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It was five o'clock and the warm hazy sunshine of a September afternoon was dwindling into the evening's coolness. The Misses Potter, sitting at a table in the window of the tea-shop, put down their teacups reluctantly and prepared to leave. Miss Emily, the elder of the two ladies, rammed her sensible hat more firmly on her head and addressed the girl sitting behind the tiny counter at the back of the room.
'If we might have our bill, Mary Jane?'
The girl came to the table and the two ladies looked at her, wondering, as they frequently did, how whoever had chosen the girl's name could have guessed how aptly it fitted. She looked like a Mary Jane, not tall, a little too thin, with an unremarkable face and light brown hair, straight and long and pinned in an untidy swirl on top of her head. Only when she looked at you the violet eyes, fringed with long curling lashes, made one forget her prosaic person.
She said now in her quiet voice, 'I hope you enjoyed your tea. In another week or two I'll start making teacakes.'
Her customers nodded in unison. 'We shall look forward to that.' Miss Emily opened her purse. 'We mustn't keep you, it's closing time.' She put money on the table and Mary Jane opened the door and waited until they were across the village street before closing it.
She cleared the table, carried everything into the small kitchen behind the tea-room and went to turn the notice to 'Closed' on the door just as a car drew up outside. The door was thrust open before she had time to turn the key and a man came in. He was massively built and tall, so that the small room became even smaller.
'Good,' he said briskly. 'You're not closed. My companion would like tea '
'But I am closed,' said Mary Jane in a reasonable voice. 'I'm just locking the door, only you pushed it open. You are not very far from Stow-on-the-Wold- there are several hotels there, you'll get tea quite easily.'
The man spoke evenly, rather as though he were addressing a child or someone hard of hearing. 'My companion doesn't wish to wait any longer. A pot of tea is all I am asking for; surely that isn't too much?'
He sounded like a man who liked his own way and got it, but Mary Jane had a lot to do before she could go to her bed; besides, she disliked being browbeaten. 'I'm sorry.'
She was interrupted by the girl who swept into the tea-room. No, not a girl, decided Mary Jane, a woman in her thirties and beautiful, although her looks were marred by her frown and tight mouth.
'Where's my tea?' she demanded. 'Good lord, Thomas, all I want is a cup of tea. Is that too much to ask for? What is this dump, anyway?' She flung herself gracefully into one of the little cane chairs. 'I suppose it will be undrinkable tea-bags, but if there's nothing else '
Mary Jane gave the man an icy violet stare. 'I do have drinkable tea-bags,' she told him, 'but perhaps the lady would prefer Earl Grey or Orange Pekoe?'
'Earl Grey,' snapped the woman, 'and I hope I shan't have to wait too long.'
'Just while the kettle boils,' said Mary Jane in a dangerously gentle voice.
She went into the kitchen and laid a tray and made the tea and carried it to the table and was very surprised when the man got up and took the tray from her.
In the kitchen she started clearing up. There would be a batch of scones to make after she had had her supper and the sugar bowls to fill and the jam dishes to see to as well as the pastry to make ready for the sausage rolls she served during the lunch-hour. She was putting the last of the crockery away when the man came to the doorway. 'The bill?' he asked.
She went behind the counter and made it out and handed it silently to him, and the woman called across, 'I imagine there is no ladies' room here?'
Mary Jane paused in counting change. 'No.' She added deliberately, 'The public lavatories are on the other side of the village square on the road to Moreton.'
The man bit off a laugh and then said with cool politeness, 'Thank you for giving us tea.' He ushered his companion out of the door, turning as he did so to turn the notice to 'Closed'.
Mary Jane watched him drive away. It was a nice car-a dark blue Rolls-Royce. There was a lonely stretch of road before they reached Stow-on-the-Wold, and she hoped they would run out of petrol. It was unlikely, though, he didn't strike her as that kind of man.
She locked the door, tidied the small room with its four tables and went through to the kitchen, where she washed the last of the tea things, put her supper in the oven and went up the narrow staircase tucked away behind a door by the dresser. Upstairs, she went first to her bedroom, a low-ceilinged room with a latticed window overlooking the back garden and furnished rather sparsely. The curtains were pretty, however, as was the bedspread and there were flowers in a bowl on the old-fashioned dressing-table. She tidied herself without wasting too much time about it, and crossed the tiny landing to the living-room at the front of the cottage. Quite a large room since it was over the tea-room, and furnished as sparsely as the bedroom. There were flowers here too, and a small gas fire in the tiled grate, which she lighted before switching on a reading lamp by the small armchair, so that the room looked welcoming. That done, she went downstairs again to open the kitchen door to allow Brimble, her cat, to come in-a handsome tabby who, despite his cat-flap, preferred to come in and out like anyone else. He wreathed himself round her legs now, wanting his supper and, when she had fed him, went upstairs to lie before the gas fire.
Mary Jane took the shepherd's pie out of the oven, laid the table under the kitchen window and sat down to eat her supper, listening with half an ear to the last of the six o'clock news while she planned her baking for the next day. The bus went into Stow-on-the-Wold on Fridays, returning around four o'clock, and those passengers who lived on the outskirts of the village frequently came in for a pot of tea before they set off for home.
She finished the pie and ate an apple, cleared the table and got out her pastry board and rolling pin. Scones were easy to make and were always popular. She did two batches and then saw to the sausage rolls before going into the tea-room to count the day's takings. Hardly a fortune; she just about paid her way but there was nothing over for holidays or new clothes, though the cottage was hers.
Uncle Matthew had left it to her when he had died two years previously. He had been her guardian ever since her own parents had been killed in their car. She and Felicity, who was older than she was, had been schoolgirls and their uncle and aunt had given them a home and educated them. Felicity, with more than her fair share of good looks, had taken herself off to London as soon as she had left school and had become a successful model, while Mary Jane had stayed at home to run the house for an ailing aunt and an uncle who, although kind, didn't bother with her overmuch. When her aunt had died she had stayed on, looking after him and the house, trying not to think about the future and the years flying by. She had been almost twenty-three when her uncle died and, to her astonished delight, left her the cottage he had owned in the village and five hundred pounds. She had moved into it from his large house at the other end of the village as soon as she could, for Uncle Matthew's heir had disliked her on sight and so had his wife.
She had spent some of the money on second-hand furniture and then, since she had no skills other than that of a good cook, she had opened the tea-room. She was known and liked in the village, which was a help, and after a few uncertain months she was making just enough to live on and pay the bills. Felicity had been to see her, amused at the whole set-up but offering no help. 'You always were the domestic type,' she had observed laughingly. 'I'd die if I had to spend my days here, you know. I'm going to the Caribbean to do some modelling next week-don't you wish you were me?'
Mary Jane had considered the question. 'No, not really,' she said finally. 'I do hope you have a lovely time.'
'I intend to, though the moment I set eyes on a handsome rich man I shall marry him.' She gave Mary Jane a friendly pat on the shoulder. 'Not much hope of that happening to you, darling.'
Mary Jane had agreed pleasantly, reflecting that just to set eyes on a man who hadn't lived all his life in the village and was either married or about to be married would be nice.
She remembered that now as she took the last lot of sausage rolls out of the oven. She had certainly met a man that very afternoon and, unless he had borrowed that car, he was at least comfortably off and handsome to boot. A pity that they hadn't fallen in love with each other at first sight, the way characters did in books. Rather the reverse: he had shown no desire to meet her again and she hadn't liked him. She cleared up once more and went upstairs to sit with Brimble by the fire and presently she went to bed.
It was exactly a week later when Miss Emily Potter came into the shop at the unusual hour-for her-of eleven o'clock in the morning.
Beyond an elderly couple and a young man on a motorbike in a great hurry, Mary Jane had had no customers, which was a good thing, for Miss Emily was extremely agitated.
'I did not know which way to turn,' she began breathlessly, 'and then I thought of you, Mary Jane. Mrs Stokes is away, you know, and Miss Kemble over at the rectory has the young mothers' and toddlers' coffee-morning. The taxi is due in a short time and dear Mabel is quite overwrought.'
Mary Jane saw that she would have to get to the heart of the matter quickly before Miss Emily became distraught as well. 'Why?'
Miss Potter gave her a startled look. 'She has to see this specialist-her hip, you know. Dr Fellows made the appointment but now she is most unwilling to go. So unfortunate, for this specialist comes very rarely to Cheltenham and the appointment is for two o'clock and I cannot possibly go with her, Didums is poorly and cannot be left.'
'You would like me to have Didums?' asked Mary Jane and sighed inwardly. Didums was a particularly awkward pug dog with a will of her own; Brimble wouldn't like her at all.
'No, no-dear Didums would never go with anyone but myself or my sister. If you would go with Mabel?' Miss Potter gazed rather wildly around the tea-room. 'There's no one here; you could close for an hour or two.'
Mary Jane forbore from pointing out that although there was no one there at the moment, any minute now the place might be filled with people demanding coffee and biscuits. It wasn't likely but there was always a chance. 'When would we get back?' she asked cautiously.
'Well, if the appointment is for two o'clock I don't suppose she will be very long, do you? I'm sure you should be back by four o'clock.'
Miss Potter wrung her hands. 'Oh, dear, I have no idea what to do.'
The taxi would take something over half an hour to get to the hospital. Mary Jane supposed that they would need to get there with half an hour to spare.
'I believe that there is a very good place in the hospital where you can get coffee-dear Mabel will need refreshment.'
Mary Jane thought that after a ride in the taxi with the overwrought Miss Mabel Potter she might be in need of refreshment herself. She said in her calm way, 'I'll be over in half an hour or so, Miss Potter. There's still plenty of time.'
A tearfully grateful Miss Potter went on her way. Mary Jane closed the tea-room, changed into a blouse and skirt and a cardigan, drank a cup of coffee and ate a scone, made sure that Brimble was cosily asleep on the end of her bed and walked across the village square and along the narrow country lane which led to the Misses Potter's cottage. It was called a cottage but, in fact, it was a rather nice house built of Cotswold stone and much too large for them. They had been born there and intended to live out their lives there, even though they were forced to do so as economically as possible. Mary Jane went up the garden path, rang the bell and was admitted by Miss Emily and led to the drawing-room, where Miss Mabel sat surrounded by furniture which had been there before she was born and which neither she nor her sister would dream of changing.
Mary Jane sat down on a nice little Victorian button-back chair and embarked on a cheerful conversation. It was rather like talking to someone condemned to the guillotine; Miss Mabel bore the appearance of someone whose last moment had come. It was a relief when the taxi arrived and the cheerful conversation was scrapped for urgent persuasions to get in.
They were half an hour too early for their appointment, which was a mistake, for the orthopaedic clinic, although it had started punctually, was already running late. It was going on for three o'clock by the time the severe-looking sister called Miss Potter's name and by then she was in such a nervous state that Mary Jane had a job getting her on to her feet and into the consulting-room.
The consultant sitting behind the desk got up and shook Miss Potter's nerveless hand-the man who had demanded tea for his tiresome companion. Mary Jane, never one to think before she spoke, said chattily, 'Oh, hello-it's you-fancy seeing you here.'
She received a look from icy blue eyes in which there was no hint of recollection, although his 'Good afternoon' was uttered with detached civility and she blushed, something she did far too easily however much she tried not to. The stern-faced sister took no notice. She said briskly, 'You had better stay with Miss Potter, she seems nervous.'
Mary Jane sat herself down in a corner of the room where Miss Potter could see her and watched the man wheedle that lady's complaints and symptoms out of her. He did it very kindly and without any sign of impatience, even when Miss Potter sidetracked to explain about the marmalade which hadn't jelled because she had felt poorly and hadn't given it her full attention. A nasty, arrogant man, Mary Jane decided, but he had his good points. She had thought about him once or twice of course, and with a touch of wistfulness, for handsome giants who drove Rolls-Royce motor cars weren't exactly thick on the ground in her part of the world, but she hadn't expected to see him again. She wondered about his beautiful companion and was roused from her thoughts by Sister leading Miss Mabel away to a curtained-off corner to be examined.