This love story of miss. Pringle starts like this. My friend Miss Pringle always says you can tell when a couple has declared their love. Being rather old- fashioned, she uses expressions like “declared their love.” You can tell, she says, by the way, they hold hands. Before a declaration of love, they just hold hands. Afterward, they swing their hands while walking. There’s a big difference. And Miss Pringle is very observant.
Unless she said, things have changed since her day. No, I assured her, love is the one thing that doesn’t change. She breathed a visible sigh of relief that while the cost of living rose and standards fell, love, at least, remained constant. Not that you could expect Miss Pringle to know much about love, living alone, and being elderly.
“I’ve never seen you and James holding hands,” she said suddenly, looking at me through rimless spectacles, over piles of books stacked on her living-room table.
“No?” I countered. “Well….” I didn’t remind her that love is not the only thing that is declared. War is, too. And I wouldn’t hold hands with that great-nephew of hers for all the tea in China, to use another of Miss Pringle’s phrases. She is my dear friend, and I visit her because she’s a love, and having James Macether for a great-nephew is not her fault.
Of course, he often visits her at the same time but that, to me, is more penalty than pleasure. We work together, and I see too much of him during the week to want his company at weekends.
To be more precise, I work for James Macether. He’s the boss of Macether Antiques, a small bow-fronted shop tucked away in an alcove at the quiet end of the High Street. He does the buying and I do the selling, so you could say we are on opposite sides. When1 can’t sell the ugly rubbish he buys, he tells me I have no sales technique and then I tell him… well, never mind what I tell him. Let’s just say we don’t see eye to eye.
I could have given her three very good reasons. Sylvia, Bernice, and Rosie. Impossible to find three better reasons than that. I didn’t know them personally, of course. To me, the dogsbody who answered the phone, they were disembodied voices asking, frequently, if they could speak to James, please? Bernice said it with a sigh; she sounded sultry. Sylvia with a lighthearted giggle that suggested she and James shared many lighthearted giggles. And Rosie, well, I couldn’t quite place Rosie. She sounded the quiet, serious type. I didn’t intend to join the queue
Avoiding her gaze, I looked through the window at autumn taking place outside. I have to admit this is another reason I liked to visit Miss Pringle’s cottage on the edge of rolling downland, a short walk from the sea. The seasons are not just dates on a desk calendar. They happen and can be felt and witnessed. Take spring: it’s all around you, a budding, and a hopefulness that comes with the morning dew and progresses naturally to summer. And summer: that’s the time when children carrying buckets and spades pass the cottage door, and evenings are touched by soft winds from the sea and a blackbird’s song from the hedgerow.
I turned from the view and found Miss Pringle watching me searchingly over her wall of books.
“Yes, he is,” she said firmly. “I’ve watched him when you are together. I remember a poem…” Pausing, she searched her memory. “The first line went something like ‘How closely I have come to love you’ and another line is, ‘But you delayed a second’s space and then….” The trouble with you, Harriet, is that you run away from love.”
“And the trouble with you, Miss Pringle,” I replied with mock severity, “is that you are incurably romantic.”
She stood up, “Very well. We’ll have a cup of tea and talk about something else.”
Miss Pringle’s ancestors were the reason she was surrounded by books. She was tracing her family tree. “My great-nephew, James, collects antiques. I collect antique people,” she once explained.
It began two years ago when she came across handwritten entries on the flyleaf of an old family Bible. The pages were yellowed with age, the ink faded, and we had read with difficulty, she and I, a little chronicle of Victorian babies, Joseph and George, and Alice listed with their dates and times of birth.
“Such a pity we no longer follow this custom,” she said. “And this one-” Her finger stopped at the name Abraham. “This one became my grandfather.” She smiled, then frowned a little, trying to equate her memory of a bewhiskered old gentleman sitting at the head of the table leading family grace with the entry in the Bible, “March 2, 1861, 9:30 P.M., 7 lb. 2 oz.”
The kettle steamed and boiled on the hob. That was another thing I liked about Miss Pringle’s. Nothing changed, except the seasons. She had grown old, ignoring central heating and electric kettles, and a fire always burned in the grate. While she busied herself with teacups and bread and butter, Miss Pringle told about a recently discovered Scottish ancestor, Hamish Mac- Tavish, who rallied his troops in a northern battle, stood on a rock sounding the advance and died not long afterward.
“Probably from pneumonia,” Miss Pringle added. “Caught while standing on that rock, you know.” She sighed again. “A fine figure of a man.”
Not that Miss Pringle possessed evidence of his fine figure. It was just that all her male ancestors conformed to a high standard of masculinity, being upright, courageous, handsome, learned, patriotic, unfailing in the line of duty but tender and protective toward the fair sex. Oh, yes, they knew what was expected of them.
Sometimes I wondered how Miss Pringle’s family tree managed to produce its latest male offshoot, namely James Macether. Hardly a fine figure of a man, though I suppose given the right situation, the challenging circumstances, yes, I suppose it was just possible….
But no, James would not go down in the Macether family history as the one who led a regiment to victory or the one who restored the family fortune with a lucky throw of dice. He’d be remembered as the one who needed six hands in order to cope with Sylvia, Bernice, and Rosie. I sometimes wondered if his love life ever overlapped.
After tea, I kissed Miss Pringle goodbye and walked down the path, leaving her outlined in yellow light in the doorway.
“Give my love to James,” she called and waved.
A mist crept in from the sea and autumn dusk surrounded the spinney. It was beautiful.
Autumn was doing its best in town, too. Golden- leafed trees cast shadows on the pavement outside the shop. On Monday morning I unlocked the door and went inside and reveled for a few minutes in the pervading antique shop smell; the musty smell of a row of Victorian chairs, the upholstery shaped by the attitudes of unknown sitters and still listening, it seemed, to the Victorian conversation. And of polish once diligently applied to a mahogany table that supported many sepia photographs of young men in uniform: husbands and brothers and sweethearts, who had once gone to war, and who now watched over a silent weekend shop. I hoped James would be able to sell the chairs soon. We needed a good sale to balance the books.
In the window, autumn sunlight glinted through Victorian glassware: charming, pink Bristol glass and dishes with rainbows of color. The kind they used to give away as prizes at fairgrounds.
I moved an aspidistra pedestal of singular ugliness, as it was taking too much window space. That’s James’s taste for you. Awful.
I turned, and Shadow, our white kitten, ran across the shop to greet me, so I knew James had arrived. We took turns looking after Shadow on weekends, just as we did to visit Miss Pringle. James one Sunday-me, the next. At least we had Miss Pringle and Shadow in common.
Shadow, whose contribution to the shop was to lie in feline slumber on a chaise longue in the window, purred against my neck as I carried her to the back room where James kept the filing cabinets, ledgers, kettle and milk. I met him.
“Did doubt to divert attention from the monstrosity he was trying to lever through the open door. It looked like half a Viking ship, complete with candle holders, mirrors, and drawers.
“All right,” I said. “Busy.” On second thought, it reminded me of an ugly sideboard with a ship’s figurehead at one end. It was the kind of female figurehead they used to attach to the prow of a ship to ward off the evil eye.
He stopped to unhook his waistcoat buttonhole from you see Aunt Jessica yesterday?” he asked, no the knob of a drawer. If there is a time when I warm to James, and I only say if, then it’s when he’s moving furniture. Being a naturally elegant man, streamlined wrists and tall, with a nice head and dark hair grow- ing close to his neck, he looks like a poet who is unexpectedly called to hump sacks of coal. Sort of outraged and vulnerable. Almost human, in fact. And he always manages to become hooked on something.
“It will take more than clever salesmanship to sell that thing,” I went on.
“That-” he straightened and gave me a fearless look a man gives a woman when he thinks she is being foolish “-is not one thing, it’s two things. Someone in years gone by, for a reason known only to himself, nailed the two together. Don’t just stand there, woman. Come and help.”
We brought the monstrosity inside, but it wasn’t easy. James stopped to wipe his forehead, then lovingly ran a hand along with the sideboard. Suddenly I knew how that hand would feel in a gentle loving touch. I wished…but no, no point in wishing! That touch was reserved for furniture. Now if I were an old sidėboard…or even Sylvia, Bernice, or Rosie perhaps.
“What kind of idiot could want to drive nails in such beautiful wood?” he asked, his hand moving back and forth along the grain.
Personally, I preferred the figurehead with her fierce stare and carved curls flowing forever in a sea wind. And that wooden aristocratic nose that must have pioneered many pathways through unchartered waters. But then James and I have nothing in common. Apart from mutual affection for Miss Pringle and Shadow, of course.
In answer to his question, I said, “Probably an old sea captain who wanted to keep the evil eye off his bacon and eggs.”
“Get to your work, woman.” James gave me a glare that could only have been inherited from a long line of aggressive, conquering, male chauvinist ancestors.
The ping of the shop bell left no choice, and I sold an elaborate Edwardian hatpin to a man wearing jeans and a beard, who said he wanted the pin to clean the keys of his typewriter. That’s what I call style. Not at all like James’s sartorial image. A glance through the doorway between shop and office showed James white-cuffed and impeccably tailored, trying to disentangle sideboard and figurehead.
“Ugly, isn’t she?” he said when he had completed his task.
“No, I don’t think so. Not as ugly as something else I could mention.” I glanced at the sideboard and then began to apply cleaning fluid to the face of Mi- Randa. Somehow we called her that. It suited her. “Look, the colors are still bright.”
And they were. The painted skin tones and copper-colored ringlets glowed. The eyes, woodenly staring, were ringed in black paint, while the lips, a bright red, were carved to a perpetual half-smile. An enigmatic smile, as if she knew what lay behind the next sunset. I wondered how many oceans she had pioneered, guarding her ship and crew. “How old is she, James? Can you fix a date?”
He considered for a moment. “Old. Very old. And ugly.”
We worked late that evening, long after the shop was closed.
“What about coming with me for some supper, Harriet?” James lifted Miranda and placed her in the window. It seemed an ignominious end, doomed to stare across the High Street after a life of adventure on the high seas. “The Chinese restaurant will be open.” He looked at me, his voice soft, endearing, so why didn’t I accept?
“No, I don’t think so. Thank you all the same.”
Running away again, Miss Pringle would have accused. Afraid to get involved. Of course, I knew the real reasons. We had nothing to talk about, James and I, and besides, being my boss, he might one day fire me. In fact, if the credit column did not improve soon, he would have to fire me. “I thought I’d have an early night.”
“As you wish,” he said and turned away to find his coat.
I fed Shadow, and I can remember now the strange silence that filled the shop. A street light sent shadows dancing across Miranda’s face, carving anew the high nose and mysterious smile.
“Lock up when you’ve finished,” James called from the door. “Good night, Harriet.”
The next day James received an offer for Miranda. A good offer and he refused it. I couldn’t believe it at first.
“But why?” I asked when the customer had left. “A sale like that would balance the books. Why did you say she had been sold?”
“Because I have plans for her.” He leaned an elbow on Victorian whatnot. “I’ve been doing some research into the family tree, and I think Aunt Jessica would be interested in Miranda.”
“Miss Pringle?” I suppose I sounded surprised. “But- do you care about her research?”
“Of course I care. Get to your work, woman.”
I turned to answer the shop bell. “Well, it’s your turn to visit this weekend. Give Miss Pringle my love.”
But the next day she phoned to ask us to go together. Come on Saturday evening, stay the night, stay for Sunday lunch, she said, adding she had something to tell us.
“Seems we’ll have to tolerate each other for a short weekend,” James remarked, replacing the telephone receiver.
“Seems we will,” I agreed.
Then he turned and said, almost shyly, “Besides, I need Miranda for tonight’s evening class. Why don’t you come along to my class on the appreciation of antiques? It’s wood carvings tonight, primitive tribal carvings. You never know, you might learn something. At the Education Center. Do you know where it is? Eight sharp.
“I’ll think about it,” I said. No doubt Sylvia, Bernice, and Rosie would have jumped at the chance, but I just thought about it, and eventually, the idea of watching James trying to justify his bad taste began to appeal to me.
The class had already started when I arrived, and I crept sheepishly to the back row. James and Miranda occupied a table at the front, and I sat down and looked them both in the eye. Miranda loomed rather large and bestowed a disdainful smile, as well she might, on the ugliest collection of wood carvings I had ever seen. Carvings of skulls and strange birds and little men with short legs and large heads. Goodness knows where James found them.
“Now this one-” he picked up the most grotesque carving and passed it to two middle-aged ladies sitting in the front row “-was made by a tribe that once lived in the rain forests of South America. Perhaps you can tell us something about it, Bernice? Or you, Sylvia?” he invited. I could scarcely believe it.
Surely those two comfortable ladies could not be Sylvia and Bernice. Surely not, but they were. And it seemed safe to assume that the elderly lady sitting next to them was Rosie. She was like an antique herself. A nice little Victorian antique, well-upholstered and lived-in and mellowed, and she brought some delicious homemade fudge that we ate during the tea break.
“I hope you have learned one or two things,” James remarked pleasantly when the class was over.
“Oh, I have,” I agreed, and if Miranda hadn’t been so aristocratic and aloof, I swear she would have given me a sly wink.
The next time I saw Miranda we were all on our way to see Miss Pringle.
We left on Saturday evening, after closing time, James impeccably sweatered and jeaned, Shadow protesting in a basket, Miranda on the back seat, and me feeling relaxed and strangely at ease with James. Toler- dating him might not prove too difficult after all.
After an unusually warm day for autumn, the colors of the evening were muted by mist. We drove in silence until the wind blew from the sea to greet us, salty, and smelling of freedom.
James stopped the car outside the gate, pulling up on the grass verge. Turning, he took my hand, kissed it, and smiled. “Tolerating you has been a pleasure,” he said.
We got out and walked along the path, opened the front door, which was always unlatched, and found the cottage to be empty. The table was set with three places, the fire banked for her return, but there was no sign of Miss Pringle.
“What now?” I looked around the dim room and then at James, aware of gathering dusk.
“Strange,” he said. “She knew we would arrive about this time. I know-the beach. She’s gone for an evening walk. Come on.”
The sunset spilled red on the incoming tide. Rocks cast purple shadows. The slight wind blew chill. James scanned the bay, from one outcrop of rocks to another, then his gaze swept along the empty beach. Close by, someone had written in the sand. The tide swilled forward and back, dragging half the message to nothing so that only “I love you” remained.
“If I weren’t so worried about Aunt Jessica, I’d rewrite it for you. I’ll do it later.”
The tenderness in his voice made me look at him quickly. This was a James I didn’t know. I wanted to say, “Rewrite it now,” but the sound of Miss Pringle’s voice interrupted.
“James! Harriet!” The voice carried across the water. “I’m here. On the rock. Out in the bay.”
And there she was, a small upright figure waving a notebook, her gray coat blending with the rock that was, I judged quickly, about thirty yards from the beach. That rock, I knew, was never covered, not even in a high winter tide. Nevertheless, the water raced and glittered in the evening sun, and looked dangerous.
“Well,” James said resignedly, “I suppose I must rescue her.”
“I suppose you must,” I replied, and just after that, it happened. The feeling that comes over you that you know later as love… as James took off shoes and socks and I saw him wade out to sea to rescue Miss Pringle. He scooped her off the rock and carried her back and set her down on dry sand, both of them soaking wet.
“Try not to do that again, love. Okay?”
“Yes, dear.” Miss Pringle smiled up at him. “But I discovered that our ancestors came by sea. Around that point there.” Her arms stretched vaguely toward the horizon. “They invaded.”
“Yes, I know. I discovered that too. And we’ve brought you the wooden figurehead from the ship they sailed. Well, probably sailed,” he qualified. “We’ve brought her to you, Harriet and I, and back to the sea where she belongs.”
“Oh, how kind,” Miss Pringle murmured, squeezing water from the hem of her coat. “You and Harriet. Well, well.”
And on her face was a little smile identical to Miranda’s, as if they both knew what lay behind the next sunset.
“Come on,” I said. “You both need towels.” After all, somebody had to be practical.
James took my hand, and we walked back to the cottage. There were one or two questions I wanted to ask Miss Pringle, later when she was dry and warm, such as how she allowed herself to be marooned on a rock when she was familiar with every turn of the tide. But that could wait until I had asked her if there was still room for another entry in her family Bible, a few more additions to the family tree.
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