In spite of her thick coat Lucy Rossington shivered as an icy draught struck her. It passed on to the rood screen in front of her and was thrown back from the painted panels she was examining to send cold fingers creeping over her face as well. She tugged her Fair Isle hat more tightly over her chestnut hair, pulled her scarf further up her neck and snuggled her chin into it as she turned round, curious to see who had come into the church.
But there was no one in the nave behind her. It was badly lit beneath its high barrel roof as they had not turned on the main lights, but she could see that the main south door was still firmly shut against the cold outside. There was no sound of movement, no rustle of coat or tap of footsteps on the stone-flagged floor. But her friends in the chancel were talking, their voices clearly audible beyond the screen, so perhaps other noises would not be noticeable.
Lucy's gaze ranged round the interior, passing the dim outlines of benches and the sturdy pillars that lined the nave until it was drawn to a glimmer on her right, near the chantry chapel in the south aisle. As she stared she saw a slight movement, the rippling of a heavy curtain held back by a gloved hand that was faintly outlined against the dim light coming through a lancet window nearby. The hand released its grip on the curtain, which fell smoothly back into place, leaving a solid dark patch against the whitewashed wall. Strain her ears as she might, Lucy could catch no sound beyond the curtain.
She shrugged, studying the aisle as she walked into it. No doubt there was a door there behind the curtain, probably once private to the long-established Ballamy family, benefactors of the church since the sixteenth century. Whoever had been coming through that door now clearly did not want to disturb the visitors. Nothing unusual in that.
The chantry chapel itself was dedicated to its founders, Daniel and Susannah Ballamy, progenitors of all the other Ballamys whose memorials lined the aisle. Embedded in the floor was a worn granite stone commemorating their son, Captain Richard Ballamy, who had sailed with Drake to fight the Spaniards when they tried to invade England. The brass figurine that dominated the stone showed a typical Elizabethan, with his pointed beard and puffy doublet. His wife's image lay beside him, a perfect match in a moderately wide farthingale, but the face framed by her lace ruff was haughty.
Lucy was touched to see their carved hands were entwined. She bent to see which of them had created the memorial design, bending her head in an effort to read the wording on the plaque. Richard Ballamy had survived his wife, Catalina de Mendoza, by nearly thirty years. Lucy's lips pursed in thought, realising that Richard had presumably married an enemy, a Spaniard. How, Lucy wondered, had the appearance of a Spanish woman gone down here on the moor? And what had Catalina thought of the place?
Lucy crouched to peer more closely at the weathered lettering on the next stone. Richard and Catalina's son Charles lay here, close to his parents. In fact, Lucy worked out, he must only have been a year old when Catalina died, so could not have remembered his mother at all. Did he, Lucy wondered, show any trace of his Spanish inheritance? She read on, with difficulty, to find that Charles had, for a time at least, moved away from the moor. He had accompanied Raleigh when he was released from the Tower of London to set out on his ill-fated venture to find El Dorado for James I. Charles had obviously returned and survived, faring better than Raleigh, but there was no sign that he had ever married or had children. The Ballamy line seemed to descend through his cousins.
Richard and Charles appeared to have been the only adventurers in the Ballamy family, or at least the only ones to have returned home to die and be commemorated. Otherwise the Ballamy stones and plaques listed the lives and deaths of a series of local farmers and their wives. The men were churchwardens in this place of worship through the years of religious turmoil in the seventeenth century, the couples were fathers and mothers of large families through the later Georgian and Victorian eras.
Lucy turned back to where Daniel and Susannah's own tomb lay in pride of place at the centre of their chapel. Lucy wondered briefly what they had made of their two adventurous Elizabethan scions, a son and then a grandson who broke away from the farming mould of their ancestors and the others who came after them.
She had already been shown the stone effigies on the lid of the weathered tomb, which were remarkable for their age and state of preservation. The figures lay flat on their backs, Daniel smart in a belted gown, Susannah beside him neat in a robe that even in stone seemed to fall in soft pleats around her body. Simple collars framed their necks, but Susannah's had a delicate feminine frill of lace edging it.
Lucy was fascinated by the faces of the effigies, convinced they represented the originals more accurately than usual. After all, why else would Daniel have such large warts on his nose and chin, and such neatly brushed back hair? Why else would Susannah have such a wide mouth, with a dimple in her plump cheek? It was still tantalising, almost at odds with the smooth hair just visible under her coif and the square hands with their blunt-tipped fingers. Lucy bent closer to examine the flowers they clasped. Rosemary, she identified at once, sage, mint, and oddly, aconite and rue. She straightened up, wondering at the choice. Susannah obviously used herbs in her cooking, but the latter plants seemed to indicate she made her own remedies too. No doubt she had been a capable woman, making a jolly couple with her Daniel, and a happy one too, or they would not have chosen to be represented so realistically.
The real attraction of the tomb for Lucy, though, was the animals. Daniel and Susannah had been the owners of a local farm that still bore their family name, and their wealth had been based on its bounty. No swords and lap dogs for them. They chose instead to represent their sheep, whose faces peered out from carved woolly ruffs on the side of the tomb as their lambs gambolled behind them, frozen forever on a representation of the moor that lay above the farm. And in pride of place beside the couple lay their dogs, collies at their feet, smaller terriers in the crooks of their arms.
A movement beside Lucy made her glance down as her own collie, Ben, shifted impatiently against her legs. She touched his head gently. 'Alright,' she said. 'We won't be much longer.'
She walked back to the centre of the rood screen, her eyes passing quickly over the headless figures on it whose clothes still bore traces of their original colours. The brightness in the chancel was dazzling after the dimness of the nave and aisle. The lights were switched on here, revealing the rich gilding on the roof bosses. These had attracted Lucy too, especially the leering Green Man peering out through the screen of leaves that seemed to grow from his head, and the snarling red dragon spitting orange flames.
Her friends were near the pale beech reredos, a modern replacement whose newness was still obvious. They were examining yet another tomb close to the altar. The brilliant colours of the stained glass window shone out above Anna Evesleigh. She was Lucy's oldest friend, an ebullient beauty whose long dark curls fell over the shoulders of her scarlet duffle coat as she leaned forward to peer at the wording on the tomb.
Lucy smiled to herself. Anna, an actress and director of considerable ability, was always open to ideas that she could transform into characters or scenes. She would undoubtedly be interested in the adventurous Ballamys, her imagination easily creating a story around Catalina's brief life on the moor.
Church history was not of particular interest to Anna, but her companion knew so many details of the lives of the people commemorated in this church that she was keeping Anna fascinated. Lucy looked at Berhane, a tall thin woman whose finely cut dark features were silhouetted against the pale wood of the reredos as she moved Anna on to the brass plaques on the south wall. Berhane was a long way from her native Ethiopia, but knew her way around this church as if it was her home territory. As indeed it was, Lucy reflected. After all, Berhane was only a year older than she and Anna, and had lived here with her adoptive family since she was eight years old. So that's about seventeen years, Lucy realised.
They had all been at senior school together, but Lucy and Anna had seen little of Berhane since then. University had held no attraction for her, in spite of her undoubted ability. Until fairly recently she had been travelling widely, now and then posting internet accounts of her explorations to keep her friends up to date with her activities. She had originally set out to explore her birthplace and then found she wanted to see more countries, other ways of life. So it was four years, Lucy calculated swiftly, since all the friends had last met.
And now Berhane was back in the moorland village near the farm where she had grown up with her adoptive sister, Edith. Back to stay, for a while at least, now that she had bought the local Church House. Perhaps that would depend on the success of her current plans for a dining club.
Edith was the same age as Lucy and Anna, and Lucy pondered on how strangely things turned out. It should have been Edith, their contemporary, who was their closest friend, but that had never been the case. Tall too, but heavily built and gawky, Edith could not have provided a greater physical contrast to her adoptive sister. The difference extended to their characters too, Lucy thought. Edith had always been vague, hiding her thoughts under a blank mask, living in a world of her own that the others had never penetrated, nor wanted to. It was Berhane, calm and straightforward Berhane, possessed of an endless joy in being alive and always interested in other people, who had formed the third in their teenage trio.
And it was she who had brought them to the church this wintry afternoon. Edith had merely shrugged in disinterest when invited, preferring to stay at home and watch the snow falling past the windows of the Church House. And yet it was Edith who was the direct descendent of the Ballamys, to whose tomb Berhane had led them with such fond familiarity. It was Berhane who had pointed out to Lucy the tiny flowers hidden among the grass of the sheep pasture. Perfect little bluebells, potentilla, milkwort, harebells, all growing together without regard for seasons. By profession a botanist and now involved with local heath and moor ecology, Lucy was riveted, as Berhane had known she would be.
'Come on, Lucy,' Anna said, appearing suddenly right in front of her and making her start in surprise. 'Stop daydreaming. We're going back for tea now.' She shuddered dramatically. 'I'm frozen to the bone and could eat a horse.'
Ben sprang forward, delighted to be moving as Lucy began to follow her down the centre of the nave. Behind them Berhane switched off the chancel lights. 'I wish I could think you were joking,' she said huskily, 'but you always have had a good appetite, Anna.'
'I'm surprised you asked her to stay,' Lucy said over her shoulder as she approached the wide south door. 'She'll probably eat you out of house and home.'
'That would be your brother's role, unless his interest in food has shrunk as he's grown. I remember Will as always being hungry,' Berhane said. 'I'm sorry he couldn't come for New Year as well. I'm looking forward to meeting him again. And,' she added, catching up with Lucy who was struggling with the door handle, 'it's Anna's gourmet knowledge that will make her useful. I want you all to comment on my meal, and help me be sure I'm providing food that will appeal to local people. Here, let me. The handle is awkward to turn.'
Lucy stepped back and Berhane grasped the handle, turning it with a deft twist. Still the heavy door did not move, and Berhane turned the handle again, more slowly and carefully. She released it, a slight frown on her forehead. 'I think it's locked,' she said, sounding puzzled. 'Somebody must have come down and closed up without checking to see if there were visitors inside.'
'Oh,' Lucy remembered, 'somebody did look through the little chantry door while you and Anna were in the chancel. I didn't see them, because they only opened the door a crack.'
'Then I expect they've left that door for us,' Berhane said, her frown disappearing as she turned into the south aisle and led the way unhurriedly along it.
Near the chapel she pushed the brocade curtain aside, revealing a narrow arched doorway and the faded oak of an ancient door. She twisted and turned the handle to no avail as the door stayed unmoving, oblivious to her efforts.
'How stupid,' Berhane said, standing back and staring at the door. 'This one is locked too.'
'How do we get out then?' Anna enquired. 'Do we need to ring the bells to summon the village? How exciting!'
If you have any comments, please send them in. They may be published on the site.