Authors: Rebecca Tope
There was no sign of the boy. A small house stood further down the track, on the other side from the field containing the cows. Her rage unabated, Thea
marched along and rapped loudly on the front door, before noticing that it was so festooned with clematis and ivy that it could not have been opened for years.
‘What do you want?’ came a harsh female voice.
‘Does a boy live here, with fair hair? About nine or ten?’
‘What if he does?’ The woman had come into view from the side of the house, apparently ready to do battle. She was short, tanned and confident. Her hair was a tangle of numerous shades from the yellow of fresh cheese to the dull brown of winter mud. Her accent was rough and she appeared to be in her late forties. If she hadn’t been obviously living in a house, Thea would have taken her for a gypsy from an earlier era.
‘He’s been throwing stones at the cows in Yvonne Parker’s field. And yesterday he cut the heads off her roses. He’s a menace. Are you his mother?’
‘If you’re talking about my Stevie, then yes, I’m his mother. What’s it to do with you?’
‘I’m in charge of Yvonne’s house. I can’t let the cows in her field get hurt. Besides, it’s a vile thing to do. What’s the matter with the little beast?’
Too late she realised this was a dangerous question. She braced herself for the news that the kid was autistic or had Down’s syndrome, or was in the grip of some dreadful personality disorder.
But it seemed she had struck a chord. ‘You just leave him to me.’ The expression was grim, the eyes darting
past Thea apparently in search of the delinquent. ‘I’ll see it doesn’t happen again. Bloody little pest. Never does a thing he’s told. The cows aren’t really hurt, are they?’
‘Startled more than hurt, I think. But why would he do such a thing?’
‘You might well ask.’ The sigh that followed was more exasperated than defeated. ‘I’ll see he doesn’t do it again, don’t worry. One of these days I’m going to kill him, if he goes on like this.’
There didn’t seem to be much more for Thea to say. The woman’s expression was complicated – anger, impatience and a dash of anxiety were all in evidence and all made sense. It was unlikely that this was the first complaint against the boy, and the attentions of the police could not be far away if his recent behaviour was typical.
‘Right, then,’ she blustered. ‘Thank you. Perhaps his father …?’ She knew it was another risky remark, but it was meant as an opening for the woman to disclose some reason for the delinquency of her son. It backfired.
‘Never mind his father,’ came the snarling response. ‘I’m quite able to deal with my own child, thank you very much.’ She glanced over her shoulder as if worried about being overheard. ‘Don’t you go talking about his father,’ she warned in a low voice, ‘when you know nothing at all about us, and not likely to, neither.’
‘Sorry. Just tell him I don’t think much of the way he’s been acting, all right?’
The woman gave a quick nod, and rolled her eyes insolently. There seemed to be some grounds for expecting that she would chastise the child. Thinking of the deliberate attempt to hurt the cows, Thea shivered. If young Stevie really wanted to inflict pain and injury, what defence did she and her dog have? He lived only yards from Hyacinth House, and might well have conceived a grudge against her already, thanks to her reporting him to his mother.
‘Stevie! Where are you? Come here, you little bugger.’ The woman’s voice rang out unselfconsciously through the quiet Sunday lane. There was no immediate sign that the boy was making any move to obey.
Thea lingered, to see what would happen next. ‘Stevie!’ roared the woman again.
‘What?’ came a child’s high call from somewhere behind the little house.
‘Come here. There’s a lady says you’ve been hurting them cows. What have I told you?’
No reply, but a moment later, the woman went on, ‘There you are. Now stay where I can see you. You’re not to be trusted out of my sight …’
Thea moved away and the voice faded into a mumble.
Maybe he wasn’t such a little monster after all, she mused – just a bored lonely kid, as Blake had suggested, in the first days of the endless summer holiday.
She had coffee in the kitchen of Hyacinth House and planned the next stage of her explorations. ‘Come
on,’ she said to the dog, when the drink was finished. ‘Let’s find your lead and go for another little walk. As far as I can see it’ll take all of ten minutes to explore the village, but we may as well give it a go.’
Passing the home of Janice and Ruby, she slowed for a good look at it. Made of the identical stone to Hyacinth House, it was a very different shape – taller, with gables. A copper beech tree dominated the front garden, along with something even more exotic that Thea thought might be an aspen. The handsome gate that had been closed the day before now stood slightly open. ‘Morning,’ came a female voice behind her. ‘Are you the house-sitter?’
Thea turned to be faced with the bosom of a tall woman. A
tall woman. She looked up into a soft face framed with short mid-brown hair. A face that suggested self-sufficiency, good sense, patience – characteristics that would normally befit an older woman. This one was some years short of forty, if Thea was any judge. ‘Yes, I’m Thea Osborne,’ she said. ‘Your house
lovely. Assuming this is where you live?’ she added.
‘I’m Janice Williams,’ the woman nodded. ‘I’ve just been after that damned Stevie again. He’s been in the garden. I can always tell.’
‘He seems to be quite a little menace,’ said Thea with feeling. It was surprisingly good to find an ally against the delinquent. ‘He chopped the flowers off Yvonne’s roses yesterday. Today he’s been throwing
stones at cows.’ She paused. It was only fifteen minutes since she had left the Horsfall cottage. ‘Have you seen him just now?’
‘An hour ago. Why?’
‘Oh, sorry. I always ask too many questions. It’s a bad habit.’
‘I imagine you feel a need to understand the place, if you’re going to be here for a few weeks,’ said Janice, understandingly.
Here, Thea realised, was another person who could easily have fed Yvonne Parker’s cats. It was becoming increasingly clear that she had other less obvious roles to perform. Like guarding the roses from Stevie Horsfall.
‘Mum!’ A girl’s voice came from somewhere behind the copper beech. ‘What are you doing?’
‘Coming, Rube,’ Janice called back.
The daughter of the house came slowly down the short drive, her head cocked enquiringly at the sight of Thea. She seemed to be about sixteen. She was probably five feet ten, making her at least an inch shorter than her mother. Together they made a formidable pair. ‘This is Thea,’ Janice introduced. ‘My daughter, Ruby. Stevie’s been up to his tricks again,’ she added.
Ruby was fair-haired, with the natural grace of a girl her age, but she had hard lines in her face, her jaw chiselled from stone. She kicked angrily at a small stone, and ground her teeth. ‘It can’t go on,’ she
growled. ‘We’ve got six weeks of it, if we don’t do something. There won’t be a flower left in the garden, otherwise. The gate doesn’t stop him.’
‘We could pay to send him to a summer camp,’ said Janice lightly.
‘Or get a Rottweiler,’ said the girl.
Thea had the impression that it was a well-rehearsed conversation. The lurking sense of helplessness and frustration was all too apparent. ‘It must be a real pain,’ she sympathised.
‘You understand why Yvonne felt she had to get a house-sitter,’ said Janice. ‘We’ll have to do the same if we decide to go away. I don’t suppose you’re free, are you?’ She laughed to indicate a lack of seriousness. ‘Don’t worry,’ she added. ‘We’ll leave it until September, when at least he’ll be at school for most of the day.’
‘We can’t, Mum,’ said Ruby with exaggerated composure. ‘I’ll be at college.’
‘Oh, well …’ Janice tailed off.
‘I expect I’ll see you again,’ said Thea, aware that she was detaining them. ‘I’m off to do some exploring.’
Although tiny on the map, the village was so multi-levelled that it felt as if a plunge down one of the steep little side streets might open out into a whole new area of settlement, much as it did in Blockley. The sporadic summer traffic heading for the Manor was easily negotiated as she led the spaniel cautiously along the narrow road into the village. She could see
the yellow church with a squat tower, a triangle of buildings set around it. The first landmark she noticed was a pale stone wall with strange circular shapes set into it. It bordered the route to the pub: a quiet untravelled street, several feet lower than the slightly larger and busier road to her right.
was the word that came to mind as she scanned the scene before her. Then she quickly adjusted her impression to something more admiring. No two roofs were the same, the whole picture offering very few straight lines. The hill that rose close by felt protective on this sunny morning – in other seasons it might well seem more of a threatening, looming presence. The colours of the stone were variations on the usual Cotswold creamy-yellow, the scents all of natural vegetation and warm earth. There was honeysuckle somewhere, her nose informed her.
Nobody greeted her. There was activity in the tiny car park next to the Snowshill Arms, and people were talking somewhere close by, but she and her dog attracted no attention. Because, she realised, this was a village inured to strangers. Thousands of people came every year to see the Manor, and many of them would take a little walk down this very street, call in at the pub and perhaps the church, take a few photos and drive away again. On a summer Sunday, the only surprise was that she was not part of a much larger throng of pedestrian visitors. Most of them seemed to be firmly inside their cars.
All the houses looked satisfyingly old to her reasonably tutored eye. There was no modern sprawl on the outskirts of Snowshill, as there was in Cranham and other places. Here there remained a sense of isolation, thanks to the long featureless approach from virtually every side along rising ground, which lent itself to the growing of corn rather than the erection of dwellings. The tourists could be redefined as pilgrims to the small oasis without too much whimsy. The pub itself was plainly of ancient origins, any urge to modernise thwarted by the lack of space and impossible levels.
She admitted to herself that she was in no rush to return to Hyacinth House, with the hornets and the malicious Stevie. The cats had yet to manifest any interest in her, content to eat the food she provided and leave it at that. Perhaps she ought to climb the nearest hill, which one guidebook had claimed to be the most significant feature in the area. Oat Hill was, apparently, the highest point for some miles. It certainly looked steep, and she doubted her stamina was sufficient to comfortably reach the summit.
It was also nearly lunchtime and she was hungry. Never eager to venture into a pub on her own, she decided not to seek sustenance there. It probably refused admittance to dogs, anyway. Instead, she would take a quick exploratory walk around the church, emerging onto the higher street from which she might be able to see the famous Manor.
This, she confirmed to herself, was indeed the heart of the village, with very few further houses to be discovered. Surrounding the church was a modest area of grass, with one small patch outside the church wall, to the north, that might at a stretch designate itself as the village green. It boasted a wooden seat for good measure.
The church was much more in harmony with its immediate landscape than many she had seen, the low tower making no attempt to compete with the hills surrounding it. The houses clustered companionably on every side, quietly ignoring the tourists and pretending it was still the eighteenth century. There was no hint of a service going on in the church, despite the day of the week. After all, she told herself, this was hardly a village of sufficient size to warrant a full-time vicar – and that meant fortnightly or even monthly Sunday services. As she passed between church and pub, she noted a board listing several small churches in the same group, all represented by the same overworked clergyman.
A young man was standing close by, taking photographs of the buildings, carefully considering his angles, squinting at the sky before getting down on one knee and pointing his lens at the church tower. Thea was tempted to creep up behind him to share in the view he was capturing, but she resisted. He was unlikely to take kindly to a spaniel tangling her lead in his ankles just as he found the perfect frame.
There was nothing left to do and she began to feel conspicuous, dawdling aimlessly through the little streets. She could perhaps find somewhere quiet and send a text to Jessica.
, she repeated to herself with a smile. That would not be difficult. Like many another Cotswold village, quietness was the default condition. Isolated, and secluded as well in this instance, even with the famous Manor no distance away and visitors part of the backdrop. Snowshill was not as utterly deserted as Frampton Mansell or Duntisbourne Abbots had been, but it was still very far from busy.
She sat on the seat provided, her back to the church wall, and extracted the BlackBerry from her pocket. After several months, it still gave her a little thrill as she tapped a finger on one icon after another, keyed in the message and sent it winging its way to her daughter. The signal was strong, and she wondered whether she should contact anybody else to ease her growing sense of loneliness.
But who? Drew was the first name that sprang to mind, but she really couldn’t call him on an unjustified whim. Her mother would be pleased to chat, but the sort of exchange she could offer was not what Thea was looking for. She always felt restless and somehow uneasy after speaking to her mother, as if more had been required of her than she had been able to give. She had two sisters and a brother, but they would all draw alarmed conclusions from a
sudden phone call in the middle of a Sunday.
Instead, she idly thumbed some of the options on the screen, and found herself reading a list of websites featuring Snowshill. The ability to do this without a phone line or a computer, out in the open air, was still a great novelty and she could hardly believe it when it worked.