Authors: Rebecca Shaw
Alice sprang away from him as though he’d unexpectedly threatened her with his fist. ‘Johnny! My God! How could you make a remark like that? I’m ashamed of you. Ashamed! What an accusation to make. He’s trying to find himself, like we all do. Can’t you see that?’ Her face flushed with righteous anger, her hands trembling and on the brink of stormy tears, Alice grabbed her music case and fled. Johnny followed her to the back door, calling her name but to no avail. She was down the path and running along Pipe and Nook Lane as fast as she could. Johnny slammed the back door.
Alice ran blindly across the village green; she couldn’t go home – Marcus would see her tears and she’d no excuse to hand, so she escaped into the village store and hid behind the tinned soups. She should never have shamed Johnny in that way, because those very same thoughts had crossed her own mind several times when money was short, and Marcus had never offered to help by trying to get a job. He was a qualified Health and Safety Officer, a job he’d hated and was glad to leave when he began that creative writing class the year they married and got bitten by the novelist bug.
Alice snatched a tissue from her skirt pocket and dried her tears. She’d always wanted babies and now she’d been forced to give up even
a baby in her arms because if she started now . . . well, life would be impossible. But ten years of wishing is a long time to be patient, so that was that. She chose a carton of Harriet’s Country Cousin Tomato and Basil Soup to make her sojourn behind the soups more credible.
She happened to be the only customer at that moment so Jimbo, doing duty at the till, was glad to talk.
‘Hello! Alice! How’s things?’
That did it. To her horror, and Jimbo’s, she burst into tears.
‘My dear, come, come now. Let me make you a coffee and we’ll sit and talk a while. Let your old Jimbo sort things out for you. Come along, sit in the coffee corner; I make a good listener.’
Alice blew her nose and tried to compose herself while she watched Jimbo refresh his coffee machine. She couldn’t even thank him for the coffee because she was so choked up.
‘Now when you’re halfway through that coffee you can tell me all about it. I can’t let my beautiful Alice have tears running down her face without trying to help.’ He whisked a snow-white handkerchief from his top shirt pocket and gently mopped her face.
They sat in silence and weren’t disturbed by customers, a state of affairs of which Jimbo did not approve. He loved to hear his doorbell ringing; it was his measure of success.
Alice knew she couldn’t say a word about Johnny so she feigned that her unhappiness was due to not having babies, which was true anyway.
‘You see, Jimbo, I’ve always wanted at least two babies but time is running out. We’re told there’s no reason why we shouldn’t, but we just can’t.’
‘Ah! That is difficult. I’ve no advice to give because Harriet and I would have had a baker’s dozen if we hadn’t taken steps, as you might say.’
‘There you are, you see and I bet you never gave a thought to how lucky you were. It’s so unfair.’ Tears threatened again.
Jimbo put an arm around her shoulders and squeezed her tight. ‘Dispensing advice isn’t part of my shopkeeping duties but for what it’s worth –’ he took a deep breath – ‘you’ve got to keep at it, so to speak. You know, lots of
frequently. Play the sex siren, entice him even when you’re not in bed. In fact sometimes it’s better—’ He was about to explore the subject more deeply when Harriet walked in.
Alice flushed and shook his arm from her shoulders, Jimbo straightened his bow tie, which he guessed by now must be spinning round all of its own accord, and got to his feet. ‘So take my word for it, that’s the best recipe for tomato soup Harriet’s ever made.’
Harriet eyed the two of them with interest. ‘Ah! There you are, darling. Hello, Alice. Beautiful day, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. I’d better go.’ Alice paid for her carton of soup, stuffed it into her music case and melted away out of the door, leaving Harriet standing looking at Jimbo with both her eyebrows raised.
Jimbo checked his bow tie again and then grinned. ‘Well. In all the years I’ve run this store that’s the first time I’ve given intimate advice on marital relations.’
‘Don’t make a habit of it, please.’
Together they burst out laughing.
‘Which part of the procedure did she ask you about, husband dear?’
‘It’s not funny. She wants children and it’s just not happening because they can’t afford to.’
‘I suspect she’s having an affair.’
There was nothing Jimbo loved better than gossip and he eagerly inquired, ‘An affair? Who with?’
‘You swear not to say a word if I tell you?’
‘Two nights ago when I was coming home late from WI, Johnny’s kitchen light was on and they were standing in the kitchen having a rare old kissing session. I crept past trying hard to be invisible.’
‘Why were you coming home via Pipe and Nook from WI?’
‘Because I’d been to the Rectory to pick up some WI papers from Caroline, and Peter was deeply involved with a visitor at the front door so I went out the back way rather than disturb their conversation.’
‘Have you told anyone else?’
‘Johnny Templeton!’ Jimbo repeated the name. ‘Johnny Templeton! No! I say! How could you keep that to yourself?’
‘Because I’m not an old gossip like you and I like Alice and if she’s having some fun with Johnny Templeton, I don’t blame her, married to that idle good-for-nothing. I’ve never liked him; he’s too full of himself.’
‘I know what you mean.’
As he replied to Harriet he became aware of Marcus at that precise moment saying, ‘I’m hoping you’ve got your goat’s milk in by now. We’ve run out and I do prefer it to cow’s milk – so much more taste to it, I always think.’ He smiled at them both. Jimbo quickly pulled himself together and nodded. ‘Indeed we have. It came late last evening. Got held up with all that flooding round the farm. Two pints as usual?’
As Marcus opened the door to leave he turned back to speak to them. ‘I don’t like walking in somewhere and the conversation stops dead. Not customer friendly. No, not at all. However, seeing as I am well brought up I shall overlook it this time. Good morning to you both.’ And with that he left.
‘That’ll teach us not to gossip in the shop,’ Harriet said with a nervous laugh.
Jimbo laughed. ‘Do you think he heard us? You can’t have shut the door properly – that’s why we didn’t hear him come in.’
‘I’m not going to lose any sleep over it.’
‘He’ll never come in here again.’
Harriet headed for the back office. ‘Well, considering how little they spend in here it won’t make us bankrupt.’
Marcus wandered home replaying the snippet of conversation he’d heard and wondering what it all meant.
Alice was already home, making a quick lunch for her and Marcus, and, while she sliced the granary loaf, spread the peanut butter and looked in the fridge for some fresh fruit to round it off, she thought about what Jimbo had advised. But from somewhere deep in her heart Alice knew it wasn’t really Marcus she wanted to have babies with, not any more.
Johnny did not see Alice for three whole days and was beginning to worry. He was a prime marriage target back home in Brazil and he’d been out with whole regiments of women, many of whom were paraded in front of him by their eager mothers, but not one of them had affected him as Alice had. She was everything he wanted in a wife, with surprising depths not at first apparent; an overall gentleness that hid an amusing, joyous, highly intelligent, strong woman, ready for love and ready to give it. The stumbling block was her faithfulness to Marcus.
All credit to him, Marcus was tenacious, but just how blind was that tenacity? Would he still be trying to write a book that had a commercial future twenty years from now? All the while Alice’s singing talents were being drowned in the need to make money to support them both. Didn’t she see what Marcus was doing to her? When she had real talent that could take her to the heights of her profession?
An idea struck him while having a leisurely read of the morning paper after his breakfast the next day. He’d been in the village almost a year and never entertained any of them in his own house. Lots of rounds of drinks in the Royal Oak but never in his own home. He’d have a mad burst of activity putting the final touches to furnishing it and then the invites could go out.
The guest list would have to be carefully crafted to get the right blend of people. He always felt one needed an objective or at least a reason for a dinner party, but what was his? Getting to know the real movers and shakers in the village? Cosying up to Craddock Fitch to assess the chances of buying the big house back into the Templeton fold where it belonged? Usurping Craddock Fitch’s influence in the village by buying as many of the houses as he possibly could, thus limiting Craddock’s influence? Making Marcus look a fool so Alice saw him for what he was? He scrubbed that last idea out immediately as he, Johnny, was not that kind of man and it would only throw Alice, because she was so loyal, right back into Marcus’s arms. That last idea strengthened Johnny’s decision.
He immediately left his house and walked down Stocks Row to put his idea into action by going straight to Alice and Marcus’s and ringing their doorbell. Hopefully Alice would answer the door. His hopes were dashed when he could hear someone clumsily thundering down the stairs right from the top of the house, and then the door opened revealing Marcus looking very much like a man flogging himself over his writing, judging by his three-day growth of beard. He was wearing the oldest sweater imaginable and trousers that matched, giving a kind of complete tweedy brown/green/grubby image right down to his sloppy brown/green slippers.
‘Good morning, Marcus. Nice day.’
‘It is. What do you want? I’m working.’
‘Sorry, never know the best moment to call on a writer. Bad time, is it?’
Marcus nodded self-importantly. ‘It is.’
‘Well, I’ll be quick then. I’m holding a dinner party in a couple of weeks, and I’d like to invite you and your wife . . . Alice, isn’t it? Is there a best night to suggest?’
Marcus, looking as though he was struggling to come down to earth from whatever heavenly plains he’d been on when the doorbell rang, muttered, ‘Never on Thursdays; that’s always ladies’ choir night. Nor Tuesday nor Wednesday – those are heavy teaching nights. Possibly Friday would be the most likely.’
‘Perhaps . . . Alice . . . isn’t it? could let me know definitely? Which is best?’
Marcus nodded. ‘I’ll ask her.’
‘You’ll know everyone who’s being invited. They’re all village people. I look forward to hearing from you.’ He gave Marcus a beaming smile. ‘Get back to your writing before you lose the thread. Sorry to interrupt.’ He stood outside on the doorstep looking across the green. Who next? The Rectory.
Johnny rang the doorbell. Somewhere upstairs a vacuum cleaner was in full swing. He guessed it wouldn’t be Caroline wielding it, didn’t imagine that would be her scene. He heard footsteps and then the door opened.
‘Good morning, Peter. And how are you this bright day?’
‘Fine, thank you.’
‘Time for a word?’
‘Should have been in Penny Fawcett at nine – I always go to the market there, but another ten minutes won’t harm. Come in the study.’
The door closing shut out the noise of the vacuum. ‘It’s Dottie cleaning upstairs. How may I help? Please sit down.’
‘It won’t take long. I’ve decided to invite people to supper – a Friday, more than likely. Would that be convenient, a Friday night for you and Caroline?’
‘It certainly would; we’d be delighted. Any particular Friday night?’
‘Don’t know yet, just checking in preparation for settling on an actual date. Just the usual people, Craddock Fitch and his highly surprising wife . . .’
Peter asked, ‘Oh! you mean the big age gap?’
‘Yes.’ Johnny grinned.
‘They are very well suited actually and very happy.’
‘I didn’t mean anything by it, just that you get a surprise when you see them together. There’ll be Jimbo and Harriet, though I haven’t asked them yet, and Alice and Marcus, and that’s as far as I’ve got.’
‘Sounds a great set of people. Thank you. How are you settling in, Johnny? Must be a far cry from Brazil and running hotels.’
Johnny tapped the side of his nose, saying, ‘I have plans, great plans and I’m here to stay. Won’t keep you. I’ll send invites and make it official. I’m off to see Craddock Fitch now – any tips for dealing with him?’
‘Self-made man, very generous towards the church, considers himself the village benefactor, but . . .’
Johnny begged for further enlightenment. ‘Yes?’
‘The village preferred your uncle Ralph’s discreet approach to giving. Craddock likes everyone to know he’s the first one with his cheque book out. Likes everyone to know who’s doing the giving and they resent that.’
‘Ah! Right. Old Uncle Ralph did it with better grace, you mean?’