Black Bryony #1

A dark tale - in five parts

“Oh, do come along,” he snapped irritably.

He never did like waiting, and certainly not for her.

She had lingered far too long over the bilberries. Throughout the steep hike up the Long Mynd, she had hoped to come across a bush bearing enough ripe fruit for her to gather and consume swiftly before his patience was tried.

It was late in the season for them, but along a sheltered north-facing slope the bushes still bore sprinklings of the tiny purple jewels. With a deftness and speed that belied her old fingers, she gathered more, dropping them into the right pocket of her padded fleece with one hand as the other reached for more. Berries were her secret passion. Her only, quite laughable, vice, she thought with more than a little self-deprecation. She could identify the good ones, the bad ones, and all the very poisonous ones.

She had never advertised this knowledge, which was just as well, considering…

A glance up told her she should dally no longer. He was glaring now, his eyes narrowing as his impatience turned into something more dangerous: the cold, dark silence that inevitably preceded one of his volcanic eruptions of rage. She knew the look well. There was ample space for more berries in her pocket, but she would stop again later, when he needed another breather. She had enough to keep her going for now.

It was her own fault she was hungry.

At breakfast, the smell of eggs had combined with the pervasive odour of boiled cabbage in the hot, airless dining area, twisting her stomach into knots. She had just about managed to swallow a few morsels of dry toast with her cup of watery tea, but did not risk anything more in case she retched. Already her stomach was heaving.

He ordered a full English breakfast – complete with two fried eggs, sunny side up and slightly crisp at the edges the way he liked, a cinderized lump of black pudding, three fat sausages and fried mushrooms – all served in a pool of glistening fat. He smiled broadly when the plate was set down before him and told the waitress to keep the racks of toast coming. Breakfast was included in the price, and he meant to take advantage of it.

Bryony struggled against the bile rising in her throat, only managing to remain in her seat by sheer force of will helped in no small measure by the view outside The Three Bells, the B & B where they were staying. The view was the only redeeming feature. It was the reason she had eventually chosen this particular B & B out of hundreds of others on the Internet, and it was the only boast the website had not made in vain. Green fields gently undulated, dotted with fluffy cotton ball sheep, farmhouses and white cottages sat picturesquely atop hillsides, tractors rumbled in the distance; and through it a stream skipped lazily over thousand year old pebbles as it wound a concourse amongst it all. Yes, it really was quite pretty.

The website had also extolled the beauty of its “original fireplaces, luxurious en suites, large gardens, and friendly service at down-to-earth prices.” Amongst these, only the promise of down-to-earth prices had been fulfilled; and that was the other reason why they were staying here. He would rather die than shell out more for what he considered a place to lay his head for a few nights. He had always been cheap.

There was a proper hotel just ten minutes walk up the road, The Holly Bush, which had an adorable walled garden perfect for sitting and reading in. She had stolen a brief hour there to bask in its sun-trapped warmth, savouring the glowing russets of creeping ivy, the bursts of early autumn blooming flowers, and the silence of stillness. She felt she knew it intimately; her friend, Anna, had stayed there the previous year and told her all about it. Bryony had made the silly mistake of setting her heart on it, but at a cost of an extra sixty pounds for two nights, he had of course said, “Don’t be ridiculous, woman.” It had not exactly surprised her.

What was sixty pounds when the occasion they were celebrating was their fortieth-fifth anniversary?

Forty-five years.

He had also just casually informed her that he would be considering retirement soon. She had nodded, pointing out that he was likely to find himself at a loss with what to do with his time without the routines and responsibilities of his job. Besides, how would the bank manage without him, she asked?

His words had hardly come as a shock to her, yet they still filled her with dread.

When she looked back from the window, her stomach a little more settled, egg yolk was dribbling down his chin, trickling over the patchy straggle of hairs that passed for a beard. He stubbornly refused to shave it off, despite the fact that it clearly did not suit him. She could not begin to understand what he was thinking. Perhaps he thought it distracted people from noticing his bald head. He had begun to lose his hair early, in his mid-thirties. His temper he had begun to lose far earlier than that.

But not in the beginning. Had she known about it then, when they first met, she would never have said yes.

Illustrated by Kemi Athene Pennicott.

Savita Kalhan’s new book, The Girl in the Broken Mirror, will be published by Troika Books on 1 May 2018.