The robobus lurched over a pothole and Rachel’s shoulder banged against the window, waking her from her doze. In the gloom she reached out for Ben but her son was missing from the seat next to her. As she jumped up in a panic the coach swayed to a stop and she hit her head on the overhead lockers. Rubbing the bruise, she squirmed her way over their bags to the central aisle. The robobus lights were dimmed but she made out four dark figures at the front fumbling with the override.
Ben’s shrill voice instructed the male adults on procedure.
They ignored him.
He used his Coventry school autobus regularly and Rachel thought, I bet he understands it better than they do.
Seeing her he said, ‘Some idiot keyed in the wrong co-ordinates. We’re on the M6 to Manchester, not the M54 to Wales.’
When the robobus was finally started on the correct route he snuggled close to her, complaining his feet were cold. So were hers. Heating was defunct and January cold swirled through gaps under the doors and round windows.
Behind them a woman was complaining she’d been robbed earlier in Rugby. ‘Just got on the bus when they took my suitcase. Hijacked right in the centre, in North Street. Guns. Scared stiff, I can tell you. Police – what do they care?’
‘Should be armed guards on all these buses,’ said her companion.
‘We might be hijacked again,’ Ben whispered excitedly.
‘Hope not. It isn’t fun.’
She stared out of the window nervously. Robobus headlights fought the blackness ahead bravely but were soon swallowed up by night. No other lights as far as she could see, though they were travelling through one of the planet’s largest conurbations. Built in the ’teens, housing, factories, roads and public buildings stretched continuously from Northampton and Kettering in the east to Shrewsbury in the west. A magnet for thieves and criminals across the world.
And dark tonight. National Grid overload yet again.
Everything she and Ben possessed was in the luggage compartment. Arrival in North Wales couldn’t come soon enough.
Yes, in spite of earlier doubts, she was right to accept this job. In the Welsh mountains there would be peace for both her and her son. Ben would flourish in the small village school where bullying was under control and no thugs lay in wait outside the school gates. He was struggling to learn Welsh since all lessons were conducted in that language, but that was a small price to pay for safe village streets and kind people. Nothing more savage than the bitter winds and rain of mid January and the rampant wilderness of the Snowdonia Reserve. Dead winter, but spring not far away.
She was woken from her doze by searchlights and Ben scrambling across her to get a better view out of the window.
‘It’s the border,’ she said as the robobus halted and two police came aboard.
‘ID,’ they demanded and passengers shuffled through bags, wallets and pockets for the essential card.
Ben asked why they’d been stopped.
‘Smuggling. We’re searching the baggage now.’ The policeman pointed to the opposite window where they could see the raised doors of the luggage compartments.
‘Smuggling what?’ Ben asked Rachel.
‘All our food and clothes are rationed. You know that. Some people get hold of them illegally. Sell them and make a mint.’
After an hour they were cleared and off again. And now there were more potholes and the road zigzagged between stone walls so the robobus lurched dangerously from side to side. It staggered up steep turns for mile after weary mile and then grumbled and whined as the road turned sharply downhill and the brakes struggled to hold the vehicle.
It was impossible to sleep. Not that Rachel wanted to, tormented as she was so often by nightmares of losing her son. She tried to reason away her fear that they predicted the future. They were surely only due to the major emotional losses she’d suffered recently. But they persisted nevertheless.
She fingered the necklace she kept hidden under her clothes between her breasts. She never removed her talisman. Four years ago her husband Dan had given her the pendant on a simple chain, insisting she wear it always and take the greatest care of it. ‘It’s token of our love,’ he said as she hugged him. ‘No matter what comes, remember I love you.’ It turned out to be their last evening together. Did he have a premonition?
At the time she was so happy, relieved that his strange withdrawal during the past months was over at last. For a long while it had been impossible to penetrate his reserve, a deep frustration with life that included her. ‘There’s nothing wrong,’ he always said angrily if she asked.
Her happiness was brief. He left to lecture at the university the following day, but collapsed at a lunch time dental appointment. He was pronounced DOA at Liverpool University hospital. Cardiac arrhythmia, said the coroner. Could have happened at any time. Everyone was sympathetic. She was devastated.
Shortly after that her mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer and Rachel had to resign her research post at the university and take Ben with her to Coventry. Who else could care for the sick woman since Rachel’s father and brother had walked out years ago? She taught for four years, in a science post where student misbehaviour caused more and more frustration. At the same time the quality of life was deteriorating rapidly everywhere. Goods became ever more expensive. As unemployment increased those still in work went on strike for higher pay. Street markets sprang up where people sold or bartered family treasures. Second hand electronic goods sold particularly well as firms had long since transferred their manufacture to the Far East, and now their import price had rocketed far beyond the pocket of the average middle class purchaser. Street theft became ever more violent. Food was short and queues long. Only last month she’d been shopping in a supermarket when a mob with guns stripped the shelves.
After her mother’s death the nursing carers encouraged her to apply for a post with Eckstazia, a world-wide Christian organisation they supported enthusiastically. It had a strong commitment to welfare and social improvements through research and development and had also part funded her previous research work at Liverpool University. The post was that of field research officer at a hill farm in North Wales, but she didn’t expect to be successful as she’d been out of the field for so long. The application was difficult because she became gadget poor after she left the university and had to rely on her school’s antiquated computer system.
Still, she applied and was amazed to be offered an online interview with Dr Shuji Akimoto, leader of the team at Eckstazia’s Penybwlch Research Facility. She read up his web profile on Eckstazia’s site, and learnt he was in his late fifties, American born of Japanese and French/American Indian parentage. His intimidating degrees and qualifications were listed, including senior positions held over the years. He was a world citizen, educated in Canada and the UK, a linguist, a poet (four slim volumes, a website dedicated to spiritual themes of love and beauty) and an artist who modestly called himself a dauber (paintings hung in important art collections – including the Tate Modern and those of the Emir of Kuwait, Yeo Lili of Shanghai, Professor Hilary Barron the European Union’s advisor on ethics and religion and the British Secretary of State for Health. The latter had donated his painting to the prestigious Great Ormond Street Hospital where seriously sick children would be uplifted by its depiction of heavenly joys.)
She found a slot on the computer’s timetable and completed a mock interview program that recorded the interviewee’s responses. The replayed video shocked her. She thought of herself as attractive, young, active. A thirty-year-old well up in the teaching profession. She saw a run down woman with straggly dull brown hair. A spotty face from poor diet, tired green grey eyes with a furrow between them, a broken incisor from a mugging as she walked home from work.
She attempted to spruce herself up for the online interview. She paid good money for a decent haircut. Bought cheap makeup to hide skin blemishes, eye bags and lines, using it with caution. Eckstazia considered female camouflage to be unscriptural and unnecessary.
Shuji Akimoto was flat faced with heavy lidded eyes. Luxuriant black hair, temples well covered, and not a fleck of grey. In spite of his awesome profile he was gentle and encouraging.
She stuttered, repeating herself. But to her amazement she was offered the post at Penybwlch, a farm rented from the huge Snowdonia Reserve. Pay was less than her teacher’s salary, but board and lodging were included for herself and Ben. Dr Akimoto also appointed an online pastor, Emmanuel Rappen, to guide her spiritual path. Three months ago she signed her contract. She checked the box declaring her faith and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ and her belief in his imminent return to judge the earth.
At last the robobus stopped at their destination, a small town on the North Wales coast, and Rachel and Ben were met by a young woman about the same height as Rachel. She wore a brown padded jacket and trousers. Her face was shadowed by the only bright thing about her, a gaudily striped knitted hat dragged almost over her eyes against the chill.
She said briskly, ‘You’re late. I’ll be lucky if I don’t get a parking fine and that won’t please the boss. Should’ve mobiled.’
‘Don’t have one.’
Rachel and Ben collected their luggage while the woman took Rachel’s small day bag, and hurried her across the bus bays towards an old and dirty Skoda. Ben followed, trying to be grownup and only snivelling quietly as he dragged the case on wheels with his little rucksack on his shoulders.
‘Brought the whole house, yeh?’ the woman said as Rachel shoved her holdall into the boot, then Ben’s case and finally her own large rucksack that felt weighty as Atlas’s heaven.
‘It’s all we have.’ Everything in the world.
As the Skoda coughed into life the woman said, ‘I’m Alyson Gunnarsson. From Iceland. Obviously. How old’s the boy?’
‘I’m nearly ten,’ Ben said loudly from the back seat.
‘You’ll be taking him to the junior school tomorrow?’
‘Yes. Appointment with the head at nine thirty.’
‘Then you’ll take Freya to the comp for eight thirty. Thanks.’
‘My daughter.’ Alyson swerved to avoid a pothole as the road became steeper an narrower. ‘Martin’s booked the car for ten thirty so you must rearrange schedules with him. He’s our analyst. Pleasant enough, you shouldn’t have trouble.’
‘I’ve been promised my own car.’
Alyson made a gravelly noise that Rachel interpreted as a laugh. ‘Lady muck are we? You’re only a teacher.’ She paused. ‘I mean teaching’s a fine profession in its own way, but you’re only a beginner in this job. What d’you know about research?’
‘I’ve a masters degree in entomology. Research in the Wirral Reserve, part funded by Eckstazia, while I was at Liverpool University. Lyme disease in humans. I studied diseases of the ticks that carry the sickness so we could prepare strategies for reducing the numbers of carrier insects.’
‘Eric – my husband – and I were told you’re just a widowed teacher from Coventry.’
‘That as well. I went back there after Dan died because my mother was ill.’
Rachel swallowed hard and turned round to Ben. He was sleeping lightly, head drooping on his rucksack. She persisted, ‘Pastor Emmanuel promised me a car with the job.’
‘Oh, Emmanuel. He wouldn’t know. And you have got a car. You share it with five of us. Me and Eric, Martin and two technicians.’ Alyson swung the car expertly into a driveway ‘This is the top of the pass and the road ends here. There’s only a track down the other side back to the coast.’
Their way was blocked by a pair of large black metal gates. In the car headlights they shone plain and functional, barricading the Eckstazia scientists in their quarters.
‘A bit Gothic.’ Alyson opened the window and held her hand out. The gates swung open. ‘Sometimes the mechanism doesn’t recognise the car. So you open the window and flash your key card at it. That usually works. If it doesn’t – contact one of us. You don’t want to be left on the wrong side, especially at night.’ She drove up a long gravel drive and parked the car alongside three others. Three top of the range hydrogen fuelled cars.
‘I’m in the cottage behind us. You’re in the main house. With the top brass. Shuji, Jennifer and James. And canny Annie Davies.’
All Rachel could see of the house was an immense bulk of blackness with lights in a few upstairs windows. The stately door was opened to them by an old woman with a twisted mouth who was less than pleased to see them. They dumped their bags in a grand entrance hall and followed Annie into a dismal kitchen. Here they struggled to eat stale bread, jam and meat flavoured paste, all washed down with stewed tea and served by a peeved Annie. She muttered in a strong Welsh accent that people should arrive at the time expected and cursed the estate’s tenant farmer who hadn’t delivered enough milk. No sign of Dr Akimoto or the other two scientists who lived in the house.
Ben was screaming in terror behind Rachel, but she struggled in vain to turn round and clutch him. The steady stare of the judge pinned her down like a beetle in a display cabinet. An old woman judge with heavy glasses wearing a shoulder length wig.
That in itself was odd. Surely wigs had been abolished years ago.
A treacly inertia pervaded Rachel’s whole body. She gaped with open mouth at the old woman.
The judge said, ‘Your son is forfeit.’ She put a black cap on her head. ‘And he will be taken away from you and reared by persons unknown and . . . ’
‘Mummy! Wake up!’ Ben was shaking her and squealing like a pig, and suddenly she was awake in the strange bed.
Real shrieking. Distant but clear. Piercing through the wind that growled round the corners of the unknown house. Vibrating with terror through the night.
She leapt out of bed, knocking her head on the low ceiling of the unfamiliar room. Swearing, she rubbed the hurt, then put her arms round her son.
His trembling subsided as the sound died away.
The room was grey and ghostly in the moonlight and she’d forgotten where the light tap was. Then she remembered this huge Victorian house was so outdated it still had switches like the ones she’d used when she was Ben’s age. She fumbled across the wall near the door, flicked the light on and pulled on jacket, trousers and trainers.
‘Don’t go, Mum.’
Still half in her nightmare she dared not leave him alone. ‘OK, come too. Here’s your gear.’
The screaming began again, a different tone of agony and despair. It faded. Then a final tortured screech made them both jump. Rachel located its direction to the left of the house.
‘Torch,’ she muttered, rummaging through her untidy bags for her light stick. Nothing. And where in this unknown house would she find one?
She opened the door onto darkness. No one was up and about. Four other people, all sleeping through such a racket. How likely was that? Did no one care?
Briefly she thought of waking Annie. But where did the old housekeeper sleep? And what if she should barge into one of the scientists’ rooms by mistake? She hadn’t met any of them yet. As for the tenant farmer Annie had spoken of so scathingly, she only knew that he lived alone in the Ty Bach, wherever that might be on this vast Welsh estate.
She searched in vain for the hall light switch. Remembering the stairs went up to a landing before turning downstairs again she hunted cautiously with her foot. Which way did they turn? She’d been so exhausted yesterday evening after their long journey and the meagre meal with Annie, that she could barely remember how to reach the hall. The wooden stairs creaked and her sweaty hand slipped on the polished banister. She held out her other hand to Ben as he followed her. His fears had faded into a delicious excitement at this adventure, safe with Mum.
‘Look, Mum.’ He picked up a light stick from the hall cupboard and waved it till it shone, illuminating their troubled faces. ‘I saw it there last night.’
‘It’s not a very good one.’
‘It’ll do. There’s moonlight outside.’ They smiled at each other and her heart lurched. He looked so like his father sometimes. Large brown eyes with long lashes, dark hair with the same rebellious lock that always fell over his forehead and a quick impatience with anything that displeased him.
The front door was locked, and she was unsure of the safety number. Ben shone the light on her keypad as she fumbled with it, and she found the combination on the second try and opened the door onto pitch darkness.
The moon was occasionally obscured by rushing clouds and the wind was bitter as black ice. She heard rather than saw the tall pines soughing and clattering in the gale. Bare branches of oak and beech scraped twigs together. Evergreen shrubs obstructed the pair, the spiky holly and berberis pulled at their clothes. Damp dead leaves whipped round their ankles.
Blessing her good sense of direction and Ben’s torch, she shortly found a gravel path leading through the garden. A few granite steps down, then a small gate and they were standing in the covered car park filled by the scientists’ cars.
‘Over there,’ Ben said, waving his torch towards the farm buildings, all in darkness. He clutched at her hand, his little fingers cold as stone. ‘He’s gone quiet. D’you think he’s dead?’
‘Hope not.’ She suddenly felt isolated and stupid. Why on earth had she come without backup? Why had she brought her young son? She stood irresolute but he pulled her on as the moon came out briefly and lit up a gap between the sheds. Cautiously they approached, Ben tiptoeing dramatically at Rachel’s side as they turned into a yard. In the far corner light from a window shone a deformed rectangle on the concrete.
‘That’s it,’ Ben stage-whispered. ‘He’s in there.’
The wind tore at them, needling them with frost. Around the yard the trees clamoured high above her head, immense giants guarding the hillside behind the farm. She had never heard so much noise from woodland, never imagined mere trees could make more racket than city traffic outside their old flat in Coventry.
Yet nothing moved in the shelter of the yard except a steamy smokiness swirling from cracks in the closed door beside the window. It wreathed around a yard brush and upturned barrow silent as mist in a graveyard.
‘You stay here,’ she ordered and took the light stick. ‘Scarper if I shout.’
She approached the light stealthily, shining her torch along the open sheds on her left. A van. Implements whose use she couldn’t guess. And something hanging on the wall that looked like a prohibited gun.
The lit window was filthy. A dark human figure moved across the room but dirt prevented any sight of the corpse.
She shivered. No one could expect her to confront the murderer or murderers alone. Now a hasty retreat, a wake up call to the people in the house. . .
Splashing. A disgusting stirring sound, liquid sloshing and wood thudding on metal.
She retched, stumbling against the yard brush which fell with a noisy thud.
Angry barking from the room. The door was flung open showering light and billowing steam across the yard. A wild dog leapt towards her, then crouched, teeth bared and nose wrinkled in an evil snarl.
‘Sy ’na?’ A rough male voice. ‘See ’m off, Toss.’
The dog’s tail lashed and ears flattened. Its crouch became prelude to a spring.
Ben rushed to her, screaming, clutching at her wildly, trying to protect her. He shrieked still louder as a tall figure darkened the light. It gave an order the terrified pair couldn’t understand, and the dog shuffled away, eyes fixed on the intruders and still growling. Then the silhouette turned to them.
A command that meant nothing.
‘You. Come here.’
Reluctantly Rachel obeyed, shielding her son behind her.
Steam writhed round the man, issuing from the room behind like smoke from hell. His boots were big as stallion hooves. His hair stuck up like horns. He filled the doorway, his head brushing the lintel. He was rank with sweat and farmyard filth.
He looked her up and down. ‘You’re the latest nosy parker.’
‘I’m Rachel Kerem, ecologist.’ She couldn’t control the tremble in her voice.
‘Exactly.’ His Welsh accent was harsh, lacking music and rhythm, his English impeccable. ‘Snooper.’
‘Screams,’ Ben whispered. ‘Woke me up.’
The man moved to one side allowing light to shine on the boy’s white face. ‘They didn’t tell me . . . so there’s a child as well.’
‘I’m not a child. I’m Ben,’ the boy protested as bravely as he dare.
At this angle she could see his face, hard and narrow with twisted mouth, broken nose and one eye slightly askew. His age? So weather scarred was his face that he could have been any age from thirty to sixty. He wore a brown nondescript garment covered in stains that hid most of his body. Glancing down she saw the knife in his bloodied hand, and she gagged and jumped back.
Immediately the dog crept forward. It snarled and she felt its hot breath on her bare ankles.
The man had followed her gaze and now he played with his knife, passing it in front of his throat suggestively while he smirked at them both.
Ben, seeing the knife and feeling his mother shake, began to cry.
‘Shut it,’ ordered the murderer. He tossed the knife behind him and it clattered on the floor. ‘Curse you, it’s only a pig. Have you never heard one squeal before?’ He turned back into the outhouse and Rachel followed him cautiously up a small ramp, the dog still creeping along behind. Now they were standing on the same level she realised the butcher was smaller and slighter than he’d appeared at first, about her own height and lean as a whippet.
The room was drowning in steam. Mistily the pair saw a pale pink body hanging naked and bristly, its hind legs roped and slung over a hook in the rafters. Blood dripped slowly down its snout from the red gash in its throat. As it swung gently it spattered the wet concrete floor with drops that mingled in the mud left by the butcher’s filthy boots. Cursing, he steadied the corpse over a stainless steel bucket threequarters full of blood. With his other hand he stirred the thickening contents with a wooden spatula. Wood on metal. Rachel recognised the sound.
‘Black puddings,’ said the butcher. Then he grinned at Ben, his teeth white, uneven and sharp as a fox’s. He held out the stick and blood from its tip plopped back into the bucket. ‘Have a stir, bachgen?’
Ben moaned with fear and clutched his mother’s arm.
The man made an exclamation of contempt and turned his attention to a metal bath of water bubbling merrily over a couple of gas rings. He picked up a scraping knife, washed it in the water and held out the handle to Rachel. ‘Now you’re here, make yourself useful.’
She gaped at him.
He ordered, ‘I’ll scald. You scrape off the bristles.’
‘No way.’ She put her arm round Ben, turning him to the door. The dog snarled. She said coldly, ‘Keep your tyke under control.’
He sneered but whistled through his teeth and the cur trotted to him. Then he turned to the butchery tools laid out sharp and shining on a slate shelf and started to hone the knife on a steel, still whistling. The dog licked at the spots of blood and he cursed it, pushing it away with his broken boot.
Ben didn’t cry until he and Rachel reached the front door. ‘He’s a thug. Why did he kill it?’
‘Bacon. Sausages.’ She put her arm round him.
The hall light had been switched on and as Rachel fastened the door behind them a woman screeched, ‘Where have you been at this time of night? Disturbing us all.’ Annie the housekeeper shuffled towards them from the direction of the kitchen. She wore fluffy red slippers on her feet and a thick wool knitted robe in shades of brown and fawn that reached from her shoulders to her ankles. Her thin grey hair hung in night time disarray on her shoulders. The left side of her lip was distorted and dribbled spit which she dashed away angrily as she continued, ‘You don’t wander about at night. Ever. And taking the child. How disgraceful!’
Why should Rachel explain herself to this woman who was, after all, only the housekeeper for the research team? Even so, she felt the need to justify her prowling. ‘We were woken by screaming. I’m surprised everyone else slept through it.’ But even as she spoke she realised she was the only ignorant one in the house. They would all know it was just a pig. Yet did the farmer – she couldn’t remember his name though Annie had told her earlier – did he always butcher his animals at this crazy hour? She glanced at her watch. After one o’clock. Friday already. And home slaughtering was totally illegal.
‘You’ve been down the yard?’ Annie’s Welsh shriek was as unmusical as the farmer’s. ‘Don’t you ever go there. You’re not employed to nosy around.’
An upstairs door opened and a man’s voice called angrily, ‘What’s the matter? How can I get to sleep with all this noise?’
‘Just problems with the new employee, Doctor Akimoto.’ Annie was cringingly polite.
‘The woman’s only just arrived and she’s making trouble? Tell her to be quiet. Some of us have to work tomorrow.’ His door banged shut.
‘Now get yourself and the boy back to bed and no more wandering, Mrs Kerem.’ Annie followed them upstairs and waited until they entered their room.
Ben was shivering as Rachel tucked his quilt round him. ‘Story, Mum,’ he whispered, but she was now so utterly weary that her brain couldn’t retrieve any of his favourite space invader tales.
‘A Jesus one,’ he said.
She tried Jesus calling the little children, but he said, ‘I want Dad.’
‘He’s in heaven with Granny, dear, where there isn’t any unhappiness.’
‘I want him here.’
‘So do I, but Jesus wanted him too. Jesus knows best what’s good for us all. One day we’ll all be together again but you and I must wait and be patient.’
‘Why does my other Granny not like me?’
‘She does really.’ How could she explain that Dan’s parents had never accepted the daughter-in-law who wasn’t a practising Jew? She felt sometimes they blamed her for Dan’s early and sudden death four years ago.
Ben started to cry like a little child so she helped him into her own bed, and asked Jesus to take care of them both. He tossed for a while, but at last he slept, breathing nasally with little snorts.
Unable to sleep herself, Rachel lay on her back, eyes open. Cloud had thickened, rain started to patter and then to lash against the window. Trees groaned and the night was full of unexplained thuds and bangs. The old house itself creaked in time with the gusts of wind.
She hadn’t exactly endeared herself to her new boss tonight. She fondled her pendant automatically, her protective charm. Apologies would be in order tomorrow – no, today. In a few hours. If only she didn’t feel so tired, so confused.
She wondered about the box on the nearby table. ‘Courtesy of Pastor Emmanuel’ it said on the label, but she and Ben had been too tired to open it when they arrived. And she knew in advance what it would contain. An e-book full of dull homilies. As if she wasn’t fully aware of Christian morals. She wasn’t too fussed about this spiritual mentor Dr Akimoto had provided. A doddery old parson without a doubt. She’d received a few emails via the school computer but hadn’t troubled to access his website. Alyson, the researcher from Iceland, had been pretty dismissive of him.
Ben muttered in his sleep, flung out his arms and whacked her on the chin. She grinned and moved his arm away. Her bed was a large single one, but he’d crept well into the centre in his sleep. As she rolled him back gently she heard a door beneath them open and shut stealthily. Footsteps. A door or cabinet lid creaking open and then slamming shut loudly. Some angry words, faintly, in a man’s voice. The door opening and closing again, and footsteps on concrete fading among the noise of wind and rain.
That tenant farmer without a doubt, whose name she’d forgotten but whose ugly features were indelibly printed in her memory. Bringing in the pork joints.
The whole incident was bizarre. Killing pigs in a shed at midnight! When all animals had to be slaughtered at properly registered abattoirs. Humanely. In sterile conditions for fear of passing diseases to consumers. Every animal was electronically tagged, its provenance assured and for the past four years, all meat had been rationed. Diet control for an obese nation said the government posters. The usual weasel words. Everyone knew the failed euro could no longer buy cheap food abroad and idle British farmers failed to cover the shortfall.
Furthermore domesticated animals were forbidden within five miles of wildlife reserves. And this man kept pigs actually on Snowdonia Reserve property. He had an illegal dog as well.
The door below opened again, the cabinet lid squeaked but the man didn’t leave. Where was the Ty Bach, the Little House where he lived? Tomorrow she’d find out what was going on.
The windows flexed and a loose slate complained to the gale as tree branches scraped across the roof.
‘Penybwlch, head of the pass,’ she said softly. ‘Pen uh boolch.’ No, she hadn’t got it quite right yet in spite of studying Welsh these past three months. She had a good ear for the nuances of language, and was convinced she and Ben would soon master Welsh intricacies.
Light woke her, a pale crisp glow of winter dawn barely illuminating the walls and furniture. Ben slept peacefully beside her, his face innocent in the dim light. She crept from the bed, careful to dodge the beam that she’d struck last night in her hurry to get down the yard. The ceiling was low, quite different from the lofty hall and stairway. The windowsill was puddled with water and reached barely higher than her knees. Her fingers became wet as she traced them along the leaking wooden frames. She looked out and drew a deep breath. It was so beautiful.
The trees surrounding the house whispered and waved peacefully. A narrow valley extended down from the house between steep crags silhouetted against the slow dawn. It was full of rhododendrons, the scourge of these wild valleys. But how imperial they’d be in their spring purple in a few months. The hillsides were covered in dead bracken on their lower slopes and heather clad to their tops. Far beyond was a silver glimpse of river with rounded hills on its further bank. The winter sun was just rising above them, still orange and pearl. She would love the mornings in this mysterious land so full of hidden histories and ancient superstitions. A bewitching land that could captivate the heart.
Immediately beneath her a concrete path led from a back door down past bushes to the hidden yard. She glimpsed slate roofs among the trees. Those must be the farm buildings of last night’s adventure.
She shivered, hoping they would have little further contact with the uncouth butcher.
To her right the main part of the mansion jutted forward into a garden of high tangled shrubs. The door she and Ben had used was in that section, but she couldn’t see the path, steps or carpark from here. Now she realised there were two distinct parts to the house. The larger part was an addon, far more splendid than the original farmhouse. She and Ben were housed in the old section with its low ceilings and small windows.
They’d been too exhausted last night to do more than give the room a cursory glance before tumbling into the beds. Now she noted the fitted cupboard along one wall, two upright chairs pushed under the table and two easy chairs. No pictures, but a wall computer screen above the table old as the one she’d had as a child, in the happy days before the family break-up. The carpet was threadbare in patches, and covered with a mothy sheepskin beside the larger bed. A bed almost as old as the house. She’d seen a similar one in Coventry. A young woman was selling up family treasures on the street, anxiously polishing the high leather headboard with its painted flowers and studded edges. Who, she wondered at the time, would buy such a monster? Yet here in Penybwlch the old bed looked homely.
She rummaged in her holdall for some clothes. The bathroom was across a narrow hallway and by the time she returned Ben was up and fiddling with the box on the table.
‘What’s this, Mum?’
‘How exciting!’ she encouraged with false enthusiasm. ‘Open it up.’
He pulled back the cardboard flaps and packaging. First he found a pair of binocular glasses.
Rachel inspected them. ‘High lens diameter. Wide angle. And night vision.’ She fitted them on and stared through the window, testing the magnification.
Ben opened another box. ‘A mobile.’
‘No, it’s a yapp!’ his mother exclaimed.
‘Smartphone. The name’s a corruption of i-apps. I haven’t had one since we left Liverpool.’ My god, this was an improvement on the expected homilies! She thought as she fiddled with it, unable at first to access the information she wanted. ‘Listen. It pronounces Welsh words and phrases. Oh, and it can ID plants and animals. It magnifies too. I can get any information I need.’ She’d check out Reserve regulations concerning the keeping of domestic animals among other things. She turned its screen on her son. ‘If you’d been chipped it’d tell me all about your life. As it is I get limited info about your name and age.’
He snatched it and tried it on his mother. Laughing they played with the gadget until it suddenly rang out a brief tune. The screen image flickered and Penybwlch buildings appeared, sunlight shimmering over roofs and trees waving in spring breezes. She transferred the little image to the wallscreen above the table and together they watched and listened as music played. An orchestral piece by the modern composer Podolski, soothing and spiritual. A piece Rachel had always loved but had rarely had time or opportunity to listen to in her frenetic and gadget-poor life.
As the image and music faded a young man’s face appeared, an open face with honest eyes and full mouth. Pastor Emmanuel Rappen, present in realtime.
’Good morning, Rachel and Ben.’ His eyes were deep blue and enticing as the sea on a summer’s day. Behind him the sun shone across sand dunes and shingle.
‘Good morning,’ they replied in unison. And Rachel stammered, ‘Thank you. For everything . . . all these.’
‘You’re welcome. I hope your stay at Penybwlch’ll be happy and fruitful.’ His shoulder length hair shone gold and copper in the sunlight, an aureole encircling his face. ‘Remember how precious you both are to us all. Partly because you are widow and orphan, in need of comfort and a home, but mostly for what you are in yourselves. You’ll enrich our work for the betterment of human lives everywhere. And remember, I have your interests at heart specially. You may contact me by yapp at any time, and I’m available directly every Friday evening so we may discuss the past week and look forward to the next.’
The picture faded. Beautifully inscribed words claimed, ‘No one who trusts God will be brought to ruin. Psalm 34, verse 22.’
‘Who’s that?’ whispered Ben, awestruck.
‘Emmanuel, our friend and guide. I didn’t know . . . never realised . . . ’
‘He looks so young.’
Ben shrugged and turned back to playing with the binocular glasses, but Rachel pointed at the screen. ‘That’s true. Trust, and we’ll be safe.’
‘That guy with the pig was scary.’
‘And his dog. But God’ll keep us.’
But there was a big problem ahead. Her angry supervisor, disturbed from righteous sleep at the end of a hard day, Dr Shuji Akimoto.
When she and Ben entered the dining room she recognised his distinctive smooth black hair as he stooped over containers of fruit juices, cereals, milk and fresh fruit arranged on a magnificent oak sideboard. A feast indeed.
He was taller than she’d expected and his face was severely lined unlike his enhanced screen image. He said solemnly, ‘Good morning, Rachel and Ben Kerem,’ and gave them a slight bow. ‘I hope you slept well after your night excursion.’
She couldn’t tell whether he was angry or forgiving. ‘I’m sorry we disturbed you. I . . . ’
‘Did you see the pig?’ Ben asked. ‘The man killed it. It screamed. Just like a human. There was blood . . . ’
‘Quite so,’ Shuji interrupted. ‘You’re an observant young man, I see.’
‘And it . . . ’
Shuji said amicably, ‘I think it’s best if we all forget about that incident.’
But she was not sure it would be forgotten. Still, breakfast was inviting; she hadn’t seen such a spread for years. She and Ben helped themselves with gusto.
The dining room was far more attractive than the kitchen. Round the top of high white walls was a frieze of swagged ivy picked out in pale green, and a bronze-finish chandelier hung from a central boss. The windows had thick stone mullions giving distinction to the room. A few easy chairs were arranged by the window with an occasional table covered with neat rows of research magazines and a vase of silk flowers. The carpet was thick and dark green, the table a polished oak matching the sideboard. The table’s centrepiece was a Chinese bowl containing more silk flowers among gold centred ivy leaves and trailing periwinkles.
As Rachel and Ben sat down, Annie entered, in long black dress with white apron, her hair scraped back into a wispy roll. She pushed a heated trolley with canteens of porridge and scrambled eggs. She served Shuji with the eggs, ignoring Rachel and Ben, and returned to the kitchen as silently as she’d come.
Shuji said as he wiped his mouth on a crisp white serviette, ‘I’m busy today, but I hope you’ll both join us all for dinner tonight. Tomorrow you and I will discuss your work here, Rachel. Ten o’clock. In my study.’ Again that slight bow as he rose from table. No smile, no frown.
The other two scientists were still absent when Rachel and Ben finished. As they returned to their room Annie met them in the hall, her currant black eyes staring malevolently at them. ‘You’ve got the car. You pick up my parcel from the store on the quay.’
‘Can’t the farmer collect it in his van?’
‘Out of action. No fuel.’ Annie’s hair roll dropped a couple of pins as she shook her head.
It had looked road worthy last night, and surely every farmer had privileged fuel tokens, unlike most of the population. But there was no reason for Annie to lie.
Annie unfolded a paper sketch map of the farm buildings and surrounding land. ‘This part is farmland and you’re barred from it . . . ’ She stabbed at it with a crooked arthritic finger. ‘Unless Dr Akimoto gives permission. Or,’ and she gave a derisive snort, ‘William Parry.’
Of course. That was the name of the lout in the yard. Rachel placed the map carefully in her pocket.
Will Rachel find romance and a kind stepfather for her troubled son?
Why was the uncouth tenant farmer killing pigs at midnight?
What is hidden on William Parry’s farmland?
What is the real reason for Eckstazia’s research into deadly cattle plague?
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