Mainspring looked at Doubtful. He was, and the vibration of the delayed 15.40 from Paddington made his jowls quiver in a distasteful way.
"If you had a spark of life in that horror story you call a brain, you'd realize that someone has just started to write a story about us."
"How do you know." Doubtful's questions were questions because they were nothing else. The rising tone of the final syllable was undetectable.
"I know." Mainspring's powerful mind recognised the inadequacy of her response, but she felt no obligation to go further. Doubtful changed tack, his mental boom going over with its customary, temporary finality - until the next time.
"How far has it got, then?"
"Not far. I mentioned it as soon as I was aware. He's casting about for ideas and setting a scene of, as yet, little substance. Of course, things may liven up soon. Look, we're here." Doubtful's eyes lifted heavily.
An assortment of signs, of various ages and conditions, announced the existence of Bletchford Lasset. The little West Country fishing village was quiet and unassuming in the late afternoon as the autumn dusk drained the colour from it. The engine noise of the delayed 15.40 from Paddington fell to earth well before it reached any local ear. The no-longer-tended flowerbed which took up half the width of the platform where they stood seemed to have been drained already.
"A scumline round the bathtub of existence!" She could almost hear Herbert's plummy, portentous tones declaring some such ludicrous judgement. No doubt it had been an underworked, underpaid porter's shortlived pride and joy during the summer, but now the sprawling, dying tangle pleaded weakly for an evening to hide in.
"We'll have to take it a bit further ourselves," said Mainspring, swinging the small leather suitcase and heading for the barrier. "It's still all descriptive stuff." Doubtful shuffled along behind her, silent.
The door from the tiny ticket hall opened, as they often do, onto a slight incline on which you would draw up from the lane leading to the village itself, a few hundred yards away. Doubtful picked up and shouldered his canvas bag and followed her erect back, his own posture less than perfect, his shoulders almost disappearing under the weight of the worries he believed the world should have.
He caught up with her at the obligatory village pub, the Crab and Abbess, which stood on a stone-paved yard over-flown by seagulls. She ignored him, refocussing from the proudly blacked date above the front door only to see which side of the inner door she should purposefully extend her hand towards. The handle was on the left.
Without a pause, she had mounted the two shallow steps and swept into the brown bar, noting the name of the licensee in passing.
"Tobias Trowbutt indeed! His wife will call him Toby, and the locals will have some strange nickname for him - something like "Sudge" - the origin of which none of them can quite remember," she muttered briskly to herself. Doubtful knew better than to ask for a louder repetition, and her impression of him was therefore unchanged when they reached the bar.
"What can I do for you sir, madam?" offered a large, round man, with a balding, slightly damp forehead and long, greying lambchop sideburns, ignoring the obvious hierarchic relationship. He put down the glass he had been polishing. Carefully and in its place. It was obviously one of his favourites. He and it shared a frame of old and dark, smoked wood, made by the bar, its pillars and the high glass shelf.
"Have you two rooms we could take for the week?"
"We have indeed. If you can wait down here a moment my wife will attend to them. It was two separate rooms...?" She shot him a withering glance, which caught him in the shoulder as he turned, saying "You heard me the first time" and "with him?!". He called into the room behind the bar.
"Sarah, could you go up and prepare the guest rooms." Then to them again: "If you want to freshen up after your journey, there's a bathroom on the first landing." Doubtful followed his gesture, and saw the stairs at the end of the lounge. Mainspring had already marked them on her mental map.
"Thankyou, I will certainly take advantage of it."
"And if you'd like a meal, I think we could set before you some pork and sage sausages with fresh vegetables which will see you through the night." Doubtful took rather more notice of this part of the exchange, and his companion turned briefly towards him, smiling twinklingly, imperiously. That man is all stomach and imagined ulcer, she thought.
Ninety minutes later, unpacked, refreshed and very well fed, they sat together with glasses of the local cider. Mainspring contrived to look taller sitting down than she did standing up, her back erect, the trouser suit she had changed into looking immaculate - perfectly creased, its brown richly complementing both the dark honey of her hair and the thick dark wood of the chair. Doubtful had at least left his shapeless tweed overcoat upstairs, so now everyone had a full view of his shapeless, mushroom-coloured Arran sweater and his shapeless khaki drill trousers. Even hunched over a glass his shoulders made no definite line. But after those sausages he looked almost content.
The lounge was beginning to fill up.
Sarah Trowbutt's "Dinner's ready Toby" had barely creased Mainspring's face, but when the first of the villagers entered with an "Evening, Sudge", she was forced to raise an eyebrow and incline her head. So I was that right! Or is HE more in control than I suspected, doing things I hadn't noticed?
She too was feeling very comfortable by now, but a little thing like contentment could never jeopardise her poise. Everyone who came through the door gave her at least one lingering look - locals of all sexes are good at them - which she returned or ignored, according to her judgement of the best way to ensure that each particular person would not disturb her again. She drank little, though the cider was excellent. Doubtful set to with a vengeance.
He was at the bar for a single refill, for perhaps the third time, when the door opened behind him. Doubtful could turn on his elbow and observe the man's quick look into the corner and his approach to the bar. He also saw Mainspring sit up even straighter, then rise and come across. Hello, he thought, what's going on here?
"Could I buy this one perhaps?" said Mainspring, her angle of approach obtuse enough not to startle, acute enough to maintain the advantage, her controlled city tones in stark contrast with the middle-west-country burr of the hubbub around them.
"Do I know you?" said the man, and his voice stood out in the same way.
"Suffice it to say that my name is Mainspring, and this is Doubtful." Who detached himself from the bar and stood to be presented.
"My god, but..." Her lips curled into a smile. She was relishing this.
"Yes, I believe that you began a story this afternoon."
"Christ! Where do we go from here?"
As we walked over to their table, the fire seemed to be licking its lips - something I had never encountered outside the pages of a book. Now who's writing this, I asked myself. There was no reply.
She was impossibly impressive, more than I'd imagined or intended. She would have been beautiful if she relaxed long enough. The dark, blond hair, swept up from her forehead in luxurious wings, then trained above the temples to join the main cascade down her back, ought to have been physically impossible but obviously wasn't, ought to have sagged twenty minutes after the photo-session but she'd been in here for three hours. The eyes on their own were a rather washed out blue, but with her strength of will behind them they could have shamed any snow queen. The long, smooth nose, the high cheekbones and slightly concave cheeks, all looked as if they made dirt run screaming. But her chin was set, and her mouth curled with the beginnings of cruelty. If I said she was beautiful I would be both wrong and in her power. Is that what I intended?
Her companion was no easier to talk to. The nature of their relationship was never hinted at, and this put paid to several conversational directions. His long, lank, black hair did a fair impression of an overgrown bramble patch. It wasn't dirty or greasy, but I bet it never looks clean. It was very rare to see more than the bottom halves of his eyes - he leaned over the table and, when occasionally he did look at you, it was through his eyebrows. And he didn't like you looking back. Somewhere in there were limbs, but only his bony and very large hands, with their unevenly bitten and dirty nails, and the shiny-scuffed suede casuals bore witness to it. He said little, even less than we did, and after a few minutes returned to the bar.
And then, despite myself, despite my disadvantage, despite our initial difficulty in speaking at all, I began to enjoy her company immensely. As they say.
She spoke of North Wales and of course I knew something of the area she hailed from. I think it was in our remembrances, in the cultivated, mild nostalgia for times and places not quite shared, but lost, that her iron-fist-in-velvet-glove reserve first began to give way a little. I succeeded in buying her a drink. She bought me another and had another herself. By this time I was waxing dubious about my hopes and fears, trying to present as many of my romantic plans and ambitions as I could without becoming silly and unconvincing. Slowly, the realisation that I was drawing energy from her filtered through my conversational gymnastics and I was silent again.
"How would you like some fresh air?" She was actually leaning towards me, erect no longer, though her poise was still exemplary. A wing of hair had fallen slightly, and cast a slight shadow over her left eye. I could only nod and look at my glass. Only a little remained, so I downed it. The violent almost-sweetness of the cider kicked my throat with little feet. We stood slowly and went out.
But I was still inside. Invisible, I stood behind Doubtful's haphazard shape, draped like dough on a barstool.
When he was alone he mixed well, it seemed. His melancholy became something between stoicism and wry self-ridicule, an endearing ingredient in any conversation if the speaker is not obviously sorry for himself more than half the time.
He was already swapping inanities with the old farmhand next to him - the merits and evils of various drinks, a few towns they had in common and (when the conversation flagged) the excellence of the local sausage had all passed under the bridge. He had won the right to call mine host Sudge. Indeed, when my awareness crystallises, the worthy and somewhat sweaty Sudge is leaning on his side of the bar with Doubtful and his faintly pig-smelling friend facing him.
"What brings you to Bletchford Lasset?" asks the landlord./p>
"I don't really know. Quite often I have no idea where we're going or what we'll do when we get there. Or indeed what we've done when we leave."
"Do you work for the lady?" asks the farmhand.
"Her? That jumped-up tart?" They are both surprised and taken aback by the apparent venom in the words, but there is none in his manner and the ripple subsides. "I'm retained by her father to ensure that no harm comes to her. Her manner usually sees her through, but occasionally I have to turn nasty. Inside this dirty sweater is a vicious oriental fighting machine." The words leave him in a monotone and leave the listeners unchanged, showing disinterested attention, but no sign of having understood or failed to understand. "Want another glass, mate? One for you Sudge?"
They pause while the drinks are poured. Sudge fingers a floater out of Doubtful's glass.
"That one she's with now," says the farmhand conspiratorially, leaning heavily on the elbow nearest to Doubtful and nearly falling on his leg, "he's a queer one."
"What Ted means," interprets the more urbane Sudge, straightening slightly, "is that he's the village tuppeny-ha'penny author - a bit of money, finds a cottage in the country, and moves closer to the earth, to write. I don't know if he's ever really published anything. They're better than the second-homers though, because they're actually here sometimes, and this one's friendly and not really patronising or anything. Oh, and as far as I know, he's got no dark secrets, so you're not shirking your duty here." Doubtful raises his glass to that.
When I find myself inhabiting my proper body once again, I know roughly how things will develop. My right arm is around her shoulder - she's just short enough for that to be possible - so she looks across the lane at a slight angle. Until I came back, my body was enjoying the walk enormously, but now I feel detached from the spring in my step and almost alone in the close, misty chill of the late evening.
I know that when we reach my endearing cottage (for whose doors you always have to stoop, but she won't need the warning), and when we've washed the cider down with a couple of rums and retired to bed because it's the only warm place in the house, we'll make love once. Then mind and body will finally reunite and I'll regain embarrassment, lose interest. We'll drift slowly into a blank sleep, wake up in undefined early morning, and fumble together again before lying long and silent on our backs.
After a far too early breakfast during which we say very little, I'll show her my inspiring little "private" beach because it's still too early to return to the pub.
And through the night her jaw will reset and, without perceptible combing, the impossible hair will gather itself up again. And finally she'll go back to the Crab and Abbess, and Sudge and Sarah will both disapprove but Sudge will wink at Doubtful when he comes down. Later in the morning it'll be back to the station and a train to somewhere else.
She might as well vanish now.