Much Dithering in Little Botheringham – 7

‘Much Dithering in Little Botheringham’ is an everyday tale of village life and vampires, from Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook.

Ginny was getting ready to go to the brutalist designed village hall for the meeting of the Ladies Association. She had decided she should go in disguise – as a normal middle-aged woman. 
This would have two advantages both anonymising her as she walked through the village and maybe allowing her to blend in better with the Ladies Association. Turning up dressed in her usual kind of outfit, looking very much like the slightly out-of-date lifestyle guru she really was, would be bound to cause issues. 
What if someone recognised her?
The horror of that thought sent her back to her wardrobe for her flattest of flat shoes and the once-upon-a-time ‘office smart’ black trousers she had been contemplating donating to charity for the last year but which had still somehow made it into the packing boxes when she moved. A suitable slightly baggy blouse-top with fake buttons and a slate grey thigh-length cardigan completed the ensemble.
Makeup was a minimum. Then she recalled Lucinda’s pithy comment and sighed.
“At a certain age you have to cake it to fake it, darling, or just throw in the towel and give up.”
Should she?
Did she even have time?
As she dithered over that, there was a sharp rap on the front door. Which was odd as she had a very visible doorbell.
The man who stood on her threshold was somewhere in his sixties at a guess, close to six foot tall, his grey hair a bristle on his scalp and his eyes pulled into a slight squint. His posture was severe, as if he had something uncomfortable pushing in the small of his spine and forcing his shoulders back. In one hand he held a large manilla envelope and under the other arm was a short cane with a silver ferrule. Ginny found herself staring at the cane.
“Doorknocker,” he said in a clipped tenor. Then proceeded to demonstrate by fluidly reversing the cane into his hand and rapping on her door with the ferrule. “Major Sidney Harmsley-Gunn at your service. Please don’t ask about my military service, hush-hush and all that.”
“I wasn’t…” She stopped herself, hearing in her head how rude that might sound so she changed it quickly. “I wasn’t expecting anyone.”
“No. I didn’t send ahead. On a sort of recon, you see. Recruiting.”
“Recruiting?” Ginny echoed weakly, desperately thinking what he could mean. “I think I’m a bit old to be eligible for the army – even the reserves.”
That made his squint turn into a frown. It occurred to Ginny that he probably couldn’t see very well. Too proud to wear specs and not suited for contacts. She had met a few of those in London.
“Recruiting for the PC. We have a vacancy and I thought with your metropolitan – er – heritage, you’d bring some much needed common sense about progress in the village.”
“Parish council.” He thrust the manila envelope into her hands. “Just fill these in and bring them along and we’ll co-opt you. Village hall. Second Tuesday.” He stepped back almost clicking his heels then spun on the spot and marched back towards the gate. He paused and lifted the cane as he reached the corner of the cottage. “That’s next week.” 
Then he was gone. Ginny caught a glimpse of the clock and realised there was no time to think about her makeup, she had to go or risk being late and having to sneak in and hope no one noticed. She grabbed her shoulder bag, the one she had chosen as it looked most like a regular kind of handbag, plain faux-suede with tagged zips. All her bags had shoulder straps so that was not something she could choose to do anything about.
There was something happening at the church, but she didn’t have time to find out what, although she was sure there was an outside broadcast van from the local TV in the car park partly concealed from view by the trees. 
The doors of the ugly hall were open as she arrived. Inside the room was cavernous and steel-strutted rafters gave the whole a very grunge feel. There were three doors at one end, the two on either side marked with representations of male and female and the one in the middle labelled ‘Kitchen’. At the other end was a small stage and three rows of chairs were set in a horseshoe facing it. But their focus was not the stage. Someone had set a small table with a laptop in the middle of the horseshoe and a woman sat there who looked to be about the same age as Major Harmsley-Gunn. She was short and comfortably rounded with a neatly cropped head of snowy waves, a pair of hugely trendy horn-rimmed spectacles and a determined chin. She was dressed from head to toe in eye-wateringly bright colours culminating in a ‘pair’ of hand-painted DMs, one of which was orange while the other was violet.
She stood up as Ginny walked in and smiled a welcome.
“Hello there! You must be Virginia Cropper? Em mentioned you might be along. I’m Agnes Millman. Do take a seat. Wherever you like.” She accompanied the final words with a sweeping gesture to the rows of empty chairs. ”Oh and don’t worry, everyone will be here in a few minutes. I asked them to be ten minutes late today so I could brief you first. It’s always a bit daunting walking into a room full of people who all know each other I find.”
Ginny felt a sharp prick behind her eyes and blinked. This was another heritage of the depression. Simple acts of understanding and kindness aimed her way always made her feel teary. But gone was her plan to hide at the back and hope not to be noticed – to observe quietly and see how she might fit in. She took a reluctant seat in the front and to the side mumbling her thanks.
“The Ladies Association is a very venerable institution in the village,” Agnes told her, sitting down again. “We can trace our organisation back to the middle of the Eighteenth Century, but we have always kept up with the times and changed our remit accordingly. In fact, part of our AGM is reviewing the charter so we can discard the outdated and update the dated.”
Ginny nodded and when silence followed she risked a question.
“So what is it the Ladies Association actually does?”
Agnes laughed.
“Oh, everything. We do everything. From organising the annual fete to raising funds for village causes. You’ll soon gather what we’re all about when the meeting starts. Please don’t feel pressured to take anything on first time out. It’s very hard not to, but you’ve barely been here a couple of weeks and I’m sure you’ll still be settling in.” She leaned forward over the table her voice lowered to a conspiratorial whisper. “I’d just try and learn a couple of names and accept a few invitations for coffee. Everyone is going to want to have you over as you’re new here, so be careful not to overfill your diary.”
Agnes sat back and her voice changed to a cheerful bellow that resembled a roll call.
“Adriana! Stacey! Parminder! Rose! Charlotte! Lilian!” There were a number more and Ginny had turned to see a parade of women most in middle age or older with a scattering of those under forty, before Agnes finished with “Wonderful to see you all. This is Virginia And now let’s get started.” She beamed at one arrival who had a large plastic tub in their hands “Oh Cathy you remembered it was your turn and brought cake. How very kind.”
Ginny found herself shaking hands and trying to put names to faces for a confusing few minutes before Agnes cleared her throat loudly and the room settled down. There were apologies from Emmeline Vanderbilt and the minutes of the last meeting which were approved unread. Everyone seemed to know the agenda and it must have been obvious she was a little a lost as the woman sitting next to her – who had to be around eighty and Ginny recalled was Lilian – whispered “Emailed out – except for Brenda and Clarice as they have no idea about technology, they still think a tablet is what you take for arthritis and a mouse is something you keep cats to prevent.”  
Unfortunately, it was a stage whisper and some sharp looks and the odd giggle came their way.
“Now, let’s get on with the business in hand, ladies.”
For the next half hour they talked fetes and sharing school runs for children and grand-children, charity pushes and knitting bees, bake-ins and who should get the annual award for their garden in bloom. Then the room fell into a kind of expectant hush and Agnes finished making some notes on the laptop. When she looked up and there was something different about the atmosphere in the hall.
“Has anyone got any new problems to report?” Agnes looked around and must have spotted something. “Chloe?”
Chloe turned out to be one of the few younger members.
“Well some of us on the Brownfield Estate is getting eviction notices. The housing association saying we’ve not met some cry-tear-thing what’s on the contract. Me and some of the other single mums has nowhere to go. Kylie’s scared she moves back to her parents and her ex’ll find her again and old Jack Pleasance has been getting sick with his heart after they told him he’d not get his renewed.”
Agnes had become very still and she tapped away on the keyboard of the laptop into a suddenly silent hall. Then she looked up again and smiled warmly at Chloe.
“Thank you for bringing that to our attention. Now, ladies, it’s tea, coffee and some of Cathy’s wonderful cake!”

Part 8 of Much Dithering in Little Botheringham by Jane Jago and E.M. Swift-Hook, will be here next week.

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