Penny and Charles slipped with ease into their married life; they were both best friends and lovers always sharing their thoughts and experiences at the end of each day. Charles had been allocated to a parish in Bedfordshire in a charming small town, Ampthill. The rectory was a lovely Georgian redbrick house standing next to the old church. The space that they were afforded would in time make an excellent family home for their intended children, it meanwhile made a great place to have their friends and family about them.
With a stroke of good fortune Charles’s sister Jo, having completed her teacher training at Bedford College, landed her first teaching post in a village school in Houghton Conquest, a mere stone’s throw from Ampthill. The couple asked her immediately if she would like to lodge with them. The idea was quickly agreed to as it suited all their purposes.
Jo moved in at the end of the summer ready to start the September term. She chose her own two bedrooms next to each other so that she could have space and privacy when needed. Penny helped Jo decorate the rooms and choose pieces of furniture from about the house to make her space homely. When the revamp was completed Jo had a fresh light bedroom painted in white and pale pink with a flowery Laura Ashley border and matching curtains at the back window overlooking the pretty garden.
They reconfigured the adjoining room as a study cum sitting room. The fireplace was blacked and polished, the surround and mantle painted cream. Charles and one of the parishioners carried a small sofa up from the drawing room and the girls covered it with a cream cotton throw. Some cushion covers and matching curtains were made from another Laura Ashley print and the walls painted in a warm pink. An unused table was sourced from another downstairs room to be used as a desk. Finally finished, Penny and Jo gave Charles a conducted tour of their handiwork with Jo enthusing about her good fortune,
‘I’m so lucky to have such lovely rooms! Thank you both so much for making me so welcome. I have absolutely everything that I need now except for the car I’m going to buy. I’ll be able to afford one as I’m going to be saving so much money on lodgings’ she laughed, ‘I’ll let you drive it sometimes Charles dear in exchange for the largesse!’
‘Actually little sis I expect to be chauffeur driven’ responded Charles deadpan.
‘Then I’m afraid your expectations will not be met big bro as I shall be far too busy with my new career. I recommend a bike.’ So the banter continued as the rooms were inspected and pronounced very grand.
‘How about we tackle the rest of the house now?’ asked Charles, ‘You two have made such a fine job of these rooms I’m confident that I could let you lose!’
‘Oh dear!’ remarked Jo to Penny, ‘now look what we’ve let ourselves in for. If we’d have done a bad job we would have been let off!’
‘Yes indeed’ smiled Penny, appreciating the sibling’s banter, ‘Seriously though when you two are at work it’s something that I can be getting on with. I have some ideas for several of the other rooms if we can afford it?’ she glanced at Charles with smile and a raised eyebrow.
‘I expect we can a bit at a time, my love’ Charles responded, squeezing Penny’s waist fondly.
Penny therefore shared her time between decorating, parish duties supporting her husband’s work, and other voluntary pursuits including helping out in the local school. She borrowed some cookery books from the library and began to concoct interesting meals for the evenings. She shopped for food at the butcher and baker in the town and visited the market each week for fresh fruit and vegetables. She soon got to know all the villagers as she went to and fro with her shopping baskets, stopping to exchange a word here and there and always with a smile and an enquiry about a husband, a parent or a child.
Penny attended church every Sunday and sat in the front pew to listen to her husband’s sermon, usually for the second time as he had already practiced it on her. She helped with the church flowers, learning to tend the rectory garden to provide blooms for this purpose. She helped Charles to entertain parishioners and host charity events, often catering, baking and serving drinks much as her mother-in-law Jane had done. Penny loved her life married to Charles the man and as helpmate to Charles the parish priest. She had always longed for a family and a sense of belonging and counted herself extremely lucky that she had realised her dream.
Naturally Penny wanted to share her good fortune with everyone so she loved to fill the house with guests and to see them enjoy themselves. Her parents came to stay for weekend fairly frequently now that her father was stationed at home in Wiltshire. For Peter and Jane, Charles’s and Jo’s parents, weekends were almost impossible but they managed to visit once in a while during the week for an overnight stay. Suzanne managed to visit occasionally for a weekend but since her mother’s death had spent most of her weekends with her father in Oxford.
One of these longed for weekends was in late June of 1975. Suzanne had called Penny to see if the weekend would be convenient as her father was tied up with College business and wouldn’t miss her visit. Penny was delighted and set about making everything perfect for Suzanne’s arrival on the Friday night. Penny had decorated a guest bedroom at the back of the rectory overlooking the garden. The room was rather like stepping into an old fashioned rose bower, the effect magnified by the accompanying rose scent provided by the cut flowers from the garden. The walls were papered with huge swags of overblown rose blooms in shades of pink. The curtains and bedspread were made from thick woven cotton in a deep fuchsia pink contrasting with the white painted woodwork. Penny laid out thick white cotton fluffy towels, a bathmat and a set of perfumed soap, bubble bath and body lotion for her friend in the next-door guest bathroom.
Dinner for the evening was all prepared in advance so that she could sit and chatter with Suzanne all evening. Her best treat was a picnic that she planned for the Saturday. Penny could barely contain herself waiting for her friend to arrive; when finally she heard the sound of a car drawing up outside she ran to the door to greet her friend. Suzanne looked tired and Penny was all solicitous concern for her.
‘I’m fine Pen, don’t worry’, responded Suzanne, ‘Nothing that a nice chilled glass of wine and a hot bath won’t fix!’
‘Of course Annie, darling’ responded Penny with a hug, ‘everything’s laid out upstairs for the bath, same room as last time. As soon as you’re out drinks are ready in the garden as it’s such a balmy evening.’
‘Wonderful’ responded Suzanne, ‘I’ll head up to the rose bower and dump my stuff. I think the bath can wait for later. I’ll be right down.’
Charles poured drinks and replenished nibbles while the two girls chatted easily together in the warmth of the summer evening. Charles left the two girls alone for their catch up with the excuse of parish work that needed his attention. Penny asked Suzanne about her father and how he was coping on his own, her kind heart touched by his circumstances.
‘Mostly he’s burying himself in College work. But he isn’t looking after himself very well, or the house. Actually Pen I am really worried about him and the worst of it is that he is expected to retire from Merton now he’s 65. He just seems to be ignoring the fact and carrying on as normal at the moment, but come next term he won’t have a job to go to.’
‘Oh Annie, That must be a worry. What will you do?’
‘Well I don’t really know, but what I do know is that I’ve got to make him sit down with me and face all the facts because until he’s done that we can’t really move forward.’
‘How are you coping with all the anxiety about your father on top of your career as well? You look tired and thin.’ Penny’s voice went up at the end of her sentence in a little bleat of concern.
‘Well then it’s true that every cloud has a silver lining’ Suzanne laughing, nodding a yes and smiling at Charles as he reappeared to replenish her glass, Penny gesticulated no as Suzanne continued drily, ‘though I can’t really recommend losing one parent and looking after another semi-senile one as the ideal diet.’ Penny shook her head, laughing despite herself.
‘I am fine, really Pen’ Suzanne continued, in a more serious vein, ‘the people at work have been really supportive and allowed me to work flexible hours when necessary and I’ve put my bigger ambitions on hold for the time being. Now tell me about what you’ve been up to.’
Penny recounted how she passed her days feeling almost guilty that she was so content, though she knew Suzanne so well that she was assured of her good will.
‘And best of all’, she finished taking hold of Suzanne’s hand and squeezing it, ‘I’m pregnant! Charles and I are going to be parents. I’m so unbelievably happy Annie, I can’t believe it sometimes and I have to pinch myself!’ Suzanne hugged her friend with unequivocal delight,
‘I’m so happy for you and you do so deserve to be happy.’ At that moment Charles appeared and was hugged and congratulated in his turn.
They spent the rest of the evening sitting at the kitchen table eating super and talking late into the night.