‘Mummy, why do you always buy the same sweets?’
‘They remind me of the village I grew up in, sweetheart, where we go to visit Nanny.’ I smile down at my seven year-old daughter who is furiously plunging a glossy lollipop into bright pink crystals. What I can’t tell her is that I still look inside every bag for a slip of paper. Or that when I go home I visit both the graves and leave flowers. Or that my Mum still thinks I blame myself. She is too young to understand. Looking back, I think I was too.
When I was eighteen I lived in the village of Little Standing, in a rather grand Victorian house with The Rectory carved into a stone slab by the gate. Our vicar meanwhile, lived a more modest life on the new estate with his wife and three children and daringly did his rounds on a battered Harley-Davidson. According to Mum, it wasn’t so much the leathers, as the ‘happy clappy’ sermons that had reduced the congregation from fifty or so to twenty. I argued that it was because they were old, stuck in their ways and born-again Roger was a change too far. Dad snapped, as he always did then, that I didn’t know what I was talking about.
Dad moved us from London when I was five and became the sort of rural convert that would have made Wordsworth weep. Dad viewed falling church numbers as one proof of the ongoing destruction of village life, the other being the advance of Tesco; a behemoth that, according to him, was intent on ruining rural England one village at a time. From the way he talked then, Dad might have taken to the streets with weapons if Tesco had tried to open a store near our village. Dad drummed into us the importance of community spirit and country living, but since we hardly ever set foot in church and Dad made Mum drive fifteen miles every other week to do a big shop at Waitrose, I knew even then it was all just talk.
I loved Little Standing for the stuff he didn’t talk about: the drifts of daffodils around the Green, cricket team summers, the ancient bonfire night ceremony and pig roast and Christmas lights swinging from lampposts.
My younger sister Stella, on the other hand, hated it. She was always pouting about how boring life was in our ’shitty village’ and Dad, who was short-tempered anyway, rose to the bait. Their shouting matches disrupted dinner at least twice a week that winter and tended to end with Stella storming off and slamming a door. Mum usually sought refuge in the kitchen and I escaped upstairs to read. Even two flights up, I can remember hearing her shrieking about village chavs, how her townie friends pitied her and the long trek to Primark. I loathed Stella.
So when I mentioned that I was going to join the book club at breakfast one day, Stella spat ‘You’re kidding me? Reading Mills and Boon with a bunch of old farts is your idea of a good time?’ Dad smirked; he was just like her really.
The book club was run by George Renshaw, who owned Sweet Tooth. According to the locals, he had arrived in the late ‘80s from no-one knows where, opened the shop and had been a village fixture ever since. Dad thought he was odd because he had never married but quite liked him. He was eccentric though, as he stuffed a scrap of paper with a quote from some writer or other into every bag of sherbet lemons, regardless of who bought them, no-one knew why.
When I went to enquire about the book club, Mr Renshaw peered over his glasses and asked ‘You’re Jane Hargreaves, aren’t you?’ I guessed he knew my name because Mum was the local GP and Dad was in the pub after work every night, so I just nodded. He studied the dark circle under my right eye for a moment before handing me the details. He asked if I would have time to read Brian Moore’s The Doctor’s Wife before the next meeting and I must have mumbled something back, though I have no idea what. The bag of sherbet lemons I bought that day had these words shoved between the sticky yellow ellipses, ‘Promise me you’ll always remember: you’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think, Christopher Robin to Pooh.’ Its significance only became clear later.
There were around ten other members of the book club. They were all clever, funny too, and despite being several decades older than me, they never made me feel stupid, even when it was obvious I hadn’t a clue what they were talking about; I learned a lot about books that winter.
The meetings were always at Mr Renshaw’s house. As I recall, most of the rooms looked unlived in and the kitchen either smelt of percolated coffee or oxtail soup. There was a fusty smell everywhere else, like old pot-pourri. I don’t think I ever went upstairs.
His study, at the back of the house, was where we met and when I first saw it I could hardly believe it was the same house. With its floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, soft pistachio walls covered with pictures, scratched oak desk, squishy sofas and real-log fire, it was a perfect room to discuss books. Even his cat Byron, slouching by the fire, purred his approval. I coveted that room for a long time.
It was late October when he asked me to stay behind for a minute. He took off his glasses and, while massaging the bridge of his nose, said, ‘I need someone to help out on Saturdays and wondered whether you’d like the job’. We agreed that I would start that week and that he’d pay me £20 a day – it was all arranged in less than five minutes.
I told Mum the next morning and Stella, of course, stuck her lip out and said it wasn’t fair, that she really needed a job and what could plain-Jane bookworm (me) possibly need money for? I think Mum muttered ‘Good for you, Jane!’ before she rounded on Stella and told her to grow up and get ready for school. Stella made her point much more forcefully later on.
My first Saturday was a shock, it was much busier than I expected. Apart from standing all day, I had to memorise the names of fifty glass jars of sweets, use an antiquated till and run down the basement stairs every few hours to get boxes to refill the jars and shelves. George was not at all how I imagined he would be. At the book club he was fairly serious and measured but at the shop he joked around with customers, chatted about trivia and was far more charming. He was a man of integrity though, now I think back, as he never gossiped and never patronised.
It took a while for us to become friends. I was eighteen and he must have been around fifty I think, so we didn’t have that much in common and, it was just the two of us. We chatted a bit, to fill in the gaps between customers, but the silences itched. One day he asked me how my ‘A’ levels were going and I quipped that King Lear was where my madness lay; he laughed. After that the awkwardness melted a little and, after dissecting my ‘A’ levels, we were soon talking about everything from my future plans to favourite movies. He was more interested in my life than my actual family, and it didn’t take too many weeks before he knew all there was to know. Well, almost everything; we never talked about the bruises I sometimes turned up with.
One chilly evening, when we were about to close, he enquired why I’d never asked him about the sherbet lemons. I don’t remember what I said, but I do remember when he finally told me the story: just before Christmas.
It was quite a sad tale really and not as romantic as I’d hoped. He was brought up by his maternal grandfather in the Cotswolds after his mother died when he was four. Roy Renshaw was a widower, and in the death business, as George put it, and spent a life comforting bereaved relatives and hoisting coffins. He wasn’t a very outdoorsy man but George said he tried his best. He took George on cycle rides and hiking trips, put up tents in the back garden for him and his friends and even watched him play football. He never spoke of his absent son-in-law, George’s father, and George never asked.
His main passion was books and for as long as George could remember Roy read every book aloud: at bedtime, pacing around the kitchen and even in the garden, at night. He always wrote any ‘special bits’ in a notebook and over the years he filled at least twenty. The slips of paper were copied from them and George put them in the bags as a sort of memorial. As to why sherbet lemons, George’s explanation was that when Roy’s cat Bronte choked to death on one, it was the only time he ever saw his grandfather cry. I doubt now whether that part of the story was true at all.
George’s Grandfather left him a little money, plus the funeral business. George didn’t explain to me why he left the area or how he ended up in Little Standing. All he said was that he found out the truth about his father from a village gossip who cornered him in the pub one night. He didn’t tell me more and I didn’t ask.
January that year started with a really cold spell and the village was soon cocooned in snow. The High Street was icy and quiet, so we spent our time drinking tea, eating left-over biscuits and chatting. George had narrowed his eyes when he spotted blue bruises on my arms after Christmas but said nothing.
January ended in another way altogether. My father was killed in a hit and run accident as he was coming home from the pub. There were no witnesses of course. Since George closed up shop the next day to go on his annual holiday, it only took the police a day or so to decide there might be a connection. Although we were wrung out from tiredness and tears, they still interviewed us and once I realised what they were suggesting, I remember shouting over and over that he was my friend and had no reason to kill my Dad.
The letter that changed everything arrived at the end of the week.
Jane, by the time you get this I will already be on my way. I just want you to know that you mean the world to me. You’re a clever, funny girl and I’m glad that I asked you to work in the shop I loved our chats, they made me feel young and more alive and made me wish that I’d had a daughter like you – I do hope you mother won’t mind me saying that.
I’m so sorry about your Dad. I did like him but, because I knew what he was doing to you, I’ve avoided talking to him in the pub of late. To be honest the situation made me feel uncomfortable because of my own family history.
I’ve been so worried about you Jane, but I didn’t know what to do. I should have asked you about it I suppose, but you know I don’t like to pry. I hope you can forgive me Jane, I’m so sorry. George
Mum made me show it to the police of course. Stella had to be held back when I told them in front of Mum that she had been secretly hitting me for six months and that I had told no-one. Mum had to be sedated. And George was all over the news being urged to contact the police to help with enquiries. He never did.
Two weeks later, Mrs Bonham heard the report on her illicit police scanner. She was a dreadful woman, not only for her unseemly public belching but because she was a wheedling, spiteful gossip who enjoyed other people’s misfortunes with the sort of relish Austen would have admired. She spread the news along the High Street with her usual glee and speed. And that’s how I found out he was dead, standing at the post office counter buying thank you cards for Mum, with a busy-body gloating, ‘Looks like they found George Renshaw too late then, topped himself . . .’
I remember running home in the raw February wind, eyes stinging. Mum must have heard about it as she was already home when I walked in. As she cupped her hands round my face, her thumbs stroking away my tears, her voice cracked. ‘None of it’s your fault Jane remember that, none of it.’ It took me quite some time to accept that.
The police could never prove whether George set out to kill my Dad or whether black thoughts hit black-ice and it was a just an accident. I have always chosen to believe the latter.
(This was the second assignment of my creative writing course).
Categories: Just Stories