Miss Beckett Changes Her Mind: Chapter Five

Norman Slough frowned over his pint of bitter in the public bar of The Coastguard public house. He was thinking. And he was drinking. The subject of his dark thoughts was Sheila Fenniston. He felt aggrieved.

Norman was in love with Miss Fenniston. He had thought that Sheila returned his feelings and that they had made a well-matched couple on the two occasions she had allowed him to take her to the tiny picture-house in Looe. Then when she had accompanied him to the dinner-and-dance at Hardew’s, he had not only felt that they looked very fine together but he had seen that other people—the people who saw them arrive together, her gloved hand tucked into the crook of his arm—these people had also thought she and he looked very fine together.

When he had walked her home to her rooms at old Mrs Hunter’s, she had permitted him to kiss her. The next morning there was a new respect for him in the eyes of his colleagues. At last they could see he was going to make something of himself, that he wasn’t just another blue-collared member of the masses.

But that had been three weeks ago. Now Norman’s little bubble had burst and so he felt aggrieved.

He had bought a car, admittedly second-hand but nevertheless very smart and nice, if not exactly the most recent model. But he had wanted to be able to take Miss Fenniston—Sheila—about at the weekends. He had asked her to go and see the new film starring Raquel Welsh at the picture-house in Looe but he had been repeatedly, and with increasing impatience, rebuffed.

The chaps in the warehouse had been asking him when he was seeing Miss Fenniston again. So now he had to keep inventing excuses to save face, but in their eyes he could see he had not only slipped back to his old, ill-regarded position but had actually fallen even lower in their estimation. He knew they thought he had tried too high and fallen flat on his face.

She—it was clear to Norman now—she was still trying high. She was daily ingratiating herself and rendering herself more and more indispensable to Jeremy Hardew. Now, finally, Norman could see Sheila’s ultimate aim clearly. She was aiming far, far higher than a mere warehouseman. Sheila Fenniston was intending to succeed where all others had failed—she was going to snare Jeremy Hardew, and thus elevate herself out of the workday crowd to a position of moneyed leisure.

Norman was not good enough for her. Norman’s car was not good enough for her either. She aspired to something from this year’s catalogue.

He had been her plaything, used and thrown aside. Now he was a walking object of pity and scorn. Norman Slough took another draft of his beer, and thought his cold thoughts.

 

Josephine met Meredith Hardew. They met in the post office, although at that point Josephine didn’t realise who the other woman was.

Josephine needed a couple of postcards.

She had been in the village for a little over a week and was already beginning to feel much stronger although a persistent cough still disturbed her sleep. She was developing a routine. Each morning she had a good breakfast followed by a walk which began on the tiny beach and from there she proceeded into the churchyard. Then she would cross the bridge and follow the river a short distance until she found herself back in the village, on the other side of the little green. Once back in the village, she would either go to one or other of the shops, or to the tea-rooms, or go back to the cottage to tidy up her negligible mess, according to her preference and how strong she was feeling.

Today she had decided to do her duty and send postcards to John and Barbara and their family, and to Derek and Mavis. She thought they all might like to know how she was getting on. She turned the revolving postcard stand and exclaimed aloud at a charming view of the beach, taken from the top of the hill, looking back through the churchyard gates down towards the water.

Her exclamation drew the attention of a woman who had just entered the post office. Josephine glanced up and with a smile said, “So sorry, I got a bit carried away, I’m afraid. I really only need two, but these are such sweet views.”

Meredith saw a young woman, hardly more than a girl really, not very tall, slightly built but with very fair hair and huge blue eyes such as one saw on the screen at a cinema. Meredith glanced at the stand and selecting a card after a moment, held it out to Josephine.

“This one has a lovely view of the church with the little bridge and the river beyond.”

Josephine took it, smiled and said, “That hasn’t helped, I’m afraid, it’s easily as nice as the others. Oh, I don’t know which ones to choose!”

“Perhaps you should buy a couple more than you need. I nearly always find I’ve forgotten someone.”

It wasn’t an original thought, but it was the kindness behind it that counted. Josephine smiled again. “Good idea. Thank you.” She noticed the woman was smartly dressed and older than she, and that she was lovely in a tired, delicate way. Josephine looked down at the cards in her hand. She had six now, and with a little thrill she reminded herself that she easily afford to treat herself to a little extravagance from time to time, and so she decided to buy all six. Postcards were not expensive, and she now had some money of her own, and was old enough to choose how to spend it.

There followed one of those very British scenes where Josephine and the woman who was Miss Hardew each held back to allow the other to go to the counter first. In the end Meredith went up to the counter, although Josephine had an idea that she had wanted to let Josephine go first out of more than just good manners. The friendliness she had shown towards Josephine was now replaced by a tense, rather formal manner. Leaning forward over the counter and speaking very softly, Josephine saw Meredith pull a couple of pale blue envelopes from her handbag and push them across the counter to the grey-haired, aproned woman who was the village’s post-mistress, a Mrs Reed.

Josephine couldn’t make out the words exchanged between the two women, but from her tone, Meredith was distinctly put out. After a few minutes, she abruptly concluded her business and left, banging the door behind her and leaving the bell jangling.

Josephine stepped up to the counter and handed over her postcards. The hand that took them from her shook, and Josephine searched Mrs Reed’s face. Mrs Reed was flushed and wouldn’t meet Josephine’s eyes. There was no one else in the shop, and so Josephine, impulsively putting out her hand, said, “Oh, Mrs Reed, are you quite all right? Are you feeling a bit poorly?”

Mrs Reed seemed rather surprised and touched by Josephine’s enquiry. “I’m quite all right, my dear, thank you. And it’s very kind of you to ask. But it’s nothing serious, just me being silly. Now, Miss, would you be needing stamps for all these?”

The attempt to continue being business-like didn’t work as well as Mrs Reed had hoped, and she struggled to regain her composure. The urge to relieve her burden was strong. Josephine asked for three stamps, so Mrs Reed busied her fingers with extracting the stamps from the register and at the same time confided to her customer, “I just wish some people would realise I can’t help what some people put in the post. It’s not my fault if some people send some people spiteful letters. It’s not as though I go through all the post and check what’s in it before I delivers it to people, though if I did, I daresay that might solve a number of problems round here. That’ll be ninepence for the stamps, and the postcards are tuppence ha’penny each, so that’s three shillings and sixpence altogether, thank you, dear.”

Josephine handed over two half-crowns and waited for her change, biting her lip as she watched the post-mistress’s face and wondering whether to say anything else. Clearly something had happened and Mrs Reed was still feeling indignant. Mrs Reed counted the change into Josephine’s hand.

Taking the plunge, Josephine said, “I’m sure no one could possibly blame you for getting bills in the post. All of us hate getting bills, but it’s not the fault of the post office. And after all bills have got to be paid, haven’t they? I’m sure you do an admirable job, Mrs Reed. This is such a busy little place, and you manage it all on your own.”

“Bless you, dear,” Mrs Reed said with the ghost of a smile. “No, it’s not bills as Miss Hardew—um—I mean some people are complaining about. But never you mind. You’re supposed to be getting yourself better, aren’t you? Nasty thing, bronchitis. But you’ve got a bit more colour in your cheeks today, I’m glad to see. Deathly pale you was, a few days back.”

Mrs Reed seemed calm again, so Josephine gladly accepted the change in subject and they chatted on happily for another ten minutes. Mrs Reed, discovering Josephine was all alone in the village now her brother had gone back to London, issued an invitation to supper which Josephine was glad to accept.

When Josephine left the post office a few minutes later, she was still puzzling over the little scene between Mrs Reed and the unknown Miss Hardew, and what Mrs Reed had said about it. What sort of letters did people get that they didn’t want, if it wasn’t bills? Something spiteful, Mrs Reed had said.

 

Josephine decided to have a light lunch in the tiny tea-room opposite the tiny seafront. She wondered how busy the place got in the summer, because really both the beach and the tea-room were only big enough for a few families. She chose a table near the window so that she could look out as she ate. Whilst she was waiting for her pot of tea and her plate of egg and chips to arrive, she wrote her postcards.

She decided that after all she would use the third stamped postcard and having crammed in as much of her neat schoolgirl writing as she could on the ‘news’ side of the postcard, proceeded to address the card to Detective Chief Superintendent Frank Andrews. As an afterthought she squeezed a tiny postscript in at the bottom of the card: “If Auntie Maud was here, she’d solve a little mystery for me. If only I had her skills!”

She put the cards away in her handbag, and soon her food and drink arrived and she concentrated on those, and as she ate, she gazed out the window at the post office, the churchyard gate and down towards the shore. But she was not really conscious of the view. She was still puzzling over what had happened in the post office.

Why would a clearly well-to-do and well-educated woman, much older than Josephine and therefore much more experienced, think that it was the fault of the post-mistress when she got an unwanted letter? No, more than one, Josephine thought, remembering at least two or three envelopes in Miss Hardew’s gloved hand. Three envelopes of a pale blue, good-quality paper, addressed in a neat but childish hand, written with what looked like a splodgy fountain pen rather than a biro or pencil.

Why be upset about something like that? It didn’t make sense to Josephine. What kind of letter did people get, she wondered, that would be upsetting? If it wasn’t a bill as she had at first assumed, what could it be? Josephine remembered her parents’ comments about bills, how they were an inevitable but less-than-welcome part of everyday life. After all, everyone knows you can’t have electricity or a telephone without having to pay the associated bills for their use. But Mrs Reed had been quite clear that Miss Hardew hadn’t been complaining about a bill, and Mrs Reed had definitely said the envelopes contained something Miss Hardew described as “spiteful”.

And obviously, Josephine now realised as she pushed her plate aside and reached for her tea-cup, bills were not sent out in handwritten envelopes of blue paper. There were typists who typed envelopes for customers of businesses. She had even done the job herself last summer during her holidays from college. Not that she would wish to pursue envelope-typing as a career—and her typing was definitely not good enough anyway. Some of those girls had typed so fast, their fingers had been a virtual blur on the keys, and they had typed half a dozen addresses to Josephine’s one. But this had been something different. And hand-addressed.

The door opened and a very smartly-dressed woman came in. She sat at the other table by the window, sending a curtly dismissive nod in Josephine’s direction as she took her seat. Josephine was left feeling prickled.

The lady who ran the tea-rooms, whose name Josephine had learned the first time she came in, approached the newcomer with her pencil and pad ready to take down her order. But the customer waved her away with a rather rude, “Oh just a pot of tea, Maisie, I don’t want anything to eat, I’m watching my figure.”

Josephine wondered how the tea-rooms managed to keep going in the quieter parts of the year when only an occasional person came in and ordered something other than merely a pot of tea.

The tea pot and milk jug were brought over and deposited on the table next to the cup and saucer and sugar bowl with tiny tongs then Mrs Glover retreated once more behind her counter, casting glowering looks at the smart woman.

Outside, a few people wandered past, one of them a gentleman in a business suit. The smart lady at the other table set down her cup in its saucer with a clatter and shoving back her chair, hurried to the door as fast as her high heels and the cluster of tables and chairs would permit. She threw the door open and called loudly to the gentleman in a manner Josephine instinctively knew her mother would have set down as ‘low’. Josephine exchanged a look with Mrs Glover, watching the performance from behind her counter.

“Mr Hardew! Jeremy! Over here!”

The gentleman halted in his stride and turned. To Josephine his expression did not indicate any pleasure in seeing the smart woman. However, she didn’t seem to notice, and assuming a girlish coyness that Josephine found grating, the woman said, “Sorry, Jeremy, were you looking for me? Did you need me for something?”

Josephine thought it was perfectly clear from his expression that he had neither been looking for the woman nor did he need her for anything, but the woman persisted. He came over, probably just to avoid her bellowing at him again. She stepped back in the doorway, and without really noticing what he was doing, he followed her in.

“I’m just having a pot of tea, if you would care to join me. I know it’s not a very exciting spot, but there’s little enough choice in this place. And it will do you good to get away from your desk for a while.”

Clearly, he had already been away from his desk, and it looked as though he had been on his way either to the pub or to walk along the tiny seafront. But for whatever reason, probably just out of politeness, he came in and joined the woman at her table.

Behind her counter, Mrs Glover pursed her mouth at the criticism of her establishment of which she was so proud. The man took a seat opposite the smart woman who immediately began to chatter and gush at him and simultaneously held aloft an imperious hand to Mrs Glover. Thus summoned, Mrs Glover approached the table for the second time in five minutes with her pencil and pad at the ready, only for the gentleman to shake his head.

“Oh, nothing for me, thank you. I’m just off to the house for lunch.” He glanced at the woman who had, to Josephine’s mind, almost dragged him into the tea-room and said, “Why don’t you join us for a spot of lunch? I’m sure Meredith will be practically expecting you in any case.”

And so they left, pausing only for the gentleman, Mr Hardew, to leave a few coins on the table.

When the door had slammed shut behind them, Mrs Glover came across to clear the table and to take the money.

“You’re most welcome, I’m sure,” she said in the direction of the door.

Josephine couldn’t help remarking, “Gosh, how very rude!”

“And no better than she should be, let me tell you!” Mrs Glover replied.

“Did she call him Mr Hardew?” Josephine asked. “I met a lady in the post office earlier, she had the same surname.”

“Oh, that would be his sister, Miss Meredith Hardew. She’s a lovely lady, and I do mean, a lady. Unlike some who just want to be one. That was Mr Jeremy Hardew, and the woman was his so-called secretary, Miss Sheila Fenniston. She calls herself his secretary, but I don’t think there’s a soul in the village that thinks that’s what she really is, not for one moment. She’s after him, and she’s that determined, she’s sure to get him. He’s proper spineless even if he is a gentleman, and his family, that is, his aunt and his sister, they can’t seem to pry Miss Fenniston’s claws off him. She’s too fast for any of them and mark my words, it’ll end in tears.”

***