Mum was shouting from downstairs. “Soup’s ready!” Becky quickly slid everything back into the canvas bag, and stashed it back under the bed. She was going to have to find somewhere better to hide it soon. Over dinner, she watched her Mum spooning in soup absentmindedly, as she constantly scanned her phone for messages. She didn’t know who she was anymore. Over the course of a couple of weeks, so much had come out, she was beginning to seriously wonder whether she was even her real daughter. When they had eaten, she went back up to her room, declining the offer of watching a rom-com on DVD. “Got some project work to do, then going to sleep early”. Mum just nodded, and took the bowls through to the kitchen.
Lying on her bed, Becky opened a new notebook. She had written ‘SCIENCE’ on the cover in big letters, to disguise what she was going to write about inside it. There had been so much to think about over the last few days, she needed to get it down on paper, before it all became too confused in her mind.
On the first page, she wrote a date, ‘1646’. Then she continued neatly below that, with double-spaced lines.
‘Thomas Oliphant owned the mill, in 1646.’
‘Was Charity his daughter? Probably.’
‘Did Thomas take Sara into the river? Probably.’
‘(Both their clothes look about right for the 1640s)’
‘What happened to his wife?’
‘Mum was an Oliphant. She lied about her maiden name, and the split with Dad. Lied about having to buy the house here, and lied about being the architect.’
‘Sara was an Oliphant’.
‘1664 Christian Oliphant owned the mill. Son of Thomas?’
‘What happened to Christian?’
After that, it was owned by the Wright family. Bessie is a Wright.’
‘The mill was developed by the building firm of Samuel Vosper.’
‘Tilly is Matilda Vosper. Is she Samuel’s daughter? Not sure.’
Becky stopped writing, and looked at all the question marks on the page. There was so much still to be answered, not least what her Mum had to do with whatever happened in the 1640s, and why it was all such a secret. Not being able to trust her own Mum anymore was deeply confusing for her. She wanted to contact Dad in Exeter, and ask him to pick her up, let her live with him now. But how could she ever explain her reasons, without appearing to be mad? For the first time since the move, Becky felt the tears flowing, as so much emotion and upset overwhelmed her.
She cried herself to sleep.
Next morning, Tilly didn’t appear at the bus, and neither did the two girls. The boys had already got on, grabbing the seats at the back, so Becky sat just behind the driver. As they set off, the woman turned and winked at her. As they were stopping close to the school gates, the driver had to brake hard because a black Range Rover had pulled across in front of it. Becky watched as the door opened and Tilly jumped out, slamming it hard behind her. The car turned around, and drove off fast, with the engine making a growling sound. She saw the registration number, as it was disappearing into the distance. 1 VOS. Dad had often said that personal number plates were vain and tacky. “A sign of no class”, he would snort.
The school day was slow, and her heart wasn’t in it. Nobody spoke to her, and when she passed Tilly in the corridor, the girl turned around to talk to her friend, as if she hadn’t even noticed her presence. At lunchtime, the weather had turned cloudy and breezy, but she sat outside as usual. From her school bag, she slid out one of Sara’s large journals, and began to read it. It felt like the start of a novel. Perhaps that’s what Sara had intended it to be.
‘1641. Thomas Oliphant was an unpopular mill owner. He was frequently accused of giving short weight, and of adulterating the flour. Many villagers complained that the bread they made with it was poor in taste, and too crumbly in texture. Goody Vosper was his chief critic, and went so far as to involve the county magistrate in her complaints. But a year later, the Civil War broke out, and the armies needed food. Nobody is recorded as making any further complaints until 1646. A Parliamentary cavalry officer, one Captain Alexander Mallet, wrote in the army records that, ‘The flour purchased from the local mill of Master Oliphant is poor, and not fit for purpose. In my opinion, the man is a rogue. I have told him to improve the quality, or face the wrath of both the Army and the Magistrate, Mr Septimus Wright’.
Becky raised her eyebrows. So the complaining woman was a Vosper, and the magistrate was a Wright. Sara had done her research well, and she wished she knew where she had managed to find such records. She turned the page, and carried on reading.
‘1646 was a tough time for the Oliphants. Goody Vosper died from an unknown fever, and Captain Mallet was killed at the Battle of Stow-on-The Wold, serving under Sir William Brereton. For now though, the war was as good as over, and Parliament could claim victory. But the villagers saw their chance to take revenge on the Oliphant family. Abraham Vosper accused them outright of being responsible for the deaths of his wife, and Captain Mallet too. He claimed that Goody was poisoned by his bread, to punish her for complaining, and that the unfortunate officer was cursed by the daughter, Charity. The girl had been seen often under the willow tree, and it was believed she was in a trance, communing with The Devil himself. The magistrate didn’t hesitate to arrange a trial for them both, and they were guarded by soldiers in the village hall until it was convened.
Fearful of further retribution, Mistress Anne Oliphant fled with her sons, Christian and Oliver. It was believed she went to live with relatives in Cambridge.
The trial was a farce of course. Thomas and Charity had nobody to defend them, and had to listen as a stream of interested witnesses came forth to accuse them both of all kinds of nefarious acts. Thomas was found guilty of poisoning, and sentenced to hang at the Maltby Gibbet. Charity was to be tested as a witch, with the Ordeal by Water. She would be thrown into the river near the mill.
If she floated, she was indeed a witch, protected by The Devil.
But if she sank to the bottom and drowned, she was innocent. And her soul would be with God.’