With just 3 weeks to go we thought you'd enjoy this extract from Another Time Another Place which will be published on 15th April 2020
I’d forgotten how cold it can be just before dawn. And quite dark, too. On the other hand, I’ve been clandestinely creeping around St Mary’s since the moment I arrived all those years ago. I know every twist and turn. Every creaking door. Every squeaky board. As long as Professor Rapson hadn’t carelessly left any half-constructed bear traps or acid baths around the place, I didn’t even need a torch.
I ghosted around the gallery and down the stairs, carefully keeping to the edges to minimise the creaks, although the whole edifice does tend to groan like a clipper in a strong wind whether anyone is standing on it or not.
The Great Hall was no problem. I could weave my way in and out of whiteboards, trestle tables, chairs, stools, piles of files, whatever, with my eyes closed. And frequently had.
I passed silently through the vestibule. The front doors were already unbolted. Easing my way through, I paused to zip up my body warmer. The morning was cold, dank and silent. It was lighter outside, although, sensibly, even the birds weren’t up yet. Moisture beaded every surface. Tendrils of light fog drifted across from the lake. Perfect conditions for a discreet getaway.
The car stood ready and waiting – a small family hatchback of an indeterminate grey colour. There must be millions of them around. You can’t avoid CCTV cameras completely, of course, but I would bet any money Leon had stowed a couple of alternative registration plates in the boot. I love that people think he’s so respectable.
I skipped down the steps, my frosty breath billowing and making substantial contributions to the fog and general non- visibility around me. Actually, skipped is the wrong word. Skipped implies light-hearted, joyful, carefree and so on, and I wasn’t any of those. People do leave St Mary’s. Sometimes under quite happy circumstances. But not today. Today was not a happy day.
Leon loomed up out of the fog. Very visible in his orange techie jumpsuit.
I tilted my head to one side. ‘You do know this is a stealth assignment, don’t you? Short of attaching an SAR beacon, is there any way you could be more obvious?
’He put his arm around me because I was just putting on a brave face and we both knew it. I asked him if everything was ready.
He nodded. ‘It is.’
He said, ‘It’s time, Max.’‘
I know,’ I said, staring at my feet. ‘I know. It’s just . . .’‘I know,’ he said, rubbing my shoulder. ‘But the moment has come to say goodbye.’
I nodded. No putting it off any longer. Leon shut the boot and I walked around the car.
Hunter was sitting in the back seat. Markham had muffled her up well but she still looked a little pale and tired. Baby Flora was sleeping soundly in her car-crib. I crouched down to talk to Hunter. ‘All right? Got everything?’
She smiled. ‘I hope so because I don’t think we have room for anything else.’ And I laughed because, trust me, the amount of supplies and equipment needed to transport a tiny human from A to B is mind-blowingly colossal. They could probably go off and discover another continent with what they had packed in that car.
I myself had contributed a little to their burden. I’d gone into Matthew’s bedroom and taken down the little suitcase of baby clothes that was all that remained of his childhood. Most of it unworn because he hadn’t had his childhood for very long. I don’t know why I’d kept them. It wasn’t as if I’d ever need them again.
‘Here,’ I’d said to Markham. ‘Everything from six months onwards. Babies grow fast and you’ll need them more quickly than you think.’
He took the case very carefully. ‘Are you sure?’
I nodded. I’d kept back one or two small items, together with the blanket Helen Foster had knitted, but there was no point in hanging on to the rest. The sensible thing to do was to give the stuff to someone who would need it.
Back to the misty morning . . . Hunter gripped my hand. ‘Max . . .’‘I know,’ I said, near to tears myself. ‘But it’s not forever. You’ll be back before you know it.’ I glanced over to Markham who was giving last-minute instructions to Evans. Or talking about the football – it could be either. ‘He’s done everything he can to keep the three of you safe. I have complete confidence you’ll all be fine.’
‘Absolutely fine,’ she said with a small laugh. ‘Take care, Di.’ I straightened up and shut the door.
As I did so, the front door opened and Peterson and Evans made their way down the steps towards us, both of them looking even less happy than me.
Markham was shaking hands with Leon who was wishing him luck.
Markham nodded and turned to Peterson. They looked at their feet for a moment and then Markham mumbled, ‘For God’s sake, look after Max – you know what she’s like.’
Peterson nodded and shoved his hands in his pockets. The world was utterly silent. Not a sound anywhere. The fog seemed to be thickening.
Markham looked over Peterson’s shoulder. ‘I . . . um . . .’ He stopped.
‘We can only hope your daughter grows up to be more articulate than you,’ said Peterson gravely. ‘Although that wouldn’t be difficult.’
Their laughter had a forced sound to it.
‘Should be going,’ mumbled Markham.
Peterson clapped him on the shoulder.
‘OK. Well. I’ll be off, then.’
‘Yeah, mate – you too.’
Markham saw me waiting and came over, presumably before either he or Peterson forgot they were British and embarrassed themselves and each other in public. ‘Max.’
I couldn’t speak and I think he was having some problems as well.
‘Max . . . I’ll never forget what you did and . . .’I nodded because I couldn’t do anything else.
He swallowed. ‘I’ll find a way of staying in touch.’
Honour compelled me to say, ‘Don’t do anything stupid,’ which, as futile efforts go, was probably slightly less effective than Cnut trying to halt the oncoming tide.
I said, ‘Keep them safe,’ and he nodded again, squeezed my hand one last time, climbed into the car and started the engine. There was no cheery toot of the horn, just the crunch of tyres on gravel as he pulled slowly away. The gates were already open. He slowed carefully, indicated right and disappeared into the fog. Peterson and I stood for a long time, looking at the place where Markham used to be.
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