The Chilbury Ladies' Choir(10)

By: Jennifer Ryan

“All right, you’ll get ten thousand. But it’ll be half before and half after,” he roared. “And if Mrs. Winthrop gives birth to a boy, you’ll settle with half.” He looked me over, scowling. “How am I to trust a woman capable of doing such a business?”

“Women are capable of many things, Brigadier. You just haven’t noticed it until now.” I gave a quick smile. “I will need the first half of the money, in cash, two weeks from today.”

He blustered around the scrub, and I suddenly realized how much this deal meant to him. I should have taken him for fifty. He would have done it. He would have done virtually anything.

“You’ll get your money,” he growled under his breath. “Come back here on that date at ten, and it’ll be ready.” He came toward me, his eyes scrunched up like Ebenezer Scrooge. “And mind you keep your mouth closed, or the deal’s off. Not a word to my wife either. She is not to know. Do you hear me?”

“I hear you, Brigadier.” I spoke quietly. “Loud and clear.”

With that I turned and strode out into the wood, leaving him pacing around, cursing under his breath.

Taking a deep breath of newly fresh air, I danced out of the bracken and onto the path. This will work, Clara. As a precaution, I have decided to get chummy with the nuisance Tilling woman. Keep my ear to the ground. This is big money, and my attention to detail is merciless. I’ll write closer with details, just as you said you wanted in your letter. I know you think I’ll mess it up like usual, but I won’t let you down this time. You’ll be rich before the spring is out, I swear.


Wednesday, 17th April, 1940

Prim’s notice in the church hall announcing a new “Ladies’ ” choir has caused uproar in our tiny community. Last night before the Women’s Voluntary Service meeting (or the WVS as we say these days), Mrs. B. told me she’d gone straight to the Vicar to find out the truth.

“ ‘Have you allowed this woman—this newcomer—to take over the choir and debase it beyond recognition?’ I demanded of him, and do you know what he said? The Vicar, who is supposed to be a Man of God, told me, ‘Well, she was awfully forceful and I really couldn’t object.’ I didn’t know what to say!”

“Gosh,” I said. I was rather excited about the whole adventure. At least we’d be singing again. I’d missed it. “I know it’s unusual, but why don’t we go along and see what Prim has to say. There’s no harm in it, after all.”

“No harm in it?” she bellowed back at me. “No harm in ruining the reputation of our village? I can’t imagine what Lady Worthing will have to say to me about it. She’s such a stickler for doing things the way they’ve always been done.”

A few of the other WVS ladies joined in, the Sewing Ladies tutting about it over their troops’ pajamas, the canteen ladies unsure how it would work. So you can imagine my curiosity as I peeked into the church this evening, nipping in out of the rain.

I was one of the first to arrive, and the place looked enchanted, the candles at the altar throwing dark shadows around the nave. One by one the ladies began to arrive: Mrs. Gibbs from the shop, Mrs. B., Mrs. Quail at the organ, and even Hattie, who’s heavily pregnant now but said she wouldn’t miss it for the world. Miss Paltry made an appearance—it seems she is turning a new leaf, even speaking to me at the end about becoming involved in the WVS. Kitty and Mrs. Winthrop bounded in enthusiastically, bringing their evacuee, Silvie, who for once was almost smiling. Venetia strolled in, perfectly dressed in case she bumps into Mr. Slater. She’s become astoundingly unpleasant. But maybe there’s hope for her now that Angela Quail’s out of proximity.

By seven the place was packed, in spite of the downpour, and a buzz of chatter and anticipation filled the chilly air; even Our Lady of Grace seemed to look down in readiness. Meanwhile, a firm contingent of naysayers clucked like a bunch of unhappy hens in front of the altos’ pew, urged on by Mrs. B.

Suddenly, the massive double doors flung open, and Prim, majestic in her black, sweeping cloak, swooshed down the aisle toward us, her footsteps cascading through the wooden awnings, scaring a few bats in the belfry. She swirled off her cloak and shook off the rain, her hair looking especially frazzled. With a look of pomp and ceremony in her eyes, she plumped a pile of music on a chair and pranced theatrically up the steps to the pulpit.

“May I have everyone’s attention, please,” she called, her pronunciation resounding richly through the cloisters. “I’m proud to announce the creation of the Chilbury Ladies’ Choir.”