Listen. The trees in this story are stirring, trembling, readjusting themselves. A breeze is coming in gusts off the sea, and it is almost as if the trees know, in their restlessness, in their head-tossing impatience, that something is about to happen.
The garden is empty, the patio deserted, save for some pots with geraniums and delphiniums shuddering in the wind. A bench stands on the lawn, two chairs facing politely away from it. A bicycle is propped up against the house but its pedals are stationary, the oiled chain motionless. A baby has been put out to sleep in a pram and it lies inside its stiff cocoon of blankets, eyes obligingly shut tight. A seagull hangs suspended in the sky above and even that is silent, beak closed, wings outstretched to catch the high thermal draughts.
The house is set apart from the rest of the village, behind dense hedge, on the crest of a cliff. This is the border between Devon and Cornwall, where the two counties crouch, eyeing each other. It is a much-disputed piece of land. It would not do to look too long at the soil here, soaked as it will be with the blood of Celts, Anglo- Saxons, Romans, filled out with the rubble of their bones.
However, this happens in a time of relative peace for Britain: late summer in the mid-1950s. A gravelled path curves towards the front door of the house. On the washing-line, petticoats and vests, socks and stays, nappies and handkerchiefs snap and writhe in the breeze. A radio can be heard from somewhere, one of the neighbouring houses perhaps, and the muffled thwack of an axe falling on wood.
The garden waits. The trees wait. The seagull, balancing in the sky above the washing, waits. And then, just as if this is a stage set and there is an audience, watching from a hushed dark, there are voices. Noises off. Somebody screams, another person shouts, something heavy hits the floor. The back door of the house is wrenched open. 'I can't bear it! I tell you, I can't!' the someone shrieks. The back door is slammed, resoundingly, and a person appears.
She is twenty-one, soon to be twenty-two. She is wearing a blue cotton dress with red buttons. A yellow scarf holds back her hair. She is marching across the patio and she is holding a book. In her bare feet, she stamps down the steps and across the lawn. She doesn't notice the seagull, which has turned in the air to look down on her, she doesn't notice the trees, which are tossing their branches to herald her arrival, she doesn't even notice the baby as she sweeps past the pram, heading for a tree stump at the bottom of the garden.
She sits herself down on this tree stump and, attempting to ignore the rage fanning through her veins, she balances the book on her lap and begins to read. Death be not proud, the words begin, though some have called thee mighty and Dreadful.
She bends with tense concentration over the page, sighing and flexing her shoulders. Then, without warning, she lets out a sudden growl and flings the book away from her. It hits the grass with a subdued thud, its pages fluttering closed. There it lies, surrounded by grass.
She gets to her feet. She doesn't do it as anybody else would, gradually moving from sitting to standing. She leaps, she starts, she bounds, she seems to stamp on the soil as she rises as if, like Rumpelstiltskin, she would crack it open.
Standing, she is at once confronted by the sight of a farmer in the lane, driving a flock of sheep, a switch in one hand, a dog darting about him. These sheep encapsulate what she hates about her home: their shredded, filthy backsides, their numb-faced stupidity, their witless bleating. She would like to drive them all into a threshing machine, over the cliff, anything, just to rid herself of the sight.
She turns away from the sheep, away from the house. She keeps only the sea in her sights. She has had a creeping fear of late that what she wants most - for her life to begin, to take on some meaning, to turn from blurred monochrome into glorious technicolour - may pass her by. That she might not recognise it if it comes her way, might fail to grasp for it.
She is closing her eyes to the sea, to the presence of the castaside book, when there is the sound of feet thudding through grass and a voice, saying, 'Sandra?'
She snaps upright as if she has received an electric shock. 'Alexandra!' she corrects. This is her name, given to her at birth, but her mother later decided she didn't like it and shortened it to its final syllables.
'Alexandra,' the child repeats obediently. 'Mother says, “What are you doing and will you come in and-”'
'Away!' Alexandra screams. 'Go away!' And she returns crossly to her stump, to the book, to her analysis of Death and its needless pride.
At the exact same moment, half a mile away, Innes Kent - aged thirty-four, art dealer, journalist, critic, self-confessed hedonist - is kneeling on the dirt to examine the underside of his car. He has no idea what he is looking for but feels that he ought to look anyway. He is ever the optimist. The car is a silver and ice-blue MG; Innes loves it more than almost anything else in the world and it has just ground to a standstill at the side of this country lane. He straightens up. And he does what he does in most situations that frustrate him: he lights a cigarette. He gives the wheel an experimental kick, then regrets it.
Innes has been in St Ives, visiting the studio of an artist whose work he'd been hoping to buy. He had found the artist rather drunk and the work far from completion. The whole excursion has been a raging disaster. And now this. He grinds his cigarette underfoot, then sets off down the lane. He can see a cluster of houses ahead, the curved wall of a harbour reaching out into the sea. Someone will know the whereabouts of a garage, if they have garages in this god - forsaken place.
Alexandra does not - cannot - know the proximity of Innes Kent. She doesn't know that he is coming, getting ever closer with every passing second, walking in his hand-made shoes along the roads that separate them, the distance between them shrinking with every wellshod step. Life as she will know it is about to begin but she is absorbed, finally, in her reading, in a long-dead man's struggle with mortality.
As Innes Kent turns into her road, Alexandra raises her head. She places the book on the ground again, this time more gently, and stretches, her arms held high. She twirls a strand of hair between finger and thumb, hooks a daisy between her toes and plucks it - she has always had gymnastic joints; it is something of which she is rather proud. She does this again and again until all eight gaps between her toes hold the frank yellow eye of a daisy.
Innes comes to a halt beside a gap in a thick hedge. He peers through. A pretty sort of country house with bushes, grass, flowers, that kind of thing - a garden, he supposes. Then he sees, close by, seated under a tree, a woman. Innes's interest never fails to be piqued by the proximity of a woman.
This specimen is without shoes, hair held off her neck in a yellow scarf. He raises himself on tiptoe to see better. The most exquisite column of a neck, he decides. If he were pressed to write a description of it, he would be forced to employ the word 'sculptural' and possibly even 'alabaster', which are not terms he would bandy about lightly. Innes's background is in art. Or perhaps 'foreground' would be a more accurate term. Art is not a background for Innes. It is what he breathes, what makes life continue; he looks and he doesn't see a tree, a car, a street, he sees a potential still-life, he sees an interplay of light and shade and colour, he sees a deliberate arrangement of chosen objects.
And what he sees when he looks at Alexandr...