LAND IS LIKE PEOPLE: it has a skeleton under its cloak of flesh. Also like people, some landscapes carry more flesh than others. As gardeners from Lyme Regis to Eastbourne know to their cost, much of the south coast of England is a poverty case, the chalk bones never far below the skin, ready to break through whenever an injury occurs. All you can do is make the most of what topsoil you have and plant as deep as you can before you hit the layer of impenetrable clunch.
Midway through a dry summer the surface was like dust over iron, but that would be true wherever he went. At least here there was scant chance of being disturbed, however long the job took. The man found a spot beside the trees where centuries of leafmould had worked a little softness into the earth and, avoiding the thick roots that mirrored below the ground the spread of branches above, he began to dig.
At this time of year the day's heat persisted long into the night and soon he was sweating under his clothes. But he didn't break the steady rhythm of his labour. It was important to get the job done: he could rest later. As the Book of Ecclesiastes observed, there's a right time for everything. A time to be born and a time to die; a time to plant and a time to pluck that which is planted. A time for every purpose under heaven.
Which may not have been the perfect analogy, he recognised as he toiled. Some purposes have precious little to do with heaven; and some things are planted with the intention that they remain buried.
A little after two, like a tiny miracle sandwiched between the scorching days, a light rain began to fall, throwing a halo around the moon. The cool was a blessing but the man had no time to admire the optical effects. Before the moon paled he had to be away from here. Before the sun rose he wanted to be in another county.
When he hit hard chalk he considered briefly whether he had depth enough and decided he had. He extended his trench lengthways between the tree-roots. Wrapped in bin-bags, tied with string, he laid his offering in the hole and covered it. Then he spread the leafmould over the top till all there was to see was a gentle hump like another root growing under the surface.
He bent once more, still panting from his exertions, and patted the top of the hump. 'I'm sorry about this,' he murmured softly. 'Iknow it isn't what you hoped for. It isn't what I wanted either, it's just the best I can do.' Then he turned his back on her and left.
BREAKING FAITH. Copyright © 2005 by Jo Bannister. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y 10010.