The Self-Catered Man

The Self-Catered Man 2

1

In our years of running self-catered holiday cottages, we have encountered many strange experiences. By our very location, on a somewhat isolated hillside south of Carlisle, a large percentage of our guests are older, settled couples, looking for a quiet base to rest as they explore the Lake District on a walking or bird-watching holiday, or polite young couples seeking a romantic retreat. We have had a few groups of young men, which we don’t necessarily encourage but decided not to discriminate against, who will drink too much, stay up all night and play their music too loud. However, we have never had a group who needed to be asked more than once to keep the noise down. Groups of girls are actually noisier than the lads, usually a hen party, becoming more uncontrollably raucous as they drink in the outdoor hot tubs. And it is the hot tubs that have been the cause of most of the alarming experiences, especially when we first opened the farm to the public.

Our guests are well-entitled to their privacy as they make use of the luxury hot tubs. But you would never imagine the amount of guests, unabashed as they look you in the eye upon departure, who will leave used prophylactics floating on the water for us to find and tidy up later. After about the fifth grisly encounter we even supplied bait nets, left next to the hot tubs, in an attempt to encourage guests to fish out their own detritus – for it is not prophylactics alone to be found. It is hard to say whether the percentage of ‘offerings’ decreased once we supplied the nets. It is fair to assume that we will continue to find some undesirable trace of human excess from time to time, and not just in the hot tubs and beds but in the most imaginative of places. None of this is unexpected to us, and to live peaceably with all men, and hen parties, we simply clean to the highest standards that we can – with as natural a solution as possible – for the next party to arrive. None of this seems so strange after a while, and it prepares you for anything, infrequent as these occurrences are. But we have experienced nothing so strange as when Lawrence Turner came to stay.

2

It had never been a dream of ours to move to the extreme north, nor had we ever envisaged that we would one day be running a holiday let business. If we hadn’t, though, then my marriage to Iain would never have survived. It was when I was pregnant with our second daughter that our marriage hit the rocks. Living in Hertfordshire, Iain would travel to the city early each morning to his job working in the foreign exchange market. It was not his dream job, but we had everything that we wished for, mostly our mortgage-free four bedroom house near St. Albans.

I ascribed his arriving home later each evening to his work and the unpredictable train journey. I had all but given up my interior design work, which I adored, to mother little Clara, just working from home whenever I could fit it in around a twenty-month old toddler and then the morning sickness. Both of our children were planned; the plan had always been to have two children as close together as we could so that I could continue my career as soon as possible. But increasingly I was a mother, and increasingly as close to a single mother as I could bear, especially as Iain was so busy that he was actually staying in the city over night, so that he could be as close to the international markets as possible. Through my tiredness, and nearing my wit’s end, I suspected nothing when he said that he would have to start working weekends too. I probably never would have unless a girlfriend of mine hadn’t frowned when I told her over decaffeinated tea.

‘But the Forex market doesn’t trade at weekends,’ she told me.

The more I puzzled it over, the more fitful my sleep became, the lonelier my nights in isolation, the clearer the reasoning: I was at the victim’s end of a lipstick on your collar story. When I did see Iain, he wasn’t acting any differently towards me; his character hadn’t changed. Still, I couldn’t help but observe his keenness to travel to the city. That added up with the new leather jacket, replacing his old brown suede jacket – in fact, I realised, he hadn’t worn a leather jacket since his mid-twenties. He was nearly forty. He wasn’t as clean-shaven, even with the new addition of sideburns halfway down his ear. It was suddenly as clear as day to me: he was attempting to look like his younger self and less like the husband of a pregnant wife that mostly he only saw for three nights a week. He wasn’t only spending more money on himself though; suddenly he was arriving with flowers for me each time he returned; chocolates for me and games for Clara. Guilt gifts.

So it was true.

‘I’ll be staying in London on Saturday, honey,’ he said on Friday morning – a weeknight spent at home, or what would approximately total nine and a half hours – weekend bag over his leather-dressed shoulder.

‘But I thought that the Forex market doesn’t trade at weekends?’ I was emboldened to say by my sadness and anger.

‘Er, no . . .’ he replied. ‘Not always. But QPR are playing the late game. I said I’d go with Neil. He’s already got the tickets, so I can’t really back out now.’ He smiled. I’d always liked his smile, one of the things that had first attracted me to him. But now I couldn’t help but see it as a sideshow clown’s smile, with lipstick smeared grotesquely askew. ‘I’ll see you Sunday,’ he said, kissing me on the cheek. And the new scent of aftershave. Iain smiled again before pulling the door closed behind him. Before all the strength left me and a new weight jumped onto my shoulders. I dropped to my knees, elbows on my swollen belly, and sobbed until I felt a little hand rubbing my back, a little face peering around my hanging hair.

‘Don’t cry, mummy,’ said Clara. ‘Why are you sad?’

I remember briefly looking into her dear little face. I couldn’t bear to look at her. ‘Because he’s gone,’ I sobbed. ‘Daddy’s gone.’

In so many ways, even though the pain – perhaps better described as a throb – can yet trouble me nearly twenty years later, Iain’s straying was the best thing that ever happened to us. It was the day after his fortieth birthday that he suggested that we start a new life, a long way away, this life that we have all come to love. He suggested that maybe we could look for a rundown or derelict farm near Carlisle, where he had once visited when QPR were playing an FA Cup tie away from home – unlike the late game on that fateful Saturday, a game that wasn’t fictitious. The little ones were still little enough that their roots hadn’t settled too deeply. They were both given their own ponies. I could once more use my love of interior design to decorate the cottages. And in moving so far from the city, Iain removed temptation, thereby renouncing the devil within. Life in Hertfordshire couldn’t have ever been a speck of the happiness that we have felt here.

The girls are both young ladies now, and they adore this life. It is a family enterprise; we all muck in. We have just one cleaner, Debbie, who mostly deals with the sheets – she has her own experience of grisly left overs. Debbie’s husband is the butcher in the closest town, so we get the prime cuts at the best prices too. The girls ride their horses – an upgrade from their ponies – to the town to collect any provisions that we or the guests might need, and are only too happy to help with spraying down the patios, cleaning ovens in the cottages, filling up the soap dispensers in the bathrooms, and the all-important task of welcoming the guests, as well as teaching Iain and me the fundamentals of social media. Life here is a year-round holiday, but if Iain and I want to get away then the girls are more than capable of keeping the place for us. They may be young women, but we try to protect them from the prophylactics, where possible!

The guests seem to like it too, as we have many who return season after season, or year after year, whatever the weather, even if just to sit indoors with a fire burning in the stove to watch the sun setting over the fells. It’s funny and a little humbling that these guests have their favourite cottages that they like to return to, so we must be doing something right. But, of course, we welcome many more guests who have never visited us before. And so it was when I sat down to check the emails one night to see one from a new name: Lawrence Turner.

3

Do you have any available cottages for the Sunday 10th October for 5 nights? Sole occupancy

It was to the point, but no reason at all for alarm. So I emailed Mr Turner back to say that indeed we do have a cottage available, one with a beautiful view over the lake at the bottom of the mountainside – one of my personal favourites. One bedroom, kitchen with all modern conveniences, and a sitting room with dining table and stove. I supplied the rates and a link to the room from our website, so that he could find the interior pictures. Almost as soon as I had sent the email, the incoming message indicator pinged.

I’ll take it

I sent Mr Turner a return message saying that we would be very happy to welcome him here, and a request to let us know an approximate time of arrival in advance. I attached the terms and conditions of the booking, as well as the bank details for payment, and we would appreciate payment in full as soon as possible due to the late nature of the booking. The tenth of October was only four days away.

The incoming message indicator pinged, again almost immediately.

Ariving after midnight. payment sent

I folded my arms and sat for a moment, looking at his response, noting the spelling mistake and the small p at the beginning of the second sentence. His punctuation and spelling had been perfectly accurate in his previous messages. Perhaps my puzzlement was for his lack of gratitude or any kind of acknowledgement that he was speaking to a human being. This seemed to be a man in a hurry.

I think that it was probably the economy of his words that really struck my attention, not that there was anything wrong with that. I was used to receiving long emails before confirmation asking what sort of linen we used, if linen was included – even though the terms and conditions, as well as the website, quite clearly state that it is. Are salt, pepper and sugar are supplied in the kitchen? Do we serve breakfast? What temperature can the hot tub reach? Is there a DVD player in the sitting room – again, the information confirms that there is – and what exact board games are supplied in the cupboard in the sitting room? I think that my most memorably batty message was: What kind of iron is it that we use to iron the sheets? I replied that we press all of our sheets. To which response I received the message: Steam or non-steam?

Mr Turner would certainly turn out to be one of the lower maintenance guests, for which we should have been thankful. But that was exactly why he turned out to become the most unsettling guest we had ever welcomed.

4

On Saturday, Vincent and Mary Bridges had arrived for their second stay this year, as always booked in to High Cottage, appropriately named as it was the cottage that sat highest on the farm, with fantastic views right across our property and beyond. They had been coming to us at least twice a year since we had first opened, seventeen years ago. They didn’t walk so far around the property these days, and always found time to bleat about “How bloody steep” it is to get back to High Cottage. But they could not be convinced to stay in any other. They really are a very sweet old couple. They bicker and moan at any word the other speaks, which only encourages the other to give food to their fodder. Perhaps that’s why they have lasted so long together.

He seems to have only one suit: a grey tweed affair that hangs from him, his walking stick disappearing up the lengthy jacket sleeve. Yet Mary wears an array of thin pastel-coloured dresses; within her wardrobe must look like an autumn sky over the fells. She is forever smiling, showing off her startlingly white dentures; he is always glowering beneath his thick, wiry brows, through which he’ll glare up at you when spoken to. They shuffle around the place, a hunched pair. But I love to watch the way that Vincent always puts a hand to the base of Mary’s back when they are struggling up the hill that leads back to their cottage. I’m certain that shows how charming and gallant he must have been when a younger man. They’ve earned the right to grapple with one another at every word. How I would love to be a fly upon their wall in High Cottage.

The one problem that we have when Vincent and Mary stay is that they corner other guests and rabbit on and on. They’ll start talking about the history of Hadrian’s Wall and Vincent’s Roman blood, the “bloody Scots”, “bloody southerners”, “bloody Cameron” – “we need another bloody Churchill, or bloody Attlee” – the “bloody weather”, “bloody hill”, “bloody old age”, “bloody youngsters” – anyone below seventy. We don’t want to any of our guests to feel intruded upon when they stay with us, so we always try and intervene whenever we seem them shuffling in someone’s direction.

I was on my way up to the wood shelter to replenish the basket I was carrying, readying for the arrival of Mr Turner that evening, when I spied them shuffling towards me. ‘Morning,’ I called.

‘Bloody bleak one,’ said Vincent, in spite of the warm October sun shining through the split of light cloud. ‘I’m bloody freezing.’ He was glowering up at me through the branches of his brows, his stick slightly wobbling as he leaned against it. He glared towards the lake.

‘Morning, Sally, love,’ said Mary, the sunlight highlighting the whiteness of her dentures. ‘Bloody old ninny; don’t mind him.’

Propping the basket against my hip, I couldn’t help but smile. ‘Did you sleep well?’

‘Yes, thanks, love,’ said Mary, as Vincent mumbled something. ‘No it wasn’t, ducky,’ she said and prodded him in the ribs, making him jump. Her eyes travelled over every inch of his face; her smile increasing in width. ‘Say, are you quiet here this week? I can’t see anyone around,’ she said, turning back to address me.

I nodded towards Tarn Cottage, just down the driveway. They followed my nod to the vacated parking area in front of the house. ‘We’ve got a young couple from Surrey staying in the Tarn. And we’ve another couple staying in the Wainwright Cottage who leave at the crack of dawn to go walking in the mountains. Up before the cows, they are!’

‘Bloody smelly animals,’ Vincent muttered, and then flinched.

‘Just like you, then,’ said Mary, chuckling, looking over his face again. I bit my lips together. ‘So just us here now at the moment then? Where’s Iain?’

‘He’s . . .’ I looked over in the direction of the garages, hidden beyond the wood store, towards the sound of the spluttering engine. Again their eyes and Mary’s smile slowly followed. ‘He’s tinkering with the tractor,’ I said. ‘Shouldn’t need many more cuts this time of the year, the grass, but we like to keep it as neat as we can. Especially before the rain comes.’

Mary’s head snapped round at Vincent. His lips were moving but he wasn’t saying anything beneath his cloth cap. I think that he might have been chewing. ‘It’s been bloody wet,’ she said, her eyes glinting with humour.

‘Bloody cold,’ Vincent said, eyeing Mary with caution.

‘How can you say that you’re cold, old ducky?’ she asked. ‘Look at the beautiful sun.’

‘Too bloody bright,’ Vincent said to the ground. He brought the stick around in front of him to lean both hands on its top. Perhaps as defence, I couldn’t be certain.

‘We’ve got one more gentleman arriving this evening,’ I said, finding the perfect reason to leave them to wander to their favourite bloody bench, ‘so I must get on.’

‘Family?’ Mary asked.

‘No, just him by himself,’ I replied.

‘Queer sod,’ said Vincent.

‘Where’s he staying?’ Mary asked, smiling brightly and manically.

‘In Potter’s cottage,’ I said. We all three of us looked towards the cottage at the end of the row, furthest away from us.

5

When I returned to the house I checked to see if Mr Turner had responded to my latest email asking if he knew what time that evening he would arriving approximately. He had responded.

After midnight

No clearer than before, then. I sent a quick response saying that we would leave the cottage open for his late arrival, where he would find the key on the dining table.

At around about ten pm, I went to open up Potter’s Cottage. Inside, the stairs lead up to the right, just past the coat stand. As Vincent would have said, it was bloody cold in there, so I turned the heating on and the hallway and sitting room radiators up to five. As we always do for late arrivals, I turned the standing lamp on in the sitting room, to create a little light for Mr Turner so that he could acquaint himself with his new surroundings. Everything smelled clean and looked tidy; the wood basket was overflowing and the curtains were all pulled nearly closed, but deliberately not quite. The welcome folder was on the sitting room table where it should be. One of the pamphlets advertising local sites to visit was just squeaking out of the edge, so I tucked it carefully back in and placed the front door key to the side of the folder. I could hear the hot water gurgling to life in the pipes.

Each time I go in to any one of our eight cottages I feel a pride, a satisfaction at what we have created up here, especially at night time. I often think back to our house in suburbia. Gosh, what a different life we could have led, the girls would have had. It may seem a little stuck back in time, a romantic dream of the past like trying to live in a Thomas Hardy novel. But the air is clear, the stresses few, the challenges rewarding and the rewards constant. Our house, the original farmhouse, is beautiful, luxury like these little cottages. At times like this, though, I feel that it is too big for me, that I would perhaps be even happier to live in one of the cottages – we do, on occasion, spend the night in one; sometimes I just come and read on the patio of Potter’s Cottage, sometimes in the hot tub! I moved the key ever so slightly on the table, so that it wasn’t sitting on the handmade wooden tag. I brushed my hand over the table, and then wiped it with my sleeve, lest I should have left any marks or smears. With one last look at the lamp, I walked through the hallway and out of the front door.

I stopped. Something wasn’t right. I stepped back inside, flicked the switch to turn on the outside light, and closed the door behind me as I left. A moth thumped into the glass casing of the outside light so heavily that I turned my head. It seemed none the worse for the bump, continuing to pester the casing with its head. I wondered if it might be a QPR fan.

6

The moon was high above the lake, lighting the ground blue. The cars of the young couple and the walkers were on their allotted parking areas, slick with the moonlight. The light was on outside the walkers’ cottage, Wainwright, but all was dark inside. Outside the young couple’s cottage, Tarn, the light was out but there was a soft glow emanating from within. Just those two contradictory things highlight how people are strange, unpredictable beings. Outside our house the light was on and the lights were on behind nearly every window. I couldn’t decide whether that made us predictable or the strangest of all. Here we were, attempting to sustain ourselves as self-sufficiently as possible, yet we burn electricity in empty rooms. I suppose that our carbon footprint is better than most – I mean, we ride horses to town more often than not – but I made a note to perhaps have a family meeting about that. Perhaps we could go the full Hardy and use candles!

I always have trouble settling down to sleep when I know that a guest has yet to arrive. Even though we send emails with maps of the farm layout and the name of the cottage the guest is staying in, I can’t bear to even imagine someone walking in to someone else’s unlocked, darkened cottage. There may be murder. However, it’s unusual for someone to arrive after midnight. In fact, I struggle to recall when last a guest did, especially sleepy as I was by the time car headlights lit upon the front of our house as a vehicle crept up the driveway. Iain was already in bed when, from my vantage point in the study, idling the time away with a novel that I was reading about the life of a blues singer, the lights swung around as it crested the top of the hill, passing over the front of the cottages. By that time the headlights had been dimmed to sidelights – so maybe this Mr Lawrence Turner was a considerate man after all.

I could not hear the car’s engine as it slid into the parking space directly in front of Potter’s Cottage. I discreetly turned off my lamp to watch but not be seen, making sure that all was right with our new guest’s arrival.

A very tall man, wearing a very long dark coat slipped out of the driver’s side. I could see him peering at the stone plate bearing the name of the cottage – thank goodness that I had remembered to turn on the outside light! He closed his car door with barely a sound, pulling the handle out and then releasing it once the door was in place, his hand lingering on the door to ensure that it was closed. As I saw him taking a look all around, I slunk back down behind the windowsill. I felt almost sneaky, hiding there peeking over the window frame. But I’m glad that I did hide when he looked right in my direction.

It was still light outside our house, as no one had turned off the outside light – well, we hadn’t had the family meeting yet – so I suppose that he couldn’t have seen me by the dominance of the lighted exterior. Knowing that he had arrived safely should have been enough, but I found that I couldn’t help myself but keep watching.

He walked quickly to the cottage, checked that it was open, leaving the door slightly ajar, and then walked to the back of his car: a long Mercedes of some type. I watched as he opened the boot, and then retrieved two large black cases. A single man staying for five nights, yet he had two cases?

A little cramp sprang up in the sole of my feet, from the position that I was crouching in. I moved my weight on to my knees, but I continued to watch the man, twirling my toes to ease the cramp, as he stepped just as briskly to the front door and put the cases inside. I noticed then that the long coat that he was wearing was leather. I don’t know if it was the association of Iain’s attempt to appear youthful for his dalliance was the reason why my stomach turned, but I have never since much liked leatherwear of any kind.

Returning to the open boot of the car, the man withdrew yet another bag – a small holdall, also made of leather – and a large, bulging carrier bag. I couldn’t be certain from where I was but it looked like one of those ‘bags for life’. He pushed a button on the inside of the boot that fancy new cars have and it began to close, sealing itself with a barely perceptible click. The indicators blinked noiselessly. After another quick look around, the man disappeared inside the cottage and closed the front door behind him. The outside light clicked off. And then all was dark.

7

At breakfast next morning I told Iain about our late arrival. ‘It was nearly quarter to one,’ I said. ‘And I’m sure that he turned the engine off before he had come to a stop.’

Slipping part of a fried egg on bread in to his mouth, Iain glanced up and shrugged. ‘That was thoughtful of him.’ The change in Iain was so extreme that it was funny. The change from suited city worker to country bumpkin had long been complete. He was tanned, even in the land of rain, and had filled out so much that even his hands suited the farm labourer that he had become. He wore thick old jumpers and tattered jeans; his boots thick with mud waited in the lobby by the stable door. In fact, he always looked muddy even after washing. He stabbed the end of sausage – supplied by Debbie’s husband, of course – on the plate and ploughed it into his mouth. ‘What?’ he asked, chewing.

‘I don’t know. There’s just something a bit strange about it: him arriving as late as he did. Alone. And with all that luggage. You don’t think he’s up to something, do you?’

Iain shrugged again. This time I kept his eye. ‘How could I know, honey?’ He put his cutlery down on the plate. ‘Look, why don’t you just do what you usually do and go and welcome him?’

So I put on my shoes and I did. But I took the dogs with me.

8

On the way to the cottage I observed that all of the curtains were drawn. Completely drawn. All of them. Even the one on the front door, only not quite so completely. There was a slight parting in the centre, so I could see a little light through the small frosted pane. Keeping an eye on the gap, I rang the doorbell. By the slightly-less-dark behind him, I could just make out a tall shadow, standing still as a statue in entrance to the sitting room, the slight movement of his head towards the door, slow and deliberate. And then he stood stock still.

My heart span. Through that little gap, I felt so exposed. ‘Come on,’ I said loudly to the dogs. ‘No one’s in.’ I walked back past his car. No one’s in?

Walking up the hill towards the fields I tried to puzzle again over what I had seen, if I had seen anything at all. I hadn’t slept well last night, for no reason more than that I was being stupid; I had speculated wildly and irrationally. Mostly because of a leather jacket. Or rather, a leather trench coat. It was true that I always went to welcome late arrivals the next morning, just to say, ‘Hi! I’m Sally! If you need anything you’ll find us around. Or just ring the doorbell of the farmhouse. Otherwise, enjoy your stay!’ But except for walkers, I don’t think that we’ve ever had a single figure to stay. ‘So, maybe he’s a walker, no?’ Iain would rationalise.

We had left him the usual hamper for two – he was paying the full price, so why not? It’s not just the walkers who enjoy Kendal mint cake.

As I reached the top of the yard I saw Vincent and Mary emerging from High Cottage. ‘Good morning!’ I called. And I hurried on to the fields with the dogs.

9

They were sitting outside their cottage when I returned. Both of them were just sitting there, staring away at the distant mountains, no book in hand, no magazine or crossword puzzle. Mary was smiling to herself, showing her wonderful dentures to the world. I wondered how long they had been sitting there for. Probably even the shortest of strolls around the farm would tire them out quickly. Not for the first time I imagined what their house in Harrogate was like – probably a bungalow, the interior with bark-brown wallpaper, and the worn-out carpet, also brown, decorated with patterns. The upholstery would be worn to the thread; in places the varnish of the sideboards and coffee table would be exposed through to the wood; and every room would smell quite strongly of chicken soup.

On the return route I would be passing them anyway, so I decided to stop a while.

‘Hi guys, how are you today?’ I asked.

‘Bloody knackered,’ said Vincent. ‘And cold. Knackered and bloody cold.’

‘Could go like a horse when he was younger, he could,’ Mary said, smiling wickedly. ‘Now he’s more like a lame donkey.’

I laughed out loud. Mary was some piece of work. If Iain agreed to it, I really wouldn’t have minded these two moving in to High Cottage for good. Not that the hills would be much for good for them, the older they became. And the fact that they were a danger to other holidaymakers seeking a retreat.

‘A bloody stallion, you mean,’ Vincent said squeezing Mary’s leg, nearing the closest that I had ever seen to a smile.

‘More like a stuffed rocking horse,’ Mary cackled. ‘They will be stuffing you soon, won’t they, ducky. Say, Sally, you don’t have the number for a local taxidermist, do you?’

‘You bloody mind yourself,’ said Vincent. ‘It might be bloody cold but I’ve Roman bloody blood, so just you keep that in mind, eh, woman.’

Being with these two was like watching a Seventies’ sitcom. I always told him off, with a smile, but Iain was right when he referred to them as Last of the Summer Wine. I often try to imagine what we’ll be like at their age: whether we’d be the youthful older couple that we dreamed of when we’d first set up home here; that the pace of country life, the stress-free living and the clear air would slow the aging-process for us. I suppose that the time seems to pass quickly for these two, measured by how far they could shuffle in an hour, slower than the sun.

I noticed that their interest was suddenly aroused: Mary sitting slightly more upright and lifting her chin; Vincent looking out from underneath his eyebrows, rather than through them. The young couple had emerged from Tarn Cottage. As Ben, the young man, was locking the door, from where we were we could hear his girlfriend Josie, standing at the boot of the car with a pair of rucksacks in her hand.

‘It’s not open,’ she said, continuing to test the button.

‘Sorry, honey,’ said Ben. The lights blinked and Josie opened the boot. ‘Here, I’ll do that,’ he said, walking round to the boot.

‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘I’ve got it.’ He stood to one side, hand on the top of the open boot, as she carefully placed that rucksacks in the back. Watching her every movement, he gave her a smile and a kiss, and then carefully lowered the boot. They both looked in our direction at the same time. Mary and I waved to them; Vincent was now back to glaring through his viney brows. After a quick glance shared between them, they gave an unenthusiastic wave back. Mary let out an ‘Aww’ as we watched Ben open the passenger door for Josie. The ‘Aww’ became an ‘Oh’ when Ben backed out his car to reveal the dark Mercedes. Mary’s interest now piqued, she defied her hunched back to sit up even straighter.

‘So the new guest arrived,’ she said not looking at me, almost to herself. Even Vincent’s countenance had brightened, making him look almost shocked.

‘In the dead of night,’ I said, pondering the juxtaposition of the city saloon against the wild countryside beyond. Not a curtain had moved, from what I could see. On this rare bright Cumbrian day, all in our pretty cottage remained dark.

‘Have you been to see him yet, dear?’ Mary asked, her bright fake teeth now radiating.

I put my hand on my hip and exhaled. ‘I dropped by this morning, but I suppose that . . . he was still sleeping after his late arrival.’

‘So you haven’t seen him yet?’ Mary now looked up at me in unison with Vincent. I could imagine the canned laughter of a TV audience. Except for the audience would know all about the two heavy cases, the wary appraisal of the moonlit countryside, the long leather trench coat. And they’d also know about my irrational, dramatic speculation.

‘No,’ I smiled uneasily. ‘Not yet. I suppose I’ll give him another knock later, once he’s settled.’

Folding his arms, Vincent slumped back in his chair. ‘It’s not bloody right,’ he said, ‘a single man visiting a place like this by himself. Queer, I tell you.’

Mary nudged him. ‘Perhaps he’s looking for an older woman to keep him entertained, eh?’

‘Nowt would be as bloody queer as any man looking twice at you,’ Vincent said, slumping his shoulders forward, his eyes fixed on the Mercedes. ‘And if he bloody did then he’d have me to deal with,’ Vincent added.

I watched Mary gauging Vincent’s face, her bright smile dominating her face with wicked mirth. ‘Oh ducky, a stiff breeze blows you over, yet you’d fight off a young man for me.’ She kissed his badly-shaved face, where a few long dark wispy strands sprouted from between the sun spots on his leathery skin. His shoulder twitched in response, attempting to shake her off.

The younger of our collies, Arun, wondered over to Vincent and began to lick his tweed trousers at the knee. ‘Don’t you get any bloody thoughts now,’ he said, swatting at the air above Arun. ‘Gertcha.’ Getting up from the ground uneasily, Jess joined Arun and snuggled her head in to Vincent’s lap. I could hear a faint growl begin in, what I supposed was, Vincent’s throat.

10

Once all of the booked guests are in their cottages, there is not much work to be done at the beginning of the week. We keep cows, that Iain milks in the morning; the girls have the horses that they look after; we have sheep that take care of themselves and the grass on either side of the long, steep driveway; and we employ Debbie to clean the sheets, bath towels and tea towels. I help out in cleaning the vacated cottages at turnaround time – usually on a Saturday mornings – but my only daily task is walking the dogs and dealing with the booking enquiries – on top of any freelance interior design work, which I have my own website for. The girls encouraged me to regularly put pictures on social media that might entice someone to stay: a beautiful sunset over the distant fells, views from the hot tubs on a sunny afternoon, any birds that might be of interest to twitchers – a very clever move that, particularly after the time we had a family of ospreys visit our lake at the bottom of the drive. Even a definably Cumbrian view on a rainy day, like a waterfall or tree-lined stream, are desirable to potential visitors – some of the guests want to wander in the rain: they won’t get a chance to use their expensive hiking equipment in town or city in the same way! So I now go nowhere without my camera, and then can’t wait to upload the new pictures. At least until the girls warned me that not every picture needs to be uploaded – for example, not every sunset over the fells from the same angle. But it all looks great on our Twitter feed: The sky’s looking moody over the Lakes this evening. Think we’re in for a storm! (And where better to watch it from than huddled up in our cosy cottage with a fire in the stove and a stew in the oven, nudge-nudge.) A visiting couple heading up in to the mountain behind the farm for an evening hike! (Because you don’t even need to use your car every day, despite the remote location, hint-hint.) That evening I was adding a caption to the picture that I had uploaded of the dogs running off ahead of me – Arun and Jess love a run in the hills. Don’t forget that we have dog friendly cottages here! I published the Tweet and then found myself, leaning on my fist, staring at Potter’s cottage.

Guests have never really got under my skin before. We understand that the more youthful or the groups will occasionally make more noise. Guests who are polite to your face might then leave withering or extraneous reviews on TripAdvisor – the one that rankled me most was someone who left a complaint that a large part of Carlisle Cathedral was closed to the public for renovation, so chose to only leave us a two point five star review, like it was our fault; followed close second by a couple who said that the quality of the complimentary – complimentary! – hamper didn’t compare with the one that they had received in another holiday cottage where they had once stayed . . . because it had no cheese! (We’ve since added cheese, so we do appreciate the reviews.) But I found that our new guest in Potter’s Cottage was distracting my thoughts, commanding my disapproval.

The big shiny car. All of the curtains still fast across the windows. Mr Turner had been here nearly a day and had not so much as ventured outside to look at the mountains. The guests might be king here, free to do as they wish on our land, but we’re very protective of our little cottages. So what was he up to in there?

I grabbed my camera and went to seek out the girls in the fields.

11

For me, there is nothing more rewarding than seeing the girls on their horses, enjoying the freedom of the countryside. I don’t particularly like the jumps that they have erected – particularly when they jump them facing downhill, it sends shudders through my bones – even though Clara and Hanna were practically born on their ponies. I leaned on the drystone wall and watched them for a moment, tearing around the field and tearing up the field, and smiled to myself. These two little things, totally in control of their big beasts. Even though I was desperate not to become the weepy self-contented mother, wasn’t it a second ago that they were just toddlers?

I lifted the camera and looked through the view-finder, first to picture each of them in turn, and then waiting for a moment when I could capture them both. These kind of pictures, of my precious girls, I very rarely Tweet.

It was Hanna who noticed me first – I saw her glance over her shoulder. And then she sped towards a downhill jump – which I swear was higher than when I had last seen it – her horse, Zebedee, clearing it with ease, and with Hanna holding one hand out in the air like The Lone Ranger. My startled inhalation felt cold. And then both of the girls raced over to me, challenging each other.

‘Have you made that jump higher?’ I asked, looking at Hanna and then at the jump made from stripped birches, as they pulled up along side me a clatter of dust.

‘No,’ Hanna said, smiling, her blond ponytail whipping to one side as she looked at Clara.

‘Good,’ I said.

‘Dad did,’ said Clara. And with another look shared, both of my girls burst out laughing, trying to outdo each other by volume, two blonde ponytails whipping wildly from side to side. Their horses now looked at each other, perhaps with their own shared humour.

‘All right,’ I said, nodding and helpless not to laugh along with them. ‘But just be careful, okay?’

‘Sure thing, mum,’ they said in unison. ‘Yah,’ they cried, both digging their heels into their horses’ side. ‘Yah!’ And they both galloped off straight towards the jump.

‘Mind if I take some photos?’ I called after them, supposedly unheard over the sound of the horses.

Never taking my eyes off the girls, my heart jumping with their horses, I followed the wall along, clicking the button on my camera as they bolted down the hill and around the lone oak in the middle of the field, off towards another jump. After a moment watching them through the viewfinder, on as extreme a close-up as possible, clicking every now and again, I followed their advance up the hill until I could surreptitiously settle the camera on the back of Potter’s Cottage. It was no surprise, but a little disappointing, to see that the curtains on the rear of the house were also all drawn closed. The cover was still over the hot tub – I could just imagine how “bloody queer” Vincent would have found it if Mr Turner was sitting out there by himself, not that the thought made me chuckle.

After watching the girls through naked eye for another ten minutes or so – thankfully they were now taking the biggest jump from the upslope – I decided to make my way back to the house, deliberately steering my gaze to anywhere but the back of Potter’s Cottage.

I read for a while in the front garden, my chair facing vaguely but deliberately in the direction of Potter’s Cottage, before I decided to go up to the study – never an office, not with this way of life; always a study – to have a look through the photos.

The girls would love them. They liked to pretend that they didn’t care much for my photos of them, but I knew that they could never wait to share them on Facebook, to show them off to their uni and school friends. They looked amazing: action photos with a view, with impressive control of their animals and a beautiful poise in the saddle. Again I thought of how young they both looked: adult versions of my little girls. Continuing to flick through, I noticed a few with Potter’s Cottage in the background. I didn’t know what I was looking for when I zoomed in on the photos – all I could see were the closed sitting room curtains and the empty private garden. As I zoomed out though, I noticed something in the upstairs bedroom window. There was something different about the curtains. It looked as though . . . I zoomed in again. No, I could definitely make out fingers peeking through the gap.

I opened the next picture and quickly zoomed in. The curtains were parting slightly, the fingers pulling back the fabric. Frantically clicking the mouse, I clicked through the next few until I could just about make out Lawrence Turner’s face, a slightly high forehead or receded hairline, peering out of the window and across the field. Watching my daughters.

12

I had heard the girls return to the house an hour or so sooner, so I knew that there was no problem. Even so, I was more than a touch freaked out by seeing the shrouded man peeking out at the fields. I may be no great computer whizz, but I know how the internet works: it gives you answers. So I Googled Lawrence Turner.

The top of the page came up with 192.com – an A-Z listing of people in the UK with that name, their age group, and part of their address, all sourced from the electoral role. But, again, what did I really know about him? All we require from people when booking is an email address to confirm and payment in advance of their arrival. We should probably re-evaluate that procedure. I knew nothing except for the car that he was driving and that he was most likely aged between twenty-five and forty. There were one-hundred-and-seventy entries.

Further down there were plenty of pages on the former British politician Henry Frederic Lawrence Turner, as well as links to Facebook and LinkedIn. Ignoring the politician, I clicked on Facebook, and was instantly bamboozled by how you’re supposed to find someone on this thing. There were lots of Lawrence Turners: some with beards, some with children, some were children – or at least the photos were of children – some from America and one from Jamaica, one from “the universe”, and one who depicted himself as a train and another a plane. So I went back to Google and entered Lawrence Turner Crime.

The page showed me a couple of villains incarcerated who had the middle name Lawrence, as well as the surname Turner, but nothing helpful showed up – which usually should have been viewed as a good thing, no? And then I hesitated before searching for Lawrence Turner . . . murder. Again, it was crazy that I should be disappointed, but all I saw of any interest were links to Stephen Lawrence, the poor innocent boy from Eltham who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I knew not what I could do next. My sleuthing had lasted approximately ten minutes and had taught me nothing. Anyway, I reassured myself, why would a convicted villain check in to a holiday cottage under his real name? And then I realised that I hadn’t reassured myself at all. Lawrence Turner didn’t have to be who he claimed he was, just by a name. Anyone with access to any credit card could book in to our cottages using our automated system and we’d be none the wiser. We had come here for a simple, quiet life. And now we were harbouring a potential murderer.

13

Later that evening I told Iain all about today’s situation, asked what he thought about it, explaining that what might have initially been crazy speculation was becoming a crazy fear of the man. Like me, Iain likes the quiet life up here and, like me, had never had any previous reason to distrust a guest.

‘Well, they’re good on their horses, the girls,’ Iain said. ‘I like to watch them too, just like you do. And, you know, they’re pretty girls.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘they’re pretty young girls, Iain. Young. And I just don’t like the way that he’s bolted himself up in there. Who’s to know what . . . plan he might be plotting.’

Iain looked up from his newspaper – always starting from the back pages first, if he even ventures to the actual news – and removed his glasses. He put the paper down. ‘What, Sal?’ he said. ‘What do you want me say? That we should call the authorities?’

‘Well, yes!’ I replied. And then flaked in consideration of his stare, my head nodding to one side. ‘Maybe.’

‘And say what exactly: that we’ve a guest who has been here a day and we have suspicions that he might be curious about our girls?’ Iain laughed. ‘You make the call if you want to. But make sure that I’m up in the top fields when they come. If they come, and you don’t just get laughed off the hook.’

With him sitting there in his armchair smiling at me, I did feel a bit crazy. What could we do? What had Mr Turner – if that was his real name – really done? So he was a bit different to our usual guests – a lot different. But I knew nothing about him at all, not even whether he was from the north, south, east or far west. All I knew was that he appeared to be a tall man who wore a long leather trench coat. Damn the man, he’d done absolutely nothing wrong yet I was left to feel like this?

I leaned my head against my hand and stared at the rug in the middle of the floor. ‘I suppose you’re right,’ I said. ‘But I don’t have to like it.’

‘I do agree that it seems a little strange,’ Iain finally agreed, making me sit up a bit, ‘but he might have just been tired after driving,’ he said. ‘He might have slept badly and needed to recover throughout the day. He might be shy. He might just want to come up here and finish his West Wing boxset in peace. I don’t know. And you don’t know, Sal.’ Iain picked up his paper and flattened it against his knee. From the rug, Arun looked up, perhaps hopeful that the paper noise might mean a walk or food. Seeing only Iain sitting there, he put his head back down on his paws. Jess looked up a moment later, wondering what she might have missed. ‘Come on, it’s not like you.’

‘But when it comes to the girls though, Iain . . .’ I could feel myself sort of sneering. I tried to smile from the corner of my mouth. Iain mimicked it, making me realise that I probably looked a bit sad. And batty.

‘Look,’ he said, folding his hands across the paper on his knee, ‘I’ll stay around the farm tomorrow and keep an eye out on Potter’s. I’ll see that the girls have something to do in town – I don’t know, any fool’s errand – to keep them out of harm’s way. Will that make you happy?’ Iain’s smile became a both-corners-of-the-mouth smile. That, coupled with his kind of mid-Cumbrian brogue that sometimes affected his speech – “Will that mek you ‘appy?” – reassured me a bit. I was being a bit dramatic and I knew it. He was right that he’d never seen me like this before; I was not naturally obsessive. I nodded.

‘I’m just going to finish the paper and then do you want to catch up on Midsomer Murders?’

Iain had never been a cruel man, and we did need to catch up on that television programme, but it wasn’t until I noticed his churlish grin that I realised he was making fun of me. If he didn’t watch out I’d make sure that he became the top page of a Google search.

14

The next morning we told the girls that there was nothing for them to do on the farm, so they were welcome to go out riding if they so wished – which of course they did, with Iain asking them to pick up some distilled water for the tractor, if they could find it, and “In fact here’s a little extra. Buy yourselves lunch.” He also decided to move the sheep in to the horses’ paddock, to keep the grass down as well as to deter the girls from jumping – I’d take up the higher jump with Iain on another, more settled day.

The walkers were already out walking; the young couple were still in their cottage, possibly still reading in their private garden where I’d seen them earlier. We’d had a couple of overnight enquiries that I’d responded to – one for a couple wanting to book their second visit, and another for a family, and yes they’d both be very welcome. A representative of News & Star, Carlisle’s local paper had emailed to ask if we’d like to an interview for the paper – Oo, yes please – for a small fee – you cheeky monkeys, but go on then. The dogs were walked; Vincent and Mary were surveying the farm from on high. I was free as a bird. I decided that I’d weed the front garden – it was a fine day and I hadn’t done it in a while.

It didn’t take long, but it afforded a full view of Potter’s Cottage. With Iain’s words and wisdom of last night still in my ears, I fully expected Lawrence Turner to step out of his front door, plus fours and high socks, ready to step out into the mountains. I hoped. I wanted dearly to see a youngish man, a professional away for a break, who would come and introduce himself, ask which pub served the best ale, and thanks very much for the cheese in the hamper, a nice touch. I tried not to stare, but it did lighten my heart a bit to think that might be who we could expect.

Iain had driven the tractor through the yard and down the driveway a few times, a wink with each pass, cutting the grass even finer than it needed.

It was past lunchtime. The curtains in Potter’s Cottage were yet drawn. Perhaps it was because of the brightness of the day, perhaps because of the girls being away, perhaps because of the exercise, but the heaviness in my chest had eased a bit.

I heard the tell-tale gurgle of a hot tub coming to life. Picking up my tub of weeds, I ventured around the side of the cottages to deposit my load in the compost. As I stole around the corner, I happened a glance in the direction of the hot tubs, hoping to see Mr Turner wearing a woollen Victorian bathing outfit and preparing to climb in to his hot tub. The cover was still over Potter’s hot tub; the young couple were bubbling away in theirs, Josie giggling. Puckering my lips and keeping on, I hefted the tub up on my hip. I hope that they had noticed the bait net, should they need it. On the way back I noticed that the Potter’s bedroom curtains were now open, blowing in the breeze through the open window.

Arriving back in our garden, I deadheaded any plants that needed it and then went back to digging over the soil. Behind my sunglasses, I kept a sneaky eye on Potter’s Cottage, looking for any sign of a twitchy curtain, hoping for an appearance. Perhaps he doesn’t like his women a bit older, I thought bitterly.

I wanted to knock again, but I didn’t want to knock. I wanted to slip a note through door saying “Here if you need anything”, but I wanted to respect his privacy as a paying guest. I was obsessing; I was bloody obsessing. What do you do? I dug the earth until it was the finest dust, smaller than sand particles. I wiped my forehead. The dogs were both sheltering in the shade of the small cherry tree. I picked tiny weeds out of the patio. Ate an apple and potted the seeds. Looked at the immaculate garden. And then I went and got my book and, after checking the computer, sat out in the sunshine.

The walkers returned, and then went for a walk. Vincent and Mary wobbled by, unobservant of me quietly reading. The girls came home safely, and then went for a swim in the lake – not even that was enough to draw out Mr Reclusive Turner; I found myself stupidly hoping that it would. Iain had seemingly abandoned his meandering scrutiny of the cottage. And yet still did the front door of Potter’s Cottage remain closed to the outside world, where not even the sound of saucepan upon sideboard nor flush of lavatory emitted from within.

And so it was that I went from fearing of Lawrence Turner to fearing for him.

15

Much later that evening I learned that all was well with Mr Turner. We have only ever once had to call the emergency services up here: when a walker had become so short-breathed that he couldn’t move any further – it turned out that he had asthma but had forgotten to bring his inhaler. We’ve had to take each other to be mended in the hospital from time to time – living on a farm you do occasionally require stitches. But never have we had to call on the suspicion that they might be required. Again Iain, probably quite rightly, told me to stop being foolish.

‘For goodness sake, Sal, if you’re concerned for his welfare then just knock on the door!’ he showed me just how on the kitchen table. ‘Anyway, you know what people are like, we see all sorts up here. There is nothing wrong with him: with his intentions, his health, his motives. Why would a master criminal pick a place as remote as we are?’

‘Because of how remote we are,’ I answered.

‘And if you had health problems,’ he continued, ignoring perhaps my most reasonable observance to date, ‘what would you do?’

‘Call the doctor,’ I quickly replied. ‘But that doesn’t –’

‘No!’ Iain stopped me. ‘Sal! I’ve heard enough. You’re being . . .’ He drew circles in the air. ‘Just a bit strange on one this, okay? Just . . .’ He stood up with a scrape of his chair, stepped behind me, and started to massage my shoulders. ‘Just relax, yeah?’

I moved my shoulders with his strong thumbs. It did help in relieving the strain of the day’s digging. Over-digging. ‘I could email him, I suppose,’ I said. ‘I’ve got his email address from his booking.’

I could feel the air transmit from Iain’s nostrils and on to my hair. I could feel the added tension from his thumbs. ‘Sal . . .’ He sighed again. ‘If you want to, I guess it couldn’t hurt.’

I narrowed my eyes. ‘What will I say?’ I asked. ‘What can I write so that it doesn’t look suspicious?’

Now Iain laughed; my shoulders juddered with his emissions. ‘Jesus, woman.’ And then he laughed even louder. ‘You’re suspicious of him and yet you don’t want to look suspicious? That’s like the fisherman being disgusted at the smell of the fish. Look, if it will set your mind at rest, I’ll go over there right now, with you, and we’ll find out once and for all what Mr Turner is up to. Yes?’

And so we did. And again we took the dogs. “Just out for an evening stroll. We were just passing, hoping that everything’s all right with your stay.” I played it over in my head. Nothing suspicious about that. We’re hospitable hosts, after all. That’s fairly non-intrusive. He doesn’t have to answer the door if he doesn’t want to.

And he didn’t. There was no sound from inside at all. Save for the bathroom at the top of the stairs, there were no lights on in the house – not even that was crystal clear, as the front curtain had now been pulled fully over the little pane, just elementary. ‘Maybe he’s on the lav?’ Iain whispered. I sensed the barest glimmer of doubt in his voice for the first time. But his choice of word made me start giggling.

‘What?’ Iain asked, chuckling slightly. ‘What?’ I put my hand to my mouth. I couldn’t speak lest I burst in to fits. ‘Come on,’ he said, ushering me and the dogs away. ‘I truly do think that you’ve become ever so slightly crazy.’

16

That was how he looked at me too, when I woke him in the night. But his merriment was instead replaced with terror. ‘What is it?’ he asked, already sitting up in bed. I was leaning over him in my nightdress.

‘I heard a car engine,’ I whispered, ‘so I went to look and saw his car disappearing down the driveway.’

‘What?’ he said again, Iain’s new favourite word.

‘Mr Turner. The sound of car engine starting up woke me,’ I repeated slowly. ‘I got up and looked out of the study window and saw his car driving down the driveway. With only the sidelights on!’

‘What time is it?’ Iain asked, looking at the digital alarm clock.

‘Gone one,’ I answered. ‘The middle of the night.’

‘Well maybe he’s . . .’ But reason now escaped Iain. He rubbed his face. ‘Look, Sal, even if he’s emptied the cottage, we can’t deal with it in the middle of the night, can we?’

I found that a smile crept over my face. ‘No.’ I looked towards the darkened study, and then back at Iain. ‘But we could go and have a look in the cottage.’

‘Sal . . .’ Iain pinched the bridge of his nose. ‘Do you really want to do this? I mean, I know it’s our cottage, but what if he comes back and sees us creeping back to the house in our dressing gowns?’

I bit my lip, excited and terrified.

‘What about if he posted it on TripAdvisor?’

I chewed my lip now. Thinking. Thinking. ‘One of us could keep lookout!’

‘And what if another guest saw us?’ he asked, looking me in the eyes, weary and unimpressed. I licked my lips, my mind completely awake. And then I slumped my shoulders. Iain sighed. The smell of his sleep-breath shocked my senses. ‘Did you email him?’

‘No,’ I said. ‘I was going to do one of those Rate Your Stay things. But I thought that was a bit weird, with him still staying with us. And then I thought that I could fabricate something similar, like: Your stay is important to us. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if you require any . . . And then I was going to put visitations, and it all just felt a bit weird.’ I put my hands to either side of my face. I felt sad and a bit mad. Ian put a hand on my arm.

‘Sally, just slow down, okay? Take a breath.’ I noticed that I had been breathing pretty fast. ‘Look, there’s nothing that we can do in the middle of the night, agreed?’ I nodded. I could feel my bottom lip pouting like a little girl told that she couldn’t open her presents on Christmas Eve. I nodded with more enthusiasm. ‘Tomorrow, you and I together, we’ll go to Potter’s Cottage, with the key, at a respectable time – say ten o’clock. If Mr Turner doesn’t open up – if his car’s back in the drive – then we’ll open up and give a “Yoo-hoo”, and let ourselves in. Then we’ll find out once and for all if he’s up to anything.’

‘You said that earlier,’ I mumbled.

‘I promise, okay?’ Iain tightened his grip and shook my arm.

‘Okay,’ I agreed.

‘Now get back in bed, sweetheart,’ he said, lying back down and rolling over. ‘I’ve got to be up to milk the cows in three hours.’

I pulled back the covers and climbed in to bed. My heartrate was finally slowing down, but I didn’t know how I was going to get to sleep. What would we find? Could I even go through with it, when the time came? If he was in the house and didn’t answer, could we really let ourselves in? All the possibilities ran through my head. What if that’s what he wanted and was waiting for us?

‘Iain?’ I said through the sheets. He murmured a response. ‘When we go to the house in the morning . . . are you going to bring the shotgun?’

‘Go to sleep, Sal,’ he said, pulling the covers tighter over him.

17

I don’t know when, but I had got to sleep eventually. I know that it had taken hours, and that I woke earlier than usual, even if that was after Iain’s alarm. He was already up with the cows when I got out of bed. The first thing that I did was walk through the study and tentatively peep through the window. I certainly hadn’t heard the car return in the night – and I’d been listening out for it, partly to blame for my fitful night – but there it was, now with a little mud above the wheel rims to show that it was deep into the countryside.

It was just before eight, so about two hours until we agreed that we’d visit – confront? – Lawrence Turner. I really couldn’t wait, but I hated the thought of it.

Iain joined me for breakfast. I think that from anywhere on the farm he can smell bacon and sausages cooking. He sat down at the table. I could feel him watching me as I moved around the kitchen. I loaded up his plate and plonked it in front of him. On my side plate I had a single sausage, a rasher of bacon and a solitary tomato.

‘Not hungry?’ he asked me.

‘I . . . uh.’ I thought for a moment. ‘I wasn’t really hungry when I woke up this morning. I didn’t sleep that well.’ As I said it, I wondered if maybe Iain wouldn’t remember last night: the car, the keys, the pact. ‘I mean, I slept okay.’

‘You’re jittery,’ he said, smiling at me, skilfully piling his fork with each contributing article of food on his plate, dropping not a morsel as he slipped it into his mouth. ‘Not so keen on confronting our reclusive guest in the broad light of morning? Would rather have slipped in under the cover of darkness?’

‘Well . . . Iain.’ I put my cutlery down. ‘My mind ran rather wild in the night. I mean, what if he comes at us?’ I wanted to say that this was all just too bonkers, unprecedented and wild. ‘Maybe I should just send an email? It’s bonkers,’ I added.

Iain chuckled. ‘Dream that he’d be like Bruce Willis with a vendetta?’

‘Well, yes!’ I replied. ‘No. It wasn’t a dream; it was my imagination.’

‘There you go then,’ Iain said, his plate already half empty. ‘Sal, all of this has been in your head, I hope you realise that. Well, you’ll see in about . . .’ Iain looked at his watch. ‘In approximately an hour and a half.’

18

I hoped that he was right. Nothing about this seemed right. I made a mental note to check on the girls before we went to visit Potter’s Cottage. But in the place where time never seems to move, so much that it almost seems to stop, especially when the sun is out, it sped. As the time neared, so did my heart. On top of the impending visit to Potter’s Cottage, I couldn’t shake last night’s episode of Midsomer Murders from my mind. A forest-ranger had died in mysterious circumstances soon after suspected UFOs were spotted. The last thing I needed right now, in the state that my mind was in, was to add an alien visitation to my list of potential reasons behind the mystery of Lawrence Turner. But I wasn’t ruling it out.

I only realised that I had forgotten to speak with the girls – what would I have said? – when Iain arrived back at the farmhouse.

‘It’s time,’ was all he said, with an intonation as stupid as his grin, before going to wash his hands. It was good of him to pay that courtesy, as he didn’t bother to change out of his grubby farmer’s outfit. That was just another thing I loved about this life. Or had before the visit of Lawrence Turner made me question the sanctuary afforded by living in what was essentially a public place, but without the security of being protected by population. We were alone.

I felt even more alone, looking out over the empty countryside that I loved, now almost feared, when we were walking towards Potter’s Cottage.

Iain twirled the key in his large hand and was whistling as we walked the short distance. I was practicing my smile; in my head I was practicing my greeting. Hello! No. Good morn-ing, almost sung. Maybe. Good morn-ing. Hmm, too vicar-like. Hiya! Not Hiya, no way: too friendly; too keen. But I didn’t want to appear defensive either. Hi! Hello!

‘Maybe we should have brought the dogs,’ I said to Iain as we stepped up to the door. ‘Maybe . . . Oh no,’ I said.

‘What?’ Iain asked, his hand halfway to knocking. With my head I indicated Vincent and Mary spritely wobbling down the hill, arm in arm. Iain just grimaced and knocked on the door. The hand that he knocked with had the key in it, adding a scratching tapping noise as it bumped against the door. He popped the key in to his pocket and raised his fist to knock again.

‘Wait,’ I said. He looked at me. ‘Just wait a second.’ I looked up to watch Vincent and Mary’s advance. I looked up at the outdoor light and noticed that it was on. Curious. I wiped my hands down the front of my dress. ‘Is it ten o’clock?’ I asked.

‘Huh?’ He looked at his watch. ‘It’s not like we had an appointment.’

‘No,’ I agreed, my hands compulsively smoothing the smooth material on my hips.

‘Is he in?’ Mary called from up the hill. I groaned, ignoring her.

‘Okay,’ I said to Iain. ‘Knock again.’ So he did, a little harder this time. ‘Not so aggressively,’ I said. He just looked down at me. I could see that he was about to look away, but he decided to look at me a little longer.

‘Are you visiting on the young man?’ Mary shouted, beaming her extraordinary smile. I dared another look at Mary, definitely heading our way, and almost collapsed. I heard Vincent mutter something that I guessed was, ‘Bloody queer.’ I looked at the door, the covered pane of glass, the outdoor light. I felt like an intruder on our own, carefully managed property, where I knew the height of each lampshade, the material of every fitting, the distance of the electrical sockets from the skirting board, the brand of the kitchen utensils. My hands were now gripping my thighs.

I saw Iain retrieve the front door key from his pocket. ‘We going in?’ he asked me, snapping me from my distraction. At least I was too dizzy from holding my breath to be scared; to actually make the decision. I could feel my eyes beginning to bulge.

‘Erm . . .’ But before I could answer, the front door opened.

I think that I squealed, not necessarily from the fact that the elusive Mr Turner had finally revealed himself. I felt as if a German soldier had lifted the piece of corrugated steel that I was hiding beneath. And to that soldier I said, ‘Hiya!

‘Wotcha,’ Iain added – I wondered if he too had been making a mental list of greetings and had settled on “Wotcha”. Iain appraised Mr Turner with scepticism, whereas I was smiling like a maniac.

It’s fair to say that Lawrence Turner looked a little startled. As he looked from one to the other of us, he took a half-step back. I noticed that he was wearing socks; his long feet slithering out from beneath his chinos, which were pulled up quite high on his hips, beyond his tucked-in black shirt. With one hand, Lawrence Turner adjusted a couple of strands of his thin, damp hair, and then hoisted his belt. I could smell the scent of him. He had used our soap.

‘Hell-oo,’ he said with a broad smile, his mouth enunciating each vowel. In fact his mouth was broad. I had been correct that he was a tall man; even so, each of his features seemed to have outgrown his slender physique. He had a youthful face, and that high forehead. I noticed that he had deep impressions on the side of his nose, supposedly from wearing glasses. In fact, I noticed a slight squint as he looked out at us – perhaps from his nocturnal activities. I still couldn’t place his age any better than perhaps between thirty and forty. ‘Oh, hell-oo!’ he said – a Home Counties accent. I looked down at Mary behind my shoulder. Neither Mary nor Vincent spoke, just stood there beaming and glowering. What must we have looked like, the four of us?

‘Wotcha,’ Iain said again. ‘Just thought we’d drop by to introduce ourselves, make sure everything’s all right with your stay. I’m Iain and this is my wife Sally,’ Iain said, indicating me. Iain held out his hand and gripped the tendrillar fingers.

‘Hiya!’ I said, and waved. ‘Hi! We . . . I . . . ’ I hadn’t planned my script beyond not saying Hiya! I felt guilty, like a snoop, but everything from the past few days was still in my head. I looked at him again, looking down on all of us. He looked a little taken aback. Because he was hiding something? He smiled at me, probably because my smile was stuck to my face as if the wind had changed.

As Iain began chatting – something about where to find the best local ale – I glanced past Mr Turner. All I could see was the lit screen of an open laptop on the table in the dark sitting room, the long leather trench coat hanging on the stand. My nose twitched like a bunny; a smell coming from the house. It smelled as though he had just finished making breakfast.