An extract from Lucy’s MA novel.
Kit was almost at the kettle when she heard something. She faltered mid-step and stopped fiddling with her dressing gown cord to listen better. Nothing but the dog’s meaty breathing, and her own. She shrugged, and the tap spluttered as she turned it on. Wilson started up from his basket, myopic eyes roaming the room, and, seeing no cause for alarm, slumped back down, lids closed.
Moving more quietly, Kit stretched away another broken night’s sleep. She felt pops in her joints and relaxed as the ache in her neck eased. As the kettle juddered to a boil, she tossed a teabag into a mug and poured, no milk, then lit a cigarette, balancing it between her fingers to release the door bolts. A whoosh of air disturbed a stack of papers on the table – work stuff, nothing important – and she rested against the frame, goose bumps puncturing her forearms under the insubstantial fluff of the dressing gown.
Standing puddles in the yard had iced over during the night and gossamer webs looped ornamentally on the hawthorn. Habitually, Kit scanned the perimeter of the yard, once, twice, and was satisfied. It was encouragingly still, one of those tricksy January days that conned the birds into thinking spring had arrived. Winter rarely saw a bright morning. Today, though, the sky was translucent, like running water.
She drew on the cigarette and the tip pulsed orange, nicotine sweet on her tongue. She leaned against the doorframe, deliciously faint from holding onto the first inhalation for too long, raised her chin and sniffed the morning. The tang of smoking wood from the fire she’d set in the living room, the muddy scent of the empty hen house, and snow. Snow was coming.
The sound was distinct this time, and unmistakable. The yard gate was swinging on its hinges, as if someone had just left or just arrived. Her grip on the hot mug loosened. How had she missed that? She ran, leaving the door wide open, ignoring the smash of china as the mug shattered on the step behind her. At the gate she skidded to a stop in flimsy slippers and scanned the ground for the padlock which should have been holding the gate fast. It wasn’t there. Careful not to touch, she stepped closer and inspected the electrified cord woven through the bars. It was severed from the power supply.
Caught in a gust of wind, the gate moved, and she jerked away. Another clang, quieter this time, and there was the padlock, swaying uselessly on the top bar between curls of barbed wire.
Kit moved in a circle, searching for more signs of intrusion. The potholed lane leading to the village was empty, as usual. The Christmas tree remained toppled by the gate, trailing grubby lines of tinsel, with a single silver bauble still attached to a brown spindle. The walls, head-height and capped with a lethal combination of glue and glass, glistened with frost. Only the gate – the first in a line of defences, electrified as a warning to would-be thieves, and ritually secured each evening – was altered.
She recalled the satisfying click of the padlock, the low buzz of electricity feeding the wire, and shooing Wilson inside and away from the chill of the night air. She remembered, clearly, the moon hanging low over the trees…
A throbbing sensation snapped her back to the present. She unclenched her fist, surprised, as the forgotten cigarette fell to the cobbles, crushed out of shape. A blister was blooming in the centre of her dusty palm.
She exhaled, using the sting of it to tune into the scene around her. Nothing else seemed out of place and yet – Kit couldn’t make sense of it – there was something, she was certain. The farmhouse’s cracked roof tiles blushed in the emerging sun. The kitchen window was cloudy with condensation, the shape of a vase of flowers on the sill just about visible. Blue smoke hung in ropes above the living room chimney and there was a flash of movement as one of the yard cats rounded the corner. The animal momentarily froze at the sight of her, then slunk off, past the closed back door and away, flicking its feral tail.
The closed back door.
She reached the door and bore down on the handle, vaguely registering pain as a shard of china dug into the sole of her slipper. She lurched over the threshold and scoured the kitchen to confront whoever was inside.
Wilson was up, growling. The boiler had coughed on and the room was cloyingly warm. But the paperwork was exactly as she’d left it and her phone was still charging on the sideboard, an unread message notification making the screen glow. There was nothing and no one. The door must have simply swung shut behind her.
‘Idiot!’ she said aloud, feeling the panic subside a little. ‘You can’t keep doing this.’
The ancient wall clock began its methodical chime of the hour and Kit slowed her breathing to match the beats, with no idea of how long she’d been outside. By the eighth strike Wilson was by her side, pressing himself into her legs. A thump sounded from above and his tail wagged. Sunlight pulsed across the kitchen, catching dust orbs in its path and for a long second, she was dazzled. Behind her, the air changed.
‘What the… woah!’
Kit swivelled and lunged in the direction of the voice, not really registering that she was reacting at all, aware only of a rushing sound in her ears and Wilson lumbering under her feet. Encountering the upper body of a man, she pummelled him entirely out into the yard with a strength that came from nowhere, until she realised who it was.
‘It’s me! Stop!’
Adam’s face was obliterated by dark sunspots searing her retinas. She obeyed, focusing on the starched blue of the uniform underneath his unzipped coat, alive to how hysterical she must appear. She cringed, not daring to look at his face, a physical manifestation of her emotions that made her shoulders convulse. She’d just attacked her mother’s carer. The gate, she thought. She must explain about the gate.
‘What is it?’ Adam grasped her elbows within two strides. ‘Has something happened to Evelina?’ He hesitated, rephrased. ‘With Evelina?’
‘No, it’s not Maw. She’s – it’s…’
Speak Kit, speak.
Instead she let Adam guide her back inside and to a chair as Wilson bounced stiffly around them. Adam quietened him with a brief playful tussle, then crouched by Kit’s knees. All the urgency in him was gone.
‘Ugh Adam I’m so sorry. Let me sort myself out.’
She pulled the dressing gown close, conscious of her threadbare pyjamas, and hid her injured palm in the folds of material, buying time for the adrenaline to diminish. Could he smell her morning breath?
‘Someone’s vandalised the gate. I think they got in.’
Adam rocked on the balls of his feet, unbalanced, and braced himself against Kit’s knees. His hands felt gratifyingly sturdy.
‘Overnight. The electric wire’s been cut and the padlock’s moved.’
Her forehead creased, recognising how undramatic it sounded. Out there, just then, primitive chemicals had instructed her stomach to clench and pupils to dilate. She’d been genuinely afraid. In the safety of the kitchen, it was just a damaged gate.
‘I know it sounds pathetic but it’s not normal. It’s…’
It was… what? Burglars presumably didn’t wait until daylight to strike. Intruders didn’t intrude when the occupants were so obviously up and about. And yet, there it was – evidence of tampering. How could she convey to Adam what she didn’t have the words for?
‘Someone got into the yard,’ she said, decisive. ‘Despite everything, they’ve still managed it.’
Adam’s expression was serious. ‘You’re sure? Have you reported it?’
‘No. Too soon. I’ve only just found it.’ She looked up to the ceiling. ‘Don’t tell Maw. She wouldn’t stand it.’
Adam was aware of Maw’s obsession with security. It began with a FarmWatch leaflet, carelessly discarded by Kit on the dresser top, warning people to be on their guard against rural thieving. The dead-end of Christmas had seen a spike in incidents in the area. These gangs, the leaflet declared, were organised, and determined. Now Maw woke most mornings convinced that burglars had tinkered with ornaments in her room or moved the bookmark in her novel to another page. She had insisted on endlessly patrolling the house, with Kit padding behind murmuring reassurances. Then she’d secreted weapons – knitting needles, a poker, a butter knife – underneath her quilt. It’d taken a recent downturn in mobility to stop it, but some of Maw’s fear, however irrational, had contaminated Kit or, at least, left a residue. The best way she knew of keeping Maw feeling safe and assured was to compulsively carry out the checks herself, locking them in and everything else out.
Yet now the angst seemed justified. Someone had got into the yard. She thought hard, replaying the sleeplessness of the early hours, spent sitting by her bedroom window, when, for a heart-stopping moment, she thought she’d seen an inky form moving in the lane. Staring harder, the figure lost its contours and became a tree trunk, nothing more than her overworked brain reordering random shapes. She pressed her thumb over the blister in the scoop of her palm. That, at least, was something real to hold onto.
‘I assumed you’d unlocked the gate for me,’ said Adam, rising. ‘You definitely locked it in the first place? I didn’t see anything unusual, I have to say, but I’ll go take a look. You stay here, you’re freezing.’
He mollified Wilson with another pat on his lemony coat and disappeared outside.
Had she locked up the night before? She’d been dog-tired as usual, but the routine was as automatic as breathing. Besides, she remembered being out in the cold, having a final cigarette, imagining – heat prickled in her cheeks – what it might be like to go to bed with Adam… his broadness and hefty hands that told lies of his tenderness, an attribute she’d seen first-hand in the way he handled Maw. Perhaps she had been more distracted than she realised, she thought, feeling guilt form heavily in her stomach. But then, what about the cut wire? That, surely, was irrefutable.
She unlatched the door to find Adam hunching over the low stone wall dividing the hen house from the yard, head swinging like a pendulum. He straightened and inhaled so deeply that Kit saw his chest swell. He scanned once more and, seemingly satisfied, strode off towards the outhouses.
There was a familiar clank – he must have clipped the old trough with his boots – and a huddle of birds emerged from the holloway beyond the boundary wall, calling into the blue sky. They skimmed the treetops and wheeled away, moving as one.
‘Any luck?’ she called, and frowned, because that wasn’t quite the right thing to say.
‘Nothing,’ he replied, out of sight, voice distant. ‘It’s ship-shape. I’ll do a quick circle, round the blind side.’
Beyond the gate, the bumper of his bashed-up old Ford was visible, and Kit clacked her tongue thoughtfully. Why hadn’t she heard him pull up? No car could drive over the old cattle grid without making a racket. And how had he appeared so quickly behind her in the kitchen, when only moments before she’d been running across the yard?
She closed the door, ordering the events. She’d been alone as she inspected the gate, and there was no other way into the property, not anymore. Adam can’t have already been in the yard when she’d heard the noise. It was impossible. She hadn’t seen him, or his car. If that were so, he would have called out her name, wouldn’t he. Wouldn’t he?
The clock chimed the quarter hour. She peered through the window and saw nothing important, except… Kit did a double take. There, in the centre of the left diamond pane, was a handprint.
She blinked. It was true: there was the outline of ungloved adult fingers, mashed squarely onto the pane from the outside. The blister on her palm burned as she placed her hand directly onto the glass, adjusting her fingers to match the splayed blur. There was at least an inch to spare around the outline of her own. A man’s, then, and as the door bowled open, Kit felt suspicion solidify.
‘All okay,’ said Adam, clapping to get warm. ‘The cabling on the gate has had its day, I’m afraid. It looks ancient. There was a broken mug out there, by the way, so I’ve dumped it in the bin.’
He shrugged off his coat and hung it on a peg, paying no attention to Kit. She whipped her hand away from the glass, eyeing him, trying to think clearly. She considered his stout fingers, and the large span of his hands.
Oblivious, Adam eased off his boots and washed at the sink, then rummaged in a secure box for Maw’s medication. He was whistling through his teeth, a tune with no shape to it.
As easy as that, she thought, he’s dismissing it. Suspicious, no? What better way to divert attention? A smaller, weaker inner voice tried to quell the ridiculous paranoia and tell Kit she’d already behaved erratically enough. Think of Maw, it said, think of Maw.
Adam locked the medicine box and reattached the key to his lanyard, his vast hands resting on the lid. She couldn’t help but examine them again, make them fit like a jigsaw. Adam knew about her life, and the layout of the house. Perhaps it was cash he was after. His fee was more than adequate, but rent and bills were high, and he always moaned about being unable to afford a new car. Maybe Adam planned to sneak in and…
‘Kit? It’s all right, honest,’ he said. ‘No one’s broken in.’
‘Okay.’ She spoke slowly, knew there was an edge to it. ‘What about the padlock? How did it move by itself?’
Adam’s head jerked at Kit’s tone and he proceeded cautiously.
‘Like I said, I figured you’d opened up for me, that you must’ve changed the combination code. It’s locked onto the top bar, so you must’ve missed the catch in the dark. Easily done, eh? There’s no damage, nothing deliberate.’
Kit reddened. She’d not bothered with a torch recently because the waxing moon was bright enough to see by.
‘Maybe,’ she admitted. ‘But why does the wire look so neatly cut?’
And what about the mark on the window, she asked silently. Kit was again seized by doubt. Why would anyone touch the glass unless they were trying to get inside? Unless they didn’t want to get in. Unless… they just wanted to look. All the fire faded from her cheeks. That idea troubled her more than anything else.
‘… definitely frayed, underneath where it connects. I mean, you’re pretty handy yourself, but what with it being live you might be best getting someone in.’ Adam halted. ‘Look, you’re as tense as an over-tuned guitar. A sugary cuppa, that’ll do the trick. It’s too isolated, this place. It’s no surprise you get the creeps sometimes.’ He looked at her. ‘Listen, please. Nothing’s wrong.’
Kit wanted to believe him.
‘Right then,’ he said. ‘I’ll pop in on Evelina and set the bath running and make us a cuppa.’
Don’t say it, she thought, don’t go there. This is totally irrational.
‘You’ve arrived early today.’
It was like she had no control.
‘Actually, I thought I was late.’ He waggled his wrist and glanced over his shoulder at the wall clock. ‘My watch battery’s dead, I noticed it on the way here, and you know what the old banger’s like. Her clock only tells the right time twice a day. So…’
He seemed confused, as though he didn’t know what answer she expected.
‘So, I might have put my foot down a bit. I know, I know – not clever in this weather. You’ve caught me out.’ He flung his palms aloft in a you-got-me gesture. ‘The roads are bad round here at the best of times. Anyway, here I am, early for once.’
‘Yeah.’ Kit gripped the countertop behind her back. ‘You see, that’s what I don’t get.’
‘How did you get in here,’ she indicated the kitchen, ‘so fast without spotting me in the yard?’
‘I did. I got out of the car and you were standing by the door with your back to me. It looked like you were trying to chivvy Wilson out for a pee.’
‘Right,’ she said, straightening to full height. ‘Only I didn’t hear a thing – didn’t hear you coming up behind me. Don’t you think it’s odd?’
His jaw performed a little jutting motion.
‘No. I don’t.’ His voice was hard. ‘Kit?’
There was nothing but the ticking of the clock, Wilson’s old-man breathing from where he was curled in his basket, and Kit’s glare.
‘Are you accusing me of something, of doing that out there? Seriously.’ He pulled out a chair to sit and dragged a palm across his stubble. When she didn’t speak, he looked at her, eyebrows up.
It was a question this time, and there was disappointment in it. He leaned his elbows onto the table and his lanyard – purple, the colour Maw had chosen for herself – swung about his neck. A lanyard holding the duplicate key for the medicine box and, obviously, in case of an emergency, a spare key for the door. Obviously.
Kit flared hot. What had been an unshakable truth just moments before began to disintegrate. He had no need to break in – he could walk in, at any time, day or night. What wasn’t in his remit was the way he’d dropped everything to search the yard and reassure her. An act of kindness.
A terrible idea formed, too quick for Kit to quash it. Was early onset dementia, Maw’s sort, genetic? Was this what hysteria felt like? She sat, and the surface of the table gulfed between them.
‘I think I’m losing it,’ she said, woodenly.
‘No.’ Adam stretched out his arms and laid them flat. The beginnings of a tattoo showed at his sleeve. ‘You’re overwrought – nothing more. You’re certainly not ill. You’ve not…’ There was a protracted pause. ‘You haven’t got what Evelina has. Don’t go thinking that.’
Was she so transparent? Through a torrent of corrosive thoughts, Kit tried to remember what day it was. Sometimes the days, weeks, blended into one.
‘You can’t be in a job like mine and not recognise the signs. I come and go, and Evelina isn’t my mum. The stress, anxiety… it’s always there for you.’
Kit tested a tepid smile. ‘It has been rough lately, and it’s coming up to the tax returns deadline. Busiest part of the year, workwise.’
‘There we go then. You’re knackered – no offence.’
Kit could hardly deny it. One look at her was obvious enough.
‘As if you had me pinned as a burglar,’ he said. ‘I thought accountants were meant to be logical.’
‘Oh god.’ Kit half laughed, covering her mouth with her good hand. ‘I’m sorry! How can you be so nice to me?’
Adam grinned. ‘Honestly? We’re counsellors as much as carers. Listen, have you run through what you did last night? Can you remember?’
‘Yes. I was so sure I’d done everything, in order, as usual.’
‘I’m hearing a “but” there.’
‘Yes. I mean, no. I mean, I guess I messed up. It’s just, you know, the gangs. We’re not exactly Fort Knox even though I do my best.’
She replayed it all once more, exhausted. The padlock and cabling: okay, mistakes were made. The figure in the lane: easy to make shapes from shadows. The handprint – what about that? It was smudged and ill-defined through the condensation. What had at first seemed like fanned fingers now looked like the shape of… a wing. A mark left behind by a bird, having had the misfortune to crash-land into the glass. The sort of mark that occurred all the time on a farm in the middle of the countryside.
A handprint, Kit, as if. Her thoughts were so exaggerated and melodramatic lately, so unlike her, that she hardly recognised herself. She wondered if she were coming down with something, if a fever could explain it, and felt around her neck for signs of a temperature.
‘It won’t be the gangs,’ said Adam. ‘They want combines and quad bikes, and you’ve said yourself there’s nothing here anymore. Anyone, even a city boy like me, can see this isn’t a working farm.’
‘My life!’ Kit raised her hands in mock despair. ‘This wasn’t exactly what I signed up for.’
Adam gave a courteous smile. He knew the family history, of the father who’d been ill long-term before his early death, and a permanently absent sister with a shiny, perfect husband’s cash to pay for Adam – money in exchange for keeping her hands clean. No friends to speak of. Adam knew it was just Kit and Maw until he came along, and not long after then Maw’s dementia put on the first big show of its capabilities – what Adam termed in his log as ‘an incident’.
They’d left her puzzling over a crossword. Then Kit saw a ghost – Maw, stripped to her underwear and shoeless, climbing into the hen house. The fear of her falling and breaking bones, the fiddly fact that she’d slipped out unnoticed by either of them… Adam had lifted her out with the effort it took to pluck a flower and, it seemed to Kit, that Maw became a pared down version of herself, less colourful, as though she’d been faded by the sun. Like she made a conscious decision to rot.
‘Maybe, if it’d make you feel better, you should report it?’ Adam said, and Kit recalled the FarmWatch leaflet tidied away in a drawer. ‘Anyway, I’ll top up Wilson’s water before I go up.’
She spotted the empty bowl and scolded herself. There were dirty plates in the sink and crumbs from a hastily eaten round of toast from the night before on the flagstones. The clothes horse was loaded with charity shop shirts and hand-me-down jeans – a potential trip hazard for Maw. She knew what it looked like. Incompetence. That and her erratic behaviour, to describe it mildly, made her queasy. Adam had managers and procedures. What might he report back? ‘The house is a mess. She wasn’t dressed when I arrived and was delusional, claiming someone had broken in, and then accused me of it. We need an urgent assessment.’ Kit felt a pinch. Maw wasn’t going anywhere.
Wilson danced as Adam bent down, then lapped at the replenished bowl as though he hadn’t drunk for days, the traitor.
‘I’ll run a bath now, but Evelina needs breakfast first. Do you want to take it?’
Kit was unsure of how to say thanks for what he did for Maw, for just being there. She squeezed her fingers into the blister, analysing her feelings. Yes, she felt calm, and more than a bit ridiculous – that was good. That was rational. Maybe, she thought, it was time to take up Adam’s suggestion of joining a support group for relatives. Maybe she’d learn that her shifting emotions weren’t that unusual, and she wasn’t alone in the chaos dementia brought.
She was desperate for a cigarette, but smoking in front of him felt indecent, somehow, another admission in the negative. She reworded herself.
‘Yes, good plan. Perhaps later she’ll feel like coming downstairs. Thanks, I mean, for everything.’
Adam had the fridge door open, the light from it changing his profile to the colour of an ice cube. He paused and regarded her, and she knew it was with pity.