Moorland, cattle grids and small cottages, built from blocks of grey-green stone; that was Clay Hill. Sue and I had moved there three months earlier. The folks seemed friendly enough, but there was an odd reserve in them that was difficult to put your finger on. Despite now living in one of the more picturesque areas of Britain, life seemed rather dull.
I was sitting at my desk, gazing out through the window and over the purple heather to the brown hills beyond. Above them, clouds ambled by, high wispy cirrus in no hurry to go anywhere and cumulonimbus, resembling floating towers of shaving foam. The door opened and Sue came in, carrying a basket of eggs. She pecked me on the cheek, put the eggs on the worn oak table and plumped herself down in an old armchair. “Well, I just had an interesting chat with Mavis in the shop.”
“Yes, she said she was surprised not to have seen us at the service on Sunday.”
“Why? We’re not religious.”
“Yes, I told her that but she said the rest of the village was there and we were ‘conspicuous by our absence’.”
“Bloody hell, so now I’ve got to go praying to keep in with Clay Hill have I?”
Sue sighed. “Look, darling, it’ll only be once a week. Sing a few hymns, smile at people and we’ll be out in an hour. Anyway, Reverend Phillips has invited us to dinner tomorrow night.”
“I’m playing darts with Tom tomorrow.”
“Not anymore you’re not.”
“Sherry?” asked Reverend Phillips, a man of perhaps seventy, thin, ascetic and quite bald.
“Just a small one for me,” said Sue.
“I’ll have a large one … please,” I said, noticing Sue’s disapproving look.
The reverend handed us glasses that looked like they were worth a few bob, filled with pale nectar. “Ah, here’s Mildred, my wife.”
A large woman with a huge chest, dressed in black, came in. She had dark beady eyes and a round, greasy face. “Hello, Sue, and er … it’s Terence isn’t it?”
“That’s right, but please call me Terry.”
“Well, I hope you’re both hungry, cook is doing us roast pheasant, with all the trimmings.” She gave a laugh that sounded like a fox barking.
I sat down on a chaise-long. “Actually, I’m starving, I only had a couple of slices of toast and marmalade this morning.”
She beamed, “Excellent. What is it you do, Terrence?”
“Oh, er, I’m a writer.”
Mildred descended onto a brown leather armchair, leaning forward so that her ponderous bosom rested on her oversized knees. “How exciting! So what kind of thrilling tales do you write, Terence? Spy novels I suspect!”
“Actually, no, I write washing machine manuals.”
She looked at me as if I’d just crawled out from under a stone. Thankfully the dinner bell rang.
We sat at a table set for five, the Reverend opposite me and Mildred opposite Sue. I nodded to the empty seat at the head of the table. “Who’s joining us, then?”
No one said anything and there was an awkward silence. I felt my face flushing.
Fortunately, just then the door opened and a servant entered with a food-laden trolley. She turned to Mildred. “Should I serve some out for the Colonel, ma’am?”
Mildred looked straight ahead. “That won’t be necessary,” she said tersely in a low voice.
The Colonel? Who the hell was that?
There was an impressive spread. First, there was soup, a thin broth with pieces of what tasted like mutton floating around in it, then followed the pheasant, served with crisp roast potatoes, parsnips, broccoli, carrots and half a dozen other vegetables, all cooked to al dente perfection.
Meanwhile, I eyed the empty chair, wondering …. “This is delicious,” I said. “Your cook is a treasure.”
“Thank you,” said the reverend, leaning back in his chair and gazing fondly at the ceiling, “She is indeed a delight. Well, you know, it would have been back in, ah, 1962 when her mother first–”
“Quiet!” snapped Mildred, putting her knife and fork down. She sat back and her eyes seemed to roll around in her head until only the whites were showing. She sat bolt upright and shocked us by speaking in a deep male voice. “Greetings, friends, it is good to have you here. We send you blessings from all of us here in the spirit world.” She addressed Sue. “Yes, your Father, Alex, is here, and … and June your sister.”
I saw Sue’s eyes water. “Hello, Dad, hello, sis.”
Mildred’s booming male voice continued. “You must not worry. Either of you. We are well here in the spirit world and with you whenever you think of us. And Terence?”
“Grandfather Jack says to stop wasting so much money on the lottery. The only way to get rich is through hard work.”
Exactly the kind of thing he would say. I blushed but said nothing.
“And now friends, I leave you to enjoy your meal, and remember, the Great Spirit loves you all.” With that, Mildred’s eyes and posture returned to normal, and, as if nothing untoward had happened, she stabbed a hunk of pheasant, rolled it in gravy and brought it up to her cavernous mouth.
Sue and I exchanged glances. It looked like life in Clay Hill might not be so dull after all!
Featured in the book, Letters from Reuben and Other Stories: 40 Little Tales of Mirth
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