The Lover Switch – Rebecca King

Ruth Felton tucked her purchases into her basket and left the grocer’s shop with a huge sigh of relief. She was surprised that she had managed to escape the gossips in the shop as easily as she had. Now that she was free, she was eager to get home before the worst of the blizzard struck the small village of Riddlewood, nestled on the northernmost border of rural Derbyshire. “It’s going to be a cold one today,” Mr Atchison, the butcher, called jovially from across the street when their gazes accidentally collided across the cobbled thoroughfare. “I hope I can get home before I freeze,” Ruth replied briskly. Out of the corner of her eye Ruth saw an elderly lady further down the street doing her best to catch her attention. Mrs Quigley was too far away to be heard but was waving her hands frantically in the air to try to catch Ruth’s attention. Ruth felt guilty when she pretended that she hadn’t seen her. The elderly woman probably wanted an errand running but given the worsening weather, Ruth wasn’t predisposed to doing anything except getting home before the worst of the blizzard struck. Unsurprisingly, when Mrs Quigley didn’t manage to catch Ruth’s eye, she increased her pace to a spritely jaunt to try to catch up. Determined not to be delayed or conscripted into doing anybody’s errands today, Ruth also increased the length of her stride. “You’d best hurry home now, Ruth. This snow is going to get worse soon,” Mr Atchison called after her, his much louder voice drowning out the rather feeble calls from the determined yet much smaller Mrs Quigley. “I will do that, Mr Atchison, thank you,” Ruth replied jovially, tugging her cloak tighter about her thin frame. The biting wind still snuck underneath the thick wool and made her shiver.

It was enough to distract her from the persistent Mrs Quigley and focus on getting home with even more haste. When the stiffening breeze slipped beneath her long cloak despite her best attempts to stop it, Ruth sniffed miserably and increased her pace to a half-run. She wanted nothing more than to be able to sit beside a cosy fire enjoying a nice piece of the pie she had tucked in her basket. She was mentally building the picture in her mind as she marched resolutely up the hill toward home with ice crunching wickedly beneath her snow-caked boots. Eventually, she reached Woodland Mews at the end of which was the small, single-storey cottage she shared with her aunt. When Ruth saw it she was so determined to reach it that she didn’t notice the elderly woman peering out of her window. “Ruth,” an awfully familiar voice called from a cottage about half-way down the mews. Damn. I had hoped to miss her too. Feeling somewhat churlish for wishing to avoid everyone, Ruth pasted a polite smile on her face and did her best to avoid snapping at the woman when she said: “Mrs Howell.

” Usually, she would have stopped and made polite conversation because that was what her aunt had taught her to do, but Mrs Howell’s tone made Ruth keep walking. “I want a word with you,” Mrs Howell called when she realised that Ruth wasn’t going to stop. Her tone implied that Ruth had done something wrong. “I am in rather a hurry, Mrs Howell,” Ruth called dismissively, unable to think of anything she could have done to annoy the woman. She threw her a disinterested glance and resolutely marched on, but inwardly winced when Mrs Howell stepped out of her house, clearly intent on stopping her anyway. Nevertheless, Ruth was determined not to be thwarted in her attempt to get out of the frigid weather, and squared her shoulders as she marched past the end of Mrs Howell’s front garden. “Ruth.” The word was rapped so sharply that Ruth instinctively slammed to a halt. An immediate flurry of guilt slammed into Ruth so strongly that she felt like a recalcitrant child. But at two and twenty, it was the last emotion Ruth expected to be made to feel by the rather indominable neighbour.

It annoyed her because as far as she was concerned, she had done nothing wrong and certainly nothing that warranted Mrs Howell barking at her. Because of it, Ruth rapped equally sharply: “What?” She hoped her impatient tone conveyed excellently just how little interest she had in what the older woman had to say, but Mrs Howell doggedly meandered down the path to her front gate anyway. By the time Mrs Howell had reached the small gate nestled between two elongated fingers of hedgerow, Ruth was shivering, her toes were numb, and she had a fine layer of snow covering her shoulders, but Mrs Howell didn’t seem to notice. Or care. When the older woman stopped to pick something up off the floor, as casually as if it were a fine summers day, and kept Ruth waiting deliberately, Ruth huffed an impatient sigh and prompted: “Well? I am in rather a hurry, Mrs Howell.” Ruth snuck another longing look at the cottage at the end of the road. With the waning light of dusk encroaching, Maud had lit the candles. The small single storey cottage now had a homely, welcoming glow to it that Ruth couldn’t wait to avail herself of. If only Mrs Howell doesn’t dawdle for so long that I get frozen to the spot. “Mrs Howell, I really do have to go,” Ruth snapped, shifting impatiently from one foot to the other.

“I want you to do something for me,” Mrs Howell announced once she had reached the gate. She spoke in a tone that left Ruth in no doubt that she was expected to do whatever the older woman wanted. That annoyed Ruth even more. While she tried to control her rising anger, Ruth glanced pointedly up at the snow falling steadily from the sky. Mrs Howell seemed oblivious to both the weather and Ruth’s frozen state. After raking her with a somewhat dismissive look, Mrs Howell pugnaciously held out her hand. Ruth eyed the small piece of pink paper protruding from the woman’s clenched fist but made no attempt to relieve her of her burden. Instead, she lifted an aloof brow in Mrs Howell’s direction and asked: “Well?” Historically, Ruth would never have dreamt of speaking to the rather dour neighbour in this way, but today was different. Ruth was different. Today, she wasn’t prepared to be the subservient errand-girl most of the villagers had become used to, especially for Mrs Howell.

Today, she was tired of running errands for everyone while getting nothing in return than more errands, or a brisk thank you, or a moan of discontent if the errands she ran hadn’t been carried out exactly as ordered and in meticulous detail. She was sick of being at everybody’s beck and call, criticised constantly, and nobody bothering to ask how she was, or offer to help her. She was fed up with having to mind her manners while dealing with other people’s bad manners and selfishness. Mrs Howell’s especially. Ruth watched Mrs Howell’s shrewd gaze slide to the thickening layer of snow on her shoulders, but the elder woman didn’t usher her on her way or ask if she was all right. Ruth had a sneaking suspicion that the older woman was deliberately keeping her waiting, but for the life of her Ruth couldn’t understand why. Mrs Howell lifted her brows almost challengingly. Her eyes hardened when they levelled on her. Silently, she waved her fist at Ruth, insisting that Ruth take the paper. “Mrs Howell, I am on my way home.

I am not doing any errands for anybody today,” Ruth snapped, eyeing the paper without moving. Another shiver wracked Ruth so badly that she shuddered and eyed home further down the street longingly once again. She wondered if she should just leave Mrs Howell standing outside in the thickening snowfall. Maybe then the older woman would accept that Ruth wasn’t going to do any errands for her. “I am worried about my friend, Maureen Cleghorne. You know Maureen, don’t you? She lives in the old white house on the outskirts of the village. You know, the one that is at the top of the hill overlooking the village.” “I remember,” Ruth muttered, studying the rapidly disappearing footprints she had created in the snow to get thus far. God, please don’t ask me to take a message to Maureen. Ruth looked pointedly around the steady snowfall.

As she watched it, the falling snow began to thicken as the blizzard descended upon them with all its frozen fury. “I really must get back,” she muttered more to herself than to Mrs Howell. “I haven’t been able to get in touch with my friend,” Mrs Howell persisted as if Ruth hadn’t spoken. “Maureen usually comes to see me on a Tuesday.” “Maybe she has decided to stay at home because of the snow,” Ruth suggested dismissively. “I wouldn’t worry too much. I am sure she will get in touch with you just as soon as the weather clears.” “It isn’t like Maureen. Even if she couldn’t come to see me, she sends little Ryan Malley with a message. Well, Ryan hasn’t brought me a note,” Mrs Howell continued undeterred.

Ruth’s fingers were now as numb as her toes despite her thick mittens. She struggled not to sniff inelegantly and wished now that she hadn’t dawdled in the grocery to listen to the latest gossip. But Mrs Howell was looking for me. I wouldn’t have avoided her even if I had remained with the gossips. I would have had to trudge all the way home in a blizzard instead, and that would be after Mrs Quigley tried to burden me with her chores as well. Until recently, Ruth had not minded helping the elderly residents of the village whenever they had needed it. Riddlewood wasn’t a large village after all with only a hundred or so residents. Unfortunately, because most of the younger generations had moved out of the area to find employment, most of the villagers who resided in Riddlewood were elderly. Once word had gotten out that Ruth would run errands for people, everyone had started to take advantage. Now, Ruth regularly faced the problem of having people ask her to do things for them that she knew they were perfectly capable of doing themselves.

Their requests often meant that Ruth was rushed off her feet doing chores for other people and frequently struggled to finish her own. Of late, it had become so burdensome that it had triggered a rather abiding dissatisfaction with her life that had left her feeling as if life was slowly being drained from her. She didn’t doubt that if she remained in the village she would be as wrinkled and hunched as the elderly residents were but within the next couple of years. She already felt aged far beyond her two and twenty years. While a pang of conscience reminded her that the elderly did need her assistance, she knew that those who were truly in need of her help rarely asked for it. But Mrs Howell doesn’t have any problems pressing me into doing things for her, even though she is physically capable of running her own errands. And she hasn’t even asked if I am all right this morning. That hardened Ruth to the elderly neighbour even more. Given the snow, or it might have been Mrs Howell’s briskness just now, or her new-found determination not to be badgered into being out in the cold any longer than she absolutely had to, Ruth wasn’t in any mood to pander to the older woman. “I am sure Ryan’s mother wouldn’t want him running around needlessly in a blizzard either, Mrs Howell.

It isn’t fair on the young boy to expect him to come out in this weather. It isn’t safe. I am sure Maureen understands that.” Even if you don’t. Ruth swiped at the snow on her cheeks and winced when the coarse wool of her mitten scratched her cheeks. They were sore from the biting wind and the amount of time she had been outside. To her disgust, Mrs Howell held the note out to her and stepped closer, insisting that Ruth take it. When Ruth merely eyed it like a coiled serpent, Mrs Howell stomped through her gate and stalked closer with a tread that wasn’t hindered by the deepening snow or infirmity. To Ruth’s amazement, Mrs Howell lifted her hand and slapped the note into her palm, forcing her to take it. “Take that to Maureen,” Mrs Howell ordered before turning around and retreating to her garden.

Ruth’s mouth fell open. On any other day, at any other time of year, Ruth would have readily agreed mostly to prevent upsetting her neighbour. However, in the middle of a blizzard, and with a long list of chores of her own to do once she eventually reached home, Ruth wasn’t amenable to carrying out the older woman’s orders. It felt churlish and wrong to refuse her, especially seeing as Mrs Howell wouldn’t be able to manage to climb the hill in the blizzard, but Ruth rebelled at having to slip and slide through the snow just to appease an old woman who saw her as a servant. “I am not going to even try to climb that hill today.” The words tumbled out before Ruth could stop them. “I am sure that Maureen is fine, and that she didn’t send Ryan because it is too dangerous. I certainly am not going up that hill.” Ruth hoped that Mrs Howell would accept that if the journey were too difficult for a young boy like Ryan to manage then it was too difficult for Ruth as well. But Mrs Howell was too focused on getting what she wanted to listen, and blithely ignored her as she returned to the house.

Ruth stared helplessly down at the note in her hand. When she looked at the older woman again, her cheeks were flushed even more but with fury rather than cold. “I am not going up that hill, Mrs Howell.” Her anger grew when Mrs Howell entered her house undeterred. Determined not to be ignored, Ruth pushed at the gate at her knees only to gasp in shock when she realised that Mrs Howell had bolted it, effectively blocking Ruth from following her and giving her the note back. “I would hurry up if I were you, dear. The snow is getting worse,” Mrs Howell called from the safety of her doorstep. “I am not going up there,” Ruth cried, scrunching the note into a tight ball in her mittened fist. To her disgust, and increasing fury, Mrs Howell closed the front door with a loud bang before Ruth had finished objecting. “You witch.

You spiteful, selfish witch,” Ruth muttered. She stared down at the note and wondered what to do with it. “I might have taken it if you had bothered to say; ‘thank you’.” Defiantly, Ruth scrunched the note up even more and shoved it in her pocket. As far as she was concerned now, it wasn’t going to get delivered today or tomorrow either if the snow didn’t clear. In fact, she might never deliver it. “Not this week, or next, or maybe never.” Now, her hand shook with the force of her temper, and she was beyond frozen and utterly miserable too. I doubt Mrs Howell is shaking. I bet she is pleased with herself because she thinks she has managed to badger me into doing what she wants again.

This time, though, Ruth wasn’t going to be forced into going up that hill. She knew that if she even tried it, she would end up ill if not with a broken leg. Still, there was now the problem of what she should do about the note in her pocket. “Are you all right?” Despite her anger, Ruth smiled when she heard that feminine voice at her elbow. “Yes, I am fine, Poppy.” That instinctive response was the usually banal reply she gave to everyone who asked her if she was ‘all right’. Now, for once in her life, Ruth didn’t see the purpose of it. If she wasn’t going to be honest with her response, what was the point of even replying to Poppy’s friendly enquiry? Further, if Poppy weren’t interested in how she felt, why would she ask? Ruth turned to her friend and suddenly announced: “No, I am not all right. I am far from all right. Do you care?” Perplexed, Poppy blinked at her.

“Of course I care. I wouldn’t ask you if I didn’t.” Linking arms with her friend, Poppy tugged Ruth into a steady walk, but Ruth planted her boots in the snow and held the note out for Poppy to see before telling her friend about Mrs Howell’s rude behaviour. “You only have yourself to blame, you know,” Poppy chided. “How?” Ruth demanded looking incredulously at her friend. “Well, you do far too much for practically everyone in this village. They have all come to expect you to run around after them. When have you ever said ‘no’ to them, or put yourself first?” Ruth studied the note in her glove. “I have to refuse now. I am not going up that hill.

” “But you are contemplating going still, aren’t you? Or you would have given her the note back.” Poppy was unsurprised when Ruth didn’t deny it. “Mrs Howell was wrong to ask you to go. It is mean and selfish to expect you to trudge up that hill in a blizzard. I don’t doubt that there is nothing wrong with Maureen, and that Maureen’s neighbours would help her if she had a problem. You are right about that. The problem is that Mrs Howell has nothing else to think about. In her mind, she has started to worry and wants someone to allay her fears. There is no real reason why you should trudge up that hill just to satisfy the curiosity of a bored old lady. Unfortunately, because you have put yourself out for her in the past, she has gotten used to you doing it all the time.

She now thinks she can tell you what to do even though you are not her servant. Don’t you think it is about time you said ‘no’ to the woman and stood your ground no matter how much she tries to bully you into doing things for her? If she is offended, or stops talking to you, it can be no great loss, can it?” “I tried to say ‘no’ to her, but she wouldn’t listen,” Ruth muttered dourly with a glare at Mrs Howell’s house. “She shoved the note at me anyway and went back inside before I could stop her. She closed the door on me when I told her that I wasn’t going to do it.” “Of course she did. She is rude,” Poppy announced as if Ruth didn’t already know. “Do you really need to worry about offending someone like her? If she is annoyed with you for not taking the note you know you have done the right thing by not going. I mean, why would you want to put yourself out for someone so ungrateful? When has she done anything for you?” “Well, Mrs Howell is elderly. I wouldn’t really expect her to do anything for me,” Ruth edged. “But she could help you if she chose to.

There is no reason why she couldn’t. She could do her own errands. That would be helping you, wouldn’t it? But why should she feel the need to do them for herself when she has you running around after her? She manages to walk up that hill in the summer, and when she wants to go to church on Sunday, doesn’t she? When she wants to go out and enjoy herself, she can get about like you and I can. She never seems to have a problem then, does she, or when she is going to take tea with Maureen? Now, she is so worried about her friend she cannot be bothered to make the trip up the hill before the snow started to fall. Now, it is almost night-time, and she is suddenly desperately worried about her friend and expects you to risk life and limb to battle a blizzard and a snowy hill for her. Why didn’t she go up the hill herself earlier this afternoon? Maureen is her friend after all, yet Mrs Howell didn’t feel that her concerns were important enough to put herself out and wander up that hill before now. Further, when you were ill last summer, did Mrs Howell visit you or ask you if there was anything that she could do for you?” “Well, no,” Ruth admitted. “Exactly. You allow all of them to take advantage of you, Ruth, but her especially.” Poppy tipped her head dismissively at Mrs Howell’s house.

“I know that I am fed up with being everyone’s unpaid servant,” Ruth muttered. “So stop. If they fall out with you then you know that they have been undeserving of your help, don’t you?” Poppy murmured gently. She reached out to brush a thick layer of snow from Ruth’s shoulder in a maternal gesture that wasn’t lost on Ruth. “Now, go home. Sit before the fire. Don’t deliver that note. If you will take a word of advice from me? Burn it. Don’t get involved. Mrs Howell is no great loss.

If she stops talking to you she will have to stop asking you to do things for her, won’t she?” “I wish she would,” Ruth sighed. “But the next time I pass her house she will come out and demand to know why I didn’t deliver it.” “Then take a different route to the grocery,” Poppy suggested, scowling darkly at her. “There is a longer route you can take through the woods. It is more scenic and will keep you away from her house, and everyone else’s for that matter.” Ruth struggled to control her tears. “I don’t know how I have gotten into this mess. To begin with, I picked up some tincture for Mr Arnold when he was ill. That was all. Then I posted some letters for Mrs McGuire when she was stuck at home with her poorly baby.

Since then, it has just escalated and escalated to the point that I am spending more time doing everyone else’s chores than I am my own.” Ruth’s misery was rife in her voice, and visible in her drooping shoulders. “Now, I don’t seem to be able to find a way to stop them from sucking my life dry. I feel as if I am having every ounce of will drained from me, and I cannot fight them.” Ruth’s face was wretched as she looked across the familiar snow laden rooftops of Riddlewood. It had been her home since she had been five years old, when her mother and father had died from influenza one winter. It had been her sanctuary, her harbour in her own personal storm, but now it was starting to feel like her prison. Poppy turned to study the village too. They were both temporarily oblivious to the snow falling all around them. “Have you ever wondered what life would be like somewhere else?” Ruth wanted to deny it but said: “I think about it every day.

Do you ever wonder what a life of adventure would be like?” “I think about it every day,” Poppy confessed. “If you find a way of changing your life for the better, let me know how you do it, won’t you? I think I may just follow in your footsteps.” Her gaze fell to the meandering trail they had both created through the snow. “I wouldn’t try walking in those footsteps. Not unless you are prepared to deliver this.” Ruth lifted the note for Poppy to see. To her amazement, Poppy snatched it off her. Scrunching it into an even smaller ball, Poppy tossed it casually into Mrs Howell’s garden, then looked at Ruth with her palms facing upwards in a beseeching gesture. “What note?” Ruth gaped at her. “Poppy Moulton, you are scandalous.

” But when she looked for it, Ruth watched snow fall steadily over the missive until it vanished. “If only everything in life was that simple, eh?” Poppy murmured, linking arms with her frozen friend. “I have to get to home too. Mother will be worried about me. If I were you, I would start to take a new route to the village. At least cutting through the trees will protect you from the worst of this weather as well as demanding neighbours, won’t it?” By the time Poppy had finished suggesting the different routes Ruth could take to the village they were outside Ruth’s house. With a happy smile, Poppy lifted her hand in farewell and shuffled off toward home leaving Ruth to stare thoughtfully after her for a moment or two before she too sought refuge from the snowy menace outside. “Ruth? Is that you, dear?” Maud called as soon as Ruth opened the back door to the cottage they shared on the outskirts of the village. “Yes, it’s me,” Ruth muttered, stamping snow off her boots. “God, you must be frozen,” Maud cried, rushing across the kitchen to help her with her things the second she saw the state of her niece.

She brushed at the snow on Ruth’s shoulders and helped her shrug out of her cloak before opening the door and shaking the snow off the sodden material. “What took you so long? There now, come and get in front of the fire and warm through.” Ruth remained quiet while she unlaced her boots and rested her aching toes on the fender before the kitchen fire. For several moments, she gazed steadily into the flames and almost forgot that her aunt was still waiting for her to answer. “What’s happened?” Maud asked, growing concerned by the dull look in Ruth’s eyes. Maud knew that look; something was troubling her niece. Unfortunately, she suspected she knew what it was. While she waited for Ruth to reply, Maud began to unpack the provisions Ruth had fetched from the village. “Mrs Howell wanted me to go up the hill and take a note to Maureen.” Maud scowled and slid a worried look at the thick wall of snow falling outside.

“Why?” Ruth told her everything. “Poppy threw it into the snow.” “You know that Mrs Howell will be annoyed, don’t you?” Maud announced briskly. “Why doesn’t anybody care about my welfare?” Ruth asked almost conversationally as if it didn’t come as any surprise that nobody did. “Why does everyone assume that I have nothing to do but wait on them hand and foot? Why doesn’t anybody concern themselves with what I want to do with my time, or my life? Mrs Howell couldn’t even be bothered to say ‘good day’ just now. Do you know that? She barked at me like I was a petulant servant and ordered me to run her errand like she had every right to.” “What is all this about?” Maud frowned at the uncharacteristic resentment in Ruth’s tone. If she were honest, she had expected that she would need to have this conversation with her niece sometime soon. “Nothing,” Ruth mumbled with another heavy sigh. “I cannot help you if you won’t talk to me,” Maud murmured, sliding into a seat at the table.

“Tell me what is wrong.” “Have you ever wanted more from life than this?” “You mean more than living in a village without any of life’s normal trials and tribulations?” A knowing look entered Maud’s eyes. “Don’t you think that you have had enough trials and tribulations? I mean, most of the people in this village have been born and raised here. They have their usual daily problems, like we all do, but they didn’t have the childhood problems that you had. Burying both of your parents and travelling half-way across the country to live with someone you hardly know is not an easy feat for any child to have to endure, but you did, and forged a new life here.” Maud’s voice shook with the force of the emotion she couldn’t hide when she eventually added: “You want to move on.” Ruth opened her mouth to deny it but couldn’t bring herself to lie to her aunt. “The thought of it terrifies me, but if I don’t change things I am going to spend the rest of my life utterly miserable.” Ruth wrung her gloves out and hung them on the irons beside the fire. “But you are miserable now,” Maud replied.

“Don’t deny it. You have been putting a brave face on things practically all year. I know that look in your eyes. You are unhappy.” “It sounds awfully ungrateful,” Ruth whispered. “You have done so much for me.” “Oh, rubbish. If I am honest, I was glad that you came to stay with me. Living here is wonderful and we are incredibly lucky, but it is rather boring, isn’t it? Nothing much ever happens in Riddlewood.” Maud threw her a rueful look.

This was the last thing Ruth expected to hear her aunt say. “Do you regret living here? You know, not marrying or having children of your own?” “Yes, I do,” Maud replied without hesitation. “Life in this village is what it is. As much as I love Riddlewood, living here has stopped me finding a husband. I mean, there is hardly an abundance of eligible men in the village, is there? And that is if you discount Mr Arnold.” “Mr Arnold has to be about eighty,” Ruth muttered with a rueful grin. Maud’s eyes twinkled. “And he is one of the eligible ones.” Ruth rolled her eyes. “That is exactly my point.

.

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