At last the forty days and nights are over. You have seen out God’s personalised wrath, and perhaps the good times can now begin. It is evening when the rain stops, and the sun is rehung low in the clearing sky, above the centre of the village. It is beautiful out, as it is only after days and days of rain. The sunlight is warm, yellow and dancing, and the smell of wet grass is wafted on the drying air. The milky white Charolais cows in the field across the road start once again on their eternal grassy drift, insects make tentative first flights from unseen nooks, and midges gather in cloudy circles. The silhouettes of the trees beyond the cows wave under the influence of the clearing wind, and in these and the trees nearer at hand, reanimated birds discuss what to do now that it’s stopped raining.
You go out for a walk, meaning eventually to find a place where no trees hide the sunset. You idle before a mossy calvary at a crossroads where the fourth direction is one of two driveways up to the squarish block of the village’s château, which is the centre of the maze of perspectives that the avenues form. A battered Deux Chevaux parked at the steps up to the front door testifies to less than stratospheric wealth. Idling turns to blatant staring at the unlit but unshuttered windows; were anyone looking from those cool, tall openings, they would see (if their eyesight were good) that you have an invite-me-to-dinner look of considerable weight on your face. You will often return to this Golgothan spot to gaze past the brick pillars, the wrought iron gates swung open, imagining yourself free to wander up the dusty, grass-ridged drive, past the unkempt swathes of grass on either side of it – these signs of fading fortune make the château’s unseen inhabitants all the more attractive to you – to rest your arms on the sill of one of the open windows, and at your quiet greeting be welcomed with a smile, and a word or two to the effect that it will be just you and the family at dinner tonight.
The village is surrounded and regulated by avenues, usually of elm. The roads are often roofed by their canopy, which in summer provide a cyclist with welcome stretches of shade. Past the church, walking towards the ten o’ clock sunset, the trees enclose you, their trunks stretching from head height upwards, having been planted many years ago in now rooty banks of earth. They remind you of the cemetery that the train from Liverpool Street cuts past, the excavation close to view from the window seat, the detail lost in a blur of speed, above which the graveyard stretches more slowly away. Aided by the motion of the train, an impressionable mind can see bones jutting from the bank, and glimpse rotting shoes and tufts of hair.
One tree on each side of the tunnel you are now walking through has slipped towards the middle of the road, so that they have taken on the appearance of a couple in intimate conversation, about to kiss. You watch them as surreptitiously as you might if they were lovers in the street, then quicken your pace to pass beneath them, emerging from the avenue just in time to catch the red sun disappearing over the crest of a Norman roll, amid the wheeling noises of a flock of starlings, cockerels stringing their unique signal across the countryside, and the spitfire singing of lone swallows diving across the sunset. The occasional artillery grunt of a distant Charolais completes the silent cacophony.