This is the whole of my recent twenty-five part fiction serial, in one post. It is a long read, at 29,445 words.
It was the first time they had moved, as far as Becky was concerned anyway. Mum said that they needed to live in a smaller house, as Dad couldn’t afford to keep paying for the big one, now he had that new family. Becky didn’t really care, as she had never liked her room that much, and the house just had bad memories for her, with all the arguments. And it wasn’t such a wrench to change schools, as she would have been going to a new one anyway, after her eleventh birthday at the start of the summer.
She kept out of the way as the men removed all the boxes, and some of the furniture. Dad was keeping some of it, Mum had told her, and he would be picking it up later. She had seen photos of the new house. It was quite small, and very old. Mum said it was part of an old watermill, converted into one two-bedroom house, and some flats. Mum had been so excited that the big wheel of the old mill was still attached, though of course it didn’t work anymore.
By the time they were ready to leave, it was getting late. They stopped halfway, to have dinner at a McDonald’s. Becky wasn’t usually allowed what Mum called ‘junk food’, but this was an exception, as it would be too late to cook before bedtime. When they got to the house, it wasn’t quite dark. The men had put all their stuff in the rooms, reading all the details Mum had written on the boxes in marker pen. Then they had put the spare key back through the letterbox. Mum got busy with making the beds, and she told Becky to have a look around.
The courtyard where residents parked their cars was the only outside space, and she thought she might miss her garden. But the riverbank alongside the house stretched a long way into the distance, and a lovely weeping willow draped its branches close to the small, fast-flowing stream. Becky thought she was going to like it here, and she had two days to explore, before school started. When she went back in, Mum had made the beds, and was already on the computer. She worked from home, so had arranged for the Internet connection well before they moved. She looked up as Becky appeared. “Clean your teeth and get ready for bed, Becks. I will be up in a minute”.
Her room was one floor above Mum’s, and reached by a closed-in staircase that felt very steep to walk up. It was in what had once been the attic, she guessed, and had a huge dormer window on one side, overlooking the stream. Most of her stuff was still stacked in boxes, but she got her nightdress out of an overnight bag, and her i-pad too. When Mum came up, she asked for the wi-fi password, and connected her pad. Mum smiled. “Not too long on that now, love. I know there’s no school tomorrow, but it’s been a long day”. She kissed her daughter on the cheek, and headed back down to catch up on her work.
Despite being so far up in the house, the connection was good. Becky was soon logged on to Facebook, and also looking up some facts about the area that she lived in now. She changed her status to show she had moved, but nobody commented. Her few friends were too far away now, so she supposed they would soon forget her. But Dad sent her a message, hoping she would like living in such an unusual new house. He was supposed to have had her that weekend, but it had all got changed because of the move. Now he said he couldn’t take her until the end of the month, as the distance made things more difficult.
It was strangely quiet in the room. Mum had told her that two of the flats were still for sale, and the third was only being used as a weekend place. So there were no neighbours to disturb them yet. Mum had been right about the long day, and Becky was feeling tired much sooner than she had expected. But in the unfamiliar room, she left the small bedside lamp on as she snuggled down in bed, just for reassurance.
As she was drifting off to sleep, it was the smell she noticed first. Like clothes that are damp, and haven’t dried properly. Or maybe a wet dog, when it has been in some water. Her uncle’s dog Biffo used to smell like that, when they went to visit him. Biffo was always in the nearby lake, and never dried off properly.
The sudden sound of someone talking to her would usually have frightened the wits out of her, but for some reason it didn’t.
“Can I see your picture?” It was a girl’s voice, at normal volume. Becky opened her eyes and saw a girl kneeling by the bed, her hand outstretched close to the i-pad.
“It’s not a picture, it’s an i-pad”, she replied. The girl was dressed strangely, with a shabby cotton dress, and a white cap on her head. Her skin was very pale, and there were some wisps of blonde hair visible under the cap. “Can I see it anyway”, she asked again. Becky picked it up, and handed it to the girl. She noticed her teeth were uneven, and some of them looked black too. The damp clothes smell was coming from her, and got stronger as the girl leaned forward.
“Is it a mirror?” Becky grinned. She must be teasing her, everyone knew what an i-pad was.
The girl put it back on the bed. “What’s your name? Mine is Charity Oliphant, and I am ten”.
“I’m Becky, well Rebecca really. Rebecca Webster. And I am eleven. Do you live here?”
“Of course I do, I live at Wright’s mill”. That was the right address, Becky knew that. Their house number was number one, Wright’s Mill. The i-pad suddenly started to slip off the bed, and Becky lurched forward to catch it.
When she looked up again, the girl was gone.
Eating a bowl of muesli the next morning, Becky was pondering on whether to say anything to her Mum. She decided to approach the conversation in a roundabout way.
“Mum, is it right that nobody else is living here yet?” Mum didn’t even look up from her i-pad.
“I told you, we are alone here. At least until the flats are sold, or someone comes to use the weekend place”. Becky acted surprised.
“Oh, it’s just that I saw a girl last night, and she said she lives here”. Mum put the pad down. “Where did you see her then?”
“She was in my room when I went to bed. I think there must be a connecting door or something. She said her name was Charity”. Mum’s reaction was a grin.
“Oh really? In your room? I think you must have had a vivid dream, love. That’s understandable, in a strange new house. At least it was a nice dream”.
Becky decided not to argue about it. “I think I will get dressed and have a look along the riverbank while you’re working”. Mum nodded, engrossed in what she was reading. “That’s OK, but be careful of the river. I know you’re a good swimmer, but that water flows fast. And don’t go too far from the house”.
The water was flowing fast. Becky threw a small stick into it, and watched as it was whipped away across the bubbling surface. It would have been nice to have got a dog, but Mum had said no to that. “You will be at school all day, love, and I have to work. I simply can’t cope with a puppy at the moment”. She was still imagining a small dog running at her side when she got to the weeping willow.
Charity was sitting underneath the overhanging canopy of branches, her back against the trunk, and her legs stretched out. She had nothing on her feet, and they were filthy too. Worse than just dirty, literally black with ingrained dirt. She smiled as Becky appeared. “This is my tree, this is. It tells me things, this tree does”. Becky knelt down near her, not too close, to avoid the smell coming from the girl. “What does it tell you, Charity?” The girl reached an arm around the trunk, stroking it with stubby fingers. “Anything I need to know, Rebecca”.
Ignoring the comment about the tree, Becky decided to ask her something. “You said you lived here, but me and my Mum are the only people here at the moment. So where do you live?” Charity smiled, showing those black teeth. She pointed to the buildings behind. “There, I live there. Wright’s Mill. So you are not the only ones”. Becky’s eyebrows raised, but she decided that now wasn’t the time to start falling out with the only other child around. “Oh, alright then. I suppose my Mum must have got it wrong”. The girl’s face looked serious as she replied. “Yes she has. She gets lots of things wrong. The tree tells me what she gets wrong. It will tell you, if you ask it properly”.
Standing up, Becky carried on walking. She thought the conversation was getting silly now, and Charity was being rude. “I’m going for a walk. See you later, Charity”. She marched off without waiting for a reply. When she looked back moments later to see if the girl was following her, there was no sign of her under the tree.
Mum drove them into the village to eat that night. She had booked a table at the only restaurant there. It was in a nice big conservatory, attached to the local pub. The waitress was an elderly lady, dressed all in black, with a white apron around her waist. They were the only diners in there, at six-thirty. Some local people were already sitting drinking in the bar area, and they all seemed to be glancing at them, interested in the newcomers. As the waitress wrote down their order, Mum tried to appear friendly. “We have just moved in to the old mill. You know, Wright’s Mill. I wanted to try this restaurant tonight, it’s good to get to know the local area”. The older woman just grinned. “I will bring your drinks, madam”. Mum ignored her rudeness, and smiled at Becky, shrugging her shoulders. “Looks like it is not so easy to get accepted round here, Becks. Oh well, give it time.”
The food was very good, and cheap too, so Mum said. When the waitress brought the bill, Mum tried again. “We are the only ones that have moved into the mill so far. I am looking forward to meeting the others, once the rest of the flats have been sold. Do you know anyone who is moving there?” The woman checked the cash that Mum had given her, and replied without meeting her gaze. “Nobody from here will ever buy a flat at Wright’s Mill. Only outsiders like you would want to live there”. Before Mum could ask what she meant, the waitress turned, and quickly disappeared through a door marked ‘Staff Only’.
Back at the house, Mum was on the computer again as soon as she sat down. Becky put the TV on, and watched an episode of a teen soap opera. When it finished, Mum reminded her that she had to sort out her new school uniform for Monday. “We will have to be up and about early, Becks. It’s a forty minute drive into town to get to the school. Remember?” Becky nodded, but she hardly remembered their visit to the school. A sixties built low-level group of buildings, spread around a large sports field in the centre. The uniform was dark green, with a yellow badge and a green and yellow striped tie. “The colour suits you, love.” Mum had said.
When she got upstairs to look though the new uniform items, Becky could smell that distinctive odour.
Charity was sitting on her bed.
Charity didn’t look very friendly. “You told your Mum about me. You shouldn’t have done that, Rebecca. She won’t believe you, and if you carry on, then she will have you locked away. You should be more careful”. The girl’s expression made Becky feel uneasy, but she wasn’t about to let this scruffy kid scare her. “She said you were a dream. Maybe you are, for all know. I could be imagining you”. Charity picked up the green and yellow tie, from where it was draped over the headboard. She wrapped it around her hand, then with a deep chuckle, threw it across at Becky. “Can a dream do that? Tell me if a dream can do that?”
Going on the offensive, Becky raised her voice. Perhaps Mum would hear, then she would come up and see for herself “So what do you want? How do you get into my room? Charity was unfazed. “What do I want? I want nothing. You have come to live in my house, and sleep in my room. I want nothing from you, just to help you. You should know the secrets of the tree, and what wisdom it can bring you. You will find life hard in this village, believe me”. Becky turned and left the room, hoping to get Mum to come up and see the girl, so she would know it wasn’t her imagination. As she ran downstairs, she could hear that she was on the phone. “Yes, it’s Cathy Webster. I have just sent you the revised designs, and I am waiting to hear back from you before proceeding with the cost estimates”.
Mum was sitting at the tiny desk set up under the front window, her big PC screen lit up with an intricate architectural design. Charity was standing next to her, smiling. She pointed at the screen. “Your Mum is drawing on glass with her finger. She’s either very clever, or a witch. And she’s talking to herself too, that’s a sign of possession”. Watching from the foot of the stairs, it was clear to Becky that Mum had no idea that Charity was standing right next to her. And she obviously couldn’t smell the strange musty odour that pervaded the small living room. Speaking in a low whisper, she beckoned the girl over. “Leave my Mum alone. Let’s go back upstairs, Charity”. Becky tried to make her tone chatty and friendly, covering up the fear that her voice was beginning to betray. She turned and started up the stairs, but Charity didn’t follow her. When she looked back to see where she was, the girl had gone.
Although she was only eleven, Becky was a bright girl, and not usually scared of anything. There was no point upsetting Mum by discussing what was going on, so she resolved to try to investigate the mystery herself. She got onto her i-pad and looked up Wrights Mill. There was a lot of stuff about the renovation, and estate agent sites offering the flats for sale. Ignoring all that she kept going until she found a local history website. It hadn’t been active since 1986, and information about the mill was sparse. But even those few lines started to give her a taste of what she might be able to find out.
‘The mill was first recorded in the parish in 1590, with the miller named as one Josiah Oliphant. It is believed to have passed to his son, Thomas Oliphant, and Civil War records show it as a source of flour for the Parliamentary Army, in 1646. The last record of the mill in use is mentioned in 1664, with the miller named as Christian Oliphant. The building fell into disrepair after that, and the ownership was the subject of some legal disputes between members of the Wright family, in the 1770s.’
That was about it, except for some sketches and watercolours of the uninhabited mill done by some famous local artist, in 1895. Becky took out a new notebook, and wrote down the names and dates. She had a whole day free tomorrow, and she already had some ideas. After that, she got a full uniform ready for Monday, and hung it in the wardrobe. Then she put some notebooks and pens into her school bag, placing that by the bed. If Mum checked, she had done as she was asked.
After breakfast the next day, Becky walked around the far side of the building, and headed along the riverbank in the other direction, away from the weeping willow. In places, it was too overgrown, and she had to walk along the country lane for a while. She eventually reached the village after fifteen minutes, and headed past the pub where they had eaten dinner, in the direction of the church spire in the distance. She had looked up St Margaret’s and was pleased to find out that it had been rebuilt in the 1400s, so was suitably old enough for her purpose. Being a Sunday morning, some worshipers were already heading inside for the service. But what she wanted wasn’t inside. The graveyard was on three sides of the church grounds. Judging by a small mound of fresh earth with a bunch of flowers propped up on it, it was still in use. She took out her notebook, and began to search around the oldest looking gravestones, close to the back, and against the fence.
Although they were badly weathered, and the names faded, her young eyes were good. She found the grave of Josiah Oliphant easily, and noted down the names under his. Jane Oliphant, shown as his spouse, then Timothy Oliphant, and Matilda Oliphant. From the dates, it was clear that the last two had died as children. She could find no trace of Thomas, but in a different part of the cemetery, she did find the grave of Christian. Under his name was listed Mercy Oliphant as his spouse, and the names of three children. Faith Oliphant, Percy Oliphant, and Jeremiah Oliphant.
But after inspecting every other headstone there, she could find no trace of any grave containing Charity.
As planned, Becky had left the churchyard before the people came out of the service. She didn’t want to be seen lurking around the old graves, and headed home without lingering in the village.
Mum was on the phone. She was arguing about a contract or something, and using her free hand to drag her hair up, as it it had been electrified. Never a good sign. Avoiding the possibility of being accused of doing something wrong, she hurried up into her room, and started to look through her notes.
It was fairly obvious that her best chance of connecting Charity to one of the deceased Oliphants was through Thomas. He was the only one without a grave, well at least a headstone. She felt sure that if he had been buried there, then the marker would have stayed put. After all, the earlier and later ones were still there. It was only a guess of course, but it seemed to her that the children of Christian might all have died. So she had to go with her instinct, that Charity was a child of Thomas, who had owned the mill during the English Civil War. The next time Charity showed up, she would try to get her to tell her more about herself.
By the time Becky started to feel really hungry, Mum had calmed down. Two large glasses of white wine had helped her mood, and she was humming a song as she cooked spaghetti bolognese for the evening meal. Becky joined in the chorus, and they both fell about laughing when they couldn’t hit the high note. Over dinner, Mum chatted about the new school the next day. How she thought her daughter should do really well, she was so bright, and so on. Becky nodded at the right moments, happy that no more had been said about her ‘dream’. One good thing about Mum always being so preoccupied with work, she had a short memory when it came to such things.
Forced to go to bed early, and with no i-pad, Becky had trouble getting off to sleep. In her mind, she tried to picture the Oliphant family over the years, recalling the appearance of seventeenth century people she had seen in school books, and on TV dramas or films. When Mum was in her room early the next morning, she felt as if she had only just dropped off moments earlier. The journey to the new school was going to be too much for Mum, they already knew that. Forty minutes each way in the morning, then again in the afternoon to pick her up. That was not only going to mean a lot of petrol, but also take a big chunk out of Mum’s day. Then once winter arrived, she presumed the country roads would be bad too. There was a bus that picked up the local kids, but only from the village. Mum had already mentioned that she intended Becky should get that bus, once she was settled in at the school. She would have to walk to the village along the riverbank.
Being the new intake at a big school was never much fun. It was even worse when you didn’t know anyone else. Becky saw the other girls and boys walking in in groups, some chatting and laughing, others messing around. Most of them had gone to the same junior school, and already knew each other. It soon dawned on her that she was the only stranger. The older girls laughed at her in the pristine uniform. Their skirts were too short, their ties undone, and they were wearing make-up, and carrying mobile phones openly. She kept her head down, and followed a sign that read ‘First Years go to the Assembly Hall’. The big arrow underneath showed her the way.
A group of teachers stood on the stage, and a fat woman shouted for everyone to be quiet. A scruffy young man stood up, and read out a list of names, including Becky’s. He had told everyone whose name was read out to stand up, and when around twenty five boys and girls were on their feet, he called out “I am Mr Duncan, and you are all in my class. You are now in 1D. Follow the corridor to room seventeen, and wait for me outside. And quietly please”. He arrived a few minutes later, and unlocked the door. Groups of children who knew each other rushed inside to choose the best seats. The ones next to the windows, or right at the back. But before they could get comfortable, Mr Duncan came in, holding a sheet of paper. “Right, listen for your names, then sit where I tell you. They will be your seats every morning for registration, and you are also to sit in those same seats in every subject class. is that clear?” Nobody answered. “This is so that all the teachers will know your names, from where you are sitting. So I don’t want to hear any moans or complaints. Is that clear?” Again, nobody answered.
When Becky’s name was called, she was shown to a seat one row back from the front, in the middle. The next name called out was Drew Tyler, and he was told to sit next to her. There was some sniggering from the back, and a low whistle. Mr Duncan banged the desk with the flat of his hand, and shouted. “Enough!” We have a lot to get through today, so no fooling around. I tell you now, I won’t stand for it”. The boy Drew was taller than most his age, and had his hair cut so short, he looked bald. He had a long neck, and it was red around where his shirt collar was rubbing. He slumped down next to Becky without turning to look at her. Her heart sank at the thought of having to sit next to this boy in every class for the next school year.
The rest of the day was a blur. Timetables, being shown around the school buildings, an endless list of rules and regulations. A mock fire drill, health and safety around the school premises, and a presentation on school trips, both in England, and abroad. Mum had given her money to buy lunch, so she got a wrap and a drink, then sat outside on her own, away from the others. By the time the bell rang for the end of the day, she was really pleased to see her Mum’s car close to the gate. Becky ran up to the car smiling, and opened the passenger door as the car started up. Turning to fling her school bag into the back, she froze.
Charity was sitting on the back seat, smiling.
Twisting round, Becky sat down in the front passenger seat, and wedged the school bag between her legs. Mum pulled the car out into the traffic stream, and said “Seat belt!” in a loud voice. The smell inside the car was overwhelming. In fact every time Charity appeared, it seemed to get worse. Becky was amazed that her Mum couldn’t smell it, or see the girl smirking behind her. It was going to be an awful journey home, suffering that stench, and not being able to let on that she could see something.
“That Drew Tyler is going to give you trouble, Rebecca. You mark my words”. Her local accent was all Becky had heard all day, even from the teachers. Her own lack of any regional accent was something else that marked her out as different from the others. Dad used to say that country accents like that made intelligent people sound stupid, and him and Mum had worked hard to make sure she had never picked up the one where they used to live. Charity had the same accent as all those kids at school, but she spoke with some care, not using any abbreviated words. She would dearly have loved to ask the girl about her family, and why Drew Tyler was going to give her trouble. But Mum would think she was talking to her.
“The tree has told me all about him and his family. If you want, it can tell you too, and you will be ready once the trouble starts”. Her tone was serious, almost caring. She seemed to be genuinely concerned. Mum suddenly indicated left, and drove into the car park of a supermarket. “I can get most of what we need here. Might as well pick up all the shopping while we are driving past. Have you got any homework?” Becky shook her head. “Not today, it was all about getting to know the school and stuff”. Mum slotted the car into a space near the shop marked ‘Disabled’. She was unlikely to abandon her old city habits, just yet. Becky was hoping she could stay in the car and talk to Charity, but that wasn’t going to happen. “Come on, Becks. You can wheel my trolley. Put your bag in the boot”. She flicked a lever that opened the hatch at the back.
By the time Becky had got behind the car to drop off her bag, Charity had gone.
After dinner, Mum had a Skype call, so Becky went up to her room, and got busy on her tablet. She was searching Parish Records, something she had once seen on a TV detective show. But it wasn’t so easy. Some sites required payment, and her tablet had a parental lock, to stop her spending any money from her small savings account. And she didn’t have access to a credit card anyway. A lot of the pages didn’t scan well on the i-pad either, and she was thinking she might have to ask to use Mum’s PC, say it was a school project. Trouble was, she was always on it herself.
She tried the websites of some local newspapers. They were all defunct now, but some old articles were still online. However, she couldn’t get back any further than some flooding in 1953, which was apparently a big deal in that area then. One blog she read suggested trying Church Records, and mentioned using the local library too. But the nearest library was in the town, right on the other side from the school. Feeling frustrated, she got her clean shirt and underwear ready for the next day, and had an early night.
The second day at school wasn’t going to be as easy as the first. It started with a double maths lesson, and the teacher was the fat woman who had shouted from the stage. Her name was Mrs Waring, and like Mr Duncan, she was far from friendly. Although she wasn’t that old, she acted like she was, and her appearance fascinated Becky. Her boobs were so huge, they seemed to stretch from her chin to her thighs. It was incredible that her short tree-trunk legs could keep her upright, with that weight threatening to pull her forward. And it didn’t help that she was wearing a polo-neck dress that was so tight, it clung to every lump and bump. She came around each desk handing out some test papers, and Becky noticed that she wasn’t wearing a wedding ring. “Right, I want to see what level you are at. You have thirty minutes to complete the questions, starting now”.
Next to her, Drew Tyler blew out his cheeks, and shook his head. Then he stretched out his long legs under the desk, and started to tap his ballpoint pen against the paper. Becky turned over her sheet, and quickly looked at all the problems. She couldn’t believe how easy they were. She could have done all of those a couple of years ago. The rest of the class didn’t seem to agree. There were moans and groans, and a girl at the back called out. “Please Miss, these are too hard. I can’t do any of them”. The school operated a policy of ‘mixed ability’, and it was obvious to Becky that she was definitely going to be held back in such a system. Mrs Waring answered the girl. “You put your hand up to ask permission to speak, not just shout. And I want you to try your best, just do the ones you can”. Under her breath, the girl muttered “Can’t do any then”, but left it at that.
Becky finished her paper in less than ten minutes, then glanced to her left at Drew’s efforts. The first five answers were wrong, and he hadn’t even attempted the next five. He was just sitting grinning, tapping the pen against his front teeth. Becky could see that his neck was still red, and the shirt collar had a grey ring around the top, suggesting he was wearing the same shirt as he had on yesterday. Mrs Waring noticed the girl sitting with her arms folded, looking around. She studied the sheet of paper with the names on, and suddenly called out. “Rebecca Webster, have you finished already?” Becky sat up straight. “Yes miss, I have”. Holding out a hand, the teacher flapped the pudgy fingers into her palm. “Bring it here then”. Standing awkwardly by the desk, she watched as the woman looked at her answers. Sounding almost disappointed, she couldn’t manage a smile. “Ten out of ten young lady. All correct. Sit down”.
As she turned to sit back at the desk, every eye in the room was on her, and Drew was shaking his head as he stared angrily at her.
Perhaps it had been a bad idea to get them all right.
As she hurried to sit back down, Becky failed to notice that Drew had pulled her chair away. That left her sitting back into an empty space, causing her to tip backward, and land heavily on her back. Her legs flew up in the air, and her skirt flapped up around her waist. The whole class roared with laughter at the sight, and the girl who couldn’t do the sums roared “Look at her cute little knickers!” Becky struggled back to her feet and grabbed the chair back from Drew. She was cursing herself for wearing some old knickers with a pattern of small teddy bears. Mrs Waring looked over, shaking her head. “Stop messing around, Rebecca Webster. And the rest of you can shut up too”.
After the morning break, the class had History, with Miss Franzetti. She was very nice, a slim young woman with shiny black hair, and an amazing mouth. She explained that they would be studying the Industrial Revolution; how machines, steam power, and new inventions changed the industrial face of Britain. Becky liked the sound of that, and it gave her an idea too. Then Drew put his hand up. Miss Franzetti looked at the sheet of names. “Drew Tyler, you have a question?” She was smiling, and sounded friendly. Drew grinned. “Can’t we do the Nazis, miss? They were cool”. The teacher didn’t rise to it. “No, I’m afraid Nazis are not in the syllabus this year, Drew. Perhaps in third year, but I make no promises”.
The lesson went well. Miss Franzetti was not bothered by the occasional giggling and obvious lack of attention from some pupils. She got on with the subject, and was quick to answer any questions, explaining things such as how Cotton Mills did away with the need for spinning by hand. As they got to the end of the lesson, she stood up from her desk. “There’s no homework this week, to allow you all to settle in. Does anyone have any questions before you go to lunch?”
Becky’s hand was up before she had time to consider her actions. “Miss, I live in an old watermill. It’s obviously very historical, and I wondered if I can use a school computer to research it. It would be a personal project, and would not affect my other work”. As the teacher thought about her request, a girl called Jessie sitting right at the back muttered. “Ooh, I have a project. Ooh, I live in a watermill. Ooh, I’m so posh. Ooh, and I wear teddy bear panties…”. Everyone else roared with laughter, and Becky sat red-faced, wishing she had kept her mouth shut.
Lunch was eaten alone again, ignoring the jibes about teddy bear panties made by everyone who walked past. Becky was learning when to be quiet.
The afternoon started with science, and they had to go to the big laboratory, in building three. Mr Houghton was a serious-looking young man, and he insisted that they all put on some uncomfortable rubber aprons and plastic safety glasses before he even started the lesson. Becky didn’t care that much for science, but like most things, she found it fairly easy to do. The recent experiences in the school had made her think hard though. She would act dumb for a while, especially in subjects she didn’t care much about.
Mr Houghton made a big speech about dangerous chemicals, before allocating everyone to places around the benches in the laboratory. He stuck pretty much to the arranged seating plan, having to make it more of a standing plan of course. That also meant she was paired with Drew, for the experiment. They had to do something with funnel-shaped jars, adding an acid of some kind to the clear chemical inside, to see if it turned blue. Then the teacher would tell them why that happened, and they would have to write is all down as a record of the experiment. Becky was almost tempted to join in with the groans and head-shaking done by the rest of the class. She really couldn’t see the point of any of this, unless you were set on a career in some boring test lab in the future. Mr Houghton was talking loudly, to make himself heard above the mumbling of the schoolkids. “Be careful with the smallest jar now. That’s acid, and can burn you at that concentration. It should only be handled with the gloves provided”.
Drew slid the big rubbery gloves over to Becky. “You do it, I can’t be arsed with this crap”. He held the larger funnel jar steady, as Becky dripped some of the acid into it. Shaking his head and smirking, Drew shouted. “Oh what a surprise, it’s turned blue! Who would have thought that?” The others laughed, and even Becky had to admit she found it amusing. When every pair had finished, the teacher called out again. “OK class, stand away from the benches, and watch the screen. This will show you what just happened and why it happened”. He turned to switch on the powerpoint projector, and Becky suddenly felt a pain on her foot. Jumping to the side, she saw that the small acid bottle had been tipped over on the bench, and some had run down onto her instep. It had already burned a hole in her tights, and was starting to really hurt her foot. She turned to look at Drew, who was smiling. He spoke very quietly. “Oops”.
At least it got her out of the lesson. She was sent to see Miss Franzetti, who it turned out was also the first aid expert. She took her to the toilets, and made Becky take off her tights, and run her foot under cold water for a long time. When it had stopped hurting, the teacher put a clean adhesive dressing on it, covering the red mark. “It’s not going to scar, don’t worry. I will give you some of the dressings so you can change it, but that acid isn’t as bad as Mr Houghton says it is. I will ring your Mum, and get her to pick you up early. You won’t miss much today now”. Becky smiled at her. “But it burned through my tights miss”. Miss Franzetti just nodded, as if it was nothing at all. “Come with me to the office, and we can call your Mum”.
Mum made a big deal about it when she turned up, and Becky had to plead with her not to go into the school and make an official complaint. Back at home, Mum soon forgot about it, when someone called her from Scotland, asking about a hunting lodge she was designing. Becky decided to go for a walk, and see if she could find Charity. She had a good idea where to look for the girl.
Under the weeping willow, Charity was sitting with her back to the trunk. She pointed at the injured foot as Becky walked up to her. “I warned you about that Drew, I warned you, didn’t I?”
“Show me how the tree tells you things. I want to know all about Drew Tyler”.
Charity smiled at what Becky had said. She shuffled over to her left, creating a space next to her against the tree trunk. “Come sit by me, Rebecca, and I will teach you how to ask the tree. Your thoughts must be open to it, mind”. In the open air, the girl didn’t smell quite so bad, and Becky crawled into the space under the low-hanging branches. Once inside that canopy, she immediately felt cold, though it was a pleasant enough afternoon. The small hairs on Becky’s arm stood up, and a chill ran over her as she placed her back against the trunk. Charity began her instructions. “Now stretch out your arm, and place your hand on the side of the tree. Push it hard, so you can feel the ridges of the bark on your palm”.
As Becky did as she was told, a strange feeling came over her, and she looked round at Charity, her eyes wide with apprehension. The girl chuckled, showing those black teeth, and expelling unbelievably foul breath. “I knew it! I knew you would commune. Now ask what you will of the tree, just as you want”. Despite the strange atmosphere, and the presence of a child who was undoubtedly a ghost that only she could see, Becky felt more than a little silly. Was she really about to ask a tree to divulge secrets? Everything she knew and believed in so far in her short life told her it was ridiculous.
But she did it anyway.
“Tell me about Drew Tyler, and all his secrets”. She spoke in a formal tone, with appropriate solemnity, just like they did in the few horror films she had ever managed to watch.
Then nothing happened.
She was just about to turn to Charity and tell her it was all nonsense, when an overwhelming force seemed to pin her body back against the tree, and her hand felt as if it had become part of the ancient trunk. Charity was giggling now, obviously delighted. Images rushed into Becky’s mind, clearing away every thought, and opening a window onto something she was unfamiliar with.
Drew Tyler was in his house. She instinctively knew it was his house, and she appeared to be seeing it through his eyes. It was untidy, almost unkempt. Washing in piles placed on chairs, a carpet that had not been cleaned in years, and an obese woman lying on a stained sofa, eating sweets from a plastic bowl. The scene changed to another downstairs room, once a dining room, now used as a bedroom. Under the window was a bed like those used in hospitals, and in that bed was a girl, aged perhaps eighteen. Becky knew that it was Drew’s sister, and there was something badly wrong with her. The girl in that bed seemed to have little idea of her surroundings. Although fully grown, with the apperance of a young woman, her head rolled constantly from side to side, and the sounds coming from her mouth made no sense.
Through Drew’s eyes, Becky approached the bed. The girl was twitching, and her eyes seemed to see nothing. Then he was hitting her. Slaps at first, accompanied by low chuckles from him. He slapped her through the bedding, before hitting her legs hard with his fists, and the chuckles became laughter, suppressed laughter. The bedding was pulled away, revealing the girl dressed only in something resembling a baby’s nappy. He began to stroke her body, still laughing. Then there was more, things Becky could hardly believe, or understand. But at eleven years old, she knew enough to know that it was horrible, and she pulled her hand away from the tree with a violent jerk.
Becky was shivering from the cold under the tree, and the strange experience left her leaning forward, vomiting uncontrollably. Charity looked content. “I told you, didn’t I tell you?” Becky spat bile, and sucked in her breath. “But how did you know, Charity?”. The girl spoke softly, kinder in tone. “Rebecca, the tree tells me everything, and it always has done. All I ever wanted was for you to know the truth, and to be free of Drew and his botherings. And so you can. You know what to do now”.
Becky crawled out from under the canopy of branches, relishing the return to the warmth of that nice evening. When she turned back to look, Charity was gone.
Back home, Becky drunk a whole bottle of mineral water. Her Mum seemed worried. “Are you alright, Becks? You look very pale, darling. What do you want for dinner tonight, love?” With those images still fixed in her mind, there was no chance she would even consider eating. “I did feel a bit sick earlier, Mum. Perhaps it was the shock of that acid burn. I might just have a hot chocolate, and some biscuits. Will that be OK?” Cathy was worried about her daughter. “Of course, Becks, you have whatever you want. You know you can talk to me about anything, don’t you?” Mum’s concern lasted about ten seconds, until the phone rang again. It was about the Scottish hunting lodge once more.
Up in her bedroom and finally settled, Becky thought about what had happened at the tree. Everything she had ever known told her it was a fantasy, an illusion. But what she felt inside could not be denied, no matter how hard she tried. So she typed out something on a word document on her rarely used old laptop, and hit ‘Print’ for wireless printing. Luckily, she got back downstairs in time to grab the paper, before her Mum saw it. “Just something for school, Mum. I am having an early night. Good night, love you.” Mum replied with little more than a grunt.
She was busy.
Back upstairs, Becky checked what she had printed.
I KNOW WHAT YOU DO TO YOUR SISTER
I KNOW IT ALL YOU SICK PERVERT
LEAVE HER ALONE
AND LEAVE ME ALONE TOO
OR I WILL TELL EVERYONE
She folded the piece of A4 paper, and placed it in her school bag.
Tomorrow, she would make sure Drew saw it.
Becky was quiet in the car as Mum drove her into town. She was still wondering what to do about the note she had written to Drew, to warn him off. There was no guarantee it would stop him hurting his sister, and it might well backfire on her if he made a big deal about it. After all, what proof did she have? She could hardly tell anyone that a willow tree had given her the information. As Charity had said, that sort of thing might well get her locked up in a hospital. Maybe she would wait, ask the tree again. And who was to say the tree was showing her the truth?
With all this on her mind, she got out at the school and walked off without even saying goodbye to her Mum. Then as soon as she got into class, she realised that it had made her forget something else. They were supposed to be doing Gym class that morning, and she had forgotten to pack her sports kit last night. Mr Duncan said she would have to explain herself to Miss Addington, the gym teacher. The boys were already in the changing rooms, apparently. They would be playing football on the centre field. Miss Addington was having none of it. “I don’t care if you forgot your gear, young lady. You can use some of the donated stuff in the box in the changing room, and I will get you a towel when you have had your shower. Hurry up, I’m going to start without you”. Becky didn’t like the look of anything in the box. But she found some shorts and a top that fitted her, and went back in. She had declined to put any of the old gym shoes on her feet though, so was barefoot.
The rest of the girls were running around in circles, with the teacher blowing on a whistle when they were supposed to speed up, or slow down. Becky tagged on the end of the line, and decided to just do the minimum. Then there was a game where they had to stand in lines. The girl at the front had a ball, and she had to run to the back, and pass the ball over the girls in the line until it got to the front again. This was to carry on until the teacher declared that one line or another had won. But when Becky got to the front with the ball and turned to run back, all the others stamped on her bare feet as she passed them. So that was how it was going to be, Becky thought. No point complaining, she would deal with it later, if it carried on.
Back in class before lunch, everyone laughed as she walked in. Drew had drawn a stupid-looking pair of panties with a teddy bear on them, and sellotaped it to her desk. Mr Duncan didn’t seem to notice. Becky sat down without any indication that she cared about it. But it had made her up her mind. She took the sheet of paper out of her bag, and passed it to Drew. “This is for you”.
He smirked as he opened it, and then his jaw dropped. The colour drained from his face and even his usually inflamed red neck turned white. Without a word to the teacher, he stood up, scraping his chair back. Crumpling the paper into a ball in his hand, he walked straight out of the classroom, not even bothering to take his school bag and sports kit.
That lunchtime, Becky was already feeling better, as she ate a roll and some crisps, alone as usual. When they went into French for the first period of the afternoon, the seat next to her was empty, and nobody knew where Drew was.
She smiled to herself. The tree had been right.
There was something liberating about having no friends at school. She didn’t have to listen to anyone drone on about who was the best looking one in the latest boy band, or which character made them swoon in Game of Thrones. No need to discuss make up, or arrange to meet at some shopping centre on Saturday to look at clothes that none of them could afford. No pressure to go to a burger bar after school to sit with one milk shake and three straws while they pretended to flirt with the older boys, secretly terrified that one of them might actually come over and speak to them. As she waited for her mum to turn up after school that day, she concluded that being a loner suited her very nicely. She was going to work on developing that.
Mum was forty minutes late, and in a shitty mood. Her hair was all over the place, and she was driving the car wearing flip-flops. As soon as Becky’s behind touched the seat, she started raving. “This is not working for me, not working at all. I simply have to get you on that bus, and as soon as, Becks. I cannot be dealing with this crappy journey four times a day. I tell you, I can’t. I had to literally hang up on a very important client who was discussing a really big job. That’s just not acceptable, not professional. I mean, my job pays for everything. Your Dad’s useless with money, and now he’s pissing away what he has got on his precious new family, and not bothering to send what he promised to contribute for you. Oh, and by the way, he’s not taking you as promised. Seems his stupid baby has got a fever, something contagious, and he’s using that as an excuse to get out of taking you for his weekend”. When she paused for breath, Becky said nothing. Then she started again.
“I’m sorry, Becks, but I mean it. he really is useless. Do you think he cares about you anymore? Well I can tell you he doesn’t. He hasn’t even phoned to ask you how you are getting on at school, just sent a text cancelling the weekend. I mean, what sort of father is that? I can tell you now, he wasn’t much of a husband to start with, let alone a good Dad”. She shut up after that, and they drove the next thirty minutes in silence. Becky sensed an edge to her Mum that day, and she didn’t really believe it was about having to reschedule a business call. When they got home, Mum was straight back on her computer, checking emails, so Becky got out of her school uniform and decided to go for a walk.
Charity wasn’t sitting under the tree that afternoon. But when Becky crawled under the overhanging branches and placed her back against the trunk, she could smell the stale odour that indicated the girl had been there earlier. She extended her arm until her hand felt the rough bark. Closing her eyes, she spoke out loud.
“Tell me about Cathy Webster, and all her secrets”.
The feeling was slightly different this time. By asking about her Mum, Becky had expected to see something through her eyes, just like what had happened with Drew. But it didn’t feel like that this time, and she had no sense of being inside Cathy Webster. But she was approaching their old house, that was obvious. As she entered the familiar hallway, she could hear laughter and squealing coming from upstairs. The scene changed to the staircase, moving fast, two stairs at a time. The bedroom door was thrown open, and she could see her Mum on the bed, naked. She was sitting astride a man. He had grey hair, and was very tanned. He wasn’t her Dad.
Then she turned, running back down the same stairs, almost stumbling. From behind, she heard her Mum’s voice calling out. “Robbie, Robbie. I’m sorry!”
Pulling her hand off the tree, Becky shivered, her teeth chattering. It was all clear to her now. All the arguments. Mum had sat her down one evening, telling her that Dad was moving out, because he had a new girlfriend and didn’t love her anymore. But she had lied. It was her with someone else, not Dad. It had all been because of her, not him. Everything that had happened over those past three years was her fault. Mum was a liar, and not to be trusted.
For a moment, she thought about asking the tree something else. She wanted to know about Charity, and if her father was Thomas Oliphant. But the experience with the tree was draining, and she decided to leave it for another time. Once out in the comparative warmth on the path, she soon felt better. And she had a lot to think about.
Mum was still distracted, talking over her shoulder as she sat at the computer. “Just pizzas tonight, Becks. I have already put them in the oven. I have to try to get this hunting lodge job finished by midnight. The ideas and costings all have to be in by tomorrow morning. Sorry I snapped earlier. I’m really stressed at the moment”. Becky chose to ignore her, refusing to give her the satisfaction of making out everything was OK after her outburst in the car. When dinner was ready, she ate in silence. Once they had both finished, she looked across at her Mum. “I will get the bus to and from school, starting on Monday”. Before she could reply, Becky went upstairs to her room.
Charity was sitting on the floor, next to the bed. She was flicking through a book she had taken down from the unit behind her.
“What does it say in this book, Rebecca?” Becky looked at the spine. It was Jane Eyre. “It’s about a young woman who is a teacher, and an older man. It starts as a sad story, but ends as a love story”. The girl dropped the book and looked up. “I told you about your Mum. You asked the tree, didn’t you?” Becky nodded. Charity spoke again. “And you won’t have to worry about Drew anymore. He’s moved away, gone to live with his Dad. His sister will be alright now. You did well. The tree will be pleased. It will grow even bigger”. Taking the opportunity, Becky adopted a friendly tone, and asked the girl a question. “Was your father called Thomas Oliphant, Charity?” Her reply started with a chuckle, and a flash of the black teeth. “You’ve been snooping around the churchyard. I saw you. You won’t find what you want to know there, believe me, Rebecca”.
Trying another angle, Becky smiled. “What if I asked the tree?”
Suddenly, she was on her back, surprised at the weight of Charity on top of her. The foul breath made her wince, and the look in the girl’s eyes was terrifying. Her voice was like a growl, menacing, and terrible. “You never ask it about me or mine, do you hear me? If you ever do I swear things will get very bad for you, worse than you can ever imagine, Rebeca Webster”.
Before Becky could regain her wits, Charity was gone.
She had to admit that had scared her. Charity had gone from sitting on the floor to knocking her down in the blink of an eye. There was obviously something very bad in her family history that she didn’t want anyone to know, but how serious was the threat about not using the tree to find it out? Becky had a thought, and turned on her i-pad. She started to search about willow trees and ghosts, and found a lot of stuff about tree spirits. It turned out it was one of the oldest supposed superstitions, especially in the British Isles. At one time, some trees were actually worshiped, and had signs and faces carved on them too. But there was nothing specific about weeping willows, and it was mostly about oak trees. Then there was a lot more modern stuff, hugging trees, talking to trees, and dancing around trees. Around the time her Mum was a baby, it had been all the rage with the alternative sort of people.
Then she had another idea. She searched the name Oliphant. When that came back with too many hits, she added ‘Lincolnshire’, for local information. One post was about the mill, the one she had already seen. But she found the Facebook page of a woman called Sara Oliphant. She claimed to be a clairvoyant, and offered Tarot readings, healing crystals, and other mystical stuff. There was a link to a website, so she clicked on it. You could make an appointment to see her, and she only lived four miles away, in the opposite direction to the town road. Becky filled in her contact form, and said she was a school girl doing a project, wondering if Sara was prepared to help her with something. She pressed ‘Send’, then bookmarked the page.
As she put the i-pad down, the familiar smell overwhelmed the room. She felt the breath on her neck, realising Charity was right behind her.
But the voice that started speaking wasn’t Charity’s.
“Why are you asking about me, girl? What mischief are you planning?” The voice was deep, the accent local, and strong. Becky was too terrified to turn around, and swallowed hard before answering. Her voice wouldn’t seem to work properly, and came out faint and weak. “No mischief, I promise you. I am just trying to find out what happened here”. From what he had said, she felt sure that it must be Thomas Oliphant, Charity’s father. He had that same awful smell about him, and from the feel of him behind her, Becky guessed that he was not a tall man. “You’ve been warned you have, so take heed. Don’t go messing with things you don’t understand, you hear me?” Still too frightened to turn, Becky just nodded.
Then he was gone, and the smell with him.
That had really scared her. It had never occurred to her that there might be others like Charity here. Perhaps the whole family was lurking in and around the house. She rubbed both arms vigourously, to try to get them warm. He seemed to have brought a chill with him, like the one that was always under the tree.
Despite that experience, it made her all the more determined. She had to contact the clairvoyant, Sara Oliphant, and arrange to see her soon. But when she checked her emails, there had been no reply. She looked at the website again, in case the woman had replied there. Nothing. Becky sent another contact form message. This time she added her address, hoping it would prompt Sara into action. With not much more she could do, she decided to go to bed early again, and hope that there were no other visitors to her room that night.
At school the next day, Mr Duncan called her to one side and told her about the bus that picked up from her village, handing her a timetable. It seemed that Mum had phoned the school earlier, asked for Becky’s name to be put on the list, and had paid in advance for this term. “It’s not a very big bus, ten or twelve seats I believe. And it isn’t marked. But it is yellow, and parks next to the village green. You can’t fail to see it”. She thanked the teacher, and sat down. Then he turned to face the class. “It seems that Drew Tyler will not be returning to us. That leaves a seat next to Rebecca Webster. If any of you want to change seats to sit next to her, put your hand up”.
She wasn’t in the least surprised when no hands were raised, and that suited her very well.
Becky’s new attitude started that day. She showed her talent during English class, and completed the Science experiment on her own in record time. In fact, she had written it up before everyone else had finished messing around with the small piles of dirt they had been given to test. In Geography, she startled Mrs Kennington with her grasp of climate change, and knowing the difference between low pressure weather patterns and high pressure ones. Drew’s sudden disappearance was being talked about all over, but not to her. She was being blamed for it though, that was obvious from the stares, and the openly hostile way the others ignored her. But nothing else was done. No name-calling, no notes stuck on her desk, nobody trying to stamp on her feet, or barge past her in the corridors.
Enjoying a wrap and a yoghurt for lunch, she grinned at the others as they walked past. They looked away, whispering to each other. Becky was very pleased.
They were scared of her now.
Mum was trying to sound upbeat and cheerful when she arrived to collect her. She was on time too. “The bus is all sorted for Monday, Becks, did they tell you?” Becky nodded, and turned to stare out of the car window. Mum was going to have to work a lot harder than that, to overcome all the lies. “I’m doing your favourite tonight, love. Chicken and broccoli pasta bake, with Parmesan cheese. I’ve got some of that nice garlic flatbread you like too”.
Up in her room as Mum fussed with the dinner, she was excited to see she had a reply from Sara Oliphant. It was suitably mysterious too.
‘So you live in Wright’s Mill? I knew they were converting that, but had no idea anyone had actually moved in yet. Don’t do anything until you have spoken to me. You are too young to get involved in anything to do with that building, or my family. I will come to your house at two o’clock on Saturday afternoon. Tell your parents I am helping you with a project. Sara.’
She clicked on the ‘Reply’ option. ‘Okay. Thanks for responding. I will see you on Saturday’.
With two hours at least before dinner, Becky decided to see if Charity was under the tree. There was no sign of her anywhere, so she crawled under the branches, and went through the usual routine. Once she could feel the bark under her palm, she spoke out loud.
“Tell me about Sara Oliphant, and all her secrets”.
Bracing herself for the familiar strange feeling, Becky was startled when nothing happened. She was still under the tree, it wasn’t unduly cold, and her hand hadn’t seemed to become part of the trunk. Perhaps the tree knew nothing about the mystical Sara? She tried something else.
“Tell me about Drew Tyler, and all his secrets”.
This time it happened, and was worse than before.
Things flashed past in her mind like watching a DVD on fast-forward. There was Drew, younger, but still recognisable. He was crouched down, with his hands protecting his face as a belt of some kind repeatedly struck him around the head and body. On a sofa nearby, an overweight woman sat watching television as a man Becky couldn’t see roared abuse at Drew as he slapped the belt across the boy. At the other end of the sofa, Drew’s sister was propped up on some cushions. She was rolling her head from side to side, and dribbling onto a towel wrapped around her neck. That scene lasted just seconds, before moving on. It was certainly more recent, as she could see a current model smartphone lying on a low coffee table. A man was asleep in a chair, and judging from the empty bottle lying across his lap, he was drunk too.
The events slowed back to normal speed, and she was sure she was looking through Drew’s eyes like before. Looking around the room slowly, she suddenly turned, and headed upstairs in the small house. The stairwell was narrow, and the treads steep. Going though the door opposite the top of the stairs, she entered a tiny bedroom, with space for little more than a single bed, and a small wardrobe. Hands stretched out in front of her, Drew’s hands. They picked up a long belt from off the bedspread. It was identical to the belt she had seen hitting Drew earlier in the vision.
The belt was being secured around her neck, pulled tight. She watched as Drew’s bare feet stepped onto the mattress, and his fingers hooked the buckle over a large square nail protruding from a beam running across the corner of the room. Then he stepped off the end of the bed, into the space behind the door.
Everything went black.
It seemed that she had been under the tree for a long time. Feeling freezing cold, the impact of what she had seen left Becky trembling on top of the shivering. Her legs were wobbly as she walked back to the house, and the smell of the cheese pasta bake made her feel ill as she went though the door. Mum turned from the worktop, where she was dishing up the food. “You’ve been gone ages, love. Dinner’s ready, sit down and I’ll bring it over”.
The last thing she felt like doing was eating, but that was preferable to having to come up with a story about why she didn’t want any. After spooning in a few mouthfuls and fumbling with a crusty end-piece of the garlic bread, Becky broached the subject of Sara. “Mum, a lady is coming to see me on Saturday. She is helping with a school project, local history”. Her tone was matter-of-fact. A statement, not asking permission. Mum put down her fork. “That sounds interesting. Will I get to meet her too?” Becky shrugged. “If you’re not too busy working, I suppose”. Mum’s hand hovered over the pile of bread, as if unsure which chunk to select. “I don’t remember you being that interested in History when we lived in Exeter, Becks. English was always your thing. And you were good at Maths too of course”.
Not really in the mood for chatting, and still feeling unwell after what she had seen in Drew’s bedroom, it was all she could do to keep up the conversation. “Well, we have moved all this way to live in a really old house, so I thought I would do some research about the area, and write it up for school”. Hoping that was an end to it, she started to rapidly spoon food into her mouth, looking down at the plate. Sure enough, Mum had already lost interest, and was checking her phone for messages.
Mum had never fully explained why she felt it was necessary for them to move so far away. All she went on about was that house prices were cheaper up there, and it didn’t matter where they lived, as she could work from home. It didn’t concern her that Dad had to stay on in his job at the Science Park, so had to buy a small flat with his share of the money. More than four hours away by car, it was also obvious that it made it very difficult for him to take her at weekends, as arranged. He said he would have to rent a room at a guest house in Lincoln or Louth when he came up to spend time with her. Otherwise, they would waste too much time driving back and forth. Becky had always assumed that Mum had done that on purpose, just to get back at him.
After managing half of the meal, Becky went up to her room leaving Mum to her messages and emails about work. Her mind was troubled, and not just by what had happened under the tree. Sitting on the bed, she started to consider what she could remember about her short life. As well as being an only child, Becky had no cousins. Both Mum and dad were only children too, so they said. And there were no grandparents, on either side. Given her parents’ ages, that was most unusual. Becky had soon latched onto that, and had been told that Mum had been raised by foster parents, and Dad’s parents were both dead. Becky asked if they had any old photos of them she could look at, and was told they had been lost.
When her friends in Devon had asked her about her family, they had all thought it was strange too. She had been young though, and you accepted what you were told when you were young. But Becky didn’t feel so young anymore, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that something wasn’t right.
Then there was that story about houses being cheaper. A few months ago Becky had looked online, and discovered that Mum could easily have bought a house in Devon for what she had paid for this one at the old mill. So her decision to move up here was deliberate, that was undeniable. Was it just to make things hard for Dad? That was possible, but not completely convincing. Becky stretched out, and rested her head on the pillow. There was so much going on inside her head, it was beginning to give her a headache.
When the smell woke her up, she sat up in a panic, fearful it might not be Charity. Seeing the girl standing at the end of the bed was a relief, as mad as that seemed.
“So you found out about Drew? Been under that tree again, eh?” Charity was walking a few steps, and turning to walk back. Becky’s eyes followed her like someone watching a tennis match. The girl was smiling as she continued. “You have so much more to find out about, Miss Rebecca Webster. But you should think on, and decide if you really want to know what you think you do. The best thing you could do is to persuade your mother to sell this house, and move somewhere else. Somewhere a very long way away. There’s nothing here for you but heartbreak and fear, believe me. I am only trying to help you, Rebecca”.
Becky tried to sound casual. “Oh really, do tell me more, Charity.”
The girl stopped walking, and suddenly she was closer, her filthy hands clutching the sides of Becky’s head as she moved her face up against it. Recoiling from the breath that seemed like some foul wind, she suddenly saw Mum’s room in her mind. She hadn’t actually been in Mum’s room since they moved here, although she had stood at the open door to ask things a few times. Like the zoom lens on a camera, her gaze moved, magnifying a small chest of drawers standing in the corner.
Then Charity was gone.
Becky jumped up, knowing what she had to do. Walking quietly down the stairs, she peered into the living room, happy to see Mum beavering away on the big computer. She turned and crept back upstairs, opening the door to Mum’s room, and tiptoeing inside. The three-drawer chest wasn’t one she remembered ever seeing before. It was cheap-looking, made with that white stuff that is not real wood. She slid the top drawer open. It was full of underwear; rolled up tights, panties, and bras. The second drawer contained scarves, gloves, woolly hats, and belts. Sitting on the floor to see into the third drawer, she was upset to find that it only contained an old box file. But it might be worth looking inside.
Lifting the big spring clip, Becky found old papers. Stuff from Mum’s university days, like her degree certificate. Then there was her own birth certificate, Mum’s paper driving licence, and some car documents. Right at the bottom, she found an envelope with ‘Certificate of Marriage’ printed on it. Sliding out the folded document, she glanced at it, the names and details written by the registrar in beautiful italic handwriting. Then her stomach turned, and she had to struggle not to bring up the pasta meal she had eaten earlier.
In the boxes marked ‘Name and Surname’, she couldn’t believe what she saw written there. She read it again, just to make sure.
‘Robert Charles Webster’
After putting the envelope back into the box file, and returning that to the drawer, Becky walked across to her room. She had a lot to think about.
So her Mum was an Oliphant? That had shocked her even more than when Charity had appeared to her. More lies. It had never even occurred to her to ask what her Mum’s maiden name had been. Not something a child concerns themselves with, as a rule. And she couldn’t recall it ever being mentioned at home before either. She resisted the temptation to run downstairs and confront Mum with the truth. Something deep was going on, and she wanted to get to the bottom of it, without revealing that she knew anything. If Mum found out that she knew, no doubt more lies and deceit would follow. Time to just act normal, and carry on as usual.
On Saturday afternoon, Becky went outside to wait for Sara. She wanted to get to her before Mum, just in case anything was said.
She saw the woman cycling along the lane in the direction of the mill. It was obviously her, someone trying too hard to look like a mystical clairvoyant. A huge mane of crinkly grey hair flowed behind her as she rode up to the house. It was too long for a woman of her age, Becky thought. She looked to be in her fifties, a hard face without make-up, and a prominent nose. She propped the bike on its stand and walked over, a sudden broad smile softening her features. Her clothes were a mash-up of many styles. A long embroidered coat, like something from a fantasy film, over a flowing long blouse with a pattern of the moon and stars all over it, finished off with a pair of bright yellow leggings that had seen better days. On her feet were something like army boots, with no laces. Not really suitable wear for cycling, Becky thought.
Before either of them spoke, the door opened, and Mum walked out. She strode up to Sara, extending a hand. “I’m Cathy Webster, Becky’s Mum. Pleased to meet you”. Sara took the hand, and held it for too long. “I’m Sara. I’m here to help your daughter with a project. I thought we could take a walk along the riverside, if that’s alright with you, Mrs Webster?” Mum had to finally pull her hand away. “Of course. But please come in for a drink before you leave”. Sara turned to Becky, hefting a large canvas shoulder bag from a rack on her bike. “Shall we?”
They walked in the direction of the willow tree. Sara was short and rather chubby, and when they were out of sight of the house, she suddenly put her arm around Becky, pulling her closer. The woman smelled strongly of Lavender, mixed with some other aroma that Becky couldn’t identify. “You have been under the tree, haven’t you, Becky? I can tell. And what else do you know? Have you found out anything about your mother yet?” Becky was impressed. Sara knew a lot. “Yes, I found out her name was Oliphant, before she married my Dad. That’s the same name as yours, and the family that used to own the mill. I have been visited by Charity, and a man too. I think it was her father, Thomas”.
Sara grinned. “Let’s sit down here, on the grass”.
Close-up, the woman’s face wasn’t so unattractive, and you could see the traces of a once pretty girl. “What did Charity and Thomas tell you?” Becky related the recent events, the warnings, and the visions under the willow tree. Sara listened without interrupting, her pale blue eyes hardly blinking as she kept her gaze fixed on the ground. “You are only a girl, not much older than Charity was. This mill holds some dark secrets, and I can tell that your mother knows what they are. She didn’t recognise me, I think, but I cannot be sure. If she did, she won’t tell, I do know that. You should stop asking things of the tree. It will use your youth and strength to grow, and as it grows, its power increases. But be careful of your mother. She has a reason for coming back here, and I fear I know what that reason is”.
Becky was wide-eyed. Sara seemed to know a great deal, and she was keen to ask her more. Perhaps she was genuinely clairvoyant after all.
“Why is it only me that sees Charity? I smell her too, it’s awful. And Thomas had that same smell, but he was scary as well”. Sara stroked her shoulder. “Beware of Charity. She will pretend to be helping you, but she only wants to help herself. She probably summoned her father to scare you, so that you would turn to her for help. She needs you to trust her, Becky. But you must not. Never trust her at all. She appears to you from choice. She can probably choose to appear to your mother too, should she wish to. But it is your trust she seeks at the moment”.
Becky had so much to ask. “So you and Mum are related? And you are both related to Thomas and Charity too? All the Oliphants? That cannot be a coincidence”. Sara nodded. Yes, we are all related, but it would take me all afternoon to explain how and why. I never married, so have the name. Your mother changed hers with marriage, and kept it a secret from you. There is a reason why she did that. A reason why she waited until you were of a certain age, to come back to the mill. That was why she ruined her marriage, a deliberate act to fabricate an excuse to move here at a given time. Everything is connected, Becky, and I fear that destiny and fate have caught up with you, young lady”.
Becky thought about that for a while, then asked another question. “Why can’t I find any graves for Charity and Thomas in the churchyard?” Sara patted her on the leg. “You have worked very hard, in such a short time. Already you have discovered that the graves of Thomas and Charity are not to be seen in the village. That is because their bodies were never found at the time.” Becky enjoyed hearing this confirmation of something she had started to suspect. “And why would the tree not show me your secrets?” The woman tipped her head back, and laughed out loud, the mop of hair swirling around her face. “So you asked the tree about me? That’s amusing. The tree cannot enter my thoughts, Becky. I have spent my life learning how to stop such spirits from trying to control me. And I will pass on that knowledge to you, so listen carefully”.
The sound of splashing from the river made them both turn and look. Before either of them had a chance to move, a short figure emerged from the water and ran up the bank. It was a man who looked to be around forty, wearing a waistcoat over a filthy white shirt, and loose trousers flapping around his legs. His hair was long and lank, and his eyes dark and terrifying. He grabbed Sara as if she weighed nothing, and dragged her back into the water. They both disappeared under the surface, as the fast flowing river continued to rush past.
Becky didn’t waste time going to look in the river. She turned and ran as fast as she could back to the house. Bursting through the door, she screamed at her Mum. “Sara is in the river, I think she’s drowning. Quick, get help!”
Cathy didn’t get up from her chair in front of the computer. She slowly picked up her phone, and dialled 999. “Yes, police please, and an ambulance too. My name is Cathy Webster, and I’m at Wrights Mill. A woman has fallen into the river”. Becky was breathing heavily after the running. Mum turned to face her. “They are on their way.”
She went back to her computer, as if nothing had happened.
Becky ran back out of the house, heading for the spot where Sara had been taken into the water. She found the large shoulder bag, and placed it around her body. There must surely be something inside it that made Sara bring it along, and she would check that later. The police car took almost fifteen minutes to arrive. Long before the officers appeared, she had given up all hope of ever finding Sara alive. The man who snatched her was obviously Thomas Oliphant, and he had taken the clairvoyant before she could reveal any secrets.
There was no ambulance available just yet, in this rural part of the county. But soon after two police officers had arrived, a solo paramedic turned up in a car. It was all rather pointless of course, as Sara’s body was nowhere to be seen, and the emergency services were unable to enter the river without the assistance of trained divers. A serious young policewoman asked for the divers on her radio, and requested a helicopter to search downstream too. But Becky knew it was all a waste of time. Sara would never be found. Mum was still in the house. She hadn’t even bothered to follow her distraught daughter back to the riverbank. They took Sara’s bike away in a police van, saying they would try to trace her next-of-kin.
Becky was escorted back to the house, as the search gathered momentum. The policewoman took her statement, and Becky stuck to the story that she had contacted Sara online, and asked for help with a history project. They were walking by the river, when Sara stumbled, and fell in. She wasn’t about to mention her being dragged under by a ghostly apparition, that was for sure. There was also no talk of the surname connection with her Mum. Best left unsaid, until she could find out more. With the police in the house, Mum acted concerned. She was cuddling her daughter, offering her everything from drinks to food, even sweets. Mum gave a statement too, a very short one. She had met the woman, who had taken her daughter for a walk. Then the woman had fallen into the river. That was all she knew.
After dark, they were still looking, miles away downstream. The sound of the helicopter could be heard in the distance, and the light it shone down onto the countryside illuminated the surrounding darkness. Becky instinctively knew Sara would not be found. Something had conspired to make her disappear, and she was convinced her Mum was involved. She went to her room early, unable to eat anything. Mum left her alone. She seemed to know how her daughter was feeling.
Sunday was spent in a haze. No visits from any long-dead Oliphants, and a small meal eaten at teatime. Becky stayed in her room for most of the day. The canvas bag was still hidden under her bed, but she was almost afraid to look at what was inside. The police had phoned the house at ten o’clock, with an update.
As expected, there was no trace of Sara.
Mum was acting cool. She didn’t know the woman, and that was that. She asked Becky three times if she wanted anything else to eat, then gave up. Later, she said she didn’t have to go to school on Monday. But Becky was adamant that she should go. “What can I do around here, Mum? I might as well go in. I don’t want to lose any course time”. Mum agreed, and went so far as to get her daughter’s clothes ready for the next morning. Sara’s bag was left undisturbed that night.
The next morning, Becky had to get up almost one hour earlier. Besides the walk into the village, she had to allow for the bus picking up other kids on its way into school. There were two or three other stops in villages on the way, so it took much longer than just driving straight in with Mum. After a brisk walk along the lane, she saw the yellow bus, where she had been told it would be parked. It was small, more or less a big van with windows. As the first there, Becky walked up to the door, and the driver asked for her name, checking on a clipboard. She was a woman about forty, but she looked like a man. Other than obvious boobs, everything about her was masculine; from the short hair, to the cigarette dangling from her lips. She managed an early morning effort at a smile. ” Rebecca Webster? Okay girly, on you get”. A few minutes later two older boys appeared. The driver called to them. “Come on, lads, you’re running late!” They got in the side door, glancing around to where Becky was sitting right at the back. She got the impression that she was in their preferred seat.
They set off to the next village, where they picked up two girls in the year above Becky. Both kept looking back at her, whispering in each other’s ears. The driver called out, “Ralph is sick today, apparently, so just one more stop”. At the end of a driveway leading to a rather grand house, the bus pulled up. Becky watched as a beautiful girl got on. It was Tilly Vosper, the head girl. She was at least seventeen, and looked older. A sensual mouth, lovely blonde hair, and a stunning figure. Tilly climbed aboard, and headed for the seat next to her at the back. Her smile made Becky swoon. “You’re Becky Webster, I’ve heard about you. Mind if I sit next to you?” Becky nodded, unable to speak. She had seen this girl at school, and already had an overwhelming crush on her.
Tilly crossed her long, wonderful legs. She smelled like something unbelievably desirable but impossible to name. And her make-up and gleaming teeth were flawless. “You’ve had some excitement at your house I hear? It was all over the local news. Would you like to meet me in the Senior Common Room at lunchtime, and tell me all about it?” Becky was inhaling the girl’s breath. It was like a cross between honey and fresh spearmint. She nodded, annoyed at her stupid inability to reply. Tilly placed a hand on Becky’s knee, and that made her tingle all over. “Shall we say twelve-thirty? Becky finally managed to reply, but it sounded like the croak of a toad. “Yes, twelve-thirty”.
When they got out of the bus at the school, Tilly went off ahead, catching up with some older girls she knew. Still in a dream state, Becky carried on into her class.
She didn’t see Tilly’s self-satisfied smirk.
Becky hovered outside the Senior’s Room until Tilly caught sight of her, and waved her in. Looking around, she could see they had it good in there. Comfy chairs, a TV with an X-Box, and a couple of laptops on a desk under the windows. At the back, in a small kitchen area, she could even see a coffee machine, and a microwave. All the stuff was donated by parents and local businesses, apparently. Tilly pointed to a seat opposite hers, and smiled. “Sit down, I got you a cappuccino. I hope you take sugar?” Although she didn’t usually drink coffee, Becky nodded. She sipped the creamy liquid, and thought it was delicious. Two older boys were shouting at each other as they played on the X-Box, and three girls sitting nearby studiously ignored Becky, as if she didn’t exist.
“So, tell me all about it. A woman drowned near your house, and you were with her? How exciting! What happened?” Tilly leaned forward as she spoke, flicking her hair to one side. Becky had already thought about what to say. She had decided on a series of half-truths that would outline the events without giving away any secrets. “Well I wrote to a local woman to ask for help with a history project. She arranged to meet me on Saturday, and we went for a walk along the river to talk about it. Then she stumbled, and fell in. I ran home and got my Mum to ring for help, but they couldn’t find her. They said the river was flowing too fast, and was too deep at that point. Maybe they won’t even find her body”.
Tilly looked disappointed, and Becky couldn’t blame her. Reeling it off like that hadn’t made it sound very interesting or unusual. She gulped down some more of the lukewarm coffee as Tilly seemed to be pondering her reply. The older girl smiled, her attitude changing as she sat back against the cushion.
“So what’s the project about? Maybe I could help you with it?” Becky wasn’t about to mention the name Oliphant, but was happy to talk in generalisations. “Well, the old mill we live in has been around for centuries, and I thought it might be interesting to research its history, and the families that used to live there. I have seen some old paintings and drawings of it online, and I think it would be something good for my school-work”. Tilly didn’t look genuinely interested, but after nodding for a while, she acted as if she had suddenly thought of something. “It’s called Wright’s Mill, isn’t it? You should try to talk to Bessie Wright. She’s like a hundred and five or something, a bit of a celebrity around here. She lives in Woodlands, that big house behind the church. It’s an expensive care home now”. Before Becky could reply, Tilly stood up. “Well, thanks for coming to see me. Let me know how you get on with the project. I’ll see you on the bus I expect”.
That was the signal for her to leave, Becky understood that. “Okay, I will see you on the bus, on the way home”. If she had been hoping for anything else from her contact with Tilly, it was very apparent that no more was on offer.
After school, Becky was once again first at the bus. The woman driver smiled at her. “You sat next to the Vosper girl. Tell me, are you two friends?” Becky was taken aback at the comment. “Well, not really. Sort of, I suppose. I hardly know her”. Throwing away the stub of her cigarette, the driver looked around, to make sure she was out of earshot. “Be careful girly. You’ve got to watch that family, especially Matilda. Take my advice and keep away from her”. The others started to arrive, and she stopped talking and climbed into her driver’s seat. Tilly didn’t appear for the return journey, so they left without her.
When she got off the bus at the village stop, Becky walked straight across the green, and then up the lane behind the church. She saw the big house with a large name-plate fixed to the wall, and went up the driveway into the impressive entrance. A foreign-looking woman about sixty years old was standing behind the reception desk. She was wearing a pale blue polo shirt with ‘Woodlands’ embroidered on it. “What can I do for you, young lady?” Becky couldn’t place the accent, possibly Spanish or Greek. “I would like to know if I can talk to Bessie Wright, please. It’s about a school history project I am doing”. The woman smiled. “I know you are not family, and it’s Miss Elizabeth Wright. She’s very particular, I should warn you. Stay here, and I will go and find out if she will see you”.
She came back quite quickly. “Miss Wright will see you on Saturday morning, after breakfast. She said ten o’clock would be suitable. I wouldn’t be late if I were you”. Becky thanked her, and made her way home. As usual, Mum was busy on the computer. “Something easy for dinner later, Becks. I might just hot up some soup, if that’s okay with you?”
Up in her room, she got changed out of her uniform, and slowly slid the canvas bag from its hiding place under the bed. It was full of stuff, and heavy. Becky tipped the contents out onto the bed. Two large notebooks came out first, followed by lots of loose papers, and a few crumpled photographs. There was a big purse, a bunch of keys, and even a D-lock for the bicycle. Some sort of ancient-looking amulet attached to a leather cord, a mobile phone, and a copy of a book about being a clairvoyant. The author, unsurprisingly, was Sara Hope Oliphant. Unsure where to begin, Becky started by unfolding some of the loose papers. There was a copy of a will, in the name of Tobias Wright. That might be interesting, she thought. Next were some pages of notes, presumably written by Sara herself. The handwriting was small, and the lines close together. They might require more careful reading another time.
At the bottom of the pile was a large document. The edges were sharply folded, and the paper a brilliant white. Becky slid it out and unfolded it carefully. As large as a map, it covered most of the bed, with the bottom half riding up to touch her waist. She had seen enough similar things on Mum’s computer to know what it was. A copy of an architect’s drawing of a proposed development. And it was obviously the mill conversion, with the old original wheel prominent at one side of the drawing. At the bottom left was a box full of writing, in neat lines.
‘The conversion of the existing mill into a house and three apartments at Wright’s Mill, Lincolnshire.’
‘Developer: Samuel Vosper and Sons.’
‘Planning Officer: Mr T. Hargreaves, Lincolnshire County Council.’
But it was the last line that caught Becky’s attention.
‘Architect: Catherine Webster’.
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.’
Becky made sure that she arrived early to see Miss Wright. She was shown into a surprisingly large and comfortable room, where the old lady was sitting in a huge armchair that dwarfed her tiny frame. Miss Wright pointed a bony finger at a footstool just in front of her. “Sit here, girl. I can still just about see, but you have to be close for me to hear you”. Despite her grand age, Elizabeth Wright hardly looked older than any woman in her late seventies. Only her milky, wet eyes gave some indication that she was lucky to wake up every morning. Becky perched on the stool, and opened her notebook.
“I live at Wright’s Mill, and I am writing a school project about its history. I thought as your name was Wright, you might know something about it”. Elizabeth scowled. “That mill has been nothing but trouble since it was built. The Oliphants claimed to be millers, but the local people never trusted that they knew what they were doing. Their flour was always bad, so the stories go. And there was jealousy too. My family were keen to get their hands on the land, and the Vospers were enlisted to help them. But it never did anyone any good, and my ancestors ending up squabbling over the place without ever sorting it out. Until my father of course. He ended up inheriting all of it. Then he became ill, and sold it to old man Vosper. I got the money from the sale, and that has enabled me to live comfortably ever since”. She looked around. “It pays for this place now, until the cash runs out”.
Becky was writing notes, but was ready with her question when the old lady stopped talking. “What do you know about the Oliphants? I mean not just the ones who had the mill, but the rest of them too?” With a groan, and an audible clicking of some bones, Elizabeth shifted her weight and moved forward. “They tried to get rid of them all, the people around here. The miller and his daughter were killed, accused of some sort of witchcraft, crimes that carried the death penalty. But his wife escaped with the two sons, and the family carried on away from here. Then one day, Christian returned out of the blue, and claimed the mill as his inheritance. That put the cat among the pigeons I can tell you, girl. But he was no miller, and couldn’t make a go of it. Eventually it was bought by one of my family, and they argued about who it should be left to until the day my father sold it”. Good riddance, if you ask me. It was said to be cursed, and I believe it was”.
Scribbling away in the book, Becky was annoyed that she didn’t have time to write neatly. She looked up at Elizabeth, her next question ready. But the old lady had settled back in the chair, her eyes closed. She sat watching her for a while, until a woman arrived dressed in what looked like a nurse’s uniform. “You had best go now, I think Miss Wright is sleeping. She will have tired herself out, with all her chatting”. Becky nodded, and stood up. There was so much more she would have liked to know. Maybe she could come back another day.
Back at home, Becky wrote up her notes neatly, then tore out the scribbled pages she had used at the care home. Bessie had not been the complete fountain of knowledge that she had hoped for, but her few recollections had helped to harden up some of the facts. Mum suddenly appeared at the bedroom door. “Becky, I have to go out for a while. I am going to get some shopping, and do some other stuff in town. Will you be alright on your own?” Mum looked worried, an expression rarely seen on her face. “I’ll be fine, Mum. Do whatever you need”. A few minutes after Mum’s car had pulled out into the lane, there was a knock at the door. Before opening it, Becky looked through the living-room window. It was the driver of the school bus.
The woman smiled, which did nothing to soften her masculine features. “Can I come in and talk to you girly? I waited until I saw your Mum leave. I’ve been hanging around for ages”. She came in and sat on the sofa, declining the polite offer of something to drink. “I wanted to talk to you away from the others on the bus. There are things you need to know. I’m worried that you are getting involved in things you should be careful of. Dark things, things from years ago that have ruined this village”. Becky moved Mum’s computer chair, and sat opposite her as she continued.
“That Vosper girl. Well all her family really, but Matilda’s the worst of them. They have been greedy and devious as long as anyone around here can remember. Them and the Wrights grabbed all the land around here, made themselves a fortune. And they mean to hang onto it, I tell you. Some say there’s a curse on both their families, but it doesn’t seem to have affected them. I reckon the Vospers are just waiting for old Bessie Wright to die, then they will be in control of everything. She’s the last of the Wrights, never married. And their secrets will die with her. They have Town Councillors under their control, planning officers, all sorts. Even some senior policemen. People say they can do what they want, as they know all the secrets. Some say that Matilda has been with many powerful men, then blackmails them in the interests of her family. I have no proof of course, but you’ve seen her. She’s hard to resist, isn’t she? I need a cigarette, shall we stand outside?”
Becky followed the woman as she walked away from the house, and stood beside one of the empty apartments. She rolled a cigarette, and blew out smoke as she carried on talking. “You should find out who owns these flats on the mill land, next to your house. You will be surprised, girly, I bet. For hundreds of years now, just a few families have fought to take control of the village, and everything around it. They will stop at nothing, and I reckon the Vospers are set to come out on top. So if I was you, I would keep away from that Tilly, for your own good.”
Becky finally asked her a question? “But what is this all about? They have their land and money, and a good business. The Wrights sold out to them a long time ago, and now my Mum owns the mill house. What more could they want?” The woman took a deep drag on the cigarette before answering. “Bless you, girly, it’s not really about the money, they already have that. It’s the curse. They have to settle the curse on their families, or they will never profit in the long term. Why do you think Bessie never married? You should ask her. And there is no son in the Vosper house, despite the name of the company. Nobody to carry on their name, whether Wright, or Vosper. It was because of the curse. They must have a plan to do something about that, and I am guessing almost everyone around these parts is involved in some way”.
The woman suddenly turned, and started to walk off. She stopped for a moment, her face looking genuinely concerned. “I’ve said enough. I have to keep away from those people, and I suggest you do the same”. Becky walked a little of the way with her, until she turned right, and entered the country lane. She called out to her. “Thanks for your help. By the way, what’s your name?” She called back, without turning her head. “It’s Bridget. But I’m called Bridie”.
As Becky turned back to her house, she could see Charity standing outside the door.
Charity didn’t seem to smell so bad that afternoon. Becky thought she might just be getting used to her stink by now.
“You won’t get any sense out of her”. The girl nodded in the direction of the departing bus driver. “She’s on the hook, she is, can’t say nothing. She likes the girls, you see. Likes ’em young as well. Tilly gave her a nice time once, then she got her good. Underage, you see. Now Bridie is as good as finished, and she knows it”. Becky was remembering Sara’s advice not to trust anything Charity said. But she had to confess that sounded about right. Even as young as she was, she knew all too well about women who liked other women, not that it bothered her at all.
She went on the offensive again. “Why did your father take Sara? Why drown her, when she meant you both no harm? And I’m sure you know she was an Oliphant. She was related to you, for God’s sake!” Charity emitted a low chuckle. “God don’t have nothing to do with it, Rebecca. Sara was a wrong Oliphant, she was. She come down from my brother Christian’s side of the family, she did. All those on his side were wrong. They didn’t do the right thing. The only good Oliphants come from Oliver’s side. The others like Sara were hand in glove with the Vospers, and still are. Becky was confused. “But Sara was writing the history, she was going to tell everyone what happened to you and Thomas. And now she’s gone, the last remaining Oliphants are me and my Mum, and we aren’t helping the Vospers”. Charity placed a hand under her chin, and rubbed it. “Maybe you’re not, Rebecca, but what about your Mum?”
Becky didn’t answer that question, she had more of her own. “And what’s this about a curse? What sort of curse? And how does that affect me, in the twenty-first century?” Charity straightened up, and her smile disappeared. “You have Sara’s books. You can read about it in them. And read it soon, for you are in great danger. I’m betting Sara told you not to trust me? But the truth is I am your only hope, young Rebecca. I can only tell so much, the rest you have to discover for yourself. But I can tell you this. Bessie Wright is dead. They found her gone in her bed this morning. Seems she didn’t talk to anyone after your meeting. You were the last one to ever speak to her. Now that just leaves Tilly. And you too”.
Becky wanted to ask her so much more, but the sound of a car approaching made her turn and look.
As she approached the mill on the country road, Cathy Webster could see her daughter outside the door of the house. She appeared to be engaged in an animated conversation with herself. Her mouth was certainly moving, and she was gesticulating too. Perhaps the strain of the move and the new school was finally getting to her. As she drove onto the driveway, and could hear the gravel crunching under the car tyres, Becky suddenly turned. Opening the door, she walked into the house. Aiming the car at the usual parking spot, Cathy jumped as a young girl appeared a few feet in front of it. She just had time to see that she was barefoot, and wearing a filthy cotton smock, a cap on her head, and she was smiling. The girl lifted her right arm, and pointed a finger directly at the front of the car.
The car stopped dead, with a tremendous force, like the impact of hitting a wall at speed. The airbag inside the steering wheel inflated, and billowed into her face. Her head was thrown backwards, and then dropped forward again, connecting with the side window with a dull thud. Cathy took a moment to gather her senses, and was then startled by a scream from outside the car. As she turned, the girl’s face was close to the window, her teeth showed black as she yelled. “Bad Oliphant! I know you, Cathy Oliphant! You’re a bad Oliphant!” And then she was gone.
A chill ran up Cathy’s spine. She knew who the girl was. It was all too much for her to take in, and she fainted.
When her Mum didn’t come inside the house, Becky looked out of the window, and saw her slumped at the wheel. She ran outside, and pulled open the door of the car. “Mum, Mum! Are you alright? What happened?” She could see the airbag debris around the steering wheel, but the car was undamaged, just stopped there. The engine wasn’t running, but the ignition lights were on. It must have stalled. Her daughter’s words made Cathy come round. She quickly made up a story. “I’m alright, love. The airbag just exploded for no reason. It must have been faulty. It just gave me a shock, that’s all. Everything’s, fine, don’t worry, Becks”. Her voice was shaky, and she seemed to be trembling too.
Becky stood near her as she got out of the car. “Can you take that shopping bag off the seat please, Becks? I just got a few bits”. She walked inside, supporting herself against the frame of the front door as she went in. Becky followed her in with the bag. She had turned off the ignition, and brought the car keys in too. Mum looked pale. “I’m a bit shaken up, love. I might just have a lie down for a while. Can you do yourself something to eat? There’s pizza in the freezer, or you could just have beans on toast. Will that be okay?” Becky nodded, and watched as her Mum walked up the stairs like a woman three times her age. Something bad had happened, and Mum wasn’t about to tell her what.
Becky had the beans on toast as suggested, and watched a documentary on TV about sea animals being killed by plastic in the oceans. Two hours later, Mum was walking around upstairs, and she eventually heard her footsteps on the stairs. She seemed to be putting on a cheerful voice, as she appeared in the living room. “Oh, you had something to eat. Good. I’m much better now”. Becky stared at her, open-mouthed.
Her hair had turned pure white.
As she pointed across the room, Becky’s voice was little more than a whisper. “Mum. Your hair”. It was obvious Mum had already seen it, and she tried to make light of it, smiling. “I know. Must have been the shock or something. I quite like it, truth be told. Some women pay a lot of money to have their hair dyed this colour”. Becky knew she was still lying, and that made her angry. As soon as Mum sat down at the computer, she went up to her room, and pulled the canvas bag from under the bed.
The photos meant nothing. Most were of children, and from their clothes, probably taken at least twenty years ago, if not more. Becky slid out the heavy journals again, and flicked through them quickly. In the second one, she noticed a heading, ‘THE CURSE’. Stopping at that page, she started to read Sara’s writing.
‘The villagers all walked behind the magistrate, and the troopers who were carrying Charity. She had been bound hand and foot, and continued to struggle all the way to the riverbank. As she was laid on the grass close to the edge, some people pushed to the front, eager to see the drowning. One of those was Abraham Vosper, who came to stand beside Magistrate Wright Charity rolled onto her back, staring at the men with a cold hard gaze. Two troopers bent down to roll her into the water, and the girl suddenly spoke. Her voice was calm, but her words sent a chill through the assembled crowd. “I curse you, all you here. You shall have no son to carry on your name as long as an Oliphant lives. Even with all your wealth, your names will die with you, or your descendants, one day”. The magistrate nodded to the soldiers. “In with her”.
As Charity disappeared under the water, Abraham Vosper led a chant of “Witch, witch. See, she’s a witch”. But she didn’t float. Pastor Drake walked forward, a sad expression on his face. He was against such barbarity, and had made that clear. But he had little influence in this closed community. The Pastor turned to face those remaining. At least half the number had already scuttled away, upset by the scene they had witnessed. Drake grasped his Bible, and turned his eyes to the sky. “The girl did not float, she is innocent. Dear God take this soul into your kingdom”. When he looked back, everyone had gone.
At first, it seemed the curse had failed. Sons were born, and the Wrights and the Vospers continued to flourish, becoming even richer once the war had ended. But things began to change for the Wright family, and by 1930, Bessie was the only remaining heir to their wealth, once her father died. Five years later, she met an army colonel when he was home on leave, and they were engaged to be married. It was decided that they would wait until her fiance returned from service in India, and would coincide with her twenty-fifth birthday, in August 1939. The night before the wedding, the colonel went to the local inn, for a traditional drink on the eve of the nuptials. He didn’t stay long, and witnesses stated that he had only two drinks, before setting off to walk home, on that hot, humid night.
The next morning, his body was found wedged against the sluice gate, next to the old mill wheel. He had drowned, and nobody had seen or heard anything. Bessie was distraught. She withdrew to her room, and stayed there for many years. Some said her father was secretly pleased. At least his daughter would inherit, and continue the name. If she had married, her name would have changed, and no children would have had the name of Wright.’
As she went to turn the page, Charity appeared at the bottom of the bed. “Don’t turn that page yet, Rebecca. I want to test you. Now, think hard. Show me how clever you are. Remember all you have discovered, everything you have read. Without turning the page, tell me the name of the Colonel who drowned”. Becky was surprised to realise she didn’t have to think about the answer at all. The name came straight into her head, it was obvious. She smiled at Charity.
“Colonel Mallet. A descendant of the cavalry officer who complained about the flour”.
Charity clapped her filthy hands together with glee. “I knew it. I knew you had the gift. You are a good Oliphant indeed”.
And then she was gone.
Going back to the pile of things from the canvas bag, Becky found some more documents. They looked fairly new, and were all inside a clear plastic wallet. The various logos and seals were all in black and white, so she guessed they were photocopies. It was easy enough to work out that they were copies of deeds, and they were in some sort of order. One was for the house, and the others for the apartments next door. The person selling all the properties was named as Samuel Vosper. And the person named on each one as the buyer was Catherine Webster. Becky shook her head. More lies. Her Mum owned them all. No wonder nobody else had come to view them, or the people who owned the supposed weekend holiday flat had never appeared. Between her Mum and the Vospers, they had made sure that there would never be any neighbours around, to bear witness to any happenings.
Placing the journals and photos back in the bag, Becky kept the deeds and papers on top of the bed, along with the large architect’s drawing. Then she took out her notebook, and added some lines to what she had written previously.
‘No boy children to inherit, or carry on the name’.
‘The curse is finally working, and this year is important’.
‘Everyone involved with the deaths of Thomas and Charity to be punished’.
‘Bessie was the last of the Wright family. They are all gone now’.
‘Something going on with Mum and Samuel Vosper?’
‘Charity says there are good and bad people in the Oliphant family’.
‘Why did Mum’s hair turn white?’
Placing the notebook on top of the other papers and the folded drawing, Becky stood up, and slid everything under one arm. She headed for the door, a determined look on her face. Enough was enough.
It was time to confront Mum.
Cathy looked around as her daughter walked into the room. Nodding at the papers under her arm, she smiled. “What have you got there, Becks? Is it your school project you talked about?” Becky sat on the sofa, dropping everything onto the rug. “Come away from the computer and sit down, Mum, I need to talk to you”. She rose slowly from the chair and came over, her face all concern and worry. “Of course, love. You can always talk to me, you know that”. Not about to let Mum take charge of the conversation, Becky started as she meant to go on. “Please listen to what I have to say, and don’t interrupt me. Alright?” Cathy sat down, a half-smile on her face. She nodded her acceptance.
Becky kept her temper, and her nerve. She spoke with a maturity that belied her eleven years.
“First, I know that you are an Oliphant. The girl I told you I saw is a ghost, and her name is Charity Oliphant. Or at least it was. She was drowned as a witch in the old days, and her father was hanged for something he didn’t do. Now they haunt this mill, and even dragged Sara into the river to stop her talking. Sara was an Oliphant, but I think you know that. I have found out about the good and bad Oliphants, and the Vospers and Wrights. In fact I know everything from the time of the English Civil War, right up to now. I know that you designed this mill for Mr Vosper, and bought the flats, as well as this house. I know that you made the split with Dad happen, and came here for a reason that has nothing to do with house prices. And I think that you have seen Charity, or Thomas, which is why your hair turned white”. Mum was swallowing a lot, and her face had turned as pale as her new hair colour. Becky continued.
“But what I don’t know is why, and what I have to do with it”. You need to tell me. You need to stop lying to me”.
Cathy sat quiet for what seemed like a long time. To say she was shocked by how much her daughter had found out was an understatement. As she opened her mouth to say something, Becky spoke first. “And don’t even think about lying to me, or I will go and ask the tree. I have the power, Charity showed me”. Cathy took a deep breath, and reached out to hold both of her daughter’s hands.
“When I was quite young, both my parents drowned in a boating accident. It happened near here, between the village and the mill. Nobody could understand what they were doing out in a boat at the time, and I was too young to know anything about the family rivalries in this village. I was taken in by Reginald Vosper, Samuel’s father, and he arranged to foster me until I was old enough to leave school. Over the years, he told me about the curse, but I never believed anything like that could be real.
Just a minute, I need a drink”.
She went into the kitchen, returning with a glass of white wine, full to the brim. After sipping some, she carried on. “I was descended from Christian Oliphant, they told me. And so was Sara, who was a cousin. But we had nothing to do with her part of the family. Apparently, Christian was a weak man. He gambled, liked to drink too much, and borrowed money from many people. Eventually, he lost the mill and the land, having to sell it to pay his debts. After that he did odd jobs, and the family lived in little more than a shack, on the outskirts of the village.
The Vospers were kind to me, especially Marjorie, Reginald’s wife. She couldn’t have any more children after Samuel, so treated me like her own daughter. When I was old enough to leave and go to university, they talked to me again about the curse. This time, it didn’t sound so much like a fairy tale. Reginald was really concerned that one day his name would die out, and everything would be inherited by a girl child. He told me that I could help, and that one day I would be told what to do. In return for that future help, I was given the money for my education, and everything I ever needed. I would also be successful in my chosen career, as Reginald or his son would see that I always had work as an architect. I went off to Exeter, and more or less forgot about the old legend. I met your Dad, and did well with my business too. Then I had you, and life was going beautifully, just as I had always hoped.
Some time later, I was contacted by Samuel Vosper. He told me that ‘the time had come’. I had to repay the debt I owed the family. He had no sons, just a daughter, Matilda. She was a wayward girl, but he had put her promiscuity to good use, and now controlled more or less everything in this area. I told your Dad I had to travel for business, and stayed the weekend at the Vosper house. Samuel really scared me. He had been in touch with Sara, and she had told him how to reverse the curse. His wife Andrea was still young enough to have more children, and he yearned for a son to leave everything to. But it had to be done soon, while Andrea could still bear children. I was to create a situation where your Dad would leave me, or I would leave him. They would give me this mill house and the apartments, and also pay for the hunting lodge in Scotland I have been designing. I would never want for anything again, he assured me.
But if I didn’t agree, he would make it his business to ruin me, and get involved in your life too. He said he was prepared to go to any lengths.
So I pretended to go along with his plan. I split with your Dad, moved here, and started to design the hunting lodge. Oliphant is an old Scottish name, and we have distant relatives up there. Once everything had been concluded here, I could live up there away from it all, and be comfortable for the rest of my life. I managed to convince Samuel that I was seriously going to go ahead with it, and that is what I have been arranging since we moved here. And yes, I did see Charity. She stopped my car, and then shouted at me. She was terrifying. But you have to know that I was never going to see it through. I had no intention of doing what Samuel had demanded of me. I never would. I have just been trying to buy time, to find another way”.
Cathy sat back, and swallowed a huge gulp of the wine.
Becky had listened intently. But even though Mum had sounded sincere, all the lies and deceit had made her distrustful of her mother now. She thought long and hard before asking her next question. “But Mum, how does that involve me?” Cathy hesitated, as if unsure how to reply.
“You are to be drowned in the river by the mill, to lift the curse.
It will be made to look like an accident”.
Mum’s answer made Becky’s eyebrows move up so far, she imagined them disappearing under her hairline. She kept her cool though, still finding it hard to credit any of this story. And she had more questions to ask now. “How did they imagine that drowning me would lift the curse? And why did they ever think you would agree to it? We could just pack up and move back to Exeter, or I could phone Dad, and get him to pick me up. It doesn’t make sense, Mum”.
Cathy leaned forward to take her daughter’s hands again as she spoke, but Becky pulled back.
“You have to understand a few things about the people around here, Becks. Not just Samuel, but the Wrights, and Sara too. This goes all the way back to long before the time of the Civil War, and those old beliefs and superstitions are still adhered to by many. As you have seen, vengeful spirits are still operating. Charity and Thomas have their own agenda, Samuel Vosper was ready to believe anything, and Sara was a bitter spinster, ready to exploit the old legends to become a famous writer. And they all believed that I would go along with it, to be rich and privileged”.
She stopped to quaff down the last of the wine, then headed into the kitchen for a refill before coming back to continue.
“Sara wanted to be famous and recognised. Her ambition was to publish a best-seller about the curse and everything associated with it, right up to modern times. She believed it would be made into a film or TV serial, and got over-excited about the potential for fame and fortune that might come with that. She told Samuel as much, and pretended that the willow tree had revealed what he had to do. She told him that if his firstborn was to drown my firstborn, the curse would change, and become a curse on our family, instead of his. It would also mean that not all the Oliphants had to die, before he could have sons. His wife would be able to have more children, and hopefully one of them would be a boy”.
She stopped to drink more wine, as Becky pondered what she had heard. “So Tilly has to be the one to drown me?” Cathy’s mouth was still on the rim of the glass, so she nodded. “Why don’t we just leave then? Or I could go to live with Dad, and that’s so far away, they would never get to me. It still doesn’t make sense why you would even agree to bring me here, Mum”. Cathy finally put the glass down. Her face was flushed from drinking on an empty stomach, but her voice was clear as she carried on. “I firmly believe that they would get to you wherever you are, love. You don’t realise just how much money and influence these people have, as well as the contacts they can call on, all over the country. I thought it best to seem to go along with the plan, come back here, and put an end to it. Now all I have to do is to work out how”.
Becky was completely unconvinced. She couldn’t shake the feeling that Mum was still lying. She was too smooth, too prepared with her answers. She looked her Mum directly in the eyes as she replied. “So you are telling me that this is all about ancestry? Nothing to do with money, power, or influence. A successful businessman like Mr Vosper is prepared to let his daughter drown me, just to carry on his name. Presumably Tilly is happy to do that too, even though I can see nothing in it for her. And you are supposed to stand by and watch, maybe even help? This is 2019, Mum. It sounds like a lot of nonsense to me”.
Cathy was ready with her reply. “If it’s nonsense, then what about Charity and Thomas? How do you explain talking to a girl who has been dead for hundreds of years, or seeing her father too? Long before the Catholics and the Puritans existed around here, the people had their own beliefs, their own gods. They worshiped trees, or the sun and the moon. They believed that carrying on their lineage was the most important thing in life, the reason they were put here in the first place. It’s all in books, or online. Knowing you, Becks, I am sure that you have looked it up. Despite appearing to live normal lives, families like the Wrights and the Vospers never changed on the inside. They continued to believe in the old ways, to crave power and influence, and to pass that on down the generations. Charity knew that, as long ago as the 1640s. That’s why she chose that curse. You can ask her if you don’t believe me. I expect you get to see her all the time. And why do you think so many other people have drowned in almost the same spot? That couldn’t be a coincidence. The river is the key to all of this, because that’s where Charity met her end”.
There was a lot to think about. Becky stood up. “I have school tomorrow, and all this is whirring around in my head. I need to try to get to sleep, so I’m going up to my room now, Mum”. Cathy stood up too, spreading her arms, a nervous smile on her lips. “Do I get a hug, Becks?” Her daughter ignored her, and walked upstairs without a backward glance.
Charity was sitting on the floor, at the end of the bed. “Now you know, young Rebecca. You have heard the web of lies from your mother’s own mouth. I have told you all along that you were in danger here, and I am the only one who can help you. Do you believe me now?” Becky put the papers down on the floor, and turned to the girl. “Yes, I do”.
Fearful of being overheard, Becky knelt on the floor next to the girl. She tolerated the smell of her, placing her mouth close to the small ear protruding from under the cotton cap. Then she whispered for a long time, Charity nodding and smiling as she listened. Then Becky moved her own ear next to Charity’s mouth, and listened as the girl whispered to her. Satisfied, Becky stood up, finally speaking out loud.
“Good. That is exactly what we will do, Charity”.
When Becky opened her bedroom door the next morning, Cathy was already awake, and sitting up in bed. Her daughter’s tone was flat, more like a statement than conversation. “You have to ring the school Mum. Tell them I am ill or something. I won’t be going in today”. Before she could reply, Becky had closed the door, and was walking downstairs. Cathy picked up her mobile and rang as requested, making up something about a high temperature. No point arguing about it. Becky had changed, and she had to admit to being a little afraid of her now.
When she got to the willow tree, Charity was waiting for her.
“Don’t forget what I told you, Rebecca. For the tree to show the future, you sit facing the other way. Put both arms around the trunk, and your head against the bark”. Becky nodded, her mouth a little dry with apprehension. Kneeling against the tree, she wrapped her arms around it and lowered her head until her forehead was pressing hard against it. With her eyes closed, she spoke out loud. “Show me my future, and all my secrets”.
It was different than before, much scarier. She experienced the strange feeling of melting into the wood, as if she had become part of the living tree. Fighting to overcome the desire to pull away and break the bond, she allowed it to happen, ignoring the icy cold that seeped into every part of her body. She could sense the branches as extensions of her fingers, and imagined the leaves pulsing as they took nutrition into their veins. It was as if the tree was feeding on her energy, like she was being sucked dry.
The rush of images made her catch her breath. She saw things she expected to see, and many things she wished she had never seen. She discovered secrets about herself, and saw herself in the future, older. First in her twenties, and then with grey hair. As the vision slowed gradually, she could see something very clearly. Something about Mum. Her and her Mum.
Breaking the connection, and rocking back on her knees, Becky blacked out, unconscious under the branches.
A long time passed before she woke up. Crawling out from under the canopy seeking escape from the bitter cold there, it was obvious that Charity had gone. The tree had showed her future, and confirmed some of her worst fears too. But one truth was comforting. She would get old. That must surely mean she would not die in the river, by the hand of Tilly. But could she trust the tree? Charity had said she could, but she still wasn’t sure she trusted her. She did believe her, but trust was a long way from that.
As she walked back to the house, Becky felt stronger, wiser, more mature. She could see how you could become addicted to asking the tree. It offered solutions, and also gave you back some of the power it had taken from so many people over the centuries. Mum’s car was gone, so she went up to her room, and did some research on the old laptop. She needed to know more about willow trees. Wikipedia gave some interesting facts, and she copied them down in her notebook.
‘In China, some people carry willow branches with them on the day of their Tomb Sweeping or Qingming Festival. Willow branches are also put up on gates and/or front doors, which they believe help ward off the evil spirits that wander on Qingming. Legend states that on Qingming Festival, the ruler of the underworld allows the spirits of the dead to return to earth. Since their presence may not always be welcome, willow branches keep them away. In traditional pictures of the Goddess of Mercy Guanyin, she is often shown seated on a rock with a willow branch in a vase of water at her side. The Goddess employs this mysterious water and the branch for putting demons to flight. Taoist witches also use a small carving made from willow wood for communicating with the spirits of the dead. The image is sent to the nether world, where the disembodied spirit is deemed to enter it, and give the desired information to surviving relatives on its return.’
‘In Japanese tradition, the willow is associated with ghosts. It is popularly supposed that a ghost will appear where a willow grows. Willow trees are also quite prevalent in folklore and myths’.
‘In English folklore, a willow tree is believed to be quite sinister, capable of uprooting itself and stalking travellers.’
‘Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story called Under the Willow Tree in which children ask questions of a tree they call ‘willow-father’, paired with another entity called ‘elder-mother’.’
‘In Central Europe a “hollow willow” is a common figure of speech, alluding to a person one can confide secrets in.’
‘”Green Willow” is a Japanese ghost story in which a young samurai falls in love with a woman called Green Willow who has a close spiritual connection with a willow tree. “The Willow Wife” is another, not dissimilar tale. “Wisdom of the Willow Tree” is an Osage Nation story in which a young man seeks answers from a willow tree, addressing the tree in conversation as ‘Grandfather’.’
Reading back over her notes, Becky gave a low whistle. From Japan and China to North America; in England, Denmark, and many other European countries, the willow trees were associated with ghosts, knowledge, wisdom, legends, and fables. Maybe Charity was right all along. Perhaps she could be trusted after all.
When her Mum got home, Becky was waiting for her in the living room. “I want you to arrange whatever it is Mr Vosper has planned, Mum. Stop trying to find a way around it, and let’s just see what happens. I will be going back to school tomorrow, one day off was enough for what I needed to do”.
Cathy watched her walk up the stairs, and a chill passed through her, reminding her of the old saying.
“Someone is walking over your grave”.
The next day at school, Becky was brimming with renewed confidence. The session at the tree had given her a new outlook on life, and all her previous worries about the new school had faded away overnight. By lunchtime, the weather had improved, and she went to sit on a wall outside to eat her sandwich. Before she could bite into it, Tilly appeared. She sat down on the wall next to her, smelling of perfume and clean clothes. As she crossed her legs, Becky heard the swish of nylon from her expensive sheer tights. The older girl edged closer, until their bodies were touching. Despite what she knew about Tilly, Becky couldn’t help but admit to herself that she was definitely attracted to her.
Lowering the sandwich, Becky looked up at her, raising her eyebrows. She wanted it to seem that she had not forgotten that she had been snubbing her for days. Tilly tossed her head to move her perfect hair from out of her face, and licked her pouting lips. “I was thinking, Becky. How would you like if it I came over to your place at the weekend? If the weather stays like this, we could go for a swim in the river. I’ve just got an amazing new one-piece swimsuit, or if nobody else is around, we could just go skinny-dipping”. She looked down at Becky with a wide smile, her eyelashes fluttering slowly, heavy with mascara. Leaning further in, so that Becky could smell her sweet spearmint breath, she added, “I could stop over the night too, if you would like that. We could have a nice sleepover, a pyjama party sort-of thing. Though I don’t wear any pyjamas, I should warn you”.
Becky felt like a cobra in a basket, being charmed by an expert flute-player. She had to confess that Tilly was very good at this sort of thing. But the blatant sexuality of her words made her blush. That was something she wasn’t used to at her age; a girlish crush was one thing, but what Tilly was implying was something else altogether. Keeping her cool, and not wanting to give away what she knew already, Becky did her best to sound excited and impressed. She responded to the older girl’s attentions in the way she was sure was expected of her. “Oh wow! Really? Go swimming and hang out, and you would sleep over too? That would be great, Tilly. I have been so lonely since we moved here”. Tilly seemed to be convinced, and had taken the bait. She lightly placed an arm around Becky, and put her full lips right against the younger girl’s ear. “Well you won’t be lonely anymore, I guarantee that”. Then she stood up, and started to walk away. Without turning, she called back. “Shall we say Saturday, around midday?” She didn’t wait for a reply.
Biting into the sandwich, Becky watched as Tilly walked in the direction of the playing field. By the corner of the netball cage, she stopped and pulled a phone out of her bag. She had a brief conversation, smiling all the time. That far away, Becky couldn’t hear what was being said, but it was a safe bet that she was either ringing her father, or speaking to Cathy. She had only been at school for less than four hours, and the plan had already been discussed.
The wheels were in motion.
When she went to get the bus home that night, Tilly was there too. All smiles, and pulling Becky to the seats at the back. She sat close, whispering about how much fun they would have at the weekend, taking every opportunity to touch Becky’s leg, or push herself softly against the younger girl. Now she could see through all this, Becky enjoyed the charade. Let her carry on with her idea of seduction and flirting, she thought. I know her real character now, and I will just play along until the right time. But part of the impressionable young girl still inside her did enjoy the attention, and the convincing show of affection. She had to really struggle not to surrender to that.
When they got to the village, Becky stayed on the bus until the others were off. She guessed Bridie would have something to say, and she was right. Turning in her seat, Bridie shook her head. “I thought I had warned you about Tilly, girly. You mustn’t let yourself get taken in by her. She may look wonderful, but she’s rotten inside. Don’t believe anything she says, and most of all don’t let yourself get involved with her. I promise you will regret it”. Becky didn’t trust Bridie anymore than anyone else around the village. And she wanted her to know it, and to stop interfering. She walked to the side door, and then leaned forward, speaking quietly. “From what I have heard, you didn’t take your own advice, Bridie. Just because you can’t have her anymore, you want to poison her for anyone else. Just stay out of my business, and don’t come to my house again”.
Bridie’s face turned bright red, and she sat back heavily into her seat. She would like to have said something, but decided to shut up. This new girl knew her secret already, and it looked like she would never escape the Vospers.
In the house, Mum was standing in the hallway as she walked in. Her expression was serious. “I did as you asked, love. I phoned Reginald Vosper, and he said he will start things moving. I expect you will be approached by Tilly soon”. Becky looked at her Mum for some time, trying to read either truth or deceit in her face. “I have already. Tilly couldn’t wait, and spoke to me at lunchtime. She’s coming for the weekend, so she said. A sleepover, then swimming. Or swimming then a sleepover. She didn’t make that clear”. Her tone was deliberately sarcastic, but Mum hadn’t noticed. “I can make myself scarce, if you want to be alone with her, Becks. Leave you some food, and think of a reason not to be around. Whatever you think best”.
Becky started straight into her Mum’s eyes, her gaze was intense.
“Oh no, Mum. You have to be here”.
For the rest of that week at school, Tilly stuck to Becky’s side whenever she had the opportunity. She started to use the bus each way again, and always sat next to Becky at the back, ignoring the moans of the two younger boys she had displaced. They seemed to instinctively know not to push it, and acted rather wary of Tilly. Lunch breaks were spent together, with the older girl cuddling Becky at every opportunity, and chatting to her as if they were the same age. Bridie ignored them both when they were on the bus, staring straight ahead, and not saying anything to either of them.
By Friday afternoon, Becky was feeling rather sad. Even though she knew it was all an act, this new-found relationship with the gorgeous Tilly was making her feel so good. She was ready early every day, and excited when the bus stopped outside Tilly’s house, and she rushed in to snuggle up close on the usual seats. Part of her wished that all the other stuff was just a dream, and that life could go on just like this for her and Tilly. She found herself dreaming about her at night, and having difficulty getting off to sleep, as she pictured her in her thoughts. It was a constant emotional battle to keep grounded, and to remind herself that it was just fake.
There had been no sign of Charity at all. Since they had talked in the bedroom, she hadn’t appeared. Becky had gone looking for her at the tree, but there was no trace of her, not even the lingering smell that indicated she had been there. But one thing was glaringly obvious. The tree was getting bigger. Much bigger. In the few weeks since she had come to live there, the trunk seemed thicker, and many more branches drooped down to touch the water too. Even when she didn’t crawl under the canopy, Becky could feel something by just standing close. An energy, almost like electricity. If she stood still and closed her eyes, she could have sworn she heard something too. A low humming, reverberating along the ground.
Around the house, Mum wasn’t mentioning the weekend. Irritatingly, she carried on as if nothing unusual was happening. Acting somewhat bright and breezy, making her favourite meals, and turning up with special treats, like the Belgian Buns that she knew Becky loved so much. But she wasn’t about to be fooled, or lulled into a false sense of security by all that. Although she could never be one hundred percent certain, she still didn’t trust Mum. And this out of character behaviour just made her all the more suspicious.
On the way home in the bus, Tilly was chatting constantly about what fun they would have when she came round the next day. As they got close to her house, she suddenly asked Becky for her mobile phone number. In all that time, she had never asked for it before, and Becky wondered why. “Is it so you can let me know if you are going to be late? Or perhaps you are going to cancel at the last minute?” Tilly grinned, and gently stroked the side of Becky’s face. “Nothing like that, I promise. I just want to phone you later, when you’re alone. We never really get the chance for a proper chat at school now, do we?” Becky told her the number, and watched as Tilly entered her as a contact at lightning speed. Then she turned the phone round, so Becky could see that she had the number, and could read the contact name she had added.
Her face flushed as she read that, and she didn’t know what to say. Luckily, the bus stopped outside Tilly’s driveway, and she got off quickly, calling out “See you tomorrow” as she slid the door closed.
That night, Mum still didn’t say anything about Tilly coming round the next day. Becky went up and did her homework, and when she came down for dinner, she saw that there were more Belgian Buns as a treat. Mum had even taken the cherry from the top of her one, and placed it onto Becky’s bun so she would have two. After eating, they watched a film on DVD. Becky couldn’t concentrate on it, her mind was racing. Just before ten, her mobile rang. Mum jumped with surprise. Nobody ever rang Becky’s mobile. Grabbing her phone, she headed for the stairs. “I’ll take it up in my room, Mum”, she called out as she ran up them two at a time, swiping the screen to accept the call.
Closing the door tight, Becky went over and flopped onto the bed. “Hi Tilly”, She was going to try to sound excited, but realised she didn’t have to try. The voice at the other end sounded like an older version of Tilly. Slightly croaky, and breaking with emotion. A hint of breathlessness made it seem like a secret that they were even talking. “I’ve been thinking about you all night, Becky. Have you been thinking about me? Are you alone, maybe up in your room? Or is your Mum around? Can you talk privately?” The questions came slowly; measured, deliberate. “Yeah, I’m alone in my room, Mum’s downstairs”. Tilly purred like a cat. “Oh, that’s good, because I want to talk to to you about when I sleep over tomorrow”. Becky stretched out properly. She was still wearing her school uniform, not having bothered to get changed as she hadn’t planned on going anywhere. She pulled the tie from around her neck with one hand, and threw it on the floor.
Tilly started to say things. They were things that Becky hadn’t expected at all. Sensual things, outright rude things, using words that Becky had never heard before, and lurid descriptions that made her imagination go crazy. Even though she was alone in the room, Becky felt the heat as she blushed from her face all down her neck. Tilly’s growling voice and the things she was saying made her tingle all over, until she was visibly quivering. Her toes felt as if they were being tickled, and she wiggled them around so violently inside her thick tights that they started to feel sore. It was as if she was being dipped in warm honey, and she was beginning to give in to Tilly’s skillful seduction. Then she heard the voice grow louder, asking something. “Becky, are you still there? Can you hear me?” She snapped out of the reverie, and replied. “Yes, I was just listening”.
“Did you like what you heard?” The voice was back to sounding like a soft growl. Becky sat up, fighting to come to her senses. Something about the way Tilly was speaking made her feel hypnotised, and she realised what was happening just in time. “Er, yeah. It sounded great. But I don’t know anything about all that, you do know that?” A soft laugh came in reply. “Don’t worry, my beautiful Becky. Leave everything to me. Night, night, sweetheart”. With that, the call ended, a long buzzing tone indicating that Tilly had hung up.
She dropped the phone onto the bed, and walked quickly across to the bathroom on the landing. In the mirror, she could see the redness was still there. Her cheeks were still hot, and the colouring extended down below the open neck of her school shirt. Still trembling, she ran the cold tap, and splashed water onto her face, and the back of her neck. The shock of the water calmed her down, and gave her back her full senses. It had been close, very close indeed. She had almost succumbed totally, she knew that. Now she knew why Tilly had insisted on phoning her tonight. She was going to have to try very hard not to keep thinking about all the things she had said.
Back in her room, she jumped to see Charity sitting at the end of the bed. The girl had a grim expression, and was shaking her head.
“You have to be more careful, Rebecca. Keep alert, or it will be the worse for you”.
Tilly was fashionably late. By the time it got to 1 pm, Becky had made up her mind that she wasn’t going to turn up at all. She had checked her phone twice, but there were no messages. Mum had been acting very strange since breakfast. As soon as they had both finished their toast, Mum was running around like a whirlwind. She was cleaning everything in the house, in every room. That was something she had hardly bothered with, since the day after they had moved in. After that, she changed the beds, loaded the washing machine, and started cooking.
It was hard to remember when Mum had ever done so much cooking. Becky had certainly never seen her bake a cake, but she had two on the go by nine that morning. Once they were ready to go into the oven, she began to make all sorts of things that had never been seen in the house before, even her own small loaf of garlic bread. Becky had been tasked with taking out the rubbish, and tidying up her room before it was thoroughly cleaned. But mostly, she had been told to keep out of the way, and to let Mum get on with things. Retreating to her now immaculate room, Becky put everything back into the canvas bag, and crept into her Mum’s room. She tipped up the small armchair in the corner, and hid the bag behind it. Mum would never think to look for it in her own room. At least she hoped she wouldn’t.
By ten-thirty, there was a delicious-looking chicken and mozzarella pasta bake made and ready to cook later, various expensive nibbles arranged in bowls, and two bottles of Prosecco cooling in the fridge. Mum ordered her not to touch anything, then disappeared upstairs to have a bath, and get ready. Before jumping into the tub, she shouted downstairs. “I hope you’re going to change into something nice, Becks. And put some make-up on too. Give your hair a brush while you’re at it, it wouldn’t hurt to make an effort!”
Bemused by her Mum’s attitude to the arrival of Tilly, Becky nevertheless tidied her hair, applied some very basic make-up, and changed into what counted as a ‘little black dress’, for an 11 year-old. Viewing the result in her wardrobe mirror, she decided she looked not unlike a schoolgirl version of Audrey Hepburn. But if they really were going swimming, then what was the point?
It was past two when the Range Rover appeared in the driveway. Tilly stepped out wearing ripped jeans, and a figure-hugging cashmere top. Mum was acting as if the Queen of England had turned up. “Do I look alright, Becks? Is the house clean and tidy? Do you think I have done enough food?” Becky replied with an undisguised sneer. “Just the red carpet, Mum. You forgot that”. Tilly walked in, carrying her Louis Vitton overnight bag. She smelled as wonderful as a night in Xanadu, and looked like a very casual one million dollars, or much more. Mum fawned over her, kissing both cheeks as if greeting the president of an emerging oil state. Becky looked on with interest. It was quite obvious to her that they knew each other. Very well.
But Tilly slid past Mum, and made a bee-line for her. “Why, Becks, you look wonderful! I hope that you didn’t go to any trouble for me?” Behind her, the Range Rover was executing a noisy turn, before speeding off back in the direction of the country lane. Mum was so weird. Almost simpering at the presence of Tilly. And what was she wearing? Nothing appropriate for a Mum, that was for sure. A midnight blue cocktail dress, in the daytime. Too low at the front, and far too short for a woman of her age. Then there was the hair and make-up. Rollers had obviously been applied, giving a Hollywood curl. Her eyes were crazily black, and the blusher on her cheeks made her look like someone in drag act. Even with that shock of unnaturally white hair, Mum looked like a high-class tramp. Tilly more or less ignored Mum, despite her blatant effort. “Becks babe, let’s go up to your room”.
Dumping her expensive bag on the bed, Tilly turned with a smile that could launch those proverbial one thousand ships. “So sorry I’m late, darling. Let’s give the swimming a miss until tomorrow morning. We can have a great time catching up, and spend some quality time together later. What do you say?” Becky was calmer now, and wise to all her flattery. “Yeah, that’s great, Tilly. We can chill out, have a nice meal later. Mum has cooked enough for ten”. The older girl oozed confidence. Leaning forward, she planted a soft warm kiss directly on Becky’s mouth. Smiling, she breathed the words. “Oh, we are going to have such a wonderful time, my beauty”. Inside, Becky was calm. A difficult night’s sleep had made her sharp, and hardened her young heart. She beamed at her supposed friend, in a pretence of adoration. “I’m sure we are, Tilly”.
Not much happened at all, leaving Becky wondering if something had changed. They spent the late afternoon in the living room. Tilly was talking nonsense, and Mum was flirting with her as if she was Brad Pitt. Becky found it plainly embarrassing, and felt out of it, as if she was in the way of the other two. Dinner was no better, Mum roaring with laughter at Tilly’s often crude comments. When it came to bedtime, Becky was beginning to lose her nerve. What if Tilly held her to all that stuff she had spoken about? Mum tried to drag it out, as if she didn’t want the girls to leave her, and go upstairs. She poured Tilly a large glass of the white wine, schmoozing up next to her on the sofa. Despite Cathy’s attentions, Tilly kept her gaze on Becky. Winking at her and grinning, rolling her eyes in mockery at Cathy making a show of herself. When she had finished her wine, her voice adopted a commanding tone.
“Time we were going up to bed. We don’t want to end up sleeping in late tomorrow”.
Up in the bedroom. Tilly turned up her nose at the relatively small bed, though she hadn’t mentioned it earlier. “I suppose it will be cosy enough for two, but it’s going to be a tight squeeze later, for sleeping”. Becky perched on the edge at the end of the bed, looking down at her feet. Tilly had already peeled off her top and jeans, and was wandering around in her scanty underwear. Becky stayed resolute; still fully dressed for now, and refusing to look at the amazing figure of the older girl. Tilly was rather tipsy. She planted her hands on her hips, and raised her voice. “Something’s wrong, I can tell. This is not working out like we talked about, Becks. That bed is pathetic, you don’t seem at all interested, and I am left wondering why I bothered to come. I might just as well go and climb in with your Mum. At least she’s got a king-sized bed”. Becky shrugged, a sense of relief washing over her. “Please yourself, if you feel like that”.
It hadn’t escaped her notice that Tilly knew how big Mum’s bed was.
Tilly straightened up. “Well you might not be interested, but I can tell you that Cathy is. At least she was the last time, and the time before that”.
With an unpleasant leer on her face, she turned on her heel and left the room. Seconds later, she could clearly be heard next door, though the voices were muted at first. Then there was laughter, then quiet. Later, there were other noises. Even Becky knew what they were.
But she didn’t care.
Becky woke up the next morning when the brightness of the light from the window made her wince. Tilly was in the room, pulling the curtains open, and calling out in a very cheery voice. “Come on Becks! Time to get out of bed, and down to the river. It’s a beautiful day, and we can shower after swimming”. Becky forced her eyes open reluctantly, then looked away quickly, as she was greeted by the sight of Tilly’s completely naked, spray-tanned body. Sitting up, she rubbed her eyes, then watched from behind as the older girl bent down and rummaged through her overnight bag. She watched her slip on a pink swimming costume, then as Tilly turned, she had to wonder why she had bothered to wear it at all. It was so revealing, she might just as well have left it in the bag.
Nothing was said by either of them about last night. Tilly acted as if everything was totally normal. “I’ll let you get sorted, and see you downstairs. Bring some towels, Becky love”. Walking over to a chest of drawers, Becky found her one-piece modest black swimsuit, bought to wear for swimming class at school. She took off her pyjamas, and dropped them on the floor, before pulling the swimsuit on. Out on the landing, the door to Mum’s room was still closed. Becky opened the linen cupboard, and took out two large bath towels, draping them over her arm. Then she stood there for a full two minutes, until she was fully awake, and had composed her thoughts. Except for Charity, she was on her own. She had to stay focused, think straight.
Tilly was already on the grassy bank next to the river. She looked stunning, even with yesterday’s make-up, and her hair all over the place. Becky handed her a towel, and she spread it out before arranging herself carefully on it, posing like a glamour model. The sun was climbing still, and it looked like it was going to be a nice day. The silence was awkward. Becky tried not to look sideways at the older girl, unwilling to experience the seduction provided by her easy posturing. Instead, she suggested they get on with it. “Shall we go in then? Might as well get wet, and start swimming”. Tilly turned over on her front, her gaze reminding Becky of Kaa, the snake in the Disney film The Jungle Book. “No rush, honey. Let’s get some sun first, let the water warm up”. Becky knew enough about English rivers to know that the water was unlikely to warm up that much, no matter how sunny the day.
She was was wasting time, probably waiting for something. Or someone.
Wrapping her arms around her bent knees, Becky tried to sound completely normal as she replied. “Yeah, okay. I’m fine here”. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Tilly stretched both arms up, extending her legs, and wiggling her almost completely-exposed bum cheeks. Becky smiled to herself. Tilly could try as hard as she liked. She was immune to that now. Last night had taught her something about both her, and Mum. Most of all, Becky was now completely unimpressed with the older girl. The assumption that she could treat her as she had, and believe that she was too dull and needy to be affected by that. And not least the fact that she had no idea that Becky knew exactly what she was up to.
As the time dragged on, it seemed that Tilly was in no rush to go swimming at all. Instead, she continued to squirm around on the towel, with one arm in front of her face. Becky gave up, and stretched out herself, feeling the warmth from the sun making her relax. It was impossible not to keep glancing to her right though. Being so close to Tilly’s curves and soft, fake-tanned skin was becoming irresistible, the longer she tried to resist it. She was only an inch or two away. Becky knew that she simply had to flex her fingers, and she would be touching her. It was as if someone had opened the door to the world’s best sweet shop, and invited her to walk in and have her fill, free of charge. She watched in complete fascination, as the fingers of her right hand seemed to move of their own accord, until they hovered over the top of Tilly’s thigh, close enough to feel the heat rising from it.
“Time to get in the water!”
The loud voice made Becky jump, and she pulled her hand back as if it had been stung. Charity was standing on her left, her arms folded, and her expression severe. Obviously, Tilly hadn’t heard her, as she hadn’t moved or looked up. “If you stay lying here like this, you know what will happen. She will own you, just as she owns your mother, and you will be lost. Just get up, and into the river. She will have no option but to follow”. Charity wasn’t in the mood for suggestions. It sounded like an order. She waited until Becky stood up, then disappeared. Walking down to the river’s edge, Becky called back. “I’m going in for a swim now. You can stay there if you want, but I’m bored”. Once she was in up to her waist, Tilly stood up and ran to join her. She didn’t mess around, and jumped straight in with a childish squeal. Becky eyed her with suspicion, wondering when the trouble would start.
Floating serenely on her back, swimming gently against the current, Tilly looked for all the world like a beautiful young mermaid. Becky slid down into the deeper water, and started a slow breast stroke, swimming in circles around the older girl. She looked back at the bank, but there was no sign of Charity. Suddenly, Tilly turned, and began to swim away from the house, changing to a fast front crawl. A little further on, she stopped, treading water. With her wet hair plastered across her face, she shouted to Becky. “Come up here, next to me. Then we can race back to the mill. I bet I beat you!” Becky reached her in no time, and Tilly wrapped her arms around her in the water, her face pressing close. “I know you’re a strong swimmer, but I’m older, and taller. I’m bound to win. Start on the count of three, okay?”
Before any count was started, the water began to churn around them, as the current doubled in seconds. The sound of rushing water could clearly be heard from the mill, something like a small waterfall Becky remembered from a foreign holiday years ago. She fought against the water, trying to stay in the same spot. But it was hopeless, and she was swept away, just managing to stay on the surface as she was propelled along at speed in the bubbling river. Glancing behind, she could see that Tilly was close, keeping in her wake. Her face was grim and determined now, the seductive smile just a memory.
Approaching the mill, Becky had time to notice just two things. Her Mum was standing on top of the sluice gates, the huge metal lever held open by both her hands. And the mill wheel was turning, for the first time in hundreds of years. There were no longer any gears inside to spin millstones to make flour, but still the wheel moved slowly around, turning on the huge coupling that went through into the wall of the house. Both the gate lever and mill machinery must have been restored and repaired when she had been at school. How had she failed to notice that?
As she felt herself being sucked under the wheel by the rushing water, she finally spotted Charity, standing just behind Mum on the flimsy platform. She smiled as the water covered her completely, and the large wooden slats of the mill wheel passed over her head. Charity had come to save her. Everything would be alright.
It was moving day again. The large hire van was parked outside the house, and Becky looked down at it from the window on the landing. From her Mum’s room, she could hear the sound of Mum and Tilly chatting as they packed away the last items of clothing. Everything else was already in the back of the van. Moments later, they emerged from the bedroom, each struggling with a large suitcase. Becky watched as they bumped them down the stairs, then walked out to heave them into the last space at the back of the van. Mum pulled the shutter closed, and jingled the keys in her right hand. Tilly smiled fondly at her, and reached out to squeeze her free hand. Without a backward glance, they got into the front of the van, and it drove off slowly across the gravel.
Charity was standing behind her, but Becky refused to turn and look at her. She watched as the van went out of sight along the country lane before she spoke. “I’ll never forgive you, Charity, you do know that, don’t you? You were supposed to save me, it was the plan”. She turned to face the girl, who was looking awkward, a half-smile turning up the corners of her mouth as she replied. “Never is a long time, Rebecca. I should know”.
Becky felt like crying, but refused to let any tears come. “And the tree. What about the tree? It showed me my future”. Charity looked down at her feet, which never seemed to get any dirtier than they were that first day. “That was me, sorry. It was always me. The tree is just a tree”. Becky wanted to punch her, but couldn’t see the point. “But why, Charity? Why did you let them drown me? Tilly was the one who was supposed to die”.
The girl shrugged.
“I was lonely”.