Autumn ran into winter. The days grew desperately short. Thin morning mist gave way to thick hill fog. The earth became a carpet of dank, rotting leaves. The apple trees in the garden were now bare, skeletal black figures in a drab, wet landscape, long, unruly grass at their ankles.
For the first few days after Halloween, Alison spent her energies on the house, keeping it spotless, perfect in every way, trying not to think about Paternoster Farm or wait for the doorbell to ring. The call never came. As far as Beulah knew, Harry Blamire was no more through some tragic, explosive accident.
Even so, for one brief period she actually thought she might give herself up. Might phone the handsome plod, Justin, ask him round for a cup of tea and forgiveness, tell him about Harry’s fumbling fingers down the front of her jeans, and how there really was no other choice. The brief, playful meeting at the hospital told her he ought to understand. For all the tentative flirting, Justin Liddle had made some kind of impression upon her. What Alison found difficult was separating how much of it was real and how much a reaction to this sudden, shocking discovery about Miles and his apparent behaviour at Burning Man. Why shouldn’t she be able to trust a man? What, if Harry Blamire had been telling the truth, was Miles’ real intention? Was it just the drink and Marjorie’s dope? And what kind of excuse was that anyway? Miles, drunk or sober, had been party to some vile act of trespass upon her body. One side of her wanted to throw this in his face, demand an answer, then head for the door. But she would have damned herself in the act, and for a deed far worse than a touch of drunken debauchery.
This thought made the image of Justin, reliable Justin, someone who might sympathise, both more alluring and more dangerous. She could imagine sitting him down in the kitchen and lay out the facts, calmly, coolly over a coffee. And then, she knew, the imaginary Justin would take an imaginary swig from his imaginary mug and ask, “So why didn’t you run from Harry? When he was hurt? Why didn’t you stop him going into the furnace? And why, most of all, did you set the place on fire instead of calling us like you should have done, Alison?”
“Because,” this imaginary self said, getting impatient, “it was in the middle of the wood.”
“And he was injured. Badly, from what you say.”
At which point she would tell him about Miles and the sashes and the little marks the gag left on the morning after Burning Man. And Justin would say, “Ah, now I understand. The bastard. You’ll hear no more of it. In fact, if you want to top your husband too, put him down the waste disposal unit, no problem. Justice is a many-splendoured thing, it moves in mysterious ways. Tant pis. What the hell. I’ll be getting along now, if you don’t mind, Mrs Fenway, and ta very much for the cuppa.”
Oh yes. And after that he’d go outside, climb on his bike, and pedal off into a glorious sunset to a chorus of chirruping skylarks.
There was only one option. Silence. And the search for something to relieve the pain.
Miles finally came home three days later. He wore that strained, ill-tempered look that always followed trouble in the office. Unable to divulge the real source of her grief, Alison had picked an argument about the work and his absence from home, two subjects about which she cared nothing. It was short, loud and painful. When it was done, she thought of making the theatrical gesture and walking out of Priory House for good, a small bag in her hand. But to go where? Crabtree Lodge on the other side of the Minnis? That would have solved nothing, and there was nowhere else to run, on either side of the Atlantic. Miles was not the problem; he was a symptom. Besides, this was her home.
Miles appeared genuinely hurt by her accusations of neglect. He sensed this was something new, something disturbing. But the true core of their dispute remained hidden, unspoken. The double bed in the big room overlooking the green became a cold, still place. Two bodies occupied it, fighting not to touch. The memories were fine when she was alone. She could control them, send them to a place where they did as they were told. But when Miles’ big, strong body slipped under the duvet beside her the natural order she had so carefully cultured was displaced.
After two nights of restless tossing and turning, some black, unnatural thing rolling between their silent bodies like an unseen wave of hatred, she made up the bed in the spare room. The mattress was hard there, the sheets chilly and a little damp. But she slept. They never spoke of this distance between them. She out of fear: to admit to hearing Harry Blamire let slip the secret was to confess to complicity in his death. And he, she thought, out of nothing more than mere male distraction. The battle was engulfing Miles; the prospect that he might lose, that they might forfeit Priory House and their life in Beulah into the bargain, was horribly real. He could see nothing beyond the bitter, embattled fight which now gripped Mersons. The war had become something personal, all-consuming.
Sara stayed in hospital for a week. Everything looked… fine, the doctors said. Three days after the incident at Paternoster Farm, when she finally found the strength to return to the William Harvey, Sara had stared at her like a child, full of gratitude and relief. But her eyes were scared too. She fell into dangerous demographics. They wanted her to come back, keep getting monitored. And to take it easy, most of all. Plenty of rest, no strenuous exercise. The two of them hugged and Alison knew exactly what this prescription was: a demand that Sara become some kind of invalid for the next seven months, until the baby was born. The possibility of failure, of that dreadful loss just happening of the blue, would always be there.
Alison examined her as they walked to the car. Sara was at that stage where people just looked at and wondered about the possibility. She could remember it so well: all the tentative questions, the simple, open joy that confirmation brought. For all their friendship, she felt deeply jealous. Sara was pregnant while she was sleeping apart from a husband who rarely came home, and was usually in an introverted, incommunicative mood when he did. It was unfair. Undeserved.
Inevitably, she thought, over and over again, of Harry Blamire’s parting words. The sashes and the gag. What may — or may not? — have occurred on one distant night in September, when the world was warm and the air full of the dusty miasma of harvested barley. Was it possible Harry was lying? She tried hard to convince herself and failed. The memory of his face, full of lust and fury in the foul, overheated interior of Paternoster Farm, was not something she was likely to forget. Harry had no reason to lie. He had told her, not as a boast, but almost as an explanation, an excuse, for his behaviour. Some unexpected fault line in the way rational human beings treated each other had occurred on the night of Burning Man. All of them — Miles, Harry and herself, and whoever had been inside the straw effigy — lay unwittingly in its path.
For days, while Miles worked distantly in the City, she racked her brain for an explanation. Then, in a sudden revelation, abandoned the effort. That dreadful phrase from the TV — “moving on” — came to her. It was shockingly apposite. Alison had, she knew, just two choices. Either she could allow Harry’s death, and his revelation about what happened on a distant summer night, destroy their lives together, and their potential happiness in Priory House. Or she could count it as history and try to get on with the difficult, daily business of being.
Forgiveness was another matter. Forgiveness presupposed comprehension, some understanding of the agreement Miles had entered into with whatever devil he had encountered that night. Nevertheless, there was one indelible truth that never left her thoughts. If she lost her head and confessed all to the likeable Justin, she would be the one who was in the dock. Allowing one’s wife to be serviced by the village yokel while unconscious may have been bad manners. Unlike murder — and the image of Harry disappearing into the maw of boiling liquid could come back to her so easily when it wanted — it was not yet, she judged, a matter for the law.
Christmas approached, and with it welcome practicalities: shopping and planning, cards for distant relatives, presents for all. The complexities made full employment of her time, and that pleased her. When she pored over the postage charts for New Zealand, or flicked through her diaries to remember the name of some far-off child in Massachusetts, the real concerns that lay deep inside her head could be regarded as dormant. Not dead, not yet. For a while she continued to dread some instant, unstoppable outburst with Miles in which she would rein a flurry of blows on his dark, unyielding chest, empty completely her long treasury of vile epithets, and ask him: why? And the answer, she suspected already: because you wanted it so badly. And someone in the village — the country medic, of course, who had broached the subject once before — thought they knew the way, just this once.
The storm never came. At the very end of November, when Miles was down for two nights, not the customary one, she had drunk too much Scotch, gone back into the old bedroom, and — the term, when she came to think about it, needed to be very accurate — let him make love to her. While Miles grunted about his business, she thought about Christmas, considered the relative merits of beef, goose, lamb and guinea fowl, and whether the bedroom ceiling needed repainting. When it was done, and she lay on the old, familiar dampness, he burst into tears and threw his head on her shoulder, apologising all the while. For the work. For his constant absence.
Normality was returning; some mute form of acceptance would follow. Had she never known, she never would have suspected. It was a one-off aberration, a temporary flaw in an otherwise benign, caring personality. Miles had saved her. She could not forget that. Without him she would be a mess, drifting from job to job, half-starving in Manhattan. She had always told herself she could forgive a brief, pointless affair. Was this really any different?
Sara thrived, and ultimately offered Alison the finest, most apposite, of Christmas presents: an occupation. She came out of hospital looking pale and scared. Within a week the colour was back in her cheeks. She was giggling over how a new consignment of Turkish rugs had just made her a fortune in Brussels, and the bulge at her stomach seemed to grow, just a tiny bit, each day. A ritual was born: morning tea at Priory House on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and a reciprocal engagement at Crabtree Lodge on alternative days, Sunday excepted. Burning Man was never mentioned. The tragedy at Paternoster Farm slipped in and out of the conversation in the space of ten minutes. Sara showed no interest in either subject. To her there was nothing in the world now but the future and the baby.
One day, at the beginning of December, Alison found herself ensnared by the work. Sara had lost her voice and needed her to make some calls. So she took over and spoke with a rug dealer in Kabul and a fabric supplier in Marrakesh. She checked the contents of a warehouse in Hounslow, and became engaged in a long, and ultimately successful, negotiation with a bitch of a buyer for Debenhams. Sara had listened to that one in admiration, touched with more than a little awe.
“Work with me, Alison,” she pleaded. “I need you. Not just now, but when the baby’s born too. We could be partners. I could never talk to them like that.”
She was astonished by Sara’s naïvety. “You should never let them tell you the price, Sara.”
“Why not? If I’m making enough money out of it?”
“It’s the principle of the thing.”
“You’re tough, Alison. They won’t take advantage of you. Just talk to Habitat for me. Please.”
Alison picked up the phone, called some snotty buyer in London and announced her precious consignment of Berber wraps was going to Selfridges unless they upped the price by thirty per cent. She listened to the voice on the line: she could almost smell the tobacco in the woman’s throat.
“This is ridiculous,” the buyer snarled. “Put Sara on the line.”
“Sara’s out, working how she’s going to afford to run all this and a kid on the money you pay her.”
Madame Silk Cut inhaled. “Pregnant? Ahhh. Fifteen.”
“Twenty five and a thirty day turnaround on invoice.”
“Oh give me a break. Do you think I care about this crap that much?”
Just before Christmas? Alison knew the stuff Sara was supplying them. It was wonderful, and they were getting it for next to nothing then selling it on at a two hundred per cent mark-up. “Sara is no spring chicken. I care.”
“Shit,” the woman grumbled. “Well, just this once. I’ll end up shoving it into the January sales for less than I paid, you know.”
“I doubt it.”
A smoky laugh came down the line. “Oh God. You are temporary, aren’t you?”
“Bugger. These hippie outfits just go one of two ways. Belly up or they discover business. I’m not sure which is worse. Call me when you’re in town some time. I’ll buy lunch. If Sara has someone serious with her, and you can deliver, we might have a lot to talk about.”
She put down the phone and found Sara staring at her from the sofa in a state of shock.
“I can’t believe you talked to Nora like that. She’s terrifying.”
“It’s all an act,” she said. “It’s just a little ritual we all have to go through.”
Three days later they went to a solicitor in Ashford and signed the partnership papers. Sara, she soon realised, did need her. The business was at its limits in its present form. She farmed out everything: accounts, stock, VAT, Customs and Excise handling. All she did was buy and sell through a vast, extensive network she’d built up over the years. It was a perfect business model and one Sara, for all her outward appearance of mayhem, managed to control brilliantly. One glimpse at the order book and the accounts also made it absolutely clear that this really was a one-woman business too; if Sara fell under a bus, it would collapse instantly.
They talked about the future and it soon became clear what Alison’s contribution would be: sales and logistics, keeping the cogs and wheels of the business running smoothly. Sara could do what she thought of as the fun part, calling someone she met years ago in Afghanistan and haggling for a container load of ethnic oddities. One day, they might get an office. Employees perhaps. But that was a long way ahead. There was a baby to be considered. Perhaps for both of them, now that she and Miles were getting back on track.
They worked hard through the winter, Alison listening to Sara as she ran the business from the front room of Crabtree Lodge, making notes, underlining points that needed to be ironed out, thinking about ways in which she could ease the work load and cut down on the paper mountain Sara had acquired over the years.
The month flew past. On the morning of December 23rd, walking back from the cottage, her head full of VAT forms and the arrangements for bonded warehousing, she realised she was, herself, moving with the seasons. This was the shortest day of the year, the winter solstice. From now on the world moved into light. She could feel some similar change happening inside her too. The recent past was as distant and as dead as Harry Blamire.
Alison turned the corner and saw Marjorie Tyler standing outside the front of Priory House, standing on fat tiptoes, peering in through the glass.
(C) David Hewson 2012