Nettlecombe Hatchet: Part Eight

A tale of cooks, crooks and chooks.


  Fliss walked purposefully along the pot-holed pavement, carrying the increasingly heavy box. Rhian and Sam trailed behind her, their bad moods slowing them down.  They were now near enough in the middle of the sizeable housing estate, which was cruelly named Sunny Meadow. There was neither sun nor meadow.  Teenagers roamed in packs like feral dogs. Smaller children swung on the remains of garden gates.  Two of the pollarded plane trees were blackened stumps, the remainder looked scarred and sickly.

  Fliss squinted at the number on the door in front of them.

  ‘Forty-eight. Is this it, Sam?’

  Sam nodded.

  Fliss put the box down and knocked on the door. After some time it was opened six inches, chain firmly in place. A large, middle-aged, male face looked out.

  ‘Good morning,’ said Fliss, a little too brightly. 

  ‘Not today!’ growled the face before slamming the door.

  Fliss tried again.

  ‘No, wait. I’m not selling anything.’ There was no reply so she pressed on, ‘I, um, I’ve got something here which I believe belongs to you. You do keep one or two chickens, don’t you?’

  The door inched open once more.

  Fliss pointed at the box.

  ‘You see, my daughter and her friend, well, they’re very fond of animals, and they were a little concerned that maybe this, er, this hen wasn’t, well, very happy in her surroundings. Of course, I’m sure you know all about keeping chickens. Anyway, I’m afraid the girls got a bit carried away and sort of rescued the bird. Not that she needed rescuing.’

  The face at last shifted his glare from Fliss to the box.

  ‘Anyway, we’ve talked about it, and the girls have come to realise that what they did was wrong. So we’ve brought it back. I am sorry if you were worried. You know how impulsive teenagers can be.’ She tried a weak smile.

  The door closed again. There was a rattling before it opened once more. The heavy man stepped forward with surprising speed, snatched up the box, and disappeared inside without a word.

  Fliss found herself staring at the re-slammed door. She turned to the girls.

  ‘Satisfied?’ Rhian’s scowl was entrenched.

  ‘We’ve done the right thing,’ said Fliss.

  ‘He didn’t even say thank you for bringing her back, ignorant git. You didn’t see the state of the place he’s keeping those chickens. You’ve sent the poor thing back to die of some terrible disease.’

  ‘Come on,’ Fliss steered the girls back the way they had come, ‘we’ve already had this argument. And this is not the place to discuss it further.’

  They walked in silence, the argument following overhead. Not that there was anything much new to be said – they had spent a long and exhausting evening hammering things out the night before. Even when Rhian had announced she was going to become a vegan like Sam, Fliss had been unable to be pleased. She had been a vegetarian for years, and her daughter had always refused to give up meat. Now she was friends with someone who talked her into breaking into people’s garden sheds when she should have been at school, and suddenly she wanted to live on Soya milk and sunflower seeds.

  It wasn’t until they were all on the bus heading out of Barnchester in the direction of Nettlecombe that Fliss tried once again to get Rhian to talk about the wrongs of chicken-napping.

  ‘I know you feel very strongly about what you did, both of you,’ she said, ‘but you must see that you can’t simply go around stealing things.’

  ‘Liberating,’ Sam corrected her.

  ‘I’m afraid Mr Forty-Eight Sunny Meadows might not have seen it quite like that.’

  ‘Sod the old fart.’

  ‘Rhian, I was hoping you were going to take a more adult approach to this. Anyway, the conditions couldn’t have been that bad – look how fat that chicken was. She must have been well-fed, at least.’

  ‘That, Mrs Horton,’ said Sam, ‘is because she was a table bird.’


  ‘Poultry bred for eating. That’s what it’s called. The reason she was so obese is that she had been stuffed with toxic amounts of unsuitable food to put more meat on her. Her housing was not the main issue here.’

  ‘Oh, yes, I do see that’s not very nice, but there are ways of registering your protest. Ways that don’t involve breaking the law.’

  ‘Right, Mum, like we could have talked to the creep and he’d have put her on the Atkins diet. I don’t think so.’

  ‘You could have talked to me. We could have come up with something together.’

  Both girls gave Fliss a look of such scorn that she started to blush.

  ‘I’d like to help. Surely you know that? If there’s something that matters to you so much I want to know about it. To be involved. Just occasionally can’t you forget I’m your mother, Rhi, and see me as a human being? If nothing else I might be useful, hmm? Might be able to do something?’

  ‘Do something?’ Rhian gave a derisive little laugh. ‘You work at Withy Hill Farm, for that creep Christian. It’s a chicken farm, in case you hadn’t noticed. You’d hardly be my first choice of someone to help liberate exploited animals.’

  Fliss shifted uncomfortably on the worn seat.

  ‘Withy Hill has a reputation for looking after its livestock,’ she said, though the words lacked conviction. Since discovering the plans for the laboratory and the truth about the farm’s parent company Fliss had been finding it increasingly difficult to justify earning money at the place.

  Sam appeared to read her thoughts.

  ‘As a matter of fact, my parents were discussing Withy Hill only the other night,’ she said. ‘Information has reached them that there are plans for new buildings on the site.’

  ‘How did you know about that?’ Fliss asked.

  ‘Mum, do you mean to say you knew about this?’ Rhian rounded on her.

  Sam went on. ‘All local planning applications are subject to public scrutiny, although some notices are not posted as prominently as they should be. As part of our family policy of endeavouring to be guardians of our environment we make it our business to monitor all new construction projects in the area.’

  ‘Do you know what they’re building?’ Fliss asked.

  ‘Our information is not that detailed,’ Sam told her. ‘However, given the nature and usual business of the conglomerate to which the farm belongs, we have reason to suspect they may be planning a research laboratory.’

  ‘Did you know about this, Mum? Did you?’ Rhian demanded.

  Fliss hesitated just a fraction of a second too long before answering.

  ‘Well, not exactly…’

  ‘How could you! How could you know what they were up to and still be a part of the place?’

  ‘Now wait a minute. First, we don’t know exactly what they are going to do with the new building – they could be developing new types of chicken feed for all we know. Second, maybe they won’t get permission to build. Nothing has been decided.’

  ‘That’s true,’ Sam agreed, ‘but it can only be a matter of time.’

  ‘What makes you say that?’

  ‘The person who works at the planning office and oversees applications like this is known to us. He is also known to have attended meetings at Withy Hill, at night time. It’s obvious there is collusion.’ She turned to Fliss. ‘ As a matter of fact, he lives in your village.’

  ‘In Nettlecombe? Really? Well, who is he?’

  ‘His name is Neville Meatcher. He lives in the flat above the Post Office.’

  ‘I know which one he is,’ cried Rhian, ‘I’ve seen him coming out of the front door. You know, Mum, the anorak on the battered bike.’

  ‘Oh, yes, I think I know who you mean. But why would he…’

  ‘Why would anyone, Mrs Horton?’ Sam’s voice was grave as she turned to gaze out of the window. ‘They do say every man has his price.’

  ‘Mum, you could talk to him.’


  ‘Go on, it’d be easy to ‘bump into’ him – he only lives across the road,’ Rhian’s mouth was setting in that thin determined line Fliss dreaded. ‘You said you wanted to be involved. You said you wanted to help. OK. Prove it.’

  Rose cooked, as Baby sat happily in his bouncy chair, watching. It was nearly six o’clock and Ryan would be home soon. He would be tired and hungry and expect his tea.  She chopped carrots and added them to the mince simmering on the hob. Shepherd’s pie was always well received. Which meant he wouldn’t complain or make nasty remarks. Rose’s own small salad was already waiting in the fridge.

  She smiled at Baby. He didn’t seem a bit tired after the exciting events of the previous day. The late afternoon sun slanted through the window and bounced off the shiny silver cup on the dresser. Rose couldn’t resist pausing to read the inscription one more time.

   Most Beautiful Babe 

  She still couldn’t believe they had actually won the competition. Of course, she knew Baby was the most scrumptious child on the planet, but she had been so unprepared for the size of the event. All those people. All those cameras. And everybody else with beautiful shawls and rugs and balloons and ribbons and all sorts, and Baby sitting on that plain table with his nothing but his blue rabbit. The judges had liked that, they had told her so. Said something about simplicity, and the essence of being an infant, whatever that meant. And as if winning hadn’t been enough – the cup, the cheering, the enormous amount of prize money, the jostling photographers – the lady from the modelling agency had been so nice. Said such lovely things about Baby. Told Rose he had an exciting career ahead of him.

  The rumble of the Subaru in the driveway shook Rose from her thoughts and sent her back to her cooking. 

  Ryan called from the hallway.

  ‘Rose, tea ready yet?’

  ‘About ten minutes.’

  ‘I’ll have a shower then,’ he told her.

  Rose waited until she could hear the power shower working, then took down a small, unlabelled jar from the back of the herb shelf. She shook a small quantity of the curly, green leaves onto a board and chopped carefully. The more she chopped, the less they resembled the unfurling ferns by the compost heap. When they were fine as pixie dust she measured half a level teaspoon into the mince and stirred well. Three good shakes of Worcester sauce should cover any unfamiliar taste.

  Rose found herself humming as she covered the meat with mashed potato and then placed the dish beneath the grill to brown.

  A short time later the three of them were seated at their table, each with their own suppers. Rose nibbled her salad, Baby yummed down creamed carrots, and Ryan shovelled in the shepherd’s pie. 

  ‘I’ve got to leave early tomorrow morning,’ he told her through a mouthful of mash, ‘got to take the car in to be checked.’

  ‘Oh,’ said Rose. ‘Is there something wrong with it?’

  ‘No, I just like getting up at the crack of sparrow sodding fart and wasting my time at the garage. Of course there’s something wrong with it.’

  ‘Oh dear. Is it serious?’

  Ryan did not answer straight away. He swigged at his bottle of lager for a moment.

  ‘Dunno,’ he said at last. ‘Could be. I can’t get to the bottom of it, but something’s got to be done. Can’t drive around with that…’ he glanced at Rose. ‘Never mind. You don’t understand about cars.’

  Rose nodded and helped baby to some water from his beaker.

  Ryan looked at his son, as he sometimes did.

  ‘So, a winner, eh? First bloody prize. That’s my boy.’

  He punched Baby lightly on the shoulder in a rare gesture of playfulness.

  ‘Mind you, not sure I like you two going up to London like that.’

  ‘I did tell you…’

  ‘You told me he was in the finals, didn’t say where, though, did you? Like to keep your little secrets, don’t you, eh?’

  ‘I didn’t think you’d be interested.’

  ‘Of course I’m interested – I’m paying for the sodding train tickets, aren’t I? Or did the organisers cough up for your expenses? I don’t think so.’ He turned to look at the cup, then back to Rose. ‘What about the prize money, anyway? That should cover the train fares. How much was it?’

  ‘Didn’t I say?’ Rose began to go a little pink.

  ‘No, as it happens, you did not say. Another of your secrets. Come on, let’s have it.’

  Rose walked over to the drawer in the dresser and pulled out a slim envelope. Slowly, without meeting his eye, she handed it to Ryan. 

  He took out the contents.

  ‘Vouchers!’ he spat the word. ‘Where’s the real money? What good are sodding vouchers to me?’

  ‘They are for that big department store in Bournemouth. They sell the shirts you like, you know, the ones with the button-down collars. And shoes. They have expensive shoes too,’ she told him.

  ‘Hmm. I suppose you might be right. Could do with some new gear. Here you go, lad,’ he handed one to Baby, ‘you did all the hard work. You get yourself something. Bet they have a toy department. Get yourself a…a train, yeah,’ he put the rest of the vouchers in his pocket and went back to his food. ‘Buy the kid a train.’

  ‘Oh, OK.’ Rose waited, but it seemed the subject was closed, so she sat down again and stopped Baby eating his voucher.

  Ryan held up a forkful of meat.

  ‘You put something in this?’

  ‘What?’ Rose stiffened in her chair.

  ‘Something different? It tastes different.’

  Rose froze for a few seconds, not daring to look at Ryan. She busied herself wiping Baby’s face.

  ‘Sage,’ she said, ‘I put sage in it, that’s all.’

  Ryan shrugged.

  ‘Tastes OK,’ he said, clearing his plate, before leaning back in his chair and letting out a long, loud belch.

  By seven o’clock Neville had reduced his sister’s orderly little kitchen to something resembling a crime scene. There was not a clear inch of work surface to be seen, and every pan, jug, mug, pot and container seemed to be in use. The windows were opaque with steam, and the humidity in the room was well beyond comfortable.

   ‘For pity’s sake, Neville,’ said Sandra, coming in from the garden, ‘open a window before you pass out. There’s no air in here.’

  ‘What? Oh, I hadn’t noticed. I’m too busy to worry about that sort of thing.’

  ‘Clearly. I’ve never seen such a mess.’ She moved towards the sink and reached for the rubber gloves.

  ‘Oh don’t bother with that now, Sandra. I’ll clear up later.’ Neville carefully spooned the creamy pudding mixture into a pastry case, tongue between teeth as he tried to remain focused on the task in hand.

  ‘It won’t take a minute. Don’t worry, I won’t interfere.’

  Neville didn’t reply. He was struggling with the unfamiliar kitchen, inferior gadgets, a woefully inadequate store cupboard, constant interruptions and irritating questions from the twins, and well-meaning fussing from Sandra.  Still, he had known it would be like this, and he had made up his mind to deal with the difficulties. A lot was at stake. He was fairly sure he had, at last, perfected the Daryole recipe, but he needed to try it out on someone before the competition. It had been galling to realise the only potential guinea pigs were Sandra, Brian, and the boys. A less discerning collection of palettes it would be hard to find. But who else could he ask? Cynthia would no doubt have leapt at the opportunity, but would also have read all sorts of inaccurate things into the invitation. The possible consequences were not worth the risk. There was no one at work whom Neville liked enough to invite to dinner, however desperate he was. He briefly flirted with the idea of contacting Lucy, but his nerve failed him. And so he found himself in Sandra’s kitchen, battling to do his recipe justice, ready to submit to the judgements of two adults who’s idea of haute cuisine was the local Harvester, and two children who spent more time dropping food than eating it. 

  Brian appeared in the kitchen carrying two bottles of wine.

  ‘Now then, chef, red or white?’ he asked.

  Neville winced. What the choice actually consisted of was something claiming to be a Bulgarian Bordeaux, or a supermarket white so sweet it would make his teeth ache.

  ‘All taken care of, Brian. I’ve put a couple of bottles of Pinot Noir in the fridge. Thanks, all the same.’

  Neville stooped to slide the precious pudding into the oven, gently closed the door, checked his watch, then allowed himself a sigh of relief.

  ‘Right you are,’ said Brian. ‘What time’s kick off, then?’

  ‘Dinner should be ready in five minutes.’

  ‘OK. I’ll drag the twins to the table. Boys!’ he headed out into the garden in search of his children.

  There was much whining and shouting and forcible washing of hands and demands for lemonade and chips and television but finally everyone was seated at the fine, reproduction Regency table in the dining room.

  ‘Well,’ smiled Sandra, ‘isn’t this lovely, a delicious meal cooked for us by Uncle Neville.’

  The twins were unconvinced.

  ‘What is it?’ asked one.

  ‘I don’t like that,’ said the other.

  ‘The main course,’ Neville told them ‘is a simple steak and kidney casserole…’


  ‘Don’t like kidneys!’

  ‘…which is a suitably traditional recipe to have before the rather special pudding I’ve prepared. There are green beans, carrots, and minted new potatoes.’

  ‘Don’t want beans!’

  ‘Don’t like carrots!’

  ‘Now boys,’ Sandra reached for their plates, ‘I’m sure it will all be very tasty. Just try a little.’ She spooned out minuscule portions.

  ‘That’s too much!’

  ‘Don’t like it.’

  Neville’s own appetite began to dwindle.

  Sandra continued to cajole.

  ‘Just give it a try, boys, Uncle Neville’s gone to so much trouble.’

  The boys sniffed their plates suspiciously.

  ‘Don’t like it,’ said one.

  ‘Smells disgusting,’ said the other.

  ‘That’s enough!’ boomed Brian, slamming his hand down hard on the table. ‘Sit still, be quiet, and eat!’

  Two mouths opened to protest. He cut them short.

  ‘Or there will be no paddling pool in the garden this afternoon and you can spend the rest of the day tidying your bedrooms instead. I mean it. Now, eat!’ He banged the table once more.

  The tense silence that followed was punctuated by the occasional sniff.

  ‘Really, Brian,’ Sandra gave him a look.

  Brian continued as if barking at his children and bullying them into compliance was a regular happening not worthy of mention.

  ‘Nev, or should I say, Chef, this looks fantastic. Real food. None of that two bits of lettuce and a twig of something with a dollop of goo. Proper stuff. Good man.’ He helped himself to large quantities of everything.

  ‘Mmmm,’ agreed Sandra, ‘this is delicious, Neville. And your beans stay so green, how do you do that? I always have trouble there.’

  Brain laughed.

  ‘She’s not kidding, Nev. Poor things look like they’ve been through a boil wash by the time Sandra’s finished with them.’

  Neville saw his sister shoot Brian a glance of such fury that for a moment he was whisked back to childhood squabbles. Which Sandra had always won. Easily.

  He tried to concentrate on his meal.

  ‘It’s all simple stuff, really,’ he told them. ‘It’s the pudding that’s new. That’s what I’d really like your opinion on.’

  ‘Ah yes,’ Brian shook enough salt over his food to preserve it through winter, ‘the mysterious competition entry. Can’t wait to get stuck in to that. Pass the mustard, would you?’

  Neville watched Brain obliterate any original flavour from his casserole, and looked on forlornly as Sandra avoided the kidneys and washed every mouthful down with diet tonic water. The boys squirmed on their seats emitting little squeaks and nibbling painfully at the odd carrot. Things did not look good for the pudding.

  ‘I was wondering,’ Sandra dabbed at her lips with a Monet print paper napkin, ‘if you’d heard from Wendy at all.’

  ‘Wendy?’ Neville was at a loss.

  Sandra tutted. ‘You know who I mean. You met her here. Just a few weeks ago. I thought she might have phoned. Or you might have called her.’

  ‘Oh, no.’ Neville shook his head. ‘Not really my type, I’m afraid.’

  ‘No? Pity. Such a nice girl. We liked her, didn’t we Brian?’

  ‘Certainly did. Well, bits of her, anyway, eh Nev?’ he laughed, shoulders shaking, at his own little joke.

  The twins, baffled, but no doubt relieved to see their father’s humour improve, laughed too.

  ‘Really, Brian. Not in front…’ Sandra twitched her head in the direction of the children. ‘Anyway, I’m sure Neville has interests in a possible new girlfriend other than just her…well. I  mean, he wants someone he can get on with. Someone pretty. Someone nice to be around. Someone to talk to.’

  ‘Perhaps I should buy a budgie,’ said Neville.

  ‘Oh, you always sell yourself short,’ she wagged an admonishing knife at him, ‘that’s always been your trouble. I’m sure there are lots of nice girls out there who would love to meet someone like you. You just need to make the effort to meet them, that’s all.’

  ‘Look, it’s kind of you to take such an interest in my personal life, but really, there is no need.’

  Brian passed the wine in Neville’s direction.

  ‘Why’s that then, Nev? Taken a vow of chastity, have we? Or is it miles on the clock, eh? Taking its toll on the old libido? It’s creeping up on all of us, you know, middle age.’

  There were days when Neville felt middle age had indeed crept up on him, mugged him, and left him for dead in a dark alley. Even so, he disliked Brian making such jokes at his expense. After all, he couldn’t imagine Sandra making heavy demands on her husband in their Scandinavian style bedroom.

  ‘I say there’s no need,’ he told them, ‘because that position is filled.’

  Four astonished faces turned to stare at Neville. He attempted to ignore them and get on with his plateful.

  Sandra was the first to speak.

  ‘You mean, you’ve got a girlfriend?’

  ‘I don’t see why you should be so amazed. You’ve just said yourself, lots of women would consider me a good catch.’ He sipped his wine and gave a nonchalant shrug.  ‘You were right,’ he said, allowing himself a little smile at the effect of his pretence.

  ‘That’s my boy!’ cried Brian, laughing again. ‘Well, this is a turn up. What’s she like, this secret woman of yours?’

  ‘Now, Brian,’ Sandra held up a hand as if halting traffic, ‘I’m sure Neville will tell us all about her in his own good time.’

  There was an expectant silence.  Neville was already beginning to doubt the wisdom of the idea of inventing a girlfriend He ineffectually sought to change the subject.

  ‘Oh, she’s not anyone you know. More beans, Brian?’

  ‘Someone from work, perhaps?’ suggested Sandra.

  ‘Work? No, not from work?’

  ‘Not been dabbling in a bit of Internet dating, have you, brother-in-law? Loitering in the odd chat room or two, maybe?’

  ‘I most certainly have not,’ Neville drained his glass. ‘She’s someone I met in the village, that’s all.’

  The more Neville tried to knock the conversation on the head, the more uncontrollable it became.

  ‘Ah, I see,’ Sandra nodded. ‘You did tell me you were on the committee, for the recipe competition and so on. How lovely. Someone living in the village with the same interests as you. Couldn’t be better.’

   ‘Now, I didn’t say she actually lived in the village…’

  Brian was unstoppable.

  ‘When do we get to meet her, then?’ he helped himself to the last of the bottle of wine. ‘Can’t keep her hidden away for ever, you know.’

  ‘I’m not hiding her.’  Neville pulled at his collar which was beginning to feel unusually tight. ‘She’s a very busy woman, that’s all. Doesn’t have much time for socialising.’

  Brian was impressed.

  ‘A career girl?’ he let out a low whistle, ‘good move, Nev. Expensive creatures to keep, women.’

  ‘What’s her name?’

  ‘What?’ Neville tried not to look as if this were an unreasonable question. ‘Her name, yes well, good grief,’ he studied his watch pointedly, ‘look at the time. Must rescue the pudding. Don’t want to overcook it. Was the whole point of the meal, after all.’ 

  He stood up in an effort to flee to the kitchen, but Sandra caught hold of his sleeve.  She looked up at him dewy eyed, and when she spoke her words were breathless.

  ‘Oh Neville, I’m so happy for you,’ she squeaked.

  He smiled wanly, wriggled free of her grasp, and dashed for the kitchen. 

  The smaller twin spoke in a stage whisper, his words bringing a tiny sob from his mother.

  ‘Dad, is Uncle Neville getting married?’

to be continued…

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2 months ago

Ohhh Rose!

Janice Bowker
Janice Bowker
2 months ago

I really like rose she is so down trodden by Ryan, Well what next rose. She has taken action
poor Neville he just cannot win I like him, hope he gets a real girlfriend