EXCERPT - A PLACE OF HIDING
ISLAND OF GUERNSEY ENGLISH CHANNEL
RUTH BROUARD WOKE WITH a start. Something in the house wasn't right. She lay motionless and attended to the darkness as she'd learned to do all those years ago, waiting for the sound to repeat so as to know whether she was safe in her hiding place or whether she should flee. What the noise had been she couldn't have said in this moment of strained listening. But it hadn't been part of the nighttime noises she was used to hearing the creak of the house, the rattle of a window in its frame, the soughing of wind, the call of a gull roused out of its sleep-so her pulse quickened as she worried her ears and forced her eyes to discriminate among the objects in her room, testing each one out, comparing its position in the gloom with where it stood in daylight, when neither ghosts nor intruders would dare disturb the peace of the old manor house in which she lived.
She heard nothing more, so she ascribed her sudden waking to a dream she couldn't remember. Her jangled nerves she ascribed to imagination. That and the medication she was taking, the strongest painkiller her doctor would give her that wasn't the morphine her body needed.
She grunted in her bed, feeling a bud of pain that flowered from her shoulders and down her arms. Doctors, she thought, were modern-day warriors. They were trained to battle the enemy within till the last corpuscle gave up the ghost. They were programmed to do that, and she was grateful for it. But there were times when the patient knew better than the surgeon, and she understood she'd arrived at one of those times. Six months, she thought. Two weeks until her sixty-sixth birthday, but she'd never see her sixty-seventh. The devil had made it from her breasts to her bones, after a twenty-year respite during which she'd got sanguine.
She shifted her position from her back to her side, and her gaze fell on the red digital numbers of the clock at her bedside. It was later than she'd thought. The time of year had utterly beguiled her. She'd assumed from the darkness that it was two or three in the morning, but it was half past six, only an hour from her usual time of rising.
From the room next to hers, she heard a sound. But this time it wasn't a noise out of place, born of dream or imagination. Rather, it was the movement of wood upon wood as a wardrobe door was opened and closed and a drawer in the chest was handled likewise. Something thudded quietly on the floor, and Ruth pictured the trainers accidentally falling from his hands in his haste to get them on.
He would already have gyrated his way into his bathing suit-that in- significant triangle of azure Lycra that she thought so unsuitable for a man of his age--and his track suit would be covering it for now. All that remained of his bedroom preparations were the shoes he would wear on his walk to the bay, and those he was putting on at the moment. A creak of the rocking chair told Ruth that.
She smiled as she listened to her brother's movements. Guy was as predictable as the seasons. He'd said last night that he intended to swim in the morning, so swim he would, as he did every day: tramping across the grounds to gain access to the outer lane and then fast-walking down to the beach to warm up, alone on the narrow switchback road that carved a tunneled zigzag beneath the trees. It was her brother's ability to adhere to his plans and to make them successful that Ruth admired more than anything else about him.
She heard his bedroom door closing. She knew exactly what would come next: Through the darkness, he'd feel his way to the airing cupboard and pull out a towel to take with him. That procedure would take ten seconds, after which he'd use up five minutes to locate his swimming goggles, which he'd have placed yesterday morning in the knife box or draped over the canterbury in his study or shoved without thought into that corner dresser that listed against the wall in the breakfast room. With the goggles in his possession, he'd be off to the kitchen to brew his tea, and when he had it in hand-because he always took it with him for afterwards, his steaming ginkgo-and-green reward for another successful dip into water too cold for ordinary mortals-he'd be out of the house and striding across the lawn towards the chestnuts, beyond them the drive and beyond that the wall that defined the edge of the property. Ruth smiled at her brother's predictability. It was not only what she loved best about him; it was also what had long given her life a sense of security that by rights it shouldn't have had.
She watched the numbers on her digital clock change as the minutes passed and her brother made his preparations. Now he would be at the airing cupboard, now descending the stairs, now rustling round for those goggles and cursing the lapses of memory that were becoming more frequent as he approached seventy. Now he would be in the kitchen, she thought, perhaps even sneaking a pre-swim snack.
At the point at which Guy's morning ritual would be taking him out of the house, Ruth rose from bed and wrapped her dressing gown round her shoulders. She padded to the window on bare feet and pulled aside the heavy curtains. She counted down from twenty, and when she hit five, there he was below her, corning out of the house, dependable as the hours of the day, as the December wind and the salt it blew off the English Channel.
He was wearing what he always wore: a red knitted cap pulled low on his forehead to cover his ears and his thick graying hair; the navy running suit stained at the elbows, the cuffs, and the thighs with the white paint he'd used on the conservatory last summer; trainers without socks-al- though she couldn't see that, merely knew her brother and how he dressed. He carried his tea. He had a towel slung round his neck. The goggles, she guessed, would be in a pocket.
"Have a good swim," she said into the icy window pane. And she added what he'd always said to her, what their mother had cried out long ago as the fishing boat pulled away from the dock, taking them from home
in the pitch-black night, "Au revoir et adieu, mes cheris."
Below her, he did what he always did. He crossed the lawn and headed for the trees and the drive beyond them.
But this morning, Ruth saw something else as well. Once Guy reached the elms, a shadowy figure melted out from beneath them and began to follow her brother.
Ahead of him, Guy Brouard saw that the lights were already on in the Duffys' cottage, a snug stone structure that was, in part, built into the boundary wall of the estate. Once the collection point for rent from tenants of the privateer who'd first built
Le Reposoir in the early eighteenth century, the steep-roofed cottage now served to house the couple who helped Guy and his sister maintain the property: Kevin Duffy on the grounds and his wife, Valerie, inside the manor house.
The cottage lights indicated that Valerie was up seeing to Kevin's breakfast. That would be exactly like her: Valerie Duffy was a wife beyond compare.
Guy had long thought that the mould had been broken after Valerie Duffy's creation. She was the last of a breed, a wife from the past who saw it as her job and her privilege to take care of her man. If Guy himself had had that sort of wife from the first, he knew he wouldn't have had to spend a lifetime sampling the possibilities out there in the hope of finally finding her.
His own two wives had been true to tedious type. One child with the first, two children with the second, good homes, nice cars, fine holidays in the sun, nannies, and boarding schools . . . It hadn't mattered: You work too much. You're never at home. You love your miserable job more than me. It was an endless variation on a deadly theme. No wonder he'd not been able to keep himself from straying.
Out from beneath the bare-branched elms, Guy followed the drive in
the direction of the lane. It was quiet still, but as he reached the iron gates and swung one of them open, the first warblers stirred from within the bramble, the blackthorn, and the ivy that grew along the narrow road and clung to the lichened stone wall that edged it. It was cold. December. What could one expect? But as it was early, there was still no wind, although a rare southeast promised for later that day would make swimming impossible after noon. Not that anyone other
than he would likely be swimming in December. That was one of the advantages of having a high tolerance for cold: One had the water all to oneself.
That was how Guy Brouard preferred it. For swimming time was thinking time, and he generally had much to think about.
Today was no different. The wall of the estate to his right, the tall hedgerows of the surrounding farmland to his left, he strode along the lane in the dim morning light, heading for the turn that would take him down the steep hillside to the bay. He considered what he had wrought in his life in the past few months, some of it deliberately and with plenty of fore- thought, some of it as a consequence of events no one could have anticipated. He'd engendered disappointment, confusion, and betrayal among his closest associates. And because he'd long been a man who kept his own counsel in matters closest to his heart, none of them had been able to comprehend-let alone to digest-the fact that their expectations of him had been so wildly off the mark. For nearly a decade he'd encouraged them to think of Guy Brouard as a permanent benefactor, paternal in his concern for their futures, profligate in the manner in which he assured those futures were secure. He hadn't meant to mislead any of them with this. To the contrary, he'd all along fully intended to make everyone's secret dream come true.
But all that had been before Ruth: that grimace of pain when she thought he wasn't looking and what he knew that grimace meant. He wouldn't have realised, of course, had she not started slipping away for appointments she called "opportunities for exercise,
frere" along the cliffs. At Icart Point, she said, she was taking inspiration for a future needlepoint from the crystals of feldspar in the flaky gneiss. At Jerbourg, she reported, the patterns of schist in the stone formed unequal grey bands that one could follow, tracing the route that time and nature used to lay silt and sediment into ancient stone. She sketched the gorse, she said, and she described with her pencils the thrift and sea-campion in pink and white. She picked ox-eye daisies, arranged them on the ragged surface of a granite outcrop, and made a drawing of them. She clipped bluebells and broom, heather and gorse, wild daffodils and lilies as she went along, depending on the season and her inclination. But the flowers never quite made it home. "Too long on the car seat, I had to throw them out;' she'd claim. "Wild flowers never last when you pick them."
Month after month, this had gone on. But Ruth wasn't a walker of cliffs. Nor was she a picker of flowers or a student of geology. So all of this made Guy naturally suspicious.
He'd foolishly thought at first that his sister finally had a man in her life and was embarrassed to tell him so. The sight of her car at Princess Elizabeth Hospital had brought him round, however. That in conjunction with her grimaces of pain and her lengthy retreats to her bedroom had forced him to realise what he didn't want to face.
She had been the only constant in his life from the night they'd set off from the coast of France, making good an escape left far too late, on a fishing boat, hidden among the nets. She'd been the reason he himself had survived, her need for him a spur to maturity, to laying plans, and to ultimate success.
But this? He could do nothing about this. From this that his sister suffered now, there would be no fishing boat in the night.
So if he had betrayed, confused, and disappointed the others, it was nothing in light of losing Ruth.
Swimming was his morning release from the overwhelming anxiety of these considerations. Without his daily swim in the bay, Guy knew that the thought of his sister, not to mention his absolute impotence to change what was happening to his sister, would consume him.
The road he was on was steep and narrow, thickly wooded on this east side of the island. The rarity of any harsh wind from France had long al- lowed the trees to prosper here. Where Guy walked beneath them, the sycamores and chestnuts, ash and beech, made a skeletal arc that was grey etched on pewter in the pre-dawn sky. The trees rose on sheer hillsides held back by stone walls. At the base of these, water flowed eagerly from an inland spring, chirping against stones as it raced to the sea.
The way switched back and forth on itself, past a shadowy water mill and a misplaced Swiss chalet hotel that was closed for the season. It ended in a minuscule car park, where a snack bar the size of a misanthrope's heart was boarded and locked, and the granite slipway once used to give horses and carts access to the
vraic that was the island's fertilizer was slick with seaweed.
The air was still, the gulls unroused from their nighttime cliff-top resting places. In the bay the water was tranquil, an ashen mirror reflecting the colour of the lightening sky. There were no waves in this deeply sheltered place, just a gentle slapping of water on pebbles, a touch that seemed to re- lease from the seaweed the contrasting sharp odours of burgeoning life and decay.
Near the life ring that hung from a spike long ago driven into the
cliff side, Guy set down his towel and placed his tea on a flat-surfaced stone. He kicked off his shoes and removed his track suit's trousers. He reached into his jacket pocket for his swimming goggles.
His hand came into contact with more than just the goggles, however. Inside his pocket was an object that he took out and held in the palm of his hand.
It was wrapped in white linen. He unfolded this and brought forth curiously and found within it a circular stone. It was pierced in the middle in the fashion of a wheel, for a wheel was what it was supposed to be:
enne rouelle de faltot. A fairy's wheel.
Guy smiled at the charm, at the memory it evoked. The island was a place of folklore. To those born and bred here, of parents and grandparents born and bred here, carrying the occasional talisman against witches and their familiars was something that might be scoffed at publicly but not so lightly dismissed privately.
You ought to carry one of these, you know. Protection's important, Guy.
Yet the stone-fairy wheel or not-had not been nearly enough to protect him in the single way he'd thought he was protected. The unexpected still occurred in everyone's life, so he could not rightfully call him- self surprised when the unexpected had occurred in his.
He wrapped the stone back in its linen and returned it to his pocket. Shrugging out of his jacket, he removed his knitted cap and stretched the goggles round his head. He picked his way across the narrow beach and without hesitation, he entered the water.
It came at him like a knife's blade. In the midst of summer the Channel was no tropical bath. In the tenebrous morning of fast-approaching winter, it felt glacial, dangerous, and forbidding.
But he didn't think of that. Instead, he moved resolutely forward and as soon as he had enough depth to make it safe to do so, he pushed off from the bottom and began to swim. He dodged patches of seaweed in the water, moving fast.
In this manner, he swam a hundred yards out, to the toad-shaped granite outcropping that marked the point where the bay met the English Channel. Here he stopped, right at the toad's eye, a creation of guano collected in a shallow recess of the stone. He turned back to the beach and began to tread water, the best way he knew to keep in shape for the coming ski season in Austria. As was his habit, he removed his goggles to clear his view for a few minutes. He idly inspected the cliffs in the distance and the heavy foliage that covered them. Through this means, his gaze traveled downward on an uneven, boulder-strewn journey to the beach.
He lost count of his kicks.
Someone was there. A figure, mostly in shadow but obviously watching him, stood on the beach. To one side of the granite slipway, it wore dark clothing with a flash of white at the neck, which was what must have caught his attention in the first place. As Guy squinted to bring the figure into better focus, it stepped away from the granite and moved across the beach.
There was no mistaking its destination. The figure glided over to his discarded clothes and knelt among them to pick up something: the jacket or the trousers, it was difficult to tell at this distance.
But Guy could guess what the figure was after, and he cursed. He realised that he should have emptied his pockets before setting out from the house. No ordinary thief, of course, would have been interested in the small pierced stone that Guy Brouard habitually carried. But no ordinary thief would ever have anticipated finding a swimmer's belongings in the first place, unguarded on the beach so early on a December morning. Whoever it was knew who was swimming in the bay. Whoever it was either sought the stone or fingered through his clothing as a feint devised to get Guy back to shore.
Well, damn it, he thought. This was his time in solitude. He didn't
intend to get into it with anyone. What was important to him now was only his sister and how his sister would meet her end.
He resumed swimming. He traversed the width of the bay twice. When at last he looked to the beach another time, he was pleased to see that whoever had encroached on his peace was gone.
He swam to shore and arrived there breathless, having covered nearly twice the distance that he usually covered in the morning. He staggered out and hurried over to his towel, his body a mass of chicken flesh.
The tea promised quick relief from the cold, and he poured himself a cup from his Thermos. It was strong and bitter and most especially hot, and he gulped down all of it before whipping off his swimsuit and pouring himself another. This he drank more slowly as he toweled himself off, rubbing his skin vigorously to restore some heat to his limbs. He put his trousers on and grabbed his jacket. He slung it round his shoulders as he sat on a rock to dry his feet. Only after he'd donned his trainers did he put his hand in his pocket. The stone was still there.
He thought about this. He thought about what he had seen from the water. He craned his neck and searched the cliffside behind him. Nothing stirred anywhere that he could see.
He wondered then if he'd been mistaken about what he'd assumed was on the beach. Perhaps it had not been a real person at all but, rather, a manifestation of something going on in his conscience. Guilt given flesh, for example.
He brought out the stone. He unwrapped it once more and with his thumb traced the shallow initials carved into it.
Everyone needs protection, he thought. The tricky part was knowing from whom or what.
He tossed back the rest of his tea and poured himself another cup. Full sunrise was less than an hour off. He would wait for it right here this morning.
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