At three in the morning of the twenty-ninth of June—Crumbington Fête Day—Nathan woke in a panic as the ringtone intro to Highway To Hell by AC/DC burst loudly from his phone on the side of the bed. Not for the first time since they had met, Nathan cursed Grant and his warped sense of humour, after hijacking his phone and changing his ringtone. Fortunately, they had done all the required baking late into the night on Friday, ready for the big day. Nathan agreed with Arthur and his son that they would come in around eight to help set up the stall ready for the midday fête opening, while Nathan and Molly ran the shop for early morning shoppers. At ten, they would close up and be prepared at the stall for the grand opening speech by Clifton. Turning in at midnight, Nathan had savoured the idea of sleeping in until six, even though he only ever slept lightly.
Now he would never get back to sleep.
"'Lo?" he croaked into the phone, without checking the display.
"Hi, baby. How are you doing?"
Jaymes. If not for the deep sexy tone and warm familiarity, Nathan might have been pissed off. But instead, he turned his yawn into a smile.
"Jaymes, it's three in the morning."
"Oh shit, sorry. I got the time zones mixed up again. I'll call back."
"No, no, love. Don't do that. It's so nice to hear your voice. And I'm going to be ridiculously busy all day today. Talk to me. I'm awake now, anyway."
The evening of the funeral, Nathan had a long telephone call with Jaymes to talk among other things about the shop offer. As fate would have it, Polly's bombshell for Nathan had been that Clifton had given her a call and asked her private opinion about whether she thought he—Nathan—might be interested in selling the shop to the Hogmore family. Of course, having heard her positive response, he had sworn her to secrecy, which she had managed to keep for all of twenty-four hours. Although Jaymes loved and fully supported the idea, he half-jokingly wanted to know if Clifton had any other demands in mind, such as getting into Nathan's pants. Nathan reassured Jaymes that only one person in the world had that right, after which they had a now familiar and mandatory session of phone sex. But apart from feeling too tired to even consider the idea that morning, Jaymes was clearly calling from his shared office, because Nathan could hear other voices in the background.
"So is everything tee'd up and ready for the big day?"
"Usual dramas. Molly's daughter can't help because her girlfriend is in the hospital with a broken ankle. Just means there will be no sandwiches and soup available in the shop Saturday morning. I'm sure the punters will understand, especially on a day like today. Ironically, the look-a-like Gordon Ramsey is down with food poisoning, so had to cancel, but Arlene says there's a backup plan. And finally, Raul had to fly back to the States. His sister has gone into labour and is ready to give birth—to the babies they're going to adopt—and he wants to be there. Clifton should really be there too, but they've decided one of them should honour their commitment to support the fête. So Clifton's going to host the event with the co-star of Candlelight, Helen Monash. Apparently, a few of the cast members are turning up too, to support Clifton and the village."
"That's fantastic. Maybe Polly could get Lawrence Cotterbourne into the ducking stool."
"Unlikely. According to Clifton, he's no longer a member of the Candlelight cast. Been let go, for some inexplicable and undisclosed reason."
Actually, Clifton had called him about Raul not being able to be present at the fête, and then went on to update him about a couple of things, including Lawrence's firing. Nathan sensed Clifton also wanted to mention the bakery, but for someone usually candid and unrestrained, he managed to say nothing.
"Inexplicable, huh? And are you still doing the team auction thing? So some lucky so-and-so can win a date with Crumbington's mouth-wateringly gorgeous owner of the village baker's shop?"
Jaymes had singled out and joked about the team auction event a couple of times, and Nathan wondered if Jaymes was entirely happy about the idea.
"Would you prefer me to back out, Jay? Because I will. I don't have to do this. And there's only you for me. Doesn't matter who bids the highest, even if it's five hundred pounds, all they'll be getting is a nice meal and polite conversation. I promise you that, with all my heart."
"Nathan, baby. You know I trust you. And you're doing this for a worthwhile cause. So as long as nobody insults you by bidding anything less than five hundred pounds, then I am all for the idea. In fact, say you already have a bidder who will pay five hundred but who is currently working in Malaysia, and if anyone bids any less, I'll make sure Arlene Kickass—"
"Uh, yeah, her too. I'll make sure she gets paid in full."
While Nathan had been hogging the conversation, he heard urgent voices at the other end, which sounded like someone trying to get Jaymes' attention.
"Sorry love. Are you busy?"
"It's fine. Lots going on. Out of the office this afternoon, so that's why I wanted to call you now. Have a great day, lover. I'll video call you tomorrow, to find out how everything went."
"But not at three in the morning?"
Jaymes laughed heartily, a sound that made Nathan's heart do a little flip.
"Okay, baby. Not at three in the morning. I promise. Love you."
"Love you, too."
Wide awake now, Nathan rose and made himself a cup of tea. Just after four, with little sign of daylight making an appearance through his window, he put on his tracksuit and trainers and decided to go for a run out past the church and then down through the empty village high street. Glittery stars and an unobscured third quarter moon met him outside the front door, producing a ghostly glaze over the street. If he had expected to be alone at that hour, he was mistaken. On either side of the road, stretching up the road and down towards the village square, small steel-framed stalls had been erected, a few already weatherproofed in canvass coverings, many still skeletal structures. Intermittently, silhouettes of figures moved around stalls, using camping lamps or flashlights to guide their work. All nodded with happy camaraderie as he jogged passed, most he knew by name.
As he moved through the village, an odd emotion overcame him, something unexpected, taking him completely unaware. He loved Crumbington. Always had. From the village's stubborn refusal to conform to the modern world—no cars or buses or trams clogging up the pedestrianised high street, no stainless steel office blocks towering above everything and breaking up rows of pretty, pristinely maintained shopfronts. Villagers worked tirelessly to preserve traditions of the past, a people who genuinely cared about each other's lives and wellbeing. You only had to reflect on the outpourings of affection and the massive turnout for Doris Watts' funeral to know how villagers felt about each other. Crumbington brought out the best in people.
When Nathan reached the centre of the village, the sky had transitioned from black to plum to violet, and bathed the streets in first light. At the green, he realised people had been working overnight. When he sought out his bakery stall, he found the bijoux antique fairground for children already erected in the middle of the grass. A tiny merry-go-round with horses and unicorns painted in glossy blue, yellow and pink pastels sat next to a mini helter-skelter, no higher than a double-decker bus, and decorated in red and white stripes like a candy stick. A cup and saucer ride stood in front of a mini Ferris wheel. According to what Arlene had said, families would pay a nominal amount for a ticket, and then the kids could go on whatever they wanted for as long as they wanted.
Crumbington shop stalls surrounded the spectacle, interspersed with games stalls such as the coconut shy, hoopla, spin the wheel of fortune, and, of course, the ducking stool—a cushioned seat hovering above a large, currently empty perspex container. Nathan shuddered at the thought of dropping into cold water, even on a warm summer's day like the one promised. At the far end, empty space had been left for the stage where other entertainment would take place.
"A sight to warm the coldest of hearts," came a familiar voice.
Father Mulligan stood there, togged out in wellington boots, a long black woollen coat, and a black bobble hat on his head.
"And none for personal gain. All for the pure love of making people happy. And, of course, for a couple of worthwhile charities."
"Restores a person's faith in human nature, doesn't it?"
"If it needed reassuring, then yes, I'd say something like this does. Look, I'm awaiting the arrival of the crew to assemble the outdoor stage. So in the meantime, I need to set up tables in the village hall for the cake competition. If I put the kettle on in the village hall kitchen and make a quick brew, will you give me a hand?"
"Lead the way."
Nathan rarely spoke to Arbuthnot Mulligan alone. Usually, Doris would be there to speak on his behalf, to assist him or at the very least to keep him company. Inside the village hall, a portion of one wall had once again been set up with the candid shots from the calendar shoot, clearly where they would be selling further copies of the calendar. Nathan stopped for a second to admire them, and especially the ones of Jaymes and himself.
"He's a special lad, is that one," came Father Mulligan's voice from behind him. When Nathan turned, Father Mulligan handed him a mug of hot tea but continued studying the photographs.
"The very best." Nathan turned back and examined the pictures again.
"That's what Doris used to tell me. There's no side to him. Nothing hidden. You get exactly what you see, exactly the person you meet. No act. No airs and graces. Not an ounce of malice or conceitedness in him, which is rare in this day and age."
Nathan felt a lump rise in this throat.
"He means everything…"
Nathan stopped and almost broke when a warm hand landed on his shoulder.
"Everyone can see that, young man. You're good for each other."
Nathan reflected for a moment, unsure what else to say.
"I—I was never too sure what to say, you being a man of faith—"
Father Mulligan stopped him by releasing a gentle chuckle.
"Heavens, dear boy. Don't over-complicate faith. If you were to search for one overriding, one central theme running through all of the religions of the world, do you know what that would be?"
Nathan shrugged and shook his head.
"Love. Plain and simple. Doesn't happen for everyone, and even then, sometimes when love strikes one, the recipient either feels nothing or doesn't feel the same. Much great literature is based on that very premise."
Something about the wistful way Father Mulligan stared off into space when he spoke those words had Nathan wondering if he had experienced something similar.
"But when love brings two single souls together? Heavens. That's what I call God's winning lottery ticket, and if anyone turns up their nose up at a gift like that, for whatever reason, then they're the world's biggest fool. I read a book some years back about words people speak on their death beds, some of them rich enough to buy whole islands. The biggest regrets are about not having spent more time or made more effort with loved ones. Not a single one wished for a smaller nose, prettier face, or a slimmer body, or for more money to buy a bigger house, or a flashier car. Now if you're asking me about who we love, man or woman, then you're asking the wrong person. That's a question for the Maker. But don't you think who we end up loving in this life is the whole wonderful point, the whole marvellous mystery? And isn't that the best part of being alive?"
Nathan stood staring at the photographs, the words sinking in. He had heard Father Mulligan's sermon at Doris' funeral, but in all the time they had spent together, had never known his inner thoughts.
"There you are!" came a familiar voice. Both Nathan and Further Mulligan turned to see Grant and Polly standing at the village hall door. "We thumped on your door, but nobody answered. You said come over at five-thirty to help you open up."
Nathan stared at his watch, amazed at where the time had gone.
"Sorry. An early morning call from the other side of the world, so I decided to go for a run. Give Father Mulligan and me a quick hand to set up some tables in the hall, and we'll all head back together. I'll even knock up some breakfast for you, complete with your favourite freshly baked chocolate croissants, to compensate. How does that sound?"
By eleven-forty-five, the crowded village of Crumbington held its breath in eager anticipation. Already clusters of families filled the village green, eagerly waiting for the show to begin. Inside the village hall, the committee met privately beforehand, with Clifton, Helen Monash, and other Crumbington store owners, to report on the order of the day. The only people Nathan didn't recognise were the two members of the documentary television crew, a cameraman holding a bulky, heavy-looking camera aloft, standing behind a young female reporter. But after a few moments, hardly anyone paid them any notice, attention focused on Arlene talking everyone through the events of the day.
Nathan barely listened, knew how everything had been planned out. His own attention wandered around the hall. Beautifully decorated cakes of all shapes and sizes had been laid out with the names of the gifted bakers, ready for the competition. Two stood out for Nathan. One a beautiful replica of St Mary's Church, while the other depicted a football match, with Crumbington players distinctive colours, showing them scoring a goal against another team. Even though they had lost 3-0 against Bosworth Heath in the Southdown Cup final, Crumbington residents still regarded their team members as heroes. At the far end of the hall along the whole length, the display table held piles of signed team calendars. The wall behind had been plastered with poster-sized copies of each month as well as candid shots of the players and their partners. Jenny Gillespie had clearly been at work. When Nathan's attention returned to the voices, Father Mulligan was giving a report on the carparks. Both local village sites had already filled, and the spacious auxiliary, overspill site on the common land down past St Mary's, had already been put to use. Finishing off the meeting, Arlene took over.
"Before we get this day officially started, I wanted to let you know that we have already surpassed all expectations, more than five times the amount we raised last year, what with the calendar sales and the very generous sponsorship fees." Arlene peered over at Nathan when she said the words and smiled thinly. "Everything else today will simply be a bonus. I appreciate today is hard work for all of you, but please remember to have fun, too. This is your day as much as everyone else's. And if, for any reason, you need help with anything, please find one of the six volunteer fête wardens who will be wandering around all day, and tell them what you need. St John's Ambulance has pitched a tent here in case of any injuries, however minor, and we also have representatives from the local constabulary on duty in the highly unlikely event of any bad behaviour. So if everyone's ready, please head to your posts, and get ready for the signal to open your stalls. I'm going to the stage now to introduce our special guests, Clifton O'Keith and Helen Monash—" An impromptu round of applause started, which had both Clifton and Helen smiling. "And once Clifton has said a few words to open the fête, we'll get things going. Good luck, everyone."
This time Arlene received the applause, and while clapping along, Polly caught Nathan's eyes and pulled a face of astonishment. Nobody could deny the fact Arlene Killjoy knew how to put on a good show. Nathan headed first to his own stall, to make sure Molly and Fingal were all set up and found them sipping tea and chatting like an old married couple. The Fresher booth looked like a work of art, a still-life painting, decorated with wicker baskets of golden-brown baked goods and pastries. Satisfied, Nathan made his way through the crowd and stood next to Polly and Grant, just as Clifton stepped forward in front of Arlene and the band, to officially open the fête.
"Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to the annual Crumbington Summer Fête. Some of you may not be aware, but the very first fête was held right here on the Crumbington Village Green, back in 1908. And apart from world events preventing the festival from taking place, this has been a regular fixture each year since then. Something we've also discovered this week, with a huge amount of help from Katherine Osmond, editor of the Mayfield, Mosswold, and Crumbington Gazette, and another cause for celebration, is that this year marks the one-hundredth anniversary of the fête."
Coos of surprise preceded a round of applause. Nathan turned to Polly and asked if she knew about the anniversary, and she shook her head. But if Katharine had allowed her name to be mentioned by Clifton, the data must be correct.
"Some of you may know that I had the honour of growing up in Crumbington, years I will always treasure. Even now, walking down the village high street feels like coming home."
As Clifton spoke those last words, he turned to the band, and the drummer began to thump out a familiar beat. Nevertheless, Clifton continued to talk over the loud rhythm.
"I know personally that a lot of love and hard work has gone into making today a success, so please dig deep—everything goes to charitable causes—and most importantly, have a wonderful and memorable day. I now declare this fête officially open."
With that, Clifton O'Keith launched into the opening lines of We Will Rock You by Queen, to rapturous cheers from the audience. Nathan stood shocked, had no idea Clifton could sing, let alone provide an amazing, and very creditable performance of the classic. Had he auditioned for the role in the movie? When the crowd joined in with the chorus, and the band's singer took over, two cannons exploded either end of the stage, sending multi-coloured streamers into the audience, announcing the official start of proceedings.
Nathan spent most of his time on the stall, but while Fingal and Molly did most of the selling, he simply chatted to the customers he knew. At one point, he headed to the village hall for an interview with the documentary crew about the making of the calendar, annoying, but something all players had agreed upon.
At four o'clock, back at his stall, sipping on a mug of tea, Polly materialised out of the crowds, a look of urgent mischief on her face.
"Fingal, Molly. Can you cover? I need Nathan to come right now."
"Okay. Just give me a minute—"
"Why? What's happened—?"
Nathan put his mug down, rolled his eyes at Fingal and Molly, and simply obeyed.
"No questions. Just follow me."
Nathan left them to cope with the stall, fine because business had died down significantly mid-afternoon, and followed Polly around the outside of the mini fairground, until they reached the crowd of people around the ducking stool. Grant already stood there and smiled mischievously when he saw them appear. Sat poised on the cushioned seat of the ducking stool was none other than Arlene Killjoy, her hands folded neatly in her lap, her legs crossed daintily at the ankles. A young boy had already missed the bullseye with his three wooden balls, and Arlene sat grinning, immaculate, and seemingly invincible. As the little boy passed them by he muttered to his mother how impossible it was to hit such a small target. Polly kept them to the back of the crowd but pointed to the ginger-haired boy about to step forward and take his turn at having a shot at the target.
Nathan didn't get a chance to receive a reply because Trevor's first ball smacked the board, just hitting the left of the target and missing the bullseye. Around them, the crowd groaned in sympathy.
"It's a tough one to hit," said Nathan.
"We'll see," said Polly, who had her arms folded, still smiling.
As they watched on, the second shot hit the exact opposite side of the target, this time much farther from the all-important bullseye, the pad that would release the chair. Again the crowd moaned in unison.
On the final attempt, Trevor took his time, rubbing the ball along the outside of his jeans, before standing perfectly still while sizing up the target. Eventually, he pulled back his arm, lifted one leg like a baseball pitcher and let the ball fly. This time he hit the target smack in the middle, dropping and submerging a satisfyingly shocked Arlene beneath the water in the perspex bath. With a gasp, she broke the surface amid loud applause and laughter. Hats off to her, she took the humiliation with dignity. A couple of people helped her from the vat, where she stood dripping for a few seconds, her hair stuck to her face like seaweed and her clothes hanging to her as though she had just emerged from Niagara falls.
"Sorry to drag you away," said Polly, as Grant kissed the side of her face. "But I thought you deserved to witness that. Mikey's son Trevor is captain of the school cricket team. Allegedly the best under fifteens bowler in the south of England."
"You are pure evil, Polly."
"Actually, we have Mr Killjoy to thank. He promised to donate money to the school for their new gym on the proviso that all senior teachers take a turn in the chair. And just to show goodwill, he persuaded his own wife to take a turn for thirty minutes."
"Good for him. But had he been that good a sport, he'd have taken a turn himself."
"He did," said Grant, looking impressed. "First one up this arvo. And let's just say, he's a little large around the belt loops, so when he went in, there was one almighty tidal wave. But this is the one Polly wanted you to see. Oops, I spy someone coming over to talk to you."
When Nathan turned in the direction of Grant's gaze, he saw a grinning Clifton heading towards the group. Before he reached them, someone stopped him to chat, so Polly leant in and whispered in Nathan's ear.
"Remember. Look shocked when he mentions the idea of buying the shop. Okay?"
Where had he heard that before?
Clifton managed to pull Nathan away to the small tent set up next to the stage, marked private and with a no-entry sign to keep out the general public. Checking nobody else was around Clifton began immediately.
"So. By now I'm guessing you know exactly what this conversation is going to be about."
Nathan gave Clifton his best innocent look, but couldn't help the smile creasing his mouth.
"Polly Fischer and my mother are probably the least discrete women I have ever met. Better at getting the word out than any advertising media I've ever used. And a lot cheaper. So what do you say? About me buying up the bakery?"
"I would much rather you bought me out than a faceless corporation. But do you really know what you're getting yourself into? Who's going to manage the place? You must know I want to pass the management on to someone keener."
"Your friends Martin and Gallagher inadvertently came up with a solution. An old friend of theirs has been in the restaurant trade for many years, successfully managed places around Oxford, the Midlands, Manchester, and is now in Dublin. But he's never really settled. Tough at the moment for him, too, because his partner works down here in Crawley. So they only get to see each other once every other month. And we both know how tough those long-distance relationships can be, don't we? He's called Sean, and his partner's Federico. Did Martin or Gallagher mention them?"
"Well, anyway, we were filming an episode of Candlelight at their house, when this fellow, Sean something, is over from Ireland and turns up to call on Martin and Gallagher. Of course, the guys are staying in the flat above their shop while we're filming but hadn't told the poor guy. Anyway, we were between shots, so after I gave them a call, we got talking. When I mentioned my idea of buying the bakery here, told him about the current set-up, and the owner's plan to sell, he as good as told me I'd be an idiot not to jump at the chance, that if he had the money he'd put an offer in for the place himself. Even put the thought in my head about turning the venture into a television show. So that's when the idea came to me, and Giorgio thought the whole thing was genius. Sean and his partner would live above the bakery, and I'd pay him a salary to manage the place. Crawley isn't that far from here, so everyone gets what they want. Arlene's husband found out what they're offering you, by the way, and my mother and I are going to better their offer by ten per cent—"
"You don't need to do that, Clifton—"
"I know. We both do. But I don't want people thinking we're calling in any favours, bearing in mind our history. I really want to do this. For once in my life, this will be something tangible that I have, something I can actually put my name to. And while we have our home with the children in San Diego, I can also maintain a foothold here in Crumbington. But it all depends on you, Nathan. What do you think?"
"What do I think, Mr Hogmore? I think you have yourself a deal."
Thanks for reading.
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