Wednesday, August 26, 2009


Continued from.

"Hugh Thorncombe," he said, striding up beside Stephen so he could shake his hand and stand companionably near him while they looked out at the rain. "I hope you're not in a hurry." The Vicar turned to the next in line, Mr Smith, and asked how his leg was.

“Not really,” Stephen replied, glad of the chance to meet the binder twine squire. He didn't mind country drizzle but the rain was getting worse, turning into a downpour. If he waited, maybe it would stop as soon as it had started. Unlikely in November - but it might.

Mrs James pushed past. She'd forgotten to give in her hymn book and was forcing herself against the flow of the crowd to take it back into the Church. Stephen stepped out of the porch to let her through and Hugh felt a surge of panic. What if he lost him? What if the man kept walking? He followed, opened his umbrella and pinned Stephen under the shelter of its rim.

“Miserable weather,” he said, “Especially for visitors!”

"Yes,” said Stephen, peering anxiously into the whiteness of the disappearing churchyard and thinking how unpleasant the walk back to Mrs Jenkins would be. He'd be drenched. Would she let him have a bath? he wondered. Hugh tried to angle the umbrella so he could draw Stephen towards the porch again.

"Not as good as this morning”

“No,” said Stephen.

“It’s a real downpour,” Hugh observed, pressing shut his jacket. You won’t be able to do much for the rest of the day in this. I don’t know what you had in mind for this afternoon but, whatever it was, why don’t you come to tea instead?”

Stephen started.

Hugh noticed.

“We always like to meet new people.”
It was true. Hardly anyone came to eat cat-haired scones for a second time so first time visitors were all they ever had for company, apart from each other. He wondered where Camellia was. Discussing the flower arrangements? Offering to polish the brass? “It’s rather remote here," he said. "We don't have many guests. And I’m sure my wife will be pleased to meet you too," he added encouragingly. "Did you say you lived in Clapham?”

“Not really,” said Stephen, noting how little Hugh minded admitting to having listened to his conversation with the vicar. “Well, not recently anyway. I was just telling the Vicar, I'm touring the countryside. I've missed it while living in America. I've friends in Clapham though," he added. "And a flat - except I've rented it out."

Hugh wasn't sure this fitted so he avoided the Clapham discrepancy.

“Even the rain?” asked Hugh.

“Even the rain,” Stephen agreed.

They stood together, watching it fall.

“Three o’clock?” asked Hugh. “Then we’ll have time to show you round, if you like.”

Stephen was touched.

“Thank you,” he said, putting out his hand to shake Hugh’s and leave. “I’d like that. It’s very kind of you .”

“Do you have a wife?” Hugh asked. But it came out too quickly and he could see that Stephen had noted this and was non-plussed. But he had to know. “Or children?” he asked hopefully.

They seemed such odd questions, and Hugh was so intense in the way he asked, it crossed Stephen's mind to decline the invitation after all.

“Because my wife will want to know how many people I’ve invited," Hugh hurried on. "And, if you’ve children with you, you might like to tell them we’ve got donkeys. Sometimes children are reluctant to go to tea with complete strangers. They always expect to be bored. Donkeys help.”

Stephen relaxed and smiled, thinking he understood. But he wondered, none the less, why Hugh looked so desperately disappointed when he said “No, it’ll be just me.”

To Continue - Eleven

Monday, August 24, 2009


continued from
As the congregation filed out of Church, Hugh took note of Stephen properly for the first time. Of course, he had been vaguely aware of him throughout the service, in the way one always notices strangers, but now he was suddenly struck with the idea that this might be Rosemary's husband, sent on a reconnaissance trip in advance of their visit.

It had begun to drizzle and the first people out had got no further than the porch because they'd stopped there to contemplate the weather. Nobody else could move forward. Those caught in the body of the Church huffed and puffed, umbrellas at the ready for unfurling - but mostly they settled for a chat and looked around for something to moan about while they waited. Hugh was trapped behind Mrs Crow who was complaining about her cat’s latest batch of kittens. Mrs Partridge was complaining about reduced postal deliveries. Mr Dint had lost his glasses and Mr Hobbs and Mr Martin were discussing seed catalogues. Hugh peered through the crowd and strained his ears.

'Robert' was already at the door, being said goodbye to by the Vicar.

He heard the man say ‘America’ and ‘bank’. And the Vicar said ‘London’. Mrs Cosborough started up about Christmas not being far away and Hugh heard Stephen say ‘Clapham’.

That clinched it. It was Robert!

If Hugh hadn’t been the kind of man who always sits in the front pew, he would never have got to Stephen in time - but as it was, he simply had to march forward casting loud 'Good Morning's about him and the crowd moved aside. “Good Morning.” “Good Morning.” He held each person's eye long enough for them to realise what was wanted, then stepped into the gap they made for him. Within seconds, he was at the front of the queue.
To continue - TEN

Sunday, August 23, 2009


Continued from - SEVEN
On a table near the door, someone had laid out little stacks of books; Book of Common Prayer, a booklet with the latest words for a Parish Communion, and a psalter with an A4 sheet of church notices folded in half and tucked between the pages. He took his little pile, put his collection money on a big brass plate and moved on into the central aisle, wondering where he should sit.

There was bound to be a squire - and he and his family would sit in the front row. He knew where the Church Wardens would sit because their staffs were held up in spring clips on the ends of their pews. Most congregations, he reckoned, had a collection of old ladies who always sat at the back because . . . . . well, he didn’t know why, they just did, so he didn’t sit there either. He slipped into a seat about a third of the way down (on the right hand side, so he wouldn’t crick his neck during the sermon) and looked about him.

The church was Saxon in style, with walls fortress thick and the windows high. The sound of the ringing bell was faint and distant now he was inside but the grate and click of its rope mesmerised him and drew him so deeply into the stillness of the place that the clunk of the iron latch and the heavy squeak of door hinges a few minutes later startled him almost into turning and glaring at whoever it was who had destroyed the silence.

A loud voice.

“Morning John!”

The rhythm of the bell faltered slightly and a muffled voice called back ‘Good Morning’ from behind the heavy curtain in front of the entrance to the tower.

Some more footsteps around the doorway, lighter ones, and the door shut with a soft thud.

A few whispers while the newcomers chose their books, then the confident steps of a man who ‘belonged’ coming up the aisle, the sharper tapping of his wife’s heels following and the crackle and rustle of waxed jackets (which turned out to be surprisingly dirty when their wearers came into view).

It was an elderly man and his wife.

Without hesitation, they headed for the front row and settled themselves in. A-ha! - the people from the ‘Big House’ had arrived.

For the next couple of minutes, Stephen was distracted by the way they were organising their books along the shelf in front of them; each one clearly being placed in its ‘usual’ position, and their constant turning to nod greetings at acquaintances filing slowly into rows behind. Not that their greetings seemed especially well received, for the smiles returned were stiff and the replies that went with them barely polite.

He wondered why.

Then, when the man took off his jacket so he could kneel more comfortably to say his prayers of preparation, Stephen noticed his trousers were held up, not with a belt but with a frayed length of nylon blue binder twine. Binder twine!?

The couple spent a few minutes in prayer, then with a lot of scuffling and a few more whispers, they rose from their knees, the woman to sit, the man to walk forward to the oversized Bible which had already been placed on the brass eagle-lectern facing the congregation. He found the Old Testament lesson, read it through once and marked it with a long green tasselled bookmark. Then raising himself slightly onto his toes, he leant over the Book and looked down onto his wife with such a dazzlingly gentle and loving smile that Stephen was completely taken aback.

Another clatter of the latch, another scuffle of feet, and the woman in the front pew turned again to see who had come in. This time, Stephen took more notice.

Her hair was as white as white hair can ever be and her eyes were the bluest of possible blues. Her face was weather beaten, her white skin sun-darkened and grooved with paler little channels where she had wrinkled it against the wind. She seemed awfully tired. Stephen guessed she was about seventy.

And she was beautiful.


Tuesday, August 18, 2009


It took Stephen about three quarters of an hour to walk to Thorncombe. The weather was deliciously Novemberish and, although it was too early in the day for bonfires, the damp, grey air seemed to breath yesterday’s wood smoke, and the rotting leaves along the banks of ditches were oozing a pleasant mustiness; the smell of England.

Just as he entered the main part of the village one high, unbeautiful bell began to ring (not very rhythmically at first). In another quarter of an hour the service would start. He was glad about the timing. He liked to catch the atmosphere of a place before anything much happened. He liked to sit down and look around and watch the way people came in, the way they prayed, observe the small muttered greetings, the furtive glances 'the regulars’ gave strangers. Him. He smiled and hoped, very fervently, that no-body would rush up to welcome him or shake his hand so he felt out of place. It did happen sometimes, even in these out of the way villages and, when it did, it disturbed him. He had come to be in the presence of God, not to be grabbed. So he paused a moment and thought. Then went up the three steps cut into the bank at the side of the road, opened the wooden gate and, walking more slowly now, up the curved incline towards the church.

It was a funny feeling this. Everything seemed so familiar: the churchyard raised high above the level of the road, the lopsided gravestones, the chirrup of the odd sparrow, the way the grass was encroaching along the uneven edge of the half gravelled path; then the deadening of sound as he went into the porch, so only his feet were loud as he stepped from the earth path onto stone flags. Then the rough grating of iron as he lifted the catch on the heavy door - this was the best welcome he could have had and its loud screeching (because no-one ever oiled its hinges) collected up the memory of all such church doors when he pushed them open, and it rolled them into one eternal sensation of always arriving, and going in, and belonging. This same scene, the same smells, the same quiet expectancy, it was the same here as in almost every parish in rural England. He smiled, and leaning against the latch, stepped down into the gloom of the church. Smells: smells of old hymnbooks, dusty hassocks, the peppery sweetness of dried out chrysanthemum leaves in cobwebby vases, wood polish . . . . . Home!
To continue - EIGHT

Monday, August 17, 2009


Stephen rattled down the bed-and-breakfast stairs, plucked a parish magazine from a pile on a table by the front door - and followed the scent of frying bacon into the breakfast room.

It was Sunday - and he was three days into a meander round the English countryside - a sort of re-acclimatisation tour after his return from America.

It was Stoke-Upton, a hamlet ten miles short of King's Hampton and he'd come across it the evening before just when darkness was falling and he was beginning to panic. (He'd prefer not to be lost in the lanes till morning!)

And he'd struck lucky. The cottage was peaceful and old. The sheets were heavy and cool. The blankets warm. The eiderdown heavy and the curtains thin. The cups flowery. The tea strong. The biscuits plain. The air chill. (As was the water in the hand-basin.) The floors uneven. And the welcome was as welcoming as a welcome is when the landscape is otherwise empty of paying guests.

Mrs Jenkins brought toast in a rack and asked if he was planning to go to Church, it being Sunday, and him reading the parish magazine.

“Because, if you do, you’ll have to go to Thorncombe. We’ve got ‘amalgamated’. Would you like eggs with your bacon?”

"Eggs and fried bread. How far is Thorncombe?"

"Holy Communion at ten," she said. "Albert went at eight. Not far. About half an hour's walk. Lunch at one?"

He hadn't planned on lunch.

“Beef," she said, encouragingly. "Local. Yorkshire pudding . . . roast potatoes . . . ." She was wondering what might tempt him best. Broccoli from the garden and our own peas from the freezer. Blackberries. Custard?" she added hopefully. "And tonight . . . will you be staying tonight?"

Yesterday evening, he'd seen big hills with rocky, thorny tops. Pastures and woodland on the lower slopes. He’d driven through narrow lanes lined with ancient trees and thick hedges. There were streams in the ditches and a river in the valley. On his bedside table was a list of local attractions. Post Office. Bus stop - market days only. And a map to show where the library van parked once a month. There was a list of local produce on the back and a box advert for an art gallery in King's Hampton. He knew it - and smiled.


The England he'd missed.

Why not?

"One night."

(Mrs Jenkins smiled too!)


Friday, August 14, 2009


After the almost overwhelming emotion set off by the arrival of Rosemary’s letter, Hugh and Camellia surprised themselves by settling quickly into the routine of the day. Each hugged to each their excitement and it wasn’t mentioned again until supper.
“I think late Spring would be best,” remarked Hugh squinting to see Camellia beyond the flickering lights of their silver candelabra. Then, in order to conceal his feelings, he peered instead at his poached fish, flaking it to check for bones. “When the lambs are born and their mothers shorn; the ewes look tidier then.”
Camellia was startled. She’d decided next Saturday would be a good time for Rosemary’s first visit - and here was Hugh proposing they wait for months and months. She’d been making plans for Christmas too. They’d take a great, tall tree from the estate, set it up in the drawing room and cover it with decorations (children always like glitter, taste be damned!). She’d been imagining huge logs in the fireplace (there were loads of fallen branches around the fields) - and piles of parcels for Cressida and Cordelia. (So many Christmases and birthdays to catch up on!). It would, she’d decided, be a story book event; like the old days. She’d ask the vicar to send the choir and they’d sing carols and eat mince pies. How everyone would love it! And they’d talk to the sheep and feed the donkeys and walk through the fields and learn the names of the cows.
“D’you think we should buy a new carpet?” asked Hugh.
Camellia’s mind had wandered so clearly towards Christmas she couldn’t think what carpet he was talking about. Nor could she imagine why any carpet might have any bearing on Rosemary’s visit.
“It’s a bit slimy nowadays.”
Camellia sighed. What had she been thinking? The sheep lived in the drawing room. Forget the choir. It would have to be a Christmas like all the others they’d had in recent years. They’d cluster round the aga for warmth and eat in the kitchen as usual. (They could still have a tree and buy lots of presents for the children.) Did she want to go back in time? No. For the most part, she liked things as they were.
"Hugh," she said. "As much as I want to see her, I don't want a carpet for the sheep. They don't need one."
He looked up from his fish.
"Not for - "
But Camellia was in tank mode, pushing forward without interruption.
"We made our life as we want it." She tried to catch his eye and infuse him with a happy sense of conspiracy - tempt him to smile. But he was wary. "Now." She laid her hands on the table and hoped she sounded business-like. "Rosemary isn't like us." She waved brusquely to show he mustn't speak. "She worries about cleanliness. She likes to live a narrow line; be like the neighbours."
Neighbours? They had no neighbours.
"She worries what they might think."
"And we don't."
It was a flat statement. She looked at him sharply. She knew he was lonely.
"Not in the way Rosemary does, we don't. No . . . so . . . " She was still watching. "Suppose we change everything, everything we like but she doesn't - shift the animals, make everything cleaner than it need be, tidy away my knitting."
Had Rosemary not like knitting? He couldn't remember. Probably she didn't. As far as he could remember, she didn't like much.
He was listening. But he couldn't look as if he were listening.
"Suppose we do all that but it isn't enough for her . . . she arrives . . . sees . . . turns . . . " she was still watching "and goes."
He jumped.
"What are we left with?"
He didn't know. Broken hearts? Life never after?
"A carpet. A new carpet! That's all, Hugh. We could throw everything away and be left with nothing but a carpet." She leaned forwards, peering to see him beyond the candles, their lights stinging her eyes.
“Hugh,” she said firmly. “The sheep live in the drawing room and they don’t need a new carpet. Nor do we."
Hugh’s face twisted. They must, absolutely must, put all their strength, all their effort, all their fortune if necessary, into making Rosemary feel welcome. If it meant throwing everything else away, evicting the sheep, building a field shelter for the donkeys - well, he'd do it! - So long as she stayed. He'd even begun to wonder if her husband might be interested in farming.
“I want them here for Christmas Hugh,” said Camellia, her jaw tense and her eyes stinging.
Hugh sliced a potato.
Silence. Only broken by the strange scrape of silver forks on pottery plates.
“If we leave the sheep in the drawing room,” muttered Hugh. "She’ll walk in, she’ll walk out, just as you say, and that will be the last we see of her. Possibly for ever, Camellia. For ever.”
“She knows how we live,” said Camellia, tart and bitter.
(She didn't like to be bitter.)
“She'll say we’ve got worse,” said Hugh, quietly.
(Tart, bitter and shrill!)
“In her terms,” he said, more gently now. “We're worse. Much worse. Imagine how she’ll see things, Camellia. We’ve got to see through her eyes.”
Camellia stilled and stared.
“Ok,” she said, with a little clap of her hands. “We’ll do it.” She saw him brighten. His shoulders unhunch. She snuffed the candles. She could see him properly now. “And by ‘do it’, I only mean we’ll do what we have to. Just that. The minimum. But NOW. That's when. Not in the spring. The sheep can go on holiday, we'll clear the drawing room and clean the table in here and she can come on Saturday."
It wasn't what he'd wanted and he didn't know how they'd do it, not by Saturday. It gave them only six days in which to effect a massive transformation. Six days and a morning if they didn't invite Rosemary to lunch. Not good - but agreed. Almost.
"A week next Saturday."
"Done!" said Camellia - and she felt something ripple inside her. It was pleasure creeping back in. And with it came a spark of contradictory hope. Perhaps the sheep could stay away till January? Then they might have that tree . . . and that choir . . . and that massive fire - and mince pies - after all?
After that . . . . But she hadn't a clue about after.

For the next post - SIX

For the post before this - Four

Monday, August 10, 2009


While Hugh and Camellia were relishing their one letter, Rosemary and Robert were ploughing through a week’s worth. The postman had been off sick and there'd been no-one to replace him for several days so it had taken until 10:30 the night before, just as they were going to bed, before he’d finished delivering the backlog.

"We may as well make the most of having letters at breakfast,” said Robert, shuffling through the pile. "Very civilised." Nearly all of it was junk mail, but, eventually, he hit gold. "Ah! Here’s a good one! Very welcome.”

Rosemary looked up from buttering her toast and peered round his arm so she could see the handwriting.


Indeed a pleasure. It was from their oldest and best friend and his letters were always fun, long, witty, tightly written and full of anecdotes - perfect for reading aloud.

He liked America. He worked there. He'd lived there four years and if he hadn't liked it, he'd have come home.

He liked computers. He'd persuaded his bank to send him away to work on them. If he hadn't liked computers, he‘d have stayed in Clapham.

But his conservative core was embarrassed. He insisted that progress should be resisted. He despised technology. (He said.) He drank coffee for breakfast even though it was against nature to do so and he only agreed to it out of civility. (He said.) He was filled with respect for his colleagues - but complained when they didn't wear ties. He complained about the over-familiarity of people he met at dinner parties - but he went to them.

He sent to England for tea. He cut thin sandwiches and invited friends to share them in the afternoon. Everyone laughed at him. Everyone liked him. Everyone knew he was clever. Hardly anyone knew him - only Robert and Rosemary. To them, he told everything.

“He’s coming back!” said Robert.

For the Next Episode - FIVE

Sunday, August 9, 2009


Breakfast, a week later.

Camellia was complaining that the quality of journalistic photography was no-where near as good as it used to be and Hugh was saying nothing.

That was when Camellia looked round the edge of her newspaper and realised something awful was happening.

She had been expecting him to suggest they go to London for a few days, visit proper galleries and see proper pictures. It's what he always did. They’d discuss which ones - and then not go. That's how it went.

But Hugh was looking very odd and seemed incapable of saying anything. He was holding a letter and his hand was shaking but apart from that he was sitting stiller than she’d ever seen him. His face was white; paper white. Then his colour deepened. Sweat broke from his forehead and his lips parted and closed, parted and closed - without sound. Was this what a heart attack looked like?

She wanted to go to him. She began to stand. But time seemed to have gone sticky and, although she was sure she was moving as quickly as she could, her limbs would hardly budge from the chair and she felt as if air itself was pushing her back.

Hugh’s nostrils flared. She saw him suck large, silent, unsteady, slow-motion breaths. Her ears stopped working. Her body was swimming. Would he die before she reached him?

Then, he wrenched his attention from the half crumpled letter and, gathering his remaining strength, fixed her eyes with his and willed her to sit.

She did. And was flooded with relief so fierce it was as if her blood had been sucked away in a second and replaced the next moment with aniseed. She could feel it flushing her face and trembling her fingers.

Hugh smoothed the letter.
No dieing yet.

Camellia concentrated her face into a frown. She didn't want her eyes to widen too far. They might bounce out and fall into her cereal bowl.

The last they’d seen of Rosemary was when she graduated.

A cow had calved. Unfortunate timing. If they’d stopped to change out of their mud-spattered overalls, they'd have missed it.

So they'd crept into the back of the hall at the last minute and sat there proudly; pleased with their daughter; pleased with themselves that they were there.

Rosemary was not pleased.

“You stink!” she’d screamed. (They did.)

Fifteen years later - a letter!

It took a few moments before Camellia realised Hugh was reading aloud. Time seemed to be tidying itself but sound lagged still.

Faintly, she heard the word ‘husband’.


Delight ignited.

“They’re coming to see us?” . It was a whisper.

Hugh tried to say ‘yes’ .

“Have they . . . .?”.

“Yes,” said Hugh, suddenly explosive and noisy. A grin broke out and his eyes sparkled. Camellia felt her insides jump. And then - a distraction. A great lurch of love for Hugh; it happened from time to time.

. . . the sea-blueness of his eyes . . . their first summer . . . whiteness on waves . . . gulls and children shrieking, indistinguishable.

“Two,” he said joyfully. “Both girls. Cressida and Cornelia."

For a moment, they gazed at each other, wide eyed from their distant ends of the table. Then they bent over their plates and giggled.

“What?!” asked Camellia, suddenly able to speak - though the sound was odd and staccato.

(At least I can speak again, she thought.)

"It could have been worse," said Hugh. "Lady Macbeth."

Camellia felt her hands relax. She was returning to life.

“And Camellia isn’t ordinary as a name, is it?" Hugh continued. What if she'd chosen flowers to remind them of you? Um . . . Buttercup and Marsh Mallow?”

"Foxglove and Bindweed!”

“Dandelion and Burdock!”

They were hysterical with delight. Their dream was true. Rosemary was alive.

And they had grandchildren to boot.

Camellia raised the teapot.

Hugh looked at his watch.

“I think,” he said happily, “I can put off mending that gate for another few minutes.”

To Start at the Beginning - One
For the episode before this - Two


Eleven o’clock. Same time. Coffee time. Clapham.

Rosemary, Hugh and Camellia’s, daughter was sitting in her kitchen, staring resolutely into her wide, white cup.

“I want nothing more to do with them, Robert."

She pushed the biscuits towards her husband, not meeting his eye.

“But they’re your parents.”

Through the window, between gaps in the houses, he could see plane trees in the park, black and bare of leaves. Their branches were spiky and delicate against the grey, grainy sky.

My parents.”.

“And my parents ‘in-law’. They're old. We should offer them care.”

“They have each other.”

She was snapping.

“But Rosemary.”

He was pleading.

“What about our children?”

Rosemary stared at him.

“What about them?”

“They need grandparents. Everyone needs grandparents.”

“Of course they don’t need grandparents.” She laughed. “Lots of people don’t have grandparents.”

He didn’t like her to laugh. It mattered.

Perhaps I should let him see, she thought. When he sees the mess in the drawing room, he'll change his mind. When the donkeys in the hall bite him . . .

. . . how old were they now? . . .

. . . when his expensive shoes had been ruined by fifteen years of urine and accumulated dung he too would want an escape.

"Of course children need grandparents! Doesn’t everyone?"

Rosemary tried not to look as she felt.

Robert kept his eyes on the view. The lawn below the chestnut tree had turned to mush. The flower borders were empty of everything except for a cluster of London-weary evergreens.

“Just let the children have grandparents Rosemary.”

She reached for the coffee pot. It was empty and she slammed it so sharply back down onto the table that its little feet drove dents into the wood. She licked her finger and rubbed at the marks, then, shoving the pot aside, settled for staring at them so she didn’t have to look anywhere else - but, every so often, her finger reached back, as if of its own accord, to have another go at smoothing them away.

“Listen, Rosemary,” said Robert, trying not to sound desperate. “This is something we must do. The children shouldn’t be separated from their grandparents and their grandparents shouldn’t be separated either from them or from any help we can give them in their old age.”

Robert was pompous when distressed.

She suddenly knew he'd planned this conversation. He must have. He was wearing a suit.

Bother, she thought, he's serious.

When her grandparents had lived at Thorncombe, there'd been a huge apple-wood fire in winter (there weren’t sheep in the drawing room then!). And the scent of it had floated up and out of the chimney. It had drifted across the roofs of the big house. It had dropped sleepily into the parkland. The shelves in her room had been filled with story books (not warble fly tracts). When it was time for bed, her grandmother read from them until her until her eyes closed.

Cows and sheep lived in the fields, not the house. There were two cats, just two - healthy and tame - not the countless, nameless, sickly ones her parents let crawl in and out of the cooking pots.

Everything her parents touched turned to mud. They'd turned Thorncombe to mud. But they existed. Whereas . . . Robert . . . his parents gone before he knew them. And his grandparents . . . never met them.

Her heart lurched. She’d always known she’d give in one day - well - that day might as well be this one; at least she’d have got it over with.

“Ok," she said. “We’ll go. We’ll go to Thorncombe.”

She didn't want to see him pleased. Not about this. So she filled the kettle.

“You can change now,” she said. "It is Saturday."

But still, she didn't look at him. "I'll make fresh coffee," she said.

Then, at last, she turned, and smiled. “And while you’re doing it, you can work out where we can buy wellington boots in Clapham.”



Mary Sharpe is taking a break from writing 'HUGH AND CAMELLIA' over the summer - but the 'story so far' will be re-printed here over the next few weeks, ready for her to resume in the autumn.

Hugh walked heavily up the five steps into his house, filled a bucket with water from a standpipe under his most valuable painting, went into the drawing room, swung his shoulders back as far as they would go and, as forcefully as he could, threw cold water across the ancient carpet.

Sheep droppings bobbed along on the flood and slewshed with a rush against the pile of damp straw he’d raked into the hearth earlier that morning.

Across the room, beyond the sofas and chairs, a small flock of sheep clustered beneath a standard lamp. Hugh eased himself straight and nodded a greeting but they trotted over to the windows and watched him anxiously from the corners of their eyes.

Calmly, trying to look reassuring, he went for more water; more and more water - until the last of the debris was flushed into the hearth. Then he forked the whole dripping mess into a wheelbarrow, bumped it out down the steps, across the yard and into the kitchen garden - ran it up a plank and tipped it onto a heap of mouldering straw and manure. After that, he leant the barrow against a wall and stretched.

It was a cold November day - but he was happy. His back hurt, his arms ached and he was weary; desperately weary. But he was used to that - and happy.

Everything, in fact was as usual. The fields were waterlogged and most of the tracks impassable. The few animals he hadn’t brought indoors were muddy and listless and nearly as tired as he was and even the air inside the house was damp and cold. But it was winter - and the kitchen was warm.


The kettle was simmering and Camellia’s scones were warm on the Aga. There was bread on the table, newly baked, and his favourite cat was sitting contentedly next to it.

A scene from thirty winters.




But when he reached to take a mug from the dresser, his fingers gave way. The mug dropped, a plate shattered and the cat scrambled over the bread and went to settle more comfortably in an armchair on the other side of the room.

Camellia, startled by the noise, came in from the scullery.

“Just a mug and a plate,” said Hugh, flexing his fingers. “I expect it’s the cold.” He held them for her to see; red and swollen. “They gave way.”

Camellia wiped her hands on her apron and kissed him. Then she shoved the pieces of plate to the back of the dresser.

“We’re getting old,” she said, pouring the coffee. “We need a day off.”

“A week!” said Hugh rubbing the dirt from his hands. “A month. A year!"

Then he sat at the table.

Camellia smiled.

“More than a day and you’d pine!”

She brought scones but his spine jerked and pains flickered down his arm when he reached for one.

A holiday?

Too many animals.

Too much work.

“Maybe one day,” he said, judging his moment and grabbing at a scone between spasms.

But he hardly meant it.


To continue - Two