Never Alone@Elizabeth Haynes

Part One

Exile is a curious thing. It starts off and you think it’s fine, you think you’re not bothered, but at some point it starts to burn.

I kidded myself that this was what I wanted – I needed the space, I needed time to get my head straight; I needed to find myself. That’s what they say, right? So I ran as far away as I could, and then I started to wonder what I was running from.

Running from myself? Running from my own mistakes?

Hard to admit that.

But it’s impossible to sustain, exile, that’s the thing. Because the feeling of home is too strong a pull, and sooner or later the cord snaps tight and you find yourself working your way back.

And that’s when it starts to get really, really difficult.

When you realise that the people you left behind have changed.

When you realise that you should have stayed away.

Sarah

Not for the first time, Sarah Carpenter stands at the top of the hill and thinks that this would be a good place to die. It feels like the end of the world, so high up that even the trees don’t bother to grow. It’s just tussocky windblown grass, clouds racing overhead, drops of icy rain when you’re not expecting them.

You could die here and nobody would notice. You could lie down, and nobody would ever find you. The wind would continue to blow and the sun, sometimes, would shine, and there would be rain and snow too, picking at your clothes and your flesh until there was nothing left but bones. Even in January, though, with the weather unpredictable and sometimes even dangerous, it’s not just Sarah who comes up here. There are wildlife rangers, fell-walkers. Someone would find you, eventually.

But today – there is not a soul up here. Just Sarah and her two dogs, who have, for the moment, disappeared out of sight.

She is completely alone.

Below her, the slope down to the dry stone wall that marks the boundary of her property is steep and treacherous. There is a field, of sorts, patchy, rutted, the tough grass yellowing and breaking away at the steeper parts, earthy cracks forming uneven terraces. In the field, squatting like a troll, is the derelict croft that once sheltered shepherds, before the farm was built. Below that the gradient begins to even out and there is her garden, stunted trees and a vegetable patch, nothing growing there now. Four Winds Farm huddles into the hillside as though the wind might rip it off its foundations and blow it down into the valley.

‘Basil! Tess!’ Sarah calls, and her words are stolen from her mouth by the wind. She can hardly feel her face now. Time to head back.

Whether she has heard or not, Tess the collie appears from behind her and Basil is not far behind, wagging his tail and looking overjoyed at the fact that he has found something foul to roll in. His blond coat has a long streak of something black from shoulder to flank.

‘Oh, Basil, you little sod.’ She doesn’t have time to give him a bath, not today. Stumbling over the tussocks, she debates hosing him down outside and leaving him out until he’s dried off. But it’s freezing, and, looking at the clouds overhead, it might even snow.

She checks her watch: it’s nearly half-past eight. Perhaps, if she’s quick…

She leaves Basil whining outside the back door while she dries Tess with a towel in the utility room. Out of the wind, her cheeks are stinging and her ears humming with the sudden quiet in the house. Tess looks at her with big brown eyes and raises one doggy eyebrow as if to point out that she should expect nothing less from a Labrador.

‘I know,’ Sarah says aloud, as if Tess had actually spoken. ‘He’s an idiot. What can you do?’

She gives Tess a biscuit and the dog scampers away to her bed in the kitchen. Doors shut inside for damage-limitation purposes, she lets Basil in. He’s not sure whether he’s pleased to be allowed in or anxious about what might be coming next, which gives her the advantage. She takes him by the collar and hauls him into the small downstairs shower room.

He hangs his head and gives out a little whine.

‘It’s your own fault,’ she says. ‘Today of all days, Basil, how could you?’

Still, she thinks, massaging him with lavender-scented, doggy-calming shampoo, at least he’ll smell fresh for our visitor.

He’s early. That’s good.

‘Basil, shush! That’s enough!’ It’s as though