HAVING PARKED THE car on the wide gravel drive, Richard unloaded the cases from the backseat while Anna stretched her back, admiring the surrounding view as the mist cleared across the levels. From a side gate, the benign, elderly figure of Geoff Juniper emerged to greet his guests. He was dressed, as usual, in a grease-stained cooking apron which he wore over his corduroy trousers. He had grown long tufts of dark grey hair on either side of his ever-widening bald spot and the features beneath, though sunken and worn, beamed with sharp-eyed affection towards his young guests. Anna greeted him with youthful, melodic lightness, as Richard waved feebly from across the roof of the car toward his father’s oldest friend.
‘Leave the bags there, we’ll fetch them in a moment. Come through to the garden. Karen found a hare this morning. Poor little thing had its leg trapped in the fence.’
‘Oh no. Is it alright?’ asked Anna as they moved through the gate into the garden.
‘Well between you and me,’ he began in a low whisper, ‘I think the creature’s done for. It’s clearly in a lot of pain and the kindest thing to do would be to release the poor animal from its suffering.’ He paused earnestly for a moment then puckering his eyes: ‘I think low and slow for a few hours, don’t you? Bit of bacon, some cider maybe some cream, heh?’
‘Geoff that’s horrible. You ghoul!’ Anna cried, as the old man laughed to himself, wiping something from the front of his apron.
The garden had somehow retained much of that summer’s verdancy. The rose bower hanging above the bench still held on to flowers in full bloom, their petals only recently beginning to curl. Beneath, Karen sat smoking a cigarette when she noticed the arrival of her young guests, then placed it into an ash tray without putting it out.
‘Oh my darlings, I’m so pleased to see you both,’ she said, gripping their hands tenderly.
‘Anna, my love, you’re a flower. You look utterly, utterly beautiful.’
Anna blushed slightly, though she always derived a small pleasure from Karen’s remarks.
‘I’m just so happy to see you both. We only ever get to see our own wizened old carcasses around here, it’s nice to see some youth and beauty for a change.’
‘Oh, that’s total nonsense,’ Anna replied, ‘but very sweet of you to say.’
Richard greeted Karen, kissing her on each cheek and expressing how wonderful it was to see them both. Karen held onto Richard’s wrists a short moment. Her bright eyes, shining out from the thin skin around her cheeks, stared directly into his. It was a look she had been giving him since his father died. A nurturing concern, now with an added sense of pride. She held him once more, tightly.
‘Karen!’ Geoff shouted from the roses, ‘Where have you put the hare? We need to do something about the poor thing. We can’t keep it suffering like this!’
Karen turned to the other two and whispered: ‘He wants to eat it. Look at him, he’s a like fox. He’s been dissecting it with his eyes all morning.’
A woven wicker basket lay next to the bench with a blanket covering the top. Inside, on a dark woollen quilt, was the hare lying on its side. Richard noticed the unusual way the creature’s head fell backwards, and the way its eyes looked to the wall. He felt the ignominy of the creature as it waited inside its ready-made coffin. He knelt down and pressed his finger in the gaps of its paw, then moved on to its spine. The animal remained still, except for the heavy swell of its lungs.
‘It’s brain damage,’ he said looking again into its eyes. ‘Just like when Bobby died. We’ll have to put it down. It won’t survive out in the wild.’
It was agreed then that to keep the animal alive any longer would be inhuman. It also allowed Geoff the opportunity to cook something with the meat later, a natural consolation to the morning’s distress. Karen and Anna decided they would go for a walk out in the fields, and that the men would take care of the slaughter.