Abby Ch. 29


Abby did have trouble with Mary that evening, and eventually consoled her by agreeing to a bowl of soup with some bread and butter. She had enjoyed the day, not just for the visit, but because James had revealed a vulnerable side. Abby had long suspected that this was there; his behaviour when he talked about his experience in the Falklands had been a clue. Now she understood that despite an outward appearance of normality, strength and content, James' upbringing had not been ideal, and the revelations of the past few weeks about his father's weaknesses had undermined his faith in someone who hitherto he had looked up to. The comment he made about knowing who his father was yet not liking him had been painful. Abby thought about that and compared it with her experiences. She had been able to give her unknown father an exciting and honourable persona, all imagination of course, and the chances were that that image would never be shattered. In some ways therefore she was luckier than James. It made her more determined that should she and James be together, married or not, she would make sure that he was given stability and warmth, something it would appear that he had lacked when growing up. It was strange that despite all the machinations of Mary and Mavis, they had ignored one aspect of Abby's character. Her determination. An asset honed in developing her career and polished in the battlefield that was the City. She was adamant that either as a sister or a lover, she would protect and encourage James.

A little later Abby was standing chatting with Sam, when Nathaniel came into the Bar. He smiled upon seeing her, and made his way over to join them. Abby was under no illusions about what he wanted to discuss, and prepared herself for some pressure to agree to manage the co-operative. She had given this a lot of thought and intended to take up the challenge, but it would have to be on her terms. She would not reveal this decision at this moment, wanting them to cajole her a little more before agreeing. This would, she hoped then put aside any suspicion that she was trying to muscle in on them. She knew she had the agreement of Roger, Harry and Nathaniel, but wondered about Abe Stone. She asked Nathaniel if he was likely to visit the Inn at some time so she could talk with him.

"Ah, I am sorry Miss Abby, but you will never see Abe in this place. You will have to go and see him."

"Why is that?"

"Abe is a Methodist." Sam answered. "A strict one at that. Doesn't drink, and abhors places where the sin is committed. Give him half a chance and he will preach at you from dawn to dusk."

Nathaniel agreed with Sam but was eager to soften the austere picture. "Yes Abe is a Methodist, but he's one of the kindest men you will ever meet, and he has the finest breeding stock around here. Most of my stock, and most of yours, Sam, have been bred in his herd."

"Now now, Nat, don't jump down my throat. I didn't mean anything unkind about Abe."

"So when can I meet this paragon?" Abby wanted to get back on track.

"I'll take you down tomorrow if you like," offered Sam.

Nathaniel shook his head. "Might be better if I took Miss Abby down. I've always got on better with Abe than you, Sam." He turned to Abby. "Abe's happy about the co-operative in general, but wonders where he can fit in. He has a good milk business and sells yearlings on to other farms, or at auction, rarely sells any beast to slaughter. So he feels that with the profit coming from that, he will not be in a position to benefit."

Abby thought quickly. "Surely he will. If there is a demand for more beasts, he will profit by selling more for fattening."

Sam was nodding his head sagely. "There, you see Abby; you are picking it up very quickly."

Abby viewed him wryly. "Flattering me will not make me make my mind up faster." She was smiling as she said this, and Sam knew in any case that she had made her mind up. He had been told of Abby's research, and talks with James about this, surely she would not have gone to all that trouble if she were not going to do it. Nathaniel ended the conversation as he had to leave.

"Drop by Nether Cleeve any time tomorrow, and we'll go down and chat with Abe." Abby thought quickly.

"It will be in the morning, Nathaniel."

He shrugged his shoulders. "No problem, when it suits, and Miss Abby, call me Nat please?"

She knew where Nether Cleeve Farm was, a right turn off the lane leading from the village to the station, but when she got to the turn she saw the sign which announced "Neath Cleeve Farm". Thinking that she may have been mistaken she drove on until she got to the station. There were only two of George Walker's workmen there, and neither could direct her, so she turned back towards the village and turned up the drive to Neath Cleeve Farm. No more than a rutted track, Abby drove very slowly as the drive twisted first right and then left. She was very happy to see Nathaniel waiting for her in the yard.

"I wondered where you were off to." He said by way of greeting.

"I thought I may have come to the wrong place." Abby said by apology. "I thought you said Nether Cleeve last night, and the sign at the bottom says Neath Cleeve."

Nathaniel looked a little rueful. "Ah, yes." He said guiltily." Well the place has always been called Neath Cleeve, which I don't like so I have unofficially renamed it Nether Cleeve. I am sorry Miss Abby; I should have made that clear. But you're here, and that is all that matters. Will you come in for a cup of tea or coffee, the wife's just got the kettle boiling?"

"A cup of coffee will go down very well, thanks." Nat led the way to the farmhouse, which she realised was very similar to the one at Gallow Farm. The door which was evidently not the front door opened straight into the kitchen where Nat's wife was laying out mugs on the table.

Nat introduced his wife to Abby. "Sue this is Miss Abby." Then turning to Abby said. "My wife, Susan." Abby held out her hand which Susan took after carefully wiping her hand on her apron.

"I'm pleased to meet you, Susan."

"It's nice to meet you, Miss Abby." She paused as if unsure about what she was to say next, and then almost blurted. "We are all so pleased that you are going to marry Mr. James."

Abby was dumbstruck. "Marry?" she queried.

Susan now seemed horrified as if she had overstepped the mark. "Yes, you are to marry Mr. James aren't you?"

"Well this is the first I have heard of it."

Susan was now completely flustered, not knowing how to get out of the faux pas into which she had inadvertently blundered. "Oh dear, oh dear. I was given to understand." Abby forestalled any further explanation.

"Don't worry Susan. I have come to realise that gossip in this valley can become very fanciful, and even make truth out of fiction." Nathaniel was very red-faced, almost as much as his wife. Another occasion he thought where jumping to conclusions would mean his having to apologise. In truth he felt to blame as he had mentioned to Susan his conviction that there would be a marriage. She, in innocence, had taken this as a fact. He cleared his throat.

"I am sorry, Miss Abby. You are right though. Gossip around here can be quite imaginative. Now shall we have some coffee?" This was directed at his wife, who grateful to move the topic elsewhere asked Abby how she took her coffee.

They sat down around the table. "Everyone I meet seems to have been in this valley for years. How long have you been here Nathaniel?" Abby asked.

"Miss Abby, would you please stop calling me Nathaniel, it's Nat, God knows what my mum and dad were up to giving me that mouthful for a name, so please, just Nat if you don't mind." Abby was about to take up her old argument and stop them calling her Miss Abby, but realised that this was a battle she would never win.

"Ok, it's Nat."

He smiled. "Now let me see, I took the tenancy when the Carters retired, that would be about..." He did some mental calculations.

"Wasn't it in nineteen eighty two?" Susan offered.

"Yes it would, no! It was eighty one. I remember now, because that was the year that Harry's wife died. Sad that."

"Was she ill?" asked Abby. Susan answered the question.

"No, Miss Abby. She was killed in the lane right outside Lydcott Farm. She was hit by a car."

"That's terrible. Poor Harry."

Nat agreed. "Yes he was in a bad way for months. The farm was going to ruin, it would have if not for Sam and Roger, they stepped in and kept it all going until Harry got over it. Never forgot that did Harry."

"Does Harry have any children?"

"Yes he had a son, Robert. But he wasn't interested in farming. Took himself off to Bristol, I believe, working in a factory." Abby sipped her coffee.

"So how does he manage on his own?"

"Will Simmonds works for him on a casual basis." Abby remembered Will. She had met him on her first day in the valley.

"You mentioned the Carters. Would that be the same Carters as Gladys?"

"Yes that's them."

"Gladys said she was going to see them, so presumably they are still in the valley?"

"Yes. They took a little cottage when John retired. We will pass it on the way down to Abe's."

"Tell me about Abe. From what you and Sam said in the Combe Inn, he is quite a character."

"Yes he is. Best kept farm in the valley. You don't need to wear boots when you walk through his yard, it's always clean. He's a Methodist as you heard, alcohol is sinful, won't have a television in the house. Attends the Chapel down in South Molton."

"Is he married?"

"Yes. Married a girl from the Chapel, Sheila. He has a son, called Joe or Joseph, and a daughter, Naomi. I was told that he was going to call her Mary, until Sheila pointed out the he would have sired Joseph and Mary. He decided against, thinking that it could be construed as mocking the Lord." Nat and Susan both laughed and Abby joined in.

"I understand that he doesn't get on with some of the other farmers?"

"No, that's not really true. It is possible that he can get on people's nerves as he does sometimes tend to preach at people. But someone has to say something that offends him for that to happen. You must not mind if he says he will pray for you. It is simply his way of letting you know that he respects you."

"I'll remember that."

The coffee being finished, Nat suggested to Abby that they get on down to see Abe. Susan was clearing away the mugs when she asked.

"Miss Abby, would you like to stay for a bite of lunch when you get back? Nothing fancy, but I have plenty, and you will be most welcome." Abby had to skip around this without offending them.

"May I make that another time?" she asked. "I have a constant battle with Mary, who thinks that I need feeding up. A day when I can miss lunch is a bonus for me."

Nat smiled. "I understand completely Miss Abby. Mary, I have been told believes that anyone weighing less than twelve stone is seriously undernourished. She must be despairing of you." Nat insisted that they went in his Van. "I wouldn't want you to damage that nice car over the ruts." He didn't say whether they were his ruts or Abe's.

Abe Stone's farm, Lower Valley Farm was a revelation to Abby, used as she was to the muck and general untidiness of the other farms she had seen. The yard, as Nat had promised was cleanly swept and the buildings and outhouses neatly painted. Abe himself came out to greet them, not dressed in the usual uniform of farmers of overalls and gumboots, but wearing corduroy trousers, a jacket, shirt and tie.

"Hello Abe," called Nat, "this is Miss Abby."

Abe nodded. "Good day to you Miss Abby, you are welcome. Please do come in. May we offer you some refreshment?"

"Thank you Mr. Stone, it is very good to meet you." Abe led the way into the farmhouse. He introduced his wife Sheila and invited Abby and Nat to sit down. The table gleamed with generations of polish, and sitting in the middle in pride of place sat a huge Bible. There were at least a dozen bookmarks protruding from the leaves, presumably pages that Abe would read most frequently. Sheila quickly brought tea to the table, and in addition offered Abby homemade lemonade. Abby jumped at the offer, as another tea or coffee would be too much. The Lemonade was superb, and she said as much to Sheila who accepted the praise with a small smile.

Despite his courtesy, Abe was not one to delay getting to the crux of the matter. "I have to tell you, Miss Abby that I am not altogether happy about this idea of yours for a Co-operative." Abby decided not to say anything immediately, but wanted Abe to say his piece. He was surprised that Abby did not argue straight away, so had to go on and put his case. This was in essence that he had breeding stock, and rarely sent a beast to slaughter, also that if he had greater demand for yearlings, it would raise his costs, having to rent more land but that the others would not be prepared to pay any more for the stock. He would not be able to share in the increased profits that Sam, Harry and Nat would enjoy. Abby listened carefully, and when Abe seemed to have put his objections fully, tried to re-assure him.

"Mr. Stone, I thank you for being so frank with me, and if I am frank in return please do not think it discourteous." Abe waved his hands to indicate that he had no problem. "First, I must say that this was not my idea. Nat, Roger and Harry conceived the idea, and are trying to persuade me that I should manage the co-operative. I am a newcomer here, and know little about farming, but I have a background in business which they feel will be helpful to the enterprise. I haven't actually agreed as yet, because I felt it important that I listened to the views of all concerned before making that decision, and to learn more about what you do." Abe looked at Nat, who nodded his head to confirm that was the truth. Abby went on. "Your points are very important, and I am convinced that if this co-operative is to be successful, it has to be for the benefit of all," Abby emphasised the word all, "not just for some. If that were not the case I would have no part of it." Abe's countenance cleared.

"I am very pleased to hear that Miss Abby. How do you think this can be achieved?"

"Well I have to give this more consideration, as I say I am not yet completely convinced myself. But if you allow me some more time, I will try to put together a draft plan, for everyone involved to read, discuss, and if there are inequalities there, to amend. I shall depend heavily on advice, and will ask anyone who I believe can give me that advice. That will include Mr. Comberford, Sir Richard Wellings, but most importantly yourselves. Will that be in order?" Abe nodded his head. "The request I have received makes me think that there is a small, but lucrative market for the valley, and I intend to look further to find other outlets. But it has to be for the benefit of all equally. Will you give me the time to come up with a draft agreement, Mr. Stone?"

Abe's countenance had lightened as he heard Abby. "Of course I will, Miss Abby. You have put my mind at rest. I appreciate your candour, and the sentiments expressed. Thank you. And if you feel that in any way I can be of assistance, please do call upon me. I shall pray for the success of our enterprise." Abby had actually said very little, and without realising it had drawn upon all the skills she had learnt in the City negotiating her way around the office politics. It was amazing she thought, how you could say so much without substance, yet leave people believing that you had addressed their concerns. This hadn't been done cynically, as certain politicians did, but mainly to address a situation which could have damaged the idea.

With the business done, Sheila, who had remained quiet came into her own, making sure that everyone had a cup of something in front of them, and then sitting down to chat.

"Are you a churchgoer? Miss Abby."

"I am afraid not."

Sheila looked a little shocked. "If you wish to attend, we shall be very happy to take you with us to our little Church. It's very simple, but a warming place to be."

"That is very kind of you, may I give that some thought." Abe nodded in agreement with his wife, then went on to stun Abby.

"Of course. Your grandfather I am told would attend from time to time." Abby looked at him in astonishment.

"My grandfather attended?"

"Yes. We didn't know him, but we know of him from the Elders. I understand he found it very difficult to attend every week because of his duties here at the station. The congregation accepted that, as he was doing his duty, serving the community." Abby was astounded. How often did it seem that from out of nowhere, another glimpse of her grandfather came to light. No one had mentioned his religious persuasion, yet when she gave it thought, it wasn't so surprising. He was Cornish born in an area where the Wesleyan tradition was strong, and the character of the man, his sense of duty could well be another facet of his faith. She actually felt some shame, as she had none at all.

Abe would have liked to show Abby around his farm, but realised that she was hardly dressed for this and instead told her that if she was so inclined he would do that another day, when she was dressed more suitably. Abby and Nat took their leave with Sheila asking Abby to call anytime, and stay for lunch. In the car, Nat informed her that staying for lunch would inevitably involve prayers of at least five minutes duration before she could start eating. He had more to say.

"I would never believe it, but you had Abe eating out of the palm of your hand within minutes. I have never known anyone calm Abe down when he is having one of his strops. Just wait until I tell Sam and Harry. I shall have to come into the Combe tonight."

"It wasn't just blah, Nat. I meant every word I said. This thing is no good unless it is worthwhile for all of you."

Nat did agree with that. "Well that was the idea. The one thing we all need to know is how much more we can sell. If it's only an occasional carcass, then it will not make that much difference."

"I know that, that's why I have an idea, but I need to have everybody together before I talk about it."

"Miss Abby, I am convinced that whatever your idea, you will get our agreement, that is if you talk the way you did today." Nat's lugubrious face had lightened and Abby wasn't certain, but she thought she saw a little smile hovering around his mouth.

Abby had to ward off further entreaties from Susan Gaunton to stay for 'a little bite,' as she put it, and took the opportunity to call in at the station. The house echoed to the sound of hammering and an unseen voice urging another unseen voice to, 'just a little bit this way.' And, 'keep that end up.' With some trepidation she entered the house. The ground floor had been transformed. Everything had been cleared out, the furniture, the old Butler sink, the range, gone and they had started on lining the walls; clean grey sheets with a tape covering the joins. Every so often she could see wires protruding through these sheets, and on two walls pipe work as well. Heavy footsteps on the stairs heralded the entrance of George Walker.

He looked up in surprise to see Abby. "Ah, Miss Tregonney. Come to see how we are getting on?"

"Yes, Mr. Walker. I must say you seem to be getting along very quickly."

He hummed as usual then said. "It can be deceiving. It always looks at first as if the work is going quickly. Getting the dry-lining up makes it look that way, it's the details that take the time though. I'm glad you're here, I was going to call you. There are some decisions needed."

"Ok." Agreed Abby. "Tell me what you need."

"Well for a start, I have put in some wiring for the ring-main, and tails for where plugs will be, over the work surface and around the base of the walls, but if you would like anymore, perhaps you could let me know, as it is easy to do them now, better to have more than not enough, you know. And you will have to start thinking about what you are going to put there." He pointed to the space where the range had been. Abby had given this some thought, and James had managed to get her some brochures from a place in Taunton. She had seen one she liked, which looked as if it was a period piece, but was nonetheless state of the art, and would either use Gas, or Electricity, or a combination of the two. She told George about this. He hummed some more. "Yes I think I know what you mean. If you would let me have the brochure with the one you want indicated, I can get it on order. But if it's the one I think you mean it'll cost you a bit."

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