‘I must talk to Hannah Scarlett, it’s a matter of life and death.’ Orla shaded her eyes from the July sun. Her right hand trembled so much that she dropped her mobile into the shallow ditch and had to reach down to fish it out. In front of her stood the hedge marking the boundary of her father’s farm. ‘Life and death,’ she hissed into the phone.
‘May I have your name?’ ‘Orla…Orla Payne.’
A long, long pause. ‘You spoke to DCI Scarlett yesterday afternoon?’
The detective constable sounded young and sceptical. Orla pictured her, pursing her lips, searching for a politically correct way to say get lost. A gatekeeper, tasked with making sure her boss wasn’t disturbed. She’d written Orla off as a drunken time-waster, just because her voice was too loud and she’d slurred her own name. So what if she’d downed a few cans? This was supposed to be a free country, it wasn’t against the law to drown your sorrows.
‘That’s right.’ Yesterday’s call had gone badly, but she’d summoned the nerve to try again. The last chance saloon.
In the hedgerow, a linnet sang. The summer air tasted sweet, and she could smell the fields. But her head ached; she couldn’t do this. It was too difficult.
‘Ms. Payne. Are you still there?’
Legs swaying, Orla grabbed the handle of the car door and steadied herself. She’d parked next to the ditch. On the way, she’d cracked the wing mirror against a dry stone wall, but who cared? People would say she was unfit to drive. Yet here she was, calling the Cold Case Review Team at Cumbria Constabulary. She wasn’t afraid any longer. Fear had become as pointless as hope.
‘Just put me through, will you?’ ‘I’m sorry…’
‘Am I talking to myself?’ Orla was trying not to scream with frustration.
‘DCI Scarlett is on leave today.’
The woman spoke with exaggerated patience. Orla’s cheeks were moist. Despair made her guts churn.
‘Can I help, Ms. Payne?’
‘Too late,’ Orla mumbled into her phone. ‘It’s just ancient history to everyone else. Nobody cares about justice.’
People never listened to her. The warning she’d been given was true: nobody would believe what she had to say. She had no proof; talking to the police was a waste of time. The energy had drained out of her, like oil trickling from a leak in her car. She had no fight left.
Orla killed the call.
She tried to crush the mobile in her hand, but it was impossible, so she hurled it over the hedge. The phone struck a black tank squatting on top of a small trailer, and fell into a trough filled by the tank with water for the cattle to drink. The trough was an old enamel bath, and her father hadn’t bothered to take the taps off.
Contacting the police was a stupid idea. She should never have listened to Daniel Kind. All he knew about murder came from books and dusty archives. He’d advised her to talk to Hannah Scarlett, but yesterday afternoon Orla’s brain was even fuzzier than it felt right now. She’d made a fool of herself when she was put through, and in the end, Hannah lost patience.
Orla kicked the car door, wishing it was the head of the detective constable. Her boots had steel tips, and they dented the paintwork. Didn’t matter. She’d never drive that old banger again. The lane led to Mockbeggar Hall, and she saw its turrets poking up above the copper beeches. As a child, she’d dreamed of living in the Hall. In one of her favourite fantasies, there had been some mix-up, and in the end she proved she was no farm kid, but an unacknowledged daughter of the Hopes family, who had owned the Mockbeggar estate for generations. But now the Hall belonged to the Madsens, who had made their money through selling caravans. Her father reckoned the Madsens always got what they wanted in the end, and he was right.
She walked to a point where the hedge gave way to a fence. In the field, a trio of plump Friesians grazed, each with a yellow tag in its left ear, bearing a number inked in black. Their eyes were dark, with no discernible pupils. They looked mournful, as if someone they knew had died.
Orla ripped off her headscarf and threw it into a clump of nettles. A splash of red and gold among the green. She no longer felt self-conscious about her bald head. The cows weren’t embarrassed, and neither was she.
A red sign stapled to a fence post said Danger—electric shock. She heard a faint tick-tick-tick. Throughout summer, the strands of wire were live. As she levered herself over the fence, her leg brushed the wire. The impact from the current felt like a blow from a mallet. It was years since a farm fence had shocked her, and she landed on the ground in a heap.
Swearing, she clambered to her feet, vaguely aware that the booze had deadened her senses. She stumbled away from the fence in the direction of the farm buildings. Sometimes she kept to the tractor tracks, sometimes she veered over the grass. A single cow, black with a white blotch on its belly, trudged towards her. Its lumbering tread hinted at menace, but Orla wasn’t scared. She’d grown up with animals, and found their smells comforting. Cows don’t hurt anyone, unless you are stupid enough to let a dog scamper around and frighten their calves.
As she passed, the cow made a crooning noise. It didn’t take much imagination to believe the animal was pleading with her. Orla had never lacked imagination; she and her brother Callum shared that in common.
Lane End Farm stood four hundred yards ahead. On this side of the old, higgledy-piggledy house was a long line of cattle sheds and outbuildings, along with a slurry tank and the grain silo. The back garden where she and Callum once played was overgrown. Most of the windows were at the front of the house, facing in the opposite direction. She remembered peering through each of them, gazing at the horizon, trying to make out the contours of Blencathra through the morning mist.
She’d come full circle; Lane End was where it all began. Her mother had given birth to her in the kitchen—her waters broke suddenly, and there was no time to drive to the hospital. Orla’s earliest memories were of playing hide-and-seek with Callum around the sheds and machinery while their father barked orders to his men and their mother stayed in bed with what she called a migraine and Dad called a hangover. Orla used to shut her eyes so tight they hurt, counting to one hundred and then calling, ‘Coming, ready or not!’ Callum always made it hard for her to find him, taunting her for the eternity it took to track him down. Callum’s voice rattled around in her brain. The last time she saw him, he’d been so pleased with himself, teasing her by refusing to let her into a secret, laughing fit to burst when she ran off with tears in her eyes, saying she didn’t care.
Her foot caught on a hook protruding from a lichen-smeared stone cheese press long ago abandoned in the grass, and she lost her balance for a second time. This time her ankle wrenched, and she sat down to massage the tender flesh. For an instant, she had an impression of a flash of light, as if the sun had glinted on a pair of field glasses.
When she picked herself up, not a soul was to be seen. These days, farms needed fewer people to do all the work. An engine roared into life behind the stone-built shippons—a tractor must be heading out into the narrow lane.
The grain silo loomed in front of her, linked to the farmyard by a dirt track rutted by huge tyres. The silo was forty feet high, a finger pointing to Heaven. A memory swam in her head of the silo’s arrival at Lane End Farm; it came in component parts, arched sections of steel. She and Callum watched the crane lifting the sections into place as their father yelled instructions, waving his arms like a human windmill.
‘Silos are scary,’ Callum said. ‘We won’t be allowed in.’
Orla had dreamed of bathing in the harvest, letting the grain run down in rivulets over her face, breathing in the aroma she adored.
‘You’re lying to me!’
‘No, I’m serious. It’s too easy to become trapped. When the conveyor pumps the grain in at full blast, it works so fast, it can overwhelm you. There’s no way out. If you call, nobody would hear. Too much noise.’
Callum possessed curiosity by the wagonload. He loved finding things out just as he loved to parade his superior knowledge, drip-feeding titbits to his sister to keep her hanging on his every utterance.
The back of her neck prickled. Was someone watching her? She glanced around, but if someone was hidden in the wych elms of the Hanging Wood, or lurking behind the buildings, she could not tell. Perhaps this sense of someone observing her every move was caused by feeling so alone. Loneliness was a cancer, eating up her confidence. After Callum vanished, she had nobody to turn to. Mum was wrapped up with her new husband, Kit Payne, who worked for the Madsens at the caravan park. The children were pawns in a bitter divorce, and Mum messed Dad about so he didn’t get the access she promised in court. Orla didn’t set eyes on him for weeks after Callum disappeared. By the time she was allowed to go back to the farm again, they had become strangers.
Before the silo tower was built, she loved to join Callum in the grain piled high in the barn. The pair of them took turns to swing on the rope that hung from the rafters and jump into the heap, where they would roll about, laughing without control as they pretended to bury each other. More fun than a seaside holiday, and getting buried in sand. Sometimes they showered in the grain as the conveyor sprayed it down. As daylight faded, they emptied it from their wellies, squirming because it itched and had slipped down their shirts. The smell of dry grain fresh from the combine was the smell of summer. Not like when it was wet and fermented, and smelled like the beer her father drank. The building of the silo tower ended the game, as Callum forecast. The children had to find other places to go, new stories to dream up. But Callum was never at a loss. They were like Hansel and Gretel, he announced. Their uncle’s cottage in the Hanging Wood became their very own gingerbread house.
She gazed at the silo. It might have been a religious monument, eerie yet inspiring awe. A shaft of light fell upon its walls as if a miracle were about to happen. For years, she’d disclaimed any faith, but now she had a fuzzy image of herself as a pilgrim, a devotee lured by the mysterious landmark. It wanted to draw her into its clutches.
Her boot crunched on something, and she came to a sudden halt. A scattering of tiny white bones lay beneath her feet. She peered at the skeleton for so long that her eyes began to water. The remains of a heron, chased to destruction by ravens or crows. She’d heard rumours that red kites were coming back to the Lakes, but if they returned, they too would be mobbed by birds determined to guard their territory.
‘Birds are like people,’ Callum once said. ‘They hate trespassers.’
Orla forced herself on. The closer she came to the farm, the more it resembled a surreal graveyard. Remnants of old farm machines were strewn around. Some must have lain here for years, dirty spikes and shards of metal like a parody of some weird work of art.
A wail from a small shed chilled her spine. The cry of a calf, distressed by the absence of its mother. It sounded hoarse, and she supposed it had been wailing for hours. She remembered teaching the calves to drink from buckets so the cows were not distracted from producing milk for market. The smell of stale milk from the calf-pen lingered in her sinuses.
She limped up to the half-door at the base of the silo. Another memory slithered into her head. The first harvest after the silo was built, the weather was wet for weeks on end, and the grain became stuck. One afternoon, Dad took his shotgun out of the cupboard, and Callum and Orla followed him to the silo. He shouted at them to stand back when he opened the grain door. Holding her breath, gripping her brother’s arm, Orla watched as their father raised his shotgun and fired into the mass of damp grain.
The blast deafened her, and she clamped her hands to her ears with a wail of dismay.
‘What are you mithering about?’ her father demanded. He’d turned round grinning, as if expecting applause, and her feeble reaction annoyed him. Callum’s face was a sly mask, as usual. ‘That’s how you do it. Moist grain bridges, and it needs to be loose.’
Most farmers loosened grain with a pole, Callum told her later, but that wasn’t thrilling enough for Dad. He relished the sense of power. It felt like a drug coursing through his veins. Shooting turned him on, Callum said.
A bolt was fixed to the grain door, a nod to safety regulations, but it was rusty from lack of use. Orla wondered about crawling into the bottom of the silo. No, she had a better idea.
The ladder up the side of the silo was covered by a safety ring, a tube made of fibreglass. A belated safety measure, added after one of Dad’s men fell off the ladder on a windy day and broke his ankle.
Once you were inside the ring, nobody could see you mounting the ladder, until you reached the top of the silo. Orla surveyed the fields. Her only witnesses were the cows, and even they were losing interest.
She wriggled into the tube, and started to lever herself up the rungs of the ladder. Her head and ankle throbbed with pain.
Those cans of lager had made her so woozy she found herself dreaming that someone had begun to shin up after her. What did it matter if she took a tumble? She managed to cling on to the cool metal all the way to the top.
Orla hauled herself from the ladder ring into the sunshine. At the top of the silo was a metal platform, and she sidled behind the pipe-work through which the grain was blown. Until the last moment, she wanted to be concealed from anyone who might emerge from the buildings and stare up at the silo from the farmyard.
A hatch on the platform led down to the inside of the silo. The hatch wasn’t padlocked, there was no point. A rubber seal kept the grain free from moisture, and the hatch was closed by wing nuts. Orla fiddled with the wing nuts, and slid them across. Crouching by the side of the open hatch, she peered down into the silo. The grain was deep, a darkly golden mountain. Forty tons, minimum. Cattle needed feeding all year—that was why the silo was half-full at the height of summer. Inhaling, she sucked the smell of the grain into her lungs. The odour made her think she’d stuck her face into a barrel of bitter.
It was like gazing into a tunnel. The sun fell on the grain, casting light on darkness. What might you find at the end of such a tunnel? But her brain was a junkyard, and she didn’t want to guess. Better find out for herself.
Peacefulness enveloped her, warm as a blanket. No question, her instinct was right. Only one way to go.
Orla stood up straight, lifted her arms, and put her hands together. Her lips moved as if in silent prayer. The sun burned her scalp but she felt no pain.
She thought she heard a hoarse voice. Was that someone close by, hissing her name? Too late to take notice. No second thoughts.
I’m coming home.