“MARTYN ARMSTRONG’S dead, Leon.”
I blinked at Felix, wondering if the click of the door closing behind me had drowned out some key words. I said, because it seemed appropriate, “I’m very sorry to hear that. Er, who was he?”
“An old boy,” Felix told me, looking down at the letter in his hand with a faint shake of his head. “A very old boy.”
The news must have come with the morning post—that explained why he hadn’t said a word over breakfast. Or perhaps it had simply been tact. My foster sister Kasia and her sons were spending the first few weeks of the summer holidays at school with us, and Felix, doting grandfather that he was, wouldn’t have wanted to upset them.
I pulled up a chair to his desk and waited for his explanation. I knew better than to rush him—Felix liked his little revelations, even with family and his management team. I might be both, but that didn’t make me exempt.
When he didn’t say anything more, I prompted, “Old boy?”
“Not of this site. He was eighty-seven, I believe, or thereabouts. A wartime orphan, originally taken in by the Newcastle orphanage.”
“That’s a hell of a life.”
“Sadly, I believe it may have been. He contacted me when he saw the articles in the press for the 125th anniversary, and we kept up an occasional correspondence. He was—well, a haunted man, one who had never quite put aside the troubles of his youth.”
I shuddered. Unlike this mysterious friend of Felix’s, I was most definitely not the boy I had once been, but it had taken years of determination, on both my part and the school’s.
Felix was still staring at the letter, a strange look on his face—an odd mixture of regret, disbelief, and excitement. “Leon,” he said. “He left us his house.”
I sat up immediately and forgot being tactful about a stranger’s death to demand, “How big a house? Is there land?”
“Well, that’s the strange thing.” Felix rose to his feet, thrusting the letter into my hand. “Look at that while I find the files.”
I skimmed it quickly—it was from the charity’s headquarters in London, explaining the bequest consisted of the property of Vainguard in Cumbria and the land surrounding to be used as Felix saw fit. I knew now why he was excited—here at Eilbeck House we had a maximum capacity of one hundred students and a waiting list five times that size. We’d been talking about setting up a second site for the last decade, but we just couldn’t fund it.
But if the land had fallen into our laps, we could afford to build.
“Cumbria’s a long way from here,” I observed.
“There’s plenty of need up there.” He put a box file on his desk and began to flick through it. I recognised it—one of several he used to store notes and documents about the history of the charity, with the vague intention he would use his retirement, if it ever came, to write a full history of everything we had done to help children over the years, from the original orphanages founded by Reverend Eilbeck in the 1880s to the present-day children’s charity, Becky’s Children’s Trust, that still works with disadvantaged children. Our school was just one small part of a much bigger organisation, but Felix was prone to boast that we were the closest to the good reverend’s original intentions. The other Eilbeck orphanages had closed long ago, but we remained as the only residential school run by the charity. As educational tides had turned over the last decade, we had found ourselves so oversubscribed that the trustees now lamented the sale of all those old buildings.
He passed me a photograph. “This is Vainguard. Martyn sent me the picture—he and his younger brother are both there.”
The photo was black and white, with yellowing edges. Three rows of boys and girls sat outside what looked less like a country house than a medieval prison. Vainguard was tall and grey, with narrow windows and crenellations along the roof. On the left, its frontage ended in a square tower, punctuated with a single arrow slit. Behind the house, forested hills rose darkly towards the sky. The children all looked as grim as their home, faces fixed in the serious expressions typical of mid-century school photographs. At the bottom of the picture, someone had written Vainguard Orphans, Blacklynefoot, April 1944.
“Wait—he owned his old orphanage?”
“Bought it about forty years ago when it came on the market. He’d just sold his business, and he snapped it up. I gather it wasn’t in a particularly good condition, and I didn’t get the impression he’d done more than basic maintenance. He lived in the caretaker’s bungalow.”
“Which one is he?” They all looked equally solemn. It didn’t look like a happy home—something about it made my shoulders tense.
“In the back row, two from the left. It’s the only picture we’ve got of the place. We weren’t there long, and I admit it hasn’t been my main priority in the research. I haven’t even dug into the archives properly yet. The Newcastle home was evacuated out to Vainguard in the war years, but it closed in 1946. Martyn left in ’44, I believe.”
“And the brother? Does he not have family who might want it?”
“He died during the war, poor little thing. He was some years younger. As I said, Martyn was a very troubled man, and although he never said as much, I believe he bought the place to feel closer to little Francis.”
“What a tragic life.”
Felix sighed. “Many of them were, in those days. We could put a roof over their heads, but we were decades away from understanding the kind of therapy and support these children needed.”
I broke into his flow, not wanting to go off on that particular tangent. “So, what next?”
He twinkled at me. “Well, I thought you might go and have a look at the place.”
“Who else? We need someone to go up there and make a decision—someone who knows what it would take to turn it into a modern school.”
Fair enough. I was the youngest of Felix’s three deputy heads but the only one without children of my own in local schools. I was also the one who wanted more—who shared Felix’s dream of a second school the most passionately. I knew perfectly well if we ever found a site, I would be first pick for head teacher.
And I wanted that, for all I hadn’t imagined it being quite so far from the comforts of home.
Felix was still talking. “We know it had the capacity for thirty children in the 1940s, but standards have changed, and we have no idea what state the place is in. Vainguard itself is listed—grade two, I believe—but if anything remains of the earlier conversions, we can work with the local authority. If nothing else, we may be able to use it for residential trips—outward-bound opportunities, that kind of thing. Roughing it. Self-sufficiency. Wilderness skills.”
Eilbeck was located on the edge of the Sussex Weald, so we weren’t exactly short on rolling countryside of our own. I asked, startled out of my ambitions, “Where exactly is this place?”
Felix grinned at me. “Bottom end of Liddesdale.”
That left me none the wiser.
“Never read any Walter Scott in that English degree of yours? The Borders, Leon, the Borders. Vainguard is on the English side, but the border with Scotland is the river that runs across the bottom of the grounds—those walls will have seen battle many a time in the old days. You’ll be in the heart of reiver country, my lad. If you’re game, of course.”
I looked down at the photograph, at that bleak and lonely tower. Something in me rebelled at the thought. I didn’t like the look of it—didn’t like it at all.
Then I thought of all the ways Eilbeck had saved me and how another school might do the same for some other kid like me. We couldn’t pass up this chance.
“I’m game,” I said and felt a shiver go through me.
I wasn’t sure if it was dread or anticipation.
LATER THAT evening, I sat on the edge of the main quad, watching the chaos that came from a whole crowd of my colleagues and close relations all trying to organise a barbeque according to their own principles of efficiency.
The evening was warm and golden, the shadows long but the light lingering. The red tiles and bricks of the old manor house at the heart of the school glowed under that low light, and the planter full of flowers I was leaning on smelt sweet. Felix had emailed everyone still on-site to invite them to dine al fresco, and the resulting jumble of people was a little too loud for me but still made my heart warm. Here was my foster sister Kasia, fiercely debating vegetarian options with Felix’s personal assistant, her boys sprawled out on the square lawn with the greyhounds. One of the grounds staff—Jamie, who had come here at thirteen and, like me, stayed on—had taken over the tongs from Felix, who was bemoaning politics with Marianne, one of my fellow deputy heads. Marianne’s foster daughter, Taneka, was helping Jamie, watching the rest of us warily. The first time I’d taught her, she’d overturned a table and spat in my face. Now, three years later, she was self-contained and serious, a leader amongst her peers, and—as of three months ago—one of that handful of Eilbeck kids who, over the years, had found themselves with no other home to go to. She would stay with Marianne now until she was twenty-one, in term and out, like I had along with my foster sisters, Kasia and Suleikha. Felix and his wife, Valerie, had officially fostered the three of us, but it was the same sanctuary. We were all Eilbeck kids.
Valerie joined me now, bearing two glasses of wine. I took one, and she smiled at me. “Staying well out of it, are you? You were always my most sensible child. So, what have you boys been up to, shut away all day?”
“Plotting and scheming, of course.” I knew Felix would tell her later, but we weren’t ready for everyone to know yet.
“Don’t let him talk to you into anything you don’t want to do.”
“He’s not,” I promised her lightly, but I couldn’t help glancing upwards to the little dormer window which belonged to my flat. I’d lived up there since I was twenty-one, and I suddenly realised one of the reasons I was sitting back was to watch and memorise everything which meant home to me.
“Leon?” Valerie sounded worried.
“It’s exciting. If it works, it will be amazing. I’m looking forward to it.”
I wasn’t sure who I was trying to persuade.
LATE THE next morning I finally crossed the border into Scotland. I was in the peculiar state of mind that accompanies every long drive—that mixture of utter misery with unwillingness to stop—but finally my destination was close. I turned off the A7, and the road narrowed between mile after mile of lonely fields. The land rose slowly, not like the rolling curves of the beech-clad hills of home, but with an entirely different mood—bleak and vast and lonely. I rolled the windows down and breathed in the scents of summer: dry grass, clean wind, and too strongly for my stomach, sheep. I was only half an hour out of Carlisle, but this felt like the end of the world.
It was lovely, albeit in an unwelcoming way, but part of my mind was already speculating about school transport and winter access. It might need to be boarding only, this far from public transport, and I wondered what the local children did, assuming there were any on the scattered farms I was passing.
Then I saw the sign for Blacklynefoot, and turned down onto a single-track road. It crossed a rocky stream—Blacklyne Burn, the official border—and I was back in England again, though not an England I knew. Here lines of fir trees and stone walls divided low tufty fields with edges made ragged by high pale grass. Forested hills rose up behind them, the trees so dark it was hard to judge how steep the slopes were. The chalk downs and golf courses of mid-Sussex seemed a world away.
My sense of unease grew. I had nightmares about landscapes like this.
Felix’s directions had told me to look for a turning just past the stream on the ridge that looked down on the river—and Scotland. A house stood there with a sign in the garden that read Vainguard Lodge: Traditional Blacksmith, Horse Shoeing, and Farriery. A rough track led past it.
I turned rather tentatively and immediately winced as my poor little Nissan Micra began to rock and bounce along the unmade lane.
I made it past the lodge but then had to slam on the brakes.
A man was standing in the middle of the track, his arms crossed, glaring at me.
He looked like I imagined Heathcliff would have done: dark, glowering, with a hint of cragginess in the high bones of his face—absolutely fucking gorgeous. He was also bang smack in my way after a six-hour drive. I took a deep breath and then leaned out of the open window.
“Hullo,” I called. “Don’t suppose I could get past?”
He glared at me, then walked towards me at a slow pace—deliberately so, I was sure. Great. Not even out of the car yet and here was the first local I met showing all the classic signs of a rural bigot. Nothing overt would be said, I could already predict, but he would make it very clear that places like this weren’t meant for people like me. Even after twenty years, Suleikha and I still got sideways looks at home from time to time, and that was within commuting distance of London. I didn’t have high hopes.
“You must be lost,” he said.
And there it was—not precisely rude or racist in a way which could be easily challenged, but exactly the sort of confrontational statement I would have called out in any of my students.
It was also uttered in a rolling, throaty accent—not quite Scottish, not quite Geordie, but some rich, guttural music between the two.
I’d rather disarm than confront, so I smiled nicely and said in my most affable tone, every scrap of Felix-taught poshness unleashed, “I’m honestly not sure if I am. I’m trying to find a house called Vainguard. Am I on the right track?”
“Vainguard’s nae open to the public.”
“Oh, I’m not public, not as such. I’m here on behalf of the new owners. Mr Armstrong’s solicitor should be meeting me here in half an hour or so.”
“New owners,” he repeated, and then his scowl deepened. “You don’t want to buy Vainguard. There’s no good in it for anyone.”
“We’re not buying,” I said and offered my hand out the window. “Leon Kwarteng of Becky’s Children’s Trust. And you are?”
He didn’t take it, but snapped out, “Niall Forster. I live in the lodge. Why the hell would Becky’s have an interest in Vainguard?”
“Martyn Armstrong left it to us.”
Niall Forster rocked back on his heels and whistled. “The mean old bastard. Sell up, and fast.”
“Well, we can hardly make any decision until I’ve seen the place,” I said. “So if you’ll excuse me….”
I nudged the car forward despite his glower. I was good—I didn’t run over his toes or even put my foot down once he grudgingly stepped aside (admittedly, that had more to do with the state of my suspension than any consideration for his well-being). As I drove down the track, I could see him in my rear-view mirror, still glaring at my bumper.
Well, fuck him. Nobody ever liked living by a school, especially not our type of establishment, and I hoped the idea made him really miserable. Angry neighbours were pretty much par for the course, so it would be no water off my back if he gnawed on his own liver for a while.
I would need to stop mixing metaphors so egregiously before the start of term, though.
A couple of bone-rattling moments later, I arrived at a pair of stone-capped gateposts. On either side of the gap, a drystone wall stretched out as far as I could see. A few high trees within the wall masked the buildings beyond, but I could glimpse a low peaked roof and a high wall beyond.
I drove through the gates into what had once been a cobbled yard but was now mostly moss and grass. Silently apologising to my poor little car, I parked to one side of it and got out. I’d stopped at the services somewhere south of Liverpool, but I’d been stuck behind the wheel for over six hours otherwise, and it was a relief to stretch my legs.
I turned around to survey the buildings, and my heart sank. It didn’t look good.
By the gate, running along the wall, was a long, low stone barn. Two wooden doors hung open, and I stepped towards them, wondering if I would have to evict squatters or find evidence of bored local teenagers.
But the barn was empty as far as I could see—empty and dark. Beyond the patch of light by the doors, I couldn’t see anything, although I heard the skitter of claws rushing away from me. There clearly were squatters, but only of the rodent variety.
On the least overgrown side of the yard stood a single-storey bungalow, which had probably once been white but now was a mottled grey with streaks of green below the gutters. The windows were grimy, but I could see faded orange curtains hanging behind them.
And then there was Vainguard itself.
It was instantly recognisable from the photograph Felix had shown me. It looked more dilapidated now, though, with glass missing from the windows over the great doors and ivy covering both walls and windows. It didn’t look anything like a school.
I reminded myself that it had functioned as an orphanage for some years. Had those children been taught on-site, or had they gone to a village school? I hadn’t seen one as I drove in, but that didn’t mean much. I hadn’t seen a church or a shop either, and all villages had those.