Authors: Miss Read
Tags: #Fiction, #England, #Country life, #Pastoral Fiction, #Country Life - England - Fiction
Harold, now listening, felt some impatience. Why must gossip fly as soon as a newcomer appeared? It had been just the same when Phil Hurst had arrived.
'Why should she?' he commented shortly.
'Well, some does, you must allow,' replied Betty, glad to have his attention at last. 'And that Mrs Fletcher did do well for herself after all. Pots of money, and a husband as worshipped her—'
'I wish you wouldn't tittle-tattle so, Betty,' snapped Harold. 'No one's safe from gossips' tongues, it seems, at Thrush Green. I can well remember what poor Mrs Hurst had to endure when she first appeared here.'
Betty Bell's mouth dropped open in Surprise, but she soon rallied, flicking the duster with alarming bravado.
'If you lives in a village, as you should know by now, new people gets talked about because they're
Why, when you first come here I heard you'd been growing cocoa from Miss Ella, and coffee from Miss Dotty, and tea from Miss Dimity. And how many wives you'd had was nobody's business.'
'Good Lord!' exclaimed Harold, reeling from the attack.
'And what you'd
with them all kept everyone on tenterhooks, I can tell you,' went on Betty. 'So it's no good you trying to muzzle people in a village. They
guessing about other people. It's better than a story in a book, or on the telly.'
'Yes, I do understand that, Betty, but I still think it is insufferable to pry into other people's affairs. Particularly unprotected people, like Mrs Fletcher who is still grieving for her husband.'
'She won't need to grieve for long,' said Betty shrewdly. 'She'll be snapped up by some man who's got eyes in his head and some sense too.'
She opened the door.
'Liver and bacon suit you? And a couple of tomatoes?'
'Lovely,' said Harold mechanically. It was funny, but his appetite seemed to have gone.
With Betty's departure to the kitchen, Harold set himself to the task of finishing the letters he had been writing before her arrival.
It was almost noon before he walked across Thrush Green to the post-box, his eyes straying towards Ella's house at the head of the hill.
He felt strangely disturbed by Betty's remarks about Isobel's probable remarriage. The damnable thing was that she was probably right in her forecast. She
an attractive woman, there was no doubt about it. The effect that handshake had had upon him was quite extraordinary. And yet she was completely without guile and those flirtatious ways which he so much detested in older women.
No, it would be no surprise to hear one day that she was going to marry. A very good thing, of course.
He dropped his letters in the box thoughtfully.
So why did he mind so much? He had only just met the woman, and yet she filled his mind. Did she remind him of earlier loves?
He thought of Daphne, fair and calm. And Lucy, who was a flirt and had married a fighter pilot who was killed. Then that red-haired minx, whose name he couldn't remember for the life of him, and her friend, who jolly nearly proposed to him when he wasn't on his guard.
At that moment, a car hooted, and there was the beautiful Alfa Romeo emerging from Ella's gate. Isobel saw him and waved.
With his heart pounding ('Like some fool boy of sixteen,' thought Harold crossly), he hurried along the road to greet her.
She held up a sheaf of papers.
'Williams and Frobisher are doing their stuff,' she told him. 'I picked these up this morning, and John Williams is taking me to see two houses south of Lulling.'
'Well done,' said Harold happily. The sun seemed extra warm and bright, the flowers twice as fragrant, and Isobel prettier than ever.
He patted the car.
'When you've time, would you tell me how you find this particular model? I think I shall have to change my car soon, and this looks as though it would suit me very well. How does it hold the road?'
'Very well indeed. I haven't had it long, but I tell you what. Why don't you drive it yourself? I want to look at another place somewhere between Minster Lovell and Burford tomorrow afternoon, and if you are free I should love to be driven, if you like the idea?'
'Like the idea! You adorable woman!' sang Harold's heart, but he heard himself thanking her politely and saying how very much he would like to try the car, and tomorrow afternoon was absolutely free, and he was entirely at her service.
'Then shall we say two o'clock tomorrow?' said Isobel, giving him a smile which affected his heart in the most peculiar but delightful way. Til hoot outside your gate.'
She waved, and drove off down the hill to Lulling, leaving Harold to cross the green on legs which had suddenly weakened.
'Here I am,' he said to himself in wonderment, 'in my sixties, a confirmed bachelor, and dammit, I'm in danger of falling in love!'
It was a disturbing thought. Another, even more disturbing, followed it.
'She'll hoot outside my gate at two o'clock! That'll make Thrush Green talk!'
He suddently felt intensely happy, and went home, whistling.
The children at the village school were just emerging into the playground, after demolishing school dinner consisting of cold lamb and salad, pink blancmange and red jelly. They were, as always, in tearing high spirits and rushed about yelling happily, making such a fearful din that Miss Watson, who was on playground duty, only just heard the telephone ringing.
Agnes of course was in her new classroom across the playground, busy cutting up paper ready for her painting lesson that afternoon. The third teacher, a young probationer, would never dare to answer the telephone while her headmistress was at hand, so Miss Watson herself hurried round the side of the building to the lobby door.
Here stood a gigantic metal door-scraper which coped admirably in winter with the sticky Cotswold clay which the children brought along on their boots. In the summer, of course, it was scarcely needed, and Miss Watson had often thought that it should be taken up and stored somewhere during the fine months. It certainly constituted a hazard, and many a child had sustained a grazed knee by tripping over the thing.
On the other hand, where could it be stored? Like most old-fashioned village schools, Thrush Green's was short of outhouses and storage space in general. Such a large, rigid intractable object was impossible to store. Consequently, it remained
all the year.
In her haste, the telephone bell shrilling its urgency, poor Miss Watson caught her sensibly-shod foot against the edge of the scraper and fell sprawling into the lobby.
A few children hastened to her aid, and Miss Watson began to attempt to regain her feet and her dignity, but realised immediately that something was seriously amiss. It was going to be impossible to stand up. She began to feel faint.
'Get Miss Fogerty,' she told the children, as the playground whirled round and round amidst increasing darkness. The children fled towards the new classroom, and the young teacher appeared.
'Oh dear,' she cried. 'Here, let me help you up.'
She put strong arms about Miss Watson's shoulders and began to heave.
'No, no!' screamed poor Miss Watson. 'Don't move me, please.'
At that moment Agnes Fogerty arrived and took command, marshalling her memories of First Aid, learnt only last winter at Lulling.
'She's quite right,' she said. 'We mustn't move her. But quickly get her coat and a cushion, and then run across to Doctor Lovell.'
The girl fled, and Agnes knelt beside her headmistress.
'Poor Dorothy,' she said, all thoughts of protocol vanishing in her anxiety. 'We're getting help. We'll soon have you more comfortable.'
She took the coat and cushion from her fellow teacher, covered the prone form and tucked the cushion gently under Miss Watson's head. Her face was very pale and her eyes were closed, but she managed to smile her thanks.
Fortunately, Doctor Lovell was still at his surgery, and hurried across. Within minutes he had rung for an ambulance, put the patient into a more comfortable position, and complimented Agnes on her grasp of the situation.
'They'll have to take her to Dickie's,' he said, using the local term for St Richard's Hospital in the county town. 'They've got all the right equipment there, X-rays and so on. It's the hip joint all right. One thing, they've some marvellous chaps there to put it right.'
Miss Fogerty would have liked to have accompanied her old friend to the hospital, but she knew where her duty lay.
'I'll come and see you as soon as possible,' she promised, as the stretcher was put into the ambulance, and Miss Watson nodded wanly.
'Mind the school,' she managed to whisper, as the doors shut.
Agnes watched the ambulance until it vanished down the hill and turned back, shaken in body, but resolute in spirit, to carry out her headmistress's last command.
WHEN Nelly Piggott finally arrived at her own doorstep, she dropped her heavy case and grocery carrier and paused to take breath.
The brass door handle, she noticed, was badly tarnished, the step itself, thick with footmarks. Behind the sparse wallflowers was lodged a collection of crisp bags, ice-lolly sticks and cigarette cartons which had blown there from the public house next door, and which Albert had failed to remove.
Time I was home, thought Nelly to herself, and opened the door.
'What's going on?' growled Albert thickly. 'Who's that, eh? Get on off!'
There was the sound of a chair being shifted, and Albert still muttering, approached. Nelly swiftly heaved her luggage inside and followed it nimbly, shutting the door behind her.
Albert confronted her. His eyes and mouth were round Os of astonishment, but he soon found his voice.
'None of that, my girl! You're not comin' back here, I'm tellin' you. Clear orf! Go on, you baggage, clear orf, I say!'
He began to advance upon her, one threatening fist upraised, but Nelly took hold of his thin shoulders, and guided him swiftly backwards towards the chair. He sat down with a grunt, and was immediately overtaken by a prolonged fit of coughing.
Nelly stood over him, watching until the paroxysm spent itself.
'Yes, well, you see what happens when you lose your temper,' she said calmly. There was a hint of triumph in her voice which enraged Albert. He struggled to rise, but Nelly put him down again with one hand.
'Just you be reasonable, Albert Piggott.'
!' choked Albert. 'You walks out! You comes back! You expects me to welcome you, as though nothink 'as 'appened? You can go back to that so-and-so. Or 'as he chucked you out?'
'Certainly not,' said Nelly, putting the carrier bag on the table, and feeling for the chops. 'I came of my own accord.'
'Oh, did you? Well, you can dam' well go back of your own accord.'
Nelly changed her tactics.
'You may not like it, Albert Piggott, but you'll have to lump it. Here I am, and here I stay, at least for the night, and you can thank your stars as I've brought you some nice chops for your supper. From the look of you, you can do with a square meal.'
Albert lay back. Exhaustion kept him from answering, but the thought of a return to Nelly's cooking, however brief, was a pleasant one.
Nelly began to busy herself about the kitchen, and Albert watched her through half-closed eyes.
'And when did this place last get a scrub up?'
'Molly done it lovely,' whispered Albert, defending his family.
'And not been touched since,' said Nelly tartly, filling the kettle. 'This frying-pan wants a good going over before it's fit for use.'
She whisked about, unpacking the chops, and some tomatoes and onions. For all his fury, Albert could not help feeling some slight pleasure at the sight of her at her old familiar ploys. He roused himself.
'Seein' as you've pushed yourself in, you'd best stay the night, I suppose. But it'll have to be the spare bed. You ain't comin' in with me.'
'Don't flatter yourself,' said Nelly shortly, investigating dripping in a stone jamjar.
She scoured the pan, and then set the food into it. Once the cooking had begun to her satisfaction, she took up the heavy case and began to mount the stairs.
Albert heard her thumping about above. The fragrant smells of frying onion and chops wreathed about the kitchen, and Albert settled back in his chair with a happy sigh.
As Harold Shoosmith had foreseen, a number of interested spectators focused their attention on the Alfa Romeo at his gate on the afternoon in question. He felt more amusement than embarrassment as Isobel emerged elegantly from the driver's seat, and let him take her place.
They drove slowly along the chestnut avenue in front of the Youngs' house and then turned right to descend the hill. The sun was warm and the flowering cherries were beginning to break into a froth of pink in the gardens which faced south.
They headed westward through the outskirts of the town and were soon on the windy heights. On their right lay the valley of the Windrush, its irjeandering course marked by willow trees already showing tender leaves of greenish gold.
'Heavenly afternoon,' commented Isobel. Harold agreed. It was not only the balmy spring weather which made it heavenly for him. Isobel's presence was the main source of his contentment, but he had to admit that the smooth performance of the little car also contributed to his pleasure.
'Can we spare time to drop down to Minster Lovell?' he asked. 'If the Swan still does teas we could call on our way back, if you'd like that?'
'Very much, thank you. But I think we'll be lucky to find anywhere that provides teas these days. Isn't it sad? Tea's such a nice meal.'
'My favourite. After breakfast,' smiled Harold.
They took a turning to the right, and ran down the hill to Minster Lovell. Harold stopped the car outside the beautiful old pub, and got out to speak to a woman who was cleaning the windows.
'No, dear,' she said. 'No call for teas much. And it's getting staff as is difficult. Besides, people don't want tea these days.'