It was the third week of September and the harvest was late. The air was alive with the sharp, sweet smell of cut wheat and barley. Specks of straw hung in the feeble breeze, glittering in the mellow late afternoon sun. Alison Fenway sat naked on the edge of the big double bed, trying to order her thoughts.
Miles lay on the sheets, curled into the shape of a lazy apostrophe, a cat-like smile on his handsome face. His hair was turning a touch grey over the ears now. Too soon, she thought, at just thirty five. There was no fat on his lean, muscular body.
“Is it really only two months?” she asked and wondered how well her American accent fitted into the Georgian splendour of the place, whether the walls heard her intonation and tut-tutted inwardly to themselves.
He rolled his eyes at the ceiling, thinking. “Good God, yes. It just flew, didn’t it?”
Dimly, she could recall the day she left the hospital in the Catskills, mind still a bitter, reeling whirl. There was a car ride, a flight, tortured sleep, then England, home for Miles, always somewhere foreign to her. The weather had been unseasonably kind. The motorway began as a familiar, choking serpent of urban congestion, until they veered south, into Kent where the countryside appeared out of nowhere: flat open farmland and, in the distance, the high ridge of the Downs. Then a final wriggle through narrow, winding lanes, scarcely wide enough to take two cars, and they were nearly there.
Her first sight of Beulah was from the valley near Wye. The village lay past a spectacular chalk horse cut high into the Downs above, at the top of the tortuous climb of Vipers Hill. She sat in the passenger seat in silence, her mind trying to embrace the idea that the city was behind them. It had seemed to make sense when Miles had first raised the notion. But that was after. Anything would have made sense, any escape plan from the city and its vivid, searing memories. He had inherited the house just after she “fell ill”. He had shown her pictures in the hospital, and she had nodded. It meant she was moving again. Her dead father’s voice haunted her, the Boston brogue cold and hard: We all need a goal, Alison. Time you remembered that.
The car had rolled over the top of the hill, dived into a sudden zig-zag of sharp bends, then sauntered along a dead straight avenue of poplars waving softly in the morning breeze.
Something was happening on the village green: colour and people, games and rituals. They had stopped outside a three-storey Georgian mansion so vast she thought it was a hotel. And, like the shining knight he was, Miles Fenway had carried her, grinning, over the threshold, into Priory House, shown her around its myriad corners, the vast farmhouse kitchen and the airy, high-ceilinged rooms. Later, they walked through the sprawling rear garden of lawn, herbaceous border and errant vegetable beds, hand in hand, like children entering some secret paradise.
In each life, she knew, there was a pivotal point where a single, small decision determined the direction of everything that happened thereafter. Entering Beulah and discovering Priory House was one of these. It would have been so easy to have rejected it. To have realised that this was no way to find a new home, begin a new beginning, simply on the basis of some distant blood ties, a property deed passed on from one generation to the next. There was an instant when she could have shook her head and said: No. I make my own life. I choose my own places.
The words ran though her head… and fell silently away. In front of the ancient, heat-blackened Aga in the vast farmhouse kitchen she had kissed Miles, grateful that he knew when to lead and when to sit back. Her acceptance, and the feeling of relief that came with it, were still etched on her memory. This would work out. They deserved a break, at last.
Alison took one last, long suck of the cigarette then stubbed it out, half finished, on the ashtray that sat on the windowsill. There was no reason to smoke after sex. This was habit, a clichéd one at that. She didn’t even enjoy it these days. They needed to make love, at the right time, for all the right reasons. Tobacco had no place in the game. It tasted foul. She could smell herself sometimes. And when she lit the damned thing, when there was that brief spurt of flame from the lighter, sometimes her head caught fire too, remembering, remembering. It was time to give up. No. Tomorrow was time to give up.
There was a faint miaow at the door and the pale, ginger form of the cat walked imperiously into the room. He had bought her Thomas the week after they moved in. The beast had a glorious, snooty character, spending most of the day lazily eyeing the world from a basket by the Aga. She had once opened the back door and invited him to explore the garden, with its wild creatures and feral delights. Thomas had stared at her and blinked in offended, feline disbelief.
With a minimum of effort, the cat jumped on the bed and sat between them, demanding the attention of both. She stroked it gently on the neck, then leaned over the animal and gave Miles a peck on his cheek. There was stubble there already. He seemed so full of life since they moved, as if everything inside him was running at twice its normal speed. “Thanks,” she said.
“For the cat. For Indulging me.”
Miles sat upright. “Please. This is for both of us.”
She shook her head. “You spend four hours each day in the car. You’re a city animal, Miles. We both know you’re just indulging a crazy woman.”
He closed his eyes in that pained fashion she recognised. “You’re not crazy. You never were. Just…”
She put a finger to his lips. “Shush. I know. ‘Into each life, a little rain…’”
“Quite,” he muttered confidently, then stood up, strode away into the bathroom. Soon she heard the sound of the shower. The noise made Thomas’s ears prick upright. The cat thought about the possibility of water for one moment then dashed for the door and the safety of the basket by the Aga.
Alison laughed inwardly to herself and went to the window, hungry for the view of the village. She caught her breath. The Blamire twins had stopped watching the cricket match on the green. They had turned round and were now peering, quite deliberately back at the house. Back into the bedroom where she stood, naked behind the glass.
“Take a good look, boys,” she said quietly, in the coarsest Manhattan drawl she could manage, and leaned forward to feel the cold pressing on her breasts, gave a vacant, innocent grin to the world, then lazily picked up the silk dressing gown from the bed and dragged it over her shoulders. It felt organic, like wispy skin shed by some mythical reptile. She sat back on the bed, lit another cigarette, then looked out of the window again. The Blamires were watching the game, broad backs to her. A shame, she thought. She would have liked to have seen their round, weathered faces, tried to judge if they were a little more red now. One of the twins — Harry, or was it Mitch? she still found it hard to tell the difference — walked over to the other side of the green, skirting the perimeter of the game, and started to help a small group of villagers heaving logs into a rough pile. The noise of the shower died.
“Miles,” she said loudly. “What’s going on? What kind of Brit nonsense is this?”
He came out of the bathroom, pummelling his head with a towel. “Ar, it be a big day.”
“Jeez. That must be the worst hick accent I have ever heard. Even I can do English better than that.”
“Is that so?” He seemed a touch offended.
“You’re a merchant banker. You find it congenitally impossible to listen to people. I can pass as a normal human being. I do.”
“Fine. So what do they say?”
“Oh, the usual estuarial annoyances you get on the BBC these days. Some dropped consonants. Paw for Paul. Goh for got. But not the whole way. They’d never say, for example, I goa goh see Paw.”
She thought about it. Once upon a time, a decade before, when she’d tried to pretend she could be an actress, she had studied speech. She could still turn out a passable impersonation of Gwyneth Paltrow doing English if she wanted. Not bad for someone who’d spent the first fifteen years enduring a privileged existence in Boston, Massachusetts. Alison thought of their two closest towns, each a twenty minute drive from the heights of the Downs where Beulah sat, in isolated rural splendour. “Ashfurrd. Canturrbury.”
He towelled his hair, looking impressed. “Very good. The Blamire boys will take you to their hearts.”
She glanced out at the green and made a mental note: this is not the middle of nowhere. There are people around. You shouldn’t stand naked at windows and not expect them to look. More than that, you shouldn’t taunt them. “I think they have already. So back to the point. What’s going on out there?”
He slipped on a shirt, then a pair of jeans. “As I said. The big day. Harvest festival. The whole thing goes back yonks.”
The group around the wood pile were getting somewhere now. And it was clear what they were building. Just thinking about it made her feel cold. “You mean like Harvest Home? I thought it was all kids in church giving away apples, boring priests and ‘We plough the fields and scatter’.”
He put a damp hand to her head and she almost pulled herself away. Miles could be deeply, infuriatingly condescending at time. “Yonks,” he repeated. “Don’t be so temporally parochial. It’s all pagan, you know. Christmas. Easter. Everything.”
“A bonfire? This is September the 21st. Not that stupid stuff you guys do on November the fifth.”
“Guy Fawkes is mere slippage, dear girl. I bet if you went back several hundred years every village in England was doing something like this just now. The end of the harvest. Birth, rebirth. That kind of thing. You should talk to John Tyler about it. He knows everything.”
She recoiled at the sound of Tyler’s name and didn’t know why. It was a week since the examination. The thought of it still made her flesh crawl. “Ah, the bedside manner from hell. How nice to have him living in the village too.”
Miles sighed and stroked her hair. This time she really did pull away. “We may come to be grateful for that,” he said. “You know I’ll pay for anyone you want to see in London. But Tyler seems a good man. The locals worship him and his wife.”
A good man. She had spent an hour in the surgery in Wye, three miles down the hill. An hour of being prodded and poked, in all the familiar ways. “There’s nothing wrong, with you or me, Miles. We both know that. It’s just a question of time.”
I will conceive, I will conceive. Why can’t you understand that?
“All the same, a tame, talented doctor on your doorstep isn’t something you should ignore.”
Perhaps this country physic has cures, she thought. Spells, incantations. Birth. Rebirth. He was welcome to try them all. Anyone was. She didn’t care how it happened. She just wanted to be pregnant, wanted to feel the pulse of life inside her and hear the sound of young voices echoing down the long, empty corridors of Priory House.
Alison watched the activity on the green. Correction: the Minnis. They were so proud of their local traditions, the odd local names. This, she thought, was the real difference between the village and the city. It wanted to stay apart, craved its own identity. Did that mean they hated intruders? No. Not even American ones with their odd accents and dubious reasons for being here. She had never encountered anything except warmth and friendliness, not infrequently mixed with a little eccentricity. Granny Jukes, the old biddy who lived in the tidy white windmill reached by a gravel lane from the opposite side of the Minnis was a good example. She must have been ninety if she was a day, but the arrival of some alien in their midst just made her grin, somewhat toothlessly, even more. The slightly menacing Blamires had been just as cheery, though they were just a touch too oddly local for her taste.
She could see the wigwam outline of the bonfire coming together on the lush green grass of the common. And something else behind it too, being fussed around by a gaggle of village woman, Granny Jukes at the centre. What looked like a huge corn dolly lay on the grass close to the pile of wood, its straw body the colour of the rich afternoon sun. It was the size of a man.
Sounds came to her through the window. The lazy stroke of a ball on a cricket bat. Someone shouting a call for out. The mechanical whirring of insects on the breeze. And cheering. The huge prone figure on the ground was starting to move, coming upright.
Miles was watching from the window, entirely captivated by the scene.
“You should get dressed old girl. This looks like fun.”
With a shaking hand she rolled another cigarette out of the packet, then closed her eyes and, quite blind to the world, tried to guide the lighter flame gingerly towards her face.
(c) David Hewson 2012