The bells were already going by the time Sal stepped out the back door, bundled against the cold, and called goodbye to Jock. Five times for the hour, then the God-awful racket as the Clatterford-St Mary Ringing Society's latest original peal began. Discordant notes rang out from the bell tower, each more jarring than the last.
Sal nodded at the Dove sisters as she passed their cottage. They nodded back, half-smiles on their lined faces. Both sported the noise-cancelling headgear that had become a common sight in the village since the Ringing Society's practice season began in earnest, though the Doves had embellished theirs with fuzzy knitted covers in pink and green.
Tip caught her up at the bus stop.
"You know, they might be improving a bit!" she shouted.
"How can you tell?"
"Almost recognized a melody."
Sal snorted. "I think you're giving them too much credit."
"Now, don't you be jealous of their musical prowess." Tip tucked her arm inside the crook of Sal's and started tugging her up the hill. "C'mon, if we hurry, I bet they'll still take you on."
The Guild meeting was already in full swing by the time they pushed through the doors, breathless from the walk. Or so it seemed, at first, but after a few seconds Sal realized it was slightly more lively than the usual free-for-all that started each meeting.
In the corner, Caroline and Susie had their heads bent together over a folded newspaper, while the rest of the group were all talking over each other in excited voices. Even Yasmeen was engaged in conversation, while Rosie and Eileen were standing at the front of the room looking as though they were ready to burst out of their skin. Eileen hadn't even removed her coat.
"Sorry we're late," Sal called. Tip elbowed her in the ribs and scurried off to slouch in a seat at the back of the room.
Eileen swung on her with a sharp cry. Her Guild regalia clinked gently against the buttons on her coat and her hands fluttered up to her face and hair.
"Watch it!" Rosie cried, reaching out to press the loop of fabric to Eileen's chest. She glared over her shoulder at Sal. "You'll make her scratch up all 'er fancy medals!"
"No, Rosie, my love, it's okay," Eileen said, gently disentangling Rosie's hands from the regalia and patting her cheek. "Go have a seat."
With as dirty a look at Sal as Rosie was capable of mustering, she stomped to an empty chair in the front row and sat with a loud huff.
"Oh, Sal," Eileen cried, her hands fluttering up to her hair again. She pushed at a bit of her fringe as though she weren't quite sure what to do with it. "It's the most wonderful news! The Clatterford-St Mary's Ringing Society's been chosen to be recorded for Bells on Sunday." She paused for effect. "At Christmas!"
Not even Tip's loud snort of laughter was enough to deter Eileen once she got going.
"Now, I told Anthony and Petra that we would act as a welcoming committee of sorts. Oh, we have so much to do to get ready! They're arriving tomorrow. I can't imagine why they left it so late to get us involved, I really can't."
Sal dropped into the seat next to Tip. "I can."
But Eileen was already too far gone for anyone to protest. Everyone knew that look in her eyes, the one that meant all the rest of them were about to be swept away on a rising tide of hors d'oeuvres and flower arrangements.
"Shouldn't the vicar be in charge of this welcoming committee?" Sal asked in the first lull. "It is his church."
"Surely you don't expect that the vicar...! He can't manage all this on his own. Katie, tell them," Eileen implored.
"Oh, yeah, it'll be lovely. Just lovely. And Hillary has so much to do. Did you know there were seven banns to be read this weekend? Seven! He couldn't possibly arrange all this, too," Katie said with a wave around the room, as if whatever "all this" was meant to entail had already manifested itself.
"And, anyway, it en't his church, is it? It's our church," Rosie cut in. "And..." She paused and looked around as if she were about to impart some great secret. "He don't know nothing about bells, does he? Ha!"
By the time the meeting was due to break up, Eileen had worked herself into such a state that she hardly complained at all when Tip, Sal, and Yasmeen made their excuses; Tip to take her shift back from Janine, Sal and Yasmeen to chivvy James out of the surgery for supper.
It wasn't a clean getaway, though. Eileen wouldn't let anyone leave without long lists of refreshments and decorations she expected each to bring the next morning.
Tip kept up a healthy grumble all the way to the pub's front door, where she pulled her hair back into a messy ponytail and unwound the scarf from her throat again.
"How'd we get roped into this, anyway? Sal, I've told you, we need to stand up to her every so often. Just to keep her on her toes, if nothing else."
"Better this than pulling a rope, at least," Sal said. "Here, give me your list. Yasmeen and I will do whatever baking needs done."
Yasmeen made a face and propped her gloved hands on the enormous swell of her belly.
"Don't even think about it," Sal warned. "I know for a fact that baby hasn't bothered you one bit. And I haven't a clue how to do those butterfly biscuits Rosie asked for."
"Ooh, the monster-in-law emerges!" Tip said in a mock whisper. "Quick, girl, get her home and tucked into a nice bottle before her alcohol levels drop any further!"
By the time Sal turned up the next morning, the Guild ladies had transformed the hall into a winter wonderland. Rosie was adjusting a garland of sparkling paper snowflakes along the front of the stage.
"What do you think, Sal? Yeah? Good, yeah? Margaret said they looked too amateur."
"It looks just lovely, Rosie. Here, come over here and try some of Yasmeen's biscuits."
"Ooh, them little butterflies? Those are my favorite." Her eyes nearly rolled back in her head with pleasure as her voice dropped.
"Didn't Jasmine come with?" Eileen asked.
She was fluttering round the refreshments table, straightening plates and napkins to some exacting standard of her own creation. She pushed Rosie's block of cheese to the back of the table.
"I was hoping she'd stand in at the aid station. Well, sit. You know, just in case."
"I'll do that," Sal offered. They'd long since made the decision that for health and safety reasons they needed to have a medical professional on hand for all their events. Needs must, and all. "James needed her at the surgery this morning. She's finally ready to start doing jabs without the camera."
"Well done, Jasmine," Eileen cheered. She started to say something else, but her attention was caught by whatever Katie was doing by the front doors. "Oh, no! Katie, would you just look at that, the garland's all twisted. We'll have to take the whole thing down again!"
"I can fix it," Rosie said, dribbling crumbs all down the front of her dress.
"Why don't you help Katie put out the folding chairs? You did them so nice for the last Guild meeting."
Sal asked, "Why don't I get Col or James—"
"Don't be ridiculous. It's just a bit of straightening. Look, the step ladder's right here. No one even put it away, would you believe that."
Eileen marched across the room and moved the ladder closer to where the garland was tacked up over the notice board. She chose a pair of pliers from the handyman basket and brandished it like a conductor's baton.
"Really, Sal, of all people...! I would think you'd understand the importance of doing for oneself instead of running round begging for help from all and sundry."
She started up the first few steps, the tip of her tongue just poking out in concentration. It only took a few moments for her to pry loose the tacks enough to pull the garland from the wall and let it droop in untidy loops to the floor.
"See! Hardly a moment's wor-oh!"
Sal didn't see what happened, only the end result: Eileen on the floor with one arm cradled to her chest. She moaned in pain and gripped her elbow. The garland was twisted around one of the step ladder's legs like it had been lying in wait.
Rosie dropped the folding chairs with a clatter and shouted, "Oh no, Margaret!"
Through gritted teeth, Eileen tried to reassure her that it was just a silly accident, while Sal looped a scarf around her neck to keep her arm immobilised.
"Has someone rung for an ambulance?" she asked.
"On it!" Katie sang out. She scrounged in her pockets for her mobile. "Just... one moment, here it is. I'm ringing now!"
"That's not necessary," Eileen muttered, already trying to push Sal away so she could struggle to her feet. "Really, I'm fine. It's just a bit of bruising. There's still so much to do!"
"Never mind all that. We'll just get everything checked out, just in case."
"In case nothing! We haven't any chairs out, and, oh, has anyone heard from Petra? What time the BBC will be arriving? They could be here any moment!"
"Ambulance services, on the go!" Katie cried. "Should I go outside to wave them in? I should. Shouldn't I?"
"Don't try to move your arm." Sal hadn't missed the way Eileen sucked in her breath when she tied the sling. "I think it may be broken. Have you been taking your Fosamax?"
Katie was hovering over them both, wringing her hands. "Yeah, I'll just go out and wait for them. Has anyone seen my coat? I know I left it near here."
"Just go!" Eileen bellowed.
Katie went, Rosie running ahead of her like a bodyguard clearing the way.
"Oh, my good godfathers," Eileen moaned. "I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have shouted. She's only trying to help."
Sal took Eileen's uninjured hand between her own. "Don't worry about it. She's tougher than she looks."
Eileen let out a shaky breath. "Must be something in the water."
A bit before midnight, Sal let herself into the house to find every light burning and the sitting room filled with Guild ladies. Eileen followed a few steps behind, the scarf replaced with a proper sling under her coat.
Jock met them in the kitchen with a tray full of dirty mugs.
"They started turning up after supper. Couldn't get in here so they started battering down my door until I came over to let them in."
"Of course they did. I hope you didn't feed anyone. We'll never get rid of them if you did."
"Is that Sal?" someone called from the sitting room. "Did I hear Sal?"
"I'm here! And Eileen's with me."
Eileen started to sway on her feet, so Sal pulled out a chair and convinced her to sit at the table.
Jock refilled the electric kettle and dropped a kiss on Sal's cheek. "See you in the morning?"
She had just enough time to nod before the horde descended.
"Oh, Eileen, how are you feeling?"
"You've been gone half the night!"
"That's not Queenie's old sling, is it?"
"Was it a very bad break?" Rosie asked. "When Ricky broke his arm he was in a terrible mood for weeks. Margaret wouldn't even stay in the same room as him, so you know it was bad."
It took some doing but Sal and Eileen finally managed to get the story out. The elbow was only sprained, not broken, but between the stress and the painkillers, Sal refused to let her go home alone.
"She spent almost every minute up to then asking how things were going with the Bells on Sunday people," she told Tip once they'd retreated to the sitting room.
In the kitchen, Eileen was holding court and explaining in great detail about the imaging suite where she'd been x-rayed.
"I kept putting her off but I'm sure she'll be at it again as soon as the excitement dies down."
"Lord save us all," Tip said, looking skyward. "Caroline took charge once you'd left."
"Oh, God," Sal groaned. "We'll never hear the end of it."
"And you haven't even heard what she told them she and John got up to in Montreaux. I almost had to go to confession right then and there."
It was past three by the time Sal walked the last straggler to the door and locked it behind her.
"My goodness, Katie does enjoy the sound of her own voice, doesn't she?" Eileen was lying on the sofa with her injured arm propped on a hassock. Her eyes half-closed and her breathing slow and even. "Oh, dear, did I fall asleep on everyone? That was very rude of me."
"It'll be our secret," Sal promised. "Can I get you anything?"
"No, darling, but thank you. I'll just kip here on the sofa for a bit and be out of your way."
"It's no trouble. You can stay as long as you need."
Eileen tried to roll herself upright and groaned when she accidentally bumped her elbow. Her voice was starting to slur like she'd been drinking Benedictines all night and she still hadn't managed to open her eyes all the way.
"Oh, Sal, I don't want to impose. No, I'll go back to my cottage tomorrow. I don't need any favours."
Rather than trying to argue, Sal sat down next to her and fiddled with a bit of string hanging from her jumper. "You'd be doing me the favour, Eileen. It's a bit lonely, to tell you the truth, rambling about the house now that Tash and Raph are finally gone."
"It's funny, isn't it?" Eileen said after a long pause. Her uninjured hand twisted in the air as she pointed at nothing. "All those years I spent... Wanting just a little space of my own, and now... With Daddy gone...."
Her voice trailed off as the painkillers pulled her under again. Sal stood and spread another blanket over her.
"My point exactly."