PROLOGUE

1982

The young girl walked towards the forest dressed in an oversized grey coat and black wellington boots that belonged to her father. Her head was bent beneath a raised collar and her long black hair shrouded her strained face. To a stranger, Ellen could have been taken for someone older than her fifteen years, hunched over like an aged soul.

 

As she reached the outskirts of the woodland, the ground underfoot became slimy, laden with fallen twigs and leaves. Early light sprinkled between the overhead branches, but she didn’t look up, not once. When the first droplet slid down her inner thigh, it touched her kneecap with the gentleness of a moth. She had felt the back pains a few hours earlier, and even though they had eased, she knew it was her time.

 

Amid the creaking and rustling of the trees, she heard something move in the undergrowth. For a brief moment she stood still, a cold chill spreading through her body as another bead of the amniotic fluid reached her swollen ankle. She swallowed hard, looking all around her, knowing she needed to find somewhere safe, and that the life she had hidden inside her for so long would soon have to leave. Placing a hand beneath her coat, she held the underside of her engorged belly. A sharp breeze from the valley tossed her hair rebelliously in the wind, as if it was the only part of her still free to choose.

 

She had left the house when all inside were sleeping, sneaking around, no longer feeling she was part of it. The village, too, looked strange with its empty streets, and the moon still visible, hanging low in the early-morning sky. When she passed her old school, she imagined the sound of young voices in the yard, and felt utterly alone. Now deeper into the forest, again she heard something move behind her, but when she turned, she saw nothing. A surge of amniotic fluid flooded between her legs, drenching her undergarments, the veil of liquid glistening in the flickering sunlight, before it soaked into the earth.

 

A sharp pain, like an iron rod, shot through her. She held her belly, more fearful than she had ever been. She wanted to cry out, but stopped herself. With her wet garments stuck to her skin, she continued walking once the pain had passed, faster than before, like a scared animal scurrying further into the dark. The next contraction grabbed her insides like a twisted fist, shooting through her lower abdomen, before ramming her spine with the might of an iron bar. She placed both arms around her swollen belly, her stomach heaving, her dry retches fighting hard against the nothingness inside. For months she had barely eaten, needing to keep her secret safe, but now she knew that the child inside, briefly quiet, would not remain so for long.

 

It was with her back to a fallen tree trunk that she laboured alone for hours, before the pain became so strong that the urge to push defied everything else. Her screams came back at her through the forest walls, long piercing wails, until finally she heard the cries of another. She stared at the baby girl lying between her legs, covered with blood and mucus, relieved that that part at least was over.

 

Placing the baby in the large grey coat, she cut the cord with the carving knife she had taken from the house, then wiped the tiny face, clearing the mucus from its nostrils.

 

After delivering the child, she felt so cold, her eyelids barely able to stay open as the blood leaving her body formed a black circle around her. Ellen didn’t know she would die that day, nobody knew, but when she closed her eyes for the last time, she could still hear the baby crying, a shrill sound, calling for a mother unable to answer, almost as if she knew that part of her had been taken.

 

If there had been an inquest into her death, it would have found she died because of irreversible shock, brought on by haemorrhage and exposure during childbirth. The woman who burned her body didn’t care about that, taking the baby into her arms as if it were her own. It was a miracle the child survived. Questions would be asked, but none that she couldn’t answer. Everyone knew Ellen was never quite right, soft in the head, a creature more to be pitied than scorned. Her disappearance, like her life, would soon be forgotten.

 

Walking back towards the village, she kissed the baby’s forehead. The child wailed, scrunching its face like a piece of shrivelled rotten fruit, a primal instinct kicking in, telling it that something wasn’t right. The woman thought about killing the infant then, but decided against it. Instead, she held her hand tight over the baby’s face while she smiled down at it. When she finally released her grip, the infant spluttered, then wailed even louder than before.

 

‘Now,’ the woman said to the child, ‘I’ve given you something to cry about.’