The Blue Bedroom and Other Storiesby Rosamunde Pilcher
Rosamunde Pilcher, bestselling author of The Shell Seekers, invites her fans to share the full spectrum of life's moods and emotions through a breathtaking array of short stories never published before in book form. The Blue Bedroom is a welcoming experience bearing the honesty and warmth unique to Rosamunde Pilcher. Martin's. See more details below
Rosamunde Pilcher, bestselling author of The Shell Seekers, invites her fans to share the full spectrum of life's moods and emotions through a breathtaking array of short stories never published before in book form. The Blue Bedroom is a welcoming experience bearing the honesty and warmth unique to Rosamunde Pilcher. Martin's.
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The Blue Bedroom and Other Stories
By Rosamunde Pilcher
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1985 Rosamunde Pilcher
All rights reserved.
On a cold spring day, just before Easter, Jemmy Todd, the postman, walked into the Hardings' kitchen, laid the morning's mail on their breakfast table, and told them that Mr. Sawcombe, their neighbour, had died, early that morning, of a heart attack.
There were four Hardings sitting at the table. Toby, eight years old, was in the process of eating cornflakes. Now, hearing about Mr. Sawcombe, he could feel the cornflakes in his mouth, soggy and crunchy all at once, but there was no way to get rid of the mouthful, because it seemed that he had forgotten how to chew, and as well a lump began to grow in his throat, making it impossible to swallow.
The only good thing was that the rest of his family seemed to be equally shocked and dumbfounded. His father, dressed for the office and just on the point of getting up from the table and leaving for work, laid down his coffee cup and sat back in his chair and stared at Jemmy.
"Bill Sawcombe? Dead? When did you hear?"
"Vicar told me first thing, just as I was starting my round. Met him coming out of the church."
Toby looked at his mother and saw that her eyes were bright with tears. "Oh, dear." He could not bear her to cry. He had seen her cry once before, when her old dog had had to be put down, and the sensation that his world was falling to pieces had stayed with him for days. "Poor Mrs. Sawcombe. What a dreadful shock for her."
"He had a heart attack a couple of years ago, remember," said Jemmy.
"But he got over it. And he'd been keeping so well, enjoying his garden, and having a bit of time to himself after all those years of running his farm."
Vicky, who was nineteen, suddenly found her voice. "I can't bear it. I simply don't think I can bear it."
Vicky was home for Easter from London, where she had a job and a flat that she shared with two other girls. When she was on holiday Vicky never dressed for breakfast, but came downstairs in her bathrobe, which was made of white towelling and had blue stripes. The blue stripes were the same blue as Vicky's eyes and she had long pale hair and sometimes looked very pretty and sometimes very plain. She looked plain now. Distress made her plain, pulling down the corners of her mouth as though she was about to burst into tears, accentuating the peaky contours of her bony little face. Their father was always telling Vicky that she was much too thin, but as she ate like a ploughman, nobody could accuse her of anything except, possibly, greed.
"He was such a nice man. We shall miss him." His mother's eyes turned to Toby, still sitting there with his cheeks full of unchewed cornflakes. She knew—they all knew—that Mr. Sawcombe had been Toby's best friend. She leaned across the table and laid a hand over his own. "We'll all miss him, Toby."
Toby did not reply. But with his mother's hand over his own he found that it was possible to swallow the last of the cornflakes. His mother, understanding, gently removed the half-empty bowl that stood on the table in front of him.
"One thing," said Jemmy, "there's Tom there to take on the farm. It's not as though Mrs. Sawcombe's on her own."
Tom was Mr. Sawcombe's grandson. Tom was twenty-three. Toby and Vicky had known him all their lives. In the old days when they were much younger, Vicky and Tom used to go to parties together, to Pony Club dances, and to gymkhana camps in the summer. But then Tom went away, to Agricultural College, and Vicky grew up too and learned how to be a secretary, and she went to London, and somehow, now, they didn't seem to have very much in common.
Toby thought this was a shame. Vicky made lots of new friends, and sometimes brought them home. But Toby didn't think any of them was as nice as Tom Sawcombe. There had been one, called Philip, who had come to spend New Year with the Hardings. He was very tall and fair, and drove around in a car that looked like a shiny black torpedo, but somehow he didn't fit properly into the fabric of ordinary family life, and, what was more disturbing, when he was there Vicky didn't fit in either. She talked in a different way; she laughed in a different way.
On New Year's Eve, they had a small party, and Tom was invited, but Vicky behaved in an offhand and casual way towards him, and Tom was obviously very hurt. Toby thought her behaviour sickening. He was very fond of Tom and could not bear to see him so cast down, and when the uncomfortable evening was over, he told his mother so.
"I know just how you feel," his mother said, "but we must let Vicky lead her own life and make her own decisions. She's grown up now, she can choose her own friends, make her own mistakes, go her own way. That's what being a family is all about."
"I don't want to be a family with Vicky if she's going to be so horrid."
"Perhaps that's how you feel just now, but she is your sister."
"I don't like that Philip."
* * *
The dreaded Philip, however, mercifully faded out of Vicky's life. She did not invite him home again, and gradually his name in her conversation was replaced by other names. Vicky's family breathed a sigh of relief and things returned to normal, but not so with Tom. Since that evening, communications between himself and Vicky appeared to have broken down, and now, if she was home, Tom never came near the house.
"No, Mrs. Sawcombe's certainly not on her own," said Mr. Harding. "She's got a good boy there." He looked at his watch and got up from the table. "I must be off. Thank you for telling us, Jemmy."
"Sorry to be the bearer of sad news," Jemmy replied, and went away in his little red post van to spread the tidings around the rest of the parish. Toby's father departed in the big car for the office. Vicky went upstairs to get dressed. Toby and his mother were left alone, sitting at the table.
He looked at her and she smiled, and he said, "I've never had a friend who died before."
"It happens to everybody, sooner or later."
"He was only sixty-two. He told me so, the day before yesterday. That's not old." "Heart attacks are funny things. And at least he wasn't very ill or infirm. He would have hated to be bedridden, or dependent on his family—a nuisance to anybody. When people die, Toby, you have to think of good things, remember good times. And be glad for them."
"I'm not glad Mr. Sawcombe's dead."
"Death is part of life."
"He was only sixty-two."
"Why don't you have some bacon and eggs?"
"I don't want bacon and eggs."
"Then what do you want to do?"
"I don't know."
"Why don't you go down to the village and see if David would like to play with you?" David Harker was Toby's holiday friend. His father ran the village pub, and sometimes David was good for a free fizzy drink or a packet of crisps.
Toby considered this. It was, perhaps, better than nothing. "All right." He pushed back his chair and stood up. There was a horrible clamped sort of feeling in his chest as though somebody had hurt his heart.
"... and don't be too sad about Mr. Sawcombe. He wouldn't want you to be too sad."
* * *
He went out of the house and down the lane. Between the lane and the cow pasture that was part of Mr. Sawcombe's farm was a small paddock where Vicky used to keep her pony. But the pony had long since departed, and Toby's father had let the grazing to Mr. Sawcombe for Mrs. Sawcombe's four Jacob ewes. They were her pets, horned and spotted, and had old-fashioned names like Daisy and Emily. One cold morning at the end of October, Toby had come down to see the sheep and had found a mighty horned ram in with the girls. The ram had stayed for a bit, and then had been manhandled home by his owner, bundled ignominiously into the back of a ramshackle van.
But he had done his stuff. Already three pairs of twin lambs had arrived, and now only Daisy was awaiting her time. Toby leaned over the fence and called to her, and she came slowly and with dignity, to fondle his hand with her noble nose, to let him scratch the wooly poll between her proud, curved horns.
Toby eyed her professionally, as Tom eyed her. She was enormous, her bulk made more huge by her fleece of long, soft wool.
"Are you going to have your twins today?" he asked her.
Daisy has twins too, Mr. Sawcombe had said, only a day or so ago, and we'll have a two hundred percent lambing, Toby. Two hundred percent. That's the best any sheep farmer can ask for. I'd like that to happen. For Mrs. Sawcombe's sake, I'd like that to happen.
Impossible to accept that he would never speak to Mr. Sawcombe again. Impossible to accept that he had gone; that he simply wasn't there. Other people had died, but never a person so close to Toby as Mr. Sawcombe. Toby's grandfather had died, but so long ago that Toby didn't even remember him. There was only a photograph beside Granny's bed, and stories that Granny told him. After his grandfather had died, Granny had stayed on in the old, empty house until it became too much for her to cope with, and then Toby's father had turned the back wing of the Hardings' house into a Granny flat. So now Granny lived with them. And yet not with them, for the flat was quite separate, and she had her own kitchen and bathroom and cooked her own meals and you had to knock on the dividing door before you could go and see her. Toby's grandmother said it was important always to knock, because bursting in on Granny, unheralded, would be an invasion of her privacy.
* * *
He left Daisy and went on towards the village, still deep in thought. He knew other people who had died. Mrs. Fletcher who kept the village shop and post office had died, and Toby's mother had put on a black hat and gone to Mrs. Fletcher's funeral. But Mrs. Fletcher had not been a friend. In fact, Toby had always been rather afraid of her, so old was she, so ugly, sitting, selling stamps like a great black spider. By the time Mrs. Fletcher had passed on, her daughter Olive had taken over the running of the shop, but right up to the end Mrs. Fletcher was there, a brooding presence, munching on her dentures, knitting socks, and keeping a beady eye on everything that took place. No, he had not loved Mrs. Fletcher. He had not missed Mrs. Fletcher. But already he was missing Mr. Sawcombe.
He thought of David. Go and play with David, his mother had suggested, but all at once Toby knew that he was not in the mood for being an astronaut, or going to look for fish in the muddy stream that ran along the bottom of the garden at the back of the pub. He would go and call on another of his friends, Willie Harrell, the village carpenter. Willie was a gentle, slow-speaking man who wore old-fashioned bib-and- brace overalls and a baggy tweed cap. Toby had first made friends with him when Willie came to the house to fit new cupboards in the kitchen, and after that one of his favourite ploys on empty holiday mornings was to walk down to the village and have a few words with Willie in his workshop.
The workshop itself was a magic place, sweet smelling and littered with ringlets of shaven wood. Here Willie constructed farm gates and barn doors as well as window frames and joists and beams. And here, too, from time to time, Willie made coffins, for he was the undertaker as well as the joiner. In this role, he became a totally different person, bowler-hatted and dark-suited, and assuming, with his sombre attire, a hushed and respectful voice and expression of pious gloom.
His workshop door, this morning, stood open. His little van was parked in the littered yard. Toby went to the door and looked inside. Willie was leaning against his workbench drinking a mug of tea from a thermos.
He looked up. "Hello there, young Toby." He smiled. "What are you up to, then?"
"I thought I'd just come and talk." He wondered if Willie knew about Mr. Sawcombe. He went over to Willie's side and leaned against the workbench and picked up a screwdriver and began to fiddle with it.
"Got nothing to do?"
"Saw young David a moment ago, out on his bicycle, wearing a cowboy hat. Not much fun playing cowboys on your own."
"I don't feel like playing cowboys."
"Well, I can't stop and talk to you today. I've got a job to do. Got to get up Sawcombe's back of eleven o'clock."
Toby did not say anything to this. But he knew what it was all about. Willie and Mr. Sawcombe had been friends all their lives, partners in the bowling team, church wardens together on Sundays. Now Willie was going to have to ... Toby's mind shied from what Willie was going to do.
"What is it?"
"Mr. Sawcombe's dead."
"I thought you knew," said Willie sympathetically. "Could tell by your face, the moment you walked in." He set down his tea mug and laid a hand on Toby's shoulder. "You mustn't grieve. You'll miss him, I know, but you mustn't grieve. We'll all miss him, come to that," he added, sounding suddenly forlorn.
"He was my best friend."
"I know." Willie shook his head. "Funny thing, friendship. You a little chap, how old are you? Eight years old. And yet you and Bill Sawcombe got on like a house on fire. We always thought it was because you was so much on your own, being so much littler than Vicky. Like an afterthought. Little afterthought, Bill and I used to call you. Harding's little afterthought."
"Willie ... are you going to make a coffin for Mr. Sawcombe?"
"I expect so."
Toby thought of Willie making the coffin, choosing the wood, planing the surface, tucking his old friend up in its warm, scented interior, as though he were tucking him up in bed. It was an oddly comforting image.
"What is it now?"
"I know that when a person dies, you put them in a coffin and carry them to the graveyard. And I know that when people are dead they go to Heaven to be with God. But what happens in between?"
"Ah," said Willie. He took another draught of tea, emptying his mug. Then he laid his hand on Toby's head and gave it a little shake. "Perhaps that's a secret between God and me."
He still did not want to play with David. When Willie had departed for Sawcombe's in his little van, Toby set off for home because he couldn't think of anything else to do. He took a shortcut through the sheep paddock. The three ewes who had already lambed were out in the middle of the field, with their children about them. But Daisy had taken herself off into a corner, to the shade and privacy of a tall Scotch pine, where she was sheltered from the wind and the blinking spring sunshine. And beside her, teetering on wobbly legs, tiny as a puppy, stood a single lamb.
Toby knew better than to go near her. He watched her for a little, saw the baby nuzzling the huge woolly body for milk, heard Daisy's gentle voice as she spoke to her baby. He found that he was torn between pleasure and disappointment. Pleasure because the lamb had arrived safely, and disappointment because it was not twins and now Mrs. Sawcombe would not have her two hundred percent lambing. Daisy, after a little, lay cumbrously down. The lamb collapsed beside her. Toby went on up the field, climbed the fence, and went into the house to tell his mother. "Daisy's had her lamb. That's the last one."
His mother was mashing potatoes for lunch. She turned from the stove to look at Toby. "Not twins?"
"No, just one. It's sucking and it looks all right. Perhaps we'd better tell Tom."
"Why don't you go and phone him?"
But Toby didn't want to ring Sawcombe's in case Mrs. Sawcombe answered the telephone and he wouldn't know what to say.
"Can't you do it?"
"Oh, darling, I can't just now. Lunch is ready and after that I'm going down to see Mrs. Sawcombe and take her some flowers. I'll leave a message for Tom."
"I think he should know now. Mr. Sawcombe always liked to know right away about the lambs arriving. Just in case, he said."
"Well, if you feel so strongly about it, get Vicky to phone Tom."
"It can't hurt to ask her. She's upstairs, ironing. And tell her lunch is ready."
He went to find his sister. "Vicky, lunch is ready, and Daisy's had her lamb, and we wondered if you'd ring Sawcombe's and tell Tom. He'll want to know."
Vicky put down the iron with a thump. "I'm not going to ring Tom Sawcombe."
"Because I don't want to, that's why. You ring him."
Toby knew why she didn't want to ring Tom. Because she had been so horrid to him at New Year, and because since that he hadn't spoken to her. "You ring him," she said again.
Toby wrinkled his nose. "What will I say if Mrs. Sawcombe answers the phone?"
"Well, get Mother to ring him."
"She's too busy and in a hurry because she's going to see Mrs. Sawcombe after lunch."
"Why doesn't she leave a message for Tom?"
"That's what she said she'd do."
"Oh, Toby," said Vicky, in exasperation, "then what's all the fuss about?"
He said, stubbornly, "Mr. Sawcombe always liked to know right away."
Vicky frowned. "There's nothing wrong with Daisy, is there?" She was as fond of Daisy as Toby was, and now she stopped sounding cross and snappy and spoke in her ordinary nice voice.
"I don't think so."
"Then she'll be all right." She turned off the switch of the iron and stood it up on its end on the board to cool. "Let's go down and have lunch. I'm starving."
Excerpted from The Blue Bedroom and Other Stories by Rosamunde Pilcher. Copyright © 1985 Rosamunde Pilcher. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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