Here is the last instalment; it isn't too much longer than I'd anticipated. As ever, many thanks to those who have been reading, I hope it's been as enjoyable as the writing was for me.
Rosemary understood what the greengages meant long before Una did, but could not say so. Shirley had come up the walk with a basket full of them, joining Una and Rosemary on the small porch where they were sitting mending. He had been coming with increased frequency, Rosemary thought, ever since Carl had left, apparently to fill some kind of deficit created by Carl's going; sometimes taking Bruce off for an afternoon, often joining them for tea, just as often suggesting long evening walks that Rosemary forbore to take part in. Notionally, Bruce could have put himself to sleep, but it was a thought she could not face and so ignored.
Now he put the greengages down and said, seemingly to both of them, 'I saw these and remembered Susan singing the praises of your recipe for plum jam.'
Rosemary had never in her life made plum jam. She had never had access to plums. There were none at the house on the hill and there are none at the Manse. It was Una's mother that had the recipe for plum jam because there were both Victoria and Damson plums at the Maywater Manse. Rosemary knew this because when she first began teaching Una to cook, it was the wish of the girl's heart to master her mother's recipe and it had been a sore trial to Rosemary to tell her they could not. But they had made so many other varieties of preserve and jam that the deficiency was more than made up for. It had never occurred to Rosemary that Una might have given the recipe to Susan Baker, who did sometimes receive parcels of plums from the Crawfords. But she could not mind because Una's eyes lit up on seeing the fruit, and the shadow of a memory stole into her eyes, and she looks almost like the Maywater child again in her delight.
'Where did you find them?' she said then, turning one over in her hands as if it were Manna and she one of the God's people in the wilderness.
'I'll show you,' he said, and Una only looked fleetingly at Rosemary, more apology for going than asking leave to go, Rosemary thought. Of course she had smiled her assent. How could she not?
Una had anticipated plum trees in some unexplored pocket of Rainbow Valley, or the Glen at a stretch. She had not expected the queer little house that fronted the river, so that as far as she could work out, you had to enter always by the back door, for the simple reason that the front door was on a slope, with a greengage tree in what must have been the back garden.
'Won't someone mind,' she says when he moved to open the gate to the yard, and she was surprised by how easily it yielded. It had not looked like the sort of gate that would.
'There's no one too mind, it's quite unlived in. And Mother Susan says if you don't take the plums down from a tree when they're in season –'
'You won't get another crop the next year,' Una finished. 'Mother used to say that when the Maywater plums came into their own. It's one of the few things I remember her saying.'
'I didn't bring nearly all of them,' Shirley said, half-seriously, and Una laughed and said,
'I should hope not. We would never get through them in time.'
'Not even if you made jam?' he asked to tease her.
'Do you have any idea how much jam you have to make for it to be a worthwhile exercise?' she says in her turn, and says it in such a tone that had anyone else used it, it would have passed for playfulness.
'No idea at all,' said Shirley unapologetically.
'If I told you we were still getting through the strawberry that Rosemary and I made before the war,' she begins,
'I'd take you at your word,' Shirley assured her. 'But surely that's a good thing? Doesn't it take an awful lot of sugar to make jam? Wouldn't it have been awkward to try and make it in wartime?'
'It would have at that,' then in response to, 'how much did you make that it got through four years?' she said,
'Curiosity killed the cat, I thought, or at least frightened the last one out of Ingleside,' and there was no getting around the playfulness in her words this time. Then more seriously,
'You're forgetting how few of us were in the house by the end. And how enthusiastic Bruce is when it comes to collecting strawberries. I think there must have been sixty jars, and we couldn't bake them into anything or they might have done as tarts. As it is, we've almost seen the end of them, and not too soon either because Bruce is counting the days on the calendar until he can gather more.'
'You're not really telling me it's been four years since he brought strawberries home?'
'No-o, only that it's been a long time since we used them to make preserve, or made preserve at all.'
'Why not gather more of these and you can remedy that?' he said and steers her towards the greengage tree. She tried to resist, because it seemed the only sensible course open to her in that moment, so he said,
'All right, wait until it's yours and make up jam here, would you?' Una said, only half realizing what she says,
' Yes, I could be happy here,' before realizing how they have been talking and being seized with sudden anxiety that she had put herself too far forward. That she had not and all was well only came home to her when he took her hands, as she had taken his that evening over a year ago, when the lilacs had not yet bloomed and the weather still justified casserole, and said,
'Could you really?'
Una only inclined her head and murmured some sort of affirmative noise, but it was enough to banish long-ago ghosts and the sense of unreality that momentarily overwhelmed Shirley. They stood like that for a minute, not quite an arm's length apart, under the greengage tree, her eyes cast down and his heavenward, both equally full with feeling. But it was only a minute and then he drew her near and murmured something in his turn, so that they made their way companionably out of the garden and walked back towards the Manse.