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Leah Fleming
Winter’s Children: Curl up with this gripping, page-turning mystery as the nights get darker


‘With Nik having no one to take over, and the change in your circumstances,’ he answered, not so sure of his ground now.

‘So?’

‘I know how it is for hill farmers now. I saw Nik at the diversification lecture. Have you thought about developing the other barns?’

‘What we decide to do is none of your damned business, young man,’ she snapped. ‘Like father, like son, so I see. I knew your father. He always drew a hard bargain, always on the lookout for something cheap or run down. You’ve done well out of other people’s sorrows over the years … We’re here to honour a poor man who couldn’t take any more bad luck, not to do deals over his corpse. Show some respect!’ She turned her back on the estate agent and made for the open grave to throw her handful of soil into the hole. She did not want Bruce Stickley to see that his words had hit home.

So the news was out that they were hovering on the brink of a decision like so many here today. You need only be seen going into the estate agent’s office on market day for nosy parkers to put two and two together to make five. Nik was right: Bruce had an eye on their house for himself. Well, tough, she’d rather sell it at a loss than allow him the deeds.

Northbound (#ulink_7b9cb1d6-c5e5-5925-bf26-f78629a71a4a)

It was raining in Bradford when the travellers slipped off the M62, and sleeting on the road to Skipton, but the intrepid driver ploughed on northwards along the A65. The snow was settling on the pavements in Settle as they made their way cautiously upwards where the snowflakes floated as thick as goose feathers onto the windscreen.

Trying not to panic, thankful that gritters were already ahead clearing a path, Kay Partridge continued to climb upwards over clanking cattle grids in the dusky light.

‘Are we nearly there?’ said Evie, her daughter, with thumb in mouth, eyeing the snow with fascination.

‘Last lap, muppet,’ she answered, not daring to stop in case they slithered to a halt and found themselves stranded halfway up the hill. The Freelander was stuffed to the gills with bedding, toys, books, the contents of her mother-in-law’s freezer, radio, video, plastic bags full of clothes. There was plenty of ballast.

Within days of deciding to rent a cottage in the half-term break, everything slotted together so neatly that surely this impulsive decision was meant to be?

She plumped for Wintergill House the minute she saw its details on the screen. Perhaps it was the name that caught her attention. It was as close to her dream home as she could find, and she wanted a place for winter. Wintergill looked old, remote and on a hillside. The details were just right. There were three bedrooms and it was part of the old estate, now a working farm. Kay also ran off loads of bumf about the district, just to be sure. It wasn’t far from Bankwell and Gran’s old place, although no one would remember her now. Even the village school had its own website. It was familiar territory, and even if she’d not been back for years, she felt a lightening of her spirit to be back in Yorkshire.

Now they were in another world and the wheels scrunched on pristine snow. It was all very exciting but scary. November was a little early for a blizzard, surely? Soon the lights of Wintergill would shine out like beacons guiding them forward. The weather could close them in for weeks and she wouldn’t care.

‘We’ve made it,’ she sighed, turning to her daughter, but the child had snuggled back under the blanket and gone back to sleep. It was time to stop the car, light up a ciggie and draw a deep breath, blowing the smoke out of the window, ashamed at her weakness but it gave her time to savour the moment. Was this real or was she dreaming? Would she wake up back in Sutton Coldfield, with her mother-in-law bending her ear?

Poor Eunice! She’d swept into Kay’s bedroom without knocking, waving tickets in her hand. ‘I’ve got front seats in the dress circle on Boxing Day … won’t that be fun?’

‘That’s very kind of you but I’m afraid we’ll not be here for Christmas this year,’ Kay whispered. ‘I’ve booked a country cottage away from it all.’

‘Without telling us first?’ Eunice snapped. ‘For how long? I suppose I can exchange them for January.’

‘We’ll be leaving after half term … it’s a six-month winter let,’ Kay said, not wanting to see the horror on Eunice’s face.

‘You can’t be serious … just packing up and leaving us on a whim,’ screamed Eunice. ‘It’s nearly Christmas … What about Evie’s schooling? You can’t just bundle her off like a parcel into the middle of nowhere. Whatever has got into you? After all we’ve done. I think you should speak to your counsellor.’

‘I’ve had it up to here with grief counselling,’ Kay answered. ‘I’ve been sensible, not done anything in a rush. I’ve been ricocheting off the walls like a pinball. You’ve both been more than kind, and we do appreciate all your advice, but it’s nearly a year since Tim died and I can’t go sponging off you both for ever, living in your house. We have to move on, Eunice. I have to pick up my career again.’

‘Nonsense. This is all part of the upset. Poor little Evie, doesn’t she have a say in all this? She’s so looking forward to Christmas. She’s settled in the school now with a trip to the panto arranged. Daddy and I are going to give her a special treat. I know we can’t make it up to her for not having her own daddy here.’ Eunice Partridge’s eyes were brimful of tears and Kay felt a monster for spoiling all her plans.

‘No one can bring Tim back. It’s going to be an awful Christmas for you too, remembering last year and the upset, as you call it. So I’ve decided to do something different. I did wonder about a holiday in Africa, a safari, or Morocco where there’s no Christmas to remind us …’ she suggested.

‘You can’t take a child from her Christmas.’ Eunice was horrified.

‘Christmas is not compulsory, you know. Lots of people escape from it. But then I got a better idea. We can take a country let for a few months and I’ve found something on the internet in Yorkshire.’ She paused, knowing Eunice would not understand.

‘Yorkshire! It’s miles away!’ Eunice spat out the words as if they were rancid.

‘Why not? It was good enough for my mother to be brought up in. The Dales are beautiful. It’s quiet and safe, with friendly people. They’ve been through a bad time. I want to show some solidarity with my kinfolk,’ Kay replied, deciding not to tell them the real reason or the dream that had given her comfort and the courage to make this move.

For months the grief of Tim’s sudden death in that motorway crash on Christmas Eve had lain upon her like a hard frost, nailing down her resolve, leaving her unable to make the slightest decision. Cocooned by his parents, cosseted from reality by their smothering kindness, she had let them organise their lives to suit their own need of Evie. She could hardly breathe for their kindness and fussing. Now was the time to break free or go under before that first anniversary came round.

‘It’s cold and wet up there, and they’ve had foot-and-mouth.’ Eunice sniffed. ‘You should be going up there in summer, not in the middle of winter. What about Evie’s schooling?’ Eunice was not going to give up easily.

‘They do have schools up there too. It’s not exactly Antarctica.’ It was hard to be polite but Kay bit her lip and tried to breathe deeply.

Eunice decided to call in the troops, shouting to her husband, who was cowering in the conservatory under a newspaper. ‘Dennis! Come and hear this. You’ll never believe what Kay is dreaming up for Christmas. How will we manage without Evie? She’s so like Tim, with those grey eyes, his nose.’ The floodgates were opening again but Kay had her arguments well rehearsed.

‘I’m sorry but she’s not Tim. She’s not a substitute for your son. She has to get over his death in her own way. Pretending he’s not dead doesn’t help either.’ It was out in the open at last, the resentment that had been building up for weeks.

‘What do you mean?’ Eunice screeched, going pink in the face.

‘You talk about him as if he is still alive, suspended in midair somewhere, waiting to descend when he’s finished his business trip. Evie thinks he’ll come home for Christmas. She wrote a letter to Santa asking him to send her daddy back. I don’t want her deceived.’ Kay paused. ‘I should have said something ages ago. I know you mean well–’

‘How can you be so cruel? We’ve been trying to protect her. She’s too young to understand about death. It will give her nightmares. She’s only seven.’

‘You’re never too young to learn that death is part of life, that sometimes terrible things can happen. Every time I try to tell her about Tim’s accident, she covers her ears and says he’s gone away to make more pennies. We mustn’t turn him into some plaster saint or pretend he’s just in some other place.’ Kay paused, seeing the look of pain on Eunice’s face, but the truth had to be spoken.

‘We’re only doing what we think best for Evie,’ Eunice muttered uncomprehending.

‘Of course, I know … we all miss him but he was so driven sometimes … I wonder if it was worth it,’ came the weary reply.

‘You wanted for nothing, my girl. He gave you both a good life. He died for his family.’ Eunice’s eyes flashed with accusation as she spoke.

‘If only he hadn’t tried to squeeze too much into his frantic schedule. He was belting down the motorway in bad weather, late as usual for his next meeting, when he should have been spending time with us. He died as he lived– in the fast lane. It’s so unfair, and I just don’t want to be here … on Christmas Eve. Can’t you understand?’ Kay argued.

‘I have to go now before we get sucked into everything.’ There was nothing more to say.

‘You’ve grown so hard these past few months. I might have known you’d something up your sleeve. I hope you’re not filling Evie up with bitterness.’ The gloves were off now.

‘Someone has to be there for Evie. I gave up my career gladly to bring her up but I’ll not stand by and let you fill her up with the notion Tim is not dead. How many times have we moved to further his career? How many uprootings and refurnishings were there to organise? Have you forgotten that all our furniture is still in storage and that we were in the middle of a move when he died? Or that he wanted us to move over Christmas so as not to miss that sales conference in Frankfurt? I’ve been stranded with you ever since, rootless, paralysed by shock and inertia. He worked so hard – too hard – and what appreciation did he get from that bloody company? Hardly any of his work colleagues turned up for his funeral. They just threw money at us to salve their consciences … I need never work again … Don’t you think I’d love nothing more than for him to walk through that door? But I’ve seen his body … I can’t bear to go through that day again in this very same place … I’m sorry.

‘What was it all for, Eunice, tell me? One day he was there and then he’s not, and I’m left neither one thing nor the other. I’m not single, I’m not divorced but I am a widow with a child.’ All the bitterness was pouring out in a torrent. She looked at Eunice’s crestfallen face but she couldn’t back down now.

Kay reached out her hand in a gesture of conciliation and whispered, ‘One minute life was hunkydory, waiting for the Christmas jamboree to begin, cake in the tin, pudding on the shelf, turkey in the pantry, Evie jumping up and down waiting for Father Christmas, and then the balloon was burst in our faces and we were left to wipe our tears, smile to protect Evie, trying to pretend Tim was delayed. We’ve been doing that ever since. It has to be different this year, for all our sakes.’

She looked up to see Eunice nodding in silence. Dennis was standing by the door and he put his hands on Kay’s shoulder.

‘The girl’s got a point, Mother. Evie needs something to look forward to. We’ve got our memories and she’s got her mum. They have to do what’s best for them. I don’t know how you’ve coped all this time, Kay.’ Dennis Partridge was not one for long speeches and Kay felt mean to have upset them both.

‘What’ll we do, Dennis?’ Eunice looked up shaking her head.

‘We’ve got each other and a chance to visit your friend in Bath, who’s been begging us for years to come and stay. It’s time we moved on too. They’ll come and see us when they’re settled, won’t you?’ Dennis pleaded.

‘Of course, and you can come and visit us in the New Year,’ Kay said, relieved that her decision was out in the open. There was no turning back from this strange impulse to get the hell out of Sutton in time for Christmas, to find somewhere to hide from the festivities, where no one knew her as ‘that woman who lost her hubby on Christmas Eve'.

They were lucky. There was insurance money enough for choices and treats and distractions. Now she was going to follow that dream. That was enough for now.
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