Authors: Rebecca Shaw
‘Thank you, Dicky. We all loved Sykes; he was a dog of dogs. He knew every house and everybody in Turnham Malpas, right the way down Shepherd’s Hill and the new houses along the Culworth Road, and right the way down Royal Oak Road. But best of all he loved the old centre of the village and as we all know he had his own spot on the old Templeton tomb in the church where he loved to take a nap mid-morning. In our hearts, that spot will always belong to him.
‘He was never bad tempered, never once did he nip anyone, though I’m sure if I’d had a burglar in my cottage he’d have made a good try at defending me. Yes, we all know he was naughty for wandering about on his own – he liked nothing better – and I’m sure we all have our own tales to tell about him, but tonight we are saying “Goodbye” to Sykes.’ Grandmama had to pause here to regain control of her trembling lips. ‘Let’s hope he’s happy, and being well cared for, because he deserves nothing less. For some reason, deep inside of me, I’m certain he won’t come back to us, somehow I know . . . his time has run out, therefore I say, raise your glasses in memory of Sykes. To Sykes, everyone, to our well-beloved Sykes, wherever he may be.’
By this time there was scarcely a dry eye in the pub, but the toast was drunk and gradually the silence there’d been while they listened to Grandmama’s eulogy was broken by them recalling their own memories of him and then other subjects cropped up and everyone began to relax.
Jimbo kissed his mother’s cheek. ‘Thanks for that, Mother. He deserved every word you said.’
Someone, trying to lighten the atmosphere, said loudly, ‘Knowing Sykes, he’ll probably turn up tomorrow bright as a button just to prove us all wrong, wondering what all the fuss is about.’ But the man who spoke didn’t believe a word he’d said. Like Grandmama had reminded them all, Sykes’s time had run out.
Days went by, but the answers they were all breathlessly waiting for about the future of the big house never came. Speculation, yes, hours of it, but no answers, and slowly the main subject of conversation turned to other more important matters. Such as who had been invited to which Christmas party and would Alice, in view of her rapidly increasing size, be conducting the ladies’ choir for much longer? They’d done well in the BBC
competition, reaching the last five in the village section – a triumph when you thought about it, their village beating choirs with populations twice and three times the size of Turnham Malpas. But then they had not only Alice but Gilbert helping out too. They made a dynamic duo, did Alice and Gilbert.
Beth was still working for Gilbert in his office and thoroughly enjoying her life, though it had taken a while for her to get over Sykes’s disappearance. She found herself listening for his bark, missed secretly feeding him cake, which he loved. But being home and helping Gilbert was far better than Cambridge and living in halls, especially as she was now getting paid to work for him, and secretly she intended never going back. Peter and Caroline, blithely unaware of her intentions, were glad she was in such good spirits. Which she was – she’d made friends with people from the county archaeology office and often socialised with them, and everything was going well for her until she went to the twenty-first birthday party of a girl called Rosie she’d been mildly friendly with at school.
Beth had pulled out all the stops with the dress she bought for it, with money she had earned herself and therefore felt justified in spending absolutely every spare penny she could. It was scarlet, and clinging and shining and didn’t have her mother’s approval. ‘It is rather daring for you, Beth, don’t you think?’
‘Yes. But it’s a posh hotel and I need to look good. Rosie says it’ll be her last big event before she gets a job in one of the big fashion houses, when it will be hard grind all the way with no time for fun as she calls it. She won’t go far, because she’s no good at it, but she’s convinced she is. So that’s why her parents are pulling out all the stops for her twenty-first. So we’ll wait and see.’
Caroline was still surveying the dress with disapproval. ‘I can’t say I approve.’
‘Well, that must be a first. I love it and I did buy it with my own money, so . . . you should see what some of the others are wearing. I understand this is discreet by comparison.’
‘Well, I’m glad you’re enjoying the social life again.’
Beth gave her mother a kiss in gratitude and Caroline was enveloped in a powerful perfume. ‘What’s that perfume? It’s awfully strong.’
‘Oh! Mum! You are old-fashioned. I’m off.’
‘Have you the money for the taxi to come home?’
Beth patted her red beaded handbag. ‘I have. Is Dad taking me or you?’
‘He is. Have a good time.’
When Beth got inside the hotel the thought did cross her mind that Rosie was overindulged. The whole of the reception area was filled with flowers, music poured from every speaker and the guests were dressed in the absolute pinnacle of fashion. Rosie’s parents were there to greet their guests, smiling and dramatically kissing everyone as though each was a long-lost friend. The whole event felt seriously overdone.
Rosie whispered in her ear, ‘Wait till they see the surprise entertainer I’ve booked! Little do they know!’ She nodded her head in the direction of her parents and when they noticed her she twinkled her fingers at them and blew them a kiss.
Beth couldn’t believe what she saw. There he was! Shaking hands with Rosie’s parents. Larger than life and twice as wonderful. Oh, God! Jake! Beth’s heart exploded. Since he’d gone to live with his father in Culworth she’d seen him once in Cambridge from a distance but never spoken to him, and here he was looking absolutely splendid in a dinner jacket and bow tie, greeting Mr and Mrs Baker-Smythe. He smiled at Rosie and Beth realised he’d caught sight of her standing beside Rosie. For one long moment Beth’s heart pounded against her rib cage till she thought her ribs would crack. How on earth could anyone have such a powerful effect on her? Surely the pounding must be audible to Rosie, who stood so close? But Rosie was too busy making a good impression on Jake. Still admiring him she breathed to Beth, ‘I never thought he’d come! Gorgeous Jake Harding’s come. What a man! Isn’t he sexy! In every way!’ She nudged Beth. ‘He’s looking at you. Do you two know each other?’
Beth stirred herself. ‘Vaguely, from school. He knows my brother.’ Mercifully she could still speak with a modicum of intelligence.
Jake turned to Rosie, who flung herself into greeting him so enthusiastically she might have been welcoming an Arctic explorer who’d been missing for months in its icy wastes.
‘How lovely you could come! You know Beth Harris, do you? Her father’s the rector in Turnham Malpas.’ Rosie’s statement put Beth into a kind of untouchable category at a time when Beth felt completely the opposite.
‘Yes. I know. Lovely to see you again, Beth.’ Jake shook her hand and, just as she’d read about in Mills and Boon novels, her world stood still. The smell of him. The look of him. The style and confidence his time at Cambridge had given him. The sheer animal magnetism of him. So this was Jake Harding, now a man, and she couldn’t get enough of him.
‘It’s been a long time. What are you getting up to these days?’ Jake asked.
They moved away from Rosie, leaving her standing open-mouthed by their abrupt abandonment of her. Even totally self-absorbed Rosie could recognise their togetherness. That stuck-up Beth Harris! She should never have invited her. She’d purposely mentioned her father’s job to warn Jake that Beth was not available, so to speak, but much good that had done. Rosie covertly watched them standing close, completely absorbed by each other and wondered what they were talking about. Beth looked mesmerised. Jake looked as though it was his birthday and Christmas all rolled into one, while Rosie was consumed by jealousy.
‘I’m taking a year off. Couldn’t stand it and got homesick, then I got flu.’
‘I got that too; it was evil.’
‘Well, I wouldn’t say evil.’
‘It was. I’ve never been so ill in my life.’
‘But you’re still at Cambridge. You haven’t . . .’ Words failed her.
Jake nodded. ‘Your dad OK, is he?’
Beth smiled. ‘He is. Absolutely fine.’
‘Frightens the hell out of me.’
‘He’s a pussy cat really.’
Jake laughed. ‘He’s intimidating, in the nicest possible way! Your mum is lovely. You’re so like her, not in looks, but in temperament.’
Beth almost explained the situation with Caroline, which she never normally did, but changed her mind, Jake meant nothing to her so he didn’t need to know. But maybe one day she’d confide in him.
To fill her silence Jake suggested they find something to drink, so the two of them moved through into the party room and danced and ate and grew more comfortable with each other till the time apart fell away and it was wonderful just to be together, to dance, to talk, to laugh. The evening spun by on gilded wings and suddenly the party was winding down.
‘I have a taxi booked for a quarter to twelve; he’ll be here soon,’ Beth said.
‘Five minutes to go. I’ll come with you and if it doesn’t come I’ll drive you home.’
‘He will come, he’s very reliable.’
Jake took her arm and went to stand outside with her on the steps of the hotel.
Out of the blue he said, ‘I’m home with my dad for Christmas.’
‘That’ll be nice for you.’
‘I was meaning we could meet and I could write in the meantime.’
Beth said, ‘No, text me please or email. Don’t write.’
His grip on her arm tightened. ‘Am I still persona non grata then at the Rectory?’
‘Here’s my taxi. Here, look, this is my mobile number.’ She scribbled it on an old receipt she found in her bag.
‘OK. Goodnight, Beth.’ She looked up at him, sensing a kiss coming and she wasn’t sure. Suddenly Beth turned away to get into her taxi, so he missed kissing her mouth but kissed her shining, sweet-smelling hair instead, and felt privileged.
Jake carefully stored the old receipt in his top pocket.
Beth fell into bed exhausted, but couldn’t sleep because her mind was filled with the memories of the evening. How he’d looked, how he’d danced, the feel of his hand on hers, his arm round her waist, his attention to her and no one else, the embarrassment they shared about the excesses of the food, the music, the entertainment, the take-home goody bags.
‘My God!’ Jake had said. ‘Is there no end to it? No one will dare hold a party after this. What could better it?’
‘Best enjoy it while we can then.’
Beth giggled helplessly. She heard her mother’s footsteps coming along the landing and decided to be asleep because she felt she needed to be on her guard about Jake. He’d been right when he asked if he was still persona non grata in the Rectory.
Her mother bent over her to kiss her goodnight, but Beth couldn’t resist her kisses. ‘Night, night, Mum.’
‘Night, night, love. Home safe and sound. Had a good time?’
‘Goodnight, then. Tell me all about it in the morning.’
Not likely, thought Beth.
But she did; she couldn’t help herself because she’d hardly spoken to anyone else but Jake and eventually his name popped up so the cat was out of the bag.
‘Jake was there! Did you know he was going?’
‘No. Rosie thinks he’s absolutely fabulous.’
Caroline poured her some tea. ‘And what did Beth Harris think about him?’
Beth shrugged. She tried hard to appear nonchalant. ‘He’s OK. Handsome as ever.’
Caroline cast a sceptical look at Beth and her heart sank. All Beth needed in her present state of not knowing which way her life should go was the added complication of Jake ‘I know I’m wonderful’ Harding. ‘Right. So what’s he doing when he finishes next summer?’
‘I don’t know, actually.’
‘The subject never came up? Toast?’
‘No. Yes, to some toast.’
‘Who else was there?’
‘Mum! What’s this? The Spanish Inquisition? All I did was go to a birthday party of a girl I only know because of being in the drama club with her at school. She’s an overindulged egotistical idiot.’
‘Sorry. Sorry. Just interested.’ Caroline backed off, but in her heart she knew something very significant had taken place last night and she had a dread of Beth being embroiled with Jake. He was too charismatic for his own good and certainly not the kind of young man she would like for Beth. Her ambition for Beth was a good career first and then marriage, just like she’d had herself.
The front door banged shut and Peter came in the kitchen, back from eight o’clock communion.
‘Morning, Beth. Did you have a good time last night?’
‘Don’t you start another cross examination, please.’
Peter knew immediately, just as Caroline had done, that something important had happened to Beth last night. ‘OK, OK. Just asking.’
Caroline asked him, ‘How many this morning?’
‘It is indeed.’ The two of them carried on a conversation about numbers and village matters until Beth said, ‘Sorry. I’m tired. I’m going back to bed. I won’t make it to the eleven o’clock, Dad.’