Laura had visions of her uncle boiling up live deer or monkey’s brains for dinner, but to her surprise the kitchen was normal and even nice. It wasn’t exactly modern but it had a farmhouse feel to it. There was an Aga exuding warmth, burnished chestnut tiles on the floor and a worn oak table. To Laura’s relief, Lottie settled down in front of the stove and went to sleep. She loved animals and had always dreamed of having a dog of her own, but it was obvious where the wolfhound’s loyalties lay.
‘Mrs Webb has made some leek and potato soup,’ Calvin Redfern said. ‘Would you like a bowl? There’s soda bread to go with it.’
Laura was chilled to the marrow and suddenly hungry. She nodded. It was only then it occurred to her that she hadn’t said a word to her uncle since entering the house.
She watched him put a pot on the stove and stir it. The light was better in the kitchen than it had been in the hallway and she was able to study him from under her lashes. In Laura’s limited experience, he was unusually fit for a man of his age, which she guessed to be late forties or early fifties. But it was his face that intrigued her. He looked like the handsome but careworn hero of some old black-and-white movie, his dark hair prematurely streaked with grey, the lines around his eyes etched with an almost unbearable sadness.
There was something else in his expression too, something unreadable.
He put a steaming bowl in front of Laura and cut her a thick slice of soda bread.
‘Thank you,’ she said, finding her voice. She spread the bread with butter.
A sudden smile softened his features. ‘You’re the living image of your mum, you know.’
‘I wouldn’t,’ said Laura. ‘She died before I met her. I have a photograph but . . .
All at once she felt like bursting into tears. She’d been without a mother for so long that she seldom, if ever, felt sorry for herself, but tonight she was tired and struggling with a whole cauldron of emotions. For years, she’d longed for a relative to claim her. Now she was face to face with her mother’s brother and she didn’t know how she felt about it.
To distract herself, she took a few mouthfuls of soup. It was delicious and sent a welcome wave of heat around her body.
Her uncle watched her intently. ‘I never knew,’ he said. ‘About you, I mean. Your mum and I were estranged when we were young children. Our parents split up, and we grew up hundreds of miles apart. They sort of chose between us. I went with our father and your mum went with our mother. We took their names, hence you being called Marlin, our mum’s maiden name. I never saw Linda again until we were in our twenties and both our parents were dead. By that time, we’d had totally different lives and were on very different paths. In many ways, we were complete opposites.’
It was on the tip of Laura’s tongue to ask in what way they were opposites, but she stopped herself. She wasn’t sure she wanted to know the answer. Not now. Not tonight.
She said: ‘The soup is very good.’
Calvin Redfern smiled again. ‘Yes, well, Mrs Webb wouldn’t win any prizes for her personality but she does know how to cook.’
‘Who’s Mrs Webb?’
He gave a dry laugh. ‘She’s my housekeeper.’
Laura thought of the unkempt garden and weeds sprouting from the path, then jumped when her uncle said: ‘Mrs Webb doesn’t do gardens and neither do I. If you’re a fan of flowers and neat borders, you might have to tend to it yourself.’
He carried her bowl and plate to the sink. ‘She’s not big on dishes either, so you’ll need to do your own. However, she does bake a mean cake. You’ll find it in this tin here. Feel free to help yourself any time. Take a slice up to bed with you if you like.’
Opening the cake tin, he cut her a generous slab of Victoria sponge with cream and jam and poured her a glass of milk. Laura took them from him, temporarily speechless.
‘I don’t get involved in the running of the house. If you have any food likes or dislikes, tell Mrs Webb. Same goes if you need shampoo or toothpaste or whatever. I’ll give you pocket money each week for incidentals. If you’re in urgent need of any particular item of clothing or a computer or anything, let me know and I’ll see what I can do about it. I’ll also provide you with a mobile phone. Money doesn’t grow on trees around here, but I don’t want you feeling that you can’t at least ask.’
He gestured in the direction of the cupboards and fridge.
‘Regarding meals, I’ll be at some, I won’t be at others. You’ll have to entertain yourself. I don’t have a television but there are books all over the place, stacked in heaps. Use your own judgement. Don’t read things that are going to give you nightmares. I’ve no objection to you exploring St Ives whenever the mood takes you, or paddling in the sea when the weather warms up, but again, use your own judgement. Don’t take unnecessary risks. Oh, and make sure you’re always indoors by sunset.’
Tears sprang into Laura’s eyes and she turned away quickly to hide them. The concept of being handed real freedom and responsibility, of being trusted to make her own decisions, of a life without rules and regulations, blew her mind.
At Sylvan Meadows she’d been supervised in one way or another twenty-four hours a day. Even the foster homes she’d stayed in had had more rules than a prison. The chihuahua lady had rules about not sitting on her white sofa, or touching her china ornaments; the hippies had endless instructions about recycling and caring for the planet and not wasting water by flushing the toilet unnecessarily. The home run like an army unit had required her to be up at 6.00am, and had scheduled her day from morning to night in thirty minute slots of house cleaning duties, school work and sport.
And yet her uncle, who’d known her less than an hour, had taken one look at her and decided that he trusted her to eat, sleep and exist in a house without rules. It made her want to live up to that trust.
‘You must be exhausted, Laura,’ said Calvin Redfern, pretending not to notice her tears. ‘Come, let me show you to your room.’
He picked up her suitcase and climbed the stairs to the second floor, pointing out the bathroom, his own bedroom and the spare room. He wasn’t a fan of using central heating, but he showed her how to turn it on if she was cold. Otherwise, there was plenty of hot water and wood for fires and he assured her that the duvet on her bed was a cosy one.
Laura had expected to be in the spare bedroom, but it turned out that hers was at the top of the house, right up in the eaves. It was in a spacious attic and was simply furnished with a bed, a cupboard and a threadbare rug. Coals glowed in the hearth and the room was warm. Over the fireplace was a seascape painting of quite remarkable ugliness. Calvin Redfern saw her staring at it and said: ‘This is your own room to decorate as you see fit. Take down the painting if you don’t like it and put up posters of horses or pop stars or whatever it is girls want on their walls these days.’
He set down her suitcase and went over to the window. He was in the midst of lowering the blind when he froze. Laura, catching sight of his reflection, noticed a murderous expression cross his face. A moment later, he’d smoothed it away and closed the blind.
‘I do have one rule . . .
Here we go, thought Laura. I celebrated too soon. One rule will be followed by another rule and then another.
‘Actually, it’s not so much a rule as a request. I don’t believe in rules. It’s only this: On no account are you to go anywhere near the coastal path.’
‘Why?’ Laura asked automatically and could have kicked herself.
‘Because it’s lonely, goes too close to Dead Man’s Cove for my liking, and any number of fates could befall you there,’ her uncle responded in a calm, quiet voice that carried some kind of warning in it. ‘Humour me.’
‘No problem,’ Laura said, anxious to show that she was worthy of his trust. ‘I’ll avoid it like the plague.’
He smiled again. ‘Thank you. Now, if you have everything you need, I’ll say goodnight.’
‘Goodnight,’ said Laura, hoping he wouldn’t attempt to do something fatherly like give her a hug. He didn’t. At the door he turned briefly as if to speak, thought better of it and left abruptly.
Laura opened the blind and looked out of the window. The storm had died down but the night was as black as treacle and the waves still roared. She saw nothing that might explain her uncle’s odd reaction. Apart from the yellow lights of scattered fishermen’s cottages, all that was visible were the silvery plumes of spray kicked up by the ocean. It was a far cry from the car park and tarmac playground that she’d gazed out on at Sylvan Meadows.
Remembering the grim vista she’d woken up to that morning made her realise how long the day had been. Her body ached. She wriggled into her pyjamas and sat on her bed eating sponge cake and getting jam and cream all over her face and a little on the sheets, and just enjoying the fact that nobody was going to tell her off for making a mess, or order her to brush her teeth - possibly ever again. Her uncle had one easy rule. She could live with that, especially now that she had her own room, freedom and a family of sorts - Calvin Redfern and Lottie.
When the last crumb was finished, Laura fell back onto the pillows, a big smile on her face. For the first time in eleven years, she felt at home.
A SEAGULL’S SCREAM
jolted Laura from a dreamless sleep. She bolted upright in panic with not the slightest idea of where she was. A mental checklist of foster homes left her none the wiser. It was only when she saw the plate smeared with jam and cream that it all came back to her: the ferocious storm, the snarling wolfhound, and her uncle, scary and kind at the same time, and all the while exuding some sort of barely controlled power.
Laura pushed up the blind. The cook at Sylvan Meadows had once told her that a storm was nature’s way of doing her laundry, and there was no doubt St Ives, or at least the portion of it that Laura could see, was positively sparkling this morning. The sea was an intense navy blue and the waves wore frilly cuffs of the purest white. The light had a golden tint that promised a glorious day. The grass along the cliffs and in the cemetery was an unreal green.
The cemetery? Laura’s gaze backed up over the gravestones. It was true that she didn’t spook easily, but as she’d stood on the rain-lashed doorstep the previous night, shadows pouncing all around her and the wind howling through the tombstones, it hadn’t been too much of a stretch to believe that the dead might walk.
Laura swung out of bed and put her feet on the cold wooden boards. As she did so, she caught sight of the clock. For a mad moment, she wondered if it was upside down. In her entire eleven years she’d only twice been allowed to sleep in past eight, and both times were at Christmas. Now it was 10.05am. Laura strained her ears but the house was silent. Her uncle didn’t seem concerned whether she slept the day away or turned cartwheels.
She considered not showering since there was nobody around to enforce it, but washing seemed important somehow. Like shedding a skin.
Twenty minutes later, pink-faced from the scalding water, pale blonde hair standing up in short spikes, Laura made her way downstairs. She was wearing jeans and a red fleece into which her hands were stuffed to stop them from shaking. She kept a wary eye out for Lottie, but the wolfhound didn’t appear.
There was a pot of coffee, some milk, and a carton of orange juice on the kitchen table. Laura poured herself a coffee and walked around cradling the mug, searching for her uncle. She wondered if he’d taken Lottie for a walk or gone to work. His bedroom door had been open and the bed neatly made. He hadn’t mentioned what he did for a living. Maybe he was rich and did nothing at all.
But if Calvin Redfern was a wealthy man, it didn’t show in his home. The furniture and pictures in the lounge and dining room were mostly worn and faded. The rooms were chilly and had a forlorn feel, as if they were rarely used. The books, on the other hand, looked well read. Most of them seemed to be fairly dreary books on subjects like world affairs and boat building, but Laura’s heart leapt when she spotted two novels featuring her detective hero, Matt Walker. She put down her coffee and was reaching for one when she heard a drawer being opened in the next room. Unaccountably pleased that her uncle had not gone out after all, but was merely working in his study, Laura bounded over to the door, which was slightly ajar. She pushed it open without thinking.