Do Not Disturb – Claire Douglas

I’m awoken by a shrill scream. Something’s happened to the girls. I sit up in bed, my heart racing. The air is still. Silent. Did I dream it? My eyes dart to Adrian’s side of the bed. It’s empty, the sheet creased and slightly damp, the duvet thrown back as though he left in a hurry. Where is he? My alarm clock shows 5.37 a.m. and, through a crack in the curtains, the sky is still dark, the tips of the mountains disappearing into early-morning mist. I fumble for my dressing-gown, which I’d thrown across the foot of the bed the night before. I pull it on as I hurry from the room. Across the landing, the door to the girls’ room is closed. I’m just about to go to it when I hear the scream again.

There’s no mistaking it this time. It sounds like my mother. I race down the first flight of stairs, trying to quell my rising panic. My mother isn’t the type of woman to scream. I think about the guests ensconced in their rooms, knowing she must have woken them, too, and, despite the circumstances, I worry about upsetting them. When I reach the top of the second flight I stop in my tracks. I blink, hoping my eyes are playing tricks on me, but the image remains. The hallway below is shrouded in darkness but it looks as though Mum is crouched over a body, its limbs spread-eagled on the refurbished Victorian tiles. I can see the flash of a pale calf, a slim wrist. I can hear Mum groaning.

It doesn’t look like a child. The legs are too long. It’s not one of the girls. Thank God. ‘Mum?’ Her head shoots up at the sound of my voice, her eyes wide with anguish and something else – fear. She holds up her hands, as though she’s about to pray. They’re coated with blood. Part One before 1 August 2017 – two months before The girls are unusually quiet in the back seat. From the rear-view mirror I see them gazing out of the window as the scenery unfolds before them: the built-up suburbs with graffiti-stained high-rises and cluttered roads transforming into rolling hills, valleys and mountains. Amelia’s expression is morose, as though she’s harbouring thoughts of murdering both me and her father for taking her away from her friends.

Evie, on the other hand, is more serene, dreamy as she takes in the road signs in English and Welsh. My six-year-old has always had a vivid imagination. She’ll see this as an adventure, try to seek out the magic in it. She believes in fairies, Father Christmas and the Easter bunny. She sees animal shapes in the clouds, four-leaf clovers that aren’t there, a face in the moon. Amelia, five years older, is more sceptical. Her sensitivity announces itself in different ways. As soon as you enter a room she’ll feel your mood and behave accordingly. At least, she used to. Not so much now that the hormones have kicked in.

She’s no longer so eager to please. Adrian and I have tried to hide how badly the last eighteen months have affected us, but she’s more astute than Evie. She won’t have failed to notice the strain we’ve been under. But, even so, she can’t really understand why we’ve decided to leave London. There have been occasions, in the preceding weeks, when I’ve had the same thought. We hadn’t planned to move back to Wales. Not yet, anyhow. Buying a guesthouse in the Brecon Beacons had been a long-held ambition of mine. Something to daydream about while I toiled at my dead-end job in marketing, or when I was on maternity leave, surrounded by nappies and wet wipes. The Brecons held fond memories for me, of picnics in the foothills, of family days out, my brother, Nathan, and I bickering in the car, our dad barking at us good-naturedly.

Of home-made egg sandwiches and milky tea from a flask. Of Frisbees. Of those hills and mountains that seemed to go on for ever. When I was a kid they always reminded me of the drawings in the Mr Men books, they were so perfect – they seemed worlds away from where we lived in Cardiff. Moving to Wales and running a guesthouse was something we imagined we’d do in the future, when both girls were at university, when we were in our late forties or early fifties and had had enough of our cramped terraced house and frantic city living. Then, suddenly, the idea of fresh air and peace became more appealing, more urgent. A gentler pace of life, a quiet spot for Adrian to write – which he’s always wanted to do – and a safe haven for the girls, away from all the distractions and temptations of London. In the distance I can see the glint of sunshine beneath the clouds, beckoning us. I reach over and squeeze Adrian’s hand. He returns the gesture and I flick a glance in his direction.

He looks happy and relaxed. He’s grown a beard and his hair is longer, now touching the collar of his blue polo shirt. There is nothing left of his City persona. He shed the smart suits and the clean-shaven look as soon as he walked out of his job. But there are other changes too. The old Adrian would be trying to coax excitement out of Amelia right now. He’d be fiddling with the radio and singing along to Absolute 90s or playing I Spy with Evie, rolling his eyes when she pretended to spot a unicorn or a pixie. Instead he’s staring at the road ahead, the radio switched off. He’s calm and content in his own way. Just … dif erent.

But at least he’s here. I want him to reassure me that we’ve made the right decision in leaving. That Amelia won’t hate me for ever. That it will all turn out for the best. Anxiety curdles in the pit of my stomach. In all my fantasies of running a business in the place I love the most, I never envisaged I’d have to do it with my mother. ‘Kirsty?’ I’m jolted out of my thoughts by Adrian’s voice. ‘When is Carol expected to turn up?’ It’s as though he’s read my mind. We used to joke about that. Before.

How we always seemed to know what the other was thinking. ‘Um, next month, I think.’ I change gear as we head into the national park, the SUV juddering over the cattle grid. I notice Evie sit up straighter, and I know she’s hoping to see wild ponies clustered at the side of the road, as we did the last time we visited. ‘Next month?’ he says incredulously. ‘She said something about waiting until the house is more habitable.’ ‘So, not until the renovations are done, then.’ He’s laughing as he says it, to take the sting out of his words. ‘She did up plenty of houses with my dad before he died.’ ‘Yeah.

Over twenty years ago.’ ‘Her DIY is a lot better than mine.’ I’m nettled that he’s so easily putting her down. I’m allowed to say what I want about her, but he isn’t. Despite her faults my mother is one of the most capable, practical people I know. ‘Great. Then what’s she waiting for?’ He laughs. ‘Tell her to get here pronto! We’ll need all the help we can get.’ Hasn’t she done enough? I want to ask, but I don’t. I’m trying not to feel resentful that we were forced to eat into our savings after Adrian left his job.

It wasn’t his fault. And it was kind of Mum to agree to come in with us. Her money means we could buy the house and carry out the restoration. Going into business with her wouldn’t have been my first choice, but now we have, we must make it work. We first saw the Old Rectory six months ago. We’d been on a family holiday in Brecon, driving through those mountains I had so admired as a child. Adrian was shrivelled up in the passenger seat, still shell-shocked from all that had happened, as if he were a war veteran or disaster survivor. We were still tentative with each other, like lovers who had been apart for many years and were getting to know each other again. The mist was like dry ice, nudging the hills and draping itself over the mountains in the distance. The land was spread out in front of us in varying shades of green, our road zigzagging through it.

There wasn’t another soul for miles. It was when we were on the edge of a little village called Hywelphilly that we saw it: a doublefronted Victorian detached house, almost Gothic, with its pointed roof gables and arched windows. Set back from the road, next to a beautiful old church, and framed by mountains in the distance, it had a ‘For Sale’ sign propped up in the driveway. The tiles were falling off the roof, the paint was flaking and some windows were boarded up, but I could see the beauty in it even then. With a bit of TLC it could be magnificent, I thought. I pulled on to the kerb, blocking the driveway with its rusty iron gates, to get a better look. Weeds protruded through the cracked tarmac and a large oak almost obscured one of the windows. Adrian must have been thinking along similar lines because when he turned to me, his eyes were bright. For the first time in ages he looked excited. We arranged a viewing for the next day, and as the four of us followed the estate agent through the crumbling, neglected house, the anticipation hummed between us.

‘It’s a bit creepy,’ Evie said, as we stood on the threadbare landing carpet. She stared up at the ceiling as if expecting a ghoul to descend from the attic. ‘And it has a weird smell,’ offered Amelia. But I was convinced it was what we needed. A project. A change of direction for Adrian. A distraction. For all of us. Now we stand in the front driveway and look up at the house, horror dawning. It’s going to need a lot more work than I remember.

Not for the first time the weight of what we’ve undertaken threatens to crush me. ‘Are we really going to be living in that?’ Amelia asks, wrinkling her nose as she surveys the holes in the roof, the boarded-up windows, the ivy that spreads up the walls, like unruly facial hair. The builders have already begun on the roof and scaffolding has been erected, although there’s no sign of any workers. ‘Not yet,’ I assure her. ‘We’re going to be staying in the flat we’ve rented at the other end of the village. Remember?’ ‘Great,’ she mutters, folding her arms across her skinny chest. ‘Cramped in some dumb flat for the summer.’ ‘It’ll be fun,’ pipes up Evie. ‘We get to share a room.’ ‘And the thrills keep coming,’ Amelia deadpans.

I ignore her cheek, deciding to cut her some slack today of all days. Instead I enthuse about the huge garden, reminding Amelia that I’d agreed to buy them a trampoline – they’ve been pestering me about one for the last year but there wasn’t the space at our old house. ‘And we can get those rabbits you’ve always wanted, Evie,’ I promise. She jumps up and down with glee. Adrian throws an arm around me. Although it’s August, there’s a chill in the air and I move closer to him, glad of the embrace. Before it happened, Adrian was very affectionate. I secretly thought – somewhat guiltily – too much so. Always wanting to hold my hand, touch the back of my head, or my knee when I was driving. I used to feel embarrassed in front of the girls or our friends if he nuzzled the side of my neck when I was cooking.

I’d come from an undemonstrative family – the most I ever got from my mother was a perfunctory kiss on the cheek. And then the touching had stopped and I missed it. Now I reach around his waist and pull him closer to me, resting my head on his shoulder. ‘I’m never going to get used to the pronunciation of this place.’ Adrian laughs. ‘What – “the Old Rectory”?’ scoffs Amelia. ‘Don’t be facetious. You know what your dad means,’ I say. ‘Stupid Welsh words,’ mumbles Amelia, prodding the ground with the toe of her lilac Supagas. ‘It’s easy – Hywelphilly.

Pronounced Howell Filly,’ I say, rolling the Ls, liking the way the language feels in my mouth. When we first met, Adrian delighted in my accent. He’d make me pronounce long Welsh words over and over again, and stared at me in awe as I said them with ease. He’d try to copy but they sounded like bizarre tongue-twisters coming from his lips. ‘Can you speak Welsh, Mummy?’ asks Evie, looking at me with her wide blue eyes. ‘Of course.’ ‘Will we learn to speak Welsh?’ Evie asks. ‘I want to talk like you.’ Amelia looks as though she can’t think of anything worse. I move away from Adrian and cuddle Evie, kissing her soft blonde hair.

She looks kooky in her clashing colours: a red-and-yellow-spotted tunic with pink leggings and green frog wellies. Over her head I notice that Amelia moves away before I can coax her into a group hug. ‘Come on, then,’ says Adrian, heading back to the car. ‘We’d better get the keys for the flat.’ We troop behind him, my gaze following Amelia. Her head is bent and her arms are folded around herself. She’s shivering slightly in her thin hoody. I want to grab her and hold her close, reassure her that everything will be okay, that I love her. But she gets into the car before I can catch up with her. She’ll cheer up once she gets used to living here.

We drive through the village in silence, each of us taking in the ornate arched bridge, the hills and mountains of the Brecons in the distance, the green parks and fields of sheep, the cobbled high street with its shops, and the only pub, the Seven Stars, which overlooks the River Usk. Although I’ve never lived here before, I feel as if I’ve come home. 2 A month before My mother turns up on a Saturday at the end of September, less than four weeks before we’re due to open. I spot her from the living-room window climbing out of a taxi, smart in black trousers and heeled boots. She always dresses as if she’s about to go into an office, even though she retired eight years ago. She still has a good figure, trim and tidy, as my dad would have said, with auburn hair and bright blue eyes that are occasionally twinkly, regularly disapproving and often judgemental. I glance down at my own baggy cardigan and shapeless T-shirt, and brush the dust from my faded jeans. It fogs the air in front of me, causing me to cough. Mum once observed, disparagingly, that I like to ‘dress for comfort’. I reach for my inhaler and take a few puffs, then return it to my pocket.

I always have one on me. Without it I panic: as a teenager, a severe asthma attack had kept me in hospital for days. I’m relieved that, so far, I haven’t spotted any symptoms in my daughters. I can feel Adrian’s disapproving gaze on me even though I can’t see him. He’s behind me, painting the living-room door satin white. He’s said before that I’m too reliant on the inhaler, that overuse isn’t good for me because it contains steroids. ‘Mum’s arrived,’ I announce, mainly to distract him. I move away from the window, resisting the urge to flick a duster around the room. I want to laugh at the alarm on Adrian’s face. I know he’s also worrying that she’ll be disappointed with our progress.

We’ve been in Hywelphilly for more than a month but only moved into the Old Rectory yesterday. We’ve done so much, though – knocking some rooms into others to make them bigger, incorporating en-suites, fixing the roof, restoring the geometric black-and-white Victorian tiles in the hallway, and we’ve divided the attic space into three bedrooms and a bathroom for us to live in so that we’re separate from the guests. But there’s still so much to do before we open to the public: painting, sanding, waxing and sourcing furniture. At the thought, my stress levels rise. The doorbell rings and I realize that Adrian and I have been staring at each other in mild panic. He has paint on his clothes, in his beard and on his cheek. I laugh nervously. ‘Brace yourself.’ ‘The Wicked Witch of the West,’ jokes Adrian, the name Nathan and I gave Mum as kids after watching The Wizard of Oz. He steps off the ladder, paintbrush in hand, and follows me into the hallway.

‘We only ever called her that when she was in one of her moods,’ I say, feeling disloyal. I throw open the door to see her standing on the step, a suitcase at her feet. ‘Kirsty. Adrian.’ She nods at us in turn. And then, ‘This door needs sanding and painting. It’s not exactly welcoming, is it? I think we need to buy a new one.’ I bite back my irritation. The door is beautiful, Victorian with stained-glass inserts of pink roses. I’ve already decided I’m going to paint it Hicks Blue by Little Greene.

There’s no way I’d change it. ‘Hello to you, too,’ I say. She gives me one of her trademark looks and steps over the threshold. ‘We haven’t got round to painting it yet. But we will,’ I add. ‘I have just the colour in mind.’ ‘And I hope it’s green,’ she says, much to my dismay. ‘It needs doing before we open. Kerb appeal, Kirsty, kerb appeal.’ Like I didn’t know! She bustles past me, leaving Adrian to pick up her suitcase.

We exchange glances over the top of her perfectly coiffed bob. ‘Lovely to see you, Carol,’ says Adrian, bending to kiss her cheek. She winces. ‘This facial hair,’ she says, reaching up to touch his beard. He’s a good head and shoulders taller than her. ‘When’s it going?’ He turns to me, clearly bemused, and raises an eyebrow. I stifle a giggle. She steps into the hallway, taking in the newly refurbished tiles and the recently painted walls. ‘What colour is this?’ She indicates the walls. She already has a fine layer of dust on the shoulders of her smart wool coat.

What was she thinking, wearing it to come to a house undergoing renovation? ‘French Gray. It’s Farrow and Ball.’ ‘It’s matt.’ ‘That was the intention.’ She nods. I think that means she approves. ‘Who did the tiles?’ ‘We had to get a guy in.’ ‘Was it expensive?’ I clear my throat. ‘Um … not too bad,’ I lie, thinking of the fortune we ended up paying him. ‘Are you going to give me the tour, then?’ she asks, and I feel a fresh wave of shame that this is the first time she’s viewing the house she co-owns.

We’d asked her at the time, of course, but she’d seen the estate agent’s details and said she was content enough with that, which was a bit of a shock: usually she’s so controlling. She looks as out of place in our hallway as she would if she’d wandered into a nightclub. Not for the first time I imagine what it would have been like to do this without her. Adrian resumes painting while I escort Mum along the hallway to the only bedroom downstairs. We’ve called it Apple Tree because of the view of the apple trees in the garden. It’s one of the first bedrooms we completed and still my favourite: pale green walls and French windows that lead on to the patio. She glances around but doesn’t say anything. Then I show her the dining room opposite. It overlooks the churchyard, with its centuries-old gravestones, and still needs painting. ‘It’s a bit gloomy,’ she observes, frowning.

She pushes the strap of her handbag further up her shoulder. ‘It is a dark room,’ I concede. ‘But look.’ I open the internal double doors that we installed to separate it from the kitchen. ‘When these are pulled back it’s much lighter in here. See?’ ‘Hmm. If you’d put glass in the doors you could have kept them closed.’ Mum wanders through the double doors to the large kitchen, with its cream flagstone tiles, pale grey Shaker-style units and the bi-fold doors that lead into the garden. ‘Only family allowed in here,’ I explain, from behind her. ‘So you can lock these doors?’ ‘Yes.

To keep the kitchen private.’ ‘Looks expensive,’ she observes. ‘Those worktops don’t look like laminate.’ ‘They’re stone. More hardwearing.’ She mutters something under her breath that I can’t hear and I feel a surge of annoyance. It wasn’t as if she was here to help us make these decisions. She was still in Cardiff, selling her own house. I show her to a small room off the hallway and next to the dining room. ‘This will be the playroom for the girls.

Somewhere separate from the living room so they have a place of their own that’s away from guests.’ She turns to me. ‘Where are the girls?’ I suppress a sigh. ‘School, Mum.’ I look at my watch. It’s gone two o’clock, not long before I have to pick them up. One of the main benefits of moving to a village is the little local school, which has small classes and is only a short walk away. ‘Are they enjoying it?’ she asks, and her face brightens as it always does when we talk about her granddaughters. ‘Ye-esss …’ It comes out as a hiss because the truth is that, while Evie seems to be revelling in making new friends and being the exotic new girl from London, Amelia hates it. They’ve only been going there since the new term started a few weeks ago, but Amelia constantly moans about the boys, the girls, the teachers, the building, the smell of manure, the fields of ‘depressed sheep’, the rubbish facilities.

I try to take it all with a pinch of salt. It’s early days, I remind myself. ‘That’s good,’ says Mum, but she would have picked up on my tone. Nothing gets past her. She wraps the navy wool coat closer around her. ‘What’s going on with the heating? It’s extremely cold in here.’ ‘Radiators still need to be fitted in some of the rooms. But our bedrooms have them. And the living room.’ ‘Right.

Well, you’d better show me the rest. And then we must have a cup of tea. I’m parched.’ I show her the living room. We’ve installed leather sofas and found a Welsh dresser in an antiques shop to put the TV on. I’ve added fluffy cushions to soften the look. Mum wanders over to the open fireplace. ‘I like this.’ ‘We wanted to keep it.’ I’d fallen in love with the wrought-iron Victorian fireplace when we viewed the house.

Her eyes go to the photographs on the mantelpiece. There is a picture of me on a 1970s brownpatterned sofa holding baby Natasha on my lap. I must have been about three. I usually keep it in our room, but until it’s decorated I’ve put it here. I notice a fleeting wave of emotion cross Mum’s face, but then, just as quickly, it’s gone. I go to it and touch the silver frame, almost apologetically. ‘It won’t stay here. There’ll be nothing personal in this room,’ I say. Mum pushes her glasses up her nose and seems to collect herself. ‘No.

No, that wouldn’t be wise. This isn’t your home, remember. It’s a business.’ ‘I know.’ She turns to me, her blue eyes penetrating. ‘Do you?’ I swallow. ‘Of course. But we still have to live here.’ After that there’s a weird tension between us. I show her the other five rooms on the first floor, then take her up to the attic.

It has a decent-sized square landing with beams overhead. Her bedroom is a small single room next to ours and opposite the girls’. ‘When’s your furniture arriving?’ I ask. ‘I haven’t got much. Just my bedroom things. Everything else I’ve put in storage. You don’t want my old stuff cluttering the place, do you?’ She meets my gaze, and I find myself squirming. ‘Well, it’s not that. It’s just … you know … we have to be careful. Fire regulations and suchlike.

’ She tuts. ‘I’m having you on, Kirsty. Goodness, have you always been so serious?’ She comes closer and peers at me through her bifocals. ‘It’s changed you, hasn’t it? All this business with Adrian.’ All this business. As though what’s happened to him – to us – is so trivial it can be dismissed. Of course it’s changed me, I want to say. Just like losing Natasha changed you Aren’t we all shaped by the events that take place during the course of our lives? As though our souls – if they exist – are made of Plasticine to be remoulded over and over again. But, as usual, I keep my mouth shut, not wanting to offend her. She’s been so kind to us, I remind myself.

All of this wouldn’t be possible without her. And she’s had so much grief in her life. It will be okay, I tell myself, as we head down to the kitchen for the tea she’s requested. It will take a bit of getting used to, us all living and working under one roof, but we can do it. I make an effort to push away any doubt. 3 Evie’s face lights up when she comes out of school to see Mum standing beside me. I’m wearing a coat over my tatty decorating clothes even though Mum had tried to insist I change. It brought back memories of being a teenager and how she used to try to feminize me, disgusted by my rock-band Tshirts and DM boots. Evie barrels into her stomach, wrapping her arms around her waist. ‘Nana!’ Mum bends over and kisses the top of Evie’s unruly hair.

Thankfully, she’s much more affectionate with her granddaughters than she ever was with me. ‘Do you like my school? It’s like a castle, isn’t it?’ I watch Mum’s expression as she follows Evie’s pointing finger and I can tell she’s struggling to see the comparison in the Victorian stone building. ‘Ye-es. All those peaked roofs. Like somewhere a princess would live …’ ‘Yes! Like Rapunzel. And it has a tower round the back.’ ‘A tower? Really?’ Mum meets my eye questioningly and I shake my head without Evie noticing. Mum chuckles and stands up straighter. ‘Always so fanciful,’ she says to me. ‘She reminds me of Selena when she was little.

’ I stiffen, and Mum’s cheeks colour. She hardly ever mentions my cousin. It’s like an unspoken rule between us. ‘She’s nothing like Selena,’ I say, more harshly than I intend to. ‘No,’ Mum concedes. ‘I suppose not.’ I’ve tried not to think about Selena over the years, but returning to Wales has brought back the memories. She was practically a sister to me. Our dads were brothers and we were always in and out of each other’s houses, living just streets away from one another in Cardiff. But we haven’t spoken since we were eighteen.

I never ask about her – and Mum doesn’t venture any information. I’m not even sure if they keep in touch, although I suspect they do. Mum was always so fond of her. After a couple of minutes of Evie gabbling away about her day, and who she played with, Amelia comes trailing out, looking small and skinny under the weight of her backpack. Despite the drizzly weather she refuses to wear a coat and she looks cold in her fern-green jumper and grey skirt, her long dark hair whipped by the wind. At least she’s wearing tights. Every day I hope she’ll bounce out of school in the way she did in Twickenham, usually with a couple of other girls. But she’s always alone, her face sad. I’ve tried to make eye contact with a few of the other mothers at the school gates, hoping that if I make some friends Amelia will too, but although they’re polite to me, they cluster together in their impenetrable groups, chatting, while I stand awkwardly alone. The only other mother I’ve got talking to is called Sian, who has a daughter, Orla, in Amelia’s class.

A few days ago, we exchanged numbers but Sian isn’t always at pick-up: more often than not, Orla walks home on her own – which I won’t allow Amelia to do yet. ‘Hi, Moo,’ I say, when she reaches us. It was the nickname Evie had for her when she was little. ‘Good day?’ ‘Fine,’ she replies, in a tone that implies it was anything but. Her face brightens slightly when she spots Mum. ‘Hi, Nana.’ ‘Hello, my darling,’ says Mum, wrapping Amelia in her arms and hugging her close. ‘Ooh, you feel cold. Haven’t you got a coat?’ She gives a half-giggle that lifts my spirits. ‘Coats aren’t cool.

’ ‘No, they’re warm,’ Mum jokes, linking one arm through Amelia’s and the other through Evie’s. And, for the first time since she arrived, I’m glad she’s here. We amble along the high street, the girls and Mum in front. It’s one of the busiest times of the day, with families walking home from school, and there’s a lovely atmosphere in the village, with the sounds of laughter, chatter and the occasional bark of a dog. I wonder if Mum is taking in her surroundings. The hills and mountains that envelop the village are so beautiful that I can’t help but be wowed by them every time I see them. I take deep breaths, savouring the fresh air in my lungs and thinking, once again, how lucky we are to be away from the grime of London. There are some drawbacks, of course: the convenience of late-night shops, of having a Starbucks or Costa on every corner. But, so far, I’m enjoying the gentler pace of life. Sometimes, on the way home from school, we’ll pop into the one and only café for a hot chocolate (Evie was most upset when we first arrived to find that they didn’t do a Babychino) or the local chemist to see grumpy Mrs Gummage (Amelia loves all the hairclips) but today we go straight back to the guesthouse. ‘What are the locals like?’ asks Mum, when we get back. The girls have dumped their bags and shoes in the hallway and gone straight upstairs to their room. ‘I’ve not met many. There’s old Mr Collins next door. He’s a widower and about eighty. He walks with a stick,’ I say, as I shake off my coat and dump it in the little room off the hallway that will, eventually, be the office. It’s the only room we haven’t re-plastered and it’s very 1980s, with yellow striped wallpaper and cornflower-blue borders. ‘And I’ve met a young couple who live in one of the cottages opposite. Kath and Derek from the Seven Stars have been brilliant, passing on a few bookings because they were already full, and giving advice.’ I’d liked Kath immediately. Big, blonde and brassy, with a hearty laugh, she’d warmed to me too when she’d realized I was from Wales originally, and we talked about the Cardiff haunts of our youth. I don’t tell Mum about the locals who have been less than friendly, like Mrs Gummage in the chemist, and Lydia with mauve hair, who lives two doors down and scowls when she sees us. ‘Hmm,’ says Mum, as though she’s not listening. She’s surveying the hallway. ‘You need to get some kind of cupboard or coat rack. There’s nowhere to put coats and shoes.’ ‘Yes, that’s true …’ ‘And should we get some tourist brochures? I’ve seen other bed-and-breakfasts have them. It might be helpful for the guests to know what’s going on, details of local attractions, walks, that kind of thing. People come here for the hiking.’ I hadn’t thought of that. ‘It’s a great idea.’ She rewards me with a smile. Then she brushes against the living-room door and tuts when paint comes off on the elbow of her coat. ‘I thought you’d be further along than this,’ she snaps, taking off her coat and examining the paint stain. ‘We open in a few weeks.’ I swallow a retort. ‘Then it’s good you’ve arrived. We need as much help as we can get. And don’t say anything to Adrian. He doesn’t need to feel the pressure.’ She opens her mouth to speak but I continue: ‘I mean it, Mum. This is supposed to be a fresh start for us.’ She scowls but says no more. I leave her to it and run up the stairs to find Adrian. The bedroom door is closed. I take a deep breath as I turn the handle. I still hate doors being closed. The memories are too fresh. I never know what I’m going to find behind them. Adrian is lying on the bed with an arm flung over his face. For a moment – a half-second – I have the insane thought that he’s dead. I hurry over but he moves his arm and his eyes snap open when he senses me looming over his prostrate form. He sits up, resting on his elbows. ‘Sorry. I’m knackered. I must have fallen asleep.’ He rubs his eyes. They’re red, and one is blood-shot. He still has white paint on his beard and hair. I feel a rush of love for him. He’s been working so hard on this renovation … too hard, considering. I perch on the bed beside him. ‘Mum and I can take over the painting.’ ‘I’ll be all right. But it’s good that she can help.’ We sit in silence for a while, and then I say, ‘It feels weird, doesn’t it, having this huge old house to ourselves?’ ‘It won’t feel so big when guests start arriving.’ ‘I hope Evie sleeps through tonight.’ She woke up at two this morning, screaming because of a nightmare. ‘She’ll get used to being here.’ ‘She said the room was “creepy”. She doesn’t like having a churchyard next door. She’s worried the house is haunted.’ ‘We’ll decorate her room soon and then she’ll feel more at home. It’s only been one night.’ I bite the nail of my little finger and tear a piece off. Adrian reaches over and takes my wrist. ‘Are you okay? You seem tense?’ I sigh and get to my feet. ‘It’s nothing. I need to go and check on the girls.’ Adrian stands up too. ‘They’re fine.’ He pulls me close to him. ‘Look, I know it’s a bit overwhelming. I get it, Kirst. I feel the same.’ He kisses me softly. His beard tickles my chin. ‘But we’ll get through it. We’ve got through worse.’ The sound of Evie screaming makes us spring apart and Amelia runs into the room. ‘Evie’s bleeding!’ she cries. I dart past her to find Evie standing in the middle of their bedroom, cradling her hand. At her feet is a doll I don’t recognize, its china head at an odd angle, its one glassy eye staring up at me. The hair is long and black, in two messy plaits, and it’s wearing a filthy Victorian-style dress. One leg is missing, amputated at the knee, a jutting edge of porcelain where the calf should be. ‘Let me see,’ I say, taking Evie’s hand gently. Blood is oozing from a cut across her palm. Evie is crying silently, her little body juddering with each sob. ‘It’s okay,’ I say soothingly, trying not to panic. I lead her to the bathroom across the landing. Amelia and Adrian follow and we all crowd around the sink. I wash the cut under the tap, then wrap her hand in a towel. If it’s still bleeding we’ll have to take her to A and E. ‘I … need … a … plaster,’ she stutters, between sobs. Adrian disappears to get one. It makes me smile that Evie thinks a plaster will fix any ailment. Amelia used to be the same. I sit on the loo lid with Evie on my lap. ‘Look, the bleeding’s stopping,’ I say, after a while. Adrian reappears with a Ben and Holly plaster and I cover the cut with it. Evie examines it and promptly stops crying. ‘What happened?’ I ask Amelia, as we lead Evie back into their bedroom. ‘She found that,’ says Amelia, pointing to the china doll, ‘under the floorboards.’ ‘Under the floorboards?’ ‘Yeah. We saw that one was a bit loose so we looked under it and Evie saw the doll, but when she picked it up it cut her hand.’ Amelia shudders. She hates dolls. Especially the china variety. She’s always thought them sinister. ‘You’re okay now?’ Adrian asks, kissing Evie’s forehead. She nods, chewing her lip and laying her hand gingerly on her lap. ‘Then we can get rid of this,’ I say, bending down to pick up the doll by the arm. ‘No!’ she cries. ‘We can’t get rid of her! She’s special.’ ‘It’s hideous,’ interjects Amelia. Evie sits up and stretches out her hands, her injury forgotten. ‘No, I want to keep her. She’s magic.’ ‘It’s dangerous,’ I say, examining the jagged edge. ‘Look, it’s broken and it might cut you again.’ ‘Let me have a look,’ says Adrian, taking it from me. ‘I’ll try to mend the leg.’ He flashes a smile at his younger daughter and she beams back at him. ‘Come on.’ He takes her uninjured hand. ‘Let’s see what we can find downstairs.’ I watch them go, smiling to myself, pleased to see them connecting again. Amelia sighs heavily and I spin around. ‘What’s up, Moo?’ ‘This house is jinxed.’ ‘Don’t be silly. And don’t say things like that in front of Evie. You’ll scare her.’ ‘She’s already scared,’ shoots back Amelia, crossing her arms defensively. ‘You might love it here, but nobody else does.’ She stalks off before I can reprimand her for backchat. I’m woken in the night by footsteps outside our door. I sit up, blinking in the darkness as my eyes adjust. I’m expecting to see Evie creeping into our room, like last night. I wait, but nothing. I turn to Adrian, who is fast sleep, his mouth open, breathing deeply. Just as I begin to think I’m imagining it, I hear it again. A hushed, pleading voice now and creaking floorboards. I reach for my phone. It’s 3 a.m. ‘What’s going on?’ Adrian grunts, as I get out of bed. ‘I’m not sure but I think it’s Evie.’ I grab my dressing-gown and leave the room. Across the landing the girls’ bedroom door is wide open. They’re not in bed. Then I hear a voice from the landing below. ‘Evie, wake up!’ It sounds like Amelia. I head down the first flight of stairs. The girls are illuminated by the moonlight flooding in from the picture window and they look small in their pyjamas. ‘What’s going on?’ I hiss, when I reach them. ‘Why aren’t you both in bed?’ Amelia turns to me, her face stricken. ‘It’s Evie. She just started walking out of the room and down the stairs.’ Evie is standing outside one of the guest bedrooms, a strange look on her face. Her eyes are open, but they’re glassy, unseeing. I approach her carefully as though she’s a pony about to bolt. Gently I take her hand. ‘I think she’s sleepwalking,’ I whisper to Amelia. ‘I’m going to take her back to bed.’ Amelia looks as though she’s about to cry, but nods. Evie is trance-like and there’s something unsettling about seeing my usually animated little girl like this. I lead Evie into our bed, hoping there will be no more sleepwalking if she’s with us. She slips beneath the duvet, turns over and closes her eyes with a sigh. Adrian is oblivious. He grunts something indecipherable, then carries on snoring gently. I accompany Amelia to the girls’ room and tuck the duvet around her. ‘What happened, Moo?’ She shakes her head. She’s pale in the half-light, and clearly scared. ‘It was so weird. I woke up to see Evie opening the bedroom door. I thought she was just going into your room, you know, like she does. Then I heard creaking and knew she was going downstairs. So I followed her. But she just stood there, on the next landing, looking freaky, and then I remembered that stupid doll she found and …’ She lets out a sob. ‘Ssh. It’s okay, sweets. She was sleepwalking, that’s all.’ ‘I tried to wake her up.’ ‘You mustn’t wake her up if it happens again. Okay? Just lead her back to bed. Then come and tell me.’ Amelia sniffs. ‘She’s never done it before.’ ‘I know.’ I lie down next to her, expecting her to turf me out of her bed, but instead she huddles against me. I hold her trembling body close and stay with her until she falls asleep.


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