If I said I was sad when Uncle Ted died, I’d be lying. From what I remember of the old boy, he scowled at everyone and everything. Even my dad – his own brother – called him a miserable sod. Let’s face it, when a relative you’ve only set eyes on a couple of times dies and leaves you a cottage in a coastal village in Dorset, it’s hard to feel anything resembling sorrow. Especially when it comes at a time when you’re working your socks off wading your way through the slush pile of a leading publishing house, whilst trying produce your own magnum opus. Oh, and on top of that your wife’s expecting your first child and she wants to give up her very well-paid job at a swiftly rising advertising agency to become a full-time mum.
Although I was looking forward to being a dad, the job situation was becoming a little depressing, to say the least, and to top it all I would be the sole winner of bread, the only person bringing home the bacon. I must admit, before the news of Ted’s passing, I couldn’t see any way that I could find any time, when my eyelids weren’t trying to reacquaint themselves with each other, to devote to my own literary aspirations.
So, yes, when I was called to the reading of his will, expecting to be left a ferret or a collection of cigarette cards depicting steam engines or something similar, imagine my wonderful, mind blowing surprise when I became the proud owner of a cottage in the village of Chanter’s Hide. Suddenly the future was looking much brighter. When I came home to Jan ( that’s my wife, by the way) and our town house on the outskirts of Knightsbridge (a place I was worried sick about being able to afford, after Jan gave up work) I was grinning so much my lips had stuck to my teeth.
“Don’t tell me it was two ferrets,” she said, a concerned expression crinkling her button nose.
I laughed and shook my head. “Not a ferret in sight.”
She looked me up and down. “Well whatever it is, it must be small.”
“Au contraire, mon amour,” I said, the grin widening.
“You are becoming a little irritating now,” Jan said. “Standing there grinning like an idiot. Spill before I feel the need to knee you in the nether regions.”
“How do you fancy moving to Dorset?”
She scrutinised my face for a minute or so before asking. “Are you telling me your miserable uncle Ted has left you property?”
I nodded vigorously. “A cottage on the coast, can you believe it?”
She stared at me. “This is not funny.”
I took her hands in mine. “I’m not joking sweetheart; we can sell this.” I swung my arms around, indicating the albatross that was ready to hang itself around my neck. “Move to the coast with money in the bank and live life.”
She sat down on a kitchen chair with a thump. “I don’t believe it. Where is it?”
“A village called Chanter’s Hide, not far from Bridport, apparently.”
“That’s where ‘Morrison’s’ is. We used to call in most days when we stayed at West Bay.”
“Mostly to top up on alcohol as I recall.”
She smiled. “We got an occasional baguette.”
I put my arm around her. “That was a lovely holiday – our first, if I’m not mistaken.”
“It was, unless you count that wet weekend in Bridlington.”
I shuddered. “I don’t even want to think about that place. That cottage we stayed in should have been condemned.”
Jan laughed. “It was bad, wasn’t it? I’d never seen so much damp on one wall. Anyway, forget Bridlington, tell me more about Chanter’s Hide. The name doesn’t ring a bell. I remember Abbotsbury, where the swans were and that place where ‘The Three Horseshoes’ was.”
“Burton Bradstock,” I reminded her.
“That’s the place.” She sighed. “Oh Ben, I love it down there. I can’t believe it.”
“I almost believe there is a God, “I said.
“This calls for a celebratory snifter.”
“You’re not going to sit there and drink when you know I can’t – surely?”
I shook my head. “No, I shall remain standing. Don’t worry, I’ll get you a cranberry juice.”
“You’re a bastard, you know that, don’t you? I could murder a glass of Chardonnay.”
I opened the cupboard above the sink and took out a bottle Johnnie Walker Black Label and a whisky tumbler. I unscrewed the cap and splashed a general measure into the glass. I opened the fridge, took out the carton of cranberry juice and tipped some into squash glass, which I handed to Jan.
“Just use your imagination,” I said, winking at her. I picked up the tumbler and held it out to her. “Cheers.”
Reluctantly she tapped my glass with hers. “Cheers. I hope it chokes you.”
I grinned. “Now that’s not a nice thing to say to a husband who has just told his wife she is about to begin to live a stress-free life on the coast.”
At the time, I didn’t realise how far from the truth that statement would be. As I let the spirit burn its way down into my gullet, I felt at peace with myself. I was looking forward to the rest of my life. A life to be spent with the woman I loved, a child I would soon worship, in a cottage in a seaside haven. Let’s face it – it was the stuff of dreams – or nightmares.
We put our house up for sale a couple of days later and were expecting it to be a month or two and a reduction or two in asking price before we managed to sell. Four days later, it sold – no offers and no quibbling. Even the estate agent was shocked. To top it all, the couple who bought it were first time buyers, so there was no chain. We could move to the coast and they could move into our old place. We were on a roll.
We both handed in our notices and, a month later, were looking forward to a new life.
So, there we were, in my beloved 1996 Range Rover, me driving, Jan navigating. We passed through Bridport and took the road to Abbotsbury. Just after passing the ‘Three Horseshoes’ pub and the garage in Burton Bradstock, Jan told me to take a left. I remember yelling – where? She said – there, you idiot.
I swung the wheel in the direction she indicated. I was starting to brake as the hedge loomed closer and then we were bumping our way down a rarely used track.
“Where did that come from,” I said.
“It was there all the time,” Jan said impatiently. “What’s the matter with you?”
I shrugged. “Just tired, I guess.”
That was the first time I felt slightly uncomfortable leaving ‘the smoke’ for the beautiful unknown. It wouldn’t be the last.
We had travelled a couple of miles when the track graduated to country road status and about two hundred yards on, we hit a T junction. A signpost that had seen better days informed us that a right would take us to Dorchester whilst the left turn was unnamed. It looked as though there had been a sign at one point but all that remained now was a few aged splinters.
“I think we take a left,” said Jan, a little uncertainty creeping into her voice.
“What does the map say?”
“I told you, it’s not on the map. The solicitor said it was too small to be recognized by Ordnance Survey. I’m reading his directions, only by his writing, I think he missed his vocation, he should have been a doctor. Anyway, we don’t want to go to Dorchester, so do a left.”
I swung the wheel over and we carried on, hoping for the best. “I hope the removal van finds it all right,” I said. “Anyway, what’s this crap about Ordnance Survey not recognizing it. It’s a village and it has a name. I mean they put bloody hills and all sorts of shit on their maps. I’m sure they don’t have a ‘Village Recognition Team’ that decides which places go in and which don’t. I mean, that’s just ludicrous.”
“I’m only telling you what the solicitor told me, Ben. And I don’t know how Ordnance Survey works. Do I look like a cartographer?”
“Quite possibly, yes. I believe most of them are pretty normal, and I doubt any are as pretty as you.” The old silver tongue never failed. Jan looked at me, sighed and punched me in the shoulder but the expression on her face was pure joy. I suppose I ought to introduce myself before we get any further. My name’s Ben Ebbrell and Jan, as I have already mentioned, is my lovely wife. Anything else of relevance will probably find its way into this journal at the appropriate time. I’m not even sure why I decided to keep this diary. I’ve never been a diary person before but with this new life and the looming prospect of fatherhood, it seemed, somehow, the thing to do. I am a writer, even if unpublished so far, after all.
“Look.” Jan pointed and, sure enough, the remnants of the previous road sign lay in the ditch at the side of the road, the DE of ‘Chanter’s Hide’ all that was visible. It had, obviously, lain there for some time as the grass and briars had almost devoured it.
“It’s not on the map, the sign might as well be non-existent. How do people find this place?”
We passed into the shade of massive, old oak trees as they met majestically, in a natural arch over the road, the sun’s rays pin pricks through the density of their foliage. As the ancient trees released us back into the summer’s sunlight, the first dwelling of Chanter’s Hide came into view. A wide drive, liberally decorated with cow pats led up to ramshackle barns, where a muddy John Deere tractor was at rest. As we passed, I saw the farmhouse with its thatched roof and, who I assumed, was the farmer himself. He had a roll-up dangling from his lips. He waved then touched the brim of a peeked cap that was grubby with sweat and bird droppings. I waved back thinking, if the rest of the villagers are as welcoming as this chap, we’ll get on famously.
We drove on, passing a rather pleasant looking hostelry named “The Duck and Pheasant”, followed by a butcher’s shop and a grocery. Thatched roofs were in abundance and I wondered if the village had its own thatcher. If it did, he would have to travel further afield for work as Chanter’s Hide was a tiny village with a population of probably around seventy, at most. Apart from the main street, which led, eventually, to the sea, there were only two other roads, one of which housed our new home, ‘Cooper’s Cottage’, a dwelling possibly owned years gone by the local barrel maker. That would explain the moniker. The road it was on was, imaginatively, called West Street, its opposite number not surprisingly, East Street. The main road was, indeed, Main Street.
We turned left onto ‘our street’ and fifty yards on parked outside ‘Cooper’s Cottage’. We got out of the car and surveyed our new home. A wooden gate, that had, at some point, been stained green hung askew, the top hinge hanging onto its mooring post by a lone screw. A privet hedge spread untidily from each side of the opening to meet its neighbours, both putting ours to shame. The front garden was small, about the size of four bath towels but what it lacked in length and width, it certainly made up for in height. To say it was overgrown would be an understatement, it was wild.
“Uncle Ted was no Percy Thrower, that’s for sure.” I said.
“Who’s Percy Thrower?” asked Jan.
I shook my head. “You must have led a very sheltered childhood,” I said. “He was a famous gardening expert. Used to be on the telly and radio. My Nan loved him.”
“Your Nan? And you expect me to know him?”
“Well I do and I’m only a year older than you.”
“That’s because your Nan loved him. Obviously, neither of mine did.”
I shrugged. “Whatever. It doesn’t alter the fact that this poor little garden needs some overdue TLC.”
“I’ll leave that to you then, Percy. Come on, let’s see if we can fight our way through the ivy and see what Uncle Ted thought to the inside of his house. If it’s as bad as this, you’ve got a lot of work on your hands.”
The ivy that covered the front of the building had, clearly, been left to its own devices since Ted’s death and had started to claim the widows and front door. I took the envelope with the keys out of my jeans pocket, opened it and selected the large Chubb, marked ‘front door’. I was expecting some jiggling and, maybe, a lot more juggling, trying to find the knack required to unlock this bright red portal. But no, the key went in smoothly, turned with no resistance and the door swung inwards, revealing the lounge. I think we both fell in love with the cottage there and then. The oak beams were as black as night and the walls a warm magnolia. A fireplace in the middle of the left-hand wall promised a cosy glow in the winter. It was just the feel of the place, it felt like home. I know that sounds like an overworked cliché but that was how it was. It was as if this house had been waiting for us.
“I love it,” Jan said. “Charlie will too.”
Charlie, by the way, is our unborn child. When asked if we’d like to know the sex of Jan’s bump, we were both in agreement and declined the offer. Bump’s name, however, was sorted. If she gave birth to a boy, we would name him Charles, after my dad, who died from lung cancer when I was nineteen. There aren’t many days when I don’t think of him. My mother left the pair of us when I was only six years old to start a new life in Australia with a man called Sean O’Malley, previously my dad’s best friend. Despite his devastation at this double betrayal, he held it all together. He continued to work at Barkers, building hydraulic cartridges, a job he’d had for two years and hated, to provide for the two of us. He’d drop me off at Auntie Carol’s on his way to work, she would then take me to school, collect me afterwards and feed me. Dad loved his sister and the feeling was reciprocated. She loved me as well. She was a brilliant cook and spoilt me rotten. I don’t have many memories of my mother and the ones I do are of a nasty, selfish woman who used to find pleasure in yelling at me. In all honesty I think that dad and I were better off without her. I don’t remember enjoying weekends before she left but when it was just the two of us, dad and I had some really good times, bowling, fishing, having a kick about in the garden or just chilling, watching films or cartoons on the telly. As my dad didn’t possess Auntie Carol’s culinary skills, we’d normally eat pizza or burgers on Saturday night and join Carol and her husband, Tim for Sunday lunch. I loved my dad and still miss him. Although Jan never met him, she appreciates how much he meant to me. Mind you, if she hated the name, Charles, I feel there might have been some gentle but firm persuasion to urge me in a different direction. As it is, whether the bump is a boy or a girl, the little treasure will be connected by name to my Dad, Charles for a boy and Charlotte for a girl, both, obviously, addressed as Charlie.
So, there the three of us were, Jan and Charlie and I in the living room of our new home, a slight aroma of pipe tobacco still lingering. I put my arm around Jan and for a few seconds we were in our own, little world. The blast of the removal van’s horn shattered our reverie. From the photos I’d been shown most of Uncle Ted’s furniture was either dilapidated or so old it wouldn’t have been out of place on the set of a remake of Oliver Twist, so, I’d had the cottage cleared to make room for our own stuff.
“Best go and see them, before they take our furniture and dump it in the sea,” said Jan.
When you have a moment like that, it’s hard to return to reality. Briefly it was as if my dad was there with us. I gave the old chap a nod and a wink and went back outside to see the movers. I just hoped everything would go in without having to take windows out.
The two removal blokes were just getting out of the van, rubbing their knees, and having difficulty straightening their backs. I figured they must have racked up getting on for 130 years between them and it seemed apparent that they
weren’t still doing this because they loved it.
For several hours, we assisted Tom and George, the removal men, humping our furniture and cardboard boxes into our new home. If we hadn’t, I think they would have been puffing and panting until midnight. Jan opened the box marked ‘Kitchen’ about halfway through, found the kettle and cups and made a cuppa for us all. She had had the forethought to bring a foil pack of teabags, a little pot containing sugar and a tin of that dried milk stuff with her. Now most men are used to refreshments being available when they desire them and, thanks to women, they normally are. I have to admit, when Jan produced these items, it just seemed normal to me. It’s only as I’m writing this down that I see how much we take them for granted, women, I mean, not teabags. There are certain things us men know we don’t have to think about, unless, of course, we don’t have a woman to think about them for us. We are the dreamers; they are the pragmatists.
The four of us sat on the tailgate of the removal van with a ‘brew’ in our grubby hands. Tom took a hefty swig and let out a satisfied sigh. I wondered if he had an asbestos mouth, as I was still blowing mine, the dried milk not doing anything to cool the tea. As if reading my mind or thinking what a wimp I was, he said, “When you’ve been at this game as long as we have and you’ve drunk as many brews as we have, you become sort of…immune to the heat. Maybe you build up some sort of tolerance, I don’t know. All I know is that if it ain’t steaming, it ain’t gonna do the job. What say you George?”
George was a man of few words. He took a similar swig, belched, and nodded.
Thinking about it, George was a man of no words. Since their arrival I hadn’t heard a peep out of him. He and Tom had been a duo for a number of years, that was clear. They knew what they were doing, and vocal communication wasn’t necessary. They’d perfected the puffing, panting, back stretching and pained expressions. It was all part of the act, ensuring as much help in emptying the van as was possible. I had seen Tom look at Jan’s bump with disdain. Pregnant women weren’t much use in the removal trade. She was good for tea making though and as he took another mouthful, Tom winked at her and grinned. “Nice cuppa Missus,” he said.
“I’m glad it meets your exacting standards,” said Jan, with a tight smile.
Tom looked at George and they both shrugged. After tea break, I stepped up the pace, wanting it over and them gone. I don’t think they had upped their pace since the 1980s, so I hefted the rest of the boxes in while they struggled with the bed.
As they were closing the tailgate, the job done, mostly by me, I saw, from the corner of my eye, a figure approaching. I turned and was face to face with, who I assumed to be, the local vicar. I think it was the dog collar that gave it away.
He held out his hand. “Welcome to Chanter’s Hide, Mr Ebbrell.”
I wiped my hand on my jeans and shook his, wondering how he knew my name.
“Thank you, Reverend……….”
He waved a hand. “My name’s Simon,” he said with one of the whitest smiles I’d ever seen. “We’re not big on formalities here. I know it’s a terrible cliché but we’re just one big, happy family, which is why I’m here.”
“Right,” I said, my look of confusion, obviously, evident.
“I’m the welcoming committee, so to speak.”
I’d seen a few ‘men of the cloth’ in my thirty odd years on this planet and I’m not saying they were all ugly, but I’d never come across one so slender, so well-groomed, and so bloody handsome. His lustrous, grey hair was longer than I expected of a vicar and he bore more than a passing resemblance to George Clooney. He was also charismatic. I don’t think I’ve ever used that word in real life before. His eyes were blue but darker, more like a stormy sky at sunset – if I could have described it any other way, believe me – I would have.
“We’re not really religious,” I explained, uncomfortable under his intense gaze.
He laughed and I couldn’t help thinking how perfect that laugh was. I mean, there are so many people who annoy you when they let out a sound like a braying donkey or a gibbering chimp when they laugh. I’d never used charismatic before and I’d, certainly, never described anyone else’s laugh as perfect. In fact, I’m sure I had never had such strong feelings after a first meeting before, with either sex. I’d like to say except for Jan but, if I did, I’d be lying again.
“Ah, Mrs Ebbrell,”
Jan had her rubber gloves on and was coming to collect the mugs. Her face lit up when she saw the vicar and I couldn’t curb my jealousy. I had never been jealous before, knowing we were solid, but at this precise time, watching her bat her eyelashes at a vicar, for God’s sake, I was experiencing feelings I’d never known.
“I’m here to welcome you and your husband to Chanter’s Hide,” he repeated with another pearly white, disarming smile.
“I was just telling the vicar, I mean Simon, that we weren’t really religious, babe.”
Jan looked at me as if I’d just fell to earth from another planet. I wasn’t surprised. I’d never called her ‘babe’ – never, and I had no idea why that had suddenly changed.
Simon laughed that perfect laugh again. “God is in all of us Ben and so is Satan. Who you decide to buddy up with is down to you. I’m not here to preach, just to ask you to come and meet the rest of our big family at the pub tonight. Shall we say 7.30?”
“It’s been a long day,” I said with a tired grin.
“We’ll be there. Simon – was it?”
“Yes Jan, Simon Drake, at your service.” He flashed that smile again and I’m sure I saw Jan’s knees tremble.