At forty-six, Meredith Hardew, with her handsome features, trim figure and excellent dress sense, was frequently taken for at least ten years younger than her true age. Not that she was in the habit of seeking out flattery, for she was one of those women who never thinks about herself, what she’s wearing or how she looks. She was far too busy running errands for someone or other.
It was one of these errands that brought her into the High Street on a wet Wednesday morning in early March. As she crossed the road by The Swan public house, heading in the direction of the square, she waved a greeting to old Mrs Hunter, to whom she read on Tuesdays and Fridays. Mrs Hunter was being wheeled along to the doctor’s surgery by her granddaughter Marlene, a plump, bad-tempered, seventeen-year-old who reeked of cigarettes.
Meredith Hardew had almost reached the square, when she collided with Major Reeves on the narrow bend. She apologised swiftly and conferred one of her special, sweet smiles on him then moved on, leaving him staring after her with admiration and a resolution to ask her out for drinks, or dinner, or possibly the pictures. He wondered if she was the kind of woman who liked the pictures, or whether she might feel that they were both too old for all that. Possibly a nice, quiet evening playing bridge would be more suitable. But difficult to get a woman to yourself at bridge evenings, and he really wanted to talk to her. Or if at all possible, kiss her.
Meredith Hardew, oblivious of the major’s intentions, continued to the post office, and passing by the window, was irritated to see at least three people already waiting. But there was nothing for it, she had to get the stamps, and the postal order that was to be the birthday present from her aunt to her late husband’s nephew, and so Meredith went in.
One of the waiting people was Miss Fenniston. Of course, if Meredith had seen her sooner she would never have gone in, for if there was one person she always went out of her way to avoid, it was her brother’s secretary.
Miss Fenniston nodded to her and said a cool, “Good morning.”
Meredith Hardew felt irritated, as if she had been condescended to, but she shook off the feeling and, trying to force a good deal more warmth into her voice than she really felt, she replied, “Good morning to you, Miss Fenniston. How are you? It’s been quite a while since I last saw you.”
“Just about three weeks,” Sheila Fenniston responded, her tone still rather cool, “but perhaps you forgot I was away with Jeremy for his conference on the south coast before taking my annual holiday?”
“Of course, how silly of me,” Meredith blustered a little, noting that the other occupants of the shop were taking in every detail, including the woman’s very inappropriate use of her brother’s first name. Really, it had to stop, this all-too-casual familiarity. She made a mental note to speak to her brother once again about Miss Fenniston’s behaviour.
The person at the post office window moved off and Miss Fenniston stepped up to carry out her business, making further conversation impossible. But Meredith continued to feel flustered and upset. She was relieved when, a few minutes later, Miss Fenniston exited the shop with merely a nod in Meredith’s direction. Her feelings were further relieved when, a few minutes later, upon completion of her own purchases, she left the shop, and glancing up and down the street, found that Sheila Fenniston was nowhere to be seen.
Meredith felt herself relaxing again. She pulled out her list to check what she needed to do next.
By the time Meredith had hung up her coat and emptied her basket on the side-table in the little morning room where she loved to sit whenever she wanted to be quiet and to read or knit, or simply relax, it was almost lunchtime.
Her aunt entered the room, leaning a little on her stick. She proceeded to complain about the library books Meredith had selected for her, waving away Meredith’s apologies and explanations, and she gathered up the library books, carefully stacking the stamps, the postal order, the medicine bottles, the packet of mints, the magazines and a few other small items on top and went up the stairs slowly and with every appearance of frailty, carrying everything to her private sitting-room with her usual air of martyrdom, returning a few minutes later when luncheon was announced. Davies, her maid, had come downstairs with her, and ran ahead to open the dining-room door for Mrs Smithyes, who sailed past her.
“No Jeremy today?” Meredith heard her aunt enquire, and before Meredith could answer, Davies had responded quickly with,
“Not today Mrs Smithyes, Mr Jeremy mentioned that he has a meeting with the gentlemen from Austria today, and is lunching at his office.”
“Ah yes, of course. So he did. Well, I can’t bear cold meat, let us begin.”
“Yes madam, I’ll bring luncheon through immediately.” And with a quick bob she turned and left the room.
As soon as the door closed behind her, Mrs Smithyes turned to Meredith and said,
“I do hope that odious Fenniston woman isn’t lunching with him, it would not be at all appropriate. Men are so terribly lax about these things. Especially since the war.”
“Yes, Aunt Lucinda.” Meredith was not required to say more. Her aunt continued to expand on her favourite theme.
“It encourages the woman to believe herself on an equal footing with him. It arouses hopes that ought not be aroused. It is most…” and here Mrs Smithyes felt about her for the right word, found one and pronounced it with finality. “Inappropriate!”
“It is indeed, Aunt.”
“Perhaps you or I ought to have another word with him. I’m convinced he has forgotten everything you said to him last month about the position in which he is placing himself, and by extension us, when he acts so familiarly with this—creature.”
There was a brief pause in which Meredith, on the point of responding in either the negative or the positive according to requirement, suddenly had a presentiment of what her aunt was going to say next. Mrs Smithyes spoke again, distress in her voice.
“If only your Uncle was still alive, he would know how to handle a situation of this sort. Indeed, the situation would probably have never arisen in the first place.”
About to agree once more, Meredith was prevented from doing so by the door opening and Davies coming in with a tray of covered dishes which she dispensed about the table and withdrew, leaving them to serve themselves. And before Meredith had the opportunity of steeling herself or heading off the current in another direction, her aunt said,
“Perhaps you would have another word with him about it. Be more forceful this time. He must be made to see that the woman must be got rid of. I simply cannot endure the strain of her rudeness, her presumption, her familiarity. We have our position to consider. Speak to him this evening after dinner. That way the two of you will have to get it over and done with and he won’t be able to do anything other than listen because we will have guests to entertain. He won’t risk causing a scene.”
Meredith’s heart sank. There would be a scene, she knew it. She had been through a similar situation only a few weeks earlier, when last her aunt had tasked her with talking to Jeremy about his relationship with his secretary. It had been unpleasant in the extreme and he had sulked all evening. At the time it had been difficult but Meredith had been comforted by the fact that he had appeared to take notice of her aunt’s concerns. Now it was all too clear that there had been merely a momentary improvement and he had now slipped back into those objectionable ways. Did that mean that in another month’s time, she would be facing the prospect of yet another talk with Jeremy about his precious Miss Fenniston? She had a horrid feeling that is exactly what would be happening. Her future life would be punctuated with such talks on a regular basis. She said,
“Do we really want him sulking all through tonight’s dinner, when he should be setting himself out to entertain and woo his guests?”
“That’s why I said you should speak with him after dinner. Wait until the gentlemen join us for coffee, then I shall entertain our visitors and you can take the opportunity to take him into the morning room for a quick talk in private, and there will be no time for him to make a fuss. We can’t put it off any longer. The woman is making complete fools of all of us.”
It was all very well for her aunt to talk of ‘we’ but the task was falling to Meredith alone, and she dreaded bringing up the subject that had been so angrily discussed between her brother and herself only a short time ago. The evening ahead began to loom horribly in Meredith’s mind, and she momentarily toyed with the possibility of a migraine coming on gradually during the afternoon. But she knew that wouldn’t be any good. The dinner party was too important and her aunt would not permit any absences.