Within six months of moving to the village of Little Muckton, Sandra and I were growing disenchanted, to put it mildly. The idyllic little village, set in a wooded valley, had seemed so wonderful when we’d chanced upon it that fateful day a year ago, driving along country roads at random and stumbling upon the Farmers Arms. We’d enjoyed their ‘home-cooked steak and ale pie’ served with a selection of ‘locally grown vegetables,’ all steamed to al dente perfection, and served by a huge beaming woman, Nellie, the landlady, in an incongruous apron featuring a pair of huge pink breasts. The beer had been pulled by Marmaduke Scraggs, the landlord, a tall fellow with long grey sideburns, red lips, greasy cheeks, and a sizeable beer belly.
The bar had been frequented by other travellers and holiday-makers, whilst The First Cut is the Deepest had croaked out from small loudspeakers, hidden amongst the jumble of warming pans, huge earthenware jugs, horse brasses and other dust-covered memorabilia of the brewing and farming industries.
“D’you know, I went into Mellors this morning,” said Sandra one night. “Susan was serving old Mrs. Mutton, she didn’t even look in my direction. Then Trevor Simons came in, in his filthy overalls, and she served him next!”
“You should have said you were there first.”
“Well, I was taken aback … and embarrassed. He never spoke or looked at me and Susan didn’t apologise. In fact, she was quite abrupt with me. I asked for two pounds of their local sausages and she practically threw them at me!”
Sighing, I said, “I don’t know what their problem is, I’ve never met such unfriendly, miserable buggers.”
Sandra came and put her arms around me, hugging me tight. She laid her head on my shoulders. “Mike, darling, let’s move away, somewhere nice. Somewhere where people give you the time of day, you know, chat … and smile even.”
I snorted at the irony. What had we done to become so unpopular? We both worked in nearby Maltby, a sizeable town where I taught astronomy at the college and Sandra, a qualified nurse, worked at a doctors’ practice. As an astronomer, I’d applied for planning permission to build a small observatory in our garden, but it had been turned down. A number of villagers got together to vehemently oppose the application, citing ludicrous ‘safety concerns’ – a couple of overhanging branches would have to be cut back from a neighbour’s tree – as well as saying it would block light to the geraniums of Mrs Bagge, our taciturn neighbour, and a woman whose face would make a wrinkled prune envious. In fact, it would have done no such thing, her house being situated some distance away, and our gardens only meeting partway. The intervening space was occupied by a wedge of sparse, stunted oak trees, owned by the council, although we’d heard its ownership was currently being disputed in the courts by no less than Mrs. Bagge herself.
“Maybe Tony was right,” said Sandra, kissing my cheek and sighing.
Tony Stockton had been our one ally in the village. A retired detective and the butt of Sherlock Holmes jokes by the locals in the Farmers Arms. He’d tried to take it good-humouredly but in the end, despite his kind nature, it must have got to him as he’d given up drinking there. “The thing is, Mike,” he’d said, “There’s a method to their madness – they’ll put on an act if you’re visiting, but you’ve got to live here five years before they’ll even give you the time of day. Ten years before they’ll show any kind of friendship. Until then, they’d spit on your grave. They’re all inbred, they hate outsiders.”
At the time I’d thought Tony was exaggerating, but then his wife, Margaret, had a nervous breakdown, and the next thing we knew he was knocking on our door to say they were moving out the following day.
“I don’t know, darling, we’ve come this far,” I said.
Suddenly there came a frantic pounding on the door. We both stood, petrified. “Who the hell’s that?” exclaimed Sandra.
I went into the hallway. “Who … who’s there?” I called, trying to sound calm.
“It’s Marmaduke. Marmaduke Scraggs.”
I opened the door to find Marmaduke standing there with a lighted brand in his fist, orange-red light reflecting off his wide-eyed, greasy face. Behind him, stood a semi-circle of villagers, likewise holding flaming torches. I recognised Adrian Storey in wellingtons and chicken-shit-covered dungarees, Tracy Little, her ginger hair pulled back and her bug eyes burning red in the torchlight, and Brad Manners, in a suit two sizes too small for his bloated stomach, and grinning like he’d studied at the Jack Nicholson school of acting.
“What do you want?”
Marmaduke spat on the ground then came into the house, the flames from his torch licking the ceiling – to my consternation. “We want you out of our village. It ain’t the place for clever dick, stuck-up snobs like you!”
I’d never have considered myself as any kind of snob. “Now, wait a minute. First of all, we’re not going anywhere. Secondly, take that goddamn torch out of here before you set our house alight.”
Marmaduke gave a manic laugh and threw the torch at my feet, where flames quickly began to lick at the carpet. There was the smell of burning. Sandra screamed but had the presence of mind to rush forward, throwing a rug over the blaze. Just then there was a deafening bang, and Nellie appeared, wielding a double-barrelled shotgun and wearing the same saucy apron she’d first served us in, the huge pink breasts more incongruous than ever now. She pointed the gun at Marmaduke. “Leave them alone. Take your goons and get out of here now or I’ll blow your fucking head off.”
He took one look at her furious face and it was obvious he knew she wasn’t bluffing. Without a word, Marmaduke and his cohorts faded into the night.
So, should you ever be in the vicinity of Little Muckton and in the mood for a good meal and a decent pint, make your way to the Farmers Arms … and then drive straight past it and continue to the outskirts of Maltby. There you will find a pub where you can be sure of excellent home-cooked food, well-kept beer, and a genuinely warm welcome from Sandra and myself. And where, on selected clear nights, you can gaze at the heavens through a twelve-inch refracting telescope in the observatory of the Astronomer’s Arms!
Featured in the book, Flash Friction: To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. III: 72 Little Stories
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