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"A multilayered masterpiece . . . A flawless blend of mystery, ghost story, and psychological thriller."
—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
"Part murder mystery, part meditation on the love and loss of children, [On Beulah Height] keeps us baffled on the one count while touching deep, distressing feelings on the other."
—The New York Times Book Review
Little Lorraine wakes early, but the sun has woken earlier still.
These are the long summer days which stretch endlessly through all happy childhoods, when you wake into golden air and fall asleep a thousand adventures later, caressed by a light which even the tightest drawn of curtains can only turn into a gentle dusk.
There is no sound of life in the cottage. This is Sunday, the one day of the week when Mam and Dad allow themselves the luxury of a lie-in.
She gets out of bed, dresses quickly and quietly, then descends to the kitchen, where Tig yaps an excited welcome. She hushes him imperiously and he falls silent. He's very well trained, Dad insisted on that. "Only one thing worse than a disobedient dog, and that's a disobedient daughter," he said. And Mam, who knows that Lorraine can twist him round her little finger, smiled her secret smile.
A quick breakfast, then up on a stool to withdraw the top bolt of the kitchen door and out into the yard with Tig eager on her heels. No need for the lead. The yard opens right onto the edge of Ligg Common. Well-trodden paths wind through furze and briar till she arrives on the bank of Ligg Beck, whose once boisterous waters have been tamed by this parching weather into a barely dimpling trickle.
Never mind. The dried-up beck broadens the path running alongside, slowly climbing high up the dale where there are rabbits for Tig to chase, and butterflies to leap at, and tiny orchids for her to seek, while all around skylarks rocket from their healthy nests to sing their certainty that the sun will always shine and skies be blue forever.
Tony Dacre wakes an hour later. The sunfills the room with its light and warmth. He sits up, recalls it is Sunday, and smiles. His movement has half woken Elsie, his wife, who rolls on her back and opens her eyes a fraction. They sleep naked in this weather. She is slim almost to skinniness and the outline of her light body under the single sheet sets his pulse racing. He bends his lips to hers but she shakes her head and mouths, "Tea." He swings his legs out of bed, stands up, and pulls his underpants on. He is no prude but doesn't think that parents should parade naked in front of their children.
When he reaches the kitchen, a badly hacked loaf, an open jar of raspberry jam, a glass of milk half finished, and a trail of crumbs to the back door, tell him his precautions were unnecessary. He looks out into the yard. No sign of Lorraine. He shakes his head and smiles. Then he makes some tea and takes two cupfuls upstairs.
Elsie sits up in bed to drink it. From time to time he glances sideways, taking in her small dark-nippled breasts, checking the level of her tea. Finally it is finished.
She leans across him to put the cup on his bedside table. As she straightens up he catches her in his arms. She smiles up at him. He says, "All that money I wasted buying you gin when I could have had you for a cup of tea!"
They make love. Afterward he sings in the bathroom as he shaves. When he comes back into the bedroom she has gone downstairs. He gets dressed and follows.
She frowns and says, "Lorraine's had her breakfast."
"Aye, I know."
"I don't like her using that bread knife. It's really sharp. And standing on a stool to unlock the door. We'll have to talk to her, Tony."
"I will. I will," he promises.
She shakes her head in exasperation and says, "No, I'll do it."
They have breakfast. It's still only half past nine. The Sunday papers arrive. He sits in the living room, reading the sports page. Outside in the street he can hear the sound of girls' voices. After a while he stands up and goes to the front door.
The girls are playing a skipping game. Two of them are swinging a long rope. The others come running in at one end, skip their way to the other, then duck out making violent falling gestures.
Skippers and swingers alike keep up a constant chant. "One foot! Two foot! Black foot! White foot! Three foot! Four foot! Left foot! Right foot! No one runs as fast as Benny Lightfoot! OUT GOES SHE!"
Tony calls out, "Sally!"
Sally Breen, a stout little girl who lives two doors up, says, "Yes, Mr. Dacre?"
"You seen our Lorraine?"
"No, Mr. Dacre."
"Anyone seen her?"
The chanting fades away as the girls look at each other. They shake their heads.
Tony goes back into the house. Elsie is upstairs making the beds. He calls up the stairway, "Just going for a stroll, luv. I want a word with old Joe about the bowling club."
He goes out of the back door, through the yard, across the common. He's been walking with his daughter often enough to know her favorite route. Soon he is by the dried-up beck and climbing steadily along its bank up the dale.
After a while when he is sure he is out of earshot of Liggside, he starts calling her name.
For a long time there is nothing. Then he hears a distant bark. Tremulous with relief he presses on, over a fold of land. Ahead he sees Tig, alone, and limping badly, coming toward him.
Oh, now the skylarks like aery spies sing, She's here! she's hurt! she's here! she's hurt! and the dancing butterflies spell out the message She's gone forever.
He stoops by the injured dog and asks, "Where is she, Tig? SEEK!"
But the animal just cringes away from him as though fearful of a blow.
He rushes on. For half an hour he ranges the fellside, seeking and shouting. Finally, because hope here is dying, he invents hope elsewhere and heads back down the slope. Tig has remained where they met. He picks him up, ignoring the animal's yelp of pain.
"She'll be back home by now, just you wait and see, boy," he says. "Just you wait and see."
But he knows in his heart that Lorraine would never have left Tig alone and injured up the dale.
Back home, Elsie, already growing concerned, without yet acknowledging the nature of her concern, goes through the motions of preparing Sunday lunch as though, by refusing to vary her routine, she can force events back into their usual course.
When the door bursts open and Tony appears, the dog in his arms, demanding, "Is she back?" she turns pale as the flour on her hands.
All the windows of the house are open to move the heavy air. Out in the road the girls are still at their game. And as husband and wife lock gazes across the kitchen table, each willing the other to smile and say that everything's right, the words of the skipping chant come drifting between them.
"One foot! Two foot! Black foot! White foot!
Three foot! Four foot! Left foot! Right foot!
No one runs as fast as Benny Lightfoot!
OUT GOES SHE!"
Posted May 9, 2003
'On Beulah Height' is one of the most dazzling, chilling and elegantly composed mysteries I have ever read. It was my introduction to Reginald Hill and since then I've read all of his books and continually check to see when his next book is coming out. This book is not to be missed!
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