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Friday, 29 December 2017

Vampire Farmer - Penny Farthing Mystery - Chapter Two

Chapter Two

Allenbury - One Month Earlier

The village hall door burst open, the Allenbury Amateur Dramatic Society Play Reading sign bounced, crashed to the floor. Twenty pairs of eyes turned and followed the noise. Ben nearly jumped out of his seat, his nerves in tatters as Mary Monroe exploded into the room. Pulling himself together he assessed Mary Monroe’s outfit. Tonight the fluffy blonde, perfectly made up, wore a pair of red patent leather stilettos that clicked across the wooden floor. He liked what he saw. He turned to speak to the chairman, Captain Colin Peters, to mention his nervousness about the forthcoming announcement, instead, he watched a flush creep up Colin’s neck, and noted how Colin’s eyes lit up when they settled on Mary.
‘Sorry, so sorry,’ Mary slipped off her red coat and Herm├Ęs scarf as she headed for the only empty chair, ‘it’s sod’s law things go wrong when you’re in a hurry.’ She glanced at the members assembled round the table before her eyes met Colin’s, who started shuffling papers in front of him, then twiddled his waxed handlebar moustache.
‘Better late than never, Mary. Sit down, get yourself sorted.’ Always the gentleman Colin briefly stood. ‘We’re just about to make a start.’
Ben concluded Colin must have a soft spot for Mary, and it wasn’t a swamp at the bottom of the garden. He scratched the back of his hands, where a rash had appeared a few days earlier. Colin with his muscular build and ex-Army attitude would make a perfect match for stylish Mary. But now wasn’t the time to analyse them. Tonight was about him, and it was probably the excitement making him itch so much.
Colin opened the meeting. ‘Let’s get down to business,’ he said, ‘but first I would like to introduce Walter Toogood who has asked to join us. Walter has recently moved here from London. He is an old hand at treading the boards and, if you think he shares a surname and has a resemblance to our vicar Phileas, you’d be right - they are brothers, twins actually. Welcome to the Society Walter, we are fortunate to have you.’
Walter’s lips curled at the chorus of welcomes. ‘Delighted to meet you all. Please, call me Wally.’
Someone sniggered.
Perceptively, Ben studied the new-comer. Great, all I need is another Toogood. I hope he’s not going to be a right Wally like his pompous brother, he thought.
‘Right, moving on,’ said Colin.You all know our Ben here has been a member of this society since the tender age of sixteen, some thirty years ago, and where would we be without him, I ask you all?’ Much to Ben’s surprise murmurs of agreement went round the table. Colin continued, ‘Considering we sometimes have three shows a year, Ben has given the society many hours of his time when I’m sure he should have been working on the farm.’
Ben knew what was coming. He lifted his cap, ran his hand through his hair. It was an important milestone in his life and one he’d been waiting for. He nodded at Colin, pulled himself upright, gratitude for the praise shone in his face. He’d made a special effort tonight wearing shoes instead of wellingtons. Although, he hadn’t had time to change out of his old tweed jacket and threadbare corduroy trousers.
Colin sat back in his chair, thumbs in waistcoat pockets, surveyed his members. ‘I am delighted to announce I have finally persuaded Mister Ben Jackson to direct our next play. I have a gut feeling Ben will turn out to be something special in the directing department, an opinion shared by many society members.’ A buzz of excitement and applause echoed around the room then everyone turned to Ben. ‘Over to you, Mr. Director.’
‘Thank you, Mr. Chairman.’ Ben’s face flushed with happiness. He spoke directly to Colin, ‘Thank you for your confidence. I won’t let you down.’ He tilted his cap.
Ben turned to the members. He wanted to see their reactions when he announced his choice of play, it might make a difference to his cast selection. ‘I have chosen a play,’ he reached under the table to grab a box of scripts.
‘Come on then, Ben. Tell us what it is,’ a female voice piped up.
‘I know we usually do classics, but I’ve chosen something completely different this time - a French farce.’ He glanced up for a reaction, none came. ‘It will be fun to perform and there will be lots of dressing up for the ladies.’ He placed the box of scripts on the table. ‘Please, help yourselves.’ He watched as eager hands grabbed copies.
Ben had an idea who he wanted to cast, but he had to go through the motions of picking people out randomly to read parts and ensuring everyone got to read something. Talk about walking on egg shells, he thought. This lot had to be handled with kid gloves. He waited a couple of minutes before giving an outline of the story then it was time to get started.
‘Would you start reading Mary, please?’ Ben invited.
Mary Monroe was a diva. She believed all of her performances worthy of an Olivier Award, which is why he asked her to read first. Tonight he wanted her to feel important so was happy to play along because it would make life easier for him, and everyone else, in the long run. Plus, he did like her red shoes.
Ben was boxing clever. He could read his fellow Thespians like a book. Not all members were kind like Colin, although most were pleasant and a pleasure to work with. Some grumbled, some moaned, others were just downright bitchy. Whatever their idiosyncrasies he treated them all the same: never took sides or repeated gossip and had the patience of a saint. In fact, he could read most people like a book, it was a gift he had. Something he kept to himself. If he met someone he couldn’t get the measure of it worried him and it usually meant there was something amiss with them. The new vicar had that effect on him and now his brother had moved here. Definitely food for thought as were the sly looks between Colin and Mary he’d picked up on tonight.
With a struggle he brought his concentration back to Mary’s reading. At heart he felt sorry for the spinster. Had never needed a man in her life she always said with authority to anyone who might mention her marital status, adding budgerigars were better company.
As Ben listened to her he wondered how she filled her time since she’d retired from teaching art at the local school. Rumour had it she was attending computer classes and turning into something of a computer whizz. It wouldn’t surprise him. Mary was clever, and he reckoned her heart was in the right place. She was good on stage and had a brilliant knack of ad-libbing if lines went awry during performances. Unfortunately, she could be scratchy and often rubbed people up the wrong way, then wondered why they took against her. Perhaps Colin’s influence might soften her. He hoped so.
Realising Mary had stopped speaking Ben spoke. ‘Thank you, Mary. Very good - as always.’ First member of the cast sorted out, he thought.
When everybody had taken their turn Ben thanked them. ‘That’s it for tonight. I’ll let you all know the outcome in a few days. You’ve given me a hard choice mind.’ He stood up, collected the books from the table. ‘By the way, you’ll be getting the scripts as soon as I’ve decided.’
‘Why?’ Mary interrupted her conversation with Colin. ‘I don’t like change.’
‘Because, Mary, we need to have books down from our first rehearsal.’ Nervous laughter rippled through the players.
‘This has never happened before.’ Mary said.
‘I’ve never directed before, but I’ve watched you for years and I know you usually know your lines from the first rehearsal.’ Ben said.
Mary preened; Ben knew then he had her on side.
‘You’ll be telling us next,’ Mary glanced at her fellow players for support, ‘we aren’t going to be allowed a prompt.’
‘Of course there will be someone to prompt.’ He slipped the manuscripts into his bag. ‘At least for the first few rehearsals,’ he added as an afterthought. I know none of you like change but, believe me, this play is worth the effort.’
‘I hope you do know what you are doing,’ Mary said.
You are all more than capable,’ Ben said.
After a play reading everybody usually piled into the local hostelry, the Allenbury Arms. Ben normally joined them, but not tonight, he had other things on his mind. He wanted to get back to the farm to tend to the animals, plus his old horse hadn’t been good lately. Poor Silver had a painful tooth infection.
Even so Ben was the topic of conversation in the pub. Oh yes, all of the society members thought they knew Ben Jackson inside out. Colin and Mary, huddled close together, quietly agreed he was not always one of the sharpest tools in the box.
‘Did you notice the nasty rash Ben had on his hands?’ Colin to Mary.
‘I did, and I noticed his eyes were bloodshot. Something not right there,’ Mary frowned.
‘Could be chemicals he’s been using on the farm, I suppose.’
‘Time will tell.’
Colin to the group, ‘Ben’s rehearsals are going to be different.’ He raised a glass to Ben. The group joined him.
‘To one of the most patient soles we know. Here’s to his amazing theatrical talent. His superb eye to detail and planning, and his faith in us.’
Chinking glasses were followed by a chorus of, ‘To Ben. To us.’
Colin placed a hand on Mary’s knee, ‘stay with me for a meal, Mary?’
‘Sorry, can’t tonight, I’m afraid.’ She touched his hand. ‘I’m expecting an important email.’

Ben drove out of Allenbury and headed home. He loved this drive. Loved this village, almost deserted in the twilight. Around the duck pond lights glowed in several cottage windows telling of life within. As he neared the church he noticed movement in the doorway, and slowed down. It was Madge.
She waved to him. He waved back.
He’d taken quite a shine to Madge, nothing romantic, just a genuine liking. His lips curled as he recalled being introduced to the Reverend Marjorie Dore a few months earlier when she arrived in the parish. Who in their right minds could have been so cruel as to give a child a name like Marjorie Dore? But Madge didn’t seem to mind, she was jolly and saw the funny side of everything. Something he admired in a person.
He turned off the main road into the farm track that wound back towards Allenbury in a horse shoe shape. The Land Rover headlights picked out rabbits running hither and thither across the road. Almost home.
Unexpectedly a wave of sickness swept over him. He felt rough. And he hadn’t stopping scratching the skin on the back of his hands throughout the drive. ‘If this itching doesn’t stop,’ he shouted, ‘I’ll have to visit the bloody doctor!’ A thought hit him. He had some udder cream he used on the cows when they got mastitis; he would get some and rub it on, see if it settled things down. It was good stuff. Feeling slightly better he parked the Land Rover and jumped out. Stretched his arms. Looked around him.
He could see the Church spire from their farmhouse. You could walk to the church and adjoining cemetery, within ten minutes as the crow flies via a bridle path. On lighter evenings he would ride his horse Silver into the village that way. A direct road to the farm from the village would be have saved his family a fortune in fuel over the years, but the landscape did not allow it.
‘I’m home.’ Ben called to his parents. Kicked off his shoes, wriggled his toes. ‘I’ll do the last round up, make sure everything’s locked.’ He pushed his feet into wellingtons.
‘How did it go?’ Kitty called from the living room.
‘Won’t be long. I’ll tell you all about what happened in a bit. Prepare to be amazed.’

Over supper Ben told his parents about directing the play and who he proposed to cast then swore them to secrecy. They were thrilled for him. It was a happy meal, for once.

                                           HIS                                                          HERS

                                                                     

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