Sunday October 25
The grand opening of Upper Grumpsfield’s new cake shop and café was now less than a week away, but some of the villagers were gossiping about something quite different. Rumour had it that the nice family butcher, who had recently moved back into the flat above his shop after deserting his wife and moving out of her cottage, had entertained a lady. She had stayed most of the night before hurrying back to (and here voices were lowered reverently) the vicarage.
Cleo Hartley, the owner of that cottage, had not even wasted half a day before inviting her long-time lover to occupy the now vacant half of her marriage bed.
The truth is that it is quite hard to decide which scandal should have priority in a Village the size of Upper Grumpsfield, so it’s probably better to start by sifting through a few others.
For instance, there was an attempt to replace St Peter's parish church with a shopping complex so that the car-less would have access to more interesting stores, but that had been prevented after the bishop was sent to prison for badgering the vicar’s wife to have have sex with him in order to avoid that closure. Some regretted not having a new shopping centre, but tradition held sway over blackmail. After all, there is an emporium in the village where you can buy almost anything.
Mr Jones, that nice family butcher, provides most locals and lately quite a lot of casual customers with good beef cut American style and sausages made fresh.
If you are tired of cooking, there's always the Asian takeaway selling traditional fish and chips at Upper Grumpsfield station; there’s a newsagent run by a testy guy named Davies, who cheats his customers by adding undelivered magazines to the bill; there is a ladies’ hairdressing salon with a corner reserved for males, should they foolishly desire a cut, and there used to be a baker with a tiny café attached opposite Verdi’s emporium that deceitfully claims to sell everything, but often does not have what you need.
The baker’s café closed down when old Mrs Garnet passed away leaving a vacancy for a café and a red velvet cushion for the parish church. After she departed this life there was much lamenting because there was nowhere let to get a decent cup of tea and a home-made toasted teacake,r Eccles cake or any other cake unless you made it yourself.
Delilah Browne’s bistro, formally the Dog and Whistle and now the home of local karaoke and Mitch, Delilah’s ambitious young boyfriend, did not provide afternoon tea, but had taken the village by storm with its Italian food and sing-alongs.
It’s easy to believe that there has been a lot of excitement since a sign went up declaring that a Mrs Crumb, whose son Carnaby Crumb is a proper baker fresh from training on the continent, will shortly be taking over the café business and is inviting everyone to come to the grand opening on November the first. In Upper Grumpsfield that counts as a major event, especially as everyone’s first cake will be a freebie!
And if Mrs Crumb is the sister of Mrs Coppins, a lady who ran a learning-by-doing type of sex college and later drowned in a pond, that is quite in keeping with the way things could be done in the village. Aand anyway, Mrs Coppins had lived in Huddlecourt Minor even if her death-pond was in the village.
The sister, now Mrs Crumb had been in Australia until she found herself a wdow and returned to the family fold, brining her grown-up son with her. He settled in the flat above the café and would show Upper Grumpsfield what a splendid baker he was.
When is news gossip?
It is not just a rumour that Edith Parsnip, married to an indifferent Frederick Parsnip, who happened to be the vicar of St Peter’s, had at last taken a lover, bless her. No one was more shocked than Edith herself. Although her marriage was all over but for the shouting, she had sworn to remain loyal until the five sons born into the marriage at a time when Frederick was not yet exclusively interested in converting African pagans, were old enough to understand.
What had happened?
More than one miracle. Frederick Parsnip had at last secured a position at a missionary complex in what he hoped was darkest Africa. He could save souls till the cows came home, assuming there were some there. Frederick Parsnip (who did not want to be called Fred) had long since lost interest in saving British souls. Evangelism for people in far-away places oozed out of his pores; he looked to heaven for guidance and love in his new endeavour; his five sons were only of interest if they were scrubbed clean and spoke coherently; Edith was good enough for kitchen duties but not good enough for his bed. It is rumoured that the twins born to the Prsnips were the result of Edith seducing the vicar in a most unladylike way. Whatever the truth of that delicacy, the vicar had looked elsewhere for sexual joy, but had been thwarted by the untimely and violent death of the lady he most admiredwithout ever having actually got nearer to her than befits a vicar..
The Parsnips slept in twin beds as far removed from one another as was possible in the main bedroom and Edith often removed herself from the bedroom completely, ostensibly to avoid her husband’s loud snoring. Then she slept on the day-bed in her utility room, which also housed a TV bought from a Premium Bond win and all her sewing equipment. If the vicar even noticed when Edith did not sleep in the master bedroom, he refrained from commenting and was probably glad.
Edith’s twin sister Clare, who had now settled in a bungalow nearby with her Austrian husband and their lively two-year-old twins, had been known in her youth as a party-girl. Edith had always been the dowdy one. It could be a clue to the vicar’s personality that despite Edith and Clare’s difference in temperament, he was unable to tell them apart except by memorizing Edith’s clothing and calling the other one Clare.
Edith, who had been shocked that Clare could attract and be attracted by so many nice men, was full of moral rectitude and covert envy. She was jealous of her sister while disapproving of her life-style. The vicar thought Clare was awful, though he had been known to wonder if she was as cold a fish as Edith. In fact, a psychologist would say that tempted as he was, he was afraid of being lured into a relationship he could not sustain. Edith was harmless because she no longer tried to get too near, and if her twins were the result of him being raped by her in a last ditch attempt to add to her quota of children, they did not mention the fact to one another. As far as he knew, the only person to know of that embarrassment was the doctor who had treated the bites and scratches he had suffered druing that humiliation. He would have been appalled to know that his wife was a rather talkative member of the Townbswomen’s Guild, though she swore everyone to secrecy if sge imparted any particular scandal that came he way in her rolle of doctor’s assistant.
Edith’s admirable if phony ethics lasted until she started seeing Robert the butcher through different eyes. That had been after Cleo’s feelings for her friend and colleague Gary Hurley had caused their intermittent affair to turn into a serious romantic attachment, and weeks before the letter arrived summoning the vicar to Africa.
True to character, the vicar never showed the letter to anyone. It was his triumph. Africa needed him and he needed Africa. The new bishop promised to support Frederick. His family could continue to live at the vicarage and the vicar’s salary would be paid regularly on condition that he returned after his Africa contract ran out. Frederick Parsnip promised faithfully to return, while crossing his fingers behind his back. If Mr Parsnip had not been departing on a Christian mission, he could have been escaping the drudgery of a sluggish parish and failed marriage. He did not know that his invitation to Africa was as phony as his wifes ethics and financed by savings from the household budget.
Having foolishing entered into her marriage with Robert (so as not to break her promise) while carrying on her passionate affair with Chief Inspector Gary Hurley (in denial about the status of their relationship), Cleo made a genuine effort to stop seeing Gary until she could no longer deny to herself that she had married the wrong suitor. Their affair becamea permanant arrangement about which Robert probably knew but made no serious effort to break up. For the family butcher, possessing a woman like Cleo was a feather in his cap even if he was unwillingly but not unknowingly sharing her.
The truth is that Robert had known all along about Cleo’s preference for the swarthy cop. For a time, Cleo even claimed happiness with Robert, though her marriage was spiced up, as it were, with her trysts with Gary.
Cleo Hartley’s loyalty to Robert was almost fanatical. She would not leave him and PeggySue was a sort of permanency insurance for Robert, who did not want the child for a reason only he understood at the time. He hoped that Cleo would settle for comfortable domesticity. Later, Cleo could not explain why she had been so anxious to hang on to the marriage with a guy who would have preferred her to have an abortion having decided that she was too old for parenthood. Was that the moment when the marriage really ended?
It was providence that one day Robert and Edith started to exchange shy smiles.
Later, Edith was to declare that Frederick’s intention to fly to Africa the following Monday, having had a call from the Almighty to do good works there, had been the impulse she needed to get nearer to the family butcher, but she would never have dared to do what she did had not Frederick’s sister Beatrice old her to get on with it.
Beatrice had come to the vicarage for the weekend, mainly to say goodbye to Frederick, the little brother she no longer thought was worth his salt as a vicar or a husband. She intended to support Edith in her hour of need. What she did not realize was that Edith was more glad than sad that the vicar was leaving and was instrumental in his going.
Chatting to Edith about her forthcoming loss convinced Beatrice once and for all that her sister-in-law would be better off without Frederick and she said so. The light in Edith’s eyes convinced Beatrice that Edith was losing her heart to someone else, so she suggested to Edith that it would be a good time to go after what she wanted.
Apart from a Sunday service, in which Frederick announced to the sparse congregation that he was leaving them, but with the bishop’s blessing, to help Christianity in Africa, the vicar spent the day deciding what to pack. He had preached a short sermon based on his favourite hymn ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’; Mr Morgan, the organist, had accompanied all the vicar’s favourite hymns with verve and imagination and his Welsh emotions had made him cry, mainly because the beauty of his own organ-playing moved him to tears; Robert, who was the best amateur singer in the region and comprised half the volume of the chrch choir, had given the vicar a good send-off by singing a few Spirituals for him with the backing of the choir, a motley group of senior and junior citizens, some tuneful, some deaf. At one point, the vicar was not even sure that he could go to Africa and leave such a voice as Robert’s behind.
Edith, who avoided her husband’s pulpit performances whenever whe could, stayed home even on this memorable morning cooking a farewell lunch with an extra Yorkshire pudding for the vicar, after which he decided he needed forty winks before finishing his packing. That was the opportunity Beatrice had been waiting for.
Edith found herself admitting to Beatrice that she was making the Africa safari financially possible.
Beatrice was shocked, but declared that it was for the best. An offer came from a new parishioner to take Robert to the airport and a mysterious second plane ticket fluttered down out of the envelope, much to Edith’s puzzlement. Frederick would use that one and Edith could get the money back on the first, which she had of course bought.
Did someone else want the vicar out of the way? Frederick Parsnip took it all in his stride, declaring that it was wonderful to have such kind supporters. Edith could buy new shoes for the boys, the vicar generously advised. There might even be enough for a new winter coat. The last one was several years old and had previously belonged to someone who donated it to the Red Cross charity shop.
“Why don’t you go to that man you admire?” Beatrice suggested to Edith.
“I can’t do that. He hasn’t invited me.”
“He won’t invite you unless you make it clear to him that you want him to,” said Beatrice, who had no experience to look back on. She was married to a psychiatrist who fulfilled almost all of her wishes and had provided her with a solid, if childless marriage.
Edith thought about taking the initiative. Beatrice had not asked who the man was and Edith did not volunteer the information. After all, respectable vicar’s wives did not proposition men.
“Well, if you think…” Edith started.
“I do, Edith. Think of your future.”
“I didn’t know I had one. In fact, sometimes I think I’m already dead.”
“Rubbish. Run along now. I’ll see to the boys and keep the vicar happy by plying him with coffee. He probably won’t even notice you aren’t here.”
“That’s the whole problem, Beatrice,” said Edith. “I’ve been invisible to Frederick for so long that I think I’ll step in front of a mirror one day and I won’t have a reflection.”
“Well, you are not invisible. You are a nice woman and you deserve something better than my brother.”
Edith hurried to Robert’s flat and rang the doorbell before she had time to think better of it. The front door was closed because it was Sunday and the side entrance to the shop was not needed for deliveries. Robert’s flat was on the first floor above the shop. A flight of stairs led to it. Robert was waiting at the top. He wasn’t expecting anyone and had just finished his accounts. He was ready for a little snooze and not pleased to have a visitor.
“Why Edith, what brings you here?”
“Can I come in, Robert?”
“Of course. Has something happened?”
“Beatrice sent me.”
“Beatrice is Frederick’s sister, isn’t she? Why would she send you here?”
“She could see that I am unhappy.”
“Oh yes, of course,” said Robert. “The vicar’s leaving tomorrow, isn’t he?”
“Don’t misunderstand me,” said Edith, taking a seat on Robert’s sofa in Robert’s little sitting-room. “I’m glad he’s going.”
Robert was surprised. He had a soft spot for Edith, but had only seen her as the vicar’s wife and therefore a no-go area.
“Do you want to know why?” Edith asked.
“Are you going to tell me?”
Edith hesitated for a moment before doing something she had not planned that was totally out of character if we are thinking about the family drudge the vicar saw in her. Looking at Robert now she imagined she was her sister Clare, who was good with men. She looked just like her, after all. What would Clare do?
Edith moved nearer to Robert, who was sitting in an armchair next to the sofa, put her arms on his shoulders and kissed him full on the mouth.
Robert was understandably astonished. Quite apart from being bowled over by Edith’s gesture, he was not used to a woman taking the initiative. They looked at one another in amazement before repeating the kiss with a lot more energy and mutual passion, during which Robert found himself putting his arms round Edith and drawing her closer until they were interlocked.
At the end of the embrace Edith drew back and apologized.
“I don’t know what came over me,” she said.
“Whatever it was, it was very enjoyable, Edith.”
“So you aren’t appalled.”
“No. Why should I be?”
“We are married,” said Edith.
“To partners who don’t want us, Edith. There’s no crime in looking for someone who does.”
“Do you want me?” said Edith.
“If you’ll have me, Edith. Do you want me?”
“Oh yes, Robert. I want you,” she replied, opening the buttons of Robert’s shirt.
Robert was astonished, but that did not stop him from gathering Edith in his arms and carrying her into his bedroom, where he put her down onto the counterpane,. He started to pull her clothes off.
“What are we doing, Robert?”
“We’re going to have sex, Edith, but only if you want to.”
“I do want to, Robert,” Edith said as she helped him to get his clothes off with admirable speed and enthusiasm.
What happened for the rest of the day and throughout the night until Robert’s alarm clock rang out at them at four thirty next morning was world-shattering for them both. Quite suddenly Robert found himself behaving like the lover he had never really been. Edith had not only thrown off her clothes and his, but was indulging in love-making such as she had seldom experienced and not at all for a log time, if ever. She did not recognize herself. Had she slipped into her sister’s personality?
“You look worried,” said Robert and they made love again.
Suffice it to say that Robert the family butcher and Edith the vicar’s wife had consummated their secret love for one another in no uncertain manner. Two souls had been saved , not by a missionary, but by the simple mechanism of mutual attraction.
“I’d better go home,” said Edith in a panic, when Robert had finally let go of her and was sitting on the side of the bed feeling he had conquered the world. Edith knelt behind him and let her fingers wander over his back and around hos body until he said “Please stop.”
“Not now,” Edith said, and drew him back onto her.
Eventually Robert found enough determination to get out of bed.
“I’d better go home then,” said Edith.
“Yes, you’d better, Edith. I’m sure someone will have missed you.”
“I don’t care if he has,” said Edith, meaning Frederick Parsnip.
“I’m glad you came,” said Robert, who was prone to understatement in times of emotional stress. “I would never have had the courage to invite you.”
“It’s done now, Robert. I’m happy and I think you are. Beatrice will be delighted.”
“What has she got to do with it?”
“She sent me here. Aren’t you glad about that, Robert?”
“Of course I’m glad. If I didn’t have to go to the blasted wholesaler’s I would persuade you to stay.”
“We could do this again tonight, Robert.”
“But not at the vicarage, Edith.”
“I could get Beatrice to stay and look after the boys. Then I could come here.”
“That’s a good suggestion, Edith, but get going now, before anyone sees you leaving here.”
It was still dark when they left Robert’s flat together. Robert drove off to the wholesalers while Edith ran home, let herself into the vicarage through the kitchen door and put the kettle on. Within two minutes Beatrice was in the kitchen, eager to hear how Edith’s outing had gone.
“You were right, Beatrice. I don’t think Robert would have got round to approaching me for a long time.”
“Do you mean Robert Jones the butcher?”
“But he’s married.”
“So am I, Beatrice, but Robert has separated from his wife and is living in his old flat above the shop.”
“Did anyone see you going there or coming out? You know how people talk.”
“Frederick will be gone within a couple of hours and after that I don’t care.”
Friederick came into the kitchen at that moment. His timing had always been inopportune-
“You were away all night, weren’t you, Edith?” said the vicar as he reached for a mug and poured himself a cup of tea bfore drifting off into his study..
“We lost track of the time,” Edith called after him before she could think twice.
“Just imagine the headlines,” said Beatrice. “While the vicar was packing for darkest Africa his wife was asleep in the arms of her lover. That will make interesting reading.”
“We weren’t asleep, Beatrice.”
“That was only a manner of speaking.”
“You sent me there, Beatrice.”
“I didn’t expect you to seduce him, Edith.”
“I didn’t have to and …. But once we got going we really didn’t sleep much.”
“I don’t suppose you did. Robert is quite an attractive man. I expect he’s good at sex.”
Edith blushed. Beatrice was very forthcoming. Edith was not used to such straight talk.
“I hope no one tells on me. What would the bishop say?”
“Cross that bridge when you come to it, Edith. We’ll get Frederick off to the airport before we think about what’s going to happen next.”
“You’re right,” said Edith.
“You are happy for a change, and that’s what counts,” said Beatrice as Frederick wandered back into the kitchen.
“Where were you all night, Edith. I thought we could…”
“Well, you thought wrong, Frederick. You’ve had enough time thinking of me only as the home drudge and I don’t want your advances ever again.”
“So Robert was the answer to a maiden’s prayer, was he?” said the vicar.
Edith paled. How did Frederick know? Beatrice shook her head. She had not told him.
“I know you think I am not very perceptive, but I saw that coming,” said the vicar.
“I didn’t,” said Edith.
“But it did, didn’t it? Bad form of Robert not to wait until I was safely out of the way.”
”To be correct about that, it was my idea. I seduced Robert, not he me,” said Edith forcefully.
It was Beatrice’s turn to go pale. Frederick would probably blame her because Edith would not have had the nerve to go to a man and force herself on him. Although she was guilty of sending Edith to Robert, she did not want be accused of interfering.
“Taking after your profligate sister, Edith?” the vicar sneered.
“I hope so,” retorted Edith.
“Perhaps I should thank Robert,” said the vicar. “I’m sure he’ll look after you and make a better father for the boys than I ever was.”
“You said it, Frederick. Now go and get ready before Mr Grisham arrives.”
Mr Grisham was a new parishioner who attended St Peter’s regularly. His offer to take the vicar to Heathrow had been accepted gratefully.
An hour or so later, the boys had lined up with clean hands and ears and presented their father with a large box of HB pencils to sharpen when he had problems to solve.
“I prefer B2 these days,” the vicar said, instead of thanking them. “They sharpen better, but I’ll take these in reserve.”
Frederick showed no emotion, unless indifference counts. Beatrice received a perfunctory kiss on each cheek. The vicar shook his sons by the hand, advising them to wash regularly and not to cheat at school. He shook Edith by the hand, blessed her union with his successor and hoped she would refrain from having any more children. Then he was gone.