The beginning of the year was a time of extremes: swells of joy, pits of anguish. On a wet, cold Wednesday in Godalming they sat in silence as Arnold slipped behind the curtains of the municipal crematorium and became just a picture in the head, a memory, fading with the passing of time, like a painting made of unsatisfactory pigments. Seven weeks later Alison sat in John Tyler’s surgery listening to the words she thought she would never hear again: she was pregnant. There were no apparent problems, and she would probably run full term by the middle of September. Around the time, she thought immediately, of Burning Man.
All the while the weather stood locked in a stubborn idyll that left the soft, thin winter sun playing over a scrunchy scattering of frost for days on end. Sometimes she would look out of the front windows of Priory House and stare at the Minnis, enraptured by its beauty. It seemed an enchanted place, a fairy-tale landscape in which the people were mere players, a small part of a larger story. The few dog walkers and stray ramblers who traversed it in these short, bright days would leave soft, dirty footprints in the firm, hoar frost. Then the temporary thaw would come and the Minnis would take on a different complexion. It reminded her of a slumbering giant half waking from hibernation, brought to life by the random activity on its surface. Jackdaws chased skinny mice and voles in the long, frozen grass on its outskirts, screaming chak-chak-chak all the while. Stray badgers lolloped over the hidden wicket, waddling like Marjorie Tyler rolling towards the next drink.
She put food out in the garden for the birds and watched as they swooped out of nowhere, a sudden, life-filled blaze of colour against the flat, dormant pigments of winter. Bullfinches fought over peanuts, their chests blood red, heaving with effort. Robins darted alone at the edge of the proceedings, like solitary robbers stalking their victims. Tits fell through the air with the aimless, lazy progress of dandelion seeds caught on the breeze. Blue and long-tailed, great and coal, willow and marsh, they flew in a scatter through the garden, bickering on the wing over a scrap of bacon fat, a sliver of sunflower husk. Then, on the day she was due to meet Tyler to hear the news, just before she got in the car, she looked out of the window and saw the broad, majestic shape of a spotted woodpecker swoop down from the naked coppice at the back of the garden, grip the seed holder in a tight, avaricious embrace, and flash its handsome head and beady eye at her. The long, powerful beak stabbed at the food in the container. Far away, at the rear of the garden, a fox trotted across the frosty ground, its vivid red brush proudly erect. Something dark and feathered struggled in its mouth, a blackbird she guessed. The pheasant had returned too, looking bedraggled and desperately hungry, gambolling frantically towards her across the grass every time they met. The Beulah year had begun anew.
In the blink of a delighted, anxious eye the close of February approached. She had been certifiably pregnant for an entire week. On a damp, dark Friday, Miles came home in a driving storm from the fast-closing negotiations with Farber, threw his briefcase on the kitchen table, walked over to her, kissed her once on the forehead and looked at her in silence.
She gazed beyond his shoulder into the back garden. The rain was coming down in powerful, diagonal streaks, flattening the grass and the ragged perennials. The earth had turned to mud.
“Oh shit,” Alison murmured softly into his ear. “What is it?”
He walked over to the fridge, opened it and pulled out a bottle of vintage Krug that had sat there since Christmas. “You’ll have just a little glass with me?”
She shook her head. “No, Miles. Not until this child is happily squealing away in a Moses basket upstairs.”
“Well,” he said, with no bitterness in his voice, “in that case I shall get steadily pissed on my own. Sod’s law, you know. The moment fatherhood approaches, redundancy cannot be far behind.”
He poured himself a tumbler and sat at the table. Alison half expected him to burst into tears. She went over, put an arm round him and patted his dark head. “What the hell happened? You’ve been working your tail off these last six months.”
“Ah,” he said, smiling at her, “how true. Not that it means a thing. You know I’ve learned so much since this all began. It’s been like a complete education, cradle to professional grave. I wish Dad were still around. He’d have some neat, cynical explanation about how I should have seen it coming all along.”
He finished off the champagne and poured himself another glass. “There I was trying to stiff Andy Moorside for the top job. While all the time some bloody little whippersnapper from Forex was busy stiffing us both. Nasty little oik called Ron Atkins. Ron? I ask you. Comes from Basildon of all places, started work as a messenger. The Germans liked that apparently. They think Mersons has been ruined by the old school tie. So they go out and get an Essex shell suit instead.”
She tried to take it all in. “But you know the business inside out? You’ve been negotiating with them for months?”
“Yes. But Atkins got roped in to run some due diligence information or something. It got him a line into Frankfurt and boy did he play it well. I went into the last meeting today, the one where we threw in the towel, and old Andy and I shook hands before we went in. It was obvious one of us was going to get the job. We get through the door and there is bloody Basildon Man smirking away next to the Farber top brass. It’s three months to see through the handover then we’re both out on our ears.”
She felt her blood begin to boil, and tried, desperately, to stem the rising anger. “But does this… Atkins know anything about Mersons?”
“Bugger all. That’s the worst part of all. He’s an adequate barrow boy for Forex, don’t get me wrong. But he hasn’t a clue about the bigger picture. Won’t last five minutes in the job. Unless…”
She followed his line of thought. “That’s what the Germans want? Is it?”
He put the glass down. It was a sensible question. “No. I don’t think so. I reckon he’s just done a good number on them.”
“Then fight. God knows you’ve been doing that well enough since this nonsense began.”
“But then I’d be fighting for my own skin, wouldn’t I? They can’t possibly fall for that.”
Miles looked trapped, lost for a solution. It was a new experience, for both of them.
“Oh darling,” she said. “It’ll work out.”
“Things get worse,” he said quietly. “I’ve got three months paid work but they’re reviewing some of the compensation clauses. I won’t be leaving with much more than a token pay-off and the state minimum redundancy. I’ve got till the end of the year at the latest to find some alternative work that pays the same sort of income. Or we have real problems.”
“The end of the year?” She always knew when he was being shifty.
“Maybe a little sooner than that.”
“Such as… September. We could have to sell the house around the time the baby comes?”
He nodded. “That’s about the sum of it. I can squeeze things a bit with loans. We have a decent chunk of equity in this place. But if I’m not earning a decent slab come July we’ll have to put it on the market and hope to get a buyer completing before Christmas.”
“Shit!” Angry tears welled in her eyes. “It’s all so unfair.”
He let the fury subside a touch. “Hey. Don’t give up. I’m putting calls out all the time. Something will work out.”
“I thought,” she said, and disliked intensely the coldness in her voice, “you didn’t know anyone outside Mersons? I thought the fact you’d only worked at the one place mitigated against you?”
Miles nodded wryly. “What a memory you have. It’s not going to be easy, I admit. But I’ll do my damndest.”
She sat rigid in silent fury. Miles leaned forward and took her hands in his. “Alison. Don’t lose sight of a few things.”
“Such as what? For once we find a decent place to live. I’m pregnant. I’m settling down for the first time in my life. And now you tell me it could all disappear from underneath me.”
“Us,” he corrected her.
“Sorry. Us. There I go being a cow again.”
Miles sighed patiently. “Listen. This is just about bricks and mortar. Numbers on a piece of paper. Even if we have to move out of here in October or so we won’t be broke. That’s why I won’t leave it too late. We’ll have equity. We’ll have each other.” He patted her stomach lightly. “We’ll have thingie in there too. What’s all that against some stupid little career hiccup? Nothing. In fact…” He put his hand gently on her tummy again. “If you told me the price of this was losing everything I had at Mersons. Going out and driving a milk float or whatever. I’d pay it. I wouldn’t even think twice.”
Alison gazed at him through a flood of hot, resentful tears. Then wrapped her arms around his neck and pressed her wet face against the bristle of his chin. “Oh Miles,” she blubbered. “I really am a complete bitch, aren’t I? There you are, losing your job to some talentless shit. And all I can think about is me, me, me.”
“Hey.” He pushed her gently away and stared into her eyes. “You’re just doing what comes naturally in the circumstances. I wouldn’t expect anything else.”
Poor Miles, she thought. So naïve. He was, in a sense, right. Being pregnant made her fearful, made her crave security. But there was more to it than that.
“We could go somewhere else in the village,” she said.
“I’ll keep my eyes open, just in case. There’s the Blamires cottage for one thing. With Harry dead and Mitch disappeared to Bangkok or somewhere to catch strange diseases, my bet is that’ll be on the market before long.”
The vivid images from Paternoster Farm rose furiously from the depths of her memory. She pulled the sleeves of her cardigan around her for warmth. “I don’t want to live there.”
“No.” For an instant Miles was looking at her oddly. Then he smiled, the stupid, affecting Miles grin she recognised. “Friday night, dear. You mind if I pop over to the Green Man for a while and drown my sorrows?”
“I’ll be furious if you don’t. You need your mates, not some hormone-raddled, nagging wife.”
Miles leaned over and kissed her forehead. “Sometimes you sell yourself terribly short.”
(C) David Hewson 2012