She was drooping, a rucksack
hanging low on her back and sagging lower from one strap. She was trudging, an unwilling gait along a little-frequented road. He had turned along it having seen a spire
, and now, fifteen minutes later, he was heading home.
The trudging girl stopped when she heard the car and looked back: as he approached, she held out her thumb. He slowed, because the brown hair that cascaded over her shoulders and down her bare arms made her look attractive, and because this was too lonely a place for a young woman to be hitch-hiking.
'Going far?' he said.
'Just the next town. Aylesbury, is it?' she said, throwing down and stamping on half a cigarette. Her voice was educated, almost Sloane, and her mannerisms were brisk, showing none of the flagging of her steps. As he reached across to the passenger door she popped momentarily round to the front of the car, came back taking her mobile from her purse, and glanced at her watch. 'Thanks,' she said absently.
He watched as she typed something while sliding into the seat. When she was finished she did up her seat belt and showed him with a smile: 'White Mazda, 4.17, Long Crendon to Aylesbury, is that your numberplate?'
'Good idea,' he affirmed, with a broader smile. 'Never know who drives along here looking at old churches.'
'Just habit,' she said, sending it. 'Now we can relax. Hi.'
'It's a bit far to walk,' Peter remarked as they got up to full speed. She was remarkably beautiful, a fine nose with a little ridge to it, thoughtful lips, expressively long eyebrows. It was a pleasure to turn and make small talk to her, and they were on a quiet road for a little while yet.
'Short cut. Well I thought it was. Across those fields,' said Catriona with a wave of her hands in both directions. She yawned and tried vainly to stifle it but it seemed too much effort.
'We're keeping you up.'
'Sorry, I've been hitching all day and now I just want to get home.'
'God no. London.'
'You haven't been trying to hitch to London all day? Or are you--'
'I was staying with friends in Birmingham. But I don't want a three-hour trip straight down the M40.'
'So you use side roads. I prefer them myself.'
'And they're safer, I think. Fewer nutters. More people like you. You're local?'
'No, I'm going to London actually. Can I take you all the way? I use back roads as far as I can.'
She was almost asleep, the life deflated from her as she sank back in the seat, so he forbore. They went quietly for a few minutes, eased against a hedgerow to allow a tractor to pass, and entered a copse. When they came out Peter let slip an exclamation, and had to slow down as he passed the church. He was craning to see it, unwilling to move any of his body over her seat as he would have done if he had been alone, but when she abruptly awoke she looked first at him then out the window where he was looking.
'Norman! Oh, can we stop? You want to see it, don't you?'
'Yes!' he laughed, amazed at the vivacious and pleading creature she had suddenly become. They pulled to a halt in front of the churchyard and went towards it.
'John Hutton, 1698,' she read from a lichened and skull-topped tombstone. 'And his Dame Judith, 17.. 1710 or 1718. And some Latin I can't read.'
Peter knelt by the grave to catch light on the edges of the inscription. 'I think the middle word is omnes.'
'Non omnes moriar? No, it's too long. I love these. Beautiful typeface, isn't it?'
'You're an artist of some kind,' he guessed. This had the odd effect of her looking round at him with an incredulous expression, which after slightly too long turned briefly to laughter, then polite laughter.
'No,' she said quietly, raising herself up from her haunches. 'I'd like to be. Who knows.'
They circled the church once admiring the lancets and comparing gargoyles. There was some Roman brick near the base of the tower, and another 1690s tombstone underfoot in the porch, names faded to Ja and Eliz. It was Catriona who was most eager to get in, and turned the iron ring. The church rang dully with the door and their footsteps. They stood and admired the nave columns, almost pure Norman, then began to circle the place in opposite directions. Several times Catriona skipped over to Peter to get him to look at something she had found first: a brass to Sir William de Truherne, 1421; a crusader effigy in his own chapel; a bird's nest in the piscina.
'Architecture student then?' he asked as they shut the door behind them and walked to the car. The sun was beginning to sink. It was large and ruddy, and all the fields glowed with an autumn clarity under the faintest purple mist. No cars had passed. The last visitor to the church had been yesterday. There was barely any wind.
'Student,' she replied enigmatically. She belted herself in and curled her body as if she wanted to sleep, when her phone rang. 'Hi... Yes, fine, we've just seen this lovely church... Norman, three brasses and an effigy... Don't know, I'll have to look. Hang on. Peter, do you know where we are?'
'It was St Thomas's but I don't know where. The village is over there.'
'A St Thomas's but we don't know where... Yeah, look, I'm tired, that's the last one... Peter's taking me into London. I'll get the Tube or something... Yeah... Love you. Bye.'
'Boyfriend expecting you?'
'Sister. She worries.'
Peter considered this for a while, then answered, 'I think I'd worry if you were my sister.' As they moved into a main road and a heavy stream of traffic he continued, for she was looking quizzically up at him from heavy-lidded eyes, 'Hitch-hiking all day with strange men. Oh. Sorry, I wasn't meaning to give you my hitch-hiker lecture. I'll shut up.'
'No it's okay. If I don't like them I say I only accept lifts from women. You looked safe enough so I do my text and get in.'
'The problem with the hitch-hiking lecture is that however I phrase it seems to come out as me saying, "I am not a rapist, but...". Then they get out.'
'Oh, poor thing. Well I'm going to trust you till we get to a Tube station, cos I want to rest now.'
In another fifteen minutes there was a choice between major and minor routes, and Peter shifted off into the minor road, where a long village snaked lazily across the landscape, hay-gold fields gleaming behind the houses. In the centre was a cluster of two or three shops, a school and a church and a hall, a bus stop and a pub. The Maiden and Sun was a boxy building of no great age, but on the further side of its garden and car park Peter could see a sedgy barrier; and as he was slowing down to look closer he saw two mallards take off from behind the sedge. He looked over at his drowsing passenger.
She, alerted to an arrival by the rolling of gravel under the wheels, took it in and announced, 'That looks nice. You thinking of a beer or something?'
'Or just a cup of tea. When's the last time you had anything?'
'I can go ages without drinking,' Catriona said. 'Or eating. But if you want to stop...'
'There's a stream over there.'
They slammed their doors shut, disturbing the silence. If there were other customers inside, there were none at the bulky trestle tables running from the entrance to the river gate. They had parked at the far end, away from the only other car, and from here could confirm that silvery water flowed slowly between thicket banks. It was straightened like a ditch here and for a while either side, with a footpath leading across to a distant wood, but no sign of a bridge. As it passed away from the pub and village the stream flattened out into a purling trickle over mossy stones.
'It's like the Cotswolds, this bit,' said Catriona into the silence. A burr in the sky drew her attention to one vapour trail joining an older one gone puffy and irregular. She was reluctant to leave the car park for the too-early dimness of a pub and questionable tea.
'Come on then,' said Peter after a little while, touching her just above the elbow, very faintly and briefly as he went forward. She felt the touch. She followed him in, crunching across the car park, and absorbed the looks of the local boys playing pool, who were the only ones who paid attention to their entrance. The overhead noise was up just a little too loudly in this part of the bar, but across the other side there was a quieter room, chintz couches in faded sea-green, and large agricultural implements across the walls.
She was looking at these realising that, all of a sudden, for the first time in her life, she knew the difference between a sickle and a scythe, when Peter got her attention again. She agreed to tea, and took up the dinner menu while waiting for him to get back. It was hand-typed, foxed with use, and appetising only in the meat dishes, of no interest to her. At the end it directed her to the specials of the day. Catriona made several forays into the more obvious nooks and bars without finding a blackboard, then spotted it behind the bar, between the two great mirrors. Here she saw from her dark eyes how tousled she was, and she took a brush from her bag.
Before she could use it, her presence brought her to the attention of a stout woman emerging from the kitchen, and on an impulse Catriona agreed she did want a drink. She ordered a half of Morland's, and interrupted herself to check with Peter at the other bar. She glanced at herself in the mirrors, and him beside her, with her brush still in her hand.
They returned to their table at the same time, she with two halves and he with a tea tray; and so in sole possession of their comfortable and airy room, decorated with Coronation supplements and Pears soap adverts, they spread themselves out and began to talk. As Catriona did she returned to the food menu, tempted by garlic bread. She wondered whether they would do just that for her at this sort of time.
He was a section head in a council planning department; he'd been in a firm of builders before that; and he lectured on Wren in adult education classes. He was, she guessed, about thirty-five, and she was uncertain whether to tease him by overestimating. It would depend on how much shock she saw on his face when she revealed her own age.
'Seventeen?' he repeated, shocked. She tried to nod trimly as she watched his eyes for calculation, but it was too much effort to keep a straight face, and she dissolved into unseemly, schoolgirlish laughter.
'Big girl next year,' she said. 'University.'
'But I thought you... I'd been guessing a teacher, or student teacher, or... twenty-four I would have said.'
'My big sister's twenty-three, perhaps you'd get on with her.'
'I'm sorry, I didn't mean it that way. I thought I'd got on well with you.'
Catriona allowed him a smile and savoured more of her beer. Refreshed, she was thinking of him more: of the subtle warmth of when he spoke of people making things to last; of whether he had cats or kits or kids at home. No wife mentioned, yet. She hadn't got so far on an adult footing with enough married men to know what they said, out here in the country, with a companion for now and a long drive ahead. Received wisdom had it they didn't mention their wives, or didn't get on with them if they did. But Peter seemed very nice, honest and gentle, nothing shifty about him.
'Married? Kids?' she said anyway.
He shook his head and seemed to shrink a little; there was a little pain in the gesture. He had wanted but had not got, freshly enough for the asking to matter.
Her lips twitched. She was aware the delay in answering would be odd. She finished her tea and lit another cigarette before conceding, 'Well, the guy I was sleeping with in Birmingham isn't the guy I go out with in London.'
'No business asking, sorry. But that's about as clear as these things ever are.'
'Yeah, and I hit a nerve too. Sorry.'
'Two years and I'm still bitter. Um, Catriona, are we going to get on the move soon or do you want to see about dinner here? I'm easy either way.'
They drifted out to the car park and watched a heron skip from tree to brook, and watched the evening deepen and the wan gold of the cornfields darken. Four nights later they slept together, just the once, and their pillow talk was of the rustling of a brook and the darkening of corn, the silence of a nave that had heard nine hundred years of footsteps, day by day, and the unlikeliness of encounter.