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Authors: Graeme Cumming

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BOOK: Ravens Gathering
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Five

 

 

The Barns
provided peace, privacy and the countryside
right on your doorstep.  Every house stood in its own grounds.  That
was what the marketing blurb said anyway.  Close inspection might have
suggested that the word “grounds” meant something a little larger than the 1/8
th
of an acre of land that formed the gardens for each property.  It also
implied that the houses were detached, but the reality was that each unit was
attached to at least one other.  Even so, they had been laid out in such a
way as to offer the maximum privacy.  And with the main road half a mile
away, the peace was definitely there.  The main road through the village
wasn’t especially busy or noisy anyway, but that only added to the sense of quietness. 
The only noise you were likely to suffer here would be the occasional aircraft
from the small commercial airport on the other side of Westfield or – more
likely, though still infrequent – a lively summer barbecue held by one of the
neighbours.  As only five of the houses were occupied, and three of those
by people commuting to London every week day, it was very peaceful.

At mid-afternoon on a Thursday, the only sounds to be heard
at
The Barns
were of power tools, hammers, timber being hauled, and the
chink-chink-chink of trowels on brickwork.  There wasn’t even the other
familiar sound from a building site: tinny music from a well-worn transistor
radio.  On this particular afternoon, the builders were concentrating on a
garden wall, so things were more quiet than usual.  The scrape of metal
against brick and the slap of the trowel into the cement mix only occasionally
interspersed with muted comments.  Neither workman was particularly
talkative at the best of times.

They were distracted too.  All of the houses faced the
woods.  The edge was perhaps two hundred yards away.  That meant the
back gardens were south-facing.  Just as importantly, they were not
overshadowed by the tree line.  All the same, the architects had allowed for
the retention of trees on the south side.  This would enhance the sense of
being in the country, whilst adding to the privacy for each house.  All
part of the marketing plan.

Matt had spotted the birds half an hour or so earlier. 
As he worked, he had a habit of pausing every fifteen minutes or so.  He
would step back for a moment, stretch, and look around him.  It eased the
strain on his body, and relieved his mind from the boredom it felt when he was
involved in work that was especially repetitive.  For some time there had
been nothing of interest to see.  Suddenly he was confronted with five
black birds.  They were sitting in the branches of an oak tree at the edge
of the woods.  And they appeared to be watching the builders intently.

At first, he had shrugged it off.  It wasn’t that
unusual to see several birds at once.  And their apparent interest in the
building work was undoubtedly just a matter of timing.  He had simply
looked up just as they all happened to be gazing in his direction.  That’s
what he told himself.  But he still felt uneasy.  More so when they
were still in exactly the same position a few minutes later.  On this
second glance, he realised what kind of birds they were, though he also
appreciated that he had probably registered this on a subconscious level
anyway.  And no doubt that had added to his uneasiness.  When they
were still there the next time he looked, he reluctantly nudged Patrick, and
made him aware of them.

The older man’s reaction shouldn’t have come as a surprise,
but Matt was still struck by it.  Patrick was sixty-two years old, but
anyone meeting him for the first time would easily add another ten years if
they were asked to hazard a guess.  His hair had long since passed on from
grey, and was now a yellow-tinged white.  The real aging had taken place
in his face, though.  Decades of working outside in all weathers had left
him with a patchwork of creases and lines.  Where suntanned skin can often
look attractive, Patrick’s dry, leathery look simply made him look
deathly.  When the colour drained from his face at the sight of the
ravens, that impression became even more pronounced.  And there was real
fear in his eyes.

“What does it mean?” Matt had asked.

At first, Patrick had just
shaken
his head, unable to answer.  Instead, he had loaded his trowel up and
turned back to the wall, as if by carrying on with his work, he could somehow
make the birds disappear.  But they didn’t.

“Do you think he’s back?” Matt asked after a couple of
minutes had passed.

“I don’t know.”  The reply was curt, a hint of anger
behind it.  Anger hiding fear, Matt guessed.  After a moment or two,
he added: “It’s probably nothing.  Just a coincidence.”  His tone was
hardly reassuring.

“Well, do you think we should tell the others?”

A sharp shake of the head in response.  “What would be
the point?”

“We can warn them.  If they know in advance, maybe they
can do something.  Maybe we can all do something together.”

“It wouldn’t do any good.”  Patrick was never the best
at eye contact.  But even for him it was noticeable that he was
deliberately looking away from Matt.

“Why not?  If nothing else, we could move away for a
while.”

Patrick’s face contorted, a twisted smile that lacked any
humour.  “If he wants us, he’ll get us, no matter where we are.”

“You don’t
know
that.”

“I
feel
it.”

And they lapsed into an uncomfortable silence, neither
knowing what to say to the other.  Neither knowing what they should do, if
anything.  Until the cawing began.  It didn’t last long, only a few
seconds.  But the sound tore through them like slashing blades. 
Terrified, they looked across at the ravens, in time to see them rise from
their perches and, in the effortless way that birds do, soar up above the
trees, then wheel away and disappear from view.

For a few moments, they watched the treetops, waiting for
the birds to come back into sight.  When they didn’t, the two men started
to feel the tension begin to ebb away, began to hope that it had all been a
matter of their imaginations running wild.

The hope was short-lived.

“Hello, Dad.”

Six

 

 

Patrick studied the man in front of him carefully.  It
had been almost fifteen years since he’d last seen his son.  He’d been a
teenager then, his build slighter, his face thinner and much more pale. 
The man who smiled back at him now looked very different.  Not just his
appearance, but also his manner.  There was more confidence. 
Borderline cocky, he thought.  Martin hadn’t been like that.  He’d
been quiet.  Kept himself to himself.  Not that Patrick or the rest
of the family had complained.  They’d had other things to worry about.

When he had bought himself an old Volkswagen camper van and
started to do it up, they had been a little surprised, but too distracted to
consider the implications.  The real shock had been when he announced he
was using the van to leave the village.  Shock mixed with relief.  In
his more reflective moments, Patrick was ashamed of that.  But as he
considered the prospect of his son returning, he understood why he had felt the
relief.  He might be his son – his own flesh and blood – but his presence
was already making him uncomfortable.

Assuming he really was Martin, of course.  He studied
the eyes, noted the wrinkles that hadn’t been there last time he saw him. 
Creases that suggested sun – and probably sea.  The skin didn’t look as
soft either.  A combination of age and outdoor living.  Beard stubble
wouldn’t have looked out of place, but the face was freshly shaved.  He
wondered whether that was the norm, or if the lad was just trying to make a
good impression.  The hair was longer, of course.  Another
difference.  Still, no matter how much he wanted them not to be, Patrick
knew that the differences were minor when you considered the length of time
he’d been away.

“Hello, Martin.”  The words came out reluctantly, as if
by saying them he was admitting guilt about something.

The lack of enthusiasm in his response was noted. 
Martin didn’t say anything, but he could see it in his eyes.  Just a
flicker, but it was there.

“How did you find us?”  He knew it wasn’t the most
welcoming thing to say, but that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Martin gave a little nod, acknowledging the distance that
still lay between them.  “Colin told me where you were.”  He paused,
clearly thinking about what he had just said.  “Well, kind of.”

He was still standing on the track that ran in front of the
house.  To the left, the track led eventually down to the main road. 
To the right – the direction from which Martin seemed to have come – led up the
hill to the farmhouse and yard.  Behind him was an open field and then the
edge of the wood.  He rested his palms on the top of the partially
constructed wall.  So far, his focus had been on his father, but he
deliberately looked at Matt now.

“How’s my big brother?”

Matt glanced briefly in his father’s direction. 
Patrick saw and understood the wary look in his eyes.  But he had nothing
to offer by way of help.

“I’m fine,” Matt said.  His words were spoken slowly,
carefully, as if he wanted to make sure that nothing he said could be
misinterpreted.  “When did you see Colin?”

“About an hour ago.  He was in
The Oak

Being given a hard time.”

“He knows he shouldn’t go there,” Patrick said defensively.

“Well, I got him out as soon as I could.  Took him
home.”

“You’ve been to the house?”  There was no attempt to
keep the suspicion out of his voice.

“Don’t worry, Dad.  I just saw him to the door. 
I’ve not been inside.”

Realising that he must have gone too far, Patrick
back-tracked.  “Oh, I didn’t mean anything by that.  I was just
surprised, that’s all.”  Not to mention relieved that he hadn’t been in
their home.  He didn’t like the idea of Martin being allowed to roam
freely around the house.

Martin was moving on though.  “He told me you were
working on the farm.  I assumed you were still working for the
Sullivans
.”

“Not since 1986.  David and Paul sold up.”

“I heard.  Tanya Mclean said Bob Lambert bought the
land.  Couldn’t you have worked for him?”

The reference to Mrs Mclean troubled Patrick, but he didn’t
pursue it.  To do so risked highlighting his concern, and he didn’t want
Martin to be aware of that.

“Bob’s been investing in machinery,” he said, unable to
completely suppress his bitterness.  He’d known Bob Lambert since they
were kids.  They’d gone to the same school.  But that hadn’t meant
anything to Bob.  Business was business, and his view was clear: machinery
was much more efficient than labour – it could do more for less money. 
Occasionally, Patrick was prepared to admit to himself that this was probably
true.  But it didn’t make it any easier to come to terms with when you
were far enough from retirement age to need a job, but close enough to it for
retraining to be an unrealistic investment of time or money.

“I’m sorry.”  The words were spoken with feeling. 
For a moment, Patrick wondered if they were meant, then pushed the idea
aside.  He had to keep his guard up.

“So have you been working as a builder for the last three
years?”

“No.  Just the last year.”

“It’s been tough then?”

Patrick shrugged awkwardly.  He didn’t feel comfortable
talking about his financial situation at the best of times.  And certainly
not to someone who was a virtual stranger to him.  “We got by.”

“Mum’s working,” Matt chipped in.  The next generation,
who didn’t have the same hang-ups about money.  “She’s got a job in
Westfield.  Same place as Janet.”  Patrick watched Martin carefully,
looking for any reaction to these references to his mother and sister. 
None were obvious.  “Of course, Janet and I contribute to the upkeep of the
house anyway.”

Martin cocked his head quizzically.  “
D’you
mean you’re still living at home?”

Matt and Patrick looked at each other.  An
acknowledgement passed between them that they may have made their first
mistake.  But it was too late to take anything back.

Shrugging, Matt gestured to the houses around them. 
“It’s not easy to get on the housing ladder here.  I’m guessing from your
tan that you’ve not been in the country for a while, so you’re probably not
aware of how things are here.  There’s been a housing boom in the last few
years.  Property’s got so expensive in the south, people are moving up
here, especially Londoners.  Westfield’s on a mainline to London, so they
can commute to work, and it doesn’t take them that much longer than when they lived
in the suburbs.  For their money, though, they can get a house that’s
three times as big as what they could get down there.  The only problem is
that’s pushed up house prices round here, and locals can’t afford to buy.”

There was a lot of truth in everything Matt said. 
Patrick was relieved to see Martin nodding, accepting the explanation without
question.

“Must be cramped,” he commented, but didn’t wait for any
elaboration.  “So why’d the
Sullivans
sell up?”

Patrick answered.  “Paul had an accident back in
’83.  He was careless with a threshing machine, and lost a leg. 
Probably had too much to drink with his lunch.”

Martin raised a questioning eyebrow.  “Did he have a
drink problem, then?”

Relieved that his son was steering things away from the
family, Patrick was happy to talk about his past employers.  “Just a
bit.  Still, you can understand it.  When you find your dad’s killed
himself because he’s found out your mum and brother-in-law have been having an
affair, it can do strange things to you.”

“I didn’t know about that,” Martin said gravely.

“Why should you?  You were only a young lad when it
happened.  It was a real scandal at the time, but nobody talked openly
about it much in the village.  The
Sullivans
were good employers.  Good people, in fact.  It was a real shock to
us.  So you can only imagine the effect it had on the family.”  He
shook his head as he thought back to those times.  Twenty-five years had
passed, but he could remember so much of what had happened back then.  Too
much.

“So Paul’s accident prompted them to sell up?”  Martin
brought them back from the sidetrack.

“That’s right.  I think he’d just had enough.  The
doctors fixed him up, and he can walk okay.  He moved to Thornberry, so we
don’t see him that often.  But once in a while, he pops into
The Oak

You can hardly tell he’s limping.  So he could’ve carried on, but I don’t
think his heart had been in the farm for years.”

“But you said he had the accident in ’83.  Yet you only
stopped working in ’86.”

“That’s how long it took to sell.  They were hoping to
sell it all off lock, stock and barrel.  But they couldn’t find any
takers.  Not at the price they wanted.”

“Any particular reason why?”

Patrick hesitated a moment, realising he may have moved back
into can-of-worms territory.  But he knew that if he took too long to
respond, he would just arouse his son’s curiosity further.

“Just the market, I suppose.”

“The booming property market?”  Martin’s lips had
curved slightly upward at the edges.  Not quite a smile, but there was
certainly some humour.  Patrick suspected an element of mockery too.

“There’s a big difference between housing and farms,” Matt
said quickly, possibly a little too quickly, but Patrick was grateful for the
intervention.

Martin nodded.  In agreement? Patrick wondered.

“I’ll take your word for it.”

Or possibly still mocking?

“So how come
you’ve
ended up
working as a builder?”  It was clear that, in spite of his tone, Martin
wasn’t going to dwell on any inconsistencies.  Hopefully that was a good
thing.

“Builder’s labourer, really,” Patrick said.

“No, Dad,” Matt corrected him, “you’re a builder.”

Patrick looked fondly at his oldest son.  It was only
later that he realised the effect this might have had on Martin.  For now,
though, he reacted naturally to Matt’s protectiveness.

“You don’t have to make me feel better, you know.  I
know my role here, and I’m very grateful for it.”

Matt opened his mouth to respond, but Martin beat him to
it.  Cutting to the chase.

“So you’re working for Matt, then?”

“On a self-employed basis.”

“I’m sure that makes all the difference.”  It was
difficult to tell from his tone whether the remark had an edge to it or
not.  “But I take it you’re running things here?”  Martin had turned
his attention back to his older brother.

Shrugging, Matt said: “That depends.”

“On what?”

“Whether you mean from the point of view of the project
management, or as the person bankrolling it.”

“Well, as you can’t afford to buy your own house, I’m
guessing you’re not the person bankrolling it.”

“A fair point,” Matt conceded.

“And, as Tanya’s already told me that she and her
husband’re
having the houses built, I took it as read that
managing the project was the highest up the pecking order you could be.” 
There was definitely an edge this time.  Martin’s voice was tinged with
impatience, and possibly sarcasm.  Patrick watched him guardedly. 
The wall was still between them, and he instinctively wanted to keep that
barrier there.

Martin raised his hands off the top of the wall, palms up, a
gesture of supplication.  “I’m sorry,” he said, and sounded as if he meant
it.  “I’ve been away a long time, and I’m just trying to get up to speed
with things here.  Things have changed.”  He gestured to his
father.  “Last time I saw you, your hair was darker, you were a few pounds
lighter, and you were going to work the land until the day you died.”  A
nod to his brother.  “And you, Matt.  You were working for a building
firm in Westfield.  JC Construction, wasn’t it?”

“JB, but close enough.”  Although Martin seemed to be
making an effort now to lighten things up, Matt wasn’t letting his guard down.

A grin from the younger brother.  “It has been a
while.”  He paused a moment before continuing.  “What I’m saying
is... Things have changed.  So I’m sorry if I got a bit pushy.  You’re
my family, and I just want to know about you.”

Patrick shifted uneasily at that remark.  He suspected
that Matt wouldn’t be too happy at it either.  But Matt was younger, his
brain a little more nimble.

“You’re right,” he said, then deliberately looked around him
at the bricks stacked up and the tools lying idle.  “And that kind of
conversation needs time and no distractions.”

His brother cocked his head to the right and ran his fingers
through the long blond hair thoughtfully.  “Okay,” he said at last. 
There was some reluctance, but he seemed to be accepting the implication of
Matt’s words.  “My timing’s not good, is it?  When would be a good
time?”

Never,
Patrick thought, but kept it to himself. 
Instead he watched Matt play acting.  The elder son looked at his watch
for a moment, then glanced around him again, as if he was assessing how long
they would need here.  In practice, Patrick knew they could knock off
whenever they wanted.  They weren’t being paid for this work anyway.

Eventually, Matt said: “We really need to get this wall
finished today.  I can’t see that happening for a while yet.  Maybe
the best thing would be for us to meet up tonight.”

“Good idea,” Martin said.  “What time do you want me to
come around?”

Matt’s glance at his father was surreptitious, but Patrick
was sure it didn’t go unnoticed.

“Well, I was thinking of us
maybe
coming to see you wherever you’re stopping,” Matt said.

Martin nodded, apparently in agreement, though his words
soon put them right on that score. “It’s a nice thought.  Unfortunately, I
don’t know where I’ll
be
stopping.  I had wondered whether you’d be
able to put me up -” Patrick hoped to God that his horror at that prospect
wasn’t showing on his face – “but, as we’ve already established, things are
already somewhat crowded there.  So I haven’t sorted any digs out
yet.  Do you know of anywhere in the village?”

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