My wife Amber and I were on a short motoring holiday in the west country, which for those of you unfamiliar with British geography comprises the English counties to the south of Wales; those two countries being separated by the Bristol Channel. This has always been a favourite part of the country for my wife and I, and on this occasion it was a kind of second honeymoon for us, as our children, Jane and George, being sixteen and fourteen respectively, were staying with Amber’s parents during part of their school’s summer shutdown.
My name is Gerald Knight by the way, and Amber and I are both veterinary surgeons with our own practice in our home town, which is a semi-rural area, so we cater for a mixture of large and small animals. As you can imagine, it is not one of those professions that allows you to just take time off whenever you fancy, as provision has to be made for cover during any extended absences; in our case usually two locum vets to assist our partner, Natalie Porteous.
For this well-earned break from our busy daily lives, we had rented a small cottage that we found on the Internet, which was located near Dartington in Devon, which was conveniently placed just south of the beautiful Dartmoor National Park and within easy driving distance of Torquay and Paignton to the east and Plymouth to west. Amber and I love nature, of course, but we are still also young enough to enjoy a few of the benefits that towns and cities have to offer.
On the day that this story begins we had been in the cottage for almost half of our week-long stay and were visiting the delights of the nearest Morrison’s Supermarket in Totnes. We had not shopped for the whole week in advance, but had instead taken the more whimsical approach of provisioning daily for whatever took our fancy. We were nearing the checkouts when Amber said: “Isn’t that the young girl who lives in the cottage near us, Gerry?”
“Yes, it certainly seems to be; why don’t you go over and ask her if she needs a lift home, she’s definitely got a lot more to carry than we have?”
Amber nodded and walked over to where the girl was filling bags with groceries. I saw her look up in my direction and shake her head. It looked like my wife was helping her to pack her things away as she continued her debate with the young woman. I know from experience how tenacious my wife can be, and so I wasn’t surprised when I saw the girl give a brief nod of her head. Meanwhile I advanced towards the person on the till and paid for our items. As I walked back to the car I could see Amber loading bags into the back of our Land Rover Freelander. The girl still looked uncomfortable.
“Gerry, this is Mary McCarthy. We are going to get a cup of coffee before we go back.” After finding out what the others wanted I went to get our refreshments while Amber and Mary found a vacant table. Mary seemed more at ease by the time that I joined them.
“Now, Mary, why don’t you tell us why you didn’t want a lift, especially when you have all those bags to carry?” Amber asked her.
“It’s not so bad, Mrs Knight, I’m used to it.”
“Perhaps so, but that isn’t answering my question, Mary.” The girl took another sip of her coffee while she thought about this.
“It’s my dad, Mrs Knight, he wouldn’t like it.” My wife raised her eyebrows: “Go on—” Mary nodded.
“He’s a bit funny like that—you know, protective like. He’s got to be like that since my mum— Well, she died, when I was fourteen. It kind of turned dad a bit funny like.”
“In what way, Mary?”
“Oh, you know: he’s kind of got a bit bitter an’ he don’t seem to laugh or smile much anymore. An’ he don’t like me going out anymore than I ‘as to. I’m eighteen now, but he don’t want me to go out working; he says that I’ve got plenty to do looking after ‘im an’ the cottage an’ all.” Amber nodded: “And how do you feel about that, Mary?” The girl shrugged her shoulders.
“I don’t rightly know, Mrs Knight—it is what it is, I suppose. Of course, I used to hear the other girls talking at school about things, but I knew that there was no point wanting those things, because Dad, he—well, he don’t like to spend anymore than he ‘as to, especially on things that he calls ‘frivolities’. My mam, she were different, but like I said, her passing affected him badly. He do say to me, ‘Girl, there just ain’t no sunshine in my life anymore!’” Amber sighed: “I just don’t know what to say, Mary!” Mary smiled for the first time: “S’all right, Mrs Knight, t’ain’t much you can say, really!”
“But,” Amber continued, “I have a daughter a couple of years younger than you, and I think about all the good things that she has ahead of her, and it pains me to know that you are going to be missing out on all those kinds of things. You seem like a very sensible girl and I’m guessing that you are quite intelligent, too. Didn’t you ever think about what you would do when you finished school; you know, a job, or university?”
“I suppose I did, but like I said, Dad wouldn’t like me getting a job, and he don’t hold with paying for universities and the like. I did like school, though: it was a chance to get out of the house for a change and Dad couldn’t say much about it, it being the law an’ all. I took my A-levels, not that that means much, but I enjoyed it.”
I was listening to Mary but I was watching my wife. I have known her since our own university days and I could almost read her thoughts, so I knew that something was going on in that pretty head of hers, it was therefore no big surprise when I heard her say:
“What would you say if we gave you the chance of a life away from your father, Mary?” Mary looked at my wife intently: “I’m not rightly sure, Mrs Knight; how would you do that?”
“Well, I will need to talk to my husband and work out the details, but we could give you a job and a place to stay. We are both vets and we live near Winchester.” I watched Mary grin: “You work with animals; I’d love to do that!” Amber smiled: “Then let me talk to Gerry about it and we’ll see what we can do! We’ll take you home now, but we’ll have to meet up again, soon.”
It was only a couple of miles back to the cottages and Mary said that she could walk it in less than an hour. There were three detached cottages at the end of a lane that led only to and from them, although there were also footpaths that those that knew of them sometimes used; Amber and I had never tried to see where they went to. The McCarthy’s cottage was the middle one of the three, with ours to its right. Mary asked me to drop her off at the start of the lane so that she could walk the last bit as she usually did. My wife and I gave her a fifteen minute head start before we drove back ourselves.
The cottages all had quite long gardens at the rear and from the upstairs back window we could see into all of them. I think that like Mary and her father’s cottage, the one on the other side must also have had a full-time occupant, as those gardens had been mostly given over to the planting of what looked like vegetable beds, whereas ours had been landscaped with ease of maintenance in mind, because it had a nice lawn, a few fruit trees, and a few bushes that could probably be left on their own for much of the time. As the weather was good for the time of year, my wife and I made ourselves a snack lunch which we took out into the garden to eat, while sitting in deck chairs.
My wife is forty-two and I am two years older, we married as soon as she finished her degree, and while I was already working, she deferred her career to have our children. Our jobs keep us both active, so seeing her in a bikini was still a very pleasant sight to behold. I had changed into a pair of shorts. We had chosen a spot in the garden that was hopefully far enough away from our neighbours so as not to be overheard, and as far as we knew the only other warm-blooded creature within hearing range was the large black German shepherd next door, who was roaming the garden.
“Did I do right about Mary, Gerry?” I smiled.
“You did right, Love! The only thing is that now we have to follow through with your proposal, so as not to disappoint her. We obviously need more information about her domestic situation and then we have the logistics of getting her from here to our place; from what she said earlier her father won’t let her go willingly, even though she is now an adult, but I think that that is going to be the easy part. We have enough room at home so that she can stay with us, even if it’s only until we can make other arrangements.” Amber leaned across and kissed me.
“It’s a pity we haven’t got more time to plan this, Gerry, but I know that between us we can do it. We can’t really afford to let Mary borrow one of our phones and I doubt that she’s got one of her own, so we are going to need to sort that out pretty quickly. Let’s do that this afternoon, we can make some other enquiries while we are out as well. What do you suggest: the train station at Totnes?” I nodded.
“It’s probably going to be expensive, but that’s the logical solution. What did Mary say about meeting us again?”
“Not much really; she said that we should keep an eye out for her tomorrow, that she’d come out to pick some vegetables, probably during the morning some time. We should get a few minutes to talk then.”
“Okay, that’s not much, but it’s better than nothing! Er, wife, you know that this is supposed to be our second honeymoon—how about if you and I—” I motioned with my head towards the cottage. Amber grinned, got up out of the chair and took my hand.
“Do you think that you can still remember what to do after all this time, husband?” I smiled: “There’s only one way to find out!”
Several hours later, two happy and satisfied people were driving back towards Totnes. The first stop was somewhere to pick up an inexpensive Paye-As-You-Go mobile phone for Mary. With the phone and £20 of credit we headed for the station. Totnes to Winchester was possible, but meant an almost four-hour journey, changing trains at first Exeter and then again at Reading. We didn’t book a ticket there and then, as circumstances were still uncertain, but at least we would have something to tell Mary.
Looking out of an upstairs window later that evening, Amber thought that she spotted some movement in the McCarthy’s shed, at the bottom of their garden; she assumed that it was Mary’s father.
“I wonder what he does all day, we’ve never seen him. If I remember I shall ask Mary the next time I speak to her.”
“If Mary is eighteen then her father must be around our age, so I assume that he must work for a living; anyway, none of that is really germane to the problem at hand.”
“No, I suppose not; I was just curious, that’s all.” We spent the evening in, with a bottle of wine or two.
The next day my ever practical wife placed a chair next to the same upstairs window, from where she could read a book but still keep an eye out for Mary. I was doing much the same thing—reading, that is—when I heard her hurried footsteps on the stairs. Amber appeared and picked up the box containing the new phone; we had charged it up the night before and entered Amber’s phone number in the contacts folder. We thought it best that just my wife should go outside; she thought of a question that she could ask Mary, regarding some local knowledge, should her father ask her what my wife wanted. I continued reading while Amber was out there.
She came back into the cottage, and the first thing that she did was turn the kettle on. A few minutes later she came into the sitting room carrying two mugs of steaming liquid.
“An interesting chat?”
“Mmm, very!” my spouse said, sitting on a padded foot stool opposite me. “It seems that Mr McCarthy works for one of the local farmers so he leaves quite early in the morning most days. Did you know that Mary doesn’t even have her own front door key; but where would she go, her father only gives her enough money to buy the shopping and expects to see the till receipt as well as any change from the money; the poor girl practically has to beg him for money to buy, you know, personal hygiene items! She even has to make do with some of her mother’s clothes, although she says that she’s become quite adept at modifying them. She said that her father even begrudged her the clothes that she wore for school.”
“What about the phone; did she know how to use it?” Amber smiled.
“I thought that the poor girl was going to burst into tears! She had seen them of course; some of her school friends had them, but she never thought that she would ever own one. I’m pretty sure that the included instructions are enough for her to work it out.”
“And did you tell her about seeing someone in the shed?” Amber nodded.
“Oh, yes—that part is quite creepy actually! Apparently our Mr McCarthy is a bit of a voyeur. Mary said that she thinks that he keeps a pair of binoculars in there and that when it get dark he watches his neighbours through them; especially if there is a woman staying here, and then there is a Mrs Golding who lives in the other cottage. It seems that he somehow knows when the light comes on in the bathroom of this and the other cottage, so he will check to see if anyone has left the blinds up or the curtains open. You see, we aren’t overlooked at the back, so if you look out of the bathroom window you would only see darkness.”
“Does he ever look up at his own bathroom window?” I asked my wife: if I’d had any doubts about helping Mary before they had now been eliminated!
“Mary wasn’t sure about when she was younger, but she said that once she found out what he was doing she made sure that no-one could see in while she was in the bathroom.”
“And what about you, Love; have you noticed anything?” She shook her head.
“No, like Mary I’ve usually drawn the blinds like I do at home; but I’ve been thinking that we might be able to use that knowledge to our advantage.” I looked at her, quizzically: “What do you mean?” She smiled: “I was just thinking that we might need a diversion sometime. If I can keep old misery guts distracted for long enough, it might give Mary a chance to slip away while her father’s attention is focussed elsewhere.”
“And you’d do that?” She smiled: “If that’s what it takes!”
It was just after eleven o’clock that evening when Amber’s phone rang: “Is that you, Mrs Knight?”
“Yes, Love—how can I help you?”
“Oh, there’s nothing at the moment, I just wanted to see if this thing worked. I’m in bed and Dad’s downstairs.”
“While you are here, Mary, Gerry and I think that we have come up with a plan. If you can get out of the house one evening this week, my husband can take you to Totnes and put you on a train to Exeter. From there you can get to Reading, and once you are there you can get another train to Winchester. It’s a pretty long journey, but we’ll either arrange for someone to meet you at the station or you can get a cab to our house. You won’t be able to carry much, I’m afraid!” Mary replied, almost in a whisper: “Yes, I think I can do that, Mrs Knight—the only thing that might get in my way is Princey: that’s my dad’s dog. He’s got a really loud bark, but I’ve got a way with him, he might make a bit of a noise though if I open the front door; Dad’s trained him to do that and when anyone is outside at the door.”
“Don’t worry about that for the moment, Mary, just concentrate on getting all your personal things ready. Do you have a suitcase or a rucksack?”
“No, I don’t think so.”
“Okay, we can lend you one of ours. Can you meet me in the garden again tomorrow; about the same time?”
“Yes, I think so, Mrs Knight, and thank you!”
“You’re welcome, Mary—sweet dreams!”
“You, too, Mrs Knight!”
Amber turned to me: “Have we got anything with us to quieten the dog down?”