A dreary day in early November, a chilly strong wind from the Irish Sea blew across the country. The previous week had been sunny and almost too warm for the English autumn. Suddenly but quite predictably, the weather took a sharp turn. The cold, dark and short days have arrived. The British summer was over; brief but pleasant while it lasted.
The Churches’ house stood at the south end of Edgefield, a village in the Midlands. Among the small population in the village, there were a few farmers, some retired company bosses and an exclusive Old People’s Home. A handful of residents were self-employed, others, like Pearl and her husband Andrew, wary of the grind of city life and prefer the fresh air and the view free of office buildings. How refreshing to smell the freshly cut lawns and to listen to the birds enthralled in their songs!
Pearl fell in love with Edgefield the first time she came to view properties. That was just over seven years ago. Unlike her previous student accommodation in Glasgow and Leeds, Edgefield seemed a safe distance away from the drug and burglary scene typical of an inner city. Neither was Edgefield ‘harassed’ by tourism, like some of its more famous neighbours further south or southwest. Edgefield was built on country property, retirement pensions and large acres of hilly farmland, perfect for grazing cattle and sheep.
Reflecting, Pearl felt a sense of disbelief, and at the same time, relief. The English country life appeared a far cry from her upbringing and most of her adulthood. She hailed from Chongqing, one of the largest cities in the most populous country on earth. Until Edgefield, Pearl had lived in Chinese cities, then the Scottish and English urban sprawl. All that now seemed such a long time ago.
Her Chinese name was Zhenzhu Zhang. Zhenzhu meant Pearl, which many English speakers had fount difficult to get their tongues around. She quickly learnt to provide them with the choice between Zhenzhu and Pearl, and understandably, the majority picked the easy option. Andrew only used her Chinese name, but she was better known as Pearl Zhang, then Pearl Church, since her marriage nearly ten years ago.
At the crack of dawn, Andrew set off to work. He had reset the alarm clock for seven, aware that his wife had a train to catch. Dressed quickly in her red linen jacket and a matching knee-length skirt, which she picked and laid out the night before, Pearl went downstairs to the kitchen. The spacious kitchen was next to the dining room, overlooking the manicured garden in the back. Pearl spotted two magpies perched on her garden fence as she had her breakfast, a banana and Kellogg’s’ Fruit’n Fibre. “One for sorrow, two for joy….” Pearl quickly walked to her driveway where her VW Jetta was parked.
Quickly getting into the car and winding the window down, she took a long deep breath in the refreshing morning air, clear and filled with the perfume of late autumn flowers. Pearl sped away. She smelt the rich soil from the nearby farm exuding a distinct scent. She saw the flock of sheep in the neighbouring farm. Looking out into the vast field and the green, green grassland in the rather flat countryside on one side, and hills on the other, in her mind’s eye, she visualised a different picture, the ever-increasing skyscrapers in the centre of Chongqing. Every time she went back there, about once every other year in recent years, there were ever more shopping malls, modern flats and tall office blocks.
Edgefield, on the other hand, had seen little change in its landscape, except the lush and relative greenness in the spring, the changing colours of autumn and particularly British bleakness in the winter. Even the seasons in England did not have the same dramatic and distinctive impact on the surroundings. Even at the height of the English summer, it was never as hot and humid as Chongqing, where the temperature often climbed to 40 C degree or more. In winter, even though snow was rare, temperatures would plunge, gripped with frost for months. In the Monsoon season it rained for days and weeks without end, spreading a dark misery through the muddy streets. Pearl liked the different ways of English expression to describe the rain, especially ‘cats & dogs’ perfectly depicting the summer rain in Chongqing, while its drizzles often started in autumn and carried on through the winter.
It took Pearl only 20 minutes to twist and turn her way through country lanes to the Central Train Station. That is the easiest part of my journey, Pearl reminded herself. She parked her Jetta in the station car park. The station seemed busier than usual, as Pearl pushed her way past the commuters between this major city in the Midlands and the capital. She was heading to London for a conference. For the past two years, she had been working as a free-lance interpreter and translator. She was going to the capital for the annual conference of a professional network she was a member of.
There were no seats available when she climbed onto the train. Pearl had a weak back and a knee injury since she was little and often found it difficult to stand for long. She looked around in the carriage, even though fully aware that nobody would give up a seat for her. Most passengers were reading the papers, and a few youngsters listening to their iPods and surfing their IPhone. In the crowd, Pearl was just a young-looking middle-aged Chinese woman. In her bright-coloured power suit and fashionable high heels, she could easily pass for ten years younger.
At the next stop, a middle-aged man got off leaving his newspaper on the seat, a popular free newspaper The Metro News. Something oddly familiar, yet uncomfortable, captured her attention as she focused on the Masthead. She felt a strange sensation when she began flicking through the pages. Something buried in her memory was being disturbed. Instinctively she tried to block the return of that memory, scanning through the first few pages. She could not concentrate. Then suddenly a piece of news brief in the side column caught her eye – the name of Richard Appleton flashed at her.
Academic in Fatal Crash
Three people were involved in a car accident and found dead. Early on Sunday morning a four-wheel drive Toyota crashed into a white van on B6138. The Toyota driver was identified as Dr. Richard Appleton, 55, a leading academic at Queen’s University of North England (QUNE), and his passenger was a young Chinese woman in her early 20s. The van was the property of Northern Water and the victim was 30-year old Mr. Barry Perry. The Police believed that the crash was caused by Mr. Appleton’s drink driving; more than three times the legal alcohol-intake was found in his body. An inquest is to be heard on Tuesday.
Her heart was beating fast and she could almost hear her own heartbeat. She glanced up quickly to see if anyone noticed her shock. No one was even looking her way. She turned back to the paper again. Yes, no doubt it was the same Dick Appleton, known to his friends and foes alike back up North.
Appleton was a name that made her sick, even now. She had tried to put that episode in her life behind her, rather successfully until now; but this notice in black and white brought back memories, untarnished by the time gone by and remained vividly clear in her sub-consciousness.