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Dr Lovell looked across his desk to the girl sitting in front of it. She would have to do, he supposed; none of the other applicants had been suitable. No one, of course, could replace the estimable Miss Brimble who had been with him for several years before leaving reluctantly to return home and nurse an aged parent, but this girl, with her mediocre features and quiet voice, was hardly likely to upset the even tenor of his life. There was nothing about her appearance to distract him from his work; her mousy hair was in a smooth French pleat, her small nose was discreetly powdered, and if she wore lipstick it wasn't evident. And her clothes were the kind which were never remembered She was, in fact, suitable.
Matilda Paige, aware that she was being studied, watched the man on the other side of the desk in her turn. A very large man, in his thirties, she guessed. Handsome, with a commanding nose and a thin mouth and hooded eyes and dark hair streaked with silver. She had no intention of being intimidated by him but she thought that anyone timid might be. A calm, quiet girl by nature, she saw no reason to stand in awe of him. Besides, since the moment she had set eyes on him, not half an hour ago, she had fallen in love with him
'You are prepared to start work on Monday, Miss Paige?'
Matilda said yes, of course, and wished that he would smile. Probably he was tired or hadn't had time for a proper breakfast that morning. That he had a good housekeeper she had already found out for herself, whose brother did the gardening and odd jobs. She had also discovered that he was engaged. A haughty piece, Mrs Simpkins at the village shop had saidbeen to stay accompanied byher brother once or twice, hadn't liked the village at all and said so.
'Rude,' Mrs Simpkins had said. 'Them as should know better should mind their manners; grumbled 'cos I didn't 'ave some fancy cheese they wanted. Well, what's good enough for the doctor should be good enough for them. 'E's a nice man, none better, just as 'is dad was a good man, too. A pity 'e ever took up with that young woman of 'is.'
Matilda, sitting primly on the other side of his desk, heartily agreed with Mrs Simpkins. All's fair in love, she reflected, and got up when he gave his watch a brief glance.
Dr Lovell got up too; his manners were nice She bade him a brisk goodbye as he opened the surgery door for her and then, shepherded by his practice nurse, left the house.
It was a pleasant old house in the centre of the village. Queen Anne, red-bricked with massive iron railings protecting it from the narrow main street. Lovells had lived there for generations, she had been told, father passing on his profession to son, and this particular twentieth-century son was, from all accounts, acknowledged to be quite brilliant. He had refused offers of important posts in London and preferred to remain at his old home, working as a GP Matilda walked briskly down the street, smiling rather shyly at one or two of the passers-by, still feeling that she didn't belong. The village was a large one, deep in rural Somerset, and as yet had escaped the attention of developers wanting to buy land and build houses, probably because it lay well away from a main road, astride a tangle of narrow country lanes. Because of that, inhabitants of Much Winterlow were slow to accept newcomers. Not that there was anything about the Reverend Mr Paige, his wife and daughter to which they could take exception. Upon his retirement owing to ill health, her father had been offered by an old friend the tenancy of the small house at the very end of the village and he had accepted gratefully. After the rambling vicarage he had lived in for many years, he found the place cramped but the surroundings were delightful and quiet and he would be able to continue writing his book
Matilda could see her new home now as she came to the end of the last of the cottages in the main street. There was a field or two, ploughed up in readiness for the spring next year, and the house, facing the roadsquare and hardly worth a second glance, built a hundred years or so earlier as home for the agent of the big estate close by and then later left empty, to be rented out from time to time. Her mother had burst into tears when she had first seen it but Matilda had pointed out that they were fortunate to have been offered it at a rent her father could afford. She'd added cheerfully, 'It may look like a brick box but there's no reason why we shouldn't have a pretty garden.'
Her mother had said coldly, 'You are always so sensible, Matilda.'
It was a good thing that she was, for her mother had no intention of making the best of a bad job; she had led a pleasant enough life where her husband had been rural dean; true, the house had been too big and if it hadn't been for Matilda living at home and taking most of the household chores onto her shoulders there would have been little time to play the role of vicar's wife. A role Mrs Paige had fulfilled very well, liking the social status it gave her in the small abbey town. But now she was forced to live in this village in a poky house with barely enough to live on
Matilda pushed open the garden gate and went up the brick path to the front door. The garden was woefully neglected; she would be able to do something about that while the evenings were still light.
She opened the door, calling, 'It's me,' as she did so, and, since no one replied, opened the door on the left of the narrow hallway.
Her father was at his desk, writing, but he looked up as she went in.
'Matildait isn't lunchtime, surely? I am just about to '
She dropped a kiss on his grey head. He was a mild-looking man, kind-hearted, devoted to his wife and to her, content with whatever life should offer him, unworried as to where the money would come from to pay their way. He hadn't wanted to retire but when it had become a vital necessity he had accepted the change in his circumstances with a good grace, accepted the offer of this house from an old friend and settled down happily enough to write.
That his wife was by no means as content as he was was a worry, but he assumed that, given time, she would settle down to their new life. Matilda had given him no worries; she had accepted everything without demur, only declaring that if possible she would find a job.
When she had left school she had taken a course in shorthand and typing, learned how to use a computer and simple bookkeeping. She had never had the chance to use these skills, for her mother had needed her at home, but now, several years later, she was glad that she would be able to augment her father's pension. It had been a lucky chance that Mrs Simpkins had mentioned that the doctor needed a receptionist
She left her father with the promise of bringing him a cup of coffee and went in search of her mother.
Mrs Paige was upstairs in her bedroom, sitting before her dressing table, peering at her face. She had been a pretty girl but the prettiness was marred by a discontented mouth and a frown. She turned away as Matilda went in.
'The nearest decent hairdresser is in Tauntonmiles away. Whatever am I going to do?' She cast Matilda a cross look. 'It's all very well for you; you're such a plain girl, it doesn't really matter '
Matilda sat down on the bed and looked at her mother; she loved her, of course, but there were times when she had to admit that she was selfish and spoilt. Hardly Mrs Paige's faultshe had been an only child of doting parents and her husband had indulged her every whim to the best of his ability and Matilda had been sent away to boarding-school so that she had never been close to her daughter.
And Matilda had accepted it all: her father's vague affection, her mother's lack of interest, her life at the vicarage, helping Sunday school, the Mother's Union, the annual bazaar, the whist drives But now that was all over.
'I've got the job at the doctor's,' she said. 'Part-time, mornings and evenings, so I'll have plenty of time to do the housework.'
'How much is he paying you? I can't manage on your father's pension and I haven't a farthing myself.'
When Matilda told her she said, 'That's not much '
'It's the going rate, Mother.'
'Oh, well, it will be better than nothingand you won't need much for yourself.'
'No. Most of it must go for the housekeeping; there might be enough for you to have help in the house once or twice a week.'
'Well, if you are working for most of the day I shall need someone.' Her mother smiled suddenly. 'And poor little me? Am I to have something too? Just enough so that I can look like a rural dean's wife and not some poverty-stricken housewife.'
'Yes, Mother, we'll work something out without disturbing Father.'
'Splendid, dear.' Her mother was all smiles now. 'Let me have your wages each week and I'll see that they are put to good use.'
'I think I shall put them straight into Father's account at the bank and just keep out enough for you and me.'
Her mother turned back to the mirror. 'You always have been selfish, Matilda, wanting your own way. When I think of all I have done for you '
Matilda had heard it all before. She said now, 'Don't worry, Mother, there will be enough over for you.'
She went across the small landing to her own room, where she sat down on her bed and did sums on the back of an envelope. She was well aware of the inadequacies of her father's pension; if they lived carefully there was just enough to live on and pay the bills; anything extra had to be paid for from his small capitalsmaller still now with the expense of his illness and their move.
He had received a cheque from his parishioners when he had left the vicarage, but a good deal of that had been swallowed up by carpets and curtains and having the functional bathroom turned into one in which Mrs Paige could bear to be in. The bathroom as it was had been adequate, but her father loved his wife, could see no fault in her, and since she'd wanted a new bathroom she had had it
He was an unworldly man, content with his lot, seeing only the best in other people; he was also impractical, forgetful and a dreamer, never happier than when he could sit quietly with his books or writing. Matilda loved him dearly and, although his heart attack had led to his retirement and coming to live in straitened circumstances, she had welcomed it since it meant that he could live a quiet life. Now she had a job and could help financially she had no doubt that once her mother had got over her disappointment they would be happy enough.
She went downstairs to the small kitchen to make coffee, and while the kettle boiled she looked round her. It was a rather bare room with an old-fashioned dresser against one wall, an elderly gas cooker and the new washing machine her mother had insisted on. The table in its centre was solid and squarethey had brought it with them from the vicarageand there were four ladder-backed chairs round it. By the small window was a shabby armchair, occupied by the family cat, Rastus. Once she had a little money, decided Matilda, she would paint the walls a pale sunshine-yellow, and a pretty tablecloth and a bowl of bulbs would work wonders
She carried the coffee into the living room and found her mother there. 'I'll take Father his,' Matilda suggested, and she crossed the hall to the small, rather dark room behind the kitchen, rather grandly called the study. It was very untidy, with piles of books on the floor awaiting bookshelves, and more books scattered on the desk, which was too large for the room but Mr Paige had worked at it almost all of his life and it was unthinkable to get rid of it.
He looked up as she went in. 'Matilda? Ah, coffee. Thank you, my dear.' He took off his spectacles. 'You went out this morning?'
'Yes, Father, for an interview with Lovell who has the practice here. I'm going to work for him part-time.'
'Good, good; you will meet some young people and get some sort of a social life, I dare say. It will not entail too much hard work?'
'No, no. Just seeing to patients and their notes and writing letters. I shall enjoy it.'
'And of course you will be paid; you must get yourself some pretty things, my dear.'
She glanced down at the desk; the gas bill was lying on it and there was a reminder from the plumber that the kitchen taps had been attended to.
'Oh, I shall, Father,' she said in an over-bright voice.
On Monday morning Matilda got up earlier than usual, took tea to her parents and retired to her room. She couldn't turn herself into a beauty but at least she could be immaculate. She studied her face as she powdered it and put on some lipstick. She wiped it off again, though. She hadn't worn it at the interview, and although she didn't think that Dr Lovell had noticed her at all there was always the chance that he had. She suspected that she had got the job because she was as near alike to Miss Brimble as her youth allowed. She had met that lady once: plain, bespectacled, clad in something dust-coloured. There had been nothing about her to distract the eye of Dr Lovell, and Matilda, unable to find anything in her wardrobe of that dreary colour, had prudently chosen navy blue with a prim white collar. Such a pity, she reflected, dragging her hair back into its French pleat, that circumstances forced her to make the least of herself.