Authors: Anne Weale
THAT MAN SIMON
Farthing Green was a very small English
village — far too small to begin a feud with one's next-door neighbour, and least of all when that neighbour was the forceful Simon Gilchrist, as Jenny Shannon found to her cost!
Fifty yards along the narrow back street, the way was blocked by a lorry. Jenny Shannon sighed and switched off the engine of her grandfather’s shabby old car.
It was Saturday morning, and the main streets of the county town were congested with cars and vans and noisy little scooters. She had already wasted twenty minutes, trying to find a space to park near the market place. Now she was delayed again. If she had not had to collect several bulky parcels, it would have been easier to come in by bus.
The lorry driver signalled that he had nearly finished unloading, and Jenny nodded and smiled. It was no good getting impatient. Fortunately, she had started out early, so there would still be time to choose dress material after she had done her other errands.
As the lorry moved off, another car came up behind her
- a big silver-grey Jaguar, she noted, from a glance at its glossy bonnet in her rear view mirror.
She turned the key in the ignition, and pressed her foot on the accelerator. But the motor failed to respond. She tried again. Nothing happened. By now, the lorry had gone. The driver in the car behind gave an imperious toot on his horn.
‘I’m not asleep, dear man,’ she muttered aloud. But still the little saloon would not start. And as she was right in the middle of the lane, the Jaguar could not pass even by edging on to the pathway.
She was still vainly trying to get going, when the man behind got out and came forward to speak to her. He rapped his knuckles on the window and gestured for her to lower it.
‘What’s the trouble?’ he asked, bending down.
Jenny pushed back a lock of naturally ash-blonde hair. ‘I don’t know,’ she said, rather flustered.
‘You haven’t run out of petrol, have you?’
‘No, of course not,’ she answered, reddening.
His mouth twitched. ‘It has been known.’
‘I filled up this morning ... and checked the oil and water.’
‘Well, I’m in rather a hurry, so perhaps you had better let me try. We can’t sit here all day.’ He opened the offside door, waiting for her to move over into the passenger seat.
Jenny hesitated. His patronizing manner annoyed her, but she could not very well object in the circumstances.
The man was tall, topping six feet. He ducked into the car beside her, and eased long legs under the wheel. It was a cold March day, but he was not wearing a coat over his expensive-looking grey suit.
The Jaguar would have a heater, of course. The little black two-door saloon had neither heater, radio or any other refinements. It was twenty years old and looked it. But it had recently passed a road test, and was not usually temperamental.
The man shut the door, rested lean well-kept hands on the wheel, and cast an eye over the dashboard. He was dark-haired, thirty-ish and probably attractive to girls who liked that air of assurance. Jenny did not and, perversely, she could not help hoping that he would have no more luck with the engine than she had.
‘You women drivers. No wonder we get traffic jams,’ he said, in mild exasperation.
‘What do you mean?’ she asked, nettled.
‘My dear girl, you don’t use your eyes. Look ...’ He indicated the choke knob.
As she saw what he meant, she drew in a breath of dismay.
Earlier, starting out, the engine had been sluggish, and she had pulled out the choke to increase the supply of petrol.
But instead of depressing the knob once the car was pulling satisfactorily, she had forgotten all about it -
although she had thought there was rather a strong smell of petrol inside the car.
‘Oh dear ... is that why it won’t go?’ she asked, in a chagrined voice.
‘I imagine so,’ he said dryly, pushing the knob into place.
‘How far have you been driving like that?’
‘About eight miles.’
The man grimaced, but made no comment.
‘Does that mean it won’t start at all?’ she asked him anxiously.
‘Not if you’ve burned the valves out,’ he said, with a shrug.
‘We’ll wait a few minutes, then I’ll try her. She may be all right.’ He lifted a crisp white shirt cuff to look at his watch.
‘I’m sorry to hold you up,’ Jenny said uncomfortably. ‘But everyone makes mistakes.’
‘How long have you held a licence? You have got one, I presume?’
‘Of course I have a licence,’ she said frostily. He need not be quite so scathing. ‘I’ve been driving for nearly two years.’
The man looked amused. ‘A veteran!’
By now there were more cars lined up behind the Jaguar.
A tattoo of hooting began.
The man switched on and this time, to Jenny’s relief, the engine throbbed into life.
‘Thank you very much,’ she said stiffly, as he climbed out.
He closed the door and looked down at her. ‘If I were you, I’d keep clear of the town centre today. The traffic is chaotic already ... without any unnecessary holdups.’ And with that he strode back to his own car.
To complete her humiliation, Jenny then forgot to release the handbrake, so that after chugging only a short distance the little car ground to a halt again.
Her cheeks scarlet, she started off for the second time.
But it was not until the grey Jaguar turned off in another direction that she was able to relax and drive with her normal competence.
There had been a time, during her final two years at school, when Jenny had dreamed of becoming a dress designer. But she had always known in her heart that it was only a dream. It might have been possible if her grandparents had been well off. But they were not; and she could not ask them to make any further sacrifices for her.
They had already done more than she could ever hope to repay.
So now, at twenty, she supervised a class of lively five-year-olds in the kindergarten department of a private school. Although it was not a very lucrative post, it did enable her to pay her way at home, and was certainly much more congenial than a job in an office would have been.
And her flair for fashion was not wasted because she made nearly all her own clothes, and had recently designed and made up an exclusive wild silk wedding dress for a former school friend.
The school where she worked was a dignified Edwardian house with a spacious garden on the outskirts of the county town. Normally she travelled back and forth by bus. But on the Monday afternoon following the contretemps in the car, she came out of the school gates to find someone waiting for her.
‘Hello, James - what are you doing here?’ she exclaimed, in surprise.
‘I had to come into town to go to the bank, and I thought you might like a lift home.’
James Langdon took her basket, and helped her into his mud-spattered estate car.
‘How nice of you. Hello, Josh boy’ - this to the enormous shaggy hound, part Airedale, part Alsatian, which had risen from the back part of the car to bestow a loving lick on her right ear.
James climbed in from the other side. ‘Lie down, Josh.
She doesn’t like being slobbered over.’
‘Oh, I don’t mind, do I, Josh?’ Jenny caressed the great dog’s head, then turned and settled herself comfortably.
Presently, without taking his eyes off the road, James fumbled in the pocket of his well-worn tweed jacket and produced a paper bag. ‘Have a humbug?’
Jenny took one. ‘You’ll ruin your teeth ... always eating sweets,’ she said severely.
‘One must have some vices. Dig one out for me, will you? They’re getting a bit stuck together.’
She did so. As she popped it in his mouth, her hand brushed his cheek - his good cheek. The other side of his face was seamed and puckered by a long scar.
‘Thanks. I haven’t seen you for nearly a fortnight.
What’s new?’ James asked, rather indistinctly.
The humbugs were the large brown-and-white striped ones which were still as popular with the village children as they had been when Jenny was small.
‘Nothing very much. Oh, Fenella is home. Did you know? She came back on Friday.’
‘Mm ... saw her in the Post Office this morning.’ James’s tone was uninterested.
He must be the only adult male in Farthing Green who had never given Fenella Waring a second glance, Jenny thought, smiling to herself. Even old Mr. Cobb, who was nearly eighty and lived in a reverie of ‘the good old days’
before the first world war, blinked his watery eyes at the sight of Fenella in a pair of tight pants and a clinging Italian sweater.
Jenny also wore trousers around the village. But nobody ogled at her. Her slacks were usually tucked into muddy gumboots, and her favourite sweater was a four-year-old navy blue guernsey which she had bought in St. Peter Port during a holiday there with her grandparents.
‘Any signs of life next door?’ James asked.
He was referring to that part of the Rectory garden which, for the past nine months, had been barred of access by a six-foot chain link fence.
‘No, nothing at all,’ she told him. ‘Perhaps the man who bought it doesn’t intend to use it. Maybe it was just an investment. But if it’s left to itself all summer, it will be like a jungle by September.’
The eight-mile drive to Farthing Green took about twenty minutes. When they reached the village, James drove past his veterinary surgery which was opposite the Market Cross, and past the knapped flint Parish Church to the open gateway of the Rectory.
‘Come in for a cuppa,’ Jenny invited, as the car crunched up the gravelled drive to the rambling old house where she had lived for the past twelve years.
‘Thanks, but I’d better not. I’m painting our hall, and if I don’t keep at it, the damn job will never get finished. But how about a trip to the flicks on Thursday?’
Jenny climbed out of the car, and walked round the bonnet to his side. ‘That would be lovely, James.’
‘Good: I’ll pick you up after school. Let’s make it a special occasion and have a meal at the Chinese restaurant.’
He smiled at her. In spite of his partiality for sweets, he had excellent teeth. Before the accident which had left him scarred and slightly lame, he had been an extremely good-looking man. To Jenny, he still was. When she looked at James, she saw his clear blue eyes, straight nose and well-cut mouth. Like her, he was fair. Even in winter his skin was always brown from working out of doors much of the time.
But other people saw only the ugly scar. And sometimes, when he turned full face towards girls who had been admiring his left profile, they could not hide their shock and distaste.
If Jenny was with him when that happened, a surge of impotent fury would boil up inside her. She wanted to grab the girls and shake them and say angrily: ‘James got that scar and his limp doing something very brave. What does one scarred cheek matter? He’s one of the finest, kindest people I know. How dare you look at him like that!’
For although James seemed not to notice when people gaped at him or nudged each other, she knew that he did notice and, secretly, was hurt and deeply self-conscious.
‘See you on Thursday, then. Bless you for the lift. ’Bye, James.’ She blew a kiss to Josh and ran indoors.
Her grandmother was preparing tea in the big country kitchen where the Shannons had most of their meals as a means of cutting down fuel bills. The dining room was used only at Christmas and on other special occasions.
‘You’re back early, dear,’ said Mrs. Shannon. She was a plump cosy little person with wispy white hair and bustling movements.
‘James ran me home.’ Jenny kissed her grandmother’s cheek, and went to the old-fashioned Belfast sink to wash her hands.
Through the window overlooking the kitchen garden, she caught sight of her grandfather bending stiffly to examine some seedlings under glass. In contrast to his wife, the Rector was a tall thin old man who in recent years had become so absent-minded that he often spent half an hour searching the house for his spectacles until someone pointed out that they had been on his head all the time.
‘Fetch Robert in, will you, dear?’ said Mrs. Shannon. ‘I expect he has forgotten there’s a Parish Council meeting this evening. And I must pop round and see Miss Wiltshire.