Authors: Ann Purser
A Tangled Web
© Ann Purser 2013
Ann Purser has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 2001, to be identified as the author of this work.
First published in 1995 Orion Books Limited.
This edition published in 2013 by Endeavour Press Ltd.
Table of Contents
Ivy Dorothy Beasley marched smartly up the sandy path to the vicarage, pushing her way through overgrown, budding roses which sweetened her way in vain.
It was late spring, a warm, gentle morning, and a song thrush serenaded her from the great mulberry tree in the vicarage garden. But Miss Beasley did not hear it, having a number of important matters to discuss with the elderly Reverend Cyril Collins, and being determined to get some definite answers from him.
Ivy Beasley had lived all her life in Round Ringford, an unexpected gift from God to her parents when both were in their forties. Her father had been a railway inspector until he retired at sixty-five, and her mother continued to keep house to a strict regime until arthritis had forced her to hand over duties, but not control, to her only daughter Ivy.
Ivy had been much loved, but her mother and father were of the generation which believed that sparing the rod spoilt the child. They niggled and criticised and cut her down to size, all for her own good, and blighted her childish optimism. Worse, she was never sure of their approval, since shows of affection were rationed with care.
'You're no better'n anybody else, Ivy Beasley.' It was her mother's favourite phrase and Ivy had grown up without self-confidence, resentful and rebellious. She never defied her formidable mother, eventually nursing her to the end, and then, without any change of direction, continued her inhibited, spinster life in the village where she was born. Her sharp tongue and fondness for malicious gossip had put her in a position of power in the village, and she was treated with cautious respect.
She reached the vicarage porch and stopped, fanning herself with the notebook in which she had made a list of subjects for discussion.
Well, at least he's at home this time, she thought, finding the heavy front door ajar. She pulled the bell lever and heard it ring deep in the heart of the vicarage. Nobody came, so she lifted a stiff black iron knocker and banged twice. Still no answer, and, determined not to be put off again, she pushed open the door and walked into a large, black and white tiled hall.
In the heavy silence, Ivy stood still and listened. No sound, except for the distant barking of a dog at Bates's Farm, and cawing rooks high above the churchyard.
'Yoo boo!' shouted Ivy. 'Are you there, Reverend Collins?'
Ivy began to feel her senses prickle. It was a special kind of silence, and she had experienced it before.
'Oh dear me,' she said quietly, and began to climb the stairs. She went straight to the main bedroom door and knocked softly. She expected no reply and got none. Pushing open the door, she walked slowly into the dimly lit room and over to the big bed.
The Reverend Cyril Collins, MA BD, was lying on his
back, his eyes open and, as if in prayer, his hands folded across his chest. As Ivy Beasley had anticipated, he was not breathing.
'Dear me,' Ivy repeated gently, and expertly closed his eyes with one respectful sweep of her hand. She then drew up a chair to the side of the bed, and sat down. With her eyes on the mortal remains of the village parson she had known so long and so well, she composed herself to keep him company on his last journey.
One hour later, Ivy Beasley got to her feet, brushed down her skirt and replaced the chair. She walked to the foot of the bed and looked down at the pale face. 'He's gone peacefully,' she said, 'gone to meet his Maker. '
A couple of sniffs and a quick shake of her head, and she walked firmly out of the room and down into the hall, where she picked up the telephone and began to dial, first Dr Russell in Bagley, and then churchwarden and local squire, Richard Standing. The old doctor was sympathetic and reassuring, saying he would be over as soon as possible, and Ivy, confident that in these hands of authority everything would be taken care of in a proper and official manner, spent a few minutes tidying and straightening the bachelor vicar's kitchen and study, then crossed the hall, and locked the big door carefully behind her. She put the key in her handbag, ready for Dr Russell to collect, and set off for home, down Bates's End, past the ancient, squat church where Cyril Collins had ministered to the parish for so many years, and on towards the stone bridge over the river.
Round Ringford was a small village in the middle of England, and, considering its proximity to motorways and main railways, its rhythms and routines had remained remarkably undisturbed by modern incursions. A strong sense of rural isolation felt by visitors from town was heightened by the green hollow in which the village had settled, and by the wooded hills surrounding it. Only the narrow roads leading from it and the bright length of water in the River Ringle flowing across the far end of the Green were reminders that Ringford was, in fact, as much in touch with the outside world as it wished to be.
Halfway down Bates's End, Ivy Beasley saw a figure on a bicycle approaching her, and she frowned in disapproval as she recognised Gabriella Jones, slim and blonde, wearing a short skirt and showing long, smooth legs.
Gabriella had been tempted out by the sunshine, savouring the warmth on her bare skin, and she pedalled slowly, touching the lacy heads of cow parsley in the grass verge, and shaking her long, pale hair like a switch to disperse the cloud of gnats that hovered round her head as she wobbled over the river bridge. She was on her way to discuss the hymns for Sunday with the vicar, a meeting she looked forward to, finding the old man gentle and charming, and always grateful for her enthusiasm.
Gabriella was Ringford's church organist. She had taken on the job when the ancient old widow who had done it for years finally died and no one else had come forward. Gabriella played with more energy than accuracy, but her optimism and beauty had brought sunshine into the twilight of Cyril Collins's life, and he had adored her.
Ivy Beasley knew exactly where Gabriella Jones was going, and stepped out into the road in front of the bicycle, holding up her hand like a comic-opera policeman.
'Excuse me, Mrs Jones,' she said firmly, 'but if you are going to see Reverend Collins, I must just have a word.'
Gabriella put on her brakes hard, and the bicycle skidded on the gravelly lane. 'Gracious, Miss Beasley,' she said, 'you nearly caused a crash there!' She was nervous, alarmed by Ivy Beasley's stern face, and her voice sounded falsely jocular.
'It is a serious matter, Mrs Jones,' said Ivy reprovingly, and told Gabriella in blunt sentences of the death of her friend Cyril.
'But he wasn't ill ...' said Gabriella, looking dazed. She straightened her short skirt in an unthinking gesture of respect. 'The authorities have been informed,' said Ivy Beasley primly, 'so no doubt we shall hear the cause in due course. If you ask me, it was his heart, but as he was up there on his own, there may be further investigations required.'
'Poor old Cyril ...' said Gabriella to herself, and Ivy Beasley looked at her sharply.
'Reverend Collins,' she said with emphasis, 'was a good age, and had lived a good life. You can be sure his Father in Heaven gathered him in when the time had come, and his reward will be awaiting him. We need not sorrow for Reverend Collins, Mrs ]ones, only for ourselves.'
Gabriella began to feel tearful, and, not wanting any more wise words from Ivy Beasley, got on her bicycle and rode off the way she had come, back home to get her tumbling thoughts in order.
Her business with Cyril Collins now indefinitely postponed, Ivy Beasley returned home to Victoria Villa, and, quite composed, prepared to bake a sponge cake. From her cool, stone-floored larder she took out flour, sugar, margarine, and milk. She looked in the old yellow mixing bowl where she kept her eggs, and found only one left.
I knew I'd forget something, Mother, she said to her empty kitchen. And two coming for tea. I shall have to nip next door.
Forget your head one of these days, you will, Ivy, said the voice of her ever-present, long-dead mother. Feeling chastened, Ivy pulled on her old grey cardigan to fetch eggs from the shop.
Ivy's plain red-brick house was next to Round Ringford Post Office and General Stores, and both looked over the wide village green, an expanse of springy turf bordered by a narrow road, with tall chestnut trees giving shade in the hot summer. 'Looks like a queue,' said Ivy, climbing the stone steps to the shop door, 'just when I'm in a hurry.'
The Stores had been kept for the last year or so by Peggy Palmer, who, with her husband Frank, had moved from Coventry, using Frank's redundancy money to start a new life. Tragedy had struck when Frank was killed in a road accident, and Peggy had taken the difficult decision to carry on alone.
There were four people in the shop, a crowd for Ringford Stores, and Ivy Beasley stood tapping her foot impatiently, waiting for her turn to be served.
''Aven't you 'eard, Peggy?' The speaker was a bent old woman, wearing a loud orange and green jacket, her head cocked on one side like a colourful old parrot. She looked enquiringly at the sm
all, plump figure of Peggy Palmer, friendly and attractive in her pink-checked overall.
Peggy Palmer, Ringford's postmistress and shopkeeper, confounded the old image of a grim, impatient face at the Post Office window. Everything about Peggy Palmer was feminine and pleasant. Her greying fair hair curled around her face, and her clear blue eyes looked out steadily from soft, creamy skin where colour came and went in the uncontrolled way of a sensitive schoolgirl. There was something perennially young about Peggy.
She smiled, said, 'You tell me, Ellen,' and tipped three red apples into a brown paper bag, pushing them over the counter to the old woman. Ellen took coins out of her peeling leather purse and repeated her question to the shop in general.
'It's all over the village,' she said. ' 'e's definitely goin', soon as possible, I 'eard.'
'Who's going?' said Ivy Beasley, 'and how come you know and I don't, Ellen Biggs?'
Fred Mills, an elder of the village, in the shop to collect his pension, took his evil-smelling pipe out of his mouth and said, 'Known for weeks, I 'ave. Vicar told the churchwardens and I 'eard soon arter.'
'Reverend Collins retiring?' said Peggy. 'Well, that's not exactly news, Ellen, we've all know he meant to go this year. He's well past the age, poor old Cyril.'
'Past more than age,' said Ivy, with perfect timing. 'He died this morning.'
There was a gratifyingly shocked silence, and Ivy said nothing more, letting her news sink in.
'You tellin' the truth, Ivy?' said old Ellen suspiciously.
Ivy bridled. 'Since when have I told lies?' she said, and there was no challenge to this. It was well known that Ivy Beasley did not invent things, but had a gift for editing the facts.
Peggy Palmer took a deep breath. The suddenness of this had knocked her off balance for a few moments, reminding her of that other time, that dark winter's evening when her husband Frank had crashed into a tree.
She frowned, shrinking away from the inevitable talk of death, and said, 'No doubt we shall hear more details later, but I'm sure we are all extremely sorry. He was a very good man. Now, who's next with their shopping?'
The shop emptied slowly, speculation mounting on the cause and circumstances of Cyril Collins's death, until only Ivy Beasley was left, carefully picking out the biggest brown eggs. She took them to the counter and paid for them, saying, 'The trouble is, Mrs Palmer, there's nobody to mourn for him. He had no close relatives, and he is entitled to the respect of a decent mourning.'
Peggy looked her straight in the eye. 'I am sure we all mourn for him, Miss Beasley, and not from a sense of duty. He was much loved.'
Before Ivy could reply, the door opened and a big, burly man with a shock of greyish hair and deep-set eyes came in with a rush of fresh air.
'Morning, Ivy,' he said, but his smile was for Peggy, warm and welcoming behind the counter.
'Good morning, Bill,' said Ivy, noticing everything. 'How's your Joyce this morning?'
Bill only nodded in reply. He was used to Ivy's loaded questions and knew that whatever he said would be misinterpreted. Born and raised in Round Ringford, he worked at the Hall and was always about the village. His marriage was an unhappy one, but he tried to keep his private life to himself
It's not right, Mother, Ivy said, back in her kitchen and weighing out flour in the old kitchen scales. There's Bill Turner with eyes for nobody but Peggy Palmer, whilst his poor wife is shut up night and day in that poky, dark little house on her own. Something should be done…
The voice in her head agreed with her. You might have been the one to do it, Ivy, it said. Ivy, hearing a knock on her front door, did not answer, but went to give the vicarage key to Dr Russell. At his suggestion, she postponed her baking, changed her cardigan for a grey flannel jacket, and went with him to meet Richard Standing at the vicarage, a last call on their old friend Cyril Collins.
'Fancy, Greg,' Gabriella said, sitting down heavily on the sofa next to her husband, 'it could have been me that found poor old Cyril.'
Greg Jones was relaxing in the morning sunlight streaming through their big windows, drinking coffee and leafing through a pile of accumulated newspapers. The Joneses had lived in Ringford for several years, the first owners of Barnstones, a sympathetically converted granary on the main street.
'My dear Gabbie,' said Greg, putting his arm round Gabriella's shoulders, 'don't upset yourself, old Cyril must have been on the way to eighty if he was a day.'
Greg was a geography teacher at the comprehensive school in Tresham, and, like many in his profession, talked to everyone as if they were eleven years old. His voice was loud and odd in tone, a result of losing his hearing at the miserably early age of eight. But the handicap had spurred him on to tackle a constantly challenging job, and his results were good. All his friends had marvelled at his apparent ease with girls, and could scarcely believe it when he led the prize peach, Gabriella Rogers, to the altar. Greg, however, had not been in the least surprised. He had grown a dark, piratical beard, kept his slight frame in good shape, and soon discovered that a handicap could be attractive to some girls. He made the most of it.
'Gabbie, dear, if you had discovered a lifeless body in the vicarage,' he said, smiling tolerantly at his lovely wife, 'it would not have harmed you. This is Round Ringford, not downtown Chicago.'
Octavia Jones wandered aimlessly into the room, a sixteen year-old replica of her mother, but with a disagreeable expression that her parents hoped would vanish with the end of her teens.
'Shame about poor old Cyril,' she said.
'Reverend Collins to you, Octavia,' said her father, 'and I wish you wouldn't eavesdrop. Your mother is very upset. She was very fond of the old boy. Think what a shock it would have been if she had got there before Miss Beasley.'
'Oh, I don't know,' said Octavia, 'she might have been in at the kill.'
While her parents were reeling under this remark, Octavia continued, 'I'm hungry, Mum, can I have a piece of that cake in the kitchen?'
'There are times, Octavia,' said her mother, sighing and getting to her feet, 'when I wonder whether you are really our daughter, or were switched at birth in the hospital.'
Gabriella loved her daughter, of course, but even in her most maternal moments she could not deny that Octavia was a difficult child.