Ever since the publication of Village School 35 years ago, Miss Read's numerous novels set in Thrush Green and Fairacre have been bestsellers all over the world. The "new Miss Read" focuses on Thrush Green's two former schoolteachers, now retired, who return for a visit.
About the Author
Miss Read (1913-2012) was the pseudonym of Mrs. Dora Saint, a former schoolteacher beloved for her novels of English rural life, especially those set in the fictional villages of Thrush Green and Fairacre. The first of these, Village School, was published in 1955, and Miss Read continued to write until her retirement in 1996. In the 1998, she was awarded an MBE, or Member of the Order of the British Empire, for her services to literature.
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'It is an extraordinary thing,' said Harold Shoosmith one breakfast time, 'but I seem to have lost my reading glasses.'
'I shouldn't call that "an extraordinary thing",' replied his wife Isobel. 'You lose your glasses six times a day on average.'
There was a commotion at the front door.
'Ah! That's Willie Marchant with the post,' said Harold, hurrying into the hall to escape his wife's censure.
He returned with a handful of envelopes and began to sort them at the table, holding each at arm's length the better to see.
'Yours, mine, junk. Junk, junk, yours, mine, junk, yours.'
'Junk always gets the biggest pile,' commented Isobel, beginning to slit open her own three envelopes. 'When you think of all the trees that are cut down to end up as junk mail which nobody bothers to open, it really makes one livid.'
She glanced at her husband who was now peering with screwed-up eyes at a lengthy form.
'Do go and get your glasses. Try the bathroom window-sill.'
'Why on earth should they be there?'
'Because I saw you put on your glasses in the bedroom to see the time, and you then went straight to the bathroom, and I haven't seen you wearing them since.'
'Want to bet on it?' said Harold smiling.
'No, I'd hate to see you lose.'
She heard him overhead, and he soon reappeared wearing his spectacles.
'You were spot on, my love. Bathroom window-sill it was.'
They applied themselves to their respective letters, and coffee cups, in silence.
It was broken by Isobel's cry of delight.
'Now here's some good news. Dorothy and Agnes hope to visit Thrush Green next month. "We can easily put up in Lulling or at The Two Pheasants, and we shouldn't dream of imposing ourselves on you and Harold as you so kindly suggest, but of course we hope to see a great deal of you both and our other Thrush Green friends." What a pair of poppets they are! Won't it be lovely to see them again?'
'It will indeed,' agreed Harold, still studying his form. 'I can't make head nor tail of this bally thing. It says at the beginning "Consult your solicitor if in any doubt", and I think that's exactly what I shall do.'
He folded it up and thrust it back into its envelope.
'I wonder why you always get the nice letters and I get the dreary ones,' he remarked.
But Isobel was too immersed in her letter to reply.
Later that morning, she dwelt upon the future visit of her old friends as she went about her household tasks.
Miss Dorothy Watson and Miss Agnes Fogerty had been their neighbours ever since she had married Harold, when they had come to live in their present home on Thrush Green. Dorothy was head-mistress of the junior and infant school next door, and Agnes was her loyal assistant.
In fact, it was through little Agnes Fogerty that Isobel had met Harold. She and Agnes had been at a teachers' training college many years earlier, and the two had always kept in touch. When Isobel's first husband died, she had visited Agnes and decided to look for a small house somewhere near her old friend, and in that part of the Cotswolds which she had known all her life.
The two friends, though much the same age, were poles apart in looks and temperament. Little Agnes Fogerty was only an inch or so over five feet. Her soft hair was smoothed back into a bun on the nape of her neck. Spectacles covered her kind weak eyes, and the clothes she wore were in the gentle hues of fawn and brown, as inconspicuous as her retiring nature. She had spent many years in the infants' class of Thrush Green school, and was held in great affection and respect by pupils and parents.
Isobel had always been pretty: her blue eyes sparkled, her fair hair curled, and even now in her fifties, she remained trim of figure and youthfully energetic.
In the months after the death of her first husband, her manner was subdued as she struggled to get over her loss. Agnes's quiet sympathy did a great deal to help her, and the kindness of her Thrush Green friends was an added support.
But it was Harold Shoosmith, a relative newcomer himself to Thrush Green, who proved such a staunch friend. He insisted on accompanying her on many of her house-hunting forays, knowing only too well from his own recent experiences how depressing and exhausting such undertakings can be.
Over the months the friendship grew deeper, and when Harold asked her to marry him, it was, as Isobel mischievously put it, 'the answer to all that house-hunting'; the two had settled down in Harold's house on Thrush Green, to their own delight and that of their friends.
When the two school teachers had decided to retire together, the Shoosmiths knew that, not only would they miss them sorely, but that they would have new neighbours in the school house next door. Until that time, the head teacher of the school had always lived in the school house, but now the education authority had decided to sell the property.
The new headmaster owned a house some twenty miles away, and was quite prepared to make the journey daily. He had two young children who were doing well at their present school, and his wife was happy in their house. It seemed pointless to uproot the whole family to live in a house which needed to have a great deal done to it. In any case, the thought of finding the money for Thrush Green's school house was a daunting one. He decided to let things remain as they were while he tackled his new job.
The travelling did not worry him, nor did the challenge of fresh problems at the school. But he was a little anxious about his wife's health, and hoped that the length of time he would have to spend away from her each day would not depress her.
She had been left rather frail after the birth of their second child, now aged six, and relied — rather too heavily, some of their friends thought privately — upon the cheerful willingness of her husband. She could do no wrong in his eyes, and he was blind to the fact that, like so many apparently gentle and fragile wives, she had an inner core of selfishness which relished dominating her very kind-hearted partner.
Harold and Isobel had invited them to supper soon after Alan Lester had taken up his duties at the school, and agreed that they were a 'nice couple' as they waved them goodbye. They did not see Mrs Lester again but often spoke to Alan, and liked him more and more as the weeks passed.
The school house remained empty throughout the winter, but just before Easter it was bought by a young and obviously prosperous couple called Angela and Piers Finch.
They were an exuberant pair and had great plans for enlarging the house. All through the summer they appeared at odd times in an old but dashing scarlet MG car which scandalized Thrush Green with its noise. They spent several weekends at the house, 'slumming' as they called it, while they pored over detailed plans, tidied the garden, lunched at The Two Pheasants, and visited Harold and Isobel next door.
Isobel found them exhilarating, enjoyed their chatter, and was much touched by the expensive flowers and chocolates with which they showered her.
Harold found them excessively tiring. It seemed to him that they always descended upon them just as he was settling down to read or to listen to music. He viewed their future proximity with some misgiving, especially as their plans to enlarge the modest house were being drawn up with a family in view.
But no actual building began, as it happened, and in the autumn the Finch couple arrived on the Shoosmiths' doorstep with surprising news: he had been posted overseas by his export firm at a salary which staggered Harold, and they were to fly out in a month's time to take up the appointment.
The school house at Thrush Green was on the market again.
Its fate, of course, was a constant source of speculation and surmise among the inhabitants of Thrush Green.
Mr Jones of The Two Pheasants hoped that it would be made into offices so that the staff would visit his establishment for lunch. Albert Piggott, the morose sexton of St Andrew's church on the green and one of Mr Jones's regular customers, was of the opinion that a decent, quiet couple would be best there.
'None of these 'ere yuppies, like that jazzy pair as bought it. Thrush Green don't want that sort.'
'Well, they was free with their money,' pointed out his old crony Percy Hodge, over their half pints. 'Give me three quid for a load of farm muck.'
'More fool them,' growled Albert.
Winnie Bailey, the doctor's widow who lived across the green, wondered if her nephew Richard would like to try his luck again.
'Not a hope,' he told her on the telephone. 'I'd love to live on Thrush Green, as you know, but I can't prise Fenella from London and the art gallery.'
The Reverend Charles Henstock who had the church of St Andrew's in his care, hoped that whoever took the house would support the church he knew so well, and his wife Dimity added her hope that children might live at the old school house, as it was so handy for the school next door.
And so the speculation continued, while the little house stood empty.
It was Betty Bell, the exuberant young woman who kept the school clean and also charged round the Shoosmiths' house twice a week, bringing them up to date with village gossip, who came nearest to the mark.
'It'd never surprise me,' she said, unwinding the flex of the carpet sweeper from the figure-of-eight pattern which so irked Harold, 'to hear as Mr Lester came to live next door. Real handy for the school it would be, wouldn't it?'
'He prefers to stay in his present place, I gather,' said Harold. Was it worth trying yet again, to get Betty to wind the flex straight up and down to withstand the strain of these contortions? He decided it would be a waste of time. She liked a good tight figure-of-eight finish to her carpet-sweeping labours, and that was that.
'It would be nice to have the Lesters next door,' conceded Isobel. 'But I should think it most unlikely. He thought about it all when he took on the post. I shouldn't think he would change his mind.'
'Ah well,' agreed Betty, crashing the sweeper against the skirting board and bending to pick up a flake or two of paint with a licked finger, 'time will tell, won't it?'
Meanwhile, news of the approaching visit of Dorothy Watson and Agnes Fogerty to their old haunts overshadowed the problematical future of the school house, which had once been the home of the two retired ladies.
Charles Henstock and his wife Dimity discussed the matter as they pottered about the lovely garden at their vicarage in the Cotswold town of Lulling, only a mile away from Thrush Green, where they had started their married life.
Dimity had shared a cottage for many years with her friend Ella Bembridge, and was still a frequent visitor. Charles Henstock had been a widower for a number of years, and lived opposite Ella and Dimity's cottage in a bleak and hideous rectory, grudgingly looked after by a formidable housekeeper.
On her marriage, Dimity had forsaken her snug quarters with Ella to share the rigours of life at Thrush Green rectory with her adored Charles; the housekeeper had returned to her native Scotland, to the relief of everyone at Thrush Green.
A year or two later, whilst Charles and Dimity were on holiday, a fire broke out at the empty rectory and it was gutted. No one mourned its loss except Charles, who had never really noticed its ugliness, its discomforts and its incongruity amongst so many lovely Thrush Green buildings.
On its site, 'arising like a phoenix from the ashes', as someone said dramatically, appeared a pleasant group of homes for old people, designed by the local architect Edward Young. He himself lived, with his wife Joan, in the most handsome house on the green, and the view of the Victorian rectory had annoyed him for years. The sight of the smoking remains after the night of the fire had given him acute satisfaction.
The Henstocks had spent several months in lodgings nearby but moved into the lovely Queen Anne vicarage at Lulling within the year. It was a great joy to Charles to find that he would still be looking after his old parishioners at Thrush Green, Lulling Woods and Nidden, as well as the more important and larger parish of Lulling in which he and Dimity now lived.
It was a morning in early May when they first heard that their old friends Dorothy and Agnes were coming back to Thrush Green for a week's visit.
The lawn was wet with a heavy dew. A pair of blackbirds ran about collecting food for their family nearby; a lark was greeting the sun with an ecstasy of song, and the great copper beech tree at the end of the garden was turning auburn with young leaves.
'They couldn't come at a lovelier time,' said Dimity. 'May is the best month in the year.'
Her husband straightened up from his weeding, a bunch of chickweed in his hand. His plump, pink face was thoughtful.
'I think I prefer April. Nearly always get Easter then. All those daffodils, and life renewed, and such a festival of hope, I always feel.'
Not for the first time Dimity was reminded of how closely woven into his life was her husband's religion.
'But May is warmer she pointed out, 'and the evenings are longer, and there are far more varieties of flowers to pick.'
'Do you think Dorothy and Agnes will go picking flowers?'
'They'll probably be visiting local gardens open to the public. I know that's the sort of thing they promised themselves when they retired to Barton-on-Sea.'
'Well, we can't compete with Hidcote or Stourhead,' commented Charles, 'but I hope they will visit Lulling Vicarage garden while they're here.'
It was Ella Bembridge, Dimity's old friend, who first mentioned the approaching visit to the Misses Lovelock. These three ancient sisters lived in a fine house in Lulling High Street, and from it they kept their sharp eyes upon the affairs of the town in which they had been born.
Ella had entered the local restaurant, known as The Fuchsia Bush, in search of a much-needed cup of coffee after carrying a heavy box of petunia plants the length of the High Street. She found the three sisters debating the merits of a fruit cake, which would last for several teatimes if the slices were cut thinly, or three scones, one apiece, slit and buttered sparingly, for that day's repast.
'I should take both,' advised Ella robustly. 'The fruit cake will last for days. Save you hunting about tomorrow.'
The sisters looked at each other. Bertha and Ada were obviously shocked by such wanton extravagance but before the protestations could flow, Violet, who was the youngest of the three and still in her seventies, nodded her approval.
'Such a good idea, Ella. Let's do that.'
She called across to one of The Fuchsia Bush's lethargic assistants who was picking little pieces of fluff from the mauve and red overall in which all the staff were arrayed, in deference to the flower named over the establishment's bow window.
The girl came across unhurriedly, looking extremely bored.
'Three scones, please,' said Violet briskly, 'with plenty of sultanas in them, and that small fruit cake. Now, how much is that?'
As she fumbled in her purse, surveyed by her two sisters, Ella broke in.
'I'm in here for coffee,' she said, heaving the petunias on to a chair. 'Come and join me.'
'We really should be getting back,' murmured Ada.
'My treat,' said Ella. 'You gave me coffee the other day, remember?'
'Well,' said Bertha graciously, 'that is most kind of you. Coffee would be very welcome, wouldn't it?'
The four settled themselves at the somewhat wobbly table and Rosa, the languid waitress, exerted herself enough to make her way into the kitchen with their order.
It was then that Ella mentioned the visit of Dorothy Watson and Agnes Fogerty.
'How nice,' said Ada. 'I know that Charles and Dimity know them well, but somehow we never came across them.'
'Not socially,' added Bertha.
'But of course we know them by sight,' said Violet.
'And heard what excellent women they were,' agreed Ada.
'Well then,' said Ella — she began to roll one of her deplorable cigarettes, but thought better of it in present company, and returned the tin containing papers and tobacco to her pocket — 'you do know them.'
'By sight and hearsay,' explained Bertha. 'They never came to the house.'
Ella's face must have expressed the astonishment she felt, for Violet, rather more in touch with life than her venerable sisters, spoke hastily.
'You see, the two teachers were working so much of the time.'
'But I'm working,' protested Ella, 'at my handiwork, of one sort and another, and you invite me to your house.'
'You are in The Arts,' said Bertha kindly. 'Father always encouraged artistic people. He was devoted to William Morris's principles.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Friends at Thrush Green"
Copyright © 1985 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. Friends Return,
2. Looking Ahead,
3. News of Old Friends,
4. Bertha Lovelock Causes Concern,
5. Trouble at the Lovelocks',
6. Charles Henstock Does His Best,
7. Preparing to Move,
8. Term Begins,
9. Family Affairs,
10. Crisis for Violet Lovelock,
11. Where is Emily Cooke?,
12. An Accident in Lulling,
13. Percy Hodge's Busy Day,
14. Mixed Problems,
15. Friends at Thrush Green,
16. Christmas and After,
17. Changes for the Better,
18. The Birthday Party,
19. Several Shocks,
About the Author,
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Stech off land that hass no trees.