profound power. All true readers have a book, a moment, like the one I describe, and when Mum offered me that much-read library copy mine was upon me. For although I didn’t know it then, after falling deep inside the world of the Mud Man, real life was never going to be able to compete with fiction again. I’ve been grateful to Miss Perry ever since, for when she handed that novel over the counter and urged my harried mother to pass it on to me, she’d either confused me with a much older child or else she’d glimpsed deep inside my soul and perceived a hole that needed filling. I’ve always chosen to believe the latter. After all, it’s the librarian’s sworn purpose to bring books together with their one true reader.

I opened that yellowing cover and, from the first chapter, the one describing the Mud Man’s awakening in the sleek, black moat, the awful moment in which his heart begins to kick, I was hooked. My nerves thrilled, my skin flushed, my fingers quivered with keenness to turn page after page, each thinning on the corner where countless other readers had taken the journey before me; I went to grand and fearsome places, all without leaving the tissue-laden couch in my family’s suburban breakfast room. The Mud Man kept me imprisoned for days: my mother started smiling again, my swollen face subsided, and my future self was forged.

I noted again the handwritten sign – Local Stories – and turned to the beaming shop assistant. ‘Raymond Blythe came from around here?’

‘Oh yes.’ She pushed fine hair behind each ear. ‘He certainly did. Lived and wrote up at Milderhurst Castle; died there too. That’s the grand estate a few miles outside the village.’ Her voice took on a vaguely forlorn note. ‘At least, it was grand once.’

Raymond Blythe. Milderhurst Castle. My heart had started to hammer pretty hard by now. ‘I don’t suppose he had a daughter?’

‘Three of them, actually.’

‘One called Juniper?’

‘That’s right; she’s the youngest.’

I thought of my mum, her memory of the seventeen-year-old girl who’d charged the air as she entered the village hall, who’d rescued her from the evacuee line, who’d sent a letter in 1941 that made Mum cry when it arrived, fifty years later. And I felt the sudden need to lean on something firm.

‘All three of them are still alive up there,’ the shop assistant continued. ‘Something in the castle water, my mother always says; they’re hale and hearty for the most part. Excepting your Juniper, of course.’

‘Why, what’s wrong with her?’

‘Dementia. I believe it’s in the family. A sad story – they say she was quite a beauty once, and very bright with it, a writer of great promise, but her fiance abandoned her back in the war and she was never the same again. Went soft in the head; kept waiting for him to come back, but he never did.’

I opened my mouth to ask where the fiance had gone, but she was on a roll and it was evident she’d be taking no questions from the floor.

‘Just as well she had her sisters to look after her – they’re a dying breed, those two; used to be involved in all sorts of charities, way back when – she’d have been packed off to an institution otherwise.’ She checked behind her, making sure we were alone, then leaned closer. ‘I remember when I was a girl, Juniper used to roam the village and the local fields; didn’t bother anyone, nothing like that, just wandered sort of aimlessly. Used to terrify the local kids; but then children like to be scared, don’t they?’

I nodded eagerly and she resumed: ‘She was harmless enough, though; never got herself into trouble she couldn’t be got back out of. And every village worth its salt needs a local eccentric.’ A smile trembled on her lips. ‘Someone to keep the ghosts company. You can read more about them all in here, if you like.’ She held up a book called Raymond Blythe’s Milderhurst.

‘I’ll take it,’ I said, handing over a ten-pound note. ‘And a copy of the Mud Man, too.’

I was almost out of the shop, brown paper bundle in hand, when she called after me, ‘You know, if you’re really interested you ought to think about doing a tour.’

‘Of the castle?’ I peered back into the shadows of the shop.

‘It’s Mrs Bird you’ll be wanting to see. Home Farm Bed and Breakfast down on the Tenterden Road.’

The farmhouse stood a couple of miles back the way I’d come, a stone and tile-hung cottage attended by profusely flowering gardens, a hint of other farm buildings clustered behind. Two small dormers peeked through the roofline and a flurry of white doves wafted around the coping of a tall brick chimneystack. Leaded windows had been opened to take advantage of the warm day, diamond panels winking blindly at the afternoon sun.

I parked the car beneath a giant ash whose looming arms caught the edge of the cottage in its shadow, then wandered through the sun-warmed tangle: heady jasmine, delphiniums and campanulas, spilling over the brick path. A pair of white geese waddled fatly by, without so much as pausing to acknowledge my intrusion, as I went through the door, passing from brilliant sunshine into a faintly lit room. The immediate walls were decorated with black-and-white photographs of the castle and its grounds, all taken, according to the subtitles, on a Country Life shoot in 1910. Against the far wall, behind a counter with a gold ‘Reception’ sign, a short, plump woman in a royal-blue linen suit was waiting for me.

‘Well now, you must be my young visitor from London.’ She blinked through a pair of round tortoiseshell frames, and smiled at my confusion. ‘Alice from the bookshop called ahead, letting me know I might expect you. You certainly didn’t waste any time in coming; Bird thought you’d be another hour at least.’

I glanced at the yellow canary in a palatial cage suspended behind her.

‘He was ready for his lunch, but I said you’d be sure to arrive just as soon as I closed the door and put out the sign.’ She laughed then, a smoky chuckle that rolled up from the base of her throat. I’d guessed her age as pushing sixty, but that laugh belonged to a much younger, far more wicked woman than first impressions suggested. ‘Alice tells me you’re interested in the castle.’

‘That’s right. I was hoping to do a tour and she sent me here. Do I need to sign up somewhere?’

‘Dear me, no, nothing as official as all that. I run the tours myself.’ Her linen bosom puffed self-importantly before deflating again. ‘That is, I did.’


‘Oh yes, and a lovely task it was too. The Misses Blythe used to operate them personally, of course; they started in the 1950s as a way to fund the castle’s upkeep and save themselves from the National Trust – Miss Percy wouldn’t have that, I can assure you – but it all got a bit much some years ago. We’ve all of us got our limits and when Miss Percy reached hers, I was delighted to step in. There was a time I used to run five a week, but there’s not much call these days. It seems people have forgotten the old place.’ She gave me a quizzical look, as though I might be able to explain the vagaries of the human race.

‘Well, I’d love to see inside,’ I said brightly, hopefully, maybe even a little desperately.

Mrs Bird blinked at me. ‘Of course you would, my dear, and I’d love to show you, but I’m afraid the tours don’t run any more.’

The disappointment was crushing and for a moment I didn’t think I’d be able to speak. ‘Oh,’ I managed. ‘Oh dear.’

‘It’s a shame, but Miss Percy said her mind was made up. She said she was tired of opening her home so ignorant tourists had somewhere to drop their rubbish. I’m sorry Alice misled you.’ She shrugged her shoulders helplessly and a knotty silence fell between us.

I attempted polite resignation, but as the possibility of seeing inside Milderhurst Castle receded, there was suddenly very little in life that I wanted more fiercely. ‘Only – I’m such a great admirer of Raymond Blythe,’ I heard myself say. ‘I don’t think I’d have ended up working in publishing if I hadn’t read the Mud Man when I was a child. I don’t suppose… That is, perhaps if you were to put in a good word, reassure the owners that I’m not the sort of person to go dropping rubbish in their home?’

‘Well…’ She frowned, considering. ‘The castle is a joy to behold, and there’s no one as proud of her perch as Miss Percy… Publishing, you say?’

It had been an inadvertent stroke of brilliance: Mrs Bird belonged to a generation for whom those words held a sort of Fleet Street glamour; never mind my poky, paper-strewn cubicle and rather sobering balance sheets. I seized upon this opportunity as a drowning person might a raft: ‘Billing & Brown Book Publishers, Notting Hill.’ I remembered then the business cards Herbert had presented at my little promotion party. I never think to carry them with me, not in an official way, but they come in very handy as bookmarks and I was thus able to whip one

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