Chanter's Hide

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We walked back in silence. I was obviously in the doghouse. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t see anything wrong with our recently acquired man of the cloth. She seemed besotted. By the time we reached our gate, my mind was racing, and I knew I wouldn’t sleep. I walked up and unlocked the front door.

“I’m going for a walk,” I told Jan. “I need to clear my head.”

“I’ll second that,” she said, going in and slamming the door.

I mumbled a few expletives and wandered back down the street. I looked up and watched a wisp of cloud creep gingerly across the face of the moon, like a cat sneaking past a sleeping dog. A faint breeze eased the humidity as I turned toward the sea. I loved this part of the world and was disappointed that I didn’t feel at home here. I wondered if my feelings for Simon would change in time and I would see him the way Jan did. At that precise moment in time, it seemed highly unlikely. I couldn’t get that wink out of my head. It was the kind that said – I’ve got your wife wrapped around my little finger and there’s nothing you can do about it. And he was right; the more I tried to persuade her, he was a wrong ’un, the more she dug in her heels and defended him. The more I became a suitable case for treatment. He had some sort of agenda, I was sure of it, and it wasn’t Godly, of that, I was almost certain.

The reflection of the moon in the quiet ripples meandering slowly to the shore was a sight to warm anyone’s cockles. After the poor 480p picture of Knightsbridge at midnight, the 1080p high definition of Dorset always blew me away. It was like going from a crabby old VHS recorder to a Blu-ray player.

It was because of this I saw the light bobbing along on ‘Smugglers’ Rock’. Someone was, obviously, carrying some sort of torch or lantern. This was becoming more and more sinister by the hour. I was starting to feel trapped in some old Hammer film. Who would be wandering about on an island in the middle of the night, but, more importantly, why? Even though the temperature hadn’t dropped even a fraction of a degree, I shivered. What had we moved into here? If I said anything to Jan, she’d reiterate her concerns about my paranoia and be even more worried that I was hallucinating. I squinted trying to make out more than the light, but, even with HD, the distance foiled my less than 20/20 vision. I turned my head, to get a better view and nearly jumped out of my skin. It was the sad boy’s father, the moon showing the lines in his face, a visage that had been shaved to within an inch of its life. His eyes were sharp and blue, appraising me.

“You must be old Ted’s nephew,” he said in a broad west-country accent, reminding me of The Wurzels.

“I am,” I said, holding out my hand. He ignored it.

“Ted was a good man,” he said. “We were good friends, he and I.”

He turned and walked back to the village, leaving me standing there, hand outstretched, still waiting to be shaken. I turned back to the island. The light was gone.

I sat on the beach for another hour or so, gazing out at ‘Smugglers’ Rock’, waiting for the light to reappear. It didn’t. I thought about Uncle Ted’s old friend, and his son. Both had appeared at their cottage window as we were on our way to the pub, but neither had joined our welcoming committee. After our brief encounter, he didn’t seem like a typical ‘Hider’. From what I remembered of Uncle Ted, I couldn’t see him as part of this pseudo-Utopian, self-sufficient, cliquish community either. If memory served me well, he was a miserable sod who didn’t have a good word for anybody. I, certainly, couldn’t see him getting on with smarmy Simon. I decided that I needed to call on Ted’s old buddy and have a chat. Hopefully, I could meet the boy as well. We’d only been here a couple of days but, already, I was feeling pressured to conform. To become a smiley, gushing member of this worrying, close-knit brotherhood. I suppose, I was looking for an ally, someone to prove to me, I wasn’t just imagining things.

I stood up and started back to the cottage. Jan would be fast asleep by now and I didn’t want to disturb her. I’d stay downstairs and stick my headphones on. Maybe a bit of Tom Waits’ unique growl would settle me. I’d keep it low; I had a pair of Grado cans but, although the sound quality was excellent, the noise containment wasn’t brilliant. I tended to rack up the volume and irritate Jan, at times. So tonight, or should I say, this morning, Tom’s dulcet tones would have to be quieter than normal.

I crept up the garden path and opened the door as quietly as possible. I opened the laptop and clicked on Spotify, I heard Jan get out of bed and pad across the landing to the loo. I waited for her to flush and get back into bed before I carried on. It wasn’t until the message came up telling me there was no internet access that I remembered about the lack of broadband. I closed the laptop, sat back, and closed my eyes. Suddenly they had become heavy. Within seconds I was asleep, and my dreams were plagued with vicars. First there was old George Clooney, dog collar shining like a slipped halo. Chuck Berry was next, complete with guitar and Berry strut, followed by Bill Clinton and Boris Johnson doing a tango. All three wore dog collars, even though old Boris was buck naked. Vincent Price entered stage left with Peter Lorre under his arm. The procession carried on, whilst Margaret Thatcher stood on a pedestal singing Tom Wait’s songs. I was just enjoying a bit of pole dancing by a dog collared Cher when Jan shook me.

“It’s eight o’clock,” she said.

I was still in the doghouse, by the sound of it.

“Right,” I said. “I’m going to grab a shower.”

There was no response. While I was under the dribble, I wondered if I needed to start thinking about redecorating this kennel. I had the feeling I was going to be spending a lot of time in it.

As I was drying myself off, the unmistakable smell of sizzling bacon wafted up the stairs. My stomach growled and my mouth watered; I was suddenly, famished. I began to wonder if my stay in the canine cottage included meals up at the big house. I pulled on a pair of khaki shorts and a plain white T shirt and headed down to investigate.

As I entered the kitchen, Jan was placing a plate of bacon, sausage, eggs, tomatoes, and mushrooms on the table.

“Is that for me?” I almost pleaded.

“Not that you deserve it, “she replied sternly.

“Look, this is ridiculous,” I said. “I don’t want us to fall out. We’ve just moved into a new house, for Christ’s sake.”

She looked me in the eye. “I don’t want any of this either,” she said. “You’ve really got to get these stupid ideas out of your head, you know.”

I was about to retaliate but thought about the greater good. I smiled and nodded.

“Yeah, you’re right. Maybe it’s all the hassle of the move. They do say that moving to a new house is one of the most stressful things you can go through.”

That brought a slight smile. “Eat your breakfast before it gets cold. I went to Ena’s while you were still kipping and bought it all fresh. All local produce, off course.”

With the ‘local produce’ remark, I nearly went off on one, but, instead, jammed another forkful of sausage and egg in my mouth, chewed slowly and said. “Is she nice, Ena?”

“All of the ‘Hiders’ call the shop Ena’s,” she said with a grin. “She’s a lovely woman, ever so helpful. She keeps a record of everything everyone brings in, so she knows what they’re due in return. It works really well, apparently. You won’t forget you’ve got to pop in for an hour or so and help her out, will you?”

“I’ll do it tomorrow, my sweet.”

“Make sure you do. Most folks around here grow their own veg. As Simon said, the farmers supply the meat. It’s a real community. Once you’ve got that jungle sorted out, we’ll have to start growing lettuce and tomatoes and cucumber, maybe some onions. You’ll like Ena.”

Along with the piece of bacon, I was munching on, I also bit my tongue. It was becoming difficult. “I’m sure I will,” I said. Inside I was seething; Jan was using the dreaded term as well now. I began to wonder if it was some sort of brainwashing that I was, somehow, immune to. I vowed to show her the error of her ways. I was still convinced that all was not peace and love in Chanter’s Hide. Until I had concrete proof, however, I would pretend to be a reluctant convert. We finished our breakfast in silence and I have to admit, it was bloody delicious. It was as if someone had taken an excellent hotel breakfast and magnified the flavours tenfold. I was finding it extremely difficult to fault the self-sufficiency of the village.

I did the washing up as Jan unpacked more boxes upstairs. I decided to attack the back garden again once I’d finished. Looking at it through the kitchen window, in its present state, would soon piss Jan off. I tried to embrace the jungle look but, even I, had to wince. It was a mess. I put the last of the crockery in the cupboard, put my watch back on, took a deep breath and opened the back door. Time to become Tarzan.

I wandered out to the old shed, took up my trusty scythe and gave it another going over with the pumice stone. Considering its age, I managed to get a keen edge on it. I attacked the garden with gusto (wasn’t he one of the Marx Brothers?) and as I reduced the level of the vegetation even further, I started to get a taste for the old gardening lark. I found myself imagining flower beds and Jan’s vegetable patches and even a water feature, maybe. The sun was high in a cloudless sky and the sweat poured out of me at an alarming rate. I made frequent visits to the kitchen for water to replace the gallons leaking from my skin. It was a good feeling to be physically productive and I forgot all about my nemesis, the vicar. As I worked away, I lost all track of time and was shocked when Jan called me in for lunch. I looked at my watch; it was twelve thirty.

I walked in through the back door and Jan was holding a towel and pointing towards the sink. Her nose was turned up in disgust.

“Wash some of the muck and sweat off, before you sit down,” she said.

“Are you sure you don’t want me to take a shower?” I asked flippantly.

“No. You’ll be going back out there after lunch, so it would be pointless and a waste of water.”

I turned on the cold tap and, suddenly, thought – water. Where does the village get its water from? I dried my hands and face and sat at the kitchen table. Jan had made ham salad sandwiches, with mustard. Two large sausage rolls sat on one plate in the centre of the table, a couple of her homemade scones on another, complete with pots of whipped cream and jam.

“Everything, apart from the scones are from Ena’s,” she said proudly.

I ignored the remark. “Where does Chanter’s Hide get its water from?” I asked her. “They can’t grow that.”

“Don’t be stupid,” she snapped. “There’s a reservoir in the hills behind the village. Apparently, the pipe work has been here for years. Sam and Joe do their best to keep it running. There’s a pumping station on Sam’s farm. The ‘Hiders’ don’t advocate wasting water though.”

I felt deflated. “Of course, they don’t,” I said.

Jan sighed. “You’re not going to start again, are you?”

I bit my tongue again and shook my head. “No, darling, ’course I’m not. I just wondered, that’s all.”

“Good, now eat your lunch and then get back to work. I want to be able to sit out in that garden and enjoy some of the summer,” she said, with a nod.

“Hold on,” I protested. “I’m not Percy Thrower, remember. There’s a lot work involved. I doubt that........”

She burst out laughing. “I’m joking, you idiot. Although I don’t know who Percy Thrower is or was, I’m guessing he was a much better gardener than you.”

I pushed out my bottom lip and tried to look hurt. “I’m doing my best, Ma’am.”

She laughed harder and I joined her. I vowed there and then that whatever old George Clooney was up to, it wasn’t going to come between Jan and me. I would tow the village line until I had some concrete evidence of shady goings on.

By the time I’d finished one of Jan’s wonderful scones, smothered in local cream and strawberry jam, I was stuffed.

“That jam is to die for,” Jan said, closing her eyes.

It pained me to admit it, but it was extremely tasty. Even the cream was creamier. All of Chanter’s Hide’s produce screamed decadence. The villagers should all be obese, but from what I’d seen on our first night, there wasn’t an ounce of fat on most of them. Apart from the landlady’s substantial bosom and George Plummer’s rosy, bulbous proboscis, I couldn’t recall any beer bellies or anyone bordering on the plump. Even George’s brother Joe, the landlord, although massive, was solid muscle.

I pushed my chair back and patted my belly. “That’ll keep me going for a while,” I said. “A lovely lunch, sweetheart. The scones were the best part, of course.”

“Go on,” Jan replied, with a huge grin. “Get that garden sorted out. I want it fit for a queen.”

I touched my forelock. “Yes Ma’am.”

I returned to my toil, feeling replete and in a reasonable place mentally. I could see how the charm of the vicar and his moll and the friendliness of the villagers, combined with the fine food they managed to produce could influence the best. Maybe I was a naturally suspicious sort. As Jan had already pointed out my character judgement was a little flawed. Then that wink came back to haunt me, and I shook my head – vicars do not wink at women’s husbands whilst their hand is practically squeezing the wife’s arse.

I let my frustration out on the weeds, swinging that scythe like a demented Alan Titchmarsh. After about half an hour I took off my sodden T shirt and continued topless, the sun’s rays simultaneously drying and producing sweat. Jan called to me a little later, leaving a jug of ice cube laden orange squash outside the back door with a glass.

“There you go He-man.”

I spread out my arms, still gripping the scythe, showing off my sweaty, anaemic-looking torso and gave her my best Tarzan war cry. She laughed and went back inside.

I carried on for another ten minutes or so, until I was parched. I poured myself a glass of squash and it didn’t touch the sides. I refilled the glass and sat on the path my back, against the wall by the door. Luckily, the sun had travelled, and this part of the garden was now shaded. The bricks, although not cool, weren’t the hot coals they’d probably been an hour ago. As I sat sipping my second glass of orange, I remembered the metal box I’d found in the shed and decided, after I’d had a little rest, I’d try and get the bugger open. It’d probably be full of old nuts and bolts or something, but, if so, why would it be locked? In situations like that the old curiosity gets the better of a person. I drained my glass, stretched my aching muscles, stood, and wandered back down to the shed. The box was on the shelf where I’d left it - why wouldn’t it be? I rummaged through the pile of tools and found a flat blade screwdriver that had seen better days but might suffice. I attacked the lock. The screwdriver slipped and grazed my hand and I swore. I put the box on the floor, sideways, put my foot on it and re-applied the screwdriver. I eased it into the slit between the lid and the base and leant on it. There was a click and the lid sprang open. I picked it up and looked in. There, on a bed of velvet, was a strange looking pendant. It appeared to be, what I believed was the Star of David, with one of those Egyptian symbols, like a cross with a loop at the top, fixed into the space in the centre. I took it out; it was heavy and, obviously, solid gold. I wondered what miserable, Uncle Ted was doing with some weird talisman.

I sat on the floor of the shed, staring at the thing, wondering what it meant and why it was there. I thought about asking Ted’s old pal if he knew anything. In my former life we’d published a couple of novels by a guy who thought he was the next Dennis Wheatley. Unfortunately, for us as well as him, they didn’t sell anywhere near as well as Dennis’ had. As novels went, they weren’t half bad and I think, if the company had shelled out for a bit of promotion, they could have done reasonably well. As it was, they bombed and, I’m sorry to admit, I couldn’t even remember the author’s name. The stories, I seemed to recall, relied heavily on the use of pentagrams, crosses, stars, and other paraphernalia, in their quest to defeat the horned one. I laughed out loud; what the hell was the matter with me. We had moved into a village where everyone was so efficient and self-sufficient, it made me sick, that was true enough. But, on second thoughts, was it? Or was it just that the damned vicar wouldn’t stop ramming it down my throat. Looked at logically, the villagers had to be praised for their ingenuity and resourcefulness. Only a numbskull would decry their achievements and, as far as the produce was concerned, the quality was beyond reproach. Since we’d arrived in Chanter’s Hide, I had been so focused on Simon bloody Drake that I had failed to look at the bigger picture and now, I was throwing Black Magic into the pot. I decided, there and then, to stop allowing my feelings for old George to taint everything else the village had to offer. Dodgy vicars, let’s face it, are not unusual. If I had as little to do with him as possible and tried to get on with my life, maybe, in time, even the term ‘Hiders’ wouldn’t irritate me as much – maybe. I still wanted to talk to Uncle Ted’s mate and meet his son, though. The boy’s sad face still haunted me, and I had to find out why he seemed so melancholy. I still couldn’t get that pleading expression out of my mind. I’m sure I wasn’t mistaken; he was asking for help.

I put the pendant back in the box and sighed. I heaved my aching limbs to a standing position and looked at my watch. It was 5.10 p.m. I put the scythe and pumice stone back in the shed, closed the door and walked up the path. It was time for a shower, a long one. Time to let the feeble spray wash away the day’s toil and warm the sore muscles. It was official, I was a soft-handed office boy. I glanced at my scythe hand and was quite proud to see a blister at the base of my index finger. War wound.

Jan was busy at the oven when I entered the kitchen, the aroma escaping, delightful.

“That smells gorgeous,” I said enthusiastically.

She closed the oven door, turned, and grinned. “Steak and kidney pie,” she said proudly. “And it’s looking good if I do say so myself. It’ll be ready in half an hour; you better get a wriggle on.”

I winked at her. “On my way, darling wife.”

We enjoyed a wonderful meal. Not taking anything away from Jan’s cooking, but doesn’t it always taste better after a hard day’s graft. It’s as if you’ve earned it. I ate so much pie, with mash, peas, and lashings of gravy that I had no room for any pudding, which was a shame because Jan’s strawberry tart looked beautiful. Instead, we drank the last of the coffee that we’d brought with us. I was still a little reluctant to admit, that it paled into insignificance compared to the stuff we’d tasted at the vicar’s.

“Have you decided what you’re going to do with the garden?” She asked me.

“I’m open to suggestions. I was thinking about a small vegetable patch on one side of the path.”

Jan looked incredulous. “Do you think you can manage that? Are you actually turning into Perry Thrower?”

“Percy,” I corrected her. “Perry was a singer, I think. Perry Comb-over, my Dad used to call him. I can’t remember what his real name was.”

“Perry Como,” Jan said with a wistful smile. “My gran loved him. He had quite a nice voice, as I recall. One of the old crooners, like Bing Crosby and Nat thingamajig.”

“King Cole,” I said.

“That’s the feller.”

I drained my cup, patted my belly, and sighed. “After that sumptuous meal, you go and put your feet up and I’ll do the washing up. Afterwards we can get that ‘Orange is the New Black’ box set out and watch an episode or two if you like.”

“Sounds like a plan,” Jan said with a grin. “I’m glad you’ve stopped all the silly stuff about Simon and that.”

Even though I’d sworn to change my attitude and give the place a chance, his name was like a knife in my guts. I managed to hide my feelings, put on a brave face and a suitable smile. I added a wink, for good measure.

“Don’t nod off, you know what you’re like,” I said.

She gave me a salute. “No sir.”

I took the dishes into the kitchen and filled the sink with hot water. As I worked, my thoughts returned to the strange pendant in the shed. Ordinarily, something like that wouldn’t have bothered me. It was just, knowing what I knew about Uncle Ted, plus what my dad used to say about him, it was totally out of character. In fact, the whole Chanter’s Hide ethos didn’t fit. If I were having trouble with the commune-type philosophy, he certainly would have had. He was a dedicated loner. Still, having said that, he’d obviously become matey with one of the residents. It suddenly occurred to me that the vicar had never mentioned Ted once, not when he welcomed us to the village, nor at the pub, nor, indeed, during the hours we spent at his place having dinner. That was odd, in itself. I needed to speak to his old buddy. Tomorrow, I decided – definitely.

When I went back into the lounge Jan was fast asleep in the armchair, the DVD box set on her lap. I shook her gently and told her to go to bed. She yawned, nodded, and headed for the stairs. I told her I’d be up soon. I picked up the laptop and my headphones. A bit of Ben Howard might do the trick. Once again, I’d forgotten about the lack of internet. I grabbed my iPod and chose the playlist I’d named ‘Smooth’. I shoved the earphones into my lugs and sat back. I would have to find out about the Wi-Fi, even if it meant asking Drake.

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