0

THE LIGHTWEIGHT

zzzzSsssssshhh …..

Please. Could you try not to make quite so much noise breathing? Thank you.

If you promise to sit very still, and stay very,very quiet, I’ll tell you a story.

We’ve just had a meeting down at the Vicarage to discuss this year’s Christmas festivities. The Reverend Ruskin always lays on a slap-up cold buffet because he knows that bribing people with free food and drink is the only certain way of getting their attention, co-opting them onto the Christmas Committee and keeping them there.

To help ease the pressure on the Vicarage finances he and Jazz persuade the more biddable amongst us to come along bearing food. I generally take salady stuff like coleslaw and sausage rolls, Mrs Fitt provides cake and scones and Maggie – who knows her limitations – nips down to the bakers to see what’s going cheap. Today it was Eccles cakes and slightly tired Jersey slices.

We were just setting the food out on the sideboard when Isobel from the Post Office arrived, bearing a large frosted glass bowl with cling film over the top. I’ve never seen a face light up as fast as Norman Ruskin’s did.

‘Isobel! Is that one of your wonderful trifles?’ He cooed, virtually running towards her. ‘Here – let me help you with it.’ Removing it – a little forcefully, I felt – from her mittened hands, he carried it to the sideboard in a manner which could only be described as reverential. ‘That really is too kind of you.’

‘Well I thought I’d make the effort, Vicar …’ She eyed the dying Jersey slices coldly. ‘I know how you like to keep a good table.’

‘Quite so. Quite so. Excellent …’ He rubbed his hands together. He actually rubbed his hands together. I didn’t think people really did that. ‘Well, if we’re all here we can start the meeting …’

‘Norman,’ said Jazz patiently, speaking as one would to a particularly dim five year old. ‘There are six more people on the Committee. They haven’t arrived yet, mostly because the meeting isn’t due to start for another 10 minutes.’

I looked at Maggie for an explanation. She leaned over to whisper in my ear. ‘Isobel makes exceedingly good trifles.’

That good? He’s virtually slobbering. It’s very un-Normanlike.’

‘Pretty good.’ She grinned. ‘She doesn’t stint on any of the ingredients.’

I wandered over to look at it under its plastic wrap. It appeared to be a perfectly ordinary, common or garden trifle. Norman came up behind me and gazed at it lovingly over my shoulder. I do hope he didn’t actually dribble on me. ‘Isobel makes such wonderful trifles …’

In due course, the other Committee members trickled in and we started the meeting just 5 minutes late, which must be some kind of record, given what monumentally casual timekeepers most of them are. I swear an autopsy on any one of them would find ‘Never put off till tomorrow what you can put off till a fortnight Thursday week’ engraved on their heart.

As the Minutes Secretary, it was my job to keep a record of proceedings. Really,  I could just copy the minutes from the previous year, because nothing ever changes and everybody always says the same things, but I dutifully wrote it all down nevertheless:  the usual arrangements for the stalls at the Christmas Fair, the carols for the community singing around the village Christmas tree, the procurement of said tree and the Pensioners’ Christmas Lunch.

‘You mustn’t call them pensioners,’ said Howard Benson. It was the first time anyone could ever remember him speaking in a meeting and it made us all jump.

‘What ARE we supposed to call them, Howard?’ asked Norman, who was the first to gather his wits.

‘Err ….’ He furrowed his brow as he thought – which for Howard is a short and uncomplicated process. ‘I’m not sure, but I know it’s not pensioners. It’s like what you have to call the binmen these days.’

‘Refuse Disposal Officers?’ Maggie skewered him with a gimlet eye. ‘We have to call pensioners Refuse Disposal Officers?’

‘That’s not what I meant.’ The poor bloke was looking so flustered, I felt a bit sorry for him … after all, he was the man who once told me that I had a comforting bosom. (True, he was high on borrowed painkillers at the time, but a girl’s got to take her compliments where she can find them.) I waded in to his defence.

‘I think Howard means Senior Citizens or something like that.’

Jazz turned to Mrs Fitt, who was one of the pensioners in question. ‘How would YOU like to be referred to, Mrs F?’

‘Well not as ‘that bad-tempered old bat’ – which is what he called me in the Drovers last week, according to Audrey.’

‘Tell you what,’ said Norman with forced brightness, shooting to his feet. ‘Let’s break for something to eat and come back to this fortified by cold cuts, tea and some of Isobel’s fine trifle …’

This, at least was passed unanimously and we downed notepads, pencils and cudgels to get stuck into the main attraction – the food.

As I was helping myself to a hard boiled egg and a few cherry tomatoes, I noticed that everyone else was ignoring the first course and going straight for the dessert. They were descending on Isobel’s trifle like a pack of hyenas. I had just resigned myself to the fact that I’d be the  one eating the day-old Eccles cakes when Maggie emerged from the melee clutching two bowls.

‘I thought I’d better get you some trifle while there was still some there to get.’

‘Thank you.’ I took the bowl from her and looked at the contents curiously. ‘Ooh. Black cherry trifle. Lovely.’

Silence fell over the Vicarage  as the Committee tucked into the buffet –  punctuated only by the occasional chink of metal on china and the low murmur of Howard muttering sulkily to William Burdock about how he never called her any such thing.

First course finished, I picked up the trifle. It DID look lovely … and the first spoonful confirmed that looks were not deceptive. The custard and cream were just the right consistency, the jelly was made with real fruit and fruit juice, the sponge was beautifully moist and there was an interested kick of something alcoholic in it that I couldn’t quite identify, but which was delicious.

‘That really is good trifle,’ I said around a mouthful. ‘I’m not surprised Norman got a bit excited about it.’

Maggie nodded. ‘It’s Isobel’s signature dish, as they say on those poncy cookery programmes. Er … you don’t drink, do you?’

‘No. Haven’t done for years … but I don’t mind alcohol in food … I mean trifle without a bit of sherry or kirsch –  isn’t really trifle, is it?’

‘No indeed.’ She had a strange look on her face, but said no more and just applied herself to her own bowlful.

About fifteen minutes later, sideboard cleared and dirty crockery transported to the kitchen, we all got ourselves a cup of coffee and reconvened the meeting.

Howard started by voicing his objections to what Mrs Fitt had said he called her – and as Norman did his oil-on-troubled–waters thing, I began to feel a little warm and slightly light headed.

Quite when I actually dozed off I have no idea. I’m told they’d been talking and agreeing matters for at least ten minutes before anyone realized that the Secretary was, in fact, snoring gently with her chin on her chest and her notepad discarded on her lap.

Norman called my name and I jerked awake. ‘What? Yes! Okay … Eh?’ My head was swimming. ‘Oh lord, I do feel odd … Isobel – what DID you put that trifle?’

‘Vodka.’ she said simply, in the tone of one who wouldn’t consider putting anything ELSE in trifle.

Maggie made no attempt to hide her disdain as she poured me another cup of coffee.

‘One bowl of trifle and you’re plastered.  You lightweight.’

1

THE PLUMBER COMETH

buckets

It started with a drip.

Or, to be slightly more precise, it started with a drip – drip – drip.

I didn’t pay too much attention to begin with because it was raining. It had, in fact, been raining steadily since morning and the gutters were overflowing – so drip – drip – drip  wasn’t exactly a surprising sound to hear, in the circumstances. Plus, I was concentrating on Maggie’s accounts, which I’d brought home to work on in peace, undisturbed by the ditching work that was going on up at the farm.

It was only when I got up to make myself (yet another) mug of tea that I realized the dripping actually sounded as if it was inside the room. I stopped, mug in hand, and listened carefully.

drip – drip – drip …

It was definitely in the room with me.

drip – drip – drip …

I did that terrier thing with my head to try to locate the direction of the noise, then spotted the damp patch on the carpet, immediately in front of the fireplace.

I looked up. The ceiling was bulging downwards in a very disturbing manner, and on its lowest point, a drop of water was hanging, poised to fall. It fell. It splashed onto the damp carpet.

‘Oh. B*gger.’ The dogs, who had been asleep on the sofa, raised their heads, sensing adventure.

Dumping the mug, I rushed out into the kitchen, causing the Boy Dog and the Old Girl to hurtle off the sofa and start swirling helpfully around my feet, yapping excitedly.

‘SHUT UP!’

They didn’t. On my hands and knees, I scrabbled under the sink for the stopcock. I was joined by two enthusiastic doggy heads, peering into the murk and dribbling on me.

‘Oh for feck’s sake, dogs!’ I elbowed them back. ‘Get out of the bloody way!’

The stopcock was in the most inconvenient place imaginable, tucked in a corner at an awkward angle, but I managed to get hold of it, chanting the Mantra of the Screw Fitting to myself: ‘Right is tight and left is loose’. It refused to budge. Old Lady Dog got her front feet in amongst the scouring pads and washing up liquid bottles for a better view.

I tried again. Nothing. Not so much as a wobble. I gave up.

Grabbing a mop bucket, screwdriver and step stool, I hurried back into the living room where the bulge was, if anything, growing in size and dripping slightly faster. I carefully positioned myself and the bucket under it, sent up a silent prayer and then poked a hole in the bulge with the screwdriver. Almost immediately, a stream of  water shot down my sleeve and into my bra.

‘Oh. Great.’

I stood there for a moment like a fool, cursing the universe, with water running down my arm, before deciding that having alleviated the immediate problem, I’d better go upstairs to find out what it was I’d  left running.

Placing the bucket carefully under the still-trickling water, I plodded damply up the narrow staircase and went into my bedroom, which is directly over the living room. The little en suite shower room was the obvious candidate, but was in the wrong place, geographically speaking – being over on the other side of the room. In any case, there was nothing amiss in the en suite. All was quiet and dry.

Back downstairs, the Old Lady Dog had tipped the bucket over in her never-ending search for food and was standing dejectedly in the resultant puddle looking at me as if I’d just taken away her favourite toy. ‘I went to all that trouble,’ her face was saying, ‘and it only had dirty water in it.’

‘Oh for heaven’s sake, dog …’

I rang Maggie, got Alec, and explained the problem.

‘You need a plumber,’ he said, with startling perspicacity.

Resisting the temptation to say ‘No! Really?!’ – or something a lot more basic, invoking the hallowed name of Sherlock Holmes, I asked if he could recommend one.

‘Barry Boyle. Tell him you’ve got a bit of an emergency … He’s working down at the church today I think. I’ll give you his mobile number.’

Twenty minutes later, the said Barry Boyle, resplendent in a filthy grey tee shirt and jeans, was knocking the plaster off the ceiling in the living room watched by four pairs of eyes – mine, the Boy Dog’s, the Old Lady’s and Maggie’s. Maggie loves a good domestic crisis.

‘That’s plaster and lath,’ he announced as it cascaded soggily over him and onto the old shower curtain I’d put down in an attempt to rescue the carpet. ‘Oh hell. I HATE getting wet.’

‘But you’re a plumber …’

‘I know.’double-floor

What a world of sorrow there was in those two words …

With the plaster and lath stripped away, we could see not a water pipe as we expected, but wooden boards glistening wetly in the light of his head torch. (The first question he’d asked was whether I’d turned the power off. When I answered in the negative, he gave me an old-fashioned look and despatched me to the kill the power before the power killed him.)

‘Oh bother,’ he said (only that’s not exactly what he said either). ‘It’s an effing double floor. And it’s still dripping … is the water off at the mains?’

I explained the problem with the stopcock.

‘I’ll do it!’ volunteered Maggie chirpily and vanished off into the kitchen. After a couple of minutes, some scrabbling sounds and few grunts, she was back. ‘It needs brute force, Barry.’

We trooped off into the kitchen – three humans and two dogs – where Barry discovered that he couldn’t shift it either, which made me feel slightly better.

Muttering the mystical words ‘stopcock key’, he disappeared out to his van and rematerialized moments later with a long handled gizmo that had a sort of clamp on one end and a t-bar at the other.

‘I hate using these,’ he said grimly.’Last time I used one, the whole bloody thing sheered off.’

I looked at Maggie in alarm. She just grinned. I’m sure she wanted the whole bloody thing to sheer off.

He attached the business end to the stopcock, closed his eyes and twisted. Something gave with an audible ‘THUNK’ and we all held our breath … but close inspection revealed that the sound was that of a stopcock being freed, not a stopcock being wrecked.

That done, we processed upstairs, the dogs bringing up the rear like a couple of bridesmaids.

Barry look at the spot in the floor where the leak should be, then looked at the en suite.

‘Sloping floor’ he said eventually. ‘But we’d best start where the leak seems to be and work backwards … I’m going to have to lift the floorboards’

I groaned inwardly at the thought of the rapidly mounting cost. ‘While you’re doing that, I’ll just go and ‘phone my insurers …’

plumber 1By the time I got back, having been assured by the insurance company that as long as I took photos of everything, they’d pick up the tab for emergency repairs, Barry had the carpet rolled back, and one floorboard up and – miracle of miracles – had found the leak. If you could call it a leak. There was a water pipe running across the floor towards the en suite, and at one point, under a joint, the boards were saturated – but the leak was so tiny you had to watch it for a very long time to see the minute drop of water starting to form where one pipe joined the other.

‘That’s been leaking for a very,very long time,’ he announced, batting the Boy Dog back from the hole in the floor. ‘Decades probably.’

‘You mean, my bra is full of very, very old water?’

‘Pardon?’

Two pairs of human eyes swivelled towards me.

‘Forget I said that.’

Well, at least my dogs think I’m wonderful.

Except for the Old Lady, of course. She just thinks I’m mean.

0

TRICK OR TREAT

minniem Adverse Camber lies in a valley at the point where an ancient drove road once crossed the river Camber. In fact, if you look on the very old maps, you’ll find it labelled ADVERS CAMBER FORD in the style of lettering usually reserved for HERE BE DRAGONS,  leading some to claim that it’s not a name at all but a warning to the unwary.

None of which is of any relevance to what I was going to say.

Most of Adverse Camber lies in a valley, but over the years it has sent out tentacles over the surrounding hillsides in the form of roads and lanes which radiate from the central market place. Along them assorted dwellings have been built and later infilling between the ‘arms’ results in an aerial view that always puts me in mind of a giant bird dropping, but I tend to keep the thought to myself.

I live at the upper end of of one of more minor arteries and because of that am seldom troubled by people who have tarmac, religion or insurance to sell: there’s nowhere particularly convenient to park and it’s far too much effort to walk up the hill just  to get an earful of home truths followed by a door in the face. It also means, of course, that I’m not troubled by Trick or Treaters at Halloween. At least – I wasn’t last year, and, after what happened this year, they’re unlikely to try it again.

It started innocuously enough with the chimes of Big Ben. Not the REAL chimes of the REAL Big Ben, but the electronic ones that my front door bell warbles. I hate it with a passion, and one day I’ll replace it with something more tasteful like ‘La Cucaracha’, but it’s fairly low on my list of priorities, and until I have the time and inclination to do something about it, I have the choice of disconnecting the wretched thing and letting people knock, or gritting my teeth and putting up with it. As one involves a little effort and the other only profound irritation, it’s no contest.

It was early evening – a time when I’m not usually troubled by any one at all, except for Maggie. She has a habit of coming down from the farm, via the back field, to ask if I’m free to do some ‘officey stuff’ the next day – usually because she’s got an accountant, or government official, or bank manager coming and wants to be able to pretend she’s got everything completely under control.

Needless to say, every time the bell rings the dogs go absolutely berserk, and before I can actually open the door, I have to shoo them into the living room and close the child gates on them in order (i) to prevent them from disembowelling whoever’s standing there, before they even know who it is and (ii) to give myself a chance to hear what’s being said to me.

So, when Big Ben rang out, I wrestled the pair of them back behind the barricades (an operation which always generates unfortunate language, blood-curdling threats and joyful barking) before hauling the front door open to greet –  as I supposed – Maggie.

Only it wasn’t Maggie. It was a motley assortment of small and ill-attired witches, ghosts and vampires accompanied by a slightly tubby middle-aged woman who was inadvisedly dressed as Minnie Mouse.

‘Trick or Treat! they all yelled at me.

I looked at them.

They looked at me.

They shuffled a bit, and one of them tried the ‘Trick or Treat’ line again, but without much conviction.

‘Have you walked all the way up here from the village?’ I asked Minnie, vaguely aware that Boy Dog was getting more than normally agitated on the other side of the child gate.

‘No. We’re in a minibus, just down the road.’

‘You’re bussing trick-or-treaters around the village?’

‘Yes.’

‘They don’t appear to be exactly laden with sweets.’

‘No.’

I was about to tell her that I had one Kit-Kat, half a bar of 70% Valrhona and a packet of oatcakes in the house when Nemesis appeared in the guise of a miniature schnauzer dressed in a pink tutu and matching satin bow. Previously hidden behind a three-foot high witch, it pushed past her skirt, scenting the air and wagging its stumpy tail. Minnie Mouse was holding the lead.

‘I’ve got dog biscuits  though…’ I said, in a moment of unusual benevolence, only ever engendered in me by the presence of dogs. The kids groaned. and started to drift away.

‘We’ve got dog biscuits,’ said Minnie through her teeth. ‘Everyone’s been giving us bloody dog biscuits …’

It was at that precise moment that there was a sound of frantic scrabbling from the living room door and a hairy black, white and tan missile hurtled past me to launch himself at the four-footed ballerina. No coward soul herself, she responded by shooting forwards to meet the challenge head on  – and the next moment they were locked with each other in territorial combat, cheered on by the children for whom it was plainly the most entertaining thing that had happened all evening.

The two terriers swirled dementedly around the startled Minnie Mouse, tangling her in the schnauzer’s running lead and toppling her over backwards into the flower bed I’d just prepared for the spring bedding.

What happened next is a bit of a blur as I attempted to separate the two scrapping terriers while the woman floundered around in the mud, squeaking ineffectually – but I do remember shouting above the racket:

‘IT’S OKAY! It SOUNDS more serious than it IS ….”

Eventually, I succeeded in getting a firm hold on the Boy Dog and bore him away, kicking and protesting, into the house – where I shut him safely in the study.

By the time I got back outside, the children were helping Minnie Mouse – with ears askew – to her feet, and the little ballerina was panting on the path, tutu around her neck, tail wagging and plainly up for a second round. Inside the house, I could hear Boy Dog throwing himself bodily at the study door.

‘Sorry about that.’  I smiled at her, suddenly quite light of heart. ‘He hurdled the dog gate. Still, no harm done, eh? Do you want those dog biscuits or not?’

I’m fairly sure Minnie Mouse never used language like that.

1

THE GUILD

carrot-cakeJazz 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:

THOMAS METCALF
OFGIDDINGFORD.
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.

Sort of.

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 ….’

~~~:~~~

3

IT WAS A DARK AND STORMY NIGHT …

dawg by fireIn general (she said, looking around wildly for wood to touch) this little corner of Adverse Camber is sheltered from the worst of the autumn storms. Further down the hill, where Wingfield Road crosses Main Street, the buildings form a wind tunnel and when there’s a Force Six blowing from the north west, Winged Victory atop the war memorial has been known to rock alarmingly on her footings, threatening those unwise enough to be in the vicinity with an untimely and unfortunate death. People regularly get to their feet at Parish Council meetings and say Something Must Be Done, but Victory rocks on while everybody nods solemnly in agreement, writes Important Things in year planners and then moves on to something more pressing and less expensive, like what colour to paint the park railings.

Up at the top end of Wingfield Road however the contours of the land and the height of the surrounding trees and ancient hedges are such that my cottage is protected from nearly all directions – which isn’t to say that I don’t get buffeted by the winds – just that I’m less likely than many to end up chasing bits of my roof down the road.

It was a little blustery the other night, but I was tucked up in the living room in front of the fire with a book and a pot of tea and smugly certain that no harm would befall me in my cosy  sanctuary.

And that’s when I heard it …

When you’ve lived in a house for a while, you can identify every sound it makes, from the groan of the floorboards as the central heating cools down or heats up and the creak of the conservatory  as it dries out after rain to that irritating branch outside the window which you keep meaning to get the secateurs to, but always forget about until the next time it comes rat-tat-tatting on the glass. But THIS sound was none of those. This was something I’d never heard before … a sort of rhythmic  ‘hurrgg-urrgg ’ which seemed to be coming from the direction of the fireplace.

Carefully stepping over the Old Lady Dog, who was fast asleep on a pile of blankets and pillows in front of the fire, I listened for a while. I cocked my head to one side to try and pinpoint the precise location of the sound. I moved around. I even pressed my ear against the wall (which was a daft thing to do, given that it’s about two feet thick).

Eventually, I decided that it must be coming either from outside the house or actually IN the chimney. I tried to tell myself that whatever it was, it was unlikely I could do anything about it until morning, but another little voice was saying, ‘If it’s something minor and you CAN fix it, you can stop worrying about it, and you might prevent worse damage.’

I looked at Boy Dog, who was upside down on the settee with his feet in the air and his head buried under a cushion. The Old Lady Dog slept on undisturbed. Plainly neither of them could hear anything untoward, as they can be relied on to bark the place down if they hear a hedgehog sneeze two gardens away …

The rain was beating against the windows. That bloody branch was tapping on the casement in the dining room. The back door was rattling on the latch. I didn’t want to go outside but I knew I’d never settle until I did, so I donned wellies, mackintosh and sou’wester, grabbed a torch and plodded out into the wet, the wind and the darkness.

When you’re out in a storm of course, all you can hear is the wind – but that didn’t stop me from standing foolishly outside the living room window and listening for the ‘hurrgg-urrgg’ sound. Inside the room – which looked so very warm and comfy and inviting  – Boy Dog was sitting up on the settee, gazing at me with his bleary eyes half-closed, his mouth snagged up on one side and an expression which plainly said, ‘You have GOT to be joking.’ The Old Lady Dog, of course, hadn’t moved.

Trying to tuck my head into my shoulders to stop the water from running down my neck, I went around the side of the house to examine the chimney – one of those external ones, which look as if they were tacked on as an afterthought. So intent was I on peering upwards that I completely failed to notice the wheelbarrow, full of weeds, that I’d abandoned when the rain had arrived earlier in the day. It was now a wheelbarrow full of weeds and water, and as such had become an immoveable object. In a straight contest between it and me, there was only ever going to be one winner. Attention fixed at roof level, I backed into the barrow. It caught me just behind the knees, dumping me unceremoniously onto the soggy brambles, nettles and alchemilla mollis within. I sat there for a moment in the wind and rain and thought, ‘Well, that could have been worse’ … which is when the whole thing started to topple slowly sideways as one leg sank  into the muddy ground.

I landed on my backside in the ooze and in one smooth movement, the sodden contents of the barrow slid inexorably into my lap.

Drenched, filthy, scratched and stung, I admitted defeat (I mean, I can take a hint as well as the next person …) and dragged my tragic self back into the house. where I peeled my outer layers of clothing off and stood for a moment in the doorway to the living room. The sound was still there … ‘hurrg-urrgg ’ … ‘hurrgg-urrgg ’ … ‘hurrgg-urrgg

I ignored it.  ‘I’m going to take a bath,’ I announced to the dogs. (Yes, I always talk to the dogs as if they’re people – do you want to make something of it?)

The sound stopped. The Old Lady Dog raised her head from the blankets and looked at me in her usual blank fashion. Then, deciding that I didn’t come bearing cheese, chicken or even dog biscuits, she wriggled a little further into the blankets and pillows and went back to sleep.

And started snoring again.

hurrg-urrgg ’ … ‘hurrgg-urrgg ’ … ‘hurrgg-urrgg

0

TITS

fotosketcher-image‘I bet you’re good at trivia quizzes, aren’t you?’

My ‘self preservation radar’ would normally have immediately started semaphoring ‘trouble approaching rapidly off the port bow’, but Mrs Fitt was such an unlikely harbinger of doom that she caught me unawares.

Actually, remembering her murderous rage when Marianne Hinchcliffe released a clockwork mouse at the Christmas Fair as a joke, perhaps I should have considered the possibility that she was a woman with unplumbed depths, but for 95% of the year she’s a placid woman, at peace with the world and everyone in it  – and therein lay my downfall.

What I should have said was ‘Nope. Terrible at them. Brain like a sieve, don’t you know.’

What I actually said was, ‘Depends on the questions.’

And that, dear readers, is how I ended up on the Adverse Camber team at the annual grudge match which is the ‘Camber Villages Quiz Night’.

The three villages take it in turns to host the event. This year the honour fell to Upper Camber, who rather fancy themselves as a cut above Nether and Adverse Camber (so I am told) as evidenced by the damask table cloths and the tea and cakes served on in-vogue mis-matched bone china.

Last year, Nether Camber emerged victorious, to the shock and disbelief of all concerned – including the Nether Camber team – since historically the battle has always been between Upper and Adverse, with Nether there just to make everyone else look good. No-one was quite sure how they did it, but popular opinion inclined towards bribery, and the finger of suspicion fell on the neutral adjudicator who, it turned out, was not so neutral after all, being the second cousin by marriage of the brother-in-law of Nether Camber’s retired butcher. Or something.

However THIS year, Binkie Clements assured me in a stage whisper, would be different because THIS year, Adverse Camber had a secret weapon.

‘What’s that, then?’ I whispered back.

‘YOU of course.’

I’ve never entirely understood the expression ‘that sinking feeling’ until that moment, because I swear the pit of my stomach dropped about three inches. ‘It depends on the questions, Binkie.’ I said feebly. ‘If it’s sport, television, recent films or modern music, I’m useless.’

The four of us were hunched over the be-damasked table like a quartet of witches: Mrs Fitt, Binkie Clements (mother of Isobel, down at the Post Office), nice Jenny from the vets and yours truly, all hissing together like co-conspirators which, as it turned, out was going to be the MO for all three teams for the whole evening: ‘Don’t talk so loudly – they’ll HEAR you’.

The Quizmaster (and question setter) was a retired teacher from Beechings, a (very) minor public school halfway between Nether and Adverse, whose integrity was considered to be unimpeachable because of his poshness. I personally thought those were pretty dodgy grounds upon which to base a value judgment, but kept the thought to myself.

All three tables, plus the Quizmaster, were up on the stage of Upper Camber Community Hall which – as was frequently pointed out to us – had just had new windows, heaters and curtains. In the body of the hall sat the audience, theoretically drawn from all three villages, but in practice mostly Upper, and therefore wildly partisan.

For the first couple of rounds, things chugged along peacefully enough and the three teams seemed pretty evenly matched. It was a simple system. We were given sheets of questions on differing topics and had five minutes in which to confer over the answers and write them down. Then the teams swapped question sheets for marking and the Quizmaster supplied the answers.

The first hint of needle crept in during the ‘Birds’ round when Mrs Fitt, who was writing down the answers, wrote ‘tit’ instead of ‘blue tit’ and the Upper Camber team, who were marking our paper, marked it as wrong (with some justification). Binkie objected, loudly and repeatedly. The Quizmaster upheld the decision, but Binkie wasn’t to be appeased, even when it was pointed out that there were coal tits, great tits, long-tailed tits … to Binkie, they were all tits. Rather like the Quizmaster.

The worst thing I could possible have said at that juncture was ‘It’s only a bit of fun, Binkie …’, so of course, that’s exactly what I said. Three pairs of disbelieving eyes swivelled towards me and I shrank back into my chair, chastened and muttering sulky apologies.

The subsequent round (punctuated by Binkie still grumbling about tits) was on cars, and nothing I could say would convince my fellow team members that Porsches were German-made cars. Nor did they later believe that Brunel was NOT a Scot (even when I said that I’d seen the ‘Brunel was born here’ plaque in Portsmouth), so it was a bit unfortunate when they decided to take my word for it that the patron saint of Edinburgh was St Margaret.*

The anagram round went well and I was officially crowned Queen of the Anagrams, then in the Sea Life round Binkie had her revenge on Upper Camber when they answered ‘anemone’ instead of ‘sea anemone’ and the Quizmaster agreed with us that they were two very different things and it was therefore a Wrong Answer.

‘Aha! Wrong! Wrong!! It’s WRONG!!’

It got better – or worse, depending on where you were sitting – when, in the cryptic round, Mrs Fitt knew that a grape was a sort of hoe and that, therefore, the answer to  ‘Digger for Mrs Bucket’ was ‘grape hyacinth’ and not just ‘hyacinth’.

‘Ah-ha-ha!’ Crowed Binkie. ‘You didn’t know what a grape was, did you!! Aha-ha-ha-hah!!!!’

Mrs Fitt looked skyward and pointed out that Binkie hadn’t known either and had, indeed,  poo-pooed the very idea when it was suggested. It didn’t have any discernible effect on her.

The greatest outrage, however, was reserved for the Quizmaster who – in a fit of temporary senility – declared that Braille was a reading aid for deaf people. The silence which followed this announcement was total, as people mentally reviewed everything they thought they knew about Braille. Then, pandemonium broke out …. I’m sure that above the generaI cacophony I heard someone  yelling ‘It’s the BLIND ye great eggwap!’ – which is an expression I last heard in the wilds of Lancashire. The poor man tried to make himself heard above the hooting, whistling and stamping … but in the end had to just sit there until the noise had subsided enough for him to say mildly, ‘I did, of course, mean blind people’, which just got them started all over again.

After that, he completely lost his sang froid.  In the following round, he started giving the answers to the next set of questions (No, the name of the  ‘Iron Chancellor’ of Germany was not ‘Poppy’.) Then he yielded without a murmur when someone came up with an alternative answer to an ‘Odd Man Out’ question and on the final straight he  cringed visibly when one of the more vocal members of the Upper Camber team demanded the adjudicator be called in over the provenance of ‘SOS’. It turned out that he was the adjudicator too, on account of being posh and unimpeachable.

It didn’t make any difference in the end, because it was Nether Camber, who kept their heads down and stayed out of the firing line, who won again. As they collected their plastic trophies from the Quizmaster to polite applause, they tried not to look smug. – and failed. All around me I could feel new conspiracy theories being hatched over the tea and cupcakes.

There was, inevitably, a post mortem in the car on the way home. Questions and answers were analysed, the subject of tits was raised more than once and agreement was generally arrived at that somehow or other, We Woz Robbed.

When we reached Adverse Camber, we all repaired to Binkie’s house for coffee and biscuits  … and it was there  Jenny noticed something that suddenly made everything – well, not quite so bad. She was looking at the results sheet.

‘Oh look!’ she said cheerfully. ‘We beat Upper Camber. They came last.’

‘Serves them right,’ said Binkie with considerable satisfaction. ‘Tits.’

~~~:~~~

* It’s St Giles.

0

STRAWHANGERS

ratty-1I lived in a thatched cottage once before, many years ago. It was a rental cottage which we lived in temporarily when we were moving from Scotland down to England. (By the way – if you’ve never tried moving from Scotland to England, or vice versa, take my advice and DON’T unless (a) you absolutely have to and/or (b) have the constitution of a small ox. Although the two regions are joined at the hip (or just below the bust if you look at  the island as a sort of wizened and warty old crone), they have different legal systems which – especially when it comes to buying and selling houses – don’t exactly co-exist amicably.)

Anyway, as I was saying, we lived in a rented cottage for about six months and it was an archetypal Ye Olde English thatched cottage, complete with tiny windows, thick walls, rising damp, low ceilings and tiny doors you had to almost bend yourself double to get through. Oh, and rats. it had rats. Lots of them. Rats love thatched roofs. Not that I remember the rats with horror: I rather like them and always have done.

I remember waking up one night and hearing a scrabbling sound inside the built-in closet to the left of my bed. When I switched on my torch and opened the door, there was rat sitting in one of my shoes. I was so enchanted that I didn’t tell anyone, but started leaving food for it – nuts, bits of cheese, half-eaten sandwiches …. It was only when the place was overrun with them and they’d despatched the white doves in the neighbours’ nest box, ransacked the bird food in the lean-to shed and shredded my father’s best dress jacket that I owned up. The Matriarch thought it was funny. My father didn’t, but he was out-voted.

These days, I’m as fond of rats as ever, but less sanguine about actually sharing my home with them. We live in perfect amity as long as they stay at the top of the garden  or occasionally scuttle across the patio and keep out of the house. I therefore thought it was probably time, now that I was more or less settled in and had a little spare cash, to have the thatched roof looked at by A Proper Chap: mostly to make sure it was sound and still fireproof, but partly to see if there was any sign of occupation by Large Rodents.

Asking around for recommendations produced just one name – Chas Metcalfe. Chas was, I was assured, efficient, helpful and reasonably priced. The fact that he also seemed to be related to half of the village via their third-cousins-by-marriage may or may not have been a factor in the recommendations of course.

I rang him and got an answering machine with a terribly official-sounding message on it, conveying – without saying as much – that they were Thatchers to the Nobility. Trying not to sound terribly common, I started to leave a message, but before I’d got half way through my (previously rehearsed) spiel, someone picked the ‘phone up and said cheerily,

‘I’ve been expecting your call ….’

An hour later he arrived at my gate, not – as I was expecting – in a battered old van with a roof rack and miscellaneous mediaeval-looking instruments hanging out of the rear doors, but in a brand spanking new Mercedes-Benz Sprinter with ‘STRAWHANGERS’ emblazoned on the side and a softly purring engine under the bonnet which sounded as if it could do 80 up the autobahn without breaking into a sweat. Nor did the man who climbed out of it look as if he was a Master Thatcher. No tatty overalls. No battered tweeds or trousers held up with baling twine – just a pair of (very expensive looking) chinos and a sweatshirt emblazoned with the same artwork as the van. And he was thirty if he was a day.

I began to suspect – not for the first time – that ‘reasonably priced’ was a relative term.

Fifteen minutes later he had his ladders out and was on the roof, clambering around with what looked to me like an alarming lack of concern for his own well-being.

‘Do be careful,’ I bleated. ‘My first aid skills don’t extend to broken necks.’

‘No worries,’ he retorted from on high.’ I’ve been doing this since I was a kid. I’m from a long line of thatchers.’

‘And did they all die from old age?’

‘No.’ He tugged experimentally at one of those whatever-they’re-called things that pins the thatch down. ‘One of them stepped back to admire his handiwork. But if the fall hadn’t’ve killed him, his pickled liver would have.’

Ten minutes later, he was IN the roof, having squeezed himself through an access hatch scarcely big enough for a child. ‘People,’ he grunted as his feet vanished from sight, ‘were a lot smaller back in the day.’

I followed him up (well, my head and shoulders did … the rest of me stayed firmly in the 21st Century), and watched his head torch bobbing around for a moment, then going out.

‘Are you okay?’ I asked worriedly, peering into the pitch black void. ‘Do you want the light on? There is a light you know …’

I may, or may not, have heard a sigh.

‘I’m checking for daylight.’

‘Oh. Right. I’ll shut up then.’ I shut up for about 15 seconds. ‘See any?’

‘A little, around the chimney stack.’

‘Is that bad?’

‘Easily fixed. Probably just the flashing.’

I almost said, ‘Does easily mean cheaply?’ but managed to bite my tongue.

‘Any sign of rats?’

‘It’s hard to tell in the dark.’ He paused for half a beat to allow the barb to go in. ‘But I don’t smell any. Do you?’

I sniffed exaggeratedly, but all I could detect was dust. ‘Nope.’

‘You can turn the light on now.’

In the dim light of the 25 watt bulb he surveyed the inside of the roof visually. It looked like any old attic to me, but then, what do I know?

‘Yes. There’s a bit of damp around the chimney … but no other signs of a problem. and no rats. Only mice.’

Back down in the kitchen, mug of coffee in hand, he did some calculations on a chic little ‘Strawhangers’ notepad for the cost of lifting the thatch around the chimney, relaying the flashing and then rethatching. He showed me the result.

The next time someone tells me something or somebody is ‘reasonably priced’ I’ll make a point of asking, ‘As compared to WHAT, exactly?’

~~~:~~~