Dark Valley

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chapter 4

Chapter 4

Mrs. Fleur Winchester

Spring 2011

“It is time to get out the rifle” Said Pol. This was the day he had been waiting for. The first day of the roe deer buck hunting season was tomorrow. I had watched him do his preparation time and again. It was how he worked. He would say “proper prior planning and preparation prevents piss poor performance” It was a motto he had learned in the army. It certainly was one that he liked and adhered to. The bag of equipment would be out soon. He would sharpen his knife, then his spare knife. He would change the blade of the wicked ezi-zip gutting hook, check his bone saw was clean. Then once all of the tools were checked he would change the batteries in his head torch. Check whether he had all of the consumables he might need. His knives were always sharp anyway. When May, our youngest was little she called it “Dad’s bag of death tricks”. Watching his preparation was a strange source of confidence for me.

The winter of 2010 to 2011 had been a cold one. We had been warm in our new house. Warmed by our love for each other as much as the roaring log fires that made our house warm and welcoming. Bryn Heulwen had soon warmed up. Over the winter the three, now adult, kids had visited in turn with their partners and tribes of dogs. They added a vibrancy to the house that seemed to exude energy all around us. Pol would go into the woods and harvest wood for the fire. The quad and trailer would roar into life as he would load up a flask and his chainsaw and head into the deep valley floor near the river. As I did my chores around the house or look after the chickens and ducks I could hear his chainsaw buzzing and the occasional crash of a tree as it was felled.

He had spoken to me about the habitat he was creating, down in the woods, being a perfect habitat for deer. I had not really taken too much interest in the technicalities of it all. Like all things he did, once he had started on it he would not stop and it would consume him. He had done the research into the best habitat creation for roe deer and he would create it.

Lying below the house, below the wood and on the other side of the river was the Hospital. The site was far bigger than I had thought, it sprawled across the valley floor and not only was there the impressive Victorian façade on the road side but there were acres of gardens, a tennis court and many other buildings. They couldn’t be seen from the road. They had spread, multiplied from behind the main building, modern, squat and low.  Some of the houses of the estate were now occupied, the others lay derelict.

From our land I could look down onto the hospital. First thing in the morning the sun was bright on our house and yard and the valley below was cloaked in shadow, sometimes the mist would lay in the valley bottom shrouding the hospital and the houses around it.  The sun would rise and chase the shadows away across the valley. The last place for the mist to lift was one of the houses near the river. Near our woods. The house was occupied and I would look down, with some envy. The gardens were superb, neat rank upon rank of vegetables, chickens and even a couple or maybe three rare breed pigs. Most of all I was jealous that the house was right at the back of the hospital grounds and the owners would have to drive through the site to get home.

I guess it was about at this time that we met the Masons.

Pol went out on his mountain bike most days. He trained hard and liked to be fit. Since we had moved into this house Pol had increased his training and his energy levels were high in all aspects of our lives. Sometimes I would pop into town whilst he was out cycling. I am not sure of the day or the date when we met. Pol was out on his bike and I was going to pop to town and pick up some odds and ends from the shop. I drove down our track and onto the road towards town. As I did so I saw Pol cycling along in front of me. He was hard to miss. Fluorescent waistcoat and bright orange bike helmet. He was with someone running. The runner also in fluorescent yellow, but tights and not a jacket. As I closed with them I was interested who was this that Pol was out training with? We had kept ourselves pretty much to ourselves. I was not sure where he had met this new training partner. The runner looked like a man from this distance. He was not tall but he moved with that freedom and inane strength that Pol seemed to have in his movements. I drove past them and gave them a wave. It was a man Pol was with. Not a young man. He was grey haired and had that tanned face like old leather of a man that spent a lot of time in the outdoors.

As I passed I watched them in the mirror, they seemed to be chatting as they trained. At that point I remember thinking that Pol could do with a training partner.

When I got home from Morrison’s the smell of freshly brewing coffee greeted me. It was welcoming and all enveloping. He walked through from the shower. Naked, flushed from the heat of the shower. Just seeing him like that gave me a little tingle of excitement. Twenty years together and he still turned me on. His body had changed over the years. He was heavier, but not fatter, he was certainly hairier. I joked his hair had slipped off his head and gone onto his back.

“Hey sexy” I called to him.

“Hey sexy” he called back, “there is fresh coffee in the jug” He knew I didn’t like coffee. But this was one of our standing jokes. Whilst he was upstairs I went into the kitchen and found he had made me a mug of tea.

He came back down. “Got a surprise for you, Winchester”

“Oh yeah, and what could that be?” I asked.

“Well, you will soon see. Something you will like, that’s for sure.”

“What is it?” curiosity was starting to creep.

“Get your wellies then”

Ten minutes later we had our boots on and were in the car. Heading down the hill from Bryn Heulwen towards Denbigh. Before we got to town Pol took us on a minor road to the left. There was no sign for this road. I suspected it would lead into the hills behind the Hospital. We drove no more than a mile we turned off and down a small concrete single track lane. The lane took us onto the grounds of the hospital. I felt a small lurch inside as we passed the no entry sign. This was right to the rear of the grounds. A long way behind the impressive façade that faced the road. Passing the more modern areas of the long disused hospital the decay of the site was all around. Windows broken, weeds forced their way between the paving slabs and reached longingly but wanly towards the light. Brambles and thorns had regained the gardens and nettles regained the lawns. Rubbish lay in the parking areas now, the weeds pushed through the tarmac amongst the broken tiles, glass and waste of dereliction.

My mind raced back to the dream, the scabs of decaying paint.

As we turned away from the main site we passed an open gate and across a field.  At the gate was a sign Y Dyffryn Tywyll. Welsh names meant little to me. I knew ours, Bryn Heulwen, meant “hill of sunshine” which seemed perfectly appropriate for our bright, white and sunny little haven. A place where the sun reached early in the morning and touched first.

Arriving in the yard I realised that this was the house that I could look down onto from our yard. The smallholding, the garden the big orange pigs.

The new Mitsubishi truck in the yard told me that this was not the yard of a poor hill farmer.

The man I saw Pol training with strode easily from one of the sheds in the yard. He was wearing blue jeans and a dark shirt.

Pol introduced us “Jan, this is my lady wife Fleur,”

“Fleur, this is Jan, I trained with him this morning”

Pleasantries were exchanged. We shook hands and he led us into the kitchen of the house.

Dominating the kitchen was a huge AGA. The warmth that it radiated was immediate. A massive, old metal kettle sat on the top steaming slightly.

“So, Pol tells me you are new in the area?”

“Well yes, quite new, we have only lived up the hill for about a year” I replied. He was a good looking man.  Dark and strong, deep, dark eyes well-tanned, slightly greying maybe ten years older than us.

“We have always loved it here. My parents lived here when I was a kid and it just seemed natural for us to be around here. Once my book was published I was able to afford to do a lot of the things I had always wanted to do.” Pol said.

Jan said, “Being of independent means certainly helps”.

It seemed to be a strange turn of phrase. Like something from a Bronte novel.

He continued, “We had often talked of having a small holding but until we came into means we also could not do it. It has been a real pleasure to live here less dependent on the world than ever before. We have pigs, goats, chickens and a very productive veg patch. Would you like a look round? We can have a coffee when we get back in.”

“I would love to” I enthused.

The layout of Y Dyffryn Tywyll was different to the layout of our yard. It was clearly more modern and designed and built with a similar type of architecture as the hospital. It had been part of the estate and I guess a senior doctor or someone of quite some standing must have lived here. The yard was clean and tidy and the grounds neatly divided off. The two Tamworth sows were laying out basking in the sun. They made soft little grunts and snorts to each other as they twitched an ear or tail to keep the flies away. Jan explained that they were both pregnant and the last litters had just gone off for processing and would be back, in boxes, soon. We walked over to their enclosure and I was able to reach through the steel bars of the enclosure and scratch one of the sows behind the ear. Jan explained how they were a really good addition to the small holding.

"They ate anything and they cleared land really quickly. They eat any waste, vegetable or animal. If their enclosure is moved to a patch of brambles they would clear it in next to no time and turn over the ground and dig out any roots that had remained."

Jan showed us the goats, two productive nannies and a couple of growing kids. The kids bounded around their enclosure playing like babies of all animals play, ignorant to their fate. They climbed up on a big tree stump in the enclosure and sprung off it. I was enchanted by them. As I watched them gambol Janus said “Soon the kids will go for processing, there is a surprisingly big market for goat in Manchester and Liverpool”. Seemed sad to me that they would be sent away and “processed” as Jan called it. It seemed such an impersonal and detached way of talking about killing a living thing.

The tour continued around the chicken run then to the large market type garden. Rows of vegetables like ranks of soldiers in their order.  Jan explained that growing some types of plant was a little difficult because the shady location of the garden was not ideal for all. The whole place was tidy, clean and well ordered. It made our yard and fledgling small holding look chaotic and disorganised. The tour had set my mind racing and the plans for our garden bloomed like flowers in my imagination.

We returned to the kitchen for our promised coffee. A woman was in the kitchen as we went in. Jan entered and introduced us to his wife Ivy. She was a quite striking woman with dark hair, cut in an efficient bob, and pale, piercing blue eyes. She was confident and elegant in movement and speech.

“So, How do you enjoy living on the hill?” she asked me.

“It is really nice, we are getting the place just how we like it now.” I replied. She had a really easy to talk to manner about her and she instantly had put me at ease.

“We were really impressed by your yard and your animals, so organised and so tidy” I continued.

“Well we have been here for a while now and it all takes a bit of time at the beginning to get everything exactly as you want it to be”.

“I really like the Pigs, do they have names?”

“No, we don’t give them names, it seems that the giving of names would make them pets and then we wouldn’t send them away for processing when their time comes”

(Processing, again)

“Oh I see, I can understand that.” It seemed to be a sensible solution to what would be my most difficult part of this lifestyle.

“They are like a waste disposal unit, they eat just about anything that they can get their snouts round and what’s better than that they convert it into bacon or pork for us.” She continued.

“Can you tell what they eat by the taste of the meat?” This really had sparked my interest.

“You can tell if they have been on the commercial stuff or if they have been eating in the woods”. She said. “If they have been eating acorns or beech mast then the pork is just so much better”

“I am sure that you could put them in our woods when it is acorn time. I know that Pol was talking about clearing a few patches” I offered.

“That would be good” Ivy said.

The conversation between us flowed freely and moved on to all sorts of areas. Ivy seemed to be very interested in how we had come into money and how Pol had been retired from the police and had taken to writing so well. I explained his previous roles within the police and how he had worked as a custody sergeant as well as other teams and departments that he was involved in. I had tried to find out a little more about their past but she was really evasive about this. I asked what her job had been and she said that with Janus working in his job she did not really need to work and that he supported them both quite comfortably. It seemed that he was involved in medicine, although she was difficult to pin down. Since they had come into money they had moved to this area. She soon moved the discussion on and away from that area.

“What do you think, flower?” Pol asked me.

“I am sorry, I didn’t hear what you were saying”. I had been quite absorbed in my conversation with Ivy.

“How about a few glasses of wine up at our place later or maybe tomorrow?” I looked around, their house was so tidy, so smart, like it had dropped out of the pages of an expensive country side lifestyle magazine. Yet in our place there were dirty wellies by the door, the dogs slept on the sofas, sometimes there were empty coffee cups lying about. Did I want those cold icy blue eyes looking over all of our chaos and comparing it to their ordered, too ordered, world?

No, these were the sort of thoughts that I might have had years ago when the depression had been my constant dark companion. These weren’t the thoughts and the feelings of the new and positive Fleur Winchester. Of course I would welcome our new found friends into our home. I would show them that you can be happy with a couple of coffee cups lying about.

“That would be lovely,” I said “Do you guys like Venison?”

“We certainly do” Said Jan.

“Good, Pol has one hanging in the larder right now. He shot it last week, it will be just about right for tonight!” I put the ball back into Pol’s court. Now he would have to get home and get out his butchering kit to make sure that we were ready for our guests.

We said our courteous goodbyes and headed into Denbigh to pick up some wine and a few bits and bobs for supper. The meal was to be really simple. Griddled steak of venison, new potatoes and spinach. A clean and fresh meal with no great pretentious recipes, light on the palate and easy to prepare very well. A couple of bottles of decent Chianti and a case of beer. No matter how hard Pol tried he could not leave his taste for beer behind him in the old Pol that had been that soldier with a taste for bar room fighting and one night stands.

When we arrived at Morrison’s there were six police cars in the car park. We slowly parked and walked into the store. The café had been cordoned off. A police constable stood at the cordon and would not allow anyone in. A small crowd had built up at the tape. Things didn’t happen in Denbigh. Working in the café were three forensics officers. Wearing the white paper over suits that made them look not quite like humans. Pol, turned his back on the scene of the interest. He said that he just wasn’t interested and that he had seen enough of this to last him a life time. I just got the suspicion that actually since leaving the force himself he had turned against it a little. He had often commented that he had felt dumbed down when he was there.

As we entered the supermarket proper two men stopped us and introduced themselves as CID officers.

“Good morning, I am DC Thomas from the Major Incident Team” This stopped Pol in his tracks. He had not been too bothered until he had heard the words Major incident Team.

“How can we help you, officer?” he asked.

The officer held up a clip board with a picture on it.” Have you seen this man before?” On the page was a photograph of a man we had seen regularly in the café.

“Yes,” we both replied at the same time. “He comes in here sometimes and talks.” I added.

“To you?” the other suited detective asked.

“No” said Pol, “to himself, I think he is a care in the community type of person”

“Have you seen him lately?” DC Thomas.

“No,” we both replied.

After we gave our names we were allowed to continue our shopping.

We made small talk and didn’t mention the police in the store. When we got into the car and started to drive out Pol quietly said. “That bloke in the picture has been murdered”

“Sorry?” I asked quite incredulously.

“Well, MITs do not investigate anything but the most serious crimes. One of those Forensic guys was a home office pathologist – he had a suit on underneath the big white baby grow and shiny black shoes. The local scenes of crimes guys had their boots on under the suits”

“Yeah right, Sherlock” I replied sarcastically. But I knew he would be right. He could see things. Not in visions or in any supernatural way but his powers of observation were great and he could perceive mood changes and lies within people easily.

We laughed and joked on the way home about where his pipe and deer stalker had been concealed in his years in the police service.

We arrived home, and in the way that couples who have been together a long time do, we did the housework together, had a coffee and then started to prepare to meet our guests. All without actually saying much to each other. This wasn’t some uncomfortable silence but more the snug quiet of a couple who are at ease with each other.

Pol went out into the larder to start to prepare the venison. I didn’t really like the larder. A bit weird really. But I knew that deer went in there and they came out as venison. It was just a small part of one of the old sheds, tiled out in clean white tiles. With a double doored coke fridge in one side and a big bar running the length of the room near the ceiling so that sliding hooks could be hooked on and slid along with carcasses on them. To the back a length of worktop and various tools. Wicked looking knives, heavy cleavers for chopping through large bones and ribs. Bone saws and meat hooks. There were also packing machines and other such things in there. It wasn’t just gory tools.

Time soon passed by and our guests were knocking at the door. Janus was holding a large bunch of roses. He passed them over to me.

“These are for you” he handed them to me. A dozen red roses.  

Ivy followed him in with a bottle of red wine. She passed it over to Pol.

“Thank you Ivy”

“Come in, guys” Pol said.

“Thanks, Pol” as Jan came into our home he extended his hand and the men shook hands.

The evening flowed really freely. The Masons were great company and the red wine flowed freely. I had been nervous about whether the meal was of a standard that these guys were used to. It seemed that they were quite happy with the simple style of meal we had prepared. The conversation was easy and calm. Ivy was very interested in our lives. We talked about how we had struggled so hard when the kids were young and how they also had struggled.  We talked about how the money had seemed to come quite easily from the book and now each quarter we waited for the agent’s cheque to arrive in the post. We talked about how we had always wanted to live this life and now suddenly we were able to do so. I complimented Ivy on her house and she complimented me on ours.

I caught snatches of Pol and Jan’s conversation they were also enjoying themselves and laughter came easily to them.

I heard Pol talking about the antlers on the wall “one hundred and eighty yards … freehand … straight through the heart… ten paces and it was down” I had heard this hunting tale over and over. It got further every time I heard him relay it. The malt whisky was now out and the evening had progressed nicely.

As Ivy had more and more red wine she revealed more about herself. I learned that she had not worked and that they had both been dependent on Jan’s salary and they had previously lived in Nottinghamshire when Jan worked in a hospital there. I was quite interested in this and asked her about this time in their lives. I was really enjoying her company, I don’t really make friends easily but it seemed that I would make good friends with this couple.

As Pol continued to drink the veneer of his civility slipped further. I kept getting glimpses of the man underneath. He was talking about his time in the army and about his time in Belfast. I was interested to hear how much he would tell them, how much he trusted them. Would he tell them about his kill or how he had his team taken away from him after violently beating one of them? If he told them these most closely guarded secrets he had really let them in. The conversation was of how he had been injured and about the damage to his ankle. He had not let them in. He didn’t tell them. His trust had not extended quite that far.

As the night drew to an end we found ourselves out in the conservatory. The stars were bright and clear. There was no light pollution. I loved the stars and but back in Hull with all of the bright lights of the city and the industry only half of them were visible. I didn’t know the names of them but I knew they were beautiful. I watched the sky quietly and as I did a shooting star streaked across the still blackness.

“Did you guys see that?” I asked

No one had.

“What was it, flower?” Pol said.

“A shooting star or maybe a comet, it was up there” I pointed to a piece of the sky over their heads and behind them.

The end of the evening came swiftly and our guests left and walked down the track and as we watched them leave the yard in the bright starlight Pol stood with his arm round my waist. I loved the closeness of his body to mine. We could hear the laughter of the Mason’s long after they had left.

“Did you have a good night?” Pol asked.

“Yeah, I like them, they seem like a nice couple, like us in a few years’ time.”  

I thought the roses were a strange gift. I would have expected flowers but probably not a dozen red roses, they seemed to be more suitable for some kind of romantic attachment.

“Shall we go to bed sexy?” I had something in mind for Pol. “Will you bring me a drink up for my tablets?”

“Yeah, for sure, I will just let the dogs out.”

I went upstairs and opened my lingerie drawer...

Later, after we made love. I lay with my head on his broad chest. I played with the hair on his chest as we lay in that late night glow together.

“I like them” Pol said.

“Yeah, me too, I think they are nice”

“I am going to train with Jan” said Pol tiredly.

“Did they tell you why they came here?” I asked.

“No I don’t think so, they seemed a bit elusive on that” He said.

“I guess we all have our secrets”

“I love you, Pol”

“I love you too, Fleur”

It seemed like minutes, not hours until the morning light woke me up. I turned to put my arm around Pol. He was not there. All that was left of him in the bed was the scent of his body and a dent in the pillow. He had got up and gone out deer stalking. It was the 1st of April. The first day of the roe deer buck season. He had hunted all over the world now. He had hunted in Africa since the publishing of the book, but this was still his favourite hunting. The trophies in the front room and dining room were still roe bucks. He could have had the Kudu mounted and put on the wall. He said he didn’t want it because it was too expensive. I didn’t think that was the case I thought that he just felt that the whole idea was crass. He certainly would not be going back to that safari company in Tanzania again. Not after the disagreement. He had given the kudu carcass to the local villagers but the company wanted to sell it to a restaurant in Dar es Salaam. Things had become ugly and the confrontation had become physical when Pol had declined to back down. The injuries to the professional hunter and the tracker had precluded any revisit. Another place we can never go again.

I lay awake and watched the sun beams tentatively come into the room. I was happy. I felt contented. I would go down and shower before Pol came in. I smelled of last night’s sex and, whilst I liked the reminder, it was time for a shower.

As I reached up and took a cup out of the cupboard I heard the crack of the rifle from the woods. I expected to see Pol back in about half an hour. He would be ravenous. He would come back from the woods. Deer on the quad. Starving hungry and wanting a mug of tea.

Bacon sarnies and a mug of tea with my man. What an excellent start to a Friday morning.  Stephen and Lizzie were coming down for the weekend, they would be here at lunch time. Our son was doing well, his apprenticeship completed and he was really finding his feet in the IT world. Lizzie was his girlfriend. I was looking forward to them coming. I needed to get the guest room aired and the bed changed.

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