Chapter 1

Copyright© April 2009 Texrep

Abby had little difficulty in getting to this point, on the B3227 from Taunton heading towards South Molton, and guessed that somewhere on this road she should see a sign indicating her turn. Yet as she drove further and further into Devon she became uneasy that no such sign had revealed itself. Navigation became more of a problem as she drove deeper into the countryside, signposts, when you could find them; indicated a destination which then received no further mention at all upon succeeding signs. High banks on either side of the road meant that she had little clues as to where she was, the only point of reference was the ribbon of road unwinding ceaselessly and vanishing under the bonnet of her car and the occasional signs for some oddly named village or hamlet. As she passed through villages such as Wiveliscombe and Bampton she wondered if she had gone wrong, and seeing the sign that said South Molton was just five miles further on, decided that indeed she had gone wrong. Swearing mildly under her breath Abby was giving thought to turning round and retracing her path.

Suddenly she caught that breath, there was the sign. Leaning gently against the high banks that enclosed the road with a vigorous growth of Ivy as camouflage, she would have missed it had she not been driving slowly looking for a place to turn. It was a peculiar sensation, and her heart was beating furiously as she made the turn. A name that had previously existed only in hearsay and on a map was now fact. Her mother had mentioned the name a few times without thinking, but would not be pressed on its significance. When her mother had died, Abby was nineteen, there was no reference at all to the name in her personal effects, which were few, there was no birth certificate, and the only official document she could find was an out of date Passport, giving the birth area as South Molton. Abby's history consisted of just her Mother's death certificates, and her own birth certificate. Abby now realised that she could have obtained a copy of her mother's birth certificate, but as is the way of things she had not thought logically at the time. She would repair this oversight as soon as possible.

Combe Linney, as Abby spelt it was not even marked on her road map, and she had to resort to the Ordinance Survey to discover the location, again there was no place spelt Linney, but there was a Combe Lyney, near South Molton, and she assumed that this had to be the place. Its sum total consisted of two black oblongs, and a round dot with a cross on top, presumably indicating a church. There were no A or B roads that ventured anywhere near the place. If this wasn't the back of beyond, then it was pretty close to it.

The mystery could not be investigated immediately as Abby had after her mother's death, to consider the business of life, a job, somewhere to live. Her mother had left her little, but a stubborn trait that helped Abby survive the numerous jobs she took in the financial and insurance trade; making tea and coffee for surly men and women who viewed her simply as the office gofer; they would have been surprised if they had known that Abby did not merely put their drinks in front of them, but closely studied what they were doing. They didn't know because Abby was invisible, unimportant, not even missed when she left to go to a better job, using all she had learned to pack her C.V. She was twenty-five when she started in the City as a proprietary equity trader, the years of watching and learning standing her in good stead. She would not say that she was a brilliant Trader, there were many more that could turn Sixpences into Sovereigns at the drop of a hat, but she was intuitive, and with no family to call upon her time was content to work all hours to achieve her goal. In a business where employers counted the hours almost as important as the success, she was regarded highly.

The commitment to her work had left a gaping hole in the rest of her life, particularly the social side. Starting early, and rarely getting back before nine or ten p.m. left her too exhausted to explore the nightlife that abounded about her. The one indulgence was her flat, a rather luxurious two bed roomed apartment in a block in Kensington; reasoning that with all the hard work and hours she put in, she deserved a base where she could relax comfortably. A fleeting affair with a co-worker that fizzled quickly when his wife became suspicious, was the extent of her forays into anything that could be called a social life; but then the skills that she needed for a social life could not be described as highly developed, lacking the experience that would enable her to discern those who would care for her, from those who would simply use her. Her closest friend was Roz, a glamorous woman who lived in the same flats, who described herself as an Escort. Abby could guess what that euphemism concealed, but not being judgmental thought none the less of her for that. Roz had been helpful to Abby, advising her on dress and make-up to fill the void left by Abby's mother; a woman who had little knowledge of these feminine arts herself, but then holding down three cleaning jobs would have given her little time to acquire, or require, these talents. Roz's advice and Abby's chequebook helped her to assume a confidence she didn't always feel. She was quite tall for a woman at five foot eight, and had inherited a slim figure, which seemed to maintain itself no matter what junk food she consumed during the hectic working day. Light brown hair that she described as Mousy, but Roz insisted was dark Blonde, cut short for ease of maintenance, level brown eyes, and a full mouth, that smiled easily. She would never describe herself as beautiful, and most days her looks were secondary to working efficiency, but on the couple of occasions that she had been out with Roz to parties, and under Roz's tutelage had put on the 'Glam', she had been subject to lots of male attention. The problem was her social skills could not stretch to flirting, and with the appropriate responses not given the man soon lost interest, and she returned to her flat alone, with no prospect of that situation changing. She lived and worked in one of the most vibrant cities, yet stood on the outside, an onlooker, unknowing of the rules that would let her join.

This situation did not bother her too much, although sometimes she looked wistfully at those who seemed to have so much going on in their lives. If she had ever been part of the social whirl, and was then excluded it might have given her some pain, but what you have never had, you do not miss. Spare time, the little that she had, was spent reading, usually books about the Industrial revolution which had become her hobby, and watching the Discovery channel on Sky. Holidays had been a luxury she could do without in her need to pursue a career, consisting usually, as in this case, of a few snatched days, alone and exploring some place that had been significant in the industrial past, the mobile phone ever to hand in case she had to return. It had taken all those years before she finally decided to try and resolve the conundrum. Now she was just a few miles from somewhere that could be very important or of no consequence at all. As she drove a prick of fear came to her mind. Was she doing the right thing? The old adage was now forefront in her head. Be careful what you wish for, as your wishes may sometimes become true. Was she about to turn over a stone that had something ugly underneath? Hesitancy and fear almost overwhelmed, and she let fate make her decision. If there was somewhere she could turn round easily, she would do it and forget this obsession. If there was no chance of turning then she would go on.

The road was so narrow that any vehicle coming in the opposite direction would involve one or the other reversing in difficult circumstances for some distance; she hoped it would be the other. It wound its way tortuously between high banks, never letting her have a sight of anything more than fifty yards ahead, until it emerged on an embankment just a few feet above a marshy area. Another of those old road signs declared that the embankment was unsafe for any vehicle over 30 cwt. Abby could just remember from her schooldays what cwt. meant, one and a half tons! The embankment rose to a bridge spanning a river, dropping back down the other side to a few more yards of embankment; then plunging back into the high banks and starting to climb. Just before her view was cut off she noticed to the left, a series of brick arches, carrying some other form of transport across the marsh. Beyond the banks was a forest of mixed trees, some deciduous, some conifers of unknown types, she recognised Beech grown so tall that it arched over the road, creating a tunnel of foliage. The road was obviously used but rarely; with a detritus of mud thrown from the corrugated tyres of tractors covering the crown; that rich soil supported a good growth of grass that brushed the underside of her car. Streams seemed to prefer the road to their normal courses as her tyres splashed through water almost every yard of the way. The lane climbed gradually, ascending into a valley she could not see. Then out of the trees a rock built abutment reared at the side of the road, another set back a little could be seen on the other side, no deck connected them, the railway, for she felt sure it would have been a railway, long gone. Possibly, she thought, the reason for the low viaduct she had glimpsed across the marsh. The road continued to climb, but more steeply now climbing out of the forest, although the high banks still hemmed the road. Occasionally, a gateway to a field would afford her views of the stupendous Devon countryside, with irregular small fields lying seemingly at random over hills of varying height as if a patchwork quilt had been thrown carelessly over an unmade bed. To the southwest they stretched away to the foothills of Dartmoor, and to the northeast to Exmoor, only fleetingly glimpsed.

She drove carefully not wishing to rush headlong into any problems the way might present. The lane continued to twist and turn, passing even narrower lanes, which vanished between the hedgerows within the space of a few yards, unmarked on her map, and unsigned by the local council, as if their purpose was a secret, known to only those who had business in these parts. She felt she should have reached somewhere by now, and pondered the comments that had been made to her that West Country miles are longer than miles measured elsewhere in England, possibly she wasn't in England any more. As she drove round yet another tight bend she caught her breath, for suddenly the vista of the Valley opened before her, and equally as suddenly the lane disappeared from in front of her car. She braked urgently. The lane now descended, at an impossible angle, so steeply that Abby felt it would be safer to abseil down. An ancient road sign leaning, drunkenly into the hedgerow, its black and white pole pitted with rust, the sign at its top, surmounted with a once red triangle informed her that the hill was one in four. 'That's never one in four, ' she informed the sign, 'that's vertical.' Locking the automatic into low gear, she tentatively started the descent. The whine of the engine rose to a crescendo, dying away as she used the brakes and then rising again as she let the car run against the brake of the engine. At the very least, she thought, anyone approaching the hill from the bottom would hear her, and not attempt the climb until she came past. At last she reached the bottom and broke out of the hedgerows and trees, onto the valley floor. There had been nowhere to turn at all, so fate had decided for her.

The lane followed the valley for some distance, passing a few small Cob cottages, each attended by barns and outhouses. The small, undulating fields upon which cattle grazed, seemingly unfazed by the passing of her car, just merely lifting their heads for a moment to look incuriously, and then returning to their patient cropping of the grass. The banks were not so high now allowing a better view of the surrounding country. The Valley was not flat, but undulated smoothly, rising to small coppices, and hillocks that fell gently down to the river which flowed at the valley bottom. The road and the river kept a sort of company, the road having more sense of direction although it still could not be called straight, as it traversed many small hills and side valleys, while the river meandered. Sometimes it was completely out of sight and then abruptly returned those same small hills and side valleys brushing it aside in its journey along the valley bottom. Another of those old road signs with the red triangle appeared, this time warning her of a junction. Negotiating yet another bend she came upon the junction. No white lines in the road to observe, just another lane of presumably equal importance, or equal unimportance joining. The road seemed to veer to the right so she went that way, at the last minute noticing a faded sign showing left for Combe Lyney, one and a half miles. She couldn't believe it, all that way and only two and a half miles covered! The stories were true; West Country miles were longer than English miles. As she was committed to the right hand road she carried on and immediately drove over a slight hump. On top of the hump set into the road were railway lines, once covered by road stone, but now revealed by the traffic, which over the years had thumped across them wearing away the tar and grit surface. Abby had been very interested in History at school, particularly the Industrial revolution and the urge to explore such artefacts of the industrial past was never far away. Impulsively she determined to have a look at this one, stopping where the lane seemed a little wider and switching off the engine.

Leaving the car she took her first breath of the Devon air, her head swirled with its effect and she almost staggered, a glorious rich soup of scents enriched with oxygen assailed her senses and as she breathed deeply filling her lungs with the potent mixture she felt as if she had grown an inch. At first she was astonished by the silence, but as the engine noise which had accompanied her for the last two hundred odd miles faded from her ears, she realised that the silence was punctuated, no accompanied by the gentle rustle of the river and the chatter and flurry of birds. The day was typical of late March. The sun was there but often hidden by the clouds, which hurried over the valley. When they broke for a moment, she could feel the warmth that the sun promised, but too soon the clouds ganged up and became overcast once more. The birds that she heard seemed to time their chatter and flight to coincide with the sun's brief appearances, as if they were unsure whether it was the right time to be nest building. Most confusing for them she thought. Getting out of the car had also brought their bluster to a momentary halt, and as she moved a scatter of small birds burst out of the hedgerow into a brief flight, only to disappear just as suddenly back into the hedge, a few yards further away.

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