Authors: Rebecca Shaw
Muriel had to try once more. ‘Please say you’ll change your mind. Once it’s gone that will be the end of it. It’s all the wildlife, you see, the plants and the birds and such, I’ve even seen wild violets growing in the shelter of that hedge. Could you think about them, please? They’re all so precious.’
Mr Fitch glanced away from her pleading eyes and said, ‘This might work with Ralph but not with me.’ Sarcastically he added, ‘After all
is a gendeman. You can’t expect the same response from me.’
Mr Fitch’s answer stung Muriel and left her with nothing more to say.
‘I rather imagine from the look on your face he has pointed that out to you, so I’m amazed you should think I would be subject yet again to your particular brand of genteel persuasion.’ He moved towards the door. ‘You can tell everyone you meet that I am adamant that hedge is coming down. The fence will be in good taste, I assure you. Even I can manage that.’
The cold smile on his face made Muriel shudder.
Educated at a co-educational Quaker boarding school, Rebecca Shaw went on to qualify as a teacher of deaf children. After her marriage, she spent the ensuing years enjoying bringing up her family. The departure of the last of her four children to university has given her the time and opportunity to write.
Love in the Country
is the latest in the highly popular Barleybridge series. Visit her website at
Verger at St Thomas à Becket
His wife and housekeeper at the Rectory
Sir Ronald Bissett
Retired Trade Union leader
Lady Sheila Bissett
James (Jimbo) Charter-Plackett
Owner of the Village Store
Fergus, Finlay, Flick and Fran
Barman at the Royal Oak
Runs the post office at the Village Store
Licensee at the Royal Oak
H. Craddock Fitch
Owner of Turnham House
A village gossip
Her son and estate carpenter
Barry Jones’ brother
Barry Jones’ brother
Dean and Michelle
Barry and Pat’s children
Revd Peter Harris MA (Oxon)
Rector of the parish
Dr Caroline Harris
Alex and Beth
Manager at Turnham House
Accountant and church treasurer
Guy and Hugh
Village school head teacher
Sir Ralph Templeton
Retired from the diplomatic service
Lady Muriel Templeton
School caretaker and assistant in the Village Store
Cleaner at the nursing home in Penny Fawcett
Muriel glanced at the dining-room clock as she put the last of the salad on the table. Only half past three and all was ready. Would she never learn? All her life she’d been ready too early for everything and here she was still at it. But it did give her half an hour to sit quietly and contemplate life, Ralph’s birthday and all these people coming to help him celebrate. How lucky they’d been to have so many happy years together. Just think, if she hadn’t taken hold of life by the scruff, how much happiness and excitement she would have missed. Muriel had to confess she was an entirely different person from the one he’d married. She laughed at the memory of how precise and uptight she had been, so meticulous in all aspects of life, and tragically so afraid of it too.
She cocked an ear for Ralph and heard his light step coming down the stairs. So he was ready early as well. Dear Ralph! The sight of him could still make her heart miss a beat. The door opened and there he stood. The birthday boy. He’d decided against his sports coat then and gone for
the pale blue shirt and trousers with the dark blue spotted tie she’d given him at Christmas. The shirt emphasised the sparkling whiteness of his hair and flattered his lightly tanned faced.
‘My dear! You look delightful!’ He came across to kiss her cheek.
‘Handsome as ever, Ralph! How do you do it?’
Ralph studied her face. ‘Only in your eyes, my dear. I fear others see me as a crusty, short-tempered, elderly man with a somewhat old-fashioned penchant for “doing the right thing” …’
Muriel protested, ‘Never! Never! You’re courteous and kind and understanding and a pillar of the community. And much loved, not just by me.’
Ralph bowed with a mocking grin on his face. ‘You’re too kind.’
‘What do you think to the table? Have I forgotten anything at all?’
Ralph inspected the magnificent spread, and decided she’d forgotten nothing. ‘This is wonderful. Quite wonderful. I must say, Muriel, you’ve really excelled yourself today. A wonderful feast. How shall we sit everyone?’
‘If you look out of the window you’ll see that while you were out this morning everyone brought their garden chairs and tables.’
Ralph went to the french windows to look out. He had to smile. He guessed the imposing teak set would be Jimbo and Harriet’s, the green plastic would be Willie and Sylvia’s because he could see those in their garden from the attic window, and the white set with the elaborate twirly pattern on the backs of the chairs and the impressively flowered
seat-pads must be Ron and Sheila’s or Ronald’s, as Sheila called him when she remembered; she thought it common to shorten his name. The plain white with the embroidered cushions foxed him. Ah! Yes. He guessed they might be Tom and Evie’s.
‘Evie’s coming, is she?’
Muriel answered him with a hint of apprehension in her voice. ‘She is. Poor Evie. I hope she can face it.’
‘Is there anyone not coming?’
‘Craddock Fitch. He’s in Warsaw.’
‘I shan’t miss him.’
‘Ralph! How unkind of you! He has improved so much since he nearly killed Jeremy.’
‘One can scarcely say he nearly killed him.’
‘Well, he escaped death by a whisker and we all know he collapsed in the middle of their most tremendous row. It’s that scathing, icy temper of his. It’s quite scary.’
‘He doesn’t scare me!’
Muriel smiled to herself. ‘Oh! I know he doesn’t. You’re a match for him any day.’
‘Self-made men are all right if they acknowledge that they are, but he tries to pretend he’s a gentleman, and one can’t. One either is or one isn’t.’
The bell rang and Muriel panicked. ‘Oh! They’re here! I should never have organised this. What a fool I am. You answer the door. Go on. Please! I feel quite dreadful.’
Muriel appeared to fade into the wallpaper so apprehensive was she, the effect heightened by her being small, pale-complexioned and fair-haired. Briefly Ralph felt concern for her but then he saw her summon up her courage and she
re-emerged from the wallpaper with a smile on her face. He patted her arm and hastened to the door.
They’d said four for four thirty but by ten past almost all their guests had arrived. Presents were given, drinks accepted, kisses exchanged, chairs occupied, children commended on their smart appearance, greetings given and in the midst of it Muriel was in a complete flurry. She should have accepted the help she’d been offered, she knew that now. There was Evie in the corner without a drink in her hand. Oh dear! ‘Evie, what would you like to drink?’
Straining to hear Muriel had to guess she’d said, ‘Orange juice, please.’
‘Certainly.’ In her mind and conversation Muriel always prefixed Evie’s name with ‘poor’ because that was just how she always looked, and even more so today. Not poor in the sense of being without money but, rather, poor in spirit. Oddly dressed in a big emerald green wool jacket with beneath it a skimpy navy skirt and a black polo-necked T-shirt. Surely Tom could help her with her clothes? ‘Here we are! There’s plenty more. Help yourself. I’m so glad you could come.’
But Evie wasn’t for answering and in any case Katherine Charter-Plackett was demanding Muriel’s attention. ‘Muriel! I’ve been away! I’m looking to you to keep me up to date with the news.’
Katherine always brought out the worst in Muriel and consequently their relationship was delicate. Muriel looked up and sighed inside. The holiday had done nothing to soothe Katherine’s domineering manner and certainly nothing to diminish that jutting jawline which appeared to jut out even further when she was on the warpath. How she
came to have a son as charming as Jimbo Muriel couldn’t imagine.
‘You must come for coffee next week and I’ll bring you up to date.’ Muriel immediately regretted her invitation but she couldn’t stop to talk now, still less face Katherine’s detailed interrogation about the smallest detail.
Katherine thanked her graciously, saying, ‘I’ll keep you to that.’
Muriel fled, intending to stand by Ralph’s side while she recuperated, but on the way across the hall she met Caroline. ‘Caroline! We’re so glad you could come! Where are the twins? Have they got a drink? I’ve put out Coca-Cola specially, I know how much they love it.’
‘You spoil them. They’re in the garden with Peter.’
If anything Caroline was thinner than ever. Anyone, even someone with a turnip for a head, could feel the unhappiness emanating from her. And from Peter too. In her heart Muriel damned that actor fellow Hugo for almost persuading Caroline to run off with him. He’d gone on to magnificent triumphs at Stratford leaving this girl behind with her marriage in tatters.
‘Enjoying getting back to general practice?’
Her question sparked Caroline off as Muriel knew it would.
‘Indeed I am. I’d no idea how much I missed it. One feels to have such purpose in life.’
‘Indeed. Purpose is so important.’
‘Three days a week suits me fine. I don’t feel too guilty about the children, you see.’
‘It must be hard coping without Sylvia. Can she not see her way to coming back to help?’
Caroline’s face shut down. Her eyes searched around to see if Sylvia was within hearing. ‘Apparently not. Harriet has them until either Peter or I get back. It seems to be working quite well. Though the holidays …’ Caroline shrugged her shoulders.
‘Muriel! Have we any more ice, my dear?’ She hastened off to answer Ralph’s request with yet another bucket of ice cubes from her new American fridge-freezer. It was so hot. She paused a moment to pat her handkerchief to her forehead and run the cold tap over her wrists to cool her down. There! Now she had a wet patch on her skirt. No one would notice they were all too busy enjoying themselves. There was such a hubbub of conversation, always a good sign that people were relaxed and happy. That was her problem with entertaining, worrying about whether the guests were enjoying themselves. On her way into the dining room with the bucket of ice she found herself enveloped in a bear-hug by Jimbo Charter-Plackett.
‘Just listen to that racket! Everyone’s having a wonderful time! Congratulations, Muriel! May Ralph see many more birthdays!’ Jimbo gave her a smacking kiss, which almost made her drop the ice. ‘Give that to me! I’ll take it. Wonderful party! We’re so lucky to have you and Ralph.’
He strode off and Muriel decided to seek the shade of the garden and make sure at the same time that everyone out there was happy.
The back door from the hall was open and through it Muriel could hear loud chatter. She loved this view from the doorway. It lifted her spirits in a way no other aspect could. Framed by the door was the giant beech tree at the end of the garden under which Ralph had buried her dear,
dear poodle, Pericles; his little memorial stone only served to enhance the view. Between the beech tree and the terrace was the lawn now dotted with the tables and chairs and the bright umbrellas and, best of all, dotted about also were her dear friends, laughing and talking. The rectory twins interrupted her reverie.
‘Moo! Moo!’ They both rushed at her and little Beth flung her arms around her waist. ‘Moo! Can Alex and I have some more Coke? Daddy says we may, if it’s all right with you.’ Her ash-blonde hair and those lovely rounded cheeks, what a stunning combination they were! Alex took her hand. ‘Moo! May we?’ So like Peter! They could be his eyes looking at her.
‘Of course you may, as much as you want.’ She really must stop this dreaming and enter into the hurly-burly. Muriel targeted Peter, who was standing under the beech tree alone. There was far too much of that nowadays. Peter, alone.
He gave her his lovely smile and she looked up at him and smiled back. ‘I do believe, Peter, you get taller every day! Or maybe it’s me who’s shrinking!’
‘Neither! I think it’s you standing a little lower than me.’
Muriel looked down at her feet. ‘So I am. How foolish of me.’
‘Aren’t we lucky with the weather today, though? They say the sun shines on the righteous.’
Muriel ignored his joke. ‘I worry about Caroline. Is there no way we can get Sylvia back? Do you want her back? I wondered if I could –’
Being warned off so abruptly Muriel stepped back to see his face more clearly and her heart trembled for him. He might be the Rector and have answers to lots of other people’s problems but …
‘I see. Your glass is empty, come and get another drink.’ Muriel slipped her arm in his and drew him into the house. She subtly handed him over to Ralph and as she left the two of them she heard Ralph asking if he’d had any answers to his advertisement for a new verger. That would keep him busy.
Glancing at her watch Muriel decided it was time to eat. She checked she had the matches at the ready for lighting Ralph’s candles and went into the kitchen to make the tea. She’d had kettles from the church kitchen gently simmering since before everyone had arrived and now she put the tea-bags into the giant teapot she’d borrowed and turned up the gas under the kettles.
As she filled the teapot to the brim she felt a surge of triumph. It really was going well. She’d planned and schemed to get things just right this afternoon and her hard work was being rewarded. Full of success, she bounced into the dining room with the teapot.
It was the scandalised tone of Caroline’s question which gave her the first hint that all was not well. ‘You have what?’
Grandmama Charter-Plackett’s chin jutted but her mouth smiled. As far as the village was concerned that boded ill. ‘I have agreed with him. It should be done.’
‘I just happened to be having a cup of tea with him and he mentioned his intentions.’
‘But it’s none of your business.’
‘Are you saying that village affairs are nothing to do with me?’
Caroline’s eyes blazed. ‘I suppose I am. You’ve hardly been here two minutes and you’re interfering yet again, as if you haven’t caused enough trouble since you came. He’s getting away with this over my dead body.’
Grandmama drew herself up. ‘I think you’re taking this far too seriously. It’s perfectly ridiculous to be making such a fuss.’
Jimbo intervened. ‘Mother! I think –
‘Well, then, don’t. I’m quite capable of looking after myself, thank you, Jimbo.’ Turning to Caroline she said, between clenched teeth, ‘
not digging it up, I only agreed with him that it should be done.’
Jimbo opened his mouth, intending to pour oil on troubled waters, but Caroline put a hand on his arm. ‘No, Jimbo, leave this to me. This village needs dragging into the twenty-first century. There are some things I agree with, but this, however, is beyond belief. What is it, three years you’ve been here perhaps nearly four? Most of the families here this afternoon have lived here for
. If anyone has a right to agree or disagree it is them and not you. How dare you!’
Muriel’s question, spoken in a small voice, gently cut through the bristling silence which had fallen. ‘What is it we are talking about?’