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Chapter 1 - Lucky Encounter


MRS. De Salis opened the kitchen door and stood stock still in surprise. Instead of finding a nice clear kitchen table on which to deposit the results of her afternoon’s shopping she saw a welter of papers and account-books spread out all over it and her husband seated behind them, holding a pencil in one hand and a cup of tea in the other.

‘Darling, what are you doing? And why in here?’ she queried, placing upon the nearest available chair a packet of sausages and a fruit cake which had failed to find a niche in her shopping-basket.

Colonel de Salis raised his head and, putting down his cup of tea, ran a hand through his hair, giving his wife an absolutely distraught look as he did so.

‘The car has come!’ he announced dramatically. ‘The car?’ queried his wife blankly.

‘Yes,’ replied the Colonel. ‘And I’ve just been doing some figuring and I don’t see how we can possibly afford it.’

Mrs. de Salis moved some papers from the corner of the table and set down her shopping-basket with a sigh of relief.

‘Poof! That’s better!’ she exclaimed. ‘My arm’s nearly broken. Now, darling, just exactly what are you talking about?’

Her husband picked up his cup again and took a long gulp of tea before replying, ‘Our new car, dearest. Or it would be our new car if we could afford it, which I’m afraid we can’t. I put our name down for a Hillman estate-car ages ago, you know, before the old Wolseley conked and we bought the Austin off Bill Ferrers, and to be quite honest I’d forgotten all about it. Well, to my amazement the garage rang up an hour or so ago to say that our name had now reached the top of the list for a new car and though they hadn’t got a Hillman they could let us have a Standard Vanguard estate-car instead.’

‘A Standard Vanguard estate-car,’ repeated his wife slowly. ‘But they cost the earth, don’t they?’

‘Well, not exactly the earth, but more than we can possibly afford, I’m afraid,’ replied the Colonel ruefully. ‘In fact we can’t really afford a new car at all. But it does seem a pity, because apparently there’s been some sort of a hold-up at the docks and so one or two export models have been released for the home market. Wills said that they must know tonight, as they have already sent a man up to Coventry to collect it and there are plenty of other people who want it if we don’t. Hence all this shambles! I was looking through everything to see if I could see a ray of hope anywhere, but I’ve only found as I always find when I really get down to our accounts that we’ve even less money than I thought we had.’

‘How much would it cost?’ asked Mrs. de Salis.

‘About £950 including purchase tax. I’m afraid it’s hopeless,’ sighed her husband. ‘I half hoped that a cup of tea might work some kind of a miracle and there wasn’t room enough to spread myself in the study — that’s why I’m in here, — but it didn’t. Ah well!’ and he began to gather his account-books and files together. ‘You look tired, darling,’ he added. ‘I’ll make you some fresh tea, shall I, and we’ll take it out of doors? It’ll be getting a bit cooler in the garden now.’

‘Yes, do,’ smiled his wife and, turning, she went out into the hall and a moment later the Colonel heard her at the telephone.

‘Mr. Wills?’ she said. ‘My husband has just told me the great news! Have they brought the Austin in yet? . . . They have? Well, it seems almost providential doesn’t it? Almost what my younger boy always calls “meant”! . . . We can’t afford the Vanguard, but of course we’ll have to have her. I expect you’ll be prepared to buy her back from us if we go bankrupt!’ . . . There was a longer pause, and then the Colonel heard his wife laugh. ‘Oh, he’ll be thrilled all right! He’s staying with a school-friend for a few days but he’ll be back next week. . . . Right! Then we’ll come in on Friday. Good-bye.’

She started back towards the kitchen and met her husband coming out, carrying a tea-tray in one hand and a steaming kettle in the other and wearing a very worried expression on his face.

‘Dearest, we honestly can’t . . .’ he began.

His wife put up a finger and smiled cheerfully.

‘I know we can’t, on paper. But we’ve got to, somehow. Otherwise being market-gardeners isn’t going to help us much.’

‘What on earth do you mean?’ asked her husband, bewildered.

Mrs. de Salis took the kettle from him before she spoke again.

‘Keep quite calm,’ she said. ‘We’ve got to have a new car of some kind or other because the old one is no more! I’ve just walked all the way home from Little Greenham cross-roads. That’s why I’m so late, and why I said my arm was nearly broken by the weight of that wretched basket.’

The Colonel stared at her.

‘The Austin no more?’ he said blankly. ‘What do you mean? You can’t have had a bad smash, surely? If so, you look remarkably cool and collected and unscathed!’

His wife led the way out into the garden and, placing the kettle on the path beside her, sank into a cane chair and took off her hat and fanned herself with it as she replied, ‘No, I didn’t have a smash. But I was feeling anything but cool, calm, and collected an hour ago, I can assure you! I was nursing the old car up Butser Hill — I really was nursing her, Jim, we were only doing about twenty when it happened — when suddenly there was a loud explosion and a shattering noise and a burst of flame from the bonnet. I switched off and grabbed the fire-extinguisher quicker than I’ve ever done anything in my life before, but by the time I’d got out and round to the front of the car there was no sign of any fire and when I lifted the bonnet very gingerly there was nothing to see but a large hole in the side of the engine and what looked like part of a piston rod sticking out of it!’

‘Good Heavens!’ exclaimed her husband. ‘History repeating itself. It must run in the family!’

‘What do you mean?’ asked Mrs. de Salis, bewildered.

‘Well, don’t you remember, the same thing happened to that old Morris I got for Robin to play about with,’ said the Colonel. ‘Oh dear, oh dear! Well, I know she was pretty well on her last legs, but that still doesn’t mean that we can afford to buy the Vanguard, I’m afraid.’

‘I don’t think we can afford not to,’ said his wife calmly. ‘Now look, Jim. You know that decent second-hand cars cost more than new ones these days, such is the topsy-turvy kind of world we live in, and unless you can get one you really know all about you’re only buying a pig in a poke. I’m sure Wills wouldn’t let us down over one, of course, but he doesn’t happen to have one, or know of one, at the moment. I’ve been asking him at intervals about one for the last three months or more, because I haven’t been happy in my mind about the old Austin for some time now. You know I’ve hated having to go out alone in her at night, and this happening just shows how right I was!’

‘Granted all that,’ said the Colonel. ‘But where’s the money coming from?’

‘I don’t know,’ admitted Mrs. de Salis cheerfully. ‘But I’m perfectly certain I was right to say “Snip!” to Wills on the telephone just now. It’s no use growing flowers and fruit for the market and then not being able to get them there, is it?’

‘N—no,’ admitted her husband doubtfully. ‘All the same. . . .’

‘We’ll find the money somehow,’ Mrs. de Salis interrupted him, reaching for his cup and pouring him out some more tea. ‘If the worst comes to the worst we’ll sell the Raeburn. There’s not much point in keeping a portrait, however fine, if you’re never likely to have a room again large enough to hang it in, and if we don’t manage to make some money out of the garden we shall have to be moving out of Marsh House and into a cottage in two two’s. After all, Elspeth Craig wasn’t a close relation. I can’t think why her portrait ever came down to mother at all.’

Colonel de Salis dropped a saccharine into his cup and watched it fizzle on the surface of his tea.

‘Nevertheless, it would be a pity if it had to come to that. Perhaps we shall be able to manage some other way,’ he said more cheerfully. ‘But we’ve got to remember it’ll cost us more to run, too, though if we licence it as a business car and use it for business that’s a different matter and more of a legitimate expense. Only it’ll mean we can’t use it too much for just running about in. It’ll eat a lot more petrol than the old Austin and as it’ll probably have to last us for the rest of our lives we’ll have to economise on wear and tear as much as we possibly can.’ He picked up his cup. ‘Did you look to see if there was any post, as you came in, dear?’

‘Yes,’ replied his wife. ‘Nothing but a bill from the cleaners and a postcard from Billy saying he’s not coming back until Monday. Apparently Edward has now asked him to go home with him until then, from camp today, instead of only for tonight, and Billy says he’ll presume it’s all right unless we wire.’

‘Edward? Who’s Edward?’ asked the Colonel vaguely.

‘Edward’s that lanky boy with the long nose and enormous feet,’ replied his wife. ‘I find him a singularly uninteresting youth but I suppose Billy sees something in him. Perhaps it’s the attraction of opposites.’

‘Nothing from Jill?’ asked her husband worriedly. ‘I hope she’s all right.’

‘All right? Of course she’s all right!’ laughed his wife. ‘You may be perfectly certain Dick would have wired or rung us up in a frenzy if she wasn’t! But I must admit I do sometimes rather wish our only daughter hadn’t elected to go and get married to someone right up in the Orkneys. It’ll be funny not having her or Robin at home at all this summer, won’t it? Billy’s going to miss them, you know, especially as Belinda won’t be here either. Somehow having the Trefusis’s living at Portsmouth rather broke the shock of Robin going off abroad and Jill getting married. I mean having Belinda coming over here so much was almost like having another daughter. She’ll love being in Malta but Billy will miss her companionship a lot, I know.’

Colonel de Salis laughed.

‘Yes, it’ll seem a bit quiet without all the wrangling and back-chat!’ he admitted. ‘Marsh House is essentially a family house, I always think, and I have a feeling that it misses any of the children when they’re away as much as we do. I only hope Billy won’t find it too dull without the others. Has he got anyone coming to stay this holidays?’

His wife shook her head.

‘I don’t think so,’ she replied. ‘I believe John Milner’s going abroad with his people, and the Burkes are going to Ireland. It’s rather bad luck for Billy that they should both be going away.’

‘Oh, well,’ said the Colonel. ‘I expect something will turn up. Thank Heavens, Billy doesn’t make a habit of sitting about and waiting to be amused. He’ll find something or other to get his teeth into, you may be pretty certain.’

‘Yes,’ replied his wife. ‘That’s just what I’m afraid of!’ They both laughed a trifle ruefully, for Bunkle (as Billy was more usually called by his brother and sister and friends) had a habit of falling into adventures in the most unexpected ways and places; sometimes with rather shattering results for everyone else!

To order your copy of Bunkle's Brainwave see our online shop, visit our Edinburgh bookshop or one of our Stockists.