Sixth and Final Meeting of the Crumbington Summer Fête Committee: Tuesday 11 June.
Subject:Sixth and Final Meeting of the Crumbington Summer Fête Committee: Tuesday 11 June Attendees: Arlene Killjoy (chair); Doris Watts; Nathan Fresher; Polly Fischer; Michael Stanton; Arbuthnot Mulligan. Guest(s):Gupta Mahtani
Nathan arrived purposefully early for the final meeting of the fête committee, to find space to clear his mind and centre himself emotionally. An hour ago, he had spoken to Jaymes and, as always, came off the call feeling a combination of happiness and yearning. Jaymes—ever sensitive—still managed to make him laugh about his antics in Kota Kinabalu, his description of the people he worked alongside so vivid, Nathan almost felt as though he knew them. But whenever the call ended, Nathan needed some alone time. Especially tonight, before the final show began.
When he first walked through the front doors to the village hall and came to a halt, something instantly seemed different. For starters, he noted the place stood empty, which was not in itself unusual. But other things caught his attention. The village hall clock now read four minutes past seven. And the second hand moved, very slowly, but ran just the same. Nathan checked his own watch. Four minutes past seven. Someone had fixed the hall clock. Finally. The timepiece had been broken since he took over the committee position from his father.
Not just that, but the room had been arranged not with the usual dull plastic seating, but with an assortment of secondhand furniture; a shocking pink wing back armchair—cosy, homey, and threadbare at the armrests; a long and low Chesterfield sofa in faded brown leather; a bright orange and purple velvet love seat; a trio of matching powder blue and white, powder green and white, and powder yellow and white striped deckchairs. Everything had been arranged around a low coffee table like a scene from Alice's tea party. Nathan assumed one of the local charities had asked to use the space to store the furniture before packing and sending the items onwards. He snorted out a chuckle when he saw whoever had positioned the furniture for the meeting—probably Father Mulligan—had organised everything to face a single wooden and black canvas chair; the director's chair. Not hard to guess who would be sitting there.
Nathan settled himself at one end of the Chesterfield and took a deep, calming breath.
Since the calendar party fiasco last month, he still felt exhausted. Fallout had only just settled. Having the tiny snippet of Clifton's sex tape on the screen had certainly livened up the evening. Even though most of the photographers had been caught off guard for those precious seconds, television cameras had miraculously still been running at the back of the hall. So Crumbington's modest little event made headline news—both at home and abroad.
Instead of ruining the evening, members of the press sought to get anything they could from whoever in the room they could find. Which meant, of course, Nathan, Arlene, Polly, Father Mulligan, and a baffled Jenny being grilled mercilessly. Crumbington locals, however, including the team players, thoroughly enjoyed the attention. By the end of the evening, they'd completely sold out of hard copy calendars and tickets for the event, run out of food and champagne—and Nathan still hadn't eaten a thing.
Once everyone had left, Arlene volunteered to stay behind with Jenny and Father Mulligan to supervise the catering people on clearing the decks. Nathan half suspected Arlene wanted to get her hands on her laptop and delete the evidence of Clifton's sex-tape. Hats off to her, she'd maintained a professional mien after the initial exposure, but her eyes told a different story. She had been furious, and he wondered if she knew who had sabotaged the presentation on her laptop. Smiling happily and agreeing on behalf of them both, Polly had thanked Arlene and dragged Nathan out of the lion's den to the sanctuary of the local pub. Of all people, she didn't seem in the least bit surprised.
"Oh, come on, Nathan. You're not that dense. Who stands to gain most out of a stunt like that?"
Nathan had been texting Clifton again when she posed the question. After the shit had hit the fan, he'd heard nothing from him.
"I don't know. Someone who wants to wreck Clifton's career?"
"Darling, doing something as nasty as showing an old clip of him being molested in the eyes of the press at a charitable event, one he is selflessly supporting, is hardly going to turn the viewing public against him."
"You think Clifton did this himself?"
"No, of course not," said Polly, as the pub came in sight. "He's not smart enough. But he's not the only one who's going to benefit from this little stunt, is he? Think about it."
As they joined Grant and Fingal, Nathan didn't have much time to give the matter more thought. Polly's retelling of the night's drama met with lukewarm enthusiasm, mainly because the pub television still showed a replay of the FA cup final where Grant's team—Manchester City—had won by a staggering six goals. By the time midnight came along, he had almost forgotten about the local scene.
But, of course, everything returned tenfold in the morning. Stories about the night even reached Jaymes in Malaysia, although only because Jaymes checked his news online. Clifton called eventually to tell Nathan he had no idea who had sabotaged the presentation but confirmed that he and Raul had escaped as soon as they'd seen the beginning of the clip. And now Clifton's face lit up every UK news station, while interest in the fête skyrocketed. Even Clifton's series, Candlelight, reported increased audiences, climbing from a moderate four and a half million on average for the past three episodes, to just over seven for the latest. Nathan began to understand the old adage of any publicity being good publicity.
All that had happened almost a month ago now, but everyone still felt the repercussions. As Nathan sat there in the village hall, the door opened. In walked Doris, done up in her Sunday best, wearing a cheerful beige dress adorned with red and orange peonies, with an orange handbag, and matching shoes.
"Did you know about this lot?" asked Nathan, indicating the chairs.
"No, I didn't. But how lovely. Are we expecting The Queen?"
Nathan laughed aloud, happy to see a friendly face.
"Just Arlene, I'm afraid. But she's royalty enough for any occasion."
"Hmm, she'd like to think so, wouldn't she?" she said, settling herself next to him in the pink armchair, and blending in beautifully.
"What's the occasion? All dressed up in your finest?"
"Does there have to be a reason? I had a tiring day in the shop." Although Nathan wouldn't dare tell her, Doris did look a little fatigued. "So I felt like cheering myself up and threw on this old thing."
"Well, you look fantastic."
The comment appeared to brighten her spirits.
"Thank you, dear. And how are you?"
"What? After the shambles of a calendar party you were lucky enough to miss, do you mean?"
"Didn't sound like a shambles to me. According to Arby, we're already expecting a minimum of three thousand to the fête. More probably, now the television station wants to make a documentary."
One of the upturns of the night, now dubbed by the press as 'The Shocking Fête of Clifton O'Keefe' was that Channel P4 had been in touch with Arlene about making a documentary about the Crumbington Fête: the local football team, the making of the calendar, and the local residents. They had also discussed being present on the day of the fundraiser, a fly-on-the-wall type of documentary. A tiny downside, if you could call it that, had been Clifton's television producers not wanting to use his baker's shop anymore to film their episode of Candlelight, because they felt Crumbington might be 'a little over-exposed' with the viewing public.
"But I meant you, dear? How are you these days?"
Doris had a strange way of observing him when she asked the question, her gaze travelling around his head as though someone stood behind him.
"Me? Oh, you know. Mustn't complain."
"No, dear. Something's changed, hasn't it? And not just how you're wearing the ring. There's a purity to your aura tonight, like a ship that has weathered a terrible storm and come out beaten but intact, sailing now on a flat, open sea in the morning sunshine. With all the crew that much stronger and wiser, because they've experienced the worst the sea can dish out, and things can only get better."
"Heavens. You can see all that? Maybe I should change my name to Hornblower."
Ignoring him, she opened the clasp on the top of her handbag and pulled out a tiny envelope, the kind you place into flower bouquets. Leaning across, and without asking permission, she popped the object into the top pocket of his jacket, before patting her hand on the suit cloth.
"For later. I came by the shop yesterday to give that to you, but you were busy with another customer, so Molly served me. She's such a dear, sweet thing, isn't she? Always chirpy and good-natured. You've always managed to attract such lovely people to work alongside you. Ooh, who's this?"
Nathan turned to where Doris was staring and noticed someone standing just inside the door, looking a little bemused.
"Gupta Mahtani," said Nathan, getting up from this seat. "Better go and get him. I invited him tonight. Thought he could explain the public liability insurance to us all, rather than me—"
"No need to explain, Nathan, dear," said Doris, with a knowing smiling and a wink. "I trust you to always do whatever you think is best."
As with all the meetings, Father Mulligan turned up next, followed by a rather stern Arlene, and then finally, Mikey and Polly. For a change, they were both quiet tonight, taking their seats without comment and waiting for Arlene to call the meeting to order.
After dishing out agendas and pulling her phone from her handbag, Arlene began with a fleeting reference to the unqualified success of the calendar launch, however contentious. Deftly, she avoided any mention of the obvious and quickly moved onto more positive news about television crews attending the fête and, of course, the documentary. Even then, she covered those briefly, moving onto the many critical items regarding logistics, including roles and responsibilities, and timings on the day of the fête. Everyone listened carefully, adding their clarifications where necessary, and taking notes.
Polly took over then, giving an update on many of the stalls being in good shape, including excellent news about the dunking stall. Apparently, the Head Master had agreed to take a stint in the chair. Before he could back down, Polly had cajoled the Deputy Head into announcing the fact during a school assembly attended by both kids and their parents. Even so, Polly was still disappointed not to have more 'unpopular' people in the seat but had done as much as she could.
After Polly, Mike, Nathan, Father Mulligan, and finally Doris provided their own individual list of updates. Once they had all finished, Nathan introduced Gupta who, he explained, had been invited to give a quick five-minute update on the event insurance. Gupta, who had handled this aspect of the fête in the past, explained in unnecessary depth how the public liability insurance was required to cover any unforeseen circumstances such people being taken ill, accidents, heart attacks, and other incidents.
Twenty minutes later, and Nathan noticed Doris dropping off. He felt the same way and cursed the fact that someone had fixed the clock and he now knew by exactly how much Gupta had overrun. When Gupta stopped to find and quote from the actual policy document, Arlene stepped in.
"Thank you so much for that, Mr Mahtani. Very insightful and reassuring to know you have everything in hand. Well, as expected, this meeting has gone on far longer than planned. So I think we should call it a day. I know we've all got work to do before the twenty-ninth."
"Unless anyone has any other business," added Father Mulligan.
"Yes, of course," said Arlene, talking to the floor, as she packed her phone away in her bag.
"I've got something," said Polly, "if it's okay with everyone. I just thought it might be useful to get an update on the committee finances. Where we are with the funds we've spent and raised so far. Can you give us an update, Father Mulligan?"
"Ah, yes, of course. Well naturally, the majority of funds will be raised on the day. But with the plot rental, local sponsors, and calendar sales, we already have positive income. Just over two thousand pounds, after expenses."
"That's excellent," said Arlene, grinning broadly.
"Just to be clear, Father Mulligan," said Polly, nodding and smiling with Arlene. "What is the exact income and expenditure to date? I'm just trying to get an idea of how much effort we need to put into the rest of the event."
"Twenty-five thousand, seven hundred income and just under twenty-three thousand seven hundred expenses. I know the numbers sound quite high, and they are certainly higher than last year, but things tend to reverse on the day, more going into the income column."
"Naturally," said Arlene. "We'll have income from the side stalls, the cake competition, more calendar sales, the football team date raffle. And this year, with the associated publicity due to the success of the calendar launch, we're expecting a bumper turnout."
Everyone nodded their agreement, even Mikey who had never been a fan of Arlene. But having his photo in the local paper had softened his mood towards her. At least, that's how it looked to Nathan.
"Talking about the calendar launch, I spent some time chatting with Jenny Gillespie about the impressive quality of her work. When I asked her how much she charges, she gave me a rundown of different types of events, saying she often reduced prices for charitable causes. So I asked how much she'd charged us—something I realise I should have known anyway—and she did the football shoot at no charge, partly because she's a friend of yours, Arlene, and partly because she knew the proceeds would go to charity. Is that correct?"
"That's very worthy. So on the subject of the launch, just a quick question. The quote and invoice from the caterers for the launch, Business Bites, came to seven and a half thousand pounds."
"These things are not cheap when you hire the best."
"I see. And I was really impressed with the spread of food on the day. So on behalf of the school, I asked the company for a comparable quote, for a special celebration with two hundred teachers and parents—an end of term get-together. The quote came in at just over three thousand pounds, for similar food and drink. Which I found a little odd. Less than half the price."
"Clearly, they saw who you were—an educational facility catering to teachers and parents—and quoted accordingly with a less expensive fare. Caterers do that all the time to get the business. Did they mention what champagne they would be serving?"
"Would that make a difference?"
"Of course it would. The price differential between cheap and quality champagne is huge. Higher-end clients expect better quality because they can taste the difference."
"On a teacher's salary, I'll have to take your word for that. But anyway, I asked Katherine to do a little digging for me then, and do you want to hear something coincidental?"
"Not particularly," said Arlene.
"I do," said Mikey. When he looked around the room, Nathan and Father Mulligan nodded their agreement. Doris had rested her eyes but was listening because she provided a gentle nod.
"Business Bites catering company is owned by none other than Jemima Hargrove, your sister-in-law. Did you know that, Arlene?"
Instead of the massive intake of breath Polly may have been expecting, the room remained deathly silent.
"Business Bites is a bona fide, highly reputable catering company I've used on many occasions. I have no business interest in the company, if that's what you're insinuating."
"So I guess we all have to ask ourselves, what happened to the additional four thousand pounds?"
"Polly," began Nathan.
"You don't know what you're talking about—"
"I haven't finished yet. You also succeeded in getting Shawbanks, Radleigh, and Posner to sponsor the fête, which, admittedly, is a major coup. Until Katherine did some digging for me and guess who's their new Regional Head of Business Development?"
"You work for Shawbanks, Radleigh, and Posner? They made a bid for my shop," said Mikey, his anger palpable. "Did they approach you too, Nathan?"
"No," said Nathan truthfully.
"How about you, Doris?"
Doris relaxed back in the armchair, her head lolled to one side on one of the wings of the chair, her eyes still closed. Father Mulligan leant over, smiled, and patted her shoulder.
"She prefers to sleep through conflict," he murmured quietly.
"Let her be," said Nathan.
"She told me last week they'd approached her, too," said Mikey, his temper unabated. "So, if that's the case, were you behind those offers, Arlene? Is that the only reason you joined this committee, so you could get to know us all and then have our businesses bought out?"
"Of course not. Don't be so melodramatic. First of all, where I choose to work bears no relation to the role I'm performing here. There is not a conflict of interest. Secondly, long before I joined SRP, they had a team of consultants who investigate acquisitions. Where they choose to focus their attention has nothing to do with what I do for—"
"The issue is," continued Polly, on a roll, "whether you got that job on the sole promise of landing the lucrative advertising deal for the Crumbington Fête."
"Absolute hogwash. Besides, you have no proof."
"So if we were to withdraw our agreement for them to advertise, you wouldn't object?"
"Not in the slightest. Although you may want to take into consideration that the contract has already been signed and endorsed. And that SRP has already advised their events team to prepare advertising for the day. Backing out now would put us as a committee in breach of contract. Do you really want that kind of publicity at this stage of the proceedings?"
"Okay, let's shelve that for a moment and take a deep dive into the committee accounts. When I found the discrepancy in the catering, I asked Father Mulligan to let me see the detailed accounts file. And then I did a bit of digging of my own. You might want to sit down for this, Arlene."
Arlene rolled her eyes.
"I am already sitting down," she replied, sitting rigid in her chair, her lips pursed.
"After some investigation, we discovered you left your previous position as Director of Accounts with the major high street supermarket chain, White and Hodgkinson, under something of a cloud. Rumours of insider trading—"
"Allegations were made, none proven. In the end, the Chief Executive Officer and I agreed to a mutually beneficial parting of the ways, to save us both adverse publicity. If you need to verify anything, I'd be only too happy to give you his number—"
"And yet here we are today, finding anomalies in our own finances. First of all, there's an invoice in the accounts for JPG Photography for two thousand pounds. Jenny Gillespie's studio."
Nathan noticed a confused look pass across Father Mulligan's face, something Polly missed completely. Arlene very gently shook her head.
"Secondly, there's the vast discrepancy in the catering costs. So my question is, Arlene, where is all this missing money?"
While Arlene continued to sit there, stony-faced, Polly folded her arms somewhat dramatically like some bad actor in a courtroom drama.
"You do know people are jailed for embezzling money in this country, Arlene?"
Arlene exploded then, shot upright from her seat and addressed the group face on.
"Are you all going to sit there and say nothing? I have single-handedly raised this car crash of an event into something worthwhile, something people are clamouring to attend. And to do so, I have taken risks. Including allowing O'Keefe's manager to orchestrate that disgusting little video to get free advertising on national television. And this is the thanks I get? As for you, Polly, you stupid girl. Do you even have any proof of these allegations? No, you don't, because they are all—every one of them—groundless. Well, here's one for you if it's a mud-slinging competition you want. I wonder what the Home Office will say when they find out Nathan's been employing non-UK staff, working illegally without a visa?" Arlene momentarily turned her attention to Nathan. "Yes, he may be your cousin, Nathan, but he's not a citizen. That kind of thing can shut down a business, and get said employee deported for good, never to return. And did you know, Polly, that employers are sent to jail for employing illegal workers in this country? Up to five years, if I'm not mistaken."
"You wouldn't dare," said Polly, the wind taken from her sails.
"Oh, wouldn't I?"
"He—he wasn't working there, he was just—" said Polly, faltering.
Arlene didn't even respond to that, simply produced a brittle laugh.
"Nathan?" said Polly, turning to him, pleading with him.
"Okay, enough," said Nathan quietly.
"I'm not sure you of all people are in any position to—" began Arlene.
"I said enough!" said Nathan, raising his voice, and quietening the room. Shocked faces turned to him, all except Doris, who opened her tired eyes and met his briefly, before smiling and closing them again. "Now sit down and shut up, Arlene. Gupta, help me out here."
All the while, Gupta Mahtani had been sitting by quietly, watching events unfold, eyes wide.
"I'd—err—I'd need to check chapter and verse. But from what Nathan already explained to me before today, you'd have a hard case proving anything, Arlene. I am reasonably sure there would need to be concrete evidence that the cousin was actually employed and being paid in monetary terms for the work, as well as being in financial need—which I know from Nathan he wasn't and isn't. Not only that, but the fact is he's a relative and, in theory, a UK citizen by birthright. Both would work in his favour. Of course, if you could get one of Nathan's employees to corroborate your story, then that might help your case. But I think we both know the likelihood of that happening is very slim. And in the light of everything else brought to the table this evening—if, of course, proof is forthcoming—the Home Office might think twice about your credibility as a whistleblower."
"So here's what's going to happen," said Nathan, standing abruptly and pulling a sheet of paper from his inside jacket pocket. "Fortunately, because of the committee's sixty-day payment terms, none of the invoices Polly mentioned have been paid yet. So at the moment, no crime has been committed—"
"Actually," interrupted Gupta, holding a finger in the air. "Strictly speaking, intention to—"
"Let me finish, Gupta," repeated Nathan, assertive. "Polly, what you saw in the accounts from Jenny is not an invoice, but a quote. Following that, Jenny provided a formal invoice to keep her own books in line, but you'll see no fee is charged, just as Arlene said. However, you are right about the catering. For a small committee like ourselves, the cost was somewhat excessive. So Arlene is going to ask Business Bites to re-invoice us—this time with a much better rate. In return, this committee will not pursue the matter any further, and this conversation stays between these four walls. Are you in agreement, Arlene?"
"Now hold on a moment—" began Mikey, but he quietened after Nathan turned to glare at him.
"I haven't finished yet," said Nathan.
Arlene's face had blanched. Without responding, she stared at the far wall, her mind working. Nathan waited calmly for her response, but none came. He noticed Polly about to say something too but shut her down with a look.
"Now as far as Shawbanks, Radleigh, and Posner are concerned, as she rightly states, Arlene is perfectly at liberty to take employment wherever she sees fit. As a committee, we have no power to limit her in any way. And frankly, getting such an influential company to sponsor us for the fête was a good call. However, there are some other concerns. Gupta?"
"Yes, well as you may or may not know, the Crumbington Fête Society was converted to a Community Interest Company—a CIC—when the act was passed in 2005. A CIC is a form of limited company established for the benefit of the community. As such, there are strict rules on how business can be conducted. One of those is that any legal document, contract, or agreement must bear the signatory of at least three members of the committee, and one of those has to be the Treasurer, Mr Mulligan."
"Uh, yes, Father Mulligan."
"So in the past, all contracts would have been signed by three members of the committee?"
"In theory, yes. But my understanding from Father Mulligan, since the forming of the CIC, agreements with local businesses were always made verbally, to avoid legal costs. So up until now, no contracts have been used or needed to be signed."
"I see. And would the current signed contract be valid in a court of law?"
"To the best of my knowledge, no, not from the copy I saw which bears only one signature. The rules are very clearly stated in the Articles of Association."
"So what we have is a contract signed without the prior knowledge of other committee members. Would the legal team at Shawbanks, Radleigh, and Posner have been aware of the committee's requirement? That three signatories would be needed?"
"If they are worth their salt, they would have checked thoroughly or, at the very least, approached the committee treasurer for clarification."
"So am I safe in saying the current contract is invalid?"
"Shawbanks, Radleigh, and Posner could have recourse to challenge, but with Mrs Killjoy on their payroll when the contract was signed without proper authority, consultation, or endorsement, they would have an uphill legal battle on their hands. And I'm sure dozens of very credible lawyers would queue up to defend the committee. I imagine the only real casualty at the end would be Mrs Killjoy herself."
"So Arlene. The ball's back in your court again. Nobody's averse to a little healthy competition from outside the village, but as always the advertising opportunities should focus initially on local businesses and then offered externally. And, in fairness, appropriate remuneration should be agreed and paid to the committee if Shawbanks, Radleigh, and Posner want to participate. After all, our local charities will be the ones benefitting. Gupta and I have come up with what we believe is fair compensation, and I suggest you get this to your team tomorrow first thing because I imagine SPR's media team has already done a lot of preparation for the big day. Now the good news."
Arlene's eyes came back into focus, and centred on Nathan, as though he were an alien monster.
"Nobody in this room could deny the difference you've made this year, beating the dust out of the old carpet, so to speak, not just in the creativity you've brought to the proceedings, but in giving the people of the village something worthwhile to look forward to. With that I mind, I'm going to propose we keep you on as chairperson." Both Mikey and Polly hiked in a breath then, but Nathan stayed them with a hand held in the air. "Everyone in this room has become too comfortable on this committee, and things have been allowed to slip. For that, we are all culpable. But, Arlene, you need to be very aware that from now on that everything you do will be monitored microscopically, sometimes in plain sight, at other times not. Something we should've been doing all along. No contractors will be agreed upon until they're put to the committee members for a vote. And Father Mulligan will not accept any invoices over a hundred pounds unless they have been checked and scrutinised by Polly and one other. The question is, are you still prepared to work with us?"
Arlene finally looked defeated.
"I'll need to consider."
"Good. Because even if Shawbanks, Radleigh, and Posner decide to let you go, once the success of this fête is headline news—probably nationwide with Clifton's involvement—then I'm sure your legitimate skills as a marketing professional will be in great demand."
Arlene smiled sweetly and stood. Plucking her bag from the floor, she stood tall for a moment, before leaving the room slowly, gracefully, but with her tail firmly between her legs. Once the door had closed behind her, everyone sat in stunned silence. Eventually, Polly spoke first.
"You knew all along?"
"You may be friends with Katherine Osmond, but I'm friends with her son, Benny, our reserve goalkeeper and biggest mommy's boy on the planet. Benny tells me everything he hears, everything you and Katherine talk about. And as for Arlene? She tells her husband everything, and with my friend Clifton essentially carrying Mr Killjoy's latest television production, he and Giorgio have become best pals."
"Why didn't you say anything?" she asked.
"Why didn't you say anything? I'm sick of all these secrets and lies, of being protected by people who think they know better. People have done it all my life without my permission, sought to keep things from me, and left me in the dark. And it's not going to happen anymore. And on that note. Mikey, I told you Shawbanks, Radleigh, and Posner didn't make an offer for my bakery. And that's true. I thought they were going to, but when I got wind of their plan from Fingal, they must have backed down. But I know they do have an offer they're considering right now."
"Tell them to piss off," said Mikey. "Like I did. Those thugs can't just roll over us."
"The offer they're considering, Mikey, is the one I made to them. On my terms. With the help of Gupta here. Things like keeping the name of the shop—which was already going to happen—and still employing Fingal, Albert, and his son, in their current jobs, preferably with a loyalty bonus or pay rise. They asked if I'd be willing to agree to a contract of sorts, keep me running the place until they found a suitable replacement. We're still negotiating that one."
"It's your family business," began Mikey, looking stricken. "It's in your blood—"
"No. Baking was never in my blood. It was a job, at best. Never a passion, never something I wanted to do. Not like you, Mikey. You love what you do. And you're really good at it. Same with Doris and her amazing floral arrangements."
He looked to Doris and smiled gently, seeing she was still snoozing.
"The point I'm trying to make is that I would rather have someone running the bakery who has a passion for being there. Not someone like me who turns up because it's what their family did for however many past generations. That's no way to run a business. Or to live a life."
Around the room, everyone took a collective breath.
"In the meantime," said Polly, more than a little humbled. "What are we going to do about Arlene? If she doesn't turn up on the day of the fête, we're all buggered."
"She'll be there," said Nathan, with absolute certainty. "And she'll do everything she agreed to do."
"How can you be so sure?"
"Because while we were bickering, Clifton O'Keefe and his manager Giorgio were having a very stimulating conversation on our behalf with Mr Ernest Killjoy. Explaining what was going down here. And while Arlene Killjoy may not have always respected us, she wouldn't dare go against the wishes of her husband."
"Who the hell are you?" asked a stunned Polly.
"I'm still Nathan Fresher, Polly. But I'm taking back my life."
An amused Father Mulligan shot up and excused himself right then, to go and fetch a batch of his latest cocktail from the adjoining house, stating that a committee celebration was in order. Mikey and Nathan went to fetch proper glasses from the small kitchen.
"Pub after this," said Mikey, pulling out his phone. "I'll let the wife know. Cocktails are not really my thing. I need a pint of beer, and I think Gupta deserves one, too."
"A quick question while you're all here," asked Gupta, as they arranged the glasses on the small table in the centre of the circle. "Would you consider having someone like me as a member of your committee?"
Polly, in the process of waking Doris, glanced over at Nathan, astonished.
"You planned this, too?"
"Nope. This is all Gupta."
"Honestly, most weekday evenings I stay in with the wife, and we watch an old series of Suits or Law and Order. Tonight felt as though I'd been cast in my own television show. I loved it, never knew you guys had so much fun, that committee matters got to be so controversial."
"Trust me, things are normally far more sedate," said Mikey, the phone clamped to his ear. "They have to be. We have Doris and Father Mulligan to consider—"
"Here we are," said Father Mulligan, bursting into the hall using his shoulder to open the doors, a stainless steel pitcher in each hand. "Mulligan's Cosmopolitan Cooler. Mark 2. This one has a little more punch than the usual—uh—punch. More of an uppercut to the throat, I fear. Who's going to be the first volunteer?"
Breaking any previous tension, everyone burst into loud laughter, everyone except Polly. Her voice rose about the merriment, drawing their attention to where she leant over Doris, the old woman's hand in her own.
"She's not breathing. Someone call an ambulance. Quickly."
"I'm on it," said Mikey, who already had his phone to hand.
Father Mulligan, having set down the pitchers, moved to Doris' side. After checking her pulse, and then pulling back one of her eyelids, he took Doris' hand from Polly and laid both of them gently in Doris' lap.
"She's gone. Let her rest."
While everyone stood around in shocked silence, waiting for the emergency services to arrive, Father Mulligan stood behind the chair and began to utter a prayer. Everyone closed their eyes, everyone except Nathan. He put his hand in the top pocket of his jacket and pulled out the small envelope Doris had given him earlier in the evening. Drawing out the card, he read the simple words written in shaky handwriting:
It's Your Time To Live, Nathan.
Thanks for reading.
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