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Authors: Emma Carroll

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BOOK: In Darkling Wood
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Darkling Cottage
Monday 11th November 1918

 

Dear Alfred,

What magnificent news! The war is over! This must mean your regiment is coming home. Though Papa has warned me not to shriek every time the gate clicks because France is quite some distance away.

As you know I’m not good at waiting. So I’ve decided to write to you, though you mustn’t mock – my penmanship isn’t neat like yours, but I do promise to write very often.

Today was all about celebrating, though not before I’d had orders to smarten myself up. You’ll remember how muddy the woods are at this time of year, and how the lane down to the house runs with water when it rains hard. Mama’s grown so sick of mud on my skirts, she’s close to stopping me from going out altogether.

If you ask me it’s skirts that should be stopped, not muddy walks.

Once I’d passed inspection, Mama and I set off to the village. We didn’t take the trap because poor Ginger’s still slightly lame. So by the time we’d walked through the woods and crossed Glossop’s meadow you can imagine how we looked.
Ma’s skirt hems were soaked and my best boots filthier than the ones I’d left at home.

At eleven o’clock precisely, the church bells rang and our entire village filled the streets. Oh Alfred, you should’ve seen it! Everyone was waving flags and singing ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow’. I supposed they meant the landlord of the White Lamb, who was handing out free cider. But Mama said they were singing for our prime minister, Mr Lloyd George.

The bells rang for an hour without stopping. Imagine the agony to our ears! It’s probably why Mrs Burgess brought the schoolchildren out to listen. Though you’ll hardly believe it but our dear old headmistress was actually SMILING.

She made a point of coming over and simpering at Mama – it was all ‘yes Mrs Waterhouse, no Mrs Waterhouse’ – though she didn’t once address me; I made sure of it by taking a great interest in my coat buttons.

Afterwards, Mama asked where my manners had gone. It was time I acted more like a young lady, she said. Perhaps I could pin my hair up and swap my frocks for blouses and skirts. Well, I must have scowled because she laughed and said being ladylike wasn’t so terrible.

But it is terrible, Alfred. I hate it when things have to change. Sometimes I’m even envious of that farm dog for how it roams around our woods without a care, though I’d not want Mr Glossop for a master.

As for Papa, he is still recovering from his time at the Front. Mostly, he sits all day and reads – ghost stories are his favourite – which Mama rolls her eyes at because she says they’re what servants read. She thinks he needs a hobby, something to ‘take his mind off things’. But I don’t know if it helps, this not mentioning the war. After all, he has shrapnel in his leg that will never go away, and he still screams in the night.

Sorry to sound dismal. Mostly I stay jolly by thinking of what we’ll do when you come home. We’ll climb the beech tree and sit in our favourite spot, where the branch splits and makes that funny O shape. We’ll take a picnic too, only this time I promise not to eat all the apple cake without sharing.

Actually, I can’t promise that. Even now there is rationing, Mrs Cotter’s baking is still scrumptious. She’s already making lists of what to cook when you come home. She and Maisie have been saving up the rations – ‘stockpiling’, Mama called it, when she found more sugar in our larder than we’d had in months. So Alfred, do be sure to come home hungry. It would be torture to have to eat all that cake alone.

And think of the woods, Alfred! Never mind that it’s winter, they’re still our special place. It’ll be wonderful to have you here again. Not like before, when you came home on leave for just two weeks. This time you’ll stay for good.

Your sister.

TUESDAY 12 NOVEMBER

5

‘Good grief, is that toast
dry
?’ Nell says at breakfast the next morning.

I nod and gulp; there’s nothing in the cupboards to put on it, and better dry toast than nothing.

She rolls her eyes. Pulling a £10 note from her shirt pocket, she hands it to me. ‘There’s a shop in the village. Get what you need.’

I think she’s trying to be nice. Or maybe she just doesn’t want to be held responsible for me starving to death.

The village is called Bexton. It’s about two miles away, through the woods and across some fields. Borage comes with me, though after last night I’m surprised Nell trusts me with her dog.

‘Just make sure you bring him back in one piece,’ is all she says.

As I set off, I feel my mood lift. It’s better to be doing something. I hate sitting around, waiting for news from Mum. Darkling Wood looks different this morning. The trees are bare because it’s winter, and as the sun sparkles through their branches, I can almost see to the fields beyond. It’s so quiet here. No cars. No buses. No radios blaring. An aeroplane passes overhead but even that’s silent.

All along the fence are the trees Nell says will be cut down first because their roots are nearest to the house. Their trunks are marked with a white spray-painted X like they’ve got the plague or something. I’ve almost reached the gate when I see what’s been left on the gatepost.

It’s my bobble hat, covered in dew. Someone must’ve found it. It’s been folded up very neatly and turned inside out.

I can’t help grinning. So Borage didn’t maul my hat to death after all. Perhaps it’s a sign the day’s getting better. Shaking off the dew, I turn my hat back the right way again and put it on. Then I go through the gate.

I remember this bit of the path. It starts off narrow,
then disappears completely. Borage charges along, dragging me behind him. It’s not exactly fun. These aren’t tidy woods like the ones near home with a cinder path running through the middle. We used to go there on a Sunday sometimes, back when Theo could still ride his bike.

Darkling Wood is messy, full of dead leaves and brambles. It’s easy to imagine tree roots pushing through the soil. Growing and growing towards the house and nothing being able to stop them. No wonder Nell wants the trees cut down.

We come out into a clearing. Without leaves, the trees go up and up until they almost curve over and touch each other. The air feels damp and heavy like a wet cloth across my face. I pull my hat down over my ears, shivering. Borage might’ve snatched it off my head in the first place, but dogs don’t return things by leaving them neatly folded on gateposts.

Someone was here last night. In the woods.

A sudden gust of wind makes the trees creak. Borage freezes. His back fur sticks up like he’s sensed something. I wrap his lead round my wrist, bracing myself. There’s no sign of anything. Or anyone. Borage relaxes. As he starts sniffing again, my heartbeat begins to slow. I’m surprised at how jumpy I am.

I feel better once I’ve left the woods behind me and am out in the open fields. The sun is shining. It’s a pretty nice day for November. To my right, at the bottom of the valley is a church and some grey stone houses; Borage heads for them like he knows where he’s going, dragging me behind him down the hill. We end up in the village square, which is where the shop is. It’s got a tatty striped awning at the front and a hook to tie up your dog.

I’m barely through the door when the man behind the counter says, ‘You’ll be Nell Campbell’s granddaughter, then?’

Wow, I think, news travels fast.

There’s one other customer, a man in filthy wellies, who stares at me almost without blinking.

‘Um … yes …’ I try to smile.

Neither of them smiles back.

‘When’s them trees of hers coming down?’ says the counter man, arms folded. ‘She’s got root trouble, so I heard. That wood’s growing too close to the house.’

‘She has,’ I say. ‘I mean … it is.’

‘That still don’t make it right to cut ’em down,’ says the other man. ‘Been there longer than she has, them trees. She can’t just hack down what doesn’t suit her.’

The counter man nods. ‘People round here aren’t happy about what she’s planning, you know – not that the council gives a monkey’s. But the villagers do.’

He stares at me like somehow it’s my fault. I don’t know what to say. Grabbing what I need for cheese and beetroot sandwiches, I hand over Nell’s money and say goodbye. I’m glad to get back outside again.

‘What was that about, eh?’ I say to Borage. He twitches his ears to show he’s listening. Shame he can’t answer as it’s pretty obvious Nell’s not popular round here.

We start the long climb out of the village. This hill’s so steep, I have to stop to catch my breath, and as I do my phone starts ringing. It’s Lexie. In a flash, I dump the bag of shopping and dig into my pocket for my phone.

‘Hey you,’ she says.

It’s so nice to hear her voice.

‘Hey! Are you a big sister yet?’

‘No. False alarm. That baby’s got Mum’s timekeeping abilities, I swear.’

I grin down the phone. ‘Poor Kate!’

Lexie’s got two mums – Kate, her real mum, who’s late for everything, and Jen, her mum’s partner.

‘Is it breaktime now?’ I imagine a normal school day, with boring lessons and then homework, and think how much I’d rather be there than stuck here.

‘Yup. Just had PE. Double Maths is next.’ Then she shouts to someone in the background, ‘I’m taking them off!’

I picture Lexie in the school changing rooms, undoing her football boots. She hates maths but she’s really
really
good at football. She doesn’t brag about it either, not like a boy would.

‘How was PE?’ I ask.

‘Good,’ she says. ‘Listen, I’m so sad you couldn’t come to ours.’

‘Me too.’

‘How’s Theo?’

‘All right, I think. Mum’s not said much.’

‘That makes a change!’

I try to laugh but Lexie’s right: it’s not like Mum to hold back.

‘Are you okay?’ she says.

I look down at my shopping. Some of it’s tumbled out onto the road.

‘I’m fine,’ I say.

‘What about your grandma? What’s it like there?’

‘She’s odd.’

Lexie giggles.

‘D’you miss me?’ I say.

‘Course I miss you. I’m having to sit next to Bethany Cox all week.’

In the background, a teacher tells Lexie to put her phone away because breaktime’s over.

‘I’ll text you,’ she says.

The teacher speaks again.

‘You’d better go.’

We say goodbye and hang up. I follow the road until I see the same field and the same stile I climbed earlier. My head’s full of home. Talking to Lexie hasn’t really helped; it’s just made me miss it even more.

When I’m back in the woods, Borage starts pulling. His back hair has gone bristly again.

I tug on the lead. ‘Calm down, mister!’

But try as I might, I can’t hold him, not with my right arm being yanked from its socket. I have to let go of the lead. He’s gone within seconds. Convincing myself he’s heading in the direction of the house, I set off after him. I just pray Nell doesn’t find him first.

The woods are silent in that eerie way classrooms are after school has ended. I walk faster.

Then, behind me, something rustles. Thinking it’s Borage, I spin round.

Just a few feet away is a girl in a red coat, frozen to the spot. She’s staring right at me. I stare back. We stay like that for one long second. Then she runs away, through the trees, before I can even say hello.

To my massive relief, I find Borage sitting on the back doorstep. Once inside, he heads straight to the room Nell calls the library and presses his nose up against the door: I suppose this means she’s in there. I should probably wait till she comes out again, but I want to ask her about the village and the girl I’ve just seen so I make her a cup of coffee and take it in.

She’s sitting at a desk over by the window, sifting through piles of paperwork. A little electric heater hums away at her feet but the room is still freezing. It’s dark in here too, despite the big bay window. Borage settles down next to her chair.

‘Here,’ I say, offering her the steaming cup.

She looks surprised. But, with the tiniest nod, she takes it and wraps her hands around it.

‘You made it back, I see,’ she says. ‘The locals didn’t eat you up.’ She says it with a wry smile so I
guess she already knows what they think of her in Bexton.

‘They weren’t exactly welcoming at the shop,’ I say.

‘No, they wouldn’t be. I’m not very popular in Bexton these days. So much fuss about a bunch of old trees. The sooner my wood comes down the better.’

‘When is it happening?’

She looks down at her desk. It’s a mass of papers – bills, letters, maps with coloured lines on them and the words ‘Land Registry’ at the top.

‘That, my dear, is a good question. The council say there’s no Preservation Order on any of the trees, and because they’re potentially dangerous, you see, they’ve given it the go-ahead.’

‘So why the delay?’

‘I’ve not yet found a single tree surgeon who is willing to do the job. I’ve tried all the local numbers and a few further afield. No one wants to cut down my wood.’

‘Why’s that?’

Nell shrugs. ‘It’s an old wood. People round here like their countryside untouched. They don’t want change. Word’s got about that I’m a bad person for wanting rid of the trees. And bingo – I’m the local villain.’

She doesn’t seem overly bothered. I’m not sure if I admire her or feel sorry for her.

‘But you said the roots were growing too close to the house and it wasn’t safe. And that you wanted more light in your garden. That sounds fair enough,’ I say.

She blinks. Takes a sip of coffee.

‘Yes,’ she says. ‘So I’ll keep trying until I find someone to do it.’

Reaching down to stroke Borage, she stares out of the window. The view looks over the lawn to those trees marked with white crosses. Not all the trees are the same type. Some look like the ones in our park back home, others are tall and spindly. All of them are bare because it’s winter. They make me think of skinny fingers reaching towards the house.

‘Beastly things, aren’t they?’ Nell says, meaning the trees.

I think of the rustlings I heard out there last night. ‘They’re kind of creepy.’


Creepy
?’ Nell snorts.

She obviously doesn’t think so. But I’m sure someone
was
in the woods last night. And today I found my folded-up hat – placed there by … who? That girl I’ve just seen?

‘Do any young people live round here?’ I ask.

‘What sort of young people?’

‘I came across a girl in the woods. She ran off before I could speak to her.’

Nell tuts. ‘Travellers, I shouldn’t wonder. Probably one of that lot camped out up at Glossop’s Farm.’

‘Is that near here?’

‘About a mile that way.’ She points in the opposite direction to the village. ‘The house is derelict, the fields are all rented out. When the Travellers arrived a few months ago and set up camp, the council tried to move them on. But they’ve not managed it yet.’

‘Oh.’

So the girl in the red coat is probably a Traveller who lives nearby. Yet it doesn’t explain why anyone would be in Darkling Wood in the middle of the night. Was it her, or someone else? It’s a bit odd. But then, I suppose
I
was out there too.

‘Next time you see that Traveller girl, let me know,’ says Nell. ‘My wood is private property; she clearly needs to be reminded of that fact.’

I look at Nell sideways. She’s got a fierce face. Strong nose, big jaw. Dad’s grey eyes. I bet she was beautiful once. Now, though, she’s spiky like the trees.

‘Do you think the girl will come back, then?’ I ask.

Before Nell can answer, the phone rings out in the hall.

‘I’ll go!’

Please let it be Mum saying she’ll come and take me home.

‘Hello?’ I say.

‘Alice?’

‘Mum!’ I sink into the chair next to the telephone table.

‘Don’t get too excited.’ She sounds serious. Something’s not right.

‘The doctor’s just been to see us,’ she says. ‘Theo’s temperature is a bit too high, so they’re giving him antibiotics.’

‘Oh.’ My stomach drops. ‘He’s got an infection?’

‘Just a little one. The doctor says they’re quite common in transplant patients. So once the antibiotics get to work, he’ll be fine. It’s nothing to worry about, really.’

This is more like Mum, making it sound like it’s no big deal.

‘Can I come and see him?’ I ask. ‘I did promise. And I’ve done him a card.’

There’s a very long pause. ‘Give it a few days, love.’

In the meantime, I’m stuck here and Mum and
Theo are there. I twist the phone cord tight round my finger.

‘Are you okay?’ Mum says.

I’m not. She’s not either – I can hear the strain in her voice. And I can’t
do
anything. I take a deep breath.

‘Are you sure this infection isn’t bad? Only in the booklet it says …’

Mum interrupts. ‘He’ll be fine. Now please, stop worrying, will you? It doesn’t help.’

I grit my teeth. All the time I’m just stuck here, waiting for the phone to ring. It’s doing my head in. There must be some way I can help.

‘Alice? Are you still there?’ Mum says.

‘Yes.’

‘Listen, this infection has set things back a few days. So I need you to understand, and be okay with it.’

I guess the next bit. ‘Which means I’ll have to stay here longer.’

The kid part of me wants to scream ‘IT’S NOT FAIR!’ But what’s the point? None of this is fair. So I swallow it and say goodbye.

As soon as I’m off the phone, Nell’s in the hallway. I’m not sure how long she’s been listening.

‘It’s school for you if you’re staying on,’ Nell says.
‘We can’t have you lounging around here all day.’

She isn’t serious.
Is she
?

‘But I’ve brought schoolwork with me. I’ve got loads to do,’ I say.

She raises her eyebrows. ‘There’s a school in the next town. I’ll make enquiries. It’ll do you good.’

‘No it won’t,’ I tell her. The thought of facing a class full of strangers makes me feel ill. Today at the shop was bad enough.

Nell refuses to have any of it.

‘When sorrows come, young lady, they come not as single spies but in battalions.’

If that’s meant to make me feel better, it doesn’t. Nor does the fact that Nell hasn’t even asked how her sick grandson is.

BOOK: In Darkling Wood
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