At 8.20am every day, a woman with church hair climbs astride a bicycle. Not an ordinary bicycle, but a strange, fold-up contraption, built for the commuter of the 1980s to whip from a raincoat at London Bridge and zip over cobbles to the Strand. It labours heavily now through the leaves, its tiny wheels wobbling round the village green, until by 8.35 there is total gridlock in its wake, its doughty rider setting her chin against the Range Rovers like a Boudicca of the North.
The atmosphere is tight. Today is World Kindness Day, and special things are being lifted from cars. Each sight brings fresh horror to Harriet, standing in her dressing gown in the front window of the Stone House. A knot of parents gathers force in the main yard. For once, like a Christmas truce, the issue of the missing ukuleles has been put aside, replaced by a succession of competitive soup tureens paraded through the gate, each one larger and more ethnic than the last, until finally a caretaker is called to free a two-person cauldron wedged up against the step. Harriet pulls the tin of Heinz tomato from her daughter’s bag and slides it into her dressing gown pocket.
‘It’ll be so us,’ enthused Martin when they first moved in, anticipating a plethora of quiz nights and boozy village fetes, ‘a home at the heart of the village, and so handy for the school.’ But their first visitor was Esther, a stout woman in her late forties with short, unwashed hair and a mulish grimace. She had four sons, two of whom were still at the school.
‘Trust no one,’ she hissed, handing Martin a sprig of dill and standing back, away from the window.
‘I beg your pardon?’ said Martin.
‘You are being marked,’ she replied, turning to Harriet. ‘You are vulnerable, new, floating outside the community.’
‘You have yet to come out and declare your cards. You have no history, no allegiance, and no knowledge of how anything works. For as long as it remains that way, you are unsafe.’
‘Look,’ said Martin, putting on the special voice he saved for awkward clients, ‘I don’t know who you are or what you’re saying, but we are a normal family with a normal daughter and a normal double-fronted period house.’
‘That,’ replied Esther, narrowing her eyes, ‘is the problem. You have entered from outside. You think you are moving up, very nice. I just think you should know that there are two committees running this village. One wants to build a wall around the social housing, and the others are swingers.’
Outside, a shrill voice pierces the air, ‘Twenty pounds! Twenty pounds for kindness, twenty pounds from every child!’ It is nearly time for the bell to ring, and Cheryl, owner of the voice, is stalking the yard like a rooster. Harriet watches the clock. At precisely one minute to nine, she ducks into the hall, picks up a child’s coat and schoolbag, thrusts them at her daughter, and launches her, alone, in the direction of the school. Somewhere out there is Esther. Esther does not hide behind the window in her dressing gown. Esther stands in the middle of the playground, wearing a fleece covered in dog hair. Not that she owns a dog; she just takes her fleece and rubs it over the neighbour’s terrier every time she goes out. ‘Anyone who approaches me in this,’ she says, ‘is a person worth talking to.’
The bell rings; Range Rover doors slam. Cheryl turns slowly around, as though looking for someone. Her eyes lock onto the Stone House. Clutching a thick wad of purple notes, she trips, triumphant, across the road. By the time her silhouette darkens the mottled glass of the porch, Harriet has sought refuge behind the sofa. Cheryl knocks, a brisk, efficient knock, waits, and knocks again. She knows full well that Harriet is there, but Harriet has locked the door and makes patterns with the crumbs on the carpet until her legs grow numb and Cheryl remembers she will be late for the World Kindness Manicure.
Harriet decides it is best not to go out. Picking up a library book, some cushions and some crisps, she settles down where she cannot be seen. It is a pleasant enough way to pass the day, but as time wears on, cabin fever beckons and she remembers she has a parcel to collect from the post office. If she goes now, she thinks, it will be alright. Everyone will be at home and it will only take a couple of minutes. She can be there and back long before the onslaught of the afternoon pickup. Taking measured, careful breaths, she steps out into the predatory quiet of the afternoon. The air is thick with hanging, acidic tones, as though even the flagstones have closed ranks. Paying no heed, she walks on, past the perfect cottages with their perfect gardens and perfectly connected occupants. A man wearing orange shorts steps out in front of her, polishes his windscreen with an old cloth, then promptly turns around and disappears back inside.
Harriet wonders if it is a secret sign. She braces herself and starts to cross the road, but immediately swerves. There, by the school gate, is Cheryl, a lone sentry with alarming nails, an enormous card and a black marker pen. Harriet can just about read the word ‘Kindness’ glued in cutesy letters above an enlarged copy of the class photograph. It may be a trick of the light, but there seems to be a gold star above Cheryl’s son, and several of the children’s faces are blacked out. Harriet stares stupidly, wasting valuable seconds, before the dark truth dawns; this is a card of reckoning, a public eradication of all those who have not coughed up twenty pounds, ready to be handed over at 3.20pm.
Harriet’s pulse begins to quicken. She is stranded in the centre of the road, unable to turn left, past the school and past Cheryl; yet she cannot turn around and slope back home in defeat either. On impulse, she veers right, past the cul-de-sac, out to where the road peters into a dirt track over the fields. Thick mud oozes over the tops of her shoes, and the stench of manure wafts across from the farms. At the top of the hill, she sits down and takes a half-eaten packet of Haribos from her pocket. The hillside is quiet, the village below washed in a pastel mist. A small brown bird lands on a stone, then flits away. Harriet closes her eyes and sees the headlines: ‘Woman of sixty found alive and well after wandering the foothills for thirty years, surviving only on Haribos.’
They have never been up here together as a family. Esther has advised against it. Martin says that Esther is mad and that Harriet should ignore everything she says, but Martin is not here most of the time. Letting her eye trace the outline of the trees, Harriet sees the sagging roof of the old scout hut, ripening into decay. Propped outside is a certain 1980s foldable bicycle. The same bicycle that Minnie from the church rides around the village at the start of every day.
Harriet leaps to attention. She has stumbled on a committee, but which one? Drawn by an invisible thread, a moth to a flame, she rises and begins to navigate the marshy hollows of the hill, half trotting, half tiptoeing over clumps of toughened grass, maintaining her balance, until at last she comes to rest before a well of mud, a deep moat before a battered door. Emboldened, she places her feet squarely in the oozing black, and softly turns the handle. Doors in the village seldom fit, but this one has been locked from inside. Harriet crouches, pressing her eye to the keyhole, but sees only black. Holding her breath, she strains her ears, pushing gently on the wood. Suddenly, the door gives, and Harriet topples into the Weetabix-encrusted jumper of Bernard from the library. Bernard regards her without speaking, his eyebrows wild and unkempt. Harriet holds his gaze. ‘It’s me, Harriet,’ she whispers. ‘From the Stone House.’
Bernard nods, licking his lipless mouth. Harriet cranes her neck around the door, but Bernard is tall and bulky. ‘Alright,’ he mutters eventually, as though speaking to the air, ‘alright, Harriet, come in.’
Inside, a dim, underwater light filters through the mould-smeared windows to reveal a cluster of shadows stooped over a pasting table. The door bolts behind her, and Harriet prays that they are fully clothed. Bernard jostles the contents of his trouser pockets and bends over a camping stove: ‘Tea?’
‘Yes please,’ she replies, lowering herself onto a beanbag. ‘I didn’t mean to disturb you, barging in like this.’
Bernard gives her a blank look.
Harriet tries again, ‘It’s nice and quiet up here, isn’t it?’
‘It is,’ grunts Bernard, handing her the tea. His eyebrows knit together as he studies her like a specimen in a Petri dish. ‘Made any friends yet, Harriet?’
‘I don’t know,’ Harriet says, fumbling with the edge of the beanbag. ‘Esther is very nice.’
‘When days are dark and friends are few,’ a small voice echoes from the back of the hut. Minnie.
‘Would you like to tell us, Harriet,’ says Bernard, ‘why you are really here?’
Harriet hesitates, uncertain herself how it has come about. ‘I wasn’t prepared for World Kindness Day, so I turned right and kept walking. Then I saw Minnie’s bike outside and… here I am.’
It is a weak story – even to herself, Harriet sounds like a lunatic wandering the fields, peering into Scout huts. Yet murmurs of encouragement bubble from around the hut. Someone even claps. Bernard is evidently pleased. ‘That’s the way it works here, Harriet,’ he smiles, revealing what looks like earwax on his teeth. ‘You were called. We all have the same story, one way or another.’
‘Yes.’ Bernard’s eyebrows rise like flames from his beetroot face. The occupants of the hut close in.
‘Over-Fifties Dominoes,’ booms Lance Hawes.
‘Women’s Institute Cake Fright,’ says Minnie.
‘And you?’ whispers Harriet.
‘I was the first one to come here,’ replies Bernard. ‘It was a Christmas party.’
The others bow their heads in deference. Bernard stares at the floor for a moment, then pulls himself together. ‘Welcome, Harriet: welcome to the Anti-Society. We’re ripe and ready for new blood. Ada will find you a form.’
Harriet scans the shadows for the four-foot cannonball that is Ada Marsh. ‘Out manning the graveyard,’ says Bernard. ‘Tell me, Harriet, who exactly was it you saw out there today?’
There is a tangible hiss. ‘Nasty piece of work, that one – did she see you?’
‘Without a doubt, the road was empty.’
Bernard clicks his tongue and begins pacing the room. ‘Houston,’ he mutters, ‘we have a problem.’
Tears of gratitude spill from Harriet’s eyes.
‘Stop it,’ says Bernard in alarm. ‘Good God, woman, stop.’ He turns round and thrusts a paper towel at Harriet. ‘This is no good. No, what I mean, Harriet, is that Cheryl won’t let this go. She’ll be out there right now, watching the path. She has a pathological need to know where you are.’
‘Because you have the audacity to live at the heart of the village, yet you are noncommittal, floating. If there’s one thing a village can’t stand, its people who sit on the fence. They need to know who you are, your sexual preferences, everything about you. You need to form a committee, not hide behind the sofa eating crisps.’
‘When people arrive at our hut, Harriet, they are washed up by nature. We cannot risk the likes of Cheryl sabotaging the cause.’
Bernard pauses and lifts his false teeth with his tongue. The stench of rotting wood cloys at Harriet’s throat.
‘Don’t worry,’ she says, ‘I’ll head back.’
‘You can’t,’ snaps Bernard. ‘It’s not that simple.’
Minnie raises a paraffin lamp, casting distorted light over a pile of ukuleles.
‘What is this?’
‘We are reclaiming the village,’ says Bernard. ‘Taking things back to how they once were.’
At that moment there is a movement, a push and a rattle at the door. Minnie dims the lamp and Lance turns off the stove. Silently, Bernard creeps up and unbolts the door. Then they wait.
For a moment, nothing, then the noise begins again. This time, the door creaks open and Cheryl stands outlined against the sun. Squinting into the dark, she puts one foot inside before Ada Marsh comes up behind her, unmistakable in her broad-brimmed hat, a grave pot raised high above her head. Cheryl crumples, landing with a crack. Bernard reaches over her limp body and rips something from her hand. He turns to Harriet: ‘For you,’ he says, ‘Do you good.’ It is a nail, a hideous, brand new blue-green nail, smeared in blood.
Harriet’s stomach flips. A gazelle cornered by a water buffalo, she bolts over Cheryl’s limp body, crashes past Ada, and runs out onto the path. There is a stitch in her side, but she does not stop until she reaches the lane. Cars are arriving for the pickup, children are spilling from the school gate, and there is Esther, waiting in her Citroën with the engine running. In the back of the car are Harriet’s daughter and Esther’s two primary-aged sons. Businesslike, Esther hands Harriet a fleece, like her own, only smelling of goat.
Harriet shakes her head.
‘Are you sure?’
‘Esther, why are you here, how did you know?’
Esther shrugs. ‘I saw the dill in your dustbin. Big mistake.’
They drive through the village in silence. Those who have already parked keep their doors locked. Inside a scuffed grey car with steamed-up windows, a small, preschool hand grabs a clump of its sister’s hair and pulls hard.
‘Why’s it like this, Esther?’
‘What? The village?’
Esther shrugs again: ‘Ley lines, the nail bar, a poor gene pool? God knows but there’s real evil here. Over there’s where they used to burn the witches.’
Harriet shudders, remembering Bernard’s promise to take things back to how they once were. It would be Ada, she thinks, who would pour the paraffin. They pull out onto the main road, fighting against the traffic. Harriet stares with longing toward the town she was once desperate to escape, with all of its concrete and crime. ‘What now?’ she asks.
‘That’s up to you,’ says Esther. ‘Your predecessors stayed two years, the ones before that three months. Before them, there were two families stayed eighteen months each.’
Harriet tries to recall.
‘You did read the deeds, didn’t you?’
‘They said they were going to France.’
Esther shakes her head. ‘Look at any map and you’ll see your house is the very epicentre of the village. Every door, every window can be watched from all angles.’
Harriet picks up the fleece and puts it down again.
‘Still, it’s not all bad news,’ says Esther. ‘I reckon you could get an extra twenty grand above asking if you leave the Aga.’
Harriet feels a stab of anger in her chest. Deep, solid anger that has been long in the making. They have only just waxed the floors and are still cooking on the electric oven, the precious Aga still under wraps. Esther unwraps a barley sugar and shoves it into her mouth. Papers spew from the glove compartment.
‘Esther,’ says Harriet, ‘what is it you do for a living?’
‘Estate agent,’ sniffs Esther. ‘Not that there’s much in it these days, market’s pretty static.’
Harriet feels her anger shift to somewhere dark and secret. She sees Esther in a suit, arranging all the viewings, photographing the Aga. Esther’s words repeat themselves over and over until something twists; something primal that has nothing to do with the fortunes of Esther’s business. If the whole village can see Harriet, then Harriet can see the whole village. She will buy some blinds, some opaque nets. She will become the first to see all their intrigues and indiscretions without ever leaving her home. She will write it down in a book. She will join all of the committees and she will wear black.
‘Turn around,’ says Harriet. ‘We’re going home.’
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