by Dawn Knox
Dubonnet and lemonade
It was several months since Hetty Forbes-Snell had walked along Basilwade High Road. Now, she wasn’t so much walking, as teetering as she headed towards All Saints’ Church vicarage in her fashionable shoes with heels much higher than she’d normally wear during the day. She tried to protect her Louis Vuitton weekend case and Saint Laurent handbag from the scowling, ill-humoured Christmas shoppers laden with carrier bags. Most of them were in no mood to move aside for an elegant woman who appeared to have stepped out of a glossy magazine and therefore obviously had no place tottering on high heels in the battleground that was pre-Christmas Basilwade High Road. It was the fault of her Saint Laurent handbag that she was wearing such impractical footwear. Her funds had only run to one designer bag and the range of matching shoes all had killer heels, so she’d chosen the most practical pair from a range of utterly impractical styles.
Never mind. The pain was worth it. After all, it wouldn’t do to return to Basilwade after spending so long in Paris, looking and smelling exactly like she had when she’d left. She’d worked hard to acquire some French chic, a large bottle of Chanel No. 5, and a smattering of the language, and she was going to try them out on her self-centred brother, Reverend Wilbur Forbes-Snell and the lazy housekeeper, Mrs McSquirtle.
Hetty felt sick at the thought of seeing Wilbur again. Not that she disliked him.
No, definitely not!
On the other hand, she didn’t actually like him much either. Her anxiety was more about the reception she’d receive and how she was going to react when she finally arrived at the home she’d shared with Wilbur for many years. During that time while she’d been Wilbur’s unofficial, unpaid housekeeper - despite the existence of a housekeeper who was both official and paid, but who did very little except drink his sherry – Hetty had behaved dutifully and compliantly. But that was many months ago and having run away to Paris to escape the drudgery and tedium, Hetty had changed. Or so she hoped. But once back in the vicarage, would she again become submissive and servile? Suppose Mrs McSquirtle had left Wilbur to find a new post where she wouldn’t be expected to actually do any work? Would Hetty be able to resist helping Wilbur if he appealed to her? Hetty’s stomach wobbled again. Whatever the situation, she must remain resolute. Firstly, she would not be bullied into doing anything she didn’t want to do and secondly, she’d show her brother she was a capable woman of the world – a capable woman of Paris, no less.
She glanced in the butcher’s shop window to check her chestnut hair was still arranged in the neat French Plait which had been done early that morning before she’d left France. Gone was all trace of grey, along with the dowdy bun which she’d worn months ago at the nape of her neck - her ‘Basilwade’ hairstyle. In fact, grey was a colour whose existence she now refused to acknowledge. The grey mac with which she’d arrived in France had soon been replaced by a tan-coloured trench coat and since money had been tight until she’d got a job, she’d lost quite a lot of weight. Now, slimmer and taller in the elegant heels, she wore tapering, burgundy trousers, a tailored jacket and a dazzling white shirt. She was so sophisticated, a man had even whistled at her although, she admitted, he might have been calling his dog. But since no dog had appeared, she was going to take it as a compliment whether it was intended or not.
As she approached All Saints’ Church, she saw several people turn into the churchyard and for a second, wondered if she’d miscalculated and it wasn’t Saturday, but Sunday. Then she spotted the bunting flapping neurotically in the chilly wind and the inflatable Santa rocking back and forth, straining at his ropes.
It was the Christmas Fayre. Well, there was nothing for it, she’d have to go in if she was to find Wilbur. It might be a good idea because he could hardly shout at her in front of everyone in the fayre and it would be easier to gauge how welcome she’d be in the vicarage for Christmas.
“Can I help you?’ Mrs Myers, the busybody churchwarden, enquired when she spotted the elegant woman with the suitcase.
“Non, merci,” Hetty said with a Gallic shrug, half-turning away to hide her face. She didn’t want to be recognised nor to stop and chat to anyone, she simply wanted to find Wilbur.
“Are you French?” Mrs Myers asked reinforcing the suspicion which Hetty had hardly dared to believe. Her newly-acquired elegance was obviously so far from her old appearance, it had even fooled the nosy churchwarden.
“Oui,” Hetty said.
“AH, BONJOUR,” Mrs Myers said slowly and loudly, “YOU LOOK VERY FAM-IL-I-AR,”
Hetty smiled and waved her hand vaguely, flashing scarlet fingernails and wafting perfume into the dusty, fusty church hall.
Mrs Myers took off her glasses and polished them on the bottom of her jumper then replaced them, but Hetty had turned away and was examining a pink, knitted tea cosy.
“YES,” Mrs Myers persisted, “YOU RE-MIND ME OF SOM-EONE.”
“Rrrreally?” Hetty said rolling the Rs in a very French manner, “How bizarrrre. Perhaps you’ve seen my doppelgängerrrr?” she said, trying to make doppelgänger sound as French as she could and wondering how long it would be before Mrs Myers recognised her.
“HAVE YOU LOST IT?” Mrs Myers asked with an anxious frown. She looked down at Hetty’s fashionable shoes.
Hetty wasn’t sure what to say.
“WHEN DID YOU LAST SEE IT?” Mrs Myers asked.
“What?” Hetty asked, forgetting the French accent for a second.
“THE…ERR… DOBER… ERR… THE… WHAT YOU SAID BEFORE.”
“Pardon?” Hetty asked following Mrs Myers gaze to her shoes.
“ONLY WE DON’T ALLOW DOGS IN HERE. ESPECIALLY THOSE BIG, NASTY ERR… DOBER-DOG ONES. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?” Mrs Myers asked, “VICIOUS THINGS,” she added and baring her teeth, she repeatedly chomped them together, demonstrating what a dog might look like if it had a face like Mrs Myers and wore false teeth.
Hetty wanted to laugh. So, the busybody churchwarden really thought she was a French woman… with a Doberman Pinscher. She wondered how many more people she could fool. “Well I must not keep you,” Hetty said, “I’m sure you have much to do and I must search for ze perfect Chreestmas gift.”
Mrs Myers leapt in front of her “I’M SURE I CAN HELP. YOU ARE OBVIOUSLY A WOMAN OF TASTE,” she said glancing up and down at Hetty’s outfit, “FOLLOW ME TO THE MOTHERS’ UNION STALL.”
“Non, non, merci!” Hetty said quickly. Having fooled Mrs Myers, she didn’t want to risk someone else discovering her true identity. “I must get back to ze dog… in case he escapes, you understand.”
Mrs Myers eyes opened wide. She obviously did understand.
“RIGHT, RIGHT!” she said, “WELL, THANK YOU FOR DROPPING BY. PERHAPS BEFORE YOU GO, YOU MIGHT MAKE A SMALL DONATION TO ALL SAINTS’…”
But Hetty had turned on her heel and was sashaying towards the door.
“’Ave you got any more o’ them on the bric-a-brac stall?” a woman asked Mrs Myers, pointing at Hetty’s Louis Vuitton suitcase, “Only my sister’d like one o’ them. I’ll ‘ave two if you’ve got ‘em.”
Hetty left the Christmas Fayre and made her way across the churchyard. During the short time she’d been in the church hall, she hadn’t seen Wilbur and it was possible he was in the vicarage. She’d knock and find out, and if the welcome was worse than she feared, she’d simply walk out and go to the Wickleston Arms, stay for Christmas and then go home.
How strange that she now thought of Paris as home.
It had been wise to book a hotel room as she had no doubt her bedroom wouldn’t have been cleaned since she’d walked out several months before. Mrs McSquirtle had never been seen with a duster other than when she used one like a theatrical prop to impress Wilbur.
With butterflies doing somersaults in her stomach and knocking themselves out in their panic, Hetty walked up the vicarage path and tapped timidly on the door, then waited. No one came so she tapped once more, slightly louder and eventually the door opened a crack and Mrs McSquirtle could be seen leaning against the wall with one eye open “Yesh?” she said.
“Mrs McSquirtle?” Hetty said forgetting her French accent. She’d seen the housekeeper tipsy before but never this drunk so early in the afternoon.
“Who’sh asking?” Mrs McSquirtle asked, her head coming slightly to attention when her name was mentioned.
“Erm… I’m carrying out a Christmas survey,” Hetty said. It was obvious that the housekeeper hadn’t recognised her either and this might be a quick way of finding out what arrangements had been made for Christmas Day.
“Oh, Chrishmas,” said Mrs McSquirtle her head resting against the wall, “well if it’s religious stuff you’ll be wanting to talk about, you’ll need the vicar but he’s out.”
“The questions I’m asking for the survey are about people’s arrangements for Christmas Day.”
Mrs McSquirtle squeezed her eyes closed as if making a desperate mental effort to remember what the plans were for Christmas day, “Wshhht,” she said uncertainly, “I… I‘m going to my sister’s for the day,“ she said although she didn’t look too sure.
“And how about other members of the household?” Hetty asked, “for example the vicar?”
“Vicar?” Mrs Squirtle said looking upwards as if trying desperately to remember, “Oh, the vicar, yesh. Well, he’s going to Mrs Myers for dinner.”
“Really?” said Hetty with disappointment.
“Mind you,” continued Mrs McSquirtle confidentially, “he’sh not too happy about it.”
“Really?” Hetty said sympathetically
“No, he said her cabbage is as bad as that soggy stuff his sister used to serve when she was here.”
“Really?” Hetty said crossly.
“Oh, yesh. His sister ran off, you know. She was a bad lot. Couldn’t cook. Couldn’t do anything much. A waste of space. Good riddance to her. He’sh lucky she’s gone and he’sh got me…”
“Really?” Hetty’s eyebrows were drawn together and her nostrils flared but Mrs McSquirtle was sliding down the flock wallpaper and didn’t notice. She only became stationary when her forehead rested against the jamb of the door.
“Yesh, the vicar often says his sister was a great disappointment and…” but she didn’t finish. Her knees buckled and she continued sliding down the wall until her nose was buried in the doormat. Hetty pushed her clear of the door with her foot and closed it with a bang, then turned and walked away.
Tears sprang to her eyes. She didn’t trust Mrs McSquirtle to relay anything Wilbur might or might not have said. After all, he may well have described her as a ‘disappointment’ but he definitely hadn’t said she cooked soggy cabbage. Hetty had never prepared cabbage in her life. She loathed the stuff. But now, at least she knew Wilbur was coping admirably. So, he had no need of her at all.
She suddenly remembered she’d brought Christmas presents and after fishing in her handbag, she returned up the path with two wrapped gifts. Inside one parcel was a silk tie for Wilbur decorated with an abstract pattern of small, white, round circles which had reminded Hetty of pickled onions and inside the other parcel was a Cordon Bleu recipe book. It was, of course, written in French - a language which Mrs McSquirtle didn’t speak - either drunk or sober, but no matter because it was full of recipes which Mrs McSquirtle would never make either. Hetty pushed the flap of the letter box inwards and the sound of snoring drifted out from behind the door. Mrs McSquirtle had obviously not moved and Hetty dropped the gifts on top of her through the letterbox and allowed the flap to slam shut with a clack.
As Wilbur and Mrs Myers left the church hall together, heading towards the vicarage, he suddenly realised his churchwarden had stopped. He turned back irritably. He’d been telling her the flowers in church the previous Sunday, had been wilting, and it wouldn’t do.
“Come along, Mrs Myers,” Wilbur said sharply, “I haven’t got all day.”
What was wrong with the dratted woman? Her mouth opened and closed and her head bobbed about like a chicken searching for corn.
“Dogs!” she whispered hoarsely.
“Where?” asked Wilbur, who wasn’t partial to snappy, yappy mongrels.
“Big, French Dober-dogs!”
Wilbur scanned the churchyard but failed to find anything which resembled a canine at all. However, his eyes alighted on a woman with a small case who was walking up his path. Or was it down his path? She was hesitating, not seeming to know which way she was going.
“Good afternoon, Madam, may I be of assistance? I am the vicar of All Saints’,” he said as he approached.
“Non, merci,” the woman replied, in an extremely french, French accent. Her spiky heels click-clacked as she wobbled down the garden path clutching her suitcase and handbag.
Mrs Myers sidled up to him, her head still bobbing like a hungry chicken.
“Be very careful, Vicar! I’ve heard those French dogs bite,” she whispered.
“Mrs Myers!” said Wilbur, “Name calling is not becoming! And xenophobia is definitely not the All Saints’ way!”
Wilbur hoped the French woman hadn’t overheard Mrs Myers’ rudeness but it appeared she hadn’t, as she’d already set off towards the High Road with her head down. It reminded him he had Christmas cards in his pocket which Mrs McSquirtle had forgotten to post for him and he needed to get them to the post box before the last collection.
“Excuse me…” Wilbur called out.
The French woman froze.
“I wonder, are you heading towards the High Road?” he called out, “HIGH ROAD,” he added loudly in case the woman didn’t speak English.
She nodded but said nothing.
Obviously can’t speak English very well, Wilbur thought.
“I wonder if you’d be so good as to drop these off in the post box for me....” He made posting gestures and added “POST,” loudly, then strode towards her to hand over the envelopes.
“Non,” she said, and turning, she hurried on.
“Did you see that, Mrs Myers? How rude!” Wilbur gasped no longer worried if the French woman heard.
“I know, Vicar. And she doesn’t seem to have taken her dog with her. Perhaps while you secure the beast, I could post your cards for you?” she snatched the envelopes from his hand and rushed out of the churchyard.
“Oh, and while you’re in town, Mrs Myers, if you’d be so good as to pop into Japes and Blewett for those extra-strong pickled onions for Christmas dinner, I’d be very grateful. You know what I always say…”
“…A meal’s not a meal without a pickled onion or two,” Mrs Myers said with one final glance over her shoulder for a slobbering Doberman Pinscher.
How could a brother fail to recognise his younger sister after only a few months, even if she had assumed an outrageous accent, acquired a new wardrobe and had her hair done? Hetty wondered. Well, it might have been something to do with the fact that his spectacles were at a jaunty angle, with one lens lower than the other. Hetty had spotted one of the arms was attached to the frame with what looked like sticking plaster. He’d needed a haircut and there had been a smudge on his dog collar. All the things she’d have attended to if she’d still been in the vicarage. But she wasn’t and now, they weren’t her responsibility. She wasn’t sure whether to celebrate or burst into tears.
She shouldn’t have hailed a cab. Her job in the fashionable Parisian department store had given her poise and style but it hadn’t done much to swell her bank balance. Travelling by taxi was an extravagant expense. But with her toes being crushed, her heels rubbed and the balls of her feet on fire, she couldn’t bear the thought of waiting in the bus queue. She walked to the station and climbed into the first cab.
“Good afternoon Ma’am, Harris Tweed’s the name,” said the driver, “And where would you like me to take you on this fine, festive afternoon?”
“The Wickleston Arms, please.”
Harris eased the cab out into the traffic, “If you don’t mind me saying so, Ma’am, you’re not looking especially full of seasonal cheer.”
Hetty bit her lip and suppressed the tears which were threatening to spill onto her cheeks, “Well, Christmas can be rather disappointing sometimes,” she said sadly.
“Dear me! It sounds like you’re in need of some life-coaching. And I’m just your man. Now, tell me all about it.”
Without intending to, Hetty told him everything.
“I see,” he said, “so you came back to reconnect with your brother and make sure he was coping in your absence, only to find that not only did he fail to recognise you, he didn’t seem to be missing you either?”
Hetty nodded and sobbed into her hankie.
“Well,” said Harris, “In my experience, it’s important to remember you can’t please all of the people all of the time; neither can you please most of the people most of the time; or some of the people some of the time, any of the people all of the time or even most of the time. And sometimes, you can’t please anyone at any time. Some people just can’t be pleased whatever you do…”
“Right,” said Hetty slowly, her brows drawn together into a perplexed frown as she tried to unravel his words.
“The best thing you can do, under the circumstances,” Harris said, “is to say to yourself, ‘Stuff it, I’m gonna please meself’.”
The festively-decorated reception in the Wickleston Arms was bustling with people who were obviously all full of good cheer… and possibly the landlady’s notoriously strong punch. Hetty had never felt so lonely. And the prospect of Christmas Day alone was daunting - so daunting, in fact, she briefly toyed with the idea of phoning Wilbur and inviting him to join her for drinks on Christmas Eve.
However, later, she was grateful she’d resisted the urge because it appeared that in the convivial atmosphere of the Wickleston Arms, no one was allowed to be alone for long and the landlady soon introduced her to Angus, a rather handsome gentleman who was also spending Christmas alone and who glanced at her admiringly. He even bought her a Dubonnet and lemonade.
Unfortunately, the landlady had overdone the matchmaking and Hetty was soon joined by Rupert, another admiring gentleman who tried to outdo the first and insisted on buying Hetty double Dubonnets with lemonade. Yes, it was just as well Wilbur hadn’t been there to see because the evening had been quite diverting, as both men vyed with each other for her attention, each expressing a wish to dine with her on Christmas Day. Neither would give way and it appeared they would be dining at a table for three. Well, that was assuming her two suitors didn’t come to blows over her, first.
Oh well, one way or another, this was certainly going to be a Christmas with a difference and for once, it would smell of Christmas tree, Chanel No.5 and Dubonnet – not Wilbur’s extra-strong pickled onions.
More form the author:
For more stories from Basilwade – ‘The Basilwade Chronicles’, by Dawn Knox published by Chapeltown Books available here http://mybook.to/TheBasilwadeChronicles
And now, ‘The Macaroon Chronicles’, by Dawn Knox, published by Chapeltown Books available here mybook.to/TheMacaroonChronicles