Gally felt safe inside the house and though she turned quickly when she heard Mike's gasp, she was not nearly so startled by the old man's sudden presence as he was. When they shared their impressions afterwards she found herself unable to tell Mike the complete truth. They both saw the same man, and on a physical level they both recorded the same information. He was shorter than Mike, a shade under six feet tall, and if his age had started to shrink him, so far it seemed only to have condensed his vitality into a more concentrated form. He looked fit and weathered and his eyes of seafaring blue had escaped the watery weakening of the years. They burned from a face that was tanned and sculpted by the wind over strong cheekbones and a square jaw. Hair flecked dark amongst the grey might have led you to guess his age at somewhere in the sixties and miss the target by a score of years.
Mike saw an authority that made him feel callow, tongue-tied and defensive. Feeling they had been caught where they had no right to be, his own uncertainty sketched a fierceness onto his image of the man's face that, by any objective standard, was certainly not there. Mike felt like an urban intruder. The man who stood staring at him looked as if he owned the place--and not just the house, perhaps, but everywhere round about.
Gally was a searcher of faces. In London she would scan crowds restlessly, incessantly, in shops, on the underground or simply walking down the street. In the first few seconds of Ferney's appearance in her life, she decided there was more to find in this man's face than in any she had ever seen before. Afterwards, when she had time to sort out the tumult he raised in her, she remembered patience coupled with strength; a philosopher king with a sword in one hand and a book of verse in the other. That sounded fanciful enough, but what she really couldn't tell Mike was that a certainty had come bursting into her the moment she'd seen him that this was someone important whom she had been hoping to see for a long time, as if a favourite uncle had finally returned from years abroad.
The old man said nothing and Gally recovered her wits first. "I'm sorry," she told him. "We were just being nosy. Is this yours?"
He continued to weigh her impassively, then his gaze softened a fraction. "No," he said. "Not now."
She smiled at him. "I love it," she said. "It's just . . . well, beautiful."
He looked around, sniffed and looked back at her, searching her face.
"My name's Gabriella Martin," she said, "and this is Mike, my husband."
He just nodded and continued to stare as if used to disappointment.
"And you are?" she prompted, gently.
"My name," he said, with an odd inflection that said other definitions of himself were possible, "is Ferney."
She knew as soon as she heard that name, as a certainty and no longer as a whim, that this was someone she would like very much. Astonished at this, she fended him off with words to give herself space. "It's so sad it should be left to fall apart," she said. "Do you know whose it is?"
"I do. It's private property," he said and she waited, but that was all.
"I'm sorry," said Mike. "Look, Gally, I think we should go and . . ." but the old man's head lifted sharply.
"Gally? Who's Gally?"
She laughed. "That's what I'm always called. I'm sorry, Mike's right. We shouldn't be here."
"No, no. Who gave you that name?" the old man said and she couldn't tell whether it was excitement or anger in his voice.
"I . . . well, I think I gave it to myself. It was all I could say when I was very little." She looked at him in surprise. "I'm sorry if we're trespassing. We ought to go."
But suddenly he didn't want that. "There's no need," he said and now his face relaxed. "No one will mind. Mrs. Mullard, she has the rights to this house now. She lives way down by Buckhorn Weston--never comes up here these days. You look round all you like."
"It's just that we want to buy somewhere in the country, you see. Mike's away a lot and I don't want to bring up a family in the town."
The old man stared at her, seemingly transfixed. "You're having a baby?"
Mike froze inside, watching to see how she would respond. Since the miscarriage, babies had been landmines, surrounding them on all sides. Every casual reference had the capacity to hurl Gally into a deep pit of sadness. Every diaper advertisement or passing baby carriage could trigger tears. Now, to his utter astonishment, she laughed at the old man's interest.
"No, not right away. It's just an idea at the moment."
Ferney was still looking hard at her and a slow smile that seemed to stretch long disused muscles spread across his face. For a moment, until he blinked hard, his eyes caught the light with a faint sheen of tears.
Mike never understood the effortless process by which Gally and the old man stitched it all up between them without, it seemed, using conventional conversation at all. Ten minutes of half-sentences and oblique words left him nothing more than a baffled observer. At the end of it they said goodbye to Ferney at the gate and the old man ambled off up the lane. Mike tugged the gate closed, the rotten string that stood in for a hinge gave way and the whole gate sagged sideways, twisting, diamond-shaped, into the hedge.
"There," she said triumphantly, "you've broken it. Now we'll have to buy it."
He was on the defensive, irritated at being somehow excluded. Certain that she would want to talk about the possibilities, he was preparing a relentlessly logical defence but instead, when they drove off, she went into some sort of a dream. They joined the main road at the same construction site, but this time it had no effect on Gally. That was a relief to him and he left well enough alone. In the end his lecture notes muscled themselves back into his thoughts and all the way to London his mind barely left them except for odd, unguarded moments when it drifted briefly to America and what might have been.