Read an Excerpt
There was going to be a storm; the blue sky of a summer evening was slowly being swallowed by black clouds, heavy with rain and thunder, flashing warning signals of flickering lightning over the peaceful Dorset countryside, casting gloom over the village. The girl gathering a line of washing from the small orchard behind the house standing on the village outskirts paused to study the sky before lugging the washing basket through the open door at the back of the house.
She was a small girl, nicely plump, with a face which, while not pretty, was redeemed by fine brown eyes. Her pale brown hair was gathered in an untidy bunch on the top of her head and she was wearing a cotton dress which had seen better days.
She put the basket down, closed the door and went in search of candles and matches, then put two old-fashioned oil lamps on the wooden table. If the storm was bad there would be a power cut before the evening was far advanced.
This done to her satisfaction, she poked up the elderly Aga, set a kettle to boil and turned her attention to the elderly dog and battle-scarred old tomcat, waiting patiently for their suppers.
She got their food, talking while she did so because the eerie quiet before the storm broke was a little unnerving, and then made tea and sat down to drink it as the first heavy drops of rain began to fall.
With the rain came a sudden wind which sent her round the house shutting windows against the deluge. Back in the kitchen, she addressed the dog.
'Well, there won't be anyone coming now,' she told him, and gave a small shriek as lightning flashed and thunder drowned out any other sound. She sat down at the table and he came and sat beside her, and,after a moment, the cat got onto her lap.
The wind died down as suddenly as it had arisen but the storm was almost overhead. It had become very dark and the almost continuous flashes made it seem even darker. Presently the light over the table began to flicker; she prudently lit a candle before it went out.
She got up then, lighted the lamps and took one into the hall before sitting down again. There was nothing to do but to wait until the storm had passed.
The lull was shattered by a peal on the doorbell, so unexpected that she sat for a moment, not quite believing it. But a second prolonged peal sent her to the door, lamp in hand.
A man stood in the porch. She held the lamp high in order to get a good look at him; he was a very large man, towering over her.
'I saw your sign. Can you put us up for the night? I don't care to drive further in this weather.'
He had a quiet voice and he looked genuine. 'Who's we?' she asked.
'My mother and myself.'
She slipped the chain off the door. 'Come in.' She peered round him. 'Is that your car?'
'Yesis there a garage?'
'Go round the side of the house; there's a barnthe door's open. There's plenty of room there.'
He nodded and turned back to the car to open its door and help his mother out. Ushering them into the hall, the girl said, 'Come back in through the kitchen door; I'll leave it unlocked. It's across the yard from the barn.'
He nodded again, a man of few words, she supposed, and he went outside. She turned to look at her second guest. The woman was tall, good-looking, in her late fifties, she supposed, and dressed with understated elegance.
'Would you like to see your room? And would you like a meal? It's a bit late to cook dinner but you could have an omelette or scrambled eggs and bacon with tea or coffee?'
The older woman put out a hand. 'Mrs Ffordespelt with two ffs, I'm afraid. My son's a doctor; he was driving me to the other side of Glastonbury, taking a shortcut, but driving had become impossible. Your sign was like something from heaven.' She had to raise her voice against the heavenly din.
The girl offered a hand. 'Amabel Parsons. I'm sorry you had such a horrid journey.'
'I hate storms, don't you? You're not alone in the house?'
'Well, yes, I am, but I have Cyrilthat's my dogand Oscar the cat.'Amabel hesitated. 'Would you like to come into the sitting room until Dr Fforde comes? Then you can decide if you would like something to eat. I'm afraid you will have to go to bed by candlelight '
She led the way down the hall and into a small room, comfortably furnished with easy chairs and a small round table. There were shelves of books on either side of the fireplace and a large window across which Amabel drew the curtains before setting the lamp on the table.
'I'll unlock the kitchen door,' she said and hurried back to the kitchen just in time to admit the doctor.
He was carrying two cases. 'Shall I take these up?'
'Yes, please. I'll ask Mrs Fforde if she would like to go to her room now. I asked if you would like anything to eat '
'Most emphatically yes. That's if it's not putting you to too much trouble. Anything will dosandwiches '
'Omelettes, scrambled eggs, bacon and eggs? I did explain to Mrs Fforde that it's too late to cook a full meal.'
He smiled down at her. 'I'm sure Mother is longing for a cup of tea, and omelettes sound fine.' He glanced round him. 'You're not alone?'
'Yes,' said Amabel. 'I'll take you upstairs.'
She gave them the two rooms at the front of the house and pointed out the bathroom. 'Plenty of hot water,' she added, before going back to the kitchen.
When they came downstairs presently she had the table laid in the small room and offered them omelettes, cooked to perfection, toast and butter and a large pot of tea. This had kept her busy, but it had also kept her mind off the storm, still raging above their heads. It rumbled away finally in the small hours, but by the time she had cleared up the supper things and prepared the breakfast table, she was too tired to notice.
She was up early, but so was Dr Fforde. He accepted the tea she offered him before he wandered out of the door into the yard and the orchard beyond, accompanied by Cyril. He presently strolled back to stand in the doorway and watch her getting their breakfast.
Amabel, conscious of his steady gaze, said briskly, 'Would Mrs Fforde like breakfast in bed? It's no extra trouble.'
'I believe she would like that very much. I'll have mine with you here.'
'Oh, you can't do that.' She was taken aback. 'I mean, your breakfast is laid in the sitting room. I'll bring it to you whenever you're ready.'
'I dislike eating alone. If you put everything for Mother on a tray I'll carry it up.'
He was friendly in a casual way, but she guessed that he was a man who disliked arguing. She got a tray ready, and when he came downstairs again and sat down at the kitchen table she put a plate of bacon, eggs and mushrooms in front of him, adding toast and marmalade before pouring the tea.
'Come and sit down and eat your breakfast and tell me why you live here alone,' he invited. He sounded so like an elder brother or a kind uncle that she did so, watching him demolish his breakfast with evident enjoyment before loading a slice of toast with butter and marmalade.
She had poured herself a cup of tea, but whatever he said she wasn't going to eat her breakfast with him
He passed her the slice of toast. 'Eat that up and tell me why you live alone.'
'Well, really!' began Amabel and then, meeting his kindly look, added, 'It's only for a month or so. My mother's gone to Canada,' she told him. 'My married sister lives there and she's just had a baby. It was such a good opportunity for her to go. You see, in the summer we get quite a lot of people coming just for bed and breakfast, like you, so I'm not really alone. It's different in the winter, of course.'
He asked, 'You don't mind being here by yourself? What of the daysand nightswhen no one wants bed and breakfast?'
She said defiantly, 'I have Cyril, and Oscar's splendid company. Besides, there's the phone.'
'And your nearest neighbour?' he asked idly.
'Old Mrs Drew, round the bend in the lane going to the village. Also, it's only half a mile to the village.' She still sounded defiant.
He passed his cup for more tea. Despite her brave words he suspected that she wasn't as self-assured as she would have him believe. A plain girl, he considered, but nice eyes, nice voice and apparently not much interest in clothes; the denim skirt and cotton blouse were crisp and spotless, but could hardly be called fashionable. He glanced at her hands, which were small and well shaped, bearing signs of housework.
He said, A lovely morning after the storm. That's a pleasant orchard you have beyond the yard. And a splendid view '
'Yes, it's splendid all the year round.'
'Do you get cut off in the winter?'
'Yes, sometimes. Would you like more tea?'
'No, thank you. I'll see if my mother is getting ready to leave.' He smiled at her. 'That was a delicious meal.' But not, he reflected, a very friendly one. Amabel Parsons had given him the strong impression that she wished him out of the house.
Within the hour he and his mother had gone, driving away in the dark blue Rolls Royce. Amabel stood in the open doorway, watching it disappear round the bend in the lane. It had been providential, she told herself, that they should have stopped at the house at the height of the storm; they had kept her busy and she hadn't had the time to be frightened. They had been no troubleand she needed the money.
It would be nice, she thought wistfully, to have someone like Dr Fforde as a friend. Sitting at breakfast with him, she'd had an urgent desire to talk to him, tell him how lonely she was, and sometimes a bit scared, how tired she was of making up beds and getting breakfast for a succession of strangers, keeping the place going until her mother returned, and all the while keeping up the façade of an independent and competent young woman perfectly able to manage on her own.
That was necessary, otherwise well-meaning people in the village would have made it their business to dissuade her mother from her trip and even suggest that Amabel should shut up the house and go and stay with a great-aunt she hardly knew, who lived in Yorkshire and who certainly wouldn't want her.
Amabel went back into the house, collected up the bedlinen and made up the beds again; hopefully there would be more guests later in the day
She readied the rooms, inspected the contents of the fridge and the deep freeze, hung out the washing and made herself a sandwich before going into the orchard with Cyril and Oscar. They sat, the three of them, on an old wooden bench, nicely secluded from the lane but near enough to hear if anyone called.
Which they did, just as she was on the point of going indoors for her tea.
The man on the doorstep turned round impatiently as she reached him.
'I rang twice. I want bed and breakfast for my wife, son and daughter.'
Amabel turned to look at the car. There was a young man in the driver's seat, and a middle-aged woman and a girl sitting in the back.
'Three rooms? Certainly. But I must tell you that there is only one bathroom, although there are handbasins in the rooms.'
He said rudely, 'I suppose that's all we can expect in this part of the world. We took a wrong turning and landed ourselves here, at the back of beyond. What do you charge? And we do get a decent breakfast?'
Amabel told him, 'Yes.' As her mother frequently reminded her, it took all sorts to make the world.
The three people in the car got out: a bossy woman, the girl pretty but sulky, and the young man looking at her in a way she didn't like
They inspected their rooms with loud-voiced comments about old-fashioned furniture and no more than one bathroomand that laughably old-fashioned. And they wanted tea: sandwiches and scones and cake. 'And plenty of jam,' the young man shouted after her as she left the room.
After tea they wanted to know where the TV was.
'I haven't got a television.'
They didn't believe her. 'Everyone has a TV set,' complained the girl. 'Whatever are we going to do this evening?'
'The village is half a mile down the lane,' said Amabel. 'There's a pub there, and you can get a meal, if you wish.'
'Better than hanging around here.'
It was a relief to see them climb back into the car and drive off presently. She laid the table for their breakfast and put everything ready in the kitchen before getting herself some supper. It was a fine light evening, so she strolled into the orchard and sat down on the bench. Dr Fforde and his mother would be at Glastonbury, she supposed, staying with family or friends. He would be married, of course, to a pretty girl with lovely clothesthere would be a small boy and a smaller girl, and they would live in a large and comfortable house; he was successful, for he drove a Rolls Royce
Conscious that she was feeling sad, as well as wasting her time, she went back indoors and made out the bill; there might not be time in the morning.
She was up early the next morning; breakfast was to be ready by eight o'clock, she had been told on the previous eveninga decision she'd welcomed with relief. Breakfast was eaten, the bill paidbut only after double-checking everything on it and some scathing comments about the lack of modern amenities.
Amabel waited politely at the door until they had driven away then went to put the money in the old tea caddy on the kitchen dresser. It added substantially to the contents but it had been hard earned!
The rooms, as she'd expected, had been left in a disgraceful state. She flung open the window, stripped beds and set about turning them back to their usual pristine appearance. It was still early, and it was a splendid morning, so she filled the washing machine and started on the breakfast dishes.