The Secret of Hillnesss Point 2
Albert Plumper and his wife Margaret had run the village post office since 1963. He liked children (having had eight of his own) and was always ready with a lollipop or some similar sweetie and a fond hair ruffle when a youngster came into his shop. The post-office, in addition to the obvious stamps, envelopes and other necessary items, also sold sweets, newspapers, magazines, writing materials and other bits and bobs that from time to time Albert decided were going to be “great little sellers”. He was a short, round faced man with an unexpectedly thick shock of grey wiry hair and a warm smile. Despite his seventy-six years he was possessed of a remarkable energy and vitality that he had always put down to the sea air (for Hillness Point was only a half-mile from the craggy coast and the wild Atlantic Ocean) and his diet of prunes and pork chops (the only things he had eaten since 1957). Mrs Plumper, who was that day visiting her sister in Firchester, ran the post office side of the business whilst Albert took care of the other goods and ensured that the shelves were stocked.
As Belinda and the children entered the cheerful little shop Albert was just stretching up from a small stepladder to place a large jar of pear drops in the only available space on a very high shelf that was already bending under the weight of a row of precariously overhanging jars containing sweets of all sizes, colours and descriptions.
“I’ll…. Be… right… with you” Mr Plumper said over his shoulder. “I’ve… just…OH Bugger!” The jar had slipped from his hands and, in a sequence that was both comic and a little alarming, bounced of his head, dropped to his shoulder where it balanced tantalisingly for a fleeting moment just avoiding his flailing hands, and fell spinning towards the unyielding stone floor, leaving Albert fighting comically for his balance in the manner of a tightrope-walker in a fierce wind.
In a flash Natalie and Elizabeth had leapt forward and, as if part of a well rehearsed circus act, the jar dropped neatly between them coming to rest in their two pairs of hands - unharmed and right way up.
There was a tense moment where no one, including Albert, was sure if he would remain on the ladder or crash to the ground, before he regained his balance and turned round to see where the flying sweets had landed.
“Well I never!” Albert exclaimed upon seeing the two girls holding the jar. “I wondered why I didn’t hear it break”. He climbed down, a little red faced but none the worse for his mishap. He wiped his hands on his jumper (they were invariably sugary from handling sweets) and bent down a little, hands on his knees to see more clearly who had saved the jar from certain destruction. He smiled, “I think you must have been sent here just to save that jar of sweets”. He gently took the jar from the girls and, screwing up one eye as if performing a difficult calculation, and making both girls giggle, said, “let me see, if that jar had smashed I would have lost all the sweets in it. You can’t very well sell sweets that have been on the floor now can you? On the other hand if I give you half these sweets I will still have 50% more sweets than I would have had, isn’t that so?” With that he went behind his counter, unscrewed the lid of the jar and poured out a mound of sweets into his brightly polished scales that looked truly enormous. Taking two bags he transferred half of the pile to each, gave the bags a swing and a twist to close the tops and handed one each to Elizabeth and Natalie with a smile.
“I’m very grateful to you” adding in a conspiratorial whisper, “and not a word to Mrs Plumper”.
Elizabeth and Natalie looked agog at their huge bags of sweets and then at Belinda who they knew was never going to let them eat them.
“Can we mum, please?”
Belinda looked at Mr Plumper with a smile and turning back to her daughters said “Just this once, but they’ll have to last a very long time mind you. And say thank you to Mr..?” she turned back to Albert.
“Plumper madam, Albert Plumper. Albert to my customers and I hope you’ll consider yourself one”
“Thank you, um, Albert. I’m Belinda Fairway and this is Natalie and that is Elizabeth. We have just moved here actually and I wondered if we could order some newspapers for delivery? I just can’t get the day started without an injection of news” she smiled.
“Fairway…Fairway…” Albert got a far away look. “Not any relation to the Fairways at Urchin Farm by any chance?” he enquired.
“Actually yes, although the farm was sold many years ago as I expect you know” replied Belinda. “But my grandmother left me a cottage which was kept on after the farm was sold and we moved in last night. At least we slept there last night, she laughed, our things arrive today hopefully. Right now it feels a bit like camping”
“You mean Toby’s Chest?”
“Hmm” Albert’s expression had changed almost imperceptibly, but even the girls saw something, a kind of troubled look, cross his face. Then abruptly it was gone. “Well I hope you’ll be very happy there, lovely spot” he cheered again hardly missing a beat. “And papers are no problem, you just tell me what you want and we’ll have them there starting tomorrow. And welcome to Hillness Point”, he winked at the girls as he said this.
The rest of their visit to the post office passed uneventfully. Papers were ordered, stamps, writing paper and envelopes purchased and Elizabeth and Natalie chose two large drawing pads and some crayons promising themselves to draw pictures of their new house when they got home. But before that they had some more shopping to do. After saying goodbye to Mr Plumper, and promising to return soon, the Fairways left. Next stop, Magwins.
Magwins was an old shop built somewhere around the end of the 18th century. Its curved central glass door, a later addition, was flanked by low dark windows divided into small, thick panes that no matter how often cleaned resisted any attempt to see through them unless one pressed one’s nose right up to the glass. As Elizabeth, Natalie and Belinda entered the shop, a deep bell, more boom than tinkle, tolled from the musty space within. The modern strip lights fought a losing battle to ward off the natural gloom of the place and there was a faint smell of damp plaster and rotting wood. No one came to the summons of the bell and Belinda and the girls stood surveying the shelves of packages that seemed to have had the colour drained out of their brightly decorated boxes. There was a small stack of battered wire shopping baskets to one side with cracked blue plastic handles and the floor was covered by a dull, brown lino that crunched underfoot. The contrast with Mr Plumper’s brightly coloured cheerful shop was stark. They wandered around the shop which was quite large, perhaps forty feet by thirty, and looked at the wares. While Belinda began to fill a basket Elizabeth and Natalie went to look at the cakes and biscuits which were at the far end of the shop on a low deep shelf under a plastic cover that was scratched to opacity.
“Oh - my - God” said Natalie theatrically.
“What? Elizabeth was craning to see what Natalie was hunched over, her nose up against the plastic cover and her hands cupped by the side of her face to shield the reflection from the strip lights.
Natalie’s voice dripped with disgust. “It’s a MOUSE”
Now Elizabeth and Natalie were very similar girls in many ways. But in one particular thing they differed. Small creatures. Natalie loved them and would have happily had a rat as a pet had her mother not made it quite clear that a rat was second only to a snake on her list of things not suitable for pets. Elizabeth on the other hand had an almost phobic fear of them. Anything small that scurried or crawled scared her in a way that was so profound, so shocking it would literally take her breath away and leave her trembling and gasping. Because of this she was quite used to Natalie saying things like, “it’s a mouse”, just to scare the living daylights out of her and she had learned to take any such statements with a pinch of salt. On the other hand…
It was just possible… and even though she was pretty sure Natalie was pulling her leg she felt a lurch of fear in her belly.
“Where?” she asked a little shakily. “You’re fibbing”.
Natalie stood back from the counter slowly, turned towards her sister and without looking back towards the, possibly imaginary, mouse, pointed over her shoulder. “There”.
Almost too afraid to look Elizabeth approached the counter nervously and peered in. At first the scratched surface was so hazy she couldn’t see, so she pushed her face closer and as Natalie had done a few seconds before shielded her face to make it easier to see through.
The scream was loud enough to wake the dead. Elizabeth stepped back, white with terror. “It’s…it’s….” She turned and ran blindly ran towards the door crashing into a stack of soup cans on the way and sending them tumbling to the floor.
Belinda heard the commotion from the other side of the shop and turning to see what the fuss was about called out, “What on earth is going on? Natalie? Elizabeth?” She began to cross the aisles to investigate but the girls were too short to be seen over the towering shelves unless you were in the same aisle. She walked up past the drab cereals and rounded the corner by the cake counter where Natalie still stood. By this time Elizabeth had got out of the door and was sitting on the step outside with her hands over her ears (she didn’t want to hear the taunts she imagined Natalie would be calling out) trying to calm herself down.
Natalie who had not moved from the spot and was watching the cans of soup roll all over the floor, knew she had better explain what had happened but just as she opened her mouth a woman’s voice that sounded as old as the shop itself and seemed to cut the air with its sharp nasal quality, said,
“Children are not allowed in this shop”.
Belinda turned around to see a tall, imperious shape standing at the back of the shop in the half shadows. Something about the tone and stance of this woman made Belinda at once afraid and annoyed. Ignoring the recent pandemonium she replied,
“I didn’t see a sign to that effect”.
Violet Magwin moved forward, her gait was stiff and she gave a little grunt with each step as if it hurt her to walk. As she emerged from the recesses of the shop and came in to the dim light Belinda almost recoiled in shock. The woman’s face was cruelly scarred from her left cheekbone to her right jaw. A jagged flash of seared flesh crossed her features like a frozen strike of lightning curling her top lip as it passed and dividing her face into two halves as if it might separate at any moment. Natalie had moved closer to her mother standing just to the right and behind her as the woman approached them. Belinda automatically placed a protective arm around across her daughter and faced the woman who was standing just a couple of feet away now.
“You can read can’t you?” said the white faced woman as she pointed to a battered cardboard sign that hung just above the till near the entrance. ‘NO CHILDREN UNDER 14’ it said.
“Surely that means unaccompanied?” Belinda looked incredulous.
“It means what it says. No children under fourteen”.
Belinda turned to Natalie and bent down.
“Would you go and see if Lizzy’s ok darling?” She looked at Natalie in a way that meant go and do it and don’t argue. Natalie looked at the woman and, thinking better of saying sorry for the soup cans, turned and left to find her sister.
Elizabeth was outside on the step and was still breathing a little hard but not crying and seemed to be alright. Natalie sat down beside her.
“I’m sorry Lizzy. I didn’t really think, I was so surprised to see it. Honest”.
“It was a mouse wasn’t it?” Elizabeth said.
“Yes it was. It was horrible, it had a long tail and it was eating some of that disgusting cake. I’m not eating anything from that shop ever”.
“I don’t like it here Nat”.
Natalie put an arm around her sister.
“Don’t be silly it was just a mouse. You like the house and I thought that Mr Plumper was hilarious didn’t you?”
Before Elizabeth could reply, the shop door opened and a stony faced Belinda strode out. “Come on girls” she said, “I’ve had quite enough shopping for today”.
Belinda was a strong woman and you only had to meet her to know she wasn’t the kind of person who would be pushed around. She was trying to be a writer and had come to Hillness for the peace and the solitude. It was a brave move to give up a good job in the legal profession and take her two children to this out of the way place but she was not about to let local prejudice spoil her plans. The girls had never known their father who was an American student when Belinda met him and had proved as flaky as he was handsome and charming. Belinda had brought her children up to be independent, strong and above all fair. She was proud of them and if truth be known of herself for what she had achieved in her life so far. She knew the right thing was not to have a confrontation on their first trip into the village. She glared back at the closing door as she thought this and then strode off in the direction of home without waiting for Elizabeth and Natalie. They girls knew their mother when she had that expression and wisely kept a low profile all the way back to ‘Toby’s Chest’.