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Patricia counts her cards

CHAPTER 2

You will remember that Mrs Post is sorting, Patricia gazing, Lord Jo sleeping, while Rex is on his knees. David is waiting, Inky mending his tyre, and Cadbury imagining armies by the well. The Kid has found a hole, but run at the arrival of Alky. And Billy lies somewhere dark and cold.

We find Patricia counting her birthday cards again, and sighing. It wasn’t a dramatic sigh, like some unemployed stage actor, because Patricia had no time for shameless displays of emotion.

‘Lord, spare us from hysterical emotional reaction!’ she said to herself, keeping things appropriately under control.

Rather, her sigh was an inward sigh, and well-marshalled. She had two less cards than last year, which on the face of it was not good. But wait a minute – let us retain some perspective here. (Patricia thought perspective important.) Some people had died during the year, so clearly they were no longer able to send cards. And she still had more cards than anyone else she knew – a great deal more. It wasn’t a cause for pride. But perhaps it showed something about how she lived and helped people.

People still irritated her, however. The folk of Misty Longings were wonderful in many ways, and a constant joy, but they were not beyond being irritating on occasion.

‘Time’s running out, Patty!’

Sometimes acquaintances in the village said this, when they met her buying fresh bread in the Baker’s or sampling the jam at St Bede’s church fete.

‘The body clock is ticking!’

But Patricia would stay calm at all times, and just say she was very happy; that things came when they did, and that sort of thing.

She cleaned out the cold coal fire – the sort of fire which sent wispy smoke into the village sky, on a winter’s afternoon. She loved the wicked freedom of the flames, and their merry dancing in the hearth. Obviously humans cannot behave like that, but it was delightful to watch, nonetheless. She looked across her neatly bordered lawn to the big Manor House beyond, where Mrs Pump was already doing for Lord Jo.

‘I’m not sure what to make of Mrs Pump,’ she thought to herself, though she knew very well what to make of Mrs Pump, who she regarded as less than pleasant. They may have both been nurses at one time or other, but that was where the similarities ceased.

*

Lord Jo, by the way, wasn’t really a Lord at all. Far from it! He was born a long way from the Silver Spoon shop, and attended the school of hard knocks from a very young age.

‘He’s more a lout, than a Lord,’ said Algernon, on occasion.

But Jo did have more money than others, which is important – even in a traditional sort of village like Misty Longings, where some say Cromwell himself lodged on one of his campaigns. Mrs Pump, like Algernon, is dismissive of Lord Jo.

‘Money can’t by class,’ she says.

This is true, in a Confucian sense, where virtue is the only calling of those who rule. But money can buy property, massive properties, which feature saunas, mini-bars in snooker rooms, and gardens large enough for tennis courts. This is not traditional class, but what we might term ‘new class’. And money could certainly buy that.

And Lord Jo was hardly tactful with his new-found status.

‘King of all I survey, Mrs Pump! That’s me!’

‘If you say so,’ she replied, as she hoovered the large hall way.

‘Lord Jo of Misty Longings! Who’d have thought it?’

‘The rat catcher is coming at 11.00am,’ replied Mrs Pump. And then under her breath: ‘So you better keep yourself hidden.’

Mrs Pump disliked many people. But why did she so dislike Lord Jo?

*

Patricia was a great keeper of journals. She wrote and wrote and wrote, in her big flowery hand.

‘Dear Diary,’ she would say at the beginning of each entry – but it wasn’t as girly as it sounds. In fact, there was nothing of the girl left in Patricia. She was a woman. And as a woman, she had duly recorded the unfortunate incident with Billy yesterday. What had happened? Billy had just got too angry for his own good. There had been no choice but to call the police; he had to be taken away again and locked up somewhere safe, where he couldn’t harm others or himself. People said she’d handled the incident well, which was gratifying, but really, she had just wanted to help the lad.

‘It must be terrible to feel such rage,’ she wrote in her diary. ‘And this – such a lovely part of the world!’

It made no sense – no sense at all. Perhaps she would go to the Manor House later, and speak to Lord Jo about what could be done. That’s how much she cared about Billy. Sometimes she felt she was the only one who did.

Meanwhile, Alky walked up the path to his cottage, which he had called The Palace, because he was Algernon Key, and a rather fine fellow, don’t you know. It was always good coming home; and always good going out. Either was good, with a bottle – just to settle the stomach. It was largely medicinal. As he turned the key in the old door, he was trying to remember where he was last night, and came to the conclusion that he’d been to London, though he couldn’t remember why. ‘Old friends, probably,’ he thought. ‘Yes, it was probably old friends and no doubt they’d had a very good time of it. They usually did.’

But now bed beckoned for Alky. At last!

*

‘Don’t you know?’ said Mrs Post to Inky, when he enquired about how many tyres she thought there were in the world. They had met outside the Post Office as she put out the rubbish – all neatly bagged and sorted.

‘No, Mrs Post, I don’t rightly know. Faskinating question though, isn’t it? To think that there are a finite number of tyres, and that they could actually be counted!’

(It should be said that Inky sometimes said ‘fascinating’ as though it had a ‘k’ in it.)

‘You know what, Inky?’ said Mrs Post with a wicked smile.

‘What?’

‘You make me ‘tyred’ with all your questions!’

‘Oh, I’m sorry Mrs Post,’ said Inky, and cycled off quickly down the road, before Mrs Post could explain that it had been an amusing aside, and that she wasn’t really tired of his questions, quite the contrary, though actually she was quite tired of them, because they did go on and on, and to no great purpose. Or indeed any purpose. Reality Jane said that honest questions were a good thing, but for Mrs Post, an honest question was usually a stupid question in disguise, and at the end of the day, they rarely got anything sorted. Questions, questions, questions! She hadn’t liked the police questions either, when they had come round being nosey.

What did she say? She had just told them she hadn’t seen any man. Simple as that!

‘A man has been seen knocking on your door, madam,’ said the young woman.

‘If you’re referring to Lord Cromwell, then that was a little before my time,’ she replied.

It was in her house that the great man was supposed to have stayed, shortly after his victory at the Battle of Naseby. That’s why her house was simply called Cromwell’s. Apparently, he had had particular business in the village, though what that business was, had been lost in the debris of time.

‘We’re referring to a man seen entering your premises rather more recently,’ said the Detective Constable from Lesser Needing, were they had their own police station. ‘The 21st century, not the 17th.’

He wasn’t going to be put down by some hoity-toity resident of this postcard village. He knew his history, and reckoned Cromwell to have been one of England’s finest military commanders.

‘I haven’t seen any man, and have no idea what you are talking about,’ said Mrs Post. ‘Now if you’ll excuse me?’

‘We may be back, Mrs Post,’ said the DC, before leaving.

Mrs Post was furious. Why didn’t the police catch thieves, instead of wasting everyone’s time with ridiculous lines of enquiry?

*

‘Why, O Lord, why?’ was not a question asked by Rex – but one asked often by the psalmist. It had appeared three times in his morning psalms, so he had to ask it as a priest. It wasn’t, however, a question he would personally get involved in. What was the point?

He recited the set psalms each day to an empty church.

‘The believer is never alone,’ he reassured himself, as he looked out across the vacant pews. He did sometimes feel alone, however – and not just when he sat here by himself in the ancient church of St Bede’s. Sure, he was vicar of the most beautiful village in England, but that didn’t mean everything was perfect in his life. Somehow, he had never quite met Miss Right. Or indeed, Master Right. It was hard to be sure about these things, wasn’t it? And though God was always there, it wasn’t as though you’d know it. He wasn’t always getting in touch, or having a laugh and a joke. For Rex, God remained largely absent – but it was a kind sort of absence. And a lovely village.

So returning to our question, although the psalmist this morning kept asking ‘Why, O Lord, why?’, Rex did not. This was a question asked only by people stunned at how awful everything was – hardly appropriate in Misty Longings, where thatched roofs glistened with winter frost, and holly trees hung heavy with berries red.

‘Such beauty cannot be described with words. Yet here it is, freely displayed and gorgeous to smell, touch and behold. I am a lucky man indeed!’

Rex closed the old church door, and walked slowly through the graveyard, as the first glimmer of light broke in the sky. He tried never to rush through this place. Here, the quiet company of those who had gone before, never failed to calm him a little; and made him pause for thought, as good priests should.

‘Any advice for me today, my friend?’

Yes, sometimes Rex would pause at a gravestone, and ask for help. Perhaps it was a child who had died aged 9 in 1857, or an old man who died aged 83. Either way, Rex believed they held wisdom in their graves quite beyond his reach. And so under his breath, he often asked: ‘Any advice for me today?’

Perhaps he would drop in at Café Disappointment, and see how poor David was. Rex was a pastoral priest, and the Café was warmer than the rectory of Misty Longings, which had seen neither decorator nor electrical man for over twenty years.

And then a sudden whoosh! of action, as Inky flew past on his bicycle. This village seemed to be getting busier by the day!

‘Hello, Father priest reverend!’ he shouted, almost knocking Rex over in the half-light of the village morning.

‘Father Priest Reverend?’ thought Rex. That boy! He still hadn’t learned the right words of address. Perhaps he never would!

‘Good morning, Inky!’ Rex shouted back, with a wry chuckle. You had to laugh that the youth of today understood so little about the more formal side of the national church.

‘Billy’s back in the cell, they say!’ said Inky, breathlessly.

Rex was pulled up by this remark, for Billy always made him feel uncomfortable.

‘Really?’ said Rex.

‘Mrs Post told me!’ said Inky.

‘Best place for him, I’d imagine,’ replied Rex, in a kindly and reassuring way. He always felt happier when Billy was in the cell. Keep him there! Forever! Throw away the key! If that was best for the boy…

Meanwhile, it was quite dark in the large hole in the High Street. Just supposing anyone had fallen in. Or been thrown in…

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Picture postcard of The Village

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