Alison Littlewood’s short stories have appeared in numerous magazines, including Black Static, Crimewave and Not One Of Us, as well as the charity anthology Never Again. Her life writing has appeared in The Guardian. Her first novel, A Cold Season, will be published in January 2012 by Jo Fletcher Books, an imprint of Quercus.
Visit her on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=685364764), at Twitter (@Ali__L) or at www.alisonlittlewood.co.uk
The fog swallowed everything: moorland, colour, sound. Even Ben was silent in the passenger seat. The road was little more than a narrow track winding across what Cass thought of as God’s own country, which she knew to be wide and rolling and open where it lay hidden behind the fog.
Cass caught a glimpse of heather and bracken, everything sapped and rendered colourless. Ahead, the road dipped into a shallow bowl before winding upwards once more. She took her foot from the accelerator and allowed the car to slow.
‘What’s up?’ Ben stirred, and she realised he had been asleep. ‘Where are we?’
‘Saddleworth Moor.’ Cass braked to a halt and gestured down into the dip. ‘Isn’t it weird? You’d think the fog would gather here, but it’s clear.’ She turned to him. His face was closed, uninterested. ‘You should take a look. You won’t see much of the moor in this fog.’
He shrugged. Don’t care.
Cass gripped the wheel once more and took her foot from the brake. As the car began to move, she slammed it down again.
Ben jerked forward and scowled. ‘What’s that for?’
Cass continued to stare down into the bowl.
Ben followed her gaze. ‘There’s nothing there.’
Her son was right, but Cass tightened her grip on the wheel anyway. ‘Didn’t you feel it?’ She took her foot off the brake and the car rolled. ‘It’s going the wrong way.’
This time Ben saw. He straightened, looking back the way they had come.
Cass eased off the brake and the car rolled further, back. Up the slope. ‘Damn,’ she said, under her breath. She felt dizzy. ‘It’s a hill.’
‘What are you on about?’
‘I’ve heard about this. It’s – I don’t know, Ben – some kind of optical illusion. It looks like a dip but it’s really a hill. We’re on an upward slope, not downward.’
Ben’s face lit and Cass felt a surge of something. Hope? Joy? She wasn’t sure.
‘Wow,’ he said.
She reached out and rubbed his knee. ‘Feel. I’ll let it roll.’
‘Go on, Mum.’
Cass grinned, easing off again. The car started to roll back, slowly at first, then picking up speed. A sound blared into the silence, cutting through the air and dopplering away as a dark shape shot past them. Headlights made everything brilliant; then it was gone. Cass stamped on the brake once more.
‘Mu-um,’ Ben complained. His face was closed again, the way it had been when they started this journey. The way he had been since Cass had told him his father wasn’t coming back.
‘Sorry.’ Cass checked the mirror, seeing only a solid grey wall. She eased down on the accelerator, going forward this time. Despite this, the car slowed again. Cass accelerated harder but the car stopped anyway and she let out her breath.
‘Mum, stop messing about.’
The car rocked on its wheels and rolled back. Cass braked heavily, leaning forward, gripping the wheel and staring out at the road. It felt as though something was pushing them, but there was nothing: only that dip, a round, natural bowl as though a giant football had landed in soft earth.
She accelerated until the engine roared and suddenly the car was free and shot forward.
Ben made an exasperated sound and crossed his arms, turning to stare out of the window.
‘Sorry,’ Cass said. ‘I don’t know what that was.’
‘You’re doing it.’
‘No – it must have been the wind or something.’ Cass’ heart raced. Her hands felt slippery on the wheel. It hadn’t felt like the wind.
Her son remained silent.
The car navigated the dip – the rise, Cass reminded herself – and the fog closed in once more, swallowing sound, swallowing the road save for a grey strip in front of the car and the tufts of grass that marked the edge.
Cass tried to decide whether they were going uphill or down, but it took all her concentration to follow the curves of the road. The white wall of fog drew back as the car approached, permitting them a narrow space into which they could see, and closed again behind them. It deadened everything. Cass listened for the steady hum of the car, but it only seemed to be there when she tried to hear it. The fog was a visible silence.
She hadn’t seen another car in a long time.
Ben wriggled in his seat. ‘Are we still on the moor? I don’t like it.’
‘Yes,’ Cass replied, and wondered how she knew that was true. ‘It can’t be much longer.’
She kept her eyes on the road. It was like floating. It reminded her of one of Ben’s video games: she was driving a racing car and the road was nothing but two short lines in front of the stub of a bonnet. It had been impossible to stay between them.
‘What’s that?’ asked Ben. He wriggled in his seat and turned to the window. Cass glanced over to see his breath spreading on the pane, fog coming out of his body and into the car.
‘Don’t,’ she said, and then thought, Why not?
Ben raised a hand and spread it on the glass. Each finger left a dark smudge in the mist. He pressed his face to the window.
‘What is it? Ben?’
‘I thought . . . Nothing,’ he said, slumping back into the seat. ‘It’s nothing.’
Cass turned back to the road. The fog retreated as the car went onwards, headlights shining on its white wall, making it look solid. She was still shuffling in her seat as it seemed to dissolve, showing its true nature after all – nothing but droplets of water suspended in the air, a shifting translucent thing. The centre of it curled in on itself, revealing something dark in its heart.
Cass saw a figure standing in the road, its arms held out. There were no features, only shadow.
In that instant Cass remembered the murders that had happened thirty, forty years before. There were murdered children buried on these moors. Had they all been found? She couldn’t remember. She also had no time to think. Even while the idea of lost children formed in her mind she slammed on the brakes and hauled on the wheel. The car slewed and rocked, and then the wheels gripped and she jolted to a stop. Ben jerked forward, was caught by his seatbelt and thrown back into his seat. He didn’t complain this time.
Cass and Ben stared at each other. His face was white. Cass imagined her own was too.
She glanced in the rear-view mirror. The fog was lurid in her brake lights, pressing in close. If another car came along . . . She glanced out to the side. It was impossible to tell how far across the road she’d finished up.
A rattle made her catch her breath. Ben cried out and Cass turned to see a face peering in at his window. Ben leaned away from it, his small arm pressing against Cass’ body. She reached out and drew him in.
A tap on the glass. There was a flash of a hand curled up: not a fist, but the casual shape someone might make when knocking on a door, the knuckle of the index finger protruding. Tap tap tap. There was a large ring on the middle finger, something with leaves and flowers in brightly coloured stones.
Tap tap tap.
‘Ben,’ said Cass, ‘wind the window down.’ He pressed up against her and she remembered she could control the passenger window from her side. She put one arm more firmly around her son and felt for the button with the other. There was a loud whirr and tendrils of fog snaked in, bringing cold, damp air.
‘Thank goodness,’ a voice said. ‘Thank you so much for stopping.’ The figure bent and the face resolved into a woman’s, her dark curls frizzed by the moist air. ‘I’m Sally,’ she said. ‘Are you going to Darnshaw?’
‘We’d better get moving,’ Sally said. ‘You don’t want somebody running into the back of you. It’s a bad place to stop.’
Cass prevented herself from shooting a hard glance at the woman. Sally was in the passenger seat. Cass had kissed the top of Ben’s head and got him to jump into the back, where he was crammed in amid a pile of luggage. Now the woman’s dark oilskin coat filled the space. When she’d climbed in, Cass saw she was wearing boots with fur around the top. One of them looked soaked, as though she had stepped into a bog. There was a smell too, which pervaded the car. Her hair was wet, and her face and voluminous coat were damp and shining.
‘Sorry if I gave you a scare,’ said Sally. ‘I’ve broken down further back along the road.’
‘Oh,’ said Cass. ‘I didn’t see a car.’
‘It’s pulled into a lay-by.’
Cass hadn’t seen a lay-by either, but she didn’t say so. She could have passed within inches of the woman’s car and not seen it. The lay-by could merely have been a break in the tufts of grass edging the road, maybe not even that.
‘There’s no mobile phone signal up here – I’m lucky you came along. It’s a long walk home.’ Sally laughed. ‘Sharp left bend coming up.’ She went on in this way, punctuating her conversation with directions, and Cass picked up speed. Was it so obvious she didn’t know the road?
‘You’re into the S-bends soon,’ Sally said. ‘We’ll be dropping down towards the village.’ She twisted around. ‘I’ve a son about your age,’ she said to Ben.
He didn’t reply. After a moment Cass said, ‘Does he go to the Grange School?’
Sally smiled. ‘You’re the lady who’s taken a place in Foxdene Mill, aren’t you?’
‘That’s right.’ Small world. Word had spread already.
‘Yes, Damon goes to the Grange. All the kids in Darnshaw go there. It gets good results.’
‘I heard. It’s one of the reasons I came back.’
‘I lived here for a while, when I was a child.’
‘What’s Mrs Cambrey like?’
‘Mrs Cambrey. The head. She sounded really nice on the phone.’
‘She is – yes, she is lovely.’ There was something in Sally’s voice.
Cass glanced at her. ‘I have a meeting with her on Monday.’
‘Of course.’ Sally’s voice brightened. ‘Well, I’m sure she’ll be delighted to see you both. I am. It’s very quiet in Darnshaw. It’s time we had some new blood.’
They fell silent as Cass negotiated the bends. The road had indeed begun to snake down, edged by a steep bank on one side and a high stone wall on the other. Anything else was lost in the fog – but then the car popped out of it and the view spread around them. It was like emerging from a doorway. Cass glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw the fog as a solid line across the road. Ben twisted in his seat to look at it.
‘That’s strange,’ said Cass. ‘It’s stopped, just like that.’
Sally didn’t look around. ‘It happens like that sometimes. It gathers on the tops. When you drop down a bit it’s as clear as day. Look!’ She pointed. A pheasant stood on the wall. Beyond it was orange bracken, darkened by recent rain, and a few pines growing at a sharp angle. From the corner of her eye Cass thought she saw pale light flashing on water, but it was too late; it had already gone.
Cass remembered something. ‘Sally,’ she said, ‘You know the road further back – it looks like it dips down, like a big bowl.’
Her passenger was silent.
‘We stopped there. It looked like we were going downhill, only we weren’t. We were going uphill all the time. Do you know the place?’
Sally frowned. ‘Can’t say I do. I never heard of anything like that around here. It must have been the fog. It makes everything look different sometimes.’
‘But it really looked like a dip – only, we rolled—’
‘It’s just the fog,’ said Sally. ‘I’d know if there was something like that. I know this road pretty well.’
It was Cass’ turn to fall silent.
‘Here we are,’ said Sally. ‘Welcome to Darnshaw.’
The first houses came into view, a row of terraces built of stone, blackened by passing traffic or smoke. Cass rounded the corner and found herself on a lane that followed the line of the valley. There were turn-offs to each side, where more houses nestled. She saw a general store, a small post office, a butcher, a greengrocer and a florist. To each side, steep hills rose to an opaque grey sky.
‘You’ve gone past,’ said Sally. ‘That was your lane. Still, if you don’t mind carrying on a bit, you could drop me at home.
Cass nodded. She tried to glance down side roads as Sally pointed out a small park and the school. She told them where various walks began, mostly following the river. Then she indicated the road where she lived: Willowbank Crescent. It was ordinary-looking, the houses built from brick rather than the local stone. Sally gestured towards a small semi and Cass realised the woman was shivering.
‘I suppose you won’t want to come in,’ Sally said, reaching for the door handle. ‘You’ll want to settle in and all that? Well, thanks again.’ She smiled, got out and pushed the door shut behind her.
Cass turned round in a driveway and headed back down the road. As she passed the house, she saw that Sally was still watching. Cass waved and turned onto the main road, only then realising she hadn’t given Ben a chance to jump back into the front seat.
‘We’ll be there soon,’ she said over her shoulder.
There was no answer. Cass slowed and turned, saw her son frowning.
‘I don’t like it,’ he said. ‘The lady smelled.’
‘Ben, that’s rude.’
‘She smelled bad and I hate it here.’
‘You need to give it a chance. I loved it when I was your age.’ Even as she said the words, Cass found herself wondering if that was true. And yet when she had heard the name Darnshaw again, she had pictured Ben here, running about the hills and laughing. Enjoying an idyllic childhood, everything she wanted to give him.
‘She smelled like a butcher’s shop.’
‘Oh, Ben.’ She didn’t know what to say. And there had been a smell, hadn’t there? A musky smell, a little like wet wool. Something else, underneath the earthy moorland – a richer tang, more animal.
Like a butcher’s shop.
Cass grinned at her over-active imagination. ‘Let’s go and see the new place, shall we?’
The mill glowed amid wintry skeletal woodland. From the top of the lane Cass could see a grey slate roof amid the reaching fingers of mature oaks. It would be beautiful in summer. Even now, early in the new year, the stone, sandblasted clean, was mellow and warm-looking. The photographs hadn’t done it justice. She grinned. ‘What do you think?’
The lane led steeply down to a wide gravelled area that crunched under the car’s tyres. It stretched away to either side of the mill, but their eyes were drawn to the front. A central doorway was painted in deep crimson, an etched glass panel proclaiming ‘Foxdene Mill’.
Ben stirred at last. ‘Will there be other kids?’ He slipped his seatbelt off and leaned over to get a better look. The building was four storeys high.
‘Of course there will,’ said Cass. According to the brochure, the mill had been converted into twenty-one apartments: six on each of the lower floors, with views towards either the valley or the millpond, and three penthouses on the top. ‘There are bound to be lots of kids. You’ll have a great time.’
Their apartment was at the back of the building on the left side, so they would have views over both the millpond and the river. Cass had snapped it up as soon as she saw the brochure, though she had opted to rent, not buy. She needed to build a home for Ben quickly, get him settled into something new. Renting meant everything would be provided – beds, wardrobes, tables and chairs. She needed all of those things. They had been hers only while she stayed in Army accommodation, and she couldn’t do that for ever, not without Pete.
When the brochure landed at her door and she saw that the mill lay in Darnshaw, it had felt like fate. She hadn’t even waited for a viewing.
Cass parked by the door. As soon as she stepped out she heard the river, rushing and burbling down the valley. The air smelled green and fresh: woodland after rain. She stared up at the building, spotted the clock tower she had seen in the pictures. The clock had a white face, as she remembered, but no hands. Time was standing still in the valley – that was appropriate. She remembered herself as a little girl, leaning over the garden gate and listening to the river rushing by.
Ben got out and stood by her side. She ruffled his hair and he squirmed, but she didn’t care. ‘Do you smell that?’ she asked.
He wrinkled his nose.
‘Come on. Let’s have a look at the place before we unload.’
‘Where is everybody?’
Cass tapped the entry code into the panel by the door. It beeped and she grabbed the brass handle. ‘I could get used to this,’ she said. The door was double-width and panelled. Probably not original, but it looked grand enough.
The hall was wide and a little cold. To their left a stairway led up, carpeted in red. Mailboxes, each bearing a brass number, were set into the right-hand wall and ahead was a door which must lead towards the ground-floor apartments. The lobby was flagged, the rough-surfaced stones showing the wear of many years.
Cass felt like she already knew the way: up the stairs, through the fire-doors and into the hall. Ben hung back as they went, stomping his feet behind her.
The upstairs hall was as grand as the entrance had been, red-carpeted, wide and lined with white-painted doors. Cass went down without looking to left or right until she stopped in front of one of them. It looked like all the others they had passed but somehow she knew it was theirs. Sure enough, the brass number set into it was a 12.
A delightful apartment with stunning views to the millpond and down the valley, the picture of peace and solitude . . .
Cass pulled the key from her pocket. It had a cardboard tag with the number 12 scrawled on it in biro, along with a dirty fingerprint, a builder’s fingerprint. The mill had been freshly converted. Everything would be new; they were to be the first occupants. Cass felt a shiver of excitement as she pushed open the door. When she turned to smile at Ben, though, there was no expression on his face at all. Cass beckoned him inside.
The apartment’s hall was also lined with white doors, all of them closed except the one directly ahead. Cass went through and found herself in a wide lounge with windows set into two of its walls. She went to the nearest, realising as she approached how large it was. She would be able to sit on the sill quite comfortably, reading a book maybe, or simply taking in the view. She looked out.
The millpond was a line of acid-green between the trees. Between the mill and the water were piles of gravel and sand, with a yellow digger standing desolate among them.
‘Where is everybody?’ asked Ben, and Cass realised it wasn’t the first time he’d asked.
‘It’s a Saturday,’ she said. ‘They won’t be working on a Saturday. They must still be fitting out some of the apartments.’
‘So where are all the people?’
Cass frowned and went to the other window. This one looked over a wide gravel parking area with an outhouse at one end. What looked like bags of cement were piled against its wall and beyond it, a stile led into a field and a path wound towards the river. Behind everything, the hills rose steeply away.
‘Look,’ said Cass, ‘we can walk along the riverbank. Won’t that be nice?’
‘But where are all the kids?’ Ben scowled, his eyes narrowed. There was a gleam in them Cass didn’t like. She turned back to the window and noticed an odd thing. The parking area was completely empty.
‘I want Dad,’ Ben said.
‘I want him back – how’s he going to find us now? He won’t know where to look.’ His face crumpled.
Cass bent and put her arms around her son. Ben’s whole body was hot to the touch and she felt his forehead. He didn’t push her hand away. ‘I want him,’ he repeated.
‘I know. I’m sorry, Ben. But you have to understand, he’s not coming back.’
Ben struggled in her arms and she drew him in closer. Holding him. ‘I want him too,’ she whispered. ‘Ben, I want him too. I do. But we’ll be okay.’ She drew back. ‘It’s you and me now,’ she said, ‘and everything will be all right.’
Copyright © Alison Littlewood 2012