Authors: J. M. Gregson
Copyright © J. M. Gregson 2014
The right of J. M Gregson to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988.
First published in the UK by Diamond Books, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers in 1991.
This edition published in 2014 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
‘Sod and damnation!’ said Guy Harrington.
It is a truth universally acknowledged among golfers that water attracts golf balls. The immortal Miss Austen would certainly have noted that, had she lived a century later, for the acuteness of her observation would undoubtedly have drawn her to this most revealing of games.
Harrington’s well-struck three-iron looped in a beguiling parabola, seeming to stay in the air for an inordinately long time as it sliced inexorably to the right of his target. Then it landed in the river with a silent splash, visible to all four members of the match but too distant for the sound to carry to them. Harrington gave vent to his feelings with a renewed and more lurid verbal outburst.
His companions tried to control the smiles which are always provoked by other people
’s sufferings in this game. Even Harrington’s partner in the four-ball, Tony Nash, felt quite cheerful about his man’s discomfort, for it allowed him to feel less guilty about his own incompetence earlier in the round, which Harrington had received with ill-concealed irritation. Being a tycoon seemed to make a man less tolerant of the weaknesses of his underlings, even when they were officially at play together. Nash called an unconvincing ‘Hard luck, Guy,’ to the man stamping heavily towards the bank of the Wye and went forward to his own ball.
Nash, concentrating fiercely beneath his luxuriant fair hair, managed to get to the green in three, but then three-putted; Harrington watched him with massive, unbelieving disapproval. Sandy Munro, as slight and pale
as Harrington was bulky and florid, chipped up deftly from the edge of the green and holed without fuss for a four to win the hole.
The Scotsman was forty-six, but had the same waist and weight he had had at eighteen; his red hair and blue eyes were almost as bright as in the days of his youth. His slender build concealed surprising strength; where the other three pulled trolleys, he carried a full bag of clubs without effort. He had been a golfer for almost four decades of those forty-six years. Before he was twenty, there had been talk of his turning pro, but he was too good an engineer and his parents too imbued with Scottish caution to allow that. He had been among the Sassenachs in the south of England now for twenty years losing neither his soft Fifeshire accent nor his golfing skills: he maintained his handicap of two with no hint of concession yet to the advancing years.
The result was that in a game notoriously unpredictable, Sandy Munro’s four had an air of routine, the execution that of well-oiled, repeating skills. His partner, George Goodman, said, ‘Well done, Sandy, two up with three to play!’ It had the sound of a recurrent, unthinking chorus, though it made no sweeter hearing for his opponents for that.
Goodman, as unconscious of their irritation as the unworldly bishop he resembled physically, teed his ball carefully and dispatched it down the exact centre of the fairway, with a precision wholly inappropriate to his generous handicap. He held his position at the top of his follow-through in the manner beloved of amateurs the world over after a good shot, while his opponents muttered again about his eighteen handicap and the unfairness of it all.
But in truth, it was only mock war and synthetic indignation. Among friends in such a setting, anything else would have been quite stupid—and none of these men was stupid. Oak and beech stood around them in the full emerald glory of their early leaf. As the course turned back towards the clubhouse, the Wye wound serenely away to their left, still as a painted river as afternoon moved into evening. Some men are foolish enough to quarrel in places like this, but not all men. These four had come away for a week’s golf and fun, and the golf must increase rather than diminish the fun.
had known each other for many years now, on and off the golf course; they had learned to make the small adjustments necessary to each other’s idiosyncrasies. They were not intimate friends perhaps; in one case in particular there was little affection extended from any of them. But they knew how to rub along together happily enough, in that bluff, undefined male way that understood just how far they should intrude into each other’s lives.
Their relationships would not have stood the test of greater intimacy; at the end of this week they would go back to their normal lives of work and home with a certain secret relief that they did not have to exist permanently in the close proximity of these golfing days. But any strain they felt this week was submerged in the pleasure of their activities. Save, that is, for one of them, who never ceased his endeavours to gather information which might be of use to him.
As the end of the round approached, all was good fellowship and breezy banter. When Guy Harrington, lurching into the ball with characteristic vehemence on the sixteenth, won the hole with the four which was always a possibility of his eccentric game, even his opponents were glad for him, and pleased at the prospect of the game going all the way to the last green. George Goodman, silver hair setting off a becoming bald dome, retrieved his opponent’s ball carefully from the hole and held it between finger and thumb as delicately as a Eucharist wafer. He handed it to Harrington with a congratulatory smile. ‘Whose handicap’s too high now, then?’ he said.
A one-off, George! A flash in the pan. You know my game well enough!’ said Harrington modestly. But his expression denied the words: the realism which informed his business decisions deserted him as soon as he got hold of a club, so that he thought his finest shots represented his normal game, instead of recognising them as the splendid aberrations they were. In other words, he was a typical golfer. There is no game in which hope so consistently outstrips performance.
Tony Nash produced the longest drive of the four at the seventeenth, as befitted his broad shoulders and tender years: he was a mere forty-two, with hair long and luxuriant enough to provoke heavy-handed jokes about barbers
’ estimates around golf clubs, those bastions of sartorial conservatism. He thinned his second shot, but it ran low and straight, bouncing merrily on to the green while he tried not to catch the eye of Sandy Munro. He holed the putt for an unlikely three; an afternoon which had been full of frustration for him suddenly seemed idyllic.
All square. They climbed the eighteenth
’s steep elevation to the clubhouse and watched Sandy Munro almost win the match with a curling putt which lipped the hole but refused to drop. A halved match, then. They shook hands, going through a ritual ridiculous in friends who had been together for two days and planned to be so for another three.
Telling each other it was the right result, the four men stood contentedly for a moment beside the clubhouse, able for the first time now to give their f
ull attention to the appealing scene below them. The ground dropped away steeply, so that they could see many of the last nine holes they had just played. Other golfers were visible at various stages of their rounds, but they were too distant for their voices to disturb the serenity of a scene which had changed little for centuries.
A field of oil-seed rape seemed in the evening light an even more vivid yellow; the only moving things visible in the wide panorama on the other side of the river were a highly animated black
Labrador and its less energetic master. From a distant cottage, a thin blue line of smoke rose straight as a pole towards the blue above. The river was a central feature in a landscape as balanced as if it had been planned by a painter. From this height, its graceful course could be followed for miles. At its widest bend, the descending sun lit its surface with a golden fire; elsewhere, it was as dark and quiet as if it had been frozen in a photograph.
The Wye Castle Golf and Leisure Complex boasted in its brochure that many of its rooms looked out over the course and the river. In one of these, a striking red-haired woman watched unseen what was happening below her. The window commanded an excellent view of the pastoral English scene, but she had eyes only for the four men on the last green. As they left the course and moved to stow away their trolleys and clubs, she watched them intently.
It was impossible to have any idea which of the four in particular commanded her unblinking gaze. What was unmistakable was the hatred, harsh and undiluted, with which she watched him.
The building at the centre of the Wye Castle complex was not a castle, of course. The occasional visitor arrived and departed feeling that the Wars of the Roses had probably clashed around these walls and Cromwell’s cannons must surely have been discharged from the valley below, but few were as naïve as that.
It was no more than a
pleasant eighteenth-century mansion, distinguished chiefly by the superb position of its escarpment above the river. The nineteenth-century owner, under the influence of the medievalism of the romantic poets and the more questionable suggestions of the Gothic novel, had added the castellations and the random turrets. These not only ruined the original Georgian simplicity of the design but caused expensive problems of maintenance, once the estate ceased to employ its own builders and carpenters and men ceased to be cheaper than horses to maintain.
Floodlit against a starry sky, the ivy-clad elevations of this mongrel building had a brooding menace that
more than Childe Roland. But the interior was cheerful enough. Well-lit and warm behind its velvet curtains, with the ubiquitous musak discreetly low, the bars and dining-room felt welcoming enough, even though in May they were almost empty.
The arrival of Guy Harrington
’s party, full of group confidence and determined bonhomie, made the impact of a much larger presence upon this quiet place. It was Harrington, well accustomed to authority, who took control, seeing to the seating of the ladies and discussing the choice of wine with the air of a host. If there was any resentment among his audience, there was no visible sign of it: perhaps they were happy to see someone with much experience of these things taking control on their behalf. Or perhaps, after a full day of physical activity, they were enjoying that delicious lassitude that takes over at the prospect of good food and pleasant company.
The two women felt at least as tired as the four men. Sightseeing can be more exhausting than golf. And when you cannot quite agree what you wish to see, and yet are too polite to go your separate ways, you end up doing too much. They had spent two absorbing hours in the Cathedral at Gloucester, guided round its ancient glories by a well-mounted exhibition of its history. Alison Munro could have spent much longer, but her friend had been impatient to visit the shops, where they had spent most of an afternoon which had begun to seem interminable. She had spent the last hour of it studying a beguiling square of blue sky through the single high window of a fitting room, while Meg Peters tried on a succession of dresses and rejected them all.
Alison was the only wife there. Two of the other men had wives, but they had opted out of the boozy gaiety and interminable golf talk and stayed at home; perhaps they felt that a single wife in attendance was sentry enough to ensure propriety in their men. Alison eased off her elegant high-heeled shoes beneath the table, careful not to play unwitting footsy with any hopeful male. She let her smile glitter freely at some minor witticism from her left. But it was the liberation of her throbbing feet which almost made her grunt with unladylike relief.
From her name, she should have been as Scottish as her husband, but she was pure English for as far back as anyone could trace, which was at least two centuries of Berkshire gentry. Her mother, having to cope with a surname of Browne, which even the additional
‘e’ could scarcely dignify, had merely thought the sound of the name Alison attractive and the three syllables a suitable counterbalance to the surname.