The Village was ordinary, not particularly pretty but not ugly either. A collection of buildings huddled around the comfort of a Church and pub. It sat on a forgettable B road that would always seem as a route to somewhere else, but it was Eleanor’s home now, and for all its twitching curtain conservatism, she was determined to be part of it.
She kissed Bob on the cheek. ‘Couple of hours... tops,’ she said. ‘I’m sure that’s all I’ll be able to stand, anyway. Watch a movie, chill out...you’ll have more fun than me, promise.’
‘Learn to make some jam, you new woman, you.’
She threw a cushion at him. ‘Piss off—you know I’m doing this to shut Karen up.’
She closed the front door and pulled her jacket up around her neck. Thick, freezing mist condensed light from the village’s half dozen street lamps into incandescent globes. Her footfalls on the gravel drive sounded flat and muffled.
‘Hi, Ell,’ Karen opened her front door at the third ring. ‘Sorry, was playing music, gets me in the mood for going out.’
‘In the mood...for the Women’s Institute? Jeez, Karen, your life can’t be that sad, surely?’
‘Oh, come on, Ell, there’s not much goes on in Medford—I don’t really do the pub—so what’s wrong with an evening with the girls?’
‘Girls? Christ, Karen, the youngest of them is my mum’s age.’
Karen grabbed her coat and keys. ‘You’ve got to admit most of them look pretty good actually. Susan must be in her fifties.’
Susan O’Connor, Medford’s dictator, arbiter of local morals and general pain in the arse. Leave trimming your hedge, sunbathe in your garden, breathe in the wrong accent and the bitch was on your case. Never to your face though; she’d drip-feed disapproval into the village grapevine and smile at you in the post office—cow. Okay, well preserved cow, but cow nonetheless.
‘She especially wants to meet you properly,’ Karen continued as they walked out onto the slick-wet main road.
‘That’ll be nice for me, then,’ Eleanor said under her breath.
It was a walk of a couple of hundred yards through the hanging curtain of fog to the village hall. Past the deserted pub and toward the haven of light spilling from the mock-gothic arched windows set in green painted, corrugated iron walls.
The inside of the hall was scuffed magnolia. Walls hung with corkboards for pinned-up announcements and posters advertising yoga and flower arranging classes. It smelt of mildew, paraffin and floor polish. On one side a serving hatch and counter, with a tea urn, cups and plates of fancy biscuits.
At the far end a small, low stage was set. Black drapes covered most of the back wall. Amateur dramatics , Eleanor thought—hammed Oklahomas and murder mysteries probably. ‘Presented by the inept for the benefit of the undiscerning,’ Bob would say. Still, sweet in an ah-bless, best they could do, blitz-spirit sort of way.
She and Karen were among the first to arrive. Greeted by Betty from the post office, they sat in the front of the rows of grey plastic stack-a-chairs laid out with military precision in groups of five with a central aisle. Karen settled into her seat grinning happily. She was in her early forties, ten years older than Eleanor and a divorcee. They’d struck up an unlikely friendship over the garden fence in the first few days after she and Bob had moved in.
As the hall filled up, Eleanor was surprised, and maybe even a little impressed, by the number of women prepared to leave their warm homes and brave a winter’s night for the monthly evening of sisterhood.
‘Here’s Susan,’ Karen said.
Mrs. Susan O’Connor was small, neat, and dressed conservative-expensive. A tailored black jacket with a plain, white silk blouse buttoned high, straight tweed skirt and sensible shoes. Her age was impossible to tell—over forty, under sixty. Smooth, almost unlined skin and regularly styled hair. The president of the Medford and District WI wore self-confidant smugness like a badge.
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