Authors: Jonathan Gash
For Sarah Kate, Jack and Nooni, and for Matthew John, with love
To Kuan Ti, ancient Chinese god of war, pawnshops, and antique
this book is humbly dedicated
'Will they see us?' she whispered.
My blood went cold in panic. 'Who? Who?'
Who else? She gripped my hand. The forest was silent. Not a bird
cheeped, not a leaf crackled. 'We're alone, for God's sake!' I tried to make it
sound romantic. 'Er, dwoorlink.' I'd nearly called her Mary. She was Beth.
We slithered down the slope, leaves skittering.
'I haven't got long,' she whispered.
Women always worry about what comes next. It would have narked me,
but I was desperate for her. We sat, lay, then sprawled. Her husband was due
back at twenty past.
Her breasts were cool. Odd, that. On the hottest days, women's
breasts are cool. The sun just made it through the trees, dappling the
undergrowth. The moans started so loud that I tried to cover her mouth with my
hand, but she shook her face free and whispered that it was me, not her, making
all the noise. It was beautiful as ever, the most wonderous ecstasy mankind can
imagine. I loved her from the bottom of my heart, in the most perfect of all
Afterwards we dozed in that post-lust slumber. I was awakened by
her licking my mouth and eyes, asking if she'd been good. That's another
puzzle. They always worry, as if there are grades of bliss. I told her she was
superb. 'You were paradise.'
'Honestly, Lovejoy?' she said.
She was thrilled. I was thrilled she was thrilled, because it was
touch and go whether she'd sell me her Bilston enamels that I craved. I know
love, if nothing else.
'Darling,' she said mistily, then gathered her clothes to her
exquisite breasts in alarm. 'Shhh! Lovejoy! What's that?'
'Squirrel?' Did squirrels make a noise, growl or something?
‘It was a click.' She started flinging on her clothes.
Admiringly, I watched. Women's clothes are complicated, and they
manage them with grace.
'A twig,' I explained. I’m good at nature. It's a beaver.'
She darted frantic looks for marauding husbands or, even worse,
'Stupid!' she hissed. 'You don't get beavers here! Get dressed!
So? If people had any decency at all they'd politely ignore us.
There wasn't anybody, of course. Women are scared witless of gossip. In three
seconds flat I was my usual scruffy self: crumpled trousers, holed socks, shoes
soled courtesy of Kellogg's cardboard, shirt with one perilous button, jacket
frayed at cuff and hem.
'I mustn't be late, Lovejoy.'
'Right, right.' Women are always late, even if the clock says
they're not. Dreading being late's their thing.
We tiptoed from the scene, gradually walking further and further
apart as we approached the path from Fordingham. By the time we reached the old
church we were clearly strangers, coincidentally strolling through the woods on
a bright warm day. The only giveaway was Beth brushing imaginary leaves from
her skirt every two yards. She reached the ancient churchyard where she'd
parked her motor, drove off without a word. It's no good being indignant, but
you can see what I mean. They always worry about what comes next, when the
present moment is the danger. I should have remembered that.
At the old pond I paused. The path across Lofthouse's fields was
clear of cattle. Nobody, except a girl coming from round the side of our
disused church. Smart, colourful in a bright peach frock. I was tempted to try
to walk with her, but she angled away towards the distant manor house. Oh,
well. But the footpath wasn't littered with outraged bulls, and the chance was
too good to miss.
In my ignorance I took it as a good omen, and plodded on towards
the village at peace with the world, thinking of Bilston enamels. I'd only met
Beth a week since, when she'd talked to the Village Society on 'Small Antiques
for the Home'. I'd gone along for a laugh, and been stunned when she'd shown, voice
wobbling nervously, a genuine Bilston. My chest had thrummed and gonged so hard
I'd almost collapsed in my chair. She'd left before I could shove through
during the wine-and-wad session afterwards.
The day after, I'd caught her at the supermarket, having followed
her. I made stilted conversation, I'd enjoyed her talk, antiques being me and
she'd said, colouring. 'I've heard about you from - ah. I didn't realize I was
speaking to the learned.'
'Me?' I laughed a gay throwaway laugh. 'No, just interested.'
And went on from there: the glimpse of my deep inner yearning,
honest admiration for her showing through, letting myself be drawn in despite
my determined resistance to her allure. She'd invited me to her bungalow, shown
me the Bilstons, fascinated when I all but keeled over at being so near genuine
antiques. She'd got a mind-boggling eleven.
Don't laugh, because enamelling is one of the most difficult arts
in history. Think a minute, and it's obvious why it must be so hard to do.
Painting some metal with an opaque glass colour and heating it sounds easy, but
you just try it. Never mind that the ancient Etruscans, the Chinese, even the
early Britons all had a go. Alfred the Great's lovely Somersetshire jewel - he
ordered it in AD 887 -looks a cinch, but the fake copy I once did drove me
insane, took five months, and cost burnt fingers, eight metal splinters, and a
fortune in materials. Adding insult, a charity woman talked me out of it for
the Alder Hey Children's Hospital, which only goes to show how cruel they can
be. And if you're going to try it, remember what the old enamellers used to
preach before the spray method came in: you can't do it on big flat areas, only
on curved - hence their liking for enamel miniatures - and the classic maxim
every speck of dust leaves a hole in
Bilston was the enamel Mecca. Once, collectors only thought
Battersea. Now, the world is obsessed with Bilston and greedy for its enamelled
plaques on silver and gold. If you too are crazy you should learn the Bilston
colours, like they used a near peagreen from 1759 on. But the one colour that
sends collectors demented is the famous 'English pink', as Continentals named
the elusive, gentle, semi-rose hue that first saw light about 1785 and blows
Beth's small gold-mounted pendant of flowers and leaves had it,
the chrome-tin complex, brilliant as the day it was made. Lovely, lovely. It
brought tears to my eyes, just thinking of how unfair life was, giving pristine
jewels to an undeserving lass like Beth when they should have been mine.
Almost overcome, I reached my cottage in its overgrown garden. An
envelope was on the bare flagstone in the porch. I brewed up, threw the letter
aside. I recognized the handwriting. It would be the same old dear from
Fenstone Old Rectory saying the same old thing:
be able, for a small consideration, to speak with our
concerning a fund-raising matter? I have been
recommended to you by a person of your
Mr. Saughton Joyceson of Peckfold, Hertfordshire, who
testifies to your honesty and integrity, and to
your concern for
you in anticipation,
It was the tenth begging letter I'd received from her in a
fortnight. Church fund-raising, when I was broke? One odd thing, though. I
retrieved the envelope. No postage stamp, no frank, so delivered in person. I'd
have to watch out. If the geriatric herself had come to haunt the village's leafy
lanes I'd better treat her as yet another predator, among bailiffs and servers
Tea up. I took it out and sat on my low wall, which I'd finish one
day, and swigged it with some jam and bread, but the robin and those little
dipping brown birds came cadging so I only got half. I'd no more nuts for the
bluetits. Let them go without for once, serve the thieving little swine right.
They'd had my milk twice this week. They rip the foil cap so the bottles fill
with rain. I get diluted rainwater while they get the cream. Life's just one
damned thing after another.
Things are never what they seem. And I include every single thing.
I could give you a million proofs, but Jox proves it best.
For a while I hung about the cottage. Its peace and tranquillity
got me down so I hitch-hiked to town. There's a tradition in the village that
anybody waiting by the chapel bus stop deserves a lift, but I don't trust to
fortune. Women give me a lift if nobody's watching. Blokes only want to bully
me into some parish council or club or sell me a secondhand motor as dud as my
own. I always start walking.
Imagine my astonishment when a motor stopped. For a second I
rejoiced, but it was only Jox. I got in with misgivings.
'It didn't come off, Lovejoy.' Not even a good day, hello.
'How do, Jox. It didn't, eh?'
He groaned, slipped his motor into first and pulled away. 'I had
to hock my Jaguar.'
pawns one of his
three grand vehicles, so
sympathize? 'Hard luck, Jox.' I'm pathetic.
'This is my brother's.' He nodded soberly. 'Charges me hiring
fees. Tax, y'see.'
'Good heavens,' I said gravely, baffled.
There was more of this, all the way past St Peter's on North Hill.
I won't go on, because Jox is the loser. Note that definite article:
, not just any old loser. Champion
loser, is Jox. To realize the extent of his gift for catastrophe you have to
know his background. It is formidable, for Jox was born rich, handsome, gifted,
brilliant. He's only twenty-eight. He looks about ninety, on a good - meaning
not specially disastrous - day.
Born into a titled family that owned (past tense, for Jox's
calamitous skill is congenital) half of Lincolnshire, he went to famed schools,
was tutored by genuises, was an international athelete at swimming, hurdling
and other sports of mind-bending dullness, gained a double first (whatever that
is) at Cambridge University, married spectacularly some glamorous titled lass,
got a spectacular divorce . . . Couldn't fail, right?
Wrong. Jox became an antique dealer.
With a residue of gelt, Jox got a small antique shop not far from
Dragonsdale, between here and Fenstone. Rural to the point of somnolence. He
could have done well - tourists on the way to John Constable's village,
Gainsborough's house, pilgrims to Walsingham, all that. But Jox is jinxed. His
fortunes plummeted, everything he touched turning to gunge. Like everybody who
wants to 'settle down and run a small antique shop', he bought wrong, bid for
fakes at every auction in the Eastern Hundreds, accumulated more dross than a
town dump. And spent, and spent.
Until he was broke.
Then he borrowed, and spent. Finally getting the hint that the
antiques trade was grimsville, Jox opened a small restaurant. It failed,
gastroenteritis being what it is. His wildlife scheme ended when the local fox
hunt found some ancient parchment that barred him. Those mediaeval monks had
simply guessed Jox was on his way.
His real estate firm died when property developments crashed on
account of a series of ancient footpaths somebody discovered. See what I mean?
Folk who have everything just don't have it. The latest thing was this
'Nobody wanted to play, eh, Jox?' I guessed shrewdly.
He almost wept, cursed at a little lad on a bicycle and honked his
horn. Not a lot of patience, Jox.
‘Play?' he cried, utter grief. 'It would have been superb! Like
they did at Stoke-by-Nayland, that occasional choir and orchestra! Imagine
playing in Fenstone's old St Edmund's Church. Like the Makings at Snape - a
'Ta for the lift, Jox.' I tried to get out. We'd reached Benbow's
auction room. I was fed up with Jox.
'That bastard of a parson scuppered me, Lovejoy.' I swear tears
filled his eyes. Well, money does that.’
'Wouldn't lend his church?'
'Fenstone parish council refused.'
Tough, Jox.' I shook his hand off, made the pavement.
'It's that bloody village, Lovejoy. Ever since I set foot . . .' He
shouted for me to hold on. 'Oh, Love joy. A ceremony tomorrow night, okay?
Seven o'clock, the castle.'