The air was oppressively humid on the first Friday in July 2015. There was a rumbling followed by a roar. Yes, Richard Shackleton had found something to amuse him in the letter he was reading. His wife, Helen, knew him well enough to know that it would be funny, although it would probably lose a lot in the telling.
“The insurers for the Petty Green Church want us to test that the lightning conductor works, as a condition of renewing the policy,” he said. The conductor ran down from the old metal cross on top of the spire. “Perhaps they want me to shin up there with a nine volt battery and do a circuit test. Or, maybe I can persuade the National Grid to connect one of their high voltage lines to it? Otherwise, we’d better hope the Almighty has it in for someone else.”
Helen smiled dutifully. She’d been hoping for better. But it was their wedding anniversary the next day, July the Fourth, Loss of Independence Day in her life, so she stayed friendly.
“I’m sure you’ll find firms that specialise in conductor testing on t’internet, as your Boltonian chum Peter Kay would say.”
This marriage of laughing-eyed Lancashire man and sharp-edged Sussex woman was rock solid on the opposites-attract principle, which permitted sparks to fly as they made their connection. Richard would give nearly as good as he got, describing Helen’s home county as ‘Upper Normandy’. Nearly 70, Richard was a former investment banker with a conscience. He was now the lay reader who looked after St John’s Church in Petty Green, a Hertfordshire village considered too small to have its own parson. The hub Church for three separate satellites was in the larger village of Monkey Mead, where the Shackletons lived. Helen, 15 years younger than Richard, was less accepting of divine providence – her job as a vet meant she regularly took life into her own hands. Two of their four children had yet to fly the nest of their rambling old home. James, at 20, was a history student. Delightful-mistake Amy, aged 13, was still at school.
The family went out that evening for an Indian meal to celebrate the pre-anniversary. Helen and Richard intended a posh, candlelit meal for two the next night, gazing into each other’s eyes, he rejoicing in her beauty, she counting his wrinkles. The air was getting hotter as the varying-strength curries sank down.
Sure enough, there were storms that night. The sky was so bright from the lightning that it seemed like daylight for much of the time. The thunder rolled and crashed, rattling the windows. The 14-year old family dog, Trotter, sought refuge under James’s bed, gladly granted. Their even older cat, Chloe, snuggled up with Amy.
The sun was shining early the next morning. After a quick breakfast Richard set off for his regular constitutional with Trotter. The dog’s hackles rose as soon as they were outside. Sitting on the gatepost was (as Richard biblically described the beast a bit later to Helen) a large ginger cat, like a leopard, feet like a bear, mouth like a lion. Trotter was a border collie, and had increased the average intelligence of the household since arrival, despite his preference for herding joggers rather than sheep. When younger, he would chase cats but discretion was at this age the better part of valour, particularly with a monster this size.
The cat wailed heart-rendingly at the pair, as they left for their walk, and was still there when they returned. Richard fed Trotter before taking out a bowl of Chloe’s cat food, which Ginger wolfed down. Blown in on the storm, he was desperately hungry. In the house, Helen and Richard exchanged anniversary presents and shared a quick kiss. She came out to examine the cat from hell, and established that he was a neutered male. Ginger lingered at their door all morning. Tough as he looked, he was a pussy-cat metaphorically as well as physically. Once he’d cleaned himself up, Ginger became a strikingly handsome specimen of cathood. He adored young Amy, allowing her to hold and stroke him, hissing only at Trotter and Chloe if they ventured too close. Just before lunch, Helen decided to go to the surgery for her microchip reader.
While she was away, Richard received a phone call from a Petty Green congregation member, who thought he’d seen a lightning strike snake down the church spire overnight, although he could see no damage. Richard promised to gob over to have a look that afternoon. Helen returned from the surgery and soon ascertained that Ginger belonged at an isolated farmhouse a few miles away on the other side of Petty Green. The telephone number for the owner, Joseph Bartram, wasn’t working. A family forum agreed that Helen and Amy would take Ginger back to his home after lunch. James would go with his Dad to see if there was any damage at the Church, in case any lifting was needed. Helen laughed at the idea of God taking the lightning conductor test into his own hands.
“Don’t you go mending things,” she joked. “What God hath put asunder, let no man join together.”
After lunch, Ginger was placed into Chloe’s cat basket with a struggle. As they arrived at the farmhouse, the cat became extremely agitated.
At the Church, there wasn’t anything obviously damaged, but all the electrics had been knocked off, which they took as evidence of a direct strike. Richard planned to arrange for a fuller building inspection later in the week.He would also need to find someone to check the lightning conductor installation, satisfactory as it seemed to have been. The church bell was controlled electronically and proved beyond their capabilities to reset.
“Perhaps as well,” said James. “If there has been any damage to the spire, when it rings it might come crashing down on your head as you’re preaching. Ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
Richard’s ministry was a permanent family joke. He wouldn’t have had it any different.
Meanwhile, at the farmhouse there was no answer at the door. While Amy talked reassuringly to Ginger, Helen went round the back. She peered through the kitchen window and thought she could see a boot on the floor. Standing on a bucket, she could see much more than a boot. It was a body of an old man, she presumed Joseph Bartram. There was nothing to be done but ring the police, and then Richard. Richard and James beat the police to the farmhouse by a minute.
Richard and James both stayed well away from the body, while Amy demonstrated that she had the constitution of her mother by looking closely. It didn’t take long for the police to believe the reason for them all being there. An occupied cat basket was an unlikely accessory to murder. The pathologist arrived. Further tests would, of course, be needed but death had been several days earlier – a heart attack or stroke the most likely cause.
Ginger was quiet, as if grieving. He must have been locked out of his home since the sad death. He was taken back by the Shackletons and encouraged to go out. He preferred to be in the house, finding a spot to sit by the washing machine, out of the way of the other two pets. Helen said she would advertise for a new home for him in her surgery.
It was a sombre anniversary dinner for Helen and Richard. They held hands on the way back and, once in the car, kissed long and passionately. Death was too final, and they didn’t want to lose each other.
The next morning Richard collected the consecrated items for the communion and drove to Petty Green. His sermon was subdued and downbeat. The congregation prayed for the repose of Joseph’s soul, not that he had ever been to their Church. A middle-aged woman sitting at the back cried softly. She didn’t come forward for the bread and wine. Richard almost sprinted down the aisle at the end of the service to make sure he could have a word with her before she escaped.
She was Joe Bartram’s daughter, Samantha. She explained the police had notified her of his death, as his only next-of-kin, and she had popped into the Church on an impulse having driven up from London to see the farmhouse. His will had been found already, which left everything to her. Joe and his wife had separated many years ago, when Sam was just a baby. She’d never known him. Her mother was long dead.
Sam was a single mother bringing up two kids in a one-bedroom, rented flat. On the night of the storms, she said, she’d had a vivid dream of a “beast from hell” telling her that she was his, the devil’s own, for forgetting her father. She reckoned she would have to sell the farmhouse, so she could buy her own place.
“Why not live there?” asked Richard. “God and the devil can be easily confused in the dark. And you could have that ‘beast’ for extra company. I think the dream was your Dad asking you to look after his cat.”
He told her Ginger’s story while the other congregation members filed out. The Shackletons didn’t have to find a new home for Ginger. A few months later, Sam and family moved into the farmhouse. Ginger was taken back to his old home. He purred like a tractor engine when he arrived.
On Petty Common, it’s six o’clock in the morning on the second Saturday in July, 2016. Alexander Baldock, former investment banker and Oxford rugby blue, wearing the business clothes he’d put on four days ago, and with a hangover as filthy, peers at the dried grass roof above him. With walls made of hacked-down branches, this must have been built by an ex-serviceman sleeping rough, he reckons, or maybe by some enterprising kids as a den.
A few miles away in the village of Monkey Mead, benign Boltonian Richard Shackleton, his wife, the savvy and spirited Helen, and fourteen year old daughter Amy were eating breakfast. They’d already fed their menagerie, including their ancient Border Collie Trotter. It was the day of the St John’s Church Summer Fete in Petty Green, a few miles away across the common, where Richard was the lay reader. His morning occupation was setting out tables for picnic lunches and putting up stalls. His main helper was to be his twenty-one year old son James, yet to surface from the depths of his bed, a history student, whose studies had not entirely prepared him for the morning’s endeavours. The equipment to be erected was mainly from pre-history. James had been selected by Richard on the principle that one pressed man was worth ten volunteers, particularly as otherwise the volunteers would have come from the congregation. Helen had a morning’s surgery at her veterinary practice. With no-one left at home, she was taking Amy with her.
Richard had nominated Helen and her veterinary nurse Lucia as judges for the dog show, the conclusion of the Fete. When Richard had mentioned the show to Brian Atkins (the vicar of the Monkey Mead church to which St John’s was a satellite), Brian had said with a shudder that he tried it once. He’d said: “Never again. The dogs were fine, the humans just horrendous.”
Petty Green had been buzzing for days with the news about Alex Baldock. He’d disappeared since losing his job at National Bank earlier in the week. His vivacious wife Victoria and pretty little daughter Laura were frantically hoping for news. Richard, an ex- banker himself, knew Alexander from then and, although the family occasionally went to church, still thought him a chancer. Bertie Baldock was a large shaggy animal of mixed heritage, whose best hope if he came was for Scruffiest Dog.
Amy brushed Trotter lovingly to show that scruffiest dog wasn’t his category before she and Helen left for the surgery. Trotter pulled Richard across the Common for his morning walk, through bushes of burs and bobbles, undoing Amy’s good work. They walked across the path between Monkey and Petty Commons.
Alex leaves his lair, not sure what to do. Should he go home? He can’t face that. He’s attracted to the railway bridge. There’s a train coming. He puts his hands on to the top of the wall, about to ease himself upwards when he hears a voice shouting, “Trotter, this way lad.” Alex hides behind bushes.
Trotter and Richard returned home from their botanical field trip about an hour later. The monster from the deep, James, emerged to tuck into a doughnut in preparedness for the challenges ahead. He’d also been volunteered as keeper for the beat the goalie competition. Richard and James drove over to Petty Green with goalposts hanging out of the boot.
The weather was set fair. They put up the old wooden trestle tables as well as one or two more modern plastic ones. The latter proved the more difficult, with James jamming his fingers and Richard banging his knee. The splinter count from the wooden tables exceeded these minor mishaps. All the stalls were in place by the time parishioners started arriving with cakes, jams, bric-a brac and assorted tat. Older women with arthritis and failing eyesight brought knitwear for sale.
The big problem in putting up the bunting was that help was now at hand in the form of helpful parishioners, literally pulling in different directions. Few were capable of climbing the stairs at home, let alone a ladder. But miracles can happen, and twenty minutes later the adornment no fete can be without was fluttering in the gentle breeze. The final task was to erect the enclosure for the dog show. Again James was in the wars, hammering his thumb as he banged in the last stake.
Alex continues to walk down the path, and sees a rope dangling from a branch with what looks invitingly like a noose on the end. Bigger children use it as an improvised swing.
Folk from all around turned up for the Fete. Helen, Amy and Trotter came with a big picnic. Dogs were everywhere. Lunch went rather well, with little waste of food after the canine clearance service kicked in. In the afternoon, the stalls were well patronised. James’s sore thumb meant that most boys managed to score a penalty past him and win a lollipop.
Half an hour before the dog show was due to start, Victoria, Laura and Bertie snook in. Even the dog looked like he had a blotchy face from crying. Victoria had been in two minds whether to come or not. As senior churchman present, it was Richard’s job to take Victoria to one side. They went into the church porch. “I think he’s done something stupid,” she sobbed. “He’s not used to failure.”
Big strapping guy that Alex was, she clearly feared suicide. Richard tried to console her, although he was concerned too. He’d made a call to an old colleague in the week and had found out that Alexander had been sacked on the spot for a bad compliance breach. His career in the City was over.
Alex is too heavy for the rope. He crashes to the ground as it breaks. In relief, he at last decides to go home to face the music. He decides to go via the quiet of the church to plan what to say to Victoria, having forgotten there’s a fete on. And here is the place where hopes and fears turn into reality and become history.
A dishevelled Alex walked into the porch. He looked like he’d been on a bender to end all benders and then had walked through a hedge backwards. He now had to face the music without any plan. He simpered to Victoria, “I didn’t know how to tell you.”
Victoria lost it. She punched and slapped him about the head several times, shouting, “You stupid pillock, I thought you were dead,” before throwing her arms round his neck and kissing him. “The stupid job doesn’t matter,” she whispered. “You do.”
Outside, the great oaf Bertie broke free from Laura and ran into the porch barking wildly. He gave Alex a much needed wash. Laura screamed with joy as she chased after him and saw her father.
Richard tried to leave but Alex made him stop, saying: “You’ll know already that that I’ll never get another job. I bet they’re all gloating at National. I’ve wrecked every damned thing.”
Richard knew Alex to be right about the reaction at the bank. His contact at National who had given him the lowdown had not been sympathetic. Then he looked at Victoria, Laura and Bertie standing by their man.
“You’ve wrecked nothing,” he said. “Victoria’s right, the stupid job doesn’t matter one bit. Look at what these three think of you. You’ve done the important things right. So get yourself a job that means something.”
“Who’ll have me now?” Alexander asked.
Richard thought quickly. “You did Maths, didn’t you? The world’s crying out for Maths teachers, especially ones who can do Games as well, even if it is rotten rugby.” Richard was a football man. “Come on, Bertie’s looking forward to the dog show.”
They trooped to the show ring. Richard picked up the megaphone to welcome everyone and to introduce Helen and Lucia as judges. Neither Trotter nor Bertie were in the first group for Best Small Breed, the yappiest category both for dogs and owners. When the judges preferred the Yorkie to the Bichon Frise for the gold rosette, the owner loudly claimed that it was a fix because the Yorkie used Helen’s surgery and his dog didn’t. This wasn’t a lone voice.
In the second category, Best Large Breed, as the dogs paraded Helen, combative as ever, asked if anyone wanted to bribe her. Amy was accompanying Trotter and offered Helen a dog biscuit. She’d inherited Richard’s peacemaking skills. A beautiful Vizsla won the prize, not one of Helen’s clients. The judges didn’t give Bertie anything in the Crossbreed group, as they had other plans for him.
Slowly they worked through the categories. The last three were Scruffiest Dog, Golden Oldie and Best in Show. Laura insisted that her father accompany her around the ring. Helen announced that not only had Bertie won Scruffiest Dog but that Alex had won scruffiest owner, and she pinned a rosette to his lapel. The humiliation was complete. That was when he decided that he would become a Maths teacher. He grinned sheepishly as Victoria stroked their triumphant mutt, Laura dancing in delight.
Helen then mellowed enough to give only silver to Trotter in the Golden Oldie, behind the pushy Bichon Frise, who was much younger. Amy understood why that was. The Vizsla uncontroversially won best in show.
The proceedings ended. Alex shook Richard’s hand warmly as the Baldocks left. The tables and stalls were taken down The bunting was left up to brighten the rest of the summer.