An Excerpt From Beyond the Hedge
By Roby James
[ Information on Beyond the Hedge ]
The hedge was not supposed to be there. Jennifer stopped the Mercedes and sat
staring at it, stretching tall and thick where just a few minutes earlier she'd
been sure there was a sweeping valley. If it hadn't been early afternoon, she
might have thought, Well, this is the end of a perfect day! Actually, quite a
few perfect days.
It had all begun a month ago, on what would have been Thanksgiving had
she been home in the United States; here in Britain, the holiday passed
unrecognized, which was somewhat appropriate, when she thought about it. For the
last month, she had not had a lot to be thankful for.
The company she had worked for these last six years, Glidden Industries,
had moved her boss, a man she deeply respected, who clearly valued and mentored
her both before and after her transfer to London, to its Barcelona office. He
had been replaced by an ambitious snake of a man she had previously been able to
observe from her secure position, pitying the people who had to report to him.
Now, suddenly, she was one of them. In her secret thoughts, she called him "the
Cobra," and as her boss, he quickly lived down to her expectations.
He piled overwhelming amounts of work on her in a transparent effort to
make her unhappy enough to quit, to fail, or to request a transfer back to
Boston. She concluded that he needed his cronies around him, but what Aunt
Cecilia always called "your sheer stubbornness" made her persist in trying to
prove she was up to the challenge. Jennifer Paul was not going to be anyone's
patsy, not even someone who clearly had nothing but contempt for career women
and for Americans -- and, she added to herself, for anyone who doesn't make
kissing his ass the high point of their day.
After four weeks of putting in 12- to 14-hour days, she was exhausted,
not seeing clearly, and very pleased to be taking her two-days' holiday leave
from Glidden and the Cobra. Other employees might take Christmas week off, but
Jennifer would be back at the office on Boxing Day, December 26th, to prove her
worth, or die trying. As she had done every other leave since arriving in London
two years earlier, she was driving to Anglesey, in northwestern Wales, to spend
the time with her only remaining family, Aunt Cecilia, who had been ill with
leukemia for several years.
Before the accident that claimed the lives of her parents and her
brother, they had all been close, even though Aunt Cecilia was only her mother's
distant cousin. After the accident, Aunt Cecilia had moved away from Boston,
away from America, and Jennifer had taken the first opportunity to transfer
nearer to her. Jennifer's mother always used to say to Jennifer, "You're just
like my cousin Cecilia -- you got all her genes."
Jennifer couldn't see it herself. Aunt Cecilia was in her late 80s now,
her face wreathed in a network of wrinkles, like a permanent reminder of her
habit of smiling at everything. Her pure white hair was thinning, and the eyes
that looked so dark in all the earlier photos had paled. She gave an impression
of delicacy and fragility that belied the iron in her character. In the last
year, Aunt Cecilia had begun looking somehow transparent to Jennifer, the
solidity of her life slipping away, as if into a mist. And yet Cecilia was so
sharp, so perceptive, that Jennifer often thought she could see whatever was
troubling Jennifer, just as she always had, no matter how much Jennifer tried to
Jennifer thought she was nothing like Cecilia, with the possible
exception of the iron. She was tall and could be imposing when dominance was
required. Unlike many other women in business, she did not need the trappings of
success from Cartier, Prada, or Ferragamo in order to be seen as fit for the
executive role, but she did use them, with some pleasure, to make an even more
emphatic statement. Her complexion was creamy and unlined, her dark blue eyes
surrounded by naturally thick black lashes that she hadn't enhanced with mascara
since her senior prom. She kept her dark hair cut into a short, shining cap that
demanded none of her time to care for, and she dressed elegantly to minimize a
generous figure. She would never be accused of getting ahead by using feminine
wiles; she had none to speak of. She was direct and could be salty, and she had
long since rejected the frills and softness of overt femininity.
As a result of her decision to emphasize her career, rather than her
personal life, she was, at 29, the most senior woman in Glidden's European
operation -- just not senior enough to avoid the Cobra.
When she called to tell Aunt Cecilia to expect her by dinnertime on
Christmas Eve, even though she could only stay a day, the older woman asked,
"Why do you always drag yourself and Dragon up here to my little cottage? You
should be going to Paris or Amsterdam to have some fun."
"You know I want to spend time with you," Jennifer said, adding, "And
for me, it is fun."
"I am certain that you do it because you think I'm about to die," Aunt
Cecilia said in a voice that sounded only partly jesting. "I assure you I am
about to do no such thing."
Jennifer decided to ignore that. "You're my only family now," she said.
"No arguments. I'll leave London after breakfast and see you around dinnertime.
I'm bringing a big basket from Fortnum's, so you won't have to lift a finger."
"I look forward to every opportunity of lifting my fingers," said
Cecilia matter-of-factly. "Very well, I shall allow you to spoil me one more
time, if you allow me to persuade you that the Left Bank has at least as much to
offer as my parlor."
"You can try," Jennifer said with a smile. "I'm sure Dragon will be
happy to listen."
Dragon was Jennifer's greyhound. She had bought him as a puppy when
she arrived in London, needing to come home to something alive, something which
would be devoted to her. Dragon had proven to be a good companion, and she
enjoyed her time with him, regarding him as more noble than most of the men she
worked with, certainly more so than the Cobra, who more fully than the dog
merited the sobriquet "son of a bitch."
So when she left London to drive the familiar roads northwest toward
Wales, in addition to a boot full of presents and a backseat stuffed with her
suitcase, her laptop, and her purse, her car also contained her dog, looking out
the windscreen. He stayed awake while they were still in the city, because he
could see other dogs on the streets and wanted to let them know the Mercedes and
its driver were under his special protection. Once they were past Heathrow and
on their way to more open country, he lay down on the seat and went to sleep.
Jennifer envied him, because she was tired from the weeks of battle
against the Cobra, but traffic was light, and the relief of not being at the
office was only slightly lessened by the apprehension that her cellphone might
ring at any moment. She couldn't help thinking about Glidden, and for several
hours as she drove through the countryside, then negotiated the Birmingham
roundabout, she debated strategies for solving a particularly thorny problem
concerning a Hong Kong investment. The EU might offer more potential, but the
Cobra didn't want her dealing with anyone that close to London, which he
considered the province of several of his cronies.
As she turned the Mercedes onto the A58, Dragon awoke suddenly and
gave one sharp bark, peered around as if to reassure himself that no threat to
his vigilance had occurred while he dozed, then lowered his head again.
Jennifer stroked his shoulder. "Don't worry, D-dog," she said.
"You're such a good boy that right after the holidays I'll take you to Barking."
It was one of her ongoing jokes with Dragon that the English town of Barking
just had to be dog-nirvana. She indulged herself with the fancy that Dragon
enjoyed the joke as much as she did. Sometimes she even played his role in the
conversation as well, but at the moment she was too fatigued for that part of
Beyond Shrewsbury, when she'd been driving for about four hours, she
realized she was very tired, but she had driven this route many times before,
and she was confident she could reach Anglesey without incident.
Less than an hour later, she brought the car to an abrupt stop.
Dragon awoke and sat upright, yawning. They had reached an unexpected dead-end,
which meant that she had taken a wrong turn that she simply could not remember.
She shook her head to clear it. "How did I do that?" she asked Dragon. "And
what's that hedge doing there?"
It wasn't an idle question. This was Wales, where the land was not
nearly as gentle or congenial as that of England. Wales was dramatic, while
England was welcoming. Jennifer thought that the Welsh hadn't the love that the
English did for flowers and topiary, that their land was harsh enough so that
they thought little of decorating it. It was dramatic, especially in winter. Its
long sweeps of land were interrupted occasionally by woods, but the trees were
usually dwarfed by the hills themselves, and by rights she should now be in
Snowdonia, because the mountain that was the center of the national park had
already been looming on the horizon before the hedge intervened in the view as
well as the route.
The hedge was completely out of place. For one thing, it was
immense, easily four meters tall, and in the midst of winter, the hedge was
heavy with bright green foliage, the sort of color she associated with late
spring or early summer. It stretched as far as Jennifer could see in either
direction, which was also very unusual, because she would not have expected the
land to be flat when it had been rolling only moments before.
She shrugged, resolving to contact the Auto Club about it after the
holidays. It did not seem right, somehow, to call and ask about a strange hedge
on Christmas Eve. She shifted into reverse. But then Dragon touched her hand
with his nose. That was the unmistakable signal for a necessary stop. In this
case, it clearly meant, "I've been in this car for more hours than I'd like, and
I've been good, but nature calls."
She took the hint and turned off the engine, thinking that the cold
air would help to wake her enough so that she could find her way back to the
main road -- though she was uncertain how she'd gotten off it in the first
place. Dragon got to his feet, stretched, and shook a little as she fished in
the glove box for his leash.
Dragon was a typical greyhound. Given the chance, despite his
obedience training, he would be off down the road at top speed and across the
border back to England before he realized that he'd left her far behind. So he
was used to being put on the leash when he was not in the area outside the mews
flat in Kensington that she'd bought the year before. She clipped the leash onto
his collar, opened the door into the crisp winter air, and stepped out onto the
gravelly shoulder in front of the hedge. There had been some snow several days
earlier, but it must have been sparse, because very little lay on the ground,
and the roads were clear.
Dragon waited calmly on the passenger seat until she called him, and
then he leaped from the car, nose to the ground. Jennifer reached out to finger
the foliage of the hedge, which looked even larger and more imposing now that
she was standing directly beside it. And it seemed even more out of place, as
well. In the chill sunlight that lay upon the land, bright though it was in the
afternoon, the hedge was somehow giving the impression of springtime. Jennifer
listened for any sound other than the soft murmur of the wind through the leaves
-- other traffic perhaps, even birdsong -- but she heard nothing except for
Dragon's snuffling. He seemed fascinated by the new smells.
Jennifer had never been the kind of person who got premonitions. If
she had been, she would have stopped her parents and brother from getting into
the car the day they died, or she would have been certain to be with them. As
usual, when that subject intruded, she put it out of her mind. If she had gotten
premonitions, she would have chosen to transfer to Barcelona with her old boss
and stayed out of the Cobra's clutches. She had felt nothing amiss at either of
She felt something amiss now, in the extreme quiet of this bright
day in what should have been open, rolling country. It was not a sense of danger
so much as a slight disorientation, as if her balance was somehow compromised.
Jennifer clicked her tongue in self-disapproval and was about to ask Dragon if
he had finished his business when his head came up, ears raised, on alert,
staring at the hedge behind her.
"What?" Jennifer asked, turning to look for whatever he had seen.
For a moment, she could identify nothing in the solid-seeming green wall that
towered above her and continued endlessly into the distance on either side.
Dragon growled, an unusual rumble deep in his throat.
Jennifer frowned, wondering what he'd scented, but then, remembering
that he was a sight hound, she looked harder at the area on which he was
concentrating. Two yellow spots separated themselves from the leaves around them
and blinked, resolving themselves into eyes about a meter off the ground. A
moment later, the eyes presented themselves as belonging to the face of a large
gray cat, whiskers brushing forward as the animal's head emerged from the thick
The cat was big, perhaps twenty pounds or more. It dropped lightly
to the gravel shoulder of the road and darted off toward the rear of the car.
Dragon gave one sharp bark and sprang in pursuit. Jennifer grabbed
harder on her end of the leash, calling, "No!" and preparing to dig in her feet
to hold the dog back.
The leash snapped.
Jennifer stumbled back against the car, astonished. It was not a new
leash, but it had in no way seemed worn, and now she was confronted by the sight
of a rapidly shrinking dog who could run 35 miles an hour. Without thinking, she
tossed her part of the leash aside and started after him, calling his name.
Because the land was flat and treeless, except for the sudden
upthrust of the hedge, she could see the cat darting ahead of the pale
hindquarters of her pursuing greyhound. She saw the cat turn sharply to the left
and vanish into the wall of foliage beside it. Then Dragon did the same. She
expected to hear crashing sounds, but there was still only the unusual silence
she'd noticed before.
She kept running and shouting for Dragon until she reached the spot
where cat and dog had disappeared. Here, the hedge was not the solid wall it had
appeared to be. A noticeable path opened, leading into the green.
She might have hesitated, but Jennifer could think only of not
letting Dragon get away. He was her companion, the living creature who shared
her home and to whom she confided her triumphs and tragedies at Glidden. She
could not leave him to fend for himself in this desolate section of Wales any
more than she would have let him run loose on the streets of London. Determined
to retrieve him, she plunged into the green tunnel that led, twisting, into the
[ Back to Top ]
[ Information on Beyond the Hedge ]
copyright ©2007 Roby James, All Rights Reserved