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 (4 page)

BOOK: (5/13) Return to Thrush Green
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'Thank you, dear. They are simply lovely. I shall put some on Charles's desk. The study does tend to be a little dark. Have some coffee?'

'Yes, please. I tried some jasmine tea yesterday that I'd dried myself, but can't say it's really palatable. Probably be better as potpourri. Pity to waste it.'

'You've heard about Mr Bassett, I suppose?' said Dimity, setting out cups upon a tray.

'No? Dead, is he?'

'No, no, Ella! I know he's been far from well, but he's nowhere near dead yet.'

'Sorry, sorry. What's the news then?'

'He's coming down for a rest after a rather nasty illness. Mrs Bassett too, of course.'

'Good. A nice pair. Might get a game of bridge. I miss dear old Donald Bailey for that.'

'I miss him for a lot of things,' replied Dimity. 'And so does Charles.'

At that moment, her husband entered, advanced upon Ella as though about to kiss her, remembered she did not like to be kissed, hastily stood up again, and contented himself with energetic hand-rubbing.

'Yes, they're due next week, I gather,' said Charles. 'But I'm afraid they'll miss the fair. A pity really. I always enjoy the Curdles' fair.'

'Not the same without the old lady,' said Ella, taking out a battered tin and beginning to roll one of the noisome cigarettes for which she was renowned. 'I like young Ben, but I shouldn't be a bit surprised if he didn't give up the job one day.'

'But he can't!' cried Dimity. 'Why, it's a sacred trust!'

my dear,' corrected the rector mildly. 'He may have a
to the business and to the memory of his grandmother, but that's not quite the same thing.'

'Well, I can't imagine May the first at Thrush Green without the Curdles' fair blaring and gyrating for hours,' said Ella, putting a match to the ragged end of the very thin cigarette which drooped from her lips. 'But, come to think of it, why on earth should Ben Curdle want to give up a perfectly good living?'

'I very much doubt,' said Charles, pushing an ashtray towards his friend, 'if the fair really does bring in much these days. People demand rather more sophisticated pleasures than our forbears did. And of course there's television to contend with.'

At this moment, the milk rose with a joyous rush to the brim of the saucepan and was about to drench the stove, when
with remarkable speed for one so bulky, leapt towards it, removed it from the heat, and blew heavily across its surface. The milk sank back obediently, and Dimity expressed her gratitude.

She did so with some inner misgivings. She could not feel that Ella's smoke-laden breath could be truly hygienic in contact with milk, but common civility forbade her from pouring it down the sink and starting again. Putting aside her qualms, she poured coffee for the three of them at the kitchen table.

'That smells good!' said Ella, sniffing greedily. 'I'm rationing myself with coffee since it's become so expensive. I did try ground acorns which Dotty said were almost as good, but I found them revolting.'

'Does Dotty really use ground acorns?' asked Charles. 'She hasn't offered me acorn coffee yet. At least, I don't think she has. I must admit that Dotty's coffee always tastes a little—well—er, peculiar.'

'Dear old Dotty is the prize eccentric of all time,' said Ella, 'and I love her dearly, but I try not to eat or drink anything of her making ever since I was laid up for three days with Dotty's Collywobbles after drinking her confounded elderberry wine. D'you remember, Dim?'

'Indeed I do. It stained the kitchen sink a deep purple, I remember. One of Dotty's more potent brews.'

'To come upon Dotty at her cooking,' went on Ella, 'is rather like looking in on the three witches in Macbeth. You know, 'tongue of bat and leg of frog', or whatever it is. I certainly saw her fish a fat spider out of the milk jug before making a rice pudding. It's a wonder she doesn't suffer from her own creations.'

'Hardened to it, no doubt,' said Dimity.

'You are not being very charitable,' reproved the rector. 'Whatever her funny little ways, she has a heart of gold. I hear she has taken on a poor dog which some callous brute abandoned at the side of the main road.'

'Good for Dotty!' cried Ella, 'but how will she manage? That place of hers is crammed with animals already. It must cost her a fortune in food for them. It beats me how she copes. I find it hard enough. In fact, I'm thinking of getting a lodger to help out.'

Her friends looked at her in amazement.

'Are you serious?'

'Well, nothing's definite yet, but there's your old room empty, Dimity, and it seems a shocking waste when the Third World is being rammed down your throat whenever you switch on the television. Besides, a few pounds a week would certainly help with the food bills. I haven't quite got to Dotty's stage of searching the hedgerows for my lunch.

'Don't do anything too hastily,' warned Dimity. 'I mean, you might get a dreadful man who turned out to be violent or dishonest—'

'Or a drunkard,' put in the rector, retrieving the ashtray, which had not been touched, and putting it resignedly on the windowsill again. Ella's saucer was holding the stub of the pungent cigarette, and ash sprinkled the table.

'Or simply someone with
on you,' went on Dimity earnestly. 'There really are some terribly wicked men about. He might even make suggestions.'

'That'll be the day,' said Ella robustly. She stood up and dusted the rest of the ash to the floor.

'Don't worry. It may never come to pass, and in any case I don't want to be cluttered up with a man as a lodger. He'd want too much done—socks mended, shirts ironed, and all that razmatazz. No, a nice quiet woman is what I had in mind. Do for herself, and be no bother.'

'Well, just don't
into anything,' pleaded Dimity. 'It's better to be poor and happily solitary, than rich with unpleasant company.'

Ella patted her friend's thin shoulder.

'I promise not to be rash. And now I must get back to the garden. You can't see my lettuce seedlings for groundsel.'

She vanished down the dark passage to the front door, and crossed the road to her own snug abode opposite.

Dotty Harmer lived about half a mile, from Thrush Green, in a cottage which stood beside the track leading to Lulling Woods.

For years Dotty had kept house for her martinet of a father, a local schoolmaster, feared by generations of Thrush Green and Lulling boys for his iron discipline. On his death, Dotty had sold the house in Lulling and bought this secluded cottage where she lived very happily, quite alone, but for a varied menagerie ranging from goats to kittens.

Whilst Ella, Dimity and Charles were imbibing coffee Dotty was sitting on a fraying string stool in her hall, telephoning the local police station. At her feet lay a golden cocker spaniel, its eyes fixed trustingly upon her.

'Yes, yes,' Dotty was saying testily, 'I am quite aware that I gave you full particulars when I telephoned two days ago. The purpose of this call is to find out if there have been any more enquiries.'

There was the sound of rustling paper.

'Well, ma'am, there doesn't seem to be any message about a lost dog. A golden cocker, you said?'

He remembered that Dotty was unmarried, elderly and perhaps rather prim. He broached his next question with some delicacy.

'Would it be a lady or a gentleman?'

'It's a
officer,' said Dotty, who spoke plain English. 'A bitch of about six months old, I should say. Rather thin, and with sore feet—obviously had travelled some way along the main road to Caxley. No collar, of course, but a very nice little dog.'

'Would you want us to take it—her, I mean—to the kennels for you, ma'am?'

'No, indeed. Excellent though I'm sure they are. No, the little thing has settled in very well since Friday, and I am quite prepared to adopt her if she is not claimed.'

'Thank you, ma'am. In that case, I'll make a note to that effect.'

'But, of course, you will telephone immediately if the owner comes forward? I should not wish to deprive anyone of their own animal, although I have the strongest suspicion that this one was purposely abandoned, in the most callous fashion. You are perhaps studying that side of this affair?'

'We're doing everything possible,' said the constable earnestly, eyeing a mug of tea which had been placed at his elbow by a fellow policeman. 'We'll let you know if anything comes of our enquiries.'

'Very well, officer, I shall let you return to your duties. I know how hard-pressed the force is.'

"Thank you, ma'am,' said the constable, replacing the receiver, with a sigh, and picking up the mug.

'Chuck over the paper, Ted,' he called to his colleague. 'Haven't had a minute to look at the headlines yet. All go, innit?'

Dotty replaced her receiver, and surveyed her new charge with affection.

'Good little Floss,' she said kindly. 'Good little dog.'

She was rewarded with a frantic lashing of Floss's fine plumy tail.

'It might be a good idea,' continued Dotty, rising from the disreputable stool, 'to give you a little walk today. On the grass, of course, with those tender feet. Perhaps a gentle stroll up to the green? We could take Ella's goat's milk to her, and save her a trip.'

She made her way into the kitchen, closely followed by the dog. A vast iron saucepan bubbled on the stove, cooking the hens' suppper. Floss looked at it hopefully, and barked.

'I think not, dear,' said Dotty, 'but I have a bone for you in the larder. Take it under the plum tree while I get ready.'

The bone was located under an old-fashioned gauze cover in the pantry. On the slate shelf beside it were a number of receptacles holding food suitable for Dotty's varied family—corn, bran mash, chopped lettuce leaves, crusts of bread, tinned cat food and the like. The provisions for Dotty seemed nonexistent.

Dotty watched Floss gnawing the bone in the shady garden. A fine little animal! Very intelligent too, and very nice to have another Flossie after so many years.

She had been eight years old when she had been given the first Flossie as a birthday present. That little bitch had been another cocker spaniel, but black with mournful eyes, and a sweet and saintly expression which quite belied its destructive nature. Rugs, slippers, upholstery, and Dotty's beloved dolls all fell prey to those sharp teeth, but still the whole family forgave her, including Dotty's stern father.

She was named after a great aunt of Dotty's. Aunt Floss had been christened Florence, after the famous Florence Nightingale, but she lacked her namesake's vigour, and retired to her red plush sofa when she was a little over forty.

Dotty could remember being taken to see her on the family's visits to London. Aunt Flossie's house was in the Bayswater Road, a dark gloomy establishment, and the drawing-room where she lay in majesty seemed to be the most depressing room of all.

The heavy chenille curtains were always half drawn. They were edged with woollen bobbles, looking like the seed pods which dangled from the plane trees on the other side of the window.

Aunt Floss's legs were always covered by a tartan rug. Not that Aunt Floss ever used the word
she would say plaintively, 'are very susceptible to draughts.'

A bamboo table stood beside the sofa, laden with medicine bottles and pill boxes, a carafe of water and the latest novel from the lending library. The room reeked of camphor, and to the young Dotty, used to the Cotswold air of Lulling, the stuffiness of this apartment was unendurable.

Aunt Flossie had a long sad face, and wore her hair parted in the middle, and gathered into bunches of ringlets, rather in the style of Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She certainly had a spaniel-like appearance, and when Dotty's father, in a rare mood of frivolity, suggested 'Flossie' for the name of her birthday puppy, the family agreed with much hilarity. Aunt Flossie, of course, never met her namesake, and would have thought the whole thing most indecorous had she ever heard about it.

Armed with an old-fashioned metal milk can with a secure lid, and with Floss-the-second on a long lead, Dotty emerged into the sunshine, and into the meadow at the end of her garden.

The footpath lay across rich grass, used for grazing cattle most of the year. At the moment, the fields were empty, starred with daisies and a few early buttercups. Soon there would be sheets of golden flowers, thought Dotty happily, all ready to

Gild gloriously the bare feet
That run to bathe...

Rupert Brooke, thought Dotty, might be out of fashion at the moment, but he had supplied her with many felicitous phrases which had given her joy throughout her life. She remained grateful to him.

Floss padded ahead at the end of the lead, keeping to the grass, and pausing now and then to sniff at some particularly fascinating scent. In ten minutes they had reached Thrush Green, and Dotty sat down upon a bench, in order to change the milk can from one hand to the other, and to admire the glory of spring flowers in the gardens.

The hanging baskets outside the Two Pheasants won her approval, and the bright mats of purple aubretia and golden alyssum hanging from the low stone walls. Through the gate of the Youngs' house she could see a mass of daffodils and narcissi under the trees, and a particularly beautiful copper-coloured japonica was in full bloom against Harold Shoosmith's house. Even Albert Piggott's cottage had a few bedraggled wallflowers close to his doorstep.

BOOK: (5/13) Return to Thrush Green
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