Clumpton

clumpton

Clumpton by Chris Green

Having taken several wrong turns on our way to the coast, Holly and I find ourselves in Clumpton. We start to blame each other for unforgivable navigation errors. We need a break from driving to get our bearings and compose ourselves. We park up on one of the narrow streets and go looking for somewhere where we might get a cup of tea. If you have ever been to Clumpton, the chances are you arrived here by accident. It is unlikely to have been the place you were heading for. It has no Wikipedia page, and there is no reference to it on Trip Advisor. We feel, in a sense, we are pioneers.

The first thing we notice is that the streets are deserted. No cars, no people, no background noise. We can hear the proverbial pin drop. Eventually, we come by an old fellow with a suitcase sitting by the side of the road. It does not appear to be a bus stop. It would be surprising if any buses came this way. He does not return our greeting. It does not seem our business to pry. Perhaps he is waiting for Godot. The further we venture into the village, the eerier the silence becomes. The houses do not seem neglected, yet there are no signs of life. Surely Clumpton has not simply been abandoned.

We pass a Post Office and General Stores, but this is closed. It looks as if it might have been closed for a long time. Has the village been evacuated on account of a radiation leak at a nearby power plant? Perhaps there has been a news item about it we have missed. There has to be a rational explanation for the deathly quiet. There is no mobile phone signal and no internet so we are unable to google Clumpton to get any information.

If only there were someone to ask,’ Holly says. ‘Where is everyone?’

Let’s take this turning here,’ I say. ‘Long Street. That’s bound to lead somewhere. If we don’t find anywhere open, we’ll head back to the car.’

Charlies does not look like much from the outside. Were it not for a weathered sign advertising delicious home-cooked food, we might take it for an ordinary terraced house. From the outside, it looks small, but once inside, it is deceptively large. Dimensionally transcendent perhaps, like a sci-fi creation.

In stark contrast to the empty streets, Charlies is buzzing with life. It is packed. There are probably fifty people crowded in here. The café appears to double as an informal craft market. In amongst the tables, there are quirky upcycled items of furniture along with displays of scented candles and curiously shaped crystals, soapstone figurines and wind-chimes. A kaleidoscope of home-made jams and preserves.

Judging by the inter-table bonhomie, the diners all appear to be locals. Charlies has the feel of a village hall. It is clearly the hub of the community. There is none of the hesitant small talk and nervous looking around you might expect from strangers to the area waiting for their baguette to arrive. Despite the quirkiness of the place, the people look remarkably conventional. They are clearly comfortable with one another. Even the youngsters seem chilled. I can’t help but notice a pronounced homogeneity in the facial features. Clumpton does not appear to have a large gene pool.

We squeeze in at a small table in the corner. A notice says Charlies offers Table Service. But given the demand, it looks like this might be a little slow. There don’t seem to be any menus, so I pick up a Clumpton newsletter. It features an update on the recently introduced Clumpton Pound. I find it difficult to see where you might spend such a currency, given that there are no shops. But the editorial is full of optimism that it will catch on. The people on the next table, a local committee of some kind, talk about starting a Clumpton Free Press and restricting news about the outside world. Too many bad things going on, they say. Snatches of conversation we catch begin to sound a little sectarian.

Meanwhile, we make hesitant small talk and look around nervously. Eventually, a young waitress in a charcoal uniform comes across to our table. Her name badge says, Sharon. It looks as if she has put this on as an afterthought.

I haven’t seen you in here before,’ she says. ‘You’re not from around here, are you?’

We were on our way to the coast and we took a wrong turning or two,’ I say.

I see,’ she says. ‘We don’t get many visitors in Clumpton.’

I couldn’t help noticing that all the people in here seem to know one another,’ I say. ‘Is it always this busy like this?’

Yes,’ she says. ‘Pretty much. Clumpton is a close-knit community. People look out for one another.’

But the rest of the village is very quiet,’ Holly says. ‘I don’t think we saw anyone on our way here.’

That’s odd,’ Sharon says. ‘I always think of Clumpton as a bustling little place. There’s always something happening. Now, what can I get you?’

We’ll have two teas, please,’ I say.

Sorry, we don’t do tea,’ she says.

Two Lattés then,’ Holly says.

That’s coffee, isn’t it?’ Sharon says. ‘I’m afraid we don’t do coffee either. There’s no call for it. How about home-grown camomile cordial or perhaps you’d prefer fresh apple juice, grown from our local orchards?’

We settle on the apple juice.

A middle-aged woman in a tie-dyed jump-suit comes across to our table.

We’ve got an offer on dream-catchers,’ she says. ‘Three for the price of two. Or how about a nice decoupaged occasional table?’

Perhaps another time,’ I say. ‘Look, I’m curious. The streets are empty and everyone is crowded in here on a Tuesday morning. There are lots of new-age touches to the place yet most of the people look pretty traditional. What’s going on?’

I don’t see any contradiction,’ she says. ‘Everyone gets along really well in Clumpton.’

That’s nice,’ Holly says, anticipating that I might be working up to suggesting there is some kind of cult. As it happens, this was exactly what I am thinking. Holly gives me one of her don’t you dare glances.

But, surely Charlies can’t be in reference to that Charlie. And Sharon can’t be a reference to that Sharon. That would be absurd. Where are these crazy thoughts coming from? These are just a bunch of inward-looking little Englanders. Isolationists. Extreme Brexiteers, if you like.

Holly and I finish our juice, pay the heavily inflated bill, and make our way back to the car. The silence still echoes on the empty streets, and the man with the suitcase is still waiting for Godot. Once again, he does not return our greeting.

What a bizarre place!’ Holly says. ‘It’s difficult to pick out one thing. Everything about it was odd.’

For sure,’ I say. ‘But definitely a story we can dine out on. Did you get any photos?’

One or two,’ Holly says.

To our horror, our Sandero doesn’t start. I take a look under the bonnet and fiddle around with a few leads, but to no avail. The engine is dead.

I’ve got the number for Our RAC insurance here,’ Holly says. ‘I remember we added Breakdown Cover to the policy when we renewed it.’

After twenty minutes on hold, listening to Status Quo’s hits and five minutes of talking to an obstructive customer service operative, it appears our Breakdown Cover doesn’t cover us for roadside assistance. And no, we can’t upgrade over the phone. Not even if we pay an admin fee.’

What if everyone were to go for the basic cover and only decide to upgrade it when they had an accident or broke down in the middle of nowhere?’ the Advisor says.

I would have thought roadside assistance was included in the basic cover,’ I say.

You only have cover within a radius of fifty miles from your postcode,’ she says. ‘And it looks like Clumpton is nearly three times this. I can’t even find it on the map.’

It looks as if we’ll have to go back to the café to see if there’s a mechanic in the village,’ I say to Holly. ‘There again, I don’t think we’ve seen a single car since we’ve been here.’

Don’t be so negative,’ Holly says.

Not wishing to go back to the blame game, Holly and I head back to Charlies in silence. We have been going through a sticky patch lately. She maintains I’m the reason that our Lucy left home. Even though she was seventeen, I still treated her like a child. Who could blame her for moving in with Kurt? Meanwhile, I have been finding it difficult to forget Holly’s fling with Phil, even though this was months ago. But having agreed to put all this behind us, I don’t want to now point out that it was Phil’s brother Sam who sold us the Sandero and presumably, she is holding back from telling me I ought to know more about cars. More recriminations are not going to be helpful.

The village is still deserted and although it is a small place, we have difficulty getting our bearings. We keep arriving back at the No Entry sign in Hope Street. We are going round in circles. We blame each other for poor orienteering skills. We ask the man with the suitcase for directions, but he just looks at us blankly. We carry on with our search, but the café seems to have simply disappeared. We find ourselves back at the car.

You’ve got the photos though, haven’t you?’ I say. ‘I mean, we weren’t imagining it.’

Of course, we didn’t imagine it,’ Holly says, taking out her phone. ‘Look! …… Hang on! The pictures have gone. Where are they? I couldn’t have accidentally deleted them, could I?’

Let me have a look,’ I say. ‘Here they are. Charlies, inside and out. It’s at the end of North Street. I can’t imagine how we could have missed it.’

Do you want to go back to see if you can find it then?’ she says.

Not really,’ I say. ‘But, unless we get the car started. ….. Let me just try it one more time.’

I turn the key and the Sandero bursts into life. We are in business. As we head back towards civilisation, Holly and I start to compose a Trip Advisor review for Clumpton.

What about Clumpton – Twinned with Nowhere, Oklahoma for a title,’ Holly says

Is there such a place?’ I say.

Yes there is,’ Holly says. ‘And there’s a Nothing, Arizona.’

OK Clumpton – Twinned with Nowhere, Oklahoma, it is then,’ I say ‘’Then perhaps we could say something about it being a close-knit community of cousins.’

Perhaps we don’t need to say anything at all,’ Holly says. ‘The title is probably enough to discourage people, don’t you think?’

Not even a Turn Back or Don’t Bother?’

OK! One or the other then.’

© Chris Green 2020: All rights reserved

PHILANDERER

philanderer2019

Philanderer by Chris Green

I have lived in the same town most of my life yet I almost never bump into anyone from my past. This is surely beyond the realms of coincidence. I remarked on this to Suzi only this morning. She maintained we often come across people I know, but could not come up with any examples.

Why does it matter, anyway?’ she continued. ‘You don’t need to see those people. You can’t live in the past, you know.’

To save another argument, I let the matter go. But I am sure I’m right. When I was younger, I led a fairly gregarious life. How can it be that I never come across any old friends or acquaintances, or for that matter, lovers? Littleton is not a large town. I go to the same supermarkets, retail parks and the same venues for entertainment as everyone else in the town, but it appears everyone I have known steers clear of the places at the times I visit. Have all my friends and old acquaintances moved away? Am I so out of favour with all my exes that they are all avoiding me? Or am I just completely out of sync?

Imagine my surprise then, when I find Rosie Higgs in front of me at The Merchant Of Tennis. Rosie was the first affair I had when I was married to my first wife, Anna. I haven’t seen Rosie for over thirty years, yet she is instantly recognisable.

Rosie! How are you?’ I say, holding out my arms, anticipating she might fall into them.

Bobby?’ she says. She takes a step back to look me up and down. Perhaps I am not so instantly recognisable these days.

Rosie looks devastatingly good. She has aged well. I feel old and overweight.

Now that it’s summer I thought I might try to shed a few pounds on the tennis courts,’ I say to her, secretly hoping she might say that I don’t need to. ‘So I came in to buy a new racket.’

You’ll certainly shed a few pounds if you shop here,’ she laughs. I had forgotten that she had a quick wit. There are other things you notice first with Rosie and she has not lost these. She is wearing a low cut floral summer dress.

You must come round and have a game on our court,’ she says. ‘John is away on business at the moment.’

This is how it all started before. Alan, or whoever it was she was seeing back then was out of town. The first problem Rosie and I encountered was that Anna wasn’t out of town. Word must have somehow got around about our date at The Black Hole and before I knew it, my wife had poured a pint of beer over my head. Guinness, if I remember rightly. Rosie and I had to sneak around and meet in less fashionable places from then on. Eventually, I moved out of the marital home and rented a flat. Rosie came round a few times but gradually we lost touch.

That would be nice,’ I say. ‘Are you any good?’

At tennis, you mean?’ she says. ‘You ought to know, Bobby. I’m good at everything.’

My recollection bears this out. She was certainly good at the important things.

Aha,’ is the best I can manage.

Why not come over this afternoon,’ she says. ‘I’ll get the Pimms ready.’

If I’m going to have an afternoon of Pimms and tennis, and Lord knows what else, I decide I’d better have lunch while I’m in town. A healthy option one. There’s a new vegetarian place I’ve noticed just off the Colonnade called Au Naturel.

I have to do a double take. I can’t be sure, but at first glance, the woman behind the counter with the blonde hair cut into a bob looks the spitting image of Roz, who I started seeing after my second marriage, to Carol, broke up. That would be over twenty years ago. Roz was studying for a degree in Catering Management. Last I heard she had married and gone off to The Bahamas, or was it Bermuda. I don’t want to make it look like I’m staring at her, but at second glance she still looks like Roz.

Roz and I were going along fine back in the day until one night Rosie turned up unannounced at the door. It was difficult to explain what she might be doing calling round at eleven at night. But I managed to concoct something and everything might have still been OK, had Roz not caught Rosie legging it down the fire escape one morning, three weeks later. Roz had decided to skip class and surprise me by calling round early to see me. Rosie, as it happened, had called round unexpectedly late the previous night and decided to stay. When Roz rang the doorbell at 9 a.m. we were still in bed. Someone from the ground-floor flat inadvertently let her into the building as they were leaving for work. I heard the echo of voices and quickly worked out what was happening. Roz was on her way up the stairs to my top-floor flat. The fire escape seemed a good way to smuggle Rosie out but unfortunately, Roz caught a glimpse of her through the third-floor landing window. Maybe it wouldn’t have been quite so bad had Rosie not been still struggling to get her blouse buttoned up.

Time, it appears, is a great healer because the woman behind the counter of Au Naturel greets me warmly.

Bob,’ she says. ‘I was wondering when I’d see you. I moved back here last year and opened this little bistro with the money from my divorce settlement. I was sure I would bump into you sooner or later. You didn’t seem the sort to move on.’

No. I’m still around. I’m living in Duke Ellington Avenue now,’ I tell her. ‘With my partner, Suzi.’

Really?’ she says. ‘That’s just around the corner from me. I’m in Charlie Parker Close. You’re not still ……… philandering, are you?’

No,’ I say. ‘Suzi and I are quite settled.’

Oh, that’s a pity,’ she says. ‘Because since Frank and I split up, I’ve ….. well, I’ve been at a bit of a loose end.’

There is then a sudden lunchtime rush, which cuts our conversation short, but after I have finished my butternut squash risotto, Roz gives me her phone number and I tell her that I will give her a call if I too find myself at a loose end. If all the wrangling with Suzi continues, I feel I might find myself at a loose end soon. But it is better not to put all my cards on the table.

I’m thinking it would be impolite not to take some flowers round to see Rosie, so I call in at Back To The Fuschia. Now, this is just too weird. There is Saskia, arranging bouquets of gardenias and peonies. Saskia and I had had a fling ten years ago, after I’d split up with my third wife, Linda. But, for Saskia to be here is impossible, not least because she is dead. A rare blood disease with a long name. I went to her funeral. But if she is dead, no-one seems to have told her. This is definitely Saskia. Those smouldering brown eyes are surely unmistakable. I am completely freaked out.

Rob,’ she says. ‘How good to see you.’

I mumble something incoherent. I am not at my best seeing dead people come back to life. It’s all a bit ‘roll away the stone.’

Are you all right, Rob?’ she says. ‘You’ve gone a little pale. I expect that you are surprised to see me, aren’t you? When was the last time?’

How can I say that the last time I saw her she was in a wooden box?

Saskia tells me she has bought a house in Bix Beiderbecke Drive with her new partner, Shaun. I can’t help but make the observation that Bix Beiderbecke Drive is quite close to the cemetery. She goes on to say that she met Shaun at a Living Dead concert. This seems apt. I wonder if Shaun realises he might be living with a zombie.

I try desperately to keep up my end of the conversation, without putting my foot in it, hoping that an explanation for her resurrection might emerge. I tell her about my new Dacia Duster, my collection of garden gnomes, and the stars that play with laughing Sam’s dice. I am conscious that I am burbling. I am anxious to get out of there to take stock. I pick up a bunch of something or other, orchids I think, and hand them to Saskia in the hope that she will gather I am in a hurry.

With my receipt, she hands me a card with her address and phone number on and says I must call round. As it happens, she is having a little soirée tomorrow. Why don’t I come along? Shaun would love to meet me. The name on the card I notice to my confusion and horror is Honey. Oh My God! This is not Saskia. I have mixed her up with Honey. Easily done, I suppose. My fling with Honey must have been around the same time as Saskia. And after so many, they all blend into one. To hide my embarrassment, I make my exit.

I am just putting the flowers in the back of the Dacia when I hear a familiar voice. It is Suzi. She has just come from Cutting It Fine. I imagine she has had her hair done, it’s a different colour or something, so I tell her that it looks nice.

You’ve bought me flowers,’ she says. ‘Orchids. My favourite. How thoughtful. I expect you felt guilty after this morning’s …… words, didn’t you?’

There’s nothing I can say. I hand the flowers to her. She thanks me with a kiss on the cheek.

Guess what,’ she continues. ‘You know you were saying you never bump into any of your old friends. Well, I just bumped into Brad Lee and told him what you said about never seeing anyone, so he said he might pop round later for a drink and some supper.’

Doesn’t she realise that it was Brad who broke up my fourth marriage, to Dawn? That it was Brad telling Dawn about my liaison with Janice so he could take advantage of the situation that had put the final nail in the coffin. He had always fancied Dawn. Or is this just Suzi getting me back for a recent indiscretion? I cannot remember anything specific. There was Heather, of course. But that was a couple of months ago. I thought taking Suzi to Paris for the weekend would have cancelled that one out, but it is so difficult to keep track of the day-to-day politics of relationships.

Hey,’ says Suzi, suddenly. ‘Isn’t that your friend, Saskia in the flower shop? The one you have the pictures of. I thought you told me she was dead.’

Saskia? Where? …….. No! That’s not Saskia,’ I say. ‘Saskia’s dead.’

© Chris Green 2019: All rights reserved