Thursday, 7 February
IRENE NEVER ROSE AND SHONE. Even when she’d done the school run it had been a losing game and, four days out of five, the kids were left to cross an empty playground long after the bell. In those days, coping with sleep-deprivation turned her into a scold. Now she had the luxury of surfacing in her own time, in a bedroom separate from her husband’s, she felt herself a less defensive, kinder woman.
Today, she came down to the kitchen in her nightdress. The radio murmured by the dishwasher. She ignored it, picking up the kettle from the range to fill with enough water for a pot of tea. As she set it down, the hot plate bit with a hiss.
Irene warmed her back against the cooker, noting the leavings of Joe’s breakfast: the gritty toast crumbs on a side plate, a jammy knife. She was ruminating on how long last year’s blackcurrant jam might last when the kitchen door shuddered, the aftershock of a slam of the outer backdoor. Irene heard the grate of Joe’s work boots across the flags of the utility-room they called the ‘scullery’. She headed to see if her husband fancied sharing her pot of tea.
Before her hand touched the doorknob Joe’s voice barked out on the other side, “So, you’ve bothered to come in?”
He was having another go at Gregory, whose office, like her husband’s opened off the scullery. Irene couldn’t hear her son’s reply. Whatever it was didn’t calm Joe.
“No you haven’t! I saw you drive up not five minutes ago.”
Irene checked the kitchen clock. It showed just after nine. She edged nearer the door, catching Gregory’s injured tone, then Joe’s furious “Because you have stock to care for! You can’t neglect stock. Pig units don’t run themselves. You wanted the damn thing, not me. It’s your responsibility.”
“Dad, you say it’s my responsibility but, without even consulting me, you’ve sacked my stockman.” Gregory’s words, cultured and aggrieved, matched Joe’s indignation on the other side of the door. At least he’d had the sense to talk face to face.
The kettle was boiling, its lid rattling. Irene left her listening post to drop two teabags into a pot and empty the kettle over them. She and Joe hardly ever argued now. Gregory was the butt of Joe’s temper these days. She added milk to the tea she’d poured and took a sip. The men’s voices outside grumbled on.
“He wasn’t thieving, Dad. Nothing’s gone missing.”
“I saw him! He’d got one of my golf clubs rammed under his coat. When I challenged him, he hadn’t a word to say.”
The subject of Zac Decorsey nettled Irene. It probed old feelings of guilt. She was glad to hear he’d gone. At last Gregory’s voice took on an appeasing tone.
“Look, Dad. I’m on it, okay. I’ll sort it.”
Irene let out her breath. She heard her husband grunt, then the backdoor bang again. At least Joe hadn’t seen her in her nightdress. He wouldn’t have said anything but, in that mood, she would have felt his disapproval.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
At five past ten Irene left the warmth of the oil-fired central heating for her daily round of the orchard. Today the sky was gauzy, bearing a bright sun, which scissored sharp outlines for each twig and blade of grass. The freezing air nipped at her cheeks, raising her spirits.
Soon she was filling the last of the bird feeders, which hung like skeletal fruit from low branches. On the replenished cylinders, tits and finches were already clustering while, in the high oaks fringing the orchard, magpies rattled out warnings. As soon as Irene left they would drive out the small birds like riot police.
She turned back to the house, her footsteps showing green in the stiff iced grass. As she reached the orchard gate, Cheryl’s scooter buzzed up the back drive to park on the top yard.
Irene joined her cleaner and they both trooped through the scullery to the warmth of the kitchen. She left Cheryl to put on the kettle to make coffee—Gold Blend instant, not the ground kind the family used after meals.
“There was a police car at Marion Decorsey’s last night.” Cheryl launched straight in with the gossip. “Don’t know what it was about. It stayed a long time.” She fished a nylon tabard from a shopping-bag and arranged it over her spare frame.
So, Joe was right about Zac Decorsey’s thieving. She made an effort to be charitable. “That woman’s not had it easy, a single parent…”
“Granted. But she’s a funny one.” Cheryl flexed her fingers into rubber gloves. “I think…”
Gregory walked into the kitchen, a quilted Barbour zipped to the neck. Even in work clothes he managed to look well-groomed. Irene knew her son cut a handsome figure and she couldn’t help but feel pride. He must have been sorting whatever problem Joe had spotted in the pig unit. His cheekbones were flushed, his eyes bright from the cold. He nodded to Cheryl.
“Morning, Gregory.” Cheryl batted her eyelashes.
“I won’t be here for lunch, Mum. I’m picking up supplies. I’ll get a sandwich in Fewdley.”
“I heard your father,” Irene said, patting her son’s sleeve.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
She left Cheryl to clear the breakfast things then to vacuum downstairs. Irene had a garden catalogue to go through. She sat by the window on the broad landing, leaning back into what had been her nursing chair when the children were babies. She’d brought a biro, ready to tick off any perennials and shrubs she fancied.
She flicked through the pages but her mind went back to Gregory and Joe, always at loggerheads these days. Not for the first time she wondered whether, if their first child had been male, things would have been different. Four daughters by way of trying for a boy—not many women would have been as accommodating. The generation gap between father and son seemed to have doubled since Gregory had finished his agricultural studies and become a partner in the farm.
Her eyes were caught by the illustration of a climbing rose. ‘Intense raspberry and clove scent, flowers throughout May to September.’ She scrawled a big tick across the page.
The Hoover droned downstairs. Irene frowned, willing Cheryl to be careful of the dining-table legs. She considered some fritillaries, admiring their snakeskin markings. Three varieties won tentative ticks.
Her wish-list of plants was halted when Joe failed to return for a mid-morning appointment with a land-agent. Irene was flustered and annoyed as she turned the visitor away, suggesting he phone Joe’s mobile to rearrange.
Her husband didn’t come home for lunch either.
“Odd, Mr Lucey not turning up.” Cheryl tore off a length of cling-film to wrap the chops Irene had cooked for Joe. “He’s usually Mr Reliable.”
“You wouldn’t say that if you’d been married to him for as long as I have.” Irene took her fleece from the back of her chair. “Mr Do-As-He-Likes is what I’d call him. If he does bother to drop by, tell him I’ll be in the greenhouse.”
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
Beyond the orchard, the mildewed panes of the potting-shed converted icy sunshine into moist warmth. The air was saturated with the must of compost, spiced with the carbolic scent of over-wintering geraniums and their cuttings. Irene dabbed at the rows of embryonic pelargoniums, checking their health through her fingertips. She was pleased with them: their stems were sturdy, their little scallop leaves thick and firm.
She began checking through last year’s seed packets. Nothing could go outside until the frost was over but she should start some seed-trays now. She pulled out a grimy washing-up bowl that she used for mixing composts.
Sifting the cool soil through her fingers, she experienced a sudden pang of anxiety about Joe. She recognised she’d felt resentful because she’d overheard him berating Gregory. For a man of his age he still worked long hours, so it was natural for him to be impatient with a generation that took life easier.
It seemed a good while since she’d spoken to her husband, though it was only last night. She tried to remember their conversation but she hadn’t really been paying attention: something about a parish council meeting… oh, and singing Martha’s praises again. Maybe that’s why she’d switched off. She clicked her tongue, annoyed with herself. Tomorrow, she’d go into town and look out a few brushed cotton shirts and a sweater. With this cold snap, he could do with more warm layers. And, as he’d missed lunch, she’d cook something special for supper, maybe a prawn curry. She could picture herself and Joe enjoying a fragrant korma with a bottle of Riesling.
While she filled the watering can from the tap by the greenhouse door, she realized that the gloom inside the potting-shed was also gathering in the garden. She quickly watered the seed-trays then scraped the door shut and headed back down the path to the dark-windowed house.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
Cheryl had left the kitchen orderly. Irene washed her hands, earth-stained suds spattering the gleaming sink. Trailing a tea towel, she went into the scullery to one of the two freezers and dug out a pack of prawns. She was peeling onions when she heard the backdoor open. It would be either Gregory or Joe. She turned her head towards the kitchen door and for a split second could not make sense of the sight of Bill Pane, her nearest neighbour, in his shirt sleeves. His face was contorted and he was shouting at her.
“Oh, dear god, Irene. I think he’s gone. I saw the Nissan out there this morning but I… I never dreamt….” He had a wide-eyed, agonised look.
In the moment it took Irene to reach him, possibilities went through her mind. Something must have happened to Bill’s son who worked in the family’s plumbing business, but why had he come to her?”
Bill grabbed her hands and began pumping them up and down.
“Blankets. He needs blankets.” His grip was crushing her fingers.
Irene looked past Bill and saw Gregory standing in the doorway. He stepped inside.
“What is it?” Gregory’s tone snapped Bill to his senses.
“It’s Joe. He’s in the brook meadow.” Bill’s voice began to break, “It doesn’t look good. I’ve called an ambulance. I left him my jacket but we need to get him warm. He’ll have…,” Bill searched for the word, “…hypothermia.”
A disembodied calm fell over Irene. She sped upstairs to strip the duvet off her bed, gathering in a pillow as well, compressing them against her body to clear the doors on her way down. Gregory had taken the keys from the hook in the kitchen for Joe’s Honda. He and Bill climbed into the front while Irene pushed the bedding beside her onto the back seat. The clock on the dashboard showed 17:17.
It was only three or four hundred yards to the brook meadow, down the farm drive and a little way along the lane. It was completely dark now, the road ahead a bleached ribbon in the headlights. Irene felt herself in a dream. Her right hand rhythmically squeezed the duvet, crushing the fine spikiness of feathers inside.
When she climbed out of the car, the bundle of bedding unrolled and dragged on the verge. She reeled it in, brushing grains of frost against her skin as she followed the men’s silhouettes to the gate and heard them unbolt it and swing it open. Her eyes were adjusting, finding the ghostly paintwork of Joe’s pick-up. Underfoot the field was rutted, hard to navigate in her slip-on shoes.
The two men in front parted, lowering themselves to their knees, making room for Irene by the shape on the ground.
“I’m so sorry, Irene,” Bill’s voice trailed to a whisper, “I think he’s left us.”
Irene felt fury spark around her heart. What did Bill know about anything? She ran her hands over Joe’s still form, mapping how he was lying. Gently, she lifted his head, sliding the pillow beneath. He was floppy, not stiff. She tucked the duvet around him and pressed her cheek against his icy face, wishing her body-heat into his blood.
“Come away, Mum, don’t upset yourself. You can’t do anything. The ambulance will be here soon.”
It didn’t seem important to explain to her son that she wasn’t ‘upset’. Her mind was all on Joe. She felt for her husband’s hands and brought them together so she could cradle them in her own, stretching her fingers over his.
She gasped as Gregory’s arms tugged around her waist. He was trying to pull her away.
“Get off me!”
There was enough savagery in her voice for him to let go. She leaned herself over Joe, wrapping as much of him as she could into herself. As she laid her head on his chest, she felt a laboured intake of breath, slow and dragging, like a heavy stone across paving.
“You’re alright. There, you’re alright,” she crooned. “I knew you were alright, Joe. Oh, Joe, my sweetheart, you’re alright.”
From beyond the dark meadow and the little maze of lanes around the farm rose a faint keening from an approaching ambulance.