Table of Contents
Also by Nancy Atherton
Aunt Dimity’s Death
Aunt Dimity and the Duke
Aunt Dimity’s Good Deed
Aunt Dimity Digs In
Aunt Dimity’s Christmas
Aunt Dimity Beats the Devil
Aunt Dimity: Detective
Aunt Dimity Takes a Holiday
Aunt Dimity: Snowbound
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First published in 2005 by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
Copyright © Nancy T. Atherton, 2005
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PUBLISHER’S NOTE: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
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my little loves
I stopped reading newspapers years ago and I never watch the television news. It may seem irresponsible in the larger scheme of things, but that’s something else I’ve given up: the larger scheme of things.
I simply couldn’t take it anymore. Endless stories about heartrending catastrophes occurring all around the globe didn’t strengthen my resolve to make the world a better place. The relentless barrage of tragedy just wore me down, because it filled me with despair—the numbing hopelessness that silences the protests of the heart. Large-scale grief made me feel small and weak and useless, incapable of ever helping anyone.
It was a stupid way to feel. I wasn’t small or weak, and I’d be useless only if I chose to be. I was in my midthirties, with a husband who loved me, wonderful twin sons, resoundingly good health, and no financial worries whatsoever. I’d inherited a fortune from my late mother’s closest friend, and my husband Bill had been born into a well-heeled Boston Brahmin clan, so I was able to give spanking sums to charity, and I did. I supported literacy programs, shelters for battered families, and famine-relief projects, not to mention a wildlife refuge for orangutans and the Aunt Dimity’s Attic chain of charity shops.
But funneling funds down a long-distance pipeline seemed too easy, too detached. I wanted to do more. I wanted to spend my time and energy on what mattered most to me, and what mattered most to me was people.
Instead of gnashing my teeth over the cruel impossibility of curing the world’s ills, I set my sights on curing ills closer to home. Home was a honey-colored cottage near the small village of Finch, in the west midlands of England. Although my husband, sons, and I were American, we’d lived in England long enough to feel we belonged. Will and Rob, who’d just turned five, had never lived anywhere but the cottage, and Bill ran the European branch of his family’s venerable law firm from an office overlooking the village square. As for me, I lent a hand in Finch whenever a hand was needed.
The good people of Finch didn’t quite know what to make of a foreigner who jumped so eagerly at any chance to work for their community, but they recognized fresh blood when they saw it and—in true Tom Sawyer fashion—graciously permitted me to paint their fences. I helped organize benefit auctions for the local parish church, collected pieces of cast-off furniture for Guy Fawkes Day bonfires, painted booths for Harvest Festivals, and built scenery for each year’s Nativity play. I was occasionally offered leadership positions in villagewide events, but after witnessing the titanic turf wars waged among the Ladies Bountiful who directed the most prestigious projects, I decided to play it safe by staying humble.
Although my horticultural skills were severely limited, my name was on the flower-arranging rota at St. George’s Church, and I polished the pews there every other Saturday. I dedicated one morning a month to scrubbing bird droppings from the war memorial on the green, one afternoon to tidying the churchyard. It goes without saying that I patronized local shops and businesses.
If a villager was sick, I stopped by to do the dishes and drop off a casserole. I made a habit of looking in on my elderly neighbors, to make sure they had enough to eat, share a pot of tea, and enjoy an unhurried chat.
My sons came with me on my self-appointed rounds and displayed an amazing capacity to adapt themselves to different situations. If an old, arthritic farmer liked to see a bit of life around the place, Will and Rob happily bounced off the walls. If a neighbor preferred peace and quiet, the boys settled down with a box of crayons to record their new surroundings for posterity. As a result, all cookie jars were open to them, and their arrival on any scene provoked grins instead of grimaces.
Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t always Suzy Sunshine, pirouetting through the village with a basket of good cheer. I had grouchy days and lazy days and days when I did nothing but shop for shoes. But in between those days, I did my best to do my best, and even when I failed—which I did with dismal regularity, owing to a sharp tongue, a stubborn streak, and a somewhat hasty temper—I still slept better at night, knowing that at least I’d tried.
I had, through a curious set of circumstances, become the principal patron of St. Benedict’s, a homeless shelter in Oxford, which I’d visited twice weekly for the past few years. As the shelter’s principal patron, I was allowed to scrub pots, make beds, and write large checks. I hoped one day to work my way up to cleaning the bathrooms.
Will and Rob accompanied me on these trips, too, and acquired a devoted following among the down-and-outs who called St. Benedict’s home. Although I was still squeamish about some of their more colorful admirers, I’d learned over the years not to blanch visibly when my bright-eyed baby boys paused on the street to greet a favorite panhandler by name and ask in clear, piping voices, “Good takings today, Mr. Big Al, or have the punters been stingy?”
There were times, of course, when an outbreak of good health in the village and a lull in community affairs meant that I had little to do except carry on with my twice-weekly tours of duty at St. Benedict’s. It was during one of those fallow periods that I fell into a project that would take me on a wholly unanticipated voyage of discovery.
Lucinda Willoughby inspired the project. I’d met the red-haired, round-faced student nurse while visiting a sick friend at Oxford’s world-renowned hospital, the Radcliffe Infirmary. Now fully certified, Lucinda felt more than fully qualified to express her opinions to the world at large whenever we met for a bite of lunch in the hospital cafeteria.
“It’s disgraceful,” she declared, on one such occasion. “Old Mr. Pringle’s been here for
of his children have come to see him. I do what I can to buck him up, but I’m run off my feet as it is. It’s hard enough to be sick and old and a widower, but to be
like that by your own
. . .” She clucked her tongue in disgust.
Her impassioned comments struck a chord in me. Remembering a friend who’d lain in intensive care for nearly three weeks without so much as a word from his family, I decided on the spot to do something for those who found themselves similarly abandoned.
After clearing my scheme with the hospital authorities, I became the Radcliffe’s first freelance visitor. Nurse Willoughby kept an eye out for those patients who, for one reason or another, were neglected by their nearest and dearest, and she let me know when my services were required. I’m happy to say that they weren’t required often, but when they were, I was there to provide them.
To spare the patients’ feelings—no one likes to be reminded that they’re being neglected—I didn’t barge in on them sporting an Angel of Mercy armband on my sleeve. I disguised my mission by borrowing a trolley of books from a bookseller friend and wheeling it into the appointed room as visiting hours commenced. More often than not, the yammering television would go off and conversation would begin—about books, at first, and then about everything under the sun.
One man recounted his wartime experiences with ration books and backyard air-raid shelters, oft-told tales that probably bored his grown children to tears, but that held me spellbound. A retired stonemason taught me all I know about cricket. A school-teacher, weakened by chemotherapy and pneumonia, asked me simply to read aloud to her, which I did every day for seven days, until she was strong enough to go into a nursing home, where her daughter and son-in-law finally deigned to show their faces.