Nathan attends the first meeting of the Crumbington Summer Fête Committee and has a few unwelcome surprises.
Subject:First Meeting of the Crumbington Summer Fête Committee: Friday 12 January Attendees: Arlene Killjoy (chair); Doris Watts; Nathan Fresher; Polly Fischer; Arbuthnot Mulligan Apologies: Michael Shanton
Above the wooden double doors of the village hall, the ancient clock showed ten past ten, as it had for as long as Nathan could remember. Would somebody, someday, fix the damn thing? Another interminable day in the shop, he let his eyelids fall shut and couldn’t resist dropping his head forward. Arms folded across the front of his thick woollen sweater, slouched in one of the new plastic chairs with their antiseptic smells, in the hall with its own unidentifiable but not unpleasant melange of odours from across the eons, and he could still smell baked goods. No amount of Boots ginger and mandarin body wash during his revitalising end of day shower could entirely eradicate the smell from his skin. Polly had been right. Baked dough defined him like his own personal brand of cologne. Ah well, he thought, could be worse. His forefathers could have been undertakers.
An audible yawn escaped him as the scratchy monotone baritone continued, and he opened his eyes guiltily to check nobody had noticed. At some point in time, he needed to step down from the committee of the annual Crumbington Summer Fête, six volunteer members committed to keeping the traditional festival alive. Debates over the size of toffee apple stands, the depth of coconut shies, and height and colour of festive bunting got very old, very quickly. Sometimes, when others droned on about one trifling matter or another, and he closed his eyes momentarily, he felt sure he might open them one day to find a semi-circle of skeletons seated around him.
“Thank you for such a long and unnecessarily detailed introduction, Father Arbuthnot,” announced Arlene Killjoy. “As your newly appointed chairperson, I’d like to warmly welcome you all to the first meeting of this year’s summer fête committee. Apologies this meeting lands on a Friday. In future we’ll stick to midweek and not impinge on your weekends. But as the only new member, can I say what a pleasure it is to be a part this tradition. One that has served our beautiful little village since the early part of the last century.”
Residents new to Crumbington loved overusing endearing words to describe their community of dwellings, referencing something from a bygone, halcyon age, one that most likely never existed. Postcards in the local post office described Crumbington as a picturesque village on the border of East and West Sussex, in the southeast of England. With a population of less than one thousand, the village stood as one of the smaller in southern England. Nevertheless, the settlement boasted its own church, village hall—where they sat right now—a small green, and a cosy shopping area with largely independent stores, most selling locally sourced produce. That they were almost entirely surrounded by green belt land—with Mosswold Forest hugging the eastern edge—and you could understand why some residents felt they lived on an island.
“Going forward, I’ll be introducing a formal written agenda for each of our meetings, with specific timings for speakers and an allocated minute-taker. We’ll also have action points assigned to each member at the end of the meeting, so that I can keep track of where we are. Because this is the first meeting, unless anyone objects, I’ll record everything on my phone and then write up the notes and actions myself.”
As an inquisitive eleven year old, Nathan remembered asking his father why Crumbington was called a village and not a town. His answer didn’t really satisfy, seemed over-simplistic, but he managed to shut the question down. In England, he told Nathan, apart from the size of the population of each settlement, a city was the largest and had a cathedral or a university—sometimes both; a town had to have an agricultural market, while a village didn’t have a cathedral or a market, but usually boasted a church. A hamlet, the smallest of all, had very few houses and usually no shops or church. The only hamlet Nathan had ever seen, involved a cast of local amateur actors and a dreadful theatre production on the Crumbington village hall stage.
“Michael Shanton sends his apologies tonight, at the very first meeting nonetheless, so with us today are Doris Watts; Polly Fischer; Father Arbuthnot Mulligan and Nathan Fisher. Welcome everyone.”
Born and raised there, Nathan had been shackled from birth to the family high street bakery his father owned and ran with his mother—until she could take no more and escaped into the night. He had been ten at the time, and to this day he could never forgive her. Why had she not taken him with her? And why had she never written or sent a rescue party?
Tourists visiting their village used words like sleepy, idyllic, heavenly, divine, to describe the settlement, and likened the place to the backdrop of any one of a raft of rural English books, films, or television shows. Inevitably, they’d drop into their gushing soliloquy just how lucky he was to live and work there. On one such occasion, he found it difficult to keep smiling and not to tell them he considered each day spent there a purgatory. In Nathan’s eyes, mind numbing routine and boredom defined the place, something he had resigned himself to. One thing he and all inhabitants of Crumbington could rely on wholeheartedly. Nothing out of the ordinary ever happened.
“Before we get to the first point of order, does everyone have something to drink?” asked Arlene. Instead of the usual arrangement of tables, she had opted to remove them completely and made them sit in a half moon as though enjoying a support group meeting. Maybe that was her intent. At the final word, Doris Watts, owner of the local florists and seated opposite him, suddenly snorted awake.
“Drink?” she enquired, the octogenarian’s glazed eyes scanning the room hopefully. Father Mulligan, the previous chairman, now relegated to committee member, had always laid on a selection of beers and wines for the meetings, which made them far more palatable.
“Coffee, tea? Orange squash?” said Nathan, to an instantly deflating Doris. Teetotal Arlene’s first act as chairperson was to cut back on unnecessary expenditure. Doris closed her eyes again.
On his death, five years ago, Nathan’s father had bequeathed him the running of the family business along with his place on the committee. All hope of a life of adventure had flown out the window that day. Not that he wasn’t tempted to cut and run. So here he sat. And as his late father had drummed into him, being seen to be part of the community and having personal input into the event, however minimal, ensured their bakery stall stood pride of place at the fête entrance on the village green. This, in turn, provided advertising for their high street shop—Fresher & Son, Family Baker since 1895—which had been there for six generations.
Except as the last surviving Fresher, Nathan had no offspring to carry on the name, and most likely never would. Did that mean he would need to get the sign repainted at some point? A familiar stab of guilt pierced him at letting his ancestors down. Since puberty his wet dreams only ever showcased the male form. Not that he could blame marriage as a limiting factor, now that his kind had the right to wed their own, even to have kids via adoption or surrogacy. The main problem? There were two actually. Firstly, running a bakery, which consumed most of his days, hours and minutes, had never been even remotely a passion. Secondly, any half decent looking men in and around Crumbington were single-mindedly straight, and almost all of those were married with kids. Most annoying of all, any local gay liaisons, and there had been one or two, eventually escaped to the real world as soon as they had their get-out-of -jail-free card handed to them. And why wouldn’t they? None of them had any reason to stay. If he said he’d never dreamed about selling up and moving on, he’d be lying. At least tonight he attended the meeting with his oldest and best friend from school. Polly Fischer, local junior school teacher, and fellow survivor, someone who was a master at dragging him out of himself and his stuffy flat above the shop.
“Quick drinkie after?” she leaned in and whispered, as though she’d heard his thoughts.
“Try and stop me. Not a late one, though. Saturday tomorrow.” Nathan insisted on closing all day Sunday, so most of his business came through the doors on Friday and Saturday. “Did you get an agenda for tonight’s meeting?”
“No, but what’s to know? Same old shit. We could do this with our eyes closed.”
“Seems to work for Doris.”
The two giggled together like school kids. Once a month for the six months leading up to Crumbington Summer Fête, Polly and Nathan met with the other four members to discuss the shape of the festival and the choice of local charities who would benefit from the money raised. Last year, they’d only needed to attend three out of six meetings, mainly because the format had remained largely unchanged for the past ten years.
However, this year, after a vigorous campaign and the stepping down of Father Mulligan from chair position to committee member, Arlene Killjoy had been elected chairperson. Fifty-five year old Arlene had moved to Crumbington two years ago from an inner city London borough and to call her outspoken would be a hugeunderstatement. Nathan enjoyed watching jaws dropping as she voiced her unorthodox but compelling viewsupon her election, to an audience of largely conservative villagers.
“So, first of all, the date has been fixed. What was it again, Father Mulligan?”
“Twelfth of July. Locked and loaded.”
“Thanks you, Father. And now the hard work begins. Hope you don’t mind if I say so,” she began, even though she clearly neither minded nor cared. “But I think our fête is well overdue for an overhaul. Modernisation, so to speak. Last year’s was a fête worse than death, if you’ll excuse the obvious pun. So I’ve been doing a bit of research behind the scenes. Last year, before I even considered getting involved, I attended with my children and spotted the usual bouncy castle, tombola, raffle, white elephant stall, and, of course, Molly Miller’s home produce stall offering cakes, jams, pickles and other preserves. All very charming, and all very traditional. We stayed all of thirty minutes. In total, the event managed to raise around two thousand, four hundred pounds.”
Light applause followed her pronouncement, one they knew only too well. The sum had been plastered across the fête website and the Mayfield, Mosswold, and Crumbington Gazette a week after the event.
“Do you know how much our neighbour, Parsnip Green, raised last year?”
Those gathered peered guiltily at each other as though this might be something every committee member ought to know.
“Upwards of twenty-three thousand pounds. Almost ten times as much.”
“It’s not a competition, Arlene,” said Polly. The two had already had words. Nathan felt sure they would come to blows by the time the day of the fated fête arrived.
“You’re right, it’s not. It’s a travesty. My children raised more money at their Christmas school play. More importantly, attendance numbers were down by over thirty percent on the previous year. Something needs to be done. I’m recommending we ditch some of the traditional stalls and inject some originality and excitement into this year’s offering. Don’t you agree?”
“So what? No baking competition?” asked Doris, mildly affronted.
“Of course we’ll have a baking competition. After the success of the Great British Bake Off, we’d be crazy not to take advantage of that kind of publicity. It’s the show that’s brought our little anachronistic event back into the public eye. But I’m thinking maybe change the format, have cakes baked and decorated with a theme, then showcased and judged at the event. I’d even considered whether we could get one of the show’s stars to host the event, but they’re beyond our budget. So let’s think outside the box. Now, before I give you my other suggestions, does anyone else have any?”
Her remark had clearly caught members off guard, which was perhaps her intention. Everyone—except Doris, who rested her eyes again—peered at each other for inspiration.`
“How about Lady Gaga?” said Polly, eventually, leaning back and folding her arms. “Maybe she could play a gig for us. It is for charity, after all.”
Polly slouched low in her plastic seat, her jean clad legs crossed at the ankles, looking like a rebellious teenager. When she glammed up—which was rarely—she looked amazing with her natural blonde hair and sky blue eyes. Nathan knew her well enough to distill sarcasm from her tone. Arlene did not and her eyes opened wide.
“Do you have connections to Lady Gaga?”
“But you know someone that does?”
“Do you have connections to any pop stars?”
Finally, the penny dropped.
“Can we keep suggestions out of the box, but planted firmly in reality.”
“Dunk the teacher,” came the voice of sleeping Doris, her eyes finally opening.
“Sorry,” asked Arlene.
“At Parsnip Green, they had a dunk the teacher stall. If you threw a sponge and hit a target, the teacher dropped into a big tub of water.”
“A ducking stool,” said Polly. “Perfect. Both shockingly barbaric, yet quintessentially English.”
“Maybe we could find a witch to burn at the stake,” said Nathan. “That would guarantee a crowd.”
“I think it’s a marvellous idea, Doris,” said Arlene, ignoring Nathan’s comment. “Polly, one for you. Do we have any teachers at your school who the kids might want to dunk in water?”
“Take your pick.”
“I suppose a better question would be,” added Nathan, seeing where this was going. “Are there any teachers who would be willing to take the stand?”
“The ones who would be game, are the ones the kids like. The ones the kids dislike, and would be happy to dunk, would never agree to being humiliated publicly.”
“Could you not appeal to their better natures?” asked Arlene.
“You’re assuming they have one.”
“Well, do your best, Polly. I’ll put that down for you to pursue. Now as we haven’t got all night and rather than labour this, I’ll give you some of my suggestions. If you have anything before the next meeting, we’ll set up a WhatsApp group and we can text them to each other.”
“I’ll sort that out,” said Doris, the committee communications and website specialist.
Without another word, Arlene brought out a notebook from her handbag and opened to a page already marked by a scarlet ribbon.
“Keep an open mind as I go through my suggestions. This is largely off the top of my head, but as some of you know I used to be the global vice president of marketing and events coordination for one of the top high street banks, and I know what I’m talking about. So what I have so far is; an amateur dog show; an old fashioned fairground with a carousel, helter-skelter and rides for the kids—already sourced; local youth bands playing during the day; food court with offerings from around the world and, of course, the obligatory beer tent. Maybe even a kissing booth. And in the evening, we’ll organise a social here in the village hall for adults. I’ve already arranged for someone famous to open and attend the day. But before all that, we need something to get people’s anticipated excitment about the day, to give them something to talk about before the event. Nathan, you play for the Crumbington United football team, don’t you?”
“I do. So does Mikey Shanton.”
“Nathan’s the captain,” added Polly.
“How would you feel about being photographed for a Crumbington United team calendar—”
“A what?” asked Nathan.
Even father Mulligan snorted a laugh.
“Yawn,” said Polly, patting a hand against her mouth.
“One moment, I haven’t finished. I’m talking about a naked calendar, a bit like the kind those rowers do every year. Or the French rugby team. We can follow up with a fun date auction on the night for all the single players, have them all on stage before the social begins. All for charity, of course.”
Right then, in the church village hall, silence fell, an almost biblical stillness as though someone had openly and blatantly blasphemed. Arlene clearly took the lack of response to mean approval.
“A friend of mine is a most brilliant professional photographer—”
“Wait, wait. Hang on,” said Nathan, holding up both palms of his hands. “Naked pictures of the football team? None of the boys are going to agree to that.”
“Tastefully done, Nathan. You wouldn’t be showcasing your nether regions. We’d place footballs in front or have you standing behind goal posts. My friend will have lots of suggestions.”
“Ooh, I think it’s a lovely idea.” Eighty-two year old Doris—wide awake now—pressed her veined hands in prayer beneath her double chins.
“Arlene, have you actually met any Crumbington football players,” asked Nathan. “Physically, we are hardly the Chippendales. Far from it.”
“Please, Nathan. Women—and I am not just speaking for myself here—prefer real men. Not those pumped up on too many protein shakes and steroids. And you’re already considered local celebrities. Am I right, Doris? Besides, my friend can touch you up on her computer before they go to print. How many are in the squad?”
“Around eighteen, if you include the temp players, those who can’t make every game. But hang on a moment, none of them are going to agree to this.”
“So we’d finally get to see you with your kit off?” said Polly, an aside to Nathan.
“Well, as you’re on the committee, Nathan, I’m making it your personal responsibility to get them on board. Or twelve at least, one for every month of the year. And we need the shoot done next month at the latest if we’re going to get this edited, printed, and ready to sell by the end of April, in time for the actual fête. So I suggest you get your finger out,” said Arlene. “If you need backup, give me a call.”
“We’ve got a game this Sunday. I’ll see what I can do, but I’m not promising anything.”
“Good. My photographer friend is here this weekend. I’ve reserved the private bar at the back of The Crumbington Arms so the committee and some special guests can meet. I’ll lay on finger food and soft drinks. You can buy your own if you want alcohol. And bring your other halves, if you want. Let’s hope Nathan has good news by then. I’ve already booked the fairground rides, so Polly, can you find out if any of your teachers are game for dunking and whether you have any decent bands at your school who can play the kind of music people might actually want to listen to?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Good. Doris, can you update the website, and announce the date that’s now been confirmed.”
“Consider it done, dearie. I’ve made some modifications from last year, to make sure the site works better on mobiles and tablets, too. I’ve also got the online donation page ready to go live, as you asked in your email.”
“Well done. And one last thing. As I mentioned, I’ve already confirmed special guests to open the fête. One of our more famous ex-residents of Crumbington, Clifton O’Keefe, will host the day.”
“Clifton O’K—Keefe?” stuttered Nathan.
Unnoticed and unfelt by anyone but him, a cold wind had blown through the church hall. Only Polly stared at him, understood his discomfort. Even then, she didn’t know the whole story.
“Who’s Christian O’Keefe?” asked Father Mulligan.
“Clifton, Father Mulligan. He’s a rising star in the American film and television industry. And he’s over shooting episodes for his new series, which will keep him here from February until September. Staying at his grandparent’s place, apparently. My husband’s a part of the production team and called in a favour. Clifton, and his husband, Raul Jurado—famous Mexican ice skater—have also agreed to judge the Crumbington Bake Off best cake award. And they’ll stay for the social including the football team date auction. If that doesn’t draw the crowds in, nothing will. That’s confirmed by the way, Doris, so you can put that news up on the website, too?”
In high school, Nathan had fallen in love with Clifton Hogmore, now reinvented and known as the actor, Clifton O’Keefe. Back in school, both of them played for the football team, and Nathan had tried his damnedest to hide his feelings, to be just a friend and nothing more. Until the day Clifton had admitted to having the hots for Nathan. After that, well, nobody and nothing could keep them apart. But they kept everything in the locker room, so to speak. And as far as sex was concerned, Clifton was Nathan’s first and, to this day, he honestly believed Nathan had been Clifton’s. They became inseparable for the next three months. Until the end of term party, when Clifton didn’t show up. He and his family disappeared off the face of the planet, to resurface six years later in Los Angeles with Clifton as Hollywood’s latest heartthrob. And now he was married.
Nathan closed his eyes and huffed out a sigh.
Nothing out of the ordinary was ever supposed to happen in Crumbington. What the hell just did?
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