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Annabelle Craven was an ideal neighbor. Quiet, tidy, and unfailingly polite, she was the sort of neighbor who could be relied upon to lend a frantic baker a cup of sugar or to water a window box while its owner was away on holiday.
No one knew Mrs. Craven's exact age. She never mentioned it, and it would have been impertinent to inquire, but anyone with eyes could see that she was elderly. Her tweed skirts and blazers hung loosely on her shrunken frame, her soft gray eyes peered out from a face webbed with wrinkles, and she wore her long white hair in a wispy bun on the back of her head. Her tweed skirts and blazers were elderly, too, as were her sensible shoes, but her clothes were well made and well kept and would in all likelihood outlast her.
Mrs. Craven was in remarkably good health for a woman of her advanced years. Her eyesight was undimmed, her hearing was excellent, and her nimble fingers could undo knots that defeated much younger women. She moved slowly but surely, without the aid of a cane or a walker, and everyone who knew her agreed that her mind was as agile as her fingers. She could hold her own in any conversation and she wasn't the least bit forgetful. If Mrs. Craven made an appointment, she kept it.
Mrs. Craven lived in Finch, a small and somnolent village set among the rolling hills and the patchwork fields of the Cotswolds, a pastoral haven described in countless guidebooks as one of the prettiest regions in England.
I agreed with the guidebooks. My family and I lived near Finch, in a honey-colored cottage on a narrow winding lane lined with tall hedgerows. Although my husband, Bill, and I were Americans, as were our twin sons and our daughter, we'd lived in England long enough to develop a minor addiction to scones, clotted cream, and strawberry jam.
We kept our addiction in check by leading full and busy lives. Bill ran the European branch of his family's venerable Boston law firm from an office overlooking the village green; our ten-year-old sons, Will and Rob, attended Morningside School in the nearby market town of Upper Deeping; and I juggled the challenging roles of wife, mother, friend, neighbor, community volunteer, and chief baby wrangler.
Our daughter, Bess, was thirteen months old and terrifyingly mobile. She kept me on my toes by toddling eagerly toward anything that might kill her. Her death wish list included, but was by no means limited to, stairs, stoves, streams, snakes, wasps, and well-sharpened knives.
The sixth member of our family was Stanley, a sleek black cat with dandelion-yellow eyes. Stanley had a decided preference for Bill, though he was kind enough to tolerate the rest of us. He divided his time between sleeping in Bill's favorite armchair and keeping his long, curling tail out of Bess's reach.
Bill's father, William Willis, Sr., had made our happiness complete when he'd retired from his position as the head of the family firm and moved to England to be near his grandchildren. A genteel and well-heeled widower, Willis, Sr., had broken many a hopeful heart in Finch when he'd married the noted watercolorist Amelia Bowen. The newlyweds lived just outside of Finch, in Fairworth House, a graceful Georgian mansion surrounded by a modest estate.
Mrs. Craven lived in Bluebell Cottage, a tiny gem in the necklace of golden-hued stone buildings that encircled the village green. She'd moved into her small cottage a few years after Bill and I had moved into our somewhat larger one, and I'm ashamed to say that I wasn't on hand to greet her when she arrived. I'd been toilet training the twins at the time—an exercise guaranteed to concentrate the mind—and I'd been too preoccupied with Making Toilet Time Fun to spare a thought for an elderly newcomer.
I'd spared many thoughts for Mrs. Craven since then. I paused to chat with her whenever our paths crossed, and they crossed almost daily. Like the rest of our neighbors, Mrs. Craven and I took tea breaks in Sally Cook's tearoom; joined in the weekly sing-alongs at Peacock's pub; attended services at St. George's Church; and shopped at Taxman's Emporium, Finch's grandly named general store.
I could also count on seeing Mrs. Craven at the many villagewide events that kept Finch from becoming too somnolent. Nothing, not even the changeable English weather, could keep her away from the flower show, the art show, the church fete, and the harvest festival, and she always arrived in plenty of time to snag a front-row seat at the Nativity play. She was famous in Finch for using a pair of antique opera glasses to view the annual sheepdog trials and she seemed to take a great deal of pleasure in watching my horse-mad sons and their friends compete for ribbons in the local gymkhana.
Mrs. Craven had no children of her own and no close relatives. She'd outlived most of her friends and she'd lost her beloved husband to the ravages of Alzheimer's disease. She'd once told me that his lengthy decline and his final passing had prompted her to leave her old village behind and to make a fresh start in a place untainted by painful memories. I'd told her that she'd chosen her new home well.
Everyone in Finch liked Mrs. Craven. Though she didn't own a car, someone could always be found to take her to Upper Deeping to do her banking, to see her doctor, or to hunt for bargains at the Saturday sales. Sally Cook never tired of swapping recipes with her, Dick Peacock named one of his undrinkable homemade cordials after her, and George Wetherhead, the most bashful man in Finch, was relaxed enough in her presence to meet her gaze when they exchanged pleasantries. Mr. Barlow, who served as our local handyman as well as the church sexton, looked after her cottage free of charge, and James Hobson, a retired schoolteacher and an enthusiastic amateur historian, loved to listen to her stories about "the olden days."
Mrs. Craven could have spent every minute of every day in what passed for a social whirl in Finch, but she chose to spend much of her time alone in Bluebell Cottage, pursuing her primary passion: making quilts. She'd turned her sunny upstairs front bedroom into a workroom, but it wasn't the only room she'd dedicated to her craft. She'd lined the dining room, the lumber room, the attic, and the back bedroom with shelves built to her specifications by Mr. Barlow to hold row upon row of clear plastic boxes in which she stored what appeared to be a lifetime's accumulation of vintage fabrics.
Though she kept her best china in a handsome mahogany sideboard in the dining room, she used the equally handsome mahogany table as a work surface. I'd often seen a quilt's three layers—backing, batting, and top—spread one atop the other on the dining room table, awaiting the next phase in production.
The dining room table met Mrs. Craven's requirements because she didn't make full-size quilts. She specialized in baby quilts, and her baby quilts were very special indeed. Each was handmade from start to finish, and no two were exactly alike.
She would have nothing to do with prepackaged polyester quilt kits or with the insipid appliquéd kittens, puppies, and teddy bears the kits' manufacturers deemed suitable for a nursery. Mrs. Craven used only the softest of cotton fabrics to make brightly colored patchwork quilts in a seemingly limitless array of traditional patterns.
I knew next to nothing about quilt making, but the names of the patterns delighted me. Pastel kittens, puppies, and teddy bears seemed anemic compared with Old Maid's Ramble, Johnny 'Round the Corner, Victorian Fans, Tumbling Blocks, Pinwheels, and Broken Dishes.
Mrs. Craven "signed" her quilts by embroidering each one with a tiny black-and-white cow. She'd once told me that the little cows were a tribute to her father, who'd managed a prize-winning herd of Friesians for a local landowner when she was growing up. My sons made a game of finding the cows in her finished quilts when we visited Bluebell Cottage, and quite a few adults played the same game when she displayed her quilts at the church fete.
Of the many quilts Mrs. Craven created, my favorites were also the rarest. They were what she called her "whole-cloth" quilts. Whole-cloth quilt tops were neither pieced together from scraps nor brightly colored. They were made from a single piece of cream-colored fabric embellished from edge to edge with intricate patterns of meticulous cream-colored embroidery. Celtic knots, entwined hearts, feathers, fans, flowers, leaves, spirals, and shooting stars were but a few of the patterns that found their way into Mrs. Craven's whole-cloth quilts, and while the color palette was undeniably subtle, the needlework was nothing short of extraordinary.
Grant Tavistock and Charles Bellingham, who ran an art appraisal and restoration business from their home in Finch, classified Mrs. Craven as a genius. They could have introduced her to a dozen museum directors who would have jumped at the chance to exhibit her handiwork, but she was too humble even to consider showing her quilts to a knowledgeable curator.
Instead, she sold her small masterpieces from a stall at the annual church fete and donated every pound of the proceeds to St. George's. Thanks to her fund-raising efforts, the churchyard had a drainage system that could handle heavy downpours, the south porch had a watertight roof, and the lytch-gate had a new set of wrought-iron hinges.
Mothers who were lucky enough to own one or more of Mrs. Craven's quilts tended to keep them well away from their infants, for fear of the stains associated with infants. I'd framed the three whole-cloth quilts I'd purchased from her and hung them on a wall in our master bedroom. To me, they were works of art.
Mrs. Craven couldn't understand what all the fuss was about. She believed that her quilts served a practical purpose and she was a bit disappointed in me for treating them so reverently. She would have been better pleased if I'd allowed my children to chew on them, spit up on them, dribble on them, and anoint them with applesauce, pureed carrots, and other less savory substances. To Mrs. Craven, a well-used quilt was a well-loved quilt.
On a damp Thursday evening in early April, Bess and I spotted our elderly neighbor as she took a seat in one of the folding chairs Mr. Barlow had set up in the old schoolhouse, which had for many years served as Finch's village hall. The flower show, the art show, and the Nativity play were held there, but the orderly rows of folding chairs signaled the advent of a village affairs committee meeting. By the time Mrs. Craven arrived, nearly everyone who lived in Finch was present.
Millicent Scroggins, Opal Taylor, Selena Buxton, and Elspeth Binney—whom Bill had dubbed "the Handmaidens" because of their devotion to his father—sat together in the second row of chairs. I could hear them discussing Sally Cook's new pageboy haircut and whether or not it would suit Christine Peacock. Christine and Sally sat side by side between their respective husbands, making it easy for the Handmaidens to compare neck lengths, brow widths, and cheekbone breadths.
In the back row, Grant Tavistock and Charles Bellingham were deep in conversation with Horace Malvern, a local dairy farmer who wished to commission a portrait painting of his two-year-old grandson, little Horace Malvern III. James and Felicity Hobson had also chosen chairs in the back row, but though they sat together, they were engaged in separate conversations. While Felicity described the layout of her herb garden to Mr. Barlow, James described his newest piece of metal-detecting equipment to Lilian Bunting, who shared his interest in local history.
Lilian was married to the vicar of St. George's Church, but her husband hardly ever attended committee meetings. Theodore Bunting had inadvertently inspired the sin of envy in his flock by receiving a special dispensation from our all-powerful chairwoman, Peggy Taxman, to spend committee evenings at home in the vicarage, where he could enjoy a nice cup of cocoa while he worked out the kinks in the sermon he would deliver on Sunday.
Jasper Taxman and George Wetherhead sat at the long table on the dais that also served as the stage for the Nativity play. Jasper was the committee's treasurer and George was its secretary, but both men were overshadowed by Jasper's formidable wife, Peggy Taxman, who sat regally between them in the chairwoman's chair.
Bree Pym, a young New Zealander who'd inherited a house near Finch from her great-grandaunts, the late and much lamented Ruth and Louise Pym, arrived only minutes before Peggy called the meeting to order. Bree was temporarily on her own because her boyfriend, the noted conservationist Jack MacBride, was on a lecture tour in Scandinavia.
Bree Pym stood out in Finch because of her youth, her spiky hair, her tattooed arms, her pierced nostril, her highly original sense of style, and her refusal to be intimidated by Peggy Taxman. Peggy's gimlet gaze and stentorian harrumphs had absolutely no effect on Bree's behavior. If Bess wanted Bree to chase her around the schoolhouse in a game of Big Bad Bear during committee meetings, Bree would chase her, growling menacingly, regardless of the poisonous looks thrown at her from the dais. Bree was the young aunt I would have chosen for Bess, if I'd had a say in the matter.
Like Bree, Bess and I were temporarily on our own. Easter break was upon us and Bill had decided to put it to good use by taking Will and Rob on a ten-day, boys-only camping trip in the Lake District. To beat the weekend traffic, they'd loaded Bill's car on Wednesday evening and driven off in the wee hours of Thursday morning. I'd waved good-bye to them without the slightest twinge of resentment.
I was perfectly happy to be excluded from their adventure. The Lake District was the rainiest region in England, and while April wasn't one of its rainiest months, I could almost guarantee that April showers would do what they had to do to bring May flowers. The thought of being cooped up in a wet tent with a toddler who was still in diapers didn't fill me with glee.
Even a fair-weather camping trip wouldn't have appealed to me. I could too easily envision Bess toddling merrily into campfires, toasting forks, wasps' nests, and patches of poison ivy to regard camping as anything other than a hospital visit waiting to happen. If Bill and the boys had been spending ten days in a country hotel on the shores of Lake Windermere, I would have been green with envy. Since they weren't, I wasn't.
Mrs. Craven never missed a village affairs committee meeting,and I tried very hard to miss as few as possible. Peggy Taxman, who ran the post office, the general store, the greengrocer’s shop, and every committee meeting that had ever been held in Finch, had a nasty habit of “volunteering” absentees for duties that invariably required the use of a broom and a small fleet of rubbish bins. Needlessto say, her meetings were always well attended.
Though Mrs. Craven had a spotless attendance record, she contributed nothing to the proceedings. In stark contrast to the rest of the villagers, who could discuss the pros and cons of purchasing a new tea urn for months on end, Mrs. Craven was content to sit in silence while vital decisions were made—usually by Peggy Taxman— about the harvest festival, the church fete, and the other events that filled the village calendar.
I suspected that Mrs. Craven’s reticence stemmed from her humility. She was willing to share her opinions with me over a cup of tea in her snug little kitchen, but I couldn’t convince her to express them to a wider audience. The limelight possessed no allure for her,and while she seemed to enjoy watching her neighbors engage in lively debates, she was too diffident to add her voice to theirs.
Silence was an alien concept to the voluble villagers, but they respected Mrs. Craven’s right to maintain hers. She was such a willing worker that Peggy Taxman didn’t feel the need to volunteer her for any task, and no one demanded that she take a stand on a hotly contested issue. In a schoolhouse filled to the rafters with chatter, some of it quite acrimonious, Mrs. Craven was notable only for her reluctance to speak up.
Which was why my jaw dropped—along with everyone else’s—when Mrs. Craven got to her feet at the end of the meeting, smiled cordially at Peggy Taxman, and for the first time in living memory, made her voice heard.