Marion parked the car by the hedge. In the back, her dog, Maurice, lumbered to his feet, ears alert and tongue alternately lolling, and lapping his black muzzle. He was, like Marion, in his middle years but unlike his mistress, still longed to run, and chase a ball.
They visited this disused chalk quarry almost every day. In early summer it was a mass of rare flowers and plants. Butterflies danced between orchids and vetch, and Damsel Flies hovered low on the hard-mud tracks that circumnavigated and crisscrossed the flat piece of land that lay between sloping, chalk-bald sides, rimmed at their upper edges by sparse woodland and beyond, on one side, a road.
Now, in late summer, Marion had thought that autumn was upon them. The evenings had cooled, were cold even, and the balmy days, sitting with Keith, gin in hand, watching House Martins plunging grubs into the tiny bills under next door’s eves, were ended for the year. Now, however, a humid and intense heat from a late August sun, had brought forth more butterflies and a brief opportunity for outdoor living.
A grass hopper fizzed from the verge as she slammed shut her door and lifted the tailgate to release Maurice. She caught up a chucker with a slime flattened tennis ball clenched in its yellow, plastic jaws, and closed and locked the car.
The dog strained to be released, wheezing against the noose of lead. There were no other cars nearby and apart from birdsong there was a heavy silence on this bank holiday Monday afternoon. This area was a dog-walker’s paradise and one got to know regulars, some well enough to nod and say, ‘lovely day’ to, others, who became friends.
Marion made the dog sit, and pulled off his lead, then launched the ball over the gate and down into the grass. She needed both hands to negotiate the uneven ground and the drop into the chalk meadow. Maurice leapt away, found the ball, sniffed around in the willow herb and clover then cocked his leg on a clump of grass before trotting back to meet her, tail waving and tongue lolling from his huge smile. He dropped the ball at her feet and began to run before she had even picked it up.
She raised her arm to throw. This would be their pattern as they paced twice round the circumference. She would walk, throw and shout, he would sniff, shit and pee.
They turned to the right to join the main track and Marion took in a deep breath. The smells of a dying summer rose from the ground: decaying vegetation, fragrant last-minute flowers and burgeoning blackberries and elderberries. She had stored blackberries, steeped in gin, in a dark cupboard under the stairs. The liquor would be perfect by Christmas. She pushed the thought of Christmas from her mind. Not in this sunshine.
Something attracted her gaze. There was a figure, maybe more than one, sitting or lying on the sloping ground on the far side of the quarry. How lovely. A picnic on this beautiful day. She threw the tennis ball again and directed her feet on their usual route, towards the diners and round the edge of the field.
As she drew closer, she realised that there were two figures, a courting couple. She dismissed the quaint phrase. These two were very definitely not courting. She drew closer, undeterred by the intimacy of their actions, this was, after all, her regular route, and the pair seemed oblivious to her presence. The scene was tender. There was certainly a girl although all Marion could see of her were a pair of smooth plump legs extending either side of the kneeling, fully clothed back and buttocks of a young man. The girl’s legs terminated in a pair of white trainers. The boy stooped towards her, his movements tender and unhurried. His push-bike lay beside him on the ground. Now, this close, Marion couldn’t, in all decency, look. She threw the ball again and walked on past, staring at a pair of orange butterflies that settled on the ground in front of her and took off a moment later, at the approach of her well booted feet. She wondered at the audacity of the act she had just passed. The young people had placed themselves in clear view of the gate and the road. They could have lain in the woodland, just beyond, but had chosen instead the glorious warmth of the afternoon to make their love.
In her menopausal, dried up state, Marion felt no lust, neither did she feel disgust, only a sense of loss. Nostalgia drew her back. Marion had once lain under the sun, half distracted by the sound of a distant tractor, half by her lover’s caress. Precious brushes of tongue, lips, fingertips. Savouring each miniscule, unhurried, electric movement. Was that so long ago? It was another life. Not better, just different.
She strode on, feeling a little puffed and promising herself a healthy meal this evening.
On her second circuit, she took a diagonal path, avoiding the couple, wondering if they had consummated their act. Two more cars were parked by the gate now and heads bobbed along various footpaths.
Back at the car, Maurice slumped on the floor, slobbering wet spots onto her rolled up coat. She started the engine and manoeuvred the small car round a CRV that had almost blocked her in.
At home she parked on the drive behind Keith’s BMW, and released Maurice, who plodded to the door, desperate for water. This late sun had given the lawn an extra spurt of growth and she hoped that Keith would notice before she had to press him to mow it.
She opened the front door.
‘Good walk?’ Her husband’s voice reached her from the office, his hideaway, her excuse to watch Casualty, alone with only a box of chocolates for company. She stuck her head into the room.
‘Lovely. There are still butterflies. So peaceful. Not a soul about.’ She smiled at him. ‘Cup of tea?’