"Hugh Thorncombe," he said, striding up beside Stephen so he could shake his hand and stand companionably near him while they looked out at the rain. "I hope you're not in a hurry." The Vicar turned to the next in line, Mr Smith, and asked how his leg was.
“Not really,” Stephen replied, glad of the chance to meet the binder twine squire. He didn't mind country drizzle but the rain was getting worse, turning into a downpour. If he waited, maybe it would stop as soon as it had started. Unlikely in November - but it might.
Mrs James pushed past. She'd forgotten to give in her hymn book and was forcing herself against the flow of the crowd to take it back into the Church. Stephen stepped out of the porch to let her through and Hugh felt a surge of panic. What if he lost him? What if the man kept walking? He followed, opened his umbrella and pinned Stephen under the shelter of its rim.
“Miserable weather,” he said, “Especially for visitors!”
"Yes,” said Stephen, peering anxiously into the whiteness of the disappearing churchyard and thinking how unpleasant the walk back to Mrs Jenkins would be. He'd be drenched. Would she let him have a bath? he wondered. Hugh tried to angle the umbrella so he could draw Stephen towards the porch again.
"Not as good as this morning”
“No,” said Stephen.
“It’s a real downpour,” Hugh observed, pressing shut his jacket. You won’t be able to do much for the rest of the day in this. I don’t know what you had in mind for this afternoon but, whatever it was, why don’t you come to tea instead?”
“We always like to meet new people.”
It was true. Hardly anyone came to eat cat-haired scones for a second time so first time visitors were all they ever had for company, apart from each other. He wondered where Camellia was. Discussing the flower arrangements? Offering to polish the brass? “It’s rather remote here," he said. "We don't have many guests. And I’m sure my wife will be pleased to meet you too," he added encouragingly. "Did you say you lived in Clapham?”
“Not really,” said Stephen, noting how little Hugh minded admitting to having listened to his conversation with the vicar. “Well, not recently anyway. I was just telling the Vicar, I'm touring the countryside. I've missed it while living in America. I've friends in Clapham though," he added. "And a flat - except I've rented it out."
Hugh wasn't sure this fitted so he avoided the Clapham discrepancy.
“Even the rain?” asked Hugh.
“Even the rain,” Stephen agreed.
They stood together, watching it fall.
“Three o’clock?” asked Hugh. “Then we’ll have time to show you round, if you like.”
Stephen was touched.
“Thank you,” he said, putting out his hand to shake Hugh’s and leave. “I’d like that. It’s very kind of you .”
“Do you have a wife?” Hugh asked. But it came out too quickly and he could see that Stephen had noted this and was non-plussed. But he had to know. “Or children?” he asked hopefully.
They seemed such odd questions, and Hugh was so intense in the way he asked, it crossed Stephen's mind to decline the invitation after all.
“Because my wife will want to know how many people I’ve invited," Hugh hurried on. "And, if you’ve children with you, you might like to tell them we’ve got donkeys. Sometimes children are reluctant to go to tea with complete strangers. They always expect to be bored. Donkeys help.”
Stephen relaxed and smiled, thinking he understood. But he wondered, none the less, why Hugh looked so desperately disappointed when he said “No, it’ll be just me.”