By Edward W Feery
Welcome to the latest in our series of first chapters showcasing our books.
Today, we have The Darling Buds Express, by Edward W Feery
The Prime Minister is on his way to Bethlehem for a summit that will make or break his ministry. If he can strike a deal here, on this symbolic scrap of almost-neutral territory carved from the Ankara Pact, Britain will gain unprecedented access to Soviet oil and the way of life that has persevered since the end of the War will be radically upended.
It's not that Laura doesn't understand this is important – she just has more important things on her mind.
This weekend is May Day weekend, and she is going home – back to the village where she grew up and where her family, her friends and her partner still live – for the first time in months; the first time in too long. Weighted down with guilt, fraught with anticipation, she makes her way up the valley aboard the famous little steam train, the Darling Buds Express.
…Prime Minister, Timothy Wheeler, courted further controversy not long after taking office when a recording was leaked of the Conservative Leader and several Cabinet colleagues making disparaging remarks about his predecessor in No. 10, Isobel Campbell. The former Labour leader had criticised the incoming government’s stance towards the Soviet Union and other members of the Ankara Pact, noting that that three decades of detente had been founded on a mutual desire on the part of the Ankara Pact, the OAS, the Commonwealth and the Concert Powers to avert a nuclear apocalypse – “the very antithesis of this government’s solely commercially-minded chicanery”, she commented. In the recording – whose provenance is unknown – Mr Wheeler’s distinctive Ulster accent could be heard calling Ms Campbell ‘a deluded old Marxist’, among other less salubrious epithets. A noted Westminster outsider, Mr Wheeler – the first MP from the Province ever to lead the United Kingdom – has been a controversial figure ever since he arrived on the political scene. His staunch ideological defence of the policies that have led to the Bethlehem Summit are merely one part of that.
That the Bethlehem Summit is happening at all represents a significant foreign policy achievement for Mr Wheeler’s ministry, the Conservative leader having made greater petrochemical trade with the Ankara Pact a major plank of the manifesto that brought his party back to power last May. Yet the underwhelming majority the new government achieved in the general election – hardly a convincing victory over a Labour party exhausted after a tumultuous decade of governance, one which saw three Prime Ministers occupy Ten Downing Street – suggests that the Prime Minister’s ardour for access to Soviet oil to boost our economy and bring about his American-style ‘consumer economy’, one driven by constant purchasing, may not be matched in the country. Moreover, there are signs Moscow may not actually be as committed to the talks as London; Kremlinology may be an ever-increasingly inexact art in Abramovich’s Russia, but there are signs the General Secretary is merely using the summit as a means to deflect an internal conflict within-
“You can go, if you like.”
It took a moment for Laura to comprehend what she had just been told, so intently had she been staring at the screen before her. She blinked, shook her head, and glanced over at her boss, before turning to check the clock on the wall; it showed there were still ten minutes left before the end of her shift.
“Are you sure?” she said; it had been a slow day, by any stretch of the imagination, but the biggest stories had a habit of breaking just as she was putting her coat on. She really didn’t want to get her hopes up, not with escape so close she could taste it.
Arthur smiled at her. “Yes, I am sure,” he said. “Reception just rang; Eduardo the one-man wonder is early, for a change. He’s not good for much, but the kid can proofread.” He looked at her over the top of his glasses – he probably thought it made him look debonair or something, when it actually just emphasised his deepening wrinkles and thinning hair. “Go on, you’ve earned it.”
“You’re absolutely sure?” Laura asked again, even as she got to her feet. Maybe she shouldn’t be pushing her luck like this, but she’d feel guilty if she didn’t – and besides, she was certain Arthur wasn’t going to change his mind.
“Go on, get out of here – before I change my mind,” he said, half-laughing, just as she had anticipated; just as he had, in fact, every time since she started working at the Register.
She could feel him trying not to look at her as she hammered out a last, rushed sentence, rose stretching from her chair, and walked over to pick up her coat and bag; he was getting better at hiding his attraction to her, but he still wasn’t very good at it. Still, he had never been anything but professional towards her – he’d even managed to make awkward small-talk over the past year or so.
“So, er…” he began as she was buttoning up her coat, “any plans for your long bank holiday weekend?”
“Nothing too exciting,” she replied. “I’m going home for the May Day celebrations. I’ve missed the last couple, so it’s going to be, y’know – pretty special.”
“Ah.” There was a brief, pregnant pause; Arthur really couldn’t do comfortable silences. “So… where is home for you again?”
“Up near Argleton.” That was true; it was also as much as she was willing to allow him. It wasn’t that she thought he was about to jump on a bike and follow her there – she just didn’t trust him not to laugh when she told him she came from Titfield. This seemed an unnecessarily short answer, so she added, “I’m looking forward to it – I haven’t been home since Christmas.”
“Really? Over four months? It’s not that far away…”
“Yeah, but…” Laura puffed her cheeks out and exhaled expressively. “It’s – what – nearly two hours to Argleton, and then another ninety minutes up a branchline… I can do it in a weekend, but it’s not easy.”
“I was supposed to be staying over New Years’, but I got called back – remember?” There was the merest hint of put-upon bitterness there; she hoped Arthur didn’t take it personally. “Then my boyfriend was going to come up over Easter, but he had to meet his deadline…”
Maybe Arthur was getting better than she gave him credit for; his expression barely moved when she mentioned her boyfriend. She pitied him slightly, which she felt bad about – he deserved better than that. If she were single… and if he were five years younger… and if they had more in common and if they didn’t work together… and if- yeah, this wasn’t doing anyone any favours.
“How about yourself, you up to anything?” she said companionably as she made her way to the door. Arthur gave her a rueful look.
“In here – where else would I be?” She needn’t have worried about sounding bitter; her boss was leaving her in the shade.
“Oh, that’s a shame” – and it was, even if she didn’t sound like she believed it herself – “well, I hope it’s not too busy.”
That rueful half-smile was back. “I’m sure I’ll cope,” he replied. “Now go – enjoy yourself!”
“Are you-” Laura began, but her cut her off with a wave of his hand.
“Look, if the Prime Minister does a Harold Holt I will call you, all right? Otherwise, go!”
She nodded in assent, and made for the door; as she opened it, though, she turned back to him with a quizzical expression. “Who’s Harold Holt?”
“You don’t remember? He was the Aussie Premier who got his head chopped off by a helicopter rotor.”
Oh, now she remembered; she winced as she recalled the video somebody had shown her at college. “Why not just use Barry Goldwater? At least people have heard of him…”
“Well, firstly,” came the reply, bristling with mock outrage, “more people should have heard of Harold Holt, and secondly-” Arthur’s tirade was cut short by the first of the night-shift scuffling awkwardly into the room. “Right, you can definitely go now. Have a wonderful time – see you Tuesday?”
“Wednesday,” Laura replied, stepping out into the corridor.
“Lucky!” came the response; she smiled, and waved a farewell as the door closed behind her. As she reached the stairs, she heard the muffled exclamation: “How did you manage to get lost in a lift?!”
The light was fading as she stepped outside; the cloud-cover which had been around all week was breaking up, and the western sky was eggshell-blue streaked with gold and violet. She fancied walking home, but she was too tired; by the same token, she didn’t want to stand around waiting for the trolleybus, especially as the temperature was dropping. And now she was on holiday, she felt like treating herself.
She reached into her pocket for her brightphone, taking a moment to enjoy the feel of it in her hand. It was old, by the standards of its kind – she’d had it for nearly eight years now, and she could feel the dings in the aluminium casing where she’d dropped it on the pavement or flung it across the room (always by accident, of course; although there had been that one incident when The Boy Wonder had managed to wipe a thousand words of an article she’d asked him to proof) – but it still felt thrillingly decadent, as much for its copious plastic parts as the possibilities of a portable gratlink. Many papers had taken to carrying periodic articles decrying the evils of brightphone culture – the right-wing ones bemoaning the ‘anti-social tendencies’ of their proliferation, their left-wing counterparts raging against the ‘materialism’ of objects so frequently replaced and yet rarely recycled. She’d written a well-received article recently about the inaccuracies of the latter argument – yes, very few brightphones went through the Shinwell System (not that breaking them down for parts was all that useful), but the vast, vast majority were re-engineered and sent abroad to be resold in developing economies like China, South Africa and Nigeria – although the last one was ironic, for an awful lot of them were made there. That article had gotten her a lot of notice, and a job offer from the Daily Mirror which she had turned down with a certain vehement pleasure; it may have been the most left-wing Rothermere paper, but it was still a Rothermere paper.
She began to pull up her phonebook, but paused; she wasn’t sure she could face the hassle of calling a cab, or that it was warm enough to wait around for one. As if on cue, the coconut-shell sound of hoofbeats echoed off the tall buildings. She raised her hand to hail it, crying: “Taxi!”
The driver was good; he pulled up right beside her, his charge snorting gently in the shafts. She told him where she was going; he gave her a rough fare, and told her to ‘hop in’.
It was at that moment that the horse decided to relieve itself on the pavement.
It didn’t end up anywhere near her, which was a blessing – they did have an occasional tendency to, ah, ‘splash’, especially on tarmac – but the smell was atrocious; despite herself, she wrinkled her nose in distaste.
“Sorry love,” said the driver, with nary a hint of bashfulness, “he’s been a bit sick lately. Vet says he’s got worms or something.” Without waiting for a response now he knew Laura was comfortably seated, he hauled on the reins and they set off.
It was a rather nice taxi, all things considered; the seat was comfortable, if weatherbeaten, and the fare-meter was pleasingly chunky, black metal with the numerals raised and burnished. She watched the pennies tick by for a few shillings’ worth of distance, but she increasingly found herself leaning over one side and watching the city go by.
There were regular moments of light and noise; pools of revelry as they passed pubs, bars and other hostelries. Those congregations were interspersed with spaces of solitude and silence; commercial streets, shuttered and deserted, with the occasional lightened window on the upper floors breaking the monotony. Vehicles passed on the other side; buses, their windows lit and decks half-empty, humming quietly, and electricabs with radios blasting pop music, several sporting intricate neon patterns on their roofs and sides. The clip-clop of hooves seemed to be the loudest thing on the road. Everywhere there was the scent of cherry blossoms; the trees lined the roads and filled gardens and parks, and their petals formed drifts on the pavements.
They couldn’t actually get down her street; a short, rotund man in overalls had stopped his traction engine across the junction and was having a furious row with a gangly, bearded pensioner on a battery-bike. Laura disembarked around the corner and walked briskly to her door; it had gotten surprisingly chilly with the sun properly down. She let the argument wash over her as she let herself into the building, and climbed the stairs to her chilly flat in near-darkness.
Whatever had caused the argument, it had ended by the time she got in; there was no sign of the cyclist, and the traction engine was reversing and attempting to make a turn with its trailer. The slightest scent of steam hung in the air; any stronger and it would have been a serious problem, but it was just enough to get the nostalgia flowing without getting into the fabrics.
She closed her eyes, and breathed deeply; for a moment, she was already aboard the Darling Buds Express on that final grand sweep into Titfield…
…She didn’t think she’d ever been as homesick as she was right now.
Just homesick, mind. Not… not worried. She was going to see Henry tomorrow and they were going to have a very adult conversation about moving forward. They were both grown-ups, after all.
God, she couldn’t wait to see him. She ached for his presence so hard she could taste it.
She stood there for a moment, enjoying the last moments of her reverie, before the vibrations of her phone brought her back to reality. She scrabbled to check the message:
Jus hearin frm govt leaks tht
Bethlehem Summit mite b on
verge o colaps alredy.rekn
mite b dun by Sun
Oh, god – she had barely been gone an hour, and already work was trying to drag her back in! She typed a reply with hands she tried to keep from shaking, definitely not hearing a tiny chime of hope in the back of her mind at an excuse not to face her old home again:
Do you need me to come back in?
Nah wel b fin.Enjoy yr hols luv!
She stood staring at the response for a moment, then sighed with relief. She took a moment to let the sense of longing soak back into her soul, before shaking her head and going to find a jumper.