‘All the time, Neville, all the time. It’s a whiskey, then, is it?’
‘Steady, now. Stepping out of your square like this could be dangerous. However, a double whiskey it is.’
Liz saw someone she knew and twinkled her fingers at them, a gesture she knew Neville hated.
‘As if being in this place at this time in the evening isn’t bad enough, do you also have to draw attention to yourself? I am so angry I can barely speak.’
Liz patted his knee and said gently, ‘Neville, she’s just someone I know. She runs a nursery the other side of Culworth. What’s the harm in me acknowledging her? It’s an exceptionally pleasant spring evening, your glamorous wife is beside you, and all you have to do is enjoy yourself.’
‘I haven’t time to enjoy myself.’
‘I’ve made you time to enjoy yourself. Get your whiskey down you and, as Dicky would say, “Enjoy!” Life’s too short.’
‘Now I know you’ve gone raving mad. This is not me. I don’t sit in bars, especially bright, shiny bars like this, with you quoting Dicky Tutt at me. He’s a brainless fool who mistakenly imagines he’s a stand-up comic. Dicky Tutt indeed.’
‘Dicky does the human race more good in one week than most people do in a year.’
‘With the Scouts you mean?’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘And where’s that going to get him in this world? I can tell you - absolutely nowhere. He’ll never be rich.’ Neville was at his most sneering.
Liz wondered how it had happened that he could be so bitter. ‘It won’t bring him wealth, that’s for certain, but he’s well loved and that counts for a lot. Do
feel well loved?’
Neville drank his whiskey right to the bottom of the glass. ‘Of course I am,’ he muttered. ‘You love me, anyway. Don’t talk about such things in public; it’s embarrassing.’
As it sometimes can happen in a busy place, a sudden silence fell just as Liz said, ‘Well, to be honest, I don’t feel I love you
A woman spluttered with laughter, and Neville thought he heard another say, ‘Not surprising!’ He was so blinded by anger at the humiliation of it all that he banged his fist on the table with such force that Liz leapt from her chair. She knocked over her spritzer, which spilled across the table, and Neville narrowly missed a stream of it running off the table and down his trousers. He jumped up, muttered some expletive, which was completely out of character, and stormed out of the bar.
Liz paid their bill but, by the time she was outside on the pavement, Neville had disappeared.
Standing outside and wondering what she should do next, Liz remembered his briefcase. Had he taken it with him? She couldn’t remember. Should she get it for him, or cause him even more aggravation by making him have to come to collect it tomorrow?
A waiter stood in front of her holding it aloft. ‘Your . . . husband’s, madam?’
‘Thank you, thank you very much.’
He was already home when she got there, but that was because she’d stopped at a fish and chip shop and sat eating in the car, feeling sorry for herself and wondering if she really wanted to be in the explosive situation that she’d deliberately created.
The next morning Liz was in the Store early buying juice and fruit for the nursery. Now that Tom ran the Store it was unusual to find Jimbo serving his customers. He raised his boater in greeting and gave Liz a smacking kiss on her cheek.
‘Good morning, my dear Liz. How’s things?’
‘Fine, thanks. And you? What are you doing serving me? I thought you’d given all that up.’
Jimbo smoothed a hand over his bald head and replaced his boater. ‘Tom’s day off. Truth to tell, I miss the cut and thrust of the day behind the counter, so one day a week is excellent therapy.’ He paused to take someone’s money for a newspaper. ‘I’m asking everyone who comes in if they know anything about a strange chap who was seen in the village yesterday.’
‘Yesterday?’ The only thing she could remember about yesterday was the fearful row she and Neville had when she got home. ‘I don’t remember seeing anyone new.’ It had been the row to end all rows. ‘What did he want?’
‘That’s just it, no one knows. Apparently he sat outside the pub for hours, then went into the pub, wandered about, went into the church and chatted to Zack about the village as he polished the pews, caught Greta Jones just as she was leaving here after work, then got on the teatime bus into Culworth.’
Liz shook her head. ‘I don’t know anything about him.’
She wished she could have sat mum like the mystery man all the evening, then perhaps Neville wouldn’t have thrown such a paddy. Well, it wasn’t a paddy, more a bitter, ghastly verbal attack. His words came back to her:
bitch; cow; evil; inconsiderate; thoughtless; scheming
. . .
‘I need apple juice, have you got any?’
‘In the back. Won’t be a mo.’ Jimbo disappeared.
While she waited, in her mind’s eye she could see Neville’s tortured face glaring at her, his mouth spitting out the words, till in the end she could see his mouth working but could no longer hear what he said. She’d eventually walked away from him but he’d rushed after her and grabbed her arm far, far too roughly for her liking.
Eventually Jimbo reappeared with a four-pack of apple juice. ‘Sorry about the wait. Tom’s moved the storeroom round and it doesn’t make sense to me yet. That all?’
As she piled her shopping into the glorious green carriers Jimbo provided she remembered saying to Neville last night, ‘Leave go of my arm, or that leading Culworth accountant will be finding himself up for assault, and I mean it.’
Jimbo interrupted her thoughts. ‘Be seeing you, Liz.’
‘You all right?’
‘Fine, must rush.’
Once Neville had let go of her arm, she’d run upstairs and gone to bed. But Neville didn’t sleep in their bedroom that night, for which she was grateful. She’d found out this morning that he’d slept in their guest bedroom. Somehow him doing that felt to be a milestone in their relationship, a step back in actual fact. It would be far harder to move back in than it was to move out in the heat of the moment. Still, what difference did it make? None.
‘Hi, Angie, all set?’ she called as she arrived at the nursery. ‘I’ve got the juice and the fruit and a packet of biscuits for you, me and our work experience girl. What’s her name? I never can remember. ’
‘Millie. You look a bit peaky this morning. Are you all right, Liz?’
‘I’m fine.’ Liz decided to pull herself together and not allow snatches of the row to fill her mind. Best not, she needed all her concentration because she could hear the first of their children arriving, and they needed and deserved the whole of her mind focusing on them, and not on her troubles.
Almost everyone who came in the Store that morning mentioned the silent chap who’d apparently gleaned all he could about the village but told nothing in return.
Someone said, ‘Was it that Kevin from the council, that one what snoops about regler?’
Someone else, who knew Kevin’s mother from Penny Fawcett, shook her head vehemently. ‘No, absolutely not. I know ’im and it wasn’t ’im. Kevin doesn’t have no beard.’
‘Maybe he stuck it on as a disguise.’
‘No, that chap yesterday was tall and thin. Our Kev’s round and fat due to all them free lunches people give ’im when they want to know the latest from the planning department. The things that go on in that department! Every one of ’em deserves to be in jail.’ The customer tapped the side of her nose with her forefinger and leaned her elbow on the counter. Jimbo drew close so as not to miss a word. ‘They say that Mr Fitch is not above passing the odd brown envelope in our Kev’s direction for services rendered.’
‘No!’ Jimbo leaned a little closer.
‘Remember that time when Old Fitch wanted to build houses on Rector’s Meadow and Sir Ralph stopped him? Well, our Kev, as his mother calls him, had to
the money Old Fitch had given him to engineer pulling down that ancient hedgerow to make room for them big diggers to get into the field. You know the hedge Lady Muriel got all worked up about. Remember?’
Jimbo nodded. The customer rested her forearms on the counter.
‘Apparently he’d spent all of it on that classic BMW he drove about in after, but he nearly came unstuck there. ’Ad to sell it quick smart, ’cos of Old Fitch demanding his money back.’ A wicked grin crossed the customer’s face. ‘What gets Old Fitch mad as hell’s the fact that Sir Ralph gets his own way about things just by behaving like the gentleman he is, whereas Old Fitch always ’as to pay up front. But then, he’s no gentleman.’ The customer laughed like a drain. ‘Two slices of your best ham, please. Cut thick.’
‘Seeing as you know so much about our Kev, what do you know about that thin chap who was about yesterday?’
‘Nothing. Drawn a blank there. Lovely chap, though, very pleasant to talk to.’
This lack of knowledge began to aggravate Jimbo. If the chap was a genuine visitor, why did he need to be so secretive about his reasons for spending most of the day in the village? Someone said he definitely wasn’t a smelly old tramp, that was for certain. He appeared well educated and knowledgeable about things. Later that morning another customer claimed they’d seen him getting a lift down from the Big House in Barry Jones’s van, and, surprise, surprise, the two of them had been spotted leaning on the gate of Rector’s Meadow.
‘No!’ said Jimbo, egging the speaker on to further revelations by putting a lot of expression into his voice.
‘So, if you want to know, I reckon Barry Jones might be able to help.’
Forthwith Jimbo summoned Harriet from the kitchens to take over at the counter, and departed for the Big House in such a hurry he forgot to remove his boater and apron.
As he was hastening up the drive of the Big House he spotted, out of the corner of his eye, Barry’s old red van parked in front of the huge old barn, which had stood neglected and absolutely unused since before Jimbo had come to live in the village. Now, that could be interesting. He bumped across the approaches to the barn, parked beside Barry’s van and leapt out.
Barry was sawing a huge oak beam. He was about halfway through it and sweating copiously when he caught the sound of Jimbo’s voice. He laid down his saw and straightened his back, glad of an excuse to take a rest.
‘Hello, there.’ He studied Jimbo from head to foot, amused he was there and guessing why. ‘I reckon you’re on a fishing trip.’ He grinned widely and waited for a reply.
‘I’m not, you know. I was on my way to see Old Fitch and spotted your van.’
‘Mr Fitch is in Sweden this week. You’ll have to wait till Monday.’
Jimbo took a moment to look around the barn. It was huge, and so high it would be possible to put another floor in and make an upstairs. It didn’t need much intelligence to realize it was being seriously renovated.
‘Why don’t you use an electric saw of some kind?’
‘No power in here yet. The electric’s coming next week if I can get this lot finished.’
‘What’s it being renovated for, then?’
‘Mr Fitch has decided he’s got to make money out of anything that stands still long enough. Reckons there’s going to be a slump and he’s getting prepared.’
‘What’s he going to do with it?’
‘Doesn’t know yet. I’m just doing the basics. Magnificent barn, don’t you think? Fifteenth century. You’ve got to give them credit.’ Barry prepared to begin sawing again.
Jimbo stood looking about him, admiring the skill of fifteenth-century builders. ‘That chap everyone saw yesterday, is he thinking of renting it? Is that why he was here?’
Barry smiled secretly. ‘No. He’s not wanting the barn.’
‘Oh! Right. A little bird tells me you were seen with him, leaning on the gate into Rector’s Meadow.’