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LBJs AND LITTLE HITLERS

BenHave you ever tried counting LBJs?

Do you even know what an LBJ is?

No? Well, let me enlighten you. LBJ stands for Little Brown Job, which is shorthand for all of those small brown birds which look like sparrows but aren’t, necessarily, although they could be. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the females of some quite colourful and/or distinctive sparrow-sized birds like chaffinches and reed buntings are ALSO Little Brown Jobs, the better to be camouflaged upon the nest.

None of which is a huge problem to the majority of  people for most of the time, but when you’re trying to count the little buggers and they (a) don’t have the courtesy to stay still and (b) all look like each other in the first place, especially through a grubby window, it’s a total pain.

Those of you who haven’t already wandered off to do something more interesting, like stare at a dripping tap, may be wondering why anyone would be counting LBJs in the first place. Well, it’s simple. Every winter, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds organizes the Big Garden Birdwatch, asking willing souls like me to sit down and stare out of a window for an hour to count and list all of the birds they see. It’s a sort of avian stock-take which provides an annual snapshot of the UK bird population. It’s also a rare opportunity to sit down and do nothing very much for an hour with a clear conscience (that bloody Protestant Work Ethic is SUCH a downer, man).

Inevitably, of course, some of the participants can’t help approaching it like a competitive sport, vying with each other on social media to snag the most exotic species. While most of us content ourselves with putting out fat-filled coconuts, sunflower seeds and industrial quantities of bird seed, you just know that someone, somewhere in the Highlands, has staked out a deer carcass …

So my Big Garden Birdwatch day arrived, and there was a Force 5 gale howling across the garden. Nothing daunted, I battled my way outside with two wildly excited Jack Russells swirling around me and hung up my fat blocks (two of), half coconuts (four of), niger seed feeders (one of), peanut feeders (two of) and seed feeders (three of), then scattered seed and suet pellets on the bird table, ground feeder tray, patio and garden table. Before I’d even got back inside the house, the fowl of the air were descending en masse behind me; the LBJs were twittering excitedly in the cotinus bush by the bird table, the collared doves were congregating in the fruit trees and the starlings were lining the edge of the roof, ready to drop like vertical take-off jets as soon as I’d shooed the dogs inside.

Anticipating a bumper crop of ticked boxes, I made a cup of coffee, grabbed a bar of chocolate, a notebook and a pair of binoculars, and settled in an armchair in front of the patio windows, which provide a grandstand view of virtually the whole of the back garden.

It was absolute bedlam out there: starlings were squabbling over the ground feeders, LBJs were scuttling around under the bird table and collared doves and wood pigeons were squabbling over the seed on the patio. I decided to concentrate on the LBJs to begin with, as there were so many of them bickering over the food falling from the table.

The trick with counting small, milling flocks is to look at them with your naked eye for a moment, zero in with the bins, do a swift head count in a slow sweep and then assume that the ones you count twice are probably cancelled out by the ones you didn’t count at all. I counted 14 tree sparrows – which are LBJs with chestnut brown heads and therefore relatively easy to identify.

I went to write it down … which is when I realized that I didn’t have a pen.

Normally, I have pen and pencils all over the place – in pockets, shoved down the spines of notebooks, on the tea trolley, on the coffee table, in pots, boxes and vases on every shelf and in every nook and cranny of the cottage – but could I find one anywhere immediately to hand? What do YOU think? In the end, I had to go and snag the one hanging on a string by the calendar in the kitchen … but by the time I got back to the armchair, every single bird had vanished. I mean ALL of them. The garden had gone from Piccadilly in the rush hour to the Russian Steppes in the off season, in the space of two minutes.

I printed “Tree sparrows: 14” in my notebook … and then waited.

I scanned the hedges, undergrowth and bushes with the binoculars in search of life.

I waited.

And I waited.

I did another sweep with the bins, and finally spotted something behind the cotinus bush: a sleek, blue-grey something exactly the same colour as the neighbour’s cat.

‘CAT!’ I screamed, shooting to my feet and causing the Boy Dog to hurtle off the sofa so fast that he crashed into the Old Girl, who was staggering out of her basket as rapidly as her creaky old legs would carry her. I was on the point of Deploying the Hounds of Hell to see off the invader when the blue-grey something emerged from behind the bush with a flagger of wings a sad little bundle of feathers in its talons. Not a cat, then.

With a sigh, I scribbled, “Sparrowhawk: 1” in my notebook.

After a moment’s thought, I then wrote, “Tree sparrows: 14  13“.

I waited again. Then I waited some more, and was on the point of giving it up as a bad job when a male chaffinch – the dumb blond of the bird world – landed on the nearest peanut feeder. For a few more minutes, nothing else happened, and you just knew that all the other birds were sitting in their hiding places  watching and waiting to see if he survived longer than five minutes …

Finally, as he continued to stuff his face unmolested, they all started to trickle back and, about fifteen minutes after the little fatality, the garden was once more full of birds.

I recorded my ever-present robins, blackbirds, collared doves and wood pigeons,plus a lone dunnock and the resident wren, then turned my attention back to the LBJs under the bird table again – at the precise moment that the low winter sun made a brief appearance, hitting the patio doors at an oblique angle and reminding me that I’d forgotten to clean the glass.

Gamely, I peered into the murk, sorting out the tree sparrows from the house sparrows and the female chaffinches and was eventually rewarded with a reed bunting. Then I spotted something lurking fuzzily behind it in the shadows. With an excitement that will only be understood by other bird watchers, I twiddled feverishly with the central knob-thingy on the bins and – just as I brought what I think was a twite into sharp focus – a great dark mass loomed up before me, nearly giving me a coronary.

The Boy Dog, with one paw on each of my knees, had climbed onto the tuffet in front of my chair and was staring straight down the business end of the binoculars at me.

I looked at him. He looked at me – and his look plainly said, ‘Enough already.’

‘But … Twite.’ (And yes, I often have one-sided conversations with my dogs.)

He didn’t move. The Old Lady Dog – his faithful wing (wo)man – moved into position behind him.

A shower of starlings hurtled from the roof outside.

‘Starlings,’ I whimpered pathetically.

Neither of them budged. I put the binoculars down and closed the notebook. The clock on the wall confirmed that it was, indeed, an hour since I’d begun the birdwatch.

I knew then that I was beaten.

I often tell people that although Jack Russells aren’t suitable pets for anyone who doesn’t think dogs should have opinions of their own, it’s only when they start developing language skills that you need to worry. The thing is, that day may not be very far away.

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OF ROGUES AND ROLL-TOPS

roll topMaggie is lovely. She is breathtakingly blunt, completely tactless and utterly devoid of anything remotely approximating social skills, but she’s also honest, decent, hardworking and kind-hearted – and in a world which sometimes seems increasingly devoid of all of those qualities, it counts for a lot.

She inherited the farm from her father, along with his extensive knowledge of animal husbandry and – unfortunately – a level of numeracy and literacy bordering on the non-existent. She’s a farmer – first, last and foremost – and her view is that the welfare of her stock is what matters and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs – more commonly known as Defra – can take a long walk off a short pier.

Unsurprisingly, Defra takes a dim view of such reactionary attitudes and will, in common with the Mills of God, slowly but inevitably grind transgressors into a very fine paste.

Which is why I found myself sitting in ‘The Office’ – basically just a storage area above the old tack room – staring at a mountain of papers, ledgers and worryingly unopened brown manilla envelopes.

I was vaguely aware of a rhythmic sort of thumping, grunting sound outside the door, but was so hypnotized by the scale of the task facing me – and wondering if Maggie could ever possibly afford to pay me for the hours upon hours it was plainly going to take me to sort it all out – that I dismissed it as some piece of arcane farm machinery in action in the yard below, until the door burst open and a red-faced Alec asked, in between gasping for breath – where I wanted the filing cabinet.

‘Filing cabinet?’ I stared at him blankly. ‘What filing cabinet?’

‘The one I’ve just dragged up the chuffing stairs.’ (You may at this point substitute any term you suspect he may have used in place of ‘chuffing’ ….)

The ‘office’, I should probably explain, is accessed by means of a set of steep external stone steps rising diagonally from the corner of the old stable block and terminating in a platform outside the door, protected only by an iron railing which I suspect to be mostly rust.

‘A filing cabinet? Oh …’

‘Mags thought you could probably use it. It’s time someone did. It’s a bloody museum piece and I don’t think it’s ever been used – leastways, not as a filing cabinet.’

I gazed around the crowded little room slightly desperately. It contained an absolutely massive roll-top desk, a large oak table with one rat-chewed leg propped up on a copy of ‘British Sheep Breeds’, a bar stool apparently purloined from The Drovers and several racks of what looked like old greenhouse staging – all of it virtually invisible beneath a generation’s worth of letters, pamphlets, magazines and ancient calendars which featured cattle drench and farm implements instead of chocolate box views and furry animals.

What remaining space there was (which wasn’t much) was occupied by battered cardboard boxes that I hadn’t yet found the courage to investigate, but which I suspected should probably be printed with government health warnings.

‘How big is the cabinet?’

He stood aside to reveal not – as I had hoped – a small two-drawer wooden job, but a metal three-drawer leviathan.

‘How on EARTH did you get that up the steps?’

‘At great personal expense.’ He peered around the room. ‘If we moved some of those boxes over by the window, we could probably make enough space. What’s in them, anyway?’

‘No idea, and I’m too scared to look.’ I indicated the table leg. ‘That damage wasn’t done by anything petite and friendly.’

‘You should have brought those two terriers of yours. They’d love it up here. I keep telling Mags we need Jack Russells – fabulous ratters. Come on. Let’s be brave.’ He smiled, not entirely benevolently, I felt. ‘The worst that can happen is one runs up your leg.’

I bridled. ‘I am NOT afraid of rats. Or spiders.’

‘Mags is. Hates spiders. Loathes rats.’ He opened the nearest box, which had originally contained tinned peaches, and peered inside. ‘Books.’

He tried another. ‘More books.’

‘What sort of books? Farming manuals, that sort of thing?’

I tried a couple myself. More books – reading books: fiction, classics, non-fiction …

Alec frowned. I frowned. We frowned together, because we both knew that Maggie is not what is generally referred to as ‘A great reader.’

‘Did her dad read a lot?’I ventured, checking out a few more books, and finding some surprisingly good quality ones – leatherbound, quarter leather, 19th century.

‘Maggie is a true child of her father. Isaac used to move his lips when he read. I think he may even have used a finger to keep his place. Top bloke and all that, but I’m pretty certain he didn’t read to relax. The instructions on the side of mineral blocks were about his limit.’

It was half an hour later that Maggie appeared at the top of the steps carrying a tray with three mugs and a plate of biscuits on it, and found us knee deep in books and boxes. We’d worked our way to the window and discovered that every single cardboard box in the office contained books. There were, in fact, enough to stock a small private library.

She squeezed past the filing cabinet, which virtually filled the narrow doorway.

‘Thought I’d come and see how you were doing. I’ve brought us some tea and biscuits.’

I held up a book questioningly. ‘We were trying to make room for the filing cabinet, and found these ….’

‘Chuck them out. I’ve been meaning to for ages. Eddie said I could keep them instead of what he was supposed to be paying me for storage.’ She snorted. ‘Pillock.’

‘Ah.’ The light dawned on Alec’s face. ‘The famous book shop scheme.’

‘Yes.’ She dumped the tray on the roll-top desk. ‘Which went the same way as  all his other grand plans.’

‘Eddie? Book shop?’ I looked from one to the other, seeking enlightenment. ‘What?’

‘Eddie Lassiter.’ Alec peered suspiciously at the biscuits on the plate. ‘Did you make these, Mags?’

‘No. They were on offer at the Post Office Stores.’

Reassured, he helped himself, then continued. ‘Eddie Lassiter. Would-be entrepreneur. Last heard of making people’s lives a burden to them in London. Or possibly Birkenhead. A couple of years back he had a plan to open a book shop in a vacant shop in Upper Camber, then found out how much the business rates would be, how little money there was in secondhand books and that it helped if you knew something about books in the first place. A year or so ago, the little bastard vanished off to …. wherever …. leaving a trail of devastation, debts and broken promises behind him along with,’ he looked around the room, ‘his stock.’

‘I’d virtually forgotten they were up here.’ Maggie idly picked up a volume and read the spine. ‘It’s all old stuff. We can dump them in the trailer and take them to the tip …. or burn them.’

I winced at the mere idea of burning the books and wondered desperately if I could give a home to at least some of them.

‘That would be a shame,’ I said, flipping one open to look at the fly leaf – and play for time. ‘There are some really nice books here …’

Then, I felt a smile creeping unbidden over my face. ‘And I bet I know someone who’d be happy to buy them from you.’

‘Eh?’ They both looked at me as if I was stark, staring bonkers.

‘Their original owner.’ I held up the book so Maggie could read what was printed inside the front cover:

WINGFIELD
BRAMBLINGS

‘It’s the contents of the library from Bramblings. The books were supposed to be included in the sale, but the agents sold them separately … apparently to Eddie Fly-by-Night. I’m pretty certain Professor Pilger will take them off your hands for a fair price. He gets his books back and you get the money you’re owed for storage. It’s win-win.’

I could see Maggie was looking at me in a whole new light.

‘Would you talk to him for me? I don’t know anything about books.’

‘Of course. On one condition.’

‘What’s that then?’

I pointed at the huge roll-top desk, which absolutely dominated the tiny space we were in.

‘You tell me how the hell you got that desk up here.’

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THE PEN-PUSHY TYPE

pheasant_FotoSketcherMaggie and Alec had an argument this week. Even if Maggie hadn’t ended up prowling around my kitchen violently gutting and stripping a pheasant I’d found  outside my front gate that morning I’d still have known that they’d had an argument because the whole of the upper end of the village, along with a substantial chunk of the next parish, must have heard them. Given the fact that a couple of large fields separate the farm from the village, I leave it to your imagination how loudly they were bellowing at each other. Of course, they were doing the bellowing in the farm yard and it was a particularly still and frosty morning, but even so the decibels were impressive.

She slammed into my kitchen unannounced – but not entirely unexpectedly – as I was eye-to-eye with the road kill, both dogs gazing up at me adoringly and the Old Girl gently weeing with excitement. Throwing herself into the armchair by the Aga, Maggie proceeded to  pronounce at length upon Alec’s questionable parentage, his morals, his intellect  and his general worthiness to move freely in polite society.

‘So what was the argument about then?’ I asked as casually as I could manage,  attempting to convey that it was a matter of no great interest to me, even though I was gagging to know.

‘He said my bookkeeping is crap.’ Without warning, she lurched to her feet and snatched the pheasant from my awkward hands. ‘For God’s sake give me that before you hack a finger off.’ The dogs immediately switched allegiance.

I haven’t seen too many people gutting a pheasant before, but I can safely say I’ve never seen anyone doing it with such … venom. I think it’s called ‘acting out’.

I digested what she’d just said for a few moments before cautiously venturing an opinion (and mindful of the fact that she was holding an extremely sharp knife). ‘But your bookkeeping IS crap. You told me so yourself ages ago.’

In fact, she hadn’t needed to tell me, because it was stating the blindingly obvious. We were in her breakfast room at the time, surveying a wilderness of bills,  Defra paperwork, spreadsheets and assorted dirty mugs, empty plates and chickens – live ones. It was summer and the so-called breakfast room opened directly onto the farm yard. It was not unusual, Alec had once informed me, to find a curious pig wedged in the doorway.

Feathers were now flying as she wrenched furiously at the plumage. They fluttered down to the delighted Old Lady and Boy Dog, who  started snuffling around the floor like demented hoovers. I did  consider asking her if she wouldn’t mind doing that outside the back door, but it seemed both churlish and slightly inadvisable in the circumstances. She chuntered on, enraged:

‘The fact that my bookkeeping leaves a lot to be desired is beside the point. The point is …,’ another handful flew in the air. ‘The point is that he isn’t being very supportive. It’s all very bloody well criticizing, but it’s a hell of a lot more helpful to offer a solution. I’ve got Defra and the accountants on my back and all he can do is tell me my bookkeeping is crap. And THEN he tells me, while he’s at it, that my clerical skills in general are lacking too. That was the word he used: LACKING.  Well bugger it, I’m a farmer, not a sodding clerk and he can effing well go to ……’

‘Cup of tea?’

‘Eh?’ She looked up at me, feathers in her dark hair and an unmistakably wild glint in her eyes. ‘What?’

I waved the kettle at her. ‘Tea?’

‘Oh.’ She subsided very slightly. ‘Yes. Thanks …. Where was I?’

I filled the kettle, switched it on and busied myself with the mugs. ‘You’re a farmer not a sodding clerk.’

‘That’s right. Yes. I’m a farmer, not a …’

‘Are you in a real mess with the paperwork?’

She paused in mid pluck, then sort of wilted like an unloved and unwatered geranium. ‘Yes. Nightmare.’

‘Would sorting it out require specialist knowledge, or could anyone do it?

‘I suppose anyone could …’ She fell silent. I didn’t entirely like the sort of silent she fell. It was the sort of silent people fall when they’ve had an idea you’re probably not going to like – but before I could suggest that she put a card in the Post Office asking for part time clerical help, she said:

‘Would you? Would you do it? You’re a form-filling, pen-pushy type, aren’t you?’

Now, I’ve always thought of myself as a frustrated writer and artist, forced into clerical servitude while I waited for the world to discover me, so being told I was a form-filling pen-pushy type was NOT the way to my heart.

‘I wasn’t actually going to  …’

‘I’ll pay you. By the hour. And feed you. I’ll give you lunch.’

Lunch was no inducement. I’ve eaten Maggie’s cooking. The money though, was. I have, as you may recall, a tiny accountancy problem of my own.

‘I HAVE a job.’

‘There’s no reason why you can’t have another one, is there? How long does it take to write about snails? How much is there to SAY about snails anyway?  Please? Pleeeease?’

She look so pathetic and un-Maggie-like sitting there surrounded by feathers, with a dead pheasant in her hands and a toothless, arthritic Jack Russell bitch trying to climb into her lap that I weakened.

‘All right. But only until you’re out of trouble.’

‘You angel! You absolute, copper-bottomed, gold-plated brick! When can you start? You’ll need somewhere to work. I’ll ask Alec to clear out the old office over the tack room. We can put a heater up there. Fabulous. That’s all agreed then. Pop up tomorrow morning and we’ll agree an hourly rate and take a look at what needs to be done.’

Suddenly, she was the old, no-nonsense, business-like Maggie again. She stood up, sending clouds of fine, downy feathers into the air, and handed me the almost-plucked bird, which she seemed to be surprised to find herself holding. ‘About midday good for you? We can talk over lunch.’

‘Midday’s absolutely fine … but let me bring lunch. My treat.’

‘Great.’ She headed for the door, then paused on the way out to look around the kitchen. ‘Did you know,’ she said, frowning slightly, ‘that the place is full of feathers?’

(Picture credit: From an image by flickpicpete on Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.)

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IN THE WALDEN ZONE

walden_FotoSketcherHow was your Christmas?

I had plans for mine. More precisely, I had A Plan, which was to go low-tech and spend as much time as possible in my Walden Zone.

I don’t know if you’ve heard of a Walden Zone, but it’s an area in a house which contains no digital gee-whizzery –  no laptops, no tablets, no mobile ‘phones – no communication devices at all. It derives its name from Thoreau’s Walden (you know, the one about different drummers and quiet desperation in a cabin in the woods) and in my case it’s upstairs in my north-west facing ‘studio’ where I do all my arty-crafty stuff when I’m not fully occupied with the tedious business of eating, cleaning and the finding and getting of food and money. Life being what it is, I spend most of my time engaged in eating etc and never set foot in the studio from one week’s end to the next.

So that was The Plan. On December the 23rd I would bid my friends in the on-line world farewell, switch everything – including the television – off and revert to the Stone Age sketching and painting during the day and in the evenings reading, indulging my passion for jigsaw puzzles or finally finishing the two jumpers, crocheted shawl and fireside rug that have been stuffed in the bottom cupboard ever since I moved here. I would only emerge briefly from my self-imposed exile to play convivial host to a couple of old friends and their in-laws who were coming for lunch on the 27th.

At about 6.00pm on the 23rd, after having shut down my computer, I decided to take one last look at what the world was doing by watching the evening news on the television. I reached for the TV remote, which usually lives on the coffee table by the sofa. It wasn’t there. I checked the other places that it sometimes wanders off to: by the TV, on the bookcase, on my desk, on the wooden chest by the side of the sofa, on the arms of the sofa, behind the cushions on the sofa, under the dogs, down back of the sofa, in the kitchen, on the telephone table, under the sofa, in the loo … I even looked in the dogs’ beds because the Old Lady Dog has a habit of stealing anything that smells of me and carrying it off to her bed to sleep with – which is cute but inconvenient. Nothing.

I sat down and tried to remember when I’d last had the thing in my hands, and remembered that it was at lunchtime, when I watched one of those programmes where people buy stuff at car boot sales for ridiculous prices and then take it personally when an auctioneer can’t give it away.

I retraced my steps since lunch and those steps took me to some unlikely places. I checked the washing machine, the refrigerator, the deep freeze, the garage, the deep freeze and washing machine again, the bird food tubs in the lean-to, the polytunnel, my car, the summerhouse, under the roof, the refrigerator again, the kitchen rubbish bin, the wastepaper basket under the desk …

By this time it was mid-evening and I was hot, bad-tempered and tired with a nagging headache – which wasn’t the idea at all. I was supposed to be having a wonderful, restful, stress-free time without flashing lights, humming monitors or the blue glare of a computer screen, nibbling on the little treats I’d bought myself, sipping a glass or two of something nice and just generally doing sod all with a clear conscience, preferably involving a book.

Eventually I simply admitted defeat and decided to have another quick look in the morning; after all, it HAD to be somewhere. I hadn’t been anywhere to lose it. The rubbish wasn’t being collected until Christmas Eve, so it hadn’t been accidentally thrown out. I was sure to come across it at some point – and anyway, I wasn’t going to NEED it for a week, so why worry?

Only the human brain doesn’t work like that, does it? It likes things to be right. It likes everything in its universe to be where it should be and it DOESN’T like nasty little unsolved mysteries and unscratched itches.  So the next morning I came straight downstairs in my dressing down and started turning the bloody place upside down. I hauled all of the cushions out of the sofa – which is actually a bed settee – and shone a torch into its private little places. I turfed out every drawer in the place. I emptied all of the bins out onto a sheet of plastic and rummaged through the contents, batting the dogs back as they kept diving in trying to get at bits of rotting nastiness. I took all of the cushions out of all of the armchairs. I looked in the washing machine, freezer and refrigerator again. I looked in the car again. I felt under the car seats. I looked in my knitting bag and sewing box. I searched through all the kitchen cabinets.  I looked behind the freezer. I looked behind the washing machine. I even looked in the oven. I went up into the roof and looked in boxes that I knew I hadn’t been anywhere near. I looked in places I was certain it couldn’t be simply because I’d looked in all the possible places it could be.

Finally, I had to admit to myself that somehow, and I would probably never know how, the damned thing had completely vanished from the house, and the only solution was to order a new one. Which is why, on Christmas Eve, when I should have been in the depths of my retreat from the world, I was on the internet ordering a universal remote which, I was promised, could be programmed to control 95% of all known TVs: because I knew that if I didn’t, I would never settle down to my wonderful low-technology holiday

Christmas Day was lovely – apart from the fact that I forgot to turn the oven on – and also couldn’t resist the temptation to look through all the cabinets again and check right at the back of the refrigerator, just in case. Boxing Day was lovely too – and I think I could be forgiven for searching through all my coat pockets and under the accumulated junk in the back of the car. My friends came the following day, and that was lovely as well except, possibly, the bit where I spotted something dark and shiny under an armchair, and lunged at it with an excited squeak – much to the startlement of my friends’ in-laws – only to emerge with a box of crochet hooks.

The new remote control arrived the week after Christmas and of course I had to make sure it worked properly, didn’t I? So I had a perfectly good reason for watching the whole of the Sound of Music. I was simply checking that everything was as it should be. It took me three hours because I was being thorough, not because I was singing The Lonely Goatherd at the top of my voice, or ogling the gorgeousness that is Christopher Plummer – because that would be shallow.

On the 2nd of January, having only partially achieved a week of blissful peace and quiet, I decided that – Twelfth Night be damned –  I’d had quite enough of Christmas, thank you, and started taking down the the decorations.

As always, the dogs helped. The boxes for the decorations were in the cupboard under the stairs, along with all the stuff I’d hurriedly chucked out of sight just before Christmas in readiness for my visitors on the 27th: spare dog blankets, a pair of boots that usually live under the coffee table (because I’m such a slob), piles of gardening magazines, bills I really ought to pay sometime … that sort of thing. The Old Lady Dog immediately shoved her head into one of my boots, as is her wont.

Having dragged the boxes into the sitting room, I went back to shut the cupboard door, and shooed the hound away from the boot – which is when I spotted something dark and shiny at the bottom of it. Long, dark and shiny with buttons on it.

It must have dropped into the boot from the coffee table before I tidied up.

Which, as my mother would doubtless have told me, is what what you get for being a slob.

(The illustration is Thoreau’s cabin in the woods, from the frontispiece of my copy of ‘Walden’.)

1

CHRISTMAS COMES TO ADVERSE CAMBER

star‘If I stabbed her to death with a butter knife, they’d understand, wouldn’t they? The courts, I mean …’

Mrs Fitt was clutching the weapon in question so tightly that her knuckles showed white, and the expression on her face wasn’t one you’d normally expect to find above a twinset and pearls – and certainly not a twinset and pearls being sported by one of the most placid women in the village.

‘Absolutely,’ I assured her as I attacked the next date and walnut loaf with a bread knife even more blunt than her butter knife. ‘Any right-minded jury would consider “She needed killing” as a perfectly acceptable defence – in the circumstances.’

The subject of our deliberations was standing, oblivious, at the cake stall, directly across from the servery hatch. She was arranging, wrapping and pricing the mountains of cakes, scones, batch bakes and cupcakes that had been produced for the Adverse Camber Christmas Fair by the volunteers Norman Ruskin had ruthlessly coerced through a combination of emotional blackmail and barter. Judging by the way her lips were moving – and the reaction of her fellow cake stall volunteers – she was singing along with the Christmas Party Favourites being blasted through the speakers on the stage. Her name was Marianne Hinchcliffe.

Every village has a Marianne Hinchcliffe : the eternally bubbly, eternally sweet-natured, eternally optimistic Pollyanna for whom everything is delightful and fun, and will all turn out for the best, after all worse things happen at sea and there are plenty more where that came from and you’ve got to laugh, haven’t you? You know – the sort of person you hate yourself for finding tiresome because they’re so utterly dim and harmless, but that doesn’t alter the fact that you want to throttle them on a regular basis.

In order to save setting-up time on the actual morning of the Fair a group of us – including Marianne – had carefully carried all of the cakes for both the cake stall and the servery over to the village hall on the previous evening. We’d then spent a good hour and half displaying it, pricing it, covering the individual plates with cling film and then throwing a clean table cloth over the lot … so it could simply be uncovered in the morning when everything else was ready.

All had gone perfectly to plan and we were just on our way out of the door for a well-earned tea at the Vicarage when Marianne screamed ‘Mouse!’ and a small rodent hurtled across one corner of the Hall. She went in pursuit, but of course it had vanished completely by the time we all got there.

It didn’t take much imagination what sort of damage mice could do to the cakes, so Jazz Ruskin took an executive decision that we needed to pack all of the baked goods back into the boxes they came in, and stack them on the central table in the kitchen until morning.

Marianne, inevitably, said ‘The best plans of mice and men you know …’,

‘Schemes,’ I muttered darkly. ‘It’s best laid schemes.’

She giggled coyly. ‘Is it? Fancy that. Daddy always said “plans”. Well, I expect one of you is right.’

See what I mean about the throttling thing?

It was the next morning, as we were once more setting out the cakes – happily completely unmolested – that Marianne, positively bursting with her own  cleverness, confessed that there had never been a mouse at all … just a wind-up one she’d sent across the room as a joke.

It’s quite difficult to describe the atmosphere in the kitchen as she revealed her jolly jape to Jazz Ruskin, Mrs Fitt and Yours Truly. It’s such a terrible cliché to say that you could have cut it with a knife, but you could – possibly even the very same butter knife with which Mrs Fitt was threatening  such terrible violence.

Marianne – blessed with the hide of a rhino – was totally unaware of the effect her cheery revelation had on her audience and tripped off happily to irritate the other volunteers on the cake stall.

Which is where you came in …

Norman Ruskin, in full clerical glory, patrolled the Hall like a military commander reviewing his troops, tweaking a bit of tinsel here and a gaudily bedecked miniature Christmas tree there, rearranging the goods on the raffle to make them look more splendid than they actually were and examining the cake stall to earmark the ones he wanted put aside to buy for himself. He approached the servery hatch where Mrs Fitt and I were splitting and buttering the last of the scones and Jazz was cutting up batch bakes with millimetre precision.

‘All ready for the hungry and thirsty punters, Ladies?’

We all froze in unison and glowered at him.

‘Norman,’ said Jazz dangerously. ‘This is US you’re talking to, not the Mothers’ Union … now eff off and open the doors, there’s a good boy.’

So he effed off, a little crestfallen, to open the doors of the hall to admit the first fair-goers. Several of them had arrived very early and wandered nonchalantly in with the excuse that they couldn’t come later on so thought they’d just pop in ‘and buy a few raffle tickets and such just to support the community’. There were always people who tried that Jazz told me – hoping to get in before everyone else and grab the best bargains – and they always met with the same, charming rebuff from the Vicar.

‘I’m afraid we aren’t ready for customers yet, so if you’ll wait outside for a few more minutes, that would be just LOVELY.’

And strangely enough, when you finally opened the doors, those same people with ‘somewhere else to be’ would still be there.

‘Kwithmath wouldn’t be Kwithmath without the self-seeking gatecrashers,’ she assured me in a mock-husky little girl voice. ‘They’re part of the seasonal colour. Like robins, yule logs and stupid paper hats. Okay troops … brace yourself … here come the barbarian hordes ….’

Until you’ve seen the steely-eyed determination of Christmas Fair-goers  in search of bargains, cheap homemade cakes, ham rolls and raffle prizes, you have not known terror.

They take no prisoners and give no quarter. Price tickets are mere invitations to haggle: How could we possibly want £5 for a handmade christening shawl ?  … Didn’t we know that you can buy mince pies cheaper than that at the supermarket? … The tea and coffee at Nether Camber’s Christmas Fair last week was half that price, and you got a slice of cake thrown in for nothing … Nether Camber’s raffle prizes were so much better, and their tickets were cheaper, too … I know it’s a £1 stall, but that’s no reason not to accept an offer of 20p for that little lead crystal vase … That’s a very small cupcake … Have  you got any soup? … Why don’t you have any soup? … You ought to have soup because Nether …

‘I don’t CARE what bloody Nether Camber did. WE HAVE NO SOUP!’

Released from my washing-up duties in the kitchen by a shift change, I was over at the Tombola stall buying tickets for things I didn’t want to win when I heard Mrs Fitt’s voice rising above Jingle Bell Rock and  the general hubbub. Standing on tiptoe to peer over the heads of the people around me, I saw Jazz moving smoothly in to intervene at the servery hatch  and a small mousey woman on the public side looking both startled and affronted.

‘Happens every year’ said a voice at my shoulder as the Vicar’s wife guided  Mrs Fitt to a quiet corner to calm down. Glancing round, I found Maggie standing beside me.

‘What does?’

‘Mrs Fitt going into meltdown. I think it’s the price she pays for being so quiet for the rest of the year. She’s not terribly good with people, you see … but she insists on being in the kitchen.’

‘She was seriously considering doing someone in with a butter knife earlier.’

‘Hidden depths. We all have them.’

‘Speaking of which, what are you doing here? You don’t normally grace village fundraisers with your presence.’

‘Cheap cakes. The lure is irresistible. But I usually buy a raffle ticket or two, just to show willing. Oh God.’ She was looking over at the raffle table. ‘The giant bride doll’s back.’

We walked together over to the raffle which was, indeed, dominated by a large and particularly ugly doll dressed in a badly hand-knitted bridal gown. I was sure I’d seen it before.

‘Wasn’t that doll in the raffle at the Summer Fete?’

‘Yes it was.’ Isobel, from the Post Office, was on raffle duty. ‘The winner redonated it, which as very good of them. Although curiously enough the previous winner redonated it, too …’

‘Previous winner?’

‘It was a raffle prize last Christmas, as well,’ explained Maggie with a completely straight face. ‘How many tickets do you want then?’

~~~:~~~

We finally managed to eject the last of the punters from the Hall at 3.30pm, after the raffle was drawn and most of the white elephant stall had been given away for virtually nothing. A few stragglers had loitered, hoping that the left over cakes would be similarly disposed off, but Norman Ruskin herded them out and brought the remnants of mince pies, chocolate brownes, flapjacks and chocolate rice crispies cakes to the table where we were all slumped.

The light outside was fading,  Rod Stewart and Slade had been replaced on the speaker system by the choir of King’s College, and we all sat around in various states of exhaustion, unable to move or feel our legs below knee level.

Norman proferred a mince pie.

‘These are really good. I tried one and hid the rest.’

‘They’re the ones I made ….’

‘Congratulations. You make an excellent mince pie. Coming to the Watchnight Service on Christmas Eve?’

‘Are fully paid-up atheists welcome?’

Maggie snorted. ‘They let me in. It’s nice. We have a jolly good sing. I haven’t been struck by lightning yet.’

‘Do come,’ chipped in Jazz, pulling a brownie apart to investigate the gooey centre. ‘It’s a sort of tradition that our friends come around to ours afterwards for coffee, sherry and mince pies. Maggie and Alec always come and Adam … you’d be very welcome. Just don’t throw things at the altar or be audibly rude about the organist.’

‘Okay. I’ll come. I like a good sing.’ I looked up at the rapidly darkening skies outside the windows. ‘But now I’d better get home. Those dogs will be thinking I’ve abandoned them.’

‘Take them the last of the sausage rolls,’ suggested Maggie. ‘They’ll soon forgive you. And don’t forget your raffle prize.’

‘Actually, I’m redonating it …’

‘Oh no you aren’t,’ retorted Jazz, dragging herself determinedly to her aching feet. ‘I don’t care what you do with it, but I don’t ever want to see it again.’ She grabbed the giant bride doll and thrust it into my unwilling arms. ‘Happy Christmas from Adverse Camber.’

~~~:~~~

The Adverse Camber Diaries will be back in the New Year.

(Photo credit: Christmas Star, by Vicky Brock on Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.)

0

THE EMPTY DOORSTEP

milk 4‘We’re expanding the milk business into Upper and Nether Camber.’ Howard looked positively apologetic. ‘I’m going to be doing Upper and we’re bringing in two sort of franchisees to do the deliveries here and in Nether’

Sort of franchisees?’ I felt my eyebrow starting to crawl impatiently up my forehead. I was right in the middle of making mincemeat to put in the tarts that the Vicar had heavily hinted would be very welcome at the Christmas Fair.  I was, therefore, in no mood to unravel Howard’s wandering thought processes.  ‘Either they’re franchisees or they’re not.’

‘Oh. Well. Dad said they’re franchisees.’ He looked a bit clueless- but that was par for the course for Howard. He travels cluelessly through life, even on his good days. His father Ronald has the nearest thing to brains in the Benson milk empire.

‘Is it still Benson’s delivering my milk?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘Are you paying these people to deliver the milk?’

‘No. They’re paying us.’

‘They buy your milk from you, sell it to me and pay you a percentage of the profits?’

‘Aye. That’s it. ‘ He looked as if he might be in pain. ‘I think.’

‘Okay. That’s a franchise.’

‘Is that alright then? His name is Gordon and he’ll be starting on Monday.’ Quite what he would  have done if I’d have said ‘No’, I have no idea – although it might have been fun to find out – but I assured him that it was fine and he handed me a sheet of paper torn from an old exercise book bearing the shakily written details of my new milkman. He loitered for a moment, as if contemplating some sort of emotional farewell, then just quietly shuffled off to the break the news to the next customer.

On Monday, I opened the door to bring in the milk and there was nothing there.

I stared at the empty doorstep stupidly for a few seconds, then looked around the immediate area, on the off chance that the new milkman might have decided to leave it somewhere other than the obvious place. (I mean, they aren’t referred to as “doorstep deliveries” for no reason …) I even looked outside the front gate, around the back, in the large wooden postbox and in the shrubbery. Nothing.

Thinking that he might be having trouble finding his way around on his first day, I forgot about it for a while, but when I was still milkless in the middle of the afternoon, I found the note of his details, cleaned the mincemeat off it and rang him up. A pleasant male voice with a slight Lancashire burr answered.

‘Aye?’

‘Is that Gordon?’

‘Aye.’

Mentally giving him three out of ten for his telephone manner, I introduced myself, and announced that no milk had arrived.

There was a moment of puzzled silence before Gordon said. ‘You’re not on my list. I must have forgotten to write you in the book. Sorry. If you give me your details, I’ll do it now.’

‘That’s fine … no problem. I have milk in the freezer. Tomorrow, then?’

‘Aye. Tomorrow.’

Tomorrow dawned. No milk. I rang him again.

‘You didn’t remember to write me down, did you?’

The silence was even longer this time. Eventually he said,

‘I delivered to you didn’t I? Cottage on the hill with the high hedge and the blue gate?’

‘With the name of the house on a sign outside. Yes. Where did you leave it?’

‘I’ll ‘phone laddo who delivered it and ask him. I’ll get back to you.’

It was only after I’d hung up that the import of what he’d just said crystallized in my early morning brain. He didn’t deliver the milk himself. Someone else delivered the milk (or not, in this case). The franchisee was sub-contracting. Deep joy. I immediately felt nostalgic about the good old days of bumbling, harmless Howard.

I wandered around outside for a while, looking in all the places that someone might conceivably have left a pint of milk. My total haul was three forgotten and squeakless dog toys, a plastic jug I’d lost a couple of weeks before and a cattle salt lick container that must have arrived on the last high wind. Milk was there none.

I went round to all the near neighbours and asked if they’d had an unexpected milk delivery. They said that no, they hadn’t, but you’ll never believe what happened to my sister’s boy down in London/at the doctor’s surgery yesterday/to my poor daughter and her budgie and by the way, isn’t it terrible about Edna …. ?

I’d forgotten, of course, that in Adverse Camber you can’t just pop round to the neighbour for a quick chat, you have to allow at least half an hour per conversation – so it was nearly an hour and a half later that I reeled home to find a message from Gordon on the answering machine. I’m not quite sure, but I think  he may have been talking through clenched teeth.

He said that he’d been unable to find out where ‘laddo’ thought he’d left the milk – although he definitely left it somewhere – but that tomorrow, he’d deliver my milk personally, to make sure it got to me. Promise.

I rang him back to report on findings at the neighbours and remind him that tomorrow was my day for TWO pints and half a dozen eggs.

‘I know. I know. I won’t forget.’

Morning arrived. The milk and eggs did not.

I left it until lunchtime before I ‘phoned him. Mid-ring, the line switched over to a mobile and this time, he was definitely talking through clenched teeth.

‘Supply problems.’ He said in the tones of one acquainted with grief. ‘I’m three hours behind.’

I was out in the vestibule throwing shiny things haphazardly at the Christmas tree when he finally appeared at the front door, balancing half a dozen eggs precariously on a flimsy section of torn-off egg carton.

A tallish, youngish, baldish man of above average height, he was dressed in a tracksuit and donkey jacket and sported a gold ring in one ear.  He looked more like a builder’s labourer than a milkman, and was carrying the eggs with all the care of a small child bearing an over-full cup of tea to its mother as a birthday treat: all that was missing was the tongue of concentration.

‘Take these and I’ll go and get your milk …’

He vanished off again and reappeared a few moments later with two pints of milk.

‘Did you ever find out who my missing milk was delivered to?’ I asked conversationally, after he’d finished explaining to me that Ronald Benson might be an excellent dairy farmer but he had no more idea how to manage dairy distribution than a turnip.

‘No.’ An ineffably weary expression crossed his face. ‘It was my step-dad. He swears he delivered it somewhere … but I’m not even sure it was in the right village. I’m delivering your milk myself from now on though. So there’ll be no more problems.’

We parted on excellent terms, and for a couple of days, everything went swimmingly … but on the third day …

‘Er. Daniel – I don’t want to nag, but -‘

‘Don’t tell me …’

‘I’m afraid so. Is it your step-dad again?’

‘Aye. I’ve had to work today. ‘ A note of menace entered his voice. ‘Leave it with me. I’ll sort this out. I’ve had just about enough …’

Putting the ‘phone down and wondering if I was going to be reading headlines in the local paper about the still-twitching remains of his step father being found in a ditch – I mulled his words over.

‘I’ve had to work today.’

A moonlighting milkman. The Bensons had landed me with a moonlighting milkman.

A couple of hours later, a car pulled up outside my gate and a strained-looking middle-aged woman got out, put a pint of milk on my doorstep and scarpered.

I rang Gordon to tell him that we had a result.

‘That was me Mam,’ was his only comment. ‘Do you want half a dozen eggs every week?’

‘If it’s not too much trouble.’

‘No problem.’

I felt we had been through a baptism of fire, but had emerged stronger and wiser, our friendship forged in the flames of adversity.

Today, I got milk but no eggs.

I’m expecting his grandma at any moment.

(Image: from a photo by Richard Cocks on Flickr and reproduced under a Creative Commons Licence.)

 

0

ADVERSE WEATHER IN ADVERSE CAMBER

adverse weatherSorry. There won’t be an instalment of the Diaries today because there’s a certain amount of putting-back-together that needs to be done after a bout of unfriendly weather … but normal service will be resumed next week … if the crick don’t rise.

0

ASHES TO ASHES

 

ripAfter a lifetime of selfishness, drunken excess and venality – which he had embraced with more enthusiasm than he ever showed for his work – Benny-the-Shepherd died at home, in his sleep, at the age of 84. He was  mourned by virtually no-one except – mysteriously – his wife Betty who had been sobbing inconsolably ever since she was woken in the middle of the night by an unaccustomed sound: silence.

Benny had snored liked a warthog on heat all of their married lives, and Betty had complained vociferously about it ever since their wedding night to anyone who would stand still long enough to  listen. When he finally stopped snoring sixty-three years later, the sudden and unaccustomed quiet had startled Betty into wakefulness – only to discover that he’d stopped snoring because he’d stopped breathing.

Her screams had awakened her neighbours on Cottage Row for three doors in both directions and, Maggie was whispering in my ear, she’d barely stopped wailing since.

We were sitting together at the front of St Saviour’s Church, waiting for the guest of honour – Benny – to arrive. Most of the village had apparently turned out to cheer him on his way and I commented to the elderly gentleman to my left, who was known to me by sight only, that it was a good turnout.

‘Oh aye,’ he’d replied lugubriously, chewing a wad of tobacco. ‘We’ve come to make sure he’s really dead.’

So that sort of ended that conversation.

Maggie was much more forthcoming.

‘I don’t think I know a single person in the village who could stand him.’

‘Except Betty?’

‘Except Betty. There’s no accounting for it. He was such a nasty piece of work, and a lousy shepherd into the bargain. Most of us are only here for Betty’s sake, really.’

‘Well I am for sure. The only time I met Benny, he tried to grope me … I suppose the wheelchair gave him a natural advantage in that respect: it was certainly an unusual angle of attack. But him being such an odious little creep is going to make the eulogy a little tricky, isn’t it?’

‘I’m sure Norman will rise to the occasion. He usually does. All that expensive Oxbridge education you know … comes in useful from time to time.’ She looked down at the order of service that we’d been handed at the church door. ‘I only know one of these hymns. Why can’t people choose hymns I know? When I die, I don’t want a funeral. They can just cremate me, mix my ashes up with some guano and fertilize the kitchen garden with me. How about you?’

‘I’m donating my body to medical research.’

‘Really? I’d never thought of that ….’

I was about to expand on the subject when a small elderly man clutching a sheaf of music shuffled slowly past us and over to the organ. This gentleman, Maggie told me as he settled himself on the stool and sorted his music out, was Eric Sidebotham, who’d been the organist at St Saviour’s ever since he’d moved to the village when he retired from work, 25 years ago.

‘By the way – how are things going with Professor Pilchard?’

‘Fine. He’s a bit of a grumpy sod, but he’s okay. He wasn’t too impressed when I said I was going to a funeral this morning, though. Particularly wanted to crack on with the chapter on mucus I gather …’

‘Mucus.’ She pulled a face. ‘Slime. Snail slime. Don’t know that I’d buy a book about snail slime.’

‘I’m assured that it’s fascinating ….. Oh good Lord! … What on earth? ….’

Right beside us, Eric Sidebotham had launched himself at the keyboard and was unexpectedly pounding out a spirited, if slightly inaccurate, version of ‘Lady of Spain’. Not exactly the sort of musical rhubarb you’d normally expect at a funeral I thought, and said so to Maggie. She grinned.

‘Before he retired, he worked at a holiday camp on the east coast. His repertoire’s a bit limited. You wait until he gets to ‘Chirpy, Chirpy, Cheep-Cheep.’

And he did. It was next up. By the time the coffin – accompanied by a sobbing Betty – arrived, he’d galloped through ‘Tie a Yellow Ribbon’, ‘La Bamba’ and ‘Y Viva Espana’. In fact, so immersed was he in what he was doing that he failed to notice either the arrival of the funeral party or Norman Ruskin wildly gesticulated from the church door, with the result that Benny was actually trundled down the aisle to the strains of ‘I Never Promised You a Rose Garden’, which was nothing if not appropriate.

It was only when Jazz swooped on him from the transept and hissed ‘LEAD KINDLY LIGHT!’ into his ear that he lurched to a stop, fumbled with his music and hit the first notes of the hymn, just as the coffin came to a rest before the altar.

After that, things stabilized a little and the Reverend Ruskin embarked upon the funeral service, somehow managing not to sound like a man who’d done it hundreds of times before.

Maggie was right about the hymns though. With the exception of ‘Abide with Me’ (which was in the wrong key for human beings, but any passing bats would have loved it), I didn’t know any of them either and nor –  judging by the execrable singing – did most of the congregation. We were all using that time-honoured technique of listening to what everyone else is singing and then trying to approximate the same note, meaning that we were mostly half a beat behind the rhythm and flat – except for those closest to Norman Ruskin. He knew all the hymns of course, and belted them out with gusto, so the people at the front, although still half a beat behind, were at least more or less in tune.

The best you could say for the result was that it drowned out the efforts of Eric at the organ.

The eulogy was a masterclass in waffle and circumlocution.

Benny, Norman solemnly told us, could be a difficult man to live and work with and of very definite opinions. (He was an argumentative, loud-mouthed oaf.) A plain-spoken man, he never minced his words and always said what he meant – a refreshing characteristic in a world of mealy-mouthed politicians. (Every other word that passed his lips was an expletive.) The local farmers all agreed that they thought themselves lucky if he did any work for them. (You had to be VERY lucky to catch him working at all.) His skill with animals was evidenced by the number of awards he won at the local agricultural show. (Two in fifty years.) The highlight of his career was winning a First in the Best Cross Bred Terrier (Any Other Colour) Class in 1983. (It wasn’t even his dog.) And so it went on … all delivered with a commendably straight face.

Several tuneless dirges and a few prayers later, we were on the final straight and galloping for home. We processed out behind the coffin and followed it  into the windswept November churchyard where the grave was waiting, all neatly surrounded by artificial grass of a particularly putrid shade of green. Most of the attempts to sprinkle dirt on the coffin were carried away by the wind, and a length of  artificial grass escaped from the bricks that were pinning it down and was only prevented from hurtling straight into the faces of the family mourners by a superb piece of fielding from Howard Benson, the milkman. It was generally agree to be the most impressive left-handed catch anyone had seen since the butcher’s match-winning effort in the annual cricket match with Nether Camber in 1996.

Throughout, poor Betty wept inconsolably, her face buried in a huge and grubby hankie and her little tasselled pot hat bobbing up and down with every sob.

At last, in the teeth of the rapidly rising wind, we left the gravediggers to their job and filed from the churchyard past Betty and her family, all murmuring our clichéd condolences and silently praying that we  wouldn’t be struck by lightning because really, you know, we were lying through our teeth in a good cause.

It was several days later that Maggie appeared at my back door, plainly the bearer of extraordinary tidings.

‘You’ll never guess what I just heard about Benny-the-Shepherd.’

‘Go on then …’

‘Betty was going to leave him.’

‘Never!’

‘She’d got it all arranged. She was going to live with her sister in Lincoln. Her bags were all packed and everything. She’d even got it all scripted out … the big ‘stuff you, you selfish bastard’ farewell scene followed by a dramatic exit to a waiting taxi … never to be seen again. She’d been stashing money away for years, biding her time, waiting for the right moment to exact her revenge on him …’

‘And the selfish sod went and died peacefully in his sleep.’

‘Exactly. She wasn’t grieving at all. She was absolutely bloody furious.’

 

0

BRAMBLINGS

pullBramblings is a quietly tasteful double-fronted Edwardian house at the bottom of a short, wooded drive. The  (deliberately) imposing front door sports one of those nifty bells that you ring by grabbing a big brass knob marked PULL and yanking it enthusiastically until someone appears, hissing, ‘I heard you the FIRST time …’.

So I did that.

I’d been forewarned about Mrs Jenkins by three separate people: Maggie, Norman Ruskin and William Burdock up at the garage. Each said it in a slightly different way, but all said essentially the same thing: ‘She’s a fine woman, once you get to know her, but can be a bit – well – abrupt, shall we say?’ (That was the Ruskin version.)

She’d been the housekeeper for the previous incumbent of Bramblings – “Old Commander Wingfield” as he was invariably referred to – and seemed, as far as any one could work out, to have been included in the sale along with all the other fixtures and fittings like the oven range and the built-in laundry press. Dressed carefully in muted tones and aged somewhere between 60 and 80, she was of medium height, medium weight and medium build and wore her hair pulled back into a slightly messy bun.

And she was hissing at me.

‘I heard you the FIRST time.’

‘Sorry. I couldn’t hear anything happening, so I wasn’t sure it was working.’ I tried my most charming smile. ‘I have an interview with Professor Pilch – Pilger.’

‘Yes. He’s expecting you.’ Everso-slightly stony-faced, she stepped back to let me in. ‘If you’d care to wait in the Library, I’ll let him know you’re here.’

Shooing me into a wood-paneled room off the main hallway, she closed the door – a little bit too pointedly, I felt – and I heard her footsteps echoing off into the bowels of the house. As silence fell, I took stock of my surroundings.

For a library, it was a bit lacking in books. Plenty of bookcases, of the floor to ceiling variety, but not a single book anywhere in sight.  I prowled around a bit and eventually located three lonely strays, discarded in a corner. One was a 1967 edition of The Friendship Book of Patience Strong, the second a battered and much-thumbed Fanny Craddock cookery book and the third a 1971 Beano Annual. They looked a bit forlorn.

So far, so weird.

It was a handsome room though – high ceilinged and well-proportioned in that understated ‘look how much money I have’ way the Edwardian middle-classes perfected. Pity about the books though.

I heard returning footsteps and scooted across the room to stand innocently in the bay window, admiring the view of an old corrugated iron garage and a compost heap.

‘The Professor will see you now.’

As she led me across the hall and down a passageway, I was struck by how similarly we were dressed –  sensible shoes, long-sleeved, calf-length dress, cardigan, hair tied back and no jewellery. I’d thought I was modelling myself on Jane Eyre, but as I passed a full-length mirror, I realized I looked rather more like the mad Mrs Danvers in Rebecca. Not exactly what I was aiming at, but neverthless enough to obliterate any similarity to the harpy in the Post Office who’d accused him of being an arrogant sod.

She ushered me into a room which really should have been called ‘The Library’ since it was full of books. I had the unfortunate thought that it might be The Pantry, which triggered an inappropriate lop-sided smirk at precisely the wrong moment – just as Professor Pilger was turning in his chair to stand and greet me.

‘Something amuses you?’ He sort of loomed at me from on high. Although now slightly stooped with age, he was still broad-shouldered and stood well over six feet. In his prime he must have been a giant.

‘It’s nerves. Sorry.’

He harrumphed, and waved me to a seat – then picked up the CV and letter that I’d sent him.

‘On paper, you look good. Is it all true.?’

Charming as ever, then.

‘Yes.’ I felt my hackles starting to rise. ‘It is.’

‘So what are you doing here? You could be earning a respectable living in somewhere like London’

‘I could be developing ulcers and high blood pressure, too. I prefer not to.’

He considered that for a moment, apparently decided it was a reasonable answer and tapped the CV.

‘If I raised these references, what would they say?’

‘Probably that I’m honest, articulate and competent.’

If I was lucky, I thought, what they wouldn’t say was that I was lippy, cantankerous and tactless.

‘Hmph. That’s what Norman Ruskin told me too.’ He put the papers down and handed me a shorthand pad and pencil. ‘ We’ll see. You know that I’m writing a book on gastropods?’

‘The Reverend Ruskin told me, yes.’

‘I’ll dictate some of my notes to you and then you can go and transcribe them over there …’ He indicated a table in the window, upon which sat a typewriter: a real, old-fashioned typewriter with a carriage return lever and a fabric ribbon. I didn’t say a word, although I think one eyebrow may have quivered very slightly.

I’d barely settled down with the pad and pencil before he launched into a piece about the mating habits of slugs – which was so completely and distractingly unlikely that I almost forgot to write it down, so hypnotized was I by the sexual peculiarities of gastropods. Who knew?

I came briefly unstuck as I dithered over the proper outline for ‘hermaphrodite’ but in the end managed to get something on paper for every word and then wandered over to the museum piece on the table to bash it out.

I’d forgotten how much effort it took to pound the keys on a manual typewriter. It’s like driving a car without power steering after you’ve grown used to guiding two tons of steel around country lanes with little more than your forefinger and thumb: entirely too much like hard work. Two broken nails later, I ripped the paper from the machine with a satisfying FRRIIIPPP (you can’t do that with a modern printer) and handed the result to him.

He read it. He read it again. Then he brushed a long strand of silver grey hair from his forehead and looked up at me as if weighing something in the balance. Finally, he named an hourly rate of pay. It wasn’t overly generous, but it wasn’t entirely miserly either.

I sat down again and tried not to appear too eager.

‘How many hours a week?’

‘As and when, to suit. It depends on where I am in the book.’

‘When would you want me to start?’

‘Next week? I need to get organized. You can work in the Library.’

‘The one without books.’

‘Wingfield agreed to include them in the sale, but the auctioneers didn’t get the message – or claimed they didn’t.’

‘Ah.’ I cast my eye over the books that surrounded us. ‘So these are …’

‘My own. Do you want the job?’

There wasn’t really much doubt about that. H M Revenue and Customs wanted blood and – in any case – I needed to know more about the sex life of snails.

‘I do.’ I was tempted to add, ‘Till death us do part’, but managed to control myself.’

‘And you can start on Monday? At 10.00am? We’ll give you lunch.’

I stood up and we shook hands. I decided that Norman was right. Professor Pilger really was okay, when you got to know him a little. I smiled.

‘Monday is fine. I’ll be here.’

He walked me to the front door and then, as I turned to say a final ‘Goodbye’ to him, pinioned me with a dark grey eye.

‘By the way …’

‘Yes?’

‘I’d be obliged if you didn’t call me an arrogant sod again.’

‘Oh. Yes. Righty-ho. Fair enough.’

So much for the Vicar’s cunning plan.

0

IN WHICH THE VICAR HAS A CUNNING PLAN

snailQuestion: What do you do if you suddenly find yourself in need of a part time job to top up the finances and have just roundly insulted the person who is advertising a post for which you are eminently well-qualified?

Answer: You go and see the Vicar: at least you do if the Vicar is a man of the kidney of Norman Ruskin and you know him to be on reasonably good terms with the aforementioned insulted person.

And that’s why I was slumped despondently in the Ruskin’s private sitting room drinking tea and eating rock hard ginger biscuits left over from the last Bring and Buy Sale. Jazz’s collection of porcelain pigs grinned smugly down at me from their shelves in a deeply irritating manner. Why do porcelain pigs always have to look so jolly, especially when you least want them to?

‘Well he IS an obnoxious man’, opined Jazz, testing a canine tooth on one particularly dark specimen of baking. ‘What DOES Winnie Simpson put in these biscuits? … He positively barged me out of the way in the chemists. It was only because I was mindful of my irksome duty as the Vicar’s wife that I didn’t retaliate in kind. I bet I can shove harder than he can.’

The Reverend Rusking raised an eloquent eyebrow.

‘I’m sure you can, but I’m grateful you didn’t, Pumpkin – believe me. But Professor Pilger is actually quite good company, once you get inside his defences. Honestly.’ He bridled slightly, seeing the looks this statement elicited from his audience. ‘He is. Granted he’s a bit lacking in social skills, but that’s not unusual especially, I imagine, in someone who has dedicated his life to the study of gastropods.’

‘Slugs and snails.’ I digested this information for a moment. ‘His specialty is slugs and snails?’

‘It is. And he’s writing the definitive guide to “The Gastropoda of Britain and Northern Europe” … which is why he needs an amenu ….’ he glanced up at me and hurriedly corrected himself. ‘ a shorthand typist.’

‘Oh crumbs.’

‘It’s a fascinating subject. Really it is.’

Jazz made a sort of snorting, coughing noise. As we turned to look at her, she went slightly pink, and said unconvincingly,’Sorry. Biscuit crumb went down the wrong way.’ She thumped her chest with her fist to make her point. ‘Carry on, darlling. You were saying how fascinating slugs and snails are, I believe.’

The Vicar harrrumphed and I just managed to get my face straight again before he turned his attention back to me.

‘So the situation is that you need the job and you’re well qualified for it but given the – um – little contretemps between you the Professor in the Post Office, he’s unlikely to let you into the house.’

‘Correct.’ I glared at a particularly annoying pig which was wear a red bonnet at a jaunty angle and carrying a shopping basket in its mouth. ‘I’ve done a pretty thorough job of foot-shooting.’

‘Not necessarily.’ He pursed his lips and looked at me thoughtfully. ‘I came in part way through the spat. Did you actually introduce yourself before you kneecapped him?’

‘No. I went straight for the kneecap.’

Jazz punched the air. ‘You go, girl!’

‘Jazz, please …..’

She smirked. ‘Sorry. But from what I heard, he had it coming.’

‘Possibly true, but beside the point. So as it stands at the moment, he knows your face but not your name?’

‘I suppose so, yes.’

‘Then the obvious answer is to apply to him formally, in writing, with a full CV. Impress the hell out of him. Convince him that the heavens have smiled upon him and sent the perfect candidate to his doorstep.’

‘And if he calls me for interview …?’

‘You’re a woman of considerable charm when you set your mind to it. The rest would be up to you.’

Giving up on the biscuit, Jazz sat forward in her chair and eyed me up in a critical sort of way. ‘Yes. In fact, if you made a bit of an effort – got your hair cut, put on some decent clothes instead of your usual shapeless sacks, put on a bit of make up – he probably wouldn’t even recognize you.’

‘Well thanks a LOT …’

‘Sorry, but you know what I mean. You’re not exactly a fashion plate, are you? Which is of course, why the ladies of the village consider you to be engagingly eccentric rather than a threat. The last single woman who moved here was very particular about her appearance, leading to half the Mother’s Union deciding she was making a pitch for their husbands. Mind you, knowing their husbands – that could have been wishful thinking on the part of some of them.’

I considered the suggestion for a moment, and began to see its possibilities. As my usual sartorial style can be summarized as ‘Deep Litter’, there was indeed a very good chance he wouldn’t even recognize a brushed-and-polished version of me, especially as we met only briefly and in very heated circumstances. The more I thought about it, the more sense it made. I would dazzle and seduce him with my qualifications and experience, then turn up in my general purpose weddings/funerals/job interviews suit and charm the socks off him.

‘I like it.’

‘Excellent! Have a biscuit.’ Jazz thrust the plate at me. ‘Have them all.’

‘Thank you, no. I have a CV to write. And it will be a CV such as the world has never seen. Norman. you’re a genius. You’re wasted in the church.’

‘That’s what she keeps telling me.’ He got to his feet to see me out. ‘I beg to differ, however. Any chance of seeing you on Sunday?’

‘Ah.’ I gave him my best sheepish grin. ‘How about I make you some decent biscuits instead?’

‘I suppose that will do. Would you like a second opinion on your CV before you send it off to him?’

‘Oh yes please. That would be much appreciated – if it’s no trouble.’

‘It’s absolutely no trouble at all.’ He smiled at me blandly as he opened the front door. “So that’ll be a couple of batches of biscuits and you’ll lend a hand at the Christmas Fair – yes? We’re a bit short-handed in the kitchen this year, serving the refreshments.’

I drooped. I know I did. I definitely felt bits of me droop as I stepped onto the leaf-strewn garden path.

‘Of course. I’d love to. Shortbread okay?’

‘Perfect.’

For a Man of God, Norman Ruskin has more than a touch of the devil in him.