Previously in Leeford Village: The lads in The Cross help the emergency services rescue George, who is stuck fast in the rising waters of the brook. A fire breaks out in the hairdressers, ruining the equipment and furniture. Cody appears to be taking more than a passing interest in the welfare of Meredith Park and Linda has a keen interest in Allen Gomez, though it is her sister, Sherry he has called to see. Meanwhile, Suptra tells Ethel the reason he cannot return to India with his niece, Nita. And Clara still has the £30k ring.
‘How’s George, Clara. I heard he almost drowned.’
Ethel pours tea into a china teacup, reserved for Clara’s exclusive use for as long as anyone can remember. The café is empty apart from the two old friends sitting at a table near the counter. Clara absent-mindedly stirs milk into her tea. Ethel spoons the froth off the cappuccino she has made for herself.
‘You look like you could do with something to eat. Are you sure you won’t have a piece of toast?’
‘No, thank you, Ethel. I’ve lost my appetite. It was such a shock. Poor George had no idea what was happening to him.’
Ethel takes a sip of coffee. Perfectly made, she thinks.
‘Did they take him to hospital?’
‘Yes, they checked him out. He was physically OK. They discharged him a couple of hours after he arrived. Physically, he seems fine.’
‘Physically? You’ve said that twice, Clara.’
Clara nods slowly.
‘But, mentally, Clara? How is George mentally?’
‘Well, not so good. He thinks he is still a headmaster and we seem to be reliving the days when we lived at the school.’
‘You were the matron, right?’
‘Yes. Matron, wife, head cook and bottle washer, surrogate mother, counsellor. It was a full-time job looking after those boys. But I did love it. And George was such a good headmaster. Strict, but very caring.’
‘And, now, he thinks he’s back there?’
Clara looks out of the window. It is a bright day and the precinct is beginning to fill with early shoppers on the way to the market. Normal people, living normal lives, thinks Clara.
‘Yes, I believe he does, Ethel. I truly believe he does.’
‘Cody. Good morning.’
‘Good morning, Jessica. I thought I’d just come over, see if you need any more help.’
Jessica Townley looks around the smoke-damaged remains of her hairdressing business. She has called her customers to cancel their appointments and, with one or two exceptions, has received sympathy and offers of help. Her worry is however loyal her customers have been, they will migrate to the hairdresser in Banfield and she will not get them back when she reopens. Whenever that will be.
‘I’m just waiting for the insurance assessor’s report. It might take a few days and I can’t really do anything until we have that.’
‘Ah, bureaucracy, the curse of the modern age, eh?’ Cody puffs out his chest, as he always does when making a pronouncement.
‘I suppose so, Cody. But, as least we’re insured. Many businesses aren’t.’
Cody is about to express his opinion on businesses that do not take out insurance when they are both distracted by Meredith Park, who has entered without either of them noticing.
‘Hi, Meredith.’ Jessica, beams at her neighbour, relieved at being spared a lecture from Cody.
‘Hi, Jess. It’s a bit dead in the shop. I thought I’d pop in and say hello.’
Cody clears his throat.
‘Has the fire affected your business, Meredith?’
‘Well, trading’s been difficult for a while now, but the fire can only make things worse.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry, Meredith.’ Jessica gives Meredith a hug. Cody feels a pang of envy.
‘It’s not your fault, Jess. These things happen, don’t they.’
‘Ah, that’s where you’re wrong, Meredith!’
Jessica and Meredith turn to face Cody, who immediately regrets his outburst.
‘Meaning?’ The look on Jessica’s face tells Cody he needs to tread carefully.
‘Well, I’m just saying that everything has a cause. Nothing more than that. Really. Jessica.’
He looks from Jessica to Meredith and back to Jessica again.
‘Things just don’t happen by themselves, do they?’
The two expressionless faces make no response.
‘I mean, there’s always something causes a fire, isn’t there. Unless, of course, it’s spontaneous combustion. There are instances when people have just…’
Cody’s exposition of spontaneous combustion, a phenomenon that he would welcome right now is interrupted by Meredith taking her leave.
Cody watches her go through the door and turn towards her shop. He continues to look long after Meredith is no longer in view.
‘Well, Jessica. I think I’ll be off too, if you don’t need me here.’
‘No, I’ll be fine, Cody.’ There is an uncomfortable pause as Jessica tries to supress her anger and Cody tries to supress his regret, not so much at having upset Jessica, but having upset Jessica in front of Meredith.
Once outside, Cody takes a deep breath that fills his lungs. He lets it go slowly and immediately feels calmer, though a little light headed. He begins to cross the road, then changes his mind and pushes the door into Meredith’s shop.
‘Hello again, Cody. What can I do for you?’
A lot, thinks Cody, then checks himself.
He takes another deep breath.
‘Meredith. There’s something I’ve been wanting to ask you.’
Meredith cocks her head to one side. Cody wishes she hadn’t. He feels the same sensation that coursed through his body when he first met Agnes, thirty-two years ago.
He feels his throat tighten. He feels nervous. And a little guilty.
‘Erm, do you have any birthday cards?’
‘We are a card shop, Cody.’
Cody feels his face redden.
‘Yes, of course. Of course, you are.’
He looks around at the rows of cards neatly displayed on plastic racks and carousels. On one side of the shop are small gifts arranged on shelves, each tagged with a buff coloured label stamped Park Cards and Gifts.
‘Cody? You wanted a birthday card.’
‘Yes, yes. I did.’
‘We have fifteen different ones. Which one would you like?’
Cody looks at the cards and then at Meredith. His mind goes back to forty-eight hours earlier when she was standing outside the shop, looking so forlorn.
He could help her. Yes, he could help her, after all!
‘One of each, Meredith. I’ll take one of each!’
‘Do you want another cup, Clara?’
‘No, that’ll do me. I’d better get back to George. He’ll be wondering where I’ve got to.’
‘Of course,’ says Ethel, gathering the empty cups.
‘Oh, before you go, I must tell you about Suptra.’
Clara, who has risen from her seat, smooths the back of her dress and sits down again. There is nothing she likes more than a titbit of news about Leeford’s residents, particularly if it is something that she is not supposed to have heard (as she suspects in this case, from the way Ethel had almost whispered ‘I must tell you’).
‘Oh? Go on!’
Ethel relays everything Suptra has told her about his huge debt (inflated by Ethel to 150% of its original value) and the danger he is in if he returns to India.
Clara had not expected such drama to unfold on such a normal morning as this.
‘Yes, if he doesn’t pay the money before he gets to India, he could be in real trouble. There are some not very nice people that want their debt paid back.’
Clara is wide-eyed and leaning across the table, eagerly awaiting Ethel’s next sensational revelation.
‘So, you can see his problem. He can’t tell Nita, of course.’
‘Of course. What would she think of him?’
‘Clara, this is between you and me, mind. I don’t think Suptra wanted anyone but me to know.’
Clara taps the side of her nose.
‘You’ve taken your time!’
Agnes is wiping glasses, still hot having just come out of the washer.
‘Have I?’ Cody is surprised how small his voice sounds.
‘And what’s in that bag?’
Cody looks down at the bag, filled with fifteen assorted birthday cards.
‘Let me see.’ Agnes throws down her cloth and moves towards where Cody is standing.
‘Stop!’ he pushes out his hand, as if to stop traffic.
Agnes stops, in spite of herself.
‘It’s something for you. A surprise. From Meredith’s. I hoped you wouldn’t be here. I’m going upstairs. No questions.’ He lowers his hand, turns one hundred and eighty degrees and runs upstairs.
Agnes shrugs and picks up her cloth.
Poor Suptra, thinks Clara as she walks slowly back to her house. Such a nice man too. And poor Nita, if she ever finds out, which she surely will as soon as they are in India.
The house is quiet. There is a space in the vestibule where George’s hat and coat normally hang and she assumes he has gone for a walk. So far, this has not been a problem and he has always returned after about an hour. Still, she can’t help worrying a little. She doesn’t have to work until the afternoon, but whenever she thinks about being in the shop, she feels her stomach tighten. Why didn’t she just say that she had found the ring and handed it to its owner. It was such a beautiful thing when she found it, so perfect. Now, the very thought of it hangs over like the sword of Damocles.
She goes to the bedroom and takes the ring out of the draw. Thirty-thousand pounds, right there in her hands. But, if she sold it, what would she do with the money? She couldn’t spend it. People would notice. And it would be stolen money. She could go to prison for it. She puts it back in the drawer as she has done every day since it first came into her hands.
She shuts the draw and closes her eyes. And then, the idea hits her like a bolt of lightning.
‘Of course! Of course!’ she shouts. ‘Of course!’
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