After a long winter of red noses and wet mittens, summer is a welcome time for Miss Read and her downland village friends. SUMMER AT FAIRACRE charmingly recounts this bright, bustling season and the problems and possibilities that unfold against the background of roses, skylarks, and bees. Joseph Coggs finds a temporary home in the schoolhouse while his mother is in the hospital. Miss Read's friend Amy mysteriously disappears. Perhaps most difficult of all, Mrs. Pringle, the grumpy school cleaner, is unable to work because the pain in her bad leg flares up. Still, the sounds of children playing and the fragrance of summertime flowers fill the air, as Miss Read shepherds her students and friends through the warm season.
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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The First Day of Spring
'WHAT the Hanover d'you make of this, Miss Read?'
Mr Willet took the cap from his head and shook the snow from it, spattering the schoolroom floor with dark spots.
'Twenty-first of March,' he went on. 'First day of spring, and I reckon there's a good inch of snow all over.'
'Well, it can't last,' I replied. 'It's melting already in the playground.'
A clashing of pails from the lobby told of the presence of Mrs Pringle, our school cleaner. Both she and Bob Willet, the caretaker, come soon after eight each morning to see that Fairacre School is in good trim to start the day.
'And how's Madam Sunshine today?' asked Mr Willet, nodding towards the source of noise. He was prudent enough, I noticed, to lower his voice.
As village schoolmistress, Mrs Pringle is one of the crosses I have to bear. Mrs Pringle enjoys the gloomier side of life, and is never so happy as when she is discussing distressing ailments, other people's peccadilloes, impending disasters or a really slap-up funeral, preferably with inner knowledge of how much money was left by the deceased and to whom it is going.
Square, sturdy and sixtyish, Mrs Pringle is as tough as an old boot, but she has 'a Bad Leg' which dominates our lives at Fairacre. If Mrs Pringle decides that she is overworked, and this happens quite often, the afflicted limb is liable to rapid deterioration, and gives its owner a pronounced limp. One can always tell, from the severity of Mrs Pringle's hobbling, what sort of mood the lady is in. There is no love lost between Mr Willet and our cleaner, and I have to be very circumspect in dealing with both.
This is not always an easy task, as both parties can be over-sensitive to the reaction of the other. I have to tread as warily as Agag, and then, more often than not, I find that one of them has taken umbrage.
Usually, of course, it is Mrs Pringle, who is always on the look-out for the odd insult. One need only comment, in a perfunctory way, about the amount of grime children can collect on their hands, and Mrs Pringle begins to bridle and to point out, with unnecessary acrimony, that there is always a plentiful supply of soap put out in the lobby. Moreover, that very soap has been put there with her own two over-worked hands, and the basins have been cleaned so thoroughly — again by those same hands — that it would be possible to eat your dinner in them, should you feel so disposed.
When I first came to Fairacre as the village schoolmistress I used to try to stem this flow of umbrage-taking by making ineffectual apologies and explanations. I know better now. It is far more satisfactory to let Mrs Pringle have her head, and to allow the torrent to flow over one. She thoroughly enjoys it, and I have now become so hardened that it makes very little impression. Over the years we have shaken down together pretty well, and the occasional clash of wills does neither of us serious harm.
On this particular morning we all three had cause for dismay. A particularly cold winter was being followed by an equally unpleasant early spring. The tortoise stoves were still needed to warm the school, and the children continued to wear their winter clothing. My own tweed skirts and thick cardigans had been in use for months now, and we all longed for sunshine, flowers and lighter clothing.
'When I was a boy,' said Mr Willet, 'I reckoned to go birds' nesting this time of year, and there was primroses and violets in the hedge bottoms. And my old dad's rhubarb was sprouting real steady. Look at it these days! We don't get no spring worth spitting on, and nothing don't start stirring till May. There was some chap on the telly t'other night as said the seasons are just the same as ever was. He don't know the half.'
'I agree,' I assured him.
'And this other bloke he said as the earth's axle — or some such word — has tilted off true a bit, so the weather's changed. I reckon that's more like it.'
He pulled an old-fashioned red and white spotted handkerchief from his corduroys' pocket, and blew his nose with impressive trumpeting.
'Never got rid of me Christmas cold neither,' he informed me, stuffing the handkerchief away. 'Ah! I near forgot! Could you do with a morsel of winter savoy? Good thing to have a bit of fresh greens this weather. That frozen stuff's all very well for second best, but you can't beat the real thing.'
'I'd love some,' I said.
At that moment, the door burst open, and Joseph Coggs and four more boys rushed in bearing a furious cat.
'It's a stray, miss,' they chorused. 'It was under Mr Roberts' hedge, miss. It's starving, miss.'
The cat was struggling frenziedly in Joseph's tight clasp. It was certainly cross, but did not appear emaciated to my eye.
Mr Willet scrutinised it closely.
'That's one of Mr Roberts' farm cats,' he pronounced. 'I know it very well. It's like its ma, with one white leg. You take it back, boy, or you'll be in trouble.'
Five pairs of eyes turned anxiously in my direction.
'You'd better do as Mr Willet says,' I told them. 'At playtime you can go back to the place where you found him, and if he's still there you can take down some bread and milk.'
Mollified by this compromise, the deputation and its victim departed.
Mr Willet looked at me and shook his head.
'You're too soft with 'em by half,' he told me. 'In my day, Mr Hope would have given 'em all a clip round the ear for trying on a trick like that.'
'Teachers are not allowed to strike children these days,' I said.
'More's the pity,' replied Mr Willet, making for the door.
His way was barred by the formidable bulk of Mrs Pringle who was advancing with an outstretched hand.
Upon it were balanced a few fragments of a small paint brush.
'What's all this 'ere, may I ask?' she boomed.
Mr Willet and I surveyed her wet palm and the debris.
'Don't need much eyesight to see it's been a paint brush in its time,' replied Mr Willet with withering sarcasm.
'Then what's it doing down the plug hole of the wash basin?' demanded Mrs Pringle, fixing me with a stem glance.
'Someone's been trying to hide evidence,' I said. 'Put it on my desk and I'll sort it out.'
Mrs Pringle deposited her burden, and a number of soapy drops, dangerously near the register, and turned to face me, arms akimbo.
'What them children need,' she announced, 'is a bit of old-fashioned discipline.'
'I've been telling her that,' said Mr Willet.
And the two departed, in rare unity, as I went to ring the bell.
By playtime, almost all the snow had vanished. There was still some whiteness under the school hedge, and the tiles on the north-facing roof were edged with shallow snow.
The children were disappointed.
It only needs a flurry of snowflakes to set them agog with anticipation. Making snowmen, complete with pipe, hat and pebbles for eyes, tobogganing down the hill near Beech Green, scoring off old enemies with well-thrown snowballs — all these delights seem within reach, but usually melt away as swiftly as the snow itself.
Joseph Coggs and his rescue party prompted my memory, and were allowed to dash down the lane to see if the cat was still languishing under the hedge. As expected, they returned somewhat crestfallen.
'Mr Roberts was up the yard,' Patrick said, 'and we told him about that poor old stray, and he said it wasn't no stray, but one of his'n —'
'His,' I corrected automatically.
'That's right, miss. His'n. So we just come back.'
'Like I said,' agreed Patrick. I let the matter rest.
Village schoolmistresses, and no doubt those who teach in town schools too, recognise the utter futility of trying to correct certain phrases. Fairacre's intractable examples include:
'Miss, the nib of my pencil's bin and broke.'
'Miss, could you threadle my needle?'
And, of course, 'I never done it.'
As for the correct usage of the verbs 'to lend' and 'to borrow', I despair of ever getting this particular piece of grammar across.
'Can I have a lend of your duster, miss?' This is the usual phrase. Sometimes it is 'a borrow of'. If I had as many five-pound notes as the number of times I have carefully rephrased these requests I should have retired from teaching long ago with a comfortable income.
Now that the affair of the cat was settled, a lesson on fractions was undertaken until the dinner van arrived. Sliced cold lamb, beetroot and coleslaw, followed by bottled plums and pink blancmange is not my idea of a cheering lunch on a bleak March day, but the children tackled it with their usual gusto, and rushed out to play afterwards with their spirits as boisterous as the wind which buffeted them from the downs above.
That evening, sitting by a log fire as though it were December instead of the first day of spring, I had a surprise visit from my old friend Amy.
We were at college together many years ago. She is now married to a businessman who seems to earn a great deal of money. This busy life involves much travelling, and Amy is often left alone while he is away either here or abroad.
James is a charmer, and devoted to the opposite sex. Personally, I am sure that he adores Amy, but whether he is wholly faithful to her, I have my doubts. Although Amy is far too loyal to voice her suspicions, she is pretty shrewd, and I think she knows quite well that some of these so-called business trips include other interests.
'A fire! How marvellous!' she said, holding out her beautifully manicured hands to the blaze. 'Nothing like the first day of spring for making one appreciate a log fire.'
'Coffee or sherry?'
'What sort of sherry? You aren't still offering that stuff you won at the last raffle?'
When you have known Amy as long as I have you do not take umbrage at this sort of remark.
'That was jolly nice sherry. Good and fruity. The vicar and I finished it off last week.'
'Coffee, I think after all.'
'Instant,' I said, 'and you're lucky to get that!'
Amy chuckled, and fished in her elegant Italian handbag for a cigarette. She followed me into the kitchen.
'I often wonder why you don't get matching kitchen units,' she said, surveying my equipment.
'No money to pay for them,' I told her, spooning out the coffee. 'Top of the milk, or hot milk?'
'Good. It saves messing up a saucepan. No point in making work.'
'If you organised this kitchen you could cut down the work. For one thing, all your working tops would be the same height.'
'But I don't want them all the same height,' I protested. 'If I'm mincing I use the table. If I'm washing lettuce, I need the sink which is deeper. The draining board's just the right height for chopping cabbage —'
'Very well, very well! You needn't go on! Obviously, you've become quite accustomed to these primitive surroundings and don't intend to change now.'
'That's right,' I said amicably. 'Would you like a ginger nut?'
'I should love one. I haven't had a ginger nut for years, but I warn you, I'll have to dunk it. I've got a filling that's cracked across.'
'I think we've both got to the stage where it's permissible to dunk ginger nuts. Won't be long before we're mumbling our gruel with our gums.'
'Speak for yourself,' said Amy.
We settled ourselves by the fire.
'I've brought the Caxley Festival programme with me. I thought we might go to a few of the events.'
'What's on offer?'
'A concert in the Parish Church. Modern music mainly. Lots of Bartok.'
'Count me out, Amy dear. Those pews nearly crippled me at the carol service, and at least we stood up now and again. Besides, I can't take Bartok.'
'The trouble with you,' said Amy severely, 'is that you close your mind to progress. Well, what about this exhibition of modern sculpture?'
'It's all hefty outdoor stuff, I gather. They've roped off part of the common.'
'It sounds nice and peaceful. But what happens if it rains?'
'As the Duke of Norfolk said, with admirable brevity, when asked the same question about the Coronation: "We get wet!"'
'Your Henry Mawne appears to be giving a couple of lectures on British birds.'
'He's not my Henry Mawne, I'm thankful to say, but I expect I've heard those lectures several times in our village hall.'
'Eighteenth-century silver in the museum? Demonstration of hand-weaving? Three mid-European plays about the rise of the peasant classes?'
'The silver sounds agreeable,' I said cautiously.
'You do live dangerously, don't you?' said Amy. 'Tell you what, I'll leave the programme here and you can look it through and let me know. Frankly, I'm game for anything. James will be away for most of that time.'
'Where is he going?'
'Holland first, I believe. Something to do with diamond merchants. Not that James will see much of the diamonds, but the money gets put into other things.'
'The Dutch are very clever at trading, I believe.'
'So I gather. Didn't they own the East Indies at one time? All those spices and jewels?'
'My knowledge is pretty hazy. I only know they were jolly good sailors and had the cheek to sail up the Thames, or perhaps it was the Medway, and had to be chased off by someone who had a broom on the mast.'
'I don't believe it! Why on the mast anyway?'
'Amy, I really know nothing about the Dutch except that Holland gets flooded very easily, and the housewives are exceptionally clean. I should ask James about them when he gets back. After all, he will have first-hand knowledge.'
'Not of the housewives, I hope,' said Amy, with unusual tartness. She stubbed out her cigarette viciously. 'If that's the time, I'd better be off. James makes an early start for Edinburgh tomorrow.'
'He certainly keeps busy,' I said accompanying her to the door.
'Too busy at times,' replied Amy, getting into her glossy car. 'I've told him not to be surprised if I take a leaf out of his book and have a break myself one day.'
It was said lightly, but there was an underlying grimness which disconcerted me.
She blew me a kiss and drove off, and I returned to the fireside with food for thought.
The chilly weather continued for the rest of March. A few hardy primroses had braved the elements in the garden, and knotted bluebell flowers crouched in their glossy leaves, obviously unwilling to do more until the weather grew warmer.
The leaves were still tightly furled on the trees. The winter silhouettes of the beeches and limes still showed up starkly black against the grey sky.
At night, I was glad of my comforting fire, and still put a hot water bottle in my bed halfway through the evening. The frosts were severe, and it would be many weary weeks before the geranium cuttings on my window sill could be put out in the garden.
I remembered Mr Willet's words about the Marchs of old, and I knew that he was right. Somehow, nowadays we seemed to get no real spring, none of those balmy tender days when one could walk in the woods admiring the rosettes of primroses, noting the glutinous stalk of a trampled bluebell, with the whole vista lit by a spangle of young leaves.
The children coughed and sniffed as they had done all the winter, yet would still attempt to go out into the bleak playground without their coats until bullied into them by their elders. Winter ills were rife in the village at large, and the March meeting of the Women's Institute, a hardy collection of souls, was cancelled as the village hall stove had gone on strike, and no one could brave the arctic conditions there with the windows glazed, both inside and out, with thin ice.
One frosty evening when I was settled by the fire marking essays, and getting rather tired of correcting 'brids' and 'grils', someone rang the front door bell.
As I crossed the little hall I remembered all the warnings about opening doors to strangers, particularly if one was alone in the house. I am always advising people to go upstairs and find out who the caller is from an upstairs window, but naturally I never do this myself, as I don't remember such things until the door is wide open.
Luckily, tonight's visitor was only Henry Mawne with some draw tickets to sell, and he seemed glad to come in.
'I shouldn't really,' he said, wiping his perfectly clean shoes vigorously on the mat, 'but to tell the truth, it's a good deal colder than I bargained for when I set out, and I shan't call anywhere else.'
I nobly stumped up fifty pence for a book of tickets to support some wild bird project dear to Henry's ornithological heart, and offered him a drink which he refused.
He stretched his legs out to the blaze, and looked settled for the evening.
I stacked the exercise books away and fetched a block of mint sweet.
'Well, indulge yourself with this,' I said, breaking it with some difficulty. 'It says it is as supplied to successful polar expeditions. I suppose the unsuccessful ones were foolish enough to forget to pack the stuff.'
'Ah! My favourite sweet,' said he, taking the largest fragment. 'Where do you get it?'
'Mr Lamb at the Post Office keeps it.'
'I never knew that!' He crunched happily, and I wondered if he proposed to stay for some time. I had two telephone calls to make, and had planned to wash my hair, but obviously a host's duties came before these things.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Summer at Fairacre"
Copyright © 1984 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
The First Day of Spring,
Henry Mawne Needs Company,
The Coggs Are in Distress,
More Worries for the Coggs Family,
Strange Behaviour of Amy,
Troubles Never Come Singly,
Mrs Pringle Deserts Us,
Minnie Pringle Lends a Hand,
Mr Willet to the Rescue,
Rain and Romance,
Sunshine and Sports,
Off to the Wedding,
Away From it All,
Mrs Pringle on the War Path,
The End of Summer,
About the Author,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This particular year in the English village of Fairacre has seen a cold snowy winter. On the first day of spring, the grounds are still filled with snow. Custodial worker Mrs. Pringle is not just her usual sourpuss self. She claims her leg has not flared up as it has on numerous occasions due to the mistakes of the schoolmistress Miss Read. This time Miss Read learns that Mrs. Pringle¿s niece with the low IQ caused the noticeable limp. However, unlike the many 'bad leg' moments in the past, to the schoolmistress¿ shock, Mrs. Pringle quits. Everyone looks forward to the warmth of summer. For the school employees including Miss Read and most villagers, the highlight of the summer is the wedding of teacher Miss Briggs. As Spring slowly turns to Summer and the wedding nears, Miss Read¿s friend Amy begins to act strange and ultimately vanishes. Miss Read wonders if Amy is okay, what else will happen before school starts anew, and who will become the new custodian? SUMMER AT FAIRACRE is a leisurely cozy look at a small English village. The story line is fun for those readers who want to kick back and follow a relaxing tale filled with friendly charcaters (and one not so friendly individual). Anyone who wants to observe life in a small village during the latter half of the twentieth century, this novel and the entire series provides an unhurried but insightful look. Harriet Klausner
My first Miss Read book and my first "gentle read" as they call these. I loved the characters in the book - Mrs Pringle the school janitoress, the students, the village people, the scenery and all the stories that go with a village school teacher's life.