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SKIN AND BONES

ONE

A glance to her left was all it took. A simple glance as she pushed open the door to the village shop. If she had kept her eyes straight ahead, or looked to the right instead, she might never have become involved. She might have been spared.

Her conscious mind, bruised by the experience of the past month, refused to believe what it had seen. But her subconscious knew and understood.

There was a dead man in the street.

* * *

It was the third Saturday of January, not quite eight in the morning. She parked outside her parents’ cottage on the outskirts of the village and decided to delay the day’s grim task by a few minutes. The store was no more than fifty or sixty yards away, tucked around a bend at the foot of the High Street: a ludicrous name for a place with only one shop and one pub.

Julia was thirty-one, a tall slender woman with dark shoulder-length hair. She taught at a junior school in Newhaven, and like the best teachers she had perfected a good-natured toughness that equipped her to cope with the worst that any ten-year-old could throw at her. In the past few weeks she had needed that resilience more than ever.

Her breath rose in clouds as she walked along the edge of the narrow road. A clean shimmer of frost lay over the grass verge. Roof tiles sparkled in the late Downland sunrise. The air tasted clean and sharp, and made her wish she was out jogging. Made her wish she had the day free to do as she chose.

It took her less than a minute to reach the shop. In that time she didn’t see or hear another soul. No traffic, no tradesmen, no walkers or cyclists. But it was a Saturday, she reasoned. It was January. It was cold.

At the point where she glanced to her left, she had a clear view along the High Street, all the way to the Green Man pub at the north end of the village. There was a Royal Mail van parked at the kerb up by the church, facing towards her. She vaguely noticed the rear doors were open. If there was a body, it was lying in the road just beyond the van, only the feet visible.

Telling herself she must be mistaken, Julia entered the shop.

* * *

A bell rang as she stepped inside. The air was deliciously warm, with an aroma that always prompted a smile: a cosy blend of bread rolls, sliced ham, newsprint and mailbags. The kind of smell you’d like to bottle for nostalgia. Essence of village store.

The shopkeeper, Moira Beaumont, was a small twitchy woman in her fifties. She pulled her baggy cardigan together in response to the draught.

‘Hello, love. You’re an early bird. Don’t tell me you stayed overnight?’

Julia’s curt shake of her head disguised a shudder. ‘I’ve just driven here,’ she said, adding, ‘I can’t keep putting it off.’

Moira nodded sadly. ‘It’s Lewes where you live, isn’t it?’ She spoke as though the county town was some distant exotic locale, when in fact it was less than ten miles away. But then Chilton was the sort of place where people still returned from Brighton, outraged by beggars in the street and the brazen display of homosexual love.

Julia browsed the newspapers for a minute, aware of Moira’s sly scrutiny. Trying to spot a crack in the facade. A couple of weeks ago it would have bothered her, but she was used to it by now. All things considered, she felt she was coping pretty well.

So why the body in the street? her subconscious piped up. Hallucinations were hardly a sign of robust mental health.

Pushing the thought aside, she picked up the Guardian, a carton of semi-skimmed milk and on impulse a packet of chocolate biscuits. She had a long and difficult day ahead: she deserved a treat.

When she reached the counter Moira leaned over and grasped her hand. Even before she spoke, Julia knew she was going to use the gentle hushed tone that people reserve for the recently bereaved.‘I just want to say, I’m dreadfully sorry for what happened. They were such a lovely couple.’ Julia swallowed and nodded tersely. She had learned just how easily such expressions of sympathy could unlock the grief.

‘Is your brother not coming to help clear the house?’ Moira asked, taking Julia’s five pound note and prodding at the till.

‘He offered, but it seems ridiculous when he’s up in Cheshire.’

‘I suppose so. What a shame you and Peter aren’t still together,’ said Moira, blithely unaware of her tactlessness. ‘I know your mother always thought you were made for each other.’

‘So did I,’ said Julia. Another subject she was keen to avoid.

‘But you’ve a new feller now, haven’t you? I can’t remember his name…’

‘Steve.’

‘That’s it. Steve.’ Moira gave a rather disdainful sniff. Probably remembering Mum’s verdict on him, Julia thought.

‘I’m not sure it’s got much future, to be honest,’ she said.

Moira clicked her tongue. ‘You’ve really been in the wars, haven’t you?’ There was a moment when Julia felt sure she was going to say something about bad news coming in threes, but perhaps thought better of it. Instead she puffed out a breath. ‘I’d give you a hand myself, but Len’s away to Leicester to watch the football. Time off for good behaviour,’ she added wryly.

Julia grinned. ‘I’ll be fine. And if I don’t get it finished today… well, there’s no great hurry.’

‘You’ll feel better when it’s done, believe me.’ Moira pressed her hands together as if in prayer. ‘In my experience, it’s the most unexpected things that can catch you out. If they do, you know where to find me.’

‘Thanks.’ Julia propped the biscuits under her arm and picked up the milk. For the sake of conversation, she said, ‘Quiet round here this morning.’

Moira took a moment to consider. ‘I suppose it is. I had a couple of folk in when I opened at seven, Mrs Collins and Tom Bradbury with those ruddy dogs of his. But it’s freezing out there. I bet everyone’s decided to stay in bed, lucky beggars.’

‘I expect that’s it,’ Julia agreed.

When she reached the door, Moira called, ‘Keep in touch, won’t you? Don’t be a stranger!’

Julia trapped the door with her foot and turned back, smiling. At that moment, with her own heart weighing so heavily, she would never have believed Moira had less than twenty minutes to live.