Isolated in our rooms except when questioned by DI Kate, time passes slowly as the rain tumbles down. There is unexpected good news. Jeri is out of danger and it was not poison, rather a rare allergy to the Mozambique toffee used in the desert and Jeri is due to rejoin us in a few days. So we are back to two deaths and we cling to the hope that maybe it can all be innocently explained. We all have our theories and Matilda’s astute observations of us has led her to focus her suspicions on one member of the group. Oh foolish woman! That evening on the stairs she tells one of our group of her conclusions and that she plans to share her thoughts with the lovely Kate first thing in the morning. A terrible mistake indeed.
The next morning one person is missing at breakfast – Matilda. There is a frantic search and she is found dead in the drying room, cooked to death with the temperature set at maximum and the door jammed shut. With her own blood and in her dying moments she has managed to scratch one word on the inside of the drying room door. The police will not reveal that fatal word; at least now they have a real clue and we must put aside our childish hopes of an innocent explanation and accept that we have a cold blooded murderer, perhaps a lunatic, in our midst.
Tentative connections emerge. Ralph worked with the US military in Australia. Jean was in the Australian army. Mel was a crack investigative war journalist in Iraq and Afghanistan before choosing a quieter and slower life in Western Australia. Jenny says that Bruce had army connections, but this proves untrue; why has Jenny tried to shift attention to good old Bruce? Denise has come to Australia from South Africa and there are whispers of dark secrets but she divulges nothing. Has Jeri deliberately staged her seizure to distract us all from the truth, for she also has wandered the world and is a mathematical whizz. More details are unearthed of Ralph’s undercover military work across the globe and Kate understands that it his death which is the key and that the other deaths resulted from saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person. It is in Ralph’s history that the answer must lie.
And at night time she walks and talks with Will and the passion which never died is rekindled in the moonlight as we wait in fear, the old grandfather clock in the front parlour measuring out our time.
The concluding episode is upon us …
We creep down to breakfast, dreading what we may find. Jeri is clinging to life in intensive care, Jenny has returned from one of her mysterious absences and nobody else has been harmed during the night. We sniff suspiciously at our food and drink and eat only what is sealed and presumably safe. Tempers fray. David is ordered to stop writing his damned notes and Matilda to stop observing us like ants in an ant farm.
The police arrive, led by DI Kate McCuddley with her piercing blue eyes and her steely gaze and we are instructed to stay in our rooms and await questioning. Our hotel is sealed off.
Nor is the drama over yet! The DI announces that the autopsy showed that Maggie had been poisoned! Foxglove poisoning! What a cunning method. We look at each other open-mouthed and struggle to recall who had spoken before of foxglove as a poison. It is Denise and our eyes turn towards her as she protests her innocence. Jean, Jeri and Mel also had displayed impressive botanical knowledge, not to forget Will himself. And had not Jean argued with Ralph? We have our suspects and we draw away from them.
But there is more!
Will walks into the dining room and he and Kate see each other and reel back in shock, their faces pale. For what seems like hours, both are speechless and then the truth is revealed. Will and Kate had been inseparable childhood friends and then young lovers deep in the remotest part of Scotland: soul mates who should have been together for ever. But young Will yearned to be the first person to swim around the world non-stop and Kate wanted to move to the big city to fight for fairness and justice and to make the world a better place and so they parted and have not seen each other lo, these many years though always they had kept a secret part of their heart for the other and lived with the regret of ‘if only’.
Destiny has flung them together again.
Will their old love be rekindled? Will they seize this second chance of happiness?
Will any of us survive this dreadful walk?
Who is the crazed killer?
Read on, dear reader …
We await the police, too shocked to speak. One accident was bad, two deaths is beyond belief. Though we have no reason to suspect foul play, the police will deliver the body for a routine autopsy, we start to look at each other a little askance, a little fearfully.
What is going on in our little group?
Two dear companions dead.
Jenny vanished for two days.
Now Rod and Wally are leaving our shrinking group.
David scribbling notes under the pretence of writing a Gothic tale of the group.
Surely now the walk must be abondoned, if only out of respect, but no. Will insists that we must go on; the Company (unbelievably) has offered a big discount for our troubles (perhaps to keep our mouths shut and to avoid bad publicity?) and anyway, perhaps Ralph and Maggie would have wanted us to struggle on? Maybe we are simply too stunned to resist? It is agreed and off we trudge.
Where once we were 12, now we are 7 on a long walk to Keld through squelchy moors. The wind is brisk as we climb up past the Nine Guardians and onwards across the lonely moors, half expecting to see the tormented spirits of Cathy and Heathcliff wandering before us, this being the heartland of their tragic love and the perfect setting for our own horrors.
Will is looking more harassed each day as once more we plod into a village to find the cafe promised to be open and once more shut for some unknown reason: are we cursed that we can never find a place open for lunch? No matter what day of the week or what village we stumble into, all is closed for that particular day. What tricks is England playing on us?
At dinner that night, lightning flickering and thunder threatening outside our solitary inn, Jeri is persuaded to try that fine old English dessert, namely, sticky toffee pudding. She has one mouthful, a second and falls to the ground clutching at her throat, gasping for breath, her face white. She is dying before our very eyes! An ambulance is called, Will springs into action and miraculously she is kept alive until she is taken to hospital in a swirl of siren. And then silence.
This can be no accident. We cannot deny it any longer. There is a killer at large and that person must be one of us! The hotel is sealed off under police orders and we are told to stay in our rooms and await the big guns being called in from Manchester. We scurry to our rooms, all of us placed in singles now, and lock our doors. Each of us lies awake as the storm rages and each one of us ponders ‘who is the killer?’ and ‘will I be next?’ as we listen for the sound of our door being opened in the night and the flash of a blade or –
To be continued …
What seems hours later, there is a window in the weather and the rescue helicopter arrives and poor Ralph’s body is whisked away. We try to console Maggie as we wind our way down to Shap. Nobody eats or sleeps that night and our petty grievances are lost in grief for our poor companion. What a dreadful accident.
At breakfast the next day, Maggie declares that we must go on, that Ralph would want us to continue and to fulfil his dream of completing the Coast to Coast. Afterwards she will return and collect his body, take him back to the USA and have his ashes scattered over the Grand Canyon. We agree to push on; it is a joyless day of hiking despite the glorious sunshine and the pleasures of slogging through boggy pasture after boggy pasture and stepping carefully between great piles of cow and sheep manure. Stile after stile do we clamber over.
The group is losing its identity: Bruce and David are no longer speaking; Denise the gazelle walks solitary far ahead of the herd; Jean has let slip that once she was in army intelligence and now refuses to say more; Mel complains that at breakfast they gave her activated almond milk instead of soya; Rod appears out of nowhere, walks with us for a time and disappears again with a bizarre story that he and Wally are going to see a Shakespeare play and Jeri tries to explain differential calculus to the stragglers.
At dinner that night Maggie wonders how Ralph could have fallen. She knows it must have been an accident and yet it seems so improbable: Ralph was an adventurer, a mountaineer and trekker who had even lived in the wilds of outback Australia. She knows it was a horrible accident in dreadful weather and yes, he was a risk taker bounding from boulder to boulder and yet – so she will go to the police tomorrow in Kirkby Stephen and get them to double check re the possibility of foul play. ‘It is silly, I know, but I will rest easier’.
The next day there is no Maggie or Jenny at breakfast. Jenny has complained of a sore foot and disappeared for the weekend to find a doctor; a tad strange, but we shrug and accept. Maggie, the poor thing, must be overwhelmed with grief. It comes time to leave and still no sign so Will knocks on her door; no answer, they force the door open and – oh no! – there lies sweet Maggie stone cold dead! She has died in bed of a broken heart. Romantic, of course, very Juliet or Lady of Shalott and we stand dumbstruck that this can happen still in our post modern world.
What on earth is happening in our little world?
To be continued …
It was a dark and stormy night when first our little group met in Saint Bees – actually it was not; it was a mild and pleasant evening when we gathered for dinner, met our guide Will and introduced ourselves. There were 12 of us from across the globe: one couple, two good friends travelling together and an array of singletons. With one eye on the World Cup final being played that night, we chatted and inspected each other. Was a future soul mate present? Or someone who would become a true friend long after our 13 day hike had ended? Someone to whom we had taken an immediate dislike? Our ruggedly handsome leader outlined what we could expect in the coming days and we toddled off to bed ready for our big adventure.
If only we had taken more seriously the ominous local newspaper headline so evocative of the film The Birds (attached image)!
The first 2 days passed pleasantly in weather fair and foul, yet already cliques were forming and tensions rising beneath our middle class politeness. Bruce complained that his roommate David expected tea and biscuits in bed every morning. Jean and Ralph had a heated argument on whether the lesser spotted Caledonian wood warbler was the same as the Antipodean speckled pond splasher and dark looks were exchanged. Will had been seen wandering at night tearing at his hair and muttering to himself. Could Maggie really be so sweet? Seriously? What were Rod and Wally whispering about? Jeri and Denise complained and brooded over why they were exiled from the group to different accommodation every night. All of us groaned each time Will encouraged us with ‘it is just around the corner, about 200 metres, well no more than 400, certainly less than 600 and definitely not a km’.
And Matilda observed and said nothing (name changed to protect the innocent).
It was on the third day that disaster struck! The weather turned wild as we neared the summit, the wind howling from the very depths of hell and the wind lashing our faces as we clung to the narrow path and slithered and slid our precarious way forward. Will shouted that ‘it will be better just over the hill’ and we pushed on. Then a scream of terror! One of us has fallen! Can they have survived falling onto the rocks far below? Will calls Mountain Rescue on his emergency beacon and we hear Maggie’s heart rending sobs. It is her beloved Ralph who has plunged into the darkness. We call to him, no reply. We huddle and wait, shocked and scared as the rain chills us to our very bones.
To be continued …
I have just completed the iconic Coast to Coast walk across England, starting at the Irish Sea and ending 13 days later at the North Sea after crossing the hills of the Lakes District, the Yorkshire Dales and the North Yorkshire moors. I walked with a guided group, a change from my usual solitary expeditions, and was very pleased with that decision as it was a lovely little group led by an excellent guide.
Walking one day with my thoughts drifting to writing as is often the way, it occurred to me that a walking group would make a perfect setting for a traditional style murder mystery in which the drama unfolds in a closed community with a defined group of characters – an isolated manor house, an island or a monastery and so on.
Lost in my reverie, I decide to use the next ten days to write a murder mystery based on the group with whom I was walking; some would live, some would die, one would be a murderer and many would have dark secrets revealed. Just for fun.
I checked with the group and all were happy for me to do this; indeed, my writing the little story became an object of conversation each night as people tried to guess/learn what was happening and what was their individual fate! I read the story to the group on our last evening and received permission to put an expanded version on my blog and to use people’s names, except one or two cases where individuals preferred me to use fictional names.
So let the story of love and death, of secrets and raw human emotion begin in the coming days, one episode at a time…
It is as if Lucy has stepped out and is expected home any moment, for Tom has changed nothing in the house since the day of her death. It is a shrine to her memory.
Her clothes hang in the wardrobe, her shoes remain lined up in their grey wooden rack and her perfume and cosmetic bottles hold guard in the bathroom. The book she was reading lies open on the bedside table on her side, the one closest to the window overlooking the rear courtyard, and her iPad lies, battery flat for many years, on the dressing table where oft she sat and did her makeup while he watched and they talked of the day.
He has moved her bike from the entrance hall, but only to bring it upstairs to his study so that he can gaze upon it as he writes.
Tom knows it is all a bit “Miss Haversham”, but has rejected the pleas of his friends to change. He has no heart for it.
Tom is not mad. He knows the boundaries. He has not clothed her dressmakers dummy and danced with it at night, nor does he set out meals for her each day.
If, however, he can bring her back to life through the strength of his love, what might making a shrine achieve?
Now, after meeting Anika and returning home to Brusnwick, Lucy persuades him that it is time to change. Baby steps maybe, but steps all the same. The photos on the stairs walls they will not touch. The photos on the bedside tables they will not touch, nor her perfumes or the half empty bottle of her shampoo in the shower.
He does agree to donate some of her clothes to charity and to give away her shoes and collection of her trademark cloaks to a vintage shop run by Clarissa. He keeps her dresses with special memories and the crimson shoes she wore the day they wed, reluctantly agreeing to move them to the spare room.
He feels empty afterwards and barely listens when Lucy whispers that next he must rearrange the furniture and throw out the old fashion magazines still cluttering her work table, scissors and tape where she left them that last morning of her dashing out with a kiss and a wave and a slam of the rusty gate.
One step at a time.
Anika is walking in long summer twilight, pacing out to the old ruined church and back through the village to the cluster of houses high in the fields and farms to the east of Ovraby. She sends startled hares running and catches a glimpse of a deer and her young.
She ponders possibilities, future scenarios of this woman from a foreign land living in this small community: never quite belonging because she is a foreigner and yet almost accepted since she married a Swede and speaks Swedish fluently. She is inside and outside, belonging and not belonging and feeling this is a metaphor for her life.
Will she become the local eccentric living alone, not perhaps with a cat, but still a figure of curiosity and sorrow?
Will she stay the tragic figure who lost her husband and chose never to love again? Who chose to remain childless and alone?
Will she stay on the track which presently runs her life and be the successful career woman travelling to and fro, retaining her house in Ovraby though rarely seen and become a figure of envy and respect amongst the village folk?
Doe she have the courage to roll the dice with Tom, that lost soul from the other side of the world who still speaks with the spirit of his dead wife, for Heaven’s sake?
Tom completes his pilgrimage in Santiago and attends the traditional and, for many, emotionally compelling pilgrim mass in the cathedral.
Personally I was unmoved by the experience, albeit I was interested in the rituals and the profound effect on members of the congregation.
Now I admit that I am teasing because I do not wish to give the plot away too much and want you to read the entire novel in a one night sitting, unable to tear yourself away even for a moment, when it appears.
Suffice it to say here that Tom has met the man whom he holds responsible for the tragedy of his life and who is waiting for Tom in the cathedral and seeking absolution.
What is the personal responsibility for an unconscious action, a moment of carelessness which changes lives forever?
How do we forgive someone who has changed our life irrevocably?
How do we learn to forgive ourselves?
Why do we blame ourselves for matters when the rational part of our brain knows that we are innocent of any culpability?
Is it not fascinating how we constantly rewrite and reframe our pasts until we have a narrative which suits us and fits the person we have become: perhaps more accurately, the person we would have liked to become?
How will Tom respond to this plea for help?
What does Lucy think of Tom’s response to this figure from his past?
What has Tom learned from his pilgrimage walk?
Anika is in Ovraby (or is she?) and Tom is continuing his pilgrimage to Santiago after they have parted in Astorga with a commitment to meet again in one year. Remember?
He arrives at the famed Cruz de Ferro high in the mountains of Leon with the fossil he has carried with him from Australia and which he will leave at the cross as tradition demands and as his heart desires. It is a moment long anticipated, albeit he has never been able to explain to Lucy, whose spirit walks by his side, what he expects from the action. He is disappointed with the banality of the site; the milling crowds, the noise and the incessant snapping of photos for Instagram or Facebook or whatever. He drops his fossil on the pile of stones and flees.
We do not gain self knowledge or become reconciled by following the crowd or performing rituals simply because others do and certainly we do not attain forgiveness, let alone self-forgiveness, through placing one stone on top of another.
Lucy knows this.
Tom will learn this.
Confession time: I performed the same ritual with the same result two years ago.