Read (5/13) Return to Thrush Green Online

Authors: Miss Read

Tags: #Fiction, #England, #Country life, #Pastoral Fiction, #Country Life - England - Fiction

(5/13) Return to Thrush Green (11 page)

BOOK: (5/13) Return to Thrush Green
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9. Visitors to Thrush Green

THERE now began for Robert Bassett a period of intense joy.

It was as if all his senses had been sharpened by the shock of his recent illness. He saw, with fresh awareness, the small beauties around him, and marvelled that he had not enjoyed them before.

The lilac was beginning to break in the garden, each fragrant plume composed of hundreds of exquisite flowerets. Grape hyacinths spread a carpet of vivid blue beneath the burgundy-red stems of the dogwood bushes.

He came across a thrush's nest, cleverly hidden in the crutch of the hawthorn hedge, and admired the smooth mud lining, as beautifully rounded as the speckled breast of the bird that sat so patiently upon the four turquoise blue eggs.

Everything delighted him. He ventured from the garden to Thrush Green, observing the pattern of blue smoke from cottage chimneys which matched the distant blur of Lulling Woods. He sat on the seat near the statue of Nathaniel Patten and gloried in the warmth of the sun upon his face, the droplets spangling a spider's web, the timid advances of Albert Piggott's cat whose curiosity had overcome her fear, and the rough comfort of the blackthorn walking stick in his hand.

How right W. H. Davies had been, thought Robert, when he wrote:

What is this life
If full of care
We have no time
To stand and stare?

This was the first time, in a long life, that he had savoured to the full the pleasures of his senses. He remembered the extraordinary sensations he had felt, when bedbound, on his sudden awareness of the inanimate objects in the bedroom. That had been the beginning of his new response to his surroundings, although weakness then had blurred some of the pleasure.

Now, with ever-growing strength, he gave thanks for the miracles around him, and his ability to recognise them.

Sickness, reflected Robert, changed a man. He thought of the invalids he had known. How often he had dismissed their querulousness and complaints as the outcome of self-pity! He knew better now.

It was not only with themselves and their pain that the sick were concerned. They worried for others. They grieved for the work they were causing, for the disruption of other people's lives, the sapping of their energy, the tensions within a family, and the awful possibility of increasing helplessness.

He had been lucky, he thought soberly. Lucky to have had his darling Milly as constant support, a doctor he trusted, and a loving family. Lucky too, to have realised this further truth, that the sick are sad, not only for themselves, but for those they love. He would never forget it.

And luckiest of all, thought Robert, gazing around him, to be at peace in Thrush Green on a bright May morning.

Albert Piggott had thrived under Molly's care, and Doctor Lovell assured the girl that her father could cope perfectly well without her presence.

'I'll keep an eye on him,' he promised her. 'I gather from Bob Jones that you've arranged for a midday meal for him at the Two Pheasants. He should do well now that the weather's warmer.'

Molly told him of her fears that he would need more care as the years passed, and of their plans to settle within easy distance of the old man.

'Well, it happens to us all,' agreed the doctor. 'But don't completely upset your lives for Albert. He's by way of being a bit of a fraud, you know.'

He laughed to soften his words, and Molly smiled too.

'Oh, we knows him well enough, Doctor! But it don't alter the fact that he's gettin' an old man. I wish his Nelly hadn't left him. She took good care of him.'

'They weren't exactly turtle-doves,' commented the doctor. 'It was plain that it couldn't last.'

'I know she was a right trollop in her ways,' agreed Molly earnestly, 'but she kept that house spotless, and her cooking was just beautiful. Dad was lucky to get her. After all, you can't expect
everything
in marriage.'

Doctor Lovell tried to hide his amusement as he drove off on his rounds. There was something very refreshing about Molly's attitude to the wedded state. Obviously, good housewifery was rated rather more highly than fidelity in Molly's scale of reckoning. Her own marriage, he knew, was an outstanding success. So, he thought, was his own to Ruth. They were both lucky to have found the right partners. It did not look as if Albert would find another to give him companionship in his old age.

Ah well! What could he expect? He was a thoroughly selfish old man, and he only hoped that Molly would not put her marriage in jeopardy by trying to live with Albert Piggott.

Not that it was likely, thought Doctor Lovell, turning his car into the village of Nidden. Ben would see to that.

The early days of May followed each other with increasing warmth and fragrance. Spring-cleaning was finished in a spurt of energy. Blankets blew upon clothes-lines, carpets were beaten, curtains and bedspreads washed, and good housewives congratulated themselves upon the amount of work which could be accomplished, given bright sunshine and fair winds.

Dimity had kept her word and helped Ella to prepare for Isobel's arrival. The spare-room awaited her, with cupboards and drawers emptied and relined with clean paper, furniture glossy with polish, and a vase of pheasant-eye narcissi on the bedside table.

'D'you think she'll be comfortable?' asked Ella, unusually anxious.

'Of course,' replied Dimity reassuringly.

'I'm not sure just when she'll arrive,' went on Ella, 'so I thought I'd whip up an omelette for this evening. There's plenty of salad. I wonder if that will be enough?'

'Isobel was always a small eater,' said Dimity. 'And no doubt you've plenty of fruit, and cheese.'

'Dotty brought me some goat's cheese this morning,' said Ella, 'but I'm not putting
that
on the cheese board. Don't want the poor girl struck down with Dotty's Collywobbles while she's here.'

'No, indeed,' agreed Dimity. 'Now, I must get back to Charles. He has a diocesan meeting at six, miles away, and I want to make sure that he has a good tea.'

She hurried across the road to the bleak rectory, leaving Ella to survey her preparations with a critical eye.

'Ah well,' she said at last. 'Can't do any more now. Time I had a cigarette before dear old Isobel arrives.'

She settled down on the window seat, and began to roll a pungent cigarette. But before she had a chance to light it, a small pale-blue glossy car stopped at the gate, and Isobel emerged.

Throwing the cigarette into the battered tobacco tin, Ella hurried to open the gate, enfolding Isobel in a great bear-hug on the way.

'Wonderful to see you,' she boomed. 'Had a good trip? My word, this looks a handsome vehicle!'

She surveyed the car with much admiration.

'It's an Alfa Romeo,' said Isobel, 'and it certainly got me here in record time today. Traffic was amazingly light, and I know my way so well, of course, there was no need to stop for map-reading or asking people.'

'All "strangers in these parts" anyway, I find,' said Ella, helping with Isobel's case which was as sleek and elegant as the car. 'I'm going to put on the kettle. It can boil while I show you your room. That is, if you'd like a cup of tea?'

'More than anything in the world,' said Isobel, following her hostess.

The arrival of the beautiful Alfa Romeo had been noted by Harold Shoosmith who was walking across the green to call upon Charles Henstock.

Harold loved cars, and was beginning to think that it was high time that he parted with the ancient Daimler which had served him so well for years. But what to buy in its place?

All through his life he had bought cars made in Britain. In the long years abroad, his succession of British cars had been a precious link with home, and a source of admiration to friends overseas. Now he found himself looking in vain for the sort of small, distinguished and well-finished vehicle which he wanted.

Parking in Lulling High Street was no easy task with the gallant old Daimler. Its petrol consumption grew as the years passed. The time had come, Harold knew, with sadness, when he must part with it. There were several foreign cars on the market which attracted him, but loyalty to British makers made him hesitant to look at overseas models.

But Isobel's pale blue beauty was certainly an eye-catcher. He looked it over, from a distance, as he waited for someone to come to the rectory door.

Charles greeted him and took him into his study.

'Dimity's gone to take some magazines to Dotty Harmer,' he told his friend. 'Do sit down.'

'I won't keep you long,' replied Harold. He was thinking how dark and cold this room always seemed. Today, with the warm May sunshine flooding the world with golden light, it seemed incredible that this bleak study remained untouched by its ambience.

'I came for the sweep's address,' said Harold. 'Betty Bell tells me that we should have had the chimneys done a month ago. She can't remember the new chap's name, and neither can I, of course.'

'Surely, you have Potter from Lulling?'

'He died last year, I'm told.'

The rector looked shocked.

'I'm truly grieved to hear that. He was not one of my parishioners, of course, but I should like to have called on him during his last illness.'

'He didn't really have one, according to Betty,' answered Harold. 'Dropped down on someone's hearth with the flue brush still in his hand, so she says. "A lovely way to go," was her comment, "but made a terrible mess of the carpet." I'm sorry to have brought bad news.'

'Not at all. Not at all,' replied the rector, pulling himself together. 'But about this new man. I'm sure we are as nonplussed as you are, as we always had poor Potter. Have you any clues?'

'Betty tells me that he lives at the other side of Lulling Woods. He clears cesspits and farm drains, does a bit of poaching, has had three wives and rears ferrets.'

'John Boston, without a doubt,' said the rector immediately. 'Rather a rough diamond, but a very useful member of the community, when he's not in prison. I have a soft spot for John, I must admit. I'm sure he'll do your chimneys beautifully.'

He reached for a piece of paper, and wrote down the address.

'It might be best to call on him, Harold. I doubt if he can read very well.'

He handed over the slip of paper.

'Many thanks, Charles. I'll do that. Now, tell me, whose is that dazzling little car outside Ella's?'

'It must belong to Isobel Fletcher,' responded the rector. 'I know she was expected today, but I imagined she would arrive later than this. A charming woman. Have you met her?'

'No, I'm afraid not.'

'Then you must,' said the rector firmly, accompanying his visitor into the sunshine of Thrush Green. 'She's here for a week, I know, and may settle here permanently if she finds a suitable house.'

He looked about him with some surprise.

'Why, it's quite warm out here! I think I shall leave my paperwork and do a little gardening instead.'

'A very sound idea,' agreed his friend.

Albert Piggott, partially restored to health, was doing a little light gardening himself in the churchyard, Harold noticed, as he returned to his own home.

These days, the churchyard was very much easier to maintain than it had been when Harold first came to Thrush Green some years earlier.

It had been his idea to clear the whole area, to put the gravestones round the low wall which surrounded the plot, and to level the ground so that a motor mower could be used.

There had been some opposition to this scheme, but there was considerable pride in the improved tidiness of Albert's domain, and certainly the little church of St Andrew's was more attractive now in its very spacious setting.

Albert Piggott was the last person to admit that his labours had been rendered considerably lighter by the new layout. From the first, he had refused to touch the motor mower, and the Cooke boy, who had been acting as locum during Albert's illness, had taken on the mowing from the start, and proved remarkably reliable.

Albert's job consisted of a certain amount of hoeing and weeding, the upkeep of the gravel path round the church, and the pruning of the shrubs.

On this particular afternoon he was plucking groundsel from the gravel. It was about the easiest job he could find outside in the sunshine. Also he was in full view of the rectory, should the rector wish to see him at work, and very handy for the Two Pheasants.

He had demolished a helping of steak and kidney pie, with mashed potatoes and tinned peas, at that hostelry, some two hours earlier, paid for by Ben and Molly in advance.

'Not a patch on Nelly's cooking,' he had grumbled to the landlord, who affected deafness. If he took note of all Albert's whinings, he told himself, he'd be in the local loony bin in next to no time. Best to ignore the old misery!

Now, with bending, Albert was suffering from indigestion, and feeling more than usually sorry for himself. Visions of Nelly's pies and roast joints floated before his eyes. No doubt about it, you never got a ha'p'orth of heartburn after Nelly's cooking!

He collected a few more handfuls of groundsel, threw them on to the compost heap, hidden in a remote corner of the churchyard, and wandered across the road to his cottage.

He rummaged in a jamjar which served as his medicine chest, discovered an indigestion tablet, and sat sucking it morosely as he surveyed the kitchen.

Nothing had been done to it since Molly left, apart from a little desultory washing of crockery and cutlery. The stove was dingy. The floor was dirty. The windows were misty with grime, and dust lay everywhere. It needed a woman's hand, thought Albert sentimentally. Here he was, an invalid, with no one to look after him, deserted by his wife and daughter, left to fend for himself in his old age. It was enough to bring tears to your eyes, that it was!

His thoughts turned again to Nelly. She wasn't everybody's choice, of course. For one thing, she must have turned the scales at sixteen stone, and she had a laugh that fairly made your head throb. Then she was a stickler for cutting down on the drink—a bad thing for a man who enjoyed the occasional glass. She was a nagger too, when the spirit moved her. No, she had been lucky to have found someone like himself to put up with her ways, decided Albert.

BOOK: (5/13) Return to Thrush Green
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