It was about ten to seven when Jan opened the garden gate and, I must admit, I felt a certain pride as it swung shut behind me. I looked down and nodded – a job well done. The heat of the day had dissipated a tad and a tepid breeze murmured quietly; my overgrown privet tickled by its soft touch. Apparently, the vicar’s house was located at the end of West Street and bore the moniker ‘Chanter House’. What else?
“I thought vicars lived in vicarages,” I said, as we came to the crossroads. “I mean, all the vicars I’ve known lived in vicarages.”
“And just how many vicars have you known, Ben?”
Never having been a religious family, I couldn’t recall a single ‘Reverend’. “Well personally, not many,” I admitted. “But it’s a well-known fact. Vicars live in vicarages.”
“And most of those vicars also have a church at their disposal, am I right?”
“Possibly,” I said.
“Well Simon’s house has to act as both, vicarage and church.” She said it as if she was explaining to a child. Her tone and the fact that she always referred to him as ‘Simon’ put my back up straight away. I decided the best course of action was to stifle my annoyance and keep schtum.
Jan sighed. “You can sulk all night if that’s what you want to do. I’m going to enjoy myself.”
I stopped. “Maybe you should just go on your own,” I said with a shrug, finding and embracing my inner child.
“Whatever.” She walked on down West Street with that beautiful gait that only heavily pregnant women have, leaving me, hands on hips, like a petulant kid.
“I’m not sulking,” I said and caught up with her, with little difficulty.
“Are you going to stop all this ridiculous, jealousy stuff?” She asked as I drew level.
“What jealousy stuff? I’m not jealous,” I said with as much conviction as I could muster. “I don’t like false, smarmy bastards, that’s all.”
“For Christ’s sake, Ben. Will you get a grip?”
“We’re here,” I said flatly.
A dry-stone wall gave way to a wide, wooden gate, its stain glistening in the evening light. A grey, slate plaque etched with ‘Chanter House’ in silver appeared defiant in its confirmation. The gate swung silently inward and we crunched eastward up a gravel drive, canopied by ancient, oak trees. A minute later, the house itself came into view, a huge, grey, stone mansion, its windows elaborately leaded. The front door was a massive slab of polished ebony, as black as coal, a silver knocker reflecting the sun’s weakening rays. Jan grabbed it and gave it the old three and two rap. Within seconds we were face to face with one of the most beautiful women I’d ever seen.
“Good evening Ben, good evening Jan, I’m Shona, Simon’s housekeeper. Please come in,” she actually purred. I never thought I’d ever use that word to describe the way someone spoke but, to be honest, I couldn’t think of a better word in this case. She turned and we followed her into Simon’s inner sanctum. I couldn’t help appreciating Shona’s extremely attractive physique, the swaying hips, the long, slender legs, all encased in a tight black mini dress, her red hair hanging in lustrous curls down to her shoulders. I suddenly felt a sharp pain in the ribs.
“Close your mouth,” Jan hissed. “You look like a dribbling simpleton.”
I did as was asked but couldn’t take my eyes off Shona’s buttocks. That old song ‘Poetry in Motion’ could have been written about those buttocks. Men who say things like – I never look at another woman – are liars. All men look at other good-looking women, it’s in our DNA, just as women look at fit men. It’s natural, why do people get uptight about it. I suppose it’s a bit like window shopping, it’s nice to look, but you have no intention of buying.
“What a beautiful house,” said Jan, giving me another dig in the ribs.
“Eh, oh yeah, very impressive,” I said, the polished, oak panelling not even a close second to Shona’s sexy wiggle. She stopped suddenly and I nearly knocked her over. “Sorry,” I mumbled.
Her laugh was musical and warm. It made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. She turned and reached forward to open the door she’d stopped in front of. Her left breast brushed my arm and her perfume was as intoxicating as a bottle of scotch. “Simon’s in here,” she almost whispered, and I nearly drowned in those dark, brown eyes. She opened the door and I, practically, fell into the room.
“Ben, Jan, so glad you could make it. Come in, have an aperitif,” said the vicar, his perfect teeth flashing in a charming smile.
“How could we resist,” said Jan. If smarming were an Olympic sport, she would have won a gold medal. I almost threw up but then realized she was trying to get her own back for my leching at Shona, who, unfortunately, had left us.
I gave him the best smile I could manage and said, “Good of you to invite us.”
“Nonsense,” he replied, with a wave of his hand. “As vicar of this parish, I would be very lax in my duties, if I didn’t welcome you properly.”
“Oh, so it’s just duty then?” I said with a nod.
“I think you’re trying to twist my words, Ben,” he said genially, but I’m sure I saw a hint of irritation in those stormy, baby blues. “Just an expression. I am very happy to have you over for dinner. It’s a chance for us to really get to know one another.”
This time I did look around, having nothing else to distract me. We were in the library, the walls covered with shelves of books and it only took a cursory glance to assume that quite a few of the tomes on show were, probably, first editions and worth a lot of money. A couple of books, especially, caught my eye, ′The Book of the Law’ and a volume by Aleister Crowley called ′The Book of Lies′ and, although I couldn’t remember why these titles disturbed me, I was surprised to find them among the likes of Dickens, Hardy, Pope and poetry collections by Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron and Keats. “A very extensive library,” I commented.
“I’m glad you approve, Ben. Books are food for the soul. I’m sure you agree.”
“Some,” I concurred. “But as Edward Bulwer-Lytton put it in the 1800s – the pen is mightier than the sword. Some literature can incite and, indeed, corrupt.”
“Very true, Ben. I look forward to many interesting discussions but, for Jan’s sake and, of course, the baby’s, shall we eat?”
I nodded, wondering what had happened to the aperitif. As if reading my mind, Simon said, “We’ll have our aperitif in the dining room, if that’s agreeable?”
I nodded again, beginning to feel like one of those dogs in the backs of cars.
“You have a beautiful house,” said Jan.
The vicar smiled and took her arm. “It was built in 1859 for a rather dodgy character named Edward Chanter,” he said. “He, apparently, made his fortune from smuggling, both goods and people, the latter sold as slaves throughout the south west. He had this house built to his own, extremely strict specifications – there is supposed to be a secret passageway to the island a small distance from the beach, would you believe?” He laughed. “I’ve been here five years and I haven’t found it, although there are a few within the house itself.”
“So, what happened to him?” Jan asked.
“Well, the authorities cottoned on to his illegal activities and closed in on him. If you believe the vague accounts of his final demise, he escaped through this mythical tunnel to ‘Smugglers’ Rock’, that’s how it was known.”
I remembered my earlier trip to the beach and looking out to the island in question, not realizing its history.
“So, did they nab him on the island?” I asked, unable to hide my curiosity.
“No, no they didn’t. They rowed out to the island and searched it thoroughly but found no trace of old ‘Edward’. The official conclusion was that he’d realized he was on course for a sizeable prison sentence and thrown himself in the drink.
“I take it they never found his body.” Despite my dislike of our host, I was intrigued and would have loved to fire up the laptop later and Google ‘Edward Chanter’, but as we had no internet connection that would be out of the question.
“No, by all accounts, he disappeared without a trace.
“And what about the village? Who named it ‘Chanter’s Hide’?” I continued.
“When Chanter built this house, there was no village, that was the whole point. It was somewhere he could conduct his clandestine affairs without detection; or so he thought. The village grew slowly over the next century and records are, again, extremely vague, to say the least. As to when it adopted the name ‘Chanter’s Hide’ – that’s not known either.” Simon opened the dining room door and we both gasped, I, reluctantly, of course.
Oh, what a gorgeous room,” Jan cooed.
I was back in nodding dog mode. “Very nice,” I conceded.
“Yes, he may have been a bit of a rogue, but he had an eye for style,” said Simon.
The ‘bit of a rogue’ description disturbed me a little, especially coming from a man of the cloth. He had his hand on Jan’s back, just above her buttocks, leading her into the dining room. He turned to me and winked.
Vicars do not wink, that is a fact; like the Queen doesn’t get down and shake her booty. There are some things that just don’t happen, and a vicar winking is one of them. I have to say, I was about to grab hold of the son of a God when Shona brushed past me; a little too slowly to go without note, her right breast lingering, not unpleasantly, against my left arm, her perfume becoming less alcoholic and more narcotic.
“Come, Ben. Sit.” She pulled out a chair and I did as I was told. Jan allowed Simon to usher her to a chair opposite. If I’m honest, I firmly believe she would have followed wherever he led, if you get my meaning. Having said that, I was finding it difficult to remain impartial to Shona’s affectionate attention. I was not au fait with the ways of a serving girl but was damned sure she was taking it to the next level. She was good, I’ll give her that, and, had I not loved Jan so much, I would have been tempted. But, as I sat there within this pseudo-sexual balloon I, suddenly, realized – it was a game – to see how far we’d go.
“We’re not swingers,” I said defiantly.
They both burst out laughing. Jan looked shocked.
“What on earth are you talking about, my dear boy?” Simon asked.
I felt about three feet tall, his and Shona’s expressions ridiculing me, Jan’s filled with disgust.
“Why do you have to spoil everything?” She asked me, tears in her eyes.
“I’m sorry sweetheart, what with the move and everything, and worrying about you two.” I gave her a sickly grin and stroked her belly. “I guess I’m losing it a bit.”
“You just insulted Simon and Shona, it’s not me you should be apologising to.”
I muttered a ‘sorry’ to the pair of them but knew, deep down inside, that there was much more to Simon, Shona, and the rest of Chanter’s Hide than met the eye. I know, I’ve never been the religious sort, but, I maintain, vicars do not wink at male parishioners whilst, practically, cupping said parishioner’s wife’s buttocks. What’s more, vicars do not have housekeepers that put Sophia Loren to shame. It doesn’t happen.
Shona smiled and I thanked God she was looking at Jan. Another ridiculous expression came to mind – I could have drowned in those eyes. Suddenly, it didn’t seem so ridiculous.
“Shall we eat?” Simon asked. “Shona?”
“Everything’s ready to go,” she replied, with a smile.
“Good. I hope you’re hungry,” he said, looking at Jan.
“Absolutely,” she answered with a sickly smile.
I nodded and managed a grunt, wondering if I could smell arsenic, that’s if arsenic has a smell, of course. I was starting to get on my own nerves with my ridiculous paranoia. I couldn’t forget that wink though.
I looked at Jan, shrugged and increased the sickliness of my own smile, my top lip sticking to my teeth. I was doing an incredible job of making a complete idiot of myself.
“How about that aperitif, before Shona brings the starter?” Simon asked, smiling at me, unable to conceal the amusement he was, quite clearly, feeling.
“Oh, just a tonic water for me,” she replied, giving Charlie a pat.
“Ben? I have a fine Amontillado.”
Truth be told I could have done with a tumbler of Scotch, the way I was feeling, but accepted the sherry with as much grace as I could summon. It was apparent to me that, even though I was managing beautifully myself, I was having a fair bit of help also, in turning myself into the latest village idiot. I was annoyed that I’d aided the vicar and his fancy piece to make a monkey out of me. If I said anything to Jan about it later, she’d just call me paranoid and tell me to grow up. There were the little ‘knowing’ looks Simon and Shona gave me from time to time throughout the night when Jan wasn’t looking. Looks that said it all.
I tried my best to recover a little of my self-esteem from the sherry onwards, attempting to act like the model dinner guest.
“This is excellent,” I said, after tasting the Amontillado and, to be fair, it was rather good. Although things between Jan and I were strained, the vicar was having a great time and by the time Shona brought the starter he was beaming like the proverbial Cheshire cat.
“This is liver pate, made by our very own Sam Templeton; I believe you met him at your welcoming party.”
I remembered the farmer, the first ‘Hider’ we’d set eyes on when entering the village and nodded.
“The brioche, although toasted by Shona, was baked by George Packer, the village baker and the salad is fresh from our very own garden. Enjoy.”
We all tucked in, including Shona, and I couldn’t fault it. The pate was moist and delicious, the brioche practically melted in the mouth and the salad beautifully dressed and fresh.
“Simple fare,” said old George. “But fit for a king, I’m sure you’ll agree.”
“Very tasty,” I concurred.
“I’ve never tasted pate like it,” Jan said enthusiastically. “And the bread was to die for. And the salad – so fresh, and that dressing….” She held her fingers up to pursed lips and, I must admit, I nearly threw up. Jan had never been a creep, she had always called a spade a spade but since meeting this, so called, man of the cloth, her judgement and self-respect seemed to have taken a holiday.
Shona cleared away the plates, all empty, I accede, and Simon poured glasses of a ‘cheeky little Merlot’ for me, Shona, and himself. Jan stuck with the tonic. When Shona wheeled in the main course on a large hostess trolley, I started to salivate.
I have, on many occasions, embarked on a vegetarian regime and tried to urge Jan in a similar direction. Unfortunately, she has never seen the eating of meat as anything more than a food chain thing, with man (and woman) hitting the top spot. Her Mum and Dad were never into pets, whereas I saw two Labradors go from puppyhood to old age, watching as their poor, old legs became too weak to support them. It still brings a tear to my eye when I think about the vet coming to the house and leaving with Jake’s limp body wrapped in a blanket; I loved that dog. When Sally followed him, a year later, I was at Bristol University and, although sad, I didn’t have to witness the life slipping from her eyes, as I had with the old feller. I’ve always loved animals, especially dogs, the beauty, the simplicity, the dependence they have on us to provide sustenance and warmth. I always feel guilty when I eat meat but try and make myself feel better by telling myself that if I became vegetarian, no animals would be saved. I know - it’s a copout.
The huge, silver platter on top of the trolley was a meat eater’s dream. There were slices of beef, pork, and lamb. On the second shelf were roast, new and dauphinois potatoes and a selection of fresh vegetables in garlic and cheese sauces. Three silver gravy boats contained, what I believe are now called, jus. The overall aroma was breath-taking. I was struggling to stop myself from dribbling.
“All of the meat is locally reared, and the vegetables grown here at Chanter House. We pride ourselves in being self-sufficient in the ‘Hide’.” Simon boasted.
I winced. The term ‘Hiders’ was bad enough.
“A lot of ‘Hiders’,” I didn’t attempt to disguise my contempt for the expression. “Must, surely, do their big shop at Morrison’s in Bridport.”
The vicar and his moll looked at me as if I were dog shit that had become embedded in the tread of their brand-new walking boots. “We encourage all members of the village to support the community. To do otherwise is, quite frankly, frowned upon.”
I was flabbergasted. “So, if we sneak out and get some Morrison’s doughnuts, we’ll be flogged. Is that what you’re saying?”
“No Ben, you wouldn’t be flogged,” he said, with a cross between a smile and a sneer. “I just think that once you’ve tasted everything that the village has to offer, you’ll be less inclined to supplement it with salt and vinegar crisps or Doritos, or, indeed, doughnuts.”
As Shona served us all with the meat feast, I scrutinised Simon’s features and, for the first time, felt more than discomfort. I glanced at Jan, who was nodding her head and hanging on his every word. For a second or two, I wondered if I was being paranoid. Then I remembered what my dad used to say - when in doubt, trust your instinct. My instinct, in this case, told me I wasn’t.
We made short work of the main and it was delicious. I would have liked to have found something substandard, but I couldn’t. The sweet was a simple summer pudding with all the fruit locally grown, of course. The cream was better than any I’d tasted, again, the work of Farmer Templeton. From what I’d tasted today, the idea of supporting the local community and excluding foreign sources, so to speak, was an attractive one. Had old George not been so forceful in that direction and made it sound more like an order than an option, I would have, probably, been quite keen on the prospect. When someone tells me, I can’t do something or tries to make me feel like a leper if I do, I dig my heels in. All men are free to make their own decisions in life, whether they are right or wrong; it is all down to personal choice. The vicar seemed to be trying to take that away, and that just wasn’t right, especially for a man of the cloth.
Shona had brought in a chilled Chablis to accompany desert and, once again, it was excellent.
“Do I take it that it’s fine to buy wine from outside the village?” I asked, challenging Simon’s apparent double standards.
He gave a resigned type of smile, the sort you might use while admonishing a recidivistic child and shook his head. “Joe McGrath, ‘The Duck’s’ landlord not only looks after our beers and lagers, he brews them as well. He also has a fine winery and, although the selection may not be as extensive as you would find in your local supermarket, the quality is far better. The climate we enjoy, here in the south west, is exceedingly kind to the vines. In fact, the only beverage sold in our local not produced by Joe is the cider, and Sam takes care of that. So, you see, we are totally self-sufficient.”
“What about electricity? I’m sure Joe or Sam can’t produce that,” I said, unable to curb a smug grin.
The vicar smiled back. “Well, I suppose, in a way, Sam does. You see, the south side of both of his barns are made up of solar panels. I’m not sure of the technical details, but those and power generated by methane keep the village running nicely. Throughout the summer months much more electricity is produced than we need, the residue is stored and supplements the short fall throughout the winter.” His smile widened; mine disappeared. The bastard had an answer for everything.
I knew when I was beaten. I spent the rest of the evening, keeping it zipped, nodding, and utilising my best false smile when required. Both Jan and I declined cheese and biscuits and went straight to the coffee, a chicory-based concoction (grown in the vicar’s garden) that hit the spot. I was getting really pissed off with liking everything produced ‘locally’. I longed to be served something that was a little bit iffy. At least the brandy wasn’t another of Joe’s creations, several bottles had been left in the cellar by the previous owner, along with the sherry I’d sampled earlier. So, although not locally produced, it hadn’t been brought in from outside by any existing ‘Hiders’. So, I guess that made it all right.
By the time we came to leave, it was nearly midnight. The sky was awash with stars, the moon, a silver beacon. On the coast, without city pollution the firmament is a beautiful sight, a blanket of stunning clarity. I breathed in the sea air, relieved to be saying goodnight to the vicar and his moll.
“When we’re sorted, you’ll have to come to us,” Jan said.
I nodded. “Indeed,” I said, not quite as eagerly as my wife.
“Plenty of time,” said Simon. “I know how stressful it is to lay down new roots and make a house your own. Take your time and make sure the little one doesn’t become distressed.” He waved his hand in the direction of Jan’s bump and then looked at me. “You make sure you look after them both, Ben.”
Once again, I felt the statement to be more of an order than a piece of friendly banter.
“Don’t worry, I will,” I said sharply.
He grinned, that irritating – I love winding you up – type grin. “I know you will, young man.”
My fists clenched and I really wanted to punch the patronizing bastard in the face. He knew he was pushing my buttons; I knew he was, but I couldn’t help rising to the bait. I was as angry with myself as I was with him.
“Well, goodnight and thanks for a wonderful meal.” I grabbed Jan’s arm and nearly dragged her down the drive.
She pulled free, glaring at me. “Oh, Simon, you couldn’t recommend a good plumber, could you? Our water flow isn’t as good as it should be.”
The vicar laughed. “I’m afraid the plumbing is ancient and the whole village could do with an upgrade, but it isn’t financially viable. Unfortunately, we can’t barter with the water companies, they need hard cash. I’m afraid it would cost a small fortune to bring our waterworks up to date. I guess we’re all used to it.”
Jan smiled, “I suppose we will have to be, as well then. It’s been a lovely evening; we must return the compliment.” I gave a half-hearted smile and guided Jan down the driveway. When we reached the road, she pulled her arm away and glared at me.
“What has got into you lately?” She snarled. “You’re acting like a madman. God knows what Simon and Shona thought. At times, you were downright rude.”
“There’s something not right,” I said, frowning. “Vicars don’t wink, for a start.”
“What are you talking about?” She suddenly looked concerned. “I’m starting to worry about you.”
“You didn’t see him,” I said. “All night he was taking the piss out of me and schmoozing you. And, another thing, how many vicars have you seen with a ‘housekeeper’ like her?” I emphasized the word housekeeper, indicating it was a euphemism.
“You really are becoming fixated and paranoid; I’ve never known you like this.”
“You just can’t see past his George Clooney looks and false charm,” I moaned.
Jan sighed. “Not this rubbish again, please.”
I sighed. “You’ll see.”
“What, Ben. What will I see?” She stopped, her hands on her hips, a combination of anger and worry flashing in her beautiful, brown eyes.
I shook my head. “I don’t know yet. Come on let’s go home, it’s been a long night.”