|Publisher:||Houghton Mifflin Harcourt|
About the Author
Miss Read (1913-2012) was the pseudonym of Mrs. Dora Saint, a former schoolteacher beloved for her novels of English rural life, especially those set in the fictional villages of Thrush Green and Fairacre. The first of these, Village School, was published in 1955, and Miss Read continued to write until her retirement in 1996. In the 1998, she was awarded an MBE, or Member of the Order of the British Empire, for her services to literature.
Read an Excerpt
'I must pay a visit to Thrush Green this afternoon,' said Dimity Henstock to her husband Charles.
They were breakfasting in the kitchen of Lulling Vicarage. Charles buttered a slice of toast carefully.
'I can drive you there before two, my dear, but I have this meeting in Oxford at three.'
'Don't worry, I shall walk. Ella is clean out of light blue tapestry wool for her lovers' knots, and I have some here.'
'Her lovers' knots?' echoed Charles, toast poised.
'Round the edge of the chair seat,' explained Dimity.
She rose and began to clear the table. Charles, still looking bewildered, chewed the last mouthful of toast.
'I must get on, dear,' said Dimity. 'Mrs Allen comes today, and I like to get things cleared up.'
'I always thought that we employed Mrs Allen for the express purpose of clearing up for us.'
'Yes, one would think that in theory, but in practice, of course, it really makes more work to do.'
'Then I will go and water the greenhouse,' said the vicar of Lulling, rector of Thrush Green, and general priest in charge of Lulling Woods and Nidden – otherwise Charles Henstock.
He stepped out of the back door into the dewy freshness of a fine June morning, and made his way happily through the vicarage garden.
As he tended his seedlings in the pleasantly humid atmosphere of the greenhouse, Charles pondered on the felicity of his life in Lulling.
His present vicarage and its garden were both mellow and beautiful, owing much to the care given by his immediate predecessor, Anthony Bull, who now had a living in Kensington, where his good looks and slightly dramatic sermons were as much admired there as they had been at Lulling. Charles and he remained staunch friends.
Charles had been twice married, and after the untimely death of his first wife life had been bleak. Soon after, he had been appointed to the living of Thrush Green, where he dwelt in the ugliest and coldest house there. Most of the dwellings round the large triangle of grass which gave the place its name, were built of Cotswold stone and tiled to match. Why a Victorian builder had ever been allowed to erect the gloomy pile which had been Charles's home for so many years, remained a mystery.
The good rector, the humblest and most hard-working of men, seemed oblivious of the draughts, the murkiness, and the sheer discomfort of his home. When he married his second wife, Dimity, who had shared a cottage with her friend Ella Bembridge nearby, he was perplexed to hear her complaints about her new abode, and did his best to help her to render the rectory more comfortable.
In fact, it was a losing battle. The house faced north-east, was shoddily built, and had a long corridor, leading from the front door to the back, which acted as an efficient wind tunnel and chilled the atmosphere whenever either door was opened.
Two or three years before the present June morning, the whole place had been consumed by fire, and very few local people regretted its passing.
Charles himself was devastated. He and Dimity had been away from home on the night of the fire, but he knew that he could never forget the sight of the smoking ruins which greeted him on his return.
He shuddered now at the remembrance, standing upright, a minute seedling of Cos lettuce held between thumb and forefinger, and his gaze fixed, unseeing, upon the present splendour of his Lulling garden beyond the greenhouse glass. His mind's eye saw again the blackened heap, the drifting smoke, and the pathetic huddle of his salvaged possessions at some distance on the green.
And then he remembered his neighbours, the comforting arm about his shoulder, the stricken looks of those who mourned with him, their blackened hands offering mugs of steaming tea, their eyes reddened with the acrid smoke. It was their sympathy and practical help which had supported him and Dimity through the weeks that followed. He would never forget.
A sneeze shook him back into the present. With infinite care he lowered the threadlike roots of the seedling into its tiny home, and gently made it secure.
Dimity set out for Thrush Green as soon as lunch was over, leaving her husband sorting out the papers he would need for the afternoon's meeting at Oxford.
It was a time of day that Dimity always enjoyed, the slack period when most people were digesting their midday meal, the streets were quiet, and an air of torpor hung over the little town.
Most of the Lulling shops still closed for an hour or more. Old customs die hard in this part of the Cotswolds, and some shopkeepers still lived above their businesses, or near enough to go home to a midday meal. Dimity approved of this sensible practice, and did not rail, as many of her friends did, about the difficulty of shopping in the middle of the day.
The two modern supermarkets, made hideous with garish window stickers, seemed to be the only places open, as Dimity made her way along the High Street. Even they appeared remarkably quiet, she noticed. So far, Lulling folk seemed to keep to their usual ways, and would not be emerging from their rest until the older shops turned the CLOSED notice to OPEN, unlocked their doors, and pulled out the awnings to shade their wares should the sun have arrived.
Dimity did not hurry. The sun was warm, and she was pleasantly conscious of its comfort on her back as she admired, yet again, the honey-coloured stone of the buildings, the fresh green of the lime trees, and the plumes of lilac, white and purple, which nodded from the front gardens, and scented the warm air.
A tabby cat was stretched across the sunny doorstep of the draper's shop. Dimity bent to stroke it, and it acknowledged her attentions with a little chirruping sound and a luxurious flexing of its striped legs. Hard by, in the dusty gutter, a bevy of sparrows bathed noisily, but the cat was too lethargic to stir itself into action in the present warmth.
Dimity made her way through the somnolent town, crossed the murmuring River Pleshey, pausing to watch its eddies and dimples for a few minutes, and then faced the steep hill which led to Thrush Green and her friend Ella Bembridge.
Ella was one of those squarely-built, gruffladies of mannish appearance whose looks belie their gentleness.
Her large hands, rough and brown from gardening, were equally at home with weaving, smocking, embroidery and tapestry work. Those hands had also tackled pottery, carpentry, painting and metalwork in their time, but now that Ella lived alone she preferred to enjoy the handiwork which she could do in her own home, without the complications of potter's wheels, lathes, soldering irons and the like.
She and Dimity had spent several happy years together. Though different in looks and temperament the one had complemented the other. When Dimity had been carried off by Charles, first to the rectory across the way at Thrush Green, and later to the vicarage at Lulling, Ella had missed her old friend, but rejoiced in her good fortune.
She was not one to pine, and her innumerable projects kept Ella busy and cheerful. It was lucky that Dimity lived so near, and that the two could see each other frequently.
As Dimity was puffing her way uphill, Ella was kneeling in the front garden of their home planting out a row of pansies, a cigarette dangling from her lips. She looked up as the latch of the gate clicked.
'What a nice surprise!' she exclaimed, scrambling to her feet, and wiping her hands energetically down her skirt.
'I told you I'd bring the wool,' replied Dimity. 'On the phone.'
'Well, I didn't cotton on that you'd come this afternoon. To be honest. Dim, I believe I'm getting deaf. Don't hear half people say on the blower.'
'Probably only wax,' said Dimity, sitting down exhaustedly on a rustic seat under the eaves of the thatch. 'Get John Lovell to squish it out.'
'He'd perforate my ear drums, more like,' commented Ella. Her opinion of medical practitioners was low. Good health had kept her largely from their clutches, and she was suspicious of their professional activities.
'Want a cuppa?' she continued. 'You look whacked.'
'No, no. It's only walking up the hill. Don't let me stop you working. Can I help?'
'No, I've only a few more to bung in. You sit there and tell me all the news. How's Charles?'
'He's off to Oxford for a meeting.'
'Poor thing! Rather him than me. What on earth do clergymen do at these meetings? Do a bit of re-editing of Hymns Ancient and Modem? Make a list of their fellow priests who need censuring? Or defrocking?'
'Oh, nothing like that, I'm sure,' replied Dimity, somewhat shocked. 'I think it's more to do with money. Upkeep of the church property, allocation of funds, that sort of thing. Though I must admit that Charles never talks about church matters to me, and I'm very glad he doesn't. One can so easily let out something innocently that is supposed to be private.'
'Your Charles is a wise old bird. If you don't want a thing known, say nowt to anyone. I can't abide people who tell you some titbit and then add: "But don't say a word. You are the only person I've told!" You can bet your bottom dollar she's said the same to a dozen others before telling you.'
She rammed home the last pansy plant, and came to sit beside Dimity in the sun. Out from her skirt pocket came the battered tin which Dimity knew so well, and Ella began to roll one of her pungent and untidy cigarettes.
The two old friends sat in silence. They were both drowsy and pleasantly tired from their recent exercise. A chaffinch pottered busily in the garden bed, occasionally giving a satisfied chirrup, and a light breeze rustled the budding may bush by the gate.
In the distance, they could hear the school children at play across the green, and the rumble of traffic from the main road at the foot of the hill. It was all very soporific and the ladies could easily have dropped off. But suddenly the rattling of machinery close at hand made them alert.
'That dratted cement mixer,' said Ella. 'They're still mucking about with those new houses. Putting in steps, or a terrace, or some such, the foreman told me.'
Dimity stood up to see what was happening across the road, on the very site of her demolished old home.
Eight one-storey houses in the form of a south-facing L were being built for old people, designed by the local architect Edward Young, who lived close by in what was readily acknowledged as the handsomest house on Thrush Green.
'What a time they're taking!' commented Dimity. 'They were started ages ago.'
'Poor old Edward's having the deuce of a time with some of his suppliers, I gather. He's having handles fixed to the baths, and rails by the loos, and they had to be sent back because they weren't to his specification. Then he'd planned underfloor heating, and it was practically complete when another chap told him that some old people had complained of foot trouble after some time in a place in Northamptonshire. So off he went to investigate, and decided to rip it out and start again.'
'When does he hope to have them ready?'
'You tell me! One thing, there are plenty of people around with their names on the list. Is Charles mixed up with this?'
'He's on the committee, I know.'
'Well, he's got my sympathy when it comes to selecting eight deserving cases from the roll. The fur will fly for some time, is my guess. Why, even Percy Hodge has put his name down.'
'Percy Hodge?' echoed Dimity. 'But he's already got a house! And a wife to look after him!'
'Not now he hasn't. She's left him for good, has our Doris.'
'But he can only be sixty at the outside,' expostulated Dimity. 'That's not old by today's standards.'
'True enough, but he's not the only sixty-year-old to try it on. I hear Mrs Cooke at Nidden's applied too, and those mercenary old twins at Nod whose name I can never remember.'
'But Mrs Cooke has heaps of children to look after her, and those Bellamy twins have pots of money, and a bungalow of their own!'
'We all know that. All I'm saying is, Charles will have his work cut out when he's one of the panel trying to make a choice.'
Dimity looked troubled as she gazed across the hedge to the new buildings.
'Well, at this rate he won't be making any decisions yet a while,' she said at last. 'Maybe things will be easier when the time comes.'
To Ella's mind, this was a forlorn hope. But, for once, she forbore to say so.
'You don't have to hurry back, do you, Dim? Stop and have a cup of tea.'
'I'd love to. Charles won't be home before six, I imagine.'
'Good, then we'll go down to Dotty's to collect the milk. It will save Connie a trip. Incidentally, Dotty sent me some biscuits she'd made. Shall we try them at tea time?'
'You can, I shan't! I had a fine bout of Dotty's Collywobbles when I went there last.'
Ella smiled behind her cigarette smoke.
'Don't worry. I was only teasing. They went out to the birds within half an hour, and I can't say they were too keen either.'
Later the two ladies crossed the green and entered the narrow lane that led across fields to Dotty Harmer's cottage, and then on to Lulling Woods.
The cement mixer by the new buildings was now at rest, and the site deserted. The low terrace of houses was going to be very attractive once the builders' mess was removed, lawns and shrubs planted, and the final lick of paint applied.
'Almost makes you think of putting your name on the list,' commented Ella as they walked on. 'Not that I'd stand a chance, and in any case I should hate to leave our little place.'
At Dotty's there was evidence of building too. Their eccentric old friend had lived there for many years with numerous animals and a large garden erratically tended. She had been the only daughter of the headmaster of the local grammar school. He had had a fearsome reputation for stern discipline, and grown men in Lulling still quailed at the mention of his name.
On his death, marked by a packed church at his memorial service ('Relief rather than respect!' as some wag remarked later), Dotty had moved to her present abode and enjoyed her freedom. As well as caring for her animals with passionate devotion, she experimented with the bounty of the fields and hedgerows, making chutneys and preserves of dubious plants and berries which she pressed upon her apprehensive friends. John Lovell, the Thrush Green doctor, was well aware of the local stomach trouble known as Dotty's Collywobbles, and it was the first question he asked of his suffering patients before turning to more orthodox complaints.
Dotty's own health was the concern of her friends for several years, but when her niece Connie came to take charge they breathed a sigh of relief. Now Connie had married Kit Armitage, a handsome widower, who once had attended Lulling's grammar school and known Dotty's ferocious father only too well for comfort. The enlargement of Dotty's thatched cottage was the result of their marriage.
It was Connie who opened the door to Ella and Dimity, and greeted them with affection.
'Do come in. Aunt Dotty's in the sitting room. Kit's shopping in Lulling. Have you had tea?'
They assured her on this point and went through the hall to see Dotty. They found her semi-prone on a sofa, a tapestry frame lodged on her stomach, and mounds of wool scattered around her.
'Don't get up!' exclaimed Ella, as Dotty began to thrash about. 'What are you making?'
She gazed with an expert eye at Dotty's efforts.
'A cushion cover, so the pattern says,' replied Dotty. 'It's called Florentine stitch, and supposed to be quite simple.'
'It is,' said Ella. 'Let's have a look.'
She removed the frame from Dotty's stomach, tightened some nuts, and then studied the work closely, back and front.
'You've missed a whole row of holes in some places,' she said at last. 'See these white lines? That's the canvas showing through.'
'Oh really?' said Dotty, yawning. 'Does it matter?'
'It does if you want the work to look well done,' said Ella with spirit. 'Tell you what, I'll take it home and put it right for you.'
Dotty lowered her skinny legs to the ground, and pulled up her wrinkled stockings.
'Oh, don't bother, Ella dear. I quite like the white lines. Rather a pretty effect. In any case, I'm rather busy sorting out a drawerful of old photos at the moment, and I think I'll put this work aside till the winter.'
She took possession of the frame and thrust it under the sofa. There was a yelp, and Flossie the spaniel emerged, looking hurt.
'Oh, my poor love!' cried Dotty. 'I had no idea you were there! Let me find you a biscuit as a peace offering.'
She scrabbled behind a cushion on the sofa head and produced a crumpled paper bag. From it she withdrew a piece of Rich Tea biscuit, and offered it to the dog. It was warmly received.
'Now,' said Dotty, rising to her feet and wiping her hands down her skirt. 'Come and see the new building.'
'Aunt Dotty,' protested Connie, now entering the room, 'there's nothing to see yet. Let Ella and Dimity have a rest after their walk.'
'No, let's see it,' said Ella, stumping along behind Dotty. 'How long have the men been here?'
The four women surveyed the piles of building material scattered about the garden. Dimity thought the sight depressing. Planks were propped against the fruit trees. Piles of bricks lurched drunkenly on what was once a lawn. Buckets, wheelbarrows, hods and spades all jostled together, and the inevitable cement mixer lurked behind the lilac bushes which were already covered in white dust.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "At Home in Thrush Green"
Copyright © 1985 Miss Read.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
|Part 1||Work In Progress|
|2||Problems at Thrush Green||16|
|3||Market Day at Lulling||29|
|5||The Longest Day||57|
|6||The Fuchsia Bush to the Rescue||71|
|Part 2||Moving In|
|11||Preparing for Bonfire Night||136|
|12||The Fifth of November||148|
|13||Old People's Fears||161|
|Part 3||Getting Settled|
|17||Nelly Piggott Meets the Past||214|
|18||A Hint of Spring||229|