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Authors: Rebecca Tope

A Cotswold Ordeal

BOOK: A Cotswold Ordeal
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A Cotswold Ordeal

REBECCA TOPE

For Morgan, Leia and Luke
and also
in fond memory of Terry Hooper

The villages pubs and churches in this story are real,  as are the Cotswold Canal and Siccaridge Wood.  The houses and people, however, are fictitious, and  any resemblance to actual persons and homesteads  is pure coincidence.

It was difficult to avoid the conclusion that Hepzibah did not initially like it at Juniper Court. She didn’t like the geese, for one thing, and Thea could hardly blame her for that. For a small spaniel, it must have been terrifying to be faced with huge white birds in possession of necks like demented snakes, and heads that lunged and darted and hissed and squawked alarmingly.

‘I’m afraid they’re a bit protective,’ Julia Phillips had said, shortly before she and her family had merrily climbed into the Espace and set out for Swansea. From there they planned to take a ferry to Cork, and disappear into the hills and loughs of Ireland for a fortnight. ‘Or perhaps I should say
over
protective,’ she added. ‘My advice would be to give them a wide berth. They don’t always back down if it comes to a confrontation.’

Thea and her demoralised pet were left in befuddled charge of a beautiful old stone house, an aged pony suffering from some strange condition known as laminitis, quantities of poultry, two
guinea pigs, two lop-eared rabbits and a Siamese cat. Thanks to a succession of unfortunate injuries at the previous house-sit, the spaniel had lost some of her former bonhomie. Her body still carried the scars to prove that not all people and animals were benign. Thea had seriously considered abandoning the whole idea of house-sitting after everything that had happened, before giving herself a shake and assuring herself and Hepzie that lightning never struck twice.

This second venture could not be more different from the first. Here was a cluttered family home, displaying a cheerful exuberance that came as a fresh and uplifting breeze compared to the previous experience. The Phillipses clearly had respectable quantities of money at their disposal, with a five-bedroomed Cotswold house, several outbuildings, a three-acre paddock, plus two more fields (rented out to a local farmer) and sizeable woodland beyond. There was also a vintage Lamborghini housed in the garage alongside many more of the trimmings of affluence. But they clearly hadn’t let it weigh them down. There had been no mention of a security system, no high-powered instructions concerning phonecalls from stock-brokers. Their prevailing concern was for Pallo the pony, who had sore feet and needed close attention. He was kept indoors, because his problem was mysteriously exacerbated by access to grass. He was also to be
kept on a starvation diet, Julia insisted. This, she explained, was the root of his problem – a serious excess of protein, largely thanks to his young owner’s inability to refrain from overindulging him.

There were four children, introduced swiftly and superfluously as ‘Naomi and Harry, aged ten and twelve – they’re mine. Those two are Desmond’s – Harry and Flora, aged twelve and fourteen.’ Hearing their names, the foursome looked at Thea, but only Naomi smiled. The others appeared to have an ongoing disagreement simmering between them, to do with seating arrangements in the car.

‘Two Harrys?’ she noted.

‘’Fraid so. Only a few weeks’ difference in age, as well. Daft, isn’t it. It nearly put me off marrying him, I can tell you. Sign of the times, you see. Reconstituted families, and all the chaos that results. We tried calling them Potter and Prince, for nicknames, but they both wanted to be Potter. Now they’re just One and Two.’

‘They all live with you and Desmond, do they?’

‘Yup.’ Julia was almost too cheerful to be credible. ‘They all go to the Steiner school. Their terms are shorter, which is why we’re beating the general rush before the other schools break up for the summer.’

Thea knew almost nothing about Steiner schools, but it sounded expensive. ‘They don’t board, do they?’ The house felt far too lived-in for that.

‘No, no. They should be so lucky. They’re stuck with me more or less the whole time. Harry and Flora’s mum’s got ME, poor thing. Hardly ever gets out of bed.’

‘Oh dear.’

‘Well, it’s not for me to judge or anything. It’s all come on in the last year or so. She was fine when Desmond and she separated. We can’t have you thinking he walked out on a sick wife, can we?’

Thea had no difficulty in displaying an entirely non-judgemental demeanour. She was much more interested in the cat and the pony. ‘Does Milo object to dogs at all?’ she queried. Milo was sitting on top of the kitchen dresser, his head pressed against the ceiling, tail twitching warningly.

‘He objects to most things, to be honest,’ Julia laughed. ‘Ignore him. He thinks he’s the king of the world. He and Desmond have an ongoing battle to claim Head of Family status. If it gets too much for him he’ll go and have a grumble to Frannie and Robert over the way. If you can’t find him, that’s probably where he’ll be.’

Over the way
was not immediately identifiable. The Phillipses did not have close neighbours, but there was a stone cottage just visible behind a clump of trees about three hundred yards to the south, down a steeply sloping lane. Julia was too rushed to clarify the matter. Thea followed her from room to room, trying to fathom any systems or
procedures she might need to know. All she had really gleaned so far was a jumble of family background.

Julia, who must have been in her late forties, had evidently started on parenthood at a fashionably tardy age. Desmond, on the other hand, had been twenty-five when Flora was born. ‘He’s only thirty-nine now,’ Julia breezed. ‘Much more sensible this way round, when you think about it.’

Thea acknowledged a stab of envious admiration. Julia’s husband seemed entirely desirable: good looks, money and an easy temperament, by all appearances. The fact that he had not spoken one word to her since her arrival did not dent her approval. Few husbands could have inserted a remark into the microsecond pauses in Julia’s prattle.

‘’Course, it meant I had time to whistle up the career ladder,’ Julia burbled on. ‘You wouldn’t believe what I was earning before I plateaued out. It’s all different now I’m working for myself, but I certainly can’t complain.’

Thea didn’t get a chance to enquire into the precise nature of Julia’s work, but her envy expanded to uncomfortable levels. And yet the woman didn’t seem to be boasting. If anything, she seemed to find the whole business rather funny.

‘Look, we’ll have to go,’ she said, snatching up a shoulderbag. ‘It’s all perfectly straightforward,
honestly. Just do your best to keep Pallo alive, okay? The vet’s standing by if he goes off his legs, but quite frankly, that’s what we’re trying to stave off. Once that happens, it’s the end of the road for the poor old chap. He’ll miss us, I’m afraid. Try and spend time with him, talk to him, take him a carrot. He’ll probably like your dog.’

‘Are you leaving me a mobile number or something, so I can tell you if there’s a problem?’ It irked Thea to have to ask. It made her sound pessimistic and incompetent.

‘Oh, I’d much rather not. The whole point is to escape from phones and all that stuff. I’ve told the kids we’ll be out of touch with everything here.’

Thea struggled to keep her face bland. ‘Well, okay then. But you appreciate that I’ll have to do whatever I think best, if I can’t contact you for instructions.’

Julia pulled her lips back in an exaggerated wince. ‘You’re absolutely right, of course.’ She glanced over her shoulder before grabbing the nearest piece of paper and rapidly writing a string of digits on it. ‘There! That’s Des’s mobile. He did finally agree to take it, in case they want his advice at work, even though it’ll be switched off practically all the time, and he’ll be away fishing on some remote riverbank where there won’t be any signal. You can leave a message on it, if you have to. He’ll probably have a quick listen every evening.’

Thea pinned the sheet of paper to a crowded corkboard beside the phone. ‘I’ll make a list of any phone messages,’ she said, ‘and pin them up here, shall I?’

Julia shrugged. ‘There probably won’t be many. The canal people are the biggest nuisance just now. I’d rather not know what they have to say. It’ll be wonderful to escape all that for a fortnight.’

Thea badly wanted this last remark elaborated. ‘Canal people?’ she repeated.

‘Oh, you know. They’re restoring the Cotswold Canal, at the rate of about an inch a month. It runs slap bang through our woods and they’re forever wanting permission for one thing or another. To be honest, it’s a total nightmare.’

‘Why?’ In Thea’s world, restoring canals was one of the most godly of all activities.

‘Oh, I haven’t time to explain. There’s just so many implications, the mind boggles. Don’t worry about it. I’m sure they’re all on holiday at the moment, same as us.’ Something about this final reassurance felt forced to Thea. She resolved to go and inspect the canal at the earliest opportunity.

And then, after a final skirmish which saw Flora in the front seat next to her father and Julia laughing in the back with the others, they were gone in a whirl. Thea was left to yearn briefly for the copious detailed notes she’d been given by her previous clients. Julia Phillips hadn’t written a thing
apart from the grudging phone number on the back of a bank statement. ‘Just use your common sense,’ she had said, twice.

‘Well, then, Heps,’ said Thea. ‘Let’s go out and explore the neighbourhood.’

   

The house was on a small road with minimal traffic. To the west was the Golden Valley, and then Minchinhampton to the south. To the north-west was Stroud. Chalford was the nearest settlement of any size, but the tiny village of Frampton Mansell was a lot closer, with Sapperton and Daneway beyond. It was the more industrial edge of the Cotswolds, with the defunct canal running through from east to west and the remnants of old woollen mills to emphasise the origins of the long-standing prosperity of the region. Woollen cloth had been the prime product of the area for many years, with place names to prove it. There was also a railway line, with a viaduct, tunnel and bridges to deal with the rises and falls of the topography as well as a network of very minor roads criss-crossing the A419. If she got too bored, she could pop into a library in Stroud and do a bit of local research. The canal had already piqued her curiosity, not only from what Julia had said, but also from a visit to the Tunnel House Inn at Coates during her previous house-sitting assignment, and she promised herself a walk along what might remain of the towpath.

Within two hours of the Phillipses’ departure, Thea and her dog were embarking on their first exploratory walk. The weather was disappointing, but summer disappointment was a fact of British life and Thea bore it with stoicism. Cool grey skies met the gaze at every compass point, draining the colour from the tidy gardens. The Cotswolds, however, had a way with grey. From the not-quite-white of the sheep to the deep slate of some of the roofs, the monochrome hues presented a spectrum that effortlessly avoided the depression often associated with an absence of brighter colours.

Thea had found a large-scale Ordnance Survey map badly folded and crammed on top of a row of books in the living room during a fruitless search for a current
Radio Times
. With the dog on a lead, she took a downward-sloping route to the bottom of the valley. A brief inspection of the map had suggested the possibility of a number of walks, in all directions, replete with dense woodland alternating with delightful views and absorbing history. The reality was even better than the map had indicated.

The levels, as in most parts of the Cotswolds, were chaotic. To the north, across the river Frome, was a settlement she had overlooked on the map, nestling on rising ground. Everywhere the classic Cotswold stone architecture added beauty to the
landscape. The old buildings, surrounded by lush summer vegetation, seemed to have been there forever. Many had stone-tiled roofs, the variegated sizes of the tiles and their wobbly edges bringing all sorts of associations with fairytales and picturebooks. There were no straight lines, no clear runs. Everything was crowded and cluttered, crammed between hedges and stone walls.

Thea walked with a bounce in her step. Life was definitely improving, month on month, now that the first anniversary of her widowhood was behind her. All the birthdays and festivals without Carl had been endured, and from now on she knew the sting would steadily lessen. Money might prove to be a worry unless she found the motivation to retrain in some sort of career that offered a reasonable salary and a useful pension, but there was time enough for that. At forty-two, the thought of pensions was still amusingly irrelevant. After all, this house-sitting lark paid well enough, and she could presumably continue doing it until she was seventy or more. People did.

Her route led eastwards, into Frampton Mansell itself, where the familiar characteristics of a Cotswold village made themselves apparent. An absence of voices, music or engines laid an eiderdown of silence over the place. She found a pub with a lawn at the front, containing the usual bench-and-table furniture, but embellished by the
largest garden umbrellas she had ever seen. The lane snaked down to the railway line, with a footpath heading off towards dense woodland, where Thea calculated that the defunct canal must also run, having traversed the Juniper Court woods. That, she decided, would be the next area of exploration.

She managed to find a way back that did not involve retracing her steps, taking a risk on a footpath across an open field to the south of the wooded area, where she let the dog run free, hoping her sense of direction was functioning adequately. They emerged onto a road she didn’t recognise, but a helpful fingerpost directed them back to familiar ground. In a corner of the field was a stone barn, rare in having escaped conversion into a substantial house. A movement caught her eye as she climbed over the stile onto the road. One of those unnatural flickers that only human beings could create. Other species managed a harmony with the scenery that people seldom could.

This was a tall angular male individual, with hunched shoulders and something odd about one leg. He had his back to her, so all she could see was his hair – light brown and rather long. He had evidently not been aware of her or the dog, but was intent on something alongside the barn.

BOOK: A Cotswold Ordeal
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