Authors: Miss Read
Tags: #Fiction, #England, #Country life, #Pastoral Fiction, #Country Life - England - Fiction
'Well, you can face that fight while I'm over the fair,' said Ben. 'And good luck to you!'
He watched her militant face as she shepherded George upstairs for his rest. This was not the time, he thought sadly, to introduce the subject of their own troubles.
That would have to wait.
Harold Shoosmith was busy weeding among the wallflowers by his front gate.
He viewed the fair with mixed feelings. A peace-loving man who had retired to Thrush Green because of its tranquillity, he personally loathed the noise which Curdle's Fair generated, and for that reason would rejoice when the great trailers and caravans departed, leaving the green to recover from the scars.
On the other hand, he was amused and impressed by the ardour with which almost all the older inhabitants greeted May the first. The rites of spring had nothing on it, thought Harold, removing a worm which had become entangled in his shoe-lace. He dropped it nearby, and was roundly scolded by a robin who had been looking forward to snapping up this delectable morsel, but did not dare to come too close.
It was natural that the children should be excited, but surprising to find Joan Young and her sister Ruth Lovell so exhilarated at the thought of going on the swingboats and roundabouts as though they were still about ten years old. Even dear old Charles Henstock had rubbed his hands gleefully, and had said how good it was to see the fair again.
He straightened his creaking back and observed Phyllida Hurst coming out of her gate, across the green, letter in hand.
He waved to her and she waved back, and after putting the envelope in the pillar box at the corner of the green, she walked over to talk to him.
She grew prettier than ever, thought Harold. There had been a time when he had fancied himself in love with this attractive young widow, but she had married his good friend Frank and, on the whole, he was relieved to find himself still a bachelor. But now and again he had a twinge of regret. It must be very comforting to come home to find a pretty woman there, to have someone to talk to, to laugh with, and to share one's problems.
'That's exactly what I should be doing,' observed Phil, pointing a toe at the bucket of weeds, 'but I had a horrible story to alter this morning, and it's put me back in the day's programme.'
'How's the writing going?'
'Oh, slowly. I've about four or five magazines who take stuff regularly, but I'm thankful to say I don't have to worry so dreadfully about making money.'
'I'm very glad to hear it,' said Harold. 'You've quite enough to keep you happily occupied, and that's what matters.'
'Are you going to the fair?'
Harold noticed that the girl's eyes were sparkling as brightly as Joan's and Ruth's.
'Well, no! I'm a bit long in the tooth for all that whizzing round.'
'Rubbish!' said Phil. 'It does your liver a world of good! I'm taking Jeremy as soon as he comes out of school, and if Frank gets home in time, I hope I can persuade him to come too later on.'
'You'll manage that,' Harold told her with conviction.
She laughed, and moved away.
'Change your mind,' she called. 'Do come if you can. It's tremendous fun.'
He smiled, but made no reply. He had no intention of getting mixed up with a noisy, shouting throng of people, of being deafened with the brazen notes from those dreadful hurdy-gurdys, and of tripping over coils of cable on the wet grass of Thrush Green.
But how easy it would have been to say 'Yes' to that invitation.
Lucky Frank, thought Harold, turning again to his digging.
Promptly at four o'clock the strident music of Curdle's Fair rent the air. Outside the booths stood the showmen, shouting their wares. The swingboats began their delectable movement up and down, and the galloping horses moved steadily round and round and up and down, their barley-sugar brass supports gleaming like gold.
Most of the patrons were the children from the village school, with a few mothers. Jeremy, in company with some schoolfellows and his mother, Phil, was astride the horses and ostriches within five minutes of the fair's opening. If all his customers were as thrilled as this small boy, thought Ben, then this year's visit to Thrush Green might be well worth while.
His thoughts flew back to his wonderful old grandmother whose grave was behind him in the churchyard. She had always looked upon Thrush Green as her true home, the one place where she felt that she could rest, largely because of the affection she felt for Dr Bailey, who had looked after her, so many years ago, at her confinement with George, her son, father to Ben.
Ben too had this feeling of affinity with Thrush Green, partly because of his grandmother's loyalty to the place, partly because she now rested there for ever, and partly, of course, because he had found his dear Molly here, and heard about it from her almost daily, wherever they happened to be.
Yes, he supposed Thrush Green would be the obvious place to settle if the fair had to go. He sighed at the thought. What would the old lady have said?
Guilt flooded him, but within a minute it had given way to a comforting thought. Mrs Curdle had always been a realist. If one stall did not pay its way, she was quite ruthless in scrapping it.
When she had discovered her nephew Sam stealing the takings, she had not hesitated to banish him from the fair. If now she had been alive and had to face the sad fact that the business was not thriving, she would do as Ben was thinking of doing, cut her losses and start afresh, with courage and a stout heart.
It was a warming thought, and Ben felt better as he watched the spinning roundabout and the gaudy booths. She would have understood, and so would Molly when he broke the news.
'Roll up! Roll up!' he shouted with vigour, hoisting a four-year-old into a swingboat, and setting it into movement with a cheerful shove.
Some hours later, Winnie Bailey surveyed the scene from her bedroom window. By now it was dark. A few stars pricked the clearing sky, but it was difficult to see them against the blaze of light from Curdle's Fair.
'It's even better at night,' Winnie murmured to herself, watching the moving figures silhouetted against the glare of the bright lamps. She had a great affection for the fair. The bond between Mrs Curdle, of hallowed memory, and Donald and herself had endured for decades. Every year the old lady had made a magnificent bouquet of artificial flowers for her Thrush Green friends. If she had kept them all, thought Winnie, she must have had several dozen.
They were glowing gaudy blossoms, made of finely-pared wood, and dyed in bright shades of orange, pink and red. Winnie still had one of these offerings in a vase on the landing, a constant reminder of a faithful friend.
'A fine family,' commented Winnie, closing the window.
Tomorrow she would seek out Ben and Molly, and hear all their news. The girl must enjoy coming home again and seeing Albert.
As it happened, at that very moment, Molly was confronting her incensed father across a zinc bath half full of steaming water.
The kitchen was snug and steamy. The kitchen range was alight, and on its gleaming top stood a large kettle and the biggest saucepan the cottage could boast.
'Never!' shouted Albert, his face suffused with wrath. 'I ain't gettin' in there, and that's flat.'
'You are,' replied Molly. 'You're plain filthy. You smell somethin' chronic, and you can get them rags off of your back for me to wash, or burn maybe, and get soaping. I'll be upstairs, sorting George's things out, so nobody's going to stare at you.'
'Never!' shouted Albert again. 'Never 'eard such cheek!'
Molly looked at him grimly.
'D'you want me to get the
Albert's bravado cracked a little.
'You wouldn't dare! Besides, it's not decent. That young woman? Why, she ain't even married!'
'She's coming tomorrow, if you don't do as I says, and we'll both get you into the tub. So take your choice.'
Slowly the old man fumbled with the greasy scarf about his scrawny neck. He was muttering crossly to himself.
"That's right,' said Molly, reaching for the kettle. 'I'll just top up the water, and you can have a good soak in front of the fire. See here, I'll spread the towel over the back of the chair. Warm it nice, that will, and keep the draught off of you.'
Her ministrations done, she mounted aloft, leaving the staircase door ajar in order to hear that the old man attended properly to his ablutions. Once he was in, she intended to return to scrub his neglected back, modesty or not. Heaven alone knew when Albert's body had last seen soap and water! Not since his last trip to hospital, Molly suspected.
Albert stepped out of the last of his dilapidated underwear. He put one toe reluctantly into the steaming water.
'Women!' muttered Albert, and braced himself for semi-immersion.
7. New Hopes
AS Miss Fogerty was on her way to school on Monday morning, she espied Willie Bond, the postman, pedalling towards her.
She waited at the end of the chestnut avenue. Willie was fat, and never hurried. However, Miss Fogerty was in good time, as usual, and observed while she waited, the fine sticky buds of the chestnut trees which were beginning to put forth little green fans of leaves.
'Morning, miss,' puffed Willie, dismounting. He studied a handful of letters and handed over two, much to Miss Fogerty's delight. She did not expect to get more than one or two in a whole week. Two in one day was quite an excitement.
She thanked Willie, and turned right between the trees, opening her first letter. It was a printed message from Messrs Ames and Barlow who, so their heading said, were Drapers, Milliners and Mande Makers of 82 Lulling High Street, established 1862. They thanked Miss Fogerty for her esteemed order, and begged to inform her that the goods awaited collection at her earliest convenience, and they remained her obedient servants.
Miss Fogerty felt a little glow of pleasure. Her new lightweight mackintosh, ordered at Easter, would be a very welcome addition to her modest wardrobe. She might need to withdraw some money from her Post Office account, but it was a comfort to think that she could face the expense.
The other letter was from her dear friend Isobel, and she resolved to read it at her leisure when she arrived at school. She and Isobel had first met at college, many years ago. Isobel was so pretty and clever, and rather better dressed than the majority of girls. It had always surprised young Agnes Fogerty that they had become such firm friends. It had begun when the two discovered that they both came from the Cotswolds. Isobel's father was a bank manager at Stow-on-the-Wold, while Agnes's father was a shoemaker in Lulling.
Visits had been exchanged in the holidays, and Agnes had attended Isobel's splendid wedding. Marriage had taken her to Sussex where her husband owned several shops dealing in antique furniture.
The two girls kept in touch, although distance and Isobel's young children meant that they saw each other rarely. But whenever Isobel paid a visit to her parents at Stow she called to see Agnes, and the two picked up the threads of their friendship immediately.
When Isobel's husband died, Agnes had persuaded her to stay a few days at Thrush Green. Mrs White, her landlady, had a spare room then, and was glad to put it at the disposal of Agnes's old friend in her trouble.
Since then Agnes had spent several spells at Isobel's comfortable Sussex home. The children were now out in the world, and Isobel seemed glad of company. This letter, Miss Fogerty surmised, studying the envelope, might well contain another kind invitation to stay. In which case, it was a good thing that the new mackintosh 'awaited collection at her earliest convenience'. Isobel was always so beautifully dressed, and although she could never aspire to such elegance, at least she could look
She decided to enjoy reading the letter later and tucked the blue envelope into her handbag, and crossed the playground, nodding and smiling at the early arrivals who rushed to greet her. The asphalt, she noticed with her experienced teacher's eye, was quite dry again.
Thank heaven, the children would be able to play outside! She entered her splendid new classroom in good spirits.
Albert Piggott, on that Monday morning, was certainly not in good spirits. He had woken with a sharp pain in his chest and a severe headache.
He had no doubt about the cause of these symptoms. It was that dratted bath that his fool of a daughter had bullied him into—and he told her so.
'Don't talk soft, Dad,' Molly said tartly at breakfast, but secretly she felt a little guilty. Could he have caught a chill? In any case, it was absolutely necessary for him to be cleaned up, and she did not regret burning his disgusting garments.
'Well, wrap up when you go out,' said Molly. 'And I'll get you some cough mixture when I go down to Lulling.'
The old man continued to grumble throughout the day, and certainly by tea time, was flushed in the face and breathing heavily. Molly, trying to hide her alarm, persuaded him to go to bed early.
'He's not right,' she told Ben. 'I'm going to get the doctor to him if he's no better in the morning. Sometimes I wonder if we oughtn't to settle here. He needs looking after, and there's no one but me, now Nelly's gone. And another thing, we'll have to be thinking of George's schooling soon. It's not fair to send him here, there, and everywhere, for a week or so at a time, as we move around. He won't learn nothing that way.'