Nettlecombe Hatchet: Part Five

Not all chickens are the same. Withy Hill chickens were different.

CHAPTER FIVE

  When a remarkably beautiful woman walks into a room two things happen. The first is that she is noticed. By everyone. Noticed and appraised. The second is that the people in the room are affected. They all undergo subtle changes. The men instinctively suck in their stomachs and puff out their chests. The women lift their chins. The presence of great beauty does not impact so hard on others who inhabit extreme positions on the scale of gorgeousness. Other fantastically beautiful people know they are just that, do not doubt their own fabulousness for one second, and so are not threatened. Such loveliness is the norm for them. Fearsomely unattractive people are also only too aware of their place on the spectrum of loveliness.

  It is everybody in between who will wiggle and squirm.

  The middle aged woman on her way down as her looks crumble could do without another momento mori.

  The balding man who was the college Romeo three decades ago can only look, sigh, and run his fingers through the memory of his hair.

  The young girl on her way up licks her finger to tidy an eyebrow and gets ready to stand comparison.

  The new mother strokes her now empty belly and determines to start those sit ups again.

  The very old man who still hears air-raid sirens tries to remember a time when he wasn’t invisible.

  In this particular room, the immediate result of such gorgeousness was silence. A moment later Cynthia came to.

  ‘Aah, Miss Ferris-Brown, so glad you were able to join us. Everyone, this is Monsieur Lambert’s Personal Assistant, Lucy Ferris-Brown who has kindly agreed to assist us on behalf of the great man himself.’

  There was much nodding and hello-ing and shuffling about through introductions.

  ‘And this is Neville Meatcher,’ Cynthia told the lovely Lucy, ‘our local culinary expert.’

  Although passably good-looking in a harmless, forgettable way, Neville had never enjoyed much success with women. He had had his moments, and of course there had been his doomed engagement, but on the whole he found relationships with females to be more trouble than they were worth. He was used to being pretty much ignored by any young and gorgeous women, should they happen to stray into his orbit. It didn’t bother him. Being ignored was infinitely preferable to receiving the type of attention he suffered from Cynthia.

  It came as something of a surprise, therefore, to find Lucy greeting him with a warm, lingering handshake, gazing at him intently, and apparently hanging on his every word. 

  ‘Pleased to meet you,’ he said awkwardly.

  ‘Anyone sitting here?’ Lucy arranged herself elegantly on the chair next to him, the skirt of her exquisitely cut suit revealing yards of silky leg.

  Neville tried to focus on what Cynthia was saying, but his attention kept getting tweaked by the nose back to Lucy, as wafts of Something Classy and Expensive reached him.

  The meeting meandered on, consisting mostly of Cynthia telling everyone how things would be, Lucy saying what a good idea everything was, Pam’s tummy rumbling, and Miss Siddons nodding earnestly. 

  On Neville’s left Hamlet came and settled himself, leaning heavily against his leg. On his right Lucy sat light as an angel, her own thigh occasionally making a whispering contact with Neville’s. Hamlet’s malodorous breath did battle with Lucy’s sweet perfume somewhere over Neville’s head. He found himself leaning away from the stinking dog, and therefore towards Lucy. Experience told him to expect her to shift in the other direction, but she did not. Instead she seemed to enjoy the proximity, and laughed softly if Neville made even the feeblest of witty remarks.

  So unused was Neville to being flirted with that he took most of the evening to realise what was going on.

  When the meeting came to a close Cynthia announced she would go and make coffee.

  Lucy spoke quietly.

  ‘Bet it’s instant,’ she said.

   Neville nodded.

  ‘More than likely,’ he said.

  ‘I do hate cheap coffee, don’t you? Rather not have anything at all. At home I always use Jamaican Blue Mountain. Beans, of course,’ she said.

 ‘Really? Me too,’ said Neville. ‘There’s no finer coffee, in my opinion. And the fabulous smell when you grind those beans…’

 ‘Mmmmm,’ Lucy closed her eyes in rapture. ‘I’d love a cup of that. Right now,’ she said, eyes still closed.

 ‘Oh well, I could organise that.’

 ‘You could?’ Her eyes sprang open, bright and beaming at Neville.

  ‘No problem. I’ve got my bike outside. I’ll nip back to the flat and get some.’

  ‘Oh,’ something approaching a frown flitted across Lucy’s face. It was quickly replaced by a little smile. ‘Wouldn’t it be so much nicer if we went to your place. Just the two of us. You and me.’ She ran a beautifully manicured finger down his lapel.

  Neville opened his mouth to speak but nothing came out so he shut it again.

  ‘You can tell me all about your little village,’ Lucy went on, ‘so I can tell Claude. I know he’ll want all the details.’

  ‘Oh yes, of course.’ Neville was beginning to blush. ‘I suppose we’d better say goodbye to Cynthia.’

  ‘Oh, let’s not bother her. Let’s just slip away quietly.’

  ‘Right. Good idea.’

   Neville led the way down the hall to the front door. Hamlet insisted on following them, and more than once sniffed Neville’s crotch noisily.

  ‘Look, will you sod off, Hamlet. Go on.’ Neville pushed the dog back into the house and edged outside. ‘There. Sorry about him. He’s harmless, but, well, you can see…’

  ‘Yes. Never could see the point of dogs,’ said Lucy. ‘Especially when they get old and smelly like that one. Oh, is this your bicycle?’

  ‘Yes.’ Neville had never in his life wished more for a sports car.

  ‘Hmm, you must be incredibly fit, riding this everywhere. Does it go very fast?’

   Neville raised his eyebrows. Fond as he was of his bike, he had never considered it a babe magnet.

  ‘Do you want a go?’ he found himself asking.

   Lucy laughed prettily.

  ‘In these shoes? I don’t think pedals were designed for kitten heels. But you could drive the thing. I’ll sit on the handlebars, like they do in romantic movies.’

  ‘Are you sure? They’re quite narrow, and the bell’s not in the ideal place.’

  ‘Oh come on, it’ll be a hoot,’ said Lucy, buttoning up her jacket.

  ‘OK,’ Neville whipped his bicycle clips from his pocket and put them in place. He straddled the bike then turned to Lucy.

  ‘I’m not sure…’

  ‘Just hoik me up. I’m quite light,’ she told him.

  She was indeed no weight at all. Neville was able to lift her onto the handlebars quite easily, her short skirt allowing her legs to dangle either side of the front wheel.

  ‘Oooh!’ she squealed as they set off. ‘You were right about that bell!’

  Neville concentrated on pedalling and steering the worryingly unstable bike. The gravel drive wasn’t the best surface for such an exercise. Just when he more or less had things under control Cynthia’s shrill voice put him off his stride.

  ‘Neville?’ she cried from the front doorstep. ‘Neville, what on earth are you doing? There are things I need to discuss with Miss Ferris-Brown. Bring her back!’

  ‘Quick!’ urged Lucy. ‘Let’s get out of here before she drags us back inside and forces us to drink gnat’s piss coffee.’

  Neville kept his head down and pedalled hard. Cynthia’s entreaties were drowned out by the bellowing bark of Hamlet, who, now released, was giving chase.

  ‘Bugger,’ said Neville.

  ‘Faster!’ cried Lucy.

  Hamlet was closing on them when they reached the end of the drive and broke free of the snare of the gravel. The wheels found smooth tarmac and a downward slope and the bike shot forwards. Too late Neville discovered that Lucy was hampering his access to the rear brake. As they gathered speed down the hill into the village he did not dare apply the front brake for fear of catapulting his passenger into the middle distance. 

  ‘Wheee!’ she cried, holding up her legs. ‘This is lovely!’

  The night was clear and well lit by a pearly moon, so that Neville could not pretend to himself that the spectacle he and Lucy now presented would not be enjoyed by most of the village.

  Without brakes they did not come to a halt until well beyond the far side of the green.

  Lucy was pink cheeked and glowing, her tousled hair and broad smile making her even more beautiful.

  ‘That was fantastic, Neville,’ she slipped nimbly off the bike. ‘You certainly know how to show a girl a good time,’ she said, tugging her skirt back into place.

  They walked back through the village to Neville’s flat. Lucy was more than polite about his little home. They talked as he set about making the coffee.

  ‘You know,’ she told him, ‘Claude is terribly excited about the new partnership with Withy Hill Farm. It’s very important to him.’ She drifted around the kitchen, idly inspecting things.

  ‘I’m sure it’ll be a success,’ said Neville. ‘Anything with Claude Lambert’s name on it has got to be a winner.’

  Conversation paused while Neville ground the beans.

  ‘Mmm, smell that,’ he said to her a moment later.

   Lucy stood close to him and inhaled deeply, watching him pour boiling water over the coffee grinds.

  ‘Shall we have some brandy while we’re waiting?’ she asked.

  ‘Oh. Yes. If you like.’

  ‘I noticed you have some rather good Cognac. We can still have the coffee. Later.’

  There was something about the way Lucy said ‘later’ that made Neville prick up his ears. It smacked of ‘afterwards’. Of dot, dot, dot.

  Things were happening too fast for Neville to make sense of. The evening had started with Cynthia and Miss Siddons and boring details of the fundraising event to be chewed over. Now here he was with a stunningly gorgeous woman in his flat smouldering at him and requesting brandy.

  He poured them generous measures. She downed hers where she stood and handed him back the glass for a refill. She sipped the second drink more slowly.

  ‘Of course,’ she said, ‘for the business venture to be truly successful Withy Hill will have to expand. Considerably. Claude has huge plans.’

  ‘I’m sure he does.’ Neville swigged away in an effort to catch up.

  ‘They will need new offices, new buildings at the farm. Bigger production facilities. And, of course, somewhere for research and development.’

  ‘It all sounds very ambitious and exciting.

  ‘Oh it is. Claude is a man of ideas. Of vision. You’ll see that when you meet him.’

  ‘I’m looking forward to it very much.’

  ‘The two of you will get on so well, I know you will. You share a passion for food. You believe in excellence. Nothing but the best. No room for compromise.’

  ‘Exactly,’ Neville enthused, draining his glass. ‘Another?’

   Lucy hesitated, then nodded and offered her glass.

  ‘The problem is,’ she said, ‘not everyone understands that sort of single minded dedication. They have no vision, and they are suspicious of those who do.’

  ‘Sad people leading sad lives,’ Neville pronounced, emboldened by brandy and more than ready to agree with anything Lucy said.

  ‘And people like that want to see great people fail. Sometimes they will even go out of their way to condemn and obstruct, just out of spite. As if they can’t stand to see a man realise his dreams.’ Lucy swigged more brandy and hiccupped gently.

  ‘Pitiful,’ said Neville.

  ‘Isn’t it? But I know, Neville, I just know we can count on you, and on your unfailing support.’

  ‘Of course. Abso-bloody-lutely.’

  Neville was standing so close to Lucy now he could see the pulse beating in her deliciously smooth throat.

  ‘That’s why I know you’ll see that the planning applications for Withy Hill go through unopposed.’

  ‘Oh well, you know that sort of thing really isn’t up to me.’

  ‘Oh Neville, don’t be coy. I’ve heard you are a powerful man,’ she purred, swaying a little, the drink seemingly having a strong and immediate effect on her.

  ‘There’s really not much I can do,’ he told her.

  ‘Really?’ Lucy put down her glass and began to play with Neville’s tie. ‘Are you sure? Not even for little me?’ She licked her perfect lips and stepped back, still holding his tie. She wriggled up onto the kitchen table and slowly reeled Neville in. ‘Maybe there’s some way I could make you change your mind,’ she said.

  In the cold, unsexy light of day Neville had once had an argument with his brother-in-law about scruples. Then, when nothing remotely fanciable was at stake, it had been easy to take a lofty view and to accuse Brian of being not moral but scared, in that it was acceptable to fiddle your expense account as long as you didn’t get caught. Neville had insisted that every right-thinking man knew instinctively when something was fair and decent and when it was not. That given, a man of scruples would naturally choose the right path; honour demanded it. A black and white situation every time.

  Now, however, a certain greyness had descended. Perhaps it was an alcoholic fog, or, more likely, the murky mist of lust. Either way, what was being offered to Neville seemed so very much more worthwhile, desirable and important than what was being asked of him. In any case, he could later rationalise, he truly could not influence planning decisions one way or the other, whether he wanted to or not. That this meant he would be doubly taking advantage of The Lovely Lucy was a point he chose to shut his mind to, as she began to unbutton her blouse and all sensible thought fled.

  It had been some considerable time since Neville had had sex with anyone other than himself. He was pleased to find the idea sending the necessary signals to parts of his body which had been living something of a half-life. The sight of Lucy hitching up her Chanel skirt to reveal suspender clad creamy thighs had him fumbling frantically with his belt buckle. This was, by any man’s standards, an ideal sexual encounter. A beautiful woman, and just enough brandy, and sexy underwear, and no commitment and no questions asked. No weeks of tedious dating. No having to say the right thing, or take an interest, or remember birthdays, star signs and pets’ names. Not even any sensitive seduction or tricky foreplay required.

   Sex on a plate. Which somehow mixed sex with food in a way that particularly appealed to Neville.

  As his trousers dropped to his ankles he became cruelly aware that he was still wearing his bicycle clips. Effectively hobbled, Neville teetered for a second or two before falling forwards into the open arms of the Siren on the table before him.

  ‘Ooh, so you like things a bit rough, do you, Neville darling?’ said Lucy, taking his lunge as a signal. ‘Oh yes, that works for me too!’ she told him huskily, flinging up her legs and hooking her feet around his back.

  ‘Oh Lucy,’ moaned Neville, kissing her hard. She kissed him back so enthusiastically his lip began to bleed.

  Suddenly, into this maelstrom of lust came the insistent buzzing of Neville’s doorbell.

  ‘What? For pity’s sake,’ he hissed, ‘who can that be?’

  ‘Never mind. Ignore it. They’ll go away.’ Lucy started kissing him again.

  The buzzing continued. Then, just as Neville was on the point of adding Lucy to a short but memorable list in his autobiography, he was halted by the unmistakeable sound of Cynthia’s voice.

  ‘Neville? Neville!’ she shouted through the letterbox. ‘Neville, it’s me, Cynthia.’

  ‘Oh God, I don’t believe it!’

  ‘Don’t answer. She’ll go away,’ panted Lucy.

  ‘You don’t know her – she’ll never give up.’ Neville disentangled himself from Lucy. Cynthia had had an immediate and unmissable effect on him.

  Lucy smiled sweetly.

  ‘Never mind, darling. You take a moment to get your, er, breath back. I’ll go and wait for you in the bedroom.’

  ‘I will. Sorry. Bedroom’s through there. I’ll be as quick as I can.’

  ‘Neville?’ Cynthia was hammering on the door now.

  ‘Coming!’ Neville shouted, causing loud giggles from Lucy. He cursed Cynthia as he descended the stairs, hastily doing up his trousers.

  As soon as he opened the door Cynthia stepped through it. Neville all but leapt in front of her to bar her route to the stairs.

  ‘What is it, Cynthia? What do you want?’

  ‘You left without these,’ she held up the print outs from the meeting. ‘I knew you would want them.’

  ‘Couldn’t it have waited until morning?’

  ‘I suppose it could. I’m not interrupting anything, am I?’ She peered up the stairs.

  ‘No, I was just going to bed. Headache, you know.’

  ‘Your lip is bleeding,’ Cynthia told him.

  ‘What? Oh, cut myself shaving I expect. Now if you don’t mind…’

  ‘Where is Miss Ferris-Brown?’

  ‘How should I know?’

  ‘The last time I saw her she was perched on your bicycle,’ Cynthia pointed out.

  ‘I gave her a lift.’

 ‘To?’

  ‘The telephone box on the green. To call a taxi. To take her to the station. To catch a train.’

  ‘She could have used my telephone. And anyway, don’t all young people have mobile phones these days?’

  ‘Poor signal here, apparently. Look, it was good of you to bring these round, but as I think I mentioned, I have got a headache, so…’

  ‘Shall I come up and make you some cocoa?’

  Neville stared at the plain, lightly moustached, overweight, middle-aged, bossy woman in front of him and had no trouble declining her kind offer. He experienced a fleeting lurch of guilt and pity, but gritted his teeth against them. With a gentle shove he bid her goodnight and firmly shut and bolted the door, then hurried back upstairs. This time he removed his bicycle clips and shoes before going in search of Lucy.

  He found her, lovely as ever, quite naked save for his Egyptian cotton sheets, draped diagonally across his bed, and deeply, soundly, heavily asleep.

  ‘Damn it,’ said Neville.

  Baby beamed at the photographer. Rose stood back, glowing. Here was a surely a true star. The sitting room had been transformed into a photographer’s studio and Baby was positioned on a sheepskin rug, a backdrop of blue sky and fluffy clouds showing off his sparkling little eyes to perfection. All around were lights and umbrellas and reflectors and gadgets and gizmos. Unfazed by any of it, the infant smiled and chortled and held poses beautifully.

  ‘He’s a natural, Mrs Behr,’ said the photographer. ‘A joy to work with. Wish they were all as co-operative as this. That’s it, big smile, look this way, little fella. Lovely.’

  Snap, snap. Flash, flash.

  ‘Just the ticket, young ‘un.’ The photographer squinted back into his view finder.     ‘Lovely, lovely. Yes, like I say, my job would be a thousand times easier, if they were all like your little man here.’

  Rose smiled. Having people praise Baby was high on her list of Things She Really Liked. And the photographer was clearly right – Baby was revelling in the attention, not a bit camera shy or unsettled by all the bright lights and flashes. He appeared to be thoroughly enjoying himself.

  As if to confirm this, Baby let out a tuneful and spontaneous giggle.

  ‘Reckon you’ve got a winner here, Mrs Behr,’ the photographer continued to talk as he clicked. ‘I’ve done hundreds of these baby shoots in my time, seen some corkers, and some down right pug-uglies, don’t mind telling you. You’d be amazed.’

  Click, click. Pop, flash, whirr.

  ‘Now junior here, he’s got star quality. Spotted it the minute I say him. And he loves the camera. That’s lovely, hold that…Crucial, for this sort of thing. No good looking cute and cuddly if they start screaming at the sight of my tripod.’

  Rose, by now quite pink with pleasure, waved an encouraging rattle at Baby. Any misgivings she may have had about subjecting the twinkling little light of her life to being photographed had long since vanished. Baby was loving every second of the fuss and focus.

  The unexpected slamming of the front door caused both Rose and Baby to jump.

  ‘Rose? Rose!’ Ryan shouted as he stomped down the hall to the kitchen. ‘Where the fuck’s she got to now?’

  Seconds later he arrived in the sitting room.

  ‘There you are. Didn’t you hear me calling for you? Why didn’t you answer? My day’s already pear sodding shaped enough without you playing silly buggers.’

  All smiles vanished from the room. Baby stopped cooing and gurgling and gazed mutely at his father. The photographer paused, shutter release cable in hand, for once with nothing to say. Rose took a step towards Baby. She opened her mouth, but Ryan gave her little opportunity to speak.

  ‘I’ve lost my bastard mobile,’ he told her, pulling cushions of the sofa. ‘Got all the way to the office before I realised it wasn’t in the car.’

  ‘Have you tried your briefcase?’ Rose asked.

  ‘Of course I’ve tried my sodding briefcase. D’you think I’m stupid?’ He abandoned wrecking the sofa and started on the CD rack.

  ‘I don’t think it will be in there,’ said Rose.

  ‘Oh don’t you?’ Ryan’s fury was reaching dangerous levels. ‘Well where do you think it is, then, if you’re so clever all of a sudden? Eh? You tell me where the bastard thing is.’

  Baby began to whimper. Rose scooped him up and jiggled him gently. She made no attempt to answer Ryan.

  ‘You’re bloody useless, woman,’ he said, storming out of the room. ‘I can’t waste any more time, some of us have to go to work. Just look for it, will you, if you’re not too busy,’ he yelled back at her as he thumped out of the house.

  It took some moments for Ryan’s turbulence to leave the room.  Eventually the photographer found his voice again.

  ‘Well, I think I’ve got what I need,’ he said brightly. ‘Yes, I think we’ve some cracking shots of our new little superstar here. You wait and see.’

  He busied himself dismantling, disconnecting, and packing, chatting away all the while.

  Still holding Baby close, Rose turned to the window so that this stranger, who had witnessed her humiliation, should not also see the lone tear she failed to hold back.

  At Withy Hill Farm Fliss was at last nearing the end of her cleaning stint. The Christian’s had had a drinks party the night before, and she had spent nearly an hour on her knees battling with red wine stains, cursing the sadist who dreamt up ‘Wheaten Whisper’ as a carpet colour.

  ‘Ten more minutes,’ she told herself, ‘then freedom. Thank God.’ 

  She stood up and checked the room for any grubbiness she might have missed.

  ‘Pretty good,’ she announced. ‘Perfect, in fact. Should keep even Mrs Christian happy.’

  ‘Ahh, Fliss, here you are,’ Mrs Christian appeared as if from nowhere. ‘Who were you talking to?’

  ‘Oh, no-one. Just humming.’

  ‘I see. Well, when you’ve finished in here, could you do the study. Michael is out today, so you won’t be disturbing him.’

  ‘That’s alright then.’

  ‘I’m sorry?’

  ‘I said, that’s no problem, Mrs Christian.’

  ‘Good. I’m going into Barnchester. See you on Friday.’

  Fliss snatched up her duster and hauled the Hoover after her into the study.

  ‘Right,’ she addressed the leather and mahogany. ‘What can’t be done in here in ten minutes doesn’t get done.’

  She vacuumed briefly, not bothering to move any furniture, then set about tidying the desk, flicking her duster over executive toys.  As she shuffled papers into a neat pile the words ‘planning application’ caught her eye. 

  She looked over her shoulder to check Mrs Christian wasn’t about to surprise her again. Pulling out the document, she read further. First glance revealed a straightforward application for a small new office building, and two new chicken sheds. Closer inspection, however, revealed something altogether more sinister.

  A fourth building, positioned behind the others, had not one single window, and its title made Fliss pale. Clearly written beneath the architect’s drawings were the words ‘Proposed Laboratory.’

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Janice Bowker
Janice Bowker
20 days ago

Oh my goodness what a great chapter poor Neville, he is destined to be disappointed, I love the characters it’s a great read I was so glad a got to read a few episodes one after the other. Can’t wait for more !!

Sharon
Sharon
5 days ago

Oh poor Neville,what a wonderfully perfect chance he had. Only to have it lost in the end to a interruption and sleeping beauty. Rose is so in love with her baby who is just so adorable and sadly needing love from Ryan who seems not able to give her what she needs so much. Now the laboratory…this has my interest! I am loving this very much!