THE VILLAGE FETE
The morning of the Steeple Norford Annual Village Fete dawned miserably. The skies were leaden and the persistent rain slanted down upon the colourful marquees and stalls which were dotted around the green. The Union Jacks and gaily coloured bunting that had been hung with care the day before, now drooped sorrowfully in sodden strands.
Mrs. Agnes Watson looked at the scene from the downstairs bedroom window of her beautiful little rose-covered cottage. Her garden was always well looked after and full of her favourite flowers. She smiled when she saw her neighbour, Ned Beckington, beavering away as usual. He regarded her garden as being an extension of his own and tended it with all the loving care that she could no longer bestow upon it. He seemed to be enjoying the rain. He wore his old straw hat perched cheekily on the back of his head: he saw her and waved and could just hear him call ‘Mornin’ Mrs Watson. And how are you to day?’ Agnes waved back.
She watched as a group of people arrived carrying baskets filled with rolled-up paper, tablecloths and pretty umbrellas. Others carried chairs and notice boards, in fact everything they needed to make their particular stall just that much better than their neighbours’. A woman staggered under a load of cakes and buns that were obviously on their way to the cake stall and following her, a young woman in a beautiful red dress with a full skirt carried bric-a-brac destined for the white elephant stall. Agnes sighed: she reminds me so much of the time so long ago now, when I had worn a dress like that, she thought. I wonder if she is looking for someone she loves too. Uncontrolled tears fell from her eyes until she realised the utter futility of it all. Stop it, you silly old woman, she told herself and released the memory from her tired mind.
Agnes could see them all chatting away in animated conversation as they went about their tasks, seemingly oblivious to the rain that fell incessantly upon them from the heavens. She fidgeted in her chair, trying to make herself more comfortable. All she could do now was sit and watch.
The village nestled proudly amidst the rolling hills of Sussex, as it had done for hundreds of years. The population consisted mainly of local trades-people, farmers and their workers and had remained reasonably static over the years. Some of the more affluent inhabitants, had moved away and on to better things or so they thought and yet others from afar, had taken one look at the village and declared that they could never live anywhere else. But its character had remained roughly the same.
The representatives of the various organisations in Steeple Norford, met annually to arrange the Fete. This year, the day chosen coincided with the 50th Anniversary of V.E. Day – a most important event in the village. After much squabbling about what form the celebrations should take, the organising Committee eventually agreed and they all rushed away, eager to put their plans into motion.
The Fete had been held on the same spot for nearly one hundred years and the proceeds were always given to the St. Mary’s Church Restoration Fund. The church was situated at the far end of the green and Agnes stared at it: the spire was still twisted. It hadn’t changed at all during her lifetime, ‘81 long years,’ she murmured softly. Her grey, watery, myopic eyes suddenly grew tired and misty. She sighed and yet despite her earlier reluctance, she remembered the day her love for Charles Watson blossomed…
It was 1938 on a balmy early summer’s day in June and she was preparing to meet Charles. He was in the army and she had been out with him a few times. He was so handsome she told herself, as she pirouetted happily in front of the mirror, her red silk dress swirling around her long, slim legs. She placed two pretty tortoise-shell combs into her Veronica Lake style blond hair and feeling satisfied with her appearance, looked eagerly out of the window to see if she could see him. Her excitement heightened as each minute passed by. He was so patient and kind to her and she felt the first stirrings of love igniting within her.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and people were already out on the village green and preparing for the grand opening. Agnes felt unusually elated and excited, as though something momentous was about to happen. Then she saw him walking across the green and her eyes followed him as he bent down to open their low white painted gate. Her heart fluttered with excitement. She waited for her mother to answer the door and then heard the sound of his voice. She quickly checked her appearance yet again, before walking out of her bedroom.
Charles greeted her affectionately. She thought he looked so dashing in his straw boater and red and white striped jacket. His military-type moustache always seemed to turn up at the edges: she supposed that was because he was always smiling.
Later they strolled hand in hand around the green, both completely unaware of what was going on around them. They didn’t see the happy crowds of people, throwing wooden balls at coconuts which were firmly implanted in their holders. They didn’t hear the excitement when someone expertly threw a ring around a hoped for prize or, smell the delicious aroma of the food which was on offer in the tea tent. The races went on in the centre of the green as they sauntered by. Even the noisy crowd which had gathered around the boxing ring, failed to gain their attention. None of these things even existed for them.
Soon after passing the coconut-shy for the second time, Charles stopped, looked down at her and took her small hand in his.
‘My darling Aggie,’ he said tenderly. ‘I have something important to say to you.’
‘Yes, Charles,’ she answered expectantly, her heart thumping in her chest. She thought that he’d never looked quite so wonderful before. His eyes were like deep blue pools into which she felt she could plunge…
‘Well, firstly, I would like to say how much I love you and that I would like you to become my wife. Secondly, I am being sent away for a while.’ The last few words were said almost as an aside. ‘So perhaps we could get married when I get back. You will wait for me, won’t you, my dearest?’ he said earnestly.
‘Oh my darling Charles, of course I will marry you. But you say that you are going away? Where are they sending you?’
‘Berlin,’ Agnes repeated, suddenly feeling afraid. ‘But Charles won’t that be dangerous? I’ve heard so many stories about the troubles and…’
‘I really have no choice in the matter. I have already received my orders.’ He lifted her chin upwards. ‘You silly little goose, everything will be alright, you’ll see’.
From that moment on, Agnes lost her heart completely and for ever.
Charles did manage to get some leave and managed to get a special licence, despite opposition from her parents, who regarded their decision to get married to be too soon.
‘Agnes,’ her father had said, ‘Are you sure that you know what you are doing? Charles seems nice enough, but you hardly know one another.’
Agnes had stood her ground, saying, ‘Daddy, what is the point of waiting. There is going to be a war soon and who knows what is going to happen.’ They were married in the local Registry Office and only a day later, Charles had to go away again.
When in 1939, war with Germany was eventually declared, he found it impossible to get out of Berlin. It was several weeks before Agnes heard from the War Office that Charles had been killed during a disturbance involving several members of the growing Hitler Youth Movement. He had simply been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Agnes thought the end of the world had arrived: she was totally heartbroken and lost interest in everything that went on around her.
Every year since then on the day of the Village Fete, Agnes would watch and eagerly wait, hoping against hope that she would see his happy, smiling face in the crowd, so that she could once again walk around the green with him.
This year’s Fete was now in full swing and a group of about six war veterans, each wearing their uniforms and medals with immense pride, were preparing to march around the village green. As if on cue, the rain that had been falling gently for some time suddenly stopped and the sun came out. Agnes’s mind began to wander once more. A picture formed in her mind of Charles dressed in his uniform. She was waving goodbye to him as he leaned out of the train window. She’d felt so proud of him…
The warmth of the sun soon penetrated through her bedroom window and Agnes was brought painfully back to the present. Again, unrestrained tears began to fall down her face, finally dropping unnoticed into her lap. She was old and frail and could now only walk a few steps with the aid of a stick. She’d never married again, believing that no man could ever have taken Charles’ place in her heart. She remembered it all so clearly as if it was yesterday, when Charles had proposed to her and then almost in the same breath, had told her that he was going away.
Agnes felt a strange weakness pass over her. She had been unable to eat or sleep properly for the past few days and she sighed deeply. She felt tired of life and looked out of the window again, for what she seemed to know would be the last time. She watched as the group of old servicemen finally disappeared into the tea tent. Young people wearing red, white and blue clothing and waving Union Jacks, sauntered around happily. Somewhere a band was playing and someone sang ‘We’ll meet again.’ Agnes closed her eyes and remembered…
Then she saw Charles, and he was beckoning to her. ‘Oh dearest Charles,’ she said happily. ‘I knew you would come: what kept you?’’
The milkman discovered her the following morning. He had been unable to rouse her and had looked in through the window. She was sitting bolt upright in her chair, her sightless eyes still apparently staring through the window…
Agnes was smiling so happily.