The mill had more holes than tiles in its roof and nature had all but taken over its interior, but Nigel fell instantly in love with it. As he photographed the old building, noting that the water wheel still looked pretty sound, plans for its renovation and eventual resurrection as a restaurant set his mind spinning with possibilities. He could hardly believe that he’d landed the job of buying and restoring it! But he told himself he mustn’t jump ahead, he had yet to make the purchase, and there was a long way to go before he’d have the joy of drawing up plans and hiring builders.
He knew from his mysterious client the name of the woman who owned it, but thought it would be imprudent to say so to his sharp-eyed, self-appointed tour guide. Still clicking away with his camera, he said, “Stanley, do you know who owns this?”
“Oh, aye, sir, that be Miss Violet Cattermole.”
Nigel didn’t miss the disdainful curl in the old man’s lip as he said the name, but it didn’t dim his excitement.
“Could you tell me where she lives, is she in the village?”
“Aye, she still be ’ere. I’ll take you back to the green and show you ’er ’ouse, if you like?”
Hardly able to believe his luck, Nigel grinned and replied, “That would be excellent, Stanley, thank you.”
The old man whistled for his dog and the trio retraced their steps to the village green. Stanley strolled over to the bench and swiftly strapped his sandwich boards back on. When they were settled on his shoulders he said, “I’ll leave you ’ere, sir, if I may. That there be Miss Cattermole’s place, the one with the green door.”
Nigel, his mind bent on what Violet Cattermole might have to say to his proposal, put out his hand to offer a friendly shake but remembered in time the unhygienic state of Stanley and hastily shoved both hands in his pockets. “I’m so glad we met, and I’m sure we will meet again as I’m certain to be back again soon.”
The old man, making no move to bid Nigel farewell and walk away, pursed his lips and fixed his beady eyes on Nigel’s face. Digby daintily stepped forward and pushed his long nose into Nigel’s thigh, as if reminding Nigel of something important.
“Oh! Oh, I do apologise, my mind was … well, sorry …” Nigel pulled out his wallet, not sure how much to give his guide. He had very little change and only £10 and £20 notes, so it would have to be a tenner. It would go on his expenses, anyway. “Perhaps you could get a tin of something nice for Digby?” Nigel said, leaning down to stroke the dog’s ears. The dark black coat flecked with grey and ginger was rough, but the ears, almost black in colour, were like velvet. Digby gruffled with pleasure as Nigel scratched, then as if hearing an unspoken word from Stanley, he ran to his master and Nigel walked them amble in the direction of the church.
Before going to see if Violet Cattermole was at home Nigel decided a large glass of something cold would be just the thing after his long walk round the village. But when he got to the Blacksmith’s Anvil, a fine old building with two bay windows either side of the half-glazed double doors, he was disappointed to find it closed. He read the black-edged sign on the door announcing the pub would re-open the next day, and remembered that the recent funeral had had some connection to the landlord.
It would have been a pleasant place to while away an hour or so before seeing Miss Cattermole, and also a great place to meet a few of the good citizens of Ham-Under-Lymfold, but clearly that would have to wait for another time. In the window were several notices, one of them saying that they had rooms to rent, shared bathroom, meals extra. Nigel made a note of the telephone number then read the printed menu: chicken and chips, ham and chips, pie and chips, sausage and chips, ploughman’s lunch with Stilton or cheddar cheese, chips an optional extra. Such simple fare certainly wouldn’t offer any competition to the high class restaurant Nigel envisaged his client would offer at the Mill.
With a sigh, Nigel decided not to return to the cafe and more of Debbie’s breathless and unpunctuated speech so he trudged to Violet’s cottage. Maybe she would invite him in and offer him a cup of tea.
It was a handsome cottage, slate-roofed where it must once have been thatched, original diamond-paned windows, oak-timbered, the planes and surfaces of the walls charmingly uneven. Just the sort of cottage Amelia would love, Nigel thought, as he rapped sharply on the dark green door and waited.
Deeply disappointed, he glanced around, but there was no-one to ask where Violet might be. He rooted in his pockets for pen and paper to write her a note.
“Would you be looking for Miss Violet Cattermole?”
Startled, for how could someone have appeared so suddenly, Nigel fumbled and dropped his pen. “Er, yes. Yes, I am.” He retrieved the pen and smiled sheepishly back at the grinning man in the sharply creased red trousers and plaid shirt who had addressed him. There was something familiar about him, something in his stature and bearing, the curly dark hair and perfect teeth… only Nigel couldn’t place it. The eyes were hidden behind blue lenses, but Nigel could tell that the man was amused by something. By him? Gosh, that expression, that feeling, was so familiar, but try as he might, Nigel couldn’t remember where he’d experienced it before.
“She’s in the shop,” the man informed him. “She’ll be gossiping, knowing Violet, so you might want to go and meet her rather than wait on her doorstep. I’m on my way there myself.”
Nigel thought the little village store and Post Office would be a good place to go, not only in the hope of meeting Miss Violet Cattermole, but he could also buy a local newspaper and some sweets for the journey home. He fell into step beside the man.
When they entered the shop the woman behind the counter glanced with curiosity at Nigel, then beamed at the other man and cheerily greeted him, “Hello, Uri! How are you?”
Nigel watched Uri stroll to the back of the shop to get whatever he’d come in for, still racking his brain as to why he found him so familiar. It was like a brain-itch he just couldn’t scratch.
A poke in the ribs brought his attention back and a gravelly voice wrapped out, with strange clicking noises that reminded him of Scrabble tiles in a cloth bag, “You’re not from around here. I saw you walking about with that tramp Trout. Where you from, eh?”
Nigel looked a considerable way down onto a black straw hat with a large pink flower on one side. Beneath the brim two eyes, as small and black as currants, glared up at him. He smiled and gave his rehearsed speech that he was searching the locality for a property to develop, and he’d just seen the old ruined mill.
The woman pursed her thin lips, as if she’d just sucked a lemon. “Is that right?”
Nigel had an uncanny feeling that this was the woman he sought. “You wouldn’t be Miss Cattermole by any chance, would you?”
In the face of an implacable stare, much like Stanley’s, Nigel waffled on, “Only I was told that the mill belonged to a lady called Violet Cattermole.”
“Well, some would question that she’s a lady,” the woman cackled. “Interested in my mill, then, are you?”
“Well, I’d certainly like to discuss the possibilities.”
By now two more women had come into the shop and they and the shop owners behind the counter were listening with interest to this exchange.
“And just what would you do with it?” The old lady rummaged in the large brown bag looped over her elbow and pulled out a wrapped toffee. She removed the paper, popped the sweet into her mouth and started ferociously chewing and sucking on it with a lot of unpleasant noises.
Nigel baulked at doing business with this formidable old biddy, but, just like dealing with the dreadful Mrs. Bingley, it was something he would have to do. He said, “Well, as I said, I’m a developer. I’ve been hired to locate a suitable building for a top-class restaurant with a few luxury bedrooms. I’d need to do some surveys, of course, but from what I’ve seen so far the mill has lots of potential and is in a magnificent location.”
“A restaurant!” the old lady barked, as if he’d said he was going to open a brothel. She swallowed the remains of the toffee, but there were remnants of it stuck around her front teeth.
“Naturally, it would be sympathetically restored and renovated by local craftsmen. The water wheel looks as if it could easily be restored to working order. It would offer employment, and bring visitors to the village who might also spend their money in the shops here.” Nigel found himself getting excited just talking about it.
A man introducing himself as Arnold Capsby, owner of the store, spoke up, “The café does food, and so does the pub, as well as bed and breakfast. You’d be taking business away from them.”
“Well, I’ve eaten in the café and I’ve seen from the pub menu that it provides good, basic food, which I’m sure is wonderful, and which many people will continue to want. But the restaurant would offer a very different kind of menu. And the café is closed in the evenings, so there would be no loss of customers to them. There’d be just a few rooms, which would suit tourists who want to visit all the wonderful places around here – after all, Bath isn’t very far away, or Salisbury – but there will still be those who’d prefer bed and breakfast in a pub.”
There was a murmur of agreement, then Arnold said, “Violet, why don’t you tell this nice gentleman what he needs to know.”
Violet folded her arms across her chest in an adversarial posture, which didn’t quite come off because of her tiny stature, and declared. “I am indeed Violet Cattermole, young man, and I own the mill. A restaurant, eh? Well it won’t come cheap, I can tell you that.”
Nigel, trying to ignore the over-large, toffee-covered dentures, bowed his head slightly. “Well, I’m delighted to make your acquaintance Miss Cattermole.”
She said nothing, and Nigel tried not to feel rattled by her black, rather calculating gaze. She didn’t even blink.
“Er… right, then. My name is Nigel Hellion-Rees. I have to get back to my office in London now and consult with my client, but perhaps you would be kind enough to give me your telephone number so I can telephone you to discuss things further?”
“Well, you’re polite, I’ll give you that.” Violet turned to the plump woman standing next to Arnold at the counter, “Olive, write down my address and phone number.” She did not say please or thank you, that clearly wasn’t her way, but Olive did as she was asked. Everyone followed the piece of paper as it was handed to Nigel and stowed in his wallet, then Violet harrumphed and stalked out of the shop. It seemed to Nigel that the atmosphere immediately lifted with her departure. Nigel selected a local newspaper, a bar of chocolate and a small bag of pink and yellow pear drops and took them to the counter. Olive took his money and counted out his change.
“A restaurant?” she said, with a friendly smile. “It would certainly be nice to see that old mill brought back to life, wouldn’t it Arnold?”
Her husband nodded, “Aye, that it would.” He turned to Nigel. “It’s one of the oldest buildings in the village, apart from the church. Violet and her sister were born and raised there. Violet never married, and when Hilda moved to Merryvale’s Farm, it was agreed that Violet should have the mill.”
Olive finished the story: “Unfortunately its upkeep was beyond her, and Violet felt isolated on that side of the river, especially when the bridge all but collapsed. Then the mill was so badly damaged in the hurricane of 1987, Violet had to move out, and she bought a cottage in the centre of the village. Since then the mill’s been left to nature, sorry to say.”
Arnold took up the story. “I don’t think she’s ever been back there since she moved out. We’ve all said at one time or another what a shame it is that a piece of history should be allowed to decay, but no-one’s actually done anything about it. Too expensive, I suppose.”
Olive leaned forward on the counter. “And you really think you could make something of it?”
“Oh yes,” said Nigel, making a mental note to check out the hurricane and all the other strange disasters that had befallen this little village, “Something wonderful could most definitely be done with it. So I’ll be seeing you again, I’m sure.”
As he left the shop, someone grabbed the door before Nigel could close it and Uri stepped out into the street close behind him. He was so close Nigel could just about see his eyes through the blue lenses, and knew for certain that the man found something – probably Nigel himself – rather amusing. If only he could remember where he’d encountered something like this before!
Coming soon, Episode 9: stardust