Threats at Three
When the Long Farden village hall is in danger of being destroyed, the citizens form a committee to save it, with the usual grumps and curmudgeons included. But it seems someone opposes the preservation enough to set the historic building on fire. When a dead body turns up in the canal, Inspector Cowgill fears the dispute is only going to get uglier-and deadlier. Naturally, he turns to Lois Meade to sort out the culprit before the village hall becomes a funeral hall...
“We shall need a subcommittee, of course,” said Mrs. Tollervey-Jones.
Derek groaned inwardly. He waited for the chair’s eagle eye to fall on him. Sure enough, she said that the one person who knew all about organising was Derek Meade. He ran a successful one-man electrical business in Long Farnden, a small village in the heart of England, and was, so said Mrs. T-J, just the man to mastermind the centenary celebration event.
This would celebrate the hundredth birthday of the village hall, a wooden structure that had miraculously survived rising damp, woodworm and rot. But without serious attention, its days were now numbered. Estimates for repair and renovation had been sought, and the most conservative of those submitted was still a very large sum of money. This would need to be raised. In the present climate of financial belt-tightening they could not rely on grants.
“So the event has to be really spectacular, Derek,” said Mrs. T-J. She added that she was sure the subcommittee would come up with something remarkable, which they would submit to the parish council at the next meeting in a month’s time.
The subject was then thrown open for discussion, and, as expected by most of the eight members of the council, was at once hectic to the point of violent disagreement. In other words, Mrs. T-J was faced with a punch-up. In her best justice of the peace voice, she quelled the riot. “Now settle down, all of you,” she said severely. “I am well aware we have two factions in this matter.”
“Three,” said Derek glumly. “There’s us, and them, and then the others.”
“Very clear,” said the vicar, Father Rodney. “Perhaps you could elucidate, Mrs. Tollervey-Jones?”
“Not in here, I hope,” whispered young farmer John Thornbull to Derek, who managed to turn a guffaw into a sneeze.
“Bless you,” said Floss Cullen, the newest co-opted member of the council.
“Youth,” Mrs. T-J had said, “we need a young person, preferably a woman, to represent young people in the village.” Derek and John had sighed. Their chair, as she liked to be called, was known for getting sudden bees in her bonnet. These would be pursued enthusiastically, and when achieved, she would be on to the next innovation. Old Tony Dibson, the oldest and longest serving councillor muttered on each occasion that he didn’t think there was anything wrong with the council as it was, and if it weren’t broken, why fix it?
Floss had been co-opted, and had indeed brought a breath of fresh air to the council proceedings. She could persuade even diehards like Tony Dibson to her point of view. She worked for Derek’s wife, Lois Meade, who ran New Brooms, a cleaning service based in the village, and with an office in Tresham, the nearest large town. Now married to Ben Cullen, Floss continued her cleaning work because she enjoyed it, though she had done well at school and had been expected by her parents to do something better than scrubbing other people’s floors.
Now the three factions had settled back into their seats, and Father Rodney asked again if he could be told exactly what the proposals were.
Derek looked at his watch. “I can tell you, Vicar,” he said. Mrs. T-J nodded her approval, and he said, “Repair the village hall. Knock it down and build a new one. Adapt the old catgut factory to be the village hall. That’s the three, and I suggest we have a vote right now on which one we’re going for.”
“Just to recap on these,” Mrs. T-J said, taking charge, “the first, to repair the hall, is a straightforward job. Expensive, but straightforward, and well in line with a celebration of one hundred years serving the village. The second would be hugely expensive, and the third is impractical, the catgut factory being outside the village and the other side of the railway line.”
“Which may one day be reopened,” said the vicar. “And anyway, that factory is an eyesore and a danger to the children who play there.”
“We always played there,” said Tony Dibson. “Never came to any harm, not none of us.”
Mrs. T-J said that was irrelevant, and could they please get on. She took a vote, and the first of the proposals won. “So there we are, Derek,” she said. “Repair and renovate, and in due course a celebratory opening. Perhaps I can persuade my son, who is, as you all know, a well-known barrister, to perform the ceremony.”
“Hold yer water, missus,” Tony Dibson said. “Let’s get the money first, do the work, an’ then it’ll be time to think about openin’ ceremonies. As fer who should open it, I reckon we should be thinkin’ of somebody off the telly. One of them celebrities,” he added.
The rest of the agenda was swiftly dealt with, and Mrs. T-J closed the meeting, saying she would leave it to Derek to get a representative subcommittee together and report to the next council meeting.
The pub was already busy, and Derek and John Thornbull pushed their way to the bar. “Usuals?” said the barman. They nodded, and took their pints to a table in the corner just vacated by a couple from Waltonby. “Evenin’,” Derek said. “Bit chilly out there. Winter’s comin’ on.” He and John settled down, took long drafts of ale, and were silent for a few minutes.
“Who shall we ask, then?” Derek said finally.
“And how many?”
“Oh, I should think five of us would do it. Don’t want too many, else you get nuthin’ done. So there’s us two, old Tony, for what he can remember about the village in the past, and who else?”
John frowned. “We need somebody with a bit of experience of fund-raising,” he said. “After all, we’re aiming for a really big lump sum. Don’t want a load of footling little craft fairs, book sales and all that. Hard work for everybody and tuppence-ha’penny profit at the end of it.”
“What about the vicar?” Derek said. Father Rodney was new and untried. He had replaced a nice, gentle man, who had been popular with the older ladies, but ineffective in raising the church’s profile and certainly not a great money-spinner.
“What do we know about him, apart from the fact that he’s a widower?” John said. “I suppose one of our churchgoers would know a bit of his background. After all, vicars get interviewed, like anybody applying for a job. He’s youngish and seems keen.”
“I’ll ask Lois,” Derek said. “She and the girls clean for him once a week. She’ll have all the info we need. You know my Lois!”
New Brooms was not exactly a cover for Lois’s work with the Tresham police, but ever since the business was set up she had investigated cases locally on an independent basis, using her cleaners to gather information. Snooping, she admitted. “Ferretin’, gel. That’s what I’d call it. Sticking your nose into dark corners and gettin’ all of us into trouble,” Derek said.
She worked for no pay on cases that interested her, or when on one or two occasions, her own family had been involved. And her connection with the police was restricted to one ramrod straight and serious policeman, Chief Detective Inspector Hunter Cowgill. A reserved and highly efficient professional, he said frequently that he valued her input. He also loved her dearly, which he didn’t say, at least, not very often. His nephew Matthew, also a policeman in the Tresham station, fancied Lois’s daughter, but that was Josie’s affair.
“Good idea,” said John. His own wife, Hazel, ran the New Brooms’ Tresham office, and would certainly be able to help. He had a sudden thought. “Shall I ask Hazel to do the secretarial work for the subcommittee?” he asked, and Derek approved the idea with alacrity.
“One more, then,” he said. “What about Gavin Adstone?”
“The lone parishioner attending our meeting, and unsquashable? Are you serious?” John said. Gavin Adstone was one of the bright young incomers, disliked by most people for his instantly given opinions on every subject raised, and obvious contempt for the old tried and tested village ways. But Derek thought he could see good in the man. All that brash exterior covered a willing spirit, and he could see that they would sorely need such a one on the village hall project.
“Better to have him working with us than against us,” was all he said, and John reluctantly agreed. “You ask him then,” he said. “And on your own head be it.”
When a suitably mellow Derek arrived home, Lois was waiting for him in the warm kitchen. Gran, Lois’s mother, had gone to bed with a book, and the kitchen was quiet and peaceful.
“Good meeting?” Lois said.
“Not bad,” Derek said, wondering how to break the news to her that he was now chairing the village hall project subcommittee. He need not have worried.
“So did you get the job?” she asked. When he did not answer straightaway, she added that the parish council meeting agenda was fixed to the notice board, so she knew about the project and had guessed the rest. “I thought it would be dumped in your lap,” she said. “Can’t say no, that’s your trouble.”
Derek put his arms around her shoulders and kissed the back of her neck. “Luckily for you,” he muttered into her silky hair. “When you proposed to me, I mean,” he added, and retreated quickly as she rounded on him, as expected.
Gavin Adstone had arrived in the village with his wife and toddler daughter a year and a half ago, and had immediately thrown himself into village activities without realising that a more considered approach would have made him more acceptable to the small community. He had joined the playing fields committee, the darts team at the pub, offered to play cricket for Long Farnden, even considered the reading group but decided it was a lot of old fogies reading romantic novels and not for him. He worked for an IT company in Tresham, and had yet to discover that Lois Meade’s son Douglas had a senior position in the same company. He was thirty-two years old, and had the confidence and cheek of the devil. In other words, as Derek had guessed, he was perfect for the task of raising a large sum of money for the village hall.
“How was it tonight?” asked his wife, as he came into their small cottage with a blast of cold air. Gavin had gone along to the meeting out of curiosity, rather fancying the idea that at some point he wouldn’t mind being a parish councillor himself. He was told that he could not speak unless prearranged with the secretary, but this had not bothered him unduly, nor stopped his interjections, and he was not overawed by Mrs. Tollervey-Jones.
“Much as usual,” he said. “I reckon nothing’s changed for the last fifty years. Some posh old dame is in the chair. The one who lives at Farnden Hall, I think. Talk about feudalism! You should have heard her keeping the unruly peasants in order!”
“So what did they talk about? Strip farming? Poaching in the squire’s woods?”
Kate Adstone was a small, dark-haired thirty-year-old, very dry and sharp. Their daughter Cecilia took all her time at the moment, but she intended to return to her job as a family mediator in due course.
“No, it was mostly about the proposed centenary celebrations for the crumbling village hall. We’ve talked about it in the pub, as you know, and I am all for bulldozing the old shed down and bringing the village up into the twenty-first century.”
“So what happened?”
“They had a vote. Restoring the old shed won by one vote. So that’s what they’re going to do. Big effort planned to fund-raise enough money to do the job. What a waste! The whole place will fall down in another ten years anyway.”
Kate laughed. “They need you, Gavin,” she said, and added to herself that Gavin needed them, too. Since they had moved here—a mistake, in her opinion—he had been like a caged tiger. He had boundless energy, was good at getting things done, and could bulldoze his way into and out of any situation. Perhaps she should have a word with somebody. Put his name forwards?
A preliminary little cry from upstairs brought them both to their feet. Cecilia was their first child, and neither had any previous experience of handling toddlers. So they crept upstairs to see if she was even a little bit unhappy. They peered into her cot, and she opened her eyes, saw their anxious faces, and opened her tiny mouth to give a surprisingly loud bellow.
Tony Dibson had enjoyed his pint of Best in the corner of the bar beside a roaring log fire. The ritual of the council meeting, followed by a pint in the pub and a game of dominoes with his good friend Fred Smith, had played its part in his village routine for years. At each council election, he allowed his name to be put forwards, and he always commanded a sizable vote. This year, however, he had only just scraped in by a few votes. Time to go, he told himself. Too many new people in the village, and he was too old to fight for what he believed was good for the community. Not that he had ever thought about it in those terms. Being on the parish council was something he’d always done, and his father before him, and he had known instinctively what most of the villagers would want. Not anymore though, he thought, as he put his last tile triumphantly on the table.
Then Derek Meade and John Thornbull had come over, and asked him to be on the subcommittee to organise fund-raising for repairing the old village hall. It wouldn’t be the first time it had been repaired. He remembered over the last forty odd years many occasions when the roof had leaked, the plumbing seized up, when windows had been broken by vandals, and the kitchen tap had been left running and flooded the whole place. Money had been found to cope with these, and there was always a generous donation from her up at the hall.
Now they were planning a big renovation, Derek Meade had said, to celebrate the old building’s hundredth birthday. Well, good on them, he thought. That hall had been part of village life for generations. Wedding receptions, christening parties, WI meetings, concerts of local talent, and a hundred other uses marking high points in the lives of village families.
In due course, Tony walked slowly down the street to his home in the row of cottages on the corner where the High Street met Church Lane. He could have found his way with his eyes shut, without slipping or tripping.
He had told Derek he would think about it. As he unlocked and opened his front door, his wife sat as always in her chair by the window, although it was dark and she couldn’t have seen anything outside, even supposing she still had her sight. She turned her head towards him with her usual sweet smile. Now disabled by arthritis and various ailments the social worker called “age related,” she relied on Tony for almost everything. He didn’t mind. He would do anything to keep her from going into one of those places where he knew the heart would go out of his beloved Irene.
“Any news?” she asked. It was always her first question, even if he had only been to the shop and had a chat with shopkeeper Josie Meade, daughter of Derek and Lois.
He took off his coat and told her about the village hall. “And Derek Meade wants me to help fund-raise,” he added. “Be on some committee or other. They need my experience of village needs, but I reckon I don’t have time for all that rubbish.”
“So you said no?” said Irene, frowning. He said that he had told Derek he would think about it, but he had made up his mind on the way home. He would refuse. “Too old and too busy,” he said, and turned off the boiling kettle to fill their hot-water bottles.
“Tony Dibson!” his wife said. “You’ll do no such thing. People rely on you to represent the real village people, like you and me. Families who’ve been here for years. Not the newcomers who buy up houses for weekending, nor them that say they love the village and then try to change it.”
“So you think I should do it?” She nodded, and after a couple of seconds added that if she could she would love to do more to help. Smitten by the suggestion he had been criticising her, he kissed her fondly on the top of her head. Flattening out the hot water bottles to release hot air, he screwed them up and trudged upstairs to warm up their bed. Then he returned to his wife and began the long and arduous business of getting her undressed, and carrying her upstairs.
“Good thing I’ve always been a little ’un,” she said.
“Light as a feather,” he said, as he always said every night, and picked her up in his arms, trying not to notice the stab of pain in his back.
John Thornbull got out of his car in the yard at the back of the farmhouse, and thought he should check that his wife Hazel’s bantams were shut up. If she had forgotten, as she often did, the stupid things flew up into a tall silver birch tree and roosted in the high branches. Sometimes he took the clothes line prop from the garden and tried bashing them down to go into their perfectly comfortable house. But they squawked like banshees and flew up even higher.
Tonight she had remembered, and he went into the farmhouse calling for her as he went.
“Here!” she said, and when he went into the sitting room where she was watching television with the sound turned down low, she put her finger to her lips. “Sssh! Lizzie is restless tonight,” she whispered. “Hope she’s not sickening for something.”
She did not ask him how the meeting went, knowing that he would tell her, all in good time. First things first, he would have said, as he poured himself a good-night snifter from the whisky bottle. Now he settled down beside her and watched the end of the news bulletin.
“Same old stories of death and disaster,” he said. “I don’t know why we bother to watch.”
“There was a nice one before you came in,” she said. “A jockey who’d entered every Gold Cup race since he was a lad, actually won for the first time today. You should’ve seen his face, John!”
“Hope for me yet, then,” he said, though he had never entered a race more important than the local hunt point-to-point every year.
There was a companionable silence, and then he said, “Meeting got a bit warm tonight. All about the village hall, believe it or not.”
“Tell all,” Hazel said, and switched off the television.
He gave her a colorful account, and said that he and Derek were setting up a committee to raise funds for renovating the old hall. Would she be willing to take care of the secretarial side of it? Write letters, put up posters, all that kind of thing?
Hazel groaned. “Blimey, John,” she said. “As if I haven’t got enough to do!”
“So you’ll do it, then?”
“On one condition,” she said. “I get a laptop for my birthday.”
John thought for a moment. “Reconditioned one?” he asked.
Hazel took his hand. “Done,” she answered. “But I’m not sure who’s got the best of the bargain.
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