Before Elfrida Phipps left London for good and moved to the country, she made a trip to the Battersea Dogs' Home, and returned with a canine companion. It took a good-and heart-rending-half-hour of searching, but as soon as she saw him, sitting very close to the bars of his kennel and gazing up at her with dark and melting eyes, she knew that he was the one. She did not want a large animal, nor did she relish the idea of a yapping lap-dog. This one was exactly the right size. Dog size.
He had a lot of soft hair, some of which fell over his eyes, ears that could prick or droop, and a triumphant plume of a tail. His colouring was irregularly patched brown and white. The brown bits were the exact shade of milky cocoa. When asked his ancestry, the kennel maid said she thought there was Border collie there, and a bit of bearded collie, as well as a few other unidentified breeds. Elfrida didn't care. She liked the expression on his gentle face. She left a donation for the Battersea Dogs' Home, and her new companion travelled away with her, sitting in the passenger seat of her old car and gazing from the window in a satisfied fashion, as though this were the life to which he was happy to become accustomed.
The next day, she took him to the local Poodle Parlour for a cut, shampoo, and blow-dry. He returned to her fluffy and fresh and smelling sweetly of lemonade. His response to all this sybaritic attention was a show of faithful, grateful, and loving devotion. He was a shy, even a timid, dog, but brave as well. If the doorbell rang, or he thought he spied an intruder, he barked his head off for a moment and then retreated to his basket, or to Elfrida's lap. It took some time to decide on a name for him, but in the end she christened him Horace.
Elfrida, with a basket in her hand, and Horace firmly clipped to the end of his lead, closed the front door of her cottage behind her, walked down the narrow path, through the gate, and set off down the pavement towards the post office and general store.
It was a dull, grey afternoon in the middle of October, with nothing much to commend about it. The last of autumn's leaves fell from trees, with an unseasonably icy breeze too chill for even the most ardent of gardeners to be out and about. The street was deserted, and the children not yet out of school. Overhead, the sky was low with clouds, that shifted steadily and yet never seemed to clear. She walked briskly, Horace trotting reluctantly at her heels, knowing that this was his exercise for the day and he had no alternative but to make the best of it.
The village was Dibton in Hampshire, and here Elfrida had come to live eighteen months ago, leaving London forever and making for herself a new life. At first she had felt a bit solitary, but now she couldn't imagine living anywhere else. From time to time, old acquaintances from her theatre days made the intrepid journey from the city and came to stay with her, sleeping on the lumpy divan in the tiny back bedroom that she called her work-room, which was where she kept her sewing machine and earned a bit of pin money making elaborate and beautiful cushions for an interior decorating firm in Sloane Street.
When these friends departed, they needed reassurance: "You're all right, aren't you, Elfrida?" they would ask. "No regrets? You don't want to come back to London? You're happy?" And she had been able to set their minds at rest. "Of course I am. This is my geriatric bolt-hole. This is where I shall spend the twilight of my years."
So, by now, there was a comfortable familiarity about it all. She knew who lived in this house, in that cottage. People called her by her name. "Morning, Elfrida," or "Lovely day, Mrs. Phipps." Some of the inhabitants were commuting families, the man of the house setting out early each morning to catch the fast train to London and returning late in the evening to pick up his car from the station park and drive the short distance home. Others had lived here all their lives in small stone houses that had belonged to their fathers and their grandfathers before that. Still others were new altogether, inhabiting the council estates that ringed the village, and employed by the electronics factory in the neighbouring town. It was all very ordinary, and so, undemanding. Just, in fact, what Elfrida needed.
Walking, she passed the pub, newly furbished and now called the Dibton Coachhouse. There were wrought-iron signs and a spacious car-park. Farther on, she passed the church, with its yew trees and lych-gate, and a notice-board fluttering with parish news. A guitar concert, an outing for the Mothers and Toddlers group. In the churchyard, a man lit a bonfire and the air was sweet with the scent of toasting leaves. Overhead, rooks cawed. A cat sat on one of the churchyard gate posts, but luckily Horace did not notice him.
The street curved, and at the end of it, by the dull bungalow which was the new Vicarage, she saw the village shop, flying banners advertising ice-cream, and newspaper placards propped against the wall. Two or three youths with bicycles hung about its door, and the postman, with his red van, was emptying the post-box.
There were bars over the shop window, to stop vandals' breaking the glass and stealing the tins of biscuits and arrangements of baked beans which were Mrs. Jennings's idea of tasteful decoration. Elfrida put down her basket and tied Horace's lead to one of these bars, and he sat looking resigned. He hated being left on the pavement, at the mercy of the jeering youths, but Mrs. Jennings didn't like dogs in her establishment. She said they lifted their legs and were dirty brutes.
Inside, the shop was bright with electricity, low-ceilinged and very warm. Refrigerators and freezers hummed, and it had strip lighting and an up-to-date arrangement of display shelving which had been installed some months ago, a huge improvement, Mrs. Jennings insisted, more like a mini-market. Because of all these barriers, it was difficult to know at first glance who was in the shop and who wasn't, and it was not until Elfrida rounded a corner (instant coffee and teas) that she saw the familiar back view, standing by the till and paying his due.
Oscar Blundell. Elfrida was past the age when her heart leaped for joy, but she was always pleased to see Oscar. He had been almost the first person she met when she came to live in Dibton, because she had gone to church one Sunday morning, and after the service the vicar had stopped her outside the door, his hair on end in the fresh spring breeze, and his white cassock blowing like clean washing on a line. He had spoken welcoming words, made a few noises about doing flowers and the Women's Institute, and then, mercifully, was diverted. "And here's our organist. Oscar Blundell. Not our regular, you understand, but a splendid spare wheel in times of trouble."
And Elfrida turned, and saw the man emerging from the darkness of the interior of the church, walking out into the sunshine to join them. She saw the gentle, amused face, the hooded eyes, the hair which had probably once been fair but was now thickly white. He was as tall as Elfrida, which was unusual. She towered over most men, being five feet eleven and thin as a lath, but Oscar she met eye to eye and liked what she saw there. Because it was Sunday, he wore a tweed suit and a pleasing tie, and when they shook hands, his grip had a good feel to it.
She said, "How clever. To play the organ, I mean. Is it your hobby?"
And he replied, quite seriously, "No, my job. My life." And then smiled, which took all pomposity from his words. "My profession," he amended.
A day or two later, and Elfrida received a telephone call.
"Hello, Gloria Blundell here. You met my husband last Sunday after church. The organist. Come and have dinner on Thursday. You know where we live. The Grange. Turreted red brick at the end of the village."
"How very kind. I'd love to."
"How are you settling in?"
"Splendid. See you Thursday, then. About seven-thirty."
"Thank you. So much." But the receiver at the other end of the line had already been replaced. Mrs. Blundell, it seemed, was not a lady with time to waste. The Grange was the largest house in Dibton, approached by a drive through hugely pretentious gates. Somehow none of this exactly fitted in with Oscar Blundell, but it would be interesting to go, to meet his wife and see his background. You never really got to know people properly until you had seen them within the ambiance of their own home. Seen their furniture and their books and the manner of their life-style.
On Thursday morning she had her hair washed, and the colour given its monthly tweak. The shade was officially called Strawberry Blonde, but sometimes it came out more orange than strawberry. This was one of the times, but Elfrida had more important things to worry about. Clothes were a bit of a problem. In the end she put on a flowered skirt which reached her ankles and a long cardigan-type garment in lime-green knit. The effect of hair, flowers, and cardigan was fairly dazzling, but looking bizarre was one of Elfrida's best ways of boosting her confidence.
She set out on foot, a ten-minute walk, down the village, through the pretentious gates, and up the drive. For once, she was dead on time. Never having been to the house before, she did not open the front door and walk in, calling "Yoo-hoo," which was her normal procedure, but found a bell and pressed it. She could hear its ring coming from the back of the house. She waited, gazing about her at well-tended lawns which looked as though they had just had their first cut of the year. There was the smell of new-cut grass, too, and the damp scent of the cool spring evening.
Footsteps. The door opened. A local lady in a blue dress and a flowered apron, clearly not the mistress of the house.
"Good evening. Mrs. Phipps, is it? Come along in, Mrs. Blundell won't be a moment, just went upstairs to fix her hair."
"Am I the first?"
"Yes, but not early. Others'll be here soon. Want me to take your coat?"
"No, I'll keep it on, thank you." No need to enlarge on this, to explain the little silk blouse beneath the cardigan had a hole under the sleeve.
"The drawing-room . . ."
But they were interrupted. "You're Elfrida Phipps. . . . I am sorry I wasn't here to greet you. . . ." And looking up, Elfrida saw her hostess descending the wide staircase from a balustraded landing. She was a large lady, tall and well-built, dressed in black silk trousers and a loose, embroidered Chinese jacket. She carried, in her hand, a tumbler half-full of what looked like a whisky and soda.
". . . I got a bit delayed, and then there was a telephone call. Hello." She held out her hand. "Gloria Blundell. Good of you to come." She had an open, ruddy face with very blue eyes, and hair which, like Elfrida's, had probably been tweaked, but to a more discreet shade of soft blonde.
"Good of you to invite me."
"Come along in by the fire. Thank you, Mrs. Muswell; I expect the others will just let themselves in . . . this way. . . ." Elfrida followed her through into a large room, much panelled in the style of the thirties, and with a vast red brick fireplace where burnt a log fire. In front of the hearth was a leather-padded club fender, and the room was furnished with hugely padded and patterned sofas and chairs. Curtains were plum velvet braided in gold, and the floor was closely carpeted and scattered with thick, richly coloured Persian rugs. Nothing looked old or shabby or faded, and all exuded an air of warmth and a cheerful masculine comfort.
"Have you lived here long?" Elfrida asked, trying not to appear too inquisitive.
"Five years. The place was left to me by an old uncle. Always adored it, used to come here as a child." She dumped her glass onto a handy table and went to hurl another enormous log onto the fire. "I can't tell you the state it was in. Everything threadbare and moth-eaten, so I had to have a really good refurbish. Made a new kitchen as well, and a couple of extra bathrooms."
"Where did you live before?"
"Oh, London. I had a house in Elm Park Gardens." She picked up her glass and had a restoring swallow, and then set it down again. She smiled. "My dressing drink. I have to have a little boost before parties. What would you like? Sherry? Gin and tonic? Yes, it was a good place to be and marvellously spacious. And Oscar's church, Saint Biddulph's, where he was organist, only ten minutes or so away. I suppose we'd have stayed there forever, but my old bachelor uncle was gathered, as they say, and the Grange came to me. As well, we have this child, Francesca. She's twelve now. I've always thought it better to bring a child up in the country. I don't know what Oscar's doing. He's meant to pour drinks. Probably forgotten about everything, and reading a book. And we have other guests to meet you. The McGeareys. He works in the City. And Joan and Tommy Mills. Tommy's a consultant in our hospital at Pedbury. Sorry, did you say sherry or gin and tonic?"
Elfrida said gin and tonic, and watched while Gloria Blundell went to pour her one from the well-provided table at the far end of the room. She then replenished her own glass, with a generous hand for the Scotch.
Returning, "There. Hope it's strong enough. You like ice? Now, sit down, be comfortable, tell me about your little cottage."
"Well . . . it's little."
Gloria laughed. "Poulton's Row, isn't it? They were built as railway cottages. Are you frightfully cramped?"
"Not really. I haven't got much furniture, and Horace and I don't take up much room. Horace is my dog. A mongrel. Not beautiful."
"I have two Pekes, which are. But they bite guests, so they're shut in the kitchen with Mrs. Muswell. And what made you come to Dibton?"
"I saw the cottage advertised in The Sunday Times. There was a photo. It looked rather dear. And not too expensive."
"I shall have to come and see it. Haven't been inside one of those little houses since I was a child and used to visit the widow of some old station porter. And what do you do?"
"Garden? Play golf? Good works?"
Elfrida hedged slightly. She knew a forceful woman when she met one. "I'm trying to get the garden straight, but it's mostly shifting rubbish so far."
"Do you ride?"
"I've never ridden a horse in my life."
"Well, that's straightforward anyway. I used to ride when my sons were boys, but that's a long time ago. Francesca's got a little pony, but I'm afraid she's not all that keen."
"You have sons as well?"
"Oh, yes. Grown up now and both married."
"But . . . ?"
"I was married before, you see. Oscar's my second husband."
"I'm sorry. I didn't realize."
"Nothing to be sorry about. My son Giles works in Bristol and Crawford has a job in the City. Computers or something, totally beyond me. Of course, we had known Oscar for years. Saint Biddulph's, Raleigh Square, was our church. He played divinely at my husband's funeral. When we married, everybody was astonished. That old bachelor, they said. Do you have any idea what you're taking on?
It was all marvellously intriguing. "Has Oscar always been a musician?" Elfrida asked.
"Always. He was educated at Westminster Abbey Choir School, and then went on to teach music at Glastonbury College. He was choirmaster and organist there for a number of years. And then he retired from teaching, moved to London, got the post at Saint Biddulph's. I think he'd have continued there until they carried him out feet-first, but then my uncle died and fate decreed otherwise." Elfrida felt a little sorry for Oscar. "Did he mind saying goodbye to London?"
"It was a bit like pulling an old tree up by the roots. But for Francesca's sake, he put a brave face on it. And here he has his music room and his books and scores, and he does a little private coaching, just to keep his hand in. Music is his life. He loves it when there's an emergency and he can play for morning service in the Dibton church. And, of course, he's always sneaking over to have a little quiet practice all on his own." Behind Gloria, quietly, the door from the hall had opened. Talking away, she was unaware of this, but, realizing that Elfrida's attention had strayed, turned in her chair to peer over her shoulder.
"Oh, there you are, old boy. We were just talking about you."
Excerpted from WINTER SOLSTICE (c) Copyright 2000 by Rosamunde Pilcher. Reprinted with permission from the publisher, St. Martin's Press. All rights reserved.