LAST RESTING PLACE

 

By Madeleine McDonald

 

 


“I’ll do it. I’ll do it for our Tabitha. I’ll lie down in front of the lawnmower when it comes.”

David Bentham patted his wife’s shoulder. “Now, Mother, it may not come to that.”

Freda Bentham shrugged off his comfort. “What about the letter?” she wailed. “How can anyone complain about flowers? Why, only yesterday, Lady Susan stopped for a word. She admired the irises.”

“Oh, aye. She knows her plants, her ladyship does. It’s a pleasure to talk to her. Have you noticed though, she’s more chatty than she used to be.”

“That must be since Sir Peter retired. She takes her time walking to the shop now.” Freda sighed. “I thought she might be able to help me but she said Sir Peter took it bad he was voted off the council.”

“He would never have let the council send us a letter like that.” 

The letter sat in the top drawer of the little wooden bureau inherited from Dave’s Mum and kept because it fitted neatly into the space between the door and the radiator. Over time, heat from the radiator had warped the drawers, making them awkward to open. The only other document in there was a leaflet inviting them to change electricity supplier, a leaflet which the Benthams did not understand, but were reluctant to throw away. The letter fell into a different category: super important and super worrying. Since its arrival, it had caused them sleepless nights.
 

The Occupier

Primrose Cottage

17 Main Street

Stony Haddon 

 

It has come to our attention that, contrary to the Highways Act 1980, you have placed sundry items of a personal nature on that part of the public highway which abuts the frontage of your property. It is a criminal offence to place unlawful items on the public highway. Please take steps to remove said items immediately.

 

We remind you that Fenbridge District Council is an equal opportunities employer and we will not tolerate any abuse of our hardworking staff.

 

Yours sincerely

 

Jason Smethwick

Assistant Streetscene Co-ordinator

Fenbridge District Council


The clatter of the lawnmower sounded from the cricket pitch. The Benthams looked at each other. It was the third Tuesday in May. For the last two years, regular as clockwork, the council had sent a man on a mower to the village of Stony Haddon once a month in summer. It was a symbolic, cosmetic sweep. A quick tidy of the cricket pitch and of the verges along the main road. Those residents left to trim back encroaching vegetation in front of their own plots complained that the council did not do a proper job. However, such complaints never reached the council offices, being voiced in the pub and at the bus stop.

Today, Mrs Bentham stood ready. She had washed and ironed her best blue dress, bought in a House of Fraser sale three years before. Tabitha deserved no less.

The lawnmower clattered into view. She stepped forward onto the verge, crossed her hands over her generous bosom, and closed her eyes.

The noise stopped.

“Are you all right there, Missus?”

She opened her eyes and found her voice. “We shall not be moved.” Since the arrival of the letter, she had practised singing the words in front of the bedroom mirror but today, this third Tuesday in May, they came out in a squeak.

Hope fluttered under the blue dress. The mower man was not the cruel, ruthless figure of her imagination. If anything, he looked puzzled.

“Er, nice show of flowers you’ve got there, Missus.”

Hope surged. “You’re not going to mow them down?” The squeak had risen an octave.

“Not me, love, I’d have to move that birdbath if I wanted to do that. Moving obstacles is not in my job description and, anyways, I like to see a bit of colour myself.”

Freda saw concern replace puzzlement in his features. “Here, Missus, you’re not going to have a funny turn, are you? He climbed down from his machine, and guided her through the gate into the front garden. “There you go, love. I’d go indoors, if I were you. We haven’t seen the sun for weeks and it can be too much when you’re not used to it.” The mower started with a clatter, pulled into the verge again and went on its way.

 

* * *

 

In Fenbridge Council offices, Jason Smethwick sat in front of the computer, cutting and pasting. He whistled as he worked, for he had a hot date with Felicity from accounts that evening and he intended to leave early. Jason pressed print and folded twenty letters into twenty envelopes in a daze of lustful anticipation. All done. Take that, Mizz Councillor Health-and-Safety Tamworth. Efficiency is my middle name.

In the last local election, Ms Councillor Tamworth had replaced Sir Peter Talbot as the representative for the ward of Much Haddon, Little Haddon and Stony Haddon. In five short months, she had acquired a reputation. No council official was safe from her enthusiastic interpretation of health and safety legislation as it applied to complaints from the public.

Jason’s boss in Streetscene complained about his increased workload. “Meddlesome woman,” he muttered. “Beware of social reformers, Jason my boy. There’s no reasoning with them. You might as well hug a virus.”

Pleased with his afternoon’s work cutting and pasting, Jason envisaged telling Felicity his boss was an old fart who was too scared to tell Mizz Councillor Tamworth where to get off. When he was the boss he would not be so spineless. He had said the same to Cheryl Saunders the month before, and to Katie Read the month before that, although Katie Read had the cheek to tell him he would be out of a job if no-one ever complained to the council.  

      

* * *

 

Dave and Freda were still discussing the reprieve an hour later, when young Ian rang. “Oh, it’s you. Your gran’s in a bit of state. Best if she rings you back tomorrow.”

Freda cradled her third cup of tea and half-listened to Dave talking to his grandson about last weekend’s football game. From years of half-listening, she knew the words used, but she still did not understand their meaning. However, their familiarity was soothing, almost hypnotic. She let Dave’s side of the conversation wash over her. What mattered right now was that they had won a month’s reprieve until the next visit by the mower man. 

“That’s not a bad idea, Ian lad. Your fancy university education wasn’t wasted after all. I’ll tell your gran.” Dave grinned at Freda when he came off the phone. “He said we ought to find out what this Highways Act thingy actually says. Why didn’t we think of that?”

 

* * *

 

Lady Susan poked her head round the library door in the Old Hall. The room smelled of dog. Despite the daylight outside, the curtains were already drawn. Sir Peter Talbot was watching the local news on television.

“Did you hear that, Suze? I don’t know what this country’s coming to. They’ve got a point, these anti-fracking chappies. They might look like a bunch of layabouts, but you’ve got to listen to what they say. No good ever came of not listening to people.”

He drew breath, and Lady Susan interrupted to deliver her message in a placid voice. “There’s a couple to see you, dear. The council are giving them a hard time. It might help if you talked to them.”

“Hah! Council business is nothing to do with me anymore. Did you tell them the buggers voted me off at the last election?” He bent to stroke Bess, whose ears had pricked up at the change in tone. “They might even be the buggers who voted me off! I lost by five votes, you remember, Suze. Twenty years a councillor and that was my reward.”

“Yes dear. Terrible ingratitude. But they’re upset, I can tell. I think it would help if you listened to them. You’re so clever, dearest, I’m sure you can explain the by-laws to them and put their minds at rest.”

“Oh, very well. Off that chair, Bess. Stand by to repel boarders.”

Sir Peter poured his visitors a sherry. The glasses were engraved with his old regimental crest, which normally provided an opportunity to break the ice with small talk. However, Freda clutched her glass without looking, while Dave focused on two crossed African spears displayed on the wall.

“Nasty-looking weapons, them.”

Sir Peter waved away the comment. “Made for the tourist trade. About as relevant to modern Africa as a musket is to us. Now, how can I help you?”

“We’re not ones to make a fuss, are we, Mother?” Dave began, looking at Freda for confirmation. Bess was sniffing at his knees, and he fondled her ears. “But it’s our Tabitha, you see. It was her favourite spot. She’s laid to rest there. All we wanted to do was mark her passing.”

“We’ve made it look ever so nice,” Freda assured Sir Peter. “Everyone says so. Even the mower man this morning said how lovely it looked. I put in snowdrops for winter, and daffodil bulbs for spring, and right now the irises and the pinks are out. People always stop to look. I know Lady Susan does. There’s some mint too, but I put that in an old sink. You know how mint spreads.”

“Er, what exactly is the problem?”

They showed him the letter.

“Tabitha loved that spot. And that was her undoing.” Dave stifled an unmanly sniffle.

“She’d gone a bit deaf with age. She must have been dozing in the sun and she never knew what hit her. That’s what Mr Brown said. He offered to bury her for us, and told us to remember her the way she was. Such a kind man.” Freda gulped down her sherry. “When he redid his garden he offered us his old birdbath. That was thoughtful of him. It completes the display.”

 

* * *

 

Lady Susan ushered them out ten minutes later.

Freda lagged behind and caught her hands. “It was ever so kind of Sir Peter to see us. He’s a real gentleman. It was a shame about the elections. My David doesn’t show it, but that letter has him worried.

“Leave it with me,” Lady Susan hissed. “It will do Peter good to have something to do. Men who have nothing to do can be, you know…” Her voice trailed off and she nodded to emphasise her point.

Sir Peter harrumphed when she re-entered the library. “The things you let me in for, woman. It’s a ruddy cat! Not even a dog. A pet cat.” He rubbed Bess’s ears. “Dogs have got more sense than women sometimes, eh Bess?”

Lady Susan’s placidity was unimpaired. “Yes dear. But you will help them, won’t you.”

 

* * *



From his years on the council, Sir Peter knew the power of the press, but not that of social media. A photo of the Benthams duly appeared in the Fenbridge Gazette. Letters to the newspaper followed. The village of Stony Haddon experienced a rise in traffic as people took a detour to photograph Tabitha the Tabby’s last resting place, complete with donated bird bath. However, when young Ian posted a photo of the shrine on his Facebook page, seen by his 380 closest friends, one of those friends added a cartoon image of a stiff, dead cat. The doctored photo was seen by thousands.

The only person who did not appreciate the photos was Ms Councillor Tamworth. In the privacy of her office, her lips thinned into a cold line of annoyance. She picked up the phone and launched into a tirade.

“Streetscene? What is going on in Stony Haddon? I had a complaint from a parent about overgrown verges obstructing visibility. That is a serious matter. Parents are worried about children walking to and from school. Fenbridge District Council cannot let sentimentality stand in the way of road safety. As the elected representative for the Haddons, I gave your department specific instructions to make sure any extraneous obstacles to the safe passage of junior pedestrians were removed. Per-ma-nent-ly removed. Why was this not done?”

The answer did not assuage her and the peroration continued. “So you sent a letter, but nobody followed it up. If I may say so, that is typical of the deplorable attitude that permeates every department of this council. You salaried officials forget you are public servants. It is left to unpaid councillors such as myself to get the job done. Furthermore, I have looked up your home address and you live in that very village.” Her voice dropped from a shrill yap to a menacing growl. “If that means there has been collusion and — dare I say it — corruption, you will not hear the end of this. What? You’re only the assistant? Why didn’t you say so? I will be having words with the leader of the council about your lack of commitment to the job. You and the head of department both. Goodday to you.”

Nor was she mollified to receive a telephone call from Sir Peter Talbot. 

“Oh, it’s you. This is none of your business. The council made an administrative decision and it is my job to ensure the decision is implemented. Do I make myself clear, Sir Peter?” The ‘sir’ emerged through pinched lips. Councillor Tamworth disapproved of hereditary titles, which had no place in forward-looking local government.

She slammed the phone down. “Get back to your hunting, shooting and fishing, you superannuated old fossil,” she hissed.

* * *


Two days later, a JCB rumbled along Stony Haddon’s main street. Sir Peter was enjoying a quiet pint in the beer garden of the Dog and Duck, having nodded companionably to various acquaintances without the necessity for conversation. When he noticed a distinctive Mini following the JCB, he frowned, left his beer, and made his way along the main street. Bess trotted beside him.

By the time he reached them, Councillor Tamworth had exited the Mini and was haranguing the JCB driver.

Sir Peter expressed well-timed surprise. “Councillor, what a fortunate coincidence. As it happens, I was going to telephone you.” He held up a hand to stem her protests. “None of my business, of course, but one of my constituents — a former constituent I should say — approached me about a rickety footbridge here in the village. Naturally, I was going to report it to you, but perhaps, since you happen to be here, I could show in person.”

He turned to the JCB driver. “We won’t be long. Tell the lady in the cottage behind you I suggest she makes you a nice cup of tea.”

During his years in local government, Sir Peter had honed the skill of moving people along without them noticing. “This way, Councillor,” he invited her.

The disused mill was fenced off but he produced a key. “I’m on the cricket club committee,” he explained. “Some of our big hitters smite the ball right over the fence.” He led the way round to the mill race and indicated a rickety footbridge. “See for yourself. The person who complained to me was worried about children getting in here.”

Councillor Tamworth edged forward and tested the handrail. “Mmm. I do agree. Definitely a hazard.”

Sir Peter injected a note of alarm into his voice. “Stop. Don’t go any further, my dear. It really isn’t safe.”

Mizz Councillor Tamworth drew herself up to her full five feet two inches. “How dare you address me as ‘my dear’! You won’t stop me doing my civic duty, Talbot.”

Two more steps. A rotten plank gave way. She fell into the mill race with a satisfying shriek, and vanished into a culvert.

Sir Peter made sure to lock the security gate on the way out. On the edge of the cricket pitch, beyond the culvert, the body floated lifeless in slow-moving water.

He shook his head. “I did warn her, Bess girl. She wouldn’t be told.”

Knowing the current would carry the body into the lake in front of the Old Hall, where it could lie hidden in the reeds, Sir Peter extracted a mobile phone from his Barbour pocket. He dialled a number, and spoke only to give his name and a codeword he had not used for almost fifty years. He slid the phone back into his pocket and waited.


* * *


Sir Peter was discreet. Few knew he had spent two years as a special adviser to the SAS in Nigeria. Even fewer knew that Jason Smethwick’s boss had served in the SAS back then. The Biafran War had been an unsavoury, gory business, one which both men preferred to forget. A reserved nod across the pub was all the support they needed.


* * *



The disappearance of Mizz Councillor Tamworth was a nine-day wonder. A malicious Fenbridge Council employee tried to start a rumour she was working as a pole dancer in Birmingham, but a reply-to-all email pointed out that pole dancers did not wear jackboots. The email inspired Jason Smethwick to produce some explicit doodles.

Only two people, and Bess, knew that Councillor Tamworth reposed under a blanket of tarmac, under the two new parking spaces that appeared overnight beside Stony Haddon’s cricket pitch. Those two would never talk. A reserved nod across the pub was all the support they needed.

A by-election was held, and Sir Peter duly re-elected. He went about his official duties with a new spring in his step. Summer arrived and the villages of Much Haddon, Little Haddon and Stony Haddon slumbered in the heat. The high point of the village calendar would be the autumn fruit and vegetable show, judged by that knowledgeable plantswoman Lady Susan.  

For her part, Lady Susan presented a peace rose to the Benthams. It took root and thrived, shedding a profusion of creamy pink petals over Tabitha’s last resting place. Lady Susan accepted their thanks with a secret smile. She owed her own debt of gratitude to that deceased feline.


Madeleine McDonald lives on the chilly East coast of England, where the wind whistles up through the floorboards. She finds inspiration walking on the beach, before the world wakes up. Her writing includes newspaper columns on family life, short stories and romance novels.


Copyright 2014 Madeleine McDonald. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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