I Can Change

Entry by: Mac

22nd July 2016

(May 1989)

Janice Ardmore had been running her little garden tea shop in Peovil-Upon-Sea for the past twenty-five years - a village institution, a gathering place and the somewhat unlikely centre of gentle anarchy and revolution, amidst a diet of ham sandwiches, toasted teacakes and cream teas. Whilst they were the staples of her menus she was not without a heady mix of haloumi pate, pumpkin and zucchini sandwiches, apple and fig compote with cream, carrot and cashew salads – in short, a cornucopia of the conventional and unconventional. The ladies of Peovil regularly gathered for delicious food and even more delicious conversation.

Of course, strictly speaking, it wasn’t a tea shop at all. It consisted of three tables with accompanying chairs in the garden and three more in her conservatory. Completely unapproved of by the Council, she had nevertheless been blessed with the patronage of every lady mayoress of the last quarter century, to the increasing chagrin of their husbands. None of the bureaucratic requirements of the Council mattered a jot to Janice because, as she had so often indicated in the past and to each newly elected Council, should they need reminding, she didn’t charge a penny for any of the delicious home-made produce. Whilst every table held a menu announcing today’s fare, there were no prices. People simply made a donation in the Nepalese basket discreetly placed on the window sill, near the door. Should patrons be at a loss as to what donation might be appropriate, Janice would offer a discreet, casual hint.

“Good afternoon, ladies … may I introduce Dawn Leadbury? A new neighbour.” Irene, pronounced with three syllables, not two - “two makes me sound like a municipal office cleaner”, she declared – stood in the doorway of the conservatory and, with a flourish, proudly introduced her guest, who stood shyly at her side, head slightly bowed. Janice was just coming through from the kitchen, hands occupied with a heavily-laden tray, saw the new arrivals, smiled resignedly at Irene and beamed at the newcomer. Such a beautiful young woman, thought Janice and continued to deliver her wares to each table. Dawn smiled nervously and waited for Irene to guide her to a convenient table; Irene, for her part, wanted to ensure that they could sit together where they could be seen. In Peovil any new incumbent was an object of curiosity and one as sweet and demure as Dawn inevitably attracted interest. That meant that the newcomer’s chaperone also attracted attention and Irene was quite happy to bask in the reflected glow of Dawn’s innocence. In spite of, or perhaps because of, her diffident demeanour Dawn proved to be a minor hit with the ladies at Janice’s, to Irene’s delight.

“Shall we invite Dawn to our naked circle-dancing?!” Irene suddenly interjected. Whilst several ladies had dropped in for tea and then gone, there was a core group of perhaps six who remained all afternoon and these were present now, slyly looking towards Janice for a response, whilst giving an occasional glance at Dawn who they all found charming. Dawn herself was quite taken aback, not knowing whether to smile good naturedly at what was obviously a joke or to show the shocked nervousness she was feeling should this casual revelation prove to be true. Irene simply giggled.

“Irene is incorrigible,” declared Janice, “but there’s no reason to look either shocked or scared, my dear. It’s all very innocent really. Once a month – the new moon to be exact, we do meet … at midnight. And we do dance. And it has been known for some of us to be taken up in the moment and … well, disrobe, partially! It’s by no means required and it is all perfectly innocent.”

Irene beamed in triumph, overjoyed at having introduced Dawn to one of the secrets of Peovil-Upon-Sea so quickly and easily. Janice leaned towards Irene and whispered, “You really are too much sometimes. Leave the poor girl to settle in. She hasn’t been here five minutes!” But Irene was luxuriating in her sense of quiet conquest and she knew her oldest and dearest friend would not be annoyed.

Six weeks later, Dawn arrived distinctly early at Janice’s garden tea shop, long before other patrons. Instinctively, she had felt drawn to this woman who exuded a wisdom that matched her years whilst yet demonstrating a youthfulness that Dawn, some forty years her junior, was astonished and uplifted by. They had become friends. Janice was a woman to be admired and loved. Along with her cinnamon and fig teacakes.

Janice poured some tea – a delicate Chinese brew seemed most appropriate, she felt; instinct told her that Dawn was slowly reaching out. She smiled benignly and made a passing comment about the corncockles, bluebells and evening marigolds that engulfed the lower garden, beyond the allium, Carthusian pinks and oriental poppies. Janice’s garden was an eclectic mix of colour and shrubbery that told you as much about her as her eccentric menus and extravagant scarves worn even at the height of summer. Scattered at key vantage points was Miss Willmott’s Ghost, giant sea holly, with its cones of tiny white flowers that emerge from their unlikely cocoon almost without anyone noticing, its spiky edges and spines guarding its secrets. “I like to think of it as the lotus of England”, Janice had said; “it has secrets, it invites meditation.”

“Like people,” murmured Dawn when she heard Janice’s ruminations on this oddly beautiful plant. Janice looked up and smiled. There was time to talk to Dawn; the others would not start dropping by for at least half hour.

“You know,” began Dawn, “I gathered the impression that the group would be manhating feminists.”
“Which group, dear?”
“The group that meets here at your tea room.”
“I like to think that rather than hating men, we liberate them,” murmured Janice. “We raised eyebrows at Greenham Common, I have to say. Not least when I offered my home-made quiche to a group of soldiers … they seemed so much more relaxed and … yes, liberated shortly afterwards.”

“Yes,” Dawn giggled, “the mushrooms they contained! Irene has told me about that. Then there’s the story of how you forced the District Cricket Club to admit ladies … I’ve heard that too.”

“Women, dear – we’re not gentry. Nor do we want to sound twee! But yes … we did. During one of their innumerable intervals for tea – I’d taken the precaution of providing cakes for the chaps – we women marched onto the pitch and proceeded to dance … not entirely naked but there was some attire removal. Enough to concern husbands present so the Chairman rushed out to order us off. We persisted so he compromised by offering us the club house. We’ve maintained our hold ever since. Rather sweet, really – the way they caved in.”

Clearly, Irene had regaled Dawn with the adventures of the group, embellishing liberally but always presenting Janice as their quiet yet bold and fearless leader. Neither reticent nor boastful, Janice simply confirmed, edited or toned down the stories.

“But how about you, dear? Tell me about you … apart from being the vicar’s wife. There is more to you than that,” said Janice.
“Actually, he’s just the curate. But yes … I suppose that’s how everyone thinks of me. It’s why I love coming here … I get to be me. You’ve never mentioned my husband until now.”
“Well, I don’t go to the church so I can’t say I’ve met him. So why would I mention him to you unless you wanted to talk about him? As you say, you come to our teas to be you. So tell me who you are …. So far, you’ve been rather quiet. Though I sense something in the air today … ”

Dawn hesitated and then, “Yes … I am quiet. By nature, that is. And meeting new people is a frightful challenge. Though Irene has been wonderful – like a big sister.”
“No siblings?”
Dawn shook her head. “There was just me … and then along came Kenneth. And mummy and daddy married me off. Daddy is in the church, mummy is a church wife – second generation. It seemed natural for me to be the third. And here we are … in Peovil – such an ordinary, quaint little place. But then there is the little garden tea shop. Finding this has changed my life!”
“How, dear? Tea shops abound! I’m sure there was one where you grew up. Including an assortment of eccentrics and dotty old ladies. Maybe we went a little far with the mushrooms but there was no harm done. Although Jessica Althorpe did find herself unexpectedly pregnant at a stage in life when she was sure she’d put all that behind her!”
“But that’s what I mean. Don’t you see? This … this gentle anarchy … this … “
“Plumped cushions and revolution, I once called it. That was a little rash I think, with hindsight. We just decided that women could be rather more than kitchen maids at the cricket club or squeaky voices agreeing with husbands when they read from the paper or …. Well, curate’s wives!”
“You’re not married, Janice.”
“No dear … never have been.”
“Perhaps that’s what make you strong, determined – you don’t have anyone else to consider. I do … So many other people, family to think about – “
“To put first?”
“Yes, exactly.”
“Well, just because I never married doesn’t mean I was an orphan! But I‘ve always tried to balance the needs of others with my own … tried to find a middle way. And if that proved too difficult then I went my own way, quietly but firmly with minimum fuss.”
“Some paths are unavoidably fussy – messy. Catastrophic, in fact. It would be selfish to choose oneself first.” Dawn was clearly troubled. Was she looking for reassurance or courage? “What about desire? Not just love but real desire?” pleaded Dawn.
“I’m guessing we’re not referring to the curate now,” mused Janice. Dawn shook her head, her eyes welling with tears. “So you have fallen in love? Here in Peovil?” asked Janice. In for a penny, she thought.
“It’s worse than you can imagine, Janice …. Far worse. I don’t know what to do. I wouldn’t know how to handle the scandal. I’m not brave. And I don’t even know if it is reciprocated. And that’s the worst thing – not knowing that someone loves you back.”
“Mmm,” mused Janice, “If that’s the worst thing then all those worries about scandal are in second place and can be dealt with. Simply express your feelings and see what happens.” Dawn began to cry and Janice left her for a moment, fetching a fresh pot of tea.
“It gets worse, Janice,” – she took a deep breath – “… I’m in love with Irene. So you see, there are too many fronts on which to be brave. I simply can’t. I knew I could tell you.”
“Let me tell you the moment I had to make a decision. I don’t know if it will help. It was when I was around eleven. Mother caught me using her lipstick. Odd really, because I never use it now. But … I was experimenting. She gasped and yelled – Stevie! Put that down at once. That isn’t for you. And I suddenly realized that for the rest of my life someone would always be saying that’s not for you, Stevie. So I decided that as soon as I could I would go my own way.”
“I don’t understand … why did she call you Stevie?”
“Because that is who I was, Dawn. Stevie – Steven. I decided I wanted to be Janice. And I decided that I could be. And I am! And you’re asking me for advice about changing your life.”