When the eight-year-old daughter of an Oxford College Master vanishes in the middle of the night, police turn to the Scottish nanny, Dee, for answers.
As Dee looks back over her time in the Master's Lodging - an eerie and ancient house - a picture of a high achieving but dysfunctional family emerges: Nick, the fiercely intelligent and powerful father; his beautiful Danish wife Mariah, pregnant with their child; and the lost little girl, Felicity, almost mute, seeing ghosts, grieving her dead mother.
But is Dee telling the whole story? Is her growing friendship with the eccentric house historian, Linklater, any cause for concern? And most of all, why is Felicity silent?
Roaming Oxford's secret passages and hidden graveyards, Magpie Lane explores the true meaning of family - and what it is to be denied one.
Release date: February 1, 2020
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 308
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
They are waiting for an answer. What do they want me to say? Perhaps they think I am a stalker, targeting the president of an Oxford College on his early morning jog. I have an urge to laugh which is inappropriate. There is nothing funny about this, nothing whatsoever. Felicity is missing. The whole country is looking for her.
I stare at the Oxford United mug that Faraday has put in front of me. My mouth is dry but I can’t pick it up because my hand will shake. The surface of the tea is growing crinkled and rubbery but I leave it where it is.
It feels absurd to be sitting here with mugs of tea. Surely they should be out there looking for her.
But they are looking for her, of course. This is them looking for her.
–So, what were you doing all the way down there, last July, so early in the morning? Faraday repeats the question, studiously unthreatening.
I force myself to look into his jowly face. –I was thinking, I say.
–Yes. I meet his eye. –Thinking.
Faraday glances at my cooling tea. He is around my own age, with the thighs and shoulders of an ex-rugby player, and he is keen to put me at my ease. He has done all sorts of solicitous things already – asked if I was comfortable, explained that they will be videoing our interview, reminded me that I am free to leave at any time. I waved away his statement about legal representation – I am no more of a suspect than anybody else, perhaps less so than some, and despite multiple theories put forwards by the British press and public, nobody has the faintest idea what has happened here. They do not even know if there has been a crime.
The other detective, Khan, sits silent and motionless next to Faraday with a biro poised over a yellow lined pad. She is younger, perhaps in her thirties, slim and athletic, with cropped hair still damp from the shower, scrubbed skin and the top button of her shirt done up in a gender-neutral way. So far she has not said a word, except for a quiet hello. Perhaps she has been instructed just to sit still and write everything down.
Faraday raises a meaty fist, pops a belch into it and shuffles his papers. –So, what were you thinking about, he asks, –down there on your own so early in the morning?
And so back we circle, back again to the mathematical bridge at dawn.
I was thinking, in fact, that my life had been a failure. This may sound like self-pity but it was simply a conclusion based on solid evidence.
I had risen before sunrise that day after a particularly restless night and as I set off down Observatory Street, I had no destination in mind; I just needed to walk. This is not unusual for me – I often walk through Oxford as the city sleeps; it is something of a compulsion. At that early hour the city pavements are otter grey and hopeless, dotted with burger wrappers and stains of student vomit, but above them the ancient buildings have already begun to glow, to broaden their shoulders and pronounce their status to the world. Even before the sun has made it to their honeyed stones, they have begun to emit a subtle, confident light.
As I walk, I inevitably think about maths, my enduring passion in life. I have been working on the same mathematical proof for a few years now, and I tend to make the biggest leaps in my thinking while I walk. But on that particular day I wasn’t thinking about my proof at all. I was thinking about Oxford, my life and what to do next. I was about to turn into St Giles’ churchyard when a fox trotted out in front of me. For a second she paused, and I met her amber eyes. I felt a peculiar energy pass between us, as if she was telling me not to turn into the gate. She rippled off across St Giles’, then slid behind the ecclesiastical College bins in search of a priestly chicken bone, while I carried on towards the city centre, and, as it turned out, my destiny.
The rough sleepers in the doorways of Cornmarket were oblivious to me, and as I came down St Aldate’s beneath the studded barricades of Christ Church, a workman in a luminous jacket didn’t even turn his head; I felt that I was invisible, a roaming ghost, searching for something I’d never find.
I paused on Folly Bridge and looked at the surface of the Thames, which was stroked by mist. The sky behind the boathouses was the colour of a field mouse, striated with pinks. It had been a very hot July and the grass in the meadow had turned to dust – geese ranged like a herd on the savannah, and above them in the chestnut trees a wood pigeon repeated its husky three-note call.
Moving on, I passed Salter’s Steamers and turned onto the Thames path, falling into a brisk stride. The dawn chorus was raucous, and I could hear the distant hum of early commuters on the ring road. At Iffley Lock I turned off the towpath onto the mathematical bridge, where I stopped. The air was clammy; I felt the presence of rain.
Set over a rolling channel, the mathematical bridge is a complicated wooden structure made up of tangential timbers and shaded by low-hanging branches so that at certain angles it seems to be part of the trees. The more famous bridge at Iffley is a pretty, photogenic eighteenth-century stone structure, marked with a brass bull’s head. People take photos on and of it, but they rarely pay attention to the mathematical bridge, which is slightly odd – subtly out of place and somehow temporary, though it must have been there for a hundred years.
As I looked into the tangled weeds I found myself wondering, not for the first time, what on earth I was doing in Oxford. It was not clear how a small decision taken more than two decades ago had come to shape my entire adult life. My thoughts were dark, but I was probably at a bit of a low ebb – the Philosophy don, her neurotic wife and their fragile son had been taxing even by Oxford’s standards – and it is always particularly hard to say goodbye to a baby, not least a sweet one like him. I’d just turned down a couple on sabbatical from the University of Utrecht and since the Philosophy don’s house had been allocated to a new College family, I was technically both unemployed and homeless. I was far from destitute, though: I had my savings and my car, and I was free to go wherever I chose. The main challenge was locating the energy to care.
This wasn’t anything as mundane as disappointment – my hopes and dreams had been cauterized twenty-six years ago – I simply felt I’d reached the point in life where the downward trajectory really begins. I could find more work in Oxford – finding clients has never been a problem. The University is essentially a vast community of transients, many of whom are burdened by inconvenient offspring. But although I had spent plenty of time within its ancient walls and cloisters, I had no connection to it. Nor did I feel, after all these years, that the city was my home. I was the perpetual outsider, neither ‘town’ nor ‘gown’, at best an adjunct. Perhaps if I’d taken a different turn at St Giles’ that day, ignored the fox and circled back to Observatory Street, I’d have packed my bags and left for ever – but then I would not have known Felicity – and that, of course, would be unthinkable.
But it is really not a good idea for me to think about Felicity at this point, with Faraday and Khan staring at me, waiting for their explanation.
I try to remember what else I was thinking that day. Home. I was definitely thinking about home – increasingly I’d felt Scotland tugging at my hem and I remember thinking that perhaps it was time to go back. If I belonged anywhere, it was there, in the landscape of my childhood. My father’s friends and colleagues were mostly dead or senile, the village shrunken, the Kirk where my ancestors lie was up for sale, the big house derelict, my own generation mostly dispersed. Even if I did meet someone I once knew, they probably wouldn’t recognize me: I am not the pretty young thing I was when I left. My hair is not bright auburn any more, it is a dull brown, iron-streaked, coarse and straight as a mare’s tail, all my curls having fallen out overnight over two decades ago. I have crow’s feet now, and a line between my brows that probably makes me look a bit forbidding in certain lights; I am, of course, no longer slim.
But this is not about me or Scotland, or what happened there all those years ago. This is about Felicity – an anxious, silent eight-year-old who vanished from the Master’s Lodging in the centre of a city of 154,000 inhabitants, none of whom, apparently, have a clue as to where she is – though, judging from the media reports, quite a few are prepared to offer an opinion.
Not least, her father.
I certainly do remember when I first spotted Nick – a tall shadow cutting through the bright green foliage at quite a pace. He came off the path towards me and hesitated when he saw me but it was too late, he was committed to crossing my bridge.
The wood made a hollow tap-tap as he ran onto it and the planks sighed and wobbled dramatically beneath us. Nick is a striking presence: over six foot tall, broad-shouldered, long-limbed and lean, with dark hair swept back off his forehead. He barely glanced at me, just gave a brief nod, but I recognized him immediately. I’d seen his picture in the University Gazette and the College magazine – College members seemed to talk of little else but Nick Law.
Of course what Faraday and Khan really want to know is: was my presence on the bridge that morning a coincidence? Perhaps Nick is suggesting that it wasn’t. But of course he is probably saying all sorts of wild and panicky things about me now. How could it have been anything but a coincidence? I couldn’t have known that he would run to Iffley Lock at five-thirty in the morning. It was his first day as College Master – there had been no time to form habits – we wouldn’t have exchanged a word had his foot not slipped just as he passed behind me.
He pitched sideways – I turned, he twisted – I shot out both hands to catch him and for a second we stood face to face, strangers dancing on a mathematical bridge at dawn. I saw the sweat on his forehead, the delicate broken capillaries on his cheeks, and felt the heat coming off his body as he stepped backwards, shocked. ‘So sorry! I don’t know what happened there—’
‘Algae, it needs a good power wash.’ I glanced at his trainers: Nikes, no real grip, unlike my sturdy boots.
‘Well, yes, God, it’s lethal.’ He wiped his forehead with his running shirt, breathing at me through dragon nostrils. His voice was accusatory. ‘Are you the lock-keeper?’ I laughed and his face clouded.
This sort of thing actually happens to me a lot – usually in College grounds, sometimes in Oxford parks. It might be my functional approach to fashion, but people seem to assume that I’m in charge. ‘I was just admiring the bridge.’ I patted the railing, which was soft with lichen.
He arranged his features more benignly then. ‘Ah, right, yes, of course, this bizarre bridge.’ He wiped his brow on his T-shirt and glanced sideways at me. ‘It’s actually modelled on one that was held up by mathematical calculations alone – did you know that? The one Isaac Newton designed in Cambridge. The only thing that stopped it falling into the water was geometry. Then some students took it apart to see how he’d done it and they couldn’t calculate how to put it back together again, so they had to add the nuts and bolts.’ He smiled and dropped the end of his T-shirt, putting his hands on his hips. ‘This one came later, of course – 1920s, I think.’
I saw that he was the kind of man – normal for Oxford – who pulls out facts in order to establish dominance. He would not, I suspected, take kindly to being told that his story was nonsense, a tall tale made up two hundred years ago by Cambridge students. Newton had nothing to do with the original mathematical bridge; he’d died over twenty years before it was even built.
Nick straightened, perhaps sensing that I wasn’t his ideal audience. ‘Right then,’ he said. ‘I must press on.’ He turned away.
‘You’re Dr Law, aren’t you?’
He looked back sharply as if I’d accused him of something. Perhaps I had. I named the College where the Philosophy don had worked and asked if he was its new Master.
‘Ha! Well, yes, I am indeed. Guilty as charged.’ He came back and thrust out a hand. ‘Nick Law.’
I didn’t offer my name but he seemed not to expect or need it. I told him I knew the College well and named the Philosophy don. I said I’d spent the best part of a year working for her and before that, at the same College, for a visiting theologian from Zagreb. ‘I’ve heard a lot about you,’ I said.
‘All good, I trust.’
It was not, in fact.
Nick’s appointment had not been a unanimous decision for the Governing Body. The younger Fellows believed that a dynamic and well-connected media man like him could transform the College’s ailing fortunes, lure big donors, win over disgruntled staff and woo the student body, but many of the older Fellows were outraged at the idea of a fifty-three-year-old BBC director taking charge of their precious six-hundred-year-old institution. They were unimpressed by Nick’s celebrity contacts – the very notion of celebrity was an abomination to them. They said he’d alienated people at the BBC and was known for bullish, bullying behaviour. Others, meanwhile, simply felt that a ‘media type’ could not possibly appreciate the delicate, esoteric needs of this particular Oxford College. The fact that he came with a glamorous young Scandinavian wife and small daughter made him an even more inappropriate candidate in their eyes, but of course they couldn’t use that against him, not openly, so they merely growled that he lacked ‘gravitas’ and that his appointment would be ‘divisive’.
After much bitter wrangling, the Governing Body was unable to reach a consensus, and so a bizarre Oxford custom was invoked: an independent expert known as ‘the Visitor’ was brought in to make the decision for them. To the visceral fury of his opponents, ‘the Visitor’ chose Nick.
He certainly seemed nothing like the outgoing Master. Nick was at least two decades younger than Lord Eaves, for a start, and distinctly more dazzling. Lord Eaves represented the end of a dying tradition of eminent white men who take a Head of House appointment to kick off a prestigious semi-retirement. The venomous fissures in the Governing Body and the depth of the College’s financial woes had proved too onerous for Eaves, and he was ousted in a vote of no confidence after trying to liquidate College assets. Since the Master before him had only lasted a year, the College was now on very shaky ground indeed. I wondered if Nick had any idea what he was getting himself into.
He gave a confident smile. ‘You’re thinking I don’t look terribly Masterly, aren’t you?’
‘I’m not sure I ever saw Lord Eaves in Nikes.’
‘Ah well, I own several very nice pairs of brogues too. I even wear a suit sometimes.’
I waited for him to move on, but he didn’t and I realized that he was expecting me to say something admiring.
‘Well, it’s quite something to run an Oxford College,’ I offered.
‘Oh yes, yes, an honour.’ He gazed at the water. ‘Such a privilege to be here. My wife and I feel terribly lucky.’
The surface of the water frilled as a grey goose paddled under the bridge to the bank and began to jab at the weeds. ‘I hear you have a little girl too?’ I said.
‘Ah, yes, yes, you’ve done your homework, haven’t you – I do, that’s right.’ He blinked rapidly. ‘Felicity. She’s . . . well . . . ah . . . she’s . . . um . . . eight.’ He puffed out his cheeks. ‘She’s . . . she’s . . . very . . . um . . .’ He gazed at the goose, seemingly unable to express exactly what his daughter was.
This is when I felt the first prick of curiosity – I wondered what it was about this little girl that could interrupt the smooth flow of his words. He straightened. ‘Anyway, it’s awfully good to be back. I was a graduate student here, many moons ago. Would you believe I proposed to my first wife on this actual bridge? She’s the one who told me that nuts and bolts story.’ He patted the railing and looked away sharply, as if he’d surprised himself by revealing this to me, a stranger. It explained his early morning pilgrimage, anyway. He glanced at me sideways and arched an eyebrow. ‘I do know that’s not true, by the way – though I have to say I believed her for many years.’ He glanced at the sky. ‘Right then, it’s about to rain. I should crack on. I’m sure I’ll see you in College – um – so sorry, I don’t think I caught your name?’
I told him.
‘Ah, Dee, yes – and I don’t think I actually got your connection to College?’
‘Well, I don’t have one.’
His brows lowered. ‘Oh, but I thought you said—?’
‘I was working for a College member, a philosopher, but she’s gone to Harvard now.’
‘Oh, right, okay, yes, so you’re a philosopher—’
‘I’m a nanny.’
I caught a flash of irritation on his face, presumably as he realized he’d just wasted valuable minutes attempting to charm an insignificant childcare worker. I waited for him to move on but he didn’t. Three more Greylag geese appeared from under the bridge, necks tall, eyes sharp, treading water beneath us. He gazed at them a moment, and then, suddenly, I felt the full beam of his attention. ‘And who did you say you nannied for, in College?’
I named both the Philosophy don and the Zagreb professor.
‘I suppose you have another job lined up, do you? Another family to go to now?’
I shook my head. ‘I’m taking a wee break.’
‘Ah, yes, well, you have a family of your own to look after, I suppose—’
My fingers tightened around the railing. I am used to this, of course, but that doesn’t make it any easier. ‘I don’t have family commitments, no,’ I said.
‘Well!’ His voice boomed, making me jump. The geese slid back under the bridge. ‘Do you know, I think this might be synchronicity – or fate – or perhaps predestination. The thing is, um, Dee, my wife and I are actually in a bit of a bind at the moment. We’ve just lost an au pair and it’s the school summer holidays. The move from London’s been very – well – my wife runs her own business in London, and my daughter’s . . . well . . . she’s . . . it’s . . . Anyway, we’re urgently looking for help right now, even temporary.’
I was about to tell him that I was leaving Oxford for ever but he interrupted me. ‘Of course, I understand this is out of the blue – me pouncing at you on a bridge – but maybe you’d consider popping into the Master’s Lodging for a chat? Absolutely no commitment. Maybe later this morning, even, if you’re free? My wife’s there right now, in fact. She’s doing some rather major renovations – she’d love to show you round, if nothing else.’
I sensed a desperation in him that went beyond the practicalities of childcare, and I wondered what on earth a man like Nick Law could possibly have to feel desperate about. I had no intention of working for him – he was obviously high-handed and domineering, way too much trouble – but I’d never been invited inside a Master’s Lodging before and it was hard to resist. I told him I might be able to pop in later that morning, just to say hello.
‘That’s excellent, that’s really excellent, Dee. What time’s best? Eleven?’ He turned the question into instruction. ‘Come at eleven.’
And so our lives converged on the mathematical bridge that day in July, seven months ago now – though it feels like a lot longer. Some might say a mysterious force pulled us together – there was a need, the need was met – but I of all people do not believe in a benevolent deity or a universe that provides. In my experience, quite the opposite is true.
But of course none of these thoughts are remotely relevant to the investigation of Felicity’s disappearance. Faraday and Khan are waiting for my answer, so I ask if they’d be able to remember exactly what they were thinking at any given moment, seven months ago. Faraday opens his mouth to reply, but I haven’t finished talking. –I believe it was raining that day, I say. –I was probably just wishing I’d brought a coat.
Faraday nods, and says, –Fine, fine. Maybe we could try to get a picture of your role in the family then? He touches an indentation on his ring finger as he speaks, a ghostly noose in the plump flesh. –What were your first impressions, Dee? Did this seem like a normal home to you?
I think about this for a moment.
–There’s nothing remotely normal, I say, –about the Master’s Lodging.
I had often passed the house – a white Tudor building set just outside the Porter’s Lodge. Though it is in the very centre of Oxford, the College is one of the more discreet. Its gates are away from any main streets, set down a cobbled dead end – easy to miss unless you know it’s there. I was about to lift the brass knocker when the Chapel bells began to clamour behind me. The sound filled my skull, crushing my thoughts. After a pause, eleven slow, pompous strikes sounded. I waited until the last one was over and was gathering myself to knock when two builders burst out. They stomped off across the cobbles, leaving the door open for me – they probably assumed that I was staff. I peered inside. The oak-panelled hall was strewn with builders’ paraphernalia – sharp tools, bags, bits of timber. The air was veiled with dust, there was a smell of scorched metal and I heard crashing sounds, the whirring of drills, a demonic sawing. Even if I had used the heavy brass knocker, nobody would have heard me.
I was wondering if I should just go away again when a woman in a tight white shirt and baggy trousers appeared at the end of the hall. She spotted me and bounded down the corridor – a neat, packed cell of energy, limbs flexing, brown eyes wide, wavy blonde hair rippling in a high ponytail, showing off an absurdly beautiful face. My first instinct was weariness.
‘Dee! You must be Dee? Hello! Hey! Come in. My God, is it still raining? You have no coat! You’re soaking!’ Her lilting Scandinavian accent made every other word sound like a joyful cry of surprise. ‘I’m Mariah – the Head of House’s spouse.’ She laughed at her own quip and thrust out a hand, leaning in as we shook, her elbow jutting at a vigorous, sporty angle. ‘Have you been standing in the rain for long? I’m so sorry! This crazy noise! It’s insane here – but, hey, come in, please, come in.’
She made off down the hall calling over her shoulder, ‘Nick’s just gone to his College office, but come in, come with me, I’ll show you round and we can try to find Felicity; I think she’s upstairs somewhere.’ She led me up a wide oak staircase where two workmen were unhooking oil portraits of elderly men looking solemn and foolish in ermine-fringed robes. There were faded rectangles further up the wall where other portraits had been removed. ‘Yes, yes,’ she followed my eyes, ‘they have to go – I can’t stand to have all these disapproving old guys staring down at me like that.’ She shook herself and skipped off, ponytail swinging. ‘Where is that girl?’
I followed her up, squeezing the water from the ends of my hair when she wasn’t looking.
She was waiting for me on the landing. ‘She’s probably hiding – she does that a lot – she can’t handle this noise but it looks way worse than it is, I promise.’ I could see into a master bedroom behind her where workmen were ripping up a maroon carpet, throwing up clouds of dust. The atmosphere felt manic, like a TV home makeover show where teams of builders tear down walls and battle with plywood, against the ticking of a make-believe clock.
Mariah steered me towards a second flight of stairs, much more narrow and steep. ‘This house was a total museum, Dee, you wouldn’t believe it – I just have to get rid of basically everything.’ We were on the attic floor now, walking along a long, low-ceilinged corridor, with two doors on the left, and a dark dead end ahead. ‘It was worst up here though.’ She bounced words at me over her shoulder like ping-pong balls: ‘Dark, dark, dark and dusty and incredibly cluttered, my God! It was like one long tomb up here, covered in oil paintings and thick, heavy curtains blocking the light out. Just terrible!’ She pronounced ‘just’ as ‘yust’. ‘And I said to Nick, I’m Danish! I can’t live like this! Could you, Dee? I’m like a plant, I need light and space or I just shrivel up and die.’
The floor up here, I noticed, sloped to the left, as if the top of the house was about to slide off into the lane below. Mariah tried to push open the first door but a builder was drilling on the other side so she beckoned me towards the second door. ‘The thing is, the Lodging isn’t a private house at all – oh, watch your feet –’ she stepped neatly over a hacksaw, ‘it’s a workplace too – a lot of people are going to be coming in and out. We’ll be entertaining here from October when term starts, so it’s got to reflect who we are, you know, it’s got to feel modern and, like, actually alive. At least, that’s my excuse –’ she waved a hand – ‘for all this. But you know what, I’d be doing a total renovation anyway. Honestly, you just couldn’t live here how it was.’
She led me to a modest eaves room, with a bell tower directly opposite its window. ‘So, this is going to be the nanny’s room.’ The carpet must have just been removed, because the parquet floor was unfinished, ancient and blackened, strewn with rusty tacks and dust. The scorched metal smell was even more powerful and I saw that the builders were working on an en suite.
There was no sign of a child, but she seemed to have forgotten that we were looking for Felicity. ‘So that’s the bathroom there, between the two bedrooms. You can get into it from both sides – a little bit strange, I know, but hopefully that works out okay. If I was going to live here for ever I’d do something better with it, but it’ll be fine for a year or two – ’ she glanced at me, ‘or, you know, however long we’re here.’
College Masters, I happened to know, were expected to commit to at least four years – unless ousted, which was rare – though, given the troubles with this College, perhaps a genuine hazard.
I followed her back down to the first floor landing. Dust gritted my eyeballs and teeth and my head was beginning to throb. She thrust out an arm to stop me as the workmen heaved the chest of drawers out of the master bedroom, and then we followed as they manoeuvred it down the stairs, painfully slowly. At the bottom step she guided me into a modern glass extension.
The windows were steamed and streaked with rain so I couldn’t see the back garden clearly, but the light was soft, tinted peach, and as Mariah closed the door the noise receded. ‘We’re staying in College this week, thank God. Did Nick warn you about all this work? I hope he did. Anyway, Dee – is that short for something? Diane? Deirdre? – here, sit, sit. Oh, look at you, you’re still so wet from the rain! But it’s warm in here with the glass, isn’t it? At least this room doesn’t need any work. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? The Master before Lord Eaves had it built. She was the only woman – can you even call her a “Master”? – in 600 years, can you believe that? She came from New Zealand, so I guess she needed the light too.’
I had come to look after the Zagreb professor’s little girl just as the Governing Body decided that the New Zealander was ‘not a good fit’. I remembered that I’d once passed her in the Porter’s Lodge. Her face had been set in a rictus of despair, like one of the unhinged gargoyles on the College battlements.
Mariah perched on the arm of a chair and gestured at a white couch, surrounded by vases of frothing roses. I sank into it, grateful. . .
We hope you are enjoying the book so far. To continue reading...