A twisty and propulsive read, this dark psychological thriller of sibling rivalry, love, betrayal, and the dire consequences of family fallout brilliantly plays on our fears of loneliness and abandonment, harkening to the modern gothic bestsellers by Ruth Ware and Liz Nugent.
Is a story ever just a story?
Mac, a retired academic and writer, is working on a new collection of folktales, inspired by local legends, and at the insistence of her only child, Arthur, she hires a young assistant, Lucie, to live in a cottage on her property and help her transcribe them. What Arthur doesn’t know is that his mother is determined to keep the secrets of her past from ever being discovered. And what Mac doesn’t know is that Lucie has a few complicated secrets of her own.
The creaking presence of an ancient water mill next to Mac’s property that used to grind wheat into flour serves as an eerie counterpoint for these two women as they circle warily around each other, haunted by the local legend of two long-dead sisters, ready to point accusing fingers from the pages of history.
This atmospheric page turner evocatively gives voice to the question: What happens when you fall in love with the wrong person?
I’D FORGOTTEN ABOUT the girl. Her email had suggested a vague time of arrival, but I’d been struggling with a particularly vexing passage and I opened the door wearing my face. Arthur named it that: my face. I suppose it’s a mixture of cross and vacant. Cross because my train of thought has been derailed, and vacant because my mind is still somewhere in the Middle Ages, and not here, on the doorstep, glaring at this scared-looking girl.
“Take your hands out of your pockets. If the dogs see your hands in your pockets they go berserk. They think you’re about to dish out doggie treats. Basically you’re asking to be mugged.”
At my warning, the girl drops her hands to her sides like an obedient soldier. What a glum little thing she is, pasty, with dark hair scraped back in a most unbecoming fashion. She seemed larger when I’d interviewed her—more presence, more spark. “I’m looking for a girl Friday,” I’d said, and she’d replied, “Well, I’m a Friday kind of girl.” Quite snappy, I’d thought.
“It’s Lucie,” she reminds me.
I try to rearrange my expression into something more welcoming. I do remember. Lucie with an ie. Pretentious. Why don’t parents give their offspring good earthy names like Arthur? I step out into the chilly air. The rain has stopped but I can still smell it. The girl looks bemused. The dogs wag and sniff her shoes and Floss jumps up. Black trousers, never a good idea.
“Stop that, you silly bitch.”
The girl, Lucie with an ie, looks at me with a glint of fire, and I’m relieved that she isn’t as defeated as she looks.
“Talking to the dog, dear, not you. Black’s not a great color round here. You’ll see every damn dog hair on it.” I lock the front door behind me and pocket the key. “Now, I’m putting you in the Miller’s Cottage. We have spare rooms, of course, but I like my space. No offense.”
She follows me back down the driveway. For a few moments all I can hear is the irritating grind of her suitcase wheels on the gravel. It’s colder than I’d imagined, and I regret not pausing to grab my coat. I belt my old gray cardigan tightly under the bust with my arms. The dogs shoot off toward the road, scattering leaves and birds in every direction. I slow to let Lucie catch up and the suitcase trundle softens a bit.
“Now, usually I rent the Miller’s Cottage out to writers and the like, reclusive types, but I can’t be arsed with all the cleaning. Do you like cleaning, Lucie?”
She opens her mouth like a goldfish.
I wave a hand. “No matter. Cleaning may or may not become one of your duties. Did we discuss duties? No? Well, I think we’ll just play it by ear. You can take tomorrow off. Get acclimatized.”
We reach the road. I yell at the dogs, but the wind’s getting up and they pretend not to hear. The wind sends them crazy. They gallop straight across the road. Good job it’s quiet. They know where they’re going, of course—down the track that leads to the mill. As always, an image of Jim looms large in my mind. I hug my cardigan more tightly.
“This path used to be the main road to the next parish, many moons ago.” I glance across the boundary wall. The view is as familiar to me as my morning newspaper, but still it’s stunning: all that sky, purple with rain, and the plowed field and the sea on the horizon. On sunny days it sparkles like diamonds. Today it’s black and sluggish. I breathe in the rich aroma of cow dung. Seagulls wheel overhead and squeal like cats, or babies. Jim always thought they sounded like babies.
“It’s lovely,” Lucie says. I look down at her feet. She’s wearing those fashionable sneakers. No support, or a single bit of damp-proofing.
“You’ll need boots round here,” I say. “Gets a bit boggy after rain. There’s a bundle of old wellies in the cottage. Feel free.”
The track opens up into the mill den. The cottage occupies prime position at the entrance to it, built on a gentle rise. Low and long and white, I have always seen it as a yappy little terrier, a watchdog, while down near the edge of the stream the old mill slumbers, a sleeping dragon. I steel myself not to look at the place. We march past the front of the cottage, the front-door key having been lost a long time ago, until we come to the tradesmen’s entrance at the rear. A pergola of trailing ivy forms a shelter over the back door, and there’s an old wooden bench against the wall. I rummage through a pile of gravy bones in my cardigan pocket in search of the key. Immediately, all three dogs appear, noses moist with anticipation.
“You can take this key, I have a spare.”
The back door scrapes across the stone floor like a wet sweeping brush. The place smells damp and mushroomy. Sometimes I leave a window open to air the place, but the ivy encourages the sparrows, and they’re a bloody nuisance. I’m always afraid they’ll find their way in and crap all over the curtains.
“So the phone signal isn’t great, I’m told. Can’t stand all that technical nonsense. I believe you can get the Wi-Fi. My son, Arthur, sees to that kind of thing.”
The dogs skitter into the house, fanning out in all directions, while I lead the girl at a steadier pace through narrow, stone-flagged passages, past baskets of logs and kindling and wellies lined up on newspaper. The kitchen is big and bright, although I notice Lucie shiver. She’s looking around the place, taking in the oak beams and the shelf with all its old jars and bottles.
“You can do what you want with the place, within reason,” I say. I’m thinking cushions and throws. The young people like their comfort. “Go easy on the candles, though. I had a woman in here set my curtains on fire.”
Lucie narrows her eyes. They are gray and rather bleak. “No candlelit evenings for me,” she says. “You’re okay.”
“Fair enough. Now, the heating’s on a timer. Don’t fiddle with it. But you can try and get to grips with the Aga stove, if you like, or you can light the fire.” I nod toward the grate. It’s one of those old fifties surrounds with the puce tiles and a companion set. She’s probably too young to know how to light a fire. “There are matches and firelighters in that cupboard. You might need to use newspaper to get it going. I generally twist it into croissant shapes and—”
“I know.” She nods. “We have a coal fire in the parlor at the manse.”
The parlor. I make a face. Very grand. I’m not sure what a minister’s daughter is doing here in Fettermore, buried in the country, assisting a cranky old academic. Shouldn’t she be at uni, or something? Too old, perhaps; she’s in her midtwenties, as I recall. Her application mentioned college. Media studies, or another of those Mickey Mouse courses. She’s worked in a hardware store too, so that might come in handy, if she knows her way round a hammer and nails.
We’ve come to a natural parting of the ways. I think I’ve covered everything. Perhaps I should mention the mill. Keep it technical, rather than emotional.
“That’s the mill, obviously.” I wave toward the window. “It’s for grinding corn. Oats originally, but now we mill—used to mill—wheat. It was working right up until—” I stumble, and she looks at me. I can see she is quite sharp, our Lucie. “It still operates, but no longer on a commercial basis. Yonder, in the dip behind, is Fettermore Burn. You’ll notice it runs past the mill, because the water supply we need to power the waterwheel is taken off at the weir half a mile upstream.” My wave climbs higher. Warming to my theme, I mime channels and ponds. “The lade is a constructed channel that brings the water around in a big loop on the high ground, fills up the pond, then drops the water down to the mill wheel. The fall of the land gives it power. Never underestimate the power of water.” She looks rather anxious, and I quickly adjust my tone. “And of course it’s a very picturesque walk to the weir and to the pond.”
Lucie remains thoughtful, like a child with too much to digest. It’s on the tip of my tongue to say Any problems, just phone, or pop into the house, but I don’t. She looks like a girl who has the sort of problems I could well do without.
Sandra Ireland is the author of the novels Beneath the Skin and Bone Deep. Before turning to fiction, she worked as a journalist. Born in Yorkshire, England, she spent many years in Limerick, Ireland, and now lives near Edinburgh.