Authors: Christina Jones
Tags: #General, #Fiction
'Tina –' he moved towards her. His lips felt like Mick Jagger's. 'It happens. The whole race is a gamble. At least Dragon Slayer wasn't hurt –'
'If he had have been you wouldn't be standing there now!' The swansdown on her hat billowed like thunder clouds. 'Kath would have killed you and I'd have danced on the remains!'
'So there's not a lot of point in asking if we're still on for later?'
Her contemptuous laugh sliced through the stillness of the April afternoon. 'Jesus! You take the biscuit. Not a hope, Charlie. Not a bloody hope.' She span away from him on the high shiny boots. 'In fact, I'll be ecstatic if I never clap eyes on you again.'
Wrenching the Aston Martin off the A34 in the darkness, Charlie felt slightly better. The high-banked lanes of Berkshire meant home at last. Home, where he could bolt the door, muffle any media intrusion – why the hell they wanted to re-run the damn race every half an hour anyway, he had no idea – play some loud music, and get very, very drunk.
Home was a half-timbered black and white cottage on the edge of Drew Fitzgerald's Peapods yard. Charlie had previously lived in the stable staff bungalow, but had bought the cottage when Drew and Maddy had decided to extend the bungalow into a hostel for the lads. The residential elevation had come at about the same time as he'd traded in his Calibra for the classic Aston Martin. A time when the future looked extremely rosy. Charlie groaned. The way today had gone, he'd be down-grading the Aston Martin to a bicycle and begging a bed in the hostel – if he was very lucky.
Lights were on in most of Milton St John's houses. No doubt everyone was dolling themselves up for a night of sorrow-drowning at the Cat and Fiddle. The pub's regulars had spent the last few days daubing sheets with
Congratulations Kath, Charlie and Dragon Slayer,
Milton St John wins the Big One.
Charlie slowed the Aston Martin to a thirty mile an hour crawl. The entire village had been rooting for Kath and Dragon Slayer. Homes would have been remortgaged on the gamble. He'd be the least popular man in the world tonight.
It was even more galling to know that the celebrations for King Rupert, trained as he was at neighbouring Lambourn, were likely to spill over into the village. It would probably end in a riot.
He carefully negotiated the curve in the road past the pub, past Bronwyn Pugh's Village Stores, the Munchy Bar, and the empty bookshop. Just as he drew level with St Saviour's Church, a shadowy figure hurried from the graveyard's darkness and ducking under the lych gate, stepped straight out in front of him.
Charlie stood on the brakes. The Aston Martin slewed across the road.
'Bloody hell!' This was all he needed, today of all days; some glue-sniffing kid walking under the wheels. He rolled down the window. 'For Christ's sake! Look where you're going! I could have killed you!'
The figure, still enveloped in blackness, hesitated for a moment, then walked back across the road towards him. Oh God, Charlie thought. Please don't let it be someone wanting to top themselves because they backed Dragon Slayer ... Or even worse, someone who wanted to punch his lights out for the same reason ...
'I'm so sorry... I wasn't concentrating. I had other things on my mind. I didn't mean – oh, Charlie! I didn't know it was you!'
Charlie felt a flood of relief. Gillian Hutchinson, the Vicar's wife, was hardly likely to deliver a swift upper-cut. She leaned towards the car, long pale hair escaping, a black cloak making her practically invisible in the gloom. Charlie thought she looked like Meryl Streep in that French Bloke's Woman film that one of his ex's had adored and he'd slept through three times.
'Sorry,' she said again. 'I was miles away. And commiserations, anyway. I listened on the radio and I was so worried when you fell. They said Dragon Slayer was okay, but they said you were being bundled off in the ambulance. Were you hurt?'
'Pride mainly.' Charlie was very fond of Gillian. Gillian was the most un-typical vicar's wife in the world. 'I hope you didn't back us.'
'Of course I did. Never mind – there's always next year. In fact, I'm counting on you winning next year.'
'I shouldn't count on anything.' Charlie straightened up, easing the ache of the bruises. 'We'll have to wait and see what Drew says. He'll probably disown me.'
'Drew'll be fine about it.' Gillian tried to push her hair away from her face. 'He's an ex-jockey. He understands these things. Was Kath very vicious?'
'Made Vlad the Impaler look like Mother Theresa.'
Gillian laughed. 'Yes, I can imagine. Poor you. Oh, I suppose I really ought to be getting back – the boys have probably burned down the Vicarage by now. Sorry again for startling you. You must be dying for a long hot soak and a glass or two of something.'
Charlie nodded. He wondered for a moment whether there were dire ecclesiastical penalties for suggesting that a vicar's wife would be more than welcome to scrub his back. 'Are you sure you're okay?'
'Fine, really. I was just trying to gain a bit of spiritual guidance about the tangles in my life ...' She sighed and pulled the softness of the cloak round her slender figure. 'God didn't appear to be listening. It's so difficult trying to juggle everything and the parish duties – oh, you've got tons of problems of your own. You don't want to listen to mine.'
Charlie decided he wouldn't have minded at all. The idea of the willowy Gillian curled in one of the armchairs in his sitting room, while he sat on the floor at her feet and they shared a bottle of red, was far from unpleasant. 'Anything I can help with?'
'Not immediately. Not unless you could help me lose a lot of money.'
Charlie blinked. 'Keep backing me for what's left of the season. That should lose you enough.'
'Hardly!' Gillian laughed again. 'Oh, it's far too complicated to explain – I've got myself into this awful mess. Still, I've got one piece of good news. I've managed to let the Vicarage flat.'
'Brilliant. So the
came up trumps. Or did you resort to advertising?'
'What? In the window of Maureen's Munchy Bar?' Gillian pulled a face. The Munchy Bar was the last-but-one addition to Milton St John's small crescent of shops. 'No, thank goodness. Can you imagine the applicants?'
'Yeah. Bathsheba Cox spearheading the queue. I hear she's desperate to get her hands on the Vicar.'
'Don't. Not funny. She's gunning for the boys as it is. She's the witch of the village as far as they're concerned – even more scary than Bronwyn Pugh – and that's saying something ... She certainly doesn't approve of me or them.'
'So who's your new tenant?' Charlie wasn't particularly interested, but was still pretty keen on inviting Gillian back home for the bottle of red and some mutual shoulder-sobbing, so felt the niceties should be observed.
'Jennifer – no, Jemima. The owner of the new bookshop.'
'Oh, boring.' Charlie wasn't convinced Milton St John needed a bookshop. When did anyone in the village ever have time to read a book? Still, it was bound to be managed by some elderly cat-loving spinster. She'd probably be ideal for cocoa-sharing in the Vicarage.
Gillian snuggled deeper into the cloak. The heat of the day had not lasted past sunset. 'The shop's not opening for ages yet so Jemima's going to be looking for something temporary to keep her going. She's absolutely sweet, Charlie. You'll adore her. It was very clever of you to recommend the local paper. I hope Drew and Maddy are as lucky with their advert for a gardener.'
'So do I.' Charlie felt the chance to invite Gillian back to the cottage was slipping away. 'Maybe Jessica could do some gardening at Peapods in her spare time?'
Gillian corrected with a giggle. 'Just because you hope she looks like that buxom lass on that television garden make-over show. You are totally insatiable. Thank goodness I'm the Vicar's wife or you'd be propositioning me next!'
'As if ...' Charlie blinked as the doors of the Cat and Fiddle were suddenly thrown wide open, illuminating the Aston Martin in a spotlight of smoky beams. He switched on the ignition. 'If you don't mind I'll make myself scarce. I've got a feeling that they're probably erecting a gibbet in the Snug as we speak.'
It was nice, he thought as he drove towards the sanctuary of Peapods, to see that Gillian was laughing as she headed for the Vicarage. Laughter, after sex, was his stock in trade. Still, if Tina meant what she said, both would be in very short supply in the future. The car bumped across the cobbles and Charlie switched off the headlights. No need to let them know at Peapods that he'd returned. He didn't want to talk to Drew Fitzgerald about the National fiasco. Not tonight. What had Gillian said? There was always next year? Charlie sighed. Twelve months was a hell of a long time to wait.
'... so,' Jemima turned away from the window and looked at her father, 'I was going to have to find myself somewhere to live in Milton St John by July, anyway. It's just going to be sooner now, rather than later. And, of course I'd relied on the money from Bookworms and – er – Petra – to enable me to stay on in Oxford and do exotic things, like paying the rent and buying food. I'll have to find a temporary job pretty quickly.' She grinned. 'Still, at last I'm all packed and on my way. I just thought I'd call in to say goodbye.'
'It's lovely to see you.' Vincent Carlisle patted her shoulder. 'But surely there were other bookshops in Oxford? Wouldn't they have taken you on as temp until July? I don't mean to sound critical, love. But, surely, making yourself homeless at your age ... For God's sake, you don't want to end up like me, do you? One of the other bookshops might have been only too delighted to ..
'Believe me, I tried all forty-three of them. None of them needed staff. They said they'd keep me on file. Probably under r for rubbish ...'
Vincent pulled a face. 'Well, then I'm proud of you, Jem, love. Really. Getting down there early and getting on with it. You've made the right decision.'
'The decision was made for me,' Jemima said. 'First by Bookworms going bust, and secondly by the party-thing. Being made redundant from one job and sacked from another – and both on the same day – and then being served with an eviction notice, doesn't give you many options to play with.'
She winced as always over the party-thing. She'd told Gillian Hutchinson about it, but she'd never tell Vincent. The memory of that day still kept her awake at night. With a very scary bank loan ploughed into her new venture, two months' rent arrears on her flat, and an overdraft which would be the envy of any emerging third world nation, she'd hoped to keep her salary going until she'd worked her notice out in July. The decision to close Bookworms ahead of schedule was a hammer blow. The party-thing was simply a death knell.
Fortunately Vincent was enraptured about Milton St John and didn't dwell on the reasons for her being railroaded out of the dreaming spires. 'I can't wait to see you standing behind your own counter, in your own shop, with your name over the door. And Milton St John must be full of really wealthy people just dying to buy books locally. You could be the next Christina Foyle.'
Jemima was still staring out of the window. She loved her father dearly and would never tell him that her shop's location had been the one reason why she hadn't made an immediate decision to take it.
Milton St John was a gorgeous village, and the very low rent on the Vicarage flat was a boon. The shop premises were the only ones she'd seen with a lease she could remotely afford, and the only place she'd visited that didn't have a rival bookshop within a ten mile radius. It all made sound economic sense, but her gambling-addict father and the horseracing hub of southern England seemed like a pretty lethal combination.
She'd thought about it long and hard, and come to the conclusion that as he wouldn't actually be living there, she'd at least be able to steer him away from temptation when he did decide to visit. As she wasn't remotely interested in racing, any new friends she'd make in the village were also bound to be outsiders. She was pretty sure it wouldn't be a problem.
'Got time for a cuppa before you go?'
Jemima watched him shuffle across to the kitchen portion of the bedsit and wanted to cry. Yes, Vincent had brought this on himself. She knew it, he knew it, and her mother, Rosemary, who had stuck with Vincent through everything until the repossession notice was slapped on the house, probably knew it best of all. Rosemary had decamped while she still had a shred of dignity and had found a living-in job in a south coast hotel. She and Vincent had been divorced now for six months. Jemima didn't blame her mother for not staying. But, it still broke her heart to see him living in this squalor; to see his grey, gaunt face. It would have taken someone with a far harder heart than hers to rejoice in seeing this destitution.
She'd shuddered, as she always did, as she'd pulled up in Floss outside the ramshackle tenement building. The cracked and grimy windows were like blind eyes, and the all-pervading smell of cabbage and garlic and cat's pee seemed to sink into her skin even before she'd crossed the graffiti'd entrance hall.
Vincent placed a couple of none too clean mugs on a rickety table. 'Sorry it's black. I – um – don't buy milk. I've been a bit strapped for cash recently. I had a bit of a setback in the National. Got a red-hot tip in the pub for the favourite, Dragon Slayer. Piled everything on it, plus a bit I didn't actually have. The bugger fell ...' He shrugged at his daughter. 'I'm still having to pay back my debts.'
'Dad! I thought you'd given it all up. I thought you were going to GamAn? I thought –'
'I have given it up. Honest. But, you know, the National – well, it's sort of different, isn't it?'
Jemima picked up her mug and stared out of the bleak window. It was no good nagging him. Nor would it help giving him a hand-out – even if she had one – because he'd only try and treble it on a nine-way accumulator or something equally disastrous.
'Anyway,' Vincent was already bouncing back, 'I must say I'm pleased that you'll be living in the Vicarage. Oh, not that organised religion has played a huge part in our lives – but it sounds very Jane Eyre. Do you remember when you did it for A level? I spent hours going over and over it with you?'