Nettlecombe Hatchet: Part Ten

CHAPTER ELEVEN

  In the sunny front room of Honeysuckle cottage Rose hummed as she dusted. Baby had recently given up his mid morning nap, and was enjoying the movements of the feather duster. Ryan was still in bed, which was not unusual for a Sunday morning. But this time he was not sleeping off a hangover. This time he wasn’t recovering from the excesses of a late night out with the boys. Or with somebody else. This time he was laid low by stomach cramps, still suffering with diarrhoea, complaining of nausea, refusing food, and feebly demanding Lucozade. 

  Rose whipped out a soft yellow cloth and lovingly polished Baby’s cup, which now had pride of place on the mantelpiece. She had enjoyed going to the fun day at Withy Hill, even if she had got a little wet on the walk home. Quite a number of people had read of Baby’s success and come up to congratulate them. And Baby had smiled and gurgled and patiently put up with their silly faces and coo-ing and nonsense talk. Rose herself had never understood why people insisted on speaking to babies as if they were simple, when it was plain to see they were really very clever indeed. But Baby was good-natured, and seemed to know when people meant well. 

  ‘Rose? Rose?’ Ryan’s wail crept down the stairs to her. 

  Instinct drove her towards the door, but then she paused. And waited a little.

  ‘Rose? Where the hell are you, woman? Are you sodding deaf?’ 

  Rose’s jaw tightened a fraction. She lifted her chin and narrowed her eyes, then picked Baby up and went into kitchen.

  By the time Ryan appeared she was busy liquidizing meals for the freezer.

  ‘I’ve been calling you, didn’t you here me?’

  ‘Oh, sorry. The blender is so noisy… Are you feeling any better?’

  ‘Do I look fucking better to you? Well do I?’ He pulled his dressing gown tighter around him and slumped onto a chair. ‘I feel like shit, if you must know.’

  ‘I expect you’ve picked up a tummy bug.’ Rose added cooked carrots to the liquidizer and whizzed for a second.

  ‘Do you have to make that racket?’ Ryan demanded once she had stopped. ‘And anyway, if it’s a bug why haven’t you got it, eh? Why hasn’t he?’ He jerked his head in the direction of Baby in his highchair.

  ‘I don’t know. I suppose we don’t go to the same places you do. We don’t mix with the same people. Is there someone at work who’s been ill, perhaps?’ She spooned the lumpy orange mixture out of the jug and into small tubs for freezing.

  Ryan paled visibly.

  ‘If someone at work was ill they wouldn’t be at work, would they? They’d be at home, being looked after. Unlike some of us, just left to sodding rot. I thought you were bringing me up a drink.’

  Wordlessly Rose fetched him a glass of Lucozade and set it on the table before him.  He sipped at it pathetically. 

  ‘Do you think you’ll be going to work tomorrow?’ she asked.

  ‘You’re having a laugh, aren’t you? I can hardly stand up, how am I going to go to work?’ He drank a little more then belched loudly. ‘Anyway, the car’s still not right.’

  ‘Oh, won’t it start?’

  ‘It starts, nothing wrong with the engine. But there’s this rattle, somewhere in the dashboard. I can’t find where the bastard thing’s coming from. It’s getting on my tits, I don’t mind telling you. Useless twats at the garage couldn’t sort it out. I’ll have to take it to the Subaru dealer in Bournemouth. When I’m well enough.’

  ‘I see,’ said Rose. ‘I don’t suppose you’ll be going out again this week then?’

  ‘Out?’

  ‘For one of your evening meetings. You know, like the ones you usually have on Thursdays.’

  Ryan squinted up at Rose, trying to read her expression. She merely smiled back at him sweetly.

  ‘No,’ he said at last, ‘I don’t think I’m in any fit state for evening meetings at the moment.’

  Rose nodded and set about washing up. As she stood at the sink she could see from Ryan’s reflection in the window that he was looking at her.

  ‘Have you lost some weight at last?’ he asked after a while.

  ‘No, I don’t think so,’ Rose didn’t turn to speak.

  ‘New dress then, is it?’

  She shook her head, ‘No, just one I haven’t worn for a while, that’s all.’ She watched his reflection digest this information as he ran a hand through his unusually dishevelled hair.  Then, very softly, she began to hum again.

  The conservatory that was appended to The Old Vicarage had been built before the term makeover was invented. It was more in the way of a leftover from an earlier fashion for glass and engineering and potted palms.  In its day it might have been elegant and chic and modish, but this was not its day.  Now it clung to the side of the house like the husk of a dead spider, spindly, frail, and only semi-transparent. The attentions of a window-cleaner might have helped. As would some judicious clearing out of the sickly and neglected plants inside. In particular the aged and fruitless vine deserved to be put out of its misery and consigned to a bonfire. It had outgrown its cracked terracotta pot many years ago, and now sagged on withered limbs as it hung from the decaying structure, which it would one day surely bring crashing to the ground if no action was taken. 

  Neville’s mind, however, was on things other than the sorry condition of his surroundings. Against his better judgement he had let Cynthia persuade him to come for coffee to discuss the disaster of the day before. As she sat beside him on the small cane sofa, pouring cream into cups, he was only too aware that this was a woman on the brink of collapsing into tears and despair. And a lachrymose Cynthia was something he was entirely focussed on avoiding. So much so that for once he was grateful for Hamlet’s pungent presence.

  ‘He’s looking very well, Cynthia,’ he risked patting the dog, managing to find an area of skin apparently less scrofulous than most. Hamlet responded with a low groan of pleasure.

  Cynthia was not interested.

  ‘Really, I don’t know how I’ll ever be able to show my face in the village,’ she said in a voice cracking with emotion. ‘I’ll never be taken seriously again.’

  ‘Cynthia, you mustn’t let yourself get all worked up about what happened. People will soon forget…’

  ‘No they won’t. They never forget when you make a mess of something. Oh, they’re quick to forget all one’s tireless years of service to the village; all the things that have gone right – the money made for the church roof, or the new playground, or the victory of the Pelican crossing. Oh yes, they soon forget about all that. But such a debacle as yesterday…. never!’

  ‘But it wasn’t your fault. You couldn’t control the weather, or Claude, or the tent, people won’t be blaming you.’ 

  ‘Yes they will! They always want someone to blame.’

  ‘But we gave everyone their money back.’ Neville was beginning to regret having made any sort of fuss of Hamlet, as the dog now insisted on resting its head in his lap. The drool was already starting to seep into his trousers. 

  ‘Don’t remind me!’ Cynthia gulped her coffee. ‘Do you realise how out of pocket NHEC is? Not only was the main event of the day a complete fiasco, not to mention the rest being a washout, but we have actually lost money. All our hard work, all our efforts and creativity, all wasted. All we have to show for it is an enormous hole in the bank balance and a ruined marquee. I have been totally humiliated.’ She began to sniff.

  Neville pushed the plate of Bourbons towards her.

  ‘Have a biscuit. I expect your blood sugar’s low. You haven’t eaten since yesterday, have you?’

  Unfortunately the hint of concern in Neville’s words was just sufficient to tip Cynthia over the edge. Tears brimmed from her eyes, accompanied by a sharp wail. The effect on Neville was that of fingernails on a blackboard.

  ‘Please, don’t cry, Cynthia, it’ll only make you feel worse.’ He winced as the wailing increased.

  ‘Impossible!’ she sobbed.

  Even Hamlet was affected by Cynthia’s distress. He stopped ruining Neville’s trousers, lifted his nose, let his cankerous ears flop back, and started an eerie howl. 

  ‘Cynthia…’ Neville tried to make himself heard above the din, ‘please calm down,’ he risked patting her hand lightly. It was all the encouragement Cynthia needed. She threw herself against him, lurching onto his lap and weeping on his shoulder, her arms fastened around his neck.

  ‘Oh Neville,’ she sobbed, ‘what would I do without you? I knew you would understand. You are my soul mate, mon cher.’

  Her tears soaked into his shirt, causing the second soggy patch on his clothing in the space of five minutes.  Neville gently took hold of her hands in the hope of loosening her grip, but she clung on like a Koala in a bush fire, her whole body racked with sobs.

  ‘It’s so hard facing everything alone,’ she squeaked. ‘People don’t realise; they think big, bossy Cynthia doesn’t mind anything. They think I should be used to being a widow after all these years. But I am a woman, Neville,’ she pulled back a little, keeping her face only a few inches from his. ‘A woman as fragile and as vulnerable as any other.’ Her ruddy nose was almost touching his now. ‘You understand about how a woman feels, my dearest, I know you do. That is why you are here now. I knew you would come to me in my hour of need.’

  Fighting rising panic, Neville gently but firmly disentangled himself from Cynthia, though he was unable to dislodge her from his lap.

  ‘Look,’ he still had to compete with Hamlet’s mournful noise, ‘I really think you’re blowing things up out of all proportion here. You mustn’t let it get to you so much. If people are determined to criticise, well, let them. What does it matter?’ He took a deep breath, ‘We know the truth. I know how much hard work you put into organising yesterday’s…um, yesterday. Let other people think what they like.’

  Cynthia swallowed another sob and struggled to produce a wobbly smile. Given her wet, blotchy features, the effect was rather unfortunate.

  ‘You’re right, of course,’ her voice was a whisper, ‘why should I care what others think(,) when I have you.’

  This was too much for Neville. Merely dragging himself to the Vicarage to deal with Cynthia had used up his year’s supply of good deeds, and he could feel his patience coming to an end.  On top of which, he was very afraid the woman was reading far too much into his few words of consolation. His trousers had been drooled on. His shirt had been sobbed over. His lap had been sat upon. Hamlet was still bellowing out strangled notes. And Cynthia’s weight was beginning to put Neville’s leg to sleep.  It was time to go home.  He stood up, ungallantly letting Cynthia grab hold of the table for support as she slid off his lap.  

  ‘Now I really think you should have a little lie down,’ he told her, then, seeing the hopeful look on her face, added, ‘alone. I’m sure you’ll feel much better after a rest.’

  ‘Very well, darling boy, if you think it best.’

  She straightened her crumpled dress and ineffectually patted at her hair.

  ‘I’ll see myself out,’ said Neville, removing Hamlet’s nose from his crotch. 

  ‘I’ll call you,’ Cynthia told him. ‘Perhaps we could meet again, later in the week. We must be ready to present a united front to the committee before the day of reckoning.’

  ‘Quite. Don’t you worry about that now,’ Neville walked backwards keeping both Hamlet and Cynthia at arm’s length. When he reached the outer door of the conservatory he gave a curt wave before slamming the door on the dog and making hastily for his bike.

  Neville pedalled quickly away, relieved to be heading for the safety and tranquillity of his flat. His relief was short-lived, however, when he found Fliss on his doorstep pressing the doorbell. As his bike squeaked to a halt she turned and saw him.

  ‘Ah, Neville, I was hoping I’d find you at home.’

  ‘Miss Horton…’ he began.

  ‘Fliss, please. And before you say anything, there’s no need to apologise for yesterday. Let’s just put the whole thing down to an unfortunate accident and forget about it, shall we?’

  ‘Me apologise?’ Neville got off his bike and frowned at the woman who was blocking his path. ‘I seem to remember you were the one haranguing me.’

  ‘Rubbish, I was simply trying to get some information out of you.’

  ‘At an entirely inappropriate time and place. As is this. Now if you don’t mind, I’d like to enjoy what’s left of my Sunday in peace.’

  ‘How can you? How can you hide away up there in your little nest and pretend nothing is happening?’

  Neville looked pointedly over first his left shoulder, then his right.

  ‘As far as I can see nothing is happening.’ He attempted to wheel past her but she refused to budge.

  ‘There is something going on up at Withy Hill Farm and you know about it. You must do. You’re in charge of planning applications…’

  ‘For the hundredth time, I am not in charge.’

  ‘…you must know they want to build some sort of laboratory up there. Why haven’t there been public notices? The people who live here have a right to know what’s going on in the village. We should have an opportunity to register our protest.’

  ‘It strikes me you’re managing to do that very well yourself. Look, if you have any queries about local planning issues you really should go through the proper channels.’

  ‘Oh yes, and how long will that take? Meanwhile, everything gets rushed through and rubber stamped and before we even know what’s going on it’s all done and dusted.’

  ‘You credit our department with far more stamping and dusting than ever gets done, I assure you.’

  ‘Why won’t you just answer a few questions? What are you trying to hide?’

  ‘I beg your pardon!’

  ‘I don’t see why anyone who lived here would be happy for God knows what sort of experiments to be going on right on their doorstep. Unless there was something in it for them, of course.’

  ‘What are you implying?’

  ‘Well, it’s obvious you know the Christians pretty well. And that peculiar chef whose restaurant they supply. Perhaps you’re all in cahoots.’

  ‘Cahoots! I’ve had enough of this. You have the nerve to come here, to my home, on a Sunday, and accuse me of…. well, to be frank, I don’t know what in God’s name you are accusing me of, but whatever it is I don’t like it. And I resent your tone, and your assumptions.’

  ‘What am I supposed to think? If you really don’t have a clue what’s going on under your nose, then that makes you culpably stupid.’

  ‘A much more flattering option. Let’s agree I’m an idiot and all go home. Now, if you’ll excuse me…’ He all but shoved her off his doorstep and fumbled for his key.

  ‘What if I get you proof?

  ‘What on earth do you mean?’ Neville turned the key in the lock and pushed the door open.

  ‘Proof that there really is something to be concerned about. Proof that I’m not imagining all this just to spoil your weekend.’ 

  Fliss put her hand on Neville’s arm as he tried to manoeuvre his bike onto the doorstep.  He saw her look at the damp patch on his shirt and then lower her gaze to the shiny wetness on his trousers. Slowly, she withdrew her hand.  Neville rolled his eyes and sighed.

  ‘OK. You bring me proof, whatever that looks like, of something…untoward, and I’ll look into it. Satisfied?’

  ‘Promise?’ 

  Neville met her stare now, surprised by the greenness of her eyes. 

  ‘I promise,’ he said, and found himself meaning it.

  As usual, by four o’clock Fliss was checking her watch.  Her Monday afternoon cleaning stint at Withy Hill always seemed to drag, and this one was no exception. At least with the Christians still away she didn’t have anyone breathing down her neck or checking up on her. She also had the added incentive of being determined to find something to wave under Neville’s patronising nose.  This had to be her best chance, with no one else in the house. She went through to the study and sat in Mr Christian’s ludicrously large leather chair. She scoured his desk, but it had been cleared and yielded nothing. She swivelled slowly, taking in the whole room. The shelves had pretend books on them boasting smart embossed covers and no content. Here and there an object d’art of dubious taste filled a space. The walls were hung with photographs of motor yachts and racehorses. There were two filing cabinets beside the desk. Fliss got up and tried to open them. Locked. She tried the drawers in the desk in search of a key. Nothing. The only cabinet with anything in it was the one containing a whisky decanter and glasses. 

  Fliss crossed over to the window and looked outside. From here she had a clear view of the rear of the farm, where most of the chicken barns were.  A farm labourer came out of one of them and went to the back door of the house. She watched him open it and let out Vinnie and Eric. The dogs had been shut up for some time and leapt and snapped at nothing in particular, practising their growls and sharp barks. Instinctively Fliss took a step back from the window. She watched as the man and the dogs headed off in the direction of the far fields. 

  ‘There must be something,’ she told herself. ‘Something somewhere.’

  At that moment a small man in a suit came out of an unimportant looking building attached to the end of one of the barns. He started to lock the door, but was interrupted by his mobile phone. Fliss saw him answer it, then walk away from the building, still talking, climb into his car, and drive away. She squinted at the door. The keys were still in it.

  It took her some time to walk out of the front door, around the side of the house, and over to the small outbuilding. As she walked she tried to look casual and confident in case anyone was watching, but all the time she kept a weather eye out for the return of the hateful dogs. By the time she reached the door her heart was thumping. With a quick glance behind her she went inside.  The room was quite large, but so crowded with boxes and equipment and tables and cupboards that Fliss find it difficult to make her way across it. It seemed to be something between an office and a storeroom. She checked the small desk with the telephone on it, but the scribble pad was empty and the drawers locked. She opened one or two cupboards, but found nothing important. There were cartons of medicines for various chicken ailments; tubes of ointments; bottles of antiseptic; packets of bandages; and boxes of latex gloves. All legitimate veterinary products one might expect to find on a well-run poultry farm. On the far wall was a large metal cabinet, which appeared to be bolted to the wall. Fliss tried the handle, and was not surprised to find it locked.  As she looked around for something she might free the latch with, Fliss heard small scratching noises coming from behind a tall shelving unit. Cautiously, she walked towards the sound. Behind the shelves she saw a low table on which sat half a dozen or so metal cages. As she drew closer she could see there were small animals inside. She stood as close as she dared and peered inside the first cage.

  To begin with she couldn’t quite make out what was running about among the sawdust and hay. Then she saw it. And what she saw made her hand fly to her mouth to stop a shriek of horror.

  ‘Oh my God!’ she said aloud, unable to stop staring at the creature in front of her. She tried to focus. ‘A box,’ she told herself, taking one or two deep breaths. ‘I need a small box.’

  The room had seemed full of boxes when she first came in, but now she was having trouble finding one to suit her needs. A stout box, not too large, and with a firm, well-fitting lid. She found a walk-in store-cupboard at the back of the room. Inside she spied what she needed and started to empty it of its contents. 

  The sound of the door opening and shutting caused her to drop the box. She froze briefly, and then flattened herself behind the cupboard door. Someone was definitely moving about in the room. Fliss forced herself to peer through the tiny gap beneath the hinge to try and see who it was and what they were doing. The store cupboard door was not fully shut, so that there was just enough of a space between it and the jam for her to squint through.   She saw a thin man apparently searching through a number of keys on a ring.  As he turned a little more to the side she saw his face for the first time.

  ‘Claude Lambert!’ she mouthed.

  Claude selected a key and used it to open the large metal cabinet. Fliss watched him hurriedly take out a brown glass bottle and put it in his pocket. He relocked the cabinet and turned to leave. As he did so Fliss leant forwards a fraction and just touched the door, which gave a grating little creak.

  Claude stopped and looked around.

  Fliss bit her lip and held her breath.

  Claude walked towards the store cupboard, looking almost as nervous as Fliss felt. He reached out for the handle. Fliss closed her eyes. At that moment one of the inmates of the cages squeaked as it scuttled through its sawdust, distracting the chef. He paused for a moment, then shook his head and quickly left the building.

  Fliss breathed heavily and waited for a full two minutes before venturing out of her hiding place. With shaking hands she returned to the cages. She forced herself to open the nearest one, and slowly, carefully, gingerly reached inside.

  ‘Come on, little one,’ she said softly, ‘there’s someone I’d like you to meet.’

CHAPTER TWELVE

  Fliss paced nervously as she waited for Neville. It was quite dark now, with a feeble moon. All about her, among the trees, things rustled and squeaked and fidgeted. She slipped her rucksack off her shoulders and set it down carefully on the dry earth. Although it was a warm night, she pulled her jacket tight around her and did up another button. She squinted down the track, focussing on nothing for a full minute before Neville’s bike light came into view.

  ‘At last,’ she failed to keep the edge out of her voice.

  ‘I came as quickly as I could.’ He dismounted. ‘It’s quite a pull from the village, you know. Why we couldn’t simply meet at my place…’

  ‘Come here,’ Fliss interrupted him. She bent over her rucksack and extracted a small cardboard box. She waited impatiently while Neville leant his bike against a tree.

  ‘Hold that,’ she handed him her torch.

  ‘What is all this about?’ Neville wanted to know. ‘I was in the middle of a batch of scones. They’ll be like rock cakes now; you can’t just leave the mix sitting about.’

  ‘Neville, shut up.’

  ‘There’s no need to be snippy.’

  ‘I’m sorry, but will you please just look.’ She held the box towards him and removed the lid.

  Neville directed the torch beam inside.

  ‘Shit!’ he cried, stepping back quickly. ‘It’s a rat! What are you doing with that?’

  ‘I told you on the phone, I found it at Withy Hill.’

  ‘You told me you’d found something, you didn’t say it was a bloody rat. Don’t they have pest control up there?’

  ‘It’s not that sort of rat. Look more closely.’

  Gingerly, Neville peered in again.

  ‘What’s that? That thing on its back?’ he asked.

  ‘It’s a leg.’

  ‘A leg! That’s disgusting. How did it get there?’

  ‘The rat grew it.’

  ‘You make it sound like a beard. For heaven’s sake, rats don’t grow spare legs on a whim.’

  ‘OK, I wasn’t being accurate. I mean the rat was born with it, and the leg grew.’

  ‘How?’

  ‘Somebody…….engineered it,’ Fliss told him.

  ‘What in God’s name for? Difficult enough catching the little buggers already, isn’t it? Who wants faster rats?’

  ‘Nobody. It’s a guinea pig.’

  ‘Look, I didn’t come up here for a rodent Who’s Who.’

  ‘You know what I mean,’ Fliss snapped. ‘And have you noticed the colour. At first glance it looks white, but it’s not, is it? It’s blue.’

  They watched the hapless creature as it twitched its whiskers and blinked in the strong light. Suddenly it scratched an urgent itch on the back of its head. With its fifth leg.

  ‘Urgh!’ said Neville. ‘For pity’s sake put the lid back on.’

  Fliss was in the process of doing just that when she heard twigs snapping.

  ‘There’s someone coming!’ she hissed. ‘Quick! Behind this tree.’

  They dropped to the floor and scuttled around the nearest oak.

  ‘Can you see who it is?’ Neville asked.

  ‘No. But there’s definitely someone there. Yes, I can see them,’ Fliss told him. ‘But I can’t make out who it is. I wonder what they’re doing out here at this time of night.’

  ‘Bird watching? Badger baiting? Rat spotting? Who gives a flying fart? I can’t stay crouched here like this much longer – my knees are seizing up.’

  ‘Stop whining. I can’t be sure, but I think it’s a woman. Whoever it is has got a …shovel.’ Fliss swallowed. ‘They seem to be burying something.  Shhh!’ She froze.

  The dark shadow of a person stopped digging and turned in their direction. Whoever it was took a step forward and frowned into the gloom. Fliss and Neville held their breath. The figure turned, finished her task, then left quickly.

  ‘It’s all right,’ Fliss stood up. ‘They’ve gone now.’

  ‘Thank Christ for that.’ Neville unfolded himself stiffly, brushing moss and twigs from his trousers.

  ‘Who do you think it was? What do you think they were up to?’ Fliss groped for the rucksack and lowered the box towards it.

  ‘You are mistaking me for someone who cares.’

  ‘Pretty odd, though, don’t you think?’ Fliss lifted the lid to check on the passenger. ‘Oh my God.’

  ‘What now?’

  ‘It’s gone. The rat’s gone.’

  ‘Gone where?’

  ‘How should I know? Don’t just stand there, look for it.’ She dropped to the ground again.

  ‘Are you completely mad? If the thing’s escaped it’s hardly likely to be hanging around waiting for us to catch it again, is it? Forget it, he’s long gone.’

  ‘She,’ Fliss corrected him. ‘It was a she.’

  ‘No, sorry, that information makes me no keener to grovel about in the dirt in the dark hoping to find something I would much rather run away from.’

  Fliss stood up again and put her face close to Neville’s so he could not ignore her.

  ‘Think about it,’ she said through gritted teeth. ‘It’s female. It’s a lab rat. It’s a mutant. It might well be pregnant, for all we know. Do you want to be responsible for infesting the Dorset countryside with blue five-legged rats? Well do you?’

  ‘How is it my fault?’

  ‘We don’t have time to argue,’ Fliss stomped into the undergrowth.

  ‘Oh for goodness sake,’ Neville picked up a stick and poked at a fallen log. ‘Couldn’t have made it glow in the dark while they were at it. Nothing helpful like that, oh no.’

  ‘Shut up, you’ll frighten it away.’

  ‘I’ll frighten it!’ he probed a patch of nettles carelessly. ‘This is mission impossible. I’ve better things to do with my time than play hide and seek with Frankenstein’s hamster.’

  Fliss stood up, shoulders drooping with the hopelessness of it all. ‘Bugger,’ she said quietly.

To be continued…

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Debra
Debra
1 month ago

Ohh whatever nextx

Janice bowker
Janice bowker
20 days ago

My goodness I am late to the party! but it hotting up