Miles returned at one, commendably sober and upright, took one look at them and burst out laughing.
“What’s the matter?” Alison asked, affronted.
“You look like something out of A Christmas Carol. The Fenway clan assembled for the traditional repast. Even you, Sara.”
“Thank you, Miles,” Sara said, and bestowed a genteel kiss on him.
“We need,” he continued, “crackers and silly hats.”
“Well we haven’t got them,” Alison muttered, glad the tell-tale antlers were at the bottom of the bin. “Just this.”
They looked at the table. The rib of beef, the product of some secret location of Sara’s on Romney Marsh, was Dickensian too: a big slab of meat with four caveman size bones jutting out the top, sitting in a puddle of its own bloody juice. The vegetables had worked wonderfully under Arnold’s tutelage. The red wine, shallot and ceps sauce was rich and earthy. They sat around the table and pigged out for more than two hours, chattering in a raucous, random fashion about nothing in particular. Miles and Arnold disposed of a couple of bottles of best Bordeaux, the women drank Badoit. Then came Christmas pudding, from another of Sara’s secret locations, followed by coffee and, for the men, vintage Armagnac. By three thirty, when the last of the plates were cleared away, the dining room had a pleasant, slightly overheated fug about it, of food and drink and indolent chatter. Alison felt full, but not over-stuffed. The notion of a roast beef sandwich around nine in the evening, nicely rare, with horseradish on it, was firmly lodged somewhere at the back of her mind.
Alison watched the men empty their cups then went into the kitchen to make some more coffee. Sara, purposefully, followed her.
“Um…” Sara said hesitantly.
For a moment, Alison didn’t understand. “Oh hell. I said we’d go to the Tylers, didn’t I?”
“Do we have to? Frankly I feel wiped out. And your little tale about Marjorie and her holiday in Madeira this morning doesn’t exactly fire my enthusiasm.”
Sara winced. “Just for half an hour, love, then you can drop me off home. I know they’re odd people, but they won’t be unpleasant. And I was probably talking bollocks this morning anyway. Village gossip. Just think of this as diplomacy.”
“Perhaps we should leave Arnold here. He’s half pissed as it is.”
“I don’t think you’ll find him amenable to that idea, actually. Seems to me Arnold is having the time of his life.”
Alison pushed away the full cafetiére on the table. “You’re right. As usual. Let’s stir the men then.”
Fifteen minutes later, after much semi-drunken shuffling on of clothes and wellies, Miles Fenway’s red mini-tractor set off across the flat, white expanse of the Minnis. The daylight was almost gone. The snow was crisp beneath them, close to freezing in the icy conditions. The moon was big and luminous in the night sky already, clearly horned, a chill white shape in the fast darkening sky. The lights of a solitary airliner flickered red and green a little to the left of the unmistakable outline of the Great Bear.
Miles drove, the rest of them sat in the back of the tow-truck, feeling like children, grinning stupidly at one another. The tractor bounced awkwardly somewhere near the north wicket of the submerged cricket pitch.
“Owzat!” Alison yelled and listened to the odd sound her voice made in the chill, thin air. “You all right, Arnold?”
“Never better, dear girl,” the old man replied. “You know, for a Yank, you make a damn good English gel sometimes.” He sat opposite her, next to Sara. The two of them were scrunched up together in the back of the little truck, their arms entwined, giggling like youngsters. Generations, Alison thought. Such a strange concept. Had Arnold been — what? — twenty years younger, he would have been making a pass at Sara now. Perhaps, in his own way, he was. In another alignment of time, with a different shuffling of the cards, he could have walked out of the icy darkness, looked at her condition, and provided some kind of stability, the solid, occasionally awkward rock of fatherhood. Kids did need that. Alison felt absolutely sure of this fact. Arnold, for all his faults, understood this too and doubtless did his best. Miles had turned into an adult with precious few neuroses; it was one of the reasons she picked him. Alison felt she had enough to bring to the party herself.
There was a sudden scraping noise from the front, and they were abruptly thrown to a halt. Sara fell on Arnold in a giggling heap.
“Shit,” said a bemused Miles from the driving seat. “I think I hit old quacky’s gatepost.”
“Please,” Alison hissed. “Don’t call him that. He might hear.”
Lights were blazing inside the Tyler’s big, modern box. A battered Daihatsu four by four was parked in the drive, new tyre tracks announcing its recent arrival. The tractor lurched into gear again and then fell into reverse. The three of them fell upon each other for a final time, and Alison let loose a stream of invectives that seemed loud enough to wake the slumbering village.
“You’re a fine one,” Miles bellowed when they came to a halt. “Most people around here haven’t heard toilet talk like that since Harry Blamire went walkabout.”
They all climbed down from the tractor and stared at the entrance to the Tyler’s drive. A large concrete gatepost, previously covered in snow, lay in shattered chunks. The front door opened to reveal the unmistakable shape of Marjorie.
“Buggeration,” Miles exclaimed. “Knocked your post down. Send us the bill, eh?”
“Sod it,” Marjorie yelled, and jerked a thumb back inside the house. “He can pay. I hated those bloody things anyway. Do come in by the way. I’m freezing my arse off on the porch.”
The three of them shuffled through the snow to the door. Alison caught up with Miles and whispered, “Thirty minutes and we’re out of here.”
“Done,” Miles nodded.
The large, inelegant living room was hot and smoky. Frank Wethered was slumped in one corner, puffing on a pipe. Granny Jukes was by his side in an armchair, fast asleep, with a fag in her hand. John Tyler was holding forth loudly to a red-faced farmer type whose nose was deep in a half pint glass of whisky. A good dozen vaguely familiar faces lounged against walls, gossiping nonchalantly. Alison sized up the room and smiled: there’d be no problem sneaking off without causing a commotion. Then she felt someone take her arm gently, secretly, turned and stared straight into the smiling, open face of Justin Liddle. He was wearing a light, cheap jacket, white open-necked shirt and jeans. A glass of orange juice sat very visibly in his right hand. Justin gave her hand a squeeze then let go.
“Mr and Mrs Fenway. Miss Harrison. And you sir?”
“Arnold is Miles’ father,” Alison said, thoughts whirling. “Down with us for the holiday.”
The two shook hands, Arnold wearing his suspicious face.
“I’m the village plod,” Justin said amiably. “And bloody awful at it too, judging by the amount of licentious behaviour going unpunished hereabouts.”
“I didn’t realise licentiousness was illegal,” Arnold replied coldly.
“Only a joke, sir.”
“I didn’t realise policemen joked.”
Justin burst out laughing. “Ha, hah! Drinks now? Mrs Tyler is kindly allowing me to wait on her guests before I go on duty this evening. Perhaps you could give me a hand, Mrs Fenway?”
Damn, Alison thought, and followed him mutely into the empty kitchen. It was decorated with a minimum of taste, straight out of the back pages of MFI.
Justin gave her a glass of champagne, grinning inanely, took one himself, and said, “Here’s to us.”
“What do you mean?” Alison replied instantly, putting the glass down.
He did a double take. “What do I mean? Did I dream last night or something?”
“Justin,” she said, glancing at the door. Miles and Arnold were now deep in conversation with Marjorie Tyler. Sara was with them, but her attention was wandering. She looked into the kitchen and they exchanged worried glances. Alison took a deep breath and stared him the face. “This is not the time or the place.”
“So when is?” he asked, over anxiously.
She closed her eyes and wished herself elsewhere. “Don’t push me, Justin. We were both somewhat drunk last night.”
“It was more than the drink, wasn’t it?”
She cursed herself for agreeing to make the journey across the Minnis. It would have been so easy to have spent a drowsy afternoon in Priory House.
“Alison? Say something please. Even if it’s just to tell me I’m being stupid.”
She looked back into the living room. Arnold was in full spate. Miles watched him, amused, in control, charming as usual. Better to have no men in your life than two, she thought.
“It’s too soon,” she said. “I don’t know what to think. Don’t rush me.”
“Right. All part of the service I suppose. God I bloody hate this place.”
“You don’t mean that, Justin. I’m sorry,” she said without looking at him, then quickly scooped up two glasses of sparkling water and went back into the room. Sara stared at her balefully and asked, “Are you OK?”
“Fine. Just passing the time of day with our friendly neighbourhood copper.”
“Never liked ’em,” Arnold said. “Rotten job, for sure. But what sort of person would want to do it? Answer me that.”
“He’s all right,” Alison said. “Don’t be so judgmental.”
“Life’s judgmental,” Arnold droned, a touch of his old self coming to the surface. Then added promptly. “Sorry, did that sound pompous?”
“Not at all.” John Tyler had crept up on them stealthily. He stood, swaying gently, face ruddy and sweating. Alison thought: you could squeeze a cheap bottle of Scotch out of those cheeks. At least Tyler behaved to type for a GP now and again. “Humanity is judgmental. And why not? It separates us from the animals.”
“I thought it was our rationality that did that,” Alison said quietly.
“Depends what you mean by rational,” Tyler replied in an instant. He looked remarkably drunk. “Is love rational? Or faith? What’s a stick of incense and some ancient stories got to do with reason?”
Arnold dangled a long, ancient finger in the air. “Bugger all. Mumbo jumbo, the lot of it.”
“Ah,” Tyler observed, watching the waving digit as if it were some magic wand. “The wagging finger, having wagged, wags on. Nor all thy piety nor wit shall lure it back. Powerful mumbo jumbo. Half the world revolves around that.”
“More fool them,” Arnold observed. “Are you pissed, old boy? No offence.”
“Dad,” Alison whispered through clenched teeth.
“Drink has been taken,” Tyler replied. “And why not?”
“It is Christmas,” Miles said, trying to be helpful.
“Oh yes,” the unsteady doctor bleated. “That too. The point is…”
“Mumbo jumbo,” Arnold interjected, and gave Alison a look of absolute mischief that would not have been out of place on a ten-year-old.
“The point,” Tyler continued unabashed, “is that you, sir, are old. You should be thinking about these things. How many years, months, left on this earth? Any idea?”
Arnold seemed to go a shade paler. “I was planning on being dragged out kicking and screaming around a hundred and two.”
Tyler gave him a professional once-over, up and down. “I wouldn’t take bets on it. One stroke already, by the looks of you. Actuarially, that puts you well along the down escalator already. There’s so much that can go wrong. Prostate. Heart. Lungs. And it’s just not worth fixing. Like patching up an old banger you know will peg it again just ten yards down the road.”
Alison stared at the white, matt ceiling of the anonymous, modern dining room and wondered whether, one day, she would follow her instincts and disembowel John Tyler, very slowly, asking for his observations along the way. “I think,” she said finally, “it is the height of rudeness, even for you, Dr Tyler, to go around reminding any pensioner in earshot how mortal they happen to be.”
“But if I don’t tell them, who on earth will?” He drained his glass, and picked up a half full one, which could have been anybody’s, from the mantelpiece.
“Why do they need to be told?” she asked, exasperated. “They know. We all know.”
Tyler tried to nod his head sagely. “Ah yes. They know. But they won’t recognise it. Like our friend here, who thinks he’ll sail through to a hundred and two, when the truth, as any bookie will confirm, is he’ll doubtless be pushing up the daisies, or, more likely, getting poured into an urn, before the year is out.”
Arnold drained his glass, eyed Tyler beadily, and said, very slowly, “Care to place a bet on that?”
The doctor’s eyes rolled in disbelief. “A bet?”
“A hundred quid,” Arnold continued. “I’ll pick it up here, next Christmas. Personally.”
“Done,” Tyler said. “And where do I pick up my money when you lose? I’m not going to the funeral. They’re so boring.”
“I’ll stand bail, not that it’ll be needed,” Alison said quietly, and then was pushed, quite forcefully, by Marjorie barging her way into the conversation.
“John!” she barked loudly. “You’re not bloody betting on patients again, are you?”
“He’s not a patient, dear,” Tyler replied flatly.
“All the same. You’ll end up in front of the General Medical Council one day.”
“I’m sure,” Alison said sweetly, “they’ll have much more interesting things than that to look at.”
“He bet on someone’s sodding brain tumour last year,” Marjorie continued, unaware of the jibe. “That was fifty quid down the tubes. It’s an act. He always loses, you know? It’s his way of encouraging them.”
“Not at all,” Tyler said, looking hurt. “Just a harmless wager.”
Life or death, Alison thought. Very harmless.
“And,” the doctor continued, eyeing Alison all the time, “if it makes our ancient friend here, and a few of those around him, think a little more about our joint mortality, all the better.”
“You’re a public benefactor, Dr Tyler,” Alison said carefully. “A saint.”
“Saint Nicholas, perhaps,” Tyler added gleefully, “Old Nick. I am the true spirit of Christmas. Or Yule, to be precise. Will you join me under the mistletoe, Mrs Fenway?”
She looked at Miles, who was quite baffled by all this. “I shall save the mistletoe for later, Dr Tyler. And for home, I think.”
“Excellent,” Tyler beamed, and gave her an unwanted, fleshy kiss on the cheek. Tyler kept his head close to hers, leaned forward, whispered his hot, whisky breath into her ear. “Remember the season, dear girl. This could be your lucky night. If you’re not there already.”
Ten minutes later, and it seemed like a lifetime to her, they were outside. Sara and Alison sat next to each other in the tow truck while Miles drove, very carefully, through the snow to Crabtree Cottage.
Sara looked at the gorgeous night sky. “I should tell you two that Dr Tyler is a weird bird.”
“You don’t say,” Arnold replied from the far side of the tow-truck. “I’ll take his money, though. You watch me.”
“You bet, Dad,” Alison added, and gave him a supportive punch on the knee. “And next year we make it double or quits.”
“Quite,” Arnold said quietly. “Although he has a point, I suppose. We don’t talk about dying, do we?”
“Why the hell should we?” Alison asked.
“I would have thought that was obvious,” Sara said. “Because if you leave it to the last possible moment, the people you love most, the ones you most want to talk to, might not be there to hear you.”
Miles bent backwards from the driving seat and yelled, “What a bloody morbid conversation. Newsflash, people. It’s Christmas.”
“Hear, hear,” Alison said, and was suddenly filled with an urge to be home, in their warm, comfortable bedroom. Underneath the mistletoe.
“Suppose you’re right,” Arnold agreed as they pulled up outside the cottage. “In fact, come to think of it, that bloody doctor may well have been the most ignorant human being I’ve met in the past eighty years. Stupid quack was probably wrong on everything.”
“Everything,” Alison repeated. They said goodbye to Sara, who walked, slowly, looking exhausted, down her snowy path. Then the little tractor headed back over the green, back towards the bright, glowing lights of Priory House. By the time they arrived, the sky had changed. Broad, black clouds, with silver underbellies illuminated by the moon, were sweeping in, obscuring the stars. The first flakes, soft and huge, were beginning to float out of the sky.
“Loads more snow on the way,” Miles said, dropping them off by the back door.
Alison shivered, and raced inside, into the warm, bright interior of home.
(C) David Hewson 2012