The bell rattled as Carol opened the door. Inside, the teashop was dimly lit but not in a gloomy way. In one corner stood a stove. It gave off a crimson and orange glow which warmed the whole interior. If she squinted she could make out five or six tables. As her eyes became accustomed to the light she saw the tables were neatly laid with white cloths, place mats depicting scenes of lochs and glens, folded napkins and petite glass vases of purple heather. Carol and her daughter Janet sat down at the table in the window overlooking the road they had just driven along. Carol flicked at the corner of a napkin while Janet traced with her finger the outline of the mountains illustrated on the tablemat in front of her. From a doorway at the back covered by a pair of floral print curtains came the sound of singing, Carol could not make out the tune. The floral curtains were drawn back and out bustled a small, round, smiling-faced woman. She was wearing an apron which matched the curtains.
“Good day to ye.” Mrs McDonald said and smiled at Janet, “You’re a bonny wee lass” she turned to address Carol, “what can I be after getting ye?”
“A pot of tea and something to eat?” Carol asked looking round to see if there was a menu.
“Well we’ve broth, or pie.”
“What’s in the pie?”
“Well there’s rabbit in–tult, tatties in–tult.”
“And the broth?”
“Well, there’s chicken in–tult, tatties in–tult, veggies in–tult and of course ye get a bap with the broth.”
“We’ll have the pie please,” Carol said, still not sure exactly what they were going to get but hoping it would be hot and flavoursome.
“I wanted a bap.” Janet whispered to her mother.
“There, there, the wee lass can have bap with her pie.” Mrs McDonald said.
“Thank you – say thank you, Janet”
“Thank you,” Janet said shyly.
It was not long before Mrs McDonald was back with the food. Plates laden with a steaming mixture of meat and vegetables in a rich creamy sauce topped off by a golden pastry crust crimped at the edges. Mrs McDonald placed a plate beside Janet on which was a soft floury bap. Next to it was a small pat of butter impressed with a thistle.
“It seems a shame to spoil the butter, Mummy, it looks so pretty with the flower on top. Nana never calls me wee lass.” Janet said’
“I know, she can’t help being the way she is, we have to make allowances. It will be all different one day, just wait and see.”
As Carol and Janet were about to leave Carol asked, “Do you know where I might find Mr Hughes?”
“You mean Reverend Hughes, the minister? Aye, he is living at the manse. Gang down the brae to the kirk past the postie. You cana miss it.”
Back in the car Janet asked, “What’s a manse?” Her mother did not answer.
It was not difficult to find the post office or the church, and the manse was obvious. An imposing house, quite different from the rest of the village. Painted white stucco, out of place among the plain grey stone cottages that clung to the hillside snug and secure. There were five steps up to the front door of the manse and flanked by eight foot high windows which overlooked the valley. They sparkled proclaiming their cleanliness for all to admire. Either side of the door stood square planters, tips of bulbs poked through the dark peaty compost. Carol always planted daffodils, they had a sunny disposition. These looked like tulips. Taking hold of Janet’s hand firmly, she walked up the five steps. A heavy brass knocker appeared to be the only method of attracting attention. Taking a deep breath she rapped three times. There came the sound of clipped heels on a tiled floor. The door opened. A slim young woman with auburn hair and striking blue eyes, wearing a fine-knit jumper with a brooch of pearls shaped as a fish, surveyed Carol and Janet up and down and then said.
“Good day to ye. What can I be doing for ye?”
“I was looking for Mr, oh I mean the Reverend Hughes, is he in?” Carol asked.
“I am sorry, he be out at the moment, would ye and the wee lass like to wait for him?” Carol hesitated a moment before answering.
“Yes, we’ll wait if we may. Come along Janet.”
Gripping Janet’s hand even tighter they were ushered into the hallway.
“I am Mrs Hughes, the minister’s wife.” She explained proudly as she showed them into a room on the left. It was plainly furnished. A set of upright chairs with tall backs imitating Charles Rennie Macintosh were stood in a neat semi-circle facing the fireplace. In this large room there were only two armchairs strategically placed either side of the hearth. Each had two cushions, next to one was a basket of knitting, the part completed work neatly folded, the ball of wool tightly wound and the needles secured down into the ball. And by the other a pile of books. The books had been placed in exact size order, there were no other books in the room Carol noticed. In the window stood the largest desk Carol had ever seen. It was the size of a small boat, all it needed was a sail. It commanded the view across the valley. On the walls hung the serried ranks of previous ministers in sombre black, all looking down at Carol and Janet.
“Do take a seat.”
Carol noticed Mrs Hughes motioned them towards one of the high-backed chairs that looked uncomfortable and rigid. Janet tried to hitch herself up onto one but found her legs were too short. So stood awkwardly beside her mother tugging her skirt.
“Would ye be liking a cup of tea while ye wait?” Mrs Hughes asked.
“I don’t think so,” Carol replied.
Carol looked round the room at the portraits.
“May I – ” she paused, “ask how long you have been married?”
“Reverend and I have been married a few months, why do ye ask?”
“Has Reverend Hughes been in the area long?”
“He came to assist my fathare after he was widowed, and when my fathare died he took his place and we married. Oh, I hear him now.”
The door opened and a tall, striking man with only a slight trace of grey entered. He was carrying several books under his left arm. For an imperceptible moment the Reverend Hughes paused in the doorway. With a squeal of delight Janet rushed towards him, arms outstretched, oblivious to everyone else in the room. The Reverend Hughes scooped her up into a bear hug and kissed her on both cheeks. As he lowered her back down to the floor he ruffled her hair.
“What’s going on, who are ye?” Mrs Hughes eyes hardened as they moved from her husband to Carol and back to her husband.
“Now, now, hen, don’t ye fret, there’s an explanation.” Reverend Hughes said.
“I like the accent, you always were good.” Carol glanced at Mrs Hughes and saw her blue eyes flare brightly as she took several steps back towards the safety of the fireplace and clutch the mantelpiece for support. “Did he not tell you about us? No, I suppose not, it does not quite fit the widower image. Shall I enlighten her or will you?” Carol looked at the tall man who was now leaning casually against the desk. Not waiting for an answer, “This man is my father and he is married to my mother.”
“Sadly she’s unbalanced.” Reverend Hughes interjected.
Mrs Hughes gripped the granite mantelpiece and Carol could see the whites of her knuckles showing through.
“As I was saying, unfortunately my Mother is often unwell and is in a special hospital. But very much alive.” Carol paused to let this first piece of information penetrate. Continuing while barely suppressing a smile “Reverend Hughes or should I say Mr Hughes, is no more a minister than I am. A pleasing little bolt hole you’ve found yourself, I must say.”
“Not a Minister ye say.” Mrs Hughes spoke each word as if they were weighted down with lead. She furtively looked up to the portrait above the fireplace and visibly shuddered. Carol shook her head slowly.
“Ye came here, wedeled ye way into our lives, my farthare’s trust. Ye lied to him, to them” she waved her hand in the general direction of the village, “to me.” With each utterance her voice had risen in pitch. “And ye sermons, all that fire, all that passion!”
“I am good aren’t I. And you can’t say you didn’t enjoy it.”
“How dare ye, how dare ye. Taking the Lords name in vain. Its… its….” Mrs Hughes voice trailed off and she stood rigid unable to get the words out. She had stopped mid breath and it was as if she did not know how to take another one. Then slowly she turned and stared at the man who was now gazing out of the window with his back to everyone and everything in the room, “How old are ye?”
“Fifty-five,” Mr Hughes answered.
“Fifty-five, ye said ye were forty, another one of ye lies. I have been laying with an old man, old enough to be my fathare.” Shaking now and glaring at Carol, “And as for ye, coming here with your bastard, ye bissom, ye bissom.” Carol saw the full penetration of those eyes, they were not pretty blue but steely blue.
Mr Hughes slowly turned back to face the two women, “What is it you are really worried about, hen?”
“I am not your hen. I never was your hen. Get out, get out ye filthy Sassenach, get out,” Mrs Hughes spat.
Not waiting to hear any more, Mr Hughes grabbed Janet’s hand and strode into the hall, down the steps, turned and shouted back. “I never liked tulips, prissy flowers, give me daffodils any day.”
Carol smiled as she followed them out, it was so typical of him to want the last word. She stopped and went back up the steps. Mrs Hughes was seated in the armchair, the knitting basket on her lap. In each hand was a knitting needle and she was rhythmically stabbing the ball of wool, while staring up at the portrait above the fireplace.
“I’m sorry about all of this, I am sure you don’t want any gossip and scandal or slurs on your character.”
“I dinna know what I am gonna say to everyone.” Mrs Hughes voice quivered.
“I’m sure you will think of something.”
Mrs Hughes jerked her head towards the portrait. “My Fathare, what would he say.”
Carol looked up, the same unforgiving steel blue eyes stared down at her.
“What about the brooch?”
“I want it back, it belongs to my mother, I want Janet to have it when she is older.” Carol held out her hand. She kept it held out for a full two minutes. Then she placed an envelope onto the arm of the chair.
“A little appreciation of your discretion.”
The steely eyes gazed at the envelope, then returned to stare at the portrait. Carol left her there. Glancing back she saw her still staring and stabbing. She noticed the eyes in the portrait were the kind that followed you. They followed her now as she left.
As the car turned out of the village, Mr Hughes asked, “Did you get it?”
“What did she say?”
“Nothing. They never do,” Carol replied.