took the back roads instead. My sense of direction is quite dreadful, but there was an AA book in the glove compartment and I was resigned to pulling over regularly to consult it.

It took me a good half hour to become well and truly lost. I still don’t know how it happened, but I suspect the map’s vintage played a part. That, and the fact that I’d been enjoying the view – fields speckled with cowslips; wild flowers decorating the ditches by the side of the road – when I probably should have been paying attention to the road itself. Whatever the cause, I’d lost my spot on the map, and was driving along a narrow lane over which great bowed trees were arched when I finally admitted that I had no idea whether I was heading north, south, east or west.

I wasn’t worried, though, not then. As far as I could see, if I just continued on my way, sooner or later I was bound to reach a junction, a landmark, maybe even a roadside stall where someone might be kind enough to draw a big red X on my map. I wasn’t due back at work that afternoon; roads didn’t continue on forever; I just needed to keep my eyes peeled.

And that’s how I saw it, poking up from the middle of an aggressive mound of ivy. One of those old white posts with the names of local villages carved into arrowed pieces of wood pointing in each direction. Milderhurst, it read, 3 miles.

I stopped the car and read the signpost again, hairs beginning to quiver on the back of my neck. An odd sixth sense overcame me, and the cloudy memory that I’d been struggling to bring into focus ever since Mum’s lost letter arrived in February resurrected itself. I climbed out of the car, as if in a dream, and followed where the signpost led. I felt like I was watching myself from the outside, almost as if I knew what I was going to find. And perhaps I did.

For there they were, half a mile along the road, right where I’d imagined they might be. Rising from the brambles, a set of tall iron gates, once grand but listing now at broken angles. Leaning, one towards the other, as if to share a weighty burden. A sign was hanging on the small stone gatehouse, a rusted sign that read, Milderhurst Castle.

My heart beat fast and hard against my ribcage and I crossed the road towards the gates. I gripped a bar with each hand – cold, rough, rusting iron beneath my palms – and brought my face, my forehead, slowly to press against them. I followed with my eyes the gravel driveway that curved away, up the hill, until it crossed a bridge and disappeared behind a thick patch of woods.

It was beautiful and overgrown and melancholy, but it wasn’t the view that stole my breath. It was the thudding realization, the absolute certainty, that I had been here before. That I had stood at these gates and peered between the bars and watched the birds flying like scraps of night-time sky above the bristling woods.

Details murmured into place around me and it seemed as if I’d stepped into the fabric of a dream; as if I were occupying, once again, the very same temporal and geographical space that my long-ago self had done. My fingers tightened around the bars and somewhere, deep within my body, I recognized the gesture. I’d done the same thing before. The skin of my palms remembered. I remembered. A sunny day, a warm breeze playing with the hem of my dress – my best dress – the shadow of my mother, tall in my peripheral vision.

I glanced sideways to where she stood, watching her as she watched the castle, the dark and distant shape on the horizon. I was thirsty, I was hot, I wanted to go swimming in the rippling lake that I could see through the gates. Swimming with the ducks and moorhens and the dragon- flies making stabbing movements amongst the reeds along the banks.

‘Mum,’ I remembered saying, but she didn’t reply. ‘Mum?’ Her head turned to face me, and a split second passed in which not a spark of recognition lit her features. Instead, an expression that I didn’t understand held them hostage. She was a stranger to me, a grown-up woman whose eyes masked secret things. I have words to describe that odd amalgam now: regret, fondness, sorrow, nostalgia; but back then I was clueless. Even more so when she said, ‘I’ve made a mistake. I should never have come. It’s too late.’

I don’t think I answered her, not then. I had no idea what she meant and before I could ask she’d gripped my hand and pulled so hard that my shoulder hurt, dragging me back across the road to where our car was parked. I’d caught a hint of her perfume as we went, sharper now and sour where it had mixed with the day’s scorching air, the unfamiliar country smells. And she’d started the car, and we’d been driving, and I was watching a pair of sparrows through the window when I heard it: the same ghastly cry that she’d made when the letter arrived from Juniper Blythe.

The Books and the Birds

The castle gates were locked and far too high to scale, not that I’d have rated my chances had they been lower. I’ve never been one for sports or physical challenges, and with the arrival of that missing memory my legs had turned, most unhelpfully, to jelly. I felt strangely disconnected and uncertain and, after a time, there was nothing for it but to go back to the car and sit for a while, wondering how best to proceed. In the end, my choices were limited. I felt far too distracted to drive, certainly anywhere as far as London, so I started up the car and proceeded at a crawl into Milderhurst village.

On first glimpse it was like all the other villages I’d driven through that day: a single road through the centre with a green at one end, a church beside it, and a school along the way. I parked in front of the local church hall and I could almost see the lines of weary London schoolchildren, grubby and uncertain after their interminable train ride. A ghostly imprint of Mum long ago, before she was my mum, before she was much of anything, filing helplessly towards the unknown.

I drifted along the High Street, trying – without much success – to tame my flyaway thoughts. Mum had been back to Milderhurst, all right, and I had been with her. We’d stood at those gates and she’d become upset. I remembered it. It had happened. But as surely as one answer had been found, a host of new questions had broken free, fluttering about my mind like so many dusty moths seeking the light. Why had we come and why had she wept? What had she meant when she told me she’d made a mistake, that it was too late? And why had she lied to me, just three months before, when she’d told me that Juniper Blythe’s letter mean nothing?

Round and round the questions flew, until finally I found myself standing at the open door of a bookshop. It’s natural in times of great perplexity, I think, to seek out the familiar, and the high shelves and long rows of neatly lined-up spines were immensely reassuring. Amid the smell of ink and binding, the dusty motes in beams of strained sunlight, the embrace of warm, tranquil air, I felt that I could breathe more easily. I was aware of my pulse slowing to its regular pace and my thoughts stilling their wings. It was dim, which was all the better, and I picked out favourite authors and titles like a teacher taking roll-call. Bronte – present; Dickens – accounted for; Shelley – a number of lovely editions. No need to slide them out of place; just to know that they were there was enough, to brush them lightly with my fingertips.

I wandered and noted, reshelved occasionally when books were out of place, and eventually I came upon a clearing at the back of the shop. There was a table set up at the centre with a special display labelled Local Stories. Crowded together were histories, coffee-table tomes, and books by local authors: Tales of Mystery, Murder and Mayhem, Adventures of the Hawkhurst Smugglers, A History of Hop Farming. In the middle, propped on a wooden stand, was a title I knew: The True History of the Mud Man.

I gasped and picked it up to cradle.

‘You like that one?’ The shop assistant had appeared from nowhere, hovering nearby as she folded her dusting cloth.

‘Oh, yes,’ I said reverently. ‘Of course. Who doesn’t?’

The first time I encountered The True History of the Mud Man I was ten years old and home from school, sick. It was the mumps, I think, one of those childhood illnesses that keep you isolated for weeks, and I must’ve been getting whiney and unbearable because Mum’s sympathetic smile had tightened to a stoical crease. One day, after ducking out for a brief reprieve on the High Street, she’d returned with renewed optimism and pressed a tattered library book into my hands.

‘Perhaps this will cheer you up,’ she’d said tentatively. ‘It’s for slightly older readers, I think, but you’re a clever girl; with a bit of effort I’m sure you’ll be fine. It’s rather long compared with what you’re used to, but do persevere.’

I probably coughed self-pityingly in response, little aware that I was about to cross a tremendous threshold beyond which there would be no return; that in my hands I held an object whose simple appearance belied its

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