This is a story based on all the fairy tales I know – and by fairy tales I don’t mean Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. I’m talking British folk tales – Tam Lin, Thomas The Rhymer, Lady Margaret and the Elf Knight, the piskies and kelpies and the trows of Truggle Water – and all the songs that go with them. I’ve been a lifelong Steeleye Span fan, and though I have branched out into other folk, I keep going back to them – especially for inspiration for this story.
This extract comes from some way into the book, which is set in the late 1950s. Sunny, a singer in her early fifties, unmarried mother to a young son who was the result of a love affair that has ebbed and flowed over the years with Christopher, a former musician, has come to the remote part of Scotland where he lived near to his sister Debbie and her family, only to discover on arriving that he died a month before she arrived, shortly after his 60th birthday. Staying on in the area, Sunny begins to notice various odd things about Christopher’s family, particularly Lydia and Cal, Debbie’s daughters – and meets a strange woman known only as Mad Maddy, who is eager to find out exactly what happened to Christopher. Determined to investigate, Sunny finds herself and her son drawn into a world of fairies, ghosts, and witches…and begins to wonder whether any of them will survive the experience.
The Music Party
So the days passed, and on Saturday Sunny and Tom were invited round to Debbie’s house for lunch. Debbie seemed to have brightened a little since they had come out to Perthshire, and her husband John was pleased to murmur in Sunny’s ear that he was sure that Sunny’s visits to the house had wrought at least some of that change.
“She’s even talking of having a bit of music later,” he told her, “and she’s not wanted to hear music since Christopher died. I hope you’ll sing for us, Sunny. It’s been a long time since we heard your voice.”
Sunny was quick to acquiesce, and after the meal Debbie went to the piano and began the music with a piece of such relentless cheeriness that it surprised Sunny, who had expected something a little more sober for Debbie’s first musical foray since the funeral. But then Cal took over, proving herself to be a very adept musician, and after that Tom, who had spent much of the meal in dazzled silence (he had been sitting very close to Lydia), brightened up and clamoured for a chance to show off his own music.
“Alright!” laughed Sunny, “but no singing! No, I mean it!” she said as Tom groaned. “He was told to rest his voice for a few weeks,” she explained to the others. “He’s had a bad throat and the worst thing would be to damage it permanently just before you go to the Academy, wouldn’t it? No, you accompany and I’ll sing. I don’t have to worry about ruining my voice – I’m almost past it, these days.”
She sang one of Schubert’s lieder, one that Christopher had taught her many years ago. It had a slightly melancholic melody line and, when she saw how Debbie’s eyes were looking suspiciously damp, she suddenly understood why Debbie had played such an unbearably happy piece herself. Quickly she whispered to Tom, and then she sang a song Christopher had written for her, a song they had kept to themselves, bright and joyous and quite unfamiliar to their audience, who sat rapt with attention. Sunny smiled as she sang and felt her heart swell until it was as light as the air she breathed.
Then it happened. One moment she was in the parlour of Debbie’s house, the next she was somewhere else entirely. It was like stepping into an Alpine winter; she was surrounded by brilliant whiteness and the ground on which she stood was soft and gave slightly as she shifted her weight and turned around to see where she was. But there were no shapes, no shadows, only a very familiar figure standing a short distance away, dramatic against the white of their surroundings. Dressed in the same dark suit as when last she had seen him, in 1940, and with his brown hair tumbling down onto his collar, Christopher Larmoth turned round and jumped at the sight of her.
“Sunny! What are you doing here?”
“What am I doing here?” Sunny gaped at him. It must be a vision, she thought, as Christopher stared back at her in frank astonishment. Perhaps she had fainted; any minute now she would wake up back in Debbie’s salon, and this remarkably real dream would end. But nothing happened, just a long, white, whirling moment, and then she took a breath of the cool air and stared at her dead lover. He seemed quite as amazed to see her as she was to see him.
“You shouldn’t be here,” he said.
“What do you mean, I shouldn’t be here? You’re my vision!”
She couldn’t help laughing.
“Oh Christopher! Even after you’re dead you’re not sure what’s going on!”
“Ah, yes. Dead.” He frowned a little more, and when he spoke, his voice was rather more urgent than before. “Listen, Sunny, there is not a lot of time. Where are you? What is happening around you?”
“Nothing. It’s all white.” She could not tell how close he was to her; there was no sense of space, no distance, their voices were neither dull nor echoing. All she had was a feeling of many things folded in upon one small piece of space, a busy, hectic sensation on her skin and in her eardrums. She thought briefly that if she listened hard enough she would hear voices, the wind and rain, hunting horns and the sound of metal on metal; and yet the air was still and there was dead silence except when they spoke.
Christopher shook his head impatiently.
“No,” he said. “In the…world. What were you doing just now, before you arrived here?”
“I was at Debbie’s – I was singing.”
“‘Late September’. You know – the one you wrote for me.”
“I do remember,” he said, with a sudden relief. “Good. So it is one of mine, but not the other. But…that does not explain how you got here. What happened?”
“I don’t know,” she said. “I was singing, and then everything went white, and I was here. I expect I fainted.”
“Mm. Yes. I expect so.” His attention had wandered from her; he was frowning in thought, and Sunny felt the familiar surge of irritation with him, almost drowning out the helpless waves of love.
“Has Maddy told you yet?” he asked suddenly.
“Maddy! Has she explained yet, or is that to come?”
“Christopher, I don’t understand!”
He was rolling his eyes and frustration swelled within her at his dismissive response to her confusion. She fought an urge to needle him, an urge she had given in to on far too many occasions, and took a step towards him, feeling her body dip slightly as the ground gave beneath her feet.
“Christopher, why all these questions?” she asked. “It’s just a dream – a waking dream, if you like – and…all I want you to do is hold me before it ends!”
He looked up, the darker thoughts banished momentarily.
“I thought you had finished with all that?” he said. “Is that not what you said to me all those years ago?”
Sunny flung up her hands.
“If you’re going to be like that,” she said, hot irritation throbbing in her veins, and he put out a hand to her.
“Seventeen years is a long time to repent,” he said, but as she reached towards him he snatched his hand away. “No, don’t touch me.”
“If you do, your time on earth will not be long,” he said, “and I would rather know you were still alive – out there.”
“Don’t!” His voice was suddenly tender, as it had been all those years ago, before they had started arguing. Sunny swallowed hard against the tears that wanted to come, and stretched out her fingertips towards his hand.
“No,” he began to say, but she shook her head.
“I’m not touching,” she said. “I simply want to be…as close as I can get.”
For a pale moment they stood, hands a fragment of an inch apart, and the silence lasted forever and was over in a second. The last thing she remembered was Christopher smiling that old, fond, familiar smile and bringing his hands together, lightly, the palms barely touching, and then she blinked and was back on the hard oak of Debbie’s salon floor. She stumbled sideways slightly on the unfamiliar ground, and Tom stopped playing.
“I’m fine,” she said, “I’m alright.” They were all absolutely still, watching her, and she was unable to do anything except speak the truth. “I was just…thinking of Christopher.”
The spell snapped and people began to move again. John shifted uncomfortably, Cal put her fingers on her mother’s arm, Tom ran his fingers over the keyboard and averted his gaze, embarrassed. Only Lydia remained still and Sunny felt her gaze on her, watching her – pale, composed, almost calculating. It lasted for a long, long moment, and then suddenly it seemed that she had been talking to Debbie all along; and shortly afterwards the music party broke up.