Betty Foster, small, thin and with salt and pepper hair, tugged her cardigan tighter around her chest. It was bitterly cold and a slanting, freezing rain lashed the window of her little bedsit. The one bar of the electric fire did little to warm the room. Since Derrick's death a few months before she had been low and disorientated, trying to grapple with a new life that she was ill-equipped for. Her sorrow seemed to increase rather than diminish. Derrick had been the vicar of a parish in one of the poorer parts of town. With his outgoing personality and his great entousiasm he had made a huge impact. She had loved her life as a vicar's wife and all the opportunities and challenges that it had brought her. Like his, her days had been full and busy. His sudden death of a heart attack one Sunday, just after Evensong, had brought an end to the life that she knew. She had moved to this tiny bedsit trying to make ends meet with the money from his small life insurance. In her fifties and with little work experience, she was unlikely to find a job. Her only son was married with a young family and could only give unstinting moral support. Her blue eyes were sad as she wondered how to fill the day.
Her thoughts were interrupted by her landlady Mrs.McCarthy knocking on her door. She held out an envelope, saying in her soft Irish burr "This just came for you."
Betty, puzzled, took the envelope. It had been sent by a firm of solicitors that she had never heard of, Ashton, Sharp and Ashton, with an address in the centre of town. The letter it enclosed requested her to make an appointment to discuss a matter of importance. It was signed by a John Ashton. Intrigued, she found a public phone and made an appointment for the following afternoon.
John Ashton, she discovered, was the senior partner in the firm. He had a shock of white hair and a pair of twinkling blue eyes that gazed at her over half moon glasses.On the desk in front of him were several legal documents.
"Mrs. Foster, do you recall Miss Arabelle Chase?" he enquired.
"Yes I do. She was one of our parishioners, an elderly lady who walked with a stick. She got on well with Derrick, always telling him how much she enjoyed his sermons. I know she had a stroke about a year ago and became housebound. Derrick would go and see her when he could."
"The very same. She owned and lived in a large house on the edge of town. I have in front of me a will that she made about six weeks ago, just before she died. In it she leaves you the house, all its contents and a large sum of money. She specifies that the house must live again, be filled with light and laughter and with music, and be used for the good of those who might need it."
Betty gasped, her hand flew to her mouth and she felt quite faint. "But what about her family?" she stuttered.
"She had no living family. Her two brothers died in the war. Like her they were unmarried. The house was built by their grandfather. I knew her well as our firm has looked after her family's affairs for many years. She was deeply distressed by your husband's sudden death and remade her will in your favour to give you , as she put it to me, something to anchor on to. Her specification as to the house's future use date back to happy chidhood memories when she was allowed out of the nursery to watch the arrival of guests invited to balls and receptions as given in those days. She suffered from ill health in the last months of her life and took refuge in the happier memories of her youth. I suggest that we view the house together when it is convenient to you."
"May I bring a friend?" Betty's frightened face touched him.
"Of course. Would early next week suit you?"
Betty jumped on the first bus that would take her to her friend's house. Hatty Simpson, stalwart of Derrick's parish, large and motherly, best friend and confidante to Betty for years. She was married to Fred who grew prize winning vegetables in his allotment. They had 4 grown children and were grandparents six times over. Hatty had worked in a bakery for years and had recently retired. Betty fell into a chair and related that afternoon's meeting with Mr. Ashton. Hatty's jaw dropped.
"Tell me all about it again, but this time slowly."
"Can you come with me next week to look at the house with Mr. Ashton?"
"Of course I can. Wait till I tell Fred!"
The following week they viewed the property. A large house in a big garden, it had many bedrooms, few bathrooms, an oldfashioned kitchen, several reception rooms and even a small ballroom with a stage. At the top of the house were four small rooms, once used as servants quarters. In Betty's mind these were turned into a small flat for herself. A large cellar completed the visit.
"The house is structually sound but is in need of modernizing. It was re-roofed recently."
Mr.Ashton ushered the ladies back to his car.
"Should you require help or advice please do not hesitate to contact me."
Mr. Ashton dropped them off outside Hatty's house.
"I'll be in touch" he said as he drove away.
Betty still felt somewhat shellshocked. Hetty took charge for the moment until Betty got her breath and wits back. Once that happened Betty's common sense would prevail. Hetty put the kettle on and said to Betty, who was sitting at the kitchen table with her head in her hands.
"Betty, first things first. You need to get the house modernized before anyone can move in including yoursel. As you know Fred used to work for Atkinsons, the builders. I am sure they could help. In the meantime you need to start thinking of how you are going to fulfill Miss Chase's wishes. I'm sure you'll find a way. As a vicar's wife you know all about helping people."
Betty took a pen and a note book out of her bag, things to buy, things to think about.
"I wonder about Mary" said Betty.
Stirring her tea, Hetty looked at her.
"What, old Mary? She's been living rough for years with that old dog of hers. She refuses to go to any of the shelters because she can't take the dog with her. I must admit she keeps herself remarkably clean considering the difficult circumstances. She always has a cheerful word with those who drop coins into her tin. You can try, but I know from trying to help her in the past that she is proud and independent."
"I can only try. I'll track her down tomorrow and put the idea to her. She's usually somewhere near the train station."
Betty finished her tea, hugged Hetty and went back to her bedsit.
Betty spent the evening working out an approach to Mary. Proud and independent she maybe but she was getting on in years and her health was suffering from constant exposure.
The following morning was cold but sunny. Betty headed for the train station where she found Mary. She was sitting on her old folding stool, her dog on a bit of carpet beside her. Her worldly goods were in the two plastic bags at her feet. Mary smiled at her.
"Hello Mrs.Foster. I was very sad to hear about the Reverend. Nice chap, he was. I'd tie Flissy to the church railings and slip into one of his services now and again. How are you doing yourself? Must be hard for you now." Mary coughed a hacking cough that shook her whole body.
Betty decided to go straight to the point and told Mary about Miss Chase's legacy and the terms of her will. How she hoped that the house would prove useful to those who felt they needed its shelter, that they could stay as long as they pleased and come and go as they wanted with no strings attached.
Mary thought long and hard; "What about Flissy?" she asked, "I'm not leaving her behind."
Betty reassured her that Flissy would be welcome.
"I'll think about it. I'd like to look at a room when they're ready and see what I think. My cough is bad, I know I need to get out of the cold but the shelter won't let me bring Flissy."
Betty let out the breath she had been holding in and promised Mary she'd come and see her as soon as the rooms were ready. Just as she was turning away Mary spoke again. "There's Hobo."
"Who is Hobo?" asked Betty.
Mary came back "He lives in an old shack by the canal. He does OK in the summer when the boating people are passing through but this time of year is hard for him and that shack he's in lets in the rain. I help him out when I can and he does the same for me? Could he have a room?"
"You tell him about a room!"
Betty felt that she had made a start to comply with the terms of Miss Chase's will that the house should live again and be used for the good of those who needed it. Light and laughter would no doubt follow, but music?!
That night just as she was drifting off to sleep Betty had an idea. Derrick had had a youth group that encompassed all kinds of activities including music. There had been a small group of boys who played various instruments, dreamt of being discovered and making the big time but had nowhere to play except on club nights. They called themselves The Cactus Plants, led by Steve who was covered in tattoos. He liked to present a hard face to the world but Betty knew differently. Derrick had told her of his efforts for the good in the drug-ridded estate where they all lived. She'd find Steve, tell him about the house and offer them the room with the stage to play in. Her thoughts carried her on to Ivan. Tall and gaunt and a refugee from the Balkan war, he played the violin with talent in the street. He lived in a squat in the derelict industrial part of town. He often came to a service on a Sunday, standing at the back of the church, his cap in his hand. She'd talk to him too.
She and Hatty met for lunch the following day. She told her about her encounter with Mary and the hope that Betty had that she would move in, also about Hobo. Hetty knew the lads in The Cactus Plants as they were pals of her grandsons. Then there was Ivan.
"No harm in asking him" said Hetty, "Do you remember Madge and Midge?"
"No, I don't think so" replied Betty.
"They used to be a circus double act in a small circus that came here once a year. It was probably before your time. I heard a while back that they had had to give up as he had a bad fall and now walks with two sticks. As far as I know they still live in their old caravan out in the caravan park. It can't be easy especially in the state he's in. Madge comes into town to shop. Next time I see her in the supermarket shall I ask her to get in touch with you?"
Madge came to see her a few days later. Betty explained the legacy again. Madge looked at her wistfully.
"It would be wonderful to be close to town. We could manage a small rent."
Betty had given the matter of payment a good deal of thought especially as both Mary and Hobo had mentioned it, neither wanting what they considered charity.
"I've decided that we could have a communal pot to which we would all contribute to pay for food and utilities."
Madge seemed happy with the idea. Betty felt that the money Miss Chase had left would go to the upkeep of the house and garden.
The Social Services contacted her just as the modernized house was ready for its inhabitants. They would be grateful for a room for a single mother named Tracy and her three year old son William. William proved to be a sunny, enchanting child, who became the centre of attention and was never short of a baby sitter when one was needed.
The Cactus Plants played frequently with enthousiasm in the cellar. Steeve had decreed that the room with the stage would be used when they were ready for it. They were often joined by Ivan.
As Miss Chase had hoped Betty had found an anchor and those she had found to people the house fulfilled her desire that the house would live again and be filled with laughter and light and music.