Laurence Bartram was waiting for a late connection at Swindon station. It was a bright April day and he had been glad to leave London: a city teeming with the crowds drawn in by Empire Exhibition fever. Now, as he looked beyond the water tower towards the vast marshalling yards and busy workshops of the Great Western Railway, the metallic clangour, the smell of oil and coal, and the distant shouted exchanges of railwaymen filled the air. There was order in the rows of trains in their cream and brown livery and then the tidy terraces of railway cottages, but behind them the sweep of the hills to the southwest rose, bigger than all of it.
Once settled on the train, Laurence felt in his pocket for the three letters he had brought with him, all of which he needed to respond to. It was the one from William Bolitho, an architect, asking him to look at Easton Deadall church that had intrigued him and brought him on this journey. Alongside the church, Lydia Easton, who had the small estate of Easton Hall, hoped to create a maze to remember the many men from the village who had died during the war. It was an odd sort of memorial Laurence had thought, re-reading William’s letter. But Mrs Easton was also improving the estate workers’ cottages. William had been sanguine; he wrote that the job was basically roofing, painting and installing water closets. But planning the geometry of a maze had evidently been some compensation for the more mundane improvements and recently Mrs Easton had raised the possibility of a new window in the church to commemorate her late husband. ‘I’ve sketched ideas – found a London man to do the practical stuff – but I’d really appreciate it if you could come and take a look at the church itself,’ William had written. ‘The building has charm. But it’s an odd sort of a place, clumsily restored last century but recently one of the workmen was scraping off some decaying floor covering, when he started to expose quite an elaborate geometric design beneath. I sense it’s very old and don’t want to damage it with our rather basic skills. Do come and share your expertise.’
Laurence pulled out his watch as the small branch line train finally approached Marlborough. It was twenty-five minutes late. As the engine slowed, Laurence’s eyes fixed on a single woman who waited on the platform with a boy beside her. Eleanor Bolitho was hatless and coatless. Since he’d last seen her her long red hair had been cut into a thick bob. Her son, Nicholas, was pulling her towards the engine, but Eleanor’s eyes were passing up and down the carriages, her hand shading her eyes from the spring sunlight.
Three or four other people got off the train and an elderly porter moved purposefully towards him. Laurence handed over his suitcase just as Eleanor saw him and waved heartily, pointing him out to her son. She reached Laurence and flung her arms around his neck, almost knocking his hat off.
‘William will be so pleased you’ve come,’ she said. ‘What a stroke of luck you have so many breaks and that you know everything there is to know about churches.’ She made it sound as if his being a schoolmaster had been an intermittent pastime, but her enthusiasm was flattering.
‘Laurence is a teacher,’ she said to Nicholas, ‘so I expect he’ll want to practise on you and will be very strict.’
The boy, slim and dark, looked up at Laurence and smiled tentatively.
‘David – he works on the estate – has driven us over,’ Eleanor said. ‘As the train was late he’s gone off to deliver something for Lydia but he’ll be back any minute. I’ll tell you all about the place, on the way, but I know you are going to like Easton. Later you can start to think about the church – William thinks it’s jolly old. Don’t let him make you do it today. He tends to sweep everybody up into his enthusiasms. See, even I’m doing it.’
‘I hope I can be as useful as he thinks.’
Laurence was very keen to see the church for himself. He didn’t know the village and the church was not in any books, perhaps because it had been deconsecrated for many decades before Mrs Easton’s dead parents-in-law had petitioned their bishop to bring it back into use. According to William Bolitho’s letter, there were rarely any services now.
‘How’s Mary?’ Eleanor asked, with what she probably thought was nonchalance.
‘Committed,’ he said, wryly, thinking of one of the other letters he had with him. ‘Tell me what lies ahead,’ he said, changing the subject.
‘Well, I can’t tell you what a blessing it’s been, Frances and her sister inviting us here,’ Eleanor said. ‘You’ll like Frances – she’s clever and straightforward – but she’s a bit stuck at Easton Hall, I think. She ought to be making her own life not hanging around like a Victorian spinster on the edge of somebody else’s, but . . .’ She shrugged.
‘And her sister, Mrs Easton?’
‘Lydia.’ Eleanor sighed and then spoke in such a low voice that he could hardly hear her at first, but he realised it was Nicholas she was trying to protect although the small boy had moved away to watch house martins feeding their chicks in a nest under the platform roof. ‘She’s lovely. Gentle, kind, frail. Seems . . . a bit detached at times, not in a cold way, but just not part of us all, increasingly so in the last few weeks. She’s not forty yet but she’s slightly rheumatic and with her poor health and of course her beastly, tragic life, she looks older, poor woman.’ She stopped as if expecting an immediate response. ‘You remember the Easton case of course?’
‘Lydia’s quite a bit older than Frances – they’re only half-sisters. They were both born in America, not that you can tell – they’ve been in England most of their lives. She must have married Digby Easton twenty years or so ago. They had just one child: Katherine – Kitty. Before the war, when Kitty was five, she disappeared.’
She shook her head. There was a sudden exhalation of steam and the train started to pull out. Nicholas was jumping with excitement. Eleanor turned and smiled as she watched him but then her face changed. ‘It’s unimaginable, losing your only child and never having any idea of what happened to them.’
As the train disappeared, the stationmaster let Nicholas wave the flag. Eleanor’s eyes never left him.
‘But that’s how it was,’ Eleanor said, turning back again. ‘They left her in bed, asleep, and in the morning she was gone.’
‘Good God,’ Laurence said, the whole overwhelming story taking time to sink in. ‘William said they’d lost a child, but I’d assumed there’d been some illness. I can just remember the case now I think. I suppose I was at Oxford.’
‘Poor Lydia,’ Eleanor said, standing up. ‘She never saw Kitty again, never had another child and then war came and in 1917 Digby was killed.’ Eleanor stopped, as if still shocked by the enormity of Lydia’s loss. ‘Did William mentioned the memorial maze? Most of the men in the village were lost in France as well,’ she continued eventually. ‘The usual stupid thing: they all joined together. Solidarity. Brotherhood.’ Her voice was simultaneously scornful and perplexed.
‘Many of them were probably in reserved jobs, too,’ Laurence said, following her down the platform. ‘Farmworkers and so on. Though indoor servants and keepers – I suppose they had to go.’ But most of them were also probably bored with their small lives, he thought. It had all seemed such an adventure at first.
Eleanor reached Nicholas and took his hand. ‘Digby was company commander, I think. Julian in effect was his number two. As in life, so in death. The youngest brother – Patrick – has had a minor problem with his heart since childhood and despite his efforts was passed unfit for active service, I gather. The Easton men went to war together and died together.’
‘But Julian Easton came back?’
‘Frances says much changed. And I think they’re struggling to work the estate. Easton Deadall is a village of widows, children and old men. They only really have David – he’s our driver today – to lend a pair of strong hands around the house and gardens.’
‘He survived too?’
‘Well, yes, obviously.’ She gave him an amused look. ‘Local, but not one of the Easton boys. He was a sapper, I think. Apparently he saved Julian’s life under fire. Of course neither man talks about back then.’ She glanced at him. ‘Rather like you.’ But she patted his arm affectionately. ‘The only other survivor was a chap called Victor Kilminster who couldn’t face returning and ran off to New South Wales. Julian helped him resettle, I think. But I heard he’s due to come back soon. Julian’s rather grumpy about it.’
But Laurence was scarcely concentrating as his mind returned to Kitty Easton and he slowly recalled more of the story of the disappearance. It had been front-page news for a while but then international tensions had consigned the Easton child to history everywhere but Easton Deadall.
‘And the little girl – they didn’t think she could have gone off by herself ?’ he said, very quietly. ‘Five isn’t that young.’
‘Possible I suppose.’ She let her son go ahead. ‘But she was in an upstairs room in the middle of a corridor. Her nanny slept in the next bedroom. The house was locked up and Kitty was frightened of the dark apparently.’ She bit her lip. ‘So, possible, but unlikely. And they searched everywhere. How far could a five-year-old have got in the middle of the night?’
While Laurence was serving in France he had lost his wife in childbirth and the baby had died with her. For the last months of the war he had not cared whether he lived or died; he was probably a liability to others, but the cynic in him believed his survival was certain once life had no value for him. But to lose a living child and never know what had happened to her was, as Eleanor said, hard even to think about.