Every village has an Audrey. They are women who have long since passed ‘a certain age’ and are yomping defiantly towards their twilight years unbloodied, unbowed, terrifying in their certainties and not to be trifled with under any circumstances, especially if alcohol has been taken. They have been through a world war, multiple recessions, innumerable hideous gynaecological procedures and several husbands (not necessarily in that order) and nothing, but nothing, fazes them. Not even, as it turns out, two tonnes of steel.
I first met Audrey shortly after I moved in. She cornered me one day in the Post Office Stores, backed me up against the tinned goods and proceeded to grill me about my personal circumstances: where I’d come from, why I’d come to Adverse Camber, my church-going habits, my willingness to join the WI and my taste in dogs.
‘Jack Russells. Can’t abide them, Nasty, yappy beasts. Keep them away from my Rosebud.’
‘Rosebud?’ I glanced pleadingly across at Isobel Buchanan, behind the counter, hoping to be rescued in my hour of need, but she was plainly enjoying the floor show far too much to intervene. ‘Is Rosebud your dog?’ I guessed, desperately, assuming that it wasn’t a sledge.
‘Rosebud,’ Audrey informed me imperiously, ‘Is a pedigree shih tzu.’
‘Bless you … I mean, gosh, how lovely.’ I cringed as she rammed her face up close to mine, her heavy French perfume smothering me with its expensiveness. ‘Sweet little dogs, shihs tzus.’ I gushed. ‘Look exactly like floor mops.’
I knew it was the wrong thing to say, but I always babble incoherently when my brain shuts down. It’s what comes from reading too much P G Wodehouse as an adolescent.
Audrey seemed to swell to twice her already considerable size.
‘She does NOT look like a floor mop!’
‘No of course not. Sorry.’ I grabbed desperately at a tin of something on the shelf. “Terribly nice talking to you, but I have to rush. I was in the middle of making soup and found out that I’d run out of …’ I glanced at the tin in my hand. ‘Prunes.’
‘You put prunes in soup?’ Isobel asked in mock innocence.
‘It’s a new recipe. From Turkey. Or somewhere. Pay you later. Okay?’
Fleeing for the door without waiting for an answer, I hauled it open and nearly had the air sucked from my lungs by a passing logging lorry; but fear – and the knowledge that Audrey’s eyes were drilling into the back of my head – made me reckless and I flung myself onto the narrow pavement like a madwoman – straight into Jazz Ruskin’s surprised arms.
‘Good Lord. What’s wrong? You’ve gone a really funny colour.’
‘I’ve just met Audrey.’
It was all the explanation she needed. She scooped me and my tin of prunes up and conveyed us to the Vicarage for a soothing cup of coffee and a rock cake.
Since then, I’ve managed to avoid Audrey. It isn’t a hard thing to do, because you can always hear her well before you see her and, funnily enough, when you step for a moment into the doorway of the hairdressers, or the graveyard, or the children’s play park, you’ll nearly always find someone else there, just hanging around nonchalantly admiring a hair style/ the stonework/that wildflower/their fingernails.
Last night, however, our paths crossed again in circumstances that dramatically altered my opinion of her.
It was about 1.30am and I was dreaming that Spitfires were hurtling past my window at regular intervals, filling my room with sound and light.
Va-voooom …………. Va-voooom ………… VA-VOOOOM …………
The last one woke me up. I sat bolt upright in bed realizing that they weren’t of course Spitfires, but cars: cars travelling at speed past the house, once every few minutes.
Hauling on my tatty dressing gown and slippers I stumbled downstairs and outside, arriving at the front gate just in time to see another one shoot past. and in the light from the porch, I caught the flash of a number on its side. It was plainly a motor rally of some kind – but through Adverse Camber? In the middle of the night? Now, I’m a placid sort of person really, but there are one or two things guaranteed to make me cross and one of them is having my sleep disturbed. Grabbing a torch from just inside the front door, I stepped out into the road, ready to do battle with the next oncomer, only to be forced to throw myself into the hedge as it nearly clipped me on the way past.
It was as I was dragging myself out of the shrubbery and pulling twigs from my hair that I realized there was a bit of a traffic jam further down the road: the rear lights of numerous cars were stacked up behind each other glowing redly in the dark and I could hear raised voices – the most dominant of which was Audrey’s.
As I wandered down the hill to find out what was happening, yet another car passed me, then screamed to a halt at the sight of the log jam ahead. The front seat passenger wound down the window and peered firstly down the road, then at me.
‘What the hell’s going on?’ he demanded.
‘That’s funny. I was going to ask you that.’
‘This is messing up all our times …
‘It isn’t doing a lot for my sleep, either.’
I left him to seethe impotently, and ambled down to join the substantial group of people that had gathered just outside the church. The villagers were dressed in a motley collection of nightwear while the rally drivers were in one-piece overalls, and they were all annoyed. The Police, I was informed, had been called. The drivers and their navigators were saying they had permission for the time trial. The Parish Clerk was saying ‘Oh no you don’t.’ And, magisterial in the midst of it all, gleaming magnificently in the headlights, was Audrey. In slippers with pom-poms, her hair in curlers and a rolling pin in her hand, she had single-handedly brought the event to a screeching halt by simply standing in the middle of the road, certain of her own invincibility, and refusing to blink first. The car had stopped within inches of her knees.
In a straight contest between Audrey and a rally car, the outcome had never been in doubt. It was only after the Police had arrived and were trying to separate furious villagers from aggrieved motor sports enthusiasts that I noticed the dent in the bonnet of the lead car. It was the sort of dent you’d expect to see if someone had hit it really hard with a rolling pin.