by Peter Charlesworth
It was a clear and crisp November morning when they came. Two ladies of considerable age. They walked in through the Tea Room door like hundreds of tourists before them that summer. But these two were different. No-one could say exactly why, but everyone felt it, they were just different.
Hugh Taylor looked up from his bowl of carrot and coriander soup and gave the ladies a smile. They made their way over to a table on his side of the room, near the stove. Hugh had felt the cold that morning on his way down Chapel Street and had asked Catherine to stoke the stove when he came in. It was now red hot but something was making him cold. Even the soup wasn’t warming him up like it usually did. Perhaps that’s why the ladies sat down near the stove too. But Hugh didn’t think they looked cold. The taller one wore a full length floral print summer dress which was tied with a ribbon around her waist. The only concession the smaller and, Hugh thought, prettier one made to the cold outside was a loose knitted light blue woollen cardigan. “Still, they’ve probably just stepped out of a warm car,” he thought.
“It’s another nice day,” said the taller one to no-one in particular.
“It certainly is,” said Justine who was sitting quietly in the corner reading an old copy of the Glenkens Gazette. Justine had noticed the two ladies the moment they walked in. But it wasn’t their summer attire which caught her eye first, it was the way they moved. Sometimes, it is difficult to judge people’s age, Justine thought. But by their faces though, these two must be well into their Seventies. The smaller one was slightly overweight too; yet they both moved across the tea room floor with the effortless grace of a twenty year old.
“It’s always nice when we come to Moniaive,” said the smaller one, who had now taken off the cardigan to reveal an ivory coloured cotton blouse with a lace collar.
“Have you come far?” said Catherine, emerging from the kitchen with flour on her hands and apron and a big, welcoming smile on her face.
“Only from Dumfries,” said the taller one. “Agnes and I come here every summer. On the train.” Catherine was puzzled. The summer had been late this year, lasting well into October but Halloween had been and gone. It was now November and even though it was sunny, the trees were almost bare and it was cold. Hardly summer. Still these ladies looked hungry. “What can I get you?” she enquired politely.
Jackie had been watching the two ladies from behind her desk near the window since they came in. She was amused by these two unusual, oddly dressed eccentrics and had begun to think up a poem.
“When I’m an old woman I shall wear purple,
And a red satin hat, and blue shoes that look awfulÉ”
But where were they from? They had come to Dumfries on the train, but where from? As Catherine took their order she listened to their voices. The accent was oddly familiar. Somehow not quite local but not too far way either. Once Agnes and her taller friend had finished orderingÉbuttered tea cakes and a pot of tea for twoÉ Jackie took her chance. “Have you been to Moniaive often?”
“Oh, why yes,” replied Agnes. “My sister and I have been coming here every year since we were children.”
“It’s such a lovely place to come for a day out,” said the taller sister.
“Oh that’s wonderful, have you visited the tea room before?” asked Hugh.
“We’ve not been here for a few years. Not since the accident,” said Agnes.
“This tea room was a bank then you know.”
“I can remember when Moniaive had a butchers, a grocers, a blacksmiths and a shoemakers. Our mother used to buy shoes from that shop,” she reminisced.
“Do you remember the baker’s on Chapel Street?” Hugh said enthusiastically.
“Hanratty’s?” asked the sister.
“Yes, that’s where I stay now,” Hugh stated proudly, “I’ve lots of old photos if you’re interested. When you’ve finished your tea.”
“We used to buy rolls from him when we got off the train,” said Agnes. “We were on the first train into Moniaive you know.”
Justine recalculated. The Moniaive station opened in 1905. Even if they were babies on the first train to Moniaive that would make them nearly 100 years old. Surely they were mistaken.
“The first train in 1905?” she inquired
“Oh you’ll have to excuse my sister,” said the taller one, “she gets a little carried away at times. We always use the train when we come here. She’s confused.”
“You’re confused,” thought Justine. “The last train left Moniaive in the 1950’s!”
Just then, Julie burst into the room. “I’ve not stopped perming all day. I’m dying for a cuppa,” she announced. “Oh hello,” she said slightly embarrassed by the presence of two people she did not know. What struck Julie about them was their red hair. Not bright red like a child’s but not the grey you would expect from their age either. Perhaps it was coloured, she thought. Trying not to stare. But if it was coloured, it had been done well, both ladies’ hair looked like it belonged to someone much younger. “Don’t mind me ladies,” she said and she continued into the kitchen.
Agnes drained the last dregs of tea from her cup. She stared for a moment at the bottom of the cup almost as if she expected to see tea leaves there. She looked towards Catherine but her sister was already up and it was clear it was time to leave.
“Thank you. That was a delightful cup of tea,” said the sister.
“Yes it was most agreeable,” echoed Agnes.
The ladies turned towards the door, joined arms and headed back across the room with the same effortlessness that had carried them in.
“Good day,” they said in unison and then they were gone, as quickly as they had arrived.
Seconds later the door went again and in walked Jock Black.
“Hullo,” said Hugh, “did you see the two old ladies outside?”
“No,” said Jock “I didn’t see anyone.”
“You must have done,” Catherine protested, “they’ve just this minute walked out of the door. Two older ladies. They left here arm in arm.”
“No, there was no-one there,” said Jock taking his seat. “I’d have noticed if there was.”
“Well Jock you might know them, they come to Moniaive every year. They seemed to know a lot about the village.”
“Agnes said they came on the first train to Moniaive,” said Justine
“Really?” said Jock. He ordered a coffee and sat back to think. “Agnes?” He turned to Justine. “Was Agnes short and stocky?”
“Yes with red hair,” said Justine.
“Could be Agnes Muir,” he thought out loud. “And was her sister much taller and thinner?”
“And dressed a bit old fashioned,” said Hugh.
“Aye that’d be Ruth. Ruth and Agnes Muir. I remember they used to come to visit every summer until the railway closed down. They stayed in Dumfries, near the station I think. Always used to buy a roll from Hanratty the baker. They could have been on the first train into Moniaive. They were certainly old enough. But no, hang on, it couldn’t have been them. No definitely not.”
“Why not?” asked Justine
Jock replied, “Well they were both killed in an accident ten years ago.”