It had only come to her after John Tyler’s lecture on the train. March the 23rd was Miles’ birthday. He would be thirty six this year, on Easter Monday, and firmly set on a rising career. And called away again, with just time for lunch in Beulah before some urgent meeting to rubber stamp the deal with the Germans that evening.
The idea for the present was his own. He had idly dropped into the conversation the news that some of the boys in the Green Man were forming a clay pigeon club. There was talk of banging away at the odd pigeon and rabbit too, perhaps even migrating to the major league of pheasants one day. Miles had never touched a weapon in his life, as far as she knew. The idea had some vague appeal to him more because of the blokey clubbishness surrounding it than any great conversion to the business of field sports.
He never mentioned it again, but the idea lodged at the back of her head. Justin was able to provide the paperwork — the precious shotgun licence. After that it was just a question of buying the right weapon. She determined to ask the advice of the man in the gun shop, select a price range, then haggle as hard as she could.
That Easter Saturday when she drove into town, the row with Marjorie finally still bubbling in her memory, she stood in the shop for nearly an hour, talking to the cheery chap behind the counter, weighing up the pros and cons of the arsenal he had on show. The price range had risen considerably after the sudden turnaround in Miles’ fortunes. There was such choice: cheap, functional farmers’ guns, delicate, light models “for the ladies” and, at the top of the scale, some exquisitely-made weapons that seemed as much examples of an artist’s craft as deadly machines for taking flying bundles of feathers out of the sky.
The shopkeeper took a canny look at the way she was lingering over the pricey ones then went inside and returned with something which, Alison knew on the instant, she just had to possess. He called it a Purdey High Deco. To her it was simply one of the most beautiful articles she had ever seen.
It was a twelve-bore top lever gun, double-barrelled with a stock of polished burr walnut. From the trigger guards to the chambers the metal was covered in fine, filigree engraving, extravagant whorls, patterns of tumbling, encircling leaves and deeply chiselled dragons straight out of a child’s fantasy book. She held it in her hands, felt her palms move automatically over the smooth wood, then pointed the barrels at the ceiling of the shop and said, very quietly to herself, “bang, bang”. It was sufficiently compact and light to be used by man or woman. And if Miles grew tired of shooting, she would put it in a case and hang it over the grand Georgian fireplace. It was that beautiful. The store owner eventually settled for £6,750 including a handsome leather case, charged directly to her credit card. Then he put the weapon inside a discreet cardboard box, threw in a variety of shells, some for clay pigeons, other for live targets, and carefully carried the lot to her car for the journey home.
The weather was mixed on Easter Monday. Squally showers blew in from the east, chilly and vicious, with the hint of ice on their breath. In between the rain the sun shone eagerly on the damp, green landscape that was now slowly coming out of its slumber. She made lunch for Miles and Sara, a brief birthday celebration before he returned to town. As she cooked, a pair of amorous hares danced beneath the bramley trees in the garden and then scampered off into the woods. The lone pheasant limped across the vegetable patch, tail feathers half gone, bare skin at its neck, looking exhausted. Libidinous songbirds tumbled across her field of vision from every direction. Tits fought with each other through the branches, on the lawn, small black beaks flashing, wings a blurry haze of energy. Chaffinches hung around in sparky, argumentative pairs while bright, red-chested bullfinches paraded through the garden like brash soldiers home on temporary leave and desperate for a quick one. The cycle had turned again with a shocking rapidity and, thinking back to the episode in the wood, she felt a part of it herself. This was altogether new. In the city the seasons simply ran into each other with few signs to mark the changes. Here the progression of the year was all around her, assaulted her senses with a procession of shifting sights and smells, working its way into her own life too.
As she prepared the meal, Alison became aware that she had adapted her culinary tastes to the Beulah year too. The chaotic farm shop down the hill on the A28 was a treasure-house of winter vegetables straight from the field, fat leeks, misshapen parsnips, potatoes that had a wonderful, earthy taste about them. She bought the farm’s home-reared pork and marvelled at how much flavour lay beneath the thick, unfashionable fat. Pheasants and widgeon, teal and woodcock, the cornucopia of the countryside made its way to the table of Priory House. Jugged hare, pigeon breasts simmered slowly in beer, with lettuce to break down the fibrous flesh, pheasant in Kentish cream and cider, a ragout of wild mushrooms, ceps, chanterelles and blewits, picked on the hinterland of the Minnis, from places she was beginning to discover for herself. All these flowed out of Alison’s kitchen from the flashing Sabatier she wielded with an ever-increasing skill.
For Miles’ birthday she briefly boiled three wild duck to get rid of the fishy taste then roasted them, each with a spiced pear inside the cavity. The meal was served with roast potatoes, parsnips toffeed as Arnold had shown her, leeks in buttery cream from the farm and chubby winter carrots that made the anorexic supermarket variety seem insipid, watery things. Miles and Sara sat with knives and forks poised expectantly like children on a treat.
“Where,” Miles asked, mouth full, “did you learn to cook like this, darling? In New York it was all noodles and lemon grass.”
“Christ, yes,” she said, shuddering. “Lemon grass. Like eating toenail clippings dipped in disinfectant. Why didn’t we ever realise that?”
“Conditioning,” Sara said. “Peer pressure. We don’t have that up here. You’re allowed to indulge your natural instincts. Which, faced with grub like this, means pigging out. Of course Miles, we have an excuse. Feeding two.”
“I’ll just get happily fat then,” he said cheerfully.
After home-made tarte tatin, with the last of the winter bramleys, he opened his present. The gun seemed bigger in Priory House somehow and Alison was uncertain whether she liked it quite as much. The filigree and the chiselled dragons were just as breath-taking as they were in the shop, but, out of its case in the ordinary surroundings of the home, it was, more clearly, a weapon. Miles grinned and picked up a handful of shells from the box.
“Got to give it a try, haven’t I? Down the bottom of the garden.”
“Don’t you go killing anything,” Alison warned. “Particularly not my pal the pheasant. I’m fond of that foolish old bird.”
“More fond of him than me?” Miles asked.
She kissed his cheek. “About the same.”
The women watched him walk outside, the gun carefully broken over his arm, just as it said in the books.
“He reminds me of the pheasant sometimes,” Alison said watching him march down the garden. “The same strutting confidence, the same puffed out chest.”
“Miles is one good bloke,” Sara observed. “You’re very lucky.”
“I know. But they’re all children really.”
Sara had that uncomfortable look. “Alison?”
“Oh dear. What have I done now?”
“I don’t want to cause problems…”
She wondered what was coming. The company was running reasonably well. Sara was progressively shifting work across in preparation for the birth. Tyler had decided on the most likely date: June the 21st. Midsummer’s Day, as he doubtless pointed out. There was a ruthless mathematical precision about these things if you decided to get pregnant on one of his magical quarter points of the year. The human gestation period determined, complications aside, that to conceive on one significant date would, inevitably, lead to a birth on another.
“Fire away,” Alison said.
“It’s Marjorie Tyler. I had her round about your argument. Not that she gave any details. I really think you two should make up, you know. It’s a small village, love. It doesn’t pay to have enemies.”
She thought about Old Mother Tyler and her little favours. Making up was not high on her agenda just then. “Don’t get involved, Sara. There’s no rule that says you have to like all your neighbours.”
“No. But you still have to live alongside them.”
“More’s the pity in Marjorie’s case. I’m sorry. She’s just… beyond the pale. With her secrets and her little favours, just to get me dancing in the fairy ring with her or whatever.”
Sara sighed. “People take those things very seriously. You shouldn’t mock.”
“I didn’t mean to. I just don’t want Marjorie messing around in my private life, that’s all. Jesus Christ! It’s so goddamn impertinent.”
“That’s the village for you. We have our big secrets. We have some things that don’t stay secret at all.”
Sara paused before saying it. “Not as much as you think.”
She felt giddy all of a sudden. “Meaning what, precisely?”
Sara glowered at her miserably. “Jesus, Alison. Do you think no-one else goes in the woods? Do you think you’re really going to get away with cheating on Miles like that?”
She cleared away the empty plates, an automatic reaction. “I hadn’t realised I was being spied on.”
“You’re not! God, you can be so dangerous sometimes. I saw you walk past the cottage and thought I’d catch up with you for a walk. By the time I found you… well. What can I say?”
“I hardly think you’re in much of a position to start getting moral on me.”
Sara’s bright eyes flashed with fury. “It’s nothing to do with morals. I don’t give a damn who you screw in your spare time, although I think Miles may have an opinion on that. It’s about common sense. You’ve got everything anyone could want here. A beautiful home. A loving husband. A child on the way. And it’s as if… I don’t know. You just enjoy putting it all at risk sometimes.”
She could imagine how it might look like that from the outside. Sara couldn’t see Harry Blamire’s face disappearing into the fiery maw of the machine in Paternoster Farm, or hear his words ringing through the memory, over and over again.
“Don’t judge me, Sara. You don’t have that right.”
She was pleading. It wasn’t a comfortable sight. “I’m not. I’m trying to help. Ali, you’re my best pal. I can’t watch you screw things up like this.”
Alison looked through the hall into the open kitchen and out of the back windows. Miles was still playing with the gun but he could come back at any moment. “I can’t talk now. Come back tonight. Please.”
“Why? So you can sweep me up in all this madness too? You don’t get it, do you? I don’t want explanations. I don’t want to be a part of all this. I just want you to stop poking your nose in where people don’t want it. They’re already talking about you having something to do with Harry’s death, you know? Justin can’t be long behind.”
Alison felt her face go bright crimson. “Did Marjorie say that? I’ll murder the bitch, I swear it.” She took Sara’s hand. “Listen. You told me once that some things are best left dead and buried. You were right. Enough said?”
Sara blinked. “Whatever you say.” Outside there was the muffled sound of the shotgun, two distant blasts, one after the other.
“If he’s killed anything…” Alison said slowly. “Please come tonight.”
Sara looked uncomfortable again. “Don’t take this the wrong way. But you have to be careful when you go into business with a friend. You have to keep the business and your friendship apart. Otherwise both can go down the pan.”
“Ah,” she said, and thought: damn it. Alison poured herself one small glass of Chilean shiraz and savoured its rich, oaky taste. “You’re right, of course. Too much time together isn’t a good thing. We’re not married after all.”
Sara got up to go. “Think about what I said, please.”
Ten minutes later Miles was back looking ruddy-faced and pleased as punch. “You could take on the world with that thing. Boy does it make a bang.”
“No fatalities I presume?”
“Not a one. Although I don’t give your pal the pheasant much chance of surviving the year. Stupid thing watched me banging away at the treetops and scarcely blinked.”
She thought about the half-witted bird, with its beady eye and comic gait. It didn’t need to be smart to survive. It just needed to be less stupid than the other pheasants.
“Do you have to go up to town tonight?” she asked, feeling guilty for pressing him like this.
“Oh God.” He was downcast on the instant. “I don’t have a choice, darling. If I did, I wouldn’t think twice. This is the big meeting. We rubber stamp the deal. And my job too.”
“Of course,” she said, and poured another half glass of wine, unable to work out why she felt so depressed. “Stupid of me to ask.”
(c) David Hewson 2012