“Where the hell are we?”
Will and Hannah’s car slammed to a halt at a crossroads, forcing the moving van to brake sharply behind them.
Hannah looked up from the map and peered ahead. No signposts, for the fifth time today. She made an apologetic gesture out the window to the driver, and ducked back before he could lock eyes with her.
“Weren’t we here a minute ago?” Will said, grabbing the map from her.
“The driver looks like his head is going to blow off,” she said.
“Screw him.” Will’s hair fell forward, obscuring his face, as he checked the map. “Why isn’t it on the GPS? What’s the point of having a fucking GPS if it doesn’t have tiny places on it?”
She said nothing. Instead she tried to spot landmarks to help him. It was difficult. The bare branches of the trees that lined this tiny sliver of Suffolk lane clasped in the middle like
witches’ nails, blocking out much of the late-afternoon March light. It didn’t help, either, that through the gaps the land beyond was featureless. Flat mud, spreading aimlessly. She recalled their last visit, nearly six months ago. The sky had been chalk-blue. Heavy green boughs waving in the late-summer breeze. A pale golden shimmer across the fields.
How long was it again till summer? She counted the months.
Will tapped the dashboard. “Right, so we came left from Thurrup, right at Snadesdon and . . .”
Hannah kept her mouth shut. Half an hour ago, old, childish Will had appeared. She would wait for grown-up Will to return. She’d told Barbara about this tactic when they’d had to describe how they resolved their arguments. Barbara had declared herself impressed by Hannah’s strategy.
Will threw the map back on her lap. “Let’s try right.”
“Didn’t we do that last time?”
He banged the steering wheel. “What do you want me to do, Han?”
Just stop stressing out, and hurry up, she wanted to say, but didn’t.
This time, however, for no obvious reason, turning right and then left worked. Ten minutes and two more pin-narrow Suffolk lanes later, a faded sign saying TORNLEY appeared out of the dusk, shortly before a terrace of three traditional pink cottages.
Will shot Hannah a conciliatory smile, but she was too excited to respond. This was it.
Bending forward, she tried to catch glimpses through the bare branches as Will took the last bend—although, if the countryside looked this different in winter, what on earth would the house look like?
She steeled herself.
A snatch of chimney appeared first, through bristles of hedge. Then a redbrick Victorian gable. And then it was rushing towards them. Tornley Hall, standing side-on to the road as if it had been abandoned for so long it had given up waiting for new owners and had turned away to stare wistfully at something in the distance.
Hannah fell very still.
Actually, it did look a bit different.
She tried to refocus her mind on a sight that was both familiar and unexpected. She realized, surprised, that the facade of the house had altered dramatically in her head during the long wait to exchange contracts since their last viewing: it had widened and softened and become more beautiful. The reality was thinner and taller. Shabbier, too. The windows were filthy from the long winter, and there was a rash of moss across the roof tiles, two of which were missing.
Quickly she reminded herself of the surveyor’s report. “Tornley Hall is a solid house in need of a lot of love.” As long as it looked presentable to Barbara in two weeks’ time—or, more precisely, thirteen and a half days—that’s all that mattered.
Will pulled over by the wooden five-bar gate.
The lane behind was empty.
“Where are they?” Hannah asked.
“Probably stuck behind that lad in the tractor who pulled out after us.”
“Oh, God, they hate us.”
Will banged the steering wheel again, but more softly. “I used to know these fucking roads like the back of my hand. . . .”
His Salford accent always returned when he was tired. Fookin’ roads. On days like these, being responsible and dependable in a crisis always seemed to drain every ounce of energy Will had.
She knew a hug would revive him. So she did her best and grasped his left hand in her lap.
“What?” Will said.
“Go on then.”
“Describe the back of your hand.”
Will made an unamused face at her, and she replaced his hand firmly on the wheel. To be sure it stayed there, she opened her door. “I’ll get the gate.”
“Don’t go far. We might need your hostile-environment training when they get here.”
She held up her fists like a boxer, then jumped out, relieved. Grown-up Will was back, making jokes to ease the tension.
She shivered. It must be five degrees colder in Suffolk than it had been in London this morning. Hugging her coat to her, she peered over the gate. The garden was pretty unrecognizable, too. The grand oak trees that lined the driveway on their previous visits now appeared naked and undignified, as if someone had stolen their bath towels. Their leaves lay long discarded on the gravel in rotting heaps. Up ahead, the freshly trimmed side lawn from last summer was a sea of weeds.
An acrid smell drifted into Hannah’s nostrils. Below her lay something tiny and dead, its guts claret-red and bursting out. A mouse or a bird. She kicked it into the bushes, then wiped her boot on the grass.
OK. Well, this was unexpected. She hadn’t even thought about the garden. Would two weeks be enough to get Tornley Hall ready, inside and out?
Hannah lifted the gate catch.
As she walked forward, the gate rebounded, trapping her hand.
The wood was swollen and threaded with tiny cracks. Instead of sanding and fixing it, someone had clearly sloshed tarry black paint over it. Now it was warped. It no longer fit in the space between the posts.
There was a roar behind her and the moving van shot round the bend, coming to an abrupt halt, bumper-to-bumper with Will.
Hannah’s own patience slipped. She had waited too long. The gate was one obstacle too many today.
She kicked the bottom, hard. The gate battered into the bushes. She waved both vehicles through, avoiding the van driver’s glare, then shut the gate and forced the latch down.
Suddenly, she realized she was still standing in the road.
“Han?” a shout came. Will had got out of their car and was retrieving the keys his cousin Laurie had left under the plant pot by the front door. “What are you doing?”
A thought came to her from nowhere. Will looked ridiculous out here. In his red skinny T-shirt and jeans, his curly musician hair and leather wristband, he looked more like a member of an indie band on his way to Latitude Festival, not the owner of this big country house.
Hannah lifted the latch again, wondering why she’d shut the gate before entering. Then, as she closed it behind her, she knew.
She had dreamed about Tornley Hall every night for eight months. The dream had kept her going. The minute she crossed the threshold, reality would be waiting to pounce again.
• • •
Three minutes later Hannah’s next impressions of Tornley Hall did nothing to reassure her. The implications of buying a house
that had stood empty for two and a half years were becoming quickly apparent. After its third winter unoccupied, and with the previous owners’ furniture removed just yesterday, the inner hall was as unrecognizable as the garden. There was a strange odor, too: an unpalatable mixture of antiseptic, a sickly chemical flower scent, and, most unpleasant of all, foot rot.
“Kitchen’s in the back, thanks,” Hannah said to the moving men, averting her eyes from the ghostly picture-frame marks and hairline plaster cracks that crisscrossed the walls. Now that the Horseborrows’ vast Oriental tapestry had been removed, the absence of a yard-long chunk of picture rail had been revealed.
Grown-up Will had disappeared again. Childish Will was back with a vengeance and appeared to have gone into shock. The last few days had been so hectic, with working late in the studio, and packing up and cleaning the London flat, that he hadn’t shaved. The three-day stubble made his naturally tan skin look sallow.
“We knew it would look like crap when everything was gone,” she said.
Will’s pissed-off expression told her that was an understatement.
She tried again. “Remember when we moved into the flat and there was that massive burn hole in the carpet that they’d hidden with a rug?”
Giving up, she tried the sitting-room door. Houses always looked bad when you moved in. There was no time to sulk. They had too much to do.
The handle rattled uselessly in her hand.
“This is locked. Will, can you see a key?”
They checked on the windowsills, in the understairs toilet,
and in the side alcove with the stained glass window at the back of the hall.
Will tried the door opposite. “Study’s locked, too.”
“Where do you want this?” asked a moving man, heaving a sofa through the front door with his partner.
“Just here, please, for the moment.” Hannah waited till the men had dumped it—a little unceremoniously, she thought—then whispered to Will, “If we don’t find the keys, they’ll leave everything in the hall.”
That cheered him up.
Hannah peered through the sitting-room keyhole and saw nothing but black. She tried to look in from the garden, but the shutters were tightly closed on the three tall picture windows.
“I’ll go,” Will said, grit in his voice.
“I’ll try the kitchen,” she said, trying to create the illusion of teamwork between the two of them—for herself, as much as for the smirking moving men.
The kitchen stopped her in her tracks.
This room had taken center stage in her dreams since last summer. It ran along the back of the house, and also had picture windows overlooking the small back garden. On their previous visits, rails of shiny French copper pans had hung from the ceiling, and a grand pine dresser decorated with bright crockery had added cheer to the room. Flower watercolors and landscape oils had hung on the walls, gingham curtains at the windows. Cleared of these homely charms, the dank, bottle-green walls emerged like ghouls.
“God, they really took everything,” she said.
Will walked in. “Clue’s in the name.”
“Funny. No luck?”
When the search around the old, built-in cupboards proved fruitless, too, they tried the little scullery at the far end.
“Oh, good. They remembered to leave it,” Hannah said, opening a tall, old-fashioned fridge. “And look what Laurie’s left. That’s nice,” she said, unconvinced. On a shelf was a bowl of bright-green apples, a pint of milk, cheese, a sliced loaf, spread, a large tray of pasta bake bobbled with black olives, and a bottle of cava.
“Coffee table?” came a shout.
“Hall . . .” Will called back curtly. Hannah shot him a look. “. . . Please.”
“I’ll see if I can catch Brian.”
Their estate agent’s phone, predictably, went to voice mail. Having managed to offload the keys onto Laurie on his way to the airport this morning, he’d be halfway to his brother’s wedding in Italy by now. She turned and saw Will staring at the high Victorian wall ten yards behind the kitchen window. His hands were clasped behind his head.
“What?” Hannah asked, not really wanting an answer.
She tried to think of something to humor him, then gave up. This was not the time. The balance between them was too off-kilter, like the old brass scales that had sat on the counter here on their previous house viewings with Brian. There would be plenty of time to fix things later. What mattered was that they were finally in.
The countdown had started.
Two weeks—or thirteen and a half days—to go.
Hannah pulled an A4 whiteboard and a red marker from her bag. Two-week Countdown! was written at the top. Underneath was a list.
Day 14: Saturday, MOVING DAY, the first entry said.
She crossed it out. That was one done, at least. She considered the entry for tomorrow. Day 13: Sunday, PAINT SITTING ROOM.
Not without the keys, they couldn’t.
Hannah crossed out SITTING ROOM and replaced it with KITCHEN. They had to be practical. She scanned the putrid walls and wondered if needing only one day was optimistic. A quick glance through the list of everything else they had to do told her it would have to suffice. They didn’t have a choice. They’d just have to do the best job they could. She started to turn.
“OK, Will? So I was thinking that we should start on the kitch—”
Will had left the room so quietly she hadn’t heard him go.
• • •
Forty-five minutes later, gravel shot up as the moving men hurtled back to London, clearly eager to escape this rural hellhole with its tight horse-cart lanes and slow tractor drivers.
“Right,” Hannah said, shutting the front door. The hall was packed with the sitting-room and study furniture, including their sofas, four sets of Will’s record shelves, and forty boxes of his vinyl. “Shall we get the bed made up first, and put up the bedroom curtains?”
Will surveyed their pile of belongings, faint menace in his eyes.
She knew if she put her arms round him he would soften; lean into her, and cheer up.
Instead, she picked up a rogue box of clothes to take upstairs.
Will took his jacket from the banister. “When I get back.”
“Snadesdon. I’m going to get some beer and milk, before the shop shuts.”
“But Laurie’s left us a pint—and some cava.”
Will opened the door. “We’ll need more milk for tomorrow. You have the cava—I fancy a beer.”
Beer. She said nothing. Tonight wasn’t the night to argue about it. “Want me to come?”
His expression softened a little. “No. Why don’t you see if the oven works, and put on that food that Laurie left? I won’t be long.”
Will leaned towards her. The movement was so unexpected Hannah recoiled.
“It was just a kiss, Han.”
She touched his arm. “Sorry. I know. I’m just tired.”
“OK. Right. I’ll be back in half an hour. If . . .”
“. . . you don’t get lost.”
“Good luck.” She waited for him to smile, but he didn’t.
Will went to the car. Music pounded as the engine started, and he drove away.
Hannah wandered out to the garden, wincing at the pot of saccharine-sweet pink polyanthus that Laurie had left on the doorstep. They’d have to keep them, to be polite.
Will’s red rear lights streaked along the hedge, then disappeared up the lane. Why couldn’t he just be patient?
Hannah sniffed. The air was so fresh.
She took a deep breath, not quite believing they were finally here.
Phase one completed. Phase two to begin tomorrow.
Tall weeds dipped and danced in the breeze along the edge of the front lawn before disappearing into the black night. How on earth would they cut these back in time for Barbara’s visit?
Hannah inhaled again, smelling rotting leaves and damp earth nurturing the first blossoms of spring. She stretched her arms up, to ease off the ache from moving boxes.
The temperature was dropping again, but the breeze was pleasant. She felt it reviving her after their long day. Hannah looked around. The depth of the darkness was astounding. It was that thick, berry blackness that you didn’t see in the city. Through the bare trees that bordered the far end of the garden she saw the distant glow of half a dozen houses and farms in Tornley. To her left she made out the slope-roofed garage that would become Will’s studio one day.
His mood had been difficult today. She reminded herself that he had worked all week and was exhausted. He was probably dreading the commute back to London on Monday, too. At least one of them didn’t have to worry about work anymore. She could manage the decoration of Tornley Hall and just give him jobs to do in the evenings. That should take some pressure off.
Hannah decided to take Will over to the garage after dinner. It might encourage him to look beyond the cracks—to the future, and what this house would bring to their lives.
She let her head fall back and shut her eyes. This was idyllic. No sirens or buses; no voices from the fried-chicken shop on
the corner; no drum and bass from passing cars, or taxi engines running outside the pub.
She swayed a little, and picked out the distant bray of an animal and a soft hiss, and wondered fancifully if it might come from the sea, across the marshes.
To her left, there was a rustle in the bushes.
Hannah opened her eyes.
There was a second rustle, this time farther away.
“Hello?” she said, feeling silly. The nearest property must be fifty yards behind the high wall at the rear of the kitchen.
Hannah scanned the darkness. The rustling stopped. A rabbit, or a fox, probably. That would be part of the joy of this place. Nature right on their doorstep.
A stronger, colder wind buffeted the tall weeds. She picked one and ran its spiky stem through her fingers. Their schedule for Barbara coming was already tight. Only thirteen days from tomorrow to finish the whole house. Tidying the garden would steal at least one of those days, now.
Hannah imagined seeing this scruffy lawn through Barbara’s eyes.
You’ve taken on an awful lot here, Hannah. Maybe we should wait another few months?
She felt a flutter of panic and shook her head.
No. Not a single month more. She couldn’t bear it.
Hannah stamped her feet to shake off the day’s fatigue. Thinking about it, Day 14 wasn’t actually over yet.
She returned inside, picked up her marker, thought for a moment, then rewrote the first entry. Day 14: Saturday, MOVING DAY/START KITCHEN.
She found a box in the hall, and went to rip it open.
Just before she did so, however, she rattled the sitting-room door handle again, in case it was just stiff. Nothing happened.
This was so annoying. She put her nose to the keyhole and sniffed.
That was weird. She could swear she smelled petrol.