From the Paperback edition.
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Fetherbridge was not a Darwinian town, evolving higgledy-piggledy across the chalky Hampshire downs as its inhabitants brutally vied for Mother Nature’s better spots. Rather, Fetherbridge was concocted, plopped down due east of Winchester in 1762 by Lord James Bannick whose passion for balance compelled him to create his own perfect village: the proper kind of people doing the proper kind of thing behind the proper kind of window.
The village was constructed on a simple grid emanating eastward from the Bannick estate of Tullsgate. The half-mile long High Street contained one of everything necessary for a comfortable and restrained life: one blacksmith, one baker, one publican, one priest. For a century Lord Bannick and his progeny kept the little community gently bound in its rectangular girdle, but by the mid-1800’s, capillaries of growth began to curl from the original village. Offspring set up their own homes; newcomers, amused by the prescribed charm, built houses on the periphery. The tendrils coiled out, sly aesthetic infractions. By the late twentieth century an aerial view of Fetherbridge looked like a barrette snatched in haste from a head of tangled hair.
Lisa Stillwell and her family lived in the most recent repudiation of Lord Bannick’s dream, a span of modest, semidetached dwellings inexplicably called Heather-wood Beach built on the far end of what had once been the manorial park. For generations Still wells had lived in one of the first original cottages constructed, a clay-and-flint affair manoeuvred prettily on a patch of land directly behind the family’s High Street bakery. By the time Lisa’s father came into possession of the property, however, the merry old cottage creaked under a dank and bird-spackled roof, and the clay had become a romantic notion hidden between the rows of newer bricks forced into the frame to keep the structure from crumbling.
Lisa had grown up in that derelict cottage, living there with her parents and brother for fourteen irritating years until the day her mother came home from the bakery and found part of the ceiling on her bed—along with the skeletal remains of several birds, rats, and an indecipherable tree-climbing mammal. The Stillwells contacted an estate agent and within two months the cottage was sold to a pair of fresh-faced London accountants with a yen for weekend tranquility.
Lisa’s bicycle skidded on the pebbles in front of the old cottage drive as she braked to a stop. Balancing the bicycle between her legs, she smoothed her black wool gloves along the fingers one by one and studied the cottage objectively. Christmas was little more than two weeks away, but the Londoners had made nothing of it. No wreath hung on the door, no tinseled tree abutted against the sitting room window. In fact, in the eight years they had owned the place, the Londoners had fairly well ignored it. Such a pity, Lisa thought, adjusting her black cloak and mounting her bicycle. Under her care the cottage would be flourishing now. Needlepoint pillows, Staffordshire figurines, yards of heavy damask drapes and upholstery—magazines would send out photography crews and her fellow villagers would murmur with pride about the dramatic domestication of their dear, young Lisa Stillwell.
She pumped her bicycle up Bakers Lane toward the High Street, passing three more cottages, these with red-ribboned wreaths hung and coloured lights flickering through the windows. She smiled. It didn’t matter if the village was manufactured and irregularly maintained. To her, Fetherbridge was England—the pantiled roofs, the flint facades, the whole bloody primrose-and-privet romance of the place. In the cold morning mist, time blurred, and she could imagine that she was Jane Austen’s Emma Woodhouse out for her “tolerably regular exercise.” This was, after all, Austen country, and Lisa would have been unduly modest to say that the line of genteel middle-class femininity had found anything less than a suitable descendent in her.
Lisa bumped her bicycle onto the walk that stretched along the High Street and dismounted. From here she could take in the entire length of the street. The names above the shops were the village’s own Domesday Book, the current proprietors more often than not, like her own family, descendants of Lord Bannick’s chosen few. Her mother once told her that she didn’t need a book to learn the history of Fetherbridge, just a shopping list. It was the truest bit of wisdom her mother ever gave her.
The gold-on-black lettering of the sign over her father’s bakery perspired with morning dew: Stillwell’s, then in smaller letters underneath, est. 1768. Through the multipaned window Lisa saw her father and the broad back of Editha Forrester as the village matron bent over a table laden with the day’s first loaves. Glancing up, Edgar Stillwell saw his daughter and waved. He was still wearing his baking apron, and he wiped his hands across it before pointing towards the rear of the shop. Lisa nodded in understanding. As soon as the baking was done around noon, she needed to drive her nineteen-year-old brother Brian into Winchester to shop for shoes.
She glanced at her watch. It was just gone nine. She had much to do before her sisterly obligation. A tingle of anticipation ran through her.
Slowly, she began pushing the bicycle down the street. The air, the light, and the dulling greys of the buildings made the street into a grisaille of canted roofs and fluid glass. Suddenly, predictably, she was filled with a horrid love for the village. She stopped walking and stood motionless, allowing the air to settle around her.
It didn’t happen every time she walked down the High Street, but there were days when she loved the village to the point of despair, when she literally wanted to shovel up the stones along the shop fronts and bury herself in the foundation. It wasn’t a poetic impulse—it was hard and real and she found herself torn between needing to flee Fetherbridge entirely and yearning for the joy of dying slowly in its soil. She often wondered if it was herself or the village that insisted on the unnatural bond.
Gripping the handlebars, she started to jog down the street. The aging doors and windows made a diminishing line behind her, and she ran faster, envisioning them collapsing one by one as she passed. The broken pavement occasionally made her stumble; nevertheless, she resolved to go the distance, hoping that when she reached her destination, her eyes would be shining and her voice breathless. Christian Timbrook was dressed all in grey—hat, coat, trousers, boots—and as he slowly lowered his backside to perch atop a gravestone, he hoped that he’d be taken for a stone seraph, his black hair the trailings of lichen, his ruddy face a reaction to the dead’s bawdy mutterings.
Across the cemetery a black-wrapped figure trotted its bicycle past the corner of the church and twisted its head to look around the grounds. Timbrook held his breath. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to talk to Lisa Still-well; in fact, he didn’t see how he could avoid it, considering he would be joining her and the other members of the planning committee inside the church shortly. The difficulty was he didn’t want to see Lisa alone, and as she propped her bicycle against the south wall of St. Martin’s Church, Timbrook sat very still.
Timbrook waited until Lisa disappeared through the south door’s grand arched overhang before releasing his breath. It was a bit past eleven, for him the worst possible hour for a meeting. The morning light, already frail in December, would be dull soon. It was one thing to be dragged from work for an afternoon of ale and lust, another entirely to waste a morning listening to the babble of do-gooders with the wind up their arses. He had said as much to Jeremy Cart, but the reverend sonorously assured him that it being scarcely two weeks until Christmas, midmorning Friday was the most convenient time for all the churchgoers involved.
Timbrook had taken the slight as a compliment. It was enough that he had been born to, reared by, and suffered among the pious; he didn’t intend to be mistaken for one as well.
Across the cemetery a bird screamed and wheeled toward Timbrook’s perch. Shrugging, Timbrook stood. The cold was beginning to strain his taste for defiance, and besides, as near as he could tell, the only one not yet present was the gracious padre himself.
The smell of paint hit him as soon as he opened the door to the south transept, testimony to a yuletide refurbishment frenzy in the church’s meeting rooms. A chatter of voices—loud, echoing, female—broke from the building and skittered through the cemetery. Ah, Timbrook thought, the blithering ninny club. He wondered if Mary Magdalene and her crew had prattled aimlessly at Jesus and if the Son ever questioned whether or not having oily toes was worth it.
The jabbering stopped abruptly when he entered the church nave. Four women, still cloaked and in shooting gallery formation, took up the whole of the left front pew. For a moment Timbrook stood awkwardly under the transept arch, trying to judge if their stares were a natural reaction to his entrance or if he had invaded the private machinations of a female cult gathering. Surely it was the latter, and out of deference, he tipped his hat.
Helen Pane moved first, rising halfway from her seat. “Oh, God, Timbrook, you’re here, finally.” Her voice, usually throaty, rang through the room at an unpleasant pitch. “I was beginning to get worried—afraid you had overslept or something.”
Timbrook moved further into the nave until he stood a few feet from the women’s pew. He looked down into Helen’s face and resisted the urge to brush away the powder that clung to the fine hairs of her cheeks. Pretty, he thought—auburn hair, green eyes, and all that. Pity about her attention to detail.
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