Authors: Rebecca Tope
This book is dedicated to librarians everywhere, with thanks
By Rebecca Tope
About the Author
At Peaceful Repose Burial Ground, North Staverton
Stephanie and Timmy, their children
Den Cooper. Former police detective, partner to Maggs
Geraldine Beech. Organiser of the Food Chain and farmers’ markets
Peter Grafton. Fruit juices
Sally Dabb. Pickles
Hilary Henderson. Honey and jams
Maggie Withington. Bread
Joe Richards. Organic meat
Oswald Kelly. Ostrich meat
Julie Grafton. Wife of Peter
Della Gray. Resident of North Staverton. Karen’s friend, sharing childcare
Bill Gray. Della’s husband
Finian and Todd, their children
Mary Thomas. Friend of Geraldine Beech and Hilary Henderson
Archie Dabb. Sally’s husband
Robin Dabb. Sally’s son
Stephanie’s enthusiasm was all the more irritating for being so normal. Four years old, attracted to the sugars and colourings and froth of foods on offer, who could blame her for getting so excited?
‘It’s rubbish, Steph,’ Karen repeated. ‘Hardly any of it’s real food.’ She glared at the rows of brightly coloured yoghurts and Fruit Corners. ‘Nothing but artificial junk.’
Her daughter pouted. ‘Why did we come then?’ she wanted to know.
Good question, Karen silently acknowledged. ‘Because we have to get some tinned stuff. Beans and things,’ she said feebly. And dishonestly. She didn’t know, now, why she’d ventured back into SuperFare after almost a year of buying
exclusively from village shops and local markets. Curiosity, probably. And something darker and deeper than that. The huge space, full of dazzling light, violent chaotic colours, jangly music and thronging shoppers – it was where people went. Had she perhaps been missing something by so determinedly avoiding it? She looked around her at the faces: most of them concentrated totally on the shelves surrounding them. Their eyes were narrowed, their mouths tight. It didn’t strike Karen as an enjoyable process. There was something dogged and inhuman about these consumers doing their weekly food shop. Or so she liked to think.
She hoped she wouldn’t meet anybody she knew. Recently, she’d become more and more outspoken on the iniquities of supermarkets. It would look like hypocrisy to be caught here now. Like a professed atheist turning up in church.
‘Can we get some Coco Pops?’ Stephanie asked. ‘And those – what are they?’ The child was pointing at a row of bright yellow bottles, containing some sort of pseudo milk drink.
‘No,’ Karen said vaguely. Then more firmly, ‘No, darling. I’m sorry. I know it all looks wonderful. But it’s nearly all rubbish, I promise you. The meat’s tasteless, the fruit comes from the other side of the world, everything’s processed and flavoured with chemicals. It’s all travelled
thousands of miles and been sitting in fridges and freezers for weeks.’
‘Mummy!’ Stephanie planted herself firmly in front of her mother.
Karen looked down at the child and smiled. ‘I know,’ she agreed. ‘I’m being mean, aren’t I. Look, it was a big mistake coming here. Let’s just go, OK. Before they suck our souls out. This place is full of badness. The demons of commercialism are lurking behind the soft drinks, waiting to corrupt us.’ She twisted her face and clawed her hands in illustration.
Stephanie giggled doubtfully and indicated the trolley containing two tins of baked beans and a jar of pickled beetroot, tilting her head to one side.
‘Let’s just leave it,’ Karen whispered, rolling her eyes. ‘Come on. We can go to the swings and slides on the way home.’
They almost ran back to the clanging jostling ranks of checkouts, where Karen paused. There was no way out other than through a gap between conveyor-belts, every one of which had a cluster of people waiting to pay for their goods. It was heresy to approach without a basket or a trolley. Already they were attracting glances.
Karen took a breath. ‘Excuse me,’ she said loudly. ‘My little girl’s going to be sick. Can you let us out quickly please.’
The obstructing shoppers parted like the Red Sea before Moses, and seconds later they were in the car park.
‘Mummy!’ Stephanie breathed, eyes wide with horrified delight. ‘You told a lie!’
Before she could defend herself, Karen became aware of a familiar face close by: a woman with thick grey hair and dark eyebrows. ‘Hello,’ she said, without thinking. ‘Fancy meeting you here!’ The dark eyes probed mother and daughter, frowning slightly as if sensing something odd. Karen reproached herself. If she hadn’t said anything, the woman probably wouldn’t have noticed her. Now Mary Thomas, good friend of Geraldine Beech, would know she, Karen, had been to a supermarket.
‘Oh – hello,’ responded the woman distractedly. ‘Are you coming or going?’
‘Going,’ Karen said.
‘We didn’t buy anything,’ Stephanie explained capably. ‘I felt sick, so we came out again.’
‘Poor you,’ Mary Thomas sympathised. ‘Are you all right now?’
‘Yes. I’m all right now.’
Afterwards, Karen couldn’t say for certain whether it was the sight or sound or smell that struck her first, but it was the smell that remained with her. The hot, sharp, smoky reek that came billowing at them from one of the
big plate glass windows of the supermarket.
‘Mummy!’ Stephanie shrieked, her voice lost in the booming, crashing, screaming noise. Karen wrapped her arms around the child, bending over her, without thought. But she didn’t hide her face and she didn’t close her eyes. She watched the glass as it rained down on the tarmac, less than ten yards away; the shadowy faces and bodies inside the shop; the frozen men and women dotted around the car park; all staring in amazement at the new hole in their beloved cathedral of consumerism.
Drew couldn’t stop shaking. Even the next day, his hands trembled and his heart outperformed itself. After the fifth repetition of ‘You could have been killed’ Karen ordered him to stop it.
‘But we weren’t,’ she chided him. ‘Neither was anybody else, come to that. Get a sense of proportion, you idiot.’
An old man had been sitting close to the abandoned carrier bag containing an explosive device, and was accordingly on life support in hospital. A young man and a middle-aged woman had both sustained unpleasant injuries inflicted by shards of metal from the window frame; others had been shocked. But the greatest impact had been taken by the window itself, which had obligingly exploded outwards onto an empty
stretch of car park, causing no further damage.
The small town buzzed with the story of the supermarket bomb. The police appeared to be stunned and bemused, devoting their efforts to minute forensic examinations of the scene. Why in the world, they pondered, should anybody want to blow up SuperFare? Everybody
the place. It sold loaves of sliced bread for 18p, baked beans for 16p and fifty-nine different sorts of breakfast cereal. Nobody had ever suggested that it was a bad employer. Indeed, it had recently donated a handsome sum towards a local scheme to give disabled children a better life. ‘Must have been a nutcase’ was the comfortable conclusion.
‘Small explosion, nobody killed,’ summarised Maggs carelessly to Drew in the office. ‘If Karen and Steph hadn’t been there, you wouldn’t have given it a second thought.’
‘I think I would,’ he argued mildly. ‘It’s not exactly a regular occurrence around here. Somebody must have felt pretty strongly to have done that.’
‘Maybe they meant it for their mother-in-law, and left it in the supermarket by mistake.’
Drew managed a laugh. ‘Maybe they did,’ he said.
Karen had not admitted to Drew quite how shaken she’d been by the incident. Not merely
because Stephanie had needed more reassurance and attention than she’d expected, but because an attack on a supermarket was uncomfortably close to home. Over the past year, she had become increasingly involved in growing vegetables and fruit for sale, and participating in promotional and educational initiatives on behalf of locally produced food. She knew a number of people who loathed supermarkets and everything they stood for. And, it quickly turned out, everyone knew where she stood on the matter, too.
The Monday after the bomb, two police officers visited Karen at home. ‘Mrs Slocombe? We understand that you were at the scene of the explosion at SuperFare on Saturday afternoon. Would you be kind enough to answer a few questions for us?’
Silently, Karen assured herself that it was mere routine. She had given her name and address to the police when they appeared minutes after the bomb exploded, and had been told there’d probably be some sort of follow-up. That’s all it would be. She nodded, with a faint smile, and ushered them in.
They weren’t particularly probing. They had a routine set of questions, noting down the answers with little sign of intelligent interest. ‘Do you know anybody who might have a reason to want to attack the supermarket?’ was the only
one that seemed at all likely to lead to any sort of increased understanding on their part. It was also the only question that gave Karen some difficulty.
‘Well …’ she began, wondering how little she could get away with revealing. ‘Um … I do know some people who advocate local food production. You know – they worry about food miles and exploitation of producers …’
She’d lost them. The phrases she’d used were part of daily discourse in the circles she mixed in, but they were clearly impenetrable jargon to these two young men. The one with the question sheet held his pen suspended over the paper. ‘You mean a sort of pressure group?’ he asked eventually, with a frown.
‘Yes, that’s right,’ she nodded. ‘You know – the people who run the farmers’ markets, and all that.’
Relief suffused his features. ‘Oh, yes. Mrs Beech and her friends. She’s a school governor where my boys go.’
That was all right then, Karen realised wryly. Geraldine Beech was a dynamo who threw herself into a wide range of community activities, most notably a collective dedicated to local food production, known as the Food Chain. She was a friend to everyone, it seemed, including the police. The fact that she regularly
made impassioned public speeches against the evils of supermarkets had evidently escaped their attention.
‘One last question – did you see anybody you knew in the supermarket?’
Watching him, Karen realised that this was not on his crib sheet. He’d come up with it all by himself, which rather increased her respect for him, as well as her sense of unease.
‘Just Mary,’ she responded. ‘In the car park. Didn’t she give you her details?’ She couldn’t recall whether or not Mary had still been there when the police arrived. The man cocked an eyebrow at her.
‘Mary?’ he prompted.
‘Oh, sorry. Mary Thomas. She lives at Cherry Blossoms, in Ferngate. You know where I mean?’ She took a moment to note his blank expression. In former times, there’d have been a local bobby who wouldn’t have needed any more than the name to be completely up to speed. Like they’d been when she’d mentioned Geraldine. Mary, it seemed, was rather less prominent, and Karen had to elaborate: ‘That big house with a stone wall around it, right in the middle of the village. Anyway, I’m sure she’ll have reported to you on the day, the same as I did.’
‘Her name isn’t here,’ the policeman said. ‘Which means she didn’t make herself known
to the officer at the time.’ He wrote down the name and address she’d supplied. Karen found herself feeling mildly anxious at having given Mary away, before reminding herself that this feeling automatically accompanied any passing of information to the police. It seemed like a built-in gut reaction, no matter how innocent everybody might be.
The policemen left then, without enquiring as to whether she or Stephanie had suffered any aftershocks or post-traumatic symptoms. Not their problem, she assumed, with a flicker of resentment.
Den Cooper came to collect Maggs from work, as was his habit since they’d set up home together in the neighbouring village of South Staverton, three miles away. No longer a Detective Sergeant, he had found a modest job with the local Social Services, while he tried to decide what to do with the rest of his life. Karen kept him supplied with vegetables, and somehow he and Maggs managed to pay their rent and run a car. Maggs was now a full partner with Drew in his Peaceful Repose Burial Service, taking a share of all profits – but despite a steady increase in business, it was still a very modest income for them both.
Den and Maggs found themselves surrounded by people – including Drew and Karen – who had
more or less dropped out of the consumer society. Instead of competing for the biggest car and most luxurious home furnishings, it had very much gone the other way. There was a contest, albeit unacknowledged, to see who could exist on the smallest income, and with most ecological virtue. This approach seemed to have spread rapidly amongst the local inhabitants, so that barter and mutual help were almost the norm. Everybody recycled as much as they could and helped each other with maintenance work. They gave each other lifts to save on fuel, and organised working parties to tackle large communal tasks. It felt like a big enjoyable game to most of the participants, with a dramatically snowballing effect as more and more ideas floated up on how they could enhance this ‘alternative’ lifestyle. Even Maggs, cynical child of her age as she was in many ways, quickly became one of the greatest enthusiasts.
And yet nobody quite knew where all this had started. Drew’s natural burial service had been a factor, slowly establishing itself as a popular alternative to the sterile, formulaic cremations that had been threatening to become the only option. For a wide range of people the allure of the open field, on its gentle slope with a burgeoning assortment of young trees marking the graves, ensured that they brought their custom to Drew when their parents and spouses
died. From a rocky beginning, where one funeral a week had been a distant goal, he and Maggs had somehow held on until three years later they were regularly conducting four or five interments each week. The eight-acre field, in theory capable of accommodating three or four thousand graves, was still far from full. But Drew had never intended to fill it as densely as a municipal cemetery, and had allowed his customers to choose favoured spots, so that it was now dotted with saplings and rough-hewn boulders, indicating burials right across the available land. Keeping track of precisely which plot contained which individual was one of Maggs’s main tasks, and she performed it with total conscientiousness.
Karen’s interest in growing vegetables had arisen even more casually. There had been a
section of land between the house and the burial ground, which most people would have put to lawn with perhaps a few shrubs and borders. While there was some lawn remaining, with a climbing frame and swing for the children, most of it was now devoted to potatoes, beans, sprouts and a lot more. A substantial surplus had coincided with the launch of a local farmers’ market and she had taken a stall from the outset. As the whole initiative staggered from tiny beginnings to an increasingly popular source of locally grown fresh food, Karen had found herself more and more involved.