Authors: James Long
‘Long’s unpretentiously told time-slippage romance is played out against a bewitchingly bucolic setting’
‘A story of love and self discovery that resonates across the ages’ Nicholas Evans
‘It has been compared to
The Time Traveler’s Wife
, but I think
is much better’
New Books Magazine
‘The book is a lovely puzzle . . . an enthralling, ambitious novel with distinct echoes of Hardy’
Mail on Sunday
‘An historical novel, a love story and a tale of time slippage, just the tale you need when you want to escape into a book and forget the world for 480 pages. Fresh and
intriguing, the detail is done with a master’s touch. There’s many a current bestseller in this vein that can’t hold a candle to Long’s involving story’
James Long is the author of non-fiction, historical fiction and thrillers. A former BBC correspondent, he lives in Bristol.
Also by James Long
Silence and Shadows
Writing as Will Davenport
The Perfect Sinner
With Ben Long
The Plot Against Pepys
First published in Great Britain by Quercus, 2012
This paperback edition published by Simon & Schuster UK Ltd, 2016
A CBS COMPANY
Copyright © James Long 2012
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Paperback ISBN: 978-1-47114-315-1
ebook ISBN: 978-1-47114-298-7
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to
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Joanna’s father Toby had wanted to call her Melissa but he played no part in the final decision because he died more or less in childbirth. Her mother Fleur dismissed the
name out of hand and even Toby’s death did not change her mind.
So it was that Joanna Mary Driscoll was born at 8.15 in the morning on the last Wednesday in May of 1994, breathing in the air of the York Hospital Maternity Unit with a puzzled and anxious look
in her pale blue eyes. Toby would have picked her up and comforted her but he had been dead for over an hour by that time, driving straight into an oncoming petrol tanker as he left the hospital
car park in an unreasoning panic. He was racing home to collect Fleur’s bag of vital accessories – left behind by him, as she pointed out, when her waters broke.
They didn’t tell Fleur about the accident until after Jo had been delivered, and something began to go wrong between mother and daughter as soon as they did. Fleur, the few remaining soft
parts of her beginning to harden over, looked grimly at her baby with blame already hanging in the air between them.
Fleur had been the main wage earner in the marriage and she went back to work as soon as she could, so Jo was cared for by a succession of nannies mostly too young to show her more than an inept
sentimentality. Over the next few years, the ones who were old enough to understand rapidly fell foul of Fleur when they dared to imply she might do well to spend a bit more time with her daughter.
It was just after one of these had left, fired abruptly the previous evening as soon as she had finished the ironing, that Fleur found she had no alternative but to take Jo with her on her
That was why Jo, as a toddler, quite baffled by the world, found herself in the village of Stamford Bridge, a few miles outside York, tagging along as her mother strode round a ramshackle
Georgian mansion. Fleur was barking questions at the cowed girl from the estate agents, who was starting to understand why her more experienced colleagues had suddenly found pressing alternative
Jo started to cry when she looked out of the patio doors across the farmland behind the house. Irritated, Fleur asked her what was wrong, but she couldn’t explain because she didn’t
know. At four years and two months old, how do you decode a tide of adult grief without any protecting drainage channel of words or concepts? All Jo knew was that the bit that she was just starting
to understand as herself was shredded by a turmoil of utter sorrow bowling down at her from across that bleak field.
Fleur tried to reason with her but reason had nothing to do with this. Crying turned to howling and then into such an utter loss of control that the young estate agent found herself propelled
forward to bend down and clutch the tiny girl to stop her damaging herself while the mother’s mouth tightened in anger as she stood and watched.
After ten minutes, all the muscles Jo was using to cry and writhe were so worn out that she heaved to a halt, rolled over towards the window and stared out in a dull torpor. That was when Fleur
finally picked her up, taking care to keep the child’s tear-stained cheeks away from her silk blouse.
‘No more?’ she said. ‘You’ve finished then?’ and the little girl pointed with an unsteady finger out across the fields as if that explained everything.
Driving back home to York brought a change in Jo that her mother was too annoyed and too busy with her own thoughts to recognise. Sitting strapped in her child seat, Jo tried to turn her head to
look behind, then stared out of the window when a bend in the road allowed a brief glimpse of the receding village. She had a picture of a bridge in her head but it faded away so sharply that she
gave a little sniff of surprise. It left something behind. All at once, and for the first time, Jo felt her separateness, aware suddenly that she was one single person, different to this mother in
the front seat. Furrowing her brow, she began to explore herself, trying to test out where she stopped and started.
That night, Jo lay in her bed knowing she was alone, that beyond the tips of her fingers and her toes nobody else was there who knew what she was feeling in the exact way she felt it. She wanted
Francesca to read her the rest of
but Francesca had been sent away. She picked up the book from her bedside table, struggling with both hands, and opened it to look at the
pictures, trying to find the last one they had looked at together before Francesca had kissed her goodnight and gone to finish the ironing – before she had heard loud voices downstairs and
her mother shouting. She let the book fall on the bedcover and saw the bridge again, in shape after shape, all imagined, all wooden, all sad. Clutching the woollen doll another lost nanny had
bought her, she held it squashed against her chest, fearing that if she let it go someone might come and bury it in the earth by that bridge. Then she began to cry silently, keeping the sobs inside
for fear of footsteps on the stairs.
Lost in that misery, someone quietly spoke a name inside her head, touched her on the forehead – behind the forehead where it really hurt, kissing the tears away from the inside. In the
filtered evening gloom of the curtained room someone was there with her, giving her courage, telling her she was not alone after all and everything really would be all right. Something like a story
without words filled the room, sealed off the rest of the house and brought her safety. It was a story about friendship and love, a promise of the future – even better than
, thought Jo as she fell asleep.
When she woke in the morning, she was so delighted by the visit that she told her mother about it at breakfast. A week later, her mother took her to a large, quiet house near the Minster where a
quiet man sat in a quiet room and asked her lots of questions with long, quiet silences in between.
‘Your mother tells me you have a new friend.’
‘She says your new friend is called “Girly”. Is that right?’
It was near enough, so she nodded again.
‘Is that Girly?’ he asked, and it took her a moment to realise that he was pointing at the woolly doll. She was so surprised at his mistake that she laughed out loud.
‘That’s a toy,’ she pointed out in a kind voice so he would not feel hurt. You would have thought a grown-up would know that.
Afterwards she sat in the waiting room, watching
on television while the quiet man talked to her mother.
‘It’s nothing to worry about, Mrs Driscoll,’ he said. ‘A high proportion, perhaps even a majority of children of Joanna’s age have imaginary friends. It can be a
reaction to all kinds of things – a bit of stress, a bit of loneliness, sometimes neither of those. It’s often the more intelligent children who need to have someone they can talk to.
It may be an animal or a fairy or another child.’
‘This one isn’t any of those,’ said Fleur. ‘She talks as if it’s a grown woman.’
The psychiatrist was about to suggest this might be a mother substitute but he looked at the jut of Fleur’s jaw and thought better of it.
‘There’s another thing. She keeps eating grass.’
‘Well, plants and leaves. Things from the garden and the hedges. I told her she would poison herself and she just said no, she wouldn’t, and it made her feel better.’