Christmas was over. Feeling a slightly shame-faced pleasure in the restoration of normality, Kate stripped the tree of lights and decorations, cut off the main branches and dragged the trunk down to the compost heap at the bottom of the garden. There she stood looking back at the house, empty again now—her mother and sister had left the morning after Boxing Day—seeing the lighted windows and reflected firelight almost as if she were a stranger, shut out. A few specks of cold rain found her eyelids and mouth. All around her the forest waited, humped in silence. Shivering, she ran back up the lawn.
Gradually she re-established her routine. Up early, across to the studio by eight, five hours' unbroken work that generally left her knackered for the rest of the day, though she forced herself to walk for an hour or two in the afternoons.
The weather turned colder, until one day, returning from her walk, she noticed that the big puddle immediately outside her front gate was filmed with ice, like a cataract dulling the pupil of an eye. She heated a bowl of soup, built up the fire and huddled over it, while outside the temperature dropped, steadily, hour by hour, until a solitary brown oak leaf detaching itself from the tree fell onto the frost-hard ground with a crackle that echoed through the whole forest.
People had glutted themselves on food and sociability over Christmas and New Year and wanted their own firesides, so the first few evenings of January were spent alone. But then Lorna and Michael Bradley asked her to their anniversary party and, though she was enjoying the almost monastic rhythm of her present life, she accepted. Since Ben's death that had been her only rule: to refuse no invitation, to acknowledge and return any small act of kindness—and it was working, she was getting through, she was surviving.
Once there, she enjoyed the evening, in spite of having restricted herself to just two glasses of wine, and by eleven was driving back along the forest road, her headlights revealing the pale trunks of beech trees, muscled like athletes stripped off for a race. She was leaving a stretch of deciduous forest and entering Forestry Commission land, acres of closely planted trees, rank upon rank of them, a green army marching down the hill. Her headlights scarcely pierced the darkness between the pines, though here and there she glimpsed a tangle of dead wood and debris on the forest floor. She kept the windows closed, a fug of warmth and music sealing her off from the outside world. The lighted car travelled along the road between the thickly crowding trees like a blood corpuscle passing along a vein. Somewhere in the heart of the wood an antlered head turned to watch her pass. Almost no traffic—she overtook a white van near the crossroads, but after that saw no other cars. The road dipped and rose, and then, no more than 400 yards from her home, where a stream overflowing in the recent heavy rains had run across the road forming a slick of black ice, the car left the road.
There was no time to think. Trees loomed up, leapt towards her, branches shattered the windscreen, clawed at her eyes and throat. A crash and tearing of metal, then silence, except for the tinny beat of the music that kept on playing. One headlight shone at a strange angle, probing the thick resin-smelling branches that had caught and netted the car.
She lay, drifting in and out of consciousness, aware that she mustn't try to move her head and neck. She knew she was injured, perhaps seriously, though she felt little pain as long as she kept still. Saliva dribbled from the corner of her mouth, blood settled in one eye.
After what seemed a long time she heard the noise of an engine. Her own wrecked car filled with shifting parallelograms of light and shade as the other car's headlights swept across it. The engine was switched off, footsteps rang clear on the road, slurred across the grass verge, and then a figure appeared at the window. A headless figure was all she could see, since he didn't bend to look in. She tried to speak, but only a croak came out. He didn't move, didn't open the door, didn't check to see how she was, didn't ring or go for help. Just stood there, breathing.
She tried to lift her head, but a spasm of pain shot down her spine and she knew she mustn't move. Slowly she slipped into unconsciousness, fighting all the way, then battled her way back to the surface, where now there were other voices, frightened voices—frightened of her, of what she'd become.
'Ambulance,' she heard. 'Police.'
up0Then the familiar sound of somebody thumbing numbers into a mobile phone, and at last she was able to let go and accept the dark.
In something too high, too tight, for a bed. White sheets pinned her legs down. Walls the colour of putty. Mum's voice, then Alice's, but she knew they couldn't be here, they'd left the day after Boxing Day, and so she refused to acknowledge them, these phantom relatives, and concentrated instead on getting some spit going in her mouth. Her tongue felt swollen, and was so dry it stuck to the roof of her mouth.
'Look,' said Alice. 'She wants a drink.'
Her mother's head came between her and the light. 'Dead to the world. Can't hear a word you're saying.'
'Oh, I don't know. They always say, don't they, "Keep talking"? You never know how much gets through.'
Was she dying? Couldn't persuade herself it mattered much.
Water . . .
Alice's scent, sharp and sweet. A spout pushed between her lips, jarred her teeth. Water, too much water, gagged, choked, spout pulled away, reinserted, gentler now, and she glugged, once, twice. Dribbles ran down the side of her neck, were dabbed away on a cold flannel. She stared at the cracks in the ceiling, only to find them replaced, almost immediately, by her mother's and her sister's heads.
'Do you think she can hear us?' Mum said.
She has been somewhere else. She remembers the trees, the dark road, the branches pushing through broken glass, the man by the window, breathing. But then it all begins to fade.
She tried to turn her head and couldn't. Some kind of brace round her neck stopped her moving. Her right arm was swaddled against her side by the tight sheet. She could feel her arms, and her legs, and her toes. She wiggled them to make sure, remembering how her father, right at the end of his long illness, after the stroke, had hated the arm he couldn't feel and kept pushing it away from him. At least she wasn't like that. It all still belonged to her, this barren plain she looked down on from the height of her raised head, this fenland under its covering of snow.
She started to drift off again, heard her mother say, 'We're only tiring her. I think we'd better go and let her sleep.'
Somebody had sent roses. She opened her eyes and there they were, tight, formal, dark red buds, like drops of blood in the white room, but her eyelids were too heavy to go on looking, and when she opened them again the roses were gone.
As soon as she could support herself, they got her out of bed and made her sit in the armchair beside it. Her feet were cold. She was depressed, worried about the work she wasn't doing. She'd taken on a big commission, a huge Christ for the cathedral, it should have been well on the way by now, and yet here she was, stuck in an armchair like an old woman, unable to move, helpless.
The physiotherapist came to see her, and then she started regular sessions in the physiotherapy room, where she stared in the floor-to-ceiling mirrors at the neckless creature she'd become. 'Very good,' the uniformed girls kept saying. 'Very good.' She hadn't been spoken to in such jolly, patronizing tones since she was in nappies. She smiled, desperation simmering under the surface.
Back on the ward, she set off down the corridor clinging to the rail, forcing herself to keep walking, though each step sent twinges of pain up her spine. Now and then she met another patient, similarly handicapped, head on, and then they'd pause, assess the extent of each other's disability, and decide, silently, which of them was better able to let go of the rail and stand unsupported while the other shuffled past. So much courage. So much decency. She was humbled by it.
But then it was back to the ward. Her room overlooked a courtyard where even evergreen plants, deprived of light, sickened and died.
'I've got to get out of here,' she said, when Alec Braithewaite, the local vicar and also a friend, came to see her.
He took a step backwards, raising his hands, pretending to be knocked over by her urgency. 'Good morning, Kate.'
She sighed, accepting the reproof. 'Good morning, Alec.'
'How are you?'
He came and sat beside the bed. 'Nobody likes hospitals. The main thing is to get better.'
'The "main thing'' is the Christ.'
He smiled. 'I'm pleased to hear you say so.'
'You know what I mean, Alec. My Christ.'
'Can you lift your arm?'
She tried, as she tried a hundred times a day. 'No.'
'When does it have to be finished?'
'May. In time for Founders' and Benefactors' Day.'
'That's not too bad.'
'Alec, it's a massive figure. It's barely enough time if I were all right.'
'Can't you negotiate another date?'
'I've never missed a deadline in my life.'
She sat brooding, her chin sunk into the padded collar. She looked broken, Alec thought, as he'd never seen her before, not even in the first weeks after Ben's death. 'Then you're going to need help.'
'I don't want an assistant.'
'Other sculptors use them, don't they?'
He leaned forward. 'So what don't you like about them?'
'Where to start? For one thing, they're always art students, and they keep on asking questions. "Why did you do that? Why didn't you do the other?'' And even if they don't ask, you can hear them thinking it. Nine times out of ten it just turns into a tutorial. I know it sounds terribly ungenerous, and I do—I do actually like teaching, but I don't want to do it when I'm working.'
'Does it have to be an art student?'
'It's the obvious pot to dip into.'
He shrugged. 'Depends what you want.'
'All I want is somebody strong enough to lift, who isn't . . . too interested in what I'm doing.'
'Hmm,' he said. 'Bit of bored beefcake?'
She refused to rise to him. 'Doesn't have to be a man. I do all the lifting normally.'
'Do you remember the lad who used to do the churchyard after we lost the sheep?'
A hazy memory of a young man wielding a scythe in the long grass between the headstones. 'Vaguely.'
'He's very reliable, and he builds patios and walls and things like that, so he must be fairly good with his hands. And I shouldn't think he's got a lot of work on at the moment. I know he was hoping to get a job in the timber yard, but I think that fell through. They're very quiet at the moment. Shall I see if he's available?'
'That's not a bad idea, actually. What's his name?'
'Peter Wingrave. I'll give him a ring, shall I?'
He looked down at her, noticing the lines of tension around her eyes and mouth. What he thought she needed at this moment was faith, but he couldn't say that. She'd come to church once or twice after Ben's funeral, but only to show her appreciation of a difficult job well done. A youngish man, a violent death. It's not easy in such circumstances to know what to say, particularly to a congregation of atheists and agnostics up from London on cheap day-returns. Kate made no secret of her lack of belief. He did wonder what she'd be able to make of this commission, but then he thought that the risen Christ was, among many other things, a half-naked man in his early thirties, and Kate did male nudes very well indeed.
'How's Justine?' Kate asked, making an effort to set her own problems aside.
Alec's face brightened, as it always did at any mention of his daughter. 'Much better.'
Justine had been due to go to Cambridge last October, but in September had gone down with glandular fever and had to ask for her place to be deferred for a year. She'd been at a loose end ever since, mooching round the house, lonely and depressed. Alec had been quite worried about her, but now, he said, she'd got herself a little job as an au pair, twenty hours a week, and that gave her some pocket-money, and, even more important, a framework for the day. 'The Sharkeys. You know them? Their little boy.'
'Oh, yes. Adam, isn't it?'
'Anyway,' he said, hearing the rattle of cutlery in the corridor outside, 'I think I'd better be off and leave you to your lunch.' He bent to kiss her, and she grasped his hand. 'I'll have a word with Peter as soon as I can.'
The doors swinging shut behind him let in a smell of hot gravy and custard. She never felt hungry, though when food was put in front of her she ate it all. She knew she had to build up her strength. As she ate, she thought about Alec, who was an odd person to find in charge of a rural parish. He'd written several books on ethical issues raised by modern genetics and by developments in reproductive medicine, including one on therapeutic cloning that Robert Sharkey described as the most level-headed discussion of the topic he'd encountered. And he did a lot of work with released prisoners, battered wives, drug addicts, even converting part of his own house to give them somewhere to stay. No, he was a good man, though she didn't personally see that his goodness had much to do with his religion. And he had another claim on her affection: Ben had always liked him.
After the pudding—apple crumble indistinguishable from cement—she heaved herself out of the chair and started again on the long walk to the top of the corridor.
Winter sunshine streaming in through the tall windows created a grainy shadow that almost seemed to mock her efforts as she edged and shuffled along. Her walking was getting better, but she'd gladly have crawled around on her bum for the rest of her days if only she'd been able to raise her right arm above her head.
At night she lies awake, worrying about the Christ, her fingers aching for the scarred handle of her mallet, as her body aches for Ben, a cold hollow inside. She tucks her knees up to her chin, consciously foetal, but the position puts too much pressure on her spine and she has to straighten out again and lie on her back like an effigy. She remembers going into the church at Chillingham with Ben, turning the corner into a side chapel, finding Lord and Lady Grey together on their slab. Holding hands? Side by side, anyway, in a silence that still, after five centuries, feels companionable. And that extraordinary domestic detail: the fireplace in the wall opposite their tomb. As once there must have been a fireplace in their bedroom. Firelight on sweaty bodies, the first time they made love, firelight on the cold alabaster of their effigies. And then her mind drifts to Ben's grave in the churchyard here, backed by a low stone wall, dry blond grasses waving in the field beyond. And again she stretches out her legs, hears the rattle of the trolley bringing tea, and realizes that at some point in all this, surely, she must have slept.
A nurse crashes through the swing doors, red-faced, cheerful, rotund, rustling in her plastic apron, squeaking on rubber-soled shoes.
'Physio today, Mrs Frobisher,' she says, pouring beige tea into a cup.
Physio every bloody day.
When they'd done everything they could to get her mobile, they let her go, though she had to return to the hospital twice a week for more physiotherapy.
In the car, being driven home by her friend Angela Mowbray, Kate felt optimistic. She'd been managing better the last few days, and she knew the physiotherapist was pleased with her. Another fortnight and she'd be all right, perhaps even well enough to do without the bloody assistant. Alec still hadn't got back to her on that.
Angela looked sideways at Kate, thinking the surgical collar looked a bit like a ruff, reflecting light onto her face, emphasizing the lines of tiredness, the blue shadows underneath her eyes. Kate said she hadn't been sleeping well in hospital, but then nobody could. Footsteps squeaking up and down the ward, blinds on the corridor side left up because you had to be observed all the time, and then there were admissions, sometimes in the middle of the night. The memories of her hysterectomy were fresh in Angela's mind. Poor Kate, she thought, and such a bad patient.
They were approaching the scene of the crash. Angela slowed down—had to, it was a dangerous bend—though, imagining what Kate must be feeling, she would have preferred to pick up speed and get past as soon as possible.
'Do you mind if we stop here?' Kate said.
Surprised, Angela pulled over onto the grass verge. Kate got out. It was a struggle and Angela came round the car to help, but by the time she got there Kate was shakily standing up.
'Why do you want to stop?'
'I just want to see where it happened.'
Kate walked along the verge, thinking she might not recognize the spot, but there was no danger of that. Skidding off the road, the car had left scars, flattened bracken, made tyre tracks in the mud, smashed stripling trees—and then her nemesis: the tree whose branches, broken by the impact, had reached through the shattered windscreen to get at her. She had a flash of it 0 happening again and closed her eyes. The trunk had proved solid, though the roots had been disturbed. She looked down and saw how they'd been prised loose from the earth. At that moment a light wind started to blow between the trees, a current of air moving at ground level, quickening the forest floor. Dead leaves rose up and formed twisters, little coils and spurts of turbulence, and the shadows of branches danced and shook on the snow-stippled ground.
Then it was over and the wood was as quiet and still as it had been before.
Kate was aware of her breathing, the sound, the movement of her ribs, and the sight of it too, furls of mist escaping from her lips to whiten the air.
Angela shifted behind her. Coughed. She thinks I'm being eccentric, Kate thought. Well, she can talk.
There was something else, something she needed to get clear, a memory that bulged above the surface, showed its back and then, in a burst of foam, turned and sank again. It was the sound of her breathing that had summoned it. She groped after memories that dissolved even as she tried to grasp them. She had a sense of missing time. The minutes--how many minutes?--she'd drifted in and out of consciousness, while somebody had stood by the car, breathing, watching, not calling for help.
But all her memories were confused, and for large stretches of time she had no memory at all. Nothing about the ambulance journey or the arrival in hospital, nothing about the emergency treatment, the fitting of the back brace and the surgical collar, nothing about that. Nothing, in fact, until she woke the following morning to find her mother and Alice by the bed. So probably her memory of the man who'd stood and watched her was a distortion. A symptom of concussion.
Two days after the crash a young woman doctor had sat by her bed for half an hour, asking her questions about what time it was, who she was, where she was, why she was there, and, although she hadn't felt confused or uncertain of the answers, she'd got most of them wrong.
It was a relief to turn and see Angela's worried face.
She made herself smile. 'Lucky escape.' She was thinking of another road, in Afghanistan, the road Ben had died on. For a moment she felt a deep affinity with him, a closeness, and then it vanished, and the loneliness rushed back, worse than before. She raised her hand to her neck and touched Ben's amulet, feeling the disc cold under her fingertips, rasping it along the chain. 'That's that, then,' she said. 'Come on, let's go.'