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Wild Mountain Thyme
By Rosamunde Pilcher
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1978 Rosemunde Pilcher
All rights reserved.
Once, before the bypass had been built, the main road ran through the heart of the village, a constant stream of heavy traffic that threatened to rattle the heart out of the gracious Queen Anne houses and the small shops with their bulging windows. Woodbridge had been, not such a long time ago, simply a place you drove through in order to reach some other place.
But since the opening of the bypass, things had changed. For the better, said the residents. For the worse, said the shopkeepers and the garage proprietors and the man who had run the lorry-drivers' restaurant.
Now, the people of Woodbridge could go shopping and cross the road without taking their lives into their hands or having their pet dogs securely leashed. At weekends, children with brown velvet caps jammed down over their eyebrows, and mounted on a variety of shaggy steeds, trotted off to their local pony club meets, and already there had been a positive flowering of open-air events, garden parties and charity fetes. The lorry-drivers' cafe became an expensive delicatessen, a ramshackle tobacconist sold out to a precious young man who dabbled in antiques, and the vicar had begun to plan a festival for next summer, in order to celebrate the tricentenary of his small, perpendicular church.
Woodbridge had come into its own again.
The clock on the church tower was pointing to ten minutes to twelve on a chill February morning when a big shabby Volvo turned the corner by the saddlers, and came slowly down the main street between the wide cobbled pavements. The young man at the wheel saw the whole long empty curve of it, his eye undeflected by thundering streams of traffic. He saw the charming irregularity of houses and bow-fronted shops, the beckoning perspective, and a distant glimpse of willow-fringed meadows. Far above, in a wintry sky full of sailing clouds, a plane droned in towards Heathrow. Otherwise it was very quiet, and there seemed to be scarcely anybody about.
He passed a pub, newly painted and with tubs of bay trees at either side of the door; a hairdresser, Carole Coiffures. The wine merchant with his bow-fronted bottle-glass window, and an antique shop stuffed with overpriced relics of better days.
He came to the house. He drew the car into the pavement's edge and switched off the engine. The sound of the plane died, thrumming, into the morning quiet. A dog barked, a bird sang hopefully from a tree, as though deluded that the thin sunshine meant that spring had come. He got out of the car, slammed the door shut, and stood looking up at the flat, symmetric face of the house, with its fanlighted door and pleasing proportions. Flush on the pavement it stood, a flight of stone steps leading up to the front door and tall sash windows discreetly veiled in filmy curtains.
It was, he thought, a house that had never given anything away.
He went up the steps and rang the doorbell. The surround of the bell was brass and brightly polished, as was the lion's head knocker. The door was painted yellow, new and bright looking, without a sunblister or a scratch upon it. In the lea of the house, out of the sun, it was cold. He shivered inside his thick donkey jacket and rang the bell again. Almost at once there were footsteps, and the next instant the yellow front door opened for him.
A girl stood there, looking rather cross, as though she had been interrupted, disturbed by the bell, and wanted to put off for as little time as possible. She had long, milk-fair hair, and she wore a tee shirt bulging with puppy fat, an apron, knee stockings and a pair of scarlet leather clogs.
He smiled and said, "Good morning," and her impatience instantly melted into quite a different expression. She had realized that it wasn't the man about the coal, or someone collecting for the Red Cross, but a tall and personable young man, long-legged in his well-scrubbed jeans, and bearded like a Viking. "I wondered if Mrs. Archer was in?"
"I'm so sorry." She looked quite sorry, too. "But I'm afraid not. She is gone to London today. To shop."
She was, he reckoned, about eighteen, and from her accent, some sort of Scandinavian. Swedish, probably.
He said, with what he hoped was engaging ruefulness, "Isn't that just my luck? I should have phoned or something, but I thought I'd take the chance of catching her at home."
"Are you a friend of Mrs. Archer's?"
"Well, I used to know the family, some years ago. But we've been ... well, sort of out of touch. I was passing, on my way up to London from the West Country. I thought it would be nice to come and say hello. Just an idea I had. It doesn't matter."
He began, diffidently, to back away. As he had hoped, the girl delayed him.
"When she comes back, I could tell her that you have been here. She will be back in time for tea."
At that moment, with splendid timing, the church clock began to chime for midday.
He said, "It's only twelve o'clock now. I can scarcely hang around till then. Never mind, I'll maybe be down this way again some time." He looked up and down the street. "There used to be a little café here ..."
"Not any more. It is a delicatessen now."
"Well, perhaps I can get a sandwich in the pub. It seems a long time since breakfast." He smiled down at her from his great height. "Goodbye, then. It's been nice meeting you." He turned as though to leave. He could feel her hesitation, her decision, as though he had directed them himself. She said, "I could ..."
With one foot already on the upper step, he turned back.
"What could you do?"
"Are you really an old friend of the family?" She longed to be put out of her doubt.
"Yes, I really am. But I have no way of proving it to you."
"I mean, I was just going to get the lunch for myself and the baby. I could get it for you, too."
He looked reproachful, and she began to blush. "Now, that's very foolhardy of you. I'm sure you've been warned, time and time again, about strange men coming to the door."
She looked distressed. She obviously had. "It is just that, if you are a friend of Mrs. Archer's, Mrs. Archer would want me to ask you in." She was lonely and probably bored. All au pair girls seemed to be lonely and bored. It was an occupational hazard.
He said, "You mustn't get yourself into trouble."
Despite herself, she began to smile. "I don't think I will."
"Supposing I steal the silver? Or start trying to make violent love to you?"
For some strange reason this possibility did not alarm her in the least. Rather, she seemed to regard it as a joke, and so to be reassured. She even gave a small, conspiratorial giggle. "If you do, I shall scream and the whole village will come to my rescue. Everybody knows what everybody does in Woodbridge. Everybody talks all the time. Chat, chat. Nobody has a secret." She stepped back, opening the yellow door wide. The long, pretty hallway was invitingly revealed.
He hesitated for just long enough to make it seem genuine and then shrugged, said, "All right," and followed her over the threshold, wearing the expression of a man who has been finally, reluctantly, persuaded. She closed the door. He looked down into her face. "But you may have to take the consequences."
She laughed again, excited by the little adventure. She said, in hostess-like tones, "Would you like to take off your coat?"
He did so, and she hung it up for him.
"If you would like to come to the kitchen, perhaps you would like a glass of beer?"
"Well, thank you."
She led the way, down the passage that led to the back of the house, to the modern kitchen, built out into the south-facing garden and flooded now with pale sunlight. Everything shone with cleanliness and order; bright surfaces, a gleaming cooker, stainless steel and polished teak. The floor was blue and white tiles, which looked Portuguese. There were plants along the windowsill, and a table at the window was laid for lunch. He saw the high chair, the bright plastic table mat, the small spoons, the Beatrix Potter mug.
He said, "You've got a baby to look after."
She was at the fridge, getting him a can of beer. "Yes." She closed the fridge door and went to take a pewter mug from a hook on the scrubbed pine dresser. "He's Mrs. Archer's grandchild."
"What's he called?"
"Thomas. He's called Tom."
"Where's he now?"
"In his cot, having his morning rest. In a moment, I'll go up and get him, because he'll be ready for his lunch."
"How old is he?"
"Two." She handed him the can and the mug, and he opened the can and poured it carefully, without a head.
"I suppose he's staying here, is he? I mean, his parents are away, or something."
"No, he lives here." Her smiling, dimpled face took on an expression of woe. "It's very sad. His mother is dead." She frowned. "It is funny that you do not know that."
"I told you. I've been out of touch since I last saw the Archers. I had no idea. I am sorry."
"She was killed in a plane crash. She was coming home from a holiday in Yugoslavia. She was their only child."
"So they look after the grandchild?"
He took a mouthful of beer, cool and delicious. "What about the father?"
The girl had turned her rounded back on him, was stooping to investigate something in an oven. A fragrant smell filled the kitchen, and his mouth watered. He had not realized how hungry he was.
She said, "They were separated. I don't know anything about him." She closed the oven and straightened up. She gave him another searching look. "I thought you would have known about that, too."
"No. I don't know about anything. I was out of this country for a bit. I was in Spain and I was in America."
"Yes. I see." She looked at the clock. "If I leave you, will you be all right? I have to go up and get Thomas."
"If you're sure you can trust me not to help myself to the spoons." He was teasing her, and she cheered up and smiled again. "I don't think you'll do that." She was wholesome, creamy as a tumbler of milk.
He said, "What's your name?"
"Are you Swedish?"
"They're lucky, the Archers. I mean, having someone like you."
"I'm lucky, too. It is a good job, and they are very kind. Some girls get terrible places. I could tell you some stories."
"Do you go to classes in the afternoons?"
"Yes. English and history."
"Your English sounds perfect to me."
"I am doing literature. Jane Austen."
She looked so pleased with herself that he laughed. He said, "Run along, Helga, and get that baby. I'm starving, even if he isn't." For some reason she blushed again, and then went away and left him alone in the shining, sunny kitchen.
He waited. Heard her go upstairs, her footsteps cross the floor of the room above. He heard her voice, speaking quietly; curtains being drawn back. He laid down his beer and went, soft-footed, rubber-soled, back down the hall and opened the door at the bottom of the staircase. He went in. There were the chintzes, the grand piano, the orderly bookshelves, the unassuming water colors. A fire had been laid in the Adam grate, but was, as yet, unlit. Even so, the room was warm with central heating and heavy with the scent of hyacinths.
Its neatness, its order, its air of well-bred, well-moneyed smugness, enraged him, as it always had. He longed for muddled knitting, strewn newspapers, a dog or a cat on some familiar cushion. But there was nothing. Only the slow ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece bore witness to any sort of activity.
He began to prowl around. The grand piano was a repository of photographs. Mr. Archer in a top hat, proudly displaying some minor order bestowed upon him by the queen at Buckingham Palace; his moustache like a toothbrush, his morning coat strained across his spreading stomach. Mrs. Archer as a misty girl, dressed for her wedding. The baby, propped up on a fur rug. And Jeannette.
He picked up the stylized portrait and stood, looking down at it. Pretty, as she had always been pretty. Sexy even, in her extraordinary, fastidious way. He remembered her legs, which were sensational, and the shape of her well-manicured hands. But nothing much else. Not her voice, not her smile.
He had married her because the Archers hadn't wanted their daughter to be the mother of an illegitimate baby. When the disastrous news had been broken to them that their precious only child had been having an affair with, actually living with, that dreadful Oliver Dobbs, their tidy little world had fallen apart. Mrs. Archer had taken to her bed with a crise de nerfs, but Mr. Archer, harking back to his brief years as a soldier, had straightened his tie and his back and taken Oliver out to lunch at his London club.
Oliver, unimpressed and not a little amused, had recorded the subsequent discussion with the detachment of a totally impartial observer. Even at the time it had seemed as unreal as a scene from an old-fashioned play.
Only daughter, Mr. Archer had said, plunging in at the deep end. Always had great plans for her. No question of recriminations, hindsight never did a man any good, but the question was, what was Oliver going to do about this baby?
Oliver said that he didn't think he could do anything. He was working in a fish-and-chips shop, and he couldn't afford to marry anyone, let alone Jeannette.
Mr. Archer cleared his throat, and said that he didn't want to tread on toes, or to appear curious, but it was obvious to him that Oliver came from a good family, and he knew for a fact that Oliver had been to a well-known school, so was there any reason that he had to work in a fish-and-chips shop?
Oliver said that yes, there was a reason. The reason was that he was a writer, and the fish-and-chips shop job was the sort of undemanding occupation he needed to keep himself alive in order to be able to write.
Mr. Archer cleared his throat again and began to talk about Oliver's parents, and Oliver told Mr. Archer that his parents, who lived in Dorset, were not only penniless, but unforgiving. Living on an army pension, they had denied themselves everything in order to be able to scrape up enough money to send Oliver to that exclusive school. When he had finally walked out of it at the age of seventeen, they had tried, in a broken-hearted sort of way, to persuade him to follow some sensible, conventional course. To join the army, the navy, perhaps. To become a chartered accountant, a banker, a lawyer. But he could only be a writer, because by then he already was a writer. Defeated at last; they washed their hands of their son, cutting him without the proverbial shilling, and remaining sulkily and stubbornly incommunicado.
This obviously disposed of Oliver's parents. Mr. Archer tried another tack. Did Oliver love Jeannette? Would he make her a good husband?
Oliver said that he didn't think he would make her a good husband, because he was so terribly poor.
Mr. Archer then cleared his throat for the third and last time and came to the point. If Oliver agreed to marry Jeannette and provide the baby with a legitimate father, then he, Mr. Archer, would see to it that ... er ... financially, the young couple would be all right.
Oliver asked, how all right? And Mr. Archer elucidated, his eyes steadily holding Oliver's across the table, but his anxious hands shifting his wineglass, straightening a fork, crumbling a roll. By the time he was done, his place setting was in chaos, but Oliver realized that he was onto a good thing.
Living in Jeannette's flat in London, with a steady income coming in each month to his bank account, he could give up the job in the fish-and-chips shop and get down to finishing his play. He already had a book under his belt, but that was still with an agent, and the play was something else, something that he had to get down, before it ate his soul out like some ghastly cancer. That was how it was with writing. He was never happy unless he was living two lives. A real life with women and food and drinking in pubs with friends; and the other life, teeming with his own people, who were more vital and sympathetic than anyone he ever met in the normal course of events. And certainly, he thought, more interesting than the Archers.
Over the lunch table, the two men had come to an agreement. Later, it was consolidated by lawyers' letters and drafts and signatures. Oliver and Jeannette were duly married in a registry office, and this seemed to be all that mattered to the Archers. The alliance lasted no more than a few months. Even before the child was born, Jeannette had gone back to her parents. Boredom she could stand, she said, and loneliness too, but abuse and physical violence were more than she was prepared to endure.
Excerpted from Wild Mountain Thyme by Rosamunde Pilcher. Copyright © 1978 Rosemunde Pilcher. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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