In life, there are good days and there are bad days – and then there are the days when you find out that:
(a) You’ve been suckered and
(b) You’re doomed.
Today has been one of the latter.
It started in a perfectly harmless way. I went down into the village to post a parcel, buy some stamps and see if Isobel Buchanan had any of those nice chocolate egg things filled with concentrated sugar syrup and violent yellow food colouring. It’s the wrong time of year for them of course, but Isobel is cheerfully unfussy about stock control and it’s one of life’s unexpected pleasures to discover a chocolate Santa lurking behind the baked beans in August – so it wasn’t beyond the realms of possibility that she had the odd chocolate egg or two languishing somewhere. If I got really lucky, I thought, they’d be out of date and she’d sell them to me cheap – or even given them to me for free. Yes, I’m that sad.
As it turned out, the parcel and the chocolate eggs (half price – Yes!) were no problem. It was the stamps that proved problematic, which – given that I was in a Post Office – was an unexpected setback.
‘How many £1 stamps do you have, Isobel?’
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. ‘That’s a strange question.’
‘In a Post Office? It’d be a strange question in the butcher’s, but …’
‘WHY do you want to know how many £1 stamps I have?’
‘Because I need quite a lot and I don’t want to clean you out. Fifty pence ones will do, if it’s a problem.’
‘Oh. Well. I see. That’s different. I’m sorry but Professor Pilchard came in and bought a hundred £1 stamps …’
‘Pilger. PILGER. I must stop calling him that. One day I’ll do it to his face … Anyway, he bought a hundred of them. I just wondered if you were in it with him.
I was beginning to feel the universe shifting around me again. It’s a feeling I’ve become very familiar with since I moved here. ‘In WHAT with him?’
‘Whatever it is he’s doing with one hundred £1 stamps’
‘Sticking them on envelopes?’ I hazarded. She wasn’t amused. In fact, she didn’t appear to have heard me.
‘He’s an odd man.’ She did a funny little chicken-bottom thing with her mouth. ‘Doesn’t seem to want anything to do with village life.’
I thought that this was actually entirely understandable, but refrained from saying so and merely cocked my head to one side in the manner of one who is expecting more information to be forthcoming. She didn’t disappoint.
‘He moved here shortly before you did – but you hardly ever see him around. He stays shut up in that big house of his – Bramblings, out on the Nether Camber road – and never sets foot in any of the village events. Old Commander Wingfield now, he was lovely. Joined in everything, opened the garden to the public, held fundraisers for the church there … but the Professor …’ Her mouth hardened into a thin pink line. ‘He doesn’t want to know.’
‘Well, that is his prerogative. Some people are just reclusive.’
‘Can’t think why anyone would want to be. It isn’t natural. For all your funny ways, YOU aren’t reclusive, are you?’
I was just trying to frame a suitable reply to that one when the bell on the shop door jingled, announcing the arrival of another customer. Glancing over my shoulder, I saw the Chairman of the Parish Council – John Jukes – advancing on us, looking even gloomier than usual.
Mr Jukes is the local undertaker. Legend has it that he once came up with “Your Dead are Our Living” as a catchy strapline for his adverts in the parish magazine, but I have yet to see any written proof of this and until I do, I’ll continue to regard the story as apocryphal on the grounds that no-one could be that daft, not even John Jukes. (On the other hand, it was his wife who, as a receptionist at the local solicitors, had to be stopped from telling tearful clients phoning up to make an appointment after the death of a loved one that they would be seeing ‘Mr McLaughin, rhymes with coffin’ …)
Isobel eyed Mr Jukes questioningly. ‘No luck?’
He shook his head, then appeared to notice me for the first time. Suddenly, and disconcertingly, he smiled. I can’t tell you how unsettling that was. If ever a man had teeth like ancient tombstones, that man was John Jukes. I promptly rechristened him The Mouth of Sauron.
‘JUST the person I’ve been looking for.’
‘Really?’ My voice was so squeaky, I sounded like a three year old. ‘Why’s that then?’
Out of the corner of my eye, I thought I could see Isobel nodding in satisfaction, but I was so hypnotized by The Mouth, I’m really not certain.
‘You’ll have heard all about Camber Carnival?’
‘Um. Yes. Sort of.’ I could hardly have avoided it. Once a year, after the clocks have gone back and the dark evenings are descending, all of the Camber villages – Adverse, Upper and Nether – join forces for a thoroughly pagan ritual involving a torchlight procession down Adverse Camber’s main street, marching bands, and decorated floats. The highlight of the evening, I have been told, is the competition for Best Decorated Float, which is always judged by three local dignitaries.
For more than a month, amidst utmost secrecy, float construction has been underway in all three villages, with hammering noises issuing from behind closed garage doors, local shops selling out of glue, paper, paint and glitter and the Adverse Camber band spending hours every evening in the Parish Hall, practising what sounds like a hitherto undiscovered piece by Arnold Schoenberg.
The Mouth came closer.
‘Every year,’ it said, ‘we ask a well-regarded person from each of the three villages to judge the Best Decorated Float competition … and at the last Parish Council meeting, we voted unanimously to ask … you.’
‘It’s a rare honour,’ chipped in Isobel. ‘A very rare honour indeed. Many would like to, but few are asked.’
‘It’s very straightforward,’ continued The Mouth. ‘All the three of you have to do is stand on the steps of the Bank as the procession goes past. Each display that’s entered for judging will stop in front of you for 30 seconds, so that you can have a good look, and then when they’ve all passed you, you repair to a private room in the Drovers where, over a slap-up meal, you decide between you who the winner is.’
‘Oh. Well … That sounds quite jolly and civilized. I’d be happy to, in that case.’ I smiled weakly. ‘Thank you everso much for asking me.’
Later that day, feeling quite pleased with myself, I wandered up to the farm to tell Maggie my news.
She gave me one of THOSE looks – the sort that cause you to hear the thundering hoofbeats of an approaching apocalypse.
‘What? What’s wrong?’
‘They saw YOU coming. didn’t they?’
‘Whaddya mean? They said it was a rare honour. And that the Council voted unanimously to ask me to do it.’
She snorted in a most disrespectful way.
‘They voted unanimously to ask Professor Pilger. He declined. Forcefully, as I understand it. Ever since then they’ve been looking for a sacrificial victim. They’ve asked three people to my knowledge. John Jukes even tried me this morning. I pleaded a prior engagement.’
‘But … what’s the problem? It sounds simple enough.’
‘Last year, the judging committee voted for a float entered by incomers from the local holiday village. All terribly slick and impressive and professional. It was the best float by a country mile.’
‘At least two of the judges have since had to move house. One of them was Sid Button.’
‘As in the Sid Button I bought my cottage from?’
‘The very same. I’d put it on the market now, if I were you – to give yourself a decent head start.’