I thought that I was meeting Mrs Hattersley for the first time. My grandmother had often spoken of her (‘my good friend Mrs Hattersley’), but I couldn’t recall ever actually meeting her.
‘Yes. You must have been only six or seven last time I saw you.’
‘Well, that was a while ago,’ I said. ‘In fact 15 years ago. At least.’
She nodded. ‘Yes. I suppose it must be. How time flies.’
From the way in which my grandmother had spoken about Mrs Hattersley, I was expecting a bookish middle-aged widow. I expected her to be wearing a sensible granny-type skirt – probably in lovat or navy blue – and maybe a floral blouse or even a twinset. The fact that she answered the door wearing what appeared to be lime green silky pyjamas was a complete surprise. As was her pink hair.
‘Well, come in,’ she said. ‘Come in.’
I followed her into the tiny entrance hall. ‘Just leave your bags here,’ she said. ‘We can take them up later. But first I expect you’ll need some refreshment. Was it a long journey?’
‘Not too bad. About four hours. Well, maybe five, I guess.’
She nodded and looked me up and down again. ‘Yes, you’ve certainly grown.’ From her expression, and the tone of her voice, I got the impression that she considered this to be a good thing. Perhaps I had been particularly small when I was six or seven. Although I don’t remember being particularly small. In fact, I thought that I’d always been reasonably tall for my age.
I followed Mrs Hattersley through a happily-cluttered sitting room and into an equally-cluttered kitchen-cum-diner. ‘Perhaps we should have a cup of tea,’ she said. But then she peered at the clock on the wall. ‘No, no. Too late for tea. We’ve only missed it by a few minutes. But, nevertheless, we have missed it. I think it is now time for a gin.’
I had only ever tasted gin on a couple of occasions and, even diluted with lots of tonic, it wasn’t my favourite tipple.
‘Pink,’ Mrs Hattersley said. ‘As you may have noticed, I’m going through a little pink phase at the moment.’ She went to the freezer and took out two cut crystal glasses. ‘Cold glasses, that’s the secret. Some people – well, most people, I suppose – start with room temperature glasses and add two or three cubes of ice. But that just dilutes the gin.’ From her expression, it was clear that Mrs Hattersley did not approve of diluting the gin.
Next, she splashed a few drops of Angostura bitters into each of the glasses and tilted and turned the glasses, allowing the bitters to coat the lower inside surface, before tipping the surplus bitters out into the kitchen sink. ‘And now for the gin,’ she said. ‘My father – The Commander – an old Navy man – always insisted on Plymouth gin. Personally, I prefer Tanqueray. Proper London gin.’ And she poured a generous slosh into each glass. ‘Cin Cin,’ she said. ‘Bottoms up.’
I took a sip. It was not at all what I was expecting. As I said, I’d only ever had gin with tonic. Mrs Hattersley’s little concoction was very different. It was cold – but not too cold. In fact, as it crossed my tongue and slipped down my throat, it seemed, for a brief moment, almost hot. And there was a bitterness. And a definite taste of juniper and (I thought) liquorice.
‘Perfect,’ Mrs Hattersley said. ‘So … when does your course start?’
‘Monday,’ I said. ‘At least, I have to go and meet my tutor on Monday. I don’t think that we do any proper work until Tuesday.’
Mrs Hattersley nodded. ‘Oh well, that gives you a couple of days to catch your breath. If you like, we could take a stroll over there on Sunday. So that you can get your bearings. It wouldn’t do to have you getting lost on your first day, would it?’