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Little Piddlewich by Phyllis J. Burton

Little Piddlewich by Phyllis J. Burton

 

     Little Piddlewich is perhaps a strange name for a quintessentially English village, isn’t it? It’s quite small as villages go, but its inhabitants are anything but insignificant!

     Like most villages, Little Piddlewich’s heart is centered round the green, where all manner of activities are organised for everyone to enjoy, but it’s difficult to say which of the buildings is more important because they all serve a genuine need. Indeed, at this exact moment a battle rages between the people living there as to which organisation deserves their support.

     So, which one is the most important? Would it be St. Saviours’ Church with its slightly twisted spire? Or perhaps it’s the local pub which is adored by most of the villagers, and called The Old Oak Tree – or The Oak for short. Both buildings were probably constructed about the same time and by the same people, about three hundred years or so ago. From the outside they both look beautiful, but you wouldn’t believe what clandestine activities have gone on inside their charming walls recently.

     Shall we take a look…?

 

     The final rays of the sun gradually began to dip below the tree-lined horizon as Charlie Banbury left his old, dilapidated house known locally as Piddlewich Hollow, to walk to the village of Little Piddlewich.

     Half an hour later Charlie trudges wearily up the steep lane leading to the village green.

Nowadays his legs are reluctant to work at speed. At 65 years of age, he looks and feels at least ten years older. His hair, a dirty grey colour, hangs around his shoulders in tatty strands, and his old raincoat is peppered with holes hiding a jacket which has also seen better days. Dirty down-at-heel shoes with split sides can be seen peeping out from the thread-bare turn-ups of once elegant trousers, and his wet feet squelch as he walks along. He lives alone and consequently seldom takes the trouble to bathe, or even shave for that matter.

     Charlie’s family had always been quiet and respectable. His father, had been a leading member of the community, and had owned a thriving antiques business. But after the deaths of both his parents, and being an only child, Charlie decided to continue running the company. But he soon found that it wasn’t easy, especially as he couldn’t be bothered to put much effort into it, and gradually the business failed. Charlie now lives friendless and alone in the old family home, seldom venturing far and existing on hand-outs and the state pension, when he remembered to collect it, of course.

     It is the 4th of November and Charlie loves bonfires. He feels excited as he walks on to Little Piddlewich’s village green. Why should he wait until tomorrow when everyone would be celebrating the centuries-old tradition of Bonfire, Treason and Plot? The bonfire will look just as good tonight, he thought. His eyes glistened as he anticipated the enjoyment to come. He considered the matches in his pocket to be his liberation, his means of fun, and his power over the inhabitants of the village. It will serve them right to miss their treat after the way they had treated him over the years.

     The wooden struts holding the bonfire together reached up into the darkened sky. The annual funeral pyre was ready, and the effigy of Guy Fawkes sat forlornly on an old chair at the top. Charlie chuckled. Guy Fawkes won’t have to wait much longer. The inhabitants of Little Piddlewich could always be relied upon to clear their gardens, garages and sheds for their annual November 5th bonfire and firework display: but this year they will all be disappointed. He chuckles again.

     Charlie hears a noise.  A shadowy figure is walking away from the bonfire. He recognises the tall slim form of The Reverend Henry Cornforth, the noble vicar of St. Saviours’ church, who always considered himself to be a pillar of society. Charlie couldn’t help sniggering.

     ‘Now what is the vicar doing lurking around in the dark?’ he whispered to himself. His excitement heightened, but he kept still and quiet until the vicar was out of earshot. The moon appeared from behind a veil of clouds and Charlie walked round the bonfire to see what he’d been doing. Charlie’s eyesight was still good, so it wasn’t long before he found some magazines partially hidden behind an old battered standard-lamp. He picked one up and read the title. ‘Why the randy old…,’ he exclaimed. ‘And from someone who preaches the threat of hell and damnation to anyone straying from the chosen paths of righteousness.’ He lights another match and examines the other magazines. They were definitely not the sort one would expect a man of the cloth to be reading. What would his parishioners think if they found out?

     Suddenly, Charlie felt something fall on to his foot.

     It was an open envelope! His hands shook as he withdraws the letter it contained. He couldn’t believe his eyes! It was a love letter from Lisa Alderton, who, along with her husband Peter, ran the Old Oak Tree on the other side of the green and what’s more… it was addressed to The Rev. Henry Cornforth!

     ‘Oh, my, oh my,’ he whispers. Charlie had little experience with women, and the contents of the letter made him blush. Suddenly an idea began to form in his mind as he put the letter back into the envelope and placed it in his pocket. ‘I’ll telephone Cornforth and ask him how important it is to him. As for Lisa Alderton, I’ll teach her to bar me from the pub.’ Charlie quickly fashions a makeshift torch out of twigs, poured some lighter fuel over them, and laughing loudly held it against the magazines. ‘They will help to light this fire,’ he said excitedly. ‘After all, it’s only a day early.’

     At first they just smouldered. Then a puff of wind ignited some debris and soon they were blazing merrily. With a speed which belied his age, Charlie began to prance around the bonfire, poking the torch in between the gaps with great relish. His breath came out in short bursts and his eyes glittered happily as he emitted little “oohs” and “aahs” as tendrils of smoke spiralled into the clear night sky.

     Charlie began to sing. ‘Remember, remember the 5th of November, gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason, should ever be forgot.’ but there was nobody there to hear these traditional words. But, the deed was done and he’d spoiled the villagers’ fun. Charlie’s eyes danced as the flames took control. The sound of cracking timbers and the smell of burning wood, rubber, old carpets, and rotting vegetation swiftly wafted upwards. Charlie was in his element; his soul was on fire too, and he felt alive with every conceivable emotion.

     About ten minutes later, Charlie heard the sound of angry voices and lights from torches as people hurried to the scene. He couldn’t bear to leave, but he raced towards the cover of some trees and watched as more and more people arrived. The flames reached hungrily for the sky, like golden fingers searching for food, and Charlie laughed… Oh how he laughed.

 

     Lisa Alderton was preparing the bar for the evening and held up the beer glass she was polishing, to see it sparkle. Lisa was immensely proud of the way everything gleamed in The Old Oak Tree. The flames of the log fire burning merrily in the old Inglenook fireplace, reflected and enhanced themselves throughout the room, and paid homage to her hard work. Just as she started to straighten the bottles on the shelf behind the bar, she heard frantic knocking on the door. Lisa glanced at the ornate mirror above the oak fire, and plumped up her long dark curly hair. Even though she knew she looked stunning she ran her hands over her short skirt before unlocking the door and peering out.

     Her neighbour, Jim Iverson, stood in the doorway looking anxious and out of breath.

     ‘Lisa, is Peter around?’

     ‘Yes, he’s upstairs. Why do you want him?’ she said giving him her usual smouldering smile. Jim was round about thirty-five and quite good looking.

     ‘Some blithering…. idiot has lit the bonfire.’

     ‘What,’ Lisa spluttered.

     ‘Yes, everyone’s rallying round, but I feel it’ll be too late,’ he said. ‘The children will be so disappointed.’

     ‘Oh Jim, who on earth would do such a thing?’ Through the doorway, Lisa could clearly see the silhouette of the bonfire as the hungry flames leapt into the sky. ‘I’ve been so busy, I didn’t notice. What are we going to do now?’

     ‘I suppose we could build another one, but it won’t be much good,’ Jim said pulling a face.

     ‘I’ll go and see if Peter is decent.’

     ‘Good. Tell him that I’ll see him on the green.’ He gave a wry smile as he raced away.

     Lisa ran upstairs just as Peter was coming out of the bedroom. ‘Lisa have you seen the bonfire?’ he shouted. ‘I told the Village Hall Committee that something like this would happen sooner or later. We should have been guarding it.’

     ‘I know. Jim has been round asking for help,’ Lisa said trying not to panic.

     ‘If I catch whoever’s done this, they’ll wish they’d never been born,’ Peter cursed whilst slipping into an old anorak. ‘You’d best stay here as there could be a few thirsty people drowning their sorrows later.’

     ‘Yes, and do be careful.’

     ‘Don’t you worry? It’ll be some young hooligans I expect. They’ll run away when confronted by real men.’ Peter turned up his collar and ran out of the pub.

     Lisa smiled. Peter was at last treating her normally again after the rows of the previous few days. She put all the lights on and almost immediately, Henry Cornforth walked in. Lisa’s heart gave its customary lurch. He was the most attractive middle-aged man, she thought, and shook her head sadly.

     ‘Henry! What are you doing here?’

     ‘I… I wanted to see you, Lisa.’

     ‘I meant what I said the other day.’ Lisa paused. ‘Peter knows about us.’

     ‘He knows?’ Henry’s face paled.

     ‘Yes. He became suspicious about the phone calls,’ Lisa added. ‘So now, we can’t possibly continue seeing one another, can we?’

     ‘But…my darling girl, I…’

     ‘It’s for the best, Henry.’

     ‘What, my best or yours?’ he replied. ‘I love you Lisa.’

     ‘And I love you too, Henry. If things were different, I…’

     Henry stared down at his feet. ‘Lisa, I’m sorry, but I’ve lost the letter you sent me, and if it falls into the wrong hands…’ He looked dreadful.

     ‘It would be disastrous, Henry!’ Lisa replied. ‘What have you done? How could you be so careless?’

     Henry’s face looked hollow and ashen. ‘I’m sorry. I’ve searched everywhere for it.’

     ‘Now Henry, please listen to me. Someone has lit the bonfire. I’m surprised you didn’t notice.’

     ‘No… no I didn’t, as I had a lot on my mind. How awful. Do we know who did it?’

     ‘No. Peter’s just gone over there.’

     ‘Right. I must go too and give everyone some moral support.’

     ‘Moral support?’ Lisa added with a hint of coquettishness. ‘You’re a good one to say that, Henry.’

     ‘Well, you know,’ he said staring at her longingly, as he disappeared into the night.

 

     Charlie stood amongst the trees as everyone frantically tried in vain to save the bonfire. He was still laughing. He would have loved to be near the bonfire, to feel its welcoming warmth and the noise of crackling wood. It was a living, breathing monster that craved for more food, and he couldn’t be there to feed it. An intense longing swept throughout his body.

     A sudden noise behind him made Charlie turn round. The Reverend Henry Cornforth scurried breathlessly along the pathway leading from the pub. Charlie’s eyes gleamed. ‘Now is my chance to get even,’ he whispers to himself, and just as Henry Cornforth reached the spot where he was hiding, Charlie stepped out in front of him.

     Henry was clearly shaken. ‘What…what on earth are you doing hiding there, man?’ he said, his voice quavering in fear.

     ‘I’m enjoying the fire of course.’

     Henry’s eyes narrowed. ‘I don’t suppose you had anything to do with it?’

     ‘What if I did?’ Charlie replied.

     ‘You are an absolute idiot. You’ve completely ruined the Guy Fawkes celebrations,’ Henry sneers at him. ‘Your actions are beyond contempt.’

     Charlie peers into Henry’s bewildered eyes. ‘What like the actions of a man of God who has carnal knowledge of another man’s wife, perhaps?’

     ‘I…I don’t know what you’re ta… talking about,’ Henry stutters. ‘P… please stand aside. I… I’ve come to help.’

     ‘There’s the little matter of an incriminating love letter. I found it in a naughty magazine hidden in the bonfire.’ Charlie moved nearer to Henry. ‘I of course rescued the letter from the flames, and I’ve been wondering how much you might wish to pay to get it back?’

     A cloud momentarily covers the face of the moon, almost as if she is embarrassed by the unfolding drama. Silence ensues. Then, Henry Cornforth appears to choke, staggers slightly, rubs his left arm, and then in desperation clutches at his chest.

     ‘I’m…I’m not feeling well. I… think I am…’

     ‘Cornforth, tell me how much this letter is worth to you?  It must be quite a tidy sum. Otherwise, I could…er… send a copy to your Bishop and…’

     ‘For God’s sake man, what are you saying? I…I really don’t feel…’ Henry lurches forward holding his hands over his chest, and falls to the ground moaning before giving a peculiar kind of shuddering sigh. Charlie kneels beside the man’s prostrate form, quickly realising that The Reverend Henry Cornforth was dead.

     Charlie’s compassion for his fellow man had long since disappeared, and because of Henry’s death, he knew that the letter was worth a lot less. He stood up and glanced longingly in the direction of the bonfire, and knew he had to get back to Piddlewich Hollow before anyway discovered him standing over the Very Reverend Cornforth’s body.

 

***

 

     On the day of Henry’s funeral, St. Saviour’s church bells pealed with a mournful, sonorous sound as people walked out into the brilliant November sunshine. It seemed obscene that the weather should be so beautiful on such a sad occasion. Having said their last goodbyes to Henry – a man they’d all had reason to believe was a god-fearing, upright, and moral man – each member of the congregation shook hands with the Bishop, and walked sadly through the ancient stone arch which led into the cemetery.

     Lisa Alderton was the last to leave the church; a fact which Charlie Banbury couldn’t fail to notice. He was standing behind some old and crumbling gravestones which were dappled in the afternoon sunshine, and looking like so many elongated irregular teeth. Charlie watched Lisa as she walked slowly to the graveside. He had no interest in watching the burial ritual, but instead he let his mind wander. ‘Even though Henry Cornforth is dead, Lisa needs to know that I have a certain love letter in my possession. She might even like to help me out financially, just to make sure that I don’t shame her by revealing its contents’.

     ‘Dust to dust, ashes to ashes…’ the Bishop’s voice floats away on the breeze which is busy rustling the leaves on a nearby tree. From his hiding place, Charlie looked at Lisa. Her face was hidden under an enormous black hat. ‘Yes, she might well wish to help me out,’ he mumbled. He laughs; it is a shrill, unworldly sound which is immediately cut short in case one of the mourners heard him. Charlie waits patiently until all the mourners begin to drift away, until only Lisa is left standing at the graveside with tears of anguish flowing down her cheeks. He carefully leaves the cover of the gravestones and walks towards her. Lisa doesn’t notice him at first, but when a twig snaps under his foot, she turns round in alarm.

     ‘What are you doing here?’ she sneers.

     ‘We’re not in the pub now, are we?’ he replies. ‘You don’t have any jurisdiction over me here, Mrs. Alderton. I’m here because there’s a little matter that I’d like to discuss with you.’

     ‘I can’t possibly think that we would have anything to say to one another.’ Lisa said coldly, and started to walk away.

     ‘Er, Mrs. Alderton. I think you should listen to me.’ She stopped and turned round. ‘A letter written by you and addressed to a certain clerical gentleman now regrettably deceased has just come into my possession. I was wondering…’

     A look of sheer horror passes over Lisa’s face. ‘What letter?  I don’t know what you’re talking about.’

     ‘But you must. Don’t you think your husband might be interested in reading it?’

     ‘Why you…’ Lisa’s face contorts in anger. ‘How did you get hold of it?’

     ‘That’s for me to know. I’m…I’m a little strapped for cash and I was wondering…’

     ‘You’re despicable. You’re nothing but a common blackmailer. I’m sorry to spoil your day, but Peter knows all about my friendship with Henry.’

     ‘He knows?’ Charlie’s heart misses a beat.

     ‘Yes, I told him everything, and that the affair was over and…’ she pauses. ‘It may seem strange to you, but I love my husband deeply,’ she said giving a hint of a smile. ‘He accepted my explanation without question. So where does that leave you?’ Lisa strode away from him with her head in the air.

     Charlie feels devastated. Revenge would have been so sweet, he thought as he walked home towards Piddlewich Hollow, and let himself into the house. He needed to lick his wounds and try to forget the inhabitants of Little Piddlewich. He shivered as the temperature plummeted, so he lights the log fire in the old fireplace.

     He stares at it and rejoices in its warmth.

     ‘The village bonfire will stay in my memory for ever,’ Charlie shouts with glee as he places more and more logs on to the large hungry fire. He closes his eyes, and dances a macabre jig around the room joyfully imagining that he is back on the green. He feeds the hungry flames again, and the fire crackles noisily making him laugh as the flames devour more of the wood, and…

    Charlie continues to dance… until his spirit soars upwards.

***

 

     A fire-fighter finds the pathetic remains of Charlie’s body the following morning in the ruins of Piddlewich Hollow. But of course, the incriminating letter… is lost for ever.

 

******

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