A moment’s distraction threatens the sunny, idyllic 1950s rural life of this close-knit Devon village…
Jacob Prout was clearing out the ditch by the Burracombe churchyard, accompanied by his terrier Scruff, when he noticed Jennifer Kellaway approaching along the lane, pushing her pram.
Jennifer was the nearest Jacob had to a daughter and he considered Molly his granddaughter. He welcomed them with a broad smile and bent to tickle the toddler’s chin. She laughed and stretched up her arms, demanding to be taken out of the pram and allowed to walk.
“If you’m on your way to the village shop, why not leave the little dear along of me?” he suggested. “I’ve got to finish digging a grave for old Zeb Ellacott that died last weekend, but I can leave that and do a bit of tidying in the churchyard, so she’ll come to no harm. She can play with Scruff.”
Jennifer nodded and wheeled the big pram through the lychgate.
“She’s always good with you, Jacob, and she likes the churchyard – she says it’s full of angels! I’ll probably be about half an hour – unless I get talking to someone.”
Jacob laughed as he shepherded the little girl ahead of him.
“That’ll be the day, when there’s no one in Burracombe to talk to! I reckon I’ve spoken to a dozen already this morning and I’ve only been here an hour.”
Jennifer went on her way, while Jacob laid Molly’s blanket on the grass between the graves. It was spread thickly with a carpet of tiny, wild strawberries and Molly gave a little crow of delight.
“Look at all the juicy red berries, Grandpa!”
“And nearly as rosy as your smiling face, my bird,” he said, settling her down and bidding Scruff to stay by her side. “Now, you bide there amongst the angels while I tidies up this long grass, and when I’ve done us’ll make a daisy chain together.”
Jacob felt truly blessed
He began to work nearby, always within sight of her, thinking as he so often did, how blessed he was to have this little family to call his own.
After losing his wife Sarah, and never having had children, he had thought a lonely old age awaited him. But then Jennifer – Tucker, as she’d been then – had come into his life and they had forged an immediate bond, a bond which had grown stronger as they had learned about the unexpected ties that linked them.
It had been one of the happiest days of his life when Jennifer had come to live in Burracombe and married Travis Kellaway, and the day of Molly’s birth had been happier yet.
“Strawberries, Grandpa!” Molly called, holding up a handful of fruit. “Strawberries for Mummy.”
“So they are, my pretty.” He came over and took the berries to lay in the pram. “We’ll keep them safe there, shall us? Now here’s a little basket – you pick some for Grandpa and when I go home I’ll eat them with my tea.”
He went back to his work, satisfied that Molly was safe and happy, then looked up as he heard a voice hailing him. Basil Harvey, the vicar, was coming out of the church waving both arms and looking like a rather tubby bat as his black cassock billowed around him.
“Ah, good morning, Jacob. Do you have a minute?” His round face looked rosier than ever under the white halo of fluffy hair. “I need to show you a damp patch I’ve just noticed at the bottom of the tower.”
Jacob cast a quick glance at Molly. She was absorbed in the strawberries she had picked, spreading them out in neat rows on her blanket, while Scruff sat close by, watching.
“I reckon I can just slip in for a minute,” he said, laying down his tools and hurrying up the path. “To tell you the truth, me and Ted Tozer thought there was a spot of damp there last bell ringing practice night and I meant to have a better look in daylight.”
He followed the vicar into the church and they turned to go through the wrought iron gates into the ringing chamber. The six bell ropes were all looped up together, out of reach, and the two men bent and peered at the dark patch Basil indicated.
“That’s damp, all right,” Jacob said. “Us’ll have to do summat about that or it’ll spread everywhere. I’d better have a look all round the church to see if there’s any more anywhere.”
“Oh dear,” Basil said. “How worrying.” He put his hand to his forehead and Jacob glanced at him anxiously. “I feel quite upset.”
“Well, ’tis an old church and bound to have a few problems. I dare say us can sort it out.” He gave the other man another sharp look. “Are you all right, Vicar? You look as white as a sheet.”
“I feel a bit shaky, I’m afraid. I’ll have to sit down…” Basil made his way back to a pew and sank down. “I think I’m going to faint…”
“Here,” Jacob said, thoroughly alarmed. “Put your head down between your knees. I’ll fetch some water.”
He ran up the aisle to the vestry and found a jug of water and a glass. By the time he got back, the little man was looking a bit better though still very pale. He sipped the water gratefully.
“I’m sorry, Jacob. I don’t know what came over me. I’ve not felt well for the last day or two, but even so…”
“If you ask me,” Jacob said, “you’ve got that old ‘flu that’s been going round lately. Spring it might be, but the weather can still be proper treacherous and I’ve heard of quite a few folk going down with it. I’d better get you back home. D’you reckon you can walk if I helps you along?”
“I think so. It’s only a few steps to the vicarage.”
Basil accepted Jacob’s arm to steady himself
“Thank you, Jacob. I can probably manage by myself now.”
“That you won’t! Suppose you should collapse on your way back and no one there to help you? I’ll walk back and see you safe inside and then I – oh, my stars!” Jacob stopped as they reached the door and put his hand to his mouth in consternation. “I left little Molly in the churchyard with only Scruff to keep an eye on her! I’d better go and fetch her. You wait here a minute, vicar – I’ll be right back.”
He hurried down the path to where Molly’s pram stood by the lychgate. He could see Jennifer strolling back along the lane, a full basket of shopping on her arm. The blanket still lay on the ground, with strawberry hulls scattered across it. But of little Molly and Scruff there was no sign at all.
“My baby! You’ve lost my baby!” Jennifer cried. She stared at Jacob in horror. “Jacob, how could you leave her? I trusted you!”
“I know, maid, I know.” His wrinkled face was more creased than ever in his distress. “I never meant to be more than a minute when vicar called me in, but then he was took poorly and –”
“It’s all my fault,” Basil put in. His skin was grey and he looked shaky and ill. “I shouldn’t have asked Jacob to go into the church. But I didn’t see Molly on the grass and then, when I felt so faint… It’s really not his fault, Jennifer.”
“I trusted him with my baby,” she retorted angrily. “He should never have left her. But never mind that now – the important thing is to find her. And if anything has happened…” She gave Jacob a glowering look and he knew that if anything had happened to Molly he would lose Jennifer for ever.
“I’ll never forgive myself,” he said miserably. “But you’re right, what we got to do now is find her. Talking can come later.” He looked at the vicar. “Will you be all right here? You can go back in and sit in the church.”
Basil shook his head
“I can search, too. I really do feel a little better now. Where do you think she could have gone?”
“Well, the gate was shut so her can’t have got out of the churchyard. Not unless her went up the top end where the wall’s broken down a bit, and I don’t think she could have got that far. Us were only gone a few minutes.”
“You don’t know how fast Molly can run, when she’s a mind to,” Jennifer said. “I’ll go that way. You go down the bottom end.” She caught her breath. “Oh my goodness, that’s where the stream is! If she’s gone…”
She stood hesitating, and Jacob gave her a little push.
“I’ll go down there. You go up the top end. What I can’t understand,” he added as Jennifer began to run through the gravestones, “is where Scruff is? He was with her. I’d have thought us’d hear him barking if there was anything untoward.”
“Perhaps it means that there isn’t anything untoward,” Basil said hopefully, following Jacob along the path towards the lower corner of the churchyard. “At least in his eyes. And he’s a sensible dog.”
They arrived at the corner where the stream flowed under the dry stone wall. There was no sign of either baby or dog, and although Jacob bent and searched thoroughly, there was no evidence that anyone had been here since the last time he had cut the grass. He straightened up and shook his head.
“She’s not been here. Maybe Jennifer will have found her up the other way. She must be somewhere nearby. I’d stake my life a little maid like that couldn’t climb that wall.”
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” said Basil, who had daughters of his own. “If I remember correctly, they can climb like monkeys at that age.”
He turned to start uphill towards the top end of the churchyard again, and as he did so they heard a sharp bark.
“Scruff!” Jacob exclaimed. “That’s the bark he does when he wants to call me. Where did it come from?”
“Over there, I think.” The black cassock billowed as Basil set off up the slope. “Isn’t that where we’ll be burying old Zeb on Friday? Have you dug his grave yet?”
“I started it.” Jacob caught him up and passed him. Scruff barked again, a short, imperative yap, and the two men quickened their steps. They could see Jennifer coming down from the top end, shaking her head, and Jacob waved and pointed to show her where they were heading.
His heart was thudding. The grave he had begun to dig wasn’t deep, but it was still big enough for a small child to tumble into and hurt herself. Even if not hurt, she would still be frightened at finding herself in a pit.
He imagined Molly, crying and trying to scramble out, perhaps falling and bringing more earth down on top of her, and he prayed that she would be unhurt.
Scruff was barking even more urgently now and each sharp yap seemed to stab Jacob’s heart like a knife.
They all arrived at the grave at the same moment. Scruff was standing at the edge, peering down and barking. Each afraid of what they might see, they looked down into the long, shallow pit.
Molly was sitting at the bottom. She was surrounded by strawberries which she was arranging in patterns around her. She looked up at the three anxious adults and beamed at them.
“Berries,” she said.
“Berries for the angels.”