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I have mentioned before, I think, that I am not normally susceptible to the urge for healthy early morning perambulations. Rolling over in bed is as much activity as I would normally consider appropriate before a fortifying layer of tea and toast has been applied to the Violet Tickham stomach wall. So I cannot tell you what should have made me choose to wander out that morning, crunching the gravel of the drive, sharpened by jewels of frost; huffing out mist that hung in the crystalline air to mimic the white lakes that lay lazy in valleys, coiled like a dragon along the ha-ha, and clung to the tree-trunks; air as crisp as the rest of the autumn had so far been soggy, biting at my nostrils and slapping my cheeks red. Perhaps it was the gravitational pull of the distant pale moon, perhaps a longing to see the sun, as pale but growing brighter, just one more time before winter began. Perhaps I was just in a subjunctive mood.
Anyhow, out I ventured and refreshed my body and mind and regretted it hardly at all, until I got back to the house. Apparently I was not the only one who had chosen to patrol the bounds and snuff the air: old Marcus had hauled himself up and out too. How did I know? He was back inside, steaming up the Orangery, but he had left a steaming sign of his passage. On the doorstep. So that when, slip-shod as I was, I decided that the drier route would be back in through the front door rather than round through the dripping kitchen garden and moss-pathed between the rose beds, I mis-stepped. I stood where I would rather have not. Ah, I am skirting round it. Metaphorically. Sadly not literally. I am afraid mes amis we will have to face the subject, or at least glance askance at it with noses wrinkled.
The dog shat on the mat, the girl stepped in it. Sad but true. Poor old Marcus. Poor old me. Poor old my slippers. So sorry, my dears, if you are at breakfast or tea. Worse for me: the disconcerting moment of contact, the slipping away, the sight of the smear, and then the stench. Imagine my horror, if you dare, then take a sip of something calmative, and we shall press on bravely. The rest of our account will not bear so directly on such unpleasantness. In fact, that would be the whole of it, if it were not for Mother’s odd reaction when I gave her the glad tidings, finding her in the kitchen garden, having after all had to hop it through the gateway, my one unsoiled slipper sinking deep into the green sponge, the other held at arm’s length. A jeaned rump protruded from the doorway of the rotting old potting shed that leaned-to in the far corner, next to the compost heap, and it was to that end that I addressed my remarks in re the slipper’s unfortunate accident.
I usually try to be kind to Mother, especially in the mornings, reasoning that with my sister the human wrecking ball to worry about, she has enough on her breakfast tray, but today my equilibrium was disturbed, what with being shod only on one side, so I was perhaps a little brusque.
“I say, Mother dear, your dog appears to have soiled the front doorstep. My dainty slipper is besmirched.” I lightly trilled; or words to that effect. The rump of the beloved Mater, until now its usual haughty self, took on what seemed to me a resentful aspect and,
“He’s your dog.” came the rejoinder from within the shed. And then the sound of a collapsing tower of plant pots, and le derrière de ma mere began to back out towards me, now looking somewhat pained.
Listen: I was barely past the dribbling and burping stage when Marcus came into the house, in a box padded with blankets, proudly borne by Father and placed in front of my innocent toddling person as a birthday offering as Mother sighed despairingly (“Elodie, don’t worry, it’ll be fine” Father insisted). He fell out in a heap, flopped about until he found his feet under the fluff then stumbled up to me. A tongue already too large for his mouth cleaned my face from chin to forehead. It still lolls after all these years. I fell on my bottom, already too large etc etc. Do not even dare laugh out loud. It hardly seems fair to give a toddler responsibility for such a large and hairy burden, and surely if unfair then it would be unfair now to blame me for his large and burdensome lapse of judgement. I said so, as Mother backed out of the shed, dragging a structure that, once freed of a bale of twine and some croquet hoops, turned out to be not a piece of abstract sculpture, but the skeleton of a dead bicycle.
“What is it?” I asked redundantly. Mother squinted into the distance and absently patted the mouldy leather of the bike’s saddle, her usually peaceful brow troubled by an unruly memory for a few seconds before she really noticed me, and my stained footwear.
“Funny about your slipper.” she signed, showing her perversity. “I mean that happening just when I dragged this out. Thought it might clean up enough to go to the raffle at the Vicar’s Invitational. Not the slipper. Old bikes are quite the thing, you know.” I could not see the coincidence, let alone the joke. You try seeing the lighter side while holding a terminally be-merded slipper by your fingertips; it strains the capacity of the most generous funny bone.
“What are you on about you mad old bat?” I asked kindly, having decided that Mother was either being inexcusably cruel, which seemed unlikely on such a particularly pleasant day, or that having forgotten to apply the correct dose of anti-aging slop last night, as midnight struck she had crossed the line into addled old age. Who knew the stuff actually worked?
Mother ignored my attempt to help and began dragging the old bike on its seized wheels towards the house. “It was your grandpa Lackwit’s bike.” She said. She has a way of making perfectly clear statement as though it explained everything, whilst explaining nothing. “I’ll see whether Simon has some tools for it.” I stood there like a scarecrow until she called back, “I’d throw away that slipper if I were you. The bins are going out tomorrow anyway. You could take them down the drive for me. Then on the way back, you might clean that step before anyone else gets got.” I take back whatever foolishness I earlier gave out about the beauty of the day, the unexpected refreshment of an early morning, and anything else that seemed to recommend this world as suitable for a sensitive young lady such as what I am. Beware the trap of dew-bejewelled cobwebs and crisp air, my dear chums, and stay late in bed always.
As I crunched up the drive dragging the bin, booted now at least with pj’s tucked in, I wondered what odd memory had breezed by to ruffle Mother’s surface. It seemed as though the best chance of an answer would be at the Vicar’s Invitational: the climax of the baking season; last chance for the village band to disconcert local music lovers before christmas; last fling for the country dance crowd before the winter of indoor training; last opportunity to offload old bikes and other junk onto friends and neighbours in the name of charity. Mother would be there, wielding her cake slice against the doughty Mrs Baker. Her I do not mind: her cake I certainly would not mind, if I could have sneaked a slice without Mother noticing my disloyalty. But there would be other people too, many of them unbearable. The Vicar, for one, oiling about with the slack-lipped bilious smile of his profession. He came to the village from some urban hellhole and will not shut up about his work with the ‘youth’ there, the poor blighters, as if their lives were not difficult enough what with cinemas growing like mushrooms on every street corner, internet access everywhere, as likely to step into a wi-fi hotspot as a pothole. And oh sweet pickled herring, the shops. What endless joy to be had there, as they gambolled blithely about, pressing their greasy noses and sticky hands to the glass to goggle at the treasures laid out in the window displays, all innocent joy until from the shadow of a lych gate out like a panther pounced a vicar to scoop them up, in some sort of giant shrimp-net I imagine, to drag them off to an asbestos-ridden church hall and there destroy their youthful happiness with talk of sin, christian charity, ping-pong and table football. Shudder.
Certainly Mrs Buckle the Doctor’s wife would be there too, always a stalwart of village affaires and as ready to donate a bottle of sherry to the tombola as to pick one up. In previous seasons she was always to be seen circling the Vicar at these events, flapping in decreasing circles about him, squawking excitedly. More recently, she has been driven off by the concerted action of the Marsh Row ‘ladies’ (inv. commas in deference to Mother), who flock about him, twittering and pecking at incomers. Her refuge this season has been the retired military man in the mustard cords (flat of face, flatter of cake) who last year moved alone into the old farmhouse on the near edge of Hapeney Fen. Between the two of them they could not get a decent rise. No more than could the landlady, Mrs Glossop, of the better of the village’s two pubs. None of them had a hope with Mother and Mrs Baker in the contest, but they would all bring their offerings, bless their foolish hearts, and along with them a scattering from outlying benighted farms and even a select few from neighbouring parishes whom the Vicar was trying to poach.
Altogether too much to face, my dears, and there is always prep, so I skipped it. I sent my best available agent. Okay, my only available agent. Ladies and germs and parasitic worms, I present to you the queen of the jumping beans, the girl with a spinning top for a brain, the mad hatter’s madder ribbonista, my little sister Tabitha ‘Kitty’ Tickham, her evidence:
Weigh in the balance a roomful of cakes of variable quality (but the really, it’s cake so after all, how bad can it be?) against a roomful of idiot grownups, to whit two twits, a drip, a dullard, a lush or three, and various others too adventitious to mention: cake still wins. After the judging, it must be sampled, and quickest gets the most icing-ey bits. Also, la monstra had some bug in her butt about an old bike, and nagged me into investigating, so I self-sacrificed and dragged myself along after the old Mater. Endured the humiliation even of bumping and snorting along to the village in the Wet’s ancient car.
Yep, still hanging about, more persistent than stilton after twelfth night, Doctor Simon Scrimshaw – so-called doctor, not really a doctor, I mean no use for a rash or hiccups – is haunting the east wing of Garton Grange. The tinking of his little hammer seems to have stopped, but he is still at the important task of taking bits of old pot out of boxes, writing on them with a tiny pencil, and putting them back in again. Or in different boxes. Perhaps, someday soon, he will take them all back and tip them into the hole he took them out of. Who knows and, frankly, friends and nibblers, who could possibly care except for other poor drips scattered about the country in any decent place near to a large hole in the ground, whom I suppose also make their livings always being sat on other people’s furniture, hovering in other victim’s doorways and traipsing about after other girls’ Mummies while they wait for the hole-digging season to begin again.
I really do not know why we could not just have gone in Mummy’s car. Most of all I was concerned about her Cake, though it was quite a dense cake, but with some decorations that were easily breakable, eg by favourite daughters who are Just Trying to Help. Then they need to be made again: chocolate painted onto leaves collected by yours truly (me) and let dry with grumblings and hard warning stares at said daughter then peeled off with no help this time and scattered on the cake with pimply little acorn truffles and gold dust. Which is hard to get hold of, apparently, and really sticks to your fingers if they are a bit chocolatey. Some people just have naturally warm hands and stuff tends to stick.
The bike, mysterious object of V’s interest, had been driven down the day before, not being really up to the ride. The Wet had fiddled with it and added oil. So now it was mouldy, rusty and oily. What a prize. It was for a silent auction, with some other junk and promises, which was quite noisy with people telling each other that they ever-so hoped to win or not, that they had just made a bid for the sake of charity, that perhaps it was too much but oh such a good cause, the organ replacement fund. Only if they replace it with a TV or a candyfloss machine, if you ask me. No one did, as per. That was after the cake judging, which was the usual tragesty.
Mummy’s cake had survived the bumpy journey and was clearly the best one. Mrs Baker was there too, with a fruitcake. In November. The rest were hardly worth mentioning. Mrs Gossip from the King’s Head had a sticky thing with blackberries and almonds, which was at least autumny but seedy bits of blackberry get stuck in your teeth – I was still picking them out in bed that night. The doctor’s wife had a jam sponge, which looked a bit droopy around the edges and to my highly trained eye a bit like something that had come out of a box. The mouth would be the judge: I planned to forensically eat a big piece of it later. The Marsh Row mob had an apple cake, no doubt scrumped. The fruits of criminal activity. You can have too much fruit in a cake: unless you count chocolate, which is a sort of fruit or a nut maybe and definitely one of my five a day.
There were a couple of late entries. Crying ‘Hold the judging!’ burst through the door of the village hall Colonel Mustard in his cords and weskit. He galloped down the hall to land his cake with a disappointing thud on the table cloth. Women to the left of him, women to the right of him: his cake had not risen – somehow he’d blundered. He had no idea why. He could but bootless try. Still, into the jaws of general un-interest portly he wandered, offering excuses, until Mrs Doctor stopped his mouth with a glass of sherry.
The second to burst in was a blouse like an explosion in a parrot factory, barely holding together an old lady. Like a trifle, as colourful and smelling of fruit and booze, she wibbled on big legs and little shoes across the hall. Eyes widened all around and there was general disapprobrious murmuring. Mrs Gossip especially stared cake forks at her. This was Mrs Melba, the landlady of The Golden Behind, a pub of ill repute. Mrs Gossip of the King’s Head’s natural enemy of course, but for some reason generally disdained by all the better folk of the village and surrounds. I sneaked a detectively glace at Mother. Her phiz was serene and unbothered in the most suspicious way. I licked a mental pencil and made a note in my mental pad. Simon the wet goggled at the wibbly woman as she plonked on the judges’ table a very sad, cracked mess of meringue and tinned fruit, until a sudden elbow-shaped pain in his side reminded him to go and drag in the old bike.
Mother then glid off to do some lady of the manor-ing. Colonel Mustard had put up a sign recently on his gate saying ‘Hapeney Manor’ which is a cheek, as it is really just the Manor Farm House. The Manor being my house, Garton Grange, and Mummy the lady of it. So she sallied forthwith to cut down any upstarts.
The squeak of the bike reminded me I was there to investigate. No-one was giving out clues, so I would have to ask some probing questions. Under the disguise of carefully examining the baked goods, I drifted by Mrs Doctor, who seemed a likely informant, being well down her second glass.
“It seems terribly old, that bike.” I commented to the cardboard-y jam sponge. Not a nibble. I wandered by the Vicar, who was getting in some early judging, starting from the bottom of the pile with the Colonel’s slab of brown. “Perhaps it’s an antique.” I amused, squinting at the icing and wondering whether it would make the cake below it edible. Probably not: the Vicar was struggling.
“I eshpec yer alwaysh out on your bikesh, you kidsh, eh?” he condescended, before clearing his mouth with a sip of tea and a gulp and continuing, “Actually I believe it belonged to your Grandfather, though his passing preceded my call here. A good, straight, honest man I am sure.” There was a snort from somewhere among the ranks – perhaps some sherry had gone down the wrong way. The Vicar continued his address, but towards the Colonel. “You are more recent here than even I, I think.” he said, while his target pinched the creases in his yellow trousers and shuffled his shovel-tipped shoes, “You’ll find a good class of people here. Good straight folk. Not like some of the odd lot we had back in the city. Very ‘trendy’ there. I can see you’re a man of traditional values: just what we need here.” The Colonel, a man who lived alone, habitually turned up in public in a waistcoat, and had more than once baked something approaching the outskirts of cake, seemed abashed by this praise and only hemmed and hawed as the Vicar licked his lips and moved on to the Doctor’s wife’s cheat’s jam sponge’s sampling.
So far, nothing learned, but as I licked the icing off my finger I caught sight of Mother preferring to exchange a few words (something like ‘and what do you do?’ or ‘have you come far?’) with the Marsh Row women, rather than acknowledge Mrs Melba as she crossed her bows, and then heard behind me what the Italians call a subtle voice,
“She’s dragged herself out of her ditch I see.” It was old Mrs Gossip, making a three-headed monster with Mrs Doctor and Mrs Baker.
“Just as they had to drag the old boy out of his.” sneered Mrs Doctor.
“Flung there, was ‘ee?” Mrs Baker wondered, by the way glancing sideways along the row to see whether the Vicar had reached her fruitcake, “Flung off that old bike?”
“Pretty far flung, then.” sniggered Mrs Gossip.
In fact, he was lingering hungrily by Mummy’s chocolate and pumpkin spice gateau, which had slightly melty chocolate leaves by now. Hesitated, then moved on to the crumpled mess of tinned fruit and meringue. Clearly saving the best for last.
“In fact,” hiccupped Mrs Doctor, “he had not had a fall at all. Archibald attended, of course. In strict confidence he told me old Lackwit was sitting up when they found him, in a ditch of sorts but as comfy as can be, smiling. Quite dead of course. That machine leant against a tree nearby. There were birds hopping about in the trees, and appled sunshine and so on. Very poetic, my Archibald.”
Nice to know Grandpa Lackwit died happy. Perhaps he was particularly fond of birds and apples. Speaking of which: overpowering amounts of cinnamon in the apple cake, which just goes to show, too many cooks make bad cake.
Before the Vicar had finished his tasting, there was a general rush for the doors: something I said perhaps? No – outside, the tradition of country dancing was being perpetrated in the drizzle, and the husbands and wives of the dancers were obliged to stand and watch glumly. A waiting slice had been cut from Mummy’s cake, and one of the acorns was in danger of falling, so I rescued it and slid across, with my slice, to the silent auction table, with the old bike leant against it. And on it a jumble of old crocks, a decorated box, a portrait of a mangy fox, two old clocks, one broken (making ticks but not tocks), and a nasty case of chickenpox. Spot the odd one out. And next to it Mrs Melba of The Golden Behind, who was shilly-shallying over her bid for the broken bike.
“Shall we bring you home with me, you shabby old thing?” she murmured, “Or leave you leaning there, and me lonely? How about twenty-five pounds, though its less than I’m owed?”
“I heard someone say it was an antique.” I volunteered, which was not quite a lie.
“How’s the cake?” she countered, putting me in a difficult position, from which I was rescued by the re-entry of the Vicar and his flock. Shaking his umbrella all over the place, the Vicar must have thought he had finished the cake judging, and went on to the painful business of the raffle. I gave the rest of my slice the Mrs Melba, who took it absently,
“Well, you foolish old thing,” she murmured. I thought she meant me at first, but she was talking to the bike again, and stroking its mouldy old saddle, “what do you say – aren’t you pleased to see me?”
I left her to her silly loquitising and took myself out for a little walk to spite the weather. Squeezed past the returning dancers on the way out, all bonhomonious after their triumph; and their audience, damp in spirits and shoes. And Mummy, not so wet as the Wet who trailed behind her, whose lightning glance caught Mrs Melba popping the last crumb of squash-moistened chocolate cake into her mouth.
Took in the sights of the village, and got back in time to see Mrs Baker pinned with a rosette, and the Vicar gobbling down a slice of Mummy’s superior cake with exactly the guilty expression of one who knows he has awarded the first prize in a village baking contest to the wrong cake, and still had the gall to eat the spurned victim of his misjustice.
Mother took it well. She seemed more disappointed to see the old bike being wheeled away from the auction by obliviously smiling Mrs Melba, still stroking its saddle and talking to it. Or perhaps whispered wishing someone a broken neck is one of those actorly things she picked up in her theatrical days dahling and she only meant the old lady well.
So I did not unravel any mysteries for V, but at least I found out that Grandpa Lackwit died happy in a ditch, after a bike ride. Which goes to show that exercise is not always good for you.
“Is she sleeping?” hissed the Wet, as we turned into the drive. Impossible, in that bumpy car. “I’m not surprised – she must surely be all talked out at last.” Cheek. In fact, I was just having a little rest and trying not to sick up all that cake.
Dear friends, thanks for reading.
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A free introduction to life in the village of Hapeney Fen, filling the space between 'Home Economics for Girls' and 'The mystery of the Elasticated Waistband'.