Winter’s Children: Curl up with this gripping, page-turning mystery as the nights get darker
The phone was ringing in the hall of Wintergill House Farm. Let it ring, thought Lenora Snowden as she threw another log in the wood-burner. She was in no mood for a chat, or making mincemeat. What was the point? Christmas preparations were supposed to wrap up the fag end of the year in some festive package. Who could wrap up this terrible season in anything but sackcloth and ashes, she sniffed as she banged the basket of Bramleys on the chopping board.
She inspected the dried fruit, the apples and suet shreds, the box of spices, the cheap whisky, without enthusiasm. Why was she tiring her legs standing on the stone flags in the old still room, now reclaimed as her private kitchen, little more than a cubbyhole, she sighed, choking back the tears.
Things had to go on. The WI needed jars of preserves for their Christmas stall. She always gave to the village school bazaar and the party for the old folks. Though her world had collapsed around her there were still others worse off than herself. She could make a pie for Karen and her boys, who were burying their dad this afternoon.
‘Damn and blast it!’ she muttered, chopping with vigour, as if to release all the tension of the past few months. The dale had never seen such a back end – storms, floods, snow keeping them stuck in for days. Then had come the distant threat of foot-and-mouth, and they’d made a desperate attempt to disinfect and stay protected, all to no avail.
The newly converted barn, which had taken the last of their capital, lay unlet for the whole summer season as the footpaths were closed and the moors cut off. The tourists stayed away dutifully but the bank still required monthly payments on their borrowings. All their diversification plans came to naught.
Chop, chop! She nearly sliced off her thumb in anger. Just when it was all over, just when they thought they’d escaped, when the lambs were gambolling across the fields, a phone call from their neighbours blew Wintergill’s hopes apart.
‘Nora! We’re being taken out! I’m sorry but they’ll be taking you out too …’
Foot-and-mouth had arrived silently across the tops weeks before. The Wintergill sheep were doomed as part of a contiguous cull, but both the cattle and sheep were already infected.
Her eyes were watering recalling those anxious hours. Waiting for the auctioneer to value their stock, a circus of army and vets trampled over their fields. Their death wagons parked up waiting to remove the carcasses, sinister slaughter-men in white suits sweltering in the sun. All she could do was make cups of tea and hide indoors, but the pop of the bolt guns would stay with her for ever, and she was glad her husband, Tom, wasn’t alive to see the destruction of his life’s work.
Nik, her only son, stayed at his post, grim-faced. No amount of compensation would make up for the loss of his prize-winning tups and ewes. They were his life’s work. Now there were green fields but no livestock, proven sacks of feed and nothing to give it to. She was sick of the silence. The heart had gone out of both of them after that day. The bombing of the Twin Towers and all that suffering only added to their gloom that autumn.
Nora sighed, knowing it was easier to hark back to happier times when the making of mincemeat heralded the annual run-up to Christmas: choosing the cards, the gathering for the pig kill. All the old rituals of farm life were going fast. How could they carry on after this? Nik was finished but he did not grasp that there was no future for him now. What was the point, she had argued, and he had stormed off to his part of the house, not wanting to listen to common sense or reason.
So why am I here at my post, chopping apples and grinding spices: cinnamon, ginger root, nutmeg? she mused, wiping her eyes. In her heart she knew she was drawn back instinctively to something ancient and female, soothed by the ritualistic comfort of a seasonal task.
Tosh and bollocks, she sneered, surprised by such sentimental humbug. I’m here because I’ve nothing better to do on this drab morning.
Life must go on and the cooking would take her mind off the funeral this afternoon of a young man who could not face the future without hope.
Since he lost his stock Nik was like a knotless thread, poring over Defra reports on his computer, filling gaps in walls, sorting out his compensation bumf and waiting for the all clear to restock his farm. Six months living on a knife edge of loneliness and despair, and now Jim, his friend, taking his own life just when the worst was over. It didn’t make any sense. It was so unfair on his wife and kiddies, but who said life was fair?
You get what you get and stomach it as best you can, she mused, grabbing her coat and plonking her beret on her head, glancing in the mirror with disgust. You look about ninety, old girl, she sighed, watching the creases and lines wrinkle up her weatherbeaten face. Her country bloom was lost years ago. The mirror had never held much comfort. Her face was too sculpted and her chin too pointed, her tired blue eyes were more like ice than cornflowers, and there were telltale shadows under them from sleepless nights.
All she yearned for now was a quiet hearth and a peaceful retirement. Surely the compensation package would release them now from this hard living. I’ve served my sentence on these harsh northern uplands, battered by winds and wild weather, she argued to herself, bruised by a lifetime of disappointments. Only the turning of the seasons brought life and renewal each year but now time was out of joint. There was no seedtime and harvest, no crop of lambs, no rewards for all their labours, only death and destruction and a tempting cheque. Lenora Snowden could see no future for Wintergill House Farm. It was time to take the money and run.
The phone rang again and the unexpected news she learned sent her scurrying out to the far fields to find Nik. He would be out somewhere avoiding her. It was some good news at last. Perhaps this was the turning point they needed: a sign of hope.
In the far field by the copse Nikolas Snowden was hacking off the branches of a felled ash with a ferocity that satisfied the rage inside him. He knew a chain saw would tackle the job in no time but this was the day for an axe. The physical effort to pit his strength against the ancient trunk was just the challenge he needed to take his mind off this afternoon’s funeral.
He should be beginning to feel a little calmer; quarantine would soon be over and he had been planning his restocking, preparing the fields to restart the cycle with lamb ewes. But his heart was leaden and he felt sick.
He paused to wipe the sweat from his furrowed brow, staring out across the green to the valley below, to the patchwork of grey stone walls rising as far as the eye could see and not a white dot among them. The rooks were cawing down in the churchyard, the curlews had long gone, a flock of redwings were grazing in the distance in the field where his best-in-show tups should have been preparing to service his flock. His eyes filled with tears when he thought of them. They were not just rams, they were old mates, tough proud stock.
How trustingly they had followed his shaken bag of feed nuts as he led them down to their deaths. His ewes were edgy amongst strangers and sheltered their lambs at their side. He had stood with the slaughtermen to the very end, trying to calm their panic on that terrible afternoon when the world was watching the Cup Final indoors, unaware of his terrible betrayal. Like lambs to the bloody slaughter indeed.
It was all in a day’s job for the slaughtermen, but the young vet, new to the job, had the decency to blanch as she grabbed each lamb with her needle. He could hear the bleating panic of his ewes crying, the panic rising as some made a dash for it in vain. And gradually as his flock was destroyed, there was only the silence of a summer’s afternoon, the blaring of the wagon driver’s radio, trying to catch the latest score.
He could see that heap, all he had worked for, piled up lifeless and he’d broken down, unashamed of his grief at such a loss. It was unspeakable the way the diggers scooped up their bodies like woolly rags but he’d seen it through to the end. They were his flock. He had seen each calf born and he must watch them die. It felt like mass murder.
They lambed late in the Dales to avoid the harsh winter and wet spring. It made no odds. How could he have unwittingly nurtured such a disease in his flock? No amount of compensation would ever drive that terrible scene from his mind, or the fact that Bruce Stickley was on the phone minutes after the cull to bid for the valuation of them for compensation.
Nik raised the axe and swung down. It was tempting to give up. The house was a millstone around his neck. His mother was weary. What was the point in all his research, the advice being dished out right, left and centre to the small farmer? ‘Try this, buy that'. Everyone knew there was money in the Dalesmen’s pockets and Nik was wary.
Wintergill had cost him dear; his first youthful marriage had foundered because his town-bred wife, Mandy, couldn’t stomach the loneliness or the harsh winters. Yet he was tied to the place by myriad invisible threads. He was damn near forty-two! Was it too late for life outside the dale? Perhaps he could retrain or retire – and do what?
For God’s sake, this is the only life you’ve ever known, he cried. How do you go on with nobody to follow? Even Jim had taken flight and topped himself, and he had two sons. He had made his own decision. He did not want his children to suffer the burden of being farmer’s sons. It was a terrible solution.
Nik was no longer certain about anything as he looked once more to the beautiful scene before him: how the farm stuck out on a high promontory overlooking the valley and the river snaking through the autumn woods down below; the trees turning into russet and amber and the wind sending storm clouds racing across the darkened sky. The first snows were on their way.
He felt a familiar tingling in the back of his neck. He was not alone.
She was watching him.
Even if he whipped round suddenly he would not see her face, whoever she was, this ancient phantom who wandered over his fields and hid in his copse. There was no comfort in her presence, no benign aura in her haunting. She flitted from lane to wood and moor. Only once had he ever seen her face, years ago, by the Celtic wall when he was young.
‘Bugger off, you old hag!’ he yelled, and swung his axe again in fury.
To be reduced to bagging logs for sale, fixing gaps and repairing machinery – it was no life for a farmer, but it kept his muscles firm and his thighs stretched. He had seen too many of his mates turn to fat in the last few months when reality had kicked in. The bar of the Spread Eagle was a tempting crutch to lean on to sup away sorrows. If he lost his fitness, he would lose what little pride he had left.
Not even his mother knew he could sense stuff with his third eye. It was usually reserved for the female Snowdens to inherit. ‘The eye that sees all and says nowt’ was how his father had once described it. It was not a manly thing to feel spirits up yer backside so he kept quiet about this unwanted gift. If only it had warned him of the danger to his stock.
A movement caught his eye and Nik looked up to see his mother waving from across the gate, calling him inside. What did she want now? He dropped his axe, stretched his back and made for the house. He could do with a coffee and a pipe.
‘What’s it now, Mother? If it’s another rep … put them off again!’ Nik yelled, bending under the lintel of the back kitchen scullery door, unpeeling his waterproofs and muddy boots. His mother was standing in his kitchen with a mug of coffee. She usually kept to the front portion of the old house, looking south onto the garden – he kept to the rear with ready access to the courtyard and outbuildings. He looked at his watch and supposed it was time to set aside farm chores in favour of a scrub and polish, ready for the funeral.
His mother was looking flustered, already dressed in a navy two-piece wool jersey suit. ‘Would you believe it! That was Stickley’s. They’ve got us a winter let for six months … someone from the Midlands saw the house on their website and booked it up on the spot. They’re on their way. Fancy, a winter let out of the blue after all this time.’ She made her way to the ironing board, which always sagged under a mound of creased washing.
‘Honestly, Nik,’ she said, looking around. ‘If you think I’ve got time to do this load … Get your skates on and shift yourself … I hope there’s a decent shirt among this pile. I’m not having you turned out like a crumpled rag, not with half the county coming to see Jim off. Can you bring me in some logs before you shower?’
Nik grunted, banging his boot across the stone-flagged floor, sending the house dog, Muffin, a collie cross, scurrying for cover under the table.
‘Who on earth would want to come up here in this weather? I thought we’d told them to hold back on lets. It’s been empty all summer. It’ll need a good airing.’
‘Don’t look a gift horse, Nik. Be thankful for small mercies after the season we’ve not had. Shift yerself and fill the log basket, turn on the water for me. They’ll not be here until late, and I’ve got Annual Parish Survey meeting tonight so you can let them in when they arrive.’ She paused, looking at him. ‘And no scowling. Be civil.’
Nik was watching his mother glancing around his living room with dismay at the unwashed pots in the sink, the grubby tea towels and the cluttered table, but she buttoned her lip. This was his half of the house and how he organised his affairs was none of her business. Washing up and clearing away was women’s work, he muttered, and he’d no mind to change his old ways. Ever since Mandy left him years ago, this back-to-back living suited them both. The hall door was their own Berlin Wall, dividing north from south, mother from son, chalk from cheese, Mozart from Bach.
Nik could see she was itching to clear up his mess and put the room back to times past when you could lick your porridge from her shining floor, but there was no time for arguments if they were to sort out the Side House and make the service on time. Damn the estate agents for conjuring up this holiday let out of thin air! Perhaps Bruce Stickley had a conscience after all and was trying to make up for that insensitive intrusion.
‘We spend a fortune doing up that barn and now you grumble because it gets let out. After the summer we’ve had, we should thank the Good Lord that we still have this asset left,’ she added.
‘Yes, and look what it cost us!’ Nik thought of the antiques they’d had to sell to fund the project. ‘I don’t like townies cluttering up the place, leaving gates open and asking silly questions.’ He did not want any post mortems with strangers, their pitying glances when they realised what had happened. He had good reason to hate what the summer had done to farmers. Was he not burying one of them that very afternoon?
‘Bruce Stickley gave good advice when he suggested we went for a top-of-the-range conversion: double glazing, central heating. We’ll be getting top whack for the let. It has a view second to none down the valley. There’s no pleasing you, son,’ Nora snapped. ‘It’s the only decent investment we’ve got left apart from the house. If we decide to sell up–’
He did not want to hear another word about selling up. ‘Stickley’s not having the house. Over my dead body! I know what he’s really after; soft-soaping you with a good letting, for once. He’s got his eyes on Wintergill for himself, always has had … He’ll slap planning permission on every bloody barn, shed, nook and cranny, strip the assets and keep the real prize for himself. I know his little tricks.’
Nora knew he was right. ‘Bruce has a point, you know,’ she replied. ‘This place is too big for the two of us. We rattle round like dried peas in a drum. What do we need twenty rooms for? It’s not as if–’ She stopped abruptly. ‘You know what I mean.’
‘Stop that, Mother. Wintergill House has been in this family for generations and I see no reason to change. Snowdens have made a good living from this land. Peaks and troughs, ups and downs, this is just a bad patch but we’ll survive,’ he argued, standing his ground.