Nettlecombe Hatchet: Part Eleven

  As Rose opened the back door of Honeysuckle Cottage she was careful to make as little noise as possible.  Baby would be sound asleep upstairs; his routine was sufficiently fixed for her to be sure of that. Ryan had decided he was well enough to get out of bed, however, and would most likely be watching TV. Rose didn’t want to have to explain the mud on her shoes. Quickly and quietly she slipped them off and took them to the sink. She had just started running the tap to rinse off the soles when Ryan’s voice behind her made her jump.

  ‘You took your time.’

  ‘I was as quick as I could be. Did Baby wake up?’

  ‘Course not. He’s not the one with diar-bloody-rhea, is he? You said you’d only be twenty minutes.’

  ‘Sorry.’ She continued to clean her shoes, as it was too late to pretend she was doing anything else.

  Ryan stepped forwards and peered over her shoulder.

  ‘Where’s all that mud come from? You said you were just popping round to check on old Sally Siddons. Looks more like you’ve been on a cross-country run,’ he gave a derisive snort, ‘which is pretty sodding unlikely when you think about it.’

  Rose swilled away the mud as quickly as she could.

  ‘I took the dog out for her. Sally’s shingles is no better, you know. She’s not up to exercising him. He needed to go out.’

  ‘You two must have been a sight – my missus and the fattest Jack Russell in the country. Where d’you take him to get in that state, anyway?’

  ‘It’s quite sticky by the pond. The ducks have been churning it up after the storm, I suppose.’  Rose dried the shoes off with kitchen towel and put them by the back door. She turned to Ryan, doing her best to muster a bright and casual smile.

  ‘Can I get you anything?’ 

  ‘Oh, nice of you to ask – finally. All very well running off to pander to silly old women with a few spots, but what about your husband? Eh? How about looking after someone who’s really ill? I could manage a bacon sarnie.’

  ‘Oh, good, you’re feeling a little better then?’

  ‘Now, I am, at this moment. Give the thing an hour and who sodding knows.’

  ‘Would you like me to make you an appointment to see the doctor? I could ring the surgery in the morning.’ Rose set about grilling bacon.

  ‘No way. I don’t want any overpaid quack prodding and poking me. No thank you. You know I never go to the doctor’s.’ He left the kitchen, heading back to the TV. ‘Just bring me my sandwich when it’s ready. If it’s not too much trouble.’

  Rose jabbed at the bacon as she turned it. It had been a long day. She had trekked into Barnchester on the bus with Baby in the morning to go to the bank, and the crowds and traffic and noise had worn her out. But it was something that had had to be done. She had opened an account with Baby’s prize money cheque on their way home from London, but she never had any intention of leaving the money there. The girl behind the glass screen had looked quite shocked when Rose told her (she)? how much she wanted to take out. She had asked her three times if she really wanted to withdraw all the money. She looked to Rose like the sort of girl who would go to Dixie’s on a Friday night. That was the trouble with such a small town. Everyone knew everyone and spoke to everyone, and that was where Ryan had his accounts(,; and)? it just seemed all too easy for him to find out about the winnings. Besides which Rose didn’t trust banks. When her grandmother had left her Honeysuckle Cottage the local bank manager had tried to persuade her to sell and invest the money. He had even given her name to the local estate agent. Which was how Ryan had come to call. Which was how they met. Which led to them getting married. No, the money was safer in the woods. She had wrapped it well in Clingfilm and put it in a sturdy Tupperware box, so it would be alright where it was. Until later. Until she decided what to do with it.

  It had been an unusually busy Tuesday morning in Neville’s office, so that it was almost midday by the time he had a chance to log on to the Internet. He punched in Withy Hill Farm and waited. A cheery website appeared, red and white logo to the fore, photographs of smiling workers, happy little chickens all over the place. The very picture of normality. Not a rat in sight, five-legged or otherwise. He slurped at his cold coffee and shuddered. He had been fighting a headache since breakfast, and it wasn’t helping his tiresome day. The fact that he had barely slept the night before added to his bad mood. He clicked on the link to the farm’s parent company. Again, no mutant rodents, no professors with busy hair and foreign accents and glassy eyes. True, there was mention of biotechnology and even genetic modification, but all the information was so vague as to be worthless. 

  He thought for a moment, then punched in the name Claude Lambert. The scrawny chef stared out of the screen at him. There followed details of his restaurant, his books, and his culinary achievements to date. There was also a piece on his new venture with Withy Hill Farm, singing the praises of their conscientiously farmed produce. 

  ‘Hmm, back to square one,’ Neville said to himself.  He checked his desk for the Withy Hill planning application. It wasn’t there. He looked in his drawers, his in-tray, his miscellaneous heap under the telephone, and the little-used filing cabinet by the window. Nothing.  He buzzed his irksome underling, who sauntered through the door some minutes later.

  ‘Philips, good of you to find the time. Have you, perchance, got the Withy Hill application?’ Neville asked.

  ‘Me? No, I gave it to you,’ said Philips.

  ‘Yes, I know that, but it’s not here now. Someone must have taken it.’

  ‘Not me.’

  ‘Well is that it? Have you nothing more constructive to say on the matter?’

  ‘Not my problem if you can’t keep track of stuff. You were supposed to look at it. You were supposed to attach your comments and pass it up. You…’

  ‘Yes, yes, yes, I know all that. The fact is I hadn’t finished dealing with it and now it’s missing.’ Neville pointedly rifled through the pile of folders on his desk. ‘See? Not here. Gone. Vanished. Vamoosed.’ 

  ‘I don’t know what you expect me to do about it,’ said Philips.

  ‘I never expect anything from you, Philips, but I do still harbour this mad notion that as you work here you must serve some useful purpose. One day I’ll find out what it is. In the meantime, ask Sharon to step in here for a moment, would you? Do you think you could manage that?’

  Philips scowled and left, and was quickly replaced by Sharon.

  ‘You wanted to see me, Mr Meatcher?’ asked the department secretary. If ever there was a girl born to be shared among half a dozen men, it was Sharon. Out in the real world she would pass unnoticed in a crowd of even moderately attractive people, such was the forgettable quality of her appearance, and her sharp, thin voice would deter all but the most drunk or desperate. At work, however, she was regularly the cause of macho posturing and squabbling. Here every man in the office wanted to claim her as his own. The fact that none of them could justify having a secretary of their own only made them more determined to monopolise her, so that her time was constantly taken up with trivial and pointless tasks. 

  ‘Sharon,’ Neville did his best to muster a smile, ‘do you have any knowledge of the whereabouts of the Withy Hill application?’

  ‘The chicken farm, d’you mean? Yes, Mr Forbes phoned down for it yesterday. I took it up to him myself. Do you know, he’s got air conditioning in his office? Imagine. Don’t suppose we’ll ever get it down here, though. Have to make do with dangling out the window to get some air. It’d be all the same to him if one of us fell out one day.’

  ‘Quite. Did he say why he wanted it?’

  ‘Air conditioning?’

  ‘The Withy Hill file.’

  ‘Oh no, he just said it needed rubber stamping and he’d get it done and out the way.’

  ‘You mean he passed it? Without waiting for me to look at it?’

  ‘Well, I suppose he must have, yes.’

  After Sharon had left Neville sat for a moment, gazing blankly at the gaunt face of Claude Lambert on his monitor, pondering. He opened his top drawer and took out the copy of his Daryole recipe. With a sigh he screwed it up, tossed it into his waste paper basket, deleted Claude, picked up the phone, and dialled the number Fliss had given him. 

  ‘It’s me, Neville,’ he told her. ‘I’ve been doing some digging on Withy Hill.’

  ‘What have you found?’ asked Fliss.

  ‘Absolutely bugger all.’

  ‘Oh. That’s useful,’ she sounded disappointed. ‘I have to say I’m not surprised, though. They’re hardly going to shout about what they’re up to from the virtual rooftops, are they?’

  ‘No. But there is something…odd.’

  ‘What?’

  Neville lowered his voice to a husky whisper.

  ‘You could be right about the rubber stamping.’

  ‘What? Hello? I can’t hear you. Neville?’

  ‘Yes, I’m still here,’ he reverted to speaking normally. ‘I can’t talk to you about it properly now.’

  ‘OK, come round to my house after work. Oh no, wait, it’s Tuesday isn’t it? I’m busy tonight. How about tomorrow?  Six-ish?’

  ‘Right. See you then.’ Neville wasn’t sure exactly what he was going to say to Fliss when he saw her, but he had been sufficiently disturbed by the rat to know something had to be done. And the fact that the planning application had been rushed through was worrying. Very worrying.  He was stirred from his thoughts by the ringing of his telephone. It was Sandra.

  ‘How are you feeling, Neville?’ she asked, all sisterly concern. ‘I thought you might be a bit down after Saturday. I wanted to call you before, but Brian said not to fuss.’

  Neville rubbed his eyes wearily. 

  ‘I’m fine, Sandra, really.’

  ‘Such a shame the day was a disaster, after all your hard work. And you never even got to put your pudding in the competition, did you? We liked it. Well, I did, you know how children are about food.’

  ‘I seem to remember Brian saying it reminded him of school dinners.’

  ‘Oh you don’t want to listen to Brian, I never do. What a strange man that chef of yours was. Did you ever find out what made him run off like that?’

  ‘No. In fact, no-one has been able to speak to him since.’

  ‘Oh well, that’s creative types for you, I suppose.’

  ‘Sandra, much as I’d like to sit here chatting…’

  ‘Yes, you’re busy, of course you are. I’ll get to the point. We were wondering if you’d like to bring your friend round for dinner?’

  ‘Friend?’ 

  ‘Yes, whichever one you like. We thought they were all lovely.’

  ‘Who all?’ asked Neville.

  ‘Lucy and Cynthia and Fliss, silly, who did you think I meant?’ She paused, then added, ‘Or are there others too?’

  ‘Others? No, no, no. Sandra, you’ve got it all wrong.’

  ‘Oh? I did wonder. I mean, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t have three girlfriends – how you live your life is up to you. But I said to Brian “I bet there’s one he’s especially keen on.” I’m right aren’t I? A sister knows these things.’

  Neville frowned into the telephone, at a loss as to where to begin to unravel the tangled web that was being woven about him. He knew his sister well enough to realise that once she had an idea in her head he would have trouble ridding her of it.

  ‘Look, it’s very sweet of you, but I think it might be a bit much so early in our…friendship. I mean, meeting my family, the twins, your house, you know…’

  ‘Ahh, you could be right. Might be too much for her,’ Sandra thought for a moment, then had an idea, ‘I know! Let’s meet at the Farmer’s Lodge instead. That would be much better – don’t know why I didn’t think of it before. Neutral ground. And the food’s so lovely, any girl would be impressed.’

  Neville winced at the very idea of the microwaved, mass-produced fodder served at such a place.

  Sandra was becoming more and more enthusiastic about the idea.

  ‘It’s not far from you – just a short walk up onto the A367. Imagine, strolling hand in hand on a beautiful summer’s evening, then a lovely meal…’

  ‘Sandra, have you been lurking in the romantic novel section of the library again?’

  ‘…Brian’s treat, of course, seeing as we invited you.’

  The baser, more Scrooge-like side of Neville pricked up its ears at the thought of dinner and booze at Brian’s expense. If nothing else the place must surely offer a reasonable bottle of wine. 

  At that moment the door of his office opened and in came Richard Forbes, Neville’s immediate superior, and least favourite person on the planet. Against stiff competition.

  ‘Look, sorry, I’ll have to go,’ Neville told his sister.

  ‘Saturday night, then. Meet you there about seven thirty, OK?’

  ‘Yes, yes, fine. Bye.’ Neville hung up and braced himself to deal with his boss. 

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

  Fliss stood outside the Old Vicarage waiting for Cynthia to let her in, admiring the scale and abundance of the garden. It was a few moments before dusk, and a light mandarin tinge was lending the scene a warm, soft-focus appearance. The blossoms of spring had passed now, giving way to the brilliance of early summer shrubs and flowers. Here was a perfect example of the fittest surviving, as only the most robust and healthy plants had battled off the throttling weeds to claim their space and light. Although clearly neglected, the garden gave the impression of being more than capable of managing on its own, thank you very much.

  At last the door creaked open and a bathrobed Cynthia appeared. Fliss had no time to wonder at her choice of garment, as Hamlet barged out from behind his mistress to introduce himself.

  ‘Ahh, Fliss, so nice to find someone who understands the meaning of punctuality. Hamlet, let the poor girl in. Don’t mind him, he’s very friendly.’

  ‘Yes, he is, isn’t he,’ said Fliss, edging past the monstrous hound with no hope of evading his fearsome tongue. She resigned herself to being licked. She had never got used to dealing with Eric and Vinny up at the farm, but at least this dog didn’t appear to want to savage her.

  ‘I’m so looking forward to this,’ Cynthia spoke as she strode ahead. ‘Pam tells me you have worked wonders for her. Wonders! I thought we’d use the sitting room. Will the chaise longue be suitable?’ 

  She led Fliss into a high-ceilinged, draughty room. The fireplace harboured a dust-collecting arrangement of dried flowers. The mantelpiece was a muddle of ornaments and pieces of paperwork. Two table lamps gave off an ineffectual glow as the light through the enormous window began to fail. The chaise longue was covered in faded red velvet and dog hairs.

  ‘It’ll be fine,’ said Fliss, setting her bag of crystals down on the floor. She straightened up to find a near naked Cynthia standing in front of her. A few wisps of startlingly transparent underwear where all that were, ineffectually, maintaining the woman’s modesty. ‘Oh! No, that’s not necessary. I mean, you can keep your clothes on.’

  ‘Really? Are you sure it will work like that?’

  ‘Quite sure. You don’t want to get cold. It’s important you’re able to relax,’ Fliss told Cynthia as she pulled her robe back on. ‘Just lie on your back and make yourself comfortable.’

  Fliss knelt beside the chaise and pulled from her bag a large square of purple velvet. She spread it on the floor and began placing her crystals upon it. Hamlet sat next to her and watched, apparently fascinated. Fliss tried to avoid meeting his eye, as the slightest attention provoked a further bout of licking. 

  ‘I don’t pretend to understand what you do with those things,’ said Cynthia, waving a hand at the stones, ‘I only know Pam strongly suggested I give it a try, and heaven knows I am in need of something.’ She placed the back of her hand on her brow and closed her eyes. ‘This has been a difficult time for me, as I’m sure you know.’

  ‘Yes, I was in the marquee when…’

  ‘Please! Don’t speak of it,’ she sighed. ‘Of course one often meets setbacks in life. I have had my share of disaster and calamity, not least losing Edmund so young. But somehow, this time, I simply do not seem able to pick myself up, dust myself off, and start all over again.’ She stifled a small sob, removing her hand and turning, watery-eyed, to gaze at Fliss. ‘Do you think you can help me?’

  ‘I’ll do my best. Try to relax,’ Fliss lit a small cone of incense, then took out a notebook and pencil and sat cross legged on the floor. ‘Close your eyes if you wish. I’m going to ask you a few questions, just to give me an idea of what might best work for you, OK?’

  ‘My dear, I am entirely in your hands.’

  ‘First, can you tell me about any physical problems you’ve been having? Any aches or pains at all?’

  ‘I have enjoyed rude health all my life. My mother was the same. But lately I have felt a terrible weakness. A lethargy. As if everything and anything is simply too much effort.’ Cynthia closed her eyes and shook her head. ‘It’s not like me, not like me at all.’

  ‘I see,’ Fliss made a note or two. Hamlet leaned over her shoulder to see what she was doing. She pushed him off firmly, taking care not to inhale his fetid breath. In response to being touched he thumped down heavily onto his side and lay slowly whipping his tail against the floor. Small clouds of dust puffed up from the rug. 

   Fliss tried to focus.

  ‘You’ve told me you’ve had a difficult time just recently, would you describe yourself as depressed?’ she asked.

  Cynthia considered the question for a moment.

  ‘It pains me to admit it, but I think that is precisely what I am. It seems too silly, doesn’t it? All over something so unimportant.’

  ‘I don’t think it’s silly at all. The fundraiser wasn’t unimportant to you, and you’d worked very hard getting everything set up, I’m sure. It’s only natural to feel a bit down when all your efforts ended in…Well, I think it’s totally understandable.’ 

  ‘Do you really? You know, my dear, that is exactly what I need. Understanding. Aside from yourself there is really only one person who knows how I feel, who is simpathetique.

  ‘Oh?’ Fliss made a few more notes, then put down her book and began to select stones.

  ‘Yes. Dearest Neville. My soul mate. I would be lost without his support. Utterly lost, I tell you.’

  Fliss looked again at her client. The worn candlewick bathrobe stretched lumpily over her short, solid, body. Cynthia’s hair was greying, thinning, and unwashed.  Her bare feet were strangers to a pumice stone. Her stout ankles bore a fuzz of hair that could not be blamed on Hamlet. Even given Fliss’s scant acquaintance with Neville, it was difficult to imagine him being interested in Cynthia. 

  ‘You know Neville, don’t you?’ Cynthia asked.

  ‘Oh, barely. I met him…last Saturday. I can put a face to the name. Have you known him long?’ Fliss gently placed a piece of rose quartz on Cynthia’s solar plexus.

  ‘We have both lived in the village for years, of course, but we met for the first time at a cookery weekend. We share a passion for all things culinary. Hence the fundraiser…’ she let the thought peter out.

  ‘Aah, I see.’ Fliss placed small pieces of tourmaline in each of Cynthia’s upturned palms. ‘That must be nice, to have a shared interest. And somebody appreciative to cook for. I’m afraid my daughter doesn’t think much of my cooking. Just tip your head back a little and keep nice and still. That’s lovely.’ She positioned a flat piece of turquoise on Cynthia’s brow.

  ‘Alas, poor Neville is such a busy man,’ sighed Cynthia. ‘He rarely has time for social engagements. That’s why I valued the time he so selflessly gave to NHEC. And all for nothing.’

  ‘Oh, not for nothing. I’m sure he enjoyed your company.’

  ‘I like to think so, of course, but,’ she opened her eyes and looked up at Fliss, ‘I expect you consider me a silly old woman who is deluding herself.’

  ‘Nonsense. You said yourself he understands you, that’s important. Shows he cares enough to bother.’ Fliss sat back on the floor. ‘Now, try not to think about anything for a few minutes. Let your mind relax as much as your body.’

  Cynthia sighed deeply, then closed her eyes once more and lay quiet and still. Fliss watched over her in the fading light of the neglected old room. Silence wrapped itself around them both. Silence which was eventually broken by a low rumbling snore. Fliss frowned at the figure in front of her, checking the stones, and wondering how she had gone wrong again. It was as she tweaked the position of the small garnet on Cynthia’s belly that she realised the noise was coming from behind her. She turned to see Hamlet, flat as a trophy rug, tail motionless now, his whole body shuddering through deep, baritone snores.

  Rose lifted Baby out of the car seat and turned to stare at the beautiful stately home in front of them. Milton-sub-Hubdan Hall was the sort of building designed to make people feel small. The broad flight of steps up to the columned portico alone was daunting enough to rivet Rose to the spot. The car which had been sent to collect her slipped away quietly, leaving mother and child alone. Rose contemplated strapping Baby into his buggy, but she would never have been able to haul it up the steps to the front door. On the point of heading off down the drive, she was relieved to hear someone scrunching over the gravel. Baby’s agent, Annabel, appeared, smiling enthusiastically.  The bubbly young woman waved as she called out.

  ‘Rose! Lovely to see you again. And Baby, looking gorgeous, as ever. We’re in the orangery, round the back.’ She grabbed the buggy with one hand and steered Rose with the other. ‘Fabulous location for a shoot, but, my God, the heat! Warmest day of the year, I shouldn’t wonder, and we have to spend it in a whopping great greenhouse!’ She laughed loudly. ‘Still, that’s showbiz! Did you have a good journey? Car all right? Look at darling Baby, such a good boy. And you’re going to keep on being a good boy for Mummy, aren’t you? I can tell.’ She hooked open the conservatory door with her foot, pausing for a second to look earnestly at Rose. ‘You’ve got a little gem here, Rose. A star in the making. Trust me,’ she tapped the side of her fine, hooked nose with a ruby nail, ‘I know star quality when I find it, and your little sweetheart has got it in spades. Marco!’ she bellowed. ‘Marco, we need hairdressing and make-up here please. Now would be good.’

   Rose let out a small gasp of delight. Before her eyes was a scene from another land. A far away place. A fairytale. The orangery was spectacular to begin with, but now it was a picture of fantasy. Sunbeams danced through the ivies and ribbons and swags of voile which festooned the upper parts of the room. Tiny silver stars and glass beads hung on wires, spinning and shinning in the light. Huge palms and ferns in pots the size of baby elephants gave an effect somewhere between jungle and midsummer night’s dream. Dotted among the plants and decorations where little sparkling silver chairs suspended on chains, with flowers woven into them. 

  The people in this wonderland were much more ordinary. Harassed looking men and women hurried about. Some were wearing headphones. Some were talking into telephones. Some were clutching clipboards. Others were carrying all manner of strange objects.  Everyone was hot and cross and busy. Expensive and complicated cameras and equipment trailed wires everywhere. In the far corner two small babies were being prevented from dismantling anything they could reach.

  Marco appeared, followed by a girl holding a tiny a bumblebee outfit, and a boy with a tray of juice. 

  ‘Ah, here we are.’ Annabel took a glass. ‘Have a drink, Rose, this is thirsty work. Pippa here has Baby’s costume, and in a minute she’ll take you to his dressing room. First, let Marco have a look at him. He’ll have a chat with you about doing Baby’s hair and make-up. OK? I’ll see you later, got to round up a missing toddler. His mother is reliably unpunctual.’

  Rose smiled nervously at Marco. He was not quite what she had been expecting. In her experience hairdressers were female, with complicated hairdos, and a tendency to be bored-looking. Either that, or the ones on TV were gay and a bit strange. Marco seemed reassuringly normal. He was big, too. At least six foot, and broad shouldered, and more than a little overweight. His voice was another surprise.

  ‘Hiya, Rose, is it?’ he asked in a soft Welsh baritone. 

  Rose nodded.

  ‘Nice to meet you, my lovely. And what a handsome young man this is.’ He took Baby’s hand and gave it a little shake. ‘Very pleased to meet you, too, bach. Welcome to the madhouse. No, I shouldn’t really say that, but you’ll see what I mean. There’s a competition going on here to see who can be the most stressed.’ He leant down to whisper in Rose’s ear, ‘I think our Director’s winning at the moment, but the bossy woman in the green dress is giving him a run for his money. There’ll be a ginormous row, now in a minute.’

  Rose laughed, startling herself with the unfamiliar sound. It had been a very long time since anyone had made her laugh like that. She smiled at Marco, who responded with the biggest grin she had ever seen. 

  ‘Baby won’t need much hairdressing as such,’ he told her, ‘although he does have plenty of the stuff, which makes a nice change. All some of these babies need is a wipe over with a damp cloth to bring up the shine! Anyway, I’ll help fix his antennae, and sort out a bit of bumbly make-up for him. You pop off with Pippa and I’ll catch up with you in five minutes, OK?’

  In the cluttered space which had been turned into a dressing room Rose gently wriggled Baby into his costume. As always he was happy and uncomplaining, and particularly enjoyed playing with his new wings. Other mothers and their babies arrived and there was a deal of cajoling and crying and tempers being lost. Soon the room was full of butterflies(,and) spiders(, and) grasshoppers(, and) snails and dragonflies. Baby was the only bee, and particular care had been taken with his outfit, which was all shimmering velvet and satin, with gossamer wings. Rose sat by the open window with Baby on her knee, hoping the cool air would stop him overheating. 

  ‘Here you are, my lovely.’ Marco pushed his way through the crush of people. ‘Thought for a minute you’d gone home. Not nervous, are you?’

  ‘Oh, just a little. It’s very hot. And so many people…’

  ‘New to this game, is it? Don’t you worry. The filming won’t take long, then you can get outside for some fresh air. Take Baby for a ride around the grounds.’

  ‘I’m glad I don’t have to go in front of the cameras,’ she said.

  ‘You’d look gorgeous – that blue really suits you.’

  Rose blushed a little.

  ‘Oh, thank you. I bought the outfit specially. I’d never been to an expensive boutique before. The lady who owned the shop was so nice. She had so many good ideas. She helped me chose the dress. And the shoes, and the bag.’

  ‘You want my advice, cariad? You buy all your clothes there from now on. Figure like yours, you want to show off those curves.’

  Rose fidgeted in her seat uncomfortably.

  ‘No,’ Marco explained, ‘I mean it. In this job I’m surrounded by women with pipe cleaners for legs, fried eggs for boobs, and no bums worth mentioning. It makes a very pleasant change to see a real woman. Very pleasant.’

  Rose stared at the big, strong, friendly man. That somebody might find her attractive was such an alien concept to her she was at a loss to know how to handle the idea.  Ryan had done a very good job over the years of destroying her self-esteem. But lately she had been making more of an effort. For Baby. Now that they had to go out and about, she didn’t want to show him up. And she knew she looked smart in her new outfit. When she had signed Baby up with the modelling agency Annabel had warned her she would need to be practical, organised, and reliable to make the most of his career. She knew that involved looking well turned out too. 

  ‘Right,’ without further warning, Marco picked up Baby and lifted him gently into the air, ‘come on, bumble bee bach, let’s get you ready for your close up.’

  Rose instinctively reached out a hand to take Baby back, then paused. She watched as Baby clapped his hands with glee, and listened as he broke into spontaneous, joyful laughter.

  ‘I think he likes you,’ she told Marco as they repositioned themselves by a highchair and a table of make-up.

  ‘Course he does, why wouldn’t he? He knows I’m just a big kid myself, don’t you, my little superstar?’ 

  Rose watched over Marco’s shoulder as he applied tiny amounts of glitter to Baby’s face, and a few dark smudgy lines. She glanced up at the mirror and saw her own reflection. Her hair was a mess, somehow managing to frizz and flop at the same time. She pushed it back off her face quickly. 

  Marco noticed the gesture.

  ‘The woman with the boutique hasn’t got a salon as well, I suppose?’ he asked.

  Rose shook her head.

  ‘I’m afraid not. I can’t do anything with it in this heat.’

  ‘Let’s have a look,’ Marco swivelled round in his chair and softly stroked Rose’s hair, gently straightening out a curl, then letting it spring back into place again. ‘I can see where Baby gets his lovely locks from. I know people who would sell their grannies for curls like these. But you’re not making the best of them, my lovely.’

  Rose’s face showed her discomfort.

  ‘Not to worry,’ he told her.’ After the ‘shoot’ as we professionals call it,’ he said with mock importance,’ we’ll be hanging around for ages before we can go home. I won’t be busy then. We’ll find a basin and a quiet corner, and I’ll give you a do. How’d that be?’

  ‘Oh, no, I couldn’t…it wouldn’t…I haven’t…’

  ‘Great, that’s settled then. Look out, Baby,’ he turned his attention back to the make-up, ‘we are going to make your Mam look fabulous.’

  Neville knocked smartly on the door of number three Brook Terrace and waited. He was ten minutes early, having decided this was not a social engagement, as such, so that lateness would be inappropriate. He heard footsteps and the door opened. A skinny teenage girl eyed him suspiciously.

  ‘Oh,’ said Neville, ‘I’m looking for Fliss. Fliss Horton. This is the right house, isn’t it?’

  ‘Yes. You’re the man from the planning department, aren’t you?’

  ‘That’s me,’ Neville waited for a possible introduction or an invitation to step inside. Neither came. ‘She is expecting me,’ he explained.

  ‘You’d better come in then.’

  Neville was led through the tiny hallway and into the kitchen. Fliss appeared.

  ‘Ah, Neville, I see you’ve met my daughter, Rhian. Great. Would you like a drink? A glass of wine, perhaps?’ she headed towards the fridge.

  ‘Well…OK, why not,’ he peered past her, trying to see what was on offer.

  Fliss turned and showed him the bottle.

  ‘Pinot Grigio do you?’

  ‘Oh,’ Neville was pleasantly surprised, ‘yes, thank you.’ 

  ‘Come on,’ Fliss grabbed a couple of glasses and a corkscrew and made her way to the sitting room, ‘might as well be comfortable,’ she said, settling onto the battered sofa.

  Neville chose an overstuffed armchair covered by a worn tapestry rug. It looked pretty robust, but was so soft it almost swallowed Neville whole. He sank into it, his backside coming to rest only a few inches above the floor. The resulting posture was comfortable, but unnervingly low, and far less business like than he had been aiming for. 

  Fliss uncorked the wine. Rhian lurked in the doorway.

  ‘Haven’t you got some homework you should be doing, Rhi?’ her mother asked. 

  Rhian scowled.

  ‘Just tell me to bugger off, why don’t you!’

  ‘Rhian…’

  ‘Don’t worry, I won’t stay where I’m not wanted,’ she said, slamming out of the room.

  ‘Sorry,’ Fliss handed Neville his drink, ‘she’s at that awkward age.’

  ‘From what I’ve heard it starts when children are born and ends shortly after their parents enter senility.’

  ‘That’s about right. None of your own, then?’

  ‘No,’ he took a swig of his wine. ‘This is really quite good.’

  ‘Is it? I wouldn’t know. I’ve a friend who’s trying to educate my palate, but I’m afraid it’s a lost cause. As long as it’s got alcohol in it, I’m happy. Now, tell me what you found out about Withy Hill. You said there was something.’

  ‘There was nothing enlightening on their website, but, well, the planning application…. it’s been rushed through.’

  ‘What, approved and granted and everything? Already?’

  ‘Looks that way. And I didn’t even get to pass an opinion.’

  ‘And you do normally?’ asked Fliss.

  ‘Yes, of course, that is my job. The oddest thing about it is the speed it’s all been done. Nothing happens quickly in planning, and yet this thing’s whizzed through.’

  ‘So who’s being paid off?’

  ‘Well it certainly isn’t me,’ Neville drained his glass. ‘ Not that people haven’t tried.’

  ‘Really? You were offered money to rubber stamp the thing?’

  ‘Well, not money, but…let’s just say someone tried to persuade me to look favourably on the application.’

  ‘And you didn’t think that was odd at the time? You didn’t do anything about it?’ Fliss refilled his glass.

  ‘I really didn’t take it seriously, to be honest. I had other things to think about.’

  ‘I hope you’re going to take it seriously now. For heaven’s sake, you saw the rat.’

  ‘Don’t remind me. I’ve had nightmares, you know.’

  ‘You think I haven’t? There is something very, very nasty going on up at that farm,’ Fliss topped up her own glass, ‘you have to see that now.’

  ‘Yes, OK, I agree, but we still don’t know what, exactly.’

  ‘We know they’re breeding monster rats. We know they’re planning a proper laboratory. We’re pretty sure they’ve bribed someone to get permission for the building.’

  ‘The thing that baffles me,’ said Neville, trying to adjust his position to something a little more appropriate, but sinking deeper into the man-eating chair, ‘is what a five-legged rat has got to do with chicken farming. I mean, what in God’s name are they going to do to the actual chickens?’

  ‘It makes me very glad to be a vegetarian, I can tell you. I can’t believe we were stupid enough to lose the rat in the woods.’

  ‘I like the ‘we’, you were the one in charge of exhibit A, as I remember it.’

  ‘What does that matter? The point is it’s out there somewhere. And what’s going to happen when somebody notices it’s missing?’

  ‘I should imagine they’ll worry that someone’s going to let the cat out of the bag. Or should I say the rat out of the bag,’ Neville allowed himself a little chuckle at his joke, but it was clear from Fliss’s expression she didn’t find it funny.

  ‘It’s all very well for you,’ she said ‘I work up there. They may very well start to point the finger of suspicion in my direction.’

  ‘Nobody saw you take it.’

  ‘I hope not. But I told you I was nearly discovered by that bizarre chef of yours.’

  ‘He is most definitely not my anything. I’m afraid he is not the man I thought he was, and frankly, after last Saturday’s fiasco, if I never hear the name Claude Lambert again it will be too soon.’

  ‘Well you may be hearing it quite a lot from now on,’ Fliss warned him. ‘It’s obvious he knows all about these experiments, he was in that room, and it wasn’t the first time he’d been in there. He already knew about the rats. He’s in this thing up to his popping little eyeballs. More wine?’

  Neville nodded and struggled to reach the offered bottle. From his inelegant, low-slung position, Fliss looked taller and slimmer than he remembered. 

  ‘What was he looking for, d’you think?’ Neville asked as she poured. ‘And why is he hanging around at the farm anyway?’

  ‘I can’t imagine. The Christians didn’t tell me he’d be staying there while they were away, and he’s been keeping a pretty low profile. That was the first I’d seen of him.’

  ‘You didn’t see what he took out of the cupboard?’

  ‘A jar of something, I couldn’t tell what.’

  ‘I’m guessing coriander is unlikely. Perhaps it was medicine of some kind. He’s obviously pretty ill.’

  ‘That’s one word for it,’ said Fliss.

  ‘Meaning?’

  Fliss sat back on the sofa, shaking her head, and ran a hand through her long loose hair.

  ‘Meaning I had a boyfriend once who looked like that, and a very expensive luxury he was too. When we split up he still had a habit that cost more per week than I live on for a month now.’

  ‘Drugs?’

  ‘Well poor old Claude didn’t get to look like that by eating all his posh nosh and then spending four hours a day on an exercise bike. Cocaine, I should imagine. Would explain the runny nose too. How I ever found that attractive…’

  Now it was Neville’s turn to slump back even further into his seat. 

  ‘This gets worse. No wonder the man was so moody and unreliable,’ A thought occurred to him, ‘Your old boyfriend, he wasn’t blue, by any chance?’

  ‘No. That’s new to me. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone such a peculiar colour,’ she said.

  ‘Oh yes you have,’ Neville corrected her.

  ‘I have?’

  ‘Short fellow, twitchy, leggy, you might say. Houdini tendencies. Ring any bells?’

  ‘My God, the rat! The rat was blue too.’

  ‘Ergo, either our long-tailed chum had a cocaine habit, or…’

  ‘It’s not cocaine. Claude’s using something else. Something they give to the rats. Something to do with the experiments.’

  ‘Poor sod must be even madder than we thought.’

  ‘Wait a minute,’ Fliss held up a hand, shaking her head again, ‘this is getting too weird. Blue rats with five legs. Blue burnt out chefs. What are they trying to make? Colour co-ordinated manic chickens? And why on earth would Claude take the stuff?’

  ‘Presumably it has some attractive side effects. Did you happen to notice if any of those caged rats were sleeping? Or were they all busy re-arranging their little bits of furniture, or spinning round in their wheels and chatting to one another ceaselessly? Or partying, perhaps?’ Neville drank more.

  ‘I’m glad you find this funny. I find it extremely scary,’ Fliss told him.

  ‘Sorry, you’re right. Not funny.’ He thought for a moment. ‘There’s another thing(,:) who were those two heavies hanging around Claude’s car on Saturday? And why did the sight of them make him bolt like that?’

  ‘To know that I think you’d have to talk to Claude.’

  ‘Is he still up at the farm?’

  ‘I suppose so, I haven’t been back since the rat-nap. Anyway, we can hardly just waltz up and ask him, can we?’ Fliss pointed out.

  Neville sighed, closed his eyes for a moment, and rubbed his temples wearily. The room was warm and quiet, the wine fairly strong, and the chair seductively comfy.

  ‘You know,’ he said, ‘I really can’t think about this any more at the moment. My head is starting to spin. What say we sleep on it? The Christians are still away, so surely nothing much is going to happen for a day or so.’

  ‘OK. But we have to come up with something,’ said Fliss.

  Neville clambered to his feet.

  ‘Thanks for the wine,’ he followed Fliss out of the sitting room, watching the way her red hair swung as she walked. At the front door he paused, another urgent matter having come into his head.

  ‘Look, I’m going out for a bite to eat with my sister and her husband on Saturday night. Nothing fancy. Just up the road. I don’t suppose you’d like to join us?’

  Fliss turned and smiled, a lovely, big, warm smile.

  ‘That’s really sweet of you, Neville. But I’m afraid I’m busy on Saturday. Well, weekends in general. I have a friend who comes to stay…’ she trailed off.

  ‘Oh, yes of course. Fine. Forget about it.’ Neville squeezed past her and hurried out. ‘I’ll call you if I have any brainwaves about Withy Hill,’ he assured her, then headed home, wondering why he felt a strange mixture of happiness and disappointment.

to be continued…

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Debs
Debs
18 days ago

Has Rose met her Prince Charming? Where is Mr blue ratty ? Will Nev and Fliss find him? I await the next episode xx

Janice Bowker
Janice Bowker
6 days ago

Bless rose she is getting some positive attention she needs that pick me up!