All I wanted was to tuck myself into a quiet corner of Tinkerbell’s (purveyor of fine teas, coffees and homemade cakes to the gentry), order a cappuccino and a custard doughnut and enjoy my book in peace. Professor Pilger was in Greece checking out the private lives of Mediterranean gastropods, I had (temporarily at least) caught up with Maggie’s backlog, and it was too wet and cold to do anything in the garden – so I decided that I d earned a little treat in the local tearoom.
The Universe, however, had other plans.
Jazz Ruskin was sitting at the table in the window with a slightly wild-haired older woman. I’d noticed her as I was coming in, and I greeted them with a smile and a nod, while making a determined beeline for the corner table at the back. Jazz was having none of it though. She leapt to her feet and – with an expression that radiated desperation – grabbed my arm.
‘How lovely to see you! DO come and join us!’
Before I had a chance to think of a way of politely declining, she had hustled me over to her table.
‘This is my Aunt Felicity. She’s staying at the Vicarage for a few days. Aunty Fliss, this the new owner of Tigh-na-Mara – the thatched cottage at the top of the village.’
I held out my hand and pinned on my best ‘I’m harmless’ smile.
‘How do you do?’
Aunty Fliss ignored my hand and gazed at me steadily for a moment before proclaiming loudly:
‘Bloody nuisance, thatched roofs. Harbour vermin. I’d get rid of it if I were you.’
It was the tone and volume you might adopt when addressing the congregation of one of the larger cathedrals if the PA system had crashed. I think the tea cups may actually have rattled on their saucers.
The other occupants of the tearoom naturally behaved as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.
I sat down opposite her and glanced at Jazz, who was looking like a woman in the grip of all of her worst nightmares at once.
‘It keeps the rain out.’ I said mildly. ‘Are you staying in Adverse Camber for long?’
‘I hope not. Bloody awful place.’
‘Aunty, could you keep your voice down a bit?’ whispered Jazz, leaning in towards her. ‘The whole tearoom can hear you.’
I mentally added ‘Not to mention most of the village and a substantial percentage of the occupants of the graveyard’, but kept my own counsel and instead fell to examining the extraordinary sight before me as she declared, even more loudly,
‘I should care? Poxy place … What sort of name is Tinkerbell’s anyway?’
She was a gaunt, perma-tanned woman in her seventies, who had the smooth, leathery sort of complexion that generally bespeaks many years spent outside in all weathers – a hypothesis borne out by her tweedy and well-worn clothes. Her hair was a greying ginger frizz, her nose slightly Roman, and faded blue eyes were surmounted by a high and smooth forehead. It was, taken in total, not the face of a stupid woman. A tiresomely self-opinionated one, perhaps – but not stupid.
Jazz was quietly explaining that the tearoom was called Tinkerbell’s because it was actually run by a woman called Tinkerbell.
That revelation actually caused Aunty Fliss to pause for a moment.
‘Tinkerbell McConachie, as a matter of fact,’ I offered helpfully. ‘As her middle name is Wendy, I suspect a Peter Pan connection.’
As a teenager, Tink McConachie had, entirely understandably, hated her first name. For many years she’d styled herself ‘T. Wendy McConachie’, but human nature being what it is, people took that mysterious ‘T’ as a challenge and went out of their way to find out what it stood for. In the end, she bowed to the inevitable. And when – six months ago and fresh out of catering college – she opened her catering business in Adverse Camber, the name was handed to her on, as it were, a tea plate.
Aunty Fliss digested this piece of information. ‘Good Lord. What WAS her mother thinking …’.
The woman herself – Tink – materialized at our table, notebook in hand. Young, pretty and personable with naturally rosy cheeks and curly brunette hair tied back in a short ponytail, she’s the sort of person you could thoroughly enjoy loathing if she wasn’t, inconveniently, also one of the nicest people on the planet.
‘I’ll have my usual please Tink,’ I said without even looking at the menu card or the ‘Specials’ board, and. Jazz ordered tea and scones for two. Aunty Fliss glowered at her as Tink vanished into the kitchen.
‘You might have had the courtesy to ask.’
‘But that’s what you always have Aunty.’
‘How do you know I wanted it this time?’
‘Okaaaay. So what DO you want?’
‘That’s not the point …’
I thought this might be the right moment to try and change the subject.
‘So, Felicity — where do you live?’
‘Slough.’ Her eyes swivelled towards me, as if daring me to mention friendly bombs.
‘Aunty’s taking a few days R & R while Uncle George is … in hospital,’ explained Jazz, slightly nervously. I had the feeling she was trying to tell me something, but I couldn’t work out what, so I unthinkingly trotted out the usual platitude.
‘Oh, I’m sorry – nothing serious, I hope?’
There followed one of those moments which some ascribe to an angel passing overhead. Everyone in the tearoom fell silent, at the precise moment that Fliss replied;
‘He started talking to the wheelie bin.’
It really is hard to know what to say in those circumstances, especially when you’re aware that you have an audience sitting all around you with cream slices paused in mid-air.
‘That’s … most unfortunate.’ I think someone behind me may have sniggered.
‘Oh, he’s been like it for years, daft old bugger … but we get on well enough most of the time..’ Suddenly, there was a real warmth in her voice and beside me, I felt Jazz relaxing. ‘Deaf as a post too, but with me in the same house, that’s probably self-defence..’ She smiled, and it was like the sun breaking through storm clouds. ‘We manage. He remembers the old days perfectly, so the pair of us live quite happily in the past. If the worst comes to the worst, we’ll just give the wheelie bin a name, clean it up and bring it indoors.’
‘Willie the Wheelie,’ I suggested as the hum of conversation resumed around us. ‘Or Boris. Boris the Bin …’
A few days later, an envelope landed on my doormat, addressed in handwriting I didn’t recognize. It was from Aunty Fliss.
Lovely to meet you.
George is home.
We’ve called the bin Big Bertha.. F.