Matt stood expressionless, while on the other, Ruby leaned too close to Isaac. No sign of Russell.

I piled the photos in an empty shoebox from the wardrobe. Next were a couple of blood donor certificates – Isaac was A positive – and a letter to Carol from the hospital asking her to rearrange a missed appointment. A father’s day card with a fisherman on the front, love from Luke inside. I wondered if Isaac had ever had time to go fishing. A few MOT certificates of the old, outdated type. Did tractors need MOTs? – but on closer inspection, they were blank. Which was odd, but since the Melbourne sister was unlikely to want them, they went in the bin.

Lastly a paperback: The Poems of RS Thomas, which I had not read but which appeared on a superficial flick-through to be full of dour Welsh farmers. Isaac’s bedtime book, I thought, with a twist of my heart, until I noticed the smudged stamp on the flyleaf – Orrest Community College, Windermere – and the enigmatic, elegantly pencilled words: To Luke, son of Iago Prytherch.

That was it. Only an ancient scrap of paper was left, folded in the corner of the bottom drawer. I opened it and found a letter written on thick, dirty paper, in the old-fashioned slanting style of someone taught Proper Handwriting long ago at school.

A thank you letter. “Dear Mr Staithwaite,” it began.

“We wish to thank you for your hospitality during our delightful stay at Borrans Rigg. Nature has blessed your abode with a splendour unequalled even in these parts” – despite my gloom, I laughed aloud at that sentence – “and of all the ‘Souls of lonely Places’ I have beheld in my long Travels, a more majestic view has seldom been imparted to me. I remain, Your most grateful Servant.”

Your most grateful servant, a pretentious twonk, I thought; until I read the signature.

Wm. Wordsworth.

Fake, I thought immediately. But I sat up straight and read it again. Almost certainly a fake. A scruffy effort. The ink was brown and blotchy. The content was uninteresting. Why not a line or two of poetry? That would make a fake worth having. And what would an original Wordsworth letter be doing buried in Isaac’s ugly 1960s dressing-table?

I went slowly down the murmuring stairs, out of the dark stillness of the house to breathe in the bright pungency of the yard. I found Bryony and Jimmy Airey in the barn attending to a sheep who was making a strange groaning noise.

“Bryony? How long have the Staithwaites lived here?”

She pushed her hair back, looking strained and young. “I don’t know. Quite a while, I think.”

“Not as long as us, according to my old man,” said Jimmy. He had a faint lisp. “We’ve been here longer. He’s very proud of that. We’ve got 1692 carved on our lintel. I always tell him, anyone could have done that, but he swears it’s genuine.”

“1692?”

“Probably,” he said, cheerful and unbothered. “He reckons the Staithwaites can’t beat that.”

“But they could have been here in the early eighteen hundreds.”

“Oh, sure. Almost certainly.”

“Is there any documentation from back then?”

“What do you mean?” asked Bryony. “Do you mean deeds? I imagine Isaac’s lawyer has those.”

“Okay,” I said, and left them to it.

Upstairs, I read the letter again. The writer was still a pretentious twonk, in my opinion, but I was no longer so sure that it was a fake. I was prejudiced, I thought, by my own history, which gave me the expectation of fraud everywhere.

The door banged downstairs. I put the letter together with the photos in the shoebox and carried them down into the kitchen. Selena was there, kicking off her boots. She sat down in Isaac’s chair and held her stockinged feet out to the tepid range. The old dog heaved himself off the rug and slunk away.

I approached her cautiously, mindful of our last meeting in the lane. She looked tired and dejected, rubbing at her brow with languid hands.

“Hallo, Selena. I just called round and Bryony suggested I should clear out Isaac’s room. I don’t know if you want to look through his things.”

She pulled a face. “No way! Why would I? Old man’s leavings. I had enough of that with all Luke’s stuff. I kept the clothes, and threw the rest away. What’s the point?” She sounded depressed.

“You might be interested in this letter. I found it in Isaac’s drawer.” I held it out.

She glanced at it briefly. “So?”

“No, but read it! Look at the signature.”

Selena pushed it away. “I can’t read that scrawly writing. You read it.” So I did, while she sat listlessly unimpressed.

Wordsworth,” I said. “You’ve heard of Wordsworth? At school? I wandered lonely as a cloud?” I felt a tweak of pity for poor Wordsworth, remembered by so many people, me included, chiefly for that one short poem. As if I were to be famous only for one minor painting. You should be so lucky, growled the snappy dog inside me.

“Yeah, I think Luke might have told me about that letter once,” Selena said. “I’d forgotten. Is it worth anything, then?”

“It could be, if it’s really Wordsworth’s. What do you want to do with it? Do you want to check it out?”

“Christ, I don’t know,” said Selena wearily. “Can’t you do it?”

“Well, I could try if you want. Are you all right?” I asked her cautiously. “Been somewhere nice?”

She heaved a huge sigh. “Just out. Looking at people.”

“Looking at people?”

“To see what makes them real.”

That again. She was play-acting. I leaned against the range to study her.

“So what makes you think that you aren’t real, Selena?”

“I feel sort of empty,” she said, staring at the rag rug. “Like I’m just made of skin and clothes and nothing much inside.”

She wasn’t play-acting. “That’s no great surprise,” I said more gently, “considering everything you’ve been through. You’ve had a rough few months. But things will get better.”

“How? How will they get better?”

“Time helps everything,” I said. I knew it was a lie. “You’ll get used to coping with it. You won’t forget Luke, but it will all get easier.” Hah! said the snappy dog, a snarky counterpoint to the listless one now hiding underneath the table. Are you sure about that? Getting easier for you, is it?

“I can’t get used to it,” said Selena quietly. The clock’s tick was louder than her voice. “I can’t forget. I can’t forgive.”

“Forgive who?” Did she mean Luke, for dying? Or Isaac, for not being sympathetic enough? “Who do you mean, Selena?”

“Nobody.” With a dismissive gesture she sat up straighter and fixed me with those deep, demanding eyes. “When are you going to paint me again, Eden?”

“I don’t know. I’ve got lots of other things to think about just now.”

“But you must! You promised me, remember?”

“When I get time,” I said, “I will. But right now I need to get to back to Raven How. I’ll be busy helping Ruby for a while.”

“You going to paint Ruby?” she asked with a sudden flare of jealousy.

I had no intention of painting Ruby. Nevertheless, I didn’t want Selena to get the idea she held exclusive rights to me. So I casually replied, “Why not? She used to be an artist’s model.”

Selena’s lip curled. “You mean like in that big painting with all her bits hanging out? It makes her look a right slag.”

I was taken aback by her distaste. “That’s not true. It’s a good picture. And Ruby’s been very kind to you.”

“Kind? She’s like a bloody social worker, with her Now now and her Let’s not tell tales!” Selena’s eyes flashed. “I could tell you a tale or two! If you knew what Ruby did, you wouldn’t want to paint her!”

Leave it, warned the snappy dog: she’ll say anything when she’s riled. I ignored it.

“Why? What did Ruby do?”

“Come here.” Selena beckoned with a crooked witch’s finger. When I came close, she caught my hair and pulled my head down to the level of her mouth.

“Get off,” I said.

Her breath buzzed in my ear. “What she did to Carol. The two-faced cow. She was poison,” her voice said, like a fly inside my head. “You just ask Luke.”

“What?” I tore myself free. “What did you say?” Just then Bryony came marching in and I had to clamp my mouth shut.

“Who’s doing tea?” demanded Bryony. Selena sighed and got up to drag a bag of potatoes out from under the sink. I hung at her elbow.

“You heard,” she said.

“I didn’t.” Had she said Poison? Or poisoned? I wasn’t sure. Who was poisoned? Ask Luke what? How could I ask him anything?

“How did you get on with the clothes?” said Bryony.

“All bagged and labelled on the bed.” I looked at Selena, but she was mute. I’d thought Selena was in awe of Ruby; I’d thought she liked her. This sudden vicious outburst rattled me. I didn’t believe a word of it. Poison? I felt like she was poisoning me.

So I said goodbye to Bryony and walked out, taking the Wordsworth letter with me. First the birth certificate, then this. It had to be a fake too. The world was full of them. And as for Selena and her accusations, she was just one big attention-seeking fraud. The biggest of the lot.

When I reached Raven How, Muriel’s car had gone and there was no-one around. I went upstairs to my tiny dormitory to sort out my meagre piles of clothes. Then I got out my sketchbooks and looked through them. I’d done no sketching since his death. The one time I’d started, I had to lay the brush down, too heartsick to continue.

The only answer was to compel myself to paint. There was no point waiting for inspiration: it never struck unless I got it in a corner and poked it with a brush. Painting would take my mind off Isaac and Selena’s crazy accusations. I thought with longing of the relative warmth of Russell’s studio. If I was very quiet, perhaps he wouldn’t mind…

I carried my sketch book out into the corridor. The sound of raised voices brought me up short outside the studio door.

“Well, then, you should have said no!” That was Ruby, loudly vehement. “Why do you think I left it up to you?”

An indecipherable rumble came from Russell in answer.

“I do not leave everything up to you!” cried Ruby hotly. “The courses wouldn’t run without me. Who does all the bookings, and the housekeeping, and the meals, I’d like to know?”

Russell’s voice rose. “At least you don’t have to teach a bunch of bloody morons! Blathering on about light and shadow when they don’t have a fucking clue.”

“Well, that’s why they come!” said Ruby in exasperation.

“And I wish they bloody wouldn’t!” Russell snarled. I tried to tiptoe away, and froze on a creaking floorboard.

Ruby’s answer covered the creak. “Well, for crying out loud, how else are we going to subsidise your painting?”

“Maybe you could get a job for a change,” retorted Russell, “instead of swanning around with your herbs and candles and fucking crystals pretending to heal the fucking world.”

“That’s–”

“All your pills and potions couldn’t save Isaac from the bull, though, could they? They couldn’t stop him being crushed like an egg.” There was a jeering malevolence in his voice. “You couldn’t help your sad old farmer in the end. Any more than you helped Carol!”

“Oh!” There was a crash. Another water-jar, or something bigger. “I suppose you wish I was dead too!” Ruby yelled. A roar. Another crash.

At that I fled, hurtling down the stairs as quietly as I could and into the kitchen, where Delilah was cutting herself a piece of carrot cake.

“Hallo, Delilah. Good day at school?”

“Very good, thank you,” said Delilah politely. “It’s the Easter holidays, actually. I’ve been on an athletics course.”

“That’s nice.” I could hear muffled shouting through the ceiling. “Track or field?”

“Both,” said Delilah, “but my best event’s the long jump.” There was a thud upstairs. She raised her eyes. “I’d better go and tell them I’m in.”

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“No, I’m good, thanks. It’s always a bit fraught before the courses start. It gets on top of Mum, and Russell’s not really into cleaning and that.”

“I see. Well, I’m here to help out now, anyway.”

“That’s cool,” said Delilah kindly, and wandered out, cake clutched between long black fingernails.

I burrowed in the pantry for the Hoover, carried it upstairs and began to clean my bedroom thoroughly, including mattresses and curtains as my mother had taught me. When it was done, I unplugged the Hoover and dragged it out into the hall. The banging and shouting had ceased. I plugged it in again, quickly, and began to loudly vacuum all the other rooms in case the fracas started up again.

I didn’t like the shouting. It reminded me of prison: those belligerent flare-ups, the yells of rancour echoing down the corridors. My parents had never shouted, not loudly anyway. Nick had never shouted, not even when he learnt about my long deception, which I had never thought of as deception, merely as expediency. Instead he went quiet and remote. During the nine interminable months of the police investigation he grew ever quieter and remoter: and when finally that nightmarish gestation ended with my trial, he packed his things and left.

Nick never visited me in jail. He wrote to me informing me why our relationship was over. I can’t stay with you, he said. I don’t want to have children with you. I can’t commit myself to a. It won’t, it isn’t, you haven’t. I couldn’t bring myself to read it fully. All I knew was that Nick, having chosen me, had now unchosen me again.

No shouts. I’d rather he had shouted than left it to that mumbling letter. I hadn’t seen him since.

But one day, one day, I thought, leaning on the Hoover, Nick would ring my parents, ask for my address, knock on my door, hold out his hand. It couldn’t just end like this. It mustn’t. The longer the time since I had seen him, the more I felt myself dangling in mid-air, while the drop beneath me grew longer, deeper, darker.

I wanted Nick. I wanted somebody to hold. I paused in my vacuuming beneath the nude portrait, Ruby’s eyes gazing soulfully at something just beyond my shoulder. Ruby looked sexy, warm and comforting, saying Lie down here with me and you’ll be fine.

No wonder Hunter had admired it; it made me want to touch that luscious, luminous flesh. I ran a tentative finger along the curving thigh. But there was no smooth skin, just the slick, hard ridges of the oils, as deceiving as Snow White’s rosy apple.

And Russell no longer felt this way about his wife. He no longer painted her. For the first time, I wondered why.

Their marriage was a battleground. Russell was grey and bitter, while Ruby – according to Selena – was just like Snow White’s apple. Wholesome on the outside: and poisonous within.

 

Chapter Nineteen

 

In every marriage, I expect, one partner sometimes contemplates the death of the other and wonders if it will leave them better or worse off. In most marriages, I suspect, one partner cannot wait, at least occasionally, temporarily, in dudgeon or resentment or anguish, for the other one to just pop off and let them be themselves. Like a counterfeit coin, the public profile doesn’t quite convince. Turn it over and there’s frustration etched deep into it. I’d seen it on my mother’s face. Not Dad’s; but then he had the shed.

With Nick, I never got as far as marriage. Yet had we ever married, doubtless Nick would be thinking that way now. I can’t stay with you. I can’t have children with you. When I tried to ring him, he had changed his number. When I tried to find him, he had moved.

I thought of him as I sat on the Keswick bus, staring out of the window at the glorious wastes of Thirlmere, but searching for the flick of his hair, the corner of his smile. I couldn’t seek his face for long. It hurt too much. I made myself study the landscape instead: the ghosts of mist that slept along the water. A long rank of brooding pines slid out of sight behind me. The past was dead and gone. Keep it that way.

But what about Selena’s past? What sort of marriage could she and Luke have had? Not having known Luke, I found it difficult to guess. A barren partnership that lasted barely eighteen months. A marriage that started at a funeral and ended with a lonely gunshot.

Selena wore Luke’s clothes. She must have been attached to him. But I imagined marriage to Selena would have been unsettling: unless she was a different person before Luke’s death, and it was only his suicide that had unsettled her.

Skiddaw loomed, a grey whale of a mountain stranded above us as the bus chugged slowly into Keswick. I’d lost my confidence for that long ride on the scooter, especially now that the traffic was worsening and the car parks filling up. When I got off the bus I felt the town stretch itself, shrugging off the winter, unfolding its new spring plumage of brightly beckoning signs. The streets were busy, if not quite thronged, for the Easter crowds were beginning to arrive.

Freddie’s bookshop was not exactly thronged either. As I entered with a clang of the doorbell, I saw that I was the only customer. My heart sank. This was useless. I’d have to find another outlet.

Freddie knelt in the middle of the floor, surrounded by piles of books. Matt, standing nearby, glanced over as I entered. I glimpsed a barely-contained exasperation in his face. It took him a second or two to clamp it down: it was with an obvious effort that he greeted me.

“Eden! How nice to see you. Come on in! I’ll get the coffee on. We need a break. Just watch out for – oh, never mind, I’ll pick them up later. Freddie’s in the middle of weeding the stock. You know what he’s like for putting things away. Or not.”

I piled the toppled books back up into their musty tower. “Hi, Matt. Hallo, Freddie. I’ve brought a few more cards. I’m afraid I haven’t had time to do many lately, what with one thing and another. I suppose you’ve heard about Isaac by now.”

“Terrible,” said Matt. “Poor man.”

Freddie got stiffly to his feet. Shadowed lines were drawn across his forehead as if with the finest of charcoal sticks, which had then smudged itself carelessly around his eyes.

“Very upsetting,” he said. “A dreadful thing. Ruby told us. She was most distressed. Are you really moving in to Raven How?”

“I’ve moved,” I said. “Though I don’t think I’m very welcome. Ruby doesn’t really want me there, and Russell isn’t interested.”

“Well, that’s the general problem with Russell, isn’t it? But why doesn’t Ruby want you?” Matt enquired, quickly back to his usual dry urbanity. “I would have thought she’d be glad of the company.”

“Not company with a criminal record. She doesn’t want a jailbird in the house,” I said glumly, “especially one who’s recently been pulled in for suspected manslaughter. I can see her point.”

“Manslaughter?” Matt stared at me.

“Did Ruby not tell you that?”

“She only said that you’d been questioned. What exactly happened?”

Briefly I recounted my discovery of Isaac’s body and subsequent overnight stay in the police cell. “I can’t blame Ruby for going off me in the circumstances, even though the police say I’m in the clear.”

Matt’s lip had curled in disapproval. “What a shame.”

“A shame?” said Freddie.

Matt shrugged. “It’s just that I would have expected Ruby to be more charitable. It’s not as if she doesn’t know what it’s like to fall under suspicion.”

“How do you mean?”

“Oh, nothing serious,” said Matt, “but I believe there was some problem with the tax man a few years back. They hadn’t been declaring all their income.”

“I didn’t know that,” said Freddie. “How did you know that? Did Luke tell you?”

“No, you did, surely? Well, never mind. It was hardly major league, but then neither was your little enterprise in the art world, was it, Eden?” Matt said sympathetically. I liked that way of putting it. Not a fraud, not a crime, but an enterprise, something bold and original and dashing. “So you’re not under suspicion any more?”

“No. The police think it was an accident,” I said. “In any case, they’ve proved I reached the farm too late to be involved. I was too late to be of help as well, unfortunately. I think that’s the real reason Ruby’s so upset with me.”

“Poor Ruby,” Freddie said. “She was totally distraught.”

“Yes. She adored Isaac,” said Matt.

“I didn’t mean that,” said Freddie, glaring. “Don’t twist my words.”

“I wouldn’t dream of it,” said Matt quietly. He dived into the kitchenette.

“She was very fond of them both. Isaac and Carol. Carol’s death was horrible for Ruby,” said Freddie reprovingly, as if it was my fault. “I remember she looked absolutely shattered. Isaac’s death will have brought those feelings back.”

“What about when Luke died? Did that affect Ruby the same way?” I asked.

“She wasn’t close to Luke.” Matt’s words floated out mingled with the clinking of the mugs. “Different generation. And I don’t care what you say, Freddie, Ruby was very fond of Isaac for his own sake, not just Carol’s, though how far she took it I don’t know.”

“Why would you know anything at all about it?” asked Freddie peevishly. “You said you never went there.”

“I don’t think I said that,” said Matt, coming out with mugs of coffee. “Here you are, Eden.” His face was set as if the air had stretched tight round it. I didn’t know what was going on with him and Freddie, but I felt for him. As he handed me the mug I touched his fingers in a small gesture of pity; he flinched before giving me a brief, reluctant smile.

“So. They say that Isaac’s death was just a tragic accident?” he asked.

“Of course it was,” snapped Freddie.

“Unless the police change their mind,” I said.

Matt caught at something in my tone. “You’re not convinced?”

I shrugged.

“For God’s sake, Matt,” said Freddie, “she just said it was an accident. Leave the poor girl alone. She’s been through enough.”

Only the hardening mouth showed Matt had heard. “Why was there no-one else around at the farm?” he asked me.

“Bryony was at the doctor’s,” I said. “I suppose that’s easy enough for the police to verify.”

“And Selena?”

“Selena said she was shopping in Keswick, but she’s got no means of proving it. She says she’s lost the receipts.” I kept my voice as level as I could, although I doubted the existence of those receipts.

Matt stared at me. “But I saw her. She was just coming out of a shop on Victoria Street.”

“Was she? Which one?”

He ran a hand over his hair. “I’m not sure. About half way up: it might have been the sweet shop. But it was definitely her. That enormous coat of Luke’s, yes? And that must have been around eleven-thirty: no, about quarter to twelve.”

“Did you talk to her?”

“No,” he said ruefully. “I waved, but she didn’t see me, and I didn’t have time to go chasing after her. I’d only popped out for some milk: I didn’t want to leave the shop for long because I was on my own. Freddie was out at that house clearance in Carlisle, weren’t you, Freddie?”

“Any good?” I asked Freddie.

“Not very,” he said dampeningly.

“No art materials for sale there, I suppose?”

“None, I’m afraid.”

“So Selena can’t have been involved,” said Matt. “You’d better tell your nice policeman friend. Or maybe I should go down to Ambleside and have a word with him myself? I do love a uniform.” He winked at me.

“For God’s sake,” muttered Freddie.

Matt rolled his eyes. “Freddie thinks all policemen are homophobes.”

“I don’t think that at all,” said Freddie crossly. “I just don’t see why you have to make that sort of stupid joke.” I felt the air pull tight again, and said hurriedly,

“I didn’t just come today about the cards, Freddie. Actually, I wanted to pick your brains. I helped Bryony clear out the farmhouse the other day and I found something that – well, I’m not sure what it is. Maybe you can tell me. Give me some advice.”

Reaching in my bag for a plastic wallet, I carefully took out the old, creased Wordsworth letter. I handed it to Freddie, who read it with a bored expression which quickly grew intent. He sat up with a jerk.

“Good Lord,” he said.

“It’s not genuine, though, is it?”

“Dear God,” said Freddie. “I think it could be. Dear God! The paper looks right.” He rubbed it between finger and thumb. “It has the right feel. The handwriting looks – feasible. What a pity it’s not dated.”

“May I see?”

Freddie handed the letter over and Matt held it up to the light. “Well. That’s interesting,” he said slowly. “I do seem to remember Luke mentioning a family tradition that Wordsworth visited the farm. Was there anything else with it?”

I remembered the sheep dip leaflet, the MOT certificates. “Nothing important. It was just stuck at the back of a drawer.”

“I wonder if Isaac knew what it was.”

“He must have known,” said Freddie. “For God’s sake, he wasn’t an ignoramus.”

“Then you think it’s genuine?” I asked. “Not a forgery?”

“I thought you were the expert,” said Matt with a sudden bitterness that shocked me. He drew a harsh breath, then slowly let it out again. “Luke wasn’t a forger. Not Luke. He didn’t do this.”

Recalling the clumsy scribble of the suicide note, I believed him: not a great one for handwriting, Luke.

“I doubt if Isaac did it either. But somebody else might have,” I said. “Would you have any signed Wordsworth editions in your stock, to compare?”

“I don’t know,” said Freddie. “Have we, Matt?”

Matt forced a smile. “If only.” He handed the letter back to me. “Our signed editions don’t quite aspire to those giddy heights.”

“If it’s genuine, how much would it be worth?” I asked.

Freddie pursed his lips. “A few hundred, I expect.”

“Surely more? I’d say at least a thousand,” Matt suggested.

“Maybe to the right collector,” said Freddie dubiously.

“Mind you, a thousand wouldn’t even cover the repairs to the farmhouse roof,” said Matt. “The place was a money pit, according to Luke. Anyway, my guess is it’s not genuine. Probably the work of some snobbish Victorian ancestor.”

“I don’t know why you assume that,” Freddie said.

“Because it seems the most likely solution. Otherwise Isaac would have done something about it.”

“I don’t agree. Why should he want to sell it off? It’s family history. I can’t authenticate it for you, though, Eden,” Freddie said, sounding put out. “You’d have to take it to the Wordsworth Museum for that.”

“If Selena permits,” said Matt. “I suppose it’s hers now, isn’t it? Along with everything else.”

“Probably.” With Freddie watching hungrily, I tucked the letter away in its plastic wallet. I was more inclined to believe in it now that Freddie at least had not dismissed it out of hand. It gave me a warm buzz: a piece of history nestling in my rucksack.

“If it turns out to be authentic, and you want to sell–” began Freddie.

“It’s not up to me. Here, I’d better give you these before I forget.” I handed over my pack of watercolour cards, which he took without relish, as a poor substitute for a Wordsworth letter. “By the way, Matt, do you remember any of the people who bought the last lot of my cards?”

He considered it. “Nobody especially. Tourists. Why?”

“Just trying to work out who my market is,” I said. “I’ll get some more done soon. I’d better go now, if I want to catch that bus.”

I thanked them for the coffee and departed. Matt followed me out of the shop onto the pavement. He still looked tense: as jumpy as a cat not knowing which way to pounce. “Eden? Are you going to the funeral tomorrow?”

“I don’t know. I ought to. What about you?”

“I will, if Freddie’ll let me.”

“I suppose if you both go, you’ll have to close the shop.”

“That doesn’t seem to bother Freddie. Unfortunately.” He hesitated, as if wanting to ask me something else. When he didn’t, I posed a question of my own.

“Matt? Don’t get this wrong, but… you know that house clearance in Carlisle. I assume you’re quite sure that’s where Freddie was on Monday?”

“Oh, yes,” said Matt gravely. “I’m certain. He brought a couple of crates of books back with him. Not a very inspiring lot, but still… Why?” He frowned. “Surely you’re not linking him with Isaac’s death? Do you really think it wasn’t just an accident?”

I shook my head. “No, I’m just being stupid.”

Matt studied me for a while, biting his lip. “Eden. Going back to that letter. There was nothing else there with it, then? Nothing…more recent?”

“Letters?” Matt winced, looking down. “Sorry,” I said compassionately. “Just old receipts and MOTs. I chucked them all away. And a book,” I added, remembering, “the poems of RS Thomas, an old school copy.”

Matt looked up, his mouth open. “My God,” he said, “Luke kept it? I’d forgotten all about it. He still kept that?”

“Inside, it said to Luke son of Iago somebody. Did you write that, then?”

Matt nodded slowly, disbelievingly. “Iago Prytherch. My God! I gave him that book, what? Twelve, thirteen years ago? I was studying it in sixth form. Luke had already left by then to work on the farm. I said to him, you must read this, it shows you everything you don’t want to be. Don’t slide into that trap of grinding drudgery: don’t be a servant hired to flog the life out of the slow soil. You’re better than that. You can do more.”

He was talking now to himself, gazing beyond me to read an invisible story written on the opposite wall.

“I wish he’d listened,” he said softly. “Ah, Luke. If only you had been different. A different sort of man, or not a man at all. You’d still be alive now.”

“Not a man at all?”

I saw Matt pull me back into focus. “If he’d been a woman… but the burden was on him, as the son, to carry on the family business, even though his heart wasn’t in it. He should have got out of there. He knew it: but he let his family pull him back again and again. He said he couldn’t leave his father in the lurch. He had too much of Isaac in him, too much conformity: too many scruples. His father’s son all right. That same deliberate, slow manner, that heavy grace…”

I had never before heard Matt reveal so much. I said, “You loved him.”

Matt’s head jerked back. His face closed, and it was a few seconds before he answered.

“Luke was my friend. There was nothing between us in the way that Freddie suspects. And that was years ago – a lot has happened since those days.”

“Selena, for one.”

“Indeed. She meant more to Luke than I ever did.” He was trying to speak normally, and not quite succeeding.

I pitied him. “She said that you helped her and Luke to get together.”

“Selena said that?” Matt stared at me. “When?”

“That’s what she told Freddie at the dinner party.”

He was silent for a moment. “Well… I certainly didn’t stand in their way. I could see that it was what Luke wanted. He was spell-bound by Selena. She can be very charming when she chooses.”

“Was she spinning a bit of a yarn, then?”

“What, casting me as a farmyard pimp? One of her fairy stories. She was probably trying to keep Freddie happy. Which takes some doing at present. No, no, forget I said that.” Matt brushed the remark aside with his hands. “Take care, Eden. I hope it works out at Raven How. Will you be visiting Selena, do you think?”

“I’ll have to. I’ve promised to paint her.”

“Well, best of luck with that! Just don’t believe everything she tells you. She’s been through too much for someone of her age.” He studied me gravely. “But you’ll understand that. You’re sympathetic. You’ll go easy on her.”

I muttered a non-committal answer. I didn’t deserve such praise. I hadn’t been very sympathetic to Selena when I mentally convicted her of Isaac’s death.

However, I’d done her an injustice, I reflected on the walk back to the bus. My suspicions were unfounded, if Matt’s timings were correct. Selena was harmless: well, relatively. She might be weird, and a stalker, but at least she hadn’t biffed Isaac on the head. She’d been buying sweets in Keswick, nowhere near the place.

But then who had been near the place? Who’d scattered mints around the shed? Who had dropped my painting there?

My painting, lying in the dirt just metres from where a man had died a violent death. Maybe Isaac had bought one of my pictures and then dropped it or thrown it away. I was prepared to accept that, unpalatable though it was.

But what about the mints? At the memory of that white scatter, a tingle travelled down my spine. The conjecture that I’d been avoiding took sudden shape and leapt out like a highwayman waving pistols.

I’d been set up. I had to face the likely truth: that somebody had set the scene to frame me, with a long white minty trail to point towards my guilt. And I had no idea who.

I looked over my shoulder. There was no-one watching me, but the prickle of my skin remained. On the bus it grew stronger, despite the obvious innocence of the passengers. Who could have done it?

Bryony’s suggestion – that Selena might have lost her temper with Isaac – had not been a pleasant one. Yet it had been an idea that I could comprehend: Selena panicking on seeing Isaac fall, throwing clues around to put people off her scent. It was the sort of thing I could imagine some of the girls in prison doing.

But now that image was erased, as though a familiar if unloved painting had suddenly gone blank. It was oddly terrifying. The hair on my head was lifting: I felt haunted.

The bus was coming into Grasmere. I jumped up and got off, glancing round again, in vain, to see who might have accompanied me. Nobody. I set off to the Wordsworth Museum, where nobody followed me either, although I felt twitchy all the way.

I’d been in the Wordsworth Museum a few times before to see its Turner, which had walloped me around the head like a gallon of gold paint and left me speechless and breathless. This time, the girl who took my money said the Turner was no longer on display. Probably locked in a vault somewhere to dazzle the steel walls. I climbed the stairs, pausing to gloomily admire the Mervyn Peakes, and found myself alone in the long twilit upper room with only whispering headphones for company.

I scrutinised the letters and manuscripts beneath their glass and took out my own letter to compare them, trying to use my artist’s eye. The writing looked pretty much the same as that in Wordsworth’s early notebooks, before it became hurried and illegible. I was no expert; but it was definitely possible.

At last I put away the letter, more carefully than I had got it out, and went thoughtfully back downstairs. I lingered over the watercolour landscapes. Surely Abbott made his Helm Crag a little steeper than it was in reality? And Towne, my favourite, gave the rocks of Elterwater a stylish symmetry which I was sure they never had. Elegant fakers, the lot of them, I thought affectionately, as I went through to the shop.

“Um, do you have anyone here who could authenticate a Wordsworth letter?”

The girl’s eyes widened in alarm. “I expect it could be arranged. I could ring the Jerwood centre…” Her hand reached for the phone.

“No, no,” I said hastily. I wished I hadn’t asked. “It’s just on behalf of a friend, just in case…It’s hypothetical. Don’t worry.” I felt her eyes staring at me all the way out of the shop. What was I thinking of? A convicted forger waving a Wordsworth letter around, asking for authentication?

Asking for trouble. Ever since I forged those Holbecks, I’d been asking for trouble. No wonder it followed me around. It was getting closer all the time, waiting to ambush me. I stuffed the letter deep down in my bag, and went to stand and shiver at the lonely stop until the next bus home.

 

Chapter Twenty

 

I dithered about the funeral. At first I wasn’t going to go at all, but then I changed my mind at the last minute and drove down to Hawkshead on the scooter, ten minutes behind Ruby and Russell’s car. I slipped into the church and saw Hunter sitting a few rows from the back.

“Mind if I join you?”

“Why shouldn’t you?”

“Your reputation.”

“Oh, sit down,” he said impatiently. I sat and looked around at the murmuring pews crammed with sombre farmers and their wives.

“Big crowd,” I said. “For a man with no family.”

“All these families have known his for generations,” said Hunter, and I glimpsed Isaac striding away from me across the long dim fields. I’d been of no more importance to him than a momentary breeze ruffling the grass.

Hunter had been right: I never had got close to him. I would never know him now. As I thought of Selena’s veiled, uncertain accusations against Isaac and Ruby, a queasy wave of apprehension rippled through me. Poison.

I craned my neck to see Selena. She was sitting at the front, looking dramatically widow-like with a black scarf draped over her head, and accepting condolences with a solemn grace. She seemed to be the target for them: I supposed there was nobody else, except Bryony, hunched and uncomfortable in a black jacket that was too tight on the shoulders.

Matt and Freddie sat across the aisle a little further down from me. So they were both there after all, despite the shop (and who was selling my paintings? I thought tetchily.)

I leaned over to Hunter. “Matt said he can give Selena an alibi. He saw her in Keswick shortly before noon on the morning Isaac died.”

“I know,” said Hunter shortly. “He rang us yesterday. Larry said, so what? We knew that. It was accidental death.”

“Isn’t that up to the coroner?”

“He’ll go with whatever the pathologist says. And he maintains that Isaac’s injuries are consistent with an accident.”

I was silent for a moment. “I’d like to believe that. Selena said something weird to me the other day. It was about Ruby. She said Ruby poisoned Carol. Or was poison, or something.”

He turned, eyes narrowing. “Well, which was it?”

“I don’t know. It wasn’t clear. She said to ask Luke.”

He snorted, quietly. “That’s a really useful piece of advice. What made her come out with that?”

“She was cross with me for not painting her. She wouldn’t elucidate.”

Hunter shook his head. “It’s all pretence.” His eyes turned towards Ruby, who was already wiping her eyes with a bright pink handkerchief. Meanwhile Russell sat ramrod-straight, staring at the altar.

I reflected that Hunter was probably right. It wouldn’t be the first thing Selena had faked. “What will happen to Selena about her birth certificate?” I asked.

“Larry Irlam’s prepared to issue a caution as long as she sorts it out.” Hunter’s tone told me he didn’t approve. “Not in the public interest to prosecute, he says. He buys the poor little widow thing. I don’t.” We watched Matt get up and walk down the aisle to embrace Selena with careful gravity, at which she beamed complacently. She was enjoying all the attention.

“He’d make a good minister, Matt, wouldn’t he?” said Hunter in an undertone. “One of those trendy ones, all talk and no God. Gay, too, Perfect.”

“Careful. Freddie’s apparently already convinced you’re a homophobe.”

“No, I’m not.”

“Just a misanthrope, then.”

“I have few delusions, that’s all,” said Hunter. “Russell’s a cold fish, isn’t he? Ignoring Ruby like that. She’s in tears, and all he’s doing is staring round at other people.”

“Just like you.”

“I do it unobtrusively,” said Hunter. He was happy. In his element.

I wasn’t. I hated this: I didn’t want to be here. And once the coffin was carried in, with too many flowers, under those white walls with the red and blue of the stained glass trumpeting at me, I couldn’t stand it any more.

“Sorry,” I said to Hunter. “I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” he whispered sternly. “Avoiding the funeral won’t make him any less dead.”

I shook my head. The cold of the church was pressing through me. Hunter jerked his head impatiently towards the door. I slid out of my pew: the truth was, I was afraid I would cry, and didn’t want to do it in public, not with Hunter, not all over his uniform again. And Isaac, that quiet, private man, surely had enough people watching him. As I crept to the back of the church, I was surprised to see Muriel and Griff sitting there. Muriel gave me a little wave.

In the churchyard I breathed in gulps of mild, damp air. Birds gossiped in the trees. I leant on a gravestone and got my hankie out, although the tears didn’t come even when I thought of Nick.

A woman walked up to me. Long, sensible skirt, face kind behind her silver glasses. A churchwarden or whoever.

“Are you all right, dear?”

“I’m fine,” I said. “Thank you.”

“Funerals aren’t easy times, I know.”

“No.” I dabbed my eyes unnecessarily. “Do you keep a record of all the funerals you’ve had here?”

“We do indeed.”

“So would you have a record of one that happened almost two years ago? Around the end of May,” I said, recalling Carol’s death certificate.

“Somebody you know?”

“Carol Staithwaite,” I said. “The wife of–” I gestured dumbly at the church.

She made sympathetic noises. “Yes, I do seem to remember. Very sad.”

“I just wanted to check the date,” I said, and while I was still mumbling about anniversaries and flowers, she led me through a little side door, said “Wait here,” and returned a moment later with a fat, business-like ledger.

“We should really charge for this,” she said with a compassionate glance at my face, “but in the circumstances… let’s just see.” She leafed through the ledger. “Here we are. May the twenty-ninth.” The minister boomed through the wall. There was muffled coughing.

“Can I look?” I asked her.

She pointed to the page obligingly: but the entry I looked at was not of Carol’s funeral service, but the one immediately before it, the previous day. The funeral Selena should have gone to, when she turned up at Carol’s by mistake.

John Skelton of Satterthwaite. Only the two funerals had taken place that week.

“Thank you,” I said. Then I managed a trembly hiccup, got my hankie out again and used it as an excuse to escape her kindness.

Back out in the churchyard, I stood looking across the village, the church beside me as square, grey and comforting as a grandmother. It would not approve. I walked down into Main Street so that it would not hear.

I got out my phone and dialled directory enquiries: Skelton, Satterthwaite, Cumbria; and jotted down the number.

When I rang it, an old woman’s voice answered. “Irene Skelton.”

“I’m sorry to disturb you,” I said, “only I’m trying to trace an old friend, Selena Crabbe, and I believe she used to know your family.”

“Selena what? Selena Crabbe? We don’t know anyone of that name. Winnie!” I heard her move the phone away to call. “Winnie, do we know a Selena Crabbe?” Her voice came close again. “I’m sorry, I can’t help you.”

“A dark girl, very striking, in her twenties? I understood she was invited to John Skelton’s funeral.”

“I’m afraid not, dear. It was a very quiet funeral. Our father was ninety-seven when he died, you know. There was only family there.”

“I must have the wrong Skelton,” I said, and ended the phone call in a torrent of mutual apologies.

So why had Selena turned up at Carol’s funeral? She hadn’t known Carol: she hadn’t known John Skelton. But her presence there had changed her life, and Luke’s.

Nobody went to a funeral by mistake. It gave me a creepy feeling, as if she’d been a persistent ghoul hanging around the gravestones, just waiting for a likely victim to happen by.

When I saw Griff and Muriel strolling down the road towards me, I greeted them with relief.

“I thought we’d better come away,” said Muriel. “It was all too confusing. We don’t need to stay for the whole funeral, do we, Griff?” She patted his hand.

“We didn’t even know the man,” said Griff, looking faintly baffled.

“He was a friend of a friend, Griff… Like Eden. This is Eden. I thought we’d stroll around the village for a while. Will you join us?”

I accepted, although Hawkshead is a disappointing village, in my opinion. Attractive buildings, but the churches and the pubs are the only ones with any point. The shops were overrun with Peter Rabbit and his accomplices. We stood and looked in a window at jumpers appliquéd with cross-eyed sheep, which Griff happily mocked, the funeral forgotten.

“Who would wear that, really? Could you see me wearing that at home, Muriel? Why do people buy these things?”

“They have a sheep fixation,” I said gloomily.

“People get carried away on holiday,” said Muriel. “They’re hoping to take a piece of it home with them.”

“That’s what I rely on,” I admitted. For I knew that was the reason the tourists bought my watercolours: to own a small rectangle of magical calm, a window on a purer world. They hoped to acquire health with the new hiking boots, serenity with the watercolours, and culture with their copy of Dorothy Wordsworth’s journals (how that woman walked!) – all of which would be, once home, unused, unread, unbearably remote.

Griff was typical. For all his gentle joke about the jumpers, he was carried passively along on that dreamy holiday drift like a floating log surrounded by Beatrix Potter teapots. Our confrontation on the top of Loughrigg had vanished out of sight downstream.

Not so Muriel, though. Hassled and busy, she was working: like the hoteliers, delivery drivers and all the rest who had to cope with the tranquillized herd. Griff gave her little respite.

“We’ll have to go back to the church soon,” she instructed him. “I said we’d meet up with Ruby after the service, and find a tea-shop.”

“Who?”

“A friend of mine,” said Muriel. “A friend of Freddie’s.”

“Oh, yes, Freddie! He’s a nice chap, Freddie.”

“So is Matt,” said Muriel. On Griff’s face, incomprehension, so she turned to me. “A clever young man. I’m surprised he stays up here, in a way.”

“I suppose it’s a bit of a backwater,” I said.

“Love,” said Muriel, her face wistful. “Love and obligation. They lead one down roads that one wouldn’t otherwise choose. And Freddie rescued Matt, you know, when he was down on his luck.”

“Did he?” I didn’t know the full story.

“Yes, when Matt was manning an antiques stall in Liverpool, two years ago, and Freddie was there looking for old books. Quite a romantic story, really. Freddie bought a book off him and then bought him a drink. Matt liked him at once but thought he’d never see him again. Then a few weeks later Matt’s business went kaput and he came back up to the Lakes, hunting for Freddie, asking around until he found him. And Freddie took him in.”

“Sweet.”

“Though I think positions are reversed now. I get the impression it’s Matt who keeps the shop afloat,” said Muriel. “He’s the ambitious one. He plans ahead. It was Matt who started up the internet sales. Freddie’s not really much of a businessman, is he?”

“Not really,” I said ruefully. “When did you learn all this?”

“Freddie rang me up the other day and asked me to go for a coffee. He obviously had things on his mind. He’s rung me once before, wanting advice about Matt, but goodness! To be honest I have no experience of gay couples and their problems.”

“Well, I should think not!” said Griff.

“Not that he was telling me about anything – you know,” said Muriel modestly. “But he sounded so upset that I thought I’d better go and chat to him. Actually, it was on that day you met Griff on Loughrigg. I feel I owe you an explanation. I was out of the house for longer than I’d intended.”

“Loughrigg?” said Griff. “We met on Loughrigg?”

“That’s all right,” I said. “But is Freddie okay?”

“Well, I don’t know. He seems totally distracted,” said Muriel. “He obviously thinks Matt’s about to leave him but I have no idea why. He seems to have no idea himself. He just says Matt’s withdrawing, but it’s all very unclear. I wanted to say, well, Freddie, perhaps you should consider going on a diet? And cutting back on the alcohol? It’s not just the shop that’s going downhill, you know. I did wonder if Freddie had been drinking.”

“When did we meet on Loughrigg?” persisted Griff.

“Ages ago,” I said, “don’t worry about it. I know what you mean, though, Muriel. Sometimes I suspect he’s got a whisky bottle hidden in the bookshelves.” That might well account for his querulous tone the other day, and why Matt was so obviously under strain.

“I’m afraid I wasn’t much use as an agony aunt,” said Muriel, “but I do hope they can sort it out. I noticed that police sergeant of yours turned up today. Is he a close friend?” She was sniffing with kindly curiosity for a romance, so I said,

“No, not very,” as the phone in my pocket began to ring.

Griff stared at me. “That’s the telephone,” he said. “Is that the police?”

“I doubt it.”

“Have you been following me? What police sergeant? What’s going on?”

“Come along, Griff!” said Muriel heartily. “We need to get back.” She took his elbow in a firm hand and steered him round, marching him towards the church as I answered my phone.

It was the Ruskin Hotel. They wanted me to go for an interview the next day: I made the arrangements distractedly. After finishing the call, I walked slowly after Griff and Muriel, lost in thought.

Have you been following me? Griff had said it almost as if he remembered being pursued by me across Loughrigg, telephone in hand. Yet surely that was impossible. Apart from the odd aberration of the Lady of the Lake, his memory was closed to new impressions. Wasn’t it?

I stopped by the church wall to watch the mourners spilling out. Selena, leaning on the minister’s arm, looked beautifully downcast. Russell was glowering at Ruby, who had obviously been in tears again. Far from trying to comfort her, he snapped out something which I couldn’t hear but could lip-read as, “Oh, get a grip!”

Ruby closed her eyes. Hunter surveyed her for a few seconds, then went up and with a gentler manner offered a protective arm for her support.

I wasn’t needed. My presence added nothing. Suddenly desirous of solitude, I didn’t bother staying for the rest. Instead I went to fetch my scooter and buzzed along the winding lanes past the top of Coniston Water, whose clean grey surface, as always, made me think of the bodies it once hid: the violently killed, lost for so long in its depths. To get away from them, I rode the scooter too fast back to Raven How.

The house was quiet and empty, Delilah having jumped on the bus to Bowness to meet her fellow-Gothlets. I gathered my paper and paints and carried them to the studio, determined to do some work while Russell wasn’t here to glower at me. Even if I was confused and wretched, at least I could still paint. I had to paint, or what else was I good for?

So, arranging my gear in the north corner of the room, I sketched the landscape through the biggest studio window. The crown of hills wasn’t as spectacular here as from the farmhouse, but I cropped and adjusted until I found a fragment of the view that worked, and then set up my little factory of four A6 sketches, the scene pencilled in with the faintest of lines.

The moment I loved best: the comforting ooze of colour from the tubes. The promise that everything was possible. The whole world was waiting to be remade, lying in those thin, translucent, question marks of paint, if only I could get it right.

I laid a warm grey wash of French Ultramarine and Burnt Sienna. Blotted away the clouds, deepened shadows, each one subtly different, let the wash dry a little before using a damp mix for the trees. My usual tree stuff – I didn’t need to check through the window. A hint of light here: blotting away again. More shade on numbers three and four.

I laid them down to dry and mooched around the studio, looking at Russell’s work, flipping through the pile on the rack and the makeshift portfolios propped against the wall. His landscapes were technically adept, I had to admit; painted with great skill – but it seemed that every scene had been done in winter, even those showing trees in full leaf. They were grey, scoured, cowering before the storms: a winter of the soul, if not of nature. Why would Russell paint such persistent bleakness, I pondered, if – as was evident – it didn’t sell?

I untied the cord of the next portfolio and opened it up. These were portraits in pen and watercolour: Ruby. So he did still paint her. They were harsh, the lines of age and care mercilessly exaggerated, giving her a censorious frown. There were full-length studies too, clothed and otherwise, highly competent but without any of the passion of The Nude Ruby out in the corridor.

I tied them back up again, disgruntled. They were still better than anything I could produce. Why couldn’t I do portraits? Why did they always die on me, turn flat and wither away?

I returned to my factory. A streak of sun here: a little lilac shadow there – lilac always seemed to sell pictures, I don’t know why. What about a hint of rainbow? Would that be too naff?

Suddenly I swept my arm in a gesture of disgust that blew all four of them off the table. They frisbeed across the room: one skidded right beneath the cupboard.

What was I doing this for? Was this it? Was this what I had set out to achieve, all those years ago when I decided I was an artist? Was this what I had hoped for when I first saw Isaac framed by hills and experienced that rare, breathtaking epiphany?

I leant against the wall with my head on my arms. That didn’t help, of course. It just made me feel like a bad actor. Moping is pointless. It only puts off the moment of necessary action.

So I raised my head and set up my paints again. The moment of action was now, quickly. I took up a large sheet of cold-pressed that was already stretched and taped to its board. I laid the wash again with steady, even strokes. I wanted the outline to melt into it. The shapes from my notes, the colours from my memory. The mountains rising like a growl at the sky. The luminous, turbulent clouds, the face developing beneath them as inevitable as the rain, blurring into the landscape. I damped and blotted in a careful frenzy in case the moment disappeared.

Which it did, all too soon. I heard the car rattle up outside.

Putting the brush in water, I took up my board and hurried to my room to push Isaac’s wet half-painted face beneath the lower bunk. The door downstairs slammed as I returned to the studio to tidy up, remove the traces of my presence, picking up the scattered factory-pieces, diving under the cupboard for the last one.

There was something else there, in the dust: the edge of a sheet of paper was visible, standing on its end. I stood up and looked round the back of the cupboard. I would never have spotted it hidden there against the wall. It was just within reach of my finger ends, so I tweezed it out.

“Hells bells,” I said, staring at the clump of close, black lines.

It was a portrait of Selena: not just head and shoulders this time but full length. She lay on a bed, entwined with fine black slashes, criss-crossed like a fish in a net. What were they? Close-fitting cords, tattoos, or just the act of an imaginative brush?

Beneath them, she was naked, doubly naked, because Russell had taken care that they should hide nothing, only emphasise her breasts, her hips. Close to pornography, it had none of the juicy allure of Ruby’s portrait: it was as scratchily, blackly furious as Russell’s recent landscapes. It made me nervous. The more I looked at it, the worse I felt: panicky, fearful and angry. Selena’s legs were parted, and so were her lips, in a sulky pout.

There were footsteps in the hall. Sliding the paper back into its hiding place behind the cupboard, I picked up the last of my belongings. Then I closed the studio door behind me as silently and carefully as if it held an unexploded bomb.

 

Chapter Twenty-one

 

 

Next day I had my interview at the Ruskin Hotel. A starched manageress, new since my last stint there, looked me up and down as if I were a piece of clothing she didn’t really care for but might consider buying if it was sufficiently cheap.

“I see you’ve got a criminal conviction.”

“Yes. When I contacted you before, you said it wasn’t necessarily a problem.” The you was a hopeful generalisation.

“Hmm. I don’t think we could employ you as a chambermaid: we have to consider the feelings of our clientele.”

“I’ll clean the common areas,” I said. “Toilets. Wait on tables. I don’t mind. I’m versatile.” I tried to look bright, humble and conscientious all at the same time. I could tell it wasn’t working.

So I emerged into the cosy glamour of Bowness with my expectations low. She wasn’t going to offer me a job. I wandered the streets dejectedly, eating chocolate in a vain attempt to get my spirits up. No mints. I’d gone right off them.

When my phone rang, ten minutes later, I expected it to be the Ruskin again, with dismissive regrets: but it was my mother, terse and hurried. On the phone she always gave the impression that she wanted to dash off to deal with something more important.

“Where are you now?” she said.

“Bowness. I’ve just been for an interview at the Ruskin Hotel.”

“I thought you had a job,” she said, “that painting course thingy.”

“That’s only short-term.”

“I’ll be surprised if the Ruskin takes you on,” she said. “They’re quite choosy. So what’s the name of that place you’re living?”

“Raven How,” I said patiently.

“Nick’s been in touch.”

I stopped dead on the pavement. Two shoppers collided with me. “What! Why? How is he? Is he all right?”

“He sounded fine. He wanted to know where you were.”

“What for?” I was breathless.

“So he can get in touch with you, I imagine,” she said reasonably. “I told him I wasn’t sure of your address or new mobile number. I thought I’d better check with you first. He’s going to ring me back.”

I stood there like a stunned cow. Nick had rung. Nick wanted to talk to me – he wanted me back. Why else would he contact me now, after all this time?

“Give him my address,” I said. My heart was leaping around wildly in my chest. “Why didn’t you give him my number? Give him my number.”

“Are you quite sure?”

“Of course I’m sure!”

“Eden,” said my mother, and I could hear her feeling her way with unaccustomed delicacy, “don’t read too much into this. It’s been a long time. And consider, sometimes the past is best left in the past.”

The past is dead and buried. But I didn’t want it to be, now. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I said belligerently.

“He might just be getting in touch through curiosity,” she said. “Or good manners.”

I didn’t believe that. Nick did nothing without a goal.

“Are you all right, Eden? Is everything okay?”

“Yes,” I said, and rang off before I lost my voice altogether. Then I walked down to the lakeside and watched the boats tilting and bobbing in the water, knocked this way and that at the whim of the wind. Far out on the lake, the waves twinkled, alive with promise, snatching brief sparks of sunlight from the chilly sky.

Nick wanted to get in touch. My mind flew back to the time we’d first met at that student party: Nick cheerful, handsomely tousled, always ready with a joke, eyeing me up and down in much the same way as the Ruskin’s manageress, but with a good deal more appreciation.

When my phone rang again, I fumbled and trembled in a panic to press the right button. For a horrible moment I thought I’d cut him off. For that must be Nick. He must have rung straight back. He couldn’t wait.

It wasn’t. It was Hunter.

“I’ll make it quick,” he said. “I’ve got a mountain of paperwork sitting on the desk. Car theft: you can tell the season’s started.” He paused. “Are you there?”

My throat had closed up with disappointment. I could hardly get the words out. “Yes, I’m here.”

“Okay. That poison thing. A load of rubbish, like I thought. Selena’s just fantasising because she’s got it in for Ruby. Forensics did a tox screen on Luke’s body, looking for alcohol or drugs. He’d had a drink, but not much. That was all.”

“What about the rest of the family?”

“Isaac next. Nothing showed up there. So then I went back and checked on Carol’s death. There was an autopsy, not strictly necessary because her death was clearly due to breast cancer, but they were surprised at the speed with which it had advanced. Anyway, they did their own tox tests and came up clean.”

“No poisoning, then.”

“Quite the reverse. When I say clean, I mean clean. No drugs of any kind. Nothing. Not a dicky-bird.”

It took me a few seconds to catch on. “But surely she’d be on all sorts of medication? I found some of her tablets when I helped Bryony clear out Isaac’s room.”

“What were they?”

“Exe-something.”

“Exemestane?”

“Yeah, could have been. I threw them away.”

“Unused tablets should be taken to a pharmacy,” said Hunter. “The hospital concluded that she’d taken herself off her medication. It probably only made a few weeks difference, mind you. Months at most. Maybe she’d just had enough.”

He paused, but I could think of nothing sensible to say.

“Are you still there?”

“Yes,” I said. “Thanks. See you later.” I couldn’t get my head round Carol and her tablets. All I could think about was Nick.

As I trundled home to Raven How on the scooter, my mind was back in that crumbling bedsit we once shared; in that ancient, lumpy bed. A wonder we didn’t have bedbugs. I remembered it so clearly: the iron-shaped scorch mark on the table-top, the smell of burnt dust from the electric fire, the black flower of mould that blossomed behind the sink. We didn’t care. It was all romantic because we were in love. It was romantic until Nick got his job, anyway, and had to buy shirts and needed a proper wardrobe to hang them in, and the dust and mould and lack of an ironing board lost their glamour.

And when was I going to get a worthwhile job? he said. I shouldn’t waste myself just waitressing, he said, I should use my talents. He didn’t want me to grow embittered and unfulfilled. But using my talents wasn’t earning me any money: until I met Lionel. So when I sold my first MacLeish to Lionel, I was triumphant. The wodge of dirty notes in my purse proved me worthy of Nick’s love.

Now I willed him to ring. He didn’t. My mobile sat in my pocket like a stone.

When I got back to Raven How, I walked into the kitchen to find the air was thick with a heady, musty, stifling scent. Ruby was making candles, dipping them by their wicks, one by one, and hanging them from hooks on a clothes airer to drip onto newspaper on the kitchen floor. The smell gave me an instant headache.

“For the course this weekend,” she explained. “Freshly made, the scent is so much more intense.”

“Certainly is,” I said. “Why don’t I finish cleaning out the dormitories?” I wanted to stay in her good books, since I seemed unlikely to get onto the Ruskin’s books at all.

“All right. Just three rooms will do. We’ve only got six people coming this weekend.”

That wasn’t many. I’d been expecting more – surely Raven How could sleep twenty people in its eight dormitories? I was counting in my head as she continued, “Four women and two men. They can share.”

“Are you sure that’ll be all right with them?”

“They can share,” repeated Ruby, with iron in her voice.

“Okay.” I took the bucket and cloths and Hoover upstairs and cleaned out all the rooms, because the guests might not want to share, or might like to have the choice at least. I wiped down paintwork and polished windows with a critical guesthouse owner’s eye, something which had evidently not been applied to them for a while. Rifling through the linen cupboard for towels, I failed to find any that weren’t threadbare, faded and pink. The bedding wasn’t much better. I used the most presentable to make up two beds in each cell. But that was what they still looked like: cells.

I ran down to Ruby. “Are there any new towels? And the rooms could do with brightening up. Have we got spare vases? Pictures?”

“Oh, yes,” said Ruby. “It’s all in there.” She pointed a toe at a low kitchen cupboard. It was full of clutter, mostly home-made. Gathering together the least objectionable pots and less chipped vases, I washed them at the sink before placing them artfully around the rooms. Then I ran down to the road to pick an illegal armful of daffodils and stuffed them in the pots.

When I finished the last room I stood back to survey it. It was sad. It looked like a prison cell that belonged to a junkshop proprietor. But Ruby, when she came to inspect, was pleased. I returned to my own cell with the feeling of a job well done, and saw my phone, which I’d left on the bunk, winking at me to let me know I’d had a text.

I snatched it up with shaking fingers. It could have been waiting there for hours. I stared at the message, reading the words over and over again until they finally made sense.

“Meet in drunken duck car park 6 pm to talk about future love N”

I had to sit down on the lower bunk and take deep breaths. Nick. At last. Love Nick. Did he mean that love? What was he going to say? What was I going to say? The future – did he mean our future? Come back to me. Please, God, let it be, please, my love, Nick. I’d do anything.

I put my head in my hands. It was well over a year since I’d seen him. What would he think of me, now? Thin and scruffy and straggly. I hadn’t had a haircut in months.

I jumped up and ran to the meagre bathroom where I showered and washed my hair. Then I dried it, tied it back, shook it loose, tied it up, let it down, put on a black top, took it off, put on most of my other tops, took them all off, realised it was half past five and frantically pulled on the jumper I’d first thought of, ran out without any explanation as I passed Ruby, climbed on the scooter – the helmet promptly squashing my careful hair – and belted off to the Drunken Duck at Barngates, where I arrived fifteen minutes early.

Its two car parks held five cars between them, all unmanned. The pub was miles from anywhere in the midst of knolled and spinneyed pasture straight out of the Tale of Mr Tod. I went in: no Nick, so I came out again.

I stood at the lonely crossroads and watched the cars go by. They were sparse: about one per minute. I promised myself that the third car would be Nick. All right, the sixth. All right, the ninth–

The ninth car swerved into the lower car park and pulled up. Only it wasn’t a car, it was a small white delivery van, and when I ran down to look the driver wasn’t Nick: he was older, middle-aged, with a leather jacket over his paunch and an unlikely moustache. I was turning away when he said,

“Eden.”

I turned back.

“You are Eden?”

I found my voice, though it didn’t sound like mine. “Are you a friend of Nick’s?”

“I’m a friend of Dawn’s. You remember Dawn. From Her Majesty’s holiday camp, right?” His moustache smiled.

“Where’s Nick?”

“No idea, love. He gave us your number. I’ve got a message from Dawn.”

“What do you mean? Where’s Nick?”

“Nick isn’t here,” he said, patiently, as if I was stupid, “there’s only me. Dawn sends her love.”

“Why?” I said blankly.

“Fond memories. She’s still inside. But there’s a little something she’d like you to do. In return for past favours, like.” He reached into the passenger side of the van and pulled out a long cardboard tube, the sort that posters come rolled in.

“What’s that?”

“It’s a painting she’d like you to copy for her. Don’t worry, it’s nothing under the table, it’s just a picture she’s taken a fancy to and she’d like her own version on the wall. A photo isn’t the same, she says, it needs a decent artist.” He tapped the tube. “There’s a colour photocopy in there for you to work from. And some special paper.”

I just looked at him. Something was thundering through my head: my future without Nick, probably, my hopes all galloping away.

All I could think of to say was, “Did you talk to Nick?” It came out as faint as a cobweb. He ignored it.

“Dawn says you’re a bloody good artist. But you know that, don’t you? She wouldn’t bother otherwise.” He held out the tube to me.

“I don’t want it.” I put my hands behind my back.

The moustache pouted. “No? That’s not very friendly of you. Dawn saved you a lot of grief in the nick, you know. This is your chance to say thank you.”

All I could hear was the word Nick. All I could do was shake my head, and keep on shaking it.

He nodded. “She said you’d be cautious. Quite right too. Terrible shame what happened to you in the past. You wouldn’t like it to happen again, though, would you?”

“What do you mean?”

He took out a smartphone and began scrolling until he found what he wanted. Then he held it out with a flourish. I saw a photo of a painting. Rae Bridge, by Antony MacLeish: by me. The one that was hanging in Latrigg Galleries.

“What’s that?”

“I think you know,” he said. “That’s quite a price.”

I didn’t know what to say. I had turned dumb and imbecilic. He put the cardboard tube into my hand.

“There you go. Don’t sign it. It’s for Dawn’s personal use. All above board. We’ll be in touch. We’ll text you.”

He started back to his van, then stopped. “By the way, don’t bother trying to ring us on that number. It’s one use only.”

“Wait! Did you speak to Nick? How did you get hold of him? How is he?”

“We traced him through your lawyer. He didn’t want to talk about you, I’m afraid.” The moustache crinkled for a moment. “Not until I told him I was your new probation officer.”

“But did he give me a message? The text was signed from N!”

“N for Nobody,” he said, got back in his van and revved the engine hard. I had to jump back as the van swung out of the car park and was gone.

I was left there with the tube held between thumb and forefinger like a stick of dynamite. I knew what I should do: dump it and leave. Go straight to Latrigg Galleries and confess to how I forged their masterpiece, go through the whole rigmarole of accusation, proof, contempt.

The police questions. The files reopened. My licence revoked. Could they bring me back to court again, with this new evidence? Would it mean a longer sentence, or a whole new prosecution?

Either way, I was pretty sure I’d end up back in jail. And Nick would definitely never, ever come near me. That would be the end.

I couldn’t own up to it. Rae Bridge was hurting no-one. I’d hold Dawn off. How, I didn’t know: but I’d think of something.

I stared down at the tube. Eventually I prised the plastic stopper off the end, slid out the contents and unrolled them.

The photocopy wasn’t of a landscape. It was like nothing that I’d painted since my student days: an abstract with blotches of unmixed colour – red, brown, moss green – hemmed in by thin, urgent lines. A bit like a Kandinsky. It glowed attractively in the early evening light. The blank watercolour paper wrapped around it was dense, rough-pressed, slightly yellowed: old. A single sheet. No room for error. That was optimistic.

The whole thing was optimistic. I wasn’t going to do this, not for anybody, certainly not for Nobody. Love Nobody. That love meant zero.

I rolled the paper up and replaced it in the tube. Then, rather than litter the Drunken Duck’s undefiled surroundings, I tied it to the back of the scooter and gave it a ride home.

 

Chapter Twenty-two

 

I pushed the tube deep under my bunk. There was no need to consider it yet anyway. I couldn’t do anything about it over Easter.

So I tried to forget its presence while I finished cleaning the conservatory and polished a year’s grime from the windows, making the hills leap in. I blew the dust off crystals on the shelves and set Ruby’s candles there to waft their heady scents throughout the building, hoping to cover up the smell of cooking pulses which had draped itself round Raven How like wet cardboard.

On Friday afternoon the guests arrived. All six of them were over fifty; two pairs of women, two single, unaquainted men. None of them had been here before, but Ruby greeted them like long-lost cousins and showed them proudly round the place which looked even shabbier to my eyes now that I was seeing it through theirs, but which at least was clean. Russell stayed out of the way.

They took up five bedrooms between them. They admired the daffodils, poked around the scrubby herb garden and drank Ruby’s herbal tea without enthusiasm. They showed more enthusiasm as they tucked into her lamb tagine before trooping into the living room, where Russell gave them what Ruby fondly described as his Preliminary Pep Talk. But then, she didn’t stay for it.

It was a shocker. A few dim slides on one of the screens – with a projector that didn’t work properly, and no black-out on the windows – a dismal drone about materials, with illegible notes on a flipchart – and then Russell just wandered off out of the room and left us all wondering if he was coming back.

“Is that it?” said the most voluble man, who was called Ed.

“I certainly hope not,” said the most voluble woman, who was called Gaynor.

They all looked at me.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s my first time here too.” We waited a few more increasingly painful minutes before I decided that Russell wasn’t going to reappear and I sure as hell wasn’t going to go and try to drag him back.

But I couldn’t just leave the class in limbo. So I told everyone to pull their chairs into a circle, and got them talking about why did they paint, what did they paint, and where? They were happy to talk about themselves, as most people are, given the chance.

What did they hope to cover on this course? I asked, and made a big list of answers on the back of the flipchart. There was enough there for a year. Colour mixing. Composition. Use of Pen. Light. Trees. Buildings. Water. Clouds. Russell was going to hate me.

Russell was very good at clouds, I told them, taught me everything I know, which was broadly true. He’s got a bit of a migraine at the moment, I offered, and they all tut-tutted sympathetically and then drove off to the pub.

I went back to the kitchen to find Ruby. She was stirring a small vat of something purple: I wasn’t sure if it was food, dye or more candles.

“They seem a nice enough bunch,” I said. “Is Russell all right? He disappeared rather quickly.”

“Oh, he’ll be fine,” she said. “He never enjoys the first evening. He’ll get into the swing of it.” She reached tongs into the vat and pulled out a length of dripping towel. “They’ll be like new. Lovely colour, isn’t it?”

“Mm.” I hoped they wouldn’t turn our clients purple.

Russell marched in, looking stormy, and headed for the coffee pot.

“Are you okay, Russell?” I asked cautiously. “They seemed to expect a bit more, so I made a list of topics that they’re interested in. I hope you don’t mind. I told them you had a migraine.”

“Have you, Russell?” Ruby looked up. “You shouldn’t be drinking coffee with a migraine! Hang on, I’ll give you a tablet.” She began to scrabble in a drawer. “What about an Indian head massage?”

“I don’t need anything,” said Russell grumpily.

“With chamomile. You know it always used to help your headaches,” Ruby said solicitously.

“I don’t have a sodding headache!”

“Here, take one of these.”

He took the pill she offered him and threw it violently into the purple vat.

“Don’t do that!”

“That’s all they’re bloody good for!” he said. “Don’t you know by now? Oh, I forget, you’re never wrong. Heaven forbid. Are you?”

And he stamped out, leaving his coffee behind. I dried the dishes and said nothing. Ruby dabbled in her dye. A few minutes later I heard the faint clink of a bottle in the lounge.

“Will he be all right tomorrow?” I ventured at last.

“Oh, God, yes. It’s just first-day nerves. Strangers, you know. He has to expose himself. It’s hard, for an artist.”

I said nothing. I hid my face in the plate cupboard, trying not to giggle.

The next morning was fine and bright. A cool clarity settled on the hilltops: it was one of those days when you could see all the way to Scotland and the Isle of Man from the right viewpoint. Russell did not appear at breakfast, but after it he turned up, to my relief, with two armfuls of battered easels, and led the class outside, dotting them peremptorily along the lane with their sketchbooks to sample the views. They began to paint.

I went along too, in case Russell wanted errands running, and did a number of thumbnail sketches that might be turned into cards. I was thinking that perhaps I should try vignettes rather than panoramas. The Lonely Hut, or the Solitary Sheep. With an umbrella.

Meanwhile Russell was peering over shoulders, grunting and criticising. He snatched people’s brushes off them without so much as a by your leave, to show them how it should be done. I wondered at the pupils’ deference. If he’d grabbed my brush off me like that I would have stuck it up his nose.

He came up to me, peered and grunted.

“Cliché,” he said. “You’re not meant to be painting.”

“What would you like me to do?”

“You’re meant to be helping out here!”

“Sure, if people want help.”

“Of course they want help! That’s what they’re sodding here for!”

I put down my brush and said loudly, “Anybody who wants help, let me know.”

“Jesus!” said Russell.

Gaynor put her hand up. She couldn’t draw that line of hills, there were too many of them, too big an area and she didn’t know where to start.

“Let’s divide it into segments,” I said. I gave her a mount to hold up at arm’s length as a frame, and showed her my thumbnail sketches. She didn’t grunt “Cliché!” She began to do her own, in the bright greens and browns that Russell had just criticised.

“Excellent,” I said. Her friend Meg started copying the idea. So did Doug and Jenny. Russell humphed and grunted and grabbed brushes to try and draw people’s thumbnails for them.

“It’s such a beautiful landscape,” said earnest Meg despairingly after a while. “It’s so hard to do it justice.”

Ums and Ahs of agreement. “Everyone feels that way,” I said. “Overwhelmed by beauty. You can’t capture it all. But you can capture a part.”

“Hah!” said Russell. “Beauty? Beauty is superficial. It means nothing. If you could paint what lies beneath this landscape it would be as miserable and ugly as an inner city slum.”

“So what does lie beneath?” asked Ed, who had a certain bulldog truculence.

“Disorder and decay,” barked Russell. “This beauty that you think you see” – he swept a careless hand around, making Gaynor’s easel wobble – “is as deceptive as a painted woman, all sumptuous flesh on the outside and cruelty within.”

“A painted woman?” inquired Ed. “Wetherlam?”

“A masquerade.”

“So what are those sheep masquerading as?” demanded Gaynor, who I think saw herself as feisty.

“Beauty is an illusion. It conceals the truth: and truth is raw and dark and disappointing,” Russell growled.

“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” said Ed surprisingly, “that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

I was impressed. “Is that Wordsworth?”

“Keats.”

“Where is it now, the glory and the dream?” snarled Russell. “That’s Wordsworth.” And then he launched into a full-blown rant about Shades of the Prison-house of which I couldn’t follow a word, although Ed and Jenny seemed to, and polite though they were, would not let go unchallenged. Quotations flew around like pigeons trying to crap on the opposition in a well-mannered war.

I think Russell lost. At any rate, it ended with him compressing his mouth and saying nothing for the next half-hour.

After that he began to lob out rasping, caustic interjections now and then at the artists’ sketchbooks, like half-bricks thrown into a goldfish pond. By the time we shuffled in for lunch, I had a pulsing headache.

“It’s not going too well,” I said to Ruby in the kitchen.

“Is it not? Just put those bread rolls out for me, will you?”

“Russell’s not in a very good mood.”

She raised an unconcerned eyebrow. “So what’s new? And the salad.”

“They’re not very happy,” I said. “Have you got any paracetamol?”

“They’re here to learn,” said Ruby firmly. “Some people aren’t good at that. If they can’t accept what Russell has to teach them, that’s their problem.”

“Yes, but…” Ruby, however, was already striding past me with the vegetarian meat-loaf.

Russell sulked over lunch and Ruby got sharp with him. It put a damper on the guests’ conversation, and they grew wary, ready to be disgruntled. It wouldn’t take much to turn them to rebellion. Ruby gave me a bottle of headache pills. They were homeopathic. It began to rain.

So after lunch we trooped into the cold conservatory where I remembered painting all those years ago. We pushed the chairs and screens back into the same positions as nine years previously and admired the same view through the glass: almost the same clouds, whole mountain ranges of mauve and grey building themselves in the sky, a Cumbrian speciality.

“Jesus,” said Russell forty minutes in when nobody knew what they were supposed to be painting. He hadn’t told them. “I’m buggered if I’m doing this any more.” And he walked out, again.

This time they all looked straight at me, expectantly, with a distinct hint of threat. They’d walk out too if I didn’t do something.

“Okay,” I said, “more migraine, I expect. We’ll make a fresh start. Let’s try a few warming up exercises,” and I dredged up some activities remembered not so much from art school as from primary school: drawing with eyes closed, without looking at the paper, taking a line for a walk. Fun stuff to make them relax and laugh.

Meanwhile I went and fetched the best of Russell’s old paintings off the walls, and then used them to give a talk about clouds and light: Russell’s original talk from nine years ago, which had impressed itself so deeply on my mind. Clouds are never white. Anything but. Clouds are shadow and reflection: a mirror, a window, a thought. It sounded like bobbins when I said it, but they listened courteously.

Then they dutifully copied me as I demonstrated: a wet-in-wet wash of Cerulean Blue in the palest of layers, as faint as a whisper: sponge out, then introduce hints of Alizarin Crimson or Raw Umber. We painted lots of clouds with different values, with two colours at a time, no white paint allowed, let the paper shine through.

I was careful not to grunt at all but to praise everything worth praising, which in Doug’s case was a lot. The others were a mixed bunch of happy amateurs but he, the most silent, had both skill and a good eye.

Russell did not reappear. Ruby came in half way through with tea and biscuits and crept out again without comment. When I sensed they’d had enough of clouds I switched to trees and told them all my Usual Tree Stuff. How to give form by editing the trunks and exposing the branches, how to use damp mix, how to mottle the foliage with cow gum erasers. Giving away all my tricks and cheats. Then we put trees and clouds together into imaginary landscapes and produced a few efforts that their friends might admire; so by teatime, they were fairly happy.

I was knackered. My headache was worse and my throat was sore from talking. For the first time in years I felt some sympathy for Greta: for I had only six people to keep on track, while she had thirty-three.

The artists went off to loll around before dinner. I went to help Ruby cook it. I felt drained: emptied of myself. Peeling potatoes was all I was capable of.

“Where’s Russell?” I asked.

“He’s gone to pick up Delilah.”

“I had to do nearly all that session on my own.” I tried to keep the whine out, but it crept in regardless.

“You seemed to be coping,” Ruby said.

“Will I have to do the same tomorrow?”

“Russell will be here tomorrow,” said Ruby firmly. Her face was flushed. It might have been just the heat of the oven. She was cooking chicken with lentils and coriander. “I do appreciate your efforts, Eden,” she added rather stiffly. “Russell’s not usually this… unreliable. But he’s under quite a bit of stress right now.”

“So am I,” I said. “Those tablets you gave me didn’t work. Have you got any real painkillers?”

“They work for me,” said Ruby sternly. “You probably have too many toxins in your body.”

“I know. That’s why I need paracetamol. Or ibuprofen would do.”

“We don’t use either in this house.” She piled peppers in a roasting tin. “I can give you some essential oils if you like. Lavender’s very good for stress.”

“I’d rather tackle the cause,” I said.

“Paracetamol won’t do that,” said Ruby with reproof. “All it does is fill your body up with chemicals. You shouldn’t dismiss alternatives: they help you cope. They helped poor Carol. I just wish I could have persuaded Isaac that they could help him too.”

“I don’t think homeopathic tablets would have saved him from the bull.”

Ruby leant on the table. I saw she was unhappy. “That’s what Russell says. He seems to think it proves something. But it was the stress Isaac was under, don’t you see? He was careless. He grew clumsy. That’s why he fell: he’d lost his balance in every way, emotionally and psychically. I could have helped, if he would only let me. Selena was no emotional support at all.”

“She had her own problems to cope with,” I said.

“Well, perhaps.” She sprinkled salt on the peppers. “Selena is a dear girl, but very young for her age. Sometimes she’s almost infantile. She tells lies, you know. She told me Bryony was having an affair with Luke. Dumpy little Bryony! Imagine!”

“Mm,” I said.

“And she implied that Isaac was trying it on with her – as if he would! Selena tells some dreadful tales, you know, things that couldn’t possibly be true. Honestly, she sees sex everywhere. Very odd considering what her life with Luke was like.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, she and Luke didn’t have a sex life.” She slammed the roasting tin into the oven. I didn’t really want to hear about Selena’s sex life, but Ruby went on, “They didn’t sleep together most of the time, you know. She was averse to sex. Luke slept on the sofa. Isaac was quite worried about them. He asked for my advice.”

“What advice did you give him?”

“I told him that Selena was immature and possibly inexperienced and afraid of sex, but that time and a loving husband would put that right.” Ruby sighed. “In the end, though, there wasn’t time.”

“And was Luke a loving husband?”

“Certainly. He was also a depressed husband.”

“Maybe things would have been different if Carol hadn’t died.”

“Don’t remind me,” Ruby said. She paused, the oven glove wrapped tight around her hands which she clasped to her chest. “Isaac rang me that morning. Carol hadn’t slept, he said, she’d felt ill all night. Restless and moaning. He wanted to take her in to hospital. She didn’t want to go. While we were still discussing it, she died.”

“My God.”

“When I went over, I could hear Luke screaming all the way. That was the worst day of my life.”

I’d had plenty of those; but nobody had died. Today’s trials were nothing, I told myself, compared to what the Staithwaites had endured. Just a passing glitch.

None the less, I hoped that Ruby was correct, and that Russell would be there next day.

Although he showed up for the class next morning, one look at his face made my heart sink. He was monosyllabic as he glanced at the previous day’s efforts. At least he didn’t snort too loudly.

Then he propped up one of the early works I’d used to demonstrate his skills, and told everyone to copy it.

Gaynor immediately objected. “That’s not what I came here for!”

“You can learn a lot from copying,” said Russell sourly, “as Eden knows. And earn a lot from it as well. Isn’t that right, Eden?”

“Up to a point,” I said warily, my heart beginning to thump in case he elaborated; but then Ed started to object as well, and the others tried to get their quietly disapproving pennyworths in, until finally Russell threw up his hands.

“I’ve had it!” he announced. “You do it, Eden. They’re all yours. You’re the bloody expert now.” He charged out of the living room, but this time reappeared a minute later with Ruby charging him back in.

“Don’t you dare!” she cried. “You’re not dipping out of this one!” She paused, momentarily, to flash a reassuring smile at the group before switching it off again and turning back to Russell. “Just do your job!” she hissed.

“This is NOT my job!” thundered Russell with all his old, leonine authority. “I did not ASK to do this job. You VOLUNTEERED me for this job, and I have never had a CHANCE to get off the bloody sodding TREADMILL ever since!”

“Let’s go outside,” I suggested brightly to the group. “Let’s do buildings this morning, shall we?” They all obediently trooped out after me with their gear, shell-shocked as children who had just witnessed their parents fighting.

Subdued and studious, we positioned ourselves a safe distance from Raven How and observed the stonework. It was a picturesque enough old building, despite the obvious joins where new bits had been tacked on to the original: I pointed them at the most paintable feature, the solid doorway with “J.S.1778” inscribed above the top. But I don’t think they were really looking. While I rabbited on about perspective, barely aware of what I was saying, they weren’t listening either, what with Ruby and Russell’s shouts firing through the open conservatory windows like the cracks of a whip. Hate and slave and duty were being lobbed sharply to and fro, swift grenades of words.

A sudden shower of small pellets clattered on the glass. One came through the window: it was an oil pastel. A sketchbook sprawled itself against the pane and fluttered downwards like a stunned white bird.

A moment later Delilah came out to join us. “I’d rather be out here than in there,” she said. Her mouth was turning down.

I immediately declared, “Brick! That’s what we need! Enough of stone. I know where there’s some very paintable brickwork. Just follow me,” and I set off, leading the group across the field towards Borrans Rigg and its breath-taking backdrop.

“This farmhouse belongs to some friends of mine. I’m sure they won’t mind us visiting for a little while,” I told them as I clambered over the stile and entered the farmyard.

They loved it. Six variations on “Look at that view!” were breathed in awe.

I could see Bryony in the back field, which seemed to have grown a new crop of wobbly lambs, but nobody was in the yard except the old, lame dog; so I stationed the artists round the place with instructions not to try and paint every individual brick. They settled to contented, murmuring work. I wanted to sketch, but watched and praised and pointed out instead. Delilah petted the old dog, who was grateful.

The peace lasted all of twenty minutes. Then the farmhouse door flew open and Selena came rushing out in a long quilted dressing-gown.

“Get out of here!” she yelled. “How dare you? You’re trespassing! Get off my land!”

I stepped forward. “Selena? It’s me! I didn’t think you’d mind. It’s the painting course. We only wanted to spend an hour or so–”

She wasn’t listening. She rampaged at Meg and Jenny, dashing water out of jars and slamming sketchbooks shut. The others rapidly began to gather up their things and withdraw to the stile before she could reach them.

Selena marched over to me and grabbed me by where my lapels would be if I had any.

“I only asked you!” she said fiercely. “On your own! Not all your mates. I didn’t say you could bring all your mates! What do you think I am? A public peepshow for everyone to gawp at? I hate that! I hate it!”

“Sorry.”

“You let me down!” She released me with a furious push and shouted at the retreating backs. “This place is mine now! Mine! Don’t you forget it!”

“Sorry,” I said again, this time to the startled artists as we trailed back across the field to Raven How. “Sorry, everyone. I misjudged. She’s been a bit upset lately because her father-in-law recently got trampled to death by a bull.”

“Really?” Gaynor’s eyes widened.

“Well, actually, she’s not been right since her husband shot himself last Christmas,” I amended.

“My goodness!” exclaimed Ed, almost jauntily. “Whatever happened?”

Delilah began to relate the circumstances of Luke’s death, quite a colourful version, as we walked. The artists arrived back at Raven How full of a sprightly eagerness that nonplussed me until I saw Meg cheerfully pick up a candlestick that had been hurled out of the window and understood that what they had lost in painting they had gained in drama. At least they had a story to take home, if not much else.

The subsequent and thankfully last meal took place in near-silence, Russell presiding stony-faced while Delilah expanded on the story of how Selena had met Luke at his own mother’s funeral. I didn’t comment. Neither did Russell, until he suddenly burst out,

“Just shut up! You think everyone wants to hear this tittle-tattle?”

Delilah’s eyes half-closed. I think she was trying to give him a hard stare.

“Please don’t speak to me like that. You’re not my father,” she said.

“Thank God,” said Russell, at which the group exchanged furtive glances. I was afraid it was all about to kick off again and began to talk at random about Cornwall and the Tate. They would much rather have heard about Selena and Luke. But at least we got through the meal without bloodshed.

An hour later, they had packed their bags and carried them downstairs ready to leave. Doug beamed and pressed my hand.

“I enjoyed your trees,” he said. “Lovely food. A memorable weekend.” The others concurred, although I doubted if any of them would be recommending Raven How to their friends. Once the last car had driven off, I dragged myself up to my little dormitory to lie exhausted on my bunk.

Well, that wasn’t all that bad, I told myself. Not the worst day of my life by a long chalk. Not as bad as Ruby’s worst day, when Carol died.

As for the worst day of my life, I knew what it was it without any thought at all. It was always there, an immoveable boundary stone dividing past and future.

It was not the day of Isaac’s death. Nor the day I was convicted, nor even my first day in prison, bad though all those were.

It was the day of Nick’s letter, five months into my sentence, a perfectly unremarkable day in every respect apart from that sheet of paper sticking up like a pale tombstone in the middle of it. After which nothing was the same. I wasn’t the same. It wasn’t jail that changed me: it was that letter. The last time I ever heard from Nick.

I got out my phone and looked at the text from N. No point ringing that number. I rang it anyway: it didn’t work. Nobody was nowhere. And as for Nick: well, he was somewhere, but he wanted me to be nowhere in his world.

I slid down off the bunk and lay on the floor. My unfinished head of Isaac lay parallel to me, underneath the bed. Like Nick, I felt him slipping further and further from me with every lengthening day.

Below him lay my painted hills and lakes; behind him was a long, cylindrical, grey shadow. Nobody wanted me, even if Nick didn’t. Nobody thought I had a talent. I turned my head and gazed at the snake-like tube beneath the bed, a secret promise hidden in the darkness, as ever-present as a heartbeat.

 

Chapter Twenty-three

 

I couldn’t get that painting off my mind.

I took it out and looked at it, two, three, four times, thinking about how I would tackle it – if I was going to tackle it, which of course I wasn’t; even though it would be nothing but an intellectual exercise, purely to see if I could. In any case, just supposing that I did attempt a copy, it couldn’t possibly be mistaken for the original. You couldn’t forge a painting from a photocopy. The dimensions, the colours, the texture, everything about it would be wrong. So what was I worrying about?

I taped and sized the sheet of blank paper. It felt like velvet. No point in wasting it. However, it would certainly be wasted if I tried to copy the painting on to it straight off. Watercolour’s not like oils: you can’t keep going over and over a picture to get it right. You only get a single chance. For a medium so light and delicate, it is horribly immutable. One mistake can never be erased.

Russell was in a cold, restless, petulant rage and I didn’t know what I’d done wrong apart from rescuing his painting course for him. Ruby made no reference to the near-disastrous weekend, merely saying next morning at the breakfast table, in a more conciliatory tone than previously, “Stay a bit longer if you like, Eden. The next course isn’t for another fortnight. You can help me in the garden in lieu of rent.”

I accepted, with some misgiving, hoping that Russell’s bad temper would blow over soon. Surely the household couldn’t always be as turbulent as this? I tried to chat normally for the sake of Delilah, silent at the far end of the table, but I thought she was as shaken and bewildered as I was.

Ruby seemed oblivious. “Does anyone fancy coming along to Sizergh Castle with me and Delilah?” she said brightly. “They’ve got a farmers’ market and eco-fair on today. How about it, Eden? Would you like a day out?”

Although I was grateful for her effort to be friendly, I shook my head.

“Not today, thanks. Maybe another time.” I wanted to paint, and Sizergh, though eminently paintable, was too far away to sell round here.

“Russell?”

“Jesus! Spare me,” grunted Russell.

“There’s no need to be like that. I want to see if it’s worth my while booking a stall there in the future.”

“A stall? For God’s sake. Just when have any of your hand-knitted jars of eco-fucking-chutney ever turned a profit?”

“That’s unfair,” Ruby said with dignity. “Do you want to come or not?”

“I have no fucking desire to go fucking shopping at a farmers’ fucking market.”

“Don’t swear, Dad,” said Delilah.

He turned on her. “Oh, so I’m your dad when I swear, am I? So you can tell me off? I’m your dad when you want your lift or your fucking pocket money!”

“Don’t swear, Russell,” said Delilah, cool and steady as a stone.

He glared at her. “Go and find your father if you want someone to row with! He’s the one who didn’t give a stuff about you, after all!”

“It’s not me who wants the row,” said Delilah quietly.

“Stop it, Russell,” said Ruby. “Are you coming with us or not?”

“Do I sound like it?”

“Just as well,” said Ruby. “We don’t want Mr Grumpy spoiling our day.”

He threw the salt-pot at her. It was a hand-made one of Ruby’s, a blue pottery thing, and it smashed on the kitchen floor. Delilah sat immobile. Ruby went red. Russell stomped out and I swept up, vowing silently that whatever I did today I would not stay in the house on my own with him.

However, neither could I go outside to paint: the rain fell steadily, turning the day yellow-grey, as heavy as wet canvas. After Ruby and Delilah had left, Russell began banging around in his studio. I hid in my bedroom, aware of the cardboard tube lurking under the bed like a cobra waiting to pounce.

But that was ridiculous. A picture couldn’t hurt me. I reached under the bunk, unrolled the photocopy yet again and flattened it out.

Well, why not? It was a challenge. Why shouldn’t I be able to do it? I didn’t have to justify myself to anyone. After all, it wasn’t as if I was going to do anything with the result.

Five minutes later I was hurrying along the path across the fields to Borrans Rigg Farm in my rain-soaked puffa jacket, clutching my box and my portfolio wrapped in plastic sheeting. The crown of hills had vanished under blankets of drab mist: the whole world seemed grey and overwhelmingly wet.

When I knocked at the farmhouse door, Selena answered, bored and bad-tempered in her baggy jumper, an indolent Cinderella lounging in the kitchen. Her eyes narrowed at the sight of me.

“Bryony’s out,” she said aloofly. “It’s her you came to see, isn’t it? You being such big mates and that. Along with all your other mates.”

“I came to see you,” I said, dripping in the doorway. “I wanted to apologise for intruding the other day. I honestly didn’t think you’d mind me bringing a few people over.”

She frowned. “You didn’t think I’d mind a whole load of strangers staring and pointing?”

“Well. Sorry. Look, if you like, I could paint that portrait of you that you said you wanted. I’ve brought all my gear.”

Selena eyed my box distrustfully. “Why now, all of a sudden?”

“To make up for annoying you. And actually, I want to get away from Russell.”

“Hah!” said Selena, but her eyes brightened. “What’s he been doing now?”

“He’s in a hell of a bad mood. Ruby called him Mr Grumpy and he threw the salt-pot at her. And they had a huge row yesterday; that’s why I brought the painting group over here. I’m staying out of his way.”

Selena laughed. “Mr Grumpy! I like that.” She opened the door wider to let me in. “Well, I’m sorry too. I shouldn’t have shouted at your friends. But I was feeling down and I just wanted some privacy, you know?”

“I know.” I found the Wordsworth letter and laid it down on the table. “I brought this back for you as well. I did try to check it out.”

She shot a glance at it. “So is it worth anything?”

“Not sure. It all depends if it’s genuine, and I’m no expert. I expect the Wordsworth Museum could tell you, but I’m not going to show it to them. You ought to, if you want to do anything with it.”

Selena picked the letter up and put it down again uncertainly. “I don’t know.”

“You said Luke had mentioned it to you once. What did he say?”

She shrugged. “He just said it was this old letter that he’d found and it ought to make us rich.”

“That depends on your definition of rich. A thousand pounds or so, according to Matt, if it’s the real thing.”

Her eyes brightened. “Matt said that?”

“Maybe more. But I wouldn’t get your hopes up. He doesn’t think it’s genuine.”

She pouted. “Luke said the letter meant everyone would want to come and stay here at the cottages; you know, Americans and Japanese and that, and we could charge them what we like.”

“Maybe you could. There’s nothing to stop you getting the letter valued. Matt might be wrong.”

“But Matt knows about old stuff. He said this table was older than the house! He could tell that just by looking. He knows loads about books and furniture and stuff. He’s dead clever, isn’t he?”

“He is,” I said, the penny dropping as to why she liked Matt. In his shielded, sardonic way he was protective of her, even kind – perhaps in honour of Luke’s memory – but he was also safe. If Ruby was correct about Selena’s aversion to sex, then Matt certainly posed no threat.

But exactly why did Ruby think Selena saw sex everywhere? That didn’t tie in with her being averse to sex. It was a puzzle; but one I didn’t feel inclined to grill Ruby about.

I left the letter on the table. “Well, it’s up to you what to do with it,” I said. “You could always keep it as a family heirloom.” An heirloom with no heir, I realised, too late to bite back the suggestion.

However, Selena had lost interest. As she looked up from the letter to me, she switched on her radiant Botticelli smile in an abrupt angelic transformation.

“I’m glad you came back to paint me,” she said. “Where shall I pose? Should I do my hair? Oh, I would have gone to the hairdressers if I’d known!” She jumped up and tried to smooth her tangled hair in a mirror by the sink.

“It’s fine as it is, Selena.”

“Can I wear jewellery? Should I put some different clothes on? I should wear something smart, shouldn’t I?” She was as excited as a child getting ready for a party.

“No jewellery.” Her face dropped, so I said, “Have you got a top in a strong colour? Not pastel. Red or purple, maybe.”

She ran off and came back in a deep red polyester blouse. I guessed it was one of Carol’s. I sat her on a stool facing the kitchen windows and arranged her hair around her shoulders. Her eyes half-closed, just as the old dog’s had under Isaac’s caressing hand. I was touched, and disconcerted.

Sitting myself opposite her, I sketched quickly, making a few roughs. It came more easily this time, for I knew her features now. For a while she kept quite still for me, as if entranced. At the first sign of restlessness I was ready, and began to chat.

”How often have you sat for Russell, Selena?”

“Sat?”

“As a model. Though you might have stood, or lain down, to let him draw you.”

“Oh… only once. Ages ago. He asked me to do it, but I didn’t like it much. I was there a whole morning, sitting on this really hard chair, and when I tried to talk to him he just grunted. Ruby kept coming in all the time, with cups of tea and that, like she was checking up on him. He got really annoyed.” She laughed. “Mr Grumpy!”

I thought of all those portraits of Selena in the studio, clothed and otherwise.

“Did he ask you to sit for him nude?”

She sat bolt upright and glared at me indignantly. “No way! I wouldn’t do that! What do you think I am, a slag?”

“Of course not. Keep still,” I said mildly. “So many girls are into sexting now that I didn’t think nudity was always such a big deal.”

“It is for me,” said Selena. “Would you do that?”

“No. I never felt the urge, and my boyfriend wouldn’t have liked it,” I said, although I realised that actually Nick would probably have quite enjoyed it. “But there’s nothing sleazy about life modelling for artists. I considered doing it at one time, when I needed the money.”

“But you didn’t do it!”

“No. I bottled out.”

“Well then,” she said. “I wouldn’t do it either. I don’t take my clothes off for anybody. No way. Not Russell or any of those creeps. I hate the way he looks at me. That’s why I wouldn’t go back and let him paint me any more after that one time.”

“Why, how does he look at you?”

“Like this.” She frowned and lowered her eyelids in a disdainful leer. “Like I’m dirt. As if he thinks I’m shit, but he still wants to look at me. Creep.”

That word again. Russell was creepy; like Griff, like Isaac.

“Did he do anything more than look?” I asked her. “Did he say anything improper to you?”

“Like I say, he just grunted. Dead rude. Just grunting and staring.”

“But did he, you know, try anything on?”

“I wouldn’t let him touch me with a bargepole,” said Selena with contempt and satisfaction. So the offence was solely in her head: as it had been with Isaac.

“Good for you,” I said. “Okay, I know now how I’m going to paint you. Just stay there.” I began to set up my board with a clean sheet of heavy paper for the portrait proper.

But my mind was busy remembering the disturbing naked portrait of Selena hidden in Russell’s studio. He had done more than just look, hadn’t he? It wasn’t just in Selena’s head. It was in Russell’s too.

I was troubled by the memory of that weird, near-obscene painting. Selena’s wide-eyed, passive face: the tight black strokes that held her down. Was that Russell’s way of possessing her? He had no chance with the real Selena, but he could tie her up in his imagination, bind her with his brush… I shivered.

What would Luke have said, if he had ever seen it? And Isaac? Isaac would have been appalled. He’d treated Selena with impeccable propriety. I was sure of that.

Yet now another image troubled me. I saw Selena cringe away from Isaac, in the farmyard and in Ruby’s house. It had seemed instinctive, not an act. Why such revulsion, why the outburst? Get away from me!

Now she sat quite silent, the spell thrown over her once again at the sight of the paintbrushes, while I carefully blocked in eyes, cheekbones and chin. The rapt, dreamy mouth: the dark lashes, half-closed. I squeezed the paints onto the palette and began to mix. I decided to work fast, without talking, before she moved.

Useless. The more silent I was, the more restless she became.

“When can I look?”

“Not yet,” I said.

“How soon?”

“In a bit. Tell me about Ruby. Why did you say she was poison?”

Selena shifted, making me sigh in exasperation. “It was Luke who said it. She kept on giving Luke these pills he didn’t want. He said they were crap. Useless.”

“Were they homeopathic?”

“What? I don’t know. She told him they were good for stress. But they didn’t do him any good.”

“That doesn’t mean they were poisonous,” I said.

The shapely mouth turned down. “Well, I know Luke didn’t like Ruby one little bit. She was always peddling and meddling, he said. Calling round to see how Isaac was every day after Carol died. Sucking up to Isaac, like she owned him.”

“Being friendly,” I suggested.

“Yeah, right. Like a spider, Luke said.” She made a wiggling motion with her hand. Talking about Ruby was putting her in a bad mood, and making her move more and more. I changed tack to a less emotional subject.

“That old letter. Who found it?”

“Luke did. He found it under the floorboards, stuck through a crack, but Isaac took it off him. He was really mean to Luke sometimes.”

“No, he wasn’t,” I said, automatically.

“How would you know?” she flashed back. “You weren’t there. He called Luke a liar. There was no need for that! Poor Luke got dead upset. Why shouldn’t it be under the floorboards? Old house like this, stuff ends up all over the place.”

“When was it Luke found the letter?”

“Years ago. He was only about twenty.”

“So you weren’t there either,” I said.

“No, but he told me!”

“Tell me how you met him,” I suggested.

Her eyes took on a faraway look. “It was at the church on the day of his Mum’s funeral. I felt really sorry for him. Poor Luke, he looked so lost and lonely, like a little boy all dressed up and nowhere to go. He had nobody.”

“He had his dad,” I objected. “He had Bryony.”

He eyes snapped back at me. “No, he didn’t. He’d fallen out with them.”

“What about?”

That careless shrug again.

“But why were you at the church anyway?”

She smiled. “Oh, that was an accident. I was meant to be at a funeral the day before.”

“Whose funeral was that?”

“Christ, I can’t remember! It was ages ago.”

“You must have been to a lot of funerals to forget them so easily,” I said. “When you knew you’d got it wrong, why didn’t you just go home again?”

“I stayed for a bit just hanging round the churchyard,” she said defensively. “For something to do.”

“Hanging around Hawkshead churchyard.”

“Well, why not? And I noticed this good-looking guy in a black suit, all serious and sad… so I went up and said hallo.” She smiled mournfully.

“Where were you living at the time?”

“Different places. Blackpool, Liverpool, Manchester. I’ve lived all over.”

“So what were you doing in the Lake District?”

“You never heard of a holiday?”

“So what was your job? Did you have one?”

“Why do you want to know?”

“Well, all right. Where were you born, Selena? Where did you go to school?”

Her eyes flashed. “Why are you asking me all this? It’s none of your business!”

“I’m only making conversation.”

“Is that what you call it? I call it being nosy! Nosy and rude!”

She was right, of course. So I placated her by offering to show her the painting, which was almost done. It was decent enough, though it turned her striking looks to ordinary prettiness.

“It’s nice,” said Selena, but she was still stiff with resentment.

On an impulse I pulled the picture back across the table; and at the bottom of the page, recalling Ed and his quotations, I wrote in my best italic the only bit of Wordsworth I knew apart from the Lonely Cloud:

She was a phantom of delight

When first she gleamed upon my sight.

A bit twee, but I thought it might please Selena. She looked at it blankly.

“What do you think of it so far?” I asked.

“It’s very good,” said Selena, without the interest I expected. She hunched her shoulders. There was something odd about the way her eyes moved across the page.

“Do you like the words?”

At that she looked almost scared. “They’re very good,” she said in a monotone, and pushed the portrait back to me.

Then I knew. Her eyes had scanned the picture as you’d expect; but not the words. I remembered how, in Ruby’s house, she’d hastily replaced a book as soon as I asked her what she thought of it. And she’d refused to read the Wordsworth letter; but not because the writing was too crabbed. Selena couldn’t read.

I felt sorry for her and ashamed of myself. Asking her about her school. Her job. No wonder she didn’t want to answer. What sort of job would she have had, if I was right, and she was illiterate?

“I just need to finish it off,” I said. “Are you okay for ten more minutes?” I wanted to polish it up now, make it better, as recompense for shaming her: for all the humiliations she must have suffered through her youth.

“I suppose so.” She was subdued. So I praised the colour of her eyes until my compliments returned some lustre to them, and meanwhile used the rigger to tweak her features. I’d fudged the background, but her skin-tones were good, and I was pleased with the river-shine of her dark hair.

Not startlingly original, but competent. It would have earned me an A* in my schoolgirl days, and a C minus at Uni. But it looked like Selena, that was the main thing.

“There you go,” I said. “That’s you finished. I can cut the words off if you think they spoil it.” I read them out, and looked at her enquiringly.

“No, that’s okay,” she said. She reached out a finger to touch the paper delicately. “That’s me?”

“Careful! It’s not dry yet.”

“I like it. Can you do another? Can I put something else on? There’s a really nice green blouse upstairs.”

“Later,” I said. “You shouldn’t sit for too long at a time. Maybe in a bit: you could wear the other blouse and your jewellery too then if you want. But take a rest now. Meanwhile I’ll just work on something else, if you don’t mind.”

“I don’t mind.” She ran her finger round the edge of the damp painting, smiling now, not quite believing, as if I’d done a magic trick. I was glad to have pleased her.

Now it was my turn. I got out the photocopy that moustache man had given me and clipped it flat to my portfolio. I washed my palette clean and selected a set of paints, colour-matching on a spare page of my sketchbook. No pencil. This would be brush or nothing. I needed to practise those bold strokes, to recreate that assured sweep of brown and red.

“What’s that?” Selena craned round me. “It’s freaky. What’s it meant to be?”

“It’s an abstract. It can be whatever you like.” That didn’t make it easier. If anything, it made it harder, because I had to stop and think: why is that line so hesitant, just there? Where is it leading? Why does that red deepen, and blur itself into a whirlwind frenzy at that point? I had to interpret everything. There was no abstract equivalent of Usual Tree Stuff. No tricks; or I hadn’t learnt them yet.

Selena put her head on one side, studying it. “It just looks like a load of lines and boxes. You got done for copying paintings, didn’t you? You did time. Ruby said. She’s really got a downer on you.”

I winced. “Ruby said right. I spent ten months in jail.”

“I don’t care,” said Selena kindly. “But what are you doing it again for?”

“I’m not. Copying’s only illegal if you try to sell the painting as someone else’s. I’m just doing this for fun. It’s for a friend.”

“Your other pictures are really pretty,” said Selena, meaning this wasn’t.

“Thank you.”

She watched me for a while. Since all I was doing was producing a series of similar roughs, she soon lost interest and disappeared into the front room. I heard the TV go on.

I went across and closed the door. Then I took a deep breath, propped up the drawing-board with its single, primed, taped sheet of paper and looked at it for several minutes, the painting growing in my mind, piece by piece, until it made a whole. Just as I had with MacLeish, I felt my way inside it and lost myself there.

Then I painted the first line.

Keep the paint wet, keep the flow, the heavy red, blot, wait, refocus. Now, the new determined line, straight in, upwards, disappearing, stop. Wait, focus.

It was full on. Although it can’t have taken more than half an hour – the TV clapping and laughing somewhere in the distance – it was the hardest thing I’d ever done. I felt pulled out of myself. I couldn’t afford to lose that focus: I had to be both careful and confident at the same time. No room for wrong moves. No way to turn back. A mistake would have been visible for ever.

And then it was finished. It was over. I felt shivery and exhausted, as if I’d run a race. Selena came in wearing a jade-green blouse. She put the kettle on, looked at the picture and pulled a face.

“Can’t see the point,” she said. “Anyway, it’s too big.” It was three times the size of the photocopy. I’d scaled it up to fit the paper. And it was more than three times as striking: this was the right size for it, I knew, and the orange slash just jumped out at you. The colours weren’t quite the same, but the feel of it was. It worked. I could still do it.

“Go and get your jewellery,” I said. I might as well paint her again while the thing dried.

“It’s Carol’s jewellery really.”

“Doesn’t matter.” As I began to wash the palette for a second time, there was the sound of a car drawing up outside and then a sharp rap at the door. Selena went to answer it. The sound of Hunter’s voice brought me up short.

“May I come in?” It was his uniform voice, serious and steady.

“Hallo,” said Selena. “Have you come about the receipt? I found it underneath the mint cake, you know, like I told you on the phone. It’s here.” She snatched a slip of paper from the top of the microwave and waved it at him triumphantly. “So you see,” she said.

“I see,” said Hunter, studying it. “11.49. Well, that certainly confirms what you told us, thank you. I’ll take this with me. However, it’s not actually what I came about.” He took off his cap, laid it on the table, and nodded at me gravely. Meanwhile, I was drying my hands and frantically wondering how to move the wet abstract out of sight without attracting his attention to it.

“Eden’s come to paint me,” said Selena proudly. “What do you think?”

She held up the portrait. Hunter looked startled.

“It’s very good,” he said, with a note of surprise that pleased me. Or would have, if his eyes hadn’t turned to the board and paints still resting on the table.

“What else have you been painting?” He walked round to see. He studied the photocopy. His face didn’t move. He looked at the roughs, and at my finished abstract. He touched the corner of the old, slightly yellowed paper. Then he looked at me.

I couldn’t stand it.

“I’m just trying it out,” I said. “It’s something different to my normal stuff. It’s a one-off. Not what you might be thinking, Hunter.”

“She’s not faking it or anything,” chipped in Selena. “You don’t need to worry. She’s just copying it for a friend.”

“I see.” He walked around the table with that slow policeman tread. He deliberately turned the pages of my sketchbook. At that moment, I hated him.

He said nothing at all for a few minutes. Then he turned to Selena.

“Shall we talk in the other room? I’d like to discuss a possible case of identity theft with you.” Quiet and severe. Not the Hunter I knew. This was a stranger.

Selena shrugged and led him to the front room. He left the door open. I washed my brushes, my hands oddly shaky, and through the water heard snatches and phrases. Something about the Identity Cards Act. Reason to believe. Illegally altered. Administer a caution. Invalidate your marriage. All on his side: I couldn’t hear her answers.

He came back into the kitchen alone.

“What friend?” he said harshly.

“A friend who likes the picture.”

“What’s your friend’s name?”

I cleared my throat. “That’s none of your business, Hunter. It’s a favour for somebody who helped me out once. Anyway, you can see it’s not even a true copy. It’d be useless as a fake.”

“Helped you out how?”

I was silent.

“Let me fetch you a bucket of sand, and you can stick your head in it,” said Hunter. “A favour? A one-off for some mythical friend? Don’t make me laugh. I thought you were trying to go straight? That’s what you told me.”

“I am. This doesn’t mean anything. I am not a fraud, Hunter.”

“No, you’re an idiot,” said Hunter. “You’re in deep water, and you won’t admit it.” He looked from me to Selena, who had followed him back into the kitchen with a horrified face.

“I wash my hands. Goodbye to the pair of you,” he said scathingly, and left.

As soon as we heard his car door slam, Selena burst into noisy tears. “I didn’t do anything wrong!” she cried. “And he says it’s not real! He says I need to go to the police station and get cautioned! He says I could be prosecuted! Just because I lost my birth certificate and I had to get a new one.”

“With a different name on?”

“There was a reason. I’m not a criminal! And now he says I might not really be married! Just because of that! He says I should talk to a lawyer! I don’t want to talk to a lawyer!” She choked and sobbed and began to pluck at her sleeves and hair.

“Calm down,” I said. “Come on, sit down, Selena. It’s not that bad. I’m sure it can be sorted out.” I was too shattered to feel much sympathy, but I did my best. “A caution doesn’t mean much. You’re getting off lightly. I don’t suppose they’ll prosecute you unless you’ve claimed benefits in a false name or something. Have you?”

She shook her head vigorously. “No! No! Nothing like that.”

“Well then. Don’t worry about it.” I tore off a sheet of kitchen roll and squatted by her chair to offer it to her. She was really distressed. I made an effort to gentle my voice. “Why did you change your name, Selena?”

She snatched the paper towel and roughly rubbed one eye, then the other. “I never liked my old name. I never wanted that name.” Her voice shook.

“What about your family? What do they call you?”

“No,” she said. “I have no family.”

“None at all? What about that Grandad who told you the stories about selkies?”

“No!” She was practically shouting. “He’s gone. I told you! There’s nobody!” Her shoulders began to heave again.

“All right!” I was alarmed. “Calm down now, Selena. It’s all right. I’m going to paint you again, remember? I can’t paint you if you’re in a state. Why don’t you go and get your necklace or whatever on?”

“No! I don’t want to now! He said jewellery made me look like a whore!”

“Who did?”

But she rocked backwards and forwards in the chair, tearing at the kitchen towel. “He said it was my fault. He said I stole his soul. He said I haunt men. I steal their souls.”

“Who are you talking about? Was it Luke? Did Luke say that?”

“It was him. The one who made me–” She stopped again.

“The one who made you what? Was it Russell? No, look, it’s all right,” I said, because Selena had begun to pull at handfuls of her hair and her mouth was wrenching out of shape. “Don’t cry, Selena! It’s in the past,” I said soothingly. “Whoever said all that, they’re not here right now, are they?”

She shook her head, her hair in her mouth.

“So forget it,” I said. “They don’t matter. You don’t need jewellery. You’re beautiful without it. Come on, I want to draw you just so, in that chair – your hands lying here–”

I laid my hands on hers, gently rearranging arms, head, shoulders, reassuring her until she was quiet again, half-hypnotised and passive, although her cheeks were still wet.

This time I painted her straight to paper, no preliminary sketches. Her forlorn face under my brush took on a greenish tinge, with cloudy shadows, the eyes drifting unfocussed and the hair swirling as if she were underwater. A siren: no, too sad for that. A lost mermaid. A drowned girl. Sinking, beyond rescue.

“It’s not working,” I said at the end. It was working all right: it was good, too good, too drowned and desperate to show her. I moved it under the table so that she would not see. “No, it’s a mistake,” I said. “The first one was better. You keep the first one.”

I pushed the sixth-form effort back towards her. She gazed at it as if into a mirror, turning her disconsolate face from side to side. “It doesn’t look the same now it’s dry.”

“The colours change. But it’s still you.”

She looked dissatisfied. It wasn’t good enough any more. That irritated me.

“That’s Selena,” I said. “I can only paint Selena. If I knew who you really were, then I could paint the real you.”

“I’m Selena now,” she said, frowning. “Who told that cop I wasn’t, that’s what I want to know? Who gave them my birth certificate?” Then she gasped in sudden realisation. “It must have been Isaac! The old bastard. He dobbed me in!”

I couldn’t let that pass. “It wasn’t Isaac. It was me.”

You?

“I saw the certificate by accident when I was here. I knew straight away it was a fake. It was obvious it had been tampered with. Who did it, Selena? Did you do it yourself?” It occurred to me, however, that that was most unlikely if she couldn’t read.

She stood up. “You ruined my life!” she said, her voice shaking again.

“Oh, come on,” I said roughly. “You brought it on yourself. I expect you had a conviction and wanted a new start. Was that it? Anyway, it’s not so bad as all that. You heard Sergeant Brigg. Just get yourself a lawyer and sort it out.” I was fed up by now. If she was in a pickle, it was of her own making. I had enough problems – what Hunter was thinking about me, for one: that concerned me much more than what he thought of her.

“You don’t know what you’ve done! What if I’m not really married at all? He’ll be furious!”

I shrugged. “I don’t know what your legal situation is. But Sergeant Brigg just wants it sorted. It’s not personal. He isn’t angry with you.” Not like he was with me.

“I should never have asked you to come in!” she wailed. “I thought you were my friend.”

“I am.”

“No, you’re not. Get out!” She picked up the palette and made as if to throw it at me.

“That’s mine,” I said, snatching it off her. I was past caring. I crammed my wet brushes into my box and laid my abstract painting, now dry, in my portfolio with furious care. It was good. Why couldn’t Hunter see how good it was? Why couldn’t he trust me?

The drowned girl was still damp. She was good, too. I had a talent. Hunter knew nothing. I stamped out of the door and carried her back to Raven How through the rain, shrouded under the plastic sheet, staring out with unseeing eyes. I marched raging through the long wet grass until, half way, I noticed rain was leaking through the plastic, weeping wet trails down her cheeks.

Nothing I could do to save her. An illogical notion flickered in my head: that the lost girl I had painted, sad and drowned and drifting fathoms deep, was not Selena.

It was me.

 

-four

 

“Poor Ruby,” Muriel said. “I’m not surprised that everyone’s so stressed. Poor Russell, too. It’s such a traumatic thing to happen so close to them, so very close. It turns your life upside down. You feel like nothing’s safe.”

“Oh, yes,” I said, although I had felt like nothing was safe long before Isaac’s death, and wondered at the strength of Muriel’s somewhat delayed reaction to it. She looked as if she had been crying. I vaguely supposed that at her age, any death was an unwelcome reminder of mortality. I had no idea of what to say to comfort her. I was too young for this.

I’d ridden the scooter into Ambleside in an attempt to get away from the tensions of Raven How, for Russell was still blackly smouldering and Ruby’s lofty disregard did not improve his temper. I couldn’t stand it there much longer. But neither could I seek refuge at the farm: Selena would most likely throw me out again, while Bryony was busy with her lambs and did not need an incompetent helper.

To cap it all, I’d had a terse rejection from the Ruskin Hotel. So I spent a dispiriting morning traipsing through the drizzle from one Ambleside hotel to another, hunting for a job. As soon as I mentioned my conviction they all remembered they had a full complement of staff for the summer and wouldn’t need any more, thank you.

At last, wet and dejected, I had knocked on Muriel’s door for some sympathy and a cup of tea. But it was she who needed the sympathy, it seemed. Her face was drawn and her hand trembled round her mug. She dropped the plate of biscuits all over the floor.

“Don’t worry, love,” said Geoff, picking them up. “We should have a dog for this, eh?” Once he’d been introduced to me, he’d been as cheerful and polite as ever. Now he put a big hand gently round her shoulders. “Are you feeling all right, Muriel? You’re looking tired. You’ve been working too hard: wasn’t I right when I told you we should have a holiday?”

At that Muriel laughed with, I thought, an edge of hysteria.

“Maybe you should go for a lie down,” suggested Griff.

“Yes, why don’t you?” I said. “Or you could go out and have some time to yourself. I don’t mind staying for a while.” I did mind, but felt I had to offer.

Muriel shook her head. “No, no, you’ve got things to do. Maybe another day. But I am glad you’ve come round, Eden. While you’re here, there’s something – well, something I need to discuss with you.”

“What, won’t I do? Woman’s talk, I suppose,” said Griff with sad geniality.

“Not exactly, Griff.” She put her hands distractedly to her face and rubbed her cheeks. “I just can’t think straight. I’ve not been sleeping well since Isaac’s death.”

“Isaac was one of her colleagues,” said Griff to me confidentially. “Tragic. A stroke, wasn’t it, Muriel?”

“Something like that,” she said. “It has me worried, to be honest.”

“Why?” Griff and I spoke together: looked at each other and smiled.

“I hardly know how to say this.” Muriel bit her lip. “I thought of speaking to your nice policeman. In fact, we went into the police station yesterday.”

“Did you?” said Griff, startled. “Who did you go with? What for?”

“It was about Isaac. I wanted to speak to Sergeant Brigg, but he wasn’t there: just a tall girl at the desk, and a jolly inspector.”

“That would be Larry Irlam,” I said.

“I didn’t know what to say to him. I ended up asking about parking restrictions instead, like a fool. It was a stupid idea anyway – it’s just that I can’t get it out of my head…”

“What was a stupid idea?”

“Tell,” said Griff. “I’m intrigued.”

“Well, it’s to do with Freddie. Freddie at the bookshop, Griff; you know? Matt rang me up. That’s his new boyfriend, Griff. Newish. Oh, never mind… Anyway, Matt’s a bit frantic, poor boy. He wanted to come round and talk, but I said not with Griff here.”

“Why not?” said Griff. “I like a good intrigue. Do you think I can’t keep a secret, Muriel?”

“Matt’s frantic?” I said, disbelieving. It wasn’t a word I would have associated with the calm, collected Matt. Although, admittedly, he had seemed less collected lately.

“He doesn’t know what to do,” said Muriel. “He found my number on Freddie’s phone and rang me, I think to try and find out what Freddie might have been saying to me. You remember, Eden, I told you about Freddie being worried?”

“Er, vaguely. Wasn’t he anxious about Matt leaving him?” I glanced at Griff, who was looking interested if slightly bemused.

Muriel drew in a shaky breath. “Well, it’s Matt who’s worried now. He’s in a real flap. But he keeps saying there’ll be a perfectly good explanation.”

“For what?”

“For why Freddie wasn’t where he said he was on the day of Isaac’s death.”

I thought for a moment. “Wasn’t he at a house clearance in Carlisle or somewhere? He got a load of books there. Matt mentioned that he’d brought a couple of boxes back.”

“That’s right,” she said. “But when Matt unpacked them and was sorting through them, he found a charity shop leaflet from Lancaster at the bottom of the box.”

“Well, that needn’t mean anything,” I said, and Griff nodded wise agreement although I doubted if he knew what to.

Muriel sighed and pushed her rumpled hair back with a well-manicured hand. “It needn’t. But it does. Matt didn’t want to ask Freddie for an explanation: he said things were bad enough… He was all in a dither, so I rang the charity shop in Lancaster. I thought it might put his mind at rest.”

I couldn’t imagine Matt in a dither; but love, I knew, played havoc with composure. Just look at me – falling to bits at a single text from Nick. Dejection balled up in my throat again. “And?”

“Well, I described Freddie to them on the phone and they said, Oh yes, we remember him coming in on the Monday afternoon, quite late on. Just before they closed at four.”

“How would they remember him?” I objected. “They must get loads of customers.”

“But this one emptied their bookshelves. Asked for a couple of boxes and just swept all the books off the shelf into them without even looking at them. He said they were for stage props. I described Freddie and the description tallied. So you see.” I saw.

“I didn’t know Freddie trod the boards,” said Griff. “A man of many talents.”

“If the house clearance was no good, maybe he didn’t want to come back empty-handed,” I suggested.

“Why not?” countered Muriel. “Anyway, Carlisle is seventy miles from Lancaster. It’s in totally the opposite direction. He wouldn’t have gone all that way just for a few worthless books.”

I bit my lip. I knew what Muriel must be thinking: the same thought had briefly crossed my mind outside Freddie’s shop, when I’d asked Matt if he was sure Freddie had been in Carlisle. Matt had had no concerns then. But to get to Lancaster by four from Borran’s Rigg would be no problem, I reflected unhappily. My stomach turned in a mixture of dismay and fear.

“You’re wondering if Freddie might have had anything to do with–” I glanced again at Griff – “with Isaac. But there could be any number of other explanations.” I was trying to convince myself as much as her. “And why? What could Freddie possibly have had against him?”

“Good question,” said Griff, nodding.

“I don’t know,” admitted Muriel.

“So couldn’t there be a perfectly innocuous reason?” I insisted. “Maybe Freddie just didn’t fancy going to the house clearance but didn’t want to tell Matt. Maybe he went on a bender. He does seem to be drinking.”

“I think Matt had already considered that. He said Freddie was behaving oddly but didn’t seem to be drunk that day. Matt did wonder about drugs, though. He actually hunted round the flat just in case.”

“And did he find anything?”

“He said he found something called amyl nitrate. Is that uppers or downers or whatever they call them?”

“Poppers,” I said. “Technically I think you’d class those as uppers.” I decided not to tell her in what respect.

“Well, the inescapable conclusion is that Freddie’s lying, and while that would obviously make Matt unhappy at any time it’s the fact that it was on that particular day that’s made him so anxious.”

“I can’t imagine Freddie lying,” said Griff. “He strikes me as a decent chap, Freddie.”

“Me too,” I said. But a picture rose before my mind’s eye – Coniston Old Man smeared with mud and lying in the yard. Freddie had his pick of those. That wasn’t all: I heard his caustic voice declaiming at the dinner party. Eden always has mints.

I shook my head vigorously, trying to dispel the possibility. “No, no! None of this makes sense. As far as I know, Freddie hadn’t even met Isaac before Ruby’s do.”

“That’s what I thought,” said Muriel. “But they had met, according to Matt. He said that wasn’t the first occasion; Ruby kept trying to bring Freddie and Isaac together as if she thought they should be friends. But they never hit it off.”

“Has Matt broached this with Freddie?”

“Not yet,” said Muriel.

“You want me to go and talk to Sergeant Brigg?” I asked with some dread. I really didn’t want to face Hunter right now.

“I don’t know,” she said, her brow creasing. “I felt so foolish when I went to the station before. I mean, how do you say something like that? It’s very likely Freddie just has private business that he wants to keep private.”

“Don’t we all,” said Griff.

“But Matt’s so anxious, poor boy! And to be honest…”

“What?”

She sighed and rubbed her hands down her face again. They seemed to leave more lines behind. “I can’t get Isaac’s death out of my head. Ever since you said you weren’t convinced it was an accident. It’s just the thought that someone we know might be…” She gestured helplessly.

“Come now,” said Griff gently. “Don’t get worked up.”

“It was an accident,” I said, even though I didn’t believe it. “That’s official, now.” I wished I’d never mentioned the discarded painting to her, or my idea that it had been planted.

“But you don’t really think so, do you?”

I opened and closed my mouth again, not knowing what to say. I wanted it to have been an accident. A bolt from the blue, a freak blow on the head, with no malice on anybody’s part but God’s. No-one trying to frame me. No-one loathing Isaac sufficiently to murder him, and loathing me sufficiently to make me a murderer.

Since my haunted bus ride, I’d shoved the horrific possibility of murder to one side. Busy coping with the conflicts at Raven How, I’d done no more than glance sidelong at Isaac’s death, avoiding looking at it properly.

But what if it was true? Someone had hated Isaac, and despised me. Now I gazed into a face full of murderous intent, and it chilled me to the core.

So whose face was it? Freddie’s? I did not want him to be a murderer. But I did want to have a solution. So I mutely sympathised with Muriel when she said,

“I just want to know what happened. I’d be so relieved if it was all solved.”

Griff was listening attentively. “Then we must solve it, Muriel,” he said.

“Solve what, Griff?” she snapped. “Oh, I’m sorry, I’m sorry– this is just all too much. Eden: maybe you could talk to Freddie? You know him better than I do.”

“Not that well.” I thought of Freddie’s disappointed, pouchy face, the messy, teetering piles of books penning him in as he knelt on the shop’s dusty floor: and reflected that in truth I knew him barely at all.

“But I was just thinking, if we went to see him now, maybe you could find a way to ask him about that shop in Lancaster.”

“What, go to Freddie’s now?” I asked.

“Yes! You’d like to go to Freddie’s, wouldn’t you, Griff? You could buy a replacement for your missing Wainwright, the Central Fells one.”

“No, no, I’m got them all,” said Griff, shaking his head.

“Oh, for crying out loud! Let’s just go there, Griff.” She jumped up, full of nervous energy.

“Well, if you insist…”

“I do! God knows I need to get out of this flat.”

I didn’t want to. How was I was supposed to go about interrogating Freddie? I shrank from it; and thought that Muriel was becoming over-wrought. Perhaps it was being stuck in the flat with Griff that made her so.

Certainly as I sat in the car and fended off his questions about my interesting name, I began to feel decidedly claustrophobic. The drive through a wet green Dunmail Raise past fields of soggy lambs lost its appeal with the relentless accompaniment of Griff’s commentary.

And when he forgot who I was again and Muriel’s tired chronicle of our first meeting started him up with Oh my, yes, the Lady of the Lake, Whatever happened to her? it was all I could do to grit my teeth and keep smiling.

“We saw Selena in Bowness, you know, a couple of days ago. She was out shopping,” said Muriel.

“I gather she does a lot of that.”

“Who?”

“Selena. The Lady of the Lake, Griff.”

“What was she buying?” said Griff.

“I don’t know. She didn’t stop and talk to us. She disappeared as soon as she caught sight of us. With a scowl on her face,” said Muriel. “She doesn’t look so lovely when she scowls, does she, Griff?”

“I didn’t see her,” he said. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“There wasn’t time,” said Muriel shortly.

At Keswick we all trooped into Freddie’s, which was full for a change with damp tourists seeking a refuge from the rain. The place smelt of coffee and wet raincoat. People were dripping all over the discount books, which I knew would not make Freddie happy.

Griff and Muriel went off to hunt for vintage Wainwrights while I mooched around the photography section, waiting for a chance to talk to Freddie. I couldn’t tell if he was genuinely busy or avoiding me. At last I managed to put my hand out and halt him as he passed.

“Freddie? Can I have a word?”

“If it’s about your pictures, Eden–” He was already edging away. I moved to fill the corridor and blocked him.

“It’s not. It’s about a charity shop in Lancaster.”

“What? I’m not familiar with Lancaster.” He tried to push past me, but I wasn’t budging.

“A friend of mine saw you in there not long ago.”

“Really?” His mouth turned down in that new way it had. “Well, I may have popped in. I generally do if I spot one: charity shops are worth a look now and again. Excuse me, Eden.” He bulldozed past me, and this time I didn’t have the nerve to stop him. How did Hunter manage interviews? I needed a uniform and a burly constable in the corner, I thought ruefully.

“Eden,” said Matt, coming up to me with an armful of books and a smile that did not reach his eyes. Muriel was right: he was under strain, though he was doing his best to hide it. “Good to see you,” he said. “I’d make you a coffee if we weren’t so busy. Tell me, how are things at the farm? Is everyone coping?”

“In a manner of speaking. Selena’s not at her happiest. I’m afraid I managed to upset her.” Uneasily I remembered her howling, childlike sobs over the birth certificate.

“You upset her? How?”

“Oh, something and nothing. I asked her about her past, and she got a bit, um, hysterical.”

Matt raised his eyebrows. “Be careful, Eden. Maybe you’re safer just steering clear of that particular area of discussion.”

“Safer?”

“I’ve known her for longer than you have, remember. I got the impression her past wasn’t altogether salubrious. She certainly didn’t like discussing it: she could turn quite nasty. Luke found that out. So take it easy there, okay?”

“Okay. Thanks, Matt. I appreciate that.”

He nodded shortly and carried his books away. Meanwhile Freddie had escaped to the back of the shop: I followed him down to the narrow gallery at the far end where the cards were kept.

Freddie was studiously ignoring me. While he proffered lukewarm help to a customer who didn’t want it, I looked around for my cards. There they were, getting increasingly squashed in and crowded out by gumbooted sheep.

How had my bigger paintings fared? Russell’s had gone from the display, I noticed. Lucky bastard.

And so had mine. Sold, then! “Yes!” I breathed, and gave the air a minimal punch.

Then I spotted them. My paintings, lying in a corner: crushed, creased, ripped. I fell on my knees to see. They were both torn almost right across.

The customer fled; and Freddie, turning reluctantly my way, saw me kneeling over the ruined corpses of my work.

“Oh, Christ! I’m sorry, Eden. I really wasn’t expecting you to come in today. Matt was supposed to have tidied up by now, we didn’t mean you to see this, but we’ve been so busy…”

“What happened?” I said hoarsely. I picked one of my paintings up by its corner. The corner fell off. It was Sweden Bridge, with a grubby footprint tramped across it: unmendable, unsaleable.

“Russell,” said Freddie with a groan.

“Russell tore them up? When? Why?” I couldn’t believe it.

“He came in this morning. He was already simmering like a kettle when he walked through the door. He was looking for a fight. He wanted to know why I hadn’t sold any of his stuff.” Freddie sounded miserable. “I said it lacked popular appeal, and he got stroppy with me. So then I said if he was going to take that attitude please could he remove his work as I hadn’t sold any for months and it was taking up valuable hanging space. He just lost it, I’m afraid.”

“And he ripped my pictures up?”

“He grabbed them and threw them on the floor and stamped on them,” said Freddie. “He shouted things.”

“About me?”

“About fakery and immorality. Not just about you. He was– vile.” His voice shook.

“Oh, Freddie! I’m so sorry. How horrible for you,” I said guiltily. “There was a bit of a fracas at the weekend when I helped him run the painting course. Russell had a melt-down and walked out, and I had to take over. He lost his rag with Ruby as well. They had a huge row.”

Freddie’s brow creased. “So it’s not just me, then? What’s it all about?”

“God knows. Mid-life crisis, I expect. I gather he doesn’t want to run the courses any more: he’s fed up. I don’t think they’re making any money.”

“Well, I’m not surprised, if he treats everyone that way!” said Freddie huffily. “I told him he needn’t come in here again. It’s a pity, because I like Ruby. But I won’t have that pompous bully calling Matt a– well. Whatever. I just hope Matt didn’t hear it. I don’t think he did, thank goodness. I’m sorry you saw this, though, Eden. I’ll reimburse you for those paintings.”

“Don’t worry about it. They didn’t cost me anything except time. As long as you move my cards to somewhere decent!”

“I will,” he promised. “That’s very understanding of you.” He tied his long fingers together, glancing up towards the far end of the shop. We were still alone in the dungeon-like gloom of the gallery. Haltingly he said, “Eden: um, that other thing. About the charity shop. Don’t mention it to Matt, please, will you?”

“Why not?”

He sighed wearily. “Because you’re quite right. I didn’t go to that bloody house clearance in Carlisle. Matt doesn’t know.”

“So where were you?”

“I had business in Manchester.”

“Business.”

“Yes. A financial transaction.” Freddie looked uncomfortable. “I don’t want Matt to know about it. It’s– he’d be upset, and I don’t want to upset him. I don’t want to lose him. I mean, I can’t afford to. Christ, he keeps this place afloat.”

“Does he?”

“Internet sales,” said Freddie glumly. “I’m a Philistine, I can’t do all that website stuff. It’s paper or nothing for me. But Matt’s turned the business around. He’s got a real eye for rare books. I couldn’t cope without him.” He swallowed: his fingers gripped each other tightly. Freddie was very tense, and very wretched.

“Then why don’t you come clean with him? Freddie, if you’ve got money troubles, it sounds like Matt is the person to help you sort them out.”

But Freddie shook his head and kept on shaking it, helplessly.

“It’s more than that. He’s more than that. It’s not just the business that he’s turned around. He means– well, he’s the world to me. I don’t know if you can understand…”

“I can,” I said. Nick smiled down from the bookshelves. “I understand. I’m sure Matt does too. But I think that he already suspects you weren’t at a house clearance that day.”

“What?” He stared at me. “Has he said anything?”

“Not directly. Just something to do with the books not being what he expected. But Freddie, that being the day it was– the day of Isaac’s death– don’t you think you’d be better telling Matt the truth?”

“Dear God,” said Freddie, still staring at me. “Is that what you think?”

“No, of course not, Freddie! But where were you?” I remembered Anthony MacLeish’s last years of impoverished desperation. “Is it gambling, Freddie? Have you got gambling debts?”

“Oh God,” said Freddie. “If only.” He turned round in a full circle before continuing, speaking low and fast.

“I can’t tell him about that day because I– because I– oh, God, Eden, the thing is, I was with a rent boy.”

“Oh,” I said blankly.

“Lovely term, isn’t it?” said Freddie bitterly. “That’s why I went to Manchester. It’s easy there. I stopped off in Lancaster on the way home to buy the books and cover my tracks. So you see why I can’t tell Matt. He’d despise me. It’s difficult enough.”

I didn’t know what to say. At last I managed, “Are things not good between you, then?”

“Not exactly rosy,” said Freddie mournfully. “So please. Just don’t mention that charity shop to him. I’ll think of some excuse.”

We both looked over towards Matt, perched on the ladder to reach down a volume from a high shelf for Griff.

“You’d better ask Muriel to keep quiet, then,” I said. “It was her who told me about it.”

“Oh, God, was she in Lancaster?”

I avoided answering that, and instead said, trying to lighten things up, “I’ll have a word with her if you like. At least you know that Griff’s not going to say anything.”

“Are you sure?” said Freddie.

“What?” There was a sour edge to his voice that puzzled me.

“You’re quite sure that Griff’s lost his memory, are you?” he said.

“Well, if he hasn’t, it’s the most convincing act I’ve ever seen.”

“It certainly is,” said Freddie acidly.

“Why on earth would anybody want to fake a thing like that? Anyway,” I said, “you can’t fake encephalitis. That’s what caused it, you know.”

“So Muriel says.”

“Hang on, Freddie! Just a minute!” He was about to step away into the hubbub of the main shop, but I pulled him back into the gloomy cavern of cards. “Why would they make that up?” I demanded. “If you saw how difficult Muriel’s life is….”

“Well, maybe it would be a lot more difficult if Griff hadn’t got ill and suffered his so-called brain damage.”

“You’ve lost me.”

“It’s a nice little life they’ve got here, isn’t it?” said Freddie with something like a sneer. It didn’t suit him. “Early retirement, a home in the Lakes where nobody knows them, bought with compensation I dare say– doesn’t it make you wonder?”

“What about?”

“What was Griff in his previous life?”

“Local government finance, he told me.”

Freddie sniffed. “Hah! You know the shenanigans that go on in the town halls. Bribery, back-handers, all that sort of thing. Oh, a lost memory could be very convenient. Any talk of an enquiry, and oops, oh dear, Griff can’t remember anything, can’t testify, case closed. He’s got a doctor’s note and they can’t give him detention. Lucky Griff.”

I gaped at him. “Enquiry? Do you know of any such enquiry?”

“Matt saw something on the internet. Somebody’s blog, or whatever you call them: it sounded like it might very well refer to Griff. Matt said it was just evil gossip.”

“But you think it’s true?”

“I don’t believe in his lost memory, that’s all. It seems to me he remembers things when he wants to: Selena in the lake, for instance. He remembers her.”

I gazed down in perplexity at the ranks of gum-booted sheep beside me. Had Griff remembered being chased across the fell? The sheep grinned at me, offering no help.

“Freddie, this is just speculation!” I argued. “Surely you couldn’t fake such a thing? You couldn’t keep it up day after day. Muriel would have to be in on it too.”

“Under his thumb, I expect,” said Freddie. “I like Muriel: she’s a very caring woman. But she’s totally tied up with Griff. She kowtows to his every need.”

“Well, only to make life easier!”

“Then maybe it’s just Griff,” said Freddie, “pulling all the strings to make her dance around him.”

“I don’t believe it. He wouldn’t do such a thing. Neither of them would pull a stunt like that.”

Even as I spoke, I was wondering if it could be done. Surely there would be too many doctors to convince, to say nothing of your friends and family? Of course, it would be easier to carry off if you moved away from all your old connections. But even then, imagine the strain it would put you under, maintaining that constant, vigilant pretence…

I wondered what exactly Matt had noticed on the web. Once Freddie had left me for a customer, I hunted round for Matt, but he wasn’t up his ladder any more. He wasn’t anywhere in sight. It was only several minutes later, after I’d explored all the labyrinthine twists of the shop, that I found him back where I’d started, in the dark cave where the ruined paintings lay on the floor.

Matt crouched there, clearing up, methodically tearing the paper into smaller pieces which he crammed into a bin. His face was set as hard as stone. With each savage rip of the paper, he hissed a furious word.

“Arrogant. Ignorant. Interfering. Shit-for-brains.”

Whatever Russell had said, Matt must have heard it after all. Not a good moment to ask him anything: so I tiptoed back into the main shop and bumped straight into Muriel and Griff.

“Ready to go, Eden?” said Muriel. “Did you get what you wanted? Griff, you remember our young friend Eden?”

With a sinking feeling, I went through the motions of an introduction yet again, all the time examining the pair of them, against my will, for signs that they were actors in a huge charade.

It couldn’t be so. Freddie had a bee in his bonnet. He was soured by worries about money and his private life. Griff’s polite confusion and Muriel’s weary patience were genuine. They had to be.

As we traipsed back to the car together, I looked around at the dripping tourists. Was that laughing huddle really having such a marvellous time, with the rain pouring off their hoods and soaking through their jeans? They might be screaming inside. What did I know?

I was hopeless at people, that was the trouble, both in painting and in life. Landscapes were my thing, not people: I couldn’t catch the essence of them, couldn’t get beneath the skin.

So how was I supposed to recognise a fake? How could I tell the bogus from the real?

 

Chapter Twenty-five

 

I shelved the problem. Back in Muriel’s car, listening to Griff’s observations slip into their well-worn tracks, I decided that nobody could make this up, or even want to. His amnesia must be genuine. Unless I saw hard evidence to the contrary, I would continue to assume it so. I’d never thought of Freddie as malicious; but he was certainly upset. Poor Freddie, I thought. Poor Matt. Deceit in a relationship was a killer. I knew that much.

As Muriel dropped me off at Side Gates I murmured to her that Freddie had been seeing another man on that crucial afternoon.

“Well, that’s a relief of a sort,” she said. She didn’t sound relieved.

On reflection, I didn’t feel relieved either. If Freddie was innocent of Isaac’s death, that left me with even less idea of who might be guilty.

I trudged along the narrow leafy lane to Little Langdale, through gentle, spindly woodland which was beginning to crochet a fine net of green above my head. I only had to dive off the road three times to avoid on-coming cars; even in light drizzle it was a calming walk – or would have been, had my mind not been so full.

Unwillingly I began to go through a mental list of all the people who had been present at the dinner-party: all those who had heard me make my mid-day appointment with Isaac, who knew about my painted cards, and my love of mints, and who might have used that knowledge to try and frame me .

Hal and Sue had left early. In any case I didn’t think they had any connection with Isaac. I decided I could safely strike them off as suspects, along with Hunter.

Muriel and Griff too I thought I could discount. Quite apart from the fact that they’d never met Isaac before that week, Griff couldn’t have got to the farm on his own; and I couldn’t imagine Muriel hitting anyone over the head.

Selena next. Despite Matt’s assurance that he’d seen her shopping, I’d been vaguely thinking of her as the most likely to be guilty – until she produced the evidence of her receipt. Now they provided unwitting Keswick alibis for each other, while Freddie was out gallivanting in Manchester. It occurred to me that an unknown Manchester rent-boy, while a convenient alibi for Freddie, might not prove an easy one to verify.

Then what about Bryony? Although she hadn’t been at the dinner party, she could well have heard about it afterwards. Ruby said Bryony had left the farm at nine-thirty on that fateful morning. Four hours for a doctor’s appointment? Really? The queue must have been exceedingly long that day.

“No, no, no,” I said aloud. Bryony had no reason to murder Isaac. Even if she thought that Isaac disapproved of her, surely she cared too much for the farm to do away with its owner. And why would she try and frame me? She liked me. So did Freddie. He liked me and my paintings – more than he liked Russell, anyway.

That left Russell himself, and Ruby. Both of them had been close to the scene of the crime. Neither of them liked me very much. A flare of indignation fired through me at the thought of Russell tearing up my paintings: and at Ruby’s lack of interest in my rescue of the painting course. No thank you’s from either of them. Why did they even tolerate my presence at Raven How?

The indignation subsided into a faint sick feeling at the conclusion I was being dragged around to. Should I be afraid? How afraid should I be?

I really would have to find somewhere else to stay, I thought, and soon. Maybe I should just go back to my parents’ house.

Meanwhile my feet had brought me back up the lane to Raven How. I crept inside, avoiding everybody.

Over tea, however, emboldened by the presence of all four of us, I mentioned casually that I’d been up in Keswick visiting the bookshop; and waited for Russell’s reaction.

I didn’t get one. He tore at his leathery slab of home-made bread without reply. He wouldn’t even look my way. The embers of righteous anger at my ruined paintings fired up again within me.

Ruby began to complain about the shop’s cramped, overcrowded gloom. Freddie never displayed the pictures properly, she said. He didn’t do them justice. She didn’t seem to be aware that Russell and his work had both been banned.

“Well, what can you expect?” he growled. “His shop’s full of feeble maudlin rubbish. He knows even less about art than he does about books. Sentimental old queen.”

“Russell! I don’t like that expression. I must admit, though, that if it wasn’t for Matt–”

“Freeloading scum,” said Russell viciously. “Slimy little parasite.”

“Why do you call him that?” I said.

“Because that’s what he is. A jumped-up money-grubbing barrow-boy.”

Ruby pushed back her chair with dignity and picked up her plate. “There’s no point talking to you if you’re in that mood. Come along, Delilah.”

My appetite gone, I stood up too and scraped the remains of my meal into the bin. I needed to get away from Russell. He was jealous of Matt for making money, and jealous of me for making art. A sneering name-caller.

It was pointless to confront him with my ripped and trampled paintings. Russell was like Greta, I decided furiously. They ought to share the same motto: Never Apologise, Never Explain. People like that caused wars.

However, even Greta’s company seemed preferable to Russell’s just then. I lurked in my cold cell, painting cards, but I didn’t really want to be in the same building with him. So when Greta rang to scold me about neglecting my daughterly duties, I grabbed at her insinuations like a life-line.

It was time I paid a visit home. Maybe it wouldn’t be so terrible to stay for a little while at my parents’ place, or even Greta’s at a pinch. At least I could check out how the land lay with my mum. Drop a hint or two in case.

So, making my excuses to Ruby, I explained that I hadn’t seen my family over Easter, and on Sunday morning took myself off to Penrith.

I knew exactly what to expect. Roast lamb and apple crumble; and Greta would harangue me about getting a proper job. My mother would enquire cautiously about my plans, and more hopefully about Hunter, whom she had never met but for some reason seemed to think was a suitable substitute for Nick. In vain I had told her that neither Hunter nor I had ever contemplated such a thing. Though contemplating Hunter now was painful. I was still stinging from our last encounter at the farm.

Still, at least my brother Allen was too easy-going and detached to quiz me about jobs or boyfriends. And my father would have no interest in my private life: nothing I did could compete with the latest renovations to the Mather and Platt, and he would probably endure half an hour of small talk before inviting me out to view his true love in the shed.

All these expectations were fulfilled.

“You can get call centre work in Carlisle, you know,” said Greta over the apple crumble. “It’s not difficult. Anyone can do it. And the Town Hall’s advertising for temporary data input clerks. They might take you even with your record.”

“I’ll bear it in mind.”

“You’d be welcome to move back home,” said Dad.

“Thanks,” I said. “I might just take you up on that, for a little while, if I need to.”

“As long as you don’t mind a camp bed in the boxroom,” added Mum in warning. “I’m using the other for my stock.”

“Stock?”

“Personalised guesthouse toiletries. There’s a real opening there.”

“That’s great,” I said.

“It’s really just a one-woman show,” said Mum.

“You could use a little help with the deliveries, though, couldn’t you?” said Dad.

“Christ, don’t employ her as a delivery driver,” said Greta. “She’d swerve to avoid a sheep and total the van.”

“That’s unfair,” said Mum, “though I do hate the thought of you on that scooter, Eden. Did you ever hear from Nick?”

“No.” I thought I kept it indifferent. I must have betrayed something, though, because her face wrinkled up with sympathy.

“Well, maybe that’s for the best, love. Sometimes you can’t go back. You have to move on. How’s Hunter?”

“Not a hope in hell there, Mum,” said Greta scornfully. “He’s a policeman, for Christ’s sake. Why would he take up with a third-rate forger?”

“Excuse me,” I said. My phone was ringing. I escaped gratefully into the hall to answer it.

It was Muriel, asking if I could sit with Griff for an hour that evening. I agreed, and went back into the dining-room to explain her situation and impress my family with my community service.

“That’s noble of you, giving up your social life in a good cause,” Allen offered obligingly, although I knew his sharp brain would be perfectly aware that I had no social life to give up.

“Will you earn a baby-sitting fee?” asked Mum. “Now maybe there’s a job option for you.”

“Mum! Heaven forbid! I don’t suppose you bothered to tell this woman about your criminal record,” Greta said. “I hope you’re not thinking of becoming a carer. You’d never pass the checks.”

“I was thinking more in the dog-walking line,” said Mum.

“She’d lose them,” Greta said.

“Fancy a look at the Mather and Platt?” suggested Dad.

So we trooped out to the shed: me, him and Allen. I wouldn’t have minded a shed of my own. There was a lot to be said for a shed.

“You’ve polished it up nicely,” I said. “I like the new regulator.”

“Smashing, isn’t it?” said Dad, his face aglow. “Still needs a few tweaks before the Darlington Steam Fair next month.”

“Excellent. How’s business at the garage?”

“Not bad, but no jobs going there, I’m afraid.”

“It’s all right, I wasn’t actually fishing for one. I wish Greta would get off my back about jobs,” I said. “I am trying. But it’s all she can seem to think about.”

“Maybe that’s because she hates hers,” said Allen.

“What? She loves it! Teaching’s all she ever wanted to do.”

Allen shrugged. Dad said doubtfully, “I suppose we might be able to find you one day a week admin at the garage.”

“No, don’t worry. Dad, why would somebody keep a load of old blank MOT certificates?”

“They wouldn’t,” he said, frowning. “Do you mean the old style certificates? They’re obsolete, have been for years. Is this a garage you’re talking about?”

“No. Just somebody I know.”

“Blank? Sounds like a fiddle,” said Dad. “MOT fraud used to be rife a few years back. Your friend doesn’t want to get mixed up in anything like that. But they’d be useless now.”

“Okay.”

“Colour copiers these days, people try to forge anything,” ruminated Dad, with no obvious irony. “Got a fake V5 the other week. Spotted it straight away. You tell your mate to steer clear. Get rid.”

“Will do, Dad.”

“You’re all right, are you, lass?” This was unusually voluble for my dad.

“Yes, I’m good.”

“You’ve got to be careful now who you mix with. Got to toe the line.”

“Yup.” I was trying to toe the line. I knew I had to toe it, and not cross it. The trouble was, I didn’t know where the line was. Who did? Was there anyone who never caught a train without a ticket, or nudged up their expenses, or took home a few office envelopes? Or just tried out a V5 on the office photocopier. I knew my dad didn’t mention all his cash-in-hand jobs to the accountant. How could you avoid slipping across the line now and then, when it was so grey and wavering and well-trodden?

Allen winked at me. As we trooped back to the house, he said, “Got enough to live on, have you? I could sub you a bit if you like.”

“No, you couldn’t,” I said. “You’ve got a family to support.” Allen’s girlfriend, back in Middlesbrough, was pregnant.

“I got a promotion,” he said.

“Another one?”

“They must like me.” He was flippant, but I thought it was probably true. Everybody liked him. I wished I was Allen. He had a proper place in life, and wasn’t just dodging and scrounging round the edges. He was well away from that grey line.

Which reminded me.

“Allen? You might know something about this guy I’m babysitting tonight. He used to be a finance officer in a local council, the area next to yours–” I named it, and him– “and someone suggested he might have been involved in some dodgy business, maybe backhanders, a couple of years ago. There’s probably nothing in it, but I just wondered if you’d heard anything.”

“I’ve got an ex-colleague who works over there. Is it important?”

“Not really. I just wondered if any rumours had come through on the grapevine.”

“Rumours always abound,” said Allen. “Nothing office workers like better than a nice fat rumour to chew over. Keeps them happy. Doesn’t mean it’s true. But I’ll ask around if you like. Is this the same guy who’s keeping dodgy MOT certificates?”

“No. That person’s dead.”

Allen pulled a face. “A bit late to get rid, then,” he said.

I pondered on why Isaac had kept those certificates. He hadn’t got rid. Had they been his way of keeping costs down for his farm vehicles? Crossing that grey line. Well, I was prepared to forgive him that.

But what about the Wordsworth letter, buried deep inside his drawer? That still bemused me. Real or not, why was it hidden there? I felt Isaac recede further from me, increasingly unknowable. Even his weathered face was blurring in my mind now: I could not see him clearly. I no longer knew who I was grieving for.

“Eden? You all right?” said Allen quietly.

“Fit as a flea,” I said, although I knew full well that wasn’t what he meant.

 

Chapter Twenty-six

 

 

When I got back that afternoon, Raven How had acquired a new odour. Not candles this time, or chickpeas or Ruby’s aromatherapy, but a poignant, familiar, tarry smell that set my heart speeding: oils.

“Stinks, doesn’t it?” said Delilah, wrinkling her nose fastidiously. “I hate it when he does oil-painting. This place is going to smell for weeks now.”

“It’s better than your joss-sticks!” countered Ruby. “You know what I think of those. You shouldn’t have them in your room, not in an old building like this. They didn’t have fireproofing in the eighteenth century.”

“1778,” I said, remembering the date I’d spotted on the lintel during the art course. “So how old is Borrans Rigg Farm? It must be even older, mustn’t it, if the Staithwaites own this place?” That Wordsworth letter was still on my mind.

“They’re no worse than all your candles,” Delilah pointed out.

“Um, no, it’s Victorian,” said Ruby. “My candles serve a purpose.”

“The farm’s Victorian? How can it be?”

“What purpose?” said Delilah.

“This was the original farmhouse,” Ruby said. “Not good enough for the Victorians, apparently; they rebuilt it in a better position in the 1880s, to get the views, so Isaac told me, and used this place as a cow-shed.”

“At least joss-sticks smell nice!”

“So Borrans Rigg didn’t exist before then? Or was this place called Borrans Rigg?”

“What? No. It’s always been Raven How. It’s not just the smell I object to, Delilah.”

“I should hope not! It’s better than those oils!”

“That’s a matter of opinion,” Ruby said.

I left them and walked slowly up the stairs, reflecting. The Wordsworth letter mentioned Borrans Rigg, which had not yet been built when Wordsworth was alive. The house was not the ancient stronghold I had thought it, but a substitute: a fake. Therefore the letter was also a fake.

And Isaac knew it was a fake. But since he knew the farm’s history, he wouldn’t have forged it himself. So who had?

Luke. Luke had “found” the letter, which he thought would make him rich, and showed it to his dad: who called him a liar. Isaac took the letter off him and hid it – along with all those MOT certificates, which according to my dad might well be evidence of another fiddle…

I shook my head in pity and exasperation. Luke’s get-rich schemes, which never worked out. He’d been desperate to be something more than just a farmer.

The pungent reek of oil-paint beckoned me down the corridor to the studio. Despite myself, I followed its trail and peeked in cautiously, breathing deep of that historic, heady odour. Russell had a whole new set of oily smears down his ridiculous smock. The squeezed, smudged tubes lay jumbled on a chair.

“May I look?” I asked warily. He didn’t shout, or throw anything: just grunted. So, leaving the door wide open, I tiptoed round to see.

It was the blackest yet. It was a sludgy, greasy, grimy, bedraggled landscape. At least I supposed it was a landscape. It was more a state of mind. His sun – was it the sun? – was stuck to the sky like an exhausted brown balloon. The lake was something Grendel might crawl out of, glistening with slime. The land was the stuff of nightmares, the kind that suck your feet down when you try to run away. It transfixed me: but it would never sell in Latrigg Galleries.

“It’s hopeless,” said Russell suddenly. “Bloody hopeless. What am I bothering for? I thought reverting to oils might make a difference. But it’s a disaster, isn’t it?”

It was the depiction of a disaster, certainly. It pulled me in. I couldn’t look away. “It’s not a happy painting,” I admitted.

“I can’t do this any more.” His voice grated. “Not just the courses, the whole damn thing. It’s vanished. Gone.”

“Your mojo?”

He glowered at the canvas. “My inspiration, motivation, what you will. The light’s gone out. But I’ve known that for nearly two years now. You can see it, can’t you?”

“Well…”

“Ruby can’t,” said Russell harshly. “Or she doesn’t want to know. She only sees what suits her.”

“What made the light go out, Russell?”

He rubbed viciously at the canvas with a piece of rag, leaving a long grey smear. At last the answer came rumbling out.

“At Carol’s funeral, Ruby cried. She couldn’t stop. Wept on and on.”

Carol’s death had changed everything for him: I recalled him saying that. Carol must have been ten years older than Russell. That was no reason why he wouldn’t grieve for her, of course… but I was confused. What exactly was it that changed everything? His grief, or Ruby’s?

I gazed at his soiled canvas: a slurry of disintegration, dirt and ruin. It scared me, and it held me. What on earth was in his mind? A crow flapped blackly in the corner, reminding me of Selena’s baggy coat. Selena had made her entrance at that funeral.

“I preferred your portraits to this, I think,” I said, exploratively. “Your portraits of Selena, for example. They were very good.”

“Those? They’re rubbish too. I can’t reach the heart of her. If she has one. I can’t do her justice. She’s extremely beautiful.”

“Yes. She does have a remarkable–”

“She’s a witch,” said Russell.

“She’s a what?”

“She’s a witch. Or a whore, or something.”

“She’s not a thing,” I said stiffly.

“She’s not human, though, is she? With those eyes.” Furiously he dabbed his brush in a murky red-brown mixture and applied it to the horizon, fringing it with congealed blood. “She’s just pretending to be human. I didn’t see it straight away. I was entranced. But she’s a shape-shifter. A liar, like all women. They all lie, don’t they?”

By now I was bristling. “No, they don’t!”

“You too,” he said. “Those paintings of yours: they’re dishonest. A big pretence for tourists.”

“Is that why you ripped them up?”

“Nothing but lies,” he rasped. He stabbed the canvas viciously with his brush. “She wasn’t faithful to Luke, you know. She had another man.”

“Selena did? Who was it?”

“God knows. I saw them kissing in the road outside the farm one evening. I heard her laugh. It was dark. Some guy she’d picked up I imagine. Bloody witch.”

One kiss, I thought, did not make a witch; except in the eyes of a very jealous man. “I thought you liked Selena,” I said coldly.

“I did, at first. I let myself be captivated by her beauty because I needed a muse: mine had gone, destroyed itself, imploded. But it didn’t take me long to see Selena was no better. She’s nothing but a pretty shell, rotten underneath.”

I was about to remonstrate, when something in his face made me shut up.

“Like all the women I have had the misfortune to entangle myself with.” His voice grated. “But I saw through it all – through everything. The whole fucking pantomime.”

“Pantomime?”

“Their marriage! Selena was just living off Luke. She didn’t give a shit about him. She used him because that’s all she knows. And as for Ruby and her so-called friendship– hah! You believe that?” He swept all his tubes, lidless or not, off the chair into a box. Some of them missed.

“I have not the slightest idea what you’re talking about,” I said, as evenly as I could. “Are you complaining about Ruby or Selena? I’m getting quite confused.”

“Both of them! Ask Ruby. Ask Ruby how she betrayed her best and oldest friend! Friend? Worst enemy,” said Russell. “Jesus, when I think of what she did to Carol, the two-faced hypocrite… and then cried at her funeral! That did it for me. Why do I stay here any longer? I must be mad. I am mad. I may as well give it all up now.” He plucked the canvas from the easel and flung it on the table with a clatter.

“Russell–”

“Get out of my way,” said Russell roughly. I wanted to, but I couldn’t. He was in my way. I was trapped. Next he picked the easel up and tried, furiously and unsuccessfully, to collapse it, wrenching its legs backwards and finally hurling the whole dislocated lot against the wall. It made a terrible racket.

Ruby burst into the studio. “What the hell is going on?”

“I’ve had it,” declared Russell. He began to tear off his smock. It got stuck half-way over his head and he bellowed through it as he tried to fight it off. “I’ve had it up to here with this place, with your candles and your fucking crystals, with the whole lot!” He emerged, red-faced. “The whole fraudulent shebang!”

“Don’t be so melodramatic!” said Ruby, exasperated. “We’ve got another course to run next weekend! You can’t just walk out now.”

“Can’t I? Watch me.” The smock’s sleeves were stuck: with a struggle, he tore them off his arms and threw it down.

“Don’t be ridiculous! Where do you think you’re going?”

“Anywhere at all,” snarled Russell, “as long as it’s away from here! Before I run amok. Anywhere away from you, you self-satisfied bitch!”

His voice was rising again, and I was still trapped. Ruby’s hands were on her hips; her mouth opened, ready to let rip. I braced myself for the outburst – for paints and candlesticks to start flying through the air again.

The outburst never came. Instead, sharp and unmistakable, a new sound smacked across the room: a single gunshot. Ruby stopped with her mouth wide open.

“Christ!” said Russell. “What was that?”

Ruby blinked, trying to gather herself. “That’ll be the Aireys, shooting rooks.”

“Rooks?” he said derisively. “That came from Borrans Rigg.”

“Well, you’d better go and see, then!”

“I’m not going over there!”

“This is the man of the house speaking, is it?” said Ruby acidly.

“Fuck off! You want to interfere, feel free. You’re the one who practically moved in there, after all.”

I said, “I’ll go over to the farm and check.” I pushed past them both and ran downstairs, my mind racing even faster than my legs.

Pictures danced through my head. Selena kissing another man, betraying Luke… Well, if that was true, perhaps it came as no great shock. But Ruby doing the same, betraying Carol: that made me feel sick and hollow. And I’d imagined Isaac must be lonely…

Disillusionment was bitter in my mouth. How long had it gone on? I’d been blind. I should have known it from the start: from that first visit to the farm when she’d been up in his bedroom. She’d only been mending curtains: but how had she known they needed mending in the first place? Ruby wasn’t good enough for him.

But Isaac wasn’t good enough either. If it had been after Carol’s death, that would be different. But it had happened when Carol was alive, mortally sick and in great pain. Russell was right: Ruby was a two-faced traitor.

And I was an idiot. I’d rashly made an idol out of Isaac when I didn’t even know him. Why should it hurt so much to look down and see the feet of clay?

Delilah, worried, stood at the kitchen door peering out. “Eden? I think I heard a gun!”

“It’s probably the Aireys. You stay here. I’m just going over to the farm to make sure everything’s all right,” I said; and as I sprinted outside, threw Delilah into the mix swirling round my mind. Who did she remind me of? That patient, self-sufficient air… Anyone in particular?

There was no time to ponder it. I sped across the field, fell over the stile, rounded the corner into the farmyard and skidded to a stop.

Selena stood there with her oversized coat hanging almost to her ankles, a hostile silhouette against the evening sun. The shotgun lay across her arm. She might have been the sheriff in a western waiting for the villain to arrive.

“What’s going on?” I demanded. “Selena, will you put that thing down?”

And then I saw Bryony. She was crouching on her hands and knees by the farmhouse door. “Bryony? Christ, Bryony! Are you okay?”

Bryony raised her head. Her face was drawn and dismayed.

“She shot the dog,” she said. “She shot Tag Lad.” Beneath her hands was a collapsed heap of fur, black, white and red, the old dog slumped across the doorstep like a discarded rug. The top of his head was gone.

I fought down the upthrust of nausea and turned furiously to Selena. “What did you do that for?”

“He was old.” The beautiful eyes were pitiless and hard.

“He wasn’t that old!” cried Bryony.

“He was a horrible dribbly old thing,” said Selena coldly, “slobbering all over me.”

“There was no need to shoot him for that!” Bryony’s voice broke.

“Put the gun down now, Selena,” I said. It was pointing at the wall, but I would have much preferred it not to point at anything.

In answer, she slowly raised the shotgun until it was pointing straight at me.

“Just put it down,” I said, amazed at how steady my voice sounded.

“You messed me up,” she said, icily hostile. “You told that policeman all about me. I’m not married properly any more. You screwed me right up. He’s not happy. I’m not happy.”

“Put the gun down, Selena!” said Bryony hoarsely. “It’s not yours! You don’t have a licence.”

“Well, it should be mine!” Selena flared up. “It would be mine if she hadn’t stuck her nose in! Luke showed me how to use it, he meant it to be mine, like his house, like all his things! They’re all mine. Or they would be if she hadn’t grassed me up!”

“You’ll get into real trouble,” warned Bryony.

“Why should I? I need this gun! I need it for protection.”

“Protection from who?” demanded Bryony. “No-one’s going to hurt you.”

“They might! Whoever came for Isaac might come back for me!”

The gun was still pointing at me, and now Selena was shouting. Play-acting? It felt like it: but the old dog’s corpse told a different story. If she was playing a game, it was a deadly one. I stood frozen.

“Nobody came for Isaac,” said Bryony, pleading. “Isaac fell. He hit his head. It was an accident. You don’t need a gun.”

“How do you know? What if they come for me too?”

“He won’t come for you,” I said. “I promise. Now put the gun down, Selena.”

She stared at me. “You promise he won’t come?”

“I swear.” I held my breath, until she lowered the gun at last. Bryony caught it by the barrel, and Selena, seeming to lose interest in it, let it go.

“I’m locking this away,” said Bryony. Stepping over the dog’s corpse, she carried it inside. I breathed more easily, although Selena was still staring at me, unblinking and unfriendly.

“You know who came for Isaac, then?” she said.

“No, not really.”

She pounced. “But you just said He! You promised He won’t come for you! So you do know. Who did you mean?”

I wished I’d kept my mouth shut. “I meant nobody, Selena.”

“Yes, you did! Isaac didn’t die by accident, did he? It was murder – you just said so! Who is it? If you know, you’ve got to tell me! Have you told the police yet?” Her eyes were wide with horror. The cold manner had turned feverish with fear.

“No, not yet.”

“Well, why not?”

In my mind’s eye, Russell hurled the easel to the ground, berating Ruby, accusing her of betrayal; his onetime muse, destroyed and rotten. Russell had been jealous of Isaac. He was jealous of everybody, eaten up with resentment and frustration; at the end of his tether.

Before I run amok, he’d said… but what if he already had? I could readily imagine him confronting Isaac, pushing him like a collapsing easel. As for the picture, he could have picked that up in Freddie’s shop. He would have enjoyed flinging it down into the mud. It all fitted.

But Russell had an alibi. Ruby. Could Ruby really dissemble so well? Could she live with a murderer? She might have had an affair with Isaac, but she regarded herself as a moral person.

And what evidence did I really have? Torn paintings weren’t evidence. Jealousy wasn’t evidence.

“I’m not totally sure,” I admitted. “Not a hundred per cent. ”

“But will you tell the police?”

“The police station’s closed now,” I said. It was a feeble excuse. The truth was, I needed to work out exactly what to say, because I didn’t think I would get a whole lot of sympathy from the police: the first suspect trying to finger someone else.

And as for Hunter… I inhaled deeply. “I’ll call them tomorrow.”

“Why not tonight?”

“I’m looking after Griff this evening.”

“That old man?” She made an expression of disgust. “What about me? I’m on my own! Why can’t you stay? I wanted you here. Stay here.”

“For crying out loud,” I said, my patience thin, “You’re not alone, Selena. Bryony’s with you. If you get worried, ring the Aireys.”

Bryony reappeared at the doorway with a blanket over her arm. “The gun’s locked in its case. I’ll keep the key.” She showed it to us, dull and squat on a chain around her neck, before pushing it under her shirt. “We shouldn’t have that shotgun in the house any more. You go inside, Selena: go and watch TV. I’m going to bury the dog.”

“All right,” said Selena, suddenly meek, and she went in. I watched her with misgiving.

“Do you think she’ll be okay?” I asked.

“I’ll keep an eye on her. I might give the doctor a ring tomorrow. God knows what possessed her: poor old Tag Lad only came up to her wanting a bit of attention, and she just went crazy. Started screaming at him. Poor old thing. He didn’t need putting down just yet.”

Bryony unfolded the blanket and gently loaded the limp body of the dog onto it. She gathered the corners together and heaved it up. “Bring the spade out of the barn,” she said.

So I had to venture into the warm, rank darkness of the bull’s shed, smelling that smell of death again, hearing the bull’s uneasy shuffle of misfortune and disaster. There were the bull tongs, which I had failed to find that fateful day, lying on their shelf. I’d been useless all round. I took the spade and escaped to follow Bryony.

Carrying the blanket across the corner of the in-bye field, past the staggering, bleating lambs, she laid it down against the wall.

“Poor Tag Lad,” she said softly. “He missed Isaac so much.”

“Here? Shall I dig?” I began to attack the earth, which once I got through the grass roots was wet enough to come up fairly easily, in heavy slabs. I dug a narrow trough and stopped to rest. Bryony hadn’t offered to help. When I looked up at her, she was crying.

I dropped the spade and hugged her as I had before; this time she felt more truly like my sister. Eventually she pulled herself back, blew her nose and said unsteadily, “It’s not just Tag Lad.”

“I know.”

“It’s not just Isaac either. Or Luke. Well, it is Luke. But there’s something else: there’s another reason. I’ve not told anybody, I couldn’t – but, the thing is, Luke wasn’t the last of the line.”

“How do you mean?”

“I was pregnant. Until the day before Isaac died. Fifteen weeks. I felt bad all weekend, that’s why I didn’t go to the dinner party. And then…” She swallowed. “That’s why I spent all Monday at the doctor’s and then at Kendal hospital. They confirmed it there. I’d had a miscarriage.”

“Oh, Bryony!” I took her hand, small and cold. “I’m so sorry. But you should have said! You shouldn’t have been working all this time!”

“Someone had to do it. And it took my mind off things. You think I wanted to be lying in bed, just thinking about it? It goes round and round inside my head. If Luke had known, he might not have turned against me at the end, he might not have tried to kill himself. Oh, I know that doesn’t work, I was only just pregnant and I didn’t know myself for weeks, but still.”

“So you and Luke…”

“When he came to me those last few days,” she said softly, “I wasn’t prepared, I didn’t think, I just wanted to comfort him. I know it was wrong… but Selena didn’t make him happy. He was wretched. I just wanted to help.” She gave a sad half-smile. “It didn’t help, though, in the end, did it? It didn’t save him. I couldn’t keep him here. I couldn’t even keep his baby safe.”

There was nothing I could say. Bryony knelt down by the old sheepdog and stroked its fur. “Goodbye, Tag Lad,” she whispered, and I knew that she was saying goodbye to more than just the dog.

Together we laid the limp body in the trench. The evening sun spread a crimson cloak upon the grave. Then I began to shovel back the heavy, sodden turves, shutting him in the dark alone, underground for ever.

 

hapter Twenty-seven

 

 

After that, I really didn’t feel like Griff-sitting, and thought about crying off from my appointment that evening. But it wouldn’t be fair on Muriel: and anyway, I reflected, an hour or two with Griff would keep me away from Russell’s embittered and vengeful eye.

However, as my scooter buzzed up the steep road in Ambleside, I felt some guilt at leaving Raven How. What about Ruby and Delilah, alone in the house with Russell? I realised that for Delilah’s sake, I really did need to work out what to tell the police – and soon.

That would make Selena happier, too. Though had she really been so worried at the thought of being attacked? Or was it merely an excuse to hang on to the gun? A nasty feeling nibbled at my mind: that she’d fired it to bring me running to her door – she’d sacrificed the dog to summon me.

When she welcomed me into her flat, Muriel looked like I felt: harassed and jittery. Like me, she was unwillingly resigned to spending the evening reassuring an anxious man.

“I’ve got to go and see poor Freddie,” she said as soon as she let me in. “He’s in bits. He was practically crying on the phone. It seems that Matt found out about his other, you know, boyfriend.”

“Oh, crikey. How?”

“I don’t know. But Matt wants to leave, and Freddie’s desperate. He doesn’t know what to do.”

“Surely sleeping with someone else isn’t such an enormous crime?”

“It’s the deception, though, isn’t it? The betrayal.” She hung up my coat, and took hers off the peg, her fingers fumbling. “This is very good of you, Eden. I’ll try to make it quick.”

“I doubt if that’ll be easy,” I said. “Take Freddie to the pub. Don’t feel you have to rush back.”

“Thank you.” She glanced towards the kitchen whence came the faint sounds of washing up and humming. “I’m so grateful you can help out at short notice. I really couldn’t leave Griff on his own, not after the last couple of occasions.”

“Well, I’ll make sure he doesn’t set off over Loughrigg,” I said, trying to lighten the mood. “What was the other occasion? Was that when he never saw the note you left, and panicked?”

“What note? Oh… I’d forgotten I told you that. The truth is, I never left a note.” Muriel scrunched her gloves up in her fists. “We had a ridiculous argument, over nothing at all – well, not nothing, actually, it was over that picture of Selena. It was so stupid; Griff wouldn’t let me put it away and I just had enough. I couldn’t take it any more. I flipped. I walked out of the house and left him here, with no note, nothing.”

“Where did you go?”

She faltered. “Where… I hardly know. I got in the car and drove, and then I got out and walked. Round and round in the middle of nowhere. But I had to come back. I was terrified he’d have gone, and yet you know, in one way I almost wished he had.” She shook her head. “That sounds dreadful, doesn’t it? So callous. But I was at the end of my tether.”

“But Griff was here when you got back?”

“Yes, thank God. He was in a terrible state, crying and shaking. There was bedding all over the floor, and blood in the bathroom: he’d cut his hand, but he couldn’t explain how. He thought he’d lost me. He thought I was dead. He was terrified. I can’t forgive myself,” said Muriel. She was truly distressed. There was no way she was faking this. “Although of course he’s totally forgotten it now. As far as he’s concerned, there’s nothing to forgive.”

“Still no improvement in his memory, then?”

Muriel gave a twisted smile. “Oh, he still remembers her,” she said. “The Lady of the Lake. Like a catchphrase that he can’t forget. I wish he would, now, sometimes.”

“Oh.”

“Well, anyway.” She picked up her bag, and her accustomed briskness with it. She squared her shoulders. “Griff?” she called. “I’m popping out to post a letter. I’ll only be five minutes. Make Eden a cup of tea, will you?”

Griff appeared at the archway to the kitchen, drying his hands on a tea-towel.

“Eden?” he said doubtfully.

“You remember Eden? The young artist we met recently, at Waterhead. She’s just called round.”

“Ah, yes, of course,” said Griff. “Milk and sugar, Eden?” He was busy, polite, slightly bewildered by my presence. “An artist, eh?”

“Watercolour,” I said. “I like that one that’s on your mantelpiece.”

“Yes, it’s a shame it’s not hung properly,” said Griff. “I don’t think the landlord’s ever going to sort it out.”

“Muriel tells me you’re an artist yourself, after the style of Wainwright.”

“Well, yes, indeed! Not as good as him, of course, but I like to take notes and sketches on our walks. I’m building up quite a portfolio.”

“How lovely. Could I see it, do you think?”

“Good idea,” said Muriel. “Show it to Eden while I pop out.” She waved a glove at us and slipped away.

“Yes, certainly! I’d be delighted! Not that you’ll think much of them. Now, I wonder where…”

“Muriel told me they were under the bed in a plastic box,” I said. I thought I was doing pretty well. Griff disappeared into the bedroom, and didn’t come back. After a minute, I stuck my head around the door. He was standing in front of the mirror inspecting himself with bemusement.

“Grey hairs, grey hairs,” he muttered.

“Did you find the box with your drawings in, Griff? The one under the bed?”

“Oh! Right, right, let me see…” The room was spare and restful in pastel green. As in the lounge, the cupboards were dotted with post-it notes: socks, ties, t-shirts. One, saying simply MURIEL, adorned a pack of tablets on the bedside table. They were tranquillisers. A brand the girls in prison had sworn by.

Retrieving the box from underneath the bed, Griff carried it to the dining area, where he set it down on the table and opened it.

“My word,” he said joyfully. “Happy hours! I’d forgotten some of these entirely. Now this one’s Helvellyn, the long route, as I remember. Look at all those notes I wrote! And Scafell Pike, my goodness. That was in September. A glorious day but so breezy I thought we were going to get blown right off the hill!”

He leafed excitedly through the pages, arranging them across the table. When I asked, he could recall events along each walk, striding confidently back into the past.

“These are very good,” I said.

“Well, thank you, um…”

“Eden.”

“Eden?”

“I’m a friend of Muriel’s. She’s just popped out for five minutes.”

“A friend of Muriel’s?”

“We met at Waterhead when I was painting there. A girl fell into the lake and we had to fish her out, all dripping wet. Do you remember the Lady of the Lake?”

“The Lady of the Lake!” he said eagerly. “I do, I do! In that long red–” He waved his arms about. “Whatever happened to her?”

“She’s fine. She made a full recovery.” I turned back to the pseudo-Wainwrights, which seemed a safe, anchored subject, and asked him to pick out his favourite drawings, which he did with modesty.

“Not as good as the real thing, of course,” he said. “Sometimes it’s frustrating, coming up against your limits.”

“I know that feeling all right.”

“But you have to do the best you can regardless, don’t you?”

“I suppose,” I said. “Why did you stop doing these drawings, Griff?”

“Well…” He looked puzzled. “Who knows? I just stopped.”

“Maybe you should start again.” I picked up the Helvellyn sketch. “Did you make a bird’s eye map for this one?”

“That was the Wainwright route, you know. He drew a map. I wouldn’t want to copy.”

“But his is about fifty years old: there are bound to be differences. Have you got his Eastern Fells, and an OS map? Let’s just compare.”

Griff looked around and discovered both on the bookshelf. We spread the map out over the sketches, discussing how Wainwright did it, and with my prompting Griff set to work on his own version of a bird’s eye plan, carefully etching in crags and walls in miniature.

He was absorbed. With the work in front of him he didn’t lose his place: it was easy for him to see what came next, the route leading him on up the hill and across the paper. He hummed as he drew. I was pleased with myself. A small triumph to tell Muriel.

When my phone rang, he glanced up, startled.

“It’s just my brother,” I said reassuringly, checking the screen. “Don’t mind me. You go on with your drawing.” I moved away to talk to Allen.

“I spoke to my ex-colleague,” Allen said. “About that guy you were asking after, the former finance officer?”

“Uh-huh.” I kept my eyes on Griff, trying to retrace his steps across the map.

“Your source may have been right,” said Allen. “Something was going on. A couple of policemen turned up at the offices two years ago, he said, conducting interviews, and took various computers away, but he didn’t know what it was all about. They kept it hush hush. He was new there at the time. Not high up enough in the echelons to get the full gen.”

“But he thought it concerned the person I mentioned?”

“Possibly. The guy got ill and had to leave, right? Nothing happened after that. Whatever it was, it died a death.”

“Okay. Thanks, Allen.”

I studied Griff. He’d lost his thread: the spell was broken. He shuffled through his batch of pages, unsure of what he was doing. I peered over his shoulder.

“You’re up to Dollywagon Pike,” I told him. “See it? There you go.”

I drank my tea while he drew on. Whatever Griff had been involved in back then – if anything – he was no longer, that was certain, and I had no way of pursuing it right now. It didn’t really matter.

A more important worry claimed my attention, taking me back to Raven How to feel my way around the studio with its stormy, ominous paintings. I imagined Russell raging through the house while Ruby did her best to ignore him.

And then Delilah. With a lurch of my stomach I reflected that Russell had no fatherly feelings for Delilah. If he got angry again…

I cradled my phone. I ought to ring the police, now.

And say what, exactly? Russell’s a moody bugger who might have killed Isaac because of his wife’s affair?… That’s right, the wife who gave him an alibi. No, that didn’t work. Why would she do that? Or maybe he managed to slip out past her unseen. But surely, even so, Ruby would suspect?

I was out of my depth. I had the sense that there was always something I was missing, like a shadow that slid around the corner the closer to it I got.

I wanted to ring Hunter. He would work it out for me. But I didn’t have his number, and even as I contemplated trying to track him down, his face flashed before me, scornful and severe. Bloody sanctimonious holier-than-thou copper… I closed my eyes for a second against the memory.

No, I couldn’t ring Hunter. However, 999 seemed too extreme. It would have to be Kendal police station. I could at least tell them about Selena and the unlicensed gun: and then I could lead on to my suspicions about Russell.

So I said to Griff, “Muriel will be back from the shops soon. How about a refill of tea while we’re waiting? I’ll go and put the kettle on.” I carried our mugs away into the little kitchen where a whole post-it forest appeared to have shed its leaves across the units. I filled the kettle and while it was purring into life took out my phone again. I rang directory enquiries and to the bored voice at the other end said,

“Kendal police station, please. What? Well, Cumbria police then. Whatever.”

With the phone pressed to my ear I looked up and saw Griff standing in the archway.

“Who are you ringing?” he said.

“Nobody.” I closed the call and put the phone on the worktop behind my back.

He moved forward into the kitchen with two long strides. “You were ringing the police! I heard you!” He began to reach forward for the phone.

“No I wasn’t,” I said, and spun round to snatch the phone away. It shot off the worktop onto the floor, while the half-mug of cold tea next to it went leaping all down my front.

“Wah!” I jumped back, dripping tea. Griff jumped back too. He looked alarmed. Not just alarmed: horrified.

“Sorry, Griff,” I said. “I’m Eden, remember? A friend of Muriel’s. I came round to see your pictures. Muriel’s just popped out. I was going to phone the police about my scooter that got stolen. But I’ll do it later. You go on with your map. I’ll clean up in here, and make us a fresh brew.” I tried to keep my voice normal and easy, hoping to calm him. I wasn’t sure if it was working. He still hovered in front of me.

“You came to see my pictures?”

“Excuse me,” I said. I reached round him for a tea-towel and dabbed myself in vain; the tea had splatted like cowpats across my nice cream jumper.

“Who are you?”

“Nobody. Just a friend, Griff. Don’t worry, everything’s all right.”

“But you were ringing the police! Why were you ringing the police? It was accidental!” he said. His eyes stared, straining as if trying to make out something in the dark.

“I know,” I said. “Don’t worry, Griff.”

“How do you know my name? What are you doing here?” He looked round wildly. “Where’s Muriel?”

Before I could answer, the doorbell rang. “That might be her now,” I said with relief. Even if it wasn’t, any distraction would be welcome. “You sit down, Griff. I’ll get the door.”

He didn’t move. I slid past him as quickly as I could, and put on my coat before answering the door, to cover the evidence of tea-flinging from Muriel. But it wasn’t her.

“Hallo, Matt!” I said warmly. “How nice to see you! Come in. Muriel’s just popped out…” It was only as I said this that I began to think, damn, he’s come here looking for Freddie. Griff was staring at us both in something close to panic.

“I’m sure you remember Matt, from Freddie’s bookshop,” I said cajolingly.

“Do you remember me, Griff?” said Matt pleasantly. “Georgy, Porgy, Pudding and Pie, kissed the girls and made them cry. Only I didn’t make her cry, did I?”

“Who?” I said. “Do you want a cup of tea, Matt?”

“No, I won’t be staying long enough for that, thanks,” said Matt, and he lunged out with his right fist, clad in a black glove, and hit Griff, throwing him back so that he sprawled against the wall.

“What are you doing?” I cried. “It’s not his fault!” for I thought that somehow he must blame Griff for Freddie’s indiscretion.

Matt didn’t answer. He hit Griff again, in the face, before I caught hold of his arm. Then he stood quite still with his arm raised. I couldn’t move it. It was as rigid as an iron bar.

Matt? Calm down! What was that for?”

Griff was staggering to his feet, holding his face. One eye was already closing.

“Okay,” said Matt, breathless and intent. He reached out suddenly to seize Griff’s hand, and pulling it towards me, raked it through my hair.

“What are you doing?” I tried to yell again, but my voice came out faint and squeaky. I felt Griff’s nails dig into my scalp. Griff cried out wordlessly, wrenching his arm free and taking quite a clump of my hair with it. Matt punched him one more time, on the chin, and this time Griff went right down on the floor. I tried to get between them but Matt pushed me hard through the archway to the kitchen and sent me crashing into the fridge. I clutched at its handle.

“Matt! Stop it! Is this about Freddie?”

“Freddie? You think I care about Freddie and his pretty boys? I know what he’s been up to. It’ll give me a good out when I need it.” It was said in a low voice, between clenched teeth. Matt strode back into the living area.

“But it’s not Griff’s fault!” I cried. Scrambling unsteadily to my feet, I lurched after him. Griff was lying by the sofa, groaning. “What’s Griff done wrong?”

“He’s hit you, that’s what,” said Matt. “Don’t worry, Griff. It was self-defence. She attacked you first. She nicked your wallet and smashed things up a bit.”

As he spoke, he bent down and took Griff’s wallet from his pocket. Griff seemed barely able to flap a hand at him, let alone protest.

Matt glanced around: scooped Griff’s mobile phone off the mantelpiece, then whisked the pair of china swans off it and sent them crashing into the dead hearth. Lifting the newly purchased watercolour, he surveyed it for a second with tilted head, before punching his fist through it. Its rags joined the shattered shards of swan.

“That’ll do,” he said, nodding. My portrait of Selena, underneath the watercolour, was exposed. Matt took it up, smiled, and looked over at me as he kissed it.

“Georgy Porgy,” he said. “Yes, I kissed her, nice and brotherly, no tongues. The way she likes. But I never fucked her. That would have made her cry.”

I tried to ask something, but it came out incoherent. I no longer knew what to ask.

“Now then,” he said, his hand diving into his pocket. It came out again with a sharp click, and was suddenly holding a knife. He advanced towards Griff, who was struggling to sit up, his mouth open, staring at us with his undamaged eye.

“No,” I said. I tried to grab Matt. He whipped his arm sideways: the blade missed me narrowly, and I was sent flying against the table. The OS map slithered off on top of me in a noisy waterfall of folds. I cowered by the table leg.

“Matt! What’s going on?” I appealed. “Is this about Freddie?”

His eyelids half-lowered in derision. “Haven’t you got it yet? This is about you.” The knife slashed downwards at the leather sofa, ripping the cushions which burst open to vomit yellowed foam. Matt flung the Wainwright and Griff’s sketches in the air: the maps fluttered desperately before fainting on the floor. By now the room was a burglarised mess.

Matt turned and gave me a considered, measuring look.

“But you know that, don’t you?” he said. “Playing the dumb innocent.”

“Know what?” I croaked. “I don’t know what you mean.” That knife blade hypnotised me like a snake. I dared not take my eyes from it.

“Selena told me that you’d worked it out. And here I was thinking I was doing a nice job of nudging your suspicious little mind Freddie’s way. Selena was in quite a panic when she rang me. It’s turned out convenient, though. Turned out very nicely.”

“Matt?” His words made no sense. I couldn’t fit anything together.

Griff was dazedly getting to his feet, his hand pressed, trembling, to his face. Matt leant against the mantelpiece and watched him with a smile.

My slow, bewildered brain began to think. My phone was still on the kitchen worktop, along with lots of knives and large hard metal objects. So when Matt’s head turned to study Griff, I jumped up and dived into the kitchen.

Matt moved faster. He grabbed me by my coat, twisting me round painfully and slamming me against the kitchen units. Then he seized my phone and pocketed it.

“Leave the girl alone! You won’t get away with this, you thief!” cried Griff hoarsely.

“Oh, I think I will.”

Griff stumbled towards us: the knife lashed out to draw a swift, vicious line across his jumper. Griff flinched back.

“Like that, is it?” said Matt, with hot anticipation in his voice. “You want a fight? That’s fine by me. The worse state you’re in, the better.” He began to move in on Griff, the knife glinting.

I hurled myself at him. The knife, knocked sideways, slashed Griff’s sleeve. Then I kicked Matt in the legs until he hit me. As I began to fall over, he dragged me upright and gripped me tight, my back against his chest. I could feel his heart thumping, wild and fast. No, that must be mine.

“Enough,” he said, breathing heavily. “Time we were going.” The knife was fondling my cheek, horribly close to my right eye. I had to lean back against Matt’s shoulder. His other hand closed on my breast. He laughed.

He began to drag me backwards, towards the door. Griff touched his sleeve with bewilderment and looked down, dazed, at the smear of blood on his hand.

“Don’t forget to tell them what happened, will you, Griff?” called Matt. “How she robbed you and stabbed you before she ran? Think you can remember all that? Never mind. I think the scene speaks for itself.”

We were nearly at the door. I yelled out,

“Write down what happened, Griff! Write it down!

Then the door slammed closed behind us and Matt was hustling me down the concrete stairwell with the taste of blood in my mouth and the blade whispering in my ear.

“Don’t scream,” he said quietly.

“I won’t. Matt, you don’t have to do this!” I said, for I was still hoping that somehow I’d got this all wrong, that Matt was still a friend. He’d just made a mistake. He’d stop and realise in a minute. “Think of Freddie,” I gasped.

“Fuck Freddie.” The gloved hand under my jacket squeezed. “You too, if I had time. You think I give a toss about Freddie? I’m not gay. Shut up! You make another sound, you’re dead.”

We clattered down the last of the stairs and out into the darkness.

There was no-one in the car park. Only three cars. One of them was a hatchback, a black shadow in the blotchy, inadequate streetlights.

“Open the boot,” said Matt. I didn’t want to. Cold was creeping into me inexorably, making me shake, freezing me right through: the cold not of the night air, but of the truth, that Matt meant this, that Matt had hit me, that Matt was not my friend at all but my potential killer.

I was afraid of that knife. I used to be contemptuous of girls who let themselves be raped, men who gave up their wallets at knifepoint without a murmur. Now I knew better. That knife was one second from an artery, from my eyes, my heart. I opened the boot.

“Hands behind your back,” said Matt. I felt a cold click, click against my wrists. Handcuffs. “Now get in.”

“What?”

He slapped me, hard, and while I was off-balance up-ended me and heaved me into the car boot. The parcel shelf closed on my head: the door slammed shut.

I heard the driver’s door open. The car swayed as he got in.

“Matt!”

“Shut up.” He started the engine and put the radio on loud. Dubstep filled the car like a huge, heavy, restless animal. I was lying on my side, curled up, my shoulders achingly cramped. With my arms handcuffed behind me, I couldn’t budge. My feet were jammed against the edge of the boot: my head knocked painfully on its other side.

We were on the move. Going downhill: I slid. I tried to block the music out and concentrate on the direction we were taking, visualising roads. A left turn. Then straight for a while. Heading southwards out of Ambleside? I couldn’t judge the speed, so I couldn’t guess the distance. It probably seemed further than it was. The road swung left, then right again.

It didn’t take us long. I thought it must be barely two or three miles when he turned the music down and the car swung sharp right, grinding me against my metal wall. A little further on, we stopped.

I didn’t want to stop. I hadn’t wanted to climb into this car, but while it was being driven round I was at least safe. Sort of.

I heard him get out and walk to the back of the car. When he opened the boot, it was dark. I couldn’t sit up: he hauled me roughly upright and jammed a woolly hat right down over my eyes and nose, blinding me. A scarf was rammed into my mouth and tied behind my head.

“All right,” said Matt, “let’s go.”

He lifted me out and stood me on the ground. Stones underfoot. Distant traffic. Otherwise, it was very still. A duck quacked somewhere: there was the faint lapping of water. Windermere. I guessed, from the likely distance, we must be somewhere around Brockhole.

“Walk,” he said. So I walked, his hand gripping my arm, that knife a wasp’s sting in the back of my head. He made me step up onto something wooden that gave slightly. The lapping of water was louder. It was beneath us. After a few more steps, he picked me up under the arms and swung me down onto another surface a couple of feet lower: a surface that rocked and slapped against the water smartly with disapproving tuts. A boat.

“Sit down,” said Matt savagely, pressing me onto a narrow seat. The boat rocked again as he moved round. A motor started up: a small outboard. There was a faint breeze on my neck as the boat began to chug away from the jetty.

“Ng,” I said through my woolly gag. I wanted to get off. Matt didn’t answer. I sat frozen to the cold bench, gripping the back of it with my fingers, afraid of moving lest I should fall in.

My mind flew back to Griff, bleeding and bewildered, alone in the flat. Write it down, I’d said. A fat lot of use that advice was, when he couldn’t remember my name, or Matt’s. And by the time Muriel arrived home he would have long forgotten everything that happened. It would have been slipping from his memory even as Matt drove me away.

But the clues would be clear to read. The knife wound, the wrecked room, the missing wallet. My skin and hair under Griff’s nails. And my fingerprints everywhere. None of Matt’s.

Well, no surprise there, Inspector Irlam would say, shaking his jowls. That Eden Shirer: a dodgy character. What can you expect? And Hunter–

“Ng!” I said again, in protest and anguish. Matt laughed.

“Don’t worry,” he answered over the rough purr of the engine. “Not long now.”

Not long to where? Which way was he taking me: down Windermere or straight across?

I guessed across, perhaps to somewhere inaccessible by road. What lay across the water from Brockhole? I tried to visualise the map. Watbarrow Point, Wray Castle, wooded slopes, all sorts of possible hideaways for a boat.

The engine cut out. We stopped, gently rocking. It was a nearly windless evening, the water almost as calm as it had been by the jetty.

“Here we are,” said Matt. Where were we? The boathouse at Wray? Surely we hadn’t been moving long enough to get that far? With the idiocy of fear, I told myself we were just pausing, waiting for something, for the right time, before chugging on to find another jetty.

“You screwed me up,” said Matt softly. “You and your fucking paintings. I thought it would be a nice little revenge to pin Isaac’s murder on you. But you couldn’t even get that right. Can’t even ride a fucking scooter without falling off.”

My brain was tripping over itself. Revenge? For what?

“Call yourself a con-artist,” said Matt, “you stupid arrogant interfering shit-for-brains, you don’t know what it means.” His voice was full of whispered scorn. “That’s twice I’ve had to start again from scratch. It was bad enough the first time when Luke fucked me over on the motor business. He shouldn’t have gone dobbing in his mates like that. He was weak. He shouldn’t have listened to his dad. He should have listened to me.”

“Ng?”

“They never caught me, though. It takes more than that to keep me down. I began again in Liverpool, in the import line, ran a carousel fraud till they clamped down on it. Had to pull out, started up again in fake antiques. I’d built up a whole network when you went and wrecked it all. You and your useless half-arsed poxy paintings. Fucking moron. It wasn’t just Lionel you took down with you.”

“Ng!”

“I lost all my stock, my money, everything. I had to go to ground,” said Matt, in that bitter, quiet tone. “Lucky that Freddie was besotted and gave me a bolt-hole. I was just getting a good little number going in signed editions, easy money for a few scribbles on a fly-leaf. And then you had to fucking well turn up again, didn’t you?”

The boat lurched. I felt the knife blade cold against my cheek again. His voice came close.

“Pity they couldn’t pin it on you after all. I was so looking forward to seeing you in court. But then you had to stick your big nose in, didn’t you? Sniffing round that letter. All those questions about me and Luke and how he met Selena. She said you were worse than the police. Going on and on.”

“Ng!”

“You asked too many questions.” Matt’s voice grated. “I thought I’d thrown you a false trail, but you’re a sneaky little bitch, aren’t you? You worked it out. Selena rang me. You knew that I killed Isaac, she said, and you were going to blab to the police. But you left it too late.”

The knife slashed: and the scarf that gagged me was cut through. I felt it slacken: but though I tried to spit it out, I couldn’t get rid of it. Cloth still filled my mouth. Matt pulled the hat up so that I could see.

“Know where you are?” he said. “There’s no point shouting. No-one’ll hear.”

He was a dark shadow, a silhouette against the far lights of the shore that clustered away up to my left. That was Bowness. I turned my head and saw only a couple of distant lights twinkling faintly. Black hills massed against the inky sky. I couldn’t tell where the shore was. But it didn’t look like it was anywhere close.

“Ng?” The aching chill of fear was creeping over me again.

“Turn around,” said Matt. He sounded ordinary. “I’m taking the cuffs off.”

The fear relaxed a little. First the gag, now the cuffs. It wasn’t as bad as I had thought. I managed to twist round, kneeling on the seat, and felt his hands by mine. Two clicks: the cuffs were loose and dangling from one wrist.

“Throw these in,” said Matt. He handed me Griff’s wallet; his phone; my phone. One by one I threw them into the darkness and heard them splash.

I don’t know if I heard, or felt, the faint swish of air behind my head. As I jerked instinctively, the blow glanced off my temple and landed on my ear.

I keeled over. Couldn’t help it. Once down, I decided to stay there, my head slumped against the side. If I played dead, Matt wouldn’t hit me again. I just wanted him to start the engine and get us moving across this black, cold emptiness.

So I let myself go limp as he wrenched the handcuffs from my wrist. I heard them plop into the water.

“Don’t want them finding those,” said Matt, “if they ever find you, that is.”

And with that he seized me by the legs and tipped me headfirst into the lake.

 

-eight

 

 

If it hadn’t been for the scarf still gagging me, I would probably have drowned right there and then. As it was, my first instinctive gasp of shock consisted not entirely of cold water but mostly of wool. Meanwhile, the lake smacked me around the neck, got me in a headlock, and filled my ears and eyes but not my mouth. Not yet.

I went under, and began to flail frantically. I didn’t know which way was up. It seemed an endless age before my head broke the surface. I wanted to scream out, from the cold and terror, but the wool still gagged me and after one unsatisfactory gulp I went back under.

When I came up for the second time I was desperate for air. I managed to tear off the scarf and trod water, gasping. The outboard motor had started up again: its rackety purr passed some way off to my left and then began to fade. It was leaving me behind.

I was already finding it hard work treading water. I kicked my shoes off and went onto my back, sculling with my arms.

That was better. I couldn’t see anything except the sky, but I could breathe, and I didn’t need to kick so hard to stay afloat. I concentrated on getting my panicky gasping under control. Belatedly, I realised that parts of my back and chest and even arms were still dry, thanks to the old puffa jacket with its too-tight cuffs, although the chill tide of water was already seeping in. My ear throbbed where Matt had hit me; but that was the least of my worries.

The boat was barely audible by now. Surely he would come back, thought the hopeful idiot in my head. He wouldn’t leave me here! I almost tried to shout; the only thing that stopped me was a dreadful lack of breath.

Then a more rational part of me kicked in, saying, He’s not coming back. That’s the whole point. Don’t shout. You don’t want him to come back. Get a grip, girl. You’re in cold water and you’ve got thirty minutes, forty at most, before you pass out from hypothermia. I remembered the voice of my PE teacher. Water survival. We all jumped in the deep end in our pyjamas.

I had no pyjamas to make into buoyancy aids. I had a puffa jacket that was slightly buoyant for now but wouldn’t be much longer. I wasn’t in a nice warm pool with a temperature of 28 degrees centigrade: it was more like 4 or 5.

And how far from the shore was I? At Brockhole, Windermere wasn’t at its widest – only two thirds of a mile or so – but it was at its deepest. Two hundred feet of icy blackness, with me bobbing around on the top.

At the thought I began to flounder and sink. I swallowed a mouthful of water and had to force myself to lie steady on the surface again. Breathe. Kick. That’s it. No problem. It won’t pull you down, it’ll hold you up. It’s a great big cushion of water.

Of freezing water. But if it was, say, six hundred metres to shore, that was only twenty lengths of Carlisle baths. Less. That was nothing. I could do that. Ten years ago, I could swim thirty lengths in a nice warm pool, even if I hadn’t swum much since.

So pretend this was a nice warm pool. I could fake it, couldn’t I? My speciality, after all. Carlisle baths on Sunday morning: echoing with shouts and chlorine. Now get going.

I set off in the opposite direction to the boat, towards where I hoped Wray castle might be, doing front crawl. Immediately a surge of icy water rushed in under my coat and numbed me into shock. I switched to breast-stroke, and alternated it with lying on my back to kick, staring up at the stars, trying not to think how cold I was. Bubbles of air tickled their way up my back and escaped at my collar, burping gently by my ear. I couldn’t feel my fingers. I was grateful for the woolly hat, which acted like a wet-suit for my scalp.

I rested, listening again. No engine. Matt had gone. If he wanted me to drown, why hadn’t he pushed me under? But that might have been tricky. He would have needed a torch to see me, and that might have attracted attention. He must have assumed I was unconscious. And even if the slap of cold water were to revive me, maybe he thought I couldn’t swim in it for long…

A small wave burst over me, so that I struggled like a caught fish until my face broke the surface again. Keep it steady. That’s fine. Another session on my back: it was easier, but too slow. I was barely moving.

Selena in my kitchen, dripping. Can you not swim, then? And what had I answered? No, not when it’s as cold as that.

Selena and Matt… She’d rung Matt, in a panic, to tell him I had guessed who Isaac’s killer was. Although I’d had Russell in my mind, I’d never said his name to her. But she knew the murderer was Matt, so she leapt to her own conclusions: and now they both wanted me dead.

How many lengths had I done by now? Three, four? Say five. Only another fifteen to go. All I could hear was water gurgling, murmuring, talking: telling me this was not my place. I was an alien here. I switched to breaststroke again, agonisingly clumsy, noticing how everything was seizing up and winding down.

Stop noticing. Just swim. Think about something else. Selena: she was involved in this. But how? And why?

Kiss the girls and make them cry. Just who had kissed Selena in the dormitory, that evening at Raven How? We’d seen the three of them emerging: Selena, Matt and Griff… Somebody had kissed her, and somebody had watched. And who had Russell spotted on the dark road with her?

Matt and Selena. His best friend’s wife. Yet Matt had been so close to Luke once; gave him that poetry book. He’d loved him, hadn’t he? Loved him and led him away from the farm, down shady paths. The Wordsworth letter. Matt must have forged that: he was the literary one. The clever one. And then the motor business: had he meant the dodgy MOTs? Or was it the red diesel scam, when Luke got off with a caution in return for dobbing in his mates?

Matt blamed Isaac. Too much of his father in him. But did he really kill Isaac to revenge himself on me? No, no, surely not.

Abruptly I gulped in another mouthful of Windermere. The idea froze me as much as the cold water that seemed to be eating through both clothes and skin. Had I brought about Isaac’s death?

Yes. Yes, surely yes.

Matt had hidden himself from me, all but once. That strange, wistful memory of Luke: his heavy grace. My legs were heavy: as heavy as stone and almost as immobile. I rolled onto my back. The sky above me was like pitch, with not a single star. The distant lights of Bowness beckoned, and I kicked away from them.

So had Matt loved Luke, or not? He seduced Luke’s wife – except that he didn’t, not properly, because that would have made her cry.

I swallowed water, coughed it up again, tried not to retch, to get back into a rhythm. It was becoming harder.

Matt and Selena were in league. Had Luke known? Was that what made him reach for the gun? EVERYTHING IS AGAINST ME…

Luke must have felt betrayed by them both. Yet he still had his father, and Bryony, waiting in the wings. Why hadn’t they been enough? THERE’S NO PLACE LEFT, he scribbled in his last despair, but surely he was wrong.

I was struggling. Mind and body were both slow and clumsy. My jacket was soggy now, weighing me down, no help any more. I managed to pull it off, and let it drift away into the depths while I lay on my back, trying to summon up the energy to kick. I could barely move my limbs. Everything ached. There was a lump in my throat like a pebble: it was difficult to breathe.

Matt was expecting me to drown. Why not just oblige him? I was so cold, so tired, and who would miss me? Who would care? No great loss to anyone. No real friends. None of them would miss me, nor my family, nor Hunter, and certainly not Nick.

Everything is against me, I thought wretchedly. There’s no place left. Why not let go and drift down like my coat into black oblivion?

I stopped kicking and at once began to sink. As cold water rushed into my mouth, I heard Greta scolding furiously.

For Christ’s sake, Eden, live in the real world, can’t you? She was exasperated. The real world? Where was that? Oh, wake up, said Greta. I’m real, and so are Mum and Dad and Allen. You can’t do this to them. We care. We’re not all fakes like you.

I supposed Greta must know best. She always did. They cared for me, imperfect as I was, and imperfect as they were: they weren’t all fakes like Matt.

I kicked again, surfaced, and forced my limbs back into a grim pretence of movement. I was determined not to drown. Greta would never forgive me.

Keep swimming. So what if you can’t feel your legs? Just do another thirty strokes. Then twenty. Then another ten. Then five. Then three.

Scenes flickered across my eyes, as if on fast forward. The old dog slumped and bloody in the yard; the gun balanced on Selena’s arm. I wanted you to rescue me, to make me real. I followed you. Sliding a handful of wet stones into her pocket, wading out towards the centre of the lake…

The sound of the water changed. A current pulled at me. I began to thrash and sink again; and then my toe scraped bottom. After three more frantic, splashy strokes, I could put my feet down. The darkness of land loomed ahead: I heard the faint consoling shush of ripples stroking the gravelly shore. Up to my neck in freezing water, I began to laugh and cry at the same time.

Save it, said the sterner, sensible part of me. Get yourself out first.

I couldn’t do it. Those last thirty metres were the hardest of all. The shallower the water, the heavier I got, so bereft of energy that I couldn’t even wade. I felt like an anchor tethered to the bottom: like one of those iron statues on Crosby beach, cemented underwater, frozen.

I crawled out at last, on hands and knees. As I flopped onto the shore I heard police sirens lamenting, away across the water. A pity they weren’t coming for me. I dragged myself a little further forward and curled up in a ball. I was safe now. Just rest a bit.

Don’t you dare, said my sterner self. It was beginning to sound like Greta. Pick yourself up and move. Find a road. Look for lights. Find a house. You can lie down when you find a house to lie down in. Not before.

I didn’t obey myself immediately. I just lay there, until I began to shiver so violently that it hurt. Then I made myself stand up and stagger along that little, unseen beach, which was edged by a bank and an invisible barbed wire fence which I discovered when I ripped my trousers on it. I managed to climb over it and then fell down. Grass. That was nice. Smelt good. I lay there for a while with my nose in it until my stern self – definitely Greta – kicked me to my feet and made me stagger on.

I tried to work out where I might be. My brain wasn’t up to it. But there were no trees here: that was good, for it meant I hadn’t drifted as far south as the woods at Claife, where I could find myself wandering along miles of deserted forest paths. This was just grass. Then a wall. Climb it. The other side had a different feel underfoot: the worn stones of a track.

I followed it uphill, trying to ignore my screaming muscles and my protesting stockinged feet, and after what felt like a mile but was probably just a couple of hundred metres found a wooden gate, glimmering palely in the starlight, and then a high hedge and beyond it the black bulk of a house with lights glowing through windows, thank God, so warm, so butter-yellow I fell in love with the colour on the spot.

I trailed up the path and met a front door. My fingers were throbbing: I could feel them, all right, I just couldn’t feel anything with them. I banged on the door with my fists, and when it didn’t seem loud enough, picked up the boot scraper I’d just stubbed my toe on and swung at the door with that.

A hall light came on. I dropped the boot scraper. The butter-yellow glow rushed out and hugged me. Framed by the light stood a middle-aged man, striped shirt, gripping a baseball bat.

“Good God,” he said. I was incapable of speech: I just leaned there, panting, trusting that my appearance would speak for me. After a moment he opened the door wider and I stumbled into the hall. Big house, nice carpet, though not any more now I was smearing bits of Windermere across it. Impressive staircase: somebody ran down it, voices, faces, female. I was ushered into a flowery kitchen and made to sit down next to an Aga pumping out heat. Wonderful. I closed my eyes.

“Better call an ambulance,” said someone. My eyes flew open.

“No! No ambulance!” I said thickly. I didn’t want to be carted off. I had to tell somebody about – what? Oh, yes. About Griff. And Matt. “Police,” I said. “Kendal station. Someone tried to drown me.”

“You what? Hang on!” He hurried away, and I was left with two women. The middle-aged one was anxiously sheltering a pair of eager children in pyjamas. The other, younger one took charge, producing a towel with which she began to vigorously dry my hair.

“You will have a hot bath,” she said decidedly. I shook my head. No time for that. I had to go and rescue Griff. And where was Matt now?

“Hot-water bottle,” she said firmly, “hot drink and duvet. You will take the children to bed, please, Mrs James? I am sorting out the lady here.”

“Aaah,” wailed the children in chorus, not wanting to leave, but their mother hustled them away.

“I am Krista,” said the young woman. “You will take off the wet clothes.” In a few minutes she had me stripped down to my underwear and wrapped in a towel and a duvet, with a mug of hot milk held between my hands. “Mr James is phoning now for police,” she said, and a moment later the man returned, disgruntled, the phone in his hand.

“You wouldn’t believe the trouble,” he said. “I keep getting put through. They want to talk to you now.”

He gave me the phone. There was some woman on the other end, crisp and faintly patronising. She called me dear. My mouth was numb: I said my name three times before she understood it, and tried to tell her what had happened although it was all too complicated, she couldn’t follow and I kept having to repeat myself.

“Tell Sergeant Brigg,” I said in desperation. “At Ambleside. Inspector Irlam and Sergeant Brigg.”

At last she rang off. I didn’t know what was happening. They were sending a car. Where to? Who for? I groaned, and Krista thrust a hot water bottle at me.

“For the stomach,” she said. I wrapped my arms around it under the duvet, feeling the heat roar through me: the receding cold raked my limbs angrily as it fled.

“Drink the milk hot. You are needing bath, then bed,” said Krista, cajoling me. She was enjoying herself. I shook my head. I didn’t want a bath, nor bed.

The phone rang; Mr James answered and held it out for me.

Hunter’s voice. “Are you all right?”

“More or less,” I said. “Hunter, it was Matt. He killed Isaac. He tried to kill me. He came round when I was at Griff’s flat–”

He cut me short. “I know. Griff had already told us about Matt being there. We’re on to him.”

“Griff told you?”

“In a manner of speaking. Muriel found him and rang us. Larry’s on his way up to Keswick to intercept Matt now. Don’t worry about him.” He sounded calm and matter-of-fact.

“Hunter! It’s not just Matt – it’s Selena too.”

His voice changed. “What? How do you know?”

“She rang Matt to tell him where I was. She thought I was on to Isaac’s killer. I wasn’t, but Matt thought I was about to dob him in – that’s why he came for me. Selena’s in on this.”

“Damn. Bloody hell. So if he heads for – I’ll drive straight over to Borran’s Rigg in case he turns up there. Where are you? High Wray, isn’t it?”

“Somewhere like that.”

“Are they looking after you?”

“They’re trying to put me to bed,” I said.

“Good. Stay there.”

“But, Hunter, if Matt goes–” Too late. He’d rung off.

“Bed, yes?” said Krista.

“No!” I stood up shakily: the hot-water bottle clunked, gurgling, to the floor. “I never told him about the gun!”

“The gun?” Her eyes widened.

“I need to get dressed. I have to go and help someone.” Bryony was alone on that farm with Selena, with the key of the gun case round her neck.

“You’re not in a fit state to go anywhere,” protested Mr James. “You’re much better off staying here. Isn’t she, Krista?”

“I will find you clothes,” announced Krista. “Next I will give you the lift. Okay, Mr James? You said I can have the car for my night off.” She didn’t wait for an answer – I’m not sure it would have made any difference in any case – but promptly bustled away. I sat down and finished my milk while Mr James fidgeted, pretending to tidy up around me. He had no idea what to do.

Krista arrived with an armful of clothes and flapped her hands at him. “Out, now! Go! She gets dressed.” She shooed him back into the hall while I clothed myself in tracksuit trousers and a faded hoodie advertising AKADEMIKA PEDAGOGICZNA. She flung open a cupboard and umpteen wellies fell out. I picked a pair and followed her to the garage, where she climbed into a chunky Japanese four-wheel drive. I could hardly haul myself into it. My legs felt as if they’d been replaced by artificial limbs which I hadn’t yet worked out how to use.

“Where do we go?” asked Krista eagerly.

“Towards Skelwith Bridge. I’ll give you directions.” We rumbled off through the dark, the cloaked trees bending down to us, the scattered lights pale beacons in a lake of night. We charged through the silence and all the hills turned to look at our clatter.

I was trying to work out where to go first: straight to the farm, or to Raven How to warn Ruby and Russell, and maybe gather them up as reinforcements? I still hadn’t decided when Krista did a racing turn onto the Little Langdale road.

Events made my decision for me. The blue flashing lights were a shout at the sky: I didn’t need to hear the siren to know that the police had got there first. As we approached the end of the farm track, both siren and blue lights were abruptly switched off.

“Stop here,” I said, and Krista pulled up. “Thank you. You’d better go home now.” But she parked up and followed me as I hurried cautiously up the track towards the farm.

The house looked dark. A lamp glared from the corner of the farmyard, flooding it in ominous ochre light and sculpting strange shadows. Two police cars were parked behind the bull’s shed, out of direct sight of the house. A huddle of police was gathered there: Hunter and Fiona, and two young constables whom I didn’t know, talking into radios.

We weren’t the only arrivals. Someone was squeezing over the stile.

“Ruby?”

“I heard a shot. What’s going on?” said Ruby, breathless.

“I don’t know.” And I didn’t want to imagine.

As we entered the yard, one of the policemen turned towards us. It was Hunter.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded. “Go back home. Get them out of here, George. And you, Eden! I thought I told you to stay where you were.”

“I had to come – I was worried about Bryony. There’s a shotgun in there, locked in a chest, and Bryony’s got the key.”

“Too late,” said Hunter. His voice sounded odd. “She’s barricaded in the upstairs bedroom with Selena and Matt. He heard us coming. He’s got the gun. And he’s already used it.”

 

r Twenty-nine

 

 

“Oy! Brigg! You still there?” The yell was Matt’s, echoing down from the dark house.

Hunter walked across to the corner of the shed, where he planted his feet apart and shone a torch upward.

“I’m still here,” he called strongly.

I backed away from the police cars into the shadows by the wall, from where I could see the house yet remain hidden. A figure crouched at the casement of the big upper window, which had been thrown open. I recognised Matt’s silhouette, but his face was a tangle of darkness, impossible to read. There was no sign of the gun.

Krista huddled alongside me. “Exciting,” she whispered.

“Come out into the open where I can see you properly!” shouted Matt, his voice as harsh and uneven as the rough stone at my back.

Hunter stepped out into the pool of yellow lamplight. “Where are Bryony and Selena, Matt? I’d like to see them.” He sounded steady, clear, unworried. “Are they both all right?”

“At the moment.”

“What was the gunshot? Is anyone hurt?”

“Not yet.”

“I’d like you to verify that, please. I’d like to see them.”

Matt gestured, and Bryony appeared at the window, haggard in the torchlight. She was hugging herself with her arms across her chest.

“Are you injured?” Hunter called.

She shook her head, uncertainly. “I’m sorry,” she said. “He got the key to the gun safe off me. I couldn’t stop him.”

“But nobody’s been shot?”

“It fired through the floor,” said Bryony.

“Where’s Selena?”

“She’s all right.” Her voice was small and shocked.

“Where is the gun now?”

“I’ve got it,” said Matt. He raised it for a second above the level of the window frame.

“Matt? We need to talk. We know you were at Griff’s flat this evening. We know you were involved in an assault on Griff.”

“Griff’s flat?” Matt said in astonishment and contempt. “I assaulted Griff? Who told you that? He didn’t! That’s a fucking lie!”

“We want this to end now,” said Hunter evenly. “We don’t want anyone to get hurt. I’d like you to release the two women. Just let them come downstairs and out to us.”

Selena charged into sight and gripped the window-frame. “I’m not going anywhere!” she yelled down at us. “I haven’t done anything wrong. This is my house! You can’t take me away from here!”

“All right, that’s enough,” said Matt savagely, and he elbowed her away.

“Let Bryony go at least,” called Hunter.

“No chance!” said Matt. “When I’m ready.”

“And when will that be?”

“I’ll let you know,” said Matt. “Now fuck off. You’re trespassing.”

Hunter retreated around the corner of the barn again, back to the other police officers. “Have we heard from Armed Response yet?”

“They say they’re on their way,” said Fiona, “but still half an hour at least.”

“Christ! We need back-up here, and quickly.” He was very tense. “Tell HQ, and try and get hold of Larry again. Find out if he’s still in Keswick.”

Fiona nodded. “Will do.”

Hunter looked across at Ruby. “Have you not got rid of her yet, George?” he snapped at the young PC.

The constable gestured helplessly. “I can’t get her to go.”

“Hunter, I want to help!” exclaimed Ruby. “I’m sure this is all just a terrible misunderstanding. Selena must have got Matt entangled in her fantasies somehow. He’s such a sweet boy, he can’t mean this.”

Hunter spoke in his most formal voice. “I’d appreciate it if you could move right away, please, madam. The situation is not safe.”

“But I could talk to Selena! She responds to me.”

“No. Go back to your own house. We will notify you when the situation has been resolved. PC Gardner will escort you.” Hunter sounded perfectly collected and in control. But when he turned back to the lamplight I could see the sweat glistening on his forehead.

“Christ! That’s all I need, an audience. You go away too, Eden. Go back to Raven How with Ruby. I want everyone out of here.”

“If Armed Response are coming,” I said, “surely all you need to do is wait?”

Hunter gazed towards me, looking through the dark at something that I could not see. “You don’t understand,” he said. “I’ve already got it all wrong. Driving up here with all lights blazing when Matt didn’t even know we were on his trail. That’s why he fired the gun: we panicked him. I bet he only meant to collect Selena and run.”

“Don’t blame yourself, Hunter.”

But he shook his head. “I’ve blown it. I should have stuck to getting him to give up the gun and not let on about the rest. I should never have mentioned Griff. I’ve just totally fucked up. Now he knows that we know everything, and he’s desperate.” He looked at his watch. “Christ,” he muttered. “Half an hour?”

“Hang on,” I said. “How does he know we know everything?”

“Blue lights? Sirens? And you heard me– I just told him we found Griff.”

“But he doesn’t know what exactly Griff has said. And he doesn’t know I’m still alive. He doesn’t know that he’s up for a charge of attempted murder. Like Ruby said, this might just be a big misunderstanding. He’s trying to work it out, Hunter.”

“Christ,” said Hunter. “So am I.” He was wound up like a spring. He stalked over to Fiona and had another fierce murmur into the radio.

Meanwhile the young PC Gardner was still remonstrating uselessly with Ruby. In the end he gave up and came over to reassert his authority by herding me firmly away from the police cars, his determined hand glued to my arm. We both stopped at another shout from the farmhouse.

“Oy! Brigg! I want to talk!”

Hunter walked out into the heavy fall of yellow light. It encased him like a theatre spot. Matt was leaning carelessly on the open window frame: a catcalling spectator in the gallery. The gun was out of sight.

“Griff lied to you,” said Matt. “He’s not reliable.”

“I admit that I’m confused,” said Hunter carefully. “I’m not armed, as you can see, so there’s no need for any impulsive action on your part. We came along to clarify exactly what happened between you and Griff this evening.”

“How did you know I was there?” Matt challenged him.

“Griff was discovered by his wife suffering a minor knife injury and in a distressed state. There were signs of a struggle but there was no sign of his temporary carer, Eden Shirer,” said Hunter with a measured formality that conveyed the mundane nature of these events. “Griff was able to indicate to us that you were somehow involved. That’s all we know. You need to enlighten us.”

“He indicated? How? He’s a bloody nutcase. His memory’s fucked. You know that, don’t you?”

“I know.”

Matt stared down at Hunter as if weighing him up. “And did you know he was violent? As for that Shirer kid– she started it. I knew she was a jailbird, but I never thought she’d pull a stunt like that! It was shocking. It really put the wind up me. She should never have been left alone with him.”

“So it seems,” said Hunter evenly. “What actually happened?”

“I went round there to look for Freddie,” said Matt. “I knew he was meeting up with Griff’s wife and I was trying to find him.”

There was a faint commotion to the side of me, by the farm track. I couldn’t see who it was: but then I heard Freddie’s voice whispering to Fiona.

“You’ve got to let me past! I’ve been driving all over looking for him. I saw the blue lights and heard the sirens… Please! I’m his best friend. I might be able to help.”

“I’m sorry, sir. Stay well back, please.” She guided him to the shelter of the shed where I was already lurking.

Freddie recognised me in the darkness. “Eden, is that you? What on earth–”

“Ssh! Quiet!” The punctilious PC Gardner hissed him into silence and took a firmer hold of my arm.

Matt’s voice floated down to us again, echoing around the yard. “Things haven’t been so good between me and Freddie lately, you see. I was hoping we could talk things through. Use Muriel as a mediator.”

Freddie sighed and hung his head.

“Well, Muriel and Freddie weren’t at the flat, but that Shirer girl was,” said Matt earnestly. “She asked me in, all nice and polite at first. She put the kettle on – and then she began to – well, she began to taunt Griff.”

“Taunt him?” enquired Hunter.

“Asking him over and over about things he couldn’t remember. She was enjoying it. He was getting all confused and upset. I could see it, and I didn’t like it. So I asked her to stop.”

“I see,” said Hunter steadily. “What happened next?”

I glanced round at Freddie, not wanting him to hear this. It sounded too realistic. He was immobile, staring at the ground as he listened.

“Well, next she started messing the place up,” said Matt. “She dropped things on the floor. Pushed them off the mantelpiece. She found a picture of Selena and mocked him about it. She knew he liked Selena. He was getting more and more upset, and she was laughing, getting off on it. I tried to restrain her. But she pulled away and then Griff–”

His voice broke. He turned his head away, shaking it heavily. “Griff hit out at her. He grabbed her by the hair: and then she pulled a knife and slashed at him. She went crazy. Tore the place up. Ripped the sofas. I tried to get the knife off her, but she slashed my jacket too. I can show you. I was shouting, trying to stop her…”

Matt took a deep, gasping breath, leaning on the window-frame.

“In the end I managed to get her to turn on me instead.”

“How did you do that?”

“I reminded her who she was.” Matt laughed, humourlessly. “Told her how she’d end up back in jail. Well, she didn’t like that. She chased me out of the place waving her knife. I just ran. She was shouting how she’d shut me up, she’d make sure I never got the chance to tell anyone what happened.”

“How did it end?” asked Hunter quietly.

“I managed to get away from her. I found my car and drove straight here.”

“Why here?”

“I knew Selena had a shotgun. All I could think of was how to protect myself – and Selena too. The Shirer girl had been ranting about what a whore Selena was, how she’d led Griff on.”

“That’s a lie!” Selena yelled, grabbing at his arm. “I’m not a whore! I never led Griff on!”

“We know, we know that,” said Matt impatiently, shaking her off again. “She was lying, Selena. But I was worried that she’d come back here and…” With an expressive gesture he drew a hand across his throat.

“Let me get this straight,” said Hunter. “Griff was stabbed by Eden Shirer?”

“He wasn’t badly hurt, was he? I thought it was just his clothes that got cut. If only if he hadn’t lashed out at her… Maybe I could have stopped her then, but she was out of control…” Matt’s voice was full of sorrow and remorse as he confessed my guilt.

“So you left Griff alone in the flat?” asked Hunter.

“Yes. I shouldn’t have. I wasn’t thinking straight.” His voice quivered with anguish. “I should have rung the police, but I was too shaken by her chasing after me with that knife. So I came back for the gun, but then I – well, I lost my head when I saw the blueys. I fired it by pure accident: I didn’t mean to. It was just the shock.”

“When you saw the police cars,” supplied Hunter, like a grave schoolmaster.

“Right. I thought Shirer might have told some story, put you on to me. She really had it in for me. I thought she was following me on her scooter. She didn’t go back to the flat, did she? I should have thought of that. Is Griff all right?” Matt put his hand to his mouth as if in sudden shock. “Oh, my God, she didn’t meet Muriel? Or Freddie? Tell me she didn’t meet Freddie!”

It was a bad story, but he was a good actor. Freddie, who had stood immobile as a statue all this time, moved suddenly.

“It’s all right, Matt!” he called out, his voice cracking. “Everything’s all right! You don’t need to worry. I’m safe. And Eden’s here. The police have got her.”

And, pulling at my arm, Freddie yanked me forward, with the startled young constable still attached to my other side. The lamplight threw its gilded curtain over us.

“Jesus!” snapped Hunter. “Get them out of here!”

Matt jerked back, staring down at me in shock. I gazed up at him with my damp hair draggling down my shoulders. The drowned girl.

He whirled round at Selena.

“You stupid fucking slag! You told me she couldn’t swim!” He reached down and there was the gun, coming up, talking aim out of the window.

Hunter flung himself at me and Freddie like an irate rugby forward. We all went sprawling across the cowshit-splattered concrete: at the same time a shot exploded through the yard. There was as noisy rain of gravel all around me.

I landed on top of Freddie and Hunter landed on us both. He rolled over and dragged Freddie, who seemed unable to move, back behind the fortress of the shed.

“Hunter,” I gasped, “are you all right? Did he hit you?”

“Get right back over there, both of you,” he said roughly. “Freddie, stay out of this. You shouldn’t be here.”

Freddie struggled painfully to his feet. “But I’ve got to talk to Matt!”

“Freddie, Matt just tried to shoot us,” I said. “And he tried to drown me.”

“Oh, dear God,” said Freddie, as helpless as a lost child.

A shriek pierced the lamplight. It was Selena, her tumbling words so incoherent that at first I could not tell what she was screaming or to whom.

“Don’t you call me a slag! I’m no slag. You liar! You called me a whore! I’m not a whore!” I stuck my head around the corner to see her trying to pound Matt with her fists. He shook her off.

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” he said, “don’t be an idiot. Just belt up or I’ll tell them exactly what you used to be.”

“I’m not! I’m not!” Selena brought her knee up sharply. As Matt doubled over with a groan, she wrenched the shotgun from him, turned it round and aimed it at him.

“Stop!” yelled Hunter, at the same time as the shot erupted.

We saw them both jerk backwards: Matt crumpling one way and Selena thrown the other by the rebound. Freddie cried out wordlessly. PC Gardner shouted.

Hunter did not shout. He ran across the yard to the door, smashing his shoulder against it. I ran after him, as did Fiona. The lock splintered, and Hunter staggered through into the kitchen. By the time Fiona and I got there, he was already starting up the stairs.

“Stay here,” panted Fiona. I ignored her. Hunter reached the top of the stairs, shouldering the bedroom door once, twice: at the third shove it flew open with a crash.

Selena stood there, looking at us, her face distorted as if in dreadful pain. She lifted the gun in both hands, aimed it at Hunter and pulled the trigger.

Nothing happened. Hunter reached out, took the gun from her and broke it. He handed it to Bryony.

“I’m not what he said!” Selena shouted. With a sudden jerky movement she dashed over to the open window and began to scramble up on to the sill. For a horrified instant I thought she was going to throw herself out: but Hunter got there first. He grabbed her by the waist, kicking wildly and screaming, and swung her back down before slamming the window shut.

“Where are those other two muppets?” he panted at Fiona, who was bending over Matt lying prone and motionless on the floor.

“Trying to keep Freddie and Ruby away. We need an ambulance here. He’s losing a lot of blood.” As she spoke she was hurriedly folding a towel which she applied to Matt’s abdomen. He lay still, just his feet twitching, his eyes open and startled, watching her.

“I’m not what he said!” gasped Selena. “It’s not true. It’s not!” She slid down the wall to the carpet and began to sob hysterically.

“Hush,” I said. “We know you’re not. We know Matt was lying. He lied about everything. Hush now, Selena.” I knelt by her and took her hands. She did not resist my grasp.

I turned to Hunter. “You radio. I’ll see to her.” And I began to murmur reassuring fibs to Selena, telling her she was fine and everything would be all right, stroking her hair aside until her sobs shuddered to a standstill and she gazed at me passively, half-hypnotised, just as she had when I painted her. Only when the two PCs appeared and officiously snapped handcuffs on her did she abruptly come to life. She began to swear and spit, yelping curses at them as they dragged her down the stairs.

Freddie stumbled in and knelt down slowly next to Matt. The blood was already seeping through the layers of towel. I fetched another from the bathroom and gave it to Fiona.

“Matt,” said Freddie. “Matt.” His hand went, trembling, to Matt’s head; tenderly it stroked his cheek. Matt watched him and said nothing. His face was very white, his lips almost blue.

“I know you lied,” said Freddie. “I know you lived a lie. I know you didn’t love me. I don’t care. I love you, Matt.” Still Matt’s eyes stayed fixed on him, his eyelids china-white, his expression unreadable.

“Hang on, Matt,” murmured Freddie. “Keep breathing, Matt. Hang on in there for me.”

Matt sighed. The eyelids closed.

 

hirty

 

After that everything was a confusion of lights, engines and voices. Fiona gave Matt artificial respiration with a dreadful rhythm while Freddie moaned and wept. Men in fluorescent jackets took over: but still Freddie wept. Nothing seemed to make much sense.

I suppose Hunter must have made sense of it. I was aware of him co-ordinating everything, talking to the paramedics in his terse, no-nonsense manner, even once Larry had turned up, puffing importantly and looking both aggrieved and relieved to have missed out on all the action.

Then Matt had gone, and Freddie with him: Larry went back out to take Selena away too. I led Bryony down to the kitchen. The bedroom was emptied apart from the dark stain on the carpet.

Krista, who had crept in at some point unchallenged, took happy charge of Bryony and sat her by the range with the dog-blanket round her shoulders, probably planning hot milk. First, though, Hunter wanted to talk to her.

Hunter worried me. He was so controlled; only the set of his mouth and the bleakness of his eyes betrayed him. It had happened again: a death on his watch. No matter that the dead man was a murderer. I still knew that Hunter thought that just as in the earlier siege where he lost half his hand, he had failed to do his job.

I had no chance to talk to him. Too much going on, too much to do. While we were waiting for the scene of crime officers, Hunter sat down in the kitchen with Bryony for a preliminary interview, and I was left in the gloomy dining room in the charge of the second young PC, a painstaking and currently shaken lad who did his best to take a statement from me but knew none of the questions to ask. Who was Griff? Why was I looking after him? Why did I let Matt in?– and so on, until I said, “Look, I’ll just write it all down.” Refusing his notebook, I hunted in the dresser drawer for paper and there under the jumble of stationery was Luke’s suicide note staring back up at me like an accusation.

Selena had shot Matt in the same room where Luke had killed himself. The same room, the same gun. This was a house of death, I thought grimly: yet it felt unmoved, unchanged and unchangeable, the clock ticking as it had always done while I sat myself at the polished table with my paper, like a child doing its homework.

Meanwhile vans had arrived and the upper floor was full of footsteps, demented phantoms in the room above me. At one point the door was flung open by a huge man in a flak jacket, who glared at me as if wondering whether to use me for target practice before disappearing as abruptly as he had come.

Gradually they departed, leaving a tangled cat’s cradle of orange tape across the stairs. I gave my essay to the earnest young PC who glanced through it doubtfully and supposed I would be called in for questioning anyway. I supposed so too. And then Hunter left with the two young constables and it was just me and Bryony and Krista and Fiona, who had rung Bryony’s parents and was staying until they arrived. Four girls together, huddled in the kitchen.

Krista made coffee for everyone, and insisted in ladling mounds of sugar in, for shock. She was in her element. We got a bit giggly over the coffee-flavoured syrup, and then sobered again as we recalled why we were there.

Bryony began, hesitantly, to tell us what had happened. Matt had turned up a quarter of an hour before the police; she didn’t know why he’d come but he seemed impatient, in a hurry. She hadn’t been worried, just surprised. He’d chivvied Selena upstairs and she’d heard low arguing voices before they both came down, Selena carrying a large bag. Then as the wail of distant sirens sounded over the fields, he’d changed and started cursing furiously.

“They’re here!” he’d shouted. “Get your money, get the gun! We’re leaving now!” When Selena told him that Bryony had the key to the gun safe, Matt slammed Bryony against the wall and overpowered her. He seized the key while Selena stood and watched.

“I thought he was going to dislocate my shoulder,” said Bryony, rubbing her arm. “Then Selena got stroppy, saying that’s my gun now, it was Luke’s and now it’s mine, and Matt said, Don’t be stupid, you’ve have never even met Luke if it wasn’t for me, and then where would you be? Some cathouse in Liverpool? Shut up and get your money, he said.”

Bryony gazed down at the steam slowly drifting from her mug. “Selena didn’t like that. She said she didn’t want to leave Luke’s things behind, his big coat and stuff. Matt said, Fuck that, what did you care about Luke? She got all indignant. I did care, she said. Oh yeah, he said, you cared so much that you scared him to death with your foot and mouth.” Bryony grimaced, easing her shoulder. “That started her off again until he told her to shut up. He saw the blue lights in the yard and tried to fire the gun out of the window. I grabbed his arm and it went off through the floor.”

“You shouldn’t have,” said Fiona gently.

“Selena cared more about that old coat than she ever cared about Luke. Well, maybe she did care. Not like I did, though.” Bryony’s face crumpled and Fiona handed her a tissue.

“Bryony,” I said cautiously once she had recovered. “Selena scared Luke to death with her foot and mouth? What did that mean?”

“I don’t know. When Matt said that, she started shouting at him. That was your idea! I would never have thought of that! And he said, You did it, though, didn’t you?”

“Luke started worrying about foot and mouth when a cow went lame,” I said. “Did it have any other symptoms?”

“Yes, it had blisters round its mouth, but the vet knew straight away they weren’t typical vesicles,” said Bryony. “He reckoned it had eaten some poisonous weed.”

“Not ragwort?” asked Fiona sharply.

Bryony shook her head. “No. Any number of plants can cause irritation. It could even just have been buttercups, though at that time of year you wouldn’t think… but it was my fault. I should have been more vigilant.”

“And the lameness?”

“It was an abscess caused by sole penetration. The cow must have stood on a nail or broken glass. Anyway, Selena said, I never thought Luke would shoot himself over it, and Matt said, yes you did, that was the whole point. And then he looked at me.” Bryony swallowed.

“You all right?” said Fiona.

“Yes. I want you to hear this.” Bryony’s voice wavered, and then steadied. “Matt looked at me, and he said, Did you tell Bryony about the little games you played with Luke’s head? Did you tell her what Luke thought just before he died? That Bryony was having an affair with his dad? And Selena screamed back, I told Luke the truth! You said she was! You said she was doing it with Isaac long ago, before we met! You said that was why Luke needed a new girlfriend!”

“So Luke thought you had an affair with Isaac?” I asked, incredulous.

“Did you?” said Fiona.

Bryony’s head jerked up. “Of course not!”

“I had to ask,” Fiona said unapologetically. “Selena appears to have believed it.”

“No wonder she thought Isaac was a dirty old man,” I said.

“Did she have any other reason to?” Fiona asked.

He didn’t actually do anything, Selena had told me. He was just creepy… like Griff, who maybe hadn’t tried to kiss her after all. “I think she just didn’t like old men,” I said.

“She turned Luke against me,” Bryony said quietly. “Her and Matt. They made him hate me. I never knew.” She looked very small, hunched in her chair. Krista patted her hand.

“I will make you supper,” she said. “You are needing food after all the huczek.” At that point, however, Bryony’s parents arrived: a small, chunky father and a tall, graceful and surprisingly posh mother who enfolded Bryony in her arms like an elegant willow embracing a holly bush, and shooed the rest of us away.

Once Krista had climbed into her car and left, exacting vows to meet again – after all, I was still wearing her clothes – I climbed over the police tape that now straddled the stile, and trudged back to Raven How across the darkened fields alone.

Halfway, I slowed and stopped. Here the path was darkest, the night as thick as mud. My limbs felt even heavier than they had on Windermere’s stony shore. I wanted to lie down and be swaddled by the shadow.

Instead I leant against the wall and gazed across the blackness of unseen fields. I felt myself floating, adrift on the thin skin of the midnight lake, its strong, cold fingers waiting to reach up from the depths and pull me down forever. The drowned girl. I wanted Nick, hopelessly, unbearably: I wanted his hands in mine, his arms around me, his voice comforting me, and knew that he had gone for ever.

At last I made myself take a leaden step, and then another, and another, until I reached Raven How. By that time I was blind with tears for all that I had lost.

Ruby and Russell were talking quietly in the kitchen. At least they had stopped shouting. I avoided them and slowly climbed the stairs up to the small, drab dormitory, thinking its clean austerity would be a comfort. But when I lay down on the lumpy mattress, the cold water still lapped silently beneath my bunk, as inescapable as death.

*

 

“Sergeant Brigg rang.” Ruby, standing on a chair, had her back to me. She was busy getting something out of a top cupboard and wouldn’t look my way. Behind her the grey morning had collapsed, the clouds lying heavy and exhausted on the hills. “They want to talk to you. He said he’d send a car.”

I groggily remembered that my scooter was still parked behind Griff and Muriel’s apartment block. “Thanks. Are you all right?”

“Not really,” Ruby said. She climbed down at last, and placed a box full of small glass jars heavily on the worktop. She still didn’t look at me. Although she was carefully made up, I saw the blotchy grief beneath the mask. “Russell is leaving,” she said. “He’s decided he can’t stay any more. Too much has happened here. All these tragedies have shattered him.”

With dreadful suddenness, Matt’s ghost stood in the room, laughing, Isaac’s body underneath his feet. All those heads he’d screwed around with: all those truths he’d twisted. I saw Selena with her loose coat flapping, dangling like an awkward puppet from his thin pale hands. He’d screwed with Selena too.

But what about Ruby? Why was Russell really going? and which was the tragedy that had shattered him? I couldn’t forget his denunciation of Ruby’s treachery. I still hoped it wasn’t true.

“Does he really need to leave?” I asked. “I mean, I know last night was dreadful…”

“It seems to be necessary,” she said formally. “What happened inside the house? The police wouldn’t let me go in.”

I told her the evening’s events from the beginning. She listened in silence, shaking her head occasionally, murmuring, “Poor Griff.” “Poor Bryony.” Not, I noticed, Poor Eden.

“Matt,” she said at last, her hands clasped tight together. “I can’t believe it. Poor Freddie. Something terrible must have happened between them to drive Matt to that.”

“No. Matt was always scheming. And he used Freddie. He didn’t love him – he wasn’t even gay.” So Matt had maintained: but how did that work? How could you pretend to be gay? Maybe Matt was so tightly wound in his own deceit that he no longer knew what he was.

Ruby cast me a look of contempt, as if to say, what did I know about love?

“I knew Russell had a passion for Selena,” she began, “but that’s always been the case with his models. Especially the beautiful ones. That’s how we got together. Oh, it’s not always a physical thing, but I’ve never minded either way. I understand him. Beauty gives him inspiration.”

I thought Russell had been pretty short of that recently: but I shut up, while she went on.

“It’s the disillusionment that he can’t stand. Last night opened his eyes – he realised how deceitful Selena really is.”

“You think so?” I was doubtful. Surely last night would have only confirmed Russell’s already jaundiced view of her.

“Oh, yes. He’s always idolised his women, you know: he can’t bear to find they’ve got any weakness at all. I know this because he was so devastated when Carol died. She was such a lovely quiet, gentle person, but she had – well, cancer, and he couldn’t bear that weakness. That imperfection.”

“That’s harsh,” I said. “Cancer is hardly an imperfection.”

“But it’s nature’s way of telling us we’re taking a wrong path, isn’t it?”

“No,” I said. “Not breast cancer.”

“A wrong path,” repeated Ruby firmly. “Sometimes I think Carol’s death started all his problems off. It wasn’t her fault, poor Carol, but she stabbed him to the heart without knowing it.”

That, too, seemed unduly harsh on Carol. “He told me once his light went out when Carol died.”

Ruby looked startled: aggrieved, almost. “Russell told you that? Well, I suppose that’s another way of putting it.” She sounded like she preferred her own. Lifting a large bag of yellow-green rock chips out of the box, she began to decant them carefully into a bowl.

“What are those?”

“Healing crystals.” They looked like aquarium gravel. “These are citrine. They might help you, Eden. You place them in a healing net around your body to raise the energy levels and clear the mind. Would you like to try it?”

“No, thanks. What are you going to do with them?”

“Sell them at a craft fair. It’s a way to earn a bit of money, which I’m going to need now, though of course that’s not why I do it.” She counted them out on the worktop and then looked up at me, unwillingly appealing.

“Eden. We’ve got another artists’ course booked this weekend. There’s no time to cancel. I’ve told Russell he needs to stay for it, but I don’t think he will.”

“You want me to do it?”

“I hardly like to ask…”

“I know,” I said, “seeing as I’ve got such a bad reputation and all.”

I expected her to refute that, but she said, “Well, exactly,” and began to scoop the crystals into one of the jars. I dipped my hand in the bag and felt their crunchy coolness.

“I’ll think it over. Did you ever use these on Carol?” I asked.

“Well, of course I did. I told you. I helped her all I could. Not citrine, though: carnelian, to help the body heal. I made up a set to correspond with her chakra.”

“Right.” I let the stones run through my fingers. “Did you give her homeopathic tablets too?”

“Certainly! They couldn’t possibly have hurt her. Isaac didn’t approve of them, but that’s because he didn’t understand. I didn’t give Carol anything that could have side-effects.”

“Or any effects at all.”

“They were far better for her than those terrible chemicals she was supposed to put into herself! Pure toxins! She could never get better while she was taking those.”

I stared at her. “You told her to stop taking her medicine,” I said.

“I advised her to detoxify,” said Ruby stiffly.

“Don’t you think that might have hastened her death?”

“Not at all,” she said. “Not in the slightest. My remedies helped her. They would have helped her more if she hadn’t been ingesting that chemical poison for so long.”

“Chemotherapy is meant to be poisonous,” I said. “That’s how it works.”

Exactly.” She rested one hand on the large jar, upright and confident. I opened my mouth and closed it again. There was no point in contradicting her. Russell must have known that for years.

“This art course,” I said. “What will you do if Russell and I are both no-shows?”

“I’ll have to send the students home.”

“How many have you got coming?”

“Eight.”

Eight eager artists with those blank pages, those tubes full of promise. There were unlikely to be any conceited seventeen year old schoolgirls among them. But still.

“All right, I’ll do it, if it means I can stay here a bit longer. Where will Russell go?”

Ruby’s lips compressed. “He doesn’t know. He doesn’t seem to care. To London or some other urban sprawl, I suppose. But it won’t last: he’ll come back. He’ll have to, in the end.”

“If you say so,” I replied, and went upstairs.

Russell was clearing out the studio. There were sheets of paper and dust everywhere. At the draught from the open door, a pile of paintings took flight off the rack with a harsh rustle. When I picked them up, they felt stiff and warped.

“Just put them there,” said Russell. He was wrestling with a portfolio.

“I’ve told Ruby I’ll help out with the next course.”

“Good. You won’t need me, then. You seemed to know what you were doing last time.”

“And what will you do?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter, does it? As long as I’m away from her and her hypocrisy.”

I didn’t like his tone of contempt. I considered him the hypocrite. “I thought you had an open marriage,” I said. He stopped and glared at me.

“What’s that got to do with anything?”

“So is it honest to leave Ruby because she had an affair with Isaac?”

“Affair? What affair? Isaac would never have contemplated such a thing.”

“But I thought–”

“She nearly mothered him to death after Carol died,” he said. “As if that made up for all the rubbish she fed Carol, mind and body alike. Carol was thin as a wraith before the end. And the pain – she wouldn’t admit to it, but you could see it in her face. Ruby persuaded her the drugs were killing her. Wouldn’t let her take them. She was in agony. And when she died–” His mouth worked silently for a few seconds before he could continue.

“When Carol died,” he went on gratingly, “at last, at the bitter end, after all that suffering, Ruby denied she had anything to do with it. It was the drugs’ fault, she said. Carol should have listened to her earlier. I can’t forgive Ruby for what she put her through.”

“So that was it.”

“Wasn’t that enough?”

Looking down at the pictures I still held, I began to pile them on the table one by one, a heap of scratchy, muddy, snarling landscapes painted with clenched fists. I saw at last what they portrayed: disappointment, anger and despair. They bored into my guts with a pang of recognition.

They weren’t rubbish at all. They were powerful. I didn’t like the rancorous rage of which they spoke, but I acknowledged the skill with which they did it.

I dragged my eyes away at last and looked up at him. “Will you keep painting, Russell?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “What’s worth painting?” He threw a handful of brushes into a box.

“These are,” I said. “They’re good.”

“They’re crap. My life is crap.”

“But these are good. You should keep painting,” I insisted. He just grunted at me and carried a sliding armful of stuff out and down the stairs. I wandered around the studio, savouring its space, planning how I could use it for at least the short time that I stayed here.

The white corner of a sheet played peepo from behind the cupboard. I pulled it out. It was the portrait of Selena, naked and bound with those strange black criss-cross lines as if she was caught in a fishing net. The wide eyes weren’t seductive, after all, but frightened, trapped and begging to be rescued. It made my heart thump with nervous dread. In comparison to this, my sixth-form painting of Selena was about as searching and accomplished as a cartoon sheep.

I was wrong to think Russell had lost his talent. He had simply lost his hope. For him, nothing was worth painting any more.

And what about me? What could I bear to paint, how could I bear to paint, to live, with Nick lost to me and Isaac dead and Hunter barely talking? I would never escape the meshes of the past. My one mistake would never be erased. I dropped the picture of Selena on the pile and walked out of the room.

 

Chapter Thirty-one

 

Hunter arrived in a police car to drive me to Penrith police station. He still wasn’t talking. My queries met with monosyllabic answers: Selena was in custody, charged with murder. Matt had been D.O.A.

“And Freddie? Have you talked to him?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“Is he all right?”

“No.”

“How’s Griff? Is he okay?”

“Yes.”

“Not badly hurt?”

“A superficial wound. Four stitches.”

“At least he’ll have forgotten how it happened.”

“Yes.”

“And how about you, Eden? How are you?” I said. “After being kidnapped, stuffed in a car boot, thrown in a lake and convinced you were going to drown? No hypothermia from your half-mile swim? No ill effects? Why, thank you, Hunter, nice of you to ask.”

At that he turned his head, briefly. “Sorry,” he said. “Are you all right?”

“I’m still here.” I wished he cared a little more.

“Anyway, it wasn’t half a mile.”

“A third.”

“You did well,” said Hunter. But he was desolate.

“Hunter? You did okay too,” I volunteered.

“No. A man is dead.”

“Not because of you. I don’t see how you could have prevented it. And you did save me and Freddie from being shot. There might another medal in it for you.” I was joking, but I immediately wished I hadn’t. I watched his hands on the steering wheel, at two and ten o’clock like in the driving manuals: echoing the gap where his fingers weren’t.

“There’ll be an enquiry,” he said.

“You’ll be okay. You didn’t kill him.” And then I had to turn and look out of the window because I was suddenly back in that boat, blind and listening to the waves, feeling fear stretch out its tentacles to fasten round my neck. I saw Matt’s eyes gazing into Freddie’s face. And closing. Going under.

I took a deep breath: turned my collar up, rubbed at the window.

“Don’t,” said Hunter.

“How’s Selena? Is she–” I didn’t know what to ask. Was she okay? She had never been okay. Was she sane? Was she wicked? Was she sorry?

“You’ll find out,” he said. “She wants to talk to you.”

“To me? What for?”

“I don’t know.”

“Hunter, how do you think she got involved with Matt?”

“It seems they met in Liverpool. When he came back up here two years ago, he brought her with him. He arranged for her to meet Luke,” said Hunter. “He sent her to the funeral with instructions. He had plans back then. If you believe her.”

“Do you?”

“Possibly. Matt was a manipulator. That was evident last night. He liked playing with people. Masks all the way down: he was a con-man through and through.”

“Hunter? When we were out on the lake, Matt said something about his former career, which I supposedly ruined when I got nicked. He was dealing forged antiques. Prior to that, motor fraud with Luke, and carousel fraud too.”

“Is that right?” For the first time, Hunter showed some animation. “Well, it doesn’t surprise me.”

“He was creating signed editions for the bookshop.”

“I wonder if Freddie knew,” said Hunter grimly.

“I doubt it. Can’t you leave Freddie be?”

He was silent. The car turned on to the motorway, speeding up, while all the other cars around us slowed down and kept a discreet distance. The magical effect of tasteless blue and yellow checks.

“I found some old blank MOTs in the farmhouse,” I said after a while, as the high, bleak slopes of Shap rose up before us. “There was a forged letter too, supposedly by Wordsworth, supposedly found by Luke. I should have told you.”

“You should.”

“I think Matt and Luke were partners early on. I think Matt tried to introduce him to a life of crime and got pissed off when Luke dipped out and informed on his so-called mates. Matt had to disappear in a hurry, so he went to Liverpool: that’s when he met Selena. When he came back here, he got her married off to Luke. And then he encouraged her to drive Luke so crazy with fear and anguish that he killed himself.”

“That’s doubtful,” Hunter said. “We don’t have any evidence of that.”

“But Selena spun a yarn to Luke about his dad and Bryony having an affair: that was Matt’s idea. That must have really knocked him sideways. There was something strange about that foot and mouth scare too.”

“Perhaps,” he said. “Selena hasn’t opened up to us. We still don’t even know her real identity. Maybe you’ll do better.”

We arrived at Penrith. I was shown into a tiny room where I was formally interviewed by a female detective inspector with a face as red and square as a brick and a voice as sweet as honey. I was mesmerised. I kept listening to the music of her questions instead of the content, so that she had to repeat most of them.

When eventually I’d managed to answer them all, she took me down the corridor.

“She wants to talk to you. Answer normally, ask her questions if you like, but keep it low-key. Don’t show any anger,” she said, before opening the door to another room, windowless and charmless. Inside, Selena slouched with her feet on the edge of her plastic chair and her knees pulled up to her chin. A WPC sat demurely in the corner with her hands in her lap. She stood up and gave her seat to the inspector.

I sat down on the third chair, a blue moulded thing straight out of a school hall. Selena looked up at me, the beautiful face expressionless.

“I’m glad you learned to swim,” she said. Was she being ironic? I didn’t think Selena did irony.

I said, “So am I. Did you know Matt was going to try and drown me?” A silly question. Even if she’d known, it wasn’t likely she’d admit it.

“I didn’t want him to drown you. You haven’t finished painting me yet.” The WPC eyed her askance.

“But you rang him up and told him where I was.”

“I didn’t know what he was going to do.”

I leaned back in my blue chair. I had no idea what I was doing here. I looked at the inspector, but she gave me no clues.

“Tell me about Luke,” I said conversationally. “Why did you want Luke to die?”

“I didn’t. I just wanted to scare him. It was Matt’s idea.”

“You went along with it,” I said. “Yet Luke and Matt had started out as such good friends. They were even in business together, weren’t they? Car trade, something like that?”

“That was years ago. Till they got into trouble and had to stop,” she said. “That was Luke’s fault. I don’t why exactly. But Matt forgave him. He wanted to be friends again. That’s why he arranged for me and Luke to meet up, because we’d be good for each other. Only he thought it’d be better if it seemed like chance, so I went to the funeral.” She smiled faintly, reminiscing. “And there was Luke, so handsome and so sad. He needed cheering up.”

“So that was why you married him? To cheer him up.”

“I liked Luke,” she said. Her forefinger traced a small pattern on the table. “To begin with, anyway, before he started crying all the time. I told him I was pregnant, that’s why we decided to get married.”

“Were you pregnant?”

“Of course not!” She ducked her head in revulsion. “It’s disgusting, having babies is. I’m never going to do it. I didn’t think he’d mind so much when I told him I wasn’t having one after all. I thought we could be happy, just the two of us, a family, you know? That would have been nice. I liked having a home. And he was kind, Luke was. He didn’t ask me to–”

“To what?” I said. I took a punt. What had Ruby said? Luke slept on the sofa. “To go to bed with him?”

She looked up at me, her eyes cold. “I hate that stuff. I’ve had it with that stuff. I did it at first to keep him happy, but then I’d had enough. I told him so.”

“Okay,” I said. “Is that why your marriage ran into trouble?”

“It didn’t. We would have been all right if everyone left us alone. But there was Isaac, always watching us. And Bryony. I’d stolen him off her, and she wanted to steal him back. She did it, too, in the end. Luke was supposed to be mine! That was my home! I’ve never had a proper home before, and she spoilt it all.” Her fist clenched on her knee.

“So Luke had to die,” I said.

“He shouldn’t have done it with Bryony. I told him she was a slut because she’d been with his Dad, horrible old man. But then Luke wouldn’t talk to me either. He wouldn’t talk to anyone. He went all sort of white and quiet. So Matt said I should make the cow sick. He said he’d tell Luke a rumour about foot and mouth being found nearby. He said Luke would get worried, but then I could comfort him and he’d come back to me again.” All spoken in the same, flat, quiet voice, as if Luke had been a paper doll she could scribble on or tear up as she liked.

“Luke got a bit too worried,” I said. “How did you make the cow sick?”

“Peace lilies. Matt bought us a whole load for Christmas. He said to feed them to the cow, they’ll give her blisters. And he lamed it with a knife one night. I wouldn’t do that. I’m always scared they’ll kick me. He’s not scared of cows.”

“Or bulls,” I said. “Did you know Matt was planning to kill Isaac?”

“Matt rang me up that morning. Take Bryony to Keswick, he said, so I told him she was already out. Good, he said, you go out too. He told me to go shopping. He was dead annoyed when I lost the receipt.” She giggled faintly, and put her hand over her mouth.

“Did you know he was going to try and pin Isaac’s death on me?”

She stopped giggling. “No,” she said. “I didn’t know that. I wouldn’t have let him.”

“Did you really follow me to Waterhead, that first time we met?”

“Matt told me all about you. There’s this really good painter, he said, you should get to know her. Make friends with her. Invite her back to the farm. Maybe she’ll paint you.”

“So you got to know me by throwing yourself in the lake.”

She gazed into the distance. “That wasn’t part of the plan. I just felt like it. I wanted to lie down in the water, you know? And just forget everything. But you rescued me. I was really upset when I found out Matt had tried to drown you.”

My mouth had gone very dry.

“Almost as upset as you were when Luke died,” I said.

“I was upset! Honestly! I didn’t think he’d kill himself, I just wanted to teach him a lesson for sneaking off with Bryony. And I was fed up with him going on about the sex thing. Matt said maybe we should get divorced and I could marry him instead, because he’d never bother me that way. But then Luke shot himself so we didn’t need to get a divorce after all.”

My mouth had fallen open. “You planned to marry Matt?”

“Why not? Matt was good to me. He looked after me. Only he got really angry over that birth certificate, and then I thought maybe I didn’t want to marry him any more. I didn’t realise he could be that nasty.”

I couldn’t pretend indifference any longer. She spoke like a child living in a fairy tale.

“But Matt was a murderer!” I exclaimed. “You knew that he’d killed Isaac!” The inspector gave me a warning glance, but Selena didn’t notice. She pulled a face.

“Isaac deserved it.”

I quietened my voice and tried to sound merely interested. “Why? What had he ever done to you?”

“He hadn’t done anything yet, but he wanted to.” She shivered, wincing. “Horrible old man. He was going to.”

“What was he going to do?”

You know,” said Selena, her voice low. She shook her hair over her face. “What they all want, those old men who can’t get it any other way. I mean, who’d have them?”

“Had Isaac threatened you?”

“Not yet. But he would have. He was going to. Matt said so. He’d already had it off with Bryony, after all, hadn’t he?”

“No, he hadn’t,” I said. “Matt was lying.”

She pulled at a strand of matted hair. “Isaac would have tried it on with me soon anyway. I know the signs. It always happens. It’s me, I make them like that.”

“You don’t,” I said. “Why do you think that?”

She spread her hands in exasperation. “I steal men’s souls,” she said. “I bewitch them. I make them wicked.”

I looked over at the inspector, who raised one eyebrow but otherwise did not move.

“Are you serious?” I asked.

“I can’t help it. But I don’t mean to! You know that, don’t you? You’ve painted me. You know who I really am.”

I was perplexed. “I don’t think you steal men’s souls.”

She pulled more ropes of hair down to hide her face, her voice quiet. “I do. I’ve always been that way. He said it was a curse. They can’t help wanting me.”

“Who said that? Matt?”

“No.” She began to twine the hair around her finger.

“Who was it, then? Was it Luke? Selena, who told you that you steal men’s souls?”

Round and round went her finger, bound in her hair.

“Ralph,” she whispered. She wasn’t looking at me any more.

“Who’s Ralph?”

“My father.”

“Why did he say that?”

“He said I was a selkie. A siren. A water-witch. He told me all the stories. He said I made them true.”

“But I thought that was your Grandad,” I said.

She nodded.

“Well, which?” I said. “Grandad or father?”

The hair wrapped her finger closer, tighter.

“Ralph. He’s both.”

“He can’t,” I began, and stopped. The room had gone very still.

“He can. He is. Horrible old man. Him, and all his friends, in that room with the chairs and the cameras. They’re all horrible old men. The lot of them.” She shook her head vehemently as if to shake away a cloud of flies. “They’re sex-mad, old men are,” she muttered. “They leer and peer with their wrinkly old faces and they poke and prod with their horrible old fingers. He said sex was best with old men because they were more experienced. He promised it would make me feel good. It was a load of crap.”

I looked at the inspector again. She opened her mouth, then stopped and gave me a tiny nod, which my mind was whirling too much to interpret.

“Selena,” I said, “when did Ralph say this? How old were you?”

The answer was no more than a breath. “Nine. He said nine was the right age. He said that I had started to bewitch him and make him love me. But I didn’t do it on purpose. He said all the men would want me. It was true. I hate him.” She began to shake her head, face twisting, hair catching on the trails the tears made down her cheeks. “He said I stole their souls and I had to give them something back. I didn’t mean it.”

I took her hand, the forefinger still twined in hair, not cold and limp this time, but warm.

“He lied to you,” I said.

“He didn’t. I’m made all wrong. I tried to tell a teacher once about me being a selkie, and she said it was just fairy stories. But it’s true. Ralph said that was why I didn’t like sex, because there’s something wrong with me. I’m not quite human. That’s the selkie bit. I don’t feel the way humans do. I’m not quite real.”

“You are,” I said. “You’re real. It wasn’t your fault.” But she shook and shook her head, her face netted by her hair.

I persisted. “I’ve painted you, remember? I know you’re real.”

“He said I made men crazy with love for me, but I could never love anyone except him.”

“He was lying to you.”

“Yes.” She looked up fiercely. “He was wrong. I loved Luke, didn’t I? Until he stopped loving me, and went back to Bryony. And I loved Matt, because he rescued me when I was in Liverpool and had nowhere to live. He looked after me. I would have kept on loving him if he hadn’t called me a slag. I loved them both, you know. That was real love. We didn’t have to do all that sex stuff to love each other.”

“I know.” The two dead men stood in the corners of the room, both slowly seeping blood, the listening policewomen all unaware. She had learnt the lesson well: the one you love is yours to do with as you wish. “I know, Selena. But I don’t know your real name. What was your name, back then when Ralph told you all those lies?”

Her face screwed up. Her eyes were red, her skin mottled, no longer beautiful. “I never want to see him again. Have anything to do with him. Ever.”

“You won’t,” I said. “I promise,” and she leaned her head over to mine, close to my ear, and with a wistful sigh exhaled a name.

 

hirty-two

 

“A dreadful case,” said Hunter. “Knowsley Social Services faxed the records over. It came to court five years ago. The grandfather got life: he’ll die inside, with any luck. He’s seventy-five now. The mother died six years ago from a drugs overdose.”

“Selena’s mother? Or grandmother?”

“Mother and sister. The family’s a tangle: it’s a fucking rat king of relationships.” Hunter’s face was grim. “He had at least four daughters and two sons, but only three of the births were registered. Selena’s never was. They kept moving around: Blackpool, Preston, Widnes, Runcorn, Merseyside, didn’t go to school most of the time, and social services never caught up. He abused the whole lot of them. Said it was his right. Took pictures of them. Videos. Brought his mates in on the act.”

“How did he get away with it?”

“The kids were too scared to tell, I suppose. Though who knows? Children accept whatever happens in their family as the norm. It takes them a while to realise it’s not. Takes them even longer to break out. It’s not easy. One of the sons tried to kill himself by jumping under a truck.”

“Christ.”

“Quite. He ended up in A and E and spilled out the whole story. He’s in a mental hospital now. But Selena disappeared. Nobody chased it up for long: she’d already got a conviction for prostitution by then, and they assumed she was working the red-light areas somewhere.”

I thought of Russell’s portrait: Selena trapped like a fish in a net. No matter how much pompous drivel he talked, what he had painted was the truth. “Then she reappeared with a new name?”

He nodded. “Somewhere along the line, she met Matt. He took her under his wing and introduced her to Luke. It seems he planned to marry her, eventually. Oldest story in the book. Kill the husband, marry the widow, inherit the lot. Even with that false birth certificate, it might have worked.”

“But Matt loved Luke once,” I said.

“Did he? Who can say?” Hunter shrugged. “Perhaps he did, and didn’t want to. It’s possible to love and hate someone both at the same time.”

“Don’t I know it.” It just slipped out; but it was irrelevant. “Go on,” I said.

“What? Well, possibly Matt hated Luke partly because he loved him. Because he wanted Luke when he was trying to persuade himself he wasn’t gay. When Luke betrayed him he became obsessed with revenge. He couldn’t forget Luke, and he couldn’t forgive him. He hit on using Selena as a way of owning Luke: and of taking everything he owned.”

I frowned. “Hang on. How much would Selena actually inherit? I thought you said the farm belonged to the National Trust.”

“It does. Raven How doesn’t.”

“Raven How? But the place is falling down.”

“Planning laws,” said Hunter. “It was the original house. No change of use required to turn it into a luxury home. Could be worth a million.”

A bit more than the Wordsworth letter, I reflected. But Matt and Luke had been too greedy there; they hadn’t done their research. When Isaac found it, and the MOTs, he’d known that Luke was up to no good. I wondered what had been said, and how much it had added to the burden of Luke’s anguish and self-hatred…

That letter gave me a pang. I recalled the excited buzz I’d felt, when I thought it might be genuine. So what was different now? If it looked as good as the real thing, why did it now feel worthless?

“There’s more,” said Hunter. “Take a look at this.” He opened a black box file on the desk, and slid out a brown envelope. From the envelope he pulled a photograph.

“It’s called The Lady of the Lake,” he said.

It wasn’t a lake at all. It was a bathroom with a corner bath, black tiles. The girl was standing in it, long dark hair wet and streaming, mouth open, eyes gazing somewhere else. She looked maybe thirteen.

She was showing everything, but she wasn’t naked. She wore a long red robe, a dressing gown, soaked and sodden and dragging round her bare knees: her hands held it open like a pair of curtains.

It was Selena. A young Selena, but unmistakable.

“Where did this come from?”

“Thousands of photographs were confiscated when Ralph was arrested,” Hunter said. “They went back twenty years. However, this wasn’t one of them. This was picked up by vice squad on a routine trawl of the internet. He’d uploaded this years back, it seems, and the Lady of the Lake has been floating around cyberspace ever since. This is a still from a video. It’s the mildest bit. You don’t want to see the rest.”

He was right. I didn’t. “How old was she?”

He shrugged. “She’s not sure. They took so many films and photographs, she says. But under sixteen.”

The Lady of the Lake, standing in the water in her long wet coat… her long, red coat, just like Griff had said.

“But that’s what Griff–” I stopped.

“That’s what Griff called her. Yes. Vice squad had him in their files too. Under investigation for downloading child pornography at work. He claimed it was by accident.”

“He wasn’t prosecuted?”

“He fell ill before the investigation was complete. The CPS decided that there was no realistic prospect of a successful prosecution given his mental disorder. He couldn’t give evidence, and it couldn’t be proven that no-one else had accessed his computer.”

“So that was it? No follow-up?”

Hunter shook his head. “After a few months he was judged not to be a danger to the public or himself and released into his wife’s guardianship.”

I stared down at the image. Griff had recalled it, in part… It lay on that wavering boundary where his memory plunged into the black hole of spiralling oblivion. The Lady of the Lake, forever hovering on the event horizon of his damaged mind.

Hunter slid the picture back into its envelope. “I read your statement again,” he said. He leaned back in his chair and looked at me. “It hadn’t registered before. That was quite a swim.”

“Well, I had to.”

“But you’re all right, aren’t you?” Cool and distant. His tone set up an ache somewhere in my chest. I replied equally coolly.

“Oh, yes. And so are you. Aren’t you? What will the enquiry say?”

He rubbed his chin. “I don’t know. These things can go either way.”

“But you’re the golden boy: the hero. They’ll go your way.”

“Don’t,” he said.

“When are you going to apply to become a detective?”

He was silent for a few seconds. “That evening at the farm: I got it wrong. Then I nearly cracked up trying to get it right again. And I didn’t succeed, whatever the enquiry may decide. I can’t take responsibility for life and death decisions unless I know I’m going to get it right. And there’s no guarantee I will.”

“Nobody gets it right all the time.”

He shook his head. “But you should, in the police. You shouldn’t let your judgement be compromised. I’m not convinced I’ve got the necessary resilience.”

“Don’t be daft! You’re as resilient as a barbed-wire fence,” I said, and watched his eyes narrow as he tried to work this out. “You’ve got to have a go.”

“Well. Possibly.” There was still that distance between us, and I knew why. I flexed my fingers against each other, looking at his resting on the table: his good hand wrapped around the maimed one, hiding the hurt.

But he had not hidden from me his imagined failure. He was trying to share something with me: maybe friendship, maybe something else. I wasn’t close enough to him to tell.

If I wanted to get any closer, I would have to meet him halfway. So I said,

“Hunter, I don’t know what to do. That thing you saw me painting in Selena’s kitchen.”

“Go on.” Barbed wire wasn’t in it.

“I met a woman in jail. Called Dawn. She was a big shot, pulling lots of strings, a finger in lots of pies. She’s still inside.” I saw his eyes narrow again. “Well, that painting was a commission from her. She had me tracked down and sent a man to see me. I don’t know exactly what she wants from me, but I’d rather not have anything to do with it.”

“But you did the painting anyway.”

“Just to see if I could. The story of my life, really. I don’t know what it’s for. It’d have no value as a forgery.”

“It’s the hook,” said Hunter. “The first of many. The proof of willingness.”

“Well, I’m not willing. But I’m scared about what might happen if I turn them down.”

He leaned across the desk. “How did they contact you?”

“By text. But my phone’s swimming with the fishes now. I don’t know how they’ll get hold of me this time. They might have tried already.”

“If they want you badly enough, they’ll find a way to reach you,” Hunter said. His eyes gleamed. “When they do, arrange it. Let me know.”

*

 

Russell had left the previous day. Ruby and Delilah sat in a small, sad huddle in the kitchen. I knew I ought to join them, but could not face it yet.

The studio was swept clean of art if not of dust. The paintings of Selena had all gone. I went to my room and pulled out the pictures stored beneath my bunk.

I leafed through the clouds and trees in my portfolio. The drowned girl, her eyes lost in the past: the farmer with his iron crown of hills. I would never know that man who had been so briefly courteous to me when, vulnerable and needy, I’d latched on to his kindness. It now seemed clear that despite Selena’s warped perception his only crime was age. He had imposed nothing on her except his baffled care. I laid the portrait to one side. One day, in due course, I’d finish it. I owed him that.

Finally, like a pike in a fish pond, the strident, bloody rasps of the abstract copy swam to the surface of the pile. I studied it carefully. Yes, it was good. They were all good. Maybe I had a future, if I could think of anything worth painting.

I picked up the postcard that lay on the bunk. It had arrived before daybreak, hand-delivered. On one side, Monet’s water lilies were diminished to the size of duckweed. On the other side, the message:

Drunken Duck, six pm Thurs. This time be there. Bring goods. N.

N for nobody. I looked down at the postcard, letting myself imagine for a moment that it was from Nick. It was not impossible: he still had my address. What would I feel? How would I reply?

The house phone rang downstairs. When Ruby called up, “It’s for you,” my heart began to leap around in my chest like a mad rabbit. It had to be: it was too much of a coincidence, when I’d just been thinking about him…

It wasn’t Nick. It never would be. It was Greta, grumpy for unknown reasons, possibly because I hadn’t drowned. I’d told my family only the barest bones of the story. Now I gave her the longer version: but if I was hoping to impress her, I had no chance.

“You said before that you’d just fallen in the lake,” she said reprovingly. “Are you sure someone was really trying to murder you? Or is this just another cover-up for one of your stunts?”

“It’s true! You ask the police.”

“Well, why didn’t you tell us? Dad’s been fussing. He wants you home, God knows why. He thinks you’re not safe there. I told him straight, you’re not safe anywhere.”

“I thought of you,” I said, “as I swam for shore.”

“Did you?”

“I imagined you telling me to swim. You remember the time when we were kids and you pushed me out of the boat on Derwentwater?”

“I never did!” she said indignantly. “You jumped.”

“You pushed me!”

“I wouldn’t do that! What do you think I am?”

I left it. Somebody’s memory was at fault: I could no longer be so sure it wasn’t mine.

Instead I told her I was staying on at Raven How for another week at least, to teach the art course. My eight students were arriving the next day.

“Though you can hardly call it teaching,” she said jealously, “when it’s just half a dozen adults who all want to learn. I mean, that’s a doddle.”

“Much easier than thirty-three nine-year-olds,” I agreed, so that we would part in harmony.

“Anyway, I suppose at least it’ll keep you out of trouble. Give you something useful to do. Stop you getting up to your old–”

“Goodbye, Greta.”

 

hirty-three

 

I got to the Drunken Duck early, again, parked my scooter up against the wall and waited. Ten minutes later the same dirty white van arrived as last time, and the same man climbed out – or at least, the same moustache. He walked towards me with his ambling cowboy’s gait.

“Well, Eden! Glad you made it this time. Have you got something for us?”

“What if I haven’t?”

The moustache curled. “I don’t think Dawn will be too happy if you can’t return a simple favour.”

“It’s all right,” I said. “I’ve done it.” I reached behind me for the cardboard tube, and held it out.

“Good girl. You didn’t sign it, did you? Mind if I look?” Without waiting for my answer, he slid out the thick roll of paper and carefully unfurled it.

He blinked. “What’s this?” he said, nonplussed.

“It’s as requested. I think it’s rather good. And no, I didn’t sign it.” Instead of a signature, it bore in the bottom right hand corner the black imprint of a rubber stamp: PROPERTY OF CUMBRIA CONSTABULARY.

“What the hell–”

“It’s a genuine stamp,” said Hunter. He strolled out from behind a parked truck where he’d been waiting. “I’ll vouch for it.”

Moustache man held his ground. He looked at Hunter’s uniform, then at his face. “There’s nothing illegal in this transaction,” he said. “No money has changed hands.”

“I’m quite aware of that. I’d just like to inform you that Miss Shirer is currently involved as a chief witness in a murder investigation. We will be looking very closely at her movements and associates over the last few weeks. Also over the next few weeks and beyond.”

The man chewed on his moustache. “What am I supposed to do with this?”

“You may have it on loan,” said Hunter gravely, “as a memento.”

Moustache man seemed to be at a loss. He rolled up the painting and stuffed it back in the tube, more carelessly than he had removed it. Then he hawked and spat, to Hunter’s left, before stalking back to his van. As he drove away he took a considerable burden of worry with him. This going straight lark was easy, after all.

“That’ll hold them off for now,” said Hunter. “I wouldn’t bank on it being permanent. I’ve got his registration number but I doubt if it’ll show up anything useful.”

“Hunter? Thank you. You just rescued me from the long slippery slope.” And without giving myself time to lose courage I reached up and kissed his cheek, which was cool and faintly bristly.

“Bugger off,” he said. “You can’t do that when I’m on duty.” But I didn’t think he was too displeased.

“I’ll buy you a ginger beer some time when you’re free.”

“I’ll hold you to that, Eden. Where are you going next? Back to Raven How?”

“Not yet. I’ve got some errands to run first.”

I watched the police car pull away and then climbed back on the scooter. My next stop was High Wray: I sought out the house that I had stumbled on after emerging from the lake and whose carpet I had decorated with my dripping clothes. I took me a little while to find it. When I did, I recognised it by the dent on the front door.

Mr James did not look happy to see me: Krista, however, did. I gave her back the outfit I’d finally got round to laundering, and we exchanged promises to meet again some time soon. I buzzed off with a lighter heart.

On the road up to Ambleside I halted at a sudden view across the lake. Baby clouds gambolled over Wansfell, careering in the breeze: a sprinkling of yachts decorated Windermere like blown spring blossom. A perfect landscape, if I only had my camera…

My final stop was Griff and Muriel’s flat. I’d not yet seen them since Matt’s death four long nights ago. When I’d crept round surreptitiously to retrieve the scooter, I hadn’t rung the bell.

The truth was, I felt almost as guilty about the attack on Griff as if I had inflicted it myself. I’d let Matt in. I should have been able to stop him. Whatever must Muriel think of me?

I needn’t have worried. “My poor dear,” she said on opening the door, “I am so grateful. It could have been so much worse. Of course, Griff doesn’t remember a thing about it, which is a blessing. He’s gone a little quieter than usual, but that’s all. Griff? It’s my young friend Eden.”

Griff had a yellowing black eye and a bruised cheek, but he went through the usual introductions with bland politeness. I shook his hand uncertainly, and thought of those big fingers tapping at computer keys: downloading images. With furtive satisfaction? Or appalled surprise?

I had no way of knowing. I wondered how much Muriel knew, and hid.

“Are you on holiday here too?” Griff asked. “Wonderful place, isn’t it? So peaceful. We’ve just got another week to go and then it’s back to work.”

“We could stay a little longer if you like,” suggested Muriel. “How would that be, Griff? Would you like to live here permanently?”

“What, you mean when we retire?” He pondered it. “Not permanently. This is a lovely place, admittedly, but it’s too much out of the real world, isn’t it? I mean, nothing ever happens in the Lakes. And I do like a sense of things happening, of being connected. When is it we go home, Muriel?”

“Soon,” she said. Despite the lie, she looked happier than she had for quite a while. “Such a relief it’s all over. I was so afraid of– It’s a terrible relief, of course, but still,” she murmured.

“Yes.” It almost sounded as if she had suspected Griff. Once guilty, why not twice? Maybe that was what she’d thought. Griff’s guilt – or accident – would never be erased: except from his own mind.

“Muriel, I was wondering,” I said diffidently. “How did Griff leave a message for you? How did you know that it was Matt?”

“Who?” said Griff.

Muriel reached over to the bookcase and picked up a sheet of Griff’s close-written Wainwright notes. She turned it over and held it out to me.

On the back was a scribbled drawing, but a deft one: the wide cat’s eyes, the spiky hair, the badge on the lapel. It was unmistakeably Matt. Holding up a knife.

“My word,” said Griff. “Did I do that? I don’t remember that. It must have been a while ago. A bit dramatic, isn’t it? I wonder what I was thinking of.”

“It’s very good,” I said. “You’re talented.” And he looked pleased.

“There! You shouldn’t run yourself down, Griff. I keep telling you how good you are! Eden is an artist,” Muriel told him. “She knows about these things. Actually, there’s something I wanted to show you, Eden. I’d be interested in your opinion of it. I bought it just the other day, as a present to Griff for being so brave.”

“What’s that?” asked Griff. “You didn’t tell me! Is it a surprise?”

“Everything’s a surprise.”

It stood on the mantelpiece, in place of the picture that had been destroyed by Matt. This one was framed. She turned it round and the colours leapt out at me: the coral clouds, the lilac heather, the amber, peaty waterfall gushing over mossy stones. It was Rae Bridge, by Antony MacLeish. By Eden Shirer.

“We’d been admiring it in Latrigg Galleries,” said Muriel. “Isn’t it beautiful? And the man there said it was an excellent investment.”

“It’s stunning! Muriel, what a lovely thought!” Griff enfolded her in a bear-hug. “It must have been expensive. You’re too good to me!”

“You’re worth every penny. Well, Eden, you’re very quiet. Do you approve? What’s your professional opinion?”

The waterfall rushed at me, gurgling, chuckling, laughing with delighted mischief, tempting me.

I breathed in deep, then took the plunge.

“I’m afraid there’s a problem,” I began.

 

THE END

Also by Emma Lee Bole

Mud Pie

 

A tale of rugby, puddings and murder.

Ingredients: 1 handful of illegal drugs, 1 twelve-inch chef’s knife, 1 blood-stained handkerchief, 6 rugby forwards and half a motorbike.

When well stirred by Lannie Herron, a young chef on the run, these make a deadly mixture. One of the players at the rugby club where she’s found refuge may be a killer – but which one?

 

Mud Pie is available now from Shakespir, iTunes, Nook Books and Kobo Books.

 

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Widowmere

  • ISBN: 9781370523481
  • Author: Emma Lee Bole
  • Published: 2016-12-26 12:20:23
  • Words: 118211
Widowmere Widowmere