We were on holiday when they moved in, but to hear my neighbour’s description of the new tenants of Mill Cottage, one would have thought that the devil incarnate had taken up residence. She couldn’t wait to share the gossip as she returned our spare keys and two week’s accumulation of post.
” Scandalous, it is …. And him the new music teacher at the High School in town ! He should know better !”
I stood in the hall, surrounded by suitcases and sun-hats. Distracted by my daughter’s repeated request for Sugar Puffs and my husband’s cursing as he listened to the news on the kitchen radio.
” Thank you, Betty,” I sighed, ” I really appreciate your looking after the house for us.”
I took the pile of letters and packages from her and added,
” I have a little ‘Thank You’ gift somewhere in the luggage. I will pop by with it later, once I’ve got organised.”
Then I ushered her out and closed the door. Her pained expression told me that she had so much more to say, but I had neither time nor inclination to listen to the latest village tittle-tattle. The gossips always had their claws in some poor soul, it was the worst thing about living in a tiny village.
Later that day, I saw, for the first time, the couple that had caused so much outrage. I had been to collect our two Elkhounds from the kennels. They were, naturally, very pleased to see me and bounded about, jumping up and barking and generally making a fuss. They were ecstatic when they got home and almost knocked Brian out of his chair. He was in a bit of a bolshie mood, probably thinking about his return to work and the great heap of files that would, inevitably, be piled up on his desk. It’s always the way, isn’t it ? Two weeks off and two MONTHS to catch up again ! It was a beautiful day, so I decided to take Amy and the dogs for a long walk. Give hubby some space and allow the dogs to let off some steam.
We walked to the edge of the village and took the lane down to the little river, which was actually barely more than a stream. It was early Summer and drifts of bluebells still bloomed along the curve of the path and wild violets hid shyly around the roots of the slender birch trees. It was a beautiful spot and I loved living here, despite the old-fashioned ways of the villagers. The dogs rushed ahead, happy to be off their leads, pushing their large wet snouts into the briar hedge. Amy ran after them, her plump little five-year-old legs struggling to keep up. I strolled along behind and, as we rounded a little copse, there they were, the new residents.
Her golden hair was the first thing I noticed.It hung down her back, almost to her waist and seemed to sparkle in the sunlight. She sat on the grass, her long, lilac skirt spread out all around her as she sketched a family of Mallards that were paddling in and out of the tall reeds on the other side of the river. A figure lay beside her, as dark as she was fair. He was flat on his back, one hand behind his head, eyes closed contentedly, enjoying the sunshine. His other hand was on her knee and, every now and then, she paused and touched it. Each time she did, he lifted his head and smiled at her and I was aware of a ‘togetherness’; an unspoken affection and intimacy that made me feel like an intruder, a voyeur, even. Turning my head away from the couple, I hurried on and caught up with my charges.
It was two weeks before I saw the couple again, but I heard plenty about them. The village was agog with speculative stories and outraged indignation and I must admit, after seeing them by the river, my curiosity was piqued.
I was walking the dogs again. Wet weather had curtailed their walks during the week, so, when Saturday dawned bright and sunny, I left Brian to his papers and his TV sport and headed off with child and dogs in tow. I decided to go up the hill to the old Mill. Partly because it was a perfectly safe walk, where the dogs could be let off their leads and partly because I confess to being a little nosy about the newcomers ……….. and their cottage was right beside the old Mill.
As usual, the dogs rushed off as soon as I unclipped their leads. They snuffled and sniffed at every tree on the way up the slight incline we laughingly called a hill and Amy chortled and skipped happily behind them. As we approached the crest of the hill, I could see the couple in the tiny, flower-filled garden of Mill Cottage. He was up a ladder, clearing the guttering, or some such domestic chore. She stood anxiously by, holding the ladder steady, her golden hair was loose and lifting in the gentle breeze. She was saying something; I couldn’t catch what, but then she giggled prettily and he stopped what he was doing and looked, lovingly, down at her. He put his slim brown hand to his lips and blew her a kiss and she beamed up at him and giggled again.I was so engrossed in this touching, intimate scene, that I didn’t notice that Amy was clambering over some large rocks that abutted the ancient, disused Mill.
Her scream, as she fell, startled me and also the couple at the cottage. He rushed down the ladder and they both flew to my aid. Poor Amy lay rubbing her bloody knees and wailing pitifully. I panicked and tried to simultaneously, scoop her up, tend to her wounds and calm her.
” Bring her into the house,” the woman said, with authority and, as I struggled to move Amy, the man bent, lifted her in his muscular arms and we all rushed back to the cottage with the dogs running behind, barking in consternation.
Amy was deposited gently in an overstuffed armchair and a bowl of warm water was brought, along with fresh, fluffy towels, bandages, Elastoplasts and antiseptic cream.
” I’m Suzi and this is Peter,” breathed the woman, as she gently bathed Amy’s battered limbs. ” Luckily, it looks as though all the injuries are superficial………. nothing broken ” then, with a wink at Amy, she added “Welcome to our home.”
She deftly bandaged the sobbing child, speaking quietly and calmly and soon Amy’s sobs became a sort of half-hearted sniff. Peter emerged from the kitchen bearing a tea tray of goodies. Hot tea and sweet biscuits for me, a glass of orange juice and a dish of ice-cream for Amy. He was such a sweetie. Amy brightened up at the sight of the ice-cream, the tea calmed my shattered nerves and soon we were all chatting as though nothing had happened.
I glanced around the comfortable sitting room. It was such a lovely, light, homely room with a beautiful inglenook fireplace and white-washed walls. The furnishings were mostly traditional, with the occasional modern addition, such as a computer and a fax machine. There were jugs and vases of flowers on every available surface and a small posy of violets, tied with a purple satin ribbon, on the piano. Suzi’s eyes followed my gaze and she smiled.
” Peter buys me flowers every day, on his way home from work,” she said shyly
“Well, you love flowers,” he softly replied and they exchanged a look….. and there it was again….. that intimacy, that adoration, that made me feel like an outsider. I don’t think I have ever seen a couple who were so obviously in love.
Amy, now proudly sporting two pristine bandages on her legs and a huge Elastoplast on her arm, had finished her ice-cream. She twisted in her seat and spied the piano and her eyes lit up.
“Oh, Mummy, a piano……” she began.
I knew what was coming next, she had wanted a piano, since seeing an elephant playing one, in one of her books.
“No Amy, we have to go, we have troubled these nice people long enough,” I murmured.
Peter immediately understood. He crouched by her chair and, in a stage whisper, conspiratorially said,
“If it’s okay with Mummy, you can come back another time and I will teach you how to play , if you like ?”
Amy beamed, while I stuttered my thanks and, gathering up the dogs, who were now lying peacefully on the hearth-rug, we said our goodbyes. Suzi and Peter walked hand in hand down the garden path and waved to us as we made our way slowly down the hill, with Amy limping, ostentatiously. I turned and waved as they disappeared back into their cottage. Such a lovely, loving couple. I thought of the gossip and nasty comments that were bandied about the village and I felt very angry.
On Monday, after I had taken Amy to school, where, I was sure, she would be enjoying the attention her ‘injuries’ would prompt, I called at the village shop to buy a few bits and pieces. The shop was quite busy and Nora,the owner, was holding court and talking about the Mill Cottage tenants.
” She swans in here, all sweetness and light. Like butter wouldn’t melt !” she shrilled, “Disgusting, that’s what it is ! And him a teacher too. He should ‘ave more sense !”
I was so angry, I could barely speak. I spluttered something about her not knowing what the hell she was talking about. I think I may have called her a “gossip-mongering, evil old bat”, I’m not really sure ! Then, incandescent with rage, I had stormed out, leaving my groceries on the counter, her “Well REALLY !” ringing in my ears.
Back home, I calmed down and then, taking a bottle of wine from the rack, I grabbed my basket and walked up the hill to Mill Cottage. Suzi opened the door and greeted me with a hug.
“Oh, do come in. How is dear little Amy ? Better I hope ? Please excuse my hands ” she held out paint-splattered fingers and smiled, ruefully. ” I skived all weekend, so now I am having to work. Come in, come in !”
I walked into the delightful sitting room and breathed in the glorious scent of the flowers. Over by the French windows, a white easel had been set up and I wandered over to examine the canvas. I smiled as I looked at the bright painting of vaguely familiar characters running through an enchanted wood. Surely this was an illustration for a children’s book ? Suzi entered, bearing mugs of coffee and giggled her delicious, tinkling laugh.
“Ah, I see you have discovered my secret,” she smiled.
Peering closer, I realised that I had seen the same character on the pages of one of Amy’s books “Fairy Elephant”
“Are you Susan Pearson ?” I gasped, ” The creator and illustrator of Amy’s favourite story ?”
Suzi grinned, her face pink with embarrassment,
“I’m afraid so. But please don’t tell people. I like to be anonymous. I’m doing a sequel “Fairy Elephant and the Wolf dogs” ! I hope you don’t mind, you see I have drawn your delightful dogs. They have that wonderful lupine appearance I have been looking for.”
I looked at the canvas again. She had indeed drawn the dogs. There they were, running across the canvas with ‘Fairy Elephant’. Fame at last !
Well, we sat and chatted, drank cups of coffee, ate far too many biscuits and shared tales of our lives. She told me how she and Peter had met and I told her about Brian and Amy and ….oh, all manner of silly things. It was as though we had known each other for ages. I happened to glance at the grandfather clock ….. good gracious, it was almost time to go and collect Amy from school. We had chatted for hours. I was about to leave when I remembered the bottle of wine in my basket,
“This is for you and Peter” I said, suddenly shy, ” Just to thank you both for your kindness …… I couldn’t bring flowers, could I ?” I added and we both surveyed the many vases of blooms and laughed.
” Don’t mention my book in the village” she whispered, as we walked to the gate, ” I don’t want false friendship from them. I know what they are saying. We are an unconventional couple. People don’t understand. It’s not their fault”
I turned and hugged her and then hurried off, with a lump in my throat.
I saw them often over the next few months. Peter kept his promise and taught Amy to play the piano. He was so patient with her, as her little fingers struggled to hit the correct keys. He was kind, encouraging and had such a gentle way of explaining things that she soon learnt to play a simple tune. I can imagine that his pupils adored him. I could certainly see why Suzi did.
The village continued to gossip and grumble about them, but accepted their custom in the shop and the pub. I hated the hypocrisy and rarely used either establishment. Though, when Suzi’s latest book was published, I delighted in asking Nora if she would stock it and found it amusing that Nora even bought three copies for her grand-children.
Suzi and Peter continued to walk, hand in hand, happy in each others company and, seemingly, oblivious to all the criticism. However, one day, towards the end of September, I called at Mill Cottage with some windfalls. Suzi was sitting at the kitchen table, crying softly. She showed me an anonymous letter, crudely fashioned from words cut out of a magazine. It was malicious and disgusting and I urged her to tell the police.
” Oh, no,” she sobbed “Please, please don’t tell anyone. Please don’t tell Peter, he would be so upset.”
I comforted her, but I knew, in my heart, that the hate was finally getting to her.
Brian had a weeks holiday due, so we went to stay with my parents for Hallowe’en. My Mum’s birthday is around that time and so we always have a celebration. There was a letter and parcel waiting for me on our return.
” That woman left it ….. the hussy. They v’e gone! Good riddance!” sniped Betty as she handed me the parcel, then the envelope, holding it gingerly between finger and thumb, as though she was afraid of catching something.
The note explained their departure. They couldn’t take anymore of the narrow-minded villagers. They were going to travel, find somewhere they would be accepted. They would keep in touch.
Tearfully I ripped the brown paper off the parcel. It was the painting, the one I had seen the day we became friends. But now it was finished and beautifully framed. The Fairy Elephant and her two dog companions.
Amy receives postcards from all the places Suzi and Peter visit. Italy, Greece, America, Japan. The last one was of elephants in Kerala so I guess they are in India. I like to think of them walking, hand in hand, as they always did.
The sun beats down on the beautiful beach in Goa. Suzi smiles as Peter places a pink orchid in her hair. It nestles amongst the grey strands that mingle with the gold. Then they walk, barefooted, along the pure white sand, his youthful, tanned hand, gently holding her delicate aged hand.
This is my entry for the weekly Countdown Word Game. Details can be found on Matt’s blog page at http://miblodelcarpio.blog.co.uk
This week the words to be included are;
SNOUTS, BOLSHIE, SKIVED, CREATOR, RADIO, PAINED, MODERN, LUPINE, ORANGE.