“Tina, does every English village have someone like Mrs Barnes?” my Dutch ex-sister-in-law Anneke asked, looking vaguely shell-shocked.
“I’m not sure,” I admitted, “But why should we be the only ones to suffer?”
“Oh, come on, you don’t mean it! She is a character, after all.”
“So was Jack the Ripper,” I said, darkly.
I suppose I should explain a couple of things. Anneke was my idiotic brother Colin’s ex-wife. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love him to bits, but how he could prefer a moronic little Madam like Lindzee complete with her miniature Chihuahua (don’t ask!) Periwinkle in tow, to a kind, good-hearted intelligent woman like Annneke was totally beyond me. Actually that’s not fair. Periwinkle is quite sweet, and I don’t for one minute think she likes being carried around in a turquoise handbag decorated with artificial rhinestones spelling out Periwinkle’s Pad. But Anneke and I were never in any doubt that our friendship should be maintained. If anything we were probably closer than ever now, and I had really looked forward to showing her round my new home in Pinchington St Peters.
“Mind you,” she admitted, “They probably have them in villages in the Netherlands, too. But you know me, I’m a city girl. I mean, it’s lovely for holidays and all that, but – I’ll admit I was a bit surprised when you moved out here!”
“I’m still not sure if it was the right choice,” I admitted, “But views like that do make it worth it.” We both paused at the edge of the village, where it yielded to the deciduous woodland heavy with spring greenery and growth. If we looked the other way we could see golden rapeseed blooming so bright it almost hurt our eyes, and it was only a short walk to the sea.
“It is idyllic,” she admitted.
I was about to say we had run into Mrs Barnes by accident, but was pretty sure that she had not run into US by accident.
Sometimes I swore I could hear the great Sir David Attenborough commentating, “And we have just caught a glance of the alpha female, always on the alert, distinguished by her court shoes and royal blue twinset, ready to deal with any threat to the colony.”
Mrs Barnes lived in The Bungalow. Not that it was the only bungalow in the village. But it was the only one that was called just The Bungalow and it didn’t bear thinking about the consequences if anyone else dared to give their property the same name. Though she had never said it in so many words, at least not to me, somehow you just KNEW she thought teabags and text speak represented the end of civilisation as she wished to know it.
There were rumours of acts of unexpected kindness on her part.
Though, to be fair, she rarely said anything that could be deemed offensive, she held political correctness in contempt – and yet she was the one who had first broken the ice with the Iraqi family who came to live in the village, and formed a formal but firm friendship with Mr Hassan over their shared love of archaeology. She was said to dote on her granddaughter Paige, even though Carol at the village post office (which had survived when so many closed in no small part due to Mrs Barnes’ efforts) confided in me that she had once said, “Paige, what sort of name is that? Will they call her brother or sister, if one comes along, Chapter or Paragraph?” “She can be an irritating old bat,” Carol said. “Still, this Post Office is still open, thanks to Mrs Barnes.” I realised that “Thanks to Mrs Barnes” was quite a village mantra. Even if people might not exactly like her, they had to confess that in no small part the village still thrived “Thanks to Mrs Barnes”.
Now here’s a strange thing. I had to admit (and those who had known her for far longer than I did confirmed it) that Mrs Barnes was rarely actively, detectably, nosey. You didn’t hear her say the infamous words like, “I know it’s not my business, but…” or “I know I shouldn’t interfere, but….” and nobody had seen her twitching a curtain or paying apparent close attention to a quietly voiced conversation. But she still seemed to know everything anyway – and that was far more disconcerting and troubling.
Anyway, to get back to the subject of my brother’s love life – or to be more precise, at that moment, the lack of it. It did not end well with Lindzee. It lasted for eighteen months, longer than I’d have thought (though of course I more than suspected things had been “going on” before Colin, who could be pretty thick for someone who was highly intelligent, realised it or Lindzee decided she’d have to tell him). Lindzee had formed a deep and meaningful (her words not mine) relationship with a YouTube influencer called Zakk. I don’t know what he did before that, if anything. He was very particular about the two K’s. Anneke, to her credit, never said it served Colin right. I don’t know if she ever thought it, and wouldn’t have blamed her if she did. Out of a certain masochistic curiosity I watched one of Zakk’s videos and concluded that even Lindzee deserved better than that. Or if she didn’t, Periwinkle did.
I know this sounds selfish, but I was too wrapped up in my own concerns to devote that much thought to the whole business. The renovation of Clumber Cottage (apparently so called because a previous owner was a breeder of Clumber spaniels) was proving more problematic than I thought, and trust me, my standards were pretty low. It seemed that a property being declared (by a very reliable surveyor) “structurally sound” didn’t mean there couldn’t be flaking plaster and obdurate layers of wallpaper that made me realise for the first time why some people sung the praises of neutral coloured walls, and floorboards that smelt suspiciously of spaniels – and I liked spaniels. As for my grand ideas about “making more of my writing” – well, it was almost too hackneyed (like a great deal of my writing was at the time!) but I discovered that rural life is not a magic torch to the muse. I sold a few not very good poems about the beauties of the woods and fields around the village to one of the last remaining magazines to be indulgent when it came to not very good poems about the woods and the fields, and toyed with the idea of writing a rather bitchy novel about a grating female with a pet Chihuahua. Come on, I thought, you’re better than that. And you can’t write a thick as a brick character based on your own brother. Blood thicker than water and all that. I wasn’t better than that, of course, I just couldn’t make it work.
Still, blood was thicker than water, and it was a body blow when I learnt that Colin had been in a surfing accident. Lindzee had introduced him to that particular pastime, whose appeal had always been a source of utter bafflement to me. She, at least, was good at it. He wasn’t, but said it gave him a buzz. Unfortunately, on this occasion, it also gave him a broken leg, concussion, and two cracked ribs. He’d be fine.
What did he do? He went home to Mum, of course. Mum very much had a life of her own, and I can’t imagine she was delighted, but she wasn’t the kind of person who’d desert her wounded chick in his hour of need. He phoned me a couple of times and sent me some very “sorry for himself” emails.
At the same time, Anneke and I were helping out with the Village Fete. And by the Village Fete, I don’t mean a couple of car-boot style type tables and some supermarket cupcakes on paper plates. When Pinchington St Peters did a fete, they did it properly. I expect I don’t need to tell you who was in charge, and nor do I need to tell you that everyone was expected to fall in and do their duty, recent arrivals and temporary visitors included. Anneke was seen as a welcome exotic addition and informed that she was to make Dutch apple cakes.
“I’ve never made a Dutch apple cake in my life!” she lamented, “I don’t even LIKE apples very much” It seemed to upset her more than I’d imagined it would. I won’t say I expected her to openly defy Mrs Barnes – that would just have been silly (not to mention potentially life-threatening!) but she wasn’t a person who was easily cowed.
My heart trembled for her when, as we were in the village hall at one of the “pre-Fete meetings” (or the Barnes-Storming sessions as the more daring nicknamed them) Mrs Barnes came up to us, and, making it plain she was addressing Anneke, said, “Young woman, may I have a private word?” She had a way of saying “young” that wasn’t exactly insulting, but you couldn’t call complimentary either. Anneke gave me a brief, stricken look, but I knew better than to intervene. It would have done no good.
Around quarter of an hour later, the two of them emerged from the little office. Normally I could read Anneke’s mood pretty easily, but that time, for once, I wasn’t sure. At least there didn’t seem to be any tension between them. I did give her an inquiring look, and she said, quietly, “Wait till we get home Tina.”
I nodded, though the time certainly dragged.
Eventually, though, we were sitting side by side on the sofa, and she said, “Mrs Barnes didn’t want to talk about apple cake at all. I started muttering something about asking my mother – though it might more likely be my grandmother! – if she knew a recipe, and she – went like that,” she made a gesture with her arm as if to clear a pile of old papers from a table, and said, “Never mind that for the time being.” Then – she asked, “How is that ex-husband of yours”?”
“And I’d credited her with not being nosey!” I exclaimed.
“No it was – well – it was concerned, in a Mrs Barnes sort of way! And then she asked me straight out if I still loved him. Yes, Tina she did, honestly, say “loved” and not just “cared for” or something like that!”
“Blimey,” I muttered.
“And – well, I found myself telling the truth. That yes, I did. That when I heard he’d been in an accident I felt – sick and shaken. She said she thought as much. She also said – and this is a quote, the words have stuck in my mind, that he was a bloody moron.” Having thought much the same thing myself, I couldn’t argue with that.
“Then – I should tell him so. Give him another chance, though she knew I had every right in the world to be furious with him. And the thing is, Tina – yes, I am still furious with him. But – oh, I love him more than I’m furious with him. Anyway, he might not feel like that about ME!”
I pulled her into my arms as she wept for a few minutes, and said, “He does, Anneke. Believe me, he does.”
You know those “sorry for himself” emails I mentioned? Well, he wasn’t sorry for himself over his accident. He was surprisingly stoical about that. But it had made him think things over and come to his senses. He realised he’d made the worst mistake in his life and deserted the most wonderful woman he was ever likely to meet, and it was too late to put it right. What could I say.
Well, now I knew what to say. That no, it was not too late. For once, the sting and the horror could be taken out of those two prosaic, portentous little words.
Thanks to Mrs Barnes!