To give you the flavour of the story and the characters, here comes a sneak preview:
Liam Cox is twiddling his thumbs, willing the priest to take a shortcut to that part where he says, ‘Go forth, the Mass is ended’, the answer to which is quivering on Liam’s lips, ready to come out: ‘Thanks be to God!’
But the priest is taking his time, sending out fumes of frankincense and pronouncing the glory of the Almighty left, right, and centre. Mother must have paid a fortune for this memorial service and she expects good returns on her investment. It will be a while yet. Liam has to grin and bear it. He remembers those long church hours of Sunday Mass stretching into infinity, a purgatory for a small boy with his mind on climbing trees. Today, nearly forty years later, his mind is still on earthly matters, such as his stumbling business. Mother could help, if she wanted to co-operate, but before they get to that he must sit through this spectacle, biding his time. This will please her. ‘Your father will be proud of you,’ she will say, as if Father would have given a toss even when he was alive. Now that he is dead, and has been so for two years exactly, he cares even less. But it matters to Mother. She still believes in all this mumbo-jumbo of praying for the dear-departed in the hope that it will make their afterlife easier.
Oh well, you can take a nun out of a nunnery, but you can’t take the nunnery out of a nun.
‘God, give me strength!’ It is rather hypocritical of Liam to pray for divine intervention under the circumstances of his uncharitable thoughts, but he hopes the loving God will overlook them.
He fidgets, and Mother shushes him, just like she used to when he was a youngster. She puts her forefinger to her lips and frowns at him, whispering, ‘Sit still!’
Liam turns to sit on the other cheek, because the bench is hard as hell and his backside is aching. He catches a glimpse of people on the back pews. Not many people. Maybe ten in all. They are old faces he remembers vaguely from his childhood, faces of no significance now. Right at the back sits a man. He also has a face that is vaguely familiar, but Liam can’t put a name to it. He isn’t that old either: late forties, thick blond hair and beard, Liam’s build. What is he doing attending a mid-week memorial Mass? Who is he? Liam has a strong feeling he should know who that man is.
The priest bellows, ‘Go forth, the Mass is ended!’
‘Thanks be to God!’
When it rains, the freshly turned soil glistens with its own oily sweat. It gives out the scent of musk. It is carnal. Unwashed. Intimate. Mildred loves the smell of ploughed fields in the rain. It makes her feel alive and, at the age of seventy-six, it is a feeling to be cherished. She inhales deeply and holds it in, getting intoxicated on fresh air. Her thoughts ebb and flow inside her skull, the rows of turned earth an extension of her brain waves. She pauses for the hundredth time, and scans the fields. They permeate her. It isn’t so much that she owns them as it is that they own her.
Raindrops crack open against the sou’wester she is wearing over her scarf. It is an old scarf – they don’t make scarves like that anymore. It’s the kind the Queen favours, with a bold floral pattern and a rich, aged-gold border like a picture frame. Her green waterproof anorak keeps her bones warm and dry inside. She could stand here and look at the fields for hours. And inhale them. Mildred sucks in the air greedily. Young people don’t appreciate the simple pleasure of drawing breath, she thinks. They take in air and spit it out without relishing it, like fast food.
‘Mum, we’ve got to be moving. I’ve got millions of things to do back at the office,’ Liam points out with an exasperated scowl. He is a big bull of a man; fleshy, flushed with the effort of walking, already short of breath. And patience. Just like his father, Mildred observes. Reginald too was always annoyed, always had something better to do, something urgent waiting round the corner. He was chasing it relentlessly, like a dog chasing its own tail. He had had no time or patience for Mildred – he simply tolerated her. Nor had he had the time or patience for the land. He had cultivated it without love, without a pause for thought.
‘Mother!’ Liam is talking to a brick wall.
‘Give her a break. She’s catching her breath,’ Colleen tells him.
Mildred smiles at her daughter. In her doe-brown walking boots and a knee-length pleated skirt of demure black under the frills of her exuberantly purple poncho, standing under a green-and-red check umbrella, Colleen is a mismatch of colour and style. Her ripe-plum coloured hair, pinned on top of her head, has fallen out of the bun in thin wisps and is clinging to her neck and cheeks as if the purple hair dye has run. She is puffed and frumpy. She has never cared about her appearance. No wonder she has never married. It used to worry Mildred, but it no longer does.
It is four p.m. Mildred was hoping she could offer them a snack before they left, considering the effort they have made to be here. They didn’t have to come to the service. She half-expected to hear the usual excuses: a dentist appointment, a meeting with a client, the car has gone for service…They surprised her. Seeing them arrive gave her that tiny flutter of motherly pride deep inside her stomach. Liam had even herded in Stella. She stepped out of the car wrapped in a slinky black fur coat, wearing six-inch heels, looking like a penguin on stilts. She used to be a beautiful girl – peachy complexion, slender body. No wonder Liam put up such a fight over her and used every trick in the book to seduce her away from his brother, David. Would he do the same nowadays? He probably would. He is his father’s son. He owns things and he owns people. He won’t let go of what’s his without a fight.
They are standing together. Stella is desperate to squeeze under his umbrella and save both her fur and her hair from ruin. Her narrow heels have sunk deep into the ground and she is leaning forward to maintain balance. An expression of angelic patience graces her face. ‘She’s going to catch her death in this rain,’ she says, unwisely presuming that Mildred can’t hear her. Mildred can, but she is selective about responding. She won’t waste her breath on flippant remarks. She won’t get herself wound up. Sometimes it is easier to pretend she is deaf as a post. That way she can keep track of what is said behind her back.
‘Mother, please, let’s get a move on!’ Liam is such an ankle-biter.
Mildred stirs. ‘Will you stay for a snack and a cup of tea?’ she asks. ‘It won’t take Grace a minute to whip up sandwiches. I have scones and fresh clotted cream. Strawberry jam, homemade…’
‘I’m in, Mum. I’d kill for hot tea. And your strawberry jam…’ Colleen takes her gently by the arm and leads her down the path.
‘Thank God for that!’ Mildred hears Liam mumble under his breath. She is not sure what he is so grateful to the Lord about: the strawberry jam or her being on the move again. His shoes squelch on the muddy ground. Stella’s heels dig into the clay like chisels. When did she become such a madam? She used to live two houses down the lane, on Dove Farm. She used to run about barefoot.
It was his mother’s idea to walk to church. There was the civilised option of taking the car, but she would have none of it. ‘There’s a perfectly good shortcut,’ she’d said. ‘I’d be the laughing stock of Sexton’s Canning being driven five hundred yards in a car! It’s only ten minutes on foot.’ So they went treading through mud and cowpats to please her.
At the gate, Esme is talking to that farmhand – an Irishman whose name Liam never remembers. He became a permanent feature on the farm after Father’s death, or perhaps it was only then that Liam started noticing his sulky presence. All sorts of scum crawl out of the woodwork when a man dies. They feed on hapless senile widows, like ticks on blood.
They are standing by the stables where Esme keeps her horse. Rohan, she calls him. It costs a fortune in insurance. Liam wishes his daughter would spend his money in a more constructive way. But she won’t. She has always been contrary, like her grandmother. Chose to study biology. He asked her why she couldn’t go one step further, become a vet. Push herself a bit. It would give her something concrete in hand, but no! – biology is what she wanted. What do you do with biology? Put your diploma in the bottom drawer and volunteer to do odd jobs for the National Trust; let your father pay the bills.
The farmhand sees them approach, hangs his head low, and disappears inside the stables, taking the horse with him. There’s something shifty about that man! Liam is a good judge of character, and he doesn’t trust him as far as he can spit. He will have to get rid of him. He will have to make lots of changes around here.
Esme is waving, a big smile on her face. She is pretty ‑ strawberries and cream, like her mother used to be at that age. What is she doing talking to that man? What can they possibly be talking about?