Authors: Dorothy Cannell
“Ms. Cannell beguiles us with a genteel ambience of tea cozies, rosy-cheeked babies, and urban hanky-panky, but beneath all of this lurks a hilariously wicked wit. An invaluable guide for spouses with a problem-in-law.”
“America’s P. G. Wodehouse strikes again! If there’s anybody funnier than Dorothy Cannell, I don’t want to meet her until my sides stop aching.”
“Dorothy Cannell has perfected the recipe for an outrageous brew of genteel wit and wicked satire in
. I giggled to the end of this intricate plot of love-starved ladies, exhausted husbands, and discreetly kinky murder.”
, New York
“Romps along with a judicious blend of suspense, frivolity, and eccentric characters.”
“Sparkling wit and outlandish characters.”
“[A] likable debut—combining fairy-tale romance, treasure hunts, and a homicidal maniac.”
This edition contains the complete text
of the original hardcover edition.
NOT ONE WORD HAS BEEN OMITTED
A Bantam Book
Bantam hardcover edition published April 1994
Bantam paperback edition / May 1995
All rights reserved.
Copyright © 1994 by Dorothy Cannell.
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 93-31149.
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Pray do come to dine
We’ll have roasted pheasant
And a fine hemlock wine
ome women are born to meddle. They lurk in bathrooms, sticking their noses into medicine cabinets and rehanging the toilet paper. They lecture other people’s children and put their neighbours’ houseplants on diets. They would tell God what was wrong with heaven if they got half a chance. Enough is enough! I say they should be shot at dawn, every last one of them, including Mrs. Bentley T. Haskell, of Merlin’s Court, Chitterton Fells; for if anyone should have the words
I will mind my own business
monogrammed on her forehead, it is I.
In a flush of family feeling I decided to host a wedding anniversary dinner party for my parents-in-law—Magdalene and Elijah Haskell. Nothing elaborate, you understand. Just a beef stew with a slight French accent, a salad jardin, and perhaps a chocolate blancmange masquerading as a mousse. “Ellie, you’re the salt of the earth,” Dad would say. And Mum would pipe in with “I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to appreciate your
wonderful qualities.” Being the occasional wet blanket, my husband wasn’t keen on the idea. How I wish I had listened to Ben! And how sad it is to say that all I ever seem to learn from my mistakes is how to make new ones.
When the big day arrived, I was still feeling on top of my game. Ben had offered to come home early from Abigail’s, his restaurant in the village, but I stuck to my guns. I know I’m not as eclectic in my choice of lettuce as is my beloved. And I once wore out a pair of shoes looking for clarified butter in every supermarket in town. I eat a lot better than I cook, as is woefully apparent. But I had this mad urge to show Mum and Dad that in their honour I could put a decent meal on the table.
If I’d had my son, Tam, and daughter, Abbey, eighteen-month-old twins, on my hands that fateful day, things could have been a nightmare. Merlin’s Court is a large house, and I’d long ago abandoned the naive notion that if I gave it a thorough go-through once a month, it would repay me by keeping itself clean the rest of the time. Luckily, Jonas, who fronts as the gardener but is in truth one of the family, helped out with the twins during the morning. And in the afternoon my cousin Freddy, who lives at the cottage at the gates, ambled over to announce that he was taking a few hours off, as is his wont twice or thrice a day. Freddy is Ben’s second-in-command at Abigail’s; but he never lets this stand in the way of allowing me to impose on his services, for the trifling loan of a fiver. Abbey and Tam, who adore Freddy, with his ponytail and dangling earring, greeted him with gurgling cheers and toys tossed in the air.
Everything was going swimmingly, for—not to sound like a pampered puss, I was additionally blessed in having the assistance of Mrs. Roxie Malloy. Mrs. Malloy always “does for us” of a Monday. She had graciously consented to come in a little earlier than usual
and stay on through the evening to help with the clearing-away and washing-up.
After flying about the house like Batman, zapping windows and mirrors with ammonia, buffing the furniture with Johnson’s Lavender Wax, hosing down the bathrooms, making up beds, and feverishly wiping away fingerprints as if we were expecting a visit from the constabulary instead of my in-laws, I met up with Mrs. Malloy at four o’clock in the wainscotted dining room.
“What a team!” Smiling smugly, I faced her across the great divide of linen-clad table, set out with the Indian-tree china and crystal that had belonged to Abigail, the former mistress of Merlin’s Court. “My in-laws aren’t due for several hours and here we are, almost ready.”
“Not so cocky, Mrs. H.” Mrs. Malloy thrives on gloom and doom. “Them candlesticks could do with a trimming.” She eyed the pair as if they were a couple of naughty schoolboys. Hands on her stalwart hips, she looked the room up and down for all the world as if she were Lady Kitty Pomeroy, the terror of our little community, checking out the stalls at St. Anselm’s Summer Fête.
Mrs. M. would lend character to any room. Her jet-black hair always shows two inches of white roots as part of her fashion statement, not because she is between dye jobs. Her rouge would appear to be applied with a trowel, her lipstick is a violent purple, and her eyes are done up like stained glass windows. Since that memorable day when she took me on as a client (strictly on six months’ approval), we have had our run-ins.
“The candles are fine.” I adjusted the dripless beeswax in their pewter holders. “And dinner is all set. The beef ragout is in the fridge, waiting to be heated up. The salad dressing is made, the endive rinsed, and the rolls rising for the second time.”
“What about the chocolate goop?” Mrs. M.’s damson smile assured me of her complete faith in my ability to flub dessert.
“The mousse is chilling in little glass dishes. What took the time was finding the baking chocolate. Some nameless person had stuck it on the top shelf of that cupboard, where I keep the aspirin and cough syrup.”
“Think the silver could do with a buff-up?”
“The secret of successful entertaining is to know when enough is enough, Mrs. Malloy.” My voice was as crisp as the folds in the damask serviettes. I leaned against the sideboard, already groaning under the weight of enough silver chafing dishes to keep an industrious fence in business for a year. “The mantelpiece clock does not need winding, the pictures do not need straightening, and Jonas does not need to be reminded to take a bath.”
Arms folded beneath bosoms, as always in danger of popping like a pair of overblown balloons, Mrs. Malloy pursed her butterfly lips and looked sad. “Pride goes before a fall, Mrs. H.”
“For heaven’s sake!” I laughed blithely. “What are you trying to do, put a curse on me?”
“Don’t have the knack.” Mrs. M. gave her organdy apron a twitch and assumed a modest mien. “I leave that sort of thing to me former friend, Edna Pickle. Edna’s great-great-grandma was a witch, and they do say that sort of thing crops up, like twins, every so many generations.”
“What do you mean”—I fastened on the juicy part of her statement—“former friend? You and Mrs. Pickle have been pals forever. You’re always going in to see her at the vicarage on your way home from here.”
“We’ve had words,” she replied meaningfully. “No, don’t ask me any more, Mrs. H., me lips is sealed.”
“All right,” I said.
“Go on!” She let loose a bone-weary sigh. “Force it out of me. Yesterday Edna was telling me she has high hopes of winning the Martha—that’s the trophy given at the summer fête, in honour of the woman who was always scrubbing the kitchen sink in the Bible. It goes
to the person who comes in tops among the winners in the homemaking events—jam-making, marrow-growing, and all that nonsense. But you know that, Mrs. H. And when I answered, nice as you please, that I couldn’t sit listening to that sort of talk, what with you being this year’s chairwoman, Edna turned right nasty.”
“What—Mrs. Pickle?” I couldn’t believe it. The woman never seemed to me to have enough energy to get worked up about anything. Whenever I went round to the vicarage, it invariably took her two hours to answer the door and another fifteen minutes to troop down the hall to the study to announce my arrival to her employer. I wasn’t greatly surprised that Eudora Spike kept her on, because our deacon is an immeasurably warm-hearted woman. The wonder was that Mrs. Pickle also worked as a daily for several other people, including the exceedingly formidable Lady Kitty Pomeroy.
“Edna’s got an ’orrible temper when roused,” said Mrs. Malloy, who never forgot her haitches unless the situation called for major emphasis. “The old story of still waters running deep, if you get my drift. And along them lines, Mrs. H., you haven’t said one word about how the mister is taking this dinner party of yours.”
“It’s for his parents.”
“And he’s jumping for joy, is that what you’re telling me?”
“Oh, you know how men are,” I hedged.
“After four husbands, I should say I do, duck.” Mrs. Malloy could be incredibly sympathetic when her nose got the better of her.
“Ben wasn’t immediately in favour of the idea.” I busied my hands straightening knives and forks that didn’t need straightening. “But it’s not as though I were talking about entertaining the postman and his wife. He’s known his parents for years.”
“So what was his problem?”
“He went on about the journey, as if Mum and Dad
would have to take the dogsled from Siberia instead of the train from Tottenham. If it had been dead of winter instead of June, he might have had a point. But what it came down to was his belief that Mum and Dad had never made any fuss over their anniversary and he thought they’d be happier with a nice card. You know the sort, with the satin heart that you can use for a pincushion later, and a verse on the inside such as ‘Still singing love’s song, while the world hums along.’ ”
“Spit it out.” Mrs. Malloy blew on a serving spoon before giving it a buff with her apron. “How did you bring him round?”
“The babies. I reminded Ben that the last time his parents saw the twins, they weren’t putting words together, let alone staggering all over the house. And the moment he started to waffle, I picked up the phone and issued the invitation.”
“And I suppose your in-laws was over the moon?”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far,” I admitted. “Dad hemmed and hawed a bit about having to bring the dog, and I could hear Mum in the background saying she didn’t want to be a burden. But I knew they really wanted to accept. Why wouldn’t they? And in the end it was all arranged that they would come down today for the dinner and stay the week.”
“So when did you come up with the bright idea of including Mrs. Haskell’s long-lost friend in the invite?”
“Just a few days ago,” I said, looking around as if the walls not only had ears but their own telegraph system. For this was to be the
surprise. “Last time she was here, Mum mentioned she had learned through the grapevine that her girlhood pal, Beatrix, lives a few miles from here. And that her married name is Taffer. But when I suggested ringing up and inviting her over for lunch or tea, Mum went on as she does about not wanting to make work for me. Such a shame, because I knew she had to be dying to see her friend and chat over old times. So when I got down to organizing the dinner party, I rang up and spoke to Mrs. Taffer’s
daughter-in-law. The old lady couldn’t come to the phone herself because she was upstairs doing her exercises—arthritis I suppose, poor dear. But Frizzy Taffer couldn’t have been nicer or more excited about Beatrix having a night out.”
“Very nice.” Mrs. Malloy gave a lordly sniff. “But if you ask me, you’ve got your work cut out for you.”
“I keep telling you, everything is under control.”
“Says you, Mrs. H., and what I says is you’re forgetting your mother-in-law can be a real pain up the rear.”
“What was unkind”—Mrs. M. drew herself up on her stilt heels—“was her calling me the Harlot of Jerusalem when her hubby gave me a peck under the mistletoe last Christmas. Then again, perhaps I took offence where none was meant. My third—or was it me fourth?—husband always said I was too sensitive for me own good. But we can’t none of us change our natures.”
I was Wondering what Eudora Spike would have to say about that. Uncannily, Mrs. Malloy proved to be a mind reader.
“Take a lesson, Mrs. H., from our poor vicar.”
When Mrs. Spike had arrived at St. Anselm’s Vicarage as a temporary replacement for the Reverend Rowland Foxworth, there had been quite a few chauvinistic grumbles, but, after a few months, most parishioners seemed to forget she was a mere deacon; and Mrs. Malloy wasn’t unusual in addressing her as “vicar.”
“What sort of lesson?” I asked.
“Where’ve you been living, in an igloo? Her mother-in-law came for a fortnight the beginning of May and is still buggering up the place.”
“Really?” Not only had I not seen the elder Mrs. Spike in church, but Eudora hadn’t brought her to visit me, or invited me over to the vicarage to meet her.
“I expect they’ve been busy cutting each other’s throats,” Mrs. Malloy said kindly. “I’ve been getting the lowdown from me ex-chum, Edna Pickle. Edna’s not
like me, Mrs. H., for as I told you the first day I walked through your door, I don’t do drains, I don’t do cellars, and I don’t gossip about me clients. As I said, I’m too meek and mild for this world, and I worry about you and your good intentions, Mrs. H.; I tell you straight and no mistake, you’ll end up looking like Lady Kitty Pomeroy’s daughter-in-law, Pamela. My friend Edna, in the days when we was speaking, said you could hold the poor girl up to a light and see right through her.”
The thought of my being reduced to a waif had a certain appeal for me. All this rushing around had played havoc with my diet, which I had planned to start after lunch. Or, rather, after the box of chocolates I had eaten after lunch.
“Speaking of Lady Kitty,” I said, “you’ve reminded me I have to speak to her about the tents for the fête. I understand she gave last year’s chairperson a real drumming for not consulting her. And rightly so, I suppose, considering the event is held on the grounds of Pomeroy Manor.”
“The woman’s a bloody tyrant,” Mrs. Malloy said vehemently, wiping the complacent smile off my lips. “You have only to look at her to see that. And no one ever gets a look at Sir Robert. Edna says the poor old bugger hasn’t been off the grounds since he went hunting without permission twenty years ago. But some would say as compared to your mother-in-law, her ladyship is a prize. Mark my words, the old girl won’t be in this house five minutes before she has you in tears, insisting the cat be put down.”
“This isn’t helping, Mrs. Malloy.” I looked around the dining room for some telltale sign that my darling feline, Tobias, was listening in on our conversation from under the sideboard. “My mother-in-law and I have had our differences in the past, but I see now they were mostly my fault. I’ve been too quick to take offence. But no more. This dinner party is to be a new beginning.”
“Whatever you say.” Mrs. Malloy heaved a disbelieving
sigh. “But if she asks to have
put down, Mrs. H., I hope you’ll make it quick and painless.”
“Let’s talk about the flowers,” I said firmly. “I’m having second thoughts about those peonies.”
“They look all right to me.”
“Are you sure?” Suddenly I was wondering if marigolds wouldn’t have looked better in the bowl, which is the size of the church font, on the sill. The sunlight foisting its way through the leaded glass window did rather clash with all that pink. Thank heavens for Ben. His classic good looks are always complementary to any decor. Jonas is another story. Our resident gardener takes pride in looking as grungy as possible, from his hoary moustache to his clumping boots. A good thing Lady Kitty didn’t have him in her clutches, or Jonas might have found himself stashed away with the Hoover under the stairs.
But who was I to throw stones? The mirror above the overmantel did not reflect a pretty sight. My hair was scraped back in a hangman’s noose; I was wearing a pair of horrible old shorts, and my shirt had been rescued from the duster bag. If my in-laws caught me looking like this, they couldn’t be blamed for thinking their Ben could have done a lot better for himself. But, happily, that catastrophe was not in the making. I had a luxurious two hours, at least, in which to take a bath, wash my hair, and slip into my party frock.
Mrs. Malloy put it another way. “In two shakes of a cat’s tail, unless this place is taken over by the Red Cross for emergency bandage practice, we’ll have Mum and Dad leaning on your doorbell. Better snap it up if you hope to lose that two stone you’ve been going on about all week.”
“Thanks for the moral support,” I said frostily.
“And you still have to get the twins dressed up in their pretties,” she reminded me.
“A mother’s privilege.” I beamed, trying not to imagine what Abbey and Tam might now look like after
an hour with Cousin Freddy. The man who looked like the local hit man was putty in my babies’ hands.
“And what about St. Francis?” Mrs. Malloy tapped fingers loaded down with rings on a folded arm. “Is he still missing?” Honestly! The woman should work for Scotland Yard. I’d removed the statue that had been Mum’s wedding present from its niche in the hall to give him a dusting, and I’d put him down somewhere or other.
“I’ll find him,” I said confidently.
“Course you will, duck!” She gave one of her gusty guffaws. “Come nightfall you won’t have no trouble, seeing as how he glows in the dark. A nasty turn he gave me that time I was baby-sitting for you and the electricity went out. I thought I was having one of them visions Roman Catholics like your mother-in-law are always jabbering about. Believe you me, I got busy repenting me sins and was all done with the A’s and had started on the B’s when the lights came on.” Mrs. Malloy shuddered at the memory.
To my shame, I was in complete sympathy with her. During childhood I had read about the visions of Bernadette and promptly forfeited any desire to become a saint. For a long time afterwards I had made sure I did something naughty before going to bed just to increase the odds that I wouldn’t be singled out for the favour of a heavenly visitor rising up out of the shadows between the wardrobe and the window. Even so, I would sometimes waken in the dead of night and think I heard a voice whispering, “Ellie … Ell-ie, come down to the grotto.” The objective, I decided, was to be neither too good nor so bad that the devil got me. And early in my marriage I had determined I could never become a Catholic, even to please Mum; not without plugging in a night-light, which wouldn’t have pleased Ben.
“A rum sort of marriage, wouldn’t you say?” Mrs. Malloy broke into my thoughts.
“Your in-laws. There’s her—an R.C. what makes
the Pope look like a goof-off—and him as Jewish as they make ’em. Must have been a real turn-up for the book when they tied the knot.”
I had often thought the same thing. Times have changed in thirty-eight years, but when Mum and Dad took the plunge, they must really have been going against the flow. And knowing Mum, I could only assume that the lure of forbidden fruit … and vege (Dad ran a greengrocer’s shop) had proved irresistible.
“We tend to forget,” I said, “when looking at a couple close on seventy that theirs may have been one of the truly great love affairs.”
“Don’t go getting all misty-eyed on me, Mrs. H.” Mrs. Malloy pursed her purple lips.
“My point is they deserve this little anniversary party, with the surprise reunion with Beatrix Taffer being the icing on the cake.”
“Says you! And now if it’s all the same as makes no difference”—Mrs. M. gave her apron a tug that signalled business—“I think I’ll go and make meself a cuppa while you amuse yourself putting out them doilies.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” I said with genuine gratitude and, accepting my dismissal, headed out into the hall.
Mum, who was a whiz at handwork, had given us so many lacy little mats that had I put them all out at once it would have looked like the year of the crochet hook. That morning I had unearthed four drawer-loads and piled them on the trestle table in the hall, ready to be laid out on every available surface from the Queen Anne bureau to the ironing board. Picking up one of the doilies now, I acknowledged its museum quality and wondered a little wistfully whether Mum and I might have been closer had I shared her talent.
of the grandfather clock was not the only reason I dropped the doily. Jonas stuck his head over the banister to growl, in what was supposed to be a whisper, “Ellie girl! I can’t find my Choco-Lax.”
“That stuff as keeps me regular.”
“Well, don’t look at me like that!” I said defensively. “I didn’t sit down and make a pig of myself with a couple of Choco bars. Try and remember where you put it.”
His answer was drowned out by the ringing of the telephone. When I turned back with the receiver in my hand, he had vanished up the stairs.
“Hello!” I chirped, expecting to hear Ben’s voice asking if I needed him to come home and clean out the gutters, which isn’t as silly as it sounds, because Mum was just as likely to climb a ladder to check them out. She’s a meticulous housewife besides being such a character!
Seeing that Ben and I had never picked up the habit of addressing each other like characters in a Jane Austen novel, I figured he wasn’t the caller. Besides which, it was a woman speaking. I recognized the voice. My heart dropped to my tennis shoes. Frizzy Taffer. Oh, no! Don’t tell me her mother-in-law, Beatrix, wasn’t up to an evening out!
“Hello,” I said weakly.
“I hope I’m not catching you at a bad moment?”
“Not at all.”
“I know how it is when you’re rushing around at the last minute trying to get a million things done at once,” Frizzy said sympathetically. “Last week I had a thirteenth birthday party for my daughter, Dawn.” Breathless laugh. “And just when the doorbell was ringing, my four-year-old slipped and cracked his head, and the minute I got him sorted out, I found the toddler had taken bites out of all the fairy cakes.”
Hardly liking to boast that I was one hundred percent organized, I said it was lovely to hear from her.
“I thought I’d better give you a ring to let you know we’ve arranged for the taxi to bring Ma over to
your place, and pick her back up when she’s ready to come home.”
“Then, she is coming?” I could have kissed the receiver.
“Why, yes!” Frizzy’s voice turned all panicky. “You haven’t changed your mind, have you?”
“It’s just that she’s
“Oh, I am pleased!”
“She’s like a teenager going to her first grown-up do!”
“Will there be any games? Ma is very fond of games.”
I hadn’t planned on anything of that sort, but I hastened to assure her that we might be able to work in a game of Scrabble after dinner.
“That’ll be nice,” Frizzy said brightly, “Ma does rather have her heart set on Postman’s Knock, but look—she’s lucky to be having a night out.”
Oh, dear! I thought. From the sound of it, Beatrix Taffer was entering her second childhood: all the more reason to get her and my mother-in-law together while they could still enjoy each other.
After telling Frizzy I hoped to meet her too, one day, I returned the phone to its cradle as gently as if it were a baby. Filled with goodwill to mankind in general, and to myself in particular, I scooped up the doilies and went into the drawing room. Lately it had become something of a museum, cordoned off against the day when the twins could sit on the Queen Anne chairs or on one or other of the ivory silk sofas without taking bites out of the cushions, or bouncing fragile ornaments on the floor.
The peacock-and-rose Persian carpet which, like much of the furniture, was a gift from the past, dated back to the days when Abigail Grantham was mistress of Merlin’s Court. Her portrait hung above the mantelpiece and I reached to straighten it. Sometimes my
organizational acumen amazes me. In the midst of depositing doilies around the room, I came up with the idea of having, at some future date, my in-laws renew their marriage vows here at Merlin’s Court. Suspecting that theirs hadn’t been the splashiest of weddings, I couldn’t think of anything nicer. Only one question nagged at me. Should the bridal pair stand in front of the fireplace or by the window? With dreamy steps I crossed to the leaded glass bay and promptly dropped the doilies. What I beheld was so frightening, my blood ran cold. There were men out on the lawn putting up big white tents. My heavens! The scene resembled a summit meeting in the Sahara. And if that weren’t sufficient cause for alarm, a taxi was zinging its way through the wrought iron gates, past Freddy’s cottage, like a Black Maria.
Before I could complete my gasp, my in-laws were standing on our gravel driveway, paying off the cabbie, while their little dog, Sweetie, raced around in mad circles, yipping and yapping and tying up three pairs of legs with her lead. Smile, Ellie! Do not even harbour the suspicion that Mum and Dad had done this to catch me on the hop. There had to be a simpler explanation—such as all the clocks in the house being a couple of hours slow. Besides, what did it matter that there was no time for me to comb my hair—let alone lose five pounds—before the doorbell rang? My mother-in-law was a saint. She would love me just the way I was … even if it killed her.
ever let it be said we’re not punctual!”
Mum stepped tidily over the threshold while Dad and the taxi driver hobbled in behind her with the luggage. Was it the brash afternoon sunlight that made Magdalene Haskell look like a workhouse waif, with her crocheted beret pulled down over her ears and her much-washed frock two sizes too big, as if to allow room for growing? She wasn’t any bigger than a sparrow. And I was a heel to be disturbed by punctuality. Had I learned nothing from my near-perfect attendance at St. Anselm’s Church in the pursuit of humility, patience, and generosity of spirit? The doilies weighed heavily upon my conscience and my chest. Halfway to the front door I’d realized I still had some in my hands. With the desperation of the family dog about to be caught with the Sunday joint, I’d stuffed them down my bra.
Speaking of doggie-wogs, Sweetie came trotting in to fix me with a look that said What—you still here? But I didn’t let her put me off my stride. “Mum! Dad! How
lovely to see you!” I enveloped them in a huge embrace that included the astonished taxi driver.
“So where’s the brass band, Ellie?” Dad roared. Elijah is inclined to bellow as if the whole world were deaf. And he gets away with it, I suspect, because he has a beard worthy of Father Christmas, and dark brown eyes that must have melted the heart of many a young girl in his day.
“Oh, you mean the tents!” I started to say that they were a mistake, when the front door slammed open, almost sending Mum into the arms of one of the suits of armour by the stairs.
A giant of a man blocked the opening. This massive creature had a pencil behind his left ear and a crumpled green form in his meaty right hand. “We’ve got the lot up, so if you would be so good as to sign for receipt on the dotted line, we’ll peel on out of here.”
“You can leave anytime you like,” I said. “
you take those tents back down.”
“But you ordered them, lady!”
“I know.” I mustered a smile. “But for St. Anselm’s Fête, which is on the twelfth of July, not the twelfth of June; and they were to be set up on the grounds of Pomeroy Manor, not here.” Closing the door on his wounded face, I enjoyed a brief respite, during which Mum said that she had known the tents weren’t for her and Dad, not that they would have wanted that kind of fuss anyway. Before I could reply, a tap sounded at the blasted door. I opened up yet again, expecting to see some fellow with a white flag, intent on negotiating a truce in which the tents went, but the bill got paid.
“Why, hello, Mrs. Pickle!” I tried to look thrilled.
hope as I haven’t come at a bad time.” She looked up at me with apology written all over her currant-bun face. Edna Pickle, unlike Mrs. Malloy, looked exactly like those charwomen you see on the telly—floral coveralls, and metal curlers bristling under her headscarf.
“My in-laws just arrived”—I cast a look over my shoulder—“but it’s always nice to see you.”
“I’d have gone round back.” Mrs. Pickle always spoke as if allowing time for an interpreter to translate the words into a foreign tongue. “But I didn’t like to take Mrs. Malloy unawares, not after our recent bust-up. She can be a little sharp, can Roxie, and I thought as I should tread a bit wary, like.”
By taking the longcut through the hall? Smiling to show I understood completely, I held wide the door, and in the time it would have taken to unpitch one of the tents, Edna Pickle stepped into my home and opened up her big black bag.
“Here you are, Mrs. Haskell. I brought you a couple bottles of me dandelion wine, seeing as Roxie said you went through the last ones I sent in such a hurry.”
“Why, thank you.” I knew without turning my head that Mum had exchanged a questioning look with Dad. “If you’d like to take those down to the kitchen, Mrs. Pickle, you’ll find Mrs. Malloy there along with my cousin Freddy and the twins.”
“If you’re sure it’s no bother?”
“Not the least.”
Aware that the taxi driver, a tough-looking bruiser, was breathing hard, as if to signal his motor was still running, I am afraid I hustled her off to the kitchen before she was properly done saying “Pleased to meet you both, I’m sure” to Mum and Dad. Coming back up the hall, I squeezed out a smile for the taxi driver. His face was fast turning the colour of a bad bruise.
“Look, lady,” he was saying to Mum, “I counted your cases when I put ’em in the cab, and there they all are.”
“And I tell you,” Mum snipped, “that I’m missing my needlework bag. Not that anyone cares, I don’t suppose; even though crocheting is my life”—she paused to cross herself—“next to Mother Church, that is.”
Dad gusted a sigh that fluttered the snowy whiskers around his lips. “You know what, Magdalene? You drive
me crazy. Everywhere we go for thirty-eight years, you lose something.”
“Go where, Elijah? We haven’t been on a day trip to the seaside in all that time.”
“Here we go again.” He turned to me. “Your mother-in-law’s got a mind like an elephant.” His voice worked its way up to a bellow. “If it isn’t her handbag she thinks she’s lost, it’s her umbrella! And you know why, Ellie? Because every five minutes she repacks. On the train she put her crochet bag first in her small case, then the big one, then the small one again.”
“I like to be organized.” Mum drew herself up so that she was the height of the umbrella stand.
“That’ll be two pounds twenty.” The taxi driver forced a beefy smile, peeled open his wallet, stuffed in the five-pound note Dad handed him, and grudgingly made change on his way out. Closing the door and turning back to my in-laws, I heard a series of merry squeals from the kitchen.
Mum’s ears pricked up above her beret. “Is that the twins?”
“Yes! My cousin Freddy has been baby-sitting this afternoon, and from the sound of it, everyone is having a good time.” I could hardly contain myself from racing down the hall, flinging wide the kitchen door, and showing off Abbey and Tam. So what if my darlings needed a wash and brush-up? Grandparents see with their hearts. They would understand that I wasn’t raising prize poochies. No offence, Sweetie. In my exuberance I gave Mum a kiss and she didn’t flinch. What she did was peck the air two inches to the right of my cheek and cling to her handbag as if it were a life raft.
“You won’t believe how they have both grown, or how dark Tam’s hair is now. Abbey’s is still the colour of barley sugar, and she’s just as sweet.” Taking hold of Dad’s arm, I hadn’t propelled him more than a step, when his better half called a halt.
“We’ll see them when we’ve had a wash and rinsed off all the dirt and germs from the train,” Magdalene
decided. “I know things are different nowadays, Ellie! You young people aren’t so particular—too busy doing your own thing, or whatever the saying is. Far be it for me to criticize, but Elijah and I are too old to change.”
“Speak for yourself.” Dad’s roar was softened by a wink and really, it wasn’t hard for me to make allowances for Mum. She had to be tired and was probably struggling to remember the patron saint of lost luggage, so she could say a thank-you for the safe deliverance of the crochet bag. For a moment I couldn’t think why my heart had started ticking like a time bomb. Then I remembered. St. Francis! I didn’t dare look at the empty niche on the wall. Where on earth had I put that statue? And if that were not worry enough, I felt the doilies worming their way upwards, causing me to fear I would end up with an Elizabethan ruff around my neck.
Mum’s nose was probing the air with the relish of a vampire breaking into a blood bank. “Ellie, what is that
Immediately the humiliating thought crossed my mind that my deodorant had gone on the blink. Backing away with all speed, I bumped into the grandfather clock, which gave a
of annoyance. And Gramps wasn’t the only one to witness my discomfiture. The two suits of armour were falling all over their metal feet to hear more.
“I don’t smell anything,” roared Dad.
Mum’s nose went right on twitching as though it ran on one of those long-life batteries. “Lavender, that’s what it is!”
Instantly I was trembling with relief. “You’re right, I polished with Johnson’s Lavender.”
“I always use Lemon Pledge.” Mum drew herself up straight and somehow managed to look tinier than ever. “But we all do things our own way, and you’ll get no interference from me, Ellie.” She looked around for a place to stow her handbag. The place looked obscenely naked without a doily in sight, and I couldn’t
have been more embarrassed if I had been caught in the bath by Mr. Watkins, the window cleaner, without so much as a couple of washcloths covering strategic parts.
Talk about heaping coals of fire upon my head! Mum didn’t mention the doilies. She handed Dad her handbag. He in turn handed it to me exactly as if we were playing Pass the Parcel. I added it to the pile of luggage by the stairs.
“As I said to Elijah the other night, the last thing we need is to make work for the young people. Every night I pray to St. Francis that we won’t be a burden.”
Be still, my thumping heart. The empty niche on the wall yawned huge as the gateway to hell. Any moment Mum’s eyes would swivel right and I would be out of the family.
“Don’t be daft, woman, Ellie doesn’t find us a burden.” Dad’s eyebrows came down in a scowl that reminded me heart-wrenchingly of Ben.
“That’s what I hoped.” Mum aged before my eyes. “But when we walk in here to find she has been putting up tents on the lawn that she doesn’t want, and that she’s been spring-cleaning in June, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that she’s turned to the bottle.…”
My mouth hung open.
“The thing is, it takes all the pleasure out of coming.” Mum continued on like an express train. “Mrs. Brown at the corner shop always says that if you pick up and polish as you go along, there’s never any need for turning the house upside down. But those are
words, not mine. What I say, Elijah, is that we should take the next train home. The last thing we need at our time of life is for Ellie to end up in one of those rehab places on our account. Ben would never forgive us. Our one-and-only is like a lot of young people these days. He puts his wife first.”
Dad rolled his eyes. “You’re getting better, Magdalene. Usually it takes you a full half hour to get up to speed.”