‘Liz is still attractive, though, don’t you think?’
‘Oh, yes, very. Someone would find her just right if she ever left Neville.’
‘Perhaps he just needs a nudge in the right direction.’ Caroline looked speculatively at him. ‘You’d be just the right person to do it.’
‘I would not.’
‘You’d do it so beautifully he’d scarcely notice what you were driving at, but he’d take it to heart without realizing. You could be saving their marriage.’
‘Hush! Someone’s coming downstairs.’
It was Alex. ‘I’ve finished my homework and Beth almost has. What shall we be doing this afternoon?’
Peter groaned, realizing he’d have to give up his Sunday paper before he’d even begun reading it. ‘Swimming?’
‘Excellent! You coming, Mum?’
‘Yes, OK. I need some exercise. Does Beth want to come?’
‘She won’t want leaving behind.’
On the following day Neville arrived at the Rectory promptly at five-thirty. Peter let him in and the two of them settled in the study with the door closed.
The church business took all of half an hour and then Peter offered Neville a whiskey and mentioned the one subject that was on everyone’s lips.
‘The market? Do you have an opinion? Everyone I speak to has one so I expect you have, too.’
‘Well,’ answered Neville, sounding to have weighty opinions which he was eager to divulge, ‘he’s a great chap, is this Titus Bellamy. In fact, he’s become a client of mine.’ His smile was full of self-satisfaction. ‘I can assure you that he will do nothing but good for the village.’
Peter laughed. ‘I wouldn’t say that in Jimbo’s hearing. He’s very upset about it, feels it’ll take business away from him.’
‘All’s fair . . . as the saying goes. He’s had his own way in this village for far too long. Time he had some competition. I’m all in favour.’
‘Well, we’ll wait and see. I’m surprised Titus has got permission. ’
Neville settled back in his armchair ready to impart news he’d gathered from our Kev. ‘Well, you see, there’s very little they can do about it. There was a market here way back in the fourteenth century, but when the Black Death decimated the area in thirteen forty-nine it lapsed and never got going again. After all, Derehams Magna was completely emptied of people, as it still is, so I suppose it didn’t seem worth starting it up again. A document Titus found in the county archives gives him the right to hold the market.’ Neville appeared to ruminate for a moment as though deciding to impart some information known only to him but then the expression on his face became shifty and he obviously changed his mind. ‘The council are steaming mad because they can’t find a single document to deny him that right. Health and Safety thought they could put a stop to it - in fact, they’ve been quite savage about it - but he’s organized a car park, and has even got the St John’s Ambulance to have a tent. Believe me, there’s no flies on Titus. Oh, no. I’ve given him bits of advice here and there to make life easier for him, and he’s in the starting blocks awaiting the off.’
‘I wouldn’t tell Jimbo you’re in league with him.’
‘I’ve no fear of Master Jimbo. He’s a marshmallow compared to me. But I think he’ll find everyone is on Titus’s side. All the people I’ve spoken to are.’
Peter didn’t agree but said nothing and began to make it look as though the meeting was finished, so that Neville could go - without the invite Peter intuitively knew he was hoping for.
‘Caroline keeping well, is she?’
‘Oh, yes. Very well. She’s delighted to be back in general practice at last.’
‘Wonderful woman, is Caroline.’
‘I know, I’m lucky, but then, so are you.’
Neville nodded his head, but said nothing. Then he stood up and admitted that Liz was away.
‘Needing a holiday?’
Neville nodded sagely. ‘That’s right, yes, in need of a break, but I couldn’t get away.’
Peter suddenly got an image of Neville pecking at Liz’s cheek and thinking that should satisfy her. ‘Wives need looking after, you know, Neville, not just the occasional peck on the cheek. Love demands to be expressed. They need nothing less than the whole works. Frankly, between you and me, that’s what makes the world go round in a marriage, but of course you don’t need me to tell you that, I’m sure.’ He smiled encouragingly.
Neville flushed furiously, and, as he did so, Peter invited him to eat with them.
But Neville was so embarrassed at the thought that the Rector, of all people, had spoken so intimately to him about marriage and ... well, such things . . . that he had to refuse.
Caroline, knowing nothing of their conversation, leapt out into the hall as she heard the study door open. ‘Neville!’ She opened wide her arms, took hold of his hands, kissed his cheek and exclaimed, ‘Has Peter asked you to eat with us? I do hope he has. I’ve made masses of food because Alex is always hungry, so there’ll be plenty for you. I’ve laid a place. Do say you’ll stay.’ She beamed at him, and although what Peter had said had embarrassed him to death, Neville found himself thanking Caroline and agreeing to stay, thinking at least he wouldn’t need to cook when he got home.
That night Caroline had hysterics in bed when Peter told her what he’d said to Neville in the study.
‘You didn’t! Oh, help! Do you know, I don’t think I have had a more awkward meal in all my life. It was ghastly. I even found it hard to swallow my food I felt so restricted by him. What is the matter with the man? I don’t know how Liz puts up with him.’
Peter turned over and put his arm around Caroline’s waist. ‘Change of subject. I’m really concerned about this market. Neville thinks everyone’s in agreement with it, but they’re not. Some are very angry about their village being spoiled, really angry. Placards and such, you know. Some are secretly planning to break it up. We could have an almighty to-do. We might even need the police.’
‘It’s so difficult for you and me because we have to keep impartial. Trouble is, I can’t make my own mind up about it.’
‘Neither can I. We’ll just have to wait and see. Goodnight, light of my life. God bless you.’
At about nine o’clock on Wednesday evening a huge furniture van rumbled into the village and parked at the edge of the green opposite the lych-gate. Three men got out and went round to the back of the van and opened it up. With a precision born of experience they began unloading the tables, stacking them along the edge of the green, systematically, two lots stacked four high. Then one man got in the cab, and drove the van round until it was opposite the Store. The other two men walked round and followed the same procedure, then the van went further round, parked outside Thelma and Valda Seniors’ old house, and unloaded some more tables.
By this time net curtains were twitching and the entire episode was under scrutiny. Even the people drinking in the Royal Oak pulled the curtains aside to see what the noise was all about.
‘Well, they’re efficient if nothing else.’
‘Just look at that lot. It’s going to be bigger than I expected.’
‘Good grief, there’ll be no room for punters with all them stalls.’
‘There must be about thirty tables. It’s gonna be big, isn’t it?’
‘I didn’t realize. Jimbo’s going to explode.’
After the van had left, the bar burst into a hubbub of vigorous discussion at such volume it became difficult to hear what one’s very own neighbour was saying.
Sylvia and Willie Biggs were adamant they would never buy a thing at the market.
Vera Wright raised a sceptical eyebrow. ‘Don’t be too hasty, you might find things so cheap you can’t afford to ignore it. Jimbo isn’t exactly cheap, is he? Lovely food but . . .’
‘If you’ve no car then you’re stuck with the Culworth bus, when it decides to come, or you pay Jimbo’s prices. I reckon this market could be a godsend.’ Jimmy Glover picked up his ale and, taking a huge gulp, finished his pint.
Willie said, ‘Sylvia and I shall make a point of shopping at the Store. It’s only right, he’s got the overheads of a lovely shop,
he’s here every day,
we’ve known him a long time,
everything’s very fresh,
he orders things special for yer.’
Irrelevantly, Don Wright piped up, ‘Then again, he isn’t open on Sundays.’ He nodded sagely, and they all agreed so as not to upset him, because it was true what he’d said anyway. Such a pity about that fall he had; he’d never been the same since.
A row broke out on the table by the inglenook fireplace. What had begun as a mild chat about the pros and cons of the market turned nasty. Voices were raised, tempers were running high, two bangs on the table with someone’s fist and in a trice a fight broke out. It involved Colin Turner and some other men from down Shepherds Hill. Colin was a big chap, star of the village cricket team and known for a temper that could explode in a split second.
‘Dicky! Come quick!’ Jimmy roared.
Sylvia shouted, ‘It’s Georgie we want!’ She bellowed, ‘Georgie!’
But chairs were knocked over - three customers sprang off theirs to avoid being thrown to the floor - beer glasses were smashed into smithereens and Vince Jones mistakenly landed a blow on Colin’s nose, which incensed him and so he felled Vince to the floor, where he lay senseless.
Gasps of horror, shocked silence, and then Georgie was there, all five feet nothing of her, hands on hips, telling Colin what she thought of him. ‘You’re banned for a week for that. Vince is an old man compared to you. He’s a pensioner. You should be ashamed of yourself. You’re more than a head taller than him, and twice as heavy. Shame on you. Out.’ She pointed dramatically at the door, glaring up into his eyes defiantly.
Colin opened his mouth to object but Georgie hadn’t been a landlady for twenty-five years without learning how to quell a fight with gimlet eyes alone. Colin closed his mouth and went out, pretending to cuff a few of his friends as he passed to let everyone know he hadn’t been utterly subdued.
Dicky arrived with a jug of water and a towel. He shouted, ‘Mind out!’ to those gathered about Vince.
Someone, horrified by Dicky’s obvious intention, called out, ‘Dicky! That’s not right. Don’t. Poor Vince.’
But Dicky did. He upended the whole jug, and Vince spluttered into life. Dicky handed him the towel and gave him a heave up onto his feet.
When Vince emerged from the towel Dicky declared, ‘Vince Jones, you’re banned for a week, too.’
‘Me? He hit
‘You hit him first.’
‘I only caught him a glancing blow.’
‘Anyone who dares to give Colin even a glancing blow is an idiot. I certainly wouldn’t.’
‘Well, you’re nothing but a shrimp, Dicky Tutt. Knee-high to a teaspoon, you.’
Angered by this derogatory reference to his lack of height, Dicky squared up to Vince. With his fists at the ready, he said fiercely, ‘Now we’ve got a constable in the police house again, we won’t have long to wait if I send for him. And I will. I’m not tolerating a disorderly house.’
This Vince didn’t challenge, and the furore died down. The rest of the customers settled back to drinking, and watched Georgie clear the glass away and mop up the water. Vince trundled home on his bike to Greta, contemplating a week of the Jug and Bottle in Penny Fawcett and not liking the idea.
Georgie went round talking to her customers to re-establish confidence again, and within ten minutes the whole thing had blown over. But the discussions about the market lingered on until closing time.
The leaflet that had been pushed through every letterbox said the market opened at eight-thirty in the morning. What the village hadn’t bargained for was the stallholders arriving just after six to set up their stalls. It was impossible for them to do this silently. The village filled with busy sounds: boxes being unloaded; trestle tables being snapped upright with loud bangs; van doors opening and then slammed; extra shelving erected on the tables; dogs barking; children shouting; engines revving and the vans rumbling off to park in the field. Some vans stayed in situ so their owners could refill their stock from them, which caused trouble when the mothers arrived bringing their children to school, and the sickly sweet smell of doughnuts cooking on the stall nearest to Jimbo’s Store wafted across the cottages all morning and completely ruined Jimmy Glover’s breakfast porridge.