Jazz Ruskin doesn’t often ask favours. She issues direct orders, carves commandments in stone and pronounces definitively upon all matters from which way round loo rolls should be installed to What’s Wrong with Western Civilization – but she doesn’t ask favours, so when she comes to you asking for one and it doesn’t involve (much) expenditure of money, just a little of your time, it’s very hard to say ‘No’.
In this case her problem was The Guild, or to give it its full title, the Midshires Countrywomen’s Guild. More precisely her problem was the local branch of the Guild, of which she is the President.
‘It’s dying on its feet, frankly,’ she sighed over tea and fondant fancies at The Copper Kettle, the poshest and most genteel of Adverse Camber’s three watering holes. ‘The average age of the members is about 75, and the older members are dying off without any new blood coming in. We desperately need some younger members to liven things up and – er – help move furniture.’
I’m pretty certain my eyes narrowed slightly as she spoke.
‘I should have know you didn’t didn’t suggest tea and cakes at The Copper Kettle just for the pleasure of my company.’
‘Please? Pretty please? With knobs on? … It’s just one evening month, for a couple of hours. Buy sum raffle tickets, listen to a speaker, drink tea, eat sandwiches and cakes and then go home, after you’ve put the chairs and tables away. Please?’
‘You don’t sing silly songs or anything, do you?’
‘No, no, no … nothing like that. If I tried to get them singing songs, they’d stampede for the exit. It’s just a nice little social gathering. And the speaker’s only an excuse for the tea, really.’
She cocked her head sideways in what she doubtless hoped was an endearing manner but actually looked more like a Jack Russell judging the distance for a precision strike on my nose.
‘Oh all right. When?’
‘Tomorrow evening. Seven-thirty in the Village Hall. You’re a brick.’
‘Who’s the speaker, out of interest?’
‘Eunice Simmons from Giddingford.’ She gave the village its local pronunciation of “Gafford”. ‘She’s talking about our local celebrity Thomas Metcalfe the philanthropist and abolitionist.’
I perked up a bit at that news. ‘Oh yes. They’ve just opened the new museum in his old home there, haven’t they? That could be quite interesting.’
And so it was that the following evening I arrived at the village hall to find the furniture-arranging already well in hand – and I have to say that the local members of the Midshires Countrywomen’s Guild didn’t seem to be having any problems at all with the physical stuff. A strongly-built woman with razor-cut iron grey hair – who plainly wouldn’t see 70 again – came sailing past me with a pile of stacking chairs. Audrey was organizing the joining together of three folding tables for the tea and sandwiches later. Another two were laying out the seating, while a little birdy creature, whom I took to be Eunice Simmons, was twittering around ineffectually as Mrs Fitt and Isobel from the Post Office erected the screen for the projector. I have never seen a bunch of less tragic and decrepit elderly women in my life. And then, to add insult to injury, Maggie arrived. Big, healthy, strapping Maggie, who can lift a bale of straw with one hand while simultaneously dragging a cow from a ditch with the other.
She looked at me. I looked at her. And then we both looked at Jazz, who was sitting at a table in one corner of the hall sorting through a sheaf of papers and making notes in the margins. She smiled when she saw us, and it was the smile of the consummate con artist.
‘You’ve been had,’ Maggie said succinctly.
‘I believe I have.’
‘So was I, last year. She needs a certain number of punters to cover the cost of renting the hall. When one dies or heads off to the Happy Pastures Nursing Home. she has to commandeer someone else.’
‘With a sob story.’
‘Exactly. But we won’t forget, will we?’
‘No. We won’t.’
The chair-carrier hove into view again, and I felt moved to say, ‘Can I take those from you?’
She looked at me doubtfully, then passed them into my outstretched hands. They hit the ground so hard, the entire fabric of the building shook. ‘They’re heavier than I was expecting,’ I said, trying to sound nonchalant.
‘They go over there, by t’ Vicar’s wife … They’re the spares in case anyone extra turns up.’
‘Right.’ By dint of waddling like a toddler with a full nappy, I managed to stagger across to Jazz with them, who tapped the papers on the table to square them up, then said brightly. ‘Thank you for coming. The membership fee is £22 … but you can bring it next time if you don’t have it now. Raffle tickets?’
Membership fee paid and raffle tickets bought, I sat down between Maggie and Mrs Fitt waiting for the main feature. Eunice was having trouble with the projector. The image – which was apparently the title of the talk – was both upside down and mostly being projected on the wall behind the screen. She dragged the table back a couple of feet, thereby making the problem worse
Jazz clucked. ‘You need to move the projector CLOSER to the screen Eunice. Here, let me …’
‘Really? Closer? How strange … Oh look yes, that works …’
Except that the slide, still upside down, was now half on the screen and half off.
‘You need to lower the front feet,’ said a voice from the back row. ‘Or raise the screen.’
Cue more fluttering and twittering …
Finally, we could see the title of the talk in all its glory:
OUR “LOCAL HEROE”.
I snorted. I couldn’t help myself. Maggie dug me in the ribs. Mrs Fitt didn’t notice – she was too busy frowning at the screen. ‘I’m sure Metcalfe has an ‘e’ on the end.’
‘That would be the one that shouldn’t be on the end of hero’ said Isobel, from the row behind, making no attempt to whisper.
The first slide after the title was a photograph of an elderly lady standing in a cottage doorway.
‘This,’ said Eunice portentously – or as near to portentously as she could manage with a voice that sounded as if she’s been inhaling helium for a week, ‘is Mrs Campbell. Mrs Campbell lived in Thomas Metcalfe’s house for forty years. Can you imagine that? Forty years in one house.’
We then learned that Mrs Campbell was terribly nice to all the local children, did her own laundry in the big copper around the back until well into her nineties and was given to chasing door-to-door salesmen away with a broom.
Next up we were treated to a series of interiors of the cottage with Mrs Campbell in her kitchen, Mrs Campbell pointing toward the outside privy, Mrs Campbell tending the fire in the cast iron grate and Mrs Campbell on the stairs. These were followed by Mrs Campbell in the garden, Mrs Campbell at the bottom of the garden, Mrs Campbell at the local school and Mrs Campbell pointing proudly at the newly-installed plaque on the wall saying ‘Thomas Metcalfe Lived Here Very Briefly Before He Found Somewhere More Interesting To Go’. (Well, okay, it didn’t actually say that, but the gist was that he stayed in Giddingford no longer than was absolutely necessary.)
At last, after much more information about Mrs Campbell, we were treated to a picture of Thomas Metcalfe.
It looked as if it had been done by a ten year old. This, it turns out, is because it WAS done by a ten year old. Eunice Simmons’ ten year old daughter Lizzie, who had copied it from a book to illustrate a school project. The next slide was the title page of Lizzie’s project. Her spelling was noticeably better than her mother’s.
‘In her project, my Lizzie said she thought it would be a good idea if Mrs Campbell’s house was turned into a museum. Now I’m not saying that her project and what she said in it in any way influenced anyone, but ….’ She let the thought hang in the air for a moment, before finishing triumphantly, ‘Now it IS a museum.’
A-a-n-n-d …. then we were back to Mrs Campbell who was, incidentally, absolutely no relation to Thomas Metcalfe at all.
‘Isn’t she wandering off the point a bit?’ hissed Maggie in my ear. It was Mrs Fitt’s turn to snort.
‘She’s never been anywhere near it.’
At length, after many more photographs of Mrs Campbell, much building work and numerous dignitaries pointing at things – by which time people were make no attempt to hide the fact that they were looking at their watches – Eunice finally got around to Thomas Metcalfe, who was a good man who hated slavery, lived in London most of his life and died young from cholera, caused by sewage in the water. The End.
She fell silent.
No-one moved. No-one even coughed.
Everyone looked over at Jazz, who was gazing glassily into the middle distance.
Her nearest neighbour poked her hard in the midriff and she looked horribly affronted for a moment before coming to her senses, removing the in-ear headphones she was wearing and lurching to her feet.
‘Well that was absolutely fascinating. Yes. Fascinating. And I’m you’ll all join me in thanking Eunice very much for taking the time to come here and tell us all about … er …Thomas Metcalfe.’ She applauded vigorously and we all politely followed suit. Eunice beamed happily.
Later, over tea and cakes, Maggie, Mrs Fitt and I examined the Schedule of Speakers for the remainder of the year.
‘What have we got next month?’ asked Maggie in the tones of one who is expecting the worst.
‘A Crocheted Nativity Scene’, announced Mrs Fitt.
No-one said anything.
Then Jazz’s voice boomed from the far end of the table: ‘Oi , you lot – don’t hog all the carrot cake ….’