I was fortunate to meet lovely Diane Jeffrey at Harrogate Crime Festival recently and I have a copy of The Couple at Causeway Cottage, Diane’s latest book, on my TBR. Today, just ahead of publication, I’m delighted to share an extract from The Couple at Causeway Cottage with you.
Published by Harper Collins’ imprint HQ Digital on 18th August 2022 The Couple at Causeway Cottage is available for pre-order through the links here.
The Couple at Causeway Cottage
NEW STARTS. OLD SECRETS.
Kat and Mark move to an island off the Northern Irish coast for a new beginning. Far away from their frantic life in London, it’s the perfect place to bring up the family they’re longing to start.
But as soon as they arrive, cracks begin to appear in their marriage. Mark is still texting his ex-wife. Kat is lying about a new friendship. And one of them is keeping an explosive secret about the past.
The couple in Causeway Cottage are hiding something – and the truth can be deadly…
A gripping page-turner with a shocking twist, perfect for fans of Lucy Clarke, Alice Feeney and Shari Lapena.
An extract from The Couple at Causeway Cottage
It’s only when I’m on the ferry, minutes before arriving, that it hits me how isolated I will be. Standing on the deck, using my hand to shield my eyes from the sun, I glimpse the island for the first time. The cliffs, imposing and impressive, even from a distance, then the port, a speck bobbing in and out of view, becoming bigger and more distinct as we approach. Until now, I’ve only seen images of Rathlin from googling it: a map of a small island shaped like a boomerang or an upside-down sock, pictures of its two churches and its white seafront cottages as well as – and this was the clincher when Mark tried to talk me into moving here – numerous photos of seals and birds.
When I announced I was going to live on a tiny island I’d never been to before, everyone was astonished. I still can’t believe it myself. But new home, new start. The decision wasn’t as rash as it sounds. As I explained to my friends, my dad was from Northern Ireland, so it feels a bit like going back to my roots. And it’s familiar territory for Mark. He grew up eight miles away in Ballycastle, where he recently secured a place for his mother in a nursing home. It was the best thing to do – the only thing to do, but he’s riddled with guilt. An only child who has lost his father, Mark is very close to his mum. I can certainly relate to that. It’s only natural he should also want to be closer to her geographically, especially as she’s so ill.
At the time, it felt like the right decision for me, too. The right move. For several reasons. I mentally tick them off on my fingers as I try to curb the uneasiness swelling inside me. Thumb: I grew up in Devon and I miss the ocean. Index: I was desperate to escape the frantic rhythm of London. Middle finger: I’ve always wanted to be an outdoor photographer – wildlife or landscapes. Rathlin will provide the perfect playground for me to pursue this goal. Ring finger: with its tight-knit community and tiny primary school, Rathlin Island strikes me as an ideal place to bring up our children when they come along. Little finger: the smallest digit on my hand, but an important consideration nonetheless – both Mark and I needed to get away from his ex-wife.
But enumerating all the advantages of this move does nothing to allay my agitation. I’m out of sync with the calm sea.
‘Mark, show me the photos of our house again,’ I say.
‘You’ll see it with your own eyes in a few minutes.’ He hands me his mobile, an amused look on his face, clearly mistaking my jitteriness for excitement.
The estate agent showed Mark around the house while he was over three months ago visiting his mother, who has dementia. He took lots of photos and I’ve swiped through them on his phone so many times I can visualise in detail the place I’ll call home from now on. But I had to make do with a virtual visit of the three-bedroom detached cottage we’ve bought. It doesn’t have a garden, but neither of us is green-fingered, and with it being so close to the beach, that didn’t bother us.
We’d initially been looking for a house on the mainland, but when Causeway Cottage went up for sale, our plans changed. Mark has always had this romantic notion about living on an island and this was the chance of a lifetime. It was the only suitable place for sale on Rathlin – the others were new builds, social housing – so we had to snap it up quickly. I was terrified we’d be gazumped – a word I didn’t even know before Mark made a verbal offer on the house – and delighted when all the paperwork was finally signed and Causeway Cottage was officially ours.
But it feels disconcerting now, moving into a house I’ve only ever seen in photos. Is it because I don’t like the idea of living in a house where someone died? I shudder, then berate myself for being morbid. I’m on my way to a beautiful island, where I’ll be living the dream. It’s not like I’m being ferried across the River Styx.
I give Mark back his mobile. He smiles at me, his turquoise eyes blazing in the sun. A rictus stretches across my face as I force myself to smile back.
‘The finish line’s in sight,’ Mark says, as we make our way to the car, which is laden to the hilt with our mattress strapped to the roof rack. His Northern Irish accent is already more pronounced, even though he hasn’t talked to anyone except me since we left London.
As Mark starts up the car and drives slowly off The Spirit of Rathlin and onto the island itself, I sigh with relief. We travelled for nearly fourteen hours yesterday – getting up at six a.m. and driving from London to Liverpool to take the ferry to Belfast, driving north from there as far as the coastal town of Ballycastle, where we stayed overnight at the house my mother-in-law lived in until very recently. Our crossing this morning – from Ballycastle Harbour to Rathlin – was mercifully short. The first boat of the day and the last leg of the journey.
Causeway Cottage is barely a minute’s drive from the harbour, halfway up a steep hill. I throw off my seatbelt and leap out of the car before Mark can even turn off the engine. Standing at the front gate, I take it in. Now I’m here, I can finally get a feel for the place. The house is quaint and perfectly symmetrical. Red roses climb up the pure white walls on both sides of the front door and, for a second, I picture the cottage as a child might draw it, like a face, the flowers depicting red lips curling upwards as if the house is smiling at me. Or maybe it’s laughing at me. The upstairs windows are eyes, their sills thick lines, pencilled with black kohl. I wonder what they see when they look down at me.
‘It needs a bit of work on the façade and on the roof,’ Mark says, materialising beside me, ‘but other than that, the property’s in pretty good shape.’ I wonder if he’s repeating the estate agent’s words. ‘So, what do you think?’
‘It’s beautiful. Like a cottage in a fairy tale.’ I turn to look at him, but instead my gaze is drawn to the old, stone building behind him. ‘I hadn’t realised the cottage was so close to the church.’
‘We don’t have to go,’ he says jokingly. ‘Apparently there’s no bell-ringing, so we can still have a lie-in on Sundays.’
‘I was thinking more of the graveyard.’ My imagination fills in what I can’t make out, even with my neck craned: tombstones, scattered across the hillside, overlooking the sea and exposed to the elements. Frosty fingers walk down my spine as I wonder if the previous owner of our cottage is buried there.
‘The estate agent assured me our new neighbours are only noisy one night a year.’
Mark’s jovial mood is infectious. ‘Let me guess,’ I say, playing along. ‘Hallowe’en.’
Mark chuckles. ‘You got it.’
I laugh, too.
‘That church doesn’t actually have a graveyard,’ Mark adds. ‘The island’s only burial ground is at the other one.’ As he says that, I remember reading it online.
Mark whisks me up into his arms and carries me up the path to the front door. ‘I didn’t think this through,’ he says, setting me down to fish the key out of his jeans pocket. Then he opens the front door, picks me up again and carries me over the threshold, the two of us giggling like newly-weds.
The first thing I notice is the smell. A stale odour only partially masked by disinfectant and bleach. It’s because it has been shut up for a few weeks, I tell myself. I walk through to the living room, past what I know from Mark is a working fireplace, and fling open the windows to let in the sea air.
‘Wow,’ I breathe. The village sprawls below us and, beyond that, the sea stretches to the horizon.
‘The views are even better from upstairs.’ Mark grabs my hand and leads me upstairs to the front bedroom – the master bedroom.
A cool breeze wafts in through the window when Mark opens it and I shiver.
‘Cold?’ Mark asks.
‘Not really. I was wondering which room the last owner died in. It wasn’t in here, was it?’
‘I don’t know, Kat. I didn’t think to ask.’ He combs his fingers through his wavy, salt and pepper hair. ‘He was an old man. He died peacefully in his sleep.’
‘It probably was in our bedroom, then.’
‘Does it matter? I don’t think the house is haunted.’
I’m being ridiculous. The house doesn’t feel creepy. It’s smaller than it looked in the photos, but it’s massive compared to the flat we were renting in Hammersmith.
We spend the next half an hour or so walking around the house, upstairs and downstairs, opening cupboards and doors and planning where our furniture will go when it arrives. The removals van won’t make it as far as the island – we’ll unload everything at my mother-in-law’s house, then we’ll decide what to keep and bring over on the ferry and what to get rid of or replace.
Mark’s mother had a lot of stuff in her house – she’s a bit of a hoarder – but Mark cleared out most of it when he was offered a place for her in the care home. She insisted Mark should sell her house, and anything in it that would fetch some money, to cover the fees. The house wouldn’t have suited us, not permanently. It’s a very small bungalow with no sea views. On top of that, it’s on a busy road. So we didn’t see ourselves living there. We’d intended to stay there temporarily and take our time finding our dream home. But when Causeway Cottage came onto the market, everything happened more quickly than we’d anticipated and now we’re about to become islanders.
Secretly, I was relieved we wouldn’t be living in Ballycastle itself. As my mind wanders to the fortnight I spent there the summer I turned fifteen, Mark provides a welcome interruption to a painful memory and snaps me back to the present.
‘Shall we do some unpacking?’ he says. ‘Then we can go for a pub lunch.’
McCuaig’s Bar is on the seafront. Sitting outside at the wooden picnic table, I tuck into my scampi ravenously, enjoying the squawking of the seagulls. I take a sip of Mark’s beer. I’d love a glass of wine, but I’ve resolved to cut back on drinking. When I stopped taking the pill a few months ago, we hadn’t discussed moving to Northern Ireland. I suppose, with the stress and upheaval of the move, it’s just as well I didn’t get pregnant before now, and there was little chance of it happening with Mark away so often for work. But now would be the perfect time for me to get pregnant and I know too much alcohol could affect my fertility.
I finish my meal and put down my knife and fork. Feeling the sun warm my face, I close my eyes and tip back my head. Then I open them and look around me. At the table next to ours, two tourists are chatting animatedly, their backpacks on the ground by their feet. At another table, a man is sitting by himself, but there’s an empty plate and pint glass opposite him. He’s wearing a checked shirt with his sleeves rolled up and he’s holding a hamburger with paint-stained hands.
Mark drains his beer. ‘I think I’ll have another one,’ he says. ‘Sure you don’t want a drink?’
‘I don’t suppose one will hurt,’ Mark says. ‘We should be celebrating!’
‘Go on, then,’ I say, cursing myself for being so weak-willed. ‘I’ll have a glass of white wine.’
Mark gets up to fetch our drinks from the bar. He clambers over the wooden bench and walks straight into a man carrying a pint of lager in each hand.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Mark says. ‘That was terribly clumsy of me.’
‘Don’t worry, mate. No harm done.’ His voice is deep and sonorous. He’s at least six foot two and towers over Mark, even though my husband isn’t short.
‘I’ve spilt beer all down your T-shirt.’ Mark is clearly mortified.
‘It’s no big deal. It was dirty anyway. These are work clothes.’
As Mark continues to apologise profusely and insists on replacing the pints, the stranger glances my way briefly, although I don’t think he takes me in. When he turns back to Mark, his expression has changed, as if he’s struggling not to lose his temper. Perhaps because of Mark’s fussing, he’s more annoyed now than when Mark collided with him. I watch, mesmerised, as a red flush spreads from his neck to his cheeks and a vein in his forehead bulges. I would find the transformation amusing if it wasn’t so dramatic. But he looks as though he might punch Mark if his hands were free. Instead, he clenches his jaw and glares at him.
As Mark scuttles inside, the man makes his way over to his table. Taking his seat opposite the guy in the checked shirt, he looks so calm and collected I wonder if I imagined his change in demeanour. I sneak a glance at him over my shoulder. He has a large, slightly hooked nose. Huge biceps. His fair hair is unkempt and a little too long, framing his suntanned face. If not exactly handsome, he’s certainly attractive.
Mark comes back, carrying a tray with four glasses on it. He puts the tray down on our table and takes the pints over to the two men, apologising again.
‘His face is familiar,’ Mark says when he has sat down. ‘I’m sure I know him from somewhere.’
I turn to look at the man again, but he’s staring our way and, catching his eye, I whip my head back to face Mark.
‘I’ve never seen him before in my life,’ I say. ‘Maybe you went to school together.’
‘Maybe.’ Mark sounds dubitative. ‘I think I knew him when I was younger, but I don’t think it was at school.’
‘It’s hard to place people out of context sometimes. Hey, maybe he’s a celebrity and you’ve seen him on TV.’
Mark isn’t listening to me. His eyebrows pinch together into a frown. ‘I’m pretty sure I didn’t like him.’
‘What makes you say that?’
‘Oh well,’ I say brightly, ‘with a bit of luck, you won’t bump into him again.’
I hadn’t intended it as a pun, but Mark laughs wryly. ‘If I do, next time I’ll make sure not to knock beer down his front.’ But then his face clouds over. He leans towards me and lowers his voice. ‘I’ve got this strange feeling about him. Sort of gut instinct. Like he’s bad news. I can’t quite put my finger on it.’
I remember the thunderous look that came over the man earlier, when I thought he wanted to hit Mark. Perhaps I didn’t misread his expression after all.
Ooh. I really need to bump up The Couple at Causeway Cottage immediately. I’m not sure I trust Mark and I want to find out more!
Don’t forget you can pre-order The Couple at Causeway Cottage here.