Major Pettigrew was still upset about the phone call from his brothers wife and so he answered the doorbell without thinking. On the damp bricks of the path stood Mrs. Ali from the village shop. She gave only the faintest of starts, the merest arch of an eyebrow. A quick rush of embarrassment flooded to the Majors cheeks and he smoothed helplessly at the lap of his crimson, clematis-covered housecoat with hands that felt like spades.
Ah, he said.
Mrs. Ali? There was a pause that seemed to expand slowly, like the universe, which, he had just read, was pushing itself apart as it aged. Senescence, they had called it in the Sunday paper.
I came for the newspaper money. The paper boy is sick, said Mrs. Ali, drawing up her short frame to its greatest height and assuming a brisk tone, so different from the low, accented roundness of her voice when it was quiet in the shop and they could discuss the texture and perfume of the teas she blended specially for him.
Of course, Im awfully sorry. He had forgotten to put the weeks money in an envelope under the outside doormat. He started fumbling for the pockets of his trousers, which were somewhere under the clematis. He felt his eyes watering. His pockets were inaccessible unless he hoisted the hem of the housecoat. Im sorry, he repeated.
Oh, not to worry, she said, backing away. You can drop it in at the shop latersometime more convenient. She was already turning away when he was seized with an urgent need to explain.
My brother died, he said. She turned back. My brother died, he repeated. I got the call this morning. I didnt have time. The dawn chorus had still been chattering in the giant yew against the west wall of his cottage, the sky pink, when the telephone rang. The Major, who had been up early to do his weekly housecleaning, now realized he had been sitting in a daze ever since. He gestured helplessly at his strange outfit and wiped a hand across his face. Quite suddenly his knees felt loose and he could sense the blood leaving his head. He felt his shoulder meet the doorpost unexpectedly and Mrs. Ali, quicker than his eye could follow, was somehow at his side propping him upright.
I think wed better get you indoors and sitting down, she said, her voice soft with concern. If you will allow me, I will fetch you some water. Since most of the feeling seemed to have left his extremities, the Major had no choice but to comply. Mrs. Ali guided him across the narrow, uneven stone floor of the hallway and deposited him in the wing chair tucked just inside the door of the bright, book-lined living room. It was his least favorite chair, lumpy cushioned and with a hard ridge of wood at just the wrong place on the back of his head, but he was in no position to complain.
I found the glass on the draining board, said Mrs. Ali, presenting him with the thick tumbler in which he soaked his partial bridgework at night. The faint hint of spearmint made him gag. Are you feeling any better?
Yes, much better, he said, his eyes swimming with tears. Its very kind of you.
May I prepare you some tea? Her offer made him feel frail and pitiful.
Thank you, he said. Anything to get her out of the room while he recovered some semblance of vigor and got rid of the housecoat.
It was strange, he thought, to listen again to a woman clattering teacups in the kitchen. On the mantelpiece his wife, Nancy, smiled from her photo, her wavy brown hair tousled, and her freckled nose slightly pink with sunburn. They had gone to Dorset in May of that rainy year, probably 1973, and a burst of sunlight had briefly brightened the windy afternoon; long enough for him to capture her, waving like a young girl from the battlements of Corfe Castle. Six years she had been gone. Now Bertie was gone, too. They had left him all alone, the last family member of his generation. He clasped his hands to still a small tremor.
Excerpted from Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson Copyright © 2010 by Helen Simonson. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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