Like two heroes caught in crossfire, Sally and Billy stood with arms raised high. The man in front of them held the shotgun steady with forefinger finger curled around the trigger.
Sally was shaking, Billy, who couldn’t believe their bad luck, wasn’t sure if Sally was cold or scared or perhaps both. He settled on the latter. The pair of them watched, unmoving. They knew if they did move they would end up dead for there was no doubt in their minds that the stocky man before them meant what he said. He had the sort of eyes that didn’t lie.
Sally observed the man who, or so it seemed to her, was in reality a rotund blob. His head and torso seemed to merge without having the apparent need for a neck. He was gingery, at least the little hair he had was. He had pale, colourless eyes that blinked a lot. They were blinking now. This blinking made Sally think the man suffered with nerves and the last thing she wanted was a nervous, armed man in front of her.
Billy saw a man who not only said what he meant but meant what he said. Billy was reminded of Will Hamfist on the occasion when Billy and his mates had gone scrumping on the farmer’s land. Old man Hamfist had said he would take a paddle to their backsides if he caught them and that was precisely what he did, or would have had he caught them. Billy was too fast but even so Hamfist had made a spirited effort at catching them. If Verity Lambush hadn’t been passing Billy was sure he would have copped a whacking. Miss Lambush had interceded, preventing the livid farmer from exacting his punishment, suggesting she applied her own. She did. Billy had not realised just how many windows
had and she made him clean the lot.. Fekenham
The blob stood blinking; saying nothing, just looking as if his mind were engine-driven and it was taking time for his thoughts to gather steam. His bushy eyebrows twitched as he blinked. Then he spoke in a voice like a combine harvester spitting out chaff..
“Is you the missing Fekenham kids, Silly ‘n Bally?” he asked, licking his lips as though contemplating eating the teenagers.
“Sally and Billy,” corrected Sally.
“That’s what I said, Silly ‘n Bally.”
Sally looked at Billy who returned her look.
“Keep still!” growled the grump.
They did as commanded as he scrutinised them.
“You is them aintcha?” he queried. “Silly ‘n Bally.”
Billy wanted to whisper to Sally to deny all knowledge of two such people, to say they were someone else, anyone else but not to admit or confirm anything to this man holding a shotgun. Sally though was too honest for her own good. Besides, she didn’t see how giving their real names, or agreeing with the man could do any more harm or bring them any greater danger than that they already faced.
“That’s right we are. I’m Sally Braganza-Smythe and this is my boyfriend, Billy Twist.”
Billy shot his eyes skyward inwardly beseeching Sally to shut up.
“Why didn’t you say so in the first place? I could ‘ave shot the pair o’ you. My names Harvey Peachstone, I’m a cousin, twice removed I thinks, o’ Will Hamfist. I read ‘bout you being ‘napped by that there gang ‘n I said to my missus, Vera’s her name, them’s kids are living near t’ old Will. What a rumpus that’s caused. We’ve ‘ad poll-ice traipsing all over the county, all over
Why, a bunch o’ your villagers gave chase so I ‘eard.” Wessex
He paused momentarily in his monologue before resuming where he left off.
“I bet you’re both cold ‘n hungry. Would ye’ like some grub, summat t’ warm you up a bit ‘n somethin’ t‘ drink, hot chocolate maybe. My missus makes a damn good hot mug o’ chocolate so she does.”
He blinked at them but this time smiling as he did. In the place where teeth used to reside were two pink ridges. He snapped his jaws together looking remarkably, or so Sally thought, like a tortoise.
“We’d love that,” she said as Billy nodded his agreement.
“Trouble is I’s don’t ‘ave no telly-phone. Yous’ll ‘ave to eat yer food n’ dink yer chocolate ‘n then, as soon as day breaks I’ll drive you home. I ‘ope that is okay?”
As far as the pair were concerned that sounded mighty fine. Sally felt so happy she very nearly ran and gave the man a hug. Seeing those gums again made her rethink that move so instead she just smiled.
Finally, after having gone through so much they were on their way home. Outside the barn the snow was falling fast. If it kept falling at this rate, thought Billy, by morning all would be covered in several inches. For someone, even at fast approaching sixteen, who adored snow, he hoped this would not make driving home impossible.
It was bright and early when Jarvis Crunch called at the Ramhard’s cottage. Verity was in, but Ralph had gone to the Duck. He had business to attend to. The village green was covered in six inches of snow. The skies seemed clear of cloud but more snow was forecast. The weathermen were warning of unusually blizzard-like conditions, suggesting
would be the worst hit by the inclement weather. Wessex
Verity had risen and shared a shower with Ralph. As far as she was concerned caffeine wasn’t the only effective morning stimulant. She had kissed Ralph goodbye then watched him as he, leaving the car in the drive, stomped off in his walking boots. She watched his large frame, as puffs of white air escaped his lungs, stride out leaving deep indentations in the snow. Within twenty minutes he was lost to sight as he turned toward his restaurant.
When Jarvis knocked she was still dressing. Seeing one of Parminter Fullcock’s fellow directors at her door came as a surprise. She hadn’t heard of the manner of Jarvis’ leaving and as she seldom saw, let alone spoke to, the man she was mildly shocked by his appearance.
“Mister Crunch, what an unexpected surprise. Please come in.”
One of Verity’s many talents was her ability instinctively know when something was amiss. Whether it was body language or something about the eyes she didn’t know but Jarvis was not a happy soul.
“Would you like tea or coffee?” she asked, smiling at the Fullcock Farming Implement man,
“If it’s no trouble tea would be nice.”
She put the kettle on then made small talk. What appeared to be idle chit-chat in the hands of some gifted practitioner was nothing less than a means of information gathering. The things Jarvis didn’t say or the way he avoided certain subjects spoke volumes. His wife was obviously in good health but there seemed to be some rift between them. Work didn’t appear to be a subject Jarvis wanted to discuss either so she told him of how she, Ralph, Arthur Bentwhistle along with the vicar had fared in their search of the missing teenagers.
“You can’t trust anyone these days,” opined Jarvis. “Nothing is sacred anymore.”
Verity poured the boiled water into the pot, stirring it before setting the lid in place.
“Have you had breakfast? I’d gladly make you some if you’d like.”
Jarvis shook his head.
“Tea’s just fine, thanks.”
Verity could see that whatever the man had come to speak to her about he was having difficulty broaching it. Perhaps politics might be key.
“I see that Prime Minister Flair is about to make an announcement about the so-called ‘Corn Tax.”
“Bloody silly if you ask me,” opined Crunch, “we pay far too many taxes as it is.”
Verity had to agree. She was vehemently opposed to having another tax hike.
“At least the village protestors have put a hold on their demonstrations.”
“For now,” agreed Jarvis.
“Has Regus Nasaltwist not come out against the taxes? Usually he is the first to condemn such policies.”
At the mention of the Tory Chief Whip’s name Jarvis Crunch became animated. It was the key Verity had been looking for,
“That bloody man,” said Crunch, “is not what he seems.”
Verity lifted the pot toward Jarvis.
“Let’s go into the living room. I know Regus of old. I have nothing but dislike and distaste for the man.”
The cork having been pulled from the bottle allowed Jarvis to speak freely. It was less of a conversation, more of a confessional as Crunch relayed, sometimes with shame, the truth about his involvement in the Fekenham branch of the Brethren. He said how he had met Hazel Thorny years ago, how they had shared a dislike for immigrants; about Rupert Snatch-Kiss’s involvement but mostly he spoke of Regus Nasaltwist. He told Verity all he knew. By the end of it the picture he painted revealed an image of Dorian Grey: ghastly, vindictive, warped and nothing like that of the public persona so ably displayed.
“How does someone so patently intelligent as yourself get involved with such a group. You are nothing like Seamus Fliphook?”
Crunch shuffled. He looked uncomfortable being asked such a question. The answer he gave was more honest than Verity expected.
“I am nothing like Seamus. That man misses the point entirely. He is a bigot. I am a patriot. I have nothing against other races at all, nothing against other nations come to that, but I have everything against
Albion being the first port of call
for all and sundry.
“We have far too many immigrants coming here without proper supervision. They come to this country taking our jobs. It isn’t fair on those born and bred here. I joined this bogus bunch as I thought they’d make a difference. I thought they might grow powerful enough so that we could challenge the way governments have allowed anyone who has half a fancy to move here. The truth is the Brethren are nothing more than an invention of Nasaltwist’s. I have no idea why he initiated such a group but they have nothing to do with changing people’s opinions and everything to do with that man’s spite. Why he hates Fekenham so, heaven only knows.”
At this Verity smiled. She didn’t share his opinion on immigration nor his ultra right wing views but there was an honesty, albeit misinformed, about him
“Why are you telling me?” she asked, already suspecting the answer.
Jarvis shifted uncomfortably in his seat.
“You have a reputation that precedes you. People like Regus Nasaltwist don’t seem to bother you.”
Outside it had grown dark. Snow clouds were moving together turning the sky the grey of gull’s eggs.
“What’s that you’ve brought with you?” asked Verity pointing at a folder Jarvis held.
Jarvis passed the item to Verity.
“This contains dates and times of calls received from Nasaltwist. There is nothing particularly incriminating as he’s far too clever for that but it does give you an idea of what he’s like and what he’s been up to. He certainly doesn’t much like you.”
Hearing Verity laugh was a shock. She rarely did so when headmistress and seldom unless in private. It was a warm, musical sound that revealed a side of the woman few saw. Her eyes lit up, her face, so often held in austere pose, relaxed. Jarvis Crunch suddenly saw the Verity Lambush only seen by her lovers and close friends.
“He detests me as much as I do him. Leave this with me. I know just the man who can hurt Mister Nasaltwist in ways not even I can.”
Ralph listened as Yue Wu spoke. Although obviously excited, agitated even, she still managed to maintain her excellent English never once slipping into her native Mandarin.
“The reporter and her photographer were back again. This time they took photographs.”
Ralph didn’t understand why this should be of such concern to Yue. He said so.
“You don’t understand Mister Ralph. They took photos of me.”
“If it doesn’t bother me then why should it you?” Ralph responded, still perplexed.
“You are not me. There are spies everywhere.”
“I still don’t understand,” apologised Ralph
.”When you interviewed me for this job you asked if I was going to ‘rescue’ my country.”
“We were talking about the oppressive Imperial Government.”
“That’s right. I laughed and said I was.”
“I remember. I took it as a joke.”
“It was no joke. I am, what you might call a terrorist, my government certainly would suggest that. I am the leader of the Chinese Humanitarian Independence People’s Society. I am wanted by the Imperial Government who has put a large sum of money on my head. That is why I fled to Albion.”
“If my photo appears in newspapers then agents of my corrupt government will be dispatched to assassinate me. Your village will also be in danger.”
“This society you belong to?”
“The Chinese Humanitarian
Peoples Society?” Independence
“CHIPS for short.”
“You westerners find everything Chinese funny.”
“Sorry. How can I help?”
“I need to get away by means that cannot be traced. I need to disappear now.”
Ralph leant back in his chair then steepled his fingers.
“Are you ready to go immediately?”
“Good, give me five minutes. First I need to speak to my wife. We are going to need to borrow some things of hers.”
Delores Dewhip didn’t know how or where she could sit. She piled cushions onto a chair then plumped them up. They didn’t make the act of sitting any more pleasant. Every part of her nether regions was sore. She cursed Victor Clapp for the pervert he was then counted her wages of sin again
Her earnings were double what she used to earn with that tight fist Bentwhistle who seemed to think accepting his advances adequate payment. Arnold Purenose had been little better. At least he had spoken of marriage but his concept of such an arrangement differed to that of Delores who expected a certain level of physical contact but
was as limp as the
beer he served. Their brief affair had not so much ended in a bang but rather a
Hearing of the healing properties of yoghurt when applied liberally to certain anatomical parts, Delores spooned on copious amounts of Red Cherry in places Red Cherries seldom grow. Susanne really must get another operative.
Unknown to the pampered purveyor of promiscuous promise, Susanne, or Anais Sin to use her professional name, was interviewing at that moment. A string of women candidates along with one man were sitting on chairs inside the newly furnished bordello. The first interviewee was called Stella O’ Raucous. She was as Irish as Kilkenny and as ginger as beer.
“You said you have previous experience?” queried the French mistress of the village vicar.
“Indeed I have my dear.”
“Where did you work?”
“It says here that you are thirty five?”
“Give or take twenty. What’s a decade between friends?”
“I see you have a white cane.”
“That I do.”
“To ensure I get me fair whack for laying on me back for if I don’t then I whack back.”
“You are blind aren’t you?”
“I like to think of it more as being visually challenged.”
Another woman waltzed in, wearing little more than confidence. Her skirt was so short it left little to the imagination and her top looked like a thin strip of material surreptitiously placed
“Hello, I’m Pam. I come from
where my clients
call me Gumdrop.” London
“Why do they call you that?”
By way of reply Pam pulled her dentures out from her mouth then smacked her gums together nosily.
“I’m Timothy, Timothy O’Really.”
The young man, no more than eighteen at a guess, was wearing hot pants and fur ruff. Unfortunately he bore a shadow that no amount of make-up could disguise.
“You are gay?”
“Just happy really.”
“We have not many men who need such a service.”
“Oh I don’t mind who the clients are, men, sheep, small ponies, I’ll shag anything if the money’s right.”
One by one Susanne worked her way through the hopefuls until she came to the penultimate candidate, a black woman built like a battleship but with bigger cannons.
“You are American?”
“All the way from
.” New Orleans
“It says here you are named Bettina Smith.”
“Black Betty for short although my clients never do, go short that is.”
“Why do they call you that?”
“’Cos I go wham-bam, I done get them high - a ding-dong. I don’t much care who I do or who does me.”
“When can you start?”
“If you are ready and willing, right now.”
“We have a deal,” said Susanne, extending her hand.
Black Betty had arrived in Fekenham and the village would never be the same again.
Verity stood beside Yue Wu with Ralph hovering in the back ground. The Chinese looked around the cottage smiling. She had never seen anything like it before and was taken by its quaintness. Ralph spoke with Verity explaining what he needed.
“It means a little subterfuge doesn’t it. Bending the law if not breaking it,” said Verity. “I can explain my passport by saying it was stolen but of course that will unfortunately incriminate Yue. I don’t think making Yue look like me will cause any real problems. She is tall, fine featured and dark haired. We can add streaks of grey to give some authenticity, apply a little make-up to alter skin tone, even shape her jaw to look like mine with some artful use of blusher but it is the eyes that will prove problematic. The shape isn’t so difficult to change the appearance of. I could, with careful application make them seem less almond-shaped but it is the colour we cannot change and we don’t have time to purchase grey contact lenses. Anyway, no time to waste, let’s get cracking.”
Forty minutes later a minor miracle had apparently taken place. Yue Wu’s hair was pulled back into a severe pony tail; streaks of grey flecked her hair. Her beautiful almond eyes looked larger and rounder; her face seemed thinner, finer shaped and her skin was pale. The only thing that, on closer inspection, gave her away as not being Verity Lambush was her dark brown, almost black pupils.
Verity produce a pair of spectacles then pushed them onto Wue’s face.
“I won’t be able to see,” protested Wue.
“Don’t worry you will. They are plain glass. I now need glasses but once I wore them only as a means to project an image. These are old but will disguise your eye colour.”
Wue took a look in the cheval mirror in the corner of the bedroom. Then she laughed.
“I look occidental. I hardly recognise myself.”
“Let’s hope passport control is as easily fooled,” exclaimed Ralph looking at his wrist watch. “It’s taken longer than I hoped. The next airship to
is leaving in two hours. We’d better be going.” France
Wue thanked Verity, kissed her lightly on the cheek then slipped out the door with Ralph. Verity watched as they drove away, wishing the Chinese revolutionary good speed and safe journey.
The day had sped by. It was now nearly lunch time. Verity hadn’t been near Cybil for days what with chasing around looking for the missing teenagers. No one knew where they were so perhaps Inspector Lazarus would want more volunteers to organise search parties. Before she put herself forward she really should visit Cybil and baby Jonah.
Ruth stood in Cybil’s kitchen, her arms wrapped around herself as if she were trying to keep the hurt isolated, to stop it spreading. She had stopped weeping but her eyes remained bloodshot. She looked tired. Sleep had avoided her since Neil had ended their relationship. Her nights had been filled with bitter self-recrimination; if only she hadn’t been tempted by David Vanderputte; if only she had sent him packing as she had Dafid.
Of course hindsight was a valuable gift. She knew it was pointless going over and again the same ground but her mind had hijacked her spirit. She felt as low as she could possibly feel. The only person she could turn to was her best friend Cybil.
Baby Jonah lay in his crib sleeping. It seemed to Ruth that all babies did was eat, poo then sleep. At least that is what Jonah did. The unexpected, unwanted thought of her having a baby by Neil stole into her mind and she started crying again.
“Come on love, sit down and let me make you that cup of tea I promised,” said Cybil, trying to console her friend but quite knowing how.
Ruth blew her nose on a tissue then dabbed at her eyes with the palm of her hand.
“What is it with the English that whatever crisis we face we always turn to tea for comfort?”
Cybil grinned placing her hand on Ruth’s shoulder and squeezing it.
“I don’t know but it’s good to see you haven’t lost your sense of humour.”
Ruth sniffed. She was trying to control her emotions but failing miserably.
“I’ve lost him though haven’t I? Lost the one man who really cared for me.”
The kettle hissed as the flame from the stove licked at it. Outside the Post Office the street was covered in white. Snow was falling again in a postcard picturesque way. Cybil spotted a tramp, the one she had seen the previous spring, standing near to Molly Sharptack’s Tea Rooms. Just as she was thinking it unusual to see a vagrant out in winter a Rolls Royce pulled up, a smartly dressed chauffer got out then opened the back door for the tramp to climb inside. Cybil frowned at the unlikely sight then concentrated again at the matter in hand.
“You are being unfair on Dafid and David. They too cared for you. The difference here, as far as I can tell, is that with Neil you have found someone who fits you like a puzzle. All the rough edges that made you and Dafid grind at each other are gone. You and Neil are like two cogs custom made for each other.” Cybil hoped she hadn’t been too forthright and upset Ruth even more.
“And David, my French lover?”
“A dream, a fiction, a fantasy lover made real but like many dreams the reality is never as good as waking life.”
Ruth sniffed again then dabbed at the corners of her eyes once more.
“The village postmistress sounding all philosophical, eh?”
The kettle came to the boil. Cybil picked up a tea towel, wrapped it around the handle then poured the water into a red teapot. Stirring the infusion vigorously with a wooden spoon which she then tossed in the sink leaving the tea to brew before wiping her hands on her apron, she turned to Ruth.
“I don’t know what to say to you. I don’t know how to console you. Perhaps you should try to speak to him again, try to reason with him. Maybe if he would just listen he would understand.”
“But he won’t listen. He’s not interested. I have hurt him so badly that he cannot forgive me and if he can’t then how can I?”
No one had heard the doorbell ring for they had been too busy talking. Standing in the doorway was Verity.
“Sorry for barging in,” she said. “I didn’t realise you had company Cybil, shall I come back another time?”
Ruth snorted. She had never liked her old headmistress and she was the last person she wanted to see now.
“I’ll leave,” said Ruth with a touch of venom, “you always did have the habit of turning up when least expected didn’t you Miss Lambush?”
The reference to their past relationship with Ruth the pupil and Verity the school head did not go unnoticed.
“Putting your dislike of me to one side and forgiving my overhearing what was being said, but my advice, for what it’s worth, is this: Neil loves you. He always has. You never knew it before but he worships you. He did as a schoolboy and he does as a fully grown man. If you really think he truly wants to let go of you then you really are still the self-centred little girl you were as a school child. If you feel for him as he does for you, if you truly love him, then do not sit here moping but do something about it and do it now.”
As Sally and Billy entered Fekenham they both felt elated. The village had never looked so perfect before. It had nothing to do with the snow that covered field, meadow and road with an increasingly thick blanket but everything to do with familiarity. They were home. It had been an adventure filled with fear, some fun and whole host of memories but they were nothing compared to the feeling of security, of continuity, that the Fekenham community exuded.
Sally felt herself tingling with eager anticipation the closer she got to her cottage. Billy felt the same. The pair of them grew more animated as they inched through the snow. Harvey Peachstone had apologised repeatedly for not having a telephone in his house so that they could have phoned home. He even suggested they stop at a telephone box if they spotted one but they didn’t. He drove on slowly but surely, not risking skidding or getting stuck.
They had passed Crust Manor then Trimpton House, seeing the Hamfist farm lying opposite St.Whipplemores. The village green looked unbelievable; white and pure and perfect. Children were playing on it, building snowmen and throwing snowballs at each other.
The village itself looked dreamlike. Molly Sharptack’s roof was covered with snow as was the high street. The Post Office and run of shops, including the now notorious bordello, had drifts of snow mounting the pavement.
Then Sally saw her home. She started to laugh then cry. Billy thought her barmy.
“Why are you crying? You’re home safe and sound.”
“I know, that’s why I’m crying, ‘cos I’m so happy.”
Billy had suggested they go straight to Mister and Mrs Bragnza-Smythe’s home. He could have had Harvey drop him off at Mildew Terrace where he lived but he didn’t want to delay Sally getting home.
No sooner had
’s beaten-up, rust bucket of a Land
Rover pulled into the kerb outside the Braganza-Smythe’s home than Anita and
Shazli were running toward it. Harvey
Sally leapt out of the vehicle to be embraced by both her parents who were laughing and crying with her. The whole scene reaffirmed Billy’s thoughts that Sally and her family were all bonkers. Then Billy felt hands on his shoulders spinning him round. His Mum, Julie, had been at the cottage having tea when she saw the car pull up. Now she too started acting like a loony, planting kisses all over her son’s face and hugging him like he was a tube of toothpaste. Of course the tears Billy felt sting his eyes were due to the cold of the day. At least that’s what he told his Mum when she ran her hand over his face.
They were home safe and sound and the relief both sets of parents felt was inexpressible. Harvey was asked to come in for a cup of tea but he declined saying he thought it better if he got off before more snow arrived. That night two small families had one huge celebration.
Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers.