The nursing home had been a farm once, back in the days when the flat, arable land north of Sevenoaks supported agriculture. Now it stood marooned in an ordered field of neatly-tended lawn by the side of the bustling M25. If she sat in the garden, beneath the chill spring sun, with her back to the motorway, looking at the ancient farmhouse and the stately oaks that shaded it, she could almost believe this was somewhere close to Beulah. Provided she stopped up her ears to keep out the constant, droning roar of traffic. Provided she never took a breath, and let the heavy, tarred stench of carbon monoxide fumes penetrate into her lungs.
They let her have one of the most expensive suites, paid for by Miles’ medical insurance. It was in a wing that had been made out of a former oast complex. She slept beneath the ancient cone, pointing upwards to the stars, trying to believe this had some magical property, like a pyramid, focussing the healing power of the sky into her ragged, shaken body. But the truth was this was just a fancy hotel for the temporarily barmy, handily situated for the lunatic diaspora shaken out of London and looking for respite. She did not need to be healed. What had happened, had happened, although she failed to understand exactly how. It was only fate that prevented her from spilling the beans, fate that made her silence take on the guise of a mute, interior disorder of the mind. And so Alison Fenway waited, passing her time in the nursing home library, with its shelves and shelves of ancient, leather-bound classics: Dickens and Dumas, CS Lewis and the rollicking, ridiculous adventures of John Buchan. For this brief period of time, quiet in an armchair in her room, she became part of a world where there was, for the most part, a visible dividing line between good and evil, darkness and light.
One week after Justin Liddle had stood by the side of the Devil’s Kneading Trough, talking to the newly scarred Mitch Blamire, a small, bright red Alfa Romeo crunched over the gravel of the nursing home. Miles was busy and she had no complaints about that. It was unfair, she knew, but somehow she held him responsible. So she had seized the opportunity and asked for Sara to come and pick her up instead. It was too early to think about men. Every time her thoughts drifted towards Miles and Justin one word — “torn” — came into her head. She didn’t want to face choices. Somehow it was inhuman even to think of there being some kind of contest between these two men in her life, a tournament in which she decided the winner. Fate, chance and destiny had their part to play too.
So this day she stood outside the door of the home, a quiet, impersonal nurse by her side, holding her bag, and watched Sara manoeuvre into the last remaining space in the car park.
Time, Alison thought, watching her friend roll awkwardly out of the driving seat. It moved with such relentless certainty, innocent of small human tragedies. In the few weeks she had spent in the home, letting her head search for some kind of quietus to its ills, Sara had grown so large. Some pregnant women became fat and struggled to shrug off that excess of flesh for years after the event. Some bore the child as if it were a kind of physical extension, tacked awkwardly onto their body in a jerry-built, temporary fashion that would disappear almost the moment the hidden burden entered the world. If it ever came to pass, she would fit the first category; Sara, undoubtedly, was in the second. Growing larger made the separation between the hump and the person become more marked, not less. She looked like a woman carrying a pillow stuffed up her neat, conservative, corduroy dress.
Sara came up the steps, planted a kiss on her cheek, and Alison, without warning, burst into tears, laughing nervously all the time.
“Oh God,” Sara mumbled into her ear, holding her tight. “It’s all right now, love. We’ll get you out of this bloody place. Back home. And heal you good and proper.”
She snivelled and wondered just how pathetic she looked. “I’m sorry…”
“I’ll take that,” Sara said severely to the nurse and grabbed the bag. “You can piss off and drug someone else now, thank you very much.”
The woman coughed, gave her a nasty look, and went back through the big, white double doors.
“Sodding hospitals,” Sara cursed. “Who do they think they’re kidding?” Alison clung to her tightly, feeling the hard bulge between them. “I don’t know why you checked in here, love. Everyone knows you’re not potty.”
She relaxed her grip and peered into Sara’s clear blue eyes. “Do they?” she asked, then pressed a ragged tissue to her nose.
“Course they do. Why do we have to have these fancy explanations? Something horrible happens and all these big words appear. They put you in homes. They give you drugs. It’s rubbish.”
“Good old, sensible, Sara,” she said, smiling, aware of how damp her face was. “You always stick up for me, don’t you?”
“That’s what friends are for, in case you’ve forgotten. And, by the by, it’s selfish too. I’m getting fatter and more stupid by the day. I need you. The business needs you. Now can we go back to living our lives please?” She paused nervously. “You are coming back, aren’t you? You won’t give up on us because of this?”
Alison was surprised by the question. The thought of abandoning Beulah, of trying to make her own way in the world outside, had flittered through her head for only an instant. There was work to be done. There was a need for some kind of resolution. Some decisions she had reached already. There would be no obsession about getting pregnant for a while, not until she knew where her private life was headed. The constant, aching urge for a child was, in some way, responsible for her present position. She needed to avoid this kind of fixated behaviour.
“You don’t get rid of me as easily as that,” she said. “I’m not the quitting type.”
“Good for you,” Sara exclaimed, hugging her again, and looking as if she was the one about to burst into tears this time. They walked to the car. Sara dropped the bag by the boot, stretched upright and put a hand to her back. “Ouch.”
“Are you all right?”
“No I’m not. I’m trying to pursue a modern lifestyle trapped inside the carcass of a sperm whale. Oh be a darling, will you? You do the driving?”
Alison stared at the flashy new car.
“I know, I know,” Sara said apologetically. “It’s a stupid little boy racer. I bought it when my hormones were performing the Floral Dance around my reasoning faculties. Three weeks ago it felt lovely. Now I can’t squeeze bulge here under the steering wheel. It’s a doddle to drive. Honest.”
Alison nodded. There was something so transparent in this little ruse of forcing her to do something, take some responsibility. She loved Sara for it all the more. But the car was odd. It was so brash, so expensive. Nothing like the battered 2CV which had been a part of the Sara she had first come to know.
“It must have cost a fortune,” she said.
Sara patted the gleaming paintwork. “You’re not the only one with relatives, you know. An old aunt popped her clogs and left me a surprise present. Probably thought I’d spend it on a nursery. But bugger it. I deserve a treat now and again.”
“An aunt? You never mentioned her.”
Sara sighed. “You don’t know everything about me, Ali. Thank God. What do you think of it??”
She hated the beast. It had a slick, harsh beauty and possessed a definite male aggression. It was the last thing she expected Sara to buy. Money, she thought; we all seem to be rolling in dough, and never noticing the changes it brought.
“Cool,” she lied. “Can I see how fast it can go?”
“Within reason, my dear,” Sara replied. “Chuck her around too much and I’ll be throwing up on your lap, I warn you.”
On the road she didn’t want to drive fast at all. It came to her that she had hardly taken her own car beyond Ashford in months. The motorway seemed foreign, a roaring monster of aggression where deadly metal objects flew at her from all directions. After a brief attempt at overtaking, and finding that even 90 mph was too slow for most of those around her, she settled into a steady 55 in the slow lane, and trudged gently down the carriageway.
“Gossip,” she said to break the awkward silence that had descended a few miles north of Maidstone.
“Oh, let me see,” Sara answered, scratching her head. “A pint of beer has gone up five pence in the Green Man. Someone demolished the post box in a van or something the other week. Yappy has been trying to knock up the Downings’ stupid poodle bitch again, and failing miserably. ’Bout it really.”
“I don’t know. You turn your back for one second and the place is falling apart.”
“You’re telling me.”
A huge articulated lorry stormed past their right, so quickly the draught from its wake shook the car. “And…” Alison wondered, “the people?”
“People. Yes. There are still people. Keep the car still will you, love? I had baked beans for breakfast and they’re pigs to get off the upholstery.”
“Sara. Talk to me.”
She sighed. “Well, there’s Miles. Your husband. He’s been working his bollocks off as far as I can gather. Either visiting you or doing something in London. Scarcely been seen at the bar of the Green Man, if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“Not exactly. I know about Miles.”
Sara stared at her. “Do you? It’s been tough for him too, you know. He’s terribly worried. About you.”
“I was terribly worried about me. For a while. Then you just have to get up and get on with things.”
Sara took a packet of Polos out of her bag, offered one, and they both sucked on the sweet mints for a while. “That’s the spirit, girl,” she said. “Stiff upper lip. You will come to me when you want to drop the façade and have a good cry, won’t you?”
“And you won’t give up? Trying for the baby, I mean.”
Alison paused. The car and Sara’s sudden wealth continued to bug her. There was a limit to the secrets she was willing to share. “No. Not in the end. But I’m taking a break for a while. I’m not even going to think about it.”
“Best thing. Send him off to the bathroom with a copy of Playboy. You could come around in time for Burning Man. That’s a good few months away. Worked for me.”
“Yes,” she said quietly. “And Miles will be fine, trust me. He just wants peace and quiet. He’s got enough on his plate with the job.”
The majestic profile of Leeds Castle passed. The line of the Downs was now quite apparent to her left, though this was still, she felt, commuter belt territory. The steep chalk spine would run like this all along the motorway until it dipped into the flat, glacial valley of the Stour, close to Ashford, then rose again, in the wilds, beyond the White Horse, beyond the Devil’s Kneading Trough, to Beulah. And home. There were such memories, such mysteries, and it was still difficult to work out what was real and what imaginary. The bedroom would be a problem. She would sleep next door, in the guest room, for a while. But Priory House was home. She needed to be there. That internal argument was the shortest of them all.
“And our friends the Tylers?” she asked.
“Same as ever,” Sara groaned. “Weird. And miserable, too. He is a doctor. He takes that so seriously. I think he feels responsible for you in a way.”
“He’s not my doctor any more. And her?”
Sara thought about it. “Marjorie’s not been herself really. I don’t understand what’s going on. It’s as if she feels threatened by something.”
Alison said nothing.
“You’re not thinking of doing anything silly?” Sara asked.
“Wouldn’t dream of it. Is Justin still around?”
“Ever present I’m afraid. Asking a lot of questions too. About Paternoster Farm and all sorts of things. Don’t you dare show him that little bone of yours. You’d never get the little bluebottle off your back.”
“And one other thing,” Sara added. “He still has the hots for you. Big time. Be warned. I had a dog like that once. Every time the bloody thing came near I’d yell at it to bugger off. The more you booted the pathetic creature, the more it came back staring at you with those stupid moony eyes, trying to climb on your leg.”
“That’s Justin all over,” she replied. “Moony eyes.”
“Yes…” Sara sounded worried. “Do you mind if I say something?”
“If I do, will it stop you?”
“Of course not. Don’t make things more complicated than they already are, love. Let’s just settle down, get everything in order, and have a little peace for a while.”
“That came out a little too glib, darling. Think about it. I have a brat to spawn. All this stuff affects me too, you know.”
Alison suddenly felt full of self-hate. She had scarcely given Sara a thought. Yet here was her best friend, trying to run a business, have her first baby, face life as a single mother and mend a crazed chum at the same time. She took her left hand off the wheel and touched Sara on the arm. “I’m sorry. I can be so selfish sometimes.”
“You’ve got the right to be. After what you’ve been through. But a period of tedium would be appreciated, until the bawling starts my end, of course.”
They were almost home now. The next junction would take them onto the Canterbury Road, then to Wye, and, finally, the long climb up Vipers Hill to the village.
“One last thing,” Sara said, suddenly serious. “I thought you ought to know this in advance so you don’t get any unnecessary heebie-jeebies. Mitch has finally come back. The Minnis is getting mown again.”
“Mitch?” The year seemed to be turning full circle. She could picture summer again. Cricket on the green. Lazy beers outside the pub. “Where’s he been?”
“Bangkok like everybody said, although the word is he may have been coming back to the village unannounced, and keeping it secret, a couple of times since Christmas. Justin gave him the third degree, naturally, but he’s done nothing wrong. High-tailed it after Harry popped his clogs. Now he’s back to normal. As normal as a Blamire gets at any rate. If he can do it, gel, so can you.”
“Good,” she said, and felt that way too. Black deeds could sink to the bottom of one’s memory. Time could heal everything.
“The bugger is,” Sara continued, “what he’s done to himself, which is why I wanted to warn you in advance.”
“Done to himself?”
“Only gone and carved a scar in his cheek, just like Harry’s. In a dim light you’d be hard pressed to tell the two of them apart. If Harry wasn’t dead, of course.”
The bright, clear stretch of motorway suddenly darkened in front of her. Alison felt the wheel slip from her grasp, the car move gently out of her control, drifting across the carriageway. Horns blared. Vehicles swerved around her, tyres screeching, livid faces yelling through windows, all at the periphery of her vision. Sara was screaming. There was the sound of metal on metal, something shaking the car violently.
The Alfa Romeo slid along the crash bar of the central reservation for a good fifty yards. Then Sara managed to get control of the wheel, steered the vehicle safely to the left and got them on the hard shoulder. It came to rest a couple of hundred yards from the Ashford turn-off. Alison sat in the driving seat, a queer smile on her face.
“Jesus,” Sara gasped. “That was deeply stupid of me. I’m sorry, I don’t know what I must have been thinking.”
Alison was still smiling. She felt as if some weight had lifted from her head. “No. My apologies. I seem to have wrecked your car.”
They got out and surveyed the damage. There was a long dent marking the right hand side of the vehicle. It could have been a lot worse. Sara took the keys and drove them home. Alison never said a word.
She stepped through the back door of Priory House with her heart in her mouth. This was the scene of so much joy and more than a little agony. It was the age-old question: which would win in the end. In the nursing home she had toyed with the idea of a fresh start. No men. A new place, perhaps back on the other side of the Atlantic. But always the memories of Priory House came back to her and they were, in the main, sweet and powerful: Arnold in his prime, Miles tackling the thick snow of the Minnis on his tractor. And Justin, strong, loyal Justin.
There was a bouquet of roses on the kitchen table, lazily spilling lush, red petals on the polished pine. The house smelled of flowers and fresh paint. Sunlight streamed through the windows. It was smiling for her, she thought. Saying: this is home, this is where you belong. With all the little secrets.
She made tea for both of them, got the number of her car insurers, and they chatted idly about the business, calming down all the time, letting the soothing, undulant rhythm of the village seep inside them. An hour later, when Sara left, she went upstairs and sorted out the spare room, her head whirling all the time.
At five o’clock, forty minutes before Miles was due to return home, she went into the kitchen, found the small hiding place above the Aga, and thrust her hand inside. The matchbox was still there. She pulled it out and opened the tray. The small bed of cotton wool was pristine white. The bone was gone.
The absence of proof was a kind of evidence itself. Alison laughed out loud into the echoing emptiness of the kitchen.
(c) David Hewson 2012