‘Look,’ said Grandmama Charter-Plackett, having recovered herself when she’d downed her whiskey, ‘this is the first time and they’ll be on their best behaviour. We’ve to remain vigilant. Familiarity breeds contempt and within a few weeks things will deteriorate, believe me. Then we’ve got to strike.’
There were hearty shouts of agreement, in particular from Willie Biggs. ‘It was the stallholders’ vans that were the biggest nuisance. The mothers had a right problem ’cos the kids didn’t know which way to go to find their mothers at lunchtime. That’ll have to be sorted or we’ll have an accident.’
There were cries of ‘hear, hear’ all round, and Willie volunteered to get the drinks in again, so they all put money in his cap to fund it. The conversation broke up, and anyone listening from the other tables would have heard Grandmama saying, ‘I shall go over there as soon as we finish and find out what’s going on.’
Greta Jones agreed. ‘I’ve come for Jimbo’s sake, I can’t work for him
support the market. That wouldn’t be right.’
Tom agreed. ‘Same here. We were dead quiet this morning and not much better this afternoon. I feel real sorry for him, what with all the expense of the Old Barn, setting it up and that. It’s not right.’
The genuineness of Tom’s voice inspired them all to agree, and they decided to meet at the same time next week for a progress report. The Anti-Market Action Committee had been formed.
After the meeting Grandmama marched purposefully across to Jimbo’s house, putting on her charming look as she went. After all, he had a right to do as he wished - well, so long as it agreed with what she thought was fitting. She’d never been given a key to Jimbo and Harriet’s house, except when she lived there for a while, so she had to knock.
She presented her cheek for Harriet to kiss as she stepped into the hall. ‘Late, I know, but I shan’t be long. Where is he?’
‘In his study.’
Grandmama pulled a face. ‘Like that, is it?’
Harriet nodded and opened Jimbo’s study door, but made no move to follow her in.
Jimbo was at his computer, entering figures. He paused eventually and nodded at the armchair. ‘Sit yourself down, Mother.’
‘I am appalled that you didn’t attend the post-mortem meeting.’
Jimbo looked at her soberly. ‘I was so disarmed by his charm that I went. It was a market worthy of Turnham Malpas, and ultimately can do us nothing but good. OK?’
‘OK? No, it isn’t OK. It’s a damned disaster for you. Just answer me one question. I see you’re entering figures. What’s this Thursday like compared with last Thursday, or any other Thursday come to that?’
Jimbo checked the screen. ‘Thirty per cent down. My God! Thirty per cent? I must have got it wrong.’
He took a closer look at the screen and realized what he’d said. It was bloody awful; it
thirty per cent! ‘Don’t fret, Mother, I shall be at the next meeting of the “Against the Market Campaign”, believe me.’ He laid back in his chair and smote his forehead with his hand.
‘Things may level out,’ his mother consoled. ‘After a few weeks, you know, these things do. Still, we will need to keep a close eye on it.’
With this gloomy prophecy Grandmama left, her mind churning round and round, thinking of ways to combat the market but coming up with absolutely no ideas. She walked home the long way past the school as part of her walking for health routine, and, glancing across at Glebe House, she saw Neville’s study light on. She suddenly wondered if
had anything to do with it, slimy toad that he was. He always seemed to have his fingers in lots of pies. Grandmama shuddered. She didn’t like the man but in defence of her son’s livelihood there wasn’t much she wouldn’t do, however repulsive.
Neville, in fact, was rubbing his hands together at that very moment. He’d just asked Liz about the market and she’d confirmed that it seemed to be a triumph. So, the money he’d invested in Titus Bellamy Markets Ltd appeared to be yet another of his successful investments.
Grandmama strode across the road up his garden path, stepped across a narrow flower bed and tapped sharply with her door key on his study window. That’d give him a surprise and a half, she thought.
Startled, he leaped up from his chair to find Grandmama with her nose almost touching the glass of the window to his private sanctum. Neville was greatly disturbed. Not even Liz’s cleaner got as close.
He rushed to the window, undid the security locks and opened it, saying icily, ‘This is a little unorthodox, Mrs Charter-Plackett. At this time of night, too.’
She ignored his indignation. ‘Good evening, Neville. Been a gorgeous day, hasn’t it?’
Puzzled by her apparently innocent question he stuttered, ‘Y-y-yes, it has. Can I help you in any way?’
‘Yes. I need a straight answer.’ Privately she thought that would be impossible for Neville Neal. ‘Are you
the market? Just answer me straight off the cuff, no prevaricating.’
Without the moon and with his back to the light it was difficult to judge his expression for herself, but eventually he said, ‘Anti.’
‘Excellent.’ Grandmama patted the hand holding the window open. ‘It’s good to know we can rely on you. Love to Liz. Goodnight. ’
Grandmama’s father would have called Neville a lying hound. She was astute enough to guess he was not only ‘pro’ but actively involved. One day she’d get him. Oh, yes. Neville Neal wouldn’t last much longer if she’d anything to do with it. Nor would the market, come to that.
That same night Liz laid awake thinking about things in general and in particular about Titus Bellamy. He’d been brought to mind after she’d asked Neville who had knocked on his window. When he said that it had been Grandmama, and that he had told her he was anti-market just to pacify her, she turned on her heel and went immediately to bed, but not before she’d warned him that Grandmama was a formidable enemy.
‘Why not speak the truth?’
‘Because I don’t want anyone to know that I’ve invested money in his enterprise to help him get started in Turnham Malpas.’
? You never said.’
Neville smiled that smile that never reached his eyes. ‘Can’t tell you every little thing, now can I?’
‘Why have you?’
‘Pleasant chap, a little gullible . . . I can make a lot of money out of him and his market.’
‘What you mean is he’s a thoroughly decent man.’
Neville, leaning against the frame of the study door, nodded gravely. ‘That’s right.’
‘You won’t ruin him, will you?’
‘What does it matter to you if I do? He means nothing to you.’
‘He doesn’t, but he seemed . . .’
‘Have you met him, then?’
‘Yes. When I went to the Store to post the parcels he was in there.’
‘Well, we’ll wait and see. Must crack on.’
He made to close the study door but Liz prevented him. ‘There are times, Neville, when I thoroughly dislike you. Sometimes you resemble a particularly nasty, very hairy spider spinning an evil web. But don’t forget what I said: Grandmama is a formidable enemy.’
As Liz lay in bed, her thoughts moved on to the silver anniversary party on Saturday. She wasn’t looking forward to it as she should have expected to. Fortunately Caroline and Peter would be there, as well as Jimbo and Harriet, Ralph and Muriel . . . Liz paused for a moment to think about Muriel. It was all so sad that, to put it bluntly, she had lost her marbles. Ralph was covering up beautifully for her, but there were times when even his skill left her floundering and looking foolish. Such a pity. All that love and kindness gone, and nothing left but a shell of what she had been. Apart from those six people, there was no one else she particularly wanted to have there.
Liz had bought a gorgeous dress in the smart designer shop in Culworth that was too expensive for most people. She’d never wear it again, it was too outlandish, but she didn’t care. She’d outshine everyone and why not? It was her party, after all. Her wedding dress had been simple, almost countrified. Neville’s mother had worn an acid-yellow silk dress with exaggerated flounces and a fishtail sash at the back. God! She’d looked ghastly. All that money and still she couldn’t dress well. An idea sneakily crept into Liz’s mind. Had she done exactly the same thing with her designer dress? Damn it, she’d wear it no matter what. Come on, Saturday, she thought, let’s get it over with.
The catering people had taken over the kitchen by four o’clock on the day, so apart from making a cup of tea for Neville and herself just before they arrived Liz was free to prepare herself for the evening. Neville was growing more anxious by the hour. He was snappy, abrupt, examining every inch of his garden, checking the floodlights, supervising the caterers, whom they’d used several times before and who had always turned up trumps, checking every inch of his dinner suit for fear of stains or creases, and generally behaving as though they were expecting the Queen at any moment.
‘For heaven’s sakes, Neville, calm down. Everything is under control. Finish your biscuit and go and hide in your study.’
‘What will you be doing?’
‘I shall be hanging about in case the caterers need me. Go on.’
There was the usual panic in the kitchen: things missing; too many meringues crushed and useless; the plum sauce too runny; the specialist coffee insisted upon by Neville hadn’t arrived in time so they’d brought a substitute.
‘Don’t even mention it,’ Liz suggested to the head caterer. ‘There’s nothing you can do about it now so serve what you’ve brought. He’ll never notice.’
‘Yes, but if he finds out—’
‘I shan’t tell him. Will you?’
‘Er . . . er . . . no I will not, thank you very much. Mr Neal in a strop is not a pretty sight.’
‘Exactly.’ Liz glanced at the clock. Time she disappeared upstairs to get ready.
Hugh and Guy were loafing about in their old bedrooms.
‘Hi, Mum. OK?’
‘Yes, thanks, Hugh darling. I do appreciate you both deciding to come after all. Your dad’s delighted.’
Guy said quietly, ‘We’ve come for you, not Dad.’
Hugh closed the bedroom door. ‘Tomorrow we’re telling him about our decision to leave the company.’
Liz knew this was coming but had hoped it wouldn’t. ‘I see. He’s built the business for the two of you; he’ll be devastated.’
devastated at the way he runs the business. There’s far too much ducking and diving, and we don’t like it. It’s not the way
want to run a business.’
Hugh put his arm around Liz’s shoulders. ‘The two of us can go into business together, we’re capable of doing that, and he’ll have to find new partners, ones who think like he does. It’ll take months to sort out the partnership situation, by which time he might have got used to it. But we can’t carry on as we are, knowing Dad’s fiddling all the time. It’s just not right.’
‘I know, I know.’ She reached up to kiss his cheek. ‘I just wish you hadn’t chosen this weekend. Could it wait another month or so?’
Guy, less sympathetic than Hugh, said emphatically, ‘No. We want to be out of the way before the balloon goes up. Which it will. It’s inevitable.’
Tears welled in Liz’s eyes. ‘I know what you mean. If the two of you get tainted with his fiddling you’ll never be able to set up in business.’
‘Exactly. It’s his fault, you know. We tried talking to him about it but to no avail. He has been warned.’
Liz opened the bedroom door, raised her hand to acknowledge she understood, and went into her bathroom to shower before the party. But everything went wrong. The bra she wanted to wear had lost a hook in the wash; she put her thumb through the new tights she’d bought specially for this evening, thought she’d wear them - after all, no one would see the big hole - decided
knew about it and that would spoil things for her, so took them off; smeared her lipstick because her hands were shaking; and finally, Liz laid on the bed and cried in exasperation.