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Authors: Jonathan Gash

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The Romans and Greeks, of course, used it. Its flowers dye yellow,
but its leaves when festered in water for fifteen days dye the loveliest blue
you'll ever see in your life. Not as stark as ultramarine or lapis lazuli, but
a gentle mild blueness you can't help but love. Add the two, and your wool dyes
green.

Anciently, whole countries flourished on woad. Like in France,
where Toulouse's rich architecture came directly from exporting the stuff in
little rondels a bit bigger than a golf ball. Until about 1562, when holiness
raised its ugly head and religious wars sent the Protestant woad merchants
diving for cover and the industry vanished. Oops. I remembered where I was.

'Who did it?' I asked. A forger nearly as good as Packo?

'Some ancient artist long dead, Lovejoy. Anonymous. What's the
matter?'

The pong of linseed oil was the matter. Frankly, the daftness of
forgers takes your breath away. Little girls have the best noses. Ask one if a
painting smells. She'll wrinkle her little two-year-old conk and go, 'Poooh!'
She'll even tell you if it's the same aroma as your linseed stand oil. It
takes, I assure you, nigh two years for linseed scent to vanish, so it's a good
test. We've all got noses. There's no excuse for getting ripped off.

'Doesn't feel right. It stinks oil. You've been done.'

'But. . .' He turned to Miss Witherspoon in perplexity. 'Wasn't it
walled up two hundred years?'

'It certainly was, Father Jay!' she pronounced sternly. 'I had
heard this man was honest. Now I can see he's a conniving dealer who wants this
painting himself for a song!'

Patience evaporated. 'I've told you the truth. I've got some rich
Americans to see.'

'Americans?' I swear Father Jay went pale.

'They want me. For breakfast,' I added pointedly.

'Oh. Not here, then?'

'Why would. . . ?' I caught myself. I'd almost asked why anyone in
his right mind would want to come to Fenstone. ‘Er, in town.'

'Please don't have any truck with Lovejoy. He's a crook.'

That was when I left them to it. I'd had enough. It was barely
dawn. I was stuck in the wilderness, hungry as a hunter, no nosh bars anywhere,
and a million miles from civilization where Addie, the Yanks, waited - I hoped.
In an earlier, more condign, age I would have gone to the nearest church door
and knocked, asking for food to stave off my gnawing hunger pains. Not now, not
now.

Naturally, I couldn't resist peering into the church. A stout
balding gentleman with a pronounced shuffle - stroke? - was lighting altar
candles. He looked vaguely familiar, but it was hard in the gloaming. Then I
thought, tweeds, country gent, the auction, Addie Bigmouth explaining why.
Otherwise, empty. The poor box beckoned, but with true nobility I walked away,
hoping never to see Juliana Witherspoon and her priest ever again.

 

8

There was enough light to see the mighty metropolis of Fenstone
was rousing, when I found a bus stop. No bus. Maybe eighteen cottages,
once-splendid houses abutting the road, no pavements in rural fashion. The bus
shelter was falling. I mean literally, its glass shattered, roof holed. No
timetable to show when, if ever, the last train to Marienbad was due. I walked
about. The pub was forlorn, announcing a 'good pull-in for travellers' in a
flaking, frankly disbelievable, notice. One in three of the cottages was
vacant. Faded FOR SALE signs bleached. Fenstone hadn't grown astride a trunk
road, so no traffic was through. A man leading a massive shire horse came by.

We exchanged greetings. 'No caff hereabouts, is there?'

'Na, son. Ta'll get nothing at the Bull. Closed for good.'

'Shop, then?' Some sell milk, boxes of orange juice with a straw.

'Got none now.' He stopped the great beast by leaning back on its
chest and slithering his boots until it understood.

'Bus?'

'Noon, to Dragonsdale, Tuesdays and Thursdays.'

He was wondering what I was doing there. I explained, 'Been to
your church, and I want to get home.'

'Left before prayers, then.' He grinned. 'Services to nobody.
Empty since Reverend Fairhurst died of his accident. This stranger's not filled
it, with his rituals, all smells and bells.'

I found myself grinning. East Anglia's religious issues were
decided by the Civil War, for good. 'Nice bloke, though.'

'Foreign, they do say.'

Odd, I've a cracking ear for accents. I'd bet my next meal Father
Jay was as indigenous as us. 'He's had troubles.'

Never question country folk, you'll get nowhere. Leave a space,
and answers come a-flowing. Upset over Juliana's crummy forgery, I'd flitted
without hearing of their impending robber.

'Well, churches nowadays . . .' Me, leaving a casual space.

'He'm Fenstone's bad luck, son.’ He spat a parabola, the grot
splattering on a fragment of pane. Tinker had a rival, the Fenstone champ.

'Bad luck! A holy man?'

'Aaah.' A local yes, with mistrust. 'With him, Middle Snoring's
come nigh to vanishing.' Middle Snoring was Fenstone's old name. 'Post office,
gone! Go to Dragonsdale for a stamp. Our lady's farm had a fail lately, all bad
luck.'

'Your farm! Failing!' I tutted.

'Her got new animals, goo-an-acko. Wool fit for a king, nigh's
good as East Anglian sheep. All to nought, that.'

'Hard luck.'

'Luck?' He nodded the way Suffolk shows apoplectic rage. 'Took
sickness, they. The Ministry come in from Lunnon, closed the herd.'

'Still, you've got your church.' I was starting to wonder now. It
didn't only seem to be Jox that suffered in Fenstone.

'St Edmund's? How she lasts I dunno. If it weren't for Miss
Witherspoon there wouldn't be no church at all. What she makes from visitors
wouldn't keep a gnat in beer.'

'Oh, I dunno.' I was only talking, not really hoping. 'Some
villages attract tourists in summer.'

'Aaah. But who wants their likeness these days? Fenstone's not had
a Ringing Day these three years. That Jox tried, but folk're saying it's
cursed.'

A mist was slowly spreading from the fields opposite. A river vale
lay there, where the track fell away. The gleam of daylight by the lych gate
had gone The faint gold light in the church windows lessened as the mist
climbed the buttresses. I tried to ignore it.

Ringing Day is November Fifth, that folk mostly call Bonfire Plot.
A relieved parliament ordered bells rung to celebrate Guy Fawkes getting caught
before he could blow everybody to blazes. It's a time of bonfires, fireworks, parkin
cake and general wassailing. No more in Fenstone.

'Can't your policeman help?'

He snorted derision. The shire was restless, snorting, not liking
the mist. 'Police? We'n't no bobby these nine year.' He looked round. 'Best be
off before I'm blinded.'

'Mist comes every morning, does it?' This sort of thing happens.
East Anglia in some areas is flat as a pancake. Village lads wear joke
T-shirts, EAST ANGLIA MOUNTAIN RESCUE.

'And evening, this time of year. Cheers, son.'

'Morning.'

Now, likeness' means a painting in old speech. I looked hard at St
Edmund's. Its old name, Parish Church of Middle Snoring, had been painted over.
Who'd change an interesting old name to a boring new one?

Which made me start listing failures in Fenstone, apart from
Fenstone. Jox's orchestra, antique shop, restaurant, wildlife scheme, estate
agency, others I didn't know about. And now some lady's farm of, what
creatures, goo-an-acko? What the hell was a goo-an-acko, with its wool fit for
a king?

No cars coming. I started a long lonesome plod, away from Fenstone
and its eerie creeping mist, thinking as I went.

 

Names are odd things, when you think of it. Women usually hate
their forenames, though they tolerate their surnames well enough. Villagers are
almost as bad, especially when their village name's a national joke. But when
you've grown up in this creaking old kingdom of ours, the laughter of tourists
is simply a surprise. I mean, a Canadian lass laughed on hearing of Middlesex.
You've got to make allowances. But do Canadians roll in the aisles at
Newfoundland's Blow Me Down? Or Americans fall about at Intercourse,
Pennsylvania?

There is a Little Snoring in Norfolk, and a Great Snoring.
Cornwall has Goongumpus. There's North Piddle, for grinning motorists to
photograph each other peeing nonchalantly by the name sign. Essex has a village
called Ugley. It's a pretty postcardy place, but I'll bet they wish they had a
quid for every time a visitor's asked their bar ladies, 'Are you an Ugley woman
ha-ha-ha?' There's our mega-famous original Gotham. Notthinghamshire. The
village of Lover is popular every St Valentine's Day.

With a name like mine, I'm only thankful I don't come from
Wormelow Tump, Cold Christmas, Swine Sty, or Maggot's End. Names make you
careful. I almost got in a scrap about the name Pratts Bottom, south of London.
There's a serious market in signs stolen from villages with names like Shellow
Bowells. I'd hate to be their parish clerk - you'd need a standing order with
sign makers for replacements every fortnight. The undisputed leader is
Anglesey's little Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch.
Its railway platform sign is the one most at risk - if you could find enough
stalwarts strong enough to carry the frigging thing. Muck, I'm told, runs it
close. The point I was making, as I trudged finally out onto a road with actual
real motors running between civilizations along it, is that to us they seem
pretty dull. To people who've never heard of them, they're worth a detour,
cameras at the ready. Tourists flock, camcorders whirring, to buy T-shirts and
porcelain mugs, ice creams, patronize the local taverns and maybe send franked
postcards to give the lads a smile back home.

Middle Snoring had chucked away its birthright, and money, by
changing its name. I could have got a lift from the tourist charabancs that
would have been thronging the place. But, 'Fenstone'? Who'd go out of his way
to be photographed there? The village of Crackpot, the equally famous
Fattahead, though, you're talking visitors by the score. For ever, wallets at
the ready.

Mind you Whistlejack's an odd name, too, even for a horse.

 

By the time I'd got a lift - a couple wanting to buy a boat at
East Mersea (which incidentally lies south of the northerly West Mersea, so not
even humdrum names are safe) - I was sure of one thing: Fenstone, lately the
village of Middle Snoring, was not simply atrophying. It was being strangled.

The village's killer was not Juliana Witherspoon, for she seemed
to be fighting might and main to keep the church going. And she was doing her
bit for the lone stray tourist with her proffered likenesses'. Jox, fabled
doomer, was also trying, in his stalling way. And some lady with her strange
animal farm.

Not only that, but that painting had been quite a good tilt at forgery.
Should I visit Packo Orange in gaol, ask him a thing or two? I'd definitely
suss out Juliana. And see Jox. And excavate Fenstone, and its lonesome parish
priest. And get something to eat, to survive long enough to do all these.
Still, I wouldn't suffer the ultimate hunger, for Sundays spelled Sabrina,
thank God. At two o'clock we'd make smiles. Before that, there was the tomorrow
auction.

Due about elevenish, today. (Tell you more in a sec.)

The couple dropped me off at the bowling place in Leisure Planet,
where they intended to nosh. They didn't invite me to a burger, I noticed,
thanking them and piking away. That's what you get for being nice to people for
umpteen miles. Sometimes I wonder where gratitude's gone. Ten past ten by the
town hall clock. Still in time. Then I saw a long mobile home pull in, engine
coughing over the greensward. The legend SEX MUSEUM was emblazoned on it. I
felt a wash of relief. Food, in the nick of time! Thank God for nutters like
Tryer.

 

9

The engine wheezed, choked explosively, gave a final gasp. Tryer
slammed from the door, smiling when he saw me waiting.

'Just a minute, sir!' he croaked - he has this gravel voice from
years of fairgrounds. 'We'll be open in . . . Oh. Lovejoy.'

He's as blind as a bat without his bottle specs. Tryer rhymes with
sigh-er, meaning one who tries (and, by implication, never succeeds, or his
nickname would be something like Champ or Hero). I've known him since gaol.

'Disappointed, Try?' I cracked cheerfully. Never look desperate or
hungry, or you get scorned. It applies most when meeting women. He has Chemise,
Deo gratias
.

'Thought you was a customer, Love joy.'

'Chemise in?'

'Aye. Just brewing up.'

'Chance of a cuppa with the belle of East Anglia?'

He grinned, sheepish. Chemise is really ugly, but if you've tact
you don't remark on this. I like her. Tryer's besotted since they met last year
and invented the Sex Museum. Local peelers move it from town to town, not
wanting sordid exhibits in their little patch, thank you. Makes me wonder how
some people manage to breed.

BOOK: The Grace in Older Women
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