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‘Do you think it will be like this every night?’
‘Why not?’ and they laughed nervously.
‘Are you in love with him?’ asked Dee-Dee.
‘I don’t know, really … but I like him … are you?’
‘I don’t think so, but he’s special, you know.’
‘Well, we’ll share him then.’
Then a shooting star skidded across the sky and disappeared behind the barns.
‘Ohhhh!’ exclaimed Dee-Dee.
‘It’s a sign,’ said Tessa.
Tessa drove to St John’s. It was a clear Sunday morning. There was much less traffic than the day before. The fields and villages flashed past without interruption. No shoppers, no energetic families. People were still in bed or reading the papers at breakfast. Yawning, stretching. Only much later would start the rush to the sea.
A sunny day, slow-moving puffy clouds, hardly a breeze. It was going to be hot. Farmers were deciding to start the harvest. Combines heaved down the narrow roads of the Saints, their drivers shut away in airless glass. Modern harvesting is dusty, noisy, unpleasant. But around St John’s the fields were quiet; after all, it had been an unpredictable summer. The wheat was golden, its grains plump and ripe. It was doomed.
Mirabelle was dressed and immaculate. She looked like she had been up for hours and her manner was just as brightly brittle. Tessa felt over-casual in old jeans and a white shirt. Mirabelle was in dusky pink with matching shoes and nails. Her lips were also pink. They framed her smiling teeth.
‘What a lovely day … I do love the sun … do you want coffee?’
‘At eleven? Yes? I’ll bring it to you. Will you be in the same place?’
‘No …’ Tessa frowned at the Hall. The sun glinted on the church windows. St John’s appeared bold, defiant almost. ‘Does the walled garden still exist?’
‘You could call it that … I’ll start there, it’s an interesting foreground.’
‘Bernard says the design is Tudor …’ she paused. ‘I’m afraid you might not see Bernard, he’s gone to Belgium. He’s after a clock … this is always happening. I hoped he’d be back for the holiday, but … well, there it is.’ She shook as if struck by a cold wind. ‘I might go out later … I think the gardener’s in, but he won’t disturb you.’
The walled garden was set some distance from the house on the other side of the barns. It was the old kitchen garden and even in Geoffrey’s day Molly’s ageing Charlie cultivated it, and it had not succumbed to the brambles and nettles that took over the rest of the grounds. It was the first section of St John’s they tackled. Later, when other land was cleared, they laid out the walled garden as a Tudor knot, with herbs, salad crops and soft fruit, bordered by low box hedges. It was still how Tessa remembered it except the grass paths had been replaced by sterile gravel. There was a statue in the centre, a marble Victorian lady pretending to be Greek. Tessa sat by her, and looked towards the Hall, framed by the arch in the wall.
That first summer, when Adam and his two Eves lived in Paradise. They knew little about gardening. Don sold his van to buy tools and they sowed beans too early and peas too late. Consequently they lived off bread and cheese and apples. But it was summer and it was glorious. They swam in the moat, sunbathed nude, walked everywhere and discovered empty churches and cautious farmers. They carried bagfuls of shopping three miles. They had bonfires every night, burning away dregs of years left behind by Geoffrey. They hacked at brambles, burnt those too, and in the walled garden dug up weeds and also things they had just planted.
By the fire in the great hall in the evenings Don read Huxley’s Island.
‘Listen to this. He says here that everybody in Pala has to dig for two hours a day. Well, he’s right, isn’t he, digging’s so … physical, isn’t it? Digging’s the only work one should be doing, not sitting at a desk, where does that get you? It makes you senile.’
‘I’m knackered,’ said Tessa.
‘Of course you are, but don’t you see it’s doing you good. Winstanley had something to say about it, now where’s Winstanley?’
Wherever Don was there was always a book. The great hall was filling up with dusty tomes rescued from other parts of the house. Winstanley was underneath Paradise Lost.
‘Listen to this … Tessa? Dee-Dee? Is she asleep? This is about the diggers: “Let everyone that intends to live in peace get themselves with diligent labour to till, digge and plow the common and barren land to get their bread with righteous moderate working among all moderate minded people. This prevents the evil of idleness.” Isn’t that right? Have you ever worked so hard? And weren’t we idle before, bumming around?’
Tessa lay down. Dee-Dee was breathing regularly and gently; it was soporific. Tessa felt as if every muscle in her body had been stretched, but she liked this new feeling. I am strong, she thought. She was much stronger than Dee-Dee and probably more than Don.
‘… To get their bread with righteous moderate working …’
They bought their bread in Bungay.
Through the doorway into the walled garden came the gardener; balding, red-faced, old cardigan, cord trousers, cap. Standard rustic. He was pushing a wheelbarrow. He looked like a Hoskin. Molly’s Charlie was a Hoskin.
‘Morning,’ he said. He looked at her strangely, but then most people looked at her like that. Perhaps it was the flashes of red in her hair like the crest of a strange bird of paradise. ‘Ah, ha.’ He put down his wheelbarrow.
‘The garden’s lovely.’
‘Flowers! You can’t eat they.’
‘I wanted to say your Savoys are splendid.’
‘Not a bad crop,’ he nodded critically. ‘I eats most of it myself. Er and ’im, what they don’t eat I gets and ’im ’e’s never here and ’er, she don’t eat.’
‘Bit of a waste of time, then?’
‘I think ’er freezer’s full, I think ’er’s got ten freezers … work on a Sunday, too. I got to keep it smart, some high-faluting type’s getting it put in a book.’
Tessa smiled. ‘That’s me, I’m doing sketches.’
He snorted. ‘I hope they pays you.’
‘And I hope they pay you.’
‘Oh, they do that. I said to ’im, there’s work for six here and ’ee said, I’ll pay for six … did you ever? Now, when them hippies were here, you heard about that?’
He laughed. ‘Those girls in their noddy nothings, and the lads. I hid behind a bush once, see.’
Tessa said nothing.
‘Now, Charlie Hoskins, he were my cousin and he said to me, “Now Bob, you wouldn’t believe what they gets up to.”’ He picked up the wheelbarrow. ‘But I tell you, they didn’t put nothing in the freezer. They grew it and they et it, now that’s right, isn’t it?’
Tessa resumed her work. She didn’t believe for a moment Bob had hid behind a bush. She was sure that story was circulated by anyone who visited the local pubs. She well knew they had been objects of amusement. They were tolerated and later even liked, but the Hoskins, the Becks, the Palmers, and others who were the inhabitants of the Saints, could never understand why Don and his friends chose to live unheated, with dirty clothes and bare feet.
Don was respected in a strange sort of way. He was ‘gentry’, one of them, moneyed and mad. ‘Old man Bell’, as Geoffrey was known, was revered. ‘In Old man Bell’s day’, that golden age, prewar, pre-tourist, pre-European Community, when the pubs were smoky, with rickety chairs and lino floors, and the men played cribbage.
They discovered one of these pubs in a village called St James, which had even fewer houses than St John’s. The George was shabby. The bar was the size of a small sitting room. There was one table, some benches and a fire, even though it was July. They went there to find something to eat.
‘Do you serve food?’ asked Don.
The landlord, thin and wrinkled, stared. His mother, small and very fat, stared too. Two men in caps by the fire started laughing.
‘What you want, then, chicken in a basket? Fish in a basket? Turkey in a basket? Nelson, get ’em roast beef in a basket.’
‘No food,’ said the landlord.
‘We’ve walked miles,’ said Tessa.
‘There’s no food.’
‘But there’s beer,’ yelled the men.
In the end Nelson’s mother made sandwiches, curled white bread and spam. They drank so much they could hardly stand.
‘This place is amazing,’ said Don. The beer was amazing too. The notorious George, open all day and most of the night. Don went back frequently.
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