The sound of the front door slamming resounded throughout the house. Jill sat at the top of the stairs with Bess by her side listening to the cars drive away. She stayed in her room until she heard the last of her relatives leave. There was no need for goodbyes after her outburst, and she did not want to see her father’s look of disappointment again. No doubt her mother would have had plenty to say on the matter, but the truth was Jill felt she could no longer control her temper. Listening to Joe whispering to his new girlfriend was the last straw, and she was still shaking, not just from temper, but because of his callousness when it came to his son. Christ, I’m such a fool, she thought, burying her face in Bess’s coat.
She stayed like that for a while, too tired to move, but more relaxed now that the house was empty. The clock in the hall ticked away the minutes, and all around her the old house sighed and settled for the night. It was the smell from the kitchen that finally roused her, and she ran down to stairs. Slipping her feet into the slippers she had earlier discarded; she went into the kitchen and swung the arm that held the cauldron away from the fire. The potatoes had boiled dry, and all that remained was a mushy black pile. The stench was disgusting, so she carried the cauldron out to the yard, tripping over the pups in her haste. She was sweating from the weight of her load, and once the steaming pile was emptied onto the grass in the orchard, she dropped the heavy cauldron. The pups sniffed at the debris and drew back when they realised it was hot. Jill sank down onto the small bench to breathe in the frosty night air. The stars seemed brighter than ever in the frosty sky and she looked up at them wondering if somewhere her son could see them too.
“Please,” she whispered to the heavens. “Don’t let them hurt my child.”
She was crying again, big racking sobs that shook her body, until she was forced to bend in two to stop the pain.
“Jill,” the voice startled her. “Are you, all right?”
Paul put his arm around her waist and helped her stand.
“You’ll get your death out here,” he said, and started to lead her towards the house, and she didn’t struggle, too weak to offer any resistance.
Once inside, he sat her in a chair by the sitting room fire. The bottle of whisky stood on a side table. The cap was off indicating her father’s swift exit and she felt her cheeks flame when she thought how cruel her behaviour was towards him. Wiping her eyes, she looked at Paul.
“I suppose my parents have been to see you,” she said, not waiting for his reply. “I suppose they told you that I’ve lost it?”
“Something of the sort.” He stood and walked over to the whiskey and poured a generous measure.
“I thought you were staying off that?”
“It’s not for me,” he said, and handed her the glass.
Feeling ever more of a bitch than ever, she sipped at the amber liquid.
“Do you want to talk?”
“What about?” She felt the rage return. “Why I threw them out of my house?”
“That, and anything else that’s bothering you.”
“Anything else bothering me,” she looked at him in dismay. “Well, why not. Where should I begin? Perhaps, I’m a little bit upset my son is missing, that in about six more hours you, and everyone else will give up on him. Don’t try to fob me off with some stupid explanation. I know once the first thirty-six hours is up, you will wind down the search. It’s not rocket science; I also know after that you’ll be looking for a body.”
“Stop,” Paul held up his hand to try and stem the flow of her anger. “You’re imagining things. There is no way I’ll give up.”
“You did before.”
Her words stung. He turned away and studied the dying embers of the fire. Jill stayed silent, aware of how much her words hurt him.
“They were different times,” he said. “Now, there is nothing to stop me.”
“So, you say.”
She would have smacked herself if she could, but the anger refused to remain quiet. Paul shook his head and stood up.
“I’ll find your son if it’s the last thing I do,” he said, before walking away.
Once again, she heard the front door slam. She was crying now, not just for her terrible loss, but for the words that wounded her only ally.
Outside in the yard, Bess barked for her attention, and Jill went to answer the call. It had grown darker still, the moon hidden behind the clouds, and the world was in shadow. The pups were nowhere to be seen, and she knew they were probably still inspecting the potato mound in the orchard. She would have no choice, but to lock them in to the outbuilding for the night. It was impossible to control them now that Toby was not there, and while she would miss the company of their mother, it was just another thing she would have to bear. The cold cut through the sleeves of her jacket, and she felt frost particles in her hair. A chill wind skimmed across the fields, disturbing the branches of the apple trees, and causing the leafless bushes to tremble at its touch. She never felt so alone and frightened in her life.
It was quite a job to get the pups back inside, and even Bess protested being locked in, but it was too cold to leave the pups alone. They needed the warmth of their mother on such a night. Jill ignored her scratching on the door and knew she would settle down once the light in the yard was turned off. The house still stank of burned potatoes, and only then she remembered the cauldron. Let the frost do its worst, she thought, it may even make it easier to clean.
Stripping off her jacket, she went into the kitchen and stood in front of the fire. Aware for the first time of how numb her feet were, she looked down and was surprised to see she was still wearing her ratty old slippers. Kicking them off, her socks were soaked through, so she sat down and pulled them off. Colder than ever now, she threw the packets of ham that still lay on the table, back in the fridge and went to lock the front door. The climb up the stairs took forever as she pulled herself up by the banister. Weary in both mind and body, she was still anxious to get on with learning what secrets the attic might hold. First, she would lie down for a while, and hopefully the heat from the quilt would help to thaw her frozen body. She would have slept in her clothes, if the ends of her jeans were not wet with frost. She slipped them off and still wearing her jumper, got in bed.
Just a few minutes rest, she promised herself and then I’ll get going again. The warmth of the bed covers soothe her, and she no longer cared about the creaking and groans of the old house as she closed her eyes.
The light from the window woke her. She was too tired to pull the curtains closed, and the watery sunlight streamed into the room. Springing up in the bed, she looked over at the clock, and saw to her dismay it was approaching noon. How in the name of God did I sleep so long, she wondered, feeling guilty she should have done so when her child was missing? Pulling on the same jeans she had worn the day before; she ran down the stairs and slipped into her boots. The answering machine showed she had fourteen missed calls, and she hadn’t even heard the phone ring! Deciding they could wait, she hurried out to the yard, and to the outbuilding that held the dogs. Bess’s look of reproach when she opened the door was hard to miss, but the pups bounded out and ran off to play.
“Sorry,” Jill apologised to the dog. “I slept late.”
She just finished setting out their food bowls, when she heard a car approach. Paul looked as haggard as he had the night before. He was obviously he hadn’t slept and she felt the familiar guilt return, as she remembered her spiteful words and the hours she had managed to sleep.
“Listen,” she walked over to the car. “I want to say how sorry I am about last night.”
“No, need, we’re both tired,” he forced a smile.
“I suppose there’s no news?”
She knew by the look on his face there wasn’t, but she had to ask.
“Would you like something to eat?” she asked. “I was about to do something for myself, and I hate eating alone.”
“That would be great, thanks.” He followed her into the house.
While she set about preparing the food, he checked the messages on the answering machine. This was at Jill’s request, as she did not want to have to listen to her mother berating her so early in the day.
“Just the usual reporters,” he came back and sat at the table. “It’s lucky this farm is in such a remote area, otherwise they would have found you by now.”
“Yes,” Jill agreed. “I’m surprised they’re not camping on my doorstep.”
“I told everyone in the village not to give them directions, but God knows how long that will last. There is always some busybody who wants their fifteen minutes of fame.”
“Let’s be thankful for small mercies then,” Jill said, as she placed the plate of ham and egg in front of him.
“There were a few messages from you mother, but I’m sure you were expecting them.”
“Yes,” Jill sat down opposite him. “I suppose she sends her love?”
“Something like that,” he smiled.
As they ate, she wondered about telling him about her grandmother, and the books that might lie hidden in the attic. She tried to concentrate as he outlined what was done in the search, and his plans for the rest of the day. Finally, he asked. “Are you listening to me?”
She bit down on her lip and winced as the cut she had made the night before reopened.
“Here,” he handed her a handkerchief. “Use this.”
“Thanks,” she dabbed at the spot of blood.
“There’s something on you mind,” he said, and then quickly added. “besides Toby, I mean?”
“If I tell you, you’ll think I’m mad.”
“Mmm, I’m already leaning that way,” he said, trying to make light of it. “So, go on, tell me.”
He sipped his tea and listened as she told him all about her grandmother, and the power she predicted would one day come to Jill’s aid. When she finished, she asked.
“Do you think it’s possible if I find the books she spoke about, they could help me find Toby?”
She held her breath, as she waited for his answer.
“It’s a bit far-fetched,” he said. “This is the twenty-first century.”
“I knew you’d say that,” Jill said.
“Still, it couldn’t do any harm,” he raised an eyebrow when she looked up hopefully. “I mean, there are still a lot of old women around here who believe in such things.”
“You can’t imagine the number of times I’ve been called out to view a nest of eggs in someone’s field. They still practise piseogs, you’d have heard of them, no doubt?”
“Yes,” Jill remembered her grandmother telling her about these so-called spells. Meant to do harm, the crops would rot, it was said, along with the eggs.
This was a terrifying thing to do to those who still believed.
“My grandmother said anyone who did something like that was evil,” Jill said. “She always said it worked because the persons believed it would and chose to neglect the land.”
“Well, it’s still going on.”
“Hard to believe, isn’t it?” For a moment, she felt quite stupid for thinking she could achieve anything by magic.
“As they say, stranger things have happened.” Paul got up and pulled on his coat.
“So, you think there’s no harm in researching it?”
Jill knew what he was thinking if it kept her occupied, then it was worth leaving her to it.
“I’ll call back this evening,” he assured her. “And maybe, we’ll have some news by then.”
“Thanks,” she walked out to the yard with him.
The pups lay warming themselves in the last rays of the dying sun. Although it was just a little after one in the day, the autumn dusk was already on its way.
“He’s not dead, you know?” Jill said.
“I know, he’s not.” Paul was about to climb into his car, but he stopped and looked at her. “We’re going to find him, one way or the other.”
The pups followed the car to the gate, barking and running beside it. Jill closed the gate and watched until the car was out of sight. The pups ran off once their prey vanished, in search of something else to chase. So, it was just Bess that followed her back into the house and up the stairs to the attic.