Previously in Leeford Village: Frank Watson has been offered a seat on Banfield Parish Council in return for stopping the villagers protesting against the building of the bypass. Steve, having discovered Mel’s relationship with Suptra, has told her to leave the house. Ted, having correctly enrolled his team in a six-a-side league for next season, is planning a football skills demonstration at this year’s fête. Cody announces his twenty-five thousand pounds Premium Bond win to Agnes.
‘Say it again, Cody,’ says Agnes, looking a little flushed.
‘Twenty-five thousand pounds.’ Cody speaks the amount slowly, as though the words should not be coming from his lips.
Agnes gulps. ‘That’s a lot of money, Cody. Are you sure?’
Cody, temporarily rendered mute, nods his head.
‘I can’t believe it. Have you checked?’ says Agnes, her voice weakened by shock.
Cody clears his throat. ‘Checked and double-checked. And, not only that, but the money is also already in the bank.’
‘I think we should start with a cruise, not too far away, the Med maybe. Then a new car. Well, not brand new, maybe a couple of years old, an ex-demonstrator. We could go electric, save the planet and all that.’
Agnes’ expression changes to one of concern.
‘Okay, maybe not electric. I know how you are with technology.’ Cody laughs.
Agnes takes hold of his hand. ‘You have an electric car if you want to, love. Have whatever you want.’
Cody notices tears forming in his wife’s eyes.
‘Tears of happiness, I hope, love?’ he says.
Agnes lowers her head. ‘Yes, Cody. Of course.’
Frank Watson has been sitting in his armchair, staring into the unlit fireplace for the past twenty minutes. For a self-described ‘man of action’, this length of introspection is something new and disconcerting. It is as if his body wants to go places, but his mind is rooting him to the spot. He lets out a deep sigh. ‘What to do?’ he whispers, ‘what to do?’ He lifts his gaze to a photograph on the mantelpiece of his paternal grandfather, Henry Watson. Henry had been a Banfield councillor, as well as a magistrate and, it was rumoured, a Master Mason, though he always refused to discuss his Thursday night meetings at Banfield Lodge with his family. Frank had always been his grandfather’s favourite and, although Grandfather Henry was a fearful presence in Frank’s early life, he exerted an influence that remains to this day. Grandfather Henry died when Frank was eleven, but he has a very clear memory of his grandfather coming round to the family home in East Banfield, on the eve of his first day at the grammar school. Frank’s father, Cecil, had opened the door and greeted Henry. As was usual, few pleasantries were exchanged between father and son, before Henry’s presence filled the small lounge where Frank was building a model of a Spitfire. Frank felt both deep love and total fear surge through his body when he saw his grandfather. Then, Henry spoke.
‘Now then, young Frank. Tomorrow, you are going to embark on the next chapter of your life. It’s not going to be easy for you. You’re a weak lad and there will be those who will go out of their way to make your life difficult. But take my advice, my boy. Always be true to your principles. In that way, you and your conscience will for ever be happy bedfellows.’
A silence followed, which no one in the room dared disturb. Franks looked up at his grandfather and noticed, though this might have been imagined, a slight smile on his lips.
‘I’ll be off, then. Goodnight, all.’ And with that, Henry turned and went. Frank only saw his grandfather once more, at his grandmother’s funeral a few weeks later. Exactly two weeks after burying his wife, Henry died, sitting in his armchair, a copy of Socialist Worker on his lap.
‘What to do?’ repeats Frank. ‘What to do, Grandad?’
Ethel looks at Suptra Singh sitting in the corner of Billy’s café. He isn’t himself, she thinks, but, with considerable struggle, resists the urge to find out what might be troubling him. Luckily for Ethel, she does not have to resist for too long as he beckons her over to him.
‘More toast?’ asks Ethel, knowing this isn’t the reason she has been summoned.
‘Can you sit here for a while, Ethel? There’s something bothering me, and I need to get it off my chest,’ says Suptra, pulling out a chair next to him.
Ethel sits. ‘Go on, love. I’ll help if I can.’
Suptra smacks his lips. ‘Would you say I am a good-looking man, Ethel?’
Ethel is taken aback.
‘Well, I, er, well yes, in a distinguished kind of way.’
‘Would you say I was good company?’
This question was easier for Ethel to answer; she has spent many hours in his company, chewing over life, the universe and everything.
‘Oh, yes, love. Very good company.’
Suptra shakes his head, which Ethel has come to understand as a positive gesture.
‘And would you say I make a potential love match, Ethel?’
Ethel sits back suddenly. ‘Suptra! What are you asking me? I mean, we’ve always been good friends, but I’ve never thought of you in that way. My goodness!’
Suptra hangs his head.
‘No, no, Ethel. It’s not you. I would never see us having a relationship.’
‘Good,’ says Ethel, relieved, although for a moment she does wonder why he would not consider having a ‘relationship’ with her.
‘Can you get to the point?’ she says, wishing to bring the conversation to a swift conclusion.
Suptra looks up at the ceiling and then squarely at Ethel.
‘You see, Ethel. I think I have been fallen in love with.’
Ethel juggles the words in her mind.
‘Fallen in love with? You mean you’ve fallen in love?’
‘Maybe,’ mumbles Suptra.
Ethel frowns a deep frown.
‘You’re making no sense, my darling. Are you in love, or is someone in love with you?’
‘I think both. The problem is that I’m seventy-two and the lady in question is not yet forty.’
Ethel’s hand moves involuntarily to her mouth.
‘Oh, my word! Really?’
There is now only one question to which Ethel requires an answer.
‘So, who is it, then. Who is the lucky lady?’
‘Lucky?’ Suptra becomes instantly animated. ‘Lucky? There’s nothing “lucky” about it, Ethel. It is very unlucky. For me and for her.’
He stands, takes a five-pound note out of his pocket and slaps it on the table in front of Ethel.
‘Thank you for the tea and the toast. Keep the change.’
Before Ethel can utter another word, he is on his way to the exit. He takes his hat from the hatstand but doesn’t put it on before opening the door and marching down the street.
‘Wow,’ is the only word Ethel can utter.
Frank walks over to the mantelpiece and picks up Henry’s photograph. He looks at it for a while, as if evoking the spirit of his grandfather. A position on Banfield Council has been an aspiration of Frank’s for many years, a position he feels he has a right to, having been chair of Leeford Parish Council for so long, He has attended many Banfield Council meetings, expressing his opinion vociferously, but only from the public gallery. This is his chance, his destiny, even. But his heart is in Leeford, the village that has been generally good to him, the village he has helped shape, the village of his compatriots (he would hesitate to call them ‘friends’), the village he loves. Then again, he has never been one to stand in the way of progress and is sure he will make an excellent councillor, maybe even Chair one day and who knows where that will lead?
A mayorship, perhaps. His grandfather looks out at him from the picture frame. He once again hears the words he spoke to him all those years ago, words he has always lived by however tough life became: Always be true to your principles. In that way, you and your conscience will for ever be happy bedfellows. He kisses the picture in the frame. ‘Thank you, Grandad. Thank you.’
He picks up his phone from the arm of the chair and dials John Sotherby, the leader of Banfield Council’s direct line.
‘John. Frank Watson. About your offer…’
Agnes opens her jewellery box. She hears Cody singing downstairs, preparing for lunchtime opening. She takes a small key from a drawer in her bedside table and opens the hidden drawer at the side of the box. She takes out the letter she received a week ago and rereads the contents. When she first received the letter, she could hardly bear to read the words, written in a hand much like her own. She had locked the letter away, feeling completely helpless. She reads the letter twice, the first time with tears blurring the words, the second time with much more clarity. Twenty-five thousand pounds. She mouths the amount, over and over. A cruise would be lovely, she thinks and so would a new car. She wouldn’t mind an electric one, despite what Cody thinks. But all that is just stuff, she thinks. Things. There’s something wrong about spending it like that when… She reads the letter again. ‘I can help you now, my love,’ she says, quietly, folding the crisp blue paper and locking it away in the box. She hears Cody unlocking the front door and letting in the first customer, whom he greets warmly. Cody, from whom she has kept her deepest secret all their married life. Cody, who has twenty-five thousand pounds in the bank, which could do so much good right now. All she must do is tell him about Jasmine, knowing it will change everything. The very thought of doing so sends a shiver of dread down her spine.