As I believe I’ve said before – and will doubtless say again – the good thing about living in a small and relatively isolated community is that everybody knows everyone else and if someone goes missing – doesn’t come in to collect their papers, doesn’t take in their milk or doesn’t fetch up at the Drovers’ Arms at precisely 7.30pm for their half of Old Snecklifter – an expeditionary party will be sent out to make sure they’re still the right way up.
The bad thing about living in a small and relatively isolated community is that everybody knows everyone else and you can’t get away with a bloody thing. The village grapevine makes the KGB look positively leaden-footed.
Which is why I nearly choked on a Viennese whirl at Mrs Fitt’s charity coffee morning the other day.
I actually hate coffee mornings, but when you receive a hand-designed invitation, embellished with shakily executed flowers, multiple curlicues and a knock-kneed, cross-eyed donkey that looks more like a rabbit, you can’t really say ‘No.’ The only alternative is to plead a previous engagement and then vacate the village for a couple of hours at the relevant time, which would be both churlish and excessive, however tempting.
So there I was, over-sugary confection in one hand, dinky little bone china cup of weak instant coffee in the other, pinned against the flock wallpaper in Mrs Fitt’s front room by the redoubtable Audrey.
‘If you own a dozen bibles, why do we never see you in church?’
‘Pardon?’ I did the rabbit-in-the-headlights thing. One minute we’d been talking harmlessly enough about what a sterling job the local Horse and Donkey Rescue Centre did, the next I’d been skewered.
‘Stan Burgess says you have a dozen bibles in your house.’
I’d hired Stan Burgess to build a bookcase in the alcove in my sitting room. Plainly, while doing so, he’d taken a mental – or possibly written – inventory of the contents of my library.
‘Well he’s wrong.’
‘Why would he lie?’
‘I didn’t say he lied. I said he was wrong. I have sixteen bibles. He obviously missed a bookcase somewhere. I also have six copies of The Lord of the Rings, four copies of A Pilgrim’s Progress and ten copies of Wuthering Heights. I collect fine and first editions of classic books. Not …’ and here I straightened to my full five foot eight inches (plus two inch heels), ‘ … that it’s anything to do with you.’
Norman Ruskin sidled up, a wicked glitter in his eye. ‘Did someone say “bible”?’
Audrey backed off a little. ‘I was asking her why we never see her in church when she owns so many bibles.’ She held his gaze defiantly. ‘It seems very odd to me.’
‘She’s a book collector. I actually covet some of those bibles. They’re beautiful.’ He sank his teeth into a scone as Audrey digested this information.
‘Of course,’ he replied through a mouthful of blackcurrant jam and cream. ‘We were comparing notes. I too am a bibliophile.’
She clucked irritably. ‘Well of course you collect bibles, you’re a clergyman.’
‘No, Audrey.’ He sighed, very gently, and gazed around for something else to eat. ‘You misunderstand. A bibliophile is someone who loves books – not specifically bibles. What I collect are whodunnits. Christie, Sayers, Allingham … I have literally hundreds of murder mysteries. Jazz complains that I don’t leave her any room for her pigs.’
‘Pigs?’ Audrey plainly felt that the conversation, which had started so promisingly for her, was unravelling faster than she could knit it back together. ‘What pigs?’
‘Porcelain pigs, metal pigs, glass pigs, pig pin cushions, pigs on tea towels, piggy banks, pig duvets, pigs on table mats, pig mobiles, fluffy toy pigs … Jazz just loves pigs. Pigs and whodunnits, that’s what up at the Vicarage.’ He smiled at her benignly. ‘But I do have a bible somewhere, too. It goes with the dog collar.’
‘But … but … I’ve never seen them.’
‘That’s because they’re in our private rooms.’
‘Norman’s whodunnits take up the whole of one wall,’ I added, helpfully. ‘They’re awesome.’
Her eyes swivelled manically towards me. ‘YOU’VE seen them?’ The ‘you’ carried a whole world of bemused disbelief, as if the very fabric of her universe was crumbling. I nodded enthusiastically.
‘Oh yes. And the pigs. Lovely collection of piggy banks.’
The poor woman sort of staggered away. I felt almost sorry for her. Almost, but not quite.
‘She’s basically a decent soul,’ Norman said as we watched her retreating back. ‘And knows absolutely no fear, which comes in handy when you need an attack dog to go and sort the local council out. Teeny bit inflexible though. Do you really have sixteen bibles?’
‘Oh yes. Do you really have a houseful of pigs and whodunnits?’
‘We do. Except I made up the bit about the pig duvets. We don’t have those.’
‘Tell you what – I’ll show you mine if you’ll show me yours.’
‘Deal. How are the Viennese whirls?’
‘Tooth-rotting. How are the scones?’
‘Rock solid. Should we brave the Victoria sponge?’
‘Why not. I’m all for living dangerously.’