Here is an excerpt from my latest novel, Lucky Portbraddon. It’s after Christmas and the Portbraddon family and their guest, Ismène Verany, are cut off by snow in the big old house up on the moors that belongs to their grandmother. One of the little children, five-year old Bella is missing and her sister says she has gone out to look for Father Christmas’s reindeer. Ismène, Bella’s brother Noah and a cousin, Carla, set off to look for the child.
It was actually quite warm outside; there was no wind and the clouds hung heavy and full, a sinister green colour now. They crossed what must have been a lawn, Carla striding away in front. The snow in places was knee-deep and Ismène struggled through with deepening dread as she thought that however far they went they would have to come that far back. The children had played here earlier and a lopsided snowman grinned at them, an old hat at a jaunty angle. There were too many footprints to pick out the track of a little girl in search of Santa’s reindeer.
They climbed over a wall and Ismène slipped and fell into a soft cushion of snow. It was a childishly pleasant thing, funny and painless. Carla heaved her up and they continued on, climbing up a field. The wind had blown the snow into deep drifts against the hedges like berms in a desert.
“Would Bella really have come all this way?” Ismène puffed. She had lost her fear of the snow. Within a few minutes of being out in the reality of it, her terror had subsided. It wasn’t so much the snow as the feeling of powerlessness, of not being able to do anything to save herself and James.
“It wouldn’t seem far,” Carla was striding out. “We go for walks in the wood all the time, there are fabulous spring flowers, and then later the bluebells. We go there for picnics in the summer, the children have their favourite climbing trees. No, the wood wouldn’t seem so far away.”
They struggled on, Noah, a dark, silent presence behind them. The sinking sun was peeping though a single rift in the mounting banks of cloud on the horizon, casting long sinister shadows and looking ahead, the etiolated shadows of the women seemed pursued by the dark blot of Noah. Glancing back at him he was a featureless bulk against the sliver of brightness on the western horizon.
“You alright, Ismène?” his voice instantly transformed him into a reassuring buttress.
They were approaching the trees, bounded by a snow-covered wall and the two women went one way and Noah the other. He’d hardly gone a couple of dozen yards when he called to them and they clambered over the wall following the small footprints he’d found. An obvious thought struck Ismène; Bella was Noah’s sister, no wonder he’d come with them, no wonder he’d carried Cressie so easily.
They spread out as they searched, calling her name as they wandered. It was very quiet under the trees and their voices echoed. Occasionally there was the snap of something breaking; it spooked Ismène and she remembered her sinister hallucination, and was filled with a sense of foreboding.
In the snow deadened silence, broken only by unidentifiable cracks and splintering noises, the thud and thump of a mass of snow falling, the wood seemed creepy and dangerous.
They called Bella’s name as they moved apart; the cold had seeped through her clothes in this sunless place, but the worst cold was in Ismène’s heart.
The wood dropped away steeply down into a little gully; it was as if night had come early, or as if blackness was seeping out of its depth. But in the deepest gloom there seemed to be a spot of blue.
“Carla, I think I see her!” Ismène cried “Call Noah!”
“Careful, Ismène it’s very wet down there, there’s a stream at the bottom and a pool!”
Water! Water and snow! This was too reminiscent of the pond. She slithered down and noticed flecks of snow, white against the evening gloom. If there was a pool, a pool of icy water, if there was a pool and the child was in the pool….
With a jolt she hit a massive rock and toppled sideways and in a panicky memory of slithering into water, she jumped back onto her feet.
“Watch out there’s a big rock!”
But too late, Carla gave a scream of pain.
“Oh shit, my ankle!” Carla shouted. “Don’t worry about me, Ismène go and find Bella!”
Ismène clambered down the slope; the bottom of the gully was in darkness and she could only just remember where she’d seen the smudge of blue. The incline flattened and she was on a muddy path by the stream; on the other side of the water was the little girl, her face a blob in the shadow.
“I didn’t see the reindeer,” a little voice came. “And now I’m stuck.” The child was unconcerned and slightly cross. “The water is there and I’m here and there’s a big bit I can’t get up.”
Trying to keep calm, Ismène asked how she’d got there.
“I walked on the ice but then it broke. I got water in my boot. Only one boot though.”
“Can you come back across the stream to me if you have your boots on?”
The child gave a defiant ‘no’; she didn’t want to, she hadn’t seen the reindeer yet. She was hidden in the gloom and seemed to be sitting on a rock.
Tentatively, against her instincts, Ismène put her foot into the water; it wasn’t deep but the bottom seemed slippy and she feared she’d fall over. There was nothing to hold onto, no hanging branch, nothing.
She was wading across to Bella when her foot plunged into a sudden hole. Ismène clenched her teeth on a rude word, Bella was only yards away; the bank was sheer but somehow the child had found a small ledge to perch on.
“Come to me Bella, your mummy is very worried about you,” she said, stretching out her hand, but the child drew away from her. “Come along, we’re all getting cold and it’s very dark now.”
”No, I’m staying here till I see the reindeer.”
Oh for god’s sake you stupid brat, get the hell over here and let’s go home. But of course Ismène only said this in her head.
“Well you won’t be able to see the reindeer for two reasons. It’s dark, too dark to see them.”
Bella thought about this. “That’s one reason. What’s the other?”
“Well Father Christmas doesn’t let them out at night except on Christmas Eve. They’re back in their stable eating carrots.” Ismène’s teeth were chattering now. “So we’d better go home, hadn’t we?”
“Bella!” a voice bellowed.
“Daddy!” Bella shouted back and Ismène grabbed her and the little girl put her arms around her neck and wrapped her legs about her waist.
I hope I don’t bloody fall over now and Ismène waded across the pool.
“Bella? You all right sweetpea?” it was Noah not Alex, his roar in the dark had sounded just like his father.
“Where’s Daddy? I want Daddy!” squealed the child.
Noah took Bella even though the girl was screaming she wanted her daddy; she was cold and tired and there were no reindeer. Carla tried to stand but couldn’t put any weight on her foot; there was only one option; Noah piggy-backed her up through the woods as Ismène squelched along beside him carrying Bella who was crying tediously now, a whining, irritating grizzle.
They stopped at the wall for Noah to catch his breath, he was puffing with the effort of carrying Carla up the slope between the trees. He hoisted Carla onto his back again and with Ismène, carrying Bella, her frozen feet squelching in the borrowed boots, they walked across the moonlit fields.