The man sitting opposite, talking on his mobile telephone, was lying to his wife. His shoulder was hunched towards the table, his eyes fixed on the flying countryside, his voice low. Strong, well-manicured fingers, one bearing the weight of a broad gold ring, beat a restless tattoo on the table top and, from time to time, his breast expanded in a huge, silent, irritated sigh.
“Haven’t we done all this, darling?” A savage impatience echoed warningly beneath the politely posed question and the “darling” was almost an insult, as much a slap on the cheek as an endearment. “I told you, didn’t I, that I probably wouldn’t be able to get home tonight? … Actually, I’m not terribly interested in how long Jill thinks the meeting should last. She knows nothing about it … OK, so she knows that Lisa will be there too … We did agree, didn’t we, that it’s not very sensible of you to interrogate my colleagues’ wives every time you have one of these, well, attacks? … I know it did but I told you the truth. She happens to be a member of the department and we’re working on this project together. Nothing more … Of course it’s difficult, but I can’t ask them to sack her because she’s young and attractive … Oh, for God’s sake …”
His voice rose, impatience no longer reined in, and he glanced warily across the table, his expression sulky, irritable. Embarrassed to be caught watching him, Louise looked swiftly away, out of the window. In a field which sloped to a narrow gleam of water a young woman stood, her child in her arms, gazing up at the passing train. She waved, encouraging the child to wave too, and then took his hand and waved it for him, laughing, jogging him on her hip, whilst he sat staring impassively, his face upturned. Louise stared back, shocked by recognition into a brief second of immobility, before leaning to wave, almost violently, until they were out of sight. Breathing quickly, she sank back in her corner and tried to control the uprush of emotion which so suddenly possessed her.
Her fellow traveller had finished his conversation and was watching her curiously. Without looking directly at him she knew that he was assessing her, summing her up as a fisherman might weigh up the possibilities of a pool; she saw, too, the exact moment at which he decided that he would test the water.
“Friends of yours?”
It was an innocent enough lure, a pretty fly, bobbing lightly, charming, faintly diverting. She decided that she might swim a little way towards this welcome distraction from her confused reaction to the sight of the woman with her child.
“No, no. A reflex reaction, I suppose. If someone waves it seems natural to respond, wouldn’t you say?”
“Well, I’m not certain about that.” He shifted his position, stretching his legs diagonally towards the empty seat beside her. “It all depends on who’s waving.”
His smile, the brief quirk of the brows, suggested that if it were she—or presumably some other attractive young woman—he would be prepared to follow it up, and she hid her own reaction to his utter predictability.
“You have a point.” She swam idly around the lure; appeared to reject it.
“I’m sorry to have burdened you with my … uh … private problems.” He spoke quickly, indicating the mobile telephone which now lay between them on the table. “Rather bad form but …” he pursed his lips humorously, inviting her complicity, “ … these suspicious wives …”
The fly trembled temptingly, encouraging further inspection.
“How do you know,” she asked casually—but with a hint, just the least hint, of amused flirtatiousness—“that I am not just such another suspicious wife?”
He settled more comfortably, confidently, so that she could imagine the tilt of the hat over the eyes, whilst his hand held the rod light but firm. “Oh, you don’t look the type at all. Much too pretty.”
“You think so?”
A bite? Metaphorically, he prepared to wind in the line a little. “Oh, definitely. And confident too, I suspect. Only insecure women get jealous. And plain ones, of course.”
“Is your wife plain?” She toyed lightly with the bait, appearing to invite disloyalty. “Or insecure?”
“Difficult age.” He shrugged a little, exhibiting a touch of pathos. “Just the least bit unbalanced. It gets rather wearing after a bit.”
“So it’s all in her imagination?” She sounded almost disdainful, the bait proving, after all, to be unexciting; rather tasteless.
“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” He set the lure dancing again, the roguish smile promising experience, pleasure. “What the eye doesn’t see …” He shrugged.
“It sounded as if she’s seen more than you suspected.”
He laughed then, unexpectedly, infectiously, and she smiled at this genuine response, oddly drawn to him, despite herself.
“Touché,” he admitted and smiled back at her … A pause as they stared at each other. The line tautened.
“It must be rather tricky …?” She let the question hang in the air for a moment. “Perhaps I have a suspicious husband.”
“I can’t say I’d be the least bit surprised.” His voice was warm. “He’d be a fool if he weren’t.”
“So.” She leaned forward, elbows on the table, pretending intimacy. “How do you manage?”
“Ah.” His smile was very nearly complacent and she had the sensation of being drawn gently but inexorably through deliciously warm water towards him. “It’s my friend here, you see.”
He lifted the mobile telephone and she stared at it, puzzled. He chuckled.
“I have it with me always. No odd phone calls to my home number that pretend to be wrong numbers when my wife answers. I can be reached wherever I am. I can text messages. Well, always assuming the other person has a mobile phone. Nothing shows up on the phone bill or hotel bills. Of course,” a tiny wink, “I switch it off when I’m in … meetings.”
“That’s right. You can write what you like to the person you love. No need to speak. You can stay in touch that way. Then it can be erased in a second. No evidence lying about. Don’t you have one?”
“No,” she said slowly. “No, I’m a bit of a technophobe. Microwaves and videos unnerve me so no, I don’t have a mobile phone.”
He leaned closer, smiling again, as though he could imagine her tucked up safely in his creel. “Perhaps you should get one. I’d be very happy to advise you …”
She stared at him for a long moment until her attention was caught by something beyond the window.
“It’s my station,” she said.
“You’re not getting off here?” He stared incredulously, line snapped, his prey slipping away, his reel whizzing helplessly. “Where are we? Totnes?”
“That’s right.” She slipped her bag on to her shoulder, picked up a coat. “I’m on holiday for a fortnight. Thanks for the tips.”
“Wait.” He was scribbling a number, tearing a sheet from his Filofax. “Just in case you get bored …”
She shook her head, laughing. “I shan’t be bored. Enjoy your … meeting.”
The compartment doors opened and shut behind her. Presently, the train stopped; he watched her walking along the platform.
“Shit,” he muttered. He dialled a number, his expression moody. “Hello, Lisa … Of course it’s OK.” He settled back into his corner as the train drew out, his expression brightening. “Poor darling, were you panicking? Everything’s fine. Just leaving Totnes. No, a deadly trip. I’ve been working all the way down …”
BRIGID FOSTER was waiting in her old estate car, watching the station exit, one anxious eye on the taxi rank lest she should block the traffic. As soon as she saw Louise she jumped out so as to help with the luggage and to give her an affectionate hug.
“I couldn’t find anywhere to park so I couldn’t come to find you,” she said as they pulled away. “Thank goodness the train was on time. People were glaring at me. Good trip?”
“Yes. Yes, thanks.”
Louise sounded preoccupied, slightly distrait, and Brigid gave her a quick sideways glance. During the three years that Louise had been coming to stay in one of the Fosters’ holiday cottages the two women had formed a friendship that had its roots embedded in a respect for each other’s privacy. Brigid knew that Martin Parry spent a fortnight twice a year on golfing holidays with three of his oldest friends and, at those times, Louise travelled to Devon for her own holiday. She liked to walk and was fascinated by the flora and fauna of the West Country, and if it seemed odd that she should prefer to do it alone it was no one’s business but her own. Brigid, the wife of a submariner in the Royal Navy, knew all about being alone and it was very clear that Louise enjoyed these periods of solitude. Brigid’s own unusual up-bringing—the only child of an Irish archaeologist who had lived and worked on Dartmoor—had reinforced an already eccentric genetic brew and she saw nothing odd in a requirement to spend hours alone in the empty, silent stretches of the moor.
“I do rather worry about her,” Humphrey said from time to time, when his leave coincided with Louise’s holidays. “You were brought up here and you know the moor like the back of your hand but Louise’s an urban animal. It can be dangerous out there.”
“Simply because she lives in London doesn’t make her a townie,” Brigid answered calmly. “She knows what she’s doing.”
During those early visits, Brigid had shown Louise her own personal moor, had told her of the dangers, alerted her to possible risks. When she’d seen that Louise was no novice she had left her alone, recognising that she, too, preferred her own company when communing with nature. Brigid enjoyed Louise’s visits. Once or twice they’d share an occasional supper, drive into Ashburton to shop and have coffee in the Café Green Ginger, trek over to Salcombe to have tea with Brigid’s half-sister, Jemima Spencer. Yet neither imposed on the other nor threatened the other’s privacy. Even now, when she hadn’t seen her for seven months, Brigid made no attempt to break the train of Louise’s thoughts.
Struggling to keep the doors of her mind closed against the unexpected breach of memory, caused by the sight of the mother and child waving in the field above the railway track, Louise was grateful for Brigid’s restraint. It was good to see her again: the fine blonde hair chopped off just above her collarbones and held back, today, with a faded cotton scarf; huge, violet-blue eyes framed in a fine web of tiny lines. The outsize sweatshirt was probably Humphrey’s, her jeans showed the sharpness of her knees and elegant length of leg from hip to thigh. It was an austere face whose cool expression hid a capacity for kindness. Louise knew about the kindness—and about other things, too: her enormous pride in her two boys and her delight in her new grandchild. As the car headed out towards Dartington Louise relaxed a little.
“How’s everyone?” she asked. “Humphrey? Your mother? Blot?”
Brigid shook her head, rolling her eyes. “Don’t ask. Humphrey’s being sent off to the Bahamas for six months, as the logistics support officer—at least that’s what it sounded like. Mummie’s decided that she’s in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and needs constant amusement to prevent plunges into depression. Blot’s sulking because we’ve got a friend’s dog staying while they’re on holiday and his nose is out of joint.”
Louise chuckled. “Sounds like fun.”
“I’m glad you think so,” said Brigid resignedly. “Otherwise nothing changes at Foxhole. Oh, but I ought to warn you that there have been two murders in Devon recently.”
“Goodness!” Louise gazed at her in alarm.
“Nowhere near Foxhole or the moor,” Brigid hastened to reassure her. “The most recent one was over near the north coast and the other was up beyond Exeter. They were both women who lived alone so the police think that the murders are probably connected. Anyway, the second one was some weeks ago now and at least forty miles away.” She hesitated. It was necessary to put Louise on her guard yet she had no desire to frighten her unnecessarily. “Devon’s a very big county, remember. It’s not quite the same as having two murders in Chiswick.”
“No, I quite see that. Horrid, though.” Louise shook off her instinctively fearful reaction. “Don’t worry. I don’t intend to get paranoid about it.”
“Good. Have you had some lunch?”
“Oh, yes. I had a sandwich on the train.” Glancing out of the window again, Louise sighed pleasurably. “It’s good to be back, Brigid. The countryside looks so fresh and bright and green.”
“That’s because it’s been raining for three days.” Brigid negotiated the bridge over the A38, then took the turning for Buckfast, following the back road behind the abbey. “Do you want to stop in Holne to do some shopping or will you wait until tomorrow? First night supper with me, of course, as usual. And I’ve stocked up with the ordinary basics for you.”
“Oh, tomorrow, I think. I won’t be able to concentrate on food today. But I did bring a bottle for supper.”
She stopped abruptly as the car approached Hembury woods and entered a green, lacy tunnel of dappling light: bright, plump cushions of moss and delicate white wood anemones grew amongst ancient roots; two magpies swooped suddenly together, arguing raspingly, and a wood pigeon clappered upwards, startled from his perch.
“Sounds good.” Brigid sympathised with Louise’s sudden silence; certain places, even after forty-eight years of familiarity, still had the power to reduce her to speechlessness. “The older I get the greater my dependence on alcohol becomes. It’s the one thing Mummie and I have in common. She’s even worse than I am. I’m quite certain that her Alzheimer’s is simply too much to drink before bed. Since her stroke she’s not supposed to drink much at all.”
“How does she get hold of it?” Louise asked the question lightly, pretending that she assumed Brigid spoke in the same vein. She knew that the relationship between Brigid and her mother was a difficult one but had no wish to probe.
“Jemima,” answered Brigid shortly—and fell silent.
As the car climbed out of Holne and on to open moorland, Louise wondered why Brigid and her mother lived together in such antagonism at Foxhole. Frummie made no secret of the fact that she hated the countryside and Louise wondered if the isolation of Foxhole was the reason why she had left Brigid’s father almost forty years ago. She now lived in one of the two cottages that Brigid and Humphrey had created from the barns which stood across the courtyard from the old, low, delightful longhouse. It could only be financial necessity which had driven Frummie back to seek sanctuary at Foxhole, and a very slight stroke hadn’t made her any easier to deal with, although she was able to remain relatively independent.
Louise felt a partisanship with the self-contained woman beside her but could think of nothing helpful to say. Hoping that Brigid would interpret her silence correctly, she stared out of the car window. Holne Moor stretched away to the west and she sat up straight, eager as any child, for her first glimpse of Venford Reservoir: a tiny, secret lake, sparkling in its circlet of pinewoods. She gazed delightedly at the beloved and familiar landmarks—Bench Tor and Combestone Tor, and beyond, to the distant hills, drowsing violet and indigo in the afternoon sunshine; then they were crossing Saddle Bridge over the O Brook and she was watching now for the old, twisted thorn which marked the track leading down to Foxhole, a sturdy ancient stronghold on the slopes above the rushing, tumbling water of the West Dart.
Copyright © 2002 by Marcia Willett.