There was no one about when Paul dropped her off that afternoon. The yard was deserted. She was glad of this, as she was anxious to begin her search of the attic. But that had to be put on hold for a while, as the urgent barking of the dogs meant she had to feed them first.
“Whoa,” she laughed, despite her worry, as the three bundles of fur surged through the outbuilding door.
The pups jumped up on her legs, and she knew without the barrier of the denim jeans, she would have been badly scratched. Bess tried to get her unruly pups in some order, but they were restless after so many hours of being cooped up and didn’t wait until they were fed.
“Where are they gone?” Jill asked, as she placed the three-full bowls on the ground.
Bess looked towards the orchard and the odd flash of black and white could be seen darting through the trees. She sniffed at her food, not hungry, and just as anxious as her mistress.
“There’s nothing yet,” Jill knelt beside her and stroked the soft fur of her coat.
Bess groaned, the sound echoing Jill’s own thoughts.
“I know, girl,” Jill said, but I have another idea that might help.”
The pups, drawn by the scent of the food, came running and she left them to continue their feasting. Bess followed her as she walked into the house. Jill heard the television in the sitting room, and she peeped inside. Her mother was asleep in one of the armchairs. She was glad she did not have to answer any questions and could go up to the attic without being seen.
“Not a sound,” she whispered to the dog.
Taking off her boots, she placed them at the side of the coat rack and tip-toed up the stairs. The attic would be freezing now, and she chose to leave on her jacket. Bess was right behind her, so close Jill felt her warm breath on her heels.
The stairs to the attic creaked. Jill winced and listened a moment, to make sure the sound didn’t rouse her mother. When she was certain it had not, she continued her climb. The old oil lamp sat in the same spot, on top of one of the trunks. A gas lighter had long ago replaced the box of matches and it sat beside the lamp’s round metal base. Flicking the wheel, Jill lifted the glass dome and held the flame against the wick. It sizzled as it caught fire and she watched a small shower of sparks leap from the dry linen, before replacing the glass. As in the past, the lamp lit just the first few yards of the room and she was forced to hold it higher to see what lay beyond the familiar trunks. She had to put it down a few times, to clear away the various boxes and bits of furniture that blocked the walkway, as she descended deeper into the gloom. Any other time she would have stopped and investigated various curios she came across, but for now these were pushed aside as her search continued. Though she had no idea what she was looking for, other than the books her mother had spoken of, she allowed her nose to lead her as the scent of the dried herbs and roots urged her closer.
A large, black chest stood at the very back of the attic. It was bigger and more impressive than any of the others and Jill knew, when she touched the strong lock that held it closed, this one would not yield as easily. Despite the great age of the trunk, the lock was relatively new. Holding the lamp higher, she searched along the lid and around the sides for a key, but there was none to be found. The darker corners of the room may have held the answer, but even the light from the lamp did not reach these places, and she didn’t want to forage with her fingers. There were mice there, she knew from Bess’s darting glances into the shadows, and others thing more frightening, spiders. She shuddered at the thought, great, hairy hump-backed spiders grown fat and content in the quiet of the attic.
There was no other choice, but to ask her father or Joe to jimmy the lock. Sighing, she sat against the trunk and looked down at the dog that stood waiting.
“I can’t open it, Bess,” the eyes that stared back at her seemed huge in the glow from the lamp. “We’ll have to wait until the men get back. I haven’t a hope of breaking it open.”
The light outside the small window faded and she knew it would soon be dark. They would be calling off the search and Toby would be all alone for another night. She knew her son was alive; she could feel it way down inside, something primeval told her.
“Jill, are you up there?”
The sound of her mother’s voice echoed up the stairs.
“Yes, I’m coming down,” she made her way to the attic door, blew out the lamp and placed in back in its usual place.
Bess scurried past her, glad to be free of the dusty, dark room.
“I see that dog got in again,” her mother tutted, when she came down on to the landing.
“Bess is all right,” Jill did not want to get into another argument. “She has been company for me over the last few months.”
“Yes,” she sniffed and eyed the dog, suspiciously. “You know I’ve never liked dogs.”
Or cats, Jill thought, or hamsters, pet mice and even birds. Luckily her mother had no idea what she was thinking and continued.
“Your father and the others are on the way home. They’ll need something to eat.”
Her meaning was clear, yes, they would need feeding, but she had no intention of being the one who supplied the food.
“I’ll get started in the kitchen,” Jill swept past her and down the stairs.
She was peeling potatoes when the excited yelps of the pups heralded the arrival of the cars in the yard. Her father was the first to enter and he walked to where she stood and kissed her forehead.
“No news, girl,” he said, his eyes filled with sadness.
“I know, Dad,” she went back to her work as the voices of her relatives started up in the hall.
“All right,” Joe asked, and she nodded.
“The dinner will take an hour, so if you want to have a wash,” she said, lost for words.
It’s strange, she thought, once he had left the room, how I no longer care about him. In the past, she imagined what she would say to him when they met, what she would have liked to say to him, that is, but her anger was replaced by a quiet acceptance that what they had was now gone and would never return. Thinking it wiser to inform her aunts and cousins about the delay in the dinner, she pushed open the door of the sitting room. She found them gathered around the fire and whispering with her mother. There was no need to guess what they were saying, as they all looked up startled when she entered. After making her excuses, she was about to leave the room when her father came up behind her. He had changed out of his damp clothes and was now in a better frame of mind.
“Why don’t you leave the cooking, girl?” he asked. “We can get a takeaway from the village.”
“No, Dad, it’s fine,” Jill smiled at him. “I’ve already started.”
“Yes,” her mother called. “Leave her alone. The work will take her mind off her troubles.”
“What can you do?” Her father asked, shrugging his shoulders.
“I know, Dad,” she patted his hand. “Take no notice. Go in and sit by the fire. I’ll call you when the dinner is ready.”
“Can I not help out,” he asked. “Set the table or something?”
“No, it’s fine. There’s some whisky in the press beside the fire. Try to relax and have a rest.”
She was glad he didn’t push the subject any further, as the quiet of the kitchen helped her think. Once the potatoes were put on to boil, she searched the fridge for something to go with them. The only thing available was the cooked ham she bought for Toby’s lunch. Trying not to cry, she pulled the packets out and threw them onto the table. A large bowl of eggs sat on top of the dresser. These were a gift from a grateful patient, but neither of the doctors had any need for them, so they passed them on to Jill. She would use them along with the ham and potatoes. As she picked up the bowl, her eyes were drawn to the old photograph of her grandmother.
“What am I going to do, Nana?” she asked, looking for answers in the kind face.
She had no other choice than to use to old gas cooker to fry the eggs, as the blaze from the fire was too high for the frying pan. The water in the old black cauldron was already bubbling; such was the intense heat from the flames. She always thought of her grandmother’s old cookware in this way, the three-legged, old pots did look like a witch’s cauldrons. Something stirred in her brain, a memory struggled to the surface and she spun around and pulled open one of the dresser drawers. A bunch of keys lay nestled among an assortment of legal documents and household bills. These were handed over to her by her grandmother’s solicitors. Of course, she thought, wrapping her hand around the cold metal ring. The key to the locked trunk would be on this.
Prodding the potatoes with a sharp knife, she made sure she still had enough time to run back up to the attic.
“Stay there,” she warned Bess, who made ready to move. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
The door to the sitting room was closed, so there was no one to hear her. Kicking off the old ragged slippers she wore, she tip-toed up. The door to Joe’s room was ajar and she heard the low mumble of his voice when she reached the landing. Edging closer, holding her breathe in case he should hear, she tried to find out what he was saying.
“I can’t leave now,” he said, speaking with someone on his mobile. “I know, I know, I miss you too.”
Jill bit down hard on her bottom lip. Their son was missing, and all that bastard could think about was his new girlfriend. Her mouth stung, and she tasted the sweet coppery blood from her lip. All the pain and impotence she felt surged to the surface and she threw the door to his room open. When he saw the look on her face, Joe said a hasty goodbye and hung up.
“Get out,” Jill shrieked. “Now.”
“Wait, I can explain,” he started to move towards her.
“Get your things and get out,” she was shaking from temper.
“It’s not what you think,” he pleaded. “Just let me explain.”
The row had reached the room below, and the thundering on the stairs meant that the others were on their way.
“What’s going on here?” Her mother demanded.
“Keep out of this, mother,” Jill hissed.
“She won’t let me explain,” Joe looked over her shoulder at the assortment of women who stood waiting.
“He was talking to his new girlfriend,” Jill managed to say. “And I told him to leave.”
“Really, Jill,” her mother’s cultured tone only served to enrage her further. “You can’t expect him to go, not now.”
Jill had no idea of how she looked, as she spun around, but her mother reaction said it all. Turning back to Joe, she asked.
“Are you going to leave, or do I have to put you out?”
“If you’d let me explain,” his voice was beginning to annoy her.
What she had heard only served to prove her suspicions were right. She had known, deep down, there was someone else. Joe was too needy to go without the creature comforts only a woman could provide, and he would not have left them unless he had someone else lined up. The idea of what a fool she’d been made her laugh. He frowned at the sound and looked at her mother for support.
“Are you going to leave?” Jill asked for the last time.
When he made no move to do so, her grip tightened on the key ring and she swung. There were over ten large keys on the ring and their weight alone sent him staggering back onto the bed.
“Christ,” he brought a hand to his face. “You fuckin’ bitch.”
“Do I have to tell you again?” Jill raised the ring and turning to her assorted family. “I want all of you out. Now.”
Her mother, aunts and cousins spared no time in running to pack. Only her father stayed framed in the doorway and she tried to ignore his look of disappointment.
“Sorry, Dad,” Jill tried not to cry. “But I want you to go as well.”
He nodded and walked away. She had overstepped the mark, Jill knew. While she never intended to hurt her father, she had work to do. Work that demanded she not be disturbed.