‘It was a dark and stormy night, and the wind was blowing a gale... The Captain said to his Mate, Mate, tell us a tale. And so the tale began. It was a dark and stormy night...’
Jemma hadn’t thought about that story for years, but now, as she looks out of the kitchen window into the darkening garden, she pictures her brother Johnny chanting it, his cheeky face close to hers and his wicked expression as he tried – and succeeded – to instil night-time terror in his little sister. Of course, the story had no ending, but the way it wound on and on had always left Jemma in a state of unsettling, wakeful anxiety.
‘Penny for them...’
Jemma jumps, and grips the edge of the sink with both hands. Her friend Rory is reflected in the window beside her, their two outlines ghostly on this late autumn evening. He laughs. ‘Sorry, Jem. Nige is pouring drinks. You want a whisky? I’m just getting the ice.’
He yanks opens the freezer drawer, large pieces of ice cascading onto the flagstone floor.
Jemma smiles as he bends over to pick them up, a few inches of bare flesh showing above his well-fitting walking trousers. She looks away guiltily. ‘Mmm, yes please. I’ll be through in a minute.’
She takes a deep, steadying breath. This meeting can’t be put off any longer; she has to face her old friend Sally in this new role as Nigel’s girlfriend. Her split with him had been amicable, but this scenario can’t just be making Jemma feel uncomfortable, surely? Still, it had been five years since they divorced and at least Sally and Nigel coupling up – what a phrase – meant it was the same familiar faces on their annual walking weekend, the same foursome who’d been surprised to fall in love with these hills as teenagers. And they are in their 60s now; time to grow up. Jemma had thrown herself into the single life, joined the U3A, even taken a course in car maintenance. Nigel is in the past.
She looks around the kitchen of the holiday let. Lockstone House is a favourite weekend haunt of the group, a double-fronted Georgian property hidden up a tree-lined gravel driveway and on the doorstep of some of the Peak District’s most beautiful walks. This year they’d come in Rory’s brand-new Range Rover, but it was better suited to the streets of Chelsea and had stuttered up the last part of the grass-grown lane. They’d all been relieved to get out and grab their bags from the car boot, which Rory had proudly declared to be ‘capacious’, and so it had proved to be. He'd first mentioned this when trying to sell the idea of bringing his car rather than Nigel’s old Volvo estate. Nigel had been quick to point out that his old Volvo had never stalled going up that hill in all the years they’d come here. Rory, who’d covered his obvious embarrassment by extolling the virtues of air-con and Bluetooth, had appeared not hear him.
Jemma dries her hands and moves through into the lounge. It’s a comfortable, old-fashioned kind of room – two squishy sofas with tasteful tartan throws, expensive-looking rugs on hard wood floors and an open fireplace.
By the time Jemma realises Sally is heading her way, the woman is almost upon her. She throws her arms wide, and, startled by this sudden attempt at intimacy, Jemma backs away into the kitchen, but Sally’s stylishly highlighted hair wafts into her face a moment later. Jemma can do nothing but accept the hug and breaks away as soon as she can, but Sally is not finished. She closes the kitchen door behind her and, incredibly, places her hands on either side of Jemma’s head.
‘So good to see you.’ Sally peers into her face and frowns. ‘Are you OK? I’m so sorry if my being here is upsetting you.’ Jemma can’t help but smile. The words sound so insincere that she has to resist the urge to laugh, but perhaps Sally takes her smirk for sorrow, as she continues, ‘I don’t want things to be awkward between us, you know?’
‘Of course not,’ says Jemma. ‘I couldn’t be happier for you, really. Nige was never any good on his own.’ She smiles at the memory of Nigel’s numerous domestic failings.
As Jemma extracts herself from the clinch, one of her fingernails catches on Sally’s baby blue Cashmere sweater. Sally doesn’t notice the pull – thank God, she’d have a fit – but Jemma heads up to her bedroom to sort her nail, relieved to have a reason to delay joining the others for a little longer.
Back in the lounge, Jemma settles on the sofa nearest the fireplace. Nige is pouring generous measures of whisky into heavy tumblers, Sally now at his side, whispering into his ear. He smiles slightly and begins handing out the glasses. Jemma raises hers in an ironic toast, which Nigel fails to notice.
‘Right, let’s get this fire going,’ he says, rubbing his hands together. For the first time Jemma is aware of how cold the room is. Wooden sash windows may look picturesque but there’s a definite draught coming in through the one nearest the fireplace. She gets up and draws across the thick velvet curtains.
Sally, perched on a footstool nearby, zips up her gilet, while Nigel appears to be shivering as he builds a Jenga-like mountain of sticks in the grate. He lights a match and holds it to the pile. ‘Damn, it’s damp,’ he says, as the wood fails to catch. The second match breaks.
‘Don’t worry Nige, let me do it.’ Rory grins at the women and kneels down beside him. He attempts to take the matchbox, but Nige slaps Rory’s hands away. Rory raises them in a gesture of defeat and waggles his eyebrows at Jemma, but her thoughts are miles away. She says, ‘Do you remember how good Johnny was at this kind of thing? Building fires, I mean.’
Nigel and Rory exchange a look. ‘He loved being outdoors,’ says Rory, who’s given up on assisting Nigel and sits beside Jemma. ‘Remember? All those dens he built in your garden, Jem. And the bridge across the stream. That was amazing. What was he, nine or ten?’
Johnny had loved swimming too, though that hadn’t helped him in the end, thinks Jemma. A new topic of conversation is needed and she leans back into the sofa, pulling the blanket around herself. ‘Shame we couldn’t get this place earlier in the autumn. We wouldn't have needed a fire then.’
Nigel looks disgruntled as yet another match breaks. Sally gives his shoulder a supportive squeeze. ‘Don’t worry darling, there is central heating. Have you got the instructions, Jemma? The controls must be here somewhere.’
Rory leaps to his feet. ‘I’ll find them. Coming Jem?’ He winks and she follows him out of the room.
When they return, the elderly boiler firing up in the cellar below, Jemma’s fingers are interlaced with Rory’s. Ever-observant, Sally notices this new closeness at once.
‘What’s this, you two?’
At Sally’s words, Nigel turns around to look at them, just avoiding a crack to his balding head on the underside of the fireplace. Jemma can’t help but notice her ex-husband's open-mouthed look of disbelief, before he switches on a smile.
‘Good on you, Rory,’ he says, not looking at Jemma but extending his arm to his friend for the briefest of handshakes. Rory grins impishly. ‘So, what’s the plan for tomorrow?’
‘An early start,’ says Nigel. ‘The weather looks pretty good 'til about three, so let’s make the most of it. How about a hike down to Nether Tarn? Ready to go for nine?’
nods all round. ‘Time for bed then!’ says Jemma cheerily, downing the last of
When Jemma enters the freezing kitchen next morning, only Nigel is there. He’s tucking into his usual bowl of cornflakes but the back of his neck is red; a sign, Jemma knows, that something is up.
‘Sally not up yet?’ she says.
‘She’s not here,’ says Nigel without looking at her.
‘Not in the house? Has she popped down to the shop?’
‘Maybe. But Rory’s not here either.’ Nigel points out of the window at the empty space where the giant black Range Rover was parked yesterday evening. ‘Sally wasn’t here when I woke up at seven. It’s been nearly two hours.’ He stabs a spoon into his mug of tea, giving it a vigorous stir.
Jemma can’t keep the amusement out of her voice. ‘You think they’ve gone off together, Nige?’ This is more than unlikely, but Jemma enjoys Nigel’s discomfort nevertheless, and it was clearly his first thought. Still insecure then, thinks Jemma. Nigel will have to wait a while, certainly; after all, Jemma knows exactly where his girlfriend is right now.
Jemma recalls the awkwardness of the encounter with Sally the night before. Perhaps it is time to forgive and forget. She is no kind of friend to Jemma, true, but to give Sally her dues, she was there for Jemma after her brother died. Sally had also been a comfort to Rory, who’d been so upset that he didn't save Johnny. The river, just outside their village, was like a moth to a flame to the local children. But one summer’s day, it had been swollen by the storm of the night before, making its undercurrents lethal. Ten-year-old Nigel and Rory, together with her brother, had jumped in anyway, but once the weeds had become entangled around Johnny’s legs, dragging him under, that was it. Game over. Everyone had said there wasn’t anything Rory could have done to help.
Jemma tucks a strand of dark hair behind her ear as her eyes stray back to the empty driveway. It was while they were down in the cellar, fiddling with the central heating, that Rory had suggested the two of them go for a night-time drive. They’d crept out of the house at midnight, fuelled by the whisky and giggling like a couple of teenagers. The Range Rover had barely made a sound as it slid out of the drive onto the silent lane. In the moonlight, parked on the pull-in high above the still waters of Nether Tarn, they could've been in one of those posh car adverts. And Rory had a surprise for her, a bottle of Champagne in an ice box in the boot.
Now, standing by the sink and sipping her much-needed espresso, Jemma thinks about her big brother, her lovely, cheeky Johnny, and absently fingers something in her pocket. She draws it out. Nail scissors. When she’d driven them into the back of Rory’s neck last night as he bent over the ice box, it was she who’d given him a surprise. A quick shove into the car boot – it really was capacious, he was right about that – then Rory and the car had tumbled over into the blackness of the lake below. No need to find and cut brake cables, on that slope just a simple release of the handbrake had done the job. Jemma reflected that she hadn’t needed that car maintenance course after all.
Everyone had said there was nothing Rory, or Nigel for that matter, could have done to save Johnny. But the young Jemma, silently watching the boys from a tree branch above, had heard Rory dare her brother to swim across the swollen river. And Johnny would never turn down a dare.
She hadn’t needed the scissors for Sally, just a swift push down the cellar stairs. Jemma had come down at 6.30am to find Sally in a mood to chat and when Jemma promised full disclosure on her and Rory’s relationship it had been easy to get the woman to agree to go down into the cellar for a gossip. And really these old cellars were very well insulated, she could barely hear Sally’s cries from up in the kitchen when she closed the cellar door. Not that the sounds had lasted long.
Jemma sighs. It was a single, blonde-highlighted hair on her pillow in this very house that had given Sally and Nigel away, almost ten years ago. She’d never let on she knew about their affair, begun well before Nigel had confessed he no longer loved her.
She looks again at her ex-husband sitting at the kitchen table. She no longer feels hatred for him. He certainly won’t be feeling anything for her, and not just because of his shallow, easy-come-easy-go personality. After all, Nigel is pitched head-first into his bowl of cornflakes, a tiny but deep cut on the back of his neck the only sign that anything is wrong. Jemma fingers the nail scissors again. In for a penny, in for a pound, she thinks.
The cut is barely visible, and it strikes Jemma at that moment that it’s just like the emotional incision driven deep into her mind by Johnny’s death. Hardly noticeable on the outside, but as deep as a swollen river, where the cries of a struggling, drowning boy can still be heard.