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

Kay stubbed out her cigarette, peering into the darkness. She was taking a ridiculous gamble in renting a house she had never seen, but it felt right. Wintergill sounded so solid and the perfect spot to hide for a few months until she rethought their future. It would be a bolt hole. The darkness of the season would shield them from view. No one knew their business here. Few would remember her mother, who left home when she was a student. If only her parents were still alive but, as an only child, she’d no family of her own for support.

The move would give her time to sort Evie’s understanding of why Daddy could never be on her Christmas list.

She wound down the window further and sniffed the air. The snow had turned back to rain, dowsing her face with stinging droplets. It was time to make her way down the track. Time to test out her fantasy and the four-wheel drive.

Nik was soaking in the bath when he heard the doorbell ring in the hall and Muffin barking wildly. There was no expecting his mother to answer it for him for she was down in Wintergill, not due back until she had caught up with all the doings down the dale.

The keys for the Partridges were waiting on the hall table. The couple were late, very late and Nik had hoped with all the rain Yorkshire had been having lately they might have called off their holiday. The barometer was looking grim. Townies were soft when it came to bad weather. He tried to ignore the ringing but it carried on. Nik grabbed a towel and sloshed his way downstairs, leaving a trail of drips on the dark oak.

‘Yes?’ he answered gruffly.

‘This is Wintergill House?’ said a woman, shivering in the doorway, trying not to stare at his shrunken towel. ‘Yes.’ He tried to look casual.

‘I’m sorry we’re so late but we got held up. I’ve come for the key. Sorry to disturb you.’

‘No problem,’ he replied, muttering oaths and curses to himself. ‘Come inside while I change.’ He left a trail of drips up the stairs when he left her standing in the hall examining the old prints and the black oak panelling. Damn and blast, he’d have to get dressed and sort them out. Why couldn’t they have arrived at a civilised hour? This was just the sort of nuisance holiday lets invited. His quiet evening in was spoiled now. He searched for his keys in the clutter on the table.

Time was when they could leave everything unlocked on the farm – doors, tractors, pickups. Now it was getting like Fort Knox. Only last month some spark took a length of coping stones from the tops of their boundary walls; hundreds of them, to be sold for a fiver a time on some car-boot sale miles away, no questions asked. The quad bike had to be locked in the barn or it would go walkabout.

Nik pulled on his jeans and sweater, his ragged Barbour and old flat cap out of habit. Muffin jumped in on the act, thinking they were going out into the fields in the back of the pickup. The moon was rising now in the dark sky. The storm had abated as he guided the Land Rover towards the Side House. There was only a woman and a child in the car. Where was the couple Mother was expecting? She would not be well pleased at a child in tow.

The courtyard was in complete darkness, only the working dogs barking at the arrival of strangers. He took them down the track to Side House Barn and brought out the keys from his pocket. It was usually Mother’s job showing lets around the house, pointing out switches and timers and points. He just about knew about the fuse box and the fuel store. This was women’s work.

‘The storage heaters are on. The place is warm and aired. Mrs Snowden will see to the rest in the morning. She’s left a welcome basket on the table so help yourself,’ he answered, standing in the darkness, not thinking of anything else to say. Be damned if he was going to make a fuss.

‘Thank you,’ nodded the redhead in a bobble hat. ‘Say thank you, Geneva.’

The child surveyed her surroundings suspiciously. ‘Is this it?’ Evie was half asleep. ‘It’s dark. I don’t like–’

‘That’ll do, Evie. She’s so tired. I thought we’d be staying in Wintergill House itself,’ ventured the woman.

He could feel their disappointment and shrugged his shoulders, towering over the two strangers. ‘Oh, not another one … You can thank Bruce Stickley’s website for any misinformation given to you. He puts our house on the website and describes the cottage but omits to say they’re separate. You can have him for trade descriptions but this is what’s on offer. It’s all brand new. I’ll leave you both to it then, Mrs Partridge.’

He backed off towards the courtyard and his own back door with relief. He’d done his good deed for the day and now it was time for a whisky and some Bach.

Kay was in no mood for arguments when Evie started whingeing, sniffing the stale farmyard aromas of disinfectant, old manure and mud in the sharp air.

‘I don’t like this place, it smells.’

‘We’re here now. Let’s unpack what we need for tonight and have some cocoa. It’s late and we’re both tired. We’ll take stock in the morning.’ Kay was trying to keep the disappointment out of her own voice when she looked at the barn conversion. It smelled of pine and fresh paint, of emptiness and newly lined curtains, hardwood windows and a Radoxy smell of artificial cleansers.

Their accommodation was pristine, neat, perfectly appointed but soulless: neutral with sea grass carpeting, ubiquitous pine furnishings, very nineteen eighties décor. The kitchen was spotless, well fitted with basic utilitarian units. What had she been expecting? A clutter of dark oak, stone-flagged floors, ancient beams and a large inglenook fireplace. This was not how her granny had lived in their Bankwell cottage.

This house could be lifted up and transported to any suburb. Even the pictures on the walls were tasteful prints, discreet old maps and villagey scenes. Suddenly Kay felt tears welling up. They were exiles in a foreign land at the mercy of strangers. The man could not have been more gruff and begrudging. Perhaps his wife would be more helpful. Her heart was sinking with weariness. What have I done, uprooting us into this soulless place?

She poured the cocoa for her exhausted child, made up her bed with the plastic mattress cover. Since all the upheaval Evie was unreliable at night. Kay rooted in the box for her daughter’s toadstool lamps and Beanie Babies. They would need no rocking tonight.

Then she poured a generous dollop of rum into her cup of cocoa from the booze box. There was no going back now. They were stuck up a track in a house on top of a hill. She was following that strange dream for better or worse, but why did things always seem worse in the dark?

Next morning Kay woke with a start, staring up at a beamed ceiling. The silence was unnerving: no town noises; brakes screeching, doors slamming, radio blaring or police sirens in the distance. Both of them had slept in late, and she pushed back the curtain to see the garden enveloped in a misty rain swirling like smoke. She could make out the white outline of Wintergill House itself, but no more.

She lay back again, making lists in her head. If they were going to make this their home then it needed customising a little: a throw over the tweed sofa, some gaudy coloured cushions, posters on the walls to cover the anaemic paintwork. They would find the nearest market town and find a few items to cheer up the place.

The two of them ate breakfast slowly at the breakfast bar, slices of toast and boiled eggs from the welcome basket. Evie retired to the sofa to watch children’s TV, surrounded by her latest Beanies, sucking her thumb while Kay inspected the barn conversion with closer interest. Why was the conversion so suburban in design? Where were the galleried upstairs and exposed rafters she’d seen in Country Living magazine? Even the great barn doors were walled in with stone, disguised rather than enhanced, ruining the spirit of the place, well crafted though it all was.

It was only when Kay put her head out of the door that she realised that the wind was whipping up the rain across the garden like smoke from a bonfire. She had forgotten how damp it was in Yorkshire. They were going to need some serious weather gear, Wellingtons and waterproofs. Their anoraks would hardly keep this onslaught from soaking them to the skin.

This was not exactly the picture of rural bliss Kay had in mind for an autumn arrival; no newspaper through the letterbox or pint on the doorstep, no bus passing on the way to market. How would she survive without her Guardian? There was so much she was going to have to find out from Mrs Snowden and she must thank her for the welcome pack. In the rush to offload her larder she had brought only frozen packets wrapped in newspaper. What if they were cut off by snow? Kay started to make a survival list of provisions for their store cupboard just in case they were stranded. She felt like a pioneer in the Arctic.

Once all their clothes were unpacked, they looked too flashy for country living. Evie’s books and toys would have to go in the spare room somehow. Kay was just slamming the door shut when a hooded apparition in a battered mackintosh, looking for all the world like the famous Hannah Hauxwell in a blizzard, came battling across the path carrying a tray covered with a cloth.

‘Glad to have caught you, Mrs Partridge. Sorry I wasn’t in last night but I hope you’re settling in. Not much of a weekend, I’m afraid, the forecast is dire … very unseasonal for the time of year,’ said a rosy-cheeked woman peering out from under the hood. ‘I’ve brought you some of my baking just in case you’re short. It’s just some parkin.’

‘Come in, come in, Mrs Snowden,’ ushered Kay with her hands full of videos. ‘We were going to come and thank you for the milk and eggs and bread.’

‘You’re welcome, lass. It takes a brave soul to land themselves up here for the back end of the year. You’re our first visitor this season. As you can imagine we’ve not exactly been the most popular of venues this summer,’ replied the older woman. Her voice was soft and low, an educated voice with only a hint of a Yorkshire accent.

‘Do thank your husband for coming out to rescue us last night,’ answered Kay, and watched the woman’s face burst into a smile out of which came a deep throaty laugh.

‘Just wait until I tell Nikolas. I know it’s been a rough year but my son hasn’t aged that much, I hope. It was my son who let you in,’ she replied.

‘I’m so sorry!’ Kay muttered. ‘It was dark, I was tired, I wasn’t really looking at him properly. Oh dear!’ The old lady laughed. At the sound of chatter Evie came to the kitchen still in her pyjamas, her fair hair straggling over her face. ‘This is my daughter, Geneva. Say thank you to Mrs Snowden, who gave us our breakfast and a tray of parkin for our tea.’

‘What’s parkin?’ Evie looked at the flat brown squares with suspicion.

The smile on Mrs Snowden’s face faded as she beheld the child.

‘I thought it was just your husband and yourself, Mrs Partridge, the two of you?’ she stammered, eyeing the girl with surprise.

‘We’ve got our wires crossed, I’m afraid. No, there’s just Evie and me, just the two of us now, come to have some peace and quiet for a while,’ Kay replied, not wanting to go into details.

‘So she’ll be off to Wintergill School then? The bus collects them at the end of the lane.’

‘We’ve not decided yet … I might teach her at home for a while until we go back to the Midlands. It’s a bit of an experiment, isn’t it, Evie?’ Kay turned to her daughter but she just shrugged her shoulders.

‘It’s a good village school, one of the best. Pat Bannerman runs a tight ship. Both mine went there when they were little …’ Then the woman stopped abruptly. ‘I’m not sure this is the right place for a kiddie.’

‘I’m sure it will be. She’s no trouble and we need a break from routine so I’m not sure I want to settle her into another school.’ Kay looked up as Evie disappeared back to the television. ‘We do need to gear ourselves up for this weather though. Where’s the best place to go?’

‘How old is she?’ asked the woman in a far away voice.

‘Nearly eight. She’s tall for her age but quite young in other ways.’ Kay was curious as to why Mrs Snowden wanted to know about Evie.

‘She’ll happen find it lonely up on these tops. There aren’t many children left on the farms. They’re all bussed to school. Do watch out for her – farms are not playgrounds. I don’t usually encourage families here. I thought you were a couple or I’d have said. We couldn’t take the responsibility if anything … not that there’s much farm work happening yet,’ said the woman whose eyes were darting to the little girl as she was talking.

‘Don’t you worry, Evie is a sensible child, used to dodging traffic. I’ll make sure she knows her country code. And thank you for the cakes. Baking is not something I’ve done for ages,’ she confided. Eunice had kept the pantry full of cakes and pies but her own appetite had still not returned.

‘It’s a way of life up here, or was, but now the young ‘uns seem to like shop-bought stuff. You never know what’s in it, do you? I’d better leave you to settle in. Is everything to your satisfaction? Anything else you’d like to know?’ Mrs Snowden made for the door.
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