Authors: Anne Renshaw
Tags: #General Fiction
Table of Contents
A Grave Inheritance
This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the product of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or events or localities is entirely coincidental.
Kindle Edition 2012
Copyright © Anne Renshaw 2012
Anne Renshaw asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work
All rights reserved in all media. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the author and/or publisher.
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Image credit: © Chris Lofty | Dreamstime.com
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For my late mother, Sophia Morris Stephenson
In his hand he carried a spade and he looked for a flat space free of tree roots. Finding an area well hidden from the path, he took a breath and tried the soil. The spade hit the solid earth with a thud. He tried again, this time managing to slide the edge of the spade into the ground. Every now and then the moon hid behind a cloud, and darkness fell like a blanket, bringing with it a numbing despair. Even though in his own garden, he looked around uneasily, the isolation closing in.
While waiting for the moon to show its face again, he mulled over recent events. Fear rose in his throat like bile, and he fought off the quiver of panic that threatened to overcome his courage. Between the trees he saw a glimmer of light from the kitchen window and he wondered what she was doing. Feeling wretched he choked back a sob and pulled out a handkerchief from his trouser pocket to wipe the sweat and tears from his eyes. Suddenly the moon appeared, lighting the clearing again, and he continued to dig.
Later, when he’d returned to the cottage, she was still upstairs. He washed the grime from his hands in the enamel sink, eyes drawn towards the coffin on top of the kitchen table. Taking nails and a hammer from a toolbox beside the back door he began to fasten down the coffin lid.
Ellen heard the hammering from upstairs and her stomach lurched with each blow. She walked into the kitchen and stood at the table beside her son. After a few minutes she lit another oil lamp and, averting her eyes, tugged on the sleeve of his jacket.
‘You ready?’ Ellen said gruffly to him.
He nodded and slung a rope around one end of the coffin to make a handle. Ellen clutched the rope and yanked it, sliding the coffin forward. He took hold of the other end before it reached the edge of the table and with Ellen leading the way they carried the coffin outside and down the path towards the trees. Stretching her free arm, Ellen lifted the lamp as high as she could to light their way.
Neither of them noticed the small white face pressed up against the bedroom window, watching.
Sunlight glared through distant trees and hedges, flashing Morse code messages Amelia would never decipher, and not for the first time that day she wished she’d remembered her sunglasses. For all the excitement bubbling inside her, they could have been driving through the wonders of Luxor, or along the Italian Amalfi coast, instead of a quiet country road in Cheshire. But then Amelia’s excitement was not so much for the journey, but for what was waiting for them at the end of it.
Sitting in the passenger seat next to her, her sister, Grace shielded her eyes with her hand. Her head on a continual pivot, she squinted through the car windows, straining to read the names of the side streets as they drove past.
‘I think that was it.’ Grace pointed behind her to a narrow lane almost hidden between tall beech hedges.
Amelia looked quickly, keeping one eye on the road. She continued driving, watching out for a place to turn her Peugeot around. At last she came to a wider section, an obvious passing place, and was able to pull in. Making sure the road behind her was clear she began a three-point turn. Aware of every flinch and exasperated sigh beside her, Amelia swore loudly when she stalled the car for the second time.
‘That helps,’ Grace remarked, cringing at Amelia’s choice of word.
‘I’m doing my best.’ Amelia’s resentment focused on Grace, but she directed her comment to a house opposite where net curtains shimmied in the window. On the way back Amelia turned left into Marsh Lane and breathed a sigh of relief.
The lane was empty of houses and seemed endless, and just as Amelia decided to turn back, she saw the sign almost hidden against a hedge. An open metal gate had a roofing slate tied to it with the name Primrose Cottage painted on it.
‘This is it,’ Grace said excitedly, and almost before the handbrake was on she was out of the car, walking on ahead. Amelia locked the car and followed at a slower pace. The overpowering smell of jasmine made her sneeze, and she smiled when she heard her sister’s “Bless you” from further along the path.
From a distance an observer could be forgiven for thinking the sisters were twins, although there was five years between them. Grace, the youngest, was as tall as Amelia, but finer boned and slender. Both had long, thick light brown hair but whereas Grace’s grew ramrod straight with no inclination to bend at all, Amelia struggled every day to control her unruly curls. Both in white tee shirts and blue denim jeans, they made their way along the path, the grooves in their Reeboks picking up bits of gravel as they walked.
Primrose Cottage stood before them. Five leaded windows, arched in gothic style, were in a semicircle around the front door, which was itself hidden inside an arched porch. White wooden window boxes on ground floor level windowsills held pink and purple pansies, smiling a welcome. The three upper windows nestled snugly under low eaves.
Grace peered through one of the ground floor windows. ‘Is it really ours?’
‘Don’t get too enthusiastic, we haven’t seen inside yet.’ Amelia could hardly believe it herself. She’d half expected a dilapidated ruin, a renovation job that would take thousands of pounds, but from outward appearances the cottage looked in good repair. It did seem too good to be true, but with the common sense of an older sister she reserved judgement. She stood by the front door and tried each key from a selection the solicitor had handed over the previous day. None fitted the lock.
‘Try them again.’ Impatiently Grace tried to take the keys from her.
Amelia did as she was told, but to no effect. ‘Let’s have a look around the back. There must be another door.’
‘There should be a front door key though,’ Grace persisted.
Amelia ignored her. Around the side of the cottage was another door which had a large old metal lock. Amelia selected the largest key from the group and inserted it. ‘Fingers crossed,’ she said and smiled when the lock turned smoothly.
The door opened into a spacious kitchen. A dresser, still with plates lining its shelves, almost filled one wall. A centrally position large well-scrubbed oak table held an odd assortment of jugs and a teapot. Amelia crossed the room and opened French doors leading into a large square conservatory.
‘Look at this, Grace,’ Amelia said, enthralled. Potted Clematis spread along the cottage’s exterior brick wall inside the conservatory, and grew up and over the French door. Purple flower heads too heavy for the sinewy stems, drooped languidly, and tendrils hovered ready to wrap twine-like fingers around anything protruding. In one corner stood a white wrought iron table and two chairs, shaded by a large fern.
Automatically Grace began to examine plants in pots of differing sizes set here and there on the stone floor. ‘I wonder if the water is turned on; these could do with a drink,’ she murmured, half to herself.
Considering the length of time the cottage had been unoccupied, Amelia was surprised any plants had survived and she left her green-fingered sister to attend them. Finding the right key she unlocked the outer French doors to let in some fresh air and stepped outside. Trees from the wood on the other side of their hedge had seeded and invaded the side of the garden and a stand of about thirty trees stood tall and dark some metres away. The hedge, a thick hawthorn, was high and looked impenetrable. Ahead of her a smooth lawn sloped slightly down to a low boundary wall, giving an uninterrupted view across the garden and beyond, where meadows and farmland retreated into the distance. Her eyes drawn to a raised mound on the horizon, Amelia saw a tall church crowning the knoll; its sun-kissed square bell tower resembled a lift shaft transmitting prayers and, perhaps, departed souls to heaven.
‘Imagine sitting here in the evening with a glass of wine, watching the sun going down,’ Amelia said wistfully to Grace who had joined her outside, and was standing beside her.
‘I love it,’ Grace sighed, and without the need of further words they knew they were thinking along the same lines. Grace brushed her dusty hands down the thighs of her jeans and tugged on Amelia’s sleeve. ‘Come on, let’s see upstairs,’ she said, eager to explore further.
Amelia expected the worst so was pleasantly surprised. After inspecting each room and making mental notes of the refurbishment costs, she felt relieved that it wasn’t going to cost a fortune to do up. Two large bedrooms contained odd items of furniture and although old and dusty, the smell of beeswax still permeated the air. The bathroom was disappointing and needed updating, but could be rectified in time.
In the small third bedroom, Amelia crossed the room to the pretty arched window. She could see into the wood, and although still early May, the faint haze of bluebells was beginning to show. ‘This could be the office,’ she said. Grace mumbled something and shivered and told Amelia she would see her downstairs.
Amelia did another tour and then lingered in the conservatory, enjoying the silence. No rush hour traffic or heavy vehicles trundling past the windows here and, except for the birds rustling in the trees, the quiet was complete. A modicum of peace was all it took to release Amelia’s pent-up emotions. She took a deep breath, taking control.
Grace called to her from the kitchen. ‘I’m turning on the mains stopcock.’
Amelia watched from the doorway, preoccupied. Her sister’s head was in the cupboard underneath the sink and after a few grunts and sighs, accompanied by a sharp squeak, the tap began to turn.