Nettlecombe Hatchet: Part Four
A tale of cooks, crooks and chooks.
An hour later Daniel was helping her lay the table.
‘Rhian!’ Fliss shouted up the stairs. ‘Lunch is ready. Get yourself down here.’
‘This smells delicious, Babe,’ Daniel said. ‘And those roasties are a triumph, as always.’ He slipped his arm around her waist as she passed, planting a kiss on her throat.
‘Dan!’ she laughed, wriggling from his grasp, ‘the gravy’s going to boil over. Let go.’ She removed the pan from the heat and called Rhian again, ‘It’s on the table!’
‘No need to shout,’ her daughter said as she appeared at the door. She had about her the air of one being forced to do something hugely unreasonable. Whilst not actually frowning, there was a darkness shading her young features that suggested intense disapproval. Of everything and everyone.
‘Ah, there you are. Hope you’re hungry, there’s loads here.’
‘Drinks, ladies?’ Daniel asked. ‘A nice clean Pinot Grigio perhaps, to complement the meal?’ With a flourish he took the wine from the fridge and made a point of offering it to Rhian for inspection.
‘I’ll have water,’ she said, reaching past him for a bottle of Evian.
‘Fliss? You’ll join me in a glass, won’t you.’
‘Yes please. Mind your backs, chicken coming through.’ She placed the meat on the table, relieved to have got the cooking over with.
Rhian frowned at the awkward angle of the bird’s limbs.
‘What happened to it?’
‘Nothing. What do you mean?’
‘Well look at it. Its legs are all wonky.’
Daniel moved over for a closer look.
‘Hmm, does look a bit dodgy. More battered hen than battery, I’d say.’
Fliss saw nothing remotely funny in the situation.
‘It most certainly is not a battery chicken, nor has it suffered any ill treatment whatsoever, alive or dead. This sort of thing is unavoidable sometimes when you are stuffing fowl, as the two of you would know if you’d ever done it. Now sit down and let’s eat.’
‘I’m sure it’ll be scrumptious, Babe. You know I love your cooking. Here,’ he poured her a generous glass of wine, ‘get some of this down your lovely neck.’
Fliss fortified herself with a few gulps of her drink, then did her best to carve. She wished the others wouldn’t watch so closely while she was doing it.
‘Dan, help yourself to veg. Rhian, come on, don’t let it get cold. Stuffing, anyone?’
At last they were all seated in front of platefuls of food. Fliss nibbled at a roasted yam. She noticed Rhian eyeing her chicken suspiciously.
‘There’s nothing wrong with it, I told you.’
‘Why can’t we have organic chicken? Sharon’s Mum always buys organic.’
‘Sharon’s Mum has an enormous divorce settlement to squander. She can afford to eat organic, sadly we cannot.’
‘It’s embarrassing, being poor,’ complained Rhian.
‘Then don’t tell anyone.’ Fliss replied.
‘I don’t see how. And anyway, who is ‘everyone’? And why do you care what they think?’
‘It’s obvious,’ Rhian stabbed at a potato but didn’t eat it. ‘For a start we don’t even have a car.’
‘We don’t need a car.’
‘Yes we do. I’ll be always having to cadge lifts and get my friends’ mums to take me places, now that we live out here. Assuming I ever make any friends in this Hicksville place. It’ll be humiliating.’
Daniel tried to lighten the tone.
‘Is this where I’m supposed to say things like, ‘good for the soul’ and ‘character forming’?’
‘No,’ Fliss warned him, ‘this is where you’re supposed to top up my glass and say nothing.’
‘Anyway,’ Rhian tried another angle, ‘I think it’s hypocritical of you, feeding me this. You’re always banging on about healthy food, you don’t eat this stuff, but it’s OK for me to.’
‘I don’t eat any meat, expensively organic or otherwise. And this is perfectly good food, Withy Hill chickens…’
‘Are full of God knows what,’ Rhian interrupted, ‘and we’re only eating it because you’ve taken a cleaning job up there and your new boss gave you a freebie.’
‘All the staff get a discount, and I told you the farm has a reputation for quality food. They supply posh restaurants in London, for heaven’s sake. I wouldn’t feed you anything questionable. Now can we just eat, please.’
But Rhian had pointedly put down her knife and fork.
‘Daniel could pay for decent meat,’ she declared. ‘He can afford it.’
There was a crackling pause where most of the oxygen seemed to disappear from the air in the kitchen. Fliss knew the best course of action would be to ignore the remark, but she could see Daniel about to defend himself.
‘Don’t be rude, Rhian,’ she said quickly.
‘I’m just stating facts. It was the same in London, he’s happy enough to stay with us at weekends, he could pay something towards…’
‘Daniel contributes exactly what I ask him for.’
‘Huh, a few bottles of gnat’s piss wine and the odd pub lunch. Big deal.’
Daniel could stay silent no longer.
‘I’d willingly give more, really, it’s your mother who…’
‘Shut up, Daniel,’ said Fliss, rather more sharply than she had intended. ‘Rhian, get on with your lunch. When you contribute to the housekeeping, then you can have a say in how it’s spent. OK?’
‘Oh great!’ Rhian stood up, noisily pushing her chair back. ‘I’m supposed to get a job now as well as school just so we don’t have to eat crap food. Well fuck it! You can keep your toxic chicken!’
‘Rhian! Don’t speak to me like that…’
But Fliss was talking to an empty space, her words lost in the slamming of doors as her daughter charged back to her room. Fliss felt her already flimsy appetite evaporate entirely. She looked at Daniel beseechingly.
‘Don’t take any notice, Babe,’ he told her. ‘Hormones.’
Fliss had been going to alert him to the flap of rubber glove he was about to eat with his mouthful of stuffing, but changed her mind and watched him chew.
Fliss considered the supine body in front of her. It was a body that had seen too many good meals; enjoyed too many large vodka and tonics; survived too many late nights; inhaled too many cigarettes; and been a stranger to exercise all its fifty-nine years. It passed through Fliss’s mind that women are judged harshly for such a lifestyle, and that had Pam been a man she could have been proud of her world-weary physique, letting it speak of high living and adventure. The cruel truth Pam had to live with was that no amount of lippy and mascara applied myopically, mouth stretched and eyes surprised, would ever again cause heads to turn. Unless they turned away.
Fliss knew Pam was hoping for a miracle transformation.Which was why she was lyingon the bar an hour before opening time letting Fliss place crystals all over her.As if she could do anything about a career of smoking and drinking and overeating. Fliss tried to focus. In her mind she ran through the lengthy list of aches and minor ailments Pam gave her at the start of the session. She selected a large amethyst from her collection. It was heavy and surprisingly warm in her hand. The purple of the stone was darker at the base, diluting to clear crystal at the spiky tips, reminding Fliss of a swiftly sucked Popsicle. She gently placed the gemstone on Pam’s brow knowing the corresponding chakra to be the same colour, allowing a connection.
Fliss consulted her reference book, checking her theories, trying not to let the pages make telltale noises. Amethyst for centring, she read, for confidence and general healing. And garnet, of course, garnet.
She was finding it hard to concentrate. The week had been a long one, preceded by a weekend without Daniel. Heavy workload, he had claimed. Needed the time to get on top of things paperwork-wise. Reasonable enough, she told herself. But still she harboured suspicions that his absence might have something to do with Rhian’s behaviour the week before. Her increasing rudeness towards Daniel was reaching an unpleasant level, and Fliss was unsure what to do about it. Still, it made a change from worrying about money. Having secured two cleaning jobs in the village within a week of moving in, at least she had something which could be called an income. And the odd Crystal Healing session was a little extra cash.
Her attention was dragged back to her uncomplaining client by a low rumbling, which Fliss eventually identified as the sound of Pam snoring.
‘Pam?’ Fliss gently squeezed the older woman’s shoulder. The snoring stuttered and hiccupped, rounding off with a loud snort.
‘What? What’s that? Finished already?’ Pam sat up stiffly. ‘Well done, Fliss. Christ I feel better for that. You can work magic with those stones of yours, my girl. Magic.’ She swung her legs round and sat heavily on the edge of the bar. ‘You wait till Pete has a go. He’s gonna love this. Now, how about a coffee before you start on the Gents?’
Fliss winced at the mention of her least favourite cleaning task. Somehow the job felt even more revolting following so closely the gentle activity of working with crystals.
‘I’ll have a rosehip thanks, Pam. I’ve got a some with me.’ She fished a box of herbal teas from her bag.
Fliss gazed wearily at the lounge bar as her drink infused in a mug declaring itself to be a present from Mallorca. Pam had told her of all the plans she and Pete had for the place when they bought it; how they were going to transform it from a modest boozer to an up beat, happening place with live music and quality bar food. They had not reckoned on the entrenched preferences of the locals, the lack of passing trade, or the dwindling numbers of patrons generally due to stringently enforced drink-driving laws. The designer bottled lagers had gathered dust in the cellar. The chrome and leather barstools had not been appreciated by the undiscerning bums that buffed them. The green Thai curry with wild rice had failed to excite interest. Even the live music had left the ungrateful clientele unimpressed. Still they had persevered until a spontaneous piece of market research in the public bar had revealed all but one band to be considered second best to silence. Pam had finally thrown up her hands, installed a huge TV for football matches, and doubled the orders of pork scratchings, her dreams of a high-class eatery disappearing as swiftly as the specials on the chalk smudged board.
As she headed for the urinals Fliss wondered if her own hopes and aspirations would suffer the same fate.
At Honeysuckle Cottage Rose was, by contrast, enjoying her cleaning tasks. It had only been an hour since Ryan left for his overnight trip, and already the house felt lighter, bigger, and friendlier. Of course, Rose no more believed in the existence of the Manchester Estate Agents Conference than she did the existence of the tooth fairy, but she would not challenge her husband about it. He made up conferences to excuse his absences when it suited him. She knew he lied, and that whichever girl from the office, or one of the nightclubs in Barnchester, was currently in favour would be enjoying his company. She also knew he would deny it with his dying breath. She knew too that there was nothing she could say or do that would stop him going. The betrayal was hurtful enough without confirming her own lack of significance in his life further. In any case, she had become accustomed to his behaviour. It was simply the way things were; the way things had been in their marriage for some time. Except for one crucial difference; now she had Baby.
As she sprayed the mahogany-look nest of tables with BeesKnees she planned how she and Baby would spend their 48 hours of precious uninterrupted time together. While he was having his morning nap she would cook a batch of sweet potato puree, freezing it in ice cube trays, saving some for his lunch. When he woke up she would sit with him on his tartan rug in the sitting room and together they would explore things that rattled and squeaked and rustled. She would coax from him smiles and gurgles and tell him she loved him, speaking aloud words she could never in her life have said to another adult. After lunch she would take him out in the pram so that he could benefit from the spring air, and so that the world, (or at least her small corner of it) could see how lucky she was. Tonight she would take time pressing his little clothes, and she would sleep in the single bed next to his cot, so that she could watch him sleep.
The ringing of the telephone startled her, catching her in such indulgent thoughts.
‘Mrs Behr? It’s Martin Cripps here, from the Barnchester Echo.’
‘I’m ringing to let you know that you are the lucky winner of our Barnchester Bonnie Baby competition. Or rather, your baby is!’ Mr Cripps laughed at his own little joke.
‘Yes, I see. Thank you.’ Rose did not sound surprised because she was not. She, after all, knew Baby to be the most beautiful infant in all the land. It was only natural to her that, given a glimpse of him, everyone else should agree.
Mr Cripps was a little deflated by her muted response.
‘This means that Baby Behr is automatically entered into the regional final, and as part of your prize we will be sending along the Echo’s very own photographer to create a wonderful portrait of the little chap. This will be yours to keep, along with the £100 cash, of course. And you are free to order as many copies as you like.’
‘Oh, thank you very much.’
Mr Cripps gave up trying.
‘So, when would be a convenient time for our photographer to call? Say Tuesday of next week?’
Rose did not need to consult a non-existent diary to tell her she had no other engagements next Tuesday.
‘Can he come at about eleven?’ She knew Baby would have finished his morning nap by then, and would be at his dimpling best.
As she resumed her polishing Rose smiled to herself and began to sing a nursery rhyme in a clear, high voice that seldom ventured out.
Neville pedalled slowly, and more than a little reluctantly, towards The Vicarage. The evening was already a sweet one, and he could think of any number of better things to be doing than heading for a meeting at Cynthia Danby’s house. His bike was still not running as smoothly as it should have been, following the previous week’s crash, and the idea of tinkering with it in the little sunny yard behind his flat was a tempting one. But he knew he could not escape Cynthia and her plans so easily. He reminded himself why he agreed to get involved in her fundraising event in the first place.
‘Claude Lambert,’ he said aloud, adding a silent prayer that the great chef would stick by his promise to be the main attraction, and not lose his nerve and remember a prior engagement after a few more doses of Cynthia.
Neville’s bicycle crunched gravel beneath its slim wheels as he steered up the drive which curved to the front of the house. He had always thought the building particularly unattractive but undeniably imposing. Its spires, pointy windows and angular lines were softened a little by the warmth of the local stone, but not enough to stop it being a foreboding dwelling.
As always when reaching the threshold of The Vicarage, however, there was something which exercised Neville’s mind far more than Victorian Gothic Architecture. And it was with dread that he heard the unmistakable sound of that something approaching. He dismounted, hastily leant his bike against the wall, and hammered on the door. He even yanked on the rusting bell-pull, though he knew this to be a reliably futile activity. Had the bell still been attached to the thing, its ringing would in any case have been drowned out by the monstrous rasping bark of Cynthia’s revolting dog.
Neville could hear the creature thundering around the side of the house and knew in another moment it would be upon him. He tried the handle, but the door was locked. Cursing Neighbourhood Watch and all its crime prevention leaflets he turned to face the inevitable.
Cynthia’s Great Dane may once have lived up to that description, but in its sunset years it was a sorry excuse for its breed. Being called Hamlet seemed a cruel joke now. Arthritis had slowed its gait to a stiff-legged shamble. The steely grey of its coat had acquired rust patches of eczema. It blundered about squinting through matching cataracts, guided mostly by its nose, which had become immune to its own fearful pong.
‘Good boy, Hamlet. It’s only me,’ Neville knew the terrible hound to be friendly, but wished to prevent the usual enthusiastic greeting in all its wet smelliness. He held his hand out to be sniffed. Hamlet failed to notice and advanced, wagging and panting, jaws wide open, so that Neville’s hand disappeared into its fetid mouth. Neville gasped as the dog chewed playfully before letting him go.
‘Oh for pity’s sake! Get down, Hamlet! You disgusting creature. No, I don’t want to be licked. Where is your mistress? Cynthia!’ He thumped on the door again, dog drool running down his arm.
Hamlet moved in for an embrace, standing to place a heavy paw on each of Neville’s shoulders, pinning him against the door. At the same moment Cynthia could be heard unbolting the lock. Neville struggled free of Hamlet’s clutches just in time to avoid the indignity of falling flat on his back at Cynthia’s feet.
‘Ah, Neville! There you are. Come in, come in, darling boy. You’ve no time to play with Hamlet now. Come along, follow me. We’re in the dining room.’
Neville quickly caught Cynthia up, hoping Hamlet would lose interest in him, but the dog, like its owner, was more than a little keen on Neville.
In the dining room the shutters were still open, so that low sunbeams fell across the room allowing a fine display of dancing dust. Half way down the landing strip of a table sat Sally Siddons, looking uncomfortably out of place. How much better suited she was to her more usual surroundings of the village Post Office. Her smallness and frailty fitted among the bitty detail of chocolate bars, penny chews, envelopes and stamps. Here she was somehow not drawn to scale, set against the muscular furniture, high ceilings, gigantic paintings, and lawn-sized Persian rugs.
‘Now, we’ve made a start on things,’ Cynthia returned to her seat at the head of the table. ‘Breaking with protocol to carry on with people missing, but needs must. And given the disappointingly short list of volunteers there is not a moment to be wasted. Miss Siddons has kindly agreed to act as Secretary for the Nettlecombe Hatchet Event Committee – which we will refer to as NHEC for simplicity’s sake.’
Miss Siddons smiled sweetly and nodded her bouncing grey curls in Neville’s direction.
Neville knew exactly why the harmless woman had been press ganged into service. She would have sooner fallen on her neatly sharpened pencil than disagreed with their host. This effectively gave Cynthia two votes on anything and everything, just to be extra sure that things were done her way. Neville took a seat as far from Cynthia as politeness would allow. Hamlet sat heavily beside him.
‘Is anyone else coming?’ he asked.
‘We are expecting Pamela from the Soldier’s Arms – she expressed an interest, being in a catering business of sorts herself. Then of course Mr Christian is keen to be involved, as Withy Hill Farm is to be the venue for our event. However, he is an exceptionally busy man, so we may not see much of him. We will have to content
ourselves with the use of his facilities, and of course the not inconsiderable benefit of the Withy Hill reputation for fine food. Monsieur Lambert will not be able to attend our meetings in person, though I understand he may send his Personal Assistant on occasion. He wishes to be kept informed of our progress. I must say it is a coup indeed to have such a well-known and highly respected chef as the main attraction for our fundraising occasion. I’m certain he will draw a good crowd.’ She fixed Neville with a meaningful stare. ‘There are others who share our passion, mon cher.’
Neville was determined to steer a strictly business course through the stormy waters of Cynthia’s infatuation with him.
‘So,’ he cleared his throat, reluctantly scratching Hamlet’s ears to keep him from climbing onto his lap, ‘it would seem to me that we need to make a plan. A countdown to the big day, with tasks identified and allotted, so that everyone knows what they are supposed to be doing and when they are supposed to be doing it.’
‘And we should decide what shape the day itself is going to take, down to the smallest detail.’ Neville surprised himself with his own boldness. Not many people would dare to interrupt Cynthia. He quickly lost his nerve, however, ‘Don’t you think so?’ he added.
Miss Siddons nodded again, resembling more and more a toy dog on a car parcel shelf.
‘I do indeed,’ Cynthia enthused, ‘which is why I have jotted down one or two points which I believe will ensure the day runs smoothly.’ She launched into a lengthy description of the Nettlecombe Hatchet Event, starring Monsieur Claude Lambert.
It is a vision of such detail that Neville wondered why she was bothering with a committee. Clearly the involvement of anyone else was for form’s sake. He listened to her increasingly excited portrayal of the planned day. There was to be a ‘Food Hall’ selling local produce; entertainments and activities for children (to include a bouncy castle and pony rides); a refreshment tent; music provided by a local string quartet (Neville had particular misgivings about this); and, of course, the cookery demonstration by their celebrity chef, followed by a question and answer session, and book signing. As if this weren’t more excitement than a person could stand, the competition for the best local recipe (to be included in Monsieur Lambert’s next book) would be judged on the day.
Neville was seriously beginning to question Cynthia’s motives for having him involved at all, when all sensible thought was rendered impossible by Hamlet suddenly entering into a frenzy of wheezy barking. Cynthia added to the din by bellowing at the dog as it lumbered towards the hall. It was brought to a sudden halt in the doorway by the equally solid frame of Pam, who repelled its advances with a stealthy slap.
‘Sorry I’m late, Cynthia. Gents flooded again. Still, I’m not the only one who can’t make it here on time. Look who I found on your doorstep.’
She moved aside. Neville craned his neck to get a better view, and into the room stepped the loveliest, sexiest, most beautiful, most elegant, most delectable, and all round most gorgeous woman he had ever seen.
To be continued….