Authors: Evelyn Anthony
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Voices on the Wind
To my dear friends,
Derrick and Hella, with love
They were making the descent on London; he looked briefly out of the window at the familiar landmarks: the wide silver ribbon of the Thames, with the neat suburban houses red-roofed in the sunshine as they approached Heathrow. He thought of England as a patchwork quilt. Small, cultivated squares of colour. Even the vast sprawl of Greater London had a pattern seen from above. He didn't think England was a beautiful country. It was an island which tried to be a continent, boasting of its variety in landscape and native architecture. There was no true sweep and grandeur about it. Everything was on a tiny scale. He didn't admire the miniature. He didn't like the people any better than their country. He checked the time; the flight was on schedule. He had allowed two hours to reach the little Sussex village. Just about lunchtime. She would be at home. She never went away for weekends. For the last two years she had spent most of her time alone. The groundwork had been thorough, but it hadn't given him a mental picture. The photographs were taken long ago. The face had a ghostly quality, like the snaps of dead heroes, their caps at a jaunty angle. He couldn't imagine what she would be like. He passed through customs, picked up his hired car and set out for Amdale village. A little English gem, the Shell guide book described it. He drove within the speed limit, still on schedule. It wouldn't do to be stopped by the police for speeding. He turned down the gentle slope leading to the T-junction, and he could see the spire of Amdale church, beckoning above the trees. It was just after twelve o'clock.
When the telephone rang at nine thirty she knew it was her daughter, Dorothy. The excuse for cancelling the visit was quite genuine. She was so sorry but the children had been asked to go sailing and she didn't like to disappoint them. She was sure her mother understood and she promised they'd all come on their next half-term. Katharine Alfurd listened to the brisk voice until it paused, and then said, yes of course, quite right not to drag the boys down for a boring lunch when they could sail instead. No, no, she'd got masses of things to do â she hadn't got round to preparing any food. It didn't matter in the least. Give them all her love, and yes, dear, see you soon. It was very childish to mind. Ridiculous to have that sting behind the eyes as if she might be idiot enough to cry. But she had been looking forward to seeing her grandsons.
It was a beautiful day, that was something. She could do some gardening. A waste to watch television when the weather was so lovely. She was sick of most of the programmes. She made breakfast, fed her little Jack Russell terrier, talked to it and promised a nice long walk. It sat and looked at her, eyes bright and full of love, the stump of tail beating a tattoo on the floor. Her husband had given her the puppy six months before he died. Perhaps he knew she would be lonely. He hadn't been very fond of his daughter, even when she was quite small.
A bossy little prig, he said to Katharine once, when Dorothy was grown up, and he'd been especially irritated by her. God knows where she gets it from â certainly not from you, darling. Nor from him, she thought, remembering the incident that morning. A changeling child, planted by some malicious fairy, to perplex the parents. Criticizing Dorothy made her feel guilty. Her husband had wanted a boy; she had wanted one too. No doubt that had been conveyed to Dorothy. You never knew how much children sensed subconsciously. She had an expression of patient disapproval when she came to the cottage. Katharine could see the sharp appraisal of how she was looking after the house and keeping the garden tidy. She was horrified because the terrier slept in Katharine's bed and snuggled into the armchair. She lectured her mother about smoking too much, and became quite agitated over the gins and tonics. But going down to the village pub was what upset her most. Katharine was going over in her mind the scene when they were last together.
âMother,' the voice was shrill in her memory, âMother, you've got to realize that you're letting yourself down in the village. You can't go and sit in the bar and bore people to death with all that stuff about the war. Don't you realize nobody cares? They only laugh at you â What would Daddy say?'
I don't know, Katharine imagined the answer, because he never wanted me to talk about it either. She didn't remember what she'd really said to that.
âDon't tell me you talk to strangers? I suppose you buy them drinks?' What a rasping voice, filling the little kitchen and ringing in the ears.
She'd been proud of her answer to that. âNo, as a matter of fact, they buy drinks for me.' It had been a nasty quarrel, followed by a long letter from Dorothy apologizing and then resuming the lecture. Katharine read it, was thankful for the effort to make peace, and ignored what was said. Of course, it was sensible; most people would agree that she shouldn't spend her time and her limited money on haunting the bar in her local pub, looking for someone to talk to. It was dangerous, her daughter pointed out, and that made Katharine laugh. I know more about danger than you'll ever know. And even now, I can take care of myself. One doesn't forget lessons learned like that. She washed up the china and the dog's bowl, dusted the sitting room, picked out the faded flowers from the vase on top of the television set, looked at her watch. The garden was small, a perfect size for the retired couple. Very nice trees and shrubs, a patch of easily mown lawn, and a small border that kept her busy. But not busy enough. She called the terrier. It bounded after her. It was a comic little dog, like Toby in the Punch and Judy show. Children didn't look at such things now. It had always made her laugh. And she had never lost her capacity to see the funny side of herself. It was a great help in adversity. A great help now, when loneliness and boredom were the enemy and the guns had been silent for forty years. She said out loud in the sunny garden, âWell, Kate, no grandchildren today, but no Dorothy either. So to hell with the weeds. Polly, we'll take ourselves down to the Bear for a little lunch. There might be someone interesting in today â you never know.'
She took trouble to do her hair and put on lipstick. Age had no damned compensations, whatever people said. Luckily she had kept her figure. The Irish skin and colouring didn't fade with the years. She checked her money, counted out some cigarettes, slipped the lead on the terrier. They allowed Polly into the bar. Kate knew it was because they were sorry for her. Her husband had been born in Amdale. Not in the cottage but in the old Georgian house on the edge of the green. People from London lived there now. She and Robert had never met them. She locked up, pandering to her daughter in her mind, and despising herself for doing it. But these days you never knew.â¦ She set off down the village street, Polly trotting gaily at her side. The man who had flown in from Paris watched her go.
The lounge bar was empty when she came in. It was early, of course; she wouldn't have to sit there for long before someone turned up. She smiled at the man polishing glasses.
âGood morning, Jim.'
âMorning, Mrs Alfurd. What can I get you â the usual?'
âYes, please.' She settled on a stool, the terrier at her feet.
The bright smile didn't deceive Jim. She looked miserable. Behind her back he tipped an extra measure into the gin and tonic. He hadn't been in the village long, but his governor said she had been a smashing looking woman when she first came to live at Amdale. The Colonel was very popular. No money, like a lot of people. After his death she went a bit eccentric. Started talking a lot of nonsense about herself, buttonholing complete strangers when the locals wouldn't listen any more. Always a lady, though; just a bit over the edge being alone. But she did drive the customers away. You could lose her on a crowded Saturday with a lot of passing trade, but she was a right pain if there were only a few people and she could get her hooks into someone. Kate lit a cigarette, sipped the drink. Damn Dorothy for not bringing the little boys. They were such fun and she'd made a special pudding and bought a lot of food she couldn't possibly eat.
The man saw her through the window, and pushed the door open. He moved quietly, never letting a door slam, not advertising his arrival in a room. He came up beside her and slid on to the next stool. He felt her look at him.
He turned, smiled and said, âGood morning.' There was no sign of Jim; he had gone through to customers in the other bar.
Looking at her face to face the old photographs made sense. The snap of a girl with short hair and the unbecoming Service cap. A picture taken on a scorching August day when she sat in the sun's glare on the beach, bare-legged and laughing. The photograph had been torn across, and stuck together. She must have been beautiful, with that skin and those blue-green eyes.
âIt's a lovely day,' she said. âAre you staying in the village?'
He shook his head. Jim came in and he ordered a glass of wine.
âNo, Madame. It's very charming. Do you live here?'
âJust down the road.' She lit another cigarette, offered one to him. He hated the brand, but he took it and thanked her. She gave a little sigh and relaxed. He was a nice man, quite young. And French. What a coincidence, to find a compatriot on a morning when she was feeling particularly low.
âYou're from Paris?'
He looked surprised. âYes; how did you know?'
Kate laughed. âWell, you're obviously French and I just guessed. I'm very good at accents, I've got a natural ear. But French is no problem for me. I was born and brought up there. Although I'm English.'
âHow interesting. When did you leave France?'