‘What on earth is it, Cody?’
With some trepidation, Agnes eases her way down the dusty steps of the basement and peers into the gloom.
‘Isn’t there a light in here?’ she asks.
‘There is, love, but the bulb’s gone. We’ve got torches and mobiles.’
Even in the dim light, Cody catches a glance from his wife. If he could see more clearly, the twitch in her left eye would give away the extent of her nervousness.
‘You okay?’ Cody steps towards her.
‘Fine. Anyway, what’s all the fuss?’
‘This chest,’ pipes up Simon, receiving glares from both Zack and Cody.
Agnes grips Cody’s arm, leaning into him.
‘Chest,’ she repeats as if learning the word for the first time.
‘Get them out of here, Cody!’ she shouts.
‘I want Zack and Simon out of here!’
For their first meeting, all that is expected of them is to introduce themselves. On the way to the community centre in Wolverhampton, Ted explains how it works. John Peterson doesn’t need to be told that his associate for the evening is an old hand.
‘Not your first time then?’
Ignoring the vicar’s remark, Ted continues to explain the format.
‘Main thing is, the counsellor doesn’t want to cause any embarrassment. Once the new member has given their name, they don’t have to say much. Not until they’re ready.’
‘Are any records kept of the meetings?’
‘No, John, nothing. Don’t worry, the Bishop won’t be kept in the loop.’
John’s turn to ignore a pointed remark.
‘Is this the turning, Ted?’
‘Yes, the car park’s at the back. Next to the Dog and Duck.’
‘Appropriate, eh?’ says John.
The two men haven’t discussed the ‘event’ since Ted was sent home – full of black coffee – to Sally. If John has told Ted his personal reason for submitting to the demon drink, neither of them can remember. They both remember, of course, the tongue-lashings from their respective spouses. One condition of taking on the mantle of pub landlord – laid down by Sally Coleman – was that her husband would serve drinks and not join in the activity. Ted once again claimed that he was simply ‘testing the barrels’ but he knew the argument was wasted on his wife.
‘Get it sorted, Ted, or we might have to consider a career change,’ she snapped.
As Ted completes his verbal tour of the whys and wherefores of the organisation, John locks the car and spends his usual two minutes walking around checking all the doors.
‘Don’t you have central locking, Rev?’
‘Don’t call me that. John will do, and yes, I do, but you can’t trust it can you?’
‘You have got problems, old mate. Let’s get in.’
Someone called Justin introduces himself and places the two new members (Ted and John) at the side nearest the window. Plenty of light still, and everyone has a good view of them. No hiding place. The meeting starts.
‘I’m John, and I’m an alcoholic.’
‘I’m Ted, and I’m an alcoholic.’
Before joining his brother in the Cross, Jason Owens continues the preparatory work for his novel. ‘Research is the posh word for nosing around in other people’s business,’ says his brother. Jason is determined that the novel won’t be about the ‘real’ people of Leeford Village, but the behaviours of the locals could certainly influence his fictional creation. He starts in the café. He still calls it “Ethel’s” and can’t get used to the new owners, or their presentation style. Latte indeed, he thinks. Can’t we simply order a coffee these days? I ask Ethel for a coffee, and she is forced to regurgitate a list of Italian words describing the unending directory of what I like to call ‘rocket fuel’. Keeps me going, anyway. What the hell is ‘Kahwa’ anyway? Life is getting too complicated. Wasn’t like it in my day.
He considers starting his story with David and Tricia Ward, but there are many more interesting subjects. He starts to make a list. Ethel won’t mind, as long as I order a constant stream of coffee (whatever) and biscuits. Now, we’ve got Vera Cleeve. She’s been a bit quiet lately, after all that fuss with the gnomes. ‘Strewth,’ George would say. What a fuss they made of that. Brings me to Nigel. Still a bit of gossip flying around about his dealings with that wholesaler. Would I buy meat from him? Hang on, I had a chicken last Saturday. Relieved that Withall is out of the way. We saw to that.
Zack’s a funny lad. That night in the Cross with his smartphone, Ted and Frank. What a palaver! Then there’s Linda and Allen, and Sherry of course! Doing well in the States by all accounts. Oh yes, and there was that Swedish bloke. I forgot – Ted was learning Swedish. Wonder if he’s carried on? Come to think about it, does Gary still visit that girl – what was her name – yes, that’s it, Gail Perkins. How long did she go down for? Blimey, I’ve got enough for a novel already. I haven’t even started on Frank Watson yet. I could write an entire book about our esteemed leader.
Suptra nearly got in big shtook with that business of the ring. He was dropped in it, but it all worked out in the end. George doesn’t need any more trouble. The Dennis’s have a lot on their plate. I forgot, George nearly drowned that night, and we have our own bona fide hero – Doctor Jeremy. I’ve heard something about him recently. Frank Reed heard someone gossiping in the Post Office. I’ll gloss over that. He’s one of the good guys. What he gets up to in his private life is his affair. No, I don’t want it to be that sort of book.
‘You’re on your third coffee, Jason. Are you sure?’
‘Your coffee’s lovely, Ethel. Sets me up for the rest of the day.’
‘What are you up to, with all that writing?’
‘Nothing, Ethel. Just updating my diary.’
‘Roy! Over here, mate!’ shouts George Owens.
‘I’m not a waiter, I just collect the glasses.’
‘No, we want to ask you something.’
Roy places his current consignment of spent drinking implements on a shelf nearest the market traders’ favourite corner.
‘What is it?’
‘Me and the lads are planning a trip. Are you up for it?’
‘What sort of trip?’
‘Crikey, Roy, you’re hard work. A day trip. You know, Weston, Rhyl, Bognor, wherever. Be a laugh.’
‘Who’s organising it? Ted?’
‘No, we are,’ chimes in Jason, teaming up with his once-estranged brother.
‘How much?’ asks Roy.
‘If you’re that hard up, we’ll all chip in. We need to hire a coach, and there’s food, and the bevvies. Twenty quid each?’
Cody ushers the two lads up into the kitchen, through the shop, and out onto Market Street. Returning to the kitchen, he finds Agnes sitting with her head in her hands.
‘Agnes, you’re not crying?’
‘Oh, Cody, I feel so ashamed!’
He sits next to her, touching her hand gently.
‘Listen, love, I don’t care what you’ve done. Just explain it to me.’
‘You mean what’s in the chest?’
‘Well, yes, of course. It seemed rather strange to open it and find a policewoman’s uniform, a bikini, a nurse’s outfit, and, I almost don’t dare say it, but a gorilla costume.’
‘Stop there, love, please don’t go on about it. I will explain.’
She places her hands flat on the table as if steadying herself for a revelation. Cody’s instinct tells him that is exactly what she’s doing.
‘You know when we met I had a part-time job?’
‘Yes – the perfume catalogue, foisting smellies upon unsuspecting neighbours and friends?’
‘I wasn’t selling perfume. I might have bought some off that Sharon woman who lived in my street, but I never sold any – only the stuff Sharon sold to me to pass onto Mom.’
‘What were you doing then?’
Her eyes drop.
‘As you know, it was your dad’s chest. He told me I could have it. When we moved, I got someone to deliver it and put it in the cellar – at the back where it’s really dark. I never thought anyone would see it. I didn’t need the stuff anymore. I started working with you in the shop.’
‘I know. You must never repeat this to anyone. I’d like you to give some excuse to Zack and Simon. I don’t want anyone in Leeford to know what I’ve done.’
‘What did you do?’
‘I was a Kissogram.’
‘The uniforms were for the job, and I kept them in case…’
She pauses to collect her thoughts and clear her throat.
‘In case I needed to do it again. Just for the money, if we were struggling.’
Cody smiles. Not the sort of sarcastic smile he has been known to give if someone bumps their knee or trips over. Not the sort of smile he has used with Agnes if he, for once, wins an argument. This smile is to say ‘it’s okay, I still love you. I don’t care what you've done'.
Agnes leans over the table and gives him a peck on the cheek.
‘We’re okay, aren’t we, love?’
He places his arm around her shoulder.
‘Of course we are, darling. Of course we are.'