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Set several years after RAINBOW BRIDGE, England is ruled by a foreign power. Heidi has been her parents' carer for many years, but when her mother apparently murders her father she is sent to work as an Indentured Teen in a remote coastal village.
As she explores her new home and its mysteries, Heidi is convinced of her mother's innocence, and is determined to prove it. What secrets does the village hold? Are the other teenagers friends or foes? What creature creeps through the attics at night, and what power do the Carron-Knowells hold over the rest of the village's inhabitants?
This is the sixth book in Gwyneth Jones' critically-acclaimed BOLD AS LOVE series.
Release date: March 2, 2021
Publisher: Orion Publishing Group
Print pages: 400
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The red ant, looking shiny and cross, and wearing an apron, stood in the doorway of its cosy house under a tree-root. It was holding the door just a slice open, and had the middle pair of its six legs folded grumpily. You could see the grasshopper wasn’t going to get in.
The grasshopper wore her tattered wings like rags, and huddled her middle legs around her shivering body. Darts of snow were falling on her fast. Heidi held the book in one hand, pushing back a lock of thick, curly black hair that had escaped from its clip, as she read the words on the opposite page. It had always bothered her that they didn’t match the picture, but Mum said the picture still told the story. In her mind, she could hear Mum’s voice.
The Ants and the Grasshopper
The Ants were spending a fine winter’s day drying grain collected in the summertime. A Grasshopper, perishing with famine, passed by and earnestly begged for a little food. The Ants inquired, ‘Why did you not treasure up food during the summer?’ He replied, ‘I had not leisure enough. I passed the days in singing.’ They then said in derision: ‘If you were foolish enough to sing all the summer, you must dance supperless to bed in the winter.’
Aesop’s Fables Translated by George Fyler Townsend
Virtual Verruca had appeared: a slightly transparent woman in a glossy business suit, with a nipped-in waist, a nipped-in mouth, and an expression that made it clear you weren’t going to get anywhere, whatever it was you wanted.
In ways she looked a lot like the ant in the picture.
Her real name was Verushka, or something like that, she was Heidi’s Placement Manager. Her real body would be back at the Angel Care Company’s office, sitting at a desk in some big building as shiny as that suit. Heidi had never seen it: she’d only been visited by Verruca the Ghost, here at the Indentured Teens Residential Facility.
‘Come on Heidi, get a move on. It’s time to go.’
Heidi closed the book, put it away with the rest of her entire life, and fastened the battered purple suitcase up again. It would be sent on; she wasn’t allowed to take it with her. She took her time, just to annoy Verruca, but she definitely wasn’t going to miss this place.
The journey was long. First the Tube (for Heidi: Verruca took a cab); then a train and then another train. Verruca didn’t speak the whole time: just pointed a virtual finger when Heidi needed directions. The finger triggered a wifi impulse that jerked on Heidi’s tag, so she had to come to heel like a dog. Another taxi was waiting for them outside the lonely country station. Heidi and Virtual Verruca got in. Verruca instantly noticed that the driver had flagged-up the massive penalty fare for a single passenger.
‘Hey. Can’t you see there are two of us?’
‘I see one passenger, one ghost,’ said the driver calmly. ‘Take it or leave it.’
A taxi-driver was obviously God out here in the deepest sticks, where nobody had private cars and the trains and buses were few. He wasn’t impressed by a talking hologram. Verruca soon gave up the fight, but spent the whole drive bitching under her breath to someone back at the office, about dysfunctional yokel grifters, who ought to be in Adult Labour Camp. She looked dysfunctional herself, sitting there muttering and twitching her fingers, with her eyeballs jerking to and fro: like someone dreaming wide-awake.
The taxi took them to an empty car-park, surrounded by bare and dripping trees. It was raining quite hard. ‘The Gardens are the Property of the National Trust,’ said Verruca. ‘Don’t leave the paths.’ She vanished.
Heidi trudged alone, along puddled paths coated in sodden dead leaves, directed by spiteful jolts from her tag, until she reached an ugly, yellowish stone building. It had gingerbread-house pointed windows sticking out of the roof, and a row of twisted chimneys.
At the front steps Verruca materialised again.
‘This is your placement,’ she said. ‘Follow me.’
Heidi couldn’t follow Verruca, who simply walked through the door. She didn’t live in the world of free-roaming mobile avatars. She lived in the miserable, ordinary world that had been left behind. She located an ancient door-knocker, cold in her hand, and dislodged cobwebs to lift it. The tongue fell on metal with a harsh, doomy clang.
The old wreck who opened the door wore a grubby floral dressing gown. Her feet were bare, her grey hair was a bird’s nest, and her breath smelled of alcohol. She didn’t say a word, just turned away and padded off. Heidi’s tag tugged her into a big unfurnished front room. Through the windows she could see the yellowish-stone archway that led to the Gardens, standing alone like the last fragment of a ruined palace.
Virtual Verruca was there, looking disgusted.
‘I need to validate the transaction biometrically,’ she said. ‘It’s very simple.’
‘Put the papers in the post,’ said Old Wreck.
‘You don’t have a scanner? That’s not possible. What happens to your 3D mail?’
‘I never get letters. If I did, I’d get them the old fashioned way.’
Heidi waited, keeping her distance and enjoying Verruca’s angry helplessness, until the Angel Care agent gave up saying she couldn’t possibly hand over Heidi without a biometric signature—and disappeared. Disconcertingly she reappeared almost at once, right in front of Heidi. ‘Do what you’re told,’ hissed the virtual menace. ‘And don’t cause any trouble. Just remember. Deadbeats like you and your mum are very lucky to be alive.’
Heidi’s blood boiled. But she swallowed her spit, ducked her head and nodded. It was disgusting, horrible to say what Verruca had just said. It was against the law. But it was true.
The young girl and the old woman looked at each other.
‘Are you sort of fostering me?’ asked Heidi, cautiously.
‘No, child,’ said Old Wreck. ‘Your daddy’s dead, your mother’s in the bin. You’re a recovered asset, hired out by the loan company to work off your dad’s debts.’
‘You mean I’m a slave,’ said Heidi (instantly forgetting she must not cause trouble).
Old Wreck laughed, like muddy water cackling in a broken drain. ‘Certainly not. That would be unthinkable! You’re my indentured teen. My name is Tallis Maylock: I don’t suppose that brute told you … I’ll show you to your room.’
Before she did the terrible thing, Heidi Ryan had been a teen with adult dependants, exempted from Ag. Camp because Mum and Dad couldn’t manage without her. Her mum had schizophrenia—which, as Immy, their social worker kept telling Heidi, isn’t a disease, it’s a name for a bunch of distressing mental health symptoms. Often Mum was disabled, but otherwise fine. Sometimes she was really ill, and had to stay in hospital for weeks.
Dad’s issues weren’t so obvious. Nobody would know he was a BPD (Borderline Personality Disorder) unless they had to live with him. Basically, Immy said, he was a lovely man and a good dad, but he’d taken too many drugs when he was very young and had nobody to tell him any better, and now he just couldn’t make decisions. Or pay bills. Or generally look after himself, never mind anyone else. But that was okay, because Heidi was in charge.
Or so she thought.
It had been strangely lonely at her Learning Centre after the Agricultural Camps began, and nearly all the teenagers disappeared. Nothing much had changed for Heidi, otherwise. She’d never been able to go out, or have friends much: Mum and Dad took all her attention.
Her life was hard, but happy. Like chewing on a rock, but a rock with deep pockets of sweetness. To have people you love, who love you back, is the best thing in life, and Heidi had that. One day in January she walked home from school in a dream, thinking about a poem. Heidi was always thinking about a poem … This one was about the young trees that had been planted in her street. How they were like children without coats, shivering under the cold grey sky. Like hopeful children, clinging tight to their tiny buds, dreaming of spending their little bits of pocket-money on green leaves—
She dumped her bag and wandered into the kitchen. The back door was swinging open. She shut it, and wiped the smeary doorknob; with a resigned sigh. The house was still full of winter daylight. ‘Mum?’ she yelled, opening fridge and cupboards, checking to see if they’d eaten or otherwise destroyed the food she planned to cook. ‘Dad?’
She could hear a baby crying. The walls of these houses were cardboard, you could often hear everything that was happening with the neighbours. But the crying seemed to come from upstairs, so she went to see what was going on. Either Mum was crying in a weird way, or she somehow had a baby in the house—
She stood in the door to her parents’ bedroom. She saw Dad propped against the side of the bed, legs in drainpipe jeans splayed out. Mum was crouched by the built-in wardrobe, wearing street clothes: Heidi noticed that, because often Mum didn’t get dressed all day. There was blood all over her, and a knife in her hand. There was blood all over Dad, too: it was pooling under him on the floor.
‘Mum?’ whispered Heidi, terror trapped in her throat.
Mum stopped crying. She screamed and screamed, waving the knife. Dad’s eyes were closed. He was lying there bleeding, dying—
Then Heidi did the terrible thing. She called the police.
The scene played over in Heidi’s head, as it had done for days, as she followed the Old Wreck called Tallis through the ugly gingerbread house. There was Dad. There was Mum, all the blood … and then the police, screeching their sirens, busting through the front door and crashing up the stairs. Hands lifting Heidi up. She’d been trying to staunch the blood, she was sure she could still feel a pulse. But they took her from her Dad, they said he was dead, not dying but dead, and she didn’t remember what came next, so the loop started from the beginning again; it just played over again, over and over again.
If I hadn’t called the police. If Immy had answered the phone, before I dialled 999. If the ambulance had got to us first. If I’d got Mum to calm down, and tell me what happened—
I wouldn’t be here. We’d still be okay, somehow—
Days later, in the Angel Care Facility, she’d found a lock of her hair still stiff with his blood and fought them viciously when they tried to wash it out. But she’d had to stop that kind of behaviour, or she’d have ended up in a worse place than this.
‘There’s the House,’ said Old Wreck Tallis, pointing out of a tall, churchy window.
We’re in the house, thought Heidi. They seemed to have climbed hundreds of stairs. She could see nothing but treetops. A lumpy quilt of bare branches, and one towering evergreen.
‘My father burned it down in the Seventies, that’s the Nineteen-seventies. He used to say he’d fancied a romantic ruin in his grounds, and took the simplest route. Drunk, of course. This is the Garden House, which survived. This is your room. Your bathroom has a toilet, it’s along the hall. I hope you don’t say loo. I despise false gentility.’
Heidi shook her head. ‘What am I to do?’
Old Wreck held tight to the front of her dressing gown, and twisted up her face in panic-stricken grimaces. ‘Cook and clean, I suppose,’ she said at last. ‘Aren’t you trained?’
Memories of looking after Mum and Dad stung Heidi’s eyes with tears.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I’m trained.’
‘Then don’t ask stupid questions. When you’ve unpacked go to the kitchen, it’s in the basement, and do what needs to be done. My brother and I eat in the breakfast room. I expect dinner at seven pm. You do not eat with us. What else do you need to know?’
‘Nothing, not right now.’
She waited until Tallis’s padding footsteps had faded before she opened the door and dumped her rucksack. The room was cold and musty, but bigger than Heidi’s room at home. There was a single bed, a brown rug, a wheelback chair that had lost the rim of the wheel, and a rickety bookcase without any books; just a pile of old gardening magazines.
This house wasn’t built of cardboard. When she’d struggled with the catch, and got one half of the ivy-fingered window open, the thickness of the wall was like a tunnel. Red velvet curtains, worn to rust in the folds, silently coughed out dust when she touched them.
The mattress was old and stained, but it didn’t smell bad and it wasn’t damp. The sheets, the pillowcases, the duvet cover and the limp old duvet—folded on it in a neat heap—were worn but clean. Heidi made the bed, and went to look for her bathroom.
The passage outside her door was very gloomy. The bathroom had no shower, only a bath on big scaly bird-feet, like Baba Yaga’s cottage in the fairytale. She tried the taps in the tub, and in the pedestal basin under the freckled mirror. Water came out, stone cold.
But the flush toilet flushed, and it didn’t smell.
She didn’t bother to unpack, just plodded down all the hundreds of stairs again.
In the room where Virtual Verruca had argued with the Old Wreck she walked about, looking for the hotspot, but her phone could get no signal. It had run out of charge. On the other side of the front hall—practically wide as a street, but with no carpet, no rugs, just dirty black and white tiles—a glimmer of lamplight peeped from a door that stood slightly open. Heidi was going to knock, but she had such a sense of someone holding their breath in there, waiting for the intruder to retreat, that she decided against it.
There were modern radiators in the hall, giving off an incredibly faint background heat; less than the government minimum. It was warmer than in her bedroom down here, but not by much. Treading softly, as if she might wake something dangerous, she found a small cloakroom in a nook under the stairs, with a new-looking toilet and basin, and a towel on a rail. Hot water in the taps! Further back there was a long room that she guessed must be the ‘breakfast room’, with a huge antique-looking dining table and matching chairs, all very shabby. Side-cupboards along the walls were full of dusty dishes and plates. There was a piano too. Watery glass doors, ranked in a row along the far wall, looked out on a green lawn with high hedges around it.
More stairs, beside the cloakroom, took her down into a dark, dank well. She groped around, found a light switch, and a dim bulb quavered into life, showing her three doors. The first of them she tried led to a utility room, with a washing machine and shelves of stuff: toilet paper, pegs, carpet tacks, cleaning things; sacks of bird-seed. The second led to the kitchen. The third was a grey slab of bare metal, padlocked shut.
‘Creepy,’ muttered Heidi.
The kitchen table was as long as the one in the ‘breakfast room’ and completely heaped with half-empty mugs, dirty plates, mouldering veg, piles of newspaper, random underwear, odd socks … There was a modern fridge-freezer (without much in it); a toaster and a gas hob (that both worked); and a microwave (that worked). An ancient double sink with hot and cold water. No sign of an oven. The room was very cold: the single radiator was turned off. The floor was stone flags, partly covered by grubby rag rugs.
Heidi opened cupboards and found hoards of tinned and packaged food: luxuries she hadn’t seen on a supermarket shelf for years. Stockpilers, she thought. I suppose people get away with it in the country. She couldn’t find matches or candles, oil lamps or wind-ups. That was strange. Didn’t they have power-downs around here? By the back door sat a doorstop in the shape of a battered iron duck, missing most of its paint. Through the half-glass she saw a concrete yard, and sheds. A handmade notice saying KEYS in red marker-pen had been stuck to the wall above a hook, but the keys were missing. Heidi looked at the table and the cluttered counters. It could take her a week to find anything in here.
She went upstairs and invaded the lamplit room.
It was no warmer than the hall, but felt cosier. Old Wreck was hiding in the depths of it perched behind an old desk, her knees up to her ears like a monkey. Books, books and books surrounded her: stuffed on shelves, falling out of stacks; layered on the floor with their pages open. The old woman scowled horribly as she watched Heidi approach.
‘Go away. You’re not to come in here. Never come in here. Dinner at seven, breakfast at eight, lunch at one, and stay out of my sight.’
She scratched her crotch as she glared, as if Heidi the slave was hardly a person, so it didn’t matter what she saw.
‘I need to go for a run to charge my phone,’ said Heidi. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you, but I can’t find the key to the back door.’
Old Wreck’s scowl slowly morphed into a leer of triumphant cunning—as if Heidi had been planning for weeks to confound her with this puzzle, but Old Wreck had been wise to her game, and had secretly plotted so she could relish the moment of Heidi’s defeat. She held up a ring with one big old monster key on it, and one ordinary latch key.
‘These are your keys. Don’t lose them. They will not be replaced.’
‘Thank you. I won’t.’
‘There’s a bicycle for errands. You will find it in the yard. You must never use the front entrance. You must always use the kitchen door, and you must always keep it locked.’
If I always keep it locked, how do I get out, thought Heidi.
The concrete yard was walled. It had a solid wooden back gate, which was locked, but the latch key opened it. A track led downhill, into the unknown. Heidi decided to leave that for another time. Instead she found her way to the front of the house, to the stranded stone archway and the National Trust Gardens. The rain had stopped. She jogged the paths she’d plodded, with a strange sense of freedom. It was easy to retrace her steps back to the car park: Verruca’s tag-stabs had fixed the turns in her mind.
Her phone was charged by the time she got there. She still had no signal, but that didn’t matter. There was nobody she wanted to call, not even Immy. No message she wanted to send, no music she wanted to listen to, no game she wanted to play. The main reason why she needed the phone charged was so she could tell the time. And have a torch.
She sat on a stone kerb, looking at the National Trust admission prices board.
Me-hil-hoc, how were you supposed to pronounce a word like that?
The grey stillness all around, the bare trees glistening with damp, made her feel as if there was nothing else left. As if the world where Dad was dead, and Mum was under guard in hospital, had ceased to exist. She felt like holding her breath forever, so she could stay in this lost dimension, and the terrible thing she’d done could never come back.
She set off jogging again, faster this time because it was really cold. She’d decided she would head for the tall evergreen, and find her way back to the yellow house from there. Dirt-encrusted National Trust signs beckoned as she sped along: promising a Himalayan Valley, a Tea Room, an Azalea Slope, a Rose Arbour, but she didn’t stop until she reached Swan Lake by accident. No ballerinas, just dark water scribbled over with strokes of light, like trembling silver fishes. No swans, no ducks. They’d probably been eaten. A small white building with a domed roof stood on a little island, joined to the shore by a brick causeway. Holding a stitch in her side (she wasn’t used to running) Heidi walked out and read the sign.
The Mysterious Grecian Temple
Restored by the National Trust 1997.
She stepped inside. The dome had an eye of thick glass in its centre that peered down, making a larger, dimmer eye of light in the middle of the floor. All around her in the darkness, tiny pairs of eyes glittered… Animal eyes that seemed to move. Her heart jolted, she thought of rats, a horde of rats, about to jump on her. She grabbed her phone and switched on the torch. The animals were harmless. They were cats.
And they weren’t alive, they were stuffed.
Her eyes had quickly adjusted to the gloom. She switched off the torch to save charge, and walked around peering at the menagerie: a ginger cat, a black cat, a black and white cat; a Siamese, a white one with ginger patches, and a big, fat, fluffy tabby cat. Six stuffed cats on pedestals, posed on moth-eaten cushions. The Siamese look older than the rest. It was threadbare, like a much loved teddy, and one of its blue glass eyes dangled loose.
She returned to the shore and headed uphill with the silver-scribbled lake behind her. Near the top of the rise another sign invited her to The Unmissable Blue Walk. She had a stitch again so she walked for a bit, following the pointer to a flat shelf cut into the hill. Once there’d been a turf path, winding between long wavy flowerbeds. Blue might mean bluebells. She kicked, gently, at layers of sodden leaf-litter, hoping to find green shoots: but there was only a kind of matted, brown, tangly moss. The bluebell bulbs must have died of neglect
The tall evergreen had vanished so she headed for the big greenhouses; that she also remembered seeing through the churchy windows on the Old Wreck’s stairs.
They were huge: brick-framed hangars that you could have kept trees inside. They must have been heated, she saw hot water pipes, and cables for electricity, but now it was colder inside than out. Doors sagged on rusted hinges. Green slime groped over glass, dead creepers sprawled through broken panes. Even the weeds that had sprung up had died.
In the smallest house she found a collection of display boards, huddled together in a sad, long-legged herd. They featured old photos, colour and black and white, of Mehilhoc Gardens; some of them very old. The Gardens with horses and carriages. Victorian ladies in massive skirts and tiny hats, beside Swan Lake. The Famous Baroque Fountains, sparkling like crystal fireworks There was a colour photo, quite modern, of The Unmissable Blue Walk: but it had been taken in Autumn, not Spring. Two brilliant streams of blue flowed, under the brilliant autumn leaves of the trees; as if the bright, deep blue of the October sky had poured down to the green turf. ‘Autumn Gentians,’ Heidi read aloud. ‘Sino Ornata.’ Sino, means Chinese, she thought. She’d never seen a gentian, except in a picture. She thought of Switzerland, scattered jewels in fields full of rocks, and imagined floods of them. . .
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