The tiny kitchen, with the fire lit and the oven on, was probably too warm for September, but the intention had been to create an ambience as resplendent as an autumn day. Golden and welcoming. A brass coal scuttle glimmered in the hearth, reflecting the fire's amber glow. On a spacious windowsill, inside a frame of ecru drapes, a huge bronze pitcher had been crammed with preserved beech leaves and dried wheat, and bunches of dried corn had been tucked amidst the porcelain plates that stood side by side on a wooden rack. The room, which she fancied was once a scullery, was where Gentle spent most of her time. Its smallness was comforting. She could bake or read or knit squares for Oxfam and forget the isolation of the enormous, inherited house. It was far too big for a woman living alone but today, in the afternoon, George was coming to tea. The prospect excited her; for far too long she had functioned like an ageing spinster when in fact she was only forty-three.
Not having enough recreation was her biggest difficulty. With only housework to occupy her she was becoming dull and uninteresting. Redundancy had struck hard. It had eliminated colleagues, standard assurances that they would keep in touch forgotten directly the office doors slammed to. Fortunately, Polly Moss had stayed in touch; she wasn't one of those perfunctory acquaintances who bandied pledges like confetti, but Polly was in the throes of a wild intrigue with Gary Starr, an all-in-wrestler, and was currently away with him on tour. The two friends regularly spoke on the phone, but it wasn't the same as getting together for a proper chin-wag.
The solution to the enforced solitude was in Gentle's own hands. She could go out, join a social clique, mix with the opposite sex. If she could ignore the phobia of abandonment, she might find it easier to mingle. At times she felt doomed to dwell in eternal quarantine, friendless days surging forward and dragging her into immortality. However, that brand of depression was rare. Mostly, she got on with life, grateful for excellent health and reasonable prosperity. Gentle had opted for a solitary lifestyle after three serious relationships were shattered. The first by reason of death when, a week ahead of their wedding, her boyfriend contracted killer meningitis. The second was terminated when the man who swore undying devotion was involved in a steamy sex scandal with his boss's wife. The ultimate liaison ended when her third beau took an unhealthy interest in female fashion. The episodes had wholly killed off Gentle's appetite for male companionship. Until she met George and came to value his friendship.
Humming a ditty, she sorted the cutlery, choosing silver for the salad and delicate bone-handled knives for the scones. Would George commend her cooking? And her home?
She had been drawn to him by his apparent regard for animals. When she originally saw him in the park, he was hunkered down to talk man to dog with a Yorkshire terrier. The next time he was perched on the school wall whispering to a cat, his beard blending very well with the animal's white fur. Several times she saw him tossing bread to the ducks on the lake; sometimes he fondled the donkeys' manes; always he slipped titbits to dogs when their owners weren't looking. A man with a virtuous heart.
Gentle sniffed the air, inhaling the delicious smell of baking that made even her mouth water. Satisfied the scones were cooked, she scurried to the oven and pulled open the door. Grabbing a heavily-singed oven cloth, she withdrew the tray and unloaded the scones onto a dish decorated with cornflowers, with divisions to take pots of jam and clotted cream. Arranged to her liking, she deposited the dish adjacent to an oval platter of carved ham and a cut-glass bowl of green-leaf salad.
Hearing the grandfather-clock chime the half-hour, Gentle glanced at her watch. It was three-thirty. Ninety minutes to countdown. Her stomach lurched. What had she done? More importantly, what did he want? In the three years she had lived here, no men other than tradesmen had entered the house. Would she shape up as a hostess? Could she adequately converse with such an erudite man. It was one thing to twitter away making small talk, it was quite another to indulge in exchanges of such profound topics as politics, or the arts, or issues of an educational nature. Panic rose in her breast. She tried to suppress it by twitching curtains, plumping cushions, and straightening the framed landscapes; an inessential activity in that snug and shipshape room. Feeling the twitch in her lower lip, she bit hard to make it stop and cursed her nonsensical nervousness. She brushed a hand through the shock of curly chestnut hair she had expended half an hour arranging in a presentable style. Realising her mistake, she rushed to a mirror to vet its condition, breathing a consoled sigh when she saw that no harm had been done. But anxiety continued to dangle its ice-cold digits and she sank, wretchedly, into a wooden armchair.
Silently Gentle enumerated the Denby cups hanging on the Welsh dresser, something she did when agitated for the monotony of the mental exercise was guaranteed to calm her. Four ... What had possessed her to accede to his request? What had he in mind when he asked to call? Twelve ... Why was she in such a terrible spin? She was behaving as if she was expecting a suitor instead of an elderly companion.
Polly had been aghast when she learned his age, claiming that Gentle must be mad to associate with a man of seventy-two. Why he was old enough to be her father. Gentle had chuckled, thinking how like her deceased parent he was. At least in features. They even shared their name. When Polly heard about the similarity, she joked that her father's spirit had returned to protect her. Gentle hadn't enlightened her about his lack of concern for his children.
Kicking off her slippers, she pondered on the joint resemblance. She felt consistently safe with George, as if he was indeed family. Lacing her fingers, she let her hands lie in her lap, remembering the first time he acknowledged her and how amazed she had been to see the familiar glint in his eye and the recognisable little-boy grin.
(to be continued)