Friday 27 July 2018

No Saints at All Saints'

No Saints at All Saints’

By Dawn Knox


Hettie Forbes -Snell decided against catching the evening bus from outside the Willows Retirement Home where she was senior nurse. After such a difficult day, she wanted time to unwind before she reached the vicarage. She was smarting at the way Matron had treated her. While the Inspectors had been probing the kitchen, the bedrooms, the accounts and the medical cupboard, Matron had accompanied them, leaving Hettie in charge. It hadn’t been Hettie’s fault that a group of the more trying guests had ended up in Basilwade A&E after a boating accident earlier that day but Matron, who’d been as jumpy as drops of water in a sizzling frying pan, had been unnecessarily critical. And Hettie had been very hurt.  

After all, today had been painful enough without a tongue-lashing from Matron. 

Today was her birthday.

No one had remembered, not even her brother, Wilbur, but that wasn’t surprising because he was always so preoccupied, and if she was honest, totally self-centred. He might be the parish vicar but he was certainly no saint. Mrs McSquirtle didn’t help either. She was the housekeeper although her title was a misnomer because she did very little in the way of keeping house. She couldn’t keep much of anything – the vicarage accounts, secrets, her temper and often her balance. This was mainly due to her partiality to a nip of medicinal brandy every now and again, and often in between as well. She spoiled Wilbur by baking numerous batches of shortbread but often forgetting to do the laundry, clean the house, do the shopping, tidy the garden or prepare meals. 

“Please have more charity, Hettie, dear,” Wilbur would say when she complained, “Mrs McSquirtle has a heart of gold.

“And a liver full of your brandy,” Hettie would mutter.

“What’s that, dear? Speak up!”

But Hettie would simply get on with whatever needed to be done, thinking dark thoughts about the small, barrel-shaped woman she privately thought of as Big Mac.

When Hettie finally opened the front door, the smell of burned food assaulted her nostrils, darkening her mood. In an ideal world, it was at this point that family and friends would suddenly leap out of cupboards shouting “Surprise!” and there would be an enormous cake and balloons saying Happy 50th.  However, she didn’t have any family other than Wilbur, and not many friends. And, this was not an ideal world, this was All Saints’ Vicarage, Basilwade.  

“Is that you, Hettie?” Wilbur called from the study. Without waiting for an answer, he added, “Bring me a slice of toast with my cuppa, will you? I’m meeting the ladies of the Mothers’ Union in a few minutes. I’ll eat dinner when I get back.”

A dinner, she knew, he expected her to prepare, to replace whatever Big Mac had incinerated. 

By the time Wilbur returned, Hettie had made Shepherd’s Pie, scraped most of the charred remains of whatever it was that Big Mac had put in the oven hours before, and was about to run a bath for herself. 

“Hettie, would you be a dear and help with the travel arrangements for the Mothers’ Union annual outing to Bognor? You know how good you are at that sort of thing… Hettie? Hettie?”

She crept upstairs pretending not to have heard and locked herself in the bathroom. She wanted to cry. The only celebration of her fiftieth birthday would be a lonely bubble bath.

“Hettie are you still in there?” Wilbur called ten minutes later as he rapped on the bathroom door, “I desperately need your help to look up some coach prices on the Internet. You know how useless I am on that computer.”

Hettie took a deep breath and sank beneath the mound of bubbles. 

The water had gone cold and her skin was wrinkly before she got out of the bath but by now Wilbur would be asleep. She dried herself and crept along the corridor towards her bedroom accompanied by Mrs McSquirtle’s snores and Wilbur’s squeaks and grunts. She would be up and out of the vicarage before either of them woke in the morning but they would both be home all day, so perhaps between them they would organise the MU trip. However, she knew they wouldn’t. Wilbur would spend all day organising his stamp collection and thinking about Sunday’s sermon while Big Mac would bake shortbread. The arrangements would still be there to do when she got home. 

Hetty climbed into bed. She was too tired and too dispirited to read her book that evening. Usually, it was her only escape from normal life. Tonight, she didn’t want to be reminded that there was such a thing as escape because it was a luxury she knew wasn’t available to her. It was so unfair. She was locked into her life with no prospect of getting away. Hettie looked at the clock. It was two minutes past midnight. Her birthday was over. She lay awake until the early hours, thinking. Something had to change and the time was now or her life would be over before it had begun.

The following evening, Hettie left work promptly. Most of the guests had been rather subdued after their brief stay in hospital, and that morning, Matron had made her a cup of tea which was probably the closest she’d come to giving Hettie an apology, so it hadn’t been a bad day. 

“Is that you, Hettie? Wilbur called from his study.

Hettie sniffed the air. No smell of burning. In fact, no smell at all which meant that either Big Mac had made salad for dinner or more likely, she hadn’t got around to preparing anything. 

“Hettie! Is that you?”

“Yes, Wilbur.”

“Thank goodness! I’ve got a meeting with the choirmaster and I need to know you’ve progressed with the MU outing. Oh, and I wonder if you could bring me a cup of tea before you start dinner…”

By the time Wilbur returned from his meeting, Hettie had made toad-in-the-hole and worked out prices for the trip to Bognor. The sooner it was done, the sooner she could run a bath, climb into bed and escape into her book. 

“So, the coach will arrive at the carpark nearest the seafront at about eleven o’clock and then you can go to a café for tea or walk along the promenade. I’ve booked you in for lunch at—”

“Hettie! You keep saying you. I shan’t be going. I’ll be much too busy.”

“Well, I’ve booked them in for lunch then,” said Hettie.

“No, no! I can’t send the ladies on their own! I was hoping you’d volunteer to accompany them. You know what a mess we got in last time when we lost three ladies.” 

“Since we’re being particular about pronouns, we didn’t lose three ladies, you lost three ladies. I was working that day. You were in charge.”

“Oh, don’t be so petty, Hettie! Anyway, I’ve arranged the trip for a Saturday so you won’t be working.”

“No, you didn’t arrange the trip. I did.”

“Sometimes you’re impossible! I expect you’ll be reminding me of how I borrowed your fluffy penguin when I was seven, next…”

Took,” muttered Hettie, “You took my fluffy penguin.”

“What you need is a lot more charity and forgiveness, Hettie!”

She sighed. She might as well give in because she knew he wouldn’t let up until she’d agreed to go on the trip. 

“All right,” she said, “I’ll go with them.”

“That’s the ticket! I’m sure you’ll have a lovely time. The ladies of the MU are wonderful. Well, all except for Mrs Fanshawe. She’s a bit of a madam. But the others are fine. Oh, and Mrs Myers. She can be a tartar too…”

Hettie didn’t reply. She’d gone into the kitchen to start dinner. 

“Well, if they don’t call you Saint Hettie,” said the driver, as he pulled into the seafront car park in Bognor, “they definitely should. I’ve never met anyone with such patience.”

“There’s no point getting cross with the ladies,” said Hettie, “but I’m definitely no saint.” 

“So, what’s your secret?”

“Secret?” Hettie asked, her cheeks aflame, “I don’t have a secret,” she said quickly, hugging her bulging rucksack to her chest. 

“I just meant you kept your cool despite that woman with the hair that looks like shredded wheat telling everyone what to do in the case of earthquake or tsunami.”

“Ah, that’s Mrs Myers, the church warden. She’s always prepared for every eventuality. And that means everyone else has to be prepared too, whether they like it or not.”

“She weren’t prepared when that woman threw up over her though were she?”

“True. Although she did manage to catch most of it in her hat.”

“Yeah, I’ll give her full marks for that,” said the driver, nodding his approval.

The day had been exhausting. Hettie had to remove three ladies from the amusement arcade where they’d got into an argument with the manager. 

“This place is a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah!” said Mrs Myers as Hettie apologised to the man and led the ladies away. 

“Yeah, sod ‘em,” said Mrs Fanshawe.

“And Gomorrah,” said Mrs Yates.

Hettie took them to the Cheeky Cockle Café where the others were waiting to start lunch. A headcount revealed that someone was missing and Hettie’s sharp ears heard a loud sobbing emanating from the Ladies, which proved to be the missing person. Nervous Miss Stibbins was inconsolable after a freak gust of wind had blown a dish of jellied eels down her front and candyfloss into her hair earlier that morning. She wept as Hettie tried to pick the sticky, pink bits from her hair and mop her front with a serviette but finally, she allowed herself to be led, red-eyed to the place Mrs Myers had saved for her. On reflection, it would have been better if Hettie had swapped places with Miss Stibbins and saved her the lecture from Mrs Myers about hurricanes and evacuation procedures. It was fortunate that one of the ladies carried smelling salts in her handbag and was able to revive Miss Stibbins. 

After lunch, Hettie let the ladies loose on Bognor once more for an afternoon stroll but despite dire warnings of being left behind if they weren’t back at the coach at five o’clock, three women were late. Hettie finally found Mrs Myers, Mrs Fanshawe and Mrs Yates, in the amusement arcade haranguing the manager again. 

“Out!” Hettie shouted, her arm extended and her finger pointing at the door, “Or we’ll leave you behind!” 

The open-mouthed ladies followed her.

“I shall tell her brother how she’s treated us,” whispered Mrs Myers. “It’s outrageous!”

The other two nodded. 

But Hettie didn’t care. She’d brought thirty-four women to Bognor and she would send thirty-four back to Wilbur – come what may. No one would be lost on her watch. And if they weren’t happy with the way she’d treated them, they could take it up with her brother when they arrived in Basilwade.
She wouldn’t, however, be accompanying them home. After shepherding them on to the coach, she thanked the driver.

“I’m so sorry to do this to you, but I won’t be travelling home with you. I hope the ladies behave.” 

As the driver spluttered with indignation, Hettie climbed out of the coach and walked briskly away, clutching her rucksack tightly. Inside, she had her toiletry bag, a few clothes, her passport, a fluffy penguin and a train ticket from Bognor to London St. Pancras. From there, she would travel by Eurostar to Paris. 

And then? Well, she’d make up her mind when she got there.

About the author 

Dawn’s third book ‘Extraordinary’ was published by Chapeltown in October 2017. She has had three other books published as well as stories in various anthologies, including horror and speculative fiction, and romances in women's magazines. Dawn has written a play to commemorate World War One, which has been performed in England, Germany and France.

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