Not everything fits in a letter. And a few of you have heard me yatter on, here and there, about interstitial scenes that can't be fitted into Everyday Courage. I thought it was about time I stopped with the yattering and let you have a read of them. Fair warning; they're very closely knit to the Pieces of Lives universe, and I have a strong suspicion they won't hold up out-of-context.
We have made arrangements with the Rydals to take over Fox Corner, ran the latest of Mara's letters.
'Good,' said several people in chorus around the Larkrise breakfast table.
'Told you so, Kitten,' said Teddy Lovall, with the merest hint of satisfaction. Opposite him, Kitty rolled her eyes. Faith laughed. Jem fed scraps of bacon to Dog Tuesday, presently ensconced on Jem's knees, blue nose courting the tabletop.
'Someone,' said Faith, because one of their quartet had to be practical, 'should act for them on this side. Can I write back and put us forward?'
Jem shrugged, and Tuesday took the opportunity to snatch a whole piece of bacon from off his benefactor's plate.
'Please,' said Jem. 'If it brings them home faster. By all means.'
Kitty said, 'What else does Mara say?' But by then, Christopher was clamouring for attention. Faith handed over the letter, plucked the baby from his chair and left them to negotiate the conversational tangle that was a letter from Mara.
Larkrise, October, 1922
We could have done with your eyes on Jem's latest case, began Faith in the latest of the letters to Scotland. It happened at the Kingsly farmsted in Goderich, which I hadn't realised was even in Geordie's jurisdiction, but is definitely part of Shirley's veterinary arm. I remember that because…
On like that she went. All about Geordie's continued wonder at the workings of rural life, and the latest misadventure of Christopher, Tuesday, the Carlisle gremlins and Teddy. She glossed lightly over the hole Mara and Shirley left in their going; the way she and Judith missed that other, sane person to weather an evening of Gilbert and Sullivan with, their presence around the coffee table, lightly batting back and forth theories about the murder of the hour. It wouldn't be fair, she had said to Kitty, when she raised it. Nor would it; they were coming back, eventually. That was enough. And in the meantime, Faith wouldn't grudge her friend the happiness of the holiday, the homecoming it so obviously was to look at her letters. Years, she thought, of living together, and there had never been a hint of obligation between them. No reason to start now. Leave the wish you were heres and the haste ye backs to other people who meant them just as much.
So long as they come back, Kitty had said, brandishing a letter replete with descriptions of an autumnal Barra. Teddy and little Christopher had seconded this opinion. Tuesday rolled luxuriantly over next to a crackling fire. Faith pressed Morris mugs of tea on all but her infant son and smiled unconcern. They will, she had said, making an impossible promise. But then, she had a knack for keeping impossible promises, and anyway, they were buying Fox Corner.
Could be a holiday house, Kitty had mused, thoughtful. And Jem, ever unthinking, Not bloody likely, so that Teddy yelped and clapped his hands over the baby's ears. Of course they ended in laughter. Trust Jem to see to that.
Faith was straightening the Fox Corner kitchen under the direction of Judith Carlisle when they arrived. Her hands were submerged in soapy water, rinsing the crockery that had come with the house when she heard them first; Jem's almighty yelp of surprise followed by his indignant exclamation, 'I thought pranks were my territory!'
This should have eliminated the last vestiges of her surprise when icy hands descended over her eyes and a voice from behind her said in nursery-rhyme lilt, 'Leave those, they'll only end up at some church bazaar or other.' The R of bazaar had all the burr of a thistle. Faith would have known the speaker anywhere.
'You're not meant to be back!' said Faith, ducking out from under Mara's hands and whirling to face her. 'You never wrote – we weren't expecting you until Christmas at least – we thought – '
'Never mind all that, Parrot,' said Mara, somehow managing to manoeuvre Faith away from the sink, even still in her travelling coat. 'We're here now.'
'Clearly,' said Faith.
She had the most recent of the letters stamped across the inside of her eyes, the stormy grey of the North Sea as it boiled and bubbled mid-thunderstorm, the look of the barren gorse and the smell of the earth. With effort, she dislodged it, and seized at Mara's elbow, as if in confirmation of the reality before her. Her hands were still spackled with soap, and they left bedewed fingerprints behind in tactile testament to the reunion. 'Come on,' tugging Mara towards the sunroom, 'I want to hear all about it. You've cheated me out of one letter at the very least.'
On the sofa they fell to laughing at the luxury of being together like this again, and their laughter brought Judith. Seeing Mara, she did a credible impression of a startle hare, or as close to a startled hare as Faith reckoned Judith Carlisle was likely to get, which wasn't much. 'You knew, I suppose?' said Faith, because it had been Judith's idea to ready Fox Corner for its new owners in the first place.
'Not at all,' said Judith. 'All I knew about it was that Shirley had bought the place and where the key was. I'd have got food in for you if I'd had any warning.' This to Mara as she retreated towards the hall, coat slipping off her shoulder and over her arm along the way.
In the time it took Mara to unburden herself of coat, hat and gloves, Judith had wrangled control of the kitchen – a definite first and last, Faith thought, in the Blythe tenure at Fox Corner. There was a rush of cold air as the front door came open, and a stamping of feet on the mat as Jem's voice called out, 'You'll never guess who I've found!'
'Bet I can,' said Faith, drying her hands on her skirt. Further exclamations from the hall quarter suggested Jem had fond Mara. Judith emerged with a tea tray balanced on one arm, the bazaar-bound china imperfectly gleaming in the winter sunlight, still streaked faintly after Faith's ministrations. Somehow Judith had eked out bread, butter, and milk for the tea. Not the grandest offering Faith had known from Judith Carlisle, but then, Faith was inclined to wonder at her having unearthed food at all. They hadn't expected guests.
'You won't have eaten, of course,' Judith said, divesting herself of the tray, as if this were obvious. As she spread its contents, Mara disappeared and reappeared, tea towel on her elbow, and commenced improvements on the cumulative imperfections of the handiwork wrought by Faith and the drying rack. What she did not do, Faith noticed, was contradict Judith. Which apparently, was ammunition for Judith to press forward with her petition. 'You'll call round this evening of course,' she said now, 'for dinner. We can do you a proper meal. The gremlins will be glad to have you back.'
Shirley said something about it being Teddy Lovall the little gremlins were partial to as the tea steeped to readiness. It was a floral-scented offering of golden colour that permeated the muskiness of the house, so lately empty, and seeped readily into Faith's fingertips, still chilled and papery after their submergence in water.
'I think you'll find Tibby's rather keen on you too,' said Geordie amicably, and accepted his wife's offering of a teacup.
Chaos followed. Everyone had questions, and everyone felt theirs had a right to be answered first. Geordie was at his Inspector's best, and Judith admirably holding her own against him, while Jem, still with his adventurer's instinct, tried to steer the conversation, and Faith to talk to Mara. All the while teacups rattled against saucers in cheery counterpoint and dust eddies ran riot in the winter sunlight. Here and there the sloughing of the pine branches against the window or the bark of a fox broke through the reunion, cementing them all solidly in Kingsport. It was good, Faith thought, accepting a second slice of bread, to be all together like this again. One minute she had been convinced that Jem had had the right of it, that Scotland had swallowed their friends, and now they were back and it was as if they had never been anywhere else.
Presently Mara regained control of the teapot and inquired mildly of her interloping company, 'I thought you were after a story?'
Gentle laughter as they desisted. Teacups were replenished, Judith went for more bread, and the travellers were let go long enough to surface a quantity of tablet from a nearby case. The beribboned box went all-hands-round ('Mind you save some for the gremlins!' from Shirley), and by degrees Mara and Shirley told them about Scotland, the house, the MacDairds, the landscape. It was not much that hadn't gone into letters, but it was different, Faith thought, to hear about it in person, with the sweetness of homemade tablet on her tongue and the lilt of Mara's teuchter, not yet worn smooth again, in her ear. Their pleasure in the memory of the place had the deceptive lull of a sea current. Impossible not to be swept up and under by the pull of it. Faith listened and thought it was not unlike inhaling the sun.
Pilgrim, old cat of Swallowgate, hearing them, emerged from the depths of some unsuspected corner and proceeded to mince delicately across the tea tray, lingered to lick the butter, and settled finally on Mara's knee. Absently, Mara raised a hand to his head and petted it, waving for the time being, her usual objection to his tenure in her house. Faith smothered a smile in her teacup and affected not to watch as Pilgrim stretched out, stomach exposed and purred contentedly.
Once or twice Faith caught Jem open his mouth and close it again without speaking, and supposed that he too was trying to work up sufficient nerve to ask what no one else dared; Why come back? Across the settle Faith raised her eyebrows at him, mutely inquiring in her turn, Does it matter? Jem shrugged his answer, and Faith nodded. It was enough to have them back, to be laughing and talking over tea, the purring of the cat and the air full of the smell of tablet, lye and furniture polish. Not long ago, after all, Kitty had squinted over the latest news from Scotland and said almost fiercely, 'They're not allowed to stay.'
Nor had they. The sun came slantwise through the window, illuminating the patches of rusted fur Pilgrim had long ago acquired, and Geordie began to enumerate the virtues of some new operetta the Crown Imperial was staging. Faith noticed only dimly. Let the world throw at them ever so many convoluted operettas, murders and the chaos of children. Her family were back. There was no more need for letters.