“Seems the idea of a soap box grand prix has sparked some interest,” Josie said. “O’ course, the whole thing about fund-raising for the village hall is the hot topic at the moment. Blimey, I’ve never heard so many heated discussions here in the shop! The village is split, I reckon. Some want a festival—mostly the incomers—and the rest, the old guard, are really looking forwards to the soap box racing. Seems there used to be something of the sort in the past.”
“How about that Gavin Adstone?” Gran said. “The festival was his idea, apparently. Big idea, say some. I don’t suppose he comes in the shop much?”
“Not him. But his wife does, with the toddler, and she’s really nice. I feel a bit sorry for her. She hasn’t made many friends yet. Because of him, I should think. He’s too clever by half. Thinks the rest of us are bumpkins!”
“He’ll learn,” said Gran enigmatically. She had seen it all before. “Young couples buying houses in the village. ‘It’s so quaint!’ they say. And then, before you can say knife, they start wanting to change it.”
The shop door opened, and a couple of teenagers came in. One of them Gran recognized as the eldest son of that woman over in Pickerings’ house, and a right scruff he was, too. She stood up, grasped the hairy handles of her planet-friendly bag, and left the shop.
The boys did not come straight to the counter, but lingered over a display of newspapers and magazines by the door. Josie kept an eye them, knowing from experience that even the best brought up kids can be light fingered if the temptation is too great.
She was about to suggest that if they were going to leaf through all the magazines they might buy one and leave the rest clean and tidy for others, when the boy who belonged to Paula Hickson burst into delighted guffaws. His pal peered at a virtually naked girl carrying all before her.
“That’s enough, boys,” Josie said. “You’ve had your fun, now please put that magazine back tidily and tell me what you came to buy.”
“You ain’t got it, missus, so we can’t buy it,” said the Hickson boy, and they both left the shop, sniggering as they went.
Charming! thought Josie, remembering how pleasant she had found Paula Hickson, and deciding the boy must take after his absent father. It was not until later, when she was checking the newspapers for the next day’s order, that she discovered they were one magazine short.
HE EVENING WAS MILD, WITH A GENTLE BREEZE STIRRING the leaves on the giant chestnut that spread its branches above the small Reading Room, which had been donated to the village in l898 by a benevolent squire at the hall. It had recently been restored, and Derek unlocked the door with a feeling of pleasure at the success of a campaign that had saved the little building from being bulldozed, with the ironstone to be used for repairing a wall around the new vicarage.
He arranged a table and chairs ready for the meeting, and sorted through some details about soap box racing that Lois had downloaded for him from her computer. He had been considerably alarmed at the technical stuff about constructing the soap boxes, and about safety regulations that would have to be considered. He would ask Tony Dibson what they had done in the old days. No doubt Adstone would use it as an excuse to try turning the committee against soap boxes in any guise.
“Evenin’, Derek,” said Tony, as he came through the door, looking smart and neatly dressed for the meeting. Derek marvelled again at how the old boy managed with a disabled wife and all the household chores to do.
“Nice to see you, Tony, and on time as always! Reckon we could show these youngsters a thing or two.” The rest came in ones and twos, and Derek was just beginning to wonder if Hazel Thornbull had forgotten, when she and husband John hurried through the door, apologising for having had to stay with a sick cow.
“Not that blue tongue, I ’ope,” said Tony, and Gavin made a disgusted face.
“Do you think we could start, Chairman,” he said. “I have some business work to catch up on.” He hadn’t, but he liked to create an image.
“Right, let’s get to it,” said Derek briskly. “All here?” He looked around, and saw that Father Rodney was missing. Saying a prayer for the soul of the sick cow? Derek asked if anyone had heard anything from him.
“I saw him in the churchyard as I was comin’ down,” Tony said. “Gazing upwards, he was.”
“Lost in wonder, love and praise, probably,” said Hazel, who had a passion for hymns and knew all the words.
“No point in waiting for him,” said Gavin Adstone. “I can’t think he’ll have much to contribute, anyway. Away with the fairies most of the time.”
“Hardly,” said Derek dryly, and added that the vicar was a good and useful man, and he was sure he would not mind if they started without him.
Good old Derek, thought Hazel, as she opened the minutes book ready to read her notes on the last meeting. “That’s put smartass Gavin in his place,” she muttered under her breath.
The vicar turned up, and after the minutes had been read they got swiftly down to the main item. “The soap box grand prix,” said Derek. “First of all, we need to fix a date. Any suggestions as to the best time?”
Various dates were considered, several of them clashing with other village events. The church fete, the WI outing, a couple of weddings arranged needing the church and a free run through the village for the happy couple and their guests. Eventually a date was agreed, and Derek shuffled his papers.
“Lois has found out quite a bit about how the races an’ that are organised these days,” he said, “and I must say I hadn’t reckoned on something so complicated.” He saw Gavin draw a breath to speak, and so continued quickly. “Not that we would want to put on such a formal event,” he added. “Most of us were thinking of a few likely lads having a go at making some larky soap boxes and putting on a race or two to entertain the crowds.”
“What crowds!?” burst out Gavin. “Think big, man, think big! If we do the thing properly, we could get hundreds of spectators, and with the right extra attractions organised by me, we could make a packet.”
Derek raised his eyebrows, and passed Lois’s papers to Tony Dibson, who was sitting at the end of the row of chairs. “Have a look at these, everybody,” Derek said. “Then we shall know what we’re talking about. And while we’re doing that, perhaps Father Rodney will tell us about his plans for a flower festival in the church on the same day.”
By the time Hazel had given her preliminary report on what other groups in the village might contribute, including an art and crafts marquee on the playing fields, the papers had reached John Thornbull, the last to read them, and he handed them back to Derek.
“Thank you, Hazel,” Derek said. “Sounds very promising. Now, you’ve all had a chance to look through those details, so back to the soap box grand prix.”
Recognising that his festival was once more receding into the distance, Gavin jumped in with an offer to take the soap box project outside into a wider world, resulting in a bigger potential crowd on the day. “I could take the details on how to make the soap boxes to the local tech college. They have an engineering department, and might be pleased to make it their big practical learning project for the summer term. As far as safety goes, we just have to liaise with our friendly cops and make sure we comply with the necessary regulations.”
Talks like a politician, thought Tony Dibson. He whispered into Floss’s young and pretty ear that he bet her a shillin’ that Adstone would be MP for Tresham before long. Derek frowned at him, and politely thanked Gavin for his suggestion. Then he asked Floss what she thought would appeal to the young folk in the village.
“It’s got to be fun,” she said straightaway. “We got to get them putting their own ideas into designing the soap boxes, and have as few rules as we can. I don’t see why we have to involve anybody outside the village. For Farnden, by Farnden. That’s what I reckon, anyway.”
There was a small round of applause, with Gavin noticeably failing to join in.
“For Farnden, by Farnden!” echoed Tony Dibson. “That’s it, gel. You got it!”
O HOW DID IT GO?” LOIS SAID. SHE SOMEHOW MANAGED TO concentrate on her favourite quiz show and listen to Derek at the same time. At least, he hoped she was listening, as he gave her an edited version of the meeting’s reasonably pleasant beginning, and far from pleasant end.
“So anyway,” he said, “we all more or less agreed on Floss asking if she could go down there next week and talk to the kids, fill ’em in on what we’re planning, and see what their reaction is.”
Lois nodded, not taking her eyes off the screen. “Sounds good,” she said. “And you could try one of you going down the Youth Club and asking the kids what they think.”
Derek marched across the room to the television set, stood in front of it, and told Lois that she hadn’t listened to a word he’d said, and if she wasn’t interested, he might as well save his breath.
Gran, who up to that moment had kept silent, roared with laughter. “You tell her, Derek!” she said.
Lois’s face was stony. She reached for the remote control, and with great solemnity switched off the set. She turned to Derek. “I do apologise, Mr. Chairman,” she said. “I wonder if you’d mind repeating what you just said.”
“Bollocks!” said Derek, and asked if anyone wanted a coffee, because he was parched with talking too much. He marched out of the room, and Lois hastily followed. As she went, she winked at Gran. “A little lovin’ will put it right,” she said, and shut the door behind her.
When they returned with coffee all round, Gran could see equilibrium had been restored. She decided to take up where Derek had left off, and asked why the meeting had ended unpleasantly.
“Yeah.” Lois nodded. “Did Father Rodney suggest an evenin’ of lap dancing, or what?”
Derek gave her a warning look, and said it happened after the meeting had closed and they were all walking through the village together, having agreed that a pint in the pub would be a good idea. “Then Hazel stopped dead in the middle of the road, and said she could smell smoke.”
“What, a chimney on fire?” said Gran.
Derek shook his head. “No. At first none of the rest of us could smell it, but then Floss said she could, and it smelled like petrol or something oily.”
Lois sat up straight, all attention. “So what was it? Did you investigate? We haven’t heard no fire engines, have we, Gran?”
“Guess,” Derek said flatly.
“The village hall,” Lois said. “Go on.”
“Well, we all rushed round there, and we could see smoke. Not much, but then Gavin found a bit of smoldering wood shoved in under the porch. You know that wooden roof bit, where it shelters the main door. He grabbed it out, and stamped on it. We could all smell the petrol smell then, and went round the whole building to make sure there weren’t no more places where it’d been fired.”
“So you told the police?” Lois said.
Derek shook his head. “No point in getting them this late,” he said. “We agreed I’d phone them in the morning and report it. In fact,” he added, with a look at Lois, “I thought our own village sleuth might like to talk to her cop. You can’t beat going right to the top, as I told the rest.”
There was silence for a minute or two, and then Lois said quietly that she would be pleased to give Inspector Cowgill a ring, especially as she knew the police were aware of the previous attempt on the village hall.
“Did the others have any idea who might have done it?” she asked Derek.
“Well, Gavin Adstone was full of possible suspects, mostly gypsies and passing tramps, but mainly the others seemed to think it was the kids who meet up round the back of the hall. Tony Dibson said he reckoned the new woman in Pickerings’ house has a teenage tearaway who’s been in trouble before.”
“Jack Jr.,” said Lois, with a sigh. “Young Jack Hickson. His mum, Paula, is coming to work for me. She’s joining the team. And yes, I’ve heard she’s had one or two problems with her son Jack.”