On Thursday morning she had her hair washed, and the colour given its monthly tweak. The shade was officially called Strawberry Blonde, but sometimes it came out more orange than strawberry. This was one of the times, but Elfrida had more important things to worry about. Clothes were a bit of a problem. In the end she put on a flowered skirt which reached her ankles and a long cardigan-type garment in lime-green knit. The effect of hair, flowers, and cardigan was fairly dazzling, but looking bizarre was one of Elfrida's best ways of boosting her confidence.
She set out on foot, a ten-minute walk, down the village, through the pretentious gates, and up the drive. For once, she was dead on time. Never having been to the house before, she did not open the front door and walk in, calling "Yoo-hoo," which was her normal procedure, but found a bell and pressed it. She could hear its ring coming from the back of the house. She waited, gazing about her at well-tended lawns which looked as though they had just had their first cut of the year. There was the smell of new-cut grass, too, and the damp scent of the cool spring evening.
Footsteps. The door opened. A local lady in a blue dress and a flowered apron, clearly not the mistress of the house.
"Good evening. Mrs. Phipps, is it? Come along in, Mrs. Blundell won't be a moment, just went upstairs to fix her hair."
"Am I the first?"
"Yes, but not early. Others'll be here soon. Want me to take your coat?"
"No, I'll keep it on, thank you." No need to enlarge on this, to explain the little silk blouse beneath the cardigan had a hole under the sleeve.
"The drawing-room . . ."
But they were interrupted. "You're Elfrida Phipps. . . . I am sorry I wasn't here to greet you. . . ." And looking up, Elfrida saw her hostess descending the wide staircase from a balustraded landing. She was a large lady, tall and well-built, dressed in black silk trousers and a loose, embroidered Chinese jacket. She carried, in her hand, a tumbler half-full of what looked like a whisky and soda.
". . . I got a bit delayed, and then there was a telephone call. Hello." She held out her hand. "Gloria Blundell. Good of you to come." She had an open, ruddy face with very blue eyes, and hair which, like Elfrida's, had probably been tweaked, but to a more discreet shade of soft blonde.
"Good of you to invite me."
"Come along in by the fire. Thank you, Mrs. Muswell; I expect the others will just let themselves in . . . this way. . . ." Elfrida followed her through into a large room, much panelled in the style of the thirties, and with a vast red brick fireplace where burnt a log fire. In front of the hearth was a leather-padded club fender, and the room was furnished with hugely padded and patterned sofas and chairs. Curtains were plum velvet braided in gold, and the floor was closely carpeted and scattered with thick, richly coloured Persian rugs. Nothing looked old or shabby or faded, and all exuded an air of warmth and a cheerful masculine comfort.
"Have you lived here long?" Elfrida asked, trying not to appear too inquisitive.
"Five years. The place was left to me by an old uncle. Always adored it, used to come here as a child." She dumped her glass onto a handy table and went to hurl another enormous log onto the fire. "I can't tell you the state it was in. Everything threadbare and moth-eaten, so I had to have a really good refurbish. Made a new kitchen as well, and a couple of extra bathrooms."
"Where did you live before?"
"Oh, London. I had a house in Elm Park Gardens." She picked up her glass and had a restoring swallow, and then set it down again. She smiled. "My dressing drink. I have to have a little boost before parties. What would you like? Sherry? Gin and tonic? Yes, it was a good place to be and marvellously spacious. And Oscar's church, Saint Biddulph's, where he was organist, only ten minutes or so away. I suppose we'd have stayed there forever, but my old bachelor uncle was gathered, as they say, and the Grange came to me. As well, we have this child, Francesca. She's twelve now. I've always thought it better to bring a child up in the country. I don't know what Oscar's doing. He's meant to pour drinks. Probably forgotten about everything, and reading a book. And we have other guests to meet you. The McGeareys. He works in the City. And Joan and Tommy Mills. Tommy's a consultant in our hospital at Pedbury. Sorry, did you say sherry or gin and tonic?"
Winter Solstice by Rosamunde Pilcher. © August 1, 2000. Used by permission.
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