Ric shuddered; the hanging tree was long dead, but its limbs still stretched out towards the full moon like bleached coral reaching for a distant sun. Clouds stirred to block out the light, and as the wind increased, a small bunch of herbs protruding from a rotting knothole shuddered, then fell to the cold grass below. Ric flicked up her collar and wished again that she had accepted the offered lift home. Rummaging in her bag, she found one black glove and a beanie hat. She frowned for a second, not recognising the hat, and slowly bringing it to her nose she sniffed. A small smile sketched across her face; it was Seb’s.
Just ten more minutes and she would be home. Quicker if she went across the field. She hesitated and glanced at the sentinel standing guard in the centre. The hanging tree was rumoured to be over 500 years old and the source of much superstitious interest. All nonsense, of course, but somehow even as she thought this, Ric felt a little less sure than usual. But no, it was all nonsense; it was just an old oak that had stood in the middle of a field for far too long.
It was certainly a cold night, though. The wind felt angry, outraged, and the first snowfall of the winter had been forecast. Should she chance walking across the field? It was so exposed and she’d be in the direct path of the wind. No chance; she would go the longer, but more comfortable way home. Then, as if flicking on a switch, the clouds were swept aside, the cold light returned, and the moon had centre stage again. Its glow gave the hanging tree a menacing glamour so Ric locked her eyes defiantly on the path in front, the path that would lead her safely home. Why was she so nervous tonight? She did this more nights than not, liking the calmness of her walk home after the drama of the restaurant where she worked. But something felt off and had for a couple of nights now. Like something was starting. Or had started already. She smiled. Perhaps it was the approaching midwinter solstice. The small town of North Chase was one of the few places in the country that still celebrated the pagan festivals, but Ric didn’t really buy into any of it. It was alright for the tourists it attracted, and more than one local entrepreneur had cashed in, but it just didn’t make sense to Ric. She didn’t particularly have any religious beliefs and blamed her mother for that. She had been dragged to Sunday school and church before she was old enough to protest, or have a mind of her own, but now purposefully shied away from anything even remotely religious. It was one of the few subjects they argued about. But she liked Christmas and would hang a wreath on her front door, put up a tree, and decorate the porch with lights. It always made the cottage look pretty, and cheered her up in these gloomy winter months. And at the moment, she needed that.
The wind picked up and brought her the threads of nearby laughter. Someone was having a jolly time, she thought. But as the laughter continued, Ric realised it was just one voice. One person laughing by themselves. Odd. She turned her head, trying to get a sense of where it was coming from. But apart from a skittish black cat that mounted a wall and then disappeared, there was no one else in sight.
Grabbing her phone, she stabbed a number.
‘Seb, you bastard. Pick up.’
She paused, expecting to see he was ringing back. He must be asleep already. Now she was looking at that damn tree again. It certainly looked creepy tonight. She considered taking a photo, wondering if her phone would do it justice. She could send it to Seb. Raising her mobile, she took one shot then the phone was back in her bag. It was too cold to stand about taking stupid photos of dead trees. But that was a lie. She was merely aware that as she stared at the tree, it seemed to be staring back at her. She picked up speed and hurried home.
Later, in the warmth of her bed, she tried to rationalise what had happened next. The sudden howling of a storm in the field, though no wind stirred the wisps of hair sticking out from under Seb’s hat. The loud sharp crack as a huge white limb split from the trunk and crashed to the cold ground below. And the shadow which must have been waiting by the tree the whole time she had been walking, the shadow which she had assumed was part of the tree trunk until it had moved away and walked swiftly across the field just after the limb fell. Just an old tree losing a branch in the wind and her eyes playing tricks. But as she tried to turn her mind off after a busy night there was one thought that she could not shake off. She had seen something that she should not have seen. More worrying, that something had also seen her.
5 November – 7.30p.m.
The bonfire spat and crackled as it sent glowing embers into the night sky. The old wood collapsed, new wood dropped, and red and yellow flames struck out in anger. Shivering, Nell thrust her gloveless hands further into her pockets and shuffled closer. But although the fire scorched her face her back was slammed by the icy wind which raced over the sea and onto the cliff where she stood. Now a series of fireworks ripped open the sky and blossomed with a bright palette of colours and noise. Look at me, she thought, being all sociable at the local firework display. But although she had waved hello to a few familiar faces and returned the smiles of some of the families she recognised from her walks, her enjoyment was as fleeting as the rockets that after a few seconds of sound and light left the sky dark and cold again.
Fake it until you make it, she attempted, reminding herself that she had lived here only nine weeks so was making good progress. In many ways it felt like she had lived here forever, but also like only last week that she had attended the funeral of her grandmother, been beaten up by her boyfriend, and escaped here. Now late summer had turned to autumn, the leaves were falling, and the year was heading to its end.
As she listened to the bonfire roar, she made a conscious effort to gather all that she had endured over the past year and to mentally throw her pain into the flames. She was trying to get past this, trying hard. Doing everything the self-help books and websites suggested. Her friend Max had introduced her to the five stages of grieving. She had successfully got past the denial stage, but had now made herself a blockade of anger, bargaining and depression, under which she seemed unable to emerge. Perhaps she should just accept that she was damaged beyond repair, would be alone for the rest of her life, and was quite probably going mad.
There was something peaceful about watching flames. Unapologetically destructive and dangerous, but at the same time so cheerful and beautiful. They danced in the unrelenting wind and licked defiantly at the night sky. Cathartic: that was the word, and amid the destruction and noise she finally felt her body settle. Twisting and turning, the fire’s bright glow tired her eyes and her lids flickered and then closed. Peace filled her head for the first time in weeks, as the flames warmed her aching limbs, brushing against her exposed skin. Suddenly, the loudest fireworks yet erupted and a small boy began to wail in protest. Nell’s eyes snapped open; invisible hands had grabbed her arms and she was being dragged forward. Dragged towards the fire. Panic erupted like a Catherine wheel and she began to struggle, began to scream. Then she was in the fire itself, looking out to the huddled crowd. A wave of heat hit her, as if she was burning from inside out. Scolding blood raced to her face and beads of sweat erupted on the nape of her neck. Twisting ropes of fire blurred in front of her as she gasped for air, tears streaming down her face. Thick smoke blinded her as she gasped and coughed, and then she was standing firmly back on the wet grass again.
Shaken, she turned to see if anyone was looking but their eyes were fixed on the sky above. A hallucination? She hadn’t been sleeping well so was probably exhausted. Actually she had slept but the nightmares were back, leaving her fatigued in the morning and in a trance like state for the rest of the day. Her nana used to call it ‘away with the fairies,’ when somehow she felt on the verge of falling into a dream all day. And now she had just imagined herself in the middle of the bonfire. Just as she thought; she was going crazy, bonkers, mad.
More fireworks erupted, but this time the smile on her face was genuine. Perhaps it took a frazzled, over-stimulated imagination to fully appreciate just how beautiful they were as more colour bloomed over the inky sky. The small boy began to wail again, louder this time. Nell felt her own arms ache as she watched his mother scoop him up. Arms around her neck, he pushed his face into her long hair.
‘Don’t be silly. Mummy’s not going to let those noisy fireworks get you.’ As she moved him away she gave Nell a faint smile. Yes, Nell thought, she was here on her own, but she was still included in the crowd. It had been a good idea to come. But the intimate moment between mother and son had woken in her a longing to hold her own child, to feel small fingers seek sanctuary around her neck and in her hair. Loneliness raised its head again and began gnawing at her ribs; being acknowledged in a crowd did not replace being here with someone, with friends or family. Maybe next year things would be better. The only people in Nell’s life now were Austin, a private detective, and Max; two people whom she had not known a few months ago. And out there somewhere was her estranged father, the only blood family she had left, and who, until recently, she had assumed was dead.
The display was over and her feet and face numb with cold so, turning away, she headed back to her beautiful penthouse apartment, which perched proudly on a cliff overlooking the beach and surf. Walking into the wind, she tucked her head further into her collar and picked up speed.
‘Well, that’s tonight over with. It will be Christmas next.’ Nell froze. The words spoken in jest, between two family groups, made her feel like she was being dragged into the fire again. The year was disappearing fast and the holiday that Nell was dreading most was creeping closer. Christmas: like a flamboyant dame waiting in the wings, tonight would no sooner have taken its final bow before Christmas would come rushing on. Loud, bright, over cheerful, and literally taking over the whole stage. One day at a time, she reminded herself, and tomorrow was 6th November so there was plenty of time before she needed to panic about how to face Christmas.
There was just her car in the car park now. A few weeks ago, an unexpected bout of warmer weather had seen the return of some of the part-time inhabitants. But rain the following week had flushed them back to their city homes. Not that she knew them very well. She had just begun to know Leon, late owner of the village surf shack, but he had left when summer ended and a for-sale sign displayed in his window informed the world that he would not be returning.
The one problem with living on the top floor was the number of stairs you needed to trudge up. Although there was a fully functioning lift, now she was the only person in the building Nell worried it would break down and she would get stuck. And there were only three floors so she shouldn’t be so lazy. As she dragged herself up the final set of stairs she felt the burning start up again and this time there was no roaring fire to blame. She shed her coat as she entered her apartment and was just pulling one arm out of her sweater when she met the central heating. Perhaps the temperature contrast, from outside to inside, was making her flush. At the word flush, another thought arrived with malice; she had just turned thirty years old, surely she was too young for hot flushes. Hidden deep in her heart there was a secret wish that she would meet the someone meant for her and perhaps start a family. But not if her body was going to betray her with an early menopause.
There had to still be time for her, after all those wasted years with Gary. Was she now being punished for being too scared to leave him? She had always been waiting for the right moment, and somehow the perfect storm had been Nana’s passing followed by a night in the short stay emergency unit after a particularly violent beating when she hadn’t said yes quickly enough to Gary’s proposal. Nana’s gift of money and this apartment had allowed her to escape. No, she was too young for the menopause and she seriously had to stop jumping to the most horrific conclusions every time she had a headache, or a fever. Or a reoccurring nightmare.
Perhaps it was something else? She glanced across to her laptop. Max had warned her of the dangers of Googling every symptom instead of getting real support. Her eyes drifted to the newspaper cutting that she had stuck on her fridge weeks ago. Words and phrases flew out at her. ‘Missing teen found shackled in local hero’s basement. A local man has been arrested and charged with the kidnap of thirteen-year-old Emily Blake following a tip off from a member of the public …’ And then further down, ‘Police in Wiltbury have confirmed that remains found yesterday are that of thirteen-year-old Ruby Morgan. A man is helping the police with their enquiries …’
Tip off from a member of the public indeed. Nell’s childhood recurring nightmares and a lucky meeting with Max, who had used her newly blossoming psychic abilities to unravel the mystery, had resulted in the finding of Ruby. Emily could have had the same fate had it not been for Nell. A paedophile that had been getting away with it for decades was now behind bars and Nell could pick up her life again. Only she wasn’t. The finding of Ruby and rescue of Emily should have brought Nell some peace at last, and it had at first, but now her latest worries filled her search engine; getting stuck on one of the five stages of grief; PTSD; and horror stories from people who had successfully tracked down an absent parent.
Nell tore the cuttings off her fridge, screwed them up in her fist and then dumped them into the bin, along with the remains of her supper.
The glass of the French windows was cold against her forehead as the tropical moment eased. Now all that was left was a strange smell of smoke that stung her nostrils. Probably bonfire smoke on her clothes and in her hair. But it brought back faint remnants of last night’s dream. Something to do with fire. And had there been a baby crying? No point worrying, she would probably dream it again tonight.
As she stared at her reflection in the glass, she felt the misery descend. It was pathetic that the highlight of her week was popping along to the local bonfire display. The previous week, the news that they wouldn’t be required to attend court due to the paedophile pleading guilty, had prompted an elegant meal in a fancy restaurant with Max and Austin.
‘To the detective triad,’ Max had toasted, causing shushing from Nell and a flicker of amusement from Austin. Now, the sun was rising later every day while some days it was not seen at all. And the fact remained that her beloved grandmother was dead, and some days, like now, the pain hit her afresh.
Grief was a heavy burden to carry, making everyday life exhausting. Nell had read an article on how the Scandinavians coped with an extreme loss of daylight hours and had wondered if it would also work on sadness. So she now forced herself to take a walk every day. But that took effort and some days it took all her courage to leave the apartment to put out the rubbish.
Now bonfire night could be ticked off and, as the stranger had reminded them all, it was downhill all the way to Christmas. She grabbed her phone, selected a number, felt like a nuisance, and half-hoped the message service would pick up.
‘Good evening, Miss Montague. How are you?’
It had become a habit that when she wobbled, she rang Austin.
‘Ok, but today it occurred to me how truly pathetic my life is. My head is empty; empty of Gary’s prattling rubbish and his bullying, I don’t have to remember Nana’s appointments or check she is coping, or worry about her dying. I don’t even have Ruby, not the nightmares or the alter ego. I just have this shredded skin that I’m moving about in.’
‘I am listening,’ Austin said.