It was almost one when the Range Rover pulled into the drive. The snow was now almost eighteen inches deep and still falling. The canopy of tumbling flakes was so dense the world seemed to end twenty feet above the ground. Alison watched from the front windows as the two men clambered out into the cold. The weather precluded her going out to greet them. Or was it more than that? Butterflies danced around the empty acres of her stomach. Was guilt visible, something that could hang in the air like a fragrance? Thomas, the ginger cat, watched her accusingly from the fireside carpet.
“Don’t be so damn stupid,” she said, to herself and the cat, then walked into the kitchen and waited. The house was fine now, clean and warm, with a neatly decorated tree in the hall and some suitably low key tinsel around the walls. All three joke antlers, two pristine, one used, had been despatched to the bin, lest fate be tempted. Sara had done most of the work. She had a keen, intelligent eye for design, always knowing how far to go with the tinsel and the fake holly.
The men stumbled into the back porch, and shook themselves half dry amid a sea of grumbling. Then Miles was through the door, beaming, hugging her. It was three days since he’d stayed at Priory House, and when he’d left for London he looked thoroughly miserable. The take-over seemed destined to drag on forever, with no prospect of a successful resolution in sight. Now he was transformed. He looked younger, brighter than he had in ages. She pecked him on the cheek, in a restrained, wifely fashion. He looked above her, saw the mistletoe still attached to the light, squeezed her tight, and kissed her hard on the lips.
“Merry Christmas, my darling.” He looked like the old Miles, the one she fell in love with a lifetime ago.
“You seem cheery,” she replied, trying not to force the smile too much. “Good news?”
“Nope. But it’s Christmas. I’m here. I don’t need to be back in London for four whole days. And more than anything I don’t need to think about bloody Mersons. If they phone, I’m out. Agreed?”
“Agreed,” she nodded. “Dad?”
Arnold was struggling with his clothes. He was seventy five, big, with a shaggy crop of white hair, red, rheumy eyes and a permanent sag down the left side of his face where a minor stroke had taken its toll three years before. She could remember him as a handsome, upright man, just briefly, when she first met Miles. Then, with a silent, relentless cruelty, age had begun to bear down upon him. The stroke was the harshest blow because of the physical blemish it left. Arnold Fenway was vain. He had seen four wives leave him over the years. It amazed her that Miles was the only legitimate offspring of what must have been a very active life. Miles sprang from Arnold’s second marriage; his mother had died, broken and semi-alcoholic, in a nursing home outside Maidenhead almost six years before.
“Don’t bother about me,” Arnold grumped, tugging at a grey cashmere jacket. “It’s a bloody wonder I’m still alive after that drive up here. Are you both insane?”
She came over, helped him with the jacket, brushed his good cheek gently with her lips. “It’s the new us, Arnold. Country landowners. Merry Christmas by the way.”
“Bugger the country. What’s wrong with Godalming? Did you see what it’s like out there? The sodding Antarctic? Just because cousin Emily left you the place doesn’t mean you have to move in. Why didn’t you do the sensible thing and sell it?”
“Because we like it here. And it’s snowing in Godalming too,” Miles said pleasantly. “If you’ve got to have a blizzard on your doorstep, I know where I’d rather be.”
“Huh. You!” She listened in patience and smiled at him. The disfigurement was getting worse. The loose flesh hung down below his face like a deformed turkey wattle. It didn’t help his temper. Yet this was, she knew, only the outer, tetchier side to Arnold. Sometimes the old man could be incredibly sweet and thoughtful. It was merely age that brought out the grumps. “What about me? Eighty two years old.”
“Stop exaggerating, Arnold. You’re seventy five and doing fine.”
“What utter pisshh,” he hissed. Poor Arnold, she thought. Even his dentures were starting to let him down. Then he tried to grin meekly. “But it’s nice of you to indulge an old fart. Merry Christmas, old girl.”
She hugged him and felt the brush of stiff bristle on her cheek. “Come on,” she said, then took his jacket and led him through to the hall. “I’ve made you up a bed in the study downstairs so you don’t need to worry about getting anywhere. I’ve got in your favourite whisky. The chairs here are marvellous. I’ve even ordered a special Christmas dinner.”
Arnold cast her a sly look. “Oh please God, not some awful bloody Mediterranean crap again. If you put me anywhere near a plate of cous-cous I swear I’ll walk home, whatever the weather. Buggered if I’m eating birdseed for my few remaining months on earth.” He marched into the living room, fell loosely into one of the big armchairs and held out his hand. “Drink. No water.”
Thus did Christmas begin. Arnold happier with a Scotch and a book than she had seen him in years. Miles utterly charming. And the snow falling from the sky in a constant, smothering blanket. By midnight, when she opened the curtains in the living room, the world outside was utterly featureless. Arnold had shuffled off to bed around eleven. Miles had stayed up with her reading, drinking a little too much, so unusually relaxed she couldn’t complain. He came up to her at the window and kissed the back of her neck.
“Will you look at that?” Miles said, his voice rich in wonder. “I doubt even the Range Rover could get us out of here now.”
“No.” She couldn’t work out how that made her feel. “Do you still like it here?”
He came to stand by her side and didn’t answer immediately. Together they watched the white cloud tumbling to the strange, misshapen earth. “Love it,” he said finally. “I realised as much, when I drove Dad up the hill today. Through all the snow, him moaning every inch of the way. I love it here. I don’t care what happens anywhere else. Not even with Mersons. We’re staying put. Agreed?”
“Yes,” she said gently, fearful of the doubt in her voice.
“Alison” She could smell the strong aroma of the whisky. “I know I’ve been awful these last few weeks. A real shit. And I apologise. It’s nothing to do with you. It’s all me. And the company.”
She closed her eyes and prayed he would change the subject. “You don’t need to apologise. You keep me, Miles. Not just financially. In every way. If it wasn’t for you I’d be dead now.”
“No you wouldn’t,” he said, and stroked her hair gently. “You had an awful experience. Anyone would be affected that. All I did was what I was supposed to do. I’m your husband. I love you. I need you to be happy, and that’s for the most selfish reason in the world. If you’re not happy, I’m not either.”
She put her hand to his cheek. It was a touch red from the whisky and he needed a shave. “Sometimes I don’t think you know me, Miles. Not at all.”
“And you know me?”
She would have answered that question so swiftly once, before Burning Man and Paternoster Farm came along to muddy the waters. Miles, the Beulah Miles, was changing too, of course. Just as much as her.
“You’re a winner, aren’t you, Miles? You want things. You want to make them yours. I think perhaps I never understood that before.”
Miles took a sharp intake of breath between his teeth, thinking. “I suppose that’s right. The odds are the Germans will get us. Six to eight weeks at the most. When that happens they either give the top job to me or Frank Cussins. Whoever doesn’t get it is out, and I suspect with bugger all of a pay-off.”
“Scary,” she said, half amused, half disappointed that he assumed automatically she was talking about the work.
“No, it isn’t. Not any more. It’s just money and work. We’re more important than that. This place is more important. I’ve thought about my priorities. You’re at the top of the list. Making you happy. Giving you a child. Though,” one eyebrow rose in amusement, “we have to do the necessary, of course.”
She said, very carefully, not wishing to offend. “Not now. I’m wiped out. Sorry.”
“Oh.” The old Miles, the understanding one, gave her a fond grin. A touch smug too, and she had never really noticed that before. She admired Miles. She loved him, perhaps. But Justin Liddle was different. There was something bright and shining and undamaged inside him that Miles had never possessed. A part of her was privately glad that it was Justin’s genes making flesh out of blood deep within her body. She stifled the thought on the instant. This was a terrifying, complex game, largely of her own making.
“Are you OK?” Miles asked, concerned.
“Fine,” she said, and picked up an errant mistletoe berry that had detached itself from the vine attached to the great, gilt mirror on the wall.
(c) David Hewson 2012