In Bitter Chill

By: Sarah Ward

For Mum


Blade clanked on flint. Again. Causing the man to recoil. He turned, looking for reassurance from the woman whose stone-coloured eyes gave as little relief as the hard ground he was trying to part. Small fissures lay in a criss-cross pattern over the unforgiving soil, made by ineffectual glances from the blade. The woman nodded for him to continue. He shrugged off his tweed jacket, the smell of his own acrid sweat mingling with the lanolin to create a nauseating aroma of toil and, much worse, of life. Stepping back, he felt his heel sink into softer, more yielding ground covered by a smattering of twigs and decomposing leaves. He moved back further, the ground still soft. Panic had dulled his senses; he had wasted important minutes trying to break ground that his ancestors knew to leave well alone.

Their burden lay to one side, the winding sheet beginning to part, and the man could see golden threads of hair spilling out onto the drab ground. The woman followed his gaze but did nothing, her eyes challenging him to stop their task. He imagined the small body beneath its makeshift shroud. In another, parallel world, the tiny heart would still be beating and his wouldn’t have frozen at the moment he realised that it was all over.

He shifted position and began again. The organic matter crackled and groaned but parted to the touch of the blade. The pit widened and, when it was finished, the man looked down and remembered the wicker cradle that he had recently placed his newborn daughter into so carefully. A nudge on his shoulder moved him out of the way. The woman laid her load into the makeshift tomb and, with her shoe, began kicking over the leaves and twigs and other fruits of that ancient forest. Angry, he picked up his spade again and used it to sweep his toil back over the body. His white shirt slapped against his chest and damp oozed into his shoes, turning the pale fawn leather a brackish brown. When he was finished, he looked down and the ground swam before his eyes. The cold earth had accepted its new charge and even now he doubted he could locate the exact position of the damp grave. His body twitched with the impulse to start digging again.

He felt a chill ripple over him as the woman touched him on the arm. The eternal pull of her presence was now turning into a fear that he could not succumb to. The bile rising in his throat must be ignored and conquered. It was she who, once more, would need to help him out of the crisis that threatened to overwhelm them both. He allowed her to lead him back through the wood: he, stumbling slightly, his heavy limbs trying to root him to the ground; she, guiding the way with her gloved hands. As the trees parted, they came to the entrance and light began to trickle through the overhanging branches. Gradually he could make out the shape of the white car sitting in the car park. There, inside, the other girl waited for him.

‘Stop!’ The command, unfamiliar on his lips, halted them both. She turned around, her mouth a line of displeasure.

‘I need to do this. Alone.’

She let him go and he walked slowly towards the car.

Chapter 1

Detective Inspector Francis Sadler watched the heavy clouds gather through the window and cursed the role that central heating had played in dislocating him from the elements. In his childhood home, his frugal father had banned switching on the radiators until the first day of December. It meant that, as a boy, he had become to used to connecting the weather outside with the sensations of his body. His memories of getting dressed wrapped in his still warm duvet, the icy crispness of the air mixing with the comfort of the breaking dawn, could never be entirely banished. Now, looking down at his dark trousers and pressed shirt, no need to wear a jacket in this overheated office, he wondered if he could ever feel that physical connection again.

The door opened, letting in a swift blast of cooler air.

‘Is it the Wilton Hotel that’s haunted?’

Sadler looked up and frowned at Detective Sergeant Damian Palmer. He wondered, once again, if he’d employed someone in his own image. It was what you were warned against on those interminable police training courses. But all the boxes that had to be ticked and the forms to be completed failed to eliminate the pull of subjectivity. When you were choosing a member of your team, what you wanted was someone a little bit like yourself. You might recognise your own flaws, but you were rarely prepared to condemn them. And Palmer, with his cropped hair and stocky build, might be physically worlds apart from his own rangy restlessness, but at the heart of them both was the need for success.

His silence was making his sergeant nervous. Sadler wondered about this. Perhaps this was where they differed. Because it was a long time since Sadler had felt fear or even the tingling of nerves. Maybe it was the difference in their ages. Fifteen years was a long time, especially in this job. But the day would come, Sadler had no doubt, when Palmer would be inspiring his own brand of fear in his subordinates.

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