12 February 2010
As we drive up Laneside Road, the open fields and hills of Derbyshire take over and by the time we pull up into the muddy farmyard we could be a world away from suburban New Mills.
In the distance the hills of the Peak District are covered in snow and the fields leading up there look forbidding and harsh.
Fred Handford disappeared on one of the coldest nights of the year 34 years ago. I am wearing a thick padded jacket with a fur hood; he was wearing shirt sleeves and a thin jacket. Even if he hadn’t intended to kill himself he wouldn’t have lasted the night in weather like this.
There is a farmhouse on the right hand side and a cosy cottage on our left but we drive past both and park up next to a field then walk to a four berth caravan parked incongruously inside a concrete and metal-roofed barn. The heating is on and we settle down opposite one another on the banquette. Janet explains to me that the farmhouse was sold long ago, after Fred disappeared, and she had to sell the cottage to pay back the solicitors firm she defrauded in the ’90s. I assume she has very little money.
We spend most of the day chatting and I record every word she says.
By the time I pull away it’s after 4pm. We’ve left it that Mary, Janet’s friend of 20 years will ‘phone me when she has read Janet’s original manuscript. I wonder what Mary will make of Janet’s story.
I also plant the seed that it may be a good idea for Janet to see a professional therapist, one recommended by my psychologist friend, Erica, perhaps to try to get to the bottom of her nightmares.
Janet does not dismiss the idea out of hand but, when I leave Ball Beard Farm, I am left none the wiser about the causes of her nightmares than when I first arrived. It’s as if a part of her brain shuts down so that when she says she has no idea what is causing them I completely believe her. I’m sure she believes it too but, what is more interesting is her eyes fill up with tears and the muscles in her face tense when she talks of Fred’s disappearance. I’m tempted to think she knows why he disappeared but it’s buried too deep to access – if that’s not too fanciful a notion.
By the time I leave I know I want to unlock the mystery of what happened to Fred Handford as much as I want to see Janet’s life story documented. I assure Janet I will not be charging her for writing her story and I wait for her to tell me that actually she’s decided not to proceed after all. But she does want to go ahead – with a proviso:
“I’ll be putting it in the bin if the nightmares get any stronger; I’ve only just got them under control after all these years,” she says.
And then out of the blue, I suddenly question what I’m doing. What if this is all a figment of Janet’s imagination; a fantasy? What if Fred was in fact a depressive character who committed suicide and that was that? What if there is no story?
“What books do you like to read?” I ask, looking for more clues as I gather up my tape recorder and notepad.
“James Herriot,” she replies. “And the other James.”
“The other James?”
“You know, James Herbert.”
My heart plummets. I hope Janet’s story is not a ‘remake’ of one of his horror novels.
All I can do now is wait for Mary to call me.