Hello my lovelies! It’s just over three weeks until The Cornish Escape comes out (eeep!) and as that is rather exciting, I thought I’d share an exclusive first peek with you!
Get swept away along the beautiful Cornish coast, where a love story in a long forgotten diary has the power to change one woman’s life forever.
Present day, Cornwall
The past has a way of calling out. Memories are living things that whisper beneath the floors and run their fingers along walls. They wait and they hope that someday you’ll come and find them. That day, the past called for me alright.
Though I almost didn’t hear it. That’s the part that makes me catch my breath, and makes me wonder how different things might have been. What if I’d never found Seafall Cottage?
Would I have just driven back that day? Picked up the broken pieces and tried somehow to put it all back together again? Tried to ignore the bits that I simply couldn’t?
It’s strange how sometimes the smallest thing can have the power to change everything. For me, a small bit of loose rock in my path was all it took to change my life. Though I didn’t realise it then. How could I? I was too busy walking. Too busy not seeing beyond the all-consuming anger and pain to notice anything, except very distantly, like a dull toothache that I was freezing cold in the dead of winter in rural Cornwall, still wearing the ugly, highlighter-pink cardigan my mother had given me for Christmas two weeks later, when my foot stumbled on the uneven earth. I straightened and looked up, and in that moment the old place with its half-forgotten secrets let down its guard – and that’s when I saw it.
Beyond the vast expanse of wild countryside, and the rocky outcrop that hugged the coastline, my eyes alighted on an unusual house, tucked high up into the cliffs, yet seemingly ready to fall into the hungry sea below.
I’m not sure if it was some unknowable pull from the place itself or simply curiosity that drove me forward, wanting to see it up close, but for the first time in days I wasn’t thinking about what had happened, why I’d run away to Cornwall, the failure of my marriage, about anything really, and perhaps that was enough to drive me forward, wanting to see more of the house I’d spied.
I set off, feet slipping up the steep path that time had forged into the rock face, the seagrass silver-green and rustling as I moved.
My mobile began to ring, and I switched it to silent. I didn’t need to check to know it was Mark, one of several calls he’d made since yesterday.
I swallowed, attempting to get the words Mark had hurled at me out of my brain, trying not to think about what had happened, but it was hopeless…
The door echoed shut as I hurried down the drive, loaded down with the mishmash of gym bags that I’d hastily crammed with clothes, not wanting to delay my exit from our house any further with something as meaningless as luggage.
A second bang followed and Mark hurtled down the drive after me, tearing a bag from my hands, the strap scraping my shoulder and causing me to wince in pain. His eyes were cold. ‘Don’t be ridiculous, Victoria – you can’t leave.’
I shot him a look of disbelief as I ripped open the car door, flinging the rest of my stuff inside. It landed with a hollow thud against the passenger window.
‘I think you’ll find that I can do whatever the hell I want!’
‘Victoria – please,’ he said, grabbing my arm. ‘Let’s just talk about this.’
I wrenched myself out of his grip. ‘Maybe you should have thought about talking about things before you invited someone else into our bed?’
He ran a hand through his brown hair, and it stuck up wildly. ‘Jesus, I did try, that’s all we’ve done this past year – we haven’t stopped talking. It’s not like this is out of nowhere. And you’re acting as if you found her here or something – I wouldn’t have done that—’
‘Oh yes, you’re such a bloody gentleman, thank you so much for telling me instead of having me find you two together. What do you want – a gold star?’
‘For Christ’s sake!’ He wiped a hand over his face in anger. ‘Because you’re so fucking perfect? You haven’t been home in WEEKS. You’re never here! What the hell did you expect?’
‘What did I expect? Um, perhaps that you wouldn’t cheat on me just because I had to WORK!’ I screamed, my fists balled at my side.
He closed his eyes. ‘That’s just it – everything comes second to your work.’
I sighed. ‘I’m tired of fighting about this, Mark.’
His eyes widened. ‘Yeah, funny that you’re sick of fighting about something that doesn’t affect you—’
‘What?’ I snapped, my mouth twisting. ‘You don’t think this affects me?’
He was standing on the cold pavement in his bare feet. Behind us, the little Christmas wreath threaded with fairy lights that I’d bought in a rush of holiday spirit – still up though we were well into the new year – seemed to mock me. I stared at his toes, curling on the sleet-covered pavement, and tried to ignore the way they seemed to be turning blue. I couldn’t.
‘It’s cold, just go inside—’
‘No, you can’t leave like this—’
‘Please put on some shoes.’
He ignored me. ‘Where are you going? Just tell me.’
‘Does it matter?’
His mouth fell open. ‘Of course it matters. Christ!’
‘Why? You’re leaving me anyway,’ I pointed out.
He blinked. ‘That’s not true – I just need time to think, to decide.’
I made for the car door. ‘I’ll help. There, it’s decided.’
‘No, it’s not. Bloody hell, you’re acting as if you had nothing to do with this—’
‘Yes, it’s all my fault! And you – what? Slipped and fell on top of someone else?’ I shouted, climbing into the car and locking the door, sick of hearing his excuses. Not looking at him through the haze of tears as I put the car into reverse.
‘It is your fault!’ he snarled, palms beating the window, fingers scrabbling to open the locked door, while I set a course for anywhere but there.
It turned out to be Cornwall that I fled to. Lately all my roads seemed to lead down here: for work, family – and now an escape from my marriage.
Last night, I’d got as far as the sign for Cloudsea, the little village full of whitewashed stone cottages that ribboned around a small stretch along the Atlantic, home to my brother and his wife. I thought I’d find solace there, but I couldn’t do it, couldn’t face them. It had all seemed so simple while I was driving, but as I neared, I couldn’t face the inevitable dissection of my marriage or their pitying looks, however kindly meant.
I felt like a jar that had been scraped out till there was nothing left inside, and all I wanted right then was a warm bed and no human interaction. I stopped my car and searched on my mobile for a hotel that was still open. I found the Black Horse Inn, forty minutes away in the opposite direction, and hit navigate.
It was a gothic-looking building down an empty coastal road, and when I pulled open the heavy oak front door some time later I noticed dimly that the decor looked similarly ghoulish. The only nod to the current century was a neon sign that read ‘Open 24 hours’.
‘Looks like you’ve been through the wringer,’ said a gravelly voice from behind a black marbled counter. The craggy face belonging to the voice was illuminated by a faint light from the wall behind, where a large, ornate brass plate gleamed.
She was a thin woman with short magenta hair. In her claw-like hand she was clutching a packet of cigarettes, and she had the wrinkled sort of mouth that looked like it was often set to purse.
Catching sight of myself in the brass plate behind her head, I couldn’t help thinking that she had reason to purse her lips. I was wearing Mark’s faded AC/DC T-shirt, along with the hideous, shockingly pink cardigan, and my long, black curly hair was a wet, ratty mess from when I’d got caught in the rain. Whatever make-up I’d had on was now in a pool down my face and neck, and my dark eyes had deep circles beneath them, like bruises. I looked like an angsty teenager instead of a woman in her early thirties.
‘You should see the other guy,’ I said, with a lopsided smile.
Her eyes widened. ‘If I give you a room I’m not going to have any trouble, am I?’
‘No, I just got lost,’ I lied. ‘And stuck in the rain.’ I decided not to mention the last six hours in which my life and marriage had turned to ashes.
‘Where were you heading?’
‘Cloudsea,’ I said, picturing the lovely village full of white-washed cottages ribboning the Atlantic, home to my brother and his wife, with a pang.
Her demeanour changed. ‘That’s miles from Tregollan.’ It almost sounded a little like sympathy.
She looked at me in disbelief. ‘That’s where you are – didn’t you know?’
I shook my head. I’d just focused on turning left or right as the talking map instructed; I hadn’t paid much attention to which town I’d stumbled into. I eyed the cigarettes on the desk, and for a second had to stop myself from asking if I could bum one.
‘Well, ’tisn’t like Cloudsea here. ’Tis wild and beautiful though,’ she admitted.
‘Yeah…’ All I’d seen was night and fog and a very dark road.
‘Well, welcome anyway. I’m Gilly, and this is the Black Horse Inn. I’m sure everything will seem better in the morning,’ she said with a smile that was surprising in its gentleness, softening the lines along her mouth.
Things didn’t seem better in the morning. But she was right about one thing: from what I’d seen since I’d set off for a walk to try and clear my head an hour before, it was beautiful here. For the first time in hours I wasn’t thinking about my imploding marriage – just the hidden cottage I’d spied amongst the cliffs.
It took half an hour to get to the clifftop, by which time my arms and legs were covered in razor-like scratches from the sharp-pronged bushes, all of which seemed bent on enacting some personal vendetta against my flesh. When I got there I stopped in surprise. There was no house in sight, just the cliff wall itself.
I hugged my cardigan to my frozen skin, my breath coming out in a fog, and despite the long walk, which by rights should have warmed my blood, I stamped my feet from the cold.
Mentally, I retraced my steps. Had I made a wrong turn somewhere? It had seemed a fairly straight path from below, so at some point I should have found the house somewhere around here.
I carried on walking, wondering if I’d simply wasted my time, when suddenly the cliffs began to change and I came across a high stone wall that seemed made from the rock face itself. I spied an unexpected, concealed entrance, which led to an iron gate that was covered in rust and ivy and invitation. It hung slightly off its hinges, revealing a garden almost out of view. I pushed it open, and with some effort, making a sound like a distant sigh, it obliged.
On the threshold, I paused, hesitant. What if someone saw me and demanded to know why I was here? What would, or could, I say?
All too soon though, I found that my fear was ungrounded. It was unlikely that anyone had lived here for many years. At least I hoped so? As living here would only qualify as ‘living’ in the loosest possible terms.
Before my eyes stretched the ghostly shape of a garden, covered in long-dead plants and strangled by weeds. It was a forlorn piece of earth, littered with mountains of abandoned beer bottles, a mould-infested sofa, a collection of mildewed pizza boxes, a rusted car with missing tyres and several decades’ worth of seagull droppings.
I heard them before I saw them, perched on top of the house’s slate roof, just visible from where I was standing, their cries a mix of warning and welcome. As I made my way down the terraced garden, their pebble-black eyes followed my every move as the house came into view. It was made of a faded sepia stone that time had aged like pale cognac. One wall was threaded with a creeping rose that seemed unusual for this time of year, yet despite the wintry chill, welcomed the visitor like a first blush.
The front door was missing, making the empty space seem all the more eerie. Etched into the stone above the doorless entryway was the house’s name: Seafall Cottage.
Apt, I couldn’t help thinking, as the old place looked about ready to fall into the ocean below.
I crept inside, half afraid of what I might find. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I saw that at every point, the cottage seemed to invite nature in along with the overwhelming scent of brine and damp.
An overturned range was all that was left of the kitchen, and the living room fared no better, with vines attaching themselves to the walls like veins, binding an old window seat in their embrace, the fabric turned green with lichen.
Wine bottles and cigarette buts littered the wooden floors, which had warped and split apart at the seams, yet all of it was simply background to the view. Dominating most of an entire wall was a massive circular window made up of a series of petal-shaped panes of glass, most of which were missing. It offered a breath-stealing view of the blue-green ocean below, lending an air of magic despite the ruin, as if it were a kind of enchanted sea garden. Despite its state of disrepair, it was beautiful.
I couldn’t help but wonder why it had been abandoned. I guessed that it had been used as a sort of local hangout for parties, perhaps serving as a camp for the town’s teenage population or for more nefarious purposes. But what I couldn’t fathom was why. I thought of the roses, the cottage’s pretty name – someone had put care into this place, why had it been left like this?
As I explored the rest of the house, I found a pantry with empty shelves, a heavy glass jar filled with decaying fruit. In a smaller room was a broken sleeping cot, its frame sagging in the middle, the mattress grey and spotted with mould.
The stairs that led from the living room were spiralled like a turret shell, and as I looked up, I could see sea glass patterning each curving balustrade. My way was blocked by several pieces of heavy furniture that had been left on the steps.
When I turned back, I saw a door set into the front wall of the house. It had an old brass knob, sticky with age, and I had to batter it open with a shoulder.
My old mentor, my history professor from university, Stan Fenridge, had once told me, ‘If you’re going to make the past your present, be prepared for a lifetime of dust…’ It was a motto of sorts. Dust, and sometimes bruised shoulders, were an occupational hazard of the biographer’s trade.
I’d been telling other people’s life stories now for over a decade; it’s what had brought me down to Cornwall for most of the past year, as I worked on a new biography of Daphne du Maurier. I’d been transcribing some never-before-seen letters from an old family friend of hers down in Fowey, and piecing together her story, particularly about how so much of it was influenced by this remarkable county, its history, enchantment and mythology. Perhaps it had begun to influence me too – though, truth be told, I’d always been a bit too curious for my own good.
After my third attempt, the door sprung wide, and I stumbled out onto a veranda a metre wide, spanning the length of the house. The railing was broken, offering a barrier-free drop to the open sky and the churning blue-green waves below. I stood, gasping, my knees shaking with fear as I peered down.
A sudden movement to my left caught my eye. I wasn’t alone. I turned my head towards the side of the house and saw an old man staring straight back at me. I blinked in shock. In the seconds that my eyes were closed, he was gone. A sudden fear gripped me. Had he run off to go and call someone?
With mincing steps, keeping to the wall, I made my way towards the side of the house, where the veranda joined level ground – and where the man had been standing moments before. There, I found an entryway to a walled kitchen garden just off the house. As I watched, I saw him go through a canopy of foliage with a wheelbarrow.
‘Wait, please. I can explain!’ I called. Though I didn’t see how I could explain that I’d simply decided to trespass. But he was moving at high speed, ignoring my calls, the wheels creaking in time to his brisk pace.
‘It’s not how it looks!’ I shouted. That was a lie. It looked like trespassing, which it was.
The old man didn’t slow down, just made for the faint amber light coming from the small garden shed at the end of the path.
I stood rooted for a second in an agony of indecision – go after him or make a run for it? Something told me that an idiot wearing an electric-pink cardigan in the middle of nowhere wouldn’t be that hard to track down, should he decide to report me. So I made my way to the shed, hoping he’d give me a chance to discuss it before he called someone. The door was open as I launched into an explanation, but there was no one there.
I spun on my heel in surprise. The shed was cold and dark, and when I left, I saw the wheelbarrow lying on its side, an empty beer bottle rolling out onto the frosted grass.
Of course, he’d been a trespasser as well. I’d startled him too.
I set the wheelbarrow right, only to frown. He’d left something else behind. I bent down, finding an old tan leather book, bound by a long, thin ribbon of aquamarine-hued suede. I picked it up, and then started; the old man was standing an arm’s length away. His eyes were pinned on me, on the book in my hands.
I couldn’t make out his face in the gloomy light. He was wearing a knitted cap and an old tweed jacket, the kind with leather patching the elbows.
‘Y-you forgot this…’ I said, holding it out, edging closer to him.
He shook his head. As I neared I saw that his eyes were sharp, and very blue. I couldn’t tell how old he was. He was the sort who could have been seventy or a hundred and you wouldn’t be all that surprised either way.
He stared at me for a long time, making no move to take the book. Finally, one shoulder came up in a sort of dismissal. ‘’Tisn’t mine,’ he muttered, his voice hard, like gravel.
‘Oh,’ I said, lowering my arm, preparing to put the book back where I’d found it.
‘May as well keep it,’ he said. ‘Not like they’re coming back for it.’ He nodded towards Seafall Cottage. We both looked. No, that seemed unlikely.
‘What is it?’ I asked, looking at the leather book in my grasp and wondering that I was having such a strange conversation with an old man in this wintry garden. But he didn’t answer, and I looked up to find that he’d left as silently as he’d arrived.
It was only later, after I’d trekked back to the Black Horse Inn, following a warm bath with a glass of whisky for company, that I picked up the book, unwound the suede binding, and found that it was a diary.
It was filled with tight, black writing in a slanted hand. There was no helpful inscription in the front cover, no name written on the front page. But that wasn’t what made me sit up straight, something like a smile ghosting across my face for the first time in days, nor was it that the diary belonged to that oddly haunting house. It was the fact that it was all written in code.
I read somewhere that the receptors in the brain respond to emotional pain in the same way they do physical pain. I wasn’t sure how reliable the article was, but allegedly it makes little difference whether we’ve been hit by a hammer or jilted by a lover. In fact, the article suggested that if you take a painkiller during a traumatic period, you might end up feeling better.
It was hard to believe that an ibuprofen might help, but I took one anyway, washing it down with whisky for good measure. What was the standard prescription for when your husband told you he was in love with someone else?
Morphine, I supposed.
It was so cold that my breath came out in a fog. Heating in this dead-end inn seemed to be something of a myth. I felt old and tired; my face wan, eyes swollen and red-rimmed. The inn’s bland instant coffee did nothing to fight the fatigue from the needle-like bedsprings that had found purchase in the small of my back the night before, no matter how much I tried to twist away in the night.
As I climbed into bed for my second night at the Black Horse Inn, I pulled the duvet around my shoulders in an effort to keep warm and the diary fell onto the floor. I picked it up and rifled through the pages, noting the tight black writing, the frequent use of numbers that made up the coded text, and wondering again what it was doing at that house and why someone had decided to write it this way. It was hard to tell if the writer was male or female, but I suspected the latter. The penmanship was elegant – though back then that wasn’t uncommon in either sex.
My thoughts turned to the curious old man. He’d said it wasn’t like they were coming back. Like he knew who they were.
I rubbed my eyes, and with it, rubbed away the thought. It was just a turn of phrase, nothing more; a tired brain looking for a distraction. The code was a puzzle – and I’ve never really been able to resist them.
I shook my head. It was typical that this would fall into my hands now that I had wound up my latest biography, after four straight years of zero holidays or time off, of endless travel for work, which had involved over thirty-two trips last year alone for book tours, all of which had gone a long way towards the disintegration of my marriage. I was meant to be looking forward to a much-needed break. I’d had lengthy discussions with my editor at Rain River Books, and we’d agreed that a sabbatical was a good idea – there was never a good time to do this sort of thing, but I had insisted. I’d spent years working twelve- to fifteen-hour days, getting up every morning at 5 a.m., even on weekends. Especially on weekends. I was tired. I loved my job more than anything in the world, but what I loved most was the research, the discovery, the writing. But the curse of doing that well meant that I got to do it even less, my time spent talking about my work rather than doing it. We’d carved out six months of freedom, six wondrous months of idle stillness as delicious as thick Cornish clotted cream with strawberry jam.
I was supposed to be lying in bed past nine, rediscovering the joys of wearing pyjamas past noon, of wearing flat shoes and relegating heels to date nights only, not worrying if I put on weight because I wouldn’t be in a press shot for some time.
The next six months were meant to be time for me to recharge, recover my creative energy and focus on my marriage to Mark.
They say life happens when you’re making other plans, I just wished that the bastard who’d said that wasn’t always right.
Another missed call from Mark.
I took a breath, my chest tightening painfully, and called him back. He answered on the first ring. ‘Where the hell are you?’ he snapped.
I stayed silent while his voice got higher, more agitated. ‘I’ve been out of my bloody mind, Victoria! Jesus Christ! WHAT. THE. FUCK. Were you thinking? It’s been almost two days!’
I closed my eyes, pictured him pacing the linoleum, barefoot, in his old pyjamas, the ones with the grey, vertical stripes. I pulled a loose thread from the duvet cover; watched as it puckered and rent the otherwise smooth surface.
‘That you had an affair with your personal trainer, which you lied about for weeks, and that you only told me about while we were having—’ I couldn’t finish. He’d told me that he was having an affair while we were having sex. I still felt shamed, like I’d never feel clean again.
There was a sharp intake of breath. He was silent for a long time. Despite everything, maybe I was still hoping he’d tell me that he wanted to fix it, that he loved me. But there was no absolution. Not from this.
‘Oh, Smudge,’ he said softly, pleading. The word, the old nickname, like a dagger through my shattered heart. ‘Please, just tell me where you are.’
‘Don’t call me that,’ I said, trying not to cry.
I heard him swallow. It didn’t make me feel any better when he said, ‘Okay.’ Like he’d do whatever I asked. Anything except take it back. ‘I still care about you,’ he said.
The tears came then, stinging the raw skin where the past tears had already burnt. I was beginning to make that sound again, like something wild. Nine years of marriage reduced to ‘care’? I didn’t have it in me to bite off a sarcastic retort. ‘Mark, you were the one who asked to be apart… That’s what this is. And I’m in Cornwall,’ I said, and hung up.
I decided against finishing the bottle of whisky, choosing instead to find the landlady, Gilly, to complain about the lack of heating.
I unzipped the first kitbag I found, slipped on a pair of Converse trainers, pulled on a Batman jumper, followed by my thick, old coachman’s coat and went downstairs.
My classless ‘biographer’s coat’ was a charity find, chosen more for its warmth than its style, and was a source of despair for my mother, someone mildly stuck in the eighties, who still believed that power came in suits.
I wrapped my scarf around the lower half of my face, thrust my gloveless hands into my pockets and headed towards the bar. I found Gilly wiping down the counter with a well-worn rag, deep in conversation with a red-haired man who, despite the early hour, was nursing a beer. Sitting next to him was an old woman with a blue-rinse helmet of hair, huddled under a heavy brown shawl, her expression bleak as she contemplated her morning meal of baked beans on toast.
I took a seat opposite. Gilly nodded her spiky magenta head in my direction and then carried on her conversation with the woman about a spring festival at the nearby daffodil farm that had been cancelled.
‘It’s been the longest winter in history,’ said the woman to me. ‘I feel like I’ve forgotten what it’s like to be warm.’
I nodded. ‘Me too. Though I think the heating seems to be off in my room.’
The red-haired man grunted in response. Gilly shot him a look. ‘Told yer,’ she said.
He sighed loudly. ‘Blast it all! These pipes are the Devil’s work this winter. I’ll go have a look,’ he said, draining his glass.
Gilly shook her head. ‘Like I haven’t asked yer to go and check the heating since sun-up?’
I heard him mutter darkly as he went up the stairs.
‘Sorry,’ said Gilly, with a pained look in his direction. ‘I coulda got yer some blankets until Henry arrived, if you’d let us know earlier.’ She nodded in the direction the red-haired man had just left in. ‘Local handyman,’ she explained. ‘Useless as anything, but he’s all we’ve got.’
‘You mentioned a daffodil farm. Is that near here?’ I asked. I hadn’t seen it yesterday.
‘Not far, about a fifteen-minute drive. It’s near the cliff road along the coast. An absolute picture in the spring months, I can tell you.’
The woman next to me nodded, and her bleak expression seemed to melt momentarily. ‘’Tis a real sight in the spring, I don’t mind telling yer, golden flowers for miles…’
Gilly looked at me. ‘Can I get yer something to drink or eat?’
‘Tea would be great, and some toast with jam,’ I said, not willing to risk the instant coffee again.
While she was busy, I thought about the abandoned cottage I’d found. It couldn’t be too far from the farm, as that was the only coastal path around here.
‘Have you lived here long?’ I asked.
‘All my life,’ she said, handing me a teapot, cup and saucer.
I nodded. ‘Perhaps, then, you could tell me about a house I found. It’s close to the farm, I think?’
‘A house by the farm? There are no houses down there… Though the new owners have converted some of the old barns for holiday lets,’ she said with a disapproving sniff, obviously not keen on the competition.
The old woman next to me, who was now eating her baked beans on toast, muttered, ‘Couldn’t you have even heated them up, Gill?’
Gilly ignored this. ‘Betsy, it’s just the farmhouse up there these days, right?’
Betsy nodded but didn’t volunteer any speech while she chewed, her expression grim.
I shook my head. ‘But I saw one – a couple miles from here, sort of unusual, tucked away really, and set in the cliffs themselves. I was walking yesterday and I saw it – sort of by accident.’
‘A house in the cliffs?’ said Gilly, as if I were mad.
‘I think it’s called Seafall Cottage,’ I said, tensing as I said the name aloud, as if I were exposing something delicate to the light, though I had no idea why I should feel that way.
‘Seafall Cottage?’ She shook her head slowly, then her gimlet eyes went large and she turned to Betsy, smacking her hand on the wooden counter. I jumped back slightly. ‘She can’t mean Cursed Cottage!’
The older woman’s mouth grew tight. ‘You want to stay away from that place,’ she said, giving me a similar look to the one that she’d given her cold beans.
‘The Cursed Cottage?’ I said in disbelief, wondering vaguely if she was pulling my leg, perhaps any minute now I’d hear the opening strains to Psycho.
Gilly nodded quite seriously though. ‘Oh yes. I don’ much put stock in curses and things like that…’ She rolled her eyes. ‘Especially here.’
I took that to mean Cornwall and its propensity for myth and fable.
‘But that place’ – she gave a shudder – ‘makes it hard not to believe. Gives me the creeps.’
Betsy nodded. ‘Aye, it does. Was horrible what happened there.’
‘What happened?’ I asked.
Gilly gave me a meaningful sort of look, her black eyes boring into mine. ‘It’s hard to say, exactly… was all kept quiet, like. Even me nan wouldn’t talk about it, and she worked at the big house as a girl, yer know, during the summers. The only thing I know for sure is that it happened during the Great War, and that it had to do with the Aspreys, of course. They say that it’s why they all sold up and left.’
‘Oh aye,’ said Betsy. ‘They used to own the farm and all the land around it, back when it was a grand estate.’ She pulled her shawl close around her body. ‘Most of it’s been developed over the years into the village of Tregollan now.’
‘Why did they leave? What rumours?’ I asked.
‘That old John Asprey kept someone locked up there – someone mad.’
My mouth fell open in surprise.
Betsy nodded. ‘People think whoever it was still haunts the place now.’
‘That’s because it is haunted…’ said Gilly.
Betsy shrugged. ‘I didn’t really put much stock in the rumours myself, until what happened a few years back.’
‘What happened?’ I asked.
‘A girl from the village disappeared there in the eighties, local teenager by the name of Mary Evans. She’d gone to meet some of her friends up there – they used to sneak inside and have a bit of a party. Except when it came time to leave, no one could find her.’
‘She just disappeared into thin air, they didn’t find her body or anything,’ said Gilly.
Betsy gave her a look, and I wondered if they’d had this conversation before, because she said, with a look of exasperation, ‘We don’t know for sure what happened, really. Mary was in a bit of trouble, some of her friends admitted as much later, so it’s possible that she just ran away. One of her classmates said she thought she saw her a few years ago, working in Shropshire.’
‘Shropshire?’ scoffed Gilly. ‘And what trouble could Mary Evans have really been in?’ She looked at me. ‘She wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed, if you get my meaning…’
‘She could have been pregnant,’ said Betsy. ‘You know how harsh Ted Evans was – he would have killed her, if he’d known.’ Then, for my benefit, she added, ‘The girl’s father, Ted, was the strict type, fire and brimstone and all that. All the Evans children were terrified of him.’
Gilly shrugged. ‘Yeah, but to run away? Most people around here think that the police just invented that story as a cover-up for what really happened, just so that they could finally sell the place. No one wants to buy a haunted house. Not that it worked. No one would touch it. Would yer believe they’re still trying to sell it – like anyone’d buy it.’
‘It’s for sale?’ I asked in surprise.
‘Must be more than thirty years now. No one here will go near it, of course, don’t blame them. I heard even old Waters has given up on the place at last. Going to demolish it and sell off the land. Though why he took this long to give up is anyone’s guess.’
‘Graham Waters. Local lawyer up in town – he got stuck with the deed. No estate agent round here would touch it.’
‘Really? Because of some old rumours?’
Gilly gave me a look, like pity mixed with something else. ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’
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