More flowers,” Miles said, beaming, and flourished a bouquet of white chrysanthemums. She kissed him, found a vase, and placed them above the kitchen fireplace. He touched her cheek and it took her a moment to realise why. He was running the tip of his finger lightly along the faint yet discernible scar left by the knife.
“I don’t know what happened then, Alison,” Miles said, suddenly serious. “I do know we can put it behind us. Make something fine out of our lives. And I won’t rush you. Everything happens at your speed. The way you want it.”
This was a speech, she thought, something he had prepared. Something very Miles: short, to the point, and sincere. She touched the nape of his neck, brushed her lips lightly, briefly against his cheek. “You’re so kind. And you’re right. Things will work out. In their own time. Be patient with me.” She hadn’t even mentioned the minor accident on the motorway. It seemed irrelevant.
He reached for a bottle of expensive burgundy and started to uncork it. “I’ll be as patient as you want. We mustn’t let this destroy us, love. I can’t imagine this place without you. It feels like a morgue when you’re on your own.”
She accepted the glass, tasted the deep, red darkness of the wine, and decided he was wrong. Priory House was big, with high ceilings and faraway, unused corners. But it never felt morgue-like, not even after a few weeks away. The house had too much personality for that. Miles was just being Miles. Trying to be nice. He probably appreciated a little time away from the mad wife.
He had arrived at home at seven, more than an hour later than planned. Being boss of Mersons was, she guessed, a time-consuming affair. All Miles’ ideas of detaching himself from London, of focussing his life more and more on Beulah, seemed to be receding. The one grain of comfort in this was that the time he spent at home seemed to be gaining a fresh, intense quality she had never seen before. Miles adored the house. In his frantic, last-minute visits to the hospital he had told her how he was back on his little tractor now, whizzing around the garden whenever the grass gave an excuse. Without a spot of help from anyone, least of all the Blamires, he had pruned the errant apple trees and turned the espalier pear that ran across the back of the garage into a neatly-trained system of well-kempt branches. She had looked at the garden when she returned and it was impressive. The espalier now sprouted buds. Summer was returning, and with it a new, surging renewal of life.
Miles had money too, and was not unwilling to spend it. In the hospital he had helped bring her out of her shell by introducing an interior decorator, getting them talking about ways of sprucing up the dining room, with its tatty furnishings and ancient paint. When she chose the scheme he had ordered it immediately. She arrived home to find the room immaculately decorated, so perfect it seemed an impertinence even to walk into it. A fine oval walnut table sat at the centre, with six matching chairs. A new, thick wool carpet felt soft underfoot. Just the thing to host dinners with visiting directors.
It must have set him back thousands, and there was still plenty more where that came from. Marjorie Tyler’s favours did not, it seemed, work in small measure. Miles’ salary had climbed to the 500K mark. With bonuses and a decent year’s trading behind him he would be pushing the million. Options and sundry various perks were gathering around his wallet. They were no longer simply well-off. In the space between her “accident” and her re-emergence into the world, the Fenways completed the transition to the realms of the truly rich. Money would never be a problem again. It had come out of nowhere, like Sara’s mysterious legacy.
Were she and Miles still the same people who had made their way, half in fear, half in wonder, up Vipers Hill only a year before? Logic dictated she answer no. Yet they looked the same. Miles seemed not a day older. The country air, when he was there to enjoy it, suited him. Incidents — from the Burning Man to the affair with Justin — had wormed insidiously into their lives, even if the latter remained, she hoped and believed, secret from Miles. Still it was difficult to feel that, beneath the skin, the newly wealthy Fenways had changed at all. She felt older and — not wiser, that was the wrong word — more knowledgeable about the ways of the world. The Beulah world in particular. In essence, however, they were still the same people, the same flesh and blood. The instruments had not changed, only the tunes that were played upon them.
“Look,” Miles said, grinning like a child. He went over to the Welsh dresser and picked up an ancient sepia photograph in a battered frame. There was a date hand-written in an illiterate scrawl in the corner: 1908. And next to that the words “Beulah Village CC, Fine Gentalmen All!” A team of ancient cricketers stood there, the front row kneeling on one leg, the rear standing upright, gloves and bats and balls in their hands. Facial hair appeared to be the fashion of the day. All but three of the men wore them, bushy, obscuring beards that made them look like spear-carriers from some Gilbert and Sullivan opera. She peered at the clean-shaven faces. Two were horribly familiar.
“You spotted the Blamires, then,” Miles said. “Probably their spelling too.”
“What is this, Miles? Some kind of a joke.”
“Not at all. That’s the team we fielded in 1908. The club is one of the oldest in the country, you know. They’ve been playing on the Minnis since the late 18th century at least. Got photographs back into the 1860s.”
“And are the Blamires in those too?”
“Probably. Those two are…” He struggled to remember. “Oh, I don’t recall. One of them’s Mitch and Harry’s grand-dad. The other bought it in the First World War apparently. As did most of them in that picture I guess.”
She stared at the men there. All dead. And the Blamires, whose gene pool seemed destined to flow through Beulah forever, sometimes through the most unlikely of channels. These ancient faces were, in a way, still alive. Conventional wisdom dictated that they would end with Mitch, poor, woman-less Mitch, living on his own, a bachelor wedded to the barren green mistress of the cricket pitch. But conventional wisdom was worthless in Beulah. Mitch, and Harry before him, doubtless had their secrets. Sara had found a father somewhere… and both Mitch and Harry looked remarkably happy the day after Burning Man. She shook her head and gave the picture back to Miles. There were some things she didn’t want to face just yet.
“Why do you have this, Miles?”
“I’m in the club. Well not quite. They invited me to audition. Quite an honour, you know. Apparently I have been quietly assessed while at the bar, so to speak.”
“Assessed for what? Your cricketing abilities? Do you even play cricket?”
“Used to,” he answered, a mite offended. “At school. Not great at batting but I can bowl a bit. Straight and fast, although I lack consistency. There, it’s best said. The first three of the over always go like billy-o but I fall to pieces after that. If the batsman’s any good, he just defends the beginning, and whacks the hell out of the rest. And besides, beggars can’t be choosers. When they took that picture Beulah was a bigger, livelier place than it is now. They had any number of people to pick from. Now — well, work it out for yourself. If we didn’t poach players from outside we’d never make eleven men.”
She tried to remember the games on the Minnis the previous summer. And the women, in their floral dresses and hats, wandering around with vast plates of sandwiches and jugs of beer for the men. “I don’t see myself as a cricket widow, darling.”
“No.” This amused him. “I don’t see you that way either, actually. I think you can steer safely clear of the egg and cress sandwich rota. It would be nice if you could prop yourself in a deck chair and watch me bowl the odd cove out. If I get a chance, of course.”
“We’ll see.” The idea sounded quite attractive.
“And I do want to belong here. Just like you. John Tyler asked and I thought it would be churlish to refuse.”
“Tyler,” she repeated flatly.
“That’s right. He’s the chairman.”
“Social secretary or something I believe. Which basically means organising the egg and cress rota.”
“Do we ever escape their tentacles?”
He sighed. “Look. I know they’re a couple of odd bods. But they mean well. Apparently he was an absolute hero when he found you. After…” He fell into an awkward silence.
Miles looked cross for one moment. “I don’t know what to call it. I’m sorry. Look, love. I am a traditional English male. I do not enjoy opening up about these things. If you want counselling, for both of us if you like, just say so. You can have anything you want.”
She laughed out loud and liked the way it lit up his face. “Oh my God, Miles. Could you see the pair of us in counselling together? You squirming like a cornered rat? Me laughing at the psychobabble?”
It was Miles’ stiff, English sang-froid that attracted her to him in the first place. His plain, focused practicality that made the marriage work.
“I would be a bit of a prat, wouldn’t I?” he said, with just the hint of a blush. “We’re not made for that kind of thing over here.”
She poured them both another glass, enjoying the wine. “Quite. No counselling for either of us. Just time. And space. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have embarrassed you like that. You don’t need to call it anything, Miles. It’s in the past. Gone.” It never really existed beyond the first flash of insanity.
“And the Tylers… well, you’ll excuse me if they don’t go top of my favourite people list. I don’t like them I’m afraid.”
“It’s a village, love. You can’t like everyone. You’ve still got to live with them.”
That much was certainly true, she thought. “So when do you audition?”
“Tomorrow. Practice in the nets, weather permitting. First match of the season is on May Day. Against Wye. A real local derby apparently. You’d almost think there was bad blood between the two. But if you want to do something instead?”
Talk about loaded questions. Miles was itching to play cricket with his blokey friends. It would have been cruel to have denied him.
“I just want to settle back in,” she said. “Look at the new decorations. Work out which room to improve next. You play your games. I’ll get us something decent for supper. And we can sink a bottle or two.”
He raised his glass. “To us, old thing.”
“Less of the old thing, if you don’t mind. I feel…” Was she just saying this? No, it was true. “I feel fine.” She’d examined herself in the mirror. The scar apart, which gave her bland features a touch of character that, perhaps, they needed, she looked fine too.
“Chiz,” Miles said, in deliberate, estuarial fashion.
The two glasses met beneath the great kitchen light. She thought of the pine table and another time. Of mistletoe berries tumbling from the ceiling, fake velvet antlers on blond hair.
“Miles,” she said. “I left something by the cooker. Something I found. It was in a matchbox.” She walked over and took the box from the ledge by the cooker where she had left it. “Did you see it?”
He shook his head. “No. Why?”
“Was it valuable?”
“Not really. Who’s been in here while I’ve been away?”
“People,” he said, unhelpfully. “All sorts of people. Those cleaners from Canterbury you found for one. I let them in. Sara let them in. Don’t know why we bother locking the place really. No-one else around here does.”
He hesitated. “Alison. Are you sure it was there? I don’t recall seeing anything.”
“I’m sure,” she answered. He looked so guileless. “Never mind.”
Three hours later, when Miles was propping up the bar of the Green Man, inveigling his way into the team a little further, she phoned Justin Liddle at home and suggested they meet the following day, in the hidden lay-by behind Sterning Wood, on the narrow, little-used single track route that led, after many winding diversions, to the old Roman road of Stone Street, then on into Canterbury.
She had reasoned this out. The bone — the finger bone from Burning Man, it could be nothing else — had been removed, openly and deliberately from the kitchen. Someone knew and feared her suspicions. The nightmare of the miscarriage was a warning. And a mechanism too, to prove to anyone who listened that she might be crazy just like they said.
Meeting Justin again acknowledged that the mystery lived outside her head, in the real world, alive and malevolent, and was not the creation of her own twisted thought processes. Miles’ quiet, interior support was welcome and generous, and just a touch diffident. There was, she thought, something detached and distant about him, as if, in his heart, he feared everything — the loss of the child, the mysterious missing finger bone — was the product of her own, fevered imagination. Justin listened. He cared, blindly, without asking too many question. She missed him. There was no avoiding the fact.
“I am not some crazy old woman,” Alison whispered, her eyes rising to the fake chandelier above the table, her memory returning to the sight of a single, pearly berry falling under some unworldly, ponderous gravity.
These flashes came out of nowhere, with a sudden vicious intensity. Sometimes they procured delights, sometimes nightmares. She blinked and the berry was gone, in its place the boiling cauldron of fat inside Paternoster Farm and a single, severed hand sliced free by the closing cover, falling to earth like a dying bird.
“To hell with it,” she hissed, and ached for his touch.
(c) David Hewson 2012