Episode 6: Nigel on the case
Nigel left London early so he could get onto the M4 well ahead of rush hour. Dipping into a bag of boiled sweets until they were all crunched up and swallowed he’d contentedly driven along, allowing the satnav to guide him. After miles of dual carriageway, he’d made a turn onto a B road, driven through several pretty little villages of mellow stone and mullioned windows, and then taken a spur onto a very narrow, winding, twisting road. Sunlight flickered and strobed through the high hedges, forcing Nigel to blink and screw up his eyes.
At last he saw a ‘Welcome to Ham-Under-Lymfold’ welcome sign, some of the words and the little image of a church above them badly in need of repainting, and he drew the car to a stop alongside the village green. He and Amelia had tried to find some information about the village, but they’d only come across one small paragraph on The Wiltshire Tourist Board website that mentioned a 12th century church, a pub and a cafe.
Deciding it was too early to go to the pub, Nigel pushed open the door of Perkins’ Bakery & Cafe and set a small brass bell tinkling above his head, startling the young waitress behind the counter. She hastily put whatever she was reading out of sight and sashayed out from behind the counter. Beaming at Nigel, she adjusted her tight, low-cut leopard-print top and breezed, “Hello I’m Debbie what can I get you?”
Nigel chose to sit by the window, pleased to see the checked tablecloth was fresh and clean, and sat down. “Hello, Debbie. Can I see a menu, please?” He was hungry and rather hoping for a full English breakfast to fill his stomach before beginning his exploration of Ham-Under-Lymfold.
“Oh I’m sorry,” said Debbie, taking a pad and pen from her frilled apron pocket, “but there’s no point in giving you a menu as we’re very limited today ’cos of it being Sunday yesterday and there was a power cut early this morning so my dad only got one batch of bread done.” She adjusted her top again, revealing a tiny bit of scalloped black lace. “They’re out shopping now and things will be back to normal tomorrow though they’re both still sad after the funeral and our microwave’s on the blink so I may as well just tell you what I can do.”
Nigel could only gape up at her as she reeled off the choices with minimum punctuation: “Sandwich roll tuna ham or cheese or any combination of those white brown or granary bread coffee and walnut cake or Victoria sponge.” She paused for a moment, eyes raised to the ceiling and tapping her pad with a pencil, “Of course you could have a baguette or a toasted sandwich if you’d prefer or a buttered crumpet or tea cake because we use the grill thingy for them and that’s working OK.”
She talked so fast that Nigel, keeping his eyes firmly on her face, had to concentrate hard to follow what she was saying. He was disappointed that he wouldn’t be getting much of a meal, but he was hopeful that this young, chatty girl would give him valuable information about the place and its inhabitants. He said politely, “Funeral?”
“Oh yes old Mr. Heavysides he is or rather I should say he was the father of the landlady of The Blacksmith’s Anvil he was squashed by a load of old beer barrels because of the great flood.” She paused for breath. “The flood was years ago of course and lots of people were drowned in their beds can you believe it but people said the water got into the wood of the cellar shelves and rotted them over the years until they couldn’t hold the weight and poor Mr. Heavysides was in the wrong place at the wrong time he was nearly a hundred which is really old but it was very sad just the same.”
Nigel, who’d been holding his own breath in wonder at Debbie’s ability to speak so fast and without much intonation or pause, gratefully exhaled.
But Debbie wasn’t quite finished. “I heard people say that he’d only need a flat coffin on account of being squashed which would save some money but I saw the coffin in the church and it looked normal size to me.”
Nigel peered at Debbie’s pretty but heavily made-up face to assure himself that it was an attempt at a rather poor joke, but she looked perfectly serious. Either she was extremely good at leg pulling, or she was the type that took everything she heard literally.
She waved her pad. “Have you decided what you’d like to eat?”
Nigel ordered a pot of tea and a tuna mayonnaise sandwich, brown bread. She carefully wrote it down and bounced away, calling brightly over her shoulder, “It comes with salad and homemade coleslaw it’ll just be a tick there are newspapers in the rack by the door if you want one it can be awkward eating by yourself can’t it.”
Nigel glanced briefly around the clean but rather dull interior of the cafe. In the far corner was a bakery counter, all the shelves lined with paper but containing just two round loaves and half a dozen baps. He stared out of the window, clean on the inside but dusty on the outside, not quite seeing the row of cottages on the other side of the green because his mind was busy. He wished Amelia was with him now, but she was suffering a little from morning sickness and had decided to stay behind in the office, so he was on his own with not much idea of how to go about doing what he’d been hired to do.
Debbie appeared with his food, and he was gratified to see that the plate was piled high with a long and thickly filled sandwich, and what appeared to be homemade crisps as well as the promised salad and a glass dish of coleslaw. He could smell that the bread was freshly baked. While Debbie placed the plate, cutlery, teapot, milk jug and cup and saucer in front of him, Nigel asked, “Perhaps you could tell me what places of interest are around here?”
She crossed her arms under her magnificent chest, “Oh well not much actually.” She gave it some thought. “I suppose the church is nice enough it’s very old.” She considered some more, her head on one side. “And Merryvale Farm is quite nice too if you can stand the smell you can buy eggs there and manure for your garden and you used to be able to get vegetables too until poor Mr. Merryvale had a heart attack and fell into the grain silo took ages for anyone to find him now that was a lovely funeral so I’m told with Bluebell following the coffin right into the church.”
Nigel swallowed quickly, almost choking on a chunk of bread, so he could ask the burning question, “Was Bluebell his daughter?”
“No silly!” Debbie laughed and flapped her hand at him, “She was Mr. Merryvale’s favourite cow. Anyway Mrs. Merryvale runs the place now with the help of an old chap who should’ve retired years ago and sometimes agricultural students from the college they don’t stay long though.” A breath. “She can’t pay them enough and the farmhouse roof leaks and there’s no central heating neither and she stopped growing vegetables she’s ever so nice is old Mrs. Merryvale and I’m sure she must be lonely since her husband died and her sister hasn’t had anything to do with her for years and years now.” Breath. “Oh and you must go up to the old water mill just drive until you reach the river you can’t go any further or you’ll be in the water and that wouldn’t do your car any good now would it?” Breath. “You can cross the river to the mill there’s a stone bridge at the back of the village hall it’s a bit of a wreck now but it’s still safe enough to walk over and it’s a lovely spot for picnics.”
Nigel had only stopped himself from bursting out laughing by taking small bites and chewing furiously as he listened to all this. When he had to, he swallowed very carefully, not daring to take a sip of tea to wash it down in case she said something that made him spit it out all over the red and white checked tablecloth. He wished again that Amelia were with him, because she would have enjoyed it enormously.
When the food had been eaten and the pot of tea drunk dry, and the offer of a slice of cake regretfully turned down, he paid the bill and left a generous tip on the table. Debbie called out a cheery goodbye.
Fetching his camera from its hiding place under the rear seat of the car, Nigel strolled to a solitary bench at the furthest edge of the green so he could take a good look at the place. It was the quintessential little English village, a mix of charming cottages and houses, some thatched, some tiled with grey slate or moss-covered red tiles. A few were rendered white or cream, the rest were yellow and grey stone with dark brown window frames. All very chocolate-box pretty. He knew he needed to get up and walk beyond the green, perhaps visit the church, certainly locate the mill, but the long drive, the warmth of the sun and the weight of the food in his stomach was making him drowsy. He decided to just sit awhile longer and enjoy the peace.
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