(featuring the characters of Misty and The Narrator from ‘The Last Winter’).
1: MARCH / APRIL
And now a message from my psychic advisor:
“LACK OF EMOTIONAL SENSITIVITY TODAY CAN LEAD TO EMOTIONAL DIFFICULTIES WITH THOSE CLOSEST TO YOU. TRY TO UNDERSTAND OTHERS’ FEELINGS BEFORE YOU INJECT YOUR LARGE EGO INTO THE SITUATION. YOU MAY HAVE A BIG MOUTH AND IT COULD GET YOU INTO TROUBLE. YOU HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN SOMETHING OF VALUE ABOUT YOURSELF THROUGH YOUR RELATIONSHIPS WITH OTHERS. AVOID SELF-INDULGENCE AND LAZINESS”.
“Naff off!” I said, and deleted it from my mail-box. I had been reading the daily advice of this dreary old bore for nearly a week now, and it was fortunate for her that she lived over in the United States, or I may have been sorely tempted to ram her Venus Square Sun or her Sun Sextile Mercury (whatever the hell all that meant!) up her arse (ass?).
Needless to say it was all Misty’s idea that I should get “psychic help”. Since we had buried Rufus Franklin’s bizarre legacy to us in our back garden he had been getting increasingly concerned about me. That was largely because my work was taking a different turning. I could no longer get excited about painting seagulls perched on groynes, and wanted to do something more avant-garde. Misty said this was Franklin’s influence. Well partly in his own way he had indeed planted a wish in my head to do something a bit more adventurous with my modest talents, but largely it was Mr Beresford’s influence. Franklin’s moody, atmospheric paintings had been popular with the public, and Mr Beresford clearly had some idea that I could fill the gap left by his untimely death. I had been flattered by this, as I regarded Franklin as having had a talent far superior to my own, and so I had agreed that I would attempt something along Franklin’s line.
Misty took this as a sign that I had let all the recent surreal events get a grip on me. “We must fight Evil at every turn”, he said, sounding as though he was about to go into battle as a JedI warrior or something! I had images of him appearing clutching a light-sabre! And “you must be strong”, he said to me. To keep the peace I had agreed to look on line for some FREE psychic advice from an online medium and astrologer. I got the free advice, but I made the mistake of showing it to Misty, who got wildly excited and said I must take them up on their extended reading. I paid good money I didn’t really have to then get daily messages of advice and help downloaded to me every day for the following 8 weeks. And with every day that dawned I was getting more and more pissed off with each nagging missive. It didn’t help that I was told a wondrous opportunity was awaiting me (they always are, but they never materialise, funny that), and I must prepare for it “like an athlete”. This sounded hugely exhausting, but Misty thought it was all brilliant.
“What did she say today?” he asked. It was pouring down with rain outside (much-needed), and he was confined to playing golf in our living-room. Or rather repeatedly putting his one golf-ball into a horizontal glass on the carpet, like a bored executive in an office, except that he was wearing his underwear and a shabby dressing-gown.
“Nothing”, I said “Just told me YET AGAIN what a big mouth I have! To think I’ve paid good money just to be insulted on a daily basis!”
“Oh”, said Misty, and even he looked disappointed with this one.
“You know, I really don’t think she likes me!” I said.
“But it’s all done by computer isn’t it?” he said.
“Then perhaps the computer doesn’t like me!” I replied “Anyway, I’m going to do some work on the website”.
I was still managing the Shinglesea Beach website, having been flattered into being the creator, updater and moderator of it (I.e nobody else wanted to do it). I had started up a message board for it, which was turning out to be very successful, but unfortunately it needed almost constantly policing. There seemed to be an inexhaustible supply of nitwits lurking around in cyber-space, just there to insult everybody else, and generally make a right royal pain of themselves. They are almost like wandering lunatics, trying to swear at and abuse everybody just to desperately get into company.
Today’s postings though were a spoilt brat student demanding to know if we had any cheap accommodation for Easter weekend, and that I was to reply to him personally through e-mail and not through the website (such high-handedness is almost guaranteed not to get any result whatsoever), and an old guy saying that he and “the wife” (blimey, it’s Stanley Holloway!) were also coming to the area over Easter, and he wanted to know if somebody would like to play golf with him. I looked across at Misty, but decided that that probably wasn’t really what he had in mind!
“Would you like to play golf with Stanley Holloway?” I said.
Misty gave me a longsuffering look and said he was going to put the kettle on.
He was right to get longsuffering with me. My moods had been pretty erratic of late. I was prone to long silences, and then skittish outbursts of clowning. Poor Misty, I love him so much, but I knew that this phase was just a reaction to the bizarre Winter that we had just endured, and that, like all phases, it would eventually pass. I knew that as long as I kept showing Misty I loved him that he would tolerate an immense amount for me. I don’t think he would ever realise the peace of mind and contentment that he has brought to me, and that I doubt I would ever have known without him in my life.
As if to make it up to him I offered to Get The Car Out that afternoon, when we had a brief cessation in rain. We would go and see Mr Beresford, and then I would take him for a cup of tea at ’The Fiddler’s Rest’. Just after lunch I read a whiney article in the paper about the wet weather we were currently enduring (this after weeks of moaning about the potential draught we were going to get this Summer!). The point of the article seemed to be that because the clocks had gone forward the previous Saturday night, that we should all know be basking in hot, humid temperatures, and with sunshine oozing out of every bit of blue sky. Look I know the Winter has been a bloody long and hard one, I thought to myself, but we’re not suddenly going to go tropical the very instant that British Summertime starts!
But when you live at the seaside there is something very intoxicating about this time of year. Slowly the machinery of life is getting cranked up into gear for the start of the Season. It’s like a giant bear coming out of hibernation. Plans are afoot everywhere, buildings look refreshed after a lick of paint, and there is hopeful talk that this year we may get a long, hot Summer. In the Autumn of course you get the reverse side of the coin, when everyone starts imploding from sheer exhaustion, but in the Spring, no matter how dank and dreary the weather is, or how bitterly cold the winds are, I can’t think of anywhere else I’d rather be.
When we had parked the car in Fobbington, we set off through the narrow streets to Mr Beresford’s emporium. On the way I got stopped by a woman I had never seen before. This was happening more and more since I had taken over the Shinglesea Beach website. It was a bit galling, I have to admit, that I had far more fame from that than I had ever had as a Local Artist!
“I want to put my caravan up for rental over the Easter holiday”, she brayed at me “If you could put that on the website. Very reasonable rates, and strictly couples only!”
She then vanished again, before telling me who she was, where the caravan was, what the rates were, and if she had a contact number! No doubt a few days down the line I would get an e-mail from her, giving me a right drubbing for not having put it on the website! Still I am not without resources.
“Do you know who that woman was?” I said to Mr Beresford, when I finally got into his shop.
“Tara Mitchell”, he said, over the bracing noise of Verdi’s Requiem “She’s new here. Makes pottery. She wanted me to sell something of it here, but I said I haven’t got room”.
“Now this is the kind of thing I’d like to do”, I said, coming up against a cheap print of a picture that I had seen around before. It was ’Blue Bicycle’ by Olivier Raab, showing a bicycle propped against the side of a beach-hut on some sand-dunes. It summed up living by the seaside for me in a nice, uncomplicated and unsentimental way.
Mr Beresford looked disturbed by this.
“I thought you were going to do a series in Rufus Franklin’s style”, he said.
“I suppose so”, I said “But I don’t really want to spend the rest of my career imitating somebody else’s work. I’ve been restless lately, I’d like to find a style of my own, and this sort of thing really grabs me”.
Mr Beresford gave me a look that clearly said that the fickleness of the creative mind got him down sometimes.
“You were very keen when I spoke to you about this last week”, he said.
“I was very keen this morning!” I said “But now I’ve seen this”.
“That’s nothing”, he said, which wasn’t true “They’re selling this sort of stuff as prints in B&Q!”
“They also sell prints of Audrey Hepburn and ones by van Gogh”, I said “And I don’t see anything wrong with that either!”
Mr Beresford picked up the print, and went to stuff it behind a heap of others, as though to limit its malign influence.
“No I’ll take it”, I said “It’ll give me inspiration. Oh don’t look like that. I’ll still do some spooky stuff for you, more moonlight on the frigging marshes! But I also want to do stuff like this”.
Misty, who had done his customary thing when visiting Mr Beresford’s emporium of standing just inside the door, remarked that I had been very changeable lately, that my moods were getting increasingly erratic. Even worse, Mr Beresford nodded his head wisely as if to indicate that he very much understood.
“I do not want to be psycho-analysed in public!” I said, grabbing Misty’s arm when we got outside the shop and marching him up White Lion Street.
“It’s no big deal these days to have a nervous breakdown”, he said.
“Nervous breakdown?!” I said “I’m not having a chuffin’ nervous breakdown!”
A painfully thin young woman came down the street towards us. She was wearing a large floppy-brimmed hat over a headscarf tied at the back of her neck. That, combined with her skeletal appearance and drawn face, seemed to confirm that she was undergoing cancer treatment. The sighting of this tragic young spectre at least pulled me to my senses. It helped better than anything to put all the recent nonsense with Rufus Franklin into perspective.
“Anyway”, I said, jokingly “So what if I am having a nervous breakdown? At least I don’t look as though I’ve had my nose bashed in by Tom and Jerry with a frying-pan!”
Misty hooted with laughter at this. As we walked through the churchyard we could hear somebody lawn-mowing nearby, a sound we hadn’t heard in months. Very uplifting. We turned at the head of a steep set of stone steps to go down to the little side alley where ’The Fiddler’s Rest’ was situated. At that moment we were accosted by a gang of Belgian teenagers, all armed to the teeth with clipboards and a determined expression on their scrubbed, shiny faces. What is it, I thought, about us Brits that somehow we always manage to look more grubby and generally disordered than our European mainland counterparts? Even though, according to one of those interminable EU opinion polls I read, we are supposed to wash ourselves a lot more frequently than some of the other countries do!
It’s not unusual to get stopped by foreign students in the middle of Fobbington. They are usually on field-trips, and have been sent out to find out about the town, its history, and its facilities. This lot were different though. They wanted to quiz us on what we knew about Belgium. As neither of us has ever been to Belgium, and what I know about is limited to chocolates (I bought Misty a box of these for his birthday once, and he had said they were alright, but he’d have preferred a bumper block of Cadbury’s Dairy Milk instead), that statue of the little boy with his dick out, Hercule Poirot, lovely Audrey, and a short story set in Bruges by Robert Aickman, I didn’t feel I was going to pleasantly surprise them! I did once, when I was still working in London, talk to a Belgian client on the telephone and had been impressed by his beautiful manners, but again, this probably only made me look like an ignorant Brit.
We dutifully looked a page of photographs of famous Belgian people, (still living that is), and had to confess total ignorance about all of them.
“He looks a bit familiar”, I said (straw-clutching time), pointing at a photograph of a dreary-looking little man in a grey suit, standing on a platform under the EU flag. The only reason he looked familiar was that he looked like a thousand other EU bureaucrats, who seem to exist solely to torment the lives of the rest of us.
It turned out to be their Prime Minister.
I tried to make amends by saying that I wouldn’t have expected them to recognise ours, (I would quite like to not be able to recognise him also!). It was hard though to get terribly worked up about Who Was Hot And Who Was Not in Belgium when the seductive charms of ’The Fiddler’s Rest’ beckoned. I guess that’s one of the reasons why we Brits will never make model Europeans.
Inside ’The Fiddler’s Rest’ (at last) I took Misty into the side room, so that we could talk in peace, and parked him under a charming framed photograph of Princess Diana.
“The problem is”, said Misty “You are going through a crisis of confidence in your career”.
“Oh hang it all, Misty”, I said “You sound like that damn American fortune-teller or whatever she is!”
“But it’s true”, he said “You are wanting to strike out and find your own voice”.
“I just feel”, I said, awkwardly “That for some of the work I’ve been doing since we came here I might as well take us back to London, and hang my paintings on the railings along the Bayswater Road on a Sunday morning!”
Misty’s little mouth became a perfect ’O’ of shock.
“You’re not seriously suggesting we go back there?” he said.
“No”, I hastened to reassure him “We’re staying here. I was just using some sort of metaphor … I think. Look, let’s drive out to Darklight Cove when we’ve finished here. See how all the plans for the Season are coming along”.
On our way out of Fobbington half-an-hour later we passed the Belgian students, all sitting in a neat row outside the café, and all diligently licking ice-cream cornets. Out on the long marsh road to Darklight Cove we passed a travelling circus which was setting up shop in one of the fields. Inspiration must have suddenly seized me because I instantly pulled the car onto the side of the road and stopped, earning myself a one-finger salute from the man driving behind me.
“Yeah, same to you with knobs on!” I said, although I would have done exactly the same in his position.
Misty didn’t say anything. He was sitting there, strapped into the passenger seat, with that longsuffering aura about him that I noticed he had started wearing rather a lot lately. Misty took the sensible attitude that living with a creative person is never going to be an easy experience, but I felt sorry for him that I was being QUITE so damn peculiar at the moment.
“This is the sort of thing I could be doing!” I said, grabbing his little hand “Painting things like that!”
“The circus?” he said, dubiously “Hasn’t it already been done a few times before?”
“Of course it has”, I said “But I can do it my own way, and the same with the holiday camp up the road”.
“You’re usually snotty about that sort of thing”, he said “You’ve said you hated people who painted exactly what they see. You’ve said they might as well just take a bloody photograph and have done with it!”
“I can do better than that”, I said, starting the car up again.
“Are we still going out to Darklight?” he asked, plaintively.
We did indeed carry on up to Darklight Cove, but only to have a look at what had happened to Rufus Franklin’s cottage in the past couple of weeks. It was all boarded-up. Didn’t look like anybody would be buying it in the near future. No ’For Sale’ sign, nothing. It would probably stay like that until it was eventually demolished, or fell down of its own accord.
Back at ’Barnacles’ Misty went across to the patch of scrubland to play golf, no doubt breathing a sigh of relief at being shot of my company for a few minutes (although he would probably have reacted with anger if I had suggested that was how he felt!). I decided to check the computer before I settled down to any work. Although I tell myself time and again that my painting must come first, and the website second, I still find myself doing my e-mails first, if only to get it out of the way, and then I can work with a free mind.
Another e-mail from my least favourite bratty student. This time demanding to know what was going to be open in Fobbington on Easter Sunday. “Any shops? Any tea-rooms? ANYTHING?” he said. It was that Anything that really annoyed me. At this damn rate he would be demanding that we roll out the red carpet for his arrival. Perhaps I should check what The Queen’s doing that weekend? She might want to come out and greet him for us! I was trying to compose a suitable reply in my head, one that would be a masterpiece of biting wit, rendering the recipient incapable of any kind of response whatsoever, when Misty appeared in the doorway, clutching his golf-club and single golf-ball.
“I’ve just been talking to Mrs Jackson”, he said, breathless with excitement “She says one of the houses just down the lane has been let”.
“So?” I said “Not exactly unusual at this time of year!”
“No”, he said, impatiently “It’s being let for the entire Summer”.
“So?” I said, again “Some people clearly has money and time to burn. Must be a retired couple”.
“Well they’re certainly a couple, but I don’t know how old they are”, he said “It’s that rundown house with the big hedge all round the front garden”.
“A retired couple who aren’t too fussy but want privacy”, I said, flippantly “Perhaps they got it at a knockdown rate”.
“No you don’t understand”, said Misty, stamping his foot with annoyance at my spectacular obtuseness “The hedge isn’t enough for them it seems, they’re gonna have barbed wire put up inside the hedge as well”.
“Barbed wire inside the hedge as well?!” I said, looking up from the keyboard for the first time “What a bloody stupid idea! Do they think they’re building another Colditz or something!”
“Mrs Jackson wonders if they’ve got a violent dog perhaps”, said Misty.
“They’d better make damn sure it never gets out then”, I said “Kids play a lot in that lane in the Summer months”.
“I know, it’s all a bit worrying isn’t it”, said Misty, biting his bottom lip “What if they’re a bit weird?”
“Then they’ll fit in round here like a house on fire!” I said.
That evening we went for a walk up the lane, in order to have a look at the house that was being rented for the entire Summer. We could get a good look at by standing at the five-bar gate which blocked the drive. The place was ramshackle to say the least. The veranda was rotting away, and it didn’t look any too safe. I was quite amazed that anybody should be wanting to lease it for several months. The house had stood empty all the previous season too, because it had been up for sale. One guy had put an offer on it, but had pulled out later on in the process - presumably after receiving the surveyor’s report!
A couple of days later a unmarked white van drove cautiously down our lane, and stopped outside it. It became clear that Mrs Jackson had been right, they were having barbed wire put up around the inside of the hedge. This was unsettling, and I found myself brooding on it. After our adventures with Rufus Franklin I had just about had enough of unsociable eccentrics! I suggested to Misty that perhaps we should take to having a little daily walk at around 6 o’clock in the evening. I had a route all worked out: over the patch of scrubland where he played golf, along the sea-wall for a bit, and then down again to the spot where Beach Lane terminated, along the lane past the falling-down house, and back at ’Barnacles’. That was the only route whereby we would be able to get a good glimpse at the house, as we couldn’t see into it from our end of the land.
“They’ll know we’re spying on them!” said Misty “It’s a stupid idea!”
“How will they know?” I said “It’s not as if we’re going to stand at the gate with binoculars is it! We’ll just be two people out for an early-evening stroll”.
“Every single night?” said Misty, sceptically “It would only work if we had a dog to walk, but you won’t let us have one”.
“It’s not that I don’t want one”, I said “It’s just that dogs are expensive. You have no idea what vet’s bills can be these days!”
This was an effective way of silencing Misty. He never felt able to argue about money. Even so, I was sorry to disappoint him. I knew that Misty would love us to have a dog at ’Barnacles’, and I wasn’t completely averse to the idea myself, but the expense ruled it out.
Our new neighbours moved in just over a week before Easter. We had had a run of really nice Spring weather, and we were lapping up the sunshine. I had taken Misty out to Darklight Cove for the day, to do some sketching and take some photographs for future ideas, and so we didn’t see them actually move in. Incredibly, they had finished by the time we got back at 7. We actually passed the removal van coming out of the village as we drove in. I was very surprised at this. With them moving in for several months I thought they would be unloading for half the evening.
“It also never occurred to me that they would be renting the place unfurnished”, I said to Misty.
“Seems a lot of effort to go to”, he said “They’ll only have to move it all out and load it up again come the Autumn!”
The following evening was so pleasant that Misty didn’t object when I suggested that we go for the little walk I had worked out. When we reached the rundown cottage on our way back I was astonished to see the male half of the couple lying outside, sun-bathing! Now OK, it had been a lovely day, but it was still only about 15 degrees outside at the very most (and considerably less than that in the shade!) so the idea of whipping your shirt off and lying in the front garden still seemed a little excessive somehow! We’re talking APRIL at Shinglesea Beach here, not August!
But there he was, bold as brass, wearing only a pair of shorts, flip-flops and sunglasses. Something about him set my teeth on edge, and I don’t just mean his daft imperviousness to temperatures. I think it was the way that he was lying there on the grass. Flat on his back, with his arms rigidly at his sides, his fingertips together as though he was doing some sort of yoga meditation, and his mouth pursed up like a funnel stuck in the top of a bottle. He just looked such a PRAT! And what was worse, a prissy prat! His whole body language had an exacting fussiness about it. He was aged in his 40s, at a rough guess, so they clearly weren’t the retired couple I had originally envisaged. There was no sign of the female half of the pair.
“Sun-bathing in this weather!” I said to Misty, when we had got safely back inside the sanctuary of ‘Barnacles’.
“Perhaps he doesn’t feel the cold”, said Misty.
“Probably find, come high Summer, that he’s asking where he can go skiing!” I said.
“You don’t like him and you haven’t even met him yet!” Misty laughed.
“I don’t need to meet him”, I said “He’s got ’dickhead’ written all over him!”
“BE AWARE OF IMPOSING YOUR OPINIONS ON OTHERS”.
“What?” I thought “That I think our new neighbour’s a complete dickhead!”
“ACCEPT THAT OTHERS HAVE THEIR OWN WAY OF DOING THINGS”.
“You can say that again!”
Actually, to be fair, this was all reasonably good advice. I can be a fairly forceful person. I think it comes from all these years of constantly looking out for Misty. It’s made me not just forceful and opinionated, but very protective too. I am constantly on the look out for anyone who’s got the potential to harm him. And our experiences with Rufus Franklin had shaken me very much in that respect.
“YOU CAN SOMETIMES SUFFER FROM HOOF IN MOUTH DISEASE”, she continued.
“What’s wrong with ‘foot’ all of a sudden?!” I said, exiting from that particular e-mail.
You could tell Spring was getting fairly well advanced. We had opened one of the fanlights in the living-room, and I had actually taken my socks off!!! Words cannot adequately express what a liberating feeling this was!
I paused enough in my exertions at the computer to notice a Post Office van trundling down the lane outside our house. We have so little traffic down Beach Lane that this was worthy of some comment. A few minutes later it reversed back up again. I was in the middle of trying to decipher a completely incomprehensible e-mail for our website, which ran something like this:
“IT WD B G8 ???? !*&**! B4 eester ???? - I reely nedd to now this - !!!!” Followed by a picture of a little yellow smiley face, reminiscent (to someone of my advancing years anyway) of the old Acid House smiley faces from the late 1980s.
It was as if a mad chimp had been put in front of a keyboard and left to his own devices.
“We’ve gotta take a parcel in for the weirdo’s!” said Misty, appearing in the doorway, bearing a parcel just slightly larger than a shoebox “I said we’d do it. It’ll give us a chance to meet them properly!”
He shook the box and said “I wonder what’s in it?”
“Well hopefully nothing breakable, or they could sue us for damages!” I said.
He put the box down on a nearby chair with exaggerated care.
“And there’s another thing”, he said “Somebody’s put a sign on the fence over the road, saying that we’re all gonna have to go on standpipes, because of the drought”.
“WHAT?!” I said, and I tore out of the house and down the garden path.
After reading it twice it was clear to me that it was a practical joke. Somebody, posing as a representative of the local Water Board, had put up a sign saying that because of the empty reservoirs all of us in Shinglesea Beach would be put on standpipes as of next week.
“How do you know it’s a joke?” said Misty “There’s been a lot on the news about the reservoirs lately”.
“I know our local Water Board isn’t up to much”, I said “But I hope that even they know that reservoir isn’t spelt ’reservehour’!”
I tore it down.
“It reminds me o those spoof e-mails that I get sent sometimes claiming to be from the Bank”, I said “Asking me to forward all my credit card details to them forthwith, or my account will be shut down. What with that and that half-witted e-mail I’ve just been sent I do despair of the bloody educational standards in this country sometimes!”
For the rest of the day we had to keep an eye out for the return of our neighbours, but they didn’t put in an appearance. The box continued to sit on the chair in our living-room, and I was getting more and more annoyed with it. I was tempted to go and leave it outside their front door, but then I thought it might well be something valuable, and would I be liable if it got nicked?
A beautiful Spring evening was coming on. It’s the sort of time when you want to sit out on the veranda with a cocktail, like a 1930s colonial. Just before I could break out the Jack Daniels though, I had a phone call from Mr Beresford, saying that another local artist (this area has far too many) wanted to get up an exhibition in Fobbington, dedicated to showcasing how the local countryside has inspired us all so much, and calling it ‘An Artist’s Paradise‘, and would I submit a couple of my own for hanging. I said I would fish something out, which made me sound all cynical and half-hearted. I’m not, I still can’t get over being asked to take part in things like this, as though, like, I was a Proper Artist, know what I mean?
I was so involved with telling Misty about all this afterwards, and then cracking open the JD, that it was some while before I realised that our neighbours had returned. They had parked their car just outside their gate, so that I could see its bumper sticking out slightly into the lane. Misty accompanied me as we set off down the lane with the box.
The Dickhead - sorry our neighbour - answered the door with a dirty tea-towel tucked into the front of his shirt, and clutching a used knife and fork in his hand. Clearly we had interrupted his dinner. I apologised profusely for this intrusion, and handed the box over. We turned to leave, but he said insistently that I must come into the house and meet his wife.
“Not whilst she’s eating”, I said, as though Mrs Dickhead was busily engrossed in chomping on the raw remains of a gazelle, and couldn’t be interrupted at any cost “I’m sure we’ll bump into each other some other time”.
“No, no, no”, he said “Come in now, please!”
He indicated that we were to pass through the porch and into the living-room. I could see that Misty was rather nervous, and I didn’t feel any better. Something about this whole set-up felt disturbingly bizarre. One of the reasons for our unease I think was that we couldn’t yet see any reason for the barbed wire inside the hedge. Since they had moved in we hadn’t heard or seen any sign of a dog, dangerous or otherwise.
I don’t know how much rental they were paying on the bungalow, but even if it was going dirt cheap, it would have been way too much. That place was in a deplorable state! Whoever the landlord/landlady was should have been kicked soundly round the block for letting it in that condition. It didn’t even seem to have been given a basic spring-cleaning. The wallpaper was torn in several places, showing bare patches, the old fireplace had been ripped out (by The Incredible Hulk with his bare hands, or so it looked like!), and hadn’t been replaced with anything, just left sitting there, a gaping hole, with a rather nasty vase of artificial flowers set in front of it. Mrs Dickhead was sitting through an archway at the back of the house, seated grandly at a large old-fashioned dining-table, which was covered in a plastic tablecloth.
Mrs D was a thin, middle-aged woman, with jet black hair pulled straight back off her face in a rather severe style. She had an exhausted, washed-out look to her, and I wondered if she had been or was seriously ill, and that was why they had come to Shinglesea for the Summer. I mentally chastised myself severely that I must stop calling them The Dickheads.
Certainly on that visit I got an overwhelming feeling of … well something extremely forlorn about the whole set-up. The house was dark and gloomy, and uncared for, and this couple seemed as unbearably neglected and lonely as their new home. Their dinner didn’t enhance things at all. Misty and I often live simply, out of sheer basic financial necessity, but one thing I always insist upon and that is that the food we do buy is of good quality. Even in Britain in the 21st Century it’s not hard to get really decent grub at a reasonable price (my Mother‘s training clearly). If I see somebody eating cheap nasty crap it’s usually because they’re kids who don‘t know any better, or pensioners who have never learnt any better. I don’t expect it from any other age-group, and if I see it then I think it has to be because they’re lazy, or chronic skinflints, or both.
Anyway, on this occasion, Mr D was eating spaghetti hoops on toast (hence the tea-towel round his neck, because of the splashes from the tomato sauce), and Mrs D was eating sardines on toast, with the sardine can sat on the table in front of her. I hadn’t seen a meal quite so depressingly frugal as this since an old episode of ’Steptoe And Son’, and Harry H Corbett was making jibes about it way back then! Once again, I repeated that we really shouldn’t interrupt their dinner, but Mr D dragged over another couple of chairs, and Misty and I were made to both sit down opposite Mrs D and watch her eat. This was quite an experience on its own. She very slowly, and with painstaking care, scraped bits off the sardines, and then with little grimaces of distaste, dropped them back into the sardine can. This operation was so slow and methodical that I hazarded a guess that it would probably be about 10 o’clock by the time she actually started eating them at this rate!
As I thought that I really couldn’t go on calling them Mr and Mrs Dickhead, I introduced Misty and myself. Mr D said he was called Henry, and Mrs D was Jeanette. Making conversation was uphill work to say the least, so much so that I wondered why on earth Henry had insisted we come into the house, as clearly socialising wasn’t a great skill of his. Whilst Misty looked more and more slumped into gloom, I asked then if they were enjoying Shinglesea. They said they had met Mrs Jackson. I remarked that she was a very kind, friendly woman. Henry then gave a list of every ailment Mrs Jackson had ever suffered from. Mrs Jackson isn’t the sort of woman to harp on about her ailments, and as she always appears to me to be in the rudest of good health, I was astonished to learn that she had endured just about everything from having her spleen removed to a sceptic foot! I resolved to pointedly ask her about her health next time I saw her, but on the whole I found this to be a gloomy, depressing conversation, and I couldn’t help noticing that Jeanette was getting a very solid enjoyment out of it. She seemed to have been activated into life by it, as though she was a decaying vampire who had suddenly acquired a much-needed intake of blood. For the first time her face was flushed with colour. It occurred to me that our new neighbours might be the sort of people who get an unspeakable relish out of other people’s misfortunes, and any mention of bad health is the veritable icing on the cake.
Just when I was starting to say that we really must be getting home, Henry leaped out of his chair, and fetched the box which had been the purpose of our visit. He grabbed a pair of scissors from the sideboard and ripped it open. Inside were face-masks. By that I mean surgical type masks that fit over the mouth and nose. Back in the City I had very occasionally seen people wearing them in the streets, as a defence against pollution.
“What do you want those for?” I said “We don’t suffer from a lot of pollution in Beach Lane!”
“Bird flu”, said Henry.
(Oh shit! I thought).
“I got these from a survivalists’ website”, he said “Specially designed for the purpose”.
“But bird flu isn’t passed through the air, like a common cold”, I said “I looked it up on Wikipedia, it’s got nothing to do with the nostrils”.
Misty squeezed my hand under the table. He was warning me not to get locked into a deep debate with a man who was clearly out of his tree.
“It’s here”, said Henry “This is The Big One, I’m telling you, the pandemic that we’ve all been warned about. It could destroy half the world’s population”.
“What, like SARS you mean?” I said, sarcastically, unable to get a dig in.
“Everybody thinks that because we’ve had a false starts”, said Henry “That it will never happen, but I have a feeling about this one”.
“It’s getting dark”, I said, glancing out of the window “And we’ve left the house unlocked. It’s been very nice to meet you Mrs … er … Jeanette”.
Jeanette nodded her head regally, as though she was Royalty graciously acknowledging the departure of a subject. It occurred to me that I hadn’t yet heard her speak. Henry saw us to the garden gate.
“Good point you made about the house being unlocked”, he said “I shall be keeping my doors locked and bolted from now on, now that all this has finally started”.
“What the fuck?” I said to Misty, when we had reached the sanctuary of ’Barnacles’ once more “Does he think a bunch of killer chickens are going to come and ambush him in the night or something?!”
“I feel really depressed after meeting those two”, said Misty.
“Let’s have some JD”, I said, reaching for the glasses.
“She looks really ill to me”, said Misty.
“Perhaps she is”, I said, not unsympathetically “Although if it is something like cancer, you would expect him to have more to focus his thoughts on than bloody bird flu!”
“It is scary though isn’t it?” said Misty, rubbing his bare arms. I noticed that he had got goose-bumps.
“Certainly a need for serious thinking on the matter”, I said “But jerks like him aren’t going to help matters! They’ll be coming out of the woodwork all over the place, they always do at a time like this. If he gets too bad we’ll suggest he puts on a sandwich board saying ’The End Of The World Is Nigh’, and goes and parades up and down in it!”
“It was so cold in that house too”, said Misty “Perhaps their heating’s not working?”
“If it’s anything like the rest of the place, that wouldn’t surprise me at all!” I said.
The following morning, The Joker had been at work again. Somebody had put a photocopied leaflet through our door, warning us what we could and couldn’t do during the hosepipe ban. We could, for instance, fill up a swimming-pool, water a golf course, leave a hosepipe running on the garden path for hours on end, but we couldn’t put a rose nozzle on a watering-can, water a vegetable garden to feed ourselves, or use a hosepipe on our potted plants.
I found it all a bit tiresome to tell you the truth. Most of these comments had already been flying around for several weeks now (particularly the golf course one), and, what with that and the standpipes notice I thought that our Joker clearly wouldn’t know when to let it rest . Now The Joker isn’t a new phenomenon in our neighbourhood. He (I don’t know why I always assume it’s a ‘he‘, but it seems to fit somehow!) was very active during the Iraqi War for instance, putting little signs on the roadside verges saying “TONY SUCKS GEORGE”, that sort of thing. Now, because I fully admit I’m a Peacenik, I thought it was vaguely amusing at first, in a macabre sort of way. But then the little buggers seemed to multiply, and were appearing everywhere. And as I said that’s the trouble you see, our Joker never knows when to give it a rest. He also doesn’t know when a joke stops being a joke and becomes just tedious, or crosses the line into being downright offensive. To give you just one example of this, on the day of the July 7th bombings in London, he posted a vile little poem up on the door of the men’s public convenience in the village. I won’t give you the contents of the poem, but take it from me it wasn’t very nice. Somebody had scrawled underneath “SHUT UP, YOU JERK!” Which was about the feelings of all of us I think!
But there was another factor in this new instalment from the world’s least funny comedian, and that was that Henry would no doubt take this latest missive very seriously. I had a depressed feeling that our new neighbour could turn out to be rather wearying. All I could hope for was that as the Season progressed, and more people took up residence in Beach Lane, that he would sort of get lost in the throng. At the moment Misty and I were too conveniently the only ones he could latch onto. It’s strange that at this stage when I thought of them being a potential nuisance, it was only Henry I thought of. Jeannette was too shadowy a figure to make the kind of impact needed to be a nuisance. She was like some dreary ghost that, whilst they didn’t exactly enhance the place, at the same time wasn’t troublesome enough to call out Derek Acorah!
Holy Week began in a maelstrom mix of torrential rain and sharp bursts of April sunshine. Misty either played golf indoors or outside, depending on the weather. I got a satisfying amount of work done during the day, and in the early evenings lay on the sofa with a JD, and Misty’s resting on my stomach or lap. A missive from my psychic advisor told me that I should avoid being in jarring or jangling company. As Misty is never remotely jarring or jangling this was quite fine by me. Another missive in a similar vein, which I received on the Sunday morning, I found vaguely unsettling: “AVOID BEING AROUND DISTURBING PEOPLE”. In terms of all the psychic advice I had received so far, this one was by far the most peculiar.
I was still mulling over this e-mail, when the telephone rang. It was the Manager of the Blossom Tree Tea-Rooms, absolutely cock-a-hoop from the sound of things.
“Have you seen today’s ‘Mail On Sunday?” he said, breathless with excitement.
I managed to bite back a remark to the extent that I wouldn’t even line the budgie’s cage with such a rag (provided we had a budgie), and instead said cordially that no I hadn’t.
“We’re in it!” he said “The Blossom Tree Tea-Rooms is in it. One of the Top 100 Tea-Rooms in the entire country! Our meringues were particularly singled out for attention!”
“Lovely”, I said, wondering what on earth any of this had to do with me. We never even went in the Blossom Tree Tea-Rooms. The one time we attempted it, it had been full of pensioners and sour-faced women who had blocked every walkway with push-chairs, and who glared venomously at you if you asked them to move them. I got the distinct impression that non-breeders were very unwelcome.
“Anyway, the reason I’m calling”, he said “Is if you could kindly put that on the website”.
“Tell you what”, I said “Why don’t you just send an e-mail to our message board, and then you can say what you like, within reason of course!”
“Would that be allowed?” he said, as though I’d suggested he post nude photographs of himself on there.
“Absolutely”, I said “It’d make a nice change from endless requests for family history information!”
“Oh I know, they get a bit tedious don’t they”, he laughed “Sort of my great-great-great grandfather ran a cobblers down Curfew Street in 1843, does anybody remember him?”
I had to laugh at that one as well. I had had to wade through endless e-mails along that line, and was seriously thinking of setting up a separate message board for the amateur genealogists, and then nobody else would have to be bothered with them. He rang off, still delirious with happiness, and that warmed my heart.
“Hey, guess what!” said Misty, suddenly appearing in the doorway.
“You are developing a habit of doing that!” I said “You’re like some little feller in an old Western, suddenly bursting into the saloon bar with some portentous news!”
“Mrs Dickhead’s mowing the lawn!” he said.
“But it’s been raining this morning!” I said “Quite heavily at times”.
“She’s still mowing the lawn”, said Misty “Come and look”.
I followed him to the other side of Beach Lane, and hoped that if Jeannette saw us, she would think I was simply surveying the rain-clouds over the sea with my artist’s eye. When we got to a suitable vantage point, I tried to turn as casually as I could, and saw that yes indeed, Jeannette, wrapped up in a man’s heavy-duty khaki jacket, was pushing a hover-mower about with the kind of vigour I hadn’t thought she was capable of. I looked up at the threatening rain clouds, and then back at her.
“What is it with those two and weather?” I said “He sunbathes half-naked when it’s only 15 degrees, and she mows the lawn when it’s soaking wet!”
I decided to take Misty for a drink at ‘The Waterwitch’ after this. I was astonished to find that the place was practically deserted. Normally on a Sunday lunchtime, at any time of the year, you get quite a reasonably-sized crowd in there. (Perhaps they had all flocked to the now-famous Blossom Tree Tea-Rooms?!). We sat down in front of the fire, and the landlady’s elderly mother came out. We very rarely saw this old dear. She was normally around the back somewhere, but occasionally she put in an appearance out front. I think she suffers from some form of senile dementia, although there are times (sadly increasingly rare) when she can be razor-sharp. Today she was carrying a plate of what appeared to be old bones, which I assumed she was going to throw on the fire, but instead she stood there gnawing on them.
With more rain-clouds coming over, the bar was getting quite dark. I was uncomfortably reminded of the living-room at Rufus Franklin’s cottage at Darklight Cove. I hadn’t realised that dark corners and shadows were unsettling me these days, but clearly they were. That, combined with the old lady’s slurping enjoyment of the meat bones, gave the place an uncomfortably surreal feel. I must have looked unwell, because Misty put one of his little hands on my forehead. The main doors opened, and an odd little man walked in. He was short, reasonably stocky in build, and had very dark hair. Facially, he bore a strong resemblance to a toad, and yet he wasn’t ugly. Clearly, some force of personality came through, and prevented him from being downright repulsive, as so many men with his looks could be.
“Can anyone tell me where Mrs Temple lives?” he said, addressing all three of us at once.
The old lady took no notice of him whatsoever. But then again she hadn’t taken any notice of us either. She was clearly far away in her own little world somewhere. Fortunately the landlady appeared (she must have heard the front door slam back, as it’s on a spring). She greeted the little man, and said that she hadn’t heard of a Mrs Temple, but that we get a lot of visitors here at this time of year. Was he certain she was living at Shinglesea? Yes he was. Then perhaps he’d better try ‘The Ship’, which was more a part of the village, or the shop on the main road. He said he’d have an orange juice first.
“I need to use the loo”, said Misty “Then I’ll get the drinks in”.
“No I’ll do it whilst you’re in there”, I said.
“If you’re sure you’re up to it”, said Misty, with concern.
“I think I can just about manage that!” I smiled.
I went and stood at the bar and waited my turn. The landlady said she had to go and get some more bottles from round the back, and disappeared. The surreal tone of the afternoon took another strange turn when the strange little man suddenly jabbed his finger at my bottom. This was by no means unpleasant, in fact quite the opposite. But even so, I gave him a look which suggested that further efforts along this line would not be a good idea.
When Misty returned I suggested that we go home.
“First you want to go out for a drink”, he said, following me along the top of the sea-wall “Then we get there, wait an age to be served, and just as we’re about to be, you decide you want to go home again!”
“I’ll explain it all back at the cottage”, I said.
On the way into the cottage though Mrs Jackson stopped us to say her hens had been doing spectacularly well lately (it must because it’s Spring, she said), and that she had left us a box of eggs on our veranda. I thanked her, and said they were very welcome.
“I’ve also left some for the newbies”, she said, picking up the slang jargon she had learnt from her recent adventures in eBay land “What do you make of them?”
“Well it’s too early to say really”, I said, as tactfully as I could.
“Bit odd aren’t they?” she said, cutting through the time wasting civilised veneer “But then again, we have to understand, she’s been quite ill lately”.
“I was wondering if that was the case”, I said, aware that a spitty, but persistent rain had started falling on us.
“Breast cancer”, said Mrs Jackson “A terrible illness that”.
(Yes I know, I thought, my Mother died of it, but I didn’t think this was the moment to bring that out. I could just imagine Mrs J in her well-meaning but not always tactful way relaying it to Jeannette!).
“Is she still having treatment?” I said.
“Oh no, that’s finished”, said Mrs Jackson “And she’s been given the thumbs-up, but she’ll have to stay on medication for the next 5 years. They’ve come down here for a few months to have a less stressful life”.
“Good idea”, I said “Although I wish he’d picked a better house for her than that gloomy old hovel!”
“I never liked that place”, said Mrs Jackson, who used to clean it when it was still a weekly holiday let a couple of years ago “Used to give me nightmares. It was always dark inside, and I used to think somebody was watching me all the time, even when I was completely alone in it”.
More unwelcome reminders of Rufus Franklin and ‘Lobster Pots’! I was glad to get indoors. Misty, convinced I was going down with something, insisted I went to bed, and I was in no condition to argue otherwise. In the process of him kindly undressing me, I told him about what had happened with the little toad-like man in the bar.
“Oh don’t tell me we’ve got another Rufus Franklin on our hands!” said Misty.
“It’s alright”, I said “There’s no way this guy knows who we are or where we live”.
“He can soon find out round here”, said Misty “Franklin did. You’re quite famous in these parts you know”.
“You make me sound like David Beckham!” I said, rather disturbed by this idea.
“I mean everybody knows who you are”, said Misty.
“That’s what I’m afraid of!” I said.
I spent the rest of the day in bed, and Misty was my little ministering angel, in spite of his best efforts to set fire to the kitchen by wandering off and leaving the grill alight. This isn’t the first time he has done this, and when I told him off I got the stock response of “I don’t always forget do I?” “It only takes once to burn the house down, Misty!” I said. Other than that, I lay there reading an old crime novel, in which the characters were forever throwing open doors. I lost count of the number of times I read the words “she threw open the door”. A little point I know, but you notice these things when you’re laid up. I had an images of an old house where, not only was there a high risk of you getting done in, but people were forever flinging the doors wide open with gay abandon.
Late afternoon we had a visitation from Henry. Misty, bless him, had tried his best to bar his entrance, but Henry was too formidable an opponent for that. He came and greeted me at my bedside, and I was feeling fairly narked with him. It turned out that Jeannette wanted us to come round to their house for drinks. The prospect of this filled me with untold gloom. And Henry seemed incapable of appreciating the fact that I was feeling under the weather. To turn them down flat though made me feel like a selfish priest refusing to hear the Confession of a dying woman.
“She so enjoyed your visit the other night”, said Henry, laying it on with a trowel “She said it will be such fun to have you as neighbours”.
As Jeannette had spent the entire time looking stony-faced, not uttering a single word, I could only assume she was somebody who kept her delight well hidden under a bushel!
“But then again”, said Henry, with a heartfelt sigh “I can’t force you to come. ‘Don’t go on at them if they don’t want to come, Henry’, she said to me”.
I suddenly had an image of exactly how Jeannette would say it too. A sort of sarcastic petulance.
“I’m really not feeling a 100 per cent this evening, Henry”, I said “If you want us to meet up, it might be easier if you both come round here”.
I thought this was a stroke of genius on my part. I could ease my bloody conscience about not wanting to see them at all, and we wouldn’t have to sit in that gloomy house with its torn wallpaper, no heating, and black hole where a fireplace should be. Also, how could I explain to him that these days I seemed to have developed a sort of phobia where darkened rooms were concerned? And ’Barnacles’ by contrast, cheap and cheerful though it undoubtedly was, at least was bright and comfortable. Henry didn’t react to this idea positively though. He made his excuses and left. I got the distinct impression they were people who didn’t like being out of their own environment.
The following morning, Misty and I took advantage of a break in the rain to drive back out to Darklight Cove, for me to get more inspiration. On the way I noticed that the circus tent was up, and that it would be open for business over Easter. I suggested to Misty that we walk round there sometime over the weekend, and he said as long as I was up to it, which made me feel like a decrepit 90-year-old! When we got back to Beach Lane, Henry was lurking round by our fence. I was starting to get a sinking feeling that he was turning out to be a bit of a menace, a feeling that intensified as our conversation went on.
“Jeannette would have liked that”, he said, accusingly, when we told him where we had been.
Really this is too much! I thought. We barely know these people, and now we’re expected to ask them along every time we leave the house! Already it was all starting to feel horribly like familial duty. Just for the record, I had had a very domineering father, who never lost an opportunity to tell us all what we should and shouldn’t be doing, how to do it, and even (and this I still find completely unforgivable to this day) taking full credit himself for things others had done. These days I don’t cast any thoughts back over my life before I met Misty. As far as I’m concerned my own personal life history began when I met him, and everything that went before it is completely irrelevant. But occasionally, just occasionally, I get a little knot of anger inside me that I hadn’t stood up to the old bastard who had belittled me at every turn, and then wondered (in genuine astonishment) why I was so hard on myself! I don’t believe that if I had erupted at him that it would have changed his personality in any marked way, but at least I might have had the satisfaction of shutting him up for a short while!
Anyway, the point I’m trying to make, in my roundabout way, is that it has all left me with a very rebellious streak when it comes to dealing with people who are overly-authoritarian, or people who resort to emotional blackmail to get their own way. Henry was clearly turning out to be this sort of person. I had a strong suspicion Jeannette was even worse. And no, I didn’t think it was the cancer that had made her this way. I think she had been like it all along. That terrible disease had only exaggerated what had already been there.
I compromised by saying we would pop round for drinks at 6 o’clock, even though I was feeling wretchedly tired. As it turned out six o’clock was a bad time for me to have picked. Watching the 6 o’clock news was almost like a religious ritual for Henry and Jeannette. I had got out of the habit of this long ago. I got all the news I required on Teletext, and reading the BBC website. The thought of sitting down and watching half-an-hour of carnage, misery, politicians, carnage, misery, politicians (you get my drift) was not something that enticed me. Once again, I had the impression that Henry and Jeannette were like a couple of psychic vampires gorging on all the terrible things that happened in the world. I know this makes me sound a bit ridiculous, as though I’m implying that anyone who watches an entire news broadcast is a ghoul! That’s not what I’m saying at all, but simply that … well you had to sit for that half-an-hour in Henry and Jeannette’s company to know that they weren’t simply showing an interest in the outside world.
Wine was dished out, and the ritual began. The top news story was that of a boat which had capsized in the Far East, killing a dozen people. A tragedy undoubtedly, but one that scarcely merited Henry’s over-the-top response. Throughout the story, he sat there clasping his head, crying “oh this is terrible!” He even took to waving his hands in the air. I couldn’t help feeling that back in the days of Ancient Greece, he could have got a job as an official funeral mourner, trailing along in the funeral cortege crying, beating his breast and tearing his hair! “Those poor people”, he wailed “Those poor people”. Misty was looking more and more alarmed, and I was starting to worry what effect all this would have on him. Meanwhile, Jeannette was chewing her bottom lip, and wearing what I can only call an inscrutable expression on her face.
Mercifully, this harrowing story came to an end, and the leader of the Opposition popped up to be interviewed (which was scarcely much of an improvement!). Henry asked me what I thought of him. I said I didn’t think anything much, but that that was my opinion of politicians in general. He asked me what my party politics were. I said I didn’t have any these days. I was disillusioned with politics right across the board. Every political party seemed riddled with moral cowardice, corruption and on the fiddle. I said I always voted in elections (although one year I took great satisfaction in spoiling my ballot paper).
“What do you vote?” he said.
Reluctantly I said I voted Liberal Democrat. The only reason being that they were the only main party to stand up against the Iraqi War. And locally, they were the only party that could keep the Tories out.
“I see”, said Henry, and I couldn’t tell if this meant I had merited approval, or the worst kind of condemnation.
Whatever. The whole session was boring me rigid. I wanted to be at home with Misty, drinking a JD out on the veranda, and listening to the sea. Instead, we were in this dark, chilly room, talking politics, whilst Jeannette sat huddled up in a corner of the sofa like a praying mantis about to pounce. From then on every news story that came on, I was vetted for my opinion about. What did I think of Camilla Parker-Bowles? The new cancer drug? The NHS? It was like being locked in an interrogation with some kind of demonic market researcher! I felt like saying to Henry that his trouble seemed to be that he was too immersed in reality. We all need an escape from it occasionally. But I had a strong feeling I would only get a marathon lecture if I dared to say such a thing.
I hope you’re still with me, reader. I wouldn’t blame you if you had wandered off in search of more stimulating matter by now. I’ve only put all this in, because I think it’s little details like this that I need to explore to try and understand this bizarre couple as a whole.
By the time the sheer tedium of the local news came on, I decided I would be brisk and take Misty home. The poor little thing was looking absolutely wretched by this point. I had a strong suspicion he might start crying if this awful situation was allowed to continue much longer. I made the excuse that I had some important phone calls to make (which is an absolute lie, I NEVER have important phone calls to make!), as an excuse to leave.
“I’ve never seen you look so exhausted”, said Misty, when we had got back to ’Barnacles’ “You really do look worn out. If this keeps up I’m gonna have to go and buy you some Metatone from the chemists in Fobbington”.
“That might not be a bad idea”, I said.
I had a disturbing image of Henry and Jeannette as a couple of bewinged demonic entities feasting on my naked carcass. I decided I needed an early night.
I slept for a few hours, and woke up soon after midnight. Misty was sleeping peacefully next to me. I slid as unobtrusively out of bed as I could, and went to make a cup of tea. I put the television on very low, and was greeted with the sight of a peculiar looking man pulling on a surgical glove. He then said it would be best if I didn’t watch, as he was going to shove his fist up somebody’s arse. The screen then put up an image of a vase of flowers standing on the floor, but accompanied by some very disturbing sound effects of a man … having somebody’s fist pushed up his arse (believe me, you haven‘t LIVED until you’ve heard this!). I knew that those terrible agonising noises would haunt me for days. It was like listening to somebody being tortured to death (and he volunteered for this, for PLEASURE?!) I sat there thinking, in all honesty, did I really just sit through this? I even began to wonder if the t.v programme had been real, and that I hadn’t sort of dreamt the whole thing. Just whilst I was debating all this with myself, the horrid man popped up again, this time armed with a cloth and bucket. Cut to wonderful image of him cleaning up his victim’s evacuated bowels. It was like a bizarre dishcloth commercial!
“Fuck!” I said “Has the Marquis de Sade taken over our television in this country? What’s this fucking obsession with people’s shit?!”
“What are you up to now?” said Misty, appearing drowsily in the doorway which connected our living-room to our bedroom.
“Misty, I’m sorry”, I said, hastily zapping the OFF button on the remote control “I didn’t mean to wake you”.
“You didn’t”, said Misty “The birds woke me”.
“The birds?” I said.
“There are a load of birds making a helluva racket in our garden”, he said.
“At this time of night?” I said.
We both went out of the side door in the kitchen, and into our tiny little fenced back garden. Misty was right. There were birds squawking in the trees and bushes all around us.
“Now we’re living in a Hitchcock film!” I said, grimly, ushering Misty back inside. Birds or no birds, it was too damn cold at this time of night to stand out there half-dressed.
“It’s that jar that’s disturbing them”, said Misty “The one we buried under the rowan tree, I swear it”.
“But if that’s the case”, I said “Why is it suddenly disturbing them now?”
“Perhaps it’s the effect of our peculiar new neighbours”, said Misty.
“I know it’s tempting”, I said “But we really can’t blame EVERYTHING that happens on them!”
“I don’t see why not”, said Misty.
“There’s no answer to that!” I said.
On Maundy Thursday I managed to make an excuse to nip out to the mini-mart on the main road, to buy an Easter egg for Misty. I had seen one shaped like a big rabbit wrapped in gold paper, which I knew he would love. Just when I thought I might be safe from the neighbours in there, Henry tapped me on the shoulder whilst I was standing in the queue waiting to pay. I had never known a man with an ability like his for suddenly appearing out of thin air like he did. In a previous existence he must have been a bloody magician’s rabbit!
“I am taking Jeannette out for a drive this afternoon”, he said, and, at the risk of sounding totally paranoid, I detected a twang of reproach in his voice “Could you get our washing in if it rains?”
“I can’t promise anything”, I said, aware that I was sounding rude “I’ve got work to do this afternoon, and I don’t always notice what the weather’s doing when I’m at the canvas”.
“Well can’t you get Misty to do it?” he said.
I knew there wasn’t a hope in hell of Misty going round to that gloomy hovel all on his own, and I merely repeated what I had already said. I also added a pointed little codicil that I knew of a hardware shop in Fobbington which sold clothes-horses.
“Buying an Easter egg I see?” he said.
“That’s right”, I said.
“It beats me how the mass consumption of chocolate has anything to do with the sacrifice Our Lord made on the Cross”, said Henry, pompously.
“Well fortunately I’m not a Christian so I don’t have to worry about all that!” I said, unrepentantly.
“Then really you should not be enjoying a Christian holiday!” Henry exclaimed.
“I will probably be working over Easter, Henry”, I said “Anyway, Easter was originally a Pagan Spring Fertility Festival, so chocolate bunny rabbits are very apt actually!”
I may have scored valuable points in this particular battle, but Henry’s remarks had left me seething. This man was proving to be an even bigger ruddy menace than even I could possibly have anticipated. When I got back to ’Barnacles’ Misty told me that Tara Mitchell (the pottery lady with a caravan for hire) had rung up, to say she was giving a party on Easter Saturday, and Misty and I were both invited.
“Mr Beresford must have given her our number”, said Misty.
“Mr Beresford should set himself up as our local directory enquiries!” I said, but I wasn’t displeased with this news. A party sounded just the thing, and I had a strong hope that Henry wouldn’t be there (most likely too busy sitting at home being all Christian and worthy and miserable, reflecting on what a sorry, ungrateful, greedy lot Mankind is) “Why has she invited us though? We’ve only met once, and that was pretty fleeting”.
“It’s because you’re arty I think”, said Misty, as though I had some terrible disease “It’s not just a party you see, it’s also to get ideas underway for this ’Artist’s Paradise’ thingy they all want to do”.
“I wonder if she’s managed to rent out her caravan?” I said “It’s not being held in there is it?”
(I had images of a rusty old caravan rocking on its wheels as we all went wild inside it).
“No”, Misty sighed, in exasperation at my deliberate obtuseness “In her studio. She’s got one down by the harbour in Fobbington.
“Like Rufus Franklin”, I said “It might even be his old one for all we know”.
“It doesn’t matter if it is”, said Misty, firmly “A party might be just what you need. Let your hair down. It’s not as if we’d get any fun with that lot down the lane is it!”
“That Lot Down The Lane?” I laughed “Makes them sound like something out of a Stephen King novel! Mind you, if the cap fits …!”
I spent most of Good Friday in bed, as otherwise Misty said I wouldn’t be up to going to Tara Mitchell’s party the following night. The exhaustion I was experiencing was frustrating and debilitating. It came accompanied with fits of nausea, and I spent far too much time kneeling on the floor of the loo. Misty would stand behind me dolling out paper towels. Bless his heart, he also kept the website up to scratch.
“Not much going on”, he said, bringing me another cup of tea late that afternoon “A woman has written in asking if there are any radio ham clubs in the area”.
“Probably”, I said “Put it up on the message board. I’m sure Tony Hancock will be in touch at some point!”
“And somebody’s replied to the student, the one you don’t like”, said Misty “She said to tell him that the Church tower will be open on Sunday, and that there are wonderful views to be had from the top”.
“As well as plenty of wonderful opportunities for shoving him off it!” I said “Put that on there as well, on the main message board. I am not replying to him personally”, and I added grandly “I regret I cannot enter into personal correspondence!”
The main impression I had when I first saw Tara Mitchell’s studio was that it all felt a bit fake. It was like a film set, and she herself was like an actress playing an artist in Soho, London, circa 1956. The studio party should have come complete with Angry Young Men in turtleneck sweaters, serving cannabis out of tea-pots! With her checked shirt and cord trousers Tara would have fitted in well as an eccentric lesbian character in a television period drama.
Mr Beresford had given me the impression that Tara made pottery, but she seemed to be more of a Jill-of-all-trades. There were abstract paintings stacked against the walls, and Barbara Hepworth-style abstract sculptures both in the studio and out on the large balcony. The cynical thought went through my head that if somebody did want (for whatever reason) to go undercover and impersonate an artist, an abstract sculptor would probably be their best way of avoiding detection! If this makes me sound like a total Philistine, then so be it. But I’ve seen too much of this damn stuff popping up in dreary town centres in the past 30-odd years to still get excited about it. I’ve lost count of the number of headless androgynous figures I’ve seen, as well as women with a big hole for a stomach. I would rather have Michelangelo’s David any day. Yes, I’m afraid it all brings out the Philistine in me. I end up sounding like the old guy in the Nancy Mitford novel, who thought that the picture of the Shire horses trudging through the snow was his idea of high art. Confronted with abstract sculptures, I suddenly get a great empathy with him!
It didn’t help that lately Tara seemed to have been inspired by Easter eggs, as she had been busy churning out egg-shaped objects of various designs, all of which reminded me of ’The Holy Stone Of Clanrichert’ from ’Father Ted’, and recalling how that sacred object had ended up being shoved up the backside of a holy father reminded me uncomfortably, yet again, of that revolting programme I had seen the other night! I was staring (with a feeling akin to despair) at a prickly egg-shaped object with its inside missing, when Tara decided she would introduce Misty and I to the throng, and added, as she did so, “aren’t they sweet?!” Which made me want to head out of the door smart-ish. I hadn’t realised that I was still holding Misty’s hand. To get from the bus-stop at the railway station to the harbour, you have to cross two busy roads, and I had kept a tight grip on Misty otherwise he could end up walking under a truck! I certainly wasn’t making any statements with this, and I could have done without the cynical stares of everyone there.
The whole set-up was making me feel more and more uncomfortable. None of it felt real, not the setting or the people. I noticed an empty Champagne bottle nestling amongst some of Tara’s tools. It was covered with dust, so it had clearly been there some time. But again, it felt like a prop. As though somebody had said “artists are a boozy, bohemian lot aren’t they? So she’s bound to have some old empty bottles knocking around from some all-night session. We’ll put that in as well”.
What let the whole thing down even more badly though was the conversation of everyone going on around us. No cultural talk at all, no pretentious Jean Paul Sartre-style Meaning Of Life discussions, instead everybody seemed to be talking about their bloody kids’ schools! Instead of “I think therefore I am” talk, we had Ofsted reports, Postcode Lotteries, and buying a washing-machine for your student son off eBay! It was as if the stage director had paid meticulous attention to getting the set right, and then had forgotten to give the actors the right script! When I tried moving the discussion round to the ’Artist’s Paradise’ exhibition (I thought I might as well get SOMETHING consecutive out of the evening!), I was told by Tara “Please dear, no shop talk tonight!” Shop talk?! We’re meant to be self-obsessed artists, our “shop talk” is meat and drink to us … or at least it should be anyway!
Things went from bad to worse when we were introduced to Lois, her personal trainer (I had images of Tara, wearing blinkers and a horse-blanket, being frogmarched round the racecourse at Epsom!), and the absolute last straw came when I caught a frosty-faced woman (her name was Celia I think) wearing a vile olive-green silk suit, giving Misty a disdainful look. I came to the perfectly reasonable assumption that if we weren’t there to discuss the exhibition, then there was no point in us being there at all. When a gaggle of yet more of the middle-class 4x4 crowd came through the door, all being terribly pleased with themselves for no reason at all, and making a great deal of hearty noise, Misty and I slipped out, under covering fire as it were. The relief on his little face when we got outside reassured me that I had got something right this evening at least.
“Where shall we go now?” he said.
“A drink”, I said “A proper drink I mean. Not a pissy little bit of lukewarm wine in a paper cup!”
We wound up in ‘The Crab’, a pub just over the road from the artist’s studios, but with rather a more down-to-earth crowd in there. It was so full that the back double doors had been left open, as enough body heat was being generated to warm up even a pub in Fobbington in April. A pub bank holiday crowd is always different to one you get on a normal weekend night. People seem more relaxed for one thing. They don’t feel they have to get bombed out of their brains in 10 minutes flat. There is a more leisurely feel to it all. After all, they have all afternoon and all evening to get rat-arsed in (and they can do it all again tomorrow!).
The only spare seats were not in the most salubrious part of the building, stuck between the door to the Gents’ loos, and the cigarette machine, but I told Misty to nab these quick whilst I got the drinks. When I finally reappeared with them we could relax, and watch the world go by. I apologised to Misty for having subjected him to that awful crowd across the road, and he said it didn’t matter. He knew as soon as he saw them that I wouldn’t want to stay there. Near to us was a girl I recognised as living in one of the houses up at Fishgut Alley. She’s a bit tiresome to tell the truth. The sort who’s hang around in pubs night after night, convinced that all stray men are enraptured with her. I think she’s about 30-ish, but still lives with her parents, although you’d never guess this from the way she talks. She wears her hair swept back with an Alice band, and her laugh has a near-hysterical quality to it at times. I had once heard her remark that she had a been a school-bully, and clearly she still found it hard to accept that such “glory days” are now behind her!
This evening she was making a nuisance of herself nicking chips off the plate of a nearby lone male who was trying to eat his dinner. His increasingly terse exclamations would have been a warning to a more self-aware person that this particular style of flirting wasn’t going down well, but Alice Band was immune to such things. I was distracted from this absorbing study of human social behaviour by the little toad-like man coming through the double doors. The same little man I had had that encounter with in the ’Waterwitch’. This evening he was wearing a black leather jacket, and clutching a crash helmet. He recognised us straight away.
“Did you ever find your Mrs Temple?” I said.
“Yes, she lives down the lane from you as a matter of fact”, he said “An old place called ’The Hedges’”.
“Jeannette?” I said (I hadn’t bothered looking at the surname on the parcel we had taken in) “How did you know she lived down the lane from us?”
“Henry told us all about their new neighbours”, he said “I recognised you both from the description”.
“Great”, I said, unenthusiastically.
I noticed that Misty had sunk down into his seat, and was looking like a little dog when it’s shivering with nerves. I was tired of people like Toady disrupting us, and unsettling Misty. Rufus Franklin had been bad enough, but now we had this whole set-up which felt even more bizarre (and that takes some doing!).
“Does Fishgut Alley still exist?” he said, which I thought was a rather strange way of putting it.
“Yes, it’s still there”, I said, noticing that Alice Band had ear wigged the mention of her home street “Why?”
“No reason”, said Toady “Just that my family used to live there many years ago. I might check it out sometime”.
“Be my guest”, I said.
Toady gave an unpleasant snigger. Fortunately he departed soon after.
I seemed to be losing my marbles quite steadily in the days that followed. I was fine on the Easter Sunday. Misty and I drove out to the circus pitch beyond Fobbington, and we walked around the site in-between shows, asking if I could take photographs of various things, like a woman pegging her washing out by her caravan, and a dog chained up. I met with no resistance. Apparently a local news team had already been out to see them, and the circus folk were taking the perfectly sensible attitude that all publicity is good publicity.
The following day I left Misty at ‘Barnacles’ and went up onto the main road in order to fetch us a fish-and-chip supper. On the walk back to Beach Lane I was thinking how wonderfully unique April evenings are in England. I don’t know why, but they are. Something about the light, something about the whole general feel of it. I remembered once many years ago having a light-hearted argument with a bloke I shared an office with, as to what was correct about a famous poem, was it “Oh to be in England now that Spring is here”, or “Oh to be in England now that Summer is here”, I still don’t know, but I could believe that it was Spring. Mrs Jackson always says when we have a very fine day that she can’t understand how anybody can go abroad for their holidays, that when the weather is nice nowhere can beat England (yes, but with the important proviso that WHEN the weather is nice!).
When I got back to Beach Lane I found Jeannette strolling along it arm-in-arm with Toady. That makes it all sound very chummy. In fact, going by the expression on her face and her whole body language, I would have said that Jeannette wasn’t at all comfortable with this situation. Hardly surprising. Toady was practically slobbering over her. He also had an unappealing slithery tone to his voice, something akin to Golem from ’The Lord Of The Rings’ on a sex chat line! (“What are you wearing, my precious, are you hot for me, my precious?”).
“Did you miss me, darling?” he asked her “Have you been thinking of me?”
“No”, said Jeannette, shortly.
This was all completely weird. There was no way that Toady’s feelings were in the ranks of Just Good Friends. Where the hell did Henry fit into all this?! And if Jeannette didn’t like this creep hanging around her, why didn’t she just tell him to hoof it smart-ish? On seeing me, Jeannette gave me a look that was a strange mix of “help me” and “get lost”. When I got into ’Barnacles’ I felt a great wave of exhaustion flood over me.
“You need a holiday”, said Misty, helping me into bed yet again, after our fish supper.
“We can’t afford a holiday”, I said “There are dark forces conspiring against us, like Council Tax!”
“We talked about going off round the country come the Autumn”, said Misty “Of trading in the car for a motor-home. Well why don’t we just bring it forward a few months? We’d have the whole Summer to travel in then”.
“You have no idea how appealing that all sounds”, I said “Let me think about it, Misty. See if there’s any way we can bring it off”.
On Easter Tuesday I left Misty in a second-hand shop in Fobbington, looking over a stack of cut-price DVDs, whilst I had to nip into the Bank. On the way I had a strange experience, which only seemed to fuel the fear I had that I was coming apart at the seams. A young girl was sitting on the bench on the pavement. There was quite a strong sunshine that day, and at first I couldn’t see her properly. She was staring at me intently, and for a very long time, until I got right up close to her in fact, she didn’t seem to have a face! I realised afterwards that it was just an effect of the angle of the sun, but it shook me intensely at the time. To add to the whole surreal-ness of the situation, at the same time as I was trying to connect with her face, a man rushed past me carrying a funeral wreath in his hands! Talk about dreamscape!
I did what I needed to do in the bank, and then came out into the sunlight again. The bench was empty by now, and I sat down on it to wait for Misty. He clearly was alarmed when he saw me.
“Misty, I love you”, I said, as he sat down next to me clutching a carrier bag.
“Now I know you’re ill”, he said “You’ve told me you love me so much these past few days I’m starting to get alarmed!”
“Oh very smart!” I said.
“Somebody’s nicked one of the cannons up at the lookout”, said Misty.
“How could they have done that?” I said.
There are some black iron cannons up at the lookout overlooking the marshes, purely ornamental. Tourists probably think they’ve been there since Fobbington’s earliest days as a Medieval port, and that we perhaps used them to see Napoleon off or something. Actually, they’ve only been there since 1977! They were put there to commemorate The Queen’s Silver Jubilee.
“How the hell could anybody nick one of them?” I repeated “They’re concreted into the ground!”
“JCB?” Misty shrugged “Sounds like it’s a prank”.
“Pretty elaborate one!” I said.
“And they think that whoever it was who did it has also nicked one of the headstones in the graveyard”, he said.
“This place gets worse!” I said.
We walked up to the top of the town to have a look. Into the churchyard first, and it seemed as though whoever our culprit was had had a couple of tries at lifting gravestones before being successful. A couple of them had been pulled back on their hinges. This was rather more serious than nicking one of the cannons. This was actual desecration. In the old days it would probably have fuelled no end of rumours, haunting and superstitions. Across the cobbled street, past Lawrence Freeman’s old house (which never fails to give me a shiver), and onto the lookout. It was understandably drawing quite a crowd this morning, and everybody was speculating as to how it could have been done. Misty’s suggestion of a JCB seemed to be the most popular choice, although where the JCB was acquired from, and how they go it up the cobbled hill in the middle of the night (which is when the deed was thought to have been done) without attracting any attention was totally baffling. Anybody who has ever lived near a cobbled street will tell you the din that any kind of traffic makes on them, so the racket caused by a JCB in the middle of the night doesn’t take much imagining.
“I expect it was some stupid stag or hen night stunt”, said a man standing nearby us “They should throw the book at them when they catch them if you ask me! The binge drinkers are ruining this town”.
A girl looked daggers at him. I recognised her as one of Alice Band’s drinking buddies at ‘The Crab‘. This girl’s boozing was so incredible that I had once seen her take her drink into the loo with her, as though she couldn’t bear to be apart from it for even a couple of minutes. She had some perfectly silly name like Daisy Peacock, which would be enough to drive anybody to drink!
“I shall drink wherever I want, whenever I want, with whomever I want”, she said, grandly “I pay my taxes, and people in this town are very quick to take my money. I don’t notice any complaints then!”
In the pub near where I grew up they used to have a sign in the bar. I can’t remember the exact wording of it, but it was along the lines of the perfect gentleman (or lady in this case) was one who, however inebriated they got, always stayed the perfect gentleman. Clearly it wouldn’t make much impact on her.
As we drove back into Shinglesea we got stuck behind a trailer carrying traffic cones. When we found it was heading in the direction of Beach Lane, I had a sinking feeling that this could only mean one thing. The local water company was digging us up again, presumably in order to bring their monthly quota of leaks up to its full requirement. (Got to justify having a hosepipe ban somehow). Arrival at the scene only confirmed this, when I found a gormless-looking twerp in a yellow waterproof waistcoat blocking up half the lane with his van. I got given a disgusted look for my pains when I indicated that I wanted to turn in at my own gate. Henry was standing nearby, obviously as determined to make as much of a nuisance of himself as South-East Water were.
“Sometimes I truly believe that Satan is at large in this country”, he said, when Misty and I had finally parked and got out.
“Yeah, and he’s running our utility services!” I muttered.
“Henry”, I said, in my normal voice “Are you a Creationist by any chance?”
“I refuse to answer that question”, he said “It will just be an excuse to make cheap jibes at my Faith”.
“You believe that the world was created in 6 days, and that the world began only 5000 years ago?” I said, feeling that no ’cheap jibes’ were really necessary! It’s like the old joke of one man says to another ‘are you trying to make a fool out of me?’ to which the other one replies ’not at all, you’re doing a fine job all by yourself!’
“I refuse to answer that”, said Henry, huffily, and he stomped off to ’The Hedges’.
Any hope that Henry might have taken full offence and would now cold-shoulder me for the rest of the Summer though proved to be but a dream. Having been driven round the bend all that afternoon and the following morning as well by South-East Water’s antics out in the lane, (“WE ARE WORKING HARD TO IMPROVE THE WATER IN YOUR AREA” their sign said. My arse! Said I). I was now having to see off a young lad selling dishcloths door-to-door when Henry came gallumping up the garden path. He was going out he said (well don’t let me stop you), and could I keep an eye on Jeannette.
“Why? What’s she doing?” I said.
“She said she’s going to do the garden”, said Henry “But I don’t think she’s up to it at all. Poor Jeannette. She works far too hard. She really should go to bed for the day”.
“Well what’s stopping her?” I said.
“She feels she mustn’t give in to it”, said Henry.
“Give in to what?” I said “I thought she had already beaten the cancer”.
“She’s terrified of it coming back”, said Henry.
“It will if she doesn’t pace herself better and look after herself more”, I said, bluntly.
“I know”, said Henry, and my eye, he didn’t sound remotely upset about that thought!!! In fact, my God, was there some glimmer of wishful thinking below the Caring Husband surface?!
“I don’t see what I can do if she does go working out there though”, I said “She’s hardly likely to listen to me, Henry!”
“Oh but she will”, said Henry “She loves you”.
I was so stunned by this news that Henry was able to make a quick getaway before I could reply. After a moment’s reflection I decided that this was probably just some Evangelical Christian speak. A bit like Prince Charles shaking hands with an evil murdering thug like Robert Mugabe at Pope John Paul II’s funeral, just because it was some bizarre Christian way of doing things.
Henry’s request was spurious anyway. I wouldn’t be able to see Jeannette from our house, not unless I traipsed all the way down the lane and stood outside her gate. Misty (bless him) said he would keep an eye out whilst he was playing golf, and I was able to get down to some work. Work is the best therapy and all that. It helped to calm me down, focus on what was important to me (Misty and work, in that order), and the plans for the circus pictures excited me. Absolute state of euphoria reached late afternoon when I saw the cone-trailer driving away up the lane, followed by the van stuffed with surly-faced men.
I celebrated by walking down the path, and over to the fence bordering the scrubland where Misty played golf. I had a good look at ’The Hedges’, just to make sure that Jeannette wasn’t over-exerting herself operating a road-drill or a cement-mixer or something, and found that Henry’s car hadn’t returned yet. Something else was there though. A motorbike, complete with black helmet fastened onto the side of the seat. Toady was back.
“How long’s he been there?” I asked Misty.
“Ages”, said Misty “About an hour I think. You can’t have heard him above the racket the Water Men were making”.
Now take things easy, I told myself. The guy is clearly an old family friend, he might even be a relative. And yet the thought niggled at my brain that he had only asked where Jeannette was, Mrs Temple, not Mr and Mrs Temple, or Henry and Jeannette, that it was Jeannette he had been pawing at as they walked down the lane a couple of days ago. His leering and slobbering (quite frankly I find it hard to describe it any other way) hadn’t been the actions of a brother, however devoted. Not unless it was a bloody odd family anyway!
Whilst I was watching the front door of the dilapidated bungalow opened, and Toady emerged, followed by Jeannette. She was looking rather more animated than I had seen her before, she even appeared to be smiling! (Which was a first!). The thought crossed my mind that she looked like a woman who had just had her oats. I had certainly never seen her look like that in Henry’s presence. It was a marked change from the haunted looking woman I had seen out in the lane with him. I was more baffled than ever.
Where the hell does Henry fit into all this? I thought. Answer came there none.
So much fresh air had tired Misty out, and I packed him off to bed early. I did some extra work, even though I didn’t really like painting after dark, I much prefer a natural light to work by. At 11 o’clock I put on the television, in order to relax a bit before going to bed. Marquis de Sade Television was in full operation again. This time a debate about the evil excesses of the Internet, and how impossible it is to regulate porn on it. A woman campaigning for tighter controls proudly exclaimed that (purely in the line of duty you understand) she had seen untold depravity on the Web.
“I have seen it all”, she said, practically breaking out into an excited sweat “Women vomiting, and then eating it, women having their heads flushed down toilets, women covered in maggots …”
Alright, alright! I felt like yelling at the television screen. God knows, listening to that idiot having a fist pushed up his backside the other night was bad enough, now I’ve got rotten images like that trooping unwanted into my head. I felt like I was morphing into my Father. Thinking things like “at one time our television was the envy of the world”. Cut to a woman on the opposing side of the debate. A spokesperson for some freedom of speech lobby. I was mesmerised by quite how ugly she was. Like Mrs Bubbles deVere from ’Little Britain’, but without that lady’s endearing exuberance!
“I will fight this motion at every step of the way”, she was saying.
(Good. I thought. Lock those two in a room together and leave them to it).
Cut to even uglier male “comedian”, who didn’t seem to have anything to say really, funny or not. I wasn’t even sure what he was doing there. The whole thing was depressing. Why can’t they just put a film on at this time of night? I asked myself. I flicked round some digital channels, and watched a nostalgia piece about the James Burke science programmes from the 1970s, which only served to reinforce everything I had just been thinking, and to remind us (as if we needed it) of what we seemed to have lost. We don’t have things like that anymore. We have moronic talking heads arguing about the rights (or the non-rights) to watch vile sexual humiliations on the Web.
I turned the sound off, and decided to have a look at the Local News Teletext, to see if anyone had found our ornamental cannon. I didn’t get that though, but something else entirely. A local woman had disappeared. She had been drinking at ’The Crab’, Fobbington, all evening on Easter Saturday. She was last seen by another local, a man, who had said goodnight to her when he left the pub at 11:15 PM, and she had been standing on the pavement outside. Nothing had been heard of her since, and her family were very worried. No calls had been made on her mobile, and no money taken out of her account, or off her credit card. Like so many others, she had simply vanished. I thought of Alice Band immediately, even without being aware of her real name (Anna Turnball apparently, according to this report). The description fitted. A woman of 34, slim-build, 5ft 6” tall, with shoulder-length brown hair, wearing a denim skirt and a fleece jacket.
The fact that we had been there on Easter Saturday, that we knew Anna Turnball (even if it was only by sight), is enough to send shivers down your spine. We had left ‘The Crab’ at just gone 10 o’clock, and gone down the station to catch another bus home. She had still been up at the bar when we left. In fact, it has to be said, that was one of the reasons why we decided to leave early. She and her drinking cronies had a tendency to make things uncomfortable when they were getting well lit up. It was as if the pub suddenly became their own private drinking-den, and the rest of us were annoying gatecrashers. Her flirting also gets more manic as time goes on. There is a desperate quality to it. A sort of “everybody look at me, I INSIST everybody looks at me”, and then, when we all look, there is nothing worth seeing.
I remember once on a previous occasion, back last year, when we had gone in there one lunchtime. She had come over and asked me if I was using the ash-tray on our table, I said no I didn’t smoke, and she could have it. A perfectly innocuous exchange of words one would have thought. The next thing I knew she was screeching in a loud voice up the bar, to anyone who would listen, raging about people who were too stuck up and couldn’t be bothered to have a proper conversation with her! At times like that I wondered if she was quite sane. In an earlier, less politically-correct age, she would have been dismissed as a 30-something sexually-frustrated spinster. The sort who, in Victorian times, would have had a psychiatric doctor masturbate her with a sex-aid in order to calm her down a bit. (Either that or recommend she take up horse-riding!).
In spite of all her potty-ness I was very concerned about Our Anna. Annoying and intrusive though she is, she’s still a local character, and I didn’t like to think of anything happening to her. And let’s face it, the condition she gets in after an evening at ’The Crab’, she’s not exactly in the best condition to take care of herself. Anna is one of those people I thought would be propping up the bar at ’The Crab’ until Judgement Day. I could just imagine her there in 30 or 40 years time, as a pensioner, still trying to get off with anybody who comes in!
I turned the television off and went to bed.
“Why have we only heard about it now?” said Misty, the following morning “Easter Saturday was days ago, why has it only made the local news now?”
“I don’t know”, I said “I think it’s something like you have to leave it 48 hours or something when an adult goes missing, it’s not like a child. And I expect people thought she might have gone off with some bloke she’d picked up in the pub, that she’d got lucky for a change. That might still be what’s happened. And she’ll come home eventually of her own accord. After all, the impression I got when I read about the last sighting of her, was that she seemed to have been waiting for somebody out on the pavement at 11:15”.
“Perhaps a bloke who had gone to the Gents?” said Misty.
“Exactly”, I said “Usually when somebody disappears unexpectedly, everybody who knows them says something like ’oh it’s very out of character for them to do that’, but nobody’s said that about Anna”.
“And now her folks are getting worried”, said Misty “Those poor people”.
“Try not to think about it too much, Misty”, I said “She’s either having a good time somewhere and is oblivious to all the worry she’s causing, or she could have done it on purpose to get attention. I’ve heard of that one before!”
I said all this to reassure Misty, but I wasn’t so good at reassuring myself. To try and take my mind off it, I did some work on the website. One of our local history buffs had submitted an article, which was to show just what a long and colourful history Shinglesea had. Unfortunately, when he uses phrases like “with evidence of Man going back to pre-history” I just want to add “no comment!” Somebody else had submitted a piece extolling the wonders of ‘The Waterwitch’. “There is also a fair darts team”, they said, and I had an image of a darts team composed entirely of bonny maidens!
I was interrupted mid-morning by a phone call from Tara Mitchell, who demanded to know in a raspy, cigarette ”enhanced” voice what had happened to me on Saturday night. With everything else going on I had completely forgotten that we had legged it from her party. I was quite cross that she should just ring up and demand explanations from me like that, as though I was back at school. God knows, I get enough of all that sort of thing from Henry! I said I thought we were going there to talk about the exhibition, and when she said we weren’t to talk about it, I decided there was no point to me being there. Sorry and all that, but I didn’t think we’d be missed.
“You weren’t”, she said, spitefully.
“So what’s your problem then?” I countered.
She spluttered “I-I-I” whilst I tapped out a Happy Birthday e-mail to The Queen. I have no idea how that telephone conversation finished, because after firing off the missive to Her Maj, I began doodling on a piece of paper. It then occurred to me that I had written “CANNON - HEADSTONE - ANNA TURNBALL : ALL DISAPPEARED FROM FOBBINGTON, EASTER WEEKEND. CONNECTION?” But what connection could there be? The cannon was probably an elaborate prank, and the headstone was either part of the prank, or simply a case of vandalism. And yet I couldn’t get that connection out of my head.
I was so absorbed in this that I honestly hadn’t realised that I had put the telephone receiver down on my desk. Tara Mitchell must have been spluttering into it for ages before finally giving up the ghost. It was only a piercing tone from it that called my attention to the fact that there was no longer anybody there.
“Jolly good”, I said to Misty, as I put the receiver back in its place “That’s another one offended! All in a day’s work!”
Misty was pleased with my progress over the next couple of days. I was feeling markedly better. I put this down to a combination of throwing myself into my work, not seeing the neighbours, and listening to a celebration of home-grown music on the radio, to celebrate St George’s Day. I was wallowing in Elgar’s The Cockaigne Overture, Vaughn Williams, and big swoozy dollops of Delius. Early on the Sunday evening Misty and I had gone for a walk along the sea-wall. When we got back to ‘Barnacles’ Misty went off to have a bath, and I listened to the Nocturne from The London Symphony, which conjured up images of London during a Winter twilight, and of the early days when Misty and I had been together. I got so sentimental about all this that I went into the bathroom and gently soaped his back for him.
I might have known that my delicious reverie wouldn’t be allowed to last though. A wise man once said that however much you may try and exclude yourself from Life, it will always come and roll around at your feet. How very true this was. The following morning I put on the local news Teletext and the top headline was “FEARS GROW FOR MISSING WOMAN”. I knew straightaway that this was referring to Anna Turnball. She hadn’t been seen for 9 days now. The news item said nothing more other than that her parents were very worried, and to repeat the description of her.
The post came at Midday (sometimes it comes at 8:30 in the morning, sometimes at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, today it decided to come at Midday), and it contained a handwritten envelope that I knew could only be from my Father. My heart sank. He writes to me every few months or so. These letters are usually little more than glorified shopping lists, giving me an update on everything my sister Stella has been doing. What promotions she and her husband have had, what their joint income now is (excluding the sort of bonuses that the average wage-earner in this country would regard as a healthy yearly income on its own!), where they had been for their holidays (Barbados or Egypt for Easter, Spain for golf, New York for shopping, that sort of thing), how astonishingly well their children are doing at school, what they had had done to their house etc etc. These letters are boring and irritating in the extreme. I can’t decide whether my Father is comforting himself by writing out these lists (I.e that one of his children has turned out “normal” with “normal” values), or that he’s trying to ram it home to me quite how much I’ve sacrificed by escaping the rat-race and escaping to ’Barnacles’.
I do wish he’d stop it. Truth to tell I have never envied Stella her lot, however gilded the cage might be. I think she has a dismal life. Her job might be well-paid but it’s extremely stressful, and she seems to spend her entire life racketing around from one near-nervous breakdown to another one. Every so often it all gets way too much for her, and she has to decamp to an exclusive health farm in Berkshire for a few days. She very rarely spends any amount of time at home, except to collapse into an exhausted drink-sodden sleep, and her children are constantly complaining that they never see her. Her husband is a plank, not a bad bloke by any means, but a plank all the same. It’s hard to take a man seriously who’s idea of a good time when visiting a foreign country is to head to the nearest McDonalds to eat, and then to an Irish theme bar to get bombed out of his brain until 2 o’clock in the morning and pretend he’s Liam Gallagher or something! (All the more absurd when you consider he’s now 52, and … er … well a little on the portly side let’s say. I do worry about his health sometimes). I once tried to read a novel by Martin Amis called “Money”, and the central character in it reminded me so much of my brother-in-law that I got the creeps and had to stop reading it!
I quite like the pair of them really. At their very best they do mean well, and at their worst they’re good for entertainment value, particularly as they seem to spend their entire lives hurtling from one slapstick scrape to another one! If it was just left to us we’d probably all get on like a house on fire, simply because I don’t envy them their lot, and I suspect it might make a refreshing change for them to be around people they don’t feel they have to compete with for a change. (Just for novelty value if nothing else!). But my Father puts the bloody mockers on it all as usual. I honestly don’t know whether his divide-and-rule tactics are intentional or not, but it works. He sets us all against each other, keeps up a constant unsettling whispering campaign to ensure that we all just grossly irritate each other. I think I know what you’re thinking: just ignore the silly old bastard. All I can say to that is, you don’t know my Father! If only it were that simple!
But what annoys the absolute crap out of me about my Father’s letters, far more than anything else, is that he doggedly refuses to ever mention Misty. Not even in passing, not even a curt “give my regards to …” sort of thing, not even TWO names on a card at Christmas-time. As far as my Father is concerned I live alone here at ’Barnacles’, completely alone. My Father’s chutzpah is so enormous that even in the unlikely event that he was to bump into us face-to-face, he would blank out poor little Misty completely. This is intolerable to me. And it’s why, although I send him cards at appropriate times of the year, I never reply to his letters. And yet still they come. The whole point of this latest one seemed to be to inform me that Stella and family had just come back from a two-week Easter holiday in Barbados, and were showing off their tans to everyone.
“That awful woman has just sent you an e-mail”, said Misty, at the computer.
“What awful woman?” I said.
“Tara Mitchell”, said Misty “The fake sculptor, as you call her. She says you are the most unpleasant person she’s ever had to deal with, the old cow!”
“If she thinks that she really does need to get out more!” I said “It looks as though everybody despises me at the moment”.
“I certainly don’t”, said Misty “And Mrs Jackson’s quite fond of you”.
“Then that’s all that matters”, I smiled “Tell you what, put a block on her. If she’s going to send me abusive e-mails then at least I’m not obliged to read them. Then let’s go to ‘The Waterwitch’ for a drink”.
“What’s wrong with ‘The Ship’ these days?” said Misty.
“I don’t feel up to dealing with the Toby Jugs at the moment”, I said “I’ll take you in there another time”.
’The Waterwitch’ is actually named after a ship, but today you could be forgiven for thinking that it was actually named after a witch. There were two old crones sitting in the public bar, who only needed tall hats, black cats and broomsticks to really look the picture! All a bit different to the usual kind of old ladies you see in there, with their neat perms and anoraks. These two looked like they should have been extras in a Dickensian drama. To add to the weirdness of it, they couldn’t seem to get engaged with the 21st century at all. When they went to pay they sorted their change out on the table in front of them as though it was a foreign currency they had never handled before, and asked half-witted questions like “how do you cut 20p in half?”
Two pensioners were sitting nearby eating their desserts, and trying valiantly to pretend that the old hags didn’t exist. One of the old crones suddenly snapped at them “What’s that you’re eating?”
“Cheesecake”, said the old man, nervously.
The old hag wrinkled her nose in disgust and let out a dramatic “ugh!” It was a great relief to all of us when they got up and left. One of them even gave a nasty cackle as she went out the main doors.
“We get all sorts in here”, the landlady sighed, when they had gone.
“Where did they come from?” I said “Are they Visitors? I’ve never seen them around here before”.
“Most likely”, said the landlady “Knowing our luck we’ll probably find they’re staying at the caravan site up the road and we’ll have to put up with ‘em all week!”
“At least it wouldn’t be for the whole Summer!” I said, thinking of Henry and Jeannette.
“Don’t say things like that”, said the landlady, giving a shiver.
Another party of pensioners came in, so Misty and I went and sat down by the window.
“What did your father have to say in his letter?” said Misty, with a look about him akin to somebody about to mount a scaffold to be executed.
“Nothing”, I said “Just the usual pile of pants. None of it worth repeating. Stella and Phil’s Easter holiday in Barbados blah-blah-blah. Phil went to a posh Bar Mitzvah in New York back in February, and the couple hosting it were so rich they turned up in His And Hers helicopters blah-blah-blah”.
“Crikey!” Misty giggled “That’s the way to do things if you’ve got the loot I suppose!”
His giggling was infectious, and I had to join in.
“Perhaps we should paint a helipad on the roof of ‘Barnacles’”, I said, which made him hoot even more “Because Phil will want a helicopter now, and he might want to drop in sometime!”
Out of the corner of my eye I saw Henry’s car drive past, going in the direction away from Shinglesea. There was no one in the passenger seat.
“I wonder if Jeannette’s having her fancy piece in”, I said.
I had half-joking when I said that, but when we got back to Beach Lane and we saw the motorbike in ‘The Hedges’ driveway, I found myself getting annoyed. I despised myself for my curtain-twitching attitude, and tried to reason with myself that Henry was quite old enough to take care of himself, and it was his problem to sort out, but even so the whole situation depressed me. Henry comes across as so ridiculously naïve and trusting that it brings out the kind of protective instincts that are normally reserved for Misty. He gives the impression that he blindly adores Jeannette (although I was starting to wonder if this feeling ran quite as deep as he’d like us to think it did), and Jeannette, with her vile aura of cold smugness was giving off a strong feeling that she was taking the piss out of the lot of us.
“Why are you letting it bother you so much?” said Misty, when we got back into the cottage “As you keep saying, it’s their business, not ours”.
“I know”, I said “But I know how I’d feel if you were cheating on me”.
“Me cheating on you?” Misty exclaimed, in disbelief “Me having somebody in here behind your back?! I wouldn’t be able to fool you for 5 seconds!!”
“You’re far too nice and decent to do anything so underhand anyway”, I said.
“I wouldn’t want the stress of it!” said Misty “And it all sounds really boring anyway”.
“They’re vile”, I said “Her and her bloody Mr Toad. He’s as fucking full of himself as she is. Look at the way he prodded me that time”.
“Yes, you quite enjoyed that”, said Misty.
“Go and put the kettle on”, I said.
To make matters worse Henry called in on his way home from wherever it was he had been. He had bought us a cake from the mini-mart on the main street. I was completely taken aback by this. It seemed such an odd thing to do.
“Just a little belated Easter present”, he said “You haven’t been round for a while. Jeannette was commenting on it only last night. She said she was worried she might have offended you in some way”.
This was it. This was my chance. To say ’Yes she has bloody offended me. Are you aware, Henry, that she’s having another man round whilst you’re out?’ Of course I didn’t though. I hadn’t known him anywhere near long enough or well enough to suddenly come out with such a bombshell. And Henry comes across as a fragile creature. A man like that could be utterly destroyed by such a thunderbolt, and I didn’t want to be responsible for delivering it. Also the thought had crossed my mind that perhaps he knew all along, that perhaps they had an open marriage, which conjured up equally disturbing prospects!!!
“She’d love you both to come round”, he was saying “She needs cheerful people around her”.
“I don’t find Jeannette very easy to get on with, Henry”, I said, trying to find some tactful way out.
“She is a very reserved person”, said Henry (I bet Toady doesn’t think that! I thought) “But she does get very tired easily, and so we have to make allowances. She was a bit upset the other day as a matter of fact. She went to see a Tarot card reader in Fobbington, and the reading upset her”.
“What did it say?” I said, all ready to point out that the Death card didn’t automatically mean death when it came up in a reading (Mrs Jackson sometimes does Tarot readings, so I‘ve picked up a bit about it from her).
“Something about ‘the sacrifice has been wasted’”, said Henry.
“Could that be some oblique reference to the cancer?” I said “Bad things in life are supposed to teach us something, Fate giving us a nudge to get us back on track as it were. Perhaps the cancer was an opportunity in some perverse way, and … well she’s blown it, hence ’the sacrifice has been wasted’”.
Tears welled up in Henry’s eyes. I thought I had upset him, and apologised profusely. I signalled for Misty to get out the JD bottle, but he knows my ways, and was already doing so.
“People change when they get cancer”, he said “Nobody can ever be the same afterwards”.
“But that doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing”, I said “In fact many people come out of it more positive, stronger”.
“Oh Jeannette is very strong”, said Henry “No question about that. She knows she has faced the tiger. But one moment she is hard and with-drawn, and the next she is emotional and upset. She’s very conscious of the changes her body has been through. She only has to see a girl in a little strappy top, and that’s it”.
“I’m afraid she’s got to come to terms with it”, I said, bluntly “Or she’ll never be able to cope round here come high Summer, when all the women are wearing them!”
And a horrid, nasty little thought came into my head, along the lines of it didn’t appear to be affecting her relationship with Toady. What Henry had mentioned is pretty much par for the course with any woman who has been through what Jeannette has, but all the same, I did wonder if he really knew anything about his wife at all.
We had some JD, and we had some wine out of the fridge. Misty pulled over an old bean-bag and lolled on it in the middle of the floor. I seemed to be constantly replenishing Henry’s glass. Far from refusing any JD, on the grounds that it might be The Devil’s Brew, he was chucking it back like a good ’un. I had got the wine out to stop him polishing off the whole lot. As the booze went down some depressing revelations came out.
“We are not really married”, he said.
“It’s no big deal these days”, I shrugged “Misty and I aren’t married”.
Misty made a noise from the bean-bag which sounded suspiciously like “we could be though”.
“No, no, you don’t understand”, said Henry “We are married legally, but not married in the eyes of God”.
“I don’t think I quite follow you”, I said.
“The marriage has never been consummated”, said Henry “God would not recognise our union”.
I was a bit floored by this, I honestly couldn’t think of anything to say. I would like to say I was surprised, but I wasn’t really. Henry and Jeannette had never struck me as A Normal Couple (whatever one of those is!).
“Has it always been like that?” I said, finally finding my voice again “Between you two?”
“Jeannette has some kind of phobia about intimacy”, said Henry “I think if she had her way she wouldn’t even share a bathroom with me”.
“Shades of Kenneth Williams!” I said “Has she ever thought of having counselling?”
“Her own mother tried to get her to have counselling many years ago”, said Henry “But Jeannette refused point-blank, said it’s her own life and nobody can tell her how to live it”.
“If you knew she was like this before you married though, why did you go ahead with it?” I said.
“I adore her”, said Henry “I always have. I’ve adored her for nearly 25 years. I made a pledge to her, before we were married, that I would always be there for her. And I always have”.
“But Henry …” I said, trying desperately to try and get my head around all this “Adoring isn’t the same as loving. Worship on its own doesn’t make for a healthy relationship. You have to both be on a level playing-field as it were”.
“Jeannette doesn’t want a man near her, not in that way”, said Henry “That’s what she’s said”.
This was yet another bombshell. From what I had seen she seemed to be quite happy to let Toady into her little sacred space! I could see Misty staring at me from the other side of his upturned feet. He was telegraphing to me that now was the time to mention Toady’s visits. But I couldn’t seem to force the words out. It was impossible. Poor old Henry, what a prize pillock. But a vulnerable prize pillock. A pathetically well-meaning prize pillock. My opinion of Jeannette had never been very high, God knows, but now it had plummeted through the floor. Admittedly, I had only heard one side of this relationship, but as far as I could see Jeannette was playing a very cold, calculating and cynical game here. She had never fancied Henry, but she wanted his adoration, she wanted him as her humble life-slave to run around for her. To keep him at arm’s length she had fed him this yarn that she was chronically frigid. That sex didn’t interest her. And all the while she had been having the arse poked off her by that toad-faced little motor-biking jerk! There is a name for women like her … in fact there are several.
“I couldn’t imagine living like that”, said Misty, as we finished off the JD in bed (I should point out that Henry wasn’t there with us, he had rolled home).
“It sounds pretty awful doesn’t it?” I said “How little we know of what goes on behind closed doors … or what doesn’t in this case. We’ll regret drinking all this in the morning”.
“I know, I’ll have to listen to you going on about having to pay out for another bottle!” said Misty.
“I meant, the hangovers!” I said “It’ll be a case of ’never again’, like it always is!”
“Could we get married?” said Misty.
“Is that what you’d like?” I said.
“Yes”, said Misty, simply “But you’ve never said”.
“I never said because I didn’t want to put any pressure on you”, I said “Attaching yourself to an old crock like me”.
“Oh well if you’re just gonna be silly!” said Misty, crossly.
“I suppose I am rather”, I said “It sounds a wonderful idea. And I’ll think exactly the same when I’m sober too!”
The booze always wears off at some ridiculously inconvenient time, jolting you into consciousness with no warning, and this time it was 5 in the morning. I could hear the birds twittering away outside (at least they had got the time right for once). I then remembered that it was rubbish collection day, and although they wouldn’t be here for another 3 hours, I thought I’d better sort it out during the brief time when I was conscious. I left Misty sleeping, put on my dressing-gown, and went to wrestle with some black bin-liners and the green recycling boxes.
It was marvellously peaceful outside at that hour of the day, in the grey light of dawn. There was no traffic to be heard from the main road, just the sound of the waves crashing on the beach. I was busy sorting everything out for a while, and then I stood up to straighten my back. A stooped figure was shuffling along the lane coming towards me, from the direction beyond Henry’s house. It appeared to be an old lady, or more accurately to say like one of the old crones we had seen in ’The Waterwitch’ the day before. She was bent almost double, her feet - in carpet slippers - were squishing through the mud. She was mumbling away to herself. Suddenly she leant forward and grabbed the remains of an old sausage roll somebody had left abandoned on the verge, and, to my horror and disbelief, crammed it into her mouth.
“Stop that!” I cried out “You don’t know where it’s been!”
She gave me a gummy grimace as she shuffled past. Her mouth smeared with mud from the verge. I don’t know why but I stood watching her transfixed, as she shuffled around a bend in the lane, and out of sight. The thought occurred to me that I was going to have to accept that things were just going to carry on being very weird around here.
The weirdness seemed to be permeating the entire country. In the course of one day we heard that, due to a massive Home Office blunder, violent criminals had been let out onto the streets, and now everybody was frantically trying to track them down. Nurses heckled and jeered the Health Minister, who appeared to be living in fairy land. The Deputy Prime Minister was exposed as having had an affair with a woman nearly 25 years younger than him (and, to my mind, even more nauseating than the thought of him having sex, she had once accompanied him to a memorial for the Iraqi war dead). And, just to put the icing on the cake, another brand of bird flu had broken out, this time in Norfolk.
I sincerely hoped that Henry hadn’t been watching the news that day, although I knew that was a forlorn hope really.
The day after the new Black Wednesday (Labour version this time, not Tory) he came round to see us, and to apologise for having got drunk two days before. He seemed like a little boy who had been ordered to come round and apologise by his mother! I pointed out that Misty and I had both had a few as well. Misty had been reading an Internet message board whilst I was at the door, and came up to us hooting with laughter.
“Somebody compared having sex with John Prescott to having the wardrobe fall on you with the key sticking out of the door!” he said.
“Oh very clever”, I said, thinking it was really.
“It’s all happening”, said Henry, back in his Old Testament mode “The meltdown, that’s what some people are calling it. The signs are all there in the Bible. People are just refusing to see it”.
“Henry”, I said, mustering as much patience as I could “People have been predicting the end of civilisation ever since it began! If you read Samuel Pepys he mentions somebody in the streets prophesying that the world will end the following Tuesday. That was 400 years ago, and we’re all still here! Even the Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to have given up on specifying dates for the end of the world now!”
I really should have known better at my age. You DON’T get into arguments with religious fundies, you simply don’t. The time-honoured old compromise of Agree To Differ breaks no ice with them. It’s a hopeless situation. Far worse than Henry’s religious views though were his political ones. In all the time I knew him I simply couldn’t equate the Henry we saw most of the time, who was so well-meaning (it has to be said, pathetically so), who really was the sort of man who would give the shirt off his back to a beggar, who put other people first (often at great personal sacrifice to himself), and who yet at the same time could come out with views a little to the right of Hitler! Truly, people are complex creatures. A lot of it was ignorance, pure and simple. Henry was one of those people who would believe whatever he read and hear (hence his hysterical reaction to bird flu for instance), who didn’t bother to find things out for himself. A man who takes the Bible literally is not a man who is going to think for himself, and form his own philosophy of life. Henry was weak and gullible. You only had to look at his ridiculous belief in Jeannette to see that, a belief that was not remotely shaken by facts or experience.
“Misty, if you’ve finished with the computer, log it off”, I said, and I went into the kitchen to occupy myself wiping down the draining-board and sweeping up crumbs. Henry had followed me, and clearly wasn’t going to be swayed by my pretence of hard work. I had already had the Too Many Foreigners In This Country speech, and I could only respond by saying that come high Summer in this area, he would often see that they were doing the jobs nobody else wanted to sully their hands doing. Twas every thus really.
I hate getting onto politics at the best of times. It depresses me. I’m made to feel like a poncey politically correct do-gooder, and that’s not how I see myself at all. I feel I’m too independent for all that nonsense. And yet the likes of Henry bring it out in me, and I resented him for that. Yes, if I had to nail my colours to the mast, then I am a Liberal Lefty, I always have been, but never in a million years will I admit to being a Hand-Wringer, A Bleeding Heart Do-Gooder, One Of The PC Thought Police. That isn’t me at all. I’ve had too robust a life for all that effete lets-be-fair mentality
… but the likes of Henry make me feel like that. The swine!
Today he was determined to bring the red rag to the bull. He had got onto the BNP and how they were expected to do well in all the local elections next month. There is nothing worse than an idiot when he tries to be an intellectual, and Henry tried it this time. It appears that once upon a time he had actually read a book (other than the Bible that is).
“German evolutionist Klaatsch suggested in 1923”, he said “In his book ‘The Evolution And Progress Of Mankind’ that Caucasians were evolved from chimpanzees, the Orientals were descended from orang-utans, whilst Africans came from gorillas”.
“Well as we’re all descended from a fish that just goes to show what an ignorant sod he was then!” I replied, which had Misty whooping with laughter “And anyway, Henry, how does all that fit into your Creationist beliefs? Where does Adam and Eve and the Garden of Eden fit into all that?!”
This could have got very nasty indeed if Mrs Jackson hadn’t called with some more eggs for us. Misty invited her in, and she got us back to the subject of John Prescott’s sex life.
“Everybody’s making all these jokes about who would want to sleep with him”, she said “Well I would for a start!”
“Mrs J, you can’t be serious!” I said.
“Yes, I think he’s dead sexy”, she said.
“Well I’ve heard that power can be an aphrodisiac but that’s ridiculous!” I said.
“You have to bear in mind that I’ve been completely celibate for the past 6 years”, she pointed out.
“I could be celibate for 60 years and I wouldn’t get the urge for him!” I said.
“YOU don’t know what it’s like”, she said, looking fondly at Misty “Isn’t he sweet? I could take him home with me, I could that!”
“I’d strongly advise you to stick to John Prescott!” I said. All this talk of celibacy was making me nervous, what with Henry, the only middle-aged married virgin in town, standing right there with us.
“I have a feeling in my bones about this Summer”, she said “I think it’s going to be a memorable one”.
“In what way?” I said “The weather? Or stand-pipes and bird flu?!”
“Just a special one”, she said “I really do feel that”.
“Well it’s certainly got off to a strange bloody start!” I said, with feeling “Right now clear off, I’ve got work to do. Henry, next time we meet you really will have to tell me how you bridge the gap from the Garden of Eden to Nazi theories of evolution!”
Far from getting the hump about this (as I was hoping) Henry thought it was funny, and had developed a sickly, smug little smile on his face. Still, I suppose it was quite something just to see him smiling at all!
Being a natural Pagan at heart, this time of year means a lot to me. And as this year the May Bank Holiday had actually fallen on May Day I suppose I had unrealistically high hopes of it. In the very heart of me I still expect us all to spend the entire night before making love in moonlit forests, and then sally out singing in the dawn, bedecked in flowers, like the May Day singing in the film ’Camelot’. Sadly the British weather would put the mockers on this on its own, without the added help of everybody blithering on about droughts and politicians!
It didn’t help matters that on the 30th of April, Walpurgis Night, Henry had summoned me round to look at his boiler (not exactly dancing around a bonfire in the nuddy is it!). He was worried about it, he said. When I looked at it I can’t say in all honesty that I was terribly surprised. It must have been nearly 40 years old, and the noise it made when it fired itself up sounded like a demonic poltergeist letting rip. I said he would have to get onto the landlord, as it would definitely need replacing before next Winter. Once again, I looked around me at the dilapidated bungalow and marvelled that anyone actually had the brass nerve to let this place, and actually charge money for it. Tacked onto the side of the kitchen where we were standing, was a little wooden conservatory. Being surrounded by the tall hedges it didn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of getting any sunshine in it, and it was filled with empty bottles, packing cases, and old garden chairs stacked up. The wood was clearly rotting round the door, and looked like somebody would only have to lean on it for the whole thing to fall apart.
“Henry”, I said “Why did you rent this place?”
“It was the only place we could afford for the whole 6 months”, he said.
“Wouldn’t it have been easier to have stayed at home?” I said, although I still had no idea where ‘home’ was for those two (under a rock somewhere?).
“No!” said Henry, emphatically “Would you like to have a drink? As a little thank you for coming round”.
I couldn’t think of an excuse not to. If I had left Misty at home then I could have said I needed to get back to him, but Misty wouldn’t hear of me going to The House Of Horror all on my own, and had come with me.
“It would be so nice if you could”, Henry whispered to me “Jeannette is depressed. She has been put on new tablets for her depression, and they are not agreeing with her at all. So she has stopped taking them”.
“Those sort of drugs often can have unpleasant side effects”, I said “Did it say on the packet what the possible side effects could be?”
“I don’t know”, said Jeannette, coming into the room “I threw them away!”
“You don’t get enough rest do you, dear?” said Henry to her “She’s so tired all the time”.
“I’m exhausted!” Jeannette exclaimed, dramatically.
“Well that will make you feel depressed”, I said, now acting Doctor to my already established roles of Psychiatrist, Postman, Butlin’s Redcoat, and Plumber to the Temple family “Perhaps you should take time out to rest more often. After all, I thought you were supposed to be on an extended holiday at the moment”.
“That would be giving into it”, said Jeannette.
“Mr Reeves at ’The Ship’ has had bowel cancer”, Misty piped up “And he often insists on having a lie-down in the afternoons, he says it does him the world of good”.
Jeannette’s face took on what I can only call a vicious expression.
“He’s given into it!” she said, spitefully, and with the kind of venomous evangelical zeal with which an old-time witch finder general might have denounced some harmless old lady living alone with her cat.
I can honestly say that if Jeannette had been a man I would have probably slugged her one for that.
“It’s not giving into it!” I said, explosively “It’s rolling with the punches, pacing yourself, going with the flow, and all that jazz”.
I might as well have started talking Chinese for all the effect it was having. Just as we were leaving Henry was dishing up their supper of frozen pizza. I had to point out to him that the plates he was about to put it on had ants crawling over them.
“Oh we have had ants here”, he said, casually “I’ve got some Nippon to squirt on them. I LOVE Nippon!”
It took me the better part of the Bank Holiday Monday to try and get some May-time festive spirit back into us. The morning was grey and gloomy. I took Misty to the garden centre on the outskirts of Fobbington to buy some colourful bedding plants to cheer up our front garden. I felt that if Henry and Jeannette were going to cast their doleful ghoulish presence over Beach Lane all Summer, then some of us had to try and counteract it somehow. Fobbington is normally awash with visitors on bank holidays, you can’t move for them, but today it was unnervingly quiet. There was a fleet of leather-clad bikers (interestingly, all looking 50-plus!) sat outside a café at the harbour, but other than that the place was practically deserted.
“The miseries seem to be winning at the moment don’t they?” said Misty, who could sense I was down in the dumps.
“Oh it’s just the weather”, I sighed “A long, cold Winter, then a long, cold Spring, it’s enough to get anyone down!”
Everywhere there were signs advertising Drought-Resistant Plants. We bought some pansies and potted Alpine flowers, and then headed back to ’Barnacles’. In the afternoon I tried to resurrect my dormant Pagan self by sketching Misty in the nude in our bedroom. This was thoroughly enjoyable (as you might expect really), and I was starting to feel better. It is one of those ironies of Fate that the pictures I do of Misty are by far and away the best work I have ever done, and yet I refuse to show them publicly.
“We mustn’t let them get to us like that again!” I said to him later “I almost felt as dreary as they are!”
“You keep saying that”, said Misty, who was reclining at the top of the bed, supported by a bank of pillows “But then you keep giving into them. I wish you’d let me say ‘no’ for you”.
“I just didn’t want them wearing you down as well”, I said.
“We join forces”, said Misty “That’s what I keep on at you about, we join forces”.
For giving me such a splendid afternoon, and making me feel not just sexually gratified, but a real artist for a change, I asked Misty what he wanted to do that evening. He said go and have a drink in ’The Ship’, and then go and get some fish-and-chips for supper. This was fine by me. It was a stormy-looking (although nothing was going to come of it) Spring evening. Just before we left I found somebody had put two flyers through the letterbox. One from our local Liberal Democrats, who had as their slogan “WORKING FOR YOU ALL YEAR ROUND”, (which I couldn’t help thinking sounded like a laxative), and a really cheap bit of self-advertising from some decidedly shifty-looking devil in glasses, who was offering us a free trial run of his services as a Life Consultant. “You may have seen me recently on television”, he wrote. Well yes, I had a feeling he had popped up on some documentary in which he was advising a moronic couple how to improve the fortunes of their business … not with any great success from what I could gather!
Misty made a huge fuss of the landlord’s dog when we got to ‘The Ship’. I was so pleased to see him enjoying himself.
“This is just like the old days isn’t it?” said Misty, when we had sat down near the Specials blackboard “As things were before Henry and Jeannette appeared, and Rufus Franklin”.
“Yes, things have gone a bit strange round here since Christmas”, I said “Sort of off-kilter somehow”.
I tried not to think about the jar buried in our back garden, but it’s impossible not to sometimes. It’s all too tempting to start getting really paranoid and think that Henry and Jeannette have some kind of connection with it. Of course, this is simply absurd. Henry and Jeannette are just a very VERY strange couple, and it’s just pure coincidence that they have chosen this year to have their lengthy sabbatical in Shinglesea in. Sometimes when you think people are strange when you first meet them, it wears off with exposure, and you realise that they are quite normal really. Unfortunately, this wasn’t proving to be the case with the Temples, they were getting weirder on acquaintance, not less so. They were also proving to be rather limpet-like. I was starting to get very concerned about what we might be drawn into with them. It didn’t help matters that I felt I couldn’t believe very much of what they said. Jeannette was quite clearly living a double life, and Henry’s religious and political views were not just plain stupid, but totally contradictory. I remembered that feeling I had had on Easter Saturday, when we had gone to Tara Mitchell’s party, that the whole thing had felt like a stage set, that it was artificial, but that whoever was directing it had got the script completely wrong. That was how I felt with Henry. It was as if some of his programming had gone wrong.
“It’s only you and my work that keeps me sane”, I said to Misty.
“What else do you need though?” said Misty.
“You hit the nail on the head as usual!” I said.
A downbeat discussion had got underway at the bar about, yet again, John Prescott’s sex life, with remarks about his knee-tremblers in the office with the Vicky Pollard clone. Curiously, none of this was said with any salaciousness though, which is more what you might expect when an affair becomes public knowledge. It seemed that the whole dreary-ness of this liaison, its total lack of any kind of real passion, was baffling just about all of us. The whole thing was summed up for me by the fact that on the rare occasions when the old fool had actually kissed her, she considered it astonishing enough to record it in her diary! When John Major’s affair had become public knowledge I think a lot of us had found the thought of him in his blue underpants rather sweet, there was none of that here, more a sort of national queasiness about the whole thing.
We decided to go to the chippy. On the way back we took the long way round up the other side of football-cum-cricket pitch, from which Beach Lane led off from. There is another tumbledown cottage along here, which, from the outside, looks in even worse nick than Henry and Jeannette’s place. I think it is actually lived in, but I’ve never seen any sign of life there, other than some filthy old net curtains up at the windows. You get this sort of thing in our area. Rundown houses which haven’t been touched in years, nudging in amongst the pretty cottages and immaculate bungalows, and which everybody else seems to sort of blank out. There is one down Old Hospital Street in Fobbington, one of the quaintest areas in the town. You’d think that there everybody would be complaining about having such a dilapidated eyesore in their midst, ruining the chocolate box feel of the place, a rotten tooth in a set of pearly-white dentures, but no, instead it just gets ignored.
Tonight I was surprised to find though that the inhabitants of Seagull Cottage (whoever they were) had put up a handwritten sign on their rotting veranda, saying rather testily that ’THIS IS PRIVATE PROPERTY, IT IS NOT FOR SALE, YOU CAN’T COME AND LOOK ROUND’. Clearly, perhaps they had been bothered by curious visitors who thought they might be able to pick up a dirt-cheap renovation project in Shinglesea, but even so, it’s the sort of thing that makes you glad we don’t have America’s gun laws!
We turned in at Beach Lane, and there was Dracula’s Daughter, sitting on the fence which bordered the bit of old scrubland (old scrubber for old scrubland) where Misty played golf. She was sitting with Mr Toad. As far as I could see Henry’s car wasn’t in their drive, so she had once again taken advantage of his absence to call in her “delectable” lover. They were sitting on the fence as though they had been waiting for us to come back, which was rather unnerving. They watched us rather intently as we walked in at our gate and up our garden path, not speaking, just staring. Both of them wore such horribly smug expressions on their faces that I wanted to slap the pair of them. I had a feeling that I was being goaded in some way, that Jeannette was forcing me into acknowledging her affair, and this riled me even more. God knows why I cared so much about Henry’s feelings. After all, the man was a complete dipstick at the best of times, and some of his habits (let alone his opinions) made me feel ill, but there is such a ridiculous air of innocence about Henry. He’s the sort of naïve dingbat who ends up falling in with hardened criminals, and being left holding the baby by them. And there was something horribly cold-blooded about Jeannette.
“They’re not coming in are they?” I said, when we had got indoors. Misty was looking out of the window by the front door.
“No, they’re still sat there”, said Misty, and he resolutely pulled across the curtain to shut them out.
The following day we had our first really warm temperatures of the year. It was liberating to be able to leave the doors and windows open without running the risk of ending up a frozen solid block of ice! On checking my e-mails first thing I found another missive from my psychic advisor. I was going to delete it without reading it, but I decided to give the old girl another go.
“DO NOT LOOK TOO DEEPLY INTO A SITUATION WHICH IS DISTURBING YOU”, she wrote “IT WILL MAKE YOU GLOOMY. WHERE ONE PERSON IS CONCERNED YOU ARE FEELING REPELLED. IT IS UNLIKELY NOW THAT YOU WILL EVER FEEL SWITCHED ONTO THEM AGAIN”.
This was so accurate that I had to read it 3 times. I had no problem working out which person she was referring to. Not that I had ever felt ‘switched on’ to Jeannette in the first place!
“She’s been telling you the same thing for weeks now that I have”, said Misty “Just switch off from them, and concentrate on what you’re supposed to be doing!”
“It’s hard to when Jeannette sits out there on the fence like a bloody great old black crow, rubbing our noses in it!” I said.
Misty swivelled me round in my chair and pointed at the computer screen.
“There might be messages for the website”, he said “Sort them out, and I’ll go and make some tea”.
In the e-mails there was yet another student looking for cheap accommodation in the area. “I AM ONLY A POOR STUNDANT”, he wrote. (Sigh). A more inspiring message came from a lady in Fobbington wanting to advertise the small flower festival in the Church, which would be on over the next Bank Holiday weekend at the end of the month. “Could we emphasise that the Church will be absolutely full of flowers that weekend?” she asked. It was a pleasure to reply to her.
“It’s going to be so warm today”, said Misty “It feels like we’re on holiday”.
It was intoxicating, like being high. So I don’t know quite why I got to thinking about Anna Turnball. It might be because all mention of her recently seemed to have ceased. There was nothing on the local news (although this isn’t unusual, some stories go dead for weeks or even months, and then resurface again unexpectedly), and apart from her worried parents, I hadn’t come across anybody who seemed to be remotely concerned about her. This could of course have been because Anna was an almighty pain in the derriere at the best of times. In her heart of hearts she would always have been the “look-at-me-damn-you” school-bully.
“Misty”, I said “What does a bully need more than anything else, besides a good slap of course?”
“A victim?” said Misty.
“Even more than that”, I said “They need ATTENTION!”
“You don’t really think Anna Turnball’s done all this just to get everybody noticing her do you?” said Misty.
“Not sure”, I said “Put it this way, it wouldn’t surprise me”.
“Well if she has it’s backfired then”, said Misty “Nobody seems to give a damn!”
“Well it’s just one possibility”, I sighed.
“Even her parents don’t seem to be trying that hard to find her”, said Misty “Do you remember a couple of years ago a 30-something man went missing walking home from the sport’s centre one evening?”
“He was never found either”, I said, gloomily.
“But people were putting up photographs of him all over the railings in town, and in the shop windows, and in the pubs”, said Misty “’Have you seen this man?’ All that kind of thing. Nobody’s done any of that with Anna Turnball!”
“God, if you went missing, I’d be trying all sorts of things”, I said “Just about anything I could think of!”
“So would I, if you went missing”, said Misty.
“People would make more fuss round here if their cat went missing!” I said “Than what’s been done for Anna!”
“People would miss the cat more than they’d miss Anna!” said Misty.
“You have a surprisingly caustic streak sometimes, Misty”, I said, laughing all the same.
“Only where some people are concerned”, he said, coming over to me and wrapping his arms round my neck.
Perhaps it was the weather warming up at last or what, but I had been feeling as randy as a goat of late (Spring - sap rising and all that). I couldn’t get sex out of my brain (or anywhere else come to that). This was very reassuring. After the grim and disturbing escapades with Rufus Franklin a few weeks back, and the bleak everlasting Winter, I had begun to think that the doleful abstinence of old age had come upon me a few decades quicker than expected! The well had been drier than I was used to it being. But now I was back to normal again: obsessed with Misty’s body. All was as it should be.
We went back to bed.
Afterwards I lay with Misty’s arm round my torso, and watching Granny’s old (very old) russet-coloured velvet curtains billowing in the breeze at the window. If only the whole Summer could pass like this, I thought, I would be well content. With such a good start to the day I was determined that the rest of it would pass in an equally good fashion. I raided the old coffee jar which contains discarded loose change, and on counting it all, found we had just over £10 in there. (Boosted by the presence of a couple of very dirty old pound coins which had presumably been chucked in by mistake, and an even older French franc, which we wouldn’t even be able to spend in France these days). With these unexpected riches I took Misty back to ’The Ship’ for a drink and a sandwich. In my head I could easily imagine my Father’s disgust at this wanton extravagance (although strangely this cheeseparing attitude doesn‘t extend to Phil and Stella‘s opulent lifestyle, which gets the thumbs-up from him every time). But with me it would be something along the lines of “spending good money to have a sandwich in a pub when you could easily make yourself one at home”. (Oh shut up, you miserable old twat!).
The heat had even got to the Toby Jugs, they had all turned out in a dazzling array of shorts and t-shirts. The oldest one of the lot had gone quite berserk and put on a short-sleeved tropical shirt worthy of Magnum PI. I don’t know why, but to my mind he looked like a geriatric Romeo about to go off to Thailand to collect a mail-order bride! Spurred on by an article in a newspaper they were pondering what makes people happy. The usual suspects came up - sex (can’t argue with that), waking up in the morning and realising you don’t have to go to work (a blessed state I thank my lucky stars for every day, and more than worth the sacrifice of a lucrative salary), drinking cold beer in a warm garden - but the whole lot was topped by one of them remarking “having a really good crap whilst reading the paper”. To that you could add “having a really good loud fart in total privacy!”
We were in the middle of our sandwiches when Mrs Jackson came in, this time to deliver eggs to the landlord. When she had done this she ordered a glass of wine and came and sat down with us. Like the Toby Jugs she was looking festive and Summery in a brightly-coloured cotton blouse, and already had a sun tan on her face, and the bit at the top of her chest which was exposed. It suddenly occurred to me that in Mrs J I had a very reliable source of local information, which I hadn’t tapped enough before. I asked her if she had known Anna Turnball.
“Oh the one that’s gone AWOL?” she said “Yes I knew her a bit, good riddance to bad rubbish if you ask me!”
“Mrs J!” I said, shocked. Mrs Jackson was one of those cuddly, genial women, the sort that would always be there for you with a sympathetic ear and a large, squashy bosom for you to rest your troubled head upon. To hear her talk like that about somebody was rather unexpected.
“I don’t like her, and it’s no good me pretending I did just because she’s gone missing”, she said.
“She was a bit difficult I know”, I said, and I mentioned overhearing her once bragging about how she had once been a school-bully.
“Still was a bloomin’ bully and no mistake!” said Mrs J “She completely wrecked our slimming club”.
“How did she do that?” I said, having images of Anna Turnball smashing down the Fobbington Community Centre with a JCB.
“She decided which ones were going to be her friends, and which ones weren’t”, said Mrs J “And anyone who wasn’t in the charmed circle got completely cold-shouldered out of it. She just blanked them, pretended they didn’t exist. When I saw her do it to one woman who tried to join, who was desperate to lose weight and all, the poor thing, I decided I’d had enough and left”.
“That’s classic playground bullying”, I said.
“Some people never grow out of it”, said Mrs J “And she was one of ‘em. On another occasion I went to a Christmas lunch in ’The Crab’, and she bellowed at me in front of everybody ’who’s the turkey who’s having turkey!’ I feel sorry for the poor devil she’s run off with, that I do! Mind you, I hope he doesn’t send her back too soon! The place is quite nice without her!”
“W-what if she’s been killed though?” Misty whispered.
“I don’t want bad things on anybody, not even her”, said Mrs J “But there are other people in this world I’d like to reserve my sympathy for”.
All I can say to that is that if Mrs J doesn’t think much of a person, you can bet your bottom dollar that person isn’t up to much!
“I do sometimes wonder if all this is an attention-seeking exercise”, I said.
“I don’t think she’s dead either”, said Mrs J “Though I expect she wants us all to think she is. I think she’ll come back when we’re least expecting it, and then when we don’t show enough gratitude that she’s back, she’ll flounce out again shouting what a miserable, sad lot we are!”
“Why do people bully?” said Misty “Why do they do it, I don’t understand”.
“Power”, I said “They’re desperate for power, and it’s the only way they can think of to get it”.
“But why do they want it so much?” said Misty, who was getting a little distressed.
“It’s their only form of identity I guess”, I said “They probably feel that if they didn’t get noticed they would cease to exist or something. It’s all they’ve got. No inner resources”.
Mrs J was beaming at him with her “isn’t he sweet” look on her face. The landlord’s dog came over and nuzzled her hand. I was worried that this might set her off thinking about her missing dog Tufty (let alone set Misty off thinking about him), so I asked a few more questions about Anna Turnball.
“You don’t want to waste your time worrying about her, love”, said Mrs J “I bet her neighbours will be glad if she stays missing all Summer!”
“I can’t imagine they saw enough of her to notice when she was around”, I said “She was always propping the bar up at ‘The Crab’”.
“Oh but she was a pain in the rear end when she was home”, said Mrs J “Loud music at all hours, and when the weather was hot she’d sit out in the back yard with her cronies drinking all night, cackling away until all hours. Not a thought to people who had to get up for work in the mornings, or those with small children. I know one woman who got so fed up with it she leaned out of her bedroom window and threatened to slap her face!”
I couldn’t help feeling that if I was Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poirot, by now, the “leetle grey cells” would be going into overdrive with all this. Clearly, Anna Turnball had made more enemies than she had made friends.
“Have you heard of Wendy MacKinnon?” said Mrs J.
I confessed that the name was lost on me.
“She was one of Turnball’s drinking buddies”, said Mrs J “Nasty piece of work. Loud-mouthed Scotswoman who clamed she had been an officer in the Army, I bet they chucked her out if she had! Drank vodka by the bucket-load, and got into trouble once for leaving her kids at home whilst she went off to holiday in Spain”.
“Sounds quite charming!” I said, knowing better than to ask if there had been a Mr MacKinnon.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Turnball had run off with her”, said Mrs J.
“You think Anna was a lezzie?” I said, in astonishment. I always got the impression that where Anna was concerned, no man in her vicinity was safe! But there is an old saying that many Don Juan’s are latent homosexuals, so perhaps the same rule can be applied to their female counterparts?
“Turnball was desperate for anything”, said Mrs J “And MacKinnon was no different to her. It was open season on anyone as far as she was concerned!”
“Was Wendy MacKinnon in ’The Crab’ on Easter Saturday?” Misty asked me.
“I think we might have noticed her if she was!” I replied, dryly.
“She used to brag that her e-mail ID was ’wetandwild’”, said Mrs J, and I couldn’t help laughing at that.
“Sorry”, I said “It’s just that I’ve seen them all lately. My favourite was a woman who had ’littlemissrosiecheeks’ as hers!”
All in all it had been a very useful chat with Mrs J. I followed the local news even more carefully for the next few days, but there was no mention of Anna Turnball. Meanwhile, life continued along its merry way. The Government got slaughtered in the local elections, and there was a dizzy air of euphoria around the next day, akin to the last days of Margaret Thatcher. I noticed (closer to home) that Henry had taken to going out every lunchtime by himself. I would see his car go past shortly before Noon, and then, barely 5 or 10 minutes later, Mr Toad would appear on his motorbike. It must have been a pretty basic quick in-and-out job he gave Jeannette because he certainly didn’t hang about, he would often be leaving again about half-an-hour later. Not much time for any preamble, or post-coital mellow moments. I was depressingly reminded of John Prescott’s quick knee-tremblers in his office!
“He’s still there”, said Misty to me one morning, when I got up.
I thought he was referring to Mr Toad, that the brazen sod had actually turned up and spent the night with Jeannette.
“No, no, the even bigger rat in Downing Street”, said Misty, handing me a cup of coffee.
“It’s going to take a while to shift him”, I said “He’ll probably have to be shovelled out eventually! We’ve got more chance of Henry coming to his senses sooner than that, and that‘s saying something!”
The post brought another irritating letter from my Father, this time going on at great length about how Phil and Stella’s son Arthur had applied to join some prestigious university in London. I know (technically anyway) this young man is my nephew, but he has always set my teeth on edge. (“Always made me shudder”, as Bette Davis said of one of her sons in the film ‘The Anniversary’). He’s an arrogant little twerp, and this arrogance is fuelled by my Father’s insistence on treating him as though he was some golden child come to save the world. Just to give you one example of Arthur’s ‘charm’, he once got sent on an exchange trip to France. Whilst staying with the longsuffering French family who had taken him in, he loftily decreed that he wouldn’t eat any of their food. Showing a patience that I think bordered on the saintly, the French family took him out to a local supermarket and asked him to tell them what he would like to eat. Refusing, as always, to speak a single word of French, Arthur communicated with them by pointing at the products he wanted! Needless to say my Father thought this was very funny of Arthur.
How my Father can idolise a charm-less, arrogant little sod like Arthur, and yet ruthlessly blank out a sweet, kind, funny person like Misty is way beyond me. We seemed to have been talking a lot about bullies lately, and Arthur (unless somebody gives him the kick up the arse he so desperately needs, and SOON!) has got the potential to be an absolute 24-carat one. My Father closed this euphoric letter by saying that Arthur had recently sat his driving test, but had failed (oh happy day!), but my Father believes this was entirely down to Arthur having had the worst examiner in town … course it was, Dad!
“This has been brought round separately”, said Misty, pulling out a handwritten sheet of paper which was wedged in the letterbox “Oh it’s from that old cow, the Tara Mitchell person”.
“What’s the matter with her now?” I said.
“’AS YOU HAVE BLOCKED MY E-MAILS’”, he read “’I HAVE HAD TO BRING THIS AROUND MYSELF. MY CARAVAN IS NOW AVAILALBLE FOR HIRE THE FIRST WEEK IN JULY, AND THE FIRST WEEK IN SEPTEMBER. DOGS WELCME’”.
“No comment!” I said “I notice she still doesn’t tell us where this freakin’ caravan is, or what she’s charging for it!”
I stood up and stamped around the room, ruffling my hair in agitation.
“Look, I’ll send her an e-mail asking her for the details”, said Misty, soothingly “We’ll take the block off her so she can reply, and if she starts getting abusive we’ll put it on again. We don’t have to put up with all that, just ’cos we didn’t want to stay at her boring old party last month. We started doing this website for fun, remember”.
“Fun?!” I said “It’s about as much fun as having jump-leads attached to my nipples!”
I went and sat out on the veranda, and listened to the waves on the shore. This managed to calm me briefly, until Henry hove round the corner, returning from the mini-mart on the main street, and carrying the sort of stringy little shopping-bag that was once all the rage, back in the 1970s. He came mincing up the garden-path towards me.
“Did you know that the bungalow on the other side of us is being let next week?” he said.
“It is a holiday cottage, Henry”, I said “Not terribly surprising you know!”
“Apparently”, he looked around him, in a stupid conspiratorial fashion “It’s being let to a Pakistani couple”.
I got up to return to the house, I wasn’t in the mood for Henry’s nonsense today (not that I ever am!).
“It’s alright”, he said “I understand they’re quite elderly, so I don’t expect they’ll be any trouble”.
I shut the front door, put up the safety-chain, and for good measure, closed the curtain on the little window to the side of it as well.
“That is all I need!” I said “He’s like bloody Nick Griffin in a pink frilly pinny!”
“He should get the message eventually”, said Misty.
“Henry Temple wouldn’t get the message if it came delivered by a nuclear-warhead!” I said “If he keeps that rubbish up I’ll tell him what his bloody awful wife gets up to whilst he’s out!”
“I’m starting to wonder if he’s known all along”, said Misty.
“That wouldn’t surprise me either!” I said, and I went off to run myself a bath.
After lunch we went out into the garden to sort out our new bedding-plants. This was very relaxing, and I could see that Misty was delighted that we were having a non-controversial conversation for a change. He enjoyed himself immensely, and because he did, I did. Under his influence I was starting to enjoy things like gardening, which I had only ever seen as a necessary chore before. At one point Dracula’s Daughter came out to tidy up their bit of the grass verge. She mumbled something grimly about it being a nice day, but as it was clear I wasn’t going to play ball, she disappeared back behind the hedges and the barbed wire again.
Mrs J came by late afternoon to say that she was popping into ’Driftwood’ (the bungalow further down the lane that Henry had been on about) to give it a going-over for the new guests, and would we like to see all the work that the new owners had done to it. I knew that the place had been quite extensively renovated a few months before, so I said yes it would be interesting. Apparently the idea had been to turn it into a sort of seaside retreat, and I must admit they had done a good job. Painted throughout in the lovely seaside colours of pale blue and white, polished floors, and a general air of minimalist calm throughout. It was lovely. In the living-room there was a stereo unit and a stack of New Age-y type music CDs, the sort I couldn’t help thinking were played to pregnant women to calm them down. Whale and dolphin music.
“But there’s no television”, I said, looking around me.
“That’s part of the idea”, said Mrs J “It’s to encourage people to get completely away from the cares of the world”.
“Well it’s a lovely idea”, I said “I just hope they can manage it with Henry and Jeannette next door!”
“Oh I know”, said Mrs J “They’re a weird pair those two aren’t they?”
“You don’t know the half, Mrs J!” I said “Sometimes I think they’re aliens in disguise! The pod people from ’Invasion Of The Bodysnatchers’. I can just imagine Jeannette being hatched in a greenhouse somewhere!”
“There’s a lot of it about”, Mrs Jackson laughed “My cousin’s young lad works at the Italian restaurant in town, he prepares the pizza’s. And he said over Easter they had a very odd couple in. They insisted on paying up front, which is very unusual as most people settle up at the end, and they couldn’t seem to understand our currency. And they didn’t seem to know what pizza’s were, it had to be explained to them, and I thought everybody knew what pizza’s are these days!”
“Probably just foreigners”, I said “Particularly if they couldn’t get the hang of our currency”.
“But they didn’t have accents”, said Mrs J “I mean, normally we can tell who people are from their accents can’t we? And they didn’t seem to like the food. They took a couple of small bites out of it, and then left”.
“Everything seemed to go haywire Easter Weekend”, said Misty.
“A few years ago I’d have said perhaps they were Care In The Community”, I said “That they had been shut away been away a long time”.
(This reminded me uncomfortably of Rufus Franklin!).
“Well you’d think even somebody in that position would know what a pizza was!” said Mrs Jackson.
“Illegal immigrants?” I said “Remember that lot that were found all living cheek-by-jowl in one flat down by the harbour last year? I saw one of the young girls down there once, and she didn’t seem to know where she was. She just looked totally bewildered”.
“There’s more of that goes on round here than meets the eye”, said Mrs Jackson “My brother got stuck behind some lorry on one of the roads going into Fobbington a while back. He said some guy got out of the cab and came round to open the back doors, and all these people POURED out. He said it wasn’t funny, but he couldn’t help laughing all the same! It was all just so absurd!”
“Well I’d better go and get on with some work”, I sighed.
“Yes, you haven’t done much today”, said Misty.
“That’s because Real Life keeps bloody intruding doesn’t it!” I said.
At ten-past 7 the next morning I was woken up by one solitary clap of thunder, and the sound of torrential rain. I got up to close the window, and thought how we needed God knows how long of weather like this to try and get our water levels anything like normal. I had noticed when gardening yesterday that some of our soil was already cracked, an astonishing sight this early in the Summer.
Plans to do work went out of the window as Misty and I spent most of the morning drinking coffee and watching the old epic film ’Quo Vadis’ on the television (Peter Ustinov gave an absolutely astonishing performance as Tony Blair, quite uncanny). We were just coming to the end, when Henry came to the door. I had decided that from now on I was going to take a leaf out of Sir Alan Sugar’s book and be as plain-speaking as possible. Sir Alan Sugar doesn’t have to deal with Henry though.
“I would have thought you’d have got offended by my actions yesterday”, I said.
“Oh I never take offence”, said Henry “NEVER!”
This was a dismal revelation. Like being told that the rat in your cellar is impervious to rat poison. I couldn’t help thinking that perhaps Henry needed to change the habits of a lifetime, and get offended occasionally, then his whole life wouldn’t be in such a sad, pathetic state.
“I haven’t got time to talk now, Henry”, I said “I’m working”.
I don’t need to tell you of course that this was an absolute lie. Both Misty and I were still in our dressing-gowns, there were coffee-cups everywhere, as well as discarded old newspapers. I looked about as much in the throes of hard toil as if I had been lying comatose in hospital!
“Misty, it’s time all these newspapers were put out”, I said, snatching them up and marching out to the recycling boxes. Henry followed me.
“So nice not to be a wage-slave”, he said, snidely.
“It is something I am grateful for every day of my life”, I said.
“I was made redundant of course”, he said (why ‘of course’?) “But I suppose it enabled me to look after Jeannette when she most needed it”.
There was no answer to this. I could hardly say “good” or “nice”, or even the heartless “how convenient”, not with Jeannette having had the cancer. Henry has a pure knack for killing conversations stone dead. I went back into the house. Henry followed me again.
“Well 10 years in an office, working for somebody else’s glory, was quite enough for me”, I said, finding my voice at last.
“It is what’s left of my redundancy money which is partly funding this holiday, or sabbatical as you put it the other day”, said Henry.
“I still think you could have got somewhere better than that place, Henry”, I said “You might not have been able to stay there as long, but you’d have been more comfortable”.
There was a very loud thud on the front door. It sounded like when one of the birds loses its marbles and tries to dive-bomb into the windows.
“What on earth was that?” said Henry, looking aghast.
Both he and Misty stood looking at me, expectantly.
“You know just for once”, I said, the spirit of Sir Alan Sugar giving way to Victor Meldrew “It would be nice if I could be the one who stands there and waits for somebody else to sort it out! If I could be the weak one who lets someone else see who the intruder is, or has a fight with double-glazing salesmen, or who sends angry e-mails to the Government complaining about their illegal bloody war!”
“I offered to do some as well”, said Misty “But you wouldn’t let me!”
“No I wouldn’t”, I said “I don’t want you communicating with people like that!”
I opened the front door, and found the remains of a rotten egg plastered to the wood.
“Oh not him again!” I sighed, leaning against the door-post.
“What on earth is it?” said Henry, who I could see was working himself up into his usual knicker-wetting state.
“He hasn’t been round for ages”, said Misty “This is the first one this year”.
“We have a phantom egg-thrower in Shinglesea”, I explained to Henry “The Phantom Egg-Thrower Of Old Shinglesea Village! Actually I strongly suspect it’s kids who are doing it, though you’d hope the little bastards would be safely locked up in school at this time of day!”
“They target anybody”, said Misty, going to fetch a damp cloth.
“Beach Lane is particularly convenient for them though”, I said “Because they can quickly get out of sight again”.
“I was never told about this before”, said Henry, stiffly.
“It’s not exactly a huge selling-point for the village is it!” I said, in exasperation “’Come to Sunny Shinglesea Beach, we have our very own rotten egg-thrower’!”
“Actually we keep saying it’s a he”, said Misty, scrubbing away at the rotten mess “But it could just as easily be a girl, they’re just as bad as boys these days”.
“They always were!” I said, remembering my own school-days.
“There was somebody riding a motorbike up and down this lane very late last night”, said Henry “About 1 o’clock in the morning it was, and they were sat outside our gate with the engine idling for a while. I didn’t look, but I could hear them”.
Misty looked at me again, as if telegraphing me to say “Now is the time! Tell him now!”
“Probably find it was your friend, Mr Toa …” I began “The funny little guy on the motorbike who was asking where you lived when you first came here”.
“Oh no it can’t be him”, said Henry “He doesn’t live around here”.
Misty looked at me even more urgently, telegraphing frantically “He doesn’t know about his lunch-time visits! Henry doesn’t know he comes here!”
“We’ve seen him here quite a bit”, I said, feeling that this was the very last conversation on earth that I wanted to have “Three times last week for instance”.
“You must be mistaken”, said Henry, and he walked over to a painting that was hanging on the wall next to the front door “Extraordinary picture”.
Actually it was a very old one I had picked up once at the flea-market in Fobbington. Technically, it wasn’t very good at all, but I liked it. Done almost entirely in black, silver and grey paint, It showed a lonely country road in the moonlight, running between trees and telegraph poles. For some reason it reminded me of the beginning of ’Night Of The Demon’, and that’s why I had bought it.
“We like it”, I said, feeling downright confused by Henry’s reaction. He seemed to have just blanked what I had said. He left soon after, and I could only come to the unsettling conclusion that this news was just so awful for him that his brain simply refused to absorb it.
We had a warm, sunny afternoon, and then soon after 4 o’clock thunder started to roll around the heavens again. I had left Misty to strip the sheets off the bed and put them into the washing-machine, whilst I went up to the mini-mart on the main street to pick up some supplies. I was pleased at managing to get a bumper bag of toilet rolls which (cripes!) gave me 3 extra rolls FREE! And then, when I got to the checkout, I was told I could have tuppence back for bringing my own carrier-bag with me!
When I emerged back outside I realised that the skies had darkened considerably in the space of just a few minutes. I hadn’t really expected the storm to amount for very much, mainly because I had foolishly trusted the BBC weather map which hadn’t shown an inkling of rain in our area whatsoever, let alone flashes of lightening. I questioned my wisdom (if you can call it that) in instructing Misty to do the washing. It only takes the electricity supply to go off for about a split second, and our washing-machine will have a complete nervous breakdown. You basically have to go back to the beginning of the cycle and begin all over again, otherwise your washing is incarcerated inside forever.
As the lightening flickered in the skies I began muttering to myself “please let it finish the final spin cycle, please!” On the large green some kids weren’t taking a blind bit of notice of the approaching snap, crackle and pop, and were continuing with their game of cricket. Nearby an old lady wearing a bikini top and a sarong was calmly pruning the apple tree in her front garden. And yet there is no denying that an approaching storm boots everything up to a different level, everything suddenly feels so much more alive.
As I got near ’Barnacles’ I found Misty standing on the veranda waiting for me.
“What’s wrong?” I said.
“Nothing”, he said “I was just waiting for you. It’s getting very dark isn’t it?”
I took him indoors. It was true, it was getting very dark, so I put on every light in the living-room and kitchen that we possessed. I went into the kitchen, and found (thank God!) that the washing-machine had finished its exertions. Misty seemed very apprehensive, and I noticed that his bare arms had gone very goose-pimply.
“The temperatures are plummeting now it’s going darker”, I said “Go and put the electric fire on and sit by it whilst I sort things out here”.
I unpacked the shopping, and got the sheets out of the machine. It’s a bugger finding places to put up the sheets when we can’t put them up outside. One sheet and the pillow-cases went over the clothes horse, and the duvet cover had to go over the indoor washing-line above the bath, which made taking a bath feel like you were going camping in a makeshift tent! Suddenly Misty called me from the living-room. I went in there to find him shaking and visibly upset.
“Calm down”, I said, very gently shaking him by the shoulders “What is it?”
“There’s somebody weird outside our house”, he wailed.
“What, AGAIN?!” I said.
I went to the window and saw an old lady standing on the other side of the lane, staring at ’Barnacles’. She was tall and stringy, and was wearing what looked like an ankle-length old green nylon nightie with long sleeves. Perched on her head was quite the most ridiculous and unrealistic-looking wig I had ever seen. Even Donald Trump’s hairpiece would look real by comparison! This moth-eaten, big yellow effort looked as though it should be sitting askew on top of the head of a dummy in a charity shop window. It looked even more grotesque when contrasted with the little wrinkled prune of a face underneath it.
“Oh just what we want”, I sighed, pulling across the curtain again “Another batty old woman!”
“But who is she?” said Misty.
“You’ll probably find there’s a job lot of mad old hags who have come to stay at the caravan site for their holidays!” I said.
“But why do they keep appearing round here?” said Misty.
“They’ve got nothing else to do I expect”, I said “She’s probably just filling in time before the bingo starts! Now calm down, or I shall have to get all firm and school-teacher-ish with you”.
I had often joked like this with Misty to calm him down when he gets upset. It always works, because he can’t resist giggling.
“That’s better”, I said, patting his bottom “I’ll go and make us a mug of tea”.
“There does seem to be even more of them than usual this year”, Misty called after me “Nutters I mean”.
“Perhaps we’ve had a good rating on the Holidays4Nutters website!” I called back.
None of this stopped me giving an inward whoop of joy very early the next morning, when I woke up and heard a cuckoo in the distance. It was my first one of the year and, as it was the middle of May it scarcely merited writing to ’The Times’ about it, even so, it delighted me. Then the boring facts of Reality came intruding in upon me. I needed to do some work. I needed to do a good long jag of work in fact. Just recently I had been spending too much time being sidetracked by such delicious intrusions as Misty’s body, watching the sea, and drinking Jack Daniels.
I left Misty sleeping, and got up. I went out into the pearly dawn, and stood by the gate looking at the spot where we had seen the wiggy old hag the day before. So much was perplexing me at the moment, including the sudden infestation of these ancient old witches. I went back indoors, and put the kettle on. Misty’s beady little eye scrutinised me round the edge of the door-post.
“Oh it’s you!” I said, in mock-surprise.
He came and jumped on my back, getting me in a sort of piggy-back arm-lock.
“You little tyke!” I said, laughing.
“Let’s get married”, he purred in my ear “Please, please, please, let us get married”.
“I’ll do whatever you want”, I said “But if we get married this Summer I won’t be able to give you much of a show. We’ll have just enough money for the licence, a couple of cheap rings, and a few drinks afterwards”.
“But that’s all I want!” said Misty “I don’t want a big wedding, ’cos everybody’ll only turn up and gawp anyway. I want a very quiet one”.
“As long as you’re sure”, I said.
“Of course I’m sure”, he said, stamping his foot crossly “How many more times do I have to say it!”
“Alright, alright!” I said “I had to be certain it was what you wanted that’s all. We’ll go and make enquiries at the Registry Office next time we’re in town”.
“Will you tell your father?” said Misty.
“What would be the point?” I said “If he acknowledged it at all, he’d pretend I was marrying myself or something! I’d get a Congratulations On Your Nuptials card addressed only to me! I’ll mention it in passing in my Christmas card to him”.
A few hours later I left Misty to do some housework, and went up onto the sea-wall to take a few photographs for Inspiration. The sea was still too cold this early in the season for anyone sane to try swimming in it, but that didn’t stop a few hardy pensioners from wading in. Some children were being rather more sensible, just paddling in the surf with their little trousers rolled up. When I got back to ’Barnacles’ I found that Misty was engaged in showing a disturbing-looking creature in a hood round our garden.
“Misty, what are you doing?” I said “Who is this?”
The creature spoke, but I couldn’t make out a word of what he was saying. His mouth seemed to be completely crammed with marbles, for all the sense he was making.
“He says he’s looking for gardening work”, said Misty, acting as interpreter.
“We can’t afford a gardener!” I said.
“Not regularly, no”, said Misty “But I thought he could clear away all those brambles at the back of the house. It really needs doing you know”.
“Yes I do know”, I said, shortly “But I’m not employing somebody whose face I can’t see!”
The creature pushed back his hood, and removed the baseball cap that was on underneath it. He emerged blinking into daylight. A rather scrawny, spotty little Herbert was now on display.
“That’s better”, I said “You look less like a chav now!”
“If you don’t like my image, I can change it”, he said, which rather took me by surprise.
“He’s alright, really he is”, said Misty “He lives on the road out to Fobbington”.
I don’t quite know why this automatically made him ‘alright’, but Misty followed up this superb character reference by saying that “he sometimes drinks in ‘The Ship’ as well”. Oh well a person of excellent repute then!
“I’m a good boy”, said the young person “I really am!”
“Well if you are”, I said, aware I was sounding stuffy “Perhaps you need to work on your image a bit. I should imagine you would terrify any little old ladies if you turned up at their house with that look!”
“What would you like me to wear?” he said.
I felt rather shaken by this excessively obliging attitude. When I take on somebody to help tidy up my garden, I don’t expect them to change their entire image and lifestyle to suit me!
“I told you he was alright didn’t I!” said Misty, delightedly “His name’s Paul”.
“Have you two arranged all this before?” I said, suspiciously.
“No he just came here today on the off-chance”, said Misty “He’s asking for jobs all around the village”.
“I knew Misty already, if that’s what you mean”, said Paul “I’ve seen him a lot in ’The Ship’, and you of course. Everybody knows Misty around here!”
“Well I admire his get-up-and-go”, I said, and I did really, I suppose I was just a bit taken aback by it. From his appearance he looked more like he should be hanging around the amusement arcades, making the place look unsightly.
“We’re gonna get married”, Misty informed Paul, proudly (I could see that everybody in the whole flippin’ area was going to hear about it at this rate!).
“Hey, cool”, said Paul, jabbing me in the shoulder as a sign of approval.
I got some tools and a pair of old gardening gloves out of our dilapidated shed, and then instructed Paul that he was to stay away from that area of the garden where the rowan tree was.
“It needs doing though”, he said.
“Yes I know”, I said “But I’ll do that … sometime”.
I was afraid that Misty might blurt out the reason why he was to stay away from it, but fortunately he checked himself in time. I went indoors to make us all some tea.
“Paul’s alright isn’t he?” said Misty, following me into the kitchen.
“Yes he seems to be”, I said “But this is not the red light for you to go giving jobs to all your old drinking-buddies, Misty! You’d better stay out in the garden and keep an eye on him, make sure he does stay away from the rowan tree”.
“He’s got a really cool ring-tone on his mobile”, said Misty “It’s the theme tune from ’Mission: Impossible’”.
“It’ll give him some inspiration for tackling our garden then!” I said.
Paul stayed with us for the rest of the day. I felt more and more like I was a babysitter in charge of a pair of cheerful, inquiring toddlers. I gave them Welsh Rarebit for their tea (although the cans of beer probably aren’t what you’d give to toddlers), and they then settled down to watch ’Doctor Who’ whilst on the other side of the living-room I prepared a canvas for action. From the way Misty was gripping a cushion in his hands this was clearly a particularly tense episode.
“It’s the Cybermen innit?” said Paul, in explanation.
The fucking doorbell rang. Which caused groans in all of us. I went to answer it. Tara Bloody Mitchell was outside. Even Henry would have been an improvement on that! Her hair needed cutting, and she wore a sleeveless fleece jacket. She was also wearing a pugnacious expression on her face that wouldn’t have been out of place on Mike Tyson’s! I had no intention of letting her in, and thus spoiling Misty’s favourite programme of the week, so I said we’d have to stay outside.
“Why are you doing this to me?” she demanded to know, and it became apparent rather quickly that she was completely and utterly rat-arsed.
“How did you get here?” I said “You didn’t drive I hope?”
There was no sign of a car in the lane, and the state Tara was in if she had tried driving her car would probably have demolished our fence, and gone on to wreck Henry’s hedge!
“I got a taxi”, she said, with drunken grandness “Why are you doing this to me? You walk out of my party …”
“That was weeks ago!” I protested.
“You block my e-mails”, she went on “And now you won’t let me into your house!”
Not only was all this baffling me, it was boring me too. I had no interest in Tara Mitchell. I felt about her very much as I felt about my Father’s letters - why did these people keep bothering me? We had absolutely no points of mutual friendship. I didn’t even believe Tara was a real artist. Quite what she was I don’t know. Apart from a bloody lunatic that is!
The front door opened, and Misty showed Paul out, Doctor Who presumably having finished his adventures for the week, and gone back to the Tardis for a relaxing cup of tea with his feet up (lucky sod!). Fortunately I had already paid Paul whilst he was having his tea, so I didn’t have the hassle of trying to root out bits of cash whilst at the same time stopping Tara Mitchell from reeling all over the place. Paul took in the scene and got the wrong idea completely. He clearly assumed that Tara was some kind of pathetic Wronged Woman, and I was a serial philanderer. I could imagine everybody in the whole of Shinglesea exclaiming “poor little Misty!” Paul shot out a hand and shook hands with me very gravely (the younger generation never cease to amaze me).
“Any time you need anything else doing”, he said “Misty’ll know where to find me”.
He then replaced his cap and pulled up his hood, in a sort of Goodnight Gracie gesture. Somehow I managed to get Tara into the house. I dumped her on the sofa, and went over to telephone for another taxi. I had clean forgotten that it was Saturday evening. Taxi’s are as scarce as hen’s teeth on a Saturday evening round our way. I was informed by some exhausted-sounding wretch on the other end of the line that “it will be a while yet”. I said to just get one out to us as soon as they could. Misty was standing in the middle of the living-room all this time, cracking his knuckles, and his little eyes blazing. I asked him to go and make some coffee.
“You don’t want to be sick do you?” I said, looking down at Tara.
She shook her head wearily.
“I can feel all the wine sloshing around in my stomach”, she said.
“You must have been drinking all afternoon”, I said “Aren’t you getting a bit old for all that?”
Which was a silly thing to say really, as there’s no age-limit on spending a Saturday afternoon getting rat-arsed. Most of the country seems to be at it.
“I wanted to come out and see you”, she said.
“Well you didn’t have to get pissed to do it!” I said “I’m not THAT frightening am I!”
“There are things shappening round here”, she said, and she started to trail off drowsily “Lotsh of things”.
“Anything in particular?” I said.
“I didn’t expect to like you”, she said “I thought you were sho rude you shee. You wouldn’t lisht my caravan on the web!”
“You wouldn’t give me any bloody details about it!” I said “I can’t just say ’Caravan For Hire’, people need to know a bit more than that!”
“It’sh out at the camping-shite towards Darklight Cove”, she said, coyly “You musht come out and shee it shometime”.
(I would rather hit myself repeatedly over the head with a bag of cement, quite frankly).
“What are these Things you were talking about?” I said, as Misty returned with a tray of cups and the coffee-pot “Tara, sit up, you can’t go to sleep here”.
I pulled her into a sitting-position, and told Misty off for cracking his knuckles. If he was getting jealous of Tara Friggin’ Mitchell, then he would really be in for a marathon telling-off later.
“I’ve shaid too much”, she said, putting her head in her hands.
“You haven’t really said anything!” I said.
“Thish ish all sho embarrassing”, she said.
(Not half as embarrassed as you’re going to feel tomorrow, when sobriety kicks in! I thought).
“All I can shay”, she said “Ish that you musht follow the news very carefully”.
“Well I always try to keep up with things”, I said. (As long as it doesn’t involve me watching it with Henry, I don’t mind!).
“The local newsh I meant”, said Tara.
“Tara, is something going to happen round here?” I said, having surreal images of suicide-bombers wired to the teeth on the cobbled streets of Fobbington. Surely they wouldn’t bother with us? But then again, who would have thought that a sleepy, quaint little town like Hungerford in Berkshire would have had a nutter go on the rampage with machine-guns all those years ago? Evil things can happen anywhere.
“People will die!” said Tara, and she began to cry.
“Tara, this is serious, what are you telling me?” I said, pulling her face up in my hands. She was crying quite badly by now “What is going to happen?”
“I am going to be shick”, she said.
I had to take her to the loo, and hold her hair out of the way whilst she honked down it. This seemed to take an absolute age, and by the time we had finished, the taxi had arrived. It seems to be sod’s law that you wait around for ages for a taxi when you desperately want it, and it turns up on the dot when you don’t. The taxi-driver gave an understandable look of dismay when I walked Tara down the path and shovelled her into the back. She fell back onto the seat, exposing a mass of long, mottled bare leg at me in the process.
“I hope she isn’t gonna be sick”, said the taxi-driver “I’ve got a long night ahead of me you know”.
“She’s just been sick”, I said “I don’t think there’s anything else left in there”.
This clearly wasn’t a very satisfactory answer, as I got another disgusted look for my pains. He must have thought that Tara had got rat-arsed at my house, that it was me who had got her in that condition, even though she’s quite old enough (more than old enough!) to look after herself.
“Tara”, I said, loudly and slowly, after she had been strapped into place “I’ll call you tomorrow. We have to talk, and talk properly”.
This must have the taxi-driver’s impression of the situation even more. He drove off with a sort of world-weary “the-things-you-people-get-up-to” look on his face. I went back into the house, where Misty was picking up all the pieces of kitchen towel that he had strewn over the floor to catch any of Tara’s fall-out.
“You know what Paul’s gonna think don’t you?” said Misty.
“Yes!” I said “A drunken old broad turning up here on a Saturday evening and confronting me … I know exactly what he’s going to think! Before we know it you’ll be invited round to ’The Ship’ and all the younger Toby Jugs will be buying you pints and patting you on the shoulder, and saying ’chin up, mate, plenty more fish in the sea’, yes I can just see it!”
Misty gave a giggle and then said “But what was she on about?”
“I don’t know”, I said “But I didn’t like the sound of it at all”.
I tried ringing her in the morning, but she sounded tired, and merely said that we would have to talk some other time as she had work to do, and she didn’t feel like it, and she felt ill etc etc. No comment! Anyway, she was still alive, she hadn’t choked to death on her own vomit or something equally hideous, so I felt it would be best if we had a bit of space from each other. I needed time to mull over what she had said. Over the next couple of days I monitored the local news even more closely than normal, but nothing out of the ordinary, or even of much interest, occurred, apart from our local celebrity chef, (who I can’t abide, because he‘s a boring old Tory Party supporter), causing upset by raving about the amount of Eastern European immigrants working in all the hotels and restaurants in the area.
On Monday morning the post brought a letter from the Managing Director of Southern Water which waffled on about the drought, and what this would mean for all of us in the area. After reading two solid closely-typed pages of his ramblings I was none the wiser, except that people might be stopped from filling their swimming-pools (cripes, that’s really going to hit us hard here at ‘Barnacles’!), and that just because we have some rain occasionally it don’t mean nothing, nothing at all. In fact in April we had less than half the rainfall we could normally expect at that time of year. My memory of April seems to be filled with days of torrential rain, but even so, having seen the cracked earth in our garden, I knew he was right on that one. Still no mention of golf-courses though, interestingly. He’s obviously more nervous about upsetting his golfing-buddies than his customers!
“It’s going to be bad news if they switch off the private water supplies”, I said to Misty “Not just because it’ll be bloody inconvenient, but I really don’t think people will stand for it like they did 30 years ago. Hygiene standards have got so much higher since then. People have got used to showering and washing their hair every day, and having clean clothes on every day”.
“How will we flush the loo?” said Misty.
“We’ll just have to bring a bucket in each time from the water-butt in the garden”, I said.
“What if the water-butt runs dry?” said Misty.
“Honestly Misty!” I laughed, fondly “You could give Henry lessons in pessimism! We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it”.
“What’s the plan for today?” said Misty.
“I’ll do some work this morning”, I said “If you could check the e-mails for me. And then after lunch we’ll take some stuff into Mr Beresford”.
“OK”, said Misty, switching on the computer.
I turned round and caught sight of the picture which Henry had commented on, the one showing the country road at night. For the first time it occurred to me that that road might be round here somewhere, as the artist had very probably been local. It was quite significant at the moment because last night I had had a strange dream, clearly inspired by the film ’Night Of The Demon’, in which Dana Andrews and Niall McGinnis were wandering around the big, grand house which was the home of the Aleister Crowley-clone in the film. Only in my dream the house was much more full of stairs, and I was following them up a few of the flights. At the top of one flight I heard a woman screaming from a locked room nearby, and I got the distinct impression (the way you do in dreams) that she was … well dead. Don’t ask me how a dead woman can scream, but that’s the way of dreams, they tend to be rather abstract at the best of times.
“There’s a weird message on here”, said Misty, from the computer “Some woman calling herself FobbingtonGal has said ’come to Fobbington, it is open, and we still have our cobbled streets and famous tea-rooms’, do I put that on the website?”
“Yes it’s not offensive in any way”, I said “And there’s no swearing in it. Perhaps visitor numbers have fallen lately. Come to think of it, it was very quiet on the last bank holiday”.
After lunch I was loading up the back of the car with a couple of works of sheer genius (in my dreams!) for Mr Beresford, when a gaggle of poshly-spoken women walked past down the lane, all animatedly discussing the drought.
“We lived in the Middle East for years”, said one “And you never heard of droughts there, so why do we have to have one?”
“How am I going to wash my hair if they cut off the water?” said another.
“It’s all their bloody leaks”, said a third “We’re going to have to be messed about because they can’t fix their bloody leaks!”
I had once read a worthy piece on how civil unrest can begin, and they said one of the signs was when you get gangs of people congregating on street-corners discussing things in an intense manner. I had seen something similar in the week running up to Princess Diana’s funeral, when there had been a real whiff of revolution in the air, we had also seen it during the Poll Tax demonstrations. I had a feeling that if the water situation really went tits-up this Summer we would see it again. It takes a lot for the British to stop joking about things long enough to get truly revolutionary, but it can happen. Make no mistake about that.
It was a wild, squally day, and Summer gales had been predicted right across the country. As we were turned out of the road that led from Shinglesea to Fobbington, we came up against a Diversion sign stuck in the middle of it, and another sign nearby saying that this was by orders of the police.
“Oh now what’s happened?” said Misty.
“There’s probably just been a prang. We’ll go in via the marsh end of the town”, I said, turning the steering-wheel.
By sheer luck I managed to find the very last parking-space in the little car-park that is tucked under the remnants of the old town wall at the eastern end of Fobbington. From there we could cross the road, and go up the little alley which led up into the High Street. Mr Beresford looked pleased to see me, which was quite gratifying.
“I was wondering if you could do some of those Franklin-style moonlight pieces that you promised”, he said “They really are very popular”.
“Well if you think there’s a demand”, I said.
“Always a demand for your stuff”, he said, which I must say took me by surprise somewhat, and then he explained in a rather more down-to-earth fashion “You don’t go demanding hefty great prices for your work you see. The trouble I’ve had with some artists you wouldn’t believe! They think your average day-tripper is going to be happy to part with thousands of pounds for some bog-standard piece showing the south side of the Church, I ask you! No, you are very reasonable when it comes to money”.
“With my income I can’t afford to have too much ‘artistic integrity’!” I said “It seems you need a hefty amount just to get by on the simple things of life these days!”
“I know”, he said “And the latest choice piece of news from our dear Council is that they are threatening to charge us extra for rubbish collections! I mean, what do we already pay an extortionate amount in Council Tax for? To happily keep them in wine and vol-au-vents at their little shindigs I suppose! I sometimes think that when the revolution finally does come to this country, there won’t be enough lamp-posts to hang them all from!”
“Quite”, I said, feeling rather shaken. I had never thought of Mr Beresford as a closet anarchist before!
An expensively-dressed female customer came into the shop, which I thought might at least call Mr Beresford back to his normal track. Not a bit of it.
“I sometimes think that what we need in this country”, he said, relentlessly “Is a benevolent dictatorship”.
“I thought we once had that with Margaret Thatcher!” said the lady customer, with a rogue-ish smile.
“And now with Tony Blair we’ve just got a malevolent one!” I muttered.
I collected Misty at the door and went back out in to the street, where the wind seemed to have got worse, whipping around us like a mini-cyclone. At the top end of the street lives a man who frequently puts witty clippings from ’Private Eye’ up in his kitchen window for people to read. (My favourite had been one of Michael Howard pecking an elderly lady constituent on the cheek, under the heading “VAMPIRE STRIKES IN BROAD DAYLIGHT!”). Today, he was out sweeping the pavement in front of his house, which was rather a losing battle I thought, as the wind would only chuck all the debris back onto it again. Misty had been going on again, speculating about why the road to the harbour was closed, and the man with the broom answered for us.
“They’ve found her”, he said, solemnly.
I knew instantly who he meant. Anna Turnball.
“I was utterly convinced she was still alive”, I said, quietly.
“Whoever it was had used the missing headstone from the churchyard to weigh her down”, said the man with the broom “She’s been in the harbour all along. Shocking”.
He shook his head at the wickedness of the human race, and went back indoors. Misty squeezed my arm, and led me firmly in the direction of ’The Fiddler’s Rest’.
He sat opposite me across the table, smiling sympathetically. Behind him the window overlooking the marshes showed dark storm clouds moving in from the horizon.
“There were some good e-mails for the website”, he said “Lots of people are looking for places to stay around here. One man was asking about the campsite at Shinglesea”.
“That’s good”, I said, and it was.
“And a woman says she wants to buy a chalet in the area”, said Misty “And can we recommend anywhere?”
“We’ll mention the camp-site out towards Darklight Cove”, I said “They sometimes have chalets for sale along there”.
One of those large shiny-faced middle-classes families invaded the building, all of them swathed in waterproofs and all looking insufferably pleased with themselves and the filthy weather. They made so much noise getting themselves settled, and dragging tables and chairs about so that they could all sit with each other (why?!), that we could talk in total privacy.
“I really was convinced she was still alive, Misty”, I said.
He squeezed my hand underneath the table, which only made me want to cry even more. He moved round the table so that he was sitting on the bench next to me. I wanted to gather him up and squeeze him. I wanted to kiss his little cartoon face, run my hands through his hair, stroke his little pot-belly, play with his tadger … CALM DOWN! YOU’RE IN A PUBLIC PLACE!!!
“There are some sick men in the world”, he was saying.
“Yes”, I sighed “I suppose it’s safe to assume it was a man who did it. Somehow even Wendy the vodka-swilling ex-army officer doesn’t seem to quite ring true as this kind of murderer, I don’t know why. I guess you just assume women don’t do this kind of crime, even these days”.
“They’ll catch him”, said Misty, and I wish I could share his confidence. There have been plenty of unsolved murders like this.
“Nobody saw anything!” I hissed, in as loud a whisper as I could manage “That’s what I can never get over when something like this happens! He abducts her … although alright I guess originally she went willingly … he rips up an old headstone, ties a lifeless woman to it, and dumps her in the harbour, and NOBODY SEES ANYTHING! NOT ANY OF IT!”
“Perhaps somebody will come forward at some point”, said Misty “You need a holiday. We should get away from here for a while”.
“You keep coming up with these lovely plans, Misty”, I smiled “Get married, have a holiday, but unfortunately they all cost that loathsome thing called MONEY!”
“I’ve already explained about the wedding”, he said “That needn’t be expensive at all, and the holiday doesn’t need to be either. We could get an old camper-van”.
I was certainly very taken with the idea.
When we left ’The Fiddler’s Rest’ the rain and the wind had reached Judgement Day proportions. The wind felt like a cyclone, it had clearly gathered a lot of strength rolling in across the marhses. There were even people pressing themselves up against the sides of buildings. One woman came towards me wearing one of those long, billowing cotton skirts, which wasn’t the best garment for this sort of weather! She was having to hold it up out of the rain-water swilling around our feet, rampaging out of drain-pipes everywhere, and looking like an Edwardian lady tripping along.
Down in the High Street a pipe had burst and was cascading water joyously. One middle-aged man stood bang in the middle of the road, oblivious to irate traffic, ranting about the sheer wanton waste of it. Whilst another, much calmer man, standing nearby said in a jocular fashion “that looks quite pretty, I think they should keep it going!”
Driving along the road going into Shinglesea, we saw a strange figure ambling along the pavement. It was dressed in what looked like the dilapidated remains of a long black raincoat with the sleeves completely cut off. For one bizarre moment I thought Rufus Franklin had crawled himself out of his grave, except for the absence of hair. Franklin had had wayward blonde hair (usually in need of washing), a bit like Boris Johnson, the Tory MP. This character though was completely bald. It was strolling along, swinging its skinny, naked arms in a wild manner. As we drove past I looked in the rear-view mirror, and could see that it was ranting to itself, the mouth opening and closing in a wizened little face.
“What a strange person!” said Misty.
“You know sometimes I do wonder if Shinglesea Beach has been turned into an open-air lunatic asylum and nobody’s seen fit to tell us!” I said.
When we had parked the car, we rushed into ‘Barnacles’ to get the kettle on, just in case the wind knocked the power out. The cottage was creaking under the onslaught like an old ship. We dried each other off, and then I noticed that the post had been delivered whilst we were out. One item was a flyer announcing that there was to be a public meeting at Fobbington Town Hall about the proposed new airport out towards Darklight Cove, and all were welcome to attend. I knew how high feelings were running about this idea in the neighbourhood, so much were people against it in fact that, because I hadn’t heard anything about it for a while, I assumed that the whole thing had been quietly scrapped. Nope. Apparently they were resurrecting it again.
“That public meeting will be like the Wild West!” I said to Misty.
The other item of post was a letter addressed to Mr H Temple at ‘The Hedges‘. This was very annoying. It meant I would have to take it round to him.
“I’ll come with you”, said Misty.
“There’s no need”, I said “I’ll just run up the path, shove it through his letterbox, and run away again”.
Well that was the plan anyway. I might have known that Henry would scupper it. I left Misty to brew up loads more tea, and decant it into a couple of flasks, for emergency rations if needed. I picked my way along the mud bath that was now Beach Lane, and thought that if anybody mentions the bloody drought to me sometime in the near future, I will laugh in their face. I put the letter through Henry’s door, and then quickly turned to move away again. Henry shot out of his front door, as though he had been waiting on the other side of it all day, like a vampire, for a victim to appear.
“Come in, come in”, he said, heartily “Out of the rain, isn’t this weather foul?”
“I can’t stop, Henry”, I said.
I might as well have saved my breath.
“Jeannette’s bought some new things for the house”, he said “She’d like you to see them, you being an artist and all”.
“New things?” I said “I hope you’ll take them home with you when you leave. The landlord of this place certainly doesn’t deserve any freebies!”
“Oh it’s just a few bits and bobs we’ve picked up in Fobbington”, he said, showing me into the living-room.
Jeannette was nowhere in sight, although I thought I could hear sinister sounds of reptilian movement coming from the kitchen. The “few bits and bobs” turned out to be a Jack Vettriano reproduction over the wrecked fireplace (you know the one - of course you do - the couple on the beach dancing, accompanied by a windswept maid and a butler, it seems to have replaced Van Gogh’s ‘Sunflowers’ for popping up just about EVERYWHERE), and some china cats with their price tags still on. I’m not a art-snob or an interior design-snob, not by any means, (as the interior of dear old ’Barnacles’ would prove to anybody!) but I honestly couldn’t think of anything positive to say about these latest acquisitions. The cats weren’t even cute cats, or lifelike, they just looked ugly and emaciated. The purchaser of these things appeared in the living-room. Jeannette had put a little eye make-up on, which was a bit of an improvement, but she still had a predatory, ghoulish look about her.
“Jeannette looks very lovely today don’t you think?” said Henry.
I couldn’t think of anything to say to that either. I’m rubbish at lying. To me I’m afraid Jeannette will always look like a gorgon! “Very lovely” is certainly how I would never describe her. I simply did not understand this fascination Jeannette seemed to exert over the men in her life. They carried on about her as though she was some vamp-ish Jessica Rabbit clone, not some sour-faced sharp-tongued old prune, with all the sex appeal of a dead fish!
“Do you want a drink?” she said to me, abruptly “A glass of wine?”
“I really can’t stop”, I said “Misty’s making some tea for me”.
“One glass won’t kill you”, she said, and went off to fetch it.
(I wasn’t so sure about the one glass won’t kill me bit, I wouldn’t put it past her to put hemlock in it!).
I glanced out of the window. The sky was getting very dark with the rain, and I wanted to be at home with Misty. It was the perfect kind of afternoon for getting up close and personal with somebody. But don’t ask me how, these two seemed to have me trapped in this bloody awful house.
“Are you warm enough?” Henry asked me, getting up to fondle the radiators, which were festooned with some dismal-looking items of clothing.
“I’m fine”, I said, miserably, as Dracula’s Daughter put the glass of hemlock down next to me “It’s quite muggy outside, in spite of the wind and the rain”.
“I have to be quite careful with the temperatures in this house”, said Henry “Poor Jeannette, she does hyperventilate quite badly sometimes. Poor Jeannette [just in case I hadn’t already got the message]. One minute she’s cold, the next she’s hot”.
I understand Mrs Jackson has the same trouble. In fact, sometimes she has to carry a face-towel around with her in her shopping-bag, to mop herself down. But she doesn’t make such a bloody song-and-dance about it as the dreary Temples do. You can bet your sweet Fanny that whatever happens to Jeannette Henry will make a complete opera out of it! Jeannette had resumed her usual pose at the far end of the sofa, sitting there hunched like a malevolent garden gnome.
“I saw you had a young lad round in your garden the other day”, said Henry, dubiously “Wearing one of those hoody things”.
“One of Misty’s little friends”, I said “He came to help sort our garden out”.
“I-I’m not sure I would let someone like that lose on MY property”, said Henry.
“Oh for God’s sake, Henry!” Jeannette suddenly snapped. (I was astonished. I didn’t think Jeannette was capable of anything so animated!).
“We could do with him to help out here”, she said to me.
“What do you want a bloody gardener for?” said Henry, and this astonished me even more than Jeannette’s outburst had done. I had only ever heard Henry speak to Jeannette before as though he was some snivelling, unworthy disciple, sitting at the feet of a particularly cruel and unforgiving goddess. This seemed almost insanely out of character.
“Do you expect me to spend the rest of the Summer doing that garden all by myself?” she fired back at him.
I thought of asking why the landlord didn’t send somebody round occasionally, to keep the garden in reasonable nick, as I knew was the arrangement with some of the other holiday lets. But considering the state of this house, I knew this would be a stupid question.
“Well can’t you do some of it, Henry?” I asked instead.
“He can’t”, said Jeannette “It’s too much for him. Tell Misty that I would like his friend to pop round here sometime”.
Henry was wearing a look of utter misery on his face by this time.
“I’ll see what I can do”, I said. (At least it would give us an excuse to go to ‘The Ship’ for a drink one evening, I thought, to beard Paul in his lair as it were).
“Do you want another drink?” Jeannette barked at me again, like a drill-sergeant.
I made an exaggerated point of looking up at the clock on the wall.
“I really, really must be getting back”, I said “Or Misty’ll wonder what’s happened to me”.
Jeannette gave a contemptuous snort, and a sort of “harrumphing” noise. I wanted to slap the living daylights out of her, the snotty, miserable old cow! It had stopped raining (momentarily at least) so Henry saw me down to the garden gate.
“I hate strong winds like this”, he said, as it whipped around us “I find it deeply unsettling”.
“You’ve come to the wrong place to stay then”, I said “We get some absolutely corking gales down here! Still, at least all this rain might help the water levels. What did you make of that letter from the Water Board?”
He looked at me blankly.
“You must have had one”, I said “Everybody did. It was all about the drought and what restrictions might come in place”.
“Oh”, he looked relieved “Was that all it was about? We didn’t open it, we weren’t sure what it was”.
I found this quite extraordinary. I had an image of two grown people standing around staring in horror at a typed envelope from Southern Water, as though it was the curse-bearing runic symbols that Julian Karswell doled out to his enemies in ‘Casting The Runes’!
“G’night Henry”, I sighed.
Back at ‘Barnacles’ the lights were flickering.
“Have you go the big torch out ready?” I asked Misty, after I had explained why my simple errand had taken longer than expected.
“Yes, and the candles, and the Scrabble”, said Misty.
“Good”, I stripped off all my clothes, leaving them in a heap in the middle of the floor, and changed into my dressing-gown. I then threw myself down onto the nearest armchair, and began to scrawl some notes on a blank page in one of my old sketch-pads.
“What are you doing?” said Misty, looking over my shoulder.
“Trying to establish some kind of link between everything weird that is happening around here”, I said.
“We know the link between Anna Turnball and the missing headstone now”, said Misty “And I think the missing cannon was just some kind of stag night prank. Probably find that’s in the harbour as well!”
“As long as there’s no one tied to it!” I said.
“Do we count all those old hags that keep popping up as weird?” said Misty “And that strange figure we saw by the side of the road today?”
“Yes”, I said “God knows we get our fair share of strange visitors around here every year, but this lot are something else!”
“So does that mean you count Henry and Jeannette as well?” said Misty “’Cos they’re certainly not normal!”
“Do you know”, I said, chucking my sketch-pad on the floor “I sometimes wonder if Jeannette really is a fucking vampire, the way she carries on!”
“Or an alien”, Misty giggled “Perhaps they all are. Perhaps we’re being invaded by creatures from outer space and we don’t realise it!”
“You’ve been watching too much television!” I said “Anyway, if Henry and Jeannette and the old hags are examples of what the alien invaders are, I don’t think we should live too much in fear and trembling! To frighten Henry away back to Planet Zog, you’d only have to wave a letter from Southern Water at him!”
Rain, rain, more bloody rain. Days and days of it. “The water levels in the reservoirs are rising”, said some Water Board spokesman. I should think they bloody are! I thought. Beach Lane was a quagmire. One morning, picking my way along it, I had some hearty woman say that I should take my shoes off and walk through the mud barefoot, and that that would be quite fun. I left her to her singular way of enjoying herself, and went back into the house, to be told that a copper was on his way out to speak to us. They had said that they wanted to speak to everybody who had been in ’The Crab’ on Easter Saturday, and we had got in touch, although I doubted they would have much luck rounding everybody up.
Anyway, to summarise, a Panda car pulled up outside ’Barnacles’, and a copper of gargantuan proportions clambered out. This guy must have weighed at least 20 stones. I couldn’t help thinking, as he lumbered slowly up the garden path, that any low-lifes in our area must be having a field-day with him around. Just about anybody would be able to out-run him! Even to sit on them he’d have to catch them first, and probably give himself a coronary in the process! When he got indoors he made purposefully for one of Granny’s old wheel-backed chairs, and I had to hastily divert him to the sofa, as I had images of him shattering the chair like matchwood! It wasn’t even as if his brain-power made up for his fitness deficiency. We’re not exactly talking Lieutenant Columbo here!
“Was there anybody in the bar you hadn’t seen before?” he said.
“It was a Fobbington pub on a Bank Holiday weekend”, I explained, as patiently as I could “It was packed to the rafters with people we had never seen before!”
“Was the deceased talking to anybody in particular?” he ploughed on.
“Anna talked to anyone”, I said “Well anyone male that is. She loved masculine attention. She usually tended to have a little gang around her”.
“Did you speak to anyone in particular?” he said “Anyone out of the ordinary?”
I explained about Mr Toad‘s flying visit, and said that if he wanted to know more about him, then Henry and Jeannette were the people to ask, as I didn’t even know his name. Other than that, there really was nothing further we could add. We had left the pub over an hour before Anna had done. We certainly didn’t see who she left with. Neither did we know very much about Anna’s private life. We had only known her by sight, and I’ve found out more about her since she disappeared, than I knew when she was still around. Well he had to be satisfied by that. He lumbered back to his jam jar, and climbed into it, causing it to rock violently from side to side.
To add to the joy of life, late that night, when I was checking up on the website, I found we had been infiltrated by a troll calling himself MadMackThePuker (nice). MadMack had bombarded us with several messages, each one designed to be as offensive as possible. He seemed to have sat down and decided which topics would get people’s backs up the most, and then post messages along those lines. So we had rants about ginger-haired people, why women were inferior to men (his remark “how can you trust a creature that bleeds for a week but doesn‘t die?” gives you some idea of the sad mentality at work here), why were the lesbians on ‘EastEnders’ so pig-ugly as it was destroying one of his favourite fantasies, how ALL people claiming benefits were “English trash” … and well you get the idea.
Normally I would simply put a block on such an eejit, but for once I wanted to know what motivated such a cretin to waste valuable time in his one and only life in this way. I sent an e-mail to him asking him why he did it, and that I certainly wouldn’t be allowing his messages to appear on our website, as many people would find them offensive, particularly women. Within a few minutes I got a reply back, which went something like this:
“I’M TRYING TO SPARK DEBATE. I’M TRYING TO GET PEOPLE TO THINK ABOUT THINGS MORE THAN THEY DO. YOU SAY MANY WOMEN WOULD FIND MY POSTS OFFENSIVE, WELL THEN THEY SHOULDN’T BE SUCH SAD SACKS! IF THEY REALLY THINK I BELIEVE EVERY WORD THAT I WRITE, THEN PERHAPS THEY SHOULD GO BACK TO COMBING THEIR DOLL’S HAIR!!! PERHAPS THEY SHOULD GO AND HAVE A WEE-WEE, AND I’LL LEAVE A NIGHT-LIGHT ON FOR THEM IN CASE THEY GET SCARED OF THE DARK!!!!”
I did speculate if I should ask him if he was the Phantom Egg-Thrower, as it certainly seemed to have all his hallmarks, but it was too late at night, and I was too tired. I sent him a message to say that there were plenty of other forums on the Internet for him to post on, but I really didn’t think a tourist website, (which after all was supposed to be about giving out useful information), was the place for his schoolboy rants. Thinking about it afterwards, I did wonder how puerile jokes about ginger-haired people and lesbian characters in a fictional soap was the stuff of “debate”!
One evening, after we had been deluged all day, it actually stopped raining for a while, and I took Misty out to ‘The Ship’, to see if Paul was in there. The place was packed, the brief cessation in downpour seemed to have brought everybody out. We found a spare table squeezed up in one of the corners, and grabbed it quick.
“Here’s Paul now”, said Misty, pointing out of the window.
Paul was standing outside the main door, ritualistically removing his hood and cap before coming in. There was a rule in place across our area that nobody should wear any kind of head covering in a bar. Which recently had led to a farcical situation whereby a posh lady pensioner had been ordered to remove her sensible felt hat in one pub. As you can imagine, the local papers had a field day with that one! “Do I look like a damn hoody?!” the old lady had spiritedly asked.
Misty went over to ask Paul if he would go and call on the Temples sometime. In the meantime Paul looked over at me as if to say “what brass nerve! You showing your face in here amongst decent, civilised people!” It was clear Paul was still convinced I was some kind of heartless ageing philanderer, who didn’t deserve to be with his dear friend Misty. Fortunately Paul went into the other room to play snooker, and I didn’t have to bear these disapproving looks for too long.
“He’s cool about it”, said Misty, when he rejoined me “Says he’ll go and see them sometime this week”.
“He’s really got the wrong idea about me”, I said “Thanks to Tara bloody Mitchell!”
“I’ll talk him round”, said Misty.
“Let’s hope he’s going to be safe around Jeannette”, I said.
“You don’t think she’ll pounce on him do you?” Misty giggled.
“It wouldn’t surprise me, put it that way!” I said “I’m starting to wonder if she’s some kind of cold-bloodied nympho”.
“Why isn’t she interested in Henry in that way then?” said Misty.
“Because he’s her slave”, I said “Henry’s there to do all the jobs EXCEPT sex. It’s other men she has for that!”
A sudden thought pulled me up with a jolt.
“Misty”, I said “I think perhaps you should go and tell Paul to forget all about working for the Temples”.
Misty paused in biting into his pickled egg.
“I can’t do that now”, he said “He’ll be in the middle of his game! Anyway, he wants the job. He says he needs the money, and they‘ll be a regular thing for the next few months”.
“Yes but …” I began.
Yes but nothing. What could I say? Don’t go and work for Jeannette Temple, I think she’s a raving nymphomaniac! Well a lot of red-bloodied young lads of Paul’s age might not necessarily see that as a negative thing!!! When you’re that age just about anything (even Jeannette Temple) can be seen as Good Practice.
“OK”, I said “But when you speak to him again, just tell him to be careful that’s all”.
A cloud burst of immense proportions suddenly erupted outside, and the rain bounced off the tarmac surface of the car-park like a mass of silver coins being chucked out of the sky.
“Good job we brought our brollies with us”, said Misty, indicating the two dilapidated items on the table.
“I tell you”, one of the Toby Jugs shouted “I think at this rate we should cancel the month of June, there won’t be any point to it!”
“You can’t cancel the month of June”, one of his friends replied “It’s my old dear’s birthday then, she won’t hear of that being cancelled I can tell yer!”
“You really need a holiday”, said Misty, sympathetically, as he now embarked on a packet of salt and vinegar crisps. The landlord’s dog padded out purposefully into the bar, as if alerted by some kind of canine radar that his favourite snack supplier was on the premises “You’ve not been well for ages now. Only yesterday you couldn’t even remember what your e-mail address was!”
“God I know”, I said “Senility setting in already! There’s no hope!”
“You never had a chance to get over all that Rufus Franklin rubbish”, said Misty “And then everything else starts happening. There’s too much weird stuff going on around here. And some of it is just TOO odd. Remember that mysterious darkness a couple of months ago? Nobody ever mentions it now!”
“Things have moved on I suppose”, I said “People have other things to think about”.
“Yeah, but it was only back in March, we’re not talking years and years ago”, said Misty “And yet nobody ever mentions it do they! It’s as if the whole area has got amnesia, apart from us!”
“OK”, I sighed “So we find some way of having a holiday, perhaps trade the car in for a camper-van, as we’ve both suggested. But what do you want to do first, get married or have the holiday?”
“You need the holiday first”, said Misty, firmly “You really do, I can’t stress that enough”.
“Where would you like to go?” I said “If we get an old camper-van, then the whole of the British Isles is our lobster”.
“What about Loch Ness?” said Misty, excitedly.
“Oh don’t pick anywhere too close then!” I said.
“Well it’d get you right out of the area wouldn’t it!” said Misty “And I’d really love to see the monster!”
“Misty”, I said “A lot of people would really love to see the monster, but she seems to be notoriously shy!”
“But we can try”, said Misty “Oh we’d have a right old time, I know we would”.
“Very likely!” I laughed.
An ageing rocker came and sat at the next table, and proceeded to talk IN A VERY LOUD VOICE into his mobile phone, all about arranging some concert gigs. Clearly he’d spent too much of his life at rock concerts, as he had developed a voice that could probably be heard above massed cannon-fire! I said to Misty that I’d go to the loo, and then we could go home and talk about it all IN PEACE!!!
The loos at ’The Ship’ are down a dingy old corridor that runs out of the back of the public bar. I had finished my important business, and had just emerged back into the corridor, when the door which connected with the bar opened and a tall, young-ish woman came out. She was strikingly-dressed in a bright orange halter-necked linen dress, a colourful bandana round her hair, (how did this costume get past the No Headgear rule?) and her eyes (and most of her face come to that) covered in an enormous pair of sunglasses.
She was fumbling her way down the side of the corridor as though she was blind, or drunk (or both). I thought perhaps she really was blind, and that would account for the enormous pair of dark glasses. She certainly seemed to be having trouble finding the door to the Ladies.
“Are you alright?” I asked “Do you want me to help you?”
She tripped and held onto me for support. I helped her back onto her feet, and again asked her if she was alright. Suddenly she pulled off the dark glasses, I looked straight into her eyes. I instantly fell back against the wall in shock. Her eyes were completely black. I don’t mean she had been beaten up, or that just the pupils were black, but the entire eye sockets were black, no whites to them at all. She laughed when she saw how shocked I was. She was still laughing when I got back into the safety of the bar.
Back home I frantically did searches on the Internet for this weird phenomenon. Perhaps it was a medical condition I had never heard of? After wading through countless items about The Black-Eyed Peas, I came upon the Urban Legend of The Black-Eyed People. This had only appeared on the scene as an Urban Legend as recently as 1998, which makes it extremely new as far as myths go. Sceptics put it down to some people simply having very dark eyes, or that they are wearing weird contact lenses, or that there are some drugs that can have this effect on a person’s eyes. All of which is very plausible. And ordinarily, I would go with the sceptics. After all, the girl in the bandana had certainly acted as though she was spaced out! And yet … oh and yet … what can explain this revulsion, this FEAR, that I had felt when I looked at her? It is a gut, primeval reaction. A primitive sensing of acute danger.
Misty made me spend the next day in bed, which, as it bloody tanked down again, I was quite happy to do. I was only allowed to get up when Mrs Jackson called with the eggs. I wanted to speak to her. Mrs Jackson is a goldmine of offbeat information. She’s like a walking Wikipedia. You can throw a subject at her, ANY subject, and she’ll have known someone, or they will have known someone, who has experienced it.
“My niece saw somebody with that condition only last year”, she said “My niece Sally-Jo. She got a temporary job at one of the warehouses on the trading estate in town, just in the month before Christmas, to earn a bit of extra money during her college holiday. Just packing work you know. Well they was taking on a lot of extra staff for that period, ’cos they were so busy. And she said there was two women taken on as well, sisters I think they were. But Sally-Jo said they were really WEIRD! She said they had really dark eyes, with a really dark intense stare. It was quite off-putting. And she said they hardly ever spoke to anybody. If you spoke to them they’d just stare back at you. She said they really gave her the creeps. Mind you, she said the whole firm did”.
“The whole firm did?” I said.
“Yes”, said Mrs J “In fact, when they offered her more work during the Easter holidays she turned it down, said she wouldn’t go and work back there for triple the money, they was that weird! She said the Manager was very strange. He had some sort of peculiar skin condition, looked a bit like Michael Jackson, no relation!” she laughed “Very sort of pale, unnaturally pale if you know what I mean, and really thin with it”.
“Even so, none of that makes him weird on its own”, I said “I had a cousin who got really bad eczema. She had a terrible time of it when we were kids, with all the other kids poking fun at her”.
“Oh it wasn’t just his condition I can tell you”, said Mrs J “She said there was just something about him which made her feel really uneasy. He was always getting little things wrong, you know, really simple everyday things, what you’d expect a bloke in his position to have no trouble with. She said she once walked past his office, and saw him staring intently into a jar of instant coffee, just sort of turning it round and round in his hands, as though he’d never seen it before! And he had a right tantrum once, because he said his computer was busted, it was completely dead. The guy was called out to fix it. And it turned out he hadn’t even switched it on!”
I had to laugh at this (and it was much needed I can tell you!).
“I’ve had some bosses like that in the past!” I said “They beggar belief sometimes!”
Nonetheless this was all very interesting, and I decided that when I was feeling more energetic, we would drive around the trading estate in Fobbington (it’s opposite the railway station)), and see if we could locate this weird place. Misty sent me back to bed, and I tried to get interested in the television, which wasn’t easy as most of it seemed to be taken up the new series of ’Big Brother’. I’ve always quite enjoyed this programme in the past, but this year I couldn’t get into it. Perhaps I was meeting too many weirdo’s in real life to want to watch them on the box as well! And the media’s hysterical reaction to everything that went on in that camera-filled house was getting right on my nerves. Breathless descriptions of wine being passed from mouth to mouth, and two drunken housemates sharing a shower afterwards, made me just think “so what?” Sounds like an average evening at our house! (Substitute bath for shower). This year one of the inmates was threatening to kill himself on air (don’t, that sort of thing’s already been done), and I could only think cynically that this was a sure-fire way to get the nation’s attention, and that the producers of this show must be rubbing their little hands with glee. One of the women, who had a face like a chronically-constipated sheep, was now saying that everybody was jealous of her looks (?!), and when another - a sort of manic midget - started doing impressions of the Crazy Frog I switched it off.
I must have fallen asleep practically as soon as I had done so, and I woke up again some time later to find myself still spread over the bottom of the bed. Apart from the rain belting down against the window, I couldn’t hear a sound. It had gone dark, so it must have been fairly late. I got up, and went into the living-room, which was lit up by candles like a church. A power-cut. The clock said twenty-past eleven. Misty was lying asleep on the sofa, his mouth open, and dribble coming out onto the cushion. He woke up drowsily when he heard me approaching him.
“You should have come to bed”, I said, kneeling down by the sofa.
“I didn’t want to disturb you”, he said “You looked so peaceful”.
“Oh Misty”, I kissed his fingers “What time did the lights go out?”
“Soon after 10 o’clock”, said Misty “It’s got very windy out there now”.
“I’d better put the chain on the door”, I said.
“I’m sorry, I forgot about that”, he said, looking distraught “I remembered to turn the oven off , and to close the kitchen window, but I still go and forget things, there‘s so much to remember all the time”.
“Stop worrying”, I said “I’m not telling you off!”
I fastened the door, and went to pull the curtain at the side door. Once again, somebody was standing out in the lane, on the far side of it, looking at our house. It was awful. I think it was that grotesque figure we had seen out on the road a few days before. There was practically no Moon, so I couldn’t see it that well. But I could make out its peculiar garments whipping around in the wind, and a sort of white blur where its face was. It looked like a hideous, demonic scarecrow that had been left out in the lane. I couldn’t help remembering the sinister scarecrows Rufus Franklin used to put in his paintings.
“This is all getting too much”, I said to myself, and I closed the curtain firmly on the … Thing.
“I think we’ll put the chain on all the time now”, I said to Misty “When it’s gone dark at least”.
The telephone rang. I answered it. There was a long, very breathy pause on the other end of the line, which was very crackly. Oh please! I thought, not Tara Mitchell on the piss again!
“Dad?” came a kid’s voice, I think a boy’s, but I’m not certain “Dad? You’d better come home quick. We’ve seen that strange light in the woods again … and that dark figure’s about too …”
The line dissolved into yet more crackle.
“I’m sorry, I think you’ve got the wrong number”, I said, thoroughly disconcerted to say the least.
There was a hurried exchange of voices in the distance, and a woman (his mother?) was urging him to hang up.
“Hold on a minute”, I said, although I didn’t have the faintest idea what I was going to say!
There was the sound of the receiver being replaced, and the line went dead. I stood staring at the phone for a little while.
“Misty”, I said “Do we have any booze in the house? Any at all?”
“There’s no JD”, he said.
“I’ll have a look”.
I heard him rooting around in one of the kitchen cupboards.
“There’s still nearly a full bottle of that Tia Maria Mrs Jackson gave us for Christmas”, he said.
“Have we still got that?” I said, astonished that nearly a full bottle of booze had survived in our house for 5 months unmolested.
“Yes, you said you didn’t like it”, he said “You said it was too sweet”.
“Needs must when the Devil drives”, I replied “Get out a couple of tumblers”.
The power stayed out all night and for most of the next morning. The storm though had washed the sky clean, and the air was vivid the next day. I took advantage of the good light, to take my easel up onto the beach to put the finishing touches to a bog-standard watercolour of it. I wanted to get it finished off before starting on some of the moonlight pictures that Mr Beresford had been badgering me for. Later in the day I was going to take Misty out for a drive round the countryside, (he was playing golf on the scrubland at the moment), ostensibly to get some Inspiration, but also because I wanted to see if I could locate the ’woods’ that the kid on the phone had been talking about. There is quite a bit of wooded area in our county if you go a few miles inland, as we’re backed up by some quite wild down-lands. Naturally, I had tried 1471 to see if (by any remote chance) my anonymous caller had left their number, but nope.
The beach was quiet this morning, apart from a lone pensioner who was sitting on a bench further along. At one point he ambled along to have a look at what I was doing. He stood gazing at it for ages, with his tongue stuck to the top of his teeth.
“Why did you put the dark figure in?” he asked me.
“What dark figure?” I said.
“You’ve put a figure in that’s not there”, he said.
I looked again at my picture. Somehow I had put in the outline of a dark shape standing in the surf nearby. It not only was not based on anybody that was actually there, but I couldn’t remember doing it!
“I think you should keep it in though”, he said, approvingly “It makes the picture … different somehow”.
Yes it did. And Mr Beresford would be pleased with it. There was nothing wrong with the picture, but it was bugging me that now I was painting things that I couldn’t remember painting! A gang of excitable little school-children came up onto the beach, all clutching pads and pencils, obviously on some kind of assignment. I decided that my picture could stay as it was, complete with mysterious dark figure, and I packed up my things.
Back at ’Barnacles’ I found Misty sitting on the veranda, reading a copy of one of our free local papers.
“You’ll never guess what’s happened!” he said.
“Go on, surprise me”, I said, going indoors to dump my things.
“Tara Mitchell’s been served with an ASBO!” he said.
I had to laugh at this.
“Been drunk and disorderly again has she?” I said.
He handed me the paper. The headline of the ’Fobbington Courier’ (front page too!) proudly proclaimed “ASBO FOR NEIGHBOUR FROM HELL”. I read on somewhat feverishly:
“TARA MITCHELL, 47, DUBBED THE NEIGHBOUR FROM HELL AFTER SHE WAGED A 4-MONTH CAMPAIGN OF EVIL AGAINST HER FELLOW RESIDENTS IN QUAY ROAD, HAS BEEN SERVED WITH AN ANTI-SOCIAL BEHAVIOUR ORDER. SINCE ARRIVING IN FOBBINGTON BACK IN FEBRUARY MITCHELL HAS BEEN ACCUSED OF AGGRESSIVE, DRUNKEN BEHAVIOUR. SHE HAS PERSISTENTLY PLAYED LOUD MUSIC UNTIL 3 IN THE MORNING, HURLED ABUSE AT NEIGHBOURS IN THE STREET, DUMPED DEAD ANIMALS ON THEIR DOORSTEPS, PUT DOG MUCK AND LIT FIREWORKS THROUGH LETTERBOXES, AND HAS EVEN MAILED DISGUSTING HARDCORE PORNOGRAHIC MAGAZINES TO ELDERLY RESIDENTS.
’SHE HAS BEEN A NIGHTMARE SINCE THE VERY FIRST DAY SHE MOVED IN’, SAID ONE NEIGHBOUR, MRS VERA BAXTER (52) ’NOT A DAY GOES PAST WHEN WE DON’T GET SOME KIND OF TROUBLE FROM HER. THE DAY SHE ARRIVED SHE CAME ROUND TO INTRODUCE HERSELF TO US, AND SAID ’I AM TARA MITCHELL, AND I CAUSE HAVOC’, I DIDN’T KNOW WHAT SHE WAS TALKING ABOUT THEN, BUT HOW RIGHT SHE TURNED OUT TO BE! THIS USED TO BE SUCH A LOVELY ROAD, EVERYONE GOT ON SO WELL, AND SHE HAS COMPLETELY RUINED IT’.
IT TRANSPIRES THAT MS MITCHELL, A SELF-PROCLAIMED PROFESSIONAL ARTIST AND SCULPTOR, HAD TROUBLE IN HER PREVIOUS HOME VILLAGE OF HALTMOOR IN NORTHUMBERLAND, WHERE SHE WAGED A SIMILAR CAMPAIGN OF TERROR LAST YEAR. MS MITCHELL WAS UNAVAILABLE FOR COMMENT YESTERDAY”.
“She’s completely barmy!” said Misty “I always thought she was!”
“Good grief”, I said “I think we got off relatively lightly when she came round here that evening!”
“It’s the dead animals that really gets me”, said Misty “What kind of dead animals, and where does she get them from?”
“Bloody bitch”, I said “Come on, I’m taking you out to lunch”.
“Can we afford it?” said Misty.
“Who cares!” I replied.
I wanted to get us out of Shinglesea and Fobbington, for a couple of hours anyway. So I drove us up towards Darklight Cove, and then turned off just beyond the campsite, and headed out into the wilds of the marshes. There are some very remote villages out here. I took us to a pub called ’The Black Cat’ (very Edgar Allan Poe!), which is situated just outside a small hamlet. I hadn’t been out this way for ages. It used to be run by a formidable old lady, who hadn’t changed it in decades. She was so old-fashioned she stubbornly refused to do food, and sometimes I think, if she could have got away with it, she would have banned women from the main bar! She had recently died, and had left the pub to a grand-daughter in London. She and her husband had now just taken it over.
When we arrived it was to find that they were still in the thick of their power-cut. They were desperate not to let us go though, and insisted that they could still do us a ploughmans. I got the impression we were the only customers they had seen all lunchtime. They had been busying themselves tying up bunches of hops over the bar. Whilst we ate, the young woman told us about the problems she was having with her unexpected legacy. I think the gist of it was that the handful of locals, (who had been coming here since God were a lad), resented any changes whatsoever. Even though the pub most assuredly would not stay in business for much longer if it was kept as the old lady had had it.
“They just can’t see though”, she said “That we can’t keep going on the few pints that they drink a week. We need to have visitors in, and visitors will want food, and we’ve already had complaints from some because we haven’t stopped the locals from smoking all over the place. But if we upset the locals, they might not come back!”
“Of course they will”, I said “Where else are they going to go? They’ll probably stay away in protest for a bit, but it’ll be themselves they’re hurting, not you. As anyone living in this area will tell you - well anyone with a brain that is - we can’t survive without the visitors. What are you going to make more money out of? A family who wants to eat a full meal, or an old local with a pint and a fag?!”
“That’s all very well at this time of year”, she said, sounding very distressed “But it’s the Winter I’m dreading, we’ll be stuck alone with them then. Hardly any visitors come out here in the Winter months, not even in the run-up to Christmas apparently! What if NOBODY comes?”
“Do you miss London?” I said. I could see it written all over her. There are plenty like me who come down here because we love the wildness, the escape from the rat race. I could never go back to live in the City. But I knew that wasn’t the case for everybody. There are plenty for whom the quietness is a killer.
“Yes I do”, she said “Sometimes nobody drives past here for hours on end, and at night, it’s so damn quiet, you can’t hear a thing! And take this power-cut for instance, some have said power-cuts can go on for DAYS down here. DAYS!”
“Not at this time of year”, I said “Sometimes in the Winter they can”.
“Oh brilliant!” she said, in dismay.
“Ours came back on this morning”, I said “Yours can’t be far off. If it all gets to you too much you know you can always sell up”.
“We’d like to have a go at it first”, she said “My husband says that many people would love to have a country pub, so we’re going to have a try. Anyway, we probably wouldn’t get much for it the way it is at the moment! We’ll do it up, and try to make it more of a going concern. At least it’s a Freehouse, and we don’t have a brewery on our backs!”
We had finished our meal, and made to leave, but she seemed to panic at this, and pressed us to have another one. I honestly don’t think it was our money she was after, it was just that both she and her husband seemed to be nervous about being in the place by themselves. I ordered another drink, and we were soon joined by a couple of cyclists, who had come in to escape from a thundery sky which had built up whilst we were indoors, and was threatening a substantial downpour at any moment.
Whilst the cyclists were being served, Misty and I went back to our table at the back of the bar, which had a gloomy view out over a churchyard. Something that looked even more sinister in this light. On the wall was an old map of the area, and I squinted my eyes through the gloom to have a look at it.
“You’re not still looking for those woods?” said Misty “They could be anywhere”.
“I trust you’re not going to complain about having another little drive out in the country sometime?!” I said.
“What about The Chantley Stones?” said Misty, who had picked up a handful of tourists leaflets from one of the side tables.
“Oh our local Stonehenge!” I laughed.
Chantley Stones is a small stone circle (not exactly on a scale with Stonehenge) set up on the Downs. They had once been protected by a dense ring of trees, but an awful lot of these had got destroyed in the 1987 hurricane. The Chantley Stones are now rather more exposed. Any witches who might perchance still dance in the nude there have a much higher risk of being seen from the road!
“What about them?” I asked.
“Well perhaps you could paint them”, said Misty “I’m sure Mr Beresford might think they were Atmospheric”.
“That’d be a nice day out”, I agreed.
I actually felt quite guilty about leaving the new landlady of ‘The Black Cat’ and her husband behind, as though I was abandoning The Babes In The Wood. She seemed so crestfallen, particularly as the power hadn’t yet come on again. There was also something so unutterably gloomy about that dreary churchyard at the back of the pub, and the sure and certain knowledge that The Locals would be in again this evening to give them both a hard time.
But the trouble is, we all have our lives to lead, and these days those lives seem to be fuller than ever. I could hardly believe how much had gone on this month alone. On the way back home though I wanted to call in at the flea-market at Fobbington, and see if they had an iron trunk, or box, or something.
“What do you want one of those for?” was Misty’s understandable question.
“The Devil’s enemy is iron”, I said, as we drove along.
“Who says?” said Misty.
“I’m not certain”, I replied “I think I got that from an old Quatermass film!”
“Oh well so it must be right then!” said Misty.
“It’s all part of folklore!” I said.
“So what are you gonna do with it?” said Misty.
“Put the jar in the back garden into it”, I replied.
“And then what do we do with it?” said Misty.
“Take it away”, I said “Out of this area. Look, I don’t know EXACTLY what we’re going to do with it, but we’ll put it in there for the time being, and then decide. I just want to draw all this bloody trouble out of the area, it’s bad, Misty”.
“But then wherever we take it is gonna suffer too”, said Misty “It’ll act like a magnet wherever we go”.
“I realise that!” I said “I haven’t got that far in my thinking yet!”
The flea-market at Fobbington sells just about anything, anything that could be remotely construed as vintage I mean. Sometimes I can feel quite shaken wandering around its barn-like two floors, and seeing items that I grew up with now being classed as “vintage curiosities”. I asked at the front desk if they had any iron boxes, and it took me a while to convince them that I wasn’t after (i) old steam irons (ii) antique letter-boxes, or (iii) videos of Iron Maiden in concert! In the end the closest that I could get was a very old cast-iron post-box, the sort that would have been fastened to the wall. (Not the stand-up bright red ones that you get in the street, although they did have one of them as well, but it’s not for sale in the shop, as apparently it’s currently doing very well up for auction on eBay!). Anyway, our post-box was hefty, but I felt it would serve the purpose I was after.
“Glad we haven’t gotta post that to you”, said the guy on the desk.
I parted with £25 in cash that we could ill afford to part with, and then Misty helped me to cart it out to the car outside.
“I hope you think this is worth it”, said Misty, as we loaded it into the boot, after much rearranging of the back seat and the parcel shelf (something we normally only have to do at Christmas, when we go and buy the tree) “Are you sure this is gonna sort out the Evil?”
“Of course I’m not sure!” I said “But we can at least have a damn good try!”
“Why does iron keep out the Devil?” asked Misty, which was a pretty valid question all told, but not one that I felt up to answering at that moment.
“I don’t know”, I said, candidly.
“He can’t be up to much if an iron box an sort him out”, said Misty “David Blaine wouldn’t have any trouble, I expect!”
“Haven’t you heard how the Devil is always ultimately a sad loser?!” I said.
When we got back home we carried the old post-box round to the back of the house, and left it there.
“We’ll sort the jar out some other time”, I said, looking over at the rowan tree “It’ll mean having to carefully dig that up, and then replace it”.
“And what do we do with the jar once it’s in the box?” said Misty, sounding as though we’d been set some abstract puzzle on a T.V game show.
“I’ve already told you”, I said “I haven’t got that far in my thinking yet!”
“Do we really have to dig it up?” said Misty, going over to the rowan tree “It seems such a shame”.
“I’ll make sure we replace it very carefully”, I said “Have no fear of that”.
There was precious little chance of getting much thinking done either! The following day actually brought some warm sunshine, a sight so astonishing I’m amazed the ground beneath our feet didn’t reverberate to the sounds of people thudding to the floor in shock. I decided that a day out at Chantley Stones was in order. I felt it was a good time to go, as before long the place would be out of bounds due to the imminence of the Summer Solstice. I had gone armed with the camera, to take pictures for Inspiration, but I was a bit disappointed to tell the truth. Perhaps going in the middle of a bright, sunny day wasn’t conducive to Atmosphere. It didn’t help that the fields surrounding us as we drove up the hill to the site were filled with the foul-smelling oil-seed rape.
“It’s too busy here really to get any idea of spookiness”, I said to Misty, as quite a few people ambled around the stones.
Misty looked all around him in a quite theatrical way before whispering:
“Perhaps we need to come up here after dark?”
“That would be an idea”, I said “Although even then we’ve got to pick our times right. It won’t be long before the hippies start moving in”.
On the way back to the car we had a stout, middle-aged woman come marching towards us with a pair of welding rods, she looked so frighteningly purposeful that we got out of her way. Some modern-day hippies arrived on the scene just as we were leaving, with full gamut of dreadlocks, facial piercings, and bleached clothing.
“It’s going to be tricky fighting our way through them for the next few weeks!” I said.
Another bloody bank holiday was upon us, another time for people to wander about with their children and grandchildren looking bored stiff, and for the nauseating stench of barbecue fluid to permeate the air, no matter what the weather was like. Yes, I sounded jaded. I was feeling exhausted and highly emotional. I felt like at any moment I was going to let rip at the slightest thing. Picking up some groceries (as the Americans would say) in the mini-mart I had the Manager telling me that he was sick of my neighbour (Henry), who seemed to come into the shop solely to cause trouble, finding fault with the slightest thing. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to do about all this, but I knew one thing. I was damned if I was going to be my neighbour’s keeper!
Late on the Friday night the Troll darkened my Internet mail-box again. I was sent a succession of long e-mails, all typed in upper-case (which, as anyone knowledgeable about the Internet will tell you, makes you feel like you’re being shouted at). Some were done in a sickening sort of mock Winnie The Pooh style, with deliberately mis-typed remarks along the lines of “CUM ON I WANT US TO BE FWENDS”. He said he had seen me around talking to Mrs Jackson, and so I clearly liked fat women. “FAT WOMEN CAN’T REACH THEIR ARSES TO WIPE THEIR BACKSIDES, COS THEY ALL HAVE LITTLE FAT ARMS, AND THAT’S PROBLY WHY THEY ALL SMELL”.
I don’t know what poisonous substance this sad loser pumped into his system on a Friday evening, but the results were highly tedious to say the least. It was pointless me speculating as to why he had picked me out for his attentions (after all cyber-space is a big place), but trolls have a tendency to keep swooping around until they find a victim. A sort of Internet vampire I guess. A part of me did feel grudgingly sorry for him. This sort of person has to be very lonely, otherwise why else would they be so desperate for attention from a complete stranger? I could only come to the conclusion that he had been turned down for ‘Big Brother’!
Put a block on his e-mails, I can hear you cry, don’t feed the troll! Well ordinarily I would have done, as I had done with Tara Mitchell, but for the time being I found myself concerned about this person. Please, don’t ask me why. It baffled me too! I didn’t feel remotely threatened by him. I had images of him being the sort of person that you only had to jab lightly in the chest, for him to keel over backwards in a sort of doped/drunken stupor! He didn’t unnerve me as Rufus Franklin had done. I had the feeling I was watching someone going into total meltdown, and yes, I have to confess to you (horrible though it is) that I was watching, not out of concern, but out of a sort of bored and morbid fascination. I did NOT reply to any of these e-mails, I didn’t need to really, he was getting quite enough entertainment without that, but no, I didn’t block them either.
Misty had quite made up his mind that we should trade the car in for a motor-home, so the next day I went out to give the car a vacuum, to try and make it look more presentable. Whilst I was busy with this, Jeannette appeared noiselessly at the gate. I was surprised at this, as Jeannette didn’t have Henry’s penchant for hanging about in the lane, apart from that one time when I had seen her sitting on the fence with Lover Boy.
“How’s Misty?” she asked, somewhat abrasively I felt.
“He’s fine”, I said, not switching off the vacuum cleaner. I couldn’t get over how much debris there was inside the car. You’d think we’d eaten all our meals in there!
A gang of young lads shuffled past the gate. With their shaved heads, glum expressions on their faces, and dreary tracksuit bottoms, they looked like they had just strayed from the set of a prison-camp movie.
“That reminds me”, said Jeannette “I have that young friend of Misty’s coming round tonight to see to the garden”.
“Paul’s a good lad”, I said “You won’t have any trouble from him. He worked hard in our garden”.
“We’ll see”, she said, in an annoyingly cryptic way.
Misty came out onto the veranda looking tearful. He said I had to come inside, as my sister was on the phone and wanted to speak to me. From the expression on her face you’d have thought Jeannette was a miser catching sight of a chest-full of gold coins. I had absolutely no intention on God’s Earth of letting her in though. I shut the car doors, took the vacuum cleaner with me, and closed the front door on her.
“What’s the matter?” I said to Misty, once we were inside “Did she have a go at you?”
“No, there’s been some very bad news”, he said, stroking my arm “You’re gonna have to be very brave”.
(Bless him, this is absolutely typical of Misty, he has the kindest heart).
“My Father”, I said “He’s dead isn’t he?”
He led me over to the telephone, and I picked it up. I felt nothing.
Stella always talks to everyone as though she’s shouting at high speed at a class of juvenile delinquents. Today was no different.
“Stella!” I broke over her “How did it happen? When?”
“STELLA!” I roared “What are you talking about?”
“I wasn’t expecting anything!” I said. (Strewth! I thought. Talk about Pop’s Dead Now Where’s The Will! Let’s at least have even a few minutes of pretend grieving for the poor old bastard. What a way to end up!!! People can‘t wait to get you into your grave so that they can get their hands on your loot!). Anyway, it’s true I hadn’t remotely expected anything. Granny’s gift to me of ’Barnacles’ had been all that I had ever wanted.
“I-tried-to-warn-you-that-this-would-happen”, she went on “But-you’ve-always-been-so-damn-stubborn-you’re-so-wrapped-up-in-that-BOY …”
“He’s not a boy!” I said. (Christ, I’d had enough of all that sort of talk from Rufus Franklin) “He’s 26 for crying out loud!”
Misty collapsed onto the sofa and began to cry into a handkerchief. This was awful. I had to stop Stella. I knew that, once wound up, she was quite capable of hollering on like this for a full 5 hours non-stop.
“I get the message loud and clear”, I said “I can’t expect anything in the will, you’ve told me …”
“I-didn’t-say-you-weren’t-getting-ANYTHING”, she said “Just-you’ll-only-get-about-30-grand-that’s-all-which-is-nothing-these-days-is-it …”
I was completely poleaxed.
“It might be nothing to you, my good woman”, I said, in my best Tony Hancock-ish manner “But it’s a small fortune to me!”
“Well-you’ve-got-nobody-else-to-blame-but-yourself-for-that”, she said “It-didn’t-have-to-be-like-that-did-it-I-hope-you-think-the-sacrifice-has-all-been-worthwhile …”
“I don’t feel like I have made a sacrifice”, I said (and anyway, I thought, it’s nothing like the sacrifice Father has ultimately made. I’m glad he didn’t feel any pain at the end. But I wouldn’t wish the lonely end of his lonely life on anyone).
“What’s-the-matter-with-the-boy-young-man-I-mean-anyway”, she went on “Is-it-Asberger’s-only-I’ve-worked-with-problem-children-like-that …”
“This is just typical of people like you, Stella”, I said “Put everything under a neat heading with bulleted paragraphs. No wonder you’re a staunch Blairite! You just don’t see people as people, to you they‘re just another problem to be neatly pigeon-holed. YOU‘RE NOT FUCKING HUMAN!”
The rest of her phone call (which felt like it went on for DAYS) basically amounted to the fact that she would be very grateful if I didn’t come to the funeral. It was an upsetting enough time without me there as well apparently. I said would it be alright with her if I sent a wreath, to which I was shortly informed that there were to be no flowers, a stipulation I often hear but have never understood. I can’t help but feel that a funeral without flowers must be a very plain and dreary affair.
The solicitors would be in touch with me eventually, but I was not to expect a quick resolution, as these things can take a hell of a time. I said it didn’t matter. Just to have Expectations was quite something on its own. I wanted to cut the phone call short, because I wanted to comfort Misty.
“Those letters he sent you lately”, he said, when I had finally been set free “Perhaps he was trying to make amends”.
“There was nothing in those letters that wasn’t just his usual old thing”, I said “I never had any sense that he was making amends at all, Misty. I don’t know what he was feeling deep down, but perhaps he didn’t have it in him to be any other way. I can’t pretend to something I don’t feel. We were never close, and I couldn’t accept that he wouldn’t accept you. No I can’t feel anything”.
The sad truth of the matter was that I had no nice memories of my Father, not even from my childhood. I had no image of him whatsoever other than that of a cold, unforgiving, intolerant person, who was capable of saying some unforgivably cruel things, not just to me but to anybody. In my more fantastical moments I even wondered if my Mother’s final illness had been brought on by his remoteness. That the years of putting up with him had worn her down so much that it had left her vulnerable to the cancer. High-minded souls will no doubt point out that my Father clearly must have been a very unhappy person as well, to have acted the way he did. True. But most of us have known deep unhappiness at some time in our lives … there is no excuse for cruelty.
“Will you accept the money?” Misty asked me, later that night.
“What do you think I should do?” I said.
“It would stop you worrying about the Council Tax for a while”, said Misty.
“That is very true”, I said “And we would have something to fall back on if anything major was needed doing to ’Barnacles’. The poor old place gets quite a hammering during the Winter months”.
“And we could go on holiday”, said Misty.
“We can certainly start planning for one”, I said.
“I’m sorry you can’t go to the funeral”, said Misty.
“It wouldn’t have been very practical would it”, I said “I wouldn’t have wanted you to have to go there and put up that lot, and I couldn’t have left you here overnight on your own”.
“I wouldn’t set fire to the place”, said Misty “Or I’d try not to anyway!”
“It’s not just that”, I said “There are too many weirdo’s hanging about round here for comfort!”
The rest of the Bank Holiday weekend brought yet more apocalyptic weather. I was constantly hearing jokes now about “the wettest drought on record”. On the Sunday evening though we had an absolutely spectacular sunset, the sky was magnificent. I took several photographs of it, and hoped my artistic skills would be up to doing it justice when the time came to transfer it to canvas. Misty was worried about me, convinced that I was trying to be TOO brave. But I wasn’t. In all honesty, I felt a sensation of relief. When I wept a few tears it was for the thousands of victims of the earthquake which had struck in Indonesia, it wasn’t for him.
On the Monday I decided I wanted to go and light a candle in Fobbington Church. As I wasn’t going to even be allowed to send flowers to the funeral, I could at least do a gesture that way. Funerals are so much about closure, drawing a line under things. And I had to find my own way of doing it. All this heavy emotion though got too much for Misty. He was utterly convinced I was going to harm myself by going to the Church and doing this, and said he would hide all my clothes in the garden, and flush the car-keys down the loo. I took no notice of these dramatic threats, and instead began to get him ready to go out. As it was quite chilly I had to somehow get a jacket on him, which involved me wrestling him all around the bedroom. By now he was having a full-scale tantrum.
“Sit down and don’t move or speak!” I said, when I had finally got him onto the bedroom chair “I’m going to get ready now”.
His little eyes flashed, and he began to crack his knuckles.
“Misty, calm down”, I said “Or I shall get very cross and you won‘t like it!”
We finally got outside the house.
“Go and get in the car”, I said, as I was locking up the front door.
“I can’t, you haven’t unlocked it”, he said.
Which was perfectly reasonable I suppose! I got him strapped into the passenger seat, had to open the car-door again because his jacket had got caught in it, and then finally I could go round to the driver’s seat. He glared at me fixedly all the time I was driving out of Shinglesea and into Fobbington.
“Have you quite finished?” I said, when I had parked the car in the little car-park by the flea-market “You’ve been staring at me like a demonic teddy-bear all the way here!”
“So what if I’m just trying to protect you!” he said.
“Protect me?!” I said “By fighting me all over the house! Remember that time you punched me in the chest when you were having a tantrum, I thought you were going to do it again!”
Misty began to cry. He always hates any mention of that occasion, which admittedly was several years ago, and normally I wouldn’t have mentioned it, but God knows, I’m only human too! It took me quite some time to mop up his face, and clear up all the snot that was cascading out of his nose.
“Can we be friends again?” he said.
“I never stopped being friends”, I said “It was you, you rotten little ratbag! Rotten little ratbag with a cartoon face!”
“I’m sorry”, he blubbed.
“You need your bottom spanking sometimes, Misty, you really do!” I said “VERY HARD!”
This made him hoot with laughter, and by the time we had scaled the heights of the cobbled streets back up to the Church, he was his usual self again. These little dust-ups from time to time don’t do us any harm at all, in fact it can be a sort of combined mental, physical, and emotional workout, but I do have to watch Misty doesn’t get so wound up that he hurts himself. The inside of the Church was decked out with magnificent bouquets of flowers, as part of the Church Flower Festival. I left Misty to sit in one of the front pews and look at them, whilst I went and paid my customary 20p for a candle. In the end though I bought three, one for Father, one for the earthquake victims, and one for the usual one I did when I went in there, which was for world peace. Well heck, one day it might even work, you never know!!!
We came out of the Church and went over to the lookout over the marshes, the spot where one of the cannons had been stolen over Easter. A group of actors were rehearsing their lines nearby. This is one of those things which to me is quintessentially Fobbington, to be able to walk round a corner and come across a bunch of actors shouting their lines at each other! We were looking out over the marshes, when bloody Tara Mitchell came limping towards us from the side which led to the alley where ’The Fiddler’s Rest’ was. The first thing I noticed was that she was limping (had somebody, (quite understandably perhaps), tried to break her leg?), the second that she was woefully under-dressed. She was wearing a strappy white cotton frock, which was enough to make me want to break out in goose-pimples just to look at her in this chilly May weather. Her ageing boobs were jacked up to almost chin level. Had she abandoned the 1950s lesbian artist look, and decided to be the oldest teenager in town instead?!
“Well well if it isn’t the ASBO Queen of Fobbington!” I said.
“You’ve heard all about that then?” she said, and I could tell she had been sinking a few in The Fiddler’s “Of course you have. I expect the whole bloody county has heard about it by now!”
“Well if you will go around telling everybody that you mean to cause havoc, what do you expect?” I said.
“Fucking plebs”, she said, referring to her longsuffering neighbours no doubt “What are you looking at, Misty? Do my tits startle you?”
“They are certainly enough to frighten the horses, yes”, I said, at my bitchiest .
I took Misty’s hand and led him away, I didn’t want Tara - in all her drunken glory - picking on him. There is no way that he would be a match for her cynical sneering.
“Can’t you see he’s tearing my clothes off with his eyes?” she shouted after us.
“Why would I be wanting to tear her clothes off?” said Misty, when we reached the sanctuary of the churchyard, and paused for a breather.
“At least the few she’s wearing it wouldn’t take very long!” I said. I delved into my pocket and retrieved a moth-eaten old tube of wine-gums “Here, have one of these”.
“Oh watch out, she’s coming!” said Misty, in panic, as Tara limped up through the archway which led to the lookout.
“Let’s scarper!” I shouted, and we ran, laughing and panting, towards the cobbled street, which would lead us down to our car, and safety.
“Some people have a sure-fire way of making you feel soiled”, I said, breathlessly, when I had finally got behind the wheel, and I had to grip onto the steering-wheel to try and prevent myself from dying somehow
“She’s just an old drunk“, said Misty “I feel sorry for her neighbours”.
“I haven’t done something like that since I was at school”, I said “It was quite fun, in a frightening sort of way!”
The relief that had been creeping over me by slow degrees since I had heard about my Father’s death was making me feel quite light-headed, quite frisky. It was as if I had spent my life wrapped around me with iron bands and manacles, and somebody had just knocked them all off. Back at ‘Barnacles’ I could barely wait to get the front door unlocked, before we both ran into the bedroom.
“Let’s tear all YOUR clothes off”, I said “Not Tara Bloody Mitchell’s!”
“Let’s tear all yours off as well!” said Misty.
It was only after we had finished frolicking about that I realised we had had another power-cut. Misty was having a little nap after all our high-jinks, so I put my dressing-gown on and went into the kitchen to get the little camping-stove out again, in order to make a cup of tea. Whilst I was waiting for the water to boil (it can take an absolute age) I stood looking out of the glass in the back door at our garden. The sky had got very overcast (doubtless it was a storm somewhere in the area which had caused the power to go again), and the garden was looking gloomy and shadowy. I was very conscious of what was under the rowan tree, and I wondered once again if somehow the strange contents of that jar were luring all these weirdo’s to the area, like a sort of negative psychic magnet. I looked from the rowan tree to the old iron post-box, which I had draped a sheet of tarpaulin over. OK, I thought, we now have the means to transport the jar out of the neighbourhood … but where the bloody hell do we take it?!
It turned out that the latest power-cut had been caused by a sub-station at Fobbington being struck by lightning. We didn’t get the electricity back until nearly 6 o’clock the next morning. Bright sunshine greeted us, and I went outside to wipe the windows clean of seagull crap. There was so much of it on there that it was starting to annoy even me. Whilst I was busily engaged in this (still in my dressing-gown) round the side of the house, a Post Office van pulled up at the gate, a man got out, ran up the path, dumped a large box on the veranda, and then legged it again. On checking the box I found that it was addressed to Henry.
“Hey!” I yelled at the reversing Post Office van “You’ve got the wrong fucking house AGAIN! WANKER!”
For crying out loud, I thought, our names are completely different! And Henry’s house is called ‘The Hedges’, whereas ours is ‘Barnacles’, how the fuck could they keep getting them mixed up???
“What’s the matter?” said Misty, appearing at the front door “I could hear you shouting”.
“Bloody ridiculous”, I said “I am fed up to the back teeth with acting as Henry’s own personal bloody postman! That’s another of his parcels we’ve been dumped with! Why the fuck does he keep having parcels delivered?”
“Perhaps he’s doing a lot of buying on the Internet”, said Misty.
“What do you reckon?” I said, looking down at the loathsome bloody parcel “More gas-masks for when we get the Bird Flu pandemic?!”
I certainly didn’t rush round there with Henry’s latest acquisition. I bathed and got dressed first, and instructed Misty to stay at home and keep an eye on the washing-machine.
“Don’t go having too much to drink”, said Misty.
“It’s 11 o’clock in the morning”, I pointed out “Even Jeannette won’t be breaking open the wine barrel out at this time of the day!”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that”, said Misty.
“No, neither would I!” I conceded.
I handed the parcel to Henry with a very bad grace indeed, all of which of course rolled off him completely.
“It’s so cold isn’t it?” he said, when I refused to come in for coffee.
“There’s a bit of a nip in the wind”, I said “But at least it’s stopped raining, and the sun’s come out”.
“We don’t seem to have had any Summer at all so far this year”, he whined. (I had noticed of late that Henry was developing an almost permanent whine to his voice, it’s quite possibly one of the most unappealing noises to come out of the human mouth).
Anyway, I thought of the sensual warm days at the beginning of the month, of lying with Misty in bed in the afternoons, but I knew there would be no point mentioning any of that to Henry.
“Well enjoy your parcel”, I said, turning to leave “Which was delivered to my house AGAIN!”
“Oh you might find this interesting”, he said, dumping the parcel down in the doorway, and ripping open the top of it. The parcel contained a canister of CS gas.
“What the fuck do you want that for?” I said “We’re not living in a war-zone!”
“I always think it’s best to be prepared”, he said “Are you sure you won’t come in an see Jeannette?”
“I’ve got a lot to do today, Henry”, I said.
“Pity”, he said, dejectedly, sounding like a little kid who’s just been told that his birthday party has been called off “She’s been so tired lately, so very tired. It quite worries me, I’ve not seen her like this so much before. It’s shocking. The doctors all say it’s depression, but it’s not that at all. I swear it’s not”.
He began to cry, silently, the tears rolling down his cheeks. Oh fuck!
“Come on, Henry”, I said, squeezing his arm “Get a grip, old son. Things aren’t that bad you know. Perhaps Jeannette just needs to rest more, she seems too hell-bent on fighting the demon of the cancer”.
“Well we’ve got your young man coming round again this evening, to help us with the garden”, he said.
“He’s got the lawn done nicely”, I said, looking around me.
“I worry you know”, he said, suddenly “I worry all the time. I wake up in the mornings and the first thing I do is worry, I worry all day long, and I worry when I go to bed”.
“Everybody has their problems, Henry”, I said “You can look at somebody and think they look so happy and content, what problems do they have, and it turns out they’ve got loads. It’s just some people are better at coping with them, that’s all. We all need things to help us get by. I have Misty, and I have my work. They both help me a lot. You need to find things which will help you. What about your religion?”
He sniffed, violently.
“Have you heard about Hogg?” he barked.
(Animal? Vegetable? Mineral?).
“Who?” I said.
“Oh of course, you wouldn’t know him”, he said “He’s the pastor of my church, back home. They say he’s being accused of paedophilia, messing with some young girls”.
“Sounds fairly typical for a church pastor!” I said, somewhat cynically, I admit.
“I don’t believe it”, said Henry, forcibly “I just don’t. I think they’re trying to blackmail money out of him”.
“Well I guess you’ll just have to wait and see”, I said “We know so little about what people are like in private half the time …”
“He’s a good man”, Henry continued “Of course he can be a terrible snob. He always talks to the people who’ve got money”.
“That sounds fairly typical for a church pastor too!” I said.
Henry looked flummoxed by my reaction. It was almost as if I was supposed to admire his wretched Pastor for being so discerning about who the monied people were! Not exactly Jesus Christ’s philosophy of life though was it! Misty appeared at the garden gate.
“I came to see where you had got to”, he said.
“I was just on my way”, I said.
Misty glared at Henry, and then suddenly announced, in a very forbidding voice, that I had just lost my father, don’t you know. I could have throttled Misty! This is the sort of news that practically gives Henry an orgasm. Now we’d be lucky if we weren’t stuck with him for the rest of the day!
“You poor thing”, he said, turning to face me “You must be absolutely DEVESTATED”.
(Well no, I wouldn’t say that exactly!).
“We weren’t very close”, I said “We hadn’t seen each other in years”.
“Even so”, said Henry, and he followed us all along Beach Lane, and back into ’Barnacles’, still clutching his flamin’ box containing the canister of CS gas as well.
Back in the house, I resigned myself to putting the kettle on for him.
“And you can put the washing on the line!” I said to Misty, and stood over him whilst he got it out of the machine, and carried it out of the back door.
“When is the funeral?” said Henry.
“No idea”, I said “I’ve been told to stay away. My family don’t like me you see”.
Henry’s face went into a veritable paroxysm of gurney-ing. He looked like Kenneth Williams about to erupt into a full-bodied exclamation of “Matron!” I briefly gave the gist of the telephone conversation I had had with Stella.
“Oh!” cried Henry “She is Evil, Evil!”
“Well no I wouldn’t go that far”, I said “Just rather strong-minded. It seems to run in the family! That’s probably why none of us get on with each other!”
“But it’s your own father …” said Henry.
“Makes no odds I’m afraid”, I said “As I said before, we weren’t close. I never got much impression that he liked me”.
(I didn’t mention the 30 grand to Henry, but it did baffle me a bit as to why Father had done that. Admittedly, to someone of his substantial means, 30 grand was a drop in the ocean, like 30 quid would be to mostly anyone else. My more cynical (and accurate) side thought perhaps that he had left it me as an insult. Perhaps he thought I had been banking on getting a lot more. That was certainly the way his mind usually worked. He hadn’t had the imagination to see that not everybody thought the same way about things as he did. Well if it was an insult, it backfired, because (a) I honestly had never expected to get a penny out of him, and (b) 30 grand for me and Misty was on the scale of Life Changing. By setting out to insult me, he had in fact done me an enormous favour!!!).
We managed to get rid of Henry eventually, and I found myself feeling completely exhausted. By the time evening came I had that kind of tiredness you normally get when you have a bad dose of flu. I went to bed at the normally unearthly hour of 10:30. Misty came with me. By putting up the chain on the front door and turning out all the lights I felt as though I was giving a two-finger salute to the world, a sort of Get Lost I’m Not Interested. Totally irrational I know, but it had been a very long month.
And it wasn’t over yet.
About an hour after turning in, there was a violent hammering on the front door. I expected it to be just about anybody, and whoever it was I was pretty determined not to let in. Peering through the side window I saw it was Henry, and he was in a considerable state of agitation.
“What on earth is wrong?” I said, as he stumbled into the house.
“It’s Jeannette”, he said “She’s locked me out!”
“Well don’t you have your own key?” I said.
“No”, he shook his head “We only had the one set, and she has that”.
“Have you both had a row then?” I said.
“It’s not anything like that”, he said, although from his agitated manner you’d have thought it was “I’ve been out for most of the day you see. I like to go walking in the countryside”.
“Oh so that’s where you go”, I said (and Toady shags your wife whilst you’re gone!).
“I walk for miles and miles”, he said.
“Until this time of night?” said Misty.
“No, no, I often stop off somewhere for a spot of dinner on the way back”, said Henry “Not everyday of course, just a couple of times a week”.
(I had to combat an insane urge to ask if he took his CS gas canisters with him!).
“Well Jeannette’s probably turned in, and sort of absent-mindedly locked the door on you”, I said “Although why you can’t get yourself a key cut I don’t know. Particularly as you often go out on your own!”
“Why don’t you go round and knock on the bedroom window?” said Misty.
“Yes, the advantages of living in a bungalow!” I said.
“Or call her up on her mobile”, said Misty, who was clearly firing on all cylinders tonight.
“She’s turned her phone off”, said Henry “Don’t you think I’ve tried that! And I can’t get any response, I’ve been knocking and knocking for ages. She has DELIBERATELY locked me out!”
“But why would she do that?” I said (although to be honest with you I couldn’t think of any good reason NOT to lock Henry out!).
Henry fell back on the sofa, and began another of his crying fits.
“Oh for fuck’s sake, pull yourself together, Henry”, I said, signalling for Misty to fetch the JD bottle (I could afford to be generous with my hospitality, now that we had Expectations) “You’re such a damn wimp all the time!”
“I’m not you know”, he said, gulping “I’m not at all. I have a temper. I can be a very devil when it comes to losing my temper”.
“Yeah right!” I said, sceptically (confronting Henry’s temper must be like being savaged by a Tribble!).
“People are always saying ’ooh Henry we wouldn’t like to cross you’”, said Henry.
(Who were these ‘people’ - the Teletubbies?!).
“And yet you can’t get your wife to let you into your house!” I said.
“You can’t stay here”, said Misty to Henry “Not all night, you can’t”.
“If she won’t let you in, you’ll have to break in”, I said “And the state that house is in that shouldn’t be too difficult!”
“The Big Bad Wolf I’ll blow and I’ll blow your house down!” Misty giggled.
“But it’s not my house!” said Henry, The Invincible One “And anyway I don’t know how you would go about it”.
“Look Henry, do you want to be left outside like the rubbish or what?” I said “This is your manly pride at stake here. You can worry about all the repairs afterwards. Anyway. quite frankly, anything that’s done to that house will be a vast improvement!”
“What did you do to make her lock you out anyway?” said Misty.
“I don’t know”, he said “I suppose I was a bit dithery earlier. I couldn’t make up my mind whether to go out or not you see. Poor Jeannette was so tired, and I didn’t like to leave her on her own. I didn’t want her to feel deserted. But she lost her temper with me about 6 o’clock time, and said You’re Driving Me Completely Up The Wall. So I thought well I’d better go then. I didn’t get much of an goodbye out of her, she just sort of grunted at me”.
“She does that all the time!” I said.
“We can show him how to break in”, said Misty, which made it sound as though he and I had a neat little sideline in cat-burglary!
“We once locked ourselves out of here”, I explained to Henry “And we managed to get one of the windows open by using one of Mrs Jackson’s carving-knifes”.
(Yes, perhaps we should put some of that 30 grand towards having more secure windows put in).
“Henry’s windows should be even easier!” said Misty.
“Yes we’ll have to be careful the whole bloody thing doesn’t come out!” I said “We’ll make a lot of racket going about it, and then hopefully even Jeannette will see sense and let you in!”
Well for God’s sake it must have been by this time - June I mean. Midnight must have finally turned on the interminable month of May. You won’t believe what happened next. But here goes anyway. We went round to ‘The Hedges’. Henry was completely useless, as was only to be expected really. He hovered around the front of the house, whilst Misty and I went round to the back, where their bedroom apparently was. I was damned if I was going to let Jeannette sleep peacefully after all the fucking hassle she had put us through, and I hammered on the bedroom window loud enough to wake the dead … or her at least. Suddenly the curtain was pulled back, the window was opened a tiny fraction, and her ghostly pallor appeared.
“Go and open the bloody door!” I said “Your husband wants to come in!”
“I don’t want to see you”, she said “I’ve taken my boob off”.
“Jeannette”, I said “I haven’t come round here to look at your body, I’ve come to ask you to let Henry in”.
“Can’t he stay at your house?” she said.
“No he bloody can’t!” I said “What do you think ’Barnacles’ is, a fucking doss-house?!”
She tightened her dressing-gown about her, and marched off into the interior of the house.
“Jeannette”, said Henry, pathetically, when the drawbridge had finally been let down “Oh poor Jeannette, oh just look at her, she’s so tired!”
“Can we go home now, Henry?” I said.
A very loud banging noise broke out. For a moment I thought it was their mad boiler starting up, then I realised that it was in fact coming from the large cupboard in their hallway. I can’t believe I uttered the next question, but I did.
“Who have you got in there?” I asked.
Without waiting for a reply, I barged past them, and turned the little key in the cupboard door. Paul stumbled out. Without his hood on, he always looked like a tortoise denuded of its shell.
“OK”, I said, feeling as though I was taking part in a West End farce “What the fuck is going on here?”
“I want out of here!” Paul cried “She’s fucking crazy!”
I instructed Misty to take Paul back to ’Barnacles’, where, no doubt, my valuable store of JD would be ransacked even further. Jeannette waltzed into the living-room. On the arm of one of the chairs was a box containing a false boob. I couldn’t help thinking how much more lifelike they were these days. In my Mother’s time, 30-odd years ago, they had been little more than glorified balloons.
“Jeannette”, I said “What’s going on, girl?”
“He’s a bloody little queer”, she said “Did you know that?”
“Even if he is”, I said “How did he end up locked in your hall cupboard?”
I was given some grotesque tale of how she had asked him in for a beer when he had finished doing his chores in the garden. I think that when he refused her sexual advances (and I really should have seen that one coming, if you’ll pardon the expression), she had slipped some kind of Mickey Finn in his drink.
“What was it you gave him?” I said.
“It’s a date rape drug”, she said.
“Where the fuck did you get hold of that?!” I said.
“There’s a cellar bar in Fobbington”, she said “Where they’re passed around like currency”.
“Do you go to such places?” I said, in astonishment.
“No”, she said “I have an … acquaintance … who got it for me”.
(And I knew, without asking, who that Acquaintance was. Mr Toad).
“And what use was Paul going to be to you like that?” I said.
“There are ways and means”, she said.
Out in the hallway I could hear Henry give a gasp and begin sobbing again.
“You do realise that you could be in very big trouble”, I said to Jeannette “If Paul decides to go to the police about this, you’re looking at some very serious charges here”.
She seemed genuinely startled by this.
“Anyway that’s for him to decide”, I said “I’m going home now. I really cannot believe what you have done tonight!”
Both Misty and Paul were well tanked up by the time I got home. I found out in quick succession that Paul’s Mum was in Spain for the week, and that he was emphatic that he didn’t want to press charges. He said that the shock of everything could kill his Nan if he went public with it. I said he could stay the night on our sofa. Misty had fallen face-down across the bean-bag, so I hoisted him up by the back of his trousers, and sent him to bed.
I went to fetch a duvet and pillow for Paul, and when I got back he asked if he could keep the television on all night, with the sound turned down. I said he could. One of the channels was showing one of those pointless all-night quiz marathons. A pretty girl in a lacy basque-like top was desperately jigging around and trying to fill in time until some poor sucker rang up.
“My Nan almost got hooked on all this”, said Paul “Ran up nearly 25 quid in phone bills trying to get through to ’em. There should be a law about it really”.
“Maybe”, I said “But there are definitely laws about abduction and attempted rape, Paul”.
“I know”, he said “She’s a crazy cow. Mad as a snake. But I feel sorry for her really, I mean her old man ent up to much is he!”
“That’s not the point”, I said “There’s something very odd going on round here at the moment. There seem to be some very dodgy people in this area at the moment, and I don’t know how much Henry and Jeannette are caught up with it all”.
“We need more proof than what we’ve got”, said Paul “Who’s gonna take my word against hers for fuck’s sake? You told me yourself recently that I look like a chav, I’m a hoody, and she’s … well she’s a woman who’s had cancer. Who do you think’s gonna get the public sympathy vote, eh?! You know what people are like!”
Henry came to the door. To my alarm he had an overnight bag with me.
“Please don’t send me away”, he said “I can’t stay with her”.
“Oh come in”, I said. I felt exhausted, too tired to even refuse admittance to Henry.
“You’ll have to sleep on the floor”, I said “There’s nowhere else”.
I had to dig out a blanket (there wasn’t another duvet to be had in the house).
“We’ll all talk tomorrow … later today”, I said “We all need to sleep on this one I think”.
I woke up at some unearthly hour the next morning to find Misty leaning over me, looking decidedly pasty.
“If you’re going to be sick”, I said “Go to the bathroom, don’t vomit over me!”
“I’ve got a headache”, he said.
“That is the least surprising news of the year!” I said.
“What time did you come to bed?” he asked me.
“Nearly two o’clock”, I said.
“Oh dear”, he said “You’ve had only 4 hours sleep”.
“Yes I’m aware of that!” I snapped.
I fumbled on the bedside table for a couple of aspirins and some Volvic for him to wash them down with. It was the beginning of the new day in Barnacles Liberty Hall. Over the next couple of days I had to put up with having two new tenants in the house. Henry made the rash promise that I wouldn’t notice he was there. As there is the grand total of 4 rooms in ‘Barnacles’ this was very unlikely. Paul (who wanted to stay with us until his Mum got back from Spain) wasn’t too bad. He was out a lot. When he wasn’t doing his various jobs, he was usually out playing snooker at ’The Ship’. When he was home he did try to make himself useful. He changed the washer on the kitchen tap, cleaned the car (not using a hosepipe), and even offered to fix the gate so that it didn’t scrape on the path when it opened. He was forever pulling out bundles of used notes from his pocket and offering me a selection. I couldn’t help but feel that plenty of the so-called older and wiser generation could learn by his example of not sponging off others. Which brings me to Henry.
Henry by contrast was … Henry. He is one of those people for whom the simplest things in life are a constant battle. For instance, Henry couldn’t just go to the shop, buy what he wanted, and then come home again. No, with Henry it had to be a three-act drama. He is the sort who threatens to write to the manufacturer’s if he finds a couple of bruised chips in a bag of frozen chips. One afternoon I bought a big tub of ice-cream for our tea. Henry suddenly thrust out his hand at me, and with a pious, boot-faced expression indicated that there was a minute piece of broken glass in his portion. I pointed out that this was one of the mint chippings. He wouldn’t have it. No, as far as he was concerned, the manufacturers were in some kind of conspiracy to choke him to death on pieces of broken glass (WHAT A VERY GOOD IDEA!!!). From 7 o’clock in the evening onwards he insisted on watching his soaps, which were on every day, and seemed to take up most of the evening. It was as if only by watching these dreary dramas he could get his full quota of human misery for the day.
He talked about Jeannette constantly, but his opinions varied considerably from a litany of all that he had had to put up with from her over the years, to sudden wailing Greek chorus exclamations of “Poor Jeannette!” I had had just about a basinful of Poor Jeannette, and was at the end of my rope as to whether I could take anymore. Meanwhile, Misty was getting jealous about his old friend Paul. He seemed to be getting jealous of Paul’s presence in the house. Early one evening, I sent him out to play golf, whilst I looked up some stuff about Satanists on the computer, turning the screen away from Henry, who was watching ‘Emmerdale’.
At first the Satanists seem very reasonable, they claim that they strongly believe in the free will of the individual, and that they don’t worship the Devil, as they are an Atheistic religion. OK fair enough, some of it just seemed like basic commonsense. I read a lot along these lines, but as I further slowly scrolled down the screen, other more unsettling things began to occur. They referred to their homes as their “lairs”, they defended animal sacrifices along the grounds that it goes on all over the world (yes, so does rape and murder, it hardly makes it right!!!), and then when Swastikas started appearing I decided I had had enough.
I switched the computer off, and went outside to see Misty. I leaned on the fence at the edge of the scrub-land, and called him over as if he was a pony.
“Go on”, I said “What’s the matter? What have I done?”
“I just want it back as it was”, he pouted “I’m used to having you all to myself“.
“You are a spoilt little ragamuffin aren’t you!” I said, tweaking his ear gently “Try and go a bit easy on Paul. It can’t have been very nice for him suddenly coming round to find himself locked in a cupboard“.
“I used to get locked in a cupboard all the time when I was little”, he said.
“I’m not bloody surprised!” I teased, which made him laugh “We’ll be away on holiday soon. Don’t you worry”.
“Henry’s not coming is he?” said Misty.
“Are you kidding?!” I said.
Paul approached us from the other side of the lane. He had been to his Mum’s to collect some of his things, and was carrying two bulging shopping-bags. He was clearly vexed about something.
“She’s a fucking nutter!” he exclaimed.
“What’s happened?” I said.
“I spent fucking hours bedding those plants the other night”, he said (I think it can be safely assumed that Jeannette was the cause of his angst) “I even did up some nice hanging-baskets for her. And she’s fucking wrecked them! She’s either dug ’em all up, or poured weed-killer all over ’em! The fucking nutter! And to think I felt fucking sorry for her, after everything she’d been through and all!”
Misty forgot his recent antagonism towards him, and looked very shocked and sympathetic.
“How can somebody be like that?” said Paul, turning in at our gate “I don’t fucking understand it!”
Neither did I, but then I had given up all hope of EVER understanding Jeannette! We were in for a spell of hot, fine weather, (flaming June), so the next day I decided to take Misty out for another drive in the countryside. I drove back inland, to the down-lands, and up a remote area called Fairy Hill (no old jokes please!). This hill actually gets its name from some old Little People legends which abound in this part of the world. Old tales have it that the Little People used to hold a fair here every year on Midsummer‘s Eve, and that’s where it gets its name from.
I was surprised how quiet the roads were as we approached it. I would have expected this weather to bring everybody out and about, but I guess they were all heading for the beaches instead. When we had drove up the rough, rutted track that leads to the car-park at the top, I was surprised to find that we were the only ones there. Pleasantly surprised though, as it’s usually nigh-on impossible to get the countryside to yourself these days.
We locked the car and headed off down a side-track. I had my digital camera with me, ready for Inspiration to strike. Everywhere felt incredibly quiet. We couldn’t hear any birds singing, which is always an uncomfortable sign. The track eventually led to an old stile at the edge of a large field. Bang in the middle of the field was the rotting carcass of a tree. It appeared to be burnt, as though it had been struck by lightning, or somebody had built a fire inside it. It’s the sort of tree you expect the headless horseman from ’Sleepy Hollow’ to suddenly leap out from!
“Do we have to hang about here?” said Misty “My arms are going all goose-pimply”.
“Let me just take a couple of photographs”, I said “S’alright, I’m not going to suggest coming up here in the moonlight, I’ll use my imagination for that one!”
“I can’t think why anyone would want a painting of this place!” said Misty.
“You’d be surprised!” I said.
I was busy sorting the camera out, so I didn’t hear the voice at first. Misty suddenly grabbed my arm, and looked frantic.
“Listen!” he said.
I could hear a low, guttural sort of sound from nearby. It seemed very close, even though we were right in the middle of the field by now, and the trees were quite some way away.
“Get out of here!” the voice croaked.
Imagine yourself in this remote place and hearing that, you don’t feel inclined to argue! I grabbed Misty and we hot-footed it back down the track, eventually emerging with some relief into the car-park. A man, aged somewhere in his 50s or 60s, came up the track we had driven up. He was wild-haired, red and sweaty of face, wore a couple of jumpers tied round his waist, ,and carried a long rambler’s stick. What I noticed about him particularly were his eyes - they were horribly hard and flinty-looking.
“The field with the burnt tree?” he barked at us, in a harsh voice.
Normally I would have got all bolshy, and said something like “are you talking to me?” or “ever thought of saying ‘please could you tell me …’?” But today I didn’t want us to hang around this area, or get into a slanging-match with anyone in it. So I simply pointed down the track, and left him to it.
Back at ‘Barnacles’ I was unnerved to find that Henry had bought me a bunch of flowers, this was in gratitude apparently for letting him stay there. I felt like saying that he could show his gratitude far better by moving out, but I knew this would be a waste of words where Henry was concerned. I have never met anyone else with such an immense capacity for ignoring personal insults! (Perhaps 25 years of living with Jeannette had given him good training in that department?!). Paul looked very boot-faced at this unexpected gift.
“I’d have bought you flowers if I thought you liked ’em!” he said.
“I do not expect men to go around buying me bunches of flowers!” I snapped.
Clearly the silent word was transmitted telepathically that I was In A Mood, and everybody started tip-toeing about fetching a big vase for the flowers, and putting the kettle on. Instead though I snatched my front-door key back up, and barked at Misty that we were going out to ‘The Ship’ for a drink.
“I’ll be along in a little while”, Paul called out, as we went out of the door.
“And if there are any black-eyed demons in the place”, I said to Misty “I’ll shove ’em through the wall!”
The whole village seemed to be decked out in English flags, in preparation for the World Cup. Whole windows were obscured with the St George’s Cross, and cars flew them like pennants. I don’t know what the party of American tourists, who were blocking the inside of the pub door, thought about them, but then I guess they like to put up flags everywhere themselves, and they don’t usually need a football match as an excuse to do it! They were discussing the English Civil War.
“I don’t get how they can call it a Civil War”, said one of them, with that way American tourists have of forgetting that the ‘They’ they speak of are usually standing or sitting right nearby them! “It aint a Civil War. A Civil War is between two different parts, two different geographical regions I mean, of the same country. So theirs aint a proper Civil War”.
Well it was a brave attempt to single-handedly rewrite 400 years of English history, but I think he was flogging a dead horse somehow. He looked over to me a couple of times, as if hoping that I would back him up, but I wasn’t in the mood for “standing shoulder-to-shoulder”. I had more recent concerns on my mind. I suggested to Misty that we take our drinks outside. ‘The Ship’ doesn’t really run to a pub garden as such. There are a couple of old benches out on the tiny patch of sorry-looking lawn, which you usually end up sharing with empty gas cylinders, beer-crates, and the chef having a fag.
“For the first time since we’ve been living in Shinglesea”, I said “I don’t want to go home”.
“That’s because Henry’s at ‘Barnacles’”, said Misty.
“I’ve suddenly had a terrible thought”, I said “Unless he decides to go back to Jeannette, we could be stuck with him for the rest of the Summer!”
“But you said to him the other night that he’d be crazy to go back to her after everything she’s done!” said Misty.
“And we’d end up even more crazy if he lives with us for much longer!” I said “Him going back to her would be the lesser of the two evils as far as I’m concerned!”
“Can’t we just go on holiday?” said Misty “Now that we’ve got your father’s money”.
“We haven’t got it yet”, I said “And the way those sort of things usually go, we might not have it for quite some time”.
“Well can’t we just go anyway?” said Misty “Like we were planning to before all that happened. You know I’d follow you to the ends of the Earth if necessary”.
“Oh Misty!” I said, emotionally.
He got up and wrapped his arms round my neck, like the delightful little creature that he is.
“We’ll start planning for the holiday”, he said “It’ll help us take our minds off things”.
Back home again Henry was in a right two-and-eight because he said the phone had rang whilst we were out, and when he picked it up nobody spoke, although he could tell there was somebody there.
“It’s a cold-caller, Henry”, I said “We often get them. They like to keep you hanging on the end of the line for a few seconds whilst they piss about putting their batteries in or something!”
“It didn’t feel like that though”, he said.
I didn’t feel strong enough to ask what it did feel like, and said surely he should go and talk to Jeannette, as even if he had no intention of returning to her, there were surely things they needed to discuss.
“It’s too soon”, he said, pathetically “I still can’t get used to it you see, that it’s all over”.
And then he started fucking blubbing again!!! I had made up my mind that the next time Henry tried this, I would just blank him out, for the sake of my own sanity more than anything else. It seemed to work, as when he realised he wasn’t getting any attention, the waterworks got turned off again pretty sharp-ish.
Meanwhile Misty had offered to check my e-mails for me, and he alerted me to the fact that the Troll had been busy again.
“What’s he ranting about this time?” I said.
“Fat people, AGAIN!” said Misty “Why can’t English people learn to speak English, and tree-huggers. Oh, you’re a tree-hugger apparently”.
“He seems to be losing his grip”, I said “It all sounds a bit half-baked to me!”
“Do you want me to tell him that?” Paul chipped in “Send him an e-mail I mean. He needs a fucking good drubbing!”
“Paul, dear heart”, I said “Have you never heard the wise old maxim of ’Do Not Feed The Troll’? Just delete him as usual, Misty”.
“Why don’t we block him?” said Misty.
“I don’t know”, I said, pondering this suggestion “I think it’s that I get a kind of macabre fascination out of him. You’ve heard of car-crash television, well this is car-crash Internet, slowly watching somebody go into meltdown. I suppose I want to see just how far he’s going to go”.
“Ent that more cruel really, in the long-term I mean?” said Paul.
“Oh you young people have a lot to learn”, I said “As you go through life, and get more understandably nasty and cynical about everything, you’ll realise that those who insist on sticking their heads above the parapet deserve to be used as entertainment fodder!”
Henry went to have a bath, and I went into the kitchen to start preparing some dinner for everybody. I asked Paul to come and help me, so that I could do a bit of quizzing of him. It occurred to me that Paul was a bit like Mrs Jackson, with all his contacts he was a little goldmine of local information. Misty of course wouldn’t hear of me being closeted alone in the kitchen with Paul, and I had to give him the job of wiping down the cooker so that he could be in with us as well.
“Did you know about that cellar-bar in Fobbington where the date-rape drug gets passed around?” I said.
“I don’t go in there much meself”, he said, slicing up tomatoes “It hasn’t got a pool table, and the drinks are too expensive, but I have heard about it. I’ve heard that a lot of the girls will only buy bottled drinks in there, ’cos it’d be too easy for somebody to slip something into a glass”.
“That’s appalling!” I said.
“I thought it was quite sensible really”, he said.
“No, I don’t mean the girls”, I said, and I admit I probably sound fatuous here “I mean that they have to think about things like that!”
“Way of the world innit?” he shrugged “And it’s always been that way from what I can gather. My Nan told me that when she was my age, girls were always warned about the white slave trade would you believe, you know, be careful who you speak to if you’re alone in a café, that kind of thing. And I once met a bloke who bragged that his grand-dad had been a pimp in London during the War! My Nan always says that at least girls these days are more street-wise than her generation were”.
“Yes, they certainly are”, I said, approvingly.
“My Nan says her lot had no sex education at school whatsoever”, he said.
“Well what we had wasn’t exactly brilliant!” I said, recalling teachers who were either completely embarrassed at what they had to tell us, or as spookily clinical about it as Dr Mengele! “Did you ever meet Anna Turnball?”
“No, I knew her by sight though”, said Paul “I think everybody who went into ’The Crab’ did! The rumour I’ve heard is that she wasn’t killed on the Easter weekend, she just disappeared then. That she hadn’t actually been in the harbour that long when the police got her out”.
“I knew it!” I said “I was convinced for ages that she was still alive!”
“So of course”, said Paul “The big question is if she wasn’t killed Easter weekend, where was she all that time, before she turned up I mean?”
“She can’t have gone far”, I said “Or why would she wind up back in Fobbington Harbour?”
“So she was held locally?” said Misty.
I didn’t like the word ’held’, as it implied she was kept prisoner somewhere, but unfortunately it was a distinct possibility. The whole damn thing was getting more seedy and repulsive by the minute. And then, as if on cue with the words ‘seedy’ and ‘repulsive’ I heard Toady’s motorbike go down the lane outside. I hoped that the noise of the water in the bathroom pipes would obscure it from Henry‘s ears.
“What sort of drug would Jeannette have fed you?” I asked Paul “What is a date-rape drug?”
“Could be anything”, he said “I’ve heard of Ketamine, sometimes known as Special K. Sometimes people take that thinking it’s Ecstasy. I’m not sure if it’s that one or another, but it can have a paralysing effect”.
“So can cannabis”, I said, reaching back into the deep mists of time.
“Have you taken that then?” he said.
“A very long time ago”, I said “I think it was cannabis resin, although quite frankly it could have been anything for all I know, but yes I couldn’t move my legs afterwards”.
“What I’d heard about Ketamine is that you have to be in a dark space”, said Paul “To hallucinate properly I mean. Well I was locked in that cupboard of hers and I can’t remember nothing, not a damn thing! I was out like a fucking light! It’s a horse tranquilliser, did you know that?”
“Shit!” I said, echoing my old hero, Alan Partridge.
I made up my mind that I wanted to go up to Chantley Stones one evening. I’d like to make out that I was being all big and brave, and that I’d go there by myself, but that’s not the case. And anyway, Misty wouldn’t have let me. It’s a curious thing about Life, that even if when the most dark and bizarre things are happening in the background, you still have to get on with the everyday things. I began to feel as though I was washing up the coffee cups in the brief snatches between each disaster! But there you go, everyday things still have to go on. The rubbish still had to be put out, the loo still had to be cleaned, vast amounts of hair have to be retrieved out of bathroom plug-holes, and people continue to irritate you.
One morning I found Henry rootling around amongst my treasured collection of old Dennis Wheatley paperbacks, ones that I had collected over the years from second-hand bookshops and flea markets in Fobbington. He wouldn’t read them, he’d just tut-tut over their covers like a ‘Daily Mail’ reader. The post bought an equally irritating leaflet from our local MP, nagging us about saving water. To show that he was doing his bit as well, he told us about all the things he was doing to save water in his household. I couldn’t help feeling that this should have come with simple illustrations like in an old children’s book. “Now here is Geoffrey having a shave with the taps turned off”, that sort of thing. “Only do your washing when you have a full load to put in the machine”, he wrote, in his best finger-wagging way. I felt like telling the silly little tosser that every 5 minutes there seems to be a full load in our house at the moment! You’d think all 4 of us had vast wardrobes of clothes, and changed them several times a day, like the Royal Family, the enormous amount of washing that we generated between us!
On top of all this I really had to get some work done. I got down to a full-days worth, helped by Paul going out doing his various jobs, and Misty playing golf in the fine weather. Henry of course wasn’t so easy to get rid of, but I did recommend (rather forcibly I must admit) that he go for a long wall along the sea-wall, and he took my advice. When I took a break I would have a browse on the web, looking up more details about Satanism. Most of it was very boring to be honest with you. I didn’t see how anyone, other than the most lonely of sex-starved teenagers, could get excited about some of this tosh. And some of it was just plain laughable, “how to keep your altar clean and tidy”, that kind of thing. Also, as a Pagan at heart, it pained me to see such grand old festivals as May Eve and Halloween hijacked for their sad rituals. (but then I am a Woolly-Minded, Wet-Nursing Wiccan, according to them). The evangelical zeal with which some of this stuff was written equalled that of any Christian fundamentalist website. “UNLIKE THE SPITEFUL, MEAN, NASTY, REVENGEFUL CHRISTIAN GOD“, wrote some Sacred Order Of The Old Goat (or some such nonsense) “THE LORD SATAN ACTUALLY CARES ABOUT HIS FOLLOWERS, AND HE WILL DELIVER THE GOODS RIGHT AWAY!” And your money back if not completely satisfied, presumably. To add to the farce of the whole thing, it concluded with testimonials from various followers who had all gone back to Christianity, only to see the error of their ways, and come running back to the all-caring Big Uncle Satan again. It was sort of Devil-Worship sold in the manner of car insurance!
One thing it did prove to me though was that some of the high-minded stuff being spouted by some Satanists who did declare themselves in the open (“we are an atheistic religion”) was just plain bollocks. With some it might well have been the case that they were atheists, and believed only in self-governing individualism, but there were also a heck of a lot of them who did worship this strange creature called Satan. That to them he was a very real entity, in the same way that Jesus Christ is to most Christians. Did they really believe (as they claimed) that Satan only wanted to see them happy and enjoying themselves??? I’m not too hot on mainstream religion, but the impression I always had was that the Devil is the ultimate anarchist. It doesn’t matter a plain fig to him whether people are happy or not, as long as he can cause destruction and chaos. I suppose what it all boils down to is that Christians and Satanists are all after one thing - they want to believe that there is some all-knowing all-seeing protective father figure who will look out for them, and have their best interests at heart.
Everybody wants a Daddy.
That evening I stayed off the booze, because I wanted to drive up to Chantley Stones. I expected Misty to want to come (I would have been absolutely gob smacked if he hadn’t!), I hadn’t expected Paula and Henry to volunteer for the little jaunt as well though. I was astonished that Paul wanted to give up an evening’s snooker just to go and look at some old stones, but he said he had met a couple of lads who had camped the night up there recently, and they had got spooked by some strange noises and weird flashes of light, so he was curious as well (I didn’t ask how many cans of beer, or other more stranger substances, were imbibed on that little camping-trip!).
It had been a gloriously hot day, but the sky was now overcast, making it feel thundery (even though no rain was forecast for the rest of the week). We had had black helicopters and B52s flying over us for most of the day, and that added to the oppressive feel. I strapped Misty into the passenger seat, and Paul and Henry clambered into the back. And so we were off.
To my relief there were no other cars parked up at Stones when we got there, so it meant (I hoped) that we could all have a look round in peace.
“Fucking weird, this place”, said Paul, pulling the sleeves of his hoody down over his hands as though he was cold “What are you looking for here?”
“I’m not sure”, I said “Until I could find it”.
We ambled around the stones, but the silence of the place was unnerving me every bit as much as it had at the field with the burnt tree in it. Misty hung onto the back of my t-shirt, as though I was going to suddenly evaporate or something.
“These sort of places are best left alone”, lectured Henry.
“Well you didn’t have to come!” I said “You could have stayed at home and watched ’Casualty’ instead!”
“Here!” shouted Paul, from the other side of the clearing “Come and have a look at this!”
We went over to a large stone which was standing by itself on the other side of the track which led up from the main road below. Somebody had chalked upside down crosses on the other side of it.
“That’s fucking weird as well”, said Paul “Like the fucking ‘Blair Witch Project’. We’ll be seeing voodoo symbols hanging from the trees next!”
“Just kids mucking about I expect”, I said “Looks pretty pathetic and amateurish for Devil-Worshippers!”
We crossed the path back to the main stones site, and to my astonishment a young, dark-haired girl clutching a beer-can, seemed to materialise out of thin air to the side of us. Of course she had probably wandered up the track and we simply hadn’t heard her approach, but it was eerie all the same.
“Fascinating place aint it?” she drawled, in an American accent.
I agreed it was, but something about her was unnerving me. I couldn’t tell you why. She looked perfectly normal, no black eyes for instance. Plus she seemed quite friendly. I think it was just the general atmosphere of the place on this humid, overcast evening which was getting to me. And having spent a good part of the day stuffing my head with Satanic nonsense didn’t help.
I suggested to the others that we go back to the car, and as we were getting sorted out, another car drove slowly up the track towards us. It seemed to be filled with young people, and I assumed they were of the same party as the dark-haired girl, but for some reason she had walked on ahead on her own. I could see by the expressions on their faces that they were relieved we were going.
“Is it OK to camp here?” said the guy in the passenger seat, also in a drawly kind of American accent.
“There’s nothing to stop you”, I said “But try not to leave a mess behind you”.
“OK we’ll be real careful”, he said, and he seemed sincere.
His friends got out, all clutching sleeping-bags and various musical instruments, including guitars and bongo drums. I couldn’t help feeling that we were leaving in the nick of time!
When I had driven back onto the main road, I stopped the car at the first pub we came across, a little roadside effort called ‘The Wagon And Horses’, which was almost directly opposite the turning to the track which led up the hill to the Stones.
“Are you going to have a drink then?” said Misty, when I pulled up in the car-park.
“No I’ll have a coke”, I said, getting out of the car. The other three just sat there like lemons.
“Well”, I said “Shall I just have a drink on my own, and you 3 sit in the car then?”
When we had finally arranged ourselves at one of the benches in the garden, the twilight was getting quite deep. Bats had begun circling nearby. I could see the Stones up on the hill in the far distance. We were too far away to get a detailed view, but we sometimes caught odd noises floating down the hill from the youngsters camping up there, and I could see somebody waving a torch around in the gloaming.
“All a bit creepy that”, said Paul, taking off his hood and his cap.
“Why do you shave your head?” I said to him “I hate this current fashion. All men look like convicts!”
“Do you want me to grow my hair then?” he said “I don’t mind. I’m sick of being a suede-head, AND I have to keep going to the hairdressers for her to shave it. I’ll grow it if you want”.
Now this was a very personal question. When a man asks you if you want him to change his appearance in any way, well it tends to be a bit of a come-on. He is effectively saying he will change to please you. Misty was looking at me rather pointedly, and I can’t say I blamed him! But what the hell could I say? To advise Paul to do so was responding in the way he wanted, alternatively to say “no I couldn’t give a stuff what you do” was too rude even for me! So I compromised by saying something like “Well I think hair is more attractive”.
“There’s something to get hold of you mean?” said Misty, extremely caustically, because this was a remark I had once made on the subject.
If we had been alone, I would have bundled Misty unceremoniously back into the car, and driven us back to ’Barnacles’.
“Pastor Hogg wouldn’t be best pleased to know I had been up there this evening”, said Henry.
(And I never thought I’d be pleased to hear Pastor Hogg’s wit and wisdom!).
“He doesn’t even approve of May-pole dancing”, Henry went on.
I said something along the lines of I didn’t think Pastor Hogg was in any position to judge anybody’s behaviour, and then drove us home.
I’m always pleased to see ‘Barnacles’, but I think this evening we were especially pleased to do so. It had a welcoming, normal feel to it. The only sound I could hear once I had parked the car was the waves crashing on the shore. It was wonderful. Less wonderful was the sight of Toady’s motorbike parked in the driveway of ‘The Hedges’, but Henry seemed to blank it out, in that extraordinary ostrich way of his. Although I couldn’t stand the woman though, I found I was glad that Jeannette had someone to spend the night with as well. I wouldn’t have wanted anyone to be on their own that evening.
As I was opening the windows in our bedroom, to let some of the heat out, I overheard Misty talking to Paul in the doorway of the bathroom. Misty sounded rather forceful, and Paul replied “That’s cool, mate, I have no problem with that. You’re the one, you know, you’re the one”.
“You’re the one what?” I said, when Misty came into the bedroom.
“It doesn’t matter”, he said “I’m putting my foot down”.
“You don’t need to put your bloody foot down!” I said “Just let it go!”
“I’m the one for you is what he was saying”, said Misty.
“Yes, the royal concubine!” I said “Now stop talking a load of old rubbish and get into bed!”
It took me ages to get off to sleep that night. Normally I would have gone and worked on the Web, but as our living-room was now Paul and Henry’s bedroom, that was out of the question. It appeared that they couldn’t sleep either, as I could hear Paul’s voice, and Henry’s nasally whine for quite some time too. At around 2 AM the air traffic increased again, with helicopters whirling around overhead. This isn’t unusual in our area. The coastline, and the nearby railway line, seem to be convenient places for training purposes. But there was no denying that the activity had been much greater the last couple of days.
It was hopeless. I twisted and turned for a couple of hours, dozing, only to wake up again suddenly. Soon after dawn I heard a loud bang, like an explosion coming from some distance away. I got out of bed, and went into the kitchen, unlocking the back door, and peering out into the grey, half-lit garden. A couple of ducks, who had been nesting by our door, flew up in front of me, alarmed at my sudden entrance. The rowan tree was still in place, I don’t know why I didn’t expect it to be. But at the same time I couldn’t help thinking of those kids camping up at the Stones. The noise appeared to have come from that direction.
I went into the living-room, and stabbed out the number of the local cop-shop in Fobbington. Henry and Paul were drowsily wanting to know what was going on, but I ignored them. What sounded like a 12-year-old boy answered the phone at the police station. I know I didn’t sound very coherent when I spoke to him.
“What the fuck is going on around here?” I demanded to know “We have fucking helicopters going round and round and round at all hours of the night …”
“It wasn’t ours”, said the amiable 12-year-old “Ours hasn’t been up tonight”.
“Well whose was it then?” I said.
“I don’t know”, said the boy, still sounding as genial as a scallywag on his way out for a Saturday evening.
“Don’t They tell you these things?” I said, not exactly certain who I meant by They.
“Nobody tells us anything!” said the copper (now there’s a surprise!).
“If it’s bothering you”, he said, now sounding like he was reciting from a Public Information leaflet “And if you feel the noise level is inappropriate for the time of night, then you can call Environmental Health. And you can say that I recommended you call them”.
(Why? Does that mean I get 20p off my next purchase or something?!).
“I heard a loud noise”, I said, cutting across him “It sounded like an explosion, coming from inland a bit. Up Chantley Stones way”.
“Well if we have a car going out that way in the next few hours”, he said, still completely unperturbed “We’ll get somebody to have a little look”.
British policemen are wonderful (!).
The day dawned very hot. Everybody seemed to be unanimous that we had to go and spend a few hours on the beach. Just in case it didn’t happen again. I was astonished that nobody else I spoke to seemed to have heard the explosion. I waylaid Mrs Jackson, who I normally would expect to know everything, but she said she had slept like a log all night. (It would seem I was the only bloody one in the entire neighbourhood who didn’t!).
The beach was packed, which, combined with the flags everywhere, gave Shinglesea an enjoyably festive air. Sometimes during high season a coffee-stall, and a girl selling ice-cream from a bicycle, is set up on the sea-wall. It’s the sort of day which normally enables you to put any horrors of the dark hours in perspective. But I was still feeling tense. When we had got to the beach I found I had left my towel behind, and left Misty and the others eating sausage rolls from the coffee-stall, whilst I went back to ’Barnacles’ to fetch it.
Toady was pushing his motorbike up Beach Lane when I got there, going back from wherever it was he came from, after a night of heady passion with Jeannette presumably. He gave me a look of utter viciousness when he saw me.
“You stay out of our business!” he said.
“Fuck off!” I said, turning in at our gate. I was pleasantly surprised to see that he was a bit disconcerted by my reaction. No doubt he expected me to cower behind the dustbin or some such nonsense.
“You don’t mess with Jeannette!” he said, when he had recovered himself “She’s got Powers”.
“What in fuck’s name are you talking about now?!” I said.
“You never heard of the Foxley Poltergeist Outbreak?” he said.
(Nope! I had never heard of Foxley, let alone a poltergeist outbreak there).
“That was her”, he said “When she was a little girl, she caused it. Had the whole village in the grip of it she did, got in all the papers at the time it did. She could cause things to fly through the air, knives and things”.
“Yes, I noticed ’Carrie’ was on late the other night as well”, I said, sarcastically.
“You’ll be laughing on the other side of your fucking face if you upset her anymore”, he said, pressing his horrible little toad-like fizz-ogg up close to mind. He smelt of garlic.
“Oh so your Jeannette is special is she?” I said “Has Special Powers has she? They don’t seem to have done her much good! And if you think I’m going to go into hiding just because you’ve stopped at my garden gate and shouted at me, you’re very much mistaken! Your precious Jeannette is the one bang out of order. Plying somebody with a date-rape drug, and then locking them in a cupboard is a very serious offence. Would Jeannette like to find herself in all the papers again?”
Toady tried to kick-start his motorbike. I was gratified to see it took him several goes.
I knew that Misty would be waiting for me back at the beach, but I had to quickly log onto the Internet, and do a search on Foxley and poltergeists. There wasn’t much. A brief reference to it on a couple of paranormal web-sites, but the Foxley local history society (in East Anglia by the way) had published a short paper on it a few years back. Their conclusion was that (surprise! Surprise!) a lot of it had just been attention-seeking on the part of the young girl (Jeannette Boot) who had been at the centre of it all. Although they took a highly sceptical slant to the whole thing, even they conceded that some of the phenomena may have been real, as various flying objects caught on still camera by psychic investigators had defied scientific explanation. Plus, all in all, there had been well over a 1000 paranormal events in total, and it was felt that it would have been completely impossible for Jeannette to have faked every single one of them. Their conclusion was that the haunting may have started out as genuine, but when Jeannette found out how much attention she was getting (and, to be fair to her for once she may have felt that she had to keep coming up with the goods) she turned it up to 11, as the saying goes.
After Jeannette was caught faking some of the phenomena by one of the psychic investigators, the family decided to move out of the area, and escape any further publicity. Jeannette Boot completely disappeared from public view, and nothing had been heard of her since. Well, it appears that she had wound up in dear old Shinglesea Beach.
And I had just about had a basinful of her.
It was to be that cynical exasperation that was to save my soul in the time to come. If I had been a more sentimental, huggy-kissy sort of person, it is quite probable that I would have had a full-out nervous breakdown. The psychic vampires would have got a foothold into my soul, and I would have been done for. I would have spent the rest of my life like Henry, sitting around drinking endless cups of tea, and endlessly chewing over the terrible things that happened in life, unable to shift myself out of a mawkish, tearful state, ready to be used as a doormat for others to wipe their feet upon. As it was, instead, I (with the invaluable help of my faithful little lover, Misty) were able to get the jar out of the area, and deprive those evil bastards of their essential feed.
First things first, Misty and I drove up to Chantley Stones that afternoon. There was absolutely nobody there, which was astonishing enough in itself. With the Summer Solstice looming, Chantley Stones was a Mecca for so many people, but on that day it was deserted. The silence was as oppressive as ever, and we found the burnt remains of a sleeping-bag behind one of the stones. Misty looked at me without saying anything. But then again he didn’t have to. It was all too appalling for words.
When we got back home I took Henry out to the back garden, and asked him about Jeannette’s past. Typically, (for Henry), he saw Jeannette as the victim completely. I had a huge torrent of “poor Jeannette” to wade through. What I needed to know now though was how strong this psychic strength of hers was, and what was her capacity for destruction. I had heard that poltergeist phenomena often revolved around teenage kids, but was it isolated to that, and could some of them carry it over into adult life? I didn’t get much sense out of Henry.
“She’s special”, he said “She has a magnetism, I can’t explain it any other way. It doesn’t matter how badly she treats me, but I always go back for more. Everybody succumbs to it”.
“I didn’t”, I pointed out.
Jeannette’s so-called Magnetism had always baffled me. I had met many very attractive, charismatic women in my life. Jeannette was blown out of the water by them. I simply failed to see how, according to Henry, men were supposed to be dropping to the floor with lust over her. As far as I could see, she had all the sex appeal of Olive Oyl! (Although that wasn’t really fair on Olive, she at least had a Personality!). It was only after I had had this conversation that the realisation hit me that Jeannette relied on sad sacks like Henry to keep this fantasy going. If she was thrust into the arena with other men and women, the fantasy would have crumbled. But it was keeping with the likes of Henry that she was able to keep it going. But what about Toady? I hear you cry. Ah now, that was a very difficult part of the conversation, and not one I want to repeat again in a hurry. Toady was another like Henry. He was married, and his relationship with his wife baffled me. In the end, I came to the cynical conclusion that she was happy to be shot of him. Like Henry, he had adored Jeannette for years. “Worshipped the ground she walks on”, according to Henry. Up until very recently, Henry had been completely unaware that they had had a sexual relationship. With absolute monumental naivety, he had thought that Toady was worshipping the goddess, as he had always done. My altercation with Toady out in the lane recently had put the mockers on this fantasy. Henry had been made to face the truth.
And yet I knew he might still have gone back to Jeannette. But for once, the spoilt little girl of the Foxley poltergeist outbreak, who had once put an entire village under a reign of terror with her psychic cup-throwing antics, was up against ME! I told Henry that if he kow-towed to Jeannette ever again, he could kiss goodbye to any sympathetic listening ear from me. That I would just blank him, he wouldn’t exist. In all honesty, I hadn’t expected this to work (and I didn’t care either!). But perhaps being a goddess-worshipper isn’t such an easy life after all. Twenty-five years of devoted, thankless service (man and boy) is bound to take its toll. These days, for the first time in his life, Henry was being forced to be his own person. And for all the brave remarks of “I’ll go back to her if she’ll have me”, I slowly came to the conclusion that he didn’t mean a bloody word of it! The very fact that he was refusing to go round and see her at all spoke volumes for that!
Men are creatures of comfort, first and foremost. Henry had got used to eating proper food, to having the freedom to have a drink when he wanted one, to being positively encouraged to go out to the beach, to hearing ribald jokes about other people’s sexual attributes (that there are other people in the world who others consider sexy must have come as quite a shock to him!), to getting into the party atmosphere generated by the football, one evening we even got him to the pub (Paul was slowly initiating him into the glories of snooker). In short, Henry was getting used to a life where Jeannette wasn’t the centre of the Universe. And he found it liberating.
I put it to him bluntly. He either went back to Jeannette, or he could stay at ’Barnacles’ and Mind The House for the rest of the Summer whilst Misty and me went to Scotland. There was no contest really.
That’s not to say that Jeannette didn’t put up a fight. Give the crabby old girl her due. We got a few psychic attacks vented on us. She made the water run brown from our kitchen taps, she made the light bulbs dim, and we even got a couple of rats in the garden. (We got a man out from the Council to see to those). But the metal fencing she had installed round the inside of the hedge to protect her psychic sensitivities also helped to inhibit her.
Well there you go, that’s the parochial stuff. The wider story was rather darker. I had come to the reluctant conclusion that there was Black Magic being practised in the area. It would be nice to dismiss it all as sad git stuff (“like something you‘d read off the back of a cereal box“, as a bloke on an Internet Website dismissed it (dunno where he gets his cereals!)). It’s not easy though. Not when people are being killed, and animals mutilated. For years now, like so many areas, we had had horse attacks in our neighbourhood. Some of the horses on public grazing land had been fitted with tracking devices for that reason. Doing my homework I discovered that horse blood is very valued in Satanic rituals. As such, some rural areas will up security around the time of major Satanic festivals, like the looming Summer Solstice. “Any of those sick buggers comes round here”, said one farmer “I’ll be waiting with my gun for ’em!”
I came to the reluctant conclusion (however far-fetched it may seem) that Anna Turnball had been sacrificed on Walpurgis Night, May Eve. The night that us Pagans see simply as the beginning of Summer. It wouldn’t be the first time that a lonely, sexually frustrated woman in the prime of life had come to an end this way. The Satanic mob have always preyed upon them. Sherlock Holmes may not exactly have been terribly politically-correct when he said (in ’The Disappearance Of Lady Frances Carfax’) that there was no more worrying element to society than the lonely, cut adrift young woman, but he was almost right. (I say almost, because these days, the lonely young man is even more of a concern).
June sees the Summer Festival in Fobbington. (As averse to the Winter Festival, the Food Festival etc etc). I took Misty along there one day, and he persuaded me to go and see a fortune-teller, who had set up her stall down by the harbour. She told me I had a lot of strength, but that I must be careful as I was dealing with dark elements in my life.
“You must avoid séances”, she said “There are evil forces gathered against you on The Other Side, who will come through if you give them an opportunity”.
“There are some things I need to move out of this area don’t I?” I said.
She looked up at me. I noticed that she had almost the classic witches face, the jutting chin, the hooked nose, a yellow-ish sheen to her flesh. She wasn’t unattractive though, in spite of that.
“You know what is best”, she said to me “There is somebody on The Other Side who cares about you, I can feel them coming through. They know what is happening, they are watching you carefully”.
We met Tara Mitchell down one of the side streets later. She looked appalling. She had lost an immense amount of weight, and her hair was plastered to her head.
“I can’t remember the last time I had a shower”, she said, and she sounded weak .
“For fuck’s sake, Tara”, I said “Get away from here”.
“It doesn’t matter where I go”, she said “I have to take it all with me. The drugs ease it a bit, but They will kill me in the end”.
“I’m going to find a way of limiting Their power”, I said.
“Just how?” she said, her eyes widening.
“Stop the demons appearing here somehow”, I said, not wanting to go into too many details. Even though she was on her uppers I didn’t know how much I could afford to trust Tara “Deprive them of one of their sources of Power”.
I noticed that her limp was still very bad.
“How did you get that?” I said.
“A horse kicked me”, she replied.
That night I dreamt that Misty had been killed, that somebody had plunged a knife into his heart. It was the most horrid, disturbing dream I have ever had. I decided then and there that I wasn’t going to hang about. I still wasn’t certain what we were going to do to the jar, or where we were going to finally dispose of it, but I knew it had to be removed from the area. Henry had told me more about the Foxley phenomenon. Apparently the village was riddled with underground tunnels (many of which had been since sealed up), and that (I assume it was around the time of Jeannette’s childhood), a demon-like goblin creature had been seen after hours in the village school by the cleaning-lady. I never for one minute thought that Jeannette had conjured up this creature herself, but that she may have been used, as a sort of doorway between this world and the next, was a distinct possibility. Just as the students innocently using the ouija board in Rufus Franklin’s old house had been.
Boring but necessary practicalities filled the next few days. Finding a camper-van was a major hurdle. It seemed there was a nationwide shortage of them, as masses of people had been buying them up to travel to Germany for the World Cup. One thing I must mention which, again, is not very nice at all. The Troll died. Killed himself. And yes, I did feel guilty, even though I had had no hand in his doing so. I had been watching my Car-Crash Internet, and I had got it. Big time. Before killing himself he had sent me an e-mail saying “I’m bored with Life. I want to see what happens next”.
“It’s time for us to go off on pilgrimage”, I said to Misty.
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