Chp 35 Choices
Business as Usual
Agnes Pringle eased her toes out of her sensible shoes and wriggled them blissfully. She’d been on her feet constantly since she’d got out of bed at noon and she now had half an hour when she could relax before the early evening customers arrived. The smell of baking hung in the air; the spicy warmth of cinnamon and apple turnovers escaping into the street to entice people into the Olde Willow Tree Teashoppe.
She wished she didn’t feel so tired: she was babysitting again this evening. That poor girl, Shona, who’d lost her husband to the pretend Slayer, had asked if she would look after Ronnie and Nancy for a couple of hours and Agnes hadn’t the heart to say no, even though she was exhausted.
But weren’t vampires supposed to have endless energy and strength? Agnes sometimes wondered if a lot of the laws and legends she’d heard over the past years were nothing more than fairy-tales. All she knew was that her feet hurt – she was sure she was developing a corn on one toe and she’d never heard of a vampire foot specialist living in Sunnydale.
Sometimes she wished so much that she was back home in England; that she had never come to the States, never been Turned. That she was in her own dear little cottage and knew exactly where to go for all the little ailments that afflicted ladies of a certain age. Agnes wondered what her life would have been like if she hadn’t won that movie magazine competition and come on a coach trip to Los Angeles to see the Homes of the Stars. Why, the original Willow Tree Teashoppe in Winchester might have blossomed into a whole chain across the southern counties of England!
Picking up her knitting, and dreaming of a business empire that Richard Branson might have envied, she watched indulgently as Snowball, her white cat, patted the ball of wool across the floor. No longer quite the kitten she had rescued from Spike’s poker game, of course, but still with kittenish ways. The other kittens had gone to good vampire homes all through the tunnel system, which of course was a good hunting ground for mice and rats of all sorts and types.
Agnes stared at the jumper she was making. A good red, blood- coloured and she had a very nice motive to appliqué on the front. She only hoped Dawn liked it. Agnes had been appalled to discover the girl only had one jersey. Admittedly it didn’t often get cold enough in Sunnydale to wear a thick sweater, but recently the evenings had been chilly.
She looked up as a crash from the tearoom made her wince. Dawn was stacking up cups and saucers, ready for opening time. Agnes sighed. A lot of her profit seemed to vanish into shards these days, but at least the child gave the impression of being a bit happier. She stopped to count stitches, tutting as she realised she’d knitted when she should have purled and wondering if it would notice. Was Dawn happier? She spoke cheerfully to the customers, was eating well and Agnes had heard her laughing with Clem and Spike the other day.
But – and it was a big but – there was a sadness in her eyes that Agnes felt would never vanish. And a hint of – what – desperation? Was that too strong a word? As if being left completely alone in the world, except for a few friends, was too much for her to handle. Although of course she would.
Agnes knew that feeling. She could remember the first morning after she had Risen. Well, a lot of the despair had been because she could not get the mud out of her hair and she’d had to creep back into her motel room to have a hot shower and collect her belongings. But there had also been the despair of knowing that life had changed, there was no going back, no second chance, that from now on you were on your own.
The door to the tearoom opened and Dawn hurried in, looking guilty. “Sorry. Don’t worry. It was only one cup!” she said, holding out the pieces for inspection. “And I think I can stick them together again. Or Willow can magic them whole. I’m sure she would if I asked her, except that she seems so busy at the moment, I don’t like to bother her.”
Agnes was not quite sure if a magically mended teacup would be strong enough to take hot liquid and decided that discretion was the better part of valour. “Oh, let’s not bother her. I’m sure one cup won’t break the bank.”
“Is that my sweater?” Dawn asked, her eyes brightening. “Awesome colour, Aggie. You’re so clever. Could you teach me to knit?”
“I expect I could, one day when we’re not so busy.”
Dawn stole a piece of shortbread that was cooling on the table and nibbled at it. “We do seem to have a zillion more customers than we did a week or two ago. You know, Agnes, it’s a pity we can’t do a home delivery service at weekends. You could make your hot chicken pasties or those scrummy hot cheese things or pizzas!”
Agnes bent her head over her knitting. She had a strong suspicion where this was leading. Certain magazines had been left lying around in the basement for the past week. “But we’ve no transport,” she said innocently. “And I can’t have you walking around town on your own.”
“Well – “ Dawn looked the picture of innocence. “Say - say you bought a motorbike – just an old, cheap sort of bike, nothing fancy. I bet you could get Spike to ride it and I could carry the food on the back.”
Agnes knitted to the end of the row before she replied. “I’ll think about it,” she said at last.
Dawn leapt up, eyes shining. “Wow, that’s great! Spike said – I mean, I thought you’d agree! I’ll tell Spike to look out for a bike, then, shall I? Wow! It’ll be mega cool.”
A banging on the door upstairs made them both jump. Agnes looked at her watch. “Customers already! We’re late opening, Dawn. Off you go. Be polite and apologise for the delay. I’ll be out in a moment or two.”
Agnes rolled up her knitting, found some food for Snowball, pushed her feet back into her shoes and tied on a clean, frilly apron. She knew very well why there were so many more customers at the weekends. Coach trips were being diverted to Sunnydale to see the “Fantastic Modern Sculpture” on the edge of town.
The rickety tower left standing when Glory was defeated had become a money-spinner for the Mayor and other dignitaries. There’d been plans to dismantle it, then someone realised it could be of value. Although no one was allowed to get too close to it – the town could be sued if someone got injured – you could always find a group of tourists taking pictures from a distance, oohing and ahhing over the “asymmetrical wonder” and “futuristic design”. There had even been postcards printed and T-shirts with the tower on the front. Admittedly these had not been around for too long. Spike and Dawn’s other friends had destroyed every one they could find.
By the time Agnes entered the tearoom, Dawn had the early customers seated and was rushing around taking orders. Agnes filled teapots, buttered scones, spread strawberry jam and arranged plates of iced fancies, shortbread and Parkin, double checking that she was using the human variety and not the one she made for her vampire clients that had ox blood and chilli powder in it for extra bite.
She didn’t look up when the bell over the door rang, but her hand jerked, sending tea all over the counter when a strident, disdainful English voice said, “Well, I don’t expect we’ll get a proper cup of tea in a place like this, but at least we can all sit down. Find a table, ladies. Remember to use what the Americans call the Rest Room. We’ve got twenty minutes before the coach comes back for us. And Betty, do be careful this time, dear, and don’t have a second cup of tea because we certainly don’t want to stop again before we get back to Los Angeles, do we?”
Agnes stared across the room. She could never have mistaken that voice. It was Pamela Megson, Chair Lady – or should that be Person? – of the Women’s Institute group that Agnes had belonged to back in England!
Mrs Pamela Megson, so clever and able – so determined that her poor husband should get a knighthood, thus raising her status to Lady Megson that she had driven him to the verge of a nervous breakdown. Pamela Megson who had been only too happy for Agnes to provide refreshments for fetes or Christmas bazaars, but had never invited her to attend the little soirees she gave for her closest friends – or those women she felt could be of use in the future.
Agnes stared at the other ladies who were scattering across the shop, finding tables, reading the menu, queuing outside the Rest Room. She didn’t recognise most of them – well, several years had passed since she was a member – but Betty Grant – small, thin, a permanent expression of worry on her face, she was there.
Dawn was standing by Mrs Megson’s table, waiting for her order. “The full tea, I think, with fruit cake and the buttered crumpets. And do make sure the extra water is boiling! And please provide lemon as well as milk. And can that be real shortbread on the menu? I doubt it. Well, I will try a piece, but I will not pay for it unless it is genuine shortbread.” She gestured at Betty Grant. “My friend here will have some plain bread and butter, thinly cut, mind you, and half a scone with no jam.”
“I don’t know if we sell just half a scone,” Dawn said, looking worried.
“I’ll deal with this order, Dawn,” Agnes said gently. “Start buttering some bread. Good afternoon, Pamela. This is a great surprise. Fancy seeing you in America.”
There was a silence, broken only by a sort of squeak from Betty Grant whose mouth was a complete O of surprise. Pamela Megson was made of sterner stuff. She only blinked, but then spoilt it by saying, “Agnes Pringle! But you’re dead!”
Agnes had an overwhelming desire to say ‘How right you are, Pamela!’ but restrained herself. “Well, I had heard that rumours to that effect had been circulated in Winchester, but here I am, as you can see.”
Mrs Megson stared up at her. “So you stayed in America after your holiday? What a very odd decision.”
“Well, it was really made for me,” Agnes murmured.
Mrs Megson sniffed disdainfully and glanced around the tearooms. “I can see now that this little place is a lot like your café back home.”
“It was a tearoom, not a café.”
“Well, dear, let’s face it, it wasn’t in quite the right part of town to attract the best sort of tourists, was it?”
Agnes felt her face slipping and fought to control herself. It simply would not do to show Pamela her fangs. There was far too much crockery out on the tables! “You are here on holiday?” she asked at last.
“Yes.” It was Betty who answered. “We’re on a coach trip – Los Angeles and Surrounding Districts. Visits to the Homes of the Stars. It’s been – very interesting.”
“It’s been extremely hot!” Pamela Megson said firmly. “I have been most displeased with the accommodation and the coach they have given us. I intend to complain to the agency when we return to England.”
“I thought the coach was fine – ” Betty started, then stopped, her lips quivering as Mrs Megson glared at her.
“So, do you have any plans to return home? I’m sure your life must be very unfulfilling here in California.” She peered up at Agnes. “The climate must agree with you. You don’t look any older, but you’re very pale. But then you were never one for good, healthy exercise, were you? I run a group called Ladies who Hike. I organise a brisk walk every Sunday afternoon through the fields and woods, regardless of the weather. It would do you the world of good.”
Agnes looked down at the woman who had caused her so many sleepless nights in the past, so much distress at being overlooked and treated as if she was less than worthless. She glanced round her domain; she had built this herself – well, with the help of dear Richard’s money, of course! There was Dawn, struggling with a vast teapot, doing her very best to survive the loss of a mother and a sister. At any moment Spike might arrive through the tunnels, anxious to discuss motorbikes. Tonight she was babysitting the child vampires, Ronnie and Nancy. Tomorrow she was giving that strange boy Andrew another cookery lesson.
In Winchester she knew what each day would bring. Here in Sunnydale, she had no idea what was about to happen.
“I am home,” Agnes replied quietly.
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