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The Long Weekend is a pulse-pounding thriller about a group of women who travel to the most remote place in England for a weekend escape, only to discover a startling note that one of their husbands will be killed before they return home.
Here’s something that surprises me: you’d think the fact that I can’t control what happens up at Dark Fell Barn tonight would drive me crazy after all my painstaking planning, but it’s exciting me, making me feel like I’m alive and reassuring me that I can feel something again.
It’s how I know I’m doing the right thing.
Rob has been dead for four months and I have been living in a state of numbness. Everyone else has moved on, that’s obvious, even though it’s felt impossible to me. I’ve been the straggler, left behind on my own, my only company the ferocious pain of missing him.
And, of course, Imogen. My daughter. My lifeline. I don’t know what I would have done without her.
Sometimes I go online and find the description of Rob’s death in the North Devon Gazette. It’s a masochistic habit that I can’t seem to kick. I can’t seem to stop wanting to read it, yet I always feel upset by the article’s cold recounting of the ‘facts’.
North Devon Gazette, Friday 17 May, 2019
Robert Porter, 37 years old, drowned in an accident near Hartland Quay on the North Devon coast. Robert was photographing local wildlife on the Jurassic coastline on Tuesday when he was cut off by the tide and swept out to sea. Friends raised the alert. Swansea coastguards retrieved a body from the rocks at 6pm on Wednesday. Robert is survived by his wife, Edie and their daughter, Imogen.
Where are the words that mean something? That convey the enormity of our loss?
If I wrote about Rob dying, I would describe how it’s broken me as completely as the sea broke his body on the rocks. You would learn that I’m still frequently ambushed by grief. That there are times when I imagine it shutting me down internally: the coagulation of my blood, a thickening of my saliva until my mouth can barely open, the softening of my bones into the consistency of milk-soaked bread.
Honestly, since he died, nothing can be the same.
Which is why I’ve done what I’ve done. Imogen and I need a new life.
All being well, the parcel and the letter will soon be in place at the barn and Jayne, Ruth and Emily aren’t far behind.
Dark Fell Barn is compact, built from square blocks of local sandstone. A door punctuates the façade, as do four windows, asymmetrically placed and each one different in size to the others. Each pane of glass reflects the restless cloudscape.
John and Maggie get out of the car and she lets the dog out.
‘Bring the bags in for me?’ she asks.
He nods. Why is she asking? She doesn’t need to. Of course, he’ll do it.
She carries the wrapped parcel into the barn. He’s distracted by the view. Deep in the valley, a tributary catches the sun fleetingly and glints as if it were forked lightning. It’s breath-taking. Is it an omen? As a boy he believed this valley, the most isolated on his family’s land, is where the creatures that his father warned him about lived: bogles and brags, shapeshifters who might trick you or lead you astray. Everything up here can change in an instant.
Beyond, far to the north, a veil of rain obscures a rocky outcrop. Heavy anvil-shaped clouds are gathering behind it, dense enough that it looks to John as if the sky might collapse under their weight. The storm is no more than a few hours away and it’s heading in this direction. They’ll have to get the guests up here before it breaks, or the lane will be impassable.
He follows Maggie into the barn, Birdie at his feet.
‘John!’ she says. ‘The bags!’
‘In the car. Can you please bring them in?’
‘You only had to ask.’
She didn’t. He’s sure of it. But he hates nothing more than to argue with her.
They work through the chores in the barn in silence. Maggie checks everything John does to make sure it’s perfect and he says nothing but resents it.
She feels tired and uneasy. Today was supposed to be ordinary but everything that’s happened so far seems determined to catch her out. This strange delivery and even before that, John’s behaviour. He’s having a bad day.
When everything is dusted, beds made, towels hung, the welcome basket packed with beautifully arranged local produce and placed on the kitchen surface, Maggie takes time to position the letter and the wrapped present on the table, just as instructed. She checks how it looks from the kitchen door, and from the hallway, tweaks the angle slightly and adjusts the letter so it’s propped a little more upright.
John watches with a bad taste in his mouth. One of the things the people who come here don’t understand, he thinks, is that this barn, with its metre-thick walls, here on the borders of England and Scotland, and all the others like it in this area, were built to protect people and their livestock from invaders. From outsiders.
‘Right!’ Maggie says. ‘That’ll do. Time to go back down.’
He nods. Goodbye he says to the barn, but silently. He always does this when he departs, even though he plans to be back up here in a couple of hours, delivering their guests. He considers it a courtesy.
It was as a child that he first heard the walls whisper back: We will protect you. He heard it again, during the long months he spent restoring the place. And he’s heard it since.
But for outsiders, those walls have a different message. He senses the restlessness of the walls when he leaves guests here, and he hears them muttering:
We can contain you. We can teach you.
‘Why can’t we drive up to the barn ourselves?’ Emily asks.
She watches the farmer, John Elliott, put their cases into the back of his Land Rover. The farmhouse looks well-kept, but mud slicks the yard and she’s afraid it’s not just mud, but shit. She hardly dares inhale in case a stink hits the back of her throat.
‘You’ll see,’ he says. Or, at least, that’s what she thinks he says. His accent is strangely singsong to her ears and difficult to understand.
‘The track up to the barn isn’t passable with a normal car,’ Jayne explains, like a know-it-all. ‘You need a four-wheel drive. They say it on their website. The link I sent you?’
Emily nods but the truth is, she didn’t get past the lack of an ensuite bathroom before clicking away from the barn’s primitive little website, in despair.
The farmer offers her a hand to help her up.
‘I’m fine,’ she says. She tries to smile at him, but the effort dies on her lips. She feels intimidated by his gruff demeanour and his swarthiness and is a little repelled by his weathered hand.
The interior of the Land Rover is basic and not all that clean, the bench seat hard. Emily perches on it, wriggling to fit in beside the bags, and straps in. Ruth gets up with a grunt, accepting help from Mr Elliott. He shuts the door.
Ruth makes a freaked-out face at Emily and in spite of herself Emily can’t help smiling back, grateful that she’s not the only one finding everything rough around the edges. Jayne doesn’t look bothered, in fact she looks like she’s relishing everything as she climbs in the front beside Mr Elliott, but then she and Mark are outdoorsy types. Rain slides down the windscreen.
John Elliott drives aggressively. The pitch and roll of the car makes the journey feel more like sea travel than four-wheel travel. In the front, Jayne’s hand is clamped onto an overhead safety bar. Emily feels as if her internal organs are being redistributed.
Ruth tucks her arms beneath her breasts to stop them bouncing painfully and makes another face. Emily giggles, she doesn’t mean to, it just bursts out of her, and, bracing her elbows against the back of the seat to stabilise herself, cups each of her own boobs with a palm. Her laughter is infectious, Ruth catches it, and it quickly escalates into hysteria, which both try to manage silently, as if they’re naughty schoolkids afraid of being told off by the adults in the front.
They’re no longer smiling by the time they arrive at Dark Fell Barn but desperate for the drive to end. The rain has eased but the wind whips at them as they get down from the Land Rover and buffets them as they take in their surroundings.
‘Talk about the definition of off-grid.’ Ruth raises her voice a little to be heard. She links an arm through Jayne’s. ‘Well done, Jayney. You’ve exceeded expectations.’ For years, the men have been pushing for these weekends to be spent in more and more remote locations. Jayne has taken them further than they’ve ever been.
They stare out at the landscape, at the absolute desolation of the place. Jayne’s sense of satisfaction burgeons. Ruth can feel panic gnawing at her. She checks her phone. No reception whatsoever. She’d been warned, but it felt easier to cope with in theory. Mr Elliott is about to leave and she has a strong urge to get into the Land Rover with him and tell him to take her back down to the farmhouse. She’ll go home, collect Alfie from her mother. It’s on the tip of her tongue to call out to Mr Elliott to stop and wait for her but the shame of being a quitter and the feeling of Jayne’s arm linked through hers stops her.
As John Elliott drives back down to the farmhouse, he has thoughts about their newest guests. They told him their names and he’s already forgotten them, but their faces are clear in his head.
Only one of the women might be worthy of Dark Fell Barn, the one who rode in the front with him. Maggie told him she made the booking. He liked her steady, serious face, plain and pale, open somehow, the flinty grey eyes that narrowed in awe as she took in the sight of the barn and the view. In the car, she had sensible, respectful questions about the history of the area, wondering about the location of the ancient burial chambers that can be found up here, the Neolithic remains. She knew the correct term for them was barrows and he appreciated that. She was dressed appropriately, too, unlike the other two who will spend the weekend cold and burn too much wood trying to warm themselves.
The youngest is a slip of a creature, with flaming red hair, the sort who doubtless barely eats. She wore flimsy clothes, full make up, and dangling earrings and a watch so expensive it should have stayed at home. She’s noticeably younger than the others and it makes him wonder for the first time what the absent husbands are like, why they’re not here with their wives, who they are. When she took off her dark glasses, he saw that the green of her eyes was watery, and he thought they carried a flinch deep in them the way it lurks in the eyes of wild animals.
The third woman wore tight clothes, though they were not clothes designed to be worn that way. He suspected she had grown too large for them. Her hair curled, dark and unbrushed, as if it belonged to someone wilder, yet everything about her seemed soft and tamed. She looked ready to bolt from the moment they arrived. Preoccupation hovered around her like a cloud of midges. She must have left her mind or her heart behind at home. Her chatter didn’t disguise it from John. Amongst the expressions of delight and thanks there were too many questions about what they should do if something went wrong.
‘Don’t leave the barn in the dark,’ he said. It was all they needed to know.
They’re on their own, now.