Sage O’Nion freewheeled down the gently-sloping hill and, despite the anguish and grief which had overwhelmed her for the past three months, felt a brief taste of mental freedom.
Perhaps life in Bayhurst in the Weald of Kent would help her solve the important issues for which she had to find answers. She slowed as she reached the centre of the village and glanced up to the top of the approaching hill where the church, since the 12th century, had sheltered the tiny shops haphazardly grouped on either side of the High Street.
This road, halted briefly by the village pond on which two white swans gracefully held sway, then wound its way around the edge of the space of water, before continuing on to the residential area.
Small cottages, oast houses, and the occasional grand mansion lined the narrow country lanes. In earlier times she would have been delighted by these surroundings but now her happiness was permanently overshadowed by what had happened three months before.
She shook back her long chestnut-tinted hair, dishevelled by the wind, and stood her bike against a convenient ancient hitching post before entering the minuscule tearoom. Nancy, her friend from their time at University, was waiting, and they hugged affectionately.
Sage observed, ‘You look well. Hope you haven’t been waiting long.’
‘No, just arrived. How are you? It’s been a while, hasn’t it?’
She looks younger than she did last time we met, thought Sage enviously. Why hadn’t her parents had the money to have her teeth straightened when she was young? But she didn’t voice her thoughts.
She would take comfort in James’s judgement that her imperfections gave her face character. But that was long before the recent incongruous events. Now she exchanged pleasantries until Nancy asked her how she was enjoying life in the sticks.
‘It’s great. I can’t believe I’ve been here two months already. Why don’t you stay longer and see my cottage? You’re welcome any time, you know.’
‘Thanks. I’m sorry but I can’t. I only have an hour on my way to Maidstone. I thought it would be a good chance to see you. I’ll stay next time, I promise. My job in London is pretty demanding.’ She moved her immaculately coiffured head to one side as the waitress set down a tray of tea and scones. ‘I took the liberty of ordering. I hope you don’t mind. I love that jacket. It picks up the blue in your eyes perfectly.’
And I suppose my hair picks up the colour of my freckles, Sage thought cynically. But Nancy was continuing.
‘So why did you move here?’
Sage busied herself arranging the plates, cups and saucers before she finally replied, ‘It’s a bit of a saga. I came home one day to find my house had disappeared.’
She looked up, and despite her deep-seated sorrow, savoured the look of astonishment on her friend’s face.
‘Yes, absolutely gone! There was just bare land between the houses on either side and James was no longer in evidence.’ Sage offered the plate of scones.
‘But how can a house disappear? It just doesn’t happen. You lived in the country, didn’t you?’ said Nancy.
‘Well, yes. But that’s hardly relevant, is it?’
‘I remember it well. It was a small bungalow on its own plot of land. It looked pretty solid to me.’
‘Correct. It was. But it certainly wasn’t there when I arrived back from Scotland. I’d been on a business trip and James had gone to Paris to paint. He was due back the week before I got home and I’d expected him to be at the house. As I said, the house wasn’t there and I had no idea where he was.’
‘But what happened next? You didn’t elaborate in your letter. Just said you were moving and gave me your new address and phone number.’ She began to butter her scone in a somewhat abstracted manner. ‘You did find James eventually, didn’t you?’ She looked up. ‘You are still with James, aren’t you?’
‘Well, no. He hadn’t left a note or a message with a neighbour, and he hasn’t been in touch. It’s a huge dilemma and I’m not sure where to go next. Goodness. Is that your bus?’ asked Sage, staring through the window.
‘Help. I think it is. It can’t be that time already.’ She glanced at her watch and took a timetable from her bag. ‘Blast. I thought I had an hour here. I’ll have to go.’ Hastily she got up, grabbed her coat from the back of her chair and gave her friend a quick kiss on the cheek. ‘Can’t wait to hear the rest of the story. Will be in touch.’
With that she was gone and Sage, feeling like a deflated airbed, resigned herself to finishing the tea and scones and settling the bill. With Nancy some things never changed. And Sage hadn’t even had the benefit of her friend’s advice.
Before preparing to bike home Sage remembered the groceries she needed and went into the general store. As the bell above the door jingled she absorbed the familiar, reassuring smell of fresh bread and ripe fruit, mingled with that of turpentine, kindling, herbs and spices.
She reflected how different it was from the bland, sterile smell of town supermarkets. Mrs Sanders looked up from slicing bacon and smiled her usual welcome. A short, rotund woman, friendly and obliging, she managed to produce even the most unlikely item at short notice and with little hassle.
‘I’ll just finish Lady Sandringham’s order and be with you in a tick.’
‘No hurry.’ Sage glanced at the slim, elegant woman standing nonchalantly to one side. Probably in her early fifties, she was wearing a pale grey, fine wool suit, with the addition of a blue silk scarf and Wedgewood brooch; she was the epitome of style.
So that was her ladyship, Sage thought. Surely she’d be more at home in Harrods. Didn’t think she’d be collecting her own groceries.
As if reading her thoughts Lydia Sandringham turned, smiled and said,
‘I needed to match some tapestry thread so I told Grace I’d pick up one or two groceries while here. You’re new to the village, aren’t you?’
Sage admitted she was. ‘Arrived two months ago, so not exactly a long-time resident,’ she said cheerfully. ‘Although my family have lived here for the past three hundred years’.
‘Their name is..?’
‘Goodness, our families have always known each other. I knew your aunt well. She was a lovely woman and very active in the Women’s Institute. You’ll know lots of people in the village.’
‘No, not really. I was brought up in Scotland and I’ve spent only holidays here, with my aunt. Haven’t had time to socialise since I arrived. I’ve been too busy doing up my cottage.’
‘I thought I recognised a slight Scottish accent. You must come for dinner. I’ll introduce you to a few people. Just you? Or do you have a husband lurking in the…? Lydia caught a kind, warning glance from the proprietor. ‘Oh, I’m so sorry Mrs Sanders. I’m busy chatting as usual, and you’re waiting. Would you put it on the account please? Oh, I must go,’ she said, collecting up the few items and putting them neatly into a stylish shopping basket. ‘Give me your ‘phone number and I’ll be in touch.’ Within seconds, and after only a moment’s hesitation, Sage wrote ‘Sage Moorfield’ and her ‘phone number in the tiny notebook produced without fuss, and her ladyship swept out of the shop.
Sage’s married name of O’Nion, despite the apostrophe, was often pronounced ‘Onion’ leading to unwelcome questions and even humour. Now that James had disappeared his name could go with him, she thought grimly. Reverting to her maiden name and status was an obvious choice, albeit underpinned with deep gloom.
‘Whew,’ she gasped. ‘That was an unexpected encounter.’
‘Oh, she’s lovely. Always the same. Friendly and unassuming.’
‘I’ve heard she lives in that mansion on the hill, beyond the church.’
‘She does indeed. Cavendish Manor. I think her family have lived here since the 1600’s.’
So have mine, thought Sage. But farmers mainly. Not exactly landed gentry. ‘I’ll have some of that bacon, please, Mrs Sanders,’ she said, in answer to the questioning look on the older woman’s face. ‘And a dozen eggs too’, she added. ‘Might make a bacon and egg pie this afternoon. Oh, and I’ll have one of those boxes of chocolates behind you.’ Comfort food had become an essential part of her life, she thought with a touch of unease.
She paid and picked up her groceries. ‘Farewell, Mrs Sanders. I’ll be seeing you.’ She left the shop, and with her groceries residing in the basket on the front of her bike, set off for home. There was a chill wind blowing from the north, reminding her that, despite the watery sunshine when she left home, Christmas was only three weeks away.