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Don't Leave by Pru Heathcote Book

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Overview: JANE is a young woman grieving for her child, who is taken to a remote holiday cottage on the Northumberland coast. From the moment she arrives at the cottage with her much older and over-protective husband, Peter, Jane keeps catching glimpses of a little girl and hearing a child crying. Peter is convinced these are hallucinations, as Jane has been diagnosed with schizophrenia – a diagnosis she doesn’t agree with. She sets out to discover who or what the child could be. A ghost? A real child? Or something else?


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Don't Leave by Pru Heathcote Book





Don't Leave by Pru Heathcote Book Read Online Chapter One


‘Oh, all right, Whisky. I know you’re hungry.’


The sleek tabby cat sidled round the woman’s ankles as she made her way to the kitchen. She glanced out of the window. The sea was calm and deep blue-black today. Forty years of living here had taught Peggy Mortimer how to forecast the weather by the ever-changing colours of the sea. There were grey banks of cloud on the horizon, so it would be cool and misty by the afternoon.


At the kitchen door, she paused. ‘Better check on the bairns first.’ She pushed open the nursery door and looked with satisfaction at the three white cots neatly arranged around the room. ‘Arabella today, I think,’ she said, lifting the bundle from the cot and cradling it in her arms. She rocked it gently, making quiet shushing noises. ‘I think I’ll put you in your new blue outfit.’


The cat meowed impatiently in the doorway. ‘Oh.’ Peggy Mortimer stiffened. ‘I forgot. That couple are coming at eleven and there’s still things need tidying next door. Sorry, Arabella, first things first.’


She tossed the bundle back in the cot, and the white crochet shawl unravelled. One chubby little arm flopped out through the bars.


****


 

Jane had been dozing. The car was stuffy and hot, and she woke up with a jolt. She looked out of the window. They were well out of the city now and driving between a wide landscape of soft yellow-brown and green fields rolling on towards the distant Cheviot Hills.


‘You OK, love?’ Peter leant over and squeezed her fingers as they tensed on her lap. She knew he meant to reassure her, but she wished he wouldn’t do that.


‘Nearly there. About another twenty minutes I think.’


Jane stretched her arms, flexing her wrists, and glanced at her watch. They had been driving for nearly an hour now, and she realised it was an hour since she’d had even a passing thought about Angela. The longest time ever. The thought of Angela thumped back into her solar plexus like a heavy blow and the pain came back again as it always did, only this time she felt a wretched, sickening guilt. How could she forget for an hour, for a whole, long hour? The bereavement counsellor told her there would be longer and longer periods between the waves of pain, but she didn’t want that to happen. She didn’t want to lose the pain. It was the one tangible thing, the only real, solid thing that kept her connection with Angela alive.


She tried to focus on the scenery, to appreciate the beauty of the huge, cloudless late summer sky, the swallows swooping low over the wide-open fields, and the dusty gold of the horse chestnut trees lining the road. They had turned off the A1 and its endless stream of traffic now and were on quiet, winding country lanes. Jane shivered. As they came closer to their destination, the bright sun faded quite suddenly to a faint blur of light in a dismal, misty sky. ‘Look, there’s the sea,’ said Peter. ‘We can’t be far.’


The sea lay grey as the sky, in a low-level strip beyond a field dotted with bedraggled-looking sheep and a wall of dark, craggy rocks. They were passing through a village, a small collection of low stone cottages, holiday bungalows, and a more recent development of a dozen or so new builds.


‘The turning’s about half a mile up here, on the left.’ Peter was talking in his unnaturally cheery, mock-excited voice that he always used when Jane was in one of her silent moods. ‘You wait till you see it, the cottage. The location is out of this world. I think you’re going to love it.’


They came to a farm building and next to it turned into a bumpy track deeply rutted by tractor tyres with a muddy strip of grass down the centre. ‘Look, there it is. Two Chimneys.’


The two tall and narrow chimneys, each with two even taller chimney pots, stuck up like pillars beyond a dip in the field, at either end of the just visible line of the roof. Jane’s body ached from tensing herself against the lurching of the car. The track seemed to go on forever. She looked out at the field with its clumps of brambles and yellowing grass. More sheep. And something – someone – else.


There was a small girl running a little way ahead of them in the field, just near enough for Jane to see her long fair hair blowing behind her. She was wearing something red. A tracksuit? As the car drew level with her, the figure stopped quite suddenly and she turned to stare at the car, directly at Jane. She was too far away for Jane to notice any expression on her face, but there was something about her – the forlorn droop of her shoulders that sent an icy wave of melancholy sweeping over her.


‘Peter, look at that little girl,’ she said. It was the first time she’d spoken since they left Newcastle. Peter braked gently and peered out.


‘Where?’ he said. ‘I can’t see anyone.’


Jane glanced at Peter. He was looking in the wrong direction. ‘No, not there. She—’


When she looked back, there was no sign of the child.


‘Perhaps she lives on the farm,’ Peter said. ‘I wonder why she isn’t at school. Don’t they go back this week?’


Yes, thought Jane, and I should have been taking Angela for her first day in Reception.


The cottage lay in a deep dip at the end of the track. It was built of solid grey stone, with an entry porch at each end. There had obviously been some recent work done to update the property. Some of the stones had been replaced with lighter sand-coloured stone and new windows gleamed under the eaves of the slate roof.


Peter leapt out of the car and stretched his arms. ‘What do you think then, Jane?’


Jane didn’t answer. It felt like there was a heavy boulder in her chest, pinning her to the car seat.


Peter had found this place on the internet and been to see it a week or so earlier. He’d hardly talked of anything else. Of course, he’d researched the history. The original cottage dated from the early 1800s, when it had been a bathing house for the aristocratic family who lived in the big house near the village. It had been derelict for years until the 1940s when a retired doctor from Berwick had bought it, extended and renovated it as his retirement home, and his grandson was the current owner. Now it was divided in two, the larger section used as a holiday and sometimes longer-term let, and the small section on the end was occupied by a woman who oversaw the letting and upkeep of the property.


‘We’ll have to get the key off Mrs Mortimer,’ Peter said, opening the passenger door for Jane. He lowered his voice. ‘She’s a funny old stick, looks a dead ringer for Morticia Addams, but don’t worry. I think she’s the type that keeps her herself to herself.’


Jane sat quite still. She didn’t want to get out.


‘You know, Jane, if you really don’t like it, you don’t have to move here. But at least give it a look over, eh?’


Mrs Mortimer took some time to answer. They saw a dark shape behind the frosted glass panes on the top half of the door. It opened just a crack, and a face peered out at them – a long, pale, bony face. Jet black eyes, beaky nose, black hair – probably dyed, Jane thought – scraped back into a tight knot. She could have been any age between fifty and seventy, it was hard to tell, especially as she had whitish powdery make-up on her face, and eyebrows that had been painted on with a thick black pencil. She looked at them without a trace of a smile.


‘Ah, Mrs Mortimer, good morning.’ Peter beamed at her, her blank expression making him uneasy. ‘Er – good to see you again. This is my wife, Jane. She’s come to have a look at the cottage?”


‘Yes.’ She nodded. ‘I was expecting you. I have the key ready.’ She had a strong local accent, but spoke slowly, and with an old-fashioned clipped pronunciation, as if she were trying to sound correct and proper, or ‘talk posh’, as Jane’s nan used to say.


Mrs Mortimer didn’t look at Peter or Jane as she led them to the door. Peter had been hoping she would just let them in and leave them to look round on their own, but she unlocked the door and walked in ahead of them. It was pleasantly light and clean inside, with a smell of fresh paint and furniture polish. Pale grey paint, spotless wooden floors, pine furniture, and tasteful seascapes on the walls – it all looked perfect. Mrs Mortimer, wearing a black cardigan buttoned to the neck and a black knee-length skirt, ushered them in to the gleaming kitchen. ‘It’s a fully equipped kitchen – microwave, fridge-freezer, double oven – all the usual requirements,’ she said, with something like a smile twitching the side of her mouth as she ran her hand over the new granite worktop.


‘And this is the living room.’ She marched ahead of them. ‘Quite comfortable, I think you’ll find.’


Jane looked around. She hadn’t realised from the other side of the house just how close it was to the sea. A wide low window looked out on a little strip of mown grass, enclosed by a dry-stone wall, and beyond that was a sheer drop down to the sea, now a pearly grey expanse flecked with white and stretching out to the distant horizon.


‘Excellent. Excellent.’ Peter bounded over to the window. ‘Just what we’ve been looking for, isn’t it, Jane? Oh, and will you look at that view? The sea’s so close it feels just like we’re sitting on a ship, but without all that queasy bobbing up and down.’


Jane felt her stomach clench with irritation. She hated it when he talked in that hearty way, trying to sound upbeat – what he called ‘jollying you along’. It never worked.


To the right, the coastline curved a little, revealing a steep cliff with jagged black rocks below.


‘I think there’s a little sandy beach just below the garden wall there,’ Peter said. ‘But it’s almost high tide now, so we can’t see it. There are some steps down, aren’t there, Mrs Mortimer?’


She nodded. ‘Yes. Slippery, mind. You have to watch how you go. But it’s private, you’ll find. No one can get to it unless they use the steps from here.’


‘Just think, Jane, if we get a nice warm autumn, you’d be able to sit there and do your writing and sketching and have the beach all to yourself.’ Peter put his hand on the window catch. ‘May I open it for a moment?’


‘If you like,’ said Mrs Mortimer. She was standing very still and upright, with her hands clasped in front of her. A blast of cold air and the quiet hiss of the waves came in as Peter opened the window. He leant out and breathed in noisily.


‘Come on Jane, breathe in this air. Marvellous. This’ll blow the city cobwebs away, all that salty spray too. You can smell it in the air.’


Jane shivered: ‘It’s rather cold. Shut the window, Peter.’


‘Cold? Nonsense. Bracing, not cold. Anyway, we love it, Mrs Mortimer. I think we’ll take it, won’t we, Jane?’


Jane stood up; her apathy replaced by annoyance. ‘Just a minute, Peter. We haven’t even had a chance to discuss it yet.’


‘What’s to discuss? Come on, love. We’ll not find another little gem to rent at this price. What a position. It’s perfect.’


‘I’m just thinking – it’s a little bit remote, perhaps, so far from the road? It’d be OK when you’re here, Peter, but what about when you’re at work – or away?’


Peter turned to Mrs Mortimer. ‘Ah but Mrs Mortimer, you’ll be just the other side of the wall in the adjoining cottage, won’t you?’


She nodded, unclasping her hands. Jane noticed that her fingernails were painted a vivid shade of crimson. ‘Of course. I’ll keep an eye on her, don’t you worry.’


Jane felt she might scream but kept it in check. ‘I am here in the room, you know,’ she said. ‘And I don’t need anybody keeping an eye on me, thank you. It is a lovely house, yes, but I really don’t want to be stranded in the back of beyond. I’ll only agree to come here if I can come off the medication and have my own car.’


Peter put his arm round her. ‘It’s OK, darling. We’ll talk about that later.’


‘I’ve had interest from another couple.’ Mrs Mortimer was looking at her watch. ‘You’ll not have to delay too much in making a decision.’


‘Right,’ said Peter, raising a questioning eyebrow at Jane. ‘Shall we have a quick look upstairs?’


Peter bounded ahead of Jane up the stairs leading to two bedrooms and a tiny all-white bathroom, spotless and newly furnished, with deeply sloping ceilings. Peter had to bend his tall frame to peer out of the window under the eaves. ‘Jane, come and look at this. This is what we’ll wake up to every morning.’


Under the huge sky the sea stretched out to the long low horizon.


‘Isn’t this what you need, darling? Peace and quiet, complete rest and tranquillity?’


‘How long for?’ said Jane, sitting on the bed with its neat white bedspread.


‘Well, how about we take it till December to start with? Then we can take stock, see how you’re feeling. ‘


There was a long silence. All her instincts were screaming NO! The isolation, the weird woman…it didn’t feel right. But she found herself nodding. ‘Yes, all right then.’


She came and stood beside Peter at the window, still gazing at the view. ‘I’d better pop down and tell Mrs M we’re having it,’ he whispered.


When he’d gone Jane stood a while and looked out of the window. She could hear Peter and Mrs Mortimer’s murmured conversation downstairs. She wondered if he was telling her about Angela, what he was saying.


Just as she was turning to go back downstairs, Jane caught a flash of red at the bottom of the cliff, down among the rocks. It was the little girl. She saw clearly the child’s blonde head bobbing about between the large boulders that littered the shore. The tide was coming in fast, the waves rippling over the rocks, swirling and crashing dangerously close to the child. She wore a red top, and her thin arms stretched wide as she balanced herself, jumping from rock to rock. Jane’s heart was thumping. She’d have to alert someone before the little girl was cut off. Where on earth were her parents? She couldn’t be much older than seven or eight.


‘Peter?’ She turned to call down the stairs. ‘Peter?’ When she looked out again there was no sign of the little girl.


Jane ran down the stairs. Peter, always anxious and alert, was at her side. ‘What’s up?’


‘I thought I saw – no, I did see – oh it’s nothing,’ She felt awkward and foolish. Peter was looking at her quizzically.


‘Well, I’ve told Mrs Mortimer we’ll be here at least until Christmas. Maybe longer.’


‘It can be bleak here, in the winter,’ said Mrs Mortimer, still holding herself stiff and aloof. ‘As you know, it’s a quarter of a mile to the road, three to the village.’


‘Not a problem.’ Peter beamed, rubbing his hands together. ‘We’ll make it cosy, won’t we, Jane? Can’t wait to get that log burner blazing away.’


Mrs Mortimer was at the door, holding it open for them.


‘I’ll be in touch about when we plan to move in,’ Peter said. ‘Probably Friday week, if that suits you?’


‘I daresay it will.’


In the doorway Jane paused. ‘Mrs Mortimer, do you live here on your own?’


‘I do. Unless you count my cat.’


‘It’s just – well, I saw a little girl just now, playing on the rocks. I thought it might be your granddaughter visiting, perhaps?’


‘No. I don’t have grandchildren.’


‘Oh. Holidaymakers on a walk I expect. Although I didn’t see adults with her – or anyone. I was worried about her.’


Mrs Mortimer’s mouth tightened into a thin line. ‘I doubt it. We don’t get that many walkers along this particular stretch of coast. The old coastal path long since eroded away, and now there’s far too many rocks and dangerous drops. Not good for walking.’


‘Oh, OK. Perhaps I just imagined it,’ Jane said, although she knew she hadn’t.


‘Yes.’ Mrs Mortimer shut the door behind them and locked it with a firm click. She didn’t say goodbye or turn to watch them as Peter started the engine and manoeuvred the car round from the gravelly patch outside the cottage. Jane glanced in the wing mirror and saw her marching back to her side of the house.


‘What a peculiar woman,’ she said as they bumped back up the track to the road.


Peter laughed. ‘Isn’t she. Don’t think she cracked her face into a smile once. And she’s got a cat. Definitely a witch, Jane. ‘


‘Don’t say that,’ snapped Jane. ‘Not every eccentric woman with a thin face and a cat has to be a witch, Peter. It was people like you who got so many harmless old women burnt at the stake in the past, you know.’


‘I know, I know. Just having a joke. You remember what those are don’t you, jokes?’


She tried to ignore the put-down, but it stung. There was a hard lump in her throat as she felt the tears pricking her eyes and she wanted to say, Oh, sorry that losing my child has destroyed my sense of humour. But she was in no mood to start an argument.


They drove on in silence. The sky had darkened and rain began to pelt against the windscreen. Peter turned on the wipers and they stared out at the empty road ahead.


It was nearly ten minutes before she spoke again.


‘I did see her, Peter. The little girl in red. She was there.’



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