Nettlecombe Hatchet: Part Six
Neville landed heavily on the chair behind his desk. It was not yet nine, and already the morning had a sluggardly feel to it. Things weren’t helped by the water still trickling down the back of his neck. He had grown blasé about the dry sunny days, and so had not bothered to pack his waterproof cycling poncho, and had been caught napping by the weather Gods. Neville had always considered theirs to be a singularly schoolboy type of humour. He had arrived at work looking sufficiently pathetic to send Mrs Appleby hurrying away to find him a towel. Women of a certain age fussing around him were becoming a defining feature in his life. Still, as he rubbed at his hair in the merciful privacy of his little room, Neville was glad of this particular motherly act by the rosy-cheeked receptionist. He draped the towel over his head for a minute and removed his squelching shoes, placing them upside down on the radiator. Not for the first time he thanked his luck and Bertie Willis’s retirement for giving him the sanctuary of his own office, rather than having to crouch behind a pegboard partition with the rest of the sorry souls in open plan. He took off his sodden socks and draped them next to the shoes. Steam rose.
Barefoot and damp Neville tried to focus on his post, but found there was little. What there was had ‘pending’ written all over it and could be ignored for some time. He looked at his watch. Nine oh-five. He wanted a hot drink, but couldn’t walk through the building without his shoes. He switched on his computer and tried to shake himself out of the lethargy which was threatening to triple the length of his working day.
‘Pull yourself together, Meatcher,’ he spoke to his reflection on the screen. ‘Got to keep busy.’
This was hardly the work ethic speaking. His desire to be occupied and diverted had little to do with wanting to be productive, and a lot to do with wanting to avoid replaying the embarrassing events of the night before in his rather hung over head.
An idea came to him and he started tapping keys with something approaching enthusiasm. Medieval Cooking, he typed, then hit ‘search’. A long list of sites presented itself.
He chose one and read an extract from a medieval recipe.
“Kutte a swan in the rove of the mouthe toward the brayne elonge and lete him blede, and kepe the blode for chawdewyn; or elles knytte a knot on his nek.”
‘Yeuch,’ said Neville. ‘Somehow I don’t think slashed swan would be well received in Nettlecombe.’
He searched on. In no time at all he was transported back, away from his mundane surroundings, to another world. A world where poverty and excess could be seen on the same page. Where feast day banquets sat beside concoctions of the basest ingredients flavoured with longing and stirred with desperation. No creature was too grand or too humble to be considered inedible. From the whale to the snail through a crispy pig’s tail and a bucket of tripe in a potent cocktail of blood and entrails everything was a potential comestible. Swan and peacock, gull and woodcock, flattened to spatchcock or brought to the table with feathers in place, garlanded and paraded, and carried shoulder high on pewter platters to the Lord and his cohort. While down in the stifling kitchens maids and boys supped boiled blood and vinegar, seasoned with their own sweat. On luckier days the lowly might dine on pudding of capon neck, whilst their masters sliced slivers of seal in a meal of noise and carousing with strong ale spurring the revellers on to lewdness and dancing. And every day the cooks would strive to invent yet more glorious dishes and ingenious menus to display their skills and disguise the truth of what they were eating. They coddled and curdled and spiced and diced and chopped and devilled and stuffed and dreamed up an endless variety of fare. Honey toasts, raspberry soups, comfits and daryoles, all as labour spending as was possible.
Neville was yanked back to the present day by a brisk rapping on his door, followed by the arrival of Luke Philips. Had he been blindfolded Neville could have swiftly identified the youth by his trademark aftershave. Looking at the boy in front of him Neville doubted he actually shaved at all.
‘The point of knocking,’ Neville told him, ‘is to wait for a response before entering the room. Did you miss that module at management school?’
‘Sor-reee!’ said Luke. He stood frowning at Neville, then his gaze shifted to the radiator.
Neville saw him notice the shoes and socks. He straightened his back.
‘You’ve never worked in Japan, have you Philips?’ he asked.
‘No. Why, have you?’
‘Oh yes, a few years ago. Before I came here,’ Neville lied. ‘Fascinating place. Know a thing or two about business, the Japanese. I was lucky enough to meet one of the true masters of the Shinto Way of Planning Management. And you know the first thing he taught me? The most crucial thing?’
Luke shook his head, leaning forwards a little.
‘Feet,’ said Neville. ‘No real business man in Japan would dream of keeping his shoes on in the office. “He who traps the sole entombs the soul”. That’s what they believe. Only with the feet bare can a man truly utilise his management skills. Remember that, Philips. Remember and learn.’
‘Really? Amazing,’ said Luke. There was a short pause then he asked, ‘And do they also say “He who wears a wet towel on his head looks a complete twat.”?’
‘What do you want, Philips?’
‘Mr Harris asked me to give you this,’ he lobbed a brown folder onto the desk. ‘It’s the planning application for the development at Withy Hill Farm.’
‘Yes, thank you. I can read.’ Neville pushed the file to one side, and went back to his computer. Without looking up he said ‘With all your qualifications you won’t need a map to find your way out, will you, Philips?’
Alone again, Neville peered at the plans on his desk. A quick browse revealed them to be detailed and well prepared. He experienced a sudden flashback to the lovely Lucy lying beneath him on his kitchen table. With a sigh he closed the folder and returned to studying his monitor.
‘Give me Medieval England any day,’ he said.
At Honeysuckle Cottage Rose and Baby were going about their daily chores. Baby lay on his tartan rug on the living room floor practicing passing a rattle from one hand to the other, while his mother dusted. Not that there was any dust. The flicking of a clean damp cloth was purely preventative. The miniature cottages on the mantelpiece gleamed; the permanently empty crystal vase sparkled; the television screen shone. No corners were cut. Rose crouched down to run her duster along the stripped pine skirting boards. As she did so, something caught her eye. She peered closer. A small slender object was wedge behind the radiator. Using the ornamental brass poker from the hearth she managed to free what turned out to be Ryan’s missing mobile phone. She turned the unfamiliar object over in her hands. Ryan never let her use it.
‘Don’t touch it,’ he had warned her. ‘It’s not made for clumsy great hands like yours. You’ll only break it. Have you any idea how much this thing cost? No, course you haven’t.’
Rose risked wiping it gently with her cloth and even allowed herself a little smile. Surely he would be pleased she had found it, after all the fuss he had made about it’s being lost. But somehow it would be her fault it had slipped behind the radiator; something she had done. Better not to be the one who found it. Better to put it somewhere safe where he could find it himself later. She decided to place it on the mantelpiece beside the clock.
She was about to do just that when Baby let out a sharp cry, having managed to smack himself smartly on the nose with his rattle. Rose hurried to him, picking him up and making soothing noises. His sobs subsided and he began to gurgle happily again as she held him. It was only then that she noticed he had got hold of the phone and was squeezing buttons with his busy little fingers.
‘Oh no! You mustn’t do that, sweetheart. Here, give it back to Mummy, there’s a good boy.’
Baby was not keen to give up his new toy, so that by the time Rose rescued it from his clutches the thing was bleeping and flashing. She returned Baby to his rug and stared at the phone, frantically searching for a way to switch it off. As she squinted at the small screen she saw there was something written there. It seemed her husband was so confident she would never touch his phone he had not bothered to lock it, and Baby’s fumblings had opened his messages.
Saved message, it said at the top, and then underneath the damning words.
Hi Hotstuff. Can u get away again Friday night? If so, meet me @ The Larches @ 8. I’ll bring Champagne, u bring fab body of yours. Love Sugarplum.
Rose read the message again. And again. Of course she had long known about Ryan’s infidelities, but had always managed to close her mind to them. This one could not so easily be ignored. It was right there, in her house, in her hand. Too close to Baby. Too close.
She chose what turned out to be the right button to switch off the phone, then carefully wedged it back behind the radiator. She looked at Baby playing so innocently on his rug. She knelt down beside him and held his dear little hand.
‘Something will have to be done, Baby,’ she told him. ‘Something will have to be done.’
She picked him up and wandered through the house and into the back garden. She completed a slow circuit, pausing to show Baby the bright new ferns in the bottom hedge. Returning across the lawn, the door into the garage caught her eye. She went inside. The space was spotless and empty, save for a pressure hose, a toolbox, and a workbench. A book lay on top of the workbench. She read the title. ‘Haynes Manual – Subaru Impreza’. She picked it up, giving Baby a little smile, and together they headed back into the house, just in time to hear the post landing on the doormat.
Under the usual entreaties from charities and bargain offers from a nearby DIY store was a slim white envelope addressed to Rose. She turned it over in her hand several times before opening it and unfolding the crisp cream paper.
Dear Mrs Behr, it ran, We are delighted to inform you that your Baby has been judged the winner of the regional final of the Beautiful Babes Competition. We therefore have pleasure in enclosing a cheque for £500, shopping vouchers for Horrocks Department Store, Bournemouth, to the value of £500, and entry details for the National Final, which is to be held in London the week after next….
Rose gasped and beamed at Baby, who gave a gummy grin in reply.
‘Oh goodness, Baby! London! Imagine that. Imagine.’
Fliss sat at the kitchen table and dialled Daniel’s number. She rarely troubled him at work, but hadn’t been able to get the idea of a laboratory at Withy Hill Farm out of her head. Daniel could do some digging for her.
‘Hi, Babe,’ he answered the phone quickly, but Fliss could hear him tapping away at his keyboard.
‘Hi, Dan. Look, I know you’re busy, but I’ve got a favour to ask.’
‘For you, my sweet, anything. Shoot.’
‘I want you to find out all you can about Withy Hill Farm Enterprises.’
‘No problem. What exactly am I trying to discover?’
‘I’m not sure yet. Something’s not right up there.’
‘Ooh, sounds spooky.’
‘I saw some plans. They want to build a laboratory.’
‘On a chicken farm?’
‘Just a sec, I’ll do a quick search. Looking forward to this weekend, by the way. Should be able to get away early for a change, well in time for nosh on Friday, so get your best frock ironed and I’ll take you out somewhere.’
‘I’m not sure I possess a frock.’
‘OK, just your underwear and a mink coat, then.’
‘A man can dream, can’t he?’
‘Not if it involves me and fur, he can’t.’
‘Ah, here we are, Withy Hill info. Hmm, nothing obviously sinister. They are part of a group. I’ll look up the parent company later and download some stuff for you. All looks pretty innocent so far.’
‘Keep looking. I smell a rat.’
‘That would be a lab rat, I suppose?’
‘You are so much less funny than you think you are, Dan.’
‘But you love me anyway, right?’
‘See you Friday.’
As she finished her call the back door burst open and Rhian appeared.
‘What are you doing home?’ Fliss wanted to know.
‘I live here.’
‘You know what I mean, it’s not three o’clock yet. Why aren’t you at school?’
‘The scuzzy teacher called in sick and they couldn’t find a replacement, so we got an early bus. OK?’
‘Yeah, I brought a friend home with me. I suppose that is allowed.’
‘Of course, you know I like to meet your friends, especially new ones.’
Rhian called back through the door.
‘Mum’s cool, come in Sam.’
Sam turned out to be a short, dark haired, solemn looking girl, with heavy brows and thick-rimmed glasses. She stood out from Rhian’s previous friends by her extreme and unexpected squareness. She even offered Fliss a firm handshake.
‘Pleased to meet you, Mrs Horton.’
‘Please call me Fliss. It’s very good to meet you, too, Sam. Is that short for Samantha?’
‘It’s just Sam.’
‘Right. Do you live in Barnchester, Sam? Have you let your Mum know where you are? You’re welcome to stay for supper, or for the night if you like.’
‘Yes, I do live in Barnchester. And yes, I have informed my parents of my whereabouts. And yes, I would like to stay if it’s not inconvenient.’
‘Not at all. What sort of thing do you like to eat? I’ll rustle up some tea.’
‘My family is committed to a Vegan diet.’
‘Oh, I see. I’m a vegetarian myself…’
‘Mum, Sam’s not just a veggie, she’s a proper Vegan.’
‘I know, don’t panic, I’ll make a batch of nut burgers and I’ll be really careful about what I put in them.’
‘Thank you very much, Mrs Horton.’
There was a short silence. Fliss noticed Rhian was grinning, clearly impressed by her new friend’s strangeness.
‘Sam’s mother was at Greenham Common, Mum. Her oldest brother was born there. How cool is that? And Sam’s been on six demonstrations. Six!’
‘Well, that’s wonderful,’ said Fliss. ‘What were you protesting against?’
‘A variety of things. We believe in action, be it a march, a silent protest, or something more direct.’
‘Direct? You mean tying yourself to the railings outside 10 Downing Street, or throwing yourself under a horse?’ Fliss risked finding out if Sam had a sense of humour.
‘If the cause warrants it.’
Clearly she did not.
‘Well, better not let you two go to the races then.’
‘Mum, do you have to be so flippant?’ Rhian was cringing. ‘Just because Sam actually believes in stuff…’
‘I don’t doubt her sincerity, Rhian, I just don’t want you doing anything rash.’
‘No-one said we were going to do anything.’
‘True, but Sam here is clearly an old hand, having been on six marches…’
‘Demonstrations,’ Sam corrected.
‘I beg your pardon, six demonstrations. You’re new to all this. I’m your mother, I get to do the worrying and fussing; you get to be embarrassed and frustrated. That’s the way it works.’
‘Sam’s parents go with her on the demos, they don’t fuss.’
‘OK, next outraged uprising of the population we’ll all go. I’ll make Vegan sandwiches, how about that?’
‘Mrs Horton,’ Sam adjusted her glasses and regarded Fliss with a long suffering face, ‘we believe demonstrations to be manifestations of the collective subconscious. Indeed, the French for a public demonstration is ‘ une manifestation’. As such it is up to the individual to give voice to that subconscious whenever the need arises. This may not necessarily be in the context of a nationwide protest.’
‘Well, I can’t argue with that,’ said Fliss.
‘C’mon, Sam, let’s go upstairs.’ Rhian took her friend’s bag and led the way. ‘Give us a shout when grub’s ready, Mum.’
To be continued…