Lipton was quiet underneath the stars. It was quiet as the snow fell through the night; as it settled on the roof of the Isitts’ barn and the bell house of the school; as it came in through the cracked upper windows that needed mending at Lipton Hall; as it cast a hush across the cobbled main street of the village, muting the few cars that passed by. It lay on the roofs of the dentist’s and the doctor’s surgery; it fell on Manly’s, the dated ladieswear boutique, and on the Red Lion, its outdoor tables buried under mounds, its mullioned windows piled high with the stuff.
It fell on the ancient church with the kissing gate, and the graveyard with its repeated local names: Lipton, Isitt, Carr, Cooper, Bell.
It fell on the sleeping sheep, camouflaging them completely (Rosie had made Stephen laugh once, asking where the sheep slept when it got cold. He had looked at her strangely and said, ‘In the Wooldorf, of course, where else?’ and she had taken a moment or two before she kicked him crossly in the shins). It fell on birds cosy in their nests, their heads under their wings, and settled like a sigh, piled soft and deep in the gullies and crevasses of the great towering Derbyshire hills that fringed the little town.
Even now, after a year of living there, Rosie Hopkins couldn’t get over how quiet it was in the countryside. There were birds, of course, always, singing their hearts out in the morning. One could usually hear a cock crow, and every now and then from the deeper sections of the woods would come a distant gunshot, as someone headed out to hunt rabbits (you weren’t meant to, the woods belonged to the estate, so no one ever owned up, although if you passed Jake the farmhand’s little tied cottage on a Saturday night, the smell of a very rich stew might just greet your nostrils).
But tonight, as Rosie went to mount the little narrow stairs to bed, it felt quieter than ever. There was something different about it. Her foot creaked on the step.
‘Are you coming up or what?’ came the voice from overhead.
Even though she and Stephen had lived there together now for nearly a year, Rosie still wasn’t out of the habit of calling it Lilian’s cottage. Her great-aunt, whom she’d come up to look after when Lilian had broken her hip, had moved into a lovely local home, but they still had her over most Sundays, so Rosie felt that, even though legally she had bought the cottage, she rather had to keep it exactly as Lilian liked it. Well, it was slightly that and slightly that Lilian would sniff and raise her eyebrows when they so much as tried to introduce a new picture, so it was easier all round just to keep it as it was. Anyway, Rosie liked it too. The polished wooden floor covered in warm rugs; the fireplace with its horse brasses; the chintzy sofa piled with cushions and floral throws; the old Aga and the old-fashioned butler’s sink. It was dated, but in a very soft, worn-in, comfortable way, and as she lit the wood burner (she was terrible with fires; people from miles around would come to scoff and point at her efforts, as if growing up in a house with central heating was something to be ashamed of), she never failed to feel happy and cosy there.
Stephen had the use of Peak House, which was part of his family estate, a bankrupt and crumbling seat that gave Lipton its name. Peak House was a great big scary-looking thing up on the crags. It had a lot more space, but somehow they’d just found themselves more and more at Lilian’s cottage. Also, as Rosie was just about eking a living from the sweetshop and Stephen was in teacher training, they were both completely skint and Lilian’s cottage was substantially easier to heat.
Stephen may have scoffed a bit at the decor, but he seemed more than happy to lie on the sofa, his sore leg, damaged in a landmine accident in Africa, propped up on Rosie’s lap as they watched box sets on Lilian’s ancient television. Other nights, when the picture was just too grainy, Stephen would read to her and Rosie would knit, and Stephen would tease her for making the world’s longest scarf, and she would tell him to hush, he would be pleased when it turned cold, and if he wasn’t quiet she would knit him a pair of long johns and make him wear them, which shut him up pretty fast.
‘In a minute!’ shouted Rosie up the stairs, glancing round to make sure the door was shut on the wood burner – she was always nearly causing conflagrations. She was struck by the heaviness of the air. They hadn’t moved in to Lilian’s downstairs bedroom, all of them keeping up the pretence that one day Lilian might want to use it again, so they kept it pristine, the bed made up, her clothes still hanging in the wardrobe. Rosie kept a shrewd nurse’s eye on her eighty-seven-year-old great-aunt. Lilian liked to complain about the home, but Rosie could see, in the rosiness of her cheeks (Lilian took great pride in her excellent complexion) and her slight weight gain (this, by contrast, made her utterly furious), that actually, living somewhere with help on hand all the time, and company, was just what Lilian needed. She had lasted a long time by herself in her own home, trying to pretend to the world at large that everything was absolutely fine, when clearly it wasn’t. She might complain, but it was clear that it was a weight off her shoulders.
So they continued to sleep in the little attic, adapted years before as a spare bedroom for Lilian’s brothers. It was clean and bare, with views on one side of the great craggy Derbyshire fells, and on the other of Lilian’s garden, the herb and vegetable patches tended with surprising care by Stephen, the rose bower trimmed from time to time by Mr Isitt, the local dairy farmer.
It was utterly freezing up in the unheated attic. Rosie saw with a smile that Stephen was already in bed, tucked in tightly under the sheets, blankets and thick eiderdown (Lilian thought duvets were a modern intrusion for lazy people; Rosie couldn’t deny there was a certain comfort in being tucked in tight with hospital corners, plus it was much harder for your other half to steal the covers).
‘Hurry up,’ he said.
‘Oh good,’ said Rosie. ‘You’ve warmed up one side. Now can you shift to the other side, please?’
The shape under the covers was unmoved.
‘Not a chance,’ it said. ‘It’s brass monkey bollocks up here.’
‘Thank goodness I share my bed with a gentleman,’ said Rosie. ‘Move! And anyway, that’s my side.’
‘It is NOT your side. This is the window side, which you insisted, when we were stifling up here in the summer, was making you too hot so you needed the other side.’
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ said Rosie, coming round the far end of the large sleigh bed. ‘Now budge.’