Previously in Leeford Village: Suptra Singh has his reasons why he can’t go back to India, but his niece wants him to go. Clara and Sheri have a visitor at the charity shop - the owner of the bag and the ring. She claims it is worth £30,000. John Tonks, Head Master of George’s old school, phones Clara to tell her about her husband’s strange behaviour.
‘Has Shakespeare been in yet?’ Frank wheezes.
Ted’s glance looks almost sympathetic, but not quite.
‘Sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, Frank.’
‘You’re beginning to sound like him. Anyway, here he is. Pint and a quote.’
‘Evening lads. Pint Ted please.’
‘Alright, Jack?’ queries Frank.
‘Frank, what were you looking for on the market today?’
‘Never mind what I was doing, what’s up?’
‘Nothing, I’m fine. What do you mean?’
‘You are currently quoteless. When you’ve finished on the stall, you come in the Cross and give us a quote. Anything wrong?’
‘No, I just like to keep you guessing. Especially you mate. Anyway, here goes:’
‘Wait for it lads...’
‘Over hill and over dale, we have hit the dusty trail, and those caissons go rolling along.’
‘Who in the name of Mike said that?’
‘Gruber,’ Jack announces, puffing out his chest.
‘Oh, ‘im off Allo Allo?’ chimes in Cody.
A glare from Jack suggests that he, for one, is not a fan of Messrs Perry and Croft, his facial expression suggesting that he may well have swallowed the fly that has persisted around the rim of his glass.
‘He’s the one that sometimes plays the piano when René’s awful wife sings for the customers,’ suggests Cody.
‘Didn’t he fancy René?’ enquires Ted
‘For your information, it’s Edmund Gruber. Anyway, don’t you start. As the owner of this salubrious establishment, I thought you were on the side of culture.’
‘You mean on your side?’
‘On that note, gentlemen, I bring this intellectual cogitation to a conclusion. Last orders please.’
‘Do the elders still mention it?’
‘What do you think?’
‘Look, I need to know. Sita’s into that family heritage thing and she wants an answer.’
‘You could come over and take your chances.’
Suptra pauses. The pause and the length of pause he produces is the kind that sounds like the roar of a lion to his cousin in Kolkata. You know the sort of thing - you are intensely aware that the person at the end of the telephone has an issue with you or something you have said, and... silence.
‘Suptra, what’s wrong? Are you still there?’
‘Yes, Filtra, I’m here.’
‘What are you going to do?’
‘Not talk to you much longer. This call is costing me a fortune and all you’ve suggested is “take your chances”.’
‘Just trying to help.’
‘Ten thousand dollars is a lot of money. I can’t pay it back - it would take years.’
‘I must admit, Suptra, if you come over with Sita they will hold you here. You might be put to work in one of their factories. Forced to pay your dues. You’ll never get home.’
‘That’s what I’m afraid of. At least if they let me live.’
‘I’ll find out what I can and ring you next week.’
Lost, that’s what I am, lost, she thinks as she shuffles towards the crossing. Transferring oneself from the Oxfam shop at the end of Market Street to the precinct area that curls around to Spring Hill is not, under normal circumstances, a dangerous affair. However, in her current state of mind, Clara imperils everyone. Not least the tall, well-dressed woman with a habit of crashing through shop doorways – she has a substantial vested interest in the matter – nor Sheri, who could (unfairly) be implicated as a close colleague. Nor husband George. He may not know it, but he needs Clara more than ever. What would Stephen Miller make of it if brought to his attention? Has she already committed a crime?
She ponders over her thirty-odd years in Leeford, her depressed state convincing her that the end is nigh. Clara has no recollection of waiting for the green light to offer her safe passage to the market area opposite the charity shop. You know how that goes - you’re driving to work well aware that you have three very awkward right turns and numerous stops at traffic lights. I don’t remember turning right today, you think, with horror. Clara, with no specific objective or desired location in mind, has no such feelings of dread. She ambles past one stall, then another.
Odd thoughts spring to mind, her inner consciousness attempting to distract her. Gomez – he’s on again today. He’s replaced his gnomes. She turns to her left - the array of shops in a semi-circle enclose her, taunting her to enter. The flower shop, music emporium, butcher’s shop, launderette and Billy’s Cafe. No, I’m not being interrogated by Ethel. She’d have me in the tower.
Seventy years old; I should know better. Thirty thousand pounds. What we could do with thirty thousand pounds. George is going to need help - more than I can give him. But it’s not mine, it’s the property of the bag lady. She knew exactly what to look for, and it’s hers – or her mother’s. Not mine, not Sheri’s. The ring is the legal property of the bag lady’s mother. Fix your mind on that girl, she tells herself. Out loud, it seems, as she passes customers leaving the hairdressers and card shop further up the street away from the Cross. What are they thinking - give it back, give it back, it’s not yours! As we speak, it’s in her jewellery box near her mother’s carriage clock, jealously guarded by a cuddly Snoopy.
Her mind made up, Clara almost causes a pile-up outside the sandwich shop as she steps off the pavement with one thought in mind. It would be more courageous to hand it in than leave it at home, but not admit to what she did. Make some excuse - it fell into my shopping bag by mistake, you know how it is: I thought it was a cheap ring that no one would miss; I took it home to clean and mislaid it; I had one of my turns; I... Clara has run out of excuses, somehow manages to get to the other side of the road, ignores the hand gestures of the scaffolding truck-driver and walks towards the library.
It’s not often that Clara allows books to go overdue, but she’s letting a few things slip.
A lady she knows vaguely, Louise Cooper, a retired teacher, brushes past her. Clara nods an acknowledgement. Mrs Cooper is known for her obsession with the weather.
‘It’s looks a bit black over Bill’s mothers.’
‘Really,’ says Clara.
Sally does occasionally despair. She married her beloved Ted on the understanding that the Cross would be a profitable pub and provide the family with the quality of life they deserve. She is content to put up with the odd bit of banter, but of late she has noticed that most of her husband’s time is taken up by schoolboy-ish in-jokes, name-calling and in particular the pointless exchange of useless information (the lads call it cultural reference). Ted’s exchanges with the erudite Jack Simmons is the current fashion. For once, Ted is leaning on the bar taking it all in and not yet contributing.
‘I am certainly not one of those who need to be prodded. In fact, if anything, I am a prod,’ says Jack, introducing the first quote of the night.
‘Give us another one, Jack,’ pleads Cody, sounding in his excitement the young side of fifteen years of age, belying his mature fifty-six.
‘Eating my words has never given me indigestion.’
‘It’s an extraordinary business, this way of bringing babies into the world. I don’t know how God thought of it,’ completing a treble, stunning at least one of his captive audience.
‘Pro – flaming – found,’ slurps George Owens as he sinks into another pint.
‘Ok Lads, here’s your challenge for tonight. I’ve given you three quotes, all by the same person. Place a pound on the bar, have a guess and I’ll double your money if you’re right.’
‘A pound?’ a voice jumps in from the back of the snug.
‘Why else would I call it the Pound Challenge? We’ve done this before.’
‘I’ll have first go. Here’s my pound, Jack,’ chimes in Meredith Park.
‘You’re not a Leeford resident,’ jokes Cody.
‘No, I’m North Banfield, but I work here, and it’s not the flippin’ parish council anyway,’ she fires back, winking saucily at her challenger.
Cody, although a man rapidly approaching his late fifties, turns a deep shade of vermillion when one of his friends suggests that Meredith is flirting with him.
‘What will Agnes think?’ asks Ken.
‘Watch out Cody, she’s got her eye on you mate,’ suggests a cheeky-faced George Owens, who also lives in North Banfield, not a hundred yards from Meredith.
‘Stick to your scooters, George,’ comes back from Cody.
‘Are we doing this or what?’
‘Right, Meredith, what’s your guess?’
Jack can barely cope with the wave of mirth rushing through his diaphragm.
‘What’s so funny?’
‘Nothing Meredith; it’s just wrong. Sorry sweetheart.’
A succession of ‘goes’ are attempted by the usual suspects. Cody offers Elton John, Ken goes for Marilyn Munroe and Ted pipes up (pound in hand) with Harold Wilson.
There is a general consensus of giving up.
‘Ted’s the closest.’
‘Who is it then?’
‘Winston Churchill. Honest – you can check on the web if you don’t believe me. Thanks for the money lads and, er, Meredith. Try again tomorrow perhaps?’
Young Zack Peterson slips out of the snug by the side door, smart phone still displaying the face of a man even school children recognise. The face of Britain in World War Two.
I could have had him then, he thinks. Got that in fifteen seconds flat while all the old codgers were still thinking about it. Bide your time, Zack, he tells himself. Wait till the stakes are a little higher.