A Cuckoo in Bohemia – Chapter Two

Thursday, 26 July 2007

Aldbrickham, England, 2004

Had the Environment and Planning Directorate been able to order such matters as rigorously as they would have liked, they would have chosen a different kind of day for the Development Control (Visiting) Subcommittee to do their rounds of the more contentious planning applications.

As it was, the deluge pounded down from a sodden pewter sky and the Driver didn’t start his afternoon in the best of humours. He squeezed himself as best he could between the dogged slants of rain and the strictly non-smoking door of the solicitor’s office on Castle Street to keep his rollup from getting soggy. There was always somebody who made them late. And here he was now, a fat brown man with a florid face fixed in a malevolent sneer, waddling up the hill from the Cross Keys with a fat brown envelope wedged under his left armpit and wiping his leathery lips on the back of his right hand.

‘There’s always one!’ said the Driver, tossing his dog-end into the foliage of a world-weary peony in a concrete tub.

‘And I’ll bet I’m not the last,’ the Fat One growled. He heaved his ample belly through the sliding door of the minibus and into one of the double seats that were generally left to him alone, then ripped open the brown envelope and pulled from it a wad of papers in a rainbow of colours.

‘You’re supposed to have read those papers before the meeting!’ snarled the Bald One in the seat behind.

‘You can bugger off too,’ said the Fat One. ‘Where’s your little lady-love today anyway?’

The Bald One’s chest rocked with a panting laugh. ‘She’ll be along. Not like her to miss a visiting committee. It’s her special treat’.

A gangly man rose to his feet from the front seat next to the Driver. His pale skin and thin silvery beard gave him the intensely pained look of a revolutionary poet. He was forced to stoop as he peered back through the bus, otherwise his head might have wedged in the roof. ‘J-J-Just one m-m-m-more we’re waiting for,’ he said. ‘Has she s-s-sent apologies, Ms-s-s Willmott?’

‘I’ve had no apologies from the committee clerk, Councillor Grainger,’ said a short, bouncy woman with big dark curls and huge round tortoiseshell glasses, sitting in the seat behind him.

‘Thank you,’ said the Revolutionary Poet. ‘We’ll wait another five minutes, I think, and then it’s just too bad’.

‘Here she comes now!’ said Big Curls, . She had left her seat and was leaning out of the door to get an unmisted view. ‘All set for the seaside by the look of it’.

‘It’s a fine day for the English seaside,’ said the Bald One. ‘Has she got her bucket and spade?’

It was true that some of the members, if not most of them, regarded their Visiting Sub duties much as small children looked forward to a school outing. With this elderly councillor – portly, arthritic and craggy-faced – who now arrived you got the feeling that the Visiting Sub was the highlight of her life. Up the hill she came now, plodding along with a fluorescent orange sou’wester to keep the rain off her head and a bulging wicker basket in her hand from which protruded a well-stuffed plastic carrier bag and a large Thermos flask. She looked rather like an elderly Paddington Bear.

‘Right, th-th-that’s everybody,’ said the Romantic Poet, as the Driver helped Paddington Bear into the seat behind the door where she could spread out in comfort. ‘Come on Driver, we’re already late, let’s be on our way’.

‘I hope you’ve got yer Kiss Me Quick hat, ’ the Fat One said to Paddington Bear. ‘When we’re done we can have some cockles under the pier. ‘ His words tailed off in a reptilian snigger that brought flecks of foam to his lips.

From the carrier bag, Paddington Bear took the tools and materials for crocheting. She brandished a crochet hook with menace. ‘Your cockles will be feeling this if you don’t learn some manners,’ she scowled.

‘It’s the Whitley Wood school of charm,’ said the Bald One.

‘You can shut up too, you poncey Tory bugger!’ said the Fat One.

‘B-B-Before you all get too relaxed and s-s-start enj-j-joying yourselves,’ said the Romantic Poet, ‘can we just listen to the p-p-planning officer while she tells us about our p-p-programme for the morning?’

‘Spoilsport!’, said the Bald One.

Big Curls twisted around to face the councillors. ‘As you see from your agenda,’ she purred, ‘we’re going to have a look at the supermarket site at Kingsmead, and then we’ll go over to Tilecot Wharf to see the proposed residential development there. First though we’re going to the proposed outdoor pursuits centre at Avalon Vale. Partly because we thought you’d want to get that out of the way on a day like this, and partly because somebody from the developers is meeting us there to tell us about the project’.

‘That’s Shitstone’s in’t it?’ asked a woman with blue-rinsed hair and flat Sheffield vowels laced with acid. ‘If it’s owt to do with Shitstone’s I think we should let them bloody drown. Especially if it’s old man Keithy himself’.

‘That’s my mate you’re talking about there,’ snarled the Bald One.

‘You’re quite right Councillor,’ said Big Curls. ‘The application is from Shipstones Properties.’ She carefully emphasised the first syllable. ‘But Mr Shipstone isn’t gracing us with his own presence. He’s sending his personal representative to talk to us.’

‘C-C-Can we have a little p-p-professionalism here?’ said the Romantic Poet.

‘Aye Boss,’ the Fat One growled. ‘When you’ve grown out of short pants you can tell us about being professional’.

‘Oh give over,’ Blue Rinse snapped , raising her head from the notepad she was scribbling in. ‘Leave him alone, you big bully!’

‘You got something going with our Chair??’ retorted the Fat One.

Before a confrontation could develop the bus lurched violently. ‘Sorry guys,’ said the Driver.

They were entering the area known unofficially as Avalon Vale, where the paved road gave way to a rutted track upon which great pools of ochre-coloured water were spreading out amongst the jutting nodules of flint. The Vale was a cause for pride with at least some of the locals. For those who knew about it anyway, especially those few who lived there, and more widely since the local property developer Keith Shipstone announced plans to develop a big leisure complex there and had made a cause celèbre of a parcel of land that most people in the area were previously unaware of. Though no great distance from the town centre, it was isolated between the railway embankment to the north and the canal to the south. The land round about was scrubby grass, broken by thickets of elder and bramble and buddleia. A terrace of cottages built in a ponderously ornate mixture of rust-red and bone-yellow brick huddled by a canal lock as if seeking shelter from the lousy weather. On the river itself a line of narrow boats lay moored. Most of the windows in both cottage and boat displayed mystical symbols in coloured glass, stickers with the logos of Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth, or posters protesting against animal cruelty.

For all their enthusiasm for the natural environment, the denizens of Avalon Vale had their limits, and the driving rain of a sodden October morning lay firmly outside them. Even the animals of the Avalon Community Farm were staying under cover, except for one puzzled white duck assessing the habitat potential of the new lake in the middle of the track. Human life on the scene was limited to a reception party of two, One of these was a tall and handsomely-built woman in her forties, with a clipboard under her right arm and a large umbrella in vibrant shades of red, blue and green in her left hand to protect her neatly-tailored trouser suit of fuchsia linen from the downpour as she guided the bus to a spot where the sliding door would open onto reasonably dry ground. The other was a man of indeterminate age who posted himself a short distance away, between the bus and the lock, apparently heedless of the weather. He was lushly bearded and sported black hair tied in a pony-tail that hung down to the small of his back. With his right hand he supported a placard attached to a length of two by two longer than himself on which was painted, in green letters now blurred and streaking, the words SAVE THE VALE.

The committee sorted themselves in a broken circle around the tall woman, making a splash of vibrant colour in a scene of monochrome dreariness with their bright umbrellas and fluorescent hooded cagoules. They watched the woman with the expectation of a class of infants awaiting a much-loved story. No doubt their expectations encompassed an interest in what the woman had to say, but no doubt they held greater hope that she would be brief; the shuffling of feet and the impatient set of the mouths around the circle certainly suggested that.

‘Good morning everybody, and thank you for coming out on such a vile day,’ said the woman.

‘Can we go home now please, Miss?’ said the Fat One.

The woman wrinkled her lips into a wry smile. ‘My name’s Claire Pepperdine,’ she continued, ‘I’m Keith Shipstone’s personal assistant. Mr Shipstone is taking a close personal interest in the Gordon Harper Centre and he asked me to say how sorry he is that he can’t be with you today owing to a prior engagement.’

‘Poor sod might get his toupee wet,’ said Blue Rinse.

‘Well, maybe,’ said Claire Pepperdine. Her smile was stiff and patient. ‘He sent me to get my hair wet instead. Anyway, Mr Shipstone is taking a close interest because he wants to make a personal gift to local people in honour of an old schoolfriend of his who died.’

‘Pass the bloody bucket will you, please!’ muttered the Fat One.

The Romantic Poet stiffened visibly and the temperature seemed to drop several degrees further. ‘Can we have some order please,’ he said. ‘I’m s-s-sorry Ms Pepperdine, do c-c-carry on.’

‘Patronising sod,’ muttered the Fat One. A sharp jab from the Bald One’s elbow drew from him a sharp hiss and brought him an icy glare from the Romantic Poet.

Claire Pepperdine smiled her little formal smile again. ‘I’m sorry, I know you all want to get back into the dry so I’ll be as quick as I can. Shipstone Properties are seeking outline consent for an outdoor pursuits centre on a small part of the vacant land in Avalon Vale. Gordon Harper was a soldier, a Royal Marine, who was killed in a training exercise twenty years ago.’

‘I remember him,’ said the Bald One, nodding gravely.

‘The centre would serve the young people of the area,’ Pepperdine continued in an effort not to be thrown from her script. ‘And we hope it will have a wider regional significance as well. As you’ll see from the plans, the building itself will be small and very discreet, and has been designed specifically to blend in with the character of the Vale. Mr Shipstone believes such a centre would be the most fitting tribute to his friend. Anyway, I’m sure your officer will go through the plans with you in detail but I’ll try to answer any questions you may have now.’

‘Can we go and have some tea now?’ Paddington Bear warbled from under her dripping sou’wester.’

‘Has the local community been consulted?’, asked Blue Rinse, glancing at the pony-tailed man along the track who remained motionless and silent.

Big Curls juggled her umbrella and her folder of papers for a moment before finding the sheet she wanted. ‘Leaflets delivered to all addresses in Avalon Vale’, she read. ‘Seven objections. Two saying it will attract undesirables to the Vale…’

‘That’s what the lady said the centre was for!’ said Paddington Bear.

‘Not a planning consideration!’ barked the Bald One.

‘Exactly!’ said Big Curls. ‘Anyway, three more objecting to the traffic the centre would generate. Two saying it would disrupt the natural character of the Vale’.

‘Will we get a chance to talk to members of the local community?’ Blue Rinse asked. She had taken off her wet and misted glasses and was concentrating hard on wiping them on a piece of tissue.

‘Unlike us, the local community are sensible enough to stay indoors on a day like this. They’ve sent their representative I see,’ added Pepperdine, nodding in the general direction of the man with the pony-tail. ‘You can talk to him if you like.’

The lone demonstrator allowed his stone face to crack into a smile as he strode towards the group. ‘I’d be very happy to tell you all about the real agenda,’ he said in a dark baritone voice.’

‘W-w-well, I think that’s it,’ said the Romantic Poet miserably from under the hood of his cagoule. ‘We should be moving along now.’ The circle of councillors murmured assent and began to move towards the shelter of the bus.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Blue Rinse, holding her ground. ‘I’ve a couple a couple of small points I want to clear up with Ms Pepperdine.’ Her shorthand notepad had appeared in her hands and she was leafing through it.

Nobody was much minded to talk to Blue Rinse when the gathering broke up three quarters of an hour later. She hung back behind the others as they made their grumbling way back to the bus. Claire Pepperdine abandoned her cool stoicism, tossed her folded umbrella into the back of her dark blue Volkswagen Golf, slid into the driving seat and pulled away through the mire, sending a wake of bilious water rippling across the track. Only the lone demonstrator stuck to his pitch, watching the departures with his Mona Lisa smile.

The councillors began a wan clambering procession into the minibus. The Driver folded his Sun and abandoned it to the top of the dashboard in order to help up Paddington Bear. As soon as Paddington had made herself comfortable, she took the Thermos flask from her basket and poured herself a cup of tea that steamed in the humid atmosphere. The Bald One headed straight for his redoubt in the back corner. Then he turned to smirk at the Fat One easing his capacious gut on board, steadying himself with his hands on Blue Rinse’s waist.

‘Piss off you old goat,’ Blue Rinse hissed over her shoulder. She flung herself into her seat with a scowl.

‘Don’t know how to treat a lady!’ said the Bald One.

‘I don’t need lessons in manners from a poncey Tory git!’ said the Fat One.

‘Ooh!’ said the Bald One. ‘That’s true. They bring you up nicely in Whitley.’

‘Right, you bastard!’ the Fat One spat. This was beyond banter, this was personal and below the belt. As he lunged towards the Bald One his foot caught Paddington Bear’s wicker basket and he pitched forward across the bus, his belly lurching into the Bald One’s corner seat. The sudden shift in weight caused the bus to rock.

Slowly but inexorably, the rocking turned into a steady slide. The sodden mud under the back wheel began to ooze into the ditch, and the wheel was being carried with it. The bus settled itself into a comfortable repose at a disconcerting angle.

The Driver launched himself from his seat and stormed to the back where The Fat One was heaving himself to his feet. ‘Right, children,’ he snapped. ‘I don’t know what game you were bloody playing at but you got us into the ditch and you can bloody help to get us out of it. I want you out there lifting, okay?’

‘We don’t have to get out again do we?’ groaned Blue Rinse.

‘Suit yourself darling’, said the Driver. ‘You can sit there all bloody day if you like but we won’t be moving from here unless everybody helps.’

‘I hope you don’t expect me to do any lifting’ said Paddington Bear, pushing herself heavily to her feet.

‘Right!’ said the Driver when they were all outside. ‘I want all the men down there lifting.’

‘What do you mean, all the men?’ asked Blue Rinse, her hands indignantly clutching her hips.

‘If you want to help too, that’s fine by me,’ said the Driver. ‘I don’t bloody care who does it. The more the merrier.’

If Blue Rinse didn’t particularly want to help, that wasn’t the point. With her face cast in Sheffield-steely determination she strode after the men – the Fat One, the Bald One and the dour Romantic Poet. Big Curls followed her in sisterly solidarity, and the five took their places behind the bus, stooping to grasp the coachwork.

‘Someone’ll have to get down there in the ditch,’ said the Driver. ‘You won’t get enough leverage like that.’

The six looked from one to another but nobody moved.

‘Need any help?’ asked a dark and mellow voice. In the excitement nobody had noticed the demonstrator with the pony-tail, who had sauntered over without his placard. All at once they seemed to notice for the first time his thigh-high waders.

‘Join the party if you like, Mr Whateveryernameis,’ growled the Driver.

‘You can call me Thunderstorm,’ he said, stepping into the ditch and pulling back his sleeves to reveal lean, muscular arms thickly covered in dark hairs attached to powerful hands that gripped the wheel arch. ‘Right, driver,’ he said, ‘in you get and give her some welly. The rest of you – when I give the signal, heave!’

The Driver gunned the engine. Thunderstorm looked directly at the lifting crew and gave a sharp little nod. Seven pairs of shoulders strained and the offside wheel inched clear of the glutinous ochre slime. The racing wheels threw up yellow mud which spattered lifters and hapless bystanders alike. The nearside wheel found a purchase on the flints under the mire and the bus pitched forward.

Thunderstorm read the moment with precision. He let go at just the right moment and stood upright in the ditch, watching the discomfiture of the councillors who floundered around off balance. The Fat One was the least fortunate. As his support lurched away from him he lost his footing completely and for the second time went sprawling headlong. He appeared to bounce off his stomach as he hit the ground, and then rolled into the ditch with a splash, coming to rest against a dense clump of brambles on the far bank. The Bald One, who was soaked through and mud-spattered himself now, could not hold back a gloating guffaw. Blue Rinse began to titter nervously and then to laugh out loud, leaning forward with her hands on their knees. Big Curls and Paddington Bear, who had been too deep in their own conversation to notice what was going on, now turned and stared, and then clutched each other to shed helpless tears on each others’ shoulders. Even the Romantic Poet allowed his dour face to crack and disrupt the gravity of his professional detachment.

The Fat One muttered strange and incoherent oaths from the ditch, aimed at everyone and no one in particular as he groped for a foothold. The bottom of the ditch was soft and didn’t easily yield a purchase for his feet. He grasped for support at what came to hand. What came most readily to hand were brambles and nettle so that he let go again quickly, stumbling and falling back into the murky water to the ever-increasing delight of the spectators. Only Thunderstorm kept a cool head. He waded over to the Fat One, lifting him and guiding him to a place where he could climb out. The sight of the dripping and cursing Fat One hauling himself out of the ditch redoubled the helpless mirth of his colleagues.

A shrill scream ripped the air, bringing the laughter to an abrupt stop.

The land-bound councillors turned at once to find the source of the scream. Big Curls stood frozen, the colour drained from her face, her mouth hanging open and her eyes fixed at a point that lay beyond the still-muttering Fat One. Every eye turned to follow her gaze.

Thunderstorm had not left the ditch. He had waded over to the far bank to investigate something that lay amongst the brambles. The thorny tendrils had parted to reveal a muddy shoe. Above the shoe and attached to it, a ghastly bluish-white human leg. The colour of the faces of the ring of councillors he turned to face.

‘I don’t suppose anybody here’s got a mobile?’ he said.

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