EXCERPT - THIS BODY OF DEATH

JUNE
THE NEW FOREST, HAMPSHIRE


     Chance alone brought her into his orbit. Later he would think that had he not looked down from the scaffolding at that precise moment, had he taken Tess directly home and not to the wood that afternoon, she might not have come into his life. But that idea comprised the very substance of what he was suppose to think, which was a realisation he would only come to once it was far too late.
     The time was midafternoon, and the day was hot. June generally prompted torrents of rain, mocking anyone’s hope for summer. But this year, the weather was setting itself up to be different. Days of sun in a cloudless sky made the promise of a July and an August during which the ground would bake, and the vast lawns within the Perambulation would brown over, sending the New Forest ponies deep within the woodlands to forage.
     He was high up on the scaffolding, getting ready to climb to the peak of the roof where he’d begun to apply the straw. Far more pliable than the reeds that comprised the rest of the materials, the straw could be bent to form the ridge. Some people thought of this as the “pretty bit” on a thatched roof, the scalloped pattern crisscrossed with spars in a decorative fashion. But he thought of it as what it was: that which protected the top layer of reeds from weather and avian damage.
     He’d got to the knuckle. He was feeling impatient. They’d been working on the enormous project for three months, and he’d promised to begin another in two weeks’ time. The finishing work still needed doing, and he could not hand off that part of the job to his apprentice. Cliff Coward was not ready to use the leggett on the thatch. That work was crucial to the overall look of the roof, and it required both skill and a properly honed eye. But Cliff could hardly be trusted to do this level of work when so far he hadn’t managed to stay on task with even the simplest job, like the one he was meant to be doing just now, which was hauling another two bundles of straw up to the ridge as he’d been instructed. And why had he not managed this most mundane of tasks?
     Seeking an answer to that question was what altered Gordon Jossie’s life. He turned from the ridge, calling sharply, “Cliff! What the bloody hell’s happened to you?” and he saw below him that his apprentice was no longer standing by the bundles of straw where he was supposed to be, anticipating the needs of the master thatcher above him. Rather he’d gone over to Gordon’s dusty pickup some yards away. There Tess sat at attention, happily wagging her bush-like tail while a woman—a stranger and clearly a visitor to the gardens if the map she held and the clothing she wore were anything to go by—patted her golden head.
     “Oy! Cliff!” Gordon Jossie shouted. Both the apprentice and the woman looked up.
     Gordon couldn’t see her face clearly because of her hat, which was broad brimmed and fashioned from straw with a fuchsia scarf tied round it as a band. This same colour was in her dress as well, and the dress was summery, showing off tanned arms and long tanned legs. She wore a gold bracelet round her wrist and sandals on her feet, and she carried a straw handbag tucked under her arm, its strap looped over her shoulder.
     Cliff called out, “Sorry! I was helping this lady,” as the woman called, “I’ve got myself completely lost,” with a laugh. She went on with, “I’m awfully sorry. He offered…” She gestured with a map she was holding, as if to explain what was patently obvious: She’d somehow wandered from the public gardens to the administrative building, which Gordon was reroofing. “I’ve never actually seen someone thatch a roof before,” she added, perhaps in an effort to be friendly.
     Gordon, however, wasn’t feeling friendly. He was feeling sharp, all edges and most of them needing to be smoothed. He had no time for tourists.
     “She’s trying to get to Monet’s pond,” Cliff called out.
     “And I’m trying to get a bloody ridge put onto this roof,” was Gordon’s reply, although he made it in an undertone. He gestured northwest. “There’s a path up by the fountain. The nymphs and fauns fountain. You’re meant to turn left there. You turned right.”
     “Did I?” the woman called back. “Well…that’s typical, I s’pose.” She stood there for a moment, as if anticipating further conversation. She was wearing dark glasses and it came to Gordon that the entire effect of her was as if she was a celebrity, a Marilyn Monroe type because she was shapely like Marilyn Monroe, not like the pin-thin girls one generally saw. Indeed, he actually thought she might be a celebrity. She rather dressed like one, and her expectation that a man would be willing to stop what he was doing and eagerly converse with her suggested it as well. He replied briefly to the woman with, “You should find your way easy enough now.”
     “Were that only the truth,” she said. She added, rather ridiculously, he thought, “There won’t be any…well, any horses up there, will there?”
     He thought, What the hell…? and she added, “It’s only…I’m actually rather afraid of horses.”
     “Ponies won’t hurt you,” he replied. “They’ll keep their distance ’less you try to feed them.”
     “Oh, I wouldn’t that.” She waited for a moment as if expecting him to say more, which he was not inclined to do. Finally she said, “Anyway…thank you,” and that was end of her.
     She set off on the route that Gordon had indicated, and she removed her hat as she went and swung it from her fingertips. Her hair was blonde, cut like a cap round her head, and when she shook it, it fell neatly back into place with a shimmer, as if knowing what it was supposed to do. Gordon wasn’t immune to women, so he could see she had a graceful walk. But he felt no stirring in his groin or in his heart, and he was glad of this. Untouched by women was how he liked it.
     Cliff joined him on the scaffolding, two bundles of straw on his back. He said, “Tess quite liked her,” as if in explanation of something or perhaps in the woman’s defence, and he added, “Could be time for another go, mate,” as Gordon watched the woman gain distance from them.
     But Gordon wasn’t watching her out of fascination or attraction. He was watching to see if she made the correct turn at the fountain of nymphs and fauns. She did not. He shook his head. Hopeless, he thought. She’d be in the cow pasture before she knew it, but he fully expected she would also be able to find someone else to help her there.

     Cliff wanted to go for a drink at the end of the day. Gordon did not. He did not drink at all. He also never liked the idea of becoming chummy with his apprentices. Beyond that, the fact that Cliff was only eighteen made Gordon thirteen years his senior and most of the time he felt like his father. Or he felt the way a father might feel, he supposed, as he had no children and possessed neither the desire nor the expectation of having them.
     He said to Cliff, “Got to give Tess a run. She won’t settle tonight if she doesn’t work off some energy.”
     Cliff said, “You sure, then, mate?”
     Gordon said, “Reckon I know my dog.” He knew that Cliff hadn’t been talking about Tess, but he liked the way his remark served to cut off conversation. Cliff enjoyed talking far too much.
     Gordon dropped him at the pub in Minstead, a hamlet tucked into a fold of land, consisting of a church, a graveyard, a shop, the pub, and a cluster of old cob cottages gathered round a small green. This was shaded by an ancient oak, and near it a piebald pony grazed, its clipped tail grown out in the time that had passed since the last autumn drift when it had been marked. The pony didn’t look up as the pickup rumbled to a stop not terribly far from its hind legs. Longtime denizen of the New Forest, the animal knew that its right to graze wherever it wished long preceded the pickup’s right to travel the Hampshire roads.
     Cliff said, “’Morrow, then,” and went off to join his mates in the pub. Gordon watched him go and, for no particular reason, waited till the door closed behind him. Then he put the pickup into gear once more.
     He went, as always, to Longslade Bottom. Over time, he’d learned there was security in being a creature of habit. At the weekend he might well choose another spot to exercise Tess, but during the week at the end of his workday, he liked a place that was closer to where he lived. He also liked the openness of Longslade Bottom. And in moments when he felt a need for seclusion, he liked the fact that Hinchelsea Wood climbed the hillside just above it.
     The lawn stretched out from an uneven car park over which Gordon jounced, with Tess in the back of the pickup yelping happily in anticipation of a run. On a fine day like this, Gordon’s wasn’t the only vehicle nosing the edge of the lawn: Six cars lined up like nursing kittens against the sprawl of open land upon which in the distance a herd of ponies grazed, five foals among them. Used to both people and the presence of other animals, the ponies remained undisturbed by the barking of the dogs already at play on the lawn, but when Gordon saw them some one hundred yards away, he knew that a free run on the closely cropped grass was not in the cards for his own dog. Tess had a thing about the wild New Forest ponies, and despite having been kicked by one, nipped by another, and thoroughly scolded by Gordon time and again, she refused to understand that she had not been created for the purpose of chasing them.
     Already she was itching to do so. She was whining and licking her chops as if in anticipation of a challenge that she assumed lay before her. Gordon could almost read her canine mind: And foals as well! Wicked! What fun!
     He said, “Don’t even think about it,” and he reached inside the pickup bed for her lead. He clipped it on and then released her. She made a hopeful lunge. When he brought her up short, heavy drama ensued as she coughed and gagged. It was, he thought with resignation, a typical late afternoon with his dog.
     “Don’t have the brains God gave you, do you?” he asked her. Tess looked at him, wagged her tail, and dog-smiled. “That may have worked at one time,” he went on, “but it won’t work now.” He led the golden retriever northeast, determinedly away from the ponies and their offspring. She went but she was not averse to what manipulation she could manage. She looked repeatedly over her shoulder and whined, obviously in the hope that this would move him to change his mind. It did not.
     Longslade Bottom comprised three areas: the lawn upon which the ponies were grazing; a heath to the northwest that budded with cross-leaved heather and purple moorgrass; and a central bog between the two, where amorphous cushions of sphagnum moss soaked up moving water while bogbean flowers grew in pink and white bursts from rhizomes that rose from shallow pools. A path from the car park led walkers on the safest route through the bog, and along this route the feathery seed heads of cotton grass formed great white tussocks in the peaty soil.
     Gordon headed in this last direction, for the path across the bog would take them up the slope to Hinchelsea Wood. In the wood he could release the dog. The ponies would be out of sight and, for Tess, out of sight was decidedly out of mind. She possessed that most admirable of qualities: She could live entirely in the moment.
     Summer solstice was not far off, so the sun was still high in the cloudless sky despite the hour of the day. Its light flashed against the iridescent bodies of dragonflies and upon the bright plumage of lapwings taking to the air as Gordon and the dog passed by. A slight breeze bore the rich scent of peat and the decomposing vegetation that had created it. The entire atmosphere was alive with sounds: from the gravelly cour-lee call of curlews to the cries of dog owners out on the lawn.
     Gordon kept Tess close. They began the ascent towards Hinchelsea Wood and left both bog and lawn behind them. When he thought about it, Gordon decided the wood was better for an afternoon walk anyway. With the beeches and oaks in full summer leaf and the birches and sweet chestnuts providing additional cover, it would be cool on the paths beneath the trees. After a day in the heat, hauling about reeds and straw on a rooftop, Gordon was ready for a respite from the sun.
     He released the dog when they reached the two cypresses that marked the official entrance to the wood and he watched her till she disappeared entirely into the trees. He knew that she’d return eventually. Dinner wasn’t far off, and Tess wasn’t a dog to miss her meals.
     He himself walked along and kept his mind occupied. Here in the wood, he named the trees. He’d been a student of the New Forest since coming to Hampshire, and after a decade he knew the Perambulation, its character, and its heritage better than most natives.
     After a bit, he sat on the trunk of a downed alder, not far from a grove of holly. Sunlight filtered through the tree branches here, dappling ground that was spongy with years of natural composting. Gordon continued to name the trees as he saw them and went on to the plants. But there were few of these as the wood was part of the grazing land and as such was fed upon by ponies, donkeys, and fallow deer. In April and May they would have made a feast of the tender spring growth of ferns, happily moving on from these to wildflowers, juvenile alders, and the shoots of new brambles. The animals thus made Gordon’s occupation of mind a challenge, even as they sculpted the landscape in such a way that walking beneath the trees in the wood was a simple thing and not a challenge described by beating a path through undergrowth.
     He heard the dog bark and roused himself. He wasn’t worried, for he recognised the different kinds of barks that Tess produced. This was her happy bark, the one she used to greet a friend or a stick thrown into Hatchet Pond. He rose and looked in the direction from which the barking continued. It came nearer and as it did so he heard a voice accompanying it, a woman’s voice. Soon enough he saw her emerge from beneath the trees.
     He did not recognize her at first, for she’d changed her clothes. From the summer frock, the sunhat, and the sandals, she’d altered her getup to khaki trousers and a short-sleeved shirt. She still had on her sunglasses—so did he for that matter, for the day continued bright—and her footwear was again largely inappropriate for what she was doing. While she’d given up the sandals, she’d replaced them with Wellingtons, a very odd choice for a summer stroll unless she intended to trek through the bog.
     She spoke first, saying, “I thought this was the same dog. She’s the sweetest thing.”
     He might have thought she’d followed him to Longslade Bottom and Hinchelsea Wood, save for the obvious fact that she’d got there before him. She was on her way out; he was on his way in. He was leery of people, but he refused to be paranoid. He said, “You’re the woman looking for Monet’s Pond.”
     “I did find it,” she replied. “Though not without ending in a cow pasture first.”
     “Yes,” he said.
     She tilted her head. Her hair caught the light again, just as it had done at Boldre Gardens. He wondered, stupidly, if she put sparkles in it. He’d never seen hair with such a sheen. “‘Yes?’” she repeated.
     He stammered, “I know. I mean yes I know. I could tell. From how you were going.”
     “Oh. You were watching me from the rooftop, were you? I hope you didn’t laugh. That would be too cruel.”
     “No,” he said.
     “Well, I’m wretched at map reading and not much better with verbal directions, so it’s no surprise I got lost again. At least I didn’t run into any horses.”
     He looked round them. “Not a good place to be, this, is it? If you’re bad with maps and directions?”
     “In the wood, you mean? But I’ve had help.” She gestured to the south and he saw she was pointing to a distant knoll where an enormous oak stood beyond the wood itself. “I very carefully kept that tree in sight and on my right as I came into the wood and now that it’s on my left, I feel fairly sure I’m heading in the direction of the car park. So you see despite stumbling onto a thatching site and into a cow pasture, I’m not entirely hopeless.”
     “That’s Nelson’s,” he said.
     “What? D’you mean someone owns the tree? It’s on private property?”
     “No. It’s on Crown land, all right. It’s called Nelson’s Oak. Supposedly he planted it. Lord Nelson, that is.”
     “Ah. I see.”
     He looked at her more closely. She’d sucked in on her lip, and it came to him that she might not actually know who Lord Nelson was. Some people didn’t in this day and age. To help her out while not embarrassing her, he said, “Admiral Nelson had his ships built over Buckler’s Hard. Beyond Beaulieu. You know the place? On the estuary? They were using up a hell of a lot of timber, so they had to start replanting. Nelson probably didn’t put any acorns in the ground himself but the tree’s associated with him anyway.”
     “I’m not from this place,” she told him. “But I expect you worked that out yourself.” She extended her hand. “Gina Dickens,” she said. “No relation. I know this is Tess—” with a nod at the dog who’d settled herself happily at Gina’s side—“but I don’t know you.”
     “Gordon Jossie,” he told her and clasped her hand. The soft touch of it brought to mind how work roughened he himself was. How filthy as well, considering he’d spent all day on a rooftop. “I reckoned as much.”
     “What?”
     “That you weren’t from round here.”
     “Yes. Well, I suppose the natives don’t get lost as easily as I do, do they?”
     “Not that. Your feet.”
     She looked down. “What’s wrong with them?”
     “The sandals you were wearing at Boldre Gardens and now those,” he said. “Why’ve you got on wellies? You going into the bog or something?”
     She did that bit with her mouth again. He wondered if it meant she was trying not to laugh. “You’re a country person, aren’t you, so you’ll think I’m foolish. It’s the adders,” she said. “I’ve read they’re in the New Forest and I didn’t want to run into one. Now you’re going to laugh at me, aren’t you?”
     He did have to smile. “Expect to run into snakes in the forest, then?” He didn’t wait for an answer. “They’re out on the heath. They’ll be where there’s more sun. Could be you might run into one on the path as you cross the bog, but it’s not very likely.”
     “I can see I should have consulted with you before I changed my clothes. Have you lived here forever?”
     “Ten years. I came down from Winchester.”
     “But so have I!” She gave a look to the direction she’d come from and said, “Shall I walk with you for a while, Gordon Jossie? I know no one in the area and I’d love to chat and as you look harmless and you’re out here with the sweetest dog…?”
     He shrugged. “Suit yourself. But I’m just following Tess. We don’t need to walk at all. She’ll take herself into the wood and come back when she’s ready…I mean if you’d rather sit instead of walk.”
     “Oh, I would actually. Truth to tell, I’ve had quite a ramble already.”
     He nodded to the log on which he himself had been seated when she’d first emerged from the trees. They sat a careful few feet from each other, but Tess didn’t leave them as he thought she would. Rather, she settled next to Gina. She sighed and put her head on her paws.
     “Likes you,” he noted. “Empty places need filling.”
     “How true,” she said.
     She sounded regretful, so he asked her the obvious. It was unusual for someone her age to move into the country. Young adults generally migrated in the other direction. She said, “Well, yes. It was a relationship gone very bad,” but she said it with a smile. “So here I am. I’m hoping to work with pregnant teenagers. That’s what I did in Winchester.”
     “Did you?”
     “You sound surprised. Why?”
     “You don’t look much more’n a teenager yourself.”
     She lowered her sunglasses down her nose and looked at him over their tops. “Are you flirting with me, Mr. Jossie?” she asked.
     He felt a rush of heat in his face. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to. If that’s what it was.”
     “Oh. Pooh. I rather thought you might.” She shoved her sunglasses to the top of her head and looked at him frankly. Her eyes, he saw, were neither blue nor green but something in between, indefinable and interesting. She said, “You’re blushing. I’ve never made a man blush before. It’s rather sweet. Do you blush often?”
     He grew hotter still. He didn’t have these sorts of conversations with women. He didn’t know what to make of them: the women or the conversations.
     “I’m embarrassing you. I’m sorry. I didn’t intend to. I tease sometimes. It’s a bad habit. Perhaps you can help me break it.”
     “Teasing’s all right,” he said. “I’m more…I’m a bit at sixes and sevens. Mostly, well…I thatch roofs.”
     “Day in and day out?”
     “That’s ’bout it.”
     “And for entertainment? For relaxation? For a diversion? A break?”
     He tilted his chin to indicate the dog. “That’s what she’s for.”
     “Hmmm. I see.” She bent to Tess and petted the dog where she liked it best, just outside her ears. If the retriever could have purred, she would have done so. Gina seemed to reach a decision, for when she looked up, her expression was thoughtful. “Would you like to come out for a drink with me? As I said, I know no one in the area and as you do continue to seem quite harmless and as I’m harmless and as you have a lovely dog…Would you like to?”
     “I don’t drink, actually.”
     She raised her eyebrows. “You take in no liquids at all? That can’t be the case.”
     He smiled, in spite of himself, but he made no reply.
     “I was going to have a lemonade,” she said. “I don’t drink, either. My dad…He hit it rather hard, so I stay away from the stuff. It made me a misfit in school but in a good way, I think. I’ve always liked to be different from others.” She rose then and brushed off the seat of her trousers. Tess rose as well and wagged her tail. It was clear that the dog had accepted Gina Dickens’ impulsive invitation. What was left for Gordon was simply to do likewise.
     Still, he hesitated. He preferred to keep himself distant from women, but she wasn’t proposing involvement, was she? And, for God’s sake, she looked safe enough. Her gaze was frank and friendly.
     He said, “There’s a hotel in Sway.” She looked startled, and he realised how that declaration had sounded. Ears burning, he hastened to add, “I mean Sway’s closest to here and they’ve got no pub in the village. Everyone uses the hotel bar. You can follow me there. We can have that drink.”
     Her expression softened. “You are really the loveliest-seeming man.”
     “Oh, I don’t expect that’s true.”
     “It is, really.” They began to walk. Tess loped ahead and then, in a marvel that Gordon would not soon forget, the dog waited at the edge of the wood where the path curved down the hill in the direction of the bog. She was, he saw, pausing to have the lead attached to her collar. That was a first. He wasn’t a man to look for signs, but this seemed to be yet another indication of what he was meant to do next.
     When they reached the dog, he attached her to her lead and handed it over to Gina. He said to her, “What did you mean, no relation?” She drew her eyebrows together. He went on. “No relation. That’s what you said when you told me your name.”
     Again that expression. It was softness and something more and it made him wary even as he wanted to approach it. “Charles Dickens,” she said. “The writer? I’m no relation to him.”
     “Oh,” he said. “I don’t…I never read much.”
     “Do you not?” she asked as they set off down the hillside. She put her hand through his arm as Tess led them on their way. “I expect we’ll have to do something about that.”


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