This extract is when Annie first meets the brooding ex-soldier, Richard
Beth had told me that the man who lived in the farmhouse was a nasty piece of work, so I doubted I’d be invited for a look round, but I was determined to find the farm, so I stepped off the end of the pavement and set off along the narrowing road, breathing the sweet air deeply and consciously lengthening my pace. I knew it was off to the left somewhere, and followed a kind of gut instinct along a lane which had suddenly appeared between the high hedges. I had no real memory of the farm, never having been taken there, and only being vaguely aware of Grandma’s association through overheard remarks. Whoever lived there had delivered our milk in the fifties and early sixties, on a little horse-drawn cart with a tall churn on the back. I had no memory of their faces and it startled me now to think that they might well have been close relatives. I had often admired the skill of the man who could scoop a perfect gill and pour it into my outstretched jug without spilling a drop. When they first started delivering it in glass bottles (such progress!) Grandma used to stand it in a bowl of cold water on the floor of the kitchen. Good grief, when did I become a witness to living history? I suddenly felt ancient, as though my childhood had happened in black and white, or even sepia.
I was abruptly wrenched out of my melancholy musings by a shout, but I couldn’t see where it had come from or whether it was directed at me. The lane had become a muddy path bordered by ramshackle fencing, and a few small black and white horses of the kind often seen on urban waste ground grazed the long grass over to my right. There was a cluster of low stone buildings a few hundred yards away, but nobody visible.
I looked back at the ponies and saw that a huge horse-chestnut tree dominated the centre of the field. I don’t think I’d ever seen a bigger or more beautiful solitary tree, its outline tinged with the golds of early autumn. The air around me was still, but as I watched, a wave seemed to move through the leaves, rising and falling like breathing. I was drawn to climb over the fence for a closer look. The shout came again, louder now, and echoed by the deep bark of a big dog. As I jumped down from the fence, an imposingly tall lean man appeared over to my left, striding towards me behind a straining Alsatian. I stood still where I had landed.
He stopped a few metres away and yanking the dog’s leash, commanded it in a voice that rattled my ribs, to sit. It sat.
His cap was pulled down low, but I could still see the glitter of hostile eyes. The collar of a well-worn Barbour was pulled up, and his mouth was set in a tight line. In the silence that followed, my voice sounded a little puny, even to my own ears.
‘Hello. Sorry, is this your land?’
He didn’t answer at first, and his stillness was unnerving, so I started talking, hoping to disarm him by friendly neighbourliness; but faced with continuing immobility, I soon descended into nervous gabbling and finally stumbled to a halt.
‘Sorry, I’m new here, well not really new, I know the place from way back, well, not this place, but the road and the Common, well, a bit. From the sixties really, but nothing’s changed much, so far as I can see. But anyway, I was just exploring my old haunts, where we used to play, and actually, I was looking for Chestnut Farm, and I saw that tree, and I thought maybe…’
Still nothing. I couldn’t decide whether to simply turn and climb back over the fence or launch myself jauntily forward in the reckless hope that he wouldn’t set the dog on me.
Suddenly, I felt my temper rise and grab my tongue. ‘Well this isn’t very friendly. I’ve just told you I’m new here. You’re obviously trying to intimidate me, which is hardly fair seeing as you haven’t even answered my question. And anyway, if this is private land, why are those horses tethered? I’ve a good mind to report you: they haven’t got any water and that one’s cropped all the grass it can reach so it’s hungry. Why don’t you just mend the fences then they can wander? And get shade. And things.’
The silence was deafening, and then: ‘Things?’ Was he smiling?
I jutted my chin and put my hands on my hips. ‘Yes, things! Horses need things, you know.’ I couldn’t think of a single example.
‘What kinds of things?’
‘Well shoes, for one. And brushes, for another. They get ticks you know. And worming tablets, I bet.’
‘Well, I don’t know about worming tablets, but I do know they need care. And if you don’t mind me saying so, these horses don’t look very cared-for.’
‘They’re not mine.’
‘Well what are you doing here then, shouting and intimidating me? I wasn’t doing any harm. I was just going to see that tree. In fact,’ I jutted my chin again, ‘I am going to see that tree. Right now.’ There was no discernible reaction, so I set off across the field, though my back prickled with apprehension.