Main A Dark and Sinful Death

A Dark and Sinful Death

Attractive, stylish, not naturally saintly, Agnes Bourdillon isn’t the kind of woman you expect to be a nun.


And the expensive girls’ boarding school in West Yorkshire where she’s been sent to teach is hardly a place in which one would expect to find an art mistress as disturbed as Joanna Baines, discovered by Agnes in the art room, surrounded by black paint and desecrated paintings.


Next day, Joanna has disappeared from the school.


And the day after that, a twenty-two-year-old gardener, Mark Snaith, is murdered on the moors nearby, his face horribly mutilated.


The death count starts to rise, and Agnes realises that understanding the ties which bind the close knit community outside the school might just be the key to who is behind these awful crimes.


But runaway school girls and an appearance from her past continue to complicate Agnes’ life.


As she begins to uncover the dark secret that lies beneath the façade of a well respected, local mill owning family, Agnes realises that there’s more than meets the eye…

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A Dark and Sinful Death

A Sister Agnes Mystery

Alison Joseph





© Alison Joseph 1997



Alison Joseph has asserted her rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988, to be identified as the author of this work.



First published in 1997 by Headline Book Publishing.



This edition published in 2018 by Sharpe Books.





For my mother,

From whom I learned to be a mother





Table of Contents



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Acknowledgements





Chapter One



She was sitting in the middle of the room. The walls had been splashed with black paint, and there were fragments of paper where the girls’ work had been torn away. The windows were daubed with black too, thickening the darkness of the night outside. Paint dripped from the workbench. She watched it, staring vacantly as the splashes counted time in the silence of the room.

Agnes still had her hand on the doorhandle. ‘Joanna?’ she whispered.

Joanna continued to watch the black droplets scatter as they hit the floor.

‘Miss Baines?’ Sister Teresa said, at Agnes’s side.

‘Did you do this?’ Agnes asked.

Joanna slowly lifted her head and gazed at Agnes and Teresa. Her hands and face were smeared with black. In front of her was an arrangement of objects: a vase of flowers, sickly winter carnations and dried roses drooping haphazardly; a bowl of apples, overripe and wrinkled. In front of the vase there was an animal skull. At the side a candle was burning, so low that its falling wax had engulfed the candlestick. The flickering light was reflected in the darkness of the windows, in the shadows of Joanna’s face as she stared at Agnes and Teresa.

‘I’ll get someone,’ Teresa said to Agnes. ‘You stay here.’ The door closed behind her.

‘Joanna ... ?’ Agnes wondered what to say. She realised she hardly knew her. Joanna Baines. Miss Baines, who taught art part-time at the school; who was considered to be a very private person; who was adored by the girls. She worked in the gardens of the school in her spare time, and never set foot in the staff room. She had a young, open face; probably not yet thirty, Agnes thought.

Joanna stirred and seemed to focus on Agnes, then looked at the desecrated artwork in front of her. ‘Those poor girls,’ she murmured.

‘Why ... ?’ Agnes began, hearing footsteps hurrying up the stairs.

Joanna turned anguished eyes to Agnes as if seeing her for the first time. ‘There is nothing ... First him — and now me ... there is nothing ... ’

‘I found the Head,’ Sister Teresa said, breathlessly, coming back into the room. Sister Philomena appeared behind her. She was short and slightly hunched, and now she peered at the scene before her through tiny glasses balanced on her nose.

She turned to Agnes and spoke in her customary bark. ‘Mops?’

‘S-sorry?’

‘Buckets?’

‘Well,’ Agnes faltered, ‘I’m sure in the kitchens ... ’

Sister Philomena made a sudden dismissive flapping gesture with both hands. ‘Staff,’ she barked. ‘In the morning. Leave it now. You, Baines — ’ Her voice softened, and she held out one hand to Joanna. ‘Come now, come with me.’

Joanna stood up and allowed herself to be led from the room. Their footsteps faded away.

Agnes looked at Teresa and screwed up her nose. ‘Mops,’ she barked. ‘Buckets ... ’

Teresa flapped her hands. ‘Staff,’ she echoed. They left the room, shutting the door behind them.

*

‘“ You turn us back to the dust and say, Go back O child of Earth ... For a thousand years in Your sight are like yesterday when it is past ... You sweep us away like a dream, we fade away suddenly like the grass ...”’

The psalm murmured through the chapel, merging with the soft patter of the rain on the windows. Agnes had woken that morning with a sense of dull depression, echoed by the chill of the school’s stone corridors, the grey of the skies, the wintry presence of the moors whenever she’d glanced out of the window.

‘“ Our iniquities You have set before You, and our secret sins in the light of Your countenance ...”’ Agnes glanced up at Father Elias, the school chaplain. His dark brows met in a deep frown, and his eyes were closed. His voice rose and fell with his recitation, his head bowed, his thick black hair falling across his face.

‘“ As from dust did you come, to dust ye shall return ...”’

The words seemed wrapped in melancholy.

Afterwards in the corridor, Sister Teresa took her arm. ‘Sister Philomena wants to see us at twelve.’

‘But it’s Ash Wednesday. We’re supposed to be reflecting on our sins.’

‘Nonsense, Agnes, it’ll take you more than a day for that.’

‘How well you know me after such a short time.’

*

‘State of operations,’ Philomena announced as they walked into her room. She gestured to two chairs opposite her desk. Her office was generously proportioned, carpeted in warm green. Outside Agnes could see the wind shaking the bare branches of the chestnut trees along the drive.

‘Miss Baines — queer old show, eh?’ The Head peered at a button on her suit. She adjusted it, then looked at Teresa.

‘I happened to be passing, that’s all,’ Teresa said. ‘I heard an odd noise, and then I called Agnes because she was nearest and because — well, I wasn’t sure what I should find ... ’

‘Paint all over the shop. Still, all right as rain now.’

‘But — all those paintings ... ’ Agnes began.

‘Plenty more. Heaps of them in the cupboards. Dogs and cats and whatnot, fluffy things, you know.’

‘How’s Joanna?’ Agnes asked.

‘And a rabbit. Think it’s a rabbit. Although — ’ She turned to Teresa. ‘Anteater perhaps? Short ears for a rabbit. You lived in the tropics, what d’you think?’

‘Um, well ... ’ Teresa hesitated. Agnes didn’t dare look at her.

‘Capybara.’ Philomena picked up a mug from her desk and squinted into it. ‘Beyond me why any of the girls should want to paint a capybara.’

‘Perhaps it was a rabbit,’ Agnes said.

Philomena peered at her. ‘D’you think so? I do hope you’re right.’ She stood up. ‘Ears rather short, that’s all.’

Agnes and Teresa stood up too. ‘And Joanna?’ Agnes tried again.

‘Baines? Bolted. Set up a room for her here last night. No sign of her this morning. Her third years sitting there like lemons. Had to teach them myself. We all drew a vase.’ The door shut behind them, and they were alone in the corridor as the bell rang for lunch.

*

They took their trays of soup and bread and cheese to a table tucked away in the far corner of the dining room.

‘So what did Philomena mean?’ Teresa said as they sat down.

‘Joanna’s vanished.’

‘Ah yes, the mystery of the disappearing art teacher,’ a voice said.

‘Colin Furse,’ Teresa said, looking up. ‘I might have known you’d have the gossip.’

‘History, you see,’ Colin replied, joining them. ‘And I have very little gossip. Only that she was upset about something and then went. Don’t suppose you know why?’

‘We saw her in the art room, last night. Yes, she was quite upset.’

‘Can’t think what it can be. She’s such a quiet old thing, isn’t she? The girls have started speculating. Elopement seems to be getting the keenest odds.’

‘How do they get to hear of everything?’ Agnes asked.

Teresa buttered her bread roll. ‘It’s astonishing. Some kind of Jungian collective radar. And it always involves men. I’m amazed you survive in this atmosphere, Colin.’

‘I positively thrive in it, Sister. I see Charlotte Linnell’s back with us, at least.’

Agnes glanced across at a noisy group of sixth formers. Karen Phelps was nursing an injured elbow from hockey. Zoe Webster was trying to grab her sling, and Claire Doylan was fighting her off and giggling. Charlotte Linnell was staring at her plate.

‘Depends what you mean by “with us”, I think,’ Agnes said.

‘What’s the story there?’ Colin asked.

‘She’s been absconding in the evenings, won’t tell anyone where she’s going. She was sent home last week for a few days. Now she’s back, but she won’t talk to anyone, and she’s clearly unhappy.’

‘Is she in your house?’ Colin asked.

Teresa nodded. ‘We’ve tried to get her to talk to us. It’s hopeless. She’s carrying some secret burden.’

Colin surveyed the room. ‘Like Joanna,’ he said. He turned to the two women. ‘Do you think this place is more neurotic than most, or does it just reflect the national average for nutcases?’

‘We were probably average until Agnes joined us,’ Teresa said. ‘Now we’re off the scale.’

‘On the contrary,’ Agnes said, ‘I’ve brought a measure of sanity and reason which was sadly lacking before. I’m surprised you haven’t noticed.’

*

It was Wednesday afternoon. The rain had eased, and a light mist had settled on the higher slopes, clinging to the bare gorse. Agnes followed her familiar path across the moor, leaving behind her the fading shouts of the school playing fields. She wondered what had become of Joanna. On a couple of occasions in the past she’d met her during her walks, and they’d exchanged a few words, in the course of which she’d learned that Joanna lived across the moor from the school and sometimes walked all the way home rather than taking the bus.

Agnes strode on, climbing higher, away from the town. The wind gusted suddenly, icily. She paused to catch her breath, and was aware of a figure emerging from the mist towards her.

‘Good afternoon, Father,’ she said, as Elias came into view.

He looked up, startled. ‘Oh, Agnes.’ He halted next to her.

‘Admiring the nothingness again?’

‘I never said it was nothingness,’ he said.

‘Last time I met you up here, you said you liked the moors because they had a total disregard for anything human.’

‘I said I liked the fact they existed before us and they’ll exist after us.’

‘So does that make you a nihilist or just a misanthropist?’

He smiled. ‘And what are you?’

‘Me? Just generally melancholic, I think.’

‘Still missing London?’

She nodded.

‘The girls like you.’

‘I think they’re just mystified by me, actually.’

‘Perhaps. I think they find me pretty odd too.’

‘It was a good service this morning.’

‘No it wasn’t. The start of Lent — what sense does it make to them? I can’t convey any of it in a way that might inspire them.’

‘I’ve always liked Lent.’

‘Even when you were a kid?’

‘Yes.5 Agnes smiled. ‘Not the giving things up, although we didn’t have much of that anyway, being a household of excess. But I liked considering my failings.’

‘And do you still?’

‘Do I still what?’

‘Consider your failings?’

‘Oh, yes, I’ve got loads now.’

He laughed. Above them the clouds drew closer as the daylight began to fade. He glanced at her. ‘Do you think it makes any difference? Lent. Reflecting on one’s failings ... ’

‘Yes, of course. It’s about being reconciled to God — ’ ‘But what does that mean?’

‘Well, I suppose — ’

‘That’s what I can’t convey.’ A squirrel rippled across their path, and Elias gazed after it. ‘I feel like you,’ he said. ‘Out of place.’

‘What is your God, then?’

Elias looked at her. ‘God is — ’ he began. ‘God is just Beingness. The charge between atomic particles, the distance between one galaxy and the next.’

‘And what about love?’ Agnes said.

He considered her for a moment. The wind caught his hair, blowing it across his face.

‘If you really believe as you do ... ’ Agnes hesitated. ‘It must make your job very difficult.’

‘Maybe. But it’s a safe place, at least.’

They stood in silence.

‘Well,’ Agnes began, after a few moments, ‘it’ll be getting dark soon, and I’d better — ’

‘Yes, of course.’ He glanced at her, then set off away from her towards the school. The sweep of the moors was shaded indigo in the twilight. Agnes could see below her the lights of the town, the silhouette of Father Elias as he descended the hill; in front of him the school, its dainty turrets echoing the rougher outlines of the mill chimneys across the valley. Agnes turned away and continued her walk, unwilling to return, in spite of the darkening sky. She looked at the shadows of the trees on the slope beyond, and quickened her pace.

She thought about Father Elias. She thought about his bleak vision. He was only in his thirties or so, she thought. She wondered how he’d come to be a school chaplain. She wondered what he meant by ‘a safe place’. She wondered what had happened to upset Joanna. She wondered what topic to choose for this week’s French conversation classes. She wondered, again, how to approach Charlotte to find out what it was outside the school that was exerting such a powerful attraction.

*

It was dark when she at last returned to the school. She’d missed supper. The hallway was unlit. The girls were all tucked away in their houses. Agnes could hear a phone ringing in the office. She opened the door and in darkness picked up the receiver.

‘Um — hello ... ’ It was an uncertain male voice.

‘St Catherine’s School,’ Agnes said.

‘I wondered if you could get a message to someone. One of the girls.’

‘Yes, of course.’

‘Charlotte Linnell.’

‘Oh — yes. Certainly.’

‘Just say that Mark phoned. Mark Snaith. Um — the message is — it’s difficult really. Could you tell her that I can’t do — oh, I dunno. Just ask her to ring me, could you? That’s all.’ The line went dead.

Agnes walked through the main building and out into a courtyard to Milton House, of which she was the Assistant Housemistress, an idea which still made her want to laugh. She unlocked the door to her tiny room, switched on lights, put the kettle on to boil, then changed her mind and opened a miniature fridge, in which there was a half bottle of Petit-Chablis. She pulled the cork, and poured a glass, which misted with condensation. She poured water into a saucepan and set it on one of two tiny electric rings, then opened a cupboard and searched for pasta and sauce.

When she’d first been shown her room at the school, she’d been horrified to find it had no fridge or cooker. In two days she’d installed both, and a toaster. She’d wanted to install a telephone line too, but she’d sensed a certain frostiness from Sister Philomena at the idea that she might wish at times to escape from the communal life of the school. No one else, it was made plain to her, needed a private telephone line. But then, as Agnes had explained to Teresa at the time, she hadn’t asked to be sent away from London, away from the work she enjoyed at the hostel for homeless kids, away from her friends, exiled to a chilly Yorkshire convent school to do a job for which she was singularly ill suited.

She waited for the water to come to the boil, gazing absently at her brand new mobile phone, which was sitting on her desk and which now rang suddenly.

‘Agnes?’

‘Julius — I was just thinking of you.’

‘You always say that.’

‘Maybe it’s always true.’

‘How alarming.’

‘No, I was just thinking about London and wondering how I came to be here.’

‘Through your exemplary obedience to the wishes of your order, wasn’t it?’

‘There’s no need to laugh.’

‘Agnes, would I laugh at you?’

‘What do you think?’

Julius laughed. ‘And this is your mobile number, eh? So I could be talking to you anywhere?’

‘Anywhere. I might be in the bath for all you know.’

‘Isn’t science wonderful?’

‘Expensive, too. I’m always recharging the batteries, it costs a fortune.’

‘Lucky you have one, then.’

‘Hardly a fortune. And now Sister Philomena knows it’s there, it won’t last long.’

‘I thought your French lawyers made sure it was watertight.’

‘They hadn’t met Sister Philomena.’

‘What’s that beeping?’

‘The batteries, again. It’s such a bore.’

‘Why don’t you get a proper phone?’

‘Because it didn’t seem worth it. It’s not as if I’m here for long.’

‘Agnes — ’

‘They can’t make me stay, Julius.’

‘Is it still that bad?’

‘Julius, I can’t bear it, I’m supposed to eat communally, I can’t wear jeans, there are offices for the nuns at least three times a day, chapel for the girls every day — ’ ‘What’s wrong with daily offices?’

‘Nothing in themselves, of course, but — I’d got used to having privacy.’

‘Perhaps that’s why they moved you.’

‘It’s as if I’m not trusted to conduct my spiritual life without them supervising it the whole time. I feel like a child again.’

‘Is that such a bad thing?’

‘You didn’t know me as a child. And the girls, Julius, they all stand up when I come into a room. They’re so polite, and restrained, and — and so bloody English and repressed and — ’

‘And you’d rather have our crazy hostel residents?’

‘At least I’m useful there, I’m really needed. This lot are so privileged — ’

‘And immune from suffering? Surely not.’

‘It’s all so well mannered here.’

‘I imagine you were the same at their age.’

‘Perhaps that’s just the problem. Hang on a minute ... ’ She turned the heat down and added some fusilli to the water. ‘You were saying?’

‘Nothing really.’

‘Do you miss me?’

‘It’s part of my spiritual training not to.’

‘Perhaps one day you’ll tell me how it’s done.’

‘There was one thing, actually. Someone’s been trying to get hold of you. James Lombard.’

‘James — good grief.’

‘Is he the one who was the friend of your father?’

‘Yes.’

‘Who was like an ally when you were a child, you said.’

‘Fancy you remembering that.’

‘And you were really fond of him, but he moved to the States.’

‘Julius, you know everything.’

‘He wanted your address. He’s going to write.’

‘To me? How odd.’

‘Did I do the wrong thing?’

‘No. No, I’d love to see him again. But — I can’t think why he’d want to see me.’

‘He said he had memories of your family.’

‘Yes — but they’re not the sort of memories one would want to re-live.’

*

Later she heard the sixth formers returning to their rooms, and went to look for Charlotte.

Charlotte was sitting at her desk in her pyjamas. She looked up as Agnes came into the room. Agnes noticed the teddy bears arranged under huge posters of Keanu Reeves and Brad Pitt. She looked tired, Agnes thought. ‘I — er — took a phone call for you. During supper.’ Charlotte gave nothing away. ‘From Mark,’ Agnes went on, ‘Mark Snaith.’ Charlotte’s eyes widened. ‘He said, can you phone him. Something about not being able to do — to do something. He didn’t say what. I said I’d tell you.’ Agnes turned, calmly, to go.

‘Was that all?’ The girl’s voice was barely a whisper.

Agnes turned back to her. ‘I imagine,’ she said, ‘that he didn’t want to give anything away to a stranger. If you had a secret arrangement for this week that he’s now having to cancel, he’d hardly have told me, would he?’ She smiled. Charlotte looked bewildered. Agnes said gently, ‘If you need to talk about anything, you know where I am.’

‘But you — ’ Charlotte began.

‘No,’ Agnes said. ‘Not me. I’m not going to judge you. If you want to talk, I’ll listen. Goodnight.’ She closed the door softly behind her.

*

‘Gaping bloody hole in the timetable,’ Agnes heard Philomena saying as she walked into the staff room next morning. ‘Counting on you. You’ll cover, won’t you?’ Iona Gish, the head of art, nodded. ‘And go easy on the tropical animals,’ Philomena added. Iona looked at her blankly. ‘Ah, Sister Agnes,’ Philomena said. ‘Nash?’

‘You mean Pamela Nash?’

‘Funny turn last week.’

‘Yes, I know, she had a fit or something.’

‘Talked to the quack, he says, tell the parents. Write them a letter, you know the form. Nothing to worry about, fell into a dead faint, won’t happen again, keep an eye out, that sort of thing, all right?’ Philomena nodded benignly at Agnes and then left the room.

‘It’s a bit much for you,’ someone was saying to Iona, ‘that you have to cover for Joanna.’

‘I suppose no one knows whether she’s coming back.’

‘Was she ill?’

‘She seemed fine to me. Quiet, as usual, but nothing odd.’

*

‘And Miss Baines was terribly poor,’ Clemmie Macintosh was whispering to a group of fellow fourth years who had gathered around her in the classroom. ‘And she had no garden and that’s why she was so fond of our gardens, and why she looked after the roses every day, because roses are for romance and she had no one to love her — ’

‘Clemmie, that’s enough thank you,’ Agnes said. ‘Perhaps, mesdemoiselles, we can begin our French conversation now.’

‘Maybe she was thwarted in love,’ Agnes heard someone whisper.

‘Bon, aujourd’hui, nous allons faire une dictée ... ’

‘Perhaps he jilted her. And now she’s gone and — ’

‘Killed herself?’ The whispering shrank to an awed hush.

Agnes spoke. ‘Frankly, girls, I’m amazed that you could find the disappearance of one of your teachers to be more fascinating than French dictation.’

*

‘They can’t stop talking about it,’ Agnes said, back in the staff room.

‘The Maths Fives reckoned it was unrequited love.’

‘Oh, the French Threes were for elopement.’

‘And suicide.’

‘Yes, we had suicide. I blame the English department.’

‘Why us?’ asked Jean Pagnell, a tall woman in a tweed suit.

‘Too many nineteenth-century novels. It gives them melodramatic ideas.’

‘Nonsense,’ Jean said. ‘Although, come to think of it, my group of fourth years couldn’t decide between nervous exhaustion and what they called a decline. Oh dear, I’d better stick to T S Eliot and Maya Angelou from now on.’ The bell rang for afternoon classes. There was a chaos of books and bags and departing staff, and then quiet descended. Agnes got another cup of coffee, and flicked through the local paper.

‘Allbright’s Mill facing redundancies,’ she read. ‘William Baines to retire.’ She read on. ‘William Baines, owner of Allbright’s Mill, has announced that he is to hand over control of the business to his daughter, Patricia, and her husband, Anthony Turnbull. “We aim to keep Allbright’s as a main player in the twenty-first century yam industry,” said Turnbull.’

‘Baines,’ Agnes said.

‘Sorry, Sister?’ The school secretary, Mary Watson, was making a cup of coffee.

‘Baines. William Baines.’

‘Oh, Allbright’s. My sister-in-law used to work there.’

‘But it’s the same as Joanna Baines.’

‘Joanna ... ?’ Mary thought for a moment, then shook her head. ‘I can’t see there’d be a connection. Joanna’s never mentioned it. And it’s a very common name round here. You see, the Allbright Baineses are a different lot altogether. You know it if you’ve met an Allbright Baines.’

*

That evening Teresa knocked urgently at Agnes’s door.

‘Leonora,’ she gasped as Agnes let her in. ‘There, look!’

Agnes looked out of her window and saw a small figure with a suitcase striding purposefully down the drive in the yellow lamplight.

Agnes sighed. ‘This must be her fourth attempt this year. Thanks, Teresa.’ Agnes pulled on her coat and ran down the stairs, out of the hallway, up the drive.

At the gates, the girl turned her head and smiled. ‘Hello, Sister.’

‘Leonora — ’

‘How nice of you to come and say goodbye.’

‘Leonora, you can’t keep running away.’

‘Oh, but I can.’

Agnes paused to catch her breath, leaning against the heavy wrought iron of the gates. ‘Is it so bad?’

The girl’s exquisite manners never faltered. ‘Oh, Sister, you mustn’t take it personally. You’ve all been very kind, but you see, I belong at home. They need me.’

‘And how were you going to get there at this time of night?’

‘I appreciate your concern, Sister, but really I can manage.’

Agnes stepped in front of her, and took her arm, glad that she was still taller than the child. She began to propel her back towards the school.

Leonora was chewing her lip. Her eyes were quite dry. She swallowed, then said, ‘It’s really a terrible waste of your time, Sister, I’ll only do it again.’

‘I’m sure you will, Leonora. But I have my job to do, you must understand that.’

Leonora nodded, but her face was white with anger. She said nothing more all the way back into the school, all the way to her tiny room. Agnes waited while she changed into her pyjamas and brushed out her long blonde hair. A wisp of hair floated against her cheek, and Agnes saw there were tears in her eyes. She bent and kissed the top of her head. Leonora turned her face away and got into bed.

We need an armed guard on this door, Agnes thought, closing it behind her. So much unhappiness, she thought, remembering what Julius had said, wondering why Julius was always right. She walked back along the darkened corridors to the main building, thinking she should tell Sister Philomena. She could hear voices at the main doorway, and the porch windows seemed to be lit with an odd blue light. As she approached, she realised she could see a police car through the open doorway. Philomena was talking to a policeman. Colin Furse was standing in the doorway.

‘What’s happened?’ Agnes asked Colin.

‘They’ve found a body,’ he said.

‘What?’

‘No one we know. In the little stream that runs across the top of the moor up there, by the crag. They had to let us know because we’re the nearest dwelling. And because he was murdered. Stabbed. They’ll be up there all night, apparently. Sister offered my services to the police, being a man and all that.’

‘And did they jump at the chance?’

‘Strangely, they declined.’ His smile seemed to take some effort. ‘Perhaps they can afford enough torches of their own.’

*

On Friday morning, Agnes glanced out of her window while brewing coffee and making toast, and saw Leonora wandering aimlessly across the lawn. She left her half-made breakfast and hurried downstairs to the garden. Leonora looked up from the bare rose bushes and smiled.

‘It’s all right, Sister, I’m still here.’

‘I’m glad you are, Leonora.’ Agnes breathed in the wintry February morning, wondering if the girls had picked up the events of last night on their super-sensitive communications network. ‘I was thinking we should have a chat,’ she said to Leonora. ‘I know you don’t think it’ll do any good. But I’m afraid I insist anyway.’

Leonora shrugged. ‘If you must.’

‘How about next week? Wednesday tea-time. In my room.’

Leonora brightened slightly. Agnes’s room had acquired a mythology amongst the girls, as if they sensed that each new consumer durable installed there represented a triumph, that somehow the toaster and kettle and phone were on their side in the endless quiet rebellion which made up their school days.

‘OK, then.’

‘Four o’clock?’

‘OK. Thank you, Sister,’ she remembered to add, as the bell rang for the first lesson.

Agnes lingered in the gardens. ‘These were all hers,’ a voice said. She looked up to see Elias approaching.

‘All whose?’ she asked.

‘Joanna’s.’ He gestured to the neat circles of rose bushes that now shivered in the breeze. ‘She would, you see,’ he said. His voice was low. Agnes could hardly hear what he was saying. ‘All this, all neat and pruned. It’s like her, to have everything ready.’ Elias looked up with sudden intensity, and she noticed the lines of pain around his eyes. She realised that he must have sought her out.

‘You were in the art room,’ he said at last. ‘The other night ... When she — ’

‘Joanna, you mean? Yes.Teresa heard a noise and called me.’

‘Would you mind — might I ... ?’ He shifted on his feet, staring at the dull black leather of his shoes on the bare winter grass. He raised his eyes to her again. ‘Do you have a moment — now? There’ll be no one up there.’

Agnes followed him back into the school and up the narrow staircase to the art room. He pushed open the door. All was neat and clean, washed with thin sunlight. ‘You wouldn’t know anything had happened,’ she said.

‘What did she do?’

How do you know, Agnes wanted to ask him. She went over to the window. ‘This was all covered in paint, black paint. You can see traces by the frame. She’d torn the paintings off the wall and covered them in black paint. See the table leg, all black? That’s where it was.’ Elias ran his fingertips across the workbench. ‘Oh, and she’d arranged some objects, like a still life.’

Elias looked up. ‘A still life?’ His voice was unsteady.

‘Y-yes.’

‘What objects?’

‘There was fruit, and flowers — ’

‘These?’ Elias moved swiftly about the art room, gathering the vase from a corner shelf, the bowl, now empty of apples. ‘These flowers?’ He arranged the dry roses carefully in the vase.

‘And a skull.’

‘A skull?’ He smiled then, as at some private joke. He looked suddenly younger.

‘A sheep’s skull, I mean, not a human one. Why is it funny?’

He shook his head. ‘It’s not. Not really ... A skull,’ he said, and his lips twitched with amusement as he looked for it.

‘There it is.’ Agnes brought it down from the paint shelf and handed it to him.

He held it in his hands. ‘She would,’ he murmured.

‘She said something, when we found her.’

‘What did she say?’

‘Something about there being nothing. Nothing for her. “First him, now me,” she said.’ Elias’s gaze met her own. Agnes went on, ‘I — I know no more than that. I’m just telling you what I heard her say.’

‘Yes.’

‘Is — is she in trouble?’

Elias turned the skull over in his hands.

‘I mean, I know it’s not my business,’ Agnes went on.

‘No, it’s not.’ Elias began to dismantle his arrangement, putting the objects back in their places. He took a last look at the skull, then replaced it carefully on the shelf. He opened the door for her, and they walked back down the staircase in silence. They came out into the gardens, and wandered towards Joanna’s roses.

‘Will she come back soon?’ Agnes asked him.

He shook his head. ‘I doubt it. Although — ’

‘What?’

‘This man they found on the moors last night ... ’

‘The — the dead one?’

‘Yes. Snaith.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Mark Snaith.’

Agnes felt herself losing her balance. ‘Mark — Snaith?’ She put out her hand, grasping at thin air.

‘The murdered man. He was Baines’s gardener. He was only twenty-two,’ Elias was saying.

‘How do you — ?’

‘And the worst thing, somehow ... ’ Elias stopped and ran his fingers along the bare thorns of a rose bush. ‘The worst thing was, that his eyes had been put out.’





Chapter Two



‘Hello, yes, I’m enquiring about the Snaith murder — on Morton’s Crag, last night ... All right, then the incident room ... in Bradford? Can I have the number then?’ Agnes tucked the phone under her chin and waved one hand madly over the toaster which was puffing blue smoke into her room. She reached across to grab a pen and paper, and wrote down a phone number. ‘Thank you. Goodbye.’

She opened the window, pulled two charred pieces of bread from the toaster and dialled the number.

‘Hello, yes, I’m enquiring about the Snaith murder — Mark, yes, that’s right. I’m Sister Agnes, I work at St Catherine’s School, yes, that’s right. The thing is — one of our girls was seeing this man ... Yes, I think so ... Charlotte Linnell, sixth former ... And she doesn’t know what’s happened, and I’m not supposed to know about her relationship, and ... yes, I thought you’d say that. Yes, OK. Thank you, officer.’

It was four o’clock. Agnes went across to the main school and knocked on Sister Philomena’s door.

‘Sister — ’ she began.

‘Agnes?’ Sister Philomena gestured to a seat.

‘It’s all rather tricky.’

‘Well?’ Sister Philomena’s smile was friendly.

‘The police phoned just now,’ Agnes lied. She saw Philomena frown, and carried on, ‘um, in the office. I happened to answer it ... ’ Philomena picked up a Biro and turned it over in her stubby fingers. Agnes took a deep breath and said, ‘The murdered man, on the moors — you see, they found someone’s name and phone number on him.’

‘And?’

‘Charlotte Linnell.’

‘Oh.’

‘She has no idea he’s dead. And they’d like to see her,’ Agnes said. ‘The police, I mean. I said I’d check with you, but that after supper would be OK. I’ve arranged, with your permission, to take Charlotte to the police station. I thought it would be fairer on her to have the discussion away from the school. With your permission of course.’

Philomena studied the Biro in her hands.

She knows I’m lying, Agnes thought.

Philomena looked up and Agnes was aware of being appraised by the small, beady eyes with their heavy brows. ‘Permission granted,’ Philomena said, her gaze still fixed on Agnes. The words were like a move in a game. Her chair scraped back as she stood up. ‘Nash?’ she barked.

The two women’s eyes met. Agnes thought she saw the glimmer of a smile.

‘Um, just about to do it, Sister.’

*

Agnes went to Mary Watson’s office, which was empty. She opened a filing cabinet and picked out a folder, flicking through the names until she found ‘Nash, Pamela. Date of birth, 22 July, 1982’. She turned to the section marked medical history. Under ‘Fits, Fainting, Epilepsy’, the parents had written ‘None’. There was an address in Cyprus, and Agnes noted it down. She put the folder away, composing in her head the letter she would write, both informative and reassuring at the same time. ‘Dear Fit Lt and Mrs Nash ... I am writing to let you know ... there is no cause for concern ... ’

‘Baines’, she saw on the edge of a file, under the drawer divider marked in neat Biro, ‘STAFF admin’. She pulled it out, amazed that it was so easy, then remembering that these were the non-confidential files. Baines, Joanna, it said. Date of birth, 15 September, 1967. There was an address on the other side of town. Under next of kin, it said ‘None’, in big handwritten letters. Then Joanna had added, ‘In case of emergency, contact Mrs Patricia Turnbull.’

Agnes blinked. She stared at the page for a while. Then she wrote down Joanna’s address from the file, and Patricia Turnbull’s too. She looked up Father Elias, found he wasn’t there, closed the drawer and left the office.

*

At six thirty that evening, Agnes licked the gum on an envelope and sealed the letter to Pamela Nash’s parents. She put it down on her desk and took a sip of cold coffee from the mug beside her. She got out her notebook and looked at the names she’d written there. Joanna Baines, PatriciaTurnbull. She picked up the local paper that she’d removed from the staff room and carefully cut out the piece about Allbright’s Mill, and William Baines handing control of the mill to his daughter Patricia and her husband, his son-in-law, Anthony Turnbull. She stuck the cutting into her notebook.

And Elias, too, she thought, still bewildered by the conversation she’d had with him earlier that day. How did he know what Joanna had done? And how did he know about Mark Snaith on the moors? And in everything he’d said, his words had betrayed a familiarity with Joanna, with Snaith, with Baines — ‘Baines’s gardener,’ he’d said, as if she’d know who he meant. And the urgency of his tone, as if he had to know, absolutely had to know, what Joanna had done, even to the extent of recreating it.

Agnes turned from the desk to the window. It was drizzling. The thin rain made tiny beads of light against the glass. It was time to find Charlotte.

She was in her room, and looked up reluctantly as Agnes opened the door. ‘Charlotte? May I have a word?’ Agnes sat on her bed. ‘It’s about Mark.’

Charlotte coloured. ‘What about him? Has he phoned again? I’ve tried but he wasn’t there. He’s never there ... ’

‘Charlotte — was he a gardener for William Baines?’ ‘Y-yes. How do you — ’

‘How old was he?’

‘Twenty-two. On January the 14th. Why?’

‘Charlotte, I think there might be bad news. The police want to see you.’

‘The police? Why?’

‘I’ve arranged for us to meet them at the police station, I don’t want everyone here gossiping.’

Charlotte had paled. ‘Wh-what do you mean?’

‘They found a man on the moors. Dead. He was called Mark Snaith. It may not be the same one ... ’

Charlotte was sitting bolt upright on her bed, staring blankly at Agnes. ‘It’s not the same one,’ she said, her voice flat.

Agnes stood up. ‘It may not be,’ she said, taking Charlotte’s arm. ‘Let’s go and find out.’

‘Oh God,’ Charlotte murmured, as they went out to the car. ‘I knew this would happen.’

*

Agnes scanned the blank walls of the interview room. A plastic cup of coffee sat untouched in front of Charlotte, as she listened to what the policewoman had to say. Her face was expressionless. She looked up as she was asked a question.

‘I said, how long had you known him?’

Charlotte looked at Agnes.

‘I’ll go outside if you like,’ Agnes said.

‘No. No, it’s OK. I’d known him since last summer term, when a group of us from school went to help with the community centre on the estate. You know, the Millhouse estate. And then he asked me to a club ... ’ She glanced at Agnes again.

‘Were you going out together?’

Charlotte picked up a paperclip from the desk. ‘Sort of. After that it was the end of term, but last term he got in touch, and we went out together. One Sunday. And it was really lovely ... ’

‘And you continued to see each other?’

She twisted the paperclip between her fingers. ‘Yes. It was a bit difficult to organise ... Yes, we did see each other.’

‘Did he indicate that he might be in danger?’ the policewoman asked.

Charlotte shook her head.

‘Was he happy in his work?’

‘He used to grumble about Mr Baines, but that’s normal, isn’t it, when you have to work for someone.’

‘Is there anything else you can think of? Any fights he got into, anyone he fell out with? He lived on Millhouse, it’s quite a rough estate.’

‘No. Although — ’

‘What?’

‘I didn’t know him very well. Although we — although we were close — there was something a bit — he was a bit secretive. Sometimes.’ She put the mangled paperclip back on the desk.

The policewoman scribbled in her notebook, then looked up. ‘Do you think it was drugs? That can make people secretive.’

Charlotte shook her head. ‘No. Definitely not. He was really anti all that, he knew someone who’d really messed up their life with heroin, he was dead against it.’ She glanced at Agnes, then added, ‘Apart from the odd joint, you know ... ’

‘Do you know a lad called Billy Keenan?’

Charlotte chewed her lip, then nodded. ‘He was involved with the sports centre.’

‘Do you know if there was any trouble between him and Mark? Might Mark have been afraid of him?’

Charlotte hesitated, then said, ‘No. Nothing like that. Mark was a gentle person. Like those birds he was watching up on the moors, he really cared about them — ’ Her eyes welled with tears.

‘Birds?’

‘There was a pair of peregrine falcons, he was devoted to them, knew everything about them, he was like that, a gentle person — ’

‘On the moors? Is that why he was there, watching the birds?’

‘Yes. No, maybe, I don’t know, I hadn’t seen him for days.’ She wiped her eyes. ‘I can’t believe he’s ... will there be a funeral? Can I see him?’

The policewoman exchanged a glance with Agnes. ‘There’ll be a funeral eventually.’

‘Can I see him before that?’

‘In the circumstances ... sometimes it’s better to remember someone how they were in life,’ the policewoman said.

‘Why? What’s happened? What did they do to him?’

The policewoman hesitated, then said, ‘They — whoever killed him — they damaged his face rather badly.’

‘I don’t care, I still want to see him — ’

‘Charlotte,’ Agnes interrupted. ‘There’ll be time.’ She stood up.

‘We can arrange for you to see someone, a counsellor,’ the officer said.

Charlotte shrugged.

‘My name’s Janet Cole.’ She scribbled a phone number on a piece of paper. ‘You’re very welcome to phone us any time.’

Agnes led Charlotte to the car. As they set off back to the school, Charlotte said, ‘It was the moors.’

‘What about them?’

‘He was always going up there on his own, watching for those birds. I knew something like this would happen, I had a feeling ... ’

Agnes braked as a fox froze on the road in front of them. Its eyes flashed startled green, then it darted away. Agnes accelerated again as the gates of the school came into view.

*

It was Saturday morning. The bus dropped Agnes on the edge of the industrial estate. She pulled her cashmere scarf around her face, and buttoned up the neck of her coat against the frosty air. A single tall chimney rose up against the hillside, and next to it the blackened yellow stone of the old mill. Agnes saw, in the neglected facade, a huge archway, carved with the letters ALLBRIGHT’S MILL. She stared at the letters, wondering what had brought her here. She went through into a courtyard. On three sides the mill buildings towered over the old cobblestones. The fourth side looked out across the town, across the old terraces which made a grid across the valley, the newer estates sprawled in the distance. The chimney towered above the mill, above the town, like a huge flag planted in virgin territory, as if to say, this is ours.

Agnes thought about the millions of tons of fleece that had passed through the archway, to be made into yarn and sold on; about the thousands of workers who had passed through this courtyard, and upon whose labour the town was built. And now Baines was handing over to his daughter; and his gardener, Mark, had been found murdered on the moors.

All last night Agnes had tried to comfort Charlotte in her terrible grief. Something had been worrying her, some thought at the edges of her mind. She’d settled Charlotte into sleep, at last, and gone to bed herself. Sheep’s skulls, she’d thought, as she’d drifted into sleep. Sheep’s skulls and withered roses. The day before Mark was found dead, Joanna had disappeared from the school. Joanna Baines, who seemed to have disowned all family; but who had named Patricia Turnbull on her personnel file.

Agnes opened a door into the old mill building. Inside it was dark. The broken windows shed a thin light, picking out the puddles of rainwater on the expanse of empty floor, the brooding structures of rusting machinery, the wisps of fleece, the discarded bobbins that were scattered here and there. Above her she could see the mainshaft that ran the length of the ceiling, that would have driven the spinning machines in their hundreds. The silence seemed to be filled with the echoes of the past. For a moment, Agnes thought she heard footsteps on the floor above.

Agnes went back out into the courtyard. The door creaked shut behind her. She walked through the yard towards the new industrial site, leaving the old buildings behind her, and came upon a wide, sleek, single-storey building. She could hear a low hum. Above the glass door, the name ALLBRIGHT’S was engraved on a silver metal sign. The machine noise was louder here. Agnes tried a door marked ‘Reception’. It was locked. Behind it she knew there must be people, manning the machines that never stopped. She tried the door again, pointlessly, then wandered back to the old building. It was only then that she noticed a lone light coming from one of the old windows on the first floor. She quickened her pace, went back through the creaking door and up the staircase, which was broad and solid, built to contain the comings and goings of a workforce of hundreds. Now it echoed with her solitary footsteps. A carved mahogany sign on a door said ‘Wm. Baines’. She knocked at the door. There was no answer. She knocked again, then opened the door.

A man was standing in the room by the fireplace, his back to the door. He was tall and thick-set, and had a shock of untidy grey hair. A coal fire burned in the huge blackened chimney. The office had bare floorboards, stacked up with piles of paper. A large oak desk stood by the window. Beyond, Agnes could see the same view across the town she’d seen from the courtyard. She knocked loudly on the open door and the man turned. He had a broad, square face and dark eyes half hidden under thick grey brows, which frowned now on seeing her.

‘Yes?’ he barked.

‘Hello. My name’s Sister Agnes.’

‘And?’

Agnes took a step towards him and held out her hand. He ignored the gesture. ‘What do you want?’ he said.

Agnes hesitated. ‘I’m from St Catherine’s Convent,’ she said. At the name she saw his expression flicker with recognition. She took a deep breath and went on, ‘One of our staff, a young woman called Joanna Baines, seems to have vanished, and I thought you might know where she’s gone.’

She was unprepared for his reaction. In two strides he crossed the room, grabbed hold of her arm and propelled her towards the door. ‘Joanna Baines?’ he cried. ‘I know no such person.’ He led her back down the staircase, dragging her down each step. ‘The impertinence of it,’ he said, pushing her out into the courtyard, then shouted again from the doorway, ‘I know no such person.’ She heard the door slam, heard his footsteps recede up the stairs behind it. Her hand went to her arm where he’d gripped it with such force. You know it when you’ve met an Allbright Baines, she thought, rubbing her arm, turning across the courtyard, going back through the archway to the bus stop.

*

‘Father — ’ Agnes called to Elias across the crowd of girls. He didn’t hear above the noise. ‘Elias,’ she called again, pushing through the bustle until she caught up with him.

He turned. ‘Yes?’

‘I’m — I’m sorry about my third years.’

He frowned. ‘Sorry?’

‘In chapel this morning. They were restless. I thought you might have heard them giggling. Monday morning, I’m afraid.’ She smiled.

He looked at her, distracted. ‘Oh, it’s OK. Can hardly blame them.’ He turned again, and began to walk along the corridor and Agnes walked with him.

‘Are you joining us for coffee?’ she said.

‘No.’

‘Oh.’

They reached the main doorway. Agnes watched him put on a pair of woollen gloves.

‘Elias — ’ He looked at her, waiting. ‘How’s Joanna?’

‘I’ve no idea.’ He turned to go.

‘Also — ’

‘What?’

‘Mark Snaith,’ Agnes said.

‘What about him?’

‘He was seeing one of my sixth formers. Charlotte Linnell. They had a relationship of some kind.’

Elias stared at Agnes. ‘Baines’s gardener and one of your — ’ He shook his head. ‘How did that happen?’ He looked away. A frown shadowed his face. He turned back to her again, made as if to speak, then shook his head and went out of the heavy front door.

Agnes gazed after him. Her hand went to her pocket and she pulled out a letter she’d received that morning. It was addressed in a clear, even hand, and stamped ‘James Lombard’ on the back. It had a local postmark. She put it back in her pocket and went into the staff room.

*

‘You think what?’ Colin Furse put down his mug of coffee and looked at Agnes.

‘I think it would be a good idea to do some local history with the girls.’

‘This is all I need on a Monday morning. The curriculum is already over-stretched — ’

‘You could make room for it somewhere, couldn’t you?’

‘I thought you sisters knew to leave the teaching to us.’

‘The mills, for example.’

‘Which mills?’

‘I mean, when you think that this area owes everything to the wool industry — ’

‘I see, not only local history but a Marxist analysis too. And I thought I knew all about nuns.’

‘Allbright’s, for example. They do visits for school parties.’

‘I bet they do. And do you think the girls want to be dragged around some dusty noisy old mill?’

‘I think they’d learn a lot.’

Colin laughed. ‘I suppose I am doing the Industrial Revolution with the fourth years.’

‘There you are, then. Look, here’s the address to write to, and the phone number’s at the bottom there.’

Colin looked at Agnes. ‘And what’s in it for you?’

‘Me?’

‘Why are you so keen to visit Allbright’s Mill?’

‘Oh, you know, us soft Londoners, we need to see a bit of real life from time to time.’

Colin took the piece of paper she held out to him and glanced at it. ‘Well, it’s not a bad idea, I suppose.’ He looked up at her again. ‘You really are a most unlikely person to be an assistant housemistress, you know.’ ‘That’s what I tried telling them,’ Agnes laughed, getting up. ‘They never listen.’

*

At lunchtime Agnes went to her room and made herself a sandwich. She sat at her desk, took a paperknife and slit open the letter from James Lombard.

Dear Agnes,

It seems presumptuous to write to you after all this time, so I apologise in advance if this letter disturbs your peaceful life. You will remember I knew your parents well, particularly your father. Our friendship deepened after his move to the States, because by then I was living in Manhattan, and we saw a lot of each other.

After his death I learned he’d bequeathed me several of his possessions — some paintings, ornaments, the odd family photograph, that kind of thing. I was touched by this, and kept them, eventually transporting them over here when I moved back to England and settled in Yorkshire.

The reason for this letter is that I am now packing up my house to move abroad again, for various reasons, and I do not wish to burden myself with luggage. I have been looking at Aylmer’s things and wondering what to do with them, and in the end I decided it was not my right to dispose of them, particularly as I fear your mother did not have a say in their bequest. You will understand what I mean by this. I then contacted your family lawyer who gave me your London address, and I spoke to a charming colleague of yours who let me know where you are now — practically on my doorstep, it turns out.

As I said, I hope this is not an unwelcome intrusion into your life. If it is, then please forgive me, and simply let me know you are not interested in renewing my acquaintance. I will understand. If, however, you could spare the time, I would be delighted to entertain you here for lunch, and if you want to look over your father’s things and reclaim them as your rightful inheritance, no one would be more pleased than I.

I look forward very much to hearing from you.

Yours, James.

Agnes read the letter through twice, then folded it away. She leant her head on her hands and stared out of the window.

Aylmer, she thought. Everyone else called her father Emile. Perhaps Aylmer was his real name, she thought. Another thing I didn’t know about him.

There was never a time when she didn’t know James Lombard. A frequent visitor to their house, someone who’d make her father brighten by his very presence. Her mother resented him for this. When they went into business together, Emile and James, her mother would call him ‘that Lombard man’. The business was very successful.

James Lombard. He’s known me all my life.

Or rather, he’s known me for the worst part of my life. Perhaps it’s best never to see him again.

She got out the letter again. It would be ungrateful, she thought, not to see him. Although as for him returning all this stuff of my father’s, it’s not as if I can own any of it anyway. I’d have to hand it all over to Sister Philomena. Let’s hope there are no furry animals in the paintings.

Agnes laughed, out loud. She looked at the phone number, picked up her phone. Then she put the phone down, folded up the letter and put it back in its envelope. There was nothing to be done. Not yet, anyway.

She glanced outside. A group of girls was wandering towards the hockey pitch. Leonora Talbot was trailing at the back, dragging her hockey stick, staring at the ground, her long blonde hair tied back. Agnes remembered wearing her own hair that way at that age. Perhaps if she looked through James’s photographs, she’d find that version of herself preserved for posterity.

She glanced at her watch. It was time to discuss French local government with the fifth years. She yawned.

*

At tea she went to the sixth-form common room. Charlotte Linnell looked up from her corner and smiled wanly as Agnes sat next to her.

‘Well?’ Agnes asked. Charlotte was pale, her eyes ringed with sleeplessness.

‘Well what?’

‘It must be awful.’

‘It is.’

‘Does praying help?’

Charlotte shrugged. ‘No. He’s dead, isn’t he.’

‘Do you want some time at home? I can arrange it. I’ve talked to Sister Teresa, we’ve got to tell your parents in any case, they’re bound to blame us — ’

The girl shook her head. ‘I’d rather be around the places we knew together.’ Tears filled her eyes.

‘Charlotte, you can’t take exams in this state — ’

‘I’ll be OK. Really.’

‘Have you got friends you can talk to about it?’

‘A bit. But no one really understands.’ She swallowed. ‘I just hope they catch whoever did it.’

‘We’ll talk to the police again if you like.’

‘Sister Philomena said she didn’t want word of this getting out.’

‘She has no right to interfere in your grieving. If it helps you, we’ll talk to the police. Tomorrow.’

Charlotte nodded.

‘And if there’s anything else I can do — ’

‘Really, there’s nothing. I’ve just got to get on ... Father Elias has been really great ... ’

‘Elias?’

‘He came to see me today. He listened. And we talked about death. It kind of helped. He said if I wanted we could go to the place on the moors where — where it happened. When I’m ready ... ’

‘How does he know where it happened?’

‘Everyone knows Morton’s Crag. It’s up above the track across to the estate. That’s where the nest was, the peregrine falcons, he called them his birds ... Elias said he’d take me up there.’ Her eyes filled with tears again.

*

It was twilight when Agnes returned to her room with a stack of marking. She put it on her desk, and took off her coat. She glanced out of the window, at the outlines of the moor, hollowed by the fading light. She put her coat back on, picked up a torch and left, locking her door behind her.

She climbed the path away from the school, thinking that Joanna must have done this every day. The track was still visible. A half moon appeared from time to time behind scudding clouds, and the wind caught at her scarf.

For some reason she remembered Elias’s words. God is the space between atoms, between universes. She thought of God in the gusts of wind, in the blades of grass. She thought of her childhood image of God, bearded and paternal and human. She thought of Leonora’s hair, and James Lombard.

James Lombard. A memory, of being about seven, of being in Provence and taking her pony out to the paddock, and her parents and James coming to watch. The feeling of delight as her pony sailed perfectly over a series of jumps — then turning to see her audience share her triumph. Her father had gone. Her mother had wandered over to the greenhouses. Only James was there, clapping, smiling, praising her as he helped her from her pony, both of them pretending to ignore the tears that rolled down her cheeks.

Agnes joined the track that led down to the estate, dashing at her eyes with the back of her hand. She felt suddenly angry. How dare Philomena put the publicity needs of the school before those of Charlotte? It was quite clear that Charlotte cared deeply about Mark, and was more involved in his life than she was letting on. They’d go to see that nice policewoman tomorrow, whatever Philomena thought. And Joanna — had she resigned? Was Philomena appointing another art teacher?

And Mark. Agnes stopped and glanced around her. The moon had vanished. She felt suddenly alone in the gathering darkness. What was Mark doing up here that night? Just walking, like I am now? Like Elias?

Below her the lights of the estate spread a yellow haze across the valley. She quickened her pace towards it, descending the hill until she reached the road. She took a scrap of paper from her pocket and read it in the lamplight. Number 18, Merton Way. Joanna’s address, copied from the file. She turned into the main avenue of the estate, aware of shouts, a car engine, loud music. A dog appeared from nowhere and sniffed at her heels. She heard growling, then there were shouts.

‘Fison — leave it.’ She heard laughter, and turned to see three boys of about eleven.

‘He won’t hurt yer, Miss.’

‘Unless he feels like it,’ one of them said. They laughed. The dog left Agnes and jumped up at the boys.

‘Do you know where Merton Way is?’ Agnes asked. ‘Aye, just down there.’ They pointed, vaguely. ‘Why d’yer want to know?’

‘I’m just looking for someone.’

‘It in’t Dodds, is it? Only t’coppers came, not five minutes since. Took him away, they did.’

‘Smackhead, him.’

‘You’ve missed him now.’

Agnes smiled. ‘No, it’s not him.’

‘D’you smell burnin’?’ one asked.

They twitched their noses. ‘It’ll be the Warren. Again.’ ‘There might be a fire engine.’ They ran, the dog at their heels.

Agnes followed the road in the direction they’d pointed. The houses were all semi-detached, laid out in neat rows. Some were boarded up, some had windows smashed. The name ‘Chub’ was painted several times along the street. On number 18 someone had sprayed ‘Kris’. The house was in darkness, the curtains drawn.

Agnes turned to go. Under a streetlight at the end of the street, a man was standing, quite still, his face partly hidden in the shadows. He was thin and slightly stooped, wrapped in a thick coat. Against the light she could see the angle of his nose, the little squares of red and yellow on his tartan scarf. Agnes walked quickly away from the estate, towards the town. When she glanced back the man was still there, standing, motionless, staring at Joanna’s house. Agnes hoped she’d be able to find a bus to take her back to the school.





Chapter Three



The girls clustered at one end of a huge bank of spinning machines, shouting to each other across the noise. Clemmie Macintosh put her hands over her ears and giggled. Two women in earplugs and overalls watched her, then exchanged a weary glance and turned back to their work.

‘We produce on average between ten and twenty tonnes of yarn here a week, depending on what our customers want.’ Their guide was a smart young man whose badge said Malcolm Hollins, Sales Assistant. He spoke in tones of pride, as if he was somehow personally responsible for the inexorable process that transformed the huge mass of raw fleece into boxes of neatly wound thread.

‘Look,’ he said, moving closer to the girls. He tucked his finger behind one of the tubes that circled in rows and Agnes saw the thread across his fingertip become visible. He took his finger away and the thread vanished again, twisting at top speed on to the tube, like the hundreds along the same line, like the thousands on the neighbouring banks of machines.

Agnes felt slightly sick. ‘Where does it all go to, all the yarn?’ she said.

‘It depends. Abroad, a lot of it. Cheap suiting. The stuff that’s knitted up ends up as jumpers, leggings, you know, market stalls, that kind of thing. Eastern Europe, that’s a big market now.’

He led the group away from the noise of the machines. Agnes saw a woman in overalls and earplugs move down the banks of spinning tubes where they’d been standing, checking for broken threads.

‘My great-uncle was killed here,’ Cathy Phelps said cheerfully.

‘Your what?’ The smart young man blinked at her.

‘My great-uncle. He was only a boy, it was his job to crawl under the machines taking out the fluff. He got caught in one. Horrible death.’ She smiled, charmingly, at their guide.

‘Are you sure?’ Colin Furse asked her.

‘My mum told me. He was my grandfather’s older brother.’

‘But hang on,’ Colin said, ‘that’s only a couple of generations ago. He wouldn’t have been old enough — ’

‘1938, it happened.’ Cathy looked at Malcolm Hollins. ‘He was only fourteen.’

‘Ah, well,’ Malcolm said, smiling slightly nervously, ‘that would have been in the old mill. We’ll have a look at that on our way out.’

‘It made my mother’s father leave the mills altogether. After the war he was determined not to go back. The family got no compensation or anything. Grandpa became an engineer in the motor industry.’

‘What was his name, the boy who died?’ Agnes asked.

‘Charlie. Charles Rudge.’

‘Rudge?’ Malcolm Hollins asked. ‘Now that’s a local name. Maureen,’ he called across to one of the women working by the machine. She came over, pulling her ear protectors from around her head, glancing uncertainly at the group. ‘The name Rudge — from round here, isn’t it?’

She looked from face to face, then said, ‘Aye, the Rudges. Aye, I know of them.’

‘Did you ever hear of a Charles Rudge?’ Malcolm went on. ‘Worked here. He died in the thirties — ’

The woman peered at the badge on Cathy’s blazer, then looked up. ‘Aye. Before my time, but weren’t there a girl, called Matilda?’

‘Yes,’ Cathy said, ‘my mother’s aunt. Grandfather’s little sister.’

‘My mother talked of her,’ Maureen said. ‘Didn’t she marry late — one of the Wilsons?’

‘Yes, she married a George Wilson. I have cousins who are Wilsons.’ Cathy was pink-faced with delight.

‘My mum’s sister married a Wilson,’ Maureen said, again addressing the badge on Cathy’s blazer. ‘They go back a long way, here.’

‘So — ’ Cathy hopped from one foot to another. ‘So — that means you and I must be related — by marriage, anyway.’

Maureen slowly raised her eyes from Cathy’s blazer to her face. The hum of the machines seemed to grow louder. ‘Aye, well, yes, s’pose we are,’ she said at last. She put her ear protectors back on and went back to her machines.

‘Well, who’d have thought,’ Malcolm said, smiling fixedly around the group. ‘Some real history, there, eh?’

Colin Furse nodded. ‘Um, yes, um — history, yes.’

‘Let’s go and look at the dye process,’ Malcolm said.

The group set off. Cathy glanced back at Maureen, who was moving slowly along the lines of bobbins, then ran to catch up with the group.

Agnes hesitated by Maureen’s machine. Maureen looked up at the clock, exchanged a few words with someone who came to replace her, then walked across the floor towards the staff rest room. She noticed Agnes. ‘Clever girls,’ she said, nodding towards the departing group.

‘Yes. St Catherine’s Convent.’

‘Ah. You a nun then?’

‘Yes. I am.’

Maureen nodded. ‘Idea I had once, when I were a girl. Read a book about one once. But we’re chapel, though, we are. Round here, you’ll find everyone’s chapel. The Baineses were always chapel, always took on chapel.’

‘And the Turnbulls?’ Agnes said quickly.

Maureen looked at the spotless lino floor. She glanced up again at Agnes. ‘That remains to be seen. If there’s anybody left to see it.’

‘They’re laying people off, I hear.’

Maureen shrugged. ‘We’ve been lucky under old Mr Baines, he’s kept this place going as best he can. And in profit. In my view, Mr Baines could stay on for a good few years yet, barely sixty, him, and at least he knows the trade ... ’ She stopped, and fiddled with the ear protectors around her neck.

‘You mean, the Turnbulls don’t?’

‘It’s not for me to say,’ she said. ‘Only, wi’ Mr Turnbull there, I don’t see how you can make your money in the building trade and then come in and run a mill in times like these.’ She shook her head. ‘Our Robert says I should be lookin’ out for another job — though, as I said to ’im, where’s anyone going to find another job these days?’ She looked at her watch.

‘I’m sorry, I’m keeping you,’ Agnes said. ‘I must go and find my group. They’ll be in the old mill by now.’

Maureen smiled at her. ‘If you’re going in there, watch out for the ghosts.’

*

‘You missed the dyeworks,’ Colin Furse whispered to her.

‘Was it good?’

‘All state-of-the-art Italian computers. Apparently we’ve all got to wear navy blue and beige next year.’

‘ ... and this was all powered by water in the eighteenth century, and then later, steam,’ Malcolm was saying.

Agnes looked around her at the empty expanse, at the puddles of oil and rainwater, the broken window panes set in rotting frames of classical proportion. From the floor above them came the sound of footsteps, a hollow echo on the bare wooden boards.

‘Ghosts,’ giggled Clemmie Macintosh. ‘Maybe it’s your great-uncle, Cathy.’

Agnes thought of William Baines in his office above, pacing the floor, pausing from time to time to stare out of the window at the view, the same view surveyed by his ancestors. She imagined Baines’s grandfather looking out at his estate stretching out before him, seeing landscaped gardens symbolising wealth and progress, terraces of workmen’s cottages built by him in the philanthropic spirit of the age. And what did William see? Council offices, housing estates, a patch of derelict land; a hotel and leisure centre, part of the ring road; all on land that had once been his birthright. It wasn’t so much ghosts of the departed that suffused this dank air, Agnes thought, but ghosts of the still living.

The girls piled back into the coach, laughing, unwrapping biscuits, scuffling over who was to sit with whom. Clemmie started up an animated discussion about whether Malcolm Hollins had a nice bum. As the coach pulled out of the driveway and on to the road, Agnes, sitting right at the back, noticed two police cars drive up to the mill and into the courtyard.

*

Back at the school the girls dispersed to their afternoon activities. Agnes went to her room. She took James’s letter from her desk and read it again, then picked up her phone and dialled his number. It was answered by a pleasant, elderly voice.

‘Hello, is that James Lombard?’

‘Who is speaking?’

‘It’s Agnes.’

‘Agnes. How good of you to call.’ His voice was as she remembered it, but perhaps slightly more East Coast.

‘I got your letter.’

‘Thank you so much for telephoning me.’

‘You suggested that we — ’

‘I suggested lunch, didn’t I?’

‘Yes.’

‘Saturday?’

‘That would be lovely.’

‘You’re not to expect anything fancy. I live rather simply now. Nothing like your banquets in Provence.’

Agnes laughed. ‘They were hardly banquets, James.’

‘About twelve thirty for one? You have my address. Turn off the Addingham Road, go down into the village and mine’s the second house on the right. There’s a phone box opposite, you can’t miss it.’

Agnes scribbled down his directions.

‘It’ll be lovely to see you,’ she heard him say.

‘I look forward to it.’

Agnes rang off. She stared at her phone. Lunch with James Lombard. In Yorkshire. How odd. Just from picking up the phone and saying yes.

There was a knock at her door. Charlotte stood there. She came into the room wordlessly and sat down. At last she said, ‘I can’t work.’ She stood up and went over to the window. ‘I can’t think. I can’t sleep.’

‘Janet Cole said — ’ Agnes began, but Charlotte went on.

‘I just keep seeing his last hours, his last minutes, his last breath ... ’ She broke into sobs, standing by the window, her hands across her mouth.

‘When we went to the police — ’ Agnes tried again.

‘What do they know? What are they doing?’ Charlotte turned round sharply. ‘Nothing. That Janet Cole — she said nothing.’

‘They were up at the mill this lunchtime, two cars, I saw them.’

‘So? Does that bring the murderer any closer to being caught? Does that bring Mark back?’ She collapsed on Agnes’s bed in a fit of sobbing. Agnes went to her and rested her hand on her shoulder.

‘No,’ Agnes said softly. ‘Nothing will bring him back.’

‘What did they do to him?’ Charlotte sat up, raising her eyes to Agnes, waiting for the truth.

Agnes sat down next to her. ‘For some reason — his eyes — they felt he shouldn’t — they had to — ’

Charlotte sat quite still. The colour had drained from her face. Her voice was barely audible. ‘How can they — how could they — how can God forgive ... ’ She turned to Agnes. ‘I’ll never sleep again, how can I, knowing that someone’s out there who — ’ She stood up and walked unsteadily to the door.

‘Charlotte ... ’ Agnes went to her. ‘You must get away, surely, go home, give yourself time — ’

‘Why? Where is there to go? I’d rather be here. You see, don’t you — ’ Charlotte opened the door — ‘they’ve just got to catch whoever did it. Then maybe I’ll sleep.’ She went out into the corridor and back to her own room.

Agnes went and sat at her desk. Outside the sun was setting, searing the sky with red. And what if they don’t, Agnes thought. What if they never catch the murderer? And even if they do, that young boy is still dead.

She got out some French essays and stared at them for a while. At ten past four there was a knock at the door. Leonora came in and stood, waiting. Agnes gestured to a chair. Leonora sat down with exquisite poise, her hands clasped neatly in her lap. She looked up at Agnes with her clear blue-grey eyes.

‘Tea, I think,’ Agnes said.

‘As you please, Sister.’

‘Or something stronger? A glass of wine, it’s a little early I know but even so ... ’

Leonora’s poise faltered slightly, then she shook her head. ‘Tea would be lovely.’

Agnes put her kettle on to boil, then sat down opposite her. ‘Well, let’s begin.’

‘There’s no point,’ Leonora said.

‘So you say.’

‘I don’t wish to be rude, but I have to get home. I’ll do it one day, you can’t stop me.’

‘There’s just one thing I find a little odd,’ Agnes said. ‘You see, speaking from my own experience of running away, it’s not that difficult, is it?’ She glanced at the girl, then continued, ‘What I mean is, if you really wanted to get home, you’d be there by now.’ The beautiful eyes narrowed slightly. Agnes went on, ‘What I wanted to ask you, Leonora, is not, why do you keep running away, but why are you so determined not to succeed?’

‘What do you know about running away?’ Leonora asked in a small voice.

‘Rather a lot, I’m afraid. Violent husbands, well, only one — then my first order which was disastrous. And various smaller attempts since. Not a good record. I fear it’s in my blood. Started, of course, by having parents who didn’t give a damn. You see,’ Agnes went on, ‘if I’d run away from home, it would have been some weeks before my parents had even noticed.’

‘Poor you,’ Leonora said, politely.

‘And I wondered, whether, perhaps, in your case — ’ Agnes looked at the girl sitting there, at her calm composure. ‘You see, what I wondered was, whether perhaps you’re happier with the fantasy of running back home than with the reality of what it would be like when you got there.’

Leonora smoothed her skirt on her knees.

‘Which made me think that perhaps you feel, as I did at your age, that if only you could do the right thing, everything at home would be lovely and happy, instead of — ’

‘Did you call me here to reminisce about your unhappy childhood?’ Leonora’s expression was one of perfect calm.

‘No,’ Agnes said. ‘I called you here because you’re so clearly miserable and I want to help.’

‘It’s very touching that you choose to identify with me,’ Leonora said, ‘and it’s been lovely talking to you.’ She stood up. ‘But really. I’ve got an awful lot of prep to do before tomorrow. I’m so sorry not to be able to stay longer.’

Agnes sighed.

Leonora hesitated by the door. ‘You see,’ she said, ‘you can’t stop me running away.’

‘In that case,’ Agnes said, getting up and opening the door for her, ‘here are some tips. Speaking as one who knows. One, don’t pack a huge suitcase. Two, go in the hours of daylight when the trains are running and you can get a cab. Three, avoid public routes of escape. There’s a gap in the hedge behind the kitchens, leads straight on to the back drive. I noticed it a couple of weeks ago when I was planning my own getaway.’

A smile spread across the girl’s face, and for a moment her eyes sparkled with life. Then the polite composure returned. ‘Thank you, Sister,’ she said. She walked away along the corridor without looking back.

Agnes went to her fridge and pulled out a bottle of chilled white wine. She rummaged in a drawer for a corkscrew, just as the phone rang.

‘Sweetie, it’s Athena.’

‘Extraordinary,’ Agnes said, ‘I was just opening a bottle of Chardonnay.’

‘Telepathy, darling.’

‘You mean you can sniff out a decent white wine all the way from London?’

‘Heavens, darling, you have no idea of the extent of my talents. And how’s life up North?’

‘Dreadful. These girls — I’ve never seen such hard cases.’

‘But surely, compared to all those poor delinquent baby junkies you rescued in London — ’

‘They were a doddle compared to this lot.’

‘At least they must be polite and well behaved.’

‘You should see their politeness in action. It’s deadly. I’m beginning to realise the British kept their whole empire in subservience just by being polite.’

‘That and a few guns too, perhaps. Anyway, the point is, how do you fancy dinner on Sunday?’

‘But I can’t escape from here.’

‘No, I mean up North. There. If they have any decent restaurants, that is.’

‘Well, they do, but — ’

‘Simon’s discovered a little gallery in Leeds by the canal, he’s very excited about it, wants to talk business, don’t ask me, sweetie, but he’s insisting we both go.’

‘What does Nic think?’

‘Oh, Nic’s coming too.’

‘Doesn’t he trust you with Simon?’

‘More to the point, do I trust Simon with Nic? Anyway, apparently there’s a decent hotel somewhere around there.’

‘There’s a Harvey Nichols too.’

‘Harvey — ? No, sweetie, no. You must have made a mistake. What do those Northerners want with a shop like that?’

‘Athena, you’re terrible!’

‘Do you know, I’m beginning to look forward to this expedition after all. Anyway, Sunday evening, just you and me, dinner — what do you think?’

‘I can’t wait.’

Old friends, Agnes thought, switching off her phone. She thought about her friend Athena, living her London life, shopping, working in an art gallery, going to restaurants, more shopping. It made her feel lonely.

*

That evening Agnes slipped into the chapel. She sat alone, in the front pew, and contemplated a painting that hung there, of St Catherine praying before her death. She thought about Charlotte in her anguish, locked in the horror of Mark’s last moments. And now I’ve told her the truth, she thought, about his eyes. I’ve only made it worse.

Nothing will bring him back, she thought, raising her eyes to the stained-glass altar window. And You, she said, addressing the image of Heaven that was depicted there, once again You deal humanity a blow, a random act of violence that shatters several lives by destroying one. Once again You allow our imperfections to take hold, You allow the consequences of our frailty to unfold before You. And You do nothing. You do nothing in the face of Mark’s murder, of Charlotte’s grief. Of Joanna Baines’s flight. Of the thousand incidents of human tragedy that happen every second in this world. You wait, and You ask us to believe in You, the God of Love; You ask that we should have faith and You promise us redemption. And is it likely, Agnes asked the window, that Charlotte will reward You with her continued trust? What is Your promise to her, now?

In the chapel there was silence.

Am I wrong to be angry with You? Agnes asked. Elias would say I am. He’d say my anger is like the tantrum of a child, standing on a beach and stamping its foot at the sea because the tide has come in and washed away its sandcastle. The futile wringing of hands, he’d say, in the face of the implacable Oneness of the divine.

And should I not pray, then? Should I not pray for Charlotte, for Joanna, for William Baines? For Mark and his family? And should I not pray for whoever it was who killed Mark? And pray that they be found?

That they be found. Someone must have seen Mark set out that evening, someone must have known what he was intending to do, whom he was intending to meet. Somewhere there must be a reason; somewhere in the chaos there must be order.

Agnes imagined Elias pitying her for trying to see a pattern in the void. She looked up at the window. In daylight, with the sun streaming through it, the altar window showed God as Light, with His Son and Mary and the apostles. Now in the darkness it showed nothing at all, just the lines around the panes of glass, a random leaden web against the night.

*

On Saturday morning Agnes chose her clothes carefully, eventually settling for a cream silk shirt and black trousers and jacket. She borrowed the community’s ancient Metro and set off in good time, heading away from Leeds and then taking the Addingham Road as James had instructed. The morning’s drizzle was clearing, and she felt a sense of escape. She wished the car had a radio, so that she could tune to a music station and sing along. Not that she ever knew the words.

She parked in James’s drive. It was a two-storey cottage, with thick stone walls and wide, elegant windows. She rang the bell. Then the door opened and James was there, and they found themselves smiling at each other; he hugged her, and kissed her on both cheeks.

‘You haven’t changed,’ he laughed, ushering her into his hallway. The house was warm, with polished wood panelling and thick pale carpets.

‘Since I was seven? Surely I have,’ she replied.

‘Well, maybe since then. Can I get you a drink?’ She followed him into his living room. He seemed less tall than she remembered, and very thin, but graceful and upright. He was wearing blue jeans and an expensive Guernsey sweater, which made him seem somehow frail.

He poured them both a sherry and they sat down opposite each other. Sunlight fell on the polished floorboards, on the plain cream sofas and the Chinese silk rugs.

James raised his glass to her. ‘On the other hand,’ he said, ‘I’ve changed beyond recognition.’

‘Nonsense ... ’

‘Go on, say it,’ he laughed. ‘My hair’s white — ’

‘You were always blond — ’

‘ — and these wrinkles — ’

‘They’re nice. Everyone has wrinkles.’ She remembered now his blue-grey eyes, the lightness of his expression. She tried to remember whether he’d always looked so fragile, his skin so papery.

‘I’ve aged,’ he said, and his face grew serious.

‘We all age.’

‘Yes, but — anyway,’ he said, brightening again, ‘what news? How’s your mother?’

Agnes sighed. ‘Just the same. As far as I know. Her nursing home sends me the occasional bulletin.’

‘Antibes, isn’t it?’

‘I think so.’

‘You think so?’

She raised her eyes to his and saw only sympathy. Suddenly she wanted to cry. ‘You know how it was,’ she said, trying to keep her voice level.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I know how it was.’ He stood up. ‘Lunch? It’s only cold ham and salad. I’m more decrepit than you realise.’

He led her through to the dining room. She sat at the large mahogany table, while he brought warm bread rolls from the kitchen.

‘My greatest fear,’ he said, ‘was that when your father left, you’d feel responsible for your mother.’

‘Why did that frighten you?’

‘Because I knew she’d never let you go. You’d have given up the rest of your life.’

‘I have anyway.’

‘Yes, but not to her.’

‘It’s funny, I never talk about it to anyone. The fact that she’s still alive, that we don’t communicate apart from birthday and Christmas cards — ’ She stopped, blinking back tears. ‘I’m sorry,’ she murmured. ‘I can’t think why I’m so overcome.’

‘Don’t apologise,’ he said gently. ‘After all, who else is going to understand? Who else is going to remember how awful it was for you?’

‘Yes, but was it? Sometimes I think perhaps it wasn’t too bad, that someone less selfish than me would have made it work.’

‘Agnes — all the time I spent with you — the worst thing was seeing you take it all upon your shoulders. I used to talk to Aylmer about it, later, but by then he was — he didn’t really — he was mentally somewhere else.’ He poured white wine into her glass. ‘She sends me Christmas cards too,’ he added.

‘Does she?’

‘Yes. After Aylmer died, I kept in touch with her. I had to, there were various business things I was taking care of — I think she grew to resent me less. This Christmas just gone, she was quite effusive — for her, anyway. Inviting me to visit, even. I might just do that.’

‘So why are you going abroad?’ Agnes buttered a bread roll.

‘Oh, things to sort out. I’ll end up back in the States, but I’m planning a long trip. A kind of holiday in fact, unusual for me. Would you like salad dressing?’

‘But why clear out this house?’

‘I’m planning to rent it out. I’ve got two old friends who live nearby, the Campbells, they’re going to keep an eye on it for me. Your father’s things are valuable, I didn’t want them lying around while I was gone.’

‘You know I can’t own anything. I’ve taken a vow of poverty.’

He smiled. ‘How appealing. Shall we just put everything in the trashcan now, or do you want to take a look at it first?’

Agnes laughed.

*

After lunch Agnes sat with her coffee in the sunny living room while James brought her father’s things to show her.

‘Your inheritance,’ he said, taking something from a box and unwrapping it. It was a Chinese vase.

‘Ming, of course,’ laughed Agnes.

‘Imitation, I’m afraid. But very pretty. And these ... ’ he unwrapped two framed photographs. ‘You’ve got to have these,’ he said, ‘they’re no good to anyone else.’

She saw two black-and-white images of herself. In one she was a toddler, with ringlets and a lacy dress, standing with her parents, one on each side. In the other she was about fifteen, her hair tied back, wearing a tight-waisted dress with a full skirt which fell in perfect folds.

‘Who took these?’ she asked.

‘I’ve no idea. But your father wanted me to have them.’

‘Why you?’

‘I’m not sure exactly, but — ’ James wrapped them up again and handed them to her — ‘I think he couldn’t face what he’d done. In leaving, I mean. He didn’t want your mother to have them, and — he couldn’t bear to give them to you. It would mean facing up to his own failings. Perhaps. Anyway, they’re yours.’

She sat with them on her knee.

‘There are some other things. Look — this clock.’ Agnes stared at it. It was a brass carriage clock, so familiar it hurt. ‘I remember that. We had it in the Paris apartment, in the window. It has those four spheres that go round and round, I used to watch it ... I used to think it would wind down eventually, I’d sit there and wait for them to slow down, I couldn’t see why they didn’t.’ She looked up and laughed.

‘It belongs to your mother. And look, some silver teaspoons. These are valuable. There’s some Meissen as well, it’s upstairs.’

Agnes was shaking her head. ‘I can’t.’

‘You really can’t own anything?’

‘Well — strictly, no. I have a trust fund set up by some lawyers long ago, after my divorce settlement, but that’s different. This stuff here, if I take it, it all goes to the order.’

‘But what if ... ’ James hesitated, then said, ‘I’m sorry, it’s presumptuous.’

‘You were going to say, what if things don’t work out and I need to leave the order.’

‘That’s precisely what I was going to say. But I’m sure you’ll never need to.’

‘Do you really think that?’

James looked at her for a long moment, then shook his head. ‘No. I don’t. Unless you’ve really changed, and I don’t think you have.’

She smiled. ‘It’s such a relief.’

‘What is?’

‘To be with someone who knows me. Only Julius — ’

‘Who’s Julius?’

‘The priest you spoke to on the phone. He’s known me since — since I was married.’

James fell silent, wrapping up the vase and putting it in its box. Then he said, ‘I tried to stop that, you know.’

‘My marriage?’

‘I tried to tell your father it was a disaster.’

‘But you’d gone by then, you were in the States.’

‘I heard about it. I was horrified. I knew your husband’s family. Terrible people.’ He shook his head. ‘I’m sorry.’

‘It wasn’t your fault. It was my decision.’

‘They pushed you into it.’

‘I wanted to go. It seemed preferable to staying where I was.’

‘I feared for you.’

‘With reason, it turned out.’

‘Does your mother — ?’

‘She knew he was violent. She’s never admitted it.’ Agnes glanced down at the photos in her lap, at her younger selves. ‘It makes me feel like a monster,’ she said. ‘What does?’

‘That I can’t — that she doesn’t ... ’

‘My mother sent me away to school when I was seven.’ James smoothed the creases in his trousers. ‘We were living in England then. And it’s not that I didn’t forgive her, because I did. I hope I did. But — I always felt after that, that I could never love her as much as I should. It left me with this feeling, that I was somehow unnatural. Kind of monstrous, as you said.’

Agnes nodded. ‘Yes. That’s what it is.’

They sat and smiled at each other. Then James stood up. ‘Shall we have a ritual burning of this stuff now?’ Agnes laughed. ‘I’ve got to get back for chapel. But I’ll take the vase and the photos.’

‘Do you always break your vows so readily?’

‘And I’ll give you my solicitor’s address — you can send the spoons and the porcelain to him, in trust, should I ever feel the need to follow my instincts to bolt over the wall.’

*

At James’s door he took her hand. It was growing dark, and the birds were twittering in preparation for the night. ‘I hope I’ll see you again soon,’ he said.

‘I’d love to,’ Agnes said.

‘Don’t leave it too late,’ he said. Agnes glanced at him. The twilight seemed to age him.

She kissed his cheek, then got into the car and drove away.

On the way home she stopped at a flower stall and bought some scentless hot-housed pale yellow roses. She unpacked the vase and arranged the roses within it on her mantelpiece, then placed the two photos one on each side of it. She glanced out of her window, expecting to see Leonora making her way once again up the drive, to see her standing by the railings dreaming of escape. For some reason she imagined her in a tight-waisted dress with a full skirt that fell in perfect folds.





Chapter Four



In chapel that Sunday Elias seemed more preoccupied than usual. His sermon was half-hearted, and he never raised his eyes once from his text. Agnes found herself scanning the pews in boredom. Charlotte was standing with the sixth form, her head bowed, her face sallow. Afterwards Agnes caught up with her in the corridor. ‘Charlotte, you can’t go on like this.’

‘What else can I do?’

Agnes took her arm and led her to their house, ushered her into her room and put on the kettle.

‘Charlotte — whatever you want to do, you must do. If you want to carry on with your exams, then we’ll support you in that. If you want to go home and come back next year to take them, no one will blame you.’

Charlotte was shaking her head, muttering. Agnes made out the words, ‘I just want to see him.’

Agnes went to her and took her hands. ‘It won’t bring him back.’

Charlotte raised her tearful eyes to her. ‘Whatever state he’s in, it can’t be any worse than the way I see him, I keep seeing him, whenever I close my eyes, it can’t be worse than that. Whatever he suffered, I have to know ... ’ She buried her head on Agnes’s shoulder.

‘I’ll phone Janet Cole,’ Agnes said. ‘I’ll arrange it.’

‘And Elias said it would help.’

What does Elias know, Agnes thought, standing up, going to the kettle and making tea.

‘Also — ’ Charlotte was dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief- ‘also, I prayed last night, because — because I didn’t know what to do — he told me not to tell, but last night it seemed I better — I don’t know ... ’

Agnes took milk from her fridge. Charlotte was silent again.

‘What is it?’ Agnes said.

‘Just that he was — he said he was meeting someone — ’

‘Billy Keenan?’

Charlotte nodded. ‘How did you know?’

‘When Janet mentioned his name — there was something about your reaction, that’s all.’

‘He said he was going to meet him.’ Charlotte took the mug of tea Agnes handed her.

‘Mark was going to meet Billy?’

‘On the night he died. I phoned him the day before, he couldn’t see me that night, he said he was meeting Billy, they were going up to the moors.’

‘Were they friends?’

‘Not really. That’s why I remembered. David said — ’

‘Who’s David?’

‘Mark’s brother. He’s an artist. He said there were bad feelings between the families that went back years.’

‘Why should Mark meet him?’

‘I don’t know. They were doing this sports club thing at the community centre, they were both trying to get that off the ground, so maybe they were getting on better.’ ‘Charlotte, shouldn’t you tell the police?’

‘They know. David told me. I spoke to him yesterday. He said they were questioning Billy because Mark was seen getting into his car that night.’

‘Oh. Right.’ Agnes sipped her tea.

‘And you see, Mark needed a lift up to the moors because someone said they’d seen someone behaving suspiciously around the ledge, up on Morton’s Crag.’

‘Suspiciously?’

‘The peregrines. People try and take the eggs, apparently. They lay rope over the ledge before spring, so then they can move in quickly when the eggs are laid. Mark told me. He’d been tipped off and he was in a hurry to get up there before dark, and according to David it was Billy who offered him a lift.’

‘Charlotte, you shouldn’t feel burdened by all this. If the police already know — ’

Charlotte put down her mug and turned to Agnes. ‘I want to see him.’

*

At eight o’clock that evening, Agnes walked into a high-ceilinged, white-walled, marble-floored space and scanned the tables for Athena. Her eye was caught by a scarlet-sleeved arm, waving madly.

‘Sweetie! Over here.’

Agnes bent to kiss her friend. ‘You smell different. What happened to the Miss Dior?’ she said, as the waiter took her coat.

‘Oh, no no no, far too old-fashioned. I’m wearing Calvin Klein now, it’s what all the young people are wearing, poppet. I decided that after all these years, it was time to get younger again. And Nic gave it to me, so who am I to argue?’

‘Where is he?’

‘Oh, darling, it’s such a shame, he had to stay in London after all, his son, you know, Ben, needed to stay over at the flat, and we thought it was best if they caught up, you know, bonded over beer and Chelsea — or is it that other one, Dagenham or something, it’s all lost on me, Pm afraid.’

‘So, let loose in Leeds, Athena, what are you going to do?’

Athena sighed theatrically and looked at the menu. ‘I mean, Leeds, sweetie, of all places. Hardly the place for a romantic adventure. Gosh, look at this menu, proper food. Mmm, I fancy the red mullet terrine myself. What was I saying?’

‘You were musing on the possibility of a romantic adventure.’

‘The funny thing is, darling, it’s just not what I want. Not any more. Nic’s so sweet and lovely and — and real, somehow. So surprising.’

‘So your morals have got older and your perfume’s got younger.’

Athena giggled. ‘Something like that. Heavens, guinea fowl too - I had no idea civilisation extended this far north.’

‘How long are you staying?’

‘Oh, just till tomorrow, we’re meeting Gavin, he owns the gallery. But we’ll be back.’

The waitress appeared, and they gave her their order.

‘This really isn’t too bad.’ Athena surveyed the restaurant. ‘Maybe you shouldn’t feel too exiled after all.’

‘Exile isn’t just about restaurants,’ Agnes sighed.

‘No. You’re right.’ Athena sipped her wine, then frowned. ‘What is it about, then?’

‘I’m not sure. We’re both exiles, you and me.’

‘Yes, but it’s OK.’

‘It’s OK in London. But here — you see, there’s a difference between being an exile and being someone who doesn’t belong. Yesterday I saw someone I hadn’t seen for years, and it made me realise — ’

‘Who?’

‘He’s called James. He was a friend of my father, a business associate. He lives near Ilkley. And it was terribly strange to be with someone who’s known me since I was little. I kept wanting to cry. It was such a relief. And then I went back to the school and it seemed like a pretence again.’

‘Are you seeing him again?’

‘He phoned this morning. He’s invited me to supper on Wednesday.’

‘The father you never had.’

‘Athena, really.’

‘Funny I’ve never noticed this before in you, this need to be looked after.’

‘In London there’s you. And Julius. And the community’s different there, they leave me alone.’

Athena poured herself more wine. ‘So it’s a need to escape, then? They’ll let you out soon, won’t they? Don’t you get time off for good behaviour?’

‘But it’s not as if I could go, not now. You see, one of my girls was seeing this young man, secretly, and he was found dead on the moors, and as you can imagine, she’s in a terrible state. And at the same time, there’s an art teacher, and I think it’s her father who employed this young man, and she’s vanished. And if she is an Allbright Baines then I seem to be the only one who’s saying so, apart from our chaplain, Father Elias, who definitely knows more than he’s letting on — what’s so funny, Athena?’

‘Same old Agnes, then.’

‘No really, it’s serious — you must see, Athena, that I have to find out what’s going on.’

‘Oh, absolutely, sweetie. Yes, the terrine for me, and — snails? You never said you were having snails.’

The waitress placed an exquisite arrangement of shells and butter in front of Agnes.

‘I so rarely see civilisation, you see, Athena. I expect they had them flown in from Bourgogne, especially. Which is odd as they’re two a penny up on the moors. You can crunch them underfoot up there.’

*

Agnes dropped Athena at her hotel, then joined the Leeds ring road towards Bradford. She watched her windscreen wipers splash against the rain, and thought about Athena returning to London the next day, back to real life. She envied her.

At St Catherine’s she found Leonora, sitting on the wall by the school gates. Agnes got out of her car and sighed. ‘Leonora, what did I say about suitcases?’ Leonora shrugged. ‘It’s only a few things.’

‘It’s hardly the weather for it.’

‘I like the rain.’

They looked at the night sky, at the muted edges of the clouds. ‘If you leave it a few days,’ Agnes said, ‘I might just come with you.’

Leonora looked down at Agnes and smiled. She jumped down from the wall, and Agnes took her suitcase, and they walked back along the drive towards the school.

*

‘But the girl is tormented by not knowing,’ Agnes protested on the phone next morning. ‘No, of course they weren’t married, but for Heaven’s sake, she loved him, he was her boyfriend, and now he’s been killed and she can’t begin to grieve until she’s seen him ... what do you mean, only next of kin? No, I can see it’s not — no, of course I don’t think it’s a circus ... right. Goodbye.’

Agnes hung up. She stared out of her window. She sighed, got up and went out of the school, across the courtyard, to Elias’s flat, and knocked on the door.

‘You’ve got to help,’ she said as he opened the door. ‘Charlotte wants to see the body, she’s in a terrible state, I’ve been on the phone all morning, they all say no. Anyone would think I was suggesting bringing a coach party. It can’t be any worse than what she’s imagining, can it?’

Elias stood in the doorway. ‘No, it can’t. Have you got the number?’

Agnes handed him a piece of paper.

‘Leave it with me,’ he said.

*

They sat in the back of the car, Charlotte and Elias, as Agnes drove them to the mortuary. No one spoke.

They trooped silently into the building, and were greeted by a young woman who led them along gleaming corridors. She took them through a swing door and asked them to wait.

Charlotte turned her fingers round and round in her hair. Elias ambled to the window as if he knew the room. Then the young woman came back and held the door for them to go through. Elias glanced at Agnes, then accompanied Charlotte through the door. Agnes was left, waiting.

She sat on a beige plastic chair and looked around her. It seemed to be a workroom. There were tables in one corner, and shelves above them, cluttered with glass jars, plastic bags, cardboard boxes. Agnes wandered over to them, wondering whether it was unusual for people to see the bodies of their loved ones, surprised that no special place was provided for grieving relatives.

She saw a label on one of the boxes. ‘Mark Snaith’, it said. She took it down and opened it. It contained a pair of muddy binoculars, a rather filthy handkerchief, a Biro, a bus ticket. A dry-cleaning ticket for a garment that Mark would never see again. A dentist’s card with an appointment time written on it. A life cut short, Agnes thought. A young man fully expecting to collect his dry cleaning, go to his dentist — and now there is no Mark Snaith. Agnes stared at the objects, these Things Left Behind. It was difficult to grasp, this sudden nonexistence. There was a piece of white card at the bottom, and she picked it out.

‘Mr and Mrs A. Turnbull’, she saw printed on it in curly script, ‘request the pleasure of your company on Tuesday, 5th March, at 7.30 p.m., for a private viewing of artworks by David Snaith.’ There was an address.

Tuesday, Agnes thought. She scribbled down the address and phone number, replaced the card in the box and put it back on the shelf. She went and stared out of the window, as the door opened and Elias was there, supporting Charlotte who was near to collapse. Agnes ran to help him. Charlotte struggled against them both, making a low moaning noise in her throat, grabbing the doorhandle as if trying to go back, trying to return to Mark, fighting Elias and Agnes as they propelled her back to the corridor.

‘No, no,’ Charlotte was crying, as they left the building. Elias was murmuring to her.

Agnes unlocked the car. ‘He’s dead,’ she heard him say.

*

They led her to Agnes’s room. In the car she’d quietened, and now sat, passively, on Agnes’s bed.

‘She shouldn’t be alone,’ Elias said.

‘She can sleep here.’ Agnes tidied some books from her floor. ‘I can get a spare mattress, if you’ll help me carry it.’

They went out into the corridor. ‘Do you think we did the right thing?’ Agnes asked him.

‘I’m sure we did.’

‘How did he look?’

‘Dead.’

Agnes glanced at him. ‘Did he look awful?’

‘No, just dead.’

‘His eyes — ’

‘They’d closed the lids. It was OK.’

‘She seems horror-stricken.’

‘It’s the finality of it, that’s all. She’s had to say goodbye. It’s tough.’

I hope you’re right, Agnes thought, you with your certainties, your knowledge of death. They carried the mattress back. Charlotte was sitting exactly where they’d left her.

*

That night Charlotte stirred and murmured in her sleep. Once she cried out Mark’s name. Agnes watched her settle back into sleep, wondering what demons were haunting her dreams. She thought about Elia