© Ann Bennett
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The Soul Within
The girl stumbled down the rutted track, past the open gate and out into the lane. It was raining harder now, lashing at her face, the wind whipping her cloak around her legs, pushing her forwards with an invisible force. The saplings behind the barn were bent over by the gale, creaking and whining in protest. Twigs and leaves whirled about in the wind, suspended in mid- air. She crossed the lane and stopped at the gate to the barn. As she struggled with the latch the fierce pain ripped through her body again. She clutched the top bar of the gate and bent over, panting and sobbing with the force of it.
The pains were coming more frequently now and she knew that she did not have much time. When this one had passed and she could move again, she made her way slowly through the gate. As she turned to shut it, she noticed the dim glow of the lights inside the farmhouse. She thought of her parents sitting down to a silent supper in the gloomy kitchen.
She splashed across the flooded yard and entered the barn. The cows lowed and shifted restlessly in the pen at the far end, disturbed by her presence, but she went straight to the opposite corner where the bales of hay were stacked. She had no lamp, but the moon cast a weak light through the open hatch in the wall, shrouding everything inside in a pale glow.
Quickly she spread her cloak on a pile of hay, and unlaced her leather boots, slipping them off her feet. Then she eased herself out of her long cotton drawers and petticoat and, folding them neatly put them well away from the cloak. She lowered herself gently on to the cloak and sat there waiting, hugging her knees, listening to the wind howling in the eaves and the rain lashing the roof.
She did not have to wait long. This time the pain began in the tops of her thighs and spread instantly across her belly and back with the intensity of a flame. She threw her head back and a yell ripped from her. She prayed that there was no-one passing on the lane to hear. The cry sounded disembodied; as if it did not come from her at all, but from a distant animal in distress. This pain lasted longer than the last and next followed on with equal intensity. Within seconds, it reached a crescendo, increasing and increasing until she thought it would rip her apart, then gradually subsiding. This last one left her panting and sobbing. She put her scarf into her mouth so that she could bite down upon it, and she grasped the wooden bar that enclosed the hay and prepared herself for more.
She did not know how long it went on like that. She felt helpless, as if tossed about on a stormy sea, powerless to control what was happening. She lost track of time. The rain did not subside, still beating relentlessly on the barn roof, but the moon gradually slipped past the window and after a while she was in complete darkness. Contractions continued to rack her body, until eventually the pain began to change and now she felt as though she was tearing apart and her insides were about to spill out from between her legs. Suddenly she found herself straining and pushing. She could feel her eyes bulging and the veins in her neck standing out like knotted rope.
Instinctively she got onto her knees. Sweat trickled into her eyes. Her whole body was covered in a film of moisture despite the chill of the barn. Her hair, still wet from the rain was plastered to her head. She felt between her legs and let out a little cry of surprise. There was a hard lump there; the baby’s head resting, waiting to emerge.
Then there was another massive wave of pain and again she pushed and strained, sobbing and grunting with the effort. And then she did feel as though she was being turned inside out, as if all her innards and entrails were splurging out from between her legs. Suddenly there it was, the baby, between her knees on the cloak, a slithering bloody mass of human flesh. She felt down and picked it up. It felt warm and slippery to the touch. Instinctively she felt for its nose and mouth and tried to clear them with her trembling fingers. She could feel the tiny heart beat rattling against its ribs and the slippery rope that still connected it to her body.
She waited for the cry. Didn’t they cry straight away? She patted it on its back, and held it close to her chest.
“Please baby. Cry. Go on... cry!”
She patted its back again, harder this time, then turned it over and felt for its mouth with her own. She found the tiny lips and tried to blow her own breath between them.
“Breathe. Please, baby...”
She began to panic, forcing the breath frantically between the baby’s lips, but still no cry came. She held its chest to her ear and listened. The heart beat was fainter now, uneven and stringy.
“Don’t do this to me, God!” she prayed. “Please..”
She was moaning gently, clutching the tiny form to her, rocking back and forth.
“Bessie?” A man’s voice outside. Footsteps in the yard. She froze. Then began to edge slowly back behind the haystack. She prayed silently.
“Please God, don’t let him find me.”
But the heavy footsteps came nearer and the light from the hurricane lamp flashed about inside the building casting huge shadows on the rafters. She was trembling violently, clutching the baby to her, cowering amongst the bales. Then he came behind the haystack, and shone the light in her face.
“Ah.. there you are!” There was a triumphant note in his voice.
Shaking and sobbing she raised her face to look up at him. He bent forward to have a closer look. She heard his sharp intake of breath.
“What in God’s name...?”
Thick greenery closed in around the car as they drove deeper into the countryside and the lane narrowed to little more than a track. Here the verges and hedges were luxuriant with a riot of unchecked summer growth. Cow parsley with lacy white flowers jostled with hawthorn and elderflower for space in the hedgerow. A haze of shimmering heat stood above the fields, golden with ripe crops, and speckled here and there with patches of rogue poppies. Acre upon acre of corn stretched as far as the horizon, where the burnished land melted into the brilliant blue of the sky.
“Isn’t it gorgeous?” said Amy, stretching back in the leather seat and lifting her face to feel the warmth of the sun. For the first time, she began to think that perhaps the decision to buy a soft-top had not been such a bad way to spend Ben’s end-of-year bonus.
She stole a glance at him out of the corner of her eye, and saw him wince behind his sunglasses as a giant bramble reached out and scraped along the paintwork.
“They should have clipped these bloody hedges,” he said through gritted teeth, staring ahead. “Are you sure this is right, Amy? We seem to have been going for miles.”
“I think so. It’s a bit confusing,” she frowned, concentrating on the map on the back of the estate agents particulars, trying to fathom precisely which lane they were on. But when they rounded the next bend the old farmhouse came into view. Amy gasped.
It stood alone on the brow of a little rise. She had seen a photograph, but that had not come near capturing the atmosphere of the setting. Although there was a scattering of other houses within sight, the farmhouse had an air of solitude. It was tall and forbidding. Victorian, with red brick ground floor and the upper floor white plaster, as was the style of East Anglian farmhouses of that period. It was the windows which gave it that forlorn feel; blank and empty, staring out across the shallow valley like the eyes of a blind man.
Ben drew up at the gate. On the other side of the road was a tumbledown barn, its roof caved in, creepers and brambles smothering the derelict brickwork, buddleia flowering out of the tops of the broken walls.
“It all looks a bit daunting,” said Ben “Shall we give it a miss? If we make a start back to London now, we could miss the Sunday evening traffic.”
“Oh no!” she said. “Come on. We’ve got this far, we might as well see inside.”
Ben sighed, put the car into gear and drove carefully up the rutted track and into to the yard behind the house. They already had the key to the back door. Caroline Bundy, the estate agent in Halesworth had given it to them, telling them to visit the house without her.
“The place is empty. Hasn’t been lived in for years. I’ve got back to back appointments this afternoon, I’m afraid. I couldn’t show you around until at least four. And after all, it’s not as if I don’t know you!” she finished with a bright smile.
It was true. She had guided them round countless properties over the past few weeks, and none of them had been what they were looking for. Too small, to modern, too inconvenient, too close to neighbours. Amy wondered if the immaculate Ms. Bundy was beginning to suspect that they might be time wasters.
Amy smiled back at her shyly as she took the key. Caroline Bundy was the sort of woman, with perfect hair and makeup and an efficient and confident manner who made Amy feel inadequate. Especially now.
Amy took the huge old-fashioned key from the glove compartment and handed it to Ben. She felt a tingle of anticipation as she watched him struggle with the lock. Eventually he opened the door by giving it a shove with his shoulder.
Despite the sun beating down on the yard outside Amy felt a sudden chill as she stepped into the tiled passage. Goose pimples rose on her arms and she instinctively rubbed them, wishing she had worn her cardigan.
They wandered through the rooms. Caroline was right. It had not been occupied for years. It smelled damp and musty, and some other smell lingered; something sweet and sickly that Amy could not identify. The back kitchen was gloomy, furnished only with a butler sink, a pre-war gas cooker and an old fashioned cabinet with yellow glass cupboards. The quarry tiles on the floor were grimy and the windows dirty. There was no furniture in the rest of the house. There were two huge reception rooms on the ground floor either side of the front door, with tiled floors. They were wallpapered in a floral pattern of faded browns and greys.
They climbed the winding staircase and Amy went into the main bedroom.
“Just look at that view, Ben!” she said, rushing to the window.
The house looked out over miles of rolling golden farmland. There were no other houses in sight at the front, but the odd spinney punctuated the view, and on the far horizon a church with a round tower nestled in a copse of evergreens.
Ben came and stood next to her. She smelt his familiar aftershave and felt his hand in the small of her back. She stiffened.
“What do you think?” she said, looking up at him.
“Hmm. It needs loads of work,” he said rubbing his chin.
“Well we could afford that. It’s a lot cheaper than some of the places we’ve looked at.”
She glanced at him. She knew how his mind worked.
“I suppose if we did it up we could sell at a profit in a couple of years,” he said slowly. “On the other hand, it feels a bit isolated. You’d be on your own a lot when I’m in London.”
“There are other houses along the road. Besides I love peace and quiet. It’s just what I need.”
He was silent, staring out at the view. She could tell that he was torn, tempted by the prospect of making some money out of the old place, but at the same time worried about how she would cope on her own here. She felt her irritation rising. He was treating her like an invalid again.
“Look Ben. Stop worrying about me. I’m OK now. I’m better. This is me you know. Amy Day. The girl who backpacked around India on her own, not some little shrinking violet.”
He kissed her hair.
“I’m sorry. It’s just that... there’s something about this place.”
“Nothing that a lick of paint and a bit of imagination won’t sort out,” she said briskly.“And besides. We really need to find somewhere soon, Ben. I’m starting my new job in less than six weeks.”
She left him contemplating the view and mounted the narrow staircase to the next floor. It was stuffy under the eaves. The bare boards were as wide as tree trunks and creaked ominously as she walked over them. Cobwebs hung from the rafters and bird droppings were scattered around in the corners of the rooms. As she entered the second room there was a flurry of feathers, an angry squawking and flapping of wings and a grey bird flew out of the space where the window should have been.
Amy gave a little cry. She heard Ben rushing up the stairs to her, taking the steps two at a time. Within seconds he was behind her, his arms encircling her waist, his lips on her neck.
“Are you OK?”
She felt herself trembling. She drew a deep breath to calm herself.
“Yes, I’m fine. Fine!”
Since the attack she found that she startled easily. And now that she was no longer taking the anti-depressants that took the edge off every experience, unexpected things seemed to rattle her even more. She had lost that numbed, fuzzy feeling that they had induced in her.
She was annoyed with herself for crying out and made an effort to stop shaking. She used to be so strong, fearless even. She resented Ben’s protective arms around her. She stepped forward, shrugging his hands off her waist.
“I’m just fine Ben,” she snapped. “Don’t worry.”
“I heard a noise. I just wondered..”
“There was a bird in here, that’s all. Look there’s a nest in the roof!”
She pointed upwards to the messy confusion of twigs and straw balancing perilously on a rafter.
“I bet they’ve got chicks in there.”
They held their breath and listened for the chirruping of baby birds, but there was nothing.
“It’s a bit of a mess here, Amy,” said Ben, breaking the silence. “But it’s got huge potential, Don’t you think? Are you sure you like it?”
“I love it,” she said emphatically.
He stared out of the window for a moment.
“Look..” he began and she looked at him questioningly. She knew he wanted to be reassured that she was better now. That she would be able to cope alone. But he remained silent.
After a while he said;
“I think I’ll go and check out those old sheds in the garden. Are you coming down?”
“In a minute,” she said. “I just want to wander round a bit more in here. Get the feel of the place.”
She sighed as he turned and clattered back down the stairs.
She went to the window and leaned out, drinking in the fresh air, heavy with the sweet scent of cow parsley and freshly cut grass. She could see the next house a little way down the hill. It was square and modern with a manicured garden and looked incongruous in this setting. Beyond it there was a little terrace of red brick farm cottages. Beside them stood a long low building that looked like a disused school house, with a rusty bell in a little arch on the roof.
She leaned out to see better. The sun was shining directly in her face. She closed her eyes against its glare, and for a second she felt dizzy and disorientated. When she opened her eyes again what she saw made her grab the windowsill and let out a cry of shock. Everything had changed. The fields were no longer great golden prairies, but small grassy enclosures bounded with ragged hedges and filled with sheep and cows. The school yard was suddenly full of children playing, their shouts and laughter floating up on the still air. The modern house had disappeared and there were more farm cottages dotted along the lane than before, women in long skirts and aprons hanging washing in the garden, tiny children playing on the grass. A pig snuffled around in the back garden of one of the cottages, chickens scratched in another. A cart laden with hay, pulled by a heavy dray horse was lumbering down the lane towards the house. It was as if she had been transported back a century or so. The school bell began to chime. Long, low notes. On and on...
She put her hands to her temples swooning with shock, and screwed her eyes up. When she opened them it was as if nothing had happened. She took a deep breath and looked out again. The still yellow fields stretched as far as the horizon. The row of cottages stood silently, the gardens empty, devoid of people or animals. The school building was shabby once again its yard empty and overgrown. And there was the old bell silent and still, rusting away in its little belfry.
She swallowed hard and moved to turn away. Then she noticed something else in the next door garden. She shivered.
On a patch of scrubby ground behind the smooth lawn of the next door house stood an old woman. She was bundled up in thick dark clothes as if it was winter and she leaned on a stick. She stood motionless, staring directly up at the window where Amy stood.
Amy, her heart hammering now, her mouth dry, raised a hand slowly in greeting, but the old woman did not respond. She just stood there, her face lifted slightly. Amy moved away from the window, groped her way to the door and down the narrow staircase.
Ben and Amy did not speak about the house on the way back to London. Ben drove quickly and skilfully in the outside lane of the motorway, hugging the tail of any car travelling at less than ninety until it moved aside for him to glide past. He turned the stereo up loud, and with the rush of the wind and the engine noise it would have been hard to hold a conversation.
Amy was afraid to bring it up anyway. She knew what was going through his mind. She could tell, just by the look on his face as they drove away from the house, and by the set of his jaw now, that he had decided against it after all. He had no faith in her ability to be alone. When they had dropped the key off at the estate agents, he had got back into the car and said with a sigh and an air of finality:
“Well, that’s that, then.”
She had not told him about the strange vision she had had in the attic or about the old woman standing in the back garden next door. She did not want to talk about any of it with Ben. She wanted to keep it to herself. It seemed precious.. too precious for him to scoff at and say:
“You’ve got to be joking, Amy!”
And she knew that he would use it as a final excuse not to buy the house. For her, although it had shaken her, it had somehow added to the challenge of the place. She wanted to get to the bottom of what was happening there; to understand what was behind the mysterious atmosphere. The momentary glimpse into the past had shaken her, but it had also intrigued her. She wanted to find out more.
It was dark by the time they got back to London. They had not eaten since lunchtime, so Ben pulled up outside a kebab shop. He switched off the engine and moved to get out of the car.
“I’ll go in,” said Amy.
He looked surprised. “Are you sure? I don’t mind.”
“For God’s sake Ben, will you stop treating me like a child. What do you think is going to happen to me in there? You’re right outside aren’t you?”
And before he could answer she had got out and slammed the door. As she queued in the greasy atmosphere of the shop behind the assorted late-night drunks, she could see Ben in the car out of the corner of her eye, drumming his fingers on the steering wheel, peering through the window anxiously.
Amy noticed as he drove home that he avoided passing the place where it had happened. She had not been back there since and wondered idly if her bloodstains were still on the pavement. She knew she had bled profusely from the head wound as she lay there and it was only a couple of months ago. She resolved to walk there by herself in the morning. After Ben had left for the City, she would pass by the spot on her way to the shops. If she could face walking past that place, she could face anything.
After they had eaten the kebabs in front of the television news, and Ben had drunk a couple of lagers, Amy took a deep breath;
“Well, what do you think about the house Ben?”
He watched her for a moment. “It all depends on what you think,” he said, taking another swig from his can.
“I loved it. I told you that. It’s the first house we’ve seen that I’ve really liked.”
He paused, watching her. Then he said.
“You know, I really think we could make something of it, but I’m worried about you there on your own during the week when I’m in London. It felt a bit creepy to me.”
“That’s not like you, Ben!”
“No, it isn’t. Which means that I’m not prone to that sort of thing, and that there must be something in it.”
She looked away.
“Look. I admit that it’s a bit gloomy,” she said, “It obviously needs some T.L.C. But if it was brightened up a bit, with white walls, carpets and furniture, it would be beautiful. The setting is gorgeous.”
“Why don’t we just think about it for a few days? Let the idea settle before making any decisions?”
“But Ben. We’re running out of time. If we don’t make an offer for something soon, I’m going to have to start m new job and won’t have anywhere to stay.”
“We can always rent somewhere.”
“Well, that would be just miserable! We always agreed we’d get a place of our own in the country. And besides, it will be great to have a project. It’s just what I need. It’ll keep me busy when you’re in London.”
He leaned towards her and looked her in the eyes.
“If you’re really sure. You’re the one who’ll be spending most time there.”
“Oh Ben!” she said, throwing her arms around his neck and kissing his cheek. “I knew you’d come round.”
“Well, I’m keen too you know, I was just concerned about you,” he said stroking her hair. “I’ll get on to the agents and brokers first thing tomorrow. Now I’ve got to get some kip.”
When they were in bed, listening to the roar of traffic on Upper Street and the rattle of drum and bass in the flat below, he turned towards her and slid his hand across her belly. Amy froze.
“Not yet,” she said, “I’m not ready yet.”
He moved away with a deep sigh and turned over to face the wall.
“What do you want from me? What can I do to make things better?”
“Just give me a bit more time. I’m sure everything will be back to normal one day. I’m sorry. It’s just the way I feel. Perhaps when I get away from this place.”
He did not respond and within minutes she could tell from the rhythm of his breathing that he was asleep.
She lay awake, watching the play of headlights on the bedroom wall. Her mind wandered back to the old farmhouse. She pictured it now, under the light of the moon, alone on its little hill. It seemed to be calling her back. She wondered who had lived there and what mysteries it harboured within its walls.
But as she drifted off she was suddenly back at the cash point that balmy evening in June, tapping in the numbers to her account, uncomfortably aware of two hooded figures looming over her. One of them grabbed her arms from behind and spun her round. Then she felt the sickening pain of his knee jamming into her stomach and she was sprawling face down on the filthy pavement, sobbing and dribbling. Then came the shattering crack of the bat on her skull, and blackness.
After Ben had left for work the next morning, Amy got ready to go out. As soon as she had awoken she had thought about the house, and a little thrill went through her at the thought that today they might be able to agree a price with the owners. But her second thought made her heart give a queer lurch. She remembered that she had vowed to walk past the place where she had been attacked. Her stomach gave an uneasy turn at the prospect. But there was no going back. Doing this was somehow linked to the house in her mind. She was getting stronger now; no longer a quivering wreck afraid of her own shadow. The house represented a new phase in her life, and before moving on, she knew that she should be prepared to confront the past.
Staring in the bathroom mirror she noticed that the bags under her eyes were a little less pronounced than they had been, but her face was still thin and hollow-looking. Amy had always prided herself on her gamine appearance. Petite and fine- featured, with big brown eyes, her face framed by chestnut hair cut short and spiky. But now, rather than gamine, she looked pinched and anxious. She began to put on make-up, something she had not done since the attack. Smoothing foundation on her cheeks and under her eyes, she noticed an instant improvement. Then she made her eyes up; brown pencil lines around the lids, a touch of highlighter on her brows and a stroke of brown mascara. With a brush of blusher and a dab of lip-gloss it was finished. She pouted at herself and smiled. She looked almost normal again.
Feeling ready to face the world, Amy took her purse and shopping bag and set off towards the main road. The flat was in a narrow Georgian house in a quiet street off Upper Street. She felt her nerves jangling as she neared the junction with the main road. When she reached it she would have to make a decision; right was towards the shops, and left towards Highbury Corner and the cash point. Did she feel strong enough to do this? It had been all very well promising to herself in bed last night, but now it was for real, she was not so sure.
Before she reached the junction she made up her mind that she would turn left, but when she got there she hesitated, hovering on the kerb. Perhaps she would go to the shops first and pass the cash-point on her way back. But as she lingered, a car slowed and flashed its lights for her to cross. So she had no choice. She hurried across the road, waving a “thank you” as she crossed, and headed towards Highbury Corner.
As she got closer she could see the cash-point clearly on the wall of the bank. She looked around warily as she walked across the pedestrian crossing and reached it. There was no-one about, but she still did not feel safe. She decided to walk straight past it and then go back across the road. As she neared it she could see a dark stain on the pavement in front of it, and she knew without a doubt that it was her own blood. But she forced herself on towards it, her eyes rooted to the spot.
“Go on Amy...you can do it!” she breathed. With a supreme effort she urged herself on and past the place without hesitating. She even forced herself to step on the dark patch on the pavement, closing her eyes and shuddering as she did so. Again it was as if the rough hands were on her arms, wrenching her back, and the knee was thumping into her stomach, but she forced herself on. Finally she was past it and it was behind her. She crossed the road and headed back towards Upper Street, tears streaming down her face.
She let out a deep breath.
“You did it, Amy!”
She walked on with a spring in her step, swinging her bag, watching her reflection in the shop windows. With a surge of elation she realised that it was a beautiful day. She had been so preoccupied before that she had not noticed.
On an impulse she decided to look in at the Law Centre and say hello to her old colleagues. She had not been back since the assault. Her resignation and references had been dealt with over the phone and by e-mail. But she realised that this morning she was ready to face anything.
She caught a number 73 bus, got off in front of King’s Cross station and walked through the back streets to the dusty little office that had been her place of work for six years. She went into the reception area and the familiar old smell hit her. The mingled scents of stale cigarettes, sweat and dirty clothes. In the waiting room sat the usual assortment of desultory looking clients; battered wives, asylum seekers, the jobless and homeless and unemployed. A young woman barely out of her teens sat in the corner nursing a black eye while her two toddlers played on the floor at her feet. A well dressed Asian man and his wife looked on with disapproval, and in the corner a dishevelled old drunk with a straggling beard sipped from a can of Special Brew.
Lucy, the receptionist looked up with a smile.
“Amy! We weren’t expecting you. How are you? Jan is with a client at the moment but I’m sure she’d love to see you.”
“OK, I’ll wait. Is anyone else around?”
“Tariq is in court and Saffy is on a home visit. Come through to the office and I’ll get you a coffee.”
She lifted the old fashioned formica counter and Amy went through into the cramped little room that served as an office. The familiar sight of piles of files bursting with papers and court documents greeted her. She felt a pang of guilt at having left when they were understaffed and overworked. As if guessing her thoughts, Lucy said;
“We do miss you, you know. We’re incredibly busy.”
At that moment Jan emerged from a meeting room. Jan had been Amy’s boss for the whole of the time she worked at the centre. She was middle aged and looked it, with raddled skin and short hair that stuck up in different directions.
She took Amy in her arms, and Amy felt tears welling in her eyes for the second time that day.
“How are you, my darling? I came to see you in hospital, but you were so out of it I don’t think you noticed.”
“I’m fine now, Jan. Much better thanks.”
Jan held her at arms’ length and studied her face with a look of concern.
“I’m so sorry about your miscarriage, Amy.”
Amy flinched and looked away. Hearing the word again brought it all back. She had not realised Jan knew she had lost her baby. Ben must have told her when she visited the hospital. Suddenly she wished that she had not come here after all.
Ben shut down his computer and began to pack his files and papers away ready to go home. At the other end of the open plan office, he could see a group of young lawyers gathering before heading off to the pub. It was unusual for a Monday evening, but then he remembered; two new trainees had joined the team today and this trip was presumably in their honour. He felt a pang of regret as he watched them laughing and joking together. Before Amy’s illness he would have been one of the first ones organising an outing to the pub; he had needed to fill the time that she spent working late at the Law Centre. But now all that had changed. He had to rush home early each day to be with her, to make sure she was coping, and to help her shop or cook.
No doubt this evening she would wanting to celebrate clinching the deal on the farmhouse. But Ben had a lingering feeling that it might not be a cause for celebration. Despite the fact that the price was reasonable and he knew he would be able to turn it to his advantage in a couple of years, he could not shake off the memory of that chill that had crept over him as he walked around its desolate rooms, But Amy had so been keen. It was the first place they had seen that she had been enthusiastic about. Perhaps buying the place would help her get back to normal.
It had been much easier to seal the deal than he anticipated. The owners were in Australia and anxious to get rid of the place. They did not even try to talk the price up – just accepted his opening offer of fifteen grand below the asking price immediately.
“You’ve got yourself a great deal there, Ben. Congratulations,” Caroline Bundy had purred down the line. “I wasn’t expecting it to be quite that easy.”
Amy had been ecstatic when he called her with the news.
“Ben! I’m so glad. I was worried that it would be difficult.”
“What? With my superior negotiating skills?” he joked grimly.
He had not told her quite how easy it had actually been, and all afternoon he felt a creeping unease; a feeling that he might have been stitched up. Perhaps he should have started the negotiations lower. It niggled him that somebody might have got the better of him on a financial deal. He prided himself on being one of the sharpest young corporate lawyers in the City. He had already been involved in some of the most high-profile deals around. If the relatives of some hick farmer had got the better of him over some half derelict farmhouse in the sticks, he would never live it down.
“I’m so excited Ben!” He could hear her voice now. “It’s brilliant. I’ll start making plans straight away. We’ll need to look for some furniture.”
Then, when he did not answer, she said;
“What’s the matter? Aren’t you pleased?”
“Of course,” he said, trying to inject some warmth into his voice. He was pleased for her of course. At last she seemed to be pulling out of her depression.
Sighing, he picked up his briefcase. Then, leaving a few papers scattered on his desk and a spare jacket on the back of his chair to give anyone passing the impression that he had just popped into a meeting, he sauntered down the chrome and glass office towards the lifts.
His friend and contemporary, Harry Johnson detached himself from the group.
“Hey Ben! You coming to the Crooked Billet?”
“No mate. Nice of you to ask, but I’ve got to get home.”
Harry raised his eyebrows a fraction and his look said it all. “Under the thumb.”
Ben felt an instant surge of irritation. The bastard. He knew what Amy had been through. But he kept his cool and glanced at his watch, even though he was perfectly well aware of the time.
“Well, maybe a swift one,” he said, smiling, to give the impression that he had not noticed the criticism implicit in the raised eyebrows.
He did not phone Amy to say that he would be late. He would only be half an hour or so anyway, and he was beginning to be frustrated by the way she snapped at him when he expressed his concern, and rejected all his attempts at affection. He was only trying to be nice to her for God’s sake. What was he supposed to do? Perhaps things would get better when she was away from London. He did not know how long he could go on like this.
In the pub he found himself on a narrow bench sandwiched between Harry and one of the new trainees. He had noticed this girl vaguely during the day, walking about the office, but had not really registered quite how attractive she was. About twenty five, short tight skirt and long blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. He wished they weren’t sitting so close together. Her bare brown thigh was pressing against his. He shifted away, loosened his tie and undid his top button. It was too hot in here and he was sweating. He gritted his teeth as he looked down again and felt a surge of desire. He did his best to suppress it and tried not to look at the smooth tanned skin, but his eyes kept wandering back.
The talk was the usual mix of office gossip and macho bragging about the latest deals. At one point Harry caught Ben’s eye as he was looking up from staring at the girl’s legs. Harry winked at him. Ben looked away guiltily, dreading the jocular banter that he was bound to be subject to the next day.
The girl suddenly turned to him and said;
“You’re Ben Day aren’t you?”
“Sure,” he said swallowing. She had pale blue eyes and her skin had a golden glow like her hair. Her full lips were painted bright red. They were slightly parted.
“I’ve heard lots about you,” she breathed. Her voice was low, cool, the product of an expensive education.
“All good, I hope,” he said with a nervous laugh.
“Oh yes, I heard you headed up the takeover of Genko by 4i. Is that right?”
“Yeah. That was quite a big one.”
Harry, watching him, an amused expression playing on his lips said;
“Yeah, Ben put that one to bed all right!”
The girl smiled.
“I’m Charlotte,” she said, holding out her hand. Ben took it, uncomfortably aware that his own was cold and clammy. Her skin was soft to the touch.
“Who are you working with?” he asked.
“Mr. Leggatt, but I’ve got plenty of spare capacity, so if you’ve got anything I could help out with, I’d be more than willing.”
Ben caught Harry’s eye and saw the raised eyebrows and sardonic expression again. He ignored it.
“That would be great. Come along tomorrow morning and I’ll sort you out with something.”
“I’ll look forward to that,” she said smiling, displaying a row of perfect white teeth.
“Where were you Ben?” Amy’s voice came from the kitchen as he let himself in to the flat. Delicious smells wafted through to the hall. She was frying something.
“Oh I was dragged along for a drink to welcome some new trainees.”
“You should have called, I was worried about you,”
“I’m sorry. My phone was out of batteries,” the lie slipped off his tongue easily.
“What are they like?”
“The new trainees of course.”
“Oh fine. Young, keen. You know the type.”
He leaned against the door frame watching her. She was wearing a new blouse, and when she turned to speak to him he noticed she was wearing make-up.
“Well, I’m glad you’re back. I’ve cooked salmon and bought a bottle of bubbly.”
He noticed that she had laid the table with a linen cloth and candlesticks.
“Wow! you’ve really gone to town,” he said.
“Well, it’s not every day you buy your dream home is it?”
He could not reply. Sitting down at the table he felt wracked with guilt. There he had been, sitting in the pub ogling that young girl’s legs, lusting after her, while Amy had been lovingly preparing his favourite meal. He’d even thought about the girl all the way home on the tube, about how she had looked at him, sizing him up with those cool blue eyes. He tried to put it out of his mind.
“Come here,” he said, catching Amy as she walked past, pulling her towards him. He held her close, nuzzling her, burying his face in her blouse. But even as he did so, he felt her stiffen and pull away. She moved quickly away, and turned her back on him, busying herself at the sink.
He put his face in his hands. What the hell was wrong with her? Would it ever be like it once was between them?