Concealed by dense hawthorn, Margaret watched the young soldier rake the earth with his hands. In the diminishing light his fair hair blended with his khaki uniform. She could not see his face, but she imagined him to be handsome. As she adjusted the paisley scarf over her tawny hair, she wondered what he would say if he knew he was being observed. Unexpectedly, the soldier straightened and brushed the dirt from his hands, then rested his weight on his heels. Margaret drew a sharp breath as his head swivelled in her direction. Certain her presence had been detected she ducked swiftly behind the bush, and was reassured to feel her bicycle propped against the grey rock, facing the house in which she lodged.
A commotion near the old barn told her that the fearless fox was on the prowl which meant that Sean Bannister, her iron-muscled landlord, would soon burst upon the scene. Sure enough, the heavy kitchen door shot inwards, casting a rectangle of light across the cobbled yard. Margaret sighed and turned away, silently lamenting the disruption of her quiet scrutiny.
While Sean circled the yard, brandishing his shotgun and bellowing vicious intentions, she looked once more over the barred gate to the fallow field. But the soldier had gone, taking with him the mystery of what lay beneath the ground where for three nights he had been rummaging. Filled with the frustration of ungratified curiosity, she swept aside her cloak and jumped on her bike, determined that tomorrow, before darkness descended, she would inspect the field for clues.
AFTER A SUPPER of potatoes and beans Margaret described the young soldier to Aileen, the landlord's wife, a tall, lean woman with greying hair.
'That'd be Fenwick O'Brien,' said Aileen, letting the sock she was darning fall to her lap. 'Always comes in March to search for the Springer's name tag. Been lookin' nigh on ten years. Won't rest 'til he finds it.'
'But he's gouging the soil, Aileen. Is the dog buried there?'
'Oh no. Dog's with us. It's Sadie I'm talking about. It's a sad tale, if you've an urge to hear it.' Aileen waited for Margaret's agreement before continuing. 'It happened on St Patrick's Day. We were celebrating with fireworks and a bonfire. Poor Fenny joined us, even though he was on compassionate leave. He was just showing the disc to his cousins ….'
'Sadie's disc. She originally belonged to Fenny's young wife, Lucy, and when she died of pneumonia he had her wedding ring melted down and transformed into a dog tag.’ Aileen leaned back in the wooden armchair. ‘The night of the celebration, the cousins started a jig. Carefree with whiskey, so they were. It was trying to keep out of their way that caused Fenny to drop the disc. That was when the barrel of fireworks exploded. He was killed outright.'
Margaret was aghast. 'Are you telling me that the man burrowing in your field was a ghost?'
'I am. T’was a dreadful accident, and him just back from Lucy's grave.' Aileen flinched as she uttered those last words and glanced at the shuttered window as if expecting to see the soldier there.
Ludicrous was Margaret's opinion of Aileen's tale. The man she had witnessed was as real as Sean, only much more pleasing to the eye. Troubled souls did not burrow in moonlit fields. Despite the intensity of the peat fire, Margaret shivered. Abruptly, she reached across the range for the blackened kettle. If ever she needed a cup of strong tea, it was now. Moving to the stone sink, she swilled the enamel pot and spooned in the tea.
The outer door flew open and Sean rushed in with the liver and white Springer at his heels. 'Fenny's here again,' he announced, putting a reassuring hand on the animal's head. 'Sadie was frettin' to find him. Sure, it was as much as I could do to get her in.' He looked at Margaret who was pouring tea into three mugs. 'Ah, tea. Just the substance for a tired body.'
THE FOLLOWING morning, bent on disproving the absurd fable, Margaret interrupted her journey to the village school. She wanted to examine the field at close quarters, needing to establish the authenticity of her own sighting. The soldier would have had a legitimate reason for scrubbing about in the dirt, though for the life of her she couldn't think what that reason might be.
She waded through calf-high weeds to the spot where he had toiled. Except there was no spot. The growth was undisturbed, the ground rock-hard; there was no fissure and no evidence that for three nights a pair of hands had probed the soil. In spite of her scepticism, Margaret shuddered. Unconsciously, she began to retreat, her eyes riveted to the alleged site of Fenwick O'Brien's yearly emergence.
As she prepared to climb the stile she noticed something glisten in the base of the hawthorn. A bottle top, she thought, thrusting a boot-covered leg over the bar and berating herself for letting her imagination run riot. But, astride the stile, she hesitated. What if it had been the disc? What if it had been safe all those years, protected by vegetation, or wildlife ... or Lucy. Margaret was bewitched by the novelty of such a phenomenon and though she tried to dismiss the idea as idiotic she went back.
Thankful that her arms were covered, she burrowed through a grimy mat of twigs, snagging her nails and tearing ribbons of skin until eventually her fingers closed on the circular object. She stared at it in amazement. It was not silver, as she first thought, but gold, and genuine by the look of it. It resembled a flattened ball about an inch in diameter. Ignoring her scratched and bloody hands, Margaret fished in her pocket for a handkerchief with which to clean the metal and she rubbed until the grime was removed and the name Sadie was revealed.
At school Margaret pondered over her find, giving only half her attention to the children, whose paint-smeared white pinafores were in danger of becoming totally coloured with purple, black and red. The dog tag lay heavy in her pocket and she frequently took it out to scrutinise the intricate engraving round the edge. It was more like a locket than a dog's tag, but there was no hinge and she felt stupid for trying to locate one. Why would a dog be wearing a locket, for goodness sake, but she giggled when she thought of Sadie being inspired by its splendour to find a canine beau and wear its picture around her neck. Margaret checked the classroom clock, wishing it was time to go home and report the find to Aileen, then she climbed down from her desk and went to attend to the restless children.
AILEEN HAD a hot meal ready when Margaret got home, baked ham and roast potatoes with sprigs of rosemary and carrot sticks adding colour. Margaret hung her cloak on the door hook and washed her hands at the kitchen sink. She moved quickly for Sean was waiting to say grace. As always his words stirred her, for where she came from grace was never said.
They ate in customary silence, Margaret hastily cramming food into her mouth in order to get the meal over. However, although she finished in advance of Sean, she waited until he laid down his knife and fork before venturing to speak. Laying the gold tag in front of him, she said, 'See what I discovered in the field.'
Anguish crept into his face as Sean picked it up.
Aileen gripped her husband's arm and with her free hand took the disc from him. 'After all these years,' she murmured in a solemn voice. 'Fenny'll rest now, bless his soul. And so will Lucy.' Aileen fondled the Spaniels's ears. 'I guess this one’ll be glad to get it back. Sure, she's been too long without her mistress.'
'Fenny must have loved Lucy very much,' observed Margaret.
'She was the air he breathed. He worshipped her and she him.' Aileen put the tag on the gingham cloth, absently centring it on one of the blue squares. She eyed her husband who was lost in his own reflections. 'Sean took it badly. Felt guilty, bonfire being on our field. It was twelve months before he could talk about it. It was Sadie who pulled him through.'
Margaret offered to put the disc on Sadie's collar, but Aileen shook her head. 'Sure, Fenny needs to see it first or he'll never stop scouring. You'd better plant it in the field, somewhere where he's bound to find it.'
So Margaret returned the tag. Initially she had found the legend of Fenwick O'Brien fascinating, but now, as she poked black cotton through the hole, she questioned the validity of her actions. Did they honestly believe that hanging the dog's tag on a bush would put an end to such foolishness? 'A pointless exercise,' she muttered as she tied the thread in a knot and let the tag dangle. Aileen and Sean would be pleased it was reinstated and it suited her to oblige, but before the week was out she vowed to cut it down for it would serve her well when she saw fit to marry. As a measure of defiance, she flicked the disc so that it spun. 'To be sure, Fenwick O'Brien, you'll be diggin' that pasture til' kingdom come.'
THE WIND howled round the eaves that night. In the barn the hens made such a racket that Margaret left her bed to peer through the window. She was astonished to see the yard lit by moonlight, assuming that with such a wind it would be pitch black and the rain would be sheeting down. She opened the window and leaned out. Beyond the silos, the line of silver birch trees swayed. A barn owl hooted and was answered by its mate. Margaret expected to see Sean wielding his shotgun, but the yard was deserted. Sensing movement she scanned the outbuildings, watching for the recalcitrant fox, but it was only Sadie nosing for vermin.
It was chilly for the onset of spring. Margaret hugged her shawl and started to turn away, but something about Sadie stopped her, something gleaming at her neck. She trembled and drew the shawl closer. As she watched, Sean appeared at the kitchen door. Sadie bounded to him and he hunkered down to stroke her. He seemed to freeze for a moment, then he put his hands round the animal's neck and tugged her collar round. Sean Bannister smiled as he fingered the gold disc. 'Sure and about time, Fenny lad. About time.'