Today's Reading

The baby in the car seat stirred and Vera was brought back to the present. The heating in the Land Rover had never been very effective and she was starting to feel cold. She turned into the drive. The snow was churned by tyre tracks; she hoped that didn't mean her smart relatives had left the house. She felt strangely anxious about seeing them again, but they would have a phone and the child's mother might have made her way here. It was the closest form of habitation to the abandoned car. Besides, Vera thought, if she could face murderers and rapists, she wasn't going to be intimidated by a few weak-chinned minor aristos.

There were more cars than she'd expected parked on the long drive. Some were covered with snow, so had been there for a while, others had clear windscreens. It seemed the Stanhopes had guests. Vera looked at the sleeping baby, lifted out the car seat and made her way to the house.

The sight was like something from a fairy tale. Magical. The flurry of snow had passed and there was moonlight, and a sky flecked with stars. A large cedar stood close to grand stone steps, which were lit from below. The tree had been decorated with hundreds of fairy lights, all white, all twinkling. The ground-floor curtains had been left open and Vera saw a huge Christmas tree, decorated completely in silver. A handful of people, most of them young or very well-preserved middle-aged and all grandly dressed, glasses in their hands, were gathered around an open fire. She checked her watch. Only seven o'clock. Too early in the evening for a party surely? A gathering before dinner perhaps. The house was big enough to accommodate all the guests and this branch of the family might be wealthy enough for lavish entertaining. She wouldn't know. Some of them had turned out for Hector's funeral but, since then, there'd been no contact. She paused for a moment, Cinderella looking in: the fifteen-year-old girl again, excluded. Suddenly aware of a different, more glamorous life which would never be hers.


When the doorbell rang, clanging and tuneless, Juliet couldn't think who might be there. Her guests had come early, freaked out by the weather forecast. Two couples had cancelled but six people had made the journey, each carefully chosen by Mark for their wealth and professional standing, and then the vicar and her husband for local colour. Had there been another invitation? Someone she'd forgotten? She felt a return of the panic that had been lingering all day, fended off in the last hour by supermarket champagne and a sense that things hadn't turned out as badly as she'd feared. Earlier, the day had been a bit of a nightmare, to be honest, because people had started to arrive before she was ready for them, anxious about the forecast of snow. Full of apologies: 'So sorry, darling! Don't mind us, we won't get in the way.' But wanting to be made comfortable, to be given tea, obviously shocked that the bedrooms were so cold.

They managed to heat the reception rooms downstairs—wood from the estate was free and the ancient boiler just about managed to work down there—but upstairs it was fucking Arctic. That was what Mark said, laughing it off, because the whole lord-of-the-manor thing was still a novelty to him; in her more depressed moments it occurred to Juliet that this stately pile had been a major influence on his proposal of marriage three years before. She could tell, though, that there were times when he thought longingly of his single life, the smart apartment, which he still held on to, on Newcastle's quayside, his work at the Live Theatre, the easy access to bars and good restaurants. She'd loved Mark so much when they'd married. Now the relationship seemed complex and fraught, and she wasn't sure how they'd move forward. She thought that somehow, she'd failed him.

When the doorbell went, she excused herself from her guests and made her way into the hall. Dorothy would be up to her ears preparing dinner and her mother Harriet, deep in conversation with Jane, the priest from the village, still seemed to believe that they had staff to respond. Harriet had blossomed after her husband's death, taken to the solo role of lady of the manor with aplomb and seemed hardly to miss Crispin at all. Away from the fire, the hall felt chill. Juliet thought again about the bedrooms and made a mental note to remind Dorothy about hot-water bottles. Juliet hoped that their city friends might see them, and the electric blankets she'd put on some of the beds, as charming, a part of the country-house experience. Dorothy was brilliant and almost certain to remember, but it was the small details that counted. This was about business more than friendship.

Juliet opened the door and felt a blast of icy air. The snow had stopped and it had started to freeze. There was a moon and the park looked glorious, a fairy-tale setting with the circle of black forest as a backdrop. She had a sudden moment of cold exhilaration, of love for the place. After all, Mark was right: this effort was worthwhile. On the doorstep was a woman. Definitely not a late-arriving friend who'd been forgotten. This woman was large and shabby. She wore wellingtons and a knitted hat. She reminded Juliet of the homeless people she encountered occasionally outside Newcastle Central station, wrapped in threadbare blankets, begging. Then there was a flash of recognition. She remembered a funeral. Her great-uncle Hector's funeral. Hector, her grandfather's younger brother, a mythical black sheep of whom stories had been told in whispers when she was growing up. It had been a bleak, rainy day and she'd been surrounded by strangers. She'd been sent along to represent their side of the family, because in death Hector could be forgiven. He would no longer be around to cause trouble.

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