A Long Shadow is a multi-layered saga, set against the backdrop of the English countryside.
Watersmeet, a prosperous West Country farm, belongs to the Maddicott family. At the wedding of his cousin, Mary, in 1990, Dan Maddicott meets Kate. They marry and have two children, but their happiness and prosperity are compromised by the struggles of those close to them, and then by the arrival of BSE and foot-and-mouth disease.
Then Dan is found dead. Was it suicide? All the circumstances point to that conclusion. Kate faces two seemingly impossible tasks: how to prove it was an accident and how, when faced with many obstacles and prejudices, to take control of the farm herself.
The past casts a long shadow over the Maddicotts and a series of potentially fatal incidents occur, which appear to target Kate, for no obvious reason.
There are many inter-weaving threads to this haunting story, with different characters providing the narrative and each with their own stories. The novel spans a period of fifty years, beginning in 1943 when a young pregnant girl escapes from a mother and baby home, the significance of her fate reaching across the years.
Susan Norris lay on her narrow bed, her heart thumping so fast she could hardly breathe. She was not a brave girl, but desperation had led her to find a degree of courage and a determination that would have surprised her mother, had she been alive to care. Her body was treacherous with fatigue and she was afraid of falling asleep and once asleep, not waking till the morning reveille. Inside her coat, she shivered with fear.
It was cold in the dormitory. The blankets on the beds were meagre and many of the girls disobeyed the rules and wore overcoats over the thin, regulation nightdresses. They were not afforded the luxury of dressing gowns but as a consequence of the night raids, their coats were hung next to the lockers in case they had to take refuge in the shelters.
Those lockers contained all the possessions they were allowed to bring to Exmoor House. These were minimal and included a change of clothing for their eventual release, a face flannel, a hairbrush, a purse, which was emptied when they arrived, and a family photograph, although photographs of single men were expressly forbidden.
Susan had already packed her possessions in a small bag and concealed it under her pillow. It was so pitiably little it didn’t make much of a bulge, but Susan had her heart in her mouth when Matron made an inspection of the dormitory before bidding them good night. Susan was also fully dressed, but wrapping her coat tightly around her as she slipped from the lavatory to her bed, nobody had noticed.
As the minutes ticked slowly by and the room grew quieter, Susan prayed hard there would be no air raid that night. Not that she had any great faith in God. He hadn’t listened to her when, at the age of seven, she had prayed that her Mother wouldn’t die, or at the age of nine when she had prayed for her Father not to marry the hard–faced woman he had brought in to replace her mother; nor had He heard her when the telegram came reporting her father missing in action; nor when Franklin’s regiment left overnight; nor when her period hadn’t come. If there were an air raid, it would be difficult for her to slip away as she intended. The girls would be counted in and counted out of the shelter and if she was not there, the hunt would begin immediately and she would be brought back and punished.
Exmoor House was originally a workhouse. Part of the old stone building was used to provide shelter for the elderly too poor or infirm to take care of themselves. Faced with increasing numbers of young, unmarried, pregnant girls, particularly since the stationing of US troops in the West Country, another wing had been opened and girls were referred there from all over the region.
As if to punish them for their transgression, life in the mother and baby hostel was one long ordeal. Kept there for the six weeks up to the birth of their children, the girls worked long, hard days, scrubbing floors and staircases, washing, ironing and cooking for themselves and for the old folk. There were few enough privileges and these were removed at the slightest sign of insolence or misbehaviour. A pitiful wage was paid for the work they did but this was kept by the moral welfare worker responsible for them until their release, unless, of course, they lost it in fines in the interim.
After childbirth, their tasks become less onerous, being more related to the care and cleanliness of the nursery than the old folks. At six weeks, having loved, cared, and nurtured their little ones through the most vulnerable period of their lives, the girls were expected to hand the babies over for adoption.
It was this prospect that had driven Susan to plan her escape. She knew she would be too weak to resist the authorities who asserted it was ‘in her and her baby’s best interest’. But she knew that if she did give them her baby, it would be the worse thing she could possibly do. Scrubbing the stone staircase outside the reception room where the babies were handed over, the bitter, desperate wailing of a young mother had struck a corresponding chord in her heart. She had not lost faith in God sufficiently to believe Franklin would not get her letter and come to her aid. What would be his reaction if he discovered she had given their precious baby away?
Everyone had gone, the inquest and verdict having been exhaustively dissected. Kate Maddicott sat alone at her kitchen table, her arms resting on the scrubbed wood, her hands cradling the mug of tea her mother had pressed on her before she had, oh so tactfully, oh so thoughtfully, slipped out to head off the children.
Rattling around her brain, faster and faster, like stones in an empty vessel, the words acquired a greater and greater resonance.
Everyone was being so tactful, so thoughtful. Even Ted, even Ted. Direct, plain-speaking Ted… from the very first moment he’d brought her the news, he… everyone… groped for the right words. Antiseptic, soothing: the right words. Words that wouldn’t cause too much collateral damage, but words that hurt, hurt so badly, hurt without ending - impossible to be otherwise. The right thing to say… Nothing was right. Tactful, thoughtful – at best, at best, oh… just so inadequate…
A tune came floating from nowhere – “So ta-ctful, so thought-ful dum dum…. So ta-a-actful are they-ey to–oo-oo me-ee.”
She stopped abruptly. What was she doing? What was she thinking? What was she feeling?
‘Nothing! ‘ She shouted aloud to the empty kitchen. ‘I’m feeling …. nothing. Dan’s dead and I’m feeling nothing. Nothing! I‘ve no feeling left. I’m dead, too.’
The electric clock ticked on quietly, unhurriedly; the Aga pop-popped and gurgled deep in its belly, as it always did; and the walls, that long ago she and Dan had painted a soft yellow, glowed like a slice of lemon meringue pie in the late afternoon sun. Quietly, inexorably, the warm, welcoming kitchen had an effect on her. It impinged on the numbness that had gripped her; filled the empty vessels of her body and her mind with what felt like cold, grey clay, banishing all feeling.
She put her head on her arms and wept.
At first the grieving was a gut-wrenching animal sorrow, without shape or thought, but as she continued to weep, like fingers tracing over fresh wounds, she relived the agonies of the last few weeks. Images, graphic and painful in their detail, painted her darkness.
Ted’s face, agonised, his mouth forming and re-forming, trying to frame words that didn’t want to be articulated... ‘Girlie, I don’t know how to tell you this…it’s Dan. He’s dead. It was an accident. It must have been…’
What had she said? She couldn’t remember what she’d said. She had walked across the farmyard to greet Ted with some trivial quip about a date he’d had the night before. It was a beautiful morning and the seductive murmurings of the collar doves filled the air. At the sight of his face, everything froze. Sound stopped, senses stopped, the colour of the world bleached away.
‘It was an accident, it must have been.’ Dr Johnson, a little while later as he sat with her at the kitchen table, his fingers nervelessly pulling at the cap of his pen, trying to keep his distress under wraps. He had been present at Dan’s birth and then helped Kate give birth to Ben and to Rosie.
‘It was an accident. Daddy’s had a terrible accident.’ She couldn’t stop the awful hurt. She couldn’t kiss this pain away. At eight and six they were old enough to sense the enormity of their loss but not know how to deal with it. In Kate’s dreams, Ben’s stricken look jostled alongside Dan’s mutilated and bloodied face.
They hadn’t let her see the body. She had rushed with Ted to the edge of Sparrow Woods where they had found him, but an ambulance and a police car were already there and at the insistence of someone, she couldn’t remember who any more, she was led away and Ted went with Dan, to formally identify him, they said.
How had it happened? How? Why?
‘Why?’ Always she came back to the same point. If it was an accident, how did it happen? And if it wasn’t, why should Dan do such a thing? Why?
She was aware, after the first outpouring of sympathy, that there was doubt in many people’s minds. Great Missenwall, their village, was a small community and along with the shock and the sympathy had come the gossip and the speculation. In open discussion the emphasis was on the word ‘accident’. But Kate knew what was left unsaid - farmers aren’t in the habit of climbing stiles with cocked twelve bores, and then to trip… But the only other explanation was unthinkable.
‘Believe me, Kate, Dan would never take his own life. Never. He loved you. And he’d never, ever, do such a thing to the children. He loved them too much. Suicide is selfish. Dan wasn’t selfish. Whatever his faults, he wasn’t selfish. You know that. You must know that!’ Polly, Dan’s mother, her eyes red and swollen, her face drawn, had turned fragile overnight.
Kate knew Polly was right. The Dan she knew would never inflict such pain. Never torture them in such a way. He loved them. Of course he did. And he knew how much they loved him. He did, didn’t he?
But then she’d discovered that Watersmeet farm was struggling; that it had been for some time. She’d been aware things were getting difficult, but never… never had she imagined that Dan would have kept the extent of his debts from her.
He’d not told her.
It was a cousin, Max’s younger sister Mary, who was getting married on this day. Their father worked in the diplomatic service and so the brother and sister had been frequent visitors to the farm. From their early years they had hunted hens, dammed streams, leaped among the hay bales in the barn, spied on the farmhands, and with their hearts in their mouths, had sneaked into the yard of Woodside Farm to look with fascination at old Jem Leach’s collection of caged birds.
The Leaches had been tenants of the Maddicotts for as long as the Maddicotts had owned Watersmeet. There was little love lost between them. If the children were caught, they could expect a vicious clip round the ear followed by an angry telephone call and a ticking-off from whichever exasperated parent had been forced to collect them.
The last excursion they had ever made to Woodside was vividly imprinted on Dan’s memory. And as he watched the little bride smiling up at her new husband, Dan’s thoughts wandered back to that time when he, Max and Mary, she was about ten, had slipped into the empty yard of Woodside and crept into the gloom of the big barn where old Jem kept the large cage…
A barn owl, a buzzard, two kestrels and a falcon, all fastened by short trusses to individual perches, stared at them with angry eyes.
‘They shouldn’t be in here,’ Mary whispered. ‘It’s cruel. I can’t bear it. We must do something!’
Max was all for instant action. ‘Let’s set them free. He’s a bastard, keeping birds shut up like this. Dan, your clasp should break this lock… now… while the coast’s clear. Imagine old Jem’s face when he discovers his birds have flown!’
Dan hesitated. As he did so there was a roar of anger from the barn door.
‘What yer think yer doin’. Getaway from they birds. Little varmin. Jest wait till Oi gets thee…’ And he rushed forward. They were too quick for him.
Scattering to the left and right of the old man, they made for the door and the freedom of the yard. Out in the sunlight they pelted across its uneven, dried-mud surface, to the open gate and the safety of the woods beyond. Dan made the trees first, Max hard on his heels.
There was a cry and spinning round, Dan saw Mary stumble and trip. She had barely got to her feet when Jem, with a shout of triumph, grabbed hold of her. Max pulled Dan down into the undergrowth and dismayed, they watched Jem march a weeping Mary across the yard back into the barn.
Moments later he appeared without her and, with a triumphant lifted of his head in the direction of the woods, shouted ‘Oi’ve got thee now my little varmin. Oi’ve got yer sister under lock and key. Give thyselves up and Oi’ll let her go. No show an’ her stays there. All noight if necessary. Geddit?’
The boys got it all right.