Of course there was Marjorie, his unpleasant sister-in-law; but, like his late parents, he had never fully accepted her. She had loud, ill-formed opinions and a north country accent that scraped the eardrum like a dull razor. He hoped she would not look for any increase in familiarity now. He would ask her for a recent photo and, of course, Berties sporting gun. Their father had made it clear when he divided the pair between his sons that they were to be restored in the event of death, in order to be passed along intact within the family. The Majors own gun had lain solitary all these years in the double walnut box, a depression in the velvet lining indicating the absence of its mate. Now they would be restored to their full valuearound a hundred thousand pounds, he imagined. Not that he would ever dream of selling. For a moment he saw himself quite clearly at the next shoot, perhaps on one of the riverside farms that were always plagued with rabbits, coming up to the invited group, bearing the pair of guns casually broken over his arm.
Good God, Pettigrew, is that a pair of Churchills? someone would sayperhaps Lord Dagenham himself, if he was shooting with them that dayand he would casually look, as if he had forgotten, and reply,
Yes, matched pair. Rather lovely walnut they used when these were made, offering them up for inspection and admiration.
A rattling against the doorjamb startled him out of this pleasant interlude. It was Mrs. Ali with a heavy tea tray. She had taken off her green wool coat and draped her paisley shawl around the shoulders of a plain navy dress, worn over narrow black trousers. The Major realized that he had never seen Mrs. Ali without the large, stiff apron she always wore in the shop.
Let me help you with that. He began to rise from the chair.
Oh, I can manage perfectly well, she said, and brought the tray to the nearby desk, nudging the small stack of leather books aside with one corner. You must rest. Youre probably in shock.
It was unexpected, the telephone ringing so absurdly early. Not even six oclock, you know. I believe they were all night at the hospital.
It was unexpected?
Heart attack. Quite massive apparently. He brushed a hand over his bristled mustache, in thought. Funny, somehow you expect them to save heart attack victims these days. Always seem to on television. Mrs. Ali wobbled the spout of the teapot against a cup rim. It made a loud chonk and the Major feared a chip. He recollected (too late) that her husband had also died of a heart attack. It was perhaps eighteen months or two years now. Im sorry, that was thoughtless She interrupted him with a sympathetic wave of dismissal and continued to pour. He was a good man, your husband, he added.
What he remembered most clearly was the large, quiet mans restraint. Things had not been altogether smooth after Mr. Ali took over old Mrs. Bridges village shop. On at least two occasions the Major had seen Mr. Ali, on a crisp spring morning, calmly scraping spray paint from his new plate glass windows. Several times, Major Pettigrew had been in the store when young boys on a dare would stick their enormous ears in the door to yell Pakis go home! Mr. Ali would only shake his head and smile while the Major would bluster and stammer apologies. The furor eventually died down. The same small boys slunk into the store at nine oclock at night when their mothers ran out of milk. The most stubborn of the local working men got tired of driving four miles in the rain to buy their national lottery tickets at an English shop. The upper echelons of the village, led by the ladies of the various village committees, compensated for the rudeness of the lower by developing a widely advertised respect for Mr. and Mrs. Ali. The Major had heard many a lady proudly speak of our dear Pakistani friends at the shop as proof that Edgecombe St. Mary was a utopia of multicultural understanding.
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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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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