Mr Doubler Begins Again: The best uplifting, funny and feel-good book for 2019 Seni Glaister ‘A sheer delight – wise and insightful, it will make you laugh and cry in equal measure.’Sunday Times best-selling author Veronica Henry.Not every journey takes you far from home.Baked, mashed, boiled or fried, Mr Doubler knows his potatoes. But the same can’t be said for people. Since he lost his wife, he’s been on his own at Mirth Farm – and that suits Doubler just fine. Crowds are for other people; the only company he needs are his potato plants and his housekeeper, Mrs Millwood, who visits every day.Until the day she doesn’t.With Mrs Millwood missing, Doubler’s routine is plunged into chaos – and, more alone than ever, he begins to worry that he might have lost his way. But could the kindness of strangers be enough to bring him down from the hill?Mr Doubler’s New Beginning is a nostalgic celebration of food, friendship, kindness, and second chances, perfect for fans of Rachel Joyce and Joanna Cannon. SENI GLAISTER worked as a bookseller for much of her career before founding WeFiFo, the social dining platform, in 2016. Her first novel, The Museum of Things Left Behind, was published in 2015. She lives on a farm in West Sussex with her husband and children. Copyright (#ulink_27368483-e365-579d-acde-ef062e850e36) An imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Ltd 1 London Bridge Street London SE1 9GF First published in Great Britain by HQ in 2019 Copyright © Seni Glaister 2019 Seni Glaister asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work. A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library. This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental. All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on-screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins. Ebook Edition © January 2019 ISBN: 9780008285005 For my inspirational and indispensable mother, Penelope Glaister. And in memory of Mary Ann Brailsford 1791 – 1852 Marie Ann Smith 1800 – 1870 John Clarke 1889 – 1980 & the other unsung heroes of the orchards and fields. Contents Cover (#u41020e6e-d9b0-5f07-8697-4f8232f3026e) About the Author (#ue027a829-0b70-5dd1-a3fd-dffea8b1a777) Title Page (#uff96e8b3-4181-553e-b406-0c62439453c4) Copyright (#ulink_60826699-3067-581d-a012-2bc782073a00) Dedication (#uad05f720-12b0-5b2b-82c1-90b7b711196d) Chapter 1 (#ulink_f94089c5-d1d7-58e0-9f0b-5d3d17aeceda) Chapter 2 (#ulink_fd430555-7af7-5cb0-b9b6-894257f9393a) Chapter 3 (#ulink_4f6b2024-4f2a-5acb-9957-c63101382cd9) Chapter 4 (#ulink_e3732bbc-d41d-56f5-89fc-fb41988d17f0) Chapter 5 (#ulink_eb7af3fd-8eb8-58fa-96e9-3cc2d61f154d) Chapter 6 (#ulink_a2282465-3582-5d13-97ea-51b26dbd1148) Chapter 7 (#ulink_07f4536f-04e0-5430-9c01-c163d8c57f9b) Chapter 8 (#ulink_22758c33-1ec8-5ecd-bd4d-5aa85e159c09) Chapter 9 (#ulink_ef0882d9-369d-577b-8e02-f962119c548b) Chapter 10 (#ulink_48e19738-4c13-515d-9d99-652a09852d28) Chapter 11 (#ulink_1a9c9b68-4a6b-52da-a9e2-4dc092f9de37) Chapter 12 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 13 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 14 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 15 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 16 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 17 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 18 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 19 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 20 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 21 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 22 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 23 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 24 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 25 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 26 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 27 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 28 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 29 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 30 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 31 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 32 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 33 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 34 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 35 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 36 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 37 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 38 (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 39 (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) Chapter 1 (#ulink_14522fe4-1099-5dc4-a559-0f7b36d82840) Doubler was the second biggest potato grower in the county. While it was true that his rival grew more potatoes than he did (by a significant margin), Doubler was unperturbed. Doubler’s personal motivation was not quantity but quality, and the mere fact that his adversary had more land than he did had very little to do with their respective skills as potato growers. Unlike his rival, Doubler was an expert. He understood potatoes in a way that potatoes had rarely been understood. He understood potatoes at least as well, he hoped, as that other potato great John Clarke. Mr Clarke, the infamous grower and breeder of potatoes, was Doubler’s inspiration and Doubler sought his counsel often, asking questions out loud as he walked his land and finding the answers whispered to him each day as he worked on his notes, annotating his day’s findings. Though they’d never met and Clarke himself had been dead for some decades, Doubler found enormous solace in their dialogue. Recently, Doubler’s experimentation had been going extremely well, and certain that he was close to securing his place in potato-growing history, he now carried within him (sometimes in his heart and sometimes in his stomach) a small, hope-shaped nugget of excitement. Doubler was not an optimistic man by nature, and the knowledge that he might soon take his seat among the most impactful potato growers of all time fuelled Doubler with a thrill of nervous energy, tinged by impatience but darkened by anxiety. To Doubler, his legacy was everything. But Doubler’s legacy had attracted some negative attention. The most recent threat had arrived on his doorstep that morning. It had been packaged in a Manila envelope and addressed to him with a white printed label, suggesting a sinister professionalism on the part of the sender. The threat became more ominous still when combined with the two other envelopes, previously received. All three letters came from Peele, the biggest potato grower in the county, and together, this collection of three envelopes, now festering in the dark of the dresser drawer, had transcended from mere correspondence to a systematic campaign. Doubler dwelt on this, and what it might mean to his impending success, as he nervously inspected his land. A brutal wind had stirred up the icy air from all of the surrounding valleys and had deposited it relentlessly on Mirth Farm, leaving almost everywhere warmer than Doubler’s hilltop home, but despite this, Doubler did not hurry. Heading towards the farmhouse, he walked round the perimeter of the yard, stopping to check the angle of the new security camera and again to rattle the locks on each of the brooding barns. Even in happier days, when his wife had been with him, he had been a cautious man with a nervous disposition, but now, imperilled by this series of recent menaces, he had introduced new layers of watchfulness to his daily inspections of Mirth Farm, and his routine now incorporated a multitude of additional checks, which had quickly become mechanical, as if he’d followed them for as long as he’d followed the seasons. Despite his nervousness, the steps he’d recently taken to protect Mirth Farm from his adversary felt empowering, so having hung up his coat and hat, he immediately turned his attention to the parcel that had arrived in yesterday’s post in the hope that the contents would further bolster his defences. As expected, the package revealed a pair of brand-new binoculars, which he examined critically. He removed the lens guard and quickly replaced it, repeating this action a number of times, cautiously pleased with its certain fit. He planted himself firmly on the window seat, calming his breathing for a few moments before raising his new gift to his eyes. He played slowly with the focal ring, moving the sight left and right with small, deft increments until the chaffinch on the bird feeder that hung from a twisted bough of the closest apple tree leapt into brilliant, dazzling clarity. Doubler paused for a moment to congratulate himself on the identification of the bird. ‘Chaffinch!’ he exclaimed, surprised. Even a week ago, it would have been just another small bird idling away its time before it could clear the hedgerows of his fruit. This recently acquired knowledge, this sure-footed identification, gave him a flicker of pleasure he was unable to place, but it compelled him to linger on the chaffinch for a few moments more. The bird’s bright eyes jumped into focus. Doubler was impressed. These binoculars were far superior to his last pair and would undoubtedly make his work more secure. Entirely satisfied, he now swung his attention to the right and refocused on a much further object: the entrance gate to Mirth Farm at the bottom of the hill. Doubler recalled the feeling of the gate in his hands as he unlatched it and let it swing free. There had been a time when he had opened and closed that gate regularly, with barely a care in the world. He’d hung the gate himself and it had always swung open easily, without complaint or resistance. But there were no comings or goings for Doubler anymore: he was strictly a Mirth Farm man. This was not something that had happened gradually; he had not taken a slow slide into solitude. He had decided, in fact, the moment his children left home, that he would never leave Mirth Farm again. If you never left, he had persuaded himself, there was no chance that you wouldn’t return. Doubler snapped back to attention as a car pulled into the bottom of the drive. It was only Mrs Millwood, and he had been anticipating her arrival, but he felt his muscles tense and the hairs stand up on the back of his neck. His anxiety was alleviated by the substantial weight of the binoculars in his hand and it gave him great comfort to train them on this arriving vehicle. He watched every movement as his visitor got out of the little red car, swung open the wooden gate, edged the car forward and once again clambered out of the car to close the gate behind her. As soon as the vehicle was on his property, he was able to read the car’s number plate and he made a note of it on the edge of the newspaper, intending to transfer it to a logbook that he planned to order specifically for this purpose. The car was making its way steadily up the hill, vanishing out of sight for several seconds at a time, then swinging back into view with each sharp turn. The ascent to Mirth Farm was a long, slow one, and Doubler observed that the quality of the vehicle probably had very little correlation to the speed of its approach – if anything, the faster the car, the slower the progress, as drivers of fast cars tended to be nervous of the ruts and bumps and the glinting edge of the flint that threatened the tyres with every turn. Doubler vowed to begin recording journey times to check this theory. He really didn’t want to leave anything to chance. Chapter 2 (#ulink_b3d151be-d289-5c42-9f15-8056819ea90b) Nine minutes later, Mrs Millwood let herself in through the kitchen door. The soundscape that accompanied her arrival never varied and Doubler listened attentively as she hung up her keys, removed her coat, tidied her bag away and changed from outdoor shoes to indoor shoes. She muttered noisily to herself as she eyed the overflowing compost bin spilling potato peelings onto the ancient wooden butcher’s block. The scolding increased in volume as she came in search of Doubler, who was now standing to attention. ‘Mr Doubler, you’ve been making an unreasonable mess in the kitchen again.’ Doubler inspected her as she flitted past, already patting piles into order, plumping, stroking and straightening. If Mrs Millwood were a bird, she’d be a wren he realized happily, as he watched her busying herself with the lightest touch. ‘It’s a bit of a mess, I know. I’m sorry.’ ‘It’s a mess because you make it so. No need to apologize, though it would be better just not to make the mess in the first place.’ She was already dragging a wooden chair to the edge of the room and, in a flash, she was standing on it, reaching up to put away the pile of unread books that had gathered mysteriously into her arms. It seemed, Doubler thought, that she put the books away randomly, but when he inspected the shelves after she’d left, they always appeared to be in some sort of order. Before he could scrutinize her methodology, she was back on the floor again, a duster in her hand where books had been a moment ago. ‘You’ve been at your potatoes again, I see,’ she said with disappointment in her voice. ‘My potatoes. Yes. I . . .’ Doubler suddenly wanted to share his concerns immediately rather than waiting until lunchtime. There were so many conflicting priorities in his head and he needed Mrs Millwood’s pragmatism to work these into some sort of structure. He rose to his feet as if to take this matter firmly into his hands, but as the blood rose to his head so his thoughts bubbled into a whirlpool of disquiet and he fumbled with the words that threatened to break a decade and a half of routine should he prioritize their talk ahead of her housework. By the time he grasped the thread (a thread that when pulled would unravel to reveal his soul), she had gone, leaving a little trail of dust in her wake. Even as he grappled to compose himself, he could hear the hoover being dragged into position above him and he knew he’d lost her for a couple of hours. Doubler padded through to the kitchen, the disappointment of loneliness visible in the sag of his shoulders. The thick stone slabs were shockingly cold under his socked feet but kinder as he approached the Aga, and he paused there to warm himself up for a moment. To his left, atop a deep block of wood worn rippled and smooth by the constant cutting and wiping of a long-dead butcher, sat three vast pans of dimpled tin, the type that Victorian cooks might have once used to make chutney or jam in large quantities. Each pan was draped with a generous square of muslin and he now peeled these back to examine the contents. Using a large wooden spoon to disturb the top layer of potatoes, he peered critically at them and then reached for the pan’s corresponding clipboard. Each held a thick wedge of foolscap paper and was filled with Doubler’s immaculate handwriting. In even-handed pencil, dates, measurements, numbers and formulae, sketches and diagrams filled the pages, and these themselves, without any further interpretation, already revealed something splendid about the study. But with the practised eye of an expert potato grower, the pages revealed a lifetime’s ambition: research that was indeed groundbreaking. Aided by footnotes and appendices, the work amounted to the hopes and dreams of a man determined to leave a mark but conscious that time was against him. With a steel fork, Doubler tested several spuds from each batch. From the pan that pleased him the least, he removed a number of potatoes and boiled them rapidly in salted water. He set these aside for his lunch. Happy with his preparation, he set about writing up the morning’s findings. To do this, he sat at the vast kitchen table, pale unvarnished pine in its origins but now marked with so many rings from water and scorches from scalding pans and polished so frequently with beeswax that it had the tint and the swell of a hardwood. He spread his paperwork out, frequently referring back to previous pages. The findings were consistent with his earlier conclusions and he remained certain that his research was irrefutable, but it gave him a sense of calm to add more dates, more affirmation, more proof as the days lengthened and the ground thawed, the slightest increments of warmth preparing the earth for a whole new generation of validation. Doubler worked solidly for an hour: noting, refining, checking his work and underlining (again) his conclusions. With still no interruption from Mrs Millwood, he set out to do his second round of the land, a routine that he did, unfailingly, four times a day. He put on a thick woollen jumper, welcoming its scratchy warmth, and then zipped himself into a waxed jacket before pulling the flaps of his cap down over his ears to keep the wind out as he left the shelter of the farm buildings. There was a quietness, a pause in the air that belonged uniquely to February and he loved it. The fields had been recently harrowed and the soil shone a warm chocolate brown in the weak winter sun, the pools of collected rainwater glistening brightly, creating a pleasing orderly stripe for as far as the eye could see. There were new birds today, scuttling across the fields in large flocks, bigger than the sparrows he could easily recognize but indistinguishable in their brownness to his still inexpert eye. He vowed to bring his binoculars next time he did his circuit. Though bird identification had never been their intended purpose, he suddenly felt an urge to know who these newcomers were, pleased enough with himself to feel certain that they hadn’t been here a week ago. He walked slowly on, tracing the edge of the field, following the line of the twisted hedge, thick and impenetrable despite its lack of new foliage. He made his way to one of two vantage points, a small knoll from which he could survey the entire northern lay of the land. From here, he could sweep his gaze from field to field and run it quickly against his mental register. There was little to note at this time of year, though just a month later on in the season, when the risk of the heaviest frosts had passed, he would be meticulously checking the soil for the optimum moment to plant his seed potatoes. The winter offered an essential window to prepare the fields and maintain the machinery, but for now, it was enough to survey, acknowledge and simply honour the land, helping to lay the foundations of goodwill he’d rely on in later months. Having walked the complete perimeter of the largest field, he climbed up the steady slope, matching each pace with the rise and fall of a furrow, mentally measuring the scope of his land for no other reason than the process gave him great comfort. Throughout the seasons the land grew and fell in height and potential as the crops sprang up and died down, the harvest succeeding or failing on the strength of that alchemical mix of science, skill and magic but dictated most omnipotently by nature herself, who always had the final say. While many factors dictated the strength of the growth upwards, the curtilage of the land itself didn’t change. Providing his stride never faltered, then the count would always be the same, as it had since he bought the farm, nearly forty years before. As he turned the corner back into the yard, the farmhouse in front of him once more, he again checked the locks on each of the barn doors. Several garages and outbuildings lay around the farm, but these were the three that delivered the greatest dose of pleasure and the greatest dose of stress. These, after all, were the structures that contained his legacy. Each one of these buildings was sealed very convincingly with heavy chains strung between iron bars. He glanced up to check the camera angle and gave himself a worried little wave, which he would look for later on the monitor. Doubler had expected to find his security camera reassuring, but he had also found it to be surprisingly companionable and he took a curious pleasure in observing himself when he reviewed the footage each evening. Doubler wouldn’t return to inspect the two largest locked barns until the early evening. He liked everything inside to stay as dark as possible, so he never opened the doors in daylight. But he could sense the tingle of burgeoning life as he passed, and he could almost hear the new growth straining at the skin of last year’s crop. The progress might be minuscule at this time of year, but multiply that by the thousands of spuds lined up on cool wooden racks and it was possible to imagine the effect of all that pent-up energy on the immediate environment. Or at least Doubler liked to think so. The third shed, though inactive at this time of year, was Doubler’s most treasured. If he could wrap chains round it like a giant parcel, he would. He had, instead, to content himself with the measures he had in place. He glanced back and forth, checking that nobody could see him as he punched the code into the panel by the door to this the most secretive of his stores. He slipped in and closed the door behind him. Inhaling deeply, he took a moment to enjoy the unique scent that lingered long after the plant had been used. Potato, yes, to a practised nose, but also the more prominent tang of cleanliness smothering traces of sap and honey. It would be several weeks before this storehouse sprang to life again and he loved its emptiness and promise in winter. He savoured it for a few more deep breaths before flicking one low light on and inspecting the vast copper stills with their glorious pipes, funnels and gauges. Even in this dim lighting, the metalwork shone. ‘Morning,’ he whispered, with respect evident in his voice. To a layman, this equipment must look quite mysterious, daunting even. But to Doubler, every connecting piece made perfect, logical sense. The apparatus had been there when Doubler bought the farm with his wife, Marie. He’d discovered it in the first few weeks of living there, once he’d started to assess the heaps of rusting equipment left behind by the previous farmer. (The farmer had died suddenly, fifteen years before he might reasonably have expected to, but even had he received some sort of warning, Doubler doubted he would ever have cleared this backlog of past misjudgements.) When Doubler had first discovered it, this vast pile of metalwork beneath tractor arms, balers and rotting feed sacks, he had recognized the green hue as the oxidization of copper and knew it would be worth something if he found the right metal dealer. But then as he’d begun to painstakingly separate the wheat from the chaff, he’d recognized it as an old still, used for distilling vodka, and as a distraction from the trials of fatherhood and a diversion from a wife whom he constantly disappointed, he’d dared himself to investigate the equipment fully. He had tinkered at first, fixing a piece here and a piece there, wondering idly if he’d ever get round to restoring it properly, when, in a flash of inspiration he barely understood, he’d felt compelled to take the entire configuration to pieces, laying each of the component parts on the ground before stripping them down, cleaning and repairing each piece, replacing seals and valves, and then reassembling the entire structure, feeling his way part by part with the skill of a mechanic and the patience of an organ builder. Now, he knew it inside and out, knew its sighs and moods, and he understood how to tune it to perfection, treating it with the respect that such an ancient piece of engineering deserved. Doubler was well aware that modern techniques must surely have since outclassed this old thing, but the results it produced had its idiosyncratic imperfections woven into its fabric, resulting in the artisan end product that made it so distinctive and desirable – several bottles of which were now resting in the cellar. His inspection complete, Doubler switched off the light and shut the door behind him, tugging at the handle twice to ensure it was locked securely. As he walked back into the yard, he looked up at the sun, which was now grazing the edge of the low kitchen wall, and hurried inside, confident that he had satisfactorily passed the time until lunch and could finally, carefully, share his worries with Mrs Millwood. Chapter 3 (#ulink_5b3ab936-989d-5104-bdda-435b49a33dbf) As Mrs Millwood bustled around the kitchen making a pot of tea for them both and setting out two places on the now tidy kitchen table, Doubler prepared his meal. From the dark of the pantry he fetched a couple of shallots, testing them between his thumb and finger, registering the lack of give, still, all these months later. ‘So much superior to their cousin the onion,’ he declared to Mrs Millwood, who watched him chop the bulbs into tiny cubes with a distrusting glance he could sense as he worked. ‘Look at that! A delight!’ The bulbs still glowed a pearlescent white and the pieces fell away crisply under his blade. These he scooped into a pan and softened for just a few seconds in butter before adding the potatoes and crushing them deftly with the back of a fork. ‘Not mashed, mind you, just crushed.’ He answered the unspoken question gleefully. Grating black pepper with two sharp snaps of his wrist, he carried the steaming plate to the table. Mrs Millwood was unclipping her Tupperware and removing the sandwiches that she prepared, with surprising variety, every day. ‘What you want on that, Mr Doubler’ – nodding in the direction of his plate – ‘is a nice bit of melted Cheddar.’ ‘Cheddar? Melted? Heavens, no, Mrs Millwood. Why on earth would I do that?’ ‘For, you know, a bit of flavour. Or vitamins. You can’t live on spuds alone.’ This she knew was a provocative statement, but it wasn’t spoken to provoke, more out of genuine and long-running concern over his nutritional intake. ‘Oh, Mrs Millwood. I don’t really need to tell you about the beneficial qualities of the British potato, do I? You know as well as I do that the potato produces more edible protein per acre per day than either rice or wheat.’ ‘But I’m not going to eat an acre of spuds, Mr Doubler. I just want something tasty for my lunch. Tasty and healthy.’ ‘Don’t talk to me about healthy! The biological value of potato protein is better than that of wheat, maize, peas or beans. Potatoes are just as good for you as milk, and nobody would deny the health benefits of milk, now would they?’ ‘I know very well about the beneficial qualities of the British potato’ – and indeed she did. Only last night she had enlightened the ladies in her knitting circle, who were amazed not just by this information but by the depth of Mrs Millwood’s knowledge and the persuasiveness of her passion – ‘but a bit of melted Cheddar for flavour wouldn’t go amiss.’ Doubler put down his fork and looked sternly at his lunch companion. ‘Mrs Millwood. Heat is the worst possible thing you can subject a Cheddar cheese to. All that would achieve would be to release the oils and destroy the flavour. If you go to the trouble of making a decent Cheddar, there’s only one way to eat it.’ Here, he went to the pantry and produced a large parcel wrapped tightly in waxed paper and tied with string. ‘Let me show you.’ He demonstrated with exaggerated movements while never taking his eyes off his audience. ‘You serve Cheddar on wood. Not pottery or porcelain. That’s a rule,’ he said firmly, placing the unwrapped Cheddar on the centre of a wooden chopping board. ‘The natural oils and flavours in the wood are absorbed into the cheese, adding a quality that cannot be replicated by any other means. Secondly, wood is porous. It does not create an impenetrable barrier against the cheese, thus allowing it to breathe.’ Mrs Millwood appeared to be holding her breath. ‘Allowing a cheese to breathe is another rule. Otherwise it sweats and that is not good. A sweaty Cheddar is never good,’ said Doubler, unwrapping the parcel carefully. Mrs Millwood shook her head solemnly. ‘Next rule.’ He counted this off on his index finger, suddenly aware that there were actually many rules when it came to Cheddar and he probably needed to keep a log. ‘Just one cut, Mrs Millwood, or at any rate, as few cuts as possible.’ He used here his penknife to make a sharp diagonal cut through the narrowest point until he could break it with his fingers. ‘The Cheddar is a cheese of the fingers – it’s a truly sensory experience. You breathe it in, you feel it, and you taste it. The feel is the bit that can’t be missed. By handling the cheese with your fingers, you prepare your brain for what to expect. You don’t want any surprises. My brain already knows to ready itself for the sharp tang of good Cheddar because my fingers have already tasted it ahead of my mouth. You see?’ Mrs Millwood watched intently, her own sandwich hanging a little limply in her hands and a frown playing gently on her forehead. ‘So, one cut with your knife and then break it with your fingers to get the full experience. You can serve it with an apple – probably a Cox’s orange pippin is best, but I’m not a pedant, Mrs Millwood. And chutney. You’re after a sweet chutney or something quite dry and sour. I’ll give you a try of two I’d recommend, but chutney is a very personal thing – it’s a matter of taste. Just so long as it’s not pickle: the brine will compete with a good Cheddar, not complement it. You don’t want competition on your plate. You’re looking for harmony. Harmony and tone. Think of it as a piece of music and you’re the conductor.’ Mrs Millwood looked at her own sandwich and took a cautious bite. ‘Heat? No. I wouldn’t even heat a good Cheddar on a cold day. Complete waste.’ ‘I’m sorry I spoke.’ Mrs Millwood took a larger, more defiant bite of her sandwich, refusing to be ashamed of her sliced, evenly toned knife-cut cheese layered with supermarket ham, mustard, pickle, pepper and lettuce. ‘Lovely,’ she said, taking her biggest mouthful yet. ‘I just thought it would perk up your lunch,’ she added, washing her mouthful down with a generous gulp of tea. ‘Well, yes, I’m not averse to a little cheese with my potato, but not in this context, and never with Cheddar. There are plenty of cheeses crying out to be melted. I’d put most of the goat family into that category,’ thus dismissing the entire group with a wave of his hand. ‘But I’m not after additional flavour. I’m working, Mrs Millwood, and what I want to taste is the potato.’ ‘And are you pleased with today’s spuds?’ ‘Oh! I am, I am. I’m absolutely delighted. They are behaving themselves beautifully. There’s little news to report, and that’s a good thing. Just further validation.’ Doubler lowered his voice a fraction, saying, conspiratorially, ‘Once I have my findings confirmed by the experts – our friends overseas – I’m done.’ Mrs Millwood looked at him carefully. ‘With your research? With your potatoes? What are you done with?’ Mrs Millwood had concern in her voice. She’d known him when he was done before and it had very nearly killed him. Doubler recognized the worry and set about reassuring her that his motivation, his zest for life and his appetite for continued research were very much unfinished. ‘I can’t imagine I will ever be completely done with potatoes per se. They are in my blood. What would I concern myself with if they weren’t there to fill every working moment? But the detailed analysis, yes, I think I am probably finished with that. I cannot see any room for improvement or any questions left unanswered. Once I receive validation, it will mark the end of a very long period of concentrated work. If I am right, and my research is formally recognized, then I suppose I shall have to think of another project, or dedicate my remaining years to ensuring my work is properly recorded for the benefit of future generations. It will be the most significant moment of my life, of that I am sure. Obviously, I’m still awaiting official word from the institute, and you can appreciate that I’m not finding the waiting very easy.’ He sighed heavily, immediately undermining any pretence of confidence he had just delivered. Mrs Millwood knew as well as he did that Doubler would not find the wait easy. She, too, was impatiently awaiting news. After all, since he had revealed his discovery to her, she had been instrumental in steering him through this convoluted course of action, which would, they both hoped, ultimately result in the scientific validation he craved. She had researched the options open to him fully and, without betraying any confidences, had taken the counsel of those comfortable in the areas of law, copyright, patent and scientific assessment, and in many respects these enquiries had been as meticulous and painstaking as Doubler’s own endeavours. The situation, as she had carefully explained to him over a lunch, was that during the decades he had spent as a potato farmer, the farming world had moved on and left him behind. It transpired that the science of potatoes was funded primarily by the giant users, those who stood to gain the most commercially from any significant improvement in the process. The big-label oven-ready chip producers were at the heart of research and development, and the fast-food retailers, too, had a considerable vested interest in blight. ‘Who would have thought the oven chip had so much power, Mr Doubler!’ she had exclaimed, before continuing with her lugubrious findings. Despite his own significant production, Doubler had not struck deals with these commercial partners and so had never worked in league with them. Likewise, through the happy accident of his meticulous barn clearing, Doubler had found himself, most discreetly, in the vodka business, but never on any scale. So, while he was a much-valued and highly respected contributor to it, the vodka industry had its own specific regulations to navigate and its own endless legislation to challenge. Doubler was not of enough consequence either to those who funded research or lobbied on behalf of the potato growers, and he was certainly small beer for the beverage companies. Doubler simply did not move in the right circles. Mrs Millwood had researched all of this carefully and had soon learnt an alarming amount about the duplicitous nature of corporate life. She had spent time talking to great legal minds, who all warned her of being too hasty in sharing her anonymous friend’s findings until she had found a partner with deep pockets who could be trusted with the science. She should tread carefully, she had been warned, for an unscrupulous player further up the supply chain would not think twice about taking this research and presenting it as their own or undermining Doubler’s findings. As one great mind had put it, ‘Once they get wind of what he’s up to on that farm of his, the big boys will simply chew him up and spit him out,’ and so, instead, she had presented to Doubler over lunch one day a solution that would take a little longer but would have his work put in front of some of the most qualified and respected eyes in the world. And thus, after much research, Mrs Millwood’s solution was to seek a non-partisan validation from the Institute of Potato Research and Development in northern India. It was for feedback from this venerated institution that they now waited. ‘Well, let’s have a look.’ Mrs Millwood rummaged in her bag for a little leather diary and flicked back through the pages. ‘We posted your package just after Christmas, didn’t we? Here we go. The twenty-seventh. Now, there will have been holiday delays and the like, but even so, that’s six weeks.’ Doubler looked glum. ‘But six weeks isn’t that long if you think about it. That’s overland post, not airmail, and I don’t know what their postal service is like over there. Let’s allow it four weeks, shall we? And then there’s some processing time yet – two weeks? We don’t want them rushing it. Four maybe? Four weeks to do a really thorough job. And we want a thorough job, don’t we? Then four weeks back in the post. I think, Mr Doubler, you’re anxious ahead of time. I think if you haven’t heard anything back by the beginning of April, you can start to wonder if there’s a problem.’ ‘What sort of problem?’ Doubler’s face was beset with a frown drawn from all sorts of unframed worries. ‘Failure of the post to arrive. Administration error their end. Lost in an in-tray. Then there’s the technical side. They don’t think your work is important. They think your findings are wrong. They don’t think it is worthy of a response.’ Doubler was alarmed by each one of these possibilities, but the sum of all the possibilities (why would he fail on one count when he could fail on so many?) had his head reeling. Mrs Millwood smiled at him reassuringly. ‘But do you know how hopelessly futile it is to worry about any of these issues? We can’t worry about those things that are out of our control. You have your farm. You have your potatoes. You’ve made breakthroughs, Mr Doubler. And they’ll recognize that.’ Seeing her words land with little impact, Mrs Millwood reached for a more powerful weapon in her arsenal. ‘Do you think your Mr Clarke floundered at the first hurdle?’ Doubler thought hard. He imagined his great hero working by candlelight, scratching out his own findings with the worn stub of a pencil. He thought about the many generations of potatoes that man must have grown with no clear goal in mind, just the burning desire to improve the spud for the benefit of all. He thought about the achievement this represented when undertaken by a man with no education. Doubler was ashamed. ‘No, of course not. Mr Clarke overcame every obstacle.’ Mrs Millwood chuckled to herself. ‘He did, didn’t he? And here are you hanging your head in shame and you haven’t had a single setback yet!’ ‘You’re right, of course, as always. And poor Mr Clarke didn’t have the benefit of a role model as I do. But, Mrs Millwood, you can understand my worries, can’t you? This is my life’s work. I’ve made some sacrifices along the way, too, and I want there to be some meaning, some purpose behind it all. I want my legacy.’ He stood up and went to look out of the window, clearing a small patch of condensation through which he could see the last of the winter sun as it chased across his fields. ‘When I die, Mrs Millwood, this work is all that will be left of me. My potatoes are my bequest. I have devoted every waking moment to them, and my most useful days are now well behind me. I want to leave my mark; I want to show the world it was worth it. I want to die knowing I made a difference. Is that too much to ask? Am I being greedy?’ Mrs Millwood thought carefully before answering. ‘Not greedy, but a little impatient perhaps. You have your health, Mr Doubler, and, what’s more, you still have plenty of time left to make a difference. You should count yourself among the fortunate ones.’ She paused, and Doubler, focused on the view from the window, missed the shadow of something fearful flickering across her eyes. He turned to face her, looking at her quizzically as he waited for her to carry on. She shook her head a little sadly, a determined smile on her face, and she continued in a slightly different direction to the thought process she’d begun. ‘We don’t all get to do something of consequence, Mr Doubler, so you should be proud of everything you’ve achieved already. And who is to say this is your life’s work done yet? That will be determined when the time comes. Now, a short wait for the postman to deliver your answer is a small price to pay. Others suffer substantially more for less of a legacy, Mr Doubler.’ Mrs Millwood bit into a Granny Smith with great relish and Doubler, grateful once again for her deep wisdom, and quite used by now to his housekeeper having a much greater instinct than his own for matters pertaining to life, chose not to comment on her choice of apple. Chapter 4 (#ulink_ae8961e9-a8b9-562c-ba25-07b2b5b0e331) On the first Sunday of each month, Doubler’s only daughter, Camilla, liked to visit Mirth Farm with her family. This had been happening for many years. It was a habit that had been initiated by Camilla once she had her own children, as if she might be able to teach her father the correct procedure to hold a family together. One or two such lunches established a precedent, a couple more sealed it as a tradition, and this was then upheld by Camilla with great diligence and worn proudly as some sort of badge of filial duty. ‘It’s lovely to know that my kids are part of Dad’s life,’ she said to her brother, Julian, with a barely concealed stratum of aggression-tinged superiority that she rarely found cause to exhibit in her brother’s company. Conversely, Julian, Doubler’s only son, was ambivalent about his role in the family. His associations with both family and Mirth Farm were linked to his childhood and now, an adult with adult responsibilities, his main preoccupation at the weekends was the management, from afar, of his costly ex-wife and the ongoing provision for two expensive children who found little to interest them on a potato farm, having been exposed to the sort of infancy that valued lawn much more highly than soil. Even if they had clamoured to visit their grandfather, Julian would have found an excuse to resist. At Mirth Farm, there was little escape from the immediacy of fatherhood and Julian felt exposed by this. In stark contrast, his own home provided any number of distractions and barriers that allowed the children and their father to coexist without confronting the enormity of each other’s failings. To date, Julian’s involvement in his children’s upbringing had given him very little fulfilment other than the satisfaction of completing numbers in a column of the ledger of his mind. Nevertheless, he wore his paternal responsibilities quite heavily on his stooped shoulders and never was this more apparent than under the gaze of his father and sister. He didn’t quite understand Camilla’s need to imitate a conventional family so regularly, but nor did he quite trust his own emotional response to try to change or influence the pattern. Camilla, however, had a very certain sense of what these occasions should feel like to her offspring, and even though her own childhood had failed to live up to many of the obligations she liked to associate with the institution, she insisted on imposing her own needs upon all of them. She made sure that Julian and his children joined them at least four times a year, and this Sunday was one of those prescribed occasions when Doubler’s son and daughter and his four grandchildren were due to visit Mirth Farm all together. In his many years of voluntary isolation, Doubler had learnt to navigate the extremely narrow path that separates solitude from loneliness. One he sought; the other sought him. But never was he more certain that he would prefer to be alone than when his family descended upon him in this manner. Had Marie not gone in the way that she had, things would certainly have been different. Raising children was something that he and his wife had undertaken together, and he had no doubt that he would have approached grandparenthood with a similarly shared sense of commitment. But he had not sought the role of single parent with its double dose of duty and he eschewed all grandparental influence for fear that he would fall short twice. He deeply resented the additional pressure the seismic shift his wife’s departure had imposed upon him. And anyway, Doubler valued his time on his own. He relished the silence, and his intellect needed very little stimulation other than that provided by his potatoes, by his carefully stocked cellar and by his daily lunch with Mrs Millwood. In truth, he had come to dread these family occasions, but he knew that the more normality he was able to depict, the sooner he would be left to his own devices for the ensuing month. This meant interacting as well as he could, feigning interest in those around him, keeping off the subjects that tended to provoke conflict and never, ever letting any of his family realize that he had chosen to live life as a recluse. Julian wasn’t overly interested in the comings and goings of his father, Doubler knew that. But if Camilla had any idea of just how far, how conclusively, Doubler had removed himself from society, then she would be even more disappointed in him. As it was, Doubler felt his deceit had been reasonably successful, as his daughter believed quite vocally that her father was coping ‘as well as could be expected under the circumstances’. One of the greatest pretences that Doubler could enact to give the impression of lucid stability was to provide a flawless Sunday lunch. Increasingly he found great comfort in cooking well and these visits gave him an opportunity to put his skills into practice. He could produce a roast for eight people without any one of them even realizing there was expertise involved. To his visitors, lunch meant trays of piping-hot food sliding from the Aga at 1 p.m. with very little sense of the many significant decisions that separated a good Sunday lunch from a great one. His trick was to have completed the preparation long before anyone arrived – even the gravy was made. All he had to do as his family gathered in the kitchen bothering him with details of their small lives was to take the beef out, put the Yorkshires in and finish off the gravy by adding the meat juices while the beef rested before carving. As for the next generation (‘f ’, Doubler liked to joke to himself), he barely took a passing interest in his grandchildren. He was fascinated to see which, if any, of his own genetic characteristics had been passed on, but these could be observed with side glances as he went about his kitchen business. The trouble with humans, he had learnt, was that their life cycles were just too long to intervene in the genetics meaningfully. By the time the weak or undesirable traits fully emerged, the sample had probably already reproduced itself. He suspected that Marie, had she not gone, would have been a very good, active grandmother, interested in their grandchildren’s school progress, their extra-curricular choices, their loss of teeth, their new haircuts or the little triumphs that everyone felt necessary to discuss but that Doubler found dull. Marie would have excelled at grandparenting, so Doubler didn’t dismiss his obligation altogether but nodded and listened and even made a small comment every now and then, feigning interest as best he could. What he was watching for in his grandchildren was something that might arrest his attention. A flash of genetic improvement that meant they weren’t going to just be dull incarnations of their parents. Julian’s children, born to a generous portion of the same DNA as their cousins, had already been ruined by an expensive education. Though still small, they were haughty, just like their father, and their lack of stable family life meant they had quickly learnt to exploit their father’s guilt to their own advantage. That is what their private education had taught them: to see a weakness in an adult and to monetize it. This manifested in a steady access to costly things: overseas cricket and skiing trips, expensive electronic gadgetry and a sense of entitlement that would guarantee them good careers later in life. Meanwhile, Camilla’s children were a little younger and it was hard to see who they might become in the years ahead. Doubler had some hope for them but expected their qualities to be presented to him like a gun dog’s prize. He didn’t yet like them enough to try to coax some good out of them or to shape the people they might become. They arrived today in the usual flurry of coats and welly boots flung across the kitchen and Doubler, who prided himself on preserving some semblance of order within his home during the weekends, tidied up after them while putting the finishing touches to the lunch. As they sat down to eat, Camilla smiled benevolently at all of them. ‘Isn’t this special!’ she said, just as she always did. ‘Being together as a family is what it’s all about, don’t you think?’ Her husband, a translucent man with thin lips that rested his face into a grimace, muttered some agreement, while Julian admonished his spoilt children, who were leaning over to help themselves to potatoes with their fingers. Scolded, they sat back in their chairs, growling their dissatisfaction and sharing that special camaraderie that unites siblings when they hate their parents. Doubler carved, his heavy steel knife slipping through the beef and making light work of the task. Camilla served vegetables while Julian surveyed the room, assessing and valuing as he went. ‘So, Dad, heard anything from Peele recently?’ Doubler stopped, his knife suspended in the air. After a pause of several seconds, he resumed the carving, watching with renewed pleasure as blood seeped from the joint beneath him. In order to create a larger stage on which to star, Julian was rocking his chair back on its rear legs, a habit Doubler found alarming. He watched his son intently as Julian asked, feigning a polite interest, ‘I heard he was considering buying this place off you?’ ‘Wherever did you hear that?’ said Doubler, carving the beef with a deft movement. ‘Oh, around and about. I can’t recall. The golf course, I suspect. We’re both members. Idle talk is golfers’ talk,’ said Julian with a smirk. Doubler addressed the beef, not his son. ‘I have not entered into any communication with Peele.’ ‘Oh? But I hear on the grapevine he’s buying up everything left, right and centre. He’s got most of the county apparently.’ Doubler shrugged. ‘I have very little interest in Peele.’ ‘Well, that’s not a bad tactic, I suppose. The longer you hold out, the more valuable this place will be to him. But don’t leave it too long. There comes a point where it’s just not practical you owning a farm in the middle of his land. At the moment, this place is valuable to him. But there will come a tipping point beyond which it is no longer valuable to anyone else.’ ‘My farm is not in the middle of his land. His farmland surrounds mine. And what he owns near me has little impact on me, providing he leaves me well alone.’ ‘But will he leave you alone? I doubt it. Not once he’s got his eyes on the prize. This could be the jewel in his crown.’ Julian’s own eyes were sparkling in anticipation. ‘Potatoes?’ Doubler asked the children scattered round the table. He gave the gravy a good stir before sitting down to contemplate the perfectly rare beef in front of him. ‘As I say. I’ve got no interest in Peele.’ Julian peered at his father over the top of his specs. ‘Well, Dad, if you ever need a hand entering into negotiation, I’d be more than happy to help. It can’t be easy looking after this place on your own, and it’s not the same, is it, since Mum . . .’ he hesitated to finish the sentence, ‘went.’ Camilla allowed a small sound of exasperation to escape before addressing her brother with a sad whine. ‘Julian, I don’t know why you always have to raise the contentious issues just when we’re having such precious time together. Let’s talk about positive things, shall we?’ Julian answered in a quiet voice, in much the same way that a seasoned alfresco diner knows to keep still when a wasp is bothering them, ‘I don’t think a speculative offer from an extremely wealthy neighbouring farmer is exactly negative, do you? This place is bleak – look at it. There’s ice on the inside of the windows, for God’s sake.’ While it was true there were still traces of ice on the windows from last night’s heavy frost, the house was snug. The fire was roaring and throwing out a huge amount of heat, adding the distinctive quality of light that can only be achieved from the flicker of flame. ‘It’s cosy,’ said Camilla, looking for her father’s approval. ‘And anyway, it was our home – it was where we grew up. I don’t see how you can be so unsentimental about it, Julian. I don’t know about you, but I want my children to know this, to feel that they are part of it. We’ve got so many memories here.’ Julian looked unimpressed by this argument as he mentally flicked through a catalogue of recollections. Adulthood can have a strange effect on a childhood retrospective. He and Camilla had shared exactly the same experiences and yet they had very different associations. To Julian, it was black and white. His mother had been here and then she wasn’t. Any glimpses of past joys had been obliterated with her. ‘The land is valuable, Camilla. You’re being naive. And who knows what will happen to it in the future? The train line could completely ruin the value of these properties. I think if there is a viable offer on the table, Dad would be very sensible to have a serious look at it.’ Doubler drew himself taller and said, in a clear and decisive tone, ‘I’d really appreciate it if you didn’t talk about me as if I weren’t here. I am not selling the house, I am not selling the farm, and I will be here until the day I die. Please do not talk about matters that are none of your business, particularly if your conversation threatens to spoil the beef.’ But this was said only in his head. In reality, he quietly began to eat. ‘Spectacular food, Dad. Well done. Your Sunday lunch is just super,’ said Camilla, with a sad smile. ‘I like the potatoes best,’ contributed a small voice to his right. Doubler examined the child, Camilla’s youngest, with heightened interest. ‘You do, do you? And why is that?’ ‘Because they’re crunchy,’ he said seriously. ‘And they’re fluffy.’ He scrutinized the potato on the end of his fork. ‘They’re crunchy and they’re fluffy.’ ‘You, young man, show some promise. That is exactly why they’re good.’ Doubler smiled, looking and feeling very much like a grandfather. The small child, emboldened by his grandfather’s warmth, continued, ‘Mum’s are oily. And a bit squishy. Sometimes they’re hard, too.’ ‘Darling, that’s not very kind,’ said Camilla. ‘Darren, tell Benj that’s not very kind.’ ‘That’s not very kind, Benj. Your mother’s potatoes aren’t as nice because we don’t have an Aga. Your grandfather has an Aga, which is why the potatoes are nicer,’ said Darren, without lifting his eyes from his plate. Doubler was surprised by this information. Surprised that his son-in-law would have so much to say on the subject. It was a shame he was wrong. ‘The Aga didn’t cook the potatoes. I cooked the potatoes. A strong heat source is all it takes, and actually you can cook very good roast potatoes in most ovens, even those with an uneven temperature, providing you take a bit of extra care. It’s in the preparation. You need to parboil them for long enough to ensure they’re not hard in the middle. It’s important that the outer layer of the potato just begins to break down so that it will absorb some of the fat you’re cooking them in. Give them a really good shake in the pan when you’ve drained them, which will ensure you get a good mix of crispy bits. The fat’s important, too. I use goose.’ ‘Gross,’ said a voice from Doubler’s left, the elder of Julian’s children. The younger of Julian’s children stifled a giggle. Doubler continued, ‘The roasting is easy providing you put your parboiled potatoes into very hot fat. You can’t go wrong. They need good seasoning, too. The seasoning is always important.’ ‘I don’t know why you’ve never taught me to cook roast potatoes, Dad, if mine are apparently so substandard.’ The hurt evident in her voice, Camilla directed the comment towards her husband. ‘Because you only ever turn up here at lunchtime. If you want to see how I prepare the roast, you really need to be here around 9 a.m.’ ‘Fair enough, but what about when I was a teenager? That might have been more useful. It might have prevented me from a lifetime of cooking inferior potatoes for my family.’ Again Camilla addressed the comment in the direction of her husband. ‘Your mother cooked,’ said Doubler definitively. Camilla looked down at her plate and carried on eating. Julian, uninterested in potatoes or their preparation, continued heedlessly, ‘Arable land is worth a premium at the moment. Fifteen thou an acre on a good day, but with this strategic stronghold, it would be worth much more than that. And the house has a great footprint – you’d get a sizable premium from a developer. It might well be worth applying for outline planning now. If nothing else, that would get Peele to up his game.’ Doubler looked beyond his son to the view out of the window. He could see for miles at this time of the year, despite the frosted glass. In the summer, the view was curtailed by the wisteria that wrapped itself round the house, the vigorous new growth fighting with the honeysuckle and roses that entwined it. The foliage shaded the room, cutting down on the sunlight that crept in, and this, coupled with the thick flagstones, ensured the room remained beautifully cool. Doubler loved this view. He loved this room, hot and smoky in the winter, cold and shady in the summer. He was not a materialistic man; he was a man of the soil, but nevertheless he wondered whether he could love a house more. Camilla was having a good look around her, too. ‘Your daily is obviously doing a good job still: the place is immaculate.’ A small flicker of warmth enveloped Doubler’s heart. Mrs Millwood! he thought to himself, but as quickly the thought of her dispelled. She had no place here; theirs was strictly a table for two. ‘Mmmm,’ he said non-committally. ‘Is she still up here full time?’ ventured Julian, doing a quick calculation in his head. ‘Seems like a bit of an indulgence, Dad. If you had a smaller place, you wouldn’t need all that help. Less to worry about at your time of life.’ ‘Seconds?’ Doubler addressed the table. ‘Really, Dad, you should get your head out of the sand. Opportunities can go just as quickly as they come. Think about how you will cope in five years’ time, ten years’ time. It’s not going to get any easier.’ Doubler didn’t feel old. He felt his years, but with these years came a host of benefits. He knew his body well, and he and it had come to a steady understanding. He fed it the fuel it required – not too much, not too little – and he maintained it to a good working standard. And in turn, it didn’t let him down. Doubler felt that the mutual respect shared by mind and body might well mean that together they would go on for ever. But when Doubler’s son was around, he felt different. Not older but much less sure. Julian made him feel fallible, and his impatience with his father if he were slow to stand to his feet or if he paused for a moment’s reflection before speaking gave way to such obvious contempt and open hostility that Doubler became quite capable of doubting both his body and his mind. ‘I’m not old,’ he said, ‘but goodness me, you make me feel tired.’ This, he said to himself. Plates found their way back to Doubler, and as he layered thin slices of beef on each and sent the plates on their course for seconds of vegetables, he contemplated his son, who, somewhere in the background, was continuing to whine on about how old and incompetent his father would soon be. That’s me he’s talking about, thought Doubler, somewhat abstractly. That’s his old man’s life he’s wishing away. Now all he talks about is when I get old, when I die, what I’m worth. What he really wants to know is when he can bank some of my wealth in his account. I know what’s on his mind. He’s worried I might well fritter it away or do something stupid. Or give it to the animal shelter. Doubler’s thoughts drifted easily from the animal shelter to Mrs Millwood. Mrs Millwood volunteered at an animal shelter. Doubler didn’t know much about the comings and goings of such a place, other than the tales he heard over lunch. And at their lunches, Mrs Millwood tended only to wield accounts of heartwarming kindness, designed to elevate his mood. But Doubler understood quite a bit about abandonment. ‘There might be a need for some cash – you’re right, Julian,’ Doubler said, pulling himself out of his reverie, and experiencing a little thrill of anticipation at the knowledge that he was about to provoke his pompous son. Julian looked up from his plate, surprised that his words had finally reached their target. ‘Now you’re talking, Dad. Go on . . .’ ‘The local animal shelter is doing a fundraising drive and I’m thinking of getting involved. You know, lending a hand.’ ‘The local what?’ Julian spat the question out, looking very much like a man who had swallowed an indigestible morsel. ‘You know, the animal shelter. It’s where they provide refuge to animals in need. They get all kinds up there, you know. You’d be amazed at people’s cruelty when they no longer get any pleasure from an animal they used to be fond of. Particularly the old ones. The donkeys and ponies and the like. They’re hard to house. And loads of older cats and dogs that have just been abandoned. It’s really astonishing that human beings can be so selfish.’ ‘Dad. That is not what you need cash for. Do not do anything stupid. Camilla, Darren, back me up here. You don’t want to see your inheritance buying straw for donkeys, do you?’ ‘Oh, Julian, they need a lot more than straw,’ interrupted Doubler earnestly. ‘They need grass all year round. Once I finish with the potatoes, this land would make great grazing for some donkeys in need. I’ve already suggested it to the folk up at the shelter.’ ‘You’ve done what?’ Two spots of pink rose on Julian’s cheeks and his eyes bulged, unblinking. ‘I’ve just talked it through. The pros and cons. You know, what I would need to do to make a concrete contribution to the good work they are doing down there.’ ‘Jesus, Dad. By all means make a contribution. Put some money in the collection pot when you are doing your grocery shopping. Take the sticker. Goddamn it, wear the sticker! But that’s it. That’s all they’re getting from you.’ Camilla put her knife and fork down on her plate with a clatter. ‘Julian, once again you really are taking a very hard line here. If Dad has a new interest, then I think that’s just great. Go and volunteer, Dad. Go for it! Don’t just put your loose change in the collection pot – rattle the collection pot! Go and join the troops in the High Street. Those volunteers can be extremely persuasive, too, and it’s very rarely threatening, you know. I mean, sometimes it is just a little, well, daunting, if you’re hurrying and you need your change for the parking machine and it’s just there in your hand and you can feel their eyes burning into you as you rush past. You have to say something, don’t you? You can’t help but feel obliged. I often find myself apologizing to them as I pass.’ Camilla’s eyes darted round the table, searching for consensus among her fellow diners. Darren made a rare interjection, interrupting his wife as she spoke. ‘Volunteer. But I’m going with Julian’s gut on this one. Don’t sign anything.’ ‘Well, of course Dad’s not going to sign anything, are you, Dad? I mean, not without talking to us first?’ Camilla looked at her father for reassurance. Julian, impatient with his sister’s feeble enrolment to his cause, cut her off sharply. ‘How long has this, er, relationship been going, Dad? How deeply have they got their claws in?’ He looked up at the three pairs of eyes watching him. ‘Oh, don’t worry. I shan’t do anything daft. I’m not at that stage yet.’ ‘Well, tell us when you are about to do something daft, Dad.’ ‘I did something daft when I allowed my genes to reproduce themselves,’ Doubler said, to himself. And he continued to eat his food in silence. Chapter 5 (#ulink_ed527a8d-704f-5198-a4b3-d4de59ba0103) Overnight, the thick cloak of disquiet Doubler felt after Sunday lunch with his family wrapped itself firmly round the seed of anxiety already generated by the three Manila envelopes lurking in the drawer. The envelopes hadn’t been clamouring for his attention, but Doubler was painfully familiar with the impact of leaving one mouldy potato among a sack of sound potatoes and he feared the contents of the envelopes may well be festering and could perhaps become more volatile through lack of attention. The weekends were always long, but he now only had a number of hours before Mrs Millwood returned to Mirth Farm. Doubler steeled himself, determined to pluck up the courage to ask for Mrs Millwood’s assistance. There was nobody else in the world better equipped to help Doubler find the right solution and he knew that his first instinct, to ignore the threat altogether, was undoubtedly the most dangerous. Despite his resolve, Doubler chose not to open the third envelope immediately. There would be time to read it, but there was an order to his day that needed to be adhered to. Leaving the envelopes in the dark drawer, their potency in abeyance for a little longer, Doubler prepared his tea. Doubler warmed the pot while measuring out a big scoop of his specially blended tea leaves. He drained the pot, added the leaves and then poured in boiling water, taking the pot to the still-boiling kettle and filling it at the Aga to ensure minimal loss of heat. Doubler believed the leaves should be allowed to mix freely with the boiling water to fully release the flavour so he didn’t use any strainer inside the pot, choosing instead to strain the tea as he poured it. Part of his Sunday evening ritual was to mix enough of his blend to keep him going for a full week, preferring to leave the bulk packs of black tea in a cool, dark corner of the pantry and enjoying an inordinate sense of accomplishment when he had judged the week’s requirement perfectly. His blend (equal quantities of Keemun, Assam and Ceylon leaves) provided him the versatility he needed from a tea: something light in colour with a smooth and mild taste whose well-rounded character suited both a morning and an afternoon cup. His teapot, cup, saucer and milk jug set out before him, Doubler sat at the kitchen table and spread out all three envelopes, examining the contents in the order they had arrived. The substance remained consistent. Mr Peele wanted to buy his farm. The first letter had arrived, conventionally, by post, and once he’d digested it, Doubler had paid it scant attention, tidying it away in the dresser drawer without too much further thought. The second letter, however, was markedly different in both tone and manner of delivery. It had been hand-delivered, which meant that somebody had been to Mirth Farm in person. It was this intrusion that had rung the alarm bells in Doubler’s head and he swiftly responded with a proportionate stepping-up of his security. Doubler was fortunate that, while ostensibly a man with no friends, he had many people indebted to him and it was very easy to call in a favour, particularly as he leveraged this influence so rarely. Those beholden to him were eager to be of use and within two days of a brusque phone call, two men in a white van had arrived to install the security camera on the corner of Doubler’s yard. This was the camera whose vigilant sweep now kept a watchful lookout for Mirth Farm trespassers. Doubler worked meticulously through each letter, making careful notes in his journal of the most salient points, though these were sometimes difficult to extract from the ornate vernacular that intensified with Peele’s mounting irritation. What struck Doubler was the very great haste with which Peele had crescendoed from a generous cash offer to an outright demand, but nothing had prepared him for the unveiled threats of the latest letter. Peele was clearly very used to getting his own way and, perhaps an impatient man, had been quickly affronted by Doubler’s lack of response. Should Doubler have responded to the first or second letter, even just to say a polite no? This was a question for Mrs Millwood. Mrs Millwood might not have a clue about property negotiation, but she had a very good instinct for people and she would certainly have an opinion. The cash offer in the first letter was very good; Doubler had recognized this immediately. Even given the tiny sum for which he had originally purchased Mirth Farm and allowing for his lack of attention to rising property prices, he knew it was unarguably generous. In fact, it was hard to imagine that anyone should want to part with such a very large sum of money in exchange for his home. It was evident, Doubler deduced, that Peele was not trying to steal Doubler’s farm or trick him in any way. But the size of the offer demonstrated to Doubler how very badly Peele wanted to own Doubler’s property and he had made his determination abundantly clear by coming to Doubler with a proposal that was intended to be irresistible. And when Doubler had not even acknowledged receipt of the offer, Peele had accelerated the urgency by pointing out the reasons that Doubler might regret his lack of pliability. The second letter swiftly introduced some legalese. The letter began with the words ‘Without Prejudice’, which in themselves were intended to be perceived as a threat. Doubler had already confirmed the definition with Mrs Millwood and so he knew that these words meant the letter could not be used in a court of law against the originator, but Doubler was not entirely sure why he and Peele might end up locked in a legal battle. Could Doubler be sued for not responding to the first letter? Was it an offence not to enter into a negotiation that you wanted no part of? Doubler didn’t believe, logically, that this could be the case, but the very words ‘Without Prejudice’ were troublesome to him. In his second letter, Peele used the language of courtrooms to forcibly suggest that Doubler must accept his generous offer within fourteen days or the offer would be withdrawn and Peele would thereafter be forced to pay fair market value. Doubler knew, logically, that this threat was nonsensical because he didn’t want to sell his home at any price. Doubler referred back to the earlier letter and glanced ahead to the third. They had not only accelerated in urgency, they’d accelerated in impenetrable speech. The first letter contained no ‘notwithstanding’s, the second contained two, and the third was riddled with them. The gist of the third letter was one of unbridled intimidation, and Peele was very specific about the nature his threats would take. Peele insisted that he fully intended to increase his use of pesticides and warned that his liberal use of genetically modified crops might negatively impact on Doubler’s own organic status and, therefore, his bottom line. This was a cause for grave concern to Doubler and he underlined the observation in his notebook. Doubler wasn’t worried so much about his organic certification from an economic point of view: while his farming methods were indeed organic (he had begun his farming life not knowing any other way and he had failed to pay attention to progress so had failed to adopt more productive methods subsequently), his farming income did not depend on his organic certification. But Peele was not to know that this threat was alarming for other reasons. Peele’s land completely surrounded Doubler’s and there was nothing to stop the insects that landed on Peele’s fields stopping to inspect Doubler’s. There was a very real concern that the purity of Doubler’s potato experimentation could be compromised and that the data he had thus far gathered could be greatly undermined. What if the Institute of Potato Research and Development in northern India, the very body of excellence with whom Doubler was now in correspondence, got wind of this potential breach? Doubler was certain that he had allowed adequate set-aside at the margins of each field to pass the scrutiny of the organic inspectors, but would the country of India be so easily satisfied? Doubler’s research, thus far, had relied on the absolute genetic integrity of each generation of potatoes, and now Peele was threatening forty years of work. This was very vexing indeed. And as if Doubler didn’t have enough doubt and worry plaguing him, Peele went on to list yet another threat (as though he had an endless supply on which to rely upon in a purely non-prejudicial way). He had, apparently, ‘excellent connections and relationships with influencers, government officials and local councillors’ and these people might well force Doubler to sell his land under compulsory purchase order owing to proposed plans for the new high-speed rail link that was threatening to carve the chalky hills in two. Peele made it very clear that his own strategic alliances would put him in a strong position to deal with whatever was thrown his way but that Doubler, acting on his own, would find battling with the monsters of Westminster a very lonely and futile job. Doubler sighed loudly and wondered whether Peele’s apparent commercial success was because he dealt his blows in threes. The generous cash offer could be ignored in isolation. After all, what on earth would Doubler do with so much money other than find the ideal place to live and work, and this he already had at Mirth Farm? But dealing with an unsolicited offer from government officials was as vexing as the genetically-modified-pollen-carrying insects that Doubler now saw as little plagues of rogue militants dispatched in clouds by Peele’s own men to undermine Doubler’s life’s work. There was no denying it: Peele’s threats had dealt greater blows than the perpetrator could have dared hope. The threat to Doubler’s organic status paled into insignificance in comparison to the threat to his groundbreaking potato research. And the suggestion that officials might be invited to discuss the path of a new train and then accidentally stumble across the potato grower’s business concerns was much more alarming to Doubler, who alone knew the true depths of his underground activity. Were the government to get wind of this other enterprise while routinely investigating resistance to a compulsory purchase order, then who knew what trouble lay ahead. Doubler looked at his notes, the page divided into three columns representing each distinct threat, and reeled at the sheer enormity of the attack. He had wondered, at the arrival of the third envelope, whether stepping up his security might be a disproportionate response, but now, when the words were distilled into a gradient of menace, he knew that war had indeed been declared. Yes, there was no doubt: he needed Mrs Millwood. Doubler always looked forward to his housekeeper’s arrival, but with such a clear agenda for their talk ahead, he was more restless than ever before. Ten minutes before she was due, he began pacing up and down by the window, looking constantly at the spot at the end of the drive and raising the binoculars to his eyes at every imagined disturbance. As it was, he was fetching his notebook at the moment she came through the gate, but to ensure he was consistent with his diligent recordings, he noted the approximate time of her arrival as he watched the car pull forward on the drive. Scarcely able to contain his nervous energy, he wandered through the house awaiting her symphony of entrance, so it was a couple of minutes before he registered something different about the quality of sound of the engine on the drive. Mrs Millwood had a distinctive driving style. She kept the engine revs at a constant speed, taking the bends at a slow and steady pace that seemed to allow her to coast her way to the top. Although he had been absolutely certain that it had been her car he observed a couple of minutes previously, he was now not so sure. The car was revving up on the incline and then slowing to a crawl to navigate each turn, making the car sound strained and hesitant as it made its approach. Doubler stopped and held his breath to hear the small aural nuances of her arrival, listening carefully to the thud of the car door as she eventually reached the yard. He stood stock-still, his ears trained on the kitchen door. When instead of it opening, the front doorbell rang, its noise echoing thunderously around the house, his heart leapt at the intrusion. There was no reason for Mrs Millwood to arrive at the front door – she never had done so before – so it was with great trepidation that Doubler made his way nervously down the hallway to see what Trojan interloper could possibly have made it as far as his doorstep. He eyed the doormat suspiciously, half expecting another one of the Manila envelopes to slide through the letterbox in front of his eyes, but the doorbell rang again, and unable to ignore it, he carefully undid the chain and turned the stiff key in the lock, his heart beating loudly in his ears. As he opened the door hesitantly, a woman poked her head into the narrow space he had created. She was wearing a brightly coloured knitted bobble hat pulled down over her ears and some sort of duffle coat over jeans and wellington boots. He narrowed his eyes as he tried to process the threat. ‘Doubler?’ ‘I am,’ he tried, though he wasn’t certain of anything at that moment. ‘Hello! I’m Gracie’s daughter.’ ‘Gracie,’ he said, feeling even more nervous now she claimed to be somebody’s daughter. He didn’t know any Gracies. ‘Gracie,’ he said again, unsure whether he should yet betray the fact he knew nobody by that name. ‘Yes. Can I come in?’ He didn’t seem to have much say in the matter because she was already pushing on the door to enter his house. Her admission was almost forced, but Doubler was disarmed by her eyes, which were sparkling and bright, and there was a lightness in her look that he recognized and responded to. He stood back as she entered and walked ahead of him as if she knew the house. ‘Shall I put the kettle on?’ she asked as she made her way towards the kitchen. Her ease, her certainty became familiar. Gracie. Gracie must be the name of Mrs Millwood and this must certainly be her daughter. He shut the front door and hurried after her. ‘By all means put the kettle on,’ he said, perplexed, but by the time he had caught up with her, she was already filling the kettle at the sink as if she had performed this task a thousand times. He sat at the kitchen table and allowed events to happen to him. He allowed this woman to feel her way around his kitchen as she assembled cups and saucers, and warmed the teapot, reaching for the tin of tea leaves as if it were second nature. He watched her and marvelled at the million little ways that identified her as her mother’s daughter. ‘Were you expecting me?’ ‘Not at all. I was expecting your mother.’ ‘Just as I thought. She was supposed to tell you, but she must have chickened out.’ ‘Tell me what?’ ‘Mum’s poorly.’ She made this last announcement just as she sat down opposite him. She pushed a teacup towards him. ‘Drink this.’ He tried to lift the hot drink to his lips but found himself quite unable to grasp the cup with enough force to raise it. He looked at Gracie’s daughter. ‘Poorly. What sort of poorly?’ ‘Oh, the worst you can imagine, I’m afraid.’ She reached forward and spooned some sugar into his tea, stirring it, and then she sipped at her own. She smiled a small, sorrowful smile, one that, irrationally in Doubler’s eyes, carried a trace of sadness for him as well as a multitude of sadnesses of her own. ‘She’s had it before, of course, but I’m afraid it’s back again with sharper teeth.’ Doubler found himself unable to swallow, as if the disease’s sharp teeth had sunk themselves into his own fleshy neck. ‘When? When did she have it before?’ he asked, once he had found his voice. This was all news to him. The first toothless episode and then the second, fanged one. ‘A good while back. She was younger then, much more able to deal with it and she’s been well for such a long time now, we really thought she’d beaten it.’ Doubler imagined Mrs Millwood beating a sharp-toothed thing with a stick. Or a mop. Or a broom. Surely it wouldn’t stand a chance. And he remembered, now, her absence. She had taken some time off and he had resented it enormously through a cloud of other resentments, and the combined force of his upset and all the other upsets had somehow obscured the reason for her absence. He had been at the lowest point of his life. He had settled into the routine of life without Marie, but nothing had made much sense to him still. He tried to remember how long Mrs Millwood had been absent for. ‘How long?’ he said. Using two hands, he lifted the cup unsteadily to his lips. A sharp pain flashed across the face of Gracie’s daughter and Doubler realized what she might think he was asking. ‘Until she’s back here, I mean. Back at work, until she’s not poorly again.’ The word ‘poorly’ stuck in his mouth like fluff, getting tangled there and drying his tongue and lips until he thought they might never work again. It had been the daughter’s language, the daughter’s choice of words. But of course it wasn’t a big enough word to describe this thing with savage teeth. Gracie reached across the table and took his hand in hers. ‘Mum’s really sick this time. We’re taking it one day at a time. She is going to fight it, and the doctors are going to throw everything at it. But the treatment’s going to be awful, so she’ll feel a lot worse before she feels better. If she feels better at all.’ Doubler was horrified by his own selfish thoughts and yet all he could think of was the absence he would be left with. Not the threat of the ultimate absence (this, he hadn’t even begun to process as a possibility) but the absence of the next few days and weeks. Without her visits giving his day some structure and purpose, he wasn’t sure he would cope. He felt his stomach cave in. ‘Will you cope, do you think?’ Gracie’s daughter asked, kindly. Doubler was taken aback, completely, as if she had seen into his soul. He stumbled to find the words to express how utterly bereft he felt not to be sitting down for lunch with Mrs Millwood today, let alone the terror he felt when he tried to contemplate the bleakness of the horizon ahead of him. ‘There’s the day-to-day cleaning, I suppose. It’ll probably be easy enough to find somebody to help you keep on top of that,’ Gracie’s daughter said, looking around her at the kitchen. ‘I’m amazed she didn’t want to talk this through with you herself. She may be poorly but she has you on her mind, you know.’ Doubler swallowed back his thoughts. To cope with the housework didn’t even touch the surface of the loss he was feeling. And yet, somehow, a conversation seemed to be happening to him, around him, and Gracie’s daughter was covering both sides. ‘I tell you what. How about I find somebody to fill her shoes in the short term? I’d be happy to place some ads and do the first round of interviews if that would help. Shall I?’ Doubler nodded slowly, not entirely sure what he was agreeing to. He didn’t want somebody to fill Mrs Millwood’s shoes. Not in the short term, not in the longer term. He wanted her own outdoor shoes left under the bench by the kitchen door, and he wanted her own stockinged feet to slip into her indoor shoes, which she wore to dart around the house. The point of Mrs Millwood was that she barely wore shoes. She simply floated from room to room just above the surface. She only became substantial, a human form that might need shoes, when she sat down at lunchtime, and then they talked and talked. Nobody would fill those shoes; the footwear wasn’t the point. ‘I won’t hire anybody until you’ve met them, of course. I’ll just do the preliminary interviews and you can make the final decision. How does that sound? I think it will make Mum happy to know that somebody is taking care of things here. She worries a bit, you see, and I don’t want her distracted. I want her mind firmly focused on getting better. She’s strong in that she’s vital and vigorous, but there’s so little of her she’s going to have to use every ounce of her physical strength to deal with the chemo.’ There. She’d said it. Doubler had known that the language of Mrs Millwood’s poorliness would need to be upgraded to incorporate the technicalities of the practical. ‘Poorliness’ was too vague a word to describe her symptoms, and ‘treatment’ was too vague a word to tackle the solution. And here it was in black and white, a word that conjured up body-wracking drugs, tubes, needles, poison and pain. It didn’t sound like a treatment; it sounded like a penance. Gracie’s daughter noticed Doubler wince and wondered, for the first time since she had arrived, whether Doubler was taking the news of her mother quite badly. She had assumed until now that his silence was born out of a taciturn nature, so she reached for his hand once more. ‘We’re all going to help each other through this. I need to make sure Mum has all the peace and quiet she needs to get better, so I’m going to shoulder her responsibilities. That means I’m here for you. You will do your bit, I’m sure, and it’s just that none of us can know what that might mean yet. I don’t, you don’t, and Mum certainly doesn’t. But I suspect you’ll be there to support her if you’re needed. Is that right?’ Doubler felt hope through the possibility of purpose. ‘Of course. Anything. I don’t really leave the house much. Certainly not since . . . not since Marie went. But, yes, I’ll do what is asked of me. Tell her that, will you?’ He closed his eyes briefly and allowed himself to imagine climbing into the car to leave the farm for the first time in years. ‘Tell her I’ll visit. She might be bored. She might like a bit of company.’ ‘Well, that’s a very sweet offer, but I can’t imagine she’ll feel up to much – as it is, I’ll be fighting to keep her friends away. Golly, my mum’s amassed a few of those along the way! There’s the church lot, her knitting circle, the animal-shelter lot. Not to mention that gaggle of buddies she’s known all her life. They’re a good bunch, her school chums. They’re always there for each other, but they’re getting to an age where they have to offer this sort of support to one another all the time. They’re a marvel, though, really, quite an inspiration actually. But still, that’s a very nice thought and I will make sure she knows you offered. She’ll be most touched.’ Doubler recoiled. He knew about the knitting circle. He knew she went to church. He knew she volunteered at an animal rescue centre. But he had assumed when she talked about these different pockets of interest that they were mere pastimes, mere distractions to avoid having to stare intense loneliness in the face the way he had to every single time he looked in the mirror. A gaggle of buddies? He scrolled back through countless lunchtime conversations. Jean? Her name had come up often. Dot? Was she part of a gaggle? Mabel? ‘Jean? Dot? Mabel?’ he ventured. ‘Oh, Mum’s told you about them, has she? Mum does like to talk.’ ‘She listens, too. She’s an extremely good listener.’ ‘Hmm,’ said Gracie’s daughter, trying to imagine her mother listening, not talking. ‘I mean really. She really is an exceptionally good listener. She’s the type of listener who actually stops thinking while she listens to you. That’s rare in my experience. Most people in conversation are too busy thinking about what they’re going to say next to truly listen well.’ ‘That’s a very nice thing to hear about my mother. I’m you sure you must be right, and perhaps that explains why she’s got such a wide circle of friends.’ A ‘wide circle’. Doubler contemplated the phrase. A circle was a complete thing, with no breaks, no gaps. No room for another. How ludicrous that he had considered himself a friend of hers. On the other hand, she was clearly his friend. Perhaps his only friend. Doubler imagined himself a small bubble on the outside of her wide circle. Was it possible for those two certainties to exist in his mind and for both of them to be truthful? That she was a friend to him but that he was not a friend to her? Gracie’s daughter stood and began clearing away the teacups, taking them to the sink. As she rinsed them, she continued talking to Doubler, her back to him. ‘She’s got a week of intensive chemo, so we think she’ll be in hospital for the duration and then, if all goes according to plan, she’ll be treated as an outpatient thereafter. I’ll keep you up to date with what is going on, how she’s responding. And in the meantime, let’s keep focused on some of the practical issues. I’ll see if I can find somebody to give you a hand around here and I’ll let you know how I get on. Anything particular you’re after? Cooking as well as cleaning? Running errands? Shopping?’ ‘Not cooking. I cook,’ said Doubler with a sharp bite of vehemence that surprised them both. ‘Just the other things.’ He went quiet for a moment, wondering how he could articulate his need for somebody who would sit with him and ask him just the right number of questions about his experiments. Somebody who cared almost as much as he did. Somebody who knew better than he did how to run his life but who never interfered, just trusted him to deal with it. Somebody who knew both his pre-Marie and post-Marie personas. Somebody who knew how far he’d fallen and how slow the climb up again had been. ‘Just cleaning,’ Doubler said, and he stood to dry the cups. Chapter 6 (#ulink_7e0a658e-6c64-575b-9f4d-a386db61645e) A heavy bank of cloud planted itself above the farm and rained relentlessly on Doubler’s misery. The newly furrowed soil, dense and sticky, collected on his boots as he trudged round the fields, making each step heavier than the last. There was no glimmer of reprieve to suggest that this new pattern would ever be broken. Alone with the mud and his memories, Doubler had found the last few days intolerable, and by the end of the fourth, he was thinking of Mrs Millwood with rising resentment. His days had lost form and he found himself quite unable to fall into his usual routine without the additional punctuation Mrs Millwood’s visits usually provided, and he blamed her for this interruption to his routine and his ensuing aimlessness. He started many jobs but finished few, and even those tasks that were essential felt lacklustre and without purpose. He pulled himself begrudgingly around the farm, but even this, one of his most joyous of routines, lacked urgency with no lunch companion to hurry home to. The threat from Peele had paled into insignificance. Doubler wondered now why he’d even concerned himself with the written letters. Peele wanted to buy the farm; Doubler didn’t want to sell it. That, as far as Doubler was concerned, was the end of the matter. He put the envelopes back in the drawer and buried them beneath a pile of paperwork. Peele would grow tired of waiting and turn his attention to some other prey. Doubler’s research either would or would not be contaminated by Peele’s farming methods. It didn’t feel important anymore. That morning, he had wondered whether he might stay in bed. If he didn’t go downstairs, nothing would need tidying up and he then wouldn’t be constantly reminded of her absence. He wasn’t sad, he was irritable, and he wasn’t concerned for her, he was overwhelmingly concerned for himself. Self-pity washed over him in waves, and as his mood darkened, he felt less and less inclined to give the day any of his attention. When he finally dragged himself slowly downstairs, he’d found the tea caddy was empty. Briefly confused, he realized he didn’t know what day of the week it was. He hastily made a new blend, carelessly tipping tea from each bag into the canister without weighing it and sweeping a mix of spilt leaves back into the first package he reached for. He took a sip and chided himself for his haste. It didn’t taste right and he knew it never would unless he started afresh. He left his tea unfinished and reluctantly forced himself out into the cold and damp morning, not stopping for a coat or hat. The wind burnt his ears and squeezed tears from his eyes as he made a cursory inspection of the bare land. He glanced at the barns, looking for signs of breach, and as he returned to the farmhouse, he stopped to glower briefly at the security camera. A bilious anger rumbling deep inside him, he flung open the kitchen door and pulled off his boots, pushing them forcefully with his toe under the boot rack. He made his way upstairs, now certain that his bed was the only place he could feel comfortable. As he reached the top landing, the phone rang in the hallway beneath him. Doubler grimaced, interpreting the intrusion as part of a conspiracy to ruin his life. The phone didn’t stop. He turned round and padded down to the draughty hall below, where the telephone vibrated noisily on the small table. His bad humour prepared Doubler for the worst and he was almost relishing the thought that it might be Peele calling him. As he reached for the telephone, he was already lining up a suitably sharp response, if it indeed were his rival having the audacity to disturb this precious time of quiet self-loathing. There was a small, disconcerting pause when Doubler lifted the receiver to his ear and into that pause swept a hesitation and uncertainty that Doubler felt echoing within the tiny space. He held the receiver more closely to his ear so that he didn’t miss the unspoken words while he waited for the spoken ones. ‘Mr Doubler. Where on earth were you? I timed my call in the certain knowledge you’d be in for your tea, but you took an age to answer the phone. I thought something might have gone awry.’ ‘Awry here, Mrs Millwood? No, all is quite in order, thank you,’ boomed Doubler, projecting his voice in the general direction of the hospital. His response was immediately cheerful, all traces of that earlier hesitation vanishing at the sound of her voice. He squeezed the receiver to his ear even closer but wanted, really, to hold it to his heart, as, much to his surprise, that was the piece of him that most wanted to hear her voice. ‘How are you keeping?’ she was asking. ‘Me? How am I keeping? How are you keeping? That’s the pertinent question.’ ‘Oh, not too bad, all things considered. I was supposed to be home, but the doctors, in their wisdom, want to keep me here. Some nonsense about my response to the treatment, when any fool could see it’s my body’s response to hospital that’s the root of the problem. My next few days are therefore a little unpredictable, but everything is going as well as can be expected.’ She paused and then launched into the reason for her call. ‘Mr Doubler, I’ve got some worries on my mind and Midge seemed to think you might help.’ Midge! Doubler repeated silently to himself and then, in joyful recognition, Mrs Millwood’s daughter! He congratulated himself on piecing this together for himself. ‘Midge, your daughter. Well, of course I would be delighted. Anything.’ ‘Well, I’m a bit worried about my colleagues down at Grove Farm – you know, the animal shelter. I’ve left them in the lurch and I need my shift covered. Do you think you could manage it? It’s only a couple of hours twice a week, and I’m sure they’ll already be looking out for a more permanent replacement, but I think they’ll be struggling for staff for the next month or so.’ Doubler’s heart lurched, recognizing the threat in the words before his mind had a chance to process them. ‘What do you mean by a “permanent” replacement, Mrs Millwood? You’re coming back to us, aren’t you? I mean to the animal shelter and to Mirth Farm?’ ‘Oh, heavens, yes, but you know what these doctors are like. Once they’ve got their claws into you, they never want to let you go.’ Claws. All Doubler could picture were sharp-taloned fingers prying and poking, tearing at Mrs Millwood while she was at her most vulnerable. Those same claws should be attacking the monster with teeth, not Mrs Millwood herself. ‘But it’s all going according to plan, is it? A bit of treatment in the hospital your daughter said, then you’ll be an outpatient. Is that still the plan? Home soon, right as rain?’ ‘Well, that’s certainly my plan, but we’ll have to wait and see. I don’t want to promise anything as I don’t like letting people down. I just want to make sure there’s cover for me down at the shelter. I really don’t want the added responsibility of worrying about them when I’ve got quite enough to worry about here.’ ‘What’s troubling you the most there? Other than . . . the obvious.’ ‘Oh, they’re wonderful here – I’m in great hands – but I’m parched most of the time and that blessed tea trolley taunts me. I can hear it as it makes its journey round the place. It’s got a distinctive rattle. I swear it accelerates past me several times a day, only to slow right down again the minute it’s snuck by my ward.’ Doubler beamed. Mrs Millwood continued, ‘I lie here dreaming of a cuppa, but it’s running me a bit of a merry dance, to be honest.’ Mrs Millwood paused. ‘Mr Doubler,’ she said sternly, ‘I can hear you smiling. It’s really not funny.’ Doubler bit his lip, trying not to let his joy escape noisily at the sound of her voice. ‘You know the worst of it? If I’m sleeping when they come, they don’t wake me! So I have to lie permanently alert just in case they pop their heads round the curtain. Sod’s Law says I’ll drift off or just close my eyes in a little daydream and that trolley is hotfooting it to the next ward. Practically mocking me it is.’ ‘Oh, Mrs Millwood! That sounds like my idea of hell. Tea needs to be on demand.’ ‘I’m lucky if I get three cups a day.’ ‘Three? Only three? That sounds like a travesty!’ ‘Quite. But other than that, no complaints. Shouldn’t even complain about that really – what with them working flat out to save my life.’ ‘Your life, Mrs Millwood, shall be saved. By a combination of advanced medical techniques and Camellia sinensis. And if there are shortcomings in that area, just say the word and I’ll be there.’ ‘Well, that’s a cheering thought, but my main concern is the shelter. Particularly darling old Percy. Would you be a dear?’ ‘It would be my honour. I’ll give them a holler, shall I? Percy, is it?’ Doubler registered with a stealthy hostility the use of the word ‘darling’. ‘Oh, heavens, no. Fat lot of good that’ll do you. Speak to Colonel Maxwell – he’ll be the one sorting the schedules out. He’s not officially in charge, but he doesn’t really know any other way. If he were a woman, he’d be called bossy, but he’s not a woman, so I guess he’s just called a natural leader.’ ‘Mrs Millwood?’ ‘Oh, sorry, Mr Doubler. Was I ranting?’ ‘No. No, not at all. At least, you were beginning to, but I like it. Rant away. That’s all.’ ‘Has something got into you? Are you coping all right? You sound uncommonly cheerful.’ ‘I’m coping just fine. I’ve been a little out of sorts, but I’m feeling very much improved.’ ‘Good, good. Don’t forget to call Colonel Maxwell, will you? I’ll check in with you in a few days’ time, shall I?’ ‘Marvellous, yes, do. Cheerio, then.’ Doubler held the receiver to his ear for a while listening to the conclusive hollow echo before replacing the receiver carefully with a smile, and he continued to smile as he went in search of a recent copy of the Yellow Pages. ‘This is meant to be!’ he exclaimed joyfully as he lugged the heavy book from the back of a cupboard. ‘Julian will have the fright of his life!’ Doubler said delightedly, plopping the thick volume down on the kitchen table. Grinning impishly, he flicked through the thin leaves until he found the number for the shelter, listed as Grove Farm Animal Rescue Centre. He drew a careful red line round it and wrote the name ‘Maxwell’ neatly in the margin. He carried the book back to the hall and positioned himself by the phone, a pen in his hand should he need to make any notes. He stared at the phone and imagined himself making the call. The smile that had been on his face since he’d first heard Mrs Millwood’s voice began to fade. The minutes ticked painfully by, and the longer he stared at the phone, the less able he was to recall his previous sense of purpose. He frowned a little, thinking about who might answer. Would it be Maxwell himself or another of Mrs Millwood’s circle of friends? Would darling Percy answer the phone? This unimaginable cast of characters must indeed be good friends for her to be worrying about them while she was undergoing unspeakable procedures in that place. He imagined lifting the receiver and dialling the number. In Doubler’s head, the abrasive shriek of the telephone would puncture a room full of laughter. The receiver would be picked up with impatience. Doubler would have to explain himself to a stranger and then to Maxwell, a natural leader no less, who would be compelled to ask what on earth Doubler could offer them. They were a close-knit circle of friends with years of animal care under their belts, and he was a nobody. He didn’t even have a goldfish; he’d only ever cared for potatoes . . . and Marie. And look what had happened to her. Doubler folded the corner of the page in a neat triangle and returned the book to where he’d found it. He made his way slowly back to the kitchen wondering why he had felt so alive just a moment before. He lifted the lid on the tea caddy, inhaled deeply, frowned and closed the lid again, shaking his head. He studied his potatoes in silence, but finding no answer there, he returned to his seat by the window, raised the binoculars to his eyes and fixed his attention on the driveway with renewed anxiety. Chapter 7 (#ulink_eb8d5291-4041-50d7-83d0-62141fc41d32) Gracie’s daughter was called Midge, as Doubler had learnt when Mrs Millwood had called from her hospital bed. Satisfied with this knowledge, he observed her arrival and noted the hesitancy with which she tackled the incline’s sharper bends, but there was a degree of enjoyment to be taken in the observation of the differences between these two women, who were so clearly similar in many ways. ‘Morning,’ Midge shouted in a melodic voice as she tried the front door and, finding it open, let herself in. Doubler might have been offended by this rather brazen intrusion, but the days since her last visit had been long and empty, and he was glad for the company. She had been christened Madeleine, but everyone had always called her Midge. Doubler was a little proud of his own nickname – it had been assigned to him by the butcher, and he liked it for its nod towards his considerable potato-growing skills – but, despite this, Doubler was naturally suspicious of nicknames. Midge, though, suited this spirited woman perfectly, so he had no hesitation in using it. Knowing her name endowed her with another layer of personality so that she was now so much more than just Gracie’s daughter. ‘Goodness me, Doubler. Is this the coldest place on earth?’ Midge exclaimed as she unwrapped a scarf from her neck and hung up her coat on the peg. Doubler looked out of the window at the scuttling clouds. ‘This is nothing. I wouldn’t say no to another proper cold snap, to tell you the truth. The earth likes it – kills off all sorts of unwanted visitors. And what’s good for the soil is good for my spuds.’ Midge gave an exaggerated shiver at the thought of something colder. ‘I thought I’d drop some groceries in to you – make sure you’ve got the basics for the week. I can’t do this indefinitely, you understand, but Mum was worried and apparently she picks up your order once a week.’ Doubler hurried to help her unpack the brown-paper bags and was delighted that she had not tried to improvise but had simply collected his usual order from the farm shop. Cheese for the pantry, flour and fresh yeast for this afternoon’s bake, some wintergreens and a dozen eggs. ‘I’m surprised, I must say, that you don’t produce some of this stuff yourself. Chickens would be nice company, wouldn’t they? And pigs?’ she said, eyeing the pile of potato peelings spilling out of the compost bin. ‘Pigs would love that lot.’ ‘You’re probably right, but it’s just not practical. I’m not sure I could make the commitment. I look after myself and I look after my potatoes, but I wouldn’t want to let anyone else down.’ ‘Why would you let anyone down? You barely go anywhere, do you? You’d be just the right temperament, I’m sure. I’d keep animals at home if I had the space.’ ‘If I upped and went, I’d let them down,’ said Doubler quietly. ‘Where on earth would you up and go to, you daft thing?’ Gracie’s daughter threw her head back and laughed as she put the kettle on for tea. ‘I don’t know. But I’ll die one day. And then who would look after the pigs and the chickens? The potatoes, well, they’ll turn themselves back into soil eventually, but I don’t like the idea of just abandoning a living creature.’ ‘Death? You’re planning for your death? Dying can’t stop you living, you know. Take a leaf out of Mum’s book. You know what she’s taken into hospital with her? Knitting wool and needles. She’s starting a terrifically complicated blanket – I’ve had a look at the pattern. It will take her years to finish, years. I think that’s a really defiant act, don’t you? Death is going to have to want her pretty badly to take her and her knitting needles on.’ Doubler thought about this and liked the image. Perhaps she could knit herself a cocoon that would keep her safe, keep the teeth at bay. ‘I suppose you’re right. I think . . . I think . . .’ He thought some more. ‘I think if you make a commitment to something or someone, you’ve got to see it through. You can’t just remove yourself from the scene without making provisions. Without making sure everyone is going to be OK without you. That kind of behaviour is irresponsible and causes all sorts of pain and harm. I don’t like to think I could do that.’ ‘But some hens would be great company for you up here, and you’d have the eggs. I tell you what. I’ll make a commitment to you. If anything suddenly happens to you, I’ll make sure any livestock you have is taken care of. How does that sound?’ To Doubler, it sounded astonishingly kind, this hand of help from a virtual stranger. But she wasn’t a stranger, was she? She was Mrs Millwood’s daughter and she was prepared to help him in one of the ways he needed the most help. To make a commitment to something other than his potatoes. To find love for something and to know that nobody needed to suffer as a result of that love. ‘I’ll think about it,’ he said, already imagining the joy of having some hens to talk to in the morning. And it was true the potato peelings would certainly fatten a few pigs each year. ‘And what about this produce?’ asked Midge, resuming an air of practicality. ‘Do I need to settle your account for you? Do you need me to drop in on the way back and pay for the groceries?’ ‘No. No, that’s fine. There’s nothing to pay. I’ll settle up in April.’ ‘Oh.’ Gracie’s daughter shrugged. ‘Fair enough.’ And she took a big slurp of tea. In this, as with so many things, she reminded Doubler of her mother. She knew when to probe and when to leave well alone. They drank their tea in companionable silence. ‘I’ve placed an ad. Should have some candidates to interview in the next week or two. Shall I bring the promising ones up here?’ Doubler tried his best to compose his face into one of amenable cooperation. But it quickly crumpled. ‘I’m not sure I’m ready. I don’t want to inconvenience you or your applicants, but I’m not quite as adaptable as I lead people to think.’ Midge laughed at the idea. ‘I don’t think anybody would suggest that about you,’ she said, looking around the kitchen and its stark lack of modern gadgetry. Copper pans gleamed on rusty nails, wedged into the crumbling gaps between brickwork. Pewter tankards hung on hooks, and large wooden sieves added a pleasing architecture to the shelves’ contents. There wasn’t a thing in the kitchen that couldn’t have been there a hundred years ago. Or more, Midge mused. ‘I just don’t take well to change, so I think, if you don’t mind, I’ll cope on my own as best as I can. Until, you know . . .’ Doubler allowed the sentence to finish itself by looking hopefully at Midge. ‘Dear Doubler, I rather admire your steadfast refusal to accept the serious nature of Mum’s poorliness. You’re nearly as positive as she is. But I think it would be healthier for us all if you stop assuming Mum is coming back to you. If she does come through this, it is going to be a long haul, and who knows if she’ll even want to work again. She’s probably earned herself a bit of a rest, don’t you think?’ Doubler started to interject, shaking his head fiercely while forming the words that would not just stop Midge in her tracks but would cast aside her doubt and dismissal. He fought to form the words that had the power to reverse the conversation back to a time when the mother, not the daughter, was sitting across the table telling him off. Midge silenced him with a stern wag of her index finger. ‘No, Doubler, it’s not healthy for you to put your life on hold, and it’s not healthy for Mum to assume her life will continue as it was before this horrible, horrible thing got hold of her.’ Doubler drew a sharp breath and Midge softened. ‘It’s not disloyal to replace her. She will quite understand and so will I. This is a big place and you’re rattling around on your own, so it makes sense to have somebody pop in and keep an eye on you while keeping on top of things.’ ‘I need nothing. I need nobody,’ Doubler insisted, his voice cracking. ‘Fine. As you like.’ Midge reached out and held his hand, just as she had when they first met. ‘Shall I pop up again later in the week?’ Doubler nodded furiously. ‘That would be ideal. Lovely.’ He regained his composure quickly and bustled around the kitchen rinsing the cups and looking, he hoped, very much like a man who needed nothing, nobody. Chapter 8 (#ulink_77fa289d-42bd-51e4-8b81-e7a9a8b61a10) Thinking once again about calling the animal shelter, Doubler sought clarity by walking down to the bottom of the hill, using the driveway rather than following the field’s own pathways. His feet slipped on the icy flint beneath him. There had been a heavy frost in the night and the wind carried a bite that threatened something colder still. It was going to be a late spring. He could hear a woodpecker drilling a tree in the distance, but other than the bird’s persistent hollowing, the air around him was devoid of life. He mused, as he walked, on the possibilities that lay ahead. While making contact with Mrs Millwood’s circle of friends filled him with a deep terror, the thought of Julian’s anxiety should he get involved with a charitable organization at his time of life appealed to him hugely and he wondered if that might just outweigh the fear of leaving Mirth Farm. The walk cleared his head and he walked back up the hill, a little more slowly to match his breathing, wondering when he had become such a bad parent that the notion of challenging his son was motivation enough to jolt him out of years of isolation. The telephone was ringing in the hall as he walked into the house and Doubler rushed to it, breathless and thrilled with himself for having timed his arrival back to the house to coincide with Mrs Millwood’s hoped-for telephone call. He snatched the receiver from the hook and reached for a cheerful ‘Good tidings’, which while he assumed might be an unconventional greeting, seemed to fit his mood. ‘Dad?’ The male voice at the end of the phone was puzzled and even a little affronted. ‘Who is this?’ said Doubler, wracked with a gut-wrenching disappointment he was unable to disguise. ‘How many men call you “Dad”?’ said Julian, matching his father’s tone with a barely contained disdain. ‘Oh, it’s you, Julian,’ said Doubler, feeling simultaneously both let down and foolish. ‘You don’t often call.’ ‘Don’t guilt me out, Dad. I’m calling you now, aren’t I? And in my defence, I usually assume you won’t be in to answer the phone. You’re normally out with your blasted potatoes. But I thought I’d chance it today. I’ve been thinking things through since I saw you for lunch.’ Doubler felt tired. ‘I’m not selling Mirth Farm, Julian.’ ‘I’m not talking about the farm. Well, at least not for now. It’s about the car. That old banger of yours.’ ‘My car?’ ‘Exactly. I didn’t see it at the weekend and it’s normally on the yard. Are you keeping it inside?’ ‘Inside?’ ‘Dad, are you OK? You’re sounding more vague than normal. You haven’t had a turn, have you?’ Doubler just managed to refrain from asking, ‘A turn?’ though it was the most intelligible thing he could think of saying. Julian was continuing to speak, his voice a little tinny and distracted, as though he might be doing something else at the same time. Doubler strained to listen to the noises surrounding the words and could hear the sound of a keyboard being tapped in sporadic bursts. Julian was working as he spoke. ‘I’m wondering about the car. It’s ancient and I don’t think it’s safe for you to drive it anymore. If the weather is bad and you should get stuck, you don’t want to be relying on something past its best. It must be – what, forty years old?’ ‘Well, I suppose so, Julian. But I don’t have much call for it, to be honest, and it doesn’t let me down. What on earth made you think of my car?’ ‘Oh, I always worry about you in the winter. Seeing you up there reminded me how desolate it can be. I’m wondering if I should take the car off your hands. Swap it for something a little more practical? A Toyota Yaris perhaps, or a small Clio? If you’re keen to keep a four-wheel drive, then there’s a pretty handy little Fiat Panda that would suit you. What do you think?’ Doubler wracked his brains for a suitably grateful response. His son was showing an entirely unprecedented amount of interest in him. ‘I don’t know what to say. You’ve just said a number of words I don’t understand. Yaris, you say? What on earth is a Yaris? And what were the other ones you mentioned?’ ‘Don’t worry too much about the what, Dad. I’ll do the research. I’ll find you a good little runaround that will start first time, every time. Just let me know if you’re in agreement in principle and I’ll pop up and fetch the Land Rover.’ The Land Rover. Just the words made Doubler glow with warmth. Of course, his old banger was the Land Rover. He’d bought it new, soon after he’d bought the farm, and it had never let him down. As faithful as his potatoes really. Doubler thought back over that time span. Two-thirds of his life. Had anyone else been that reliable? Marie? Certainly not. The kids? Barely. On balance, they’d caused him as much worry as pleasure. That car, though, was as beautiful and sturdy as the day he’d bought it. It’s dusty-green colour and its cream roof had seemed undeniably splendid when he’d first driven it home, but it had quickly become part of the landscape, camouflaged among the hues of the farm and as familiar to him as his own face. Julian was waiting for a quick answer, impatient now as his busy day clamoured to reclaim him. ‘Dad? Are you there?’ ‘Julian. Yes. I’m just mulling it over. I don’t really think I need a new one, though it’s jolly nice of you to worry about me. Other than running down to the lower fields, I don’t exactly do much mileage. It sometimes needs a bit of bullying to start, but other than that, it’s fine. I doubt there’s anything much more suited to my lifestyle than that.’ ‘Dad, I’m trying to help you here. Don’t put up barriers. I can find you something small and nippy that will get you in and out of town, and it will stop me having to worry about it. I won’t hear another objection from you.’ Doubler looked at his watch and realized with horror that Mrs Millwood could be calling him from her bedside at that very moment. ‘Julian? I am very, very touched, but I’m expecting another phone call, so I can’t completely focus on what you’re saying. Would you mind calling back another day?’ ‘Another phone call from who, Dad? You’re acting a little strange. You’ve not done anything daft, have you?’ ‘Heavens, no. Chance would be a fine thing,’ said Doubler, enjoying the sound of the echo down the phone just before he hung up with a resounding click. The phone rang almost as soon as he had replaced the receiver. ‘You were engaged. I wondered if you had left it off the hook. I thought I might need to send Midge up to check in on you.’ Doubler exhaled happily. ‘You’re fussing over me again, Mrs Millwood, when your energy is supposed to be focused on getting you better. And it’s always a pleasure to see your daughter, but I’d like her to think well of me. I don’t want her thinking I’m a burden.’ ‘Oh, I don’t think she thinks you’re a burden. I think she might see you as a mission, though.’ ‘A mission? What sort of mission?’ Doubler’s mind flicked through a mental Rolodex of images, scanning these for potential meanings, something he had started to do recently when words were being elusive. The word now triggered, in quick succession, a series of pictures of white men in heavy clothing wielding Bibles in hot countries. ‘Oh, she thinks you’re lonely,’ said Mrs Millwood, dispelling the images in Doubler’s mind. ‘I believe she wants to sort you out with pigs or chickens. Or both.’ ‘Ah yes. Pigs and chickens. I probably wouldn’t mind having a bit of a go with some livestock. I’ve been feeling a little more hopeful lately.’ ‘Well, that can only be a good thing. You’re not exactly known for your optimism, are you?’ ‘I don’t think I said optimistic – that might be pushing it a little far. But not devoid of hope, not quite so much in despair.’ ‘A lack of despair? Heavens! What do you think has brought that on?’ Mrs Millwood joked, though there was probably some honesty behind the laughter. ‘It’s hard to say.’ Doubler wondered which direction to take this; there seemed so many options. He settled for the truth, the veil of the phone making this feel more achievable. ‘I think I was a bit troubled when you didn’t appear. When I heard your news. The news that you were poorly. And I realized that I depend on our chats quite heavily. And then, bless you – you telephoned me. I doubt I’ve had another phone call in the last ten years! It’s been quite a tonic.’ ‘Goodness me, well, perhaps I miss our lunches, too. For the life of me I can’t imagine why. When all you do is criticize me.’ ‘I criticize you? Heavens, no, I never have! Why on earth would you think that?’ Doubler was horrified, his mind racing through their hundreds of conversations and finding no recollection of anything that might have been misconstrued as criticism. ‘If it’s not my choice of cheese, it’s my bread. If it’s not my bread, it’s my apple,’ Mrs Millwood was saying. ‘I defy you to prove that I have ever criticized your choice of apple.’ Doubler was certain here, though he was pretty sure he might have passed comment on her choice of bread on a number of occasions. ‘Oh, it’s not always the words, Mr Doubler; it’s your eyes. Your eyes burn into my apple with enough force to combust the label clean off.’ ‘You’re imagining it.’ ‘I am doing no such thing. Tell me the truth, Mr Doubler. Tell me if you disapprove of my Granny Smiths.’ Doubler hesitated. He so wanted to support every choice Mrs Millwood made. She seemed to have nothing but goodwill for him. But he was still feeling honest. ‘You’ve got me there. I believe that you make an inferior choice in the matter of apples.’ He waited. There was a moment of stillness and then a long sigh. ‘But, Mr Doubler, I would like to think you can respect the choices I make, even when they don’t coincide exactly with your own preferences.’ ‘Indeed I do respect you, Mrs Millwood. I don’t set out to criticize you. It is not your fault that you haven’t had exposure to all of the opportunities I would wish for you. I would like to think that I might be able to educate you when the choices you make are simply ill conceived.’ There was a splutter down the phone and Doubler worried that he might have caused a seizure. ‘Mrs Millwood?’ ‘I’m fine. Just laughing, Mr Doubler. You are a one. You are nothing if not certain of your superiority.’ ‘Actually, Mrs Millwood, I’m not certain about much, so when I am talking about a subject that doesn’t seem to slip away from my grasp, then I like to be very, very sure indeed. Those subjects include potatoes. I know a great deal about potatoes.’ ‘And almost any other foodstuff.’ ‘Heavens, no! There are all sorts of foods about which I know nothing. Bananas for one. Are there even different types? I could name dozens of varieties of apple and hundreds of different potatoes, but I couldn’t tell you the name of one single banana type. As far as I’m concerned, they just exist in two states: not ripe enough or overripe. And seafood. I know almost nothing about seafood. I could tell you what a lobster looks like, but I don’t know what it tastes like. And I don’t want to know.’ ‘What on earth have you got against the lobster?’ ‘I’m not overly comfortable with the consumption of a creature who has been boiled alive for my pleasure. I’ve never been tempted, to be honest, but if I had been once, then all thoughts were banished from my mind for ever when I read that lobsters are prone to suffering from anxiety. Who would boil an overly anxious creature alive, for goodness’ sake? Us anxious types must stick together in solidarity. I eschew the lobster.’ ‘That seems entirely reasonable, Mr Doubler. That is a foodstuff that we can wholeheartedly agree upon.’ ‘Shall we vow never to eat lobsters again, Mrs Millwood?’ ‘Absolutely. I shall make a solemn pledge. Especially while I am in hospital. I shall speak to the cook at once and tell them to stop feeding me lobster with immediate effect.’ ‘Very good. I do so like agreeing with you, Mrs Millwood.’ ‘Feel free to make a habit of it, Mr Doubler. It would be a pleasant change. So, tell me, who were you on the phone to? I was surprised when I couldn’t get through.’ ‘Nobody was more surprised than me. It was Julian. He called and appeared to have my best interests at heart. I can’t quite fathom it.’ ‘Oh, don’t be like that – he can’t be all that bad.’ ‘Well, that’s just it. He called to offer to help me and I can’t remember when he last called at all, let alone to be so considerate. Normally it is Camilla who makes the arrangements when the family descends on me for lunch, but I very rarely hear from Julian from one visit to the next.’ ‘Well, that’s progress, then. You should be happy. Take those little acts of kindness as a sign of his potential, perhaps? People do mellow with old age, I find.’ ‘Yes, yes, I suppose I must take it as a step forward.’ ‘What was he offering help with?’ ‘My car. He said he’d take it off my hands and swap it for a little runaround that I’d find a bit more reliable in the winter. I’m not remotely tempted. I’m very happy with my Land Rover, but at the same time, you’re right. I shouldn’t disregard an act of kindness, so perhaps I shall agree just so as not to be difficult. I don’t want him to think I’m stubborn or impossible to please.’ There was nothing but silence on the end of the phone. ‘Mrs Millwood? Are you still there?’ ‘Yes, Mr Doubler. I’m still here. Just thinking. Your Land Rover, you say. How old is it now?’ ‘Well, goodness, I must have bought it the second or third winter after I bought the farm and I’ve run it ever since. It’s ancient, I’m afraid. Forty years old, perhaps?’ ‘That’s lovely, Mr Doubler, just lovely that your son is thinking about your needs. But don’t agree just yet. I am sure he’ll let you have a little time to think about what’s best as a replacement, won’t he?’ ‘Well, he seemed quite keen to get the ball rolling, but I can’t imagine anything will happen in a hurry.’ ‘Good. Let me do a little research for you. My husband was a very keen mechanic; he knew an awful lot about cars, so we all picked up a bit of knowledge along the way. Let me have a chat with one or two people. You know how I like to research things properly to, you know, prevent mistakes made in haste. I’ll do a little digging. It will help you reach the right decision.’ ‘Well, that’s extremely kind, Mrs Millwood.’ Doubler readjusted himself against the hall table and let out a small yelp of pain as his leg briefly gave way under him. ‘Are you all right, Mr Doubler?’ ‘Oh fine, quite fine, thank you. Just getting into a comfy position. This might well be the longest conversation I’ve had on the phone and I’ve never thought to put a chair in the hallway.’ ‘You poor old thing. I had somehow imagined you in the kitchen or in the sitting room tucked up in front of the fire. It’s draughty in that hall, too. Go and get yourself warm. I should probably stop my call now anyway. I’m getting slightly disapproving looks.’ ‘Very well, then, Mrs Millwood. Thanks for calling.’ ‘I’ll call the same time tomorrow, see how you’re doing, shall I?’ ‘Super!’ said Doubler, any sadness at the approach of the end of the call vanishing at the thought of a guaranteed call the very next day. ‘Cheerio.’ Doubler replaced the receiver and went to the kitchen, where he sat very quietly while replaying the conversation in his head, smiling as he did so. He concentrated furiously, recalling it as accurately as he could because it suddenly felt extremely important to him that he held on to each and every word. Chapter 9 (#ulink_31a0c8ad-fba5-53d5-95e6-614f83603a24) Later that afternoon, Doubler sat and watched the bottom of the drive with his binoculars. Sometimes his seat at the top of the hill made him feel invincible, but on other days he felt exposed up at Mirth Farm. The binoculars had become a vital part of his armoury and he liked the advantage they gave him. Midge was unlikely to visit again until Thursday at the very earliest. If he was lucky. She had said she couldn’t pick up his groceries indefinitely, but that implied she would pick them up again, at least this once. Which meant he had a visit to look forward to this week and next, he reasoned. Even though he had chosen to shut himself off from the outside world, he had never really tested the theory of being an actual recluse. He had regular visitors; he only had to pick up the phone and any number of local suppliers and tradesmen would drop what they were doing to tend to his needs at Mirth Farm. Oil arrived; sewage left; wood was delivered to the wood pile; even the doctor, who had only ever been called out in Marie’s time, ensured he paid Doubler a routine visit twice a year. These visits were, on the whole, brief and businesslike – the well-practised exchange of services that had played out comfortably for a long time – and though they offered little in the way of intellectual stimulation, Doubler felt no lack. Mrs Millwood had seen to that. For five days a week the two of them had sat down and talked. And each day after she left, it wasn’t long before he found himself having imaginary conversations with her in his head. This discourse was not in the same league as the advice he sought from Mr Clarke, the substance of which was rooted in the technical conundrums that their shared passion presented. From Mr Clarke, he sought inspiration of a very specific nature. The little observations he would store away for sharing with Mrs Millwood encompassed everything else that Doubler was capable of feeling, and even if this represented a narrow slice of an adult’s emotional capacity, Mrs Millwood herself had a very developed range of responses from which to draw. But what did he actually know about her? He now knew a bit more, that she had a wide circle of friends, but before that time, what had he known? That she knitted, yes. That she found great comfort in family and friends. There – friends again! That her husband had died, but not suddenly. He had lugged an oxygen tank around with him for several years. He had got thinner and thinner, more and more uncomfortable, before eventually dying of a massive asthma attack. It had been a blessing. Well, that had been a big difference between Mrs Millwood and Doubler. She had grown used to her husband gradually disappearing in front of her eyes. Whereas for Doubler, Marie had been there one day and not the next. No warning, no preparation. And there had been a choice there for Marie – that’s what he couldn’t forgive her for. Everything she had done, and how she had done it, was a choice she had made. And nowhere in that process had she thought once of him or the impact it would have on him. Doubler looked around the room and imagined Marie there now. Would she be interested in his potatoes? Would she be proud of him? Would she even care? Perhaps Julian would be whispering in her ear suggesting early retirement and an easy life in a central-heated condo. That is almost certainly what she would have wanted. It was impossible to know now, but when he looked around the room, with his eyes narrowed, he couldn’t imagine her sitting comfortably in any of the chairs. She’d be just getting back from somewhere, or just on her way out with a shopping bag slung over her shoulder and the hood of her anorak already pulled up to protect her from the elements. But she wouldn’t be there, sitting still and talking. Or listening. Doubler closed his eyes and remembered, as best as he could, Mrs Millwood telling him about the death of her husband, Bert. After a few moments of fierce concentration, her words came back to him and it was as if she were sitting in the room. ‘It was a terrible thing to watch, the man you love dying in front of your eyes. There was so much pain and so much inconvenience. That was the unexpected thing. He was cross with himself and me. I was cross with him, too. It was impossible to live together: it was me and him and that blessed tank. But we talked about it; we talked to death. I was able to talk about why I was angry, and he was able to tell me how very furious he was that he had this terrible debilitation. But, my God, the sound of his breathing was heartbreaking. When he went, it was a relief.’ ‘Do you think you were better off knowing? I mean, if he had gone suddenly without any warning, that would have been worse?’ Doubler had asked. ‘Well, yes, I suppose so. But I’d have liked to have spared him the pain. That was bad. Watching him suffer was very tough. But we got to plan a bit for the future and we had no regrets. We’d said everything enough times. And even if he had suddenly dropped dead when I’d just told him I was sick to death of not being able to sleep at night because of the awful noise he made, then I’d still have no regrets because we’d have recently talked about our love for one another. We’d probably have talked about how we first met, or the arrival of our daughter. About how madly I wanted him and how madly he wanted me and how badly behaved we were when we first fell in love. We loved that, you know, recounting the really good bits. I’d never really tire of talking about that. Because, I suppose, all the bad bits towards the end could never really unstitch all the good bits from the beginning. ‘I like to imagine our marriage was a little like a hand-knitted blanket. It was a glorious thing to behold, full of intricate pattern and a multitude of colours and so very beautiful to examine in detail. Towards the top, there were a few dropped stitches and a few holes, and maybe the colours weren’t quite so bright, and maybe the needlecraft was a bit patchy, but it never unravelled. It still worked as a blanket. It was a lovely thing to look at, and it kept us warm, held us together. And it’s so much better to look at the beginning bits and stroke the colours and talk about the love and the joy that went into creating it rather than to focus on the last few rows.’ ‘My blanket unravelled,’ Doubler had said, tears pricking at his eyelids. ‘I know. Our stories are not the same, Mr Doubler. Sometimes when you drop a stitch, you can’t really patch it up – it just undoes. It’s awful. It feels like a waste of time, doesn’t it, to end up with a pile of loose wool where before you had something useful.’ Mrs Millwood had looked thoughtful. ‘But afterwards, when the pain stops, you can tidy things up a bit. You can’t ever make that blanket again, not out of that wool, but what you can do is wind the wool up into a really neat ball – and that in itself takes time and patience and a degree of love and generosity – and then you can store the ball of wool away somewhere safe. And maybe just look at it from time to time.’ ‘I am so far from that time, Mrs Millwood. It is still just a knotted mess at my feet. It trips me up; it catches me out. I couldn’t even find an end if I tried.’ ‘So don’t. Do what you’re doing. Walk around it, step over it. Ignore it. Sweep it into a dark corner if watching it is causing you too much pain. But one day, you’ll have the strength and the resolve to look for an end and then slowly, slowly you can tidy it away neatly. You’ll feel some peace then.’ Doubler had carefully stored the image away in his memory and then asked, ‘And the anger you felt when your husband was dying – did it go when he died?’ ‘In my case, yes. Because we’d said all our hurts and we’d said all our “sorry”s and I was just so glad he didn’t have to suffer again and I was so, so relieved to sleep through the night. For the first week or so I just slept and slept. My daughter thought my doctor had medicated me, but, no, I was just catching up on the sleep that you can’t have when you’re caring night and day.’ ‘Ours are very different stories, Mrs Millwood.’ ‘They are chalk and cheese, aren’t they? I bet when you’re tripping over that mess of tangled wool, you can’t imagine it ever made a blanket in the first place. But it probably did – the pain is just hard to see past. It can blind you, that kind of sadness.’ ‘I had no warning, no inkling. And yet she knew! She could have spared me the shock, couldn’t she? She can’t have loved me much if she didn’t even think I needed a bit of gentle letting-down.’ ‘Love, Mr Doubler. It’s a funny thing. True love doesn’t go away, but the pressures of life can do things to people. Who knows why some people react so differently? Sometimes it’s just an ageing thing. Like wine. Some wines are best drunk right away, as soon as the wine is made. And then no amount of keeping it and nurturing it will make it any better. Others aren’t that great first of all, but they get better and better. But the really good wines, Mr Doubler, they’re good when you first drink them and there’s still room for improvement.’ She had looked at him, puzzled then. ‘Why “chalk and cheese”, do you think, Mr Doubler?’ ‘Well . . .’ Doubler blinked his eyes open and looked around the room, expecting to see Mrs Millwood bustling into the kitchen to put the kettle on. Had he told her where the expression ‘chalk and cheese’ had come from? Almost certainly – it was the kind of information he enjoyed being able to furnish. And she would have logged it carefully to relate to her friends at the knitting circle or, perhaps, the animal shelter. There were people who knew Mrs Millwood at the animal shelter, people who perhaps missed her as much as he did. And surely there were animals, too, animals that might even be suffering as a result of her sudden departure. He had something in common with all of them, if only his sadness. Doubler thought about the copy of the Yellow Pages he had tidied away in the cupboard and wondered from where Mrs Millwood drew her strength. She had been blessed with so much courage while he had so little. She certainly had enough for the two of them, but if he were to borrow some of hers, what on earth could he give her in return? He looked at his strong and weathered hands. Mirth Farm soil was so ingrained in them that the fine lines formed dark contours and he wondered if he studied them for long enough, he’d find, drawn there, the topography of Mirth Farm itself. His hands were generously calloused, and Doubler was grateful for these hardened areas that gave him protection from the tools he handled daily. He ran the rough tip of his right thumb over the armour of his left hand, thinking how clever those skin cells were to form here where they were most needed, as if they had learnt lessons from every knock, every blister, every small wound. His heart, though, had taken some hard knocks of its own but had failed, he now realized, to similarly protect itself from future injury. If anything, it was more vulnerable to hurt now than ever before. Perhaps, he wondered further, his heart had not hardened because that was not the place he suffered most when Marie went. It had been his head, not his heart, that had borne the brunt of the pain. His brain had ached with the inspection of her action and the replaying of the last months, weeks, days, looking for a clue, looking for a moment at which he might have changed their future. It was his brain that hurt from the constant examination and recrimination, and it was his brain that eventually stopped coping and had almost shut down altogether while he’d descended into the post-Marie chasm to escape the constant thinking. But the impact Mrs Millwood’s absence had on him was a very different thing. It hurt deeply in his ill-prepared heart. He thought of her in her hospital bed and wondered whether she was strong enough in all the right places to recover. She seemed to be so much more resilient than he would ever be. Here he was, physically as strong as an ox, being propped up by Mrs Millwood, an invalid no less. Somehow, he would need to find some courage. He headed out to the potatoes to think. Chapter 10 (#ulink_af19f109-9ddd-5f79-b686-d10f8b9d709e) Having had no answer when she rang the doorbell, Midge rounded the farmhouse and crossed the yard, heading for the kitchen door, a bag full of groceries under each arm. Today, it was calm at the top of the hill, where normally the wind gusted, making it difficult sometimes to appreciate the silence that her mum so often talked about. She took a moment to inhale a lungful of hillside air and looked around her as she walked, observing her surroundings properly for the first time since she’d started to visit Doubler. She popped the bags down in the yard, leaning them against a deteriorating stone wall. The yard was quartered by the back of the farmhouse itself, a locked garage and the first of some huge barns, which felt ominous in their stillness. The yard, nothing more than a turning circle really, was surfaced in gravel, and the bare fields she had driven through crept right up to each of the buildings so that, other than a briar-filled narrow flowerbed that circled the farmhouse itself, the grounds were devoid of anything that might be considered a garden. At the front of the house, to the right of the approach, there were a number of fruit trees – apple, she thought, and some others that might be part of an ancient fruit orchard – but their skeletal forms at this time of year lent little relief from the stark surroundings. The roadside hill at the front of the farmhouse was quite steep for farmland but was furrowed in meticulous rows running the width of the fields. At the rear of the house, the field rolled more gently in all directions before dropping away to the boundary with that other big potato farmer Peele. Midge knew that the fields for as far as she could see were Doubler’s, and these in every direction were a deep, rich brown. The hedges that separated them were largely bare at this time of year, and the occasional coppice or small stretch of woodland boasted little that was evergreen. Midge had noticed Peele’s land as she drove past it on the way to visit Doubler and had acknowledged a discrepancy that she now realized she must enquire about. As she stood looking, her sweeping gaze taking in the furthest reaches of the horizon as well as the immediate scenery, Doubler appeared from a narrow gap beside the first of the huge barns. Seeing Midge, he deviated from his planned circuit, hurrying across the yard towards her, waving cheerfully while briefly enjoying the thought that this warm interaction would be caught on film. ‘Have you never thought of putting in a vegetable patch, Doubler? Seems such a shame that with all of this land you’re having to buy in your vegetables.’ Doubler grinned in recognition. This trait of launching into a conversation as if he had been party to the preceding, unspoken thoughts in her brain was definitely a characteristic he recognized from Midge’s mother. ‘I agree it is a shame, but my potatoes occupy my day quite fully. I’m not sure I could give anything else my full attention.’ ‘But isn’t it monotonous? The bare soil and stone? All those potatoes! I think I might go mad up here.’ ‘Here? Monotonous? Heavens, no. Barely two days are the same.’ ‘What you need here, Doubler, as I’ve told you before, are some nice hens pecking at the yard’ – she nodded at the empty space around them – ‘and there, perhaps, in the lee of that barn, a veggie patch. That’s a great spot. It would be nicely sheltered.’ She pointed at a corner of the nearest field that ran right up to the garage. ‘I’m sure you’re right. I have been meaning to be a bit more adventurous. But the day job keeps getting in the way. Perhaps in my retirement, eh?’ he joked. Midge picked up the groceries and they entered the house together. Doubler nodded at the bags. ‘I do OK, though, all things considered. These are probably grown locally, and I get by with the help of my friends.’ ‘Your friends?’ Midge asked with an eyebrow raised and a hint of cynicism in her voice. The man in the farm shop had handed over the groceries without a word of greeting. Midge would have expected some sort of message of good wishes to pass on, particularly if Doubler hadn’t been to the shop in person for a few weeks. Doubler chose not to answer and busied himself putting away the groceries. When he returned from the pantry, Midge was already putting the kettle on. ‘Right, you. Mum is pushing for a progress report.’ ‘From me? Well, nothing much to report and I spoke to her just yesterday.’ ‘Nothing to report? That’s what we both feared. Have you arranged a time to visit Grove Farm yet? That’s what she really wants to know.’ Doubler looked at his feet and wondered how best to reply. Midge looked serious, her hands now on her hips. ‘Have you even called them?’ Doubler shook his head apologetically, still unable to look Midge in the eye. ‘I’m afraid not. I lost my nerve.’ ‘Oh, Doubler, that’s such a shame! If you don’t want to volunteer, I completely understand, but you need to tell Mum you’ve chickened out or you’ll just be letting her down. She really was hoping you’d get involved and help them out. Help her out. Besides, they’re expecting your call, so it will seem very rude.’ Doubler was appalled but unsure what he could do to right the situation, as recently he’d felt further away from making that call than ever before. ‘I’ve been very busy up here – there’s the normal workload to contend with, and I’ve taken on my domestic duties, too. There are already a great number of commitments to deal with. I’m quite stretched.’ Midge looked around at the immaculate kitchen. ‘I’m sure you’re doing a wonderful job keeping on top of it all, but I really don’t think it’s very healthy hiding up here all the time.’ Doubler protested, ‘I’m outside most of the day and I provide well for myself. It’s a healthy lifestyle – your mum would vouch for that.’ ‘I’m quite sure you are healthy physically. That’s not what I’m concerned about. It’s your mental health that worries me. You must go days without seeing somebody up here.’ Doubler bit his lip and looked embarrassed. ‘Are you involved in any social activities? Golf? Bridge? A book club?’ Doubler shook his head and sat down heavily, resting his elbows on the table and putting his chin in his hands. ‘And what about friends? Do you get many visitors to Mirth Farm?’ Doubler shrugged. ‘When did you last go to dinner at a friend’s house?’ Midge still had her hands on her hips. She felt as combative as she sounded. ‘Gosh, I can’t remember. We used to go out a lot, Marie and I. She was very sociable. Drove me nuts, to tell you the truth. But after she went, I didn’t really feel up to much, so the invitations soon tailed off. Not their fault. I probably said “no” one too many times, so they eventually stopped asking.’ Midge, incredulous, came and sat down next to Doubler. ‘But that was more than two decades ago! You’re not telling me you’ve not eaten at a friend’s house for all that time?’ Doubler immediately pushed his chair back to stand up, continuing with the tea-making process that Midge had abandoned in her shock. ‘I suppose I haven’t. Amazing how time flies, really. But it’s not surprising. I’ve had my head down with my work, and your mum was always there to keep me company Monday to Friday. I never felt lonely.’ ‘But, Doubler, that is not good enough! What about trips to the town? To the shops? How many times a week do you actually leave this place?’ Again Doubler fell silent. He had deliberately kept his isolation a secret from his children, but he didn’t think Midge would be so easy to fob off with a convenient version intended to pacify her. And besides, Mrs Millwood knew the extent of his solitary confinement, so there was little to gain by hiding it from her daughter. Still he hesitated, acknowledging his failure at life as if for the very first time. She was insistent. ‘Doubler, how many visits to town do you make a week?’ Doubler poured tea for them both, took a sip and concentrated furiously on the lip of his cup. ‘A month?’ Midge tried. Doubler finally raised his eyes to meet hers. ‘To tell you the truth, I don’t leave here.’ ‘What, never?’ ‘No. Not since Marie went. I have an arrangement that covers me for groceries and it’s quite satisfactory. Anything else I need is delivered to me here. I only have to pick up the phone. It lets me get on with the work I need to do. My potatoes are actually very demanding and even in the winter there is so much to do. I have very little help, you know – just a few extra pairs of hands for harvest. Most of it I do myself and I just wouldn’t manage if I was always popping into town.’ ‘I’m not talking about always popping into town. I’m talking about once or twice a week, say, getting out and about, having a conversation with somebody, anybody. You’re living as a recluse and that can’t be healthy.’ ‘I’m OK,’ Doubler said quite firmly. ‘I don’t need anybody much. I mean, of course I relied very much on my lunchtime natter with your mum. That I miss dreadfully.’ His eyes filled up and Midge thought he might break down altogether, but he shook himself and drew himself up straight. ‘But I’m coping without those even. Conversation is overrated, you know.’ Midge shook her head sadly. ‘No, Doubler, it’s not. And if I wasn’t here trying to keep an eye on you in Mum’s absence, I hate to think what would happen to you. I’m going to dial the number for Grove Farm myself, but you’re going to do the talking – after all, you’re a bright, interesting individual and you are more than capable of engaging with these people. You’re going to volunteer immediately – and I mean immediately, tomorrow ideally. And just so you don’t get cold feet, I am going to drive you there myself the first time. I can imagine the shock to your system could be immense and I don’t want to feel responsible for you when your system goes into collapse because I’ve made you have a conversation with somebody other than my mother. Come on, I haven’t got all day.’ She led him to the telephone, looked up the number on her own phone, dialled it and handed Doubler the receiver with a look of impatience that Doubler feared much more than the sound of a stranger’s voice. Chapter 11 (#ulink_f60dc25b-6490-5382-91b3-a43904a250fe) The phone rang just as Doubler was sitting down to lunch. He had still not got used to the silence round the table, which was so much louder than any conversations he’d ever had in there. Midge’s insistence that his lifestyle was unhealthy had unsettled him, and the vicious hilltop wind that rattled at the windows and occasionally shrieked as it tried to find a way inside only served to exaggerate the stillness in the kitchen. Doubler had propped himself up on his left elbow, his hand supporting his chin while poking at his potatoes with his fork, pushing them round the plate with a disinterest that was quickly turning into dissatisfaction. He wondered, as he chased a potato from one side of the plate to the another, whether he would ever enjoy eating again. Mrs Millwood might have been consuming an inferior lunch all these years, but she had been consuming an inferior lunch with him and that small distinction was now having a disproportionately large impact on the flavour of his own food. He added this new slight to the growing reasons to be disgruntled by Mrs Millwood’s absence and he was so deep in this thought, crafting a list of complaints in his head, that he was shocked by the shrill ringing from the telephone. He had just begun a quavering ‘Hello’ when that perfectly familiar voice cut through his mumbled greeting. ‘So, Mr Doubler, you know how you always sneer at my apple choice?’ ‘I do?’ he asked, trying to force some indignation into his voice to compete with the warmth that was spreading from deep within him. ‘My apples. You sneer. Don’t tell me you don’t.’ Mrs Millwood paused, hearing a smile. ‘My Granny Smiths?’ ‘Well, I suppose it wouldn’t be my first choice of apple, it’s true. Nor my second. Nor my third, for that matter. I doubt it would make it into my top ten. I doubt I could name a hundred apples, but if I could, I don’t suppose the Granny Smith would make it there either.’ Doubler luxuriated in the conversation, his mind casting itself out across the orchards of England. ‘Cox’s, the russets – all the russets – and, oh, I am partial to an in-season Bramley—’ Mrs Millwood cut him short, breathless with irritation. ‘I didn’t ask you for your favourite apples, did I? I didn’t ask for a lecture. I just want to hear you openly admit that you find my choice of apple inferior.’ ‘I suppose you have a motive for this call, do you? There must be some very sick patients on that ward of yours and I don’t suppose they want to hear you being confrontational for no good reason.’ Doubler wondered, even as he spoke, whether he’d ever felt such intense joy. ‘The thing is, Mr Doubler, I learnt something today. Quite by chance. It turns out, entirely unbeknown to me and without this knowledge ever having influenced my apple choice, Granny Smith herself was a bit of a trailblazer. She reminds me very much of your John Clarke.’ Mrs Millwood must have sensed an imminent interruption because she pressed on urgently. ‘Now, I know you think he’s special, but let’s be honest, his father was a potato breeder before him, so it already ran in his genes, so to speak. But Granny Smith set sail for Australia back in the 1830s! She was a true pioneer. And to think how tough that voyage must have been in those days – I can only imagine what the boat would have been full of. Sickness and convicts, I suppose. But Maria Ann Smith – that was her name – Maria Ann Smith made the journey regardless and started an orchard way down there in New South Wales. Can you imagine such courage? She discovered her apple quite by accident. A chance cultivar from a seedling, would you believe it? I was shocked to my core when I learnt this. To my core!’ Doubler considered this information carefully. While the old lady might well fit the description of a true pioneer, he wasn’t sure that he liked the fact that her entrepreneurship was being presented to him as somewhat superior to Mr Clarke’s genetic predisposition to breed potatoes. He digested this brand-new information before forming his response. ‘Ah, Mrs Millwood, I can see what you’re getting at. You are proposing that your Granny Smith is an equal to my Mr Clarke. Is that it? Because I don’t think that the chance discovery of a seedling bears comparison with years and years of painstaking potato breeding. A chance cultivar from a seedling sounds to me like a bit of an accident. Anyone can have an accident, Mrs Millwood.’ Mrs Millwood was clearly prepared for this response. ‘Aha! But the chance wasn’t the thing. The observation and the subsequent perseverance were the thing. She discovered her apple and then found it to have some excellent and unique properties.’ Mrs Millwood was now talking really quite loudly, and quickly, as if competing with both background noise and other demands on her attention. Mr Doubler smiled at the image of the patient dismissing doctors and nurses with a wave of her hand. ‘Her apple could be stored for a very long time, you see, which made it suitable for shipping around the world or for keeping through the winter.’ ‘That is interesting. But being a perishable good can be a blessing, too, Mrs M. One of the more interesting things about the potato, Mrs M, is that it doesn’t travel well. It doesn’t last! And why is that good, do you suppose?’ Mrs Millwood sighed loudly for dramatic effect. ‘I have absolutely no idea, but I suspect you’re about to tell me.’ ‘It means the potato can’t be traded as an international commodity! Meat you can freeze and trade, other grains like rice will keep for ever, but the potato likes to be in the ground or in your stomach and it doesn’t hang around in between.’ ‘And that’s a good thing because . . . ?’ ‘That’s a good thing because as soon as a commodity is traded on the international market, it becomes a political pawn. Prices go artificially high; growers are squeezed out; quotas are imposed; sanctions are declared. It’s not possible with the potato, so we all just get on with it and each country grows their own. It means that in times of hardship and economic turmoil, the potato remains affordable. You can trust a potato.’ ‘And you’re saying you can’t trust a Granny Smith?’ ‘No. I’m just saying that longevity isn’t always a bonus.’ ‘If you’re an apple, it’s a bonus. A couple of world wars were fought and won with the help of the Granny Smith, I don’t doubt. Imagine – no fruit, no veg for weeks on end and then somebody allows you to sink your teeth into a sweet, crisp, juicy Granny Smith apple as fresh as the day it was picked. You’d think your ship had come in.’ ‘A persuasive argument, I’ll grant you that, but it still sounds a bit like luck rather than judgement.’ ‘Luck? You call that luck? A woman sets sail for the other end of the planet, plants an orchard by hand, has the presence of mind to observe the cross-cultivation of a common old crab apple and a domestic apple, and then nurtures it to establish a new variety. You call that luck?’ Mrs Millwood turned from the phone to cough weakly, the first sign that she was in any way diminished by her hospital stay. Her coughing sounded distant and muffled, and there were other sounds, too – the noises, perhaps, of Mrs Millwood pouring herself a glass of water. Doubler listened, finding pleasure in the intimacy of the moment. When she returned to the phone, her voice was restored to its usual vigour. ‘She was both a scientist and a pioneer. You know, you can’t breed the Granny Smith apple today? If you try to, it reverts back to its components, a sour old crab apple or an undistinguished domestic apple. If you want a Granny Smith, you have to go right back to the original rootstock. Every single Granny Smith consumed today comes from that one chance seedling.’ ‘Well, goodness, I suppose that was an achievement, wasn’t it? I wonder how many Granny Smiths are consumed these days?’ ‘A huge number. More, perhaps, than the Maris Piper, do you think?’ ‘Well, it would be a close-run battle, I suppose. Goodness, between them, my Mr Clarke and your Mrs Smith certainly knew how to leave a legacy.’ ‘My point is, Mr Doubler, I’d like you to be a bit more respectful of her, and her apple.’ ‘More respectful?’ ‘Yes. I mean, the way you talk about your Mr Clarke, you’d think he was the only unsung hero in the world. Think about the obstacles Mrs Smith faced! She was a woman travelling to foreign shores in the 1800s! And Mr Clarke might not have had much of an education, but that’s only interesting to you because you assume all men should get an education. A woman in the 1800s couldn’t assume to get any education whatsoever, quite frankly. All they were supposed to do was look pretty and breed.’ Mrs Millwood paused briefly to breathe, before rushing on. ‘And it seems that my Mrs Smith was good at breeding children and Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/seni-glaister/mr-doubler-begins-again-the-best-uplifting-funny-and-feel-go/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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