For most of a mile Tumbler and Moppy tracked the yarrow-skirted hedges of coppiced beech which stood between the Williamson fields. Watchful yellowhammers and alarmed larks gave warning as they Sophie guided their descent towards a line of elms and mature beech which clustered to either side of Wednesday Beck, a later manifestation of the stream that ran beside Church Lane. Here, though, some two miles further upon its journey to the River Staun the beck was a much more ebullient creature, burbling and tumbling over rocks and stones among the tree-roots in sun-sparkled jewels of vitality. At a certain point, where the red sandstone bedrock formed a sill, Wednesday Beck dropped in a waterfall amidst a copse of chestnut, sycamore, lime and walnut. The floor of this little wood, though strewn for an age by leaf and branch, had obviously once been moulded by a less natural hand. Where the stream fell into its palm, stone walling and carved steps cupped its waters into a still pool, there to rest a while before release by means of a little weir at its further side. In so rural a setting this sudden intrusion of parkland architecture was more than a surprise, and Joe remarked upon it.
“Shade for the horses, and for us, Welcome to my childhood hideaway, Joe.” Sophie dismounted, coaxing Tumbler to drink. “This was part of the gardens of Great Hallbury Manor, once. The house was just up there.” She waved an airy hand towards the far bank. “The foundations are still visible in places. Don’t let her take on too much.” Moppy was intent upon emptying the pool on her own, if possible.
Joe recalled what little he knew about the history of Great Hallbury Manor and its fate. There was a gambling Duke – wasn’t there always? A youngest son who was killed at Rourke’s Drift, a rampant Duchess and a scandal. They were an odd lot, the landed gentry.
“It burned down, didn’t it?” He asked.
Sophie nodded, “In the nineteen-hundred-and-somethings. There were unkind rumours that it was one of the first great insurance fires. The family was bankrupt and the place was falling to bits. Quite ghastly, really: a whole village – Great Hallbury – just dwindled into ruins. Once the Manor and the family were gone, the workers weren’t wanted anymore, so they just moved away. Nothing is permanent, I’ve learned.” She pulled saddlebags from Tumbler’s back. “I brought a few things to make us comfortable. Are you hungry? This might be a good place for lunch, don’t you think?
From a saddlebag she produced bread, some cooked meat, cheese and red wine. “No glasses, I’m afraid. I hope you won’t mind sharing a bottle with me, Joe?”
There was the gentle dappling of the sun through leaves, and the patient stirring of the tethered horses as they searched for their own kind of bounty. Once and again, an iridescent blue flash of kingfisher. Behind it all, the waterfall added another music.
Joe delved into a pocket for the little package they had discovered among Violet Parkin’s belongings; a square of old parchment folded over from each corner, bound with a thong of what appeared to be platted hair – human hair? He carefully worked the binding to one side then removed its immaculate wrapping, passing it to Sophie. Inside, little bigger than his thumb, was a photograph of a middle-aged man in Sunday clothes. A man whose flat cap was jammed over his brow. Joe shook his head. Although the person depicted was vaguely familiar, there was nothing on the back, no other clue as to who he was.
“Anything?” He asked Sophie. She was studying the parchment.
“There’s some sort of writing, but I can’t decipher it. It’s not a letter as far as I can see. Rather an anti-climax, really.”
“No pirate gold, then?” Joe said. “I feel like I should know who this is.” He showed the picture to Sophie, who frowned over it, then shook her head.
“I’m sorry. No help, I’m afraid.”
“Maybe something will come to me,” Joe said. He returned the photo, with its ‘envelope’ and its curious string, to his pocket.
Even in the dappled shade of the trees the sun was hot. They sat at the edge of the pool dangling bare feet in the cold water, breaking bread together in the manner of friends, sampling the wine and floating between soft lily-pads of conversation. As is the way with drink, it mellowed them, drew their eyes and thoughts, moulded their intentions. So that when it seemed appropriate to kiss, they did, and the intimacy of their last evening together was renewed.
“Does anyone come here?” He asked.
“No.” Sophie murmured back to him. “The nearest track is half a mile away. We’re quite alone.”
He kissed her neck: “No bites!” She warned him – but her eyes were closed and her breath had become less steady.
He drew back. She recovered herself, shot him an arch look; an unspoken question.
“The ‘ageing lothario’ thing. I don’t want to be accused of being ‘professional’.” He said, smiling gently. Already his care was wrapping itself around her and he would deny himself if that was her wish.
Sophie chuckled: “Darling, you can’t help it. But I’ll tell you what – let’s substitute the word ‘expert’, shall we?” She kissed his chin, his nose, with fondness: “Will that do?”
“Oh! And exactly who would be teasing whom?” She reached to her waist, hooked her thumbs beneath the hem of her top and shrugged it easily over her head, shaking her hair back to order and stretching her arms so her freed breasts would move in perfect sympathy. It was a movement as sensual as it was unstudied and all the more alluring because no sooner had she done it than she drew her arms across as though to cover herself, alarmed that she should be so bold .
“Don’t stare at me.” She abjured him. “Your turn – if you like.”
Strange that he should be so hesitant? Joe removed his t-shirt, awkwardly. Sophie giggled, helping him to pull it over his head when it got stuck. She sought his mouth and her kiss this time was unmistakeable in its intent. He made to release the stud at the front of her jeans but she stayed his hand, “Not yet.”
Joe chuckled. “Now where have I heard that before?”
“Go slowly, Joey – please?”
So he did. He kissed her throat first, then persuaded her arms to let him venture further – tongue-tip and lips over soft flesh, coaxing her to arousal with brief, light kisses. Despite her words of caution Sophie found her inhibitions scattering about her, and after a few first maidenly moments she could do no other than allow herself to sink back into the grass, drawing him with her – drawing him to her and he followed willingly, taking her in his lips with an infant insistence that brought a silent cry of pain and wanting. This would be the time to pause, to consider: would he be the one to stop, to hold back? Should he be? Her body was too tempting now, her heat too fierce.
They played at tongues while his fingers found that fastening to her jeans once more and this time she did not resist, but somewhere between kiss and nip she helped him. By sleight of hand and arm in some intimate magic she suddenly wore nothing, and he the same.
“My god, I’m such a wanton!” She wrapped her tongue around the confession, relishing it.
He needed no further encouragement. With great deliberation and all the care that life had taught him, Joseph Palliser took possession of Sophie Forbes-Pattinson.
A kiss here, here a touch: a brush of the tongue, a whisper of lips: finding each small place in her fantasies, opening every box of secrets, lighting each candle, sending each moth flying to the moon. And she responding, hands clasped over his back or stroking his neck, reaching once in a while to plant those so busy lips with a soft, sweet kiss. More and more the inventions were her own; caressing, stroking, bringing forth tiny cries of pleasure, extorting sharp, retentive breaths. Was this sex? Where had it been in her life before? Where, in the history of her short, wrestled encounters and sweaty grunting culminations had this a place? Was this what she had been missing? This?
When it came, the ending, it was because she would not be denied it; because she had been brought close, to within a breath, time and time again and she could wait no longer, but bore upon him so he may not move unless she moved, may not leave her until he had fulfilled their one transcendent promise. And from that great height he shouted a name in his ecstasy three times; but the name was not hers.
In the silence that followed, when she should have fallen, sated and exhausted, on his chest – sure that she could never let him go: in that time the world was spinning, for nothing could stop that, but the vortex was deep and dark, and in all the world there could have been no more lonely a place.
“Well, Joe Palliser;” Sophie said coldly: “That was certainly expert. I take it Marian was your woman in London??”
The ruins of their picnic, the finished wine, the crumbs of bread, stood upon the stone ruins of the Manor’s once resplendent garden. Together, they gathered them up. Unspeaking, they took them home.
How could she explain the despair she felt? Although the act of love she had made was consummate, nothing could deny the utterance of that dreadful name. While Joseph was taking his fill from her, he was making love to a ghost.
Joe’s own confusion was the greater because he could not explain why this beautiful young woman who had been so much in his thoughts had become another at so precious a moment: greater still because he had found heights he might search for a lifetime and never find again. For all the torment of his affair with Marian, and apart from one terrible night, sex between them had never been more than a salve for her solitude. So what demon had intruded – was it guilt? Was the woman with such strain in her eyes riding wordlessly beside him a vessel for Marian’s revenge?
At the corner of Wednesday Common he pulled an unwilling Moppy to a halt and dismounted, exhorting Sophie to do the same. Standing between the horses they faced each other, read each other’s thoughts. As kindly as he might, Joe ran his fingers through his lover’s hair, drawing her to him in a kiss. As firmly as she could, she pressed her hands against his chest so the touch of lips would be momentary – no more than that.
“I know.” The only way would be to explain: once again he was faced with a time when his only road to salvation was through truth, yet when the truth was so brutal how could he? How could he make her understand what he did not understand himself?
“You don’t like girls, do you Joey Palliser?” Sarah had said. Maybe she was right.
“Today was incredible.” He said. “Please don’t think…”
The unfinished sentences, the eyes that could not meet because someone stood between them – someone neither could touch and only one of them could see: Emma, twelve years since; the same mistake, the same aborted dreams. There, by a hedge not twenty yards away, he had first asked Emma for a kiss. The significance was not lost upon Joseph.
Sophie’s face was sad, but resolute. “It was new for me, too, Mr Joe. But I’m not sure I should go there again. I’m not sure I could.”
Feeling there was nothing more he could do, Joe kissed Sophie’s forehead. Then Moppy’s head nuzzled between them, impatient to be home, and made them laugh a little.
Before the gate to his uncle’s house Sophie watched Joe as he dismounted and said goodbye to Moppy. When he came to speak to her she remained mounted on Tumbler, so avoiding any public expression of affection; and if she were a little pale, she gave nothing away. An empty promise – he would ring her tomorrow: okay, she would be in. She rode away, leading an insensitively skittish Moppy, and no-one in that curious, gossip-addicted lane could read a trace of her violation in her face. Only her mother would see. For by the time she had stabled the horses, seen them fed, and walked disconsolately into her kitchen, Sophie was in tears.
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