003 Orders From Above: Episode 3 ‘introducing the good citizens of Ham-Under-Lymfold’

To read from the first episode click here: Episode 1

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Hartley Cordwell, Vicar of St. Peter’s Church in the village of Ham-Under-Lymfold, passed through the lych gate and strode up the gravelled path with a speed that belied his years. He’d hoped to be safely inside the church before Stanley arrived, but there he was, just outside the porch, his foul odour getting stronger with each step Hartley took. The black and grey shaggy dog by Stanley’s feet rose to his four huge paws, calmly regarding Hartley’s approach with his extraordinary golden eyes. Eyes that Hartley was sure could see right into one’s soul.

Old Stanley respectfully bowed his head and rasped, “’Ow do, Your Reverendship, sir, ’ow do!”

The vicar had given up trying to get Stanley to address him in any other way. He replied, “Good morning, Stanley,” trying not to inhale through his nose. “I see you have a new hat.”

Stanley touched the bobble hanging from the left earflap of his knitted hat. “Aye, Olive Capsby gave it me, said it were to keep me warm come winter.”

Hartley indicated Stanley’s overcoat, worn year-round, and said, “Well, it’s far from winter now, Stanley, aren’t you a bit, er, warm?”

“I’d say I be comfortable, Your Reverendship. Now then, what do you think on this?”

In but a moment, Stanley had pulled his home-made sandwich board over his head and settled it on his shoulders.

“It be a new message, d’ye see?”

Hartley couldn’t help smiling as he read Stanley’s latest offering, scrawled in garish green paint: Wen you get run over by the buss of life, call for Jesuses ambulunse.

“That’s a very nice sentiment, Stanley.”

“Well, seems ter me everyone these days has summat to worry about, don’t they, Your Reverendship, I’m just offerin’ ’em summat to think on that might help.”

“Oh, yes, indeed, well done, Stanley. Will you be joining us for the service?”

“Nay, sir, nay. I won’t be a-comin’ in. I’ll just pay my respects from out ’ere, and ’ope I don’t cause no offence by it.”

Hartley assured Stanley that no-one would mind if he stayed outside. In fact, he thought to himself, Stanley would cause far more offence by taking his pungent bodily odours inside the church than by keeping them outside in the fresh air. No, better that he stayed by the porch, as he always did before and after every service, be it funeral, wedding, Christening or Sunday Service. He greeted everyone by name and furtively pocketed with hands encased in greasy fingerless gloves any loose change that was offered. Sometimes he was given tins of dog food, too, which he accepted with good grace on Digby’s behalf.

Digby, who clearly thought he’d waited patiently long enough, took a pace forward and pushed his long nose into Hartley’s hand, insisting that his rough head and velvety ears be thoroughly scratched. Hartley, remembering when he’d been a tiny puppy, a scrap of a thing, thought he’d grown yet more since the last time he’d seen him. Where or how Stanley had acquired the dog he’d never said, but it was hard to imagine one without the other now.

Stanley chuckled and rummaged in the pockets of his overcoat – really, how he could wear it in this heat Hartley had no idea – and produced a large, bone-shaped biscuit,  which the dog accepted and ate with the utmost dignity.

“I must get on, Stanley. I’ll see you later.”

It was blessedly cool and peaceful inside the church. Hartley, keen to wipe the smell of Stanley that clung to his nostrils, breathed deeply the familiar aromas of incense and fresh flowers mingled with medieval stone, brass polish, wax candles and damp wool. How he loved his little church, every stone, every gargoyle, every nook and cranny of it. In six centuries it had witnessed so many events, and now it was ready for yet another, the funeral of old Jack Heavysides.

It was time for Hartley to get himself ready, it really wouldn’t do for the mourners to arrive before he was appropriately dressed.

His mind was so entirely absorbed with the imminent funeral, a sudden tap on his shoulder made him jump in fright. Hartley wheeled around, one trembling hand over the region of his thumping heart. “Oh, Topps, I didn’t hear you come in.” His eyes travelled down to the gravedigger’s feet, which were usually encased in muddy steel-capped boots, but he had taken them off and was standing there in his socks. Thick red ones, with holes in both big toes. His flat cap was clasped to his chest with both hands.

“I’m going on holiday.”

Hartley raised his eyebrows in genuine amazement. “A holiday, Topps? You? You haven’t taken a holiday in all the years I’ve known you, despite my begging you to do so.”

“Aye, but I’m taking one now.”

Hartley peered closely at the man; his eyes seemed a little glazed. “Is everything all right, Topps?”

“It’s just a little holiday. Don’t know how long for. My cousin will stand in.”

“Your cousin?” Hartley was having trouble processing this conversation. It was not only astonishing that the handyman was going away, but that he already had a replacement lined up. “Don’t you think I ought to meet him first? I mean, what is his name? And does he have your experience?”

Topps’ expression didn’t change, and he spoke as if he was half asleep. “I will introduce you after the funeral, Reverend. His name’s Uri, and there’s no need to worry about his credentials, I can vouch for him right enough. He’ll stay in my cottage and he’ll do all my jobs just as I would.”

“Right, right.” Hartley’s mind continued to race. These were probably the longest sentences Topps had ever uttered, but Hartley knew from experience that he’d get no answers to his questions. And if he was going to be away for some time, a stand-in would certainly be needed and Topps had saved him the trouble of finding someone. “So when will you be going? And where, if I may ask?”

“I’ll be going today, if you please, to my sister’s in Cornwall. After I’ve seen to Jack’s grave, of course. My cousin is already here.”

He turned on his heel and Hartley could only watch, perplexed and worried that something was amiss, as Topps pulled his boots back on and stomped outside. He certainly didn’t seem like a man going on a jolly holiday, and this was the first time Topps had ever mentioned having a sister. In fact, now he came to think of it, Topps had never mentioned any member of his family.

But moments after Topps left the church, a crowd of people came flowing in, pushing all thoughts of the taciturn handyman out of Hartley’s mind. Soon every pew was packed, about five times as many people than attended regular services these days. Hartley was not surprised, as the late Jack Heavysides had lived all his long life in the village, and had once been the jovial proprietor of The Blacksmith’s Anvil. If only, Hartley thought, he got as many regulars in his church as the Blacksmith’s Anvil did, he would be a very happy vicar indeed.

He couldn’t help but smile as he waited for the colourful congregation to settle. Everything had been arranged according to Jack’s own wishes, which had been written in heavy black biro on pale green beer mats and thrown carelessly into the top drawer of his kitchen dresser. One mat stated that everyone was to dress in their loudest, most colourful clothes, another listed the hymns he wanted, a third gave instruction that every person who attended his funeral be given a pint of ale at the wake, which was, of course, to be held in the Blacksmith’s Anvil.

The slow crunch of car tyres on gravel heralded the arrival of the hearse, and the congregation fell into a respectful silence. Heads turned as the coffin was carried in on the shoulders of four burly, grey-suited, top-hatted undertakers. When it was settled on the bier the four men had bowed their heads before respectfully withdrawing to the back of the church.

Hartley welcomed everyone and announced the first hymn, “We begin with ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’. Please turn to page 138 in your hymn books.”

There was a loud rustle as pages were hastily turned. A quietly weeping Olive Capsby played the opening notes on the organ, then tremulous voices began to sing, quiet at first but growing louder and surer until the church was filled with glorious sound.

The small coterie of regular worshippers was there, dotted amongst the rest of the mourners, and Hartley sought them out as he sang, thinking how he had seen more than a few of the village’s inhabitants through from Christening to wedding with, sometimes, a funeral or two in between.

The hymn came to a shaky end, with Olive keeping her fingers on the keys a beat too long so Hartley have to repeat the opening words of his carefully prepared sermon.

As he spoke, he gave a gentle smile to Carmen, Jack’s daughter, resplendent and elegant in a fuchsia-pink dress with a dainty matching hat, its little spotted veil covering the top half of her face. She was a sincere and devout worshipper who never missed a service, and, what’s more, arranged the weekly cleaning and took care of the flower arrangements. He would miss her when she and her husband left the village to join their son in Australia, leaving The Blacksmith’s Anvil in the care of their daughter, Cynthia.

Cynthia sat pale-faced beside her mother in a sleeveless dress of emerald-green and sea-blue swirls with a necklace of large green and gold beads and matching earrings like chandeliers. In her thirties, she had never shown any signs of leaving home, and certainly wouldn’t go anywhere now that she had charge of the Anvil. Hartley knew that the villagers had some misgivings about this, because they loved their traditional, family-owned pub and Cynthia seemed determined to ‘Introduce New Things’.

In the pew behind Jack Heavysides’ immediate family sat the very unpopular Violet Cattermole, a woman who had never been heard to say a good word about anyone. She had plenty of money, but she was mean with it, and wouldn’t even pay for a set of dentures that fitted her mouth. When she spoke her false teeth clattered like Scrabble tiles in a cloth bag. She was glowering at Carmen’s back, who she had more than once referred to spitefully as ‘Amen Carmen’. Sour as she was, though, she had perhaps the finest singing voice in the village.

He searched the sea of faces for Hilda Merryvale, Violet’s kind and gentle younger sister – the very opposite of Violet in every way imaginable – and found her several rows back. She was gazing up at Hartley with her big friendly smile, which he acknowledged with a gentle incline of his head. Whenever he read a sermon he would see her lips moving as she repeated his words a split second after he’d uttered them. Hartley was flattered to know it was because she simply relished every word. She loved all the hymns too, and sang them loudly and jubilantly, having no need to glance at her hymn book for she knew them all. Unfortunately, she was tone deaf.

Behind Hilda sat the Fordingbridge family. Freddie, the son, was a very clever, cheerful, extremely polite, skinny, spotty, 21-year old who looked more like 14. He had an amazing memory, never forgetting anything he saw or read. Ask Freddie what day of the week a certain date was and Freddie would tell you without hesitation. His dream was to become a television celebrity, so he applied for all the game shows on all the channels. While he waited for the call that he was certain would one day come, he worked stacking shelves in the out of town supermarket.

Hartley’s eyes continued to roam, and he was pleased to see his lovely niece, Lorelei Dove smiling back at him. Despite the family connection, Lorelei was not, sadly, one of his flock. Indeed, he would classify her as a bit of a New-Ager, and they’d had fierce debates about their respective beliefs. But Hartley forgave her her quirks because she was a wonderful human being. The only thing he wished for her was that she would meet and fall in love with a decent man – her last two romances had been short-lived and disastrous and she’d been left utterly broken-hearted both times.

Next to Lorelei sat Glen Perkins, owner of the bakery and café, resplendent in an orange and sky-blue Hawaiian shirt. His wife Gwen was gripping the hand of their pretty, very shapely, 18-year-old daughter, Debbie.

It was time for Hartley to call Jack’s best friend, big-hearted Arnold Capsby, husband of Olive and owner of the Post Office and General Store, to come up and deliver his eulogy. He’d been sobbing uncontrollably into a large white handkerchief from the time he’d entered the church, and now he stumbled to his feet and staggered forward like a man going to the gallows. Olive rose from her seat at the organ to stand behind him, her hand rubbing his back, whispering that he could do this. But Jack couldn’t do it. For twenty minutes he howled, hiccuped, snivelled and stuttered and through his speech in a manner that made it impossible for anyone to understand a thing he said. By the time he’d finished, practically the whole congregation was sobbing with him. Violet, Hartley noticed, was openly sniggering.

When Arnold finished with “J-J-Jack was m-my best frieeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeend,” the last word ending in an anguished wail that seemed to echo round the stone walls, Olive led Arnold back and sat him down, providing him with a fresh handkerchief, before she returned to her place at the organ to play for the last hymn, ‘Angels From the Realms of Glory’.

It seemed odd to be singing a Christmas hymn at a funeral and in the middle of one of the hottest summer’s on record, but it must have been one of Jack’s favourites because it was listed on the beer mat.  It was certainly one of Hartley’s favourites, but most of the members of the congregation were now too choked up to sing it well, so he belted out the words in his fine baritone to encourage them. Carmen to give him a grateful, if watery, smile.

At last, the service was over, and the four burly men in top hats, their grey suits making them look like pigeons in a crowd of peacocks, reappeared to heft the coffin onto their shoulders and carry it out to its final resting place.

Hartley spotted Topps over by the yew tree, well away from the grave, leaning on his spade and staring, slack-mouthed, into space. Beside him stood a tall, well-built man, wearing blue-lensed glasses and looking like a model in a fieldsports magazine. Seeing Hartley looking at him, he raised a finger to the brim of his flat cap.

Episode 4: the plan

~~~~~

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