Nettlecombe Hatchet: Part Seven
Rose waited until Baby was properly asleep before she changed. She had spent time earlier in the day selecting suitable clothes. Now she struggled into an old pair of dark grey jogging pants and slipped on a black hoodie of Ryan’s. She pulled the hood up and closed the zip to her chin. She tiptoed into Baby’s room to check on him one more time before going downstairs.
In the sitting room she positioned the portable part of the baby alarm beside the telephone. Next she retrieved Ryan’s mobile from behind the gas fire where she had hidden it. With great care she switched it on and dialled her own number. When the house phone rang she answered it at once, checked the connection, then placed the receiver on the table next to the baby monitor. She picked up the cotton wool pad she had ready and taped it over the keypad of the mobile to safeguard against pressing some crucial button by mistake.
At the front door she paused, hand on the latch, and looked anxiously up the stairs. No sound came from Baby’s room, and he rarely woke in the evenings, but still she hesitated at the idea of leaving him, even for twenty minutes. But go she must. Her mind was made up. The mobile would allow her to listen in via the baby monitor, and she could be home again in less than ten minutes if necessary. She picked up her small bag of things she would need later, then left quietly.
Outside the air was thick with the promise of thunder. At nearly ten o’clock summer dusk was darkening to night. Rose walked briskly, head down, skirting the green so as to be less noticeable. She turned left past Brook Terrace, then climbed the stile onto the footpath that would take her across the meadows. The field was level and recently cropped by cattle. Rose knew the route well from childhood. The path headed west towards the neighbouring village of Mile Compton, and emerged on the lane directly opposite the gravel drive of Holme View.
Rose’s breath became ragged as she pressed on. She was unaccustomed to such a brisk pace but didn’t want to be away from Baby a moment longer than was absolutely necessary.
In a few short minutes she arrived at the house. From the front it appeared uninhabited, but as Rose crept past the For Sale sign and around to the back she could see light thrown down through a rear bedroom window. Fortunately, Ryan’s Impreza was parked tight against the house and so remained in helpful darkness.
Rose paused to look up at the open window. Voices, unclear but identifiable, could be heard. The occasional laugh. A swear word. A giggle. In the background some music – slow and smoochy.
At that moment a figure appeared at the window. It was Ryan, wearing only his boxer shorts. The designer ones he had recently treated himself to. Rose froze, breath held. Ryan threw out a cigarette stub, declared the night sticky as you like, then disappeared back into the room.
Rose breathed again, then turned her attention to Ryan’s beloved car. She took the spare keys from her bag, pointed them at the car, and squeezed. The car chirruped and flashed once, then was mercifully silent again. Rose carefully opened the driver’s door. There were two sunken screws on the underneath of the seat which secured a small panel. These she removed to expose the workings of the seat-heating system. Next she pulled from her bag a small plastic tub. Even though the prawn and crab mix was fresh it was already beginning to smell. She tipped the fish into the inside of the seat, taking care not to spill any on the floor, then replaced the panel.
The sounds from the bedroom had taken on a more basic and animal nature by now. Rose’s mouth set in a determined line. She reached across the dashboard and shone her torch into the demisting vent at the bottom of the windscreen. From her bag she took the pea-sized bead she had removed from one of Baby’s rattles. She dropped it into the vent, listening to it bounce through its bagatelle journey to the lowest point possible.
She was in the process of putting away her things when a muffled sound made her heart thump and milk surge through her breasts. She clamped the mobile phone to her ear. Baby stirred, murmured, belched lightly, sighed, then slept quietly once more.
Rose moved quickly now. She was able to firmly close the door and reset the alarm without fear of being heard, the noises from the bedroom assuring her that Ryan’s attention was elsewhere.
She pulled the hood of her top tight over her head and hurried away without bothering to glance up at the bedroom window. Once on the footpath she risked using her torch, and was able to return to happily sleeping Baby in no time at all.
The threatened thunderstorms of the night before had not yet materialised, and in Neville’s flat the sultry heat of the day outside was merging with the steamy heat of the cooking inside, producing an unpleasant level of humidity. Even Cilla had decamped to the relative cool of the bedroom. Neville, however, was a man with a mission, and as such barely noticed his uncomfortable working conditions.
‘Now let’s see, “For the Daryole,’ he read, ‘take marrow, cloves, mace, ginger and wine and let it boil and add some cream …” hmm. Well, we’re doing without the marrow, and let’s try nutmeg proper. Sod it, where did I put my grater?’
As he gathered ingredients and weighed and measured and mixed he hummed along to Purcell’s Fairy Queen, being the best he could do in the way of medieval music. It was the only time Neville ever hummed – when he was cooking, and when it was going well. He was excited at the prospect of recreating a centuries old dish à la Meatcher, and was secretly confident about his chances in the fundraiser recipe competition. The thought of being included in one of Claude Lambert’s books was, for him, the ultimate motivation. He had barely started assembling his new pudding, however, when he was interrupted by the buzzing of his doorbell.
‘What now?’ he wiped his hands and stomped crossly down the stairs to the front door. His mood was not improved by the sight of Cynthia in an alarming summer dress.
‘Neville, my dear boy, I am so relieved to find you alive and well.’
She pushed past him and thudded up the stairs before he had a chance to stop her.
‘Of course I’m alive, why wouldn’t I be?’
‘I haven’t been able to raise you on the telephone, either here or at your office. They said you were busy there, naturally, but as time went by I began to wonder if they were not hiding some terrible truth. I simply had to come and seek you out.’
‘Your concern is touching, Cynthia, but as you can see I am in one piece…’
‘I think,’ Cynthia adopted a coquettish tone and wagged a playful finger at him, ‘that you have been a naughty boy, Neville.’
‘Why yes, you haven’t been returning my calls. I think you’ve been playing games with little Cynthia.’
Neville struggled to marry the words ‘little’ and ‘Cynthia’.
‘I think,’ she went on, a coy smile rearranging her too pink lipstick, ‘that you wanted me to come and find you. Is that so, Neville?’ She leaned back a little against the kitchen table and toyed with her pearls.
It was difficult not to draw comparisons between the solid, ruddy-cheeked woman in front of Neville, and the luscious, peachy-skinned girl who had stood in the same spot only a few days before. It was not a fair contest.
‘Look,’ said Neville,’ I’m sorry if I haven’t called, I have been very busy at work. And at home, as you can see.’ He gestured towards the paraphernalia about them, then regretted doing so.
‘Oh, Neville, are you working on your entry for the fundraiser? How wonderful. Let me see what you’re doing. Do tell me what it’s going to be.’ She turned and began peering into bowls.
‘I’d really rather not discuss it at this stage,’ Neville forced himself between her and the table.
‘Oh, is it a secret?’ Cynthia made no attempt to take the hint and move back.
‘Not a secret, just, well, I’m still experimenting ,’ Neville mustered a smile and took Cynthia’s arm, turning her gently towards the sitting room . ‘Why don’t you sit down for a minute. I’ll make some tea.’ Much as he wanted rid of the woman, Neville had first to deal with the immediate problem of getting her away from his Daryole. She was right about him being secretive. He most certainly did not want anyone, especially Cynthia, getting a sneak preview of his creation.
Cynthia was more than willing to take to the sofa.
‘This is cosy,’ she said, stroking the old leather and leaning back in a relaxed fashion. ‘You make some tea, Neville, then hurry back and tell me what you’re dreaming up to impress Monsieur Lambert.’
As Neville clattered about with cups and saucers back in the kitchen he began to feel more and more trapped. He so wanted to be perfecting his recipe, and he so did not want to be having tea with Cynthia, who already looked as if she had settled onto his sofa for the rest of the day. He carried the tray of tea things in and set it on the coffee table.
‘Shall I be mother?’ Cynthia didn’t wait for a reply, but sat forward and arranged the cups. As she shifted position her petunia-patterned dress gaped dangerously at the front, displaying more than was sensible in the way of vintage cleavage.
Neville hesitated before sitting down next to her. Opposite would have left him nowhere to look other than her startling bosom.
‘Now,’ Cynthia patted his knee as she handed him his tea, ‘at least give me a clue or too. Is it a meat dish? Something with fish, perhaps?’
‘All I’m prepared to say at this stage is that it is a pudding.’
‘A pudding! Oh, how marvellous. I can’t wait. I myself toyed with the idea of something based on chocolate, but I decided against. Too much temptation. I’d be forever picking and nibbling while I tried it out, and a girl has to look after her figure, you know.’ She gave a little laugh.
Neville swigged his tea.
‘Anyway,’ Cynthia went on, ‘the reason I’ve been trying so urgently to contact you this week is that I have news. There’s to be an extraordinary meeting of NHEC, next week. Thursday evening, up at Withy Hill Farm. I know you’ll be as excited as I am…Claude himself has promised to attend. Isn’t that wonderful?’
‘Really? He’s really coming to the meeting?’ Neville was impressed.
‘He wants to meet all the key players in the event. Check that we’re doing a good job, I shouldn’t wonder. I must say I’m looking forward to it. Can I count on you to be there?’
‘Cynthia, wild horses wouldn’t keep me away.’
‘Splendid. Now, one lump or two?’
The back garden of number 3 Brook Terrace shimmered in the afternoon heat. The sun’s rays blasted through the hazy air, stripped of their brilliance, but losing none of their warmth. Fliss stretched out on her threadbare lounger. It wasn’t perfect sunbathing weather, but she was content to be outside, lying down, and with the prospect of two cleaning-free days ahead of her. The musical sound of ice cubes in a long drink tempted her to open one eye.
‘Here you are, my gorgeousness,’ Daniel handed her a brimming glass, ‘one expertly assembled, medium strength, maximum refreshment guaranteed, Pimms. Very healthy – more fruit than you could shake a stick at.’ He sat down on the wooden deck-chair next to her.
‘Mmm, thanks Dan.’ She sipped her drink and savoured the moment. The weekend was going well. Daniel had, as promised, arrived early enough the previous evening to take her out to dinner. They had enjoyed a delicious meal at the Thai restaurant in Barnchester, and an equally delectable night of sex, followed by a rare lie-in. Even Rhian had been uncharacteristically mellow. Moments such as these gave Fliss hope that maybe, just maybe, she and Daniel had a workable relationship, and that one day the three of them could actually amount to a family of some sort. She sat up and smiled at her lover.
‘Not so bad is it, this weekend country retreat routine?’
‘Can’t complain,’ Daniel agreed. ‘Good food, good company, dangerous amounts of fresh air, flowers flowering, bees buzzing, all charmingly bucolic and stress free.’
‘See. Told you it could work.’
‘Never doubted it for a nano-second. Even Rhian seems to be coming round to the idea.’
‘You noticed the difference in her?’
‘She hasn’t tried to bite me once this weekend. A person notices a thing like that.’ He glugged his Pimms. ‘What did you do? Bribe her? Put happy pills in her muesli?’
‘She’s made a friend – Sam. A girl, before you ask. They’re in the same class at school. She’s coming over today, so if you’re lucky you’ll get a glimpse of her.’
‘Easy on the eye, is she?’
‘Not exactly. She has her own special appeal. Main thing is Rhian thinks she’s wonderful, she doesn’t appear to be into drugs, or drink, or boys, she’s very polite, and helps Rhi with her homework.’
‘Sounds too good to be true. What’s the catch?’
‘I’m not sure that there is one, but she is a bit, well, strange.’
‘She’s very serious. Her parents sound like lifelong activists, and it’s certainly rubbed off on her.’ Fliss shrugged, ‘Might be a good thing, I suppose.’
‘Can’t wait to meet her.’ He leant forward and ran a finger down Fliss’s bare, brown arm. ‘Does this mean they’ll be going out together later and giving us the opportunity to run naked through the house?’
‘You can run, I’ll watch. I feel far too lazy for anything so energetic.’ She drained her glass. ‘Now, fetch me another one of those, will you, and bring the stuff you dug out on Withy Hill, I want to read it.’
Fifteen minutes later Fliss was pacing up and down the garden, print-outs in hand, too furious to keep still.
‘This is terrible, it’s a nightmare.’ She waved the papers in the air to reinforce her point. ‘I can’t believe it. We leave London and move down here for a better, healthier, safer, more natural way of life only to find we’re in Frankenstein’s sodding back yard. How can something like this be going on and nobody know about it?’
‘Fliss, Babe, calm down. Don’t you think you might be jumping to conclusions a bit here? I read all that stuff and I didn’t see anything so terrible.’
‘What? You are joking! Withy Hill Farm is owned by Jefferson Inc, a humungous American corporation who, and I quote, “ lead the field in the quest for new and innovative methods of bio diverse gene development and hybridised farming.” That’s genetic engineering, Dan. That’s cloning, or mixing pigs with sheep, or God knows what.’
‘You don’t know that for sure. And anyway, just because the parent company might be into dodgy stuff doesn’t mean anything like that is going on at Withy Hill Farm, does it?’
‘Oh no? So why are they building a laboratory, then?’
‘New types of chicken feed?’ he offered.
‘Daniel, why are you refusing to see this? It’s here in black and white, why won’t you admit it?’
‘Look, I just think a little information can be misleading. There’s probably nothing sinister going on, and I refuse to have our weekend ruined by something that might not even be happening.’
‘Sod the weekend! There are more important things than having a good time, you know.’
‘I know, I know. All I’m saying is, don’t let it stress you out. I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about, but…’ he held up his hands to fend off her interruption, ‘…on Monday I will try and find out more for you. Just to put your mind at rest.’
Fliss narrowed her eyes at him.
‘And would you tell me if you found something you knew I wouldn’t like?’
‘Of course I would, sweetness.’
‘Promise,’ he went over to her and slipped his arm around her waist. ‘Now come and sit down and stop getting your thong in a twist.’
‘I never wear a thong.’
‘Bloomers then. Knickers. Panties.’
‘Please, not panties. Panties are what drooling men of a certain age call them.’
Daniel kissed her lightly.
‘What you need, young lady, is a holiday.’
The tension quickly returned to Fliss’s body.
‘You’re not going to bully me about holidays again, not now, please Dan.’
Now it was Daniel’s turn to bristle. He stepped away from her.
‘Well excuse me. Here’s me thinking you might actually like to go on holiday with me, and all the time I’m just ‘bullying’ you.’
‘You know we can’t agree on how long, or where, or when, or what to do about Rhian. And I’ve got other things to think about right now.’
‘When haven’t you? If you go on avoiding talking about it much longer there won’t be any holidays left to choose from. I’m beginning to think that would quite suit you. Oh dear, everywhere is booked up. Problem solved. Forget the whole thing. Stay at home instead.’
‘I’m getting a little tired of this, to tell you the truth. All I want is to take you somewhere warm and wonderful for a couple of weeks in the summer. What the hell is so wrong with that?’
‘Nothing. But my life is a bit more complicated than that. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is.’
‘If Rhian doesn’t want to come with us that’s fine by me. She sulked her way through the entire fortnight last year anyway. She’s a big girl now. Surely she could stay with a friend. She’d probably love it – a bit of independence. Or is that what really bothers you? That maybe she might be able to manage without you for a few days. Enjoy it even. Your baby’s growing up, Fliss. Get over it.’
Fliss opened her mouth to reply, but missed her chance. Rhian came bouncing out of the house, followed by Sam.
‘Sam’s here, Mum. OK if we make some pancakes? She’s brought soya-milk.’
‘Sure, why not? Hello there, Sam, how are you?’
‘Very well thank you, Mrs Horton.’
Rhian gestured towards Daniel.
‘Oh, this is Daniel. My mother’s boyfriend.’
Sam held out her hand.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ she said.
‘Hello, Sam,’ Daniel was all smiles again. ‘I’ve heard a lot about you. Fliss tells me you’re quite the anarchist.’
‘Actually, I said activist…’ Fliss corrected him.
‘Well, which are you, Sam?’
She considered the question for a moment, then said ‘There are a number of crucial differences between being anti-establishment and being anarchic. Indeed, the state of anarchy is at odds with social progression, which I believe comes from a base of stability.’
‘Yeah, right,’ Daniel and Fliss exchanged glances.
Rhian pulled at Sam’s arm.
‘C’mon, Sam. I’m starving.’
‘Do you want a lift into town later?’ Fliss called after them.
‘No thanks, Mum. We’ll be in my room. We’ve got stuff to do.’
After they had gone Daniel flopped back in his chair.
‘See what you mean about her,’ he said. ‘Seriously weird.’
‘Hhmmm,’ Fliss agreed. ‘Odd they don’t want to go out. They spend hours squirrelled away.’
‘I’m not so sure. I may be wrong, but I have a strong hunch that those two are up to something.’
When Fliss felt the first fat drops of rain she turned her face up to the sky. The day had been tryingly hot, with groans of thunder becoming more frequent and pronounced with each passing hour. Two cleaning shifts had left her drained and grumpy.
‘Go on then!’ she shouted up at the clouds. ‘You’ve been burping and growling all bloody day. Let’s have some rain!’
She stood in the middle of the lane at the top of the hill and waited. Seconds later she got what she asked for. It rained so hard that the water bounced off the tarmac and soaked her a second time on the way back up. Fliss laughed and shook her head, holding out her arms as the water coursed over her body.
‘Yes! That’s more like it!’ she cried, whooping with glee as the rain washed away the dust of two sitting rooms, a lounge bar, and a study. Not to mention the lingering odour of the gents’ loo.
‘That feels fantastic!’ she shouted, allowing herself a little dance in the swiftly forming puddles at her feet.
It was some moments before she noticed the car which had stopped behind her. It sat, engine running, wipers wiping, driver squinting out at the mad woman blocking the road.
‘Oh, sorry!’ Fliss called. She trotted over to the driver’s door and peered in. ‘Sorry,’ she said again.
The window was lowered six inches and Ryan Behr looked up at her. Fliss recognised him as the estate agent who had found her the cottage.
‘Hi!’ She smiled at him and received a blank look that told her he clearly did not recognise her.
‘You alright?’ he asked.
‘Fine, thanks. Just on my way home.’
There was a painful silence. After a sigh and a nervous glance around the interior of his car Ryan spoke again.
‘Want a lift, then?’
‘Oh, yes. Yes please’ Fliss hurried round to the other side of the car and climbed in. ‘Phew, this is really very good of you. Oops, sorry, I’m dripping all over the place.’ She smiled at Ryan, but his expression was one of ill concealed horror at the amount of water being squelched into his leather upholstery. ‘Lucky for me you came along when you did,’ Fliss went on. ‘Quite refreshing, the rain, for a minute or two, but I’d have been pretty fed up with it by the time I’d walked home.’
Ryan silently put the car into gear and sped away, causing Fliss to remember to buckle up.
‘Wow! My goodness, this goes fast, doesn’t it? Hope there aren’t any cyclists about. Suppose there wouldn’t be in this weather.’ Fliss paused, frowning, then sniffed carefully.
Ryan shot her a glance.
‘What can you smell?’ he demanded.
‘Oh, nothing really…’
‘No, go on. You were sniffing. You can smell something, I know you can.’ Ryan was plainly agitated.
‘Well, I don’t know. I thought maybe I could detect just the slightest whiff of…’
‘…fish?’ Fliss offered.
Ryan slapped the steering wheel hard, making Fliss jump in her seat.
‘I sodding knew it! Fish! It is fish.’
‘It’s really very faint.’
‘That’s not the point, is it. What’s it doing in here? That’s the point.’
‘Maybe someone ate fish and chips in here,’ Fliss suggested.
‘No-one eats in my car,’ said Ryan coldly.
‘Ah. No. Of course not.’
Ryan began sniffing energetically.
It’s been in here for two days now, and it’s getting worse. Thought I was imagining it, but you can smell it. So where the fuck is it coming from?’
Fliss offered no more suggestions.
‘Oh, just drop me on the corner here, that’ll be fine,’ she said.
As quickly as it had started the rain stopped. Ryan pulled up on a slight slope.
‘Did you hear that?’ he almost shouted at Fliss.
‘That rattling noise. There was a rattle. Somewhere in the dashboard.’
‘I didn’t hear anything.’
‘It happens when I turn a certain type of corner, or go up a certain type of hill. Listen.’ Ryan knocked the car back into gear and roared off once more, completing a dizzying circuit of the green before coming to a halt again.
‘There! There, did you hear it that time?’
‘No,’ said Fliss, ‘sorry. Nothing.’
Ryan’s knuckles tightened to white on the steering wheel.
‘There is a sodding rattle somewhere. I know there is.’
‘Well, thanks for the lift,’ Fliss climbed out of the car quickly before Ryan could decide to go round again. ‘Bye.’ She shut the door and stepped back to avoid a further soaking from the wake of the speeding car. Shaking her head she walked down the narrow road that took her to Brook Terrace.
Inside the house was in gloom. The storm clouds still blotted out the sun, and the lights weren’t working.
‘Great, a power cut. Just what I need.’
She dropped her bag on the kitchen table and called out.
‘Rhian? Rhi, are you in?’ Silence answered her question.
Fliss climbed the stairs and fumbled for a towel in the half-light of the bathroom. She rubbed her wet hair, then stepped out of her soggy clothes and put on a pink towelling robe of Rhian’s. It was not yet six o’clock, but the afternoon had been a tedious, sticky one, and Fliss headed back downstairs to the fridge in search of wine. The mostly empty shelves were a sorry sight without their perky little light.
‘Teenagers,’ Fliss said aloud, squinting at the spaces where food had once been. ‘How can anyone eat so much and still have legs like pipe cleaners? At least she’s not interested in my wine.’
She took the bottle and a glass and made her way to the peace and comfort of the little sitting room. She had just enough energy left to light a candle to lift the gloom before subsiding into her favourite chair. She put her feet up on a beanbag and wriggled into her seat with a sigh. Eyes closed she sipped her drink.
‘Fliss,’ she told herself, ‘this is bliss.’
Suddenly a tension stiffened her body. She lowered her feet to the floor very slowly and sat up. She opened her eyes and tugged the bathrobe down over her knees in the self-conscious movement of someone who senses they are not alone.
Cautiously she turned her head and peered across the room to the curtain rail over the low window. The small, shiny eyes which blinked back at her belonged to a very large, very orange, and very baffled-looking chicken.
The automatic doors of the large, ultra-modern hotel glided open and Rose wheeled Baby through in his buggy. This was not the sort of place she was used to. There was a strange sound level in the foyer; a curious mixture of business shoes on holiday carpet, with voices pitched somewhere between a laugh and a whisper. Everything that wasn’t glass was chrome, so that each surface shone and gleamed and reflected distorted pictures of passing people.
Rose and Baby paused to take it all in. Their journey up to London on the train had been swift and trouble free, so that they were both quite calm and relaxed, given the exciting day that this was for them. Rose had tried to speak to Ryan about Baby reaching the national finals of the competition, but she could tell he wasn’t really listening. Maybe if she had mentioned that they would have to go to London, or told him just how much the prize money was, perhaps then he would have paid attention. It had been obvious he was more concerned with his car and its peculiar little problems. In any case Rose was satisfied that she wasn’t keeping Baby’s success a secret from him. It was up to him if he could not be bothered to be involved and therefore may have missed one or two interesting details.
Rose looked around for clues as to where she was supposed to go next. Everybody else seemed to know where they were going and to be striding about with such confidence and purpose and style. Rose caught sight of a blurred version of herself peering out from a piece of metal wall behind a potted palm. She straightened her shoulders and adjusted the collar of her beige mackintosh. She hoped she wouldn’t have to take it off, as it was by a very long way the most up-to-date garment she possessed. At last she spotted a notice board which directed Baby Competition contestants to the Wessex Room. Fifty yards more of blue speckled carpet brought her to heavy double doors.
Inside the enormous room all was barely controlled chaos. The space was divided into dozens of open-fronted cubicles, each containing a small table, and each displaying glamorous photographs of the occupying infant. Mothers, fathers, grandmothers and nannies fussed and fiddled with their babies, arranging them atop their tables variously on sheepskin rugs, satin quilts, or tartan throws. The adults bustled about, all noise and seriousness and barely contained excitement, while their offspring either sat mute and dazed, or shrieked and screamed at full volume.
‘Can I see your entry card?’
A voice at Rose’s shoulder broke through the cacophony.
‘Your entry card,’ the smart suited young woman stood, clipboard poised. The plastic tag on her sharp lapel stated her name as Beverly ‘I need your contestant number.’
Rose fumbled in her bag and found what was required.
‘Lovely. Follow me, I’ll show you to your booth.’ She set off at a brisk pace and Rose hurried along behind, pushing Baby through the slalom of parked buggies and kit bags.
‘Here we are. This is you – 43J.’ Beverly stopped and looked at the dumbstruck Rose. ‘Have you got everything you need? Hmmm? Something to put Baby on, a rug, perhaps. Some props?’
‘Props?’ Rose was gazing at the beautiful photos of Baby which had been supplied by the newspaper photographer.
‘Yes, balloons, ribbons, banners, teddies. You know the sort of thing.’
‘Oh, I’m not sure. He has brought his blue rabbit…’
‘Good. Lovely. You get yourself set up then, and I’ll pop back and see you again in a mo. OK?’ Beverly turned on an impossibly high heel and sped back towards the door.
Rose stood where she was left, transfixed. Everyone in the room except her seemed to know what they were supposed to be doing. Ribbons and bows festooned the little table, where babies sat dressed in gorgeous dresses or immaculate sailor suits. Parents cooed and cajoled their children into pretty poses. Hangers on dashed here and there fetching extra equipment and refreshments. It all looked very professional and daunting, and not at all what Rose had expected. She stared at the woefully bare table next to her.
The tannoy squeaked into action.
‘Ladies and Gentlemen,’ a voice boomed, ‘judging will commence in fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes to judging.’
Rose looked down at Baby sitting so placidly in his buggy.
‘Right, little one,’ she took a deep breath. ‘Let’s see what we can do, shall we?’
Claude Lambert was a man whose appearance denied his profession. It wasn’t simply that he was underweight (downright skinny, truth be told), it was more than that. His body looked somehow starved. Undernourished. What little flesh he had clung limply to his bones. His face was equally spare and angular. Over all he gave the impression of being someone who had no interest in food whatsoever. A disadvantage for a chef, one might have thought. But not so. In this age of the Cult of Thin, Monsieur Lambert’s emaciation sent a subliminal message to his fans – eat my food, and you won’t get fat. Eat my sinful crab and lobster pate, my calorie-rich steak Diane, my sugar toxic fruit brûlée, and you will not get fat. Eat as much as you like, don’t hold back. Feast. Indulge. Eat, eat, eat! You will not get fat. Look at me.
So, thinness, then, did not constitute a problem for our celebrity chef. What was seriously beginning to be a cause for concern amongst his entourage was another aspect of his appearance. It had to do with his skin. No matter that he was pale – what sensible person does not protect himself from the destructive rays of the sun? No matter that his skin appeared so taut over his frame, or so hairless on his limbs and chest, or so ever-so-slightly soft and feminine. The man was dedicated to his art, after all, spending his time in a kitchen, and working so terribly hard. All this could be explained away and forgiven. What was harder to ignore with every passing day was the unlikely but undeniable blueness of his skin. Blueness in regards to flesh is not good, however you look at it. and blueness coupled with skinny spells cadaverous. And death is not health, is it? Eat my food and it could be the last thing you ever do is not an attractive sales pitch.
Naturally, any photographs of Claude, such as those on the jackets of his best-selling books, or on the walls of his restaurant, had been skilfully manipulated to remove all traces of blueness. Some went even so far as to give him a rosy glow. So it came as a surprise to Neville to come face to face with his hero at last and discover him indigo tinged.
Standing in the drawing room of Withy Hill Farm he stared at Claude as the two engaged in a bony handshake. He was aware of Michael Christian’s voice beside him.
‘Neville is quite the gourmet. A great fan of yours, Claude. Good man to have on our team for the fundraiser.’
Claude managed a tight smile, a dry sniff, and a nod.
Neville stopped staring.
‘It’s an honour, a privilege, to meet you, Mr Lambert,’ he said.
‘Claude’ muttered Claude.
‘Claude. Call me Claude,’ repeated the chef only a fraction louder.
He had a curious accent. His French origins were clearly evident, particularly in the strangled diphthongs. What was unexpected was the cockney twang, acquired from teenage years spent living with an uncle in Mile End. This collision of cultures put his name somewhere between ‘cloud’ and ‘cleared’. On top of this, the man spoke so softly, as if every breath was an effort, that whatever he said was hard to make out.
Michael was pouring drinks.
‘Sadly, the lovely Lucy cannot be with us tonight. I think you’ve met her, Neville? Claude’s PA, yes?’
Neville began to blush, his memories of Lucy still all too fresh in his mind.
‘However,’ Michael went on, handing round whiskies, ‘we are of course expecting Cynthia.’ He paused to take a large swig of his drink. ‘Not sure who else. Still,’ he slapped Neville on the back, ‘as long as the three of us are here we can get this thing sorted, no trouble at all. Isn’t that right, Nev?’
Neville winced. He disliked his name being shortened, particularly by people he barely knew. It surprised him that Michael Christian should be so apparently keen to have him involved. He had never given him the time of day before.
As if by way of an answer Michael said to Claude, ‘I believe I mentioned Neville’s an important guy hereabouts. He’s in planning at County Hall in Barnchester. A man of influence.’
‘Actually,’ Neville interrupted, ‘I really don’t have any influence at all. Not over planning decisions. Not my responsibility.’
‘Ahh, you’re too modest, Nev.’
‘Don’t sell yourself short, man.’
‘I’m just saying…’
‘I understand,’ Michael tapped the side of his nose, ‘can’t be seen to be playing favourites. Don’t have to spell it out. We know where you’re coming from.’ His wink had all the subtlety of a pantomime.
The rapping of a brass knocker, followed by distant, contained barking from Eric and Vinnie, heralded Cynthia’s arrival. She came full of apologies and explanations.
‘So sorry I’m late, everyone. Unforgivable of me. Ah! Monsieur Lambert, we meet again. Please believe me, I would have been here on time had I not first called for Miss Siddons only to find she has been laid low by a summer cold, and sends her apologies. Ditto from Pam, my second stop en route. Pressure of work, she tells me. Why people cannot organise themselves properly I shall never understand. But there it is, et voila, j’arrive toute seule,’ she gave a girlish laugh in Neville’s direction. ‘At least I know I can count on you, dear Neville. So good to have a friend one can rely on.’ She stepped forwards and laid a hand on his arm.
Neville smiled weakly and moved to the table, drawing out a chair for Cynthia by way of an excuse for evading further physical contact.
‘Shall we get started?’ he suggested.
‘Ah, enthusiasm! Marvellous!’ Cynthia actually batted her eyelids at him as she sat down.
Neville was about to escape to the safety of the far side of the table, but Cynthia patted the seat next to her firmly.
‘Come, come, mon cher. I need my right hand man at my right hand, after all.’
Michael and Claude joined them at the table, Michael replenishing glasses.
‘Drink for you, Cynthia?’ he asked.
‘No thank you. I prefer to keep a clear head. Though I see, Claude, that you enjoy our Scottish beverage,’ she said, watching Claude knock back another double.
Claude sniffed twice.
‘I believe a little liquor is a fine digestive,’ he said.
‘Quite,’ said Cynthia, putting on her glasses. ‘Now. To business. We have made some progress during our earlier meetings, and, after several lengthy telephone conversations with your assistant, Claude, I believe the definitive outline for the event now exists.’
‘Well done, Cynthie,’ Michael congratulated her. ‘Good news, eh Claude?’
Claude gave an edgy Gallic shrug and another sniff.
Cynthia peered at him over her glasses.
‘Do you have a cold, Monsieur?’
‘Eh? Non.’ He shook his head, fidgeting in his seat and rubbing his eyes. ‘I am maybe a little tired.’
‘Of course. I understand. Neville, would you be so kind as to hand these out?’
Neville took the neatly stapled piles of paper and did as he was told. It did not escape his notice that Claude took no interest in the details in front of him.
‘I must say, Claude,’ he said as he sat down again, ‘I’m surprised you can find time in your busy schedule to fit in a humble little do like ours. Delighted, of course, but surprised.’
Michael was quick to answer for him.
‘Oh, Claude knows what a fantastic opportunity this is for him to meet his public. Go hands on with his fans. Great publicity for his new book, his restaurant, and for Withy Hill Farm, of course. To launch our partnership.’
Claude shifted uncomfortably in his chair. ‘Yes,’ he confirmed, ‘it is for this reason I do it.’
‘Right,’ said Neville, ‘great. London, Paris, Nettlecombe Hatchet – an obvious combination of venues for your enterprises.’
‘What does he say?’ Claude demanded hoarsely of Michael, who ignored him.
‘Claude is an astute business man,’ he told Neville, ‘he knows what he’s doing.’
Cynthia rustled her papers pointedly.
‘Of course he does. Now, shall we get on?’
‘I have to use the WC,’ Claude announced suddenly, getting to his feet.
‘What? Oh, OK.’ Michael ushered him out of the room. ‘I’ll show you where it is.’
After they had gone Cynthia tutted loudly.
‘Really, artistic temperament. I do hope Monsieur Lambert will be able to deliver on the day. The man doesn’t look at all well.’
‘You noticed that too?’ said Neville.
‘He is rather an odd colour, don’t you think? And all that sniffing. Perhaps he suffers from hay fever.’
‘I’ve never known hay fever turn anyone blue. He looks terrible. Not what I expected at all. He seems so…flat. Where’s the enthusiasm, the drive, the fire I’ve seen in him when he cooks on TV?’ Neville shook his head. ‘He’s not the man I thought he was.’
Cynthia leant closer to Neville and gently patted his leg.
‘Courage, mon brave, it is never easy to discover one’s heroes have feet of clay.’
Neville tensed with the effort of stopping himself removing Cynthia’s hand from where it now rested on his thigh.
‘I suppose it doesn’t really matter,’ he talked to cover his discomfort, ‘it’s his cooking that counts, his inspired recipes. Not how he looks.’
‘Precisely. That is the reason people will flock to see him.’
‘Even so,’ Neville focussed intently on unfolding a paper clip, ‘it’s a shame we have a celebrity who appears devoid of personality. He’s hardly the sort to make the party go with a swing, is he?’
Moments later Claude and Michael reappeared.
‘Ahh, good,’ said Cynthia, ‘now to business.’
‘Yes, indeed, Madame,’ said Claude, ‘I am keen to know every little thing that you have planned. I truly believe this can be a fantastic day. For all of us. Formidable.’ He picked up the proposed schedule in front of him and studied it.
Neville, once again, found himself staring at Claude. The man seemed transformed. True, he was still blue, but now his eyes shone and his movements were quick, his gestures expansive and energetic, his whole demeanour altered.
‘Yes, yes,’ Claude enthused as he read. ‘I can see how this will work. Wonderful. Madame Cynthia, together with the lovely Lucy(,) you have created a masterpiece of the organising. I think it can be magnificent!’ He reached across the table, grabbed her hand, and kissed it noisily. ‘I salute you!’
‘Oh, Monsieur!’ Cynthia giggled and wriggled on her chair.
Neville kept his hands well out of reach in case this new improved version of Claude started kissing everyone. The man’s transformation from warm corpse to bon viveur was startling, and, more than a little worrying.
to be continued…