Well Head Cottage – 18

Jean tossed and turned most of the night. The pathetic pleading by the young woman in the garden, her hands reaching for the cat, and then the sudden flight across the field when Lipscow had arrived, were a puzzle that wouldn’t leave her alone. There was more to this than just a mistake over a stray cat.

She surprised Lesley the next morning by turning down the suggestion of a trip to Conway to meet Carl from the train. She used the excuse of a deadline for her new novel. The events of the last few days had kept her from her work, she said. Once Carl arrived she wanted to make the most of their time together and so, she would stay at home and write. She waved Lesley off in the car just after ten.

Once she was sure that there was to be no sudden return for a forgotten umbrella or mobile phone, she pulled on her walking shoes and jacket, and set out for Lipscow’s farm.

As she walked the quiet roads, and crossed the night damp fields, Jean rehearsed excuses and reasons for the different scenarios. If Stanley Lipscow was there she would tell him that she had been worried about the woman and wanted to make sure she had arrived home safely. He would probably be annoyed and antagonistic, but she wasn’t going to let him intimidate her. What could he do realistically anyway? Yes, he could shout and threaten but she was perfectly able to deal with any amount of bluster. He would have to be polite when all she was doing was showing concern.

If he wasn’t there it would present different problems. The woman was so very nervy, she might well not answer the door and if that was the case there was little that Jean could do. At least if she saw her at the window she would know that she was safe. Perhaps she could call to see Doris Smart later and find out if she knew anything about the woman at the other farm. She nodded to herself, yes. It was nosy but then she made no pretence, she was nosy. She was interested in other people, in lives and she was empathetic and felt deep down the sadness that had been wrapped about the young woman last night.

There was no sign of the farmer, his car was not parked in the yard, but that was no guarantee that he was away. The dog wasn’t there. The shop was dark and closed. Jean opened the creaking gate and stepped along the narrow path to the house. She knocked on the door and stepped back to peer at the upstairs window. There was no sign of life.

She knocked again.

There was birdsong, the shushing of a breeze in the tops of the trees and just one car passed, the tires singing on the damp tarmac. Jean watched it as it pulled away and round the bend. She walked back to the gate and turned to skim her eyes over the front of the house. The curtains downstairs were open, but the bedroom ones were pulled tight. There was no-one home. There was nothing further for her to do here. She would go back to Well Head Cottage, mind her own business and spend the last couple of days with her family.

The flash of movement was so quick as to be almost subliminal.

From the back of the big barn she had seen movement. It was nothing to do with her. It was possibly just a piece of rubbish moving about in the wind. The farm was messy and untidy. Jean turned away. She turned back.

She pushed open the big metal gate, it wasn’t locked, hanging slightly ajar. It was none of her business, but she knew she was going to look. There had been no-one in the house, maybe the woman was out here, they could have a quick talk, just to make sure she was alright.

The ground was damp and muddy, and she had to skirt the middle of the yard, dirty puddles. She kept to the side against the barn. It was a large building and by the time she reached the back corner she was quite a way from the road. She felt a quiver of unease, she was committed now, and remembered vividly what had happened when Lipscow had found her in his garden, she was being stupid. She kept on.

At the end the vague path took her along the back wall. There was yet more rubbish, piles of tyres, wooden boxes, and plastic bags. No sign of the woman. She should go back. She should mind her own business and play safe.

She carried on.

There was another smaller building here. Not visible from the road and at the other side of a post and wire fence. The door hung open. Jean gripped the top wire and leaned forward. There was a dim light inside and there came the sound of movement. The scrape of something across a dirt floor. The door wagged, disturbed by movement inside the hut.

Jean pulled a tyre towards the fence to lift her a little higher, she threw her leg over the top, pushing down with her hands she swung the other leg over. Now she truly was trespassing. If Lipscow came back there would be no excuses.

She walked nearer to the hut. She could hear the voice now. The woman muttering quietly.

Jean tiptoed nearer, crept towards the perspex window.

She needed to stand on tiptoe to look inside.

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Well Head Cottage – 17

The intruder stepped back one pace, flicked her head back and forth. Her breath came quickly, she clasped her hands nervously in front of her, the fingers wringing and twisting. Jean walked forward a little way, pulling the door closed behind her. She held out a hand, as you would when trying to calm a skittish horse, spoke, quietly, “Hello. I’m Jean. Did you need something?”

A quick glance behind, another step backwards from the other woman. Then she raised her hand, pointed towards the bar of light shining through the edge of the kitchen door. Jean glanced backwards, turned again to the stranger, her head tipped to one side, questioning. She shrugged her shoulders. The whisper was so low and quiet that Jean had to lean forward to hear it.

“My cat. My cat has gone into your house.”

“Has it?” Jean had seen Slumpy from the upstairs room and he had certainly seemed jumpy, nervy. Had there been another cat? One that had climbed through the window and was even now helping himself to biscuits?

She took another couple of steps into the darkness. “When? How do you know he’s in there?” She gestured behind her with a waved hand.

“I saw him, just now. He was playing in the grass and now he’s gone in there.”

It was like speaking to a child, though the woman was obviously an adult and her voice was mature the delivery of speech was juvenile, innocent somehow.

Jean smiled and shook her head. “No, no that was Slumpy. That was my cat. I was watching him.”

There was a snort of air and then the young woman shook her head back and forth, “No, no, that was Goldie. He’s mine. He was a present. I didn’t know where he’d gone. I had to come and look for him.” She nodded vigorously, “Yes, mine. Goldie,” she pointed again to the door, “In your house. Can you get him for me please? I have to go home.”

Jean had to give this person the benefit of the doubt, she seemed so very sure. “Come on then. Come in. My cat is in there, Slumpy. Maybe they’re friends?” She knew she was humouring the woman, it was instinctive.

By now Lesley had opened the door and stood just inside the kitchen, Slumpy held in her arms, the light shining behind her. The young woman stretched out a hand, the index finger pointing. “Goldie, there’s Goldie.”

Jean shook her head, “No, that’s Slumpy, he’s my cat. He lives with me, at my own house.”

“He’s my present. He was given to me.” The young woman’s voice had risen, a sense of hysteria building, she walked forward both arms reaching. Jean moved to intercept her. The cat had leapt from Lesley’s arms and disappeared into the room.  There was a strange atmosphere, Jean knew, of course she did, who the cat belonged to, Lesley knew without a doubt but here was this woman, insistent, obviously convinced that things were not that way at all. Lesley spoke. “I’m sorry love, you’ve made a mistake. You need to go now. It’s late, you should get off home.”

There was a small whisper in response, “Mine. He’s mine. Stanley gave him to me.” And with that she lowered her face and began to cry.

“Oh, I see what has happened, I understand I think.” As she spoke Jean walked nearer to the woman and reached to touch her arm. “Stanley, do you mean Stanley Lipscow.”

There was no response. She carried on. “I think what has happened is that Stanley, Mr Lipscow thought Slumpy was a stray. He wasn’t. He went too far, probably got lost, but he was never a stray, he is mine. No, this has been a mistake.” The woman was sobbing louder now and murmuring over and over “Goldie, Goldie.” It was pitiful. Jean’s heart was torn. She tried to calm the situation, offer some consolation.

“I’ll bet if you tell Stanley what happened he can find you another cat. One just as nice as this one. A kitten, that’s best. You can have a kitten so that it will be yours completely, not like taking a grown cat. You should ask him. But, really, Slumpy is mine.”

They heard the car, they saw the flash of headlights lighting the shrubs and trees, the screech of brakes, the slam of a door. The distraught stranger turned as the bulky figure of Stanley Lipscow appeared at the end of the drive. They expected that she would run to him. Mentally Jean prepared to do battle, to fight her corner in the face of both of them but, before any of that could happen, the woman gave a small scream, little more than a syllable of shock, and pushed through the bushes beside the path and tore away across the field.

Stanley Lipscow took a few steps into the garden, his eyes were dark flashes in the moonlight. He stared for a moment at Jean and Lesley standing beside the half open door. He turned to peer across the shadowed field from where they could make out the dull thud of feet on the shorn grass. He threw his hands into the air, spun on his heels, and ran back to his car. Moments later they heard the engine, the squeal of brakes as he drove backwards and forwards in the lane executing a three-point turn, and then watched as the bouncing beams of his headlights lit the trees and walls around them. In moments he had gone and there was nothing but the quiet of the country night and the faint sound of the television in the living room.

Lesley spoke first, “What the hell was all that about?”

Jean shook her head slowly, “I don’t know but it was terribly sad, sad and really rather frightening. And who is that. His wife is supposed to be away somewhere, and it certainly wasn’t his daughter.”

Lesley ignored the question, “Bloody hell, what on earth is going on here. This used to be a quiet little holiday place, it’s like a sodding nut house these days. The sooner we get out of here the better. Roll on the weekend.” And with these final words she ushered her sister into the house, slammed the door and stomped through the hall and into the warmth and cosiness of the living room.

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Well Head Cottage – 16

“I wonder who she is.” Jean had made coffee and, as she brought the two mugs into the living room, she murmured, more voicing her thoughts than asking a question. Nevertheless, Lesley gave a huge sigh.

“I don’t care. I truly don’t. The man’s unpleasant and I reckon possibly dangerous, so I just don’t care who is in his house. I really don’t want to talk about it anymore.” She leaned forward and picked up her mug and turned to gaze out of the window. Conversation over.

“But it’s odd though, I mean seeing her at the upstairs window like that, just looking out, just watching. It seemed a bit…”

There was no response, Jean knew that she was annoying her sister but she just couldn’t let it go. She waited a while, sipped the coffee, tried again. “Don’t you think it’s a bit sinister?”

Lesley spun to face her. “She could have flu. She could work from home and that’s her office. She could be the cleaner who is paranoid about spots on the windows. Christ Jean there is nothing here. Leave it.”

An uncomfortable silence fell, the mantel clock ticked, the kettle in the kitchen clicked and cooled, and they could hear Slumpy, crunching his biscuits. Then Lesley muttered into the silence, “Okay. Sorry. I didn’t mean to snap but you’re doing it again aren’t you. Look, I know you can’t help it, I know it’s why you write such great books, but really love, everything isn’t a mystery, and everyone isn’t a character. Truly, just let it go.”

“Yeah, I know. You’re right.”

Peace was restored. The early evening passed pleasurably and after dinner Jean went upstairs to prepare the extra guest room for Carl, the one in the roof. There were bunks in this room, the better to accommodate families in the cottage, and Jean smiled as she made up the top bunk.  Carl had always insisted on climbing up the little ladder. It wasn’t specifically for a child but maybe he was a bit big for it now. She hesitated for a while but, at the end of the day, he could change it to how he wanted. She looked at the narrow little bed from her perch on the top rung. She smiled and swung her legs up and over the edge and lay for a minute on the clean sheet. She twisted round to peer out of the tiny square window that was built into the gable end of the cottage. There was a wonderful view from this height, over the narrow river, the woods in the distance, and all the way to the mountains on the horizon. There were lights moving on the roads, tiny jewels in the darkness, and from here she could see the street lamps in the main street of the village. She had never seen the area from this angle before, it had never occurred to her to climb into this bed. She smiled again, no wonder Carl had liked it, an aery, a magical place for a little boy.

The shrubs in the hedge along the river moved, the movement caught her eye. The trees didn’t sway. As far as she could tell there was no wind. The long grass in the field beside the river didn’t ripple. There must be a creature down there. A fox maybe, a badger. She leaned closer, holding her breath in anticipation.

She saw Slumpy, he was rooting in the long grass, he raised his head, backed off a little way. The bushes moved again. Slumpy turned, ran towards the back door, stopped and turned back. Jean was fascinated, was this interaction between the wild and the tame. She shuffled further up the mattress, leaned closer to the small window.

The shape that she could see now, emerging into the garden, was odd, too big for a badger, too bulky for a fox. As it pushed through the hedge Slumpy turned and fled. Then the figure uncurled, arms outstretched, head wagging back and forth. She could hear her now, the gentle coaxing voice, the pleading. Dark hair lit by moonlight swayed with the movement. The pale face turned back and forth as the woman, for surely it was a woman, moved across the narrow side path and down towards the back of the house.

Jean scrambled from the bunk, jumped the last couple of feet and ran from the room shouting out to Lesley. “There’s someone in the garden, Les. Down by the back door.”

As Jean reached the top of the stairs, Lesley came around the corner into the hallway. “What the hell’s the matter now?”

Bounding down the steps, arms waving, Jean shouted to her sister to go into the kitchen, to find the cat. To see who it was, who was creeping about in the shrubs and sneaking down the path. Lesley stood, bewildered and immobile in the hall. Jean dashed past, grabbing up the walking stick from the corner, skidding into the kitchen, across the tiles. She flung open the back door, Slumpy flew inside, through the room and into the hall. The slight figure of a woman halted, just outside the circle of light cast by the lamp over the kitchen door. Frozen, silent.

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Well Head Cottage – 15

Jean tried, she tried to push all thoughts of angry farmers and shadows in windows away. She tried to relax and enjoy the pub lunch and the walk afterwards, but it was there in the back of her mind all the time. She didn’t see how there was anything more that she could do, or indeed that she should do. But, she just could not forget that fleeting glimpse of a pale face framed by dark hair. Added to that odd occurrence, was the cynical, casual cruelty in Farmer Lipscow’s behaviour, and then, the warning from Sandra had added to the unease.

She didn’t consciously intend to steer their hike into the lane that passed by Lipscow’s Farm, but she did. If Lesley had known the area better, she wouldn’t have got away with it. As they came near to the messy yard and the square dark house she felt her shoulder’s tense. Her eyes flashed back and forth and, as they tramped past, she peered at the upstairs window. The dog in the yard began to bark, ran to the gate, on guard, and as he did the curtains shifted and there she was, staring down at them. A young woman with long dark hair, her hand raised to hold back the drapes, her head tipped to one side. She followed them with her eyes.

Lesley didn’t realise what they had done until they were beyond the barns and fences. Jean drew in a breath, “That place we just past.” Lesley glanced back, nodded. “That was Lipscow’s farm.”

“What? You nutter. Why are we back here?”

Jean shrugged her shoulders, pulled a wry face, “It was playing on my mind. I needed to come back again. Calmly you know, just to set my mind at rest.”

“And, have you?”

“Well, actually. I can’t say I have.”

“Bloody Norah. This is turning into a farce. I really am sick of all this stuff.”

“I know, but…” She waited for a moment, anticipating Lesley’s reaction, the sigh, the roll of her eyes. Maybe she wouldn’t say anything. In the end she knew she must “I saw the woman. At the window, I saw her for sure.”

Lesley’s response was unexpected. “Cleaner.” Just the one word.

“What?”

“It’s probably a cleaner, somebody who helps on the farm, his sister, anything.”

With her calm, logical response she had taken the wind right out of Jean’s sails. There was no answer that wouldn’t sound silly, overly dramatic. Jean turned and walked a few paces along the grass verge, a figure rounded the bend ahead of them.

He was walking towards them, a few dozen metres away on the same side of the road. They both recognised him as soon as he came around the corner. Lesley strode out to catch up to her sister, grabbed hold of her hand.

It was intimidating, and it was embarrassing. He covered the ground between them in big strides, swinging a heavy stick at his side. Though Jean had trouble knowing where to direct her gaze, Stanley Lipscow had no such problem. He stared straight at them, a small smile curving the fleshy lips. Common courtesy would have seen him stepping into the road to let the two women pass safely but he showed no sign of changing direction. Nearer and nearer. Lesley, who had only spoken to him in the relative friendliness of the drive at Well Head Cottage, and had no first-hand knowledge of his arrogance, began to steer herself and Jean towards the edge of the verge.

Jean had something to prove.

There was no obvious right of way, but she wasn’t going to move for him. She pushed back at Lesley, refusing to move sideways. He had tilted his head now, fully aware of what was happening. He transferred the stick from the hand nearest to the road to the one that would be nearer to the women as they passed, if they stayed on the inside of him. The atmosphere was charged. It was ridiculous on this quiet country road, space and beauty all around them. Jean and Lesley paced onwards, Lesley had realised what her sister was doing and in response stepped nearer and nearer to the spiky shrubs in the hedgerow. Bramble vines reached and grabbed at her and she dipped and twisted her head to avoid the long branches of hawthorn and holly. Still he was in the middle of the verge.

There were now, just a few metres between them. Jean’s hands closed into fists, she could hear Lesley beside her tuttting and sucking in her breath as she dodged and ducked away from the shrubbery. They would have been better to have stepped into the road, carried on past and ignored him, but there was something challenging about his gait and posture that made Jean determined to hold her course.

He didn’t deviate. They couldn’t. Not now, not when they had made the silly, pointless gesture. And so, they stood before him on the damp grass. A small car sped past, throwing up a spray of dirty water just beyond them. It was a small mercy that they hadn’t met sooner. He came close, too close, invaded their space, and glowered over them. He sniffed. “Lost your cat again, have you?” The question was open mockery, delivered with a smirk, locking Jean easily into a trap of her own making. To deny looking for Slumpy would be childish and defensive, to lie and insinuate that the cat was still missing would, she knew, just lead her further into trouble. She felt Lesley beside her, pushing against her, trying to herd her towards the road, round the bulky farmer and away. It was the sensible thing to do. Jean locked her legs, planted her feet firmly in the grass. She tipped back her head, raised her eyes to meet Stanley Lipscow’s.

“No, he’s back where he belongs thank you. Have you stolen any more pets yourself?”

Lesley gasped.

In all honesty the words were out of her mouth before she had really thought it through. She heard him drawn in a breath, he stretched upwards, his face reddening. She saw the hand holding the stick lift, and braced herself to fend off a blow.

When he started to laugh she pulled back, blinking, felt Lesley gasp again and grab at her arm, pulling her away.

He said nothing more, turning he stepped onto the tarmac and, as he had in the garden he pushed past so close that she felt her clothes catch against him. She almost missed the whispered words, “You need to mind yourself you do? Keep your nose out of other people’s business.” He sniffed again and spat a gobbet of phlegm into the road and then strode away swinging the heavy stick.

Jean was unnerved, Lesley was pulling her forward, rushing across the uneven surface. Jean glanced back, Lipscow had stopped and turned just before he reached the gate to the yard and he stood watching them as they scurried away. He opened the gate and released the dog which bounded around him, excited to have the master home. He bent to pat it, his face still turned towards the two women, his expression a cold mask of anger.

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Well Head Cottage – 14

Rained shushed against the windows and they could hear the rattle of thunder in the distance. Slumpy slept on Jean’s lap, her fingers caressing the thick, ginger fur. When she had returned from Lipscow’s farm the cat was already cowering in the shed, under the rickety shelves. They had tried to coax him out with quiet words, and when that didn’t work, a rattling biscuit box brought him creeping nervously, to butt his head against Jean’s leg.

Jean had given her sister a watered down precis of the events earlier in the day. She took care not to mention the gun. She knew Lesley would overreact and fly into a fury. She had made much of Stanley Lipscow’s attitude however, “He was so threatening. Not by what he said exactly, he didn’t really say much, but just his stance and the look on his face, in his eyes. I felt as though he was toying with me, amusing himself with my embarrassment. I don’t like him, not at all. I told him not to come back here anyway.”

Lesley nodded, “Well, you need to report him.”

“What? No, I can’t do that. I was the one in the wrong. I was trespassing, wasn’t I?”

“But he pinched Slumpy.”

“We don’t know that, do we? Cats are buggers, lots of them go off visiting neighbours and what have you. We don’t really know what happened. It’s best to just let it go. Anyway, it’s a bit daft isn’t it, complaining when he’s back home and safe.”  She knew she was deliberately underplaying the confrontation, which had left her shocked and shaken, but she’d had enough tension and upset for the moment and couldn’t cope with one of her sister’s dramas.

Lesley pursed her lips and gave a small nod. “Seems like a long way for him to have strayed but, I suppose you’re right. Still though, Jean that other thing. The face at the window. What’s that all about?”

Jean thought for a moment before admitting that she was beginning to wonder if she had, in fact, imagined it. “I was upset. It could have been a shadow, couldn’t it? A reflection. It was a fleeting glimpse. I had knocked on the door and shouted and shouted. Surely, if there had been someone inside she would have answered?”

“Maybe she’s got some sort of phobia. Scared of strangers or opening the door or something.”

“Well, it doesn’t matter. We’re having nothing more to do with him.”

“Do we have to go to the supermarket now?” Lesley wrinkled her nose as she said it.

“No. I reckon Doris can supply us with veggies. We’ll ask Carl to bring anything else we need.”

“So, you’re still going to Hawks Farm then?”

“Yes. But, just one last time. Then we’ll try and have a nice couple of days and I’ll come back with you at the weekend. That’ll be it for me, I reckon it’s the last time I’ll come here.”

***

Though the storm raged most of the night, the morning was bright, and sun washed. Jean left Lesley, still in her dressing gown, enjoying her second cup of coffee. “We’ll have a walk when I get back. Shouldn’t be long and then I reckon it’s the pub for lunch.” Lesley smiled. They were both trying to make the best of things. They were sad though that the happy memories of past visits would be forever marred by this trip.

Doris wasn’t there. Sandra was feeding the chickens. She turned to answer Jean, who leaned on the fence around the run. “Visiting her daughter. Had to get away. Was it important?”

Jean didn’t want to admit that it had been partly inquisitiveness that had brought her back. “I wondered if she had some eggs?”

“Oh, right. No, can’t help you with any of that, I’m just here looking after the animals.”

“Right. Never mind then I’ll have to try somewhere else.”

“Well, best off going into Conway, nowhere else round here is there? Apart from the village, and that’s rubbish he sells.”

A niggle of nosiness formed the next words and even as she spoke them she was surprised, “There’s the other farm, isn’t there? As Doris isn’t here, you know.”

Sandra put down the plastic bucket, turned to face Jean, hands on hips. “You don’t want to be going there. Keep away from him. That’s my advice, for what it’s worth.”

She knew she should let it go but it was too late. “I’ve never noticed that there was a shop there before. Naturally if Doris still sold things I wouldn’t dream of it, but…” she shrugged.

“No, only opened when he come back. Old Lipscow wouldn’t have none of that, but he’s dead and gone isn’t he and that son of his, young Stanley,” she spat the name out, “He’ll do anything for money, anything at all. Greedy bugger he is, and rough.”

“Do you know his wife?”

Sandra’s eyebrows shot upwards, “His wife. No, I don’t thank you, and neither does nobody else. Anyway, she’d not be there, away somewhere safe, safe for ‘er, safe for everyone else. You mark my words, Mrs Duncan, keep away from there, a few eggs aren’t worth the bother if you start dealing with folk like him. Now, if you’ll excuse me I have to get on. I’ll tell Doris you called. She’ll be back day after tomorrow. Perhaps you could get eggs then. She needs the money.” Sandra picked up the bucket and went back to scattering scraps for the chickens, leaving Jean to turn and walk back to the road, totally confused.

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Well Head Cottage – 13

Jean’s stomach lurched. Their eyes met, and the farmer wagged the gun sending her back towards the path. Her legs were jelly and it seemed an impossibility that she would ever make it across the damp grass. She had been shot before, but, she remembered so little of that event. This fear was just the same as anyone would feel facing a gun. The other time, awful as it had been, she hadn’t been aware of fear, there hadn’t been time and she had already been so confused and disoriented by illness, it hadn’t seemed real. This felt all too real. She tried to tell herself it was only a shot gun, not as sinister and scary as the ones that the police carried. A farmer’s gun, more domestic, a lesser threat.

It didn’t help.

This thing could still kill her, blind her, scar her for life. She forced herself to speak, her voice made shrill by the constriction in her throat. “My cat. You’ve got my cat.” She pointed a quivering finger towards the upper windows. He glanced behind him, shook his head. Of course, there was nothing to see, not there.

“Yes, you have. I saw him, it’s Slumpy. I don’t know how he managed to come this far. I suppose you thought he was a stray. He’s not, truly he’s mine. He’s been microchipped. I can prove he’s mine. He was in your bedroom, at the front, and then the kitchen. I was just trying to get to him. We’ve been looking everywhere. He’s been gone a couple of days.” She could feel tears gathering in the corners of her eyes. Still he pointed the gun. He didn’t need that, surely, he could see that she wasn’t doing anything wrong. Then she became aware of the rock, still grasped in her hand.

She let it drop to her feet. Looked down at where it lay on the grass, “I’m sorry. That was wrong. I just wanted to get to him. I would have paid for any damage.” It was making no impression, the gabbling, the apologising, the panic. He stood four square before her, his head cocked to one side, his eyes narrowed.

After what seemed to be eons, but was more than likely less than a minute, Stanley Lipscow lowered the gun. Holding it broken in the crook of his arm, he turned towards the house. Jean was still too frightened to move. She watched, from her place on the narrow garden path, as he stepped onto the stone step. Drawing a bunch of keys from his pocket, he leaned and unlocked the back door and pushed it inwards. A ginger coloured rocket flew from the dark interior. Jean had no time to catch him, couldn’t even begin to stand in his way as Slumpy shot down the garden, over the wall and off into the fields.

“Didn’t seem like yours.” The gruff voice carried accusation underlaid with amusement. He dragged the door closed, relocked it and turned to Jean. “I reckon you can go now. You probably want to go and find him.”

Now that Jean knew her cat was, at least alive, and hopefully safe, and the gun had been neutralised, anger began to stir. “Why did you have him? Why was he locked in your house?”

He raised his brows as he retorted, “Why are you in my garden?” A sly grin had twisted his mouth and Jean could see that he was taking perverted pleasure from her upset.

“I was trying to get my cat, I told you that. There was nobody around. I knocked.”

“Perhaps you should take more care of him.”

There was no point to any of this. He was enjoying it, making her defend her actions, and all Jean wanted now was to go and find Slumpy, who, hopefully, had headed back to Well Head Cottage. She wanted a stiff drink, and to feel safe. She didn’t feel safe in the presence of this man. She moved forward. He walked back to the path and, as she pushed past him, he made no attempt to give her space. He smelled of sweat, of farming, and of blood. The sort of blood smell you could sometimes detect in a butcher’s shop, where the carcasses were cut up and prepared. Jean didn’t want to touch him, couldn’t bear the thought that his arm would brush her body, and so she stepped into the soil. Mud oozed onto her boots and squelched as she pulled her foot free. Unsteady on the slippery, uneven ground, she reached out instinctively and recoiled with a gasp as his hand gripped hers. His skin was dry and rough, his grip strong. He wrapped his fingers around hers and she thought he would hold her. She felt panic begin to rise again. In the event he let out a gruff laugh and pulled back his arm. She hurried away.

As she reached the corner of the house, Jean turned back, “Don’t come to the cottage. We don’t want to buy anything from you.” She strode away her head high, her back straight and her insides a stew of upset.

As she walked down the side of the house her back itched with fear. Now she couldn’t see him she was even more aware of his presence. She didn’t trust him and the sooner she was away from here the better.

As she turned into the road, she glanced back to the window where she had first seen, Slumpy. It was an instinctive action and, as the curtain was dropped into place, she had a fleeting glimpse of a pale face, dark hair, and a slender hand against the glass.

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Well Head Cottage – 12

They set out immediately after a quick breakfast. Jean was desperately worried and convinced that they would find her cat in a dirty heap in the gutter beside the road. Lesley had tried to reassure her, “He hates the road, why would he go anywhere near it.” But then Jean had come back at her with fear about foxes, traps, all manner of hidden dangers, winding herself up until in the end Lesley snapped at her. “I’m going into Conway to print out some posters. The little sod’ll probably come back once I’ve spent some money on him. In the meantime, go back to the house and do something to keep yourself busy. You’re being neurotic.”

As she peeled and sliced vegetables, prepared the meat and set the table, Jean was constantly drawn to the window, out to the shed, into the narrow lane beyond the gate. But, Slumpy didn’t come back.

Lesley returned after a couple of hours and dumped a small pile of papers onto the dresser in the living room. “Lunch and then we’ll go and stick these up. I’ll take some into the village, you go out on the walks and put them on trees or whatever you think. Later, we’ll go again. Look, he hasn’t been run over, we would have known that by now. So, he’s just lost. We’ll find him.”

Jean gave her a small smile. “I just worry that he’s set off to go home. You hear about it, don’t you?”

“Yes, but why would he do that when you’re here. Enough. We’ll find him this afternoon.”

It was cold, there was rain in the air, but they couldn’t let it stop them.

As she walked, Jean tacked the notices to trees and gates. She knocked on the doors of the few houses she passed, and asked them to check their sheds and garages. She ignored the sighs of irritation and there was only one house where an old woman sent her on her way, refusing to help at all. Jean crept back and peered through the window of the tumble down shed and could tell instantly that it hadn’t been opened for years, that it was unlikely anything bigger than a mouse could be inside.

The route led her to the Lipscow’s farm. She realised that this should have been one of her first stops. The farm shop was the perfect place to display the poster. She crossed her fingers. The bloke was odd but surely, he wouldn’t object. She would offer to pay him anyway. She remembered that he had been intending to call at the house. If she spoke to him now then she could avoid that as well. They wouldn’t have him pestering them. They were entitled to their privacy after all.

As before, the place appeared deserted, the kennel in the yard was empty and there was no noise from any of the barns or buildings. The shop door was closed and the lights were out. Maybe she would just stick the sign up anyway. He might tear it down, and it was her last one.

She walked around the building, called out, several times. There was no answer.

She fished in her bag for a pen and notebook. Intending to write a note to push under the door with the poster, she looked around for somewhere to lean. The wall at the front of the property had a flat top, slate used as coping stones. She stepped across the messy yard and pulled a book from her bag. She wrote her message. The farm house was behind her and to the left. There was no letterbox at the shop and the door was solid wood. She would need to walk down and push the poster and note through the flap in the middle of the front door of the farm house. She walked out of the yard, a few metres down the road and peered up at the square house. There were no lights on inside, the small lamp over the door was lit, its beam wasted on the daylight. She looked up to the bedroom windows and saw him looking back at her. His gaze unwavering and a little puzzled. Her hand flew to her mouth as she called out into the quiet.

“Slumpy.”

Without thought she ran down the path to hammer on the heavy wood of the door, she was calling out. When she looked again at the upstairs window, he had gone. She paused. Had she imagined it. Surely not. Maybe it was a cat that looked so very much like her own. No, she would know him anywhere. Okay he was, to most people, just a ginger moggy, but to her he was a friend and she was in no doubt that it was him that she had seen. She hammered again on the door, lifted the flap to the letter box and shouted through. She stepped backwards and peered up at all the windows in turn, but now there was nothing and no-one.

She ran to the corner of the house and down the narrow path at the side. She peered in wherever possible, calling out over and over. As she looked into the small window in the kitchen door she saw him. She couldn’t hear him but could see he was meowing. Slumpy, sitting in the middle of the flagged floor, staring at her.

She would have him back. If she had to break a window, so be it. She wasn’t leaving without him. She turned to the small area of garden that was hidden behind the house. She needed to find something to break the window. She picked up a rock from a small rockery in the corner of the plot.

She was aware of a presence before he spoke, but when he did she turned and raised her head. Lipscow stood at the corner of his house, his shotgun raised and pointing straight at her.

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Well Head Cottage – 11

Slumpy couldn’t be found and time was getting short for them to have lunch at the pub. “Come on, I’ll leave the shed door open and then, if he’s cold he can go in there.” Jean took the blanket from his travelling box and made a bed for the cat on an old garden chair.

The pub was warm and cosy, busy, even though it was no longer ‘tourist season’. The company, the steak pie, and the relaxed atmosphere made both women feel much more cheerful.

Lesley brought their second glasses of wine and picked up the dessert menu. “We shouldn’t let all this stuff get to us you know. I mean, it’s sad for Doris and all of that, but at the end of the day it’s nothing to do with us. Okay you, in your usual way,” she smiled, taking the sting from the words, “got involved. But, it’s not our business.”

Jean pushed at her sister’s arm, “Cheeky bugger, how do you mean ‘my usual way’?”

“Well, you do attract trouble, don’t you?” Lesley raised her eyebrows questioningly.

Though Jean knew her sister was partly joking she was very aware that there was some genuine belief behind the comment. She tried to make her understand, explaining that she felt so very sorry for their sometime friend. Even though it was clear that there didn’t seem much they could do, it was upsetting that she seemed so alone and so very diminished. Jean had decided already that she would go back and have another word with her in the morning. Find out more about it all.

Lesley wasn’t happy, “The police have already looked into it once. They’ll be doing it again now you’ve found the bloody car. What makes you think you’ll be able to think of anything they haven’t already? Oh, look, you see! I knew this would happen. I could tell by the look on your face that you were going to poke your soddin’ nose in.” An awkward silence descended, and the atmosphere was ruined.

They niggled back and forth for a while longer, each feeling guilty but unable to stop, wanting to make a point. Lesley reminded Jean of the events earlier in the year, “People died Jean, you, nearly died.”

Jean snapped back at her. “People were already dying, and there would have been more if it hadn’t all come to a head.”

She told her sister about Doris Smart’s admission, that she had confided her envy of the absolute knowledge that had come with Jean’s widowhood. “It’s tearing her apart, the not knowing. Just imagine what that must be like. You must remember when Carl was missing, the torment we went through.”

Lesley sighed and shook her head, wagged the menu in front of her. “Are you having pudding, or coffee?”

“No, I think I’m ready to go. Let’s have coffee at home. I’ve got some biscuits and stuff from the shop. I’d like to check on Slumpy as well.”

They gathered their coats and, each feeling regret for the soured mood, they left the cosy warmth of the Dog and Duck to drive back to the Well Head Cottage.

The cat had not come back, and they spent a few minutes peering under bushes and up trees, calling his name. “I’ll leave the shed open. It’s not as if he doesn’t know the place, he’s just trying to get his own back because we made him go in the car.” Jean laughed but, as they walked to the front door, she glanced back several times, frowning.

They spent the rest of the day in polite awkwardness. Jean did some writing and Lesley surfed shopping sites on the internet. Eventually, they made something to eat and grinned at each other across the tops of their glasses of wine. “Sorry.” Lesley stood and walked around the table to give her sister a hug. “I just worry, that’s all.”

“I know, and I just hate to think of people being so miserable.”

“Yeah, but you can’t help everyone, can you?”

“No, you’re right. I’m still going to go and see Doris again though.”

She checked the shed, did a tour round the garden but Slumpy wasn’t anywhere to be found, and she felt a frisson of real concern. He had been her companion for more than almost ten years and had seen her through the worst of times. Tomorrow she would go and look for him and wouldn’t stop until she had him back. She acknowledged that the hunt would mean checking the side of the roads for a sad damaged body, the thought chilled her. Lesley agreed that it had to be the first priority. They both had their computers with them but no printers. Jean clicked open an image file. “I’ve got pictures of him, but I can’t make a poster.”

“Make the notice and if we don’t find him in the morning, which we will of course. The little sod will be crying at the back door for his breakfast, you’ll see. But, if not I’ll go into Conway, there must be somewhere there to have things printed. Put the file on a data stick and I’ll do that.”

They went to bed early. Jean sat in her narrow bed in the little back room, that had always been Carl’s when he was there, and she was swept with sadness. The optimism she had felt just a few days ago had been wiped out so quickly. She decided, as soon as Carl had gone off to Snowdonia she was going home and would probably never come here again. The thought brought a lump to her throat but, it had all changed. She would rather remember it the way it had been.

As she drifted into sleep she heard the owl and in the distance, and, not loud enough to cause the same alarm as on her first night, but enough to add to the worry about Slumpy, she heard the short sharp retort of what could only be gun fire. Surely hunting was illegal, at night?

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Well Head Cottage – 10

As they turned onto the narrow path to the cottage Jean stopped and pushed up her jacket sleeve to check her watch. “Bugger it!”

“What? What’s the matter now?”

“I was supposed to be collecting a leg of lamb. From the other farm.”

“Oh, don’t worry. We can make do or, if you feel up to it, we can go down to the Dog and Duck. I fancy a pasty anyway.”

“No, I’d ordered it.”

Lesley groaned and turned around. “Come on then. Is this your idea of taking it easy?” She paused again, “Wait, let’s get the car. We can drive to the farm and then go straight on to the pub. We can have the joint tomorrow. I don’t feel like doing a roast, and I’ll bet you don’t.”

“It’s too late. They’ll be closed.”

“Oh well, problem solved.”

“Hmm. Jean was scratching the back of her neck, pulling a face. He was a bit scary though that bloke. I don’t want to get on the wrong side of him.”

“Don’t be so bloody daft. What he’s going to do? Come after you over a weekend joint?”

“Yeah, you’re right. Anyway, we can go tomorrow. He’ll have it in the fridge, it won’t come to any harm.” As she spoke she began walking again, in the direction of the cottage. “Oh, bloody hell.”

“What now!”

“He’s there. Look, on the bench by the door. That big bloke. Oh my god, he must have brought the thing.”

“Oh well, that’s good service for you, isn’t it?”

“I suppose. But really, I don’t like the idea of him coming here. You’ll see when you meet him. There’s something a bit, oh I don’t know…, threatening about him.”

Lesley shrugged, “Well, he’s here now so there’s nothing we can do.” She stomped off down the path in front of Jean.

As they stepped onto the flagged area in front of the door, the bulky figure stood up and took a couple of steps towards them. He was dressed in a pair of jeans and a brown leather jacket. His hefty boots were covered in mud. Whose weren’t, this time of the year, on farms?

He had a white plastic carrier in his hand and, as soon as Jean was close enough, he held it out in front of him. “Your meat.”

“I’m sorry I didn’t come for it.” She felt that she was in the wrong and it annoyed her, but she reached out and took the bag.

“Heard you had an accident. A fall.”

Lesley jumped into the conversation, “That’s so kind of you, thoughtful. Isn’t that kind, Jean?” she swivelled back and forth between them.

“I put some sausages in.”

“Sorry?” Jean frowned.

“Sausages. Case you couldn’t come by. Thought you’d like sausages. Ev’rybody does.”

Lesley was still playing devil’s advocate. “Oh, yum. Lovely.” Jean glared at her. She wasn’t usually this accommodating. She should stop it.

“Twelve pounds altogether, with the sausages.”

“Oh, hang on, I didn’t…” Jean was interrupted again by her sister.

“Excellent. That’s really great. I’ll get it Jean.” She was pushing her free hand into her pocket, fishing for her purse and counting out notes and coins. “Thank you so much.”

The farmer, shop keeper, whatever he was, nodded and pocketed the money. Jean took a step forward and to the side, trying to move past him.

“So, what did they say?”

“I’m sorry?” She half turned.

“The police. What did they say? That was that, Ted Smart’s vehicle, yes? What did they say about it?”

She began to bristle, irritation building.

Lesley was scowling at her, shaking her head. She could tell Jean was annoyed, and it was understandable, but she didn’t want this to develop into a row. This big bloke was intimidating, it wouldn’t serve to annoy him.

“They didn’t say anything. I don’t know how you know about what happened but, they haven’t said anything much, not to me at any rate.”

“Common talk it is. Small place such as this, stuff gets around.”

“Right well, as I said they didn’t say anything much. Thank you for the meat. Now, if there’s nothing else.” She pushed past him and down the side passage towards the kitchen door.

“Yes, thank you – erm, Mr erm…?” Lesley had been left out in the cold, literally. Awkward and embarrassed, she wasn’t sure what to do next.

“Lipscow, Stanley. I’ll come back tomorrow, take an order.”

“No, really, there’s no need Mr Lipscow.”

“Just till she’s better. Needs to take it easy. Bad fall, was it? She looks a bit peaky.”

“I wasn’t there?”

“Ah, Right.”

“Honestly there’s no need. Really, we don’t want you to do that. I can come to you, when we know what we need.”

“I’ll come tomorrow.” And with that he strode off down the drive. Before she had reached the door, she heard a car, gravel spitting from beneath the wheels, speeding off down the road.

“Well, thanks for that, Jean.” By the time she had taken off her muddy shoes and walked into the kitchen, Jean had pushed the meat into the fridge and was filling the kettle.

“How do you mean?”

“Leaving me out there with him like a bloody gooseberry.”

“I don’t like him. Do you want tea?”

Lesley nodded, “He’s a bit rough. I’ll grant you that, but he came round, with the joint. That was nice of him. Don’t be so judgemental.”

Jean stopped what she was doing, leaned on the table. “Oh, yes. You’re probably right. But, when I first saw him he was in the shop, suddenly. He made me nervous straight off, and he was all covered in blood and bits of meat, it wasn’t very nice.”

“He’s a farmer. It’s his job.”

“Is it? Slaughtering the animals himself?”

“Well I don’t know. It must be, mustn’t it? Anyway, somebody has to do it, if we want to eat meat. It’s not like you to be so squeamish.”

Jean sat down. “I know. I’m being unfair, probably. I just don’t like him. I can’t explain it.”

“He said he’ll come back tomorrow. I tried to put him off, but he wasn’t having it.”

Jean groaned as she pulled a chair from beneath the table, slid stiffly onto it. “I can’t believe how badly wrong this has all gone. I reckon we should just call it a day and go home, Les. This isn’t fun, is it?”

“No, you’re right but, what about Carl? He’s really looking forward to coming, and he’s made all the arrangements with his mates. I’d hate to disappoint him. “

“Okay, we’ll plough on, but I can’t bear the thought of having to deal with that bloke for the next three weeks. If he starts coming regularly, I’ll never be able to relax. I reckon I’ll come back with you at the weekend.”

“Fair enough. I suppose he’s going to be the only option within walking distance now, for fresh stuff. It’s never going to be the same, is it? It’s very sad.”

“Hmm. I can’t see Doris opening the shop ever again, no matter what. She’s talking about selling up anyway. I wonder if this latest fuss will help to make her mind up.”

Lesley held out Jean’s coat, “Come on, let’s go down to the Dog and Duck. It’ll cheer us up, and to be honest we need it. Come on, nothing else is going to go wrong.”

Jean dragged herself upstairs and changed her muddy jeans. She didn’t feel like going out but for goodness sake, this was supposed to be a holiday. She pasted on a smile before she went back into the kitchen.

“Have you seen Slumpy, Les? Only he hasn’t eaten his breakfast.”

“He was sulking in the pantry yesterday. Is he still there?”

“Nope. Hasn’t used his litter tray either. I wasn’t going to let him out yet. Thought I’d wait until he’d settled down, but it looks as though he’s sneaked off. Oh bugger. I don’t like going out and leaving him in the garden. There’s no cat flap.”

“Leave the window open.”

She couldn’t, the memory of just a couple of nights previously, the pale face, dark eyes just beyond the glass, watching as she walked around the house. “No, I’ll have to find him. Bring him in.” Calling his name they went out into the chilly afternoon.

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