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Well Head Cottage – 31

For a while Stanley continued to rail and curse at them. He hammered against the doors, the walls, and reached through the window space, tearing at the edges, trying to make the hole bigger.

Jean ran to the gate, searching for the police. Surely, by now, they should at least be able to hear the sirens. There was nothing

When he gave up the assault on the walls and door of the shed, his desperate clawing at the window frame, the quiet was more disturbing than his shouting and thumping about had been. As for the watchers in the yard there was nothing yet for them to say to each other. They stood in the growing light, breath clouding around their faces. They shifted and shuffled, shoes scuffing the soil and gravel, mumbled at each other, ‘Are you okay’, ‘Where are the sodding cops’, ‘What a bloody mess’. Meaningless words to fight the shock and fear, to keep themselves together. Carl had wrapped his arm around his aunty’s shoulders. Dave stomped his feet and banged at his arms, too cold in the light jacket he had worn. The dog paced back and forth at the end of his chain, whimpering pathetically but when Jean pulled away from the group and took a step towards him he bared his teeth and lowered back on his haunches. She turned away unable to do anything for him.

They heard nothing from Flora and assumed she was still curled in a desperate ball in the corner.

“We have to try and talk to him. We have to get to his wife.” Jean muttered quietly, no-one answered. Gathered together, impotent, frustrated and frightened, all they could do was stare back and forth at each other and wait. Jean shivered with the cold, she was dressed only in the soft lounging clothes from the evening in the cottage, her dressing gown was thick but she was damp and shocked. Her teeth chattered together, partly from shock, and Carl draped his coat around her shoulders, pulling it close under her chin. The warmth was comforting, she pushed her arms into the sleeves. It engulfed her, and she wrapped it tightly around her aching body.

Carl, gave her a quick hug and then moved to the side of the shed and leaned his head towards the wood. He looked across at them and grimaced. The sounds inside were indistinct, scraping and thudding and he heard their voices. He called to the others. “They’re talking, so I guess she’s okay. I can’t hear what they’re saying but I think she’s crying. If the police don’t hurry up we’re going to have to get in to her.”

He held up a hand to the others, holding off the questions. He leaned closer and then shook his head. It was impossible to make sense of the growing disturbance inside the shed.

Splashing through the puddles he walked around to where the damaged Perspex lay on the grass, surrounded by shards of plant pot. He kicked the junk to one side and, bracing his hands against the wall, he leaned to peer through the small square hole. “NO!” His desperate scream rang out into the quiet of the farmyard. The dog ran from his kennel straining at the end of the piece of chain. Jean and Dave leapt instinctively towards Carl. He spun on his heel and ran to the door where he dragged and pulled at the heap of debris they had used as a wedge. “He’s killing her, he’s killing her.” The desperate words were followed by sobs and groans as he bent to the pile of rubbish. The others joined in pushing aside the wood and metal.

Jean gasped out her question. “What is it? what is he doing?”

Carl glanced at her, as he threw a great plank aside, sending it skidding and sliding across the mud. “She’s on the floor, he’s got his hands round her throat. Christ we’ve got to get in. hurry up!”

They fought their way through the barricade they had concocted such a short time ago and, with a roar, Carl launched himself through the doorway. With something between a leap and a fall he reached Stanley Lipscow who was kneeling on the floor, sobbing, his great hands locked around the narrow, fragile neck of his wife. The keening sound he made was something that would stay with Jean forever. Flora herself was wide eyed, staring, her arms throw out motionless at her sides. Though the carpet covering of the grave was tangled and bunched where her feet had flailed and kicked, her legs were still, her feet splayed outwards, one small soft shoe lying alone near the wall, the other still hanging on the ends of her toes.

The two boys dragged him away. He didn’t want to let go, and he shook his shoulders, leaned towards his wife, kicked out at them with his heavy boots. Together they managed to pry his hands from around her throat. They knocked him to the floor, Dave flung his leg over the barrel chest and sat astride the heaving body, but the sounds now were sobbing, and the only struggle from the big farmer was that of him gasping and choking as he tried to breathe.

He didn’t fight them anymore, he didn’t speak, couldn’t speak, for the great gulping sobs and groans that shook his body as he lay on the top of Ted Smart’s grave.

At last there was the scream of a siren in the distance. Jean had run to where Flora lay and begun to attempt mouth to mouth resuscitation, checking the airway, the position of the head and, as tears streaked her cheeks, she tried to breathe life back into the slack, unresponsive body.

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Well Head Cottage – 28

Jean pressed back against the wall, beside the door. She would be hidden when he stepped inside. She hoped, that Stanley Lipscow would be caught off guard when he didn’t see her, slumped in the corner, her hands bound. It might just be possible for her to run, maybe slam the door, trap him inside and get away. As she waited she gripped the leather belt, the buckle rattling softly with each movement. She would hit him with it, she would. God, she didn’t want to, but she would.

“Hello. Mrs Duncan?” The tentative whisper, the thin fingers wrapped around the old wood of the doorframe, the slow movement, all of this stilled her hand. She knew immediately that it was Flora and not her brutish husband.

Jean stepped from the corner. “Flora, are you alright?”

The younger woman gasped, hesitated and then dragged the door closed behind her. She turned a frightened face towards Jean, still in the corner. “He tied you up. He told me you were tied up.” As she spoke she looked around, fearful and confused, saw the broken window. She raised her hands, held them across her face, eyes wide and shocked. She took one small step towards the ruined wall. “What have you done? Why have you done that? He’s going to be so mad. He’ll be very mad with you.”

Jean grabbed Flora by the arm, “Where is he? What are you doing here? Come on Flora, let me out. Come with me. We’ll go and get some help.”

Already Flora was shaking her head. “No. You can’t go. He said he was going to keep you here. He said he was going to sort you out.” She nodded now, “Yes that’s what he said.”

“But where is he?”

“He had to lie down. He can’t see. He’s having one of his headaches. He can’t stand up, he’s been sick.”

“Right. Migraine. Is it migraine? Thank God.” As she spoke, swept with relief at this unlooked for mercy, Jean stepped towards the door. If the other woman wouldn’t come with her, so be it. For now, all she could do was save herself. She had to get away and tell the authorities just what had happened. Let them know what had gone on here.

Before she could slide past Flora, out into the open, the girl realised what was happening. She took a step. Standing with her back to the door, blocking the exit, she shook her head again, “No, no. You can’t go anywhere. Not until he has sorted you out. That’s what he said. I just came to say hello. I brought you this.” She held out a small bar of chocolate. “I thought you might be hungry. Are you hungry?”

“Yes, Flora I am. I am really hungry and cold. And you know what else? I really need a wee. Can you let me go to the house and have a wee?”

If she could make it into the open she would be away, she would run, she would get some help.

Flora shook her head. “No, no. You can’t go out. Anyway, you don’t need to, look. Over there in the corner.” With her back to the door she pointed to the bucket upturned on the dirt floor. “You can use that. I sometimes do. When I don’t want to go out of here. I like it here. It’s quiet and I can talk. I can talk to Ted.”

Jean had dropped the belt quietly to the ground. She didn’t want to alarm this nervous woman but now she bent. If she had to fight with her then she would. She would hate it, knew that it was an unfair competition. Okay Flora was younger, but she was slight and frail. Jean was fit and half a head taller, she could knock her aside she was sure. She braced herself. It had to be now.

“You can talk to Ted if you like. He won’t talk back, of course not. He can’t talk anymore, but I talk to him. Stanley says I shouldn’t even come in here but it’s dark and it’s cold and he was so kind. He was always kind to me.” The big frightened eyes filled with tears, Flora wiped them away with the back of her hand. “Did you know him? You did, didn’t you? He was so handsome. I liked him such a lot. Don’t say anything to Stanley but I liked Ted the best and I think he liked me, I think he loved me. He was always coming here, always when Stanley was away. I think that means he liked me, don’t you?” She sighed now, again the shake of her head, the long hair sweeping back and forth. “I’m not sure though, not anymore. When I asked him to take me away, Ted, he said he couldn’t. He said he had to stay with his wife. I don’t know why, she’s not as pretty as me and she used to yell at him. He told me that once. They had rows. He said it was Stanley’s fault that they had rows. He said that he was going to tell the police about what Stanley had done. He kept coming around, over and over, asking me questions about the shop, about the sheep, the chickens. I tried to make him see that it didn’t matter. When the chickens were all dead and the sheep and the shop was burned down then we could just go away. But he wouldn’t. Even though he told me he liked me he wouldn’t. I couldn’t let him go to the police then could I. He said they would lock Stanley up. if they did that I would have nowhere to go.

“He was so handsome and strong. I loved him. I loved him more than I love Stanley and that’s bad because Stanley is my husband. But he shouts, and he gets mad. He has his headaches and then he’s horrible. Ted was never horrible, not until that last time.”

Jean’s mouth had dried, the things that she was hearing shocked her to the core. She glanced back at the threadbare rug on the floor, the wilted blooms.

“Flora, is that Ted’s grave?”

“Yes, I told you it was. You mustn’t tell anyone though.” She reached out clasped Jeans damaged wrists with her thin bony fingers. “You mustn’t tell. We would get into trouble if you tell.”

She had to ask, had to know. “Flora, did Stanley have anything to do with Ted Smart’s death?”

The answer was a definite shake of the head, “No, no. He didn’t. It was an accident and Stanley just said that we had to bury him here, so we wouldn’t get into any trouble. He said that later, afterwards we could maybe take him and put him in the graveyard but not yet. Not until everyone has forgotten. I think they would have forgotten but you found the car, where Stanley hid it. You found it and now Stanley is upset again, and he keeps having his headaches. That’s your fault really.”

Jean laid a hand over Flora’s eased the grip on her aching arms. She believed that she already knew that answer but the next question had to come out. “Flora, did Stanley kill Ted? Even if it was an accident, was it Stanley’s fault?”

The laugh when it came was high, on the edge of hysteria, Jean pulled back. “No, no silly. Of course, he didn’t. He was cross, when he found out that Ted had been coming round here, asking me questions and nosing about. He was cross when I said he loved me. He said I was a stupid girl. I suppose I was.”

“But he didn’t kill him?”

“No, he just wrapped him up and put him in here.”

“But how, Flora? How did he do that?”

“Well, we had to do something. We couldn’t just leave him where he was could we. We had to move him out of the kitchen. We had to clean up.”

“What happened Flora. Did he have an accident?”

“Well, sort of.”

The truth was unimaginable and yet there it was staring her in the face, she had to know. “Flora did you kill him? Did you kill Ted?”

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Well Head Cottage – 25

For a few moments Jean couldn’t think straight. There was shock, there was horror and, as the room tipped, and the world paused, she couldn’t find any voice. Then came the thunder on the front door, the stomp of heavy feet down the side passage and the hammering at the kitchen entrance. He called out, loud in the night. Both of their names, he told them he knew they were there, that he would come in. If necessary, he would break down the door. As he spoke the wood rattled in the frame under the onslaught of blows.

Flora had scuttled into the corner beside the fireplace, she crouched against the wall, her head buried between her bent knees. She whimpered and shivered.

Jean was shocked, frightened, and then, she was angry. She hadn’t done anything wrong, nothing at all and here she was shaking with nerves in what was effectively, though temporarily, her own home. She would call the police.

At the thought of it, she glanced at the curled hump of Flora quivering in the darkness and she paused. But, no, whatever badness there was here must be dealt with by the authorities. She scanned the room for her phone. Of course, it wasn’t there was it? Now, now that she needed it with her, it was upstairs on the bedside cabinet, where she had trained herself to take it at night. The only landline handset was in the kitchen on the wall beside the door. Though she knew the chances were small she hissed across the room to the other woman. “Flora, have you got a phone?” She could just make out the shaking of the dark head, the sway of long hair. Well, she wasn’t surprised.

“I have to go and get my phone. Stay there.” As she moved towards the hall, Flora leapt to her feet and shot across the room.

She grabbed Jean’s arm, “Don’t, don’t leave me.”

Jean tried to shake loose, pulling at the clutching hands, trying to push Flora backwards.  “Just stay here, just one minute. Go back to the corner, let me go, I’ll only be a moment.” She managed to break away and taking the stairs two at a time, she dashed to the bedroom. Grabbing up the phone she galloped back to the living room and the terrified girl. She pushed at the button, “Come on, come on. No, no.” She had turned it off earlier, and because she had never made it up to her bedroom hadn’t rebooted. The wake sequence was taking forever, the delay cost her the opportunity to call for help.

She squealed as she heard the crack of wood, Stanley Lipscow as good as his word, throwing his bulk at the door, splintering the fragile frame. He would be on them in no time.

She grabbed Flora by the hand and dragged her bodily into the narrow hallway. If she made for the front door, they would never get further than the path before he caught them. If they did manage to make it to the road, where would they go? They couldn’t run across the wet fields in the dark.

Flora twisted, and struggled, she pulled away, grabbed out at the handle of the cloakroom door. She obviously wanted to be hidden. Jean knew that there was no safety to be had in that tiny space, nor anywhere else in these rooms. Their only hope was to call for help. She had to hide, use the phone, back upstairs, gaining precious seconds as he tried to find her. In the end she had no choice but to peel Flora’s fingers from her arm. As the younger woman threw herself into the darkness of the cloaks cupboard, Jean heard the door slamming back against the kitchen wall, heard the roar as Stanley Lipscow stormed into the house. She turned and ran to the bottom of the staircase. She made it up four steps, stumbling and falling, pushing onwards on all fours. She was blinded by tears of panic, deafened by the yell of the big farmer, the squeals of his terrified wife and the thunder of blood in her own ears.

Next came the hard grasp of his hand on her ankles. She kicked out blindly and felt her slipper connect with something, his head? his face? she didn’t know. He cursed at her, grabbed more tightly at her leg and now the other one and brought her down on her front, her face bouncing on the edge of the step, stars flashing behind her eyes, blood warm and wet on her head trickling down her face. She screamed to Flora. “Run Flora, get away. Go and find help.”

She heard him. It sounded like a laugh, one short grunt of humour and then, as he dragged her painfully towards him, her body bouncing on the stairs, hands grasping uselessly at the dusty carpet, she heard him speak. Loud and forceful. “Flora, get yourself here. Now.”

As Jean began to fall into darkness she fought back, tried to cling to consciousness. She was aware of the click of the lock on the cloakroom door the sniffling and sobbing and then, as she turned her head and peered through the dizziness and blood, she saw Flora Lipscow standing beside her husband. Her hands loose at her sides, her face red and wet with tears, her head hanging down as she looked mournfully at Jean, flat on the floor in the tiny entrance hall, bruised, battered and very afraid.

“Bloody hell girl, what have you done now?” As he spoke Lipscow bent and grabbed hold of Jean, dragged her to her feet, lifted her bodily and took her into the living room. He threw her against the sofa cushions, turned to his wife and with a gesture of unexpected tenderness he pulled her to him and stroked the hair from her face. He lowered his head and kissed her brow. “Oh girl, what have you gone and done now?”

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Well Head Cottage – 22

On her own again Jean locked and double checked all the door and windows. She turned on the lights in the side passage and left the ones burning in the hallway. If asked she wouldn’t have been able to properly verbalise her fears, they were vague, and yet, she was uncomfortable. For minutes at a time she peered through the kitchen window into the dark back garden. She jumped at the night-time country sounds and, when she settled on the settee with a glass of wine and music playing quietly, she picked up the cat and held him on her lap, stroking his thick fur so that he would stay with her.

Her shoulders were stiff with tension and eventually she fell back on the old routine, developed in the silence of a house suddenly devoid of her husband. She began to speak aloud to the empty room. She told herself to damned well calm down, to stop being a stupid woman and grow up.

She itemised all the things that had happened, what she knew as fact, what she was still puzzling about and what conclusions she had begun to draw.

In a short time, it had worked, the writer had taken over. She lifted Slumpy and settled him back on the blanket with an apology and a tickle under his chin. At the desk there was a legal pad and she started to scribble down the things she had been muttering about. It was clearer now, things that had been lost in the fog of the last few days, with her sister to entertain, her nephew to feed, and the decisions to be made about going or staying, there had been no room for logical thinking. Now, there was time and it was all falling into place. There had been a tiny thing niggling in the back of her mind, like a pestering fly that refused to show itself but buzzed irritating, just out of sight.

Jean opened her laptop and found the notes she had made, the screen grabs from the various newspapers, and she put it all in logical order. The timings were so clear now, in the quiet and the dark. The death of the old Stanley Lipscow. The problems at Hawks Farm, and the consequent opening of the new farm shop after the fire at Doris and Ted’s place.

She sat back, rocking slightly in the desk chair. Surely other people had seen this, had put two and two together. Then again, the culmination of it all, Ted’s disappearance had been so monumental for those involved, maybe it had muddied the waters.

Now, the suspicions which had formed so clearly as her mind had cleared and solidified, were awful. They were frightening, and they were very possibly dangerous. Should she act? How should she act? If she took this and tried to make Doris listen to her, would it help that poor woman? Probably not. If she took it to the police was there any interest left for them in the whole sad case? If she went to Lipscow, faced him with it, just how dangerous would that be? Too dangerous, surely, far too dangerous.

Lesley phoned, checking, making sure that her sister was okay, on her own. Carl called from his camp site in the mountains. Just to say goodnight, and yet behind the joking she detected concern. They had picked up on it hadn’t they. Even though none of them had spoken about it, they had also picked up on the atmosphere. What was it, threat, menace or just sadness and a sense of ending.

It was the early hours of the morning and time for bed and when it came to it, Jean couldn’t bring herself to climb into the darkness at the top of the stairs. She wanted to stay in the light. She lay across the settee, pulled the plaid rug over her legs, told herself it was just for now, just for an hour until her mind settled.

The cat, clattering through the slightly open window in the kitchen, woke her. For a moment Jean was disoriented and then Slumpy, wet from the rain, leapt onto her blanket. “Oh, get down you horror.” She pushed at him but he didn’t want to go and so she swung her legs to the floor and lifted him bodily. He pushed his head into her, snuggled his big, heavy bulk into her chest and arms. “What’s the matter you silly boy?” She took a moment, standing in the quiet to gather herself together. She sighed. “I’m a daft old biddy Slumps. Look at me, sleeping downstairs, just like I did when your dad died. Oh well, we’ll just keep it as our little secret, shall we?” She rubbed her face against his wet head. “Raining again. Come on, let me get your towel.”

She walked through to the kitchen and into the pantry, where his basket and dishes were kept. He was purring happily now, possibly with the idea that his dishes were to be filled. With the cat under one arm and the towel in her hand Jean turned back to the room. The knock on the door didn’t register at first, it was quiet, tentative. Then it came again. A little louder. She frowned and put down the struggling cat. He shot out of the room and into the hallway.

Jean glanced around her, the only thing to hand was her walking stick leaning against the wall by the door. She picked it up and leaned to turn the key in the lock.

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Well Head Cottage – 21

It was a lovely evening, they had a short walk together and then came back to the cottage for drinks and dinner. When Carl asked what they had been doing there was a loaded silence. Lesley and Jean glanced at each other, trying to decide how much they should share of the debacle that the trip had turned into.

Neither of them wanted the last few days to impact negatively on the rest of the week but to answer his question they would need to mention the drama of Hawks Farm at least.

Though they tried to gloss over much of it Carl was intrigued by the unexplained disappearance of Ted Smart, at the same time admitting he didn’t remember him all that well.

“I’m not surprised he vanished with all those problems. I think I’d have done the same thing.” He told them.

“Yes, but Doris just won’t have it. She insists that he would never have done that to her.” Though Jean came to the farmer’s wife’s defence, there wasn’t a great deal of conviction behind her words and she wasn’t surprised by Carl’s response.

“Most women would say that though wouldn’t they. I mean it’s a matter of pride I suppose and self-esteem as well as anything else. I don’t think any of us like to think that we can be dumped.” He grinned as he spoke because he knew both women would be thinking about his most recent girlfriend who had done just that.

The discovery of the Land Rover was discussed and picked over yet again. In the end Lesley threw up her hands and pleaded with them all to just leave it alone and ‘for goodness sake talk about something else’.

They all agreed that it was sad, that it was puzzling, that there was nothing that anyone could do that hadn’t already been done and then they left the subject alone. The conversation had started Jean’s brain ticking yet again, seeking for explanations and later, in the quiet dark of her bedroom she played and replayed all that she knew.

She hadn’t related the events of the morning or anything about her internet searches, but she was intrigued and wanted to find out more about the Lipscows. There was a story there and her writer’s mind wanted to explore it more. She began to wonder if perhaps she would like to stay a little longer. Originally, she had made arrangements for a lengthier stay and so all that was needed was for her to tell Lesley that now, as things seemed to be settling down a bit, she wouldn’t go back at the weekend after all. Of course, things were not settling down, quite the reverse and in her mind’s eye she replayed the image of the young woman kneeling on the floor of the little shed, rocking back and forth and laying flowers around her knees.

The following two days were almost the way that it had been in the past, except of course for the sad absence of Jean’s husband. Lesley and her husband had never visited together, and maybe that should have been an indication of how little they had in common. It hadn’t been much of a surprise when the marriage petered out and fizzled like a damp squib. Lesley had spent many happy holidays at the cottage with her son and sister and brother in law though and they were able to recapture some of the joy that had been missing from this trip until now.

Jean was delighted because it meant, when she told Lesley she had reconsidered leaving with her it wouldn’t seem quite so odd.

Lesley had been prepared to travel back alone and, once Carl had left for his climbing holiday in Snowdonia, there was just one more night before she was due to leave by train for the West Midlands.

“Are you sure you want to stay Jean?” Lesley was serving up their lunch of soup and toasted sandwiches when she asked the question, “Only, you were pretty low when I arrived. I know you’d had the fall and everything, but you were definitely not enjoying yourself.”

“I’m sure,” Jean reassured her, “The last couple of days have been great. It’s reminded me how lovely it is here and I’m all ready now to get some work done. I’m not sure whether I’ll be keen to come back again, after all this, but at least the memories will be good ones.”

Lesley left after lunch the next day, Sunday, and Jean waved her off with just a slight pang of regret and nervousness.

Once she was alone again, except of course for Slumpy, who had settled down and spent most of his time rooting in the hedgerows or sleeping in front of the log fire, Jean dragged out her notepad and began to write down all she knew about the woman at the Lipscow farm.

It wasn’t much but whenever she thought about that poor frightened creature, the panicked eyes as she had barred the way into the shed, the heartrending way she had come for that cat that she had been convinced was hers, then Jean determined to find out as much as possible. Of Ted Smart and Doris she didn’t see what there was anyone could do, perhaps what happened to him would always be a mystery.

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Well Head Cottage – 19

The woman was rocking slightly, murmuring softly, gently. She sat on the floor, her back to the door of the shed. There was a big, lantern style torch, beside her casting a golden circle of light along the rough floor, bending where it hit the walls.

Jean was close enough to stretch out her arms and steady herself on the wooden sides of the hut.

Now that she was nearer Jean could see that the young woman was crying. As she watched she saw her lift a hand to her face, wipe tears from under her eyes. There was a bunch of flowers on the floor beside her and she reached to them and placed them carefully near to her knees. It was impossible to tell what was being said but there was the quiet sound of sad words, an occasional sniff, and just once a shuddering sob. Jean felt tears gather in the corner of her own eyes in response to the overwhelming feeling of grief.

The building was almost empty as far as she could tell. Where the woman sat there was a floor covering of some sort, old sacks or maybe a threadbare carpet.

Jean was mesmerised by the scene but could make little sense of it. As she watched, a sort of understanding began to form.

The drama with Slumpy; the desperation in the garden at Well Head Cottage and the theft of Jean’s cat, it all pointed to one thing. There must be a dead cat buried here in the shed. How dreadfully sad. Jean wanted to go and give the poor woman a hug. She knew all too well how the loss of a pet tears at your heart. The grief is as strong as for any family member. They had lost two cats during their married life and both she and Jim had been floored by the emotion.

Jean didn’t think for long. It was only a few paces to the end of the building. She didn’t want to frighten the woman and, so made no effort to keep the noise down, striding over the rough ground, shoes crunching on the stones and splashing in the puddles. Once in front of the door she coughed loudly. Pushing at the damp wood she called out, “Hello. Hello, it’s Jean from the cottage. Are you alright? Can I come in?” She waited. At first there was a shocked silence, which desperately needed to be filled. “I wondered if you were alright. I just came to see if you made it home alright. Hello.” She pushed the door a little further inward.

Before she was able to put a foot inside, the handle was snatched from her hand. The woman’s body filled the space, pushing and jostling at her, forcing her back into the yard.

“No, no, no.”

Jean threw up her hands in a gesture of surrender. “It’s okay, it’s okay. I’m sorry. I just thought…” The speech fizzled. The other woman turned and pulled the door behind her. She was shaking her head violently as she slid the bar of a padlock through the hasp and staple fastening, snapping it locked and pushing the tiny key deep into the pocket of her jeans.

“You can’t go in there. Nobody can, it’s secret. Nobody can go in there.” She turned to face Jean who was backing away in the face of such passion. Now there was a finger wagged in her face, a hand pushing her further and further away. “No, you can’t. It’s private. He’ll be mad, he’ll be mad with me. He’ll come and be mad with you as well.”

It was too much, too much fear, too much emotion. Jean couldn’t cope with it. She turned and began to walk away, back to the fence, though she spotted a gap now that she could walk through. It would be less undignified than a clamber over the sagging wires. The woman followed her, muttering, constantly turning to look back at the small hut.

As Jean reached the farmyard proper she turned. The other woman stood behind the fence her hands gripping the wire, her feet restless, grinding the grass and mud into a soft mess around her wellingtons. She was flushed and frightened and Jean was swept with guilt that she had caused such anguish, although she had meant no harm.

“It’s alright I’m going now. I’m going. Please don’t be upset.” At the final moment she stopped and took the few paces back to the fence her hand held before her, the palm upraised. “If you need me, if you need any help or…” She paused, “If you feel afraid you know where I am. For a little while anyway. Please don’t be upset. I’m sorry.”

There was no response and no other option but to turn and trudge back to the road, out onto the grass verge and towards the village.

It had begun to rain and all she wanted was to get back to the cottage and recover. She was shaken by the happenings of the last few minutes and thought, Lesley was probably right, and she should learn to mind her own business.

Remembering Lesley caused her to heave a sigh, she wouldn’t tell her what had happened. She didn’t need to lie, her sister thought she was working. She would do some work. That was all that was necessary to make it the truth. Then she thought of Doris Smart who would be back from her daughter’s by now. She might be able explain about the woman who lived in this sad, bedraggled place with Stanley Lipscow. She paced on past the stile and along the road to Hawks Farm.

Minding her own business! Well not quite yet.

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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 – 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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