The Monday after Miles broke the news, and had returned to London for even more long days and nights finalising the merger, Alison tried, very deliberately, to blank it out of her head. What would be would be. Just thinking about the treachery at Mersons made her furious. So furious that she seemed able to spread that rage to those around her too, which was deeply inhospitable. She did not believe in tree-hugging theories, or the notion that a child in the womb would be improved by sweet thoughts and nursery rhymes. But Miles’ plight — not simply her own — filled her with such disgust for London that she feared it could one day damage her well-being. And so, she hoped, the subject would be closed, until events would make it impossible to hide one way or another.
Sara was seemed the very picture of impending motherhood. She wore the same loose, flowing clothes she favoured when Alison first met her. The bulge at her stomach was noticeable but still unobtrusive, more a natural extension of her own body than the added physical burden Alison had witnessed, with horror, in other women. Her complexion, once pale, was rosy, almost to the point of exaggeration. There were times when, Alison could see, she was exhausted. But between these she had a vibrant, effusive enthusiasm about her that brought almost every room, every conversation to life.
She had brought a notebook computer with her for the business.
Alison glowered at the thing. “We can afford this, I imagine.”
Sara beamed brightly. “Of course we can. You’re the money wizard. Haven’t you been reading your own figures? Turnover’s up. Profitability’s up. Time to invest for the future.”
“I suppose so.”
Sara sighed, somewhat impatiently. “I mean this, Alison. We are both about to undergo a painful, mind-numbing process. You help me through my wild patch, I’ll help you through yours. As best I can. And in any case we may still have to go out and get some help. There’s a lot of business coming in. Particularly those Moroccan fabrics. And don’t think the dragons at Debenhams will give us any leeway for mistakes just because we’re up the duff.”
Alison thought of the last buyer she had spoken to, a woman with all the charm of Genghis Khan, and much the same kind of taste too. “True. I’ll work at it. God knows, the money might come in useful.”
As partners they might hope to clear £35,000 each gross the way things were going. On paper it sounded a lot of money. Compared to the wad Miles was bringing home each year, it was small change.
Sara watched her, wondering and finally asked, “What, precisely, does that mean?”
“I think,” Alison said very slowly, “we may be in for a little belt-tightening. Or about to go a touch bust.”
She told the story as flatly and unemotionally as she could. In spite of this, Sara listened in a state of mounting anger, her face reddening all the time. When it was done, Sara rattled off a number of quick-fire questions about timing and mortgages and insurance. Alison did her best to answer them, which wasn’t easy. These were things she left to Miles entirely. Then Sara folded her arms, her face like thunder, and embarked on a long rant, rich with curses, about the treachery of men. Alison listened with growing amusement. Sara seemed more incensed by the tale than she.
“I know what you should do,” Sara concluded. “Get on the next train to Cannon Street, walk into that little sod’s office and cut his balls off. If he has any. Which I doubt.”
“Now there’s a practical solution,” Alison said, trying to stifle a brief bout of hysterical laughter. “Why didn’t I think of that?”
“Make you feel a sight better. That’s what counts. I can’t believe it, love. You and Miles belong to this house. It’s you. No jumped-up little Essex squirt should be allowed to come along and try to take it away. Just when everything’s going so beautifully.”
Alison felt like Miles must have done when he was lecturing her. “It hasn’t happened yet. Miles should pick up another job. We’ve got time to sort things out.”
Sara banged her empty mug on the table. “That is not the bloody point. I know the City’s just a bunch of sharks in suits, and Miles just happens to be one of the nicer ones. But even sharks have some kind of code. This kind of thing makes me absolutely livid. We might as well be animals. Except that’s being unfair on them.”
It was a wonderful act, Alison thought, and it was having the desired effect. She could feel her mood lightening. “Calm down, Sara. I don’t think I’ve ever seen you this mad.”
“You don’t know the half of it,” she replied through gritted teeth.
“There are,” Alison continued, “lots and lots of solutions. We could come down in the world. Find a smaller house, a smaller mortgage. We’ve got some money. Perhaps we could even work things out so that I kept Miles for a change. He could do the books for us.”
“This,” Sara said crossly, “is your house. Can’t you feel it? It’s beautiful. It’s been in the Fenway line for years. And it fits, doesn’t it? Don’t you know how rare that is? It’s a sin to take that for granted, Alison. When you get something that feels just right you have to fight for it, make sure no-one takes it away from you.”
Sara could be so odd sometimes. Perhaps it was the hormones, Alison wondered, and immediately felt foolish. All lives had hidden baggage somewhere behind the scenes.
“I love this house,” Alison said. “I love this village somehow as well, for all its peculiarities. But bricks and mortar don’t come before blood. If we have to move, we will. Somewhere nearby, and we’ll be happy there.”
“Don’t count on it,” Sara replied with a sudden, icy bitterness. “Happiness doesn’t fall from the sky. You find it, you keep it, you make damned sure no-one ever takes it away from you. And it’s rare, Alison. Most people just pray for deadness, pray they can get through the day. The likes of us, we’re special. We crave happiness. And we’re not alone which is why, though you probably don’t understand it, you feel at home here. Beulah’s special too. Old Mother Tyler with her pot in the conservatory and her little ceremonies. Frank Wethered baying at the moon. Granny Jukes spouting nonsense in between fags. They’re chasing the stars. We all are. You included.”
Alison listened to the gentle tick-tock of the grandfather clock in the dining room. Outside a jay squawked happily. A blur of brightly coloured feathers flew past the kitchen window and the bird alighted on the rotting husk of a bramley that had somehow managed to cling to the bare branches of an apple tree in the garden.
“Sometimes,” Alison said eventually, “I wonder if I know you. If I know anyone here at all.”
“You know us,” Sara replied, a wan smile returning to her face, her colour going nearer to normal now. “You’re one of us. I saw that from the start. So did Mother Tyler too. You belong here. In this house. And you should damn well make sure you stay here.”
Alison made a mock salute. “I’ll do my best, cap’n. What is it they say back home? When I lead, follow me. When I retreat, shoot me. When I die, avenge me.”
Sara gave her a playful punch on the arm. “That’s the spirit, soldier.”
Alison laughed. “You’ll never guess what Miles said. If we needed to cut the mortgage, we could always pitch into the Blamires cottage now Harry and Mitch are gone.”
Sara went suddenly pale. “You are joking I trust?”
“Far too small for you. Besides, Harry hasn’t even been declared dead yet. And Mitch will be back when the money runs out. As soon as the cricket starts, that’s my guess. He’s addicted to that ancient tractor of his.”
“Just a joke. Really.”
“Mind you,” Sara continued. “In regard to the Blamires something is afoot, that I can tell you.”
Something tiny and alive fluttered inside Alison’s stomach. “What do you mean?”
“Your friend Justin has been sniffing around. Asking questions. Wandering around Paternoster Farm looking very puzzled. I spotted him there the other day when I took Yappy out for a run. Spotted him on the Minnis too, keeping an eye on this place. An ambitious little bugger is our Justin in more ways than one. He doesn’t plan on being a village plod all his life, mark my word.”
“Did he say…?” Say what? She wondered. She had tried to keep Justin out of her thoughts, along with Harry Blamire, and had precious little success with either of them.
“He was onto me like a shot, I can tell you that. Asking about Harry. And also…”
Sara suddenly shut up, remembering something.
She shook her head. “I don’t know, Alison. I can’t put my finger onto it. But you be careful there. I have a horrible feeling Justin thinks you two aren’t quite over yet.”
Sara went silent, wondering whether to say it. “You are, aren’t you?”
“Of course,” Alison replied instantly.
(C) David Hewson 2012