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She was under the chestnut tree that overlooked the entrance to the churchyard, gravestones scattered behind her in patches of weak morning sun. Martin saw her as he approached and stopped the tractor so that the cab was level with the top of the greenstone wall where she was sitting. She looked up at him and he thought he saw a shadow shift down her cheek to rest against her neck like a bruise on white skin. He glanced at the gravestones; they were so old the names were unreadable, as if they had all been scratched out by ghosts.
“Hello, Alice. You making daisy chains?”
She let the trail of flowers dangle from her child hands.
He didn’t have the time to stop and talk to her, and he definitely should have started the day earlier. It was the first morning all week that it hadn’t rained and the earth was so clean it seemed to shine. As he’d left the farm his boots had picked up the mud and he had wiped them on the banks beside the house where the grass was long and wet and squeaked against the rubber. The cows leant over the fence to greet him with dew on their noses. These were all signs that it was a good day.
But here was Alice, pond-green eyes looking at him as though he had brought something for her, he didn’t know what.
“Where are Mum and Dad?” he asked.
“Dad’s not awake yet. We’re going walking. I’m just waiting here because it’s better than my garden.”
Martin looked straight ahead and heard the crows rustle and cry in the conifers above them. “Want a ride in my cab?”
She laughed, perhaps thinking he was referring to his tractor as a taxi, but he could see her considering the prospect of it.
“Come on,” he tried. “My boys could drive a tractor all on their tod when they were your age.”
She moved to the edge of the wall. “Will we be long?”
“Don’t have to be.”
He swung open the cab door and she leapt easily across the air between them. Her hands wrapped round the top bar and she folded herself in.
At the top of the hill the road widened and he took pleasure in driving up on the grass so that the tractor tilted dramatically and she squeaked in fright. They turned through an open gateway into a corn field where the wet stalks were just starting to poke through the soil, hard and green, and they followed the muddy track further along the side of the hill. They could see the village below them now: the cows sprawled across the fallow field in the centre of the houses, the black rooftops of Broad Farm and the church tower between the trees. Martin saw Alice find the thatched roof and red chimney pots of her home and point, following it with her eyes as they descended the other side of the hill until the village was obscured again.
They stopped where the ground began to level out. Behind them the hill rose up gently, with patches of chalk visible where the wind had blown away the soil. There was a crease running down the centre of the hill, and a cluster of fir trees enclosed by wire meshing. Fat young pheasants were shuffling away through the brambles.
Alice jumped down from the tractor and ran through the wet field. She shouted back to him over the breeze. “I can bring Dad back here later!”
Martin had brought her there to see the lambs. They crouched together so that they could see through the gaps in the fence and the mothers eyed them wearily, their lambs between their legs. A few of them were lying down in the mud, exhausted and swollen.
“Those ones are still pregnant,” Martin said. “Poor things – they’re very late this year.”
As the group closest to the fence dispersed they saw that one of the sheep was struggling to stay on her feet. Still dangling between her back legs was a perfectly round sack of red placenta, glistening in the sunlight. She shifted her weight awkwardly and from behind her a lamb emerged, wet and sticky, wobbling on its new legs. Alice was rocking on the heels of her feet, one moment with her chin over the fence, and the next ducked down as low as was possible so she could be in line with the lamb. Martin watched her. She was staring hard, as though she thought it would disappear should she turn her eyes away.
They stayed for a few more minutes, but Alice hadn’t forgotten where she needed to be, and she asked if they could drive back. At the tractor he picked her up to help her into the cab and her small frame seemed to bend in his arms. He’d forgotten what it was like to pick up a child; to hoist his sons over his shoulders and swing them around like the arms of a windmill.
“Cor, you’re getting to be a big ’un!” he gasped.
He’d seen her being christened in the church when her body was no longer than his forearm. She had been premature and slightly jaundiced, but within a month she had a head of dark hair and a gurgling laugh. He had seen her all bundled up in white in her father’s arms, her mother leaning over her, and she hadn’t made a noise as they tipped her head and the vicar touched the water to her skin with his fingertips. He had watched those limbs grow, the skin stretching to accommodate them. And he had seen the changes that don’t show on arms and legs, but can sometimes be seen in a face.
They drove the flat way back, along the valley road. Alice asked to be dropped at the church and he didn’t question it. When he pulled the tractor up she got out and climbed onto the wall. He thought of how to get her down, but she already looked as though she had forgotten him.
He reversed and turned towards the yard. All week he’d muttered and growled about the weather to anyone who’d listen but all he’d received were nods and smiles and “at least it isn’t harvest time”. Now the sky was open and blue and the effort to push his feet down on the pedals was more than he was ready for.
Tom saw her as he drove down the lane, stacks of undelivered papers rising up on the back seats of his car. She was sitting on the churchyard wall surrounded by creamy clusters of chestnut-tree flowers. Her feet didn’t reach the ground and where her leggings had rolled up he could see white patterned socks collapsing around her ankles.
He slowed the car and opened the window. “Morning, Alice.”
“I’m not going to church,” she said, as if this was the likeliest scenario.
“Me neither,” he replied. There wasn’t time for church on a Sunday, only house after house, red bricks and purple wisteria, papers stuffed in every space – under mats, behind shoe racks, in the slats of a garden fence.
“Have you delivered the paper to my house yet?” Alice asked.
He thought of the thatched roof and the quiet. He nodded. “Nobody was around so I left it in the flowerpot as usual.”
She sucked on a piece of grass. “Mum’s awake. Me and Dad are going on a walk but he was still asleep so I’m waiting for him here. It’s Sunday and nobody’s up on a Sunday, except for you, Tom, and Martin, too. How’s the baby?”
“Getting big – she turned one last week. You can come see her if you like. Everyone would love to see you. I’ve only got a bit of village left to do and then I could come back and find you.”
Alice shook her head. “What if Dad came and I wasn’t here?”
Tom’s hands squeezed the wheel. “We could swing by yours and let your mum know.”
He didn’t like to leave her.
He’d taken her away from the village before, just once, but he still thought about it sometimes. It was almost a year ago now, on a summer evening, the kind that can stretch out slowly like a shadow on the floor. There’d been a barbecue at the village hall and the air was still full of the smell of charred meat as he walked to where he’d parked the car. The steps up to Alice’s house were crowded with honeysuckle. She was standing in the doorway in her night clothes, as if unsure whether to go in or out.
He heard her father call out something, and it was too weak and pained to be threatening. It was low and long and not meant to be heard. Claire appeared behind Alice in the orange light of the porch. Tom awkwardly paused mid-step in front of the garden wall.
“Claire – can I help?” he said.
She was in a dressing gown, bare-faced and bare-foot, a moth circling her head. “Is it very late?” she asked.
“Can Alice go back with you tonight?”
“Yes,” he said, without taking a moment to consider it.
She went back inside and came out with a pair of slippers for Alice.
“Is this strange?” she asked, looking at him uncertainly.
“No,” he said. His head had been full of mother and daughter in the doorway. A bat dived into the laurel bushes.
He had driven her through the greying light and when they stopped, Alice was half asleep. He carried her from the car and then she was there on his living-room floor with a hand around Sarah’s tiny pink foot.
“Will you come?” he asked again, as Alice stood up on the wall.
“Not today, thanks, Tom.”
There’d be no moving her, he knew that. He said goodbye instead. He watched her in the mirror as he drove away. She was holding a snapped-off branch like a walking stick, readying herself.
“It’s not your place, Tom,” was what his wife had said. “It’s not anyone’s business but theirs.” But she hadn’t been there to feel Tom’s chest contract when Claire appeared in the doorway behind her daughter. She hadn’t been there to hear Tom say that he would take Alice. It had been a physical reaction, like a reflex, or the voice of someone else inside him he didn’t know was there.
It’s not your place, Tom. It’s someone else’s.
The church bells were ringing.
Anne stuck her head out of the kitchen window in a panic. She hadn’t seen anyone walking up the lane yet so she couldn’t be that late. Not that it mattered. The church had a capacity of at least a hundred, and how many of them bothered to turn up each Sunday? She didn’t judge anyone for it. She didn’t question them, either. If they asked her what it was th
at drew her through that stone archway every week, she would find it hard to pinpoint. It was habit, it was the music, it was a bit of love. She started to put on her coat and then looked out again at the sky that was becoming a brighter blue with every hour, thought better of it and left it on the chair. Leaving the door unlocked she made her way to church.
Alice was there again. The Parkers were talking to her, all smiles and bent backs with the eagerness of the elderly around children. It was a morbid view. She joined them where they stood beneath the old chestnut tree. Alice was balancing on one leg as if she needed the toilet and was clutching a floppy bunch of wildflowers. The bell-ringing paused and the eleven final tolls began.
“Are you coming to church, Alice?” Anne asked.
Alice shook her head. “Me and Dad are going walking.”
“Why don’t you come in for a song?” Lucy Parker said.
“I don’t like hymns.”
They all laughed.
Anne knew that the Parkers had stopped inviting Alice’s parents to their dinner parties. She wasn’t sure at what stage they’d made that decision. Word had gone around when Alice’s father had stormed out of a party because of something seemingly insignificant like an argument about climate change. Maybe it was after that. Anne wished she’d asked them about it at the time. But like everyone else in the village she said nothing, and now too much time had passed.
Lucy steered her husband towards the door and Anne was left with Alice, who was still shifting uncomfortably from foot to foot.
“Should you go and find him?” Anne asked.
“Who? Dad? No, Mum said he’d find me.”
“I think you should go back to your mum,” Anne said. She had seen Claire a week or so before, carrying bags of shopping from the boot of the car. She’d said that she was well, that he was well, that Alice was well, but of course with a bit more padding between each repetition of the word “well”. Anne had tried to start a conversation, glancing up at the windows of the house, feeling heavy and useless, and eventually relieved when Claire climbed the front steps calling goodbye over her shoulder.
“Let’s have coffee some time,” Anne had said too softly and Claire did not reply.
She knew full well that she wasn’t good with children, least of all Alice, who showed no interest in her, but floated around the village, appearing every once in a while in a copse, or up a beech tree, or behind a gravestone. Anne had nothing to offer her.
“I tell you what – you can do me a favour. Tell your mum to pop around to mine later. I’d like to see her.”
Alice pulled at the petals of a flower.
“It’s been too long.”
“Go home,” Anne said, before walking into the church where the organ was now being played.
Alice moved between the graves, careful not to step on any. She’d started to do this since it had been made clear to her that she spent too much time in the churchyard. It wasn’t always easy to know where the grave began and ended, so she would give each one a wide berth in the hope that she wasn’t treading on anyone’s toes.
The few churchgoers had gone inside and the door had been closed. Checking that it was definitely shut, she ducked into the bushes, pulled down her leggings and squatted over the soil, still clutching the wildflowers in one hand. She watched her wee run sideways through a patch of dying bluebells. She then went back to sitting on the wall. It had only been two hours of waiting, which wasn’t really very long in comparison to how long a day could be. A small fly crawled out of the head of the dandelion in her hand.
When she looked up again it was because a dog was coming down the lane towards her and she had felt it. There was nobody else around. The dog was similar to the one on the farm, but it was not the same. It was black all over and slightly larger than a Labrador. Alice didn’t recognise it. She jumped from the wall and it confidently approached her, lying down at her feet. It allowed her to crouch beside it, burying her fingers in its fur. Its eyes were large and black.
A while seemed to have passed since the bells had chimed eleven and she was feeling too restless to stay around any longer. She stood up to leave and the dog stood up, too. She started to walk down the hill towards home and the dog followed her. She could hear its paws on the road. It stayed with her the whole route home: past the recycling bins and the old schoolhouse and a group of woodpigeons flapping on the grass, across the stream and through the farmyard that was still wet with rainwater and smelling of silage.
When she reached her house the dog followed her into the front garden, where her mother was cutting rosemary and laying it out on newspaper to dry. Her mother stood up straight and smiled at her. Her fair hair was all bunched up above her head and sweat glittered on her brow. There were soil marks on her clothes and everything smelled of rosemary. Alice turned in time to see the dog walk into her house.
It was much cooler inside. She took off her shoes and socks and the tiles were cold on the soles of her feet. She walked upstairs and pushed open the door to her father’s room. There was a slightly sour smell. Her father was in bed, his body hidden under the folded duvet, one white foot poking out of the bottom and the top of his head just visible in the pillows. The room was stuffy and dim. Alice climbed onto the bed and pulled the duvet around herself.
“Sorry, Alice,” he mumbled into the pillow.
She stroked one of his stubbly cheeks with her fingers.
He turned slightly with a groan. “Is it nice out?”
“Shall I open the curtains?”
He pushed his face deeper into the bed.
Alice lay beside him and closed her eyes.
She heard her mother come into the room, the smell of rosemary still on her skin. She heard her open the curtains just a fraction to reach the window and push it open.
“Come on, Alice,” she said. “He isn’t well today.”
Her father didn’t make a sound.
“Did you see the dog?” Alice said.
“Come on.” Her mother fed her arms around Alice’s shoulders and lifted her away. “Come outside, Alice.”
“But it’s here.”