Wooton Poges knew its place. It stood four-square behind decent behaviour, gainful employment and thoroughly-boiled vegetables.
The passing centuries had changed its opinions not one jot, a fact which had disheartened foreigners and regicidal belligerents alike. Stray Vikings, for example, arriving on the doorstep for a little pillage and rape had wiped their feet and stayed to tea. Flat-nosed Normans had given up counting and departed, weighted down with half-filled ledgers and total depression. Lancastrians and Yorkists, Cavaliers and Roundheads had all taken one quick look and hurried by leaving Wooton-Poges to mind its business serenely undisturbed.
Until, that is, May Day, 1934 when the vicar had his bright idea. He wanted harmony; he achieved uproar and mayhem instead. From manor to cottage, shop to pub, malice seethed and tempers exploded. Civility was stretched to its limits and collapsed in a heap; sex reared unrestrained into the havoc. Everyone knew it meant trouble. No-one knew it meant murder; lots of murders.
‘Odious little man!’ The elder Miss Rushton-Ferrers shut the front door with a snap. Her voice carried the length of the hall depositing sharp crystals wherever it passed. ‘I’m sure I don’t know what the vicar was thinking of!’ She slapped her hat and bag onto the narrow table and stalked into the sitting room.
The peace of Emily’s afternoon promptly disintegrated. She looked up from her book and sighed. ‘What’s happened, aunt? You look quite flushed.’
Winifred Rushton-Ferrers strode across the rug. ‘Egbert Lethbridge should not be on the Churchyard Restoration Committee. He’s too opinionated by far. Those trees will have fallen down before he agrees with anything I say.’
She halted. The expression of a constipated camel settled onto her face. ‘What do you mean, flushed? I have never looked flushed in my life! I am not a lavatory.’ She stared down her long nose at the curled figure on the sofa.
Emily uncrossed her legs and sat up quickly. ‘No. Of course not. I just meant you looked a little. . . er, determined.’
‘So I should hope. Someone has to stand up to him. If his wife hasn’t the breeding to keep him in check, I shall do it.’ She looked at the armchair beside the hearth. The chintz cover was smooth and the antimacassar neatly centred on the back. She sniffed and folded her aristocratic height onto the seat. Her joints complained like cracking ice.
‘Perhaps she has her ways,’ Emily said.
‘Really?’ Elderly eyebrows rose. ‘Well, the less you know of such things, the better.’
‘Oh, aunt.’ Emily flipped the book onto the seat. ‘I’m almost twenty-one. It’s not the dark ages.’ Her pointed chin lifted and an element of defiance settled around her pretty mouth. ‘Things have changed since you were a girl.’
Miss Rushton-Ferrers produced a quelling stare. ‘I’m not sure I care to be mentioned in the same breath as the dark ages.’ She allowed her gaze to rest on the upturned novel. ‘And treat books with more care.’
Youth’s small flame of rebellion wavered and sputtered out. The auburn head drooped a fraction. ‘Sorry.’
‘Very well.’ Miss Rushton-Ferrers folded her hands into her lap and inflated her meagre chest. ‘I’m sure I don’t know what the world is coming to.’
An imminent lecture on modern morals hung in the air. Emily felt in urgent need of escape. ‘The world,’ she said, ‘is coming to tea. It’s almost ready, there’s just the kettle to boil.’ She hurried out of the room.
Ten minutes later, she elbowed her way back round the door holding a massive wooden tray by its handles. A silver teapot squatted on ball feet in the centre of a linen cloth. Around it clustered teaspoons, china and cakes. Emily put on a bright smile. ‘Here we are.’
She carried the tray across the room to a table beside the sofa arm. As she eased it down a corner nudged the upholstery. Three drops of tea brimmed from spout to pristine fabric. Emily froze. She glanced up; her aunt was scowling at a smudge on the brass fender. Emily breathed again and settled the tray. A surreptitious finger edged the sugar bowl over the stain. ‘Would you like one of these?’ She held out a plate of iced fancies. ‘Doris made them before she went off this afternoon.’
Miss Rushton-Ferrers’ attention swam from fender to cakes. ‘And that’s another thing, that girl’s leaving early and not putting in her hours.’ She examined the uneven mounds; lurid icing had drained into congealed scallops round their bases. She levered up a green lump between finger and thumb and deposited it onto a proffered tea plate. ‘I shall have to speak to her.’
Emily’s heart sank. Memories of finding anyone to occupy a position in the Rushton-Ferrers household spiralled hideously down her spine and slid into her stomach like cold porridge. There was nothing tempting about doing it again. She sat herself down on the sofa and chose the lesser of two evils. ‘What exactly did Major Lethbridge do?’
Her aunt forgot Doris and her casual approach to timekeeping. ‘Dreadful man! He has some ridiculous notion of buying full-grown trees and transplanting them. Where he thinks we can find the money, I do not know. And I’m not at all interested in what they do in the Middle East.’ She eyed the confectionary with disfavour then bit firmly into it with yellow teeth. ‘Heathens!’
Emily helped herself to a fancy and tried to hang onto the thread of conversation. ‘Heathens?’
‘Apparently some maharaja in India or somewhere had a whole grove of lemon trees moved just to decorate his harem. Pure exaggeration, I’ll be bound.’ Winifred Rushton-Ferrers produced a judgemental stare as Emily lifted a second iced lump. ‘Stop eating all those cakes.’
Emily jumped. The offending item fell from her hand. It executed a neat somersault and landed upside down on the plate. Pink goo adhered to her fingers.
‘Girls didn’t gorge on cake in my day.’ Pearls of wisdom from decades of spinsterhood dripped into the air. ‘It ruins the complexion. Young men don’t like spotty complexions.’
Emily balanced the plate on her skirt and pulled a handkerchief from her waistband. She rubbed at her fingers. Her aunt ploughed on remorselessly.
‘It’s my duty to safeguard your future now your parents are gone. They’d want you properly settled.’ She drew a considering breath. ‘You don’t seem to be making much progress with young Maufant. A solicitor would be quite suitable.’ Her eyes flickered from Emily’s head to her toes. ‘And he’s tall enough for you. You should make more effort.’
The temptation to shrink into her flat shoes was immense. Emily fought it and stood as firmly on her dignity as possible while seated with sticky fingers. Her chin went back up. ‘I don’t want to make an effort with Richard. I’ve known him years and we’re just good friends.’
‘Really? I don’t think he’d agree. He’s much more acceptable than that good-for-nothing Scratby. Always hanging around the village flirting. That would mean Marianne Lethbridge in the family.’ Miss Rushton-Ferrers suppressed a shudder. ‘Not that I believe their story for one moment. If he’s her cousin, I’m a Chinaman. Lethbridge ought to keep an eye on them both. He should have married a woman of his own age, not that creature. And her hair colour can’t be natural.’
‘Aunt, really! You shouldn’t say things like that.’
The camel-nostrils flared. ‘I shall say what I like in my own house. And outside it. I believe in speaking my mind.’
This was the absolute truth. Her aunt’s conviction that everyone wanted to hear what was in her mind had caused Emily countless difficulties. The consequences of slander were too awful to contemplate. She stood up, grabbed the tray and fled to the kitchen.
In the cool, dim refuge she crashed about at the sink, stacking dirty dishes and trying to think of a way out of her predicament that did not involve marriage to anyone, solicitor or wolf. She ate another cake.
‘That damned woman!’ Egbert Lethbridge rattled his newspaper. The gilt-legged table beside his chair wobbled. He barely avoided dashing it, and his whisky glass, to the floor.
His wife was reclining on one of the sofas, well away from the sunlight that poured into the cream and gold drawing room. She stirred with minimal interest. A magazine rippled to the floor displaying pages of slim, elegant females. She watched it fall. One hand smoothed her dress over her rounded midriff; bones in the underlying corset slid under her fingers. She breathed in and re-crossed her ankles. ‘What’s the matter, Bertie?’
The Major frowned. ‘If you’d been there instead of nursing another of your damned headaches, you’d know. And I’ve told you before, I prefer Egbert.’
Marianne Lethbridge forced what had once been an attractively coy smile onto her face. ‘Don’t be such a tease. You know it’s our special name.’
The smile, like the special name, had long since lost its allure. Its appearance caused two scarlet blotches to stain the deep colour of Lethbridge’s jowls. ‘I’m going to have this out with the vicar,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t have a clue. Why he thought that woman would have a spark of an idea in her head, God alone knows. He’s just an old woman himself.’
‘Which woman is that?’
‘The Rushton-Ferrers crone, of course.’
‘Ah.’ Marianne’s attention was spurred. She sat up. It had come to her ears that Winifred Rushton-Ferrers had made certain remarks on her dress sense, her antecedents and her general suitability as a Major’s wife and occupant of Pendleton Hall. Certain unflattering remarks. In Mrs Lethbridge’s opinion, the more trouble Miss Rushton-Ferrers found herself in, the better. ‘What has she done?’
‘Done?’ The Major’s temper ratcheted up another couple of notches. ‘Nothing! That’s just it. If she has her way we’ll end up with six twigs stuck in the ground that wouldn’t raise the interest of a geriatric Yorkshire terrier. We’ll all be dead and buried long before they look anything like decent.’
His fleshy earlobes quivered. He flung down The Times and elevated himself out of the chair with as much velocity as a man of his corpulence could achieve. The whisky trembled in its facetted crystal world. ‘Stupid woman,’ he repeated. ‘I’ll go and see Draycott now. See if I can’t drum some sense into him.’
He tugged his yellow waistcoat decisively over his paunch. As he stomped out of the room, the vent of his tweed jacket parted, revealing a pair of twill-clad buttocks that fought to propel his legs at speed. His oft-repeated mantra “If you want something done properly, do it yourself” faded from the afternoon elegance. Marianne Lethbridge held a handkerchief to her brow, surveyed the ornate ceiling and gritted her teeth.
Up at the vicarage, Freya Draycott looked out of the sitting room window and watched her husband seek solace in his garden. The passage of time had stamped its mark on both his short little person and his refuge from the troubled world. Each was middle-aged and comfortably untidy. The old jacket he wore bagged at the elbows; the lawn undulated over squashed molehills. Wispy hair and divers shrubs were in need of a good trim.
The vicar wandered around clutching a pottery mug to his chest. His cardigan sleeves poked out of his jacket. He stopped to gaze at the hawthorn blossom arching over the gate, and then ambled on through fading daffodil leaves to a bed of haphazardly pruned roses. Adorning the topmost spike was a single early bloom. A lone bee plumped down on the blushing petals and sent a puff of gold pollen skywards.
Freya saw a slight brightening of Leonard Draycott’s eyes. Bees were creatures he admired. She had heard many a sermon on their virtues. Their industry and sense of community were his favourite examples of hard work for the common good. He never dwelt on the fate of drones. Nor the fact that a hive’s diligent efforts were likely to end up on someone’s crumpet for tea.
His wife sighed. It was his nature to concentrate on the bright side of things, to search out the good in everyone and everything. It was difficult at times. His quiet little soul bore the scars of many an encounter with the likes of Miss Rushton-Ferrers and Egbert Lethbridge. In her opinion, Leonard was much too good for this world and would only be truly appreciated in the next.
She stepped out of the French window and made her way across the lawn, followed by an enthusiastic cocker spaniel. She reached her husband. Taller by half a head thanks to her distant Nordic stock, she took his arm and smiled down at him. ‘How did the meeting go?’
The vicar sighed heavily. ‘It was dreadful.’
‘I’m very much afraid that Miss Rushton-Ferrers and the Major will never agree.’ His whole being drooped. ‘Things were said.’
‘Oh dear,’ Freya repeated.
The vicar sighed and gazed at the rose. His wife sighed and gazed at him. The dog watered a dandelion.
‘What are you going to do?’ she asked.
‘Do? I don’t think there’s anything I can do.’
Freya shouldered the burden with the ease of long practice and great affection. ‘Let’s see if we can sort something out. What exactly were they disagreeing about?’
Leonard Draycott continued to gaze at the flower. ‘The Major wants to buy big trees. Miss Rushton-Ferrers does not.’
‘What do the others else think?’
‘Well Mrs Lethbridge wasn’t there, but she would agree with her husband, of course.’ Freya took a deep breath. ‘Richard Maufant didn’t say much and Colin Scratby appeared to be bored. Perhaps he was feeling under the weather. Poor dear Angela could not get a word in at all, though I think she would like small trees. Then her Brownies could plant them.’
Not much help from the rest of the gathering, Freya thought. If only he had never asked their opinion in the first place. A plan to preserve her husband’s peace of mind began to form in her head. She concentrated with as much determination as the dog was using to unearth something in the hedge. ‘If they don’t speak up at the meetings, why don’t you see them privately? That way none of them will be scared to say what they think.’
Salvation shimmered on the vicar’s horizon. ‘Perhaps that would be a way forward.’ His eyes brightened again. ‘I hadn’t thought of it.’ He beamed at his wife. ‘You’re such a comfort, my dear. When I talk to you things sort themselves out in no time.’
Mrs Draycott glowed. Her satisfaction was brutally curtailed. A picture of fulminating corpulence erupted round the corner of the house. Egbert Lethbridge spotted his quarry.
‘Oh dear.’ The vicar clutched at his mug and inched towards his wife.
‘Now, now,’ she said, eyeing the Major. ‘Just remember what we’ve agreed and there’ll be no trouble.’
She took his arm and urged him forwards. The russet spaniel careered across the grass to the newcomer, ears akimbo. The Major was no lover of dogs. He growled at the animal. It turned and ran smartly back to Freya who patted its head and favoured her guest with a brilliant smile.
‘Major Lethbridge, how nice to see you.’
‘Mrs Draycott.’ The Major gave a small nod and turned at once to his prey. ‘Now see here, vicar - ’
He got no further. Freya, despite being too close to forty for comfort, was still handsome enough to turn a head or two. Her eyes deepened to fjord-blue when she was angry. She hid the cause and made good use of them. And the blonde hair Miss Rushton-Ferrers could not fault. The Major found his arm captured. The effect of eyes, smile and a squeeze on his sleeve was electric. He started as if a madonna had propositioned him. His mouth flapped like a priest’s caught in his undergarments with his cassock nowhere to hand.
While he was blustering, Freya propelled him inside. ‘I hear you have an exciting plan to use really large trees for the church.’
‘Uh? Oh, well, yes.’ The Major blinked.
‘You must tell me all about it. Leonard, of course, already knows.’ She turned to her husband. ‘Dearest, would you ask Gladys for tea while the Major tells me his marvellous scheme?’
The vicar, still clutching his mug for defence, left the room in acquiescent confusion. The Major, no less bemused, was led to the sofa. He found himself improvising a scheme he did not possess for the benefit of a very attentive audience indeed.
When Leonard Draycott returned his wife was perched on the faded cushions listening intently to Major Lethbridge.
‘I think it’s a perfectly splendid idea!’ She ignored her husband, awe-struck by her desertion in face of the enemy. ‘I’m sure the trees will look magnificent. How much are trees of that size?’
The Major, caught in an impasse, harrumphed and shifted about.
‘And where can one buy them?’ Freya gazed at him. ‘I do so admire a man who can see things through. Who’s thought of all the problems that would completely flummox a silly creature like me? And solved them.’ She waited breathlessly.
The Major struggled in vain for a way to avoid producing fully-grown trees from thin air, cheaply. ‘Well, of course, it’s only a suggestion at the moment. Although I thought it was rather a good one myself.’ A frown threatened. ‘There were some…’
The vicar’s earthly saviour headed him off. ‘We must find a photo. Of the old trees. Then you can show us just how high the new ones will be. It’ll be easier for those who don’t have your vision to see exactly how it will look.’
An image of himself as a man of vision so seized the Major he failed to realise anyone interested could still see the present trees in situ, rotting or not. ‘I expect there’s one in the church records somewhere,’ he said.
‘Oh, there’s sure to be, isn’t there Leonard?’ Freya felt able to include the vicar, now he was only required to make a statement of fact and not venture into the cut and thrust of the minor war she had just won.
‘I expect so,’ he replied innocently. ‘The verger does like to keep them in order.’
Freya turned back to her guest. ‘I’m sure Walter would be only too happy to help you look.’
Major Lethbridge suffered a shock. An active role was not his style. He gave the orders, others did the work. He pushed himself to his feet. ‘I’m sure that’s more in your line, Draycott. Your capable hands, eh?’
Small eyes gleaming with relief, he headed for the door but escape was not to be. Gladys Jones confronted him at the threshold. He pulled up short before her Amazonian physique. She looked down at his flushed face and favoured him with an unyielding stare. Years ago, officers of his ilk had sent her nineteen-year-old fiancé to a meadow in northern France. He was still there, underneath it. She planted her solid frame in the doorway.
‘Ah, Gladys,’ Freya said. ‘Tea. You will take a cup, won’t you Major?’
She smiled but the Major did not answer. He was circumnavigating the immobile Gladys. Inching through the doorway and taking particular care not to touch any part of her person, he deserted the field.