The Ainsworth household was not an orthodox one. Bill and Theresa had married ten years ago. He was now thirty-nine and she fifty. Her daughter by her first marriage, Wendy, was ten years younger than Bill and lived with them. On medical advice, Theresa had had a total hysterectomy after Wendy was born. Wendy had acted as a surrogate mother to provide Bill and Theresa with twins, Tom and Hettie, who were now aged eight. She was, in effect, Bill's second wife. All the same, to save any gossip the three of them had stayed at Bill's old house once Wendy began to show and until she weaned them.
Bill had saved her from prostitution, a stalker and from a possessive man, Stephen Walker, who had brutally whipped her. She was deeply grateful to him and also loved him. He had loved her but not in the same way as he loved her mother. Over the years though his love had grown and he did now love her as a wife.
After the twins were born Bill and Theresa reminded her that, much as they would miss her, she had paid off her self-imposed debt and they would never stand in her way if she met another man and wanted to marry him. Wendy was scornful.
"Not going to happen," she said. "I love you, Bill. You've taken Dad's place in my mind and my heart. I belong to you and you belong to me as well as Mum. It's very considerate of you both but I'm staying; unless, of course you kick me out."
"And that's never, ever going to happen, my darling," replied Bill hugging her.
The twins were a delight. They were devoted to each other but far from inseparable. They both went to the village primary school and each had their own circle of friends but, because they were twins, the two circles were interwoven. Both were bright and showed every sign of being accepted for the grammar schools in Pitsbury. Tom was a gentle boy and, like his father, thoughtful of others but he was far from being wet. He played football and cricket with enthusiasm and trees and water were like magnets. Hettie was a tomboy. Anything Tom did she did too. It was clear though that she was going to be a little, dark haired beauty like her mother and sister. Both were competitive and vied with each other for better gradings. As a result they both had straight 'A's.
After giving birth to the twins Wendy, having obtained a good degree in aeronautical engineering, landed a job five miles away with a defence public private organisation where she did research. It was the same organisation her father had worked for before it was privatised and had been part of the Ministry of Defence. Before long she was working on two highly classified projects. Bill and Theresa of course had no idea what these projects were but were thrilled that she was doing well and enjoying her work. After about six years she had been promoted to assistant project manager with full responsibility for one of the projects she had been working on. It had moved on from the research to the design and development stage.
"It's brilliant," she told Bill and Theresa. "I'm the youngest APM in the place. It just shows that Richard Bartlett (her project manager) has faith in me. I shall jolly well make sure that I don't let him down."
It was quite clear that she did not. She happily put in long hours for which she received no extra direct payment but at the end of her first and subsequent years she received hefty bonuses. Despite her hard work she remained her usual cheerful, vibrant self at home. The twins adored her. They were unaware that she was actually their mother.
Bill continued working for the family firm of solicitors. It was an hour's drive away so he and the girls agreed that he should spend the week in his old house. Theresa normally joined him for Tuesday and Wednesday nights. He was never sure which girl would sleep with him on which night at the weekends. That was something they decided and they never told him how they worked it out. He was happy and so were they.
By now his father was in his early sixties and contemplating retirement. Bill, as the elder brother, would succeed him as senior partner. Bill's younger brother, Frank, had married young and he and his wife, Jane, had produced three children in as many years. They had called a halt after that but their eldest son, Roddy, was now sixteen and, without pressure, had assumed that he would follow in his father's footsteps. It would however be five or six years before he had completed a degree and the requisite training.
Although not an orthodox household, to all outward appearances they were perfectly normal. Whatever suspicions members of Bill's family may have entertained nothing was ever said and it was clear that Theresa and Wendy were much loved by them all. Certainly they themselves were very happy. Theresa took up golf and she and Bill played at weekends once or twice a month. Both girls enjoyed sailing and the twins soon learnt to as well. In fact, they had a lot of success in junior races. In addition there were dogs to walk and occasional visits to the theatre for a play or a concert. They led a happy, healthy outdoor life.
There was a woman in the village in her mid-forties called Hilda Perkins. She had always lived there and was a pillar of the church. Theresa had been acquainted with her for years and remembered that even in her twenties she had the look of confirmed spinsterhood. She started the rumour at the Women's Institute.
"I reckon that Bill Ainsworth's a bigamist," she said.
"No," said one of the other women scornfully. "There's plenty of adult daughters who live with their parents."
"She's not his daughter. She's his step daughter."
"Just don't seem right to me. I bet those kids are hers."
"Not natural having babies in your early forties."
"It is these days."
Hilda snorted but said no more.
Inevitably, someone who had been present told someone else what she had overheard and the rumour started to spread. Nobody would admit to believing it but the Ainsworths began to get odd looks when they went to church. They noticed it themselves. Theresa asked Poppy Reynolds if she knew what it was about.
"Yes," said Poppy, "that stupid Hilda Perkins started it. She said she reckoned Bill was a bigamist and then added that she thought it pretty odd you having the twins at your age."
"Well, he's not a bigamist. I can promise you that."
"'Course he isn't but you know what people are like. Nothing like a bit of gossip particularly if there's a whiff of sex about it. Everyone will tell you they don't believe a word of it but they'll still shake their heads and roll their eyes for a cheap thrill."
While the rumour was untrue it was too close to the truth for comfort and the three of them discussed the problem at length.
"I'll move out," said Wendy resolutely.
"No you won't," replied Theresa fiercely. "That would be almost as good as admitting that we are a threesome."
"It would also make the three of us unhappy although Hilda Perkins might get some twisted satisfaction from it," added Bill. "Frankly, I couldn't care less what people say about the three of us but I don't want the twins hurt."
"Hear! Hear!" said Theresa.
Wendy just looked miserable. "It's all my fault," she said.
"Rubbish!" exclaimed Bill. "I could have said no right at the start and then we would never have had the joy of the twins. Never let me hear you say something like that again, Wendy darling. Please!"
She smiled wanly at him. "Love you," she mouthed.
"I could go and tell Miss Bloody Perkins about the law of slander," Bill went on, "but I don't think that would help either. She'd just tell everyone that I had bullied her and threatened her which would only make everything worse."
There was a long and unhappy silence as each of them searched for a solution.
Suddenly, Wendy looked up. "I've got an idea," she said.
"Go on," chorused the other two.
"Bill with his law of slander kicked it off," she said. "The umpteenth commandment: 'Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.' We could talk to the vicar and try to persuade him to put the fear of God into some people and Hilda in particular."
Slow smiles spread across Bill and Theresa's faces.
"Brilliant, darling!" cried Theresa.
Bill clapped his hands delightedly. "I'll talk to him," he said.
"It really is a brilliant idea," Theresa went on. "James Stuttaford has been here since before I first arrived in the village so that's over twenty years and he is admired and liked by everyone whether they're churchgoers or not. So if he says something they will take it in."
James came round the next morning, Saturday. He was a great bear of a man who had been an Oxford Rugby Blue like a number of churchmen. He exuded warmth and strength. He could have gone on to high places in the church but had found his niche in the village and stayed, much to its benefit. While Wendy made him a cup of coffee he romped with the twins and then roped in Bill to play catch with them. The twins squealed with delight as they were tossed between the two men and the noise was deafening.
Finally, Bill led him off to the drawing room leaving Theresa and Wendy to restore order.
"So, Bill," he said, "you want me to scotch the bigamy rumour."
"Right, presumably it's not true," he went on with a big grin.
"Totally but there is an angle to it which is uncomfortably close to the truth." He told James about Wendy's surrogate motherhood. "We're not ashamed of what we did," he continued, "but we don't feel the twins are old enough yet to be told. In fact, we have wondered whether they need ever be told. What we're really worried about though is them being teased about our supposed bigamy. Children can be little monsters."
James smiled. "They can indeed," he said. "Ours were pretty monstrous once upon a time. So had you anything particular in mind that you want me to do?"
"Yes," said Bill, "and if you're unwilling we won't be the least bit hurt."
"Go on then."
"We'd like you to preach about bearing false witness. I could go and explain the slander law to Hilda Perkins but she would accuse me of bullying. It was Wendy's idea, clever girl, to ask you to come in on the act."
James nodded but said nothing and thought for a few minutes. Finally he looked up with a big smile. "I'll do it. A bit of blood and thunder for a change will do them good but I think we might add a little drama. Here's how we'll play it..."
A few minutes later the girls heard roars of laughter and when the two men emerged they were still giggling like school boys.
"What are you two up to?" asked Theresa.
"Patience, Theresa my dear. Wait and see," said James and both men got the giggles again.
Theresa turned to Wendy and shrugged her shoulders. "Men, darling, men! They're just overgrown schoolboys."
"Yes, Mum," said Wendy solemnly her eyes dancing.
The following morning the whole family went to church. The first lesson was the twentieth chapter of Exodus, the Ten Commandments.
When the time for the sermon came round James climbed up into the pulpit, something he seldom did, normally preaching without a note from the chancel step. Usually he smiled at the congregation before he began. This morning he looked grim and forbidding. He did not, as was normally his wont, wish everyone good morning. Instead he launched straight into his sermon.
"I chose this morning's first lesson with a purpose, which was to remind you all of the Ten Commandments. I did it to remind you of all of them not just the ones that people remember like not stealing, murdering or committing adultery. I find it necessary to remind you because some of you are disregarding them or, in one particular case, disobeying them."
He then went through each commandment in turn bar the one about false witness before finally saying grimly,
"Some of you may have noticed that I have left one commandment out. That is the commandment that a number of you are wilfully disobeying." He paused for effect and eyed his congregation. "Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour," he roared. Then in a quiet and almost menacing way he continued. "Someone, who I could name but won't, started a malicious rumour that Bill Ainsworth is a bigamist." In the stunned silence that followed the proverbial pin dropping could have been heard. He drew it out then, in the same tone of voice, he continued, "I am now going to prove that that rumour is a lie." His voice rose. "It is false. It is slanderous. It is deeply painful to Bill and his family. Stand up, Bill Ainsworth." Bill rose to his feet. "Do you swear by Almighty God that you are not a bigamist?"
"Do you sleep with your step-daughter?"
There was a sharp intake of breath.
" ... in front of the television."
There was a moment's silence, then a snort of laughter which was caught and rolled around the church.
James waited until it had died. There was no humour in his voice.
"I think we have heard enough," he said. "And now to God the Father..."
It was a very subdued congregation that left the church. No one actually, apart from Poppy, said anything but many of them smiled shyly at the Ainsworths. Hilda Perkins came up to them though.
"I'm sorry," she said, burst into tears and fled.