|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
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1 Albert Piggott Is Overworked
AT a quarter to eight one fine September morning, Harold Shoosmith leant from his bedroom window and surveyed the shining face of Thrush Green.
The rising sun threw grotesquely elongated shadows across the grass. The statue of Nathaniel Patten cast one a dozen times its own length, with the head and shoulders at right angles to the rest, where it was thrown against the white palings next door to "The Two Pheasants."
The shabby iron railings round the churchyard made cross-hatchings on the green, and the avenue of chestnut trees, directly in front of Harold's window, formed a shady tunnel with a striped floor of sunshine and shadow.
The view filled Harold Shoosmith with deep contentment. This was the place for retirement! After years in Africa, moving from one post to another, each hotter and more humid than the last, he had come home to roost at Thrush Green, the birthplace of Nathaniel Patten, whose missionary work he had so much admired, and whose memorial he had been instrumental in establishing.
But no living figures were apparent on this bright morning, with the exception of the Youngs' old spaniel Flo, who was ambling about examining the trees in the avenue in a perfunctory fashion. Nevertheless, the sound of distant whistling alerted Harold.
Someone in the wings was about to enter the empty stage, and very soon the stout figure of Willie Bond, one of Thrush Green's postmen, emerged from the lane, which leads to Nod and Nidden, and propped his bicycle against the hedge.
Tightening the belt of his dressing gown, Harold Shoosmith descended the stairs to greet his first caller.
'You gotter mushroom as big as a nouse in your 'edge,' announced Willie, handing in half a dozen letters.
'Let's see,' said Harold, following him down the path. Sure enough, at the foot of his hawthorn hedge, stood a splendid specimen, as big as a saucer, but young and beautiful. Two or three fine pieces of grass criss-crossed its satin top where it had pushed its way into the world and, underneath, the gills were rosy pink and unbroken.
'Do fine for your breakfast,' said Willy, putting one foot on the pedal of his bicycle.
'Too much for me,' said Harold. 'Why don't you take it? After all, you found it.'
Willie shook his head.
'Never touches 'em. Them old things are funny. My auntie, down the mill, she died after havin' a dish of them for breakfast.'
'Surely she must have eaten toadstools by mistake?'
'Maybe. But she died anyway.'
He mounted his machine and began to weave away.
'Mind you,' he called back, 'she'd had dropsy for five years, but we always reckon it was the mushrooms what done for her in the end.'
Harold bent and retrieved the mushroom. The fragrance, as it left the ground, made him wonder, for one brief moment, if he could bother to cook some of it with a couple of rashers for his breakfast, as Willie had advised.
But he decided against it and, returning to the kitchen, set about making his usual coffee-and-toast repast, using the upturned mushroom as decoration for the breakfast table.
His morning mail was unremarkable. Two bills, one receipt, a bulky and unsolicited package from 'Reader's Digest' which must have cost a pretty penny to produce and was destined for the wastepaper basket unread, and a postcard from his old friend and neighbour Frank Hurst and his wife Phil, posted in Italy two weeks before, and extolling the beauties of the scenery.
It was while he was sipping his second cup of coffee, and wondering idly why literary men always seemed to write such a vile hand, that the door burst open to reveal Betty Bell, his exuberant domestic help. As always, she was breathless and smiling. She might just have galloped up the steep hill from Lulling nonstop, but in fact, as Harold well knew, she had simply wheeled her bicycle from the village school next door where she had been 'putting things to rights' for the past half-hour.
'How's tricks then?' enquired Betty, struggling out of her coat. 'All fine and dandy? Wantcher study done first or the bed? Laundry comes today, you know.'
Harold did his best to look alert and to switch to the faster tempo of activity which Betty's arrival always occasioned.
'Study, I think. I've still to dress and shave. I'm rather behind this morning.'
'Well, time's your own, now you're retired.'
Her eye lit upon the mushroom.
'What a whopper! Where'd you find that?'
'Willie Bond found it. It was growing just the other side of the hedge. Would you like it?'
Betty Bell gave a shudder.
'I wouldn't touch it if it was the last thing on earth to eat. Not safe, them things. Why, my old auntie died of eating mushrooms. Honest, she did!' Betty's eyes grew round with awe.
'What an extraordinary thing,' exclaimed Harold. 'So did Willie's aunt!'
'Nothing extraordinary about it,' replied Betty, rummaging in the dresser drawer for a clean duster. 'She was my auntie too. Me and Willie Bond's cousins.'
She swept from the room like a mighty rushing wind, leaving Harold to ponder on the ever-enthralling complications of village life.
Some time later, Harold emerged from his front door bearing the mushroom in a paper bag. Behind him the house throbbed with the sound of the vacuum cleaner and Betty Bell's robust contralto uplifted in song.
It was good to be away from the noise. The air was fresh. A light breeze shook a shower of lemon-coloured leaves from the lime trees, and ruffled Harold's silver hair, as he set off across the grass to the rectory. He had remembered that the Reverend Charles Henstock and his wife Dimity were both fond of mushrooms.
On his way he encountered the sexton of St Andrew's. The church stood at the south-western corner of Thrush Green, and Albert Piggott's house was placed exactly opposite it and next door to "The Two Pheasants." Albert divided his time, unequally, between the two buildings.
The sunshine and serenity of the morning were not reflected in Albert's gloomy face. Hands in pockets, he was mooching about among the tombstones, kicking at a tussock of grass now and again and muttering to himself.
'Good morning, Piggott,' called Harold.
'A good morning for some, maybe,' said Albert sourly, approaching the railings. 'But not for them as 'as this sort of mess to clear up.'
Harold leant over the railings and surveyed the graveyard. Certainly there were a few pieces of paper about, but to his eye it all looked much as usual.
'I suppose people throw down cigarette boxes and so on when they come out of the pub,' he remarked, 'and they blow over here. Too bad when there's a litter box provided.'
'It's not the paper as worries me,' replied Albert. 'It's this 'ere grass. Since my operation, I can't do what I used to do.'
'No, no. Of course not,' said Harold, assuming an expression of extreme gravity in deference to Albert's operation. Thrush Green was learning to live with Albert Piggott's traumatic experience, as related by him daily, but was finding it a trifle exhausting.
'Take a look at it,' urged Albert. 'Take a proper look! What chance is there of pushin' a mower up these 'ere paths with the graves all going which-way? One time I used to scythe it, but Doctor Lovell said that was out of the question. "Out of the question, Piggott," he said to me, same as I'm saying to you now. "Out of the question." His very words.'
'Quite,' said Harold.
'And take these railings,' went on Albert, warming to his theme. 'When was they put up, eh? You tell me that. When was they put 'ere?'
'A good while ago,' hazarded Harold.
'For Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, that's when,' said Albert triumphantly. 'Not 'er Diamond one, but 'er Golden one! That takes you back a bit, don't it? Won't be long afore these railings is a 'undred years old. Stands to reason they're rusted. 'Alf of'em busted, and the other 'alf ought to be pulled out. There was always this nice little stub wall of dry stone. That don't wear too bad, but these 'ere railings 'as 'ad it!'
Harold looked, with more attention, at Albert Piggott's territory. To be sure, he had some grounds for grumbling. Tall rank weeds grew inside the stub wall, nettles, the rusty spires of docks, cow-parsley with skeleton umbels turning papery as the summer waned, with convolvulus entwining all and thrusting its tentacles along the railings.
The tombstones stood among hillocks of grass which had grown beyond a mower's powers, as Albert had said. Here and there, a few grassy mounds, neatly shorn, paid tribute to the loving hands of relatives who did their best to honour the resting places of their dead. But these islands of tidiness only served to throw the neglected whole into sharp contrast.
Albert was right about the railings too, Harold observed. Several had splintered with rust and would be dangerous to handle.
Is there any need for the railings, I wonder?' said Harold, musing aloud.
'There's need all right,' responded Albert. 'That's why they was set 'ere. In the old days there used to be cows and that, grazing on the green, and they could get over this liddle ol' wall easy as kiss your 'and. And the kids too. You gotter keep people and animals out of a churchyard, stands to reason.'
'You won't keep people out for ever,' pointed out Harold, preparing to go on his way. 'We'll all be in there together before long.'
'Some sooner than others,' retorted Albert, with a morose sniff, as Harold departed.
The rectory, some hundred yards from St Andrew's, was a high Victorian monstrosity, facing north, and perched on a small mound the better to catch the chilly winds of the Cotswold country.
It was, thought Harold, as he waited on the doorstep, the most gloomy house in Thrush Green. Unlike its neighbours, which were built of local stone, the rectory had been encased in grey stucco early in its life. The ravages of time had caused pieces to break away here and there, so that newer patches of different grey made the whole affair appear shabbier than ever.
Large sash windows and a tall narrow front door were all in need of paint, but there was little money to spare, as Harold knew too well. In any case, Charles Henstock cared little for creature comforts, and had lived for several years alone, in appalling conditions of cold and discomfort, until his marriage to Dimity Dean a few years before had brought companionship and a slight mitigation of the hardship of his surroundings.
Dimity opened the door to him and greeted him with cries of welcome.
'What a day you've brought with you! I'm in the kitchen, and the sun is just streaming in.'
She led the way, still chattering, down the long dark corridor which acted as a wind tunnel, and kept the rectory in a state of refrigeration during the winter months. Harold's feet echoed on the shabby linoleum, and he thought guiltily of his own carpeted home across the green. It was shameful to think how appallingly some of the clergy were housed. Charles' stipend was barely enough to keep body and soul together, as Harold well knew. Not that he or Dimity ever complained. Their hearts were thankful their concern for others governed all their thoughts. They were two of the happiest people Harold had ever met. But he grieved for their poverty secretly, whilst marvelling at their shining goodness.
The kitchen was certainly the most cheerful place in the house. It was the only downstairs room which faced south, and the comfortable smell of cooking added to the warmth of its welcome after the bleakness of the rest of the house.
'Charles is writing letters in the study,' said Dimity. 'I'll let him know that you're here. Do find a seat.'
'Don't bother him,' said Harold, but she had gone already, fluttering up the dark passage, still uttering little cries of pleasure at his visit.
Harold sat down by the kitchen table, first removing a pile of parish magazines from the seat. He observed Dimity's cooking paraphernalia with interest.
A pudding basin stood close to him, and a piece of pastry was in the process of being rolled out. A floury rolling pin lay dangerously near the table's edge, and Harold moved it prudently to a more central position. Something was sizzling gently in a frying pan, and Harold hoped that Dimity would return before it needed attention. His own culinary skills were enough for self-preservation, but he did not feel equal to attending to other people's creations.
A large tabby cat was curled up on the sunny window sill. Harold had known it since it was a kitten. It was one of a litter born to Dotty Harmer's cat, and it was sheer luck that Harold did not own a cat himself from that household. The eccentric Miss Harmer, animal-lover and amateur herbalist, was a power to be reckoned with when she had a litter of kittens needing homes. The Henstocks' cat, Tabitha, seemed to have struck lucky, thought Harold, looking at the array of saucers set down for it by the sink.
Dimity and Charles entered.
'I'm sorry to have interrupted the letter writing,' said Harold.
Charles Henstock's plump face was creased with a smile.
'I can always set aside letter writing,' he assured his friend. 'It's a task I abhor, especially when there are a score of complaints to answer.'
'Why is the church so cold? Why didn't I see the kneeler that mother gave in 1892, when I visited the church recently? Why is Uncle Thomas's grave so neglected?'
'Poor Charles!' murmured Dimity. 'It's really too bad of people to worry him so.'
She turned her attention to the piece of dough.
'Do you mind if I finish this? It's going to be a steak and kidney pudding, and it should have been on an hour ago.'
'I'm not going to stop,' said Harold, rising. 'But I thought you might like this.'
He handed over the paper bag.
'It couldn't have come at a better time,' cried Dimity. 'I shall put half in the pudding and keep the other half to fry with the breakfast bacon tomorrow morning.'
'Don't go yet,' said Charles. 'Come into the study, out of Dimity's way, and perhaps she would make us some coffee when the pudding's in.'
'Of course, of course,' she exclaimed, her eyes still on the massive mushroom. 'I'll call you the minute it's ready.'
Reluctantly, Harold followed his friend to the study. It was a lofty room, with dark green walls and an inadequate strip of thin carpeting lying in front of the great desk which dominated the room. A crucifix hung on the wall behind the rector's head, flanked by several fading photographs from college days.
From his chair, Harold could see, through the window, the thatched cottage across the way where Dimity had lived before her marriage. She had shared it with Ella Bembridge, another of Thrush Green's redoubtable spinsters, who still lived there, coming over to see her old friend at least once a day.
If anything, Harold was rather more afraid of the ruthless Ella than he was of scatter-brained Dotty Harmer. The latter he could dodge. Ella never gave up. How Dimity could have survived such a partnership for so many years, he just did not know. Another instance of her selflessness, he supposed, although he was ready to admit that Ella's gruffness no doubt hid a warm heart. At least, that's what people told him at Thrush Green, and he was only too willing to believe them.
Certainly, her cottage, glimpsed through the rectory window, looked as snug as a cat sunning itself. Its thatch gleamed. A row of hollyhocks swayed in the breeze, and Ella's open bedroom window flashed dazzling lights as it reflected the sunshine. Did Dimity ever regret leaving that haven, he wondered?
He looked at Charles, turning the papers on his desk. It had been no sacrifice for Dimity, Harold decided, when she gave up her home across the road. There was no finer man than the rector of Thrush Green.
'Do you get many letters of complaint?' he asked.
'A few each week. I try and keep one morning a week for answering them. I don't quite know what I am expected to do. Some are most unreasonable – this kneeler one, for instance. But of course people are distressed and I must do my best to explain things, and perhaps to comfort them.'
'We might do something about the churchyard between us,' said Harold diffidently. 'I saw Piggott as I came across, and of course he's past keeping the place as it should be.'
'I've done my utmost to get another man,' replied Charles, 'but no one seems to want the work.'
'We might organise a working party,' suggested Harold. 'We could take down the railings, for instance. They're getting downright dangerous.'
'They are in a bad way,' agreed the rector, 'but I think we should probably have to get a faculty to remove them. I must go into it.'
A cry from the kitchen told them that coffee was ready.
'Of course,' went on the rector, following his friend down the passage, 'Piggott never makes the best of anything. No one could accuse him of looking on the bright side of life. However, I will go and see what can be done during the week. Thrush Green must have a tidy churchyard.'
'Yes indeed,' echoed Dimity, passing steaming cups. 'Thrush Green must have a tidy churchyard.'
Had they known it, on that serene September morning, those simple words were to become a battle cry. The resting place of Thrush Green's dead was soon to become a field of conflict.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Battles at Thrush Green"
Copyright © 1975 Miss Read.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Table of Contents,
1 Albert Piggott Is Overworked,
2 Miss Fogerty Is Upset,
3 Dotty Harmer's Legacy,
4 Driving Trouble,
5 Skirmishes at the Village School,
6 Doctor Bailey's Last Battle,
7 The Rector Is Inspired,
8 Dotty Causes Concern,
10 Problems at Thrush Green,
11 Winnie Bailey's Private Fears,
12 The Summons,
13 A Question of Schools,
14 Dotty's Despair,
15 The Sad Affair of the Bedjacket,
16 Getting Justice Done,
17 The Rector in Action,
18 A Cold Spell,
19 Dotty in Court,
20 Peace Returns,
About the Author,