The Child Garden by Catriona McPherson is a standalone mystery about a care home with a dark and deadly past (available September 8, 2015).
Eden was its name. “An alternative school for happy children.” But it closed in disgrace after a student’s suicide. Now it’s a care home, the grounds neglected and overgrown. Gloria Harkness is its only neighbor, staying close to her son who lives in the home, lighting up her life and breaking her heart each day.
When a childhood friend turns up at her door, Gloria doesn’t hesitate before asking him in. He claims a girl from Eden is stalking him and has goaded him into meeting near the site of the suicide. Only then, the dead begin to speak—it was murder, they say.
Gloria is in over her head before she can help it. Her loneliness, her loyalty, and her all-consuming love for her son lead her into the heart of a dark secret that threatens everything she lives for.
I’ve never thought my life was a tragedy. Not mine, not Nicky’s, certainly not Miss Drumm’s. I know other people don’t agree. I can tell what they think from the looks on their faces when they think it, with their heads tilted and their mouths dimpled in at the corners. But as far as I’m concerned, I’m lucky. I’ve got the best kind of job— important yet easy—and a son who lets me hug him and a good friend. I wish I didn’t have to shave her neck, but it’s a small price to pay. I’ve got a beautiful house and an ancient monument to tend to. How many people get that?
But when the knock came on the door that night and turned my life into an adventure, I wasn’t sorry. And if I’d known what was coming, I’d still have answered. If I’d had a crystal ball and seen the whole of my future sitting there inside it, sharp and tiny, I wouldn’t change a thing.
Work had been fine, two new bookings for offsite and no distress calls. Things went okay at the home too. Miss Drumm let me read the Margaret Atwood to her without arguing about whether it could really happen. She didn’t ask about Walter Scott, hardly mentioned the election at all, and didn’t make me go and complain to the nurses about the plug-in air fresheners, or ask me to tell them again about using a waxed jam-pot cover to stop the cocoa getting a skin on top when they came round with the supper trolley.
Quite a good visit. I like the home at that time of year, when it’s dark outside and the lamps are lit, the fire crackling. It feels like a nest; warm and dry with good things on the telly. Later in the winter when the windows have been shut for months and no one’s been out and someone’s died—because somewhere around January time, someone always dies—it starts to feel more like what it is.
“A warehouse for damaged goods,” Miss Drumm would say when she was in one of her black moods. “No good for Oxfam, no takers on eBay.”
“I’ve a good mind to list you,” I'd tell her. “See if you’re right.”
Sometimes she’d just glare at me out of her blind eyes, but sometimes she’d bark that laugh of hers. One time she asked me what I would say.
“‘Old lady. Good conversationalist but somewhat grumpy. No reserve.’”
That night, though, she was docile. When I got to the end of the second chapter, she waved a hand at me, telling me to stop.
“Are you rocking the stone?” she said.
“You really don’t have to ask every night, you know.”
“If you’re not rocking the stone, you’d be better off not living there at all,” she told me.
“What about Walter?”
She nodded, her lip trembling, then she told me to ring for the nurse and be on my way.
It was Iveta who came to answer the call bell; I passed her in the passageway.
“What’s the weather like, Glo?” she said, tipping her head towards Miss Drumm’s door.
“Light cloud with a chance of politics,” I said.
Iveta shook her head, laughing. “She’s the only one in here who still votes,” she said. “And she nags all the staff to vote. If they get in again, I don’t know if it’ll keep her alive out of pure rage or finish her off completely.”
I tried to smile but Iveta must have seen the look that flashed over my face, because she put out a hand and shook my arm, her glittery-tipped acrylics flashing in the lamplight.
“She’ll outlive us all,” she said. “Now get along there and see that angel boy.”
Nicky was in good form too. Carole had been in during the day to cut his hair, using a picture he and I had found in a music magazine. The new look suited him. He could have been in a boy band, could have had girls screaming every time he flicked the long front piece out of his eyes.
“Heartbreaker,” I told him. “That’s what your granny used to call you when you were a baby. Those big eyes and the lashes that could knock you over. ‘You’re going to break some hearts, Nicholas,’ she used to say.” He didn’t answer. “Just the one so far, eh?”
I traced the line of dark hair on his lip, making him twitch. He’d be shaving soon.
“Right,” I said. “Where were we up to? ‘My Bed Is A Boat’. ‘My bed is like a little boat, Nurse helps me in when I embark’.” Then I broke off. “Nicky?” I said. “You would tell me if you were sick of this book, wouldn’t you?”
But he was fine with it, so I carried on.
“‘She girds me in my sailor’s coat and starts me in the dark’.”
It’s always been one of my favourites, that little boy in the boat-bed, steering across the darkness with his eyes closed until morning comes again. He’s as safe and cosy as Nicky and Miss Drumm and all the other residents, tucked up with the curtains drawn and the doors locked, while the wind whips around the house and howls across the hills.
At eight o’clock, I pulled my anorak hood down close around my head with the toggles—no use even thinking of an umbrella that night—and scuttled across the gravel to my car.
It’s a single-track road to my place from the home, twisting for ten miles between nowhere and nowhere else, cattle grids every hundred yards, and unless the care workers are changing shift, you never meet a soul. I started to unwind on the way.
Tonight though, the puddles on the road were deep enough to float a car, so I stayed in the middle, clear of the worst bits, trying to look past the hypnotising wipers (Iveta was only kidding around), trying to see through the sheets of rain coming in waves (what if Miss Drumm died first?) like a tide of water washing over me, again and again (how could I even think “first”?), and the windscreen wipers ticked back and forth, shoving the water like snow in front of a plough but making no difference and—
Blinded by headlights, I felt the wheels go out as I stamped on the brake, felt that sudden weightlessness as I drifted on the skim of surface water. I braced myself, arms locked, released the brakes, then slammed them on again and felt the jolt as they bit just in time. I stopped dead and peered out of the side window at the guy’s face in the other car. It was pure white with wide eyes, just like mine must be. We stared at each other for maybe ten seconds, but neither one of us opened a door or even rolled down a window. Then I turned away. The car had stalled. I shifted to neutral, checked the handbrake, turned the key, and crawled off in second gear, shaking.
Only, in the mirror, I thought I saw him doing a turn, as if to follow me, so I shifted up to third and chanced another skid to get away. Would anyone really chase down a near-miss and start kicking off tonight? In this? It wasn’t as if I had scraped him.
I could see his headlights getting closer, starry and blurred through the rain on the back window. He really was coming after me. Well, maybe he was lost or wanted to apologise. But if he was lost, he must be a stranger and yet he was gaining on me; me who knows this road. And that was a lot of determination for an apology. I got my phone out of my bag and put it in my lap.
At the top of the hill, I paused. If I went down the track, there was no way out and no one for miles around. That was usually a good thing— the main reason I agreed to come here. Looking round on a summer’s afternoon, with the swifts wheeling and a warm breeze wafting the coconut scent of the gorse blossom in at the windows, the silence was the best bit. Like I could have been the last person alive in the world. I could scream until my eyes turned bloody and no one would try to stop me.
Tonight, though… One bar on my phone and the black night filthy and wild, and a man in a car behind me and gaining. The clever thing to do was keep driving, bump all the way to the main road and go where people were.
But I wanted to be home, to have my feet in slippers, a whisky in one hand, a book in the other, and something whirling in the microwave. So I swung onto the track and rattled over the grid, told myself I was imagining things and why shouldn’t someone else be driving this road as well as me?
I’d always been glad it was a grid instead of a gate, especially on nights like this when the wind blatted gouts of rain in every direction and the trees along the track thrashed and groaned. Sometimes the gales got so fierce they battered rocks right out of the dry stone wall, rolling them into the wheel ruts. They lay there like trolls on the track, waiting for me.
Tonight, though…I’d have taken a drenching to open a gate and shut it behind me. He was still there, but I could see the red of his taillights as well as the white of his headlights. He must be sitting right across the mouth of the lane. I trundled on, watching. Just before I turned the last bend, where the track gets narrow and rough, suddenly the lights were gone.
I blinked. They hadn’t moved off; they’d gone out. He had switched off his engine, but he was still sitting there. Or was I wrong about where the view of the road-end disappeared? That must be it. I had never driven along watching in the mirror before, had I? I was always looking forward to the sight of the house or minding out for animals. I had just driven out of sight of him—that was it—and the trees had cut off the view.
Thinking of the animals, I speeded up again, bumping and splashing in the potholes. I’d have to do something about the track this winter. Ask someone or go to the builders’ yard myself and get sacks of gravel to empty into the dips. I could drive the car over and back and tamp it down. Only, that seemed like the kind of job that would be easy with a tractor, even a little one, but hours of toil for a woman with a hatchback and a snow shovel.
It was strange to arrive with no one to greet me: the byre cats trotting through the long grass, lifting their feet like dressage ponies, tails high and waving at the tips; Walter Scott with his paws on the windowsill and his snout against the glass at the sound of the car.
No cat would be out tonight, and it had been a few weeks since Walter last smudged the window. He wasn’t in pain, the vet assured me, but if this was the final slide, it was a steep one.
Even without the animals, I felt welcomed home. Rough House was well named, but I only loved it the more. It was long and lower than it should be at the front, the ground level too high and the downstairs walls showing it with a creeping line of damp. Round the back, the hill dropped away and from here the house was gaunt and dreary. Rough indeed. It never bothered me because I knew what was inside and what the views were, but sometimes visitors’ faces would fall when they saw the tumble-down sheds and looked up at the windows, set so high that I had to stand a ladder on the concrete apron to wash even the downstairs ones. I had never washed the upstairs back windows at all, just the two of them in the guest bedrooms, slim as arrow slits. They were dappled with years of dust and rain now, bolls of insect eggs lined up along the transoms and spiders’ webs clogging every corner. I had hung lace curtains to hide the grime, and I never had guests anyway.
The noise of water teeming out of clogged gutters and pouring down the walls drowned out all other sound but, when I turned the key in the back door and opened it, both house cats were there, weaving and purring, Dorothy collapsing on her back on the doormat and looking up at me, paws waving. I stepped over them and up into the kitchen, into the oily smell of the old Rayburn cooker and the sharper stink of the old dog who lay in front of it, in his basket under the oven door, thumping his tail. He didn’t stand, and I hurried over.
“Walter?” I said, crouching down beside him. “You okay?” The tail picked up speed and he pushed his head under my hand as the cats came coiling around, trampling on his legs and nosing at me. I stood, pulled the kettle forward, and went to feed them.
Walter Scott didn’t follow me at first. I rinsed bowls and opened tins, listening, and then at last, with a rush of warmth in my chest, I heard him get to his feet and the sound of his nails on the lino as he plodded out to the scullery sink to see about his dinner.
“Don’t you dare give up on me,” I said, setting the bowl of mush down on his mat. “You’re third in the queue, and I told you that months ago.”
I put the double dish of cat food on top of the chest freezer and watched Dorothy and William spring soundlessly up and start to eat in dainty bites. Walter Scott had driven his bowl hard against the loft stairs like he always did and was slobbering and grunting at it, as though he was devouring some beast he had slain instead of a packet of the soft little nodules chosen to spare his teeth and keep his diabetes and his ancient bladder from turning on him.
Back in the kitchen, I kicked off my boots and stood in my damp socks in Walter’s basket in front of the stove, warming my hands on the kettle, waiting for it to boil. I sometimes worried about the water, drawn from a well, sitting tepid at the back of the Rayburn all day, since I couldn’t afford to let myself get ill. When the kettle was too hot to touch, I went to get the milk from the fridge down in the scullery. The cats were on the freezer top beside their clean dish, knowing I would splash some in there for them.
“Pretty things,” I said, smiling at the way they were sitting there, paws pursed in front of them, still licking their lips with that little flag of pink tongue so startling against the black of their fur. They waited as I tipped the carton, just a puddle of milk in each side—enough for a treat but not enough to upset them—and I smiled again at the way they stretched up, arching their backs, and settled dow—
My arm jolted and a spout of milk doused the freezer top. The cats scattered, streaking away, leaving the dish rattling. I caught it and held it still. Had I imagined that noise or had someone just knocked on the front door?
At the pictures, every single person in the audience, every single time, asks why that idiot woman is going to see what the noise was, why that moron is going to answer the door. And every one of them, if the same thing happened for real, would do it too. I barely paused to think, certainly didn’t pick up my phone or a poker on the way. I crept back through the kitchen and into the passageway, edged opened the glass door, and sidled out into the porch, listening.
There was no mistaking it the second time; that was a quiet but definite knock. I flicked the switch to turn the outside light on and heard the quick sound of his feet shifting. I had startled him. Him? His feet? Was I sure?
I opened the door anyway, on the chain, and put my face to the gap.
He was soaked through to the skin, standing there with his shirt plastered to him and his suit trousers clinging round his legs. His face was red now, stung ruddy by the needles of rain, but it was the same face.
“Look, I’m sorry about that up there on the road,” I said. He didn’t look angry. But if he had followed me all the way down here and splashed through the garden from wherever he’d left his car, he must be fairly bothered one way or another. “But we’re both okay, aren’t we?” I went on. “Unless you’ve got whiplash or you banged your knee. I can give you a bag of peas to put on it.”
“It is you, isn’t it?” he said. “Knickerbocker Gloria.”
It took my breath away to hear that name after all these years. When I got it back again I was laughing.
“How do you know that?”
“You don’t recognise me,” he said. So I looked closer, past the bald head and the beer belly, past the dress shirt and the suit trousers, past the glasses covered in raindrops. I looked right into his eyes.
“Stig of the Dump!” I said and closed the door to undo the chain, let him in out of the rain.
Copyright © 2015 Jeff Smith.
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Catriona McPherson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and is the author of the Dandy Gilver historical mystery series, which was nominated for a Macavity Award in 2012.