Prologue – Rachel

My mother met my father while they were in college. She was studying English and had always had a religious leaning. He was studying animal husbandry and was from an ultraconservative Christian fringe group. I don’t know if my mother was ever really attracted to my father himself or rather to the discipline of his upbringing. Mind you i’ve picked up a lot of what I know second hand from Auntie Jen so it’s been translated through the filter of her disapproval before it ever reached me.

Fundamentally though I think my mother had always been one of those people who really like being told what to do; and I have found some humour over the years thinking about all the other ways that might have worked out for her. As it was though she met my father while they were in college, and the rest, as they say, is history. Her history anyway I guess – only the first part of mine.

We were an exclusive group so the community was very small and everyone knew everyone else. Much like any other childhood I imagine, it is hard to explain how ordinary mine seemed when growing up inside it. At that time I wasn’t much of a creative thinker, I suspect some people would say that is still the case, and looking back I must have been fairly blinkered. So I happily recited the passages, bared my soul before God, and learned the ways of my divinely determined path toward domestic drudgery. My education wasn’t very academic. It focussed more on subjects like cookery, and home management, and the Bible – there was always the Bible. That was what it was going to be important apparently for a girl growing up in a mostly forgotten leftover exclave of the nineteenth century.

Back then Sarah was invariably at the centre of our games and schemes. She was full of energy and always up to something. In any conversation you felt you had her undivided attention and were the most important thing in the world. I idolised her and cherished each moment of her company but the three year age gap between us seemed like a chasm in those days and I couldn’t really have called her a friend. She was the oldest of our little set because there was a clear distinction cut between children and adults. As we children grew up our eldest would each in turn drop out of our society into the grown up world and, at the time i’m thinking of, Sarah was next in line.

Girls tended to be married young and it was pretty much taken for granted that it would be Ben who was matched with Sarah. He was a couple of years older than her and the families were close. She seemed to like him and they were always smiling at each other and finding, or being tactfully given, time to talk. It all seemed to be going well for them but then Jacob Tulley’s wife died and he was left a widower at thirty five.

The wedding was strange and even to a child it was obvious there was no joy to it. Jacob was dressed as well as he could be, in a suit which was tighter now than it had been when he last wore it, and Sarah pale and silent. All day she looked as if she was about to be sick. Even the elders of the community presiding over the ceremony were sombre while the ritual was completed. It was a sunny day in mid spring and afterwards Hannah, Ginny and I sat at the end of one of the long tables which had been placed out on the lawn.

I was watching some of the younger children chasing each other around between the trees. They were playing a hiding and chasing game which I could still remember although it looked as if the rules had changed since I had played. It seemed to me as if something vital was seeping out of the world and I felt ill and scared. Glancing over at another table I found my mother looking across at me and our eyes met. There was a long pause while neither of us would, or could, look away but after a time the moment passed.

My spirits remained subdued over the following months. Sarah had, as expected, disappeared into the world of adults and was no longer one of us. We all felt her loss I think, but isn’t it hard to tell how much you colour your impressions through your own experience, it could have been just me. Presumably she was trying to build her way into a home in the shadow of Joanne Tulley’s death and she can’t have been prepared for it, who could be.

The next thing I can really remember is the night she hanged herself. The story, pieced together in retrospect from ghosts and whispers, was that she’d gone upstairs to put the girls to bed and when she didn’t come back down Jacob went up to check everything was ok. He had found her strung up from a beam in their bedroom.

So the ambulance took her away. Some of the men, although strangely not Jacob, were dispatched along with Sarah’s mother to speak to the doctors, presumably to the police as well, and when they returned word was quickly sent around that Sarah had left us in hospital. Naturally as suicide was a terrible sin there would be no funeral. She just ceased to exist.

This was a shock to all of us, children and adults alike, but I think it hit me particularly hard. As I said before I had really looked up to Sarah and it was horrifying to see her, I don’t know how to say it even now, erased? excised? I was at a loss to understand how she had been turned from what she had been into the absence she had become and I lacked the tools I needed to cope with the grief.

Only a few weeks after that, without any warning, I was sent to stay with my mother’s sister on her farm in the west country. I never really got a proper explanation of why but when I try to pick it apart now my best guess is that recent events must all have acted as a bit of a wake up call for my mother. I picture her forced to consider how different things were for women like her, who had married into the community as adults, to how they were going to be for those of us who were growing up with it.

So I was fourteen years old and i’d been turned into an outsider. It took quite a while before I was grateful for that final gift. Final because I have never seen or spoken to any of them since. They aren’t allowed, it’s called the doctrine of separation.

Prologue – Ray

Life with Auntie Jen was hard to come to terms with at the start. For the first couple of days I barely dared leave my room and Jen brought me up plates of food which I picked at dejectedly. She was the single mother of my twin cousins who were just starting higher education, Michael at agricultural college and Stephen studying business management. It was October and the harvest was all in but there was still a lot of tidying and pruning to be done in the orchards before winter, so they were all out working on that most of every day.

As this left the house empty I crept out to explore. Peeping into the boys rooms the musty scent of male adolescence made my nose wrinkle and the women in the posters on the walls left me shocked, scandalised, and fascinated. I gravitated eventually to the big farm kitchen, which was the most comfortable and familiar place, and that is where Jen found me when she came in for her lunch. She decided it was time to sit down with me and work out what we were going to do.

We made sandwiches and tea and then sat at the table and ate. Auntie Jen was patient, considerate and above all practical. She must have had the situation sprung on her with almost as little notice as I had, but she took it in her stride and this didn’t even cross my mind at the time as I am sure she had intended. She went out of her way to make it clear to me that I was family, that they were happy to have me with them, and that my room was my own safe space where nobody would go without invitation.

Jen said most of her time was taken up with managing the farm and that it had been difficult for her having to bring up the boys as well. They were old enough now though to look after themselves largely speaking and were even taking over some of the farm work so she could make time for me now that I needed it. She also said she’d decided to keep me out of school for the year and spend some money on a private tutor instead.

I tried to take all of this in. Up to that point i’d been assuming that sooner or later i’d be going back home but that wasn’t compatible with the way she was talking. So I thanked her and told her how sorry I was to be a burden and explained that I didn’t know why my mother and father had sent me away.

She was quiet while she chewed up another bite of her sandwich and sipped her tea. After she’d finished she said reasonably that she didn’t think it was so much about sending me away. Probably it was more about giving me an opportunity to see another side of the world and that she was pleased to be able to help me with that. This was an angle I had not considered and it was my turn to fall silent as I mulled that over.

We talked a while longer. Somehow over the course of our conversation we had started to become friends. After that she wanted to know if there was anything I needed right away so I asked her how to turn on the television and she laughed at that but she showed me.

Back in my room I went through the drawers, Jen had stocked them with clothes she thought would fit me, mainly hand-me-downs from my cousins. Wearing boys clothes seemed initially quite odd to me although i’d discover that on the farm, and around the farm kids at school (when I eventually went the following autumn) I didn’t stand out at all.

That afternoon I was sat watching the television, more with bemusement than enjoyment, when the boys came storming home. I’d changed into jeans and a tee-shirt to try to get into the swing of things.

“Hello little mouse! Hey Mike! The little mouse has come out and she’s got your old top on!” This from Stephen who was generally the louder and less diplomatic of the two.

“Give the mouse a break Steve,” said Michael, “She’s had a tough enough week without you taking the piss.”

“And i’m not a mouse.” I said with an edge of indignation, “I’m Rachel.”

They looked at each other, “The mouse roars!” said Steve and they both giggled while I stared between them not sure whether to be annoyed or not.

“No offence Ray,” said Mike slumping onto the sofa.

“Yeah no offence Ray,” said Steve, “but you must admit you’ve been a bit of a mystery so far.”

I sighed, I had to concede the point, “Yes I suppose so, but this is all very new to me you know.”

Mike nodded, “Mum said it’s a bit different where you’re from.”

Then he went and got us cans of something fizzy from the fridge and I watched the two of them play video games. When Auntie Jen put her head around the door a while later the boys were crouched next to each other on the sofa locked in mortal combat and I was curled up on one of the armchairs nursing my cola and laughing at some of the smacktalk they had been exchanging between them. I looked around still smiling and caught her eye and in that second I think she must have had some hope that it would work out ok.

It wasn’t all easy of course. I had nightmares for a while and to my mortification I wet the bed twice. My tutor despaired at the state of my education but in the end, through great perseverance on both of our parts, she managed to coach me up enough that I could join the lower sets in secondary school the following year. It must have cost Jen a fortune and though I wasn’t really aware of the details at the time I had a growing appreciation for how much she was doing for me. My strongest aptitude was definitely for mathematics and I took to it well, tearing through the ground I had to make up.

Over that first year my view of my previous life changed quite dramatically. Obviously I started by missing the place and the people, especially my parents and my brothers, and some days I wished the radio and the television would just shut up for a while. I fled to the tranquility of my room plenty of times.

Gradually though several things began to change my perspective. I started to learn more from my tuition and realise how much there was to know about the world. I picked up a games controller and i’ll tell you the day I first beat Mike fair and square was a day neither of us will forget in a hurry – he was so proud. Steve taught me to drive the quad bikes we used for getting around on the farm which i’m still not quite sure was legal at my age. I started with the kickboxing club the boys went to as well.

All of these opportunities were there for me and, as my horizons broadened, my thoughts when I looked back were increasingly coloured by anger rather than nostalgia. Sometime around then I stopped praying and I have never really felt guilty about that.

I made it through two years of school not too distracted by the social side – I had come in a little late to make the deep bonds that my classmates already had between them. I knew a few of them from kickboxing though and we got on well enough. Then I left school with the grades I needed to go on to college and there took qualifications in working with computers. With my methodical approach to things and my mathematical mind I’d taken to that kind of practical logic very well.

After leaving college I didn’t have a lot of luck finding work locally so I worked around the farm for a few months before bumping into one of my former college teachers, Mrs Graham, in the village one day. She was semi-retired after a career in London, and after we got talking and I told her how things were going she suggested she might be able to put my name forward to some people she still knew in the industry. A few weeks later following some emails back and forth and a half hour Skype call I found myself on a train on the way to my first job interview.

Part 1 – Seeing a Ghost

I kicked out with my trainers against the floor pushing my chair back. Then, straightening my legs to lift my feet off the floor, I let myself coast until my head bumped gently against the plasterboard wall behind me. Standing up I reached forward snapping shut the lid of my laptop and yanking out the leads. My concentration had been slipping for a while now and it was time to call it game over for the day with, to be honest, less progress than I had been hoping. But hey sometimes those are the breaks.

As I packed up and put on my jacket over my plain black tee-shirt I glanced around and noticed that half of the twenty or so desks in the office were empty already. Not really a huge surprise though that late on a Friday afternoon.

“See you guys next week.” prompted in response a couple of hands loosely waved in the air and some vague mumbling from those engaged enough with the reality beyond their screens to register that I had spoken. Andy, ever the informal social secretary of the single crowd, looked over from his seat in the next row of desks down.

“Hey Ray, a few of us are heading out for drinks if you fancy?”

I weighed the offer for a moment but i’d taken up the invitation a couple of times recently so my work camaraderie credit was well stocked and it had been a long week.

“No, i’ll give it a miss thanks, i’ve got something else on.”

He shrugged and waved his hand in the classic ‘whatever’ gesture which in a way conveyed more casual acceptance than an hour of smalltalk in the pub around the corner would have done. I was pleased with that. Having only been on the team for six months, and moreover being the only woman, it was still feeling good to be getting these occasional reminders that I had settled in.

The tube was packed as usual but running smoothly. I was travelling late enough that the commuter traffic was starting to die down and the more colourful crowd coming out for their evening’s entertainment were well represented. In fact by the time I stepped off at the mainline station there were as many people trying to board the carriage as there were leaving it. The formal dance of savvy London regulars was keeping everything running as neat as could be. On the station concourse though it was a different story. As soon as I came up the steps I ran into a crowd standing where no crowd should have been and my heart sank.

I maneuvered around to where I had a view of the departure boards and could see there was a long list of delays and cancellations. By hovering a few feet from one of the staff and listening in while he was interrogated by a couple of obnoxious alpha males I established that a train had come off its rails outside the station and was blocking the line.

I’d been working in the city long enough now to have been through a few of these delays so, fearing the worst, ducked into a shop to pick up a ready meal for dinner. Then I found space to stand in a dead spot between the traffic flows where I could keep an eye on the boards while I read a few pages of my current book. Actually in the end it wasn’t too long before the issue apparently cleared and I saw a train on my line flash up so I started picking my way through the crowd to the platform.

And that is when it happened. The chaotic flow of the crowd thinned and separated briefly in front of me for just a moment and perhaps ten metres away I caught sight of a face. The woman was walking at an angle to me toward the station exit and even as my eyes re-focused, trying to zero in for a better look, the crowd closed again and she was gone. For a moment all I could be sure of was that I had seen someone from my past, much older now but still recognisably the same person, then my mind caught up abruptly and served fully formed the context, the memories, and the name. I froze there, taken aback. After some time I became aware I was standing there in the crowd like an annoying island, being bumped, jostled and occasionally sworn at by the tide of people trying to make their way past me to the platforms. I pushed myself back into motion to catch my train.

Forty minutes later I was climbing the communal stairs up to my flat. Unlocking the door I thumbed in the code to switch off the alarm and dumped my messenger bag and the flimsy Marks and Spencer bag containing my dinner onto the side in the kitchen. After checking through the post I turned on the oven then stripped off my clothes and took a shower. I worked some shampoo through my short hair, rinsed it back out again, dried off, and changed into tracksuit bottoms and one of my more comfortable long sleeved tops.

The oven was up to heat by then so I chucked the lasagne in and mixed a dressing into the salad leaves. Pre-prepared foods still seemed decadent but after getting in late on a Friday they were an acceptable means to an end. Plus as a bonus the food had come with a pack of four little beers included and I felt a definite need for one of two of those.

After I had eaten I lay back on the sofa with a beer in my hand. There was some quiet music playing out of my phone through its base station in the corner of the room. Nothing I could remember hearing before, something Spotify had drifted onto based on a tune I probably fed it weeks ago. A clear thin voice sang about reaching for the moon.

I stretched out and released a deep breath. My excuse to Andy earlier had been a white lie and I’d had no plans other than an evening to myself. In fact aside for a couple of hours of training tomorrow I would be on my own all weekend. I’d only moved into the city when I landed my job in the spring and although I was determined to make it work I was still a country girl at that time so after a week surrounded by people all day I needed some serious downtime.

I’d had a little while to process my odd experience at the station earlier and rationalise it away. With so many people around you were bound to see someone who looked familiar once in a while after all. Anyway it couldn’t have been Sarah, because that was a hundred miles away and a long time ago, and besides anything else Sarah had died. I finished my beer and went off to bed.