his shadow dances over the snow and tangles with the hedgerows, gliding
over the smooth hummocks and hollows and dips of the road. It flirts
with the black-spiked, snow-lined branches of the hawthorn hedge and
side-steps over the two furrows where someone, hours ago, had driven
a tractor up the lane to the house. The snow is crisp, frozen over and
sparkling, and Tolly's feet leave no prints.
I've often thought you don't always know whose shadow comes out with
He goes to the house through the garden gate, past the chapel. Under snow the trees and shrubs are strangely rounded, a white desert punctuated only by bird tracks and the heavy footprints of a man - Boggis - leading to the stables. Only the statue of St Christopher leaning against the chapel wall is free from snow, the child on his shoulder frozen stone under the crown of a battered eight-month-old bird nest. Ivy curls around the stone staff and drapes St Christopher's shoulders, the heavy leaves almost black in moonlight. When Tolly kneels to touch the statue's feet his fingers leave no impression in the frost-white moss.
The moat is ice, marbled grey, and the paths to the front door of the house are covered in smooth snow, pristine and unwritten. The latch on the door is silent.
The house has not changed. The mirrors between the rough-cut stone and plaster of the hall are dark, and the eyes of the carved wooden children are blind. The vases hold dead wood and dried flowers so old all their colours have faded. No light glimmers through the crack of the parlour door and the house is as cold as the garden, but from the kitchen Tolly can hear the faint sound of the television. It'll be Boggis, watching. Noiselessly, Tolly slips past the door and up the winding stone steps, through the music room and up again to the bedroom he had slept in as a child. His shadow sways up the staircase, but Tolly is leaden-footed, stumbling with weariness and cold.
Moonlight shows him the high rafters and the familiar shapes of his bed, the doll's house and the rocking horse and the face of the clock with its circling sun and moon. The floorboards do not creak as Tolly treads over them. The horse does not move on the sweep of its rockers. No mouse rustles in the bed sheets and nothing taps impatiently at the window, waiting to be let in out of the cold. No one laughs just out of sight or around the corner, a finger's touch away. The clock, stopped, does not chime.
heels off his boots and, too tired to undress, collapses into bed. As
he has not done since he was a boy he pulls the patchwork quilt over
his nose and face, hiding from the empty room.
Now you are here something will happen.
But when Tolly wakes up, the house is silent around him, smothered in snow. No horse whinnies in the stable, no cradle rocks, and although Tolly listens for it, the sweet, high notes of a flute are beyond his hearing. Only the radio murmurs from the kitchen, the sounds so indistinct they could be meaningless. He pads silently through the house, running his fingers over the satin-smooth wood of the paneling and the mason's marks on the stonework. In the music room, the strings of the harp do not stir at his footstep, and the hangings lie heavy and still against the walls as if no children have ever hidden behind them, stifling laughter. Only when he opens the door to the parlour does he think he sees a woman by the fireplace, a woman in a black dress which folds over her feet in curves as smooth as the snow. Her eyes are as blue as the stone in the ring on her finger, but she could be old, young, silver-haired, bronze - Tolly blinks, and she is gone. When he presses his hand to the seat of the chair, it's as cold as stone, as his own hands.
In the afternoon, he goes out to the stables. Boggis has cleared the pathway down to the cobbles, and Tolly treads noiselessly through the yard and into the empty stable block. The air smells faintly of hay and paraffin, and even more faintly of horse, but there are dead lawnmowers and faded deck chairs and cut firewood in the empty stables. In the last stall Tolly stands with his eyes closed, hoping, but there is no welcoming whicker nor a soft nose nudging his hands for the apple he does not have.
Feste's nameplate still hangs on the wall, but the horse is gone.
When he steps back into the hall the house seems warmer, and from the kitchen he can hear a man's voice. Boggis.
"...home like all the rest."
"It's been two months," a woman's voice answers, gentle Fenland burr.
The radio crackles.
"It's only the others," the woman says, soft and comfortable.
For a moment Tolly thinks he can see, in the mirror, not his own reflection but the shadow of someone else's, small and light-footed. Linnet. Linnet, he thinks on a rush of startling pleasure and whips around, mouth open - but the hall is empty.
Tumbling soundlessly, petals fall from one of the dead flowers.
When he goes up to his bedroom the door to the doll's house is slightly ajar, as if someone has been playing. Tonight the quilt is warm as he drags it up to his chin, and the ivy over the windows taps gently at the glass. As he falls asleep, he thinks he might hear a mouse squeak.
He's startled awake, as if someone has just laughed and the echo of it still hangs in the room, or as if a horse has called from the stables and been answered. Tolly fumbles on his dressing gown and races downstairs trailing green silk, slamming open the door to the parlour. For a moment, just for a moment, he sees her again, younger, curly-haired, laughing. There's a flute in her hand and the velvet of her dress is red and her eyes widen when she sees his face.
Then she is gone.
Tolly sags against the door post. There's no fire, no flute, no warmth. He pulls his dressing gown together, belts it tightly, and goes back upstairs to dress in the cold.
There are two glass marbles on the floor by his bed.
When he goes downstairs the wireless is playing jazz, sweet and lilting, and the house smells of spice and almonds. It's two days until Christmas. He'd forgotten. Tolly hesitates in the hall, listening to the blurred murmur of voices in the kitchen, the clink of glassware and the bubble of water boiling in the copper saucepans, the heavy beat of a wooden spoon against stoneware. Mrs Boggis is baking.
He opens the front door and on the lawn, a deer stands looking at him unafraid and incurious. "Hello," Tolly says softly, and the deer dips its head to him before it bounds away. It leaves no tracks.
Under the yew tree, sheltered from the snow, Tolly finds a little heap of shelled hazelnuts and a scrap of orange peel, one or two scattered raisins as if someone had plundered the kitchen, and a trail of breadcrumbs. And a ring, dirty, dulled, resting next to the hazelnuts as if someone had left it twenty years ago and forgotten to return.
Picking it up, Tolly polishes it against the tweed of his jacket. Although the dirt flakes from the silver dry as dust, the ring is as warm as if it has just left someone else's hand. It's too small to fit his fingers, and Tolly tucks it carefully into his pocket.
As he goes through the garden, he can hear the chaffinch chatter away to itself from the rose bushes. The latch of the door is as worn and smooth in his hands as if it has just been oiled, and the witchball reflects his own eyes back at him. One of the hawthorn twigs is starting to bud.
The door to the parlour is half open. She's waiting for him by the fire. For a moment, she's as he remembers, bent and shrunken and wrapped in velvet, and then she's a girl in a white pinafore and hair ribbons, and then she's herself, smiling.
The room is warm. Someone - Linnet - laughs behind Tolly's back, and above in the music room Tolly can hear Alexander's flute and the sound of a woman singing a lullaby, so sweet and low the words are almost gone.
"You have my ring," Mrs Oldknow says to him, unsurprised. And then, "I knew you'd come back. Welcome home, my darling."