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Stop reading and answer one little question. Can you predict how the events will develop ?
Galaad saw the Grail on her mantelpiece, and dropped to one knee. He put down the teacup carefully on the russet carpet. A shaft of light came through the net curtains and painted his awed face with golden sunlight and turned his hair into a silver halo.
“It is truly the Sangrail,” he said, very quietly. He blinked his pale blue eyes three times, very fast, as if he were blinking back tears. He lowered his head as if in silent prayer. Galaad stood up again and turned to Mrs. Whitaker. “Gracious lady, keeper of the Holy of Holies, let me now depart this place with the Blessed Chalice, that my journeyings may be ended and my geas fulfilled.”
“Sorry?” said Mrs. Whitaker.
Galaad walked over to her and took her old hands in his. “My quest is over,” he told her. “The Sangrail is finally within my reach.”
Mrs. Whitaker pursed her lips. “Can you pick your teacup and saucer up, please?” she said. Galaad picked up his teacup apologetically.
“No. I don’t think so,” said Mrs. Whitaker. “I rather like it there. It’s just right, between the dog and the photograph of my Henry.”
“Is it gold you need? Is that it? Lady, I can bring you gold...”
“No,” said Mrs. Whitaker. ‘I don’t want any gold thank you. I’m simply not interested.” She ushered Galaad to the front door. “Nice to meet you,” she said. His horse was leaning its head over her garden fence, nibbling her gladioli. Several of the neighbourhood children were standing on the pavement, watching it. Galaad took some sugar lumps from the saddlebag and showed the braver of the children how to feed the horse, their hands held flat. The children giggled. One of the older girls stroked the horse’s nose. Galaad swung himself up onto the horse in one fluid movement. Then the horse and the knight trotted off down Hawthorne Crescent. Mrs. Whitaker watched them until they were out of sight, then sighed and went back inside.
The weekend was quiet. On Saturday Mrs. Whitaker took the bus into Maresfield to visit her nephew Ronald, his wife Euphonia, and their daughters, Clarissa and Dillian. She took them a currant cake she had baked herself. On Sunday morning Mrs. Whitaker went to church. Her local church was St James the Less, which was a little more “Don’t think of this as a church, think of it as a place where like-minded friends hang out and are joyful” than Mrs. Whitaker felt entirely comfortable with, but she liked the vicar, the Reverend Bartholomew, when he wasn’t actually playing the guitar. After the service, she thought about mentioning to him that she had the Holy Grail in her front parlour, but decided against it.
On Monday morning Mrs. Whitaker was working in the back garden. She had a small herb garden she was extremely proud of: dill, mint, rosemary, thyme, and a wild expanse of parsley. She was down on her knees, wearing thick green gardening gloves, weeding, and picking out slugs and putting them in a plastic bag. Mrs. Whitaker was very tenderhearted when it came to slugs. She would take them down to the back of her garden, which bordered on the railway line, and throw them over the fence. She cut some parsley for the salad. There was a cough behind her. Galaad stood there, tall and beautiful, his armour glinting in the morning sun. In his arms he held a long package, wrapped in oiled leather. “I’m back,” he said.
“Hello,” said Mrs. Whitaker. She stood up, rather slowly, and took off her gardening gloves. “Well,” she said, “now you’re here, you might as well make yourself useful.” She gave him the plastic bag full of slugs and told him to tip the slugs out over the back of the fence. He did. Then they went into the kitchen. “Tea? Or lemonade?” she asked.
“Whatever you’re having,” Galaad said.
Mrs. Whitaker took a jug of her homemade lemonade from the fridge and sent Galaad outside to pick a sprig of mint. She selected two tall glasses. She washed the mint carefully and put a few leaves in each glass, then poured the lemonade.
“Is your horse outside?” she asked.
“Oh yes. His name is Grizzel.”
“And you’ve come a long way, I suppose.”
“A very long way.”
“I see,” said Mrs. Whitaker. She took a blue plastic basin from under the sink and half-filled it with water. Galaad took it out to Grizzel. He waited while the horse drank and brought the empty basin back to Mrs. Whitaker.
“Now,” she said, “I suppose you’re still after the Grail.”
“Aye, still do I seek the Sangrail,” he said. He picked up the leather package from the floor, put it down on her tablecloth and unwrapped it. “For it, I offer you this.” It was a sword, its blade almost four feet long. There were words and symbols traced elegantly along the length of the blade. The hilt was worked in silver and gold, and a large jewel was set in the pommel.
“It’s very nice,” said Mrs. Whitaker, doubtfully.
“This,” said Galaad, “is the sword Balmung, forged by Wayland Smith in the dawn times. Its twin is Flamberge. Who wears it is unconquerable in war, and invincible in battle. Who wears it is incapable of a cowardly act or an ignoble one. Set in its pommel is the sardonynx Bircone, which protects its possessor from poison slipped into wine or ale, and from the treachery of friends.”
Mrs. Whitaker peered at the sword. “It must be very sharp,” she said, after a while.
“It can slice a falling hair in twain. Nay, it could slice a sunbeam,” said Galaad proudly.
“Well, then, maybe you ought to put it away,” said Mrs Whitaker.
“Don’t you want it?” Galaad seemed disappointed.
“No, thank you,” said Mrs. Whitaker. It occurred to her that her late husband, Henry, would have quite liked it. He would have hung it on the wall in his study next to the stuffed carp he had caught in Scotland, and pointed it out to visitors.
Galaad rewrapped the oiled leather around the sword Balmung and tied it up with white cord. He sat there, disconsolate. Mrs. Whitaker made him some cream cheese and cucumber sandwiches for the journey back and wrapped them in greaseproof paper. She gave him an apple for Grizzel. He seemed very pleased with both gifts. She waved them both good-bye.
That afternoon she took the bus down to the hospital to see Mrs. Perkins, who was still in with her hip, poor love. Mrs. Whitaker took her some homemade fruitcake, although she had left out the walnuts from the recipe, because Mrs. Perkins’s teeth weren’t what they used to be. She watched a little television that evening, and had an early night. On Tuesday the postman called. Mrs. Whitaker was up in the boxroom at the top of the house, doing a spot of tidying, and, taking each step slowly and carefully, she didn’t make it downstairs in time. The postman had left her a message which said that he’d tried to deliver a packet, but no one was home. Mrs. Whitaker sighed. She put the message into her handbag and went down to the post office. The package was from her niece Shirelle in Sydney, Australia. It contained photographs of her husband, Wallace, and her two daughters, Dixie and Violet, and a conch shell packed in cotton wool. Mrs. Whitaker had a number of ornamental shells in her bedroom. Her favourite had a view of the Bahamas done on it in enamel. It had been a gift from her sister, Ethel, who had died in 1983.She put the shell and the photographs in her shopping bag. Then, seeing that she was in the area, she stopped in at the Oxfam Shop on her way home.
“Hullo, Mrs. W.,” said Marie.
Mrs. Whitaker stared at her. Marie was wearing lipstick (possibly not the best shade for her, nor particularly expertly applied, but, thought Mrs. Whitaker, that would come with time) and a rather smart skirt. It was a great improvement.
“Oh. Hello, dear,” said Mrs. Whitaker.
“There was a man in here last week, asking about that thing you bought. The little metal cup thing. I told him where to find you. You don’t mind, do you?”
“No, dear,” said Mrs. Whitaker. “He found me.”
“He was really dreamy. Really, really dreamy,” sighed Marie wistfully. “I could have gone for him.”
“And he had a big white horse and all,” Marie concluded. She was standing up straighter as well, Mrs. Whitaker noted approvingly. On the bookshelf Mrs. Whitaker found a new Mills & Boon novel — Her Majestic Passion — although she hadn’t yet finished the two she had bought on her last visit. She picked up the copy of Romance and Legend of Chivalry and opened it. It smelled musty. EX LIBRIS FISHER was neatly handwritten at the top of the first page in red ink. She put it down where she had found it.
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