Laura Clayton's last day on earth was as ordinary as any other, right up to the few moments before she came to her messy end.
The only unusual thing about it was that she awoke to brilliant sunshine dancing on the bedroom window. March had been a spiteful month, not only coming like a lion but roaring its way through with no let up in the constant rain and lashing gales. It seemed to have no intention of going out like a lamb, but on this Saturday, the 31st, it finally relented.
"I don't believe it!" Laura said aloud, scrambling into a housecoat and hurrying to look out at the phenomenon. But it was true and everything in the garden, which yesterday had looked dreary and sullen, was nodding and smiling and perking up in the unaccustomed brightness and warmth.
Laura was a happy person and, being a countrywoman at heart, was never too affected by changes in the weather, but she loved her garden. As always, her eyes, after the first quick look around, came to rest on the flowering cherry tree. She thought how much the buds would be enjoying the sun and pictured in imagination its glory when in full bloom.
When her husband died five years previously, all Laura's friends expected she would sell the house with its large garden and move into something smaller. She fobbed them off with vague promises to consider it.
To her son, Alec, she said, "they'd think I was mad if I told them I couldn't bear to leave my lovely cherry tree, but that is the truth. I think it'd miss me if I went away." Alec wasn't too sure if he understood his mother, either, but his young wife said it made sense to her. So being outnumbered by his women folk, he wisely held his tongue.
Laura, bathed and dressed, went to the kitchen, picking two letters off the mat as she went. Looking at the handwriting with pleasure, she left them unopened until she was sitting down to her coffee, toast, and marmalade.
One letter from Alec was short but the other, although reasonably brief, caused her to exclaim with surprise and to need another reading to grasp it. She was just coming to the end of it for the second time when the sound of the side gate closing dragged her thoughts away. A glance at the kitchen clock showed her it was later than she'd thought, and here was Milly to prove it.
Milly Patcham, born a cockney and still with the dialect to prove it, opened the kitchen door and bustled in, talking as usual. She always began the conversation half way down the path, and Laura never knew what the beginning of the sentence was. In fact, sometimes it took her quite a while to guess what the topic of conversation might be.
Thirty years of Milly's ministrations had given both women a respect and affection for the other and, allowing for a difference in upbringing, they could honestly look on each other as friends.
"--said to 'im 'e ought to look after 'er better. No business to be luggin' them 'eavy bags about, and so I told 'er, too."
"Whom are we talking about this time?" Laura asked in a resigned tone.
"Bert the milkman, acourse. Yer know 'is wife's due any day. Two misses she's 'ad already, and she didn't ought to be takin' any chances. Saw 'er in the supermarket yesterday. You've been lucky this time, I said. Don't push yer luck. If yer doesn't watch out, you'll be 'avin one o' those mongrels!"
"Mongols not mongrels," Laura corrected her patiently. "What a cheerful thing to say to the poor girl. Anyway, I saw her myself a day or two back, and she looks perfectly well to me."
"That's as may be, madam dear. But you read some funny things in the papers. Never 'eard about all this when I was young--must be all to do with this population explosion I shouldn't wonder."
Laura smothered a laugh and stored this new 'Millyism' in her memory to tell Alec.
"Sit down and have a cup of coffee before you start work. Forget all the gloom and misery. I've had a piece of good news in the post this morning--well, two in fact--but the most important is that Alec's coming tomorrow."
"Oh that'll be nice, madam dear. Is 'e bringing the wife and baby? 'Ow long are they staying?"
"Only Alec and just a flying visit. He's going abroad on Monday for the firm, starting early, so thought he'd break his journey here and stay the night."
"Bet you're pleased about that. It'll be like old times to 'ave Alec all to yourself, won't it?"
"Milly! You'll make me feel guilty saying things like that," Laura protested. "I love my daughter-in-law dearly as you well know. But yes, I've got to admit it'll be lovely to have him on his own. Anyway, I've got a little problem I want to discuss."
Milly's eyes lit up with avid curiosity, and Laura could have kicked herself. Milly was a treasure beyond price and as loyal as they came, but she was an inveterate gossip. If anyone had accused her of being a mischief-maker, she would have been scandalized, but there was no doubt about it--her unruly tongue had caused more than one bit of bother in the town. Everyone knew Milly, and Milly knew everyone.
Wisely, Laura made no comment but said briskly, "come on, drink up. We've got work to do--blankets and sheets to get out for Alec's bed. I'd like his room ready before I go out. I've a full day ahead and dinner with the vicar tonight, so there won't be much time."
That got Milly moving and for the next couple of hours, the two women worked companionably together until Laura glanced at her watch.
"I'll have to be off. Hairdressing appointment. Will you finish up by yourself?"
"Acourse, madam dear. Now, does yer want me to leave anything for yer lunch?"
"No, thanks. I'll probably get a bite at that new cafe on the High Street. Then I'll finish the shopping, get a bottle of Scotch for Alec, too. Pity I don't like it, or there would have been some in the house."
Hurriedly she changed her skirt and top, threw on a raincoat, and went down into the white-painted hall.
"'Ang on a tick! It's turned cloudy. Yer needs an 'ead scarf, 'specially if you're going to the 'airdressers. I put one in the 'all drawer the other day."
She rummaged about while Laura waited impatiently. In her haste, she pulled the whole drawer out, scattering the contents on the carpet, amongst them a small dog collar.
"Oh, blast!" she said, quickly trying to shuffle it out of sight, but Laura had seen and the tears came into her eyes. She picked the little collar up, stroked it affectionately, sighed, and put it back in the drawer.
"It's no good. I'll have to get another dog. When old Sammy died, I swore never again, but I do miss him about the place."
"Now, madam dear! You know you said you wouldn't, and when young Alec was 'ere, 'e told me not to encourage you if you started talkin' about one. You nearly break yer 'eart and make yerself ill when they die. Don't do it."
Laura snuffled and blew her nose. Looking at Milly's anxious face, she gave a watery smile. "I'm an old fool, aren't I? But as a matter of fact, I've already broken the news to Alec that I'm thinking of having another. So far he's made no comment, but I expect I'll get round him. Goodness! Look at the time. I must fly. I'll see you on Monday."
Milly wasn't to know it was the last time she'd ever see the woman whom she'd learned to love and respect.