The bright voice of the tour rep, Josie, resumed over the microphone from where she was standing in the coach’s footwell beside the imperturbable, navy clad shoulders of their driver, in contrast, the silent sort.

“Very shortly, we will be arriving at Avery House, the country seat of the noted Restoration satirist and wit, Lord Cyril Avery, famed for its architecture, gardens, orchards and, for those of us visiting today, soft Summer fruits to pick ourselves, weigh and pay at the gift shop.”

A vast periwig in long, tight rolls, almost an entity in itself, was all that sprang to Anne’s mind at this mention of 'the great man’, whose witty epigrams and scathing perorations, whilst being pithily pertinent to the politics of his day, were, she felt, rather lost in the context of modern times.  Windbag, was how she had always thought of him. 

Anne glanced around the coach’s occupants, who had been genteel company for the last several days, it being a literature related kind of tour.  Everybody looked pleased at the prospect being held out.  She supposed she could make a Summer pudding with the fruit when she got home, since it would be their final outing.  It was a dish that always made her feel a bit ‘Murder in the Vicarage’ when she made it, soft white bread fingers bloodily sopped in deep red juices for a pudding as old fashioned as a maid in a basement.  There was more than one way to commit murder, though, she considered, thinking of the many years she had spent struggling with her husband’s ivory tower self sufficiency and baffled indifference towards doing things together.  

Coach trips, like cruises, were deemed intellectually infra dig and Ed was indulgently amused by Anne’s wanting to ‘partake’ of them, as he put it.  By now, if she did, she went with others, or, more unusually, as on this trip, by herself.  With a planned itinerary and excursions, it wasn’t such a difficult matter to be on her own.  

Ed remained at home, happily burrowing through further research into British colonial wars, his special field, just as engrossing to him in retirement as it had been during his academic life.  His work was thorough and done with an unsparing eye for the realities of what had gone on.  As a result, he was currently enjoying a little boom of renewed interest in it due to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ perspective and he was busy refreshing his lengthy scholastic insights.

The three day trip which Anne was on had barrelled through motorways, scenery and stopping off points with as much urgency as the York to London Stagecoach timetable might have lent it, leaving Anne at least, by Bath and Jane Austen, a little breathless.  They turned now into the grounds of one of those extraordinarily lovely houses with barley twist chimneys, added wings of varied vintages and rose coloured brick mulled by time into a warm, spicy glow in the sunshine which they were enjoying.  The coach swept an arc over the fine, clean gravel into the carpark with all the grandeur of an arriving limousine and they descended in a dignified line to be organised for visiting.

The tour of the house came first, orderly and attentive to the enthusiasms of the volunteer guides who, while eagerly sharing their knowledge, competed vigorously amongst themselves as to who had the greater expertise.  They passed occasional portraits of Sir Cyril Avery, spoon nosed and purse lipped in his finery, as towered over by the might of his high rise wig as Anne had remembered him to be.

This done, they emerged into the gardens, where they were urged to get on with picking the fruit while time allowed.  Josie, their coach rep, acting as their very own Mrs. Elton, Anne thought, led them to the help yourself pile of woven trugs they were to use, eagerly encouraging them with,

“Now, you can eat as much as you want as you go along, too!  So refreshing on a warm day like this.  Have you seen the size of these strawberries and raspberries?  Lovely sunshine.  Nothing like picking your own, is there?” but unlike Mrs Elton, Josie never flagged, infused, like homemade ginger beer, with an abundant effervescence.

The rows of figures going along the strawberry beds and raspberry canes, sporting sun hats of all shapes and sizes, had the look of happy peasants in a painting.  Anne heard a dry chuckle at her side.

“My God!  Look at them!  It’s bucolic plague!”

She recognised, in the speaker’s tone, an invitation to join with him in laughing at their plebeian pleasure; Ed all over, except that it wasn’t Ed, of course.

“Oh, very good.  Is it one of Cyril Avery’s?” she asked puncturingly, turning to him.

It was one of the people from the coach tour, a tall and heavy set man with thick ankles embedded in serious walking boots and socks as hairy as Harris Tweed.

“Actually, no.  I stole it from my wife.  She said it after we’d ploughed through an entire box set of Thomas Hardy films one Christmas.  Rather good, I thought.”

He was wryly self deprecating, in recognition of her put down.  Anne smiled more warmly.

“Yes,” she agreed.  “It is rather good”.

“Felix,” he said gravely, holding out his hand to shake hers.

“Anne,” she replied, accepting the gesture with the kind of brevity that made it clear it was on sufferance

His hair, still thick but striped with heavy greys, was parted centre style and worn too long for his age, which Anne considered to be the affectation of a pseud.  Anne, these days, considered a lot of things to be affectations and was not tolerant of them in people.  Eccentricity was one thing and conscious posing quite another, as she would have told Ed, had he been open to listening to her.  This man, Felix, was somebody whom Anne had avoided.  

On the coach, she would hear his plummy guffaw regularly, regaling whoever sat by him with a steady flow of conversation.  Alerted to his being a raconteur, she had ensured she didn’t sit at his dinner table during the two overnight hotel stays, opting for a quieter set of people instead, who mainly discussed their past holidays in various places, mildly vying for cultural supremacy.  Anne wanted a rest from being an attentive audience for the expounding male.  She got a lot of that in her academic home circles.

A pair of spectacles dangled from a chain on Felix’s bulky, jumpered chest, which he raised to peer through like field glasses.

“I’m going for a walk in the wilderness over there.  I can see a stream.   Care to join me?”  he invited expansively.

“What about your wife?” asked Anne, looking across the sets of fellow travellers plucking berries.

“It's a bit far for her to come since she’s at home,” he rejoined.

“Oh?  Are you travelling on your own as well?” Anne fatally said, realising too late that she had revealed her own solitary state.  

Damn!  She’d be a sitting duck now for providing a listening ear, she mentally kicked herself.

“I am,” he declared, without explanation but as if it would please Anne to hear that this was the case, which was annoying.

“I haven’t finished picking my fruit,” said Anne, raising her trug in demonstration.  “I need enough for a good Summer pudding.  Possibly raspberry vinegar too.”

She looked through her own glasses as dully as possible, hoping that she sounded intensely boring.

“Hah!” he gave a startling bark of laughter.  “Jam tomorrow, then!” he said in his loud way.

Tipping his glasses to her in lieu of a hat, he stalked off as if attempting the intrepid, bravely and alone.

“Ham,” Anne muttered to herself but half smiled all the same, as the performance was for her benefit.

His company would be an imbroglio of demand for attention, she was sure, unconvinced by the simplicity of his big hearted fellow demeanour.  Anne was rather hard on other people and having a naturally stern cast of feature, did not usually find it difficult to put them off.  The burly Felix (he would have a name like that, of course, she thought) was not, though, so easily put off, she found.

On emerging from the fruit garden amongst the pleasant murmurings of her table companions, she found him to be once more at her elbow.

“You missed a treat, Anne!” he said, with the showboating bonhomie he brought to being in general company.

Despite the warmth of the day and his hiking style clothing, he didn’t look especially heated.

“Did you go far?” she asked, looking him up and down penetratingly, which drew an answering smile.

“Hah!” he guffawed again.  “Busted!  No but I had a terrific ice cream sitting on a bench while you were all boiling yourselves into soup over there.  Raspberry vinegar topping, Anne!”

Was he actually twinkling as well as beaming?  And what was this assumption of intimacy with her?  Other people were laughing gently.

“He’s a card, isn’t he, Felix?” said someone.

“Always makes me laugh,” said somebody else.  “A real character.”

Felix, in receipt of this flattery, became even more cordial.

“Do let’s get weighed in, people!” he suggested.  “Josie’s looking at her watch again!  That’s promising!  Aren’t we for the hostelry next?”

“That’s right, Mr Butterfield.  They do a marvellous ploughman’s there.”

“Hah!” Felix barked again.  “Of course they do!”  

He mouthed ‘bucolic plague’ aside to Anne, with a roguish wink.  Roguish winks had never cut a lot of ice with Anne, who eyed him back as jadedly as Lord Cyril Avery had looked out from his portraits.  Really, how old did the silly fool think he was, acting all frolicsome at his age?  If he did it again, she’d ask him if he’d had a knock on the head lately, Anne thought crossly.  They had to pay for their pickings and Anne now walked determinedly ahead with her trug, agreeing to it costing extra to have the fruits decanted into a sterilized Kilner jar with ‘Avery House’ printed on its label.  She deftly avoided sitting with him over the pub lunch but when they got back on to the coach, Felix Butterfield managed to ease his way into the seat beside Anne, under the guise of making room elsewhere for someone to sit nearer to their friends.

“You don’t mind?” he breathed fruitily, taking up a lot of room next to her.

Anne made a non-committal noise and stared out of the window.  The fact that he had coarsely imposed his company upon her was irritating her more than that company itself, for apart from showing her a few photos he had taken on his phone and saying,

“You see, I really did go on a bit of that walk earlier”, then telling her of another trip he was considering going on,  he remained unusually quiet, seemingly content to enjoy the view too.

After a time, when the coach was just nearing its homebound destination, he remarked,

“The interesting thing about coach trips like this, is the kind of people you meet, I always think.  Being a widower myself, I recognise a particular kind of loneliness.  I think you have it, Anne.”

The coach was slowing and people were beginning to stand to collect their belongings.  Felix patted her hand in a gesture of companionable solidarity.  She removed hers swiftly.

“I thought you said your wife was at home?” she said with deep skepticism, looking at him severely.

“It’s easier than brickbatting people by telling them that she’s dead,” said Felix.  “Bit of a conversation killer on first acquaintance.”  Standing up himself, being on the outside of the seat, he got down his jacket and her coat, with the Kilner jar carefully wrapped up in it and passed it to her.  “You’ll miss me when I’m gone,” he said lightly and so Anne knew that he had accepted defeat.

She hung back to ensure he got off the coach before her and had collected his case and moved on while she was still waiting for hers to be brought out of the coach’s storage space.  

Back in her home kitchen later, though, when putting together the Summer pudding she had planned on (Ed having come down from his study to say, in his abstractedly amused way,

“Welcome home, Anne.  Did you have a nice time?”)  she found that she regretted her abruptness to Felix Butterfield, to some extent and that she did, against expectation, find she missed him a little, for there had been a warmth to him.  He had wanted to talk to her and not just at her, perhaps.

She finished off the making of the dish, which would have to act in place of souvenirs when their rather serious adult children arrived for Sunday dinner the following day.  They were ecologically particular and such gifts, being unnecessary ephemera, were frowned upon if not self crafted or second hand and therefore worthily bestowed.  Still, Emily and Nathaniel could hardly object to a Summer pudding with handpicked fruit, she considered, even if it did have to be made with white, shop bought bread.  Weighing down the basin’s contents with a saucer and an old pressure cooker valve, Anne put it in the fridge.  She was wondering if it really was nice to be home and finding that she was not at all sure that it was.

Anne took the coach tour brochure out of the drawer she kept it in and had a browse through the itinerary for the one Felix had told her he would be going on next.

“I’ll think about it,” she said to herself.

After all, it wasn’t as if anybody else would be wanting to go somewhere with her, was it?  She remembered that she had recently watched a nature programme about that area, where there was a little island which puffins returned to annually to breed on and, recalling it, she thought that there was something about their portly chuntering which reminded her of Felix, who was also not without a colourful beak.  She doubted if he would be flattered by the comparison, should she find that she had the opportunity to make it.  After making herself a drink, she went to sit down, taking the brochure with her and after another riffle through its pages, decisively fired up the app on her phone and made the coach tour booking.  

If Felix did turn out to be on it, she might give him a few more openings for conversation this time, Anne thought - not, of course, that she necessarily believed he really was a widower, and also not, of course, given her own circumstances, that this mattered either way.  He deserved, though, she reflected, if nothing else, at least the benefit of the doubt.  She might, if there were a next time, give him that.



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