From the outside he could see that it was very old, and he almost dreaded going in because he feared being disillusioned by finding the pub had been modernized inside. To his relief it hadn’t. The huge inglenook fireplace was genuine, and the horse brasses, the warming pan and the farm implements on the old brick walls looked as though they’d grown there. Genuine through and through. Wonderful. Because of all that, he liked the publican even before he spoke to him; evidently he had good taste. He found a settle, took off his cap, pushed his fingers through his hair and called across, ‘A coffee, landlord, if you please.’
While he waited he ran his hand along the gleaming well-worn table in front of the settle, feeling, as much as seeing, the history which felt to ooze from every joint. It shone smooth with years and years of polishing. He ran his fingers along the curved arm of the settle several times and fingered the small bowl of flowers, which proved to be genuine. Miraculously, a tray appeared, tastefully laid with a small silver coffee pot, silver cream jug and sugar basin, and a paper napkin.
Dicky discreetly left a bill with the tray, saying, ‘Enjoy,’ before he made to disappear.
‘Landlord! I don’t suppose you have a fresh croissant to go with this?’
‘Name’s Dicky, and yes we have. New round here?’
‘Won’t be two minutes.’
The coffee was gloriously welcome and the croissant, when it came, was so fresh it might have been served in a pavement café on the Champs-Elysées. Utterly wonderful.
The stranger picked up a menu from the table. It was a clear attempt to wheedle you from the bar into the small restaurant, signposted by an arrow and the name Georgie’s Restaurant fastened to a low-lying beam above the bar. He began to smile. The licensed trade was obviously very much alert to modern day needs. No fly-blown pork pies on a doily for them, nor yesterday’s egg and cress sandwiches under a plastic dome. He thought he might try lunch there. Just a chance to meet people, see what made them tick before he launched this new project. His spirits rose.
Just then the outside door burst open and a woman entered backwards, staggering under the weight of a large cardboard box.
‘It’s me, Dicky,’ she shouted. ‘Brought you the flyers for the Scout jumble sale, Neville brought them home last night.’
Then she let the door slam shut after her, and, as she turned round, he saw her full face. He was stunned, staggered almost, by what appeared to him to be her startling good looks. She wasn’t classically beautiful, but wholesome and, he sensed, spirited. This was the first time since . . . Marie . . . he’d felt so enthralled by a woman. He gave no outward sign of his shock, though unexpectedly, his heart bounded, but she, on the other hand, didn’t seem to notice he was there.
Dicky appeared through the door that led into the back. He took the box from her. ‘Thanks, Liz. I was coming across for them later, once I’d set up. Thank Neville for me, greatly appreciated.’
‘Not at all, it’s a pleasure.’ The Liz person waved cheerily. ‘Au revoir! Must get back to the nursery. Be seeing you!’ She left at speed.
The stranger, quietly eating his croissant and drinking his excellent coffee, was left alone to still his racing heart.
Liz Neal sprinted back to the church hall to begin story-time. She loved this part of the morning, when the children gathered round her and her assistant Angie Turner put out the mid-morning snacks for them all. Running the playgroup might not be the occupation thought appropriate for the smart wife of the premier chartered accountant in Culworth, but she’d given up worrying herself about that. She loved doing it, and it was the nearest she would ever get to being qualified at anything because the years had gone by and Liz hadn’t bothered herself about a career when she was growing up. Her mother had said, ‘An attractive girl like you will have a husband and a nice house and a family. You don’t need to train for a career.’ So she hadn’t, and at nineteen she’d met Neville Neal, an ambitious, self-obsessed newly qualified accountant. Her parents had lent them the money for him to set up his own business and they’d never looked back. Well, at least Neville had never looked back, but occasionally Liz did and wished ... oh, how she wished.
She picked up the story of Goldilocks from the book corner because the children knew it and loved the lines they could repeat without her help, and adored the illustrations.
‘“Who’s sleeping in my bed,” said Baby Bear?’ they all bawled.
By the time the story was finished the children were ready for their milk and fruit, and Liz and Angie for their coffee.
Angie slurped a good mouthful from her mug before she spoke. ‘I know some of them can be naughty just like my twins were - are - full of energy from morning to night, but you can’t help but love ’em, can yer?’
‘No. Have you thought any more about that course I want you to go on?’
‘Is that kind of thing for me? Really, I mean . . . they’ll all be so clever.’
Liz raised a disbelieving eyebrow. ‘And you’re not?’
Angie looked embarrassed. ‘Well, you know I never did well at school, not ever. I’d make a fool of myself.’
‘Angie Turner! You would not. You took to this job brilliantly. Within a week you were making constructive suggestions. Remember? Your finger right on the pulse. So I’m putting you forward.’ She glanced round the children to check that they were happy just in time to see one of the girls pour all her milk over Toby.
‘Sara! What are you thinking of ? Toby has his own milk, he doesn’t need yours.’ Angie had already pulled a clean shirt from the ‘spares box’ and was stripping off Toby’s soaking shirt.
‘See what I mean?’ said Liz. ‘I’m definitely putting your name down. The very best thing of all is that you never lose your temper.’
Angie grinned at her. ‘All right then, I’ll give it a turn.’ Secretly she was delighted by Liz’s conviction that she would do well.
Liz smiled her delight at Angie’s decision. ‘Well, there we are. That’s good. You see, I might change my mind and decide to leave the nursery, and then you could step into my shoes.’
‘Me? In charge? I don’t think so.’
‘You’ve got to have some belief in yourself. Where were you when self-worth was given out? Right at the back of the queue, I guess. Well, forget it, now’s the time to move forward. Children! Toilets and then out to play. Off you go. Come along.’
‘I’ll clear up.’
Liz shook her head. ‘No, I’ll clear up, you go and supervise them.’
While she rinsed the plates, threw the paper cups into the bin and wiped the tables, Liz remembered that Neville, unusually, would be home for lunch. Neville. If she could have seen her own face Liz would have been horrified. The mention of her husband’s name had made her look to have sucked hard on a lemon. Her lovely brown eyes had gone hard, her sweet mouth painfully twisted and her nose wrinkled with disgust. In two weeks it would be their silver wedding anniversary, and the huge affair Neville had made of it was embarrassing. A quiet get-together at the George with close friends would have been enough for her, but no, seventy guests, many she didn’t even know, a small band for dancing, a bar, gifts for every one, a table to display their own gifts. Liz shuddered . . . And there was nothing at all to tempt Hugh and Guy to attend, for there were no invitations to a few of their twenty-something friends to make it more enjoyable for them.
‘No, no, we don’t want your friends there being noisy and ridiculous,’ Neville had said.
Hugh had protested, ‘But, Dad, our friends aren’t like that. OK, they like a drink, but they wouldn’t be so thoughtless as to get drunk at an occasion like a silver wedding anniversary. Well, I’m sorry, I shan’t be there.’ And he’d left the dining table in a hurry.
Guy had said exactly the same, and he too had left and they’d heard the front door slam as the two of them departed for the flat they shared in Culworth. So most of the pleasure of the party was gone for Liz. In fact, Neville would have baulked at the idea of Peter and Caroline being invited had it not been for the fact that Peter was the Rector and Neville felt the need to keep a foot in the door of heaven.
Wryly Liz decided that was because of his nefarious dealings with the town councillors, especially those on the planning committee. She knew for a fact that brown paper envelopes passed in a one-way stream from Neville to a weasel called Kevin who worked in the planning office and always had his ear close to the ground and not just about planning. No doubt Kevin would have ingratiated himself on to the guest list, a list Neville was in charge of and she had never seen.
Angie shouted from the church hall door, ‘We’re ready to come in. OK?’
‘Yes. Everything’s ready.’
Liz repeated exactly those words to Neville when she’d got the lunch ready later on.
‘Everything’s ready,’ she’d said, as Neville roared in from some meeting or other and immediately disappeared, giving Liz a bird-like peck on her cheek as he rushed by.
‘Just got this to finish, won’t be long.’
But he was twenty minutes long. He then bolted down his sandwiches and salad, grabbed his briefcase, waved aside the fresh cheese scones she’d baked between leaving nursery and him coming home, and away he went without exchanging a pleasant word with her. It would be the same that evening; a draught of air from the front door as Neville sped into the house. Later, after working in his study all evening, he’d have a slow walk by floodlight round his meticulous garden making notes of things to remind the gardener about, a whiskey in the sitting room with Liz and then bed.
Their first early years, filled as they were by the arrival so close together of their two boys, had been happy enough, but gradually, as the boys grew, he’d killed by neglect any passion she might have had for him, for there wasn’t room in his life for close contact of the sexual kind, not even at Christmas. Liz blamed herself; she’d grown bored with his passion by numbers. She’d once overheard someone in the village call him a ‘cold fish’, and they were absolutely right, he was.
She’d cleared up, opened the post that had come after she’d left for the nursery that morning and wondered what to do next.
The phone rang. ‘Caroline here, Liz. I’m home early. Cup of tea?’
‘In the garden? Bring a cardy.’
‘Lovely. I’ll be two minutes.’
The Rectory door stood open so she pushed the door wider and called out, ‘It’s me.’ Then she walked down the hall into Caroline’s kitchen and immediately felt warmed and caressed by it. It always had that effect on her, and heaven knows she’d come into this kitchen often enough over the last fourteen years. And there was Caroline the creator of this kitchen and its atmosphere, putting tea things on a tray. The back door was already open, beckoning her out into Caroline’s beautiful garden. When they’d first moved in, the garden had been nothing more than hard, rock-like dry soil decorated with stones and a few parched bushes but now it was a triumphantly luxurious country garden, which, summer and winter, never failed to thrill her. At the back of her mind Liz compared it with their own garden at Glebe House, which was regimented, stark, and stylish. No leaf was out of place, no bush was allowed to fling itself over the edge of a wall, whereas Caroline’s garden seemed to wallow in freedom.
‘Isn’t it a lovely day for late April?’
‘Liz! Hi! Bring the biscuits.’ Caroline led the way into the garden, which, although she admitted it to no one, was her pride and joy.
‘I know I ask this each time I see you, but how about the twins? How are they progressing? I saw Alex out the other day helping collect for the Scout jumble sale.’
‘Truth to tell, they are both doing very well indeed. No problems, so far as we can tell. Beth hasn’t had a nightmare for weeks and weeks, and as for Alex, he’s fine. He reminds me from time to time how much Beth needs reassurance and what he calls “looking after”.’
‘You never say
she needs looking after. What does he mean?’ Liz asked but didn’t get an answer. She knew she wouldn’t but still she asked. They told each other everything, and it was so unlike Caroline to evade the truth.
Caroline froze for a moment, then relaxed and asked Liz if she needed the sugar. When Liz shook her head Caroline grinned, ‘You’re still dieting then.’