Come Back Early or Never Come

by Esther Saxey

Hello, Liz, love!

 What time is it where you are? Goodness.

 Sorry I didn’t get to the phone sooner. The Bastable dogs are tearing around the back garden, and I had to shoo them off the radish seedlings.

 How many dogs? I'm not sure - three of them, maybe? Not the whole pack.

 Oh, how many in all? These days? I’ve no idea.

 Yes, they’re still free-range. And you know I’m sorry we couldn’t have a cat when you were small.

 But it is reassuring. When we’re on holiday, or visiting you, we never have to worry about burglars. Some rotten thug tried to mug Mrs Fowler   last week and he needed twenty stitches and a tetanus shot. No, she’s fine.

 ‘Not safe’? You used to love those dogs! You’d wander off for the afternoon and you’d always come back with a furry escort. You used to steal chocolate biscuits to feed to them.

 Gareth! It’s your daughter!

 Your father sends his love. He’s standing by the back door waving a tea-towel, it puts the dogs off.

 At the weekend? We had Harvest Festival at the church, and sherry with Mr Bastable up at the Grey House. Yes, very classy!

 No, nothing else, much.

 

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Except your father's at war with the vicar.

 The vicar? The new one. Been here four years.

 What’s the fight about? Oh, the Bastable dogs. The vicar claimed they were clawing up the churchyard turf, and that if Mr B. wouldn’t keep them in, then the church should keep them out.

 How? Raise the churchyard wall.

 ‘How high’? My words exactly.

 Nobody except Robert Abrahams agreed with the vicar. (Yes, he was in the year below you at school. Wore that T-shirt with the drooling skull to the sixth-form carol concert. Yes, he’s moved back here! Just last month. He lost his job – pity, but timely – his father’s been finding it hard to get around. No, no skull shirt these days. Over-dressed and under-nourished.)

 Rob said the dogs shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near the church. He was quite persuasive at first (he’s a solicitor, isn’t he?) Then said they were unholy beasts who ought to be strung from the porch until they throttled, which rather undermined his case. (I think he might have left his  London job because of stress.)

 But your father said: people come to a peaceful churchyard to remember loved ones they’ve lost, and the House of God shouldn’t be done up like Castle Colditz. And it would look as though Jesus kept trying to escape.

 Yes, he could have been more tactful.

 (But he's right about the loved ones - Tina Atwell's parents were visiting the churchyard this morning, poor things. Sorry, did I tell you about   Tina? Year above you? Big girl, played hockey and the tenor recorder. She was managing a pub in Sydney. Loved it. I’m sorry, I thought I'd told you at the time. Car accident.)

 So the parish council said no to the wall and yes to the dogs. And the vicar blamed your father, and now they’re both licking their wounds.

 

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But it's so short-sighted of the vicar to start a tiff with Mr Bastable. Who paid for the belfry renovation? And the pipe organ? And the benches on the common, and the cricket pavilion. Talk about biting the hand that feeds you. And it’s not as though Mr Bastable rubs people’s noses in it.

(I think the vicar’s holding a grudge because he wanted to keep chickens. A lot of people told him why that would end in tears.)

 What do you mean, how big are the dogs now? They're – dog sized.

 I know dogs come in different sizes, Miss Cheeky!

 Elizabeth, they are not the size of ponies!

 Well, I suppose ponies come in all sizes too, so maybe some of the dogs are the size of some ponies. Happy now?

Mr Bastable’s family have bred those dogs for years, you know - I’ve seen photographs up at the Grey House. And paintings. (No, I’ve no idea what breed they are. No, I don’t think they were for hunting foxes.) And it’s not entirely fair to say to the vicar ‘they were here first’ but - well, they were.

 What’s that? Your Dad says those dogs keep the Bastables, not the other way round. Ha ha.

 Oh dear. Your Dad says the dogs have caught something and it might still be alive. Let’s hope it’s only a rabbit.

 

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Anyway, the vicar printed the parish notices for the week of the Harvest Festival, and there's Intercessions for the Sick, Thoughts from the Gospels, a cartoon about cassocks (made me laugh - I’ll post it to you). And down at the bottom, right at the bottom:

 'Mr Bastable's Harvest event has no connection with St Francis' church.'

 Precisely. Dirty laundry.

 The last vicar used to put an invitation in the notices! ‘All welcome to the Grey House after the Harvest communion!’ Led us all up the road, after the service. She might even have mentioned the sherry during the sermon.

 

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And while your father’s outside, I can tell you the absolute worst bone of contention. Mrs Fowler said –

 I can hear your ears pricking up! Now this isn’t absolutely certain, so don’t pass it on.

 Mrs Fowler said the vicar had said he wouldn’t Christen Jo Ford's baby.

 Just because Mr Bastable’s going to be the Godfather.

 I don't know if it’s true, I don't know! I shouldn’t have told you - mind you, you’re so far away it hardly counts as gossip, does it?

 Goodness, you won’t put it on Facebook, will you? It's only a – thank you, love!

 So ridiculous! I mean, he was a marvellous Godparent to you, wasn’t he? Not very Hands On, but a perfectly good role model, and you had a bit of extra money at University thanks to him. I can think of three boys in your year who had the same, and then they moved back to the village and got good jobs, really good jobs.

 And Robert Abrahams, too. Legal training’s not cheap.

 Ooh, and Harriet Hedges - yes, Harriet Watts-as-was, she was one of his, wasn’t she? (She's living up near the cricket grounds, now, did you know? Yes, they were in Hampstead, but they couldn’t fit another baby in that shoe-box with a balcony. And now her parents can babysit. Needs must. How is she? Wretched! Face like a wet weekend. But that's what having three under five does to you.)

 And poor Tina Atwell was his god-daughter, of course.

 I haven’t even told your father about the Christening business. He’d foam at the mouth.

 

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What? Yes, Rob and Harriet both just moved back. And Edward and Tamsin Harris and Sam Monroe over the Summer. Yes, I should keep a list!

Why? I suppose it’s just that stage of life. People think: where do I want to be? Where do I want to bring up my children? Do I want a proper sense of community or a 24-hour organic charcuterie?

Something else Going On? No, I can’t think of anything. I mean, we’re not getting more buses, or a Waitrose.

You’re not saying Rob and Harriet are having an affair, are you? That’s ‘daft’, is it? Well, I don’t know! I can’t think what else you mean.

 

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Yes, of course everyone went over to Mr Bastable's after the Harvest Service! Just like normal, apart from the vicar. Sherry and fruit cake and very nice it was, too.

 The Grey House always feels like an older time. The children’s woodwind group were playing (yes, the ones you used to play with, but this year’s bunch are awfully talented). The flutes weaving in and out of one another. When they played Come Ye Thankful People Come everyone sang along. Rob’s father was baritone, Harriet’s mother did the descant - big smiles, both of them. Probably planning big family Christmases.

 I stood on the terrace, and do you remember how you can see from the Grey House gardens over the whole village? Down the whole valley, a real bird’s-eye view. The trees were copper and the sky went scarlet.

 You don’t get views like that in Hong Kong! I’m only teasing, love.

 And the long shadows on those long lawns, and the dogs tumbling and tussling with the children. Children wandering off, dogs herding them back again. Mr Bastable on the terrace, holding his hand out to them, watching them come and go. Throwing balls for them - they love to play fetch. (They can bring anything back. You'll throw a toy, and it'll fall somewhere you'd think they couldn't possibly get to, but five minutes later they drop it at your feet, all mangled and slobbery.)

 Anyway, Mr B.'s bash really summed up the spirit of Harvest. Having the whole village under one roof, before Winter sets in.

 I know we’re not farmers, Elizabeth. Yes, I know Harriet Hedges is a special needs educator. But the message of Harvest. Gathering everyone in!  All are safely gathered in...

 I said to Harriet Hedges, you really couldn’t be anywhere else, could you?

 I probably drank too much sherry, to be honest.

 

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(And I saw Tracey-Hinton-you-used-to-be-friends-with! She should go on my list, too. I don't know if Tracey’s moved back here because she split up with her girlfriend, or if they broke up because Tracey wanted to move back here. Either way, she looks awfully low. I think she must have come off her bike and mangled her leg a bit - she was limping. Send her an email?)

 

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Sorry, Liz, I don’t understand. You want me to tell you what’s Going On?

 Your dad and I don’t have anything Going On. Boring and proud, that’s us. Going On with the village? There’s the Carnival, then the Christingle service, and the Festive Craft Market and the pantomime...

 Not that? Then what?

 

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So, anyway, your father said we could go to a different church.

 I know! Hard to picture.

 Where? St Hilda's in Winterbourne Hasset.

 Yes, it’s possible. But we've been at St Francis’ ever since we moved here, ever since you were small.

 And we’ve been terribly involved, considering we’re newcomers. Yes, we’re still newcomers. You have to be here fifty years, at least, to be locals. I know I said it was thirty years, but we've been here thirty and now I think it's fifty.

 (And next time you visit, you must see Robert Abraham and Harriet Watts – sorry, Hedges – and Tracey Hinton. They were huddled together in the Mitre Inn, the other night, worse for wear. Probably have culture shock, from moving back here.)

 

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Oh, goodness, I’ve just remembered: Tina Atwell’s mother, last Harvest festival, telling me Tina hadn’t visited in two years! So sad. It was at the Grey House, Mr B. was asking when they’d see Tina next, and whether it was hard for them. And now - poor things.

 (How did she…? Her car hit a kangaroo while she was driving cross-country, apparently. Big dent in the front of the car, scratches on the bonnet. No, they didn’t find the kangaroo.)

 I mean, your dad and I always knew you wanted to go off and see the world. But I do feel sorry for the other families, the ones who've lived here for generations. They want their children and their grandchildren close to them.

 Actually, Mr B. was asking me about it, at the Grey House.

 He was just being polite: did we miss you, would we rather have you living back in the village.

 Darling, are you all right? You sound –

 Don’t shout, Liz, I can’t –

 You know what’s Going On? Good! I still haven’t a clue what’s Going On!

 I think you’re barking up the wrong tree, love.

 Never mind. No need to apologise. (I know, it's a terrible shame about Tina Atwell. Rotten. Absolutely rotten.) Just don’t shout, it makes the speakerphone buzz.

 Sorry, what was that? You want to know what I said to Mr Bastable?

 Oh, the usual.

 What’s ‘the usual’? Don’t fish for compliments!

 Seriously? I said we were very proud of you. That you’re doing brilliant things! And your father and I just want you to – do whatever you want to do.

 Yes, I really said that! You never remember that we lived all over the place before you were born. Bern, Vienna! Cardiff. We didn't bring you up to – we didn't mean you never to leave the village!

 Your father made a joke, of course. Told Mr B. you should move back here right away! To wait hand and foot on your parents who are facing their dotage with dignity.

 Oh, darling, don’t cry! I know, it wasn’t a funny joke...

 What did Mr B. say? Gareth, what did Mr B. – Mr B. said Oh Really? And your father said No, Not Really.

 That’s about the size of it.

 I’m glad you’re glad. I don’t see how it matters.

 Promise what? I can’t hear you, love.

 Promise we won’t set them on you?

 Liz?

 I don’t know who you mean, love!

 Yes, all right, I promise I won’t talk about you to Mr B.

 Gareth, did you hear? We’re not to talk to Mr B. about Liz. He’s saying ‘fair enough’. Now he’s saying ‘the old buzzard can mind his own beeswax’.  You didn't say that while you were swigging his sherry, Gareth.

 Is that better, now? I’d give you a big hug if you were here, I would.

 Oh, your father’s remembered something else: he told Mr B. it was always nice to have a visit from you. That’s all.

 

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You want to come before Christmas?

 Really?

 Of course you can! It’s only that you said you were terribly busy. We’d love to see you. Let me look at the diary - yes, that’s fine, that’s the   weekend before the Carnival!

 Sorry - you’re asking me to tell Mr B. you’re coming?

 Didn’t I just promise not to speak to him?

 But yes, of course I can tell him.

 It’ll be lovely to have you back. We’ll be making the Sunday School float (if your father doesn’t stop speaking to the vicar). It needs to be a Fairy Grotto, and at the moment it’s chipboard on a flatbed. You can keep the dogs off while your father and I glue glitter.

 You’d rather do the glitter? You were always artistic. We’ll save you a brush.

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