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Mary Pagett, stripping a bed with energy, was singing at the top of her voice. Not because she was happy, but to quell the frustration within. For her fatherthat charming but absent-minded manto invite Great Aunt Thirza to spend her convalescence at his home had been a misplaced kindness, bringing with it a string of inconveniences which would have to be overcome.
For a start Mrs Blackett, who came daily to oblige and suffered from a persistent ill temper, was going to object to peeling more potatoes and scraping more carrots, not to mention the extra work vacuuming the guest bedroom. And Mr Archer, the village butcher, was going to express hurt feelings at the lack of orders for sausages and braising steak, since Great Aunt Thirza was a vegetarian, and for reasons of economy the rest of the household would have to be vegetarian too.
There was her mother tooMary's voice rose a few decibelsa lovable, whimsical lady, whose talent for designing Christmas cards had earned her a hut in the garden to which she retired after breakfast each day, only appearing at meals. Lastly there was Polly, her young sister, who was a keen and not very accurate player of the recorder; her loving family bore with the noise but Great Aunt Thirza was going to object..
Mary finished making the bed, cast an eye over the rather heavy furniture in the high-ceilinged room, with its old-fashioned wallpaper and wooden floor, sparsely covered by elderly rugs, and hoped that the draughts from the big sash windows opposite wouldn't be too much for her elderly relation.
The housea mid-Victorian rectory built for an incumbent with a large familywasn't all that old. After standing empty for some years it had been bought by her father, since it had been a bargain at its low price. But he, an unworldly man, had not taken notice of the size of its rooms, which made heating the place almost hopeless, or the lack of maids, or the fact that coal for the enormous grates was a constant drain on the household pursenor had he considered the amount of gas and electricity which was needed.
He had his study, where he worked on his book, and Mary's pleas for someone to clear the drains, paint the doors and put tiles back on the elaborate roof fell on deaf ears.
Her father was a dear man, she reflected, but unworldly. He was devoted to his wife and children, but that had never prevented him from delegating the mundane responsibilities of a married man to someone else and, since Mary was so conveniently there, they had fallen to her.
It had happened very gradually; she had left school with hopes of going on to university, but her mother had been ill and her two brothers had been home, and someone had had to feed and look after thembesides which Polly had still been a little girl. Her mother had got better, the boys had gone to Cambridge, but no one had suggested that Mary might like to do anything but stay home and look after them all. She had stayed quite willingly since, despite its drawbacks, she loved the shabby old house, she liked cooking, and she even liked a certain amount of housework.
So the years had slipped quietly by, and here she was, twenty-four years old, a tall, splendidly built girl with a lovely face, enormous brown eyes and an abundance of chestnut hair, her face rendered even more interesting by reason of her nose, which was short and tip-tilted. It went without saying that the men of her acquaintance liked her, admired her and in two cases had wished to marry her. She had refused them kindly and remained firm friends, acting as bridesmaid at their weddings and godmother to their children.
There was Arthur, of course, whom she had known for yearsa worthy young man who rather took it for granted that one day she would marry him, and indeed from time to time she had considered that possibility. He would be a splendid husbandfaithful and kind even if a bit bossy. He was also a shade pompous and she had doubts as to what he would be like in ten years' time.
Besides, she had no intention of marrying anyone at the moment; the boys were away from home but Polly was thirteentoo young to be left to the care of a fond but unworldly mother and a forgetful father. Right at the back of her head was the half-formed wish that something exciting would happensomething so exciting and urgent that her prosaic plans would be dashed to pieces
The only thing that was going to happen was Great Aunt Thirza, who was neither of these things, but a cantankerous old lady who liked her own way.
Mary went down to the kitchen and broke the news to Mrs Blackett, who paused long enough in her cleaning of the kitchen floor with far too wet a mop to scowl at her and grumble with such venom that her dentures got dislodged.
'As though we 'aven't got enough on our 'ands. And it's no good you expecting me to do more for you than what I do now.' She gave a snort of ill humour and sloshed more water over the floor.
Mary, side-stepping the puddles, made soothing noises. 'When you've finished the floor,' she said cheerfully, 'we'll have a cup of tea. I wouldn't expect you to do more than you do already, Mrs Blackett, and I dare say that Great Aunt Thirza will spend a good deal of time resting.'
Knowing that lady, she thought it unlikely, but Mrs Blackett wasn't to know that, and the latter, calmed with a strong cup of tea and a large slice of cake, relating the latest misdemeanour of Horace, her youngest, became sufficiently mollified to suggest doing a bit extra around the house. 'I'd stay for me dinner and do a couple of hours in an afternoonit'd 'ave to be a Tuesday or a Wednesday, mind.'
Mary accepted her offer gratefully. 'It will only be for a week or two, Mrs Blackett.'
'Where's she coming from, then?'
'She's in St Justin's. Her housekeeper will take whatever clothes she needs to the hospital and an ambulance will bring her here.' Mary gave a very small sigh. 'Tomorrow.'
'You'll want more spuds,' said Mrs Blackett. 'Going ter get a nice bit of 'am?'
'Well, I'm afraid that Mrs Winton is a vegetarian
'I don't 'old with them,' said Mrs Blackett darkly.
Nor did Mary, although she sympathised with their views.
She took a basket from the hook behind the kitchen door and went down the garden to pick beans, pull new carrots and cut spinach. Thank heaven it was early summer and her small kitchen garden was flourishing, although she would have to go to the greengrocer presently and get more vegetables, as well as beans and lentils and spaghetti. She hoped that Great Aunt Thirza would like that, though she was doubtful if anyone else would.
Before going back into the house she stopped to look around her. The house was on the edge of Hampstead Heath, with Golders Green not far away, and the garden offered a pleasant view and she stood admiring it. It would be nice to spend a day in the country, she reflected, and thought of her childhood, spent in a rambling cottage in Gloucestershire.
They might still be there but for the fact that her father had needed to be nearer the British Museum so that he could do his research and her mother had wanted a closer contact with the agent who sold her cards. Polly hadn't been born then, and although it hadn't mattered much to the boys, who had been at boarding-school anyway, Mary had taken some time to settle down at her new school and make new friends.
She went back indoors and presently out to the butcher, where, since it was likely to be the last meat they would have for a while, she bought steak and kidney in a generous amount and bore it home. It was a warm day for steak and kidney pudding but she was rewarded that evening by the pleasure with which it was received.
'Everything all right, dear?' asked her mother, and before she could reply added, 'I've had a letter from Mr Thornethe agenthe's got me a splendid commission. I shall have to work at it, thoughyou'll be quite happy with Great Aunt Thirza?'
Mary assured her that she would. She wasn't surprised to hear from her father that he would be away all day at the British Museum. 'But I'll be home in time to welcome Thirza,' he said. 'Make her comfortable, won't you, my dear?'
'I'll play her "Greensleeves",' offered Polly.
'That'll be lovely, darling,' said Mrs Pagett. 'It's so nice that you're musical.'
Mrs Winton arrived the next day in nice time for tea. She was tall and thin with a high-bridged nose, upon which rested her pince-nez, and she wore a beautifully cut coat and skirt of the style fashionable in the early decades of the century, and crowned this with a wide-brimmed straw hat. She had the same kind of hat, only in felt, during the winter months.
Mary had gone to the door to meet her and watched while the ambulancemen settled her into a chair and trundled her over.
'That will do, thank you,' said Great Aunt Thirza. 'My niece will help me into the sitting-room.' She turned to look at her. 'Well, Mary, here I am.'
Mary kissed the offered cheek. 'We are delighted to have you to stay, Aunt.' She stopped as the men turned away. 'If you'd like to go to the kitchenthe door over therethere's tea and sandwiches. Thank you both so much.'
She had a lovely smile and they beamed back at her. 'If that's not troubling you, miss, we could do with a cuppa.'
'Would you like tea, Aunt Thirza? It's all ready in the sitting-room.' She gave the old lady an arm and settled her in an armchair by the small tea-table. 'Father's at the British Museum; he'll be back at any moment. Mother's very busy; she's just had an order for Christmas cards.'
'Ridiculous,' said Mrs Winton. 'Christmas cards, indeedchild's play.'
'Actually they need a great deal of skill, and Mother's very good at them.'
Her aunt sipped her tea. 'Why aren't you married, Mary?'
'Well, I don't think I've met anyone I want to marry yet. There's Arthur, of course
'A girl should marry.' She pronounced it 'gel'. 'I don't hold with this independence. My generation had more sense; we married and settled down to be good wives and mothers.'
Aunt Thirza was in her eighties. Mary wondered what it had been like to be young thencorsets and hats and gloves, not just on Sundays and occasions but even to go shopping, and not to be able to drive a car or wear trousers.
On the other hand there had been no television and there had been dancesnot the leaping around that was the fashion now, but foxtrotting and waltzing. Waltzing with a man you loved or even liked must have been delightful. The clothes had been pretty awful, but they were pretty awful nowadays among the young. Mary, who sometimes felt older than her years, sighed.
Great Aunt Thirza was quite a handful. She had brought a good deal of luggage with her which had to be unpacked and disposed around the house according to her fancy. She poked her nose into the kitchen and made scathing remarks about Mrs Blackett's terrible old slippers with the nicks cut out for the comfort of her bunions; she inspected the fridge, lectured Polly on her untidiness, interrupted her nephew in his study and swept down to the hut to see her niece-in-law, where she passed so many critical remarks that that lady was unable to pick up her brush for the rest of the day.
It didn't matter how ingenious Mary was with the lentils, dried peas and beans, her elderly relation always found something wrong with them.
At the end of a week, having escorted her to her room, shut the windows, refreshed the water jug, gone downstairs again for warm milk, found another blanket, run a bath and listened to her aunt giving her opinion of the drawbacks of the house, Mary went downstairs to where her mother and father were sitting in the drawing-rooma room seldom used since it was large, draughty and, despite Mary's polishing, shabby.
'When is Great Aunt Thirza going home?' she asked her father, sounding cross.
He looked up from the book he was reading, peered over his glasses at her and said mildly, 'I really don't know, my dear. She's no trouble, is she?'
Mary sat down. 'Yes, Father, she is. She has made Mrs Blackett even more bad-tempered than usualshe's threatened to leaveand Polly is rebellious and I can't blame her. I haven't cooked a square meal for more than a week; I don't expect that you've noticed but there's not been an ounce of meat in the house for days and I, for one, am sick of spinach and lettuce leaves.'
Her mother looked up from the sketches she was making. 'A nice steak with mushrooms, and those French fries you do so well, darling.' She added hopefully, 'Could we go out for a meal?'
'It would cost too much,' said Mary, who knew more about the housekeeping money than her mother. 'We need a miracle.'
It came with the postman in the morning. Great Aunt Thirza was bidden to attend at St Justin's in Central London where she had been treated for a heart conditionnine o'clock on the following morning. Should her examination prove satisfactory she could make arrangements to return to her home and resume a normal life.
'I shall, of course, abide by the specialist's advice,' said Great Aunt Thirza. 'He may consider it more beneficial to my health for me to return here for a further few weeks.' She poured herself another cup of teathe special herbal one that she preferred. 'You can drive me there, Mary. It will save the expense of a taxi.'
Mary didn't answer. Mrs Winton was comfortably off, well able to afford as many taxis as she could want; she could afford to pay for the peas and beans too, thought Mary peevishly.
To waste most of a day, certainly a whole morning, taking her aunt to the hospital was tiresome when there was a stack of ironing waiting to be done, besides which she needed to thumb through the cookery book she had borrowed from the library and find another way to cook kidney beans.
Polly, back from school at teatime, gobbling bread spread with an imitation butter, heavily covered with peanut butter, voiced the opinion that Great Aunt Thirza was quite well enough to go home. 'Let her housekeeper cook that rabbit food.' She rolled her large blue eyes dramatically. 'Mary, I'll die if I don't have some chips soon.'
'Perhaps I could have a word with the specialist,' mused Mary.
'Yes, do. Wear something pretty and flutter your eyelashes at him. You're quite pretty, you know.'
'I don't expect that kind of manyou know, wildly clever and always reading books like Father, only youngernotices if one is pretty or not. If I had a heart attack or fainted all over him he might, I suppose.'
She spent a moment imagining herself falling gracefully into the arms of some doddering old professor. It wouldn't do; she wasn't the right shape. Fainting was for small, ethereal girls with tiny waists and slender enough to be picked up easily. Whoever it was who caught her would need to be a giant with muscles to match. 'But I will wear that green dress and those sandals I bought in the sales.'