Lucy Rossington leaned against the windowsill, her pointed face absorbed as she peered through the panes into the derelict farmyard. Dust motes danced behind her in the sunbeams that penetrated the shabby kitchen, where the only sound was the buzzing of an early bee exploring the pad of squared paper and a pencil that lay on the floor.
A man appeared silently and unnoticed in the doorway at the back of the kitchen, where his brown corduroy trousers and chequered shirt blended with the shadows around him, rendering him almost invisible. For a few seconds he paused, staring past the battered formica cupboards at the slender figure in blue jeans. Her chestnut hair was haloed by the sunlight filtering through the grimy window, and created a splash of warmth against the walls, whose original yellow was almost overwhelmed by a patchwork of dirt and bare plaster.
Then the man moved softly forward across the floor, still unheard by Lucy but suddenly becoming more noticeable against the faded green of the cupboards as he stretched out his hands. The board under his foot gave an ear-piercing creak as he reached Lucy and encircled her waist. She leaned back against his chest and turned her head to look up at him, reaching out a hand to touch his brown hair affectionately.
'Had enough?' he asked quietly.
Lucy smiled lazily. 'No, just mesmerized by the sunshine. Like the bee,' she said, noticing it bumbling past her. She disengaged herself and struggled with the curved metal latch of the window. 'Blast. This is so stiff, I don't know if it will even open. Ah, that should be enough. Pass me the pad of paper please, Hugh.'
She took it from him with a word of thanks and used it to brush the bee out through the opening. Banging the window hard to close it, she pushed the latch back into place and turned to hold the pad so that Hugh could see it.
'See,' she said, 'I've finished the plan for the kitchen. I've got a lot more respect for Anthony's skills as an architect now. We'd never be able to get this place how we want without him; he seems to translate our ideas into lines and spaces, and as a result Withern is going to be just the home we want.'
Hugh looked up from the drawing, raising an eyebrow humorously, and his wife added honestly, 'Eventually.'
She pointed to the pad. 'Everything he said about this area is right: we do need to keep that little room over there as a walk-in larder, and that one by the door as a utility room. Then if the two storerooms on this side are knocked into the old parlour we'll have a decent size dining room. I like his idea of an archway connecting it with the kitchen, so we can use them as one big room or keep the eating space separate and more formal.'
She glanced around the neglected kitchen. 'Maybe we can paint it a version of these shades. I rather like the thought that the original owners were happy with a cheerful colour scheme.'
'Mmm,' Hugh said noncommittally. 'When is your grandmother expecting us?'
'About tea time,' Lucy replied, her hair falling forward and curtaining her face as she studied the plan she had drawn. She made another note on her sketch, then put the pad and pencil down on a nearby chair and looked at her husband. 'I'm looking forward to seeing pictures of the flat she's bought in Florence.' She frowned and added, 'Gran sounded a bit worried about this friend of hers, though, when I spoke to her this morning.'
'Veronica?' Hugh asked as he peered at Lucy's sketch.
'No,' Lucy said exasperatedly. 'I told you everybody in Florence is fine. It's this old friend from India whom she's come across unexpectedly in Coombhaven. I forget her name, but the one who's living in the nursing home near Gran's house.'
'Oh yes,' Hugh said vaguely, turning away from the pad of paper and looking out of the window. 'I thought she'd been bumping into old India hands all over the place.'
'Only two,' Lucy reminded him. 'And Lally has been around here for a long time, although I believe she lives up near the north coast. She and Gran have lunch occasionally and I've met her a couple of times, quite a while ago. I rather get the impression,' Lucy added thoughtfully, 'that Gran's not that keen on her. But Lally bumped into Gran just before she went to Italy and told her this other woman is in Coombhaven. I wonder whether she's moved to the place because of Lally; if she doesn't have any family it must be nice to have old friends nearby.'
'I expect Isobel will tell us all about it when we see her,' Hugh said, turning away from the window. 'Look, it's so nice, why don't we go outside and enjoy it for a bit?'
'Yes, that would be lovely,' Lucy said. 'I know,' she added eagerly, 'let's go and see Fran. I looked over a couple of her meadows yesterday and they're just as flower-rich as ours. If I can put a management plan together for ours, maybe she might be interested in using it for hers too.'
Hugh groaned. 'Lucy, that's work. I was thinking of a gentle stroll along the bridle path.'
'Well,' she coaxed, 'the lane's very pretty now. We could go along that instead and branch off to Fran's. I'll just say my bit, and we won't stop.'
'Alright,' Hugh said resignedly. 'But do try not to get carried away and stay there for ages.' He took a couple of fleeces from a hook on the wall and passed one to his wife. 'Come on then.'
They went out of the kitchen, and Hugh pulled the back door closed. The late spring sunlight fell brightly across the huge farmyard, which lay uncannily quiet and still before them. Momentarily Lucy had a flickering sense of the past, when hens vigorously scratched the compacted earth as cows strode past with swinging udders ready for milking, and ponderous heavy horses clopped over to their stables, hides steaming gently after a hard day's work in the fields.
Hugh touched her arm and she came back from the imaginary sound of a cock crowing to the present scene of desolation, noticing regretfully the varying stages of decay afflicting the buildings that enclosed the yard. She resolutely turned her back on them and walked through the rutted gateway, past the rusty gate propped against the hedge and out onto the back drive. This led to the lane that ran below Withern farmhouse, separating its wilderness of a garden from the remains of one of its orchards and leading eventually to the only other property nearby.
Lucy came to a halt, thrusting her hands into the pockets of her jeans and staring up at the end of the house, which was hidden by a thick growth of ivy. 'It does seem such a shame to cut it back,' she said. 'It must be a haven for birds.'
Hugh made an exasperated sound and she glanced at him with understanding. 'It's alright. I know we can't keep it like this,' she said, 'but it doesn't mean I can't regret it. At least we can wait until the nesting season is over before we get the work done. Perhaps Fran knows somebody who could do it.'
Turning away from the house, Lucy crossed the drive to look down at a wide dark pool of water. The banks around it were smothered with tangled undergrowth, from which spindly alders and willows fought their way upwards, shading out the sunshine. 'Anthony said this is spring fed,' Lucy informed Hugh, watching a moorhen scurry across the surface into the concealment of thick reeds. 'And I checked it on the map. It will be interesting to find out how deep it is; I wonder if Fran knows.'
Glancing affectionately at her, Hugh noticed the red highlights the sun always brought out in her chestnut hair. 'Fran is beginning to sound like the local oracle, but please don't ask her everything today or you'll end up chatting for hours. Come on, let's get moving,' he said, linking his arm with hers and pulling her onwards down the lane away from Withern. 'Otherwise we won't have time to reach her place, let alone talk to her.'
They strolled in companionable silence between tall thorn hedges, which were starred here and there with flowering dog roses. There was an occasional abrupt stirring in the branches when a bird was disturbed by their passing, and as they reached a field gate on the right of the lane a startled wren burst out of cover, calling shrilly as it flew into thicker shelter further along.
Hugh unlatched the gate and then hesitated, his hand on the top bar. 'I suppose it will be alright just to walk over her land,' he said, looking at Lucy enquiringly.
'Of course it will,' she replied, passing through the gap as he pushed the gate back. 'Fran's always very welcoming. I'm not sure she gets many visitors.'
'Maybe she doesn't want them,' Hugh suggested.
Lucy ignored this comment, peering down at the cropped turf as they walked across the meadow. 'I think Fran keeps sheep here in the winter. Look,' she said, stopping suddenly to point at some blotched green leaves. 'Orchids.' She turned slowly, scanning the area around her. 'There must be hundreds of them. Mainly Early Purples, I think.' She bent over the stems thrusting up from the leaves near her feet. 'These are just coming into flower, so there will be a huge swathe of that lovely magenta colour here in a couple of weeks.' She gestured over the hedge and across the lane. 'That meadow's beneath the quarry, adjoining ours, and it's full of cowslips just pushing through the turf. We've got them too, but not quite as many.' She glanced at Hugh. 'It'll be fascinating to see what else there is. I've asked Miles for some volunteers from the Wronham Trust to do a plant count.'
'When?' he queried. 'We are going to be pretty busy, you know.'
'I'm not sure,' Lucy replied, 'but it should be soon, and it won't take up much time. Miles will let me know when they can come and I'll make sure I'm here.'
They had reached the far side of the meadow and went through another gate into a small farmyard. Lucy required no imagination to picture the working scene here. Speckled hens pecked at the ground, occasionally clucking imperatively at the yellow chicks that ran around like clockwork toys under the visitors' feet as they picked their way past the fresh cowpats. A tabby cat sat on the bonnet of an old Fiesta hatchback and watched them through slitted eyes as they approached the pebble-dashed bungalow, whose original square shape was almost hidden by a later extension and a huddle of lean-to sheds.
A young collie was sitting upright on the back door step, his golden eyebrows and cheeks very noticeable against his black head. He gave one short sharp bark when he saw Lucy and Hugh, but remained at his post until another collie came round the corner of the bungalow. She considered them, then recognised Lucy and her plumed tail waved enthusiastically as she came over to greet them. The younger dog came too, abandoning his position without a qualm now.
'Hello Bess,' Lucy said, stroking the bitch's soft head. 'Who's this then?' She held her hand out to the other dog, who sniffed it curiously, then licked it and leaned against her legs to be stroked too.
'That's Ben' a husky voice said from behind her. 'Bess brought him home a few days ago. Don't know his name. Thought Ben went well with Bess.'
Lucy straightened and turned to face the woman who had jerked out the short awkward sentences. She was not much taller than Lucy but stockier in build, with a weathered face and shoulder-length dark hair tied back in an untidy ponytail.
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