The Country Escape- Jane Lovering (Digital Sample)

Read on for an exclusive extract from ‘The Country Escape’ by Jane Lovering.

A Country Escape

Jane Lovering

Chapter One

‘You’ve bought me a pony!’

As I sailed upwards from the warm comfort of sleep to the sharp-edged day, the words became part of my dream, and I was eleven, the air smelled of horse and the potential excitement that only an eleven-year-old can feel at the thought of mucking-out and cleaning tack into infinity. Then the excitement faded beneath an oncoming darkness, and I was awake, with my fourteen-year-old daughter bouncing on my feet.

‘Wha’?’ I said, less than elegant at this time on a September morning. Not that I’m all that elegant even in June, but there’s something about the chill of a late summer morning that makes me think my mother’s cardigan habit wasn’t entirely for show. There was an extra duvet on the bed and I was wearing fleecy pyjamas.

‘A pony!’ Poppy bounced on my feet again, reduced by the prospect of a potential equine from the cynical, world-weary teenager to an overexcited nine-year-old. ‘There’s a pony in the orchard!’

As my dreams had also taken me back to our old life in the London flat, with Luc, even the word ‘orchard’ wasn’t computing. ‘Wha’?’ I said again, struggling upright under the bouncing. The cold air hit me as I exited the duvet and with it came the whole of past life, hitting me around the head. ‘Oh.’

Whump went the sand-filled sock of memory as I stared at the bare walls of my bedroom, the tiny low window, which managed to let in as much cold air closed as open, and the dusty light of the old sun filtering through cobwebs I hadn’t yet had the heart to disperse. Dorset, not London. Small house, not flat. And, apparently, an orchard, which I now remembered was what Poppy had decided to call the overgrown patch of land that adjoined the house. Too big and uncultivated to be a garden and too small to be a field, the borrowed dignity of a couple of mossy old apple trees had designated it its orchard status.

‘Well?’ Poppy had her hands on her hips. ‘Did you buy me a pony?’

With the habit of motherhood I noticed that she was still wearing her pyjamas, despite it being a school morning, and went straight to the practicalities. ‘Go and get ready for school or you’ll miss the bus.’

‘Aren’t you even going to look?’ A humphy sigh, of the kind I’d got used to. ‘Because if you didn’t, and Dad didn’t, then someone has parked a pony outside, and I’m pretty sure that’s, like, a criminal offence?’ She slithered the long body that she still despised, although it could only be a year or so away from being her best asset, off the bed and stomped across the creaky boards. ‘And I’m going down to see him.’

‘Get dressed first!’ I called after her, pointlessly. It had been one of the many shocks of motherhood that the daughter who’d idolised me for the first five years of her life could come so quickly to the realisation that, basically, I was there to provide for her and keep her from harm, despite her increasing ability to outdo my ability to perform either of these tasks. She knew that I knew I couldn’t make her do anything. There was a lot of reverse psychology going on, that’s all I’ll say.

In the spirit of ‘don’t do as I do’, I dashed down the creaky, narrow-boarded stairs, trailing in the wake of Poppy, out across the stone-flagged kitchen into the orchard. The sun was up now, its low-level slant flinging the shadows of the trees back towards the house. There was a smell of incipient cider from a few windfalls, and the threatening hum of wasps starting the day’s motor.

By the time I caught up, Poppy was at the far side of the field, where the narrow hawthorn hedge bordered the lane. And she was stroking the nose of something that could only be called a pony because the phrase ‘badly put-together cow’ was already taken. I called a token, ‘Be careful,’ across the grass but she didn’t even acknowledge that I’d spoken.

‘Isn’t he beautiful?’ she breathed. ‘Where do you think he came from, Mum? Dad wouldn’t give me a pony. Would he?’ she finished on a note that was part acceptance of her father’s fickle and profligate nature, and part a deep hope.

I looked over the slightly sway back of the piebald pony, to the gateway that led into the orchard. ‘I’d say, just at a rough guess…’ I tried to keep the sarcasm out of my words, but I knew she’d reinsert it anyway ‘… he’s from that.’

Parked in the pull-in, where the lane became briefly wide enough between its tree-laden edges to allow a passing place, stood a caravan. One of the old-fashioned gypsy caravans, with a glorious bow top and painted front, a gilded split door surmounted by a little window and covered in gold-painted designs. The shafts were propped against the gate.

‘Oh,’ Poppy breathed, ‘it’s beautiful. He’s beautiful. Do we get to keep him? If he’s on our land, I mean?’

‘No.’ My voice was tight. I could smell the pony now, that mix of hay and newly mown grass and sweat and hooves and mud. ‘Of course we can’t. I’d better go and wake up the inhabitant and ask them to move.’

Poppy gave me a look. ‘You better get dressed first, Mum. You don’t want to look like a skank if you’re knocking on someone’s door at this time in the morning.’

In the spirit of not caving in to what my daughter thought of me, I climbed over the gate and cautiously approached the caravan door. I could feel the weight of Poppy’s stare between my shoulder blades, and the horse wasn’t helping either.

‘Excuse me?’ I tapped on the door. ‘Hello?’

The door swung towards me, unlatched, on a waft of fried-food smells.

‘Er, I live in the house…’ I poked my head through. ‘Your horse…’

The inside of the van was scrupulously tidy, beautifully ornate, and completely devoid of occupancy.

Chapter Two

I have no idea how I managed to get Poppy to leave off cuddling the horse and go to school. She probably decided it was better to go and be able to boast about the pony that turned up in her field, than to stay at home with her mother being heavily disapproving at her. Either way, she dragged her uniform on and went to stand in the lane, where the minibus picked her up, together with a bunch of others from local farms, and dropped them all down in the village of Christmas Steepleton, from where they were all collected by the larger school bus. It was, as Poppy repeatedly told me, ‘a drag’, and if I’d been any kind of mother I wouldn’t have removed her from her natural London habitat. Where her Starbucks addiction and her desire to try on every outfit in Oxford Street had been close to bankrupting me, but I hadn’t mentioned that. I’d just told her that her dad and I finalising the divorce meant that the flat had to be sold, and the amount of money it gave me had just about been enough to buy Harvest Cottage and move to the Dorset coast.

Guilt, I told myself. Not just the thing making the outside of that inexplicable deserted caravan shiny. I looked out of the kitchen window, where the sun was busy highlighting the fact that nobody had dusted or cleaned for what looked like a decade, across into the orchard. The pony was grazing as though he hadn’t seen grass for weeks, although the width of him indicated he’d been extremely well fed up to this point. His black ears stuck up from the overlong grass that hid the rest of his face, looking like two skinny crows having a conversation, and the rest of his black-and-white-patched body seemed relaxed. I had a brief thought about laminitis, reasoned it was too late in the year for him to be affected, and went back to cleaning. He wasn’t doing any harm, and it was possible that the caravan’s occupant had just popped down to Steepleton to get some shopping. My lane was on the way, sort of, if you didn’t mind squeezing between the overhanging oaks that lined it, before it climbed up and over the hill to join the main road and begin a final – and, in a horse-drawn caravan, probably fatal – drop down into the village. In the other direction lay another steep descent, a narrow ford and then miles of meandering grey tarmac, broken by weeds and salted with farm trackways, before it met the Bridport road.

Yes, that would be it. Someone had gone shopping and hadn’t realised that Harvest Cottage was now occupied. After all, it had been empty for nearly five years, apparently, following a disputed bequest. Nobody had technically owned it, so nobody could sell it, and it had sat here in its damp fold in the Dorset hills with dereliction becoming an increasing likelihood. Once the whole ‘who inherited the cottage’ had been sorted out, it had hit the market just at the point that Luc and I had sold the flat. I’d been left with my half of the proceeds, enough to outright buy the little place. Luc had… actually, I wasn’t entirely sure what Luc had done with his half. I didn’t want to know. I didn’t need to know. We were divorced. We only needed contact to talk about Poppy.

I suddenly realised that I’d been scrubbing so hard that I’d washed a layer of paint off the kitchen wall to reveal that a previous owner had thought that pale green was a suitable colour scheme for a room that already let in bilious levels of light. It would have been like cooking inside someone’s hangover. I tipped the bucket of filthy water down the sink, which gurgled in a way that let me know that blockages were probably only a carelessly disposed-of teabag away, and saw the pony bring his head up sharply from the knee-level grass. He was staring around the corner, towards what was only my front door because it was at the opposite end of the cottage to the kitchen door.

There came a couple of raps on the woodwork. I was sure the windows rattled through the whole building.

‘That had better be caravan person,’ I muttered, wiping my hands down my front because I hadn’t found the kitchen towel yet. ‘And they can just pack that bloody animal up and go.’

I realised that the knocker had clearly thought the cottage was uninhabited when I threw open the door and the figure, shadowed by the overgrown blackcurrant bushes, jumped. ‘Bloody hell, it’s haunted!’

‘No, it isn’t. You knocked, I opened the door. Why would you knock if you didn’t think anyone was here?’

‘Politeness?’ The voice was male, but the darkness of the combination of undergrowth, overhang and the fact I’d come from a brightly lit room to the shadowy front of the cottage, meant that he was just an outline. ‘I’ve come about the caravan.’

‘No need.’ I was already turning away. ‘Just hitch up your horse and go, and I’d appreciate it if you’d remember that I live here now and didn’t really like waking up to your horse eating my lawn.’

It wasn’t, by any stretch of anyone’s imagination, a lawn. But I thought it made me sound suitably disgruntled with cause.

‘Er, okay.’ The man shuffled from foot to foot. ‘Only I think we’ve got a problem.’

I turned back and squinted at him. ‘My only problem is that there’s about fourteen hands of piebald eating my garden. Maybe you’d like to remove him? Before he gets as far as the rhubarb?’

There was an oppressively sweet smell from the branches that had been crushed by the man’s passage up the garden path from the tiny front gate. It smelled a little like cat pee mixed with jam and I reminded myself to find out what kind of hellish horticulture was planted near the gate, and rip it out. Eventually.

‘That’s kind of the problem.’ The man had a trace of a Dorset accent, still alien to my London-attuned ears. ‘It’s not my van. It belongs to Granny Mary, but she was taken ill last night, passing by this place. She stopped and put Patrick in your paddock before she called an ambulance, but she’s up to Bridport hospital and they think she’s had some kind of stroke. She called me and asked me to come and check up on Patrick. I wonder if you’d mind keeping an eye on things until she can get back to pick it all up?’

Oh, Lord. Maybe this was why my Streatham friends – none of whom had visited yet, despite the fact that they’d all said they’d come down for weekends – had warned me about life in the sticks. All this ‘up in everyone’s business’?

‘Look, I’m not sure…’

‘It’s Patrick, really. I don’t know how bad this stroke is – she’s still communicating but I think it would take more than that to shut Mary up. I had her on the phone for an hour this morning to make sure I knew what to do. In fact, I think even death would have a tough job slowing Mary down. I reckon she’ll be running round Steepleton as a corpse, trying to make sure everything goes her way.’ There was a pause. ‘Yeah, that’s not a great image, now I come to think of it, sorry.’

A blackbird sang into the resulting silence.

‘Well, I’m sorry, but the horse can’t stay.’ I wiped my hands down my front again. ‘We’ve only been here two weeks, my daughter is protesting enough about having to change schools and I don’t want her to have any excuse for not going, and, believe me, having to look after a horse that is going to have cleared all the grass from the orchard within a week will be excuse enough. Can’t you arrange to have it all moved to wherever it is that you live?’

I tried to eyeball him strongly, but the fact that he stood in near-complete shadow and I was backlit by the sun streaming through from the kitchen whilst wearing an apron and rubber gloves like some kind of Vision of Nineteen Fifty, rather took the edge off.

‘Granny Mary might have something to say about that.’ The man shifted and some branches pinged around. It was a bit of a closely confined space at the front of the cottage, where the little gate onto the lane had clearly only ever been used as a last resort. The resulting mossy undergrowth had turned the whole of the path to the door, and most of the outside of the porch too, into something that Sleeping Beauty’s prince would have approached with caution and a chainsaw. ‘Look, I’m sorry. We seem to have got off on the wrong foot here. I haven’t even introduced myself. Gabriel Hunter.’

A hand extended and I shook it without removing my rubber glove. ‘Whichever foot we might be on,’ I said, somewhat stiffly, also embarrassed that I hadn’t taken the glove off, ‘the horse has to go. The caravan can stay if we pull it into the field. It’s probably not safe to leave on the side of the road like that, the lane is narrow enough as it is. But I can’t look after a horse. The orchard is barely an acre – it’s not enough grazing at this time of year, he’s going to need hay and feed too, and then there’s all the poo.’

‘Good for the rhubarb,’ said Gabriel, robustly. ‘Granny Mary says you can use the van, if you want, to keep it aired out. Even couple up Patrick and take it round the lanes – it’s a great way of seeing the countryside.’

I looked behind me through the house. The horse, who I now assumed went by the name of Patrick, was rubbing his backside against one of the trees to the accompaniment of over-ripe apples plopping down around him. One hit him square on the withers. He looked like an illustration in a pony book, drawn by someone with an eye for realism.

‘I don’t need to see the countryside. I live here,’ I said, tartly. ‘And I don’t want to look after someone else’s horse.’

The man sighed. ‘Okay, yes. Sorry. I’m beginning to realise that Mary might not have thought this through.’ A hand raised and was, presumably, running through his hair. ‘Can I just come through and check him over? So I can tell her he’s all right for now? I’ll have to try to sort somewhere for him to go.’

I indicated, with a flopping yellow rubber hand, the path that squeezed its way around the outside of the cottage, between the wall and the overgrown hedge. Moss had furred its outline so it was hard to tell what was path and what was grass edging. ‘You can go round that way.’ He wasn’t coming into my house, that was for certain. All those things I’d told Poppy about not letting people inside unless you knew them well were probably more related to London, but even so. ‘I’ll meet you out there.’

I closed the front door firmly, in case he was going to insist on the shortcut, and flew through the house whilst tearing off the rubber gloves. He was probably fine, but I hadn’t even seen his face yet and that didn’t inspire me with trust. Besides, I was starting to feel slightly proprietorial towards the horse, and if this bloke turned out to be a horse thief with no sense of discernment and a taste for beasts that looked like barrels on legs, well, I’d at least be there to help him load up.

When I reached the orchard, the man was already there. He was standing with his back to me, one hand on Patrick’s neck and the horse’s muzzle deep in his pocket. He was murmuring to him; the faint Dorset accent, the thick rays of sun striping down through the trees, and the hum of birds and bees made it feel like the closing-credit scene in some bucolic film. Tess of the D’Urbervilles swam briefly to mind, until I realised that that wasn’t really the serene image I was looking for.

The blackbird sang again, now high in the apple tree.

Behind me, the kitchen door slammed in a gust, the badly fitted windows rattled, and the man and horse both looked up at me. Now in sunlight, I could see the man better. He was tall, long-haired, with one of those faces that look as though they’ve been designed by computer, all cheekbones and eyes and chin. He was wearing a pair of glasses so thick that his eyes were magnified, and a designer stubble that gave him the look of an off-duty Burberry model. With the piebald horse blowing softly at me over his shoulder, it was all a bit Country Life photo shoot for me.

‘He’s fine,’ I said, stiffly, horribly aware of my hair tied up with a J-Cloth, and that my apron had a pattern of ducklings all across the pocket. ‘He’ll need some water though.’

The man, Gabriel, looked back at the horse, and murmured a few more soft words, then patted the rough neck and stepped away. ‘Have you got a bucket? I’ll leave him some and then if you could refill it?’ He put his hands into the front pockets of his jeans, pulled them out again and then folded his arms, as though having to deal with limbs were a new problem for him. ‘And then I’m going up to Bridport to slowly murder Granny Mary for putting us both in this position.’

He’d looked away again, watching the enormous splayed hooves picking their way past the tree roots, and his words had been quiet, but heartfelt. I immediately felt defensive on the part of the absent Granny Mary. ‘Well, he’s not doing any harm for now. At least she had the sense to put him somewhere with decent fencing, rather than leaving him roaming out on the lane.’

This elicited a small smile. ‘Well, Patrick and the van are her pride and joy. Even something like a stroke isn’t going to come between Mary and Patrick’s welfare.’

Another silence resulted, broken only by the determined sound of equine teeth ripping up my grass. Eventually, because we were both just standing there, I cleared my throat. ‘So, you’re going to find somewhere else for him to go, and I’ll just keep an eye on him in the meantime.’ I spoke briskly, to break the deadlock. I had the feeling that if I didn’t move this along a bit, he’d stand here in the orchard for the rest of the day, and I had paintwork to be washing down.

‘Er. Yes.’

He still had his arms folded, and was staring at the ground.

‘And I suppose we ought to pull the van in through the gate, to keep it off the road.’ My apron flapped in the breeze, a little flag marking my status. ‘Only I’ve got things to get on with, so…’

Now his head came up. ‘Oh, yes, of course. I’m sorry. I was just thinking. I’m a bit… yes. Yes, of course.’ He gave his head a quick shake, as though trying to lose something in the movement. ‘Can you give me a hand?’

I opened the gate. A whirl of pockmarks showed where Patrick had come in in a hurry, pitting the entrance, and we had to struggle to pull the van through the ridged mud. But eventually, with each of us tugging one shaft, we dragged the surprisingly light vehicle in and parked it against the far hedge, with the shafts up on their rests. It looked very at home there, with its red bow roof squeezed between inquisitive bramble stems, the paintwork almost glowing as the sun caught it. The big yellow wheels with their red trim stood as stickily in the long grass as the pony did, and there was a certain similarity also in the squat wide body. Patrick, in the meantime, grazed near the kitchen door and took no notice of us gasping and pulling, until we stepped away from the van, when he ambled up to scratch his tail against the woodwork.

Gabriel gave me a grin that made him look less like a distracted computer programmer with a modelling contract. ‘That should do. I can tell Granny Mary that it’s all safe and cared for now. I’ve sent her a couple of pictures, so she’ll know he’s not tethered in the middle of the M5 being forced to eat his own knees.’

‘But only temporarily. We agreed. You’ll find somewhere else for him soon.’

‘For Patrick. Can’t the van stay?’ He flipped hair away from his face with the back of his hand, and I noticed his glasses were askew. ‘You could use it for…’

‘Firewood?’ I was being sarcastic, of course. There was no way anyone with a soul would chop this beautifully painted object up.

‘A summerhouse? I mean, hopefully Granny Mary won’t be in the hospital for long, just while they run the tests… and then she’ll be back on the road.’ The way his accent said ‘road’ made it sound like ‘rowd’ and my ears started to dwell on his voice. It had been his accent that had first attracted me to Luc, and I had to remind myself sternly how that had turned out: a desperate divorce and a daughter who was a cross between Emily Brontë and a character from TOWIE. A pleasant accent does not mean a nice person stands behind it.

A car engine slowed to a tick in the lane beyond the hedge. I heard the squeak sound of hawthorn branches being scraped past paintwork; the lane was really not a thoroughfare, although it seemed that the occasional non-critical satnav user got sent this way. We had heard the swearing, after they’d negotiated the tight lane only to find themselves faced with a slightly-too-deep-for-comfort ford at the bottom of the hill. At least they no longer had to contend with a wooden caravan in the only passing place for miles.

‘Can I have your phone number?’ He was still talking and I had to stop hearing the accent and start listening to the words.

‘No.’ I figured a flat refusal was best. What did he think I was, some floozy in a duck apron, who’d give her number to any man who asked? Even if he did look as though he should be on the cover of a magazine, minus those thick glasses and plus some proper clothes.

‘Er. In case I need to get in touch about Patrick?’ There was no hint in his voice, or face, that he thought my saying no was anything other than normal. ‘I’ve got a friend who might let me rent a field. I wouldn’t want you to come home from, uh, whatever it is that you do and find him gone without a word.’

I opened my mouth to say that I didn’t do anything, as yet, the market for French language teachers wasn’t quite as open as I’d thought it might be, but I reasoned that he might think I was lying. I had my hair tied up with a dishcloth and an apron covered in cartoon ducklings. I didn’t look like anything a responsible adult would trust with their children. ‘Oh. Right,’ was what I did say.

We exchanged phone numbers. I took my mobile out of the apron pocket to put his contact details in, and saw him suppress a smile. ‘I’m washing down paintwork,’ I said. ‘We only moved in two weeks ago and it’s a bit of a mess in there.’

‘Hence the gloves?’

‘No, it’s my fetish,’ I snapped, and instantly hated myself. ‘I mean, yes. The stuff I’m using isn’t good for the skin.’

‘You’re sugar soaping?’ He adjusted his glasses, straightening them out and pushing them up his nose. ‘No need to bother, to be honest. Modern paint will stick perfectly well if you just use water and some detergent.’

Patrick stomped back around and walked between us, which was good. It meant that my ‘oh, great, another man waltzing in and telling me where I’m going wrong’ face was hidden behind a fuzzy black and white body.

‘I’ll bear that in mind. Now, if you have to be off, I’ll give Patrick some water when I’ve finished with the bucket. And yes, I will rinse it out properly. Goodbye.’ I turned around sharply as some small birds fluttered out of the hedge, saw me moving and altered their flight pattern upwards.

‘Ah, yes. Sorry.’

As the kitchen door had slammed shut, I’d have to go back in through the front door, so I headed down the side of the cottage, aware that Gabriel was following at my shoulder. Fortunately the gap was too narrow for Patrick to follow him, although the sound of a horse trying to get its bulk into an alleyway was one that would stay with me for a while.

We rounded the shoulder of the cottage, where the porch stuck out and narrowed the entryway even further. ‘I’ll hear from you soon, then,’ I said, turning to go into the darkness of the porch, and jumping backwards to smack Gabriel in the face with the back of my head when I realised someone was already in there, and there was a car parked outside the gate.

‘Hello, Katie,’ said a voice from the darkest recesses of hell and also my porch.

My ex-husband had come to visit.

 

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