cover

Contents

Cover
About the Book
Title Page
Dedication
Prologue
Part One
June 1969
June 1969
June 1969
June 1969
June 1969
June 1969
June 1969
June 1969
Part Two
May 1919
February 1919
June 1969
February 1919
June 1969
February 1919
June 1969
February 1919
June 1969
March 1919
June 1969
March 1919
June 1969
March 1919
June 1969
March 1919
June 1969
Part Three
March 1919
June 1969
April 1919
June 1969
April 1919
June 1969
April 1919
June 1969
May 1919
June 1969
June 1919
June 1969
July 1919
June 1969
July 1919
July 1969
July 1919
July 1969
Epilogue
Reading Group Questions
A Q&A with Laura Madeleine
Wild Cherry Cake Recipe
Acknowledgements
Read on for an extract from The Confectioner’s Tale
About the Author
Also by Laura Madeleine
Copyright

About the Author

After a childhood spent acting professionally and training at a theatre school, Laura Madeleine changed her mind and went to study English Literature at Newnham College, Cambridge. She now writes fiction, as well as recipes, and was formerly the resident cake baker for Domestic Sluttery. She lives in Bristol, but can often be found visiting her family in Devon, eating cheese and getting up to mischief with her sister, fantasy author Lucy Hounsom.

You can find her on Twitter @esthercrumpet

 

Also by Laura Madeleine

The Confectioner’s Tale

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TRANSWORLD PUBLISHERS
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www.penguin.co.uk

Transworld is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com

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First published in Great Britain in 2017 by Black Swan
an imprint of Transworld Publishers
Copyright © Laura Hounsom 2017
Extract from The Confectioner’s Tale © Laura Hounsom 2015

Cover photographs: Woman © Jeff Cottenden, Background © Ian West / Cultura RM Exclusive/GretaMarie/Getty Images, Sky © Pictureguy/Shutterstock.
Cover design © Becky Glibbery/TW

Laura Madeleine has asserted her right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Every effort has been made to obtain the necessary permissions with reference to copyright material, both illustrative and quoted. We apologize for any omissions in this respect and will be pleased to make the appropriate acknowledgements in any future edition.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Version 1.0 Epub ISBN 9781473525825
ISBN 9781784160739

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

1 3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2

For Terry and Iris
The most unlikely of allies

Prologue
April 1919

We ran through the darkness. My shoes were lost to dancing and the dusty road was cool beneath my bare feet, though the night air was warm. I laughed, tried to ask the young man who held my hand where we were going, but he only turned to me and smiled, teeth glinting in the deep tan of his face.

I followed him, jumping down on to the beach. It was high tide and the sea was rich with the scent of minerals. The surface was calm, but I knew that beneath it was teeming with life, with fins and scales and flashing silver eyes.

He stopped walking, so abruptly I almost collided with his back. We had reached the cliff at the end of the beach. When I tried to get his attention, tell him that we couldn’t go any further, he dropped my hand, leaving a tingle of disappointment in its place.

It was damp here, smelled of wet sand and drying seaweed. He ran his fingers over the surface of the rock, pulling aside a plant that was making a valiant effort to grow in a waterless crevice. Behind it, a chunk of stone was missing, almost like a foothold. Another piece of stone had been prised out further up. Above that, a little way past his head, was a ledge.

I tried to protest that I was in no state to climb, but he responded with a grin that I imagined had not changed since he was a lad of thirteen, delighting in trouble. He stooped and tapped my ankle, until I raised my leg, hesitating.

His hands enclosed the sole of my foot. His fingers were warm, coarsened from years of salt and rope. He was looking up at me through his black hair, with those eyes that always saw too much.

Then I was boosted high and I yelped in surprise as I scrabbled at the uneven rock. My foot found purchase in one of the holes, and I clung there, breathless with laughter, not daring to look over my shoulder. Behind me, I heard the breaths of his own quiet laugh, at my ungainly pose, at my skirt close to splitting.

With a burst of effort, I hauled myself up, and twisted, until I sat on the ledge. I gave a mocking salute down to the ground below. He swiped at my foot and began his own scrambled ascent. For a moment, he rested beside me. The stone beneath our hands retained a trace of the day’s fierce heat.

He went ahead, feeling his way around the cliff face. The path was steep, and I tried not to think about the sea, lapping at the ragged rocks below. Wine was flowing through my veins; it made me reckless. Together, we edged our way around the curve of the cliff. This near, I was engulfed in his scent, cotton dried in sunlight and warmed by skin, woodsmoke in his hair, spice on his breath and always, always, that mineral tang, like the sea on a winter’s day.

The path twisted, taking us high above the dark waves. Finally, I felt grass beneath my feet, smelled sweetness upon the air and we emerged on to a tiny plateau beneath the brow of the cliff. Here, a single, twisted tree was growing: a wild cherry, its fruit flushed pink. The forbidding rock walls sheltered it from the winds, like a fierce creature guarding something precious. The young man ran a hand along the shining bark. This was his secret place, I knew then, in a town too small for secrets. I wanted to ask him why, but he only smiled, rested his hands upon my shoulders and turned my body to look.

Behind us was the town, all of it, stretching around the bay and up into the hills. I could see the café we had fled with its strings of flickering electric bulbs, could see the silhouettes of people dancing, stomping and spinning, kicking up the wine-soaked dust.

The wind carried smoke from the bonfire up here. I breathed deeper, closing my eyes until I could pick out other scents: coal from the railway track and tar from the boats, the powerful reek of fish scales, drying on nets and traps. I could smell sun-baked stone, wild herbs, myrtle and olive trees on the hillsides above. I caught a wisp of the food we had eaten that night, heady with spices. And above it all that single cherry tree, a drop of sweetness, just shy of ripe.

His hands shifted upon my shoulders. Once, I would never have stepped out alone with a man like this, but once did not exist any more. I leaned back and felt his cheek rest against my hair. Above us were stars and behind us in the darkness, a soul took up singing.

‘There’s a nightingale,’ I whispered, but I knew he couldn’t hear it. And I knew, too, that I was lost.

Part One

June 1969

It’s the smell of kippers that wakes me, rather than the gut-wrenching jangle of the alarm clock. Kippers mean one thing.

Swearing, I stagger out of bed, the blanket and sheet tangling around my legs. Two steps down the corridor to the bathroom. The door is closed but I barge in regardless, hoping that Louise isn’t sitting on the toilet. Serve her right if she is, she knows I have to be out of the house at this time.

My dad looks up in surprise, chin and neck half-lathered, handle of the razor clenched.

‘Bleeding hell, Bill, could’ve stuck myself like a pig.’

I aim a hasty stream at the toilet, not without a few splashes – sorry, Mum – while Dad grunts behind me.

‘Told you to get that clock fixed. In my day, we didn’t need one, up at dawn …’

Ignoring his monologue, I make a grab for the facecloth hanging by the sink. Dad drawls on and on, shaving slowly just to wind me up, I’m sure of it. Between his rinse-and-drag motions, I wet the cloth under the tap, rub at my face, neck, armpits. It rasps over my chin, but not too much. For once I’m glad that my manly grooming rituals are limited to a few pitiful attempts per week.

Toothbrush from the mug, a bit of paste and I’m out. I brush with one hand, searching the drawer for a pair of pants and a vest. The suit is waiting on its hanger. I grimace at it. Some day, I’ll buy myself a new suit. One that actually fits. One that isn’t brown.

I thunder down the stairs in a cloud of Aramis – the same bottle Mum got me for my eighteenth – and spit toothpaste into the kitchen sink.

Louise is ignoring a bowl of cornflakes as she tries to re-animate her week-old hair-do, Mum is flipping Dad’s kippers. There are toast corners in the rack, so I grab one, despite Mum’s attempts to stop me. On with the hated, squeaky leather shoes, and shoelaces. Oh, for a world without shoelaces.

Outside it’s warm and by the time I make it to the corner, I’m already sweating. The bus is at the stop, primed to trundle off like a greyhound at the track. I leap for the steps just as the driver releases the brake.

It’s packed, as always. Men in suits far better than mine, with briefcases and umbrellas balanced across their knees, though when was the last time it rained? There’s a spare seat at the back by the stairs and I collapse into it, a mess of sweat and toast crumbs. I’m so grateful to have made the bloody bus, it takes me a minute to see who I’m sharing a seat with. When I do, I realize why this space was free.

A child is staring back at me, a boy. He has fine, pale blond hair plastered to his head in a bowl cut, and enormous, bottle-bottom spectacles – the worst the NHS has to offer. He’s one of those children who always look sticky. I grimace out a smile and glance away, pretending to be fascinated by the advertisements above. He’s still staring, I can feel it. From the corner of my eye I see him raise a hand, slow as a snake, and wipe his nose.

I’m an adult now, aren’t I? I should say something to this kid about manners, produce a handkerchief from my well-equipped pocket and brandish it at him. But there’s nothing in my pockets, save for the loose change that makes the lining sag, a wrapper from a toffee and my house key, still proud on its own ring, the plastic one with a grinning sun that my aunt got me from Margate.

‘You—’ I start weakly, staring down at the boy.

‘What are you?’ he interrupts.

The words of reprimand dissolve on my tongue. He is still looking up at me, but now his mouth is closed, lips pursed and appraising.

‘What?’ is all I can manage.

‘I said, what are you? And you should say “pardon”, not “what”.’ He sniffs again. ‘Mummy says.’

As I gape helplessly, I notice a book held tightly on his lap. It’s a thin, cardboard-covered thing about the size of an almanac.

‘What have you got there?’ I ask, attempting to summon the false jollity that adults talk to children with. ‘Is it a picture book?’

‘No.’ He still hasn’t looked away, not once. Has he even blinked? ‘It’s the latest issue of the Palaeontology Society’s Members’ Journal. I’m not a member, yet, but Uncle Alan is. He said I could have it.’

‘Well, that’s …’ Of course, I’d get stuck next to the weird kid. Up ahead the traffic is thickening, crushing itself on to the roads that lead into London. We’ll be here for some time. ‘That’s, uh, groovy.’

The boy frowns. ‘What does “groovy” mean?’

‘Groovy, you know, something cool, interesting.’

‘Groovy,’ the boy tries out, and nods. ‘So, what are you?’

This again. I look around for the boy’s mother or guardian or anyone, but no one meets my eye. In fact, the two businessmen in the seats opposite are studiously ignoring us, obviously relishing the fact that they do not have to sit next to the sticky, eccentric child.

‘What do you mean?’ I sigh at last, giving up. ‘Am I what? Animal, vegetable—’

‘I mean what are you,’ he repeats patiently, helping me along. ‘As a job. What are you?’

‘Oh. Right. I’m a solicitor.’ I feel a wave of pride at those words, and brush a few crumbs from my polyester lapel. ‘Well, I’m a solicitor’s assistant, really, but in a few years I’ll be—’

‘What’s a solicitor?’

This is like being back at the grammar school, under the eagle-gaze of the old headmaster, who distrusted anyone who came from the new part of town.

‘We, uh, we sort out legal things for people. Help them with problems, fill in the right paperwork.’

‘So what do you do all day?’

‘I help my boss, Mr Hillbrand. I make copies for him, and sometimes he trusts me to visit our clients and take them papers to sign.’

‘Why?’

‘What do you mean, “why”? Because they need signing.’

The boy shrugs, as if to say, Have it your way, pal.

‘I’m going to be a palaeontologist,’ he says, careful to pronounce every vowel. ‘And dig up dinosaurs and the oldest creatures in the world and build them again.’

‘That sounds cool,’ I admit. The boy nods sagely. ‘Much cooler than papers.’

I sink back into my seat. The traffic is moving again. We’ll be in central London in twenty minutes.

‘When I was your age,’ I tell him, taking the crumpled tie out of my pocket, ‘I wanted to be Scott of the Antarctic.’

‘Late, Perch.’

‘Traffic, Mr Hillbrand, sorry. That A13 was murder this morning. Hello, Jill.’

‘Morning Billy, good weekend?’

I show my teeth in what I hope looks like a smile and nod. No one calls me Billy. Not even Stephanie.

I sit down at the desk squashed into the corner, behind the stack of triplicate forms that are waiting for me. Almost immediately, I stand up again.

‘Tea?’

‘Yes. But let Jill do that. Jill? Need to go through a client file with you, lad. They’re coming in at eleven.’ Hillbrand cracks his neck importantly. It makes me shudder to think that some day I’ll be a crackly necked old bastard. ‘They’re interested in one of the dormant case files, believe it or not. Right back from when Great-uncle Durrant ran the firm. Never looked at it twice, to be honest. Reckon it’s a straightforward enough job, though. Some papers need locating, power of attorney transferring to the relatives, and what not.’

He suppresses a belch. Hillbrand’s one of those people who looks thin, until he turns to the side and you see his belly. I’ve seen the man eat enough for a family of four, but for some reason, not an ounce of it ends up on his limbs.

‘Anyway,’ he says, ‘thought it was about time you got a client of your very own. I’ll let you walk it, feed it.’ He laughs at his own joke, and I smirk along dutifully, until the reality of what he’s said hits me.

‘Wait, what? You mean that I … that I’ll be in charge of the casework?’

‘Jesus, Perch, close your mouth, you look like Larry the Lamb. Don’t get excited. You’ll start on the easy stuff. Might mean a few late nights, though. Reckon you’re up to it?’

‘You bet!’

I sound like a Boy Scout. Hillbrand looks pained. He digs around in his pocket for change.

‘There’s two and six. Go and get some biscuits, will you? Nice ones, with chocolate bits, not the rubbish your granny buys. This lot we’ve got coming in aren’t short of a few bob. They’ll know the difference.’

I’m halfway down the dark staircase when I hear his yell. ‘And I wouldn’t say no to an egg bap!’

The woman sniffs when I offer her the plate of biscuits. She bypasses them with a tight smile and a flick of her hand, even though they’re Cadbury’s best. She’s wearing short gloves, an immaculately tailored cream dress.

The man next to her is already on his third cigarette, though they’ve been here all of ten minutes. He slumps back in his chair. His belly and Hillbrand’s are facing each other like boxers at opposite corners of the ring.

It’s clear that Hillbrand & Moffat Solicitors is not what they were expecting. I know the feeling. I too walked trembling up to the grand building several months ago, only to discover that the solicitor’s office is nothing more than a couple of broom cupboards on the second floor. The rest of the building is, in fact, a gentlemen’s club. One that Hillbrand has never been invited to frequent.

This pair are obviously used to finer things. I, on the other hand, have no cause to complain.

‘Mr Hillbrand,’ the woman says, setting down her cup of tea, untouched, ‘as my attorney mentioned in his letter, expediency in this matter is of great importance. My father’s condition is,’ she presses a hand to her lacquered hair, as if it just threatened to move, ‘unlikely to improve, but nevertheless, we have a limited amount of time in which to act.’

Her accent is strange, somewhere between American and British. Hillbrand offers a buttoned-up smile of his own.

‘I understand, Mrs Mallory. I’m sure we can have this done and dusted for you by the end of the month.’

He holds out a hand and I fumble with a stack of cardboard files. Two of them slide out of my grip and into his lap. He manages to keep down most of a grimace.

‘From what I know so far, it seems like a simple matter,’ he says, opening the topmost file. ‘Power of attorney over your father’s assets, transference of ownership of a property to you, the next of kin. And a subsequent sale to a developer?’

Mrs Mallory shifts in her expensive tailoring.

‘In essence, that is the case.’

‘The law doesn’t deal in essences, Mrs Mallory.’

Is Hillbrand trying to be funny? The woman shoots him a disdainful glance.

‘I’m aware of that, Mr Hillbrand. Just as you are no doubt aware it would have been preferable for my own attorney to deal with this from Boston. However, changeover processes are lengthy and since your firm once represented my family and have possession of the relevant historic files, we have decided to place ourselves in your hands. Do I make myself clear?’

I’ve never heard such polite hostility. Hillbrand has the grace to take the hit.

‘Of course, my apologies, Mrs Mallory. I have to ask, though, what cause do you have for hesitation?’

‘We’re missing something vital to the settlement. Our father has suffered a severe stroke, and the doctors tell us that even if he does survive, it is unlikely he will ever regain speech or movement. So we cannot simply ask him. As you can imagine, this puts us in an awkward position.’

‘Indeed. And it’s my job to get you out of it. What have you lost?’

The lady stiffens. Is she blushing? Seeing this, the man beside her laughs out a mouthful of smoke. It’s the first noise he’s made other than a grunt of greeting.

‘Not what,’ he says. ‘Who.’

Rather than elaborating, he only laughs again and finishes his cigarette.

‘What do you mean?’

The words escape my mouth. Hillbrand cuffs me over the head with his eyes. The woman, meanwhile, notices me for the first time. Did she think that the biscuits floated up to her?

‘Who is this?’ she asks. ‘Not the other half of “Hillbrand and Moffat”?’

‘No, no, Mr Moffat passed away several years ago,’ Hillbrand says smoothly. A lie. At the end of my first week, in the pub, he told me that Mr Moffat never existed. When Hillbrand took over the business from his great-uncle, he got the name ‘Moffat’ off a jar of mayonnaise and added it to his own because he thought it sounded better. ‘This is Mr Perch, my assistant. He’s capable.’

Mrs Mallory looks dubious, but addresses me properly this time.

‘What my brother meant, Mr Perch, is that we are short one family member. Unfortunately it is her name on the deeds to Hallerton House. Without her, even if we are granted power of attorney, we cannot sell.’

‘By “short”, do you mean …?’

‘Missing. Gone,’ the man mumbles as he lights another cigarette. ‘One day she’s there, the next, nothing. Mind you, people say she was mad.’

‘I’m sorry?’ Hillbrand is trying to regain his grip on the situation.

‘Our father’s older sister,’ fills in Mrs Mallory. ‘Our aunt, Emeline Vane.’

‘Ah … and how long has she been missing, exactly? Have you contacted the authorities?’

The man starts laughing again, harder this time. At least, he seems to be laughing. He might be coughing. I wonder whether I should offer him some water.

‘The authorities,’ he wheezes to himself, wiping his eyes with a handkerchief. ‘There’d be no use in that. She’s been missing for years.’

‘Fifty years, to be exact,’ the woman says, before either of us can ask. ‘Emeline Vane disappeared on February twenty-seventh, 1919.’

I don’t know who is more stunned. Hillbrand is turning red from the neck up, staring at them as though they’re crazy. I feel my mouth go clacking off on its own again.

‘Well, if that’s true, then there’s no problem.’ My cheeks burn under the scrutiny but I can’t stop gabbling. ‘I mean, that long, she has to be presumed dead. So there’s nothing to stop you from being granted probate—’

‘You think we haven’t tried?’ the woman interrupts. Her brother is watching me from behind his cigarette. Slowly, she smooths an invisible crease in her skirt. ‘It isn’t that simple. Our father would never declare the death. He has some letter or other from after her disappearance, secreted away. He’s always said that it proves she’s alive.’

Her eyes, cool as smoke, meet mine.

‘It will be your job, Mr Perch, to prove him wrong.’

 

19th February 1919, Hallerton

Durrant came to see me today.

Outside, the hail fell like words. Small, mean, unwelcome ones that stung. Not enough to bruise or cause pain but enough to serve as a reminder of skin and frailty. I know them well.

Infirm. Afflict. Attend. Cold words. They have to be, to withstand the use. I don’t want to say them any longer. I’ve been waiting for the time when I will be their subject, rather than their owner. Before, it seemed inevitable. It seemed only fair. But it has never come.

I could smell the freezing glass of the window, loose in its frame. Once, on a winter’s day, Timothy and I licked frost flowers from the panes. I remember the bitterness on my tongue. How many years ago was that? Freddie and Albie were home from school, so it must have been at Christmastime. The memory has the scent of cloves about it. If we were in the study, it must have been after father died.

It was a mysterious place then, an adult world of leather ledgers, with rows of numbers and abbreviations that were as impenetrable as a foreign language. But they are mine now, and I shall have to learn to decipher them.

Durrant was looking at me oddly, the way everyone in the village does these days. How long had I sat there thinking? I tried to concentrate, told him I was sorry. He smiled, the way he has since I was a child in a smock and he a man with a twist of barley sugar in his pocket. But then, the smile collapsed at the corners.

‘It is I who should apologize, Miss Emeline. I would rather have waited another few weeks before forcing business upon you, but there are bills, and death duties …’

I nodded as he spoke. In truth, I do not remember much of it now, but at the time he looked so wretched that I tried to summon up the appropriate words. I told him that I would like to settle matters. That Mother had hated debt.

Durrant, if possible, looked more wretched than before.

‘Your …’ He made a habit of clearing his throat. ‘Your mother came to me some nine years ago, to change her will after your father’s passing. It has not been altered since then. You must know already, it leaves everything to her children, surviving. The house and the grounds …’

The fire sputtered and died, drowning in smoke. Swiftly I took the poker, tried to shake a flame back into the coals, but they only tumbled, useless in their coats of ash. Durrant knelt beside me, took the poker from my hand. He smelled of cologne and some kind of liniment.

‘Thank you,’ I said, as he blew a coal into redness. ‘I never was much good at lighting them.’

‘Emeline, how have you been coping?’ He did not speak like a solicitor then. ‘I do not think you should be here alone.’

I told him that Edith came to help me almost every day, though I only paid her for two. I watched the flames spring back into being.

‘This is my home. I do not want to be anywhere else.’

I began to feel the shifting of the warmth across my face, across the clothes that had not felt dry for weeks. Durrant sighed. We knelt like a pair of children, shoulder to shoulder on the hearthrug, staring at the flames.

‘There’s no money.’ His voice was flat. ‘I should not be telling you as much, before the official reading, but it’s true.’

Outside, far off, something tumbled in the wind. ‘Nothing?’ I asked.

‘The bills, the estate duty, it amounts to more than what is left.’

He made to take my elbow, to help me rise, but I stood alone and returned to the desk, to the leather chair stiff with cold. I asked him when the will would be read.

He blinked at such a straightforward question, made an examination of my face before answering.

‘Friday, at two o’clock.’

He told me that my uncle was coming to stay for a time. To keep an eye on me, his look said. Timothy would come with him, his first visit home in over a month. The first time since Mother’s funeral.

I nodded. Behind Durrant’s shoulder, I could see Father’s crystal decanter. It had stood on its silver tray for as long as I could remember. How long did brandy keep? I wondered idly. My mother never drank it and I don’t think my brothers ever dared. Eight years? Ten?

Durrant began to speak again, but I couldn’t make out the words. Instead, I recall standing, walking to the sideboard. His voice petered out as I picked up one of the matching crystal glasses. It was thick with dust.

‘Do you think this stuff is still good?’ I cleaned the glass with my sleeve. The velvet gathered up the grime. If Durrant answered, I didn’t hear him. I poured out a little of the liquid and sniffed and asked if Timothy needed to attend the reading of the will.

Durrant watched my actions, and told me that I could witness on Timothy’s behalf.

‘Good. I do not want to send him off to school again with that on his mind.’

Then, I remembered what I wanted to ask, the request that had nagged at me for the past few weeks. I placed the glass down.

‘Mr Durrant,’ I told him, ‘I should like to make a will.’

His face curdled between red and white.

‘Please, Miss Emeline—’

‘It only need be a simple one. I have nothing of value, it seems, but my share in this house. What if something were to happen to me? I should like to know that Timothy will be taken care of.’

‘Emeline, we do not need to do this now. Might it not wait until you are—’

He stopped himself. Until you are better, he was going to say. Until you are in your right mind again. I looked into his eyes and almost laughed at what I saw. At the people we had been: a girl-child and a kindly, occasional visitor. At what we were now, at the pair of us, alone in this echoing house, alone because there was no one else left. There was a high colour to his face as he turned away.

‘We will talk more on Friday.’

He gathered up his hat, his coat, clipped shut his bag. He told me that he would ask his wife to send up something hot, for my supper.

I felt the first tear burn the corner of my eye, but would not look at him. Instead, I took up the glass and drank down the old, hard spirit.

June 1969

I walk back to my desk in a daze, listening to Hillbrand’s repeated pleasantries as he ushers Mrs Mallory and her brother down the stairs. Jill makes a what happened? face from her desk in the corner, but I just shake my head and shrug. Where would I even start? The clock on the wall reads quarter to twelve. I can’t believe it’s only been forty-five minutes.

Limply, I select one of the triplicate forms waiting for me. I haven’t even placed it into the typewriter when Hillbrand sags against the door, loosening his tie with one hand.

‘Put that down,’ he puffs. ‘Anyone else expected, Jill?’

‘Not that I know of, Dicky.’

He opens his mouth to correct her over-familiarity – once again – but gives up mid-breath. Instead, he points at me.

‘Cow. Now.’

The Old Cow is Hillbrand’s favourite pub. I’m not sure why. It’s narrow and dark and jammed into an alleyway between grander buildings like a filling in a tooth. It smells of fag smoke and forty-year-old beer-soaked carpet. It’s only just past opening time and Norm, the landlord, is still pottering around, clinking glasses.

‘Morning, Dick,’ he calls. ‘You’re in early. Good Monday, is it?’

‘Two of the usual, Norm,’ says Hillbrand, struggling out of his jacket. ‘You want an egg?’ he asks. I eye the huge, murky jar of bobbing shapes and shake my head. ‘Suit yourself. And an egg.’

A quarter of the pint and half of the pickled white globe have disappeared down Hillbrand’s gullet before he lets out a hefty sigh.

‘Well,’ he leans on the bar and casts an eye at me, ‘what did you make of that, eh?’

I swallow down a mouthful of bitter. It’s warm and faithful to its name. Hillbrand has never asked me if I like it. I don’t, but he’s buying, so I suppose it doesn’t matter.

‘I think … they, er, were unusual.’

‘Mad as a bag of badgers,’ snorts Hillbrand, chewing the rest of the egg. ‘That what you mean? I’d agree. But. They’re not short on funds. Paid the consultation fee upfront, didn’t even blink when I said it was probably a month’s work. Who’d have thought that damn old file would turn out to be a goldmine?’ He waves his pint heaven-ward. ‘Thank you, Uncle Durrant.’

‘But it’s impossible.’ I brace myself for another sip of bitter. ‘They said themselves, no one’s seen this aunt for decades. And they must’ve tried to find her before.’

‘Haven’t had much luck, then, have they? But you reckon it’s impossible? Shame, I was going to hand the files over to you this afternoon.’

The sly bastard, he knows I can’t refuse. This could be my chance to escape the endless triplicate forms, my first step towards handling real business, towards becoming a real solicitor.

‘Well, maybe not impossible,’ I concede. ‘How much have they told you?’

Hillbrand looks pleased. He glances over at Norm, who’s absorbed in counting out a roll of pennies, and lowers his voice.

‘Enough to get started. I looked back through the file; turns out Great-uncle D was the Vane family solicitor for donkey’s years. Old Man Vane moved most of his business to some big city law firm in the thirties, but he left the property bumf with us, for some reason. Relates to a big old house, out east. Mallory said they’ve had a juicy offer to knock it down, turn it into one of those holiday camps.’ He sucks down another mouthful of bitter. ‘They need to move quick, though, or the developer will bugger off and find another site. And they’ll never find a better buyer. It’s a dump, apparently. Never been there myself, though it’s near where Great-uncle D used to live. Think he must have mentioned it before. Damned if I can remember the details, but it seems like it hasn’t been lived in for years, never been on the market.’

‘Why?’

‘Who knows? Sentiment? You know what old folk are like.’

I try to imagine my own grandparents, clinging on to a crumbling mansion out of sentiment when there was money to be had. Wouldn’t happen.

‘All right, so the old man’s never wanted to sell,’ I say. ‘Isn’t it a bit, underhand of them, going behind his back when he’s so ill?’

Hillbrand laughs. I catch a waft of egg vinegar.

‘Use your head, lad. If Pa dies before they prove this aunt is officially out of the picture, what will happen?’

‘They won’t inherit the property?’

‘They’ll inherit half the property. Can’t sell half a house any more than you can eat half a whelk.’

‘But if they can get power of attorney while he’s out for the count, they can declare her dead—’

And flog the house.’

I nod. My head feels light from the beer. They don’t sound like the most compassionate family in the world, but I suppose that’s none of my business.

‘So what am I meant to do?’ My voice sounds too loud. ‘Contact Interpol and ask them the whereabouts or last known location of some mad bat from fifty years ago?’

‘Who do you think you are, Harry bloody Palmer? No, Mrs Mallory mentioned a load of family papers. You’ll start with them. See if you can’t rustle up something useful, like proof that this Miss Vane was barking. It’ll be easier to get her declared dead in absentia then.’

‘Where are they, the papers?’

Hillbrand drains the last of the bitter through his teeth, and grins.

‘How’d you feel about taking your first business trip, Perch?’

‘You mean, stay away?’ Travelling for business or pleasure, sir? the man at the ticket booth will ask me. Business, I’ll say with an important sniff. Back home, Stephanie will tell everyone that I’m working away, on urgent solicitor matters. ‘Where?’

‘Norfolk. Thereabouts.’ He eyes my pint glass, still half-full. ‘Same again?’

A thousand years pass before I find myself boarding the bus once more, among the early-evening traffic. That’s the last time I ever go to the pub with Hillbrand during the day. How the hell does he do it? A quick, ten-minute snooze at his desk and he was off again, digging out the old file on the Vane family, making calls. I nearly nodded off over the triplicate forms a dozen times before he slapped an envelope down on the desk in front of me. It contained the terrifying prospect of two five-pound notes.

‘Baby’s first business expenses,’ he said. ‘Ask for receipts and don’t muck it up.’

I can feel the money now, burning a hole in my pocket. I check it again, just to make sure it’s still there. There’s a seat free at the back of the bus. I half expect to see the sticky child staring back at me, feel an odd flicker of disappointment that it’s only another businessman, who acknowledges my presence with a disgruntled shuffle.

I grip the briefcase tightly on my knee. It’s second-hand. The leather is loose-bellied and the clasp is held together by string, but it’s mine, and inside is my first ever client file. Ahead, the traffic rumbles; the bus jerks and slows, jerks and slows, and my stomach resents me for the second pint of bitter. The man next to me has wrestled his Evening Standard into a manageable square, so I slip the dog-eared cardboard file out of the briefcase, and open it on my knee.

It’s full of typewritten pages with neat, inked signatures. The dates are from forty or fifty years ago. A few sheets down, something heavier slips out on to my lap.

It’s a photograph printed on thick card. It shows a house, large and square with rambling wings to either side. Bare creepers cling to the pale stone. There’s a white wrought-iron table on the terrace, a few weeds struggling through the paving. The garden looks wild, but in a pretty sort of way. It must have been taken before it was abandoned.

Hallerton House, someone has written across the bottom, Saltedge, 1919.

 

21st February 1919, Hallerton

Last night I found a photograph I had never seen before, while I was searching Father’s desk for ink. It had been placed carefully between two sheets of card. I felt guilty, taking it from the drawer, as though Father or Mother might appear and chastise me for prying.

But of course they did not. There is no one here but me.

I remember the day the photograph was taken. The Blackberry Day, we called it, my brothers and me. It was before Timothy was born, so I must have been eight or nine. One of those rare, stolen weekends when my brothers were home from boarding school and all three of us were allowed to play together; when duty and decorum were flung aside at the door of the boot room and we ran wild.

It was autumn, cold enough for mist to fill the garden in the morning, before the sun burned it away. I remember my brothers standing in the dim corridor outside the kitchen, eyes shining, scarves looped around their necks. Freddie’s cheeks still round and childish, Albie tall and awkward as a heron, his voice beginning to boom and pitch. He was the oldest so, of course, he was our commander. He sent me to the kitchens to barter with Cook. She always did like me the best.

I must have looked like mischief itself, but she took pity on me. By the time I ran back to my brothers, my arms were laden with spoils: a jam tart each, a slab of cheese, freshly baked bread, a few cold sausages. We tumbled it all into the pannier of an old bicycle and set off, me between the handlebars, Albie pedalling, Freddie balancing precariously over the back wheels. We whooped and wobbled down the drive, and soon we were free, rulers of the country lanes, of the woods where the bright leaves flamed and fell like sparks.

We ate our picnic by the side of a little stream. It was as glorious as a feast; we drank cold water straight from our hands, filling our bellies with the taste of ancient stone and winter to come. It was when we were on our way home, the sun sinking low and golden, that we found the blackberries. Hedgerow upon hedgerow, heavy with fruit.

They squashed between our fingers, upon our tongues. I still remember their taste, perfumed and sweet. Not the bright May sweetness of a strawberry, but deeper, more mysterious, as if they’d drawn the cold smoky nights into their juice, as if they’d seen midnight. We ransacked the brambles, scratching our arms and pulling threads from our clothes, filling the pannier to the brim and never thinking about the stains.

That’s how we look in the photograph, standing all together on the front steps, three dark-haired wild things, windswept and smeared with berries. Father had laughed, called us his savages and fetched the box camera. That evening Cook made a crumble with the berries. I remember it so clearly. I can almost taste it.

I looked for blackberries today as I walked to Saltedge. Of course, there are none; the brambles are bare. The air was icy and stung my throat, but my blood pumped and my body felt strong. It seems impossible that the influenza, which raged so violently through Mother, never touched me. I quickened my steps, remembering summers spent racing this path, the scent of sap and earth and the boisterous sounds of two tumbling young men and Timothy clinging to my back like a monkey, shrieking in delight.

I staggered to a halt. The memory had taken me over so rapidly … I blinked it away. The path before me was empty and beyond it lay the salt marsh. The water was thick with cold, shifting like mercury between the mud-trapped reeds. I could smell its odd rotting scent, saltwater meeting fresh.

I could see the path that led to the village. I knew that Uncle Andrew was expecting me there, waiting in Durrant’s office with the local magistrate, waiting to make official what the solicitor had whispered to me beside the fireplace.

… what remains of my estate shall be split equally between my children: Albert William Vane, Frederick George Vane, Emeline Clara Vane and Timothy John Vane.

Before I could move, the church bell began to toll, tearing those cold, official names to tatters. One, it called, for Albie. Two, for Freddie.

The mud of the marshes came up over the tops of my boots. At any other time I would have looked for thicker clumps of reeds, for firmer ground, but I didn’t think of it then.

A February wind was shrieking from the sea; it bent the grasses low and whipped tears into my eyes. The icy sludge splashed my face but I didn’t care, all I could think of was pressing on, across the flat, brown expanse. Did it ever end? I couldn’t remember.

In summer, the marsh is as green as forest glass, the air heady with salt and seed, the sky dead still and maddeningly blue. Sea-lavender foams in clusters of pink, marsh marigolds are livid yellow and Albie and Freddie pull the old farm cart between them, like a pair of sunburnt packhorses. Timmy is in the back, me out in front, the dry stalks scratching at my legs. There are stems of salty glasswort to chew on, and a white egret flashes in the sun like a question mark.

But that world is buried and this new one is sombre as a flagstone. I do not want the cold comfort it offers, the brassy bugles and the new-cut medals with the tang of the engravers still upon them.

I remember reaching the dunes. The stinging wind made my face numb, but when I crested the top I am sure I cried out in relief. Before me spread the sea: spray-frenzied and empty. Blessedly empty.

June 1969

The tantalizing scent of salt and haddock and batter hits me as I open the door. The tinkling of the bell is drowned out by the radio, The Beach Boys oohing away like happy ghosts.

Steph bounces along, her back to me as she wraps a portion of chips. I glance into the back room, and sneak behind the counter.

‘I have had,’ I murmur into her ear, ‘the strangest day.’

She jumps, but a moment later clobbers me on the head with a heap of rolled-up paper.

‘You bugger!’ she laughs. Grinning, I slip my hands around her waist, and the apron tied there, reaching for one of the chips in the paper. My face rests against her hair, in its dark, blunt bob that she’s always trying to get straight. She smells of hairspray and powder, perfume and grease from the fryer.

She turns a blind eye as I eat a chip, then offer her one.

‘Eurgh,’ she says, ‘no fear.’ She twists out of my arms. ‘And you’d better get over that side. Malcolm’s out back.’

Reluctantly, I shuffle to the other side of the counter and lean there, watching as Steph finishes wrapping the chips, stretching sideways to fetch a bag. Bending in a normal way would be asking too much from her mini-dress. Hundreds of guys must try it on with her, working here. I’ve still got no idea why she said yes when I asked her to the dance in our last year of school; she was – is – one of the best-looking girls around, and the sharpest.

‘So you going to tell me about this day of yours,’ she says with a mocking smile, ‘or just stand there looking at my legs?’

‘Can’t I do both?’

She rolls her eyes at me, but is still smiling as she deftly shapes a sheet of newspaper into a cone and fills it with chips. A flick of vinegar, a hail-scatter of salt.

‘Here.’ She hands them over. I fall upon them.

‘You’re the best.’

‘If Malcolm comes in—’

‘Then I’ll pay for them. Here, look at this.’

Juggling the chips with one hand, I fetch the envelope that contains the five-pound notes and lay it carefully on the tiled counter top.

Steph’s eyes go wide beneath thick, black lashes.

‘Where’d you get ten pounds?’ she demands, taking the notes in her hands like playing cards. I can see her making a mental inventory of exactly which things she would buy in exactly which shops on the King’s Road.

‘I can’t really spend it,’ I say, as she unwillingly returns the money to its envelope. ‘It’s for expenses. I’m going on a trip.’

‘What trip?’ Her face falls. ‘Without me?’