Sticks by Chris Green
‘Broadband?’ says Mr Silver, scratching his head. ‘No, we don’t have broadband here. Whatever that is when it’s at home.’
‘The internet,’ I say. ‘Are you still on dial up round these parts, perhaps?’
He looks around for someone else to ask, but there is no-one else in the shop.
‘It’s OK, I can manage without it for now,’ I say, sensing his embarrassment. It is well known that fibre optic coverage is poor in rural areas. I don’t want to come across as too metropolitan.
‘Sorry,’ he says, sheepishly.
‘But I do need an aerial for my TV,’ I say.
‘We don’t actually stock them,’ he says. ‘But we can probably order one for you. You want one that gets BBC and ITV, I expect. It will take about two weeks. And then if you want we can get Mr Eager to fit it for you. Mr Eager has a ladder.’
‘Is that all you can get here, BBC and ITV?’ I say. ‘No digital?’
‘We’re a hardware store not a magic show,’ he says, fiddling with the buttons on his knitted waistcoat. ‘You’ve moved into the Devlins’ cottage by the old mill haven’t you?’
‘I moved in yesterday,’
‘How are you settling in? ‘
‘It’s OK,’ I say. ‘But it’s not well equipped.’
‘You’ll probably be needing a kettle then. Would you like a whistling one or a standard one? We’ve got both types.’
‘I’ve got a kettle,’ I say. ‘An electric one.’
‘An electric one, eh? I don’t think I’ve seen one of those.’
‘But I will need a new plug. At the cottage they are still using the round pin sockets.’
‘We do have plugs. How many would you like?’
‘I’d better take a dozen then while I’m in here.’
‘Anything else we can help you with?’
‘I can’t seem to get a signal on my phone. I suppose that it drops out a lot out here in the sticks. I know Vodafone is not the best, so I might have to change networks. I thought you might know.’
I take out my Samsung and show him. It’s as if I’ve shown him the Orb or the Diadem.
‘What the blazes is that?’ he says.
‘You are a bit behind the times here,’ I say. ‘It’s a 3G smartphone,’
‘A 3G smartphone. Well, I never. What does it do?’
‘Well, not very much without a signal.’
The shopkeeper’s bell rings and another customer comes in. He exchanges a rustic greeting with Mr Silver. I am anxious not to become the centre of attention in this small community. I have come down to this hinterland to keep a low profile. I tell Mr Silver I will call in later for the plugs.
I had not been to view the cottage before taking on the six-month tenancy, as it was too far away and due to the turn of events, I felt I needed to move quickly. Conway and Tillotson were very helpful in finding me somewhere, but the pictures they sent did little to convey the degree of isolation of this community. I realised that Littlechurch was something of a backwater, but I had expected it to have a few concessions to modernity. The juggernaut of progress tends to take no prisoners as it ploughs its path, but somehow it seems to have completely bypassed Littlechurch.
But, shouldn’t I have realised when I first arrived yesterday that something was odd? The sit up and beg bicycles left unlocked outside the houses were relics from a bygone age. The fact that all the cars were old and that there were so few of them should also have given me a clue. How could I have missed the headline on the board outside the grocers come newsagents about Sputnik? Or the poster advertising The Ladykillers starring Alec Guinness at the village hall next Thursday afternoon. Yet I noticed none of these things. All I can say in mitigation is that I was tired after a long drive.
I make my way back to the cottage to take stock. As I drive up, some boys in grey flannel short trousers take a keen interest in my Ford Focus. It’s an everyday sort of car but they behave as if they have never seen anything like it before. Concerned by their interest, I decide to park it round the back out of harm’s way.
The prices in the village are still in pounds, shillings and pence. Surely this is taking heritage and preservation too far. It occurs to me that my cash might not be accepted here, nor I imagine my Visa or Barclaycard. Fortunately, I do still have a cheque book. I can use this to make purchases and just write the cheques in the old money. On the plus side, I expect everything will seem remarkably cheap, which is just as well because I do need a whole range of provisions. I do not even have milk to go in my tea. For that matter, I do not even have tea to go in my tea.
I figure that it is best to try and fit in here while I discover what is happening. I call in to Coward’s General Store and Newsagents, a brown and gold double fronted shop with period detail. You don’t see those cutaway typefaces much any more. The art of the sign-writer is disappearing. A vintage green and cream BSA Bantam is parked on the pavement. There are adverts outside the shop for Senior Service, Craven A, Gold Flake, and Woodbine. My first cigarette I recall was a Woody in the bicycle sheds in my last year at Frank Portrait Junior School, over forty years ago. I was sick and could not go into Mr Crudd’s afternoon class. But somehow this did not deter me. Smoking for young lads was less of a life choice then, it was almost compulsory.
I step inside. The shelves resemble Robert Opie’s packaging museum. Brooke Bond Dividend Tea, Bovril, Fray Bentos, Bournvita, Golden Wonder, Daz, Omo, Sunlight, Brylcreem, Alka Selzer, all these forgotten brands. Ah Bisto! brings back memories of Sunday lunches, beef one week and lamb the next, my sister Sarah and I subjected to the horrors of Two Way Family Favourites on the radio while we waited for the joints of meat to catch up with the stewed vegetables. There was no daytime TV then.
A middle-aged man wearing a starched white shirt, striped braces with a polka dot bow tie emerges from a cloud of cigarette smoke and interrupts my reverie.
‘Hello. I’m Mr Coward,’ he says. ‘Mr Silver was telling me about you.’
I don’t introduce myself by name.
‘You’ve moved into the Devlins’ cottage by the old mill haven’t you? he says.
‘News travels fast in these parts,’ I say.
‘Long John said something about a strange phone you have,’ he says.
Given my situation, I should know better, but Mr Coward seems one of life’s innocents, so I show him the phone. He thinks that it is very clever that you can take photos, add up numbers and type into it, but he is disappointed that you can’t use it as a telephone.
‘LJ also said you were talking about something called the enternet,’ he says. ‘He thought I might know what is was, but I’ve never heard of it. I even had a look through my Pears’ Cyclopaedia. What is this enternet?’
‘Internet, not enternet,’ I say.
‘Internet,’ he repeats, waiting for me to elaborate.
It is a global system of interconnected computer networks that use the standard Internet protocol suite to link several billion devices worldwide, and it is an integral part of our everyday lives,’ though simplistic, seems too complicated an explanation for this situation. How can I begin to explain browsers, search engines, surfing, emails, streaming, gaming, social networking, VOIP and podcasting to someone who has not come across the Internet.
‘It’s a bit like the post office,’ I say instead. ‘But a lot quicker with its deliveries.’
Mr Coward tells me it can take as long as two weeks for a letter from London to reach them, then launches into a brief history of Littlechurch which is brief because Littlechurch has little history. It used to have a lot of sheep and there are now not so many. They built a little church in the fourteenth century but parishioners stopped going so it was de-consecrated in the 1930s. It has never been a market town and the railway missed it by ten miles. Most of the houses now have electricity. There is a pub called the King’s Head and the police station is open every second Wednesday.
After I have put away my provisions, I venture up the hill to the King’s Head, thinking I might be able to have a hearty meal there along with a pint or two. The King’s Head it turns out does not serve food.
‘Never has, never will,’ says Amos, the landlord. ‘Pubs are for supping.’
‘I’ll just have a pint of your best,’ then I say.
‘Fraid we’re right out of beer,’ he says. ‘Been waiting for a delivery for over a week. All we’ve got is farmer’s cider.’
‘I’ll have a pint of that then,’ I say.
‘Draymens’ strike,’ Amos continues. ‘I’ve lost nearly all me regulars. There’s just these two left.’
Albert and Joss look up from their cloudy green liquid.
‘You’ll be the new bloke what’s just moved in to the Devlins’ place,’ says Albert.
‘What’s it like up there since old Ma Riley got butchered?’ says Joss.
‘What?’ I say. I am surprised that Mr Coward omitted this from his potted history. This elevates Littlechurch from a sleepy backwater to somewhere where something happened.
‘You mean you didn’t know about Ma Riley,’ says Albert studying the look of shock on my face.
‘Right gruesome it was. Cut her into little pieces and put her in plastic bags in the dustbin, he did.’
‘Place has been empty ever since,’ says Joss. ‘Couldn’t let it. No bugger wanted to live there. How long has it been, Amos? A year or more do you think?’
‘Take no notice of them,’ says Amos. ‘They’re pulling your pisser.’
I don’t know if you have ever found yourself in a place where there is no stimulation whatsoever. A place where you wish there were church bells to liven things up or wish that Jehovah’s Witnesses would drop by for a chat. You will be familiar with the expression stir crazy, especially if you know someone that has been in prison. Perhaps you yourself have been in prison. Well, let me tell you, you don’t need to be locked up to be stir crazy. After two weeks of living in Littlechurch I am climbing up the walls. I am completely without home entertainment. Although I have fitted round pin plugs to my laptop and to my phone charger there is no sign whatever of wifi and no hint of a phone signal no matter where I take them in the village. Not only is there no wifi but I have no TV and LJ’s store has just sold out of radios. To to cap it all the mobile library which is seen as a bit of a highlight here has stopped coming. I go in to Cowards to get an evening paper each day but for some reason they have always just sold out.
‘Local people have become very interested in news about Sputnik,’ Mrs Coward says. ‘The Gazette says they might send a man into space soon.’ Mr Coward has not been in the general store much lately. Perhaps he’s been selected as a candidate.
Mrs Coward is a much duller conversationalist than her husband. Yesterday was a good day for drying the washing but today not so good. The best day was about a week ago when the washing dried in a matter of hours. I am wondering what Mr and Mrs Coward get up to that requires her to do so much washing.
The draymens’ strike has not been resolved and the Kings Head hasn’t had its delivery of beer. Even the supply of farmers’ cider has run out. Without even Joss and Albert to entertain, Amos has closed the pub altogether. There is not another pub nearby, in fact there is not another village nearby. Sputnik’s progress aside, people in Littlechurch appear so incurious. They don’t appear to venture outside their houses very much. It is rare to meet anyone on the street. When I do come across someone, they have that faraway look in their eye. About half a dozen of them come along to the village hall screenings. It turns out that The Ladykillers starring Alec Guinness was not just a one off, they show it every Thursday afternoon and on a Friday evening as well. After the third viewing, the jokes begin to wear a little thin.
I decide it is time to find out if the heat has died down back home. One day I suppose I will have to go back and face the music. While it is hard to imagine vandalism being a big problem in Littlechurch, I find to my chagrin that both phone boxes have been vandalised. Perhaps it was the boys in grey flannel short trousers I have seen a couple of times. I take a trip to the Fina filling station a mile or so from the village, but as I feared it does not sell unleaded petrol. To add to my isolation, they have just started major road works on the only road in and out of Littlechurch. The signs say that the road will be closed for seven days. LJ explains that this is due to a recently discovered geological anomaly which if not attended to will cause dangerous subsidence in the future. They have to reroute a stretch of two hundred yards of road. I tell him that they seem to have closed about four miles and they have an armed guard.
‘You should have had a notice through your door about it,’ he says. ‘Quite interesting geology we have around here. There are elements of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods.’
‘No, I didn’t get anything through the door.’
‘No, neither did I, come to think of it, but that’s the Ministry of Transport for you.’
‘Aren’t you worried that it will affect your business?’ I ask.
‘I only run the shop as a kind of hobby,’ he says. ‘I started off making nesting boxes and before I knew it I was making raised planters and garden furniture. People started buying things that I made and I couldn’t keep up with demand. But, still it keeps me off the streets.’
‘I’ve been meaning to mention that, there never seems to be a soul on the streets.’
‘Oh really! I hadn’t noticed that myself. I’ve always thought of Littlechurch as a busy little place. There was even talk not so long ago of having a coffee morning at the community centre. That was before it closed of course.’
Just a few days behind schedule the road opens again and I manage to get the Focus to a filling station that sells unleaded. It is touch and go, with the fuel gauge on red all the way. I am fortunate, the forecourt attendant says. They are one of the first garages to stock unleaded. He is curious about my car. Did I import it? he wonders. He finds the number plate a little puzzling too. I just play along with him. It’s astonishing how backward things are in this part of the world.
From there I am able to drive the final ten miles to Biggerchurch. Biggerchurch is a thriving metropolis compared to Littlechurch. It still has a church I notice as I drive around looking for a quiet spot to park. Apparently Biggerchurch even used to have a branch line railway station before the Beeching cuts and was once a market town. It looks much more cosmopolitan than its neighbour. It has a fish and chip shop, an off-licence, a laundrette and even has some 1960s housing. Vodafone still isn’t connecting though. I spot an un-vandalised phone box. All I need now are some coins that fit.
I see from a psychedelic poster on the bus shelter that there is a free festival in a farmer’s field nearby starting later with Jethro Tull, The Pretty Things and The Incredible String Band. This explains why the town is packed with hippies. Groups of them in uniform of jeans with sewn in patches to make them flared topped with tie died green and orange safari jackets maraud the narrow streets. One such group gathers outside Keith Shakespeare Radio and Television to watch an old black and white set showing footage of the moon landings.
‘Far out, isn’t it, man,’ says a flower child lost in a menagerie of decorative neck-scarves. ‘Those cats are too much.’ It takes me a moment to realise firstly that he is talking about the astronauts on the TV and secondly that he is addressing me.
I give a non-committal reply and turn down the spliff he offers me.
‘Hey! Look! He’s jumping up and down. What a gas!’ says a hippie chick with lank blonde hair and a plague of nasal jewellery. She nudges me in case I miss the action. She is wearing an Afghan coat. In July.
On the screen, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin in their spacesuits are demonstrating zero gravity. It is difficult to get excited about something that happened so long ago. I am more concerned about my own here and now, or my own here and then. But, whatever is happening in my own personal hyperreality, at least, I am a dozen years further along.
‘They’re not really on the moon of course,’ says a swarthy freak with big Afro hair and chin curtain beard. ‘Look at the shadows, man. They’re just like you would see from studio lights on a Hollywood film. The whole thing’s a fake.’
This sounds a familiar argument. Is this the very genesis of conspiracy theory? I ask them if any of them have change for a five pound note so that I can make some phone calls.’
‘You’re jiving me, man,’ says the dark skinned one in the brightly coloured Moroccan hat. ‘That’s Monopoly money or something you have there.’
This has the effect of killing negotiations with any of the others.
I take my fiver into the nearest shops and I find a similar reluctance to acknowledge the currency. The man in the saddler’s holds it up to the light, before shaking his head. The butcher waves a meat cleaver at me. The lady in the pet shop threatens to call the police.
This was how it had all started. With the police. The arrest. Perhaps I overreacted by disappearing before the court case. Perhaps I shouldn’t have come down here. I might have got off with a community sentence. After all, it was an innocent mistake. You’ve probably done the same. Purely by accident you’ve probably put the shop takings for the week into the wrong account. Into your account. I have to admit that I did think at the time the cashier at the bank looked a little surprised. Did you find this too?
© Chris Green 2015: All rights reserved